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The Sibyl of Cumae

by on March 30, 2015

By Ben Amundgaard 

In the ancient world, sibyls were prophetesses associated with a particular location. Many of their prophecies played key roles in determining the direction of important events. Though there were variations based on Sibyl of Cumaeplace and time, the sibyls all seem to share some characteristics. They were always older women. They gave their prophecies in an ecstatic state, under the power of a particular deity (often Apollo), and they were usually associated with a specific ancient oracle or a temple.

Though early sources refer to only one sibyl, the number eventually grew to 10: the Babylonian Sibyl, the Libyan Sybil, the Delphic Sibyl (though here it appears there was an elder and a younger sibyl), the Cimmerian Sibyl, the Erythrean Sibyl (again, an elder and younger), the Samian Sibyl, the Hellespontian/Trojan Sibyl, the Phrygian Sibyl, the Tiburtine Sibyl and, finally, the Cumaean Sibyl (OK, so there were 12?).

The Cumaean Sibyl is probably the best known of 10 (12) sibyls. Her cave was located near the town of Cumae on the western coast of Italy, in the same location as a temple of Apollo. While most often known as the Cumaean Sibyl or the Sibyl of Cumae, she is also variously referred to as: Herophile, Demo, Phemonë, Deiphobe, Demophile, and Amalthea.

The Cumaean Sibyl plays a crucial role in two events associated with the foundation, rise, and continued success of Rome. First, according to tradition she was the woman who sold the Sibylline books to the last king of Rome. Second, she prophesies to Aeneas about his future in Italy and takes him into the underworld to see his father (who tells him that his descendants will found Rome).

The Old Woman, the last King and the Sibylline Books

In the Roman Antiquities, Dionysius of Halicarnassus recounts the story of an old woman who came to visit Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (or Tarquin the Proud), the last king of Rome. She brings with her nine books that she claims contain sibylline prophecies. She offers to sell the books for what seems like an unreasonable amount of money. The king laughs at her ridiculous price. In response, the woman burns three of the books (boy … that escalated quickly).

A while later, the woman returns with the remaining six books and offers to sell them at the same price as the original nine. Again, the king laughs at her, assuming she has lost her mind. Again, the woman leaves and burns three more of the books (this is getting out of hand … fast).

Undeterred by the king’s obstinacy, the woman returns with the remaining three books. She offers to sell the king the three books for the same price as the original nine. This time the king does not laugh.

“Tarquinius, wondering at the woman’s purpose, sent for the augurs and acquainting them with the matter, asked them what he should do. These, knowing by certain signs that he had rejected a god-sent blessing, and declaring it to be a great misfortune that he had not purchased all the books, directed him to pay the woman all the money she asked and to get the oracles that were left.” -Dionysus of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities)

Aulus Gellius records a similar story in Attic Nights. In his story, however, the old woman burns the books in front of the king. In both accounts the old woman disappears after she sells the books.

Sibyl of Cumae painting

The Sibyl of Cumae by Elihu Vedder

The Sibylline Books (sometimes called the Cumaean Books) became crucial in the ongoing decisions of Rome. The lecti viri—a group of two (duumviri) men that grew to 10 (decemviri) and eventually 15 (quindecimviri)—guarded the books. When the senate’s seers couldn’t divine the meaning of extraordinary events or when Rome needed direction in times of crisis, they would order these men to consult the Sibylline Books.

The books often clarified the meaning of certain divine events or ordered particular sacrifices and oblations to avoid a disaster. Livy reports that, while strategizing for war,

“The state was at this time suddenly occupied with a question of a religious nature, in consequence of the discovery of a prediction in the Sibylline books, which had been inspected on account of there having been so many showers of stones this year. It ran thus: Whensoever a foreign enemy should bring war into the land of Italy, he may be driven out of Italy and conquered, if the Idaean Mother should be brought from Pessinus to Rome.” -Livy

The Romans take this prophecy very seriously and immediately work to bring the Idaean Mother to Rome.

