Aelius Caesar – Forgotten Prince


“He was a man of joyous life and well versed in letters. In the palace his stay was but a short one but he was considerate of his family, well-dressed, elegant in appearance, a man of regal beauty, with a countenance that commanded respect, a speaker of unusual eloquence, deft at writing verse, and, moreover, not altogether a failure in public life.” – Historia Augusta


Aureus of Lucius Aelius Caesar, 137 CE

In the twilight years of his life, settled back in Rome after travelling the known world and becoming increasingly isolated and irascible, the aging Emperor Hadrian finally faced the question that stalks all ailing rulers: succession.

Like his predecessors Nerva and Trajan, his marriage had given him no natural heirs, so in the praiseworthy tradition of the time he cast his eye about for the most worthy candidate for adoption. Hadrian’s decision was made all the more difficult due to his natural suspicion of all around him and persecution of many a worthy candidate.

Servianus, a three-time consul who had married into the imperial family had all the credentials but was now 90 years of age. Attention was duly turned to his grandson Fuscus who Hadrian promoted accordingly, until to everyone’s surprise and confusion, he was also dismissed by the emperor. Servianus and his grandson felt they had such a right to the throne they may have even attempted a coup; Hadrian quickly ordered both their deaths.

Platorius Nepos – former Governor of Britannia who oversaw the construction of Hadrian’s Wall – seemed the next logical candidate but he also displayed his ambitions too openly and also fell out of favour. It must have seemed that a suitable candidate would never be found as Hadrian “came to hate all those of whom he had thought of in connection with the imperial power.” It appears the ambition and political savvy necessary to gain the emperor’s notice were the very qualities that marked oneself out as an intolerable threat.

So it was that in 136 CE, with perhaps a hint of desperation, Hadrian settled on and publically adopted his chosen successor; a 35 year old senator named Lucius Ceionius Commodus. Lucius was as blue blooded as anyone could hope (his father was consul in 106 CE) but remained a surprising choice. His father-in-law had been the great Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, trusted lieutenant of Trajan, whom Hadrian had executed less than a year into his reign on charges of treason. Lucius also lacked any type of military experience to his name. In a time of great tension at the borders of the Empire, this must have been a hotly debated decision. Yet to the paranoid and envious mind of the emperor, the fact that Lucius was not a dazzling general was likely a point in his favour. Even if the future of the Empire was at stake, Hadrian was not going to let himself be eclipsed.

Hadrian spent 300 million sesterces on publically celebrating the adoption with gifts to the public and military, as well as putting on lavish games in the circus. Lucius Ceionius Commodus became Lucius Aelius Caesarthe conferring of “Caesar” as a title was not yet standard protocol at the time and displays Hadrian’s determination to publically advertise the future of his Aelian dynasty.

Aelius was indeed a bright, young hope. Later historians mischievously remarked the deciding factor in his adoption was his “regal beauty”. Coin portraits of the time show a young man with a strong, handsome profile and a discerning stare, older than his years. The beard of the philosopher, brought back into fashion by Hadrian, is grown out even further, styled with ornate curls. His decadent appearance set the trend for the next 50 years, a clear precursor to the exaggerated opulent appearances of his son Lucius Verus and his co-emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The imagery of his coinage (likely decided upon by Hadrian) celebrates notions of piety, security and harmony of a Roman world with a definite future.

Aelius Comparison

Statue of Aelius, Louvre, with denarius of Aelius from author’s collection.

Yet Aelius’ major shortcoming as an heir quickly became apparent – sources are united in describing his “wretched health”. Even on the occasion of his adoption he was taken ill and unable to give his speech of thanks to the Senate. A concerned Hadrian is said to have consulted the horoscope of his adopted son and been dismayed by his findings, remarking, “I seem to have adopted not a son, but a god”.

