Life is stranger than fiction

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So goes the wise saying and here is a collection – which I will continue to add to – of excerpts from historical sources that I find funny, entertaining, outright bizarre, or just simply bloody good stories. Stories that have happened and no one has made up. The idea for this came to me as I was reading Appian’s Civil Wars the other day, desperate for inspiration for a plot of my own that has ground to a bogged-down, unmoving halt for months on end– as plots tend to do, and anyone who has ever attempted to come up with one will happily confirm – and, despite coming up with no brilliant ideas of my own, found myself thoroughly entertained, for hours on end with my reading, in a mind-boggled sort of way.

Of course, the Civil Wars in their entirety are somewhat on the long side, and the circumstances surrounding them so complex and convoluted that I haven’t yet worked out which, if any, excerpt from them I can possibly separate from the rest and post here. So, until I work that one out – if in fact I manage to do so – we’ll start with something else. Something I can lift out of context and still do it justice.

Justinian ‘The Great’

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Let us stay in the 6th century for a bit, but this time move to the East. Justinian I (c. 482 C.E. – 14 November 565 C.E.), known as The Great – which I deliberately place in inverted commas – was Byzantine Emperor from 527-565 C.E. He is considered a saint by the Easter Orthodox Church. He famously married his mistress Theodora, a professional courtesan, who became extraordinarily influential in the politics of the Empire. Justinian sought to revive the Empire’s greatness by reconquering the lost western half of the Roman Empire. He oversaw the uniform rewriting of Roman Law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many modern states. Unfortunately he also wrote many laws, and changed earlier ones; for example forbidding women from getting divorced except under very specific circumstances, whereas previously, because marriage relied on the concept of consent, women could divorce by simply not wishing to be married any more. All they needed do was send a note to their husbands informing them of the fact. Without consent, there was no marriage under earlier Roman Law. Now, a woman could divorce her husband only if one of the following reasons applied:

  • He was implicated in a plot against the government or he knew of one and did nothing about it. (Treason)
  • He has attempted to kill her or did not warn her of an attempt by others.
  • He seeks to deliver her to another man for the purpose of committing adultery.
  • He accuses her of adultery but fails to prove his case.
  • He entertained another woman in his wife’s home or he is frequently with another woman and refuses to stop after having been warned by his wife’s kinsman or “other person worthy of confidence.”


Not quite the same thing.

Also, Justinian closed Plato’s Academy in Athens, and introduced two new statutes which decreed the total destruction of paganism, even in private life. Below is the description of what these led to, by the historian Procopius.


Procopius of Caesarea (500 C.E. – c. 565 C.E.) was a contemporary of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. He is considered the last major historian of the ancient world. He wrote the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History, from which the following excerpt is taken.


And many straight away went everywhere from place to place and compelled such persons as they met to change from their ancestral faith.1 And since such action seemed unholy to the farmer class, they all resolved to make a stand against those who brought this message. So, then, while many were being destroyed by the soldiers and many even made away with themselves, thinking in their folly that they were doing a most righteous thing, and while the majority of them, leaving their homelands, went into exile, the Montani, whose home was in Phrygia, shutting themselves up in their own sanctuaries, immediately set their churches on fire, so that they were destroyed together with the buildings in senseless fashion, and consequently the whole Roman Empire was filled with murder and with exiled men.

And when a similar law was immediately passed touching the Samaritans also, an indiscriminate confusion swept through Palestine. Now all the residents of my own Caesarea2 and of all the other cities, regarding it as a foolish thing to undergo any suffering in defence of a senseless dogma, adopted the name of Christians in place of that which they then bore and by this pretence succeeded in shaking off the danger arising from the law. And all those of their number who were persons of any prudence and reasonableness showed no reluctance about adhering loyally to this faith, but the majority, feeling resentment that, not by their own free choice, but under compulsion of the law, they had changed from the beliefs of their fathers, instantly inclined to the Manichaeans and to the Polytheists, as they are called. And all the farmers, having gathered in great numbers, decided to rise in arms against the Emperor, putting forward as their Emperor a certain brigand, Julian by name, son of Savarus. And when they engaged with the soldiers, they held out for a time, but finally they were defeated in the battle and perished along with their leader. And it is said that one hundred thousand men perished in this struggle, and the land, which is the finest in the world, became in consequence destitute of farmers. And for the owners of the land who were Christians this led to very serious consequences. For it was incumbent upon them, as a matter of compulsion, to pay to the Emperor everlastingly, even though they were deriving no income from the land, the huge annual tax, since no mercy was shown in the administration of this business.

He then carried the persecution to the “Greeks,” as they are called, torturing their bodies and looting their properties. But even those among them who had decided to espouse in word the name of Christians, seeking thus to avert their present misfortunes, these not much later were generally seized at their libations and sacrifices and other unholy acts.3

1The polytheistic religions of Greece and Rome, the adherents of which were simply called “Hellenes”, i.e. Greeks; and various Christian and Jewish sects.

2Caesarea in Palestine was the birthplace of Procopius

3Procopius: The Secret History, trans. based on H.B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library, 1935, pp. 137-141

Some Miracles

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Page from a 13th century Abbreviatio (abridgement) of Domesday Book. Above King Edward the Confessor and Earl Leofric of Mercia see the face of Christ appear in the Eucharist wafer and below the return of a ring given to a beggar who was John the Baptist in disguise.

Still in the 6th century, and still with Gregory of Tours. He describes several miracles. Most have to do with recovering from illnesses. Generally speaking, when they got very ill, people expected they were going to die. And seeing as they didn’t understand how diseases worked and doctors, by this time in the West, were tending towards extinction, practically every recovery was considered miraculous. There are some other kinds of miracles too, several that are particularly amusing, and all of the variety to which we, with our 21st century minds, would say: “Hmm… Yeeess… Of course that’s what happened.”



Observance of the Lord’s Day

Book in Honour of the Martyrs: Chap. 15

In the territory of this city [Tours] at Lingeais, a woman who lived there moistened flour on the Lord’s day and shaped a loaf, and drawing the coals aside she covered it over with hot ashes to bake. When she did this her right hand was miraculously set on fire and began to burn. She screamed and wept and hastened to the village church in which relics of the blessed John are kept. And she prayed and made a vow that on this day sacred to the divine name she would do no work, but only pray. The next night she made a candle as tall as herself. Then she spent the whole night in prayer, holding the candle in her hand all the time and the flame went out and she returned home safe and sound.



