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In Search of Cleopatra: The Early Years

by July 16, 2021

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Before apocryphally rolling out of the carpet and into legend, Cleopatra (69 BCE-30 BCE) already had a storied past. The twenty-one-year old and her thirteen-year old brother-husband Ptolemy XIII (62 BCE-47 BCE) ruled together for close to two years before said brother—under the influence of his overly ambitious advisors—successfully banished Cleopatra from Alexandria. Prudently using her mastery of the Egyptian language—the first Ptolemy to do so in the nearly three-hundred-year-old dynasty—Cleopatra mounted an army to defeat Ptolemy. It was only shortly thereafter that she had the legendary encounter with Caesar. Yet most of what has been penned about Cleopatra was drawn after her stars became aligned with those of ancient Rome; written from the decidedly biased perspective of the Romans. Time and again we know Cleopatra as the subversive siren from the corrupted East who seduced two of ancient Rome’s greatest generals.
What could account for so much ire against the Egyptian queen? The truth is that in order to justify an unpopular civil war against his rival Mark Antony (83 BCE-30 BCE), Gaius Octavius “Octavian” (later Augustus—63 BCE-14 CE) launched first a propaganda campaign then a full-scale war against Egypt by painting Cleopatra as an Eastern harlot who seduced Antony with her blend of depraved sorcery.  Octavian’s crusade against her soon took hold in the rank imaginations of the xenophobic and misogynist Romans. In his Odes, Horace calls her a “fatal monster,” Sextus Propertius refers to her as the “whore queen” in Elegies and in Lucan’s Poems she is termed “Egypt’s shame.” Yet what is never mentioned about the Egyptian queen is that she didn’t have a drop of Egyptian blood. In fact, her lineage derived from a Macedonian Greek, celebrated as a hero in ancient Rome, whose military accomplishments were the ambition of every Roman leader.
It is an irony that forasmuch as the Romans glorified Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE), they heaped an equivalent amount of scorn and disdain on Cleopatra who was not only Alexander’s political heir but may very well have been his biological heir as well. Founding member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I Soter (367 BCE-83 CE) was one of Alexander’s three most trusted Macedonian generals and by some accounts, his half-brother as well. Although vilified within Greek city states, polygamy was practiced in the Greek kingdom of Macedonia, especially amongst the ruling class. Phillip II (386-336 BCE), Alexander’s father, had several wives and many children; Ptolemy was the son of one of his multiple wives. Alexander even had a sister named Kleopatra, which in Greek means “glory of the father.” Truth told, Cleopatra was a common name amongst queens in Ptolemaic Egypt; Cleopatra, its final queen, was number seven. Alas, Cleopatra’s link to Alexander continued after her demise; the Hellenistic period begins and ends with the deaths of Alexander and Cleopatra.
Bust of Alexander the Great
After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided between his three generals with Ptolemy winning the grand prize of Egypt. Alexandria, founded by Alexander in 331 BCE, had become Egypt’s new Hellenistic capital. Because of the optimal location of Alexandria’s port—midway between the burgeoning metropolis of Rome and the orient—it was transformed into an international market and intellectual mecca almost overnight. During its peak Alexandria was the largest and most affluent city in the world; the upstart, backwater Rome paled in comparison to the glittering marble and jewel-encrusted splendor of Alexandria. Sparing no expense for their shining city by the bay, the early Ptolemies were responsible for commissioning some of the most notable architecture of the ancient world.  The Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built on the island of Pharos adjacent to Alexandria, it stood at an indomitable height of more than three hundred and fifty feet—only the pyramids at Giza were higher. Another draw for both Greeks and Romans alike was the sumptuous and much coveted glass enclosed Tomb of Alexander, first on display in the former capital of Memphis then permanently housed in Alexandria. Further, under Ptolemy I the Great Library of Alexandria and its accompanying museum (mouseion-home of the muses) was built.  Second to none in the Hellenized world, the transcendent Great Library and Mouseion attracted the best minds of the day with it becoming a mark of distinction to be educated by an Alexandrian scholar. No other library in the world could boast the number of scrolls with estimates ranging from 40,000-400,000. Intellectually gifted with a talent for language—she was fluent in nine of them—it was in this rarified space that Cleopatra flourished.
Library of Alexandria
Even her most ardent detractors begrudgingly praise Cleopatra on her considerable conversational and rhetoric skills. In his Lives of Marcus Antonius Plutarch quips: “Plato speaks of four kinds of flattery, but Cleopatra knew a thousand.” While her sweeping intellect and aptitude for languages was innate, her erudition and rhetoric skills could only have been learned.  Though the Greeks kept their daughters in a state of near ignorance, the Ptolemaic females were educated alongside their male counterparts. After all, on account of sibling marriage, Ptolemaic girls stood just as good a chance at governing as their boys.  Sibling marriage was a tradition that the Ptolemies continued from their Pharoahic forebears and was used as a means of keeping power amongst the clan by not weakening the Macedonian bloodline; it also helped prevent foreign powers from infiltrating Egypt.
While growing up, Cleopatra didn’t have to look far to find authoritative female role models. Sibling marriage gave Ptolemaic women power they would never have otherwise had; the sister/wives ruled right alongside their brother/husbands in governance. In an era when women were better seen (though rarely in public) than heard, Ptolemaic female rulers were responsible for overseeing public works, building temples, mounting defense and waging war. Moreover, Egypt was a country which was progressive for its time in gender relations. Unlike in Greece, Egyptian women could make their own marriages and once married did not have to defer to their husband’s will. They could divorce, hold property and were able to inherit. All things of which Greek women could only dream.
