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Fooling a Forger: ‘Pompicus’ and the Renegade Deserter

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Ancient Greek philosophers – the term conjures up the names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, with the stories of hemlock, the Academy and teaching Alexander the Great not far behind. But how often would the name Heraclides Ponticus (c.390-310BC) bubble to the surface? Not very often, if ever.


And yet he seems to have been a prominent philosopher at the time of Plato and Aristotle, having moved to Athens from his birthplace of Heraclea Pontica (modern day Karadeniz Ereğli in Turkey) to study under Plato at the Academy.

He was enough of a star pupil to be left in charge when Plato travelled to Sicily in 361-360BC and only narrowly missed out on being elected head of the Academy in 339/338BC (Suda Η461; Guthrie (1986), 470).

Suda H461 also records that Heraclides “wrote a lot,” and a list of subjects seemingly addressed by him seems to bear that out – philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, music, grammar, physics, history and rhetoric.

Despite this high profile and extended bibliography, perhaps the thing Heraclides is most famous for is his Pythagorean proposal that the daily motion of the stars was due to the rotation of the Earth, contradicting the fixed Earth approach of Aristotle. A fifth century CE pagan philosopher, Simplicius of Cilicia, records that Heraclides proposed that the irregular movements of the planets can be explained if the Earth moves around a stationary Sun. This has helped see Heraclides portrayed as a proponent and even originator of heliocentrism (Simplicius, On Aristotle, Physics 2; Heath (1921) 312, 316-317). However, a detailed investigation of the sources has shown that “nowhere in the ancient literature mentioning Heraclides of Pontus is there a clear reference for his support for any kind of heliocentrical planetary position” (Eastwood (1992), 256).


Even if these attributions of heliocentrism are somewhat incorrect, Heraclides would seem to be worthy of the position accorded to him at the Academy and perhaps of a more prominent position in the general appreciation of Ancient Greek philosophers.

Instead though, we see him being dubbed Heraclides “Pompicus” from the Greek πομπεια meaning “buffoon”. Could this be due to the contrariness of his astronomical assertions in an Aristotelian world? Was it his own vanity and pomposity which made him the target of such punning ridicule? (Davidson (2007), 45)

Those issues may have helped, but there may have been another reason for the level of ridicule he received: it seems that Heraclides Ponticus was a prolific forger and plagiariser.

In his entry on ‘Pompicus’ in his Lives of the Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius records that “Aristoxenus the musician asserts that Heraclides also composed tragedies, inscribing upon them the name of Thespis [while] Chamaeleon complains that Heraclides’ treatise on the works of Homer and Hesiod was plagiarized from his own” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.92).

CaptureIt is with this reputation for forgery and plagiarism that we turn to another lesser known Greek philosopher of the fourth century BCE – Dionysius of Heraclea (c.330-250BCE), known to history as Dionysius the Renegade.

In this context ‘renegade’ – μεταθέμενος – is used in its original meaning, similar to ‘deserter’ i.e. someone who reneges. This nickname stemmed from his abandoning of the austere Stoic philosophy of Zeno of Citium for the hedonism of the Cyrenaics after being struck with an eye complaint.

Such a nickname may not have arisen from a single instance of ‘desertion.’ Dionysius may have had a reputation for turning away from ideas, beliefs, philosophies and people. Indeed, he would seem to have turned away from another teacher early in his life: his fellow inhabitant of Heraclea Pontica – Heraclides.

Dionysius was himself a prolific writer, producing philosophical works on apathy, training, pleasure, riches, use of men, good fortune, kings, praise and barbarians (Diogenes Laertes, Lives of the Philosophers VII.167), but it is a work that he passed off as not being his own that became part of the dispute between he and Heraclides.

220px-Sophocles_pushkinIntent on catching out Heraclides in his pomposity and outdoing him at his own game of forgery, Dionysius composed a play called Parthenopaeus and claimed that it was a lost work of the great fifth century BC tragedian Sophocles.

The forgery elicited praise from Heraclides as an authentic piece, who cited it in one of his own works as “Sophoclean evidence” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.92)

Having caught his former teacher in the trap, Dionysius revealed to ‘Pompicus’ that he had forged the attribution to Sophocles, ridiculing him for his inability to recognise an obvious fraud.

Unwilling to accept that he had been duped by his former disciple, Heraclides insisted that the play was authentic. It was then that Dionysius provided various proofs of his authorship of Parthenopaeus. He pointed to an acrostic – using the first letters of successive lines to spell out a word or message – present in the play which spelled out the name of ΠΑΝΚΑΛΑΣ (Pankalos), who just so happened to be the lover of Dionysius.

