Dead Links Six – The Colossus of Rhodes

I’m delighted to be diving in to work on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Not only is the list a fascinating and engaging look at tourism in the ancient world, but the Colossus was the answer to a trivia questions at the pub last week, so I consider that particularly auspicious.

As a refresher, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (as listed by Antipater of Sidon around 100 BC) are:

  1. The Great Pyramid of Giza
  2. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
  3. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  4. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
  5. The Pharos of Alexandria
  6. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon; and,
  7. The Colossus of Rhodes

Great feats of architectural engineering and beauty, these seven wonders (from the Ancient Greek thaumata meaning “wonders”, or perhaps also or instead the Ancient Greek theamata meaning “sights” or “things to be seen”) only existed together for about 50 years. The one still standing is the oldest of the lot – the Great Pyramid of Giza – and the last of them to be built was also the first one to disappear: the Colossus of Rhodes.

Built to celebrate Rhodes’ victory over the invading forces of Antigonus Monopthalmos (Antigonus the One-Eyed), one of Alexander the Great’s generals, it was a statue of Helios, god of the sun and patron deity of Rhodes. Designed and constructed by a local man – Chares of Lindos – in 280 BCE, the Colossus was roughly the size of the Statue of Liberty in New York feet to crown.

In 226 BC/BCE, it toppled during an earthquake and was never rebuilt, perhaps due to the warnings of an oracle. The pieces – it was constructed in bronze – apparently lay about the harbour for the next eight centuries until they were sold off to Jewish merchants in Edessa in 654 AD/CE during the Arab Expansions of the 7th century.

Now, in all likelihood, the pieces were melted down and used in other projects and would be very nearly untraceable today. Nearly all bronze statues from the ancient world were repurposed or otherwise destroyed, particularly after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity and its aversion to false idols. The bronzes that exist today were lost, buried, or sunk and only discovered in the recent past.

What makes the Colossus unique is the engineering feat required to produce it. Even if it didn’t stand astride the harbour entrance, as some have suggested, there certainly wasn’t a mould or even a furnace in the vicinity capable of casting a statue 110 feet high. The copper Lady Liberty, originally conceived in 1870, was an iron truss structure with a secondary skeleton designed to limit stress on the statue, and was built in 350 pieces in France and painstakingly reassembled on arrival in New York. And her skin was added after. She is not a single cast, or even a predominantly single one.

So, either modern engineers saw the difficulty from the start and avoided casting a statue in full, or the ancient engineers knew something we don’t. Not outside the realm of possibility, since Roman concrete and Greek acoustics are two such engineering marvels that continue to baffle modern scholars and experimental archaeologists.

In short, it would be amazing if we ever found even one or two pieces of the Colossus intact to be able to understand how Chares designed and built it at all. In flights of fancy, one can wonder if perhaps the statue still exists somewhere, safely packed away in a dark cave or bunker, waiting. After all, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt found it and much more in one of his many adventures…


Dead Links Five: The Makeup Manual of Pharaoh Cleopatra VII

As it so often happens, when I start researching these #deadlinks articles, I inevitably end up writing something other than I had intended to. So too in this case.

Pharaoh Cleopatra the VII – the “infamous” Cleopatra, if you will – ruled Egypt right at the end of its time as a Hellenistic kingdom. She was there when Julius Caesar came to Alexandria, and there again when Marc Antony made his appearance as the East’s conquering hero after killing the tyrannicides, Brutus and Cassius, at Philippi. And she was there when Antony, defeated and broken, took his own life in advance of the arrival of Octavian, the newly minted First Man of Rome.

Cleopatra is famous for entrapping famous men, seducing them with her beauty while her intentions were really self-serving. She is famous for being power-hungry, overly sexual, voracious, unwomanly, and (perhaps worst of all to the Romans) foreign.

Oh how truth turns on a spin of history!

