Classics in Primary Schools (Take Two): Let’s Add Philosophy!

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51UIQZQYggLAround this time last year I found myself writing a blog about my experiences in running a Classics Club for the first time as a student teacher. In my second year at Stranmillis University College Belfast, I wanted to introduce Classics to children who had never experienced the subject before; to challenge myself and the children but most importantly, to demonstrate as best I could the relevance Classics holds for children in primary schools. My time in Whitehouse Primary last year proved to me that Classics was an immeasurably important and useful subject for children to be exposed to. The level of interest and engagement the children had for the things I taught them spurred me to want to continue my Classics Club in the future.


Fast forward to a few months ago and I found myself back in Whitehouse Primary for my 3rd year placement, running my Classics Club for P6s and P7s. For the first few weeks we did similar things to the previous year. We used the Cambridge Latin course for our first two lessons, again looking at Caecilius and his family in Pompeii. The new pupils were enthralled by this new language, intrigued by its links to Harry Potter and also how it helps us understand our own English language. Even the pupils who had previously attended appreciated looking at Latin again. Caecilius is a lovable character and they enjoyed the chance to explore the language a second time, noting things that perhaps had not clicked before such as the syntax of Latin sentences. I thought it was exciting that the children noticed this, as it showed that their understanding of Latin had progressed from the previous year; their confidence in revisiting the topic allowing them to engage with the language deeper than at surface level.

We also revisited the Greek alphabet, again rapping it and dancing along (because how else would you learn to recite it?). Last year, I had the children practice writing out each individual letter to allow them to get to grips with their formation; however, one of the points I reflected on last year was that I focussed too much on rapping the song at the start, meaning I did not get to progress the lesson as much as I wanted to. This year, I managed my time more effectively and the lesson moved more quickly. As a result, not only did the children write out the basic formation of Greek letters but they were also able to scribe their transliterated names – something that was much more fun and meaningful to them! I noticed in the coming weeks most wrote their names on their worksheets in Greek without my instruction – I was thrilled!

Something that I had wanted to do the previous year but was perhaps too nervous to do was to discuss some philosophy with the children. My Latin teacher when I was at school always encouraged challenge in learning. She believed it was important to never shy away from things that may be perceived as ‘too difficult’ as then children would be losing out on meaningful learning, especially because the children will take so much more from a lesson if they feel encouraged to engage in it, no matter how different or challenging the lesson may be; it’s all down to how a teacher puts the information across. So I took a deep breath and began to think about what I could put into a Classical Philosophy lesson.


I decided to base the lesson on Plato’s Socratic dialogue Euthyphro, written in the 4th century BC. It tells the story of Socrates meeting Euthyphro outside court. Euthyphro is there to prosecute his father on charges of murder for leaving a man who killed a slave tied up and left to die from exposure. Socrates, astonished by Euthyphro’s confidence in prosecuting his own father, states that Euthyphro must have a clear idea of what is pious or impious due to his audacious attitude towards the situation. A dialogue ensues between the two, based on concepts of morality and religion. If I were to put this across to children, I had to change it a bit.

I started with introducing the club to the concept of philosophy itself: what it is, the etymology of the word (including how we can write it using our newly learned alphabet) and looking at examples of ‘big questions’ that they may have considered themselves. To set the scene I felt it necessary to portray Socrates visually as a character. We looked at pictures of statues and busts of him, learning how he was perceived as a person and how he perceived himself as the ‘Gadfly of Athens’.


Moving on from this, I presented an altered version of the Euthyphro dialogue the children. To keep it suitable for everyone in attendance, I strayed from the more religious connotations of the original, and led the discussion into a questioning of morality. Our question of the day was; what makes something just, just? After I told the story I gave them 5 minutes to jot down their thoughts on a table. On one side: why Euthyphro was right to prosecute his father. On the other: why he was wrong. The discussion that followed this brainstorm astounded me. To summarise what we discussed, we decided that as a people, we follow the law to do what is right; we follow the law as the government created these laws; we trust the government to decide what is right as they make the laws on the basis of morality; morality comes as a matter of instinct and instinct is a matter of unconscious thought. In this way, Euthyphro’s father committed a crime by acting consciously to leave the man to die. The question was raised that perhaps someone else should have charged his father, not Euthyphro himself.


In what I have just written it is important to say that all of that information and discussion came from the mouths of 10-11 year olds. I merely led the questioning to heighten their thinking. The children in this club were a range of abilities, all equally engaged in this debate. I was fascinated to see the discussion being led in directions that I had not even thought of myself in the planning stages. If there had been more time for discussion, I would have let the debate run on for far longer.

For my final lesson I let the pupils decide what they wanted to learn about. Of course, they chose the gods. Seeing the group’s ability and interest in the philosophy lesson, I took this as an opportunity to let them explore Classics in a different way. In my first year at Stranmillis, my Literacy lecturer told us about the power of reading to the children. Just reading. Letting them sit back and listen to a text, appreciating its stylistic devices, envisioning its detail and building a level of comprehension that they may not have if they only read it to themselves.


I did not have a simplified book of Greek myths for kids at hand, nor did I feel it necessary. These children deserved a challenge, one that would let them fully appreciate the splendour and beauty of Classical literature. I chose to read them Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the translated Penguin Classics version, with a few words and phrases omitted here and there), specifically Book III when Acoetes and his crew are captured by Dionysus under the guise of a young boy. I felt this would let them see the power of the gods, without having to simplify the story. They marvelled as I read to them about the “beautiful faced” young boy staggering along the shore to Acoetes’ ship, demanding to be taken to the island of Naxos. They sat transfixed as they listened to how the sailors’ bodies contorted, twisted and changed colour as they transformed into dolphins as Dionysus’ wrath overpowered them for not being taken to his destination. They sat in awe as Dionysus revealed himself in his true form, covered in grapevines, and surrounded by exotic cats while the ship was slowly enrobed in ivy. Comparing this final image to Peter Pan’s ship turning to gold from Tinkerbell’s pixie dust helped them even further in appreciating the beautiful images that Ovid has constructed for us.


Their reactions to being read this story that I had specifically chosen not to simplify made me feel I had made the right decision. They did not need a fairy tale version of Ovid’s myth; they just needed it to be read as though it was one. From this telling they were able to see the true power of the gods, and a glimpse of what it would be like to face their wrath.

All too soon, my Classics Club had come to an end. I felt proud at what I had discovered this time around. Not only was it proven to me once again that Classics is a relevant and engaging topic for children at KS2 level, but it provides avenues of challenge that children of all abilities may not otherwise be able to explore. The children seemed to appreciate how I approached the club lessons every week – I did not over simplify them, I always answered their questions (if I was able to) and, what I feel was most important, we explored Classics together.

Rather than through a transmission model of teaching, I felt this time I really did hold an ongoing discussion with my pupils. We pondered, we questioned and we delved into topics such as philosophy head first. We listened to stories that captivated us through their words, not just the pictures on the page. In this way an inclusive atmosphere was created, where all streams of thought were welcome, allowing the children to learn from the club what they wanted, encouraging individuality in opinion and acceptance of different points of view. I felt that, through my determination to challenge my pupils, they in turn felt respected to be able to handle ‘big questions’ and so were able to develop their own ways of thinking, no matter what their ability level was. In turn, by understanding that they were being met with challenge and being encouraged to tackle it, the children were more engaged in what I had to say and in what we discussed together, thus continuing to develop their love and understanding for the Classics.

