The Coded Message of a Future Usurper

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When you think about code-breaking, the chances are your thoughts will automatically shift to Enigma, Bletchley Park, the Imitation Game and Alan Turing as perhaps the most prominent example. However, encoding messages was by no means an invention of the modern world.

Some form of cryptography itself seems to date back to at least early second millennium BC Egypt, with hieroglyphics were used to decorate tombs, while other examples appear in Mesopotamia and Greece; however, there are doubts over whether some of these encryptions were really used to prevent others from reading the text or as simple literary puzzles for amusement or even as a way to avoid bad omens (Cohen (1995); Kelly (1998); Lateiner (2010)).

  1 2 3 4 5
1 A B C D E
2 F G H I/J K
3 L M N O P
4 Q


5 V W X Y


The Polybius Square

More clear cut examples of cryptology had appeared by the second century BC. Polybius wrote on a system to be used in fire-signalling “devised by Cleoxenus and Democleitus and perfected by myself (Polybius)” (Polybius X.45.6), now referred to as the Polybius Square.’ Polybius X.45.7-47.11 describes the square in action. Julius Caesar is recorded using a cipher – now known as the Caesar Cipher – which shifted each letter two or three places further through the alphabet (Suetonius, Divi Julius 56.6). Augustus is also recorded using a similar cipher (Suetonius, Aug. 88), while it has been suggested that Caesar may have used an even more complicated system – “there is even a rather ingeniously written treatise by the grammarian Probus concerning the secret meaning of letters in the composition of Caesar’s epistles” (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 17.9.1-5).

However, it was not just such cryptology that the Romans resorted to prevention sensitive or important information falling into the wrong hands. We are fortunate to have recorded one such instance of the lengths a Roman diplomat might go to get a message out to the Roman authorities. The basis of this good fortune is the military career of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus. In serving as a protector of the general Ursicinus during the 350s, Ammianus was in a position to see one such message be found, decoded and then deciphered.



The author of this coded message was a certain Procopius. While less well-known that his sixth century namesake, the historian Procopius of Caesarea, this Procopius is a character well worth reading up about. A native of Cilicia, he attempted to usurp the imperial throne from the eastern emperor Valens in 365/366.

Basing his claim on being a maternal cousin of Julian and the idea that Julian named him his successor, complete with an imperial purple robe, at the outset of the disastrous Persian expedition, Procopius’ usurpation was peculiar mix of farce, organisational skill, drama, loyalty, bribery, betrayal and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (or vice versa depending on the point of view).


Julian and Valens

His improvised coronation with makeshift imperial regalia of what seems like slippers and a napkin, in the dead of night in Constantinople in the hands of Ammianus reads more like the comedy of Aristophanes or the satire of Petronius than a serious assumption of imperial power (Ammianus XVI.6.16-19).



Constantius II and Shapur II

But before he was usurping the imperial throne, Procopius served under the emperor Constantius II as a tribunus et notarius, a position which in itself demonstrates that Procopius was no dummy. He was also felt worthy of being entrusted with one of the more important duties of the 350s: along with the comes, Lucillianus, Procopius was dispatched to the court of the Sassanid Persian King, Shapur II, to negotiate a peace between the two empires (Ammianus XVII.14.3).

In other times, this would not have been as difficult as it sounds as there were prolonged periods where both Rome and Persia were happy to see their shared border remain quiet. Unfortunately for Procopius, this was not one of those times. Shapur II was on the warpath, determined to see large parts of Armenia and Mesopotamia ceded to him either at the negotiating table or through force.

Procopius and Lucillianus had their work cut out for them. Indeed, it could be argued that Constantius II did not intend for them to succeed in obtaining any sort of treaty, merely using the pretext of the embassy to slow and/or discover the Persian king’s plan for the coming campaign season. Ammianus goes as far as to say that Shapur, “armed with the help of the savage tribes which he had subdued, and burning with superhuman desire of extending his domain, was preparing arms, forces, and supplies, embroiling his plans with infernal powers and consulting all superstitions about the future.” (Ammianus XVIII.4.1)

While the exact nature or access of the embassy to the Persian court is not recorded, Procopius and Lucillianus were able to hear or see enough to recognise that even with these ‘negotiations’ still on-going, the Persian army was on the move. And the comes and notarius needed to get the word back to Roman authorities. They achieved this by getting a concealed note to a group of Roman scouts in a scabbard, who then succeeded in delivering this communiqué to Ursicinus at Amida (Frontinus, Strat. III.13.5 advised similar use of a scabbard to conceal secret messages – “some have written on the linings of scabbards”).

The message was not only hidden in a secret place, once it was removed from the scabbard, it was found to be written in code, and even when the cipher was applied, the decoded message appeared nonsensical (Ammianus XVIII.6.17; Blockley (1986) on decoding the letter).

