Brasenose, a history


(This is a book review from nearly a decade ago. I wrote it for the LRB, but at the last moment they rejected it as insufficiently controversial, as far as I recall. It was already far too controversial for a College that had turned very toxic indeed under pressure of our quincentenary celebrations, so that was absolutely fine by me.  But it’s a long time ago now, and all the current talk of statue destruction made me think of it. As well as a book review it’s also a meditation, by a younger version of myself, on the peculiar place I work in. A exceedingly minority interest, either way.)


J. Mordaunt Crook, Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. 
Oxford, 2008.

On 9 March 1881, the ‘bump supper’ celebration of a Brasenose success on the river turned ugly. ‘In the flickering light of bonfires,’ recalled L.R. Farnell, the scholar of Greek religion, ‘could be seen the figures of some two hundred young men bounding and leaping high . . . and passing from lurid light into deep shadow alternately; and the leaping was accompanied by terrifying yells and the most fantastic music ever devised by savages standing on the verge of culture.’ Finally, the undergraduates turned their attentions to a statue that had stood in the middle of Old Quad lawn for 150 years, and defaced it with indelible paint. It and its obscene graffiti were quietly despatched to a scrapyard soon after.

The target of their drunken assault, whether or not those Victorian hoorays were aware of it, was an appropriate one. Although universally known as Cain and Abel, the statue was in fact a copy of a Renaissance image of Samson slaying a Philistine. Walter Pater, a fellow of the college, found some consolation in the sight of these Brasenose athletes (‘like panthers,’ he had described them) leaping naked over bonfires. But the presence of the arch-aesthete in Oxford’s heartiest college during its most philistine phase throws up manifold anomalies: the mind boggles, for example, at the notion of Pater tutoring the future Earl Haig. On the matter of the statue’s destruction, Pater was defensive. If we can believe Edmund Gosse, it was ‘almost the only thing that ever ruffled him’: on mention of the statue, ‘Pater would sit up in a moment, and say, with great acidity, “It was totally devoid of merit, no doubt.”’

Pater’s dilemma, as the aesthete amongst athletes, is one for which a modern Fellow of Brasenose, contemplating the history of the college, is bound to feel some sympathy. Everything about that Victorian venting of testosterone, after all, is apt to set a contemporary academic’s teeth on edge. But our misfortune is that the events of that night are not so unrepresentative of Brasenose culture as we might like. This is ‘Good old BNC’, historically the jovial, well-lubricated and none-too-intellectual champion of causes long lost elsewhere, even in Oxford. In Brasenose’s tolerant atmosphere, for example, the ‘pass man’ (the wealthy sportsman with no interest in an honours degree, and no aptitude for it either) survived and flourished far longer than at other colleges, and the admission of students on the exclusive basis of sporting ability continued to be practised almost to within living memory. ‘As Balliol enlisted clever heads, so B.N.C. enlisted stout legs and arms,’ reminisces a late 19th-century undergraduate. In the later 1880s, sensationally, a top-flight Etonian rower was actually rejected: ‘he couldn’t spell; he could hardly even write his own name; we had to draw the line somewhere.’

Now this is all, as they say, history, and perhaps none of it would matter very much if 2009 weren’t the 500th anniversary of Brasenose College, and our history consequently hard to duck. Any anniversary, let alone the celebration of half a millennium of existence, is bound to expose the subject of celebration to a rather unforgiving light, and J. M. Crook’s elegant college history is only the most explicit contribution to this unavoidable exercise in navel-gazing. But as we, the current Fellows, make the claim to continuity with our predecessors which is presumably essential if the simple age of the institution is going to count for anything, the process is not painless. On the crucial question of what exactly it is that we are celebrating – what an Oxbridge college is actually for, these days – there is less consensus than one might like. The university (in the shape of the subject Faculties) may well have just as great a claim on our time and loyalty as the college, for example, and issues such as how we admit students, how the college is administered, which of the various types of employment contract we hold, and indeed how we teach, have the potential to weaken further the identity and cohesion of the diverse group of scholars that constitutes a college fellowship. The tutorial, the most familiar expression of the Oxford teaching system and rightly regarded as the bellwether of the health of the collegiate system and Oxford education in general, is under pressure everywhere. It is a matter of dispute whether an individual college should aspire to be ‘known for its strengths’ in medicine or law or PPE: self-evidently true for some, a hopelessly parochial throwback for others. So, 500 years of what? An elite educational institution? An extremely picturesque hall of res? A Grade I listed coffee room? The young hooligans of 1881 had a clear idea what they were celebrating, and, judging by the stocks of paint they got in, a good plan of how to celebrate it. Can we say the same of ourselves?