Neverthless, Aelius was made consul for 136 CE and packed off to Pannonia to cut his teeth with a governorship. He proved to be a competent statesman and an “average commander” whose decadent leanings were of a trivial nature and did not detract from his overall positive perception. He was by all accounts a fan of the luxurious recipes of Apicius, and enjoyed designing evermore luxurious dishes of his own. He slept on beds of flowers and enjoyed dressing his servants up as cupids; all pursuits that “while not creditable, did not bring about the destruction of the state”.

Author's denarius of Lucius Aelius Caesar, heir of Hadrian, with Concordia holding patera and cornucopia, 137 CE.

Author’s denarius of Lucius Aelius Caesar, heir of Hadrian, with Concordia holding patera and cornucopia, 137 CE.

Meanwhile, word of his continuing sickliness persisted back in Rome, causing Hadrian to remark that he had “leant on a tottering wall” in regards to Aelius and that it wasn’t just some property but the whole Empire that was at stake. It seems these negative remarks found their way to Aelius’ ear, causing him to “grow worse every day from anxiety, as a man does who had lost hope.”

Aelius made it back to Rome from his province but following an overly large dose of medicine, died on January 1st 138 CE. The prevailing modern view is that Aelius had, in fact, been suffering from Tuberculosis, one of the most dominant diseases in the ancient world and one that affected members of all classes.

Hadrian’s reactions to the death of his heir are complex; on one hand he gave him an “emperor’s funeral” and ordered that colossal statues of him be set up around the Roman world. Yet he was not deified, somewhat ironic considering Hadrian’s earlier remarks about adopting a god. It also seems an alternative arrangement for succession was being made whilst Aelius was alive. Hadrian put forward a remarkable new plan for the future of his dynasty, nominating not only his new successor – a mild-mannered senator named Antoninus – but also the two after that, who he demanded should rule concordantly, a first in the Imperial age. One of these future hopes was of course Aelius’ son, Verus. “Let the Empire retain something of Aelius”, said Hadrian, somewhat poignantly.

Lucius Aelius Caesar is an interesting figure in the history of the time, largely ignored by writers. His brief touch with greatness afforded him little chance to make his mark on history but in him we can glimpse an intriguing alternate timeline. In what direction would the Emperor Aelius have steered the Empire? For better or for worse, his reign would surely have been filled with more incident than his ever-dependable replacement Antoninus Pius. Would the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius have still found his way to the throne? Such are the tantalising questions raised by the short but notable life of this forgotten prince.


Apollodorus of Damascus: Architect of Empire

“But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a creation which in my view has no like under the cope of heaven and which even the gods themselves must agree to admire, he stood transfixed with astonishment, surveying the giant fabric around him; its grandeur defies description and can never again be approached by mortal men.”

Ammianus Marcellinus (XVI.10.15)

The ascendancy of the Roman Empire is strikingly represented through the architectural wonders conceived during the Pax Romana. The importance of civic and military buildings as both symbols of authority and essential tools in the proliferation of Roman-ness cannot be overstated. These towns and temples, forums and baths are usually synonymous with the emperor that ordered their construction. The Forum of Caesar, Nero’s Golden House, the Baths of Caracalla; all so deeply associated with the names of their patrons it is as though they laid the bricks single-handedly.  Indeed, many edifices from the Roman world seem to modern eyes, so inspired, so eternal, that it is almost as if they sprang into existence themselves or were perhaps gifted to the world by the pantheon of gods they honoured. It is easy to forget the fact that, just like today, every construction was designed by a human hand, and behind the bronze emblazoned names of the emperors, is the name of an architect, all too often forgotten to history.

Architecture, a pursuit much respected today, lacked the same gleam of recognition in the ancient world. In much the same way as the term “artist” would not have been understood by the ancients, the gift of these individuals was in bringing something essential into existence; the finished product was to be celebrated, not so much the author. Sculpture, frescoes and temples were seen more as an expression of the divine than of the creativity of the designer. Furthermore, the whole business of “bricks and concrete” was seen as being beneath the dignity of most emperors.

