The Citizen-Hoplite: The Warrior Ethos vs. Innovation.


Corinthian-style Bronze Helmet c. 600-575 BCE.  MET Museum.

Were the weapons and tactics utilized by Ancient Greek hoplites static or dynamic, conservative or innovative?  

Following the collapse of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations the nature of warfare within Greece changed dramatically: large armies had been transformed into bands of ship-borne raiders.  For additional, see From Warrior to Raiders (Dec. 2016).  From the shadows of the Geometric Dark Age and through the later half of the 7th century BCE numerous Greek poleis (city-states) were founded.[1]  These independent and self-governing communities generally lacked the ability to maintain and/or support a professional army.  Confronted with the need to provide for their security and defense, these evolving poleis typically adopted a system which required military service from their adult male citizenry.  These citizen-soldiers, known as hoplites because the shield which they bore, dominated warfare in Greece and to a lesser extent Magna Graecia and Anatolia for nearly four centuries.[2]  To the casual observer, the weapons, armor and tactics of this period (hoplitic warfare) can appear static and non-malleable.  While the transformation of the hoplitic system was by no means rapid, the cumulative effect of incremental adaptation(s) is nonetheless significant.  At odds with innovation was a deeply-seeded warrior ethos within Greek society.  Regardless of these forces in opposition, evolution would win out, and the hoplite of the early 7th century BCE would be markedly different warrior than its progeny of the late 4th century BCE.

Warriors of the Archaic Period

Sometime around 750-700 BCE we see the adoption of new equipment throughout Greece which successively lead to the implementation of heavily armored spearmen.  One of the most striking depictions of these developments appears on the Chigi Vase (dated to c. 650 BCE).[3]  Unlike the warriors of the Late Geometric Period, these heavily armed proto-hoplites wore armor fashioned from bronze on their heads, torso and lower legs (in the form of greaves).  Strong archaeological evidence- as well as the writings of Herodotus would suggest the double-handled hoplon shield was originally of Carian design, replacing the large shield strap (telamon) commonly associated with earlier Greek shields.[4],[5]  In addition, each of these proto-hoplites carried a thrusting spear and possibly 1-2 lighter javelins.[6]


Detail section of the Chigi-vase, a Protocorinthian olpe c. 650 BCE.

The exact point of transitions from warrior to hoplite is unclear, but from the adoption of the hoplite panoply in the late 8th century BCE to the widespread adoption of the phalanx by the 5th century BCE, visible permutations of battle formations did occur.  For instance, artistic representations of archers intermixed with hoplites dated to the late 6th century BCE were found at Athens.[7]

Closely related to the preeminence of proto-hoplites of the Early Archaic Period the formation of poleis by autocratic tyrants (from the Greek tyrannos meaning ‘ruler’).  In order to ensure the succession of power of their throne and exert their own military prowess, tyrants relied upon a trusted cohort of family, friends and political supporters who provided a retinue of well-equipped fighting men.[8]  Yet, by the beginning of the 6th century BCE it was not only the equipment of warfare that was changing, but also the nature of the polis.

The Greek Citizen-Soldier

Most of the freeborn men of a polis were considered as politai or citizens.[9] It was from this body of men that warriors could be called upon, but not every man was equally equipped or suited for battle.  Among the aristocracy, who could afford to purchase the finest weapons and armor, there existed not only an ethos of military service but also desire to serve in the lead positions.  Normally the aristocracy alone could not provide the manpower necessary to field an army of sufficient size to ensure victory upon the battlefield.  This meant additional able-bodied men were needed.  These ‘men-behind’ or zeugitae as the Athenians called them hailed from the so-called middle-class.[10]  While often unable to afford the full array of equipment possessed by the aristocracy, these men typically provided their own shields, spears and helmets- and became known as ‘those who provide their own shields’.[11]


Marble grave stele (marker) depicting the bravery (and possibly the death in battle) of an Attic hoplite standing triumphantly.  The defeated solider is wearing a pilos helmet- suggesting a Spartan, c. 390 BCE.  MET Museum.

As the polis grew, so did the concepts of citizenship and civic duty, once powerful tyrants were slowly being replaced by aristocratic oligarchies.[12] This resulted in the distribution of political power within the polis to broader group(s) of men.  As the power bases shifted there was a shrinking gap between the ‘warrior elite’ of the aristocracy and the ‘common’ warriors of the non-aristocratic class.  While the aristocracy was still expected to lead by way of example, every man (citizen-warrior), regardless of station, was expected to act bravely and could achieve greatness upon the field of battle.  The men of Greece were not without numerous illustrations of valor as recorded in the works of Homer, the Illad often served as the blueprint for the warrior ideal.  Homer was not alone in shaping of the warrior ethos, the Greek poet Tyrtaeus of Sparta (c. 7th century BCE) wrote, “It is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies for country.”[13],[14]

With the spread of Athenian hegemony during the 5th century BCE the nature of the polis and citizenship progressed with it.  Citizenship and the civic duty to serve as a hoplite in times of war became synonymous.  While requirements in regards to training varied, most poleis developed traditions and customs which supported a warrior ethos.  While few poleis could aspire to the dedicated agoge of the Spartans, seasonal training in the basics of combat and maneuver were commonplace.[15]  Poorer citizens or freemen (non-citizens), who could not afford a shield often served as psiloi, or skirmishers- but this role was also known to have been performed by slaves.

The Phalanx

By the mid 5th Century BCE evidence supports the widespread adoption of the phalanx as it is commonly understood in hoplitic warfare; a body of warriors arrayed in close-order formation with interlocking shields.[16],[17] Gone from the phalanx were the archers of a century earlier, as were the javelins carried by individual warriors.  The hoplite and the phalanx together became an instrument of war and were  inseparable from each other.  The strength of the phalanx relied largely on the Greek warrior ethos- bravery, and civic duty.  It wasn’t just the duty for a hoplite to take his place in the line of battle, but to remain there and protect the man next to (the left of) him, who in turn protected the man next to him… and so on.

The exact nature of the phalanx and its relation to hoplite warfare is by no means a settled issue.  The key point of controversy stems from the use of a single word- othismos, which in Ancient Greek meant to ‘push’ or ‘shove’.[18]  The two opposing views can be summarized as follows: the ‘traditional’ view which sees the nature of hoplite warfare as primarily a contest of strength and the ‘reformed’ view which asserts a more fluid and martial dependent view.  The traditional view is defended by scholars such as Victor Davis Hanson and A.J. Holladay, with the reformed view is being championed by scholars like G.L. Cawkwell and Peter Krentz.[19]  Each side offers conflicting explanation(s) from the largely the same body of available historical evidence, largely based upon modern interpretations, reconstruction and experimentation.

Regardless of interpretation, the inflexibility of the phalanx was well known.  Xenophon relates how Bithynian peltasts were able to defeat Greek hoplites by the use of hit and run tactics.[20]  While defeats such as these did occur, the Greeks seemed resolved to continue the use of hoplites, particularly against other Greeks.  Convention dictated the place and time of most battles; upon flat ground during the summer months as not to interfere with harvest time.


The very nature of polis as well as its survival was closely linked to three key components; military service, citizenship and the warrior ethos.   Out of this grew tradition(s) and status.  To take one’s place within an assembled phalanx was not only an obligation, but much more- it was the ability to prove yourself worthy and deserving of respect not only among your peers, but to every member of the polis.  Glorious victories were often accompanied by significant shares of loot which enriched those who fought bravely and survived.  It is also important to note that the very nature of warfare within Greece often meant harsh treatment(s) for the defeated; including reparations, enslavement or execution.

While social constraints and tradition can explain some of the reasons for the longevity of the hoplite system, they can not explain it fully.  Another key factor is the success of the hoplitic system was just that, it worked.  It was the Greek phalanx which had ultimately defeated the Darius and then Xerxes in the Persian Wars.  It was the Greek phalanx which had defeated the Carthaginians in Sicily and the various tribes of Southern Italy.  When fighting among themselves, individual poleis understood the nature of warfare and seemed resigned to maintaining tradition and to preserve the Greek warrior ethos.

Notable Adaptations

No discussion regarding the nature either hoplites or the phalanx would be complete with discussing a key development of each.  The first are the reforms of Iphicrates during the mid 4th century B.C.  Iphicrates (418-353 B.C.), the Athenian general who enacted a series of ‘reforms’ which included lengthening the length of hoplite spear (dori)  and replacing the heavy hoplon shield with a lighter pelta shield which allowed the spear to be gripped with both hands, allowing for a stronger thrust by the wielder.[21]  Iphicrates’ reforms also fully abandoned the use of bronze torso armor in favor of lighter linothorax, and in some instances abandoned torso armor completely.  I believe this allowed for the development of a faster, more aggressive intermediate form of hoplite, a progenitor to the Macedonian phalangite.


Bust of Philip II of Macedon.  Roman copy of Greek original.

The second evolution was not in terms of equipment, but in disposition of the phalanx itself.  It was the Theban general Epaminondas who first conceptualized the implementation of the ‘deep-phalanx’ at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. and the defeat of Sparta.  By deepening his phalanx to fifty men (compared to the 8-12 typically seen) the Thebans were able to break the lines of a numerically superior force.[22]

Neither the reforms of Iphicrates, nor Epaminondas’ deep-phalanx’ were universally adopted throughout Greece.  Many poleis remained entrenched in the tactics of war which had served them well and sometimes not so well in the past.  Yet, these changes did not go unnoticed by the future King of Macedonia, Philip II.


With the many advances in technology that are quickly exploited upon the battlefields of today it is often hard to conceptualize the evolution of warfare in ancient Greece.  But in a culture which linked the very nature of one’s status with a system of warfare the reluctance to enact sweeping changes- which could threaten that status, resistance is understandable.  To some historians innovation during this period might appear to be largely stagnant.  Yet innovation(s) did occur.  Innovations that affected the very nature of warfare throughout the Mediterranean.  Under Philip II, the development of a levied, but highly professional army (infantry) removed the property requirements of the hoplitic system–  removing the question of social status as a prerequisite for military service.   Building upon the tactical innovations of Iphicrates and Epaminondas, Philip II would build one of the most successful armies in the known world, which I believe to be the true legacy of the phalanx and warfare in ancient Greece.


