Heroes and HERO cults I

Name a hero and Achilles, Agamemnon, and Heracles immediately spring to mind. These characters are the household names, so to speak, among the heroes, and we are well informed about both their spectacular lives and their deaths from epic and myth, and of the sanctuaries and shrines where they received cult. But what about Egretes, the Children of Caphyae, and the ‘‘Heroes in the Field”? They were also heroes and, though less well known to us, certainly no less important to the people who worshiped them. And what do we make of the figure or figures who for more than a hundred years received offerings of pottery, figurines, and metal objects from the rural inhabitants of Berbati in the Argolid, when they feasted next to the monumental Mycenaean tomb in the midst of their valley? This may also be a hero-cult, though we can neither name its recipient nor define his (or her) character.

Heroes (hērōes, fem. hērōinai, hērōissai) are a category of divine beings of Greek mythology and religion which are difficult to define, since they varied over both time and place. To quote a now classic statement by Nicholas Coldstream: ‘‘Greek hero worship has always been a rather untidy subject, where any general statement is apt to provoke suspicion”. A characteristic of heroes and hero-cults is their heterogeneity, both in relation to the nature of the heroes themselves and the appearance of their cult-places, and, to a lesser extent, the cult practices. Their importance in the Greek religious system is, on the other hand, indisputable, not the least from the fact that they were worshiped all over the Greek territory from the late eighth century BC to the end of antiquity.

For the ancient Greeks there was no clear-cut definition of a hero; still, heroes were distinguished from gods and from the ordinary dead. How we perceive a hero and his cult is dependent on which kind of evidence we consider. A hero can be defined as a person who had lived and died, either in myth or in real life, this being the main distinction between a god and a hero. He was thus dead and may have had a tomb, which sometimes was the focus of a cult, though not all heroes received religious attention. The difference between a hero and an ordinary dead person lies in the relationship with the living, the ordinary dead having some kind of connection with those tending the grave and presenting offerings, while the heroes were worshiped on a more official level. Finally, the hero was generally a local phenomenon and most heroes were connected with one specific location.

The use and meaning of the term hērōs

The written sources provide us with accounts of myths and cults of heroes, but the designation hērōs is not always a distinct marker of the status of the figure described in this manner or of the extent to which he received any form of cult. The etymology of the term is unclear. A connection with Hera has been suggested, the hērōs being seen as the young divine consort of the goddess in her aspect as a goddess of marriage or of the seasons.

A Linear B tablet from Pylos (PY Tn 316) mentions a Tiriseroe which may refer to a divinity, but it is difficult to know whether the Mycenaean hērōs constituted an equivalent to the hero of later periods.

Homer uses hērōs for the human protagonists of his epics, not only the warriors but also the bard Demodocus and even the people of Ithaca at large, but not for a recipient of cult in the same sense as in the archaic and classical periods.

In Hesiod’s Work and Days (157-68), the Heroes constitute one of the four races, which came before the present Iron Race of men. After Gold, Silver and Bronze, the Heroes were created, ‘‘a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods”; they fought at Thebes and Troy and perished there, apart from a lucky few who continued their lives on the islands of the blessed.

From the archaic period, hērōs is used not only for a figure of extrahuman status, a protagonist of myth and epic, but also for a divine figure receiving cult. The terminology is not unambiguous, however, and an individual who fulfilled the criteria for being a hero could sometimes be called a god (theos), as was the case with the athlete Theogenes, worshiped on Thasos (Pausanias 6.11.2-9), or the healing divinity Hērōs Iatros from Athens, designated as theos in a third-century inscription (IG ii2 839).

Hērōs seems in this case to have functioned more as a name or a title. The disparity between terminology and content is evident also for the heroines. Though the concept of a female equivalent of hērōs exists in Homer, the earliest use of a term for a heroine (hērōis) is found in Pindar (Pythian 11.7). But the fluid use of hērōs can reflect the character of the figure in question as well, Heracles being the prime case. Born a mortal, he burnt himself to death on Mount Oite and finally ascended to the gods on Olympus. He was worshiped all over Greek territory but there was no tradition of him having a tomb. Heracles was primarily perceived as a god, though of mortal descent, a status pinpointed when Pindar describes him as a hērōs theos (Nemean 3.22). Also the Dioscuri and Asclepius transgressed the category of heroes with the panhellenic spread of their cults and their mythical background presenting them as partly immortal.

In the hellenistic period, some tombstones for the ordinary dead begin to carry the word ‘‘hero” or ‘‘heroine.” These are frequently decorated with heroic motifs, such as banqueting scenes and riders, and, where the age of the departed is known, they were often children or adolescents, whose untimely death may have led to them being heroized. Instead of taking hērōs to have meant simply ‘‘dead man” and as a sign of the devaluation of hero-cults after the classical period, it seems that these individuals were in some way considered as special and distinct from the ordinary dead.