Though Egyptian women may have been liberated, in Ptolemaic Egypt, queens still needed a male co-regent. Cleopatra’s options were limited.  Her choices were her ten-year-old brother, or her even younger brother. Married in name only, Cleopatra ruled as the sole monarch with Ptolemy XIII, as consort for the close to two years after which time he and his counsels had her ousted. Just as she was amassing an army in Syria to take back the throne, a Civil War ensued between Julius Caesar (100 BCE-44 BCE) and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or Pompey (106 BCE-48 BCE). After Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus, in order to remain in good graces with the victor, Ptolemy XIII, with the help of his notorious advisors drew up a plan to dispatch their old friend and benefactor Pompey by repeatedly stabbing him as he stepped ashore in Egypt. For this heinous act, Ptolemy XIII landed in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, alongside Judas. Shortly thereafter, upon visiting Egypt, Caesar was presented with Pompey’s decapitated head as a gift which the boy-king thought the Roman dictator would appreciate. Caesar was repulsed and reportedly wept upon seeing the head of his adversary who had once been a close friend and his former son-in-law.
Antony and Cleopatra
The history of Cleopatra’s activities during this time is murky. Indeed, her story isn’t fully recorded until it aligns with that of the Rome’s. What we do know is that shortly after Caesar lands in Egypt, Cleopatra exhibits all the ingenuity for which she would become famous. Did she first meet Caesar rolled up in a carpet as Plutarch reports? She would have had to do something outrageous as the cards were mightily stacked against her. According to legend, while in a ship she slipped by dark of night through Ptolemy’s impenetrable blockade then hid in the paltry boat of Apollodorus the Sicilian. We’ll never know how he did it, but somehow while Cleopatra was wrapped in a carpet, Apollodorus strode past the probing eyes of countless sentinels who were on the lookout for the diminutive queen, finally presenting his precious cargo into the private quarters of the Roman general himself. There is much speculation about their first encounter. Ever the ladies’ man, Caesar was likely soon smitten by the charismatic and erudite Cleopatra whom he promptly restored to the throne to rule alongside her impetuous and errant brother as their father’s will had dictated. When it was made known to Ptolemy XIII that he would once again be ruling alongside his sister, in a rage, he threw off his crown and ran out of the room in tears—displaying all of his thirteen years of age.
Alas, poor Ptolemy! After his tantrum, he was not much long for the world. He was believed drowned during the prolonged Battle of Alexandria which ensued shortly after Caesar reinstalled Cleopatra to the crown. Ptolemy XIV (61 BCE-44 BCE) soon followed XIII in co-regency, but once Cleopatra produced her (and Caesar’s) male heir and consort—Caesarion or Ptolemy XV (47 BCE-30 BCE), XIV’s time on the planet didn’t fare much longer than his unfortunate brother. It should be noted here that although the Ptolemies were known for many things throughout their nearly three-hundred-year dynasty, familial harmony was not one of them. A long history of bloodlust follows the clan. Even Cleopatra’s own father had her eldest sister, Berenice IV (77 BCE-55 BCE), executed for usurping the throne during his time away in Rome.  Notorious for conspiring against her while they were alive, Cleopatra’s three remaining siblings were ultimately all put to rest during her reign.
Cleopatra and Caesar (1866) by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Cast as a femme fatale by the victor’s propagandists, to this day Cleopatra’s astounding achievements have often been overlooked. When she inherited the throne from her father, she also inherited an Egypt that was a weak client of Rome’s and in substantial debt. Yet in the space of a few short years in a series of clever financial maneuvers she was able to transform Egypt’s debt into surplus and regain Egypt’s status as a power player. Under her aegis, Egypt became a flourishing state once again; Alexandrians, long known for their revolts against her predecessors when times were lean (there were two such insurrections against her father) were sufficiently appeased never to stage a revolt during Cleopatra’s twenty-one-year reign.
Despite Rome being hot on her heels, Cleopatra not only expanded Egypt’s empire to its size at the time of Alexander the Great, she went beyond those borders to Egypt’s size at its pinnacle one thousand years earlier. She transformed Egypt into a world superpower, the entirety of the known world within her grasp. After hers and Antony’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, bountiful Egypt became the Roman province for which Octavian yearned. Yet for all the Roman ire against Cleopatra, Egypt didn’t soon forget their regal queen whom in life they revered as a deity. For hundreds of years after her death she was still worshipped and even today is celebrated throughout the world as an icon, oftentimes compared to her predecessor and exemplar, Alexander the Great.
With an emphasis in Women’s Studies, Mary Naples earned a Master of Arts in Humanities from Dominican University of California in 2013. Her deep love of antiquity is reflected in her writing which, amongst other things, explores women’s narratives in the Greek and Roman worlds. Presently, she is working on an eBook about feminine consciousness in ancient Greece. More of her articles can be found on her website: www.femminaclassica.com. Since 2013, Mary has been a contributing writer for Classical Wisdom.
Mary will be speaking on the topic of ‘Cleopatra – Twilight of an Empire’ as part of our online 2021 Symposium. Reserve your tickets today here at a price of your choice.

