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When you think about code-breaking, the chances are your thoughts will automatically shift to Enigma, Bletchley Park, the Imitation Game and Alan Turing as perhaps the most prominent example. However, encoding messages was by no means an invention of the modern world.
Some form of cryptography itself seems to date back to at least early second millennium BC Egypt, with hieroglyphics were used to decorate tombs, while other examples appear in Mesopotamia and Greece; however, there are doubts over whether some of these encryptions were really used to prevent others from reading the text or as simple literary puzzles for amusement or even as a way to avoid bad omens (Cohen (1995); Kelly (1998); Lateiner (2010)).
The Polybius Square
More clear cut examples of cryptology had appeared by the second century BC. Polybius wrote on a system to be used in fire-signalling “devised by Cleoxenus and Democleitus and perfected by myself (Polybius)” (Polybius X.45.6), now referred to as the Polybius Square.’ Polybius X.45.7-47.11 describes the square in action. Julius Caesar is recorded using a cipher – now known as the Caesar Cipher – which shifted each letter two or three places further through the alphabet (Suetonius, Divi Julius 56.6). Augustus is also recorded using a similar cipher (Suetonius, Aug. 88), while it has been suggested that Caesar may have used an even more complicated system – “there is even a rather ingeniously written treatise by the grammarian Probus concerning the secret meaning of letters in the composition of Caesar’s epistles” (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 17.9.1-5).
However, it was not just such cryptology that the Romans resorted to prevention sensitive or important information falling into the wrong hands. We are fortunate to have recorded one such instance of the lengths a Roman diplomat might go to get a message out to the Roman authorities. The basis of this good fortune is the military career of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus. In serving as a protector of the general Ursicinus during the 350s, Ammianus was in a position to see one such message be found, decoded and then deciphered.
The author of this coded message was a certain Procopius. While less well-known that his sixth century namesake, the historian Procopius of Caesarea, this Procopius is a character well worth reading up about. A native of Cilicia, he attempted to usurp the imperial throne from the eastern emperor Valens in 365/366.
Basing his claim on being a maternal cousin of Julian and the idea that Julian named him his successor, complete with an imperial purple robe, at the outset of the disastrous Persian expedition, Procopius’ usurpation was peculiar mix of farce, organisational skill, drama, loyalty, bribery, betrayal and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (or vice versa depending on the point of view).
Julian and Valens
His improvised coronation with makeshift imperial regalia of what seems like slippers and a napkin, in the dead of night in Constantinople in the hands of Ammianus reads more like the comedy of Aristophanes or the satire of Petronius than a serious assumption of imperial power (Ammianus XVI.6.16-19).
Constantius II and Shapur II
But before he was usurping the imperial throne, Procopius served under the emperor Constantius II as a tribunus et notarius, a position which in itself demonstrates that Procopius was no dummy. He was also felt worthy of being entrusted with one of the more important duties of the 350s: along with the comes, Lucillianus, Procopius was dispatched to the court of the Sassanid Persian King, Shapur II, to negotiate a peace between the two empires (Ammianus XVII.14.3).
In other times, this would not have been as difficult as it sounds as there were prolonged periods where both Rome and Persia were happy to see their shared border remain quiet. Unfortunately for Procopius, this was not one of those times. Shapur II was on the warpath, determined to see large parts of Armenia and Mesopotamia ceded to him either at the negotiating table or through force.
Procopius and Lucillianus had their work cut out for them. Indeed, it could be argued that Constantius II did not intend for them to succeed in obtaining any sort of treaty, merely using the pretext of the embassy to slow and/or discover the Persian king’s plan for the coming campaign season. Ammianus goes as far as to say that Shapur, “armed with the help of the savage tribes which he had subdued, and burning with superhuman desire of extending his domain, was preparing arms, forces, and supplies, embroiling his plans with infernal powers and consulting all superstitions about the future.” (Ammianus XVIII.4.1)
While the exact nature or access of the embassy to the Persian court is not recorded, Procopius and Lucillianus were able to hear or see enough to recognise that even with these ‘negotiations’ still on-going, the Persian army was on the move. And the comes and notarius needed to get the word back to Roman authorities. They achieved this by getting a concealed note to a group of Roman scouts in a scabbard, who then succeeded in delivering this communiqué to Ursicinus at Amida (Frontinus, Strat. III.13.5 advised similar use of a scabbard to conceal secret messages – “some have written on the linings of scabbards”).
