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Hercules on the edge

Some thoughts about the structure immediately above, thoughts that I’ve needed to have, then park while I crack on with other, more urgent things.

You are looking at the Tropaeum Alpium, Trophy of the Alps, or Tropaeum Augusti, Trophy of Augustus, in La Turbie (which takes its name from it), a town on a rise above Monaco in the South of France. However we choose to call it, this monument is certainly concerned with both the Alps and the emperor Augustus. What interests me about it, though, is that it is also concerned, albeit more obliquely, with the hero Hercules, on whom one day I shall assuredly write A BOOK.

Unless I don’t.

The first thing to appreciate about the Tropaeum Alpium is that, while it was dedicated by the Senate and People of Rome in 7/6BC, what you you see in La Turbie today is really a confection dating back just a century. The Middle Ages were not kind to the monument (one story, if anyone reads Provençal, tells how St Honoratus miraculously destroyed it, the fortress of a giant named Apollo, but the reality wasn’t much less dramatic). Shortly before the First World War, and then again from 1929 to 1934, two architects, Jean Camille and Jules Formigé, father and son, undertook a very creative reconstruction, and the result is a landmark which probably tells us as much about French culture in the early decades of the Twentieth Century as it does about Augustus.

There is nevertheless a lot we know about the Trophy, not least the inscription it bore, which was recorded by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (3.136-7) and explained that the monument marked the conquest of the Alps by the emperor Augustus a mari supero ad inferum, from the higher to the lower sea, i.e. from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea. We’ll come back to Pliny, because his record of the Tropaeum is interestingly located within his own text. But what I’m most concerned with is the meaningful association established by Sophie Binninger (all citations are at the bottom) between this monument celebrating Augustus on the heights above Monaco and the hero/god Hercules — who was so important to Monaco that he seems to have given his name to the place.

We know that the port of Monaco, and apparently the heights above it, were perceived to have a special connection to Hercules. Strabo, for instance, informs us that “the harbour of Monoikos is a mooring-place for only a few, small ships, with a temple of Herakles ‘Monoikos’, as he is known” (4.6.3), while other sources give emphasis to the neighbouring heights. If there was a specific cult site, at any rate, we don’t know where it was. But the connection was established enough for the Hercules worshipped here, under that moody epithet Monoikos (“solitary; who lives alone”), to give the location a name today very familiar to us.

It is on this basis that Binninger makes the case, unanswerable it seems to me, that the placement of the monument honouring Augustus is designed to imply an assimilation with Hercules, and she suggests that treating Augustus as a Herculean figure suggests military prowess, divinity present or future, and a civilizing power closely related to the establishment of roads and communication. Ammianus Marcellinus (15.10.9) describes Hercules as the builder of the first road along the coast en route to dealing with the three-bodied giant Geryon, and adds that he also “consecrated the harbour and citadel of Monoecus to his own everlasting memory”. (The context for Hercules’ presence in the western Mediterranean, whether in Rome, Tangier or Monaco, is generally his mission to kill Geryon in Spain and drive Geryon’s superlative herd of cattle back to Greece.) Augustus’ Tropaeum seems to have been coordinated with the Via Julia Augusta, the road from Italy to Gaul recently constructed or renovated by Augustus.

But I think we can push the Herculean associations of the Tropaeum Alpium a bit further, and particularly that last idea of communication. Hercules was all about pathways and access, certainly, but by extension he promoted the meeting and mingling of peoples. Within Italy Hercules’ close association with the cattle trade, and the drove roads by which cattle were herded around the peninsula, had made him the agent of intermingling and unification described by Dionysius, who imagines a rationalised Hercules as the greatest general of his day, leading a great army with which, among other things, “he mingled barbarians with Greeks, and inhabitants of the inland with dwellers on the sea coast, groups which hitherto had been distrustful and unsocial in their dealings with each other” (Rom. Ant. 1.41.1).

Meanwhile, the story was told around the Mediterranean and beyond of peoples descended from Hercules and a local woman: see here on Rome, Herodotus 4.9-10 on the Scythians, and Plutarch, Sertorius 9.3-5 on the people of Tangier. This recurrent myth clearly encoded the establishment of reciprocal relations between Greek colonisers and native peoples, albeit by implication on Greek terms. In ancient France we find stories, collected by Jane Lightfoot in her edition of Parthenius, that make Hercules the ancestor of the Celts. As Parthenius tells it, when Hercules was driving the cattle of Geryon back to Argos, he came to the court of king Bretannos in the country of the Celts. The inevitable liaison with Bretannos’ daughter Keltine resulted in the birth of Keltos, ancestor of the Celts.

Hercules’ capacity to bring peoples together is one of his most remarkable characteristics, and at first sight hard to square with this club-wielding epitome of male violence. It no doubt has a lot to do with the ubiquity of muscular civilising gods across peoples. The Greeks encountered the Carthaginian Melqart and saw Heracles, and vice versa. Another illustration is the worship of Hercules Magusanus by the Batavians of what is now the Netherlands, as explained by Nico Roymans: the syncretism of a local and a Roman god, Magusanus and Hercules, facilitating the Batavians’ assimilation within the Roman Empire, resulting inter alia in one more Lysippan Hercules to join all the others.

Another illustration again is Virgil’s Aeneid, where Hercules the communis deus, “god who is common to all” (8.275), appears on both sides of the conflict between Aeneas’ forces and Turnus’ forces, as comrade or ancestor, in the second half of the poem, and seems to promise a unity in Italy when all the fighting’s done. In Virgil the tension between that peaceful outcome and the violence Hercules displays is quite deliberately drawn out, I think. (I investigated some of these Herculean associations as they were exploited by Horace in the article cited at the bottom.)

Well, if the monument to Augustus at La Turbie does indeed by its position provoke thoughts of Hercules, that position (which was clearly chosen very, very carefully) answers in various suggestive ways to these aspects of the hero. Monaco, as Binninger explains, can be seen as the end of the Alps, illustrating the claim of the inscription that the mountains had been pacified from sea to sea. But we are also here on a frontier, Hercules’ natural space: Binninger cites a medieval gloss on the Antonine Itinerary which remarks of this location usque hic Italia, hinc Gallia, “Thus far Italy; henceforth Gaul”. At Monaco Hercules presided over the meeting of Italians and Gauls as well as Greeks and Celts.

Photo by Berthold Werner:

But I think the most interesting implication of all arises from the text of Pliny the Elder which preserves the inscription that graced the Trophy, and indeed allowed the structure at La Turbie to be identified as the Tropaeum Alpium. Binninger again points out that Pliny’s reference to the Tropaeum comes at the end of a long account of Italy (3.38-138), just before his resounding conclusion, “This is Italy, sacred to the gods, these its races, these its people’s towns…” Pliny’s account is structured by Augustus’ organisation of Rome and Italy into regiones, a reform which may have been introduced around the time of the Trophy’s dedication. In other words, Pliny’s account of Italy, and its climax with the Tropaeum Alpium, may well follow an Augustan logic. Binninger talks of the idea in Pliny that the Alps (and the Trophy) “round off” Italy, and again I am put in mind of Hercules.

In the Aeneid, or at least in my reading of the poem, Hercules represents a kind of summation of Italy. All in Italy worship him, and in him, symbolically, is found unity between Italians, even as they fight each other. The paradox, which is also present to some degree at La Turbie, is that Hercules/Augustus stands for violent conquest, and yet also for equality and collaboration. Just maybe, then, there is an Augustan pattern of thought here, centred upon the mythical figure of Hercules and shared between Virgil’s epic and this monument on the heights above Monaco.

* * *

S. Binninger, “Le Tropaeum Alpium et l’Héraclès Monoikos. Mémoire et célébration de la victoire dans la propagande augustéenne à la Turbie”, in M. Navarro Caballero and J.-M. Roddaz (eds.), La Transmission de l’idéologie impériale dans les provinces de l’Occident romain (Pessac, 2006), 179-203;

Le trophée d’Auguste à La Turbie (Paris, 2009);

E. Bispham, “The Regiones of Italy: between Republic and Principate”, in M. Aberson, M.C. Biella, M. Di Fazio & M. Wullschleger (eds.), Nos sumus Romani qui fuimus ante… Memory of ancient Italy (Bern, 2020), 23-51;

H. Cornwell, “The King Who Would Be Prefect: Authority and Identity in the Cottian Alps”, Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015), 41-72;

J. Lightfoot, Parthenius of Nicaea: the Extant Works, Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Oxford, 1999);

I. Malkin, Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (Cambridge, 1994);

Ll. Morgan, “A Yoke Connecting Baskets: Odes 3.14, Hercules, and Italian Unity”, Classical Quarterly 55 (2005), 190-203;

N. Roymans, Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power: the Batavians in the Early Roman Empire (Amsterdam, 2004), 235-50.

Edict XII, lost & found

A few final words on the N-W Frontier, the upshot of finishing a co-written book on a late nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Harold Deane, and then writing a review of a book on an earlier nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Charles Masson, shortly afterwards. Both men were British and both found themselves in a place named Shahbazgarhi (شھباز گڑھی), but Masson was there in 1838, and Deane in 1888; and Deane, as we shall see, was perhaps responsible for the more illuminating discovery.

What both of them were doing at Shabazgarhi was studying an ancient inscribed text. Another difference between them, fifty years apart, was that Deane knew he was looking at the words of the great Indian emperor Ashoka.

With Luca Olivieri I’ve been editing over the last couple of years the manuscript draft of Harold Deane’s influential article on the archaeology of Swat and Peshawar, “Note on Udyana and Gandhara” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1896). Deane was by 1896 a British Political Officer based at Malakand in Swat, and it was in the garrison at Malakand that Prof. Olivieri found the early draft of his “Note”.

