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 do. 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 element 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. He 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 (subscription required).
  • 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.
  • Von Hase Salto, M. A. 2012. ‘Ein Werk des Mittelalters. Neue Erkenntnisse über die Kapitolinische Wölfin.’ Antike Welt 2012.5: 53–56 (JSTOR).

Friday, 31 July 2020

What did Caligula think of his nickname?

He wasn’t called Caligula, he didn’t go mad after spending three months in a coma, and he didn’t make his horse a senator. There are so, so many myths about this emperor. Some are distortions, some are baseless, some are outright fabrications. Of the fabrications, some are ancient, some modern: even Suetonius’ lurid stories aren’t enough for modern TV and cinema writers.

We’ll stick to just two fabrications today:
  1. The nickname ‘Caligula’, little boot.
  2. The three month coma.
Left: Gaius (12–41 CE) as depicted in antiquity, copy with colour restored by Stiftung Archäologie, Munich, based on particles preserved in the marble (original: Archäologisches Institut der Universität Göttingen). Right: Gaius as reimagined by @royalty_now_ (Becca Saladin).

1. His name

‘Caligula’ rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it? But he wasn’t called that. He was ‘Gaius’. Contemporary writers, later writers, they all called him Gaius. He wasn’t called anything else until three centuries after his death.

The nickname ‘Caligula’ was only when he was a toddler. His father’s soldiers used it when his parents dressed baby Gaius up in miniature military gear. Several sources mention the story —
Caligulae cognomen castrensi ioco traxit, quia manipulario habitu inter milites educabatur.

He got the nickname ‘Caligula’ as a bit of fun in camp, because he was brought up among the soldiers wearing military uniform.
Suetonius, Caligula 9.1 (tr. Gainsford)
There’s just one reported instance of someone using the nickname when Gaius was an adult. He didn’t like it.
At idem Gaius omnia contumelias putabat, ut sunt ferendarum inpatientes faciendarum cupidissimi: iratus fuit Herennio Macro, quod illum Gaium salutaverat, nec inpune cessit primipilari quod Caligulam dixerat; hoc enim in castris natus et alumnus legionum vocari solebat, nullo nomine militibus familiarior umquam factus, sed iam Caligulam convicium et probrum iudicabat cothurnatus.

The same Gaius took everything as an insult: those who are keenest on offering them are least tolerant of receiving them. He was angry at Herennius Macer when he greeted him as 'Gaius'. And he didn't let a chief centurion get away with it when he called him 'Caligula': he was born in an army camp and was regularly called that as a favourite of the legions, and that was the name by which he was always most affectionately known to the soldiers. But by now, wearing grown-up shoes, he took 'Caligula' as accusatory and belittling.
Seneca, On constancy 18 (tr. Gainsford)
Gaius may have been more tolerant when on campaign with the army, we don’t know.

But this story is even more striking for showing that he didn’t like ‘Gaius’ either. Probably for the same reason: his praenomen may have seemed just as over-familiar as a childhood nickname.

His own preference for a short-form name, I suggest, would probably have been ‘Germanicus’, a cognomen inherited from his father. That’s the name that takes up most space on his coins. And when Gaius renamed the month of September after himself (don’t worry, it didn’t last), ‘Germanicus’ is the name he gave it. But ‘Germanicus’ was too strongly associated with his father — the Germanicus — and Gaius’ reign was too short for him to succeed in co-opting the name for himself. (Suetonius opens his biography of Gaius with a mini-biography of Germanicus. Way to throw shade!)
An inscription dated to ‘the 17th day before the Kalends of Germanicus’, that is, the 15th of August. The inscription could be from Gaius’ lifetime, or from the reign of Domitian, who renamed September to ‘Germanicus’ too. (CIL xi.5745; photo: Bill Thayer’s website)
Contemporary writers invariably call him ‘Gaius’ (Philo, Seneca, Pliny), and it’s the same for the 300 years following his death (Josephus, Suetonius, Dio, Eusebius). ‘Caligula’ gets mentioned only in the specific context of the story of Gaius’ toddler uniform.

