Augustus and Autism 1: Introduction.

This is a post series dedicated to my autistic students.

When I graduated from Cambridge I hoped that I was going to become a specialist in some one topic, an academic. Instead, I have spent my life amateurishly acquiring small amounts of knowledge about lots of things; but sometimes I manage to collect a medium amount of knowledge about widely different but related things. So my only qualification for writing this series of posts is having acquired a medium amount of knowledge from a combination of reading and life experience about two different subjects which seem to be crying out to be thought about together – Augustus and Autism.

I have to write about Augustus and Autism as a series of posts, because I want to say something which is complicated enough to be interesting. I am not interested in the question; ‘Can you imagine Augustus’ being a bit like Sheldon off ‘Big Bang Theory’?’, or in other words, ‘Can we fit a meaningless stereotype of Augustus together with a meaningless sterotype of autism?’ It is only interesting to think about Augustus and Autism together, if we are actually a bit interested in Augustus and Autism already. So in this introductory post, I need to look at prevailing ideas about Augustus and Autism separately.


It is easy to know not-very-much about Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Wikipedia is a good place to start. After that it gets more difficult. There is no shortage of biographies, and no shortage of ancient literature and art created for or about Augustus. He even wrote his own autobiography which is strong on data, and political misdirection, but weak on personal detail – it was intended for monumental public display, which partly explains it. What is difficult, is to penetrate through what is said about Augustus to get any idea of what he was like as a person. The literature written in the ancient world for him was adulatory, part of a slick propaganda campaign with which he bolstered his claims to power. Most of what the relatively reliable historian Tacitus wrote about him is missing, and we are left with Suetonius and later writers. Suetonius was born after imperial rule had become established, more than 50 years after Augustus’ death and he is completely incapable of resisting a good story. All scholars roll their eyes when he is mentioned.

Augustus, Meroe head (c.27 BC) British Museum

Fortunately there are many people trained to deal with this sort of difficulty. There are many biographies of Augustus written by Classical scholars, but these too disagree. Augustus rose as a teenage warlord. It is hard for any modern reader to regard someone so steeped in blood as a normal human being, but steeping in blood was a fairly normal qualification for high office at Rome. So before we even look at details of Augustus’ personal behaviour, his profile is alienating, particularly in these post-imperial times. Where Victorians regarded him as an archetype of the benign imperialist, bringing peace through conquest to a disordered world, the Second World War saw him crash into disfavour as a proto-fascist. The enthusiasm of Mussolini and other Fascists for Augustus was only a superficial reminder of the really disturbing features of Augustus’ career, which became central to the narratives of historians like Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who brought us Augustus the ruthless tyrant.

Mussolini shows off the reconstructed Ara Pacis of Augustus

My own interest in this comes not as a specialist, but as a teacher. Far from having directed focused attention to intricacies of Augustus’ rule, I just can’t get away from him. Years and years of reading and teaching about him at all sorts of levels, reading in Latin thousands and thousands of lines written for him or by him or about him. There’ve been days when his is the face I have woken up to in the morning – the unchanging symmetrical face which goes back to the Meroe head, and is best known from the Prima Porta Augustus. I have shown my students images of Augustan buildings I can only dream of seeing. I have taken an interest in the drains of Cologne. Eventually, as thoughts about Augustus wandered round my brain they bumped into thoughts about autism and resulted in this series.


It is easy to know not-very-much about autism too. Autism is now a widely accepted umbrella term for a range of personal traits which are related to particular types of mental processing. Some individual autistic people run the world – Elon Musk, for example, identifies as having Asberger Syndrome. Others have severe difficulties with essential social activities, and struggle to access education, employment and the basic essentials of fulfilling living. This is a wide range for any label to cover, and autism has only existed as a diagnosis until the 1940s. As autism becomes widely recognised and diagnosed, people are still asking whether it really exists. Then, is it something new? Are there more autistic people now? Is it something caused by parental behaviour (the thesis of the 1950s) or damage at birth or some sort of pollution – chemicals, mobile phones, vaccines?

All of this assumes that autism is a bad thing, and the word was coined to describe a severe disorder. But while people are likely to be diagnosed with autism because they present with problems, is autism itself actually a disorder? Is it a disability? Autistic people are united by thinking ‘differently’ in some respects – but then who decides what is normal? At the far extreme are activists who claim that autistic people are simply an oppressed community of people victimised for thinking differently. Claiming autism as a positive identity has a real corrective value but like other forms of identity politics, it tends to polarise debate. It is very hard for people who regard autism as a disability and people who regard it as a positive identity to talk to each other. Meanwhile, the friends and family of autistic people find themselves expected to identify either as self-effacing carers or oppressors – sometimes both simultaneously.

I am writing here for my friends in the mixed community of autistic and non autistic people who are bound to each other by ties of love, family and friendship. If anyone is offended by my view of autism, this series isn’t for them. It’s for my friends, and anyone who wants to sit in. I am not personally diagnosed as autistic, although I have a number of autistic traits, which most academic types share – for example the capacity to write for 10 hours non-stop. In current thinking, autism is usually described as a non-linear spectrum: that is, nobody now thinks you can rate autistic people against an imaginary straight line on a scale ranging from being a little bit autistic (1) to a lot autistic (10). I see autism as a sun, with rays radiating out from a circular centre. What follows is my own very unofficial model – you can see I struggled with Paint too.

I don’t really believe that anybody is totally ‘neuro-typical’ so I put us ALL in the centre, scoring 1 for each ray that starts from there. Each ray represents a form of mental processing. The further outwards you move on each ray, the more intensely you show that form of processing and the higher you score. So me, and my 10 hour writing capacity – intense hyperfocus. That’s an extension of ‘normal’ that looks a bit like an autistic trait. I see that as moving me to a higher score on one ray, maybe a 2 or 3. However, I tend only to use this capacity in crisis; it doesn’t give me joy, and it isn’t combined with other traits which would make it dominate my personality in normal circumstances. This is because I am mostly ‘neuro-typical’ in other words I am going to score mostly ones or twos. Autistic people are the high scorers – they score a lot more than 1 on a number of rays. But autistic people don’t all score on the same rays as each other. You could be a high scorer overall, but score less than me on 10 hour writing. Autism may be an advantage or disadvantage to you, depending how you combine your high scores, and what your environment is like. If you score highly on hyperfocus, preference for routine and order, preference for facts and data, memory for detail, low vulnerability to emotional distraction, and having a restricted range of interests which you pursue intensely – why shouldn’t you become a billionaire and build a rocket? But if you score highly on aversion to noise, extreme sensitivity to light and texture, and slow processing of language, then you may not finish primary school.

Why Augustus and Autism?

As I said above, thoughts about Augustus wandered round my brain they bumped into thoughts about autism. I suppose they also bumped into thoughts about other things, like tea, but my thoughts about Augustus and autism coalesced, until I became unable to think of Augustus without the lens of autism. We will never know enough about Augustus to know whether he was autistic or not. On top of that, autism is not a very informative diagnosis in itself. The autistic spectrum includes people who build rockets and people who need 24 hour care. All in all, there is no real point in asking the academic question, ‘Was Augustus autistic?’ That’s why it is nice to have a blog where I can share more informal thoughts about why I think it is interesting to add autism into our view of Augustus.

While my slightly obsessive special interest in Augustus’ autism definitely ups my autistic trait score, there is a wider relevance to all of this. Firstly, it is significant for the debate around autism to understand that there have always been autistic people – or rather people who would now be placed on the autistic spectrum. Secondly, autism diagnoses cluster around people whose autism is causing them problems; if you prefer, you can say an oppressive neuro-typical society is causing their autism problems. Either way, the operative word is ‘problems’. As autism is ‘incurable’, a diagnosis can be a depressing thing – a gateway to a life of problems. Autistic people who experience severe problems with building an independent life are easy to spot; lives lived successfully, even brilliantly, with autism hide in plain sight. ‘Outing’ these lives helps us get a better perspective on autism.

Finally, real lives are mixed. Being autistic isn’t a super-power, no matter what it says on the tee-shirt. Being neuro-typical isn’t a super-power either. Augustus’ life is definitely writ large, not least in very large letters on the Monumentum Ancyraenum. His achievements and his disasters are public property. In talking about him we can balance the roles of autism as both advantage and disadvantage, depending on context. And Augustus has been dead a long time and can’t sue. I am leaving out the aspirational aspect of finding an autistic Emperor; ‘you too can be like the Emperor Augustus!’ This is because, I am not sure, after reading the posts, anyone will actually want to be like the Emperor Augustus. But if you do want to be like the Emperor Augustus, autism might be a bit of an advantage.

