Not Just the Spanish Armada – Some Uses of Fire Ships in the Ancient World

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At midnight on 28 July 1588, a squadron of eight warships were filled them with pitch, brimstone, tar and some gunpowder, and cast them downwind among the closely anchored vessels of the Spanish Armada. They failed to do their job in setting any Spanish ships on fire, but sowed enough confusion to break the Spanish formation and enable the English to complete the frustrating of the Armada’s plans at the subsequent Battle of Gravelines.

While this might be the first time that many a history student was introduced to the concept of fireships, it was by no means the first time that such a weapon had been used in naval warfare. It was not even the first time that the Spanish had been confronted with them in the 1580s. Just three years earlier, in 1585, Dutch rebels had used not just conventional fireships but also a series of larger ships packed with gunpowder, essentially floating bombs called ‘hellburners’, to destroy a bridge of ships at the Siege of Antwerp.


However, fireships long pre-date the invention of gunpowder, although they were a relatively rare occurrence. This was for rather logical and practical reasons – it was setting fire to your own ships and fire itself is not a particularly controllable phenomenon. Indeed, these two issues could combine very easily – your fireships making fired ships out of the rest of your fleet…

Possibly the oldest account of the military use of a fireship comes in Thucydides’ depiction of the prelude to the final climactic Battle of the Great Harbour in 413BC during the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily.


“The rest the enemy tried to burn by means of an old merchantman which they filled with faggots and pine-wood, set on fire, and let drift down the wind which blew full on the Athenians. The Athenians, however, alarmed for their ships, contrived means for stopping it and putting it out, and checking the flames and the nearer approach of the merchantman, thus escaped the danger.” (Thucydides VII.53.4)

Despite being successfully preventing the burning of the remainder of their fleet, the Athenians lost up to eighteen ships and their crews in the engagement and the prominent general Eurymedon. Their victory also encouraged the Syracusans to make the decisive decision to blockade the Great Harbour, sealing the fate of the entire Athenian expedition and quite possibly the Athenian Empire itself.

It was not just against other ships that fireships could be deployed in the ancient world. During the momentous, landscape-altering siege of the Phoenician island city of Tyre in 332BC by Alexander the Great, the Macedonians constructed a causeway to connect the city to the shore.


To counteract this, the Tyrians…”filled a vessel… with dry twigs and other combustible wood… as much chaff and as many torches as possible… pitch, brimstone, and whatever else was calculated to foment a great flame. They also stretched out a double yard-arm upon each mast; and from these they hung caldrons into which they had poured or cast materials likely to kindle flame which would extend to a great distance.” Arrian, Anabasis II.19

Through oars, sail and towing, the Tyrians sent their contraption crashing straight into the causeway and when set alight, it “began to spread flames far and wide, which, before they could be prevented, seized upon the towers and other works that had been placed at the head of the causeway” (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.3-4). With the causeway greatly weakened by the conflagration and attacks from the city, a storm arose and battered the causeway to pieces with wind and wave (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.6-7).

The Rhodians of Eudamus/Eudorus, alongside their Roman allies under Aemilius/Regillus, made good use of fire and perhaps fireships at the battle of Myonessus 190BC. The Seleucid fleet of Antiochus III under Polyxenidas looked to be about to outflank the Romano-Rhodian force, only for the Rhodian admiral to bring “his fire-ships against Polyxenidas first, scattering flames everywhere” (Appian, The Syrian Wars V.27). The Romans may also have used fire-laden ships to escape being surrounded at Panormus (cf. Livy XXXVII.30)

However, it must be said that in the accounts of Myonessus from Livy and Appian the exact meaning of ‘fire-ships’ can appear to be confused at times – it is not particularly clear whether each other is speaking of a ship set on fire to be directed an enemy position or fleet or a ship laden with men throwing or firing missiles which are on fire. My suspicion is that Livy is speaking of the latter and Appian is erroneously speaking of the former.

During the Third Punic War, in 149BC, the Carthaginians under Hasdrubal the Boeotarch and Himilco Phameas took advantage of the poor decision of the Roman consul Lucius Marcius Censorinus to anchor his fleet in a position which exposed it to the wind.

Subsequently they “attached ropes to some small boats and hauled them behind the walls, so that they should not be observed by the enemy, and filled them with dry twigs and tow. Then they pushed them back, and as they turned the corner and came in sight of the enemy, they poured brimstone and pitch over the contents, spread the sails, and, as the wind filled them, set fire to the boats. These, driven by the wind and the fury of the flames against the Roman ships, set fire to them and came a little short of destroying the whole fleet” (Appian, The Punic Wars 99)

Several years before he became the driving force behind the conspiracy which saw the assassination of Julius Caesar, Gaius Cassius Longinus had already proven a thorn in the side of the dictator in 48BC when he made significant use of fireships against Caesar’s navy.