The Romans took these books so seriously that, according to Dionysius, dereliction of one’s duty to care for the books could have disastrous results. When someone reported that one of the guardians of the books had allowed someone else to borrow one of them, King Tarquinius “ordered him to be sewed up in a leather bag and thrown into the sea….” Harsh, but perhaps not too harsh, given the role they played in the fate of Rome.

Virgil and the Cumaean Sibyl

In book 3 of the Aeneid, Aeneas visits a priest/prophet who tells him to visit the Cumaean Sibyl.

“And when, thither borne, thou drawest near to the town of Cumae, the haunted lakes, and Avernus with its rustling woods, thou shalt look on an inspired prophetess, who deep in a rocky cave sings the Fates and entrusts to leaves signs and symbols.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

The sibyl has important news for Aeneas:

“The nations of Italy, the wars to come, the mode whereby thou art to flee or face each toil, she will unfold to thee; and, reverently besought, she will grant thee a prosperous voyage.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

In other words, the fate of the founding of Rome rests on the prophecy she gives Aeneas.
In book 6, Aeneas finally visits Cumae and finds the sibyl. She tells him that though he has survived the troubles of Troy and the dangers of his sea voyage, he has further troubles ahead.

“O thou that at last hast fulfilled the great perils of the sea—yet by land more grievous woes await thee…. Wars, grim wars I see, and Tiber foaming with streams of blood…. Even now another Achilles is raised up in Latium, he, too, goddess-born; nor shall Juno anywhere fail to dog the Trojans, whilst thou, a suppliant in thy need, what races, what cities of Italy shalt thou not implore! The cause of all this Trojan woe is again an alien bride, again a foreign marriage!”-Virgil (The Aeneid)

She says, however, that Aeneas should not fear this fate, that he has the ability to rise above it.

Conveniently there happened to be a portal to the underworld nearby. As he wanted to go there anyway, Aeneas asks the sibyl if she will take him there to see his dead father. She says that he must first find a golden bough in the forest. On that bough will be a fruit. If he is able to pick the fruit, he will be worthy to visit the underworld.

Aeneas painting

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, Federico Barocci

Having completed the task (and burying one of his crew who had challenged the gods to a trumpet-blowing contest and been killed by Triton), Aeneas returns to the sibyl, who escorts him into the underworld. There, Aeneas meets his father, Anchises. After discussing some of the particulars of the underworld, Anchises shows Aeneas his future and the future of his descendants.

“Come now, what glory shall hereafter attend the Dardan line, what children of Italian stock await thee, souls illustrious and heirs of our name—this will I set forth, and teach thee thy destiny.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

Anchises recounts the destiny of all of Aeneas’ descendants. As grandparents are often wont to do, he extols their greatness and victory.

Anchises tells Aeneas that among his descendants are Romulus, founder of Rome and Caesar Augustus (the first Roman Emperor and, perhaps not surprisingly, patron of Virgil). According to Anchises, Augustus will

“… again set up the Golden Age amid the fields where Saturn once reigned, and shall spread his empire past Garamant and Indian, to a land that lies beyond the stars, beyond the paths of the year and the sun, where heaven-bearing Atlas turns on his shoulders the sphere, inset with gleaming stars.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

Aeneas is struck by the importance of his journey and is eager to get on his way. Once his father’s prophecy is over, the sibyl accompanies him back to the land of the living and, eager to continue his epic journey, Aeneas sets sail.

A Significant Sibyl

Clearly, the Cumaean Sibyl plays a crucial role in the founding and ongoing fortune of Rome. If it weren’t for her, the Romans would not have had the guidance of the Sibylline Books. If it weren’t for her prophecy, Aeneas would not have been prepared to rise above his fate in his journey towards Italy. If it were not for her guidance, Aeneas would not have met his father and not have known the import of his continued journey.

Learn more about the role of the Cumaean Sibyl and Aeneas’ epic journey in English and Latin with Noet’s Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid. Classical Wisdom Weekly readers save 15% with the coupon code NOETCLASSICS.

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The Times of Tyranny

by on March 27, 2015

By Ben Potter

The lead-up to the Second World War was often referred to (in its own time) as the Age of the Great Dictators.