The rise of the hero concept

The earliest traces of hero-cults depend on which kind of sources are considered and it is not obvious that the written and archaeological evidence for heroes and hero cults coincided from the beginning. Tendencies of hero-worship may be distinguished in Homer, such as the tomb of Ilios being a respected landmark (Iliad 10.414, 11.166, 371, 24.350) and bulls and rams being sacrificed by the Athenian youths to Erechtheus (Iliad 2.550-1).

The basic features of the Hesiodic heroes, that they are mortal but still semi-divine, is in accordance with the concept of heroes as we know it from later periods and it is possible that these heroes (as well as the races which preceded them) were thought to correspond to the heroes of the kind later receiving cult.

Even though our earliest written sources do not use hērōs in the same sense as in later periods, or refer to hero-cults directly, the archaeological evidence indicates that hero-cults existed in some form in the late Early Iron Age. From the eighth century, there is a small and scattered group of hero shrines, all connected with epic or mythic heroes, identified by inscribed dedications (in most cases postdating the installation of the cult): Helen and Menelaus at Sparta, Odysseus in the Polis cave on Ithaca, and Agamemnon at Mycenae. A hērōon dedicated to the heroes who participated in the expedition against Thebes was established in Argos in the early sixth century.

Traces of Iron Age activity are found at Mycenaean tholos and chamber tombs over most of the Greek mainland in the eighth century, though some instances date back to the tenth century BC. Some deposits, rich in content and spanning several centuries, were probably herocults (as at Menidi in Attica and Berbati in the Argolid), while offerings of a more simple nature suggest ‘‘tomb cult” directed towards the recently dead or to ancestors. A recent finding at a tholos tomb in Thessaly of an inscribed tile (seventh or sixth century BC) dedicated to Aeatus, the mythical founder of the region, shows that the heroes worshiped at the Bronze Age tombs may have been identified with mythic and epic figures as well.

Veneration of the recently dead also developed into hero-cults. Some individuals were buried in a manner clearly exceeding the regular norm, such as the couple interred in the tenth-century monumental house at Lefkandi, though at this site there is no sign of a subsequent cult. In Eretria, a group of people – men and women – were given rich cremation burials near the West Gate in the late eighth to the early seventh century. A triangular precinct was constructed around 680 BC and a building functioning as a shrine or a dining room was later erected next to it, the cult-place being in use until the late classical period, most likely as a hero-cult.

Another early category of hero to consider is the oikist, the leader of the party setting out to found a new colony outside the Greek homeland. The oikist was chosen by the oracle at Delphi and after his death buried in the agora of the new colony and there received a cult. Considering the early institution of some of these cults, as early as the mid-eighth century BC, it is possible that they influenced or even gave rise to hero-cults in the motherland.

Why did hero-cults arise in the eighth century? The spread of the Homeric epics (and Hesiod’s writings) may have stimulated the identification of the Mycenaean tombs as those of the Homeric heroes, though a number of later-attested heroes do not figure in Homer. The occurrence of hero-cults is contemporary with the rise of the city-state, and hero-cults can be seen as a response to political and social changes. It has been suggested that they were mechanisms for aristocrats and prominent families to assert themselves or attempts by individual landholders and smaller communities to claim rights to land and territory.

On the whole, the origins of hero-cults must be viewed as highly diverse. Certain hero-cults may be derived from an interest in ancient graves or the tending of the graves of important contemporary individuals, while the heroes of myth and epic inspired others. To attempt to single out the factor that gave rise to hero-cults seems to be a futile endeavor. A more fruitful approach is to focus on the development of the category of heroes, a heading under which a whole range of figures with diverse origins came to be included, as well as on the political, social, and religious changes which contributed to this process.

Though the earliest traces of heroes and hero-cults date back to the Early Iron Age, heroes and hero-cults in the full sense of the terms did not become a prominent feature of Greek religion until the archaic period. Furthermore, different hero-cults came into being (and also disappeared) continuously all through the archaic, classical, and hellenistic periods, and the Bronze Age tombs even became the focus of religious attention a second time, in the late classical and hellenistic periods.

