Judaea liberata

The latest in an occasional series of blogs about ancient coins reproduced on modern money, which is a way of saying there almost certainly won’t be another one, but I did once write this one about an Afghan banknote and a Greco-Bactrian coin, and it remains my most successful blog by a country mile. Furthermore, what I’m mainly interested in here is a medal rather than a coin as such, but before I get to that, one of my favourite recyclings of an ancient coin design:


This is a Greek €1, and represents, it seems to me, some impressive chutzpah on the part of the Greek designers. Each of the nations in the eurozone have their individual national designs on one side of the €1 coin (within a boundary of European stars) and on the other side a design (incorporating a map of Europe) that is common to every nation. This has always struck me as a terrifically cunning idea by someone or other in the higher strata of the EU, since it indulges the nationalistic instincts of member states but also, in the longer term, ensures that any European, delving into her pocket for a handful of euros, digs out coins of France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Finland, all good for buying you what you want. A powerful message of diversity in unity, of European interconnectedness. (Like the parody of an academic dad I am, I got my son to catalogue the European coinage he was given during a recent trip to Sicily: predominantly Italian, needless to say, but also German, Austrian, Spanish, French, Greek, Belgian, Irish, Portuguese and Slovenian, in rough order of frequency.)

The Greek design is the best of them, I think. What the Greeks chose was a reproduction of the reverse of an Athenian “owl”. These were silver tetradrachms (four-drachma coins), decorated with the owl of Athena, the city’s patron god, a sprig of olive, Athena’s gift to humanity (the key to civilization), and the letters AΘE, short for “Athens” (or Athena): on the euro this overt mark of local identity is strategically obscured by the “1 ΕΥΡΩ”. The Athenian owl, minted with bullion from the silver mines at Laurion in Attica, was an astonishingly successful currency, for two centuries after 500BC “the dominant currency of the eastern Mediterranean” (Chris Howgego, Ancient History from Coins [1995], 97). Such confidence did this owl command that “in the fourth century BC imitations of Athenian owls were produced from Egypt to Babylonia” (Howgego 9), and even further afield: imitation “owls” struck in early Hellenistic Bactria were following on from authentic “owls” that had been “a mainstay of the Bactrian economy in the Achaemenid era” (F. L. Holt, Alexander the Great and Bactria [1989], 97 n. 42). It was a truly international currency if it was widespread in Afghanistan under Persian rule,  and that’s obviously why the Greeks chose it for their euro design: the Athenian owl was the world’s first single currency.

(The Greek €2 coin has an image of a woman atop a bull, incidentally. This is Europa, so the Greeks are claiming on their euro coinage to have invented Europe as well as single currencies. Chutzpah, as I say.)

From that to another clever recycling of an ancient design:


This is not a coin but a copper medal, issued in Israel in 1958. On one side it reproduces a Roman coin in its centre, a brass sestertius from AD 71-2 in the reign of the emperor Vespasian (there’s a good image of an original coin here), and in fact the image on the medal closely reflects the size, as well as the design, of the original coin. Depicted on the Roman coin are the emperor, on the left, leaning on a spear, cradling a short sword in his other hand, and with his foot on a defeated enemy’s helmet. On the right is a woman in mourning, her head in her hand, seated on something generally identified as a cuirass. The scene is dissected by a palm tree, and bracketed by the Latin words IUDAEA CAPTA, “Judaea having-been-captured.” Judaea, corresponding roughly to modern Israel, was in antiquity renowned for its palm trees (Pliny, Historia Naturalis 13.26), which could thus symbolize the country. (The SC in the exergue below stands for SENATUS CONSULTO, “by the decree of the Senate,” its import disputed, but perhaps indicating that the coin was “the official Roman coinage”, to be distinguished from local coinages in the provinces.)*

This Roman coin, along with a large number of similar designs, celebrated the defeat of the First Jewish Revolt against Roman control of Judaea, which ended with Vespasian’s capture of Jerusalem in AD 70 and his destruction of the Second Temple. The loss of the Temple is marked by Jews as a key moment in their dispersal from their homeland. From the point of view of Vespasian, this was evidence of the military prowess with which he had defeated the enemies of Rome: there is an authentically Roman callousness in that image of a mourning woman, embodiment of the defeated people. Fully 8% of the coins minted by the Flavian emperors, Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, addressed this campaign in Judaea, and the Arch of Titus in Rome, completed under Domitian in AD 81-2, depicts in two reliefs on its inner walls scenes from the Triumph celebrated by Vespasian and his elder son Titus in AD 71. On the south side we see the spoils from the capture of the Temple on display in the triumphal procession. (For another coin related, in a different way, to the destruction of the Temple, a gold aureus of Vespasian in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, see here.)

The modern Israeli medal frames the Roman coin in such a way as to express the opposite perspective. Chains around its edge draw out the consequences for the Jewish population of Judaea, enslaved or dispersed, and the Hebrew at the bottom reads (my informants tell me), “Judea went into exile.”

The year 1958, when the medal was produced, was the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Israel. The other side of the medal is a powerful, subtle reversal of the symbolic language of the Roman coin appropriate to that anniversary.


The same palm tree dissects the scene, and again divides a man and a woman. But the woman is standing this time, and the man crouched, and the woman holds up her baby, while the crouching man, her husband, plants an olive tree, symbol of the modern state of Israel. The new tree and the old tree bear the same relation to each other as Israel to ancient Judaea: Judea or New Judea was an option considered for the name of the new nation. But the baby and the olive sapling especially speak of a future denied the mourning woman on the Roman sestertius.

Finally, the inscription, which uses Latin to answer the Latin of the Roman coin, ISRAEL LIBERATA, “Israel having-been-freed,” and in Hebrew (again, I am reliably informed) reads “Ten years for the freedom of Israel”, followed by a date in the Jewish calendar corresponding to 1958.

Ancient coins are fascinating little survivals in themselves, replete with significance if studied expertly and carefully enough. (I am no numismatist, and just get glimpses.) But a whole new dimension of meaning is introduced when they become part of modern expressions of national identity, in Greece, Afghanistan or Israel.


*A. Wallace-Hadrill, “Image and Authority in the Coinage of Augustus,” JRS 76 (1986), 66-87, at 80 ff.: quotation from the Cambridge Ancient History, second edition, Vol. X (1996), 318.

Also interesting:

H. St. J. Hart, “Judaea and Rome: The Official Commentary,” Journal of Theological Studies 3 (1952), 172-98;

H. B. Brin, Catalog of Judaea Capta Coinage (1986);

S. Goldhill, The Temple of Jerusalem (2004).


Lighthouselittlegarden F.C.

