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

Greater than Gibbon?

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

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


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

2017-03-11 22.31.46

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

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

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

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

Peter Crawford

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

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

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

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

Latin Vocabulary

BEA – beatus “blessed”

BEAT – beatus “blessed”

BAEATISSIMO – baeatissimo “most blessed”

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

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

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

Not very BAE.

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

The Bann Disc

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


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

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

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


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

Wattstown Roundabout, Coleraine

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


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

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


Golden cup from Mycenae. National Archaeological Museum in Athens,

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

But why take my word for it?

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


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

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

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

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

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