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 to foster a Spartan-Israeli alliance.  In antiquity, as today, few relationships were stronger than those of blood… but how? The answer is contained within a few ancient texts 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 Hercules 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 gaining its independence in 110 BCE- until being conquered by Rome 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, were in c. 170 BCE breathing their last breaths as a military and political power, after losing the Laconian War in 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 strengthen/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 the Lacedaemon- who was himself the son of Zeus and the nymph Taygete.  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 interjection of Herculean blood into Sparta’s two kingly lineage(s)- the Agiad and Eurypontid.

While rooted in mythology, was the belief that the Doric people (including the Spartans and their kings) were actual descendants of Hercules where attested to by several ancient sources, including the venerable Herodotus who records it as follows 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 Hercules.  – 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 (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 Spartan-Jewish shared origin story other than Abraham and Hercules?  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 Hercules 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, 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 Hercules 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 Hercules married the daughter of Apher or one of his decedents- who was a Jew.  From this union, a son was born and given the ethnically Greek name, 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 at first appears.  Where the accounts in Maccabees which referenced letters and other diplomatic sojourns fictitious?  Possibly, but for the purposes of supporting a Spartan-Hasmonean alliance, forgery of such documents would have been a small concern if the alliance between the two parties proved fruitful and mutually beneficial.

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

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The Death of the Roman Republic: Cicero’s Lamentations.

By Pat Lowinger

The Roman Republic effectively ended on January 16, 27 BCE when the Roman Senate granted the title and commensurate powers of Augustus to Gaius Octavius, the adopted son of Julius Caesar.  Preceding the Empire, the last body of Senators of the Roman Republic watched as strife, rivalries and ultimately civil war would act as the catalyst of this tumultuous transformation.  By analyzing the writings of one of Rome’s most notable Senators, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), we can attempt to better understand these events.  In his letters, Cicero is keen to point to the failings of the Roman State, and what he believes to be the roots causes; the first being the influence of the military and the popularity of its leaders.  This was closely followed by the corruption of the Senate, and lastly, the formation of the Triumvirate in 59 BCE. 


Marcus Tullius Cicero (in his later years). Statue dated to 2nd Century AD on display at Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, U.K.

The 1st Century BCE had presented many difficulties for the Republic, not the least of which was the civil unrest following the Social Wars (90-88 BCE).  Rome’s allies, who contributed greatly to Rome’s military and economic strength revolted.  According to Appian, this revolt was in response to unequal land distribution which lead to the concentration of wealth among the Roman Aristocracy and reduced many Italians to a state of pauperism. [1] Shortly thereafter, in 82 BCE, Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized control of Republic and during his two-year reign as Dictator enacted a series of Constitutional reforms which placed even more power in the hands to the Aristocratic Senate.  With Pompey Magnus’s defeat of Quintus Sertorius in Hispania (Spain) and Marcus Licinius Crassus’s defeat of Spartacus during the 3rd Servile War- two very popular and wealthy commanders had been able to exert considerable pressure upon the Senate.  Pompey and Crassus then quickly secured key political offices for themselves.  Both Pompey and Crassus were elected consul(s) in 70 BCE- setting the stage for the later conflict that would ultimately be the end of Cicero’s beloved Republic.

Rise of the Military

The reforms of the Roman military under Gaius Marius in 107 BCE changed forever the relationship the state would have with the army.  The increasing territories controlled by the Republic needed a standing army to defend it.  To this end, the previous requirement of land ownership was removed and all Romans of the capite censi were eligible for service.   This was the formation of a professional army, equipped by the state, and motivated by the promise of pay, loot and a considerable pension.  Cicero was aware of the power which a charismatic leader could exert over their troops; this was evident in 76 BCE, when Pompey had initially been denied tenure as proconsul of Hispania by the Senate.  Rather than accept the Senate’s decision, Pompey refused to disband his legions- in light of this display of military power the Senate reversed their earlier decision and Pompey was appointed to proconsul.  In effect, Pompey had nullified the Senate’s lawful decree by threat of military force.  Pompey had shown not only his willingness, but his ability to defy the Senate.  By 62 BCE, Cicero embarked on an attempt to ingratiate himself with Pompey as had other key members of the Senate:

For you have given us that strong hope of peace, of which, in sole reliance on you, I was assuring everyone.  But I must inform you that your old enemies- now posing as your friends- have received a stunning blow by this dispatch, and, being disappointed in the high hopes they were entertaining, are thoroughly depressed.  Though your private letter to me contained somewhat slight expression of your affection, yet I can assure you it gave me pleasure. [2]