“Now that the envoys of the Greeks have been sent far away and perhaps are to be killed, that aged king, not content with Hellespontus, will bridge the Granicus and the Rhyndacus and come to invade Asia with many nations. He is naturally passionate and very cruel, and he has as an instigator and abetter the successor of the former Roman emperor Hadrian; unless Greece takes heed, it is all over with her and her dirge chanted” (Ammianus XVIII.6.18).

The coded nature of the letter, in terms of secreting, symbols and allusion, along with the inference of the first line suggest “that the envoys of the Greeks” – Procopius and Lucillianus – had been imprisoned by Shapur or were at least under surveillance.



Mithridates VI of Pontus

The mention of an “aged king” bridging the Granicus and Rhyndacus rivers, both in Asia Minor, was considered an inference to the outbreak of the Third Mithridatic War in 74/73BCE, with the “aged king” being Mithridates VI (Appian, Mithr. 69-71; Matthews (1989), 42-43; Mayor (2009) on Mithridates VI). Respectively, the Granicus and the Rhyndacus are the modern Biga and Mustafakemalpasha rivers in north-western Turkey. The former is most famous as the site of Alexander the Great’s first victory over the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 334BCE, while the latter was the site of two Roman victories over the forces of Mithridates VI, first by Fimbria in 85BCE and then by Lucullus in 73/72BCE (Frontinus, Strat. III.17.5; Plutarch, Lucullus XI.2-3).


The Granicus/Biga and the Rhyndacus/Mustafakemalpasha Rivers

This allusion to Mithridates and his crossing of rivers was considered to be a reference to Shapur’s planned crossing of the Greater Zab and Tigris rivers for an invasion of Roman territory, with the mention of his cruelty and passion likely highlighting that Shapur’s invasion was not some run-of-the-mill raid but a full-scale invasion intent on conquest. A similar sense of the immediacy and size of the threat posed by the Shapur’s latest invasion is also conveyed by the final line of the message.


The Eastern Theatre in the 350/60s

Perhaps the most straightforward piece of information is the allusion to Hadrian’s successor, the emperor Antoninus Pius, as an “instigator and abetter.” This was revealing the presence and identity of a Roman defector, Antoninus, at the Persian court, and his role as an adviser to the Persian king (Ammianus XVIII.5).


Hadrian and Antoninus Pius

It might seem then that that this letter gave Ursicinus valuable insight into the planned movements of Shapur but it in actual fact, the coded message of Procopius is rather short on actionable intelligence or new information. By the time they received Procopius’ message at Amida, Ursicinus and Ammianus had already been confronted with evidence that the Persians were in Roman territory, not only finding a Persian spy at Meiacarire but also being confronted with the initial stages of Nisibis being put under Persian blockade.

While it does hint that Shapur intended to invade en masse, it does not give any real notion of the size of his army or where exactly he intended to cross into Roman territory. Was he going to cross the Greater Zab and the Tigris close together, perhaps at their confluence and then drive at Singara? Or was he going to cross the Zab and then follow the Tigris upriver to the northwest before crossing? And even then where would he cross? Near Nineveh? Bezabde? Amida? Or somewhere in between or beyond?

So Procopius’ message was telling the Roman high command something they already knew – the Persians were invading – but then failed to tell them something of exact strategic usefulness that they did not already know – where was the main Persian army going to cross into Mesopotamia? This cannot be held against Procopius and Lucillianus. The close scrutiny of the Persian court likely limited the intelligence they would get their hands on and the rapidity with which they could get that limited intelligence back to Roman territory.

Desperate to get more firsthand knowledge, Ursicinus sent Ammianus on a mission to contact Jovinianus, the Persian satrap of Corduene, who sent Ammianus on with a guide to a cliff that overlooking the route of march of Shapur’s army. Again harking back to ancient history, Ammianus describes the size of the Persian force with suitably dramatic flair, recalling the great invasion force of the Achaemenid Persian king Xerxes in 480BCE and suggesting that it would take three full days for the entire Persian army to cross the Tigris (Ammianus XVIII.7.1; XIX.6.11 later declared Shapur’s force to be 100,000 strong; Herodotus VII.59-60 on Xerxes’ force).

So the coded message of Procopius might not have wielded any overtly useful intelligence for Ursicinus at the time; indeed, the subsequent Persian campaign saw the epic siege, capture and destruction of Amida. However, this episode does give us some insight into Roman coding techniques of concealment, encoding and allusion in action.

Peter Crawford


Blockley, R.C. ‘The coded message in Ammianus Marcellinus 18.6.17-19’, Echos du Monde Classique 30 n.s. 5 (1986) 63-65

Cohen, F. ‘A Short History of Cryptography,’ (1995)

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

Lateiner, D. ‘Signifying Names and Other Ominous Accidental Utterances in Classical Historiography,’ GRBS 45.1 (2010), 35-57

Matthews, J.F. The Roman Empire of Ammianus. London (1989)

Mayor, A. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy. Woodstack (2009)

Kelly, T. ‘The Myth of the Skytale,’ Cryptologia 22.3 (1998) 244-260

Standing out from the Crowd: Constans and his Go-Go-Gadget Neck

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index2What do Vladimir Klitschko, Inspector Gadget, friend and ally of He-Man, Mekaneck, the Kayan people of Myanmar and the fourth century Roman emperor Constans I all have in common?