This is not to say that architects never gained recognition in their own lifetimes, especially those who enjoyed imperial patronage. Vitruvius, author of the multi-volumed On Architecture, began his career as an artilleryman in the forces of Julius Caesar, his design genius eventually gaining him a place in the imperial circle; his epic treatise is dedicated to Augustus and Agrippa. Yet his modern fame is largely due to the fortunate rediscovery of his works in the 15th century and to this day, only a handful of Roman architects are even known by name.

One such name that has crossed the abyss of history is that of Apollodorus of Damascus, chief architect and engineer of the “impetuous and active” Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE), who “resenting that his realm was unlimited”, brought the empire to its greatest ever extent. Indeed, the scale and prolificacy of Apollodorus’ constructions as well as the fact some of them are still standing, has ensured his name defied oblivion.

Apollodorus was born in the Decapolis city of Damascus, part of the Nabatean controlled province of Syria, sometime in the mid 1st Century (he would live to see his homeland fully reclaimed by the Romans in 106 CE). This culturally distinct, semi-autonomous region was a trade crossroad of the ancient world, where hellenism melded with eastern influences, affording the young Apollodorus access to diverse and exotic ideas that would inform his later work.

Apollodorus of Damascus, Munich Glyptothek

Bust commonly identified as Apollodorus of Damascus, Munich Glyptothek, © Gareth Harney

Similarly to Vitruvius, it is theorised that Apollodorus cut his teeth in the Roman Army, designing war machines and siege engines. This is reinforced by surviving extracts from his treatise Poliorcetica (c.100 CE) which, in true Da Vinci fashion, proposes a range of sometimes fantastical battle hardware; from siege ladders and battering rams all the way to armoured rafts and fire hoses made of animal intestines.

His genius soon caught the attention of the popular new Emperor Trajan and when he embarked on his war of conquest in Dacia (modern day Romania), Apollodorus was appointed chief engineer for the campaign. The need for quick passage across the Danube into enemy territory led to one of Apollodorus’ most famous architectural feats. In the words of Cassius Dio:

“Trajan constructed over the Ister a stone bridge for which I cannot sufficiently admire him. Brilliant, indeed, as are his other achievements, yet this surpasses them. For it has twenty piers of squared stone one hundred and fifty feet in height above the foundations and sixty in width, and these, standing at a distance of one hundred and seventy feet from one another, are connected by arches. How, then, could one fail to be astonished at the expenditure made upon them, or at the way in which each of them was placed in a river so deep.” 

Detail from Trajan's Column showing the bridge across the Danube. Apollodorus is likely one of the men surrounding Trajan.

Detail from Trajan’s Column showing the bridge across the Danube. Apollodorus is likely one of the men surrounding Trajan.

Apollodorus’ bridge over the Danube was a mighty 1,135m in length – to give you a sense of scale, two One World Trade Center skyscrapers end-to-end would not meet its length. It was secured at each end by fortified castra affectionately named Theodora and Pontes. The whole project was completed in just 2 years. Though it was only in active use for a few decades, the piers of the bridge were certainly built to last and were still a hazard to shipping well into the 20th century.

Trajan no doubt utilised Apollodorus’s military inventions in the battles of his Dacian campaigns too, with chariot drawn artillery and hand-held Roman crossbows known to have been deployed.

Carroballista, chariot mounted artillery, being deployed in the Dacian Wars.

Carroballista, chariot mounted artillery, being deployed in the Dacian Wars.

With the victorious culmination of the Dacian Wars, Apollodorus likely had a hand in the design of the Tropaeum Traiani (c.109 CE); a grand, victory monument that also commemorates the fallen in its tomb-like design, intentionally echoing the Mausoleum of Augustus.

The Tropeum Traiani and the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome.

The Tropaeum Traiani and the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome.

