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History Lecture – “The Great Illyrian Revolt” at the Queens Public Library – January 26, 2021

Greetings everyone! On January 26, 2021, I conducted my first ever public lecture as a historian when I delivered a talk for the Queens Public Library via WEBEX concerning the Great Illyrian Revolt, a massive uprising which took place against the Roman Empire from 6 to 9 AD. The lecture was recorded on the host’s personal computer, and she sent me the link to the video, but I didn’t know how to download this video file onto my own computer until a few hours ago. After some very frantic computer work, here it is! The video lasts for a just a tad longer than an hour and twelve minutes. I hope you enjoy it.

If you like this lecture please purchase a copy of my book The Great Illyrian Revolt: Rome’s Forgotten War in the Balkans, AD 6-9, published by Pen & Sword Books in 2019.

February 1 – The Month of Februus, the Ancient Roman God of Purification

In the ancient Roman calendar, several of the months are named after gods in the Roman pantheon. January is named after Janus, the god of new beginnings. March is named after Mars, the god of war. But what about February? February is the month of Februus, the god of purification. The name Februus comes from the Latin verb februa (which may have either Etruscan or Sabine roots), which means “to purge, purify, or cleanse”. The word “fever” is based on the same origin as the name “February”, because the Romans believed that you could purge sickness from your body by sweating it out of your system (1).

In addition to having the entire month dedicated in Februus’ honor, the ancient Romans also had a specific day dedicated to him in their calendar. This was called the Februalia, the Feast of Februus. In one source, it says that the Februalia purification ritual spanned from February 13 to 15 (2), but in all other sources that I have seen, it states that it only took place on the 15th. Later, the purification rituals of the Februalia were absorbed into the fertility ritual of the Lupercalia, which you can read about in more detail here.

In the past, the Roman calendar began with the month of March and ended with the month of February. Mars was seen as the divine father of the Romans, for he was the father of their first king Romulus; the year began with the month that bore his name. February, the final month of the calendar, was regarded as the death of the year, and consequently February was known for reverence to the dead (3). Traditionally, Roman government officials began their term-of-office on the first day of the year (March 1st) and exited on the last day of the year (February 28th or 29th). However, during the 150s to 130s BC, several important changes occurred within the Roman Republic, and many of these changes had to do with the Roman military campaigns in Spain. Military campaigns almost always began in March or April, when the temperature warmed, the snows melted, and the Roman Army could move. However, the immensities of the fighting in Spain meant that Roman military commanders were given precious little time to organize their campaigns. As a result of the wars in Spain, the rules and conventions of government needed to be changed due to the necessities of waging military operations in that theater, including extending the term-of-office for certain officials in order for them to more effectively carry out their duties, and even changing the Roman calendar. It was decided to shift the months of the calendar around. January and February, which had previously been the eleventh and twelfth months, were now moved to the beginning of the year to serve as the first and second months. Roman politicians and military commanders now assumed their powers on January 1 instead of March 1, which gave them at least sixty more days to prepare their troops for the upcoming military campaigns. This is also the reason why the months of September (literally translated to “Month Number 7”), October, November, and December now serve as the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year (4).

The Roman poet Ovid writes about the purification rituals of February in his Fasti:

“The fathers of Rome called purification ‘februa’. Many things still indicate that meaning for the word. The high priests ask the King and the Flamen for woolen cloths, called ‘februa’ in the ancient tongue. When houses are cleansed, the roasted grain and salt, the lictor receives, are called by the same name. The same name too is given to the branch, cut from a pure tree, whose leaves wreathe the priests’ holy brows. I’ve seen the priest’s wife (the Flaminica) ask for ‘februa’, and at her request she was given a branch of pine. In short anything used to purify our bodies, had that title in the days of our hairy ancestors. The month is so called, because the Luperci cleanse the earth with strips of purifying hide, or because the time is pure, having placated the dead, when the days devoted to the departed are over. Our ancestors believed every sin and cause of evil could be erased by rites of purification. Greece set the example: she considered the guilty could rid themselves of sins by being purified” (5)

Ovid also states that a gathering was held every February 1 at the Forest of Alernus, located where the Tiber River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, he does not provide any reason for this assembly of people at this wood, nor does he go into any description as to what activities occurred there. Elsewhere, at the tomb of Numa Pompilius and at Jupiter’s temple of the Capitoline Hill, a sheep was sacrificed. (6)

Ovid also states that February 1 marked the date that at least two temples were built dedicated to the goddess Juno, the queen of the Roman gods. However, Ovid remarks that these temples had long fallen into ruins by the time that he was writing (7).

Source citations

  1. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  2. Definitions and Translations. “Februa”. https://www.definitions.net/definition/februa.
  3. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  4. Rome and the Barbarians, lecture 8 – “The Roman Conquest of Spain”.
  5. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
  6. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.
  7. Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 1.

Bibliography

An Announcement: I’ll be giving a public lecture on ancient Roman history!

Greetings all! I am happy to report that I will be delivering my first-ever public lecture as a historian. I will be giving a talk about the Great Illyrian Revolt of 6-9 AD, one of the biggest, most consequential, and least-studied military conflicts in ancient Roman history.

The lecture will be hosted by the Queens Public Library and will be held virtually on WEBEX on Tuesday January 26 from 4:00-5:00 PM eastern time. It’s free, and you don’t need a library card or a library account to attend – you just need access to a computer. I have included the official Queens Public Library advertising announcement below. You can also click on the website link here: https://www.queenslibrary.org/calendar/fyi-the-great-illyrian-revolt-with-jason-r-abdale/002113-1220.

January 16, 7 BC – The Day that Germany Surrendered to Rome

The date of January 16, 7 BC is important for both Roman and German history.

Ten years earlier in the year 17 BC, three German tribes crossed the Rhine and raided Gaul, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. It wasn’t long before the barbarians ran into a Roman cavalry unit and forced them to retreat. Pursuing them, the Germans stumbled upon the commander of the 5th Legion, Marcus Lollius, and in the skirmish, the Germans captured the 5th Legion’s eagle. This event would provide the pretext for a Roman invasion of Germania (1).

A map of the Germanic tribes, circa 15 BC. Illustration by Jason R. Abdale, 2013.

In 13 BC, Caesar Augustus dispatched his 25-year-old stepson Drusus Claudius Nero to lead a military campaign against the Germanic tribes. An experienced commander who had won some fame in the conquests of Rhaetia and Vindelicia, the invasion of Germania would be a prestigious commission. He arrived on the Rhine River that same year and surveyed the situation, collecting as much information as possible. Throughout the following year, he built a series of forts along the Gallic side of the Rhine to serve as staging posts, he stockpiled supplies, and he accumulated a mass of intelligence from his scouts and recon forces. After he felt that he had enough men and enough info, he was ready (2).

In 11 BC, Drusus Claudius Nero designated Fort Vetera (modern-day Xanten) as his operation headquarters. Rome’s campaign to conquer western Germania began that year when Drusus’ men intercepted another Germanic raiding party that had crossed into Gaul, and beat them so hard that the Germans were forced to run. Afterwards, Drusus and his soldiers crossed the Rhine – the first time that a Roman army had crossed the Rhine since the days of Julius Caesar – and proceeded to lay waste to the land. In a single campaign season, he defeated four German tribes (3).

In the Spring of 10 BC, Drusus’ men once again attacked the border tribes, and then advanced inland. His troops pushed as far east as the Weser River, but they had to stop because they had run out of supplies. As the Roman army marched back to their winter quarters, they were ambushed by a large force of Germanic warriors. The Germans inflicted heavy casualties upon Drusus’ army and came very close to completely destroying it. However, the barbarians were cocky and believed that this would be an easy victory, but Drusus rallied his forces and they fought their way out of the ambush. Drusus led the survivors back to safety, but the Germans pursued them and harassed them the whole way. Despite this loss, the overall campaign was a success. Drusus returned to the city of Rome during Winter to give an account of his actions. Impressed with what he had accomplished so far, it was decided that a triumphal arch was to be erected in his honor. (4).

In the spring of 9 BC, Drusus was once again in action against the Germans. He spent the whole of that campaign season fighting against one tribe, the powerful Chatti tribe that occupied a large piece of southwestern Germania, and who may have been the third-strongest of all of the Germanic tribes. By the end of the campaign season, they were still not yet subdued (5).

In the spring of 8 BC, defying bad omens for the coming year, Drusus resumed his fight against the Chatti and pushed further eastwards towards the Elbe River. Once he reached this point, he and his men turned back, but disaster struck when Drusus was thrown off of his horse and broke his leg. The injury quickly became infected. After languishing for thirty days, Drusus Claudius Nero died of gangrene at the height of his glory. His body was brought back to Rome for a hero’s funeral, while his loyal soldiers erected a monument to him in Mainz, which can still be seen today. It was also decided to posthumously award him the honorific agnomen “Germanicus”, a name that would be borne by all of his male descendants (6).

The Drusus Monument, located in Mainz, Germany. Photograph by Carole Raddato (September 5, 2013). Creative Commons Attribute Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Drusus’ untimely death did not put a halt to Rome’s military operations in western Germania. With Drusus dead, his older brother Tiberius took command. At first, he was more interested in consolidating and controlling the territories that Drusus’ men had taken the previous year. Tiberius and his troops went up and down the country during that winter, subduing the tribes and suffering minimal or no losses (7).

Members of Legio V Macedonica, an ancient Roman re-enactment group based in Russia, march through the snow. Image courtesy of Legio V Macedonica, used with permission.

Finally, the Germanic tribes decided that they had enough. The Roman poet Ovid states in his Fasti that, after many years of war, the western Germanic tribes surrendered to Tiberius Claudius Nero on January 16, 7 BC. To commemorate the peace treaty, Tiberius ordered the construction of a shrine to the goddess Concordia, the goddess of peace, harmony, and friendship. Cassius Dio relates that for the rest of 7 BC, all of Germania was quiet. In the year 6 BC, confident that everything in Germania had been taken care of, Tiberius retired to the island of Rhodes (8).

Bust of Tiberius Claudius Nero. Museo Archaeologico Regionale, Palermo, Sicily. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain image.

Unfortunately, the German barbarians’ surrender to Rome on that winter day did not create a lasting peace. In the year 1 AD, the Germanic tribes revolted against the Roman military occupation of their land, a revolt that would take three years to suppress (9).

In the year 10 AD, the year following the disaster at the Battle of Teutoburg, the old temple to Concordia which lay within the city of Rome, and which had been built many years earlier and had fallen into disrepair, was restored and re-dedicated. This effort was funded using the spoils of war that had been taken in battle against the Germans and the Illyrians. Tiberius Claudius Nero was the one who performed the dedication ceremony, and the names of both he and his dead bother Drusus were inscribed upon it (10).

This temple that’s mentioned in the writings of Suetonius and Cassius Dio might be the same as the “shrine” to Concordia that Ovid is referring to, but I doubt it. Ovid specifically states that Tiberius built a shrine to Concordia specifically in response to the surrender of the German tribes on January 16, 7 BC, which brought peace to that region of the world. I find it a bit off-putting for Tiberius to have dedicated a shrine in direct response to establishing peace with the Germans the year after the Germans massacred three Roman legions in the region of Teutoburg; some people might find such an action to be exceptionally tactless. Therefore, I believe that the shrine and the temple are two separate structures: one established immediately after the peace treaty was made in 7 BC, and another that was restored and dedicated in 10 AD.