Book of interest


The establishment of the professional Roman army


In 31 BC in the aftermath of Actium, Octavian held under his control not only the combined legions of his own and Antony’s armies, totaling some 60 legions of probably varying strength, but also the fleet that had won his decisive victory for him, numbering some 400 or so ships, and the unrecorded numbers of allied units that had contributed to the armies of the triumviral period. These numbers needed to be reduced: an over-large army was financially unsustainable, would be impossible to employ usefully, and posed a threat to political and social stability. Romans saw the existence of large armies loyal to individual generals rather than the state as a major factor contributing to the civil strife of the late republic; they were also clear evidence of political crisis (Cassius Dio 52.27).

If Augustus wanted to stabilize the state and build public confidence in his new regime, he needed to show that the crisis was over. A massive reduction in the legions would help to do this, as well as appease the soldiers themselves, many of whom had enlisted or been conscripted to fight for individuals in civil war and were eager to be discharged with an appropriate reward. Whether reducing the size of the army would have provided any reassurance to the Senate as to the nature of Augustus’ regime is another matter, but the princeps himself considered it important enough to give it considerable prominence in his Res Gestae. The inscription begins with an extremely brief and partisan account of Augustus’ rise to power, a bald statement concerning the extent of his campaigns and conquests, and then, the first action of the newly self-appointed princeps to be recorded is that of the half a million men under arms he discharged 300,000 of them with the reward of land grants or cash bonuses (Res Gestae 3).

In order to retain his position as Rome’s sole leader and prevent a recurrence of the civil wars and political instability that had brought an end to the republic, Augustus needed not only to maintain firm control of the army, but to change its whole relationship with the Roman state. The military reforms he undertook served to remove soldiers from the active involvement in politics that they had enjoyed during the last century of the republic and the triumviral period, and aimed to break the ties of loyalty to individual generals and expectation of reward that had made a major contribution to the end of the republic; instead the army’s loyalties were directed towards the emperor and members of the imperial family rather than to their own commanders.

The citizen militia of the early and middle republic was already evolving into a more professional army by 31 BC, but Augustus accelerated that process by establishing a standing army with permanent units of citizen legions and noncitizen auxiliaries. The army was based in the provinces and on the frontiers; with the exception of the Urban Cohorts and Praetorian Guard, no military units were stationed in Italy, which had suffered so much during the wars of the first century BC, and Italian society swiftly became demilitarized. Whilst many of Augustus’ military “reforms” were little more than the regularization of changes that had been taking place in the late republic, others were radical in the context of a generally conservative society that placed great emphasis on ancestral traditions.

By the late republic the legions, which had originally been raised on an annual basis to wage war in Italy, were serving for continuous periods, sometimes for many years, in provinces throughout the Mediterranean. That length of service could vary enormously. The two legions raised by Valerius Flaccus in 86 BC for the campaign against Mithridates were still serving when Pompey took over the command nearly 20 years later, whilst the three legions of Metellus Creticus involved in operations against pirates may have served for only three years, from 68-65 before being returned to Italy and discharged.

The rewards of service could be equally inconsistent with some legions being settled on land, such as Saturninus’ settlement of Marius’ veterans (Appian, B. Civ. 1.29) and Sulla’s displacement of Italian farmers to settle his civil war veterans, whilst other legions received no substantial reward when their service was completed. The potential reward on discharge was one of the principal factors that encouraged the loyalty of soldiers to their generals rather than to the Roman state, and contributed to the civil wars that ended the republic. By establishing fixed rewards which were available only after completion of an established minimum length of service, Augustus was able to break the financial dependence of soldiers on their generals and some of the ties of loyalty.

This might seem an obvious solution, and, after the establishment of the aerarium militare in AD 6 to finance the settlement of veterans, an appropriate one since the new taxes inevitably had a greater effect on the elite who had so steadfastly refused to reward veterans in the late republic, but we should not be too critical of the senate for failing to take such steps earlier. In spite of the growing tendency in the last century of the republic for some citizens to see the army as a profession and the decreasing importance of any kind of property qualification for legionary service, there had remained a strong belief in the idea of a Rome whose military superiority lay in the traditions of a citizen militia drawn on the property owning classes who served in the legions when necessity demanded. The creation of an army of long-service professionals recruited regardless of social, and sometimes citizen, status signaled an end to this central feature of the Roman Republic, and even though it was merely the next logical step in the evolution of the Roman army, Augustus drew on republican precedents in establishing his imperial army.

After the mass settlement of veterans following Actium, Augustus retained in service 28 of the legions that had been in existence in 31 BC, drawn from both his own and Antony’s armies. Although the number of legions fluctuated over the next two and a half centuries as units were destroyed, disbanded for dishonorable behavior or raised for campaigns, the total number of legions, and indeed overall size of the army, did not change fundamentally from that established by Augustus, as indicated by Cassius Dio’s valuable summary of legionary comings and goings (Cassius Dio 55.23-24). Tacitus (Ann. 4.5) stated that the number of auxiliaries approximately equaled that of the legionaries, but opted not to provide a list of all the units and their stations because there were so many; military strength in the early imperial period was around 300,000, about half of whom were legionaries and half auxiliaries.