The message was not only hidden in a secret place, once it was removed from the scabbard, it was found to be written in code, and even when the cipher was applied, the decoded message appeared nonsensical (Ammianus XVIII.6.17; Blockley (1986) on decoding the letter).
“Now that the envoys of the Greeks have been sent far away and perhaps are to be killed, that aged king, not content with Hellespontus, will bridge the Granicus and the Rhyndacus and come to invade Asia with many nations. He is naturally passionate and very cruel, and he has as an instigator and abetter the successor of the former Roman emperor Hadrian; unless Greece takes heed, it is all over with her and her dirge chanted” (Ammianus XVIII.6.18).
The coded nature of the letter, in terms of secreting, symbols and allusion, along with the inference of the first line suggest “that the envoys of the Greeks” – Procopius and Lucillianus – had been imprisoned by Shapur or were at least under surveillance.
Mithridates VI of Pontus
The mention of an “aged king” bridging the Granicus and Rhyndacus rivers, both in Asia Minor, was considered an inference to the outbreak of the Third Mithridatic War in 74/73BCE, with the “aged king” being Mithridates VI (Appian, Mithr. 69-71; Matthews (1989), 42-43; Mayor (2009) on Mithridates VI). Respectively, the Granicus and the Rhyndacus are the modern Biga and Mustafakemalpasha rivers in north-western Turkey. The former is most famous as the site of Alexander the Great’s first victory over the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 334BCE, while the latter was the site of two Roman victories over the forces of Mithridates VI, first by Fimbria in 85BCE and then by Lucullus in 73/72BCE (Frontinus, Strat. III.17.5; Plutarch, Lucullus XI.2-3).
The Granicus/Biga and the Rhyndacus/Mustafakemalpasha Rivers
This allusion to Mithridates and his crossing of rivers was considered to be a reference to Shapur’s planned crossing of the Greater Zab and Tigris rivers for an invasion of Roman territory, with the mention of his cruelty and passion likely highlighting that Shapur’s invasion was not some run-of-the-mill raid but a full-scale invasion intent on conquest. A similar sense of the immediacy and size of the threat posed by the Shapur’s latest invasion is also conveyed by the final line of the message.
The Eastern Theatre in the 350/60s
Perhaps the most straightforward piece of information is the allusion to Hadrian’s successor, the emperor Antoninus Pius, as an “instigator and abetter.” This was revealing the presence and identity of a Roman defector, Antoninus, at the Persian court, and his role as an adviser to the Persian king (Ammianus XVIII.5).
Hadrian and Antoninus Pius
It might seem then that that this letter gave Ursicinus valuable insight into the planned movements of Shapur but it in actual fact, the coded message of Procopius is rather short on actionable intelligence or new information. By the time they received Procopius’ message at Amida, Ursicinus and Ammianus had already been confronted with evidence that the Persians were in Roman territory, not only finding a Persian spy at Meiacarire but also being confronted with the initial stages of Nisibis being put under Persian blockade.
While it does hint that Shapur intended to invade en masse, it does not give any real notion of the size of his army or where exactly he intended to cross into Roman territory. Was he going to cross the Greater Zab and the Tigris close together, perhaps at their confluence and then drive at Singara? Or was he going to cross the Zab and then follow the Tigris upriver to the northwest before crossing? And even then where would he cross? Near Nineveh? Bezabde? Amida? Or somewhere in between or beyond?
So Procopius’ message was telling the Roman high command something they already knew – the Persians were invading – but then failed to tell them something of exact strategic usefulness that they did not already know – where was the main Persian army going to cross into Mesopotamia? This cannot be held against Procopius and Lucillianus. The close scrutiny of the Persian court likely limited the intelligence they would get their hands on and the rapidity with which they could get that limited intelligence back to Roman territory.
Desperate to get more firsthand knowledge, Ursicinus sent Ammianus on a mission to contact Jovinianus, the Persian satrap of Corduene, who sent Ammianus on with a guide to a cliff that overlooking the route of march of Shapur’s army. Again harking back to ancient history, Ammianus describes the size of the Persian force with suitably dramatic flair, recalling the great invasion force of the Achaemenid Persian king Xerxes in 480BCE and suggesting that it would take three full days for the entire Persian army to cross the Tigris (Ammianus XVIII.7.1; XIX.6.11 later declared Shapur’s force to be 100,000 strong; Herodotus VII.59-60 on Xerxes’ force).