Bibliography & Citations:

Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Baker, Patrick. “With Spear and Shield: Hoplite Training in the Age of Xenophon.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 5, 12-15.

Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013.

Dahm, Murray. “‘The Shove’ or Not ‘The Shove’: The Othismos Question.” Ancient Warfare Magazine IV, no. 2, 48-53.

Dahm, Murray. “Waxing Lyrical on the Ideal Warrior: Warfare and Greek Poetry.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 4, 41-47.

Herodotus. The Histories: Herodotus. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981.

Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Mulroy, David D. Early Greek Lyric Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 1996.

Thucydides, and Victor Davis. Hanson. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War ; with Maps, Annotations, Appendices, and Encyclopedic Index. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Xenophon, and David Thomas. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. Translated by John Marincola. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009.

[1] Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 104-106.

[2] Ibid., 123-127.

[3] Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. (London: Thames and Hudson), 121.

[4] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. (Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers), 75.

[5] Herodotus. The Histories: Herodotus. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Harmondsworth, (Middlesex: Penguin Books), 1.171-172.

[6] Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 48-49.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 76-78

[9] Ibid., 118.

[10] Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. (Berkeley: University of California Press), 4-5.

[11] Ibid., 5-6.

[12] Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 116-119.

[13] Mulroy, David D. Early Greek Lyric Poetry. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 48-49.

[14] Dahm, Murray. “Waxing Lyrical on the Ideal Warrior: Warfare and Greek Poetry.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 4, 41-47.

[15] Baker, Patrick. “With Spear and Shield: Hoplite Training in the Age of Xenophon.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 5, 12-15.

[16] Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 39-42.

[17] Thucydides, and Victor Davis. Hanson. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War ; with Maps, Annotations, Appendices, and Encyclopedic Index. (Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Simon & Schuster), 8.25.2-4.

[18] Dahm, Murray. “‘The Shove’ or Not ‘The Shove’: The Othismos Question.” Ancient Warfare Magazine IV, no. 2, 48-53.

[19] Dahm, Murray. “‘The Shove’ or Not ‘The Shove’: The Othismos Question.” Ancient Warfare Magazine IV, no. 2, 48-53.

[20]Xenophon, and David Thomas. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. (Translated by John Marincola. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Pantheon Books), 3.2.2-5.

[21]Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 93-95.

[22] Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. (London: Routledge), 137-138.

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Dionysopolis: Temple of the Pontic Mother of the Gods (Part One of Three).


Marble shrine (aedicula) depicting the Pontic Mother of the Gods.  Dated to 1-3rd century CE.  Museum of History-Balchik.  Photo by author.

In 2007, during the rather mundane excavation of an apartment building, an ancient temple was uncovered.  Subsequent investigation determined the temple had been dedicated to the Pontic Mother of the Gods, commonly known in Greek mythology as Cybele.

Not far from the modern city of Varna, Bulgaria is the small port-city of Balchik.    This ancient city, founded at some time during the 7th century BCE had originally been called Krounoi, but later was renamed Dionysopolis. Krounoi had been founded by a collection of local Thracians, semi-nomadic Scythians, and Greek colonists from Miletus.  What caused the inhabitants of Krounoi to adopt the name of Dionysopolis– the city of Dionysus?  While it does not relate directly to the Temple of the Pontic Mother of the Gods, the cult-mythology of Krounoi’s renaming is intriguing and serves to illustrate the pervasiveness of origin mythology within Greek culture:

Let us go through the places here one at a time. For near the Pontic mouth is the country of the Byzantines called Philia …. Thrace, after which, sharing a border, is the city [of] Apollonia [modern Sozopol, Bulgaria]. Fifty years before the reign of Cyrus [c. 610-600 BCE] the Milesians came here and founded the city; for they sent many colonies from Ionia to Pontos which, before called inhospitable (axenos) due to the attacks of the barbarians, they made to take on the epithet hospitable (euxeinos). Round the foothills of the so-called Haimos is a city named Mesembria, the bordering land to Getic Thrace. Chalcedonians and Megarians founded it, when Darius I was waging war on the Skythians…. Odessos [modern Varna], which the Milesians found, when Astyages [r. 585-550 BCE] was ruler of Media; this has the Krobyzan Thracians in a ring around it.  Dionysopolis, which first was named Krounoi from the nearby founts of water, they say is called Dionysopolis after a Dionysiac statue which was retrieved from the sea there.  In the border territory of the Krobyzans and Scythians the country has mixed Greek settlers. – Pseudo Scymnus, also known as Pausanias of Damascus (c. 150-100BCE), Circuit of the Earth.

Examining Greco-Thracian Cultural Transmission


Map depicting the western coastal region of the Black Sea and the city of Varna, Bulgaria.

The focus of my current postgraduate research is the examination of the dynamic range of cultural exchange which occurred between Greeks and Thracians along the western coast of the Black Sea.  In particular, the 6th through 3rd century BCE, in regions commonly referred to as Thrace and Scythia.  In modern geographical terms, these regions range from Turkish Thrace in the south, through Bulgaria, Romania and the Ukrainian province of Odessa in the north.  The goal of my research is to make a detailed examination of the material culture of the region for identifiable, and presumably quantifiable, ‘transitional’ forms which are highly indicative of cross-cultural transmission.  Comparing this material evidence against (as well as in support of) extant textual evidence, it will be possible to gain a clearer understanding of how Greek colonists, particularly those living along the western portions of the Black Sea, traded with, lived with, married and eventually hybridized with the native Thracian tribes.  My current hypothesis being that the commonly repeated trope of there being distinctly ‘Greek and non-Greek groups/cultures’ is often blurred and at times dissolves entirely in this particular region of the ancient world.

The Dedicatory & Cult Inscriptions


Marble table dedicated to the Pontic Mother at Dionysopolis, dated c. 270 BCE.  Museum of History- Balchik.  Photo by author.

The earliest dedicatory inscriptions at the temple date from the first half of the 3rd century BCE (c. 270 BCE).  This dedication, made by Agathion, son of Agathon, to the ‘Pontic Mother’, consisted of an elaborately-carved marble table, used for cultic worship.  We will examine this particular item more closely in part two of this series.  After this, there are numerous additional inscriptions spanning the next six centuries, the last dated to the early 4th century CE (c. 320 CE).

One of the more fascinating pieces of evidence in the analysis of my hypothesis is a Cultic Stele (marble plaque) which lists the prominent members of the Cult of the Pontic Mother of the Gods at Dionysopolis.   Of the 72 original names listed within the cult membership are two names which are identifiable as being of Thracian origin (Daletralis and Bakes).  The stele dates to the 3rd century CE, during the  period of Roman control of the region, known then as the Roman province of Moesia (Inferior) .

On the one hand, this inscription does suggest that two males of Thracian ancestry were associated with the temple of the Pontic Mother of the Gods.  These men were of such social and/or political standing as to warrant their inclusion with the other neomeniastai, the majority of whom have typically Greek and/or Latin names.  On the other hand, this inscription must be approached cautiously as it dates to nearly dates nearly five centuries after the period of focused examination.

In part two, we will examine the various aspects of cultic worship which occurred in veneration of the Pontic Mother of the Gods at Dionysopolis.


References and source materials:

I. Lazarenko, E. Mircheva, R. Encheva, D. Stoyanova, and N. Sharankov. The Temple of the Pontic Mother of Gods in Dionysopolis. Slavena Publishing House, 2013.

Pseudo Scymnus or Pausanias of Damascus, Circuit of the Earth.  ToposText.  Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation.


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FERIENTES URSUS: Prelude to Cynoscephalae

By Pat Lowinger

Wars and the study of them are never as precise as many may wish for them to be.  Far too often they consist of  complex series of moves and counter-moves, based upon upon incomplete intelligence, tactical acumen and political necessity.  While these evaluations are rarely easy, modern military historians far too often find themselves lacking in the necessary source materials to be completely certain as to the exact nature, causation and motivations that have propelled nations to war.  As important as the analysis of battles is, it is also as important, if not more so, to understand what pushes men, tribes and countries to war.


Philip V, King of Macedon

In the years prior to the decisive Roman victory at Cynoscephalae in 197 BCE an embattled Roman Republic had struggled to maintain dominance of its holdings in Italy following the ravages of Hannibal Barca.  It was during this period of perceived Roman frailty that Philip V of Macedon chose (again) to exert his influence within Greece despite the provisions of the Peace of Phoenice, signed in 205 BCE.[1]  A war-weary Rome was then pushed into a decision which would alter the course of history as we now know it- would they respond to an ever-growing Macedonian threat or would they recluse themselves from Greek affairs?  Reluctantly Rome resolved itself to take action in Greece.[2]   The Roman Senate would see Philip V either dead upon the field of battle or returned to within the borders of his kingdom.[3]  The necessary components of hostility had been generously contributed by both sides as well as the source of ignition.  By 200 BCE the flames of the Second Macedonian War had been ignited, or perhaps it was just the rekindled embers of Roman expansion(s) into Greek affairs?  Or had Philip V simply slapped the  bear one too many times?

Rome Seizes Illyria

In 246 BC, a growing Roman Republic set it eyes upon controlling the Ionian Gulf and reinforced its colony at Brundisium.  In effect, Brundisium had been transformed from a colony of Greek merchants into a military naval base by which the Romans could control the Ionian coast.[4] Polybius tells us that the increased Roman presence was predicated solely upon the aggressive action of Illyrian pirates, which may have in fact been the case, but also had the strategic effect of hemming of not only Illyrian pirates, but also Epirus and Macedonia.  A significant Roman naval presence created a bottleneck between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas- a bottleneck which the Romans could now exploit with relative ease.[5]

In 231 BC the Illyrians moved militarily against their Aetolians and Epirote neighbors.  The fast-moving Illyrian fleet was able to successfully raid the Greek colonies of Elis and Messenia as well as seizing the key trading port of Pheonice (an Epirote holding).  The Epirotes quickly capitulated and agreed to the payment of large ransom for the return of the city.  In addition, and perhaps even more significant was the formal adoption of a treaty between Illyria and Epirus against the Aetolians and Achaeans.[6] With Epirus now an ally, the Illyrians had one less enemy to worry about.  The emboldened Illyrians then quickly captured the city of Corcyra and drove off the Achaeans and their allies.  This flaccid response of the Greeks towards Illyrian aggression only seemed to encourage Queen Teuta of Illyria.[7]

As if there were not already enough chaos in the region, Rome had sent ambassadors to the court of Queen Teuta.  The occupation of Pheonice by Illyrians had caused a significant disruption to Italian trade, so much so that the topic of the Illyrian’s capture of the city had come to preoccupy much of the Roman Senate’s normal dialog.[8] In response, Rome marshaled 200 ships and a sizable land force under the command of Gnaeus Fulvius[9] and Aulus Postumius.[10] The Roman plan was rather direct- proceed to Corcyra and storm the city.  Again, if Polybius’ account is to be regarded as authoritative, “The people of Corcyra were delighted at the arrival of the Romans, and immediately surrendered the Illyrian garrison to them by the agreement of Demetrius of Pharos.”[11] Whether the Corcyraeans were as ecstatic at the arrival of the Romans as Polybius would have us believe, the fact remains the city was placed under the protection of the Republic- allowing further inroads by Rome into the politics and interests of Greece.