Below are some of their responses in a final self-assessment that I asked them to complete for me, further demonstrating the impact the study of Classics has on young pupils;

“I attended last year and loved the addition of the lesson on philosophy. I enjoyed questioning different things and reading the stories of Socrates and Euthyphro…I love learning and reading about the gods and I want to keep studying Latin.”

 “…This year we did something different, we learned about Philosophy. It was hard and challenging but that’s what I enjoyed about it…”

 “Last week we did Philosophy which means to think deeply. We learned the story of Socrates and his friend Euthyphro. Some pupils even got so engaged in the subject they began to make multiple booklets and take pages of notes. The subject was definitely challenging but our teacher managed to make it fun.”

 I would like to thank Whitehouse Primary School and its Acting Principal Ms. Dawn Blain for allowing me the wonderful opportunity of once again holding my Classics Club within their school. I would also like to extend my thanks to the pupils who attended my Classics Club, for their enthusiasm, engagement and encouraging me to continue to pursue the teaching of Classics to primary school children.

Amber Taylor

Amber has also blogged on Pompeii and P6: Let’s Talk Volcanoes!

The Original Christian Heretic

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simon_magus-basilicaThroughout its history, the Christian Church has had to deal with its own ever-developing understanding of aspects of its own faith as various thinkers raised questions that had yet to be answered. Disputes over those answers could lead to forms of schism and heresy.

While it may be difficult to identify the first ‘Christian’ – John the Baptist, St. Peter, Andrew Protokletos (the ‘first-called) or a group including all of the disciples and other early followers of Jesus of Nazareth, early Christian literary traditions did identify who they considered to be the first Christian heretic: Simon Magus – ‘Simon the Magician’.

He appears in the Book of Acts as a magician in Samaria, who used his skills to convince people that he was “the Power of God that is Great.” The Biblical story sees Philip the Evangelist arrive in the city, causing many to convert and accept baptism through his preaching of God’s Gospel. These converts seemingly included Simon Magus himself, “who was astounded by Philip’s miracle, which were truly divine, not manipulations of magic” (Ehrman (2003), 165; Act 8: 9-13).


The Christian converts in Samaria, including Simon, were then treated to a visit by the apostles Peter and John, who provided the converts with the gift of the Spirit through the laying on of hands (Acts 8: 14-17). The magus was impressed, perhaps too much so as he soon allowed his manipulative nature to take over. He tried to bribe Peter and John to bring him into their apostolic inner circle – “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19). Peter reproached Simon, sending him away, “urging him to repent of his wickedness. In humility, Simon asked that the apostles pray for him” (Ehrman (2003), 165; Eusebius, EH II.14.2-3).

This is where the Biblical story of Simon Magus ends, but as the Christian literary tradition grew throughout the late first/early second century, so did the role of the magician. Simon became a Samaritan from the city of Gitta; his parents became Antonius and Rachel and is thought to have studied Greek literature at Alexandria. More importantly, Simon became portrayed as being unrepentant and determined to persuade people that he had supernatural powers (Ps-Clement, Recognitions II).

This determination saw him move from the Middle East to the imperial capital of Rome itself, although it may be more appropriate to talk about him being transplanted there in order to set the magician up as an opponent for ‘the rock upon which the Church was built’, St. Peter, who had also moved to Rome.


Christian literature presents Simon as being highly successful in persuading Romans that he was divine. Justin Martyr, a mid-second century Christian apologist resident in Rome, records that people in Rome even set up an altar to Simon on Tiber Island, site of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island since 998. It was reputedly inscribed with the dedication “Simoni Deo Sancto” – “To Simon, the Holy God” (Justin Martyr, Apol. I.26).


There was seemingly no physical evidence of this inscribed altar, which made Justin’s claim suspect. However, in July 1574, an altar with an inscription was found which fits Justin’s description… with one slight and important addition. When the uncovered inscription was inspected, it read ‘Semoni Sanco Sancto Deo.’ “What a difference a word makes!” (Ehrman (2003), 165)

This ‘Sanco’ changes the identification of this altar from potentially being for Simon Magus to definitely being for the pagan god of trust called Semo Sanctus, who had been worshipped in Rome for centuries, having been brought there by the Sabines.

This misinterpreted inscription, now in the Vatican Musuem, was not the only shrine to Semo Sancus in Rome. The Sabines built a shrine on the Quirinal Hill (Dion. Hal. II.49.2), the foundations of which were discovered under the convent of San Silvestro al Quirinale in March 1881. It was a “strange coincidence” (Lanciani (1893), 105) that, despite there being no clear connection to the excavations at San Silvestro, a life-sized statue and inscribed pedestal of Semo Sancus appeared on the market around the same time.


The inscription has some similarities to that of Tiber Island…


(Lanciani (1893), 105-106)

The question should be asked as to how and why Justin Martyr came to make this misidentification. It might be immediately assumed that he is using faulty sources or has misunderstood the source he was using; however, Justin resided in Rome so his source is more than likely to have been his own eyes. Has he made a fundamental mistake in equating Simon with Semo Sancus? Did he so hurriedly glance at the inscription that he took it up incorrectly? Or has he been intentionally dishonest in order to build up Simon Magus so as to make his eventual defeat all the more spectacular? We might never be sure. While archaeology has undermined the extent of Simon’s popularity or at least the extent to which the inhabitants of Rome were willing to reward it on Tiber Island, the success he was having led to the intervention of St. Peter, a story continued in some of the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles – those which for various reasons were not incorporated into the final canon of the New Testament.


One of the earliest was the Acts of Peter, which, as well as being the first text to record the tradition that St. Peter was crucified upside-down, records Peter and Simon going head-to-head before the assembled members of the Roman Senate. Peter challenged the magician to support his views, declaring “I believe in the living God, through whom I shall destroy your magic arts.” Simon responded by attacking some of the central tenets of Christianity – “You have the impudence to speak of Jesus the Nazarene, the son of a carpenter, himself a carpenter, whose family is from Judaea. Listen, Peter. The Romans have understanding. They are no fools.” Turning to the crowd, Simon proclaimed “Men of Rome, is a God born? Is he crucified? Whoever has a Lord is no God” (Acts of Peter 23).

The two were then challenged by the Roman prefect to provide proof of their divine backing. A slave was brought into the arena and Simon was challenged to kill him through supernatural means, which he succeeded in doing just by whispering a single word in the slave’s ear. Peter was then challenged to raise the same slave from the dead. By doing so, Peter defeated Simon in the eyes of the spectators, who proclaimed “There is only one God, the God of Peter” (Acts of Peter 26).

Despite his defeat in the arena, Simon continued his public displays with Peter finding him using his powers to fly before a crowd on the Via Sacra. Simon taunted Peter with his divine powers, only for the apostle to pray to Jesus to bring the magician low in order to restore belief in Peter and his God. With that, Simon fell to the ground, breaking his leg in three places. The crowd then turned on him, pelting the injured magician with stones. He was carried away by his remaining supporters, but the heretical sorcerer later died of his injuries, perhaps encouraged on his journey into the afterlife by the efforts of two physicians (Acts of Peter 32).


The Acts of Peter and Paul, another of the apocryphal Acts, gives a slightly different version of Simon’s demise, with his flying taking place during a debate with Peter before the emperor Nero and with the apostle Paul present as well. After the fall kills Simon, Nero ordered Peter and Paul arrested and the body of the magician kept for three days in case he rose from the dead.