One can cite a host of contemporary niggles (such as I have) which can sour a college’s atmosphere, and no doubt the Fellows of 1881 could have done the same. But perhaps a clerical friend of mine is right to trace the problem farther back. On this analysis the staff of the modern University of Oxford are secular cuckoos in an essentially religious institution: Oxford colleges are monastic foundations which have abandoned the monastic rules which were crucial to maintain harmony within diverse and densely populated communities. I think there’s a lot in that, and we would all do well to read the Rule of St Benedict. It is certainly the case that to a modern Fellow it is only really with the last quarter of the 19th century that the landscape of Oxford University becomes familiar at all. The great watershed is the growth in the authority of the university (at the expense of the colleges) that followed from the Royal Commissions of 1850, 1871 and 1877; and just as important for the academic culture of the place, the secularisation of Oxford which allowed dons to marry and move out to the suburbs in North Oxford which are way beyond the means of their modern counterparts. Before that point Brasenose was a clutch of actual or apprentice clergymen, and its history the story of the (disproportionate, to the secular eye) impact made by theological controversies. It is hard to summon up much fellow-feeling for the men who heckled Archbishop Cranmer as he hobbled up Brasenose Lane on his way to be burned. But for most of the 19th century Brasenose is hardly less alien, a community thoroughly identified with the Church of England: even a superficially interesting figure like William Webb Ellis, a scholar at BNC shortly after his alleged invention of rugby, turns out to have been yet another common-or-garden aspirant to the Anglican priesthood, a profoundly unremarkable man quite oblivious of the myth that the late-Victorian cult of team sports would build up around him.

Such continuities as can be identified between today and pre-1850 Brasenose are either coincidental or functions of the simple physical restrictions of the site. It is a pleasant surprise, but gives us very little insight into Regency Oxford, to find that as long ago as 1821 the Phoenix, a dining club along the objectionable lines of the Bullingdon (these days excluded from the college), was encountering ‘violent opposition throughout the College’ for its social exclusivity. (That does tell us something about the Phoenix, mind you.) As for the physical environment, a history does provide good evidence of a local kind of architectural determinism. Enforced intimacy forges peculiarly collegiate virtues and vices, key to which are the subordination or not of the typically burgeoning academic ego to the higher interests of the community. On the one hand we find sworn ideological enemies during the Commonwealth, an intruded Puritan principal and a Royalist bursar, co-operating to rescue the college in its darkest hour. But rather more in evidence are the bitter feuds which, once sparked, the college environment is peculiarly adept at inflaming. I was once shown what my guide called the ‘million pound bookcase’, a nondescript item of furniture somehow implicated in the mutual loathing between two ancient historians, Hugh Last and Sir Ronald Syme, which cost Brasenose any part of Syme’s large estate on his death in 1989. The consumption of alcohol, pursued with prodigious application, it seems, by every generation of Brasenose students and Fellows, also no doubt has its roots in the intense sociality dictated by the college environment. This hardly differentiates Brasenose from any other institute of higher education, of course, but drinking achieved an iconic status in this college, reflected in the annual Ale Verses celebration on Shrove Tuesday, and a popular etymology of Brasenose’s peculiar name from an old word for ‘brewery’. This at least bodes well for the 2009 celebrations. Whatever other anxieties there may be, nobody familiar with the college’s history can harbour the slightest doubt about this Fellowship’s capacity to organise a piss-up in a Brasinhuse.