Returning to Rome, Apollodorus essentially became not just Rome’s, but the Roman Empire’s chief civic architect.  With the imperial coffers overflowing with Dacian gold, a slew of ambitious building projects were ordered that must have given Apollodorus the busiest working years of his life. The biggest of these was certainly Trajan’s Forum, likely commissioned soon after the Dacian victory in 106 CE.

This mother of all forums, was more accurately a collection of individual and varied projects that combined to make one of the most impressive complexes of the ancient world; Latin and Greek libraries, a triumphal arch, an equestrian statue, a shopping centre, Apollodorus was tasked with the design and construction of them all.

His designs paid sympathetic tribute to the long-established Republican and Imperial archetypes on display in the city, most notably the Theatre of Pompey and Vespasian’s Temple of Peace. But more than this, the complex was consciously conceived as the “triumphant climax in the series of imperial fora, which would complete and unify the total design” of the Imperial city.

The project offered Apollodorus the opportunity to utilise his geometrical genius in the creation of a truly harmonious structures. The length and width of the plaza, 400 Roman feet, was used as the sacred measurement, divisions of which defined all the structures in the complex.  1½ times gave the length of the Basilica Ulpia and 3/4 gave the width. 1/8 gave the width of the forum’s colonnades and libararies. 1/4 of the basilica’s length gave the height of Trajan’s Column (150 feet) and so on. There was nothing haphazard about the divinely ordered dimensions of the space.

Trajan's Forum

Trajan’s Forum

In the creation of Trajan’s Column, Apollodorus clearly set out to create a new and artistically sophisticated method of spreading propaganda. One can see the inspiration of Persian relief carving and even Mesopotamian cylindrical seals in the presentation of the narrative.

Comparison of the base of Trajan's Column and its depiction on a contemporary silver denarius.

Comparison of the base of Trajan’s Column and its depiction on a contemporary silver denarius.

It almost seems unbelievable but simultaneously to the design and construction of the forum, Apollodorus was spearheading the construction of other major projects in and around the city. The mighty Baths of Trajan took shape on the Oppian Hill, over the last remnants of Nero’s Golden House. The Circus Maximus was rebuilt in stone, the Aqua Traiana brought evermore water into the city and the Via Traiana sped travel from Rome to the eastern coast of Italy. The harbour of Portus was redesigned with a revolutionary hexagonal harbour and canal route to the city, improving the efficiency of Imperial trade. How did one man simultaneously oversee such a range of complex and eclectic projects? Surely, Apollodorus led a team of understudies, perhaps taking on an advisory role with some projects whilst he was consumed in others?

When we begin to consider the sheer scale and number of building projects undertaken in the provinces, it seems increasingly implausible that Apollodorus authored them all, but as the Emperor’s creative partner he was surely on hand to advise. Here are just a few of the other architectural wonders that sprang up around the empire in the years of Trajan’s reign (98-117 CE)

  • Triumphal Arches at Ancona and Benevento
  • Alcántara Bridge, Spain
  • Baalbek Hexagonal Court, Lebanon
  • Colonia Ulpia Traiana (Sarmizegetusa Regia) capital city of Roman Dacia, Romania
  • Timgad, Algeria
  • Petra, Jordan
  • Sanctuary of Trajan, Pergamum
  • Fountain of Trajan, Ephesus

This is not to mention the vast number of restorations and reconstructions of temples, theatres and alike, constantly ongoing around the Empire in Trajan’s reign.

Works completed during Trajan's reign. Top Row: Arch at benevento, Trajaneum at Pergamon, Alcantara Bridge Bottom Row: Arch of Trajan at Timgad, Roman Road at Petra, Fountain of Trajan at Ephesus

Works completed during Trajan’s reign.
Top Row: Arch at Benevento, Trajaneum at Pergamon, Alcantara Bridge, Spain
Bottom Row: Arch of Trajan at Timgad, Roman Road at Petra, Fountain of Trajan at Ephesus

Apollodorus’ emperor, patron and friend, died of natural causes in 117 CE. Unfortunately, he would not enjoy such a successful relationship with his successor, Hadrian. Whereas Trajan respected and trusted Apollodorus’ expertise, Hadrian, an amateur architect himself, saw him as a rival and threat to his own reputation. The two had butted heads in the past – Dio recounts an amusing anecdote –

“When Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your pumpkins. You don’t understand any of these matters.” When Hadrian became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech.”