Beyond the apocryphal Acts, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, and his successors were a little more specific on the nature of Simon Magus’ heresy. To them, he was the first Gnostic, who used the basic layout of Christianity, but “taught the he was personally the divine redeemer sent from the heavenly realm to reveal the truths necessary for salvation” (Ehrman (2003), 165). This Gnostic Simon also claimed to have access to the ‘Primal Thought’; the first thing to emanate from God. This emanation reputedly became embodied in a woman called Helen. Opponents of Simon claimed that the magician had found Helen in a brothel, allowing them to claim that “Gnostics have prostituted themselves in more ways than one” (Ehrman (2003), 165; Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.23).

The fourth century churchman Eusebius of Caesarea compiled a ten-volume account of various Christian heretics. He took the stories of Acts, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and their successors to present Simon Magus as demonic agent, using black magic to persuade people that he was divine.

This all meant that as he could be connected to a variety of successive heretics – Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, identifying Simon Magus as fraudulent, demonic and the origin of all heresy was a useful tool, particularly with his various defeats by St. Peter. It meant that the “many-headed hydra” (Ehrman (2003), 192) of heresy was automatically built on foundations of sand, even before the light of orthodoxy was shone on their individual innovative heads.


The portrayal of Simon Magus as the first head of the heresy hydra may not have been the only use of the magician. It has been suggested that he has been used as a cipher for other early interpretations of Christian belief and practice which were later thought to be incorrect.

There are some hints of Marcionism in the portrayal of Simon in the writings of the Pseudo-Clement. This was the mid-second century dualist Christianity of Marcion of Sinope, which saw the God of the Old Testament as a different entity to the God of the New Testament (Ehrman (2003), 183; Ps-Clement, Homilies III.10, 38).

It would not be surprising for the Christian orthodox tradition to attack such a fundamentally different and indeed polytheistic version of their faith. However, it has also been suggested that Simon Magus is used by the Ps-Clementine literature as a cipher to attack Paul the Apostle. Or at least the Ps-Clementine writings were used by others, such as the fourth century sect of the Ebionites, to attack Paul, who they refused to recognise as an apostle. They pointed to the similarity between some of Simon’s claims and those of Paul, such as having had visions of the Lord. They also accentuated the seeming usurpation of apostolic seniority, highlighting how Simon and therefore Paul claimed to have better knowledge of Jesus’ teachings than the disciples. It has even been argued that the confrontation between Simon and Peter in Acts 8 has some basis in the conflict between Peter and Paul (Detering (1995); Price (2012)), although this has not been met with widespread acceptance.

Simon Magus fulfils several roles in the early traditions of the Christian Church: a Samaritan magician who was converted by the powers of the apostles; the unrepentant first heretic who wanted to share in apostolic authority; the original Gnostic, who had Christian writers incorrectly suggesting that inhabitants of Rome viewed him as the divine being he portrayed himself as and the levitating cipher used to promote the actions of St. Peter and to attack other heretics and even Paul the Apostle. Perhaps Simon will have been happy with that kind of varied and lasting legacy, even if lost archaeology proved that there was no inscription dedicated to him on Tiber Island.


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

Detering, H. The Fabricated Paul: Early Christian Thought in Twilight. Mannheim (1995)

Grant, R.M. Greek Apologists of the Second Century. London (1988)

Lanciani, R. Pagan and Christian Rome. Cambridge (1893)

Price, R.M. The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul. Huddersfield (2012)

Cartlidge, D.R. ‘The Fall and Rise of Simon Magus,’ Bible Review 21 (2005), 24-36

The Last Vestal

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Chief Vestal

The Vestal Virgins are one of the most evocative establishments of Ancient Rome. They might not know exactly what they were or what they did, but the name of Vestal Virgin can spark something in many people. They might have heard of their guardianship of the Sacred Flame of Vesta; they may have heard of how they could be buried alive for breaking their vows of virginity; they may only know of them through the lyrics of Procul Harum’s 1967 hit ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale…’ but there is something enduring about the Vestal Virgins.

Numa Pompiliu

The founding of this ancient order of virgin priestesses has been attributed to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (c.717-673BC), who reputedly led the first Vestal away from her parents by the hand and founded the Temple of Vesta (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights I.12; Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10; Dionysius II.65).

Temple of Vesta

However, this idea that Numa Pompilius created the Vestal priestesshood contravenes some other mythical traditions. Livy mentions that the Vestals had some kind of origin in the city of Alba Longa (Livy I.20; cf. Dionysius I.76), which would seemingly fit in with the record of Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, being a Vestal Virgin, which in turn suggests that the Vestals pre-dated the foundation of Rome itself. Perhaps Numa Pompilius transferred the pre-existent Vestals to Rome from Alba Longa or opened his own chapter of the priestesshood in Rome. Or that the story of Rhea Silvia was embellished in its (re-)telling to link her more clearly to well-known Roman institutions.


House of the Vestals by Christian Heulson (1905)

Whomever founded the Vestals in or transferred them to Rome, they came to reside in the Atrium Vestiae – the House of the Vestals, a three-storey building at the foot of the Palatine Hill, behind the Temple of Vesta.

Despite having such a residence and prominence, the Vestals remained an exclusive priestesshood. Procul Harum may sing about “16 vestal virgins”, but there were never that many at any one time. Numa appointed two priestesses at the outset, before increasing it to four – named as Gegania, Veneneia, Canuleia, and Tarpeia.

The daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a general of Romulus, Tarpeia reputedly betrayed Rome to the Sabines, a betrayal which might provide some of the reasoning for the potentially harsh punishments meted out to Vestals who are thought to have broken their vows or otherwise transgressed (this incident also gave the Tarpeian Rock its name – a site of shameful execution in Rome, as Tarpeia was reputedly buried there.

Tarpeia’s betrayal

Either Tarquinius Priscus, Rome’s fifth king (c.616-579BC) or Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king (c.575-535BC) may instead have been involved in the increase to four, before it was later increased to six (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10; Dionysius III.67). The maximum recorded in antiquity was seven, a number alluded to by Ambrose of Milan (Ambrose, Ep. 18/31), although this has been doubted (Worsfold (1932) 22).

Once there were sufficient candidates coming forward, aged between 6 and 10 years old, new Vestals were chosen by lot from a list of twenty (Kroppenberg (2010), 426-427), although the replacing of a Vestal who had died before her 30-year period of sworn celibate service ended saw the Chief Vestal – Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, “greatest of the Vestals” – select the most virtuous of the candidates, who did not need to be prepubescents or even virgins.

Their tasks included the maintenance of the Sacred Flame of Vesta, goddess of the hearth and home, which served as a symbolic and actual source of fire and heat for Roman households. The Vestals were also tasked with collecting water from a sacred spring, preparing food for use in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the Temple of Vesta. They were also charged with the safe-keeping of the wills of many important Romans, most famously of Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius.

These important religious, symbolic, social, and legal tasks saw the Vestals held in awe in Roman society. Pliny the Elder highlights their perceived connection to the gods… “it is a general belief, that our Vestal Virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City.” (Pliny, NH XXVIII.3)

Even the most powerful individuals within the Roman state took note of their opinions, demonstrated by their successful intercession on behalf of Julius Caesar when he was about to become a victim of the proscriptions of dictator Sulla (Suetonius, Julius Caesar I.2).

This exalted position inevitably led to significant privileges for the Vestals. Their person was sacrosanct, meaning that anyone who injured them faced the death penalty. When giving evidence in a court, they were excused the customary oath, with their word trusted without question. They were accorded places of honour at public ceremonies, games and performances, while their very touch or presence could grant a condemned prisoner or slave their freedom (Dionysius I.19, 38).

Dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini

However, more well-known than their duties and privileges were the punishments Vestals faced for breaking their vows or neglecting their responsibilities. Allowing the Sacred Flame of Vesta to go out was a serious offence, as it suggested that the divine protection of the city had been withdrawn. Vestals guilty of this dereliction of duty would be whipped or beaten.

However, the breaking of their vow of chastity was met with far more drastic punishments… The earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were whipped and “put to death” for breaking these vows, and any offspring were thrown into the river (Dionysius I.78), a form of punishment best presented in the story of Rhea Silvia, whose twins, Romulus and Remus, were put in the Tiber (Livy I.4).

In Rome, as their chastity, much like the Sacred Flame, was considered to be directly linked to the health of the Roman state and as a daughter of the Roman state, any sexual liaison with a citizen was an incestuous act of treason and injurious to Rome.

Numa’s initial punishment for breaking the oath of celibacy is recorded as being stoning to death, only for Tarquinius Priscus to take the punishment to a new, more sinister level (George Kedrenos, Hist. Comp. 148/259; Dionysius III.58).

Any Vestal found guilty of breaking their celibacy oath was to be buried alive in an underground chamber near the Colline Gate on the Campus Sceleratus (“Evil Field”). As it was forbidden for anyone to be buried within the city limits or to spill the blood of a Vestal, the victim was supplied with a few days of food and water (Dionysius IX.40 also records an instance of whipping with rods before live burial).

While this punishment was (in)famous, it must be remembered that cases of broken celibacy vows and subsequent vivisepulture were rare. Over the course of the 1,100 years of Vestal history, there are only ten recorded convictions. A few Vestals were acquitted, with some clearing their name through some kind of physical ordeal, such as carrying water in a sieve (Pliny, NH XXVIII.3). It must also be noted that the person found to have engaged in sexual congress with a Vestal Virgin would be publically whipped to death.

Such was the perceived importance of their chastity and duties to the Roman state, looking after the Vestal Virgins and helping to police their behaviour was an important part of the position of pontifex maximus (seemingly also created by Numa), the chief priest of the Roman state, a position which became part of the imperial title under Augustus and then later part of the papal title (where it remains to this day).

House of the Vestals

It was not only the pontifex maximus who oversaw the behaviour and works of the Vestals. The aforementioned Chief Vestal also played a significant role in overseeing the five priestesses with whom she shared the Atrium Vestiae.

And it is a woman who held this title in the fourth century AD who is the main subject of this piece: Coelia Concordia. She was well regarded for her “distinguished charity and celebrated holiness concerning the divine cult” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261). Prevailing circumstances in Rome saw her also cast as something of a “religious innovator” (Cooper (1999), 100), which seems like a rather peculiar guise for the most senior priestess in a 1,100 year old institution.

The focus of this innovation was her proposal of a statue to Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (ca. 315-384), a wealthy pagan aristocrat who held various cult priesthoods and the position of praetorian prefect under Valentinian II in 384, the last year of his life.

During his brief tenure as praetorian prefect, Praetextatus influenced Valentinian II to issue a law offering some protection to pagan temples and giving powers of investigation of any attacks on these edifices over to the praefectus urbi of Rome (Symmachus, Rel. 21.3-5). Such an act, his previous priestly service and no doubt benefactions to pagan cults saw Praetextatus considered “a man in all ways exceptional and deserving of honour even by the Virgins and by priestesses of this [high] rank” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261), and indeed worthy of a statue.

The college of pontifices approved of the statue, as did Coelia herself, but there was a high-ranking cadre of pagans, including many senators and Symmachus himself, who felt that this gesture went against tradition as it was not usual to bestow such an honour on men (cf. Symmachus, Ep. II.36; Lefkowitz and Fant (1992), 357 n.91). In the end though, Coelia and the pontifices triumphed and the statue was erected.

“This is a very interesting example of where a powerful woman, with a status and independence almost unparalleled in Late Antique Rome, prevailed over the views and wishes of some of the male establishment.” (Mitchell, 6)

Coelia’s own position, reputation and dedication of the statue to Praetextatus saw her in turn honoured with a statue on the order of Fabia Paulina, Praetextatus’ widow, with the inscription…

In honour of Coelia Concordia, chief Vestal Virgin, Fabia Paulina arranged that a statue be made and set up first on account of her distinguished charity and celebrated holiness concerning the divine cult, and chiefly because [Coelia Concordia] first had set up a statue to [Paulina’s] husband Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who was a man in all ways exceptional and deserving of honour even by Virgins and by priestesses of this [high] rank” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261).

This dispute at the heart of paganism between traditionalists and perceived innovators highlights the pressure that paganism was under. Coelia’s time as Virgo Vestalis Maxima came at a point of major change in Roman society. Following the Christianising of the imperial family in the wake of the conversion of Constantine I, Christianity had become increasingly popular at the expense of the old religions.

By the last decade of the fourth century, pagan rites, rituals, traditions and edifices were coming under increasing pressure from the legislation of Theodosius I. Indeed, such was the pressure that was to come to bear on pagan institutions during the last years of Theodosius’ reign that the most famous thing about Coelia Concordia was that after over 1,100 years, she was to be the last Chief Vestal.

Theodosius I

There had been repeated anti-pagan laws throughout the fourth century, with virtually every emperor enacting/re-enacting his own legislation against the ancient cults. Theodosius himself had already issued some anti-pagan laws, such as a ban on sacrifice in 381 and making haruspicy a capital crime in 384, but it was 391 that saw legislation directly affect the adherents of Vesta.

Valentinian II

Two successive laws – CTh XVI.10.10-11 – from 24 February and 18 June saw the reiteration of a ban on blood sacrifice and targeted pagan temples and sanctuaries for closure. With regard to the Temple of Vesta, its virgin priestesses and Coelia Concordia, it was perhaps the second law which was to have a terminal effect. It should be noted that this law, which declared that all pagan temples (in the west?) were to be closed, was perhaps as much the work of Valentinian II and even Ambrose of Milan as it was Theodosius.

Ambrose of Milan

The potential closing of temples in Rome surely affected the priestesshood of the Vestal Virgins, as the Temple of Vesta is likely to have been one such closed temple, but it appears that despite this imperial intervention, pagan institutions continued to operate.

This may have led to Theodosius, after his victory over the usurper Eugenius, clamping down on paganism even further with laws which saw the withdrawal of all state funds for pagan institutions (Zosimus IV.59), the forbidding of visits to pagan temples, the abolition of remaining pagan holidays and stern punishments for taking of the auspices and witchcraft.

Most importantly, the year 394 is recorded as the date of the imperially ordered extinguishing of the Sacred Flame of Vesta and the disbandment of the Vestal Virgins. Without a priestesshood to preside over, Coelia Concordia stepped down from her post – or more accurately, she had that position abolished from under her.

Theodosius’ anti-pagan policies not only affected Coelia Concordia by removing her ‘livelihood’ through the closing of the Temple of Vesta and the extinguishing of the Sacred Flame; the growing confidence and indeed arrogance potentially bred by these policies amongst some Christian elites (Zosimus V.38) may have seen Coelia Concordia thrust into the role of ‘prophetess of doom’ for part of the imperial family.

On the backdrop of this ramping up of anti-paganism actions, Theodosius’ niece, Serena, entered the Temple of Cybele and took a necklace from a statue of Rhea Silvia and wore it around her own neck. For this impiety, she was reproached by “an old woman, the last of the Vestal Virgins” (Zosimus V.38) – quite possibly Coelia Concordia herself. Serena abused this woman and had her attendants drive her away. As the imperial niece left the temple, this last Vestal proclaimed that Serena, her husband and her son would suffer for her impiety.