Whether genuine or more likely duplicitous, by 54 BCE Cicero was presenting the case to Julius Caesar that Pompey was attempting to usurp power, possibly going so far as assuming dictatorial powers:

Cicero greets Caesar, Imperator.  Observe how far I have convinced myself that you are my second self, not only in matters which concern me personally, but even those which concern my friends.  It had not been my intention to take Gaius Trebatius with me for whatever destination I should be leaving town, in order to bring him home again honored as much as my zeal and favor could make him.  But when Pompey remained at home longer than I had expected, and a certain hesitation on my part (with which you are not unacquainted) appeared to hinder, or at any rate retard, my departure.  [3]

Pompey the Great. Marble. Beginning of the 1st century A.D. Inv. No. 733. Copenhagen, New Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Marble bust of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great).  Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek- Copenhagen, Denmark

Pompey, as governor of Hispania, and simultaneously holding the office of praefectus annonae (controller of Rome’s grain supply) was concentrating his power.  Additionally, rather than return to Spain, Pompey had opted to rule the province in absentia- remaining in Italy.  Cicero makes no effort to conceal his suspicions of Pompey’s motives in his letters to Caesar.  Ironically, five years later (49BCE), Cicero would be railing against Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon and framing Pompey as the best hope of the Republic against this apparent grab at power.   Cicero laments his failure to avert Caesar’s actions, “for on both sides there are those who desire to fight.  The long and short of it is that Caesar himself- once our friend- has sent the Senate a menacing and offensive dispatch, and is so insolent as to retain his army and province in spite of the Senate.” [4] The Senate was no longer able by law or custom to prevent legions from entering Rome.

Corruption of the Senate

Cicero walked a fine political line.  Much of his politics could be considered that of a pro-constitutionalist, allied with the Optimates; the pro-aristocratic faction within Rome who were opposed by the Populares.  Throughout Cicero’s work(s), particularly those written in the last year of his life called upon ‘true Romans’ to put aside their own interests and to seek justice within the law (as codified within the Roman Constitution):

This contempt of the mind for outward fortunes thus excites great admiration; and most of all, justice, for which one virtue men are called good, seems to the multitude a quality of marvelous excellence, – and not without good reason; for no one can be just, who dreads death, pain, exile or poverty, or who prefers their opposites to honesty.  Men have, especially, the highest admiration for one who is not influenced by money; for they think that the man in who this trait is made thoroughly manifest has been tested by fire.  Thus justice constitutes all three of the requisites which I have named, -affection because it aims to do good to the greatest number, and for the same reason, confidence and admiration, because it spurns and neglects those things to which most men are drawn with burning greediness. [5]

With that said, Cicero’s own correspondence betrays his nature and through him the political nature of the Roman Senate.  Perhaps Gaius Sallustius Crispus (86-35 BCE), a contemporary of Cicero stated it most succinctly; “Fortune turned against us (the Senate) and brought confusion to all we did.  Greed destroyed honor, honesty and every other virtue, and changed: a government which had once surpasses all other in justice and excellence now became cruel and unbearable.” [6] Cicero decries what he sees the degeneration of the Senate, legal injustice(s) and corruption of the restored tribunes:

There never was a seedier lot round a table in a gambling hell. Senators under a cloud, equites out at elbows, tribunes who were not so much made of money as “collectors” of it, according to their official title.  However, there were a few honest men in the panel, whom he had been unable to drive off it by rejection, and they took their seats among their uncongenial comrades with gloomy looks and signs of emotion, and were keenly disgusted at having to rub elbows with such rascals. [7]

The Triumvirate

During the consulships of Crassus and Pompey, the powers of the tribunes were restored.  This placed both Crassus and Pompey in opposition to the pro-aristocratic powers which had been enacted by Sulla.  In 59 BCE, Julius Caesar formed a political alliance with Crassus and Pompey (commonly referred to as the First Triumvirate).  While informal, each of the men agreed to support each other and ensure control of the Senate while supporting their own personal agendas.  Opposition to the Triumvirate appeared initially stiff, but quickly dissipated- followed by Cicero’s own reversal concerning the Optimates and his outward support of Pompey (in 54 BCE):

If I had seen the Republic in the hands of bad or profligate citizens, as we know happened during the supremacy of Cinna, and on some other occasions, I should not under the pressure, I don’t say of rewards, which are the last things to influence me, but even of danger, by which, after all, the bravest men are moved, have attached myself to their party, not even if their services to me had been of the very highest kind.  As it is, seeing that the leading statesman in the Republic was Pompey, a man who had gained this power and renown by the most eminent services to the state and the most glorious achievements, and one of whose position I had been a supporter from my youth up. [8]


Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar- Vatican Museum,  Italy.