 

Source citations:

  1. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 20; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
  2. Adrian Murdoch, Rome’s Greatest Defeat. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2006. Pages 31-33.
  3. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 32.
  4. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 33.
  5. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 54, chapter 36.
  6. Ovid, The Heroïdes, or Epistles of the Heroines; The Amours; Art of Love; Remedy of Love; and, Minor Works of Ovid. G. Bell, 1893. Page 503; The Germanic Tribes, episode 1 – “Barbarians against Rome”; Livy, Periochae, from book 142; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 55, chapters 1-2; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 7; book 5, chapter 1.
  7. Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapter 97.
  8. Ovid, Fasti, book 1, January 16; Cassius Dio, The Roman History, Book 55, chapters 6, 9.
  9. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 53, chapter 26; Gaius Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, book 2, chapters 104-106.
  10. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 56, chapter 25; Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 3, chapter 20.

 

Bibliography:

 

October 19 – The Armilustrium: Another Campaign Season Comes To An End

The Roman Army was the mightiest fighting force of ancient times from the 3rd Century BC until arguably the 3rd Century AD.  Each year, the soldiers were sent out to search for and fight the empire’s enemies. However, the legions were not constantly in action. As Autumn moved closer to Winter, the soldiers prepared to hang up their armor and weapons and move into their Winter quarters. The soldiers would no longer be on active duty, and fighting would be put on hold for a few months until the weather warmed up again in Spring and the legions could once again be sent out for another campaign.

Roman soldiers marching at Xanten, Germany. Photograph by Judith Meyer (June 23, 2012). CC0 Creative Commons.

The Roman Army’s campaigning season officially began on March 23 with a festival called the Tubilustrium. With the necessary sanctification rituals performed, the Roman Army could now march, fight, and conquer with the gods’ blessings.

As Summer changed to Autumn, the soldiers’ thoughts increasingly turned to returning to their homes and bringing in the Fall harvest. By the middle of October, the time had come to dismiss the troops. October 19 officially marked the end of the year’s military campaign season, and this feast day was known in ancient Rome as the Armilustrium (1).

It’s said that the name “Armilustrium” comes from the Latin words arma (“weapon”) and lustrere (“to be reviewed”) (2). However, a better translation might be arma followed by lustrantur “purified” (3). Then again, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the ancient Romans loved puns and plays on words, and it’s possible that both definitions are correct. Here, the soldiers would be assembled one last time, and the necessary purification rituals would be performed before the troops were taken off of active duty.

Where did this ritual take place? We have two possible contenders. The first and most commonly-accepted proposal is that the Armilustrium festival took place upon the Campus Martius, “the Field of Mars”. This was Rome’s military training ground, their version of Parris Island or Salisbury Plain, where the new recruits would be trained in how to be legionnaires, and where those who were already in the Army would sharpen their skills as well as their swords. If you’re going to be conducting a religious ritual that is centered upon Rome’s military, then the Campus Martius sounds like a logical place (4).

Not so fast, though, because there’s a second option. The ancient historian Plutarch says that there was a place called Armilustrum, located on the Aventine Hill (one of the seven hills that makes up the city of Rome), where King Titus Tatius of the Sabines was entombed (5). It has been supposed that the Armilustrium was actually a ritualized performance held in honor of Titus Tatius, possibly performed by the Salian priesthood with helmets, shields, and spears. (6). However, this view is not well-regarded by most scholars, who believe that the name “Armilustrium” referred to a religious ritual, not a geographic location, and that it centered upon the Roman military, not a semi-legendary ancient king.

Now that we’ve established where this ritual likely took place, we turn our attention to what exactly happened here. Just as with ascertaining the ceremony’s location, determining what went on during the ceremony is a bit difficult. As mentioned earlier, there are two possible translations, but both are of a military nature. The name Armilustrium translates to either “weapons are reviewed” or “weapons are purified”. In either case, both translations involve weapons.

Numerous sources claim that this was a general review of the army, with the soldiers standing in formation, fully armed and armored as if ready for battle (7). What was the purpose behind this? The word “review” is telling. Perhaps this was where the general surveyed his soldiers on parade, inspected their appearance and their kit, where the troops displayed their awards, and where their commander could give them a few encouraging words.

One source from the 1820s says that the men and officers “wore crowns” while on parade (8). These are assuredly not royal crowns or even mock royal crowns. Instead, they were likely battle awards that were in the shape of crowns, and the Roman military had several of these. Perhaps the most common was the corona civilis, “the civic crown”, crafted from oak leaves, which was given as an award for saving the life of another Roman citizen. A soldier who had rescued one of his comrades in battle would be awarded such an ornament. However, there were other crown awards, too. The corona muralis, “the wall crown” was an award given to the first soldier who was able to penetrate through an enemy’s fortifications. Of all of these coronae, perhaps the most coveted and the most respected was the corona graminea. This was a crown that was given to a victorious battlefield commander, crafted by the soldiers that he led out of the very grasses and plants that grew out of that battlefield. Only a handful of Roman generals were given this award, which means that the victory had to be on a truly epic scale.

What about the reference to purification during this ritual – what exactly was the thing that needed to be purified? Based upon the name, most people have stated that the soldiers’ weapons were the things that needed to be both physically as well as ritualistically cleaned (9). Only one source from the early 1800s claims that the soldiers themselves were purified, not the weapons (10). This is similar to the idea which is seen several times in the Bible that people who had shed blood were “unclean” and needed to be cleansed of their blood-guilt before they were once again re-admitted into society.

Numerous sources claim that sacrifices were made on this day (11), but what kind were they? They were likely not sacrifices of live animals, known in Latin as agonaliae, because every time live animals were sacrificed the Romans clearly stated so. One notable example of an agonalia was one conducted in honor of Mars which occurred in March 17, in which a ram was sacrificed to the Roman war god. So, the sacrifices likely consisted of offerings of meat, harvested crops, or prepared goods like honey cakes, which were a common sacrificial offering.

Nobody says who is actually carrying out these sacrifices. Charles James, writing in the early 1800s, stated that it was the Roman Army’s generals who carried out the sacrifices, not members of the priesthood (12). However, there are more sources which state that it is either inferred or assumed in the Roman records that the Salii priests performed the ceremonies (13). The Salii, or the Salians (no relation to the Salian Franks of the 4th and 5th Centuries), were an order of priests who were devoted to worshiping the god Mars. Their name is derived from the Latin verb salit meaning “to jump or leap”. So they were, literally, the Leaping Priests. They were known for dancing while carrying shields and weapons, in order to please the war god. Plutarch wrote “They move with much grace, performing, in quick time and close order, various intricate figures, with a great display of strength and agility” (14). On this day, it’s likely that the priests of Mars danced and sang prayers to Mars, giving thanks to him for a successful campaign.

Meanwhile, a source from the 1800s says that it was the soldiers themselves who were doing the dancing, while wearing all of their armor in fact (15). I am VERY skeptical about this, but who knows, it might be true. War dances are common to many cultures, and this idea of the Romans soldiers dancing while fully dressed for battle sounds like something known as the pyrrhiche or “Pyrrhic Dance”, which was a dance performed by young men while wearing armor (16).

The things that were used in purification rituals are better described concerning another ceremony called the Palilia, a festival dedicated to gaining divine protection for your livestock, which took place on April 21. Here, various substances were burned including the blood and ashes of sacrificed animals, dried beans, sulfur, rosemary, chips of fir wood, and incense. The smoke which emanated from these burnt offerings would be used to purge and purify places, animals, and people of any unclean influences. Also, cleansing rituals would be performed by using laurel branches to sprinkle holy water on the people and the places where they lived and worked (17). Because the Armilustrium had purification at its heart, it is highly likely that the same sacrificial and ceremonial purification rituals were conducted on October 19 as they were on April 21.

All of the sources which write about the Armilustrium are in agreement that the festivities were accompanied by the blasting of war trumpets, and possibly added to by other musical instruments that were employed upon the battlefield. What was the purpose behind this? There were numerous other sacrificial and purification rituals which were conducted by the ancient Romans which were not accompanied by music of any sort, so why was the Armilustrium different? Many scholars have pointed to the Armilustrium’s militaristic nature as the reason why martial musical instruments were played. Another reason likely has to do with the Armilustrium being paired with the earlier Tubilustrium festival of March 23; the Tubilustrium began the campaign season, and the Armilustrium concluded it, and both days were sacred to the war-god Mars. In the Tubilustrium musical instruments, especially trumpets, were a core component to the day’s celebrations. As Marcus Terentius Varro explains, the name Tubilustrium meant “the purification of the trumpets”, and the trumpets in question were sacred trumpets that were used in association with religious rituals and other formal ceremonies (18). Since the Armilustrium marked the end of the military campaign season, it’s possible that this was the day where the war trumpets were sounded for the last time. The weapons, shields, and armor were purified and afterwards locked up in the armory until the next campaign season.

March was the month of Mars, the time when the snows of Winter had melted and armies could once again be sent out to attack Rome’s enemies. October, too, was a month dedicated to Mars, but for the opposite reason, because this was the month when the soldiers returned home. The army is assembled, their awards and commendations are displayed for everyone to envy. The sound of the war trumpets echoes for one last time and the thick smoke of burnt sacrificial offerings hangs heavily in the air, while the priests and the troops sing the praises of the war god and give thanks to him for seeing them through another year. Now, it’s time to put away their war-like things, and devote their time to the matter of the harvest, of their families, and making it through the cold Winter. In a few more months, they will be assembled on the parade ground again, ready to fight on the command of the emperor, and for the glory of Rome.

 

Source citations

  1. William Darrach Halsey, Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company, 1984. Page 626.
  2. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  3. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189.
  4. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  5. Robert Burn, Rome and the Campagna. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1876. Page 205.
  6. John Bell, New Pantheon, Volume I. London: J. Bell, 1790. Page 94.
  7. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  8. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  9. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741).
  10. The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832. Page 693.
  11. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741; Charles James, A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  12. Charles James, A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805.
  13. Fastorum Libri Sex. The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3 – Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Edited and Translated by James George Frazer. Page 145.
  14. Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13.
  15. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.
  16. Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 60, chapter 7; Lauren Curtis, Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Page 179.
  17. William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859. Page 850.
  18. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 189; John Ziolkowski, “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31, 36; The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”; The Roman War Machine, episode 1 – “First Our Neighbors, Then The World”. 1999.

 

Bibliography

  • Bell, John. New Pantheon, Volume I. London: J. Bell, 1790.
  • Burn, Robert. Rome and the Campagna. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1876.
  • Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume I, Fifth Edition. London: 1741.
  • Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854.
  • Curtis, Lauren. Imagining the Chorus in Augustan Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Dio, Cassius. Roman History, book 60, chapter 7.
  • Halsey, William Darrach. Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 9. Macmillan Educational Company, 1984.
  • James, Charles. A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, Second Edition. London: T. Egerton, 1805.
  • Plutarch. Life of Numa Pompilius, chapter 13. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Numa*.html.
  • Smith, William ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859.
  • Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 14. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
  • Ziolkowski, John. “The Roman Bucina: A Distinct Musical Instrument?”. Historic Brass Society Journal (2002). Pages 31-58.
  • Fastorum Libri Sex. The Fasti of Ovid, Volume 3 – Commentary on Books 3 and 4. Edited and Translated by James George Frazer.
  • The Anniversary Calendar, Natal Book, and Universal Mirror, Volume II. London: William Kidd, 1832.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.
  • The Roman Way of War – “The Dacian Wars”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y479bKPEzLQ.
  • The Roman War Machine, episode 1 – “First Our Neighbors, Then The World”. 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fawPwsOfHTk.

October 15 – The Ludi Capitolini: The Capitoline Games of Ancient Rome

Introduction

The ancient Romans named the middle part of each month as the “Ides”, and each of these days was dedicated to Jupiter, King of the Gods. Sometimes, these days were marked for holding special celebrations. The Ides of October, in particular, was the date of the Ludi Capitolini, “the Capitoline Games”, one of the oldest festivals in Roman history.