Illyrian opposition to the Roman advance largely consisted of delaying action until Illyrian troops were back within their native borders.  While Illyria had been able to inflict some losses upon the Roman navy, its land forces were wholly outmatched in terms of number, equipment and training.  Queen Teuta was forced to flee her capital and Gnaeus Fulvius then installed Demetrius of Pharos as ruler of the majority of Illyrian territory.  The resulting peace agreement effectively divided Illyria into two regions; the first under the control of Demetrius and protection of Rome, while Teuta would retain the smaller of the two regions and be required to pay an annual indemnity.[12]  While Gnaeus Fulvius did return to Italy, Postumius was left in Illyria with 40 ships and an unknown number of infantry.[13],[14]  Now both Macedonia and Epirus were left with a sizeable Roman army on their western and northern borders respectively.

Macedonian Intervention in Illyria

In 220 BC, Rome’s one time friend and ally, Demetrius had revived the Illyrian tradition of raiding and had moved against several Greek coastal towns, some of which were under Roman protection.  The Roman response was quick and decisive and by 218 BC Demetrius had been forced to flee his native island of Pharos and seek protection in Macedonia.[15] The tensions between Macedonia and Rome were exacerbated when Philip V formally refused to deliver Demetrius unto them under the charge of treason.

Mediterranean_at_218_BC-en.svgWhile Rome and Macedonia quibbled over the fate of Demetrius, Carthage initiated hostilities against the Republic in 218 BC.  As the rest of the world watched patiently, Rome was handed a two of humiliating defeats- the first at Trebia (218 BC) then Lake Trasimene (217 BC).  Seeing Roman control of the region loosening, Philip begins the construction of fleet of 100 warships with plans of restoring Demetrius to the throne of Illyria.[16]  In the summer of 216 BC, Philip sailed his navy northwards towards Apollonia, but upon viewing a small squadron of Roman warships ordered his forces to withdraw.  While Philip’s force was numerically superior, as Adrian Goldsworthy correctly asserts, “These operations once again highlight the problems of gathering strategic intelligence in this period, a factor overlooked by far too many modern commentators.”[17] Whether Philip saw the Roman ships as scouts of a much larger force or simply lost his never, historians will never know.  Nevertheless, Philip’s first attempt to assert Macedonian influence in Illyria was aborted before any military action had even been taken.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Philip was forced into the realization that any military action in Illyria might overtax his own finite military resources.  With Carthage having stuck the first blow, Roman influence in Greece was likely waning and at least distracted at the present.  It was necessary for Philip to shift political opinion against Rome- highlighting the growing power of Rome and its continued forceful involvement in what were traditionally considered to have been Greek affairs.  Philip was successful in arguing his case and able to forge a treaty with the Aetolians and their allies.  What was becoming increasingly evident among the Greeks and Macedonians was whatever fate played out in the war between Rome and Carthage, the fallout would ultimately find its way to Greece.  Initially Philip embraced a strategy of neutrality in regards to the increasing hostilities in the west, “his [Philip’s] first reaction was not a simple one: he was glad that war had broken out between Roman and Carthage, but still doubtful, while the resources of the two nations were as yet unknown, as to which he hoped would prove victorious.”[18]  This fear of eventual domination by a foreign power was palpable and pervasive as expressed in the words attributed to Agelaus of Naupactus;

 “But if we have no hope of achieving such a degree of unity for the whole country, let me impress upon you how important it is at least for the present that we should consult one another and remain on guard, in view of the huge armies which have been mobilized, and the vast scale of the war which is now being waged in the west. For it must already be obvious to all those who pay even the slightest attention to affairs of state that whether the Carthaginians defeat the Romans or the Romans the Carthaginians, the victors will by no means be satisfied with the sovereignty of Italy and Sicily, but will come here, and will advance both their forces and their ambitions beyond the bounds of justice [Greek independence].”[19]

Then the fateful event of August 2, 216 BC occurred.  The Roman massacre at Cannae had left over 50,000 Romans dead upon the field of battle as well as their commander, Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus.  The very same person who had so successfully deposed Demetrius of Pharos two years earlier.  Despite Aeglaus’ warning,  Philip sent envoys to Italy with the purpose of entering into a military alliance against Rome.  Hannibal on behalf of Carthage readily accepted the agreement. Despite his early restraint, Philip had put Macedonia on a collision course with Rome.  Philip’s unilateral decision to come in on the side of Carthage immediately caused doubts to be raised among several of his Greek allies, in particular the Aetolians- who were inclined to see this as Philip breaking his earlier agreement(s) of neutrality (c. 1 year prior).


King Attalus I of Pergamon

It wasn’t just the Aetolians who were concerned with Philip’s new alliance with Carthage, King Attalus I of Pergamon had long been an ally of Rome.  Now Philip would have to contend not only with his newly disaffected allies in Greece but also those of Pergamon, a kingdom which bordered the eastern regions of Macedon via the Hellespont and Black Sea.  Tactically, Philip would now potentially fighting on two fronts with Pergamon serving as a possible base of operations by which Roman forces could be brought against him.  Whether Philip had considered this possibility is unclear, but he appeared resolved to again move against the Roman forces in Illyria.[20]

Failures in Illyria and Greece

In the summer of 214 BC, Philip moved his naval forces into Illyrian waters and quickly seized Oricum, then proceeded towards Apollonia and placed the city under siege.  The Roman response was predictable.  From their naval base at Brundisium, Rome sent a legion under the command of Marcus Valerius Laevinus to halt any further Macedonian advances.[21]  Instead, the Romans recaptured Oricum after encountering only light resistance.  The Romans were then able to break the siege at Apollonia by launching a night attack which caught the Macedonians unprepared.[22]  In panic the Macedonians fled back to their ships,.  In the ensuing route, many died, while many more were captured.  Most of Philip’s newly constructed fleet had to be set ablaze in order to prevent it from captured by the Romans.  Philip’s only lasting and strategically significant success in Illyria was the capture of the port city of Lissus and its formidable defenses.  In logistical terms, Illyria had been a bust.  Without a fleet, Philip would have to scrap any future plans for the invasion of Italy if he had ever envisioned one.  In addition, Laevinus’ forces did not immediately return to Brundisium, but garrisoned Oricum for the following year.[23]  With his fleet destroyed, his army in tatters, Philip was in dire need of support from his allies.

In Greece Philip’s political alliances continued to unravel.  Roman envoys were successful in convincing the Aetolians that an alliance with Rome would be in their best interests- and that recent Roman successes in Italy and Syracuse marked the turning point of the war with Carthage.  By  by 210 BCE, Laevinus is credited with having brought not only the Aetolians, but also the Spartans into a formal alliance to resist Macedonian control in Greece.[24] Philip was ill-prepared for a Roman-Greek alliance along his southern border.  Now, with his hopes of a Macedonian resurgence unattainable, Philip withdrew his remaining forces into Thessaly.

Down, But Not Out

Having surrounded Philip on three sides, Laevinus’ appears to have regarded the situation in Greece as relatively stable.   In turn, Laevinus returned to Rome, leaving the military fate of Macedonia in the hands of his Aetolian, Spartan and Pergamene allies.  By 209 BCE the Aetolians and Spartans were pressing hard upon Philip’s last remaining ally- the Achaean League.  In the east, King Attalus was preparing to invade from Anatolia.  Philip had two choices, either to maintain a defensive posture and hope to survive a protracted campaign or move against the Aetolians and Spartans before King Attalus’ forces could arrive from Pergamon.  Philip boldly chose the later and moved towards the Aetolian controlled city of Lamia.

As Philip’s army moved southwards, the Romans, Aetolians and Pergamene hastily assembled a force to block him.  “The battle appears to have been two separate actions, won each time by Philip, in which the anti-Macedonian coalition lost at least a thousand men each time.”[25] The defeated coalition then dispersed- the Aetolians returning home, while the Roman and Pergamene forces fled via the sea.  Again, it was the Aetolians who had supplied the largest body of men and had correspondingly suffered the largest number of casualties.   Philip, through a delegation, now approached the war-weary Aetolians and convinced them that they were being used as pawns in what amounted to a Roman-inspired conflict against Macedonia.  Through his ambassador, Philip asked one simple question, why should the Aetolians do the fighting if the Romans are going to stand off at a distance, taking credit in the event of victory, but withdrawing before having to fight?[26] The Aetolians apparently agreed and via envoys informed the Romans that they would no longer be taking the field against Macedonia.  Through decisive military action and diplomacy Philip had been able to fracture the Roman coalition placed against him.

Rumors of Peace, War and Peace

As the war between the Romans and Carthaginians dragged onward into its tenth year, the effect(s) were being observed not only in Greece but among the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Mediterranean who urged Philip to agree to peace.  Following a short truce, Philip moved against Pergamon which had attempted a naval landing at Chalcis- forcing those forces to withdraw.[27]  While the various trading powers of the Mediterranean pushed hard for a peaceful resolution, it was now the Aetolians who demanded concessions from Philip- concessions Philip was unwilling to give.

