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Crowned in utero – the Youngest Ruler in History?

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History is littered with instances of power being thrust upon children of a young age. Ivan the Terrible became Grand Prince of Moscow aged 3; Puyi, the last emperor of China, ascended at just 2 years and 10 months, while Mary, Queen of Scots came to the throne at just 6 days old.

indexSuch infantile succession was not alien to the ancients either. Gordian III might be considered to be the youngest sole Roman emperor at just 13, but there were numerous co-emperors of much younger ages. Emperors like Caracalla (10), Diadumenian (9), Philip II (7), Constantine II (1), Constantius II (7), Valentinian II (4), Arcadius (6), Honorius (9), Valentinian III (4), Theodosius II (9 months), Leo II (6-7), Constans II (11) and Tiberius (1) were invested with some form of imperial position before entering adolescent.

index3And it was not just somewhat lesser known Roman emperors who sat upon the imperial throne at a young age. The most famous Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, was a boy of 8-9 years when he succeeded his father, while Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV, was viewed by some of the Macedonian army to have become king immediately upon his birth, because his father had died two months prior and his half-uncle, Philip III Arrhidaeus, was considered by some to be unfit due to learning difficulties.

However, this immediate post-natal ‘coronation’ is reputedly not the earliest in the ancient historical record… But how can you have a coronation before you are born?

The scene of such a peculiar occurrence was the royal court of the Sassanid rulers of Ancient Persia and the backdrop was the increasing dissension caused by short-lived reigns and the jostling for power of the nobility and priesthood in the first years of the fourth century CE.

index2Romano-Persian conflict in the third century had been punctuated with numerous deep penetrations of enemy territory with major cities like Antioch and the Persian capital Ctesiphon falling to the invader on more than one occasion. The culmination of that back-and-forth warfare had been the battles between the Roman Tetrarch, Galerius, and the Sassanid king Narseh. The latter won a victory at Carrhae in 296/297, gaining a significant foothold in Armenia, only for Galerius to achieve much more decisive victories at Satala and Ctesiphon in 298. The subsequent Peace of Nisibis in 299 was decidedly pro-Roman and the fall out of this defeat may have led in some way to Narseh’s eventual death in 303.

Coin_of_the_Sasanian_king_Hormizd_II_(1,_cropped)Narseh was succeeded by his son Hormizd II, about whose reign the record is a little sketchy. There are events about which we are informed, a persecution of Manichaeans and diplomatic overtures to Armenia, which seem believable, but then there is the claim that he led an invasion of Roman territory, without suffering any repercussions. The two works to mention the attack, the Chronicle of Arbela and the Chronicle of Seert, are both doubted. Perhaps this ‘attack on Roman territory’ reflects Hormizd’s assault on the Ghassanid Arabs in 309, who lived in and around the Syrian desert.

This attack on the Ghassanids cost not only the Arab leader his life, but also Hormizd his, reputedly when Arab raiders ambushed him while he was out hunting. However, subsequent events might see the death of Hormizd as due to elements within the Persian nobility, with them perhaps wary that his defeat of the Ghassanids made him less easy to exploit. Noble members of his entourage would certainly have known where and when the king would be at his most vulnerable… He could even have been killed by Lakhmid Arabs allied to the Persians.

Whatever the circumstances of Hormizd II’s death, the succession should have been secure as he had at least seven sons: Adhur-Narseh, Adurfrazgird, Zamasp, Shapur Sakanshah, Hormizd, Ardashir and Shapur. Indeed, he seems to have been immediately succeeded by the eldest, Adhur-Narseh (although Schindel in Potts (2013) suggests that due to the lack of coins and information from non-Roman sources it may be that Adhur-Narseh never actually ascended the Sassanid throne).

Within months though, Adhur-Narseh was dead, murdered by an alliance of nobles and priests on a charge of cruelty. That Adhur-Narseh managed to get two traditional opponents – the nobility and the priesthood – to join together could suggest the extent of his cruelty. However, it is just as likely that Adhur-Narseh merely attempted to impose his will on the nobles and priests as any new king might have but was not strong enough to back it up, leading to his elimination. Adhur-Narseh was then painted as a tyrant by the sources the nobility will have been responsible for compiling and editing.

