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Swat II: on Heracles’ track to the Indus

In 1926 Aurel Stein, the Hungarian/British archaeologist and explorer, spent two and a half months touring Upper Swat, then an independent princely state beyond the boundaries of British India. In 1926 it was for the first time peaceful enough, and friendly enough with the British authorities, for Stein to secure access. As with Afghanistan, Swat was a place that Stein had long aspired, and strived, to visit.

Aurel Stein’s aims in Swat were twofold, to explore Buddhist sites along the Swat valley, and to trace the route of Alexander the Great in his conquest of Swat in 327-326BC. In particular, he wanted to identify the site of one of Alexander’s most celebrated military exploits, the mountain fastness of Aornos where the people of Swat had taken refuge from Alexander’s attack. This assault was in part motivated, the ancient sources tell us, by Alexander’s desire to rival Heracles, who had long before tried and failed to capture the “Rock”. Stein’s account of his tour, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (a great read, I should say), opens with an apology to Xuanzang, the seventh-century Chinese monk whose account of his travels to India in search of sacred texts had been Stein’s guide across Central Asia (and was again in Swat), but who on this occasion was playing second fiddle to a fascination with Alexander that Stein had harboured since boyhood.

Aurel Stein’s trip to Swat inaugurated the archaeological investigation of the valley, subsequently taken up by the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci and his successors in the Missione Archaeologica Italiana in Pakistan. Tucci himself, who had a special expertise in Tibetan Buddhism, came to Swat after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s.

Stein had a candidate for Aornos, and it was was Pir-Sar, “Peak of the Saint”, some distance to the east of the Swat river. At the climax of his book (p.119) this exceptionally fit 63-year old reaches the top of the mountain and establishes to his satisfaction that it was indeed Aornos:

“It was long after midnight before I could seek warmth among my rugs. But the growing conviction that Aornos was found at last kept my spirits buoyant in spite of benumbed hands and weary feet. Alexander, so Arrian and Curtius tell us, offered sacrifices to the gods when he had gained possession of the ‘Rock’. I had no victory to give thanks for. Yet I, too, felt tempted to offer a libation to Pallas Athene for the fulfilment of a scholar’s hope, long cherished and long delayed.”

In another blog (one I feel great fondness for, as it secured me an invitation to Swat) I expressed my view, which is entirely indebted to other people’s research and insight, that Stein was wrong about the location of Aornos, as well as about his idolisation of Alexander: there is a more plausible site for Aornos first proposed by Tucci, and that site also gives its capture a very different complexion. Here in Alexander’s track, though, Stein elegantly links the sacrifices that Alexander made to Athena and Victory on the summit of Aornos (Curtius 8.11.24) with Athena’s role as the protector of artisans and scholars such as Stein. In fact Athena’s patronage of Stein was even more intimate: on the front cover of his books was embossed an image of Athena which he had unearthed in Xinjiang, China. (As I explain here, I don’t think Stein appreciated quite how closely tied to Alexander his image actually was.)

I went to Swat (just a week in my case) interested in both these Pallas Athenas, the warrior’s and the scholar’s. In other words, I wanted to see for myself why Tucci, and more recently Luca M. Olivieri, were so convinced that Alexander’s Aornos was not Pir-Sar but Mt. Elam, a mountain much more central to Swat. (It is, as I shall explain, in important ways a matter of seeing.) But I also wanted to understand why Stein was so determined to locate Aornos at Pir-Sar, because I think his misplacement is potentially just as fascinating as anything to do with Alexander.

Stein had devoted a lot of time and effort to this question. In 1904 he had managed to visit Mt. Mahaban, on the right bank of the river Indus, a site that had been proposed for Aornos fifty years before by James Abbott, an imperial functionary at the cutting edge of British expansion into N-W India, and the man who gave his name to Osama bin Laden’s adopted home at Abbottabad. On this occasion Stein was able, with regret, to rule out Abbott’s theory about Mahaban, but he could investigate no further himself until 1926.

When he did, it was another site on the Indus he plumped for: Pir-Sar overlooks the river some way upstream of Mahaban. It’s worth considering why Abbott, Stein and a host of others were determined to locate Aornos by the Indus. The obvious reason is that in three ancient accounts it is explicitly stated that the base of the mountain was washed by the waters of the river (Diodorus 17.85.3; Strabo 15.1.8; Curtius 8.11.7, cf. 8.11.12)–they are clearly following a common source. Classical sources of course carried authority for the classically-educated Europeans engaged in this quest.

