Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Did Financial Exigency Drive the Roman Empire to Embrace Christianity?

Detail of a Tapestry depicting Constantine's Victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge designed by Peter Paul Rubens  1623-1625 CE. Photographed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2011
A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Writing sometime between AD 307 and AD 310, an anonymous Gallic panegyrist recorded that Constantine witnessed a pagan theophany of Apollo accompanied by Victory, offering him laurel wreaths. This vision took place just two years prior to Constantine’s more famous reputed vision of a "trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces or 'with this sign, you shall conquer', on the sixth of the kalends of November [i.e. the 27th of October], 312 CE.

The Roman emperor Constantine I photographed
at the Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2009
Scholars have argued about the veracity of Constantine's famous Christian theophany for hundreds of years. Believers ask why would Constantine embrace a religion whose followers represented only about 10 percent of the total population of the Roman Empire if some miraculous experience had not occurred?

Well, as a pragmatist, I think we need to examine the socioeconomic context of the period to determine if Constantine's actions were those of true devotion or, in reality, political desperation. I will explore the state of Rome's precious metal supplies during the period prior to Constantine's "conversion", sharp decreases in revenue from loss of manpower and productivity from recurring violence and plague, trade disruptions, and large payments made to threatening forces. I will also discuss the attributes of Christianity that appealed to the powerful and made it a candidate for political exploitation.

The time period I will be discussing will, for the most part, cover the period from the middle of the second century CE to the early 4th century CE. This is the period when Christianity started gaining momentum with the production of written scriptures and development of a patriarchal bishopric. Before this time, Christian spiritual experiences were merely shared orally in private homes and egalitarianism was emphasized instead.

So, let us begin.

"Early Christianity was tiny and scattered. No precise figures survive, but best estimates suggest that there were considerably fewer than ten thousand Christians in 100 CE, and only about two hundred thousand Christians in 200 CE, dispersed among several hundred towns. The late-second-century figure equals only 0.3 percent of the total population of the Roman Empire (which was about 60 million)... The very small size of Christianity helps explain why the Roman state paid so little attention to suppressing it effectively. And the tiny size of early Christianity, relative to the empire's population, helps explain why the central Roman government for so long ignored the potential dangers which Christianity eventually posed to pagan civic religions and to the political system which they supported." - Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods

So what changed so dramatically?

The Roman Empire was built upon military conquest which fueled the Roman economy with plunder, slaves and the acquisition of sources of key materials including precious metals.

"Under the Principate the Iberian peninsula [modern day Spain and Portugal] constituted the most productive mining area of the Roman Empire. The full range of minerals was available, and exploited: gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, iron, mercury, cinnabar, sulphur and zinc...The north-west of the Iberian peninsula (Gallaecia and Asturia) was one of the richest gold fields known to the Romans, and its exploitation commenced soon after the final conquest of the area under Augustus. Gold was obtained in three different ways: from low-lying placer deposits of gold found in the silt or gravels of rivers, from high-level alluvial terraces (where the gold-bearing gravels had been forced up from the bottom of the river valley into terraces by erosion) and from hard-rock mineral deposits of gold. Pliny talks of 20,000 lb. of gold accruing to the Roman state per year from Asturia, Gallaecia and Lusitania from alluvial terraces alone. To this must be added gold obtained from hard-rock deposits and from placer-mining. According to a recent estimate one valley alone (the Duerna) produced 3,000 kg of gold per annum for 130 years; in total it is estimated that the north-west provided approximately seven percent of state revenue under the Flavians." - J. C. Edmondson, Mining in the Later Roman Empire

Diagram of early mining courtesy of Ancient Trenches
Edmondson tells us the mining in this region was so complex it had to be managed by a special equestrian procurator who was assisted by imperial freedmen known as procuratores metallorum and a sizeable military contingent. But, how long were these activities productive?

"In general the period of greatest production was from the mid-first century A.D. to the start of the third century, as recent excavations and field survey in the Duerna valley and at El Caurel suggest. Similarly, gold mines in northern Portugal (for example, Trêsminas and Jales) came into operation in the Augustan period, but the earliest pottery forms found in any abundance date to the third quarter of the first century A.D.; evidence is lacking for any exploitation after the start of the third century. The phasing out of the procuratorship of Asturia and Gallaecia at the start of the third century is seen as further confirmation of a decline in mining productivity. Thus, the consensus of scholarly opinion is that mining had effectively ceased [in this region] by the mid-third century." - J. C. Edmondson

Edmondson points out, however, that archaeological evidence for early fourth century resettlement in mining zones such as Corona de la Quintanilla, and isolated finds of late Roman coins minted by Constantine in Poço dos Romanos, Valongo, and northern Portugal is often overlooked. But, could this resurgence of limited activity be an indicator of a dearth of precious metals and soaring values in the early fourth century that prompted attempts to extract what would have been deemed economically unfeasible earlier in the Empire?

Similar evidence has been found in the silver and copper mining sites in the Andalusian Mountains.

"A decline sets in after A.D. 160-70. This has been plausibly attributed to the Moorish invasions of the 170s, which caused the temporary loss of Roman administrative control over southern parts of Baetica and Lusitania...The conclusion to be drawn from the archaeological evidence is traditional, but seems consistent: namely that the apogee of large-scale mining of gold, silver and tin in the Iberian peninsula occurred during the first and second centuries A.D." - J. C. Edmondson, Mining in the Later Roman Empire

But the Iberian peninsula was not the only source of precious metal in the far flung Empire. What was happening elsewhere?

Some of the workforce in Roman mines were convicted criminals but not all. Epigraphic evidence reveals both free and freedmen worked the mines as well. Public domain image.
Dacia, the next most important source of gold after northwest Spain, was lost to Rome in 270.
In Britain the Dolaucothi gold mines were worked intensively from soon after the conquest under Claudius until the Antonine period, but numismatic evidence suggests only spasmodic exploitation took place thereafter. In the silver mining zone of Laurium in Attica, late Roman mining lamps datable to the fifth and sixth centuries have been found as well as evidence of the resmelting of slag, but large scale mining ended during the reign of Augustus.

Large scale mining operations required a military contingent
for security. Public domain image.
"...Pliny talks of discoveries of gold in Dalmatia during the reign of Nero, while archaeological evidence exists for gold mining (both hard-rock and alluvial workings) in central Bosnia, but unfortunately does not provide any precise dating criteria. However, in western Bosnia numismatic evidence suggests that iron, lead and copper were exploited in the third and fourth centuries, while in eastern Bosnia the argentiferous lead mines of the Drina valley have provided epigraphic evidence for their continued operation in the later third century. Thus Dalmatia is one area where mining (possibly including gold mining) continued into the later Roman Empire." - J. C. Edmondson

But, although large scale exploitation of fluvial gold took place in Serbia in Roman Dalmatia from the reign of Hadrian, mining seems to have ceased during the political upheavals and Gothic invasions of the mid-third century.

