Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review: Wolf's Gold by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 5 of Anthony Riches' excellent Empire Series, we find the 1st and 2nd Tungrian cohorts along with our hero Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila, aka Marcus Tribulus Corvus, ordered to the borders of Dacia to defend one of the Roman Empire's most productive gold mines from marauding Sarmatae (also known as Sarmatians).

The Sarmatians emerged in the 7th century BC in a region of the steppe to the east of the Don River and south of the Ural Mountains in Eastern Europe. For centuries they lived in relatively peaceful co-existence with their western neighbors the Scythians. Then, in the 3rd century BC, they fought with the Scythians on the Pontic steppe to the north of the Black Sea. The Sarmatians were to dominate these territories over the next five centuries. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) wrote that they ranged from the Vistula River (in present-day Poland) to the Danube.

Sarmatian warriors
Image courtesy of the
Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine
"In the early first century, Sarmatians are mentioned as allies of King Mithridates VI of Pontus, the ruler of several countries near the Black Sea and one of the most dangerous enemies of the Roman empire. In 66, he was defeated by Pompey the Great and expelled from Asia Minor. Mithridates continued his war from the Crimea, still supported by the Sarmatians, but was ultimately forced to commit suicide. The Sarmatians continued the anti-Roman alliance with his son Pharnaces, who was defeated in 47 by Julius Caesar at Zela." -

By the mid-first century CE, the Sarmatians resumed migration westward. Finding the Dacian kingdom in crisis, one of the Sarmatian's affiliated tribes, the Iazyges settled first near the mouth of the Danube in modern-day Rumania then continued into modern-day Hungary. Another affiliated tribe, the Roxolani settled in the lower reaches of the Danube. There any further advancement was checked by Legio III Gallica during the Year of the Four Emperors, 68/69 CE.

However, in the last decade of the first century, Dacia regained its strength and formed an alliance with the Sarmatians that had settled in its territory.

"One Roman legion, XXI Rapax, was destroyed in 92. To defend their empire, the Romans were forced to conquer territories on the north bank of the Danube. This happened between 102 and 106 CE when Roman emperor Trajan subdued the Iazyges, Dacians, and Roxolani. " -

Roman sarcophagus with a relief representing the submission of the Sarmatians late 2nd century CE.
Photographed at the
Museo Pio-Clementino of the Vatican Museums by
Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, Wikimedia Commons.
Hadrian, Trajan's successor, though keeping control of the Dacians, subsequently granted independence to the Iazyges and Roxlolani in return for their allegiance to Rome. But peace did not last. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Sarmatians joined with the Marcomanni in revolt. Ultimately, the Romans were successful in putting down the revolt but the security of Roman settlements along the Danube frontier remained precarious for the next half century.  This is the timeframe and environment where our story takes place.

"The Wolf's Gold" is one of the most action-packed novels in the Empire series so far. It begins with an ambush before the Tungrians even reach the gold mines. Then when the cohorts finally reach the gold mines they must hurriedly build defenses before confrontation with an almost overwhelming force of Sarmatae warriors. Then an auxiliary cohort of Quadi makes a surprise appearance.

The Quadi were a Germanic tribe that was part of the Suevi confederation. Marcus' friend Arminius, was a prince of the Quadi before his defeat and capture in battle. Arminius warmly greets the new cohort's prefect known as "The Wolf" as they were apparently friends in childhood. But not all is as it seems when an orphaned Roman child claims his family was massacred by "The Wolf".

But before things can be sorted out the Tungrians are called to another Roman fort to prevent the remaining Sarmatian warriors from crossing into Dacia and wreaking havoc, leaving "The Wolf" to protect the gold mines.

More ambushes and heart-stopping battles take place, one a suspenseful struggle on a frozen lake reminiscent of a scene from 2004's "King Arthur." (Note: Arthur's knights in that tale were supposedly Sarmatians, although the events take place about three centuries after this novel.)

Will all of our continuing characters survive the onslaught?  Is the emperor's gold really safe? Will Arminius remain loyal?

Anthony Riches once more kept me on the edge of my seat since I have become so attached to many of the characters peopling his tales. The realism of the combat scenes demonstrates once more how much research has gone into Riches' narrative. There's not one dull moment in this book and it definitely leaves you eager to launch yourself into Book 6!

