Those of you who have been following CANI since the earliest days of its 2014 reincarnation, you will know that the hoard of Roman silver found at Ballinrees near Coleraine in Northern Ireland and the circumstances of its deposit there have been the subjects of several pieces involving CANI members: the inaugural talk, a guest lecture for the Coleraine Historical Society and a published article for Classics Ireland.
Given the weight of focus on this Coleraine find in CANI pieces, you might be forgiven for viewing it as an isolated product of raiding, trading and/or political payments. However, the Coleraine Hoard is not the only silver find in Ireland – there is its ‘sister’ hoard at Balline, Co. Limerick from a similar period and at least two documented coin hoards of Quigg and McKinlay from the North Coast, nor is it part of a solely Irish phenomenon with Britain being the site of numerous late Roman hoards of various size, including the enormous Hoxne Hoard and the smaller, earlier but no less intriguing Falkirk Hoard.
Recent finds such as the Echt Hoard near Limburg in the Netherlands, on top of a whole lot of others, show that it is not even a specifically British or Irish phenomenon.
But it those finds from outside Roman territory on the British Isles and made up purely of silver like Coleraine and Balline that are the interest of this piece. Specifically it is the over 20kgs of silver of various sizes and shapes which make up what is known as the Traprain Law Hoard.
Unlike the Ballinrees find, the site of the hole in the ground in East Lothian from which this hoard of silver was plucked has a more straightforward explanation. The sheer fact that this Scottish hoard was found five years into an extensive nine-year excavation immediately suggests that archaeologists knew that there was something to be looked for on the hill called Traprain Law, about four miles east of Haddington in East Lothian, Scotland.
This 221m hill had a long history of human usage before it became the resting place of a large hoard of Roman silver. By the middle of the second millennium BC, it was a site of burial and by the first millennium BC, there is evidence of occupation and even defences.
This has seen Traprain Law classed as an Iron Age oppidum, and one of significant size for northern Britain, covering up to forty acres. This has helped fuel speculation about the exact nature of the ‘settlement’ on Traprain Law. Was it purely a religious burial site? Did it development into a permanent town? Was it a seasonal meeting place for the Votadini or was it a defensive hill fort, only retreated to in the face of Roman or Scotti invasion? It would later be used as a beacon site, to warn of English invasion. Perhaps it was all of these at various times.
Traprain Law’s archaeology suggests an occupation by the Votadini tribe, perhaps even as their principal settlement (called Curia by Ptolemy, Geo. II.3.7), between the 40s and the late second century, perhaps influenced by the arrival of the Romans in Britain and their subsequent withdrawal from the Antonine Wall. After a gap of a generation or two, the hill was again occupied from the 220s through the middle of the fifth century. The final abandoning of Traprain Law by the Votadini tribe and their proto-kingdom of Gododdin may coincide with the moving of their capital to Din Eidyn, the site of Edinburgh Castle.
Being a potential ‘capital’ for the Votadini or other Caledonian/Pictish tribes bordering the Roman Empire made Traprain Law a magnet for Roman material gathered through any number of means – raid, trade, religious devotion or diplomatic contact. Similar arguments over origins are made for the Balline and Coleraine Hoards, but with Traprain Law, its position on the Roman frontier and the existence of supposed diplomatic connections may see more decisive support for that collection of silver being a payment to a local chieftain to keep the peace or provide soldiers for the Roman army.
The archaeological dig which unearthed the Traprain Law Hoard began in 1914 under the leadership of Alexander Ormiston Curle. It was not until 1919 that pieces of silver plate started to emerge, along with drinking vessels, spoons, items marked with Christian symbols, remnants of a Roman officer’s uniform and various crushed and hacked up pieces of silver, some of which, despite their messy shape and size, were cut down to a specific weight, marking them as bullion. Some of the items were of high enough quality as to bring about suggestions of origins in some of the workshops in some of the major Roman cities of the Mediterranean.
For all the silver in the Traprain Law Hoard, there were only five Roman coins, in contrast to the 1,483 found in Ballinrees. The Traprain coins are also considerably clipped, but there is enough detail on them to aide their identification and therefore the dating of the hoard. The emperors depicted on the coins are Valens, Arcadius and Honorius, which puts the very earliest date in the last years of the fourth century but more likely the hoard comes from the first quarter of the fifth century.
Coin of Julian from Coleraine Hoard in the British Museum collection (1856, 1205.8)
The Traprain Law Hoard underwent some restoration where appropriate and was sent to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where it was CANI‘s good fortune to see it last month.
For more information and pictures on the Traprain Law hoard, go to https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/traprain-law-treasure/
Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator of Iron Age and Roman collections at National Museums Scotland, has also given talks and presentations on the Hoard.
Bland, R.F., Moorhead, T.S.N., and Walton, P., ‘Finds of late Roman silver coins from Britain: the contribution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme’ in F. Hunter, and K. Painter (eds.), Late Roman Silver: The Traprain treasure in context, (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2013), 117-166
Crawford, P.T. ‘The Coleraine Hoard and Romano-Irish Relations in Late Antiquity,’ Classics Ireland 21-22 (2017) 41-118
Curle, A.O., The Treasure of Traprain: A Scottish Hoard of Silver Plate, (Glasgow: Maclehose, Jackson and Co, 1923).
Hunter, F. and Painter, K. (eds.), Late Roman Silver: The Traprain treasure in context, (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2013)
Feachem, R.W. ‘The Fortifications on Traprain Law,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 89 (1955-6), 284-289
Ridgeway, W., ‘Niall of the Nine Hostages in Connexion with the Treasures of Traprain Law and Ballinrees, and the destruction of Wroxeter, Chester, Caerleon and Caerwent’ JRS 14 (1924), 123-126
The otherwise unknown Sentius wrote his name into the annals of Roman history, specifically Cassius Dio LXVIII.22.3, on the backdrop of the Roman emperor Trajan’s invasion and conquest of much of the Parthian Kingdom in 115. The catalyst of this Trajanic eastern invasion was the decision of the Parthian king, Osroes I, to forcibly establish two of his nephews, first Axidares and then Parthamasiris as king of Armenia without Roman consultation. In the eyes of Trajan, who may have been looking for any excuse to follow the in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, this overturning of over fifty years of Romano-Parthian cooperation over Armenia was a declaration of war. In 114, Trajan had invaded Armenia, rejecting Parthamasiris’ offer to serve as a Roman client and instead annexing Armenia as a Roman province.
The emperor did not stop there. This was not a war with Armenia; this was a war with Parthia. Therefore, in 115, he led a large-scale invasion of Parthian territory. There are some issues with the source material, but this was not just one grand strike through enemy territory in a mad dash for the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon. Perhaps demonstrating his want for more permanent conquest, Trajan had already called together at Antioch many of the client kings of the region, both Roman and Parthian. With his annexation of Armenia and his general demeanour, several of these kings who appeared before Trajan at Antioch recognised that the emperor meant business.