The Triumvirate ended in 53 BCE with the death of Crassus.  In 52 BCE, Pompey would be elected as the sole Consul of Rome, thus setting Caesar and Pompey on the collision course Cicero had earlier encouraged, “I have numberless witnesses to the fact that I warned Pompey not to form a union with Caesar, and afterwards not to sever it.  By this union I saw the power of the Senate would be broken, by its severance a civil war would be provoked.” [9] In the opening days of the civil war, Cicero would place his support behind Pompey and Senate- “And he (Caesar) says that he is doing all this “to support his honor”! How can there be any “honor” where there is no moral right?  Can it be morally right to have an army without commission from the state?” [10] As Caesar enters Rome, Cicero chides those Senators who rally to Caesar, “Ye Gods! Optimates indeed!  See how they are rushing to meet Caesar, and parading their loyalty to him!” [11]

Being ever mercurial, as Pompey prepares to flee Italy; Cicero would again prepare to shift his support, “I may add that he (Pompey) has acted in every case against my counsel and advice.  I put out of the question the old scores: how he fostered Caesar against the Republic, promoted, armed him; assisted him in the passing of laws by violence and against auspices; supported the addition of farther Gaul to his provinces; married his daughter.” [12] Following Pompey’s defeat, and Caesar’s rise to power, Cicero shifts again and in 45 BCE entertains Caesar at his residence.  Four months later (44 BCE), Caesar would be assassinated- an act Cicero would herald as “a fine piece of work.” [13]


As attested to in his writings, Cicero was a complex and skilled politician- keenly observing the shift in power from the Senate to the military and by extension their populist commanders.  Through inaction, impotence or corruption of the Senate the Republic was irrevocably set its course towards Empire.  The bureaucracies which had served the Republic so well were ultimately unable to contend with the influx of new territories and the bureaucracies needed to govern them.  Cicero’s concerns were embodied by the formation of the First Triumvirate. [14] Cicero and it appears other Senators, had attempted to ensure the status quo by reliance upon political intrigue and feigned patronage.  The Republic, weakened by its own social disparity was not prepared to deal with the concerted effort and alliance(s) of popular military commanders.   Perhaps, the duplicitous and self-serving nature of many aristocracy ultimately fostered an environment in which a populist dictator could offer a more socially equitable and less chaotic form of government.

Citations & References:

Appianus, and John M. Carter. The Civil Wars. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

Cary, M. and H. H. Schullard.  A History of Rome.  Third Edition.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius., and Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. The Letters of Cicero: The Whole Extant Correspondence in Chronological Order. London: Bell, 1912.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius., Miriam T. Griffin, and E. M. Atkins. On Duties. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus. The Sallust Anthology: The Catiline Conspiracy and The Jugurthine War. 1st ed. Texts from Ancient Rome Book 9.

[1] Appian, Civil Wars, p. 1.7-9.

[2] Cic. Fam. 5.7

[3] Cic. Fam. 7.5

[4] Cic. Fam. 16.2

[5] Cic. Duties. 11

[6] Sallust. The Catiline Conspiracy and Jugurthine War, p. 37

[7] Cic. Fam. 1.16

[8] Cic. Fam. 1.9

[9] Cic. Fam. 6.6

[10] Cic. Fam. 7.ii

[11] Cic. Fam. 8.16

[12] Cic. Fam. 8.3

[13] Cic. Fam. 14.12

[14] Cic. Fam. 6.6-8

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The Tropaeum Traiani: Displaying Rome’s Preeminence in Stone.

By Pat Lowinger

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The Tropaeum Traiani reconstruction.  Photo by author on 07/29/2017.

While I was onsite at this summer at Halmyris, I was fortunate enough to hear several interesting lectures on various aspects of the site and the history of the region.  While all of these presentations were extremely well-done, my historical zeal was drawn to one lecture in particular.  The topic of his lecture was the Tropaeum Traiani, erected in 109 CE following Trajan’s successful campaign against Dacia.   The lecture was given by Johnathan Quiery MA, who is currently working on his PhD at Durham University.    The contents of this post are based upon Johnathan’s lecture, subsequent discussion(s) and Brian Turner’s 2013 article in the American Journal of Philology.