A quick blog to preserve an interesting conversation I had on Twitter. It started with Jonathan Healey appreciating Turkish toponyms:

Gelibolu, Gallipoli, has a particular excellent name, originally Kallipolis, “Beautiful City”. There are lots of other surviving -polis names, for example Antibes in France (Antipolis, City-Opposite-[Nice/Nikaia]), Nablus on the West Bank (Neapolis, New City); and an example of a modern name imitating an ancient, (and implying a cultural connection to Ancient Greece), Sebastopol (Empress City), founded by Catherine the Great when she annexed the Crimea in 1783.

But what Jonathan’s tweet made me think of, and even do some google research about, was Fenerbahçe, a football club (and a neighbourhood of Istanbul) with a very interesting name. The -bahçe bit I knew was Persian baghche (باغچه), (little) garden, a diminutive form of the standard Persian word for garden, bagh, probably most familiar from classic Islamic gardens like the Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar, Kashmir, laid out by the Mughul Emperor Jahangir. As for Fener-, this means “lighthouse” in Turkish, so “Fenerbahçe” is “Lighthouse Garden”, after a lighthouse that stands there at the approach to the Golden Horn.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that:

The Turkish word fener in turn comes from Greek phanarion (φανάριον), a diminutive of phanos (φανός), torch, which came to mean “beacon” or “lighthouse”. So Fenerbahçe, a suburb of the city where East famously meets West, fittingly bears a name that’s half-Greek and half-Persian.

But what made the conversation much more interesting was Jamal Jafri pointing out that fanar, فنار, was a (rare) word for lighthouse in Persian and the standard term in Arabic, originally deriving from this same Greek word phanarion, φανάριον:*

The suburb of Fener on the European side of Istanbul derives its name directly from Greek φανάρι(ον), but I guess the Fener- of Fenerbahçe may have travelled from Greek to Turkish more indirectly, via Arabic or Persian.

Incidentally, the more usual Persian term for lighthouse, fanous-e daryayi (فانوس دریایی), is from another Greek word (φανός, “torch”) via Arabic: also from Greek via Arabic, while I’m at it, is “fanusi”, which is a Swahili word for “lantern” (meanwhile another Greek word for lighthouse, φάρος, from the Pharos of Alexandria, explains the French word for “headlight”):

Finally, and most fascinatingly of all, this from @Giovanni_Lido: the Persian word baghche also found its way, through Turkish, into Greek, an alternative (now obsolete or poetic) to the standard Greek word for garden, kepos (κήπος):

“I entered into your garden…”, sings Giorgos Totis, and the word for garden is the Persian baghche, μπαξές, baxes.

I overuse this word, but that is rather cool: a Persian word for “garden” found from India to Greek folk music, and a selection of Greek words for “lighthouse” used across the Arabic and Persian-speaking world and as far as central Africa and Western Europe. East, West, South and North (фонарь, fonar, is apparently a Russian word for “lantern”) thoroughly interchangeable, and surely the most interesting name of any football club in the world. However, I’m not a philologist, my Persian is ropey, my modern Greek worse, and my Arabic, Turkish and Russian non-existent, so I’m fully prepared to be corrected.

* The first “a” of Greek φανάριον, phanarion, is long (phaanarion), while the first of فنار, fanar, is short and the second long (fanaar): what explains the shift, I suppose, is the accentual change in the Greek accent, from pitch to stress, that was established by the sixth century AD, the accent over the second syllable of phanarion being realised in Arabic by the long second “a” of fanaar.

(Also thanks to Averil Cameron and Eli Mitropoulos for answering my questions on this topic.)

Gradus ad Aornon


The archaeological site of Barikot/Bazira, with Mt Elam (Aornos) in the distance behind it, courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri

(Ah, January 2015: composed sipping tea on the roof of a Maharajah’s palace in Jaipur…)

If you thought the British in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were stretching every sinew to deprive Indians of their right to self-determination, think again. Because what a lot of them spent a remarkable amount of time and energy doing was locating the Rock of Aornos.

This mountain, somewhere to the west of the Indus in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was the site of a famous victory by Alexander the Great in 327/6 BC, but that was about as much as anyone knew: ancient writers generally aren’t too hot on geographical precision. Still, it was a rare visitor to the territory beyond the river who didn’t see fit to express his firm opinions on the matter. Aornos was at Ranigat, or near Attock, or maybe Tarbela. James Abbott, the political officer who gave his name to Abbottabad, the city where Osama bin Laden was killed, scrutinized the mountains to the west of the river, presumably with a telescope: British jurisdiction in his day (the 1850s) only reached as far as the Indus, and he couldn’t get any closer. Nevertheless Abbott’s candidate for Aornos, Mt Mahaban, was the favourite for a while until Aurel Stein’s visit to Swat in 1926. In On Alexander’s Track to the Indus, Stein made a powerful case for Pir Sar, a mountain ridge further up the Indus, and there generally the question rested.

The Europeans who set eyes upon the Indus in the nineteenth century were a motley bunch, imperial functionaries, spies, deserters, mercenaries. But almost to a man they were obsessed with Alexander and any evidence they could find of his presence in this part of the world, whether the coins with Greek inscriptions that Alexander’s successors minted, or the physical landmarks of Alexander’s campaigns across Central and South Asia. There was intense debate about the location of Alexandria in the Caucasus, for example, a city founded by Alexander before he crossed the Hindu Kush in 329BC. It’s now securely identified as Begram, the site of the airbase north of Kabul, but many in the nineteenth century were convinced it was Bamiyan. The most famous of travellers beyond the Indus, in his own day at least, was Alexander Burnes, author of the bestselling Travels into Bokhara. Burnes lost a day on his travels to Bokhara on the banks of the river Beas in the Punjab, searching fruitlessly for the twelve huge altars that Alexander had erected to the Olympian Gods at the point of his furthest advance into India.

But Aornos was the great prize. The capture of the fortress-mountain, so impregnable it was said even Heracles had failed to conquer it, was one of Alexander’s very greatest exploits.

