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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).


Gradus ad Aornon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Let me try to explain myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A. Burnes, Travels into Bokhara (1834);

H. H. Wilson, Ariana Antiqua (1841);

B. Macintyre, Josiah the Great (2011);

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

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

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

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

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

Dunno much about topography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Talking to God


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;

quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax

referre sermones deorum et

magna modis tenuare parvis.


This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!

Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness

to report the speeches of gods and

diminish great matters in small measures!

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

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

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

incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est

cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae

Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.


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

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

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

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

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

Fearful symmetry


I’m finally finished with a project I’ve been working at, off and on, for–well, longer than I care to calculate. It is an annotated bibliography of Roman poetic metre, not an awfully thrilling task. But once in a while it reawakened the interest that made me write this book, and to celebrate its conclusion I offer one such moment.

Here is a poem by Martial (2.7), followed by a translation indebted to Shackleton Bailey in the Loeb.

Declamas belle, causas agis, Attice, belle;

historias bellas, carmina bella facis;

componis belle mimos, epigrammata belle;

bellus grammaticus, bellus es astrologus,

et belle cantas et saltas, Attice, belle;                            5

bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae.

Nil bene cum facias, facias tamen omnia belle,

uis dicam quid sis? Magnus es ardalio.


You’re a nice declaimer, Attalus, a nice pleader,

you write nice histories and nice poems,

you compose mimes nicely, and epigrams nicely,

you’re a nice grammarian and a nice astronomer,

and you sing nicely, Atticus, and dance nicely;                             5

you’re nicely versed in the art of the lyre, nicely versed in the ball.

Seeing that you do nothing well, but do everything nicely,

would you like me to say what you are? A total trifler.

Martial appears to be flattering Atticus for his stunning panoply of talents, in public speaking, writing, scholarship, music and sport, but actually exposes him as a talentless dabbler, an ardalio.

A lot of the work of the poem is done by the word bellus, superficially complimentary (“pretty, handsome, fine”; I go with “nice”, which isn’t perfect) but “freq. iron.”, according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary. We’re not too far into the poem before we realise that bellus is indeed ironic: Atticus is only superficially talented, in fact a jack of all trades, master of none.

The metre of the poem is elegiac couplets, which combine a dactylic hexameter, the metre of epic, with a pentameter. The pentameters goes like this (where u is a short syllable,  _ a long, and || a word break or caesura): _ u u _ u u _|| _ u u _ u u _. In the first half of the line either of the double shorts, u u, can be replaced by a long _. But the second half of the line is always _ u u _ u u _.

There’s a mnemonic for the pentameter that I inflict on my students: “strawberry strawberry jam; strawberry strawberry jam”. This is a pentameter, but in the first half either strawberry can be a “strawb’ry”, two long syllables, whereas in the second half each strawberry must be a “strawberry”, three syllables (a long and two shorts).

It’s clear enough that the pentameter, a repetition of _ u u _ u u _, is a form tending toward symmetry. But elegiac poets, Greek and Latin, felt an aesthetic imperative to resist this impulse. In particular they avoided a type of line represented by Ovid’s notorious description of the Minotaur at Ars Amatoria 2.24, semibouemque uirum, semiuirumque bouem (“half-bull man and half-man bull”). There is a great story about this line of Ovid recorded by Seneca the Elder, but one problem with it was probably that its two halves are completely interchangeable, identical both in metre and word shape: semiuirumque bouem, semibouemque uirum would scan just as well.

Now this interchangeability (I can never remember which way round the line goes) makes it a brilliant verbal evocation of the hybrid character of the Minotaur (nothing less than we’d expect from Ovid), but also a line shape that was felt to be too neat and tidy. Trying to capture the character of this kind of line, Platnauer calls it “a jingle”, and Luque Moreno “llamativo”, “showy”. That ancient poets felt the same is proved by how how rarely they produce lines like this, and what effects they’re clearly after when they do. (Ovid’s line was evidence for Seneca that Ovid was a slave to his own poetic licentia, lack of decorum, and “was not unaware of his literary faults, but in love with them.”)

