Saturday 19 December 2020

The Christmas stories: Matthew vs. Luke

Christmas isn’t adapted from pagan festivals, but that doesn’t mean the traditional stories of Jesus’ birth are a straightforward historical matter. The traditional Nativity story isn’t a replica of any ancient source. It’s a mash-up.

In this cinematic Nativity scene (The Nativity story, 2006) the traditional elements come from five separate sources — only two of them in the New Testament. The magi and the star are from Matthew 2.9–12, the shepherds from Luke 2.8–20, the cave from Protevangelium of James 18–21, the oxen from the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 3.2, and Mary’s blue robe from 5th century Byzantine art. (Also, Joseph and Mary are both played by Star wars actors ... but I guess that doesn’t count.)

Previously I’ve written some polemical pieces rejecting the notion that Christmas has pagan origins (1 2 3). But there’s a fine line between polemic and apologetic —

  • Polemic: ‘Some party-poopers like to claim that Christmas is pagan, but they’re talking nonsense.’
  • Apologetic: ‘The reason the party-poopers are wrong is because the Bible is 100% literally true.’

Polemics can be fun, but I don’t want to act the part of an apologist. So this year, I’ll redress the balance.

First, I’d better repeat the main point of my earlier pieces. Modern Christmas customs aren’t pagan. What they are is: modern. Secular Christmas customs in the English-speaking world are mostly Lutheran in origin (trees, presents, Santa, Advent wreaths and calendars) and were adopted in England and America in the 19th century. The only ancient bits are the bits that happen in church.

So let’s look at a genuinely ancient bit: the stories of Jesus’ birth.

Stories (plural)

Yes, stories. We have two primary sources on the Nativity, Matthew 1.18–2.23 and Luke 1.26–2.52, and they’re totally different. They actively contradict each another in certain respects. Two methodological principles:

  • We don’t take Christian traditions for granted. We don’t assume that Matthew and Luke are telling a single story which is 100% true, and that our job is to explain away the inconsistencies.
  • Conversely, we don’t adopt the New Atheist strategy of dismissing everything biblical out of hand. Good data or bad data, Matthew and Luke are still data.

I’d better add before we carry on that the overall thrust of my argument here is totally uncontroversial among biblical scholars. Here’s Raymond Brown, in his classic study of the Nativity stories (1993: 35–36):

Commentators of times past have harmonized these different details into a consecutive narrative ... But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we have now? ... This leads us to the observation that the two narratives are not only different — they are contrary to each other in a number of details. ... Indeed, close analysis of the infancy narratives makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical.

(Brown was a scholar who was also a Christian, for what that’s worth. The book even has an official imprimatur.)

Now, let’s put the stories side by side. Notice how disconnected they are:

Episode Matthew Luke
Reign of Herod or Archelaus: Angel visits Mary (the Annunciation).   1.26–38
Mary visits Elizabeth; birth of John the Baptist.   1.39–80
Reign of Herod: Engagement of Joseph and Mary; Joseph plans to end engagement because of pregnancy. 1.18–19  
Angel visits Joseph in dream, tells him to go ahead with marriage. 1.20–25  
(Fulfilment of prophecy: Isaiah 7.14.) 1.22–23  
Governorship of Quirinius: Quirinius conducts a census.   2.1–2
Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem.   2.3–5
Birth of Jesus; no room at the inn.   2.6–7
The shepherds hear the news and visit family in Bethlehem.   2.8–20
Circumcision of Jesus.   2.21
Family stops off in Jerusalem to present Jesus at temple; episode of Simeon and Anna.   2.22–38
Reign of Herod: Magi visit Herod in Jerusalem. 2.1–7  
(Fulfilment of prophecy: LXX Micah 5.1, LXX II Kings 5.2.) 2.5–6  
Magoi go to Bethlehem, offer gifts, then return home without visiting Herod. 2.8–12  
Angel visits Joseph in dream to warn him of Herod’s rage; family flees to Egypt. 2.13–15  
(Fulfilment of prophecy: Hosea 11.1.) 2.15  
Herod’s rage: massacre of the innocents. 2.16–18  
(Fulfilment of prophecy: LXX Jeremiah 38.15.) 2.17–18  
Reign of Archelaus: family returns from Egypt after Herod’s death. 2.19–21  
Family doesn’t return home to Judaea, for fear of Archelaus, but instead goes to Nazareth in Galilee (since Galilee was no longer under Jerusalem’s control). 2.22–23  
Governorship of Quirinius: Family carries on home to Nazareth.   2.39–40

The other two canonical gospels, Mark and John, add some information about Jesus’ home life, but nothing about his birth. They corroborate Luke’s story that Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth, in Galilee. (Or maybe Capernaum. But definitely not Bethlehem, as it is in Matthew.) Jesus has a mother, brothers, and sisters in Mark 3.31–32; Mark 6.3 gives him four named brothers, multiple sisters, and a mother named Mary; and depending on the textual variant you choose, either Jesus’ father is a builder, or Jesus himself is. John 7.3–5 refers to Jesus’ brothers, 7.41–42 addresses the inconsistency between Jesus’ home in Galilee and the fact that the Messiah is supposed to come from Bethlehem, and 19.25–26 refers to his mother and maternal aunt. A few other snippets in Paul’s epistles and in Josephus give some further independent testimony about Jesus’ siblings.

(Some apologists reject all of the references to siblings, wanting Mary to remain perpetually a virgin. They do this either by interpreting the word ‘sibling’ metaphorically every time it appears, or by making up a story that Joseph had a previous marriage, so that Jesus had some half-siblings. If you don’t start out taking perpetual virginity for granted in advance, the mental acrobatics look pretty silly.)

Anyway, while Jesus’ family life has some interest in its own right, these passages don’t have anything much to do with the Nativity stories. For the Nativity, it’s all about Matthew and Luke. And that isn’t encouraging: no element of either story shows up in the earliest Christian texts, that is, in Paul’s letters or in the earliest gospel, Mark. Right from the word go we’ve got every reason to think of the Nativity stories as two relatively late impositions on earlier traditions and beliefs.

Matthew vs. Luke

To summarise: Joseph’s dreams, the magi, the star, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt appear in Matthew, and only in Matthew. John the Baptist’s birth, the census, the shepherds, and the presentation at the temple are in Luke, and only in Luke. These are not stories designed to reflect a single underlying series of events.

There are only four significant points of agreement:

  • the names of Jesus’ (mortal) parents are Joseph and Mary;
  • Joseph is descended from king David;
  • the birth takes place in Bethlehem;
  • by the end of the story the family is living in Nazareth.

But they differ wildly on the circumstances of these points.

Note. Brown 1993: 34–35 adds a few more points of agreement, but some are just incidental (e.g. that Jesus is born after Joseph and Mary begin living together), while others are tendentious: see below on the angels’ announcements.
  • Date. The timeline of who was in control of Judaea and Galilee at any given time is quite straightforward:
    • Herod the Great: king until his death, in either 4 BCE or 1 BCE.
    • Herod Archelaus: tetrarch of Judaea, but not Galilee, from Herod the Great’s death until being ousted by the Romans in 6 CE.
    • Quirinius: Roman governor from 6 CE onwards, when the entire region became part of the province of Syria.
    Each story dates itself perfectly clearly. In Matthew Jesus is born under Herod’s rule, and the family moves to Galilee in Archelaus’ time, since Galilee was no longer under Jerusalem’s control at that time. Luke’s story begins in the time of either Herod or Archelaus, and Jesus is born after Quirinius becomes governor. (The author of Luke may have been unaware of Archelaus’ existence: at 1.5 he calls Quirinius’ predecessor ‘king Herod’.) That is: in Matthew, Jesus is born in Herod’s reign, perhaps in 4 BCE; in Luke he’s born under Quirinius, in 6 CE.
  • Ancestry. Both gospels give patrilineal genealogies that make Joseph a descendant of king David (Matthew 1.1–17; Luke 3.23–38). But the genealogies are totally different. If they’re both true, then Joseph had two fathers.
  • Hometown. In Luke, the family lives at Nazareth in Galilee, and their trip to Bethlehem in Judaea is a there-and-back affair. In Matthew they live in Bethlehem, and only move to Galilee to evade Archelaus’ clutches.
  • What happens after the birth. In Matthew, after the birth, the family flees to Egypt to escape the anger of the king in Jerusalem. In Luke, the family goes straight home to Galilee, popping in to Jerusalem on their way.
  • The visit to Jerusalem. When the family presents their baby at the temple in Luke, the idea is clearly that they’re visiting Jerusalem on their way home. In Matthew’s timeline, this means the family is making a leisurely visit to Jerusalem under the nose of Herod the Great, exactly the place that the angel tells Joseph to run away from. The only way to harmonise these would be to have the family go to the temple in Jerusalem, then go back to Bethlehem for no reason, and only then get visited by the magi and flee to Egypt.
  • The angel(s). Matthew’s angel visits Joseph twice, in dreams, and visits Mary zero times; Luke’s angels visit Mary and the shepherds once each, in person, and Joseph zero times.
  • Prophecies. Matthew links the Nativity to five passages from the Hebrew Bible, and treats them as prophecies that are fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. Luke’s Nativity doesn’t feature any prophecies.
The routes taken by Jesus’ parents in Matthew (red) and Luke (blue).