The second half of the 300s is when his name changes. Eutropius introduces him as ‘Gaius Caesar, Caligula by nickname’. Aurelius Victor and the Historia Augusta call him ‘Caligula’ consistently; Orosius calls him ‘Gaius Caligula’. There’s no indication of what it was that prompted the change, other than a general trend of belittling him — the Historia Augusta treats him as a byword for a bad emperor — but someone must have started it.
Note. Eutropius, Breviarium 7.12; Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 3, epit. 3; Hist. Aug. Marc. Aur. 28.10, Avid. Cass. 8.4, Commodus 10.2, Heliogab. 1.1, 34.1, Aurelian 42.6.; Orosius, Hist. adv. paganos 7.5.5–7.
The dissonance is especially striking in Suetonius. If it had been a thing in Suetonius’ time to use a belittling nickname for Gaius, Suetonius would definitely have done it. And the surviving manuscripts of Suetonius do use the title ‘Caligula’ — but only in the headings. The main text always uses ‘Gaius’. It’s clear that ‘Caligula’ isn’t Suetonius’ own title for the biography.
The oldest extant manuscript of Suetonius’ Lives, showing the end of ‘Tiberius’ and the heading for ‘Caligula’. (Cod. Paris. lat. 6115, 9th cent.)

2. His coma

To decide whether Caligula was mad is a problem which requires a much fuller and more thorough discussion than it can be given here. For the moment, it is enough to recognize that the illness of September A.D. 37 was purely physical. Let us hope that the myth of Caligula’s ‘nervous breakdown’ can now be consigned to the oblivion it so richly deserves.
Morgan 1973: 329
Such sadly unprophetic words. If only it were consigned to oblivion. If only, if only.

But it isn’t. It has been revived bloody well yet again by a Netflix docudrama series, which determinedly ignores everything that actual historians have said about Gaius over the last half century, in favour of the most sensationalist nonsense they could find.

The series depicts Gaius becoming ill and falling into a coma for three months. This illness is what supposedly damages his sanity and turns him into a cartoon villain.
The death of Tiberius vaults Caligula to power as Rome’s new emperor, a role at which he initially excels — until an illness unhinges his mind.
Roman Empire, blurb for S03E02 ‘A new hope’ (2019)
All right, the illness was real. The coma and the unhinging ... were not.

No ancient source says that his supposed madness was caused by illness. No ancient source says that his illness provoked any kind of transformation of character. No ancient source says that he suffered from headaches. No ancient source describes any symptoms of his illness. No ancient source mentions a coma, let alone a coma lasting three months. It’s all 20th century supposition.
Caligula (John Hurt) begins having headaches, a symptom of his supposed mental illness, watched anxiously by his sister Drusilla (Beth Morris). BBC, I Claudius (1976), episode 9 ‘Zeus, by Jove!’ The story is based on Robert Graves’ novel (1934), but even Graves, creative though he was, didn’t make up the headaches: they were invented for the TV series.
Over the last century several candidates have been proposed for the disease of 37 CE, and for the cause of his supposed madness:
  • combination of alcoholism and epilepsy (Jerome 1923: 419)
  • schizophrenia, or ‘dementia praecox’ (Esser 1958: 134–136)
  • encephalitis lethargica, or ‘sleeping sickness’ (Sandison 1958)
  • psychopathy (Lucas 1967)
  • thyrotoxicosis (Katz 1972, 1977)
  • an anxiety disorder (Massaro and Montgomery 1978)
  • interictal temporal lobe epilepsy (Benediktson 1989)
  • herpetic encephalitis (Ferreira Camargo and Ghizoni Teive 2018)
The problem is that there is precisely zero evidence for any symptoms of the illness that struck Gaius in late 37 CE. All that the sources tell us — Philo, Suetonius, and Dio — is that he became ill, that the illness lasted long enough for news to spread all round the empire, that there was fear he might die, and that he got better.