Serena took no notice of this ‘curse’ and showed off her new piece of jewellery.  However, she was soon struck by a series of dreams, visions and premonitions that predicted her approaching death. Others around her seem to have been afflicted with similar visions.

Even if Serena was struck by many visions, it appears that the ‘Curse of the Last Vestal’ took 14 years to claim its first victim. Indeed, it is surprising that Zosimus does not link this ‘curse’ to the death of Theodosius himself, which occurred on 17 January 395. But when the dam finally broke in 408, the curse exacted its full payment from this branch of the imperial family.

Eucherius, Serena and Stilicho

Despite having given his entire career over to the preservation of the Roman Empire and the Theodosian dynasty, Serena’s husband, Stilicho, was executed on spurious charges of treason on the order of emperor Honorius on 22 August 408. Their son, Eucherius, did not long survive his father’s downfall.

The ‘Curse of the Last Vestal’ was then complete before 408 was out. When Rome itself was under siege from Alaric the Goth for the first time, Serena was suspected by the Senate and Galla Placidia of bringing the barbarians down upon the city, presumably in an act of vengeance for the murders of her husband and son. They thought that Alaric would retreat if Serena was done away with as that would leave no one in the city willing to betray it. And so, Serena was executed by strangulation/hanging, “although this suspicion was in fact false, for Serena thought of no such thing, she was all the same justly punished for her impieties” (Zosimus V.38.2; cf. Olympiodorus fr. 6). Her death also did not bring an end to the First Gothic Siege of Rome – that required a payment of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper…

And this was not the only supernatural vengeance supposedly acting on Rome. Rumours abound that there was a catastrophic legacy stemming from the end of the Vestal Virgins and the extinguishing of the Sacred Flame – Rome and her empire no longer received divine protection.


Symmachus claimed that the removal of maintenances and privileges from the Vestals saw “a public famine… and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces … it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.” (Symmachus, Memorial 14)

A major part of St. Augustine’s inspiration to write his famous City of God was to refute claims that the rise of Christianity and its intolerance of the old gods, who had protected the city for over a millennium, had led to the disasters overtaking the empire, including the Sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths in 410, a second sack by the Vandals in 455 and ultimately the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire by the end of the fifth century.

St Augustine

And as for Coelia Concordia, she represented the last holder of an office founded over 1,100 years before her stepping down in 394 when (or even before) Numa Pompilius led that first little girl by the hand away from her parents.

Coelia seems to have died 12 years after the abolition of the Vestals, which would mean she did not see the full humiliation of Rome by the Goths or the culmination of the ‘curse’ laid down upon Serena and her family (if she had been Zosimus’ last Vestal). However, its seems unlikely that she will have blamed those humiliations on the growing influence of Christianity for Coelia Concordia, the last Chief Vestal, with all its lineage back to the mother of Rome’s founder, is said to have converted to Christianity later in her life.



Beard, M. ‘The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins,’ JRS 70 (1980) 12-27

Cooper, K. The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity. Harvard (1999)

Dowling, M.D. ‘The Curse of the Last Vestal,’ Biblical Archaeology Society, Archaeology Odyssey 4:01 (2001)

Kroppenberg, I. ‘Law, Religion and Constitution of the Vestal Virgins,’ Law and Literature 22.3 (2010) 418-439

Lefkowitz, M.R. and Fant, M.B. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. Baltimore (1992)

Mitchell, J.M. ‘Symmachus and the Vestal Virgins’

Parker, H.N. ‘Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State,’ AJPh 125 (2004) 563-601

Wagner, K.A. ‘The Power of Virginity: The Political Position and Symbolism of Ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgin,’ unpublished paper, Western Oregon University (2010)

Wildfang, R.L. Rome’s Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome’s Vestal Priestesses in the Late Republic and Early Empire. Oxford (2006)

Worsfold, T. History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome. London (1932)

Fooling a Forger: ‘Pompicus’ and the Renegade Deserter

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Silbannacus: An Unknown Emperor

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We have been here before: the cusp of the rabbit hole… While none too keen for such a return, this author’s attempt to collect a coin of every emperor (cataloguing has been a little slow though) and some academic teaching on the third century crisis, such flirting with the numismatic nightmare of Wonderland is inevitable.

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

Thankfully, this time there was no bleary-eyed searching for Unicodes of particular types of ‘U’ and trying to understand Cyrillic; this time there was only the interesting case of the emperor we never knew existed but yet there were coins with his face and name on them…


Say hello to Imperator Mar. Silbannacus Augustus. No, I had not heard of him either, which is hardly surprising as there is no record of him in the written sources, no inscriptions, no statues.

Indeed, there was no inkling that such an emperor existed until 1937 when the British Museum acquired this coin, a silver antoninianus, from a Swiss coin dealer and reputedly found in Lorraine.

Its obverse has a radiate portrait of IMP MAR SILBANNACVS AVG, while its reverse presents the god Mercury holding Victory and his caduceus staff, surrounded by the legend VICTORIA AVG. [Complete with a capital ‘B’ for some flashbacks to a previous rabbit hole journey…]

At the time, this was the only coin known to depict Silbannacus. You might think that such uniqueness is a huge plus, but in the case of coins, it can be a major negative. The Romans minted coins in such large numbers that for there to be only a single issue known to exist raises questions over its authenticity, and as it was the only record of Silbannacus, it raised questions over his existence.

Even though the British Museum did not doubt the genuineness of this coin, doubts over the existence of Mar. Silbannacus remained throughout much of the 20th century. That was until Sylviane Estiot published a second antoninianus in 1996, which had reputedly been found some years earlier near Paris, before entering a private collection. This second coin had the same obverse legend as the first and MARTI PROPVGT (To Mars the defender) on the reverse.


Better still, the obverses (the side bearing the head or principal design) of the two coins were struck from the same die, which suggests that there were few coins minted but decreases the likelihood of them being fakes due to the two difference reverses.

Suddenly, there was proof that this man! Mar. Silbannacus, actually existed and seemingly wore or at least claimed the imperial crown at some stage during Roman history.

But really, the discovery of a second coin is only the beginning of the journey of trying to unravel the identity and history of Imperator Mar. Silbannacus Augustus; a journey that may never have a satisfactory conclusion.

What Kind of a Name is that?

Even before looking at the potential timing and circumstances of his reign, we should look at the name ‘Silbannacus’ itself. Not only is there no emperor or usurper recorded with that name, the name itself is unusual, raising the possibility that ‘Silbannacus’ was a corruption or misspelling of a more recognisable name or word.

Such mistakes on coins are recorded – the emperor Licinius I (308-324) appeared on coins as both LICINVS and LICINNIVS (RIC VI Antioch 162 corr. (no eagle); 162a), while Vetranio, a usurper in the Balkans in 350, had coins minted misspelling his name VERTANIO, perhaps a reflection of how hastily his usurpation had been organised, something which could be applicable to Silbannacus’ attempt on the throne.


 If this usurper’s name was not Silbannacus, perhaps the most obvious corruption/misspelling would be with regards to the ‘b’ in Silbannacus, which can often be a ‘v’ in disguise. ‘Silvannacus’ would have a far more recognisable look to it.


It could see his name reflect a connection with Silvanus, Roman god of the fields and forests, who may be cognate with and perhaps even derived from the Etruscan god of the woodlands, Selvans. [Dorcey (1992) 10-12 on efforts to press an Etruscan etymology on Silvanus]

It would be a stretch to assign northern Italian roots to Silbannacus on the strength of an etymological connection through Silvanus to the Etruscans, but this may be bolstered by the presence of what appears to be the ‘Celtic’ suffix “-acus.” Northern Italy would be a region where Roman/Etruscan/Celto-Gallic would overlap.