The idea being that, even though the fledgling American experiment was going rather well, not all democracies were pulling their weight in the war of ideologies.

Emerging dictatorial talents in Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia were getting their respective nations back on track as Europe strived to recover from its self-destructive, turn of the century warmongering.

The fact that these were dictators, men of the people, for the people, instead of privileged, hereditary monarchs in charge of the ship of state seemed like a natural and sensible step in the right direction.

Though I hear the cry going up from all corners of cyberspace: “Quit stalling. What’s this got to do with the Classics?”

Prey beat still, impatient hearts.

The point is that, as hard as it is for us to imagine now, dictatorships haven’t always been seen as ‘bad’. It was only after the fact that it was considered to be an undesirable form of government, regardless of the personnel involved, and universally reviled throughout civilised parts of the world.

And indeed this was true also in the Ancient World.

Though it should be stressed that between then and now someone left a red sock in with the ‘dictatorship’ wash and what came out in the end wasn’t exactly what went in.

For Romans, a dictator (‘one who leads’) was a politician/general, a magistratus extraordinarius, who was given temporary, and not quite absolute, power to perform a specific task, e.g. putting down a rebellion.

But such a power was considered too dangerous to grant for any conflict outside Italy, as a dictator would then be able to do as they pleased away from the beady eye of the Senate.

Thus, as Rome expanded her empire and the Italian peninsula became a land under no imminent threat, dictatorship fell by the wayside.

Though in 83 BC, after a 120-year hiatus, the victorious general Sulla revived the power for a single year before retiring from public life. The purpose of this was to re-codify the constitution following a series of civil wars.

Death of Caesar

This move was roundly mocked by the next man who took up the dictatorial gauntlet… Gaius Julius Caesar.

As it became increasingly obvious that Caesar was not only the dominant figure following the civil war of the 40s BC, but a cunning and ruthless politician as well as a fine military strategist, the Senate deemed it expedient to appoint him dictator… and dictator again… and then dictator for ten years… and finally, dictator for life.

However, life didn’t last very long, only until 15th March 44 BC, or the Ides of March.

Despite going on to take many further powers and titles, Octavian Augustus, the first truly absolute ruler of this new Rome, did not dare to call himself ‘dictator’; the word had by then become poisonous.

And while the Romans had a long history of viewing tyranny as an unpleasant form of government (hence the Republic), it wasn’t that way in pre-Classical Greek thought… and the memory of past Tyrants is illustrative of this.


For example, Cypselus, a tyrant of Corinth who came to power in 657 BC after ousting an aristocratic family, was a popular and dynamic leader who consolidated Corinthian interests abroad and made Corinthian pottery dominant in the Greek marketplace.

Cleisthenes ruled Sicyon from c.600-560 BC and is remembered best for his enduring tribal reforms rather than anything insidious.

Polycrates of Samos (ruled c.538-522 BC) was a popular and enlightened tyrant about whom Herodotus speaks well. His public building works included aqueducts and temples which reflected both his benevolence and piety.

Herodotus also suggests he may have been pretty humble (well, for a tyrant anyway). Supposedly he threw his prized possession, a bejewelled ring, into the sea in the hope of avoiding the hubris of the overly successful. However, ill-omen struck when a fish turned up in his kitchens with the ring inside it.

Maybe not surprisingly, it was in Athens, the bastion of enduring Greek thought, that tyranny finally developed the stigma it has today.

Though, again, this was not initially the case.

Peisistratus, a relative of the much-lauded lawgiver Solon, initially managed to install himself as tyrant in 561 BC, but was only able to make the title stick in 546 BC.

From that point on a string of populist and cultural policies helped to underpin his power.


He initiated a public building programme, extended or created festivals (including the dramatic festival, the Dionysia and an Athenian ‘Olympics’, the Panathenaic Games), codified the works of Homer and championed the causes of peasants and landowners.

Indeed, Peisistratus was considered a model tyrant with almost no connotations of the violent oppression the word conjures up.

Aristotle said of him: “his administration was temperate… and more like constitutional government than a tyranny”.