It’s worth wondering why Alexander was so very important to these men. They had all received good classical educations, so he was a European hero they had read about since childhood: Abbott’s argument for Mt Mahaban is full of quotations of the Latin and Greek sources, for example, and the title of his article on the subject, “Gradus ad Aornon”, “Steps toward Aornos”, plays on the title of an aide to Latin verse composition, Gradus ad Parnassum, “Steps toward Parnassus”, that the young Abbott would certainly have encountered at school in Blackheath. It helped that most of these explorers had a very rosy picture of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia. According to Josiah Harlan, an American soldier of fortune in Afghanistan in the 1830s, he was “a European philanthropist” who “performed feats that have consecrated his memory amongst the benefactors of mankind, and impressed the stamp of civilization on the face of the known world.” Alexander was a model for men who believed, as these men did, that they too were bringing “civilization” to backward peoples: Harlan was an extreme example of this, increasingly incapable of distinguishing himself from Alexander of Macedon. But Alexander was also, I think, something familiar in the very alien and disorienting terrains and cultures where these men found themselves. If these European interlopers could convince themselves that Alexander had been there before they had—had even left his mark on this exotic landscape—that made them less anxious about their own presence in places they really didn’t belong.

Harlan’s assessment of Alexander was romantic nonsense, needless to say. In reality Alexander campaigned with remorseless brutality, and left unimaginable chaos in his wake. The academic Horace Hayman Wilson, writing in the 1840s, pointed out that the ferocious campaigns attributed to Alexander “would have been held up to execration had they been narrated of a Jangiz or a Timur, but are passed over almost unnoticed by historians when they are narrated of the type of classical civilization, a Greek.” Absolutely right, but Wilson’s was a lonely voice at the time, and much later even a man of immense humanity like Aurel Stein seemed to lose all objectivity when Alexander was mentioned, reverting perhaps to the excitement of the schoolboy who first heard of Alexander’s exploits. In the 1990s the TV historian Michael Wood travelled to Pir Sar and met an old man who still remembered Stein: “He spoke a lot about Iskander…”

Pir Sar, Stein’s candidate, undoubtedly fits well with the ancient accounts of the capture of Aornos, and most writers on Alexander still accept Stein’s identification. But I happen to prefer another theory which identifies Aornos as Mt Elam, near Barikot. I like it because it juggles the ancient accounts pretty well, but mainly because it allows another voice to be heard besides that of Alexander and the triumphant Greeks.


Near the summit of Mt Elam, photo from Aurel Stein, “On Alexander’s Track to the Indus.”

Let me try to explain myself.

Giuseppe Tucci was an Italian expert on Buddhism who spent a lot of time in Swat investigating the Buddhist and other archaeological remains there. He had a chequered history, a bit too close to Mussolini, and a bit too close also to the regime in Japan in the 1930s, whose militarism was more Buddhist in inspiration than most people appreciate. But Tucci’s research in Swat gave him something that other Aornos hunters, armed with their classical texts, didn’t have, and that is an understanding of the culture and beliefs of the people Alexander encountered when he invaded, the victims of the Aornos campaign as opposed to the Greek victors.

The ancient sources describe people from all around taking refuge, in face of the Macedonian onslaught, on this mountain top, only for Alexander to capture it amid predictable scenes of carnage. Tucci was convinced that, if the people of this area had needed to take refuge from an invader, they would have gone to a sacred place, and evidence suggests that Mt Elam was a holy mountain for the people of Swat from time immemorial. There is a story of the Buddha associated with the place: we’re told by the Chinese traveller-monk Xuanzang, who climbed Elam in the seventh century AD, that in an earlier life the Buddha was happy to die here in return for hearing just half a verse of the Buddhist teaching. Elam is also a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, sacred to Rama, whose name has been written on a rock at its summit. Even the tale told by the Greeks of Heracles’ attempts to capture Aornos hints at a local myth of a god’s abode assaulted by another god or demon.

The stupa at Amluk-dara, with Elam/Aornos behind, a perennially sacred place, courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri

The ancient accounts of the capture of Aornos are predictably violent: Alexander’s troops reached the summit as the defenders had begun to make their escape, and massacred many of them as they fled. “Others, retreating in panic, perished by throwing themselves down the precipices,” the Greek historian Arrian records. If Tucci was right, what Alexander’s troops were doing was attacking the most sacred place of the Swati peoples, the abode of their god or gods, somewhere to which they would only resort in absolute desperation. Tucci suggests that the name that the Greeks heard as “Aornos” was in the local language “aarana”, “a common name for any sheltered place.” If Aornos is Elam, a tale of exceptional military prowess becomes more like a story of the impact of war on civilian populations.

Incidentally, I’m glad to see that Tucci’s theory, even if it’s generally overlooked by historians of the ancient world, is well known where it matters. Malala describes gazing at Mt Elam from her bedroom window in Mingora, “a sacred mountain” to which the Swati people fled as Alexander approached “believing that they would be protected by their gods because it was so high.” I’m sure she’s right about this, as she is about so many things.

The view back, from Mt Elam/Aornos to Barikot, courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri


J. Abbott, “Gradus ad Aornon,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 23 (1854), 309–63;

A. Burnes, Travels into Bokhara (1834);

H. H. Wilson, Ariana Antiqua (1841);

B. Macintyre, Josiah the Great (2011);

A. Stein, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (1929);

M. Wood, In the footsteps of Alexander the Great (1998);

G. Tucci, “Preliminary report on an archaeological survey in Swat,” East and West 9 (1958), 279–328;

L. M. Olivieri, “Notes on the problematical sequence of Alexander’s itinerary in Swat: a geo-historical approach,” East and West 46 (1996), 45-78;

idem, “‘Frontier archaeology’: Sir Aurel Stein, Swat, and the Indian Aornos,” South Asian Studies  31 (2015), 58-70.

Dunno much about topography

I’m currently deep into Ovid’s Fasti, possibly the world’s favourite Latin poet’s least popular poem. The Fasti is Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, originally designed to consist of twelve books corresponding to the twelve months. Ovid’s exile from Rome in AD 8 put paid to that, or at any rate Books 1-6 are all that survive for us to read. I’m studying it at this moment because we’ve just added Book 6, June, to one of our main literature courses.

Actually I need no excuse to read the Fasti as it’s probably my favourite poem of Ovid, and one thing I love about it is the way that the poet’s focus on Rome’s calendar, which automatically entails an interest in the religious festivals that make up the Roman year (and thus the history of Rome), also grounds the poem in the physical city of Rome, where stood the temples at which all the various religious festivals took place, and whose foundation dates were also commemorated in the Roman calendar. As Catherine Edwards says, “It was not possible [for Ovid] to consider the organisation of Roman time without engaging also with the spatial context through which Roman time was articulated” (Writing Rome: textual approaches to the city, p. 57): Ovid’s Fasti is a poetic calendar, but it’s also a kind of poetic city plan. I may not be selling it very well, but this is a city plan composed by the wittiest, most inventive versifier Rome ever produced.