But something that is altogether clearer when you’re physically there, specifically when you’re approaching the Indus in a taxi from Islamabad airport, is the psychological compulsion for the British to locate Aornos by the Indus. British jurisdiction extended as far as the Indus and no further at the relevant point: Swat never fell under British control. Abbott had developed his theory about Aornos by a combination of local intelligence and a telescope trained on the mountains from the eastern side of the river. (He painted a watercolour of his view.) Bound up with the British search for a defensible boundary to its Indian possessions was the pursuit of a pretext for their presence in this territory. The activities of Alexander, a familiar historical figure in this profoundly alien space, were of intense interest to all the colonial officials involved in the borderlands: my favourite example is Alexander Burnes squandering a few days of his mission to Bokhara scouring the Punjab for a trace of the twelve altars to the Olympian gods raised by Alexander on the river Hyphasis. Abbott training his telescope on the far side of the Indus is an intensely imperial moment too. The British occupied one side of a river both strategic and fraught with classical associations. The site of Alexander’s exploit was all-but in their grasp, and it had to be one of those shadowy mountains just on the other side of the Indus.

Abbott’s sketch of “Aornos”, from his article “Gradus ad Aornon”, viewed from the far side of the river Indus (f).

“The construction of a map of Sohaut (Swat) is a matter of much importance,” Abbott says by way of conclusion to his long argument for Mt. Mahaban: “Sooner or later the Sohauties will compel us to punish them. Every possible means should then be applied to add to our knowledge of the features of that rich and extensive valley, and imperfect as is the sketch map now offered, it will yet I trust serve as a foundation for more satisfactory charts, and if so, the toil it has cost me, will be well rewarded.” The search for Alexander and the work to extend and consolidate colonial territory were, as I say, thoroughly intertwined. Even in Stein’s case, it was an officer involved in a border campaign along the Indus, Col. R. A. Wauhope, who had given him the tip about Pir-Sar, and Stein himself had crossed the river and investigated Buddhist sites while attached to a punitive force dispatched in 1898. Commenting in The Times on Stein’s “discovery” of Aornos in 1926, Francis Younghusband describes how, “during the Chitral campaign of 30 years ago, when the engineers were road-making through the Malakand Pass into Swat, they came across evidences of an ancient road made in Buddhist times, as well as many artistic remains of the period” (27 May 1926 = H. Wang, Sir Aurel Stein in The Times p. 84).

That winding road up to “the once blood-soaked heights of the Malakand” is still the main route into Swat. Here is a view back from Malakand toward Mardan and the Kabul river:

Whatever their reasons for placing Aornos beside the Indus, Abbott and Stein and all their many fellow Aornos-hunters were almost certainly wrong, and it took the proper access to Swat achieved by Giuseppe Tucci (as well as, I believe, an academic mind somewhat less fettered by respect for classical authors) to offer a better solution. (The Indus detail is perplexing, for sure, but I need no persuading that the ancients could get their geography very badly wrong.) Tucci proposed Mt. Elam, his persuasive argument being that it was just the kind of place the people of Swat would take refuge in, a mountain considered sacred by the people of Swat since time immemorial. Elam is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus, site of the Ram Takht, the throne of Rama, the Indian deity, while Xuanzang claims “Hilo” as the place where the Buddha in an earlier existence had surrendered his life in return for hearing half a line of scripture. Buddhist foundations on the slopes of the mountain confirm its sanctity. The stupa of Amluk-dara stands just off an ancient path to the summit of Elam–in the words of Dr Olivieri, it is a station on the pilgrimage route to the summit, and a watchtower nearby from the Hindushahi period (tenth century) underlines the importance of this, the shortest route to the mountain top.