In setting the length of legionary service, Augustus drew on the traditional requirement that a citizen be available for up to 16 campaigns, or 20 in times of national emergency (Polybius 6.19) and set service at 16 years plus four in reserve. Dio records this in 13 BC (Cassius Dio 54.25), but it is likely that since Actium there had been an expectation that soldiers would serve for this length of time. In AD 5, this was increased to 20 plus five in reserve; whatever the distinction was between ordinary soldiers and those in reserve, it seems to have been dropped fairly soon afterwards and all legionaries and auxiliaries served for 25 years. Conscription through the dilectus remained an option but although there are occasional references to levies, such as during the Pannonian revolt or in the aftermath of the Varian disaster, or the occasional levy of non-citizen troops in the provinces, the vast majority of recruits were volunteers.

Augustus did not raise military pay which had been doubled to 225 denarii a year by Caesar (Suetonius, Jul. 26), but soldiers were now guaranteed a regular income for a fixed period of time, followed by a guaranteed discharge bonus. At first the reward for veterans came in the form of a land grant, following the precedents of the late republic and triumviral periods, and continuing, though in a different form, the long established link between land ownership and military service. Augustus went to great efforts to avoid the confiscations that had provided for veteran settlement in the unsettled decades at the end of the republic. Such redistributions of land were associated with civil strife and political dominance such as Sulla’s dictatorship or the triumvirate, in which the then Octavian had been responsible for the deeply unpopular confiscations in Italy following Philippi (Appian, B. Civ. 5.19; Suetonius, Aug. 13; Vergilius, Ecl.).

As Augustus, he ensured that in both Italy and the provinces the lands assigned to the veterans were purchased, not confiscated, and he publicized in his Res Gestae not only the extraordinarily large sums he personally committed to this task (a total of 860,000,000 sesterces for the large-scale settlements of 30 and 14 BC), but also the boast that he was the first and only person to have paid for such lands, another clear sign that the political and military crises of the late republic had been resolved. The size of the allotments is not known, though it is estimated that they may have been up to 50 iugera (14.7 ha) for ordinary legionaries, sufficient to provide for a family and produce a surplus, and more for former centurions and tribunes.

Military colonies were set up throughout the empire, and 28 were established in Italy (Res Gestae 28). However, Augustus was unable to sustain this kind of expenditure and there was a limit to the amount of available land, especially in Italy, so increasingly the discharge bonus was paid in cash rather than land. These pay-outs, recorded in the Res Gestae, amounted to 400,000,000 sesterces and were made in 7, 6, 4, 3, and 2 BC (Res Gestae 16). The soldiers receiving these cash bonuses on retirement had been recruited in the 20s BC, had not fought in civil wars, and had only ever sworn an oath of allegiance to Augustus, who was by now so well established in power that he could afford to divert from republican traditions, and perhaps be less generous to his soldiers.

The evidence of the Res Gestae suggests that by the end of the first century BC a cash bonus on discharge had become the norm, and this is confirmed by Cassius Dio who records that at the same time that military service was increased to 25 years in AD 5, the bonus was set at 12,000 sesterces, a sum equivalent to over 13 years’ pay. To finance the retirement benefits of 4,000-5,000 men a year, Augustus established the aerarium militare, the military treasury, in AD 6, which he set up with a donation of 170,000,000 sesterces from his own funds (Res Gestae 17). The treasury’s income was derived from the introduction of new taxes, a 1 percent tax on sales at auction and a 5 percent inheritance tax. Whether auxiliaries also received such retirement payments is uncertain, but probably unlikely; from the time of Claudius, however, they automatically received Roman citizenship after their 25 years’ service. With the establishment of fixed lengths of service and retirement benefits, and a dedicated treasury to finance the latter, it is apparent that by the beginning of the first century AD, the Roman army was now a professional force; whereas in the republic the ideal was of the citizen soldier, now Augustus even separated his soldiers from the ordinary people in the theater (Suetonius, Aug. 44).

Augustus ensured the loyalty of his new professional army through these financial arrangements, and through other means. The sacramentum or oath of allegiance, had originally been sworn by legionaries who undertook to obey the consuls or their generals for the course of the campaign, and generals in the late republic had drawn on this to encourage great loyalty from their armies as the oath was sworn to them personally (Plutarch, Sulla 27); Augustus took this one stage further by requiring all those under arms to swear allegiance to him personally, rather than to their unit commanders or provincial governors, and this was repeated annually (Tacitus, Hist. 1.55).