Roman forces in Greece seemed determined on making one last effort to bring Philip to heel.  Whether this was do in part to assurances of support they had received from Pergamon and/or retaliation for Philip’s continued alliance with Carthage is unclear.  What is clear is that Roman forces began raiding Macedonian coastal towns.  At Elis, Philip brought the Romans to battle with this superior cavalry driving off the Romans and their allies.  Philip’s forces then quickly moved and secured to fortifications at Phyricus- taking several thousand prisoners.[28] With Roman and Pergamene forces moving by sea, Philip was forced to follow by land- this delay in speed allowed for the Romans and their allies to continue small raiding forays against Macedonia and its interests- until the Romans and Pergamene forces divided themselves.[29]  While King Attalus of Pergamon remained to sack the recently captured town of Opus, Philip moved to engage the enemy there.  Catching Attalus by surprise, Philip was able to attack and drive Attalus and the Pergamene forces to their boats in order to avoid their utter destruction.

As the Pergamene forces returned home and the Romans returned to their holdings in Illyria, Philip was free to move against the Aetolians.  After recapturing Oreus, and taking a few Aetolian towns into his possession Philip continued to listen to ambassadors from various Greek cities who were desirous to see the war come to an end.  The Aetolians, who without the immediate support of the Roman allies, brokered their own peace with Philip in 206 BC- the war was coming to an end; it was time to make peace with the Romans.  In 205 BC, both the Romans and Macedonians accepted terms and the Peace of Pheonice was signed.[30]  While the details of the agreement have been lost to history, we do know that Philip was required to formally denounce his alliance with Carthage and to affirm he would not attempt to invade Italy.  What is unclear is if the Peace of Pheonice was actually a peace treaty meant to last in perpetude or was simply a temporary succession of hostilities.  Rome was motivated by military necessity to have an agreeable, it not optimum resolution, with Philip who himself was inclined to see the Romans withdraw from Greece.  The agreement was not only mutually beneficial, it played into the particular politics pursued by both sides.  The Romans had neutralized the threat of a Macedonian-Carthaginian alliance while Philip had retained his relative influence and control of Greece.

Hostilities Resume

Greece200BCELivy tells us that in 200 BC, “the peace with Carthage was followed by the war with Macedon.  The latter conflict was in no way comparable with the Punic Wars for the gravity of the peril, either in respect to the qualities of the enemy commander, or by reason of the fighting strength of the troops engaged.”[31] This narrative clearly shows Livy’s (and by extension Roman) bias towards Macedonia and Philip V.  What is even clearer is that following the Carthaginian defeat at Zama in 202 BC, that Rome was obliged to settle old scores and repay outstanding debts.

Philip who had begun military operations in Thrace became the focus of Roman scrutiny.  Despite little or no legal justification, Rome took exception with Philip’s actions.   Any movement beyond Macedonia’s borders, in this case Thrace and Anatolia, were portrayed as a violation of the Peace of Pheonice, which is precisely the pretext the Romans needed to renew their war against Macedonia.  Urged by their long-time ally Attalus, Rome demanded additional considerations from Philip in return for continued peace.  In his own defense, Philip repeatedly asserted his adherence to the conditions agreed upon in the Peace of Pheonice– but it appears to have been to no avail.  The Romans had once again interjected themselves into Greek affairs and had come down on the side of Philips strongest opponents, namely the Aetolian League, Athens, Pergamon and Rhodes.  Initial Roman military actions appear to have been somewhat limited and confined themselves with a slow and progressive forcing of Philip’s military back into northern Greece.  That was until the command of Roman forces in Greece was transferred to Titus Quinctius Flamininus in 198 BC.


Titus Quinctius Flaminius, Roman General

Flamininius was aggressive in his approach and demanded that Philip withdraw all Macedonian forces into the confines of its traditional borders- in effect the Roman general was demanding that all the gains made by Philip prior to the onset of the First Macedonian War were to be surrendered.  Philip appears to have repeatedly attempted to parlay with Flamininius in order to avoid a further escalation of hostilities.  Philip’s ambassadors offered a more balanced resolution, one which would Macedonia honor intact.  Flamininius was not moved and repeated his earlier demands.  Polybius portrays Flamininius’ rejection of peace to have been inspired by potential political maneuvering designed to ensure his (re)election as Consul.  While plausible, establishing a permanent Roman preeminence in Greece could also very been attractive to an ardent Hellenophile, such as Flamininius.

Cynoscephalae 197 BC

Philip’s only hope of retaining control of Thessaly and his possessions in northern Greece was to meet Flaminius and his allies in battle.  The two forces met near the modern Ano Chalkiades- a small group of hills near ancient Pherae.[32]  The battle appears to have been the result of an escalating engagement of skirmishers on both sides who fought for control of the hills, followed by initial Macedonian successes against the Romans and Aetolians.[33]  Polybius attributes Philip’s defeat to the tactical inflexibility of the Macedonian Phalanx and the uneven and broken ground of the hillside.  While the outcome of the battle is well-known, a rarely discussed aspect of the battle is Roman’s failure to take prisoners.  As the defeated Macedonians held their pikes aloft in the traditional Hellenistic overture of surrender[34]– the Romans proceeded to kill many of them as they attempted to surrender.[35] Whether this was due to the Roman’s being unfamiliar with the practice as Polybius suggests, having been swept up in the heat of battle or wanting ‘payback’ for earlier defeats remains unclear.  His army devastated, Philip was forced to retreat northwards.  As a result Philip is forced to accept very harsh peace terms- including the payment of a war indemnity.

An Unequal War

Whether or not historians should delineate between the First and Second Macedonian Wars is debatable.  One the one hand, the ratification of the Peace of Pheonice does give a temporal point of reference between the two conflicts as well as being supported by Livy’s portrayal of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ in his histories.  On the other hand, modern historians lack any deep insights into the terms and provisions of the Peace of Pheonice.  Was it as Philip is reported to have argued an agreement designed to protect the Macedonian sphere of influence while removing Roman involvement within Greece?  If so, then Livy’s assertion that Philip’s actions in Thrace justified a second war with Macedon is highly suspect, as is the overall tone of his presentation.

The conflict between Rome and Macedonia is largely concerned with the Roman intervention in Illyria and the subsequent escalation of conflict between them- ending in a Macedonian defeat at Cynoscephalae.  Philip had attempted to enlarge his own prestige and influence within Greece which he saw as not only his prerogative but also his birthright as King of Macedonia.  At the same time Philip was becoming increasingly aware of Roman involvement within Greek affairs which he hoped to derail by his alliance with Carthage during the Second Punic War.

Philip was not a bad commander.  F.E. Adcock describes Philip V as, “[ he was] a good strategist with a notable instinct for speed and surprise.”[36]  At times such as Lamia he was bold and daring in his actions achieving significant victories against the Aetolians and their Roman and Pergameme allies.  At other times, Philip appeared indecisive at best or cowardly at worst as displayed in his actions at Apollonia.  Whether it was the misfortune of bad weather or poor intelligence, Philip’s military campaigns appear to have suffered from significant share of both.  But perhaps his greatest military and political mistake was the alliance he forged with Carthage against Rome.  A decision which would haunt him for the remainder of his reign.

In conclusion, it was not one incident which put Rome and Macedonia on a collision course with each other.  On the contrary, it was the culmination of numerous smaller events, often facilitated through proxies and allies which fueled the continued and increasing escalation of war between them.  Roman, Macedonian, and Greek political goals, alliances and aspirations were highly reactionary in light of the ever-changing fortunes of war.  Philip had hoped to restore the preeminence of Macedon within Greece, but Rome had already set their eyes upon it.  Whether or not war is ever certitude, the Roman conquest of Greece and Macedonia appears to have been so, stalled for a time by Rome’s protracted engagement against Carthage in the Second Punic War.

Bibliography and References:

Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith., and John Keegan. Roman Warfare. London: Cassell, 2000.

Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265-146 BC. London: Cassell, 2003.

Matyszak, Philip. Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2009.

Park, Michael. “The Battle of Cynoscephalae, 197 BC: The Dogs’ Head.” Ancient Warfare, 2013, 25-32.

Patavinus, Titus Livius.  Rome and the Mediterranean: Books XXXI-XLV of The History of Rome from Its Foundation. Translated by Henry Bettenson.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Patavinus, Titus Livius. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey Sélincourt. England: Penguin Books, 1965.

Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982..

Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 1996.

[1] Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith., and John Keegan. Roman Warfare. (London: Cassell, 2000), 80.

[2] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 503-504.

[3] Ibid., 495.

[4] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 121.

[5] Matyszak, Philip. Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2009), 21.

[6] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 120.

[7] Ibid.,119.

[8] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 118.

[9] Polybius gives Postiumius’ land force as consisting of 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry but lacks any further description regarding the composition of those troops.

[10] Ibid., 121.

[11] Ibid., 121.

[12] Ibid., 122-123.

[13] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 122-123.

[14]  While the number of Roman infantry left under Postumius command is unknown, Polybius’ account does record that Illyrian troops were recruited from the surrounding Greek and Illyrian towns.

[15]  Matyszak, Philip. Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2009), 24-27.

[16] Patavinus, Titus Livius. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey Sélincourt. (England: Penguin Books, 1965), 507.

[17]Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265-146 BC. (London: Cassell, 2003), 255.

[18] Patavinus, Titus Livius. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey Sélincourt. (England: Penguin Books, 1965), 209.

[19] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 299-300.

[20] Patavinus, Titus Livius. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey Sélincourt. (England: Penguin Books, 1965), 279-280.

[21] Ibid.,280.

[22] Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265-146 BC. (London: Cassell, 2003), 256.

[23] Patavinus, Titus Livius. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey Sélincourt. (England: Penguin Books, 1965), 281.

[24] Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars, 265-146 BC. (London: Cassell, 2003), 258.

[25] Matyszak, Philip. Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2009), 44.

[26] Polybius, Ian Scott-Kilvert, and Frank W. Walbank. The Rise of the Roman Empire. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 299-300.

[27] Matyszak, Philip. Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2009), 45-46.

[28] Polybius’ account states that nearly 4,000 prisoners were taken following Philip’s capture of Phyricus but gives no details as to the nationalities of these men.  It is possible that these figures also included those captured in the early action at Elis and were combined in Polybius’ account.  In addition to prisoners, Polybius records that 20,000 animals, again of undetermined types were captured.

[29] Matyszak, Philip. Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2009), 48.

[30] Ibid., 49.