Well, I found myself thinking very hard about the topography of Rome in a cafe in Bath last week. I had reached Fasti 6.395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est. The issue here is the first word of the second line, quae in the text I was reading, but which I instinctively felt should be qua. (Bath is an appropriate place to get fixated on Latin minutiae, I feel.) I’ll set out the passage around it with the Loeb Latin text and English translation, though as we’ll see the Latin and the translation, by the celebrated anthropologist Sir James Frazer, don’t entirely match up:

“It chanced that at the festival of Vesta I was returning by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum. Hither I saw a matron coming down barefoot: amazed I held my peace and halted. An old woman of the neighbourhood perceived me, and bidding me sit down she addressed me in quavering tones, shaking her head. ‘This ground, where now are the forums, was once occupied by wet swamps: a ditch was drenched with the water that overflowed from the river. That Lake of Curtius, which supports dry altars, is now solid ground, but formerly it was a lake. Where now the processions are wont to defile through the Velabrum to the Circus, there was naught but willows and hollow canes; often the roisterer, returning home over the waters of the suburb, used to tip a stave and rap out tipsy words at passing sailors. Yonder god (Vertumnus), whose name is appropriate to various shapes, had not yet derived it from damming back the river (averso amne). Here, too, there was a grove overgrown with bulrushes and reeds, and a marsh not to be trodden with booted feet. The pools have receded, and the river confines its water within its banks, and the ground is now dry; but the old custom survives.’ The old woman thus explained the custom. ‘Farewell, good old dame,’ said I; ‘may what remains of life to thee be easy all.'”

Forte revertebar festis Vestalibus illa,                            395
quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est.
huc pede matronam vidi descendere nudo:
obstipui tacitus sustinuique gradum.
sensit anus vicina loci, iussumque sedere
alloquitur, quatiens voce tremente caput:               400
“hoc, ubi nunc fora sunt, udae tenuere paludes;
amne redundatis fossa madebat aquis.
Curtius ille lacus, siccas qui sustinet aras,
nunc solida est tellus, sed lacus ante fuit.
qua Velabra solent in Circum ducere pompas,              405
nil praeter salices cassaque canna fuit;
saepe suburbanas rediens conviva per undas
cantat et ad nautas ebria verba iacit.
nondum conveniens diversis iste figuris
nomen ab averso ceperat amne deus.                         410
hic quoque lucus erat iuncis et harundine densus
et pede velato non adeunda palus.
stagna recesserunt et aquas sua ripa coercet,
siccaque nunc tellus: mos tamen ille manet.”
reddiderat causam. “valeas, anus optima!’ dixi               415
“quod superest aevi, molle sit omne, tui.”

It is the festival of Vesta, June 9, and Ovid reminisces (or claims to) about walking somewhere in the vicinity of the Roman Forum and seeing a woman walking barefoot. There follows an explanation of the oddity from an older woman, who explains that this part of Rome had once been marshy. The Nova Via or New Way (in actual fact exceptionally old even in Ovid’s day) ran along the south side of the Forum, below the Palatine Hill, and the statue of Vertumnus probably stood near the junction of the New Way and the Vicus Tuscus, which led into the centre of the Forum. (Andrew Sillett alerts me to Alessandro Barchiesi’s identification of the shape-shifting Vertumnus with the old woman, uicina loci, whom Ovid meets and speaks to, The Poet and the Prince, 188-189, which is a very good idea…) The Lake of Curtius, meanwhile, was a monument in the heart of the Forum. It is typical of the Fasti that Ovid gets his information about ritual practice by a combination of interested observation (the scholarly persona he adopts in the poem), and a knowledgeable informant explaining causae, “causes,” here the old woman of the neighbourhood to whom Ovid somewhat untactfully wishes the best for the limited period of life remaining to her. That scholarly character, the role of the informant and the interest in causes and etymologies (such as that of Vertumnus) place the Fasti very firmly in the tradition of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus.

But I’m fixated on that quae. As I’ve already suggested, the Loeb’s Latin text and English translation don’t quite match up here. Frazer translates 395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est, as if it is not quae that starts 396 but qua. A subtle change, for sure, but changing the relative pronoun from a nominative to an ablative does make quite a significant difference to the sense. Reading qua, as Frazer evidently does, Ovid is walking “along the route by which the New Way is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Reading quae, Ovid is walking along the New Way itself, and the Latin means “along the route which, as the New Way, is now connected to the Roman Forum,” or “along the New Way, which is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Qua places Ovid on a side street connecting the Forum and the New Way, in other words, while quae places him on the New Way itself. And what is weird, and quintessentially Fastian, is that while I’m worrying about a detail of Ovid’s text I’m also thinking very hard about the detailed topography of the Roman Forum.

For what it’s worth (and I tend to attach quite a lot of significance to this), the manuscript evidence is pretty unequivocal. Almost all our sources for the text of Fasti 6.396 have qua not quae. We owe the reading quae to the Danish scholar Johan Nicolai Madvig, but the longest defence of quae has been made by Franz Bömer,* who addressed the question in the course of producing a full commentary on the Fasti. I’m not personally persuaded. Bömer’s article elaborates in some detail what scenario Ovid might be describing if we go with quae, but aside from other things the upshot is a rather redundant description of the New Way, “which is now connected to the Roman Forum” (so what?) that to me doesn’t come across as very Ovidian.

The best way to positively justify qua is by means of a map, and here is the vicinity of the Temple of Vesta taken from Samuel Ball Platner’s The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome. It is always worth bearing in mind that the reconstruction of Roman topography, as it was at any specific time in Roman history especially, can be highly speculative, and that is particularly the case in this area at the edge of the Forum. But I’ve checked The Atlas of Ancient Rome edited by Andrea Carandini (a truly beautiful thing: my birthday is in June, a few days after the festival of Vesta…), and in any respects that matter it agrees with Platner. We can make out here the circular Temple of Vesta (“T. Vestae” in red), one of the most sacred locations in the city, from which it is natural to assume that Ovid was returning, and beside it the Atrium Vestae in which the Vestal Virgins who served Vesta’s cult lived. Along the other side of the Atrium Vestae runs the Nova Via, New Way. Below the Temple of Vesta is the Temple of Castor (“T. Castoris”), where the official weights and measures were kept and the Senate occasionally met, and below that the Basilica Iulia built by Julius Caesar with the spoils of the Gallic War. To the left of the Basilica is the Lake of Curtius (“Lacus Curtius”) mentioned by Ovid; the statue of Vertumnus that he also mentions seemed to have stood a little back from the top righthand corner of the Basilica.**