So the coded message of Procopius might not have wielded any overtly useful intelligence for Ursicinus at the time; indeed, the subsequent Persian campaign saw the epic siege, capture and destruction of Amida. However, this episode does give us some insight into Roman coding techniques of concealment, encoding and allusion in action.
Blockley, R.C. ‘The coded message in Ammianus Marcellinus 18.6.17-19’, Echos du Monde Classique 30 n.s. 5 (1986) 63-65
Cohen, F. ‘A Short History of Cryptography,’ http://all.net/edu/curr/ip/Chap2-1.html (1995)
Crawford, P. Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist. Barnsley (2016)
Lateiner, D. ‘Signifying Names and Other Ominous Accidental Utterances in Classical Historiography,’ GRBS 45.1 (2010), 35-57
Matthews, J.F. The Roman Empire of Ammianus. London (1989)
Mayor, A. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy. Woodstack (2009)
Kelly, T. ‘The Myth of the Skytale,’ Cryptologia 22.3 (1998) 244-260
For lots more photos from the big day at the Ulster Museum, check out our Facebook page below.
On Thursday 8th June, Dr Peter Crawford delivered the final lecture in the Classical Association in Northern Ireland’s 2016/17 programme of events, entitled ‘Who was Constantius II?’
Dr Crawford’s biography of the fourth-century Roman emperor (2016) with its subtitle ‘Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist’ posed the same question, offering three frameworks through which we might view the son of Constantine the Great. Thursday night’s audience heard a more extensive range of possibilities, Dr Crawford stating that, when asked to summarise the character of Constantius II, he found it difficult to do so without perpetuating the same underestimating, sidelining and misrepresentation of the ‘philosopher king’ that had prompted him to write the biography in the first place. So he supplied each audience member with a checklist. Amongst other descriptions, this introduced us to Constantius II as: an imperial stop-gap; the ‘wrong kind’ of Christian; a paranoid monster and family annihilator; and – as his book suggests – the Antichrist.
Dr Crawford began by introducing those of us unfamiliar with this emperor, to the bare details of his reign: Flavius Julius Constantius was born in Sirmium in 317, first serving as Caesar (junior emperor) from 324 until 337, then as co-Augustus with his two brothers until 350, when, after their brutal deaths, he became sole Augustus until his own death in 361. It soon began to become clear that the initial assertion of Constantius’s enigmaticism was sound: analysis of Constantius II’s character and reign is frustrated by a basic lack of information. In fact, Dr Crawford’s talk was punctuated by a series of compelling questions that remain unanswered by historical sources; although he reigned for 24 years between Constantine I and Julian, general works on this period overlook Constantius II’s substantial reign in order to reach Julian the Apostate.
Constantine I, Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans and Julian (left to right)
More details of Constantius II’s background were explored: the ‘scandal-mongering’ that surrounded his rise and inheritance of the Empire, including discussion of his mother’s possible extra-marital honey-pot trap, as well as multiple executions and inter-familial murder plots. Combined with the psychological impact of his father’s murderous actions and manipulation of his sons, our eyes were opened to why this emperor might be characterised as the ‘paranoid monster’ on Dr Crawford’s checklist.
The Rivals – Dalmatius, Hannibalianus, Constantine II, Constans, Magnentius, Decentius, Vetranio, Nepotianus and Julian (left to right)
The body of the lecture dealt with not simply the paucity of the sources, which itself significantly undermines Constantius II’s reign, but also the dislike of Constantius II exhibited by those sources. The chief of these is Ammianus Marcellinus. Despite the importance of Ammianus’s work to historians of Constantius II, he refers to the emperor’s ‘dullness of mind’, claiming that he ‘accomplished nothing worthwhile’. This derision persists even in modern presentations of Constantius II; the famous historian of late antiquity A.H.M. Jones (1964) brands him a ‘vain and stupid man’ and ‘easy prey to flatterers’. Ammianus also decries Constantius II’s military record, unfairly, it would appear, since Dr Crawford was able to contradict many of the half-truths quoted from Ammianus; Constantius won many civil wars, and was a well-renowned battlefield commander, defeating revolts and barbarian tribes, as well as successfully invading Persian territory.