It is not just the cognomen ‘Silbannacus’ which is unclear. The meaning of the abbreviation MAR on the coins of Silbannacus also raise questions. The assumption is that it represents Silbannacus’ nomen, the name of his family. That would narrow it down to ‘Marinus’, ‘Marius’ or ‘Marcius’ (Estiot (1996), 108; Körner (2002), 386). The only other potential name represented by MAR would be ‘Marcus’, although that is a praenomen, rather than a nomen, and it is less likely that Silbannacus would have that listed on his coinage.

What are you made of? Where do you come from?

So it seems that the name Mar. Silbannacus does little to provide us with anything beyond flimsy inferences about his potential origins. And unfortunately, neither Silbannacus coin has a mintmark to identify where it was issued from. That leaves us having to rely on the physical make-up and stylistic content of the coins in comparison to others to present some chronological and geographic delineators.


The Silbannacus coins are antoniniani, a favoured silver denomination worth two denarii of the mid-third century, which just so happens to be a period of significant military turmoil in the Roman Empire – it is referred to frequently as the Third Century Crisis. This period also comes with a considerable dearth of surviving historical material – chaos and poor sources are the perfect combination for a short-lived emperor/usurper to fall through the historical net.


The purity of silver within the coins can be used to suggest a general period, especially as the gradual debasing of the silver coinage during the third century is well mapped. There is enough silver in the Silbannacus issues to still make them somewhat valuable, having not yet reduced in purity to the silver-washed coins of the 270s; however, debasement is still clear, suggesting the middle decades of the third century.

That he was able to mint coins which looked like official issues at all might suggest that Silbannacus was active in a region where there was an official mint, but this is not necessarily the case. Barbarian forgeries of imperial coins demonstrate that official looking issues could be produced of sufficient quality to pass as official without the control of a mint.

1856, 1205.55

While we may not immediately recognise the emperor or pretender depicted on the coin, there are certain features which may hint at a general time period. In the case of the Silbannacus issues, the radiate crown he wears and the facial features he sports are reminiscent of the coins of the mid-third century, perhaps even the reign of Philip the Arab (244-249) or thereabouts (Robertson (1977), xcv; Hartmann (1982), 63, 94, 161f; Kienast (1996), 202). This would also see the ‘reign’ of Silbannacus posited right in the heart of the Third Century Crisis.

Unfortunately, that is still a significant period of time for Silbannacus to have claimed the imperial throne, encapsulating the reigns of six men – Philip the Arab, Trajan Decius, Trebonianus Gallus, Aemilian, Valerian and his son Gallienus.

Changing Stories

Unsurprisingly with so little to go on, there are numerous proposed backstories for the ‘reign’ of Silbannacus. The prevailing, although never fully accepted, wisdom regarding Silbannacus has changed significantly in the 80 years since the first coin found its way into the hands of the British Museum.


The reported discovery of that first coin in Lorraine gave rise to the idea that Silbannacus was operating in that area, perhaps a military commander in Germania Superior along the Rhine. Eutropius IX.4 records a bellum civile in Gaul being suppressed during the reign of Decius (249-251), which could be tied to Silbannacus and perhaps encompassed the end of the rule of Philip the Arab (244-249) too (Hartmann (1982), 63, 82, 94 n. 1). Reports of the second coin being found near Paris could bolster at least the geographic location proposed by this theory.


This explanation has been questioned through a potential error in the text of Eutropius. For location of the bellum civile, considered Gallia, some have read Galatia, which would fit in with Aurelius Victor’s account of the subjugation of the revolt of Iotapianus in that area of what is now central Turkey in that period (Aurelius Victor, Caes 29.2; Callu (1989), 363; Potter (1990), 248). However, depending on a potential spelling error is about as speculative as (if not more so than) placing Silbannacus at the head of troops in Germania due to the presence of one of his coins near the Rhine and some vague Gallic connection to his name.

The appearance of Mercury, a rarely used god before the late third century, on the first coin of Silbannacus could also provide a link to Gaul as Mercury seems to have been popular in that region, with the Gallic emperor Postumus (260-269) also portraying Mercury on his coins (cf. Caesar, BG VI.17.1; RIC Vb.337 n.13; 357 n.255). However, this might only mean that Silbannacus had some Gallic connections, not that that was his place of origin or operation.

The focus on Mars and Mercury on Silbannacus’ coins could be another signifier of their origin in the mid-third century as emperors such as Decius and Valerian (253-260) had attempted to bolster the unity of the empire through the promotion of pagan religious practice (which ultimately saw both remembered at persecutors of Christianity).

From Germania to Italia… and Rome

The discovery of the second Silbannacus coin brought another avenue of speculation. While it was seemingly found near Paris, aspects of the coin seem to link it and therefore Silbannacus to the short-lived reign of Aemilian in 253.


The shortened reverse legend of MARTI PROPVGT is of a similar sort used by Aemilian, while the style of bust and radiant appears similar to the Aemilian’s issues from the mint at Rome. As the two Silbannacus coins share the same obverse die, the likelihood would be that they were produced in the same mint.

Therefore, despite the coins being found in Germania and Gaul, it seems that Silbannacus’ brief reign/usurpation included control of the mint in the imperial capital. As he is not recorded in the sources and there are not more coins, it might be suggested that he was recognised in Rome but nowhere else and not for any kind of significant period of time.


This could suggest that Silbannacus was a garrison commander who succeeded in having himself proclaimed emperor at Rome in 253 after Aemilian left the city to face the approaching Rhine army of Valerian. This could either have been in opposition to Aemilian or in the aftermath of Aemilian’s assassination by his own men in around September 253 but before Valerian arrived at Rome, perhaps in an attempt to shore up resistance within the city (RIC IV.3 66 and 105).

The presence of his issues so far from Rome is no obstacle to such a positioning of Silbannacus’ reign in the city; indeed, there is something of a traceable line of contemporary movement for such coins to follow from the imperial capital to the Rhine frontier.


Upon being called to Italy to aid Trebonianus Gallus against the usurping Aemilian (Zosimus, I.28.3), Valerian had been serving as an army commander, possibly dux, along the Rhine (Christol (1980) suggests that Valerian had been posted to the Rhine to gather men for Gallus’ proposed Persian expedition).

Those Rhine-based soldiers who followed Valerian into Italy were too late (purposely?) to save Gallus, but were supremely placed to deal with Aemilian in support of their own commander as Augustus.

Seeing to the defeat of Aemilian and then marching on Rome, these men may also have found and dealt with Silbannacus Augustus. Part of their spoils were likely to have been any silver coins minted by the fledging regime in Rome. And while Valerian would eventually head east to fight the Persians, some of the Rhine men who had joined him on his march to Italy are likely to have returned to their Rhine homes. Or perhaps these coins came to Gaul and Germania through soldiers formerly loyal to Aemilian or Silbannacus being transferred there after they were pacified.

Valerian being a senator (doubted by Christol (1997)) may have undermined any resistance Silbannacus could bring together in Rome, which (along with Silbannacus’ lack of soldiers and legitimacy) possibly explains why there is not recorded battle for the city between the Augusti. Strangely though, even if his reign lasted a very short time, any senatorial support for Silbannacus may see him treated as an ‘official’ Augustus rather than a failed usurper.