One of the valuable things about setting this draft against Deane’s finished version in the Journal is the access it gives us to the more personal material that was lost as it was refined into an academic article. One such moment, in this instance crossed out in the editing process by Deane himself, traces the fascination for archaeology that he had developed during a series of postings in the vicinity of Peshawar: “I add here a few notes I have made from time to time regarding the adjoining Province of Gandhara [“the British District of Peshawar” added above] in which I was first led to taking an interest by discovering the 12th Edict missing from the large Asoka-inscription at Shahbaz Garha.”

We’ll come back to Deane, but let’s start with Charles Masson, whose visit to Shahbazgarhi came at an important juncture in his complicated and remarkable life. A deserter from the army of the East India Company, Masson had settled in Kabul, safely beyond British jurisdiction, and from there investigated Buddhist sites and the plain of Begram, where the huge collection of coins he gathered allowed him to identify it as the location of the city of Alexandria ad Caucasum, which as Kapisa, the coin record told him, survived for well over a thousand years after Alexander. Masson’s archaeological activities were interrupted by events preceding the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. He left Afghanistan in 1838 and went back to what he was most comfortable doing, discovering antiquities:

“Released from the thraldom in which I had been kept since 1835, I then made an excursion to Shah Baz Ghari in the Yusef Zai districts, to recover some Bactro-pali inscriptions on a rock there, and was successful, returning with both copies and impressions on calico.” (Narrative Of Various Journeys In Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab and Kalat (1842-4), Vol. 3, 493)

A few years later, in 1846 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Masson gave a fuller account of his “excursion from Pesháwer to Sháh Báz Ghari” in October 1838. He indicates that he is following the guidance of Claude-Auguste Court, a Napoleonic veteran who was in the service of Ranjit Singh, Maharajah of the Punjab, and whose description of the environs of Peshawar (with the map at the top that Masson may well have been using) had been published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1836, including a reference (pp. 481-2, and pl. XXVIII) to this inscription.

Masson traces his route from Peshawar across what is now the city of Mardan, his arrival in Shahbazgarhi and the welcome he received from the senior Malik of the village. (Masson’s account acknowledges quite well the help he received from locals in Peshawar and along the way.) He then describes his efforts to record the inscription, written on both sides of a rock, both by copying the text by hand and by coating it with ink and then catching as much of the engraved text as he could imprinted in reverse on calico—around 50 yards of it in total. This material he gifted to the Royal Asiatic Society on his return to Britain in 1842.

All Masson really knew about the inscription was that it was big and its script was the same as that on coins he had found in Afghanistan, some of which bore the script, now known as Kharosthi, on one side and Greek on the other. But from the copies that he had taken others, E. Norris and J. Dowson in this same issue of the journal (calling it the Kapur-di-Ghiri inscription), were able to decipher enough of the text to recognise that the inscription at Shahbazgarhi was substantially the same, although written in a different script and with some slight linguistic differences, as two other inscriptions at Girnar in Gujarat, western India, and Dhauli in Odisha (Orissa), eastern India, one side of which is beautifully carved into the shape of the front end of a royal elephant.

It was left to H.H. Wilson (in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12 (1850), 153-251), a scholar closely associated with Masson and Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, to collate all three inscriptions at Girnar, Dhauli and Shabazgarhi, and translate the Shahbazgarhi text alongside the others. Wilson confirmed the essential similarity between them, but also highlighted one peculiarity: the text was divided into fourteen sections, all of them represented at Girnar, but Shahbazgarhi lacked the twelfth.

The inscriptions at Dhauli, Girnar and Shahbazgarhi have these days been joined by quite a few more, and they are now identified as copies of decrees issued by the Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. The subset of a larger corpus of Ashokan inscriptions to which they belong is referred to as Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts, and their location when plotted is clearly significant: as a group they ring the territory controlled by Ashoka’s Mauryan Empire, marking its boundaries: at Kandahar they were written in Greek.

Yet the Twelfth Edict of Ashoka, as I’ve mentioned, was missing from the inscription recorded by Charles Masson at Shahbazgarhi. Harold Deane’s contribution half a century later was to find it, on a separate rock fifty yards away from the main inscription. But the difficulty of finding Edict XII at Shahbazgarhi tells us something quite interesting about it. The same Twelfth Edict seems to be given special status on another inscription on the N.-W. Frontier at Mansehra, a few miles from Abbotabad. As at Shahbazgarhi the Mansehra Edict XII is inscribed separately, and in both places it is more carefully engraved than the other edicts, and in larger letters (É. Senart, Journal Asiatique 11, 1888, pp. 516-7). In other collections of the Edicts, at Girnar and at Khalsi in the hills near Mussoorie, Edict XII just quietly takes its place in the sequence I to XIV; while at others again, at Dhauli and Jaugada (also in Odisha), the Twelfth Edict doesn’t feature at all.

The natural conclusion is that Edict XII was particularly pertinent to the part of Ashoka’s empire represented by Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra. It is known as the Toleration Edict, and essentially enjoins mutual respect between religions. Here is an excerpt from Amulyachandra Sen’s translation in Asoka’s Edicts (Calcutta 1956):

“Whoever praises his own sect or blames other sects, all (that is done) out of devotion to one’s own sect (with this thought), viz. ‘That we may glorify our own sect’. But by doing so, one injures one’s own sect all the more severely.

Therefore it is intercommunion that is commendable, that is to say, that (people) should listen to and respect the doctrines of one another.”

It’s easy enough to suppose that this frontier region in the North-West supported an unusual variety of religious traditions, and that Ashoka considered Edict XII especially important for his subjects in this location to hear.

The two Britons I’ve been concentrating on in this blog are in many ways very different figures. Masson was at times a strident critic of British imperial activity, while Deane ended up as the first Chief Commissioner of the newly constituted North-West Frontier Province (NWFP; now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). One of the most important observations in our work on Deane is how inseparable his interest in the history of this area was from the information gathering that was of the essence of his role as a Political Officer on the frontier, maintaining colonial control over territory in as discreet a manner as possible.

Between them, nevertheless, Masson and Deane made an important historical document available to the less adventurous scholars who could read it, while in Deane’s case a piece was added to the puzzle that shed light vividly on the character of the N-W frontier of Ashoka’s empire more than two millennia ago.

There’s a nice account of a recent trip to Shahbazgarhi here. I meanwhile have a new pipedream, visiting all of Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts across India and Pakistan.

New old light on Charles Masson

Charles Masson’s huge importance as a pioneer of archaeological and pre-modern historical research in Afghanistan, as well as a witness of events leading to war in the 1830s, is increasingly recognised. His significance essentially rests on the six years he spent based in Kabul, 1832-38, and the work he undertook during that time to investigate Buddhist sites, especially stupas, around Kabul and Jelalabad; and also, by collecting coins and other artefacts from the plain of Begram, site of Alexandria ad Caucasum, later known as Kapisa, to trace the perhaps 1,500-year history of that city after Alexander’s foundation in 329 BC.

My own encounters with Masson have been while writing a book about Bamiyan (he visited the valley in the winter of 1832), co-writing another book about Harold Deane, a Political Officer on the N.-W. Frontier whose archaeological discoveries on at least one occasion followed in Masson’s tracks, and most recently reviewing this book on Masson. Entirely superficial, in other words.

Meanwhile the serious work on Charles Masson has been undertaken by the British Museum Masson Project led by Dr Liz Errington. A series of superb publications from that project, all open access, are available here, here, and (coming shortly) here. The first of those I’ll be referring to quite a lot in what follows, specifically Dr Errington’s biography of Masson at pp. 3-14.

But for such a key figure, there are parts of his life, his early years especially, that have remained surprisingly obscure. One major reason for this is that Masson spent a large part of his life pretending not to be himself. He was baptised James Lewis, in London on February 16, 1800, and in 1821 enlisted in the Bengal Artillery. But then in 1827 he deserted from his regiment and escaped British jurisdiction, concealing his identity under his assumed name Masson. Old habits die hard, though, and even in the three-volume memoir that he published in 1842, by which time everyone and their pet cat knew exactly who he was, he consistently shifts the dates of events one year back. “In the autumn of 1826…” begins his account of his travels after his desertion in 1827.

Copies of the three volumes of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab (1842) plus his concluding volume, Narrative of a Journey to Kalat. Including an Account of the Insurrection at that Place in 1840, and a Memoir on Eastern Balochistan (1843), are pictured at the top.

But these, as we shall see, are no ordinary copies.

They were purchased by the American scholar Gregory Possehl, an expert on the Indus Valley Civilisation who had developed an interest in Masson and published on him. I’m not sure that this is where his interest originated, but he describes in his article how he failed in the 1970s to find a graffito by Masson discovered by French archaeologists in a cave at Bamiyan in the 1930s (“If any fool this high samootch explore,/ Know Charles Masson has been here before”: J. Hackin, Nouvelles recherches archéologiques à Bāmiyān III, 1933, p. 2; Masson was a committed mediocre poet), but then apparently found another one. (When Masson had visited Bamiyan, incidentally, he had found graffiti by Moorcroft, Trebeck and Guthrie, three unfortunate predecessors).

In any case, what Prof. Possehl found when he opened the first volume, pasted inside, was a short, handwritten account of Masson’s life, clearly derived from direct communication with Masson, written by William Joseph Eastwick.

Eastwick had been based in the independent state of Sind, Assistant to the Resident in Sind, Masson’s important ally Sir Henry Pottinger. When Pottinger took leave from February 1839, Eastwick became Acting Resident. Eastwick’s note mentions encounters with Masson “on the Indus” in 1839 and 1840, and Masson’s stay with him at Hyderabad. After leaving Kabul Masson spent over a year in Sind, apparently moving between Karachi, Tatta and Hyderabad, the capital of Sind, writing up his memoirs (Errington pp. 3, 7 and 13). Norris in The First Afghan War (1967), p. 252-3 cites the account of the war by Henry Marion Durand (the footnote) to illustrate that “Charles Masson was finding a receptive audience for his slanderous stories [about Alexander Burnes, so probably not so slanderous] among Tory officers on the banks of the Indus in January and February 1839.” And Errington on p. 7 cites another glimpse of Masson in Karachi, not a happy time for him, from Dalrymple, Return of a King (2013), p. 471.

