Classical Wisdom Weekly / Wednesday, July 24th, 2013
- Who was Alexander the Great’s father?
- The mystery of the tombs in Aigai,
- Crassus’ last stand at the Battle of Carrhae…
Quotes of the Day:
“Experience, travel – these are as education in themselves” – Euripides
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca
“Why, I’d like nothing better than to achieve some bold adventure, worthy of our trip.” –Aristophanes
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
Your editor is transversing the Hellas for research, insights, inspiration and, of course, excellent photo opportunities. We started in Thessaloniki, right on Aristotelous Square, and after a few car rental mishaps and unlikely adventures, got on the road. We first stopped off in Vergina to check out the tomb of Philip II and see the sites of Ancient Macedonia.
After cruising down the coast, past Mount Olympus, we arrived in the small town of Lamia, crowned with its own acropolis and filled with late night diners. Our little Micra managed to hug the treacherous mountain curves on the way to Delphi, though we first stopped to pay our respects at the battlefield of Thermopylae. We then proceeded to get horribly lost on the way to Corinth, having selected the GPS’ ‘shortest’ (rather than quickest, ie. highway) route, which resulted in steep, overgrown, dirt paths that required a much more capable car than we were driving! Mycenae and Epidaurus were our next stops, followed by crossing the dramatically deep Corinth Canal (complete with an audacious bungee jumper) on our way to Athens.
And so, it is here in the capital that we type out today’s issue, with a fortunate view of the Temple of Zeus. With a magnificent journey such as this, how is one to choose what to write about? As there is no clear answer, we resolved on a logical course of action – Chronological. With that, find below the mystery of the Tomb of Philip II… For, despite the signs outside the museum, not all agree that the bones inside belong to the illustrious Macedonian king and father of Alexander the Great.
Additionally, you can read the finale of the Battle of Carrhae, Crassus’ Last Stand. Enjoy!
Classical Wisdom Weekly
A Macedonian Mystery: The Tombs of Aigai
By Anya Leonard
We parked in an empty, dusty lot, inhabited by only a few stray and straggling dogs. The beating sun and parched air literally stole our breathe when we opened the car doors. It’s summertime in Greece and the heat up in the dry mountains was unforgiving.
It was a Thursday when we arrived outside the small town of Vergina to explore ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great’s dramatic roots. The original name of the place was Aigai, the first city of Macedon and the resting place and palace of Philip II, father of the most famous Macedonian of all.
When we wandered over in the midday sun to the grassy mound that houses such intricate and telling treasures, we found the whole tomb to ourselves. Entering the refreshingly cool and dark chambers, the softly lit tombstones called out to us across the threshold, but only our footsteps echoed back in the damp solace for the dead. The excavated entrances to the tombs, complete with coloured architraves, were nestled deep in the earth, but the real treasures were displayed above. We peered at the elaborate golden wreath worn during the cremation, the beautifully constructed armor and weapons, as well as the golden chest, or larnax, which bears an embossed starburst, the emblem of the Macedonian royal family, and keeps the bones of the deceased king.
When Philip II inherited the throne in 359 BC, Macedonia was not the rich and powerful empire that it came to be. Surrounded by constantly invading and interfering enemies, the land was on the brink of collapse from both internal and external forces. Philip II’s ascension itself came after the death of his brother in the disastrous battle against the Illyrians, a campaign that resulted in the deaths of 4,000 Macedonian soldiers and the occupation of north-western Macedonia. It certainly wasn’t a monarchy that could afford the kind of wealth found in the tombs buried in Aigai.
But then again, Philip II was a remarkable king. He took the potentially traumatic experience of being held hostage as child and turned it into a learning opportunity of superior Greek military tactics. Once on the throne, he fought off the Illyrians in his lands and then attacked Illyria itself. He issued his forces with sarissas
, or long deadly spears, and promoted part-time soldiers into full time military men. With his now fortified army, the Macedonian King’s foreign policies became exponentially aggressive. Additionally, Philip II secured possession over the gold mines of nearby Mount Pangaeus, enabling him to finance his wars.