When Hadrian, now the most powerful man in the known world, proudly presented his own plans for the Temple of Venus and Roma, Apollodorus didn’t mince his words. He stated:

“that it ought to have been built on high ground so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position.. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.” When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man.” 

Cassius Dio 69.4

 It seems remarkable that Hadrian would put to death one of the great minds of the age due to such petulant, intellectual jealousy but as Dio further states, he even attempted to ban the works of Homer as he was “jealous of the living and the dead.” We are therefore left unsure as to Apollodorus’ contribution to perhaps the most famous Roman building of them all: the Pantheon. Some recent dating evidence actually suggests that construction of the Pantheon began during the reign of Trajan, in which case Apollodorus would surely have drawn up the plans. Others believe that the overreaching architecture, especially that of the portico which had to be reduced in height in the middle of construction, speaks of a more amateur architectural mind like Hadrian’s – and yet, the Pantheon’s dome was an unqualified success. Perhaps Hadrian threw Apollodorus off the project part way through and attempted to complete the building himself? For now, the designer of the building remains a mystery. Either way, like Socrates or Galileo, Apollodorus’ own brilliance seems to have been his undoing.

Overall, Apollodorus of Damascus is not just the most prolific architect we know from the Roman world but one whose constructions redefined the capabilities of human creativity. Whether it was carving away a 30m hillside to make room for a forum or spanning the 800m wide Danube, Apollodorus’ designs embodied the Roman dominance, of both her enemies and even Nature itself.

Apollodorus initiated a quiet revolution in his designs, which were on the surface a natural extension of previous architectural norms but were in fact thoroughly state-of-the-art, radical and experimental. His cities, forums, temples, ports and roads all paid tribute to a world empire of peoples and cultures, united as never before or since under one cultural banner. His buildings are certainly manifestations of the Vitruvian laws of architecture: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty), but even these universal qualities seem to fall short. Perhaps if Apollodorus’ own treatise had survived, he would have added principles of his own, ambition, harmony and most of all, ingenuity.

Caput Mundi – Beheading and Barbarism on Trajan’s Column

Silent enim leges inter arma.”  – “In times of war, the law falls silent.”

Cicero, Pro Milone

When we think of the Roman Army at war, the image we have is likely one of order and discipline; tight battle lines of endlessly drilled soldiers, obedient to every command, calculating and composed in their delivery of death.  All in direct contrast to their enemy, of course: a frenzied mass of berserk (and bearded) barbarians – ungodly, unlawful and unrestrained in their brutality.

The outbreak of war is, by definition, a breakdown in humanity and history has shown us that atrocities follow quickly on its heels. This was no truer than in the Ancient World where evidence clearly shows us that the civilised Romans were every bit as capable of barbarism as their hairy enemies.

One such startling piece of evidence can be seen on the scroll of Trajan’s Column, which tells the action-packed story of Trajan’s campaigns and eventual conquering of Dacia (modern Romania). In one early scene, actually the first engagement of the whole war, a soldier can be seen furiously fighting on, whilst holding the freshly severed head of a fallen Dacian in his teeth! War, it seems, is indeed hell.

Is he keeping the head as a souvenir? Is it the head of a Dacian officer to show his superiors? Is he merely in a blood-crazed frenzy?

Is he keeping the head as a souvenir? Is it the head of a Dacian officer to show his superiors? Is he merely in a blood-crazed frenzy?