Dr Crawford then addressed the rather different problems posed by ecclesiastical histories, which denigrate Constantius II’s reputation due to his supposed Arianism. This is where ‘Constantius the Antichrist’ comes in. I gained a deeper understanding of the term ‘Arian’, as a follower of the doctrinal teachings of Arius of Alexandria, the main thrust of which was that a ‘created’ Jesus was separate from and thus inferior to God. As the Church moved to have Arianism suppressed, Constantius was faced with dire opposition for what were more likely progressive rather than Arian views. Even as Augustus, Constantius II’s attempts at reform and unification were seen as a disguise for being an Antichrist. Yet it was not only his confrontation with the church that damaged his reputation; another moniker on the checklist is ‘family annihilator’, justified in the light of confrontations with his extended family about succession after his father’s death, which led him to assassinate uncles and cousins, securing the accession of himself and his brothers.
Furthermore, Constantius II’s excessive emphasis on personal imperial dignity rendered him an aloof, domineering character. Instead of ‘first among equals’, we have a dominus, as Dr Crawford put it, ‘lording it over his underlings’. This aloofness went hand-in-hand with a paranoia bred by self-fulfilling usurpations, disloyalty, and revolt.
The conclusion of Dr Crawford’s lecture, then, asked us, how do we judge Constantius II, given the inadequacy, misinformation and bias that dominate the historical evidence of this emperor’s reign? It was clear that attempting to cut through the bias does not affect any significant shift in the perception of him. If not a paranoid monster, at best Constantius II was a ‘good, bad, and ugly’ enigma. Was Ammianus correct in his portrayal? Even accounting for some exaggeration still leaves a picture of, as Dr Crawford put it, ‘a potentially unpleasant, utterly ruthless and unscrupulous man.’ If not the psychologically damaged, uncreative, barbarian-using Antichrist, Constantius II certainly lacked a good publicist, as his military and political achievements are downplayed more than they should be.
Dr Erin Halliday
You can see a few more photos from the event in our ‘Who Was Constantius II?’ Gallery.
What do Vladimir Klitschko, Inspector Gadget, friend and ally of He-Man, Mekaneck, the Kayan people of Myanmar and the fourth century Roman emperor Constans I all have in common?
They have all been seen to have an extremely long neck.
Any of you who follow the CANI Twitter and/or Facebook feeds may know that on occasion, you will see some coins posted as I attempt to collect a coin of every Roman emperor.
Now, looking at that album, you may notice that there is already a coin of Constans, minted in Thessalonica one or two years before his accession as co-Augustus with his two brothers, Constantine II and Constantius II, on 9 September 337.
O: CONSTANS NOB CAES; R: GLORIA EXERCITVS SMTS [A/Δ] RIC VII.526 n.201/529 n.225, Thessalonica
However, in the course of my search for some of the more rare Roman emperors, I came across this issue of Constans.
O: DN CONSTA-NS PF AVG; R: FEL TEMP REPARATIO [TRP*]; RIC VIII.154 n.236; Trier
Now, the Ukrainian giant and former World Heavyweight Champion, Klitschko is probably still a little rubber-necked after that uppercut by Anthony Joshua; Inspector Gadget needed any and every advantage (along with the hidden/unrecognised skills of Penny and Brain) to thwart Dr Claw and his henchmen; He-Man required the periscopic abilities of Mekaneck to keep an eye on what Skeletor and his minions had planned for Eternia, while various reasons for why the Kayan people choose to wear brass rings to give the appearance of an elongated neck – cultural identity, protection from slavery or lions, gender differentiation or symbolising a dragon – but why would Constans feel the need to himself portrayed in such a way?
Might it be a poorly stamped or well-worn coin? A brief internet search told me that there is plenty of precedent for such oesophageally extended emperors.
O: FL VAL CONSTANTIVS NOB C; R: GENIO POPVLI ROMANI; RIC VI.124 n.14a; London http://www.coincommunity.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=139980
Finding such similar traits in other Constantinians might lead to the idea that this was a family trait or a family choice for their propaganda, possibly linked to their Illyrian origins, but that would not explain the depictions of the British usurpers Carausius and Allectus with similarly long necks.