Saving Lucretia 5: Livy and Lotto

Livy is our original source for the Lucretia story.  Ovid follows him but embellishes with lush detail which tends to emphasise Lucretia’s victimhood.   This allows for lots of erotic sensuality and emotional drama which is the sort of thing Ovid likes.  It is not the sort of thing Livy likes, but more than this, Livy is writing the story of Rome.  Lucretia is a founding mother, commemorated as a female role model and political heroine.  In a period of decadence, when the men fail to resist a vicious autocracy, Lucretia’s defence of the values of the home recalls them to their duty.  The result is the institution of the finest form of government known to Livy, the Roman Republic.

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Livy’s Lucretia sends for her men.  When they arrive she is weeping, but full of purpose.  She tells her story very briefly.  She states that only her body is violated, not her mind and she demands that the men swear vengeance.  She dictates the terms; she will kill herself, they will kill him – if they are men.  The men then try to persuade her not to commit suicide.  She tells them to mind their own business – their job is to deal with Sextus.  We do not yet find out, but she is already carrying the dagger she will use – whatever the men say.  She has resolved to die to preserve her honour – so that no woman shall live unchastely using Lucretia as an excuse (nec ulla deinde inpudica Lucretiae exemplo vivet).

This is really not what modern readers expect to hear Lucretia say.  When I teach this text, I can’t stop students telling me that Lucretia is forced to kill herself by the rules of the patriarchy.  Because she has been raped, she must die to save her men shame.  Or she is so traumatised by the rape that she kills herself through misery and despair. These are assumptions people bring to the text, maybe because of Ovid and all those naked Lucretias in art galleries.  But what Livy says is very different.  It is Lucretia who does  the enforcing.  She chooses to reveal the rape, to do it in Roman fashion, before male witnesses, to assert her intention to die, and to demand an oath of vengeance from the men.  Then she defies them and stabs herself unexpectedly.  After her suicide, the men will be publicly dishonoured if they don’t exact vengeance. Thus Lucretia causes the fall of the Tarquins and the end of Roman monarchy.  She becomes a model for all women and the foundress of the Roman Republic.

So what is happening here?  Rape doesn’t exist as a concept for Lucretia.  Her exchange with the men indicates that she is thinking in terms of adultery.  All participants in the exchange seem to assume that an adulteress is punishable by death.  In the early days of Rome the paterfamilias had rights of life and death over his children, and a husband was allowed to kill a wife taken in adultery.  It seems to be this sort of life-taking within the family that we are talking about – nothing to do with the actual laws of Classical Rome.  Lucretia and the men agree that she had no guilty intent, and therefore should not suffer even.  Instead, Sextus, the perpetrator, will be made to suffer.  They are formulating principles for dealing with rape which are quite enlightened for the period.   Lucretia has satisfied her menfolk that she is not an adulteress; she can now leave it to them to take over and deal with the rapist.

Lucretia is resistant.  She rejects the option of return into the private realm which the men offer.  What she does next is not to do with distress, despair or coercion, but entirely to do with honour – her female honour.  Romans were collective thinkers.  For Romans, suicide in the face of dishonour was an act of personal success, not failure, because it preserved unity with the values of the community and the ancestors and left the suicide the same legacy of honour as those who died preserving those values on the  field of battle.  Having been dragged into public realm, Lucretia resolves to reclaim her honour from any taint of suspicion as a man might do, and earning a glory usually reserved for men.  She stabs herself with a male weapon  (female suicides often hang themselves with their girdles) and it is the men who raise the lamentation.

Lucretia’s motivation is completely bound up with Roman collectivity.  She has lived as the perfect wife not because she is dominated by the patriarchy but because she is a strong soul dedicated to the values of the community.  She has no sympathy with women who flout those values.  She will not have her name which is also her family name associated with the ‘Lucretia defence.’  Her suicide is not an act of self-obliteration, but of transcendence, which asserts her own identity, not with her body, but with the values of her family and community and the spirits of the ancestors.  Lucretia does not just clear her family name, she adorns it and creates an inheritance for her children, an unfailing memory for herself – she fulfils the ideal of Roman life, as much as if she fell on the field of battle.  Her suicide shames the men, booting the Roman aristocracy into getting rid of the corrupt and repressive system of kingship, making her, for Livy, a genuine foundress of the Republic.  What more could a woman want?

This is Lotto’s Lucretia.  The unnamed noblewoman who takes on her example is a commanding self-assured figure.  Her rich clothing sets off her beauty, but she refuses to be an erotic object – in fact the would-be viewer is the object of her stern gaze. She is there to instruct, not to titillate.  Her right arm creates a straight horizontal line from her elbow, resting near the cradle, to her pointing forefinger, which creates a barrier between her and viewer.  The line terminates in her forbidding motto  – that no woman may be unchaste and live, using Lucretia as an excuse.  Above the motto she holds a scrap of drawing showing a naked helpless Lucretia, but this private shame is literally only sketched in, as it is in Livy.  And the sketch is crumpled and rolled away from the viewer.  It creates a visual reference to the viewer’s erotic expectations of Lucretia but dismisses them too.  It seems quite possible that this Renaissance Lucretia may have a dagger concealed somewhere about her person, and that the odds are not necessarily on Tarquin’s side.

Way to go Lucretia, early feminist!  Or not.  This is always the paradox with feminism.  Are you a feminist because you are a strong empowered woman living by your own rules, or are you a feminist because you sign up to a charter of women’s rights, including things like compassionate treatment for rape victims?  I often meet feminist men telling me what, as a woman, I have to think about women’s rights – and this gets me into awful trouble.  Me and Lucretia both, because she is an empowered self-determining woman who grasps the prize of honour like a man.  But, meanwhile, she derails the cause of women for a the best part of two thousand years.  In practice, Romans did not demand that raped women kill themselves, but this remained the gold standard of female behaviour.   The Church ban on suicide, when it eventually came, did nothing to remove the stigma, which continued to degrade raped women right up until – oh wait, has that not stopped yet?


Livy was writing in the 1st Century BC as Augustus tightened moral legislation to try to restore the ancient virtues of the Roman home.  Augustan ideology held that the Roman state had been strongest when it had been supported by the bravery and self-sacrifice of its warriors and the militant chastity of its strong homesteading women.  Augustus tried to enforce marriage and childbearing, and increased penalties for female adultery, but he could not maintain traditional morals even in his own family.  Nonetheless, interest in these ancient role models was rekindled, which is why our earliest versions of the Lucretia story (Livy and Ovid) date from the era.

Honour suicide continued to be esteemed at Rome as a response to rape to such an extent that it nearly got incorporated into Christian theology.  the crucial moment came in the 4th Century BC when Bishop Ambrose of Milan, a man of aristocratic background wrote to his sister, Marcellina, who, with her mother, had formed an early community of dedicated virgins, nuns, in Rome.  The Letter to Marcellina is here.  In this letter, Ambrose recognises the act of suicide to avoid rape as an act of Christian martyrdom, citing the instance of a fifteen year-old girl, Pelagia, who had encouraged her mother and sisters to drown themselves to avoid rape by marauders.  Ambrose recognised Pelagia as a saint.

So why didn’t the Church add honour suicide to its long list of female duties?  For that, we have to thank St Augustine of Hippo.  He retold the story of Lucretia in his City of God  I. 19, but with disapproval.  If a woman is raped in all innocence, then to kill her, is to kill an innocent.  If she kills herself, she becomes a murderess.  Perhaps, says Augustine darkly, Lucretia had secretly enjoyed the rape after all, and knew she did really deserve to die.  Augustine’s barn-storming denunciation put an end to honour suicide as an act of female martyrdom.   His thinking is not entirely sympathetic today;  he suggests, for example, that women should consider whether they have been permitted to be raped as punishment for their excessive pride in their chastity.

Nonetheless, I give you Augustine, feminist theologian.

Santa Maria Maggiore

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Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, Photo by AES.

The Nave of Santa Maria Maggiore: in case you are wondering ‘maj-OR-ray’ – St Mary the Greater.