Comparative “Merit” of Gregory and his Mother

Book in Honour of the Martyrs: Chap 85

. . . On this matter I recall what I heard told in my youth. It was the day of the suffering of the great martyr Polycarp, and his festival was being observed at Riom, a village of Auvergne. The reading of the martyrdom had been finished and the other readings which the priestly canon requires, and the time came for offering the sacrifice. The deacon, having received the tower1 in which the mystery of the Lord’s body was contained, started with it to the door, and when he entered the church to place it on the altar it slipped from his hand and floated along in the air and thus came to the altar, and the deacon was never able to lay hands on it; and I believe this happened for no other reason than that he was defiled in his conscience. For it was often told that he had committed adultery. It was granted only to one priest and three women, of whom my mother was one, to see this; the rest did not see it. I was present, I confess, at this festival at the time, but I had not the merit to see this miracle.


Miracles in Gregory’s Family

Miracles of St. Julian: Chap 23, 24

It happened once when he was trudging along on this journey, that he took his shoes off on account of the heat, and as he walked in his bare feet he stepped on a sharp thorn. This by chance had been cut, but was still lying on the ground and was concealed point upward in the green grass. It entered his foot and went clear through and then broke off and could not be drawn out. The blood ran in streams and as he could not walk he begged the blessed martyr’s aid and after the pain had grown a little less he went on his way limping. But the third night the wound began to gather and there was great pain. Then he turned to the source from which he had already obtained help and threw himself down before the glorious tomb; when the watch was finished he returned to bed and was overcome by sleep while awaiting the miraculous help of the martyr. On arising later he felt no pain and examining his foot he could not see the thorn which had entered it; and he perceived it had been drawn from his foot. He looked carefully for it and found it in his bed and saw with wonder how it had come out. When bishop he used to exhibit the place, where a great hollow was still to be seen, and to testify that this had been a miracle of the blessed martyr.



Miracles Worked on Gregory

 The Four Books of the Miracles of St. Martin: Book 2; Chap 1

In the second month after my ordination, when I was at a country place, I suffered from dysentery and high fever and began to be so ill that I altogether despaired of living. Everything that I could eat was always vomited before it had been digested and I loathed food, and when my stomach had no more strength as a result of no food the fever was the only thing that gave me strength; I could in no way take anything substantial and strengthening. I had severe pain, too, that darted all through my stomach and went down into my bowels, exhausting me by its pain no less than the fever had done. And when I was in such a condition that no hope of life was left and everything was being made ready for my death and the physician’s medicine could do nothing for one whom death had laid claim to, I was in despair and called the chief physician Armentarius and said to him: “You have used every trick your profession, you have tried the power of all your remedies, but secular means are of no avail to the perishing. There is only one thing left for me to do. I will show you a great remedy: Let them bring dust from the holy master’s tomb and make a potion for me from it. And if this does not cure me, every means of escape is lost.” Then the deacon was sent to the tomb of the holy bishop just mentioned and he brought the sacred dust and put it in water and gave me a drink of it. When I had drunk soon all pain was gone and I received health from the tomb. And the benefit was so immediate that although this happened in the third hour, I became quite well and went to dinner that very day at the sixth hour.2



The Four Books of the Miracles of St. Martin: Book 3; Chap 1

 I shall place first in this book a miracle that I experienced recently. We were sitting at dinner after a fast and eating, when a fish was served. The sign of the cross of the Lord was made over it, but as we ate, a bone from this very fish stuck in my throat most painfully. It caused me great distress, for the point was fastened in my throat and its length blocked the passage. It prevented my speaking and kept the saliva which comes frequently from the palate, from passing. On the third day, when I could get rid of it neither by coughing or hawking, I resorted to my usual resource. I went to the tomb and prostrated myself on the pavement and wept abundantly and groaned and begged the confessor’s aid. Then I rose and touched the full length of my throat and all my head with the curtain. I was immediately cured and before leaving the holy threshold I was rid of all uneasiness. What became of the unlucky bone I do not know. I did not cough it up nor feel it go down into my stomach. One thing only I know, that I so quickly perceived that I was cured that I thought that some one had put in his hand and pulled out the bone that hurt my throat.



The Four Books of the Miracles of St. Martin: Book 4; Chap 2

At one time my tongue became uncomfortably swelled up, so that when I wished to speak it usually made me stutter, which was somewhat unseemly. I went to the saint’s tomb and drew my awkward tongue along the wooden lattice. The swelling went own at once and I became well. It was a serious swelling and filled the cavity where the palate is. Then three days later my lip began to have a painful beating in it. I went again to the tomb to get help and when I had touched my lip to the hanging curtain the pulsation stopped at once. And I suppose this came from a over abundance of blood; still trusting to the saint’s power I did not try to lessen the [amount of] blood and this matter caused me no further trouble.


A Phantom Attacks a Woman

The Four Books of the Miracles of St. Martin: Book 3; Chap 37

At this time when a certain woman remained alone at the loom when the others had gone, a most frightful phantom appeared as she sat, and laid hold of the woman and began to drag her off. She screamed and wept since she saw there was no one to help, but still tried to make a courageous resistance. After two or three hours the other women returned and found her lying on the ground half dead and unable to speak. Still she made signs with her hand, but they did not understand and she continued speechless. The phantom which had appeared to her attacked so many persons in that house that they left it and went elsewhere. In two or three months’ time the woman came to the church and had the merit to recover her speech. And so she told with her own lips what she endured.


[And probably the best of the lot:]


A Fly Might Be A Demon

Book in Honour of the Martyrs: Chap 103

Pannichius, a priest of Poitou, when sitting at dinner with some friends he had invited, asked for a drink. When it was served a very troublesome fly kept flying about the cup and trying to soil it. The priest waved it off with his hand a number of times but it would go off a little and then try to get back, and he perceived that it was a crafty device of the enemy.3 He changed the cup to his left hand and made a cross with his right; then he divided the liquor in the cup into four parts and lifted it up high and poured it on the ground. For it was very plain that it was a device of the enemy.4

[  Eh??]

1 A vessel shaped like a tower which contained the host.

2 Noon.

3 The devil.

4 All from Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. Ernest Brehaut (extended selections), Records of Civilization 2, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916) on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Attitude Towards Secular Learning

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(Saint) Gregory of Tours

Let’s move on to the 6th century C.E. and the very famous (Saint) Gregory of Tours (November 30, c. 538 – November 17, 594), to whom we are truly indebted for writing The History of the Franks, the major historical source for the period. The Roman Empire in the West is no more, and we are now officially in the Middle Ages; that period of the Middle Ages formerly know as the Dark Ages. For various reasons most historians no longer like that term. I’m not sure I agree with them.