A preview:

Read more about this historical period:

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: The Leopard Sword by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 4 of Anthony Riches' Empire series, "The Leopard Sword", we find our protagonist, Marcus Tribulus Corvus, aka Marcus Valerius Aquila, and the first and second Tungrian cohorts transferred to Germania Inferior to sort out bandits operating around the town of Tungrorum (modern Tongeren in the Belgian province of Limburg). This area was the homeland for some of the original members of the Tungrian cohorts but there have been so many battle losses that only one centurion, Julius, appears to be the only one described in the novel as having once been a local in the town.

We learn from the prolog that the bandits are lead by a mysterious figure named Obduro who wears an ornate cavalry mask to obscure his face. When the bandit leader removes his mask, his victims immediately recognize him so we can assume he is either a rogue Roman officer or well-known magistrate in the area.  Obduro also carries a lethal sword with an unusual mottling on the blade. The sword cleaves the gladius of one of Obduro's victims right in two. Immediately, I thought the blade was probably made of Damascus steel but as the story unfolds in the late 2nd century CE, I thought it was probably a bit early for that innovation.

Closeup of the watered pattern of a blade made of Damascus steel.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I double checked the history of Damascus steel and learned that such blades were manufactured from ingots of wootz steel produced using the crucible method developed in southern India in the 6th century BCE. Wootz steel was exported to India's surrounding neighbors but was not recorded as exported to the Middle East until the 3rd century CE, although examples of weapons made of the steel could have been circulated somewhat earlier. Thinking about implications of this to the plot, I worried about our hero Marcus, heretofore the ultimate swordsman, since he does not possess any weapons that could withstand a blow from such a blade.

Despite the depredations of the bandits, the Tungrians are not particularly welcomed when they arrive to reinforce the existing legion led by an arrogant young and totally inexperienced aristocrat of the senatorial class who resents taking orders from Tribune Scaurus, a mere equestrian. Tribune Scaurus has to pry information out of the local officers and magistrates to even begin to plan for operations against the bandits, made even more difficult by the presence of a thick forest (the Ardennes) used as a haven for the outlaws. The forest is also the lair of the fierce Gallo-Roman goddess known as Arduinna represented (in the novel) as a huntress riding a boar.

Historical Note: There appears to be disagreement among scholars as to the form of Arduinna. A famous sculpture of a female goddess astride a boar found in the Jura Mountains was dubbed Arduinna in spite of the fact that it was not found in the Ardennes and was not accompanied by an inscription identifying it as the goddess. The fact that the boar is known to be a sacred animal to the Celts and the figure riding it is female with the weapons of a huntress led some scholars to identify it with Arduinna because Arduinna was recognized in Celtic mythology as the goddess of woodlands, wildlife, the hunt, and the moon. The only support for belief in this incarnation of the goddess was recorded by Gregory of Tours who described the destruction of a large stone statue of the Roman goddess Diana in the village of Villers-Devant-Orval in the Ardennes in the 6th century CE. It was thought to have replaced an original of Arduinna after Romanization of the area.

Sculpture of a headless huntress astride a boar found in the Jura Mountains
now conserved in the Musée des antiquités nationalesSt-Germain-en-Laye
We learn that Marcus has followed the example of his tribune and embraced Mithras as the object of his worship.

Historical note: The Mithraic mysteries were thought by the Romans to have been adopted from Persian or Zoroastrian sources. Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation and communal ritual meals. These attributes in some ways paralleled early Christianity and generated a rivalry between the two cults.

A relief of Mithras slaying the bull (Tauroctony) found in
a Mithraeum in Rome, Italy.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch
at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum of Rome
in Rome, Italy © 2005

Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those “united by the handshake”. They met in underground temples, called Mithraea, which survive in large numbers. Numerous archaeological finds, including meeting places, monuments, and artifacts, have contributed to modern knowledge about Mithraism throughout the Roman Empire. The iconic scenes of Mithras show him being born from a rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun). About 420 sites have yielded materials related to the cult. Among the items found are about 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of the bull-killing scene (tauroctony), and about 400 other monuments. It has been estimated that there would have been at least 680 Mithraea in Rome. However, no written narratives or theology from the religion survive.

So, we end up with two groups of combatants, both religiously devoted but to starkly different deities, one founded in the east and the other, the west.

Tribune Scaurus and Centurion Julius also discover the city is in the stranglehold of street gangs who extort protection money from the local taverns and brothels. This becomes a particular problem for Julius who discovers his long-lost first love running a brothel trapped in the gangsters' web. They also uncover a scam involving the grain shipments to the legions along the Rhenus (Rhine) River.