When Pottinger left India entirely in early 1840, he took Masson’s writings with him to show to publishers, and in April 1840 Masson set off back toward Afghanistan to continue his research. Caught up in a rebellion in Qalat (the invasion of Afghanistan was a cause of widespread instability), Masson suffered imprisonment in Qalat and then by the British in Quetta, under suspicion of collaboration in Qalat, experiences to which Eastwick also alludes.

On the evidence of this document, Eastwick knows Masson well. By the time he writes it (between February 16 1842 and February 15 1843 assuming Masson’s age is given correctly at the start) Eastwick has retired from India and returned to Britain: he later became a Director of the East India Company. Masson, who returned to Britain in March 1842, was most probably in London, too, and Eastwick’s document looks like some kind of letter of support solicited by Masson.

The cramped writing after the bracket on the first page is particularly intriguing. Possibly Eastwick’s handwriting, but certainly not Masson’s, it nevertheless repeats a complaint that Masson makes in similar terms in an annotation to his copy of the work in question here, the Oxford Professor H.H. Wilson’s Ariana Antiqua, which had showcased many of Masson’s finds for the first time: the annotation can be read on p. 308 and fig. 137 of this, and there are many more expressing the same intense feelings of injustice on Masson’s part as we find recorded in Eastwick’s note.

[30.10.2021: Edmund Richardson points out to me that Eastwick’s account reflects the false chronology adopted by Masson in Narrative, placing Masson’s first, brief visit to Kabul in 1827 rather than 1828, when it had really occurred.]

Prof. Possehl never published Eastwick’s account, and on his death his library was put up for auction: you can read the catalogue here; he had a fine collection of books! The information that reached the Masson Project was that his library had been purchased by a university in China, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but efforts by the Masson Project to make contact and confirm that Masson’s memoir (and the Eastwick note) were there proved unsuccessful.

This is where having a brilliant former student and enthusiastic historian based in China, James Norman, came in useful, especially when he was able to put me in contact with Dr Chen Li’er of the Central Academy, who in turn very kindly, along with colleagues in the library, located the Masson volumes, and photographed for me the Eastwick note. I am hugely grateful to both Dr Chen and James. A vague proposal mid-afternoon eventuated in a photograph sent to my inbox before I woke up the next morning.

We might choose to think of this as Eastwick’s biography of Masson simply mimicking what its subject had done, wandering quietly off radar for a spell, but in a safe and happy place.

* * *

What follows is Dr Chen’s photograph of the note and my transcription. Dr Chen’s photo is sharp and legible; I hope my transcription is legible too, but presenting a transcription on a blog at all satisfactorily seems beyond me, and if it defeats you too you can find a pdf here. All of it, anyway, is offered as my gift to Liz Errington for the help she has repeatedly given me in my amateurish noodlings around this period, and I add the observation that Liz has managed, without sight of Eastwick’s note before now, to glean from Prof Possehl’s accounts of it all the noteworthy biographical details that it contains: see her biography (at pp. 3-14 of this) for proof. Especially acute are Dr Errington’s thoughts on how the evidence of his schooling at Walthamstow might elucidate a later encounter, quite possibly with an old schoolmate, in Afghanistan; and how working for Durant & Co. could explain Masson’s fluency in French. Meanwhile the “misunderstanding with his Father” and how “irksome to his feelings” Masson found military service are details that throw a little light at least on two major crises in Masson’s life, his enlistment and his desertion.

What remains in Eastwick’s note is a vivid pen sketch of a fascinating personality–courageous, frank to a fault, eccentric, prickly and embittered by experience, but someone for whom Eastwick has evident respect.

E. Errington (ed.), Charles Masson and the Buddhist Sites of Afghanistan: Explorations, Excavations, Collections 1832–1835 (2017);

The Charles Masson Archive: British Library, British Museum and Other Documents Relating to the 1832–1838 Masson Collection from Afghanistan (2017);

Charles Masson: Collections from Begram and Kabul Bazaar, Afghanistan 1833–1838 (2021);

W. Dalrymple, Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan (2013);

J.A. Norris, The First Afghan War, 1838-42 (1967);

B. Omrani, “Charles Masson of Afghanistan: Deserter, Scholar, Spy”, Asian Affairs 39 (2008), 199-21;

G. L. Possehl, “An Archaeological Adventurer in Afghanistan: Charles Masson”, South Asian Studies 6 (1990), 111-124;

E. Richardson, Alexandria: the Quest for the Lost City (2021);

G. Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan (1986).

The Buddhist road

Writing a book about Afghanistan a decade ago, horribly flawed though that book was, has affected my life in various ways. It has drawn me into projects that I trust will be less flawed, like the current one I’m pursuing with Professor Luca Olivieri on the earliest archaeological study of Swat, and in recent weeks my affection for the country has been a cause of great sadness, as I hardly need say. It has also introduced me to some very good friends, among them Owen Humphrys, someone I first met a long time ago while promoting that book.

Back then our conversation was about some remarkable photograph albums of Afghanistan in the 1920s that had belonged to his grandfather. More recently, though, I was delighted to discover that the focus of the book that Prof Olivieri and I are writing, Harold Deane, was also Owen’s great-grandfather. Pure serendipity, and Owen was able to share with me some material related to Deane, including the item I’m going to talk about here.

The item in question is a seven-page handwritten document entitled “Alexander’s Campaign in Afghanistan”. In fact this involves a broad (though in the nineteenth century not unparalleled) definition of Afghanistan, as it relates the Greek and Roman accounts of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in 327 and 326 BC to the territory between the Hindu Kush and the river Indus, today shared between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The document is a letter to Harold Deane, clearly an answer to one that Deane had sent the author, though now lacking the personalised cover sheet it must originally have had, and it is signed “J.W. Mc.Crindle 9 Westhall Gardens Edinburgh.” The letter can be securely dated, on internal evidence, to 1896.

John Watson McCrindle was a former principal of Patna College who also authored a series of books that collected together his translations of all the Greco-Roman texts that described India: Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (1877); The Commerce and navigation of the Erythraean Sea (1879); Ancient India as described by Ktesias the Knidian (1882); Ancient India as described by Ptolemy (1885); The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great (1893); and Ancient India as described in classical literature (1901). McCrindle’s book on Alexander, published in 1893, by which time he had retired to Edinburgh, had presented the narratives of the Greek and Roman sources separately, but what he offers Deane in this letter is a synthesis of all those sources, McCrindle’s considered view of Alexander’s probable itinerary.

What was also happening in 1896 was that Harold Deane was working on the seminal article on the antiquities of Swat that is the focus of my work with Prof Olivieri, “Note on Udyāna and Gandhāra”, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for October 1896. It is clear enough that Deane had sought information from McCrindle as he was writing (or rewriting) this article, in the course of which he concerns himself with Alexander’s itinerary among a number of other things.

This makes McCrindle’s letter to Deane a very interesting piece of evidence for Deane’s thinking as he composed what was a pioneering contribution to the archaeology of Swat and its neighbourhood, and something entirely unanticipated–and for that I’m enormously grateful to Owen. We’ll be publishing the letter properly in the book we’re writing, but here I’m just going to pick out one detail with a view to illustrating “Deane’s thinking”.

Harold Deane was a keen amateur antiquarian and archaeologist, but we need to ask how he came by the knowledge that he imparted in this article for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Swat, after all, was until 1895 a territory entirely beyond British control. But Major Deane was a Political Officer, and in particular he had accompanied a British military force that in 1895 invaded and occupied the lower part of the Swat valley as part of a larger mission to relieve a siege of British nationals in the princely state of Chitral.

As the Chief Political Officer accompanying this force, Deane brought to bear the language skills and familiarity with local culture that he had honed over a decade in similar roles on the North-West Frontier of British India. His article shares observations from before his service with the Chitral Relief Force, but the heart of it relates to the archaeological remains visible in the territory crossed by that force in its march toward Chitral. The most interesting aspect of this work, for me, is the intersection of a paramilitary colonial administrator and a pioneer of archaeological investigation in Swat, both of which Deane could undoubtedly claim to be. These two sides of Harold Deane are ultimately inseparable, but for a fuller discussion of all this you’ll need to read the book when it comes out.

In the meantime, though, there’s one detail in McCrindle’s letter to Deane (as I say, itself a response to an enquiry, or set of enquiries, from Deane) that I find especially suggestive.

This takes the form of a postscript from McCrindle answering a specific enquiry from Deane about the Malakand Pass:

“P.S. With regard to the road by the Malakand Pass. The only passages I can find in Strabo which can refer to it are — Book XV.i.26 “He (Alexr.) turned towards India and towards its western boundaries and the rivers Kôphês & Choaspes. The latter river empties itself into the Kôphes near Plemyrion1 after passing by another city Gorys2 in its course through Bandobênê and Gandaritis.[“] 27. [“]After the river Kôphês follows the Indus. The country lying between these two rivers is occupied by Astakeni (Assakeni) Masiani, Nysaei and Hippasii (Aspasii). Next is the territory of Assakenus where is the city Masoga — the royal residence. Near the Indus is another city Peucolaitis. At this place a bridge which was constructed afforded a passage for the army.[“]

1 v.l. Plêgêrion. 2 v.l. Gôrydalê

These are the only passages in Strabo which can have reference to Alexr.’s route through that part of Afghanistan. In preparing a 6th volume on Ancient India I searched through all Strabo for references to India & Afghanistan. J.W.Mc.C.”