“Cassius hurried with his ships to Messana before Pomponius could learn of his approach, and finding him in a state of disorganization, with no surveillance and no fixed order of battle, with the aid of a strong and favourable wind he sent against the fleet of Pomponius some merchant-ships loaded with pine, pitch, tow, and other combustibles and burnt all thirty-five ships, of which twenty were decked…Cassius departed thence to Vibo to the fleet of Sulpicius, and our ships having been moored to the shore in the same way as before, Cassius, with the advantage of a favourable wind, sent down some merchant-vessels prepared for burning, and the fleet having caught fire on each wing, five ships were consumed.” (Caesar, Civil War III.101)


It may also be that Agrippa and Octavian used some form of fireships to break the stalemate at Actium. They are certainly recorded using a variety of fire missiles and discharging pots full of combustibles against Antony’s ships (Cassius Dio L.34). With or without fireships, Octavian and Agrippa’s victory at Actium helped usher in a period of Roman domination of the Mediterranean which was to last for the next five centuries and saw the opportunities for the deployment of fireships decline greatly.


However, fireships were not the preserve of the Ancient Mediterranean. They were deployed during the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208/209, fought along the Yangtze River between the allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan against the attempted reunification of Han China by the Han warlord, Cao Cao.

Seeing that Cao Cao had chained his ships from stem to stern, possibly aiming to reduce seasickness, an opposing captain, Huang Gai had a squadron of large ships filled with kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil. He also contacted Cao Cao to inform him that he and his ships were will to defect. This probably explains why the Han warlord allowed the enemy ships to get so close – Huang Gai’s men, who were setting the fireships on course, repeatedly shouted “We surrender!” as they approached. Carried by a south-easterly wind, Huang Gai’s fireships wrought havoc in Cao Cao’s fleet and even spread to his landward camp.


The destruction and confusion caused by the fire allowed allied forces to win a major victory, which proved a decisive blow to the Han dynasty’s attempt to recover territory south of the Yangtze. Just over a decade after the fireships at Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was abolished by Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi, while the victorious leaders along the Yangtze, Sun Quan and Liu Bei had founded imperial dynasties of their own, ushering in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history (220-280).


The Chinese continued to use fireships, or at least think that they were still of military use for centuries to come. They appeared in the military compendium called Wujing Zongyao (sometimes translated as Complete Essentials for the Military Classics) written in the early 1040s under the Northern Song dynasty. It must be said though that this compendium also includes recipes for gunpowder and various ways of using it as a fire-starter or explosive and instructions in how to build a Chinese version of the Greek Fire flamethrower (Needham (1987), 83).


Back in the western world, the collapse of Roman domination of the Mediterranean in the fifth century saw the opportunity for fireships to return, particular when one of the new players in naval warfare were faced by the still potent and potentially overwhelming extent of forces that Rome and Constantinople could bring together.


A significant case came in 468 during the expedition against Vandal Africa launched by the eastern Roman emperor Leo I and supported by his western counterpart Anthemius and the western magister militum Ricimer. Under the command of Leo’s brother-in-law, Basiliscus, a vast Roman fleet arrived off Mercurium, modern Cape Bon in Tunisia. The Vandal king Geiseric managed to extract a five day truce from Basiliscus (an action which saw significant ridicule and suspicion fall on the Roman general), although that was hardly enough to form an army and fleet capable of standing up to the expedition on land or prepare Carthage for a prolonged siege.

What Geiseric did do was prepare his fleet for when the wind changed, because Basiliscus had anchored his ships fleet in a position vulnerable to onshore winds. The Vandal king had a number of empty ships towed with his main fleet to Mercurium. When the onshore winds came, these empty ships were set alight, hinting that there were some combustible materials aboard, and directed into the huddled mass that was the Roman fleet now pinned to the coast.


With the Romans caught unprepared and anchored close together, the fire ships wrought havoc in their ranks, the flames jumping quickly from ship to ship. “And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivalled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder” (Procopius, BV I.6.20-21).

Many of those which survived the fire and the confusion found that the Vandal fleet was waiting to ram them. This saw significant numbers of ships either sunk or fixed in place for Vandal boarding parties to swarm all over them, taking the ships and their crews as booty. Geiseric’s fireships had successfully broached the gap in naval numerical strength between the Vandal kingdom and the Roman Empire, and in doing so quite possibly saved the former and played a role in dooming the western half of the latter.


The naval application of Greek Fire in the late seventh century increased the use of fire in naval battles, becoming a vital part of the Roman imperial navy. Ship-mounted flamethrowers played particularly prominent roles in saving Constantinople from a series of sieges – the two Arab sieges of 674–678 and 717–718, the rebellion of Thomas the Slav against Michael II the Amorian in 821-822 and the defence by Romanos I Lekapenos against the Rus’ forces of Igor of Kiev in 941.

The naval deployment of Greek Fire was certainly not the end of the use of more traditional fireships until the invention of gunpowder. During their siege of Frankish Paris in 885-886, the Vikings filled three warships with combustible material and pulled them upriver in a failed attempt to destroy the Franks’ fortified bridges across the Seine to the Île de la Cité.