What are Tropaea?

Simply put, tropaea (sing. tropaeum) are ancient monuments or memorials erected to commemorate to a military victory.  Tropaea were characterized by the display of the captured weapons and armor of the enemy- often with some pieces placed upon wooden supports, not unlike a modern scarecrow.  While the practice appears to have originated during the Greek Archaic period, it was later emulated by the Romans.  This emulation was personalized to meet the needs of the Roman state and society- it was not the rote copying of the earlier Greek tradition.  While many tropaea were temporary, during the second century BCE we see the establishment of the first permanent tropaea (in 121 BCE) by Gaius Domitius Abenobarbus and Domitus Fabius Maximus Allobrogicus after their conquest of the Allobrogenes and their Gallic allies in Transalpine Gaul.  In c. 105 BCE, Gaius Marius also directed the building of a permanent tropaea following his defeat of the Cimbri and Teutones.  Tropaea were later also constructed by Sulla (c. 86 BCE) and Pompey (c. 71) following their own military victories.  The practice continued into the period of the Roman Principate.


Detail of shield/armor of the Tropaeum Traiani.  Photo by author on 07/29/2017.

What purpose did the erection of permanent tropaea serve?  The answer is likely very simple, but very nuanced.  These permanent monuments served as testaments to the power and might of Rome, not only to the Romans themselves, but to the defeated peoples who now lived under Roman domination.  These monuments are rife with military imagery, including depictions of the army on the march, great battles and the subjugation of the enemy.  In addition to these martial images, tropaea also contain references to the divine- the depiction of ritual sacrifices being the most common.  These monuments also served as a stark warning to any nation or people who might attempt to challenge or resist the preeminence of the Roman state.

As permanent monuments, the armor and weapons of the vanquished were sometimes attached (hung) upon the stone structure.   At other times, the weapon and armor were depicted in stone, as was the case with the Tropaeum Traianai.  This commemoration in stone served to further perpetuate the surety of the Romans- as an everlasting empire.

The Tropaeum Traiani


Photo by H. Jacobi (1896) showing the Tropaeum Traiani prior to reconstruction.

As it stands today, the Tropaeum Traiani is for all intents and purposes a complete reconstruction, which was completed in 1977.   Originally built in 109 CE, the monument served to commemorate Trajan’s victory over the Dacians (101-102 CE).  Even today, there is some debate among historians as to whether the monument was erected in remembrance of one particular battle- the Battle of Adamclisi or as a testament to Trajan’s campaign (and victory) in Moesia Inferior.  The size, scale and overall theme of the monument appear to more supportive of the later assertion, but is not definitive.

Prior to it’s reconstruction, the Tropaeum Traiani was largely composed of collapsed rubble.  Many of the inscriptions, sculptures, images and panels (metopes) were damaged.  Of the original 54 metopes, only 49 have survived from antiquity.  Nearly all of the constituent components are currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Adamclisi.  Considering the poor state of the monument (ruins), the entirety of the reconstruction was based on upon detailed archaeological examination(s), comparison to a smaller (and later) copy erected during the early 4th century CE, and more than just a little educated guess-work.  As such, there is still a significant amount of academic debate whether or not this reconstruction is wholly accurate.

Regardless, the monument is a wonder to behold.  Standing 40 meters in height, the structure is imposing and visually dominates the surrounding countryside.  For those who love history, the Tropaeum Traiani and the adjacent ruins of the fortress at Adamclisi offer a fantastic opportunity to see the might, grandeur and legacy of the Roman conquest of Dacia.


Johnathan Quiery (right), Robert Caudill (center) and yours truly (left) while exploring the fortress of Enisala.  

I would like to take a moment to express my thanks to Dr. Mihail Zahariade (Former Assistant Director, Vasile Parvan Institute of Archaeology, Bucharest) and Dr. John Karavas (International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies (DIKEMES), Athens) for dedication and perseverance in their excavation of Halmyris.  I would also like to thank my former graduate adviser, Dr. Micheal Ng (Seattle University/APUS), for his rather forceful suggestion that I participate in this once in a lifetime opportunity.





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The Helmet of Cotofenesti: Examining Thracian Craftsmanship.