Yet it is the culture of the college since the reforms of the later 19th century, starkly but adequately exemplified by the vandalising of Cain and Abel, that confronts a Fellow today. No individual contributed more to the crystallisation of Brasenose’s modern reputation than the hard-drinking, sports-obsessed principal, W.T.S. Stallybrass, who dominated the college between the two world wars. To say that Stallybrass set no great stock by academic excellence would be an understatement: Blues proliferated, Firsts were practically unknown. But there is no doubt that, as it excelled on the rugby pitch and the Thames, Brasenose also developed a strong corporate ethos focused on its clubbable principal. When, at the start of hostilities in 1939, Brasenose men joined up with the RAF en masse, and then were killed en masse, Stallybrass had taken photographs of them when they had visited him on leave, and wrote all their obituaries (‘in the air, on the rugby field . . . he did not know what fear was’; ‘only the examiners could defeat him’). The photos, the obituaries, the appallingly large WWII memorial in the college chapel – all this is terribly moving. But the war and the social changes it wrought did for that particular ideal of collegiality. Stallybrass himself fell from a train out of Paddington in 1948, shortly after being defeated in college by other Fellows determined to improve academic standards. After the war the sporting types in whom Brasenose had specialised increasingly found Oxford’s doors closed to anything except academic talent. Crook quotes Jan Morris on the tragedy of ‘Carruthers’, the archetypal nice-but-dim pass man, who had ‘survived at Oxford until the Second World War, which he won.’ Brasenose College, Crook suggests, had been Carruthers’s veritable alma mater.

Stallybrass died on St Jude’s Day, patron saint of lost causes, and it all adds up to a compelling myth: the Golden Age of the college, lost along with all those young men shot down over the Channel. Was the Oxbridge college itself the last of Brasenose’s lost causes, only truly possible when a coherent ethos, forged in manly endeavour on the water or the rugger pitch, bound its members together? The problem of course is that, intensely poignant as Stallybrass’s photographic record is, Carruthers didn’t really win the war, or didn’t do so single-handedly. I am bound to think of a clever Welsh grammar-school boy who went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1938, but found there a society so rigidly stratified and unsympathetic to someone of his background that he welcomed the opportunity to join the army and leave Cambridge the following year. That man, my father, did his bit for the war effort too, landing on D-Day, fighting through to Germany, losing a lot of friends; but I don’t think he ever went back to Cambridge, and by all accounts Trinity Hall was a lot less exclusive than Brasenose at that time. Another combatant on D-Day was Brasenose’s Nobel laureate, William Golding, on whose literary career the hearty Brasenose of Stallybrass had a tellingly minimal influence. In the case of J.G. Farrell, an undergraduate in the 1950s, it was the onset of polio and treatment in an iron lung that transformed him from a stereotypical Brasenose hearty into a novelist.

A college history must of course be selective, but sometimes selection can collude too closely with its subjects. A peculiar decision taken by Crook is to list all the members of the Phoenix club from its foundation, while the Fellows of Brasenose (rather more central to the project, one would think) go unrecorded. And here is another atypical Stallybrass undergraduate, relegated to a footnote: Peter Twinn, mathematician and entomologist, who at Bletchley Park in 1940 is credited with having broken the German Enigma code for the first time. As Crook admits, ‘BNC between the wars was very much a masculine, almost aggressively homosocial, society.’ John Betjeman feigned a limp whenever he entered the college, calculating that the hearties would not pick on an aesthete who was crippled. The idyll constructed by Stallybrass was built on the exclusion of women, the lower classes and overt exercise of the intellect. Indeed, it was a gentleman’s club, with all the qualities of such a place, loyalty and cohesion, but like a club, defined as much by those whose faces didn’t fit as by the membership.

Notwithstanding populist stereotypes of ‘the old boy network and the old school tie’, the ideals of Stallybrass are as dead as the Oxford dodo. But like the country as a whole, a college can lose its empire (on the playing fields in this instance) and struggle to find a role. In the face of an assertion of collegiate identity as confident as Stallybrass’s one can allow oneself to doubt the role of a college that lacks the same muscularity of purpose. Ambivalent (at best) at what we have been, labouring under our own collegiate Curse of Cain, Pater’s accommodation with the philistines, we may even countenance the possibility that a college is just an anachronistic survival which, like the monarchy, can only compromise so many times with prevailing circumstances without losing its identity entirely. What, to pose that crucial question one more time, is there to celebrate?