[31]Patavinus, Titus Livius, and Henry Bettenson. Rome and the Mediterranean: Books XXXI-XLV of The History of Rome from Its Foundation. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976) , 23.

[32]Park, Michael. “The Battle of Cynoscephalae, 197 BC: The Dogs’ Head.” (Ancient Warfare, 2013), 26.

[33] Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. (London: Routledge, 1996), 204-206.

[34]Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 72.

[35] Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. (London: Routledge, 1996), 205.

[36]Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 94.

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Evaluating the Internet as a Source for Historical Research.

Is the internet a boon or bust for historians?

By Pat Lowinger

www.logoIn our modern technological age and with the exponential development of the internet in the past three decades the quality, quantity and reliability of available source material for use/review requires careful and critical evaluation.  This can all too often lead the neophyte researcher to stumble headlong into the use of unfounded or factually questionable research material.  This is not to say that the internet is not without some very practical and powerful uses- the massive quantities of material/data available combined with a relative ease of access makes the internet an invaluable tool to the modern historical researcher.

The first and sometimes most overwhelming aspect of the internet is the sheer size and amount of information available.  The ability of modern search engines to pull a plethora of information from such a broad area(s) can lead to ‘information’ overload.  Which simply means, too often, the inclusion of superfluous reference material can obscure or mislead a researcher, or bog them down in the painstaking task of sorting through hundreds of poor-quality or off-topic references.

In addition, the internet itself has no regulation or review(s) as to the authenticity of the material contained within.  It seems that every conjecture or opinion is given a place for display- whether or not it is founded or accepted in the field(s) of study in which it is being offered as a reference.  All a person has to do to demonstrate this phenomenon is to type the phrase, ‘do vaccines cause autism?’ into Google and sort through the resulting hundreds of results claiming an affirmative response to the inquiry.  Yet, neither the American Board of Pediatric Medicine nor The World Health Organization has ever published articles affirming a causal link.  Too often, a certain level of credulity accompanies information obtained from the internet for no other reason than it has been put out there ‘in-print’ as it were.

wikipedia1To avoid the issues discussed above, it is very important for a researcher to know where a reference is coming from.  Currently, there are an ever-growing number of primary and topical resources available through institutions and associations directly associated with professionals in their respective fields of study (commonly referred to as databases).  These reference portals/search engines in the past were most often associated with libraries, museums or academic institutions.  Today, there are an ever increasing number of reference portals or databases which are aggregates of more traditional sources such as journals and academic databases to form a database reference source (pool).  Many databases are not open to the public, as is the internet in general- typically they are limited to pre-selected persons, institutions or students.  A database site (portal) allows for the referencing of numerous smaller academic and institutional sources- while filtering out much of what would be considered background noise from the internet.  These databases are the real workhorse of the researcher and allow for relatively quick access to topical, relevant and useful information in a particular field.

In closing, for the purposes of research, the internet can be a powerful tool.  Used unwisely it can lead to the use of untrue or erroneous information.  But in the hands of a knowledgeable researcher, relying on dedicated search engines, the internet can be the single most powerful tool for quickly accessing a wide-range of credible reference material(s).


Presnell, Jenny L. The Information-literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Cohen, Morris L., and Kent C. Olson. Legal Research in a Nutshell. St. Paul, MN: West/Thomson, 2010.

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Religious Syncretism: Pagan Origin of the Golden Rule.

Christianity, like most ancient religious traditions, did not evolve within a vacuum.  It was influenced by the adoption and modification of non-Christian (and non-Jewish) cosmologies, mythologies and rituals.  Although subtle, the synchronizing of Christian theology with Greco-Roman philosophy was exceedingly influential in its initial development, and eventual acceptance by non-Jewish communities.  A philosophical tradition founded and promulgated by Greek Pagans. 

Christianity’s Golden Rule

In The New Testament of the Bible, the books of Matthew and Luke purport to record Jesus’ pronouncement of the Beatitudes, during what many Christians refer to as ‘The Sermon on the Plain‘.  In the following verses Jesus tells his followers that they need to love their enemies, turn the other cheek and to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.   Per the Book of Luke (6 verses 27-31):

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you. [Emphasis added]

The Pagan Golden Rule by Aesop


Amphora stopper with a dog and a goose inspired by the Aesop’s fables from Antinopolis. Egypt (dated c. 4th-6th century CE).  Getty Collection

Modern Historians and Classicists are divided whether or not Aesop was an actual person or an invention of ancient historians who predated Herodotus.  For those who believed Aesop was a historical person, it was commonly believed that Aesop had been a slave before obtaining his freedom.  Aesop’s manumission had been the result of his profound intellect and ability to give sound advice, not only to his master, but also those outside his master’s household.  On a rather tragic note, Herodotus records that Aesop was wrongly killed (murdered) at Delphi by a mob of people.  If Aesop was an an actual person, he most likely lived during the mid (or late) seventh through early (mid) sixth century BCE (c. 650-550 BCE).  For the purposes of this discussion, whether Aesop actually existed is of little importance.  What is important are the fables (moral stories) attributed to him.  As a brief aside, there is strong evidence to suggest that some of ‘Aesop’s Fables’ originated in ancient Sumeria (c. 1500 BCE).

This corpus of fables, known in antiquity as the Aesopica, where not just simply children’s stories.  Even the term fable is problematic, implying some dubious or mythological origin to them.  The Aesopica were basic tenets of Greek morality (proverbs) taught widely throughout the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods.  In fact, the Aesopica were routinely referenced by Greek and Roman philosophers and often served as the basis of further philosophical inquiry, examination and critique.  So widely known were the Aesopica that few Greeks or Romans would not have known some, if not most, of the 725 fables of the Aesopica.  Even those who were partially or completely illiterate learned the core body of the Aesopica via oral tradition and/or rote memorization.  In addition to the story (narrative text), an important feature of the Aesopica was the inclusion of ‘the moral of the story’, often as a single line of additional text which defined the philosophical, religious and/or moral truth of the proverb.

The Fox and the Stork

          A fox was jealous of his neighbor the stork for her elegance and grace. He longed to find a way to make her look foolish, and at last he had an idea. “My dear friend,” he said, hiding his cunning with gracious manners, “would you be so kind as to join me for dinner?”

          “Why, I’d love to,” replied the stork.

          But when the stork arrived at the fox’s house, all he served her was a thin broth in a shallow bowl. The hungry stork could only wet the tip of her long bill, while the fox lapped up his dinner eagerly. But the stork didn’t complain, for she was hatching a plan of her own. “What a delicious dinner!” she said politely. “You must dine with me tomorrow, good neighbor.”

          When the fox arrived at the stork’s house the next day he smelled a delicious fish soup. He licked his lip eagerly. But when he got to the table, the soup was served in a tall glass jar with a narrow neck. With her long bill, the stork drank her soup easily, but the fox could only lick a few drops from around the neck of the jar.

          “What is this?” he growled. “I can’t eat this, and you know it!”

          “My dear friend,” replied the stork calmly, “I’m sure you will enjoy this dinner just as much as I enjoyed the one you served me.”

                  Moral- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. [color and italics added.  Also See Notation Below.]


Can historians definitively attribute the origin of Christianity’s Golden Rule to the Aesopica?   The simple answer is no.  What is important to examine and consider is the nearly four centuries of pervasive Greek (followed by Greco-Roman) cultural influence upon the regions of ancient Syria, Judea and Egypt- which were themselves the key origin points of early Christianity.  What is the likelihood that Hellenized Jews absorbed, in whole or in part, the philosophical tenets of the Aesopica?  While somewhat allegorical, Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE to 50 CE), serves a powerful example of the synchronization (often referred to as harmonizing) of Greek and Roman philosophy with Jewish religious and cultural practices.  The other source of synchronization is academically undeniable- that is, knowledge the Aesopica by Greek or Roman converts to Judaism and/or Christianity.

So what does Greek philosophy have to do with religious synchronization?  What is important to remember is that in antiquity philosophy covered a broad-range of inquiry, such as: nature and existence of the gods, cosmology, naturalism, the nature and origins of evil, to name just a few.  For the Greeks and Romans and despite numerous schools of philosophical thought (Neo-Platonists vs. Epicureans vs. Stoics for example), these philosophical traditions were intrinsically tied to religion (with various degrees of religiosity or complete lack thereof).

As previously mentioned, Christianity’s Golden Rule is referenced only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  While Matthew is generally considered to have been written between 80-90 CE, the dating of Luke is much more problematic, with a disputed range of 80-100 CE (or later in some cases).  In either case these are later accounts of Christian theology date 30 to 50 years after Paul’s authentic epistles and the conversion of an unknown number, no doubt considerable amount, of formerly Greek and Roman Pagans.  While inconclusive, there is undeniably strong evidence to suggest that the origins of Christianity’s Golden Rule was neither Christian nor Jewish, but in fact Greek and thus Pagan.  That is assuming of course the story of The Fox and the Stork originated in Greece and not in ancient Sumeria (also Pagan).

Notations and References:

Biblical Text- New International Version (translation).

Regarding translations of The Fox and the Stork, several alternatives are know to exist.  Some which include no moral statement at the end (in red text above) or which give the alternate text as “One bad turn deserves another.”


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Magical Flatulence: the Ancient (f)ART of Divination?

By Pat Lowinger

I rarely find myself laughing out loud while conducting academic research.  This article reflects one of those rare occasions. I would like to thank Sarah Iles Johnston PhD for her insightful examination of ancient Greek divination in Ancient Greek Divination, 3rd edition (2008).

Among the ancient Greeks, various modes of divination were discussed by numerous historical sources, such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Iamblichus, Posidonius, Chrysippus, Melampus and many others.  The modes, as well as prophetic authority of divination, varied greatly throughout the Greek world.  There were those who practiced the ‘reading’ of flames- a method known as pyromancy (with several sub-categories).  Others, listened to/channeled daimones contained within their bellies (engastroimuthoi) and/or the ‘art’ of astragalomancy which relied on the casting of bone-dice (most often sheep’s knuckles).  Some diviners were wanderers, others were associated with a particular town or city, while others were associated with sacred locations.  Some institutions of Greek divination were widely revered throughout the ancient Mediterranean, such as the oracles of Apollo at Delphi and Didyma.