By Pat Lowinger


The Cotofenesti Helmet (right front). Photo by author.

Among the numerous treasures to be found at the Museum of Natural History in Bucharest, Romania is an ancient golden helmet dated to 4th through 3rd century BCE.  This helmet, known as the Helmet of Cotofenesti is a remarkable example of ancient Thracian craftsmanship in form, style and design.  

The region of modern Romania and Bulgaria was home to several Thracian tribes.  One of the better known of these tribes was the Getae (Gets).  The Getae were renown not only for their ferocity as warriors- a trait which appears to have universal among all Thracians, but also for their skill as horsemen.  The earliest literary descriptions of the Thracians are found in Herodotus’ Histories.  While a considerable portion of Herodotus’ description of  the Thracians were intentionally inflammatory, his descriptions of Thracian culture, society and religious practices are still invaluable to historians and archaeologists.   While it is at times difficult to parse out the biases of many ancient Greek and Roman sources, modern historians are fortunate to have a considerable amount of literary evidence for the study of ancient Thrace; either as independent tribal regions, a partially-controlled Hellenistic territory and lastly as a province of the Roman Empire.


The Cotofenesti Helmet (right side).  Photo by author.

One area which is often overlooked by historians and antiquarians is the remarkable skill which various Thracian tribes demonstrated in the production of metal goods- whether bronze, gold or silver.  A broad range of finely crafted metal goods have survived from antiquity.  As expected, many of these items are weapons and armor, but some are not.  Delicate pieces of jewelry and/or elaborate armbands show considerable tooling and engraving to create awe-inspiring works of art.

The Cotofenesti Helmet is perhaps one of the best known pieces of Thracian craftsmanship.  The helmet  was originally found in the Romanian village of Poiana Varbilau in 1929.    The piece was crafted from solid gold and weighs just over 2 pounds (1.9 KG).



The Cotofenesti Helmet (left side).  Photo by author.

Experts have identified the production (cultural origin) as Geto-Dacian.   The helmet was of typical design, but the extreme value and elaborate engravings does suggest that the helmet was likely ceremonial (as a symbol of high rank/status).  The imagery does tell us much about the cultural beliefs of the Getae (later called Dacians by the Romans).  Over the front of the helmet (face) are two engraved ‘eyes’ used to ward off evil magic, commonly referred to as the evil-eye (mati in Greek).  The rear is engraved with what are suspected to be mythological figures.  Each cheek guard (in mirror) depicts the ritual sacrifice of a bull.


The Cotofenesti Helmet (rear).  Photo by author.

In antiquity the Thracians were to a military force to be reckoned with.  Whether as enemies or allies, the Thracians ensured their place in the annals of Greek and Roman historians.  Today, we are fortunate to have numerous objects which show the material wealth and culture of these ancient peoples- as craftsmen and artists.

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Greetings From Romania!

Hi Everyone!

Well, after a lengthy flight I have arrived in Romania!  The city of Bucharest is definitely a mix of old and new- like most of Europe.  I was fortunate to have already booked a hotel near the central portion of the city and will be visiting several ‘tourist’ sites tomorrow and Saturday before heading out to Murighiol on Sunday.

It is my intention to post here as much as possible, but my access to the internet will be somewhat limited, so I make no promises.  If you would rather follow the progress of the entire dig, please visit the Halmyris Archaeology page on Facebook.  I will also be posting some more personal pictures via my own Facebook and Twitter accounts.


The staff and volunteers of the dig will be staying in the nearby village of Murighiol.  Don’t let the size of the star I put on the map fool you- it’s a village.  The population is just over 3,000 people and is still characterized as ‘rustic’ by many travelers.  In addition to local fishing and agriculture, the village is known for an ‘out of the way’ resort (The Puflene Resort) which is said to offer nice accommodations.

Let the adventure begin!

You can follow me on Twitter at Patlowinger@Patlowinger .

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The Pauline Epistles: Known and Suspected Forgeries.

By Pat Lowinger

Within modern Christianity there remains pervasive misunderstandings regarding the date(s), authorship and transmission of various portions of the New Testament.  One of the most prolific New Testament authors was the Apostle Paul.  Of the fourteen Epistles credited to Paul, the current mainstream consensus among scholars is that no more than nine are authentic.  The remaining five, some would argue seven, are known forgeries- falsely attributed to the Apostle Paul.