Throughout his reign, Philip II conquered Amphipolis and defeated the Thracians. He took the Greek cities Potidaea, Pydna, and Methone, as well as Thessaly. He subdued the Scythians and quelled rebellions. He married seven women who didn’t all try to kill each other. And he set the stage for a strong and impressive empire, one that his son, Alexander the Great, would fulfill.
But his military aggressions, ambitions, and excessive wives came at a cost. He was finally assassinated at his daughter’s wedding. It was the second day of the celebration and when Philip II entered the theater he was struck with a dagger and died instantly. The assassin Pausanias, a young Macedonian noble, attempted to escape but tripped and was killed on the spot.
The funeral for Philip II was greater than all previous kings. Alexander the Great lavished the tomb with gifts and treasures beyond anything that had been done before as tribute to his great, powerful and conquering father. These, we were told by the helpful descriptions at the museum, are the armour, the gold wreaths, the exquisitely crafted pottery found in Aigai…
… or are they?
There is, in fact, quite a lot of speculation that the remains lying in the golden chest aren’t Philip II at all. Previous archeologists had labeled the well preserved bones as Philip II based on damage to the skull, caused, they believed, by an arrow which had penetrated Philip’s right eye either during the siege of Methone or while the king was inspecting the Macedonian siege mechanisms in 354 B.C.
However, there are a few inconsistencies, which makes the thoughtful reader doubt if this is evidence enough. Researchers have discovered that the style of the artifacts in the royal tomb date to approximately 317 B.C… a generation after Philip’s assassination at his daughter’s wedding in 336 B.C.
Additionally, Philip II was a great warrior, who bravely battled at the front with his soldiers, something that surely would have brought him plenty of wounds… certainly more than just a cut to the eye. According to several ancient authors, Philip’s right collarbone had been shattered by a lance sometime around 345 B.C., a wound to his right leg in 339 B.C. had left him lame, and one of his arms had been maimed in battle. Unfortunately these scars are nowhere to be seen on the old bones in Aigai.
But then, with all the royalty and pomp found in those deep quiet chambers, whose skeleton is it?
Rather than Philip II, historians now believe that the tomb actually belongs to Alexander the Great’s half brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus, a considerably less exciting historical figure.
Apparently he too was a king, but in name only, as Philip III may have been physically disabled or mentally ill. Plutarch reported in the second century A.D. that, as a child, Philip III was poisoned by Alexander the Great’s mother, Olympias in an attempted assassination. Alexander the Great was, in fact, second in line to the throne – after Philip III- and supposedly Olympias wanted to change that. If true, this story may explain why the remains in Aigai show few signs of physical stress, something that is consistent with a person of weak constitution.
There is something else that is special about the bones in that tomb… they are remarkably well preserved. Like, really astonishingly well preserved, completely different from the usual pile of ashes and fragments. There was also (maybe not so coincidentally) something special about Philip III’s funeral. Unlike most kings, whose corpses were set alight on the pyre almost immediately after their last breathe, Philip III’s body wasn’t cremated until a full month after his death. He was assassinated, possibly by Olympias, in 317 B.C. and then buried. Ancient historians report that Philip III’s successor later exhumed, cremated, and re-buried the sickly royal as publicity stunt. The fact that Phillip III’s body was already ‘dried’ could explain why the skeleton is still so complete.
As for the skull damage which supposedly identifies the bones as Philip II (not III)… well, researchers have an answer for that too. Those nicks and bumps could be just normal bone deviations and consequences of the cremation process.
Of course, the facts aren’t all in… and much of the evidence is circumstantial. Why would an inconsequential king have so much treasure and immortal glory? Alternatively, can we claim it’s Philip II when enough clues don’t add up? Indeed, it’s a mystery that might never be fully solved, but you can be sure that the museum will be slow to surrender to this potential discovery, along with all the fans who flock there to see what they believe to be the bones of Philip II.
The Battle of Carrhae is on its last legs. The Parthians, led by their slippery general Surena, are slaughtering the Romans, who are headed by their imperator Crassus. After a painful battle, full of deceit, the Romans have started their retreat, but traitors and spies are everywhere… Will the Romans escape their brutal enemy? Read below to find out how the Battle of Carrhae ends….
Need to catch up?