The details here don’t really concern us. But Deane’s interest in Malakand, and interest in finding Malakand in classical texts, is something I find very intriguing. By the time he was writing his article for the Asiatic Society Deane was based in a fort at Malakand, the entrance to Swat at the summit of the Malakand Pass. But Malakand had also been the site of the first major conflict of the campaign to relieve Chitral, when British-Indian forces stormed the difficult approaches to the pass against opposition from the people of Swat. Christian Tripodi in Edge of Empire (2011), p. 85, calls the siege of Chitral “one of those instances of high drama, much like the siege of Mafeking during the Second Anglo-Boer War, that attracted a huge amount of attention throughout the Empire and pandered to public notions of national honour and imperial destiny.” The initial success at Malakand shared much of this perception of its heroic character.

In accounts of the capture of the Malakand heights and its aftermath, a regular point of reference is an ancient road to the summit of the pass, consistently referred to as a (or the) “Buddhist road”. George Younghusband, in the account of The Relief of Chitral that he wrote with his more famous brother Francis, describes the 60th Rifles happily chancing upon this road as they approached the summit (p. 88), and then its renovation and use after the capture of the pass as a supply route (p. 93). Much later Francis Younghusband recalled the latter activity “on an ancient road made in Buddhist times” when commenting in The Times (May 27th 1926, p. 14c, cf. H. Wang, Aurel Stein in The Times [2002], 84) on Aurel Stein’s purported discovery of Aornos at Pir Sar.

One of the first things the British did when they had captured Malakand was to build the road pictured at the top of this post (by which I travelled to and from Swat a couple of summer ago), and when two years after the capture of Malakand a general uprising, beginning in Swat, spread right along the British Indian frontier, and the fort at Malakand was besieged, an ambitious young soldier/journalist named Winston Churchill regularly refers in The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1897) to a Buddhist road leading to Malakand that lies alongside the modern construction. Here it is on Churchill’s sketch map (top left), and here also, for no very good reason, is my photo from the modern road in 2018, looking in a roughly southerly direction toward Mardan.

It’s clear enough, then, that an ancient/Buddhist road, or one perceived as such, was a familiar feature of the approach to Malakand, and in addition that this old road was what Deane was concerned with when he asked McCrindle about Greek references to “the road by the Malakand pass”. In the event McCrindle is not able to offer him anything very useful, as neither of the texts of Strabo he cites can really refer to it. But why Deane wanted McCrindle’s opinion on the road is still an interesting question, and we Classicists are all-too prepared to speculate on the basis of limited evidence. I for one thought I understood exactly what Deane was wondering about this ancient road.

One difference between Ancient History and studying the late nineteenth century, though, is that the amount of evidence available restricts the need for such classical speculation. In this case another document provides the answer loud and clear, and it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

Surgeon-Major L. A. Waddell may be best known these days for his quest in search of the landmarks of the Buddha’s life and ministry in northern India and Nepal, undertaken whenever he could secure leave from his official position. His prickly character, not softened by the toxic competition that developed to locate Kapilavastu and Kushinagar, is well conveyed in Charles Allen, The Buddha and Dr Führer: an archaeological scandal (2008).

In 1895, however, just a few months after the storming of the Malakand, Waddell visited Lower Swat, the area occupied by the British, “for the archaeological exploration of this ancient Buddhist land, formally called Udyana, and to secure sculptures for Government.” (In fact he was revisiting Malakand and Swat, since he had himself served in the Chitral Relief Force.) His official report to the government survives, rediscovered by Luca Olivieri, in an archival collection at the fort at Malakand, but that copy lacks the first page. Luckily Waddell was alert to the need to publicise his archaeological discoveries, though, and he published his report independently in issue 1224 of The Academy (October 19th 1895), pp. 321-2.

With reference to the road up to Malakand, he writes:

“On the following day I ascended the Malakand Pass by the so called ‘Buddhist road,’ as it has been lately named. It is an excellent ancient road, comparing favourably with the best mountain roads of the present day. It rises by an easy gradient, and several of its sections are cut deeply through the hard rock. It is quite possible that this may have been on the line of march of Alexander the Great in his invasion of India, as Major Deane suggests. Be this as it may, it is very probable that Asoka, Kanishka, and the powerful kings who held this country, used this road and gave it its present shape.”

Waddell is referring to a conversation with Deane rather than anything Deane had at this stage written, but his recollection clarifies what Deane had in mind (and in the process confirms what I had had in mind): Deane’s hunch was that the ancient route that had facilitated the advance of the British force over Malakand was also the road taken, two millennia before them, by Alexander the Great.

It was no such thing, as McCrindle diplomatically communicated to Deane. But this still amounts to a quintessentially imperial moment. I have blogged before about the European compulsion to find traces of Alexander at and beyond the North-West Frontier: here, for instance; and here is a twist on essentially the same story. Given the education of the men that found themselves there, and the culture of the army officer corps and Political Service, it proved seemingly impossible for British administrators and soldiers to dissociate this space from Alexander’s campaigns.

(C.A. Hagerman’s article, “In the footsteps of the ‘Macedonian conqueror’: Alexander the Great and British India”, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 16 (2009), 344-92, and his book Britain’s Imperial Muse: the Classics, imperialism, and the Indian Empire, 1784-1914 (2013), are very interesting on all of this.)

A general perception of Alexander as a civilizing force, combined with the insecurity inherent in a colonial intervention–the need to convince oneself that alien territory is comprehensible, and that, as a European, one has a right to be there–made him a favoured “charter myth” for British imperial activity in this part of the world. Where Alexander had trodden was a legitimate place for other Europeans also to wander.

But in this instance I think there is another, not unrelated impulse in play, one given particular emphasis by Hagerman. The storming of the Malakand was an action that demanded superlatives: Younghusband & Younghusband’s account makes that abundantly clear. Not far from Malakand Alexander had allegedly stormed the stronghold of Aornos, Mt. Ilam, because Heracles, a Greek hero who had trodden this ground long before Alexander’s Greco-Macedonian invasion, had once tried it (Arrian, Anab. 4.28).

The psychology of the Greeks and the British in Swat has always seemed to me to have much in common. But Harold Deane shared a thought with L. A. Waddell, and perhaps at Waddell’s suggestion wrote to J. W. McCrindle in pursuit of it, and the essence of that thought was that the glorious British capture of Malakand in 1895 was an exploit comparable in some significant sense to the achievements of Alexander the Great himself.

Mira quaedam vis

I’ve been spending a lot of my summer, happily but quite unexpectedly, in the late Nineteenth Century. This is partly related to a book I’m co-writing on the origins of archaeology in Swat, modern Pakistan, but also to a week I spent translating an issue of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ Latin newsletter Alaudae (“Larks”).

My translation of issue 27 of Alaudae, from May 1893, is part of a project coordinated by Michael Lombardi-Nash to get all issues of Alaudae — there were 33 of them between 1889 and 1895, the year of Ulrichs’ death — translated into English in time for the bicentenary of Ulrichs’ birth in 2025. Ulrichs, a lawyer and journalist from Hanover, was a passionate promoter of the Latin language, but his greater significance lies elsewhere, as a fearless campaigner for the recognition and acceptance of same-sex attraction in writings and public statements that required, in nineteenth-century Germany, immense personal courage. This is a good account of Ulrich’s life and importance.

Toward the end of his life, disenchanted with his reception in Germany and with broader developments there, Ulrichs relocated to Italy, and settled in L’Aquila as the guest of Niccolò Persichetti, who shared his interest in Greco-Roman antiquity and was sympathetic to his campaigning in defence of homosexuality. It was from L’Aquila that Ulrichs published Alaudae, and in issue 27 at least this meant gathering together items in Latin that had been sent to him from all corners.

It makes for a wonderful mishmash of material. On a train into London I found myself translating the Latin oration for a graduation ceremony at Trinity College Dublin, where an honorary degree was being conferred on General Sir George Stuart White. An hour later I was looking at a statue of George Stuart White, a man I confess I’d never heard of before, as I hurried down Portland Place. Ulrichs is not very sympathetic to the military, it’s fair to say, having encountered too many militaristic Prussians back home, no doubt, and he spends more time humorously discussing the kilt worn by Major Napier of the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders), who was accompanying White to the ceremony. When I talk about vivid glimpses of the late Nineteenth Century, though, I don’t mean British generals so much as things like Ulrichs’ source for this chunk of Latin from Trinity Dublin. He was sent it by W. H. Brayden, the editor (who is later mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses) of the “constitutional nationalist” newspaper the Freeman’s Journal—you are reading Latin in Alaudae, in other words, then suddenly deep in the complicated politics of pre-Easter-Rising Ireland.

Most of the issue I was translating was taken up by a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s arrival as a teacher at the University of Padua in 1592, to which Padua had invited, in Latin of course, representatives from universities across Europe and in the United States, and received Latin responses back from a number of them. Ulrichs reproduces a few, and we’ll return later to the Latin letter from the University of Kazan on the Volga,  an important centre for Classical studies, as my colleague Georgy Kantor has informed me. I’ll also come back later to a dance card sent to Ulrichs from a Society of Pharmacists in Brno, now the Czech Republic (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), written in Latin so as not to upset either Czech or German pharmacists in this bilingual city. It’s again odd to view this after an intervening century of Czech-German relations, though my immediate need was for someone to make sense of Latin terms for dances like Polonaisa, Polka Frankogallica and Saltatio germanica. My colleague Sophie Bocksberger, an expert on dance ancient and modern, stepped deftly into the breach. But for Ulrichs such an event embodied the motto that prefaces every issue of Alaudae, Latinae linguae mira quaedam vis inest ad jungendas nationes, “The Latin language has a remarkable power to bring nations together”—Latin, no one’s language and thus potentially everyone’s.