Origin and Acceptance of Paul’s Letters:

St. Paul

Modern Orthodox Icon depicting the Apostle Paul

Current scholarship dates the earliest of Paul’s Epistles (First Thessalonians) to around 50 CE and the latest (Romans) at some point prior to 60 CE.  This isn’t to imply that there isn’t some room for debate.  For example, some scholars would argue that First Thessalonians wasn’t authored until 52 CE, but generally it’s excepted that the authentic letters of Paul were authored during the sixth decade of the 1st century CE.  As such, Paul’s Epistles are generally accepted as the earliest known Christian writings.

Paul’s works were utilized in varying degrees by early Christian sects.  For example, the Marcionites rejected all non-Pauline writings, with the sole exception of a highly edited version of the Gospel of John.  This stands in sharp contrast to the Ebionites who completely rejected all of Paul’s works as heretical.  As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the popularity of Paul’s pro-Gentile teachings grew.  From the 3rd through 5th century CE, the Pauline Epistles became increasingly authoritative and widely adopted- assuring their later incorporation as canonical texts as detailed in the Decretum Gelasianum (c. 520-550 CE).

Determining Authenticity:


Depiction of ‘The Good Shepherd’ dated to 3rd century CE- Via Salaria, Rome.

Modern scholars are faced with the same challenge which plagued their early Christian counterparts.  Namely which apostolic works are authentic?  In his own analysis, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185- 254 CE), appears to have rejected the authenticity of the Second and Third Epistles of John, while accepting The Shepherd of Hermas as a divinely inspired religious text.  Fortunately for us today, scholars and forensic specialists have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing the stylistic, structural and grammatical cues which can be utilized to distinguish fraudulent documents from authentic ones.  While largely unquestioned until the early 20th century many historians and an increasing number of theologians are undertaking detailed examination(s) of the New Testament to determine the authenticity of its traditionally accepted authors.

Genuine Articles:

As mentioned before, seven of Paul’s Epistles are excepted as authentic by an overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars.  This statement should not be construed as some sort of argumentum ad populum or appeal to the masses, but is in fact limited to a select group of highly specialized scholars, who continually examine, affirm or discount the assertions of their colleagues in peer-reviewed literature.  With that said, the following seven Pauline Epistles are regarded as genuine, and having been personally authored by the Apostle Paul during his Christian ministry: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and First Thessalonians.


A page of ‘P-46’ – the oldest extant manuscript of the New Testament.  Dated to 175-225 CE.

After withstanding intense academic scrutiny, each of these texts have displayed internal consistency in style/form and vocabulary (Greek)- as well as sentence structure.  While an author can undoubtedly vary in one or even two of these factors over the course of their entire lifetime- in the decade in which Paul wrote his Epistles, only slight to moderate variations would be expected.  This examination is complicated by the fact that no original versions (first generation) of Paul’s works survive from antiquity.  Some apologists would say this fact alone invalidates any examination, and while it does require additional scrutiny to be sure, it does not make the task untenable.   When examined internally and against each other, these seven Epistles withstand considerable scrutiny.  This analysis holds true even when comparing the earliest (First Thessalonians) and latest (Romans) of Paul’s Epistles.

The Forgeries:

There are currently five Pauline Epistles which are known frauds: First and Second Timothy, Hebrews, Ephesians and Titus.  These texts are known as pseudepigraphical- falsely claimed (assigned) authorship. Each of these Epistles have their own issue(s) which demonstrate their status as forgeries.  By way of a short example, both First and Second Timothy contain structure(s) and language not found in any of Paul’s other letters.  These internal clues have led modern scholars to date these texts to the late 1st and/or early 2nd century CE (c. 90-130 CE).  Attempts to place either of these works within the decade of Paul’s genuine writings are unconvincing.  In the case of Hebrews, no extant copy of the text attributes its authorship to Paul.  Even in antiquity, the author of Hebrews was generally considered unknown (anonymous) by early Church scholars (Fathers), such as Origen, Tertullian and Hippolytus.  The assignment of authorship to Paul was rooted in tradition and the increasing popularity of Paul’s other works.  It wasn’t until the late 4th century CE, when St. Augustine pushed vehemently (and successfully) for the authorship of Hebrews to be assigned to Paul- despite little or no evidence to support it.

The authorship of two remaining texts are still the subject of much academic debate.  Modern New Testament scholars remain divided on Paul’s authorship of Second Thessalonians and Colossians.  Both of these works suffer from significant challenges to their authenticity- not the least of which are highly divergent language and structure.  If these two texts are retained as genuine works of Paul, they should serve as a ‘maximal’ range of acceptable variance by which the previously mentioned Pauline forgeries should be compared/contrasted.