What we know about Cleopatra is confined almost exclusively to these four sources:

  1. A passing reference to her in Caesar’s dispatches on the Civil War (Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.103 and 3.107)
  2. Her role in the morality play that Antony exemplified according to Plutarch (Parallel Lives, Antony)
  3. Her role in the lives of Julius Caesar and Augustus according to Suetonius (he’s a quick read – enjoy!)
  4. References in Cassius Dio (Book 42.3.1 and 4, 9.1, 34.2-3, 35.4, 36.3, 37.2, 42.4, 44.1-3; Book 49.31.4, 32.4, 34.1, 40.3, 41.1-3; and Book 51, various) (1)
  5. Various references in Appian (you can look these up yourselves)

It is absolutely vital to look at these sources carefully and to understand WHY they were written rather than what they were written about. Cleopatra isn’t the focus here; Caesar or Antony are. And as such, she is relegated to a foil for them both, a way for ancient writers to showcase the tragedy of these great men of history. And from these accounts, we must extrapolate what we can to create an idea of a woman who changed the history of the world.

According to Plutarch, she was multi-lingual: “…she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with Barbarians she very seldom had need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself and unassisted, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. Nay, it is said that she knew the speech of many other peoples also, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even made an effort to learn the native language, and some actually gave up their Macedonian dialect.” (2)

When you take another look at the comments in Suetonius and Plutarch, there are numerous subtle references to Cleopatra’s ability to politic, her skill in conversation – suggesting both a wide range of interests and a formidable intellect – and her ability to put others at ease and enjoy her company. These may seem like the passive elements of a traditionally feminine mystique, but they belie a remarkably educated and intellectually formidable woman. Cleopatra spoke, arguably, nine languages. Fluently. More importantly, she is said to have written a variety of scholarly texts on medicine, charms, and cosmetics. None of which are extant.

And here’s the bit that I wasn’t expecting, but am so glad I found. The main reference to Cleopatra’s academic writings is found in a history of the world written by the Arab scholar Al-Mas’udi.

The mighty pivot on which the history and knowledge of the European and Eurasian continents turn is the translation of ancient texts by Arabian scholars in the Late Antique and Medieval periods. As the western Roman Empire was falling, societies of the East were rising and it was these societies that saved the knowledge of the Ancient World for students of history today.  Al-Mas’udi was a geographer and scholar in the 10th century CE who compiled a history of the world that has been translated into French and partially into English (3).

So, the joyous nature of this particular research exploration led me to the fact that the truth about Cleopatra cannot be articulated by extant literature from the West, but that it is instead reinforced by literature from the East. She has truly become a woman of two worlds, an international phenome who changed history.



(1) Cassius Dio Book 42 references found here – accessed 31 Oct 2017, 19:29pm ES; Cassius Dio Book 49 references found here – accessed 31 Oct 2017, 19:29pm EST; Cassius Dio Book 51 references found here – accessed 31 Oct 2017, 19:29pm EST

(2) Plutarch, Life of Antony 27.3.4 accessed here 31 Oct 2017, 19:58pm EST

(3) Translations into French by Charles Pellat, and into English by Aloys Sprenger.

Dead Links Aside: Oxyrhynchus

Oxyrhynchus is perhaps the most famous garbage dump in the world. About 160km south of Cairo, it’s a small town with a big impact. In 1896 two fellows of Queens College, Oxford – Bernard Grenfell (not of Grenfell Tower fame) and Arthur Hunt – began work at the site that is ongoing to this day.

Because of Egypt’s environment south of the Nile Delta, one of the materials that survives rather well is papyrus (plural: papyri) – pages made from mashing reeds together, basically – and because papyrus was often reused in the ancient world before it was thrown out, there’s a lot of it. Excavations from Oxyrhynchus have yielded 70% of all the known literary papyri in the world today, including fragments of Euclid, Menander, and Sappho.

And here’s the really amazing thing: those literary texts, the poems, textbooks, and histories, are only about 10% of the total finds so far discovered. Most of what has been found are records, receipts, census documents, tax assessments, bills, etc, a remarkable if on-the-surface-of-it dull hoard of information. From these mundane documents, we can know what people paid for bread and livestocks and therefore can extrapolate what they made in a year, how money was exchanged, and what flowed from Egypt into the coffers of the Empire. We can find out how disputes were settled and thus hypothesize on the nature of ancient legal precedent. We can meet the day-to-day people of Egypt during the Roman Empire and the early Christian period and understand more about what their lives were like. In short, poetry may be beautiful and rare, but receipts have endless value.