At some point in the early empire, the imago was adopted as an additional military standard by both legions and auxiliary units; this standard was one which carried the image of the emperor (who also appeared on the coinage in which they were paid) and served to identify the unit with their emperor and commander in chief; the imago was closely associated with the unit’s standards which were considered sacred and housed in a sacellum in the principia or headquarters building when the unit was in garrison. The Rhine legions first expressed their change of allegiance from Galba to their provincial governor Vitellius by stoning or destroying the imagines of Galba (Tacitus, Hist. 1.55).

Various legal advantages were bestowed on soldiers, though to facilitate the swift movement of troops and their separation from civilian life, they were forbidden to contract legal marriages, another factor highlighting the difference between the republican army and the professional army of the principate.

The commanders and senior officers of all military units owed their positions to the patronage of the emperor, though it is uncertain whether or not centurions were also appointed directly by the emperor. Officers of senatorial and equestrian status owed future career promotions and magistracies to the emperor’s patronage whilst centurions were probably encouraged in their loyalty by rates of pay that were vastly superior to those of ordinary legionaries, and by the status and future career opportunities in imperial service that the most senior centurions could attain.

The loyalty of tribunes, prefects, and legates could contribute to the loyalty of those under their command, but ordinary soldiers were very aware of their own oaths of allegiance; there were no serious military threats to Augustus’ power and given the chaotic last decades of the republic and almost constant civil war, he did a remarkable job of taking firm control of Rome’s armies and establishing the armed forces that would maintain the pax Romana for several centuries.

Book of interest

Etruscan Italy – Iron Age


The Etruscans originated in central Italy around 900 BC and were absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 80s BC. During the first millennium BC, they developed the earliest complex society in Italy. In common with other Mediterranean civilizations of their time, the Etruscans lived in city-states, had a specialized agricultural and craft economy, and exchanged goods and ideas with their neighbors. Distinctive to the Etruscans was their religion, social and political structure, and language. There is a wealth of archaeological evidence for Etruscan settlements, economy, society, and culture, including the remains of cities, towns, cemeteries, and everyday objects.


The traditional Etruscan territory in central Italy is delineated by the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, the Apennines in the east, and the Arno and Tiber Rivers to the north and south. The Etruscan civilization arose out of the culture and society that developed in this area during the Late Bronze Age (1300-900 BC) and Iron Age (900-700 BC). During the Iron Age, the roots of Etruscan cities, economy, religion, and language were established.


Most of the great Etruscan cities of later times originated as villages in the Iron Age. In southern Etruria, Iron Age villages usually were situated on volcanic tufa plateaus (Veio, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, and Orvieto). In central and northern Etruria, villages more often were built on isolated hilltops dominating the sea or inland waterways- Populonium (modern-day Populania), Vetulonia, Volterra, Chiusi, Cortona, and Arezzo. Small farms and hamlets surrounded Iron Age villages. Excavations at Volterra, in northern Etruria, provide archaeological evidence for early settlement patterns in one Etruscan city. During the Iron Age many small villages coexisted on the Volterran hilltop, placed wherever there was relatively flat land and a spring to provide water. Roadways leading into the countryside radiated out from the hilltop in every direction. Along these routes several burial areas developed. Excavations at Tarquinia, in southern Etruria, have recovered evidence for Iron Age dwellings. Two kinds of huts were found in the Iron Age village: larger oval or rectangular huts, approximately 13 by 7 meters, that could have housed an extended family and smaller huts, approximately 5 by 4 meters, that could have housed a nuclear family. The area between the huts may have been used for growing small cottage gardens and keeping animals and poultry. Drainage channels carried rainwater away from the dwellings and into a central cistern. Iron Age huts were built on foundation trenches cut into soil or rock. Exterior timber posts were set into holes in the foundation, to support the thatched roof. Walls were made of wattle screens woven from reeds and branches and covered with daub (clay). The door usually was placed at the short end of the structure and sometimes was protected by a small porch. Inside the hut was a central hearth, circular in shape. The interior may have been divided by a screen into a front and a back room.


Iron Age cemeteries were located outside villages, usually on surrounding hillsides. During the ninth century BC, most individuals were cremated and their ashes placed into decorated pottery urns. The urns were buried, along with modest grave goods, in tombs cut into soil or rock. Toward the end of the Iron Age new burial customs emerged in central Italy, interpreted as evidence of the development of an aristocracy. By the eighth century BC, a few rich burials appear among many more common ones, distinguished by their more numerous and expensive grave goods, especially fine metalwork.