 

The Origins of the Capitoline Games

Throughout the 400s and into the early 300s BC, the Roman Republic had been almost continuously engaged in wars with the Etruscan city-states to the north. The state of Veii had put up especially stern resistance, and the Romans spent many years trying to conquer it. At last in 392 BC, the Romans were able to take the city (1). Understandably, they felt proud of themselves. Then in the Summer of 390 BC, the Romans faced an enemy that they had never encountered before – the Celts.

The Celts were a collection of tribes that appear to have originated in what is now Austria. By the early 4th Century BC, they had spread and had become the dominant culture throughout much of western and central Europe. They had even crossed the Alps and had occupied most of what is now northern Italy as far south as the Arno River. The Etruscans lay directly south of them, and now they were coming under repeated attacks from the Celts. One by one, the northern Etruscan city-states fell to these warriors as the Celts pushed south. With the Celts attacking from the north, and the Romans attacking from the south, the Etruscans were being squeezed on two fronts, and it would not be long before they were overwhelmed (2).

The Etruscan city-state of Clusium, which lay a hundred miles north of Rome, was the next to come under threat from Celtic attacks. Although the Etruscans and Romans had been enemies for many years, the Etruscans feared these northern newcomers far more than the Romans, and so the leaders of Clusium decided to undertake the desperate measure of sending a message to Rome, asking their enemies for help fighting these northern barbarians. In response, the Roman Senate refused to provide military support, but they did send a delegation to Clusium to see if they could mediate an agreement between the two sides, and also gather as much information about these unknown people as they could (3).

The first meeting between the Celts, led by Chief Brennus, and the Roman envoys did not go well. The Romans saw that there was no reasoning with these people, and they joined sides with the Etruscans. One of the Roman emissaries named Quintus Fabius Ambustus killed one of the high-ranking warriors in the Celtic force. When Chief Brennus sent a message to the Roman Senate demanding that the offender be handed over to them for punishment, the Senate refused. Enraged at this insult, Brennus ordered his warriors to march south and attack Rome (4).

The Romans, who had lost many of their men due to the repeated wars with the Etruscans, now frantically cobbled together a new army out of hastily-trained recruits, most of whom had no prior military experience, and sent them against the Celtic horde. The result was inevitable. At the Battle of the Allia River, fought just eleven miles north of Rome on July 18, 390 BC, this rag-tag Roman force was outmaneuvered, overwhelmed, and slaughtered. Some of the survivors managed to make it back to the city, where they warned the people that the army had been defeated and that the Celts were coming (5).

The panic-stricken Romans realized that they did not have enough strength to adequately defend the whole city, so it was decided to withdraw to the city’s central defensive position – the citadel located atop the Capitoline Hill – and make a stand there. The Celts entered the city. Facing no resistance, they went on a looting rampage, plundering the houses and then setting them on fire. Then they discovered that the people had crowded together into the fortified central stronghold on the Capitoline Hill. For the next two weeks, the Celts besieged the citadel with little success. By early August, the people who had hunkered down inside the citadel were suffering from hunger and sickness, and a ceasefire was called. Chief Brennus demanded a massive sum of treasure to induce him and his warriors to abandon Rome, which was grudgingly given up to him. The date of August 3, 390 BC would be a date burned into Rome’s memory as the day that the city fell to the barbarians (6).

However, Chief Brennus would not bask in his glory for long. Word arrived that his lands were under attack from other tribes, and he was forced to quickly return to northern Italy to deal with matters there. With this development, Rome now saw a chance to exact some payback (7).

The Roman Senate designated a man named Marcus Caedicius as the commander of all Roman military forces and urged him to strike the retreating Celts. However, he didn’t want the job, stating that there was another man who was more suitable to leading the counter-attack against the Celts. That man was Marcus Furius Camillus, the famed Roman general who had commanded the Roman Army in its attacks against the Etruscans, and who had been instrumental in capturing the city of Veii two years earlier. However, Camillus had experienced a falling-out with his countrymen, who had become jealous of his prestige and glory. Camillus had gotten so sick and tired of their constant attacks on his character that he packed his bags and moved to the town of Ardea, saying that they will be sorry that they had forced him to leave and that one day they will come begging for his help. Sure enough, he was right. Caedicius and a few companions journeyed to the town of Ardea, and urged Marcus Camillus to put aside his grudge against the Roman bureaucrats who had destroyed his career and reputation and work for the good of the Roman people. Marcus Camillus agreed to come to Rome’s aid, and he took command of the Roman Army (8).

On their way back to northern Italy, the Celts laid siege to the town of Veascium, which was a Roman ally. Marcus Camillus attacked them, killed many of them, and re-took the plunder that they had taken from Rome. Thus, the Celts left Rome empty-handed and in a worse condition than before (9).

 

The Capitoline Games are Established

The Roman historian Titus Livius states that the Capitoline Games were instituted shortly after Marcus Furius Camillus’ defeat of the Celts. Camillus himself proposed an idea to the Senate of establishing games to be held in honor of the god Jupiter, partly because the citadel on the Capitoline Hill had not fallen to the enemy, and partly because Jupiter’s temple was located atop that hill. Camillus was convinced that the god himself had intervened and had prevented the city from being completely destroyed, even though most of it was (10).

The Senate approved establishing them in either 390 or 387 BC. The Senate’s decree stated that the games would be run and supervised by an order of priests chosen by Camillus from among those who resided upon the Capitoline Hill and within the Citadel. These priests would be known as the “Capitolini”. These games were intended to be held every year on October 15 in honor of either Jupiter Optimus Maximus “Jupiter the Best and Greatest” or Jupiter Capitolinus “Jupiter of the Capitoline Hill”. The Ludi Capitolini were in fact the oldest of the Roman games (11).

After falling out of fashion for a long time, the Capitoline Games were re-instituted by Emperor Domitian in July of 86 AD. There were some notable differences, though. For starters, the name was changed to Agones Capitolini. Secondly, the games were to be held every five years instead of annually. Thirdly, the games were diversified to include a number of activities such as poetry readings, orators and academics making speeches and educational lectures, and musicians playing their compositions. Emperor Domitian gave out awards to the best person in each category, thus turning an event which was intended to be a gesture of gratitude to the supreme god for saving them from death into being a sort of talent show (12). I have not found any record of these games being performed after Domitian’s reign, so I must assume that they fell out of favor when he was murdered in 96 AD.

 

The Equus Octobris: The “October Horse”

Of all of the activities that were conducted during the Capitoline Games, the most important and most well-known was the so-called Equus Octobris, “the October Horse”, which took place on the first day of the games on October 15. This was the opening event of the games, consisting of a chariot race dedicated to the war-god Mars, but with a twist – the winning horse would be sacrificed.

The chariots involved were called bigae, because they were drawn by two horses, in contrast with trigae which were pulled by three horses or the quadrigae that were pulled by four. Of the two horses that pulled the chariot, the horse which ran on the right side was the one that was chosen for sacrifice (13).

The Romans prized athleticism, so the horses that were both the fastest and the strongest was sure to please Mars as an honorable sacrifice. One wonders why the race was dedicated to Mars instead of Jupiter, since the Capitoline Games as a whole were meant to honor the king of the Roman pantheon. The historical records don’t state how many laps the chariots had to run around the racetrack, but I can’t imagine that it could have gone on for very long because there were other events that were on the schedule. Like modern-day horse races such as the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes, the chariots probably only ran a single lap. One wonders how the jockeys felt, knowing that one of the two horses that pulled his chariot was doomed to be offered up on an altar. Perhaps a few who were fond of their steeds deliberately raced slower than they usually did in order to ensure that his beloved animals would not be killed, but we will never know this for certain.

Horse sacrifice is an attribute commonly associated with primitive cultures, so it’s possible that this rite is an ancient one which goes back far beyond Rome’s founding. Polybius states that the sacrifice was carried out for the good of the city, while Paul the Deacon states that the sacrifice was carried out for the good of the harvest. As to the significance of why a horse was sacrificed and not some other animal, Plutarch pondered that it might have to do with the horse being used in warfare, since October was a month dedicated to Mars, or it might have been done as a reference to the Trojan War because Troy had supposedly fallen in the month of October thanks to the wooden horse. The fact that Plutarch did not know the answer and had to surmise the reasoning behind such a strange ritual implies that this ceremony had been going on for so long that the Romans of his day had long forgotten its origins, and it implies that this was, indeed, a very archaic ritual which had survived into his day (14).

The sacrifice was carried out at the Ara Martis, the Altar of Mars, located in the Campus Martius. The horse was killed by being run through with a spear, being the weapon associated with the war-god Mars. Once the horse had been killed, both its head and tail were cut off. The tail was brought as quickly as possible to the home of the pontifex maximus, the chief priest, and the sacred blood was allowed to drip on the hearth. The rest of the blood within the tail was carefully stored in a container and kept within the temple of Vesta (15).

There was some connection between the sacrifice of the October Horse and that of another Roman ritual known as the Palilia, which was held on April 21, and was designed to purify the flocks kept by shepherds and other herdsmen:

“It must be observed that in early times no bloody sacrifice was allowed to be offered at the Palilia, and the blood of the October horse, mentioned above, was the blood which had dropped from the tail of the horse sacrificed in the month of October to Mars in the Campus Martius. This blood was preserved by the Vestal virgins in the temple of Vesta for the purpose of being used at the Palilia” (16)

As for the head, when it was cut off, it was fought over by the inhabitants of the two neighborhoods of Subura and Via Sacra. If the people of Subura won, they hang the decapitated horse’s head from the Regia, which had formerly been the residence of the old Roman kings and now served as the residence of the pontifex maximus; if the people of Via Sacra won, it is suspended from the Turris Mamilia, “Mamilius’ Tower”. (17).

 

Other Activities

In addition to the opening chariot race to Mars, there were other activities as well, especially during the reign of Emperor Domitian in the 90s AD. In the words of the historian Suetonius:

“He also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation both in Greek and in Latin; and in addition to those of the lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone, without singing; while in the stadium there were races even between maidens. He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well” (18).

According to Plutarch, one of the unusual sights seen at the games was some random herald yelling out over and over again “Sardians for sale! Sardians for sale!” while pulling along by a leash or a chain an old man dressed up in a purple toga praetexta and wearing a golden bulla medallion around his neck. This was a reference to the numerous wars that the Roman Republic had fought against the various Etruscan city-states, in particular the state of Veii. The Romans believed that the Etruscans came from the eastern region of Lydia, with Sardis serving as its major city. Both the toga praetexta and the bulla were of Etruscan origin. The bulla was a small pouch worn by children around their necks, filled with good luck charms and herbs which were meant to ward off evil. It was a way in which parents protected their child due to the high number of child mortality cases in ancient times. This “medicine bag”, to use a term associated with Native Americans, was removed when the child had reached adulthood. This old man was meant to be a representation of the Etruscan king of Veii – an old man who still behaved like a child – and was an object of mockery (19).

There is also a questionable reference made to Roman merchants and businessmen offering sacrifices to the god Mercury on this day (20). However, I have not been able to find any mention of this in any primary source, or any other secondary source, and I am inclined to believe that the un-named author confused October 15 with May 15, which was the date of a festival dedicated to Mercury.

 

Conclusion

The Capitoline Games were the first example of organized athletic celebrations conducted in the name of religious devotion. There would be many more of these under a variety of other names which would be established by the Romans throughout their history. Sometimes they took the form of chariot races, other times in the form of gladiatorial contests, and in other cases simple feats of athletic prowess. It’s remarkable that, considering its age and its social significance, the Capitoline Games did not last very long. They were first disbanded due to their association with Marcus Camillus, whose inflated ego became too much for the Roman people to bear, and they were likely disbanded a second time due to their association with an incompetent and egotistical emperor. By contrast, other games such as the Ludi Magni Romani, the Great Roman Games” and the Ludi Plebei, “the Plebeian Games” were more popular and would be practiced by the Romans for many generations.

