“An Unpleasant Man” – ‘Who was Constantius II? Dr Peter Crawford Review

Posted on

1856, 1205.2

The oldest dateable coin of the Coleraine Hoard (itself a topic of CANI events in the past – HERE and HERE, Constantius II, 353-355, Arelate RIC VIII.218, 207; BM 1856, 1205.2

On Thursday 8th June, Dr Peter Crawford delivered the final lecture in the Classical Association in Northern Ireland’s 2016/17 programme of events, entitled ‘Who was Constantius II?’

Dr Crawford’s biography of the fourth-century Roman emperor (2016) with its subtitle ‘Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist’ posed the same question, offering three frameworks through which we might view the son of Constantine the Great. Thursday night’s audience heard a more extensive range of possibilities, Dr Crawford stating that, when asked to summarise the character of Constantius II, he found it difficult to do so without perpetuating the same underestimating, sidelining and misrepresentation of the ‘philosopher king’ that had prompted him to write the biography in the first place. So he supplied each audience member with a checklist. Amongst other descriptions, this introduced us to Constantius II as: an imperial stop-gap; the ‘wrong kind’ of Christian; a paranoid monster and family annihilator; and – as his book suggests – the Antichrist.


Dr Crawford began by introducing those of us unfamiliar with this emperor, to the bare details of his reign: Flavius Julius Constantius was born in Sirmium in 317, first serving as Caesar (junior emperor) from 324 until 337, then as co-Augustus with his two brothers until 350, when, after their brutal deaths, he became sole Augustus until his own death in 361. It soon began to become clear that the initial assertion of Constantius’s enigmaticism was sound: analysis of Constantius II’s character and reign is frustrated by a basic lack of information. In fact, Dr Crawford’s talk was punctuated by a series of compelling questions that remain unanswered by historical sources; although he reigned for 24 years between Constantine I and Julian, general works on this period overlook Constantius II’s substantial reign in order to reach Julian the Apostate.


Constantine I, Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans and Julian (left to right)

More details of Constantius II’s background were explored: the ‘scandal-mongering’ that surrounded his rise and inheritance of the Empire, including discussion of his mother’s possible extra-marital honey-pot trap, as well as multiple executions and inter-familial murder plots. Combined with the psychological impact of his father’s murderous actions and manipulation of his sons, our eyes were opened to why this emperor might be characterised as the ‘paranoid monster’ on Dr Crawford’s checklist.


The Rivals – Dalmatius, Hannibalianus, Constantine II, Constans, Magnentius, Decentius, Vetranio, Nepotianus and Julian (left to right)

The body of the lecture dealt with not simply the paucity of the sources, which itself significantly undermines Constantius II’s reign, but also the dislike of Constantius II exhibited by those sources. The chief of these is Ammianus Marcellinus. Despite the importance of Ammianus’s work to historians of Constantius II, he refers to the emperor’s ‘dullness of mind’, claiming that he ‘accomplished nothing worthwhile’. This derision persists even in modern presentations of Constantius II; the famous historian of late antiquity A.H.M. Jones (1964) brands him a ‘vain and stupid man’ and ‘easy prey to flatterers’. Ammianus also decries Constantius II’s military record, unfairly, it would appear, since Dr Crawford was able to contradict many of the half-truths quoted from Ammianus; Constantius won many civil wars, and was a well-renowned battlefield commander, defeating revolts and barbarian tribes, as well as successfully invading Persian territory.

Dr Crawford then addressed the rather different problems posed by ecclesiastical histories, which denigrate Constantius II’s reputation due to his supposed Arianism. This is where ‘Constantius the Antichrist’ comes in. I gained a deeper understanding of the term ‘Arian’, as a follower of the doctrinal teachings of Arius of Alexandria, the main thrust of which was that a ‘created’ Jesus was separate from and thus inferior to God. As the Church moved to have Arianism suppressed, Constantius was faced with dire opposition for what were more likely progressive rather than Arian views. Even as Augustus, Constantius II’s attempts at reform and unification were seen as a disguise for being an Antichrist. Yet it was not only his confrontation with the church that damaged his reputation; another moniker on the checklist is ‘family annihilator’, justified in the light of confrontations with his extended family about succession after his father’s death, which led him to assassinate uncles and cousins, securing the accession of himself and his brothers.

