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The ‘end of Roman Britain’ raises many of the same type of question as the ‘fall of the Roman Empire’. It must have ended in some manner and at some point, but without some titanic fight for survival on the battlefield recorded by the written sources, it leaves many looking for that endpoint, even if it means having to somewhat manufacture one. “Over the centuries, myth, pseudo-history, and educated guesswork have rushed in to fill the void[; however,] the increased focus on the period has cast a doubt on almost every important assumption that has been made about early Britain” (Mummey (2002), 65)
In the case of the ‘end of Roman Britain’, even though there is by no means a clear cut, single moment in time, that ‘endpoint’ was assumed to be the so-called ‘Rescript of Honorius’ of 411 when that emperor reputedly told the British cities to look after their own defence. The central government telling the locals to look after themselves seems rather definitive in the case of an endpoint of Roman Britain. Certainly, at the time in 411, Honorius was in no position to provide aid to the Britons, holed up in Ravenna in the face of the Goths of Alaric.
However, there are significant issues with this ‘rescript’. There is no contemporary mention of it – the sixth century eastern Roman writer Zosimus is the first to record it and when he does bring it up, he does so at a seemingly random moment in the middle of a discussion on events in Italy. This has led to some suggestion that there has been some textual errors rendering as ‘Britain’ would should have been ‘Bruttium’ (Halsall, (2007) 217-218). Such a correction is in itself speculative and there is some corroboration of British pleas for help from the central government in the pages of Gildas, as we shall see below.
In searching for some definitive end to Roman Britain, there is perhaps one inescapable truth – Roman control of Britain had been crumbling for years before Honorius’ so-called abandonment in 411. Decades of Pictish, Irish and Germanic raiding and revolt had sucked resources away from Britain, as British usurpers felt the need to press their imperial claims on the Continent, taking much of the British legionary garrison with them, never to return in full strength.
Local British malcontent with the central Roman government was not something new, having been a major issue during the third century, with the island supporting the breakaway Gallic Empire, rebellion against the emperor Probus and the independence of Carausius and Allectus. Britain also played host to the usurpations of Constantine I, Magnus Maximus, Marcus, Gratian and Constantine III, gave some support to Magnentius and may have spawned the shadowy characters of ‘Carausius II’ and ‘Censeris/Genseris’ in the mid-350s.
Such is the number of British usurpations and the failures of the central government to provide any aid to the island that it is unclear if it was Britain that left the empire or the empire that left Britain. (Jones (1998) vs Mommsen (1885)).
Furthermore, it is now less clear to what extent Britain exited the Roman Empire in the first half of the fifth century. The ‘Rescript of Honorius’ and the expulsion of Roman magistrates around a year earlier seems clear, but this expulsion may be specifically related to officials of Constantine III rather than an ejection of Roman officials and infrastructures in general.
Any kind of British independence, either foisted upon or won by its civitates, does not necessarily mean that the Britain of the first half of the fifth century (and indeed beyond) is to be considered as being outside the Roman world, at least until Gildas’ age of ‘tyrannical kings’ (Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 27.1).
Indeed, the continued connection between Britain and the central Roman government or at the very least the recognition by the former that the latter may be able or willing to provide military or financial assistance is demonstrated by an incident that took place in the late 440s or early 450s – the so-called gemitus Britannorum or ‘Groans of the Britons.’
At least 35 years after the supposed end of the Roman occupation in 411, a member of the Roman hierarchy received a letter from Britain: its contents were a description of the sorry state parts of the island had declined to and an appeal for assistance against various Pictish and Irish raiders. The message is recorded by the British monk Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, written in the second quarter of the sixth century (repeated by Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 25).
There are some considerable issues with Gildas as a source. His De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is much less a realistic, historical piece and more a hyperbolic, religious polemic, looking to demonstrate the depths of chaos to which the impious British had sunk, a picture of destruction not borne out by the archaeological evidence. But what appears to be a last-ditch plea for assistance would suggest that something was happening in ‘Sub-Roman’ Britain.
Agitio ter consuli, gemitus britannorum. […] Repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur.
Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 20.1
‘To Agitius, thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. […] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.’
J. A. Giles (1848) revision of T. Habington (1638)
‘To Aetius, thrice consul: the groans of the British… The barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two kinds of death, we are either drowned or slaughtered’.
M. Winterbottom (1978)
Who was ‘Agitio’?
The most pressing issue for placing this ‘groan’ in a chronological setting is to identify the ‘Agitio’ to whom it is addressed. First instincts might be to suggest that this name looks Germanic in origin, similar to names like Arbitio, who was seen in Roman service under Constantius II, Julian and Valens. Certainly, there would have been more than enough room to suggest that the Britons could have been appealing to a German commander within the fracturing Roman military hierarchy in the mid-fifth century.
That said, positions such as the consulship were usually withheld from men of non-Roman origins. There were, of course, exceptions – the aforementioned Arbitio was consul in 355, Nevitta in 362, Dagalaifus in 366, Bauto in 385, Fravitta in 401, Plintha in 419, Ardabur in 427, Aspar and Areobindus in 434. There may be others obscured by their taking of thoroughly Roman names, but it appears that while non-Roman consuls became accepted, they were not necessarily the norm or even a completely regular occurrence. It must also be pointed out that for all of these non-Romans to serve as consul, none have the name ‘Agitio’ or even anything really close to it.
This ‘Agitio’ is therefore either an otherwise unknown Romano-German commander or there is some kind of spelling issue. As the letter is addressed to the individual in question, it would make sense for his name to be in the dative case. This then would suggest that the recipient of the letter was not ‘Agitio’ but ‘Agitius’.
While changing the recipient from an unknown German name to a Latin one appears to be a great help, unfortunately, ‘Agitius’ is similarly unknown as a Latin name… This leaves us with the likelihood of a spelling error somewhat obscuring the recipient of the ‘groans of the Britons.’
We can, however, use logic to narrow down the options. While relying on Gildas does raise some questions – he was writing nearly a century later, plus how would he know the contents of an appeal to the imperial court in Italy? Had he seen a copy of the actual appeal? – he clearly felt that this appeal was worthy of note, which may elevate its importance and the stature of the individual the Britons appealed to. And as they were looking for military help, it would seem logical that the Britons would appeal to a military commander and the most high-ranking military individuals in the west would be the magistri or the emperor himself.
Two of the most prominent military commanders of the mid-fifth century were comes et magister utriusque militiae, Flavius Aetius, and magister militum per Galliae, Aegidius (Alcock (1971), 107). Either would be a viable military commander of whom to request help: both had been active in Gaul, defending imperial territory from foreign invaders and internal rebels. Aetius would have the edge on Aegidius in terms of resources at hand and reputation (particularly as the ‘defeater’ of Attila the Hun) being the foremost western general of the time. That said, Aegidius would have the edge in terms of geographical proximity, being stationed in northern Gaul.
The identifying of ‘Agitius’ as Aetius is bolstered not only by the pre-eminence of Aetius in the mid-fifth century, but by a specific phrase recorded of this letter by Gildas – ter consuli, ‘thrice consul’. Aegidius does not appear on the consular lists for the central Roman government. It is possible that he set up his own consulship when he was essentially leading a separatist state in his northern Gallic enclave. If he did, it would be in the Britons’ interests to address Aegidius in any consular terms he may have taken for himself when they were seeking his help. However, rather than postulate a Gallic consulship we have no evidence for, it would be prudent to look to men who we have records of having been consul three times in this era.
Multiple consulships for civilians were rare during the fifth century, with only three non-imperial men achieving this – Flavius Constantius (414, 417 and 420), Petronius Maximus (433 and 443) and Flavius Aetius (432, 437 and 446), the first two of whom were elevated to emperor in 421 and 455 respectively.
Constantius III seems a little too far removed from the period seemingly dealt with in the ‘groans’. He would also only have been a ter consuli for mere months, reducing the likelihood of him being the recipient, even before the total disconnect between his name and ‘Agitius’.
Indeed, of all the emperors to reign in the west during the middle period of the fifth century – Valentinian III (425-455; ter consuli from 430-435), Petronius Maximus (455), Avitus (455-456), Majorian (457-461), Libius Severus (461-465) – only Avitus has a name that could conceivably be corrupted to ‘Agitius.’