The stupa at Amluk-dara, with Elam/Aornos behind, a perennially sacred place, photo (much better than any of mine) courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri

In my earlier blog I made something of Tucci’s idea that the very name Aornos, as recorded by Greek sources, might conceal “aarana”, “a common name for any sheltered place”: this was a place of refuge, of protection by the gods. A different kind of sense of the centrality of Elam to the part of Swat attacked by Alexander can be got from a remarkable text found and translated by Tucci, the account of a thirteenth-century Tibetan monk Orgyan pa. Tucci compares the author to Kipling’s unworldly Lama in Kim: his description of Swat is “quite possibly an almost contemporary record of a journey to a country which was already considered as a magic land, and was seen through the eyes of a man who [because of his Buddhist beliefs] had no sight for reality”, capable (in other words) of conveying less the reality of Elam than the awe that this mountain could command:

To the east there is the mountain Ilo, which is the foremost of all mountains of the Jambudvipa (the World).There is no medical herb growing on the earth which does not grow there. It is charming on account of its herbs, stalks, leaves and flowers. Sarabhas and other antelopes wander there quite freely. There are many gardens of grape; beautiful birds of every kind and of gracious colours make a deep chattering.

From that country we went to the west for seven days;
Up to the mountain Ilo, the peak of K’a rag k’ar
In the mountain, sarabhas play
And there are gardens of grape in abundance.
I did not covet any thing.”

From reading Susan Whitfield and Gregory Schopen*, who explain the Buddhist association of thought between natural beauty, especially the cultivated landscape of the garden, and religious sanctity, I realise that when this Tibetan monk describes Elam as verdant and fertile, he is in effect saying that it is an intensely sacred place. If I understand Aurel Stein correctly, Xuanzang had converted the ancient name of Swat, Uddiyana, into the Sanskrit word for “garden”, udyana, with the same implication that Swat is a beautiful and thus a sacred space. But for Orgyan pa, Mt. Elam is the most beautiful, the most sacred place in the “magic land” of Swat.

For me, in my resolutely secular way, a comparable effect was achieved simply by standing in the archaeological site of Bazira in Barikot (a city captured by Alexander) and looking toward Mount Elam. Not for the first time I discovered that there’s nothing like physically placing yourself somewhere for understanding ancient perceptions of a place. Elam simply dominates the view. This really cannot be conveyed by a wide-angle shot, but I’ve done my best.

Obviously, though, this is where you would seek refuge from Alexander the Great.


A detail recorded by all the ancient sources, as I’ve mentioned, is that Alexander’s motivation for storming Aornos was partly that Heracles had unsuccessfully attempted it before him. Heracles’ failure to reach the summit was presented as an act of piety, after divine displeasure had been signalled to him by an earthquake. More Heracles than Alexander, I failed to see the summit of Aornos because I heeded warnings that Elam is still a refuge, these days for a type of person best not encountered if possible.

But another thing I’ve been reminded of in Swat is how fundamentally tied to the landscape Heracles is. Any unusual island, promontory, rock-formation, hot spring or mountain was very likely to be associated with this hero in his wanderings across the world. And while they probably shouldn’t be pushed too far, the parallels between what Westerners (and especially British) saw in Alexander and what Alexander and his army found in Heracles are striking.

In Alexander the British Empire found a precedent for their own presence in Central Asia, evidence that they were not the rank interlopers they appeared to be. If the ground was “Classic”, it was familiar–it was, in a sense, “ours”. In antiquity Heracles had long played a similar role for Greeks on the move, a god of trade and travel and colonisation whose myths of wandering always offered Greeks the option that Heracles had been there (and “there” might be Cadiz or Monaco or the Nile Delta) before them. Alexander had a special connection to Heracles, claiming descent from him, and he put the hero on his coins: it is sometimes hard to distinguish images of Heracles and Alexander, so close is their assimilation. The stories associated with Aornos are another illustration. Wherever Alexander went, so also had Heracles, assuring the Macedonians and Greeks that this was a place to which they had a valid claim.

The Heracles that came to India with Alexander entered the local artistic repertoire. This is a link to a Heracles apparently from Pakistan, now in the Ashmolean Museum, and here is a fragment of a jug handle from Charsadda, ancient Peshawar, which represents either Heracles in his lionskin, or Alexander as Heracles in his lionskin (from M. Wheeler, Charsada p. 115 and pl. XXXVIb; for a similar artefact, cf. J. Marshall, Taxila 2.433 and 3. pl. 130f, no. 226b):

I did find myself wondering if this silver repoussé head found at Sirkap, Taxila by Marshall (but stolen from the Taxila Museum in 1999), and identified by him as Dionysus or Silenus (J. Marshall, Taxila 2.614-5), might actually be Heracles, who is often depicted garlanded and drinking, and more often than Dionysus depicted bearded:


More dramatically, and excitingly, Heracles found his way into the visual language of Buddhism, a religion of which the Indo-Greek kings who ruled this area in the second century BC, indirect heirs of Alexander, seem to have been significant patrons, the most famous such king, Menander, especially. In Gandharan art Heracles becomes Vajrapani, a figure accompanying the Buddha who holds the vajra or thunderbolt (this is what his name Vajrapani means) which symbolises the power of Buddhist insight, but also regularly sporting a lionskin and/or physically evoking Heracles. Here is one of a very large number of Vajrapanis I snapped in Swat and Peshawar, this one in the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif, and originally from the site of Nimogram:

Why this Heracles/Vajrapani became so important to Gandharan Buddhist art is a matter of much debate. Vajrapani has the role of guiding and protecting the Buddha, and the physical presence represented by Heracles suits that well enough. One explanation by Katsumi Tanabe, though, emphasises the connection of the vajra with the Indian god/hero Indra, a god of war (also, like Heracles, fond of a drink) who is regularly represented attending the Buddha: the Gandharan Vajrapani, so the theory goes, is a Greek-influenced realisation of some version of this same Indra (my thanks to @kaeshour for pointing out to me that Indra is called vajrapani with a small v, so to speak, in the Mahabharata and elsewhere).** (Heracles is certainly very good at being mistaken for non-Greek hero-deities, whether Indra or Melqart or Verethragna.) Tanabe cites this Vajrapani in the Peshawar Museum, who clearly carrries more than a hint of Heracles, but also wears Indra’s characteristic spherical cap (also to be seen on the Kanishka casket, where Indra and Brahma attend the Buddha):

I am way beyond any knowledge of what I’m talking about by now, needless to say, but what anyone can see here is an interesting mix of heroic exploits localised in Swat. Olivieri plausibly explains the idea in the Alexander historians that Heracles had tried and failed to capture Aornos as a Macedonian/Greek reinterpretation of a local myth, maybe a story of Thraetaona or Indra, Persian and Indian versions of the Indo-European dragon-fighting hero.*** From many centuries later comes a peculiar appropriation of similar heroic myth for the Buddha. It is a story concerned, as in the classic form of such stories, with a dragon and a water source crucial for agriculture. As told in Xuanzang’s account of his travels, the dragon Apalala was interfering with the flow of the river Swat, on which the valley’s prosperity of course depends, and the Buddha, out of his universal pity for creation, persuaded the dragon to relent. He did so either by striking the mountainside himself with the vajra, Indra’s characteristic weapon, or by bringing along with him Vajrapani, brandishing the vajra, as the muscle.

In either case, some more or less distant relation to the story that Alexander’s army heard in Swat had persisted and entered Buddhist belief, and it isn’t hard to see how Heracles could also have maintained an existence for centuries in this resonant environment. The transformation from Alexander’s ancestor to an attendant of the Buddha and enforcer of his universal empathy is pretty remarkable, all the same.

After the Buddha subdued the dragon, according to Xuanzang, he left this imprint of his feet in the rock, the size of which is supposed to vary with the merit that the viewer has accrued (I’ve left my own feet visible to give an idea how huge they are, and how colossal my, and now your, merit is). These footprints were also seen by Faxian and Song Yun, both also Chinese monks, in the fifth and sixth centuries, and by Aurel Stein in 1926, at Tirat on the right bank of the Swat: they are now in the Swat Museum at Saidu Sharif.

Song Yun says that it looks like an imprint left by the Buddha in the mud, and in the well-watered, fertile, much-coveted, and for all these reasons sacred valley of the Swat that certainly seems appropriate.

Read Swat I

*G. Schopen, “The Buddhist ‘monastery’ and the Indian garden: aesthetics, assimilations, and the siting of monastic establishments,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 126 (2006), 487-505;

**K. Tanabe, “Why is the Buddha Sakyamuni accompanied by Hercules/Vajrapani? Farewell to Yaksa-theory,” East and West 55 (2005), 363-81;

***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.

Swat I: the Jahanabad Buddha

I have just spent a week in Swat, N.-W. Pakistan, the guest of Dr. Luca M. Olivieri and the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, based in Saidu Sharif. I had been planning to blog a daily journal once I was back in the U.K., but the best-laid plans, etc.: a bout of food poisoning got in the way, and I’ll blog selected highlights over the next few months instead. Today I’m starting with one of the last sites I visited, which was also one of the most memorable.