That. Is. All. No coma. No epileptic seizures.

Everything else is a crumbly edifice built on a hodgepodge of details strewn across all the rest of Gaius’ lifespan. Suetonius mentions that he suffered from comitialis morbus as a child, a sickness characterised by lethargy: the phrase is sometimes translated as epilepsy, but it’s very inexact, and it was confined to his childhood in any case. Katz’ diagnosis of hyperthyroidism relies very heavily on Suetonius’ physical description of Gaius, a description that is demonstrably false (Morgan 1973; notwithstanding Katz’ denial of this when he revisited the subject in 1977). The headaches invented for the 1976 BBC series I, Claudius are surely based on Sandison’s theory of encephalitis: that must also be where the coma story comes from. (Though it’s also possible that the headaches are an attribution error: there’s some indication that the dictator Julius Caesar suffered from migraines.)

The idea of a transformation in Gaius’ character comes from Philo’s report that he became licentious upon becoming emperor, and that he returned to licentiousness and savagery after recovering from the illness. That is, as far as Philo is concerned, the illness was an interruption to the licentiousness: and the licentiousness caused the illness, not the other way round.

If you want a reliable account of Gaius, don’t rely on Netflix. I don’t particularly recommend Stephen Dando-Collins’ 2019 book either: he at least doesn’t make things up, but it’s still terribly sensationalist. For a balanced treatment, which doesn’t play up Gaius’ supposed insanity, and which doesn’t downplay his corruption either, the best is still Anthony Barrett’s Caligula: the abuse of power (2015, 1st edition 1989).

Here’s Philo’s description of the illness. This is as much detail as we get. Take a look and see if you think it justifies a diagnosis of rare forms of encephalitis or epilepsy.
But in the eighth month Gaius was struck down by severe sickness. He had exchanged the recent more homely and, therefore, healthier way of life which he had followed while Tiberius was alive, for one of extravagance. Hard drinking, luxurious feeding and appetites still unsatisfied when the cavities were stuffed full, hot baths, ill-timed, and acting as emetics, followed at once by renewed toping and gormandizing in its train, lasciviousness venting itself on boys and women, and everything else that can destroy soul and body and the bonds in both which keep them together, joined in the assault. Self-restraint is rewarded by strength and health, incontinence by infirmity and sickness bordering on death.
Philo, Embassy to Gaius 14 (tr. Colson)
Now, there are plenty of lurid things to say about Gaius that are solidly grounded in Philo’s and Suetonius’ testimony. Maybe at a later date we’ll come back and look at the business of Gaius’ horse Incitatus, or his supposed declaration of war on the god Neptune. Suetonius’ stories aren’t remotely trustworthy, but still, he does at least attest these things.

But you can’t base any kind of sensible diagnosis on Philo’s vague description. Reading through these articles by modern pathologists feels like watching one of the crazier episodes of House, M.D. Real life isn’t like that.

Or if it is, then I’ll finish by offering my own diagnosis: clearly, it must have been lupus. It’s always lupus.


  • Barrett, A. A. 2015 [1989]. Caligula. The abuse of power (orig. Caligula. The corruption of power). Routledge.
  • Benediktson, D. T. 1989. ‘Caligula’s madness: madness or interictal temporal lobe epilepsy?’ Classical World 82.5: 370–375.
  • Esser, A. 1958. Cäsar und die julisch-claudischen Kaiser im biologisch-ärztlichen Blickfeld. Brill.
  • Ferreira Camargo, C. H.; Ghizoni Teive, H. A. 2018. ‘Searching for neurological diseases in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the Roman empire.’ Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria 76.1: 53–57.
  • Jerome, T. S. 1923. Aspects of the study of Roman history. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Katz, R. S. 1972. ‘The illness of Caligula.’ Classical World 65.7: 223–225.
  • —— 1977. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 70.7: 451.
  • Lucas, J. 1967. ‘Un empereur psychopathe. Contribution à la psychologie du Caligula de Suétone.’ L’antiquité classique 36: 159–189.
  • Massaro, V.; Montgomery, I. 1978. ‘Gaius — mad, bad, ill, or all three?’ Latomus 37.4: 894-909.
  • Morgan, M. G. 1973. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 66.6: 327–329.
  • Sandison, A. T. 1958. ‘The madness of the emperor Caligula.’ Medical History 2.3: 202–209.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Stripping myths down to a historical core (part 2)