The man to essentially succeed Aetius as the power behind the throne, the Suevo-Goth Ricimer, also does not have a name that could be mistaken or butchered to appear as ‘Agitio’. A similar period in the east is covered by the reigns of the emperors Theodosius II (408-450), Marcian (450-457) and Leo I (457-474) – only Theodosius and Leo were ter consuli, the former from 409-412 and the latter 466-471. None of them could be conceivably butchered to appear as ‘Agitius’.
Indeed, on the surface, Avitus might seem like a rather attractive candidate. He was a well-connected Gallic senator, having friends in both the Western Roman and Gothic courts, and likely served as both Gallic magister militum and then Gallic praetorian prefect in the late 430s. In these roles, he also had some experience in dealing with barbarian raiders, thwarting Huns near Clermont and Goths at Narbonne. After a period of retirement, he was recalled to serve as magister militum praesentalis under Petronius Maximus in 455, and then during a diplomatic mission, he was proclaimed emperor on 9 July 455 by Theoderic II. For the purposes of the recipient of the ‘groans’, Avitus also served as consul in 456.
As seen with both Aetius and Aegidius, any British appeal to Avitus need not have come during his imperial reign, merely a time where he was in a prominent position. For Avitus, this would have to correspond to either the period 437-440 when he was Gallic magister militum and then Gallic praetorian prefect or to 455-457 when he was first magister militum praesentalis and then emperor. Throughout the 440s, he was in retirement on his private estate near Clermont, before playing some diplomatic role in the events surrounding the building of Aetius’ army to confront the Gallic invasion of Attila the Hun.
All of this would seem to make him a viable candidate to be ‘Agitius’. However, Avitus is only recorded as being consul once. The vagaries of Roman dating and some retained support after his deposition by Ricimer and Majorian could have seen him viewed as having ruled for three years (taking in parts of 455, 456 and 457), but there is no suggestion that he was consul for 457, and given that he died in that year, there is no opportunity for him to have been consul again.
Much like with Aegidius, it would appear that while he seems to have been in a position to receive the ‘gemitus Britannorum’, Avitus’ lack of consulships makes him unlikely to be the recipient.
It might be supposed that if these gemitus Britannorum recorded by Gildas were directed to Aetius and that the island had been facing a prolonged period of disturbance, the Britons may have already appealed to the Gallic magister militum (Agrippinus, 452-458, Avitus in the late 430s or even Aetius himself in the early 430s) and either received negative or no responses. The Britons might even have been encouraged to appeal directly to the top of the imperial military hierarchy.
The recognition of ‘Agitius’ as Aetius rather than Aegidius or Avitus has repercussions for the dating of this ‘groan’, particularly due to the ter consuli phrase. This is because it is known that Aetius held the consulship for the third time in 446 alongside Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (probably a grandson of the famous orator of same name), presenting an earliest point for this ‘groan’. It is well worth noting that in his use of Gildas’ recording of the gemitus britannorum, Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum I.13 specifically names not only Aetius but also his consular colleague of 446, Symmachus, and seems to connect the letter to this year.
It is sometimes stated that the latest this British plea could have been sent is 454 for Aetius held his fourth consulship in that year and would therefore not be referred to as ter consuli; however, the ‘Flavius Aetius’ to be consul in 454 is likely not the western magister militum, but an eastern comes domesticorum of the same name (Bagnall, Cameron, Schwartz and Worp (1989), 443).
The real reason for 454 being the latest for the gemitus Britannorum is that Aetius was assassinated by Valentinian III on 21 September 454 (Priscus fr.69). The time lag for news of Aetius’ death to reach Britain could push this groan back a few months, possibly into early 455, but not by much.
Had the gemitus Britannorum been addressed to Aegidius, this would have likely pushed the chronology of this event back a decade or so to c.458-465 as Aegidius was not magister militum per Gallias until 458 and then served as something of a quasi-ruler of a Roman enclave centred on Soissons from c.461 until his death in c.464/465.
There has been some attempt to narrow down this 446-455 period for the sending of the plea to Aetius. It could be that Aetius was present in Armorica in c.447-448 fighting the latest revolt of the Bagaudae, with his presence and that of his army attracting a letter sent directly to him (Mummey (2002), 74). However, it is unclear if Aetius was actually present in Armorica on this occasion. He might have campaigned there a decade earlier in 436 with his fellow general Littorius against the Bagaudae of Tibatto, with subsequent disorder perhaps leading to the settling of a group of Alans in northern Gaul to keep an eye on the Armorican Bagaudae (Chron. Gall. sa. 440, 442, 443). It may be this arrangement that saw to the attaching of Aetius’ name to the anti-Bagaudae campaign of 447-448 (Chron. Gall. sa. 448), which seems to have taken place under the Alans of Goar, seemingly ordered to intervene by Aetius rather than led by him in person.
Who were these ‘groaning Britons’?
Another question to ask is ‘who exactly are these Britons appealing to Rome?’ ‘Sub-Roman’ Britain would become a maelstrom of local magnates, invading/raiding barbarian tribes, and gradually the home to Celtic/German petty kings, but was this the case in the first half of the fifth century?
The picture painted by Zosimus in the first years of the decade are far less bleak than that of the gemitus britannorum letter (Mummey (2002), 72). Of course, Zosimus is not without his problems as a source, being detached from the period both chronologically and geographically, before any of his possible agenda is taken into account.
But even with decades of disruption and usurpation eating away at Romanised infrastructure, 350+ years of Roman rule still left Britain a highly-developed society and even without the legions and a sizeable chunk of the Roman administration, any subsequent decay will not have happened overnight.
But with the legions and imperial magistracies seemingly removed, who then was running Britain? It is difficult to completely rule out the continued existence of Roman governors, local commanders or other provincial hierarchies (Snyder (1998) 21), but the ‘Rescript of Honorius’ (if it is about Britain…) sees the emperor place the onus for the defence of Britain on the civitates, likely to be seen as the body of Roman citizens running the cities and towns of Britain (That Honorius does not follow the protocol of addressing his letter to a local governor or high-raking official may be telling of their lack of presence in Britain). This has given rise to calling c.409-455 the ‘British civitates’ period.
But for all the confidence that Zosimus ascribes to this civitates rule, the next forty years saw it faced with increasing ‘post-Roman’ hardship – there is a decline in stone buildings and mosaic production; a contraction of the British pottery industry to a local rather than province-wide trading concern and a significant economic decline, with gold and silver removed by departing legions, exiles and raiding barbarians. If they had not been cut definitively in 409-411, the fragmentation of Roman Gaul will have prevented any still existing conduits of precious metals and payments reaching Britain. Such a combination of stresses will have encouraged the decline of cities and civitates and the rise of powerful individuals.
That this letter was sent at all is surely evidence of the failure of the British civitates to secure peace and prosperity. It may be evidence of a significant divide in mid-fifth century British society – those with local interests vs those of imperial interests. Any such divide could see the letter to ‘Agitius’ presented as “the activity of a pro-imperial party” (Mummey (2002), 73).
Subsequent developments could provide further ammunition for the idea of a divide in the British leadership. By the mid/late 460s, it appears that a certain Riothamus, a Romano-Briton, was leading a British army in northern Gaul in support of the remaining imperial forces there against the advances of the Goths of Euric. Riothamus shared a correspondence with Sidonius Apollinaris and his activities may be mentioned by the likes of Jordanes and Gregory of Tours (There have even been attempts to connect Riothamus to King Arthur).
Was the army of Riothamus made up of British exiles, ejected from the island to take up residence in Armorica, which would become ‘Brittany’? Were they driven out of Britain by another ‘anti-imperial’ or even a ‘pro-Saxon’ faction? Could Riothamus, or men like him, setting himself up as something of a petty king have been part of the reason for the ‘inviting’ of the Saxon ‘foederati’?
It must be said that these ‘exiles’ in Brittany need not be evidence of division; rather of the increasing desperation with Riothamus looking to take refuge within ‘imperial’ territory in the face of the continued erosion of Romanised Britain. Regardless of its circumstances, Riothamus and his men could have taken significant resources, expertise and manpower with them to Armorica, further depleting the British economy.
Whoever this ‘Agitius’ was, when this plea was made to him and who by, it is clear that neither the Roman forces in Gaul or Italy were in any position to render assistance to the Britons against the Pictish, Irish and Germanic raiders – “But they got no help in return.” (Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 20.1).