So, did all of these ore deposits simply become exhausted? In some instances, that was the case. Edmonson points out that the gold mines of Mt. Timolus in Asia Minor became totally exhausted during the reign of Augustus. But at other sites it was often a matter of higher quality, ores existing closer to the surface becoming exhausted. Deeper veins of ore that required much more labor and higher expenses for adequate ventilation and drainage were simply not profitable enough to exploit. Activities to support large-scale mining also faced shortages.

"Enormous quantities of charcoal were required to smelt raw ore into usable metal," Edmonson observes. "Over the years this will have caused substantial deforestation around the mines and, as local sources became exhausted, increasing problems of supply from outside the mining zone."

These supply problems were further exacerbated by warfare and aggressive banditry, both activities that increased dramatically during the third century.

"If production was concentrated in just one place, this would have made it an obvious target during barbarian invasions, " Edmondson observes.

Mining is also labor intensive. A decrease in available workers was another problem that plagued large-scale mining operations in the later Roman Empire.

"...Principate peoples were transported some distance to work in mines," Edmonson points out, "That there was a shortage of mining labour in the later Roman Empire is suggested by those legal measures taken by Roman emperors at the end of the fourth century not only to stem the flow of runaway miners, but also to tie the sons of miners to the profession of their fathers."

In addition to human losses from the aforementioned warfare and brigandage, widespread, repeated waves of extremely virulent pestilence swept over the Empire in the late second and third centuries as well. One of the most devastating episodes has been dubbed the Antonine Plague because it first occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and co-emperor Lucius Verus.

Death of Meleager. Image courtesy of Barton's World History.
In their paper "Galen and the Antonine Plague", R. and M. Littman theorize that the pestilence involved was probably hemorrhagic smallpox based on the symptomology described, albeit incompletely, by Galen. Cassius Dio reported up to 2,000 people perished each day in just the city of Rome itself in a later flareup in 189 CE.

"The mortality rate in a particular city would be affected by such factors as crowding, sanitary conditions, season of the year, severity of secondary infections which accompany the plague in a particular place, the methods with which the city may deal with the plague and also pure chance." - R. and M. Littman

To try to estimate the plague's impact on remote mining districts would be even more difficult. I do think the mining districts would be particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of pestilence, though, due to the transient nature of their workforce that regularly included imported convict labor. Living conditions for them would have been cramped and probably unsanitary, too. We also know little about the level of medical care, if any, that may have been provided. Although the Littmans estimate an average mortality rate across the entire Empire at approximately 13 - 15 percent, they point out that an individual outbreak of smallpox could have a mortality rate of nearly 80 percent if the more virulent forms of the disease predominated.

The Antonine plague has been compared in severity to the plague of the Athens in 430 BCE. Public domain image.
What the precise mortality rate was may never be known for certain, but the Antonine plague resulted in a catastrophic destabilization of the Roman military, widespread famine, disruption of trade routes and trading activities, and a dramatic loss of tax revenue. Military recruitment records from Egypt reveal sons of soldiers were heavily drawn upon to augment their shrinking ranks and army discharge certificates from the Balkan region suggest that there was a significant decrease in the number of soldiers there who were allowed to retire from military service during this period. Egyptian tax documents from Oxyrhynchus and the Faiyum clearly reflect significant population decreases in Egyptian cities. Archaeology has confirmed this.

"At Augstodunum the inhabited area before its destruction by Tetricus had amounted to two-hundred hectares; as rebuilt by Constantius, it was only ten. That of Bordeaux had been reduced from about seventy hectares to twenty-three, and the reduction in other cases as well over half. Such changes could only have been the result of a vast diminution in population, even if proper allowance is made for possible congestion within the fortified areas."

"Egypt had been relatively safe from invasion and civil war; but as early as A.D. 260 Alexandria seems to have lost about sixty percent of her earlier population..." C.E. Van Sickle, Diocletian and the Decline of the Roman Municipalities

"Epigraphic and architectural evidence in Rome indicate that civic building projects — a significant feature of second-century Rome's robust economy —came to an effective halt between 166 and 180. A similar pause in civic building projects shows up in London during the same period." - Sarah K. Yeomans, The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity

The Antonine plague was followed in the mid-Third Century by the Cyprian plague, so-called because it was the topic of De mortalitate, a work penned by a bishop from Carthage named Cyprian. Thought now to be an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever or even a filovirus such as Ebola, ancient sources that include Zosimus claim at its peak it laid waste to 5,000 people per day in the city of Rome and claimed the life of two Roman emperors, Hostilian in 251 CE and Claudius II Gothicus in 270 CE.

"The period in between the emperors witnessed political instability as rivals struggled to claim and hold the throne. The lack of leadership and the depletion of soldiers from the ranks of the Roman legions contributed to the deteriorating condition of the empire by weakening Rome's ability to fend off external attacks. The widespread onset of illness also caused populations in the countryside to flee to the cities. The abandonment of the fields along with the deaths of farmers who remained caused the collapse of agriculture production. In some areas, swamps re-emerged rendering those fields useless." - John Horgan, Plague of Cyprian, 250 - 270 CE

So, due to a multitude of factors, it would appear the supply of precious metals decreased to a trickle by the third century. Furthermore, many of the causes that resulted in the decrease of precious metal production also resulted in a precipitous drop in production of all goods including foodstuffs and their related taxes, the Roman administration's main source of income.

"For the Roman Empire, it has been estimated that up to three-quarters of the population was working in the agricultural sector: the possession of agricultural land was therefore the most important source of wealth; and this makes it perfectly logical that the fiscal burden principally fell on the on agricultural land fulfilled to a large extent the needs of the Roman government...This money was mainly spent by the Roman government in the purchase of military equipment, the provisioning of the army (if stationed in a province with poor agricultural resources), donativa for the army and the people of Rome, the construction of public buildings for the capital (public buildings in the provincial towns were often paid for by euergetists) and the periodic furnishing of material aid to communities in times of crisis...Nearly constant civil warfare (with separatist states emerging in Gaul and Palmyra) and the permanent threat of invading Germans, Goths and Persians on the northern and eastern frontiers of the empire caused an economic crisis with a tremendous inflation and a collapsing currency." - J.A. Sander Boek, Taxation in the later Roman Empire

The Roman emperor Diocletian photographed
at the Art Institute of Chicago (on loan from the
J. Paul Getty Museum) by Mary Harrsch © 2016
By the time Diocletian ascended to the throne in 284 CE, there had been a half century with about 35 emperors who had spent most of their reigns fighting just as many or more usurpers.