Book in Honour of the Martyrs: Preface

THE priest Jerome, next to the apostle Paul the best teacher of the church, tells us that he was brought before the judgment­seat of the eternal Judge and subjected to torture and severely punished because he was in the habit of reading Cicero’s clevernesses and Vergil’s lies, and that he said in the presence of the holy angels and the very Ruler of all that he would never thereafter read these, but would occupy himself in future only with such [writings] as would be judged worthy of God and suited to the edification of the Church. Moreover the apostle Paul says: “Let us follow after things which make for peace and things whereby we may edify me another.” And elsewhere: “Let no corrupt speech proceed out f your mouth; but such as is good for edifying, that it may give race to them that hear.” Therefore we too ought to follow after, to write, and to speak the things that edify the church of God, and with holy instruction bring weak minds to a knowledge of the perfect faith. And we ought not to relate lying tales nor to pursue the wisdom of philosophers that is hateful to God, lest by God’s judgment we fall under sentence of eternal death.


Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. Ernest Brehaut (extended selections), Records of Civilization 2, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916)

3. Hypatia vs the Mob

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Part 3, following on from part 1 and part 2.


Chapter XV.—Of Hypatia the Female Philosopher.

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher1 Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles2.After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril,but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.3




1 and mathematician. He arranged Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Handy Tables.


2 Tile shards, presumably, i.e. flayed her alive with something like this.


3 Socrates and Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical Histories, ed. and trans. Philip Schaff, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan, p. 160

2. The Monks vs the Prefect

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Part 2 of series of events, which began here.

Theophilus Bishop of Alexandria with the Serapeum he destroyed

Some of the monks inhabiting the mountains of Nitria, of a very fiery disposition, whom Theophilus1 some time before had unjustly armed against Dioscorus and his brethren, being again transported with an ardent zeal, resolved to fight in behalf of Cyril. About five hundred of them therefore quitting their monasteries, came into the city; and meeting the prefect in his chariot, they called him a pagan idolater, and applied to him many other abusive epithets. He supposing this to be a snare laid for him by Cyril, exclaimed that he was a Christian, and had been baptized by Atticus the bishop at Constantinople. As they gave but little heed to his protestations, and a certain one of them named Ammonius threw a stone at Orestes which struck him on the head and covered him with the blood that flowed from the wound, all the guards with a few exceptions fled, plunging into the crowd, some in one direction and some in another, fearing to be stoned to death. Meanwhile the populace of Alexandria ran to the rescue of the governor, and put the rest of the monks to flight; but having secured Ammonius they delivered him up to the prefect. He immediately put him publicly to the torture, which was inflicted with such severity that he died under the effects of it: and not long after he gave an account to the emperors of what had taken place. Cyril also on the other hand forwarded his statement of the matter to the emperor: and causing the body of Ammonius to be deposited in a certain church, he gave him the new appellation of Thaumasius,ordering him to be enrolled among the martyrs, and eulogizing his magnanimity in church as that of one who had fallen in a conflict in defence of piety. But the more sober-minded, although Christians, did not accept Cyril’s prejudiced estimate of him; for they well knew that he had suffered the punishment due to his rashness, and that he had not lost his life under the torture because he would not deny Christ. And Cyril himself being conscious of this, suffered the recollection of the circumstance to be gradually obliterated by silence. But the animosity between Cyril and Orestes did not by any means subside at this point, but was kindledafresh by an occurrence similar to the preceding.2


1The previous Bishop of Alexandriawho caused the Serapeum, along with other pagan temples, to be destroyed. 

2Socrates and Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical Histories, ed. and trans. Philip Schaff, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan, p. 160

1. The Prefect vs the Bishop

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Bishop Cyril of Alexandria


This is the first of three posts all of which deal with one series of events. The series of events leading to the murder of the pagan philosopher and scientist Hypatia by a Christian mob in Alexandria in 425 C.E. She was, however, but collateral damage in a much more important struggle; that of secular versus religious authority. Nevertheless, her death sealed the victory of religious authority, since after this the Prefect, Orestes, gives up his struggle against Bishop Cyril, he gradually fades from political life, and finally disappears from historical record altogether. Where he went, what he did in later life, where, when and how he died, we don’t know. 

The text is from the Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus’s Historia Ecclesiastica. He was born in Constantinople c. 380 C.E. and died some time after 439. The full text of Historia Ecclesiastica in English translation can be found here.



Chapter XIII.—Conflict between the Christians and Jews at Alexandria: and breach between the Bishop Cyril and the Prefect Orestes.


About this same time it happened that the Jewish inhabitants were driven out of Alexandria by Cyril the bishop on the following account. The Alexandrian public is more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if at any time it should find a pretext, breaks forth into the most intolerable excesses; for it never ceases from its turbulence without bloodshed. It happened on the present occasion that a disturbance arose among the populace, not from a cause of any serious importance, but out of an evil that has become very popular in almost all cities, viz. a fondness for dancing exhibitions.

In consequence of the Jews being disengaged from business on the Sabbath, and spending their time, not in hearing the Law, but in theatrical amusements, dancers usually collect great crowds on that day, and disorder is almost invariably produced. And although this was in some degree controlled by the governor of Alexandria, nevertheless the Jews continued opposing these measures. And although they are always hostile toward the Christians they were roused to still greater opposition against them on account of the dancers. When therefore Orestes the prefect was publishing an edict—for so they are accustomed to call public notices—in the theatre for the regulation of the shows, some of the bishop Cyril’s party were present to learn the nature of the orders about to be issued. There was among them a certain Hierax, a teacher of the rudimental branches of literature, and one who was a very enthusiastic listener of the bishop Cyril’s sermons, and made himself conspicuous by his forwardness in applauding.

When the Jews observed this person in the theatre, they immediately cried out that he had come there for no other purpose than to excite sedition among the people. Now Orestes had long regarded with jealousy the growing power of the bishops, because they encroached on the jurisdiction of the authorities appointed by the emperor, especially as Cyril wished to set spies over his proceedings; he therefore ordered Hierax to be seized, and publicly subjected him to the torture in the theatre.

Cyril, on being informed of this, sent for the principal Jews, and threatened them with the utmost severities unless they desisted from their molestation of the Christians. The Jewish populace on hearing these menaces, instead of suppressing their violence, only became more furious, and were led to form conspiracies for the destruction of the Christians; one of these was of so desperate a character as to cause their entire expulsion from Alexandria; this I shall now describe. Having agreed that each one of them should wear a ring on his finger made of the bark of a palm branch, for the sake of mutual recognition, they determined to make a nightly attack on the Christians.

They therefore sent persons into the streets to raise an outcry that the church named after Alexander was on fire. Thus many Christians on hearing this ran out, some from one direction and some from another, in great anxiety to save their church. The Jews immediately fell upon and slew them; readily distinguishing each other by their rings.

At daybreak the authors of this atrocity could not be concealed: and Cyril, accompanied by an immense crowd of people, going to their synagogues—for so they call their house of prayer—took them away from them, and drove the Jews out of the city, permitting the multitude to plunder their goods. Thus the Jews who had inhabited the city from the time of Alexander the Macedonian were expelled from it, stripped of all they possessed, and dispersed some in one direction and some in another. One of them, a physician named Adamantius, fled to Atticus bishop of Constantinople, and professing Christianity, some time afterwards returned to Alexandria and fixed his residence there.