What had been Roman Britain was left to fall further into the maelstrom, with power increasingly divesting upon regional strongmen – the ‘petty tyrants’ of Gildas’ day in the mid-sixth century.
Gildas himself and other medieval sources would have it that this failure of Roman imperial forces to render assistance to Britain led the locals – a pseudo-historical Vortigern? – to ‘invite’ the Saxons to the island as foederati to defend against the Irish, Picts and some of those burgeoning petty kings/tyrants (might Riothamus have been one of them, defeated and exiled as a result?).
The actual dating of the start of a Saxon foederati presence in Britain is still contentious, with literature showing some Germanic presence in Britain as early as the third century, while archaeology is increasingly presenting a growing Germanic presence before the so-called Roman withdrawal.
The presence of Germans in Britain before the 440s does not necessarily change the picture dramatically, even if there are some notions to suggest that if the Saxons were good foederati allies, could they have fought with the Britons against the Irish and Picts? The more likely scenario is that either these Saxons were invaders from the very start or they were foederati who the Britons failed to pay or give a vested interest in protecting British territory (such as through the hospitalitas system used by the empire). This in turn may have led to their rebellion and eventual conquest of much of what had been Roman Britain.
Unfortunately, there is not enough surviving material about the period to provide any kind of definitive identification of the barbarians attacking Britain – could Gildas be using a metaphor of barbarian attack to mean the Justinianic Plague? – or the circumstances in which they appeared. However, the ‘groans of the Britons’ seem to provide confirmation that something was happening to Britain in the 440s-450s; something which meant that at least part of the British civitates who may have so confidently enforced their independence, quasi- or full, from the Roman Empire in the first decades of the fifth century were now looking to Rome for aid. And when that aid did not come, a large section of what had been Roman Britain was taken over by local and foreign petty tyrants, with some of the Romano-British population migrating (or exiled) to the Continent.
Alcock, L. Arthur’s Britain: History And Archaeology A.D. 367-634. London (1971)
Bagnall, R.S., Cameron, Al., Schwartz, S.R. and Worp, K.A. Consuls of the Later Roman Empire. Oxford (1989)
Gerrard, J. The Ruin of Roman Britain An Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge (2013)
Halsall, G. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 Cambridge (2007)
Jones, M.E. and Casey, P.J. ‘The Date of the Letter of the Britons to Aetius,’ Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 37 (1990) 281-290
Mattingly, D. An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire. London (2006)
Miller, M. ‘Bede’s Use of Gildas,’ EHR 90 (1975) 241-261
Mummey, K. ‘The Groans of the Britons: Toward the British Civitates Period, Circa 406-455CE,’ Ex Post Factum 11 (2002) 65-78
O’Sullivan, T.D. The Excidio of Gildas: its Authenticity and Date. Leiden (1978)
Snyder, C.A. An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600. University Park, PA (1998)
Speed, G. Towns in the Dark?: Urban Transformations from Late Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford (2014)
In a previous blog entry, we looked at the story of Oroetes, the rebellious Lydian satrap of the Persian Empire in the 520s BC. In the course of the story of the satrap’s dealings with Polycrates of Samos, mention was made of a certain “Democedes, son of Calliphon, a man of Croton and the most skilful physician of his time,” (Herodotus III.125.1) whose reputation saw Croton considered the home of many a great physician (Herodotus III.131.2-3).
This mention might seem fleeting, perhaps merely deployed by Herodotus to demonstrate the influence of Polycrates in being able to bring such highly skilled individuals to his court. However, showing his abilities as a story-teller, Herodotus weaves the stories of Polycrates, Oroetes and Democedes into something of an over-arching narrative involving the initial contacts between the Persians and Greeks.
Democedes was born in the Greek colonial city of Croton in what would be considered the ‘ball of the Italian foot’ (Herodotus III.131.1). Having come into conflict with his father, Democedes left his home city and travelled to the Greek island of Aegina, where he quickly established an increasingly formidable reputation as a physician, despite not having access to many of the ‘cutting edge’ medical equipment of the age.
Herodotus III.131.2 highlights the growth in Democedes’ reputation as a doctor through how his fee increased over the space of just a few years. By the time of his second year in Aegina, he was being paid a talent by the Aeginetan government; the following year, the Athenians were giving him 100 pounds of silver, before in his fourth year away from Croton, Polycrates of Samos employed his medical services for two talents. Such was his reputation that Democedes not only commanded a huge fee to travel to the court of Polycrates, he also joined the inner circle and retinue of the tyrant.
Due to this lofty position, he found himself as part of Polycrates’ entourage for the tyrant’s ill-advised and ill-prophesised journey to Magnesia to meet the Lydian satrap, Oroetes. After seeing to the murder and crucifixion of Polycrates, Oroetes allowed all of the Samians in the tyrant’s entourage to return to Samos. However, those non-Samians were taken as prisoners and made slaves of the Persian state: this included Democedes of Croton.
Following the subsequent revolt and then assassination of Oroetes by Bagaeus on the order of Darius I, along with the other slaves and confiscated wealth of Polycrates, Democedes was shipped off to the Persian capital at Susa as spoils of the successful removals of the troublesome tyrant and satrap.
The now enslaved physician arrived in the dungeon of Susa to find the Persian king virtually crippled from a hunting accident. Leaping down from his horse, Darius landed badly to break or dislocate his ankle. The Egyptian doctors Darius had surrounded himself with only seemed to exacerbate the pain the king felt – “wrenching and forcing the foot made the evil continually greater” (Herodotus III.129.2.). Darius had faced a full week of sleepless nights before being informed by a member of his court of the presence of a skilled physician in the ranks of the slaves who had just arrived from Sardis.
Desperate for any remedy, the king had Democedes brought into his presence. His enslavement and the journey from Sardis to Susa had not been kind to the Croton doctor as he cut something of a wretched figure as he shambled into the Persian court “dragging fetters after him and clothed in rags” (Herodotus III.129.3).
Darius proceeded to enquire of this chained slave as to his medical proficiency, only for Democedes to deny his expertise because he felt that doing so would mean he would never be allowed to return home (Herodotus III.130.1). Unfortunately for Democedes, it seems that lying was not one of his more prominent skills, as Darius thought that Democedes was indeed hiding his abilities from him. The Persian king therefore ordered the doctor to be tortured in order to get to the truth.
Faced with this threat, Democedes admitted to having an understanding of medicine, although not a complete one, gaining his knowledge from a friend of another physician rather than through an education (Herodotus III.130.2). This still somewhat modest admittance saw Darius charge Democedes with fixing his injured foot, or to at least relieve him of the on-going pain, which was now such that the king may have felt that he would never regain full use of his foot.
The Croton doctor therefore set about applying his Greek techniques and medicines, which were less violent than the “wrenching and forcing” of the Egyptians. These drugs relieved enough of the pain for Darius to get some sleep. This in turn, along with perhaps some medically-induced reduction of swelling, may have aided the king’s recovery, for not long later, he was “perfectly well” (Herodotus III.130.3).
Such a miraculous healing saw Darius reward Democedes greatly, presenting the physician with two sets of golden fetters. A generous gift in terms of material value, but at the same time these may have presented a not-so-subtle message – Democedes was still the prisoner of the Persian king. Perhaps emboldened by the lack of subtlety in this gift, Democedes asked Darius “whether it was by design that he had given to him a double share of his suffering, because he had made him well” (Herodotus III.130.4). Rather than be annoyed by this bold retort, Darius was pleased by it and decided to further reward his new court physician.
The king sent Democedes to meet his numerous wives, who when informed by the harem eunuchs that this was the doctor who had given the King of Kings his life back, the royal wives showered him with gold. Each dipped a cup into a chest of gold coins, presenting the contents to Democedes. Such was the amount he received that it was said that his servant, a certain Skiton, who followed behind him and was allowed to keep any coins that Democedes dropped from his new-found fortune, himself became a rich man (Herodotus III.130.4-5).
Democedes also set about making himself popular with other members of the Persian court. He intervened with Darius regarding the king’s determination to have the Egyptian doctors impaled for their failure in healing him (Herodotus III.131.2). Might it be that Democedes recognised that the “wrenching and forcing” that the Egyptians had undertaken might actually have relocated the ankle joint, so that their only issue was being unable to provide Darius with any pain relief? Democedes also pointed out a certain Eleian prophet who had gone unnoticed amongst the Greek slaves brought to Susa, via Sardis, from Samos.