This is high and significant praise indeed, as Aristotle and Plato helped to popularise the idea that tyranny was a base and unsatisfactory form of government in and of itself.

Moreover, Peisistratus had that luxury so few tyrants enjoy, to die a peaceful death. Though the same cannot be said of his son and joint-heir, Hipparchus.


He, along with his brother Hippias, continued their father’s work, but were met with strong opposition in the form of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the original Tyrannicides.

These men succeeded in killing Hipparchus in 514 BC, but Hippias escaped the assassin’s blade.

Hippias’ sole reign was, perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, violent and oppressive and many believe he became the source of all our negative connotations associated to the word ‘tyrant’.

For the Athenians this was certainly true.

Fortunately Hippias was removed from power in 510 BC, allowing the noble Cleisthenes to initiate the reforms that gave birth to Athenian democracy.

Tyranny never recovered. From this point on merely accusing someone of being tyrannical was enough to slur them, it was no longer necessary to state why that was the wrong way to be.

Thus a few final words on the pitfalls of such a form of government shall be given to the two men who, perhaps, did more than any other to show that tyranny’s dark underbelly was more than merely suspicious, but destructive and pernicious.

And here I’ve saved the best, or at least most alarming, quote for last:

“The tyrant must be always getting up a war… in order that the people may require a leader.” – Plato

“Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only.” – Aristotle

“A tyrant, as has often been repeated, has no regard to any public interest, except as conducive to his private ends; his aim is pleasure.” – Aristotle

“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty” – Plato

Noet and CWW Giveaway

by on March 24, 2015

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The Rise and Fall of the Athenian Empire (part 1)

by on March 23, 2015


Those of you who are members of the Classical Wisdom Society know that this month we have been looking at Herodotus’ The Histories and the epic struggle for supremacy that was the Greco-Persian wars. And that certainly is a topic worth discussing. It has been argued that had the Greeks been unable to stay off a Persian invasion, the growth of ancient Hellenic culture would have been severely stunted and, by extension, all of Western Society.

death of caesarHowever, once the fighting is over, the typical thing to do is to fast-forward a few decades to when the next epic struggle for supremacy took place, The Peloponnesian War. After all, who doesn’t love a bit of military history?

Nevertheless, the time between the expulsion of Xerxes’ army from the Greek lands and the inevitable standoff between the combatants of the Peloponnesian War is filled with some very interesting pieces of history.

As our colleague Joel Bowman put it, “History does not necessarily repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.” And since we do live in an age of a sometimes volatile geo-political climate, I thought it might be fun to look through the ages and reexamine the rise, fall, and failings of one of history’s first empires.

So where to start?

After the decisive battle of Plataea in 479 BC, the Greeks surely must have been basking in PanHellenic pride. The united city-states, against all odds, had defeated the seemingly invincible Persian Empire and had expelled them from their lands.

Perhaps it was the realization that a Greek alliance could accomplish greatness that prompted the Greek cities to cement their union even with the immediate danger of Persian invasion extinguished. In 478 BC, an alliance of roughly 150 city-states was formed on the island of Delos. The congresses would be held in the temple on the island and the central treasury would be kept there as well.

The purpose of this “Delian League” was to continue the fight against the Persians and ensure that they were never capable of invading the Hellenic lands again. Thucydides tells us that the representatives present at the formation of the league simultaneously dropped pieces of metal into the sea to symbolize the permanence of their commitments to one another.

death of caesar

Sparta was notably absent from this new alliance. Always fearful of a slave revolt at home, the Spartans opted out of what would surely be a costly and dangerous series of campaigns. After all, fighting the Persians on Greek soil was one thing. Picking a fight with them on their home turf was quite another.

In order to be a member of this new alliance, it was required that the affiliate states contribute money, warships, soldiers, raw material, or a combination of the four. While Thucydides tells us that Chios and Lesbos did contribute ships, the majority of the participants were happy enough to contribute funds and allow the leader of the alliance, Athens, to do all the heavy lifting.