Well, there’s another example of a perfectly symmetrical pentameter in line 7 of Martial’s epigram, the climax of his catalogue of Atticus’ accomplishments, bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae. I find it fascinating when metre communicates as much as any other element of the poetic composition, and here is a case in point.

For what is the Latin for a symmetrical pentameter, superficially deft but actually rather vulgar? 

Bellus [iron.]


Version 2

Some flamens, photo by Sophie Hay

A curse is a spooky enough topic for Christmas, I reckon. But this blog about curses (exsecrationes in Latin) is really for me to get some thoughts straight in my head. I am still investigating a Roman priest known as the flamen dialis, a priest of Jupiter (as I touched on here, a strange figure who could be considered a kind of animate statue of the god), and one thing I want to understand better is how this priesthood was regarded during Augustus’ reign. (All ultimately with a view to deciding on a possible role for it in Virgil’s Aeneid, but that’s another matter.)

The most important thing to appreciate about this priesthood and Augustan Rome is that for the first half of Augustus’ reign there was actually no flamen dialis in post. This office, a crucial intermediary between Rome and its most powerful patron, the chief god Jupiter, had remained unoccupied since the death by his own hand of the flamen L. Cornelius Merula in 87BC. My assumption is that the absence of the flamen dialis from Rome was a cause of significant anxiety: the Romans were deeply superstitious people, setting great store by the pax deorum, the harmonious relations between them and their gods which could only be maintained by meticulous observation of their religious obligations.

If maintaining this special relationship with the divine realm was a priority, it was because the favour shown their city by the gods was for Romans the best explanation of their rapid rise to power in Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Equally, however, when their fortunes turned sour, and Rome shifted from seemingly unlimited expansion to a traumatic century of internal conflict (only finally brought to an end by Augustus), the Romans could only conclude that they had somehow offended the gods, and this was their punishment. A key element of Augustus’ project to restore Rome after this crisis was mending this all-important relationship, renovating temples, restoring neglected religious practices, in general returning Rome to what he could claim to be the lifestyle that drew the gods’ approval in the first place.

In the event, a new flamen dialis, Ser. Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, was at length appointed in (probably) 11BC, shortly after Augustus had finally secured the role of pontifex maximus for himself. The pontifex maximus or chief priest was responsible for selecting the flamen dialis (though he was also subordinate to the flamen in status, interestingly enough), but Augustus had had to wait to assume the role of pontifex until the death of the previous incumbent, the humiliated and sidelined former triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus. A natural reading of this sequence of events would be that one of Augustus’ very first acts on becoming pontifex maximus in 12BC was to fill the yawning gap in Rome’s religious fabric, the office of flamen dialis. But there is some debate about the date of Maluginensis’ appointment, and the order of events is not so certain.

My hunch, as I’ve suggested, is that Rome could not bear the absence of such an essential religious figure with equanimity; and that when Augustus did select a new priest of Jupiter, a lifetime after the last flamen dialis had died, it would have been a very impressive gesture, a powerful contribution to the climate that Augustus sought, a perception that Rome, after all the trauma of the Civil Wars, was back on its feet; a profound crisis on the divine plane had been resolved.

Merula, the last flamen dialis, had been a particularly prominent victim of those wars, and that’s really all I need to have to argue for the research I’m doing. But an article by Bernadette Liou-Gille (“César, ‘Flamen Dialis destinatus’,” Revue des études anciennes 101 [1999], 433-459, to which I was alerted by Professor Roberta Stewart) opened up a new and weirder dimension to this story.

Liou-Gille is interested in the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Merula’s death in 87BC. The context is the furious rivalry for control of Rome between L. Cornelius Sulla and L. Cornelius Cinna, the latter supported by the great general C. Marius. In simple terms, Cinna, who was consul, had been driven out of Rome, and Merula, the flamen dialis, had been appointed consul in his place (Professor Stewart suggested to me, because no one would dare to harm a hair on the head of the priest of Jupiter). When Cinna and Marius proceeded to recapture the city, Merula resigned the consulship, and then, faced with efforts by Cinna to bring him to trial (Appian, BC 1.74), took his own life.