Trajan himself led part of his invasion force through Mesopotamia, incorporating Osrhoëne as a protectorate under Abargus VII by his sheer presence and subduing Batnae and Nisibis, the major cities of the subkingdom of Anthemusia. Having given full demonstration to his aims of conquest, Trajan found that some of those clients who had failed to appear at Antioch were more willing to come to see him. One of those was Mannus, ruler of Scenite Arabs of Mesopotamia. On the surface, this does not seem all that strange, particularly when it seems that Mannus was looking for peace with Trajan because the Parthian king “Osroes was making a campaign against him” (Dio LXVIII.22.1); however, things are not completely straightforward.
Dio also records that Mannus “was ready to withdraw from the parts of Armenia and Mesopotamia that he had captured,” (Dio LXVIII.22.1) suggesting that this Arab leader had taken up arms against not only the Parthian king but also some of the local subkingdoms and even potentially Roman territory in Armenia. This in itself demonstrates that a dichotomy of ‘pro-Parthian’ and ‘pro-Roman’ amongst the smaller kingdoms of the Middle East is too simplistic, with the likes of Mannus being willing and even able to go into business for themselves. Another reason for Trajan to not trust Mannus came in the Arab’s actions in the theatre where Sentius was to make his name – the Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene.
Situated on the right bank of the Tigris and dominated by the Upper and Lower Zab rivers, Adiabene was one of the strongest Parthian client kingdoms; indeed, throughout much of the first century BCE and first century CE, Adiabene appears to have been largely independent from Ctesiphon, making its king, Mebarsapes one of “the most prominent rulers of northern Mesopotamia” (Marciak (2017), 264). Much like Mannus, Mebarsapes may also have been able to expand the territory under his control by 114, including a foothold on the western side of the Tigris (Marciak (2017), 265). Such a loss of direct control by the Parthians in the region may explain not just the opportunistic acquisitiveness of Mannus and Mebarsapes but also of Trajan. These imperial ambitions and the ill-defined status of the region caused by any slackening of Parthian power meant that Adiabene was in the firing line of the legions.
Therefore, while Trajan was subduing Osrhoëne and Anthemusia, a second Roman contingent under the prominent Romano-Berber commander Lusius Quietus had crossed the Tigris and invaded Adiabene. Rather than submit to this invasion, Mebarsapes called for reinforcements from his neighbours: he received a band of auxiliaries from Mannus, a significant reason for Trajan’s suspicion of the Arab ruler (Dio LXVIII.22.2). By the time Mannus had arrived before the emperor seeking peace and forgiveness, his Arab auxiliaries along with the forces of Mebarsapes had already been defeated by Quietus. Such was the extent of his victory that the Romano-Berber general had been able to capture Singara and other cities unopposed. It may even be that seeing the opportunity for a swift conquest of Adiabene provided by Quietus’ defeat of Mebarsapes, Trajan decided to join his general in completing the job in 116 (Dio LXVIII.22.2).
While Quietus was surely capable of finishing the job in Adiabene, having a keen sense of history and perhaps even destiny, Trajan may have felt that a personal injection in the territory where Alexander the Great had defeated the Achaemenid Persian king Darius III at Gaugamela in 331BC would augur well for his own Parthian campaigns. However, Trajan’s crossing into Adiabene seems to have proven trickier than he would have liked. A local force, called ‘barbarians’ by Dio, challenged the emperor’s attempted “bridging the stream opposite the Gordyaean mountains,” (Dio LXVIII.26.2) which does not read like the Tigris or the Zab. It was only when Trajan deployed his specially made “prefabricated pontoons” (Bennett (1997), 201) on wagons and had them assembled, launched and laden with soldiers that the nerve of the ‘barbarians’ broke, allowing for an orderly crossing. Trajan’s building and then deploying of machines may highlight that Quietus had been having some issues with the lack of available timber to bridge rivers and take settlements and ultimately complete the conquest of Adiabene (Dio LXVIII.26.1-3).
With two significant Roman forces now in his territory, Mebarsapes seems to have retreated to another of his more formidable or perhaps more accurately his last fortresses at Adenystrae. The location of this fortress is problematic, with the normal identification with Dunaysir now being rejected on geographical grounds – it cannot have been further west than Nisibis. It may instead be the Ad Herculem listed on the Peutinger Map near Hatra (Dillemann (1962), 285; Marciak (2017), 368). At least one of the Roman forces in Adiabene swept south capturing Nineveh, Arbela and Gaugamela, and given the historical importance of these settlements, it may be that it was Trajan’s column that was forging after the Adiabene king.
Keen to see to the final subjugation of the region as peacefully as possible, Trajan (or Quietus) sent one of his centurions, Sentius, as an envoy to Adenystrae to treat with Mebarsapes. Being chosen for such a task would suggest that Sentius was a well-renowned army officer, and that he either had significant experience in the east or was personally trusted by Trajan, perhaps having served in Dacia. Angered by his defeat by Quietus, Trajan’s invasion and possibly the demands of surrender Sentius now made of him, Mebarsapes broke one of the cardinal rules of international diplomacy: he imprisoned the centurion envoy. The treatment of his envoy will have enraged Trajan and it is no surprise to find the Roman army now descending upon Adenystrae, intent on taking the fortress by force regardless of how difficult a task it may have been.
The emperor need not have worried. Rather than sit on his hands in prison, Sentius had been devising his own plan to undo the defences of Adenystrae. He found help in the form of his fellow prisoners, although the lack of depth record by Dio about this episode makes any attempt to identify these prisoners fraught with speculation. Were they Assyrian political opponents of Mebarsapes? Local thieves or raiders? Or even fellow Romans of Sentius, either part of his embassy or men taken captive from the armies of Trajan or Quietus in the fighting or as they foraged in Adiabene? Whoever they were, they agreed to help Sentius escape.
However, once out of his cell, the centurion stopped short of fleeing the fortress, either because this would draw attention to him or because he had other plans. Perhaps demonstrating the military background of many of the Adenystrae prisoners or the merely his own abilities, Sentius fought or sneaked his way through the fort, killing the garrison commander, who may even have been Mebarsapes himself. He then made his way to the gates and opened them to the approaching Roman army.
It would be easy to view this through Hollywood-tinted glasses: the gates of Adenystrae flung open to reveal a blood-soaked Sentius carrying the head of the Adiabene king and presenting it and the fortress to Trajan. Instead, the likelihood is that Sentius and the prisoners stole through Adenystrae, killed the garrison commander (possibly in his sleep), took over the gatehouse and sent some kind of message to the Romans, before opening the gates to the advance units of Trajan’s army, who secured the fort for the emperor.