In some of these points the two stories actively contradict each other: the date, and the family’s movements. In other respects there isn’t an explicit contradiction, but equally, there’s no reason to imagine they’re telling a single story without any overlap. Both stories have an angel or angels declare that the Holy Spirit will cause Mary to become pregnant, and that the child’s name will be Jesus. But they say it to different people, in different situations, and they say different things about the child’s future. If you don’t start with the assumption that every incident is true, the obvious conclusion is that Matthew and Luke both wanted to have an angel element, but they baked it into their stories in very different ways.

Internal problems in Luke

The census (1). Quirinius’ census (Luke 2.1–2) was real, but it wasn’t a census ‘of the whole world’. It was confined to Judaea. Judaea became part of the Roman province of Syria in 6 CE, so the new governor, Quirinius, conducted the census to establish taxation information. The census is described by Josephus (Jewish antiquities 18.1) and attested in an inscription from Beirut (CIL iii.6687, line 9). There’s no evidence of any historical census ‘of the whole world’, and such a thing would be totally pointless.

The census (2). Luke’s premise is that the census required Joseph to go to the hometown of one of his ancestors. Again, this is intrinsically implausible, and there’s no evidence of the Romans ever requiring such a crazy thing. Even if they did, which ancestor’s hometown are you meant to visit? Joseph’s supposed descent from David goes back forty generations, according to Luke 3.23–31! Was he to visit the hometown of every one of them?

The presentation at the temple. Yeah, this wasn’t a thing. The sacrifice of two turtle-doves or pigeons was real, associated with ritual purification no less than forty days after childbirth (Leviticus 12.2–8). But the sacrifice of firstborn animals, and redemption of the firstborn human child, was unrelated (Exodus 13.11–14). The combo in Luke must be designed to echo yet another incident in the Hebrew Bible, Hannah dedicating Samuel as a baby (1 Samuel 1.22–28) — except that Samuel was left to stay at the temple permanently. In other words this isn’t a standard procedure, it’s a mash-up of multiple unrelated bits of the Hebrew Bible.

The date. As I mentioned above, Luke 2.1–2 puts Jesus’ birth during Quirinius’ governorship, in 6 or 7 CE. But just one chapter later we get a totally different timeline. Luke 3.1–3 sets the baptism of Jesus in the 15th year of the reign of emperor Tiberius, and 3.23 tells us that he was 30 at the time. Now, Tiberius became emperor in September 14 CE: the 15th year of his reign was 28–29 CE. This means that as far as Luke 3 is concerned, Jesus was born in 3–2 BCE — at least seven years earlier than in Luke 2. This is a decent match for the timeline in Matthew, as it happens. But not for Luke’s own Nativity story. (Some scholars suspect that Luke’s Nativity story is a relatively late addition to the gospel, which would explain the inconsistency: more about this below.)

The historical birth of Jesus

So, is there anything historical in either Nativity story?

One strategy could be to argue that, because they’re independent sources, the elements where they do agree ought to be the bits where they’re most likely to be historical. There are major problems, though.

For one thing, no trace of either Nativity story shows up in Paul or in Mark, as I mentioned earlier. There’s no reason to think any of it represents early traditions or beliefs about Jesus’ birth.

In addition, there are questions over the text of Luke. It has sometimes been suspected that Luke’s Nativity story is an interpolation, written decades after the rest of the gospel. That theory would explain why Luke’s Nativity has almost nothing in common with Matthew’s. It would explain why Luke 3 feels very introduction-ish: it opens with an elaborate introduction pinpointing in time the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the genealogy of Jesus doesn’t appear until chapter 3.

Well, maybe. Actually I’m not convinced. There are some striking thematic links between Mary’s and Simeon’s songs in Luke 1–2 and the rest of the gospel, which suggests that they’re integral. Also, I’ve tried several basic stylometric tests (without being an expert in stylometric analysis, mind), and the tests consistently group the three synoptic gospels together, and John separately. When it comes to the Nativity stories, though, the tests don’t see much difference. In terms of authorial style, the Nativities consistently come out pretty close to the rest of their respective gospels. By contrast, the same tests easily detect a passage which is known to be an interpolation: the episode of the woman caught in adultery in John 7.53–8.11.

Stylometric tests of the four canonical gospels conducted in RStudio with the package ‘stylo’. The text was prepared by stripping all accents, case, and punctuation; converting iota subscript to iota adscript; transliterating into the Roman alphabet using Beta Code; and dividing the text into chapters. Two passages known to be interpolations were separated from their chapters, John 7.53–8.11 and the long ending of Mark (shown here as Mk_16b). The tests shown here plot the 200 most frequent 3 word sequences (left) and 4 word sequences (right), and maximise the distance between each chapter using principal component analysis. Notice that the chapters of John (in red) are grouped separately from the three synoptic gospels, indicating differences in language, authorial style, or content.

Now, I’m no expert in stylometry. So I’ll just say that it isn’t self-evident to me that Luke’s Nativity story is an interpolation. That doesn’t mean there’s a shred of truth in the story, mind.

Here’s my pick for the elements of the Nativity stories that accurately reflect historical reality:

  • The names of Jesus’ parents were Joseph and Mary;
  • Jesus grew up in Galilee (there’s actually some doubt about whether his home was in Nazareth, but it’s too much of a distraction: let’s just let that slide for now).

But the Bethlehem setting can’t stand. Both stories feel a pressing need to have the birth take place in Bethlehem, but the transparent falseness of Luke’s version — the census — indicates that Bethlehem’s role is an invention. Not a late invention: it does appear in two independent Nativity stories, after all, and it’s there in John 7.41–42 too:

But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’

The reference to ‘scripture’ is to Micah 5.1, which Matthew quotes.

It looks like early Christians genuinely did wrestle with the fact that Jesus did not come from Bethlehem. Bethlehem was introduced into some of the stories very early on, as a way of addressing that fact. So three of the gospels solve the problem in three different ways. In Matthew Jesus’ family did indeed live in Bethlehem, but moved to Galilee (with Archelaus’ pursuit as a spurious excuse); in Luke they make a field-trip to Bethlehem (with Quirinius’ census as a spurious excuse); and in John Bethlehem isn’t involved at all, so we see people debating over the matter.

Of the three, John’s picture is probably the most true to reality.

The mash-up effect

The mash-ups that you see in Christmas cards, in Advent calendars, and in films like Ben Hur, The Nativity story, and The star, is not a new thing. It didn’t suddenly pick up speed with the advent of biblical literalism in the 19th century. The idea of combining Matthew and Luke into a single story, inconsistencies and all, goes back to the 2nd century, and a non-canonical text called the Protevangelium of James.

Another mash-up (The star, 2017): Matthew’s star, magi, and rage of Herod; Luke’s census and shepherds; Septuagint Habakkuk’s cluster of animals.