The most detailed account of his death is by Velleius (2.22.2):

Merula autem, qui se sub aduentum Cinnae consulatu abdicauerat, incisis uenis superfusoque altaribus sanguine, quos saepe pro salute rei publicae flamen dialis precatus erat deos, eos in exsecrationem Cinnae partiumque eius tum precatus optime de re publica meritum spiritum reddidit.

Meanwhile Merula, who had resigned his consulship in anticipation of the arrival of Cinna, slit his veins and drenched the altars with his blood, praying to the gods, to whom he had often as flamen dialis prayed for the wellbeing of Rome, to curse Cinna and his party. In this way he yielded up the life that had served Rome so well.

After that (and this is the main focus of Liou-Gille’s article) a teenage Julius Caesar (who was close to Cinna, married to his daughter, and a nephew of Cinna’s ally Marius) was designated flamen dialis in Merula’s place, but never actually assumed the priesthood, no doubt mainly because both Cinna and Marius were dead within a short time, and when Sulla recaptured Rome at the end of 82BC he promptly rescinded all the measures they had taken.

Liou-Gille takes Velleius’ account of Merula’s death literally, not as a historian’s rhetorical flourish: as Merula died, he drew down a curse upon his enemies, offering his own life to the gods in return for divine punishment of “Cinna and his party”. The way Velleius puts it suggests a polar reversal of the flamen‘s power, from promoting the good fortune of the Roman res publica to becoming an agent of vengeance. The effort to make Caesar flamen dialis in Merula’s place, Liou-Gille argues, was actually an attempt to neutralize the malign influence of this exsecratio, to mend relations with the hostile gods by making a close confederate of Cinna the priest who devoted himself to serving Jupiter.

I think what I like most about Liou-Gille’s reading of these events is her assumption that Romans, including the notoriously cerebral Julius Caesar, were motivated by superstition, by a genuine terror of the gods. It’s easy to misjudge the Romans, by some of the things put on paper by Cicero or Ovid, as rational types whose religion was lightly worn. But in fact it was their scepticism that was only skin-deep.

Caesar never did become flamen dialis, and perhaps Sulla had particular reason to block his appointment: Sulla was undoubtedly a superstitious man, and he had no interest in diverting the wrath of the gods away from his enemies. But my particular interest, as I say, is how all this might have looked from the standpoint of Augustus’ principate, sixty or seventy years after Merula’s death. In other words, what are the implications of a hiatus in the office of the priest of Jupiter that lasted for a human lifetime, and might entail a curse still unpropitiated twenty years into the Pax Augusta? Certainly the lack of a flamen dialis cannot have increased Romans’ sense of security. But if we do suspect that Merula’s curse still exerted an influence, at whom would that divine wrath at “Cinna and his party” be directed in the Augustan age? The least we can say is that, if Julius Caesar had felt himself a target, it was in important respects Caesar’s legacy that was embodied by Augustus. Augustan Rome not only lacked that hotline to its greatest benefactor, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, then; it could also not be confident that Merula’s ancient curse was not still targeted at them.

Well, I’m very sure that Augustus’ appointment of a flamen dialis in 11BC was more than just a piece of political theatre. In the absence of a flamen dialis for over half a century (and what a dreadful half-century it had been), Rome had lacked a fundamental means of maintaining relations with the gods, the bedrock of its success as a nation. Until that rupture was healed, Rome’s recovery under Augustus’ direction could never be complete.

As for the rest of it, I can’t be so sure, but it would seem to me very true to the Roman mindset if something altogether more primitive was in play, the raw dread provoked by a ghastly death and priestly imprecation generations before, a suspicion that the gods’ wrath at their appalling crimes, the bloodletting of the Civil Wars encapsulated by the death of Merula, persisted, unappeased. For as long as the role of Jupiter’s “animate statue” remained unoccupied, Rome was still cursed.

Merry Christmas!