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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.
“A Crown for a King…” © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.
© 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 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 “burning” all 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.
Genghis 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 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.
“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?
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Game of Thrones and Ancient History
HBO’s Game of Thrones, chronicling the power struggle between various noble houses in the mythical kingdom of Westeros, is among the most popular series currently on television. While the setting with its knights, tournaments and castles has a distinctly medieval flavour, it is evident that George R.R. Martin – the author of the Song of Ice and Fire books on which the series is based – is also well versed in and influenced by the history of the ancient world.
And with the close connection between Game of Thrones and Northern Ireland, we at CANI thought it would be interesting to investigate those events, edifices, peoples, practices and prophecies of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire with links or allusions to the ancient world.
We were not disappointed by the depth and variety of stories that these connections provided…
Game of Thrones and Ancient History Ia: A Golden Crown
In S01E06 “A Golden Crown,” Viserys Targaryen, claimant to the Iron Throne of Westeros, is frustrated and tired of waiting amongst the Dothraki savages who are supposed to lend military aid to his bid for power. Having married his sister Daenerys off to the Dothraki leader, Khal Drogo, Viserys demands that the latter fulfils his promise of helping him to obtain the crown. In the process, he threatens to take Daenerys away and to kill her and Drogo’s unborn child. As if that were not bad enough, he breaks the taboo against drawing a blade in Vaes Dothrak, the Dothraki’s sacred city. His actions earn him a very different golden crown than he had bargained for.
It might seem like such a brutal and potentially wasteful manner of execution would be confined to the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, but there are several examples from history that demonstrate that this is not the case. Indeed, history or at least the recording of that history took it to the next level. While Drogo ‘crowns’ the offending Viserys by pouring molten gold over his head, several historical examples see molten metals forced down the throat of the victim in a symbolic repaying of his greed or as a purifying agent of judgement.
Given that theme of pecuniary avarice, there can be no better place to start than with the most (in)famous individual from ancient history to have seemingly suffered such a fate: the rapacious plutocrat, Marcus Licinius Crassus. Having bought up much of Rome and used his tax contracts to strip the province of Asia of its wealth, Crassus decided to try winning a military reputation similar to those of his allies in the First Triumvirate, Pompeius Magnus and Julius Caesar.
In attempting to do so, he picked the wrong opponent and the wrong battlefield, seeing his army picked apart by a hail of Parthian arrows at Carrhae in 53BC. Popular tradition has it that after being captured by the Parthians, Crassus was executed by being force-fed a draught of that which he coveted most.
Orodes II, Parthian king at the time of Crassus’ defeat and death © http://www.cngcoins.com 2013
Fortunately for Crassus, it is far more likely that he was killed in a skirmish when the Parthians tried to capture him and that it was his severed head that was treated to a steaming bowl of the gold stuff. And even that only appears in later sources like Florus and Cassius Dio, which suggests that it is an invention – a precautionary tale over the fate that a thirst for gold could bring (Florus I.46.11; Cassius Dio XL.27.3).
Of course, that has not stopped the idea of Crassus dying from a golden last meal becoming the popular telling of his demise.
Pierre Coustau, Pegma (1555) Glasgow University Library, Special Collections
But Crassus was not the first Roman to have purportedly faced such a grizzly fate; that ‘honour’ fell to Manius Aquillius in 88BC.
His reputation already sullied by being the son of another Manius Aquillus who was guilty of profiteering and bribery in Asia Minor, Aquillius wasted little time in proving to the locals that corruption was in the family blood. Despite being charged by the Senate with bringing order to the region, he was soon on the hunt for ways to make a quick buck through bribery and skimming tax revenues.
His real crime, though was in his dealings with the Roman ally, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia. The client king had recently been restored to his throne, but in the process had made a lot of financial promises to a lot of Roman senators; promises he could not fulfil. But if Bithynia was broke, its neighbour, Pontus, was rich and Aquillius encouraged Nicomedes to attack. Under pressure, the Bithynian king complied, raiding Pontic ports, instigating forty years of conflict between the king of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator, and the Roman Republic.
With the Romans embroiled in the Social War in Italy, there were only two legions available to aid Aquillius’ plan, although that, along with contingents from Bithynia and other Asian clients, would have been expected to be more than enough to tame Pontus. However, in the face of the wily Mithridates and his allies, the Romano-Bithynian invasion of Pontus quickly turned into a debacle.
Fleeing the battlefields of Asia Minor, Aquillius commandeered a boat and headed for Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, only to be betrayed to Mithridates by the city’s inhabitants. Paraded on a donkey and forced to proclaim his crimes in public, Aquillius met his end in the Theatre of Dionysius in Pergamum as Mithridates’ men “poured molten gold down his throat, thus rebuking the Romans for their bribe-taking” (Appian, Mith. 21; Pliny, HN XXXIII.14; Mayor (2010), 166-171). While the suspicion of later invention lingers, this occasion seems a little more likely than that of Crassus.
Another Roman linked to “death by gold” is the mid third century emperor, Valerian – or at least that is what a number of internet sources claim. While Valerian did end his days as a captive of the Persian king and his skin was removed post-mortem and stuffed as a trophy as a warning to the Romans, there is no primary evidence that he was forced to drink molten gold after trying to buy his freedom from the Persian king, Shapur I. Someone somewhere has probably got their wires crossed with the stories of Aquillius and Crassus.
Valerian, Roman emperor © http://www.cngcoins.com 2005
Shapur I, Sassanid Persian King of Kings © http://www.cngcoins.com 2013
And that is just the instances of “death by gold” linked to the demises of Romans. In our next entry, we will look at other recorded instances of just molten metal deaths in various ancient and medieval settings including early Iranians, Judaism, Mongols and Incas.
So stay tuned!
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 installment?
Please, do not hesitate to get in touch with CANI through our Facebook, Twitter or email.
And if you enjoyed it, please share it!
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‘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
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!
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.
We are happy to announce that our PayPal account is now up and running, allowing you to subscribe or even donate to the Classical Association in Northern Ireland.
As we are a not-for-profit organisation, CANI needs the support of subscribers to fund and even expand our annual programme of events. The various membership options can be found under the Membership/Subscriptions tab above.
In return for your generosity, we will continue to provide top quality academic talks such as the recent presentation by Daniëlle Slootjes on ‘Ancient Rome on the Digital Age’, to interact with schools and the public as a whole around Northern Ireland promoting the study and stories of the Classical World and to bring more light hearted forms of entertainment such as the showing of films with a classical theme.
Thanking you in advance,