You will find the main entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piazza del Duomo – Cathedral Square.  And you could be excused for thinking that it is the Cathedral, but it isn’t – that’s next door.  This Church was founded in 1137, and its underlying style is plain – architects call it Romanesque.   The main features of Romanesque architecture are massive walls, sturdy plain pillars, barrel vaults, round arches and colonnades.  The structures are usually symmetrical and uncomplicated – Santa Maria Maggiore is on a typical cross-shaped plan.  Windows are not a major feature: they are narrow and topped by round arches.  You can see a lot of these features in this picture.

Romanesque architecture may be essentially plain, but there is nothing plain about Santa Maria Maggiore: in this view you can see the lavishly decorated ceilings from the 16th century – and that is real gold.  The wooden balustrade separating the Sanctuary from the Nave is by Lorenzo Lotto.  Huge tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries cover much of the wall space, and the rest is taken up with enormous oil paintings of religious subjects.   You can get an idea of the size of the tapestries from this photo with a Confessional, elaborately carved by Andrea Fantoni, in the foreground.  Incidentally, this is a working Catholic Church and confession is offered in a number of languages for teh benefit of the international visitors.

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Confessional by Andrea Fantoni, Photo AES

Before all these pictures and tapestries came the 14th century wall paintings which are fully visible in some places.  In the UK, the Reformation stripped out the painted work, and left us accustomed to see ancient churches as austere structures of bare stone and plaster.  Santa Maria Maggiore remains chaotically decorated, as she always has been – originally by wall paintings, then later by everything subsequent eras, including the Italian High Renaissance and Baroque periods, could throw at her.  The effect isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I find it welcoming – like a giant lived-in room or Christmas.

The Church is so surrounded by buildings that it is hard to take a picture, so I have borrowed this one from Wikipedia.


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Santa Maria Maggiore

Although work started in 1137, building continued into the 14th Century and the process of adding long after that.   The bell tower was not started until 1436.  The main entrance is through Giovanni da Campione’s 14th Century porch; the top section of this was added a quarter century after his death.  This is a beautiful entrance, but it is a very narrow entrance for such a grand basilica, and not even central in the wall.  The reason for this is that the Church was once attached to the Bishop’s Palace, which took up the space where you would expect a Great West Door to be.  Why was the location so crowded?  This wasn’t the first Church on the site.  In fact the site started out as a Roman Temple.  The transformation of Temples into Churches was a general practice: we cannot know how long there has been worship on the site of Santa Maria Maggiore, but two thousand years is a minimum.

Back to the porch and the end of this post.

Santa Maria Maggiore Colleoni 1
Campione Porch, Photo AES

The porch is the elegant simple structure on the left, not the hideous marble wedding cake on the right.  That is something else completely.  Up the sides of the doorway run reliefs of dogs hunting.  Then come two tiers of statues.

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Close-up Campione Porch, Photo AES.

The central statue of the lower tier represents St Alessandro, who is commemorated all over Bergamo as their first evangelist, martyr and saint.  The story is that he was a military standard bearer in the 3rd century AD who was condemned to death in the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Diocletian.  After daring escapes, he hid in the woods around Bergamo, where the Gospel had not yet been preached.  He converted many, but his zeal for the Gospel led to his discovery and death by beheading.  The tier above contains statues of Mary and the infant Jesus.  She is attended by two female saints; one (I think the one on the right) is St Grata, an early convert who stole St Alessandro’s body for burial after his execution.  She carried the severed head herself, and persuaded others to lift the heavy body.  The column which is said to mark the spot of the martyrdom is still preserved outside the Church of St Alessandro in the lower city.

Mantegna’s Resurrection: a lost picture rediscovered.

Mantegna Resurrection
Resurrection of Christ, Andrea Mantegna 1492, photo by AES.

At the moment (Summer 2019) there is an incredible exhibition at the Academia Carrara, Bergamo, and it is all about this picture.  I wish I were an Art Historian, so that I could tell you all about what makes Mantegna’s work special.  You can see for yourself, that he mastered body modelling and proportion, perspective, foreshortening, not to mention vibrant use of colour: or can you?  Because the fact is, that for more than a hundred years, this wasn’t a Mantegna at all.

The Art world is a puzzling place. If you find a Renaissance masterpiece in your attic, there are several possibilities.  Perhaps it is an original by a named artist, or a work from his studio, where assistants did lots of the boring bits, or a work by his disciple, or a copy from his period, or a recent copy, or just a poster someone bought and framed.  Most of us can probably tell a cheap poster from an oil painting, but only an expert can tell the difference between the hand of the Master and a very good painting in his style – yet the difference may be worth millions.  And the experts are not always right.

This painting was originally considered a Mantegna – Count Guglielmo Lochis bought it as a Mantegna in Milan in 1846.  On his death, he bequeathed it to the Academia Carrara, with other works from his great collection.  That is cutting a long story short, because he originally intended the City of Bergamo to take over his whole collection and a brand new Museum he had built for it, but the generous gift was just too expensive for the city to accept.  Some lawyers later, there was a compromise, and the art expert Giovanni Morelli picked out about half the collection (240 pictures) to be re-homed in the Academia Carrara, a gallery which already existed in the city, the generous legacy of Count Giacomo Carrara in 1796.

Giovanni Morelli clearly thought this was a fine painting.  But he did not think it was by Mantegna.  His opinion carried a lot of weight because he was a pioneer of the use of scientific method in the identification of artworks.  Before this period, identification was a bit hit and miss, and salesmen had a lot of motivation to be optimistic about the origin of their wares.  If you know anything about pictures at all, clearly you can tell whether a picture looks like the work of an individual artist; perhaps you have a charming tradition that a work was by such and such an artist, or a letter to that effect signed by someone important and so on.  For Morelli, this was not enough.  He had trained as a doctor, and realised that objective analytical tests could be applied to painting.  He looked beyond broad resemblances to tiny details – how did the artist paint the folds of an ear or the fingers of a hand in a background character?  These techniques were the ‘tells’, the unique fingerprint of the artist.  And according to Morelli, this painting, though fine, was not by Mantegna himself.  This did not prevent it being a copy, or a work from his school, but it was NOT a Mantegna.

And so it remained until last year, 2018.  Morelli’s method has survived him, but we now have the advantage of many objective scientific tests unknown to him: X rays; ultra-violet light; advanced chemical analysis.  This painting has become the first painting of wood to be studied by tomography: imaged cross-section by cross-section.  We also have techniques of digital analysis and comparison which enable us to place side by side works which are located in different continents.  This is what happened here.  In 2018, it was discovered that this work was not only a Mantegna, but the top section of a larger work – the bottom section is in the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection in Princeton USA.  Yes – somebody at some point decided to double his stock of Mantegnas by sawing a big one up.   This is not that unusual.

Descent into Limbo, Andrea Mantegna, 1492

The paintings reunited.

Together, the two paintings make up a single story – and there would have been more on each side.  The red circle shows the location of a tiny cross that matches the sections together.  The colours in the photos I have uploaded are not very good – but you get the idea from my photo at the start.  So at the top, Christ rises from the tomb, to the astonishment of the Roman soldiers guarding it.  If you are English, no, he is not carrying the St George flag – the little white and red pennant is a symbol of the Resurrection.  Although Renaissance artists aimed at naturalism in representing objects, including the human body, the composition of religious pictures was still based around ancient symbolic elements.  Mantegna did not think Christ actually stepped out of the tomb carrying an aerial with the St George flag: the flag is one of the signs that the picture tells the story of the Resurrection.

If you think that stepping out of the tomb in flowing white garments is enough to tell us that we are in the story of the Resurrection, look below.  Christ still has the little flag, in a much more mysterious picture, but the fact that we know that the flag means the Resurrection helps us decode it.  Christ resurrected (with the little flag) is visting a cave: not a Biblical story.  In fact he is helping an old man climb out of it, while other figures, male and female, who appear to have ascended already, stand by in reverent attitudes.  All these figures wear nothing except scraps of drapery – their grave clothes.  This scene, the Descent into Limbo, also called the Harrowing of Hell, represents the rescue from death of those chosen by God in the Old Testament – Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs – who lived justly but could not be fully redeemed until the coming of Christ.  According to the tradition, this act of salvation took place between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Although this story is not strictly Biblical, it was taught as early as the 2nd Century AD.  Theologically, it is a way of solving the problem of how Adan and Eve, Noah and Abraham and all the Old Testament righteous could be saved if salvation is through Christ alone.  The many Christians, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox, who accept this tradition believe it is confirmed by a number of Biblical texts, especially 1 Peter 3: 19-20.  The Athanasian Creed and the Apostle’s Creed both contain the words ‘he descended into Hell’: here the word ‘Hell’ really means ‘Hades’, the realm of the dead, as the damned are not rescued.  Modern Christians may understand these words differently; for Mantegna and his world, they referred to the Harrowing of Hell.  The painting is split permanently, but together the two parts illustrate the connection between the Resurrection of Christ and the Redemption of Mankind, which has begun even before Christ leaves the tomb.