Eight volumes of papyri from Oxyrhynchus have been published so far, with at least another 40 to go. This site single-handedly allowed for the creation of the field of papyrology, because so many people are needed to work on it. The project was funded by the British Academy until 1999 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council until 2005. There are papyri from the site housed all over the world, but the largest collection is at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, home of the two young men who found glory in garbage.

Dead Links Update

Due to hilariously poor planning on my part, I’m amending my earlier post introducing the Dead Links project. Instead of being a bi-weekly series, I’m going to commit to publishing on the 1st of each month with the exception of January 1st for New Years Day and July 1st for Canada Day.

So you’ll get 10 new Dead Links each year and will know when to look for them! Enjoy!

Dead Links Four: The Body of Alexander the Great

I knew when I was starting the research for this post that it would ultimately be a review of The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great by Andrew (Periplus, 2004), primarily because Chugg presents such a tantalizing theory about what happened to the body of Alexander the Great after it vanished from history. In fact, my own research into Alexander stems from this piece of amateur historical sleuthing. I cannot fault the extent of Chugg’s research here, and have used his text to refer back to the original sources he uses to build his argument. However, wanting to believe his theory and being able to believe it are two entirely different things that I’d like to dig down into here.

To begin with, a somewhat brief chronology to get everyone on the same page:

  • Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BCE after a short illness, and his body was embalmed and prepared for its intended burial site at Pella, the capital of Macedonia
  • Alexander’s famous instruction to his generals that his empire would go “to the strongest” created a massive power vacuum in an empire stretching from Greece to India, and the leading generals – known as the diodochi – began consolidating power in different geographical regions (and thus usher in the Hellenistic World proper to the Mediterranean and Asia)
  • On the way to Pella, Alexander’s body was diverted to Memphis in Egypt. In all likelihood this was done by Ptolemy, one of the diodochi, and a childhood friend of Alexander’s, as a way to validate his own claim to power (the Ptolemies would rule Egypt for another 300 years until its most famous daughter, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide rather than be captured after the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE)
  • In 290 BCE or thereabouts (about 30 years after Alexander’s death) the body was moved from Memphis to Alexandria where, with the addition of a tomb complex that grew over time, Alexander’s body would remain until at least 215 CE and likely until 365 CE
  • In 365, a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami destroyed much of Alexandria’s buildings, including the tomb of Alexander the Great.

After this, things get very hazy very quickly. Paganism was outlawed in the Roman Empire by Theodosius I in 391 and many pagan temples and other buildings were destroyed by the people of Alexandria and elsewhere as a result. The earthquake and tsunami decimated the city and reconstruction efforts were slow. By the time of the Arab Conquests in the 640s CE, there was less to rebuild and more to co-opt for new purposes as Islam settled in as the major religion of Egypt. By the time of Napoleon, interest was focused on the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, particularly after hieroglyphics were deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion with the help of the Rosetta Stone. In short, after eight centuries, the body of Alexander the Great had disappeared from history never to be seen again.

The main sources we have for the life and death of Alexander the Great are varied and questionable (as I’m sure you’re starting to realize is a description of all ancient sources). Diodorus Siculus and Pompeius Trogus were two 1st century BCE writers and both were contemporary with Livy. Pompeius Trogus is quoted in Justin’s Epitome of Philippic History, Book XI and XII as well as in excerpts in Jerome, Augustine, and Vopiscus (one of the purported authors of the Historia Augusta). Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote a History of Alexander in the 1st century CE, his only known surviving work. From the 2nd century CE, there is Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri and Plutarch’s biography of Alexander. Plutarch’s work survives in its earliest form as a 10th or possibly 11th century CE manuscript from Florence. Additionally, there is the famous Alexander Romance, a collection of several manuscripts falsely attributed to Alexander’s court historian Callisthenes (and so, aptly, this anonymous author is now called Pseudo-Callisthenes), that date to the 3rd century CE and survive in versions from the 4th to the 16th centuries in Medieval Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew, and various European vernaculars. There are also minor references in Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, XI), the Talmud 31b and 32a, and, last but not least, the Quran, surah 18, where an oblique reference to Dhu-l Qarnayn (meaning the “Two-Horned One” in Arabic) may refer to Alexander.