"Diocletian tried to create order out of chaos by administrative, military and fiscal reforms; The huge army he built up [400,000 to 600,000 strong] effectively defended the frontiers and suppressed internal disorders. His enlarged bureaucracy administered justice more promptly and vigorously, saw to the execution of much-needed public works, and collected the necessary revenue with ruthless efficiency..."

"During the Principate the fiscal burden was distributed according to financial capability; the richest members of a community took responsibility for paying a substantial part of the tax burden. In this way, the rich could also act as benefactors by, e.g., paying for a certain tax on behalf of the whole community. However, this display of wealth became increasingly difficult as a result of the economic crisis in the third century and the collapsing currency." - J.A. Sander Boek

Instead, Diocletian had his bureaucrats, including the Praetorian Prefect, calculate the needs of the army and the state and just apportioned these needs relatively equally to all of the provinces. Although the new fiscal system did take into account, to some degree, differences in the quality of the land, citizens who had been declared exempt from taxes because of age or infirmity lost their immunity. Women and even children were made liable for the munera patrimonii and young men of curial rank were forbidden to enter the army so they could fulfill their administrative responsibilities. Tradesmen were compelled to join state-run guilds and essentially locked into their professions in perpetuity. It also assessed Roman citizens living in Italy who had always been exempt from taxes. Then, when it became obvious that many non-landowning city dwellers were taxed lightly, the Edict of Aristius Optatus was issued in 297 CE to correct this inequity.

But, the top-heavy bureaucracy could not be sustained. Lactantius, a late third to early fourth century writer and later advisor to Constantine complained that between the enlarged army and Diocletian's swollen bureaucracy, there were more tax recipients than taxpayers.

Inflation was rampant. Diocletian attempted to control prices with his Edict of Prices but the currency was so debased many price caps were ignored. A papyrus dated to 307 CE reveals that by then it took 8,328 denarii to purchase a pound of gold, 86 times the second-century price of 96 denarii to the pound. By the time Egypt fell to Constantine, the value of a pound of gold had reached over 300,000 denarii.

People began hoarding their gold and paying their taxes with nearly worthless debased denarii. So emperors began demanding tax payment in gold bullion. And, when gold coins were accepted as payment, the coins were melted down into bullion bars so the weight and purity could be checked before transportation to the imperial treasury.

"Constantine not only levied, like his predecessors, the aurum coronarium at intervals of five years, and continued to impose the gold and silver tax on land like Maximian; he also exacted the rent of imperial estates in gold, and instituted a new tax on traders, payable in gold and silver...But his principal stroke was the confiscation, late in his reign, of the temple treasures." - A.H.M Jones, Inflation under the Roman Empire

 This fourth-century confiscation of centuries of donations to pagan temples, was justified at the time by Constantine's apparent conversion to Christianity. But, of all the gods worshiped across the Roman Empire, why was Christianity chosen by the most powerful ruler in the western world?

Christianity was a monotheistic religion and one whose followers were passionately intolerant of other beliefs. This exclusivity would ensure that no charge of impiety would follow the plunder of all other religious organizations. It also provided the opportunity for rulers and subjects to share a common philosophy and inspire a sense of unification as a people.

"Theology in the later Roman Empire provided a loose ideological cohesion between rulers and subjects which had previously been lacking in a state which had started as an empire of conquest, divided between conquerors and the conquered. Theology created a complex and abstract discourse in which it was possible to find a significant variety of arguable positions."

"...Religious politics were the politics of fluid alliances, not fixed parties. From the state's point of view, adoption of Christianity achieved an empire-wide symbolic harmony at the relatively low price of religious conformism (oppression) and a tiny number of excommunicated clerics." - Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods

Head of a King possibly Shapur III Sassanian Period
4th century CE Iran Silver with mercury gilding.
Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York City by Mary Harrsch © 2015
It should also be noted that one of Rome's primary antagonists, Sassanid Persia, also adopted a single unifying religion during this time, as well, the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism. The Sassanids subsequently built fire temples in captured territories to promote the religion and, later, even fought their own subjects in Armenia at the Battle of Avarayr in 451 CE to make them officially break with the Roman Church. Some scholars think the success of the Sassanid religious strategy could have influenced Constantine's decision as well.

There were other developments as the Christian church evolved as well. Although Christianity had begun as a network of believers who met informally in homes to exchange their ideas and experiences, by the third century Christianity had adopted  an apostolic hierarchy of authoritative (and increasingly elite and wealthy) bishops to control and direct the activities of their respective Christian communities.

"In the early stages of Christianity, at any one time, perhaps only a few dozen Christians could read or write fluently...even by the end of the second century, although there may have been over a thousand fluently literate Christians, that still works out, on average, as only about two literates per community. The vast majority of Christians could not read or probably even understand the texts, which we now consider fundamental  to reconstructing their history." - Keith Hopkins

But, as this tiny group of socially marginal men increased in number and influence, Roman politicians recognized the potential to use this patriarchal authority for widespread social control. These men could  threaten eternal damnation for failure to adhere to the community's behavioral code of conduct - a far more effective means to exact compliance than political edicts enforced by increasingly reluctant civil magistrates. It also provided the means to inflict religious-based proscriptions, through charges of heresy, against one's opponents and further enrich imperial coffers.

Detail of Tapestry Showing Constantine Burning the Memorials to give
Tax Concessions to the Christian Church by Pietro da Cartona 1634 CE
Photographed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2011
Hopkins points out that after Christianity was adopted by the state, bishops borrowed the oppressive powers of the state to bully, exclude and even execute doctrinal rivals. Furthermore, they began to exploit the sin and guilt of their fellow believers.

"Since sin could not be eradicated, it might as well be exploited. The careful stratification of different degrees of apostasy (voluntary/forced; thought about/done; sacrifice/incense only; official/martyrs' certificates) was an initial stage in the flotation of a new moral economy of sin and penance. Over time, the Church gradually elaborated an effective list of sin prices. To put it crudely, the Church marketed sin, and expanded into guilt. Sin was not just a matter of behavior; it could occur in the desires of thought and in the unconscious fantasy of dreams. Christian clerics were determined to make the faithful pay for their dreams, as though they could salve their conscience by generosity to the poor and to the church."