Jahanabad lies in a side valley off the main River Swat. The road from Saidu Sharif and Mingora tracks along the edge of the main river: when Aurel Stein visited in 1926 there was no road, and he had to ride his horse through the river. Then at Manglor or Manglawar we turned up to the right, and before long we could see what we were aiming for: a huge 7th-century Buddha carved on a cliff dominating the approach up the valley. At six metres tall the Jahanabad Buddha was claimed to be the largest carved buddha in Central Asia after the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The connection to Bamiyan would prove to be regrettably apt in other ways.

Seeing the Buddha from afar is one thing. To get up close to it you walk up the mountain through an orchard of persimmon trees underplanted with onions (which scented the path), fragments of ancients structures visible at the edges of the orchard. I was being led by Akhtar Munir, also known as Tota, who as a young man (he showed me a photo) had worked for Giuseppe Tucci, the great Italian scholar who established what is now called ISMEO, Associazione Internazionale di Studi sul Mediterraneo e l’Oriente, and the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan, based at the Mission House in Saidu Sharif. Tota and I communicated in basic Italian on this hillside in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to the intense amusement of the policeman who was accompanying us, and Tota put me to shame with the cracking pace he set as we climbed. He was careful, as we went, to pick out an ancient staircase that survived in fragments up the mountain–the original staircase associated with access by the pious to the Buddha image above.

We passed a spring, then at length emerged onto a ledge below the Buddha image. In 1926 Aurel Stein commented how difficult it was to take a decent photo, and this is partly because, as restorers of the image recently discovered, it is designed to be viewed from a precise location ten metres below it. The head alone is 1.6m high, rendered disproportionately large for reasons of perspective. My best shot, with apologies:

The Buddha may be hard to photograph, but the view back down the valley toward Manglawar and the Swat river conveys how dominant was the position occupied by the Buddha. Tota and the policeman are taking a breather in the foreground:

We were in fact in the middle of a massive ritual complex. The architectural fragments in the orchards below were what remained of a Buddhist monastery encompassing the spring, with the staircase rising up through the monastery toward the Buddha. Above us, on the top of the mountain, were the remains of a stupa, to which paths from our location led up. Further images and inscribed rocks in the vicinity, and caves with indications of ritual use, confirm how significant a cult centre it was in its day.

In a recent article (“The itinerary of O rgyan pa in Swat/Uddiyana (second half of 13th Century)”, Journal of Asian Civilizations 40 [2017]), Dr Olivieri establishes that additional confirmation of the site’s importance comes in an account by a Tibetan pilgrim to Swat (ancient Uddiyana) in the 13th Century, O rgyan pa (whose name means “the man of Uddiyana”: his trip made him famous), originally translated by Giuseppe Tucci in Travels of Tibetan pilgrims in the Swat valley (Calcutta, 1940), at p. 52. O rgyan pa describes a temple called Mangalaor, founded by king Indraboti, “where there are various stone images of Buddha (Munindra), Tara and Lokesvara” (aspects of the Buddha). Mangalaor must be Manglawar, and Indrabhuti, in the Tibetan tradition, was both himself an important teacher and also the spiritual father of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the figure credited with the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.

Aurel Stein may have complained about the difficulties of photographing the Jahanabad Buddha, but he also commented that its elevated position had protected it from anyone who might have wished it harm. In September 2007, however, the Buddha was defaced by Taliban looking to emulate the achievements of their fellow-militants over the border in Afghanistan. The attack on the image, with rockets and later explosives, was a highly symbolic gesture at a time when the Taliban were extending their control over Swat. In 2009 they also blew up a boulder decorated with an image of Avalokitesvara, “pre-eminently the dispenser of mercy and help in the northern Buddhist Pantheon” in Stein’s words. Over five seasons from 2012 Dr Olivieri and the Italian Mission have meticulously reconstructed the Buddha’s face, a task complicated further by the subtle issues of perspective mentioned earlier. The result is a fine piece of contemporary reconstruction, which advertises what is new but manages also to convey the impact of the original monument. The Avalokisvara boulder, blown to pieces by the Taliban, has also been reconstituted, and just this year was installed in the garden of the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif, itself almost entirely rebuilt after a huge bomb blast severely damaged it in 2008:

This story is bound to resonate with me, so reminiscent of Bamiyan but with an overwhelmingly positive outcome. More importantly, though, it illustrates both the determination of the people and authorities of Swat to preserve their incredibly rich archaeological environment, and the commitment of the Italian Mission to apply their academic and technical skills to supporting them in that task. The symbolism of this restored Buddha looking down over its valley is intensely powerful.