Becoming Boudica: How Celtic Female Warrior Culture Challenged Rome

by April 23, 2021

Written by Tom G. Hamilton, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that the Celts made no distinction of sex when appointing their commanders and in western Iberia. According to the Greek historian Strabo, women fought alongside men. For the Celts, a woman could not only wage war—she was also a warrior herself. 
But first: what were the Celts doing in western Iberia? After all, the first countries that come to mind when one thinks of Celtic culture are not Spain and Portugal, which principally comprise the Iberian peninsula (along with a small area of southern France and Gibraltar). But the Celts did indeed live there—and had for a long time. In fact, DNA studies link Celtic roots to the Iberian peninsula. In ancient times, Celtic culture was associated with all of Atlantic Europe—an area that encompasses the British Isles, Portugal, Belgium, parts of Spain, France and northern Germany—creating a major cultural division between Atlantic and Central Europe.
This divide can be seen in many areas. For example, unlike other European cultures, in the Celtic world, domestic roles went out the window in the event of war. In conflict situations Celtic women dropped what they were doing and took up arms.
It was no surprise then that Celtic Queen Boudica, who is known to history for leading a revolt against Rome, had been initiated into the elite warrior class. She rose quickly in the army’s ranks until she had earned the respect of invading Roman legionaries and generals alike. Boudica came very close to changing Rome’s ambitions about Britain forever. 
Credit: Claire Legacy Art
The tribal confederation of Queen Boudica were known as the Vettones. They were a warrior people, and indeed the word Vetton comes from the Celtic roots UEK–TI meaning “warrior.” War was their default mode of existence, and it included women.  
The Vetton female warriors were hardly an anomaly in Celtic culture—on the contrary, many Celtic women were skilled fighters. Indeed, an unknown Roman soldier allegedly once said: “A Celtic woman is often the equal of any Roman man in hand-to-hand combat. She is as beautiful as she is strong. Her body is comely but fierce. The physiques of our Roman women pale in comparison.” 
Further descriptions of these Celtic women in hand-to-hand combat are even more detailed and should not be omitted from our attention. Greek historian Appian of Alexandria, describing Sextus Junius Brutus’ campaigns against the Celtic tribes in Lusitania, writes:
“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)
Regarding Gaulish women, the Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus writes:
“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
Celtic lore and legend celebrated women as valiant and warlike. Take Aoife and Scathach, two rival female warriors from folklore, for example.
Scáthach, teacher of fighters on the the Isle of Skye @HowardDavid Johnson
Scathach had taught Cú Chulainn, the Irish mythological demigod and great warrior in Irish and Scottish legends. He insisted on taking Scathach’s place in a one-to-one combat challenge called by Aoife. In the combat she reduced his sword to a stump but he, knowing beforehand that her most precious things were her two horses and chariot, distracted her attention by saying her horses and chariot were falling off a distant cliff. Aoife turned back and in that moment Cú  managed to overpower her. According to the story, they ended up as lovers and she bore Cú a son. 
Whilst motherhood and nurturing were considered sacred feminine qualities in the Celtic tradition, courage and ability to fight in close combat were considered equally important. Celtic spirituality and warfare were not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they were intertwined. A similar fluidity can be seen in gender roles. Being a man in Celtic society and culture had no macho overtone. Calling on your wife as equal—or even superior—to assist you wasn’t considered a weakness. What’s more, a woman could train a man in the art of warfare.
Perhaps Aoife and Scathach really existed and the legend was based upon truth, or maybe it was just apocryphal. Regardless, such stories portray the Celtic woman as both warriors and mothers—and such is our Boudica.
Back in Iberia, the Romans described the women as having a small shield upon which they beat a rhythm. This, almost assuredly, was the adufe, or square frame drum still played by the women today in Beira Baixa. These rhythms, played exclusively by women even now, strongly resemble the sound of a horse. In this way, music also played a part in the pre-battle ceremony. 
Female adufe players from Monsanto, Portugal. Made of goatskin and laranjeira (orange tree) wood, this instrument is traditionally played only by women. It is unique to Beira Baixa, which is located in modern-day Portugal, home to Boudica’s Vetton tribe. Photo credit: Tom G. Hamilton
Adufe player, photo credit: Tom G. Hamilton
It’s likely such drums were heard when Boudica, who had assumed the role of a spiritual authority as well as military leader, was giving a speech to her fellow warriors to prepare them for the final conflict and battle against the Romans. She invoked the name of the female Andrasta, the goddess of the Iceni, whilst taking a hare from inside her cloak and releasing it as part of a shamanic prophecy of coming victory.