Other sons of Hormizd II were soon targeted. An unnamed brother of Adhur-Narseh was blinded, while another, Hormisdas, was imprisoned, although he would later escape and flee to Constantinople. So firmly had the nobles established their control over the succession that it seems that they were able to exclude other members of the Sassanid dynasty as well – Adurfrazgird, Zamasp, Shapur Sakanshah and Ardashir II (it would seem to be one of this first three that was blinded, but then all are listed as serving as governors under Shapur II, which would seem unlikely for someone who had been blinded, suggesting that there was at least one other son of Hormizd II).

Gold_coin_of_Shapur_II,_struck_c._320Their eventual choice was proven a good one as Shapur II was to go down as one of the best Sassanid kings, providing a long period of stability and success; however, there was one small problem. When he was reputedly proclaimed ‘King of Kings’ in 309, Shapur II was not yet a man. He was not yet even a boy. He had not even been born yet! In what would have been a bizarre scene, a crown was reputedly placed upon the belly of his mother, Ifra Hormizd, leading to the suggestion that Shapur was the only king in history to be crowned in utero.

800px-Gold_coin_of_Boran,_daughter_of_Khusrau_IIUnsurprisingly, such a sensational story has attracted scepticism. First and foremost, would the Persian nobles and priests really have risked the child in Ifra Hormizd’s womb being female? The Sassanid dynasty would resort to a female ‘King of Kings,’ but only in the desperate last decades of its existence (Boran (629-630, 631-632) and Azarmidokht (630-631)). It is unlikely that the nobles would bet the succession on the sex of an unborn child, particularly when there were other Sassanid princes for them to choose.

The existence of those other Sassanid princes also raises questions about this reputed in utero coronation. While it is possible that the Persian nobility intentionally overlooked all the other Sassanid princes and chose to back the unborn or very young Shapur II in the hope of imposing their rule on him, the chances are that some of these Sassanid princes were of a relatively young age as well. For example, Ardashir would eventually succeed Shapur II as ‘King of Kings’ in 379, suggesting that he was of a similar age as the chances are that he would not be approaching his 80s by the time he died in 383.

Taq-e BostanCould it even be that Ardashir was younger than Shapur? This would seem to be impossible for how could Hormizd II have had another son after Shapur II, who was supposedly born after his murder, particularly when there is no hint that Shapur and Ardashir were twins?

The Persian royal practice of keeping a harem provides one such possible explanation, with Ardashir (and maybe other sons of Hormizd II) being born to a concubine, and therefore being a half-brother of Shapur II. Another solution, aside from Ardashir being slightly older than Shapur, is that the very idea of Shapur being born posthumously and/or the youngest of Hormizd’s sons is incorrect.

If this legend of Shapur II being crowned in utero is just that: a legend and not fact, and the chances are that it is, then why did it appear? There is little doubt that Shapur was very young at the time of his coronation, with the nobility and priesthood indeed choosing an infant so they could impose their control over the Sassanid state. If he had been born after his father’s murder, that would have played into any narrative that Shapur had been born to rule, especially if his coronation had taken place really early in his life. There could even have been some hint that the nobles and priests had reserved the throne for the unborn child of Hormizd II, dependent on it being male, in a similar manner to how the Macedonian army had done for Alexander IV in 323BC.

The likely false legend of Shapur II’s pre-natal coronation could also reflect the actual legend of his life, as he would be remembered as one of the most successful Sassanid Persian ‘King of Kings,’ making it seem as though he had been almost literally ‘born to rule.’

While his exact age cannot be known for certain, Shapur was definitely a minor upon his coronation. The regency of the nobles and priests seems to have been rather secure during his minority (meaning that early fourth century Persia was more stable than the series of short-lived kings and factional in-fighting might otherwise suggest), which perhaps made the young ‘King of Kings’ more eager to make his mark once he came of age.

Shapur_II_(The_Shahnama_of_Shah_Tahmasp)He did so in 325 with a series of vicious campaigns against various Arab tribes bordering on Sassanid territory. That this Arab campaign took place in 325 and was seemingly right around the time that Shapur’s minority ended at the age of 16 does suggest that Shapur was born in 309, backing the idea that he was a babe in arms when he was crowned.

This Arab campaign marked the beginning of a decades-long reign replete with military successes. In his dealings with the Romans, Shapur’s forces would take on those of Constantine I, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens, winning several notable victories such at the Siege of Amida in 359 and against Julian’s Persian Expedition in 363. The latter of these successes in particular gave the Persians the upper hand in Armenia, the Caucasus and Mesopotamia through the treaty with Jovian.

In the east, Shapur subdued the Kushans, taking control of large sections of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan and then defended his north-eastern frontier from a massive invasion by the Chionities, resisting successfully enough to bring them into an alliance.