The archaeological study of Swat began with Aurel Stein’s visit to the princely state of Swat in 1926. (On Stein’s activities in the North-West Frontier Province and beyond, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, see this excellent account by Wannaporn Rienjang.) His description of the Buddhist remains in this valley in his popular account On Alexander’s Track to the Indus ends with some charming speculation about the persistence of ancient observation in this remarkable place (p. 80):

“About half a mile to the east of [Manglawar], alongside of the track leading up the valley, there are some large trees where wild-duck abound by day and night. They gather there in great numbers from their feeding-grounds on the network of channels and pools formed by the Swat river and the large stream that joins it from the side of Manglawar. The birds while in the trees or flying to and from them are considered sacrosanct,  though elsewhere the Swatis eagerly shoot and trap them. No explanation was forthcoming of the asylum thus granted. Could it possibly be connected with the fact that the mound of the great ruined Stupa already mentioned rises not far off?”

Read Swat II

Desperately seeking Sulpicia

A blog on something that caught my attention at a conference this week, an epitaph (AE 1928, no. 73) discovered in Rome in the 1920s:

Behold, traveller, the ashes of Sulpicia the reader,
to whom had been given the slave name Petale.
She had lived in number more than thirty-four years
and had given birth to a son, Aglaos, in this world.
She had seen all the good things of nature. She flourished in art.
She excelled in beauty. She had grown in talent.
Jealous Fate was unwilling for her to lead a lengthy time in life;
their very distaff failed the Fates.

The suggestion made during the conference was that what I’ve given as the translation of the first three words, “the ashes of Sulpicia the reader”, was only one option: they could also be read as “the ashes of the reader of Sulpicia”, i.e. Sulpicia was not the name of the dead woman, but of her employer or owner. In either case we’re dealing with a servant who apparently had the job of reading to her current or former owners. This person would be a rarely-attested example of a female reader, a lectrix rather than a male lector. If her name was Sulpicia she had certainly been freed, as I’ll explain, whereas if she was “of/belonging to Sulpicia” she might still be a slave; in the latter case, too, the identity of Sulpicia would offer scope for speculation.

I had not heard of this inscription before yesterday, but it struck me as obvious on reading it that the subject of the epitaph was Sulpicia Petale the lectrix, and that there was no other Sulpicia directly relevant to this inscription: it really wasn’t ambiguous. The key was the second line, quoi seruile datum nomen erat Petale, “to whom the slave name Petale had been given”. Why would the inscription specify the subject’s “slave name”, rather than simply recording her name as Petale, unless she was no longer a slave? And if, as it seems, she had been freed, why wouldn’t her freed name be given? Manumitted slaves assumed the name of their former masters: Tiro, freed by M. Tullius Cicero, became M. Tullius Tiro. If Petale had belonged to Cicero and then been freed, she would have become Tullia Petale. Our Petale belonged to a family of Sulpicii, hence when freed became Sulpicia Petale. What the first couplet of this epitaph is doing, then, is naming the dead person, albeit in a more elaborate fashion than usual. “These are the remains of Sulpicia, whose name when a slave was Petale.” Her respectable name leads; her older, slave name is consigned to the end of the couplet. It’s very elegant composition, and that can’t be said of everything in this poem.

I really can’t think of any other way of understanding the second line, and I find the popularity of the idea that there’s ambiguity here quite hard to fathom. For that matter, an epitaph beginning not with the name of the person honoured but their employer or owner seems awkward even in a Roman context, and taking Sulpiciae as governed by lectricis and unrelated to cineres feels like a very unnatural way of reading the Latin. Nevertheless this is a reading found in all the recent discussions of the inscription that I’ve seen, and it originated with no less an eminence than Jérôme Carcopino, who introduced the newly-found inscription to the Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France in 1928: “De Sulpicia la lectrice (ou: De la lectrice de Sulpicia?)” is the translation he offered of Sulpiciae … lectricis.