Retold in De bellis Parisiacæ urbis by Abbo Cernuus, a Neustrian Benedictine monk and poet of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, who witnessed the siege first hand, these Viking fireships fell prey to one of the potential flaws with setting wooden ships on fire – they sank before they could set the Frankish bridge alight. While the fireships did weaken the bridge, it was not enough to present the Vikings with an opportunity to capture the city. That said, the internal politics of Francia did see the Vikings allowed to bypass Paris and raid Burgundy, which was in rebellion against the Carolingian emperor, Charles III the Fat.(Logan (1991), 131; Davis (2001), 54; Bennet, Bradbury, DeVries, Dickie, and Jestice (2005), 222).

Know of any other examples of fireships being used in the ancient world?


Adams, Anthony; Rigg, A.G. (2004). “A Verse Translation of Abbo of St. Germain’s Bella Parisiacae urbis”. Journal of Medieval Latin. 14: 1–68

Bennet, Matthew; Bradbury, Jim; DeVries, Kelly; Dickie, Iain; Jestice, Phyllis G. (2005). Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: AD 500-AD 1500. London

Davis, Paul K. (2001). Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo. New York:

Logan, F. Donald (1991). The Vikings in History. London

Needham, Joseph (1987). Science and Civilisation in China: Military technology: The Gunpowder Epic, Volume 5, Part 7. New York

An Ulster-American Odyssey

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Odysseus' journey

Classicists, ancient historians, and the general reader are familiar with the story of a family man, separated from his wife and baby son, and reunited joyfully after 20 years. The myth of the abduction of Helen by Paris, the 10-year Trojan War which followed, and the further 10-year-long homecoming of Odysseus to Ithaka, is contained within, among other works, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.


The Greek epic cycle of myths tell us that the Greeks sailed to Troy in order to save Helen, wife of Menelaus, and restore her to her rightful home in Sparta with her husband and daughter. War ensued and Troy was eventually overcome when the Greeks concealed themselves within a wooden horse. For Odysseus, a decade of war was followed by another decade of wandering. He was detained by Calypso for seven years, and endured many dangerous adventures such as capture by the giant Polyphemus the Cyclops and a journey to the Underworld.

Penelope weaving

Despite losing his fleet of ships and all his men in a series of incredible and fantastic adventures, Odysseus’ story has a happy ending. He is reunited with his wife Penelope, who has been avoiding marriage to one of the many suitors who have moved into the palace. So sure is Penelope that her husband will eventually return to her, that she does everything in her power to repel the suitors who are intent on destroying Odysseus’ palace and using up his belongings. She insists that she will marry one of the suitors once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, but every night, after weaving all day, she unpicks her work to delay the shroud’s completion. At the time of Odysseus’ homecoming, his son Telemachus, a baby when Odysseus left for Troy, is now grown to manhood. Father and son join together to brutally slaughter the suitors (no Greek myth is complete without the bloodbath), and the family live happily ever after.

The ancient Greek myths are magical, exciting and often pitiless in their violence. While it is unlikely that a 10-year war was fought for a beautiful woman or that Odysseus endured this dangerous and terrifying journey home to Ithaka, the waters around Troy were indeed important trade routes, as they were situated near the mouth of the Hellespont which leads to the Sea of Marmaris, and, by extension, the Black Sea.

hittite cunieform

It was only during certain months of the year that marine conditions were calm enough to allow safe passage through the Hellespont and it is likely that Trojan officials imposed tolls on ships for the privilege of waiting nearby for the weather to ease. Not all visiting ships would have been content with this arrangement and fighting surely broke out. Hittite inscriptions indicate that commercial agreements were forged with peoples called “Ahhiyawa” (the Achaean Greeks?) and a city called “Wilusa” (Ilion?) was mentioned. Unfortunately, the truth remains a mystery.

Moving forward 3000 years, we come to the story of Hugh Rogan, one of many thousands of Irish men and women who journeyed to the so-called New World, attempting to escape the poverty and hardship of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The harsh, 3000 mile journey across the Atlantic to Philadelphia could take as long as 12 weeks.

rogan odyssey map

Hugh Rogan’s odyssey to the New World took place approximately 35 years after the lesser-known 1740/41 famine which killed 38% of the population, a proportionately greater loss than the numbers who died during the Great Famine which occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Hugh’s story is kept alive by the Ulster-American Folk Park, a living museum in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, which tells the story of Irish emigration. The Folk Park houses original properties from both Northern Ireland and America which have been painstakingly photographed, catalogued, bricks numbered, and transported to the site of the museum to be rebuilt.

On the tour around the museum, visitors are introduced to homes and lifestyles typical of Ulster people during the 1700s. Visitors are guided towards the ship to ‘sail’ across the Atlantic. On disembarkation, they find that they have arrived in the New World where exhibits include wagons, smokehouses and log cabins.

Rogan house UAFP

The Museum’s final exhibit is the Tennessee Rogan Plantation House, built by Hugh’s son Bernard. Hugh was born in 1747 near Strabane in County Tyrone. At the age of 26, he married Nancy, 10 years his junior. When their son Bernard was less than a year old, Hugh left his family to travel to America. There are conflicting reports of his reasons for leaving. One story states that Hugh had become active in fighting the oppression of British landlords, and was forced to leave Ireland with his brother-in-law Declan Carlin. An alternative reason given for his departure was that he intended to establish a business in America and would return, in time, for his wife and son. He arrived successfully in America, but before he could return to Ireland to collect his family, the War of Independence broke out and he found himself once again fighting against the British Crown.