They have all been seen to have an extremely long neck.

indexAny of you who follow the CANI Twitter and/or Facebook feeds may know that on occasion, you will see some coins posted as I attempt to collect a coin of every Roman emperor.

Starting not quite from scratch but aiming to have a coin of every Roman emperor…

Posted by The Classical Association in Northern Ireland on Sunday, July 26, 2015

Now, looking at that album, you may notice that there is already a coin of Constans, minted in Thessalonica one or two years before his accession as co-Augustus with his two brothers, Constantine II and Constantius II, on 9 September 337.


O: CONSTANS NOB CAES; R: GLORIA EXERCITVS SMTS [A/Δ] RIC VII.526 n.201/529 n.225, Thessalonica

However, in the course of my search for some of the more rare Roman emperors, I came across this issue of Constans.



Now, the Ukrainian giant and former World Heavyweight Champion, Klitschko is probably still a little rubber-necked after that uppercut by Anthony Joshua; Inspector Gadget needed any and every advantage (along with the hidden/unrecognised skills of Penny and Brain) to thwart Dr Claw and his henchmen; He-Man required the periscopic abilities of Mekaneck to keep an eye on what Skeletor and his minions had planned for Eternia, while various reasons for why the Kayan people choose to wear brass rings to give the appearance of an elongated neck – cultural identity, protection from slavery or lions, gender differentiation or symbolising a dragon – but why would Constans feel the need to himself portrayed in such a way?

Might it be a poorly stamped or well-worn coin? A brief internet search told me that there is plenty of precedent for such oesophageally extended emperors.



Finding such similar traits in other Constantinians might lead to the idea that this was a family trait or a family choice for their propaganda, possibly linked to their Illyrian origins, but that would not explain the depictions of the British usurpers Carausius and Allectus with similarly long necks.


O: IMP C CARAVSIVS PF AVG; R: PAX AVG (S ….. P); RIC Vb.504 n.475; London


O: IMP C ALLECTVS PF AVG; R: PAX AVG ML (S ….. A); RIC Vb.561 n.33; London

From these emperors so far listed, it could be suggested that there was some kind of British connection to such long necks as both Carausius and Allectus ruled the island as independent usurpers; Constantius I Chlorus reintegrated Britain into the Empire, while Constans campaigned there in 343. A connection between long necks and Britain could be further promoted by the existence of a coin such as this of Galerius, who had no personal connection to Britain apart from being a member of the Tetrarchy, but there were still coins minted in London depicting him with a long neck.



However, moving slightly further back in time, into the melee of the Third Century Crisis, coins can be found depicting emperors with no connection to Britain and which were minted elsewhere in the Empire. Aurelian and Probus issued coins presenting themselves with chins a considerable distance from their upper torso; both of these coins were minted in Siscia, which seems to have become associated with such a physical exaggeration during the mid to late third century, enough for to suggest the identification aid of a long neck likely being an issue from Siscia in Pannonia.






Going even further back in time though, we find elongated necks as being prominent in the coinage of Rome’s first imperial dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. It was particularly prominent in the issues of Claudius, which might lead to a resurrection of a connection to Britain, given his overseeing the conquest of that province, but again the coins below were minted in Rome, rather than Britain.





Furthermore, not only does a similarly giraffe-like head support appear on coins of Nero, it also appears on the issues of Augustus and Tiberius, emperors with little to no connection to Britain.

Silver Denarius Nero


April Four

O: None; R: AVGVSTVS; RIC I.50, n.125; Colonia Patricia(?)

April Three


You might suggest that this long neck was a Julio-Claudian trait, although that does not exactly explain why both Augustus and Tiberius, who shared no blood, appear with such a trait, unless it was a trait of both of their families – the Octavii-Julii and the Claudians, or it was a trait of Augustus (or even Julius Caesar) and the rest of the Julio-Claudians followed it in order to project some kind of familial, dynastic bond.

Regardless of whether or not this was a regional or a familial trait/custom, it leaves the question of why would the emperor want to have himself portrayed in such a grotesque fashion?

The timing of some of these issues might provide some answers in the form of building legitimacy through ‘other-worldliness.’ Augustus was still attempting to solidify his transformation of the Republic to the Empire; Claudius could have been worried over his lack of legitimacy having been elevated from behind a curtain, while the young Nero may have had to deal with some murmurings of the circumstances of Claudius’ demise and his own elevation over Britannicus. In the mid-third century, the turnover of emperors must have undermined the sanctity of that once mighty imperial institution so perhaps the like of Aurelian and Probus were looking to put themselves on a pedestal above other men and even other emperors and usurpers by making it appear that they were something more than a man; something worthy of not just a soldier’s loyalty but perhaps also their reverence and worship. Certainly by the reign of Diocletian and his Tetrarchy, imperial propaganda had begun to associate the emperor with more dominant and divine characteristics: no longer a princeps – first among equals – but a dominus and even a deus with Diocletian and Maximian associating themselves with Jupiter and Hercules.