"...Christians stood out in their heroization of self-sacrifice and in their private generosity to the unfortunate. Even pagans were deeply impressed, and eventually also attempted to imitate Christian charity. But it is also worth noting that as the church grew, it grew richer. From the fourth century, church buildings (like pagan temples) were increasingly decorated with silver and gold, and bishops rose up the social scale, with incomes to match. Guilt, sin, laxity, repentance, penance, and the readmission of the fallen, to say nothing of alms and legacies, used in combination, were all important forces in the church's drive for worldly success." - Keith Hopkins

Tapestry by Peter Paul Rubens depicting Constantine worshipping the
true cross. Photographed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by
Mary Harrsch © 2011
So, Christianity offered Constantine not only the pretext to seize the immense wealth stored in pagan churches but a framework that could be used to extract future wealth from its own believers. In one stroke Constantine not only relieved  Rome's financial exigency but had enough wealth left over to build a new capital city dubbed Constantinople and live in luxury for the remainder of his life.

But what about Constantine's inspirational vision in 312 CE? Hopkins points out that early Christians developed a new genre of literature lionizing Christian heroes and martyrs "to extort their followers to greater virtue."

"...Christians fought bitterly against, and at the same time compromised with, the Roman state, and meanwhile created their own frontier heroes and villains: martyrs, ascetic saints, bishops, and heretics..." - Keith Hopkins

Although there are a number of 4th century panegyrists that testify to the emperor's sincerity, I suspect Constantine simply became one of these embellished legends.

"Out of commitment or political self-interest, or both, they [Constantine and his successors] favored the Christian church with donations and with privileges for the clergy. They gave state support for synods of bishops to decide matters of doctrine; they also used the church as a supplementary instrument of imperial ideology and social control. It is difficult to decide whether this radical transformation of the role of Christianity, which had so much influence on the future of western culture, should be called the triumph of the Christian church or the triumph of the Roman state." - Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods

Additional reading on mining in the ancient world: The Mines That Built Empires by Barry Yeoman.


Anonymous, In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, page 248. Retrieved from

Belzoni, P. A. (2017, October 27). Constantine's Vision of the Cross ~ Early Accounts and Backstory. Retrieved from

Hopkins, K. (2001). A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity. New York: Plume.

Littman, R., & Littman, M. (1973). Galen and the Antonine Plague. The American Journal of Philology, 94(3), 243-255. doi:10.2307/293979

Van Sickle, C. (1938). Diocletian and the Decline of the Roman Municipalities. The Journal of Roman Studies, 28, 9-18. doi:10.2307/296900

Yeomans, S. K. (2017, August 22). Classical Corner: The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity. Retrieved November 23, 2017, from

Horgan, J. (n.d.). Plague of Cyprian, 250-270 CE. Retrieved November 23, 2017, from

(Sander) Boek, J.A. (n.d.). Taxation in the later Roman Empire. Retrieved from

Jones, A. (1953). Inflation under the Roman Empire. The Economic History Review, 5(3), new series, 293-318. doi:10.2307/2591810

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: Altar of Blood Empire IX by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In the ninth and final installment (at least for now) of Anthony Riches' Empire series dubbed "Altar of Blood", we find the young centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila accompanying Tribune Rutilius Scaurus and about three dozen hand-picked men from the Tungrian cohorts back to Germania where they have been charged with kidnapping the seer of the fiercesome Bructeri tribe. The sinister imperial chamberlain, Marcus Aurelius Cleander, has not revealed the reason for this clandestine action across the Renus (Rhine) into such dangerous territory but Scaurus and his men are not given any choice in the matter.

The Bructeri are one of the six tribes who attacked Publius Quintilius Varus and massacred the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth legions at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest at the beginning of the first century. Six years after the famous disaster, Lucius Stertinius, a general serving under Germanicus, swept through the Bructeri territory between the Amisia and Luppia rivers, destroying everything in their path and recovering the eagle of Legio XIX.

The Bructeri next appear in history during the Batavi revolt of 69-70 CE. Their tribal seer during that period was named Veleda. It is said she foretold the Batavi success in that uprising and was considered the tribe's spiritual leader.

Germanic Warrior courtesy of military artist Johnny Shumate
Of course, that was all more than a century before our novel's time period but it made the existence of a revered tribal seer quite believable and certainly explained the bad blood between the Romans and the Bructeri.

To make an almost impossible situation worse, Germania Inferior is now governed by Tribune Scaurus' arch nemesis, Clodius Albinus. Albinus is actually a historical figure who served the emperor Commodus in both Gallia Belgica and, later, Britain.  But when a false rumor claimed Commodus was dead (before he actually was), Albinus denounced Commodus before his soldiers in Britain, calling Commodus a tyrant, and maintained that it would be useful to the Roman Empire to restore to the Senate its ancient dignity and power. Although this declaration pleased the Senate it understandably riled Commodus who sent Junius Severus to relieve Albinus of his command. But, the relief order was not received until Commodus and even his successor, Pertinax, were murdered in 193 CE, a year that was to become known as the Year of the Five Emperors.

In our story, though, Albinus is still just a duplicitous schemer who is trying to thwart Tribune Scaurus in his mission or at least claim the captive seer and credit for the mission's success. Tribune Scaurus is going to have to use every bit of cunning he possesses to escape a determined Bructeri war band and prevent his men from being sacrificed on an "Altar of Blood" - that of either the Bructeri's bloodthirsty war god Wodanaz or an unscrupulous Roman's ambition.

One of my favorite characters was captured by the Bructeri in this novel and I spent a good deal of time worrying about his ultimate fate. I certainly didn't want to visualize him spread-eagled on a bloody altar with a wild-eyed shaman hovering over him with a wickedly-sharpened knife! As you can tell, over the course of nine novels I have closely identified with such finely crafted characters and felt a member of their select group.  I will definitely miss them although I suspect Riches is not yet done with them all as the seer claims Rutilius Scaurus will play a key role in the Year of the Five Emperors!

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Thunder of the Gods - Empire VIII by Anthony Riches

Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

When we left Marcus Valerius Aquila and the Tungrian auxiliaries in Book 7, they had returned to Rome to expose the corruption of Praetorian Prefect Sextus Tigidius Perennis. While there, Marcus also ferreted out the names of the Prefect's assassins responsible for the deaths of his family members and taken brutal revenge on all of them except the despicable emperor Commodus, himself.

Although glad to be rid of the "Emperor's Knives", the emperor's chamberlain Cleander considers Marcus to be a valuable but dangerous asset who might attempt to take ultimate revenge on the emperor as well. So, as Book 8 opens, Cleander has decreed that heretofore Tribune Rutilius Scaurus is promoted to Legatus and Marcus  is appointed his equestrian-level tribune. Together with any Tungrians who wished to accompany them, they have been ordered to Syria. There, Legatus Scaurus is ordered to take command of Legio III Gallica, root out the corruption that has flourished under the current governor, and relieve a Parthian siege of the important Roman stronghold of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey).