But Orestes the governor of Alexandria was filled with great indignation at these transactions, and was excessively grieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population; he therefore at once communicated the whole affair to the emperor. Cyril also wrote to him, describing the outrageous conduct of the Jews; and in the meanwhile sent persons to Orestes who should mediate concerning a reconciliation: for this the people had urged him to do. And when Orestes refused to listen to friendly advances, Cyril extended toward him the book of gospels,believing that respect for religion would induce him to lay aside his resentment. When, however, even this had no pacific effect on the prefect, but he persisted in implacable hostility against the bishop, the following event afterwards occurred.1




1Socrates and Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical Histories, ed. and trans. Philip Schaff, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan, p. 159-160

Those black-robed people who eat more than elephants

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The head of a statue of Aphrodite with some Christian improvements

Libanius (ca. 314 – ca. 394 C.E.) was a Greek-speaking teacher of rhetoric of the Sophist school. Libanius was a friend of the emperor Julian II (later called The Apostate), with whom some correspondence survives, and in whose memory he wrote a series of orations; they were composed between 362 and 365. Libanius remained a pagan, though this did not stop him cultivating long-lasting friendships with Christians, both as private individuals and as imperial officials. In 386 he wrote an oration addressed to the Emperor Theodosius I, ‘complaining about gangs of monks who wandered the Syrian countryside demolishing pagan shrines and terrorizing peasants.’1 Addressing such an oration to Theodosius was a delicate, not to say dangerous thing to do, but poor Libanius, despite all evidence to the contrary, seemed to have still have harboured some hope for religious toleration if not actual freedom. In 391 Theodosius forbade on pain of prescription of property, torture and even death, the practising of any religion other than Christianity, or even visiting the temples, which he closed down, giving some of the buildings over to various bishoprics. In 386 however, he had not yet gone so far. Sacrificing was forbidden, but praying or worshipping with incense was not.


Saint Aemilianus holding the hammer he used on statues and temples

I shall, indeed, appear to many to undertake a matter full of danger in pleading with you for the temples, that they may suffer no injury, as they now do. But they who have such apprehensions seem to me to be very ignorant of your true character. For I esteem it the part of an angry and severe disposition, for any one to resent the proposal of counsel which he does not approve of: but the part of a mild and gentle and equitable disposition, such as yours2 is, barely to reject counsel not approved of. For when it is in the power of him to whom the address is made to embrace any counsel or not, it is not reasonable to refuse a hearing which can do no harm; nor yet to resent and punish the proposal of counsel, if it appear contrary to his own judgement; when the only thing that induced the adviser to mention it, was a persuasion of its usefulness.


After his death3 in Persia, the liberty of sacrificing remained for some time: but at the instigation of some innovators, sacrifices were forbidden by the two brothers4, but not incense;—-which state of things your law has ratified. So that we have not more reason to be uneasy for what is denied us, than to be thankful for what is allowed. You, therefore, have not ordered the temples to be shut up, nor forbidden any to frequent them: nor have you driven from the temples or the altars, fire or frankincense, or other honours of incense. But those black-garbed people5, who eat more than elephants, and demand a large quantity of liquor from the people who send them drink for their chantings, but who hide their luxury by their pale artificial countenances,—-these men, O Emperor, even whilst your law is in force, run to the temples, bringing with them wood, and stones, and iron, and when they have not these, hands and feet. Then follows a Mysian prey6, the roofs are uncovered, walls are pulled down, images are carried off, and altars are overturned: the priests all the while must be silent upon pain of death. When they have destroyed one temple they run to another, and a third, and trophies are erected upon trophies: which are all contrary to [your] law. This is the practice in cities, but especially in the countries. And there are many enemies every where. After innumerable mischiefs have been perpetrated, the scattered multitude unites and comes together, and they require of each other an account of what they have done; and he is ashamed who cannot tell of some great injury which he has been guilty of. They, therefore, spread themselves over the country like torrents, wasting the countries together with the temples: for wherever they demolish the temple of a country, at the same time the country itself is blinded, declines, and dies.


This is saint Nicholas. Yes, the same one that supposedly brings Christmas presents.

This being the state of things, the husbandman is impoverished, and the revenue suffers. For, be the will ever so good, impossibilities are not to be surmounted. Of such mischievous consequence are the arbitrary proceedings of those persons in the country, who say, ‘they fight with the temples.’ But that war is the gain of those who oppress the inhabitants: and robbing these miserable people of their goods, and what they had laid up of the fruits of the earth for their sustenance, they go off as with the spoils of those whom they have conquered. Nor are they satisfied with this, for they also seize the lands of some, saying it is sacred: and many are deprived of their paternal inheritance upon a false pretence. Thus these men riot upon other people’s misfortunes, who say they worship God with fasting. And if they who are abused come to the pastor in the city, (for so they call a man who is not one of the meekest,) complaining of the injustice that has been done |79 them, this pastor commends these, but rejects the others, as if they ought to think themselves happy that they have suffered no more. Although, O Emperor, these also are your subjects, and so much more profitable than those who injure them, as laborious men are than the idle: for they are like bees, these like drones. Moreover, if they hear of any land which has any thing that can be plundered, they cry presently, ‘Such an one sacrificeth, and does abominable things, and an army ought to be sent against him.’ And presently the reformers are there: for by this name they call their depredators, if I have not used too soft a word. Some of these strive to conceal themselves and deny their proceedings; and if you call them robbers, you affront them. Others glory and boast, and tell their exploits to those who are ignorant of them, and say they are more deserving than the husbandmen. Nevertheless, what is this but in time of peace to wage war with the husbandmen? For it by no means lessens these evils that they suffer from their countrymen. But it is really more grievous to suffer the things which I have mentioned in a time of quiet, from those who ought to assist them in a time of trouble. For you, O Emperor, in case of a war collect an army, give out orders, and do everything suitable to the emergency. And the new works which you now carry on are designed as a further |80 security against our enemies, that all may be safe in their habitations, both in the cities and in the country: and then if any enemies should attempt inroads, they may be sensible they roust suffer loss rather than gain any advantage. How is it, then, that some under your government disturb others equally under your government, and permit then not to enjoy the common benefits of it? How do they not defeat your own care and providence and labours, O Emperor? How do they not fight against your law by what they do?7



Good questions. Unfortunately for Libanius, and the rest of the world, (I’m with Gore Vidal on this one), Theodosius’s subsequent laws make the answers to them quite obvious.


1Gaddis, Michael, There is no crime for those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire, University of California Press, 2005, p. 210.