Part 1 | Part 2

Myths contain stuff that has been transmitted from generation to generation, century to century, to some extent even millennium to millennium. But old doesn’t mean real. It doesn’t even mean inspired by something real.
Left: a cyclops. Centre: the skull of a dwarf elephant, a species that lived on Mediterranean islands up until about the mid-Mesolithic. Right: a euhemerised cyclops designed for A Total War Saga: Troy (forthcoming August 2020). Was the mythical cyclops inspired by the skull’s nasal cavity, as famously argued by Mayor 2000? Well, it’s possible. But the nature of myth is that there’s no expectation that it needs to be based on anything real.
Also, some stuff is better at surviving than other stuff. If you want to understand the potential of myths to preserve historical information, it matters which kind of information you’re talking about.
Note. This would be my main concern about the kind of model of oral history that Echo-Hawk 2000 proposes. Echo-Hawk’s ideas about oral traditions are, not exactly all-or-nothing, but they’re not fine-grained. Human bodies are real; eyes are real; but the fact you can put those two things together doesn’t mean you can say the Cyclops has a historical basis.
For example, Homeric epic shows an outstanding survival rate for place names. This includes at least one town that had been abandoned since the time of the Mycenaean palace culture (Eutresis, in Boeotia: TH Ft 140, Iliad 2.502). Narrative tale-types, poetic devices, linguistic formulae also do impressively well, though very unevenly. Some elements are recent, others are extremely ancient. Some story elements and theological concepts are evidently inherited from Bronze Age Mesopotamia (via the Hittites or the Phoenicians); a handful of linguistic and metrical elements go back to Proto-Indo-European (ca. 4000 BCE [edit: or 3000 BCE: see the response from Timo below]); and one or two tale-types might be even older still — like the story of a hero who escapes a cave by blinding a one-eyed giant, a tale-type found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

But material culture, etiquette, military tactics, burial practices, legal and political framework, kinship, marriage, inheritance customs ... not so much. With just a couple of exceptions, what we have in these categories looks like contemporary practices, usually dating to the first half of the 600s BCE or a bit earlier, heavily altered by false archaisms to give them an artificial flavour of age. And while some of Homer’s place names are genuinely archaic, his geography and topography are a mess.

How about a historical Trojan War? Who knows. But in terms of popularity, in the Archaic period the Trojan War had a similar standing to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In terms of prevalence in the epic tradition, it was on a similar level to the war between the gods and the Titans. These comparisons aren’t encouraging.

With myths, just because some elements are old, that doesn’t mean any particular aspect of the myth is real. There’s no principled reason to infer, purely from internal evidence, that a myth originated in historical events. If the extant evidence shows a really good survival rate for some kind of stuff, as with Homer’s toponyms and language, it’s reasonable to expect that other toponyms and linguistic forms stand a decent chance of being old, even if we don’t have external corroboration. But if there’s an area where there’s no track record — like, um, almost everything else — then it’s bad methodology to assume it’s a faithful representation of anything at all.
Lara Croft, tomb raider and arch-euhemerist. In her career Lara has visited Atlantis, a Polynesian settlement in Antarctica, Niflheim, and Yamatai, and she has handled the Spear of Destiny, Excalibur, and Mjöllnir. In one game it is ‘revealed’ that the Midgard Serpent of Norse myth was actually the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates.