Travels with Gervase of Tilbury; 2 Wandlebury

I once went to Wandlebury.  I was a student at Cambridge.  It was a terrific day for a student excursion.  We got there by bus and footpath.  On the way back, the supposed Roman road we were following was more a less a swamp.  One of us tried to walk through the edge of a sodden ploughed field and sank thigh-deep in Cambridgeshire loam.  How we laughed.  And there was a pub, where only the one with the cleanest shoes was allowed in to order, and another bus.  Such fun.

It had been my idea to go to Wandlebury.  It is the only bit of Cambridgeshire which threatens to rise above sea level, and moreover it is an Iron Age site.  Iron Age sites, in the days when I could still walk uphill, were places I needed to be.  I risked my life on two hideous descents – one on the cliff side of Pen Dinas, Aberystwyth; the side which doesn’t show in this free picture, but where a sidelong wind tries to peel you off the gorse-infested slope, illustrating why the intelligent Iron Agers didn’t bother with defences on that side.   Stephanie Jennison dared that descent with me.  (The thing which looks like a chimney is a botched monument to Wellington, which, for no good reason, dominates Aberystwyth.)

Pen Dinas, Aberystwyth

The other descent was of Caer Caradoc above Church Stretton, and who cares who dared it with me.  Suffice it to say that I would have done better to do the map-reading for myself.

Wandlebury is fascinating enough without Gervase.  I haven’t personally infested it since the 1980’s, but the clue is in the name.  This is a pre-Roman hill-fort, a major Iron Age settlement, which survived to become a Saxon burh – a defensive point where troops could gather.  The location is also called Wandlebury Rings in reference  to the ditch and bank fortifications, of Iron Age origin, which surround it.  It is today a country park, adequately described in the Wikipedia entry.



But the Wikipedia entry omits a more contentious side to the location, discussed separately here.  When I visited, I knew that 1954 excavations by T.C. Lethbridge had led to claims that the hillside had once sported chalk carvings of Iron Age gods.  If this were true, the site would be of exceptional interest.  At any rate, when I visited, there was nothing of Lethbridge’s imaginings to be seen.  The most notable feature was the four-square stable block, which is all that survives of a mansion on the site, dating back to the 17th century, demolished in the 1950’s.  The incongruous stable block is liminal enough, all by itself.  This is a site where the essential persists, obscured by the accretions of time.

So what does Gervase have to say about it?  I translate to save us copyright problems, though you really do need to own the edition by Banks and Binns.  In Otia Imperialia III 59, de Wandlebiria, he says:

In England, on the edges of the Diocese of Ely, is the town named Cambridge, and nearby, within its territories, is a place which people call Wandlebury, for the reason that the ‘Wandali’ [Vandals] pitched camp there, when they ravaged Britain, savagely slaying the Christians.

Gervase understands that bury means some sort of fort.  The idea that Vandals ravaged Britain is sheer fiction, derived from the name current in his day, whatever it was, Latinized as ‘Wandalebiria’.  He continues

Where they pitched camp at the top of a hill, a circular plateau is surrounded by earthworks, with entrance by a kind of gate.

Gervase means that there is a gap in the earthworks – the usual entrance into an Iron Age fort, which, in its day, may have been accompanied by a wooden gateway.

There is a story, widely attested,  going back far into antiquity that if any knight , after the silence of night has fallen, enter this plateau by moonlight, and shout. ‘Let a knight meet a knight!’ then a knight will come to meet him, ready for conflict; their horses come together and he either overthrows his opponent or is overthrown.  But I should tell you of a pre-condition; the knight has to enter the enclosure alone through the entrance, though his companions are not prevented from watching from outside.

In support of this, Gervase tells the story of Osbert Fitz Hugh, who, not long ago (paucis exactis diebus) met the mysterious knight under the specified conditions, and was wounded in the thigh but won the contest.  It was an empty victory.  The wound broke out each year on the anniversary of the fight, and the remarkable black horse, black caparisoned, which was Osbert’s trophy, escaped at cock crow.  Osbert died on the Crusades – saving his soul.

All of which goes to suggest that Gervase spent time in Cambridgeshire, where he heard the story from the locals (ab incolis et indigenis).  Perhaps he was visiting the University, supposedly founded in 1209, but in being as a scholarly community some time earlier.  By 1209, Gervase was probably established in Arles.  So if you want a liminal destination, I recommend Wandlebury.  Take sandwiches, because there isn’t a tearoom.




The Death of Germanicus 2: a Study in Roman Witchcraft

It is very risky to talk about ‘witchcraft’ at all.  It means so many different things to different people.  Everything I write is based on things in my library and I going to look at a passage of Tacitus and use it to explore practices within Roman culture which later scholars call ‘witchcraft’.  So don’t expect anything about Wiccanism, Satanism, coven witches and many other things commonly associated with the term ‘witchcraft’.  I am going to write about the Roman belief that people could exercise power over others by indirect and non-rational means, which we would call ‘magical’.  The Romans seem to have regarded this sort of practice as a common source of harm.  In their literature, practitioners are always regarded as dangerous, but their criminal law legislated against particular ‘magical’ crimes, not being a ‘witch’.   At the end of the post I will ask how appropriate the Anglo-Saxon term ‘witchcraft’ is.

Roman practitioners  of these disapproved arts invoked gods and spirits, but in ways condemned by the community.  Their behaviour was distinguished from the good and proper relations with the gods, which the Romans called religio or religion, although there was an overlap.  The gods of the upper world were associated with light and life and had nothing to do with the pollution of death.  Everyday petitionary prayers went to them.  The dreaded underworld gods were associated with death, misery and darkness and their worship involved nocturnal rituals and the sacrifice of black animals and even the sacrifice of dogs – unclean for normal sacrifice. But all this was part of normal religion – the gods concerned with both light and dark deserved their dues.

We only enter the realm of evil when engagement with the underworld deities moves from the community propitiating them in the proper ways to individuals calling upon Hecate, Dis and infernal spirits secretly and harnessing their power to evil ends, especially towards causing sickness and death.   The Roman sources tell of  forbidden and polluting rites, carried out at night, and including the desecration of dead bodies.  Practitioners were supposed to use harmful incantations.  They also made potions and objects which gave them special powers, especially control over others.  The sources have to be used with caution, but there is strong evidence that these practices did actually exist.  Practitioners were not regarded as having an alternative religion – instead they had illicit commerce with the gods of the religion of the community.

The Latin word we usually translate as ‘witchcraft’ is maleficium – harm-doing, a word which could also be used of harm in general.  Practitioners were malefici  ( female maleficae = harm-doers).  Rome’s oldest laws the Twelve Tables, exist only in fragments but seem to have included, with other crimes against persons and property, enchanting by an ‘evil song’ (malum carmen) and removing crops by enchantment, again by song (qui fruges excantassit).  The references come from Table VIII 1b; 8a quoted in Pliny NH 28. 4). Later legislation follows the same pattern and specifies the banned ‘magical’ practices without distinction, alongside other forms of harm, such as arson and stabbing.   The Romans did not call these practices ‘magic’.  The Latin word magia from which we get ‘magic’ meant something also suspect, but different from maleficium, namely astrology.  In legal texts, the key indicator that we are talking about ‘magical’ harm is usually the association of harm with singing in some way – particularly the malum cantum, the ‘evil song’.  But this is misleading, as we shall see below.  Mentioning ‘evil singing’ identifies the kind of harm that is going on, but Romans assumed that it would be accompanied by a other acts from a wide range of options, including, at the least, ritual activity while the song was sung.

Returning to Germanicus, this magical indirect harm-doing was strongly associated with an undoubted way of doing criminal harm at a distance – poisoning.  A poison is definitely a potion which gives you control over others.  The Romans did have a concept of poison (venenum) as separate from other  malefica (‘magical’ harm-doing things), as the passage below shows, but in the absence of advanced chemistry, it made perfect sense to reinforce the drug with occult methods, which may have gone even into its preparation.  It is not surprising that people adept in poisoning were expected to be adept in other forms of harm at a distance.  Tacitus account of the death of Germanicus is good evidence of the inseparability of poisoning and maleficium in the Roman mind.  It also shows the sort of harm-working things (malefica) which would accompany the evil song.

