The area occupied by modern Belfast has seen some form of human occupation since the Bronze Age. The Giant’s Ring is an almost 5,000-year-old henge while the hills around the city host the remains of Iron Age forts. That said, it was but a minor settlement throughout much of its history, with some castles built to secure control for various hegemons in the regions, such as John de Courcy and the O’Neill clan. It was not until the 17th century that Belfast was incorporated as a town, before growing as an industrial and trading centre throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to challenge Dublin as Ireland’s biggest city.
This growth was reflected in the significant expansion of its street map and in the course of researching a paper on ‘Patterns in the Street-Names of Belfast,’ Dr Paul Tempan noticed that some of those new streets had names taken from ancient history and mythology, a small cluster of which are on the south side of the Donegall Road and built by 1893 (Irish Historic Towns Atlas xvii). Of course, these names with mythical connections are but a small percentage of the total, with many more derived from landowners, traders and commemorating politicians etc., but for CANI, it is the potential ancient and mythical inspiration that draws the attention.
Thalia Street is named after the Greek Muse of comedy and poetry, Θάλεια. Thalia’s name means ‘joyous’ or ‘flourishing,’ reflecting her own continued skill in comic and poetic songs. She is often portrayed as an ivy-crowned young woman, holding a comic mask, a bugle or trumpet and something resembling a shepherd’s staff.
Euterpe Street is named after another Greek Muse: Eὐτέρπη, who presided over music and lyric poetry. Her name means ‘rejoicing well’ or ‘delight,’ probably reflecting the reception of her own compositions. Ancient poets referred to her as the ‘giver of delight.’ She is often depicted holding a flute, and is sometimes presented as the inventor of some ancient musical instruments.
Pandora Street is named after the first mortal woman according to Greek myth, created by Hephaestus on the instructions of Zeus. Her name, Πανδώρα, derives from the Greek πᾶν, pān, meaning ‘all and δῶρον, dōron, meaning ‘gift.’ This could mean either ‘all-gifted,’ reflecting the many gifts given to her by the gods or ‘all-giving’ in something of an (sarcastic?) inversion of the myth, with her opening of a box – more accurately a jar, a change made by a textual mistake in the 16th century – ‘gifting’ many ills upon the world. Only ‘hope’ remained in the Pandoran box/jar, either in its genuine form or a more ‘deceptive expectation.’ (Hesiod, Work and Days 60-105).
Daphne Street shares a name with Δάφνη, meaning ‘laurel’, a mythological Greek naiad, a variety of nymph associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of freshwater. Her parentage is disputed in the mythological texts, but mostly share the idea that she was the daughter of a river god. Daphne’s myth is similarly mixed, but the general narrative has her receiving the unwanted attention of Apollo, who has been cured by Cupid. Rather than succumb to these forced advances, Daphne asked for her father’s help, and he turned her into a laurel tree to escape Apollo.
Egeria Street takes its name either from the nymph of Roman legend or from the eponym that stems from said legend for a female advisor of counsellor. She gained this reputation by acting as the divine consort and counsellor of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome (c.715-673BC). Through her advice, Numa formulated various laws, rituals and customs vital to the make-up of the early Roman state.
There is another ‘Egeria’ in ancient times much less unlikely to have drawn the attention of street-naming ‘Belfastians.’ She is thought to be the late fourth century author of an account of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem known as the Itinerarium Egeriae. Unfortunately, while likely the earliest such itinerary, Egeria’s work only survives in fragments of a later copy.
Fortuna Street, named after the goddess of fortune, the Roman equivalent of Tyche, and frequently seen as the personification of luck. She is often depicted with a cornucopia (horn of plenty), which associates her with ‘good luck,’ but really, she was capable of bringing both good and bad luck. Because of that, she is seen wielding a ball, which was described as the Rota Fortunae – the ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ a symbol of the capriciousness of Fate. She can also be seen holding a rudder, highlighting how she steers the ‘ship’ as something of a guiding force, and yet, she could also be represented as veiled or blind.
There was also Eureka Street, built in 1870 (Irish Historic Towns Atlas XVII.18), demolished and then replaced by Eureka Drive. Of course, this was not named after a person, god or place, but instead the famous exclamation – εὕρηκα! “I have found it!” – of the third century BC Syracusan Greek scientist, Archimedes. He reportedly made his exclamation upon stepping into a bath, noticing that the water level rose, and realising that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. This would allow for more precise measuring of irregular objects. Archimedes was so eager to expound upon his realisation that he leapt out the bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. Had the Belfast street-builders or namers found something in the area to use such a name linked with discovery?
There are also numerous streets in Belfast which take their name from someone or something that has taken its name from something an ancient or myth. In Castlereagh, East Belfast, there is Cicero Gardens, which takes its name from the horse that won the Derby in 1905, which in turn takes its name from the great orator of the late Roman Republic (‘Cicero’ means ‘chickpea’ in Latin). Perhaps rather surprisingly, Cicero the Horse seems to have had no connection to Ireland, with an English owner, and English trainer and an American jockey. Perhaps a local won a lot of money betting on the equine chickpea?
Vulcan Street on the Short Strand may be so named due to local industries (not for a love of the home planet of Star Trek’s Mr Spock). That said, there was a Vulcan Foundry in another part of Belfast, while the English company Vulcan Foundry Ltd produced locomotives for the Belfast and County Down Railway in the 1880s. The Roman Vulcan was god of fire, volcanoes, metalworking, deserts and the forge. Due to the latter, he was frequently depicted wielding a blacksmith’s hammer.
Apollo Road, off Boucher Road, was probably named after the Apollo space programme that put the first men on the Moon, rather than directly after the Greek god of healing, medicine and archery, and of music and poetry, son of Zeus and Leto and the twin brother of Artemis.
Rosetta Park is likely named after Rosetta Primary School, which in turn was likely named to commemorate (probably an anniversary of) the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and therefore Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion.
Are there any other ancient or mythical street names you have come across on your travels in Belfast or anywhere else in Ireland? My own hometown has a ‘Victoria Street’ but given that it is right beside a ‘Queen Street’ (as well as an ‘Edward Street’ and ‘Henry Street’), it is undoubtedly named after Queen Victoria, rather than any direct use of the Latin for ‘victory’. Belfast itself has Great Victoria Street as well.
Our next blog entry, with considerable input from Dr Tempan, will expand on some other Belfast street names with ancient connections, specifically in reference to Claudius Ptolemy’s map of Ireland.
Paul Tempan and Peter Crawford
Those of you interested in the Classics may already have come across some Ovidian play on COVID-19. For this blog, I have taken ‘COVID-19’ as a reference – ‘See Ovid I.9’ Unfortunately, it does not list which work of Ovid to read, so let’s look at them all!
Not sure if these lines provide deep or meaningful, but then I am no poet and as a political historian of Late Antiquity, I barely class as a classicist… I am also not 100% sure of the translations… but hopefully it gets people wanting to read more Ovid.
Heroides I.9 [Penelope to Ulysses]
nec mihi quaerenti spatiosam fallere noctem
nor my hand, bereft, exhaust me, working all night long
quis probet in silvis Cererem regnare iugosis,
Who’d approve of Ceres ruling the wooded hills,
Ars Amatoria I.9
Ille quidem ferus est et qui mihi saepe repugnet:
It’s true Love’s wild, and one who often flouts me:
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.
Of things at strife among themselves, for want of order due.
invenies illic et festa domestica vobis;
And here you’ll find the festivals of your House,
felices ornent haec instrumenta libellos:
Happier books are decorated with these things:
Epistulae ex Ponto I.9 [To Brutus]
Non tamen accedunt, sed, ut aspicis ipse, latere
They still will not go, but as you see they think
Remedia Amoris I.9
Quin etiam docui, qua posses arte parari,
Indeed I’ve taught, as well, by what art you can be won,
Quisquis is est (nam nomen adhuc utcumque tacebo),
Whoever it is (for I’ll be silent still as yet about his name)
Medicamina Faciei Femineae I.9
vellera saepe eadem Tyrio medicantur aëno;
The fleeces are dyed many times in the brazen cauldrons with Tyrian purple
The appearance of three False Neros in the two decades after the emperor’s death in 68 was not the only ‘afterlife’ that Nero had. He became increasingly associated with a legend that he was not dead, no matter how long-lived that made him, and was waiting to return to reclaim his throne. This legend that saw him connected to some of the more prominent beliefs in the burgeoning faith of Christianity.