Part 2. Euhemerism

‘Myths are usually based on some version of the truth,’ Lara Croft says at the start of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. Lara’s sentiment is a nice illustration of a deep-running human impulse: the drive to dig through fantastic elements from a myth, to find a kernel of historical reality buried inside.
Note. Actually, in Lara’s specific case, her argument does potentially hold water. It’s her phrasing that’s the problem. She isn’t actually talking about myths, but about Yamatai, a place named in ancient Chinese historical records. And the Records of the Three Kingdoms may or may not be accurate, but it isn’t at all the same kind of thing as a mythological allusion like Callimachus’ Minotaur, or an allegory like Plato’s Atlantis, or even an anachronism like Strabo’s and Plutarch’s stories of inspired speech resulting from psychoactive gases at Delphi.
Well, if you’re designing a game, like Tomb Raider or Total War Troy, you have that freedom. But for history, don’t go relying on fictional characters for your methodology.

The methodology is called ‘euhemerism’. Maya Georgieva, director of Total War Troy, explicitly invokes euhemerism for the game’s design.
Euhemerism and authenticity
One of the key pillars of Total War games is authenticity — the ambition of creating the game’s sandbox in a manner that feels natural and true to its source while also accommodating all the eventualities that didn’t necessarily occur in history.

Maya acknowledges this, saying: ‘It is an important challenge — to capture the spirit of the source while also providing the necessary gameplay freedom that allows for anything to happen. So it was quite a relief when I realised our grounded approach to myths is not alien to the classical Greeks’ understanding of their legendary past — to the contrary, it is actually very fitting with their own mindset.’
Maya Georgieva in interview, May 2020
Euhemerus of Messene was the (probably pseudonymous) author of the Sacred Record, written sometime around the early 200s BCE. The book doesn’t survive, but we have second-hand reports. The Roman poet Ennius wrote a Latin version, the Sacred History, which was also very influential. On his travels, Euhemerus supposedly
saw a temple dedicated to Zeus that stood in the middle of an idyllic landscape (the whole island was exceptionally fertile). Inside the temple an inscription on a pillar told of the history of the cult of the gods of Olympus: these had been mortals who had been deified because of their extraordinary services to human civilization.
New Pauly s.v. ‘Euhemerus’ (see originally Diodorus of Sicily, Library 6 fr. 1.1–10 = BNJ 63 F 2)
It’s almost certainly Euhemerus that wrote about a gravesite of Zeus on Crete as well.

The basic idea of euhemerism is to take a myth, strip away the fantastic bits, and treat the result as history. It was a natural extension of earlier rationalisations of myths, and in particular of the gods. Here’s Aristotle on the subject:
It has been passed down from the ancients, even the most ancient, and left to later people in the form of a myth, that (heavenly bodies) are gods, and that divinity encompasses all of nature. And the other stuff got tacked on, mythically, to persuade the masses, and for the sake of laws and expedience: for example, they say that these (gods) have human shape, and are like other animals. The rest follows on from that and from other similar things. If we strip away this material, and take only the basic principle — that they consider the primordial beings to be gods — then we would regard that as a divinely inspired statement.
Aristotle, Metaphysics 1074b (12.8)
Euhemerism, or more generally rationalising interpretations of myth, had an instant and universal appeal. Ancient Christians loved it too: they drew on Euhemerus to reject all pagan gods and myths as distorted pictures of ordinary mortals, not actual gods.
Note. On Euhemerus and the grave of Zeus, see Winiarczyk 2013: 33–41. For a Christian writer playing Euhemerus as a ‘pagan gods are fake’ card, see e.g. Lactantius, Divine Institutes 1.11. (The irony of Lactantius trying to pull this was completely lost on him.)
Georgieva gives several illustrations. Hephaestus’ fall from heaven might have been a metal-rich meteorite; the monster Typhoeus might be a volcanic eruption; the Chimaera’s fiery breath could be natural gas vents; the Minotaur could be a man wearing a bull’s skull over his face, Centaurs could be skilled horse-riders with shaggy clothes, the Cyclops could be a man wearing a dwarf elephant skull. And so on.