The terrible intensity of the malady was increased by the belief that he had been poisoned by Piso. And certainly there were found hidden in the floor and in the walls disinterred remains of human bodies, incantations and spells, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on leaden tablets, half-burnt cinders smeared with blood, and other horrors by which in popular belief souls are devoted to the infernal deities. Piso too was accused of sending emissaries to note curiously every unfavourable symptom of the illness.  Tacitus Annals 2. 69

The first symptom of poisoning is, obviously, serious and sudden illness. In the ancient world allegations of poisoning almost invariably accompanied the sudden death of significant figures.  Tacitus likes to cite evidence.  Here he notes Germanicus’ own belief and the curiosity of Piso as circumstantial evidence.  But he also cites as supporting evidence for Germanicus’ belief a bizarre array of nasty objects hidden in the house where Germanicus died.  These, it seems, are the sort of things which may accompany a poisoning.  Tacitus refers to these briefly, because they are well known (in popular belief) and even leaves some for the reader to supply.  He calls the cursing objects collectively malefica – ‘harm-working things’.  Tacitus’ lack of surprise and his assumption that the reader can supply the details of other horrors is extremely interesting – in his Roman mind these bizarre proceedings are a familiar modus operandi.

So what are the malefica?  The human remains look like graveyard pilferings – a common accusation against harm-workers’, and a serious assault on the safety of the dead The cinders combined with gore (tabo) come specifically from the cremation grounds. Human remains were polluting in the Roman world.  Prayers to the upper world gods could not be made in their presence, and so the objects must have compromised the religious safety of Germanicus’ household.  There may also be an attempt to make Germanicus dead by bringing him into contact with the dead.  Below, we shall see this in the case of a different spell.  But it would not be irrational to suppose that polluting a house with human remains would also cause illness.  The finding of the objects concealed in walls and floor is suggestive.  Did Romans often look for malefica in case of sudden illness?  Or did the objects leak and smell?  Did someone know where to look for them?  Were they meant to be found?

The Latin Tacitus uses for ‘incantations and spells’ is carmina et devotiones.  We have met the malum carmen (plural carmina), the ‘evil song’ as the key ingredient of maleficium.  Clearly there might be literal singing, but in this passage of Tacitus we see that writing charms down and placing them in contact with the victim was effective too.  Writing was a powerful vehicle; you could harm your victim both by placing harmful words in your victim’s presence, and by capturing your victim’s name and using it in harmful ways.  And of course, with this kind of access to the victim, harm-workers could support the carmina lavishly with other malefica, and help the spell along with physical means, like poison.

Defixio against Rhodine, from the Baths of Diocletian, Rome

The reference to leaden cursing tablets, defixiones, can be supported from archaeology.  We find cursing tablets deposited by people with grievances in sacred places – usually in water, but, of course, ones thrown into water are preserved best.  The defixio, sometimes in backwards writing, encourages the deity of the shrine to punish the enemy.  Seen by  itself, placing defixiones in shrines could be no more than an emphatic form of negative prayer.   It hardly required secret knowledge.  The gods of the dead were not invoked over the affairs of the living – a transgressive feature of maleficium.  There was, at face value, no  malum carmen, although we cannot know what rituals may have accompanied the defixio.  The physical tablet may only be part of the story, as it is in Tacitus.

Tacitus also mentions devotiones.  The defixio above looks fairly typical.   But it is different because of its content and its location –  it was found in a graveyard and contains a special form of curse – the devotio – which offers possession of the victim to underworld spirits..  On the tablet Marcus Licinius Faustus consigns  Rhodine and several other people to Dis, god of the underworld.  Gifting power over the living to the gods of the dead is something more than a common defixio and it is noticeable that Tacitus makes a distinction.

In certain circumstances, a devotio could be a good thing. Livy (8.9) records the battlefield devotio of the consul Publius Decius Mus in 340 BC.   Decius, according to Livy, sought the approval of the pontifex maximus, the highest religious authority, before dedicating himself and the enemy army to Earth and the underworld spirits.  He then launced himself suicidally against enemy.  He was rewarded with Roman victory and everlasting fame.  But this was an open and self-sacrificing act for the benefit of the community at a place of slaughter, where the underworld spirits were already active.

Marcus Licinius Faustus’ act is the opposite – it is secret and selfish and involves desecrating a grave, presumably by night.  Graveyard rituals and desecrations are strongly associated with maleficium and maleficae in the sources.  It seems that Marcus Licinius Faustus has crossed the line.  As in Germanicus’ case, he brings the victim, or at least her name, into contact with the dead: he writes [may she] have as much strength as the dead man who is buried here.  It would be interesting to know whether he performed other graveyard rituals which leave no trace.

Tacitus’ account shows cursing tablets could be left in the victim’s home as well as in sacred places – something we would be unlikely to find out by archaeology.  We are now developing a picture which suggests the Romans mentally expanded the ‘evil song’ of the Twelve Tables into a complex bundle of acts, including physical attacks on the victim’s home.  Was placing cursing tablets in the house supposed to be magically effective, or were they primarily intended to signal to the victim that he was under occult attack ?  They did in fact signal that an enemy had access to the house.  Would curses against Germanicus also have been placed outside his home, in graves or shrines, or are we looking at variation in practice?  Did Marcus Licinius Faustus try to invade Rhodine’s home as well as working his graveyard ritual?

How did all these malefica, ‘harm-working objects’, get into Germanicus’ house?  The Roman slavery system made hostile infiltration fairly easy.   The agents in other poisoning cases are said to be slaves controlled by the poisoner.  Were the objects meant to be found?  Certainly Tacitus claims Germanicus’ illness was increased by his terror.   In this case, if Germanicus was poisoned, the rational and irrational methods of causing harm at a distance were worked together to produce greater harm than poisoning alone.  So perhaps Roman maleficium was effective on a psychological level, as magic is said to be in many parts of the world even today.  Tacitus claims the forms of malefica he describes were well known and, in Germanicus’ case, the practitioners were rewarded with practical results.  His illness was increased by terror, and, as a bonus, he died in an agony of despair.

Why and how these bundles of actions produced their effects could not be resolved until there had been another thousand years of scientific development.  So the Roman law makers were probably being pragmatic when they identified indirect harm-doing (maleficium) by the ‘evil song’, the malum carmen, as a crime.  We are looking at a society where people in general including those with criminal intent believed in the power of ritual actions.  Rituals and the ‘evil song’  were  part of the toolkit for  practical efforts to control and even kill others.  And although the agent worked at a distance from the victim, we have seen that physical contamination of the victim’s home could be part of the method.

Well, what about ‘good witchcraft’?  This doesn’t really exist as a concept when scholars talk about Rome, because what we are translating as ‘witchcraft’ is maleficium – ‘harm-doing’.  Good-doing, by whatever means, including acceptable ritual practices and invocation of spirits, just wasn’t a problem.  Songs, including sung charms are all called carmina in Latin.  The only kind of carmen worth worrying about was the malum carmen,  the ‘evil song’, which was dangerous and illegal.  Such songs could cause death, although death wasn’t the only objective of the ‘evil song’.  Love charms too could be reinforced with a drugs and ritual actions.   The surviving literary examples – Theocritus Idyll 3 and Virgil’s Eclogue 8 – envisage the love charm as vengeful and coercive.   The Twelve Tables mentions enchanting crops – clearly a big concern.  This suggests a hinterland of persecuting vulnerable people for crop failure, but given our practical evidence for maleficium we have to tread carefully.  Unless you believe in ‘magic’, it is hard to see how any form of spell could damage crops, but threatening or offering to do so could be criminally profitable.  And, as we have seen, your spell might be helped along with physical action.

The Roman believed in other kinds of charms.  In Apuleius’ Golden Ass, the hero accidentally transforms himself into a donkey.  He has got hold of a powerful spell, belonging to a dangerous practitioner of spells, who is able to fly, but it is only harmful to him because he is an idiot – an ass, in fact.  Benign singing and ritual directed at objectives like fertility and prosperity merged into religion.  And benign making of ritual objects and potions for healing merged into medicine, which included non-rational elements at Rome.  Sometimes it is hard to decide whether singing practices are ‘magical’ or not: is a lullaby a sleep charm?