One of my favorite historical novels, "Fire in the East", by Harry Sidebottom, takes place in Roman Syria so I was already familiar with many of the obstacles Marcus and his Legatus would face there including the lethal armored cataphracts and the deadly archers with their perfected "Parthian shot".

The action is driven by the historical events of an uprising of Parthian client kings against both Rome and their own ruler, Vologases IV. Although I could not find a particular reference to a siege of the contested stronghold of Nisibis during this time period, it could have very well occurred during attempts by Osroes II, King of Media, to overthrow his father, the King of Kings, Vologases IV, and prevent the succession of his brother Vologases V. Osroes II, as well as his ally, Narsai of Adiabene were both historical figures that appear in this installment.  The author does an outstanding job of bringing this struggle to life since the ancient sources are rather sketchy on the details of events that transpired during this period.

File:Coin of Vologases IV of Parthia.jpg
Silver coin of Vologases IV

The first major battle that occurs while the troops make their way to Nisibis, is nothing less than thrilling as Legatus Scaurus uses every tactic he has read about to thwart destruction of his forces - specially laminated shields, improved body armor, portable bolt throwers, lengthened thrusting spears and, of course, deadly caltrops. Scaurus has left nothing to chance, drilling his men for weeks before they finally set out on the march. As it turns out, the Tungrians must use every ounce of that training to drive back the Parthians and keep them at bay until they can finally reach the relative safety of the stolid Roman outpost.

But, how will Scaurus and Marcus lift the siege and return this part of the Roman frontier to a respectful stalemate? It will take another valiant defense against almost impossible odds as well as the blessings of Fortuna on a clandestine attempt by Marcus to negotiate a settlement with the King of Kings himself!

Highly recommended!

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Was the College of Augustales at Herculaneum founded to cope with the socio-economic impact of widespread fluorosis around the Bay of Naples?

By Mary Harrsch © 2017

Modern day school children living around Mount Vesuvius are suffering the effects of drinking ground water contaminated by naturally occurring fluoride generated by chemical changes to the volcanic debris present in the water-bearing strata just as their ancient Roman ancestors did over 2,000 years ago.

"Fluorine is present in its ionic form of fluoride in soil, water, plants, foods and even air. During weathering and circulation of water in rocks and soils, fluorine can be leached out and dissolved in groundwater and thermal gases. In groundwater, the natural concentration of fluoride depends on the geological, chemical and physical characteristics of the aquifer, the porosity and acidity of the soil and rocks, the temperature and the action of other chemical elements. Potentially fluoride-rich environments are mainly linked with Precambrian basement areas and those affected by recent volcanism...Long-term intake of high doses of fluoride can have adverse effects on human health, including dental, musculoskeletal, reproductive, developmental, renal, endocrine, neurological, and genotoxic effects [such as mutations]." — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

Researchers point out that skeletal fluorosis from long-term exposure is characterized by calcification of tendons and ligaments and the fusion of bone structures in joints and the vertebrae of the spine.

"In advanced stages the entire skeleton may be involved by crippling deformities which can be found in the pediatric age group too," researcher Pierpaolo Petrone observes. "Despite the increase in bone tissue mass but not in density, fluorotic bones are thus brittle, of poorer mechanical quality and easier to break." — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

In a 2013 effort to reveal the long-term effects of continued exposure to the contaminated groundwater of the Vesuvius region, a team of Italian researchers conducted studies on 76 human skeletons recovered in the 1997–99 excavations of the water-front chambers at Herculaneum to determine if they, too, displayed evidence of advanced fluorosis.

"In studies of ancient skeletal populations, this condition has rarely been considered in differential diagnoses of palaeopathological lesions, mostly concerning specific single cases showing excessive ossification and joint ankylosis [fusion]."  — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area
The pitted teeth of an individual with advanced fluorosis.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"We analyzed 76 human skeletons aged 0 to 52 years old, excavated within the water-front chambers 5, 10 and 12 of the Herculaneum suburban area. The composition by age of the entire sample shows about 62% of adults vs. 38% of sub adults (24% infants and 14% juveniles), with a sex-ratio of 1.89 (36 males vs. 19 females) assessed on individuals > 15 years old. Sex and age at death, as well as the prevalence of linear enamel hypoplastic defects (LEH) and dental caries were assessed according to standard diagnostic procedures...The chest bones, spine, pelvis and long bones of each individual were examined for the calcification of ligaments, cartilage, and tendons, as well as the presence of healed fractures. " — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

A staggering 91.8% of the individuals tested showed ossification processes in at least one of the long or flat bones (femur, tibia, clavicle, pelvis), with clavicle as the most involved bone (88.2%). At least 39.2% of the individuals sampled exhibited ankylosis (fusing) of the vertebrae of the spine, toe joints and/or manubriosternal joint.

"In the appendicular skeleton, a 47.2% overall occurrence of osteoarthritic-like alterations of the joints appears particularly severe given the mean age of about 30 years of individuals ≥ 15 years old." — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

Over 96% of the individuals were affected by dental defects with severe enamel alterations occurring in 34.4% of the victims. Although in modern times the intake of small amounts of fluoride in drinking water is associated with the prevention of dental decay, high levels of fluoride produce the opposite effect as seen in the Herculaneum victims whose caries occurrence was unusually high if compared with other Roman Imperial age communities.
The skeleton of a young woman known as
"The Ring Lady" found in a boat house in
Herculaneum. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The researchers also pointed out that the presence of fractures was also particularly high in comparison with other Roman and pre-Roman communities, even with those of low social status.

Since a poor diet can also result in similar pathology the researchers noted that a previous trace-element analyses of the excavated group indicated the victims consumed a well-balanced diet consisting of red meat, crustaceans, oysters, dry fruit and legumes.

Today, we have the technology to implement water treatment to reduce the levels of fluoride in the drinking water of communities in arid or volcanic areas where high fluoride levels are an issue. But, did the Romans associate dental disease and the early onset of disability in these areas with local water supplies?

We see from the treatments described by 1st-century Roman physician and encyclopaedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus in his treatise De Medicina that Roman physicians had developed quite elaborate procedures for the treatment of tooth pain and extraction of teeth when treatments failed. But, I found no references to discolored teeth or to possible causes of dental deterioration in any of the eight books of his work still extant.

That's not to say the ancients did not attempt to identify causation when presented with such obvious deterioration. Galen certainly recognized a causal relationship between a damaging condition and disease.