Such was the favour that Democedes enjoyed at the Persian court that he found himself living in a large house in Susa and becoming a frequent table-companion of Darius (the king surely wanted his new doctor on hand should he require medical attention). It would seem that the doctor of Croton had everything… except his freedom to return home… (Herodotus III.132.1).
As well as Darius, the Egyptian doctors and the unnamed Eleian prophet, Democedes also earned the good graces of Atossa, primary wife of Darius and daughter of Cyrus the Great (she had also been sister-wife of Cambyses II).
The Persian queen sought out Democedes’ skills when she found a lump on her breast. This could be a case of mastitis brought on potentially by Atossa’s breastfeeding (might she have had a wet nurse?) of the future Persian king, Xerxes, who was born in c.518BC (although the date of this interaction is not definitively known). It could have been something more insidious, but the fact that Democedes was able to treat Atossa successfully (Herodotus III.134.1) might suggest that it was not.
In return for his help, Democedes extracted a promise from Atossa, the nature of which he did not immediately reveal, aside from assuring the queen that it would not be “shameful” (Herodotus III.133.2)… unless some level of manipulation of the Persian King of Kings is to be considered ‘shameful’.
After her recovery, Democedes cashed in on the promise by asking Atossa to goad Darius into some great military undertaking, appealing to his want for glory, conquest and security at home.
“O king, though thou hast such great power, thou dost sit still, and dost not win in addition any nation or power for the Persians:  and yet it is reasonable that a man who is both young and master of much wealth should be seen to perform some great deed, in order that the Persians may know surely that he is a man by whom they are ruled. It is expedient indeed in two ways that thou shouldest do so, both in order that the Persians may know that their ruler is a man, and in order that they may be worn down by war and not have leisure to plot against thee.  For now thou mightest display some great deed, while thou art still young; seeing that as the body grows the spirit grows old also with it, and is blunted for every kind of action.”
Darius responded to this plea for glory by telling Atossa that he already had such a glorious campaign in the works – he was going to have a bridge of boats built across the Bosphorus, march into Europe and strike at the Scythians beyond the Danube (Herodotus III.134.1), an expedition that Darius did undertake with limited success in c.513BC.
This was not enough for Atossa. The queen pleaded with Darius to look for a more glorious conquest than the Scythians (even though her father, Cyrus the Great, had died fighting some of their number in Transoxiana). Why not invade Greece to furnish her with Spartan, Argive, Athenian and Corinthian attendants? She then suggests that the King of Kings already has a certain someone at his disposal who would provide extremely useful information about Greece – a certain Democedes of Croton.
Rather than jump at the opportunity for a fully-fledged invasion of Greece, Darius decided to send a reconnaissance mission with Democedes in order to find out useful information about the Greek world. He was also wary of the Crotonian doctor for when he summoned his 15 Persian spies, Darius warned them to keep an eye on Democedes – “take care not to let Demokedes escape from them, but bring him back at all costs” (Herodotus III.135.1).
The King then had Democedes come before him, asking the physician to guide his Persians across Greece and then return. Darius even tried to sweeten the deal by allowing Democedes to take many of the riches he had attained in Susa back home with him to give to his family. His reward for doing so and then returning east would be even greater riches than he had already attained and a royal contribution to the gifts to be given to Democedes’ family (Herodotus III.135.2)
While Herodotus felt that Darius was being earnest in his promises to Democedes, the physician thought that the Persian king was testing him in some way. He therefore decided to leave a lot of his belongings in Susa so that he would have them when he returned. He would only accept the merchant ship as a gift for his brothers from Darius. Perhaps in leaving his riches behind, Democedes thought that Darius would trust him more and/or not feel like the physician had robbed him should he not return east.
From Susa, Democedes and his escort/spies travelled to Phoenicia. At Sidon, they took up three ships – two triremes and a cargo ship filled “with all manner of goods” (Herodotus III.136.1) – and headed for Greece. Unfortunately, because Herodotus was either focused solely on telling the story of Democedes or was himself suffering from a lack of information, the journey of this small Persian fleet is recorded in only one brief but intriguing sentence: “touching at various places they saw the coast regions of it and wrote down a description, until at last, when they had seen the greater number of the famous places, they came to Taras in Italy” (Herodotus III.136.1).
It would be interesting to know where these Persian escorts/spies might have seen in Greece. What were to be considered the “famous places” in Greece in the late sixth century BC? Of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ in Greek territory, only the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus had been built by this point, but there were plenty of other things to see in Greece that might intrigue the Persian king, such as populations and trade to dominate and tax.
It might be thought that a group of inquisitive rather than acquisitive Persians would have raised suspicions amongst the various Greek populations they were bound to have come into contact with, even with a Crotonian Greek guiding them.
It may even be that it was this suspicion that Democedes hoped to take advantage of when he led the Persian ships to Megale Hellas – the part of southern Italy heavily colonised by Greeks, which just so happened to be where the city of Croton was situated…
Arriving in Taras/Tarentum, Democedes made some sort of appeal to Aristophilides, king of the Tarentines. Exactly how he managed this under the no doubt watchful eyes of his Persian companions is not recorded. Perhaps the physician was merely as blunt as accusing the Persians of being spies when they were in the presence of Aristophilides. Whatever the circumstances, the Tarentine ruler ordered the seizure and immobilising of the Persian vessels and the imprisonment of its crew on charges of spying (Herodotus III.136.2).
This imprisonment did not last long and when the Persians found themselves free and back about their ships, they discovered that Democedes had used their period of capture as an opportunity to escape back to Croton. Likely remembering the orders of Darius and possibly a little angry themselves, rather than return east, the Persian spies set sail for Croton, determined to recapture their ‘tour guide’.
Arriving in Croton, the Persians found Democedes in the marketplace and set about recapturing him, only for several Crotonians to come to his rescue. However, recognising that not all of the locals had stepped in, the Persian envoys/spies doubled down on the notion that it was fear of the Persian king that prevented all of Croton from protecting Democedes.
“Men of Croton, take care what ye are about: ye are rescuing a man who was a slave of king Darius and who ran away from him.  How, think you, will king Darius be content to receive such an insult; and how shall this which ye do be well for you, if ye take him away from us? Against what city, think you, shall we make expedition sooner than against this, and what city before this shall we endeavour to reduce to slavery?”
This threat did not dissuade the Crotonians from their protection of Democedes – had many Crotonians even heard of the Persian Empire, let alone realise that southern Italy was out of Darius’ reach? – and the intercession of Aristophilides in Tarentum seems to have deprived the Persians of their ship full of valuables with which they might have been able to bribe the Crotonians into handing over Democedes.
With their gambit having failed, the Persian spies had little recourse but to return home to Persia without visiting any more of Hellas. Before they departed, Democedes undertook one final gambit which may have saved the lives of himself and the departing envoys. He told them to inform Darius that he had become betrothed to the daughter of Milo of Croton, a famed six-time Olympic wrestling champion, who was held in high regard at the Persian court. Such a marriage to a favourite athlete of his might had satiated some of Darius’ anger.
However, the Persian spies were greatly hindered in bringing this message to Darius by the weather, which saw them shipwrecked and then enslaved in Apulia. There, they may well have remained had it not been for the interjection of another Tarentine, an exile by the name of Gillos. He freed the Persians and conveyed them back to the Persian court.
This is where Herodotus’ story of Democedes ends, as he does not return to him after his narrative switches to Gillos and his attempts to be restored to Tarentum with help from Knidos and through the patronage of Darius in return for facilitating the return of the Persian spies, an attempt that failed.
Herodotus does sum up this section of his history involving Polycrates of Samos, Oroetes, satrap of Lydia, Democedes of Croton and then Gillos of Taras as something of a connected story of how the Persians first came to be involved in Greece (Herodotus III.138.4), an involvement soon to expand to expeditions against specific Greek cities by the circumstances of the Ionian Revolt, leading first to the Battle of Marathon in 490BC and then the epic Persian invasion of Greece in 480-479BC.
However, while Democedes returning home to Croton cost him the vast fortune he had accrued in Susa, suggesting that it introduced the Persians to Greece and therefore bred thoughts of conquest seems more than a little reaching, even aetiological. Regardless of the words Democedes of Croton put in the mouth of Queen Atossa in order to facilitate his return home, the Persians were already almost certain to make some attempt at the conquest of Greece, having already planned and then executed a strike into Thrace and north to the Danube.