In James (see Elliott 1993: 46–67 for an accessible translation) the problem of the census taking place nearly a decade after Herod’s death is just ignored. But the author realised perfectly well that the presentation at the temple can’t possibly happen while Herod is raging. Instead, Herod murders the high priest Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, and Simeon succeeds him, whereupon it is prophesied that Simeon will get to see the Messiah one day (James 23–24). Several elements are added, apparently out of thin air: a lengthy account of Mary’s conception, birth, and youth spent in the temple (James 1–8, 12); the birth takes place in a cave, and time stops at the moment of Jesus’ birth (18–19); there’s a midwife; and a woman named Salome tests Mary’s perpetual virginity by checking whether her hymen is intact after childbirth (19–20).

This may sound weird and quaint, but of such stuff are traditions formed. Jesus’ birth is still sometimes imagined as taking place in a cave, instead of a stable. The Protevangelium of James is where that trope comes from. James omits the prophecies that take up so much of Matthew’s story, and that does make me wonder whether the author had an earlier version of Matthew where the prophecies had not yet been inserted; but a respected biblical scholar has assured me that it’s unlikely that such a version of Matthew ever existed.

Anyway, the point is that the mash-up effect is key to how people approach the story of the Nativity. Story elements pile up around the key moment of Jesus’ birth, in much the same way that secular customs pile up around the Christmas festival. One thing leads to another. We can’t put much trust in the historicity of the Nativity stories, but it’s still very interesting to investigate the traces of how they grew and developed over time.


  • Brown, R. E. 1993 [1977]. The birth of the Messiah. A commentary on the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, updated edition. Doubleday.
  • Elliott, J. K. 1993. The apocryphal New Testament. A collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Clarendon Press. (Protevangelium of James at 46–67)

Thursday 29 October 2020

Cannabis use in ancient Greece and Rome

On Friday we should know the result of a referendum held in New Zealand to decide whether cannabis should be legalised. The referendum was held in conjunction with the 2020 general election. Around 82.5% of eligible voters participated, but we’re still waiting on the counting of special votes -- nearly 17% of all votes cast.

It’s always been daft to restrict such a useful plant, especially when its demonised recreational use is much more harmless than either tobacco or alcohol. (It was only ever banned in the first place for racist motives.) In spite of that, polling suggests the referendum is unlikely to pass. In the meantime, let’s have a look at its use in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

Hemp seeds and leaves: in Greco-Roman antiquity, it was mainly just the seeds that were consumed. Cannabis wasn’t smoked until the modern era. (Source: PNG all, CC 4.0 BY-NC)

If you bring up the subject of cannabis in antiquity, be prepared to have Herodotus quoted at you every single time, usually inaccurately. Here’s Wikipedia on the subject:

The oldest written record of cannabis usage is the Greek historian Herodotus’s reference to the central Eurasian Scythians taking cannabis steam baths. His (c. 440 BCE) Histories records, ‘The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed [presumably, flowers], and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Greek vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.’ Classical Greeks and Romans also used cannabis.
‘Cannabis’, Wikipedia, Oct. 2020

OK, here’s what has gone right in this report:

  • Herodotus does indeed report on Scythians burning hemp seeds (not flowers) while under a cloth and getting high off the fumes.

... and that’s it for the positives. Everything else here is terrible.

  • Herodotus isn’t talking about ‘central Eurasia’: that would imply Kazakhstan or thereabouts. He’s talking about the region inland from Greek colonies on the Black Sea, that is, Ukraine.
  • ‘Steam baths’ is a bit misleading. He does refer to the hemp seeds on hot stones giving off an ἀτμίς ‘vapour’, but this is in the context of talking about the Scythians’ purification rituals. It’s about religious cleanliness, not physical cleanliness.
  • The Histories date to the 420s BCE, not 440. A minor point, but still.
  • The article cites its source as ... the entirety of the Histories. That’s about 260,000 words to search through, or 500–600 pages. Good luck finding the passage! (It’s 4.73–75, by the way.)
  • ‘Presumably flowers’: no, that’s pure imagination. Herodotus very explicitly refers to seeds. Nearly all human consumption in antiquity was of the seeds.
  • ‘Scyths’? You’d never guess that 21st century translations exist, would you.
  • ‘Shout for joy’ is a mistranslation: ὠρύονται means ‘howl’ (like dogs).
  • The last sentence, ‘Classical Greeks and Romans also used cannabis’ (as a mind-altering drug), is given without citing any evidence. There’s a good reason for that. It’s because there is no evidence.

Yes, that’s right: there’s no evidence of anyone using cannabis to get high in the ancient Greco-Roman world. I’m afraid an awful lot of the argumentation you find from people like Carl Ruck and D. C. A. Hillman is wishful thinking, with little interest in petty concerns like evidence. (They usually focus on harder or more dangerous drugs anyway — opium, ethylene, ergot.)

For the Greeks and Romans, there’s no evidence for the deliberate use of cannabis as a mind-altering substance. The main reason is because (a) they were mainly interested in the seeds, and (b) the idea of smoking the buds wasn’t invented until the modern era. There’s one ancient report that eating too many seeds can affect the mind — but only as a side-effect of a common food item. There’s no suggestion of deliberate use as a psychoactive agent.

Chlöe Swarbrick, a New Zealand politician who has been a vocal supporter of the 2020 cannabis referendum. Up until the October 2020 election Swarbrick held the Drug Law Reform portfolio for the Green Party; at the time of writing she is (provisionally) the MP designate for the electorate of Auckland Central. (Source: New Zealand Herald)

Let’s refine how we frame this. The Wikipedia claim, ‘Greeks and Romans used cannabis’, has a very different meaning depending on whether we’re talking about smoking joints, or weaving cloth out of hemp. We can distinguish four basic categories of how people use psychoactive plants:

  • uses not relating to psychoactive effects (like food, or industrial goods);
  • medicinal use;
  • recreational use;
  • religious use.

Take alcohol, for example. The ancient Greco-Roman world gives us copious evidence of alcohol use in all four of these categories. For opium, we find ancient sources talking about medical uses frequently (and hardly ever about any other use). What’s the situation with cannabis?

Well, we have good evidence of cannabis use in the first category. People ate hemp seeds, either by themselves (shelled, of course), or as an ingredient in other dishes. There were heaps of industrial uses, including rope-making, textiles, hunting nets, and shipbuilding (for details see Brunner 1973: 348–349, 351–354). Hemp is an incredibly useful plant, and it’s insane that its use has become so restricted in the modern era.

The seeds are mentioned as an ingredient in sweet dishes in particular. A fragment of the comic playwright Ephippus mentions them in a rambling list of delicacies (fr. 13 Kock).

and after dinner ...
mnous [meaning unknown], wheat-cakes, fruit, nuts,
milk, hemp seeds, cockles, juice,
and Zeus’ brain.

(No, we don’t take this as evidence that people ‘ate Zeus’ brain’ symbolically or anything like that. It’s a comedy.)

Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century CE, does mention that the stalk and branches, too, could be used as a vegetable (olera; NH 19.175). But not an appealing one. An epigram in the Greek anthology, by the 1st century BCE poet Automedon, compares them to old cabbage (11.325):

Yesterday I dined on a goat’s foot, and a ten-day-old
     quince-coloured cabbage stalk, like cannabis.
I won’t mention the person who invited me. He’s sharp-tempered,
     and I’m scared he might invite me back again.

For the second category, medicinal use, we have a variety of evidence: for full details see Butrica (2008). The Byzantine Geoponica describes the use of cannabis as an insect repellent, and a preparation of cannabis ash and honey as a remedy for ulcers (Geoponica 13.11.4, 16.15.2). The 1st century CE medical writer Dioscorides, after mentioning its industrial use and its unpleasant smell, states (On medical material 3.148)

It has ... a round-shaped seed which is edible, and when eaten in excess diminishes sexual potency. The juice of a fresh seed is suited to treating earaches, administered by eardrops.

Notice that he’s talking only about the seeds. We see the same tendency in other medical sources. No one tried burning or smoking cannabis buds, which grow on seedless plants.