Regardless of which story – German or Roman revolt – is closer to the truth (or another as yet revealed background), Silbannacus is likely to have met a grisly end. It is not unheard of for Roman emperors to surrender and be allowed to live (Constantius II would allow Vetranio to live in peaceful retirement in 351); however, this was not the trend of the mid-third century. Men who had played the game of thrones, either had to win or die. There was no middle ground. Therefore, Silbannacus was almost certainly (natural causes cannot be ruled out) murdered by forces of Philip the Arab, Decius, Valerian, or his own.

His ‘reign’ had been short; to be measured in weeks, perhaps even days rather than months. He may not have made much impact on the Roman world, but his existence presents us with an interesting insight into our sources, both literary and physical, and into the third century, which was so chaotic that it managed to see an emperor possibly ruling in the imperial capital forgotten to the written sources.


Callu, J.P. ‘L’empire gaulois selon J. F. Drinkwater,’ JRA 2 (1989) 362-373

Christol, M. ‘A propos de la politique exterieure de Trebonien Galle,’ Revue Numismatique 6 (1980) 63-74

Christol, M. L’Empire romain du IIIe siècle. Histoire politique, 192-325 après J.-C., Paris (1997)

Dorcey, P.F. The Cult of Silvanus: A Study in Roman Folk Religion. Leiden (1992)

Estiot, S. ‘L’empereur Silbannacus. Un second antoninien,’ Revue numismatique 151 (1996) 105-117

Hartmann, F. Herrscherwechsel und Reichskrise. Untersuchungen zu den Ursachen und Konsequenzen der Herrscherwechsel im Imperium Romanum der Soldatenkaiserzeit (3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.). Frankfurt (1982)

Kienast, D. Römische Kaisertabelle. Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie. Darmstadt (1996)

Körner, C. Philippus Arabs, ein Soldatenkaiser in der Tradition des antoninisch-severischen Prinzipats. Berlin/New York (2002)

Potter, D.S. Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire. A Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle. Oxford (1990)

Robertson, A.S. Roman Imperial Coins in the Hunter Coin Cabinet. University of Glasgow, Vol. 3: Pertinax to Aemilian, Oxford/London/Glasgow/New York (1977)

Southern, P.  The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine. London (2001)

My Favourite Picture of Ancient History III

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5d81a7e9e789bbe7594760be1286becaRecently I saw this famous photograph of Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong serenading his wife described as one of the most romantic photographs ever taken. But there was more to this stop at the Egyptian pyramids than meets the eye, a story little told these days.

In the late 1950s the US State Department sponsored tours by notable jazz musicians to parts of the world where political relations were frosty and suspicions about American foreign policy were hot; the trips were also intended to combat widespread criticism of racism in the US by presenting alternative images of an egalitarian, modern America. ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie and his integrated band of musicians visited the Middle East in 1956; Benny Goodman and his mixed orchestra went to southeast Asia in 1957; and in 1958 the Dave Brubeck Quartet played the circle of nations around Russia, as well as Iran and Iraq – all Cold War hotspots.

At first Armstrong refused to take part, furiously denouncing President Eisenhower for his reluctance to enforce desegregation at an Arkansas school in 1957. It was three years before he agreed to an official role as an American cultural ambassador and a 27-city goodwill tour of Africa, part-sponsored by Pepsi-Cola. He was accompanied by a band of six (including singer Velma Middleton, who suffered a stroke and died during the trip), as well as his wife Lucille.

While he was greeted as royalty elsewhere, it was by no means certain that Armstrong would be welcome in Egypt, where newspapers had spread rumours that he was an Israeli spy and President Nasser had suggested that ‘scat-singing’ was Satchmo’s way of transmitting secrets. The visit was a triumph, however. Side-stepping questions about politics (‘Zionism? What’s that, Daddy?’), Armstrong posed for joyous photographs that were circulated worldwide, surrounded by cheering children at a medical centre, playing his trumpet while riding on a camel – and entertaining Lucille against the backdrop of the Sphinx and pyramids.

Satchmo was by no means the first or last ambassador to make use of the spectacle offered by Giza’s ancient monuments to promote a cultural message, though perhaps he was the most successful. When US First Lady Melania Trump went on safari and posed in front of the pyramids last October, her choice of attire – a pith helmet and Out of Africa-style outfit evoking the colonial past – garnered more attention than her stated aim of highlighting the role of women in society. We are fortunate, then, that our enduring image of Louis Armstrong’s sojourn in Egypt is one of romance and delight, which can be enjoyed no matter the politics that brought it about.

Selga Medenieks (TCD)

 Further reading:

Penny M. von Eschen, 2004. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Harvard Uni Press: Cambridge, MA.

Crist, S.A. ‘Jazz as Democracy? Dave Brubeck and Cold War Politics,’  Journal of Musicology 26 (2009), pp. 133-174

2018 Year in Review

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CANI‘s 2018 kicked off with a day-long event with Advocating Classics Education in the Ulster Museum on 9 February.


Cross-border antiquities, in-door artillery fire (no one got hurt), creating Greek theatre masks, dramatic decisions over whether to sacrifice a daughter for the ‘greater good’, a Roman military parade down University Road, coin-stamping, an impromptu rendition of the massacre of Teutoburg Forest involving Botanic Gardens and some screaming (in a good way) primary schoolers, an overflowing lecture hall, trying to figure out what the Aeneid was really for, Natalie Haynes’ suggesting how the Ancients can inspire good modern living and numerous visits to the Ulster Museum’s many, many other attractions, including the giant Game of Thrones tapestry and the GCSE/A Level Art displays.

It goes without saying that this kind of event could well be taking pride of place in the CANI annual programme for the foreseeable future.


23 February saw the CANI4Schools initiative return to Dalriada School, Ballymoney to provide a series of curriculum-supporting talks for A Level Classical Civilisation students. Dr Peter Crawford, returning to his old school, initiated proceedings with the talk Defeating Goliath: The Persian Wars. This was followed by talks from Dr John Curran on the Aeneid and Augustan Rome.

CANI would like to thank Dalriada and Mr Bredin for inviting us to speak as it is this kind of event with so many enthusiastic pupils for which CANI was originally formed, demonstrating that interest in the Ancient World is alive and thriving.

Mr Bredin provided reassurance that the main brief of CANI4Schools was hit… “Many thanks indeed for coming to school… to deliver the lectures. The students have commented how useful they found them to their modules and several have been talking now about the possibility of studying some element of classics at University…”

As this was part of the CANI4Schools initiative, these talks are now part of our list of available resources should you, your school or group be interested in hosting a similar event.


In a late addition to the programme, on 5 March, CANI members were very fortunate to attend William Crawley’s interview of Professor Mary Beard at BBC Blackstaff as part of the eye-opening new series Civilisations. Over the course of 90 minutes, Prof. Beard spoke on a variety of subjects linked to the show, its making, its predecessor by Kenneth Clark.


On 7 March, CANI began its talks programme for the year with Dr Laura Pfuntner (QUB) speaking on ‘A Roman Holiday in Sicily.’ Dr Pfuntner presented the multifaceted approach Rome had towards Sicily. It could be an imperial training ground, a haven for pirates and slave revolts, an Italian workshop, granary and warehouse or a once cultured place in need of saving by the mighty Cicero in order to found a thriving tourist industry by the end of the Republic.


On 11 April, Laura Jenkinson of Greek Myth Comix presented on ‘Teaching Classics via Comics,’ tracing the history of sequential art ‘comics’ from cave paintings seeming to move in flickering light and Roman imperial victory columns. She also demonstrated how comics can not only bring more attention to the Classics but also how they can be superb learning and revision tools (as well as great fun!).