Furthermore, Constantius II’s excessive emphasis on personal imperial dignity rendered him an aloof, domineering character. Instead of ‘first among equals’, we have a dominus, as Dr Crawford put it, ‘lording it over his underlings’. This aloofness went hand-in-hand with a paranoia bred by self-fulfilling usurpations, disloyalty, and revolt.

The conclusion of Dr Crawford’s lecture, then, asked us, how do we judge Constantius II, given the inadequacy, misinformation and bias that dominate the historical evidence of this emperor’s reign? It was clear that attempting to cut through the bias does not affect any significant shift in the perception of him. If not a paranoid monster, at best Constantius II was a ‘good, bad, and ugly’ enigma. Was Ammianus correct in his portrayal? Even accounting for some exaggeration still leaves a picture of, as Dr Crawford put it, ‘a potentially unpleasant, utterly ruthless and unscrupulous man.’ If not the psychologically damaged, uncreative, barbarian-using Antichrist, Constantius II certainly lacked a good publicist, as his military and political achievements are downplayed more than they should be.

Dr Erin Halliday


You can see a few more photos from the event in our ‘Who Was Constantius II?’ Gallery.


Classical Readings from Michael Longley and Peter McDonald

Posted on

Following the success of our own poetry evening last month, we are happy to point anyone interested in hearing more classically-inspired poetry from some of the best pens these isles have to offer in the direction of the upcoming Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry event this Thursday featuring Michael Longley and Peter McDonald

Thursday, 14 April, at 8pm in the Crescent Arts Centre


Michael Longley is a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and his translations and adaptations from classical literature have garnered international critical acclaim. His most recent poetry collection, The Stairwell (2014) won the Griffin Poetry Prize.


Peter McDonald’s Collected Poems appeared in 2012, and a new volume of translations from ancient Greek, Homeric Hymns, has just been published by Carcanet Press, together with his most recent poetry collection, Herne the Hunter (2016).


Contact Details

2-4 University Road
County Antrim

Tel: (028) 9024 2338

Game of Thrones and Ancient History Ib: A Golden Crown

Posted on Updated on


In the previous entry we looked at the instances of “death by gold” reputedly suffered by Romans similar to that of Viserys Targaryen at the hands of Khal Drogo in S01E06 “A Golden Crown” and discovered that perhaps two of those three known instances, Marcus Licinius Crassus and the emperor Valerian, are perhaps apocryphal.

rs_1024x759-140403130129-1024.18game-of-thrones.ls.4314“A Crown for a King…” © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

index© Gautier Poupeau 2014 © http://www.cngcoins.com 2005

It is important to note, though, that even if the attributing of a “death by molten metal” to Crassus or Valerian is erroneous, the supposed perpetrators of these punishments – Shapur I, Orodes II and in the case of Aquillius, Mithridates VI – all shared a similar Iranian cultural heritage, in which the use of molten metals as a form of execution was prevalent. Shapur was Sassanid Persian king and Orodes was a Parthian king, meaning that both ruled the Iranian plateau, while the Pontic court of Mithridates had strong Iranian influences.

Artaxerxes iiArtaxerxes II, Achaemenid Persian King of Kings © Marie-Lan Nguyen 2008

The use of molten metal as a punishment is recorded for the Achaemenid Persians as well. For boasting about being responsible for the death of Cyrus the Younger during the Battle of Cunaxa on 3 September 401BC, an unnamed Carian was arrested by the Achaemenid Persian king Artaxerxes II and handed over to his and Cyrus’ mother, “Parysatis, who ordered the executioners to take him and rack him on the wheel for ten days, then to gouge out his eyes, and finally to drop molten brass into his ears until he died” (Plutarch, Artaxerxes 14.5).

The origin of this practice in Iranian culture seems to have been the religion of Zoroastrianism or earlier pagan beliefs. Iranian sources regarded molten metal, like fire, as an instrument of judgement not just for trial by ordeal and spiritual cleansing but also in a truly apocalyptic “End of Days” sense its prominence in Zoroaster’s vision of the Last Judgement (Griffiths (1990), 336, 348; Boyce (1996), 35; Ballesteros Pastor in Høtje (2009), 224).