In November 2018 Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, spoke out in favour of the 2020 cannabis referendum, and campaigned actively in 2020. Since 2009, Clark has been on the United Nations Global Commission on Drug Policy, among several other United Nations roles. In August 2020 she was appointed Chair of the Commision. (Source: YouTube)

The most suggestive snippet comes to us from Galen, the greatest medical writer of antiquity. He repeats Dioscorides’ claim that excessive consumption reduces sexual potency, and that the juice of the fresh seed can be used to treat earache (On the combination and effect of single medicaments §5, xii p. 8 Kühn). Elsewhere he states that the seeds cause stomach aches and head aches. But straight after that he adds something about their intoxicating effect — the only ancient source other than Herodotus to do so (On the effects of foods 1.34, vi p. 550 Kühn):

Even so, some people eat (the seed), toasting it with other sweets. By ‘sweets’ I refer to things eaten after dinner to induce enjoyment of drinking. The seed has a moderate warming effect, and so, when a large amount is taken in a short space, it overcomes the head, filling it with a warm and drug-like vapour.

Galen didn’t know THC by name, of course. And note that he’s still only talking about using the seeds, not buds or other parts of the plant.

Some possible hints appear in Oreibasius’ Synopsis for Eunapius, written in the 4th century CE. He says cannabis prevents flatulence (4.21), but he also includes it in a list of things that ‘harm the head’ (4.20). Elsewhere Oreibasius says cannabis has a warming effect, as does Galen ... but bear in mind that ‘warmth’ isn’t a metaphor, but a technical term in ancient Greek medicine. This list isn’t made with any psychoactive effects in mind (4.31):

Things that have a warming effect: boiled wheat and bread made from it; marsh water; oats; fenugreek; juniper berries; sweet dates; sweet apples; sesame; hedge mustard (which also has a drying effect); cannabis seed; sweet grapes ...

We haven’t addressed the fourth category: the religious angle. There’s no evidence for religious use in the Greco-Roman world. But there is plenty of archaeological evidence to confirm Herodotus’ report of Scythian ritual burning of cannabis seeds. There have been finds of cultivated cannabis seeds in Ukraine at Kaminske (Pashkevich 1999: 600) and Nemirov, and in the Kuban between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (Corcella 2007: 635).

Archaeological finds matching the physical details of Herodotus’ description of Scythian religious practice, from Pazyryk, mound 2 (5th–3rd century BCE). Bottom right, a pot containing hemp seeds; top right, a censer with stones for heating the seeds; left, the frame to hold up the 45 cm tent over the censer. (Source: Artamonov 1965: 108)

Pride of place, though, goes to a find at Pazyryk, in Siberia, close to the Mongolian border. There in 1947 Soviet archaeologists found, in a burial mound probably dating to the 5th–3rd centuries BCE, cannabis seeds along with equipment suited to exactly the ritual that Herodotus describes. This is a long, long way from any place that Herodotus visited — 4000 km from Ukraine — but Scythian culture was so widespread that it is generally accepted as reasonable to infer a comparable ritual among Siberian Scythians.

Cannabis took a long time to take off. People didn’t smoke it until the modern era. Prior to that, the psychoactive nature of the plant wasn’t universally used: it wasn’t even universally known. Like all crops, cannabis had to spread.

Even in Herodotus, the phrasing of his report is sometimes taken to imply that cannabis wasn’t all that familiar to his readers: it may have been a newcomer. One archaeologist puts the arrival of cannabis in the Greek world in the Hellenistic period, that is, more than a century after Herodotus (Kroll 2000: 67). I’d say its presence in Ephippus’ list of after-dinner treats puts it a bit earlier than that. But it took a long time for cannabis to be understood. For that reason alone it’s no surprise that recreational and religious use are rare, or even non-existent, in the evidence we have from ancient cultures.


  • Artamonov, M. I. 1965. ‘Frozen tombs of the Scythians.’ Scientific American 212.5: 100–109.
  • Brunner, T. F. 1973. ‘Marijuana in ancient Greece and Rome? The literary evidence.’ Bulletin of the history of medicine 47.4: 344–355.
  • Butrica, J. L. 2008. ‘The medical use of cannabis among the Greeks and Romans.’ Journal of cannabis therapeutics 2.2: 51–70.
  • Corcella, A. 2007. ‘Book IV.’ In: Asheri, D.; Lloyd, A.; Corcella, A. A commentary on Herodotus books I–IV. Oxford UP. 543–721.
  • Kroll, H. 2000. ‘Agriculture and arboriculture in mainland Greece at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.’ Pallas 52: 61–68.
  • Merlin, M. D. 2003. ‘Archaeological evidence for the tradition of psychoactive plant use in the Old World.’ Economic botany 57.3: 295–323.
  • Pashkevich, G. 1999. ‘New evidence for plant exploitation by the Scythian tribes during the Early Iron Age in the Ukraine.’ Acta palaeobotanica Suppl. 2: 597–601.
  • Zohary, D.; Hopf, M.; Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of plants in the Old World, 4th edition. Oxford UP.

Monday 14 September 2020

The classical elements

Earth; Fire; Air; Water. Long ago, Empedocles theorised that four elements lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when Democritus attacked. Only Aristotle could stop him. But when the world needed it most, modern chemistry was still several thousand years from being invented ...

Empedocles’ poems don’t survive. But Aristotle’s Physics and On coming to be and passing away does. As a result, a number of people have got it into their heads that Aristotle was reponsible for the idea of the classical elements. Here’s a snippet from a 2002 lecture by a Florida State physics professor about ‘Aristotelian’ physics:

  • everything on Earth made of (mixture of) four elements: earth, water, air, fire
  • every element has a “natural place”:
    • earth at center of Earth,
    • water above earth,
    • air above water,
    • fire above air;
  • celestial bodies (stars, planets, Moon) made from fifth element, “ether”, which also fills space between them; ether is perfect, incorruptible, weightless; ...

This slide has ended up being cited by the Wikipedia article on ‘Aristotelian physics’ as the supreme authority on the classical elements.

Now, it isn’t completely made up — in the limited sense that some people, including even some specialists, do claim some of these things.

For example Werner Jaeger (1948), Aristotle. Fundamentals of the history of his development, Oxford, 143ff. One report on a lost Aristotelean work refers to the elements earth, water, and air, then refers to the fourth as Latin ardor. Jaeger confidently translates the word as ‘aether’ (149).

But you won’t find any of it in Aristotle himself.

  • Aristotle never says that all matter is made of (a mixture of) earth, water, air, and fire.
  • He doesn’t talk of elements having a ‘natural place’.
  • He doesn’t add aether as a ‘fifth element’.

The thing about aether is probably the biggest one, because I have seen it repeated in so many places. So let’s just repeat. Aristotle doesn’t treat aether as a fifth element.

Here’s what Aristotle does say.

  • He uses Empedocles’ four elements as categories of material qualities, rather than substances.
  • He also refers to Democritus’ model of matter, which is based on atoms, not elements, and which allows an unlimited variety of fundamental substances.
  • He accepts and rejects aspects of both models. He suggests that matter is differentiated by the presence or absence of various properties, rather than the substances it’s made of; and he’s willing to go along with Anaxagoras’ idea that every homogeneous material is an element, to the extent that each homogeneous material corresponds to a unique set of properties.
  • He talks of materials having a natural motion depending on their properties: hot things (including fire and air) tend to rise, that is, move away from the centre of the earth, while cold things (including earth and water) tend to move towards the centre.
  • And, in a discussion that has nothing to do with elements, he does say that the sky uniquely has a circular natural motion — the sky as a single thing, that is, not individual heavenly bodies — and he borrows the ancient name ‘aether’ to refer to this unique motion.

Now a lot of this is wrong of course. Atoms are real; natural motion isn’t a thing, but buoyancy is; it’s the earth that’s rotating, not the sky. But that’s no excuse for misrepresenting Aristotle. His theory of matter is about four physical properties, not about four substances. And nowhere does he declare a canon of five elements, with aether as the fifth.

He even calls Empedocles’ model self-contradictory. Empedocles’ elements are supposed to be distinct, fundamental substances; yet Water evaporates into Air, condensation from Air produces Water.

So Empedocles evidently contradicts the observed phenomena, and contradicts himself too. For he says that none of the elements can emerge from another, but that everything is made of these; but at the same time, once he gathers all of nature (except Strife) into the One, he says that each of the elements is derived from the One.
The early Greek flat-earth cosmology as found in Homer, centuries before Aristotle. Thick, foggy Air is at ground level; above it is the clear Aether, where it is hard to breathe and there are no clouds. Elements played no role in this cosmology.