Language and Religion

During the Iron Age a common culture developed among the residents of Etruria. The Etruscan language and religion were among the most significant elements in the culture. Etruscan is not an Indo-European language and is not related to the languages of neighboring Italic peoples. The Etruscans learned the alphabet from Greeks who settled in southern Italy and used it to write down their own language. The first texts written in Etruscan date to the end of the Iron Age, around 700 BC. The Etruscan religion, as we know it from the historical period, incorporated early cult practices from the Iron Age. The Etruscans believed that divinities determined the course of events in the human world. Etruscan worship took place in sacred groves, caves, and springs, where divinities were thought to reside. The role of Etruscan priests was to learn the will of the gods and then to follow the appropriate rituals and sacrifices. Individual worshippers asked for divine favor by sacrificing animals for the gods, offering them food or drink, or giving them other gifts. A spring at Banditella, near Vulci, was a sanctuary as early as the Middle Bronze Age (seventeenth century BC) into Etruscan times, indicating the continuity of religious practices from prehistory into the historic era.


The Iron Age economy was largely self-sufficient: each Etruscan village produced everything it needed. Agriculture was the foundation of the economy. Farmers grew cereals, legumes, fruits, nuts, and vegetables and raised sheep, goats, and pigs. Villagers also hunted, fished, and gathered in nearby woods and waters. Most tools, utensils, clothing, and other goods were made by each household for its own use. Certain specialized and luxury items were produced in Etruria and distributed throughout central Italy, the Mediterranean, and north of the Alps. By the Iron Age, a specialized metal industry already existed in Etruria. Metals were mined from the Colline Metallifere, or “metalbearing hills,” and fashioned into metal objects in nearby Populonium and Vetulonia. In exchange, luxury objects were imported from Greece, Phoenicia, and Sardinia.


By the end of the Iron Age Etruscan society probably included several classes, linked through patron-client ties. Farmers met their own needs and also produced goods and labor for petty chiefs. In exchange, the petty chiefs provided their clients with protection, communal works, and foodstuffs. The petty chiefs, in turn, were clients of paramount chiefs, who redistributed foodstuffs and prestige goods regionally.


Banti, Luisa. Etruscan Cities and Their Culture, 1973.

Barker, Graeme, and Tom Rasmussen. The Etruscans, 1998.

Boëthius, Axel. Etruscan and Roman Architecture, 1970.

Brendel, Otto J. Etruscan Art., 1995.

Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000-263 BC. 1995.

Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History.

Macnamara, Ellen. The Etruscans, 1991.

Lead and the decline of Empire


Lead is useful, surprising, unpredictable, dangerous – and deadly. Previous generations found it to be an essential part of civilized living: pipes, pewter, pottery, paints, and even potions were made with it.

The Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius, who lived in the first century AD, observed that labourers in lead smelters always had pale complexions. The Greek physician Hippocrates described a severe attack of colic in a patient who was a lead miner. Neither attributed the cause to lead, and nor did most of the physicians who down the centuries treated patients affected by it, although there were times when a few doctors realized how toxic it could be.

The Ancient Greek poet and physician Nicander described the symptoms of lead poisoning, including hallucinations and paralysis, and recommended strong laxative treatments to cure it. Yet lead continued to poison unchecked, largely because the link between the metal and its adverse effects on health was not obvious. On the other hand its benefits were obvious, indeed the more lead was used in a society, the higher the standard of living of its citizens. Lead can be an extremely useful metal because it is easy to win it from its ores, it melts at a relatively low temperature, and it makes an ideal solder. Lead is easily worked and can be hammered into sheets, and used to make pipes, pans, roofing, and cisterns, and it is impervious to attack by the oxygen of the air and by water.

Lead has been mined for more than 6000 years, and it was certainly known to the Ancient Egyptians who used lead pigments as well as casting the metal itself into small figurines. Cosmetics made from lead ores have been found in tombs of the second millennium BC, and these consisted of black galena (lead sulphide), white cerussite (lead carbonate), white laurionite (lead chloride), and brown phosgenite (mixed lead chloride carbonate).

The Egyptians may have got some of their lead from Phoenician traders who were mining lead in Spain about 2000 BC, but it was the ancient Greeks who really began producing lead on a large scale, inadvertently as it happened, because they were really mining for silver. From 650 to 350 BC the Athenians exploited a large deposit at Laurion from which they eventually extracted 7000 tonnes of silver – and more than 2 million tonnes of lead.

The silver from Laurion underpinned Athens’ economic power, until the mines became played out in the fourth century BC, after which Athens declined. By then more than 2000 pits had been dug and 150 km of galleries excavated. The waste lead from these mines was still being exploited hundreds of years later by the Romans, who found more and more uses for the metal and its compounds. Builders, plumbers, painters, cooks, potters, metal-workers, coin-makers, dentists, vintners, and undertakers all made use of it.