2This is the emperor who, in 390, as retaliation for an uprising against the local Magister Militum, exploded in a fit of rage and ordered what is now known as the Massacre of Thessalonica, in which several thousand civilians, men, women and children were killed, indiscriminately. The lowest contemporary estimate is 7,000, the highest 15,000 dead.

3Julian II “the Apostate”.

4Emperors Valentinian and Valens.

5The monks.

6This proverbial expression took its rise from the Mysians, who, in the absence of their king Telepbus, being plundered by their neighbours, made no resistance. Hence it came to be applied to any persons who were passive under injuries.

7Libanius, Oration 30: For the Temples (pro Templis), in Dr Lardner’s, Heathen Testimonies, Thomas Rodd in London, 1830, pp. 72-96.


Pope Damasus I vs (anti)Pope Ursinus

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Pope Saint Damasus I was the bishop of Rome from 366 to 384 C.E. He succeeded to the papacy amidst intense factional violence. His rival, Ursinus, was elected simultaneously, which let to such violence and bloodshed that eventually the intervention of Emperor Valentinian I was required in order to quell it. Ursinus had the support of the plebeians, while Pope Damasus was exceedingly popular with the aristocracy, and in particular the great ladies, which led to his enemies calling him Auriscalpius Matronarum: the ladies’ ear-scratcher.


To put all this in context, emperor Constantine I issued his edict of toleration of Christianity in 313 C.E.


As his successor [as prefect] came Viventius, a former court-chancellor, a just and prudent man of Pannonia, whose administration was quiet and mild, rich in an abundance of everything. But he, too, was alarmed by sanguinary outbreaks of the factions of the people, which were caused by the following affair. Damasus and Ursinus, burning with a superhuman desire of seizing the bishopric, engaged in bitter strife because of their opposing interests; and the supporters of both parties went even so far as conflicts ending in bloodshed and death. Since Viventius was able neither to end nor to diminish this strife, he was compelled to yield to its great violence, and retired to the suburbs. And in the struggle Damasus was victorious through the efforts of the party which favoured him. It is a well-known fact that in the basilica of Sicininus,1 where the assembly of the Christian sect is held, in a single day a hundred and thirty-seven corpses of the slain were found, and that it was only with difficulty that the long-continued frenzy of the people was afterwards quieted.2


1Now Santa Maria Maggiore.

2Ammianus Marcellinus, The History, book XXVII, trans. J.C. Rolfe, Vol 3, Loeb Classical Library, 1939, p.21.

Government and Women of the ancient Germanic tribes

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…as seen by the Romans.

A post not about an event or a story, this time, but a fascinating description.

They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority. If they are energetic, if they are conspicuous, if they fight in the front, they lead because they are admired. But to reprimand, to imprison, even to flog, is permitted to the priests alone, and that not as a punishment, or at the general’s bidding, but, as it were, by the mandate of the god whom they believe to inspire the warrior. They also carry with them into battle certain figures and images taken from their sacred groves. And what most stimulates their courage is, that their squadrons or battalions, instead of being formed by chance or by a fortuitous gathering, are composed of families and clans. Close by them, too, are those dearest to them, so that they hear the shrieks of women, the cries of infants. They are to every man the most sacred witnesses of his bravery-they are his most generous applauders. The soldier brings his wounds to mother and wife, who shrink not from counting or even demanding them and who administer food and encouragement to the combatants.

Tradition says that armies already wavering and giving way have been rallied by women who, with earnest entreaties and bosoms laid bare, have vividly represented the horrors of captivity, which the Germans fear with such extreme dread on behalf of their women, that the strongest tie by which a state can be bound is the being required to give, among the number of hostages, maidens of noble birth. They even believe that the sex has a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels, or make light of their answers. In Vespasian’s days we saw Veleda, long regarded by many as a divinity. In former times, too, they venerated Aurinia, and many other women, but not with servile flatteries, or with sham deification.1


1Tacitus, The Agricola and Germania, A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, trans., (London: Macmillan, 1877), pp. 87ff

The Money-Lenders and the Praetor

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A rather topical, I feel, piece. Do not let the context and date fool you. Not much has changed, I feel.

 The time* Appian is talking about, is around the end of the Roman Social War in 91-88 B.C.E., also known as the Allied War, because it was fought between the Roman Republic and most of the rest of Italy, that is, cities which had been Rome’s allies for centuries. However, Rome had virtually complete control of the cities’ foreign policies, including their interactions with one another. Not to mention that, by the 2nd century B.C.E., between half and two-thirds of the soldiers in the Roman army came from Italian allied cities. And yet no one from these cities had Roman citizenship, which they would rather have liked to acquire, since that would also give them a greater say on the Roman Republic’s policies. The Social War was in part caused by the assassination of Marcus Livius Drusus in 91 B.C.E., since his proposed reforms would have granted Roman citizenship to the Roman Allies.



The temple of Vesta on the left, and Castor and Pollux on the right. To compare with still extant ruins click here.

About the same time* dissensions arose in the city between debtors and creditors, since the latter exacted the money due to them with interest, although an old law distinctly forbade lending on interest and imposed a penalty upon any one doing so. It seems that the ancient Romans, like the Greeks, abhorred the taking of interest on loans as something knavish, and hard on the poor, and leading to contention and enmity; and by the same kind of reasoning the Persians considered lending as having itself a tendency to deceit and lying. But, since time had sanctioned the practice of taking interest, the creditors demanded it according to custom. The debtors, on the other hand, put off their payments on the plea of war and civil commotion. Some indeed threatened to exact the legal penalty from the interest-takers.

The praetor Asellio, who had charge of these matters, as he was not able to compose their differences by persuasion, allowed them to proceed against each other in the courts, thus bringing the deadlock due to the conflict of law and custom before the judges. The lenders, exasperated that the now obsolete law was being revived, killed the praetor in the following manner. He was offering sacrifice to Castor and Pollux in the forum, with a crowd standing around as was usual at such a ceremony. In the first place somebody threw a stone at him, on which he dropped the libation-bowl and ran toward the temple of Vesta. They then got ahead of him and prevented him from reaching the temple, and after he had fled into a tavern they cut his throat. Many of his pursuers, thinking that he had taken refuge with the Vestal virgins, ran in there, where it was not lawful for men to go. Thus was Asellio, while serving as praetor, and pouring out libation, and wearing the sacred gilded vestments customary in such ceremonies, slain at the second hour of the day in the centre of the forum, in the midst of the sacrifice. The Senate offered a reward of money to any free citizen, freedom to any slave, impunity to any accomplice, who should give testimony leading to the conviction of the murders of Asellio, but nobody gave any information. The money-lenders covered up everything.1


1Appian, Histories, trans. Horace White, vol. III, Harvard University Press, 1913: Loeb Classical Library, p. 101

The Admiral is a Lady

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Artemisia I of Caria (fl. 480 BC) became the ruler, after the death of her husband, as a client of the Persians – who in the 5th century BC ruled as the overlords of Ionia.