Historical note: Street gangs were a problem in larger settlements throughout the Roman Empire. We have examples of their violent nature described by none other than Marcus Tullius Cicero. Unfortunately for Cicero, in the course of his political career, he became the target of street gangs manipulated by Publius Clodius Pulcher from a Roman aristocratic family. In a letter to his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero describes the escalating violence that engulfed him:

"On 3 November an armed gang drove the workmen from my site, threw down Catalus' portico which was in the process of restoration by consular contract under a senatorial decree and had nearly reached the roof stage, smashed up my brother's house by throwing stones from my site, and then set it on fire. This was by Clodius' orders, with all Rome looking on as the firebrands were thrown...Accordingly, on 11 November as I was going down the Via Sacra, he came after me with his men. Uproar! Stones flying, cudgels and swords in evidence. And all like a bolt from the blue.”

Of course, Cicero simply hired another gang headed by Titus Annius Milo to deal with Clodius.

Although our protagonist Marcus is not as central to the story initially as he normally is, Centurion "Two Knives", has his hands full, too, in the climactic conclusion trying to withstand Obduro's swordsmanship, that is quite formidable even under normal circumstances, and find a way to defeat Obduro's nearly invincible weapon.

Once again Riches provides us with plenty of gritty, realistic action and finely wrought characters. There is not as much interplay between Marcus' centurion brotherhood as in previous novels, which I missed, but the recurring characters of Scaurus and Julius are explored in more depth. My only reservation about the plot was a strategic blunder committed by Tribune Scaurus that I don't think, with his military acumen (as characterized in past novels), he would have made. The blunder included leaving Julius' sweetheart in a dangerous position as well, requiring Julius to risk his life in an attempt to rescue her. This situation also should have been obviously apparent to Julius from the beginning and easily avoided. Still, the pacing kept you immersed in the narrative and the climax was both thrilling and satisfying.

A Kindle Preview:

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Fortress of Spears by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

As Anthony Riches' third novel in his "Empire" series begins, we find our protagonist Marcus, now known as Marcus Tribulus Corvus, preparing to attack the fortified encampment of the (fictional) rebel Selgovae chieftain, Calgus, and his warriors and allies, the fiercesome Venicones.  The Romans succeed in devastating the Selgovae at the encampment but with terrible losses including one of Marcus' own brother centurions. To make matters worse, Calgus is spirited away by the Venicones, although now he is their captive, no longer their war leader.  However, before his loss of power, Calgus dispatched a contingent of Selgovae to take over the Votadini capital, the daunting "Fortress of Spears" of this installment's title, and the Romans must now plan an even more dangerous assault to finally rid themselves of the last of the rebellious Selgovae and return the Votadini to their previous status as Roman allies.

Fortunately, the Votadini Prince, Martos, captured by the Romans in book 2, now shares their cause and harbors nothing but hatred for Calgus and the Selgovae who so ruthlessly betrayed him. Martos will prove invaluable in the ultimate attack on the "Fortress of Spears". But capturing the fortress is not the only obstacle to Roman victory. The Venicones king discovers the Romans have his treasured torc, found when the original encampment was seized, and vows to take it back or die gloriously in the attempt.

Celt Neck-Ring known as the Snettisham Great Torc Iron Age 150 BCE - 50 BCE Electrum photographed at the
British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2008

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Marcus, the corrupt Praetorian Prefect in Rome, Sextus Tigidius Perennis, has dispatched a Praetorian assassin and a "corn" officer to hunt down Marcus, the last surviving son of a proscribed senatorial family.  Perennis' son, the villain of book 1, betrayed Marcus' biological father's Sixth Legion to engineer a promotion and accolades from the vile emperor Commodus. The younger Perennis' treachery was, as is often the case with wealthy, powerful men, covered up by the military.  So, the elder Perennis mistakenly believes Marcus killed his son and is being protected by an auxiliary unit of Tungrians serving on Hadrian's Wall.

In the novel, the Praetorian assassin holds a rank equivalent to a centurion but I was confused about the presence of a "corn" officer. However, if you read up on the importance of those charged with supervision of the Roman grain supply, it becomes quickly apparent that such officers carried quite a bit of clout.

