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“Here he found the women fighting and perishing in company with the men with such bravery that they uttered no cry even in the midst of slaughter.” (Appian, The Spanish Wars, 15: 71,72)
“A whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Gaul] in a fight, if he calls in his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.” — Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman Antiquities, Book XV – 12
“Beware the Ides of March.”
You may hear that phrase today because the 15th of March is referred to as the ‘Ides of March’ and marks the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general, Consul, statesman, and notable author of Latin prose. He was both a conquering hero and a dictator. He played an essential role in the history of Ancient Rome, acting out pivotal parts in events that led to the demise of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Caesar started off as an accomplished military man, fighting for the glory of Rome. He was able to extend Roman territory to the English channel and the Rhine in his conquest of Gaul, completed by 51 BC.
He became the first Roman general to invade Britain.
His achievements awarded him the position of an unmatched military prowess, but also threatened to eclipse the role of Pompey, the military and political leader of the late Roman Republic. Pompey, who had previously held an alliance with Caesar and Crassus, had realigned himself with the senate after Crassus’ death in 53 BC.
When the Gallic wars had finished, the Senate ordered Caesar to lay down his weapons and commanded him to return to Rome. Caesar, however, refused. In 49 BC he crossed the Rubicon with a legion. This was the moment that marked his defiance; he had left his province and illegally entered Roman territory, bearing arms. A civil war ensued, but Caesar emerged as the unrivaled leader of Rome.
Caesar assumed control of the government and then proceeded to install a program of social and governmental reforms, such as the creation of the Julian Calendar. He centralised the bureaucracy of the Republic and eventually was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity”.
Caesar, however, was not popular with everyone – especially the politicos he had ignored.
On March 15th, 44 BC, the Ides of March, Caesar was stabbed to death at a senate meeting.
According to Plutarch, Caesar had been told that this would come to pass. A seer had warned Caesar that harm would come to him, no later than the Ides on March. Then on that fateful day, Caesar passed the prophesier on his walk to the Theatre of Pompey, the place were he would be murdered. He quipped, “The ides of March have come”, thinking that the morbid prophecy had not been fulfilled.
To this the seer replied, “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”
It is thought that as many as 60 conspirators were involved in the assassination, led by Brutus and Cassius. This scene, as dramatized by William Shakespeare has given us the famous lines, “Beware the Ides of March” and “Et tu, Brute?”
Whether the date was, in fact, the 15th of March is up to debate, as the Roman calendar was structured differently from our modern calendars. For one thing, they only had 10 months. Additionally, the Romans did not number the days of the month sequentially from the first to the last. They actually counted back from three fixed points with in the month and varied depending on the length of the month. These included the Nones (5th or 7th), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st of the following month).
The Ides occurred on the 15th for March, May, July and October, and were supposed to be determined by the full moon. (This reflects the lunar origins of the Roman calendar).
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We think of Graeco-Roman world as a fairly rational, even secular. However, classical societies were extremely superstitious. In the ancient world, people used religion and magic to help them to cope with what, for them, could be an unpredictable and brutal world.
This led to the rise of not only many religious sects, but also charlatans and impostors.
One of the most notorious of these was Alexander of Abonoteichus. According to one source, he was a false prophet who founded a religion that was enormously influential in the Roman Empire.
Alexander of Abonoteichus
Our main source for Alexander of Abonoteichus is the writer Lucian, a Greek from what is now Syria. However, there are many cultural artifacts, such as coins, that prove that he was a historical figure. Lucian’s account of Alexander is very hostile, and this has colored our perception of him.
Born before 150 ADS in Abonoteichus, a Greek settlement on the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor, Alexander may have been a disciple of the prophet and philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. At some point, he joined a traveling medicine shows that preyed upon the gullible, and during this time he acquired his skills. Alexander was not an ordinary conman—he had ambitions.