A second-hand report of one of Aristotle’s lost works makes it clear that he thought of heavenly bodies as ‘fiery’, and not made of a fifth element.

Therefore, because the Fire of the sun is similar to those fires that exist in the bodies of animate creatures, it must be that the sun is also animate ... So since the origin of some creatures lies in Earth, others in Water, and others in Air, Aristotle thinks it absurd to imagine that no animal is generated in that element which is most suited to generating animate things.

Cicero (our source) goes on to talk about how the ‘stars occupy the aetherial region, which is extremely thin’. Various modern scholars have taken that as meaning that Aristotle, too, linked aether to the usual four elements. But, again, it’s indirect. And even Cicero doesn’t cast aether as the fifth member of a set of five. He refers to ‘the aetherial region’ (aetherium locum) as a location, not a substance. He talks of stars being generated there: that is, Cicero is actually thinking of ‘the aether’ as a place occupied by Fire, but only very sparsely, until it generates stars.

Aether isn’t a distinct element: it’s a hangover from archaic flat-earth cosmologies. For example in Homer, thick misty Air (aēr) is at ground level, and clear, bright Aether (aithēr) is above it, filling the heavens. On mountain-tops the air is thinner, and you find yourself above the clouds: that’s supposedly where you get close to the aether.

The elements in Plato

Aristotle isn’t our earliest source on Empedocles’ elements. There’s an earlier report in Plato’s Timaeus. And it’s Plato, I think, that has prompted some modern readers to think in terms of a group of five.

The passage is hard to interpret (like most of the Timaeus): Plato could be misconstrued as saying that celestial bodies are made of a fifth element. What he really seems to be talking about is the shape of the universe as a whole, not the material that stars are made of.

Aether does come up a bit later, in passing. But Plato makes it very clear that it isn’t a separate element. He treats aether as a variety of Air, in the same way that flames, firelight, and glowing embers are all varieties of Fire (Timaeus 58c-d).

The context is that Plato is trying to combine two theories of matter: Empedocles’ model of four elements, and Democritus’ atomic theory. Plato also injects his own fondness for ideal abstractions. He proposes that each of the four elements is made of a single type of atom, and the four atom types have the shapes of the ‘Platonic solids’. There are five possible Platonic solids, so according to Plato’s perfectionist logic, that implies there must be some fifth thing in the material world that corresponds to the fifth solid, the dodecahedron.

The ‘Platonic solids’: the regular tetrahedron (4 sides), cube (6), octahedron (8), dodecahedron (12), and icosahedron (20). These solids have a number of unique properties that no other solid can have. Each has equilateral faces all the same shape (equilateral triangles, squares, or pentagons); every vertex coincides with the surface of a circumscribed sphere; the centre of every face coincides with the surface of an inscribed sphere.

Of these solids, Plato decides the cube is the most ‘immobile’ one, so that’s Earth. For the others, Fire is the lightest and smallest, made of tetrahedron-shaped atoms; Water is the largest of the triangle-faced solids, the icosahedron; Air is in between, the octahedron.

And, since there was still one more structure — the fifth — God applied it to the whole, and decorated it with life.

‘The whole’ must mean the cosmos, the sky. But not the substance of the sky. In the last bit, ‘decorated it with life’, the Greek word used, diazōgraphōn, is probably meant to evoke the twelve constellations of the zodiac around the ecliptic. The zodiac isn’t arranged in a dodecahedral shape, but perhaps the theme of twelve-ness was enough to sustain Plato’s wordplay.

For Plato, it seems, the dodecahedron is the shape of the cosmos. It looks like the idea is that a dodecahedron is the shape that most closely approximates a sphere — the sphere of the sky.

Surprising but true. Intuitively, you’d imagine an icosahedron would be closer to spherical, because it has more polygons. It turns out that pentagon-shaped faces are more of an advantage. The dodecahedron is better at filling a sphere. If you’re an ancient Greek and you want to calculate the volume of a sphere, but you don’t know the value of pi, and so you resort to the method of exhaustion that was popular in classical Greek geometry, then a dodecahedron provides closer bounds than any other solid.

Solid Number of faces Corresponding phenomenon (Tim. 53c-56e) Volume as proportion of sphere
tetrahedron 4 Fire 12.3%
cube 6 Earth 36.7%
octahedron 8 Air 31.8%
dodecahedron 12 universe 66.5%
icosahedron 20 Water 60.5%
A cube, all of its corners touching a sphere from the inside, fills a bit over a third of the sphere; a dodecahedron fills just under two thirds.

So, in Plato’s model, the dodecahedron is the shape of the universe; the other four solids are the shapes of the four kinds of atoms. Don’t go taking this seriously, of course! Plato liked maths, but he was definitely no empiricist. This whole imaginary concoction is driven by his obsession with the idea that real phenomena are manifestations of ideal abstractions.

Aristotle’s theory of matter

Aristotle is more logical, albeit with the same limitations on his knowledge. Given that he knew nothing about atoms and elements as we understand them nowadays, he still makes a reasonable amount of sense, so far as he goes.

For Empedocles says that there are four physical (elements); or a total of six, including those (elements) that cause motion (i.e. Love and Strife). Anaxagoras and Leucippus and Democritus, on the other hand, say there are infinitely many. The first (Anaxagoras) treats homogeneous things as elements, like Bone, Flesh, and Marrow, and every substance where a portion is synonymous with the whole. Democritus and Leucippus, however, say that these (homogeneous) things consist of indivisible particles, and that they are infinite in number and in their shapes; while substances differ from one another depending on the elements they consist of and their composition and arrangement.

Anaxagoras’ followers apparently take a stance opposed to that of Empedocles' followers. For Empedocles says that there are four elements — Fire, Water, Air, and Earth — and that these are the substances that are simple, rather than flesh and bone and other homogeneous substances. But Anaxagoras’ followers say that it is these homogeneous substances that are simple elements, while Earth, Fire, Water, and Air are compounds.

Aristotle rejects Democritus’ atomic theory, but he also rejects Empedocles. He accepts the four elements as empirical phenomena, but he rejects the idea that everything is made of them. He doesn’t reject Anaxagoras’ ideas about homogeneous substances: it seems that’s where his sympathies lie.

For Aristotle, Empedocles’ elements are emergent. They’re derived from combinations of properties: hot, cold, dry, and wet. Apply these properties to raw matter — what he calls hylē (literally ‘wood’) — and you get stuff that approximates the four elements. If something is hot and dry then it’s fiery, if it’s cold and wet then it’s watery. The properties come first.

  Hot Cold
Wet Air Water
Dry Fire Earth

He quickly gets into trouble, though. Aristotle questions whether these binary properties denote the presence vs. absence of a quality: so hot = ‘with heat present’, cold = ‘without heat’, and so on.

But someone might well be puzzled about a simple absence, and whether it is one of two terms in an opposition. For example, is it that Earth and other massive matter denotes the absence of a quality (heat), while Fire and rising substances denote the presence of that quality? Or is it that Earth also denotes a presence, while the absence denotes raw substance — the hylē of both Fire and Earth alike? And is the hylē of each of them different? For then they could not come to be out of one another, that is, out of their opposites. For the oppositions are manifested in these things: Fire, Earth, Water, Air.

This is where Aristotle’s lack of knowledge gets him tied in knots: this passage makes little sense to a modern reader. It’s obvious to us, with an understanding of chemical reactions and thermodynamics, that these are actually very bad questions. We know that physical properties are determined by heat and pressure, not by irreducible characteristics like whether ‘wetness’ is present.

This business of thinking about presence and absence of qualities misleads Aristotle before he can even begin. I think it’s still a huge improvement on Plato, with his fantasies about four species of polyhedral atom. But it isn’t like you’ll actually learn anything about chemistry from Aristotle.

Monday 31 August 2020

Lucian's parody of the book of Revelation

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Lucian, a 2nd century satirical essayist, wrote a very close parody of this episode from the New Testament book of Revelation. Historians of early Christianity tend not to notice this. Sometimes they even reject it out of hand when it’s pointed out: I’m not quite sure why.

Maybe it’s because when ancient pagan authors mention Christians, people start having arguments about the historical Jesus. With Lucian, though, that doesn’t have to be a problem: he wrote about contemporary Christians, not about Jesus himself.