Black Figure Vase c. 6th century BCE, depicting Apollo, standing standing across from Zeus and Maia, all of whom stand over the infant Hermes. Getty Museum (Image Collection).

Prior to reading Johnston’s book, I was familiar with the major aspects of divination in the Greek and Roman religious traditions. It was during her analysis of palomancy (body twitches and spasms) that she referred to the following verses of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which I just had to read for myself:

So said Phoebus Apollo, and took the child and began to carry him. But at that moment the strong Slayer of Argus had his plan, and, while Apollo held him [Hermes] in his hands, sent forth an omen, a hard-worked belly-serf [flatulence], a rude messenger,  and sneezed directly after. And when Apollo heard it, he dropped glorious Hermes out of his hands on the ground: then sitting down before him, though he was eager to go on his way, he spoke mockingly to Hermes: “Fear not, little swaddling baby, son of Zeus and Maia. I shall find the strong cattle presently by these omens, and you shall lead the way.” -Hymn to Hermes IV, 293-303. Emphasis added.

A fart and a sneeze- the former being called ‘a rude messenger’ of the gods.  It appears that not even the author of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes wasn’t without a sense of humor.  On the other hand, this might have been only one of many forms of divination practiced by the ancient Greeks and might go a long way to explain Herodotus’ observations as to why ancient Egyptian priests avoided the eating of beans… to actively avoid unwanted divination?

I hope you have enjoyed this rather lighthearted examination of ancient divination.


Recommended Reading and References:

Johnston, Sarah.  Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes.



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The Coinage of Augustus: Projecting Power and a Divine Lineage.

In antiquity, coinage not only served as an easily portable means of wealth, it also served as an important medium of propaganda.  Through powerful imagery and messaging it was not only possible to influence public opinion, it could wholly reshape it. 

At the time of Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BCE, an eighteen-year-old Octavian stood to inherit not only Caesar’s immense wealth but also his unprecedented public legacy.   In the chaotic aftermath of the dictator’s assassination it was critical that Octavian protect Ceasar’s legacy as well as bolstering his own political capital.  Caesar’s murderers and their cries of libertas could not go unanswered if the Julii were to maintain their prominence within Roman society. Octavian’s actions were as bold as they were decisive. Upon his arrival in Rome, Octavian began to rallying Caesar’s supporters as well as recruiting many of Caesar’s veterans into a standing army (Goldsworthy 2014, 103).  In addition to this outward manifestation of military strength, Octavian reservedly supported the call by some members of the senate to deify the slain dictator.  Cicero’s advocacy on behalf of Octavian is noteworthy:

Let us then confer on Caesar [Octavian] a regular military command, without which the military affairs can not be directed, the army can not be held together, war can not be waged. Let him be made propraetor with all the privileges which have ever been attached to that appointment. That honour, although it is a great one for a man of his age, still is not merely of influence as giving dignity, but it confers powers calculated to meet the present emergency. Therefore, let us seek for honours for him which we shall not easily find at the present day (Cicero, Philippics 5.45).

Cicero’s support of Octavian’s inclusion into Rome’s highest political body, as well the granting of considerable military authority by the Senate, illustrates how successful Octavian’s claim as heir had been.  Caesar’s deification was formalized by the Roman senate on 1 January, 42 BCE, exactly one year after Octavian had been inducted into the senate (at the unprecedented age of nineteen).


Image I

Despite dangerous tensions with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Octavian was able to forge the Second Triumvirate, which was ratified by the Roman Senate on 27 November, 43 BCE.  In effect, each of the triumvirs acted with enhanced consular powers.  Mark Antony would rule over the provinces of Gaul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (Lepidus) would control Spain and Octavian, North Africa.  As per their senatorial mandate, the triumvirs were to bring those responsible for Caesar’s death to justice and restore order within the Republic (Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 10.3). Again, Octavian (as well as the other triumvirs) wasted no time in exercising his military authority.  Coinage from the period (from 44 to 33 BCE) are inscribed with legend “III VIR R P C” served as abbreviation for “tresviri rei publicae constituendae”, which is most often translated as “One of Three Men for the Regulation of the Republic” (American Numismatic Society inventory number 1957.172.251).  See Image I.  Despite their earlier antagonism, coinage jointly bearing the images of Octavian and Antony was minted (American Numismatic Society inventory number 2012.34.25).  In addition to their names and designation as one of the triumvirs (previously mentioned), the legend added the title “IMP” or “Imperator.”  See Image II.


Image II

As Octavian and Antony prosecuted the war against Sextus Pompey, Marcus Junius Brutus (Brutus) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (Longinus) the need to continuously foster his bond as Ceasar’s son was not ignored by Octavian (Beacham, 2007, 152).


Image III

Upon coinage minted during and after the war(s), Octavian’s image and the legend “DIVI F” or “Divus Filius” which is commonly translated as “Son of the Divine [Julius Caesar] (American Numismatic Society inventory number 1941.131.348).  The obverse bore an image of Caesar (wearing laurels) and the legend, “DIVOS IVLIVS” which translates as “Divine Julius.”  See Image III.  By the issuing of coinage and building of temples dedicated to a deified Caesar, it could be suggested Octavian was simply engaging in an act of ancestral veneration and/or devotion, which was a common and respected social norm within Roman society.  Through this public veneration, Octavian was able to promote his own interests in a manner most Romans would not only accept, but applaud.

During his tenure as one of the triumvirs, Octavian had continued to honor the legacy of Julius Caesar.  As powerful as this association could be it was necessary for Octavian to promote his own military and political power.  To this end Octavian ordered the issuing of coinage bearing traditionally powerful symbolism (Wolters 2016, 342-346).  For example, a silver denarius (American Numismatic Society inventory number 2012.34.23) minted at Rome in 42 BCE bears the image of Octavian (absent any legend).  The reverse bears the image of the goddess Fortuna holding Victory (goddess) in her right hand and cornucopia (a symbol of abundance and prosperity).  The legend accompanying Fortuna’s image was C.VIBIVS VARVS, translated as (Consul Vibius Varus).  See Image IV.  While the value of such imagery as propaganda is obvious, it demonstrates Octavian’s own rapidly developing list of victories and honors.  Honors granted and supported by the state.


Image IV

Upon his confirmation as emperor, Augustus remained aware he needed to continue promoting his temporal and divine relationship with Caesar. As shown earlier, this was accomplished by the incorporation of religious motifs upon Roman coinage (Stevenson 1964, 157-158).  One excellent example, minted 19 BCE depicts a comet (falling) incorporated into an eight-rayed sunburst on its reverse (American Numismatic Society inventory number


Image V

1957.172.1476).  Within the starburst contains the legend, “DIVVS IVLIVS” again which translates as “Divine Julius.” While the obverse contains the image of the Emperor (his head wreathed in laurels), and the unabbreviated legend of “CAESAR AVGVSTVS.”  See Image V.  What is important to note are two key points.  First, that throughout his reign, Augustus continued to promote his familial connection to Julius Caesar as well as Caesar’s status as a divine being (god).  While the frequency of such depictions upon coinage decrease after 27 BCE, they do not disappear entirely.  The second point is that the radiant starburst and comet imagery were directly tied to mythology designed to support Caesar’s divine origins.  The promulgation of Caesar’s divine status was cross-pollinated through every available medium during Augustus’ reign.

Though Aesculapius came as a stranger to our temples, Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor.- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.1-2.

In a future post I will further examine Augustus’ claims of divinity and purported apotheosis following his death. 


Cicero, Marcus. Orations, The Fourteen Orations Against Marcus Antonius (Philippics), trans. C.D. Yonge. Perseus Digital Library.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Books. 2004.

Suetonius, Gaius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Divus Augustus, trans. Robert Graves (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Books. 1957.

Beacham, Richard. 2007. The Emperor as Impresario: Producing the Pageantry of Power. In Galinsky, K. (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus: 151-174. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2014. Augustus: First Emperor of Rome. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stevenson, Seth. 1964. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London: B.A. Seaby LTD.

Wolters, Reinhard. 2016. The Julio-Claudians. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 235-51. New York: Oxford University Press.



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Of Gods, Kings and Men: the Coinage of Antiochus IV.

By Pat Lowinger


Image 1- Silver Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV, (c. 167-164 BCE) obverse shown.  Source: American Numismatic Society (Identifier 1908.115.1)

For archaeologists, historians and numismatists ancient coins are much more valuable than their material composition might initially suggest. Whether found individually or within hordes, ancient coinage often fuels the impetus of the professional and amateur numismatist.  When discovered in situ coins become invaluable pieces of evidence in the dating of contemporaneous objects and adjacent deposits, such as burn layers (Crawford 1983: 192). Although coins are typically limited to the establishment of a terminal date (not being older than), coins continue to be reliable pieces of evidence in the formulation of site chronology.  From the Archaic period forward, Greek coinage typically contained identifying illustrations and/or inscriptions.  By the beginning of the third century BCE, coinage of the Hellenistic world increasingly contained inscriptions identifying both their issuer and their place of origin (Ashton 2016: 200-03).  While most often regarded solely as an easily portable form of wealth, coinage was also a powerful medium for the projection of social, political, religious and economic information.   The multivalent nature of ancient coinage was readily demonstrated during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 175-164 BCE).

Historical Background


Map of the Seleucid Empire c. 167-164 BCE.

Following the death of Alexander the Great (c. 323 BCE), the vast empire he had amassed was systematically carved up by his chief generals and familial relations.  Peace between these Diadochi or Successors would be short-lived and ushered in a turbulent period known as the Wars of the Diadochi (c. 322-275 BCE).  One of the principle belligerents and benefactors of this conflict was Seleucus I Nicator (c. 358-281 BCE) who became the founding member of the Seleucid dynasty (c. 312-63 BCE).  Just over a century after Seleucus’ death (c. 175 BCE), Antiochus IV Epiphanes would come to the throne of a still powerful, but recently humiliated, Seleucid Empire which had been forced to concede the majority of its possessions in Anatolia to the Romans and their allies.  In an attempt to restore a portion of the Empire’s former pre-eminence, Antiochus launched two major campaigns (c. 170 and 168 BCE respectively) against Egypt and gained control of Judea and the Sinai.  Antiochus’ despotic occupation and reign over Judea coupled with his persecution of the region’s Jewish population supplied the catalyst for the Maccabean Revolt (c. 167-160 BCE).  Antiochus died suddenly (c. 164 BCE), presumably of disease, while campaigning in Armenia against the armies of King Mithridates I of Parthia.