It seems to me that qua makes good sense of this cityscape. What Ovid is describing, the route linking the Form and the New Way, is something like what is represented by the grey band leading from beside the Temple of Vesta up to and then beyond the Nova Via. This was a staircase that allowed access from the lower-lying Forum up to the Palatine Hill. It is shown also on a piece of the Marble Plan, above the edge of the Temple of Castor,*** and it seems to be what Frazer means by “a cross-road, joining the Sacred Way and the Forum down on the flat with the New Way up on the hill” that he personally inspected in the winter of 1900-1901 and identified with Ovid’s route (The Fasti of Ovidius Vol. 4, p. 238). From the upper level of it you could, I think, see the statue of Vertumnus (iste in 409 seems to me to suggest it is visible as Ovid and the old woman converse), and it answers to what qua requires, a route connecting the Nova Via and the Forum in a way convenient for someone walking home (Ovid lived near the Capitol, Tristia 1.3.29-30) from the Temple of Vesta. It also gives a little more force to the verb used for the bare-footed woman who piqued Ovid’s interest in the first place: she is “descending” the staircase towards the Forum as Ovid climbs out of it, or that seems a natural reading. Ovid describes a recent development, it should be noted (“by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum”), so we would have to assume some work on the staircase by Augustus. Lawrence Richardson, in Ernest Nash’s Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1962) Vol. 2, 123-124, knits all the various threads together very satisfactorily, using Ovid as evidence for developments in the late Republican or Augustan period.

Now, Richardson assumes that Ovid means what I think he means, and Ovid is part and parcel of his reconstruction of the topography of this part of ancient Rome, so my argument could very easily get as circular as Vesta’s temple. (Barney Taylor comes to my defence, pointing out that, quae or qua, the connection between New Way and Forum mentioned should be that staircase, so Richardson’s reconstruction looks like the only one compatible with any interpretation of Ovid.) The truth remains that any reconstruction of this area of Rome in Ovid’s day is bound to be nine parts guesswork. Furthermore, Bömer’s defence of quae is much more detailed than I have given him credit for, and he has counterarguments to a number of the points I (or Frazer) might want to make in favour of qua. I’m still pretty convinced the transmitted text qua is the right one, but the most important point, whether it’s qua or quae, whether Bömer’s right or Sir James, is what this all tells us about Ovid’s Fasti, a poem embedded in the physical city of Rome, in which preferring qua to quae is all that stands between a monumental staircase and oblivion. Does it get any better than this, a poem from “the sweet witty soul of Ovid” that takes you on a tour of ancient Rome, its religious festivals and its physical monuments? And I haven’t even mentioned the stars and constellations that also feature prominently in Ovid’s calendar

In the unlikely event you can stand any more, I wrote a short article about Ovid using Jupiter as an explanation of Rome’s topography that’s on open access here. For more geography there is another blog here (you will note I have shamefully all-but-reused a blog title), and for more calendrical stuff in Roman poetry a very succinct blog here.


*F. Bömer, “Zu Ovid, Fasti VI 396,” Bonner Jahrbücher 154 (1954), 29-31;

**M. C. J. Putnam, “The Shrine of Vortumnus,” American Journal of Archaeology 71 (1967), 177-179;

***O. Marruchi, “Recent Excavations in Rome,” American Journal of Archaeology 2 (1886), 334-341, at 335-336.

On St George and his day

The last time I gave much thought to St George, I think, was in Afghanistan. I was researching Bamiyan, and visited a valley, Darre-ye Azhdaha, a few miles to the west of Bamiyan town. At its mouth there is now a housing development for refugees returned from Iran; but if you follow the narrow, steep-sided valley further up, it’s blocked by a high volcanic ridge associated with some interesting folklore.

According to tradition, the ridge is a dragon (azhdaha) slain by Hazrat-e Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and a figure of special importance to the predominantly Shi’i population of Bamiyan. A crevice running along the top of the ridge was made by the sweep of Ali’s sword, reddish mineral deposits around it are the dragon’s blood, the sound of subterranean water the dying creature’s groans, and the milky mineral waters that flow out from the end of the ridge its penitential tears.

This dragon, the story goes, was terrorizing Bamiyan, extorting food from the townspeople—600lb of food, two camels, and one girl per day, according to a version collected by the archaeologists Ahmad Ali Kohzad and Ria Hackin in the 1930s. Eventually salvation arrived in the form of Ali ibn Abi Talib, riding his horse Doldol and brandishing his sword Zulfiqar. Ali slew the dragon, rescued the girl, and converted the hitherto pagan people of Bamiyan to Islam, so impressed were they by his self-evidently divinely-sanctioned success.

A similar story is to be found attached to many rock formations across Afghanistan, in fact. My immediate reaction when I heard it was of course to be struck by its remarkable similarity to the tales told of St George, who also killed a dragon, rescued a girl, and converted the people, though in his case to Christianity. I wasn’t apparently the first to make the connection: British officers in the First Afghan War in 1840 were disconcerted to hear stories they associated with their national saint told of features of the landscape around Kabul.

But how do we explain more or less identical folk stories in Afghanistan and in England?

The myth of the dragon fighter is as ancient as can be, already well established in the earliest Persian and Indians texts we possess, and with parallels also in Greco-Roman myth and other ancient middle-eastern cultures. How to Kill a Dragon is the title of a book by Calvert Watkins in which he attempts to identify echoes of the poetic language of the original Indo-Europeans: it was evidently a story that was already being told, in some form, when the Indo-European ancestors were in their homeland on the steppe.

To explain the similarity of St George and Hazrat-e Ali, though, we probably don’t have to peer quite so far back in time. The dragon slayer was a particularly important image for the Sasanians, the pre-Islamic rulers of Iran. What the story of the dragon slayer has always essentially been about is the triumph of order and civilization over the forces of chaos. A key element of the story was often the securing of water, the essential commodity for agriculture, essential in turn for settled and civilized existence. In St George folklore water is often being hoarded by the dragon until released by the hero, and this is a common feature also of the story told in the East: in the Rigveda the divine hero Indra made the world when he slew the dragon and “let loose to flow the Seven Rivers,” for example, while the two ancient Iranian festivals of Nowruz and Mehragan were both associated with stories of dragon slaying that restored and maintained fertility. (Water flows through and out of the Azhdaha at Bamiyan, too.) But in pre-Islamic Iran the popularity of stories of dragon slayers, whether Garshasp or Feridun or many others, also reflected more profound doctrines of the Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, which understood world history as a perpetual battle between sharply defined realms of Good and Evil: the story of hero destroying monster encapsulated that perennial duel.

(On all of this the article “Azdaha” in the wonderful online Encyclopaedia Iranica is extremely interesting.)