The assumption behind euhemerism is that, if a myth has been passed down, it must have started somewhere. There must be a source, a first mover, a seed. And that seed is supposedly still there under all the impossible elements.

And there’s absolutely no reason to expect that reasoning to work. In Euhemerus’ own case this is perfectly clear. The Olympian gods as fantasy-coated versions of historical kings may sound neat, but we, nowadays, know that ‘Zeus’ is a reflex of a Proto-Indo-European root *dyēus, meaning ‘sky, day’, and that his function as a sky god has analogues in several other ancient cultures who spoke Indo-European languages. He definitely wasn’t a mortal king, he didn’t live on the island of Panchaea, and there wasn’t a real gravesite on Crete. In a similar way, the classical Greeks believed Dionysus was a recent arrival in their pantheon from Thrace; now we know that isn’t true either, because he’s there in Linear B tablets. He was baked into the Greek pantheon all along.

There’s no need for a first mover, there’s no expectation that there’s a historical kernel. It can just as easily be encrustations all the way down. And it probably is.

Euhemerism means choosing any pseudo-historical explanation of a myth, rather than admitting that we don’t have good enough data to draw any conclusions. I’m not saying a myth is never based on historical events. For all I know, the Lelantine War may have been a real thing. As a matter of fact I think it probably was. But assuming the war happened, simply because we don’t have any competing high-quality evidence about relations between Chalcis and Eretria around 700 BCE, is garbage reasoning.

Euhemerism isn’t a tool for turning bad data into good data. It’s an excuse to carry on using bad data.
People can go to great lengths to resist the idea that a story was just ... made up. This tweet (July 2020) treats an image from a 2013 Photoshop contest as evidence of a cover-up conducted by the Catholic Church and scientists. He gets very angry at the people pointing out that it’s a photoshop. This doesn’t bode well for the author’s state of mind, but it’s also unsurprising: it’s part-and-parcel of the human habit of expecting a kernel of reality even in material that’s totally invented. (Thanks to David S. Anderson for publicising this.)

Phlegon on giant bones

There are always going to be people who find the Trojan War appealing, simply because Troy is real — even if the same logic does imply that The Avengers (2012) is a docudrama. And Georgieva is absolutely right that euhemerism is in keeping with the way some Greeks saw their own myths. It’s just that it’s hopeless as a method for finding out anything real.

And that’s why I find it perplexing when I see bits of Phlegon of Tralles treated selectively as reliable reports. Phlegon, who worked for the Roman emperor Hadrian for a while in the 2nd century CE, wrote a short book called On Wonders which is full of truly weird stories. One part has attracted more attention than any other: a section where Phlegon reports on discoveries of giant bones.

Adrienne Mayor, in her 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters, documents widespread Greco-Roman interest in the remains of species that no longer existed in their environment. Many subsequent writers have taken that as licence to treat Phlegon’s account as true to reality — so long as he’s talking about giant bones.
The huge bones were evidently prehistoric fossils which, compared to the skeletal remains of normal size, were in antiquity identified as relics of extinct races, usually those of giant heroes.
Doroszewska 2016: 129

Unlike many of the strange phenomena Phlegon reports in Mir., the existence of such giant bones can be easily confirmed and explained. As Mayor has persuasively demonstrated after considering a wide variety of evidence, the bones interpreted as the skeletons of giants by the people of the ancient Mediterranean were actually fossilized bones of giant mammals left in Europe after the last Ice Age (e.g. mammoths).
Shannon-Henderson 2019 (on Phlegon, On Wonders §11–16)
Just for reference, Phlegon also tells stories like:
  • People return from the dead, and a decapitated head delivers prophecies in verse (On Wonders §1–3).
  • Spontaneous sex changes of both mythical and contemporary figures (§4–9).
  • Contemporary children born with multiple heads, extra limbs, and growing to maturity; women giving birth to a monkey, a dog-headed child, and snakes; men giving birth (§20–27).
  • The king of Saune, supposedly a city in Arabia, captures a live centaur, which ends up embalmed and on display in a palace in Rome (§34–35).
But why assume Phlegon’s stories are based on anything real at all? If there’s some reason to think that he’s telling a distorted version of some real phenomenon, then bones of large extinct species could be a good candidate. But Phlegon’s material doesn’t encourage me to expect that anything should be taken as reflecting reality in any particular way. I don’t see why we should even be looking for the city of ‘Saune’, which doesn’t appear in any other source.
Giant bones reported by Phlegon, On Wonders 11–19. Immediately after this bit, Phlegon reports on a child with four heads ‘and a corresponding number of other limbs’ who grew to adulthood during the emperor Nero’s reign.
Even in the bit about the giant bones, it’s clear that Phlegon is describing complete skeletons, and there’s no hint that they’re anything other than human-shaped. Even if they were non-human, there are other details which make it hard to reconcile them with mammoths — let alone dinosaur, let alone complete skeletons of the very largest dinosaur species.