A college, as Crook well puts it, is ‘a permanent set of buildings and an impermanent set of people’: on the one hand the Oxford architecture that seemed to William Morris almost organic (buildings that ‘look almost as if they had grown out of the roadway’); on the other, the constantly shifting populations of students, staff and Fellows. What a college most obviously is (though superficially) is a cumulative building enterprise, the architectural sum, not always so felicitous, of centuries of construction. But the wrong conclusion can be drawn from this, the wrong answer to the big question of what we are. It is perhaps the clearest sign of our lack of self-belief that the most insistent answers to the demands of a quincentennial celebration have been that something should be built. Throwing up a new structure, needed or not, is of course the perennial Oxford substitute for creative thinking: the evidence is everywhere. But the great paradox of Oxford is that the impermanent element of this peculiar concoction, the people, is what really matters; the familiar Oxford of quads, crenellations and spires (say it quietly) is quite tangential to the serious project of teaching and researching. In Brasenose this might be called the Narnia Principle, in deference to a couple of gilded fawns, a Victorian lamppost and a scruffy double-doored exit from the chapel, which the imagination of C.S. Lewis, no doubt on a wintry night, transformed into the kingdom of the Snow Queen. Strictly speaking, Narnia begins in a shabby backyard which currently houses the recycling bins. It isn’t of course that building is insignificant or unnecessary in a collegiate university. This is a city in which academics, let alone students struggle to afford accommodation; and I treasure the view of the Radcliffe Camera and University Church I have from my teaching room. But good building must embody a recognition of the relative importance of stone and the creative temperaments that animate it. Dreaming spires, and all that. With a bit of luck the Credit Crunch will do for any such plans, just as surely as it is sending Oxford graduates flooding into teaching and research.

So what should we do to mark the 500th Anniversary of Brasenose? It is easier to say what we shouldn’t, but I do know that Stallybrass’s belief that a shared intellectual endeavour is insufficient to bind a community together is utter nonsense. More than nonsense, actually: a terrifying lack of confidence in our mission as researchers and educators, as if an aptitude and enthusiasm for academic subjects has less power to galvanise young people than an aptitude for propelling a boat. The least that our quincentenary requires is a bout of quiet introspection proper to a collection of scholars, even secular ones: we should remember what we are and what we are not and re- discover our pride in it; we should forcibly restate the value of the education we offer and the research we do, and resist those pressures of administration and self-justification which constantly distract us from the things we are qualified to do. We should indeed read and digest the Rule of St Benedict, but we should also celebrate what our college does best: it harbours a community not defined by ethos (which can easily become class) but by aptitude. The fondest memories of its alumni/ae are not of high jinks but of intellectual excitement. Its architecturally-enforced intimacy may prolong feuds between colleagues, but it also fosters tolerance and openness: it is precisely the manageable scale of the constituent colleges which makes intimidating Oxford accessible. Indeed, the greatest boon of the physical restrictions of a college is that it makes it, as an institution, maximally intolerant of hierarchy. If that still sounds too monastic a prescription for the 21st century, we might also stretch to a cheap reproduction, emphatically positioned in the middle of Old Quad, of Samson slaying a Philistine with the jawbone of an ass.




“The German from Brasenose”

On May 5, 1945, The Times reported an unexpected encounter in Hamburg. The British had accepted the city’s surrender and were discussing arrangements with their German counterparts when another German officer came in, “a brisk young man wearing the scarf of Brasenose College.” He explained to the British officers that he had been educated at Oxford and had written a book on parliamentary government, which he hoped would get him the new job he suspected he would soon be needing. Back in Brasenose College, Oxford, the headline in the paper (“How Hamburg Fell; Cottage Meeting; The German From Brasenose”) raised hopes that Justus Carl von Ruperti, Rhodes Scholar at Brasenose from 1933 to 1935, had survived the war. In fact he had been killed in Russia in 1943.


I wrote a couple of years ago about Ruperti’s memorial in the chapel of Brasenose College, an arresting one not only because it commemorated this enemy fatality of the Second World War, but also because it was created in the decade immediately after the end of the war. Later, after some research in the archives of Rhodes House, I described a note I had found there referring to a visit by Ruperti’s mother to Oxford in the 1950’s.