Still unwilling to believe that he had been made a fool of, Heraclides continued to dig a hole for himself – “Such a thing, he said, might very well happen by chance” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.93).

Unfortunately for Heraclides, the name of his lover was not the only hidden message Dionysius had placed in Parthenopaeus. Indeed, the Renegade seems to have known his target well for the messages he interwove in his forged fabric suggest that he did not expect Heraclides to accept his word or the initial reveal of the ΠΑΝΚΑΛΑΣ acrostic as proof of his authorship of this ‘Sophoclean’ play.

The second message read “An old monkey is not caught by a trap,” rhetorically setting up Heraclides for the next hidden line, which read “Oh yes, he’s caught at last, but it takes time.”

If it was not obvious enough by then that Heraclides had been thoroughly duped, the last message shrugged off any pretence and resorted to flat out mockery, pronouncing that “Heraclides is ignorant of letters and not ashamed of his ignorance” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers V.93)

There is not enough surviving information in the source record of Diogenes and the Suda to provide much more information in this confrontation, so it is difficult to gauge what impact it had on the relationship between Dionysius and Heraclides.

Was it more in jest than a cynical attempt to humiliate a forger? Could the denigration of Heraclides’ reputation through the revealing of such forgeries and plagiarism have affected his standing enough to undermine his chances at election as head of the Platonic Academy?

This incident of ridicule by Dionysius cannot have impacted Heraclides’ defeat by Xenocrates in 339/338BC, as Dionysius himself does not seem to have been born until c.330, but it may be a consequence of Heraclides’ diminishing stature in his later years.

Perhaps we have a barely out of his teens μεταθέμενος trying to make a name for himself by setting up a septuagenarian πομπεια or the latest round in a rivalry between two men from Heraclea Pontica being played out in the great cultural centre of Athens.


Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (Hicks, R.D. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1925)

Suda, Lexicon (Adler, A. translation, 1928-1938)


Davidson, M.P. The Stars And The Mind. (2007)

Eastwood, B. ‘Heraclides and Heliocentrism: Texts, Diagrams, and Interpretations,’ Journal for the History of Astronomy 23 (1992) 233-260

Ehrman, B.D. Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford (2003)

Grafton, A. Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship. Princeton (1990)

Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy: Volume 5 The Later Plato and the Academy (Later Plato & the Academy). Cambridge (1986)

Heath, T. L. A History of Greek Mathematics: From Thales to Euclid. Oxford (1921)

Schools Classics Conference 2019 Review

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BeFunky-collage(1).jpgOn 14th March 2019, CANI returned to the Ulster Museum to host its second annual Schools Classics Conference.

Proceedings got underway by CANI Convenor, Helen McVeigh, who welcomed those in attendance and introduced our first speaker, Dr Greer Ramsay of the Ulster Museum, to present on ‘Hoards’.


Dr Ramsay described how a ‘hoard’ by definition was ‘two or more objects buried but then never recovered’ and noted that there is no suggestion of the type of material, something born out in the exhibition where there are various items – coins, horns, rings, buckles, tools –  made of various materials – stone, precious and base metals.


Hoards a not only varied in their make up and materials; their period and context can be equally varied. They could be pre-Iron Age, Roman, Viking all the way up to modern. They could have been buried to keep them safe from invader or they could be a savings hoards like the ‘Roman piggybank’ of Muswell Hill. Could the massive coin hoards of Cunetio, Frome or Hoxne be attempts to escape rising debasement of coins as well as raiders? They could also be ritual deposits that were not meant to be recovered.


Hoards can also alter our perception of certain aspects of the Ancient World. Dr Ramsay gave the example of the Roman material found in Ireland – we ‘know’ that the Romans did not invade Ireland, but then how did there come to be Roman coins at Newgrange, Roman rings in Murlough Bay and the 1,500 coins and 6kg of silver in the Coleraine Hoard, each of which do not necessarily look like the proceeds of raiding? The presence of these hoards goes a long way to rewriting the history of Romano-Irish relations.

Dr Ramsay’s talk acted as a perfect introduction to the important subject of hoards and drew the attention of the audience to the fascinating ‘Hoards’ exhibition currently resident in the Ulster Museum.


After a brief break, Dr Katerina Kolotourou (CANI) presented ‘Strange Discoveries in Archaeology’, focusing on the grave of the ‘Griffin Warrior.’