The Rise of a Fraud
Sometime around 160 AD, Alexander established a snake cult in his home town of Abonoteichus. The sacred snake was worshipped as Glycon, and according to Lucian, it was a hand puppet manipulated by Alexander. Alexander also persuaded the people of Paphlagonians that Glycon was the reincarnation of the god Apollo. Alexander had Glycon prophesying and offering advice on healing. The cult grew enormously popular and attracted many followers from all over the Eastern Mediterranean.
Lucian writes that Glycon would give ‘nocturnal’ oracles and advise, but only to those who paid. One source claimed that the shrine of the snake god provided 80,000 oracles, paid handsomely for each one. Alexander and his circle must have been fabulously rich. Lucian relates that many people asked Glycon questions and often received answers that were nonsensical or irrelevant. Even so, the faithful came in droves.
Many infertile couples would bring gifts to the shrine in the hope that they would become pregnant. Because of the popularity of his cult, Alexander became very influential in Asia Minor, marrying the daughter of the governor.
The Snake God and Roman Emperors
The 160s AD were exceedingly difficult ones for the Roman Empire. It was ravaged by plague and suffered greatly due to wars with German and other tribes. This meant that many people were willing to believe that Glycon channeled the divine. Versified oracles from Glycon were found inscribed on amulets from the 2nd century AD, attesting to the popularity of the cult.
Alexander was personally summoned by Marcus Aurelius in order to provide oracles, and thus went to Rome. The emperor, faced with a major battle with the Germans on the Danuban frontier, asked Glycon how to win. The snake-god (or glove puppet) told Marcus Aurelius that he would win if he sacrificed two lions by drowning them in the Danube. The battle nonetheless was a disaster for the Romans, one of their greatest defeats in the Macromannic War.
However, this does not seem to have ended the influence of the snake-cult in the Roman Empire. Instead, its popularity grew and is credited with the expansion of the town of Abonoteichus, which was renamed Ionapolis.
The End of Alexander of Abonoteichus
The power and respect that Alexander and his cult held in the late 2nd century AD is evidenced by the discovery of coins that depict Glycon.
The cult of Glycon outlived Alexander, and there is evidence that it was still widely practiced in parts of the Aegean a century after his death. Lucian relates that Alexander declared he would live until he was 150, but died about the age of 70 of a terrible disease.
It appears that the glove puppet was abandoned and Glycon was worshipped in an abstract form. There is some evidence that the religion spread to the region around the Danube. There are also indications that Alexander came to be regarded as the son of Asclepius. It is believed the cult of Glycon finally disappeared in the 4th century AD, after the Christianization of the Roman Empire.
Alexander of Abonoteichus was likely a false prophet and a fraud. The cult of Glycon is testament to the search for meaning in a time of crisis. Alexander was able to use a glove puppet to make himself rich and powerful, eventually establishing a religion that lasted centuries.
Lucian (1925). Alexander the False Prophet. Translated by A Harmon.
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Athens produced many outstanding individuals, and one of the most remarkable was Cimon. A leading political and military figures of his day, Cimon left an indelible mark on Athens and Greece.
Cimon’s Early Career
Cimon (510-451 BC) was the son of the great Athenian general Miltiades, who had defeated the Persians at Marathon. His mother was a Thracian princess. However, Miltiades fell into disgrace and died. Left the head of his household, Cimon found himself in debt and used his aristocratic connections to pay it off. He then launched a military and political career.
Cimon fought with great distinction at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC) and was elected one of the ten generals of Athens in 479. He was instrumental in the formation of the Delian League, which gave the Athens control over the Greek navy, side-lining the Spartans. He worked closely with the conservative politician Aristides. During his political career, Cimon was associated with the conservatives in Athens.