This practice also appears in the writings of Judaism. Originally, the punishment of “burning” was a literal immolation as dictated by Leviticus 20:14, 21:9, but through the re-interpretations of and even rejections by various learned rabbis of that punishment, perhaps through Iranian influences, the instructions for “death by burning” became “forcibly open his mouth with a pair of tongues and the lighted wire (the molten lead) is thrust into his mouth, so that it goes down into his bowels and burns his inside” (Harris (1901), 170; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 52a; http://www.come-and-hear.com/editor/capunish_1.html). As the crimes leading to the punishment of burningall involve adultery or incest, perhaps we are hearing echoes of the purifying aspects of molten metal from Zoroastrian belief.

Such a punishment was (and surely still is) viewed as barbaric, so it is not exactly surprising to see the ‘savage’ character, Khal Drogo, employing it. Even less surprising is that the archetypal barbarian horseman who was likely the main source of inspiration for Drogo, the 13th century marauding Mongol, Genghis Khan, is also recorded using this punishment.

YuanEmperorAlbumGenghisPortraitGenghis Khan, Mongol Khan

His victim was the governor of Otrar, a city of the Khwarazmian Empire in 1219, who is only known to history by his title, Inalchucq – “Little Lord” or Qadir-Khan – “Mighty Khan.” His crime had been the accusation of Muslim merchants in Genghis’ employ as being spies and having them arrested, and probably then encouraging the Khwarazmian Shah, Mohammed, to execute not just the caravan, but also members of the embassy sent as a peace offering by Genghis. Such an outrage opened the Khwarazmian Empire to the full horrors of the Mongol hordes. After a stubborn defence at Otrar, Little Lord Inalchuk was captured alive and executed by having molten silver poured onto his eyes and ears (Man (2004), 155-156, 163).


The lead sprinkler

The use of molten metal also made its way into western medieval torture in the form of this device. At first glance it appears a little innocuous and you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a religious implement used to spread holy water. Indeed, you would in fact be partially correct in that thought. But instead of cold holy water, this was used for the sprinkling of boiling liquids – water, oil or metals; hence its name, the lead sprinkler.

As with the use of molten metals in Iranian and Jewish lore, there was a religious purification dimension to the use of the lead sprinkler. Not so cold comfort for the victims of this infernal device.

Such “deaths by molten metal” are not contained just to the Old World. Perhaps the most infamous use of such a horrific and symbolic form of execution comes from the New World, where the natives used it to punish the avarice of the Spanish Conquistadores.

Pedro_de_ValdiviaPedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia by Federico de Madrazo

Chronicler Pedro Mariño de Lobera records that the first royal governor of Chile, Pedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia, was killed by Araucanían Mapuche, who forced him to drink molten gold, possibly on Christmas Day 1553 (Pedro Mariño de Lobera, Crónica del Reino de Chile XLIII); however, as there are several other modes of death attributed to Valdivia by various other writers, including having his forearms roasted and eaten before his eyes and having his still beating heart removed, the chances are that all of them, including the “death by gold,” are apocryphal.

Theodor_de_Bry_78“The Indians, to satisfy their wickedness, pour molten gold in the mouths of the Spaniards” by Theodor De Bry Great Voyages Part IV, (1594)

Perhaps European audiences, hearing of the deaths of many Conquistadores and knowing of the amounts of precious metals pouring in from the New World, were projecting a suitable death for their own avarice, encouraged by the ancient texts containing the stories of Aquillius, Crassus and Parysatis’ unnamed Carian. Indeed, the similarities between the etching work of De Bry here and that of Coustau depicting Crassus in the previous entry might be evidence of such a proclivity.

The likely apocryphal nature of many of these storied “deaths by gold/molten metal” has not done much to assuage popular or even scientific interest in this mode of death. There have been experiments involving bovine larynxes to see how exactly the victim of such an execution would die, concluding that while the molten metal would rupture organs, it is more likely that it would be the steam and the damage it causes to the respiratory system that would be the cause of death (van de Goot, ten Berge, and Vos (2003)).

This is just a (metallic) taste of the depths of man’s inhumanity to man with regard to molten metals as an instrument of spiritual purification, painful torture or ironic vengeful execution. A quick search online might lead to more potential instances or anecdotes, factual or not. Let’s just say that mouths, eyes and ears are not the only orifices into which molten metals could be poured… I will just leave it at that.

Of course, in the mythos of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, had Viserys truly been “the dragon” that he was so proud of proclaiming himself to be, the molten metal should not have harmed him. Instead, it would be his younger sister, whom he had thought to barter away, threaten and generally overlook, who would seem to be the true heir of the Targaryen legacy.