This arrangement worked fine for the Athenians who used the dues from member cities to bolster their already impressive navy. Additionally, the Athenians took advantage of their numerous impoverished citizens. Unskilled men could act as rowers on Athenian triremes and be paid handsomely for their efforts. It is estimated that an Athenian rower made about as much in a month as a common farmer made in a year.

Well funded and well equipped, the league waged war against the Persian outpost in Northern Greece and the Aegean islands for the next decade. And, perhaps surprisingly, they were largely successful.

Under the command of Cimon, son of the hero of Marathon, Miltiades, the league captured the Persian fortress of Eion on the Thracian coast (northern Greece) and continued to wage war against the Persians across the Aegean and into Asia Minor. By about 465 BC, much of the Aegean was free from the Persian Empire.

death of caesar

As the league continued to battle the Persians out of the Aegean, they regularly set up allied colonies and transported Athenian citizens to settle the newly democratic societies. The defeated cities were also compelled by Athens to join the Delian League. As Plutarch tells us, joining the alliance was not always a choice.

“…the town of Phaselis, which though inhabited by Greeks, yet would not quit the interests of Persia, but denied his (Cimon) galleys entrance into their port. Upon this he wasted the country, and drew up his army to their very walls” –Plutarch (The Life of Cimon)

The Athenians dealt with the small city of Carystus in Euboea in a similar fashion. Carystus had declined to join the league on a number of occasions. Fearing that the nearby city could prove a valuable foothold for the Persians, the Athenian war vessels visited the small civilization and conquered the city. They were then forced to join the expanding league.

Even with these instances of aggressions, the early decades of the Delian League’s existence were largely productive. The various members acted largely autonomously and had equal voting rights at the Delian councils.

The Athenians certainly benefited from the existence of the league. As the de facto leader, Athens continued to fill their coffers with plundered treasure and captured slaves. The spoils of war that the Athenians took were not only monetary in nature. With continued victory came glory for Athenian aristocracy like Cimon, and glory meant a stronger standing within the Athenian elite.

Additionally, it is estimated that the tributes paid each year to the alliance was equivalent to $200,000,000 in contemporary terms. With a an adult male population of about 40,000, these figures meant unrivaled prosperity.

Athens now had a reason to preserve the league, no matter the cost.

It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the Delian League transformed into an Athenian Empire. It is probable that the shift began around 465 BC. The Persian presence in the Greek lands had been all but eliminated. With the purpose of the league fulfilled, the city of Thasos attempted to withdraw from the alliance. Athens could not allow this to happen. They had already tasted the spoils brought to them by the Delian league and the power that came with it. The abolishment of the alliance would mark the end of Athenian supremacy.

And so, needing to maintain the alliance, Athens sent warships to Thasos with the intent of conquering the city. The Thasians appealed to the Spartans for help, but the powerhouse of the Peloponnese was preoccupied with the largest slave riot in their history.

After two years of fighting, Thasos could hold out no longer. They surrendered to the Athenian general Cimon. As punishment for their rebellion, Athens tore down the walls surrounding the city, confiscated Thasos’ army and navy, and lay claim to the rich gold mines in the region. Additionally, Thasos was forced to continue to pay tribute to the Athenians.

“…the Thasians in the third year of the siege obtained terms from the Athenians by razing their walls, delivering up their ships, and arranging to pay the moneys demanded at once, and tribute in future; giving up their possessions on the continent together with the mine.” –Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War)

No longer an autonomous member of the Delian League, Thasos had effectively become an imperial subject, one of the first in a budding Athenian Empire.

Come back next week to learn what happens next and to read about the largest embezzlement scandal of ancient history.

The Cave of Nightmares

by on March 21, 2015

By Francesca Leaf, Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly PartnerLearn more about Noet Here!

Delphi Oracle

In ancient Greece, oracles held sway over important life decisions. People visited the shrines to receive counsel on everything from difficult religious questions and the healing of ailments, to determining if they should wage war on a neighboring empire.