"In classical antiquity, the grain supply to the city of Rome could not be met entirely from the surrounding countryside, which was taken up by the villas and parks of the aristocracy and which produced mainly fruit, vegetables, and other perishable goods. The city, therefore, became increasingly reliant on grain supplies from other parts of Italy, notably Campania, and from elsewhere in the empire, particularly the provinces of Sicily, North Africa, and Egypt. These regions were capable of shipping adequate grain for the population of the capital amounting to 60 million modii (540 million litres / 540,000 cubic metres or 135 million gallons / 16.8 million bushels) annually, according to some sources. These provinces and the shipping lanes that connected them with Ostia and other important ports thus gained great strategic importance. Whoever controlled the grain supply had an important measure of control over the city of Rome." - Wikipedia, Cura Annonae

Neronian coin with the reverse depicting the goddesses Annona, the personification of the grain supply, and Ceres, whose temple was the site of the dole
Throughout most of the Republican era, the care of the grain supply (cura annonae) was part of the aedile's duties. The Annona was personified as a goddess, and the grain dole was distributed from the Temple of Ceres. As early as 440 BC, however, according to Livy, the Roman Senate appointed a special officer called the praefectus annonae with greatly extended powers. His staff apparently carried a paramilitary rank and could have theoretically been suborned for "special" duties.

Perennis' assassins harbor no qualms about slaughtering anyone who gets in their way and they leave a bloody trail in their pursuit of Marcus.

Once again, Riches develops intriguing characters and empathetically portrays the comradery that develops between men struggling to survive north of Hadrian's Wall.  The action scenes are superb and draw the reader right into the beating heart of Roman military life.  Riches artfully transitions between scenes in the multithreaded plot and successfully maintains a high level of suspense until the novel's climactic conclusion. I highly recommend this series and have already plunged ahead into subsequent installments.

A Kindle preview:

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: Arrows of Fury by Anthony Riches Empire Series Book 2

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 2 of Anthony Riches' Empire series, we find our hero, Centurion Marcus Valerius Aquila, now known as Marcus Tribulus Corvus to deceive agents of the vengeful Roman emperor Commodus, heading to the coast to pick up a century of replacements from Gaul to fill in the ranks of the 2nd Tungrian cohort.  The cohort suffered horrendous casualties in the climactic "Battle of the Lost Eagle" at the end of Book 1 and the rebellious Selgovae chieftain, Calgus, is still at large and forging new alliances to drive the Romans back to Hadrian's Wall and eventually off the island of Britain altogether.

Unbeknownst to Marcus, though, the newly appointed prefect of the 1st Tungrian cohort, a nasty piece of work transferred in from the continent, arrives at the resupply depot first, bribes the replacements officer, and makes off with the sturdy, well-trained Gauls.  When Marcus arrives, the only replacements left are two centuries of Hamian archers originally from Roman Syria.

Hamian archers depicted in the video game "Rome Total War" courtesy of Creative Assembly
Historical note: "Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria", a unit of bowmen recruited from the city of Hama in the Orontes valley in northern Syria were one of only two whole regiments of archers known to have been stationed in Britain.  Although the original contingent arrived in approximately 120 CE, subsequent units served in Britain until the end of the Roman occupation.

Although these men are some of the finest archers in the world, Marcus quickly sees they do not possess the solidly muscled bodies and brute strength needed to man a shield wall against the ferocious indigenous warriors his unit will face in the next confrontation.  To make matters worse, the Hamians' armor is too light to withstand a spear thrust.  So, Marcus sets out to get them properly equipped and begins to train them in the use of sword and shield once they return to their auxiliary headquarters in the fortress known in the book as Noisy Valley.

But Marcus needs months of physical training to bring his new men to the same level of strength of the other Tungrian infantrymen. The Hamians struggle under the weight of infantry mail shirts and kit and can barely complete a standard day's march let alone be ready to fight if attacked.

Just a few days later, though, word is received that Calgus has attacked and overrun one of the nearby forts known as White Strength with the help of the previously friendly Votadini tribe.

Historical note: The Votadini occupied what is now southeast Scotland and northeast England, extending south of the Firth of Forth and from the Stirling area down to the English River Tyne, including at its peak what are now the Falkirk, Lothian, and Borders regions of eastern Scotland, and Northumberland in northeast England. Between 138–162 CE the Votadini came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian's Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state, getting the rewards of alliance with Rome without being directly under its rule, until about 400 CE.

Calgus' raid is successful but his relationship with the Votadini is contentious so Calgus conspires with his cunning seer to rid himself of the troublesome tribe's war band.

Meanwhile, although ill-prepared, Marcus and his Hamians are dispatched to hunt down the Votadini and Marcus finds his unit's archery skills indispensable when he is ordered to assault an old but well-positioned hill fort.

But the ultimate test comes in the novel's climax when Marcus' troops must fight for their lives against the ferocious Venicones, another of Calgus' allies, who have trapped Marcus' century on the wrong side of a strong flowing river.