Similarly, it is not at all clear how much influence the three False Neros might have had on the development of that legend – did they influence its creation? Were they influenced by it? Or do both the impostors and the legend share the same influence? Might it be possible to see the evolution of this legend through a variety of sources?
The first/second century Greek philosopher and historian Dio Chrysostom also wrote on the phenomenon of people believing that Nero was still alive long after his death.
“…for so far as the rest of his subjects were concerned, there was nothing to prevent his continuing to be Emperor for all time, seeing that even now everybody wishes he were still alive. And the great majority do believe that he is, although in a certain sense he has died not once but often along with those who had been firmly convinced that he was still alive” (Dio Chrysostom, On Beauty 21.10).
There is not much information in this discourse of Dio with which to associate this comment with any specific False Nero. Could he be linking this yearning for the rule of Nero to the growing dislike of Domitian in some circles, which would limit it to the third impostor in 88/89? (Jones (1978), 135 dates it to 88 rather than the previous date of Trajan’s reign) Dio may instead be commenting generally on the atmosphere that spawned these impostors, which could encompass one, two or all three of them.
The pervasion of this atmosphere cannot be easily dismissed, and whether it bore or was born by the repeated ‘re-appearances’ of Nero in the second half of the first century, it seems to have had a significant impact on various religious texts, specifically in Nero’s seeming incorporation into eschatological literature and association with Judaeo-Christian portents of renewal and doom through the Nero Redivivius legend.
Several variations of the legend exist, playing on both hope and fear of Nero’s return. Suetonius would have it that Nero’s connection to such religious texts happened even before his death with astrologers predicting Nero’s downfall but also promising him “the rule of the East, when he was cast off, a few expressly naming the sovereignty of Jerusalem” (Suetonius, Nero 40.2).
The earliest written version The Jewish Sibylline Oracles saw Nero in exile, a great criminal king who had fled to the Parthians only to soon return at the head of a vast army to destroy Rome and the world (Sibylline Oracles IV.119-124, 138-139, V.137-152, 362f.; Collins (1974), 80-87) It also refers to Nero as a “purple dragon” (I.88) and a “great beast” (V.157).
By the time certain parts of the Sibylline Oracles were written, Nero would have been well over 100 years old so while they do not speak of him being reborn or revived, the leap is not far to make.
Aspects of that leap may be seen in sections of the Bible. It could be that the False Neros influenced the mentioning of false Christs and false prophets in Mark 13:21-22, but it is in the Book of Revelation where the real inferences towards Nero may appear.
The idea that Nero might return to reclaim his throne at the head of an army from across the Euphrates, possibly used by or taken from the False Neros, may have inspired the author of the Book of Revelation, who writes of the Beast being wounded in a similar fashion to Nero’s fatal injury, only for that wound to heal miraculously, which would also been similar to Nero if he had indeed survived the somewhat self-inflicted wound (Revelation 13:3; Minear (1953), 93-101).
Attempts to portray Nero in such Beastly fashion are also seen in the seeming encoding of his name as a cryptogram in the ‘Number of the Beast.’ As it might be expected, it does require some literary gymnastics and assigning numbers to certain Greco-Hebrew letters and sounds, such as n=50, r=200, w=6, q=100 and s=60, but ‘Nero Caesar’ renders the number 666… (Sanders (1918), 95-99; Klauck (2001), 690)
Perhaps then some in the late first century thought that Nero was to be Christ’s antagonist? Or could the author be using Nero as something of a cipher for Domitian? Such veiled criticism of Nero as the Beast or a harbinger of doom may well have been to protect the author and anyone found reading it.
These criticisms were also the next step in joining the Nero Redivivius legend to the Antichrist. While this connection does not seem to appear directly in these early religious texts, it was established by the third century. He was certainly connected to the Beast in the Ascension of Isaiah, an anonymous work comprised of sections from various points in the first to third century and perhaps compiled later again. Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-14 presents Nero as “a lawless king, the slayer of his mother,” a Christian persecutor, and the personification of Beliar, the Hebrew Devil, to ultimately be slain by Christ in the final battle.
The mid-third century Christian poet, Commodianus, presents the revived Nero as something of a lieutenant of the Antichrist to “be raised up from hell” to rule part of the world (Commodianus, Instructions 41).
Not all Christians shared the popular belief that Nero was the Antichrist, his precursor or lieutenant. In his On the Deaths of the Persecutors, the early fourth century convert, Lactantius, belittles the idea that Nero would return (Lactantius, DMP II.7), although in the process of doing so, he acknowledges that such a belief was still around at the time when the Roman Empire was on the cusp of Christianisation.
Even a century later, when the empire had been Christianised, St. Augustine felt the need to address Nero Redivivius in the section of the City of God which dealt with II Thessalonians 2:7. And as with Lactantius, Augustine ridicules the inferences others have made regarding Nero’s proposed reviving (as well as the attempts to have ‘Nero as the Antichrist’ appear in the writings of St. Paul), but demonstrating that these ideas were still prominent enough to need to be debunked at the turn of the fifth century (Augustine, City of God 19.3.2).
This is further seen in the early fifth century writings of Sulpicius Severus, who calls Nero, “the basest of all men, and even of wild beasts…who will yet appear immediately before the coming of Antichrist” (Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, II.28-29), following Revelation in that Nero’s ‘fatal’ wound will have healed for him to be able to be a precursor to the Antichrist (Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, II.29).
It is possible to see the development of the Nero Redivivius myth through Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Sibylline Oracles, Revelation and later sources, although the links are not always clear or strong and there is also considerable opposition to Nero Redivivius‘ influence on Revelation (Klauck (2001), 690 nn.28-29 lists many dissenting voices).
Collins, J.J. The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. Missoula (1974)
Jones, C.P. The Roman World of Dio Chrysostom. Cambridge (1978)
Klauck, H-J. ‘Do They Never Come Back? “Nero Redivivus” and the Apocalypse of John,’ The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 63 (2001), 683-698
Kreitzer, L. ‘Hadrian and the Nero Redivivus Myth,’ ZNW 79 (1988), 92-115
Minear, P.S. ‘The Wounded Beast,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1953), 93-101
Sanders, H. A. ‘The Number of the Beast in Revelation,’ Journal of Biblical Literature 37 (1918), 95-99
Van Henten, J.W. ‘Nero Redivivius Demolished: The Coherence of the Nero Traditions in the Sibylline Oracles,’ JSP 21 (2000), 3-17
Confronted with rebellions by Vindex in Gaul and Galba in Spain and rumours of the allegiance of Verginius Rufus’ army in Germania, the emperor Nero panicked. Rather than face up to what was perhaps far less dangerous an opposition than it first looks, Nero looked to flee the capital, reach Ostia and make for the eastern provinces, which had been the most supportive of him during his reign. This plan was reputedly interrupted when some of the Guards he ordered to flee with him refused.
Returning to the imperial palace, Nero mulled over his options, which he narrowed to throwing himself on the mercy of Galba, appealing to the people in the hope that they would allow him to take up residence in Egypt or fleeing to Parthia. With no firm decision made, the emperor drifted off into what must had been a fitful sleep. News of his proposed flight and various prevarications seems to have stripped away the loyalty of those in the palace, Guards and servants alike for upon waking Nero found virtually no one to help him; not even someone to kill him (Suetonius, Nero 47).
Having considered throwing himself into the Tiber, Nero instead escaped in disguise to the villa of his freedman, Phaon, about 4 miles outside Rome, with just four followers. Upon hearing the news that the Senate had declared him a public enemy, Nero finally decided on committing suicide, although even as agents of the Senate could be heard approaching, he still needed his private secretary, Epaphroditus, to carry out this ‘suicide’ on 9 June 68 (Suetonius, Nero 49).