It is perhaps also worth noting that in his short record of the episode Dio does not confirm that Sentius survived the ordeal in Adenystrae. Again, it might seem a little too ‘Hollywood’, but it is possible that the brave centurion was mortally wounded attempting to keep control of the gates long enough for Trajanic forces to enter the fortress in sufficient numbers.
If he did survive, one can only imagine the rewards that Trajan bestowed upon him for facilitating the completion of the conquest of Adiabene, now incorporated as the Roman province of Assyria, and opening the road to Hatra and ultimately Ctesiphon.
Bennent, J. Trajan Optimus Princeps: A Life and Times. London (1997)
Dillemann, L. Haute Mesopotamie orientale et pays adjacents. Paris (1962)
Lepper, F.A. Trajan’s Parthian War. Chicago (1948)
Marciak, M. Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene: Three Regna Minora of Northern Mesopotamia Between East and West. Leiden (2017)
Is it ever permissible to destroy a site or building of historical value because of possible military applications? The damage done by insurgents, jihadis, rebels, governments and western forces in the Middle East over the previous two decades provides plenty of more recent examples, but instead I have chosen to look at a contentious episode from the Second World War – the Allied bombing of the ancient abbey of Monte Cassino.
By early 1944, the Allied invasion of Italy had lost momentum. Mountainous terrain combined with winter weather and the well-prepared defences of the German commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, had reduced the two-pronged Allied attack to a slow and at times murderous crawl. Pressure to break through Kesselring’s Gustav Line was increased by the Allied landings at Anzio in late January, over 60 miles behind the German defensive line and a mere 35 miles from Rome. The Germans had quickly encircled the Anzio beachhead and without proper reinforcement Major-General John Lucas’ US VI Corps faced being grounded out of existence by the larger German Fourteenth Army of General Mackensen.
Kesselring, Clark, Vietinghoff, Freyberg and Alexander
This brought the showdown between General Mark Clark’s US Fifth Army and General Vietinghoff’s German Tenth Army around the small town of Cassino into sharp focus. Of particular interest was the hill that overlooked the town, Monte Cassino, as its heights afford an excellent view of the valley below, so any Allied attempts to move on the town would have been under intense scrutiny from any German forces on the hill.
That in itself constituted enough of a military problem for the Allies as the German Gustav Line incorporated much of the surrounding area. However, what makes this whole affair so contentious is that on top of Monte Cassino stood a vast Benedictine monastery.
First settled in the fifth century BC, Cassino was a stronghold of the Volsci of central Italy. It was they who established the first lookout/citadel at the summit of Monte Cassino. The town became Casinum following the Roman defeat of the Volsci in 312BC and a temple of Apollo was erected at the former Volscian citadel. Archaeological digs have found evidence of the Roman presence on Monte Cassino, although no remains of the temple have yet to be discovered. This would not be all that surprising for despite being near the very centre of the Roman Empire, Monte Cassino had not been free from violence. The collapse of western Roman territorial integrity in the fifth century exposed central Italy to the degradations of Huns, Goths, Vandals and other Germanic tribesmen. This meant that by the 520s Cassino had been almost completely abandoned by the time St Benedict of Nursia arrived to found the monastery of Monte Cassino.
Despite having become a bishopric seat, Pope Gregory I claimed that the area including Cassino was still largely pagan by the early sixth century (Pope Gregory I, The Life of Saint Benedict VII.10-11), although it has been pointed out that it is common place for in such hagiographies for the saintly protagonist to have to deal with the presence of paganism and demonic interference (Christie (2006), 113), so it may be more a literary topos with Gregory following in the footsteps of Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St Martin and even the Biblical story of the Israelites entering the Holy Land (Exodus 34:12-14). It may well be instead that Benedict found the temple/citadel on Monte Cassino deserted but still with some surviving pagan artefacts, sculptures and buildings. His smashing of statues and altars was possibly more of a gentle conversion to chapels to St Martin and St John the Baptist.
At Monte Cassino, Benedict compiled the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for western monasticism, advocating that monks pray, work and care for the sick, with the monastery containing what is considered to be the first hospital in Europe to achieve the latter precept. The growth of the Monte Cassino hospital necessitated a constant search for new medical knowledge, so the monks obtained as many books as they could find, establishing what would become the world’s finest medical science library by the 10th century.
Such was the rapid growth in reputation for Monte Cassino that it not only drew physicians from around the Mediterranean, but also famous religionists and political leaders. In around 543, Totila, king of the Goths, came to visit Benedict; during the 8th century it was home to both Paul the Deacon, historian of the Lombards, and Carloman, the eldest son of Charles Martel, the Frankish victor at the Battle of Tours and therefore uncle of Charlemagne. Carloman was one of several prominent men to be laid to rest at the monastery along with St Benedict. Another was the man responsible for Monte Cassino achieving its peak fame in the 11th century, the abbot Desiderius, who later became Pope Victor III.
Unfortunately, the growth in spiritual and medical reputation of Monte Cassino and its Benedictine monks could not divest it of its prominent strategic location. A generation after St Benedict’s death, the Lombards sacked the abbey in 581/589, leading to its abandonment for over a century. Even the body of Benedict reputedly removed to Fleury Abbey, in modern Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire near Orleans, France. The seemingly benevolent donation of lands around Cassino to the monastery by Gisulf II in 744 may be more about taking advantage of the strategic position of Monte Cassino as a buffer between the Lombard principality of Benevento and remaining Roman lands in southern Italy. In 884, the area came under attack from Saracen raiders, who burned the monastery, and it would be sacked again in 1799 by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte.
That near millennium gap between sacks may reflect the growing reputation and stature of Monte Cassino; however, it may also highlight the ups and downs of the monastery as an institution and an edifice. A major rebuild in the 11th century under Desiderius saw to it that the site was no longer just the twin chapels and hospital of Benedict’s day, but for all the Italian and Contantinopolitan splendour this rebuild brought, the incorporation of Monte Cassino as a cathedral by Pope John XXII in 1321 and an earthquake of 1349 marked a period of steady decline. With the dissolution of the Italian monasteries in 1866, Monte Cassino would be classed as a national monument. This chequered history does not mean that the monastery had fallen into complete disrepair; far from it. Indeed, it would be the continued strength of much of the masonry as well as its strategic position which was to play a significant role in that fateful decision of 15 February 1944.