Carcopino’s interest in this inscription, as expressed in his presentation to the Société, explicitly consists in the possibility that it offers a connection to the most celebrated bearer of the name Sulpicia. This Sulpicia was a poet some of whose compositions (which poems in particular is fiercely debated) are included in the third book of Tibullus’ elegies: she is in fact the only female poet in Latin whose poetry survives from antiquity (Carcopino speculates that this epitaph is another one of her poems), and in the past this has drawn to her an interesting kind of attention. Mathilde Skoie’s book in the bibliography is a brilliant study of the reception of Sulpicia from the Renaissance onwards, responses she sees as united by a determination “to write scandal out of the text”, a refusal to acknowledge the truly scandalous force of a woman speaking of sexual desire in the context of a culture as male-dominated as Rome (cf. Stevenson 36). Carcopino doesn’t escape this style of patronising chivalry himself, speculating that Petale’s name, which suggests Greek petalon, a leaf, bears a resemblance to the name of Sulpicia’s lover in her elegies, Cerinthus, from kerinthon, honeywort, “as if, in the house of Sulpicia, all the names she gave had to breathe a perfume similarly mingled with flowers and Hellenism.” Hmm, though, to be fair, he does also study the language of the epitaph, concluding that it could be dated to late Republic/early Empire–Sulpicia the elegist’s time, in other words.

If seems clear enough that nobody would have paid much attention to this inscription if it hadn’t featured the name Sulpicia. But I think I’d go further and say that it’s this wish to find Sulpicia the poet in the epitaph that also explains the peculiar determination, in the face of fairly obvious objections, to find its opening ambiguous. Some kind of connection to the poet is not entirely precluded if we read “Sulpicia the lectrix” (she belonged to, and was freed by, people bearing the name Sulpicius), but it’s much more tenuous. If it were “the lectrix of Sulpicia”, on the other hand, there would be someone other than the dead woman identified as Sulpicia, and this Sulpicia would be someone who enjoyed having literature read to her.

Well, my concern in all this is really just a question of interpretation: I can’t make the Latin say what Carcopino and many others want it to be able to say. Not everything in this epitaph is crystal-clear, but the first couplet is: the dead woman was a Sulpicia with the slave name Petale, Sulpicia Petale. But there is another dimension to all this. Sulpicia the poet, while a truly remarkable individual, was the aristocratic daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus, renowned jurist and correspondent of Cicero, and niece of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, one of the most prominent figures in Augustan Rome, both in poetry and politics.

Sulpicia Petale had by sheer ability escaped slavery and earned the immortality represented by this versified inscription. Well, maybe that’s me being as sentimental as Carcopino, but I can’t help feeling that Sulpicia Petale, the real subject of this epitaph, is where we should be directing our attention.

M. J. Carcopino, “Épitaphe en vers de la lectrice Petale”, Bulletin de la Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France 1929, 84–6;
P. Hallett, “Absent Roman Fathers in the writings of their daughters: Cornelia and Sulpicia”, in S. Huebner and D. M. Ratzan (eds.), Growing Up Fatherless in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2009), 175-91, at 187-90;
P. Hallett, “Ovid’s Thisbe and a Roman Woman Love Poet”, in B.W. Boyd and C. Fox (eds.), Approaches to Teaching World Literature: Ovid and Ovidianism (New York, 2010), 414-433, at 367-370;
P. Hallett, “Scenarios of Sulpiciae: moral discourses and immoral verses”, EuGeStA 1 (2011);
E. Hauser, “Optima tu proprii nominis auctor: The semantics of female authorship in ancient Rome, from Sulpicia to Proba”, EuGeStA 6 (2016);
M. Skoie, Reading Sulpicia: Commentaries 1475-1990 (Oxford, 2002);
J. Stevenson, Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2005), (on this inscription) 42-44.

A lay-by in Bulgaria

Fifty years ago today I got as close as I’ve ever got to a truly historical event, so it justifies a post. It would count as a reminiscence if I could remember anything about something that happened when I was a bit less than two-months old.

I was with my family, six of us in total, and we were sleeping in an Ace Ambassador caravan in a lay-by in Bulgaria. To understand how we had ended up in this unlikely situation you need to know two things about my father: first, that in his view a holiday was not a holiday unless it involved driving a couple of thousand miles each way (with a caravan attached), and secondly, that he refused point-blank to pay any money for camping sites, toll roads, etc. Apparently this caused less of a problem in the Eastern Bloc than one might imagine, and I can only think that a family of Western caravanners was so spectacularly out of the ordinary anyhow that we could get away with quite a lot.