Read Part I – “Dark Moments in Roman History: The Battle of Carrhae” HERE.
Read Part II – “Battle of Carrhae: Shower of Death” HERE.
Read Part III – “Battle of Carrhae: Heads will Role” HERE.
Read Part IV – “Crassus’ Retreat at the Battle of Carrhae” HERE.
The Finale of the Battle of Carrhae: The Last Stand
By Cam Rea
Crassus quickly mustered the men and headed towards Sinnaca at night. The man to guide them was Andromachus. All was going well until some of the Roman officers began to notice something strange was going on. Andromachus was leading them in one direction and then making sudden turns. The army continued on zigzagging until they reached a marshy area which was difficult to trespass.
Another Roman officer by the name of Octavius, who had reliable guides, noticed the bizarre movement patterns and rode off from the main body with 5,000 men to Sinnaca, where he was able to set up a defensive position there. As for Crassus, the day came and still no Sinnaca in sight. Instead, he was still meandering around in the marsh with four cohorts, a few cavalry and five lictors, or bodyguards.
Andromachus eventually got the Romans on the right road and only a mile and half away from Sinnaca… but it was too late. The Parthians had spotted the Romans and were charging towards them. Crassus and his men quickly set up defensive positions on a small hill that provided little protection against the Parthian cavalry. However, the inadequate hill had one advantage; it was below Sinnaca and had a ridge that ran from the hill to Sinnaca, where Octavius was already set up.
Octavius could barely see what was going on down below, but knew Crassus was in trouble. He quickly assembled his men and rushed down the ridge. Once he arrived the Romans were able to push back the Parthian cavalry just enough to cover Crassus with their shields. Octavius made it clear to the Parthians and declared “that there was no arrow in Parthia that should touch the body of their imperator, so long as there was one of them left alive to fight in his defense.”
The Romans were ferocious in their defense that the Parthian cavalry slowly lost the will to push on. Surena, being the wise tactician he was, understood that an army with its back against the wall will put up the uttermost strength. Instead of pressing on the attack, Surena came up with a new strategy that did not require a sword.
This plan was once again full of deception.
Once the Parthian attack ceased, Surena met with his council to discuss the peace terms and how Crassus would be treated. However, Surena did this in the presence of the nearby Roman prisoners to show that he, like the king, wanted nothing more than to end this war with Rome and be friends. Additionally, Surena made it clear that Crassus would be treated kindly. After the terms had been agreed upon, he freed the Roman prisoners.
By allowing the Roman prisoners to hear the desired terms of the Parthians, and releasing them to go back to their own camp to tell the good news, Surena was setting up his own version of a Trojan horse.
Once the freed Roman prisoners arrived at their camp they were excited and immediately shared the news. The Romans were overjoyed that finally this war will come to an end. Surena, accompanied by the nobles, rode to the Roman camp. He unstrung his bow and held out his hand. He was offering the Romans a truce and promised them their safe return.
The Romans were thrilled that the news was actually true. However, Crassus wisely distrusted Surena’s offer. Crassus had been deceived at almost every turn along the way… as well as during the retreat. Thus Crassus could not believe that the Parthians would just let him and his men go in peace. Because of Crassus’ attitude towards Surena’s peace proposal, the Romans soldiers grew hostile towards their leader, insulting him in every way and even accused him of being a coward. Unsurprisingly, Crassus did not take kindly to these words; rather he was disheartened and frightened, but understood the men’s feelings.
Therefore, Crassus approached Surena but was terrified. Before he spoke a word to Surena, he turned around, looked at the men, and said, “Octavius and Petronius and all you other Roman officers present, you see that I am being forced to go this way. You are eye-witnesses of the shameful and violent treatment which I have received.”
Crassus made it clear that he did not want his officers to think that his own men, through their desire for peace, handed over Crassus to the enemy. Rather that the enemy was so good and decisive that they were able to capture Crassus through deception.
In the end, Crassus would make his way down the hill to meet with Surena. The Romans were on foot and the Parthians were on horseback. Surena was shocked that Crassus, the imperator of Rome was on foot, he quickly offered him a horse but Crassus declined the offer, saying he was merely following the custom of his own country.
