“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. http://www.reformedwitnesshour.org/1999/1999mar14.html

[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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The Muslim Conquest of Roman Syria, Part Two: The Systemic Failure of the Byzantine Military

By Pat Lowinger

In Part One we examined several of the factors which had severely weakened the Byzantines in the century prior to the Arab invasion of Roman Syria.  These factors included a series of devastating plagues, severe economic stress and a war-weary military.

The Muslim Invasion of Syria (April, 634 CE)

The grand military strategy of the Byzantine Empire was designed to be primarily defensive.[1] This defensive plan relied upon the establishment and maintenance of border garrisons along the frontiers of the empire.  These border forts were designed to defend strategic strong points and provide vital information regarding enemy troop movements.  In theory, as well as previous practice, an enemy that overwhelmed or bypassed one or more of these garrisons would have given the Byzantine military the time necessary to mobilize field forces stationed in the imperial provinces.[2] The prevailing military mindset of the empire prior to this period was that any attack which penetrated into the interior of the empire would eventually be repulsed.  Thus, any territories lost to an enemy would be temporary, regionally limited and eventually restored to imperial control.


Map detailing the initial invasion of Roman Syria and Palestine as well as the locations of the battles of Ajnodayn (634 CE) and Yarmouk (636 CE).

After having marshaled four separate armies, Abu Bakr attacked a weakly defended portion of the Byzantine’s border just north of the Gulf of Aqaba. Abu Bakr assigned command of an army to each of four generals: Amr ibn al-A’as, Yazid ibn Abu Sufyan, Shurahbil bin Hassana and Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah.[3]  Soon after crossing the border, the four armies separated and each moved rapidly to secure strategic objectives.  After defeating the Byzantine’s Ghassanid allies in two consecutive battles, Shurhabil moved towards the key city of Bosra.  The first weeks of the Arab invasion caught the Byzantines largely off guard.  The initial Byzantine response could be best described as chaotic; some garrisons abandoned their posts while those garrisons which remained in place were simply bypassed as the Arab forces rapidly advanced into the province.  In northern Syria, the Emperor Heraclius began marshalling his own forces.  Abu Bakr responded to the build up of Byzantine forces by recalling his most skilled general, Khalid ibn al-Walid, from the offensive in Persia to personally oversee the campaign in Syria.[4] By early June, Shurhabil had encircled Bosra and placed the city under siege.[5] By mid July, the Byzantine counteroffensive began to move southwards under the command of the Emperor’s brother, Theodore.

After more than a month-long siege, Bosra fell to Shurhabil and Khalid’s combined forces. Khalid then moved his army toward the lead elements of the Byzantines near Ajnadayn.[6]  In late July 634 CE, the armies met.  Military Historian Michael Decker has stated that the strength of the two armies was relatively equal and consisted of approximately 20,000 men each.[7]  One of the most commonly utilized historical sources for information regarding the Syrian campaign is Al-Waqidi’s well-known account, but is generally considered to lack credibility in regards to the respective sizes of opposing forces and/or causality figures.  While Al-Waqidi’s record indicates 50,000 Byzantines were slain with only the loss of 575 Arabs, Decker asserts that heavy casualties were suffered on both sides. [8]  Arab casualties included the loss of several prominent nobles, which appears to support Decker’s hypothesis.[9] What is clear is that the defeated Byzantine army was forced to retreat north of the heavily fortified city of Damascus. On August 21, 634 CE, Arab forces surrounded the city.  Despite two attempts by the defenders to break the siege, Khalid’s troops captured the city on September 19th.


The Roman Theater at Bosra constructed during the 2nd century CE.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 635 CE, the Emperor Heraclius placed the combined forces of the empire under the command of the Imperial Treasurer Theodore Trithyrius.  Despite his long and dedicated service to the state, Trithyrius had little or no military experience.[10] The appointment caused derision among several prominent and experienced Byzantine generals.  The army that numbered between 100,000 – 150,000 infantry and cavalry had been charged with expelling the Arabs from southern Syria and recapturing Bosra.  In May 636 CE, the army moved southwards towards the Yarmouk River in pursuit of Arab forces.  Khalid ibn al-Walid’s force was estimated to have numbered no more than 40,000.[11]  Despite reported warnings from their Christian Arab allies, Trithyrius ordered the army to pursue the highly mobile Muslim forces.  For several days, Khalid’s forces lured the slow and ponderous Byzantine army into increasingly rugged terrain.[12]  On August 15, 636 CE, having carefully positioned his forces, Khalid’s light Arab cavalry began their attack.  Upon realizing that he had foolishly led the army into a well laid trap, Trithyrius transferred command of the army to his subordinate, Vahan.[13] The battle of Yarmouk lasted for 6 days and was largely characterized by the rapid hit and run tactics employed by Khalid’s forces.  On the 6th day of the battle, Khalid’s cavalry were finally successful in driving off the Byzantines’ protective cavalry screen. With their flanks now exposed, the large formations of Byzantine infantry were surrounded and largely annihilated.[14] Casualties among the Byzantines are estimated to have exceeded 50%.   Historian George Ostrogorsky stated the following, “They [Khalid’s forces] completely routed the Byzantine army at the famous battle of Jarmuk [Yarmouk] on 20 August 636, and thus Byzantine resistance was broken and the fate of Syria decided.”[15]

Following the defeat at Yarmouk, Antioch, the provincial capital of Syria capitulated to the advancing Arab forces.[16] Al-Waqidi recorded the surrender of Antioch as, “That night the city leaders gathered around the Patriarch and said, ‘Go to the Arabs and obtain whatever terms you can.’ ”[17] Several smaller cities in the region also surrendered to the Arabs with no opposition being offered.  A notable exception occurred at Aleppo.  In August 637 CE, Arab forces surrounded the fortified city of Aleppo.  The siege lasted for three months. During that time several violent skirmishes were fought between Arab and Byzantine forces.[18] Ultimately, the garrison forces were unable to break the siege and accepted terms for their departure from the city under a flag of truce.

In Palestine, Arab forces began a protracted siege of Jerusalem in November 636 CE.[19]  Defense of the city was placed under the command of the city’s Patriarch, Sophronius.  The city’s considerable defenses meant that any direct assault would prove costly.  The Muslim forces instead surrounded the city in order to starve out the defenders.  In April of 637 CE, the Byzantines resolved themselves to the idea that no relief from the Empire was forthcoming and sought terms with the forces of Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattah.  Under the terms of the agreement, all Christians and Jews within the city would be allowed to keep and practice their own faiths.[20]  The city’s garrison and officials were allowed to depart by sea.  At Caesarea, Heraclius’ son Constantine III fled by ship rather than risk possible capture as Arab forces advanced towards the city.  The remaining garrison and civilians surrendered to Amr bin al-As in 640 CE after a protracted siege.[21]


St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, modern religious icon.


The century before the Arab conquest of Roman Syria was marked with a steady decline in the wealth and stability of the empire.  The recurrent plagues that began during the reign of Justinian I decimated the population and economy of the empire.  These factors were further compounded by the 2 ½ decades long war between the Sassanids and Byzantines.  While ultimately victorious, the empire’s treasury and military were exhausted.