The Future of Forgeries:

The authorship of the Pauline Epistles is an interesting and complex question for historians.  When viewed through the lens of Early Christian Studies actual authorship matters significantly less than how these works were viewed and utilized in antiquity.  Irregardless of their authorship these forgeries remain useful- as pseudepigraphical sources for historical reference and inquiry.  Why were these forgeries made in the first place?  It’s quite possible these ‘Letters From Paul‘ where written to emulate/expand on Paul’s original writings, combat emerging heresies and/or honor Paul’s ministry after his death.  It’s also possible that more nefarious intentions were at work.  All speculation aside, the world may never know the motivation(s) of the forgers… whoever they might have been.

This is not a question about theology.  It’s simply one of authorship.  Whether or not these demonstrably non-Pauline texts should be preserved within Christian canon is a question best answered by theologians.  Not historians.  Even so, those Epistles of dubious origin should be correctly footnoted as such.  Those charged with accurately crediting authorship of Paul’s genuine letters should demand no less.

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“They Offered Him Wine-Vinegar”: Reexamining the Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Last Drink.

By Pat Lowinger

While the crucifixion of Jesus is not a historical surety, the anti-Roman biases which were pervasive in most early Christian literature are unquestionable.  But if we examine the culture and norms of Roman society, particularly those of the Roman military, is there another explanation for at least one of these depictions?  Perhaps one which is far less sinister?  

The Gospel Accounts:I Thirst, The Vinegar Given to Jesus

Each of the four canonical gospels contain moderately similar accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and the ‘offering of sour wine’ to Jesus by one or more Roman soldiers.  In order to fully evaluate the actions of these particular soldiers, it is necessary to briefly examine the accounts relayed in the Gospels.  Both Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus was offered two different drinks involving wine.  The first, mixed with myrrh, the second plain wine vinegar as we can see below.

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”).  Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. – Mark 15: 22-23 NIV,

[Just before his death] Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.  With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. – Mark 15: 36-37 NIV

The accounts attributed to Luke and John only reference the offering of wine once, just prior to Jesus’ death. [1] It is this second offer of wine or vinegar that will be the focus of this article.

A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19: 29-30 NIV

The ‘they’ in each of these accounts were the Roman soldiers charged with carrying out Jesus’s execution via crucifixion.  The ‘someone’ in Mark’s second mentioning of wine is not known, but could have been nearly anyone who was present at the crucifixion.

Several Christian denominations offer a rather negative view of these offerings of wine during Jesus’ crucifixion.  For example, noted author and theologian, William Lane wrote, “…the offer of a sip of wine [vinegar] was intended to keep Jesus conscious for as long as possible.”[2] This often repeated trope demonstrates a continued anti-Roman bias in New Testament studies, many of which are rooted in dogmatic approaches to scholarship.  Rev. Carl Haak  presents the soldiers as detached and expert executioners, completely removed from the grim task they had been charged with undertaking. [3]



Roman mosaic depicting a wine container and cup. Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

The most common translations for the variety of wine offered to Jesus are vinegar, wine-vinegar and sour-wine.  None of which are the modern equivalents of the mass-produced, low-grade wine actually drunk by Roman soldiers at the time of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.  Posca, a kind of low-cost, sour-wine was in common use throughout the Roman Empire.  In fact, wine of this type was typically issued to soldiers as part of their daily rations.  Posca was an important part of a soldier’s dietary regime.[4]  Not because it tasted good.  Not because of its intoxicating effect(s).  Posca had two very important functions.

The first was to serve as a cutting agent for water, which in antiquity was generally of dubious quality and often had smells, odors and/or tastes that were unpleasant.  Posca served as a cure-all for these issues.  When combined with poor-quality water, posca’s naturally strong flavor was subdued, but served as an excellent masking agent for otherwise unpotable water.  What was the ratio of posca to water?  The simple answer is that historians really don’t know.  In all likelihood a soldier’s personal tastes was probably the deciding factor, but would be adjusted as needed to mask flavor/odor of the most offensive tasting rations of water.