I volunteered for this project because Ulrichs deserves all the recognition he can get, and because Latin and late-nineteenth-century intellectual life are a couple of my favourite things. But I found here something far more varied and interesting than I anticipated, and closely engaged with a fascinating moment in European history. What holds it all together, though, are Ulrichs’ journalistic skills of editing and composition, and the light touch and humour with which he threads it all together. He skips out of Latin at the end of my issue to share a French joke that is of its time but still quite funny, explaining why the English use “Esq.” in addresses: we are rather chilly in manner, and it stands for Esquimau. It’s a great project that Michael is leading, in short, and it deserves success—deserves, dare I say it, a publisher who’ll put these remarkable documents from a formative time between hard covers. If anyone is interested, feel free to get in touch.

However, two tiny and trivial thoughts that occurred to me while translating, chosen because they brought me quite close to Ulrichs and to these other people speaking Latin to each other 130 years ago.

At the end of the elegant Latin letter from Kazan University to Padua, a copy of which Kazan had sent him, Ulrichs gives the names of the Rector of the University and the Secretary, K. Boporuuno and M. Solovieff. A conversation on Twitter ensued between myself and Georgy Kantor, who like me initially thought that Boporuuno must be a Finnish name, but then established that the Rector in 1893 was not K. Boporuuno but Konstantin Voroshilov. The explanation is clearly that Ulrichs read Voroshilov’s name in Cyrillic, Ворошилов, as if it was in Latin script. But it can’t be quite that simple because Ulrichs reads printed Cyrillic elsewhere in the document from Kazan (and elsewhere again in issue 27) quite happily, identifying Latin derivations in administrative Russian. What’s happened, then, I think, is that Ulrichs was presented with two signatures from Rector and Secretary. One of them, that of Secretary M. Solovieff, was in Latin characters, leading Ulrichs to assume that the Rector’s was too. I can easily imagine a handwritten К. Ворощилов being read as K. Boporuuno. As for Ulrichs, to err is human, and one can encounter the human in a silly mistake. Here I felt like I was looking over Ulrichs’ shoulder as he struggled to decipher someone’s handwriting, something I’ve done quite a bit of myself in the recent past.

I’m not at all sure about my second thought. But it takes us back to those pharmacists in Brno. I couldn’t initially make sense of an abbreviation that prefaces each half of the dance card, “Rp.”: Rp. Polonaisa. Saltat. german. Polka francogallica … Rp. Saltat. german. Polka mazur. IVta Quadrilla …, and I think Ulrichs was as foxed as I was. But then I had a thought. One piece of Latin that’s quite peculiar to pharmacists, or at least pharmacists in Central Europe, is “Rp./” short for “Recipe”, “Take…”, the instruction from the medical practitioner to the chemist/pharmacist as to what they should give the patient. (An English “recipe” was originally a medical prescription; and Rx or ℞ is the local equivalent of Rp./, I believe.) Here is a guide to writing medical prescriptions that I was delighted to find on the website of Masaryk University, Brno, with some important abbreviations on the first page, and a model prescription on p. 7. The invocatio, Rp., is what we’re concerned with:

“Take a Polonaise, Allemande, Polka Française…” instructs the pharmacists’ dance card. If I’m wrong about this, and it’s very likely, errare est humanum and I do it a lot. If I’m right, though, how absolutely lovely that is, pharmacists telling each other, whether they be Czech or German, that an evening of dancing together is just what the doctor ordered.

My thanks to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs for telling me about about this, and to Michael Lombardi-Nash for introducing me to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.


In the last book of Homer’s Iliad, Priam ventures out of the safety of the city of Troy and makes his way to the camp of the Achilles, who is keeping with him the corpse of Priam’s eldest son Hector and daily tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. Priam is a vulnerable old man moving across No Man’s Land in darkness to a place of greatest danger, and there on the plain of Troy the god Hermes comes to meet him (Iliad 24.360-71, tr. Hammond):

“But the very god, the kindly one, came close to him, and took the old man by the hand and spoke to him with questions: ‘Where is it, father, that you are driving your horses and mules through the immortal night, when other men are sleeping? Are you not frightened of the Achaians who breathe fury? They are your enemies and intend you harm, and they are close by. If any of them were to see you coming through the quick black night with so many treasures, what would become of you then? You are not young yourself, and your companion here is too old for defence against a man who starts a fight with you. But I will do you no harm, and indeed I will protect you from any who would—I look on you as my own father.'”

But what has the god Hermes got to do with the three-metre tall, solid bronze sculpture of a foot that is pictured at the top?

A valid question, to which the beginning of an answer is that the title of that sculpture, a work by William Tucker, is Messenger, and an account of the thinking behind it runs as follows: “Using the energy in the moment of lift of a foot leaping, Tucker describes through just one element of anatomy the idea of the classical messenger Hermes perhaps taking flight.”

William Tucker is an extremely distinguished modernist sculptor who also happens to have been a student at my college, Brasenose, studying Modern History between 1955 and 1958. Earlier in the year he contacted our Fellow in Fine Arts, Ian Kiaer, to offer one of his sculptures to his old college. After some consideration, it has been agreed that Messenger will be installed in the near future at Frewin, an accommodation annexe of Brasenose College on the other side of central Oxford.

Frewin is about to enjoy a major facelift. It is a fascinating spot, in many ways of greater historic interest than the College’s main site. It was a college in its own right once, St Mary’s, and while it lasted Erasmus spent a term there. At its heart is an old house, Frewin Hall, which I’ve written about before, and which has elements from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but a cellar that dates back to the twelfth, and a façade we owe to an eccentric, chronogram-obsessed resident at the end of the nineteenth century. Frewin Hall was badly chopped about in the eighties, but it is going to be restored in the next few years, with its ground floor suite of panelled rooms turned into a student common room/library. I’m excited also, after a chat with the architect, about the possibilities for my favourite space in the entire College, the Norman cellar.

At the same time, a beautiful new accommodation building, planning permission permitting, will be rising to the south of Frewin Hall, and the green areas of Frewin will be replanted and relandscaped. A gift from the greatest artist ever to emerge from Brasenose College, which will be a central feature of the new gardens, could not have come at a more opportune time.

Tucker’s style of sculpture has evolved over time from abstract works like this at MoMA to the more figurative style represented by Messenger. It remains the case that the impact of this piece derives, like any sculpture, from intangible things like size, material and texture as much as from any real object or associations it may evoke. But one of the best arguments for giving Messenger a permanent place at the heart of our educational establishment is the meaning conveyed by Tucker’s sculpture of a rising foot inspired by the messenger god Hermes.

Which brings us back to Hermes in the last book of the Iliad, lending his protection to Priam in the space between Troy and the Achaean camp. Because that is Hermes in his very element. We could consider this fascinating god the denizen of the spaces between, or the divine patron of transition, but in any case Hermes’ special area of jurisdiction is connections. He is of course the means of communication, as the divine herald, between gods and humans, and in a moment like his descent in Aeneid Book 4 to instruct Aeneas to leave Carthage, one level of interpretation is to see the god as the action of the special capacity, reason, that unites gods and humans, according to the ancients. Aeneas when Mercury appears to him “sees reason” in more senses than one. Hermes/Mercury bridges other spaces, escorting the souls of the dead from this world to the next, and a patron also of commerce. He invents the lyre and music; he could be understood as the inventor of language itself. He is the god of thieves and protection against thieves–again, that undefined territory in-between.

I quoted to my colleagues a neat summary of Hermes’ jurisdiction from Arlene Allan, Hermes (Routledge, 2018), 18:

“We may, with [Robert] Parker, categorise this involvement [of Hermes] in mortal life according to the triad ‘transition/communication/exchange’: he moves individuals and societies from ignorance to knowledge (communication); from point A to point B (transition); and from want to satisfaction (exchange). Or we might, as previously suggested, prefer to think of these three general areas as subsumable under the single word ‘translation’ in its various shades of meaning. However, the idea of Hermes can be further articulated by identifying what is accomplished through his interaction. Collectively the evidence points to Hermes as the power behind purposeful individual and systemic movement kata moiran (‘according to destiny’): his is the power that makes connections and builds relationships.”

A college is a society of learning, and Hermes the messenger at so many levels a perfect embodiment of its ethos. Tucker’s statue, with beautiful economy, and a lovely tension between solid metal and the deft movement it represents, captures with a brazen body part, I would propose, the essence of the College of the Brazen Nose.

The Lifeboat Calamity at Wells

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One hundred and forty years ago today, my great-great-grandfather was drowned at sea.

John Elsdon, from Wells in Norfolk, was a fisherman, like many in Wells, and also served on the crew of the Wells lifeboat. In late October 1880 gales were lashing the east coast of England, and on November 1 The Times reported a disaster in Wells (p. 10):

“It is feared that by the capsizing of the lifeboat at Wells on Friday [October 29] 11 of the crew have been drowned. It appears that the boat went out to the assistance of the brig Ocean Queen, of Sunderland, but could not get alongside owing to the falling tide, and was returning when she was struck by a heavy sea, which capsized her, The crew consisted of Robert William Elsdon, harbour master and captain; John Elsdon, coxswain; Samuel Smith, Charles Smith, William Field, George Jay, William Green, Thomas Kew, Charles Hinds, John Stacey, Frank Abel, William Wordingham, and William Bell, all seamen. Of these only Thomas Kew and William Bell have been saved. One of the survivors states that the crew had on their cork jackets. Some clung to the boat, or were entangled in the gear, while others, separated from her, struck out for shore half-a-mile distant. The lifeboat did not right herself until she had been driven a considerable distance, and had her mast carried away. Bell was afterwards found in the boat; Kew swam ashore, and was picked up half dead by the coastguard. One or two bodies were picked up on Friday night and several others were recovered on Saturday. All the 11 drowned men were married, and leave families–Jay as many as eight children. The crew of the Ocean Queen walked ashore at low water.”