This Bronze Age shaft tomb was found near the site of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos and has been dated to the mid-fifteenth century BC. Within the tomb, an adult male skeleton was discovered. Computerised facial reconstruction of the skeleton and skeletal analysis shows that the warrior was in his 30s and stood 1.7m tall.

griffin warrior reconstruction

Found inside were more than 3,000 objects including weapons, jewellery, armour, combs and various pieces of gold and silver. Many small, carved seals were found in the tomb, each one etched with images of combat, deities, lions, and men jumping bulls, demonstrating the Minoan influences of many of the artefacts.

griffin warrior agate & line drawing

The most important artefact and Dr Kolotourou’s ‘strange discovery’ was one these seals, known as the Pylos Combat Agate. The seal is 3.4cm in length and was found covered in limestone. It was restored and found to be engraved with a triangular image of one warrior attacking another, while a third lies on the ground.

The image involves minute detail and questions have been raised about how such an image might have been carved without the aid of a magnifying glass. One potential solution was that a drop of water was placed on the seal to aid the artist.

Dr Kolotourou was thanked for her fascinating and thought-provoking lecture, bringing attention to a discovery that Dr Jack Davis, one of the discoverers of the Griffin Warrior tomb, suggested was a thousand years ahead of its time.

After another brief break, the conference culminated with our keynote speaker, Prof. Michael Scott (Warwick), who presented on ‘Understanding the Oracle at Delphi.’


Prof. Scott started off by commenting that Delphi is in a rather strange place, hardly easily accessible to those who would consult an oracle (and pay for the privilege). Perhaps this inaccessibility was to ward off the uncommitted or to provide the site with an added layer of mystique?

A need to explain such a peculiar site may have encouraged the numerous origin myths recorded for the Oracle at Delphi, variously involving Apollo, Zeus, eagles, goats and dragons.

A factual basis for the site was long thought to involve the emergence of strange gases from the ground around where the temple was built, causing the strange visions and double speak of the (high) priestess.

'Delphic_Sibyl_Sistine_Chapel_ceiling'_by_Michelangelo_JBU37Prof. Scott regaled the audience with the story of how, initially, when Delphi was subjected to a modern archaeological survey, no trace of vision-causing gases was found, leading to the summation that the whole Delphic Oracle visions was a hoax.

However, further study in the 1990s proved that the Temple of Apollo was built upon a fault between two plates, releasing gases including ethelene, which causes hallucinations. The Delphic priestesses were indeed getting high!


Santuario_de_Apolo_PitioProf. Scott then turned to some of the known ‘predictions’ of the Delphic Oracle, demonstrating how they seem to have been intentionally ambiguous – the famous advice to Croesus about a ‘great empire’ and the ‘wooden wall’ of Athens. This intentional ambiguity meant that Delphi could never be proven wrong, only the interpretation of the asker, leading Prof. Scott to refer to the Delphic Oracle as something of a ‘management consultant’, telling you something you already knew.

After a few questions, the talks schedule of Schools Conference 2019 came to a close, but they were not the only aspect of the day. In the Welcome Area of the UM, a handling session and the legionaries of Legion Ireland had set out their stalls.

Martin and his men from Legion Ireland, in their second trip to the Ulster Museum in concert with CANI, once again did sterling work in attracting the crowds and then keeping their attention with not only their vast array of Roman equipment, but also their extensive knowledge, enthusiasm and willingness to share that with everyone (and pose for innumerate photographs!).

20190314_124424A personal highlight of the day came when I walked into the ‘Hoards’ exhibition with Martin, him in his full Roman armour, only to find that Dr Ramsay was giving a talk to another group visiting the museum. Assured we were not interrupting, Martin proclaimed to the group that he was there “to take his money back!”

We send our thanks to Legion Ireland and look forward to having the men from Cork visit us again in the near future!

The equipment displays of Legion Ireland were augmented by an artefact handling table provided by the Ulster Museum and ably manned by two student archaeology interns, Christoph Doppelhofer and Christine Farnie.


With refreshments and sustenance partaken and all the legionary gear packed up, a great day was rounded off by CANI’s own Helen McVeigh and Dr Raoul McLaughlin joining Prof. Scott for his weekly Facebook Live Q&A. In surroundings generously donated by Dr John Curran, complete with plenty of product placement (no wallpaper background this time!), this triumvirate of classical knowledge addressed the questions submitted by viewers.

Instead of spoiling anything for you with a review of their answers and chat, here is a link for you to see it in full.


Ulster_Museum_3CANI would also like to express our deepest thanks to the Ulster Museum for their continued support in hosting our events. It is a fruitful partnership we hope will continue for a long time to come. Indeed, our next event is a showing of Disney’s Hercules in the Ulster Museum Lecture Theatre on 4 May.

Thanks to our speakers, Dr Ramsay, Dr Kolotourou and Prof. Scott for giving up their time and expertise to present three fantastic talks.