O: IMP C CARAVSIVS PF AVG; R: PAX AVG (S ….. P); RIC Vb.504 n.475; London http://www.coincommunity.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=139980
O: IMP C ALLECTVS PF AVG; R: PAX AVG ML (S ….. A); RIC Vb.561 n.33; London http://www.coincommunity.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=139980
From these emperors so far listed, it could be suggested that there was some kind of British connection to such long necks as both Carausius and Allectus ruled the island as independent usurpers; Constantius I Chlorus reintegrated Britain into the Empire, while Constans campaigned there in 343. A connection between long necks and Britain could be further promoted by the existence of a coin such as this of Galerius, who had no personal connection to Britain apart from being a member of the Tetrarchy, but there were still coins minted in London depicting him with a long neck.
O: MAXIMIANVS NOB CAES; R: GENIO POPVLI ROMANI; RIC VI.124 n.15; London http://www.coincommunity.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=139980
However, moving slightly further back in time, into the melee of the Third Century Crisis, coins can be found depicting emperors with no connection to Britain and which were minted elsewhere in the Empire. Aurelian and Probus issued coins presenting themselves with chins a considerable distance from their upper torso; both of these coins were minted in Siscia, which seems to have become associated with such a physical exaggeration during the mid to late third century, enough for wildwinds.com to suggest the identification aid of a long neck likely being an issue from Siscia in Pannonia.
O: IMP AVRELIANVS AVG; R: VIRTVS MILITVM [Γ*]; RIC Va.285 n.184; Siscia http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/aurelian/RIC_0184
O: IMP PROBVS PF AVG; R: CONCORDIA MILIT [XXIS]; RIC Vb.89 n.666; Siscia https://www.coincommunity.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=139980
Going even further back in time though, we find elongated necks as being prominent in the coinage of Rome’s first imperial dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. It was particularly prominent in the issues of Claudius, which might lead to a resurrection of a connection to Britain, given his overseeing the conquest of that province, but again the coins below were minted in Rome, rather than Britain.
O: TI CLAVDIVS CAESAR AVG P M TR P IMP; R: SPES AUGUSTA [SC]; RIC I.128 n.99; Rome http://www.coincommunity.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=139980
O: TI CLAVDIVS CAESAR AVG P M TR P IMP P P; R: LIBERTAS AVGVSTA; RIC I.130 n.113; Rome http://www.coincommunity.com/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=139980
Furthermore, not only does a similarly giraffe-like head support appear on coins of Nero, it also appears on the issues of Augustus and Tiberius, emperors with little to no connection to Britain.
O: NERO CAESAR AVG IMP; R: PONTIF MAX R P VII COS IIII PP [EX SC]; RIC I.151-152, nn.26/28; Rome https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/3274/Ancient-Roman-Coinage/
O: None; R: AVGVSTVS; RIC I.50, n.125; Colonia Patricia(?) https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/3274/Ancient-Roman-Coinage/
O: CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI F PATER PATRIAE; R: TI CAESAR AVG F TR POT XV; RIC I.56, n.56; Lugdunum https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/3274/Ancient-Roman-Coinage/
You might suggest that this long neck was a Julio-Claudian trait, although that does not exactly explain why both Augustus and Tiberius, who shared no blood, appear with such a trait, unless it was a trait of both of their families – the Octavii-Julii and the Claudians, or it was a trait of Augustus (or even Julius Caesar) and the rest of the Julio-Claudians followed it in order to project some kind of familial, dynastic bond.
Regardless of whether or not this was a regional or a familial trait/custom, it leaves the question of why would the emperor want to have himself portrayed in such a grotesque fashion?
The timing of some of these issues might provide some answers in the form of building legitimacy through ‘other-worldliness.’ Augustus was still attempting to solidify his transformation of the Republic to the Empire; Claudius could have been worried over his lack of legitimacy having been elevated from behind a curtain, while the young Nero may have had to deal with some murmurings of the circumstances of Claudius’ demise and his own elevation over Britannicus. In the mid-third century, the turnover of emperors must have undermined the sanctity of that once mighty imperial institution so perhaps the like of Aurelian and Probus were looking to put themselves on a pedestal above other men and even other emperors and usurpers by making it appear that they were something more than a man; something worthy of not just a soldier’s loyalty but perhaps also their reverence and worship. Certainly by the reign of Diocletian and his Tetrarchy, imperial propaganda had begun to associate the emperor with more dominant and divine characteristics: no longer a princeps – first among equals – but a dominus and even a deus with Diocletian and Maximian associating themselves with Jupiter and Hercules.