The last decade of his reign was a little more trying with the forces of Valens overturning sections of the settlement with Jovian, while his Bactrian province came under intense pressure from Kidarites, Hephthalites and Alchon Huns. Ultimately though, the loss of Bactria and limited reversals on his western frontier were offset by the territorial success and security Shapur II brought to the Sassanid state throughout his 70-year life and reign.

In this, he (and his regents) bucked the trend of minority rule and men born into imperial power in the period. Within the timeframe of Shapur II’s reign, the Roman Empire faced a number of instances of young men born into power but ultimately unsuited to ruling – you could list Constantine II, Constans, Gratian, Valentinian II, and virtually the entire male line of the Theodosian dynasty.

That in a way makes Shapur’s success all the more impressive. Whether he emerged from his mother’s womb already the ‘King of Kings’ or not, his breeding and education in the Persian court and his own natural talent saw him square up to skilled Roman emperors and massive tribal forces on the battlefield, while likely facing down the political influence of those who had been his regents and maintaining the internal stability of the Sassanid state. This minor had become a major ‘King of Kings.’


Crawford, P.T. Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist. Barnsley (2016)

Daryaee, T. Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York (2009)

Schindel, N. ‘Sasanian Coinage,’ in Potts, D.T. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran. Oxford (2013)


“The Life and Legacy of Agrippina the Younger” Dr Emma Southon Review

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Before a packed room, the CANI programme of events for 2019/20 began on 16 October with the talk Dr Emma Southon presenting on ‘The Life and Legacy of Agrippina the Younger.’

After some quick CANI business, Helen McVeigh introduced our speaker. Originally from Brighton but now living in Belfast, Dr Southon received her PhD from the University of Birmingham on the subject of ‘Marriage, Sex and Death: The Family and the Fall of the Roman West.’ Her first book Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler and Whore provided the subject of the talk – the life of the granddaughter, sister, niece, wife and mother of Julio-Claudian emperors, Agrippina the Younger.

20191016_184231Dr Southon expressed how her want to write this book was because there was no biography of the woman so important to the story of the prototypical emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the records of historians such as Tacitus.

But in those pages of Tacitus, along with the likes of Suetonius and Cassius Dio (none of whom were her contemporaries), Agrippina is almost universally derided as an arch-manipulator and “ruthless slut.” She grew up in a climate of suspicion where she felt that Tiberius had murdered her parents, but this only the beginning of the rollercoaster that was her life in the imperial spotlight.

20191016_192016She first appears in sources with Caligula’s untraditional and perhaps even unhealthy attachment to his sisters, with them depicted on coins and made part of the oaths of state. This did not stop her plotting against her brother, who had her exiled. Agrippina was allowed to return by Claudius, but he married her off and she disappears from the historical record for another five years. When she returned to the public eye, it was as the wife of the emperor (who just happened to be her uncle…)

Agrippina was appointed Augusta and became the first to hole that title while still having a public role and even had some semblance of power within Claudius’ court. Unsurprisingly, Tacitus sees this as a “political earthquake,” gravely undermining the social fabric.

That said, the appointment of Agrippina to a position of power and influence coincided with an upturn in popularity for Claudius’ regime and the building of a more successful government, able to move people around into useful positions without having to resort to arbitrary removals and executions.

Nerón_y_AgripinaEven the event that Agrippina is best known for – the succession to Claudius – demonstrates that the empress was a talented administrator and leader. She, along with Claudius, very much followed the succession plan of Augustus, gradually introducing Nero to positions of publicity, power and influence so by the time of his accession, the public was used to his presence and Nero himself should have been well-used to being ‘first among equals.’

However, the succession of Nero also highlights the incident that garnered Agrippina much of her infamy – her being behind the murder of Claudius. Furthermore, the likes of Tacitus saw her succession plan as a manipulation of the political scene to make sure Nero succeeds instead of Britannicus. This violation of pietas was perhaps a greater crime than her killing of Claudius and Britannicus.

20191016_192543Because of her gender, her achievements were often seen as crimes, with the Neronian lens further ruining Agrippina’s reputation – she had birthed him, reared him and put him on the throne, so she was responsible for his actions. And even the most powerful woman could be brushed aside by even a weak/poor emperor, which was seen after the smooth accession of Nero, when the new emperor and Seneca saw to the marginalising of Agrippina. But even then, she must have retained some influence over her son – why else would he have undertaken to have her murdered?