"...nothing happens without cause, for if this is not accepted we would be unable to seek the cause of damage to vision or its complete destruction. But since this is clear to thought, having postulated that there is some cause of damage, we proceed to look for it. With respect then to this cause, it makes no difference, at least to present considerations, whether you wish to call it some condition of the body or the body being somehow affected. In all cases then you will either say the disease itself is this [cause], or if the disease is a damage of function, the damaging condition is the actual cause of the disease." - Galen, De methodo medendi X.51K.

But no identification of the cause of dental and skeletal deterioration in residents around Vesuvius is noted in any extant ancient medical sources. If there was some intervention, though, even if it was only applied to the upper strata of Roman society, there would be an absence of the condition in some skeletal remains. In fact, inconsistent findings of fluorosis in Roman remains recovered in Herculaneum had been noted in an earlier study.

In a 1995 study of remains found in Herculaneum, researchers Gino Fornaciari, M. Rognini and M. Torino reported in the British medical journal The Lancet finding a high percentage of  calcium-deficient tooth enamel — a condition often resulting from starvation at an early age but also found in well-nourished individuals suffering from fluorosis —  in six of eight individuals tested. However, the condition was not found uniformly throughout all individuals in the sample.

Researchers concluded that some of the sampled remains may have been visitors to the area, since the Roman aristocracy maintained vacation villas around the Bay of Naples. Although the explanation given by the researchers is quite plausible, I would offer an alternative explanation. Perhaps wealthier individuals drank imported wine frequently enough to avoid the ravages of the fluoride-contaminated water. Of course, without reference to this practice as a preventative measure in specific areas like those around Mount Vesuvius in any ancient sources we will never be certain if such avoidance was simply a fortunate side effect of a wealthier lifestyle or recommended by medical practitioners familiar with the disease patterns observed in these locations.

The researchers conducting the 2013 study point out the serious socioeconomic impact of a community with an ongoing permanent fluoride hazard. So how did the Romans respond to this problem?

Archaeological evidence has revealed that Herculaneum is among the very first communities in the Roman Empire to develop an organizational fraternity of freedmen known as the Augustales. Scholars have pondered why this organization officially dedicated to the cult of the emperor arose first in three communities (including Herculaneum) around the Bay of Naples in the Augustine period. In his paper, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth, Steven E. Ostrow points to a number of factors including a high concentration of slaves and freedmen due to the trading activities centered around the ports of Micenum and Puteoli as well as extensive agriculture in the rich volcanic soils around Vesuvius. Ostrow also points to the special relationship between these communities and Rome because Puteoli served as the main grain reception port for the city of Rome and the wealthy of Rome built numerous sumptuous villas around the bay to escape the heat in Rome during the summer months. But what if the Augustales were at least partially motivated to consolidate their resources to deal with a serious regional health issue?

Herculaneum membership in the Augustales numbered over 450 men based on recovered inscriptions.  Of that total about 400 were identified as freedmen with the remainder listed under the heading "ingenui". The individuals constituted some of the most successful men of their community.

"We have said that the Augustales were wealthy, and the evidence is abundant. If we simply glance at the kinds of public benefactions which they offered their fellow townspeople in the region of Campania alone — and these are fairly representative of the Augustales elsewhere — we are struck by the mighty expense that must have been involved (even if monetary sums are unfortunately, rarely specified). From the towns of Misenum, Puteoli, Abella, Pompeii, Teanum Sidicinum, Cumae Salernum, and Nuceria, we hear of the donation of ubiquitous statues, distributions of food, a set of awnings for shade in an open-air theater, gladiatorial games, highway repairs (at a cost of HS 2000), a public bath building (cost of HS 60,000), a basilica and — in the specifically religious sphere — an altar and three temples (dedicated to Pomona, to the Genius of the town of Stabiae, and to Victoria Augusta)." - Steven Ostrow,  "Augustales" along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

The remains of the Temple of the Augustales in Herculaneum. Image courtesy of Peter and Michael Clements. cc-by-nc-nd

Of the benefactions listed, I was particularly struck by the distributions of food and the public bath building, both related to the support of individual health. In addition, one of the statue bases found with an inscription referring to the Augustales held a statue of Asclepius, the god representing the healing aspects of the medical arts. In fact, even the sheer volume of statue dedications and constructions of temples may relate to attempts at addressing a health crisis through appeasing the gods, often considered a way to relieve disease in the ancient world.

So why did representation of the emperor's cult become the ordained purpose of the Augustales?

As Ostrow points out in his paper, Compania had a regional history of civil unrest.

"During the Republic, in the very years that two great slave rebellions swept across Sicily, Campania witnessed severe, if less serious, revolts of its own: at Minturnae and Sinuessa in 135 [BCE], and again in 104 [BCE] at Nuceria and Capua. And the greatest of all ancient slave wars, that led by Spartacus beginning in 73 [BCE], broke out right in the heart of Campania, at Capua. It lasted for two years, during which the slave army rose perhaps to some 100,000 persons and managed to defeat at least five Roman armies. It ended, of course, with the crushing defeat of the rebels, and their annihilation. Although nothing like this and the Sicilian rebellions ever touched Italian soil again, the memory of them in Campania must have remained vividly alive for a long time to come."
Ostrow observes that Augustus' establishment of the imperial fleet at Misenum posed a potential threat of social and even military discord. In fact in 69 CE, the "Year of the Four Emperors," the Misenum fleet actually did rebel.

Between 41 and 52 CE a political crisis is thought to have occurred at Pompeii and an incident of mob violence occurred at Puteoli in 58 CE, according to Tacitus. The next year Nero assassinated his mother after the failure of the collapsible boat debacle in the bay and later that same year rioting broke out during gladiatorial games at the amphitheater in Pompeii.

Fear of potential imperial misunderstanding was well-founded. Suspicion about the intent of group gatherings is clearly reflected in a letter from Trajan to Pliny when Pliny, serving as a provincial governor in Bithynia and Pontus in the early second century CE, asked imperial permission to form a fire fighting unit in Nicomedia.

"... we must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for the political disturbances in your province, particularly in towns. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club." - Trajan, Letter to Pliny the Younger, Ep.

What better way to deflect Imperial suspicion of gatherings of wealthy powerful men in the area, then, than to petition the emperor for status as his official designated priesthood?

" view of the critical importance of Campania to Rome, any role played by the very institution of the Augustales in easing social friction would have been highly prized — both by Rome, and by the governing classes in the towns," — Steven E. Ostrow, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

Such a designation would also enhance the social standing of the wealthy freedmen involved as well.