Boudicca invokes Andraste, by Lisa J Kilty, United Kingdom, artwork available for purchase
In Beira Baixa, land of the Vettones, this deity was called Trebaruna, which means house of mystery. Boudica had grown up in a hillfort, considered the sacred high places of the Celts. Warrior training took place within the hillfort culture, and Boudica would have been accustomed to a level of personal discipline that would challenge most of us to the core. This was part of her warrior elite training, although training is perhaps not the most suitable word—it was more of an initiation. 
Epigraph with Vetton-Lusitanian goddess Trebaruna. Photo credit: Museum of Fundao, Portugal.
The initiate into the Celtic warrior elite became another person altogether. The would-be warriors were initiated into the world of death. They were driven to the limits of endurance, to the edges of their own personal tolerance of pain and hardship. The initiate would then, at the end, possess another version of themselves. They would come out from the realms of death into a new life as a warrior. The Ver Sacrum part of this warrior initiation prepared them for leaving home. Thus, it was perfectly natural for Boudica to leave her Iberian homeland.
The future queen had been taught how to survive in extreme conditions. She learned to be frugal, to live off nature’s most simple provisions of roots and berries, to deal with extremities of the natural world, of heat and cold, and to handle pain itself. Her formation had given her all this, along with weapons training and, being a Vetton—the Vettones were famed for their horsemanship—she had a natural command over horses. 
A woman carrying an adufe and riding a Lusitanian horse in famous Celtic hillfort of Argemela, Portugal, in the shadows of which a Boudica epigraphical stone was found. Photo credit: Tom G. Hamilton
Her skills did not go unnoticed. Boudica had been chosen to represent Rome in the region along with her husband Tagus. They enjoyed the perks and had become somewhat wealthy—until Boudica decided that Rome’s greediness had gone too far. 
As an elite ALAE (Alae Vettonum Hispanorum, the Vetton Winged Cavalry) Boudica would have fought alongside the Roman legions, flanking them to one side on her horse. This must have been a source of intrigue and fascination to the Roman foot-soldiers, giving them an inside view into the secret world of the Celtic warrior elite. They evidently knew her habits and even observed how she dressed—or as Tacitus described it, her “invariable attire.” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXII:1-2)
The Romans would have been familiar with her battle cries and with her god. Her voice was described as strong, authoritative, expressing her conviction and character, and equally impressive as her physical presence. However, we should not confuse this with sexuality. There are no sexual overtones in the description of Boudica by the classical writers. Rather, the tone was one of awe of her person, her warrior’s bearing, and her courage.
The modern idea of the Celtic warrior princess has been sexualized. These depictions were created to entertain men’s fantasies—big-breasted, tall, imposing and heavily-armed vixens designed as characters within the virtual-reality war video games market. 
This, however, has no historical basis. Boudica apparently filled her Roman admirers with profound respect. Perhaps she made them question their own Roman sexist moral attitudes. In truth, the two cultures were worlds apart. Here was proof that a woman could ride a horse and wield deadly weapons alongside Roman generals. These women could create legends and inflict deadly wounds on their enemies. 
Boadicea, by Charles Gogin, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum
But it is not only modern audiences that have reinvented the Celtic warrior. Medieval writers often had an issue with what they considered to be Boudica’s acts of violence. They seem too extreme, too cruel, so some writers in the early Middle Ages tried to divide her in two. Petruccio Ubaldini in La vite del donne illustri del Regno D’Inghliterra, e del regno di Scotia (1591) split Boudica into two queens, Voadicia the “good” queen, and Bunduica, the “bad” one. He talks about her as being cruel and degrading, and lacking in compassion in her treatment of the prisoners.
In a sense, there were two Boudicas—but not as the medieval writers proposed. There was the Boudica that served the Romans—and the Boudica that turned on the Romans. In her lifetime, Rome’s ever-expanding empire came, saw, and relentlessly conquered the known world. It crushed whatever people and culture that dared stand in the way, often with great cruelty.
Boudica was singularly brave in standing up to Roman power at its height. Not only did she confront Rome, she fought back with intelligence, cunning and precision, as Celtic warrior women of her day were trained to do. She gave Rome a good beating. Stung, Rome retreated only to return with no mercy, but Boudica lived on in the hearts and lore of the Celts, where she is revered to this day. 
References:
The Cultural and Ideological Significance Of Representations of Boudica During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, by Samantha Frénée-Hutchins, p. 22.