But then again such divine developments were not new. Arguments over the scale or timing of an emperor’s divinity had been raging on and off since the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus – could an emperor or an aspect of his genius be worshipped as divine during his lifetime?

Perhaps all of these emperors – Aurelian, Probus, the British usurpers, and the Constantinians were not only hoping to achieve some added legitimacy by appearing other-worldly on their coins but also by harking back to the Julio-Claudians, who not only used similar depictions on their coins but were also the fountain of the original imperial legitimacy.

This aspiration to divinity could be reflected in the ‘other-worldly’ depictions on other coins, such as this issue from the moneyer Gnaeus Blasio in 112-111BC. It could be a depiction of Scipio Africanus but with enough deniability built in so it could passed off as the god Mars. The exaggerated features perhaps say something about the Roman perception of how to appear divine.


Scipio Africanus/Mars

However, it must not be overlooked that on certain occasions, a long neck, bulging eyes or fat head might not represent what the emperor wanted people or specific regions to think of him but perhaps what the people, and more specifically the die engraver or his direct overseer already thought of him…

Silver Denarius NeroAD66-67


Someone minting coins in Rome does not seem to have liked Nero…

The contrast between this coin and the issue earlier is striking, demonstrating the almost complete collapse in Nero’s popularity from the young fresh faced heir to Claudius to the fat, ugly, pig-featured of the second coin. There can be little doubt that such a depiction reflected the enmity that Nero had raised amongst the population by the time of the issue of this coin in c.66-67, only months before his deposition and death. This Nero is hardly the picture of health, well-being and safety hinted at by the seated portrait of the personification of Salus along with the declaration of SALVS on the reverse. It is almost as if the engraver was making an ironic point about not only Nero himself but his regime and the empire as a whole, a point which hindsight makes more visible (or existent) given the events of 68-69.

It must be pointed out that the coin of Constans which started this little voyage of discovery came from the mint at Trier in 349-350, which in the region of the empire which birthed the usurpation of Magnentius in early 350 that ousted and then assassinated Constans. Could this long-necked coin be an attempt by someone in Trier to ridicule the emperor, demonstrating how Constans had become increasingly unpopular with segments of his political and military hierarchies throughout the 340s?

Whether it is positive or negative propaganda, depicting an ‘other-worldly’, out-of-reach, divine emperor to be respected and obeyed or a strange looking, unpopular man, worthy only of your ridicule, such coins can show how intricate, varied and dare I say amusing the whole subject of Roman numismatics can be.

Peter Crawford

Greater than Gibbon?

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Greater than Gibbon: A.H.M. Jones’ The Later Roman Empire 284-602

Edward Gibbon used it to create ‘modern’ historical writing; various German scholars nurtured it during the nineteenth century for it to then be taken on by the likes of J.B. Bury, but it was not until 1964 that the Late Roman Empire was dragged out of the shadows of its Republican and Principate predecessors. And all it took was a seminal work of such mind-boggling depth of inquiry that even now fifty years later, The Later Roman Empire 284-602 by Arnold Hugh Martin Jones still towers over the subject.


It is easy to espouse the greatness of the LRE but even now having used it frequently over the course of a decade, I still find myself truly staggered by the breadth of its interaction with myriad primary sources and a vast array of topics. At times, I leaf through its colossal notes section hoping for perhaps a couple of primary sources on an obscure person or event only to find that Jones has not only devoted three or four pages to it but also an invaluable bibliographical essay of endnotes. It even contains an extensive appendix on the Notitia Dignitatum, which itself could have been a separate work.

2017-03-11 22.31.46

Almost any academic at the beginning of a work involving the Late Roman Empire will likely ask rather quickly “I wonder what the LRE has to say about this.” This shows not only how well thought off it remains as an invaluable source of information but also that it so high profile that despite not being a multi-volume reference book, an annual publication of articles or a collection of inscriptions, it has come to be recognised by its own italicised acronym.

Any historian would have every right to consider such a monumental achievement a magnum opus worthy of the dedication of an entire career. And yet, A.H.M. Jones produced the LRE on top of many other high profile works on numerous subjects – ancient economies, cities, Sparta, Athenian Democracy, Constantine, Augustus and the PLRE to name but a few.

Jones may be rightly criticised for his lack of acknowledgement of other academics or archaeology; you may question why he stopped on the eve of an empire-changing cataclysm in 602; you might even find a source that he did not consult (although it had likely not been uncovered from a desert-bound urn or the mouldy shelves of a monastic library in the early 1960s); but none of this detracts from the achievement of the LRE.