The Ancients saw lead as a god-given benefit and in Egypt it was associated with the god Osiris, while the Greeks linked it to Chronos, and the Romans to Saturn, which is why lead poisoning is still sometimes called saturnism. In reality lead was really a metal sent from hell. A puzzling feature of the Roman Empire was the surprisingly low birth rate of its ruling classes, and this too has been linked to the high level of lead in the diet. If the fate of a ruling class is what determines the fate of an empire, then the theory that one of the greatest of all empires was destroyed by lead may not be so fanciful as it first sounds. In fact more than just the aristocracy appears to have been less than reproductive.

The Empire’s population remained stable at around 50 million, despite such social benefits as adequate food supply, high standards of hygiene, and the growth of science, technology, and medicine, all of which should have led to an increase. Some researchers have put forward the theory that lead was to blame, and we know from the analysis of the bones of its citizens, that their use of this metal was undermining their health. The theory that lead led to the decline of the Roman Empire was first advanced in 1965 in the Journal of Occupational Medicine by S. C. Gilfillan of Santa Monica, California, and his arguments were subsequently reinforced by Jerome Nriagu of the National Water Research Institute of Canada. Nriagu, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 308, p. 660, 1983), estimated that a typical aristocrat would be absorbing 250 μg/day, while ordinary Roman citizens would get around 35 and slaves only 15, most of which would come from wine in the case of the first two groups. Nriagu has even linked the medical complaints and bizarre behaviour of the Roman emperors to their high lead intake. Many of them suffered from gout as a result. Claudius who reigned from 41 to 54 displayed many of the symptoms of lead poisoning, including recurrent attacks of colic. Nriagu expanded on the theory in a scholarly but controversial book, Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity, published in 1983.

Lead contaminated the homes of Romans in many different ways. Drinking water was transported along lead-lined aqueducts, through lead pipes, stored in lead cisterns, and maybe drunk from lead pewter vessels. The walls and woodwork of rooms were painted with lead-based paints. But one item in particular must have contributed to the lead in their diet, and that was a sweetening agent known as sapa. The famous Roman writer Pliny (23-79) gives the recipe for making sapa and specifically mentions that it must be made in lead pans. Roman cooks had only two sweetening agents that they could use for desserts: honey and sapa. (Sugar was unknown to the Romans. Sugar cane was originally to be found only in Polynesia, and gradually spread westwards reaching Europe about 800). Sapa was made by boiling down unwanted or sour wine in lead pans and we now know that the syrup so produced tasted sweet because it contained a lot of lead acetate.

The lead came from the pan in which it was prepared, the acetate came from the wine that was being made sour by the action of enzymes and air which can convert alcohol to acetic acid. The crystals that form from such syrup looked and tasted like the sugar we know today, and were eventually to be known as sugar of lead.

Old recipes for making sapa have been repeated in recent times, and analyzed, showing that the syrup contained around 1000 ppm of lead (0.1%). A spoonful of sapa would deliver a dose of lead that would undoubtedly lead to some of the symptoms of poisoning. Yet the popular Roman book, The Apician Cookbook, had sapa as an ingredient in 85 of its 450 recipes, and sapa was used by vintners as well.

Sapa was used to preserve wine, and especially Greek wines. These were popular in Rome but had a reputation for causing sterility, miscarriages, constipation, headaches, and insomnia – all of which would be true if they had been doctored with sapa. Roman prostitutes were reputed to eat sapa by the spoonful because it acted as a contraceptive, gave them attractive pale complexions (due to anaemia), and would cause abortions.

The Romans mined lead in Greece, Spain, Britain, and Sardinia. At the height of the Empire the British deposits were the main source of supply and the annual rate of lead production was in excess of 100 000 tonnes/year. (In total, the Romans are estimated to have mined and used more than 20 million tonnes of lead.) Originally the Romans left the mining and refining in private hands, but ultimately it was deemed so important that it was all state-controlled. The Romans were not unaware of the risks of lead mining so it was done mainly by slaves, and at the height of the Empire 40 000 slaves worked the mines of Spain.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire brought an end to economic development in Europe for almost 1000 years. The causes of the Fall of Rome were a combination of climate change, plague, economic decline, religious dissent, power politics, and outside pressures. Indeed from 250 onwards, all these factors came into play. As the Earth’s climate became colder, northern peoples began to move southwards and invade. Plague appeared and epidemics ravaged the Empire. Meanwhile internal military and religious disputes raged on. Lead was at most a minor factor in Rome’s downfall.