You could say that ‘magical’ ways of doing things were integral to Roman culture.  No public business could be done without examining the sky for signs.  Omens could hold up battles, ritual mistakes could cause enterprises to be abandoned.  There was no stable way of disentangling rational and irrational practices.  There were particular harmful ‘magical’ practices which were distinguished and condemned, like harmful non-magical practices; to the Romans they were all just harmful practices.   Roman ‘witchcraft’, or what we call Roman ‘witchcraft’, is, by definition, always antisocial.

So is ‘witchcraft’ the correct word?  English speakers are stuck with it because of two thousand years of discourse about ‘magical’ practices, which led to whatever it is the Anglo-Saxons meant by ‘witchcraft’ being identified with a combined package consisting of what the Romans called maleficium and other practices which had come into official disrepute by the beginning of the modern era.  These included benevolent charm and potion, which were increasingly excluded from legitimate medicine.  It didn’t help that the Old Testament (Exodus 22.18) condemned ‘witches’ to death – or at least, it did once it was translated accessibly into English in the sixteenth century.  Who exactly was condemned to death in the original Hebrew is hard to say – but the intended target may have included poisoners, something we can easily understand from the Germanicus story.  There is an online article about this here.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were an Information Age, as movable type and the Renaissance rediscovery of the Classics widened both the spheres of learning and the availability of books. Society was moving towards the twin  system of science (the accepted rational) and religion (the accepted irrational) which is familiar today.   This binary system excluded and marginalised all practices not sanctioned either by scholars or priests.   Classical education only reinforced concerns about ‘witches’ with solid Roman authority and horrifying anecdote.   Reports of cultural practices from a range of societies, and going back 2,000 years, gathered in libraries to form the basis of a pseudo-science of ‘witches’ with enthusiasts including James I of England.  ‘Witchcraft’ came to be viewed as a single phenomenon stretching across time and place, with a set profile of inter-linked occult behaviours which now also included obedience to the Devil.  Someone suspected of being a ‘witch’, on any ground, was likely be tortured into confessing other acts from the profile, like flying and devil worship, which as a ‘witch’ she (because women were most suspected) must surely commit.  The seventeenth century became an age where women in England could be hanged, essentially, for having a cat.

‘Witchcraft’ charges have become notorious as a pretext for misogyny, religious persecution and various sorts of abusive and disempowering misbehaviour.  We even have the phrase ‘witch hunt’ to denote meaningless persecution. Tacitus’ account of Germanicus’ death reminds us that in the pre-modern world, certain sorts of ‘magical’ practice were criminally intended, and were supported by forms of physical intimidation still criminal today.  In the popular perception, and it seems, at least occasionally,  in actual fact, these practices were linked to poisoning.  They were associated with terror, physical harm and death.  The death of Germanicus gives us an idea of what the ‘evil song’ might look in practice and why it was illegal in Roman law.

The Death of Socrates: living not dying

In 399 BC the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, drank hemlock and died.  He was 70 years old.  There is a full account of his death by his pupil Plato, apparently based on the eye-witness testimony of close friends, as Plato himself was not there.  Socrates had been condemned to death, and according to Plato, died serenely after a long discussion with his faithful male friends and students on the immortality of the soul.  This account can be found at the end of Plato’s Phaedo.

Is the account literally true?  Well, Plato almost certainly created the dialogue on immortality.  Socrates wrote nothing in his life.  Plato spent his life recreating discussions with Socrates – imagining discussions with Socrates was Plato’s way of doing philosophy.  So we can’t always be sure he is recording things Socrates actually said.  But the final section is different.  It is an eye-witness account of how Socrates actually died.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David 1787

The picture above is a famous representation of the death of Socrates.  You can find an excellent article on it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it now hangs: just click here.   I’m not going to discuss this painting, especially as someone else has done it so well.  I’m more interested in why death-bed paintings were a popular genre up until the twentieth century.  The idea was not to take a ghoulish pleasure in death but to draw inspiration from people who ‘died well.’   Subjects tended to be people who sacrificed their life in a noble cause, or people who set an example of how to live so as to die without fear or regret.  Socrates ticks both boxes.

Death-bed scenes moved completely out of fashion in the twentieth century, as the so-called ‘first world’ moved death out of homes and into hospitals.  The care of the dying and the clothing of their bodies for burial became a professional job.  Far from families and whole communities gathering at the death bed, it became increasingly hard for them to be present.  In a society where most people can spend years without coming into contact with a significant death, and will perhaps never see a dead body, many people are uncomfortable with the topic of death.  Social approval has moved towards ‘remembering how they were when they were alive.’  Remembering how they died can be seen as unhealthy and even disrespectful; at the very least it is something private and personal.  Medical attendants have replaced family at the bedside, protecting the dying person from being disturbed by grieving relatives.

People in the ancient world rarely got a chance to die privately.  In Ancient Greece the women of the household usually cared for the sick and prepared the body for the tomb – along with any other local women who came to help.  No-one could be unfamiliar with death, especially as life expectancy was fairly low, and a death-bed was somewhere for friends and family to gather.  It was essential for loved ones to be there to kiss and embrace the dying person in farewell, even catching the last breath in their mouths.  And a member of the family was needed to close the eyes and place a coin in his mouth to pay for his passage across the river Styx into the land of the dead.  There was noise too, as pans were shaken to ward off evil spirits.  Death was a  big event.

Prothesis – the lamentation over the body – shown on a 6th Century BC votive tablet by the Gela Painter

Deaths in battle were also frequent and obviously public.  Thinking about the soldier will help us understand the ancient way of thinking.  A solider had to live bravely and die bravely – a man’s whole moral character was in question if he faltered at the end.  Such a man was a risk to his comrades  In the ancient Greek world, there were no professional national armies.  All  free men were expected to fight from their late teens.   The idea of living so that you can die well, without fear or regret, was an obvious concern for everybody.  It was bad enough for a man to fall in battle – what could be done with someone who deserted his friends and neighbours, or was too terrified to fight?

Socrates thought the Athenians should take seriously the idea of living so that you can die well, whether you died in battle or not.  On the battlefield, it is easy to know what to do – stand your ground and fight.  The question is, what is it you have to do off the battlefield?  This was Socrates’ area of expertise.  For him, the key was knowing what was truly good.  People mess up their lives by fearing the wrong things, like death and poverty, and wasting their efforts chasing things they imagine are good.  This is why people need to examine their beliefs and test them.  As long as people believe a hotch-potch of things which don’t connect to reality, it is not surprising that they are going to make terrible decisions.

So the first thing is to make people question their beliefs to see whether they make any sense.  The aim is not to keep questioning for ever.  The questioning has two purposes.  First of all, you need to clear out all the wrong ideas which clutter up your head and make you incompetent at running your life.  Secondly, you need to ask questions which will help you discover what the universe is really like, and how you fit into it.  This includes discovering what is good, and worth wanting, and bad, and worth fearing.

Knowing what is good isn’t easy.  But if you find out, the battle is won.  Because Socrates, or at least Socrates according to Plato, believes that virtue is knowledge.  ‘Virtue’ to Socrates means something like ‘excellence at being a person’.  We have the idea that you could be virtuous but unhappy.  Socrates doesn’t.  Being excellent at being a person is the happiest thing you can do; the alternative is being rubbish at being a person, and obviously if you are rubbish at being a person you will be unhappy.  Once you understand your real nature, you can be excellent at being a person and then of course you will be happy.  When you are dysfunctional, and fighting your true nature, of course you are unhappy.

The key is that the perishable universe is mostly a distraction.  You are essentially your soul, an immortal being.  You will flourish once you direct your being towards immortal things, like Beauty, Truth and Goodness; these are real, and give the physical world what stability it has.  The physical world allows you glimpses of reality.  Wherever you perceive pattern, regularity and beauty, you have an opportunity to move your mind away from the physical clutter of the world of sensation, and begin the journey of pure thought into the real world of things which are eternal, which Plato calls the Forms.  Basically, you should do maths, and hang out with mathematicians in your free time.

But because you have a body, you may have some hardware problems.  Your soul is immortal, but it is wearing a perishable body.  It’s possible your soul has got a bit battered through descending into a perishable body.  One problem is that getting born takes away the soul’s memory about its life outside the body.  In addition, the body places constraints on the soul.  The body has to be nourished and protected, and the part of the soul programmed to look after it is glitchy.  Unless you really nurture the highest part of your soul, the bit that is most really you, then your physical desires, which are only intended to keep your body functional, will start taking over.  You will become obsessed with the things the body craves, like food and drink, and lose track of the things that your true self needs.  This causes unvirtuous – non-excellent – behaviour and unhappiness.