"The freed Roman slave, though a citizen, was permanently disbarred (at least from the early Empire, if not before) from any active role in the 'official' political life of his town: he could neither hold a magistrate's post nor sit on the town council. For the average freed slave of modest means, this political disability must have mattered very little; his very freedom — limited as it was by all the ties of the patron-client relationship — may have satisfied whatever 'political' ambitions he felt, if any. But for the wealthy freedman — and some clearly became very wealthy indeed — this state of affairs must have presented a dilemma that could take on a major psychological and even sociological dimension. For such a freedman, the consciousness that his wealth — and perhaps his energy, wits, and ambitions — were equal to those of his fellow townsmen of free birth, but that his political path was blocked for all his lifetime, must often have been a painful experience indeed." — Steven E. Ostrow, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

The Augustales' success in achieving this goal of social advancement is documented in hundreds of inscriptions testifying to the high status and remarkable prestige enjoyed by them.

"In the event of public celebration, when monetary gifts were customarily awarded to all the citizenry, the Augustales always received more than the plebs, even as the local Decurions gained the richest gift of all. Augustales were frequently granted the honors of a public statue, or of a public funeral, or of the so-called 'trappings' of a town councilor (Ornamenta decurionalia), even if they could not enjoy membership in the council itself." — Steven E. Ostrow, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

Although the college of Augustales could have been implemented from "the top down" through a program envisioned by the Emperor, I think it could have just as easily been a "grass roots" movement with the socioeconomic problems created by widespread fluorosis in the slave and freed populations around Vesuvius serving as the catalyst.


Petrone, P., Guarino, F. M., Giustino, S., & Gombos, F. (2013). Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area. Journal of Geochemical Exploration, 131, 14-27. doi:10.1016/j.gexplo.2012.11.012

Torino, M., Rognini, M., & Fornaciari, G. (1995). Dental fluorosis in ancient Herculaneum. The Lancet, 345(8960), 1306. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(95)90952-4

Ostrow, S. (1985). "Augustales" along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 34(1), 64-101. Retrieved from

Galen, De methodo medendi X.51K.

Celsus, De Medicina, VI.9

Pliny the Younger, Ep.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cannibalism in Roman Egypt

Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Funerary complex of the 5th Dynasty pharaoh Unas at Saqqara
Image courtesy of Wiimedia Commons.
King Unis is one who eats men and lives on gods,
Lord of messengers, who dispatches his messages;
It is ‘Grasper-of-Forelocks’ living in Kehew
Who binds them for King Unis. It is the serpent ‘Splendid-Head’
Who watches them for him and repels them for him.
It is ‘He-who-is-upon-the-Willows’
Who lassoes them for him.
It is ‘Punisher-of-all-Evil-doers’
Who stabs them for King Unis.
He takes out for him their entrails,
He is a messenger whom he (King Unis) sends to punish.

Shesmu cuts them up for King Unis
And cooks for him a portion of them
In his evening kettles (or ‘as his evening kettles = meal’).
King Unis is he who eats their charms,
And devours their glorious ones (souls).
Their great ones are for his morning portion,
Their middle(-sized) ones are for his evening portion,
Their little ones are for his night portion.
Their old men and their old women are for his incense-burning.
It is the ‘Great-Ones-North-of-the-Sky’
Who set for him the fire to the kettles containing them,
With the legs of their oldest ones (as fuel).
The ‘Dwellers-in-the-Sky’ revolve for King Unis (in his service).
The kettles are replenished for him with the legs of their women.
He has encircled all the Two Skies (corresponding to the Two Lands),
He has revolved about the two regions.
King Unis is the ‘Great Mighty-One’
Who overpowers the ‘Mighty Ones’

So, who is this bloodthirsty King Unas (Spelled Unis in the above translation)? As it turns out, he was the last of the fifth dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs. The above passage is part of the Cannibal Hymn included in the first copy of the Pyramid Texts ever found in his tomb in Saqqara.

I had never associated cannibalism with ancient Egypt before until I read about the sacrifice and consumption of a 2nd century CE Roman legionary serving in Egypt during the Boukoloi uprising of 171-172 CE. Our ancient source for this rather gruesome event is Cassius Dio.

"The people called the Bucoli [also spelled Boukoloi] began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. At first, arrayed in women's garments, they had deceived the Roman centurion, causing him to believe that they were women of the Bucoli and were going to give him gold as ransom for their  husbands, and was then struck down when he approached them. They also sacrificed his companion, and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them." - Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXII.4

2nd century CE Roman Centurion in Egypt
Image courtesy of
I first read about this act of cannibalism in Adrian Goldsworthy's excellent book Pax Romana. I was quite literally astounded by his description of it and immediately began to wonder about the history of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt. The Cannibalism Hymn, quoted above, was among the first references to human sacrifice I encountered in my research. Like the spells in the Book of the Dead, though, I realized this hymn was probably mostly symbolic.

But as I researched further, I discovered that a cult grew up around King Unas, who was venerated as a local god of the Saqqara necropolis, that extended through the centuries all the way down to as late as the Late Period (664–332 BCE). This is attested to by the discovery of numerous scarabs bearing Unas' name found in Saqqara and dated from the New Kingdom (c.1550–c.1077 BCE) until the Late Period. Since King Unas lived and ruled during the mid-24th century BCE, there must have been something unique about his worship to endure over 2000 years after his death.

In his paper Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings, Dr. Kerry Muhlestein, director of Brigham Young University's Egypt Excavation Project, points out, based on epigraphic evidence, institutionally sanctioned ritual violence in ancient Egypt centered around interference with a religious cult or rebellion.  Muhlestein considered an event to have ritual trappings if it mirrored that which was regularly experienced in Egyptian cultic activities.

"In other words, if the language used to describe an action matches the language used to describe cultic activity, or if an action took place in the same way it would in a cultic setting, we will consider that text or action to have ritual trappings...While the lack of ritually charged terminology does not mean that ritual trappings were not present and thus we must be careful in assuming that there was no ritual aspect, if terminology or actions are employed that were routinely part of a ritual, we can be sure that a ritual aspect was intended," Muhlestein explains.

Muhlstein says evidence for ritual killings is well documented in the Early Dynastic Period. Muhlestein points to an ivory label of King Aha that appears to depict a ritual slaying of a human being. Such labels were found in retainer burials associated with Early Dynastic kings including Aha and Djer.

He considers the strongest piece of evidence that ritual violence was employed in the Middle Kingdom is an inscription attributed to Senusret I.

"Senusret claims to have found the temple of Töd in a state of disrepair and desecration. The "guilty" parties were killed in a variety of ways, including flaying, beheading, and burning. The language of the inscription draws an intentional parallel with animal sacrifices. It states that these punishments were inflicted as sacrifices." Muhlestein observes.