When Zoroastrianism was superseded by Islam, the thinking goes, the folklore persisted, only with Ali taking the role of the Persian hero, and the dragon assuming an Islamic rather than Zoroastrian religious significance.

Meanwhile, far to the west, St George was very much a product of Middle-Eastern Christianity. Jewish and Christian imagery and doctrine had long borrowed from their Zoroastrian neighbours, but the specific story of St George’s conquest of the dragon is quite a late development, first attested in the eleventh century AD. It seems to have enjoyed a particular popularity in Georgia and the Caucasus—territories that lay on the borders of the Iranian world and were profoundly influenced by Persian traditions of art and thought (cf. Sara Kuehn in her detailed study The Dragon in East Christian and Islamic Art).

So when Hazrat-e Ali in Bamiyan reminded me of St George, killing the dragon, rescuing the girl and converting the kingdom, what I may well have been seeing was the same essentially Persian myth, an expression of the Zoroastrian conflict between Light and Dark so powerfully definitive that it survived the eclipse of Zoroastrianism, and fed into both Islamic and Christian folklore at opposite edges of the Iranian plateau.

It’s still a fair distance from the Caucasus to England. But St George’s transformation into England’s patron saint was apparently an indirect consequence of the Crusades. The warrior saint’s tomb and cult centre was at Lydda in the Holy Land, and the town, known as St George by the Crusaders, remained under Christian control for most of the following two centuries. This brought him a growing following in Western Europe, and he slowly rose to prominence in England, although it was not until Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1348, with St George as its patron and St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle as its home, that the association of “England and St George” was fixed for good.

Back in Bamiyan, that geothermal dragon has in the past received a lot of attention from archaeologists trying to reconstruct the Buddhist history of the valley. One popular theory was that this roughly 1,000-foot long geological formation was the very same as the fabled 1,000-foot “Parinirvana” Buddha (the Buddha lying on his deathbed, at the point of achieving ultimate release) mentioned by our best witness to Bamiyan in its Buddhist period, the seventh-century Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang. It’s a tempting idea, but also unlikely: as a rule Xuanzang is impressively accurate in his topographical detail, and he locates the 1,000-foot Buddha a couple of miles to the east of Bamiyan, not five miles to the west. As for the gigantic size of the Buddha he saw, it’s probably nothing more dramatic than a corruption that has crept into the text of Xuanzang’s account.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Azhdaha wasn’t also a cult site when Bamiyan was Buddhist. So deep were the roots of this myth that when Buddhism came to what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan even the peaceable Buddha turned into a dragon fighter. Later in his journey Xuanzang visits Udyana (Swat), and recounts how a dragon had prevented the water of the river Swat reaching the crops of the valley people until the Buddha split the mountain with his diamond mace, the Vajra, cowed the dragon, and released the waters. It’s not impossible that a similar story was once told of the Dragon Valley in Bamiyan.

So are Hazrat-e Ali and St George so similar because they’re both really Feridun? I can’t personally think of a better explanation of such a striking coincidence. And while it’s easy to be disheartened by the way the tribes and religions of our world all line up behind their separate banners and champions, it’s perhaps quite heartening to ponder that those various competing heroes may all, basically, be one and the same

Nota bene 


This, as I probably don’t need to tell you, is a banknote.

To be specific, it’s a 10-afghani banknote printed in 2004 (my thanks to Dr Amelia Dowler of the BM for that astonishingly precise piece of identification), and it’s been hanging about in my wallet since my last trip to Afghanistan in 2011.

What I hadn’t noticed in all that time, and only did notice when Roh Yakobi drew my attention to it last week, was the emblem in the top right corner, above the picture of the building (the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, considered the founder of Afghanistan, in Kandahar). Here’s a close-up:

This is the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank, the central bank of Afghanistan established in 1939 (1318 in the Iranian/Afghan solar calendar). But alongside the name of the bank in Pashto, in Arabic script at the top and Latin script at the bottom, there’s a text in Ancient Greek, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ, “Of the great king Eucratides.”

Eucratides was a Greek king of Bactria (roughly northern Afghanistan) in the second century BC (rough dates 170-145BC). What’s represented in the centre of the seal is in fact one of his coins. Here’s a silver tetradrachm of Eucratides with the same design:

@Rani nurmai

This blog is essentially my best attempt to answer a question that Roh Yakobi put to me, a very good question: what on earth is a two-millennia-old coin image of a Greek king doing on a modern Afghan banknote?

To start with the coin design, and Eucratides. The image on the bank note is the “reverse” of the coin. On the “obverse” is an image of the king himself, in a cavalry helmet and cloak, but on this side, surrounded by Eucratides’ name and titles, we see two galloping horsemen in conical hats, holding palms and long stabbing spears. Their equipment associates them with Macedonian military tactics (the Greek kings of Bactria were all inheritors directly or indirectly of Alexander conquests in the region) and the cavalry for which Bactria was famous. But the star over each of their heads identifies them as Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri or divine sons of Zeus by Leda. The pair are saviour gods, helpers of humanity in crisis.

Eucratides, like all the Greek rulers in the borderlands of India, is a shadowy figure. He may have seized power in Bactria; certainly his reign seems to have been a very violent one, his campaigns potentially extending as far as N.-W. India, and his death may have come at the hands of his own son. Apollodorus of Artemita (at Strabo 15.1.3) calls him “ruler of a thousand cities”; one in particular we know was called Eucratidia, and it may be the same as the remarkable archaeological site of Ai Khanum in N.-E. Afghanistan. Then again, and this is the story with almost all the information we have about Eucratides, it may not.

In between fighting and founding/retitling cities, Eucratides minted some very innovative coins (which are the most tangible evidence we have about him): the description of himself as “Great” on this one is one such innovation, and almost certainly indicates that his grip on power was in reality highly vulnerable. “The coins of Eucratides I or Great, are very numerous, and of very spirited execution,” wrote Charles Masson, the nineteenth-century deserter-cum-antiquarian, as he fossicked around Begram, north of Kabul, the site of the great city of Kapisa/Alexandria ad Caucasum before it hosted an airbase. But the most famous example of Eucratides’ coinage is the so-called Eucratidion, at 169.2g. the largest gold coin surviving from Antiquity. This was bought in London by a French dealer in 1867 from a man who had carried it from Bukhara in a pouch secreted in his armpit. It is now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


Image from Gallica Digital Library.

A celebrated design, then, and quite a common archaeological find in Afghanistan. We still need to explain its presence on the note, but the first step is to establish why Da Afghanistan Bank, when it was founded in 1939, adopted this design. The answer offers a fascinating insight into Afghanistan’s perception of itself at that moment.