Despite his body being seen by Galba’s freedman Icelus, cremated and then buried in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi (pointedly not the Mausoleum of Augustus), what is now the Villa Borghese, on the Pincian Hill in Rome (Suetonius, Nero 50), there were several contributing factors which led to questions around whether or not Nero had actually died in 68. Both his death and burial had not been colossal public spectacles, which could have raised dissatisfaction and suspicion (Tacitus, Hist. II.8). There was also shock and fear of losing not just a young emperor at only 31 years old, but also the last in the line of the long-lived Julio-Claudian dynasty that had brought about a century of stability to the Roman Empire. His various plans to go east and to ensure his survival suggested that he had the potential to escape and had not lost his will to live. Nero was also still popular with certain sections of the population, such as the lowest classes, who loved the circus and theatre and grasped at every rumour (Tacitus, Hist. I.4.3; his tomb was covered in flowers and his statues draped in togas), which in itself not only saw people wanting him to have survived but also questioning the official suicide story because he still had support in large parts of the empire. His being an artist may also have spawned a dramatic ‘afterlife’, particularly in Greece and the Hellenised East due to his ‘liberation’ of Greece.
Some of these factors combined to make it that “there were people who… even continued to circulate his edicts, pretending he was still alive and would soon return to confound his enemies” (Suetonius, Nero 57). Could the idea that people were continuing to ‘circulate Neronian edicts’ not only mean that they were following the edicts of Nero himself but that people were issuing false edicts in his name?
This unwillingness to accept the demise of the last Julio-Claudian emperor and lingering loyalty and suspicion to both the dynasty and Nero himself enabled the appearance of three separate men claiming to be the deceased emperor.
The Original False Nero (AD69)
Using similar language to when his report of the presence of a False Drusus in the Cyclades in AD31 (Tacitus, Ann. V.10), Tacitus records that “Achaea and Asia were alarmed by a false report of Nero’s return” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8). Indeed, there are several repeated aspects in the Tacitean stories of the False Drusus and the first False Nero – both recall the panic of ‘Achaea and Asia’; both are set in the Cyclades, involvement of “an ignorant following” of slaves, freedmen and adventurers and both impostors looking to get to Egypt/Syria (The False Drusus was not even the first impostor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The slave Clemens claimed to Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Augustus in AD16, only to be captured and executed by Tiberius (Dio 57.16)).
Could this reflect something in Tacitus’ claim of a “Greek taste for novelties and marvels,” (Tacitus, Ann. V.10; a more charming way of saying ‘gullible and stupid’?) with their repeated willingness to accept the word of the impostors? Or is Tacitus recycling information he had from one impostor and superimposing it onto another because he had no other information as well as following the literary tropes surrounding rebels/revolts/usurpers in being only able to attract the dregs of society to their cause?
The timing of this first impostor’s appearance may reflect not just the continuing connection some had with Nero and the Julio-Claudian dynasty but also the continuing hot-potatoing of the imperial position. Nero’s immediate successor, Galba, was already dead; as was the man who ousted him, Nero’s former courtier, Otho. And now, in late 68/early 69, the empire was in the run-up to the Second Battle of Bedriacum between the forces of Vitellius and Vespasian on 27 October 69.
This first (unnamed) Neronian pretender was either a slave from Pontus or a freedman from Italy. The basis for his impersonation was that he not only looked like Nero, but he could play the cithara and was a trained singer. That the impostor (and Tacitus?) felt that this was important evidence of his being Nero demonstrates what the deceased emperor was most famous for in Greece – Nero had visited Greece in 66-67 to participate at the Panhellenic Games and declared the ‘liberation’ of the Greeks.
He was able to attract runaway slaves, adventurers and “some army deserters who had been roaming about in destitution until he bribed them to follow him by lavish promises” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8) They took ship in the Aegean, looking to reach either Egypt or Syria, not because ‘Nero’ had made any contact with those regions, but because they had been supportive of the emperor and had resources and soldiers.
En route, bad weather forced them to land on Cythnus, where ‘Nero’ met some soldiers returning from the east on leave. He was able to recruit some of them to his cause, but those who refused were executed as the impostor could not yet afford to have his fledgling plot come to the attention of the authorities. However, ‘Nero’ still needed followers and resources, even if getting them risked drawing attention, so he engaged in some low-level piracy, robbed several local businessmen and armed a number of their slaves, likely gaining their support on the promise of their freedom.
Into the midst of this island-borne conspiracy arrived a centurion from one of the Syrian legions called Sisenna. He was passing through the Aegean seemingly on his way to Rome to present the praetorians with a silver or bronze ornament of clasping hands, “a traditional token of mutual hospitality” (Tacitus, Hist. I.54). Putting in at Cythnus, Sisenna found himself a target of various entreaties from ‘Nero’ and his followers, who will have viewed the centurion as a useful tool in extending their support into the Syrian legions. However, rightly fearing for his life, Sisenna managed to slip away and spread word of this impostor.
This seems like a complete disaster for ‘Nero’, who had already murdered many to prevent word of his plot spreading; however, while “this caused a wave of panic… many restless or discontented creatures rallied with eagerness to a famous name.” (Tacitus, Hist. II.8) It is likely that it was this initial burst of support that caused the alarm in ‘Achaea and Asia.’
As it turned out, the plot of this first False Nero failed at its first real interaction with forces of the central government. Again showing that Cythnus was on a much-travelled route for military and political personnel, the newly appointed governor of Galatia and Pamphylia, Calpurnius Asprenas, arrived on the island, escorted by two triremes from the Ravennate fleet.
“Agents of the self-styled Nero” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) approached the captains of the two triremes. They agreed to meet the ‘emperor’ who, “assuming a pathetic air,” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) tried to appeal to the loyalty of these men to ‘him’, hoping to get them to take the impostor and his supporters to Syria or Egypt.
Either half-convinced or tricking ‘Nero’, the captains said that they would have to talk to their crews. Rather than try to bring their crews over to the impostor, the captains went straight to Asprenas. The governor immediately organised the storming of ‘Nero’s’ ship with the Ravennate sailors. The impostor was quickly overpowered and captured, with Asprenas seeing to his rapid execution. “His body, which arrested attention by the eyes, hair and savage expression, was taken to Asia and then to Rome.” (Tacitus, Hist. II.9) Asprenas would go on to have a successful career. After his governorship of Galatia and Pamphylia, he served as suffect consul in 78 and governor of Africa, perhaps in 82/83.
The Second False Nero (79-81)
The second False Nero appeared during the reign of the emperor Titus (79-81). This impostor was an Asian called Terentius Maximus, who based his claim on similar grounds of physical appearance and musical ability. This ‘Nero’ claimed that he “had escaped from the soldiers who had been sent against him and that he had been living in concealment somewhere up to this time” (John of Antioch fr.104). He found support from the more ‘disreputable’ classes, much as the first impostor had done, and “it would not be rash to assume that he too found a following in the Roman provinces of the east” (Griffin (1984), 215).
However, Terentius Maximus ‘Nero’ seemed to have gained the much more important support of a Parthian king. Since the death of Vologaesus I in 77, three of his sons – Vologaesus II, Pacorus II and Artabanus III – had contended with each other for the Parthian throne, so the identity of the king is uncertain, but it appears to have been Artabanus.
This Parthian support appeared to come in useful for despite having gained some followers in the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire, Terentius Maximus soon felt it necessary to flee across the Euphrates to the court of Artabanus III (Dio 66.19.3b; was he forced to flee by Roman forces loyal to Titus?). The Parthian king gave this Pseudo-Nero refuge and promised military aid in ‘restoring’ Terentius to the imperial throne, something which the impostor expected due to ‘his’ having ceded Armenia to the Parthians during ‘his’ time in power.
However, seemingly once his true identity was uncovered and perhaps when Artabanus recognised that this impostor was of little use to him and provided an obstacle to Roman support/neutrality in his quest to be sole Parthian king, he had Terentius Maximus executed (Dio 66.19.3c; John of Antioch fr.104; Zonaras XI.18).
Terentius Maximus does seem to have gotten one thing right in his plotting – the expectation that the Parthians were receptive to a False Nero due to their past good relations with him. Nero’s willingness to compromise over Armenia may have been the reason behind Vologaesus I (51-78) requesting that the Senate honour the deceased emperor’s memory (Suetonius, Nero 57).
At the very least, if he was not initially duped into believing that Terentius was Nero, Artabanus was happy to accept the fiction for his own political ends, both as a challenge to Titus and as ‘imperial’ backing in his challenge to his brother Pacorus II for the Parthian throne.
Parthian willingness to support Neronian pretenders may have sprouted not just from the good relations Nero had fostered with them over Armenia but also the apparent frostiness with the Flavian dynasty. Despite Vologaesus I giving Vespasian a large corps of archers for his war with Vitellius, Vespasian had refused the Parthian king’s request for a joint expedition throughout the Caucasus passes against the Alans in 75. The Parthians were so put out by this rebuff that they threatened to invade Syria in 76.