 

Source Citations

  1. Rome: Power & Glory, episode 1 – “The Rise”.
  2. Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapters 17-18; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 15-16; In Search of History: The Celts; The Celts, episode 1 – “The Man with the Golden Shoes”; The History of Ancient Rome, lecture 3 – “Pre-Roman Italy and the Etruscans”; William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, Volume 1. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854. Pages 934-935.
  3. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapter 113; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 13, chapter 11; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapter 17.
  4. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapters 113-114; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 13, chapter 12; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 17-18.
  5. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapter 114; Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapter 18; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 18-19.
  6. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapters 115-116; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 13, chapters 6-9; Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapter 18; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapter 20.
  7. Polybius, Histories, book 2, chapter 18.
  8. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 12, chapter 14; book 13, chapter 5; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapters 2-14, 22-29.
  9. Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, book 14, chapter 117; Festus, Breviarium, part 6; Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, chapter 23.
  10. Titus Livius, The History of Rome, book 5, chapter 50.
  11. Titus Livius, The History of Rome, book 5, chapter 50; Herodian, History of the Roman Empire. Translated by Edward C. Echols. University of California Press, 1961. Page 24; James Lempriere, A Classical Dictionary, 6th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1806; Abraham Rees, The Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Volume VI. London: Longman, Hurst, Reese, Orme, & Brown, 1819; William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859. Page 715.
  12. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12 “The Life of Domitian”, chapter 4; John Feltham Danneley, An Encyclopaedia, or Dictionary of Music. London: Preston, 1825; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, Eighth Edition. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1854. Page 220; Edward Greswell, Origines Kalendariae Hellenicae: The History of the Primitive Calendar among the Greeks, Before and After the Legislation of Solon, Volume III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1862. Page 306.
  13. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; Reverend Thomas Wilson, An Archaeological Dictionary, or Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, Alphabetically Arranged. London: 1783.
  14. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 241; Leonardo Magini, Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001. Pages 62-63.
  15. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott & Co., 1872. Page 222; James Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume XII. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922. Page 697; Leonardo Magini, Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001. Pages 62-63.
  16. William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859. Page 850.
  17. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #97; Leonardo Magini, Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001. Page 62.
  18. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12 “The Life of Domitian”, chapter 4.
  19. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #53; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, Eighth Edition. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1854. Page 220; William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859. Page 715.
  20. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 191.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

  • Adam, Alexander. Roman Antiquities, or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott & Co., 1872.
  • Danneley, John Feltham. An Encyclopaedia, or Dictionary of Music. London: Preston, 1825.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume VI, Eighth Edition. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black, 1854.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
  • Greswell, Edward. Origines Kalendariae Hellenicae: The History of the Primitive Calendar among the Greeks, Before and After the Legislation of Solon, Volume III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1862.
  • Hastings, James, ed. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume XII. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922.
  • Lempriere, James. A Classical Dictionary, 6th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1806.
  • Magini, Leonardo. Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome: The Eclipse Festivals. Translated by Jonathan Kevin Wood. L’Erma: Di Bretschneider, 2001.
  • Rees, Abraham. The Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Volume VI. London: Longman, Hurst, Reese, Orme, & Brown, 1819.
  • Smith, William ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, Volume 1. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854.
  • Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.
  • Wilson, Reverend Thomas. An Archaeological Dictionary, or Classical Antiquities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, Alphabetically Arranged. London: 1783.

Videos:

  • In Search of History: The Celts. Greystone Communications, Inc., 1997.
  • Rome: Power & Glory. Episode 1 – “The Rise”. Narrated by Peter Coyote. Questar, 1998.
  • The Celts. Episode 1 – “The Man with the Golden Shoes”. Hosted by Frank Delaney. BBC, 1987.
  • The History of Ancient Rome. Lecture 3 – “Pre-Roman Italy and the Etruscans”. Hosted by Prof. Garrett G. Fagan. The Teaching Company, 1999.

 

October 5 – The Opening of the Pit of the Underworld

“Then I saw an angel coming down from Heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while” – The Book of Revelations, chapter 20, verses 1-3.

For many modern-day people, October is the spookiest month of the year due to its association with Halloween. October is the month in which TV channels air marathons of horror movies, it’s when people put out decorations of ghosts and monsters, and it’s when children get a little bit more conscious about what might be lurking in their closet. It seems that throughout the whole of October, other-worldly supernatural entities increase their power, culminating on that special day at the end of the month. Those who are of a religious disposition feel that October 31 is the day in which Mankind is the closest to succumbing to the powers of Darkness.

The ancient Romans did not have Halloween, but it’s true that they had several days on their calendar which filled them with dread. Perhaps the most well-known was the time called the Lemuria, which occurred on May 9, 11, and 13. This was a time devoted to pacifying the lemures, the restless malevolent spirits of the dead, who might visit your home and cause mischief or harm. They might even take possession of your house, or even of you! Thus it was important to placate them with treats, or to ward them off with spells. This was, in effect, ancient Rome’s version of trick-or-treating, except these weren’t pint-sized munchkins dressed up in monster costumes – here, the monsters were real.

However, the Lemuria was not the only day that the ancient Romans felt apprehensive about. The fifth day of October (some sources say it was the fourth day) was an ominous day for the ancient Romans, for it was on this day that the portal to the Underworld would be opened, and the Romans were understandably worried about what things might come out.

October 5 was known as the Mundus Patet, “the Open World”. It was a day dedicated to Dis Pater, the god-ruler of the Underworld, and all of the other beings and entities that dwelt within his realm. The name Dis Pater means “the Father of Riches”. He was the Roman synonym of the Greek god Hades, who ruled the Underworld. Hades’ subterranean counterpart Pluto (who is often believed to be the same as Hades) was the god of riches – it was he who made all of the gold, silver, and other precious things which were mined out of the ground. The ancient Roman god Dis Pater combined attributes of both of these Greek gods. (1)

As an anecdote, within his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar writes that all of the Gallic Celts claim to be descended from the god of the Underworld, which he equates to Dis Pater (2).

The Underworld god Dis Pater is known to have had one temple dedicated to him within the greater area of the city of Rome. It was a small temple or shrine, and consisted of an underground chamber, with a single round room, and a round altar table within. This subterranean room was located on the edge of the Campus Martius near where the Tiber River flowed at a place known as the Terentum (no relation to the city of southern Italy named Tarentum). The term means “the crossing place”, and it likely referred to the place where people crossed over the Tiber River from one side to the other. However, in a spiritual sense, this was also a place where human and non-human beings would cross over from the world of the spirits into the mortal human world, and vice-versa. This is similar to the Celtic belief of Samhain (pronounced “saowein”), which said that the boundary separating the world of the living and the world of the spirits became so thin that entities from “the other side” could cross over into the human world (3).

There was a second location that is often ascribed to be that of the temple of Dis Pater. This was a small circular shrine made of bricks, with a small room large enough for only one person to stand inside, which was located on the Palatine Hill at the cross intersection of two main roads known as the Quadrata. This shrine marked the exact center of the city of Rome, and was the location of the omphalos, the naval, the center of the Roman world. In Latin, it was known as the Umbilicus Urbis Romae, the belly button of the city of Rome (4).

There is reference to certain stone located not far from this shrine within the district called the Comitium which was known as the lapis niger, “the black stone”, and in 1898, it was discovered. It was square, made of several slabs of black marble, and bordered with white marble. Upon it were inscriptions written in an archaic version of Latin, implying that it was of great antiquity; the inscription was dated to approximately 500 BC. Underneath this black stone were found numerous devotional offerings, including several figurines, dated from the 8th to the 6th Centuries BC. The ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus says that this stone marked an unlucky spot, where the Romans intended to bury either Romulus or his foster-father Faustulus. Among the inscriptions, there is a curse upon anyone who defiles or desecrates the location, and anyone who does so shall forfeit his life to Soranus. “Soranus” was the name of the Etruscan god of the Underworld, so the inscription is essentially saying that anyone who defiles this place will die and be sent to Hell. It has been proposed that this “black stone” might have served as the altar to the beings of the Underworld because black was the color associated with the Underworld and the beings who lived within it, and due to the fact that an Underworld god is mentioned by name in one of the inscriptions (5).

For most of the year, the temple to Dis Pater was shut. However, on just three days in the year – August 24, October 5, and November 7 – the door was opened. The opening of the temple of Dis Pater was a solemn occurrence, because it wasn’t just the doorway to the temple that was opened – the Romans believed that on these three days, the gate to the Underworld itself would be opened as well (6).

Within the temple, there was a portal to the Underworld. This opening was covered by a large stone known as the Lapis Manalis, “the Stone of the Manes”; the manes were the spirits of the ancestors. For most of the year, this gateway was sealed shut, except for three days, when the spirits of the dead were allowed to enter the human world. It’s possible that the stone altar itself was the Lapis Manalis and served as the covering for this portal, and therefore implying that the altar rested atop a hollow base (7).

The pit might have originally served as an underground cellar used for grain storage, which would explain why the pit was opened during times that are associated with the harvest season, but over the centuries the pit took on a more otherworldly significance. Evidence to support this hypothesis is found in the original name of this ritual. The ceremonial opening of these pits was originally referred to by the ancient Roman writer Pompeius Festus as Mundus Cereris Patet, “The World of Ceres is Opened” Ceres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and the patron god of farmers; Ceres was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Demeter. The Romans had several feast days dedicated to her, and often grain or bread were offered as sacrifices (8).

The pit was opened for the first time on August 24, the day before the festival known as the Opeconsiva, the Feast of the Bountiful Goddess. This was a festival dedicated to the earth goddess, giving thanks to her for a bountiful harvest. She might have been a form of either the agriculture goddess Ceres or the Mother Earth goddess Tellus. In the words of Marcus Terentius Varro…

“The day named Opeconsiva (August 25) is called from Ops Consiva (Goddess of Abundance, the wife of Saturn, as planter or sower; another aspect of Terra) ‘Lady Bountiful the Planter,’ whose shrine is in the Regia; it is so restricted in size that no one may enter it except the Vestal Virgins and the state priest. ‘When he goes there, let him wear a white veil,’ is the direction; this suffibulum ‘white veil’ (an oblong piece of white cloth with a colored border, which the Vestal Virgins fastened over their heads with a fibula ‘clasp’ when they offered sacrifice) is named as if sub-figabulum from suffigere “to fasten down’” (9).

William W. Fowler speculates that on August 24, the seeds that were to be used for next year’s planting were set aside and were put away in storage until the time came for them to be planted. These seeds would be housed in a sacred chamber, under the protection of the earth goddess, who would watch over them and protect them so that the Romans would have food during the next year and not starve. However, depending upon circumstances, the grain crop did not become ready for harvest at the same time everywhere – different patches ripened at different times. Having three specific days, not just one, spread out over a few months where the seeds for next year’s crop could be collected and deposited would be very convenient for Roman farmers (10). The Romans would have been conscious about keeping the storage chamber sealed most of the time. If the chamber was left open, the seeds would be exposed to rodents, insects, fungi, and mold. If this happened, all of the seeds which were set aside to provide the following year’s food would be destroyed, and famine would rage throughout the city. In order to ensure the survival of the crop, the grain chambers needed to be opened only briefly, and then promptly sealed shut in order to minimize the chances of contamination.