Building the defensive lines against the Allied invasion of Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring had ordered German units not to include the monastery itself as part of the Gustav Line because of its historical significance and had informed the Allies thus. However, the Allied commander of the New Zealand II Corps that was to form the spearhead of the attempt to relieve Anzio, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, along with Major-General F.S. Tuker, whose Indian 4th Division would lead any attempt on the hill, felt that the monastery posed a major threat to Allied interests should the Germans occupy it. One officer stated that “Wherever you went, there was the monastery, looking at you…”
Freyberg’s initial request for an aerial bombardment of the monastery was rejected by General Clark, who suggested that not only did such an act contravene an existing agreement with Kesselring but the monastery had become a refuge for many of the inhabitants of Cassino itself. The killing of innocents would hand the Germans a propaganda victory that Hitler’s master manipulator Joseph Goebbels would exploit to the fullest. However, Clark’s most important argument from a military standpoint was that turning the monastery into rubble would create even stronger fortifications for the Germans, who would undoubtedly occupy the monastery once the Allies had bombed it.
Reconnaissance aircraft were sent for a low-altitude pass and brought back contrasting reports. Lieutenant-Generals I.C. Eaker and J.L. Devers, backed by the British and American press, claimed to have seen “a radio mast […] German uniforms hanging on a clothesline in the abbey courtyard; [and] machine gun emplacements 50 yards (46 m) from the abbey walls.” (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 161, 185). Conversely, Major-General Geoffrey Keyes of U.S. II Corps, who flew over Monte Cassino several times, reported that he had seen no evidence of a German presence. When informed of others’ claims of having seen enemy troops there, he stated: “They’ve been looking so long they’re seeing things.” (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 169)
Major-General Kippenberger of the New Zealand Corps HQ opined that the Germans were probably using the hill itself to observe the Allies, even if there was no evidence for it. Cutting right to the source of the problem and ignoring any agreement over the status of the monastery and its historical significance, Kippenberger also stated that once the fighting broke out, it would be very likely that the Germans would in some way use Monte Cassino as a shelter or staging ground. It would be just too tempting not to…
“Undamaged it was a perfect shelter but with its narrow windows and level profiles an unsatisfactory fighting position. Smashed by bombing it was a jagged heap of broken masonry and debris open to effective fire from guns, mortars and strafing planes as well as being a death trap if bombed again. On the whole I thought it would be more useful to the Germans if we left it unbombed.” (Majdalany (1957), 121-122)
Tuker made his own more historiographical survey of the monastery. Lacking clear and detailed intelligence of the make up of the monastery, Tuker reputedly resorted to a book he found in a Naples bookshop dated to 1879 about the construction of Monte Cassino. In a subsequent memorandum to Freyberg, he concluded that should the monastery been targeted for destruction to prevent or oust German occupation, the sheer extent of the masonry would require more drastic action than field engineers and normal bombs. The 150 foot tall and 10 foot wide walls caused particular concern with Tuker claiming that the usual 1,000 pound bombs would be “next to useless” (Majdalany (1957), 114-115). It was Tuker’s opinion that any attack on the German placements within the monastery would only be successful if “the garrison was reduced to helpless lunacy by sheer unending pounding for days and nights by air and artillery,” (Holmes (2001), 113) which would only be achieved by the use of some of the most powerful ‘blockbuster’ bombs available to the Allied Air Force at the time.
Faced with this conundrum of potential German occupation of such a strategic sight, current or future, a gentleman’s agreement with Kesselring, and civilians taking refuge within the historic monastery, the Allied commander-in-chief for Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander, chose to err on the side of military caution. Not willing to take the chance that the Germans were already in the monastery, Alexander authorised Freyberg’s request and on 15th February 1944, two waves of bombers attacked Monte Cassino.
Despite the amount of ‘blockbusters’ dropped on the monastery, it appears certain that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge in the abbey (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 211). The Germans had not occupied Monte Cassino pre-15th February 1944, a fact later admitted by the official British history (Butler (1973), V.695).
Given the imprecision of the high altitude heavy bombers targeting the monastery, it is reputed that they came closer to killing General Clark 17 miles away at the Fifth Army HQ, with a bomb exploded only yards from his office, than they did any Germans near Monte Cassino (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 203).
There were survivors of this ruin, most of whom fled Monte Cassino at first light on 16th February 1944. Only about 40 people remained: six monks, three tenant farmer families, children, the badly wounded and the dying. But for those who remained, the ordeal was not yet over. Having decided that monastery was a military target, the hill was shelled again the following night. Those civilians and monks able to leave did so on the morning of 17th February, following a mule path to the German lines.
In the wake of these survivors, the fears of General Clark and Major-General Kippenberger were realised as the German First Parachute Regiment occupied the ruins and turned it into a fortress. No amount of Allied attacks could dislodge the entrenched Germans over the next three months at the cost of up to 2,000 Allied lives. The monastery was only abandoned when the Gustav Line was breached elsewhere, leaving a regiment of the Polish Twelfth Podolian Uhlans cavalry to occupy what was left uncontested in the early hours of 18th May.
Thankfully, the far-sighted German Lieutenant-Colonel Julius Schlegel and Capt. Maximilian Becker had transferred the monastery’s library which included centuries-old manuscripts of Cicero, Horace, Virgil and Seneca as well as numerous masterpieces by Titian, Raphael, Tintoretto and Leonardo da Vinci to the Vatican, so the cultural price the bombing was not as high as it might have been. However, a building of immense historical significance had been obliterated for little or no strategic or tactical gain and caused the death of 230 civilians who had sought safety within its walls. As Luigi Maglione, Cardinal Secretary of State to Pope Pius XII bluntly stated to Harold Tittmann, American diplomat to the Vatican, the destruction of Monte Cassino had been “a colossal blunder… a piece of a gross stupidity” (Hapgood and Richardson (2002), 225).
Certain military circumstances may require the strategic and/or tactic need to destroy treasured sites but at Monte Cassino, caution, paranoia and propaganda seem to have overridden common sense. The overall commander, General Alexander, should be absolved of some blame even if he authorised the destruction for he was trusting the report of his man on the ground. As for Freyberg’s reasons for pressing for the bombing, he may well have been convinced that there were Germans already within the walls of the monastery; however, he must have known from reconnaissance and Tuker’s book that the destruction wrought by bombing would have only made the monastery an even better defensive position.
The arguments leading to the destruction of the monastery rest on its potential threat rather than its actual state of occupation. Perhaps anti-German propaganda in the western press as well as their own experiences over four years of war made Allied officers more willing to view their opponents as the dastardly and treacherous Hun. Monte Cassino was a potentially formidable impediment and Freyberg did not want to take the chance that Field Marshal Kesselring might be overruled by his untrustworthy superiors or by the spur of the moment desperation of his soldiers in the heat of battle.