Hugh remained in America and settled in Tennessee, and there are reports of him participating in many brave exploits both in the War of Independence and in protecting the local community from the Native American Indians. A decade after his arrival, the war against the British was over. Hugh believed it was now an opportune time to travel back to Ireland to his wife and son. His brother-in-law, Declan, who had also left his wife in Ireland, had married a local girl and had no intention of ever returning home. Declan was worried that if Hugh made it back to Ireland, he would tell his wife what he had done. So Declan persuaded Hugh that Nancy believed her husband to be dead and that she had remarried in Ireland.

Hugh remained in Tennessee for another 10 years when he was tracked down by a nephew who had recently emigrated from Ireland to America. The nephew brought a letter from Nancy begging Hugh to come home. Overjoyed that his wife had not remarried after all, Hugh returned to Ireland to be reunited with his family.


When Odysseus returned to Ithaka, he had been disguised by the goddess Athena as an old man so he could successfully defeat the suitors who were simultaneously competing for Penelope’s hand in marriage, eating all the food in the palace, and partying with the maids. Hugh did not need any such disguise. When Nancy was told that an old man with grey hair had arrived in town claiming to be Hugh, she replied, “That can’t be my Hugh, he has red hair!” Nancy had remained faithful to Hugh for 20 years and still remembered him as a young man.

We can only guess at the stories which Hugh told Nancy to provide proof of his identity. Penelope tested Odysseus by asking the nurse to move the bed outside the bedroom and spread it with blankets. This was impossible because Odysseus himself had carved the bed into an olive tree. When he protests, Penelope knows without doubt that this is her husband. Although there is contention over the point at which Homer’s Odyssey ended, by book 23 line 296 the reunion of husband and wife is concluded by their going to the olive wood bed together.

Nancy and Hugh’s love story continued with their arrival in Tennessee in 1797 after a journey over sea and land which lasted more than nine months. A short time later, Nancy gave birth to a second son named Francis. Hugh died in 1813 at the age of 66 while Nancy survived him by another 26 years, living to the age of 82. The descendants of Hugh and Nancy can be found in Sumner County, Tennessee, while Rogans continue to live in the same area of County Tyrone.

Helen McVeigh

GoTAH V – The Titan and the Colossus

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So far we have seen ancient influences on the use of molten metal, battlefield tactics, the burning of a daughter in search of divine favour and the role of a woman, her actions and fate in sparking a decades-long struggle across two continents. In this the fifth entry in GoTAH, we will look at an ancient structure and its counterpart in G.R.R. Martin’s world of Ice and Fire, both on screen and in the book series.

There is a more prominent anciently-inspired structure – the 800-foot tall Wall and that of the emperor Hadrian in the north of England (and we will almost certainly return to that connection in a later instalment), but instead we will cross the Narrow Sea from Westeros to the northernmost of Essos’ Nine Free Cities, Braavos.


There are numerous interesting aspects to this city such as it having been founded by runaway slaves from Valyria, keeping its existence secret for 111 years, home to the most dangerous sect of assassins, the Faceless Men, and equally dangerous Iron Bank many of which have inspirations from ancient, medieval and modern history.


However, as the video and map above suggests, the most recognisable structure in Braavos looms over the entrance to the lagoon – the Titan of Braavos.

The magnificent structure was so revered in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire that it appeared in the pages of Lomas Longstrider’s Wonders Made By Man, a status which also echoes the position of its inspiration as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ – the Colossus of Rhodes.


(Although it could not have been one of the ‘original’ wonders if the fifth century BC historian Herodotus compiled the earliest known version of what would become the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’, given that the Colossus was not built until the third century BC. A similar problem is faced by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, while the Statue of Zeus at Olympia was completed during Herodotus’ lifetime.).

A statue of the god of sun, Helios, (something reflected in the name ‘Titan’, which was the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology, overthrown by the Olympian deities under the leadership of Zeus) the Colossus is usually depicted as having stood astride the entrance to the harbour, although this appears to be a medieval misconception, perhaps deriving from a misinterpretation of the dedication of the statue, which mentions “Not only over the seas but also on land” and “over sea and land” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H). It has been suggested that the Rhodians, or anyone else for that matter, would not have been able to build a bronze statue with its legs apart as it would have collapsed under its own weight of bronze and stone ballast.

Another reason given for the Colossus not straddling the entrance of the Rhodian harbour, even if his legs could have held his weight, was due to sheer impracticality. To position it there would have required the closing of the harbour entrance throughout its erecting. Furthermore, given that the Colossus is recorded as having fallen over during the 226BC earthquake only 54 years after its dedication, had it been at the entrance of the harbour, it would have blocked it and the Rhodians lacked the ability to remove such an impediment for it to then lie visible on land for the next 800 years (Strabo XIV.2.5; Theophanes, Chron. AM6145 on it taking 900 camels to remove the ruins when it was sold to a Jewish Edessene merchant following the Arab conquest of Rhodes by Muawiyah I in the early 650s).