The Achaemenid Persian Empire was perhaps the first superpower of the ancient world, establishing its ‘King of Kings’ as an immensely powerful individual. However, in the process of creating their empire, the Persians also established a series of powerful governors – satraps – in various provinces.
One such powerful man was Oroetes (or Oroetus), satrap of Lydia during the 520s BC. He may have been the first official satrap of Lydia after the region was incorporated fully into the Persian Empire late in the reign of Cyrus the Great. The region was brought under Persian control through the military campaigns of Cyrus’ Median general, Harpagus, who may have served briefly as satrap of all of Asia Minor before it was broken up into smaller, more manageable and less dangerous provinces.
The lack of clarity over the dates of Oroetes’ service as Lydian satrap makes it somewhat unclear if he was an appointee of Cyrus the Great or Cambyses I. However, Herodotus III.120 suggests that Oroetes was established in the post of “viceroy of Sardis” by Cyrus, which would suggest that Oroetes was appointed in 530BC – the year of Cyrus’ death – at the latest.
Does the timing of Oroetes’ appointment suggest that he was part of the Persian army of Harpagus that subdued Asia Minor? Could that in turn suggest similar Middle Eastern origins – such as Cyrus’ Persia or Harpagus’ Media – for Oroetes? Herodotus III.120 suggests that Oroetes was a Persian, but could this be a more general description of his allegiance to the Persian state rather than his actual origins? Could it be that he was a local Lydian, Carian or Greek who found himself in Persian service? Unfortunately, the sources or his recorded actions do not give much in the way of information beyond inferences which are ambiguous about where he might have come from.
During his time as Lydian satrap, Oroetes was involved in two major episodes – his bringing about of the crucifixon of Polycrates of Samos and his becoming the first satrap to demonstrate overt insubordination even revolt against the Persian central government, leading to his own murder.
The involvement of the Lydian satrap and perhaps the Persian Empire itself – it can be unclear just how much freedom of action many satraps had – with the demise of Polycrates is likely tied to the increasing power the Samian tyrant could wield in the Aegean Sea due to his building of a significant fleet [ harnessing the power of the trireme? ] and a skilled force of 1,000 archers. Indeed, Polycrates had become influential enough through his naval power to form an alliance with the Egyptian pharaoh, Amasis II [Carty (2005) 131-135 suggests that Polycrates provided the pharaoh with ships and manpower for the Egyptian conquest of Cyprus].
Later sources also played up the power of the Samos under Polycrates, with Herodotus III.122 considering Polycrates the first Greek ruler to recognise the potential of sea power, while Thucydides I.13.6 lists him amongst the Aegean thalassocracies.
Such power and influence not only on their Aegean frontier but being projected east into lands such as Cyprus and Egypt, which the Persians had their acquisitive eyes on, would explain why the Persians thought it necessary to perhaps do away with Polycrates.
While the origin of a Persian move against Polycrates is likely then to have been worry over his growing power, Herodotus III.120 records two possible sparks for action against Polycrates – an accidental or intentional snub of an ambassador sent by Oroetes to Polycrates (Herodotus III.121) or a squabble between Oroetes and Mitrobates, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia.
During a conversation between the two, Mitrobates goaded Oroetes over his failure to conquer it for the Persian king… “You are not to be accounted a man; the island of Samos lies close to your province, yet you have not added it to the King’s dominion – an island so easy to conquer that some native of it [Polycrates] rose against his rulers with fifteen men-at-arms, and is now lord of it” (Herodotus III.120.2-3).
Herodotus is either demonstrating that Mitrobates (and many others?) knew about how Polycrates took over Samos, or he is using something he has already established in his narrative (Herodotus III.39) to add a plausible point of insult to his satrapal conversation.
Herodotus also suggests that while Oroetes was “angered by the taunt” (Herodotus III.120), he was less keen to attack his taunter (for now…) and more anxious to deal with Polycrates, suggesting that Mitrobates had definitely struck a nerve: Oroetes himself may have thought that he had under-performed in his dealings with the Samian tyrant.
Whatever the exact circumstances, Oroetes began to plot against Polycrates. The failure of a Samian rebellion against Polycrates, possibly facilitated by Persian backing, in the mid-520s BC, may have encouraged the Lydian satrap to look to less military and more deceptive means.
Oroetes appealed to Polycrates as a potential ally should the Persian king ever turn against his satrap. He offered Polycrates a substantial amount of money in return for a promise of refuge on Samos for Oroetes. Not only was there the financial incentive, Polycrates would have been intrigued by the potential of having a Persian satrap as an ally, while is asking for refuge Oroetes was also flattering the Samian tyrant as the satrap was inferring that Polycrates and his navy could keep Oroetes safe even in the face of the might of the Persian king.
Oroetes was likely counting on Polycrates’ want for further expansion of his influence in the Aegean and Ionia and could well have played into the rivalry with Mitrobates as proof of Oroetes’ need for help outside the Persian Empire.
It may well be queried if Oroetes had a potential ulterior motive in reaching out to Polycrates… could the notion of alliance with Samos have been less of a smokescreen than usually thought? Might Oroetes have been hedging his bets – establishing an avenue of contact with the Samian tyrant either to bring about his fall or to actually become his ally. There may be more truth in his supposed deception of Polycrates than might be thought.
“Oroetes addresses Polycrates as follows: I find that you aim at great things, but that you have not sufficient money for your purpose. Do then as I direct, and you will succeed yourself and will save me. King Cambyses aims at my death; of this I have clear intelligence.  Now if you will transport me and my money, you may take some yourself and let me keep the rest; thus you shall have wealth enough to rule all Hellas. If you mistrust what I tell you about the money, send someone who is most trusted by you and I will prove it to him.” (Herodotus III.122.3-4)
Polycrates did not jump in feet first at this invitation. Before agreeing to a meeting with Oroetes, he dispatched a compatriot of his, Maeandrius, to the court of the satrap to investigate the sincerity of Oroetes’ offer and perhaps more specifically, whether or not the satrap could provide the kind of wealth he had promised to the Samian tyrant.
The short answer was that Oroetes did not have such wealth, but he put on a good show of having such fabulous wealth, filling “eight chests with stones, leaving only a very shallow space at the top; then he laid gold on top of the stones, locked the chests, and kept them ready. Maeandrius came and saw, and brought word back to his master.” (Herodotus III.123)
At least partially convinced by Oroetes’ story and promises, Polycrates decided to accept this invitation for a face-to-face meeting at Magnesia, the residence of the Lydian satrap. This was completely against the advice of his diviners and various friends, who thought he was walking into a trap. The most evocative attempted dissuasion of Polycrates came from his daughter. She claimed to have had a dream where she saw her father hanging in the air, his body being washed by Zeus and anointed by Helios (Herodotus III.124.1). The tyrant brushed off the doomsayers, even threatening his daughter with refusing to let her marry once he returned from Magnesia. His daughter replied that she would rather remained unmarried throughout her life than lose her father… (Herodotus III.124.2)
Of course, Polycrates should have listened. It was a trap. The Samian tyrant was not to return home to prevent any future nuptials for his daughter…
It is not completely clear how Polycrates died from Herodotus’ account: “he was horribly murdered in a way unworthy of him… in some way not fit to be told” (Herodotus III.125.2, 3). This might suggest that the actual method of his death was either suitably inglorious – like a quick slitting of the throat by a lowly soldier or slave – or horribly gruesome like being impaled.
Whatever was the mode of Polycrates’ death, Oroetes then had his dead body subjected to crucifixion, perhaps to provide a warning to other leaders in the region. It was in this crucified position that the death of Polycrates has become a popular artistic scene, even if it was not the actual method of his death.
It was also seen by Herodotus as the fulfilling the prophetic dream of Polycrates’ daughter: the crucified position being the ‘hanging in the air’; the ‘washing by Zeus’ being the rain that fell on him in the open and the ‘anointing by Helios’ being the sweat on his body from the exertion and heat of sun (Herodotus III.125.4).