By the time I was conscious of these holidays, a little after the event I’m talking about here, the destinations had become slightly more mainstream. Greece and Turkey were still a heck of a long way to drive, but didn’t involve crossing the Iron Curtain, unless you count Yugoslavia. Before I was born, though, and for a short time afterwards, my father indulged a fascination for communist Eastern Europe, visiting Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania as well as Bulgaria. He had no political sympathy with communism, though he was a (minor) politician, and that might explain the welcome we got in parts of Romania (which had interesting differences with the rest of the Warsaw Pact), especially. I have only one memory of Eastern-Bloc countries, a plague of beetles covering the car one year on the border between Hungary and Bulgaria.

Most aspects of what I’ve been describing now strike me as pretty insane: the huge distances towing a caravan (we had an average of three punctures per holiday), the massive catering operation undertaken by my mother without any help whatsoever from my father, and of course all the time spent touring around the Eastern Bloc. It seems especially foolhardy to me, though I recognise I may be biased, to take a very small baby to a place where, for example, baby food could be quite hard to find. But the holidays I remember were simply amazing. Until the age of 14 I hadn’t spent a single day of the month of August in the U.K., but I’d visited far more historical sites than I’ve ever seen since, and we saw Turkey, in particular, before its tourist industry took off: Gordion, Side, Goreme, Didyma… Since this was before the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we were often travelling the same route as long-distance lorry drivers (a nice blog about that culture here), and hippies on the overland route. Again, I can’t imagine how a middle-class family in a 14-foot caravan towed by a Volvo looked to them, but we all seemed to get along swimmingly.

But back to that lay-by in Bulgaria. It was nighttime, and we were sleeping, but our sleep on this occasion was interrupted by a terrific noise from the road, the sound of a huge line of very heavy traffic. My father went out to investigate, I think; at any rate the traffic was quickly identified as a line of military vehicles, and it took most of the night to pass our camping place. We must have assumed that we had stumbled into a military exercise, and the next day we continued on our way, into Yugoslavia and up towards Maribor, now in Slovenia, the border town for the crossing into Austria. It was only here that we discovered what had been rolling past us that night in Bulgaria. The night in question was August 20-21, 1968. The military convoy had been heading for Prague, one component of the massive Warsaw Pact forces converging on Czechoslovakia in a surprise invasion. There in our caravan we were the most unlikely witnesses to the suppression of the Prague Spring.

‘Prague Spring’ was the name given to the period of liberalization introduced by the Czechoslovak leader, Alexander Dubček, which he himself famously described as ‘socialism with a human face’. In April 1968 Dubcek had relaxed restrictions on free speech and movement, and on the press; a greater role for market economics was envisaged, and in the longer term democratic elections. In August the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev sent Warsaw Pact forces in to suppress the “counterrevolution”: what we had seen from our caravan was part of the Bulgarian contribution, a fraction of the 200,000 or so troops and 2,000 tanks that entered the country that night. There was some popular resistance — most tragically, a student named Jan Palach burned himself to death in Wenceslaus Square in Prague in January 1969 — but Dubček’s reforms were reversed, liberals were purged from government, and Czechoslovakia would not experience the same freedom until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In the meantime some 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to the West.

The border between Yugoslavia and Austria presented a dramatic contrast at the best of times, shabby and impoverished towns on the eastern side, prosperous in Austria, like going from black-and-white to colour. But when we reached the border in Maribor in 1968 we encountered something altogether more distressing, a huge gathering of Czechs trying to decide whether to cross into Austria or return to their now occupied country. One effect of the liberalization of Czechoslovakia had been to allow its citizens greater freedom of travel abroad, and Yugoslavia had been a popular destination. Now these tourists were in a state of shock, and faced a terrible quandary. My older sister remembers a woman trying to decide whether to flee to the West or return to her children in Czechoslovakia. My mother felt a compulsion to apologise to the Czechs she met for what she saw as the failure of her country to come to their help twice in one generation, in 1938 and 1968.

In 1989 I visited Prague itself, but missed the moment on that occasion after a stupid argument with my travelling companions about using foreign-currency shops. I left Prague in a huff. The next day, December 10, a government was formed which for the first time contained a majority of non-communist members. A huge, joyful crowd filled Wenceslaus Square; meanwhile I was on a train back to Berlin.

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, “On Swat. The Dards and Connected Problems,” East and West 27 (1977), 9-103, at 52-5;

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.

Nota bene 


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

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

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

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

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

@Rani nurmai

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

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

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

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


Image from Gallica Digital Library.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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