It is the misconception of the Colossus which has proven the inspiration for the Titan, although it could be argued that in devising the base of the Titan, G.R.R. Martin found a natural solution to the problem of a spread-legged statue being unable to support its own weight. Rather than a completely man-made structure, the lower half of the Titan was carved out of the black granite of a naturally occurring archway. The feet and legs of the Titan were shaped out of the pillars of the archway, while the top of the arch comprises his waist and lower torso. Above the waist, the Titan is bronze and to stabilise ‘him’, his empty left hand rests on top of the outcrop beside the archway.


It could be then that the inspiration for the Titan was not just the factual Colossus of Rhodes but perhaps also the fictional Argonath (Pillars of Kings) of Lord of the Rings, two enormous statues of Isildur and Anarion carved into the rock either side of the Anduin river on the northern border of Gondor (which also wield weaponry and show defiance for their enemies). This would be unsurprising given the overall inspiration of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle Earth on G.R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.


Another misinterpretation possibly from the Colossal dedication – “did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H) – carried over into the popular view of the Colossus and subsequently to the Titan of Braavos – that Helios held aloft a torch like the Statue of Liberty in New York or at least held out his hand in some kind of gesture. This was almost certainly beyond the technological abilities of the ancients. A relief in a nearby temple shows Helios standing with one hand shielding his eyes and it is possible that the Colossus was constructed in the same pose. Taking its cue from this misconception, the Titan, rather than holding a torch, wields the hilt of a broken sword (whether broken by time or a symbolic gesture of defiance.

Unsurprisingly, in a world of fantasy, G.R.R. Martin had the Braavosi make something much more out of the Titan than the Rhodians were able to make out of the Colossus. At 400 feet, the Titan is about four times bigger than the original Rhodian Colossus (although as we will see below, there are plans for a near 500 foot version of the Colossus…). This difference in size is reflected in build time – the shaping of the Titan from the granite archway took three generations, while “it is said that it was twelve years before this statue [the Colossus] was completed.” (Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41) But even at this comparatively small stature, Pliny the Elder described the Colossus in suitably colossal proportions…

“Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior. Within it, too, are to be seen large masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it.” Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41

Unsurprisingly, given their sizes, both the Colossus and the Titan became symbolic of their cities. The image of the Titan appears on Braavosi coinage, much like the god Helios, subject of the Colossus, appears on Rhodian coins. This depiction perhaps provides the only clear evidence we have about what part of the Colossus might have looked like as the depiction of Helios will have been something of a standard. If this was the case, then surviving coins suggest that the head of the Colossus will have had curly hair and worn a crown of sunbeams. Within the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, due to the recent Braavosi origins of the family, the sigil of House Baelish, formerly headed by Littlefinger, contains the fiery-eyed head of the Titan, displaying his bronze half-helm, and green-dyed rope hair.


The origin stories of both statues stem from acts of defiance in the face of a much larger foe. The Colossus was built to celebrate the resistance of Rhodes to the siege by Demetrius ‘Poliorcetes’ (‘the Besieger’), son and eventually successor of Antigonus I Monophthalmus in 304BC, and paid for by selling off the equipment left behind by the besiegers (300 talents worth as well as leftover metal from Demetrius’ force). The Titan was a symbol of the slaves who had escaped the Valyrian Freehold to found Braavos on the islands and lagoon of the north-westernmost point of Essos sometime between 700 and 1700 years before the events of A Game of Thrones.


While such towering structures will have had a psychological effect, it was only the Titan which had actual military applications. Any friend or foe looking to enter the Braavosi lagoon by sea had to pass under the Titan, who hides a few surprises under his green bronze skirt and in his chest… namely a collection of murder-holes and arrow slits from which various heavy or volatile missiles can be dropped onto or fired at anyone foolhardy enough to try to force entry into Braavos. The Titan’s body also contains numerous halls and chambers, making it not only a potential battle tower but also a garrison and storehouse. It is unsurprising then that bristling with so many projectiles, by the time of A Game of Thrones, it has been perhaps four centuries since anyone tried to defy the Titan’s wrath and force their way into the Braavosi lagoon.

Titan of Bravos

The Titan is not just a defensive fortress. Its sheer height made it a useful lookout tower, letting out a loud ‘roar’ to warn the Arsenal of Braavos of approaching ships. This ‘roar’ is also used to herald the rising and setting of the sun and the hours of the day, effectively making it a clock. The eyes of the Titan are made from burning fires, allowing it to act as a beacon and effectively a lighthouse, lighting the way back inside the lagoon for returning ships or steering enemy ships on the rocks.

Perhaps inspired by the Titan of Braavos coming to prominence through the popularity of A Game of Thrones, in December 2015, a group of architects announced plans to build a new Colossus of Rhodes. Taking up the popular misconception that the original bestrode the harbour entrance, this new Colossus, at 500 feet tall, would be taller than the Braavosi Titan.

Also like the Titan, the new Colossus is to be multi-purpose, housing a cultural centre, a library, an exhibition hall, and a lighthouse, all to be powered by solar panels. And the modern equivalent of 300 talents and metal scrounged from Demetrius’ weapons? An estimated $283 million, to be raised through private donations and crowdsourcing.

Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the project, the Wondrous stature of its predecessor and the state of the Greek economy, the rebirth of Helios has yet to get off the ground.


Alston, R.H.J. ‘Rhodian coinage and the Colossus,’ Revue Numismatique 6 (1988), 75-90

Conrad, L.I. ‘The Arabs and the Colossus,’ JRAS 6 (1996), 165–187

Haynes, D.E.L. ‘Philo of Byzantium and the Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 77 (1957), 311-312

Martin, G.R.R., Garcia, E, and Antonsson, L. World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. London (2014)

Maryon, H.  ‘The Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 76 (1956), 68-86

Caesar, Cicero and ‘The Best and Most Vigilant Consulship’

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In 45BC, the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus died late in the year, leading to the appointment of a successor by Julius Caesar, by now at the height of his power and influence within the Roman state following his victories over the Pompeian and senatorial forces in the civil war predicated on his crossing of the Rubicon in January 49BC.

This appointment drew particular scorn and withering derision from the great orator Cicero, but why? A plebeian like Rebilus replacing a patrician in Fabius Maximus might have raised a few eyebrows given that Fabius’ colleague, Caius Trebonius, was of an equestrian family. Conservative optimates, of which Cicero was a supporter, looked less than kindly on novi homines – ‘new men’ – the first of their family to hold the consulship at the best of times, but for two to be holding that esteemed position at the same time must have really rankled.

But then Cicero himself had been a novus homo upon his election as consul in 63BC, although the virtual appointment of these ‘new men’ may have irked him somewhat as he had had to win a politically charged election to attain his position, not rely on a masquerading king doling out rewards to his lowly allies when he grew tired of being consul sine college or on the off chance that a consul died in office.

Gaius Caninius Rebilus had served in Gaul as a military tribune of Julius Caesar in 52BC, making enough of a mark that he was given command of the two legions on the exposed southern slope at the epic double siege of Alesia. With support from Titus Labienus, another of Caesar’s most trusted and talented subordinates, Rebilus and his men resisted the last concerted attack on the Roman lines on 2 October 52BC.


Continued successful service saw Rebilus entrusted with the task of chasing down the Cadurci leader, Lucterius, who had refused to surrender after Alesia. Rebilus caught up to the rebel at Uxellodunum, which Lucterius had hoped could be another focal point of Gallic resistance. Rebilus saw the opportunity to repeat the siege of Alesia for Uxellodunum was also a fortified hilltop oppidum. He initiated a blockade and then defeated a large Gallic foraging force, killing Lucterius’ lieutenant.


While on the surface, the arrival of Julius Caesar to take up overall command of the siege might reflect poorly on Rebilus, his strategy at Uxellodunum was not overturned by Caesar, who quickly agreed that taking the oppidum by force would be too costly.  Uxellodunum would only fall after a prolonged disruption of its water supply (Caesar, BG VIII.40).

Upon the outbreak of civil war, Rebilus joined Caesar in Italy and was entrusted with initiating negotiations with Pompey at Brundisium, before being sent to Africa as a legatus of Gaius Scribonius Curio. He intervened decisively at the Battle of Utica, pushing Curio to take advantage of a break in the enemy lines, although it is unknown what role, if any, he played at the subsequent defeat and death of Curio at Battle of the Bagradas River. Whatever the circumstances of his escape from Africa in the aftermath, it did not sour Caesar’s view of Rebilius as he seems to have appointed him praetor for 48BC.

Rebilus is next seen serving alongside Caesar in 46BC as a propraetor during the Thapsus campaign in Africa, where he took part in the siege of Thapsus itself and accepted the surrender of the African governor, Gaius Vergilius. The following year he accompanied Caesar to Spain as a legatus, taking part in the campaign culminating in the Battle of Munda and occupying the town of Hispalis.

Clearly, Gaius Caninius Rebilus was well thought of by Julius Caesar and, while these were unusual appointments in unusual times where the rule of law and tradition was increasingly under the control of one man, having had a successful military career and served as a praetor, Rebilus was not exactly a completely left field appointment as suffect consul following the demise of Fabius Maximus. Indeed, Rebilus’ promotion to the consulship, even if just for a few hours could also show Caesar in a meritocratic light (cf. Tacitus, Hist. III.37).


However, the real reason Cicero really felt the need to get his claws out about the appointment of Rebilus to the consulship was due to how late in the year it came. Fabius Maximus had not died suddenly in October or November or even early in December. No, Fabius Maximus had dropped dead on 31 December 45BC and by just after midday, Caesar had convened a meeting of the comitia centuriata which fulfilled his wishes by duly electing Gaius Caninius Rebilus as suffect consul.

So as the consuls-elect for 44BC, Julius Caesar himself and Marcus Antonius, were due to take up their office at midnight, the consulship of Gaius Caninius Rebilus, the first of his family to achieve the feat, was to be measured not in months, weeks or even days, but in hours; a little more than eleven to be exact.

This was rendered even more laughable by the fact that Fabius Maximus and his consular colleague, Gaius Trebonius, were themselves suffect consuls, having only assumed their positions after October 45BC, when Caesar had resigned his unconstitutional (although not unprecedented) position of consul sine collega.


