The Sea of Okhotsk

A thought occasioned by the anniversaries of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horror of which it is in no way designed to qualify. But there was a context, and my father happened to be part of it.

He was in Kiel, northern Germany, in the summer of 1945, having fought through Europe since D-Day. A senior officer of the regiment was visiting, and he and his fellow Royal Marines had been gathered together to be addressed by him.

“Any of you chaps know where the Sea of Okhotsk is?” he asked. My dad, the perpetual swotty schoolboy (there’s a reason I’m an academic, and he was only 24), stuck his hand up and answered the question. 

The next thing that occurred to him was why the general was asking it.

Lupus in fabula

So here’s the story.

Sometime in the sixteenth century an exciting discovery was made in Tivoli: a bronze tablet bearing an inscription (CIL I².586), and with it a Roman portrait bust in marble (above). They were found in the vicinity of the Cathedral of S. Lorenzo, itself located on the site of the Roman-era forum of ancient Tibur. The inscription recorded a letter from a Roman magistrate, L. Cornelius Cn. f., a praetor, in which he communicated to the people of Tibur that the Roman Senate had accepted their explanation of something or other that had brought suspicion of wrongdoing upon the town.

Evidently the people of Tibur displayed this message in a public venue, and contemporaries of the find in the sixteenth century concluded that the bust and the inscription went together. In other words, the statue represented the Roman magistrate who had taken their submission to the Roman Senate, and reported back to them the positive outcome: it was an image of L. Cornelius the praetor.

But as I rapidly discovered, there is very little about this discovery that isn’t controversial. The identity of the Roman praetor in question, Lucius Cornelius son of Gnaeus Cornelius, is one bone of contention, but a strong contender (and I have some heavyweight German historians on my side here: details are in CIL) is L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus, an interesting figure to say the least. Another contentious issue is whether the inscription and bust are really related to each other, and while the accounts of the discovery suggest they are, there’s no proof that the sculpture represents the praetor, and Paul Zanker, for example, is adamant that the hair and the facial rendering of the bust (as represented in the image at the top) prove that it is of a much later, imperial date.

What happened to these artefacts after their discovery is what I’ve spent the last few days investigating. But it might first be worth explaining what possible interest I could have in this praetor and his dealings with the people of Tibur.

If this L. Cornelius is indeed one and the same as L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus (and you’ll have gathered that more or less everything in this blog is prefaced by “if”), we know a little more about him and his remarkably uneven political career. He was praetor, and thus (potentially) dealing with the Tiburtines, in around 159 BC, then consul in 156, censor in 147, and in the last years of his life princeps senatus. The latter was a position of great prestige, but Lupus held it (and the censorship, an even more prestigious role) despite the fact that he had been convicted of extortion for his behaviour as a provincial governor after his consulship. Not unrelatedly, Lupus also had the dubious honour of a starring role in a very celebrated poem, a satire by C. Lucilius which excoriated Rome for allowing such an unfit character to rise to such prominence.

Lucilius’ satire against Lupus is now a collection of fragments, but it described an assembly of the gods; it was apparently a parody of a divine council in Book 1 of Ennius’ Annals which decided noble things like Romulus’ deification and the foundation of Rome. Lucilius’ council also discussed the future of Rome, but in a much less positive way, apparently including the option of destroying it, and in place of Romulus had Lupus, a man who encapsulated everything that had gone wrong with Rome in Lucilius’ day, its corruption, injustice and (worst of all) its Greekness. After discussion of Rome’s decadence and Lupus’ vices, the gods decided that Lupus must die: Lucilius was obviously writing the satire after Lupus’ actual death in 126/5 BC. There is much we can’t know about Lucilius’ satire, but its aggressive tone emerges from the comments of later Roman satirists. “Lucilius sliced up the city,” wrote Persius, “you, Lupus, you, Mucius, and broke his jaw on them” (1.114-115). (Q. Mucius Scaevola was another victim of Lucilius’ satire.) Horace describes Lupus as “smothered by libellous verses” (Sat. 2.1.68), and “smothered” is cooperto, the Latin verb suggesting death by stoning: Lucilius’ verses against Lupus are like rocks being hurled at him.

Not just any old villain, then: C. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus was the very embodiment of Rome’s decline. He had another kind of legacy, too. Seneca’s remarkable satire on the death and punishment of the emperor Claudius, the Apocolocyntosis, owes a lot to Lucilius’ poem, essentially doing to Claudius what Lucilius had done to Lupus. It’s also no coincidence that early in Ovid’s Metamorphoses a divine assembly discusses the future of mankind and a particular malefactor called Lycaon, like Lupus a character with a name (Greek lukos as in lycanthrope) that associated him with wolves, subhuman, proverbially savage creatures.