So the cure is to nurture the highest part of your soul.  Bring it into contact with the order of the universe by studying maths.  And discuss goodness and truth.  Question what you thought you knew.  Throw out the rubbish ideas and your soul can start remembering Truth and Goodness and Beauty.  Once you remember those things, the material things you once desired will seem unimportant to you.  You only desired them because you were confused.  Your soul was longing for beauty, so you collected beautiful things which reminded you a bit of Beauty itself.  Your soul was longing for goodness, and it got distracted by things which are ‘good’ for the body, like food.  Once you rediscover Goodness itself, you will never crave those trivial things again.  And you won’t fear losing them either, because your soul will possess them all the time.

Death, it turns out, is a fairly irrelevant part in the soul’s journey, where it sheds a body it has been wearing for not very long.  The upside is that the soul will be free from all the ways in which the body limits the soul and keeps it away from Goodness, Truth and Beauty.  There isn’t really a downside.  This is what the characters in the Phaedo discuss.  The conversation leads up to the moment where Socrates proves that it is possible for a human being to live in the way he has described, by going unafraid into death.  His companions grieve, and he tells them off – he has sent the women away, because he knows they will do all the grieving behaviour that women always do.   He has chosen to spend his last moments in his body, as he had lived, contemplating the goodness of the universe with his friends before he leaves for a fuller life, where they will eventually join him.  Why would they spoil this beautiful event with weeping and wailing?

This is why, in the picture by David, Socrates is vigorously teaching on his bed.  He looks strong and active, because his soul is strong and active.  The cup contains the hemlock, which he will drain without fear, regretting only that he isn’t allowed to make a drink offering from it to the gods.  The jailer weeps, as Plato says he did.  According to Plato, Socrates died peacefully.  Some commentators object that death from hemlock is not pleasant or peaceful, but Plato does not say that Socrates suffered no physical pain.  In fact he records that Socrates suffered slow paralysis, and that he covered his face as he waited, only uncovering for a moment to remind his friends to make an offering to Aesclepius, god of healing, in thanks for an easy death.

Many people have found Socrates’ death inspiring.  The important thing isn’t that he was a martyr for his beliefs – although he was condemned for refusing to renounce his teachings.  It isn’t even that he was brave, although heroic death scenes often do celebrate military values, such as the painting of the death of Epaminondas, painted also in the French  neo-Classical style, just seven years after David’s painting.

Death of Epaminondas, Laurent Pecheux, 1795

Epaminondas is definitely dead.  the viewer gets to share in the wonder and the sorrow, but where he has gone, and whether it was all worth it is up to the viewer.  This is a secular painting and celebrates patriotism, fame and glory as noble life goals.

Many death-bed scenes involve famous last words.  The tradition was that the dying person would make a last act of guidance to the people left behind, even just a few consoling words to the family.  Epaminondas said, ‘I have lived long enough, for I have died unconquered.’  Socrates actual last words, about the sacrifice to Asclepius are relatively trivial.  But for Plato, they show how little the prospect of death occupied Socrates mind.  Socrates ‘real’ last words are the whole of the dialogue, the Phaedo, which culminates in and explains his complete indifference to death.

Nobody ever painted pictures of Socrates dead body.  He says in the Phaedo, when asked about his funeral

 “I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse.”

After this, anyone painting Socrates dead would look a bit silly.  Socrates doesn’t really have a death-bed, since he refuses to accept death as change to anything important.  It is only his companions who have the uncomfortable illusion that he has died, because the body he used to wear becomes empty.  Socrates is teaching them that we are not our bodies and nothing of what they love about their friend is changing.  Plato was not there at the time Socrates died.  Apparently he was ill, but in Socrates’ case, there wasn’t anything exceptional for him to be there for, although it was a shame he missed the party.  Socrates’ death was particularly unreal for Plato, who would continue to converse with him in dialogues for the rest of his life.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 9 – Swapping Off)

So far we have seen Augustus build a succession of heirs, only to be disappointed by repeated deaths.

His moves in the succession combine four principles, NO MORE WAR, GIRLS ARE MUMS, DADS ARE BEST, AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.

Here is a summary of Augustus’ attempts to provide a succession of strong male heirs.

Augustus lacks a son.  He decides his nephew Marcellus (son of his sister, grandson of his biological father, Gaius Octavius) will make a suitable father for the children of his daughter Julia 1.  This simple plan fails due to Marcellus’ death.

Next he adopts his grandsons, Lucius and Gaius, Julia’s children by another husband.  They die.

Then accepts his unrelated stepson Tiberius, as a father of heirs.  When Tiberius’ marriage to Julia fails, and it is clear that she will have no more sons (in fact she gets banished), Augustus is forced to consider Tiberius as an heir and adopts him.  Augustus really wants a biological heir and so also adopts Julia’s third son by her previous husband, but later rejects him as unsuitable to be an heir.  He has now run out of Julia’s sons, but there are still daughters.

Faced with the prospect of seeing his succession pass out of his biological line to Tiberius, Augustus brings in his great nephew, Tiberius’ nephew, Germanicus, who has descent from Augustus’ sister Octavia.    Germanicus is to marry one of Julia’s daughters and keep the succession in Augustus’ biological family.  Tiberius and his son lack biological relatedness to Augustus.  Tiberius’ son is placed after Germanicus in the succession and given a suitable marriage which will produce children descended from Augustus’ father, but not Augustus himself.

The rest is just swapping off.  Here are the Julio-Claudians who ruled.

In 14 AD Augustus died.  Tiberius succeeded, as planned.  During his reign he killed off several of Augustus’ descendants, including his own ex-wife, Julia 1, Agrippina, wife of Germanicus, and her two elder sons.  Germanicus himself died of disease or poison in 19 BC.  When Tiberius finally died in 37 AD, he had kept the peace for quarter of a century, although the imperial court had become a dangerous place.  His son had predeceased him, possibly murdered by his wife, and Tiberius, now embittered and absorbed in his own world of vice and paranoia, allowed his line to die out.

Since Tiberius’ son was dead,  a son of Germanicus followed him, as Augustus had intended.  A survivor of the massacre of his family, the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar, known as Caligula was reputedly mad.  His bloody reign ended with his assassination in 41 AD.  The line of Germanicus’ sons was exhausted, although daughters remained. Caligula left no heir.

The next Emperor was Claudius, brother of Germanicus, a descendant of Augustus’ father.  He had never been intended as an heir – he was lame and Augustus viewed him as half-witted.  Tiberius never saw him as a rival, and Caligula made him a figure of fun.  Now, in the confusion of the assassination, he became Emperor.  Claudius already had a son and a daughter.  But in 49 AD Claudius married into Augustus’ bloodline, cementing his claims on the Augustan succession.  This involved incest –  he chose his niece, Caligula’s sister, Germanicus’ daughter, great granddaughter of Augustus himself, and, like Claudius, descended separately from Augustus’ sister .  Names in the imperial household were departing from tradition and becoming very confusing.  So we will call her Agrippina 2, to distinguish her from Agrippina 1, wife of Germanicus.

When the marriage took place, Agrippina 2 already had a son, Nero, by a previous marriage who had a double claim to Augustan descent, both from Augustus and from his sister.  Claudius was only descended from Augustus’ sister.  As a result of Augustus’ back-up heir plans, there were a number of people around with some sort of relatedness to him and his father.

Agrippina 2 was a dangerous bride.  She had survived the killings of both parents and  two brothers, and she had also steered her way through her brother Caligula’s murderous court.  The story is that Claudius could not see through his young wife’s ambition for her own son.  When Claudius’ son died young, it was said he had been poisoned by his stepmother.  Left without an heir, Claudius adopted Agrippina’s son Nero and made him his heir.  As you might expect by now, Nero also married Claudius’ daughter, his stepsister and first cousin once removed.  Their son would be Claudius’ grandson (and his great nephew) and descended in multiple ways from Augustus and his sister.  When Claudius died in 54 BC, allegedly poisoned by his wife, Nero became Emperor.