There can be little doubt as to the quality and dedication of the Arab forces which fought for control of Syria and Palestine.  With that said, it is important to remember the systemic failures within the Byzantine military facilitated the Arabs’ unprecedented success.  The static defense offered by the empire’s border garrisons, which had long protected the empire, were easily circumvented by the rapidly advancing and highly mobile Arab troops, thus largely negating the advanced warning they had previously offered.  Poor and inexperienced leadership exacerbated these issues and in all likelihood was responsible for the Byzantines’ disastrous defeat at Yarmouk.  The Byzantines were not without their own insights into the Arab-nomad style of warfare, having themselves numerous Christian Arabs who had long been trusted allies.  The ultimately failure of the Byzantine military was exacerbated by the inability of the Emperor Heraclius and his commanders to adjust their tactics as necessary to meet the fast, hard-hitting and often evasive maneuvers of the invading Muslim Arabs.

Bibliography and Citations:

Decker, Michael. The Byzantine Art of War. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2013.

Goldschmidt, Arthur, and Lawrence Davidson. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2006.

Haldon, John F. The Byzantine Wars. Gloucestershire: History Press, 2009.

Haldon, John F. Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Mango, Cyril A. The Oxford History of Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Mazor, Amir. “The Kitab Futuh Al-sham of Al-Qudami.” Der Islam 84, no. 1 (2007): 17-45.

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

Rosen, William. Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008.

Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes: An English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813). Translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Tsiamis, Costas, Effie Poulakou-Rebelakou, and Spyros Marketos. “Earthquakes and Plagues During Byzantine Times.” Acta Medico-Historica Adriatica 11, no. 1 (2013): 55-64.

Wāqidī, Muḥammad Ibn ʻUmar, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria: a Translation of Futûh̲ushâm: The Inspiring History of the S̲ah̲abâh’s Conquest of Syria.  Translated by Sulayman al-Kindi. London: Ta-Ha, 2005.

[1] John F. Haldon, Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 43-46.

[2] Ibid., 67-71.

[3] Muḥammad Ibn ʻUmar Wāqidī, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria: A Translation of Futûh̲ushâm: The Inspiring History of the S̲ah̲abâh’s Conquest of Syria, trans. Sulayman al-Kindi (London: Ta-Ha, 2005), 12.

[4] Ibid., 44-45.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Theophanes, Chronicles, 38-39.

[7] Michael Decker, The Byzantine Art of War (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2013), 20-21.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Decker, The Byzantine Art of War, 21-22.

[10] Haldon, The Byzantine Wars, 58-60.

[11] Ibid., 59-60.

[12] Al-Wāqidī, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria, 272-274.

[13] Haldon, The Byzantine Wars, 57-58.

[14]Haldon, The Byzantine Wars, 62-64.

[15] Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State, 111.

[16] Ibid., 111.

[17] Al-Waqidi, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria, 522.

[18] Ibid., 408-415.

[19] Theophanes, Chronicles, 38-39.

[20] Al-Waqidi, The Islâmic Conquest of Syria,

[21] Ibid., 575.

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The Muslim Conquest of Roman Syria, Part One: A Prelude to War.

By Pat Lowinger


Illustration of Muhammad receiving divine revelation(s) from the angel Gabriel by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (1307 CE).

By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, the armies of Islam had already consolidated their control of the vast territories of the Arabian Peninsula.[1] It was from these strongholds in Arabia that the first Rashidun Caliph, Abu Bakr, began several well-organized and coordinated military campaigns against the war-weary Byzantine and Sassanid empires.  In 634 CE the Arabs launched a devastating military campaign into Roman Syria. The success of the Arabs against the Byzantine Empire owes as much to their own discipline and flexibility as it does the repeated tactical and logistical failures of the Byzantines.[2] There are multiple additional factors which ultimately led to the Byzantine defeat in Roman Syria: recurring plagues during the 6th century, depleted imperial coffers, inadequate recruitment and retention of seasoned troops, and the appointment of inexperienced military commanders.

The Plagues of the 6th Century

In the century prior to the Arab invasions of Syria, the populace of the Byzantine Empire had been devastated by several outbreaks of bubonic plague.  The first and most well known of these plagues struck Constantinople in 541 CE.[3] The Byzantine scholar Procopius recorded outbreaks in Egypt and Syria during the same year.  Historian William Rosen, author of Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe, estimates the plague killed nearly 5,000 people a day in Constantinople following the diseases’ initial outbreak until the plague subsided four months later.[4] Rosen further estimates that 15-25% of the Empire’s population died as a result of the initial outbreak and subsequent resurgences of the disease during the 6th century CE.[5] In Roman Syria, three additional outbreaks of the disease struck again in 568, 581 and 635 CE.[6] While it is unknown how many Syrians died in these subsequent outbreaks, scientists have determined that the same bacterial strain responsible for the initial outbreak in 541 CE was also responsible for these subsequent outbreaks as well.[7]

These plagues disrupted the economy, military and political structure of the Empire.  The resulting shortage of able bodied agricultural workers led to a severe drop in grain production throughout the empire.[8] The relative scarcity of grain was followed by a dramatic rise in its price that crippled the Empire’s predominantly agrarian economy.  Military recruitment and readiness levels fell as an increased number of men remained on their farms rather than enlisting in the army. The 540s saw a marked decrease in tax revenues as increasing numbers of taxpayers became victims of the disease.[9] As the plague continued, the coinage of the empire was repeatedly debased, which caused rampant inflation to occur.[10] The Emperor Justinian I (482-565 CE) responded by increasing the tax obligations of the landed aristocracy, who in turn demanded increased rents from their tenant farmers.   These increased economic burdens produced severe strains upon the patron-client system which ultimately led to political unrest in Constantinople and abroad.  In order to secure the legal status of tenant farmers, Justinian enacted several pieces of legislation prohibiting the confiscation of farms owned by members of the military.  With no legal recourse to remit their lost income, many aristocratic landowners began to openly commit tax evasion in direct opposition to the Emperors’ decrees.[11]

The Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628 CE)


Map illustrating the territories of the Byzantine Empire prior to the outbreak of the Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628 CE).  It is important to note that control of the province of Illyricum was subject to constant Slav and Avar raids (effective control and authority in the region).

The murder of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice in 602 CE not only brought political instability to the Empire, but also a renewed conflict with the Sassanid Empire.[12] The first two decades of the war saw several Persian victories.  It wasn’t until 610 CE that Heraclius seized the Byzantine throne for himself, ending the civil war.  Heraclius then marshaled and reorganized existing regional forces.  Heraclius’ initial counterattacks into Anatolia were defeated.[13] These defeats further sapped the empire’s limited amounts of men and materials.  By 618 CE the Sassanid’s and their allies had captured Armenia, Syria, the Levant, Egypt and eastern Anatolia.  With little or no financial reserves, the Emperor sought financial support from the Patriarch of Constantinople.[14] After having gained access to the wealthy coffers of the Eastern Church, Heraclius rebuilt his tattered army over the next four years.

Cherub_plaque_Louvre_MRR245 (2)

Gilded plaque illustration of the Emperor Heraclius’ (ERACLIUS REX) triumph over Khosrau II c. 1160 CE.  On display at the Louvre, Paris.  