From these sources Chugg determines that Julius Caesar viewed the body of Alexander in its glass or crystal sarcophagus in Alexandria in the early 60s BCE and that Caracalla was the last Roman Emperor to see the body and the tomb together in or around 215 CE (1). Libanius of Antioch wrote an oration addressed to Theodosius dating between 388 and 392 CE where he discusses the body on display in Alexandria (Oration XLIX, 11-12), from which Chugg argues the body survived the earthquake*. We also know that, by the 5th century CE, the whereabouts of Alexander’s burial were unknown according to Theodoret (2).

Chugg refers to an anonymous manuscript for the evidence of Caracalla viewing the tomb as the last “definitive mention of the existence of the tomb and the body in recorded history” (3). However, this manuscript – the Epitome de Caesaribus – was falsely attributed to Aurelius Victor who was writing in the 4th century CE, and the date of the now-lost manuscript has therefore been conflated with an incorrect author. So, right around the time that the body of Alexander the Great goes missing so too does the logical rigour of Chugg’s supporting evidence. From here on, he makes associations between Alexander’s body and the mummy of Nectanebo II, the last Egyptian pharaoh prior to the Macedonian takeover as well as the various churches and mosques that purport to be the burial site of that Macedonian king which, although also tantalizing, do not hold up under scrutiny.

Chugg’s theory rests on two BIG assumptions: 1) that the body survived the likely collapse of the tomb during the earthquake and tsunami in Alexandria in 365 CE; and, 2) that there were enough people in the aftermath who were invested in preserving the body that they did so, and continued to do so, for the next SEVENTEEN CENTURIESThe Da Vinci Code before The Da Vinci Code, don’t you think? That’s like all the pieces of the Berlin Wall being preserved, restored, and maintained into the year 3689 CE.

Because, oh yes, Chugg’s theory as to the whereabouts of Alexander’s body? It’s what the Venetians spirited out of Egypt in 828 CE and installed in their largest Basilica as the relics of Saint Mark. Again, the idea that a group of people in 4th century CE Egypt would choose to protect something that the Christians were intent on destroying by disguising it as something the Christians would actively try and preserve, and then allowing it to be removed from a predominantly Muslim country by devout Medieval Christians and deposited in the Basilica of St Mark in Venice does stretch the imagination somewhat. It also doesn’t help to know that Mark’s body was said to have been cremated when he died in 68 CE in Cyrene, but perhaps I’m knit-picking at this point.



(1) Epitome de Caesaribus Sexti Aureli Victoris 21.4

*I have been unable to read an original version of this oration as of the date of this publication, so I cannot speak to its authenticity or any grains of salt that should be taken when considering Libanius in general.

(2) Theodoret Graecarum Affectionum Curatio, 8.61

(3) Chugg, p.135

Dead Links Update

Now that I’ve finally managed to get the third Dead Links article up on the site (again, all the apologies for the delay), it’s time to announce the next round of four! In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about:

  1. The Make-up Guide written by Pharaoh Cleopatra (yes, that one)
  2. The Colossus of Rhodes
  3. The Works of the Roman Emperor Claudius
  4. The treasure looted from the Temple at Jerusalem in the early 70s CE

And don’t forget, my next piece on the Body of Alexander the Great will be up in two weeks’ time. Enjoy!

Dead Links Three: The Sibylline Books

Without a plan, bi-monthly posting schedules go out the window, as you can see. A month of feverish job applications has left me with a gap in my website content, which I am now going to fill. Thank you for your patience.

The Sibylline Books were collections of oracular texts written in Greek hexameter, the oldest of which date to the time of Solon and Cyrus. There were several sibyls – Roman (as opposed to Greek) oracles – throughout the Mediterranean world, at Gergis in Turkey, at Erythrae in Asia Minor, and at Cumae. Indeed, these may have all been a single travelling sibyl, or the location may simply denote where the oracular texts themselves were based at any given time.

It is known that the texts from the Cumaean Sibyl made their way to Rome during the reign of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). In a story relayed originally by Varro (1), the Sibyl offered to sell Tarquin nine books of prophecies, but at a price so steep, he refused. She then burned three of the nine books in front of him, offering him the remaining six. When he refused the price again, she set three more alight, and offered him the last three at the original price. Sheepishly, he accepted. For the oracular texts of the Sibyls predicted the future, and foreknowledge was worth dying for, as the god Prometheus well knew (2).