So, if this chamber was originally intended as a storage pit for the next year’s seeds, then where did the idea of ghosts and goblins come from? It’s possible that the subterranean temple of Dis Pater was meant to be a stylized representation of a cave. Caves are regarded by many cultures as places imbued with elevated spiritual powers. The Celts, for example, believed that caves were entrances to the spirit world (11).

Now, let’s turn our attention to another question. If the Romans believed that this was a passage to the Underworld, then why on earth would they open it for any reason at all, allowing God-knows-what to come out? According to Plutarch in his work The Life of Romulus, when the city of Rome was founded, the early Romans placed offerings of the first fruits of the harvest into this chamber. Likewise in later years, when the portal was opened, offerings of the harvest would be thrown in (12). This again lends credence to the idea that these three days were originally associated with the harvest season and not ghosts. However, at some point in Rome’s social and cultural history, the logical pragmatic practice of placing seeds into underground storage containers to be kept safe until the time came for them to be planted the following year changed into the superstitious practice of throwing offerings of food into a pit that was believed to be the gate of the Underworld (shakes my head in Latin).

The Roman writers Macrobius and Varrone state that numerous activities were banned on the three dates that this otherworldly gate was opened, believing that bad luck was sure to follow. These included enlisting soldiers into the military, to start a war, engaging in battle, sail on a voyage, or get married (13).

In addition to sacrifices being offered at the temple of Dis Pater on the ominous dates of August 24, October 5, and November 7, sacrifices were also offered upon this altar during the Ludi Saeculares, “the Games of the Age”. The term saeculum in Latin refers to one’s lifespan. The Ludi Saeculares, sometimes incorrectly translated as “the Secular Games” (which falsely implies that they were non-religious in nature), were supposed to be held every 100 years, since this was regarded as the maximum age that a person could naturally live, and were meant to commemorate the passing of one saeculum into another – that is to say, one lifespan into another, thus commemorating the cycle of life, death, and renewal. These games were intended to be held every 100 years of Rome’s existence. One might rightfully assume that the games were supposed to be held in late April (according to legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC), and were to be held in the years 653 BC, 553 BC, 453 BC, 353 BC, 253 BC, 153 BC, 53 BC, 47 AD, 147 AD, 247 AD, 347 AD, and 447 AD. However, if you look at the record of when the Ludi Saeculares were actually held, you will discover that they were not held rigidly every 100 years, nor did they occur on the dates that were previously listed. We know that these games were celebrated as early as the middle 200s BC, but they might have been celebrated earlier. The following is a list of dates for the Ludi Saeculares (14):

  1. 249 BC (four years off-date).
  2. 149 BC.
  3. May 31 to June 2, 17 BC.
  4. 47 AD. This was the ONLY date in which the Ludi Saeculares were performed on schedule.
  5. 88 AD.
  6. 146 AD.
  7. 204 AD.
  8. 248 AD.

Gradually, the superstitions of the pagan pantheon gave way to the faith of Christianity. Ideas held by the Roman people about their gods and spirits, many of which appear bizarre or nonsensical to us today, would slowly fall away and become forgotten, and the temples and shrines which were once dedicated to the old gods would crumble into ruins.

Source Citations

  1. The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190; Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, Ltd., 1986. Page 141.
  2. Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  3. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 351; The Haunted History of Halloween.
  4. William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 211; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120; What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”.
  5. Leon Ter Beek, “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 17-25; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120; Matthew Dillon and Lynda Garland, Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005. Page 8.
  6. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  7. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
  8. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html; Thomas Morell and William Duncan, An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862. Pages 29-30; Mark Bradley, “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Page 120.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 21. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 193-195.
  10. William Warde Fowler, “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.
  11. The Celts, episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”.
  12. Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”, chapter 11; Reverend John T. White and Reverend J. E. Riddle, A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869. Page 1,240.
  13. Alexander Aitchison, The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807. Page 392; The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829. Page 190.
  14. Lawrence Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Page 111; Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pages 350-351; “Coins of the Ludi Saeculares and Rome’s Millennial Games”.

Bibliography

Books

  • Aitchison, Alexander. The New Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume XV. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807.
  • Caesar, Julius. Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, book 6, chapter 18.
  • Dillon, Matthew; Garland, Lynda. Ancient Rome, from the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
  • Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Translated by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publsher, Ltd., 1986.
  • Morell, Thomas; Duncan, William. An Abridgement of Ainsworth’s Dictionary; English and Latin, Revised Edition. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1862.
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives – “The Life of Romulus”. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Romulus*.html.
  • Richardson Jr., Lawrence. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
  • Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • White, Reverend John T.; Riddle, Reverend J. E. A New Latin Dictionary, Third Edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869.
  • The Olio, or Museum of Entertainment, Volume 2. London, Joseph Shackell, 1829.

Articles

  • Bradley, Mark. “Crime and Punishment on the Capitoline Hill”. In Mark Bradley, ed., Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pages 103-121.
  • Ter Beek, Leon. “Divine Law and the Penalty of Sacer Esto”. In Olga Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pages 11-30.
  • Warde Fowler, William. “Mundus Patet. 24th August, 5th October, 8th November”. Journal of Roman Studies, volume 2 (1912). Pages 25‑33. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/JRS/2/Mundus*.html.

Websites

Videos

  • The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”. Hosted by Frank De Laney. BBC, 1987.
  • The Haunted History of Halloween. Narrated by Harry Smith. The History Channel, 1997.
  • What the Ancients Knew – “The Greeks”. Hosted by Jack Turner. The Science Channel, 2005.

October 1 – The Kalends of October

It is now the month of October in ancient Rome. The weather has begun to cool, the Autumn harvest is ready to be gathered, and the soldiers are preparing themselves to return home after another season of fighting abroad.

The whole month of October was dedicated to Mars, the god of war (1). This is likely due to the fact that October was the month when the year’s military campaigning season came to an end. The campaigning season officially terminated on October 19 with the ceremony known as the Armilustrium, but that’s a story for another day.

The first day of every month was known as the kalends, which is where the word “calendar” comes from. These were days in which all business was put on hold, possibly because merchants and businessmen were afraid of being jinxed (2).

In the ancient Roman calendar, the first day of every month was sacred to the goddess Juno, Queen of the Gods (3). However, the first day of October was also dedicated to the war-god Mars (4) as well as to Fides, the divine personification of faith (5). This is because October 1 was the date that a temple to Fides located on the Capitoline Hill was dedicated during the 3rd Century BC by Aulus Atilius Calatinus. This temple was often used as a place where oaths were taken, or where contracts and treaties were signed. Copies of treaties that Rome had signed with other nations were put on display within (6).

October 1 was also the date of a purification ritual known as the Tigillo Sororio, “the Beam of the Sister”, whose origins go back to the founding of the Roman Republic. Legend states that Horatius Cocles, one of the great heroes of the civil war between the monarchists and the republicans which lasted from 509 to 499 BC, returned home after being victorious in a battle, bringing with him the spoils of his defeated enemies. However, his sister was betrothed so a man who was on the monarchists side. When she saw her fiancé’s cloak, she knew that he was among the slain and she began to cry. Her brother Horatius, fired up with patriotic furor, accused her of showing sympathy to the Republic’s enemies and killed her on the spot. Horatius was acquitted of murder, but he was forced to undergo a purification ritual to expiate his blood-guilt. At least that’s the story, but it appears that this purification ritual existed before the era of the civil war, so then what was its original purpose? Perhaps, just as Horatius had to expunge his unclean self after shedding the blood of his own sister, so to might early Roman warriors have needed to purify their bodies and souls of blood-guilt prior to re-entering the city (7). This bears some resemblance to the Armilustrium, in which the weapons of war were ritualistically purified before being re-housed in the armories over the winter lull.

 

Source citations:

  1. Pierre Danet, A Complete Dictionary of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: 1700. Page 14; The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Page 103; Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, with a Commentary and Critical Notes, Volume IV: Romans-Revelation. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1854. Page 184.
  2. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.
  3. Molly Pasco-Pranger, Founding the Year: Ovid’s Fasti and the Poetics of the Roman Calendar. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Page 180.
  4. The Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 17 (September-December 1836). “On the Origin of the Egyptian God, Anubis, and on the Twelve Months of the Year”. London: Saunders and Otley, 1836. Page 103.
  5. UNRV. “Roman Festivals”. https://www.unrv.com/culture/roman-festivals.php.
  6. Ár Ndraíocht Féin: Public Worship, Fellowship, and Practice. “Major Holidays of Rome October (Mensis October)”. https://www.adf.org/rituals/roman/roman-holidays3.html.
  7. History and Archaeology Online: Rediscovering the Past. “Double Roman Celebrations for the Kalends of October: The Fidei in Capitolio and the Tigillo”, by Natasha Sheldon (September 29, 2018). https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/double-roman-celebrations-for-the-kalends-of-october-the-fidei-in-capitolio-and-the-tigillo/.

 

Bibliography:

The Battle of Teutoburg: A Problem with Dating

September 9 to 11 of the year 9 AD is often attributed in modern sources as the date for the legendary Battle of Teutoburg, more commonly known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest – except the battle lasted for four days, not three, and it was fought in a forest only on the first two days of the engagement. But how accurate is this date? Very rarely do the primary sources provide precise dates for historical events. In fact, if you take the pains to read through all of the ancient documents that mention and describe this important battle, you will be struck by something puzzling and shocking – no ancient source mentions when exactly the battle took place.

So, if that is the case, then why is it commonly perpetuated that the Battle of Teutoburg was fought specifically from September 9 to 11?

The oldest reference to the Battle of Teutoburg taking place on September 9th to the 11th is dated to the 19th Century. Found within an issue of Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art is an article entitled “Decisive Battles of History”, dated to January 7, 1871. Within this article, the un-named author provides a list of battles of historical importance, with some being provided longer descriptions than others. The Battle of Teutoburg is placed upon that list, and of it, the article mentions the following: “The battle of Teutoburg, on the 9th, 10th and 11th of September, 9 B. C., between the Germans, led by Hermann, and the Romans, under Varus” (“Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871. Page 20). Where the author of this article managed to obtain these dates is unknown, since, as mentioned before, no primary source gives exact dates for the battle.

These dates were repeated in A Popular History of Germany, Volume 1, written by Wilhelm Zimmerman and published in 1878. In a chapter devoted exclusively to this battle, Zimmermann writes “The battle took place on the 9th, 10th, and 11th days of September” (William Zimmermann, A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878. Page 57). Again, Zimmermann provides no sources for this information.

These dates seem to have been forgotten until the 1990s, when the battlefield was discovered and a thorough archaeological survey could be made of the site. Among the items found was the skeleton of a mule and around its neck was a bell that had been stuffed with straw…straw that had presumably been collected from nearby, in order to keep the bell from ringing. It was this find that enabled forensic analysts to give an approximate date of the battle.

In my own book about this battle Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, I state the following…

“It is common knowledge among ancient and military historians that the battle took place in the year 9 AD, but during what time of year? At the excavation of the site, the skeleton of a mule was found with a bell around its neck. The bell had been stuffed with straw, presumably to keep it from making noise. Forensic analysis of the straw showed that it had been cut in late summer or early fall, placing the battle in late September (Peter S. Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003), 55). So, not only did the battle’s date have a year, but also a month – September of 9 AD. The battle is popularly conceived as being begun on September 9, 9 AD, but this is a date that seems to be chosen at random. Forensic evidence places the battle at late summer/early fall, which would make it fall somewhere in late September, not early September” (Jason R. Abdale, Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016. Page 128.

 

Bibliography

  • “Decisive Battles of History”. Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 5, Issue 93 (January 7, 1871). New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871.
  • Abdale, Jason R. Four Days in September: The Battle of Teutoburg, Second Edition. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2016.
  • Wells, Peter S. The Battle that Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003.
  • Zimmermann, William. A Popular History of Germany, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, Volume 1. Translated by Hugh Craig. New York, Henry J. Johnson, 1878.