Moreover, there were plenty of oracles to choose from and many ways to receive insight. You could unravel the riddles of the ever-popular oracle of Apollo at Delphi, hear the murmurs of Zeus at Dodona, or whisper in Hermes’ ear at the marketplace in Pherae. Or, if you’re Croesus, king of Lydia, you might just send proxies to every single oracle known to humankind…

But, if you’re stout of heart and very adventurous, you might want to pay a visit to the oracle of Trophonius and the cave of nightmares.

Hero, Thief, or Divine?


When looking through the annals of history and legend, you’ll find that some refer to Trophonius – the owner of said oracle – as a god, while many say he is a hero, and still others name him a thief.

So which was he? God, hero or thief?

Well, overall, there are two main traditions about Trophonius.

In the first version, found in Consolatio ad Apollonium, Plutarch summarizes the great poet Pindar’s take on the fellow.

It goes something like this: Trophonius and his brother, Agamedes, were talented architects and builders, and their work was of such renown that Apollo had them design and build his temple at Delphi. After completing their work, Trophonius and his brother asked Apollo for a reward. The god of sun and light instructed them to live freely for seven days, and only afterwards, would they receive their reward.

They followed his instructions, and on the seventh night . . . they died.

So, what’s going on here? Apollo rewarded them with death? The main thing to note is that Apollo didn’t just give them death; he gave them a peaceful death. According to Plutarch, this really wasn’t so strange—the gods often rewarded the pious with a calm departure to the afterworld.

Indeed, Plutarch believed that the end of life was a good thing:

“If death indeed resembles a journey, even so it is not an evil. On the contrary, it may even be a good. For to pass one’s time unenslaved by the flesh and its emotions, by which the mind is distracted and tainted with human folly, would be a blessed piece of good fortune.”

But was Trophonius really that pious of a guy?

Pausanias gives us the other major narrative of Trophonius in his Description of Greece.

Same as in Pindar/Plutarch’s account, Trophonius and his brother Agamedes were talented architects and builders. But, after completing their work at Delphi, they weren’t rewarded with death…

Instead, they did one final job: they built a treasure house for King Hyrieus of Boeotia. As usual, they did a great job, but this time they did something different… they added a secret entrance and proceeded to quietly rob King Hyrieus.

Baffled by the slowly diminishing gold and silver, Hyrieus set a trap, and consequently, the next time the brothers snuck into the treasury, Agamedes got caught.

But then things got a little weird. Trophonius beheaded his brother and was suddenly swallowed up by the earth.

Regardless of which narrative you favor, one thing we know for sure is that Lebadeia dedicated a cult and an oracle to Trophonius. But… in order to consult Trophonius, one needed to enter a chasm deep in the earth—the cave of nightmares.

The Descent

According to Pausanias, visiting the cave of Trophonius was no easy task.

Interested in consulting Trophonius? First, one needed to live in a shrine for “an appointed number of days.” During this time, they had to bathe in the river Hercyna, abstain from hot baths, and make animal sacrifices to a motley group of gods. After each sacrifice, a diviner studied the animal’s entrails in order to determine whether or not Trophonius will receive the interested oracle seeker graciously.

Then the descent begins. To begin with, one needed to drink the waters of Forgetfulness to make their mind a blank slate. Then, they had drink the waters of Memory to ensure that they will retain everything they see and hear in the cave.

While descending into the cave, the hearty adventurer had to be sure that they had honey cakes with them. Apparently, honey cakes are the only way to appease the many serpents you will encounter along the way.

But, once in the chasm, they can sit back, relax, and enjoy nightmarish visions and hear terrifying voices for an undetermined amount of time.

Eventually, they will leave the cave and recount their findings.

Here’s Pausanias’ description of what happens next:

“After his ascent from Trophonius the inquirer is again taken in hand by the priests, who set him upon a chair called the chair of Memory, which stands not far from the shrine, and they ask of him, when seated there, all he has seen or learned. After gaining this information they then entrust him to his relatives. These lift him, paralyzed with terror and unconscious both of himself and of his surroundings, and carry him to the building where he lodged before with Good Fortune and the Good Spirit. Afterwards, however, he will recover all his faculties, and the power to laugh will return to him.”