It would not be overly hyperbolic to state that the history of the study of the Late Roman Empire is divided into pre- and post-LRE. Before 1964, Late Antiquity was not a separate subject in its own right; since, it has become one of the most widely published upon periods of the Ancient World. Not many books can say that they birthed a subject. That alone puts the LRE on a par with Gibbon. What is within its pages puts it above Decline and Fall.

Peter Crawford

Did the Romans Accidentally Invent “BAE”? – The Most Blessed Tetrarchs

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Just for St Valentine’s Day, we at CANI thought we should show something of a luvvy side by looking at an ancient iteration of the modern phenomenon that is “bae.” While seemingly an acronym for “before anyone else” which has somehow morphed into an adjective/noun, the Romans managed to get there first.

During the late third/early fourth century, several of the Tetrarchs issued coins…

DIOCLETIANVS BAE AVG Diocletian A.D. 284-305
DN DIOCLETIANO BAEATIS Diocletian A.D. 284-305
DN MAXIMIANO BAEATIS Galerius A.D. 305-311
DN MAXIMIANO BAEATISS Maximianus A.D. 286-310

Latin Vocabulary

BEA – beatus “blessed”

BEAT – beatus “blessed”

BAEATISSIMO – baeatissimo “most blessed”

Who cares that these numismatic occurrences of BAE are all spelling errors? Surely that makes it all the more wonderful (or completely undermining the point of this blog, if there ever was one in the first place…)!?!?venice_-_the_tetrarchs_04

To be honest, looking at the porphyry Tetrarch statue now resident in St Mark’s Square in Venice, we should have recognised how blessed/before anyone else these guys felt about one another. It is all so loving.

Of course, that is to completely overlook that the Tetrarchy was quick to turn on one another and of the three to have BAE appear in their coinage, Diocletian died in a depressing retirement tending to his cabbages, Maximian refused to live in retirement, rebelling against his son and then his son-in-law, who had him killed and Galerius was struck down by some sort of horrendous cancer, gangrene or flesh-eating disease…

Not very BAE.

Not very BAE at all (am I using that correctly?).

The Bann Disc

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The subject of this blog has been on my list of blog posts for some time but it was my recent excursion to Coleraine to talk about the fifth century Coleraine Hoard (HERE) at the invitation of the Coleraine Historical Society that encouraged me to (finally) finish it. This inspiration is not just due to the Bann Disc having been found just a couple of miles upriver from Coleraine but also that the CHS use a slightly stylised version of the decoration of the Bann Disc as their logo and that their journal is also called The Bann Disc.


The Bann Disc was found in March 1939 by men dredging the east bank of the River Bann near Loughan Island, Co. Derry just above Loughan Graveyard. It is a small, slightly convex bronze disc that measures just 10.6 cm across, but given that small size, it is in good shape despite having been submerged in wet mud for up to 2,000 years, with only a few holes, some of which were intentionally made. It was also fortunate that it was dug up again and that in digging it up, it was not further damaged or completely overlooked altogether. It could easily have been missed in the sand, silt, gravel and mud of the dredging operation, its artistic decoration lost to all time.

And it is that “swirling three-fold whirligig pattern” (Jope and Wilson (1957), 97) or triskele, comprised of three stylised bird heads, with a similar three-pronged circular outline in the centre which has seen the Bann Disc called one of the most outstanding pieces of metalwork surviving from the Irish Iron Age. Perhaps only the Broighter torc can match its gracefulness. (Raftery (1940), 27; Jope and Wilson (1957), 95; Warner (1995), 5)broighter-torc

This triskelion symbol is particularly old, with the earliest example so far found in Malta (c.4400–3600BC), although perhaps the most famous is in the astronomical calendar at Newgrange, Ireland from c.3200BC. It became popular in the classical eastern Mediterranean appearing on Greek pottery and various coinage and remains so in modern times, appearing not just on modern flags such as the Isle of Mann and Sicily but also in some church decoration and on the emblems of the US Department of Transportation and the Irish Flying Corps to name a mere few.


In the case of the Bann Disc, while the reverse side is “perfectly plain” (Raftery (1940), 27), the triskelion decoration provides “a measure of the technical skill of the artist and the aesthetic delight which his product affords” (Raftery (1940), 27). The circular, ornithomorphic patterns are slightly raised from the surface of the disc and were created through the painstaking process of carefully cutting down the background to leave the lines in low relief.wattstown-roundabout

Wattstown Roundabout, Coleraine

The fine work involved in the Bann Disc is perhaps also seen in the thinness of the golden bronze used in its construction, which drops from about 0.75mm to 0.45mm in places, while the raised triskelion design is anything from 0.5mm to as low as 0.2mm high. Not only could this be evidence of the fineness of the work and the bronze (Jope and Wilson (1957), 95) but perhaps also a result of two millennia of wear. Along with wear and damage, there may have been some issues in the casting process as some bubbling seems to have aided the perforating corrosion.