The presence of ‘Nero’ at their court will have been a boon to Parthian attempts to firmly establish their control over Armenia and perhaps disrupt the Roman defence should the Parthians make inroads into the eastern provinces by tapping into any latent loyalty to Nero and/or the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
However, while Armenia and Flavian frostiness might explain Parthia goodwill towards Neronian impostors, could this Parthian ‘love’ of Nero instead reflect a lasting regard for him in the Roman literary circles that Suetonius was connected to? Is Suetonius positing Parthian respect for Nero when it is instead lasting literary regard for the musical emperor?
The Third False Nero (c.88)
This Parthian goodwill towards the memory of Nero, their less favourable relations with the Flavians and the potential political benefits saw them back “the mysterious individual [who] came forward claiming to be Nero” (Suetonius, Nero 57) some twenty years after his death – c.88 during the reign of Domitian, who the Parthians may have known was unpopular with the Roman senatorial classes (by this point, Pacorus II had overcome his brothers and was sole Parthian king).
Suetonius perhaps plays into any accusations that he was allowing pro-Nero literary influences to seep into his work by claiming that “so magical was the sound of his name in the Parthians’ ears that they supported him to the best of their ability, and only handed him over with great reluctance” (Suetonius, Nero 57).
While Suetonius is dialling up the drama, Tacitus reports that there is a hint of truth in the Suetonian depiction of the Parthian reaction to this third impostor, as “thanks to the activities of a charlatan masquerading as Nero, even Parthia was on the brink of declaring war” (Tacitus, Hist. I.2). However, despite Vologaesus’ annoyance at Vespasian and Parthian support for two Neronian impostors, Romano-Parthian relations remained peaceful throughout the remainder of the first century and on into the early second century, before the massive Parthian campaign of the emperor Trajan (Gallivan (1973), 364-365 on the chronology of the False Neros).
As already seen with Clemens and the False Drusus, imperial impostors were not created through the mystery surrounding Nero’s death. The attempted use of Pseudo-Neros by the Parthians would not be the last such attempt by Rome’s enemies. There was a Pseudo-Theodosius, supposedly son of the emperor Mauricius, who the Persians used in their war against the Romans in 602-628, while in the late eleventh century, the Norman conqueror, Robert Guiscard, invaded Roman possessions in the Balkans with a monk called Raiktor who claimed to be the deposed and executed emperor Michael VII Doukas (Anna Komnena, Alexiad I.12).
The False Neros has endured as a story, becoming the focus of some historical fiction with Lion Feuchtwanger’s Der Falsche Nero (1936) using the story of the second Neronian impostor, Terentius Maximus, while Lindsey Davis looked at the last of these Pseudo-Neros in the 2017 book The Third Nero: Never Say Nero Again.
We may laugh at the ancients who were taken in by these False Neros, but what of the number of people who believe that Hitler did not commit suicide in his bunker in 1945? And how many people claim to have seen Elvis in the decades since his death?
Bradley, K. ‘The Chronology of Nero’s Visit to Greece A.D. 66/67,’ Latomus 37 (1978), 61-72
Brunt, P.A. ‘The Revolt of Vindex and the False Nero,’ Latomus 18 (1959), 531-539
Griffin, M.T. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. London (1984)
Gallivan, P. ‘The False Neros: A Re-Examination,’ Historia 22 (1973), 364-365
Syme, R. Some Arval Brethren. Oxford (1980)
Tuplin, C.J. ‘The False Drusus of A.D. 31 and the Fall of Sejanus,’ Latomus 46 (1987), 781-805
We saw last time that the career of Pierius must have been significant enough before his appearance in the historical record for Odoacer to promote him to his chief bodyguard, comes domesticorum. The wars of Odoacer’s reign – against the Vandals, Dalmatians, Rugians and Goths will also have provided Pierius with further opportunity to give sufficient service for the rex Italiae to feel that he warranted reward in the shape of significant lands in his kingdom.
The specific ‘Donation of Odoacer’ was written on papyrus shortly after the grant was made on 18 March 489 and despite its survival, it has not come through the intervening 15 centuries unscathed. The opening section is missing and the document has been divided into two parts. There is virtually no light to be shone on the first millennium of the document’s existence, but one could imagine it gathering dust in the archives of Ravenna or Syracuse, before the rejuvenation of interest in antiquity during the Renaissance.
Francesco Scipione, the 17th/18th century marchese of Maffei and antiquarian, suggested that the document was previously owned by Giovanni Pontano, a leading 15th century Italian humanist and poet. By this point, the introductory section of the document had been lost, and it may also have already been divided into two pieces. During the 1660s, the latter part of the document was in the possession of Cardinal Pasquale de Aragon during the 1660s, only for the two halves to be reunited in the library of the Monastery of St. Paul in Naples in 1702. In 1718, the second part was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, through whom the fragment found its way to the Imperial Court Library in Vienna, which is now the Austrian National Library. The first part resides in the collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples. Despite these repeated movements, the division into two parts and the missing introduction, the bulk of text has survived.
The background to the document is a promise made by Odoacer to Pierius of land with an income to the value of 690 solidi. At some point before 18 March 489, the rex Italiae had made good on a substantial portion of this promise. The comes domesticorum had already received estates with an annual income of 650 solidi – the collection of fundi farms/estates called the massa Pyramitana near Syracuse in Sicily, which was worth 430 solidi per annum, and the Dalmatian island of Melita, modern Mlijet in Croatia, worth 200 solidi per annum.
It has been suggested that the massa Pyramitana took its name from and was therefore quite close to the offshore island-turned-promontory of Thapsus to the north of Syracuse. There was seemingly a pyramid at Thapsus right up until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1542 (Marini (1805), nos.82-83), which could have given its name to this massa. That said, the name could reflect that of a previous owner (Jones (1964), 786, who also gives a brief look at the meaning of massa and fundus, highlights that while several fundi could be grouped together to form a massa, “massae were not necessarily continuous blocks of land, but rather a group of fundi under one management”).
The papyrus document comprising the ‘Donation of Odoacer’ is actually the rex Italiae completing his promise by giving his ‘vir inlustris ac magnificus‘ slightly more than the outstanding 40 solidi per annum in lands adjoining the massa Pyramitana – the fundus Aemilianus (18 solidi p.a.), a portion of the fundus Dubli (15¾ solidi p.a.) and part of the fundus Putaxiae (7 solidi p.a.), for a total of 40¾ solidi and an overall total of 690¾ solidi per annum.
The text itself, in the hands of the notarius Marcian and the magister officiorum Andromachus (or members of their staff), combines the dry legalese of the Late Roman bureaucracy with the pomp and ceremony of the Christianised Roman world, even at a time when the Western Roman Empire was no more.
This combination provides a document where “the writing is cursive, of a bold and flowing character, without any spaces between the words, and quite undecipherable except by an expert” (Hodgkin (1885), III.165).
While spawned at the ‘royal/imperial’ court of Odoacer at Ravenna and being a direct donation to an underling, Odoacer himself did not sign the document, leaving Marcian and Andromachus to witness the donation. Could this be because the barbarian rex Italiae could not write?
With the document generated at Odoacer’s court, the matter was then placed in the hands of the actores or agents of Pierius (these may have been freedmen of Pierius as they refer to him as their patronus). These actores presented the deed of donation to officials at Ravenna, who obtained from Marcian confirmation that he and Andromachus, who had departed for Rome, had witnessed the grant by Odoacer to Pierius.
With this authentication, the matter then moved to the courts of Syracuse, the city in whose jurisdiction Pierius’ new lands came under. Gregory the chartarius and Amantius the decemprimus were dispatched from Syracuse with Pierius’ actores to the estates, where they interacted with the tenants and slaves attached to the lands (although a flaw in the document means that we are not sure what is said or done to them – were they merely being informed of the identity of their new master?). The actores are then given a tour of the estates, before returning to Syracuse where they take formal control of these new lands on behalf of their patron. They express his willingness to take on the fiscal responsibilities that came with the land and arrange for Pierius’ name to replace that of the former owner on the public register. Once this is done, Amantius added his signature to the document and the ‘Donation of Odoacer’ to Pierius was complete. The comes domesiticorum now had full rights to dispense with the lands as he saw fit and leave them to his descendents.