[Read more here]

Ancient city of Nessebar – Bulgaria

bulgaria-nesebar-fortifications.jpg nessebar_pantocrator.jpgbulgaria-nessebar.jpg

Date of Inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: 1983

The Nesebur Peninsula – the ancient Mesambria, which was called Mesemvria in the Early Middle Ages and later – Nesebur, was populated more than three millenniums ago, at the end of the Bronze Age. The ancient Thracians named it Melsambria, what in their language means “the town of Melsa” – the legendary founder of the settlement.

About the end of the VI century BC, the first Greek colonizers arrived in the settlement – they were Dorians by origin. The settlement was gradually fortified; temples, gymnasium and theater were built. The settlement transformed itself in a classical polis – a town with the respective structure, functions and administration.

Ships were built in the town and a number of handicrafts were developed – mainly processing metal. Mesambria began making its own coins around 440 B.C.
The town has reached its boom during the III – II centuries BC when gold coins were also emitted. It maintained busy trade relations with the towns along the Black and Aegean Seas, as well as those on the Mediterranean coast.

In year 72 BC the town was conquered by the Roman army. After a short period of occupation, around the beginning of the first century AD, it was permanently included in the Roman Empire. Mesembria, as it was called at this time, has preserved its fortress walls and the big public buildings. It kept making own bronze coins and remained an important commercial and cultural center on the Black Sea coast of the Roman Thrace.

After the capital of the Roman Empire was moved to Constantinople and Christianity was adopted as an official religion, favorable conditions for the revival of the Black Sea towns were created. In Mesembria new Christian temples – basilicas were built as well as new water – supply system and town’s thermae. All construction work was performed under the supervision of leading empire’s architects and builders, following the pattern of the capital’s prototypes… [Read more]

The Ancient Nessebar


Nessebar on UNESCO’S WHC site
See also:

Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari
Date of Inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: 1985

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak
Date of Inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: 1979

BUTRINT – Albania

gr. Βουθρωτόν              lat. Buthrotum

Butrint occupies the small Ksamili peninsula between the straits of Corfu and Lake Butrint. Due to such a strategic position on the Mediterranean Sea, there were many military operations for the control of the area from the first Peloponese war (V century BC) until the Napoleonic wars (XIX century).

Butrint was controlled by the tribe which was part of the Greek Epirot Federation. Colonists from Corcyra settled in Butrint around the IV century BC. Within a century of the Greeks arriving, Butrint had become one of the ancient world’s major fortified maritime trade centres with its own acropolis

Butrint then came under the control of the Illyrians anxious to control the maritime trade and during the 3rd Macedonian war in 167 BC, the city was conquered by the Romans. The Romans used the port as a supply base for military campaigns in Epirus and Macedonia in the II century BC and area was afterwards “romanised”. With the creation of the Byzantine Empire in the East, Butrint was therein enveloped and remained part of the Empire until the latter’s fall at the hands of the Turks in 1453.

Barbarians, Vandals, Slavs, Goths invaded the city, the Slavs settling there from the VII century until the Byzantines expelled them in the IX century…[read more]


Butrint was nominated as a World Heritage Site


Butrint’s nomination was deferred


Butrint designated as a World Heritage Site


Butrint was put on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger


Office for the protection of the World Heritage Site of Butrint created


Extension of the Butrint protected zone


Butrint National Park established


Inscribed on the Ramsar


Butrint removed from World Heritage Site in Danger list

In 1972 UNESCO adopted the Convention ‘Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’ and under its auspices introduced the World Heritage List. Butrint was nominated as a World Heritage Site in 1990 but in May 1991 ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) recommended that its inclusion be deferred to await verification of various definitions and plans relating to its protection. By 1992 ICOMOS was satisfied that all the protective requirements were in place and they recommended that Butrint – the intramural area covering 16 hectares – be included on the World Heritage List on the basis of criterion iii .

In 1997 civil unrest prompted ICOMOS to recommend that further action regarding the protection of the site was essential and Butrint was put on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. As a result a workshop for the definition of the past, present and future of the site was held in 1998 which led to the Albanian Government creating an office for the protection of the Butrint Site. In 1999 ICOMOS asked to extend the buffer zone of the site for fear of uncontrolled tourist development in a small area on the coast. The protected zone was therefore extended under the existing criterion (iii) on condition that the State Party withdrew plans for this development. The establishment of the Butrint National Park in 2000 gave the site new legal status and protected an area of 29 km², managed by the appointment of a director.

Official Butrint Website

Butrint on WHC site

The Butrint Foundation

Butrint rediscovered