On 12 May, CANI Film Night III saw Don Chaffey’s 1963 epic version of Jason and the Argonauts screened in the Ulster Museum. Following an introduction by Katerina Kolotourou, the stop motion techniques of Ray Harryhausen brought the many obstacles in the search for the Golden Fleece to life – gods and goddesses, harpies and hydras, skeletons and statuesque automatons.


While not technically a CANI event, on 24 May, several of its members were involved in an Ancient History Workshop convened by Dr Laura Pfuntner at Queen’s University Belfast on the subject of ‘Warfare and Peacemaking in the Roman provinces in the first century BC.’ Drawing together scholars and students from several universities and subjects, a series of papers were presented on various aspects of war and peace surrounding the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Republic.


The CANI main 2017/18 programme was completed on 30 May when Dr Pamela Zinn (TTU) presented ‘Animals and Vegetarianism in Antiquity.’ Dr Zinn demonstrated how integral to the ancient life animals were not just as sources of food and burden, but in art, myth, religion, history and as pets. Lack of numbers, difficulty farming and need to use animals for other activities meant meat-eating was less widespread in the ancient world. But while there were some sympathetic philosophers, ancient vegetarianism seems to have been much less about aversion to meat-eating and more about the lack of available meat.

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In July 2018, the Belfast Summer School in Greek and Latin returned for its third year as 35 students from far and wide gathered at Queen’s University Belfast for beginner, intermediate and advanced level classes, as well as a translation workshop. By weeks’ end, a variety of selections from Homer, Ovid, Catullus, Caesar and Virgil had been tackled by the enthusiastic students.

The classes were supplemented by academic talks on the interpretation of dreams in ancient Greek medicine by Dr Steph Holton and a mock trial of Gaius Julius Caesar on the charge of Gallic genocide by Dr Peter Crawford.

Such was the success of the school that plans are already in place for next year’s edition as well as for a refresher day early in the New Year.

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This summer also saw CANI play host to the annual Classical Association of Ireland’s Summer School. On the weekend of 17-19 August, dozens gathered at Queen’s University Belfast to hear a series of talks on the subject of ‘Entertaining the Masses.’


Natalie Haynes provided a quick-witted, machine gun delivery of the keynote address on ‘Honour amongst Thebes’, and returned the next day for a conversation with CANI’s Helen McVeigh about the Classics and some questions from the audience.

Professor Helen Lovatt (Nottingham) investigated ‘Fun and Games in Ancient Epic’, highlighting the importance of both not only within the ancient stories but also in the social fabric of the ancient world.


 Dr Cressida Ryan (Oxford) asked ‘Why is Tragedy Entertaining?’ and answered it through the lyrics of the Bee Gee’s song ‘Tragedy’, while invoking Plato, Aristotle, Oedipus and Alfred Hitchcock.

Barry Trainor (QUB) then presented ‘All War and no Play: Entertainment at Sparta,’ highlighting that for all their militarism and austerity, the Spartans were capable of having fun, laughter and humour. Even their great law-giver, Lycurgus, felt that laughter was useful for Spartan society.

The final talk saw CANI‘s Helen McVeigh ask ‘Who Read Ancient Novels?’, using aspects of Chariton’s Callirhoe to suggest that the readers of such ancient fantasy were perhaps far less ill-educated than usually thought.


The CAI Summer School was closed out with a dinner and outing led by Dr Therese Cullen, an expert in early monastic Ireland and Patrician studies, taking in Nendrum monastery, Saul church, Downpatrick cathedral and Inch abbey.



After a postponement of our scheduled first talk of the 2018/19 programme, Dr Raoul McLaughlin stepped in at short notice on 21 November to present a talk regarding ‘Greek and Roman Voyages in the Black Sea.’ Following hot on the heels of the discovery of an intact ancient ship on the sea bed, Dr McLaughlin launched into the position of the Black Sea in the ancient world as a centre of east-west trade through the writings and travels of Arrian and others.


On 5 December 2018 Dr Maria Mili (Glasgow) presented a talk on ‘Objects in Boiotian cult’, focusing on a recently published dedicatory inscription found on a column in 2005 at the Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios in Boiotia. Dr Mili investigated the importance of consecrated artefacts to Greek religion and the potential links of this inscription to a dedication recorded by Herodotus and to the famous Lydian king, Croesus.

Speakers collage

CANI‘s 2018 programme was completed the following day, 6 December, with our now annual public reading of an ancient text. In the McClay Library at Queen’s University Belfast, this year’s choice had fallen upon selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Over the course of 5 hours and 31 reading slots, those in attendance were treated to the poetic tales of the Creation, Pyramus and Thisbe, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus and Euridice, King Midas and his golden touch, to name but a few.

Thanks to the generosity of all those who donated, both readers and those who were just passing through the coffee lounge, £170 was raised for the Simon Community NI.

2018-19 Programme

While the calendar year of 2018 has come to a close, the CANI programme for 2018/19 still has several events to run in the New Year.

2 February 2019 will see the Belfast Summer School offer its Ancient Languages Refresher Day in Queen’s University Belfast.

21 February will see the CANI4Schools initiative on the road again, returning once more to Dalriada School, Ballymoney to provide curriculum-supporting talks for A Level Classical Civilisation students.

On 7 March 2019, Dr Des O’Rawe (QUB) will look at Classics on early film with ‘Framing Antigone‘ in the Old Staff Common Room, Queen’s University, Belfast

On 14 March, CANI continues its close working relationship with the Ulster Museum, which will host our Schools’ Classics Conference, headlined by Prof. Michael Scott and providing curriculum-supporting talks on classical religion, archaeology, history and politics.

4 May will see the Ulster Museum host CANI Film Night IV with Disney’s Hercules being the film of choice this year.

On 22 May, Lynn Gordon (RBAI) with present a talk on the ‘Reception of Classics in Irish literature’ in the Canada Room, Queen’s University, Belfast

The 2018/19 programme will then be closed out with the return of the Belfast Summer School in Greek and Latin on the week of 22 July to 1 August.

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The CANI blog has continued its eclectic and multi-faceted entries in 2018. It has looked into the monastery of Monte Cassino and its destruction in 1944, the ‘single-handed’ conquest of an Adiabene fort by Sentius the Centurion, the Roman silver find on Traprain Law in Scotland, the reception of comets in Ancient History and Game of Thrones, a CANI trip to Newgrange, a look at the ancient Isle of Mann, while Amber Taylor provided fascinating and extremely valuable accounts at the benefits of (as well as the enthusiasm for) using aspects of the Ancient World to teach sections of the National Curriculum to primary schoolers.

2017/18 also saw CANI launch two publications of its own. The first is a quarterly newsletter reviewing and previewing our events, talks and online activities, the January edition rounding up our events in the last months of 2018 will be sent out to the CANI mailing list early in the New Year.

We also have the CANI Annual, which rounds up all of the blog posts published throughout the calendar year and some new material including quizzes and crosswords. You can download the 2017 edition at the following link…

If you would like any information about any of our upcoming events or would be interested in organising an event with us in addition to the programme, do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

We are also always willing to take contributions from our readers for the CANI blog, so get in touch if you have an idea or even an already completed piece lying around without a home.

We here at the Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to wish all of our friends and followers a Happy New Year! May Janus provide you with eyes on the past, future and present!

Peter Crawford, Amber Taylor, John Curran, Helen McVeigh, Barry Trainor and Katerina Kolotourou