No one could have known that this legal right of inheritance would be activated within 17 months of the ‘Donation of Odoacer,’ as Pierius was killed at Adda River (Anon Val XI.53; Auct. Prosp. Haun. s.a. 491)
“The length of the documents relating to so small a property, the particularity of the recitals, the exactness with which the performance of every formality is described, the care with which the various gradations in the official hierarchy are marked, the reverence which is professed for the mandate of Odovacar, all show us that we are still in presence of the unbroken and yet working machinery of the Roman law: though the hand, not of a Roman citizen, born on the Mediterranean shores, but of a full-blooded barbarian from the Danube, is that which must, at the last resort, control its movements” (Hodgkin (1896), III.154)
Odoacer’s choice of lands to reward Pierius may not be entirely random. We may be seeing the rex Italiae playing political games of loyalty and defence with various individuals and groups within his realm. Perhaps Odoacer was attempting to give Pierius a direct personal stake in the defence of certain regions of the Italian kingdom. Sicily and Dalmatia had only recently been taken over by Odoacer and were still threatened by neighbouring powers – the war of 491 shows that the Vandals had not given up on Sicily, while Dalmatia was claimed by Constantinople, likely raided by barbarians and by 488 in the firing line of Theoderic the Amal. Could it even be that Pierius had some pre-existing connection to either Sicily or Dalmatia, making him even more likely to fight to protect these lands?
As the Goths wintered on his eastern frontier, Odoacer was forewarned about Theoderic’s arrival and he may have done more with that forewarning than just prepare his main army to intercept the Goths at Isontius. He may have attempted to make sure that Theoderic could only enter Italy by the land route. It was suggested that Theoderic initially aimed to cross the Adriatic, only to be unable to find sufficient boats to ferry his forces to Italy (Procopius BG I.1.13). Could it be that Odoacer succeeded in maintaining control of whatever Adriatic fleet resided in Dalmatia through grants of land such as the island of Melita to Pierius?
That the grants to Pierius did not contain any land in Italy itself might hint at another of Odoacer’s political concerns – the backing of the Italian upper classes. Their unwillingness to pay their share in cash, materiel and manpower had been a significant problem in the final decades of western imperial rule. And once the imperial balancing act between the Italian aristocracy and barbarian troops became impossible, the western empire fell apart.
However, while Odoacer initially was able to force aristocratic quiescence to his taking of land for his followers through the strength of his Italian field army (Procopius, BG V.1.8), in the face of Theoderic’s impending invasion, Odoacer could not risk upsetting the Italian aristocracy by taking more of their land. Perhaps this is part of the reason why when he felt the need to reward Pierius, he gave him land in Sicily and Dalmatia.
Is there any potential evidence for any such policies of ensuring loyalty from his underlings actually working? Pierius himself did give his life in service to Odoacer, while even in the face of certain defeat following the Battle of Adda River, many of his men stayed loyal to the rex Italiae during the blockade of Ravenna. Sicily did stay loyal throughout Theoderic’s invasion, including after the Vandal attack in 491, while Dalmatia failed to provide Theoderic with sufficient ships to cross the Adriatic in 488. The Adriatic shipping lanes became increasingly important as the war with Theoderic dragged on. It was not until Theoderic gained control of the fleet at Arminium, modern Rimini, on 29 August 492, that he was able to put adequate pressure on Odoacer’s position in Ravenna to bring the war and ultimately Odoacer’s reign to an end.
The ‘Donation of Odoacer’ is not only an important document as the earliest original text of a ruler of Italy, it also provides an intriguing window into the still heavily Romanised kingdom of a potentially illiterate barbarian. Over a decade since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the imperial hierarchies and bureaucracy continued to exist – positions and titles like ‘vir inlustris ac magnificus‘, notarius, magister officiorum are all mentioned while Odoacer is shown using the legal framework of the empire he overthrew, with the land grant to Pierius carried out through proper legal channels in Ravenna and Syracuse.
However, this ‘Donation’ provides just enough information to raise many largely unanswerable questions about its background on the eve of a major conflict between two barbarian powers for control of Italy. The gaps in the historical record leave us with mostly mere speculation about Pierius’ career, his origins, and potential connections to Odoacer, the last western emperors and the regions in which he was given land.
[The ‘Donation of Odoacer’ may provide the first original document from a ruler of Italy, but there is a document preserved in Egypt which contains the handwriting of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (408-450) – https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2017/10/17/the-only-surviving-handwriting-of-an-emperor-theodosius-ii-and-a-petition-from-aswan/%5D
P. Ital. 10-11 = FIR III², n.99
Clover, F.M. ‘A Game of Bluff: The Fate of Sicily after A.D. 476’, Historia 48 (1999), 235-244
Crawford, P.T. The Emperor Zeno: The Perils of Fifth Century Power Politics in Constantinople. Barnsley (2019)
Heather, P. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History. London (2006)
Hodgkin, T. Italy and her Invaders Vol III: The Ostrogothic Invasion. Oxford (1885)
Tjäder, J.-O. Die Nichtliterarischen Lateinischen Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit. Lund (1955), vol. 1 pp. 279–293
Jones, A.H.M. Later Roman Empire 284-602. Oxford (1964)
Marini, G. Papiri Diplomatici. Rome (1805) Nos. 82-83
Spangenberg, E. Juris Romani Tabulae Negotiorum Solemnium. Leipzig (1822)
Stickler, T. ‘The Foederati’ in Erdkamp, P. (ed.) A Companion to the Roman Army. Oxford (2007) 495-513
Whittaker, C.R. Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study. London (1994)
Wolfram, H. History of the Goths. Berkeley (1990)
Flavius Odoacer is most famous as the man who deposed the ‘last’ western emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476, becoming the first non-Roman ruler of Italy for centuries. He did technically act as a viceroy for the eastern emperor Zeno, but in reality, Odoacer ruled Italy and some adjoining lands north to the Danube and across the Adriatic Sea in his own right as ‘king of Italy’.
It was in this role as rex Italiae that Odoacer was able to reward his loyal underlings with land grants. One such land grant came on 18 March 489 to a comes domesticorum called Pierius. The grant in itself was not particularly special or significant in terms of value, amounting to 40 solidi per annum worth of land top up to a much larger previous grant.
However, its importance comes in the fact that the original text of Odoacer’s land grant to Pierius survives. This makes Odoacer, despite the previous 500 years of Roman imperial history and extensive administration and bureaucracy, the first ruler of Italy for whom an original text of a legal act has survived. Pierius’ grant is also the only surviving document from the civic scriptorium of Syracuse prior to the Roman reconquest in late 535 (Tjäder (1955) I.35).
It is worth noting that while the name of the rex Italiae is listed as ‘Odovacar’ throughout the document and I have chosen to go with ‘Odoacer’ for this blog, his name appears with various other spellings in the historical sources: we would also see Odoacar, Odovacris, Odovacrius, Adovacris and the Greek versions of Οδοαχος and Οδοακρος. It is unsurprising then that there is no firm conclusion on where his name originates from…
The recipient of the donation, Pierius, is much less well known. Indeed, in similar documents from Roman history – donations, certificates, discharge papers, epitaphs, various inscriptions – it is usual that the subject of the document is otherwise unknown. However, while Pierius is hardly famous, he is known from other historical sources beyond the ‘Donation of Odoacer.’ His appearances in the pages of Eugippius’ Life of St Severinus, the Auctarium Prosperi Hauniensis and the pars posterior of the Anonymus Valesianus, while short on each occasion, show that he was prominent within the regime of Odoacer. Unfortunately, the only actions recorded for Pierius come from the period 488-490 (which, as will be seen, encompasses the last two years of his life), meaning that there is very little information about his career as a whole.
Even in these limited sources, there is a slight discrepancy in the position that he held during this period. During his service in Noricum in 488, he is recorded as a comes (Eugippius, V. Sev. 44.5). He is similarly listed as comes at the Battle of Adda in 490 (Auct. Prosp. Haun. s.a. 491), which would seem to confirm his holding of that position. However, Anonymus Valesianus XI.53 records him as the commander of Odoacer’s household bodyguard – comes domesticorum. Such a high-ranking office would explain not only why Pierius was put in command of important actions such as the evacuation of Noricum in 488 and of Odoacer’s forces at Adda River against Theoderic in 490, but also why the rex Italiae would promise to reward him with 690 solidi worth of land.