 

The First Roman-Illyrian War, 229-228 BC: Ancient Rome’s First Armed Conflict in the Western Balkans

Introduction

For many people learning about ancient history in any detail for the first time, the title “civilization” is largely confined to the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. In the West, especially, the Greek and Roman civilizations are given significant praise as the founders of Western culture. What many people don’t realize was that there was a large area of land in between Italy and Greece which was just as advanced and just as powerful as they. In ancient times, this region, the western Balkans, was home to a group of enigmatic people who are mentioned only occasionally in modern historical texts, but they were crucial in the progression of events in Classical times. They were the Illyrians.

The Illyrians were a group of heavily Hellenized tribes (nearly sixty of them in total) who inhabited the western Balkans from modern day Slovenia into Albania. Although they were not united into a single nation, many of the Illyrian tribes were powerful politically, economically, and militarily. This was especially true for the peoples who dwelt along the Adriatic coast such as the Liburnians and the Dalmatians. Their warriors often bested the Greek phalanxes, and their dragon-headed warships ruled the Adriatic Sea. They were a force to be respected and feared.

For centuries, the major enemies of the Illyrians were the Greek city-states and the kingdom of Macedon. However, as the power of the Roman Republic rose throughout the 4th and 3rd Centuries BC, the Illyrians steadily felt Rome’s influence pervade the region. It would not be long before Illyria would have to focus her attention away from the east, away from the Greeks and Macedonians, and more towards the south and west, towards Roman Italy.

Several ancient historians relate how formal hostilities between the Illyrians and Romans began. The one which deserves special attention is Polybius, whose account is lengthy and detailed, and comments that the First Roman-Illyrian War was an important event which should be very carefully studied (1). Other historians include Appianus, Cassius Dio, and Publius Annius Florus. In contrast to the long and detailed account of the war related by Polybius, the others are short and summarized, and the details often differ significantly from Polybius’ report.

 

Greeks versus Illyrians

While the Carthaginians were expanding their empire in Spain and fighting the Iberians and Iberian Celts there, the kingdom of Macedon was at war with the Aetolian League, a collection of Greek city states headed by the state of Aetolia. Throughout Greek history, especially from the Classical Period onwards, the various Greek states would sometimes join together in confederations in order to combat an adversary, who might have formed a confederation of his own. The Aetolians tried to persuade the people of the town of Medion to join them as a member of their league, but when they refused, the Aetolians laid siege to the town and attempted to bring them into submission by force. The Aetolians brought forth their entire army, accompanied by siege weapons, and completely surrounded the town. With the people of Medion cut off from all hope of escape, the Aetolians immediately assaulted the town with the full strength of their army. The Macedonians did not have enough troops to face down and defeat such a powerful adversary. So, King Demetrius of Macedon was forced to appeal to his neighbors for help. There was an Illyrian king named Agron, son of Plevratos, who ruled over a group of tribes located around Scodra and the Bay of Rhizon, and commanded a more powerful military than any other Illyrian king who came before him. Cassius Dio identifies Agron as the king of a tribe called the Ardiaeans (2). Florus states that they were actually Liburnians (3). The Macedonian king paid King Agron to send warriors to act as mercenaries for the Macedonian army and help raze the siege of Medion (4).

The town of Medion was in dire peril, and each day it was expected that the town would fall to the attackers. But meanwhile, there was trouble in the Aetolian camp. The Aetolian army was a democratic one (their generals were elected by the soldiers they led), and during the siege, the time for the army’s election of a new general had come again. The general who was then in command wished to be re-elected, and so stated that since he had been in command during the siege, it was only fitting that he and not some new commander should reap the benefits when the town would at last fall, and to have his name inscribed on the shields of all of the soldiers in order to commemorate his victory. However, his claim was rejected by other candidates. The Aetolians reached a compromise, stating that whoever was general when the town of Medion fell into their control must share the task of distributing the spoils of conquest with the previous general, since he had done most of the work. That night under the cover of darkness, a hundred Illyrian warships carrying 5,000 Illyrian soldiers landed on the coast near the town. Polybius says that this deployment of much-needed reinforcements went unobserved by the nearby Aetolians (5). I am assuming that they were so distracted with the matters of politics and martial command that they never noticed the large fleet appearing on the sea’s horizon and steadily approaching the coast.

The warships didn’t disembark the men until dawn. The warriors arranged themselves in battle formation and advanced in small units towards the Aetolian camp. The Aetolians were caught completely by surprise, but Polybius states that the Aetolians were a haughty arrogant people, and despite being the victims of surprise, they were confident that their large army could repulse the newly-arrived Illyrian reinforcements – after all, they were only non-Hellenic barbaroi. The Aetolians prepared for battle, arranging most of their cavalry and heavy infantry on the flat open ground in front of their base camp. A little further beyond this flat area was a piece of high ground, possibly a ridge or a slope, and here they placed the remainder of their cavalry and their light infantry. The Illyrians were not intimidated by the Aetolians’ lines of soldiers and immediately charged at them en masse. Due to their superior numbers and the weight of their attack, the Illyrians pushed the light infantry and cavalry off of the high ground, forcing the Aetolian cavalry to crash back into their own heavy infantry waiting in the rear. The Illyrians continued to push forward until their forces smashed into the main line of Aetolian cavalry and heavy infantry. When the besieged defenders of Medion saw that the enemy’s cavalry and light infantry had been overcome, their forces sallied from behind their fortifications and they attacked the Aetolians from the rear. The Illyrians killed many, took prisoner even more, and captured all of the Aetolians’ weapons and supplies. The Aetolians were thoroughly defeated, and the Illyrians set sail for home with a great quantity of plunder and captives (6).

So far, Polybius alone has given us information regarding these events, with the exception of one minor note by Cassius Dio in relation to which specific tribe Agron belonged to. Appianus doesn’t begin his study of the First Illyrian War until immediately before it happens. It is now, following the events that occurred in Greece, that Appianus’ narrative begins, and as said before, his account differs in several significant ways. Polybius states that when the Illyrians returned and the commanders told King Agron about their great victory, the king threw a great celebration, and cavorted so heartily that he died a few days later. Polybius says he died from pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining around the lungs, but I find this difficult to believe since excessive partying isn’t likely to bring about this condition. Pleurisy is often a result of severe trauma, and taking a few hard blows to the chest or back might be enough to bring this condition about. Although there is no report of King Agron actually taking part in hostilities, it was understood that monarchs had to lead their armies in times of war, and Agron might have seen action earlier in life before these events. Another option is that he might have died from dysentery – the infamous King John of England likewise suddenly died of dysentery after over-indulging himself during a night of festivities (7).

Regardless of the exact diagnosis, the king was dead, and he was succeeded by his wife, Queen Teuta. She was not an absolute monarch in the sense that she controlled every aspect of running her kingdom, preferring instead to leave the tasks of governance to a council. Cassius Dio comments that Agron had left behind an infant son who was too young to rule, and so Teuta, the young boy’s stepmother, acted as regent (8). Due to the recent success of the army in the war against the Aetolians, she was so confident of her kingdom’s power that she granted permission to her ships to act as pirates, attacking and plundering any foreign ship that they saw. Afterwards, she mustered an army and fleet equal in size to the one that attacked the Aetolians in preparation for a new war, and she gave the commanders orders to treat all of the various Greek states as her enemies, whether they actually proclaimed themselves as such or not (9).

Appianus’ account differs in several ways from Polybius’. Firstly, Appianus mentions nothing about the Illyrians participating in the war on the Macedonian’s side against the Aetolians. Secondly, King Agron doesn’t die. Thirdly, it was King Agron, not Queen Teuta, who declared war with the goal of taking over large portions of Epirus and Greece. According to Appianus’ account, King Agron doesn’t die until his war of conquest is already well underway, following the conquest of three Greek states and the partial conquest of a fourth (10).

But back to Polybius’ narrative. The Illyrians chose as their first target the Greek states of Elis and Messenia, located on the western side of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, and which, according to Polybius, the Illyrians had been in the habit of raiding since the beginning of time. Both of these states possessed long areas of coastline, and since most of their cities were located far inland, presumably to protect them against naval invasions, any soldiers tasked with defending the shore had to march a long way from their interior bases to get to the beach, by which time a potential invading force would have already landed and gained a foothold in the country. The Illyrians knew this, and as far back as anyone could remember, parties of Illyrian warriors would raid the coastal settlements of these two states, confident in the knowledge that the Elisian and Messenian soldiers would take a long time to arrive on the scene. The Illyrians could land, attack, plunder, and quickly get out before the Greek soldiers appeared. In this manner, Illyrian raiders conducted attacks on these states with impunity (11).

However, this time, things were different. Before the fleet advanced on their intended targets, the Illyrians landed in the fortified and wealthy port-city of Phoenice (near modern-day Saranda), located in the Greek state of Epirus, in order to pick up supplies. Here, the Illyrians discovered eight hundred Gauls who were serving in the Epirot army and tasked with defending the city. The Illyrians, seeing a potential opportunity for further conquest, proposed to these Celtic warriors that they should betray the town into their hands. The Celts agreed. The Illyrians attacked and seized control of the city with the help of their new Gallic allies (12).

When news of this sudden unprovoked attack arrived in the Epirot court, especially an attack on Epirus’ largest and most prosperous city, their entire army was mustered to take back the city and to drive the Illyrians out of the country. The Greek soldiers of Epirus made their camp near the city. Between the city of Phoenice and the Epirot army, there was a river with a wooden bridge spanning it. The Greeks made camp on the opposite side of the river, and ripped up the planks of the bridge so that the Illyrians could not advance across it, although perhaps forgetting that now the Greek soldiers couldn’t advance across it either to recover the city. After they had done this, they received word that Illyrian reinforcements were marching overland, numbering at 5,000 men, and commanded by a man named Scerdilaidas, who was possibly related to King Agron. This body of warriors was approaching through a mountain pass near the town of Antigoneia (about twenty miles south of modern-day Tepeleni, Albania). The town was strategically located at the confluence of the Aoiis and Drinus Rivers (13). The Greeks had no choice but to order a part of their force break away from the main body and protect the town from attack. This move lessened their total numbers. Moreover, the Epirotes had become lax; they did not post pickets or watch-duty sentries, and they began pillaging the country of resources. The Illyrians guarding the city of Phoenice, however, were still disciplined and vigilant, and they soon discovered that the Greek soldiers on the other side of the river had divided their forces and were not taking any security precautions. Thus, under cover of darkness, the Illyrians sent a small party of men forward to repair the bridge so that the remainder of the army could cross over it. The work was soon done, and during that same night, the entire Illyrian force managed to quickly and quietly get across the river, and set up a strong defensive position. Afterwards, the men rested for the remainder of the night. The following morning, the two armies fought in a battle outside the city. The Greeks were defeated, with many of their men killed and many more taken captive. The survivors fled towards the land of the Atintane tribe. The entire army of the state of Epiros had been virtually destroyed in a single battle (14).