After achieving the assassination of Polycrates (paving the way for the Persian conquest of Samos in c.525BC), Oroetes then turned his attention back to the internal issues of the Persian state. The death of Cambyses in 522BC (either through an accidental wound or assassination) led to significant trouble at the heart of the Persian Empire, with his younger brother Bardiya (or someone impersonating him) briefly succeeding him as ‘King of Kings’ only to then to be then overthrown in favour of Darius I.
In the confusion surrounding the Persian kingship, Oroetes appears to have offered little help to any of the sides vying for control. Being so distant from the centre of Persian power, it might not have been expected that the Lydian satrap would have gotten directly involved in internal disputes; however, Oroetes certainly did something to catch the attention of Darius I once he was established on the Persian throne.
Rather than stay quiet during the succession crisis of 522BC, Oroetes seems to have used the disruption it caused to further his own agendas of personal vengeance and expansion of his power. The target for both of these agendas was his taunter and satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, Mitrobates.
Oroetes is said to have orchestrated the assassination not only of Mitrobates but also his son, Cranaspes, adding Hellespontine Phrygia and possibly Ionia to his own Lydian territory in the process (Herodotus III.126.2).
To this list of refusal to help in the Persian succession crisis, satrapal murder and usurpation, Oroetes then added what would be considered outright treasonous murder.
Darius I, seemingly just before he acceded to the Persian throne, sent a messenger to the Lydian satrap. Exactly what that message was is not recorded, but Herodotus suggests that it displeased the Lydian satrap. Could it be that Darius had warned Oroetes that he had to pick a side in the on-going succession trouble, forcing the satrap into forfeiting his beneficial neutrality? Herodotus III.127.2 has Darius claim that the messenger he sent to Oroetes was to recall him to court, presumably for trial or execution for his role in the deaths of Mitrobates and Cranaspes.
It might also be suggested that Oroetes feared what the messenger would say to Darius. Had he heard of Oroetes’ murders and usurpation? Could it even be that Oroetes was using this Persian succession crisis to orchestrate his own secession from the Persian Empire?
Whatever his motivation, Oroetes is said to have decided to do away with Darius’ messenger. Setting an ambush for the messenger on his way back east to report to Darius, the Lydian satrap had the messenger murdered, his body and horse hidden away.
Even with the intercepting and silencing of the messenger, Darius got word of the various murders, usurpation and defiance of Oroetes and decided to act against him (Herodotus III.127.1).
However, he felt that opening marching against the rebellious satrap would not be the best option. Darius was not yet well-established on the throne and suddenly marching to the western frontier of his realm might have encouraged some of his opponents to try to overthrow him. Furthermore, Oroetes had the forces of two full satrapies, including a loyal guard of 1,000 Persian spearmen, and likely some Ionian Greek allies to defend himself with (Herodotus III.127.1). Military victory would not necessarily be assured for the newly-enthroned ‘King of Kings’.
Darius therefore decided to employ subterfuge. He called together a large assembly of leading Persians at his court and asked…
“Persians, which of you will promise to do this for me, not with force and numbers, but by cunning? Where there is need for cunning, force has no business.  So then, which of you would either bring me Oroetes alive or kill him? For he has done the Persians no good, but much harm; he has destroyed two of us, Mitrobates and his son, and is killing my messengers that are sent to recall him, displaying an insolence that is not to be borne. So, then, before he does the Persians some still greater harm, he has to be punished by us with death.” (Herodotus III.127.2-3)
Such was Darius’ rousing speech calling for defenders of the Persian realm from this rebellious satrap, he had 30 men volunteering to undertake the plot to remove Oroetes. Rather than leave them to choose between themselves or having to choose himself, potentially sparking the enmity of the others, Darius had the 30 volunteers draw lots – via this method, the choice fell on the prominent Persian nobleman, Bagaeus, son of Artontes (Herodotus III.128.1).
Duly tasked by Fate and Darius to deal with Oroetes, Bagaeus set about this duty through a series of letters, all stamped with the seal of the King of Kings. With them, he travelled to Sardis and obtained a meeting with Oroetes.<p class="has-medium-font-size" style="line-height:1.5" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Before the satrap and a gathering of his spearmen, Bagaeus took out the first letter and gave it to the satrapal scribe to read aloud. It is not entirely clear from Herodotus’ recording what the first letter was supposed to have said, but it seems to have appealed to the loyalty of the spearmen, perhaps through flattery and making it clear that the letters were from Darius himself, without actually intimating that Darius felt that Oroetes was a threat to the Persian realm.Before the satrap and a gathering of his spearmen, Bagaeus took out the first letter and gave it to the satrapal scribe to read aloud. It is not entirely clear from Herodotus’ recording what the first letter was supposed to have said, but it seems to have appealed to the loyalty of the spearmen, perhaps through flattery and making it clear that the letters were from Darius himself, without actually intimating that Darius felt that Oroetes was a threat to the Persian realm.
Satisfied that the contents of the first letter had had the desired effect, without revealing the true aims of this epistolary series, Bagaeus then had the second royal letter read out to the spearmen. This one had a more overt order within it, which the Lydian satrap must have recognised as a threat to his power.
“Persians! King Darius forbids you to be Oroetes’ guard.” (Herodotus III.128.4)
Having been suitably flattered and/or reminded of their loyalty to the Persian king, the spearmen now obeyed the letter, lowering their spears in the face of Bagaeus’ royal writ. Before Oroetes could so anything about the growing undermining of his position, Bagaeus then moved on to the third letter. It contained the definitive test of the loyalty of the Persian spearmen…
“King Darius instructs the Persians in Sardis to kill Oroetes.” (Herodotus III.128.5)
Bagaeus must have realised that his own life was on the line here too, for if he had read the reaction of the spearmen incorrectly, the order to kill the satrap might have led to his own grizzly murder and ultimately the full usurpation of the Lydian, Phrygian and Ionia provinces, backed by some Greek forces. At a time when the reign of Darius I was not yet fully secure, a mass revolt in western Asia Minor may well have seen other recently conquered territories – Egypt, Cyprus, Libya – break out in rebellion, possibly threatening the cohesion of the central Persian provinces.
However, Bagaeus had been correct in his reading of the satrapal court at Sardis. Upon the reading out of this royal demand to murderous action, the Persian spearmen drew their swords and attacked Oroetes, killing him almost instantly. Herodotus III.128.5 considered this wretched demise of Oroetes just recompense for the end he had subjected Polycrates to.
Bagaeus then succeeded the vanquished Oroetes as Lydian satrap, bringing the region back in line with the Persian government of Darius. He then shipped off a large number of possessions of Oroetes to Darius at Susa as something of a tribute or even booty from a defeated foe (Herodotus III.129.1) Amongst these possessions were a number of slaves that Oroetes had taken from Polycrates, namely the non-Samian members of the entourage that had travelled with the tyrant to his fateful meeting at Magnesia, including a certain Democedes of Croton, who would make a name (and a fortune) for himself… which we will look into in the next blog entry (Herodotus III.129-132).
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You would be forgiven for thinking that this is a Biblical headline was about the story of Jonah and the Whale. However, looking past that the original Hebrew text suggests Jonah was swallowed by a “giant fish” rather than the mammalian ‘whale’ that appears in English translations, there are several other tales from ancient folklore with similar aquatic adventures.
But for all the Jonahs, Gilgameshs and Jasons to have been involved in such adventures, there are also some lesser known names. One such name is Arion of Methymna on Lesbos (also known as Arion of Corinth).
Arion was an Ancient Greek musician and poet, who specialised in the cithara. The dates of his life are unknown, but he is recorded as being active in Corinth during the reign of the tyrant Cypselus (657-627BC) and then had his son Periander of Corinth as a patron, who ruled that city between 627 and 585BC (Herodotus I.23-24; cf. Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae XVI.19).
The Suda date Arion’s activity to the 38th Olympiad (628-625BC), while Eusebius puts him in the fourth year of the 40th Olympiad (617BC). The likelihood is then that Arion was active during the last third of the seventh century BC. Arion is described by Herodotus as one of more distinguished musicians of the age and the first to compose dithyrambs, a song sung and danced in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility (Herodotus I.23).
This appears a simplification of Arion’s role in the development of the dithyramb, as it was first mentioned by Archilochus of Paros (c.680-645BC), perhaps several decades before Arion’s career. It may instead be that Arion was responsible for taking the established idea of the dithyramb and developing it further with a stationary chorus and dancers dressed as satyrs. He may also have been responsible for bringing it to a wider audience. Certainly, Herodotus has Arion being the first to teach the dithyramb in Corinth (Herodotus I.23).