For him to rise to comes domesticorum, Pierius must have had a career of some substance. Unfortunately, as there is no hint of his age, we can only infer where and who Pierius might have served pre-488. For Odoacer to appoint Pierius as the commander of his bodyguard suggests that he trusted this man to protect him, a trust that could have been cultivated over the course of many years of loyal service to Odoacer and perhaps some of the later western Roman emperors.
While names do not necessarily demonstrate ethnicity, ‘Pierius’ seems much more of a Roman than barbarian name (While not a particularly popular name, the volumes of the PLRE list 7 other men called Pierius – PLRE I.701, II.884-885, IIIb.1041; see below for more on the ‘Pierii’). This, combined with the trust shown in him by Odoacer, could suggest that Pierius was an early supporter of Odoacer, perhaps joining the rex Italiae as he established control of Italy.
Odoacer’s takeover of Italy and surrounding territories would have provided Pierius with opportunities to win sufficient acclaim for the rex Italiae to promote him to high office and reward him with lands and income. The question could be asked if the lands granted to Pierius in Sicily and Dalmatia were a reflection of his military service. While there was no major conflict in Sicily with the Vandals until 491 after Pierius’ death, the rex Italiae had confronted the Vandal king Geiseric over control of the island early in his reign. Perhaps Pierius had been involved in securing the Vandal cession of Sicily to Odoacer in the early autumn of 476 (Clover (1999), 237). Pierius could also have played a role in Odoacer’s conquest of Dalmatia in 481, leading to his reward of the island of Melita (Cassiodorus, Chron. sa.481; Fast. Vind. Prior sa.482; Auct. Haun. ordo prior sa.482).
Pierius’ overseeing of the evacuation of Roman provincials from Noricum could suggest that along with Odoacer’s brother, Onoulphus, he was involved in Odoacer’s war of 486/487 with the Rugians of Feletheus (Eugippus, V. Sev. 44.4; Crawford (2019), 212-213).
While much of the conflict with Theoderic came after the land grants, Pierius’ potential service against Theoderic would also demonstrate his ability and loyalty to Odoacer. The first direct engagement between the forces of Odoacer and the Amal Goths came on 28 August 489 at the Isontius River (the modern Soča in Slovenia and Isonzo in Italy). Very little is recorded about the battle besides Theoderic’s victory (Fast. Vind. Prior sa. 490); however, while there is no record of Pierius being present, the fact that Odoacer commanded his own forces at Isontius could suggest that his chief bodyguard was also present. If so, then Pierius likely had a role in the orderly withdrawal and the subsequent Battle of Verona on 30 September 489, where Theoderic inflicted a second, much more emphatic defeat on Odoacer (Anon. Val. XI.50; Cassiodorus, Chron. sa.489; Ennodius, Pan. 39ff).
Even if we are to posit Pierius’ presence at Isontius and then Verona (Odoacer could just as easily have charged him with command of Ravenna), the aftermath of Verona introduces many more variables. The panicked and fractured retreat of Odoacer’s defeated forces may have seen the comes domesticorum escape to Ravenna with Odoacer; however, Pierius could instead have been forced to join the majority of the retreating army in reaching Milan, where it surrendered to the advancing Theoderic (Anon. Val. XI.50-51). Plenty of those who surrendered found their way back into the ranks of Odoacer’s army in the succeeding weeks and months. The most high-profile individual recorded doing so was Tufa, Odoacer’s magister militum (Anon. Val. XI.51-52; Ennodius, V. Epiph. 111; Wolfram (1990), 281). A captured Pierius could have done so too, although his surrender would surely have been recorded alongside Tufa.
The ability of many of those who surrendered at Milan to return to their Odoacer allegiance stemmed from the rex Italiae undoing much of the damage caused by his defeats of Isontius and Verona even before 489 was out through the defences of Ravenna and the financial support of the Italian aristocracy. This continuation of war with Theoderic provided plenty of opportunity for Pierius to extend his military adventures throughout 489/490 – Odoacer’s recovery of Cremona, the blockading of Theoderic at Ticinum (modern Pavia), the Burgundian raid on Liguria and a Gothic invasion by Alaric II. Ultimately though, the sources only record one other military action of Pierius beyond his involvement in the aftermath of the Rugian war of 488 – his command of Odoacer’s forces at the Battle of Adda River on 11 August 490.
The intervention of Alaric II’s forces allowed Theoderic to escape the blockade of Ticinum and gather most of his forces together. With the Goths a little more desperate for a final conclusion and Odoacer more confident in a positive result, Theoderic quickly marched to face the forces under Pierius’ command at the Adda River, “possibly near Acerrae-Pizzighettone, where the road from Lodi to Cremona crossed the river” (Wolfram (1990), 282). Again, there is little detail about the Battle of the Adda River on 11 August 490, other than the result: a decisive Gothic victory (Anon. Val. XI.53; Auct. Prosp. haun. sa.491; Cassiodorus, Chron. sa.490; Jordanes, Get. 292ff; Ennodius, V. Epiph. 109-111, 127; Pan. 36-47). And one that proved fatal not just for Pierius, but in the long run to the regime of Odoacer too.
While it was ultimately fatal, Pierius had plenty of opportunity to render significant enough service to Odoacer in order to be rewarded with land, which will be seen in Part II.
The Pierii of the PLRE
PLRE I.701 – husband of Coelia Nerviana, brother-in-law of Coelia Claudiana, a late third century Chief Vestal; an old friend of Libanius, accused of peculation during a stint as an officialis in the east before 359 (Libanius, Ep. 105)
PLRE II.884-885 – a late 4th/early 5th century correspondent of Symmachus, possibly an African senator (Symmachus, Ep. VIII.45); the early/mid-5th century monk, Nilus, seemingly corresponded with two separate men called Pierius (Nilus, Ep. I.316, II.167), while a certain Pierius was serving as city prefect of Ravenna on 9 June 440 (NVal 8.1)
PLRE IIIb.1041 – Pierius, primicerius singulariorum of Cassiodorus during his time as praetorian prefect of Italy in 534-535 (Cassiodorus, Var. XI.32)
Clover, F.M. ‘A Game of Bluff: The Fate of Sicily after A.D. 476’, Historia 48 (1999), 235-244
Crawford, P.T. The Emperor Zeno: The Perils of Fifth Century Power Politics in Constantinople. Barnsley (2019)
Tjäder, J.-O. Die Nichtliterarischen Lateinischen Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit. Lund (1955), vol. 1 pp. 279–293
Wolfram, H. History of the Goths. Berkeley (1990)
CANI’s programme of events for the calendar year 2019 began with a new addition to the usual list of events. Due to the popularity of the Belfast Summer School in Latin and Classical Greek, a refresher day was added on 2 February, with 14 students braving the cold to spend the day consolidating, revising, learning new Latin and Greek grammar, and reading texts in the original language at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. This shows once again that the appetite for the Classics is still there if it is made available to the public.
CANI4Schools again saw Dr John Curran and Dr Peter Crawford travel north to Dalriada School Ballymoney to deliver a series of curriculum-supporting talks AS and A2 Classical Civilisation students on 21 February. Dr Curran presented on ‘The Rome of Augustus and Virgil’ and ‘What was the Aeneid for?’, while Dr Crawford summed up the end of the Roman Republic in ‘From Rubicon to Actium’ and then put Julius Caesar on trial for destroying the Republic (the student jury said there was enough reasonable doubt to acquit).
Mr Bredin, Mr Doherty and the students commented on how useful the talks had been not only in presenting aspects of the end of the Republic, the establishing of the principate and the source material involved, but also as revision exercises for the new lay-out of the A Level courses.
On 7 March, Dr Des O’Rawe (QUB) broke down ‘The Cinematic Interpretations of Antigone.’ The audience were vividly informed of the continuing vitality of the ancient tragic heroine of Sophocles’ play in the various versions of her fate on the big screen – Brecht’ Antigone (1948), Tzavellas’ Antigone (1961), Cavani’s The Cannibals (1970) and Straub and Huillet’s Antigone (1992). Dr O’Rawe also demonstrated how through the medium of this single story, we could see the political circumstances of their time echoed in their making.