To Legion Ireland for their long trek north to share their enthusiasm once more.

To all those who attended, either by design or by being taken in by the presence of CANI banners or Roman legionaries.

As you can imagine, an event like this does not come together without much unseen effort. Between them, Helen McVeigh and Dr John Curran took on a lot of heavy lifting when it came to emailing, calling, promoting, cajoling, taxi-ing, liasing, booking and planning, in order to make sure that the Schools Conference was the success it was.

Helen herself would like to thank all the members of the CANI Board for taking time out of their schedules to help on the day.

Thanks to you all and see you again next year!

Peter Crawford and Helen McVeigh

“The moral of the story is” Aesop’s Fables Exhibition at Armagh Robinson Library

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Aesop's Fables-1.jpg

CANI Chair Helen McVeigh and Treasurer Dr John Curran were honoured to be invited to Armagh Robinson Library on 12th March 2019 for the launch of an exhibition of texts containing the fables attributed to Aesop. The library was founded in 1771 by Archbishop Robinson to display his own collection of books and fine art for public use.

aesops-fables-over-40-stories-to-shareThis temporary exhibition contains works and prints from the Library’s collection to show the legacy of Aesop’s fables. It is believed Aesop was a slave and storyteller who lived sometime around the late 7th and early 6th centuries BC. A fable is a short fictional story that teaches a moral lesson, and features animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects and forces of nature which are given human qualities such as the ability to speak.

While Aesop himself did not record his stories, both Babrius, a Greek who lived in the second century AD, and Phaedrus, a Roman who lived in the first century AD, compiled their own collections of the fables.  Since then, Aesop’s fables have been translated into many languages, and re-written according to local culture.  Thirza Mulder is the archivist who created the exhibition and she has gathered together a number of 17th and 18th century publications and illustrations, as well as other works inspired by or based on Aesop’s legacy.

Gullivers travelsWe were treated to a tour of the library, and shown some of the 42,000 books it contains.  The library’s oldest book is a religious text dating from the 15th century. Visitors are keen to view the first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, with the author’s own pencil corrections to changes his publisher made without his knowledge.

The Aesop exhibition will run until the end of May 2019 and will be on view during the Library’s normal opening hours, Monday to Friday, 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm.  The Armagh Robinson Library can be found at 43 Abbey Street, Armagh, BT61 7DY.

Helen McVeigh





Reframing Antigone, Dr Des O’ Rawe Review

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220px-Sophocles_pushkinAlready in antiquity, Antigone was a personality who appeared in a number of Greek plays; both Aeschylus and Euripides portrayed her. But Sophocles above all with his Antigone (441 B.C.) made famous the pious sister choosing fatefully to obey divine over human law. She, and the theme, have haunted human literature ever since and in Dr Des O’Rawe’s lecture on Reframing Antigone on Thursday 7th March 2019 the particular role of cinema in interpreting Antigone’s story was explored through the eyes of radically different twentieth-century directors and actors.

The tension between political and higher authority has drawn film-makers from Italy, Germany, Greece Russia, Spain, France and England to Antigone. In continental Europe, contemporary politics were not far away from some famous cinematic re-framings: George Tzavellas’ Antigone (1961) was created in a Greece rocked by political scandals; Liliana Cavani’s The Cannibals (1970) – featuring a young Brit Ekland as Antigone – was set in a Milan that had grown disillusioned with the revolutionary tides of 1960s Italy while Straub and Huillet’s Antigone (1992) echoed Bertholt Brecht’s 1948 Antigone with its reflections on loyalty and desertion in a deteriorating Reich.


Dr O’Rawe highlighted the startling variety of cinematic techniques that each had used, from Cavani’s dialogueless death-scene to the stark side-on filming of the main characters in Huillet and Straub. The latter had filmed with a minimal budget in the magnificent theatre at Egesta over the course of a single day while Cavani depicted a Milan strewn with unburied corpses.

Dr O’Rawe’s audience were vividly informed of the continuing vitality of the ancient tragic heroine. And in a poignant coda to the intersection of modern film-making and Sophocles’ play, we learned the story of Zinaida Volkova, told by Ken MacMullen’s Zina (1985). Daughter of Leon Trotsky, exiled from home and family by Stalin, Zinaida came to believe that she had actually become Antigone herself. Years of psychiatric treatment in Berlin failed to save her from the passions and tragedy that so transfixed the Greeks.


It is precisely these layers of meaning and madness that make Greek theatre so compelling today. CANI is indebted to Dr O’Rawe for showing so ably why cinema in particular has become a vital medium for handing on these precious ancient voices.

John Curran