In the spring of 622 CE, Heraclius led an army against the Persians and their allies in Armenia. After securing the western portion of Armenia, Heraclius reestablished the former border garrisons in the region.  In the spring of 624 CE, Heraclius’ armies were again on the march and conquered eastern Armenia.  This was followed by the unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in 626 by the Sassanids and their Avar allies.  In 627 CE, Heraclius’ armies penetrated into the heart of the Persian Empire.  At Nineveh, in September of 627 CE, the Byzantine forces surprised the Persian army and defeated it.[15] Having defeated the only remaining army in Mesopotamia, the Byzantines plundered the region at will.  Faced with the possible loss of his kingdom, Khosrau II accepted humiliating terms of ‘peace.’  The victorious Byzantines returned home only to find the provinces of Syria, the Levant, Egypt and Armenia ravaged and in disarray.  Victory in Persia had not eased the economic issues of the empire.  The imperial treasury remained at critically low levels as much of the wealth taken from the coffers of Persia had been used to pay the army.  Many of the army’s veterans retired soon after returning home.[16] With very little money to recruit new soldiers, the numbers of garrison troops fell dramatically.[17]

Author’s Note:  Part 2 will contain a complete list of all reference material.


[1] Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson, A Concise History of the Middle East. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010),  34-35.

[2] Ibid., 45-46.

[3] Cyril Mango, The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 49.

[4] William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), 16-18.

[5] William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), 41-47.

[6]  Costas Tsiamis et al., “Earthquakes and Plague During Byzantine Times,” Acta Medico-Historica Adriatica 11 (2013): 57.

[7]  Ibid., 58-59.

[8]  Mango, Byzantium, 49.

[9] Ibid., 49-50.

[10] Georgije Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswich, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 76-77.

[11] Mango, Byzantium, 51.

[12] Ibid., 53.

[13] Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes: An English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813), trans. Harry Turtledove (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 8-9.

[14] Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State, 100.

[15] Ibid., 103-104.

[16] John F. Haldon, The Byzantine Wars (Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2008), 64-65.

[17] Ibid., 65.

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Of Gods, Heroes and War: The Historiography of Classical Greece.

by Pat Lowinger

The earliest ‘historians’ of the Mediterranean were Greek and as such they serve as both a template and warning for modern Historiography.  From the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, various Greek city-states grew and prospered.  In turn, these city-states founded numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean which brought the Greeks into contact with previously unknown lands and cultures.  As the Greeks continued to explore and colonize even more remote parts of the Mediterranean, many of these explorers (and colonists) began to record the geography, cultures and histories of themselves (as foundation cults) and those they encountered.[1]  This desire of the Greeks to create these records and preserve them for themselves and future generations- as well to aggrandize the accomplishments of Greek culture is the spark which ignited Greek Historiography and laid the foundations for subsequent historical traditions. 

The Greek World


Map of the ‘known world’ based on the accounts of Herodotus.  Original map published by Hatchett & Co. 1884.  Click to expand.

The Greek city-state (polis) emerged during the eighth century BCE.  In the simplest of terms, the polis was the city itself and surrounding country side which fell under its control.[2]  This was much more than a village or town; it was a center of government formed by the unification of the populace into a body known as the politai.  Members of individual poleis typically identified themselves with the polis itself (i.e. Sparta) rather than a larger cultural identifier (i.e. Greek).  As previously mentioned the Greeks undertook extensive exploration and colonization efforts throughout the Mediterranean- which by the end of the fifth century BCE resulted in Greek colonies stretching from the coast of the Black Sea to Southern Spain.

As Greek civilization continued to develop during the Archaic Age, many Greeks undertook intellectual and academic pursuits.  While much of these early intellectual pursuits were confined to the development of lyric poetry and philosophy, others undertook the process of categorizing and describing the known world.  The vastness of the world, as the Archaic Greeks knew it, as well as their apparent mastery of it; either birthed or fostered beliefs in the superiority of themselves and of their culture.  To the Greeks, the outside world was the domain of the ‘barbarians’ and lesser races of people.  While various poleis competed among themselves, by the end of the sixth century BCE the Greeks found themselves in the center of a huge world, or so they believed, which was inhabited by strange, mystical and often warlike peoples.

Before Herodotus: The Homeric Epic


Greek amphora (c. 525 BCE) depicting the hero Achilles slaying Penthesilea.  On display at the British Museum.

The beginning of Greek history as we know it owes its humble beginnings following the collapse of the Mycenaean Greece at the end of the Late Bronze Age.  Whether ‘The Collapse’ was due to earthquakes, drought, or changes in militaristic organizations and weapons production- the precise cause for the collapse of these great kingdoms is still under debate by scholars.[3] Neither the Mycenaeans nor their Minoan neighbors were without written records, in fact the discovery of both the Linear A and Linear B tablets contain a wealth of information regarding Mycenaean society and culture,but the script used to make these records were undecipherable to the Greeks of the sixth century BCE. [4] This isn’t to imply that the Mycenaeans were unknown to their Dorian, Ionian and Aeolic descendants.  Many of which lived in the shadow of the once great Mycenaean citadels of Knossos, Argos, Athens, Orchomenos and Mycenae.  Likewise, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had also extensive written records, but these appear to have been preserved in support of religious and/or bureaucratic functions.

In the four-hundred-year span (1200-800 BCE), commonly known as the Greek or Geometric Dark Age grew traditional stories commonly known as Homeric Epics.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are perhaps two of the best known pre-Christian works of literature which emerged during this post-Mycenaean period.  While custom attributes the genesis of these tales to Homer it is quite plausible these tales were derived from multiple rhapsodes.[5] Regardless of their precise origin, these epics formed the basis for many ‘Greek ideals’.

Throughout the Iliad, several themes present themselves.  The first is religious, that the gods not only exist but interact and often interfere in the lives of mortal men.  The second theme espouses the deeds of great men which served to demonstrate the ideals of virtue and bravery in war.  The last theme is one of disgrace for cowards or cowardly behavior.  The following is an example of Homer’s contempt for the coward and adoration of the hero, “The skin of the coward changes color all the time, he can’t get a grip on himself, he can’t sit still, he squats and rocks, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his heart racing, pounding insides the fellow’s ribs, his teeth chattering- he dreads some grisly death.  But the skin of the brave solider never blanches.” [6]

herodotus (1)

Bust depicting Herodotus (Roman copy of Greek original), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Herodotus: The Histories

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484- 425 BCE) is known to have lived during the fifth century BCE and is often credited by his proponents as The Father of History and as The Father of Lies by his detractors.[7] While it is true that as a historian Herodotus and his Histories are not without serious concern to modern scholars, it is important to understand that his work was founded on the earlier Homeric model.  The Histories were written to serve both a record and commentary of the Greco-Persian Wars which had been the major military conflict of Herodotus’ lifetime.[8] While Herodotus attempted to detail major historical events, places and peoples- he often lacked good data and was prone to occasional fabrication and/or inclusion of divine intervention.  This was done not only to fill in the gaps, but to promote a dramatic flair to his historical narrative.  Detractors aside, historiography, in the west is credited to have begun with Herodotus and while far from perfect, he undertook the previously unprecedented task of, at least nominally, differentiating fact from myth.[9]

After Herodotus: Thucydides and Xenophon


Bust depicting Thucydides (Roman copy of Greek original), Pushkin Museum.