Analysis and Evaluation


Image 2- Silver Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV, (c. 167-164 BCE) reverse shown.  Source: American Numismatic Society (Identifier 1908.115.1)

Upon seizing the throne, Antiochus ordered the minting of new coinage which bore his image.  This had been the norm for previous rulers of the empire.  However, in Antiochus’ case, these newly minted coins were markedly different than those of his predecessors (Houghton 2016: 241-42).  These new coins while bearing many typically Greek conventions, bore the additional legend of ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ (Theos Epiphanes), which is most commonly (directly) translated as “God Manifest” or more descriptively as “God (divinity) Manifest in the Flesh” (Montanari 2015).”  By formal pronouncement through this newly minted silver and bronze coinage, Antiochus was not only declaring his own divinity but also invoking the protective patronage of none other than Zeus himself.

One particularly illustrative and beautifully preserved sample is contained within the collection of the American Numismatic Society (Identifier 1908.115.1, see Images 1 & 2).  The denomination of this particular coin is a silver tetradrachm, measuring 16.61 grams, and an average diameter of 30 millimetres.  The coin is was minted at Antioch on the Orontes as indicated by its mint legend.  The archival information dates the minting of the coin near the end of Antiochus’ reign (c. 167-164 BCE).  The obverse of the coin bears the image of a youthful (non-bearded) Antiochus in right profile.  This was typical with personal portraits placed upon coinage throughout antiquity.  On the reverse the image of Zeus enthroned is prominently portrayed.  In his right hand Zeus holds a diminutive image of the goddess Nike.  See Image 3 below.  In addition, the legend contains three separate lines of Classical Greek text (listed in no particular order).  The first, ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ (Theos Epiphanes), has already been translated and discussed above.  The second ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ (Basileus Antiochus) which translates as “King” or “Emperor” (Montanari 2015).  The third line, located under the seated image of Zeus, is ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (Nikephoros) which is most often translated as “Bringer (or Bearer) of Victory” (Montanari 2015).


Image 3- Marble and bronze statue of Zeus holding Nike in his right hand.  Roman copy of Greek original (c. 100 CE).  On display at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.  Photo from museum’s own website.

In addition to its value as a temporal marker within an archaeological context this particular sample illustrates much of the imagery Antiochus wished to promote during his reign. From its inception, Seleucid dynastic rule had been supported by the inclusion of overt portrayals of Greek gods and goddesses (Houghton 2016: 240-241).  This association of well-known and easily identifiable Greek deities did much to associate various rulers with divine authority granted by the gods themselves.  The depiction of Zeus holding the goddess Nike is a powerful one.  In commemoration of his victories in Judea and the Sinai, as well as to promote the suzerainty of his rule it appears that Antiochus ordered the inclusion of additional line of text ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (Nikephoros).  This allows for distinction (both visual and chronological) of this sample from similar coins which predate the conclusion of Antiochus’ Egyptian campaigns (c. 167 BCE).  While the practice of dating coins in some regions of Syria had begun during the reign of Antiochus III (c. 241-187 BCE) the practice was not adopted at the Antioch mint until four decades later (c. 155 BCE) (Houghton 2016: 244).  So powerful was the Zeus-Nike imagery that it would be reproduced by subsequent Seleucid rulers until the reign of Alexander II Zabinas (r. 128-123 BCE) as a powerful piece of dynastic propaganda (Morkholm 1983: 62-63).

While the quantity, purity, rate of recall and issuance of ancient coinage can yield significant information about the internal and external strength of an ancient economy, that type analysis often relies upon a considerable sample size to be authoritative.  Individually, as in the case discussed above, an individual coin can provide significant information regarding the nature of the land, its people and its ruler.  Was Antiochus, as recorded by Livy, a devoted follower of the god Zeus? Is this why he comissioned the the building of temples dedicated to Zeus at Athens and Antioch (Livy, Periochae, 41)?  Antiochus’ personal piety alone in an insufficient explanation for the Zeus-Nike images placed upon Seleucid coinage issued during his reign.  It was a multifaceted piece of propaganda.  The Emperor Antiochus was a divine or semi-divine being.  Almighty Zeus would protect the kingdom.  Nike, the personification of victory, would insure future victories.  All this religious, political and dynastic information was contained upon an unassuming and relatively small silver coin.

Reference and Citations:

Livy. Periochae, trans. Jane D. Chaplin (Oxford World’s Classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010.

Ashton, Richard. 2016. The Hellenistic World: The Cities of Mainland Greece and Asia Minor. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 191-210. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crawford, Michael. 1983. Sources for Ancient History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Houghton, Arthur. 2016. The Seleucids. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 235-51. New York: Oxford University Press.

Montanari, Franco. 2015. The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (Greek-English Edition). Leiden: Brill Publishers.

Morkholm, Otto. 1983. A Posthumous Issue of Antiochus IV of Syria.  The Numismatic Chronicle 143: 57-64.

American Numismatic Society. Mantis Numismatic Objects Database: 1908.115.1.

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Diocletian: Forging the Byzantine Empire.

by Pat Lowinger

Historians are often overly concerned with dates- which is understandable given the nature of their collective field of study.  Dates help to temporally organize significant events and eras into convenient timelines; facilitating the use of descriptive terminology such as Geometric, Archaic, Classical and Imperial.  One of the more problematic but commonly used terms is ‘Byzantine.’ 

A Tradition of Divided Power

The division of power with the Roman Empire was nothing new.  With roots as far back as the Republic, authority and power (particularly power involving the military) was often divided between appointees of competing camps.  In the Republican era, the division of power was ascribed between consuls, who during their one-year term(s) of service, alternated monthly as the reigning head of state and as the supreme commander(s) of the military during times of war.  From these Republican ideals grew other traditions which ascribed the division(s) of power within the Empire.  In particular, the First and Second Triumvirates- dedicated to division of military and political power under the auspices of ensuring stability within the Late Republic.

Diocletian as Jupiter of the East


Map depicting the division(s) of the Roman Empire under the reign of the Tetrarchs.

Beginning with the reign of Maximinus I in 235 AD through reign of Carinus ending in 285 AD- the Empire had seen rise/fall of 22-26 emperors within a 50 year period.  This Crisis of the Third Century saw the near destruction of the Empire from internal and external threats. [1] While some of these emperors, like Aurelian, were able to consolidate enough military and political power to prevent the Empire’s total collapse, the future was certainly grim.  Numerous civil wars and uprisings drained the frontier garrisons which were bypassed or overwhelmed by Germanic invaders.  Eventually, Rome’s legions defeated the Vandals and Visigoths in a series of costly military campaigns.  The Empire’s coffers and manpower were at critically low levels.

After securing his position as Emperor following the death of the Emperor Carinus, Diocletian could have, and in all likelihood should have become just another in a long list of short-reigned Emperors.  Despite the still festering wounds of civil war, Diocletian enacted a general amnesty (clementia), guaranteeing the lands, titles and offices of recent belligerents- upon a simple oath of loyalty.  Their status secure, the Empire’s aristocracy largely capitulated to Diocletian’s rule, while the urban and rural poor largely welcomed it.   Diocletian initially followed the earlier Roman convention of divided rule (east and west), by the appointment of Maximian as co-Emperor in 286 AD.  With each


Gold Aureus c. 294 CE, minted at Nicomedia. Obverse (top)- “Diocletian the happy, pious Emperor.” Reverse (under)- Jupiter holding thunderbolt, “Jupiter the Preserver.”  American Numismatic Society ID# 1955.191.4.

Emperor appointing their own successor who would control their own (4) territories within the Empire- the ‘Tetrarchy’ was formed. [2] Whether Diocletian resigned himself to this division of power out of tradition, a practical need for more centralized authority within the various provinces of the Empire, the trust which existed between himself and Maximian and/or all of these reasons the effect was the stabilization of the Empire.

In effect, Diocletian had formally divided the Empire into east and west, each Emperor (Augustus) and that Emperor’s chosen successor (Caesar) ruling large swathes of the Empire independently from each other.  Stability of the larger ‘Empire’ was rooted in mutual cooperation between each of the four rulers.  The Tetrarchy would last for 19 years.  During this period Diocletian and the other Tetrarchs were able to stabilize the military frontier of the Empire, quell internal unrest and enact economic reforms designed to stabilize the Empire’s economy.  By establishing the seat of his rule in Nicomedia (in the northwestern portion of Anatolia), Diocletian symbolically and in  practice transferred the seat of Imperial rule to the east.  While Rome, under Maximian remained the seat of power in the west, his status as Hercules to Diocletian’s Jupiter, cemented the transfer of power outside of Italy, as well as affirming Diocletian’s primacy. [3]  This realignment of power preceded the founding of Constantinople by 38 years- a fact this is often ignored or underdeveloped by too many modern historians analyzing the period.  From this point forward, imperial power would be concentrated in the east, in effect re-centering the Roman world.


Whether Diocletian was a visionary or realist can be debated.  He was an experienced military and political leader. Diocletian, born in Illyria of strong Illyrian stock, appears to have been less impressed by the status of Italy than his predecessors.  He also realized the importance of securing Asia Minor and the vital trade routes which passed through it.  By the establishment of his imperial residence and administrative headquarters at Nicomedia, Diocletian shifted the loci of imperial power eastward.  While Rome may have retained a symbolic link to the past glories of the Empire, it was no longer the epicenter of Roman dominion.  “The beginning of Byzantine history can be traced back to the Roman Empire as it emerged from the crisis of the third century.  The economic difficulties of this period had had particularly disastrous effects on the western half of the Empire.  The east had greater powers of resistance-a factor which afforded future development and accounted for the Byzantinizing of the Roman Empire.”[4]  Perhaps, Diocletian himself could best be described as the first Byzantine Emperor…


Sculpture of the Tetrarchy (material: porphyry) dated to c. 300 CE.  Originating from Constantinople – it was taken to Venice during the early 13th century CE.


Glay, Marcel Le, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. 4th ed. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 2009.

Ostrogorski, Georgije. History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969.