Beaked jug decorated with triple spirals 1400-1350 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens

Unfortunately, “the complete lack of definitely dated objects, cause great difficulty in accurately assigning finds to their proper period” (Raftery (1940), 29) and the ubiquity of the triskelion provides something of an obstacle for a stylistic dating of the Bann Disc. The type of decoration present on the Bann Disc “was being produced in the casting pieces in Britain at any rate from the 1st century BC, if not earlier” (Jope and Wilson (1957), 97) and such “ornithomorphic and zoomorphic endings on spirals” (Raftery (1940), 30) remained fairly common throughout the Late Iron/’Roman’/early Christian ages (Jope and Wilson (1957), 99).


Golden cup from Mycenae. National Archaeological Museum in Athens,

However, the techniques involved in the creation of the Bann Disc seem to pin it down to a period before the wide-scale incorporation of Roman methods which will have come with the Roman advance to and then across the English Channel. This would seem to preclude the notion that the Bann Disc was made as late as the end of the third century CE (Raftery (1940), 30) and probably puts it in a period of about a century either side of the Roman conquest of Britain. This could then see the Bann Disc produced during a period of the late 1st century BCE/early 1st century CE which marked something of a ‘culmination’ of native Irish art and technique before newer skills started to filter across the Irish Sea.


Spirals and a triskelion on a Celtic torc terminal from Galicia, Museum of Santa Tegra

Of course, this is making the assumption that the Bann Disc was in fact created in Ireland… Connections between Ireland, Britain and western Europe before, during, and after Rome, have become the focus of much attention in recent years, so it would be inappropriate to overlook the possibility that the Bann Disc originated in Britain or even Gaul and was only brought to the Emerald Isle by traders or raiders (Jope and Wilson (1957), 100).

bru_na_boinne_squireSo why then would a piece of such ornate skill, possibly imported for a chieftain, end up at the bottom of the Bann? The most immediate and more likely explanation is simply that it was accidentally dropped or even purposefully thrown away. However, the proximity of the Loughan graveyard does raise a potential religious element. Many Christian locations were situated on previously pagan sacred sites and Iron Age Ireland had “a long tradition of ritual deposition focused on bogs, rivers, lakes,” (Dowling in Cahill Wilson (2014), 166) so it could be asked if the Bann Disc could represent some kind of offering to the river as a deity itself or whatever god was thought to inhabit it. However, as “nothing else was found at this particular spot,” (Raftery (1940), 27) it would suggest that this exact location was not a popular site of religious offerings to the river so at best this was a one off deposition. At worst, it had nothing to do with religion at all.


Slinger standing left, triskelion to right. Reverse of a silver stater from Aspendos, Pamphylia

What the Bann Disc might actually have been could also hint at a lack of reason for offering it as tribute to a god. The three holes meant to house a link – indeed, one of the holes does contain such a link – from which a series of chains would enable the disc to be suspended from above. This idea led to the suggestion that the Bann Disc was originally part of a scale or the base of a stand for a lamp (Raftery (1940), 28-29; Hodges in Jope and Wilson (1957), 98 fig.2). Such a potentially mundane original use may perhaps seem to downplay the significance of the Bann Disc, but then only wealthy individuals would afford to have ornate scales or lamp fittings. However, it could also be argued that the thinness of the disc rules out a utilitarian purpose. Indeed, perhaps then, the disc was used for something even more ornate with the three holes being used to affix it to some sort of ceremonial headdress or decorative chest plate. At its initial creation, the Bann Disc would certainly have been decorative enough to mark out its wearer as a person of significance.


HOYFM.2014.549.1 (Ulster Folk and Transport Museum) Sewpro Embroidery, Ballymena

But why take my word for it?

Under the terms of the contract for the drainage of the river in 1939, the Bann Disc passed into possession of the Ministry of Finance (Jope and Wilson (1957), 100 n.1). It was then given to what was then the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, renamed the Ulster Museum in 1962, so you can pop along to see for yourself one of the finest examples of Irish craft from perhaps 2,000 years ago.


Jope, E.M. and Wilson, B.C.S. ‘The Decorated Cast Bronze Disc from the River Bann near Coleraine,’ UJA 20 (1957) 95-102

Raferty, B. A Catalogue of Irish Iron Age Antiquities. Marburg (1983)

Raftery, B. La Tène in Ireland. Problems of Origin and Chronology. Marburg (1984) 268-275

Raftery, J. ‘A Decorated Bronze Disc from the River Bann,’ UJA 3 (1940), 27-30

Warner, R. ‘The Bann Disc’, The Bann Disc 2 (1995) 5-6

My Favourite Picture of Ancient History II

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Brock, Edmond, 1882-1952; 'Circe and the Sirens': A Group Portrait of the Honourable Edith Chaplin (1878-1959), Marchioness of Londonderry, and Her Three Youngest Daughters, Lady Margaret Frances Anne Vane-Tempest-Stewart (1910-1966), Lady Helen Maglona Va

Charles Edmond Brock (1925) Circe and the Sirens: A Group Portrait of the Honourable Edith Chaplin, Marchioness of Londonderry, and Her Three Youngest Daughters

Edmond Brock’s magnificent 1925 painting of Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart as Homer’s sorceress Circe is, at present, more prominently displayed than usual at Mount Stewart, the Marchioness’s family estate on the Ards peninsula, conserved by the National Trust since the 1970s.