 Interestingly, the oval shields (clipeus) of his fellow soldiers mark them out as auxiliaries, now fighting on the side of the empire that once conquered their homeland. Is his depiction a comment on the auxiliaries’ famous ferocity, his inner barbarian seeping through despite his training? Were foreign recruits seen as the “devil, on whose nature, nurture could never stick” (Tempest, IV.i.188–189)?

Wider scene: Roman auxiliaries with oval shields battle the Dacians, one holds Dacian head in teeth.

Wider scene: Roman auxiliaries with oval shields battle the Dacians, one holds Dacian head in teeth.

With this grisly scene begins a theme of decollation that runs the length of the column, Dacian heads all too often appearing parted from their shoulders. Later, a selection of Dacian heads are displayed on spikes as the Romans build an encampment – a gory reminder to their countrymen what happens when you cross them.

Dacian heads on pikes as Roman soldiers build a camp.

Dacian heads on pikes as Roman soldiers build a camp.

Later again, severed heads are presented directly to Emperor Trajan for inspection; presumably, the heads of important enemy officers or just some apple-polishing Roman soldiers looking to show off their hard work. Either way, it seems the presentation of decapitated heads to the emperor himself was standard protocol. There are echoes of Pompey’s head being presented to Caesar and Cicero’s head to Antony.

Trajan is presented with the decapitated heads of Dacian officers.

Trajan is presented with the decapitated heads of Dacian officers.

The associations of beheading to the Romans were complex: done correctly with a sword; it was an honourable type of execution, though the torture that usually preceded it detracted from its appeal. Roman citizens, famously, had the right to decapitation, rather than the disgrace of torture and crucifixion. As a manner of death then, decapitation did not hold the inherent disgust it would today; correct burial and treatment of the body after death would be of more concern to the Romans.

Discoveries of mass graves of decapitated Celts, such as this one near Maiden Castle, Dorset, speak of a level of brutality difficult for modern minds to imagine; bound and defeated prisoners, beheaded on masse. Or was this the Roman way of providing honourable deaths to the brave Celts like the code of the Samurai?

Looking at these scenes of Trajan’s Column, some have duly questioned whether a headhunting culture existed within the Roman ranks, akin to similar practices seen in subsequent conflicts such as World War II and Vietnam?

Were they inspired by the headhunting conducted by the barbarians? As Diodorus Siculus vividly describes:

When their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses; and turning over to their attendants the arms of their opponents, all covered with blood, they carry them off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory, and these first-fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses, just as men do, in certain kinds of hunting, with the heads of wild beasts they have mastered. 5 The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar-oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to strangers, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head some one of their ancestors, or their father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money.

Diodorus Siculus Book V.29.4-5

Such mutilation is often perceived as a justified vengeance upon the enemy for their own barbarity but always occurs in the wake of successful propaganda, dehumanising the opposition. Subhuman depictions of the enemy are a staple of wartime propaganda:

WWII Propaganda Poster - This is the Enemy

WWII Propaganda Poster – This is the Enemy

To legitimise their role as enlightened conquerors, it was vital for the Romans to position themselves at the other end of the ideological spectrum to the peoples they overcame. The inhuman practices of the barbarian other therefore became a topic contemporary writers were keen to emphasise; the notion of human sacrifice for example, was a recurring point of disgust for Roman commentators. Tacitus famously described the site of the Teutoberg disaster:

“..the human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.

Tacitus 1.60-62

Caesar also describes human sacrifice observed in Gaul:

“..the druids have figures of vast size, the limbs of which they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the burning of criminals more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the burning of even the innocent.”

Caes. Gal. 6.16

“Gallic funerals are magnificent and costly; and they cast into the fire all things, including living creatures, as well as slaves and dependents, who were ascertained to have been beloved by them, burnt together with the deceased.”

Caes. Gal. 6.19

Roman abhorring of human sacrifice seems to miss the obvious irony that gladiatorial shows evolved from very similar funerary traditions and the death of a criminal or gladiator in the arena clearly held a sacrificial meaning as well as being for entertainment.