Later Roman satirists, Horace, Persius and Juvenal, regarded Lucilius as the pioneer of their genre, and those Roman satirists, in turn, were the models for a long tradition of English verse satire. The satire against Lupus, in Book 1 of Lucilius’ satires, was thus a formative moment in the development of this strange but resilient poetic form.

Well, for all these reasons, when I read in the big German encyclopedia that a likeness of Lupus might have survived, it had my attention.

What it told me was that the bust was now in Norfolk. During his Grand Tour from 1712 to 1718, the young Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester and builder of the splendid Holkham Hall, collected, along with a number of other items of ancient statuary, a male portrait claimed to be the one dug up in Tivoli. The image at the top of this post is the Tivoli image as drawn in the sixteenth century by Theodoor Galle, latinized as Gallaeus (p.50 here), while the Holkham marble looks like this. I am convinced they are not the same, and art historical scholarship on the Holkham bust is with me. Michaelis manages to persuade himself they are identical (“To say nothing of the likeness of the features…”), but in an additional note records others’ doubts, while E. Angelicoussis in a very beautiful volume, The Holkham Collection of Classical Sculptures (2001), says on p. 26 that “the Holkham marble bears a very close resemblance to the Gallaeus illustration” and on p.116 that “the [Gallaeus] portrait bears no real resemblance to the Holkham marble.” She is clear, nevertheless, that the statues are not the same, as is Paul Zanker: “Two quite different individuals are represented.” It seems pretty obvious that the Holkham statue represents the emperor Nerva, too. Now, there is no doubt that Coke was told, and believed, that this was L. Cornelius Cn. f. praetor, from Tivoli. But Thomas Coke was not so much sold a Lupus as a pup.

So what did happen to the bust, if it didn’t go to adorn Holkham Hall? Let me share with you the research of a week when I was supposed to be on holiday. Both the bust and the inscription came into the possession of Fulvio Orsini, a humanist and major collector of antiquities, and while in his collection it was drawn by Galle/Gallaeus. Here in a later edition of Gallaeus’ images, accompanied by the annotations of Johannes Faber, it is identified as an image of Lupus. Before it came into Orsini’s possession, apparently, it was recorded in a collection of images of busts in Rome compiled by Antonio Lafrery: at least I’m pretty certain this is the same statue (below). In Orsini’s will in 1600 the bust and the inscription were bequeathed “to the Senate and People of Rome”, with a request that they be held in the Capitoline Museum, “preferably in the place where the bronze head of Brutus is today preserved,” a sign of how valuable Orsini considered these artefacts to be.

Does anyone recognise this man?

The inscription never made it to the Capitoline, passing into the hands of Cardinal Farnese, and later to the Barberini collection, and later still disappearing completely. The marble bust did make it that far, at least: it is recorded in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline in 1663 and periodically thereafter, for example by Platner in 1837. Michaelis provides more detail, but he is also right to point out that the bust Platner describes doesn’t sound much like ours. In fact it seems that by the nineteenth century the original statue had gone missing, stolen in effect, but not by Thomas Coke in Norfolk, as Michaelis believed. Where it did go and where it is now, if it survives at all, is anybody’s guess. False trails this last week have led me to the Uffizi in Florence, but the bust claimed to be the image in Lafrery is nothing like it; and to the Museo Nazionale in Naples, the tentative proposal of C. Gasparri in another lovely book, Le sculture farnese. Storia e documenti (2007), 172. But again, there’s really no resemblance.

Is the inscription from Tivoli a letter of L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus? Far from certain. Does the bust represent the author of the letter? Debatable. Are we looking at the face that launched satire? I wouldn’t stake my house on it. But a week’s pursuit of an elusive Roman portrait bust has left me determined to find this man, whoever he bloody well is.

So if anyone happens to have him on your mantlepiece, I’d be grateful if you’d let me know.



Postscript 1

One small victory I might be able to claim from this sorry tale, incidentally, is identifying the Holkham head in the Lafrery collection, here. Coincidentally, or maybe not, it is stated to be in the same location, in hortis Cardinalis de Medicis prope villam Julii III Pont. Max., as the Tivoli image.

Postscript 2

Also, for those who might (reasonably) question whether any of these sixteenth-century images are likely to be accurate representations of the statues, here is Thucydides in Gallaeus; and here is the statue that Gallaeus is reproducing. I encourage anyone interested to flick through Gallaeus and compare his drawings with modern photographs of the artefacts.

Postscript 3

Finally, a book I’ve been reading in connection with all this which has entirely changed how I view ancient sculpture: Erin L. Thompson, Possession: the curious history of private collectors from antiquity to the present (Yale, 2016). Fascinating on the psychology of collecting, and full of telling anecdotes, for example (p. 170) the column drum bought from the collection of Lord Arundel by James Theobald for use as a roller on his bowling green. Sic transit gloria mundi, comments Michaelis.








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