One of Phlegon’s complete skeletons is far, far longer than any land-based species that has ever existed outside the Americas:
[T]here is a certain island near Athens, and ... the Athenians wished to fortify it. When they were digging the foundations for the walls, they discovered a coffin measuring a hundred cubits, in which was a skeleton as large as the coffin. Inscribed on the coffin was the following:
       I, Makroseiris, have been buried upon a large island,
       after living five times one thousand years.
Phlegon, On Wonders §17 (tr. Shannon-Henderson)
A hundred ancient Greek cubits comes to 44.4 metres. The only land-based species ever to reach that length was Barosaurus, native to the Midwest of North America. No one should be imagining a complete Barosaurus skeleton in Greece. In a coffin, no less. And with an inscription in classical Greek. (Several others of Phlegon’s giant bones come in coffins too; one of them comes in a jar, labelled with the occupant’s name.)

I find it a bit perplexing that people can look at this, and still say ‘Yes Phlegon talks a lot of nonsense, but when it comes to these specific bits he’s actually based in reality.’ I mean ... why? If his material is that bizarre, why imagine any basis in reality at all?

As we saw above, the nature of the source makes a difference. When Lara Croft argues in favour of Yamatai, she’s drawing on sources that purport to be records of actual historical events. Even in cases like Ctesias and Megasthenes, who believed real dog-headed people lived in India, or Pliny the Elder, who believed the Alps were 75 km high, at least in principle there’s a possibility of sifting out material that reflects reality from distortions and misunderstandings.

Pliny, too, reports, on giant bones, and that should be taken much more seriously. But he doesn’t talk about ribs that are far bigger than any real rib bones that have ever existed. I think it makes no sense to take someone like Phlegon, seize upon the one bit that seems plausible (given a bunch of assumptions), and then say that bit is the one bit that isn’t completely made up.

Phlegon is an extreme case. But the point has a much more general applicability. Whenever you see a news-item on geomythology (myths supposedly based on geological events tens of thousands of years ago), or on Atlantis, or any claim that myths were once ‘true’ — well, that’d be a good occasion to stop and think to yourself:
OK, there’s a passing resemblance ... but why should we expect that the myth is based on anything real in the first place?


  • Croft, Richard J. 2015. Truth behind myth. Osiris Publications.
  • Doroszewska, Julia 2016. The monstrous world. Corporeal discourses in Phlegon of Tralles’ Mirabilia. Peter Lang.
  • Echo-Hawk, Roger C. 2000. ‘Ancient history in the New World: integrating oral traditions and the archaeological record in deep time.’ American Antiquity 65.2: 267–290.
  • Mayor, Adrienne 2000. The first fossil hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press.
  • Ogden, Daniel 2013. Dragons, serpents, and slayers in the classical and early Christian worlds. Oxford University Press.
  • Shannon-Henderson, Kelly E. 2019. ‘Phlegon of Tralleis (1667).’ Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker Part IV. DOI link (retrieved July 2020).
  • Winiarczyk, Marek 2013. The ‘Sacred History’ of Euhemerus of Messene. De Gruyter.