Back to our Roman auxiliary with a Dacian head dangling from his teeth – we must remember that Trajan’s Column was meant for public eyes; the story could have been written (and probably was) but Trajan and Apollodorus chose to show it – even the illiterate could follow the triumphant tale. They also, presumably, had complete creative control, so anything that showed Romans behaving in an un-Roman way could have been censored. That being the case we must ask why gory detail like this is included. Is it an honest attempt to portray of the madness of war? Is it a sly statement on the untamed nature of the auxiliaries? Were such details inserted to titillate the citizen viewer?

Fundamentally, it seems that all the imagery on the column is a celebration of one ideal: Roman supremacy. Images that would illicit pity today: despondent Dacians being tortured, beheaded, impaled, their children sold into slavery at the story’s end, are all shown with unashamed detail in the scroll. The designers knew any image that showed a Roman Army’s utter domination over barbarians was sure to be enjoyed.

Romans believed passionately in their rights of war and conquest, that the victor (as long as it was them) was right to plunder and enslave. Even more importantly, they believed the Gods were on their side. After Hannibal’s defeated brother Hasdrubal was beheaded, Appian writes that his wife said to Scipio:

For you, Roman, the gods have no cause of indignation, since you exercise the right of war.

App. Pun. 19.131

They carried into war a sense of their entitlement to commit acts on the enemy that, if roles were reversed, would garner universal condemnation. Cutting off the hands and feet of captured Gauls ensuring a slow death, was not a war crime to the Romans but a necessary show of dominance. From our lofty but precarious 21st Century moral high ground, we may be shocked by the brutality with which the Roman army annihilated its enemies, we might even call it barbaric, but to them it was, in every way, something to be celebrated.


The Inconvenient Coin: Dating the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

If you have visited the spellbinding British Museum exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum you will have, no doubt, rightly been overawed by the wealth of wonders on display; pristine bronzes, dazzling frescoes, even human remains, all eerily preserved by the ashes spewed from Vesuvius on that fateful day: 24th August 79 CE. A date we have been taught in school, read in textbooks and seen in film & television; truly “a date that will live in infamy”.

Or not. Even after visiting the exhibition, many may not realise the long accepted date of the eruption is even in doubt (I saw the topic briefly mentioned a couple of times in item descriptions) let alone that there exists a key piece of evidence that puts the date to bed definitively. Evidence that was sadly (for me, anyway) absent from the exhibition.

Firstly, you may ask from where the traditional eruption date of 24th August originates? In a letter [6.16] to Tacitus (written 25 years after the event), our old friend Pliny the Younger describes the eruption that took place on “Nonum Kal September” or “the ninth day before the Kalends of September” i.e. August 24th. Yet these modern interpretations stem from questionable 16th Century translations, from authors who would have struggled to understand the dating conventions used in the original manuscripts. Manuscripts which in turn, may have been corrupted themselves. Even though ancient historian Cassius Dio directly states that the disaster took place “towards the end of the harvesting season” (the harvest began in October), a 1508 translation of Pliny’s letters settled on an August date for the disaster and the rest is history.

Despite this, scepticism for this summer eruption date has actually been widespread since the first large scale excavations in the 18th Century. Circumstantial evidence pointing to late-Autumn date abounds:

  • The fresh fruit and vegetables for sale on the day of disaster are unseasonal for August.
  • The expected summer fruits had been dried for preservation.
  • The October grape harvest and wine making season was completed with wine already sealed in jars.
  • Citizens were dressed in unseasonal warm clothing (though possibly due to conditions during the eruption).
  • Many homes were using wood burning heaters at the time of eruption.
  • Long term studies of wind directions around the Bay of Naples have deemed the manner in which ash was distributed consistent with a post-September eruption date.

This accumulated evidence is convincing and easily understood by a lay audience, yet the most conclusive piece of evidence has received little fanfare and actually lay in a museum vault for over 30 years before anyone noticed its significance.