As horrific as the experience sounds, Pausanias says only one person died while at the oracle of Trophonius: a man who was trying to steal gold and silver from the shrine.

Searching for Answers

The Cave

Looking through the ancient texts, it appears that people visited the oracle of Trophonius for a myriad of reasons.

For example, in Herodotus’ The Histories, King Croesus dispatches a man to consult with Trophonius (along with nearly every other oracle) before waging war against the Persians. In Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, Consul Lucius Aemilius Paulus visits the shrine of Trophonius to check out the entrance to the cave (but does not enter it). Plutarch’s Amatoriae Narrationes also mentions a father who wishes to receive the oracle’s guidance about which of two suitors his daughter should marry (this ends up not happening and, as you can probably guess, everyone dies instead).

One of the more colorful stories about the oracle of Trophonius comes from Flavius Philostratus’ fanciful biography of the Neopythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana.

Apollonius visited the oracle of Trophonius in order to consult the god/hero/thief. At first, the priests turned him away, believing that he is a magician, but eventually, he gained access to the cave.

Seven days later, Apollonius emerged, claiming to have found a volume containing the tenets of Pythagoras. He also stated that he received the volume in response to asking Trophonius what he considered “the most complete and purest philosophy.”

Apparently our friend Trophonius wasn’t just an expert architect, builder, and accused thief—he was a certified Pythagoras fanboy.

Worth the Trip

While a fascinating story, the oracle of Trophonius does offer a window into the role of heroes, deities, and decision-making in the ancient world.

By visiting oracles, people received what they believed to be divine sanction or discouragement for their plans. But… at the same time they revealed people’s true desires. Essentially, because most oracles did not provide straightforward answers, consulting them let individuals and communities reflect on their perspectives and intentions and interpret the response as they wished.

This guidance and experience was valuable—so valuable that it was apparently worth a trip to the cave of nightmares.


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The Death of Caesar

by on March 16, 2015

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC was an epochal event. It’s not merely a story in Shakespeare’s great tragedy but an actual historical occurrence.

death of caesarThe real assassination, unlike the Shakespearean drama, had a decidedly military shape. The leading assassins included some of Rome’s greatest generals. The conspirators brought a troupe of gladiators to the Senate House that day, men who doubled as a paramilitary force to help them in case Caesar and his supporters put up resistance. Rome itself was full of soldiers, mostly armed veterans but also including a legion under one of Caesar’s loyalists. Caesar’s stay in Rome from autumn 45 BC through spring 44 BC was only an interlude between two military campaigns. Having emerged victorious from the Civil War (49-45 BC) Caesar now planned a massive military expedition in the east. He was scheduled to depart on March 18, 44 BC. The conspirators struck at nearly the last possible moment before Caesar would get swallowed up by the army and be protected by a commander’s bodyguard.

It is not surprising that a group of Roman Senators (more than sixty), many of them also military men, gathered together to kill Caesar. Caesar threatened to change their lives in ways that mattered – and that hurt. Caesar was undertaking a series of fundamental reforms in Rome and its empire. He wanted to downplay the power of the city of Rome and its ancient elite and to share power with new elites in the provinces. He also wanted to reduce the power of the Roman people in the annual elections to choose public officials. The result would be more efficient and fairer to the tens of millions of people who lived in Rome’s provinces but it threatened the privilege and power of both mass and elite in the city of Rome. And it threatened to turn a republic into one-man rule, which few in Rome wanted. Caesar was a visionary but the Romans held back.

death of caesarA visionary leader has a hard time persuading the public to accept change. This is as true today as in any period of history. For Caesar it meant overcoming the legacy of the Civil War in which he had won power. He had a hard time steering between crushing his enemies and conciliating them. Caesar tried to strike the right balance but it was a daunting task. He was arrogant where he should have been humble and merciful where he might better have used force.
Caesar said that he wanted to forgive his enemies, not execute them, but the very act of making them ask for his forgiveness was humiliating to them. He said that he had no ambition to be a king but he accepted the title of Dictator in Perpetuity – in effect, Dictator for Life. Although married he was having an affair with the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, who had an illegitimate son who, she said, was his and who was called Caesarion, that is, “Little Caesar.” In March 44 BC she lived in Caesar’s villa in the suburbs of Rome. He planned a vast, three-years-long military expedition to culminate in the conquest of Parthia, as the Persian Empire was known at the time, which would have him follow the footsteps of the ancient world’s greatest conqueror, Alexander the Great.