The destruction of the monastery could easily have been avoided. In times of war hasty decisions can be made but perhaps on this occasion Freyberg and his officers had put too much faith in the maxim “Whoever masters the hills, masters the valleys” and neglected to fully countenance the consequences of their actions.
The Abbey was rebuilt after the war, reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
Bloch, H. Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages. Rome (1986)
Butler, J. (ed.) The Mediterranean and Middle East V: The Campaign in Sicily 1943 and The Campaign in Italy 3rd September 1943 to 31st March 1944. History of the Second World War. (1973) Uckfield
Christie, N. From Constantine to Charlemagne: An Archaeology of Italy AD 300-800. Aldershot (2006)
Hapgood, D. and Richardson, D. Monte Cassino: The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II. Cambridge (2002)
Holmes, R. Battlefields of the Second World War. (2001) BBC Worldwide
Majdalany, F. Cassino: Portrait of a Battle. London (1957)
At midnight on 28 July 1588, a squadron of eight warships were filled them with pitch, brimstone, tar and some gunpowder, and cast them downwind among the closely anchored vessels of the Spanish Armada. They failed to do their job in setting any Spanish ships on fire, but sowed enough confusion to break the Spanish formation and enable the English to complete the frustrating of the Armada’s plans at the subsequent Battle of Gravelines.
While this might be the first time that many a history student was introduced to the concept of fireships, it was by no means the first time that such a weapon had been used in naval warfare. It was not even the first time that the Spanish had been confronted with them in the 1580s. Just three years earlier, in 1585, Dutch rebels had used not just conventional fireships but also a series of larger ships packed with gunpowder, essentially floating bombs called ‘hellburners’, to destroy a bridge of ships at the Siege of Antwerp.
However, fireships long pre-date the invention of gunpowder, although they were a relatively rare occurrence. This was for rather logical and practical reasons – it was setting fire to your own ships and fire itself is not a particularly controllable phenomenon. Indeed, these two issues could combine very easily – your fireships making fired ships out of the rest of your fleet…
Possibly the oldest account of the military use of a fireship comes in Thucydides’ depiction of the prelude to the final climactic Battle of the Great Harbour in 413BC during the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily.
“The rest the enemy tried to burn by means of an old merchantman which they filled with faggots and pine-wood, set on fire, and let drift down the wind which blew full on the Athenians. The Athenians, however, alarmed for their ships, contrived means for stopping it and putting it out, and checking the flames and the nearer approach of the merchantman, thus escaped the danger.” (Thucydides VII.53.4)
Despite being successfully preventing the burning of the remainder of their fleet, the Athenians lost up to eighteen ships and their crews in the engagement and the prominent general Eurymedon. Their victory also encouraged the Syracusans to make the decisive decision to blockade the Great Harbour, sealing the fate of the entire Athenian expedition and quite possibly the Athenian Empire itself.
It was not just against other ships that fireships could be deployed in the ancient world. During the momentous, landscape-altering siege of the Phoenician island city of Tyre in 332BC by Alexander the Great, the Macedonians constructed a causeway to connect the city to the shore.
To counteract this, the Tyrians…”filled a vessel… with dry twigs and other combustible wood… as much chaff and as many torches as possible… pitch, brimstone, and whatever else was calculated to foment a great flame. They also stretched out a double yard-arm upon each mast; and from these they hung caldrons into which they had poured or cast materials likely to kindle flame which would extend to a great distance.” Arrian, Anabasis II.19
Through oars, sail and towing, the Tyrians sent their contraption crashing straight into the causeway and when set alight, it “began to spread flames far and wide, which, before they could be prevented, seized upon the towers and other works that had been placed at the head of the causeway” (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.3-4). With the causeway greatly weakened by the conflagration and attacks from the city, a storm arose and battered the causeway to pieces with wind and wave (Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander IV.3.6-7).
The Rhodians of Eudamus/Eudorus, alongside their Roman allies under Aemilius/Regillus, made good use of fire and perhaps fireships at the battle of Myonessus 190BC. The Seleucid fleet of Antiochus III under Polyxenidas looked to be about to outflank the Romano-Rhodian force, only for the Rhodian admiral to bring “his fire-ships against Polyxenidas first, scattering flames everywhere” (Appian, The Syrian Wars V.27). The Romans may also have used fire-laden ships to escape being surrounded at Panormus (cf. Livy XXXVII.30)
However, it must be said that in the accounts of Myonessus from Livy and Appian the exact meaning of ‘fire-ships’ can appear to be confused at times – it is not particularly clear whether each other is speaking of a ship set on fire to be directed an enemy position or fleet or a ship laden with men throwing or firing missiles which are on fire. My suspicion is that Livy is speaking of the latter and Appian is erroneously speaking of the former.
During the Third Punic War, in 149BC, the Carthaginians under Hasdrubal the Boeotarch and Himilco Phameas took advantage of the poor decision of the Roman consul Lucius Marcius Censorinus to anchor his fleet in a position which exposed it to the wind.
Subsequently they “attached ropes to some small boats and hauled them behind the walls, so that they should not be observed by the enemy, and filled them with dry twigs and tow. Then they pushed them back, and as they turned the corner and came in sight of the enemy, they poured brimstone and pitch over the contents, spread the sails, and, as the wind filled them, set fire to the boats. These, driven by the wind and the fury of the flames against the Roman ships, set fire to them and came a little short of destroying the whole fleet” (Appian, The Punic Wars 99)
Several years before he became the driving force behind the conspiracy which saw the assassination of Julius Caesar, Gaius Cassius Longinus had already proven a thorn in the side of the dictator in 48BC when he made significant use of fireships against Caesar’s navy.
“Cassius hurried with his ships to Messana before Pomponius could learn of his approach, and finding him in a state of disorganization, with no surveillance and no fixed order of battle, with the aid of a strong and favourable wind he sent against the fleet of Pomponius some merchant-ships loaded with pine, pitch, tow, and other combustibles and burnt all thirty-five ships, of which twenty were decked…Cassius departed thence to Vibo to the fleet of Sulpicius, and our ships having been moored to the shore in the same way as before, Cassius, with the advantage of a favourable wind, sent down some merchant-vessels prepared for burning, and the fleet having caught fire on each wing, five ships were consumed.” (Caesar, Civil War III.101)
It may also be that Agrippa and Octavian used some form of fireships to break the stalemate at Actium. They are certainly recorded using a variety of fire missiles and discharging pots full of combustibles against Antony’s ships (Cassius Dio L.34). With or without fireships, Octavian and Agrippa’s victory at Actium helped usher in a period of Roman domination of the Mediterranean which was to last for the next five centuries and saw the opportunities for the deployment of fireships decline greatly.