Beware the Ides of March

by March 15, 2021

“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.

Bust of Caesar

Bust of Caesar

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.”

Beware the Ides of March

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).

Alexander of Abonoteichus: Charlatan and False Prophet

by February 16, 2021

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

Illustration of Alexander of Abonoteichus. Image source: The Fortean Times

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

Source: esoterx.com

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

Glycon statue unearthed in Tomis, Romania, in 1962

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

Minted in Abonoteichos, this bronze coin shows Antoninus Pius and the snake god Glycon

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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

Lucian (1925). Alexander the False Prophet. Translated by A Harmon.

Cimon of Athens: Terror of the Persians and Great Statesman

by December 9, 2020

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.

Bust of Cimon (510 – 450 BC), Larnaca, Cyprus

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.

Cimon’s Victories

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 Battle of Salamis, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

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.

Greek Triremes, similar to the vessels commanded by Cimon

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.

Pericles cartoon

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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

Holland, Tom (2006). Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. Abacus.

Tarquin, Last King of Rome and Bloody Tyrant

by September 18, 2020

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 murder of King Servius by his son-in-law (details), around 1413 -1415

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. 

A reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome, Italy, 5-6th century (reconstruction by Dr. Bernard Frischer, Rome Reborn)

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. 

A Sibyl, by Domenichino, circa 1616-17

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 Story of Lucretia, by Sandro Botticelli, about 1500

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. 

Conclusion

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.