Cicero recorded his sarcastic summations of this appointment in a letter to his friend Manius Curius at Patrae, where in typically melodramatic style, he urged Curius to stay away from Rome and claimed that he too was thinking of leaving.

So short was Rebilus’ consulship that Cicero pointed out that “no one breakfasted” during it and heaped false praise on Rebilus for being “so astonishingly vigilant that throughout his consulship he never closed his eyes” – i.e. presuming that Rebilius was awake for the accession of his consular successors at midnight, he would have never slept whilst being consul (Cicero, Ad Fam. VII.30).

Cicero’s scathing references to the hours of Rebilus’ consulship are not just recorded in Cicero’s own works. The second book of the fifth century Saturnalia of Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius contains a collection of witty retorts, many of which come from Cicero. As well as repeating his sarcastic jibe on the vigilance of Rebilus for having never closed his eyes while consul, Macrobius also has Cicero referring to Rebilus as “a notional consul… [who] …mounted the rostrum to assume office and at the same time to relinquish it.” He even goes as far to say that Rebilus had to ask “in whose consulship he was consul” (Macrobius, Sat. II.3.6).


Macrobius also mentions Cicero’s reaction to another case of Caesar appointing consuls for an exceedingly short period of time. Due to the prolonged nature of Caesar’s dictatorship of 48/47BC and his campaigning throughout the east, there had been no magistrates elected for 47BC. Despite the year drawing to a close, Caesar decided to rectify this by having Quintus Fufius Calenus and Publius Vatinius elected as consuls for 47BC as a reward for their service to him (cf. Caesar, BC I.87, III.26,100), seemingly as late in the year as September or even December.

In the same vein as his castigating of Rebilus, Cicero proclaimed that “Vatinius’ term of office has presented a remarkable portent, for in his consulship there has not been winter, spring, summer, or autumn.” (Macrobius, Sat. II.3.5) Vatinius later complained that Cicero, who had been a friend who had defended him in court, had not come to visit him while he was ill, to which the great orator retorted that “it was my intention to come while you were consul, but night overtook me” (Macrobius, Sat. II.3.5).

Why would Caesar open himself to such ridicule by appointing consuls for mere weeks, days and even just hours? He may have hoped that his appointing of consuls, even for such short periods of time, would be portrayed as an attempt by Caesar to retain/re-establish some kind of political normalcy – on the death of a consul, a suffect was supposed to be appointed to see out his term.

However, Caesar cannot have failed to recognise that his holding of repeated consulships and extraordinary dictatorships, his choosing of allies as consuls and the short terms of office, even if he had the interests of what was left of the res publica at heart, was going to attract ridicule.

The sensible thing probably would have been to do without a replacement and leave Trebonius to carry out any duties required for the remaining half day of 45BC or for Caesar himself to fill that short gap, perhaps by having Trebonius step down and appoint an interrex. But then Caesar himself had already been consul sine collega for much of the year before the appointment of Fabius Maximus and Trebonius in October.

Serving as consul twice in the same year was perhaps something that he was unwilling to do for unlike the rest of his irregular positions, there would appear to have been no precedent for that. It would not have helped the situation that Caesar was already slated to be consul prior for 44BC.

But then with 45BC having already seen a consul sine collega, leaving Trebonius without a colleague would also have set another unwanted precedent, as well as allowing someone else to join the very short list of consuls sine collega. On top of that, the whole rigmarole of having Trebonius step down and appoint an interrex for the remaining eleven hours of 45BC would also have attracted ridicule as constitutional overkill.


In a way then, Caesar was caught in a no-win situation constitutionally when Fabius Maximus died in the dying embers of 45BC – if he did not appoint someone, leaving Trebonius as sole consul, stepping up himself or appointing an interrex, he would be accused of forsaking the constitution once again or being overly fastidious in its application for the sake of appearances; and when he did have Rebilus appointed, Caesar was made to look a little ridiculous and cynical in using the consulship to blatantly reward a loyal supporter who may not otherwise have attained a consulship (Suetonius, Divus Iulius 76.2 claims that Caesar “gave the vacant office for a few hours to a man who asked for it”).

Perhaps because of such a political no-win situation, Caesar was happy enough to just promote one of his supporters. In the midst of the ongoing military and political crises, giving one of his military supporters a high office for eleven hours, which could be dressed up as meritocratic, rewarding loyalty and following the constitution, was worth the political barbs of the likes of Cicero.

GoTAH IV: “The Face That Launched 1,000 Ships” and A Game of Thrones: Lyanna Stark as Helen of Troy

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**There will be spoilers here for all seasons of Game of Thrones. If you have not seen up to the end of season 7, some major plot points will be spoiled for you!**


“How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar Targaryen chose your aunt?”  Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish asks Sansa in front of the tomb of Lyanna Stark in S5E4 of Game of Thrones.

Viewers of the television series knew by the end of Season 6 that the rumours were true… R+L does indeed = J. The newly enthroned King in the North, Jon Snow was not the bastard son of Eddard Stark but of Rhaegar Targaryen, eldest child of Aerys II, the Mad King, killed in battle before Games of Thrones begins. And rather than a wet nurse, fisherman’s daughter or Dornish beauty, it was Lyanna Stark, Lord Eddard’s own sister, who was Jon’s mother.