Someone who featured prominently in that story was Fritz Caspari. Fritz and Justus Carl (or Juscar, or sometimes Carl Justus) had been the German Rhodes Scholars at Oxford for 1933 (there were only two scholars from Germany per year), and while Juscar stayed in Germany during the war, and died fighting on the Eastern Front, Fritz, a vocal opponent of National Socialism, left Germany for the United States in 1939, subsequently combining a career as an academic historian with that of a senior West German diplomat. His remarkable life is described in a Telegraph obituary here, and there is a video interview with him conducted shortly before his death here.

Fritz Caspari died in 2010, and through an old student of mine, Harriet Baker, I have been put in touch with his son, Conrad Caspari, who is currently working his way through his father’s voluminous papers: a precious archive for the pre-war, wartime and post-war history of Germany and its foreign relations.

In my earlier research on Ruperti, a preoccupation was to pin down his politics. I’m not sure I achieved that, but I did come to understand how an Oxford college in 1950, containing within its fellowship British ex-combatants, could have persuaded itself to commemorate a German casualty. To me, and more importantly to wiser heads before before me, it was clear that Juscar was no Nazi.

Here the topic is the relationship between Juscar and Fritz. What Conrad has shared with me is information from his father’s papers which offers vivid insight a troubled time, and in particular glimpses of the relationship that developed between two young men whose futures, ultimately hinging on their decisions to leave or stay in Nazi Germany as it launched the war, were to to diverge so dramatically.

The first encounter between Fritz and Juscar did not promise a close friendship, it’s fair to say. It occurred at the interviews for the German Rhodes Scholarships in the forbidding Stadtschloss in the middle of Berlin. Fritz had been recommended for a scholarship by Count Albrecht von Bernstorff, a former Rhodes Scholar himself who would be executed in 1945 for opposition to Hitler. As Fritz emerged from his interview, one of the other candidates, “the rather formal young Prussian aristocrat who had gone in before him,” asked him how he had managed. (What follows is from Fritz Caspari’s written account, but he also tells the story in this filmed interview; all translations are Conrad Caspari’s.)

“What do you mean, ‘How did I manage?’?” Fritz replied.

“I mean, how did you manage to leave the room?”

“Well, once I realised the whole thing was over, I stood up, made a short bow, walked to the door, said goodbye, and went out.”

“There’s no way you’ll get the scholarship!” the young man said.

“Why not?” Fritz asked, baffled. “How did you leave the room, then?”

“I walked out backwards. You should never have turned your back on them, of course.”

“Backwards! But how on earth did you find the door handle?”

“Not a problem if you think about it in advance. I’d planned it and counted the steps carefully on the way in, so on the way back to the door I didn’t need to turn at all.”

That young Prussian aristocrat, so much more at home than the middle-class (though well-connected) Fritz in the Prussian Schloss, was Justus Carl von Ruperti, needless to say. In the event, it was he and Fritz who found themselves the German Rhodes Scholars in Oxford a year later, and a friendship developed: among his father’s papers Conrad has found a number of letters from Juscar to Fritz, dating between 1936, when Juscar has left Oxford, and 1939, when Fritz left Germany.

In December 1936 Juscar writes to Fritz and another 1933 Rhodes Scholar, (Clarence) Bill Lee from Arkansas, who were apparently staying at Fritz’s family home in Heidelberg. The letter switches between German and English for Bill’s benefit. Juscar was serving at the time in the military at Lüneburg (from where he also wrote to the Principal of Brasenose, William Stallybrass), and discusses what he had gathered from Time and The Times about the abdication of Edward VIII. With some irony he comments that “judging from sterner Prussian principles one can only speak of [the former king’s] lamentable weakness.” Just some irony: Justus Carl von Ruperti has emerged from everything I have read by and about him as a very sober and serious young man.