With no soldiers left to defend the state, the Epirotes lost all confidence of victory, and therefore sent delegations to the Aetolian League and the Achaean League for help. Both of these confederations agreed to provide assistance (I can imagine the Aetolians wanting to seek revenge for their earlier defeat by the hands of the Illyrians), and sent relief forces which rendezvoused at the town of Helicranum. Meanwhile, the Illyrian reinforcements, led by Scerdilaidas, linked up with the Illyrians encamped within Phoenice. With their combined forces, the large Illyrian army marched on Helicranum. The Illyrians pitched camp outside the town, but found the terrain unsuitable – a battle here might not end in their favor. They were spared from possible defeat, because before a battle could commence, a message arrived from Queen Teuta stating that a large section of the population had rebelled and defected to a neighboring tribe called the Dardanians, and they were ordered to return home as soon as possible. They obeyed the order, but not before they utterly ravaged the country of Epiros. Afterwards, they concluded a truce with the Greeks of Epiros. For a hefty price, the Illyrians would hand back the city of Phoenice and its citizens within. The Illyrians would keep all plunder and all captives as slaves. The Epirotes agreed to the terms. The original Illyrian invasion force set sail for home, while the Illyrian reinforcements under Scerdilaidas returned via their overland route (15). The Illyrians never made it to their intended targets of Elis and Messenia, but they had gained a great deal of plunder and captives anyway, and they were probably well satisfied with what they had.

This attack by the Illyrians spread great fear throughout the Greeks in that area. Phoenice was not only the largest and wealthiest city, but it also the best protected natural stronghold in all of Epirus, and contrary to all expectations of its capabilities in defending itself from attack, the city had not only been attacked but it was actually taken and sacked. If this impressive place could fall to the Illyrians, then surely other smaller less-fortified places were easy targets. All Greeks who lived along the coast suddenly became very afraid of their safety of their settlements and of themselves. Believing that the Illyrians were too powerful for them to handle, the people of Epirus sent an embassy to Queen Teuta, asking if they could form an alliance with themselves, the Illyrians, and the state of Acarnania, for the purpose of combating the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues – the very people who had agreed to help Epirus when it was under attack by the Illyrians (16).

It is a bit unclear why the Epirotes would make such a drastic about-face in terms of diplomacy and military prerogatives. As stated before, the Greek city states would often be united in confederations in order to combat their enemies. Many times, these leagues used their power not merely for the purpose of defending themselves against a powerful adversary, but to exert power and hegemony over others. Greece had never been a united country, and they were understandably wary of any state seeking to reign over all of Greece – the Greeks were fiercely independent and, dare I say, tribal people. The Achaean League and the Aetolian League were powerful confederacies seeking to dominate Greece, or at least the portions that they had carved up for themselves. The people of Epirus, wary of both of these leagues’ growing power, decided that having their Illyrian enemies as allies would be a good way to combat the power of both of these confederations. Therefore, the Epirotes appealing to these confederacies for aid in the war against the Illyrians appears to have been something done out of necessity rather than a request from one ally to another. For the time being, the Epirotes and the Achaeans and Aetolians would set their differences aside – they could always go back to killing each other later.

Polybius is especially condemnatory towards his fellow Greeks. Although he admits people make mistakes, he says there is no pardon when we make a decision fully knowing that there will be bad consequences. He claims it was foolish to have the defense of the city of Phoenice entrusted to foreigners, especially Gauls, who were, according to Greek eyes, not the most trustworthy of people. Moreover, this particular group of Gauls should have been carefully watched since they had been expelled from their lands by their own tribe due to their treacherous conduct. Thus, Polybius says, the people of Epirus brought this disaster upon themselves (17).

 

The Roman Republic enters the War

The Illyrians were notorious pirates in ancient times. Just as the Caribbean Sea was the playground for every cutthroat and swashbuckling buccaneer in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Adriatic Sea was owned by Illyrian ships. No foreign vessel could hope to sail across its waters without being attacked by Illyrian pirates. Italian merchant and trading ships sailing from their ports on Italy’s eastern shore always ran the risk of being boarded and looted by these men. While the Illyrians had taken and occupied the port-city of Phoenice, several Illyrian ships had attacked Roman merchant vessels, robbing some, killing others, and taking the rest into slavery. In the past, the Romans had ignored appeals to bring an end to the pirate threat in the Adriatic, possibly believing that pirates would always exist anywhere and that the practice of piracy simply couldn’t be stopped, despite their best efforts to do so. However, with this recent rash of attacks, more and more people approached the Senate with the issue of dealing with the Illyrian pirates. After many complaints and urgings, in 230 BC (18) the Senate appointed two men named Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius to travel to Illyria to assess the situation (19).

Meanwhile, the Illyrian army had returned to its homeland, bringing all of the spoils of war with it. Queen Teuta was so overjoyed by the vast amounts of plunder that had been taken from Epirus that she became more determined than ever to attack the Greek states. For a while, she had been forced to postpone her plans due to troubles at home, but now with peace restored, she could proceed. Her army cut a swath through many small settlements until they reached the island polis of Issa, “the only city which still held out against her” (20). It was then that the Roman envoys arrived by sea.

The two Roman envoys were granted an audience with the Illyrian queen. The accounts differ in terms of the details regarding the meeting between Queen Teuta and the Roman ambassadors, but all of them agree that it went badly. The two men proceeded to complain about the attacks on Roman ships in the Adriatic by Illyrian pirates. Polybius says that Queen Teuta listened to their grievances with a haughty disposition during the whole time that they spoke. Cassius Dio makes a similar statement, saying that she was completely unreasonable with the ambassadors (21). After they were finished, the queen replied with a rather ambiguous statement, declaring that she would see to it that Rome did not suffer any public wrongs at the hands of her ships, but as far as private wrongs were concerned, she would do nothing, stating that it was not the custom of Illyrian monarchs to prevent their subjects from engaging in piracy; one wonders what exactly the difference between a “public wrong” and a “private wrong” really was. The younger of the two envoys became very angry at the queen’s reply and immediately reproached her for her conduct. Naturally, the queen was very angry at this gesture of boldness and insolence. She couldn’t let them get away with such an affront to her person (22).

The reports of the events which occurred next are conflicting. Polybius states that as the two envoys were about to leave on their ship, she sent assassins to kill the man who had offended her (23). Cassius Dio states that when the ambassadors were finished speaking with her, she ordered some of the Romans who came to her kingdom to be executed and others to be thrown into the dungeon (24). Florus states that when the ambassadors were finished speaking, she had them executed “not with the sword, but like sacrificial victims, with the axe, and burnt to death the commanders of our ships. To make their action still more insulting, it was a woman that gave the order” (25).

Let’s see if we can combine these separate and different accounts to be more coherent with each other. When the ambassadors were finished admonishing the queen and left, she gave secret orders to sneak aboard their ships with orders to capture all of the Romans who came to her kingdom. When the Roman envoys returned to their ships, a large number of armed men boarded the ships and seized all of the persons aboard: the ambassadors, the ships’ captains, and the crews. Teuta commanded that the two envoys should be beheaded by axe, the ships’ captains to be burned alive at the stake, and the crews to be imprisoned in the dungeons.

When news of the murders reached Rome, the public demanded vengeance. Legions were mustered, warships were made ready, and an invasion was planned (26). Cassius Dio states “As soon, however, as the Romans had voted for war against her, she [Teuta] became panic-strickened, promised to restore the ambassadors who were left alive, and declared that those dead had been slain by robbers. But when the Romans demanded the surrender of the murderers, she declared she would not give up anybody, and dispatched an army against [the island of] Issa” (27).

Appianus’ narrative differs in several ways from the others. According to his version of the story, King Agron (remember, according to Appianus’ version, Agron hasn’t died yet), for reasons that aren’t stated, declared war on several Greek city states. His army captured, in the following order, part of Epirus, as well as Corcyra, Epidamnus (also called Dyrrachium; modern-day Durrës), and Pharos (modern-day Starigrad), and placed garrisons of armed men within the territories that he conquered in order to retain control of them. When his large fleet of war ships threatened the Adriatic, the people of the island of Issa requested aid from the Romans. In the autumn of 230 BC, the Romans sent some delegates to Issa to see if the reports of the Illyrian threat were true or exaggerated. However, before they could reach their destination, their ship came under attack by Illyrian warships. Cleemporus, the envoy from Issa, and Coruncanius, one of the Roman delegates, were killed in the attack. When the Romans heard about this assault, they were outraged. They immediately declared war on the Illyrians and invaded the country by both land and sea. Both invading forces were led by one of the Senatorial consuls. The army which marched overland was commanded by Lucius Postumius Albinus, and the fleet was commanded by Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus. Meanwhile, King Agron had died, leaving behind an infant prince named Pinnes as his heir. Agron’s widowed queen Teuta was made royal regent until the boy (who it is noted was not her son) came of age (28). Polybius, who provides the most detailed account of this war, mentions nothing about the boy prince, although Cassius Dio does.

 

Queen Teuta’s Wrath

In the spring of 229 BC, Queen Teuta was making ready to resume her planned attack on Greece. A fleet of warships was prepared, one far larger than the one which sailed the previous year. One group sailed to the island state of Corcyra, and another to the polity of Epidamnus. The sailors stated that their purpose was to take on supplies of fresh drinking water, but in actuality, they intended to conquer these places. The naïve people of Epidamnus, suspecting nothing, allowed the Illyrians free access to the city. A few of them disembarked from their ships wearing ordinary clothes and no armor, carrying large water jars, and appeared to be acting on their word. In actuality, the Illyrians had swords hidden inside the jars. As they approached the city gates, they suddenly whipped out their secret weapons, killed the guards, and seized control of the gatehouse. With the gates now opened, the remainder of the Illyrians erupted out from their ships, this time fully-armed for battle, and poured into the city. The people were initially taken by surprise, but they quickly mustered up their courage and fought back hard. After holding out for a while, the Illyrians were driven out. The retreating Illyrians clambered back aboard their ships and fled, joining the other half of their fleet sailing for Corcyra (29). Polybius states that Epidamnus had been spared at the last moment, but Appianus states that it had been overrun and that a garrison had been emplaced there in order to secure possession of the city (30).

At Corcyra, the massive Illyrian fleet dropped anchor, the warriors disembarked, and the city was besieged. The Corcyrans were certain that they could not hold out against such a powerful military force, so they sent envoys to the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues asking for help. The cities of Apollonia and Epidamnus, fearing that they would be attacked, also sent envoys. Both Greek confederations agreed to help, with the Achaeans sending ten warships – a paltry number compared to the presumably large fleet of over a hundred ships which the Illyrians possessed. But not all of the Greeks were on the same side. Earlier, the Greeks of Acarnania had signed an alliance with the Illyrians, and they sent seven warships to help the Illyrians in their war (31).

The clash between the two sides’ fleets took place off the Paxi Islands, a few miles southeast of the main island of Corcyra. The Greek ships were large and heavy, but the Illyrians had light galleys, best suited for speed and maneuverability rather than a head-to-head naval battle. To compensate, the Illyrians tied their light galleys together in groups of four ships. The battle commenced, and the Illyrians began to gain the upper hand early on. One large Greek warship was sunk with all hands on board, and another four Greek ships were captured. When the Achaeans saw that the battle was not going in their favor, they turned and fled for home. The Illyrians did not pursue. The Battle of the Paxi Islands was an Illyrian victory, and Polybius states the winners celebrated. As for the Illyrians’ Acarnanian allies, they came out of the battle relatively unscathed – none of their ships were damaged, no one was killed, and only a handful of men were wounded (32).

With the Achaeans out of the war for the time being, the Illyrians could get back to concentrating on the siege of Corcyra. Their confidence in victory was increased following the Achaeans’ naval defeat at the Battle of the Paxi Islands. After hearing about the defeat and retreat of those who were supposed to rescue them, the Corcyrans fell into despair. After holding out for only a little while longer, the Corcyrans surrendered. The Illyrians placed a garrison in the city under the command of Demetrius of Pharos. After sorting out the security of the city, the Illyrians set sail once again for Epidamnus to try to take the city a second time (33).