Appian, Roman History (White, H. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1913; Gabba, E. translation, 1958-1970)

Cassius Dio, Historia Romana (Cary, E. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1914-1927)

Florus, Epitome of Roman History (Forster, E.S. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1929)

Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Bostock, J. and Riley, H.T. translation, 1855)

Plutarch, Lives (Perrin, B. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1923)

Pedro Mariño de Lobera, Crónica del Reino de Chile

Ballesteros Pastor, L. ‘Troy, between Mithridates and Rome,’ in Høtje, J.M. (ed) Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Black Sea Studies 9. Aarhus (2009)

Boyce, M.  A History of Zoroastrianism I: The Early Period. New York (1996)

van de Goot, F.R.W., ten Berge, R.L. and Vos, R. ‘Molten gold was poured down his throat until his bowels burst,’ Journal of Clinical Pathology (2003) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1769869/

Griffiths, J.G. The Divine Verdict: A Study of Divine Judgement in the Ancient Religions. New York (1990)

Harris, M.H. (ed.) Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala (1901)

Høtje, J.M. (ed) Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Black Sea Studies 9. Aarhus (2009)

Mann, J. Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection. London (2004)

Mayor, A. The Poison King The Life and Legend of Mithridates. (2010)



Have you got any questions for our contributors? Do you know of any other examples regarding the subject of any of our blogs? Or do you have an idea for a future instalment?

Please, do not hesitate to get in touch with CANI through our Facebook, Twitter or email.

And if you enjoyed it, please share it!

An Evening of Classical Poetry with Dr Halliday and Guests

Image Posted on Updated on


‘Re-voicing Classics: an evening of poetry’

Convened by Dr Erin Halliday

With readings by award winning Northern Irish poets:

Stephen Sexton and Ross Thompson

Wednesday 30th March 2016, 6.45 p.m.

The Canada Room, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University, Belfast

Happy New Year!

Posted on

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


While we already have a programme set for the first half of 2016, rest assured that we are working on further events not just for the public but also for schools across Northern Ireland, which is a pivotal part of our mission.

So stay tuned for further updates and do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like more information, help promoting or running your own event or any ideas you think we at CANI could help with!

Thanks and once again, Happy New Year!

Dr Icks’ Emperors on Display

Posted on Updated on




To an audience that had braved the elements and dodged the traffic, the Classical Association in Northern Ireland was proud to present Dr Martijn Icks and his talk ‘Keeping Up Appearances’: Roman Emperors on Display in the Bell Theatre at Queen’s University, Belfast on 3rd December 2015.

Starting with the holy invisibility of the Forbidden City of Ming China and the hyper-visibility of today’s leaders, Dr Icks took those in attendance on a journey through the public portrait of the Roman Emperors of the principate.

Through coins, statues, busts and monuments, the seemingly omnipresent emperors sought and were indeed demanded to be a living, honourable embodiment of the Roman Empire; those who failed in that embodiment were to be ridiculed, to be infames.

That journey took in, but was not limited to the affable, “all things to all men” Augustus; the too private Tiberius, opening himself to accusations of the worst levels of vice; the limping, stuttering Claudius hidden away by his family and then over-indulgent in blood sports; the embarrassing but dangerous spectacle that was Nero; the triumphant Titus and Trajan; the invisible Big Brother Domitian and the bookish Marcus Aurelius, ridiculed for not being seen to enjoy the games, instead attending to work.

Having forewarned that this subject was far larger than 50 mins would allow, Dr Icks finished up by teasing the listeners with a brief look at where the imperial portrait went from these embarrassing spectacles, conquering imperators, paranoid tyrants and “first among equals” of the principate – the aloof Lord and master chosen by the gods and then God and the increasingly invisible Byzantines, wrapped up in ceremony within their own version of the Forbidden City.

Clearly, this is a subject that has much more to be investigated.

Perhaps there will be a ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ Part 2 and 3? Over a few winter drinks afterwards, the audience certainly seemed to think so.

Peter Crawford

‘Keeping Up Appearances’

Image Posted on Updated on


‘Keeping up Appearances: Roman Emperors on Display’

Dr Martijn Icks (QUB)

Thursday 3rd December 2015, 6.45 p.m. (followed by winter drinks)

The Bell Lecture Theatre, Physics Building, Queen’s University, Belfast