Gustave Doré, ‘La nouvelle Jérusalem’ (1865)

Lucian was a Syrian who lived in Antioch, close to the border between modern Turkey and Syria. Greek wasn’t his first language, but he was perhaps the most brilliant prose writer in the entire history of classical Greek. No, wait, ‘prose writer’ isn’t enough: he was an artist. His unique wit holds up today whether he’s writing about letters of the alphabet bringing lawsuits against each other because of spelling changes, or Poseidon’s jaw dropping at the news that Zeus has given birth to Dionysus out of his leg, or when he satirises classic writers like Herodotus and Ctesias.

Scholars of early Christianity are familiar with his picture of ancient Christians in the essay The death of Peregrinus. Peregrinus — a joke name, from the Latin for ‘outsider, travelling visitor’ — was supposedly a free thinker who became a Christian for a while, got imprisoned for his beliefs, and embezzled the defence funds raised by his fellow Christians. Lucian comments that Christians are an easy target for cons:

These unfortunate (Christians) have totally convinced themselves that they’re going to be immortal and live for all time, and as a result they scorn death, and often devote themselves willingly. Plus, their first law-giver instructed them that they were all each other’s brothers, once they transgressed by rejecting the Greek gods and worshipping him — that sophist who was crucified — and by living under his laws. So they scorn everything indiscriminately, and treat property as common. They carry on these traditions without any reliable guarantee.

But even specialists tend to assume that Lucian’s knowledge of Christianity was only hearsay. Never mind that Antioch was the premier centre of Christian evangelism in the ancient Mediterranean. And never mind that in another piece, Lucian does a close parody of Revelation that shows great familiarity with the text.

Lucian’s True history and the new Jerusalem

Lucian’s famous True history is a hilarious novella about a crew of explorers who find their ship caught up in all sorts of Munchausenesque adventures, including an island of vine-women, a war between the Moon and the Sun over colonisation rights to Venus, a Sea of Milk, visits to the afterlife on the Island of the Blessed and the Island of the Damned, and so on. It’s this last episode that contains the parody. Lucian’s description of the city where the blessed dead live is in large part a rip-off of the new Jerusalem, coming down to earth out of heaven, described in Revelation chapters 21 and 22.

The ‘new Jerusalem’ is a trope in the ancient Judaeo-Christian tradition. For Revelation, it represented Christians being freed from the tyranny of Rome, referred to slyly as ‘Babylon’. In earlier examples it had different meanings. For the Qumran New Jerusalem text, from the Dead Sea scrolls (Vermes 2004: 607–610), the oppressor is Antiochus, who persecuted the Jews in the 2nd century BCE; for Ezekiel 40–48, in the Hebrew Bible, the oppressor is the real Babylon. In each case, the Judaeo-Christian god is enthroned in the new city and lives there with his people.

‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ Revelation 22.1–2. (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vit. 14.2, f. 254. Source:

Lucian’s parody doesn’t share this theological-historical background. He wasn’t interested in oppressors and liberation: his imitation focuses on isolated motifs, and exaggerating them for comic effect. Lucian scholars have sometimes noticed the parody, sometimes not. The most recent English-language commentary, by Georgiadou and Larmour, is non-committal on whether Lucian knew Revelation; Stengel dismisses it without discussion. Two other commentators mention the parody, Betz and von Moellendorff, but they don’t realise its full extent.

Note. Perhaps excusably, I missed a more recent commentary by Frank Redmond (2015): Redmond is entirely unaware of the parody. This is surprising given that even the Byzantine scholia draw attention to it.

Historians of early Christianity are prone to object that Lucian was probably satirising something else. Well, that isn’t impossible. But first, why assume that another target is more likely? Revelation is a core Christian text, Lucian lived in a city that had a core Christian community. Second, the only other potential targets that we know of are much more obscure, and aren’t remotely as close a match. You think Lucian was reading Ezekiel or the Qumran New Jerusalem text, and didn’t read Revelation? Hardly. A third candidate is the Coptic Acts of Peter and the twelve apostles from Nag Hammadi (NHC vi.1; Robinson 2000: iii.197–229), which has a city with some passing resemblances. That one’s probably later than Lucian. Sure, you can postulate some other lost text as Lucian’s target. But as we’ll see below, it’s hard to imagine a closer match.

First, let’s establish the elements where Revelation plays on the earlier Jewish texts. The main elements copied are:

None of these shared features reappears in Lucian. He was unfamiliar with the tradition: he only knew Revelation.

Lucian’s parody

In Revelation, some motifs get duplicated; Lucian condenses them into one spot. Only one motif is entirely out of sequence. So it’s easy to tabulate the parallels: just put the two texts side by side.

Revelation 21–22 (NRSV translation) Lucian, True history 2.11–13 (translated by A. M. Harmon)
21.10 ... the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.
(18 the city is pure gold, clear as glass. ...)
(21 ... and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.)
11 The city itself is all of gold
12 It has a great, high wall and the wall around it of emerald.
with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. ...
(21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl ...)
It has seven gates, all of single planks of cinnamon.
And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. ... The foundations of the city and the ground within its walls
19 The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. ... are ivory.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. There are temples of all the gods, built of beryl, and in them great monolithic altars of amethyst, on which they make their great burnt-offerings.
27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 22.1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. Around the city runs a river of the finest myrrh, a hundred royal cubits wide and five deep, so that one can swim in it comfortably. For baths they have large houses of glass, warmed by burning cinnamon; instead of water there is hot dew in the tubs. 12 For clothing they use delicate purple spider-webs. As for themselves, they have no bodies, but are intangible and fleshless, with only shape and figure. ... Nobody grows old, but stays the same age as on coming there.
(out of sequence) 21.23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. ... 25 Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there.
(22.5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever)
Again, it is neither night among them nor yet very bright day, but the light which is on the country is like the gray morning toward dawn, when the sun has not yet risen.
(return to sequence) 22.2 On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Moreover, they are acquainted with only one season of the year, for it is always spring there and the only wind that blows there is Zephyr. 13 The country abounds in flowers and plants of all kinds, cultivated and otherwise. The grape-vines yield twelve vintages a year, bearing every month; the pomegranates, apples and other fruit-trees were said to bear thirteen times a year, for in one month, their Minoan, they bear twice. Instead of wheat-ears, loaves of bread all baked grow on the tops of the halms, so that they look like mushrooms.

Lucian is a satirist, not a slavish copyist. He freely adds and removes elements. Where Revelation gives measurements for the city’s dimensions, Lucian measures only the river. The new Jerusalem has a river of the water of life; Lucian has a river of myrrh. The new Jerusalem has no temple; Lucian has temples of all the gods. Some of the substitutions are just for humour. The gates are each made of a single pearl in Revelation, a single plank of cinnamon in Lucian. At the end of his description Lucian adds an element that isn’t borrowed from Revelation: 365 fresh water springs near the city, 365 springs of honey, and 500 of myrrh ... but these ones are much smaller!

Adding pointless, extravagant details for laughs is very typical for Lucian. Targetting a relatively marginal text like Revelation is also completely in character. Seamlessly darting from one allusion to another is a way of marking himself as a pepaideumenos, a member of the educated hellenised elite. Sophistication and education were central to the construction of a Greek-speaking identity, while the empire was still ruled from Rome — especially for people who weren’t ethnically Greek.

Albrecht Dürer, the heavenly Jerusalem and the chaining of the dragon ... with Jerusalem represented as Dürer’s Nürnberg (1498)

Probably the funniest bit is something that Lucian didn’t even include in his parody. Lucian’s novella is called the True history: the title calls attention to its falseness. It flavours everything with ludicrousness. As Lucian puts it in his introduction,

... πολὺ τῶν ἄλλων εὐγνωμονέστερον· κἂν ἓν γὰρ δὴ τοῦτο ἀληθεύσω λέγων ὅτι ψεύδομαι.

my lying is far more honest than (other people’s), for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar.

So when we turn to Revelation, and see how it finishes off its description of the new Jerusalem, it’s hard not to burst out laughing at Lucian’s sublime twist on the allusion:

καὶ εἶπέν μοι· οὗτοι οἱ λόγοι πιστοὶ καὶ ἀληθινοί.