As you can see in the video above, in the Winterfell crypt Sansa replies bitterly to Littlefinger that Rhaegar “… chose her, abducted her and raped her”; the version of the story she had heard throughout childhood. The silence and wry smile from Littlefinger says everything; he does not seem quite so sure.


Before being abducted, or eloping, Lyanna was promised to Robert Baratheon. The match was to secure the alliance between his house in the Stormlands and House Stark in the North. However, this was not just a shrewd political move; Robert admitted that Lyanna was the only woman he ever loved. Losing her was the catalyst for Robert’s Rebellion, his killing of Rhaegar Targaryen at the Battle of the Trident, his taking of the Iron Throne and exiling of the remaining Targaryens to Essos. The instability this caused and the establishing of the Baratheon-Lannister alliance at King’s Landing in turn led to the War of the Five Kings and everything that is ‘the game of thrones’.

s1e1 robert baratheon and ned game of thrones

In classical literature there is a similar well told story in which a beautiful woman is discussed as the cause of a war that killed thousands, tested loyalties and spread turmoil among the great families of the age. Like Lyanna, Helen of Troy’s part in starting a war is taken for granted by some and questioned by others.

Helen, then of Sparta, was promised to Paris, son of Priam of Troy, by Aphrodite as a reward for judging her the most beautiful goddess by presenting her with the golden apple. However, at the time Helen was married to Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon from the prestigious, but unfortunate, House of Atreus. Helen was so sought-after that Menelaus had had to compete against all the eligible heroes of the age in order to secure her as his bride. The competition had been so fierce that the other suitors swore an oath to defend the union in an effort to keep the peace. When Paris turned up later on a supposed diplomatic visit and decided to undiplomatically leave with Helen, it was not only the Acheans who recognised that there was not going to be a happy ending; Paris’ own family were dismayed, fearful of the outcome. And who exactly was to blame? The irresponsible young man who preferred playing the lyre to fighting, or the foreign woman who had tempted him?


Prince Rhaegar first met Lyanna Stark at the famous tourney at Harrenhal, presenting her with the bouquet of blue roses which crowned her his queen of love and beauty, preferring her over his own wife, Elia Martell. In the first book A Game of Thrones (Ch. 58), Ned Stark remembers the events whilst chained up in his cell waiting for execution, while viewers hear all about it from Littlefinger in the Winterfell crypt in the video above.

Like Paris, Rhaegar was an accomplished musician. Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys stories about the prince busking in the streets of Kings’ Landing in S5 E4. Indeed, Rhaegar played so beautifully at the tourney that Lyanna cried, suggesting it is believable that this young woman fell in love with the handsome, silver-haired warrior-musician. By the end of S7 it is confirmed that not only did Rhaegar not kidnap Lyanna, the two had been legally married, leaving Jon Snow not only not a bastard but the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne ahead of his aunt Danaerys.

In the world of Game of Thrones, as in the classical one, a marriage does not necessarily mean a love match of course. But Prince Rhaegar left his best swordsmen to guard the Tower of Joy as he went off to fight and die at the hands of Robert and his warhammer; was he protecting the family he loved or an heir he thought was ‘The Prince that was Promised’? Or both?

However, all the current claimants for the throne are still (for now) woefully unaware of the marriage and its implications, having never questioned what they had been told. The Three Eyed Raven, in S06E10, shows Bran Stark how events really unfolded under the Tower of Joy in a flashback, as his father comes to rescue Lyanna. It is at this point that Bran learns hard lessons about how the history you hear can be very different from the history that happened, as he watches the man he thought his father bravely defeated in battle get ignobly stabbed in the back and later discovers the true heritage (and name) of Jon Snow.


It seems that everyone around at the time remembers Lyanna and Rhaegar differently to those who have had their stories handed down to them. Rather than an abductor and rapist, Barristan Selmy describes Rheagar (S3E3) as the most noble man he knew and even Ned is never heard saying a bad word about him, although so blinded by rage and sorrow was he, Robert Baratheon had little good to say about the dead prince.


There is no consensus in classical literature on Helen’s character and motives. She can be portrayed as a victim of the gods and of mortal politics or as a vain, selfish schemer depending on the moral theme of the literature. In the Iliad, Homer’s Helen is full of misery and regret (III.173-175; Groten (1968)); Sappho (fr.16) decided Helen was assertive and pursued love; in the Troades (914-966), Euripides’ Helen blames love – either Aphrodite directly or the fact she is so desirable Paris is literally disarmed, and politics – the Achaeans are using her as an excuse for their military manoeuvring. In the history of art, Helen also has an ambiguous character, seen leaving Greece determinedly with her head held high, or crying as she is dragged away.


Lyanna’s story echoes Helen’s in the questions it raises about how the agency of women is perceived, of whether love is more noble than patriotism, what we are willing to believe to support our views, but maybe most importantly, to what extent history tells us more about the beliefs and values of the narrator and their society than what actually happened.

Dawn ‘Pickle’ Love

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