However, fireships were not the preserve of the Ancient Mediterranean. They were deployed during the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208/209, fought along the Yangtze River between the allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan against the attempted reunification of Han China by the Han warlord, Cao Cao.
Seeing that Cao Cao had chained his ships from stem to stern, possibly aiming to reduce seasickness, an opposing captain, Huang Gai had a squadron of large ships filled with kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil. He also contacted Cao Cao to inform him that he and his ships were will to defect. This probably explains why the Han warlord allowed the enemy ships to get so close – Huang Gai’s men, who were setting the fireships on course, repeatedly shouted “We surrender!” as they approached. Carried by a south-easterly wind, Huang Gai’s fireships wrought havoc in Cao Cao’s fleet and even spread to his landward camp.
The destruction and confusion caused by the fire allowed allied forces to win a major victory, which proved a decisive blow to the Han dynasty’s attempt to recover territory south of the Yangtze. Just over a decade after the fireships at Red Cliffs, the Han dynasty was abolished by Cao Cao’s son, Cao Pi, while the victorious leaders along the Yangtze, Sun Quan and Liu Bei had founded imperial dynasties of their own, ushering in the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history (220-280).
The Chinese continued to use fireships, or at least think that they were still of military use for centuries to come. They appeared in the military compendium called Wujing Zongyao (sometimes translated as Complete Essentials for the Military Classics) written in the early 1040s under the Northern Song dynasty. It must be said though that this compendium also includes recipes for gunpowder and various ways of using it as a fire-starter or explosive and instructions in how to build a Chinese version of the Greek Fire flamethrower (Needham (1987), 83).
Back in the western world, the collapse of Roman domination of the Mediterranean in the fifth century saw the opportunity for fireships to return, particular when one of the new players in naval warfare were faced by the still potent and potentially overwhelming extent of forces that Rome and Constantinople could bring together.
A significant case came in 468 during the expedition against Vandal Africa launched by the eastern Roman emperor Leo I and supported by his western counterpart Anthemius and the western magister militum Ricimer. Under the command of Leo’s brother-in-law, Basiliscus, a vast Roman fleet arrived off Mercurium, modern Cape Bon in Tunisia. The Vandal king Geiseric managed to extract a five day truce from Basiliscus (an action which saw significant ridicule and suspicion fall on the Roman general), although that was hardly enough to form an army and fleet capable of standing up to the expedition on land or prepare Carthage for a prolonged siege.
What Geiseric did do was prepare his fleet for when the wind changed, because Basiliscus had anchored his ships fleet in a position vulnerable to onshore winds. The Vandal king had a number of empty ships towed with his main fleet to Mercurium. When the onshore winds came, these empty ships were set alight, hinting that there were some combustible materials aboard, and directed into the huddled mass that was the Roman fleet now pinned to the coast.
With the Romans caught unprepared and anchored close together, the fire ships wrought havoc in their ranks, the flames jumping quickly from ship to ship. “And as the fire advanced in this way the Roman fleet was filled with tumult, as was natural, and with a great din that rivalled the noise caused by the wind and the roaring of the flames, as the soldiers together with the sailors shouted orders to one another and pushed off with their poles the fire-boats and their own ships as well, which were being destroyed by one another in complete disorder” (Procopius, BV I.6.20-21).
Many of those which survived the fire and the confusion found that the Vandal fleet was waiting to ram them. This saw significant numbers of ships either sunk or fixed in place for Vandal boarding parties to swarm all over them, taking the ships and their crews as booty. Geiseric’s fireships had successfully broached the gap in naval numerical strength between the Vandal kingdom and the Roman Empire, and in doing so quite possibly saved the former and played a role in dooming the western half of the latter.
The naval application of Greek Fire in the late seventh century increased the use of fire in naval battles, becoming a vital part of the Roman imperial navy. Ship-mounted flamethrowers played particularly prominent roles in saving Constantinople from a series of sieges – the two Arab sieges of 674–678 and 717–718, the rebellion of Thomas the Slav against Michael II the Amorian in 821-822 and the defence by Romanos I Lekapenos against the Rus’ forces of Igor of Kiev in 941.
The naval deployment of Greek Fire was certainly not the end of the use of more traditional fireships until the invention of gunpowder. During their siege of Frankish Paris in 885-886, the Vikings filled three warships with combustible material and pulled them upriver in a failed attempt to destroy the Franks’ fortified bridges across the Seine to the Île de la Cité.
Retold in De bellis Parisiacæ urbis by Abbo Cernuus, a Neustrian Benedictine monk and poet of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, who witnessed the siege first hand, these Viking fireships fell prey to one of the potential flaws with setting wooden ships on fire – they sank before they could set the Frankish bridge alight. While the fireships did weaken the bridge, it was not enough to present the Vikings with an opportunity to capture the city. That said, the internal politics of Francia did see the Vikings allowed to bypass Paris and raid Burgundy, which was in rebellion against the Carolingian emperor, Charles III the Fat.(Logan (1991), 131; Davis (2001), 54; Bennet, Bradbury, DeVries, Dickie, and Jestice (2005), 222).
Know of any other examples of fireships being used in the ancient world?
Adams, Anthony; Rigg, A.G. (2004). “A Verse Translation of Abbo of St. Germain’s Bella Parisiacae urbis”. Journal of Medieval Latin. 14: 1–68
Davis, Paul K. (2001). Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo. New York:
Logan, F. Donald (1991). The Vikings in History. London
Needham, Joseph (1987). Science and Civilisation in China: Military technology: The Gunpowder Epic, Volume 5, Part 7. New York
Classicists, ancient historians, and the general reader are familiar with the story of a family man, separated from his wife and baby son, and reunited joyfully after 20 years. The myth of the abduction of Helen by Paris, the 10-year Trojan War which followed, and the further 10-year-long homecoming of Odysseus to Ithaka, is contained within, among other works, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
The Greek epic cycle of myths tell us that the Greeks sailed to Troy in order to save Helen, wife of Menelaus, and restore her to her rightful home in Sparta with her husband and daughter. War ensued and Troy was eventually overcome when the Greeks concealed themselves within a wooden horse. For Odysseus, a decade of war was followed by another decade of wandering. He was detained by Calypso for seven years, and endured many dangerous adventures such as capture by the giant Polyphemus the Cyclops and a journey to the Underworld.
Despite losing his fleet of ships and all his men in a series of incredible and fantastic adventures, Odysseus’ story has a happy ending. He is reunited with his wife Penelope, who has been avoiding marriage to one of the many suitors who have moved into the palace. So sure is Penelope that her husband will eventually return to her, that she does everything in her power to repel the suitors who are intent on destroying Odysseus’ palace and using up his belongings. She insists that she will marry one of the suitors once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, but every night, after weaving all day, she unpicks her work to delay the shroud’s completion. At the time of Odysseus’ homecoming, his son Telemachus, a baby when Odysseus left for Troy, is now grown to manhood. Father and son join together to brutally slaughter the suitors (no Greek myth is complete without the bloodbath), and the family live happily ever after.