The Battle of Salamis was fought between an Alliance of Greek city-states and the Persian Empire in September 480 BC in the straits between the mainland and Salamis, an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens. It marked the high-point of the second Persian invasion of Greece which had begun in 480 BC.

Although heavily outnumbered, the Greek Allies were persuaded by the Athenian general Themistocles to bring the Persian fleet to battle, in the hope that a victory would prevent naval operations against the Peloponessus. The Persian king Xerxes was also anxious for a decisive battle. As a result of subterfuge on the part of Themistocles, the Persian navy sailed into the Straits of Salamis and tried to block both entrances. In the cramped conditions of the Straits the great Persian numbers were an active hindrance, as ships struggled to manoeuvre and became disorganised. Seizing the opportunity, the Greek fleet formed in line and scored a decisive victory, sinking or capturing at least 300 Persian ships.

As a result Xerxes retreated to Asia with much of his army, leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest of Greece. However, the following year, the remainder of the Persian army was decisively beaten at the Battle of Plataea and the Persian navy at the Battle of Mycale. Afterwards the Persian made no more attempts to conquer the Greek mainland. These battles of Salamis and Plataea thus mark a turning point in the course of the Greco-Persian wars as a whole; from then onward, the Greek poleis would take the offensive.

Xerxes ordered a throne to be set up on the slopes of Mount Aigaleo (overlooking the straits), in order to watch the battle from a clear vantage point, and so as to record the names of commanders who performed particularly well. 



7. 99 I see no need to mention any of the other captains except Artemisia. I find it a great marvel that a woman went on the expedition against Hellas: after her husband died, she took over his tyranny, though she had a young son, and followed the army from youthful spirits and manliness, under no compulsion. Artemisia was her name, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; on her father’s side she was of Halicarnassian lineage, and on her mother’s Cretan. She was the leader of the men of Halicarnassus and Cos and Nisyrus and Calydnos, and provided five ships. Her ships were reputed to be the best in the whole fleet after the ships of Sidon, and she gave the king the best advice of all his allies.

8. 67 …[Xerxes] came and sat on his throne, and present at his summons were the tyrants of all the peoples and the company leaders from the fleet. They sat according to the honor which the king had granted each of them, first the king of Sidon, then the king of Tyre, then the rest. When they sat in order one after another, Xerxes sent Mardonius to test each by asking if they should fight at sea.

8. 68 Mardonius went about questioning them, starting with the Sidonian, and all the others were unanimous, advising to fight at sea, but Artemisia said, “Tell the king, Mardonius, that I, who neither was most cowardly in the sea battles off Euboea nor performed the least feats of arms, say this: ‘Master, it is just for me to declare my real opinion, what I consider to be best for your cause. And I say to you this: spare your ships, and do not fight at sea. Their men are as much stronger than your men by sea as men are stronger than women. Why is it so necessary for you to risk everything by fighting at sea? Do you not possess Athens, for which you set out on this march, and do you not have the rest of Hellas? No one stands in your way. Those who opposed you have received what they deserved. I will tell you how I think the affairs of your enemies will turn out: If you do not hurry to fight at sea, but keep your ships here and stay near land, or even advance into the Peloponnese, then, my lord, you will easily accomplish what you had in mind on coming here. The Hellenes are not able to hold out against you for a long time, but you will scatter them, and they will each flee to their own cities. I have learned that they have no food on this island, and it is not likely, if you lead your army against the Peloponnese, that those of them who have come from there will sit still, nor will they care to fight at sea for Athens. But if you hurry to fight at sea immediately, I fear that your fleet if reduced to cowardice may also injure your army on land. In addition, my King, take this to heart: Good people’s slaves tend to be base, and the slaves of the base tend to be good. You, who are best among men, have base slaves, who are accounted your allies, the Egyptians and Cyprians and Cilicians and Pamphylians, who are of no use at all.’”

8. 69 When she said this to Mardonius, all who were well disposed towards Artemisia lamented her words, thinking she would suffer some ill from the king because she advised against fighting at sea. Those who were jealous and envied her, because she was given honor among the chief of all the allies, were glad at her answer, thinking she would be killed. But when the counsels were reported to Xerxes, he was greatly pleased by Artemisia’s opinion. Even before this he had considered her of excellent character, and now he praised her much more highly. Still he ordered that the majority be obeyed, for he believed that at Euboea they had purposely fought badly because he was not there. This time he had made preparations to see the battle in person.

8. 87 I cannot say exactly how each of the other barbarians or Hellenes fought, but this is what happened to Artemisia, and it gave her still higher esteem with the king: When the king’s side was all in commotion, at that time Artemisia’s ship was pursued by a ship of Attica. She could not escape, for other allied ships were in front of her and hers was the nearest to the enemy. So she resolved to do something which did in fact benefit her: as she was pursued by the Attic ship, she charged and rammed an allied ship, with a Calyndian crew and Damasithymus himself, king of the Calyndians, aboard. I cannot say if she had some quarrel with him while they were still at the Hellespont, or whether she did this intentionally or if the ship of the Calyndians fell in her path by chance. But when she rammed and sank it, she had the luck of gaining two advantages. When the captain of the Attic ship saw her ram a ship with a barbarian crew, he decided that Artemisia’s ship was either Hellenic or a deserter from the barbarians fighting for them, so he turned away to deal with others.

8. 88 Thus she happened to escape and not be destroyed, and it also turned out that the harmful thing which she had done won her exceptional esteem from Xerxes. It is said that the king, as he watched the battle, saw her ship ram the other, and one of the bystanders said, “Master, do you see how well Artemisia contends in the contest and how she has sunk an enemy ship?” When he asked if the deed was truly Artemisia’s, they affirmed it, knowing reliably the marking of her ship, and they supposed that the ruined ship was an enemy. As I have said, all this happened to bring her luck, and also that no one from the Calyndian ship survived to accuse her. It is said that Xerxes replied to what was told him, “My men have become women, and my women men.” They say this is what Xerxes said.

8. 89 In this struggle the general Ariabignes died, son of Darius and the brother of Xerxes. Many other famous men of the Persians and Medes and other allies also died, but only a few Hellenes, since they knew how to swim. Those whose ships were sunk swam across to Salamis, unless they were killed in action, but many of the barbarians drowned in the sea since they did not know how to swim. Most of the ships were sunk when those in the front turned to flee, since those marshalled in the rear, as they tried to go forward with their ships so they too could display some feat to the king, ran afoul of their own side’s ships in flight.