Closeup of a second century CE Roman sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Romans and Celts.  Photographed
at the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Historical note: The Venicones, a small but fiercesome people, inhabited the area between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth near the Roman fort of Horrea Classis on the eastern coast of modern-day Scotland. It is believed by modern scholars that their name meant "hunting hounds" or "kindred hounds." The Venicones were one of the few groups in northern Britain at the time that buried their dead in stone-lined graves and made ritual offerings of decorated metal objects, including massive bronze armlets, in local bogs and lakes.  These armlets could weigh over 1.5 kg each and were worn one on each arm. Tacitus in his Agricola, chapter XI (c. 98 AD) described the Caledonian warriors as red-haired and large limbed, which Tacitus considered features of Germanic origin.

Once again Anthony Riches has brilliantly recreated the precarious existence of the Roman auxiliaries stationed between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls in the late second century.  He has populated the novel with vibrant characters and made this reader feel part of the brotherhood that bonds courageous men together in times of crisis.  The battle scenes are visceral and not for the squeamish but I highly recommend this series and look forward to the next installments with great anticipation.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ancient Eugenics: Much more than just selective infanticide

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Recently, I received a review copy of a new release from Oxford University Press entitled "A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome by J. C. McKewon.  I had just enrolled in a new course on FutureLearn, "Health and Well-being in the Ancient World" so I thought the arrival of the Oxford text was quite well-timed.

As I began to read it, I came across a quote from Plato's Republic:

"Asclepius displayed his medical skill only for the benefit of those who were suffering from a specific disease but were otherwise healthy both in their constitution and in their manner of living.  Such people he cured with drugs and surgery, instructing them to carry on with their customary lifestyle....But when it came to people whose bodies were permeated with disease, he did not attempt to extend their useless lives...and have them producing children who would probably be just like them. Asclepius did not think that he should treat people whose habits rendered them incapable of living, since treating them did no good either for the patients themselves or for the state." - Plato, The Republic

I was astounded by this statement from such a revered Greek philosopher.  I am, of course, well aware of the practice of infanticide in the ancient world and have even written about it in my post "Widespread Roman infanticide not substantiated by Hambleden studies" back in 2011.

But I had no idea that ancient Greek philosophers like Plato had also advocated withholding medical care from those "permeated with disease" or who practiced unsavory habits!

So, I decided to research this phenomenon that I would describe as ancient eugenics further.  On I found an essay written by Allen G. Roper, who would eventually become a faculty member of Oxford University, on this very topic.  In fact, Roper's essay was winner of the coveted Arnold Prize in 1913.

In his award-winning paper "Ancient Eugenics", Roper pointed out that eugenics in some form has been around since humans spread out across the earth.  He points out that early groups of humans probably disposed of deformed or weak newborns and, in times of famine, may have disposed of the injured, aged, and feeble minded to ensure food was provided to those most likely to survive.  He states that in extreme circumstances, even non-combatants (i.e. females and healthy children) may have been abandoned.  This may not have always been the case, however, as we have since recovered skeletons of prehistoric men indicating long-term care of individuals with fractured limbs.  But forensic archaeology was not yet widely used in 1913 when Roper's paper was published.

Roper says infanticide was used by many ancient civilizations to solve problems of societies dependent upon limited food and other resources.  The Minoans of Crete forbade celibacy to encourage population growth but were known to practice female infanticide. The Spartans' physical regimen for their youth coupled with laws regulating disposal of infirm offspring is one of the most documented.

Spartan King Menelaus supporting the slain Patroclus.
Roman copy of a Greek origiinal.  Photographed in Florence,
Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005
"The Spartans were a small immigrant band, face to face with an extensive and powerful autochthonous population - a camp in the centre of a hostile country.  'We are few in the midst of many enemies' was the warning spoken by Brasidas (Thucidydes Iv. 126.) and this position of constant danger affected the problem in two ways.  There must be no falling birth-rate among the Spartans, no unchecked fertility among their subjects.

Three measures were employed to maintain the number of the Spartans: prevention of emigration, penalties for celibacy, and rewards for fertility.  The man with three children was to be excused the night watch, the man with four was to be immune from taxation.  A third measure known to the ancient world, the enfranchisement of aliens, though adopted at times under the ancient kings, was rendered impossible by the later exclusion of every foreigner from the land.  Avoidance of moral or physical corruption was set before preservation of numbers.  The alien is a disturbing element in any Eugenic scheme." - Allen G. Roper, Ancient Eugenics,

The problem of productivity of the lower classes (Helots) was apparently checked by the occasional indiscriminate and covert massacre of large numbers on the vague pretext of fear or suspicion.