On 12 March, CANI had the pleasure of being invited by the Armagh Robinson Library to attend the launch of an exhibition of 17th and 18th century publications and illustrations, as well as other works inspired by or based on Aesop’s Fables collected by archivist Thirza Mulder. CANI members, Helen McVeigh and Dr John Curran were treated to a tour of the library, and shown some of the 42,000 books it contains, including a religious text dating from the 15th century and a first edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, complete with the author’s own pencil corrections to changes his publisher made without his knowledge.
CANI returned to the Ulster Museum on 14 March to host its second annual Schools Classics Conference. Dr Greer Ramsay (Ulster Museum) spoke on the subject of ‘Hoards,’ as a perfect introduction to this important subject as a snap-shot of their period and the questions they raise regarding their origin. He also drew the attention of the audience to the fascinating ‘Hoards’ exhibition currently resident in the Ulster Museum.
Dr Katerina Kolotourou (CANI) presented ‘Strange Discoveries in Archaeology’, focusing on the grave of the ‘Griffin Warrior’ near the Palace of Nestor at Pylos. This Bronze Age shaft tomb been dated to the mid-fifteenth century BC and contains, amongst many other things, the Pylos Combat Agate, a highly detailed seal that seems to be 1,000 years ahead of its time.
The keynote address was presented by Prof. Michael Scott (Warwick) on the subject of ‘Understanding the Oracle at Delphi.’ Prof. Scott highlighted the origin myths of the site and how they may have emerged from the need to explain what was a peculiarly inaccessible site. He also addressed perhaps the most famous aspects of Delphi – the (high) priestess being exposed to hallucination-causing gases and how her intentionally ambiguous ‘predictions’ meant that she could never be proven wrong.
In addition to these excellent talks, two archaeology interns, Christoph Doppelhofer and Christine Farnie, presented an artefact handling session, while the re-enactors from Legion Ireland once again showed off their vast array of Roman equipment and extensive knowledge. Their commander even proclaimed that he was there “to take his money back” from the Roman coins on display in the museum’s ‘Hoards’ exhibition! A great day was rounded off by CANI’s own Helen McVeigh and Dr Raoul McLaughlin joining Prof. Scott for his weekly Facebook Live Q&A, addressing questions submitted by viewers.
On 4 May, CANI hosted its fourth annual Film Night in the Ulster Museum. After modern Hollywood epics, historical comedy, and sword and sandal fantasy, our choice this time was Disney’s Hercules. Amber Taylor (CANI Board member) provided an introduction to the film and the associated myths, differences between the two and the continuing influence of the heroic, muscular Hercules in the modern psyche and entertainment. The screening due a strong attendance from a wide demographic and was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
CANI’s final public event in the 2018-19 calendar was Lyn Gordon (RBAI) giving a lecture on the ‘Reception of Classics in Irish Literature.’ Particular focus was paid to Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Route 110’ which describes the bus route from Belfast to Cookstown in terms of Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld from Virgil’s Aeneid VI. Mrs Gordon also noted the classical influences on other Irish writers such as Michael Longley and James Joyce.
July saw the return of the ever-popular Belfast Summer School in Latin and Ancient Greek, this time with even more classes, workshops, days and events tied in. Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Greek and Latin were again joined by Translation Workshops, with the added option of 5- and 10-day courses. There were also academic talks from Dr Raoul McLaughlin and Helen McVeigh, on retail in Rome and Ancient Greek novels respectively. There was also an outing to the Thermopylae Battlefield Gardens at Kilwarlin Moravian Church, Hillsborough and the first iteration of the CANI Bookshop, made possible by a very generous donation from Dr Robert Jordan, who also presented the students with their certificates at the end of the courses.
It is a testament to the ability of the cohort of tutors put together by Helen McVeigh that the Summer School was able to attract students from USA, China, Japan, Europe, the UK and Ireland, with many returning year after year to build on what they have learned. Long may it continue!
The CANI programme for 2019/20 began on 16 October with Dr Emma Southon’s talk on ‘The Life and Legacy of Agrippina the Younger.’ Dr Southon highlighted the importance of Agrippina to the story of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the records of historians such as Tacitus, but also how she was almost universally derided as an arch-manipulator and “ruthless slut.” Because of her gender, her administrative achievements were often seen as crimes, with the Neronian lens further ruining Agrippina’s reputation – she had birthed him, reared him and put him on the throne, so she was responsible for his actions. Dr Southon sought to shine a light on this often maligned and pigeon-holed empress.
On 27 November, CANI welcomed Prof. Patrick Finglass (University of Bristol) to deliver our winter lecture on ‘A New Papyrus of Sophocles.’ After summarising the myth of Tereus, Prof. Finglass highlighted the newly found section of the otherwise missing Tereus of Sophocles and explained some of the linguistic detective work necessary to decode what is happening in the scene presented on the papyrus. Prof Finglass highlighted that Tereus revolves around the reaction of the woman to the wrongs of the man, similar to the myth of Medea but with the added layers of rape and cannibalism…
This event also saw the second outing of the CANI Bookshop after its successful debut during the Summer School. Its line up was bolstered not only by ancient themed toys from Susan Crawford but also a generous donation from Dr William Barr, a Latin academic from Northern Ireland, who has published translations of the likes of Persius and Claudian. CANI are very grateful to them and to those who took the time to peruse and then buy from our selection of works.
The calendar year 2019 was finished out on 5 December with our now annual public reading in the coffee lounge of the McClay Library of Queen’s University, with all proceeds going to the Simon Community NI.
In a little over 5 hours, 29 reading slots were taken up by 16 readers telling the stories of the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea and the Peloponnesian War in the words of the great Greek historians, Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. CANI would like thank all of those who took part in the reading, sat and listened along, and donated so generously.
2019 has also seen the CANI blog continue its eclectic mix of subjects from several different writers.
We saw ‘Satchmo’ at the Pyramids, the coins of unknown Roman emperors, the fooling of a forger with a forgery, the last Vestal Virgin cursing the imperial family, St Peter confronting the first Christian heretic, the use of Classics in primary schools, copyists making a mess of primary texts, unidentified goddesses on British tombstones, the battlefield of Thermopylae in Northern Ireland, a Persian king being crowned before he was born and a look at the oldest yet known original document from a ruler of ancient Italy…
See? I told you it was eclectic!
We have plenty of other subjects slated for the New Year – a lesser known rebel from AD68, the history and sounds of the Iron Age Celtic horn, the carnyx, the story of the False Neros, a social revolt in ancient Sparta and the scholarship of the emperor Claudius.
You can keep an eye out for our new entries on a social media and the website, as well as look back at past entries.
You can also head over to the website for more in-depth looks at the events we have held in 2019.
CANI would like to thank all of the speakers, tutors, groups, individuals, institutions etc. who contributed to the organisation, preparing and delivering of all of our events in 2019. We could not do it without you.
And here is to 2020!
Peter Crawford and Helen McVeigh
History is littered with instances of power being thrust upon children of a young age. Ivan the Terrible became Grand Prince of Moscow aged 3; Puyi, the last emperor of China, ascended at just 2 years and 10 months, while Mary, Queen of Scots came to the throne at just 6 days old.
Such infantile succession was not alien to the ancients either. Gordian III might be considered to be the youngest sole Roman emperor at just 13, but there were numerous co-emperors of much younger ages. Emperors like Caracalla (10), Diadumenian (9), Philip II (7), Constantine II (1), Constantius II (7), Valentinian II (4), Arcadius (6), Honorius (9), Valentinian III (4), Theodosius II (9 months), Leo II (6-7), Constans II (11) and Tiberius (1) were invested with some form of imperial position before entering adolescent.
And it was not just somewhat lesser known Roman emperors who sat upon the imperial throne at a young age. The most famous Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, was a boy of 8-9 years when he succeeded his father, while Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV, was viewed by some of the Macedonian army to have become king immediately upon his birth, because his father had died two months prior and his half-uncle, Philip III Arrhidaeus, was considered by some to be unfit due to learning difficulties.
However, this immediate post-natal ‘coronation’ is reputedly not the earliest in the ancient historical record… But how can you have a coronation before you are born?
The scene of such a peculiar occurrence was the royal court of the Sassanid rulers of Ancient Persia and the backdrop was the increasing dissension caused by short-lived reigns and the jostling for power of the nobility and priesthood in the first years of the fourth century CE.