While the Persian invasion of Greece failed, the Persians were still a threat. Cimon led several naval expeditions which sought to beat the Persians back in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Athenian expelled Pausanias, a Spartan general suspected of having treasonable dealings with the Persian Emperor Xerxes, from Byzantium. Cimon drove the last of Xerxes’ forces from Thrace. He then attacked a nest of pirates and defeated them on the island of Scyros, which he took for Athens. He became very popular at home and was widely seen as the leader of the conservative party. His main rival was Pericles, the leader of the popular party.
The Pinnacle of Cimon’s Career
In 466, Cimon was operating in the Eastern Mediterranean and commanded a fleet of 200 ships. At this time, the Greek cities in Asia Minor, supported by the Delian League, had thrown off the Persian yoke. A massive Persian army gathered at the mouth of the River Eurymedon in Pamphylia (in modern-day Turkey), aiming to retake the Greek cities in Asia Minor and once more threaten mainland Greece. A bold, aggressive commander, Cimon decided to attack the Persians first. He launched a surprise assault on the Persian ships, destroying their entire fleet. Yet many Persian sailors that landed on the beach joined the Persian forces deployed there. Cimon ordered marines to attack them, inflicting a decisive defeat.
Aftermath of the Battle of River Eurymedon
The battle was a great victory for Cimon, making him the Delian League master of the Eastern Mediterranean. He had beaten back the Persians to such an extent that it was to be nearly twenty years before they menaced the Greeks in the region.
However, Cimon did not press home his advantage. Some believe that he did not want to overextend his forces. It is also likely that many members of the Delian League had become restive, and one the island of Thasos had even revolted. Cimon may have felt unable to conduct any more offensive operations against Xerxes. For two years, he laid siege on Thasos. There were reports that he was bribed by the Macedonian king not to attack his territories, even though many Greeks suspected that he had collaborated with the Persians and had encouraged the Thasians. Pericles and the populists brought corruption charges against Cimon. He was acquitted, but his reputation suffered greatly.
Cimon and Sparta
Like many conservative politicians in Athens, Cimon was sympathetic to Sparta. In 462 AD, Sparta was shaken by a rebellion. The helots, or state-owned slaves, had established a fortress on Mount Ithome. Sparta sought the assistance of Athens and her other Greek allies. Cimon called for the Athenians to intervene on behalf of Sparta. He was granted a force of 4,000 hoplites and they marched on Spartan territories. However, Cimon’s attack on the rebels was a failure. The Spartans became suspicious of the Athens and ordered them to return to Attica. This was a humiliation for Cimon and upon his return to his home city, he was ostracized and eventually exiled.
Cimon’s Later Career
The fall of Cimon transformed Athenian politics. Pericles and his allies were able to seize control of the government and they passed several democratic reforms. They also waged a war against the Spartans in the First Peloponnesian War. Cimon volunteered to fight as a common soldier and many of his followers died bravely in the battle against the Spartans. This convinced many in Athens to rescind his exile. Cimon worked tirelessly to reconcile the two most powerful Hellenic states. In 451, a peace treaty was signed by both sides and this ended the First Peloponnesian War. Cimon may have played a role in this, and indeed was given command of a large fleet at the end of the conflict. Later, Cimon laid siege to the city of Citium in Cyprus, during which he is believed to have died of a wound or illness.
Cimon played a crucial role in the rise to power of Athens and he was one of the architects of the Athenian Empire. He was a great naval commander, driving the Persians out of the Eastern Mediterranean. His pro-Spartan policies made him unpopular in Athens and politically speaking, he was out-maneuvered by Pericles. Cimon wanted Athens to ally with Sparta. If he had succeeded, this would have prevented the cataclysmic Athenian defeat in the Second Peloponnesian War and possibly even the rise of the Kingdom of Macedon.
Holland, Tom (2006). Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. Abacus.
Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Roman Republic was moulded rather decisively by the fall of the monarchy. The Republic was designed to prevent the re-emergence of rule by a single person. Rome’s last monarch was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (died 495 BC). His tyranny provoked a rebellion, and this was to lead to the Republic which was to change the history of the Classical World.