Caesar seemed to be taking over much of the Republic in the name of his own family, the Julian clan. He built a new forum, a new Senate House, a new Speaker’s Platform, a new law-court and administration building, all named after him; other plans were in the works. He appointed his grandnephew, Octavian, as his “Master of the Horse,” the dictator’s second-in-command, on his war against Parthia in 43 BC, even though Octavian was only 18 years old, a shockingly young age in Rome to hold such a high office. Caesar accepted an unprecedented range of honors including divination: the Senate declared Caesar a god.

All of this persuaded many Romans, senators and ordinary people alike, that Caesar wanted to be king in all but name. And that was unacceptable to the many believers in Rome’s republican government.

Caesar was fatalistic about the danger of assassination. He knew it was a possibility but he was a decorated soldier who did not want to live his life in fear. He dismissed his official bodyguard but, to deter attack, surrounded himself with tough men and former soldiers. Only senators could enter the meeting hall, however, so Caesar was vulnerable at senate meetings. His enemies knew that, which is why they struck at a meeting of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC.

death of caesar

“Death of Julius Caesar” By Vincenzo Camuccini

After Caesar’s death his mantle fell to Octavian, whom Caesar had secretly adopted as his heir, six months before the Ides of March. Although young, Octavian proved to be a genius, with all the ambition, practical wisdom, cunning, tenacity and ruthlessness of his great-uncle. Eventually, after a decade-and-a-half of war and diplomacy, Octavian won supreme power in the Roman world. In 27 BC he took the name Augustus, which is how we know him today.

Augustus was Rome’s first emperor but he learned a lesson from Caesar’s mistakes. He took the danger of assassination seriously, he kept a bodyguard, and made sure not to inflame his enemies. He never called himself emperor, king or dictator. Instead, he preferred the title of Princeps or “First Citizen.” “Augustus” itself means something like “Reverend.” He even declared that he had restored the republic, which was simply untrue. Yet Augustus had the death of caesarwisdom and self-restraint to hold back. Although he grabbed the lion’s share of power in Rome he did leave some authority to the Senate, in order to give them a stake in the system.

The other thing that Augustus did, sad to say, was to kill his enemies rather than forgive them, as Caesar had done. Rather, he took the advice that Machiavelli would later offer in The Prince, that is, to massacre his opponents at the start of his reign and then, having made his point, to rule with kindness. So, for example, little more than a year after Caesar’s death, Octavian (as Augustus was then) joined hands with Mark Antony to pass death sentences on their enemies and to confiscate their property. Among those killed in the ensuing reign of terror was Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator and Octavian’s former ally. Cicero and Antony were enemies but the coldblooded young Octavian did nothing to save Cicero from Antony’s vengeance. More years of civil war followed in which many more of Octavian’s enemies fell. By the time Octavian became Augustus in 27 BC, no major enemies were left alive to oppose him.

To the world’s great fortune, Augustus then used his political genius to create an era of peace – the pax Romana, the Roman Peace, one of the greatest periods of prosperity and cultural achievement in the history of the West. It was not perfect – slavery, for instance, thrived – but it was good.

There are many lessons to be learned from the stirring and terrible events of the era of Caesar and Augustus. One is the law of unintended consequences: the men who killed Caesar on the Ides of March thought they were saving the Republic, not hastening its end. The other is the need for political sagacity, for fine-tuned political skills, in order to persuade people to accept reform. And finally, we can’t overstate how fortunate we are to live in a society where political disagreements are settled by debate and not by arms, by ballots and not bullets. May it always be thus.

Barry Strauss teaches history and classics at Cornell. He is the author of
The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination (Simon & Schuster: March, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @barrystrauss.