Surena quickly went straight to the point and informed Crassus that peace exists between King Orodes and the Romans. In order to make this deal final, an agreement must be signed near the Euphrates River. Surena then said “We find that you Romans have not got very good memories about the terms of treaties.”
Crassus called for a horse when suddenly Surena offered him a steed with a golden bridle as a present. Having accepted, the grooms lifted Crassus up onto the saddle and ran alongside the horse, whipping it to go faster. Octavius quickly charged after Crassus and got hold of the bridle, while Petronius, along with the men, surrounded the horse to slow the animal down.
It was during this struggle with the horse that a brawl broke out. It seems that the Parthian grooms did little to slow the beast down, which caused Octavius to draw his sword and kill one of them; but was then killed himself. Petronius also was struck, but his breastplate saved him. Finally, Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.
When Crassus lay dead, Surena ordered the rest of men to come down from the hill and have no fear. Not every Roman trusted Surena’s word, and many stayed put, waiting for night to fall in order to escape. Some of them reached safety, while many others were killed or captured. In all, 20,000 Romans were slaughtered while another 10,000 were taken prisoner.
While Plutarch does not mention the fate of the prisoners after their capture, Pliny the Elder does. He mentions that they were taken to the province of Margiana, possibly the city of Merv, to protect the Parthian frontier. “This is the place to which the Roman prisoners taken in the disaster of Crassus were brought by Orodes.”
The lyric poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace, who wrote during the time of Augustus, adds a bit more detail in one of his poems. Apparently the prisoners married into the native population.
As for the body of Crassus, Surena had his head and right hand cut off and sent to King Orodes, who happened to be in Armenia… but more on this later.
Surena, however, wasn’t quite done yet. He wanted to humiliate the Romans even more… So he decided to have a little fun with the event. He sent messengers to Seleucia, a city which had been hostile to Parthia from time to time and likely hoped for Crassus’ arrival. Surena’s messengers informed the powers that be in Seleucia that he was bringing Crassus alive.
However, the man to be paraded through the streets of Seleucia was Gaius Paccianus, who was picked to play the part because he happened to look like Crassus. Surena had Paccianus put on a queen’s dress, placed on a horse, and was ordered that when addressed he should answer that he is the Imperator Crassus. In front of this mock Crassus was trumpeters and a few lictors, or Roman bodyguards, on camelback.
In fact, it was the lictors who displayed the most gruesome sight. They carried the Roman fasces (a bound bundle of wooden rods which symbolized the magistrate’s power and jurisdiction) with purses swinging from the rods and freshly severed Roman heads hanging from the axes.
Bringing up the rear of the parade were women singing songs about the coward named Crassus. It was a parade of death and a warning not only aimed at Rome, but also to the Grecian city of Seleucia who hoped for Roman occupation.
As for King Orodes, he was busy feasting and drinking with his newly conquered ally, King Artavasdes of Aremnia. Artavasdes agreed to allow his sister’s wife to marry Orodes’ son, Pacorus. As the kings feasted while watching the Greek performance of Euripides’ Bacchae, an officer by the name of Sillaces arrived with a war trophy; it was the head and hand of Crassus.
In usual tradition, Sillaces bowed down low before his king and then threw the head of Crassus unto the stage. King Orodes told Sillaces to stand up and take a seat at the banquet. It was at this moment that one of the actors, named Jason of Tralles, who had been playing the part of Pentheus during the play, grabbed the head of Crassus, switched costume and put on the attire of Agave, who according to the story, happened to murder her own son Pentheus, severing his head and carrying it back to Thebes on a stick.
While holding Crassus’ head, Jason sang loudly to the audience:
“We bring from the mountain
A tendril fresh-cut to the palace,
A wonderful prey.” Euripides, The Bacchantes.
Everyone in the audience was happy, except for King Artavasdes. While he was likely delighted that the Romans had been beaten, he was also a realist. He knew that the Romans would be back with hostile intentions… It was the Roman way.
The Battle of Carrhae series is from Cam Rea’s upcoming book, “Leviathan vs. Behemoth: The Roman-Parthian Wars 66 BC–217 AD”. The book should be completed by fall and published sometime next year.
Classical Wisdom Weekly
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