However, once he became Emperor, Nero’s concern for the Augustan succession was minimal.  There was no grandson for Claudius.  After Nero had established his rule, he murdered his mother and had his wife put to death.  He made two other legal marriages as well as two irregular marriages, but had no children who survived infancy.  In 68 AD his military commanders rebelled and he committed suicide.  Civil War followed and the Augustan succession was over.  Augustus had prevented Civil War for nearly 100 years.  But his concerns for promoting his biological line in the succession had made the imperial family a brutal and murderous place.  The traditional morality which Augustus promoted in his legislation was nowhere more flouted than in the distorted relationships, scandals and cruelties which typified his own family.

Disentangling the Augustan Succesion (Part 8 – Germanicus)

So in AD 4 Tiberius, son of Livia, stepson of Augustus, was adopted into the Julius family and had only Augustus’ unsatisfactory grandson, Postumus, between him and the prospect of ruling Rome.  AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.  But Augustus didn’t love Tiberius that much and he had not finished with the DADS ARE BEST principle.  He soon rejected Postumus and was left with the prospect of Tiberius taking over, and founding his own dynasty, with no biological connection to Augustus at all.  Yet there were still options among his biological family through his sister’s daughters.

Essentially, Augustus had a good stepson/bad stepson problem, at least, from his own point of view.  Livia’s younger son, Drusus, was the good stepson.  He had never known any father except Augustus – and many people believed he was Augustus’ son, conceived while Livia was still married to her previous husband.  He was a great military commander in his own right, and earned the title Germanicus for his family in battle.  And he had married a daughter of Augustus’ sister Octavia in 16 BC.

In 16 BC this had made sense.  Julia 1 (GIRLS ARE MUMS) and Agrippa were producing numerous children, including the boys, Gaius and Lucius.  Tiberius had been betrothed to Vipsania, Agrippa’s daughter by a previous marriage, almost since she was born – a political match which had nothing to do with the succession.   They married in 19 BC and were happy.  Meanwhile, as a back-up plan for the succession, Augustus decided Drusus could be a father of his own father’s descendants (DADS ARE BEST) and married him to his niece, the daughter of his sister Octavia in 16 BC.  While this fulfilled the AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA principle, Augustus didn’t expect to need either of Livia’s sons in the succession.

All this changed with Agrippa’s death in 12 BC, Tiberius’ disastrous marriage to Augustus’ daughter, Julia 1,  and her disgrace and exile.  Augustus had to give up on having a biological grandson in the line of succession.    But Drusus’ successful marriage had produced a potential heir, descended through women from Augustus’ biological father  Gaius Octavius .  This new arrival was  – well, he is always called Germanicus.


If Drusus had lived, Tiberius would almost certainly have missed out on the succession in AD 4.  He and Augustus had had a terrible relationship since the marriage to Julia in 11 BC.  Drusus could have been adopted as a strong successor and caretaker for his own son, Germanicus.  But Drusus died in 9 BC, reputedly of falling off a horse – another example of the dangers of campaign.   Left without Drusus, Augustus briefly considered making Germanicus his heir, but at barely twenty, he was too young to take over, especially against the opposition of his now wicked uncle, Tiberius.

But the future was with Germanicus.  Let’s not forget Julia 1’s daughters (GIRLS ARE MUMS).  By now, Augustus had given up on marrying Tiberius to anybody.  But Julia’s daughters were still available for marriages and their children would be great grandchildren to Augustus himself.   He was set on Germanicus, already a great nephew via Octavia, marrying one of Julia’s daughters and fathering his great grandchildren.   So Augustus came up with a complicated plan.

In AD 4 Augustus forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, his nephew and to make him his heir above his own son.  Augustus finished the plan by marrying Germanicus to one of Julia’s daughters, Agrippina.  Now everything would unfold as if Drusus had lived, with Tiberius filling in until Drusus’ son took over.

Augustus was following the four principles.

Germanicus (DADS ARE BEST) was descended from Augustus’ father, Gaius Octavius, through Octavius’ daughter Octavia, and her daughter Antonia (GIRLS ARE MUMS).  So he was descended both from Livia on the one side (AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA)  and Augustus’ father on the other.  By the marriage to Agrippina, Augustus’ granddaughter, Germanicus’ children could be descended from Augustus himself.  So Germanicus’ children would be Augustus’ descendants, Gaius Octavius’ descendants, and also Livia’s descendants in a mixed Julio-Claudian succession.  As a promising young commander, Germanicus would soon be able to ensure the NO MORE WAR principle for himself.  And meanwhile Tiberius would be  get to rule for life, but he would not get to found a dynasty.  All this might have made sense on paper, but it took no account of psychology.

What about Tiberius’ son?  Well, like Tiberius, Tiberius’ son wasn’t biologically connected with Augustus at all.  He had a place in the succession too – Tiberius was allowed to adopt him as a Julian and junior heir after Germanicus.  And a marriage was made between Tiberius’ son and Germanicus’ sister.  This gave Augustus another chance to bring his father’s line into the succession even if Germanicus died without heirs.  After Tiberius would come his son (unrelated to Augustus) and then his son (descended from Augustus’ father).   But Germanicus and his line came first.

Tiberius came off worst in these arrangements.  having been forced to divorce his son’s mother to marry Julia 1, he now found his son virtually disinherited.  He had to treat his nephew, Germanicus, as senior in his household to his own son – a humiliating position.  And he became a wicked uncle to Germanicus, knowing that his own son could only succeed if Germanicus’ line failed.   When Augustus made these arrangements,  he was signing a death warrant for his granddaughter Agrippina and two of her sons, who would be wiped out, along with other potential rivals, in the reign of Tiberius.  Germanicus himself would die of poisoning on campaign in 19 AD.  But Germanicus would eventually contribute two Emperors to the succession – his son Caligula and grandson Nero.

We are now ready for the final post; Part 9 – Swapping Off.

Disentangling the Augustan Succession (Part 7 – the Fourth Principle)

In AD 4 Augustus was faced with the death of both his heirs, the sons of Julia 1, and the lack of a credible regent.  He revised his position.

Julia still had one son left -her youngest, Postumus Agrippa.  So Augustus adopted this boy, whom he had previously ignored.  The sources suggest there was some deep-seated objection to Postumus,  possibly because he had some sort of disability or mental illness.  Postumus did not remain an heir for long – he was banished in AD 6.

Livia heart

But Augustus also made a much more interesting move.  While focusing his hopes on Gaius and Lucius, Augustus had kept on devising  back-up plans involving brutal political marriages and divorces.  Let’s go back in time.  When Agrippa died in 12 BC, Julia 1 was still young enough to become the mother of even more heirs.  Augustus hoped not to need them – he had Gaius and Lucius, her sons.  But on the GIRLS ARE MUMS principle Augustus felt Julia should continue to ensure his succession with back-up sons, and picked another suitable husband.

So in 11 BC, Julia married her stepbrother, Livia’s elder son, Tiberius.  He was indeed strong enough to enforce the NO MORE WAR principle, but his choice over other candidates was obviously to please Livia.  AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.   To make this marriage,  Tiberius was made to divorce his beloved wife, the mother of his son, and marry Julia against his will.  The marriage with Julia was a disaster and produced no children.  Julia’s career as mother of heirs was over.  By 6 BC, Julia and Tiberius had separated and in 2 BC she was disgraced and sent into exile.  Augustus would have to make the best of her children by Agrippa.   At the time, with Gaius and Lucius shaping up excellently, this didn’t seem much of a problem.

But in AD 4, the situation was much more urgent.  Augustus did something much more radical than just trying out the unsuitable Postumus as an heir – he adopted his stepson, Julia’s ex-husband, Livia’s elder son Tiberius, bringing the Claudius family into the succession.  Like Agrippa, Tiberius was no biological relation, but an experienced commander and able to uphold the NO MORE WAR principle.   This helps explain how he got chosen to marry Julia.  But that doesn’t explain his adoption in his own right, after it was clear that he would not father Julia’s sons – for that we need the fourth principle; AUGUSTUS LOVES LIVIA.  Augustus was elevating Livia’s son to a position where he might inherit the rule of Rome – something he had not done for either of Julia’s previous husbands.  In fact (spoilers), on Augustus’ death in 14 AD, Tiberius became the Emperor Tiberius.

However, Augustus did not let go of the idea of keeping his own biological family in the line of succession.  Initially, he kept his grandson Postumus in reserve; given the age difference, it is probable that he considered placing him next in the succession after Tiberius, so that Tiberius would hold power in his life, but pass it back to a descendant of Augustus at death.  Even after he finally gave up on Postumus, Augustus would continue to interfere with the line of succession, diverting it away from Tiberius’ natural heirs towards his own biological family.