The ancient Greek myths are magical, exciting and often pitiless in their violence. While it is unlikely that a 10-year war was fought for a beautiful woman or that Odysseus endured this dangerous and terrifying journey home to Ithaka, the waters around Troy were indeed important trade routes, as they were situated near the mouth of the Hellespont which leads to the Sea of Marmaris, and, by extension, the Black Sea.
It was only during certain months of the year that marine conditions were calm enough to allow safe passage through the Hellespont and it is likely that Trojan officials imposed tolls on ships for the privilege of waiting nearby for the weather to ease. Not all visiting ships would have been content with this arrangement and fighting surely broke out. Hittite inscriptions indicate that commercial agreements were forged with peoples called “Ahhiyawa” (the Achaean Greeks?) and a city called “Wilusa” (Ilion?) was mentioned. Unfortunately, the truth remains a mystery.
Moving forward 3000 years, we come to the story of Hugh Rogan, one of many thousands of Irish men and women who journeyed to the so-called New World, attempting to escape the poverty and hardship of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The harsh, 3000 mile journey across the Atlantic to Philadelphia could take as long as 12 weeks.
Hugh Rogan’s odyssey to the New World took place approximately 35 years after the lesser-known 1740/41 famine which killed 38% of the population, a proportionately greater loss than the numbers who died during the Great Famine which occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Hugh’s story is kept alive by the Ulster-American Folk Park, a living museum in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, which tells the story of Irish emigration. The Folk Park houses original properties from both Northern Ireland and America which have been painstakingly photographed, catalogued, bricks numbered, and transported to the site of the museum to be rebuilt.
On the tour around the museum, visitors are introduced to homes and lifestyles typical of Ulster people during the 1700s. Visitors are guided towards the ship to ‘sail’ across the Atlantic. On disembarkation, they find that they have arrived in the New World where exhibits include wagons, smokehouses and log cabins.
The Museum’s final exhibit is the Tennessee Rogan Plantation House, built by Hugh’s son Bernard. Hugh was born in 1747 near Strabane in County Tyrone. At the age of 26, he married Nancy, 10 years his junior. When their son Bernard was less than a year old, Hugh left his family to travel to America. There are conflicting reports of his reasons for leaving. One story states that Hugh had become active in fighting the oppression of British landlords, and was forced to leave Ireland with his brother-in-law Declan Carlin. An alternative reason given for his departure was that he intended to establish a business in America and would return, in time, for his wife and son. He arrived successfully in America, but before he could return to Ireland to collect his family, the War of Independence broke out and he found himself once again fighting against the British Crown.
Hugh remained in America and settled in Tennessee, and there are reports of him participating in many brave exploits both in the War of Independence and in protecting the local community from the Native American Indians. A decade after his arrival, the war against the British was over. Hugh believed it was now an opportune time to travel back to Ireland to his wife and son. His brother-in-law, Declan, who had also left his wife in Ireland, had married a local girl and had no intention of ever returning home. Declan was worried that if Hugh made it back to Ireland, he would tell his wife what he had done. So Declan persuaded Hugh that Nancy believed her husband to be dead and that she had remarried in Ireland.
Hugh remained in Tennessee for another 10 years when he was tracked down by a nephew who had recently emigrated from Ireland to America. The nephew brought a letter from Nancy begging Hugh to come home. Overjoyed that his wife had not remarried after all, Hugh returned to Ireland to be reunited with his family.
When Odysseus returned to Ithaka, he had been disguised by the goddess Athena as an old man so he could successfully defeat the suitors who were simultaneously competing for Penelope’s hand in marriage, eating all the food in the palace, and partying with the maids. Hugh did not need any such disguise. When Nancy was told that an old man with grey hair had arrived in town claiming to be Hugh, she replied, “That can’t be my Hugh, he has red hair!” Nancy had remained faithful to Hugh for 20 years and still remembered him as a young man.
We can only guess at the stories which Hugh told Nancy to provide proof of his identity. Penelope tested Odysseus by asking the nurse to move the bed outside the bedroom and spread it with blankets. This was impossible because Odysseus himself had carved the bed into an olive tree. When he protests, Penelope knows without doubt that this is her husband. Although there is contention over the point at which Homer’s Odyssey ended, by book 23 line 296 the reunion of husband and wife is concluded by their going to the olive wood bed together.
Nancy and Hugh’s love story continued with their arrival in Tennessee in 1797 after a journey over sea and land which lasted more than nine months. A short time later, Nancy gave birth to a second son named Francis. Hugh died in 1813 at the age of 66 while Nancy survived him by another 26 years, living to the age of 82. The descendants of Hugh and Nancy can be found in Sumner County, Tennessee, while Rogans continue to live in the same area of County Tyrone.
So far we have seen ancient influences on the use of molten metal, battlefield tactics, the burning of a daughter in search of divine favour and the role of a woman, her actions and fate in sparking a decades-long struggle across two continents. In this the fifth entry in GoTAH, we will look at an ancient structure and its counterpart in G.R.R. Martin’s world of Ice and Fire, both on screen and in the book series.
There is a more prominent anciently-inspired structure – the 800-foot tall Wall and that of the emperor Hadrian in the north of England (and we will almost certainly return to that connection in a later instalment), but instead we will cross the Narrow Sea from Westeros to the northernmost of Essos’ Nine Free Cities, Braavos.
There are numerous interesting aspects to this city such as it having been founded by runaway slaves from Valyria, keeping its existence secret for 111 years, home to the most dangerous sect of assassins, the Faceless Men, and equally dangerous Iron Bank many of which have inspirations from ancient, medieval and modern history.
However, as the video and map above suggests, the most recognisable structure in Braavos looms over the entrance to the lagoon – the Titan of Braavos.
The magnificent structure was so revered in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire that it appeared in the pages of Lomas Longstrider’s Wonders Made By Man, a status which also echoes the position of its inspiration as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ – the Colossus of Rhodes.
(Although it could not have been one of the ‘original’ wonders if the fifth century BC historian Herodotus compiled the earliest known version of what would become the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’, given that the Colossus was not built until the third century BC. A similar problem is faced by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, while the Statue of Zeus at Olympia was completed during Herodotus’ lifetime.).