At the end of her talk, Dr Southon answered some questions from the audience regarding Agrippina’s cremation on a dining room chair, Poppaea’s involvement in her death (yes, but Nero must also have been prominent – proving the influence Agrippina still had), the universality of her depiction as a whore, who her modern counterpart might be (Margaret Thatcher?), whether there was any reflection of Agrippina in Nero’s acting and whether she wanted power for herself or for Nero. For the latter, Dr Southon suggested that she may have been more interested in bringing the imperial position back into her own Julian side of the family.


CANI would like to extend our thanks to Dr Southon for her fascinating look at an otherwise maligned and pigeon-holed empress. We very much look forward to Emma presenting for us again in the future.

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler and Whore is available in all good bookstores and Dr Southon’s second book on Roman murder entitled A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is due out in 2020. She is also co-host of the History is Sexy podcast.

The Thermopylae Gardens at Kilwarlin Moravian Church

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Kilwarlin Moravian Church is situated in the countryside of Co. Down, near Hillsborough.  As a member of University Road Moravian Church, Belfast, I first visited Kilwarlin some 40 years ago during a Sunday School outing and followed the rest of the children in climbing to the top of the mound and down again amidst much screams and laughter.

20190511_125808On Saturday 11th May, I arrived at Kilwarlin, with my CANI colleague, Dr Katerina Kolotourou, to a very different gathering. The church had received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the “Finding Zula’s Hollow” project, established by Kilwarlin minister, Rev. Livingstone Thompson, and project chair, Mark Kernohan, to discover more about Rev. Basil Zula and the unusual ‘Thermopylae’ garden at Kilwarlin. The project has been managed by Peter Dornan, with research being carried out by Rachael Garrett. The visitors were treated to lunch followed by videos and talks detailing the work which had been undertaken to reveal the secrets of Zula’s Hollow. The event was open to the general public and in addition was attended by Anna Carragher from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Stella Xenopoulou and Paddy Sammon from the Hellenic Community in Ireland, a number of archaeologists, those with an interest in local heritage, and members of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland.

After proceedings were opened by Rev. Thompson and Mr. Kernohan, research co-ordinator,  Rachael Garrett, presented a lecture the findings so far. Rachael began by undertaking a “This is Your Life” investigation about Basil Patras Zula. Archaeological excavations were carried out in the gardens, and members of the team undertook a research trip to Greece to visit Thermopylae itself and compare the landscape with the garden at Kilwarlin.

index5The story of  is fascinating, moving and inspirational. Rev. Zula is believed to have been born Vasili Zoulas in Parga, Epirus, in north-western Greece, c.1796. Historical sources on the history of Parga revealed that the Zoulas family was among the most prominent clans in the area, one that had political authority, was actively involved in the resistance to Turkish rule and the Greek War of Independence, and fostered connections with leading revolutionary figures. Rev. Zula may himself have served as a captain in the Greek army.

A member of the Greek Orthodox Church, Rev. Zula came to Dublin in 1828 and attended a prayer meeting where he met Ann Linfoot who introduced him to the Moravian Church. Ann became his wife and Rev. Zula was ordained into the Moravian church. He found himself drawn to the Kilwarlin congregation which was struggling with only six elderly members and a church building in ruins. Within a few months of his establishment as minister at Kilwarlin in 1834, Rev. Zula had rebuilt the church and welcomed 26 new members into the congregation. He gained the support of the Marquis of Downshire, the local landowner, and the local community, and during the ten years he spent as minister of Kilwarlin, the congregation grew to over 200.

20190511_162431Ten years later, Basil Zula died unexpectedly on a business trip to Dublin and his body was returned for burial in the graveyard at Kilwarlin. His success in the rejuvenation of the congregation ensured that he continued to be celebrated long after his death. Minutes from the 1847 Synod of the Moravian Church in Great Britain noted his dedication to the community and the local poor.

Zula’s Hollow is an ornamental garden which sits a metre below the level of the rest of the grounds. It is believed the garden was built between 1839 and 1841. Excavations have revealed the remains of flowerbeds, an ornamental pond and the foundations of a summer house. At the southern end of the hollow are large scale earthworks forming hills, ridges, mounds and gorges. An additional mound is located to the west of the ornamental pond. Documentary evidence in the form of Zula’s obituary and his wife’s will confirms that the features in Zula’s Hollow date from the time of the garden’s construction by Rev. Zula around 1839/1840. In particular, Ann’s will (she died in 1858 and was buried in the grave next to her husband) earmarks funds specifically for the maintenance of Basil Zula’s grave and the features of the Hollow “cut and formed by him [Rev. Zula] to be kept in the same order and faithfully looked after.” (Garrett (2019), 31).