Robert William Elsdon was in fact the coxswain of the lifeboat, “Eliza Adams”, while John was his younger brother (and my ancestor). On November 4 The Times (p. 11) published a letter by the local MP which among other things adds the detail that the Wells lifeboat had already executed a rescue on the night of October 29 (of seven souls from the brig “Sharon’s Rose”) before it headed out again to the aid of “Ocean Queen”. In between trips out, the crew had largely been replaced, but the more experienced men, including Robert William Elsdon, 62, and John, 60, were involved in both efforts. Propelling a lifeboat in stormy seas was mainly done by rowing, and I cannot imagine how exhausted they were by the time they set out for the second time:

“Sir,–I venture to make appeal on behalf of the ten widows and 27 orphans of the gallant lifeboatmen who perished from the Wells lifeboat on Friday last. The facts of this distressing case have already been made generally known, and my present object is simply to ask your co-operation in helping me to bring the claims of the bereaved families under the notice of the British public. The lifeboat work has assumed a national character, and, therefore, naturally appeals to every one for sympathy and aid in such distressful circumstances. The district in which this calamity occurred is a poor one, and the county, being an agricultural one, has, like similar counties, suffered much from agricultural depression. I feel sure that the National Lifeboat Institution, to whom the lifeboat belonged, will, as usual, deal most liberally and generously with the fund for the relief of the widows and orphans, but the institution can hardly be expected to meet altogether the requirements of this distressing case. I therefore appeal with confidence to the co-operation of The Times in helping me to bring into prominent notice the strong and urgent claims of the widows and orphans of those noble men who sacrificed their own lives while attempting to save the lives of others. I may mention that the Wells lifeboat had only an hour or so previously been successful in saving a shipwrecked crew, and it was only on a second trip that this dreadful calamity happened, when she was attempting to save the crew of a Sunderland vessel. I beg to add that I shall be happy myself to receive contributions on behalf of the fund, or they may be paid to Messrs. Gurneys and Co., Bank, Wells, Norfolk, or to their London agents, Messrs. Barclay and Co., Lombard-street, E.C. I am yours faithfully, EDWARD BIRKBECK, M.P. for North Norfolk. Horstead-hall, Norwich, Nov. 3″

On November 20 (The Times p.8) subscriptions to the relief fund in the intervening fortnight are recorded. £1,000 from the National Lifeboat Association has been roughly doubled by subventions from such as HRH The Prince of Wales (£20), the Earl of Leicester (£100) and “Kelling Church Collection, per Rev. R. J. Roberts” (£1 3s 9d). Further contributions are invited, but I have no idea if the resulting sum was equal to the need. Robert William Elsdon’s widow Emily describes herself in the 1881 census, taken on April 3, as a “Lifeboat Annuitant”.

My great-grandfather (also called Robert William Elsdon), the son of John Elsdon, was in his mid-thirties by the time of his father’s death, and I think already a dock worker in the London Docks. My grandmother grew up in Poplar, and is listed in the 1901 census, at the age of 13, as a “Factory Lad”. John Elsdon’s widow Harriet, my great-great-grandmother, lived to the age of 91, dying in Wells in 1916, though I don’t know how well my grandmother knew hers. A photo survives of Harriet Elsdon with a daughter (I’m not as yet sure which: Harriet had six in total, I think), son-in-law and two granddaughters, the clothes of the latter suggesting a date in the early 1900s, when Harriet, born in 1824, was approaching eighty:

In 1906, at the initiative of Thomas Kew, one of the survivors, a memorial (image at the top) was unveiled near the Lifeboat House in Wells, with Harriet undoubtedly in attendance: there’s a photo of Kew in front of it here.

Forty years ago my mother and I visited Wells to see the memorial that she had heard about, and arrived, quite by chance, within a couple of days of the centenary.

You can donate to the RNLI here.


From E. C. Bayley, “Notes on some sculptures found in the district of Peshawar”, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 21 (1852), 606–21, a scan provided by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (

A particularly excellent initiative from the outstanding Gandhara Connections project based in Oxford, directed by my old friend Peter Stewart, is a series of short, stimulating introductions to Gandharan topics written by Project Consultant Dr Wannaporn Kay Rienjang. The latest of these, on the monastery site of Jamalgarhi, one of the most celebrated archaeological sites in the Peshawar valley, is as highly recommended as its predecessors. For the purposes of this blog, though, it contains the image at the top, an image that set me thinking.

It is E. C. Bayley’s drawing of one of a number of Buddhist sculptures provided to him by two British officers, Lieutenant Stokes and Lieutenant Lumsden, of the Horse Artillery and the Guide Corps respectively, who had removed them from Jamalgarhi. My immediate thought when I saw it was that the Buddha and the figure with his back turned to the Buddha’s immediate left bore a remarkable similarity to another relief I was familiar with from Jamalgarhi. This relief, now in the Indian Museum in Kolkata (no. G-34), is best illustrated by James Craddock’s photograph from 1880 on the British Library site of pieces found in later, more official excavations of the monastery:


The carving in the relief at the centre of this image is especially fine. But what I had been reminded of within this composition was the central figure of the Buddha and the figure to his left, here with Bayley’s equivalents for comparison:

The two compositions, from the realisation of the Buddha and his orientation to the striking presentation of the accompanying figure, back turned, left leg bent, are very similar indeed, and Peter and Kay tell me that such replication in a monastery’s decorative scheme is quite unusual.

Now, my personal interest here is the figure with his back turned to the Buddha’s left, and I’ll come to him presently. Before I do, though, a little bit more on these images as we have them, or indeed don’t have them. Bayley’s sketches of the sculptures that he had received are in fact all that we do now have, because the sculptures picked up by Stokes and Lumsden subsequently travelled to London for exhibition, and were on display in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham when fire broke out at the end of December 1866, destroying (according to the Illustrated London News January 5, 1867, p. 22) “nearly all the north quarter of that magnificent structure, containing the Tropical Department; the whole of the Natural History Collection; the Assyrian, Alhambra, and Byzantine Courts; the Queen’s Apartments; the Library and Printing Offices; the India, Architectural, Model, and Marine Galleries.” (E. Errington, The Western discovery of the art of Gandhara (1987), 90; V. A. Smith, “Graeco-Roman influence on the civilisation of ancient India”, JASB 58 (1889), 107-98 at 113; J. Burgess, “The Gandhara Sculptures”, The Journal of Indian Art 8 (1900), 23-90, at 23-4).

From The Illustrated London News January 12, 1867, p. 1.

They were never photographed before their destruction, and one particular question I have is thus left unanswerable: whether the Buddha’s companion was indeed more discreetly clothed in the relief that Bayley sketched, or Bayley added the pants out of a Victorian sense of propriety.

We shall never know, but what remains of this blog is dedicated to establishing that the posterior of this figure, be it clothed or left magnificently bare, is of the greatest significance. In both images it belongs to Vajrapani, the attendant and guardian of the Buddha who wields the vajra or thunderbolt, symbol of the Buddha’s penetrating insight. A fascinating feature of Gandharan art is its adoption for the iconography of Vajrapani, in many instances, of the Greco-Roman Heracles, perhaps the most striking example (again no longer in existence) being a Vajrapani from the monastery complex of Hadda in eastern Afghanistan:

Image from a Persée scan of Z. Tarzi, “Hadda à la lumière des trois dernières campagnes de fouilles de Tapa-è-Shotor”, Comptes rendus de séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 120 (1976), 381-410 at 395.

In the case of Jamalgarhi, Bayley comments on the Vajrapani he had sketched, “This figure, which has its back turned to the spectator, is admirably designed” (108), and that judgement is easy to understand from the Craddock photo, which shows a remarkably subtle realisation of a muscular Herculean physique.

What’s even more remarkable, though, is the specific source of this Herculean representation of Vajrapani. If we compare the Jamalgarhi Vajrapanis with a reasonably famous image of Hercules…

The Farnese Hercules, front and back, image by erikakettleson on flickr,

…we have the same straight right leg and flexed left, the same (shall we say) prominent buttocks, and comparably pronounced musculature of the back. The Farnese Hercules in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, discovered on the site of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, is the most famous example of a very common sculptural image of the hero, the so-called “Weary Hercules”, a work originally by Lysippus in the fourth century BC of which over 80 imitations from antiquity survive (M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical art from Greece to Rome (2001), 199-202), presumably not including these two examples from Pakistan.

Lysippus’ Hercules didn’t travel directly to Jamalgarhi, or at least not necessarily. Another imitation of the Weary Hercules was discovered at the site of Seleucia on the Tigris near Baghdad in the 1980s. This is a precious historical document, as Parthian Sources Online explains: on either thigh of the statue accounts are inscribed, in Greek and Parthian (calling him Heracles in Greek and Verethragna, the name of a Persian hero, in the Parthian), of its capture by the Parthian king in the reconquest of a client kingdom, Mesene, in AD 151. There is no image I can legally place here, I don’t think, but at this site there are front and rear views of Heracles-Verethragna, and the key element of the latter is described by Antonio Invernizzi in La terra tra i due fiumi: venti anni di archeologia italiana in Medio Oriente (1985), 420-22 using unmistakeable terms that also go much better in Italian, somehow: “I glutei asimmetrici sono un po’ squadrati, divisi da un profondo solco e hanno forte rilievo sulle cosce,” “The asymmetric buttocks are a little square, divided by a deep cleft and stand out prominently from the thighs.”