8. 91 The barbarians were routed and tried to flee by sailing out to Phalerum, but the Aeginetans lay in wait for them in the strait and then performed deeds worth telling. The Athenians in the commotion destroyed those ships which either resisted or tried to flee, the Aeginetans those sailing out of the strait. Whoever escaped from the Athenians charged right into the Aeginetans.

8. 93 In this battle the Hellenes with the reputation as most courageous were the Aeginetans, then the Athenians. Among individuals they were Polycritus the Aeginetan and the Athenians Eumenes of Anagyrus and Aminias of Pallene, the one who pursued Artemisia. If he had known she was in that ship, he would not have stopped before either capturing it or being captured himself. Such were the orders given to the Athenian captains, and there was a prize offered of ten thousand drachmas to whoever took her alive, since they were indignant that a woman waged war against Athens. But she escaped, as I said earlier, and the others whose ships survived were also in Phalerum.

8. 101 When [Xerxes] consulted with those Persians whom he summoned, he resolved to send for Artemisia as well, because he saw that she alone at the former sitting had discerned what was best to do. When Artemisia came, Xerxes bade all others withdraw, both Persian councillors and guards, and said to her: “It is Mardonius’s advice that I should follow here and attack the Peloponnese, for the Persians, he says, and the land army are not to blame for our disaster; of that they would willingly give proof. Therefore he advises me to do this, or else he offers to choose three hundred thousand men of the army and deliver Hellas to me enslaved, while I myself by his counsel march homeward with the rest of the host. Now I ask of you, seeing that you correctly advised me against the late sea-fight, counsel me as to which of these two things would be best for me to do.”

8. 102 When she was asked for advice, she replied: “It is difficult, O king, to answer your plea for advice by saying that which is best, but in the present turn of affairs I think it best that you march back and that Mardonius, if he so wishes and promises to do as he says, be left here with those whom he desires. For if he subdues all that he offers to subdue and prospers in his design, the achievement, Sire, is yours since it will be your servants who have accomplished it. If, on the other hand, the issue is contrary to Mardonius’s expectation, it is no great misfortune so long as you and all that household of yours are safe; for while you and the members of your household are safe, many a time will the Greeks have to fight for their lives. As for Mardonius, if any disaster befalls him, it is does not much matter, nor will any victory of the Greeks be a real victory when they have but slain your servant. As for you, you will be marching home after the burning of Athens, which thing was the whole purpose of your expedition.”

8. 103 Artemisia’s counsel pleased Xerxes, for it happened that she spoke what he himself had in mind. In truth, I think that he would not have remained even if all men and women had counselled him so to do—so panic-stricken was he. Having then thanked Artemisia, he sent her away to take his sons to Ephesus, for he had some bastard sons with him.




Herodotus, Histories, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.


Freedom of conscience and free speech: an invention of the modern world. Right?

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Bust of Tiberius

Bust of Tiberius. (Photo by Chris Nyborg)

Tiberius (Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus), November 16, 42 BC – March 16, AD 37, was the 2nd Emperor of the Roman Empire, and reigned from 14 AD to 37 AD.

He was, moreover, quite unperturbed by abuse, slander, or lampoons on himself and his family, and would often say that liberty to speak and think as one pleases is the test of a free country. When the Senate asked that those who had offended in this way should be brought to book, he replied: ‘We cannot spare the time to undertake any such new enterprise. Open that window, and you will let in such a rush of denunciations as to waste your whole working day; everyone will take this opportunity of airing some private feud.’ A remarkably modest statement of his is recorded in the Proceedings of the Senate: ‘If So-and-so challenges me, I shall lay before you a careful account of what I have said and done; if that does not satisfy him, I shall reciprocate his dislike of me.’1

1 Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves, London: The Folio Society, 1964, pp. 126.

Vespasian, the Emperor with a sense of humour

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Vespasian Aureus

Roman aureus depicting Vespasian as Emperor. The reverse shows the Goddess Fortuna.

Vespasian was square-shouldered, with strong, well-formed limbs, but always wore a strained expression on his face; so that once, when he asked a well-known wit who always used to make jokes about people: ‘Why not make one about me?’ the answer came:

‘I will, when you have at last finished relieving yourself.’

… Yet Vespasian was nearly always just as good-natured, cracking frequent jokes; and, though he had a low form of humour and often used obscene expressions, some of his sayings are still remembered. Taken to task by Mestrius Florus, an ex-consul, for vulgarly saying plostra instead of plaustra (waggons), he greeted him the following day as ‘Flaurus’. Once a woman complained that she was desperately in love with him, and would not leave him alone until he consented to seduce her.

‘How shall I enter that item in your expense ledger?’ asked his accountant later, on learning that she had got 4,000 gold pieces out of him.

‘Oh,’ said Vespasian, ‘just put it down to “love for Vespasian”.’

With his knack of apt quotation from the Greek Classics, he once described a very tall man whose genitals were grotesquely over-developed as:

Striding along with a lance which casts a preposterous shadow,

– a line out of the Iliad. And when, to avoid paying death duties into the Privy Purse, a very rich freedman changed his name and announced that he had been born free, Vespasian quoted Menander’s :

O, Laches, when you life is o’er,

Cerylus you will be once more.

Most of his humour, however, centred on the way he did business; he always tried to make his swindles sound less offensive by passing them off as jokes. One of his favourite servants applied for a stewardship on behalf of a man whose brother he claimed to be.

‘Wait,’ Vespasian told him, and had the candidate brought in for a private interview.

‘How much commission would you have paid my servant?’ he asked. The man mentioned a sum. ‘You may pay it directly to me,’ said Vespasian, giving him the stewardship. When the servant brought the matter up again, Vespasian’s advice was:

‘Go and find another brother. The one you mistook for your own turns out to be mine!’

Once, on a journey, his muleteer dismounted and began shoeing the mules; Vespasian suspected a ruse to hold him up, because a friend of the muleteer’s had appeared and was now busily discussing a law-suit. Vespasian made the muleteer tell him just what his shoeing fee would be; and insisted on being paid half [of it]. Titus [Vespasian’s son] complained about the tax which Vespasian had imposed on the contents of the City urinals (used by the fullers to clean woollens). Vespasian handed him a coin which had been part of the first day’s proceeds:

‘Does it smell bad, son?’ he asked.

‘No, father!’

‘That’s odd: it comes straight from the urinal!’

When a deputation from the Senate reported that a huge and expensive statue had been voted him at public expense, Vespasian held out his hand, with:

‘The pedestal is waiting.’

Nothing could stop this flow of humour, even the fear of imminent death. Among the many portents of his end was a yawning crevice in August’s Mausoleaum.

‘That will be for Junia Calvina,’ he said, ‘she is one of his descendants.’

And at the fatal sight of a comet he cried:

‘Look at that long hair! The King of Parthia must be going to die.’