The second was posca’s acidity.  Posca naturally contained two important acids- namely ascetic acid and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).  Acetic acid is the byproduct of fermentation and has very useful antimicrobial properties, in particular against some of the better known bacterial pathogens such as Streptococcus and Enterococcus.  The later of which is commonly associated with the contamination of water with human and/or animal feces.  Vitamin C is a well-known dietary requirement.  This would be even more important to soldiers who were unable to have steady supplies of foods high in Vitamin C, such as fruit.  Scurvy, a chronically low-level of Vitamin C was a perilous condition in the ancient world and could result in agonizing death.

Reevaluating The Gospel Accounts

Analysis of the Gospels as historical sources are rife with concerns for most modern historians.  Without unduly belaboring the issue, the historicity, authenticity and authorship are constant points of academic debate among scholars, many of whose expertise on these issues far exceed my own.  A second area of concern is the sacrosanct manner in which many religions view the examination of sacred texts, particularly their own.  The later, when combined with social and/or professional pressure not to appear offensive, has in some cases stiffed academic debate.  Lastly, some historians, particular those with a personal attachment to a particular religious tradition(s) may interject personal biases into their analysis, often rising to the level of apologetics.

The Drink Before Death

So what do we know?  All four of the Gospel accounts mention Jesus’s last drink.  Historians have long known about the relatively common use of posca as a dietary staple of the Roman military before, during and after the period in which Jesus’ crucifixion may have occurred.  Historians are also very aware of the practical uses of posca as a cutting agent for water, which was its intended use.  The drinking of posca was likely an acquired taste, but was cheap and widely available.

The Gospel of John reports that toward the end of his life, Jesus stated, “I thirst.” [5] This is an obvious plea by Jesus for relief.  Interestingly, none of the other Gospels mention Jesus’ plea.  Is John’s account in error?

What we don’t know.  We will never know the motivations or thoughts of the soldiers who purportedly presided over Jesus’ execution.  Did they hate him?  Possibly.  A better question might be did they even know who he was? Was Jesus seen as a petty criminal? A seditionist? A charlatan?  So why would a Roman soldier bother himself with giving posca-water to a condemned man?  Particularly a man condemned to die by exposure and/or positional asphyxiation.[6]  If John’s account is accurate, Jesus plea for water was answered.  Again, why would a soldier, whether on his own or at the direction of his immediate superior (centurion) take a portion of his own limited ration and give it away?  Was this extra posca, set aside specifically to be given Jesus as he languished on the cross?  If so, this derails the assertion of the Roman’s desire to cause Jesus as much suffering and humiliation as possible.  John’s account also begs the question to be asked, why would any plea from a condemned criminal be met with anything other than utter disdain and non-compliance?

Based on how the Romans typically conducted crucifixions,  the offering of posca-water would have been antithetical to the desired outcome, namely death.  It would also be a notable exception to the numerous other examples of crucifixions conducted by the Romans.  Was the offering of posca-water merely a literary device?  Was it inserted to support some prevailing scriptural expectation (prophecy) of early Christians?  If the Romans did in fact offer Jesus a final drink of posca-water there are three important observations which must be made: 1) the nature (taste) of the drink itself was not insulting or uncommon, 2) the Roman(s) giving/allowing Jesus water to drink would have been a rare exception to standard crucifixion practices, 3) If this exception was made in the case of Jesus (possibly after his plea), the assertion of historians/theologians such as Haak, that the Romans were always unsympathetic killing machines starts to unravel.


The certitude of many scholars regarding the motivations of ancient peoples is often striking.  Superficial analysis of the Gospel accounts often perpetuate the anti-Roman biases contained within them.  For historians, particularly those focusing on the culture and societal norms of the Romans, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion often create more questions than they answer. The question(s) asked in this particular article represent a very narrow sliver within a larger body of inquiry that historians need to address given the known laws, practices and customs of the Romans- as they relate to Jesus’ crucifixion.   This analysis needs to be undertaken in an unbiased and nonprejudicial manner, irregardless of religious traditions and/or presuppositions.


[1] John 19: 29-30 NIV & Luke 23:36 NIV.
[2] Lane, William. The Gospel According to Mark, 2nd ed.  Eerdmans Publishing. 1974. 571-574.

[3] Haak, Carl.  The Reformed Witness Hour: The Cup Jesus Refused to Drink. Transcript 1999.

[4] Cardano, Girolamo(translator), Nero.  An Exemplary Life.  Inkstone Books. 2012. 184-186.

[5] John 19: 28 NIV.

[6] Edwards, William (and others).  On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.  Journal of the American Medical Association, May 1986.  Digital archive.

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