Lysippus’ Heracles at Jamalgarhi, pronounced buttocks and all, has been as fully accommodated in his new Buddhist context as Heracles/Verethragna was in Parthia. Each relief presents stories from the Buddha’s life, presented in consecutive scenes like a cartoon strip, and in the case of the Craddock photo that is the tale of the white dog that barked. This is a discipline full of beautiful books, I have discovered, but Isao Kurita, Gandharan art = Gandara bijutsu (Tokyo, 2003), recommended to me by Peter Stewart, may take the biscuit, two volumes of images of Gandharan art and explanations of their content, and on p. 325 there is a summary of this story: the Buddha visits the house of Śuka, where a white dog on a couch barks furiously at him. The Buddha reveals that the dog is Śuka’s father and that treasure that his father had covetously buried is there to be dug up. The dog, under the Buddha’s influence, proceeds to do so.

The story represented in Bayley’s sketch is less obvious, though it is clearly entirely different. It looks like someone is threatening violence, the figure to our left drawing a sword, but after reading, with Kay Rienjang’s encouragement, Monica Zin’s brilliant article, “About two rocks in the Buddha’s life story”, East and West 56 (2006), 329-58, I don’t think it’s the resentful and aggressive monk Devadatta. It may possibly be the story of Angulimala, a mass murderer converted by the Buddha and taken by him to a monastery, on whom see Zin again, “The unknown Ajanta painting of the Angulimala story”, in C. Jarrige and V. Lefèvre, South Asian Archaeology 2001 II: Historical Archaeology and Ancient History (2005), 705-13. I’m open to other suggestions, needless to say, but this is an important point: “Heracles” features in scenes which are stylistically very influenced by Greece, but in every other respect, and most importantly in their religious significance, Indian. Heracles on the Tigris was still Heracles to those reading his right thigh, at least, but what looks to me like Heracles at Jamalgarhi really isn’t Heracles any more.

That said, there’s something about the virtuosity with which an artist at Jamalgarhi has rendered the Lysippan model, the boldness with which he presents Vajrapani nude, and with his back to us, that seems to demand we compare it to its Mediterranean forebears. It frankly staggers me (perhaps I am easily staggered) that the movement of Heracles across the vast expanses of the ancient world was not just a matter of his general image and physical attributes crossing cultures, but of the persistence of quite specific artistic realisations of the god-hero: here an image created by Alexander’s favourite sculptor features in a Buddhist tale of a man reincarnated as a dog, and maybe also a man turned from extreme violence to peaceful meditation, and that rather encapsulates the astonishing resilience of an artistic idea while all around it is utterly transformed.

My own small contribution to all of this is to note that Vajrapani’s shapely Lysippan derrière featured not just once in the astonishingly rich embellishment of the monastery at Jamalgarhi but twice. And why not? It is a truly illustrious ancestry that those buttocks can claim.

West is East & East is West

We all have nostalgic memories of the time before Covid, our own private summers of 1914. In my case it’s a trip I took on the coattails of the Oxford Modern History Faculty, and in particular of Abigail Green and Faridah Zaman, to Woking, where we saw the oldest purpose-built mosque in the country (once part of Gottlieb Leitner’s Oriental Institute) and heard from Tharik Hussain about an amazing community history project, Everyday Muslim, led by Sadiya Ahmed. We rounded off the day with a visit with Tharik to Brookwood Cemetery.

Many things I saw and heard and discussed on that day stick in my mind, and I remember also that the weather was dreadful, nothing like the summer of 1914, but something I really haven’t stopped thinking about since is the beautiful Parsi (Zoroastrian) section of the larger cemetery at Brookwood. I’m writing about it now (the trip was back in February) because I’m pondering a lecture I plan to give on Classics and British India; also, though, because of things said in the context of the 2499th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae to do with the Greek/Persian conflict as an archetypal assertion of (superior) West v. (inferior) East. What I offer here is something to lob into that pot, perhaps, but I hope that what emerges most strongly is the respect of this complete outsider for the longstanding Parsi community in this country, and for the power of its cultural expression.

I return to the simple visual impact of the Parsi cemetery, hard to capture in writing. Here, though, is a clip from The Sphere, a long-discontinued Empire-wide newspaper which on July 13th, 1901 welcomed the consecration of the cemetery (the Parsee Burial Ground had been established in 1862, so this was, I suppose, a reorganization of the space on a more formal basis) with the following report:

From the British Newspaper Archive

At the heart of the cemetery stands the tomb (on the left) of Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia, a leading light in the Bombay cotton industry (The Times April 24, 1952, p.6), and it is a replica of Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, establishing an Achaemenid theme further illustrated in the Sphere report by architecture and architectural decoration evoking Persepolis. The tombs of the Tata family that now mark the boundary to the avenue similarly (the one on the left is very like the Wadia tomb without the elevation):

The symbolism of this style of funerary architecture is powerful and clear, a claim to cultural continuity with the Ancient Persian builders of Persepolis and Pasargadae. The Parsis are an Indian minority, concentrated particularly in Mumbai, who trace their descent from Zoroastrians who left Iran in the wake of the Arab conquest, or that is the tradition. The religion they profess is of enormous antiquity in Iran, and while there is debate whether the Achaemenid kings themselves observed anything strictly definable as Zoroastrianism, Parsis can reasonably claim religious and cultural community with that early period of Persian history.

There is an excellent collection of essays on Zoroastrianism in M. Strausberg and Y. S.-D. Vevaina, The Wiley Companion to Zoroastrianism, which I’m currently part-way through. One of the editors, my colleague Yuhan Vevaina, also replied to a typically ill-informed enquiry from me about Brookwood with some fascinating scholarship on other Achaemenid revivals in modern times, one of them a close parallel to what I’m talking about here.

R. Schmitt and M. Stolper, “An Old Persian cuneiform inscription on a tomb in the Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 136 (2016), 591-601, is a lovely thing, a scholarly edition of a Persian cuneiform text composed for a mausoleum built less than a century ago. The tomb, in an Achaemenid style of architecture and decoration, was constructed, and the text presumably composed, between 1922 and 1924 for Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala, a representative of the interests of the Tata family (to whom he was related) in the United States. It holds Phirozshaw and his wife Mae, who died in 1934 and 1939 respectively, Phirozshaw’s brother Behram (d. 1944), and an infant daughter of the Saklatvalas, Jerbai, who died in 1920 or 1921, and thus, rather poignantly, motivated the construction of the tomb from 1922. The mother of the Saklatvala brothers, also Jerbai, is buried at Brookwood, as is another brother, Shapurji, who was twice MP for Battersea North, representing the Communist Party. Here are the Tata mausolea again, and Jerbai is the reclining figure on the right beyond the stone pergola–Shapurji is also commemorated there:

The New York Saklatvala tomb is another piece of funerary architecture making powerful use of Achaemenid models, then, and there is every reason to believe it drew some inspiration from Brookwood. N. N. Wadia’s tomb doesn’t feature cuneiform, but it does imitate in its main inscription the style of Achaemenid monuments: I AM NOWROSJEE NASHIRWANJEE WADIA/ OF THE ANCIENT ARYAN RACE OF PERSIA/ A CITIZEN OF THE LOYAL TOWN OF BOMBAY/ WHO LIE HERE PEACEFULLY UNDER/ THE FAR OFF SKY OF WIDE FAMED BRITAIN.

What Yuhan also pointed me towards was discussion of “Neo-Achaemenism” within Iran, where it carries a significant extra charge. A lot of attention is given to Persepolis ’71, the spectacular performance staged by the last Shah in 1971, featuring a pageant of Iranian history back to the Achaemenids, to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. A speech by the Shah before Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, with an audience of heads of state from across the world, kicked proceedings off. The Shah was claiming a status for his country in world affairs, a Great Civilisation to compete with others, based on the grandeur and antiquity of Ancient Iranian culture in particular. As such, the narrative presented sidelined the Islamic history of Iran, and that, alongside the expense and general excess of Persepolis ’71, ended up fuelling opposition to the Shah’s regime, leading ultimately to the Islamic Revolution at the end of the decade.

Talinn Grigor reads Persepolis ’71 as a kind of internalized Orientalism, Western perceptions of Iranian history adopted by the Shah of Iran, then fired back at a Western audience as a plea for acceptance. (Something somewhat similar is happening on Afghan banknotes, I suggested a few years back.) In contrast, Neo-Achaemenism in Parsi culture lacks the essential controversy of the Shah’s gesture, there being no profound religious tension in a Parsi identity rooted in Achaemenid Persia. But there are still ways of looking at N. N. Wadia’s tomb that put less emphasis on the archetypal conflict of Greeks with Persians, the original assertion that East is East and West is West, and more on the commonality fostered by a shared focus on these ancient events.

The observation I’d make is a bit similar to Grigor’s, that to take Achaemenid Persia as one’s point of reference intersects with significant British or Western myths of origin. That includes the Persian Wars, of course, but also Alexander the Great, who went to Pasargadae to pay his respects to Cyrus, and burned Persepolis to the ground, but for our purposes was also a figure who played a very important role in British Imperial perception of India, and self-perception of their own role there. Lugubelinus has had a lot to say on this matter in the past, but try this hat for size. In other words, Achaemenid Persia is the image of Iran most familiar, and interesting, to the West, too. What gives this thought some force is that the Parsi community was one of the most successful communities within British India, and the most loyal (as N. N. Wadia says of Bombay), commercially and politically integrated with the British rulers of India to a greater degree than any other, hence (among other things) the strong Parsi presence in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The claim to Achaemenid heritage on Wadia’s tomb and elsewhere in the cemetery is proud and assertive, then, but it also grants the Parsis a role in the grand Imperial story of ancient origins.