And (the angel) said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true.’


  • Robinson, J. M. 2000. The Coptic gnostic library. A complete edition of the Nag Hammadi codices, 5 volumes (reprint of editions published piecemeal 1975–1995). Brill.
  • Vermes, Geza 2004. The complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Revised edition of the 4th edition (1st edition 1962). Penguin.
Note. This is a more focused and expanded version of a comparison I drew in a 2011 article: ‘Satire and the marginal text: Lucian parodies Diktys (VH 2.26–26)’, Hermes 139: 97–105.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Who founded Rome?

The ‘Capitoline wolf’, Musei Capitolini, Rome.

Pop quiz. Who, according to legend, founded the city of Rome? Was it:

  1. Aeneas
  2. Evander
  3. Latinus
  4. Romulus
  5. Romulus and Remus

Make sure to choose your answer before going on!

While you keep your answer in your mind, let’s look at a related modern myth. The ‘Capitoline wolf’, pictured at top, with baby Romulus and Remus suckling at her teats, is the most famous representation of Romulus and Remus and Rome’s foundation legend.

The Capitoline wolf

You may know about this already, if you remember reading about it in the news back in 2012. The statue supposedly evokes the following story. Romulus and Remus are the babies of Rhea Silvia, princess of Alba Longa, raped by the god Mars. Their evil great-uncle, the usurper Amulius, wants the twins dead and orders the babies to be exposed. But they are miraculously rescued and suckled by a wolf — the scene shown in the statue. Later, when they grow up, they decide to go and found their own city.

The statue itself is a major piece of cultural heritage. It was given to the city of Rome in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV, and it grew into an emblem of the city. It appears on countless books and postcards. It represents Roman-ness and nationalism, in both good ways and bad ways (Mussolini really liked it), to Italians and italophiles, tourists and scholars alike. Dozens of copies of it exist all round the world.

Rugged and uncouth though it is, this statue moved my spirit more than all the beautiful images that surround it.
Theodor Mommsen, writing in 1845 (tr. Wiseman)

It’s been known for centuries that the babies, representing Romulus and Remus suckling at the wolf’s teats, weren’t originally part of the statue. They were added in the 1400s.

The wolf herself was usually thought to be genuinely ancient, though. You may still see people identifying her as Etruscan, dating to the 6th–5th centuries BCE, the last days of Rome’s monarchy or the very early republic.

But nowadays, if you still see people claiming that ... well, it’s just denial. It turns out the wolf isn’t ancient either. Its origins were hotly debated between sceptics and traditionalists in the 2000s. But in 2012 the results of radiocarbon testing confirmed sceptics’ suspicions, and since then there’s been no wiggle-room. It’s definitely mediaeval.

Left to right: Michael von Albrecht, A history of Roman literature vol. 1 (Brill, 1997); Livy, The early history of Rome (Penguin, 2002); Gary Forsythe, A critical history of early Rome (U. of California, 2006); Jennifer Rea, Legendary Rome (Bloomsbury, 2013); Paul Zoch, Ancient Rome. An introductory history, 2nd ed. (U. of Oklahoma, 2020; the 2000 edition had something genuinely ancient, but they seem to have made a point of swapping in the mediaeval statue for the 2020 edition!)

The debate arose mainly because of the casting technique used to make the wolf (Carruba 2006; Radnoti-Alföldi et al. 2011). It’s a distinctively mediaeval technique. That wasn’t conclusive enough for traditionalists, so cue the radiocarbon testing. A group at the Università del Salento tested organic residue in the remains of the original clay casting core. They announced their results at a conference in 2012 (von Hase Salto 2012) and published them a few years later (Calcagnile et al. 2019).

The date range for the 95% confidence interval is 1021 CE to 1153 CE.

To be sure, it does look like an older style — it’s deliberately archaising! But it isn’t even faux Etruscan. It’s faux Carolingian.

Loosely similar scenes appear on ancient coins as well, but the ancient scenes have a different posture. The Capitoline wolf turns her head off to the side; the ancient one turns her head backwards to look at the babies. It’s doubtful whether the Capitoline wolf was intended to represent Romulus’ and Remus’ wolf at all.

It’s possible the wolf was copied from another earlier statue in front of the Lateran Palace, mentioned in a 10th century source. Maybe the older wolf (which was genuinely Carolingian) was damaged, and this one was made to replace it? We’ll probably never know.

Answer to the pop quiz

All right, and now for the question I posed at the start. Who’s the legendary founder of Rome?

But hang on! Let’s stir things up a bit more. Here are some more options for you to choose from.

  1. Romulus (son of Aeneas, rather than son of Mars and Rhea Silvia)
  2. Romulus (grandson of Telemachus and Circe)
  3. Aeneas and Odysseus
  4. Romus (son of Aeneas)
  5. Romus (grandson of Aeneas)
  6. Romus (son of Odysseus and Circe)
  7. Romus, Romulus, and Telegonus (sons of Latinus)
  8. Romanus (son of Odysseus and Circe)
  9. Latinus (son of Odysseus)
  10. Latinus (son of Telemachus and Circe)
  11. Latinus (a Trojan)
  12. Greeks returning from Troy and stranded in Latium

Feel like changing your mind? Take a moment to think about it, then go on.

The true answer is in fact ... (drum roll)

  1. All of the above.

The classic story, the one about Romulus and Remus the sons of Rhea Silvia, is just one version among many. It happens to be the one that Livy and Plutarch spend most time on. Thanks to them, it has a certain prestige.

A full account of all the variants can be found in T. P. Wiseman’s book Remus. A Roman myth (1995). There are ... well, lots of them.

Note. Yes, the same Wiseman who was once rumoured to be the inspiration for Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books. Wiseman has denied it, pointing out that his beard was black in the 80s when J. K. Rowling was in his class.

Wiseman discusses the variants, their purposes, and a host of other related matters, and in an appendix to the book he gathers together some primary sources. Between them, they offer up sixty-one further foundation legends alongside the best-known story. Some examples:

  • Hellanicus of Lesbos, BNJ 4 F 84
    But the author (Hellanicus of Lesbos) of the history of the priestesses at Argos, and the events that happened in the time of each of them, says that Aeneas came from the land of the Molossians into Italy, and along with Odysseus became the founder of the city.
  • Sallust, War of Catiline 6.1
    The city of Rome, as I understand it, was originally founded and occupied by Trojans who were wandering as refugees with no fixed abode under the leadership of Aeneas, together with the Aborigines (‘autochthonous people’). a wild race without law or authority, free and uncontrolled.
  • Plutarch, Life of Romulus 2.2
    Some say he (Romulus) was a son of Aeneas and Dexithea the daughter of Phorbas, and that he was brought to Italy as a baby along with his brother Rhomos; all the other ships were wrecked in the overflowing river, but the one with the children in was tipped gently on to a soft bank; they were unexpectedly saved, and the place was called Rome.
  • Servius, commentary on Aeneid 7.678
    ... others say it was founded by Evander, and Virgil follows them when he writes ‘The king Evander, founder of the Roman citadel ...’
  • John Lydus, De mensibus 4.4
    They say that Latinus was Telegonus’ brother, Circe’s son, and Aeneas’ father-in-law, and that in the course of founding the citadel of Rome, before the arrival of Aeneas, he discovered a laurel tree by chance on the site, and so he allowed it to remain there. That is the reason why they call the Palatine ‘Daphne’.

Where do the different versions come from?

Historians of early Rome sometimes take great pains to dismiss sources about early Rome, especially when they come from Greek writers. The main reason is that almost no documentation survives from early Rome: most surviving sources are writing centuries afterwards, without the aid of any documentation. And the earlier sources — all in Greek — are problematic because they’re writing from an outside perspective, supposedly ‘imposing’ their own translations and categories.

At first glance it would seem that the story of the twins [Romulus and Remus] ... was an ancient and indigenous legend, while that of Aeneas, with its patently Greek origin, was a subsequent literary accretion imposed on the Roman tradition from outside.
Cornell 1975: 2 (emphasis added)

(In some contexts I’ve seen a different objection: when Greek writers seem to be writing about Rome, there’s something wrong with the text, because they couldn’t have written about Rome or Roman military power before the 2nd century BCE: Rome wasn’t powerful enough until then. This is a silly objection. The better historians of early Rome don’t fall into that trap, and I trust we don’t have to deal with it here.)