Thucydides (460-400 BCE) was a contemporary of Herodotus, but whose own work seems to have been built upon the best precepts of the Histories.  Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides was not only an observer, but was a participant in the history which he recorded- serving as a general in the army of Athens.  What is initially obvious to the reader of both works is that Thucydides’ style and organization is very different from Herodotus.  Rather than a post-facto account, major portions of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War appear to have been written as major events unfolded- in painstakingly chronological order.  Those parts which were written afterwards appear to have been completed within a year or two after to conflict had concluded.  According to historian Victor David Hanson, “what stands out about Thucydides is not his weakness but his strengths as a historian.  We note his omissions, but no account of the Peloponnesian War or of fifth-century Greece in general is more complete.” [10] Even so, Thucydides’ history is not without its own problems regarding a lack of crediting his sources and details very few non-militarily related incidents.[11]

Xenophon (c. 430-354 BCE), like Thucydides was an Athenian general.  Yet, unlike Thucydides, Xenophon traveled extensively into Anatolia and Persia as detailed in the Anabasis and the Cyropaedia.  Xenophon also wrote extensively on the Constitution of Sparta, a detailed biography of the Spartan King, Agesilaus II and the Hellenica which details the history following the Peloponnesian Wars until approximately 360 BCE.  As with his predecessors, Xenophon’s style is unique, but more closely related to Thucydides, than Herodotus- but like his fellow Athenian also fails to cite his sources.  Even so, most historians agree that Xenophon’s accounts are much more credible that Herodotus’, appearing to have either been an eye-witness to events or been only one or two persons removed. [12] As with all early sources, Xenophon’s work shows significant problems, not the least of which is his pro-Spartan bias and his factual misrepresentation of certain historical events.


Greek Historiography grew as a natural extension of the Homeric epic and the need within the culture of ancient Greece to superiority of their history to those of others.  History was not only an academic pursuit; it was a matter of cultural identity.  The ancient Greeks saw themselves as both intellectually and morally superior than those people(s) and cultures surrounding them.  While the concept of nationalism was unknown to the early Greeks, this collective history often bound them in common purpose as seen during the Greco-Persian Wars.

From its humble beginnings with Herodotus, within just two generations a vibrant tradition of creating historical records was alive and flourishing within the Greek world.  While no means perfect, there appears to have been an ever-increasing self-imposed obligation to records as many verifiable facts as possible and to distinguish those facts from that which was merely speculation or founded upon myth.  This tradition would continue through the later Hellenistic and into the Roman period.  The discipline of history had been born.

Bibliography & Citations:

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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

Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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

Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Iliad: By Homer. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.

Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Marincola, John (editor) & various contributors.  A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011.

Pipes, David. “Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies.” Loyola University New Orleans. Accessed October 01, 2015. http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1998-9/Pipes.htm

Palmer, Leonard R. The Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

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

Thucydides, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian Wars. New York, NY: Simon Et Schuster, 2008.

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

[1] Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 104-105.

[3] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 175-208.

[4] Palmer, Leonard R. The Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 60-62.

[5] Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.

[6] Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Iliad: By Homer. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950), 350.

[7] Pipes, David. “Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies.” Loyola University New Orleans.

[8] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. (Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013)

[9] Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 4-5.

[10] Thucydides, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian Wars. (New York, NY: Simon Et Schuster, 2008), xxii.

[11] Leone Porciani and John Marincola (editor).  A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 328-334.

[12] Xenophon, John Marincola, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), lix.

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Fighting for the Enemy: Greek Mercenaries in Persian Service.

By Pat Lowinger

An old man on the point of death summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice.  He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks, and said to his eldest son: “Break it.”  The son strained and strained, but with all of his efforts was unable to break the bundle.  The other sons also tried, but none of them was successful.  “Untie the bundle,” said the father, “and each of you take a stick.”  When they had done so, he called out to them: “Now break and each stick was easily broken.  “You see my meaning,” said their father, “unity gives strength.”- Aesop [1]


Depiction of Greek hoplite attacking (and presumably killing) a Persian soldier on a kylix (bowl) c. 5th century BCE on display at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Herodotus and Aristotle record few details regarding of the life of the Aesop (620-564 BCE), we do know that among the Greeks of 5th thru 3rd Centuries BCE, the fables attributed to him were commonplace among Greek culture.   No doubt stories such as these were used as inspiration among the Greek City-States when confronting the threat of the Persian Invasion of Greece in 492 BCE.  Herodotus offers a similar theme of unity against the Persians, attributed to Themistocles prior to the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.  Greece had watched as the Kingdom of Lydia and the Greek cities of Ionia had been systematically conquered and subjugated by the Persians.  In fact, by the beginning in the early 5th Century BCE, virtually every independent Greek polis lived under the ever present threat of war and conquest by Persian forces.  In The Histories, Herodotus frames this struggle with the Greeks as the defenders of liberty against the despotic and tyrannical rule of Persian Kings.  While Herodotus’ narrative undoubtedly oversimplifies the complex history and politics of this Greco-Persian conflict, it remains the basis for analysis by many of those who study this fascinating period of ancient history.

Why then, were so many men of Greece drawn into the service of the armies of Persia?  Whether its Xenophon’s account in the Anabasis, or other historians such as Herodotus and Plutarch, we know that men young and old, common and noble, Spartan and Athenian were drawn into services as mercenaries for various Persian rulers.  How did these men reconcile the generally negative ‘cultural attitude’ of Greeks towards xeno or non-Greeks, particularly the Persians, who they had been in bitter conflict with for generations?

War, Power and Gold

The mercenary soldier is to be found in almost every society and still exists in our modern age.  To produce him three conditions are necessary: first, a war, or the prospect of a war; second, a person (or a community) willing and able to pay for somebody else to fight for him; third, a man who is either so poor, or so desperate, or so adventurous, that he is willing to risk his life for a livelihood in a cause that means nothing to him.  For Greek and Hellenistic history in general the first condition may be regarded as a constant. [2]


Illustration of typical hoplite weapons and armor c. 480 BCE.  From John Warry’s Warfare in the Classical World.

By use of this formula leading to the existence appears to be rather simplistic.  You only need a war, someone with money and someone willing to fight for profit.  Numerous historical sources do tell us that the life of a mercenary could be very profitable and financially rewarding.  If fact, depending upon the length of his service, a mercenary could amass a sum of money which could secure him financially for the rest of his life. [3] The risks were great.  Continued employment and payment were normally contingent upon victory in battle, or upon the overall success of a military campaign.  The mercenary of a defeated employer could expect no pay, and it was not uncommon if captured, to be enslaved or executed.  The vast wealth of Persia was well known- as what that of the former Lydian King, Croesus – whose conquered kingdom remained as a Persian Satrapy.   While money does appear to have been a key motivation to inspire a career as a mercenary, was it the only one?   