But then again such divine developments were not new. Arguments over the scale or timing of an emperor’s divinity had been raging on and off since the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus – could an emperor or an aspect of his genius be worshipped as divine during his lifetime?
Perhaps all of these emperors – Aurelian, Probus, the British usurpers, and the Constantinians were not only hoping to achieve some added legitimacy by appearing other-worldly on their coins but also by harking back to the Julio-Claudians, who not only used similar depictions on their coins but were also the fountain of the original imperial legitimacy.
This aspiration to divinity could be reflected in the ‘other-worldly’ depictions on other coins, such as this issue from the moneyer Gnaeus Blasio in 112-111BC. It could be a depiction of Scipio Africanus but with enough deniability built in so it could passed off as the god Mars. The exaggerated features perhaps say something about the Roman perception of how to appear divine.
Scipio Africanus/Mars https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/3274/Ancient-Roman-Coinage/
However, it must not be overlooked that on certain occasions, a long neck, bulging eyes or fat head might not represent what the emperor wanted people or specific regions to think of him but perhaps what the people, and more specifically the die engraver or his direct overseer already thought of him…
O: IMP NERO CAESAR AVGVSTVS; R: SALVS; RIC I.153, n.60; Rome https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/3274/Ancient-Roman-Coinage/
Someone minting coins in Rome does not seem to have liked Nero…
The contrast between this coin and the issue earlier is striking, demonstrating the almost complete collapse in Nero’s popularity from the young fresh faced heir to Claudius to the fat, ugly, pig-featured of the second coin. There can be little doubt that such a depiction reflected the enmity that Nero had raised amongst the population by the time of the issue of this coin in c.66-67, only months before his deposition and death. This Nero is hardly the picture of health, well-being and safety hinted at by the seated portrait of the personification of Salus along with the declaration of SALVS on the reverse. It is almost as if the engraver was making an ironic point about not only Nero himself but his regime and the empire as a whole, a point which hindsight makes more visible (or existent) given the events of 68-69.
It must be pointed out that the coin of Constans which started this little voyage of discovery came from the mint at Trier in 349-350, which in the region of the empire which birthed the usurpation of Magnentius in early 350 that ousted and then assassinated Constans. Could this long-necked coin be an attempt by someone in Trier to ridicule the emperor, demonstrating how Constans had become increasingly unpopular with segments of his political and military hierarchies throughout the 340s?
Whether it is positive or negative propaganda, depicting an ‘other-worldly’, out-of-reach, divine emperor to be respected and obeyed or a strange looking, unpopular man, worthy only of your ridicule, such coins can show how intricate, varied and dare I say amusing the whole subject of Roman numismatics can be.
On Thursday 6th April 2017, The Classical Association in Northern Ireland was proud to host its latest talk on ‘Greek Percussion’ by Dr Katerina Kolotourou in the Old Staff Common Room of Queen’s University Belfast.
To welcome an expert on ancient Greek culture, history and society to Belfast at any time is a great pleasure but to find a speaker with the distinction of Dr Kolotourou, now resident in the city, is doubly a boon to the Association. A historian, linguist, field-archaeologist and herself an accomplished pianist, Dr Kolotorou delivered a bravura lecture on Greek percussion to an audience, in which many will have known of poets, rhetors and drama, but may easily have overlooked (or underheard) the wide range of percussive instruments that accompanied many aspects of Greek culture.
Calling upon a literary sources and fragmentary sculptural evidence, Dr Kolotourou restored the sistrum, tympanon and kithara to the prominent roles required of them by the classical Greek musical ear. From the pulsing energy of the ceremonies of Dionysius to the high spirits of street-musicians of the Piraeus, the Belfast audience had an audio-world powerfully evoked. Understanding the sounds, instruments and players recreated the uniqueness of percussion as a means of musical expression, then as now.
And striking parallels and differences between Greek instruments and those of ancient Egypt and the Near East opened up yet another avenue of enquiry into the relationship between ancient peoples of the eastern Mediterranean.
Not surprisingly, the lecture had attracted the attention of historians of music as well as musicians themselves, and Dr Kolotorou was able to offer food for thought to questioners on 14th century Sweden as well as early modern English song. We very much look forward to hearing from Dr Kolotourou again and wish her well for her ongoing research which is to culminate in what will certainly be a fascinating monograph.
You can see a few more photos from the event in our ‘Greek Percussion’ Gallery