 

The Romans take the Offensive

It was around this time that the Romans, after a period of preparation and planning, got their invasion force underway. A large fleet of two hundred warships, commanded by the senatorial consul Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus, set sail from Italy. His colleague Lucius Postumius Albinus would command the invading army. Centumalus wanted his fleet to sail directly to Corcyra, since he believed that the siege of the city was still in progress. Cassius Dio states that when Queen Teuta heard that the Romans were moving against her, “she again grew fearful and sent a certain Demetrius to the consuls, assuring them of her readiness to heed them in everything” (34). Demetrius of Pharos contacted the Roman fleet (it isn’t stated how), giving them two messages: one was news, and the other was an offer. Demetrius of Pharos was a very shady character of dubious loyalty, and perhaps willing to take sides with whomever was winning or whoever would give him greater benefits. The Illyrians had suspected that Demetrius might be up to no good, and most likely came to the decision that putting him in a position of authority was a mistake considering his character. Since he feared whatever punishment that Queen Teuta would bestow upon him for suspected disloyalty, he told the Romans that the siege of Corcyra had already ended, and offered to hand the city of Corcyra over to the Romans along with the other places he held sway over, perhaps with a request that the Romans put him under their protection (35).

When Centumalus was informed that he was too late to provide any help in razing the siege, he decided nevertheless to continue sailing to Corcyra in order to meet with Demetrius of Pharos. His purpose was to see what exactly had happened, and also to see if there was any truth in Demetrius’ messages. When the Roman fleet arrived off the island, the people of Corcyra cheered and, according to Demetrius’ promise, the Illyrian garrison was immediately handed over to the Romans. This statement by Polybius confirms that Demetrius’ message was a secret message, and that the Illyrians soldiers guarding the city were not aware of Demetrius’ treachery. The people threw out their Illyrian occupiers, with the Romans taking them as their prisoners. The people of Corcyra unanimously accepted to be under Rome’s protection, since they felt that this was the only way that they could preserve themselves against future attacks by the Illyrians. After Corcyra was accepted into the Roman fold, the fleet then sailed for the port-city of Apollonia, with Demetrius serving as the Romans’ guide (36).

Cassius Dio gives a different version of the story. Although the Romans met with Demetrius and the Romans took possession of Corcyra, he states that Queen Teuta had sent Demetrius as her official envoy to the Romans with an offer – the Romans and Illyrians would be at peace with one another in exchange for handing over the island of Corcyra to the Romans. It was a good offer, and the Romans took it. However, as was typical of a woman, Cassius Dio comments, Teuta changed her mind. As the Romans landed at Corcyra to officially take possession of the island, she decided to continue the war anyway and sent an army to Apollonia and Epidamnus (37).

Meanwhile, Lucius Albinus had assembled his invasion army at the southern Italian port of Brundisium, consisting of 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. The fleet of transport ships set sail from Brundisium and landed at Apollonia, where the two Roman forces rendezvoused. The people of Apollonia agreed to submit to Rome, but not long after the two Roman forces linked up, news arrived in the Roman camp that the city of Epidamnus was once again under attack by the Illyrians. The Roman army immediately marched towards the city with the purpose of razing the siege. Such was the power and reputation of Rome’s army that when the Illyrians learned that a large army of Roman soldiers was approaching, they abruptly abandoned their siege of the city and withdrew in a frantic panic. Epidamnus was incorporated into the Roman Republic (38).

Not satisfied with not making contact with their enemies, the Romans pushed into the interior of the country, conquering a tribe called the Ardiaeans (which Cassius Dio states was the tribe that Teuta belonged to). After this tribe was subdued, other tribes sent messengers to the Romans offering their submission – the subjugation of the Ardiaeans, therefore, must have been a savage episode of slaughter and destruction in order to put such fear into so many other tribes, who wished to surrender themselves to Rome without a fight. Only two tribes are specifically mentioned by name: the Parthini and the Atintanes (39).

The Romans now advanced towards the island of Issa, which the Illyrians were in the process of besieging. By now, the Illyrians generally knew of the Roman presence, and so in addition to the army attacking the city, the Illyrian navy had surrounded and blockaded the island, presumably in the hope of preventing Rome’s fleet from getting close and landing her soldiers on the island. But these measures did no good – the Romans forced the Illyrians to abandon their siege of the city. The Illyrians fled to the islands of Pharos and Arbo. The Romans incorporated Issa into their realm (40).

The Romans once again took the offensive against the Illyrians, not merely rescuing besieged cities. As the Roman fleet cruised along the Balkan coast, they attacked Illyrian cities as they happened upon them. One-by-one, the coastal Illyrian settlements fell to the Roman soldiers as they waded ashore from their ships, taking the cities by storm. However, at the town of Nutria, the Romans were defeated, suffering horrendous losses included the deaths of several high-ranking officers. But this was the only reverse of Romans’ fire and storm campaign. The Roman navy managed to capture twenty Illyrian galleys which were carrying plunder taken from the Greek settlements that they had attacked. It’s highly likely that the Romans kept the loot for themselves rather than returning it to their original owners. Realizing that the war was essentially lost, Queen Teuta and a few attendants fled to the small but strongly-fortified town of Rhizon located in the interior of the country on the banks of the Rhizon River (41).

This report is corroborated by Cassius Dio, who states that the Romans took control of the cities that the Illyrians had attacked earlier, then ravaged the Illyrian coastline, and added to their victories by capturing an Illyrian treasury fleet sailing from the Peloponnesus. By this time, Demetrius had unquestionably switched sides and joined the Romans, and persuaded others to pledge loyalty to Rome as well (42).

 

The Fall of Queen Teuta

The Romans now controlled the greater part of Illyria, or at least Queen Teuta’s kingdom, and emplaced Demetrius of Pharos as Rome’s strongman in the region, running the territory as one of Rome’s vassals. Gnaeus Centumalus, who had commanded the fleet during the war, returned to Rome along with a majority of the army. Lucius Albinus remained behind with the remainder of the army in Epidamnus, and accompanied by forty ships, for the purpose of enforcing the loyalty of the Illyrian tribes which had submitted to Rome during the war. In order to augment his strength, Albinus began to enroll the natives of the surrounding countryside as auxiliaries (43).

Cassius Dio says that with the war going so badly for her, Queen Teuta realized that she had no choice but to negotiate with the Romans (44). The following year in the spring of 228 BC, she sent a delegation to the Romans asking for peace. The Romans’ terms were crippling: The Illyrians had to pay whatever tributes the Romans demanded; all of Illyria, with the exception of a few places, was now under Roman control; the Illyrians could not set sail beyond Lissus except with two unarmed ships (a term which was greatly welcomed by the Greeks) (45).

Appianus gives a somewhat different and more detailed account of the surrender proceedings. He states that, during this time, Queen Teuta sent messengers to the Romans asking for peace. She asked for mercy for the things that the Illyrians had done not by her command but by her dead husband’s. The Romans gave the following terms: The islands of Corcyra, Pharos, Issa, and Epidamnus were now Roman territories, and all the people who dwelt upon these islands were now Roman subjects. All people of the Atintani tribe were also now Roman subjects. The infant prince Pinnes would be allowed to keep the remainder of his father’s territory. The massive Illyrian fleet was to be reduced to only two unarmed pinnacles. No Illyrian ships were to sail beyond Lissus. Queen Teuta agreed to the conditions. The Romans declared Corcyra and Apollonia “free” (46).

Cassius Dio provides his own terms for the peace treaty. He states that Queen Teuta was forced to abdicate her throne. Demetrius of Pharos was officially placed in charge of the region as a Roman puppet ruler and also served as the regent for Prince Pinnes until he was old enough to rule on his own, most likely as a Roman vassal. He concludes by stating that the Romans were thanked by the people of the Greek state of Corinth for their actions during the war and formed an alliance with Athens (47).

Florus adds an interesting comment in this tale. Earlier, he had stated that Queen Teuta had ordered the Roman ambassadors to be executed by axe, mostly probably beheading them. When the war came to an end, the Romans carried out an act of poetic justice – the Romans rounded up the leaders of the Illyrians, and they were executed by axe as a fitting punishment for the execution of the envoys (48).

The way in which Polybius and Appianus depict the progress of the war, and specifically the role that Queen Teuta played in it, is rather interesting. According to Polybius’ narrative, King Agron was the original instigator, but he is a rather peripheral figure who dies early in the story, leaving Queen Teuta to do most of the war-work. She oversees the overwhelming majority of the conflict and is the leader of the Illyrians in their war against the Greeks and the Romans. She is described as being haughty, arrogant, hot-headed, and incapable of seeing things long-term. Appianus, by contrast, portrays Queen Teuta in a more sympathetic way. According to his version of the story, King Agron is the main foe in the war who launches unprovoked attacks on several Greek cities which later appeal to the Romans for help. When King Agron unexpectedly dies just before the Romans enter the scene, his wife Queen Teuta, who is an innocent non-participant in the war, is left holding the bag and is wrongfully held accountable for the crimes which her husband committed. It isn’t clear why there should be such a disparity in these two versions, with the first casting her as the villain and the second as the victim.

After the treaty was concluded, the Romans sent messengers to the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues, who explained the causes and conduct of the war, and recited the terms of the treaty. “These, then, were the circumstances of the Romans’ first armed intervention in Illyria and those parts of Europe, and of their first diplomatic mission to Greece” (49). As a reward for his treachery in handing over his territories to Roman control, Demetrius of Pharos was given some estates, although the Romans suspected that this man was not to be trusted, and their suspicions were well-founded (50).

 

Conclusion

The First Roman-Illyrian War had several short-term and long-term effects. The immediate threat of Illyrian pirate ships had been significantly reduced and the power of several Illyrian tribes had been weakened. Rome now exercised considerable influence in the region, although Illyria was not yet under its direct authority. Rome also became more closely connected with the Greek world, and the Roman Republic replaced the kingdom of Macedon as the major regional power. This would, in turn, result in the Macedonians becoming increasingly hostile towards the Republic, and this would eventually result in a new series of wars that would test the power of the Macedonian phalanx against the Roman legions (51).

However, the fall of Queen Teuta did not bring peace to the region. This was only the first of several conflicts that would become known as the Roman-Illyrian Wars, which would be fought for the next sixty-four years. Even after the major fighting was over, small-scale minor conflicts would still persist until the reign of Caesar Augustus.

In the year 6 AD, the last major war between Romans and Illyrians erupted. The Great Illyrian Revolt was the Illyrians’ last major attempt to win back their freedom. For four years, they fought tenaciously, but in the end they were defeated, never to rise again.

 

Source citations

  1. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 112.
  2. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  3. Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  4. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 112.
  5. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 112-113.
  6. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 113-114.
  7. A History of Britain, episode 3 – “Dynasty”; Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), page 114-115.
  8. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  9. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 114-115; Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  10. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  11. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 115.
  12. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 115.
  13. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, map of northern Greece (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 551.
  14. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 115-116.
  15. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 116.
  16. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 116-117.
  17. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 117-118.
  18. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  19. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118.
  20. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118.
  21. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  22. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118-119.
  23. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 119.
  24. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  25. Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  26. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118-119.
  27. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  28. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  29. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 119-120.
  30. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  31. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 120.
  32. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 120.
  33. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 120-121.
  34. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  35. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 121.
  36. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 121.
  37. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  38. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 121-122.
  39. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  40. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  41. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  42. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  43. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  44. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  45. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122-123
  46. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, parts 7-8.
  47. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  48. Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  49. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 123.
  50. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, parts 7-8.
  51. UNRV. “First Illyrian War”. http://www.unrv.com/empire/first-illyrian-war.php.

 

Bibliography

Books:

Websites:

Videos:

  • A History of Britain. Episode 3 – “Dynasty”. BBC, 2000.