The gardens and neoclassical facade of Mount Stewart, North Ireland, County Down ©Sitomon

This is because Edith’s children’s book ‘The Magic Inkpot’ is currently spotlighted in much of The National Trust’s visitor engagement there, including some superb wood sculptures of its characters in the newly opened woodland walks, and a series of Hallowe’en events focussing upon the fables published by Edith. The actual ink pot sat in Edith’s husband, the Viscount Castlereagh’s study, and in the stories written for her children, was magically transformed into the likeness of the all-father, Daghdha, of Irish mythology. This powerful psychopomp fetched two of the young Vane-Tempest-Stewart children, Robin and Mairi, away under the waters of Strangford Lough and to the Land of Shadows on Narnianesque adventures. Edmond Brock illustrated ‘The Magic Inkpot’, and his life size classical portrait has been moved to pride of place in an anteroom off the main house entrance, beside his smaller artworks; the book itself and five of Brock’s original colour plates of the story illustrations.

EDITH, MARCHIONESS OF LONDONDERRY, by Philip de Laszlo (1869-1937), in Lady Londonderry's Sitting Room at Mount Stewart House, Co Down, Northern Ireland

Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart (née Chaplin), Marchioness of Londonderry (1878-1959) Philip de László (1927)

Brock was a close friend of Edith, Lady Londonderry and her husband Charles, and had links to the society gatherings of Edith’s ‘Ark Club’. The Club met frequently during World War I, and every member – from Lloyd George to Neville Chamberlain, Sean O’Casey and John Lavery, Lady Nancy Astor, and Princess Helena Victoria – took a nickname from a mythological character (Churchill as ‘Winston the Warlock’; the Duke of Windsor styled as ‘David the Dragon’). It is believed that the close connections forged in the Ark were responsible for many of Brock’s most celebrated commissions, such as his portrait of Ramsay MacDonald (Edith’s most avid admirer), and those of the Duke and Duchess of York’s family painted prior to George’s succession to the throne. Edith, hostess of ‘The Ark’, took the nickname ‘Circe the Sorceress’, to the dismay of her friends (Ramsay MacDonald complained of ‘wicked witch’ connotations, calling Circe a ‘hussie’), but the Marchioness justified her choice, stating that Homer’s necromancer had a personality ‘pregnant with mysterious interest’, and claiming that the enchantress possessed ‘mental equipment far above the average’. Some of Edith’s friends would know her as ‘Circe’ for the rest of her life (cf. Diane Urquhart, ‘The Ladies of Londonderry: Women and Political Patronage’, 2007).


Homer Roman copy from Baiae, Italy of a lost Hellenistic original of the 2nd c. BC, currently in the British Museum.

Homer conveys a similar reverence for his ‘formidable goddess, with a mortal woman’s voice’ (‘Odyssey’ X, trans. E. V. Rieu), so ruthless and fearful that Odysseus requires immortal aid and a herbal preventative simply to parley with her, such is the ‘evil in her heart’. Homer leaves it to his audience to decide whether it is to Odysseus’s desolation or delight that Hermes instructs him not to ‘refuse her favours’. He continues to do so for a year, after – of course – Circe has restored his crew from pigs to men, sworn a solemn oath to do him no harm, and shown him some splendid xenia, with edible delicacies in golden dishes on silver tables, and a personal olive-oil rub-down after a soak in her bronze bathtub.


The contemporary Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, too, seems to share this wonderstruck view of the prophetess, as he imbues her with cunning and sensitivity, as well as potency as he gives her voice in his poem ‘Circe’:

The cries of the shipwrecked enter my head.

On wildest nights when the torn sky confides

Its face to the sea’s cracked mirror, my bed

– Addressed by the moon and her tutored tides –

Through brainstorm, through nightmare and ocean

Keeps me afloat. Shallows are my coven,

The comfortable margins – in this notion

I stand uncorrected by the sun even.

Much like the ‘glimmering Circe’ (vitreamque Circen) of Horace’s ‘Odes’ (1.17), quoted by Louis MacNeice in his eponymous poem when he describes the Lady as having ‘something of glass about her, of dead water’, Longley likewise links Circe’s body and physical presence inextricably with the ocean, whence she receives ‘husband after husband’. In Brock’s enormous group portrait, entitled ‘Circe and the Sirens’ (Edith’s three youngest daughters Margaret, Helen, and Mairi are ranged around her, nymph-like), the Marchioness is appropriately attired in sea-green and glimmering blue, appearing an exact embodiment of the goddess as Homer depicts her in her final scene in ‘Odyssey’ XII. There, Odysseus describes ‘[the Nymph … putting] on a long robe of silvery sheen, of a light fabric charming to the eye.’ Instead of the ‘splendid golden belt’ that Homer has Circe fasten round her waist, Edith has her robe pinned with a brooch of Celtic appearance, which might bear some relation to the clan Sutherland, of her maternal grandfather.