"On one occasion more than 2,000 were slaughtered 'on account of their youth and great numbers.'" - Lycurgus XXXi. 25.

Sparta was proclaimed the only state in which the physical improvement of the race was undoubted, while chastity and refinement of both sexes remained unimpaired.

"It is easy to see," declared Xenophon, "that these measures with regard to child-bearing, opposed as they were to the customs of the rest of Greece, produced a race excelling in size and strength.  Not easily would one find people healthier or more physically useful than the Spartans."

The Spartans, however, were not the only culture focused on raising tall, strong warriors. The warrior society in Germania Transrhenane took a far different approach, though. Infanticide was repugnant to them.  Instead, they chose positive reinforcement to accomplish their goals of a more formidable warrior society.  They placed emphasis on stature and strength as traits for a suitable mate.  Early marriage was forbidden to ensure only properly mature females were child bearers and celibacy was encouraged to limit the number of children.  Polygamy was only allowed on a limited scale for the few of noble birth.

This strategy was apparently so effective that during the Year of the Four Emperors it was assumed that anyone of exceptional stature was a Vitellianist and a German.

Tacitus claims, though, that the Germans lacked moral strength because the children grew to manhood naked and uncared for with no distinction between master and slave.

Tacitus says they were incapable of enduring hardships.  "Their frames were huge but vigorous only for attack; their strength was great for sudden effort, but they could not endure wounds.  Their courage was the frenzy of the Berserk, not the disciplined valour of the Spartan hoplite."

So even the Romans still admired the warrior ethos of Sparta six centuries later!

Surprisingly, though, eugenics movements of the late 19th and early 20th century point to the philosophers of 5th century Athens as their founding fathers.

A fresco depicting Dido embracing Aeneas from the House
of the Citharist in Pompeii, Italy.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
The great Greek philosophers as far back as Socrates pondered strategies to ensure the human race would develop the most desirable traits.  They thought arranging matches between healthy, well-made, and attractive individuals were the first step.  But, Socrates pointed out that good stock is not everything and that both parents must be equally in their prime.  This maxim, however, proved at odds with the prevailing practice of marrying girls at the earliest possible age to older wealthy men to advance a family politically and socially.

"We seek well-bred rams and sheep and horses and one wishes to breed from these.  Yet a good man is willing to marry an evil wife, if she bring him wealth; nor does a woman refuse to marry an evil husband who is rich.  For men reverence money, and the good marry the evil, and the evil the good.  Wealth has confounded the race." - Theognis

"The apparent anomalies which children present in not reproducing the qualities of their parents only serve to reveal the presence of particular conditions," warned Socrates, "and among those conditions must be included the changes which organism undergoes by reason of advancing age."

The evils of age disparity were also themes addressed by Hesiod, Pythagoras, and Sappho.  Solon attempted to legislate it. Even famous physicians weighed in on the subject. Soranus said girls weren't ready for conception until their 15th year.  Rufus, who had at one time stated there was a threat of illness to girls who stayed virgins too long, later approved a maxim of Hesiod advising girls to marry at 18, admitting it was too late for girls of his own generation, though.

But, were these graybeards' admonitions enough to overcome aristocratic greed for wealth and power? Apparently not entirely neither in classical Greece nor later in the Roman world.

Once again I turned to JSTOR and found ancient marriage age has been studied using both literary sources and inscriptions on funerary monuments, predominantly Roman.

Ancient sources record that Octavia, the daughter of Claudius was married at the tender age of 11. Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, married at 12, and Agricola's daughter married Tacitus at 13.

Were such marriages consummated?

Suetonius commented that for political reasons Augustus married a young girl who was "hardly nubile", and later, because of a quarrel, sent her back "still a virgin"...

The emperor Honorius successively married the two very young daughters of Stilicho for political reasons, and again the sources remark on the girls' preserved virginity."

"Consummation was not required for legitimacy.  Roman law confirmed the legitimacy of a marriage with cohabitation without intercourse.  The prominent Roman jurist Ulpian (170-223 CE) opined "It is not intercourse but agreement (consensus) which makes a marriage." - M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

But Hopkins points out that failure to consummate a marriage seemed to be unusual and thus commented upon in the ancient sources. So he explains scholars think most marriages were consummated immediately.

The pressure to marry young was also so great, the Romans had to introduce legislation to stipulate a legal marriage age of at least 12 for girls (14 for boys) as early as the reign of Augustus.  This legislation remained in force until 530 CE.