Some sources note that Arion’s contribution to the reform of the dithyramb saw it performed in a circle and called kuklios choros (Proclus, Chrestomathy 12 credits Aristotle with this view; Suda A3886). This association may have seen other sources present Arion’s father as being called ‘Kukleus’ (‘Circle-man’). This may actually detract from the historicity of the whole scenario: ‘Kukleus’, Arion’s development of the dithyramb and indeed Arion himself (D’Angour (1997)). It was not just in music that Arion is recorded being an innovator. He is attributed with the invention of the dramatic performance of tragedy (Solon, Elegies Frag. 30a; Suda A3886).
But for all these reputed musical and artistic inventions, Arion is most well-remembered for his supposed miraculous rescue by a dolphin when he found himself overboard at sea. Herodotus proclaimed that this was a well-known story amongst the Corinthians and the Lesbians (Herodotus I.23).
Having spent considerable time in Corinth under the patronage of first Cypselus and then Periander, Arion decided to travel west. While in Sicily and southern Italy, he won a series of musical competitions, making a lot of money in the process. With his winnings, Arion then took ship at Tarentum on a Corinthian vessel in order to return to the patronage of Periander.
However, seeing the amount of money their passenger had brought on board, the crew plotted to cast him into the sea and keep his riches for themselves (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.1 has Arion’s slaves conspiring with the sailors). Arion got word of this plot – Hyginus, Fabulae 194.2 has Apollo come to Arion in a dream – and begged the Corinthian sailors to just take the money and leave him alive: “the sailors told him either to kill himself if he wanted to be buried ashore, or to jump overboard at once” (Herodotus I.24).
Arion asked to be allowed to sing for the crew before promising to kill himself. The crew liked the idea of receiving a performance from a renowned singing poet. Therefore, in full costume, Arion performed with his cithara on the deck. Once he was finished, Arion then jumped into the sea, with the ship continuing on its journey to Corinth. Arion survived his initial plunge into the water, but he was adrift in the depths of the Ionian Sea and could not expect to survive for long.
However, help was at hand as in following Apollo’s advice to “play his music, and give himself over to those who came to his rescue,” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.2) Arion was found by a pod of dolphins, seemingly attracted towards the ship by Arion’s singing. One of them then carried Arion on its back to Taenarum, a town in south Laconia about five miles north of the modern Cape Matapan, where he was able to make it to shore. Hyginus suggests that “when he reached land, out of a desire to get on his way [Arion] did not push a dolphin back into the sea, and the dolphin died there” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.3). Periander (misnamed by Hyginus as ‘Pyranthus) would order the dolphin to be buried and a memorial raised for it.
“It would be pleasant to believe this story, for dolphins are capable of carrying humans on their backs, and are fond of music; and this vocal behaviour reveals a high intelligence” (Huxley (1966), 86). This predilection of dolphins for music, as well as humans, was a recognised proverbial trope amongst the Ancient Greeks (Euripides, Electra 435f; Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45).
That a cavern near Taenarum was considered the entrance to the Greek underworld (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses X.13 – “Downe at the gate of Taenarus did go to Limbo lake”) might suggest some ulterior meaning in Arion’s landing here. Could it be that it was to show that Arion was close to death, figuratively and literally?
Having survived his watery encounter, Arion made his way north, still in his full costume, through Laconia to Corinth. There, he told his story of success, betrayal and miraculous survival to Periander. The Corinthian tyrant found it a little too incredible, but sought more information.
Keeping Arion under supervision, Periander sent for the crew of the Corinthian ship. The tyrant asked them if they had any information about Arion. “Oh yes… we left him safe and sound at Tarentum in Italy.” Arion then appeared and “the lie was detected, and further denial useless” (Herodotus I.24).
Hyginus records a slightly different version with the sailors claiming that Arion had died on the voyage and they had him buried. The tyrant then proclaimed that “Tomorrow, you will swear to this at the dolphin’s memorial” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.5), which illustrates how Hyginus’ version eliminates any involvement of Taenarum, as Corinth and Taenarum are over 200km apart, too far to be reached in a day.
The next morning, Periander/Pyranthus has the sailors swear before the dolphin memorial that Arion had died and when they did so, Arion appeared before them in the same costume he was wearing when he jumped into the sea, as part of a plot between him and the Corinthian tyrant (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.6-7). When the sailors proceeded to swear that they had buried Arion, he emerged from the dolphin memorial, rendering them “speechless, wondering by what divine power he had been rescued” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.7). Hyginus then finished off his retelling of the story by reporting that Periander/Pyranthus had the men crucified at the memorial and that Apollo “placed among the stars both Arion, because of his skill at the cithara, and the dolphin” (Hyginus, Fabulae 194.8).
While Hyginus has a memorial to the dolphin erected by Periander somewhere near Corinth, Herodotus has a bronze statue of a man riding upon a dolphin being dedicated in a temple at Taenarum. The second century AD Greek travel-writer, Pausanias (c.110-180), records that the statue was still extant during his time (Pausanias III.25.7, cf. IX.30.2), as does the Roman writer, Aelian, a generation later in the late second/early third century AD (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45).
Indeed, Herodotus (I.24), and inferred by Aelian, would have it that the statue was erected by Arion himself in thanks for his rescue. Given his miraculous survival, it would not be surprising for Arion to have seen to the erection of a statue in honour of the dolphin and potentially the god behind it. But which god would it have been? The epigram inscribed with the statue does not contain a dedication to any specific god and several deities are linked to dolphins.
It could have been to Poseidon, god of sea, who Aelian suggests Arion dedicated an epigram at the site of the statue as a χαριστήριον / charisterion – offering – in thanks for his deliverance from the sea and to the dolphins (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45). Poseidon also had form in entrusting important matters to dolphins, with his wife, Amphitrite, being found by and persuaded to marry the god of the sea by a certain Delphinus, who was rewarded with a place in the starry sky (Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 17). Some Greek writings make the connection between the story of Arion and that of Melicertes, son of Poseidon and Ino (who could be Amphitrite). To escape her husband, Athamas, who had been driven insane by Hera, Ino and Melicertes had jumped into the sea, with the latter’s body being carried by a dolphin to the Isthmus of Corinth, which became the site of the Isthmian Games.
Another son of Poseidon, Taras, was said to have been rescued from a shipwreck when his divine father sent him a dolphin. Taras then rode this aquatic taxi from the promontory of Taenarum to the south of Italy, where he founded the city that bore his name: Tarentum in Apulia (Pausanias X.10.8). Coins issued in the city (and in Corinth) bore this legend, with Taras mounted on a dolphin. The similarities between this story and that of Arion should not be overlooked.
It could have been to Dionysius, who had faced a similar tale to Arion where Tyrrhenian pirates try to tie the god to the mast, only for him to escape through the help of a helmsman, who was spared being turned into a dolphin with the rest of the traitorous crew. Dionysius could also have facilitated Arion’s rescue due to the musician’s role in the popularising of the Dionysian dithyramb.
Herodotus would have it that for his ‘final performance’, Arion chose to sing the ὄρθιος νόμος – the ‘stirring song’, which was a high-pitched and well-known song in honour of Apollo (Herodotus I.24). It could be then that Arion dedicated the statue to Apollo Delphinus in thanks for the fact and mode of his salvation.
An invocation and then thanking of Apollo by Arion may connect to the establishing of the constellation of Delphinus, with the god rewarding the dolphin who had saved Arion with a presence amongst the stars.
Like both Poseidon and Dionysius, Apollo also had form in this sort of use and rewarding of dolphins. In the form of a dolphin, he rescued a group of shipwrecked Cretan priests, bringing them on his back to a placed called originally called Krisa, but later called Pytho due to the enormous serpent that lived there. After Apollo killed this Python, the site was renamed after the animal Apollo had rescued these priests as – the dolphin, which in Ancient Greek is δελφίς, hence Delphi.
Not only are there issues with who the statue might be dedicated to, there are problems with the idea that Arion himself was behind the dedication of any such statue and epigram at Taenarum. The most important being one of date, concurrent technological advances and literary style.
Aelian does not mention the statue being erected by Arion, although as he has Arion writing the epigram on the monument, this could put the statue and epigram in the time of Arion – the last third of the seventh century BC. However, “a bronze statue of a man on a dolphin before 600BC is not easy to accept” (Bowra (1963), 121).