Now, most of the objections to alternate traditions come from historians who focus narrowly on Rome. The main point I want to make in response to that is that Rome isn’t unique. Lots of places in early Italy have links to Greek legendary figures. Greek legends are everywhere, in Etruria and Latium as well as in southern Italy.

They’re definitely not accretions ‘imposed from outside’. The question isn’t whether the Italians adopted Greek legendary figures, or whether they did it at an early date. The answer to both is: ‘Yes, they did.’ The real question is which Italians were choosing to adopt Greek legends, and why.

According to some sources, Clusium was founded by Telemachus; Caere, Tusculum, and Praeneste by Telegonus; Rome by Aeneas and Odysseus; Lavinium by Aeneas; Circeii (named after Circe) by the Romans themselves. Clusium, Caere, Rome, and Praeneste have competing foundation legends; Tusculum, Lavinium, and Circeii do not.

First, here’s a selection of testimony we have of native Italian use of Greek legendary figures at an early date, as well as native Italian figures popping up in Greek traditions where there’s an overlap with Italian traditions:

  • Early Etruscan art gives intense prominence to Greek mythological themes from the 7th century BCE onwards.
  • The Romans named a colony after Circe, with a cult site linked to Circe, around the late 6th century BCE.
  • Circeii’s link to Circe was known as far afield as Athens (Aeschylus fr. eleg. 2 ed. West, ‘the Tyrrhenian race, a pharmakon-making people’).
  • Latinus and Faunus, Italian mythological figures, appear in an early Greek source, a passage added to the end of the Hesiodic Theogony (1013, 1015–1016; Faunus hellenised as ‘Agrios’).
  • Aeneas, Hercules, and the Dioscuri appear in art and sources relating to 5th century BCE Rome and Latium.
  • Italian families claim descent from various Greek legendary figures, such as the Mamilii of Tusculum (from Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe), the Julii (from Iulus, son of Aeneas), the Fabii (from Hercules and Evander), the Geganii (from Aeneas’ companion Gyas), etc.
  • Timaeus (4th-3rd cent. BCE) reports that his information about a ‘Trojan’ artefact at Lavinium came from questioning local inhabitants (BNJ 566 F 60).

Next, consider that there’s copious evidence of Odysseus and his family, in particular, being involved in legends and folktales set in Italy. These links are founded ultimately on the idea that Circe’s home was imagined as being at Monte Circeo, as it’s now called, 85 km to the southeast of Rome.

Monte Circeo, Lazio, seen from the north by a drone. The early Roman colony was originally on the east side of the peak (to the left), later on the inland side; Terracina is 15 km to the east. (Source: video by Mauro Cassandra, 2015.)

E. D. Phillips (1953) gives extensive documentation of Odysseus’ role in legends and folktales set in Italy, ranging from the south to Latium and Etruria. Much of his wanderings on his way home were regarded as being set in Italy: so the Cyclops and Laestrygonians were in Sicily, Aeolus in the Isole Eolie, the Sirens on the Galli islands south of the Sorrento peninsula, Circe at Monte Circeo, and the summoning of the spirits of the dead at Averno (Lake Avernus) near Naples. There was a temple of Athena on the Sorrento peninsula which Odysseus supposedly founded. According to one memorable folktale, he came to a sticky end in an encounter with an apprentice of Circe’s in Latium: she turned him into a horse, and he spent the rest of his life in that form. A couple of sources identify Cortona, in northern Etruria, as the site of Odysseus’ grave.

We can add material relating to Odysseus’ various children. Tusculum, 20 km outside Rome, was always regarded as founded by Telegonus, Odysseus’ and Circe’s son. For some cities, the sources disagree on whether their founders were Greeks, native Italians, or someone else. So the founder of Praeneste (Palestrina) is usually the Italian hero Caeculus; but in Aristocles it’s Telegonus; in Zenodotus it’s Praenestis or Praenestus, son of Latinus and grandson of Odysseus. Etruscan cities usually have Lydian or Pelasgian founders, but for Caere and Clusium, alongside the concocted names Tyrrhenus, Pelasgus, and Clusius, Servius also mentions Telegonus and Telemachus.

  • Praeneste. Caeculus: see e.g. Verg. Aen. 7.678, Solinus 2.9. Telegonus: Aristocles BNJ 831 F 2 (the garlands in Aristocles’ story also appear in Strabo 5.3.11, Pliny NH 3.64). Praenestis: BNJ 821 F1a (= Solinus; NB: Horster’s BNJ edition treats ablative ‘Praeneste’ as nominative). Praenestus: BNJ 821 F1b (= Steph. Byz.).
  • Caere. Lydian/Pelasgian founders: see e.g. Hdt. 1.94; Dion. Hal. 1.25-30. Pelasgus, Telegonus, or Tyrrhenus: Servius auctus on Aen. 8.479.
  • Clusium. Clusius or Telemachus: Servius auctus on Aen. 10.167.

If lots of Italian places are laying claim to Greek legendary figures, then there’s a good case for treating similar stories in Rome as potentially having a similar standing.

It’s not as though Rome was cut off from the rest of the world in the 6th-5th centuries. Nicola Terrenato (2019: 51–72) has much to say about interactions between city-states of the time — both short-range and long-distance — and geographical mobility in the sixth century BCE, including some people who migrated between Greece, Etruria, and Rome.

Besides, look at where the most popular story of Rome’s founding comes from. When Plutarch tells us the story of Romulus and Remus, he blandly informs us

The story that carries the most trustworthiness, in its main points, and which is the one most widely repeated, is one that was first told to the Greeks by Diocles of Peparethos. Fabius Pictor followed him in most respects.
Plutarch, Romulus 3.1

That is, the story originally appeared in a Greek source — just like Hellanicus’ story of Aeneas and Odysseus, and Cephalon’s story of Romus the son of Aeneas. The earliest Roman source, Fabius Pictor, simply repeated it.

Is there debate over the relationship between Diocles and Fabius Pictor? Oh hell you bet there is. We can’t allow Romulus and Remus to originate in a Greek source! (See Beck 2016 for bibliography.) The problem with that debate isn’t to do with Diocles himself, the problem is its underlying assumptions: ‘If the story appears in a Greek source, it must originate in a Greek source.’

Be that as it may, whoever’s in the right, there’s no disentangling this material into a story that doesn’t involve Greek writers.

So, who’s imposing what from outside? I think it’s far more economical to treat the Greek accounts of Roman legendary origins as more-or-less authentic reports of what the Romans themselves were saying. They may well be selective. But that doesn’t mean Greek writers were somehow compelling the Etruscans to use Greek legendary figures in their art, or forcing elite Italian families to claim Greeks in their ancestry.


  • Beck, H. 2016. ‘Diokles of Proparethos (820).’ Brill’s new Jacoby 820. [Brill]
  • Calcagnile, Lucio; D’Elia, Marisa; Maruccio, Lucio; Braione, Eugenia; Celant, Alessandra; Quarta, Gianluca 2019. ‘Solving an historical puzzle: radiocarbon dating the Capitoline she wolf.’ Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms 455: 209–212. [Elsevier]
  • Carruba, A. M. 2006. La lupa capitolina. Un bronzo medievale. De Luca.
  • Cornell, T. J. 1975. ‘Aeneas and the twins.’ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 21: 1–32. [JSTOR]
  • Phillips, E. D. 1953. ‘Odysseus in Italy.’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 73: 53–67. [JSTOR]
  • Radnoti-Alföldi, M.; Formigli, E.; Fried, J. 2011. Die römische Wölfin. Ein antikes Monument stürzt von seinem Sockel / The Lupa Romana. An antique monument falls from her pedestal. Franz Steiner.
  • Terrenato, N. 2019. The early Roman expansion into Italy. Elite negotiation and family agendas. Cambridge.
  • Von Hase Salto, M. A. 2012. ‘Ein Werk des Mittelalters. Neue Erkenntnisse über die Kapitolinische Wölfin.’ Antike Welt 2012.5: 53–56. [JSTOR]