"The law relating to age of marriage was similar then to that category of Roman laws called leges imperfectae, that is, laws which neither threatened their violators with penalties nor invalidated their transgression.  The sole limitations placed on illegally early marriages was that none of the legal consequences of marriage followed until the girl was 12.  Nevertheless, even before then, these marriages could form the basis of inter-family alliances, since gifts from the husband to the girl were valid, while the dowry could be secured by a stipulation to pay. "  - M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

During the second century CE, these laws were further reinforced by laws stipulating alimentary provisions by the state.  Hadrian said girls should receive state assistance until they were 14 and boys until 18.  During the reign of Marcus Aurelius girls were to be given assistance until they were 13 and boys until they were 15. Scholars assume these laws are based on the prevailing marriage ages.

Equestrian Statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius photographed at the Capitoline
Museum in Rome by Mary Harrsch © 2009
But what does archaeology tell us?  I took a FutureLearn course "Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier" last year and used a database of Roman inscriptions, many of them funerary monuments.  I wondered if funerary inscriptions could provide insight into actual recorded marriage ages of people other than the aristocracy.

I found there have been several studies of funerary inscriptions with this type of goal in mind.  As far back as 1896, A.G. Harkness researched what was known as the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions then available and discovered 171 funerary inscriptions provided either age at marriage or age at marriage could be calculated from age at death and length of marriage (Two additional inscriptions were rejected as outliers because they indicated a marriage age of 6 and 7).  Harkness concluded the average age at marriage of this sample of Roman females was 18.  But Hopkins points out that, in his opinion, this figure is too high.  Hopkins says there is no way to know if some of the later ages given were actually first marriages and not subsequent marriages.

Funerary Portrait of Balya Daughter of Yarkhai from Palmyra in Roman Syria 150-200 CE Limestone
Photographed at the Portland Art Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2012
"The average is only representative when there is an evenly distributed curve. Setting aside the great probability that the odd marriages at 56, 38, etc., are not first marriages, their inclusion in Harkness's calculation of the average, since they are isolated cases, leads to distortion. The figures are surely better summarized in the statement that over half of all the girls recorded in these inscriptions were married by the age of I5 (inclusive) or that the modal marriage age lay between 12 and 15." -  M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

Hopkins also points out that the inscription sample may not be representative of the general population either. Harkness thought the inscriptions represented lower to middle-class individuals since the majority were commissioned by ex-slaves (freedman) but Hopkins disagrees.

"The minimum cost of a stone inscription was about IOO sesterces, which might have equaled three months' wages for an artisan. Even allowing for the existence of guilds which would defray funeral costs, the cost precludes adequate representation of the lower classes." -  M. K. Hopkins, The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage

Another bias that may have affected study results is the possibility that very young wives who died very young (probably in childbirth) may not have been commemorated at all.  This issue is raised in a similar study of Roman funerary monuments evaluated by Walter Scheidel in his paper "Roman Funerary Commemoration and the Age at First Marriage" published in October 2007 in the journal Classical Phiology.

Scheidel's paper deals mostly with a theory put forth in 1987 known as the Saller-Shaw Hypothesis in which age-specific shifts in the identity of funerary commemorators serve as proxy evidence for changes in marital status.  In other words, epitaphs erected by parents rather than spouses served to indicate the unmarried status of the deceased.  Using this hypothesis, Saller and Shaw came up with a marriage age of 20 for Roman women and 30 for Roman men (which would have been much more amenable to physicians and philosophers!).  However, as I read that paper, I became convinced that making an assumption like that was fraught with too many variables to prove the theory convincingly despite all of the computer models produced in the effort.  Perhaps a woman was widowed and had not remarried so her pater familias paid for her funerary monument.  Perhaps the couple had suffered a financial setback right before the death so the woman's parents paid for the monument or perhaps both husband and wife died due to pestilence and one of the deceased's parents paid for their monument  I did notice, though, that way back in 1965 even Hopkins had pointed out, as collaborating evidence to Harkness' study, that there was a sharp drop in the parents' memorials to daughters aged 15 to 19 and an even more precipitous drop after the age of 19.

So far most of our discussion has focused on Roman wives.  Remember, Socrates said both parents needed to be in their prime.  What about the men?