Romano-Persian conflict in the third century had been punctuated with numerous deep penetrations of enemy territory with major cities like Antioch and the Persian capital Ctesiphon falling to the invader on more than one occasion. The culmination of that back-and-forth warfare had been the battles between the Roman Tetrarch, Galerius, and the Sassanid king Narseh. The latter won a victory at Carrhae in 296/297, gaining a significant foothold in Armenia, only for Galerius to achieve much more decisive victories at Satala and Ctesiphon in 298. The subsequent Peace of Nisibis in 299 was decidedly pro-Roman and the fall out of this defeat may have led in some way to Narseh’s eventual death in 303.
Narseh was succeeded by his son Hormizd II, about whose reign the record is a little sketchy. There are events about which we are informed, a persecution of Manichaeans and diplomatic overtures to Armenia, which seem believable, but then there is the claim that he led an invasion of Roman territory, without suffering any repercussions. The two works to mention the attack, the Chronicle of Arbela and the Chronicle of Seert, are both doubted. Perhaps this ‘attack on Roman territory’ reflects Hormizd’s assault on the Ghassanid Arabs in 309, who lived in and around the Syrian desert.
This attack on the Ghassanids cost not only the Arab leader his life, but also Hormizd his, reputedly when Arab raiders ambushed him while he was out hunting. However, subsequent events might see the death of Hormizd as due to elements within the Persian nobility, with them perhaps wary that his defeat of the Ghassanids made him less easy to exploit. Noble members of his entourage would certainly have known where and when the king would be at his most vulnerable… He could even have been killed by Lakhmid Arabs allied to the Persians.
Whatever the circumstances of Hormizd II’s death, the succession should have been secure as he had at least seven sons: Adhur-Narseh, Adurfrazgird, Zamasp, Shapur Sakanshah, Hormizd, Ardashir and Shapur. Indeed, he seems to have been immediately succeeded by the eldest, Adhur-Narseh (although Schindel in Potts (2013) suggests that due to the lack of coins and information from non-Roman sources it may be that Adhur-Narseh never actually ascended the Sassanid throne).
Within months though, Adhur-Narseh was dead, murdered by an alliance of nobles and priests on a charge of cruelty. That Adhur-Narseh managed to get two traditional opponents – the nobility and the priesthood – to join together could suggest the extent of his cruelty. However, it is just as likely that Adhur-Narseh merely attempted to impose his will on the nobles and priests as any new king might have but was not strong enough to back it up, leading to his elimination. Adhur-Narseh was then painted as a tyrant by the sources the nobility will have been responsible for compiling and editing.
Other sons of Hormizd II were soon targeted. An unnamed brother of Adhur-Narseh was blinded, while another, Hormisdas, was imprisoned, although he would later escape and flee to Constantinople. So firmly had the nobles established their control over the succession that it seems that they were able to exclude other members of the Sassanid dynasty as well – Adurfrazgird, Zamasp, Shapur Sakanshah and Ardashir II (it would seem to be one of this first three that was blinded, but then all are listed as serving as governors under Shapur II, which would seem unlikely for someone who had been blinded, suggesting that there was at least one other son of Hormizd II).
Their eventual choice was proven a good one as Shapur II was to go down as one of the best Sassanid kings, providing a long period of stability and success; however, there was one small problem. When he was reputedly proclaimed ‘King of Kings’ in 309, Shapur II was not yet a man. He was not yet even a boy. He had not even been born yet! In what would have been a bizarre scene, a crown was reputedly placed upon the belly of his mother, Ifra Hormizd, leading to the suggestion that Shapur was the only king in history to be crowned in utero.
Unsurprisingly, such a sensational story has attracted scepticism. First and foremost, would the Persian nobles and priests really have risked the child in Ifra Hormizd’s womb being female? The Sassanid dynasty would resort to a female ‘King of Kings,’ but only in the desperate last decades of its existence (Boran (629-630, 631-632) and Azarmidokht (630-631)). It is unlikely that the nobles would bet the succession on the sex of an unborn child, particularly when there were other Sassanid princes for them to choose.
The existence of those other Sassanid princes also raises questions about this reputed in utero coronation. While it is possible that the Persian nobility intentionally overlooked all the other Sassanid princes and chose to back the unborn or very young Shapur II in the hope of imposing their rule on him, the chances are that some of these Sassanid princes were of a relatively young age as well. For example, Ardashir would eventually succeed Shapur II as ‘King of Kings’ in 379, suggesting that he was of a similar age as the chances are that he would not be approaching his 80s by the time he died in 383.
Could it even be that Ardashir was younger than Shapur? This would seem to be impossible for how could Hormizd II have had another son after Shapur II, who was supposedly born after his murder, particularly when there is no hint that Shapur and Ardashir were twins?
The Persian royal practice of keeping a harem provides one such possible explanation, with Ardashir (and maybe other sons of Hormizd II) being born to a concubine, and therefore being a half-brother of Shapur II. Another solution, aside from Ardashir being slightly older than Shapur, is that the very idea of Shapur being born posthumously and/or the youngest of Hormizd’s sons is incorrect.
If this legend of Shapur II being crowned in utero is just that: a legend and not fact, and the chances are that it is, then why did it appear? There is little doubt that Shapur was very young at the time of his coronation, with the nobility and priesthood indeed choosing an infant so they could impose their control over the Sassanid state. If he had been born after his father’s murder, that would have played into any narrative that Shapur had been born to rule, especially if his coronation had taken place really early in his life. There could even have been some hint that the nobles and priests had reserved the throne for the unborn child of Hormizd II, dependent on it being male, in a similar manner to how the Macedonian army had done for Alexander IV in 323BC.
The likely false legend of Shapur II’s pre-natal coronation could also reflect the actual legend of his life, as he would be remembered as one of the most successful Sassanid Persian ‘King of Kings,’ making it seem as though he had been almost literally ‘born to rule.’
While his exact age cannot be known for certain, Shapur was definitely a minor upon his coronation. The regency of the nobles and priests seems to have been rather secure during his minority (meaning that early fourth century Persia was more stable than the series of short-lived kings and factional in-fighting might otherwise suggest), which perhaps made the young ‘King of Kings’ more eager to make his mark once he came of age.
He did so in 325 with a series of vicious campaigns against various Arab tribes bordering on Sassanid territory. That this Arab campaign took place in 325 and was seemingly right around the time that Shapur’s minority ended at the age of 16 does suggest that Shapur was born in 309, backing the idea that he was a babe in arms when he was crowned.
This Arab campaign marked the beginning of a decades-long reign replete with military successes. In his dealings with the Romans, Shapur’s forces would take on those of Constantine I, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens, winning several notable victories such at the Siege of Amida in 359 and against Julian’s Persian Expedition in 363. The latter of these successes in particular gave the Persians the upper hand in Armenia, the Caucasus and Mesopotamia through the treaty with Jovian.
In the east, Shapur subdued the Kushans, taking control of large sections of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan and then defended his north-eastern frontier from a massive invasion by the Chionities, resisting successfully enough to bring them into an alliance.
The last decade of his reign was a little more trying with the forces of Valens overturning sections of the settlement with Jovian, while his Bactrian province came under intense pressure from Kidarites, Hephthalites and Alchon Huns. Ultimately though, the loss of Bactria and limited reversals on his western frontier were offset by the territorial success and security Shapur II brought to the Sassanid state throughout his 70-year life and reign.
In this, he (and his regents) bucked the trend of minority rule and men born into imperial power in the period. Within the timeframe of Shapur II’s reign, the Roman Empire faced a number of instances of young men born into power but ultimately unsuited to ruling – you could list Constantine II, Constans, Gratian, Valentinian II, and virtually the entire male line of the Theodosian dynasty.
That in a way makes Shapur’s success all the more impressive. Whether he emerged from his mother’s womb already the ‘King of Kings’ or not, his breeding and education in the Persian court and his own natural talent saw him square up to skilled Roman emperors and massive tribal forces on the battlefield, while likely facing down the political influence of those who had been his regents and maintaining the internal stability of the Sassanid state. This minor had become a major ‘King of Kings.’
Crawford, P.T. Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist. Barnsley (2016)
Daryaee, T. Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York (2009)
Schindel, N. ‘Sasanian Coinage,’ in Potts, D.T. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran. Oxford (2013)