Thermopyles-GreeceBoth documents clarify that the earthworks were conceived of as being representative of Thermopylae as it was during the famous battle in 480 BC. An account of the events surrounding the battle is found in the Histories of Herodotus and in the works of Diodorus Siculus. The Greek fighters led by Spartan king Leonidas faced a massive Persian army led by Xerxes at Thermopylae. This was a narrow passage along the coast of the Malian gulf which was bordered by Mount Callidromos to the south, the sea to the north and narrow paths to the east and west. The Greek Ephialtes betrayed his countrymen by telling the Persians about the alternative route through the mountains. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans remained, along with some Thespians and Thebans, to delay the Persians as long as possible. Their heroic sacrifice has inspired many poems, documentaries and films.

The research committee’s trip to Thermopylae revealed that the current landscape has changed in the last 2,500 years due to sedimentary deposition and shifting sea levels, meaning that the present-day shoreline is several kilometres away from its location in 480 BC. The Thermopylae battlefield has been entirely obscured by up to 20 meters of sedimentary deposits. By examining ancient sources, historical maps and archaeological/geomorphologic research of Zula’s Hollow, it was concluded that the reconstruction of Thermopylae at Kilwarlin matches the topography of the battleground as it would have appeared in the fifth century BC and as it was described by Herodotus.

indexAt the same time, the layout of Zula’s Hollow accommodated ornamental features appropriate to contemporary mid-19th century tastes, as well as an additional enigmatic mound at the north-west named ”Karouli.” Rachel Garrett interpreted the term as a corrupted version of the word “Karaoúli” (meaning “guard”). This name was historically applied to Mount Callidromos at Thermopylae, but it also given to Mavro Oros, a mountain on the coast of Epirus near Zula’s believed birthplace, Parga. She further argued that if Karaoúli was indeed intended to symbolically allude to the topographies of both Thermopylae and his own homeland, Zula could thus ”align or even merge the story of the battle of Thermopylae with that of his own life.” (Garrett (2019), 57)

Seeking the reasons why Zula might have chosen Thermopylae as the model for the Kilwarlin garden, Rachael concluded that the ancient battle held particular meaning for him. Zula came from Parga, where a strong tradition of political and armed resistance to Turkish rule was deeply embedded long before the Greek revolution. Unlike most of Greece that was under Ottoman rule since the 15th century, Parga was part of the Venetian Republic largely unbroken for 400 years until 1797, when it briefly passed under France’s control before rebelling and accepting British suzerainty. Despite the incessant resistance of the people of Parga, the city was eventually ceded to the rule of the Turkish Vizier Ali Pasha in 1819, a fact that led a large part of the population, including Zula and his mother, into emigration. (Garrett (2019), 74-76)

Lord_Byron_at_MissolonghiLong-standing conflict, refusal to submit to Ali Pasha, and a longing for liberty and freedom were central themes in Zula’s early life. He had fought during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), and may have taken part at the infamous Third Siege of Missolonghi in 1825/1826, possibly side by side with his own family. Formerly under Venetian rule, this city-stronghold in Western Greece had also come under the control of Ali Pasha in 1804, just as Zula’s birthplace would. The subsequent Turkish atrocities and subjugation of  Missolonghi despite the heroic struggles of its defenders must have been evocative of the fate of Zula’s own homeland.

Repeatedly besieged by huge Turkish forces, Missolonghi came to be regarded as ”a new Thermopylae” in the wake of the philhellenic movement. Leading up to the outbreak of the Greek Revolution, the story of Thermopylae had been used to promote the idea of Greek independence from the Turkish state and became associated with civic virtue, patriotism, anti-despotism and liberty. (Athanassoglou (1981), 633-649) It is likely that Rev. Zula, a learned man influenced by philhellenic and revolutionary ideologies, intended to evoke these ideals in his parish. Zula’s own claims of a connection to Lord Byron, the most famous of the philhellenes who served and then died at Missolonghi in 1824, strengthens this view.