His death-bed joke was:

‘Dear me! I must be turning into a god.’1

1 Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves, London: The Folio Society, 1964, pp. 291-293.

Caligula on campaign in Germany

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A marble bust of Caligula restored to its original colours. The colours were identified from particles trapped in the marble. (Photo by Marsyas)

Caligula had only a single taste of warfare, and even that was unpremeditated. At Bevagna, where he went to visit the river Clitumnus and its sacred grove, someone reminded him that he needed Batavian recruits for his bodyguard; which suggested the idea of a German expedition. He wasted no time in summoning regular legions and auxiliaries from all directions, levied troops with the utmost strictness, and collected military supplies on an unprecedented scale. Then he marched off with such rapidity that the Guards battalions could not keep up with him except by breaking tradition: they had to tie their standards on the pack-mules. Yet, later, he became so lazy and self-indulgent that he travelled in a litter borne by eight bearers; and, whenever he approached a town, made the inhabitants sweep the roads and lay the dust with sprinklers.

After reaching his headquarters, Caligula showed how keen and severe a commander-in-chief he intended to be by ignominiously dismissing any general who was late in bringing along the auxiliaries he required. Then, when he reviewed the legions, he discharged several veteran leading-centurions on grounds of age and incapacity, though some had only a few more days of their service to run; and, calling the remainder a pack of greedy fellows, scaled down their retirement bonus to sixty gold pieces each.

All that he accomplished in this expedition was to receive the surrender of Adminius, son of the British King Cymbeline, who had been banished by his father and come over to the Romans with a few followers. Caligula, nevertheless, wrote an extravagant despatch, which might have persuaded any reader that the whole island had surrendered to him, and ordered the couriers not to dismount from their post-chaise on reaching the outskirts of Rome – although wheeled traffic was forbidden in the streets during daylight hours – but make straight for the Forum and the Senate House, and take his letter to the Temple of Mars for personal delivery to the Consuls, in the presence of the entire Senate.

Since the chance of military action appeared very remote, he presently sent a few of his German bodyguard across the Rhine, with orders to hide among the trees. After luncheon scouts hurried in to tell him excitedly that the enemy were upon him. He at once galloped out, at the head of his staff and a few Guards cavalry, to halt in the nearest thicket, where they chopped branches from the trees and dressed them like trophies; then, riding back by torchlight, he taunted as cowards all who had failed to follow him, and awarded his fellow-heroes a novel fashion in crowns – he called it ‘The Ranger’s Crown’ — ornamented with sun, moon, and stars. On another day he took some German hostages from a military school, where they were being taught the rudiments of Latin, and secretly ordered them on ahead of him. Later, he left his dinner in a hurry and took his cavalry in pursuit of them, as though they had been fugitives. He was no less melodramatic about this foray: when he returned to the hall after catching the hostages and bringing them back in irons, and his officers reported that the army was marshalled, he made them recline at table, still in their corselets, and quoted Virgil’s famous advice: ‘Be steadfast, comrades, and preserve yourselves for happier occasions!’ He also severely reprimanded the absent Senate and People for enjoying banquets and festivities, and for hanging about the theatres or their luxurious country-houses while the Emperor was exposed to all the hazards of war.

In the end, he drew up his army in battle array facing the Channel and moved the siege-engines into position as though he intended to bring the campaign to a close. No one had the least notion what was in his mind when, suddenly, he gave the order: ‘Gather sea-shells!’

He referred to the shells as ‘plunder from the sea, due to the Capitol and to the Palace’, and made the troops fill their helmets and tunic-laps with them; commemorating this victory by the erection of a tall lighthouse, not unlike the one at Pharos, in which fires were to be kept going all night as a guide to ships. Then he promised every soldier a bounty of four gold pieces, and told them: ‘Go rich, go happy!’ as though he had been excessively generous.

He now concentrated his attention on the imminent triumph. To supplement the few prisoners taken in frontier skirmishes and the deserters who had come over from the barbarians, he picked the tallest Gauls of the province – ‘those worthy of a triumph’ – and some of their chiefs as well, for his supposed train of captives. These had not only to grow their hair and dye it red, but also to learn German and adopt German names. The triremes used in the Channel were carted overland most of the way; and he sent a letter ahead instructing his agents to prepare a triumph more lavish than any hitherto known, but at the least possible expense to the Privy Purse; and added that everyone’s property was at their disposal.

Before leaving Gaul he planned, in a sudden access of cruelty, to massacre the legionaries who, at news of Augustus’s death, had mutinously besieged his father Germanicus’s headquarters; he had been there himself as a little child. His friends barely restrained him from carrying this plan out, and he could not be dissuaded from ordering the execution of every tenth man; for which purpose they had to parade without swords or javelins, and surrounded by armed horsemen. But when he noticed that a number of legionaries, scenting trouble, were slipping away to fetch their weapons, he hurriedly absconded and headed straight for Rome.1

1 Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves, London: The Folio Society, 1964, pp. 172-174.

King Chilperic and his wives

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When Chilperic1 saw this [the marriage of Sigebert2 to the Visigoth princess Brunhild3], although he had already too many wives, he asked for her sister Galswinth, promising through his ambassadors that he would put aside the others if he could only obtain a wife worthy of himself and the daughter of a king. Her father accepted these promises and sent his daughter with much wealth, as he had done before. Now Galswinth was older than Brunhild. And coming to king Chilperic she was received with great honour, and united to him in marriage, and she was also greatly loved by him. For she had brought great treasures. But because of his love of Fredegund whom he had had before, there arose a great scandal which divided them. Galswinth had already been converted to the catholic law and baptised. And complaining to the king that she was continually enduring outrages and had no honour with him, she asked to leave the treasures which she had brought with her and be permitted to go free to her native land. But he made ingenious pretences and calmed her with gentle words. At length he ordered her to be strangled by a slave and found her dead on the bed. After her death God caused a great miracle to appear. For the lighted lamp which hung by a rope in front of her tomb broke the rope without being touched by anyone and dashed on the pavement, and the hard pavement yielded under it and it went down as if into some soft substance and was buried to the middle but not at all damaged. Which seemed a great miracle to all who saw it. But when the king had mourned her death a few days, he married Fredegund again. After this action his brothers thought that the aforementioned queen had been killed at his command, and they expelled him from the kingdom. Chilperic at that time had three sons by his former wife Audovera, namely Theodobert, whom we have mentioned above, Merovech and Clovis.

Gregory of Tours History of the Franks, 4. 28

Translation based on Earnest Brehaut [1916]

1 c. 539 – September 584, King of Neustria

2 c. 535 – c. 575, King of Austrasia (half-brother of Chilperic)

3 c. 540–568, daughter of the Visigoth King Athanagild