[1] Marcel Le Glay, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec, A History of Rome, 4th ed. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 2009), 459-462.

[2 &3] ibid., 473.

[4] Georgije Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 29.

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The Jews of Sparta: Diplomatic Origins of Religious Synchronization.

By Pat Lowinger

Were the Spartans actually ancient Jews?  Of course not, but within the turbulent political period of the 2nd century BCE there appears to have been a desire by the Kingdom of Israel to foster a Spartan-Israeli alliance. But how?  The answer to this question is recorded within a few lines of ancient text, which preserve a bizarrely contrived lineage intended to bind the Greek polis of Sparta to the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel- both temporally and spiritually.



Marble statue depicting Heracles as a youth dated to c. 80 CE.  On display at the MET Museum, New York.

The Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel emerged in c. 140 BCE as a semi-autonomous region within the Seleucid Empire and eventually gained its independence in 110 BCE.  Israel remained independent until it was conquered by the Roman General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) in 63 BCE.  Prior to the establishment of this kingdom, Jewish rebels had engaged in a long and bloody uprising, commonly known as the Maccabean Revolt (c. 167-160 BCE).  In celebration of their victory over the Seleucid Empire and the re-dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah was created.

The Spartans on the other hand, despite their once-great renown, by c. 170 BCE,  were taking their last gasps of breath as a military and political power.  The steady decline of the Spartan military was readily apparent after their humiliating defeat by the Romans and their Greek allies during the Laconian War (c. 195 BCE).   Despite this loss of status, or perhaps because of it, there might have been an active diplomatic missions between Israel and Sparta designed to forge/renew Spartan/Israeli alliances and oaths of friendship.  In 146 BCE, the Spartans and the remaining independent poleis of Greece would succumb to Roman domination.

Mythological Traditions:

Within their own mythological traditions, the Spartans traced the founding of their city to several related myths.  The first is that the territory (kingdom) of Lacedon was founded by Lacedaemon, who was himself the son of Zeus and the nymph Taygete.  In turn, Lacedaemon married Sparta (person), who was the a granddaughter of Zeus through Lacedaemon’s older brother, Eurotas.  This mythological tradition was supported/enhanced by the injection of Herclean blood into Sparta’s two kingly lineage(s), namely the Agiad and Eurypontid.

While wholly unbelievable today, in antiquity, it was widely believed that the Doric people (including the Spartans and their kings) were actual descendants of Heracles. This belief is attested to by several ancient sources, including the venerable Herodotus who, for example, recounts it when discussing the lineage of the famous Spartan King Leonidas:

The various nations had each captains of their own under whom they served; but the one to whom all especially looked up, and who had the command of the entire force, was the Lacedaemonian, Leonidas.  Now Leonidas was the son of Anaxandridas, who was the son of Leo, who was the son of Eurycratidas, who was the son of Anaxander, who was the son of Eurycrates, who was the son of Polydorus, who was the son of Alcamenes, who was the son of Telecles, who was the son of Archelaus, who was the son of Agesilaus, who was the son of Doryssus, who was the son of Labotas, who was the son of Echestratus, who was the son of Agis, who was the son of Eurysthenes, who was the son of Aristodemus, who was the son of Aristomachus, who was the son of Cleodaeus, who was the son of Hyllus, who was the son of Heracles.  – Herodotus, The Histories 7.204. Emphasis added.

The Greeks weren’t the only ones with great heroes.  The mythical traditions of the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel contained similar progenitors- arguable the most famous of which was Abraham (the son of Terah and a direct descendant of Noah).  It should come to no surprise that the connection between Abraham to the ancient Kingdom(s) of Israel was of considerable importance not only to the various kings of Israel but also to the cultural identity of the Jewish people.  It was through Abraham that Yahweh (the God of Israel) had made himself known- a covenant which marked the Jews as Yahweh’s chosen people (see Genesis 15: 13-21).

Synchronizing Traditions for Diplomatic Ends:

The old adages blood is thicker than water and politics and religion make strange bedfellows are wonderfully apropos in this case.  How does the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel foster a diplomatic relationship (treaty of friendship) with the Spartans?  The answer is simple, find a common blood-relationship which binds the two groups ancestrally.  And who better to be the root(s) of this joint Spartan-Jewish origin story than Abraham and Heracles?  The book of Maccabees purports to preserve a correspondence (letter) between the High Priest Johnathan Apphus (died c. 143 BCE) and the Council of Sparta:

Jonathan the high priest, the senate of the nation, the priests and the rest of the Jewish people to the Spartans their brothers, greetings.  In the past, a letter was sent to Onias, the High Priest, from Areios, one of your kings, stating that you are indeed our brothers, as the copy subjoined attests. Onias received the envoy with honor, and accepted the letter, in which a clear declaration was made of friendship and alliance.  For our part, though we have no need of these, having the consolation of the holy books in our possession, we venture to send to renew our fraternal friendship with you, so that we may not become strangers to you, a long time having elapsed since you last wrote to us. We, for our part, on every occasion, at our festivals and on other appointed days, unfailingly remember you in the sacrifices we offer and in our prayers, as it is right and fitting to remember brothers. We rejoice in your renown. We ourselves, however, have had many trials and many wars, the neighboring kings making war on us. We were unwilling to trouble you or our other allies and friends during these wars, since we have the support of Heaven to help us, thanks to which we have been delivered from our enemies, and they are the ones who have been brought low. We have therefore chosen Numenius son of Antiochus, and Antipater son of Jason, and sent them to the Romans to renew our former treaty of friendship and alliance, and we have ordered them also to visit you, to greet you and deliver you this letter of ours concerning the renewal of our brotherhood; we shall be grateful for an answer to it. – 1 Maccabees 12: 6-18.  Emphasis added.

The Spartans’ letter (referred to above) purportedly originating from King Areios of Sparta (aka Areus I, reigned 309-265 BCE):

Areios king of the Spartans, to Onias the High Priest, greetings.  It has been discovered in records regarding the Spartans and Jews that they are brothers, and of the race of Abraham.  Now that this has come to our knowledge, we shall be obliged if you will send us news of your welfare.  Our own message to you is this: your flocks and your possessions are ours, and ours are yours, and we are instructing our envoys to give you a message to this effect. – 1 Maccabees 12: 20-23. Emphasis added.

While the relationship between a Greek Heracles and a Jewish Abraham is alluded to within this purported exchange of letters, the precise lineage was recorded by Josephus during the 1st century CE:

ABRAHAM after this married Keturah, by whom six sons were born to him, men of courage, and of sagacious minds: Zambran, and Jazar, and Madan, and Madian, and Josabak, and Sous. Now the sons of Sous were Sabathan and Dadan. The sons of Dadan were Latusim, and Assur, and Luom. The sons of Madiau were Ephas, and Ophren, and Anoch, and Ebidas, and Eldas. Now, for all these sons and grandsons, Abraham contrived to settle them in colonies; and they took possession of Troglodytis, and the country of Arabia the Happy, as far as it reaches to the Red Sea. It is related of this Ophren, that he made war against Libya, and took it, and that his grandchildren, when they inhabited it, called it (from his name) Africa. And indeed Alexander Polyhistor gives his attestation to what I here say; who speaks thus: “Cleodemus the prophet, who was also called Malchus, who wrote a History of the Jews, in agreement with the History of Moses, their legislator, relates, that there were many sons born to Abraham by Keturah: nay, he names three of them, Apher, and Surim, and Japhran. That from Surim was the land of Assyria denominated; and that from the other two (Apher and Japbran) the country of Africa [and the town of Aphra] took its name, because these men were auxiliaries [helpers or companions] to Hercules [in Greek, Heracles], when he fought against Libya and Antaeus; and that Hercules married Aphra’s daughter, and of her he begat a son, Diodorus; and that Sophon was his son, from whom that barbarous people called Sophacians were denominated.- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.XV.  Emphasis added.  Bracketed/green sections denote supplemental translations added by R.A. Shilleto (1888) to that of William Whiston (1737).

Now, by way of clarification, it is important to note that some historians approaching this from an overly minimalist perspective would assert that the reference to Aphra only denotes that Heracles took/married a woman from that town and doesn’t offer a strict lineage with the line of Abraham.  Such scholars would be hard pressed to defend such an assertion in light of the prevailing and well-documented practice in antiquity of identifying key historical figures and the peoples of a particular region (ethnic groups) by place names (i.e. cities, regions and even countries).  Given that context, Josephus is clearly indicating that Heracles married the daughter of Apher or one of his decedents, who was Jewish.  From this union a son was born and given the ethnically Greek name of Diodorus.  The dubious veracity of this lineage apparently didn’t go unnoticed by Josephus, who clearly attributes the origin of this account to Malchus, without giving any further attestation as to its validity or additional written sources.


Outside of the Books of the Maccabees and Josephus’ Antiquity of the Jews there appear to be few, if any, direct assertions of a Spartan-Jewish origin story.  In a Hellenized Israel the attempt to blend these two religious traditions should not be as surprising as it might first appear.  The territories of Syria and Palestine had been Greek military and political control since their conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.   Attempts to instill Greek culture in Judea and the surrounding territories had met with varying degrees of success.  For additional discussion on this topic, see Martin Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (vol. 1 & 2).

Are the accounts within Maccabees referencing letters and other diplomatic sojourns fictitious?  Possibly, but for the purposes of supporting a Spartan-Hasmonean alliance, forgery of such documents would have been of little concern if the alliance between the two parties had proven to be fruitful and mutually beneficial.  What is clear is there was an attempt by Hasmoneans (via Johnathan Apphus), during the 150’s or early 140’s BCE to offer this attestation of Jewish-Spartan kinship, to pursue a diplomatic and/or military alliance with Sparta.

Although we can never be certain, this Abrahamic-Heraclean union does appear to have lacked large scale acclaim and/or acceptance throughout the ancient world.  Nevertheless, this mythological tradition was preserved within the Book of Maccabees and by the historian Josephus, both of which are of particular interest to anyone studying the history of Israel.  Regardless of how broadly received this lineage-mythology was in antiquity is largely unimportant- the root purpose behind the invention of this particular mythical narrative appears to have been largely diplomatic.  Reaffirming what has long been known about many ancient peoples; that origin mythologies were a key component in the shaping cultural identities throughout the ancient Mediterranean.

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