The establishment of an Afghan central bank was part of a bigger project to modernize Afghanistan under the Musahibun regime of Zahir Shah (king of Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973). Taking as its models European nations and “advanced” Islamic countries like Iran and Turkey, Afghanistan was giving itself the institutions of a developed state. Responding to the wave of nationalism in the world of the 1930s, in the words of Robert D. Crews in his excellent book Afghan Modern, “Afghans faced the test of demonstrating their right to belong in this world of nation states by articulating a national language, culture and past” (p.156). This could take the form of national financial institutions, and also of discriminatory policies against non-Muslims, especially Jews (dangerous notions of Aryan ancestry were also in the air). But a 2,000-year-old coin image, too, contradictory as it may seem, could symbolize progress in thirties Afghanistan.

The explanation of this lies in the archaeological work undertaken in Afghanistan in the previous two decades. Archaeology had properly begun in Afghanistan with the agreement between King Amanullah (another modernizer) and the French government in 1922 to establish the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA). By the late thirties, as Nile Green explains (“The Afghan discovery of Buddha: civilizational history and the nationalizing of Afghan antiquity,” International Journal of Middle  Eastern Studies 49 (2017), 47-70), the discoveries of French archaeologists at such sites as Begram and Hadda (of which the publications began to appear in numbers in the mid-thirties) were starting to secure the interest of the Afghan leadership. The National Museum of Afghanistan, which moved into its new premises in the administrative district of Darulaman in Kabul in 1931, was being turned, mainly by these French discoveries, into one of the richest collections in the world. In 1937, according to the French chargé d’affaires, “The excavations at Begram have been visited by several ministers … the king himself visited the exhibition mounted at the Kabul museum.”

We need to appreciate what a dramatic change this represented in Afghan attitudes to their past, an emphasis on pre-Islamic cultures, Buddhist as well as Greek, which superseded and sidelined Afghanistan’s Islamic heritage, hitherto the focus of Afghan historiography and national identity. This new emphasis was facilitated by the activities of DAFA, but it also represented Afghanistan’s attempt to align its own historical identity with what Green calls the “civilizational norms” of the developed world that it aspired to join. By highlighting its Greek heritage, Afghanistan could claim a share of the classical origins of Europe and the West. A state-owned bank represented civilization and modernity in the 1930s, but so did a coin with Greek writing on it.

Green’s article focuses on a key personality in these cultural developments, Ahmad Ali Kuhzad, an Afghan archaeologist who had worked with DAFA and subsequently in a series of Persian publications communicated the insights gained by the French into ancient Afghan history to the Afghan elite and beyond. I suspect Kuhzad was more directly involved in this design than I can now establish. There’s a Kuhzad publication from 1938/1317, Maskukat-i Qadim-i Afghanistan, Ancient Coins of Afghanistan, which I’m trying to get my hands on, but which I’m fairly confident will contain lots of images of Eucratides coins when I do.

So that’s how Eucratides made it onto the seal of the State Bank, and it tells us a lot about Afghan aspirations in the 1930s. But we still have to explain how he made it onto the notes.

That happened in 1979, but in this instance I suspect the Bactrian Greeks had a less to do with the development. Take a look at these four Afghan bank notes (images all from Banknote World), the first of Zahir Shah in 1967:


The second is of Daoud Khan (1977), Zahir Shah’s cousin, who deposed him in 1973 and established a republic:


The third is from 1978, and was printed by the communist government of Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, which had overthrown and killed Daoud:


Finally from 1979/80, and this is the first note to have Eucratides on it (although he has stayed there ever since), a note issued by the communist government of Babrak Karmal, installed by the Soviets after they had intervened and overthrown Amin:


Each of these notes has a “national” emblem on it. On Zahir Shah’s it’s a long-established symbol of Afghanistan, a mosque containing minbar (pulpit) and mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca). Daoud replaces that with an symbol for the Republic of Afghanistan, an eagle. But the image of Taraki’s regime is a big departure, retaining the corn sheaves that surround Zahir Shah’s and Daoud’s emblem, but containing within just the name of their faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, خلق (Khalq), meaning “People”. It is this image that is superseded by the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank when Karmal’s alternative faction of the Communist Party,  پرچم(Parcham, “Banner”), is installed by the Soviets.

The Taraki/Amin regime was exceptionally brutal (there is a moving article about its crimes by Nushin Arbabzadah here), and the radical and precipitate reforms it attempted to impose on Afghanistan provoked the uprising that turned into the ten-year resistance to the Soviet occupation. It was with the immediate aim of deposing Amin (who had in the meantime got rid of Taraki) that the Soviets stepped in at the end of 1979. All this meant that Karmal’s regime had every reason to distance itself from its fellow communists and from their uncompromisingly partisan approach, and I think this best explains their adoption of the seal of the Afghan central bank in place of the Khalq emblem, a gesture implying at the same time economic prudence (though all of these notes have the name of the bank prominently somewhere) and a national project more broadly-based than narrow factional interests.

But Eucratides also offered Parcham a non-Islamic motif. Zahir Shah’s mosque was of course overtly Islamic; Daoud’s republican eagle still had a minbar and mihrab represented on its chest. In the 1930s an Ancient Greek king had represented civilization and development. Here he represents secularism, I suspect, as well as the Afghan nation. It’s odd that a king’s name and a pair of saviour gods could do any such thing, of course, but what the Greco-Roman world can be used to endorse is endlessly surprising.

Very useful to me when writing this was a deleted BBC Persian article on Afghan banknotes that Roh Yakobi found: there’s a scan of it here. Most of the information I’ve discovered about Eucratides and his coinage I owe to Frank L. Holt’s book on Afghan numismatics, Lost World of the Golden King, another excellent read. He somewhat unsportingly points out toward the end of the book (p.209) that the Greek lettering on the banknote is slightly misspelt, replacing the delta in Eucratides’ name with a lamda: ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΛΟΥ, not ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ.

I am nevertheless even more attached to the Afghan banknote in my wallet after Roh’s revelation than I was before.

[There is now a Persian version of this blog on the Ettela’at Ruz site here, translated by Hamid Mahdavi.]

Talking to God


The emperor Domitian (r.) smites enemies & communes with the gods, from the temple of Khnum at Esna. Photo @ Olaf Tausch

A short blog, the fruit of my efforts to beat insomnia with night-time reading entirely unrelated to my work.