The next letter dates from two years later, August 1938, when Juscar writes to Fritz in Füssen in Bavaria, where Fritz was unwillingly fulfilling his military service requirement in a mountain regiment. He used to recall that he and his comrades plotted to kill Hitler on one of his regular visits to Bavaria, but they were never supplied with live ammunition. In his letter Juscar describes a trip he had made back to his home territory of East Prussia, travelling by boat from Travemünde to “my beautiful Danzig”, since 1920 a “Free City” under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations. He visits Gdingen (Gdynia), the port constructed by Poland along the coast from Danzig (Gdansk) in the Polish Corridor, established after the First World War to allow Poland access to the Baltic, in the process separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Juscar is impressed by the new port at Gdynia, and while he notes the efforts to consolidate “Polishness” in the Corridor, including land reforms in the Corridor which would soon affect his uncle’s estate, he seems relaxed about them. In my first post on Ruperti I wrote about German efforts to consolidate Germanness in East Prussia, but the German invasion of Poland would put paid to any land reform, and in the longer term to East Prussia. Juscar looks forward to seeing Fritz in Göttingen in October.

Another name mentioned in this letter is Ferdinand von Stumm, who had also attended Oxford in the 1930s. Conrad tells me that Ferdinand wrote to his father in the US in 1946, sharing news of Juscar’s death among others’, and telling him that he and Juscar had become best friends during the war. In his letter, von Stumm apologetically requested from Fritz that he send him some crêpe shoe soles: he had lost his left foot during the war, and needed them to make walking easier.

Come October 1938, Juscar is again writing to Fritz from Königsberg (now, as things have turned out, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad), where Juscar was working on his doctorate and reading Goethe. He seems to mention a mutual friend Alex Böker, who had left Germany for the US in 1938, and held a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford from 1939. But Juscar also asks Fritz to help a friend of his, Wolfgang Fontaine, to secure a Rhodes Scholarship from 1939 (Fritz was on the selection committee in 1938, the last German selection panel for the Rhodes until it was reinstated in 1969; Fritz served in that year as well, when one of the successful candidates was Lippold von Klencke, Juscar’s nephew.) Whether Fontaine ever took up his scholarship, I do not know. Juscar suggests that a reference for his application might be forthcoming from Fontaine’s uncle, General Keitel, a notorious figure later to be condemned and hanged at Nuremberg for war crimes.

From a diary that Fritz Caspari kept from 1938 to 1940 we learn that on October 22 1938, he and Juscar did meet up in Göttingen, drinking Bordeaux, walking to the Bismarckturm, and meeting Juscar’s brother, a cavalry officer recently returned from the Sudetenland. (He would also die during the war.)

Fritz Caspari reestablished contact with the von Ruperti family after the war, and remained in touch with them throughout his life. The last letters to him from Juscar that Conrad has uncovered are from December 1938 and January 1939, both from Königsberg, and hint at pressure on their friendship associated with Fritz’s decision to leave Germany: “the thought of your departure is no longer so estranging because you will be the best bridge to our friends,” writes Juscar in the first of them. Between this and the later letter the two seem to have met up in Berlin, but in January Juscar talks in oblique terms of the difficulty of maintaining old friendships in the current circumstances, and I take the reference to be primarily to their friendship. Juscar’s sign-off, “Leben Sie wohl,” suggests a certain finality too. I don’t really know how to read this last letter, to be honest, though it seems full of a sense of momentous and incompatible decisions.

Here is all of it:

Königsberg, 12 January 1939

Dear Fritz,

Thank you for your card–it helped me during the many awkward moments which I have to live through here, I am afraid these are fights about the continuation of old friendships. While I was in Berlin I was torn as to whether I should use the proximity of our rooms to impart my worries to you. I left it with only a suggestion of these and I am happy about that. The fact of your coming and the very simple way we could be together was more important to me in spite of everything. Please take this as a sign that my willingness to be open vis-à-vis old friends has not suffered. And please be persuaded that I wish to become more conscious of all my errors. But the recovery of all the beauty we have lost is consumed by life and surviving in the here and now. The creator, who rules over all life, cannot drive us all crazy and the oldest love must be put aside for the most recent one.

In the coming days I will become engaged to Irma R. and I am happy to be certain of your helpful thoughts in this regard as well.

Leben Sie wohl, your C.J.




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.