Muhlestein says Harco Willems points to numerous inscriptions from the First Intermediate and New Kingdom Periods that make it clear interference with funerary cults could be met with ritual slaying with references to having one's neck severed like a sacrificial bird's.

But, even though sacrificed animals were usually consumed by temple priests, did this apply to human sacrifices as well? Amenhotep III decreed burning for any who interfered with the funerary cult of one of his favorite courtiers. Muhlestein thinks this refers to just burning the corpse thereby totally destroying a person eliminating the possibility of an afterlife but admits there are inscriptions that point to more than mere destruction of the body.

"For instance, First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130-2010 BCE) Assiut Tombs III and IV have inscriptions that say a desecrator will be burned, or cooked..."

He goes on to describe two ritual killings described in the Petition of Petiese (a petition for redress from the early fifth century BCE).

"Petiese felt that while others had been involved, the death of these two would suffice for the sake of justice, and that others did not need to be burned in a brazier. Burning in a brazier carries strong ritual connotations,and in this case it was clear that the crime which demanded such action was murder," Muhlestein observes.

He also mentions a literary tale from the 4th century BCE in which a murderer is burned on a brazier at the door of the palace.

"While the tale is fictive, it surely drew from situations with which its intended audience would be familiar, strongly suggesting that it was known that murderers were burned in a manner similar to other sacrifices, but perhaps at the palace rather than at the temple. These two sources make it clear that at least during later time periods, murder was punishable by burning, likely with ritual trappings."

Ritualized sacrifices related to rebellion are also epigraphically documented.

"Amenhotep II reportedly slew seven princes at his coronation festival. Ramesses III records slaying captured Libyans using language that mirrored the descriptions of sacrificial seems extremely likely that there were a number of ritual slayings of rebellious enemies by the kings of Egypt," Muhlestein states.

I noticed in his discussion of prisoner executions by Prince Osorkon after a rebelliion in Thebes that once again braziers were lit. You don't normally incinerate entire human bodies on a brazier. Braziers were used for heat and cooking.

So, it appears human sacrifice and in some cases possibly cannibalism were indeed practiced in ancient Egypt. Dio's description of the fate of that 2nd century legionary could have definitely been based in fact.

Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa and Tomasz Polański of Jagiellonian University in their paper The Boukoloi Uprising, or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History, disagree, however.

They point to descriptions of the Boukoloi in the 3rd century Greek romances of Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa saying "The novelists’ evidence mirrors ethnical prejudice, historical resentments, the Greeks’ cultural and linguistic alienation in the Orient. Here and there it also resounds with the slogans and images coined for the needs of war propaganda."

Achilles Tatius describes a horrific scene of human sacrifice while the Boukoloi priest sings a ritual hymn in Egyptian. In it the Boukoloi want to kill the innocent and beautiful Leukippe, rip her stomach open, roast and eat her entrails, with every detail of the macabre ritual performed under the supervision of the Egyptian priest singing hymns to their barbaric gods.

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa point to how Dio's account of the sacrifice of the legionary in the uprising of 171 CE compares to that of the novelists. With no other corroborating ancient sources, they then examine what can be gleaned from a wider historical and cultural context.

"...we are dealing with the problem of peripheral communities and cultures, tribal groups living at a remote distance from the centre of power, with their own local histories, not very well known to the outside world, and developing ‘outside the Roman establishment’...The Boukoloi belonged to all those freedom-loving peoples, nomadic tribes or highlanders, who lived on the peripheries of the Graeco-Roman world or within the borders of the Roman Empire, but were never subdued and never controlled."

"...The image of the Boukoloi is strongly blended with the Hellenic literary lore populated with the wicked aliens, monsters and ogres like Busiris, Antaios or Cyclops.  It is clear, for example, that the opening scene of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica with the Boukoloi, was modelled on Euripides’ Iphigenia Taurica. In the above-discussed context we should not forget about the standard view of Egypt and the Egyptians in the Graeco-Roman letters, which is a blend of literary convention on the one hand and of cultural and ethnic prejudice on the other."

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa do not totally dismiss the possibility that ritual violence including cannibalism could have occurred but point out that wars involving a native minority population and a prevailing military force of a powerful state often result in cruel, if not bestial, behavior with intensifying brutality.

As for my opinion, I think the events related by Cassius Dio could have happened as described. Considering the numerous examples provided by Muhlestein, we have a long history of ritual killings in Egypt, especially in the context of interference with cultic practices. The Boukoloi, living on the fringe of Greco-Roman Egypt on boats moored along the banks of the Nile in the Western Delta, were an isolated group who spoke Egyptian despite their relative proximity to Alexandria where Greek had been spoken since the Ptolemaic dynasty was founded in 305 BCE.  Likewise, there was a strong likelihood they may have practiced Egyptian religion based in more archaic traditions as well. We know the Boukoloi were at least perceived as a group that conducted human sacrifice as evidenced by the novels of  2nd century CE authors Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa.

We also know that the Romans despised any cult practices that included human sacrifice.

"... the killing of humans offerings to the gods as a regular, required part of worship was sacrifice and it was generally unacceptable. It was foreign to Roman practice or, if we accept what the Roman themselves claimed, foreign to Roman practice in the historical period. The Romans did not tolerate human sacrifice among the peoples they conquered, forbidding the Bletonesii [a Celtic tribe living in the central part of the Iberian peninsula] from performing it and seriously curtailing (if not actually eliminating it) among the Carthaginians and among the Celts. Even so, the Romans were willing on at least three occasions to offer human victims to the gods. This type of ritual was permissable but only just barely, within the Roman religious tradition because it was enacted only as an extraordinary, or ad hoc, response to an exceptional circumstance. It was not part of regular worship, but was ordered, as Plutarch points out, by the Sibylline books." - Celia E. Schultz, The Romans and Ritual Murder

It is not much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which the Romans could have observed a religious ritual of the Boukoloi and intervened. To a Boukoloi priest, like Isidorus, the appropriate response would be to ritually sacrifice the offending soldier or even use one soldier as a representative of the offending body of soldiers.

Additional resources: The Pyramid Texts Online


Sirry, M. (n.d.). The Pyramid Texts - Cannibal Hymn. Retrieved August 02, 2017, from
Translation by James Henry Breasted

Kerry Muhlestein. (2015). Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings. Near Eastern Archaeology, 78(4), 244-251. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.78.4.0244

Bałuk-Ulewiczowa , T., & Polański, T. (n.d.). The Boukoloi Uprising, Or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History [Scholarly project]. In Retrieved July 31, 2017, from

Schultz, C. (2010). The Romans and Ritual Murder. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 78(2), 516-541. Retrieved from


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