So I’ve been reading Graeme Wood on supporters of ISIS, and after that Penelope Wilson on hieroglyphs, rather different kinds of book but I recommend both. What caught my attention in each of them was a linguistic phenomenon I find intriguing, the impulse people can feel to take language, this practical tool we use to navigate around our world, and transmute it into something more exalted: a medium for addressing the divine.

I didn’t know until I read Wood’s book that Salafi Muslims cultivate an archaic style of spoken Arabic, a form of the language reflecting their desire to emulate the very earliest generations of Islam, al salaf al salih, the pious forefathers. Rejecting contemporary forms of Arabic brings them closer to the Prophet and the Quran, closer to God’s revelation. Wood describes having his colloquial Arabic corrected by an Egyptian Salafist (p.33):

Ahmad took me to lunch at a chicken restaurant where we ate well and he, over my objection, paid the bill out of his student stipend. He corrected my Arabic over and over, studiously transposing the street dialect that came most easily to me with the high register favored by Salafis. Chicken was not firakh, but dajaj. Any time I pronounced the letter jim with a hard g, in the Egyptian way, he corrected it to the more classical j as in “Juliet”: “Jamal,” not “Gamal,” was the name of the dead Egyptian strongman Nasser. The letter qaf, instead of vanishing without a trace as in normal Egyptian speech, had to be pronounced deep in the throat, where the soft palate meets the tongue: qalam [pen], not alam. My language was getting purer, word by word and bite by bite.

Qalam is the Greek word kalamos in fact, but never mind.

Still in Egypt, albeit a few centuries earlier, another thing I didn’t appreciate was how significant the “hiero-” (“sacred”) bit of “hieroglyphs” was. From Wilson (p.18) I learned that the Ancient Egyptian word for this pictorial writing was medu-netjer, meaning “words of god,” and that the primary function of hieroglyphic script was to enable communication between Egyptians and their gods. This wasn’t a different form of language, of course, so much as an esoteric way of representing that language (though if I understand rightly, hieroglyphs were also associated with an archaic and ossified form of the Egyptian language).

By way of illustration, Wilson memorably describes the different audiences targeted by the three texts on the Rosetta Stone (p.31):

Greek (for the ruling administration of the day), hieroglyphs (for the gods), and Demotic (for everyone else).

She also rather beautifully encourages us to imagine that the hieroglyphs accompanying images of human activity and speech covering tombs might become audible: “the tombs would be full of noise, and the chatter of hundreds of people” (p.46). Again, if I understand correctly, the things depicted are summoned into existence by being named in hieroglyphic form. The hieroglyphs secure from the gods an Afterlife for the dead person as rich as the life they have departed. For the dead, I suppose, the tomb with its images and hieroglyphs in effect is that wonderful new life.

I hope I’ve got that right, because a) I find it frankly and gloriously mind-blowing, and b) it’s the main motivation for this blog. And while the whole idea was to be reading stuff at bedtime that was unrelated to work, I couldn’t help thinking about Greco-Roman things, too.

If the Greeks and Romans had anything like hieroglyphics or Quranic Arabic, linguistic ways of communing with God, it might be the dactylic hexameter. This is a verse form, and as Paul Fussell wrote in his classic book on the matter, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, one of the essential effects of couching language in verse, making prose poetry, is to raise its register (p.12):

meter, by distinguishing rhythmic from ordinary statement, objectifies that statement and impels it toward a significant formality and even ritualism.

But if all metre is a “ritual frame”, as Fussell calls it, for the language it encloses, there are more and less elevated kinds of metre, and in antiquity the highest form of communication was that done in dactylic hexameters. That included conveying the utterances of the gods. In fact it was believed that the hexameter was invented by the Pythian priestess at Delphi (Pausanias 10.5.7), to be the vehicle for the oracles that the god Apollo shared with humanity.

A more familiar function of the hexameter, though, is as the medium for another kind of divine narrative, epic poetry. This is poetry describing, typically, a heroic world of superior humans, but represents divine speech in at least two ways. First, part of the greatness of the heroes of epic was the ease with which they communed with gods, who aided them and appeared and spoke to them. The epic world is one governed by the gods, and in Homer and Virgil and other epic poets we often see the gods discussing among themselves how events on earth should unfold. Secondly, though, this made the task of the epic poet a daunting one, since they needed inspiration sufficient to be able to relate the deeds and words of the very highest beings. Conventionally epic poets would claim that their poem was itself divine speech. “Tell me of the man of many wiles, Muse,” is how Homer’s Odyssey begins, and “Sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, goddess,” the Iliad.

“Speeches of the gods” could even be shorthand for epic poetry. In Odes 3.3 Horace closely imitated the epic poet Quintus Ennius, Virgil’s great predecessor at Rome, and a speech that Ennius gave to Juno in a Council of the Gods in the first book of his epic poem Annales. At the end of his poem Horace admits that in formal terms he’s seriously broken the rules, putting this epic material in one of his own lyric poems:

Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;

quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax

referre sermones deorum et

magna modis tenuare parvis.


This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!

Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness

to report the speeches of gods and

diminish great matters in small measures!

Why? Because the only proper habitat for gods and their awe-inspiring utterances is the heroic measure, the hexameter.

More to my godless taste, I have to admit, is Juvenal’s take on this whole issue. In his fourth satire Juvenal lays into the emperor Domitian, describing the measures taken by the tyrant to get a huge turbot cooked. The poem is a parody of an epic (which doesn’t survive) by Statius on Domitian’s military exploits in Germany; like almost all Roman satire it is written, like epic, in hexameters, an outrageous act of misappropriation by satire which established it once and for all as epic’s disreputable twin.

At 34-6 Juvenal parodies the conventional epic evocation of the Muse, the plea for access to divine knowledge.

incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est

cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae

Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.


Begin, Calliope! And do please sit down: there’s no call

for singing, these are real events were dealing with. Tell the story, maidens

of Pieria, and may I profit from having called you maidens.

Brutal stuff, but that’s satire. He summons the Muse Calliope (the Muse of epic, the grandest of them all), then makes a nasty joke about the Muses’ sexual morality. I’m more interested in the first line and a half, because in them Juvenal carries out an expert demolition of this divine medium. Incipe, Calliope is authentically epic, but as he tells Calliope to stop taking it so seriously the verse form collapses, too. Some brilliantly shabby versification follows: non est is a useless, unemphatic cadence to the line, and res uera agitur deliberately obscures by elision another important structural element of the heroic hexameter, its central caesura.

A less technical way of putting it is that Juvenal starts line 34 in epic mode, as he should when a god is being addressed, but then collapses into all-too-human prose. I find the aspiration that we feel to speak the language of the gods fascinating, but I find Juvenal’s utter refusal to respect it most refreshing, too.