The early life of the tyrant
Superbus was related to Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of the previous Etruscan king Servius Tullius. He was a member of the Tarquin Dynasty. His grandfather Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, had been an Etruscan by birth and had been adopted by the fourth Roman king. He later became his heir and ruled Rome for many years.
This story may indicate that Etruscans had conquered the Latin City and had imposed a king of Rome. The sources version of events, which were written down many years later, are not regarded as reliable. It is claimed by Cicero that Superbus conspired with his future wife to become king. He killed his wife and then assassinated the 6th king of Rome Servius Tullius. He was the only king to seize power by force in Roman regal history. The Roman king only ruled a small area at this time and was more like a petty king or chieftain.
The reign of Tarquin
Tarquin came to power in either 595 or 594 BC and he proved to be a capable if ruthless ruler.
Traditionally, the king had worked with the Roman nobility. However, Tarquin proved to be a despot and had no respect for the law or tradition. His name Superbus means the ‘proud’ in Old Latin.
Tarquin intimidated the Roman Senate and set aside the precedents established by Romulus. In this way, he was similar to later tyrannical Emperors such as Nero and Caligula. Tarquin often sentenced senators to death for alleged crimes and frequently used capital punishment against his real and imagined enemies. He initiated a reign of terror in Rome.
The dictator was a shrewd politician and he made Rome the head of the Latin League. He did this by charging his main rival with a spurious plot against the Latins. Tarquin was an aggressive leader and he waged war against the Volsci and Aequi and expanded the territory of Rome. He was careful to maintain peace with the powerful Etruscans. Tarquin was a great builder, as many tyrants are. He built a huge Temple to Jupiter and began the construction of the Forum.
Tarquin and the Sibylline Books
The King was approached by the Cumaean Sibyl, who offered him nine books of prophecy. She was the priestess at a shrine to Apollo and was famed for her powers of second sight.
The priestess demanded a huge sum for the books. Tarquin dismissed her and in response, Sibyl burned three of the books. She returned to Tarquin and offered him the six books for the same price. Again, the king refused to pay and dismissed the priestess. The old priestess returned and offered the three remaining books for the same price. Tarquin at last relented and in this way, Rome obtained the Sibylline Books.
The books were a collection of oracular maxims written in Greek verse and they were widely consulted by the Roman Senate, especially during times of crisis.
Downfall and exile of Tarquin
By 509 BC, the Roman population was tired of Tarquin and his brutal and burdensome rule. Tarquin went on a campaign that year but this was not a success, as the enemy refused to engage with the Romans.
Tarquin’s son after a night’s drinking raped a Roman noblewoman and she told members of the nobility after her family refused to help her. The Roman noblemen, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, began to plot the overthrow of Tarquin.
Lucretia committed suicide and Brutus swore on her dead body that he would end the monarchy and free the Roman people. They moved slowly and secured the support of the Roman nobility and many of the ordinary people.
Interestingly, Lucius was an ancestor of the Brutus who was involved in the plot against Julius Caesar. Brutus and others summoned an assembly of the people and the Senators, and they voted for the expulsion of Tarquin and end the monarchy.
The army refused to support the monarch and he was forced into exile. He attempted to regain his crown but he failed and he died in exile in Cumae. In 495 BC, the elderly former king, at the head of an alliance of Latins was defeated by Rome at the Battle of Lake Regillius.
The Romans replaced the monarchy with two consuls, who shared supreme executive power, for a year. The Republican system was designed to ensure that no single person could become the ruler.
Tarquin was the last king of the Romans. However, he helped to establish the city-state as the greatest power in central Italy and was a great builder. It cannot be denied that he was a despot and that he ruled Rome with an iron fist. His rule was so brutal that it made the Romans determined to never have a king again. This led to the foundation of the Roman Republic, which may not have happened if Tarquin had ruled like his predecessors. The anti-monarchical political culture of Rome was unique and it ultimately transformed the city-state into a Mediterranean power.