On 7th June 1974, during excavations of Pompeii’s “House of the Gold Bracelet”, a selection of 180 silver and 40 gold coins were discovered with the bodies of a group of victims. The coins were found in a stratified archaeological context that attested to them being buried in the initial stages of eruption (and not subsequently dropped by looters or treasure hunters). Though an impressive find, the discovery of coins on such a bountiful site was not earth shattering news and the un-catalogued coins were sent for safe keeping in the vaults of Naples Archaeological Museum. 

They lay in this archaeological limbo until 2006 when an expert (Grete Stefani, Boscoreale Antiquarium) finally got round to cataloguing them and made an amazing discovery. Amongst the standard coin types was a single denarius from the reign of Titus, emperor at the time of eruption and remembered fondly for the relief efforts he organised in its wake. No surprise in itself; coins of the ruling Flavian dynasty were flowing into Pompeii at the time of the eruption and have been found everywhere. The problem: this issue of coin should not have been.

Titus Denarius of the same type as coin in question. Rome, AD 79. IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate bust right / TR P VIIII IMP XV COS VII P P, capricorn left, globe below. RIC 37. 2.99g, 17mm

Titus Denarius of the same type as coin in question. Rome, AD 79. IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, laureate bust right / TR P VIIII IMP XV COS VII P P, Capricorn left, globe below. RIC 37. 2.99g, 17mm, Courtesy of Coin Archives.

In a testament to the wonderfully precise dating evidence that coins provide (often exact to a window of weeks, let alone months or years) the denarius proclaims the latest collected titles of the victorious Emperor Titus (79-81), the dates of which can be corroborated from inscriptions around the empire to a high level of accuracy.

It declares: TR P VIIII IMP XV COS VII PP (“with the tribunician power for the ninth time, acclaimed emperor for the fifteenth time, consul for the seventh time, Father of the Nation”). We know from separate contemporary sources and letters that Titus did not receive his 15th Imperial acclamatio until September 79 CE (likely for achievements in Britannia), upon which new coins would have been minted and dispersed to mark this unplanned event.

It may not be a great monument or life size bronze but the evidence this coin provides is diminutive and definitive. Frankly odd descriptions of the coin being “barely readable” make no sense as it would have been all but a few weeks old and in pristine condition at the time of eruption. Drawings show a coin in mint state:

Drawing of the coin at Naples Archaeological Museum. Screencapture from Rai TV Documentary.

Drawing of the coin at Naples Archaeological Museum. Screencapture from Rai TV Documentary.

That such dramatic conclusions can be drawn from such a tiny object may be difficult to comprehend but such are the joys of history. It may not be the discovery of an iPod in a Pharaoh’s tomb but there is no reasonable scenario that would explain this coin existing in Pompeii in August 79 CE.

Now you would assume a discovery with such historical significance would have been much celebrated in the last few years? You would assume wrong. As one who appreciates ancient coinage but also just as a lover of history, it surprises me that to date not a single photograph of the coin has been published, only drawings exist. Little to no documentation can be found about it online and the coin itself has not left the Naples Museum. Some have even gone so far as to question whether information about the coin is being intentionally suppressed, rather than having to change all those textbooks!

Back to Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum; I fully appreciate that when planning an exhibition for the public, even the most hardened academic would likely opt for a full-size statue rather than a single silver coin 20mm across. Likewise an item such as a gold ring provides an instant emotive and universal understanding that needs no explanation, whilst a tiny coin and the complex deductions that can be made from its alienating impersonal ancient jargon – not so much. Nevertheless. It would have been splendid to see the ancient object that finally debunked the oft-cited August eruption date of Vesuvius, or at least an enlarged image of it with up-to-date conclusions.   

Granted, this was an exhibition not about the eruption but about people; their lives and their deaths; with that mission statement, the exhibition is a soaring success. But you can be sure if the eruption date was written in graffiti on a brothel wall, it would have been included.