But what about the desire for adventure?  A test of one’s ability not unlike Homer’s Odysseus.  Xenophon attributes his own motivation(s) for entering employment with the armies of Cyrus the Younger, was result of the prods by his friend Proxenus and his assurance that their knowledge of warfare would be tested.  As a member of the Athenian Equestrian class, we can assume Xenophon’s primary motivation was not money, but a sense of adventure.  Ultimately, Xenophon would come be ranked among the top generals of the Greek mercenaries of which he was a part, and his military exploits would become a model for future military leaders, such as Philip II of Macedonia, but his early motivation appears to have arisen out of boredom and a desire to ‘see the world from the tip of a spear.’

Herodotus wrote, “Themselves [Persians] they consider in every way superior to everyone else in the world, and allow other nations a shore of good qualities decreasing accordingly to distance, the further off being in their view the worst.” [4] Herodotus also details the thinness of a Persian skull and tells how it can be shattered by merely being struck by a pebble, which was by no means complimentary. [5] We know that many Greeks were ethnocentric, and commonly referred to non-Greeks as ‘barbarians’.  It is apparent that both cultures were in competition with each other, economically as well as militarily- which naturally produced stereotypes and biases against the other.

The ‘Culture’ of Greek Mercenaries

The examination of various mercenary armies in Persian service shows a marked separation from the normal identification of self with the politics of his polis.  While mercenaries were usually accredited with the cities from which they had originated, very often they formed combined units, acting in unison with each other, despite the apparent rivalries that were common among various Greek poleis.  It appears it was common for Greek Mercenaries, when acting as a band of professional mercenaries to see themselves as ‘Greeks’ and share in the common bond of culture and comradeship.  Xenophon himself records his close friendship with men of Thebes, Thessaly, Arcadia and Sparta.  In fact, Xenophon would declare his deep friendship with the Spartan King Agesilaus II, who would later command a mercenary army in which Xenophon would serve as an officer.

There is little evidence to suggest how individual mercenaries were treated when they returned from Persia.  We can note from Xenophon’s writings, that he (and those with him) were accorded no special treatment or punishment- his service was viewed employment.  In contrast, Xenophon, would later be exiled for his service as a mercenary in the army of King Agesilaus, who crushed a combined forces of Thebes, Argos and Athens at the Battle of Coronea in 394 BCE.  The conflicting nature of the Greek warrior ethos, prevailing attitudes of Greeks regarding Persians and the extensive history of Greeks seeking employment as mercenaries in Persia is illustrated in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander.

Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives; we of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war. Above all, we are free men, and they [Persians] are slaves. There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service — but how different is their cause from ours! They will be fighting for pay — and not much of it at that; we, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it. As for our foreign troops — Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes — they are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe, and they will find as their opponents the slackest and softest of the tribes of Asia. And what, finally, of the two men in supreme command? You have Alexander, they — Darius!  – Alexander the Great (c. 335 BCE).


The nature of the Greek mercenary in Persian service appears to be somewhat unique.  Greek men, from all strata of society throughout Greece sought employment among their traditional rivals.  Often their motivations were as diverse as their backgrounds.   Among the Greeks themselves, long standing rivalries between competing poleis were curtailed, if not suspended entirely, resulting in more inclusive identification of themselves as ‘Greeks’.   It appears that life as a mercenary was accepted among mainland Greeks, as long as said service was not against their home polis or its allies.  These men risked it all and were truly the victims of whatever fate or fortune may have brought to them.

Bibliography & Cited Sources

Aesop, and Fritz Kredel. Aseop’s Fables. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1947.

Arrian of Nicomedia, and Brunt P.A. The Anabasis of Alexander.  London: Harvard University Press, 1976.

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

Griffith, G. T. The Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World. Cambridge: University Press, 1935.

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

Trundle, Matthew. Greek Mercenaries: From the Late Archaic Period to Alexander. London: Routledge, 2004.

Warry, John.  Warfare in the Classical World.  London: Salamander Books Unlimited, 1980.

Xenophon and Cawkwell, George. The Persian Expedition. London: Penguin Classics, 1952.


[1] Aesop, 40.

[2] Griffith, 1.

[3] Griffith, 308-316.

[4] Herodotus, 1.134.

[5] Herodotus, 3.12.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Archetype of Ancient Flood Mythologies.

By Pat Lowinger

The ancient literature and religious traditions of the Greeks, Egyptians and Hebrews each contained mythologies of a great and catastrophic flood that nearly destroyed all of mankind.  One of the earliest written accounts originated in Mesopotamia, in what is commonly known as The Epic of Gilgamesh.  First recorded in the early to mid second millennium BCE, this ancient Mesopotamian flood myth was widely disseminated, emulated and modified throughout the ancient Mediterranean.

Ancient Mesopotamia


Map depicting region(s) commonly referred to as ‘The Fertile Crescent.’

The name Mesopotamia is derived from ancient Greek, and means the land between two rivers.  These two great rivers were the Tigris and Euphrates which formed the eastern portion of what archaeologists, anthropologist and historians commonly refer to as the Fertile Crescent.  By c. 3000 BCE, numerous city-states had formed and cuneiform writing had been established. By c. 2250 BCE, the Akkadian Empire had established its dominance in the region.  In the south, the native language of Sumerian was slowly replaced by Akkadian, which became the prevailing language of the region.  In c. 2154 BCE, an invasion by the Guti (a nomadic tribe) ended the power of Akkadian kingship.  This in turn allowed for the rise of the Assyrian Empire in the north- which included the powerful cities of Assur, Nineveh and Gasur (modern Nuzi), to eventually seize control of Akkad’s former holdings in the south.

By c. 1900 BCE, the military presence of the Assyrian Empire had withdrawn from the south which allowed for the establishment of the relatively short-lived dominion of the Babylonian Empire, famously ruled by the warrior-king, Hammurabi.  From c. 1700 BCE, the control of Babylon and other southern Mesopotamian cities would be seized by various foreign invaders: first by the Kassites, followed by the Elamites, only to be reconquered by a reinvigorated Assyrian Empire in c. 1225 BCE.  The rich history and archaeology of this region continues to fascinate people the world over and is the focus of intense study by numerous academic institutions.

Who Was Gilgamesh?


Stone relief depicting Gilgamesh c. 8th century BCE, on display at the Louvre, Paris.

Defining ‘who’ Gilgamesh was is a complex undertaking.  Gilgamesh, if he in fact existed,  is believed to have lived and ruled the city of Uruk at some point during the early to mid second millennium BCE.  While Gilgamesh is often assumed to have been a real (and historic) person, many archaeologists and historians remain unconvinced.  Nevertheless, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving literary work known to mankind.  First discovered in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam, numerous copies of the text(s) have been unearthed since. Typically written (and transmitted) in cuneiform on twelve clay tablets (or cylinders), the epic relays the mythological quest(s) of the demigod Gilgamesh, not the least of which was his ultimately futile attempt to gain immortality.