Hopkins records one study in which a collection of 86 pagan and 9o Christian funerary inscriptions revealed the modal age at marriage was I7 to 20 (36 percent) for pagan men  The modal age at marriage was  20 to 23 (26 percent) for Christian men. Hopkins points out that the mode is misleading, though, since men's marriages were much more evenly distributed and cover a wider age-span than girls' ages at marriage. Hopkins says the overall average age was 26 for pagan men and 27 for Christian men.  The median was 24 for pagans and 26 for Christians.

From my viewpoint, this marriage age for men was much younger than I expected (thinking of such aristocratic marriages as Julius Caesar's daughter marrying Pompey the Great who was even older than her father). However, these memorials were not those of aristocrats so that may be the mitigating element.

Moving on from marriage age, there were other considerations Greek philosophers thought important in the improvement of the human race as well.

Roper points out that the 5th-century thinkers were also obsessed with the relative influence of nature and nurture.  A number of philosophers from Zopyrus to Aristotle ascribed to the tenants of physiognomy, the assessment of a person's character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face.

"It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections: I say "natural", for though perhaps by learning music a man has made some change in his soul, this is not one of those affections natural to us; rather I refer to passions and desires when I speak of natural emotions. If then this were granted and also that for each change there is a corresponding sign, and we could state the affection and sign proper to each kind of animal, we shall be able to infer character from features." - Aristotle, Prior Analytics 2.27 (Trans. A.J. Jenkinson)

In fact, the first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is Physiognomonica, attributed to Aristotle but now thought to be a product of his school rather than the philosopher himself.

These theorists sought to influence potential mates to prioritize physical comeliness as well as such attributes as stature, physical proportion, and strength.  Fifth-century Greek scholar, Stobaeus, encapsulates this idea in a simple quote, "If thou art unpleasing to look upon, thy character is like to thy form."

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse, 1882.

Even the often recalcitrant Diogenes admonished his fellow Greeks, "The wise man will marry for the sake of children, associating with the most comely."  (Hmmm... I wonder if he was able to find a comely woman to live in that barrel with him?)

Both Socrates and Plato, though, cautioned parents that looks weren't everything and both moral and physical training was essential to building an outstanding character.

"Leave him untrained, and he will become, not merely evil, but degenerate beyond hope of reclaim." - Plato, The Republic

However, Roper says the Greeks, except in the dramatic conception of an ancestral curse, or in the inherited pollution of ancient sacrilege, never traced causes back beyond the immediate progenitors. If the Romans adopted their ideas about eugenics from the Greeks, however, I would take issue with this conclusion.  The Romans placed much value on ancestry that included many consuls.  This would indicate to me that the qualities of offspring are viewed as the product of multiple superior generations.

Aesclepius (Aesculapius) with the head of Homer.
Photographed at the Palazzo Altemps venue of the
National Museum of Rome in Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch © 2009
So far we have examined ancient eugenics from the viewpoint of controlling marriage and, if all else fails, resorting to infanticide to eliminate weak or deformed offspring.  However, Plato extended this purification of society to aged and infirm adults as well.  In his treatise, The Republic, Plato said the chronically ill should be left to die because "he is incapacitated from fulfilling his appointed task and will beget children in all probability as diseased as himself if his miserable existence is protracted by the physician's skill."  Plato extends this advice to even wealthy individuals saying "It is no part of the physician's task to pamper a luxurious valetudinarianism (someone who is obsessed with their poor health) claiming the art of Asclepius is only for those who are suffering from a specific complaint.

In addition to those suffering from constitutional ill-health, Plato would also condemn the victims of self-indulgence.  Plato points out that there is no place in his Republic for the "unkempt" man glorying in a pedigree of congenital ailment. Plato said a moral degenerate is not only an encumbrance to society but an active force for evil; "therefore, like the lower desires of the soul which cannot be tamed to service under the higher self, his growth must be stopped."

A mosaic depicting Plato and his students at his Academy from the House of
T. Siminius Stephanus Pompeii 1st century CE.  Photographed at the National
Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2007
Plato also proposed segregation of the mentally ill and expulsion of the pauper.

"The madman is not to be seen in the city, but the responsibility rests upon the relatives, not upon the state.  If they fail in their duty, the law will punish them." - Plato, "Laws"

Plato felt that mental or physical defects should bar the individual's right to marry and beggars should be driven away.

"In a properly constituted state the righteous man will not be allowed to starve; there is no excuse for the beggar. If such a one be found, he shall be driven out of the marketplace, out of the city, out of the land, that the state may be purged of such a creature," - Plato, "Laws".

I'm sure modern advocates for the homeless would be appalled.

So, it appears the ancient philosophers were not as benign as I had always imagined.