A statue of the god of sun, Helios, (something reflected in the name ‘Titan’, which was the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology, overthrown by the Olympian deities under the leadership of Zeus) the Colossus is usually depicted as having stood astride the entrance to the harbour, although this appears to be a medieval misconception, perhaps deriving from a misinterpretation of the dedication of the statue, which mentions “Not only over the seas but also on land” and “over sea and land” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H). It has been suggested that the Rhodians, or anyone else for that matter, would not have been able to build a bronze statue with its legs apart as it would have collapsed under its own weight of bronze and stone ballast.
Another reason given for the Colossus not straddling the entrance of the Rhodian harbour, even if his legs could have held his weight, was due to sheer impracticality. To position it there would have required the closing of the harbour entrance throughout its erecting. Furthermore, given that the Colossus is recorded as having fallen over during the 226BC earthquake only 54 years after its dedication, had it been at the entrance of the harbour, it would have blocked it and the Rhodians lacked the ability to remove such an impediment for it to then lie visible on land for the next 800 years (Strabo XIV.2.5; Theophanes, Chron. AM6145 on it taking 900 camels to remove the ruins when it was sold to a Jewish Edessene merchant following the Arab conquest of Rhodes by Muawiyah I in the early 650s).
It is the misconception of the Colossus which has proven the inspiration for the Titan, although it could be argued that in devising the base of the Titan, G.R.R. Martin found a natural solution to the problem of a spread-legged statue being unable to support its own weight. Rather than a completely man-made structure, the lower half of the Titan was carved out of the black granite of a naturally occurring archway. The feet and legs of the Titan were shaped out of the pillars of the archway, while the top of the arch comprises his waist and lower torso. Above the waist, the Titan is bronze and to stabilise ‘him’, his empty left hand rests on top of the outcrop beside the archway.
It could be then that the inspiration for the Titan was not just the factual Colossus of Rhodes but perhaps also the fictional Argonath (Pillars of Kings) of Lord of the Rings, two enormous statues of Isildur and Anarion carved into the rock either side of the Anduin river on the northern border of Gondor (which also wield weaponry and show defiance for their enemies). This would be unsurprising given the overall inspiration of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle Earth on G.R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Another misinterpretation possibly from the Colossal dedication – “did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H) – carried over into the popular view of the Colossus and subsequently to the Titan of Braavos – that Helios held aloft a torch like the Statue of Liberty in New York or at least held out his hand in some kind of gesture. This was almost certainly beyond the technological abilities of the ancients. A relief in a nearby temple shows Helios standing with one hand shielding his eyes and it is possible that the Colossus was constructed in the same pose. Taking its cue from this misconception, the Titan, rather than holding a torch, wields the hilt of a broken sword (whether broken by time or a symbolic gesture of defiance.
Unsurprisingly, in a world of fantasy, G.R.R. Martin had the Braavosi make something much more out of the Titan than the Rhodians were able to make out of the Colossus. At 400 feet, the Titan is about four times bigger than the original Rhodian Colossus (although as we will see below, there are plans for a near 500 foot version of the Colossus…). This difference in size is reflected in build time – the shaping of the Titan from the granite archway took three generations, while “it is said that it was twelve years before this statue [the Colossus] was completed.” (Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41) But even at this comparatively small stature, Pliny the Elder described the Colossus in suitably colossal proportions…
“Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior. Within it, too, are to be seen large masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it.” Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41
Unsurprisingly, given their sizes, both the Colossus and the Titan became symbolic of their cities. The image of the Titan appears on Braavosi coinage, much like the god Helios, subject of the Colossus, appears on Rhodian coins. This depiction perhaps provides the only clear evidence we have about what part of the Colossus might have looked like as the depiction of Helios will have been something of a standard. If this was the case, then surviving coins suggest that the head of the Colossus will have had curly hair and worn a crown of sunbeams. Within the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, due to the recent Braavosi origins of the family, the sigil of House Baelish, formerly headed by Littlefinger, contains the fiery-eyed head of the Titan, displaying his bronze half-helm, and green-dyed rope hair.
The origin stories of both statues stem from acts of defiance in the face of a much larger foe. The Colossus was built to celebrate the resistance of Rhodes to the siege by Demetrius ‘Poliorcetes’ (‘the Besieger’), son and eventually successor of Antigonus I Monophthalmus in 304BC, and paid for by selling off the equipment left behind by the besiegers (300 talents worth as well as leftover metal from Demetrius’ force). The Titan was a symbol of the slaves who had escaped the Valyrian Freehold to found Braavos on the islands and lagoon of the north-westernmost point of Essos sometime between 700 and 1700 years before the events of A Game of Thrones.
While such towering structures will have had a psychological effect, it was only the Titan which had actual military applications. Any friend or foe looking to enter the Braavosi lagoon by sea had to pass under the Titan, who hides a few surprises under his green bronze skirt and in his chest… namely a collection of murder-holes and arrow slits from which various heavy or volatile missiles can be dropped onto or fired at anyone foolhardy enough to try to force entry into Braavos. The Titan’s body also contains numerous halls and chambers, making it not only a potential battle tower but also a garrison and storehouse. It is unsurprising then that bristling with so many projectiles, by the time of A Game of Thrones, it has been perhaps four centuries since anyone tried to defy the Titan’s wrath and force their way into the Braavosi lagoon.
The Titan is not just a defensive fortress. Its sheer height made it a useful lookout tower, letting out a loud ‘roar’ to warn the Arsenal of Braavos of approaching ships. This ‘roar’ is also used to herald the rising and setting of the sun and the hours of the day, effectively making it a clock. The eyes of the Titan are made from burning fires, allowing it to act as a beacon and effectively a lighthouse, lighting the way back inside the lagoon for returning ships or steering enemy ships on the rocks.
Perhaps inspired by the Titan of Braavos coming to prominence through the popularity of A Game of Thrones, in December 2015, a group of architects announced plans to build a new Colossus of Rhodes. Taking up the popular misconception that the original bestrode the harbour entrance, this new Colossus, at 500 feet tall, would be taller than the Braavosi Titan.
Also like the Titan, the new Colossus is to be multi-purpose, housing a cultural centre, a library, an exhibition hall, and a lighthouse, all to be powered by solar panels. And the modern equivalent of 300 talents and metal scrounged from Demetrius’ weapons? An estimated $283 million, to be raised through private donations and crowdsourcing.
Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the project, the Wondrous stature of its predecessor and the state of the Greek economy, the rebirth of Helios has yet to get off the ground.
Alston, R.H.J. ‘Rhodian coinage and the Colossus,’ Revue Numismatique 6 (1988), 75-90
Conrad, L.I. ‘The Arabs and the Colossus,’ JRAS 6 (1996), 165–187
Haynes, D.E.L. ‘Philo of Byzantium and the Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 77 (1957), 311-312
Martin, G.R.R., Garcia, E, and Antonsson, L. World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. London (2014)
Maryon, H. ‘The Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 76 (1956), 68-86
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.