Lord_Byron_in_Albanian_Dress_by_Phillips,_1813At the same time, it is important to consider that Rev. Zula was unable to ever return to his homeland, a fact that he may have tried to offset with the recreation of a tangible piece of his native land in Hillsborough. The iconic topographical choices of Thermopylae and Mavro Oros may have served as a reference to his own personal journey and as a perpetual celebration of those who had selflessly fought for Greek freedom, himself among them. While the symbolic meaning of Zula’s Hollow will remain speculative, the beautiful grounds that he created provided the local community of Kilwarlin with employment opportunities and with a charming open space for their enjoyment and spiritual reflection.

Zula’s Hollow is unique in the British Isles and possibly further afield. Certainly there is nothing like it in Greece to celebrate the bravery of those who fought at Thermopylae two and a half millennia ago. We await with interest the next stage of the project: the creation of a visitor centre.

Helen McVeigh and Katerina Kolotourou


Athanassoglou, N. ‘Under the Sign of Leonidas: The Political and Ideological Fortune of David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae under the Restoration’, The Art Bulletin 63 (1981), 633-649

Garrett, R. ‘Discovering Zula’s Hollow,’ Historical Research Report (2019)

Further Reading

Day, J. ‘Rev. Basil Zula and the Thermopylae Garden at Kilwarlin, Co. Down,’ in John V. Luce, J.V., Morris, C. and Souyoudzoglou-Haywood, C. (eds.) In The Lure of Greece: Irish Involvement in Greek Culture, Literature, History and Politics. Dublin (2007), 19-31

The Tombstone of the Unknown Goddess

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As I am sure many of you know, history can be open to interpretation. Of course, the same can be said for the iconography, cult, norms and values of the various historic societies in question. Many artefacts or texts, initially interpreted one way, may end up being completely different 100 years later (which in turn, may be subject to change one way or another 100 years into the future as well). All of which brings me to the subject of this blog.

I encountered this lovely tombstone on a visit to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester (or Deva Victrix for any scholars/enthusiasts/secret time-travelling Romans amongst you)

As an aside, I strongly recommend a visit to Chester, and the Grosvenor Museum, for you lovers of Roman civic and military history; it contains fantastic artefacts pertaining to Legio XX, as well as beautifully preserved funerary monuments from the classical period.

I was first struck by its similarity to a certain figure I have been researching for the past year. Interestingly, the goddess’ identity remains elusive, with no clear interpretation given for who she is.

As you can see from the picture, the person in question appears to be female, wears a small crown (or polos) on her head and is fully clothed, with a relaxed demeanour in a sitting posture. She also appears to hold a cornucopia (horn of plenty) in her left hand and an offering bowl (patera/phiale) in her right hand. Now, the prevailing interpretation is that she is perhaps a depiction of a Roman ‘genius.’ Instead, I would like to suggest another figure altogether – Cybele.

Cybele is a bit of a strange one even by Roman standards; originally from Phrygia (Turkey), her cult was adopted into the Roman pantheon around about the time of the Second Punic War and eventually became quite popular among the people, in spite of its ‘outlandish’ nature and practices – for example, priests of Cybele, known as Galli, were known to ritually castrate themselves in service to the goddess, and to her companion-consort, Attis. As you do… She is worshipped as a Mother Goddess, reflected in one of the many names given to her – Magna Mater – Great Mother.

Now to the point; look at the following statues of Cybele…

Seem familiar, do they not? Note the similarities in sitting posture, attire (the crown/veil ensemble and long dress/peplum), and accessories (3 of the 4 above show cornucopiae, and 2 of them show a small offering bowl alongside). In fact, I would be hard pressed not to suggest that they are almost identical. Moreover, this unidentified gravestone is only part of a large assemblage of gravestones, several of which contain clear depictions of Attis (so we have that connection too). Finally, we should consider the location of the tomb in north western England. Are there any cults to this Phrygian goddess in this far-flung corner of the Empire? As a matter of fact, there are. 150 miles away, there was a significant triangular temple to Cybele in Verulamium – modern St. Albans outside London.

Of course, there are deviations depending on the worshippers and where the cult was situated. It appears that the closest similarities to the gravestone tend to come from Greek images of Cybele (while the Roman ones vary); moreover, one could note that other deities also have similar trappings/symbols associated with their cults, such as Juno, Annona and Ceres – Juno is often depicted with a similar crown, and Ceres is normally depicted with a cornucopia; Juno however tends to be depicted standing, and Ceres does not always wear a crown.

However, given the consistent similarities in how they look, not to mention the surrounding circumstances, I find that it is Cybele who most closely resembles our unidentified gravestone goddess.

Christopher Cavanagh