Of particular interest to this discussion is a portion of the epic contained upon what is commonly referred to simply as Tablet 11 or the ‘Flood Tablet.’ The tablet gives no date or indication as to when the ‘The Great Flood’ supposedly took place other than a mysterious reference to a time before the reign of Gilgamesh.  Modern historians and archaeologists are very fortunate that numerous copies of this text were created in antiquity and have survived (in whole or in part) until today.   Putting the lack of a date aside, the Flood Tablet clearly establishes the existence of a ‘flood mythology’ within Mesopotamia, no later than 1800 BCE.


Tablet 11 (later copy), dated to c. 7th century BCE, on display at British Museum, London.

The Great Flood

The Epic of Gilgamesh contains numerous references to early mythological beliefs.  But it is in the critical Flood Tablet that we can read about the growing anger of the gods of Mesopotamia towards the ‘babel’ (or murmuring) of men who had been created to toil the earth in servitude of the gods.  Following their creation, mankind had greatly multiplied across the face of the earth.  This babbling was incessant and annoyed the gods to the point of anger.  Thus, it was agreed to by all but one of the gods that for their collective wickedness, that mankind should be destroyed by a great flooding of the earth.  Torn between his love of mankind and his loyalty to the supreme god Anu and his brother-god Enlil, that Ea (also known as Enki) sent forth a messenger to warn the righteous Utnapishtim to build a boat so that he and his family might be spared from divine destruction.

“[in a dream Ea spoke to Utnapishtim] O’ man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu; tear down your house [of reeds] and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your sole alive.  Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat.  These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build her: let hex beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures.”- Tablet 11

Obedient, Utnapishtim did as he was commanded.  The people (and elders) saw what he was doing and questioned Utnapishtim as to why he was building a boat.  Utnapishtim issued a warning to the people that the god Enlil was wrathful and wished to destroy all men with a mighty deluge of water which would cover the earth- killing all living creatures.  Apparently, Utnapishtim’s warnings went unheeded and he returned to his task.  The building of Utnapishtim’s boat was a monumental task, undertaken and completed in what can only be described as ‘miraculously short’ period of time.

[Utnapishtim speaking] “In the first light of dawn all my household gathered round me, the children brought pitch and the men whatever necessary.  On the fifth day I laid the keel and the ribs, then I made fast the planking.  The ground-space was one acre, each side of the deck measured one hundred and twenty cubits, making a square.  I built six decks below, seven in all, I divided them into nine sections with bulkheads between.  I drove in wedges where needed, I saw to the punt poles, and laid in the supplies.  The carriers brought oil in baskets,  I poured pitch into the furnace and asphalt and oil: more oil was consumed in caulking, and more again the master of the boat took into his stores.  I slaughtered the bullocks for the people and every day I killed sheep.  I gave the shipwrights wine to drink as though it were a river of water, raw wine and red wine and oil and white wine.  There was feasting then as- there is the New Year’s festival; I myself anointed my head.  On the seventh day the boat was complete.” – Tablet 11

Then, Utnapishtim continues:

“I loaded into her [the boat] all that I had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen. I sent them on board, for the time that Shamash had ordained was already fulfilled when he said, “in the evening, when the rider of the storm [Enlil] sends down the destroying rain, enter the boat and batten her down.”- Tablet 11

The epic continues and describes in detail the perilous voyage taken by Utnapishtim over the next ‘six days and six nights’ as the winds blew and the entire world was covered in waters coming from heaven and from the nether [sea].  With all of mankind thus destroyed, the storm subsided and Utnapishtim’s boat eventually came to rest at Mount Nisir (possibly Pir Omar Gudrun in Iraq).  Upon landing, Utnapishtim sent forth two doves which were unable to find dry land.  On the seventh day Utnapishtim sent forth a raven which discovered dry land.  In thanks, Utnapishtim made joyous offerings to the gods, who were pleased.  For his piety, Enlil granted Utnapishtim eternal life- that he would remain undying in a distant land, known as the mouth of the rivers.


With its numerous rivers and seasonal flooding it should come to no surprise that the point of origin for this mythological tradition would be ancient Mesopotamia.  While the mythology of ancient Egypt, Greece, and by later extension Rome, contained their own flood mythologies with several notable similarities, it is with the Abrahamic religions that those similarities give way to obvious emulation of this earlier Mesopotamian tradition. The Epic of Gilgamesh serves as a powerful example of the process of cultural diffusion in the ancient world.  Ancient peoples did not live in vacuums.  They traded with, warred with, conquered or where themselves conquered by foreign peoples with whom they exchanged ideas, traditions and mythologies.  While drawing a direct (point to point) connection between the flood mythology of Mesopotamia to Egypt and/or Greece would be difficult, its not impossible.  The same comparison between the Abrahamic myth of Noah (Nuh in Islam) is obvious.  To deny this causal link between the two mythologies is simply absurd.

Sadly, a more detailed discussion of this topic goes beyond the intended scope of this particular article and has been the subject of numerous academically critiqued texts on the subject.  I would encourage anyone seeking more information on either the mythology (religion) or history of Mesopotamia to do so only from credible sources.  Mesopotamia, as the originator of cities (urbanization), written language and numerous technical advancements truly deserves its title as the Cradle of Civilization- but perhaps this title should also acknowledge (or at least do so more often) the rich mythological and religious traditions which can be linked to it.


Dalley, Stephanie. Myths From Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. Oxford World Press (Oxford), Revised Edition (2009).

Schneider, Tammi. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company (Cambridge, U.K.), (2011).

Sanders, Nancy (Translation by).  The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency Books Online.  www.aina.org

Radner, Karen & Robson, Eleanor (Editors).  The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford University Press (Oxford), First Edition (2011).

Various Authors/Topics Related to Mesopotamia.  Ancient History Encyclopedia.  www. ancient.eu

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Broken of Body, Sound of Mind: Examining the Reign of the Emperor Claudius.

By Pat Lowinger

It had been nearly 90 years since Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon when Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Claudius) donned the purple as Emperor. The civil wars of the first century BCE had transformed Rome into a mighty Principate- a monarchy ceremonious draped in the tattered rags of the Republic.  While Augustus’ reign had brought wealth and stability to much of the known world, within two decades of his death, the Empire hovered on the verge of collapse.  The dark, sinister and possibly neurotic reign of Caligula had been disastrous for the Empire . [1]  Following Caligula’s assignation at the hands of his own Praetorian Guard was thrust the fifty-one year old Claudius, a man who would not only need to overcome the increasing instability within the empire, but also his own frailties of body.