For Herodotus to have seen it, which he appears to intimate (Herodotus I.24), the statue would therefore have had to have existed by the last decades of the 5th century BC. This would seem more appropriate as statue-making technology had advanced enough to build the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This would seem to place the statue’s erection long after Arion’s death.
A literary issue arises with the epigram, which is recorded by Aelian as saying…
“Sent by the immortals this mount saved Arion son of Cycleus from the Sicilian main” (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45)
Aspects of this short epigram seem incorrect. The language seems out of place for the Late Archaic period of Greece, perhaps belonging more to the Classical period of around the fifth century BC. Its entire tone seems too indirect and even impersonal for it to be a personal dedication of a man celebrating his miraculous survival. Arion’s father being given such a name “is too patently aetiological to be at all convincing” (Bowra (1963), 122). Indeed, the lack of a named dedicator or even a divine dedicatee could suggest that at the very least, the epigram was not part of any original dedication.
The cynical question then to ask is that did Aelian write the epigram himself, positing what he thought would have been written? “But though Aelian has many faults there is no reason to think he was a conscious swindler” (Bowra (1963), 125).
Rather than any sort of fraud, it could be that the story Arion and the dolphin was famous enough – Herodotus suggests that knowledge of the tale reached back from the Peloponnese to Lesbos – for it to inspire another later, possibly fifth century BC (Smyth (1900), 15, 205; Bowra (1963), 134), and unnamed poet to write the epigram on the statue. Time then saw this epigram attributed to Arion due to the subject and location of both the epigram and the statue, and perhaps due to knowledge of his being a composer. Unfortunately, such a deduction is lacking in hard evidence.
Another aspect of the recording of the story of Arion and the dolphin that appears to be of later creation is what Aelian describes as “a hymn of thanks to Poseidon” (Aelian, De Natura Animalium 12, 45) written by Arion himself.
“Highest of the gods, lord of the sea, Poseidon of the golden trident, earth-shaker in the swelling brine, around thee the finny monsters in a ring swim and dance, with nimble flingings of their feet leaping lightly, snub-nosed hounds with bristling neck, swift runners, music-loving dolphins, sea-nurslings of the Nereid maids divine, whom Amphitrite bore, even they that carried me, a wanderer on the Sicilian main, to the headland of Taenarum in Pelops’ land, mounting me upon their humped backs as they clove the furrow of Nereus’ plain, a path untrodden, when deceitful men had cast me from their sea-faring hollow ship into the purple swell of ocean.”
Again, it would have seemed entirely possible, if not likely, that a musical composer like Arion would have used his talents to thank the gods and the dolphin for his rescue.
However, due to the same reasons as for the epigram – style, date, and Aelian’s ‘deplorable unreliability’ – this hymn of Arion is considered apocryphal (but again doubting that Aelien himself wrote this hymn).
It would seem then that none of Arion’s poetry or song survives, but the story of his dramatic delphinoid survival and the statue raised in its honour, even if it was not contemporary, were well-known in mythological and even general circles across significant parts of the Greek and then Roman worlds (Bowra (1963), 124).
Apart from the mentions by Herodotus, Pausanias and Aelian, there are numerous other mentions, interpretations and usages of the story of Arion and the dolphin from antiquity.
The second century AD satirist and rhetorician, Lucian of Samosata, imagined a dialogue between Poseidon and the dolphin who saved Arion.
Poseidon: Well done, Dolphins!— humane as ever. Not content with your former exploit, when Ino leapt with Melicertesfrom the Scironian cliff, and you picked the boy up and conveyed him to the Isthmus, one of you swims from Methymna toTaenarum with this musician on his back, mantle and lyre and all. Those sailors had almost had their wicked will of him; but you were not going to stand that.
Dolphin: You need not be surprised to find us doing a good turn to a man, Poseidon; we were men before we were fishes.
Poseidon: Yes; I think it was too bad of Dionysus to celebrate his victory by such a transformation scene; he might have been content with adding you to the roll of his subjects.— Well, Dolphin, tell me all about Arion.
Dolphin: From what I can gather, Periander was very fond of him, and was always sending for him to perform; till Arion grew quite rich at his expense, and thought he would take a trip to Methymna, and show off his wealth at home. He took ship accordingly; but it was with a crew of rogues. He had made no secret of the gold and silver he had with him; and when they were in mid-Aegean, the sailors rose against him. As I was swimming alongside, I heard all that went on. ‘Since your minds are made up,’ says Arion, ‘at least let me get my mantle on, and sing my own dirge; and then I will throw myself into the sea of my own accord.’— The sailors agreed. He threw his minstrel’s cloak about him, and sang a most sweet melody; and then he let himself drop into the water, never doubting but that his last moment had come. But I caught him up on my back, and swam to shore with him at Taenarum.
Poseidon: I am glad to find you a patron of the arts. This was handsome pay for a song.
Lucian, Dialogi Marini 8
St. Augustine invokes the pagan acceptance of Arion and his dolphin rescue as historical but denial of the story of Jonah as a mode of their failure to appreciate the power of God.
“These things, indeed, are turned to ridicule rather than credited by those with whom we are debating; though they believe what they read in their own books, that Arion of Methymna, the famous lyrist, when he was thrown overboard, was received on a dolphin’s back and carried to land. But that story of ours about the prophet Jonah is far more incredible — more incredible because more marvellous, and more marvellous because a greater exhibition of power.”
Augustine, City of God I.14
Despite such aspersions being cast on the Arion and the dolphin, either satirically or religiously, the tale remained well-known enough to make its way into the pages of Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Act I, Sc 2, lines 12-16), when the captain tried to reassure Viola over the survival of her brother Sebastian during a shipwreck…
“I saw your brother… bind himself… to a strong mast that liv’d upon the sea; where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves, so long as I could see.”
As can also be seen throughout this piece, Arion and the dolphin remained a well-enough known story to frequently appear in art from the Renaissance through Victorian times, to the modern day. The Warburg Institute Photographic Collection contains pictures of various images depicting Arion.
Modern scholarly interpretations of the story fail to find consensus over the divine subject of this story. Bowra (1963) connects the development of the Arion tale to the expulsion of the Bacchiadae clan, who traced their descent from Dionysius, from Corinth by Periander’s father, Cypselus. and perhaps therefore a rejection of Dionysius in the guise championed by the Bacchiadae, requiring some kind of a renewal for the Dionysian cult (Burkert (1983) 201). Whereas Arion and the dolphins has been considered an example of “a folkloristic motif especially associated with Apollo” (Malkin (1987), 219).
Flory (1978) considered Herodotus’ use of this story as part of his characterising of ‘brave gestures’, with Arion (eventually) facing his ‘inevitable’ demise with a calm bravery that allows him to give a tremendous performance, a calm bravery that actually brings about his salvation (and indeed immortalising in myth) by attracting the dolphins.
Scholars from various periods have felt that the entire story and even Arion himself were purely fictional. By addressing it at all, Lucian of Samosata may hint that he feels that the story was not only worthy of satire, but perhaps entirely false, given his proclivity towards ridiculing superstition and religion.
The Renaissance scholar, Erasmus, felt that the story of Arion and the dolphin seemed like an example of the “traditional poet’s topics that sound like historia rather than fabulae” (Erasmus, ASD 1-3 238).
And there are certainly plenty of ways to interpret sections of Arion’s life that make it seem that he is partly or even entirely mythological.
His reputed role as the inventor of the dithyramb (something that predated him) could be an ancient mis-recording of an actual role in altering and popularising it; an example of an ‘invented inventor’ either because Arion was known to use dithyramb or Arion the personage was invented to explain the development of the dithyramb.
Similar aetiological trouble comes in Arion’s supposed father, Kukleus, which with its meaning of ‘circle-man’ could be a little too coincidental given Arion’s ‘invention’ of the circular chorus performance.
The sheer popularity of this story type of dolphin saviours – Poseidon, Dionysius, Apollo, Gilgamesh, Jason, Taras, Melicertes – might also undermine the historicity of Arion’s miraculous aquatic survival.
With such potential ‘invented inventor’, aetiological names and a copycat story issues, it is not surprising that it has been considered that “there is no historicity in this tale” (Stebbins (1929), 67).