In fact, the feathery brushwork and predominance of blue and green in Brock’s shading, as well as the wave-like greenery amidst which the figures are placed, make the whole scene distinctly nautical. If the gaze is allowed to follow an arc from the bright cobalt and ultramarine mid-height on the left-hand-side of the canvas up and over the loggia and figures, to the darker cerulean or Prussian blue tones of the foliage (suggestive of cedar or Mount Stewart’s characteristic eucalyptus) and down to the light patch of sky above Mairi’s head, it is not difficult to imagine that we are looking upon an undersea landscape.

Edith becomes, not only an embodiment of Homer’s pharmakeia, but she emerges from Brock’s choppy brushstrokes as an ethereal, watery creation, appropriate to the ‘glassy Circe’ (vitreamque Circen) of classical literature.


J. W. Waterhouse’s ‘Circe Invidiosa’ *(1892) and ‘Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus’ (1891)

Compare the corporeal, dark earthliness of J. W. Waterhouse’s two Circes of 30 years previous (‘Circe Invidiosa’ and ‘Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus’), and this difference is recognisable. Indeed, Brock’s Circe the Sorceress could aptly utter the goddess’s majestic claim at the close of Longley’s poem: ‘I extend the sea, its idioms.’

Erin Halliday

On the artist, Edmond Brock (1882-1952)

The Sir Samuel Dill Memorial Lecture: 3rd November 2016 – Delivered by John Curran, Convener of CANI

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Queens University Belfast

The School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics

The Sir Samuel Dill Memorial Lecture

Open to the public and delivered when an occasion presents, on a subject relating to the history, philosophy, language or literature of the classical or medieval worlds.



Guest Speaker



Former Warden of Keble College, Oxford, previously Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History at King’s College London

Dame Averil Cameron was unfortunately unable to attend the event. Dr John Curran Senior Lecturer at QUB  and Convener of CANI was invited to read her speech in lieu.

the-empty-stageVenue: The Canada Room and Council Chamber, Lanyon Building, QUB

           introduction      dr-brian-campbell

Dr James Davis (QUB) introduced the Dill Memorial Lecture, conveying an apology from Dame Averil Cameron.

Professor Brian Campbell (QUB) followed by presenting John Curran as the replacement speaker for the evening.

John is the founder of CANI and our current Convener. He returned from sabbatical leave abroad to read a speech provided in her absence by Dame Averil .


john-curran-3John prepares to read from Dame Averil’s paper. The lecture was illustrated.


Extracts from

The Dill Memorial Lecture

 as written by

Dame Averil Cameron


“The rise and fall of empires seems to be being played out in our own world. Is the American empire in decline, while the Russian empire is on the rise, with China there in waiting? What factors cause empires to decline and fall?”


“Rome is the favoured baseline – especially for comparisons with China. In the period of the Roman empire, China was also an empire, highly bureaucratized, able to organize itself as a state, extract a surplus and project its power. The dealings of Rome and China with their neighbours and rivals are especially illuminating: how did such empires work, and how did they deal with other peoples?”


“Some of those currently addressing the comparative history of Rome and China argue that history proceeds along quasi-biological, in a neo-Darwinian appeal to evolutionary biology. In contrast, it seems to me obvious that the kind of history we write is deeply influenced by our own subjectivity, that determines what questions we ask, what themes we emphasize, and which points of comparison we single out”


“One historian can see total urban collapse in the sixth century, while an archaeologist stresses continuity and observes clearly late antique features in the early eighth-century Umayyad city of ‘Anjar in Lebanon and other sites”


“Which means, finally, that the study and especially the writing of history needs to be recognized as an ethical endeavour. The historian has a responsibility, not just to reveal the past as it really was to the best of his or her knowledge, but also to approach history writing in a responsible way, since, like it or not, people are going to draw conclusions from it for the present and even for the future”


“Even if it cannot directly predict the future, history can help us to understand contemporary issues and problems and to avoid falling into the traps of, for example, economic determinism. To quote from a recent contribution, ‘history is a critical science for questioning short-term views, complicating simple stories about causes and consequences, and discovering roads not taken”


“We have all too many such simple stories today. Samuel Dill’s way of using history to work through the issues he thought most important is not one that would find much support now. But returning to Dill’s book on the last centuries of the western empire is an exercise in reflection on just why and in what ways history is still so crucially important”


The full [pdf] text of Dame Averil Cameron’s speech was made available online by the Institute of Irish Studies, Queens University Belfast

~~ Recommended reading relating to Byzantium & the Sixth Century ~~


                      book                              late-empire

                   three-gods                    constantius