We can sharpen that point, though with less precision than I imagined in the first version of this blog. The article in Encyclopaedia Iranica on “PASARGADAE”, by D. Stronach and H. Gopnik stresses, perhaps overstresses, the debate surrounding the identity of the site, and the tomb at the heart of it. The Tomb of Cyrus, the model for N. N. Wadia’s tomb, was not identified as such to general satisfaction, they suggest, until George Nathaniel Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question in 1892, and then the publication of Ernst Herzfeld’s doctoral dissertation in 1908. Curzon devotes twenty scholarly pages of his Persia and the Persian Question to Pasargadae (Vol. 2, 71-90), and fifteen of them to the identity of the Tomb which follows from the first (the evidence is primarily in the Alexander historians): I can offer you the option of a scan from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly the Viceroy’s residence, or from the library of the Archaeological Survey of India. If his identification of the tomb had been as seminal as Gopnik and Strobach suggest, that would be very close in time to the construction of Wadia’s tomb in 1900, and the contribution to an arch-imperialist and indeed Viceroy of India would be interesting.

In actuality, however, as Lindsay Allen has pointed out to me, there is good reason to believe that the tomb at Pasargadae would have been confidently identified as Cyrus’s in certain circles earlier than this. Once again, Talinn Grigor has a very interesting article, “Parsi patronage of the Urheimat”, Getty Research Journal 2 (2010), 53-68, on Indian Parsi involvement in cultural and political developments in Iran in the nineteenth century. Her marvellous survey of what books Parsi boys might have encountered at Elphinstone College in Bombay (which we can certainly assume was N. N. Wadia’s alma mater) includes at least three works that toyed with the idea, or firmly asserted, that it was Cyrus’ tomb, James Morier’s Journeys through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor (1812), Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia (1821), and James Fergusson’s Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis Restored (1851). Here is the building as sketched by Ker Porter:

As Grigor puts it, though, “Educated urban Parsis, who admired and wrote about Iran’s ancient heritage, predominantly read European literature found in British institutions” such as the library of Elphinstone College. It follows then that, even as they recovered their Achaemenid heritage, they did so in works that typically pursued the identification of Pasargadae out of a Western, and classicizing, preoccupation with those places that were relevant to Greek history. Wadia’s proud assertion of independent Persian identity, in other words, also expresses, explicitly in his own voice but implicitly too, a claim to belong. Being mischievous, the Tata purchases of Corus (British Steel) and Jaguar Land Rover might, if we insisted on reading Thermopylae etc. as a charter for perpetual East/West conflict, be Persia’s belated revenge for Salamis. Or you could rather say that for Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia there simply was no ongoing conflict between East and West, Persian and Greek, just the one shared history.

It occurs to me that I’ve pondered before both the power of Zoroastrian imagery, and its capacity to resolve cultural difference: On St. George and his day. The dragon-slayer is not a bad story to share, either.

Deal or no Deal

I’ve just spent a very pleasant week in East Kent, and evidently didn’t manage to switch off entirely during our holiday. Alone of the family I trudged around Richborough Castle, readily imagining the daunting quadrifrons arch topped with a triumphal statue that welcomed visitors to the province of Britannia and marked the start of Watling Street; and its demolition a couple of centuries later when the current structure, a fortress against Saxon raiding parties, replaced the previously bustling town in the troubled Third Century.

Richborough, in antiquity Rutupiae and variants, could stand for Britain as a whole (Lucan 6.67), and was famous in its own right for oysters (Juvenal 4.141), as Whitstable just along the Kent coast is today. It was probably where part of the invading army in AD 43 originally came ashore, an event that would have fixed its status as the official gateway to Britannia.

But there had been earlier Roman invasions of Britain, of course, those undertaken by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, and since we happened to be staying close to the front at Deal and Walmer, historically leading candidates for Caesar’s landing spots, I found myself also pondering where they had actually been. In particular, I found THIS, an article in Current Archaeology from a couple of years ago that got some attention in the newspapers at the time. Its essential claim is that interesting archaeological discoveries at Ebbsfleet, some way north of Deal, point to that location as Caesar’s landing place in 54 (it expresses no opinion about 55). This sent me back to Caesar’s account of his expeditions in Books 4 and 5 of his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, and I found myself unconvinced. I’ll set out here what I found unpersuasive about the Ebbsfleet theory, a lot of it relating to Caesar’s own account of things, and maybe also to the importance of studying texts as texts.

Let’s start with that account. Caesar landed in Cantium, Kent, twice, in August 55 and a year later in July 54; his accounts of both invasions are at BG 4.20-36 and 5.5-23. The first invasion, little more than a reconnaissance mission, involved fierce conflict at the point of landing without any significant penetration beyond the shore, while the second saw the Roman forces marching as far as Cassivellaunus’ capital beyond the Thames somewhere in Hertfordshire.

The descriptions of the actual landings are what are at issue here, though, and they are as follows:

In 55 Caesar’s warships and transport craft cross without difficulty from the Pas de Calais toward the White Cliffs, but Caesar realises that a landing there would leave them badly exposed to attack (British warriors were seen massed on the heights), so they move up the coast (“about seven miles”, 4.23.6) and land where the coast is apertum et planum (4.23.6), “open and flat”, both adjectives implicitly in contrast with what he had faced at the cliffs. The landing is opposed by the British and there is fighting on the shore before the Romans can establish themselves. In 54 Caesar sets off with a much larger fleet (over 800 boats in total, he claims, at 5.8.6), but the wind drops and he is carried north with the tide. When the tide turns, and by dint of hard rowing, an unopposed landing is achieved (the British apparently daunted by the enormity of the incoming fleet) at “that part of the island where he had learned the previous summer that disembarkation was best” (5.8.3). The shore at this point is described as molle atque apertum (5.9.1).

The archaeological discovery at Ebbsfleet, posited as Caesar’s landing point in 54, was a large enclosure (encompassing more than 20 hectares), bounded by a defensive ditch. Aside from similarities to Roman camps found elsewhere, and conclusions drawn from a quite speculative reconstruction of Caesar’s indirect route to the British shore in 54, the key find was the tip of a Roman pilum located among pottery of a mid-first-century BC date. That, combined with Caesar’s account of the local topography, including his landing at a “sandy, open shore” (the shore at Deal and southwards is certainly not sandy), makes the case for a landing at Ebbsfleet, I think, but do please read the piece for yourselves.

We probably need a map, and here are two: one lifted from Tony Wilmott’s excellent English Heritage guide to Richborough and Reculver, and after that (since, as the first indicates, the landscape has altered dramatically since Roman times) a contemporary snippet from Google Earth for comparison.

On Tony Wilmott’s map, Ebbsfleet is the red dot furthest south on the Isle of Thanet (on the other map, it’s roughly where Cliffsend is); on the first map the east coast extends only as far south as Deal, whereas the second takes in Deal, Walmer, Kingsdown and the northern edge of the White Cliffs. In Caesar’s time modern Deal would mark the top of the long shingle coastline (though extended by spits to the north) that stretched down to Kingsdown and the White Cliffs (again, alone of my family, I walked the length of this ancient coastline a couple of days ago…).

My feeling is that the positive case for Ebbsfleet (always bearing in mind that it is only the 54 invasion at issue) is not especially strong, but I’ll concentrate on my negative thoughts. One is that a landing at Ebbsfleet would place the Roman troops on the Isle of Thanet when it was still an island. To access the interior (as he subsequently does), Caesar would have had to get his forces across a significant water barrier, the Wantsum Channel, but there is no reference to such a thing in the Commentaries, and it would be most unlike Caesar to fail to mention such a singular achievement. Another consideration is that Caesar’s account strongly implies that the two landings took place in essentially the same location, both explicitly (5.8.3) and by the almost identical language he uses to describe the nature of the shoreline in both instances. If they were at essentially the same spot, that rules out Ebbsfleet as the landing place in 54, since the location in 55, seven Roman miles or so from a point off the White Cliffs, places us somewhere between Deal and Kingsdown and nowhere near Ebbsfleet.

The third point concerns the translation of Caesar’s description of the shoreline. “Sandy, open shore” is the Loeb translation of litus molle atque apertum (5.9.1), with which we can combine the apertum et planum litus of 4.23.6. The Ebbsfleet theory sees this as a good description of Pegwell Bay, the little that remains of the Wantsum Channel. But the word mollis here is less likely to mean “sandy”, “soft underfoot”, than “easy”, “gentle” (i.e. “not steep”), “accessible”. The “traditional” location for the landings, somewhere on the long shingle beach that now extends from Kingsdown to beyond Sandwich (and in Caesar’s day from Kingsdown as far as Deal), is admirably “open” (apertum) but also molle in the sense of “easy of access” and planum in the sense of “level” (especially in comparison to the cliffs further along the coast). For me all of this makes it overwhelmingly likely that this stretch of coast is the real location of Caesar’s landing point.

Here are some images of that shingle coastline south of Deal, the shoreline running south as seen from Deal pier on the left, and the view from Kingsdown toward the White Cliffs on the right. In Caesar’s day the coastline would be further west, but essentially similar in character, we must assume:

An incidental consideration is that the stretch of water from Kingsdown to Deal, known as The Downs, has historically been a place for ships to shelter in the relative protection of the Goodwin Sands a few miles offshore. The unusually calm character of the sea along this coast is one of its most appealing features today, I can add, but it may also possibly be part of what Caesar was pointing to in molle. In any case, its general calmness does not preclude severe storms at times, and Caesar’s fleet was seriously damaged in both 55 (4.28-9) and 54 (5.10). The Goodwin Sands are more familiar as a menace to seafarers than a boon, of course.

All in all, then, I think Walmer is justified in having this memorial on its beach. The inscription is eroded, and a couple walking past when I was there were undecided whether it was Caesar or St. Augustine or “some other Roman”, but it reads, “THE FIRST ROMAN INVASION OF BRITAIN LED BY JULIUS CAESAR LANDED NEAR HERE LV BC.”

I think we can confidently extend that to LIV BC, too.