The books, taken to Rome by the king, were housed in the vault of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus where they appear to have remained until around 405 BCE when Stilicho, a Roman general of Vandal origin who attained enormous power under the reign of Honorius, ordered them destroyed.

It is from Livy that we have most of the anecdotes surrounding deeds done at the behest of prophecies in the Sibylline Books, from what to do when one’s royal army is struck by lightning (10.31), to how to deal with pestilence (5.13) and when to schedule games (7.27). One of the most famous stories – likely apocryphal (but when did that ever stop anyone?) – is demonstrative of the panic in Rome during the Hannibalic War; when facing imminent invasion and siege by the Punic general after the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE and, after consultation with the Sibylline Books, two Gauls and two Greeks – a man and a woman each – were selected and buried alive in the Forum (57.6)*.

The Books themselves have vanished, if not destroyed by Stilicho then by some other of the myriad calamities that befell the Empire of Rome throughout the middle of the first millenium CE. It is known that Athenagoras of Athens, in a letter arguing the truth of the Christian faith to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, quoted from the Books verbatim (3), and it is likely that the books were still extant at this time. The fragments collected and translated by Milton Terry in 1899 have been transmitted down to us via the works of other ancient authors. At no point does Terry have access to a verifiable original manuscript copy of the Books themselves.

So we have a collection of books in Greek hexameter that predict the future and were housed in one of the safest and yet most public locations in the Roman World. To a large extent, these books and the prophecies therein dictated Roman public policy, everything from infrastructure to foreign affairs. It was not unusual in the Ancient World for knowledge to be offered through riddles, and there is something to be said for the ongoing obfuscation of information through language. Greek hexameter means that, unless you were a literate Greek, the only people who could read the books were literate, educated Romans (and yes, I do define ‘literate’ and ‘educated’ as two separate but not mutually exclusive states of being). Just as Catholic priests act as the conduit between God and their congregations, so too were the Books separated from the people who consulted them through an oracle, priest, or translator. More importantly, as incendiary as the story of burying people alive in the Roman Forum may be, it is contained in discourse distinctly more historical than mythological.

The irony that prophecy is concealed in language suggests a commentary on the inherent and necessary complexity of knowledge itself. Does this augment the power of language? Of understanding? Does this weaponize it, language wielded as a socio-political tool? Is it a stick to beat you with? Or a window into new ways of seeing the world?

In a world of immediate information and reality TV Presidents, the so-called “liberal elite” – the ‘intelligensia’ of the 21st century – intellectuals trained in and supportive of a more left-wing social agenda – are perverted as unnecessarily obtuse. This is a classic case, so far as I can see it at any rate, of shooting the messenger. As a fictional president once said; “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them”. Often it is the dogged devotion to knowledge, to learning, that offers those “ah-ha” moments that can change the course of history. For example, you would need to understand Greek, poetic metre, metaphor, and imagery to understand the prophecy itself; interpretive style, politics, and diplomacy to understand how it’s presented to you; and strategy, tactics, and intuition in order to do anything with it. Knowledge is complicated. The Sibylline Books are evocative of this knowledge precisely because the idea of the Books is predicated on the background knowledge and education necessary to be able to interpret them. And I find that intoxicating.


(1) The story was alluded to in some of the lost books of Varro, quoted by Lactantius in his Institutiones Divinae I:6 and by Origen. The Sibylline Books are also referred to by Tacitus, Annales VI.12, and by Josephus.

(2) Prometheus was punished for teaching humans the secret of fire by Zeus who had an eagle peck out his liver each day, only to have the liver grow back again overnight for the torturous process to begin again and continue for eternity.

*The large preceding sections of Book 22 of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita is a master class in tragic lament; the Romans really did believe that all was lost after Cannae, and with good reason. One of the largest armies ever sent into the field was not only conquered by annihilated. Some suggest the death toll was up to 70,000 (but more likely less).

(3) Terry, Milton S. The Sibylline Oracles. New York, 1899 – accessed 3rd September 2017 at 10:24 AM EST.