Marble statue of the Emperor Claudius

Claudius (10 BCE- 54 AD), the son of Drusus Claudius Nero and Antonia the younger, was born at Lugdunum in Gaul. [2] The limited information we have on Claudius’ childhood  paints a portrait of a sickly child of unknown cognitive abilities.  “He was orphaned as a baby, and nearly the whole of his childhood and youth was so troubled by various diseases that he grew dull-witted and had little physical strength; and on reaching the age at which he should have won a magistracy or chosen a private career he was considered by his family incapable of doing either.” [3] Claudius, born infirm, was further subjected to the scorn and rejection of both his mother and maternal grandmother. [4] Augustus, through excerpts of letters to his sister Livia, speaks on no less than three occasions regarding Claudius’ role within the dynasty as well as his concerns regarding Claudius faculties:

“The question is whether he has, so to speak, full command of his five senses.  If so, I can see nothing against sending him through the same degrees of office as his brother Germanicus; but should he prove physically and mentally deficient, the public (which is always amused by trifles) must not be given the chance of laughing at him or us.  I fear we shall find ourselves in constant trouble if the question of his fitness to officiate in this or that capacity keeps cropping up.” [5]

Depicted in numerous historical sources are references to Claudius’ involuntary head movements (wagging) and repetitive shaking in his limbs. [6] Sources also tell us that Claudius had an unsteady gait or limp.  This strongly suggests the possibility that Claudius suffered from a neurological disorder. [7] Modern historians and medical experts have attempted to diagnose (if possible) what particular illness afflicted Claudius- to which many speculations have been offered, such as: cretinism, hydrocephalus and alcoholism.  While there is no clear consensus, the most plausible suggestions to date have been cerebral palsy [8] or possibly dystonia– a hereditary or trauma induced neurological disorder which causes uncontrolled muscular contractions and/or spasms, bearning many similarities to cerebral palsy.  Bacterial and viral meningitis or encephalitis are typically strong candidates for causation, as is environmental poisoning (via lead). [9] Dystonia is typically characterized by an onset in early through late childhood, and symptoms can typically be reduced with ample rest and regular exercise.  Dystonic episodes (spasms) can be triggered by physical assertion, positional fatigue or stress. [10]

Even in our modern age we can too often observe the cultural biases which accompany a mental or physical disability.  Whether it be mocking, ridiculing or avoidance of association, these remnants of bias may never be fully eradicated from a society.  Rome was not immune, and in many ways perpetuated a bias against those with observable mental or physical imperfections. [11] While Suetonius’ account indicates that Claudius was ‘infirm’ from birth, this is somewhat doubtful given the Roman cultural acceptance of infanticide of ‘imperfect’ or sickly newborns. [12] In recounting Claudius’ treatment during the reign of Caligula, Suetonius illustrates the following:

…these honours did not protect him from frequent insults.  If ever he arrived a little late in the dining hall, there was nothing for it but to tour the tables in search of a vacant couch; and whenever he nodded off after dinner, as he usually did, the company would pelt him with olives and date stones.  Some jokesters exercised their wit by putting slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, and then gave him a sudden blow of a whip or cane to wake him, so that he rubbed his eyes with them.  [13]

Claudius was an accomplished scholar. A student of Livy who wrote in both Latin and Greek- completing a 40 volume history of Rome, a 20 volume history of Etruria, and an 8 volume work on Carthage. [14] These accomplishment are at odds with various claims regarding his ‘being dull-witted’ or mentally deficient.  While none of these works have survived into our modern age, excerpts were encapsulated in the works of Pliny and Tacitus. [15]


The Assassination of Caligula by Bartolomeo Pinelli (1810).

Upon Caligula’s death the empire was thrown into disorder.  Unlike the three previous emperors, no imperial decree had been made or offered regarding Caligula’s successor.  Some members of Senate considered the Julio-Claudian dynasty to  be without issue (heir) and pondered the restoration of the Republic. [16]   As the uncle of Caligula and grand nephew of Augustus, Claudius assuredly possessed the blood-right necessary for ascension, but was initially ‘kept’ within the Praetorian camp. Whether he was being kept safe from assassination or as a hostage is unclear.  What is certain is that after remaining with the Praetorian Guard for two days that there a popular movement within Rome of those whom wanted the imperial throne restored. [17] After securing the loyalty of army by payment (donativum) of 15,000 sesterces a man, Claudius ascended to the imperial throne as Rome’s fourth Emperor.

As Emperor

Claudius’ first actions were definitively not those of someone who was mentally infirm or irrational.  By decree, all senatorial records which referred to the reconstruction of the Roman Constitution were destroyed- irritum facit“He (Claudius) ordered a general amnesty and observed it himself, apart from executing a few of the tribunes and centurions who had conspired against Gaius [Caligula]- both to make and example of them and because they had, he knew, planned his own murder as well.” [18]

We get a confused picture of Claudius’ mental faculties during his reign.  At times he is referred to as ‘scatter-brained’, ‘shortsighted’ and ‘thoughtless’- at others as, ‘careful’ and ‘keen-witted’. [19] Scholars still debate today, as his contemporaries had during his reign, if Claudius’ range of emotional states and cognitive clarity were the manifestation of some undiagnosed psychopathy.  It would not be a stretch to associate many of his ‘attitudes’ and ‘reactions’ as reasonable given both his life experience before and after his ascension to the throne.  Suetonius in particular takes exception to Claudius’ early practice of being escorted by ‘javelin-bearing bodyguards’ and being ‘waited upon by soldiers.’ [20] On the surface actions such as these could be seen as paranoid by some, but rather reasonable by others.  Claudius had narrowly survived the same assassination attempt which had taken Caligula and had secured the throne only by the offering of donativum, as previously mentioned.  Claudius’ vigilance appears to have been warranted.  In 48 CE, Claudius’ third wife, Valeria Messalina, would be executed for participation in a plot to remove him from the throne.


Marble Statue of Valeria Messalina and the infant Britannicus.

“Just because you aren’t paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” – Colin Soutar.

In appearance and physical abilities we are also presented with extremes.  “Claudius had a certain dignity of presence, which showed to best advantage when he happened to be standing or seated, and especially when he was expressing no emotion.  This was because though tall, well built and handsome, with a fine head of white hear and firm neck…” [21] A narrative which inspires thoughts of regal majesty and confidence, all but destroyed by Suetonius’ continued imagery, “…he stumbled was he walked owing to the weakness of his knees, and also because if excited by either play or serious business, had several disagreeable traits.” [22] Suetonius records the most pronounced manifestations to coincide with, “the stress of anger,” which resulted in, “slobbering at the mouth and running at the nose, a stammer, and persistent nervous tic- which grew so bad under emotional stress that his head would toss from side to side.” [23] As previous discussed, modern science demonstrates a marked increase in symptomatology of many neurological disorders- such as cerebral palsy and dystonia during stressful episodes. [24]

Tacitus, whose account of Claudius’s reign was no less flattering, presented the emperor as an indecisive leader who was easily manipulated by the Roman Senate and/or his wife Agrippina. [25] Portrayed as a hen-pecked husband, unable to control his wife- Claudius allows Agrippina to mettle in the affairs of state and terrorize other women who she saw as potential rivals, whether real or imagined. [26]


The Emperor Claudius depicted as Jupiter

Numerous effigies of Claudius survive into our modern age.  None of which better depicts the idealist Roman form than that of his depiction as Jupiter, currently on display in the Vatican, in Rome. [27] Perfect in appearance, Claudius’ form is unmarred by disease or infirmity- a commanding presence.  Crowned in laurels as befits an emperor, his left hand holds the sceptrum Augusti– denoting his unquestioned rank as consul and imperator.  In his right hand Claudius holds a libations dish, acknowledging his ritualistic connection to the divine.

The contrasts are often more nuanced and obscure.  Minted in 41-42 AD is the gold aureus, which on its reverse, depicts Claudius in a seated position- a subtle acknowledgement of his frail constitution. [28] Much less complimentary is a image of Claudius on copper coin(s) minted from 41-50 AD, with emphasis placed upon the heavily musculature of his neck- perhaps a reference to his known spasmodic episodes. [29] Others, such as a simple bronze coin bearing the image of the Emperor Claudius- TICLAVD IV SCAESARAVGPMTRPIMP (Claudius 4th Emperor), which on the back bears a depiction of the goddess Spes, bearing an inscription invoking hope (providence) for our Emperor, or perhaps a desperate plea for his continued health. [30] See image below.


Accomplishments of his Reign

What can not be debated are the marked changes which Claudius’ rule brought to the Empire- the drainage of Lake Fucine and the building of a harbor at Ostia, completion of new aqueducts and the refurbishment of the Circus Maximus. [31] Each of these works apparently arose out of necessity and not opulence.

Claudius appeared practical and handled exigency well, as displayed in his actions during a severe fire of the Aemilian quarter.  When it became apparent the fire would not be subdued with the manpower normally available, he ordered people from every district to respond and serve in the firefighting effort, a task for which they were justly compensated.  As Emperor, he remained constantly vigilant in regards to Rome’s supply of grain and was always interested in the proper upkeep of the city. [32] This efficiency as an administrator goes far to belie the allegations of reduced mental capacity or vacillation during a crisis.  In fact, it demonstrate the ability to prioritize and make quick executive decisions.  While not a militarist, Claudius enacted new regulations in regards to the Roman army.  Members of the equites, after a proscribed length of service in command of an infantry cohort (typically 480 men), were then required to serve as a Decurion, a commander of a cavalry squadron.  Only after these two previous conditions were filled could a posting to military Tribune be made. [33] Claudius also strengthened the separation of the military and the Roman Senate by prohibiting unofficial fraternization between the two groups.

Perhaps the most wide-sweeping of Claudius’ reforms was the breaking down of social barriers and cultural stigmatization of Roman Freedmen and slaves.  By appointing Freedmen to positions of confidence, Claudius was not only able to surround himself with persons loyal to him, but decrease the stranglehold upon public service by the aristocracy.  By imperial decree, Claudius allowed the sons of freedmen to be adopted by equites and thus be able to enter the senatorial ranks. [34] In regards to the treatment of slaves, Claudius ordered that injured and ill slaves had to be given medical treatment rather than be abandoned to die by their masters.  Likewise, any slave which had previously so abandoned, only to later have recovered from their illness was set free.  Claudius also prohibited the killing of slaves with the intent to deny medical treatment- doing so would be considered murder. [35] These progressive and compassionate acts did much to popularize him the freedmen and plebs, but earned the ire of the patricians.


Historians will never know with absolute certainty the exact cause and pathology of Claudius’ neurological disorder(s).  Having never been considered for the purple, Claudius in all likelihood would have never found himself thrust into the annals of history, except for a specific chain of events which ended with the death of his nephew Caligula.  The exact limitations his disabilities placed upon him are rather unclear but certainly presented challenges almost unimaginable to persons similarly afflicted in antiquity- let alone those who reigned as Emperor of Rome for 13 years.

Despite his disabilities, or perhaps because of them, Claudius was a clever and practical leader who surrounded himself with a cadre of loyal soldiers and freedmen whom he could trust and rely upon.  Under his leadership, the Roman economy was relatively stable, and practical public works were completed.  Whether motivated by populist views or a distrust of the aristocracy, Claudius made numerous social reforms which where in antiquity key points of criticism, but today regarded, by many as a legacy of enlightenment.


Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” Academia.edu. 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/4779256/Emperor_Claudius_I_the_man_his_physical_impairment_and_reactions_to_it_by_Keith_Armstrong.

Cary, Earnest. “Roman History, 60.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60. Accessed March 02, 2015. http://lexundria.com/dio/60/cy.

Cary, M. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1975.

“Claudius as Jupiter.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/statue-claudius-as-jupiter.jpg.

“Claudius Bronze Coin.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/coin-bronze.jpg.

“Claudius Gold Aureus.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 08, 2015. http%3A%2F%2Fmuseumvictoria.com.au%2Fcollections%2Fitems%2F72633%2Fcoin-aureus-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-42-ad.

“Claudius Copper Coin.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 09, 2015. http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/66398/coin-as-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-50-ad.

“Dystonias Fact Sheet.” : National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/dystonias/detail_dystonias.htm.

Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996.

Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000): 198-201.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Suetonius, and Robert Graves. The Twelve Caesars. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Tacitus, Cornelius, Alfred John Church et al. The Complete Works of Tacitus: The Annals. The History. The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola. Germany and Its Tribes. A Dialogue on Oratory. New York: Modern Library, 1942.  Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0078

References and Citations

[1] Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996, 262-263.

[2] Suetonius, Life of Divus Claudius 2/Graves, 179; all translations of Suetonius are taken from Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves; revised with an introduction and notes by J. B. Rives (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[3] Suetonius, 2/Graves, 179.

[4 & 5] Suetonius, 3-4/Graves, 180.

[6] Suetonius, 30/Graves, 198.

[7] Cary, Earnest. “Roman History, 60.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60. Accessed March 02, 2015. http://lexundria.com/dio/60/cy, 60.23.1

[8] Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” Academia.edu. 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/4779256/Emperor_Claudius_I_the_man_his_physical_impairment_and_reactions_to_it_by_Keith_Armstrong.

[9] Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000), 198.

[10] “Dystonias Fact Sheet.” : National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/dystonias/detail_dystonias.htm.

[11] Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” Academia.edu. 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/4779256/Emperor_Claudius_I_the_man_his_physical_impairment_and_reactions_to_it_by_Keith_Armstrong.

[12] Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 26-29.

[13] Suetonius, 8/Graves, 182-183.

[14] Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996, 264-265.

[15] ibid., 264.

[16] Cary, M. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1975, 355.

[17 & 18] Suetonius, 10-11/Graves, 184.

[19] Suetonius, 15 & 39/Graves, 186 & 202.

[20] Suetonius, 35/Graves, 200.

[21-23] Suetonius, 30/Graves, 198.

[24] Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000), 200.

[25] Tacitus, The annals 12.7/ Church; all translations of Tacitus taken from The Complete Works of Tacitus: The Annals. The History. The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola. Germany and Its Tribes. A Dialogue on Oratory. New York: Modern Library, 1942. Accessed March 08, 2015. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0078

[26] Tacitus, 12.22/ Church.

[27] “Claudius as Jupiter.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/statue-claudius-as-jupiter.jpg.

[28] “Claudius Gold Aureus.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 08, 2015. http%3A%2F%2Fmuseumvictoria.com.au%2Fcollections%2Fitems%2F72633%2Fcoin-aureus-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-42-ad.

[29] “Claudius Copper Coin.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 09, 2015. http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/66398/coin-as-emperor-claudius-ancient-roman-empire-41-50-ad.

[30] “Claudius Bronze Coin.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015. http://www.romanemperors.com/images/claudius/coin-bronze.jpg.

[31-32] Suetonius, 18-20/Graves, 190-191.

[33] Suetonius, 25/Graves, 194.

[34] Suetonius, 24/Graves 193-194.

[35] Suetonius, 25/Graves 194-195.

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