Rolling the Dice in Uncertain Times

This is the second in my series exploring the similarities of human nature in the present crazy situation (the COVID-19 Pandemic, for anyone who might be reading this much later) and in the past; specifically in the search for answers to questions about the unknown. In antiquity this was often done by consultation of oracles or other forms of divination.

NOTE: the first installment had pitifully low readership, so you should go read it now for context: Seeking Answers to an Unknown Future in the Distant Past. And here is a nice picture, somewhat related to the content, so you know where to restart when you come back:

The dramatically situated theater at Termessos, on the E edge of Lycia in modern Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

As I write, lead news stories are no longer about the growing severity of the COVID-19 Pandemic, but rather debates about “reopening” the economy. In the US, different states have taken varying approaches, with protests, demonstrations, pleas, and public service announcements against all of them. Media outlets refer to easing of restrictions where infection rates have not declined as a “gamble” or even “rolling the dice.” Indeed, “rolling the dice” means to take a gamble, in the sense of taking an action which involves risk for the chance of potential reward. Gambling for the sake of the risk/reward thrill existed in ancient times as it does today. Gambling by “playing dice” was a major pastime and social problem in ancient Rome—and throughout the empire, as texts and archaeological finds attest. Dice are the objects used to introduce randomness into the process, making it a game.

A Roman period die, made from clay, discovered at Lystra (Turkey) by Ancient Dan’s daughter (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-05-04)

“Playing dice,” however, is an evolution of both the activity itself and the object used. The verb “playing” reveals the choice to engage in the activity for fun or pursuit of satisfaction. The “gamble” of easing stay-at-home orders and reopening businesses before a pandemic is over is more of a forced choice. The goal is clear and necessary (get back to a productive life), but risk (potential spread of illness) makes the choice difficult and not “fun.” In antiquity, it was common to put such matters to oracles or other forms of divination. In addition to obtaining a presumably unbiased opinion, this was also no doubt an effort to take the decision out of human hands or to avoid direct blame for wrong roads taken. It may seem easy to poke fun at such actions but, in truth, humans share the same fears and instincts in all periods.

Astragali; knucklebones of domestic animals, usually sheep or goats. Sadly, my collection is in storage far away, so I borrowed this image from Wikipedia . . .

The simplest form of choosing between unclear options is by random chance, like flipping a coin. Dice, as noted above, can also be used to produce random outcomes and can also provide more complication than a simple yes or no answer. The direct ancestors to common six-sided dice known today are ancient astragali, the knucklebones of domesticated livestock—usually sheep or goats. These knucklebones have rounded ends and four distinct faces (with varying statistical probability), so that one of the four will be face up when thrown. In the ancient world, the four faces—two broad and two narrow, of which one of each was concave—had known names and values of 1, 3, 4, and 6. Opposite faces adding up to 7 as in modern dice. An astragalus could be ground down into a cube shape with 5 and 2 assigned to the new sides. The result is essentially a modern die. This is why old timers like Ancient Dan may remember even older folk colloquially refer to rolling dice as “throwing the ol’ knucklebones.” Astragali were also used for children’s (and adult) games, but when they were thrown for decision making, the process was called “casting lots,” a method known to readers of the Bible.[1] [It was explained to me as a kid in Sunday School that casting lots “was a lot more like drawing straws than throwing dice” when, in fact, it is exactly like throwing dice!]

Lower city wall and main entry gate at Termessos in Lycia, which must have something to do with the subject of this post (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-20)

Of course the major oracles were the gold standard for getting a divine answer on what action to take in a difficult forced decision. Perhaps simply throwing goat bones oneself may have seemed too flippant or lacking in authority. A convenient, if curious, solution could be found in certain parts of Asia Minor, at least, in the second century AD and later: dice oracles. Here the authority of institutionalized belief and guilt-free randomness could be combined in difficult decision making!

Main entry gate at Termessos in Lycia; remains of a dice oracle are integrated into the end of the wall at left (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

A “good” example (meaning I have pictures of its identifiable ruins) can be seen after a grueling climb up a barely-maintained trail to the mountaintop ruins of Termessos, on the far eastern edge of ancient Lycia in southern Turkey. There, just inside the main gate and attached to the inner face of the city wall, are the fallen blocks of a dice-oracle. One flat horizontal stone can be imagined as the surface on which the inquirer would throw the dice. The blocks on the wall above were covered with inscriptions giving the interpretation of each possible dice throw combination. In fact, the text at Termessos is quite similar to and consistent with those found at other dice-oracles in Asia Minor. In all cases, interpretations are given according to the total of the values of the sides from the dice thrown. From them, we can see that astragali were used because only the face values 1, 3, 4, and 6 were accounted for in the calculations. In most dice-oracles, five throws were assumed, but the Termessos gate example called for seven! The order did not matter but the exact method of obtaining the sum did, in cases where different combinations yielded the same number. Each specific outcome was listed with: the astragali face numbers, the sum of the throw, the result named for god or other mythological character, and a verse interpretation (not unlike a fortune cookie).[2]

A weary traveler enters the main gate at Termessos, approaching ruins of a dice oracle at center; the squared blocks were inscribed with formulae for interpreting the dice throws (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

The location of the Termessos dice-oracle at the city gate is not surprising, given that many of the interpretations assume questions relating to risks associated with business ventures or travel. Therein lies the connection with current events. This week I suspect many American state governors would welcome a chance to put tough decisions of business and travel versus safety on “the advice of the gods” or “Fate” rather than take his or her own reelection risk with the unknown future.

One of the now mostly-illegible blocks with inscribed formula for interpreting the dice throws; this oracle prescribed the throw of seven astralagi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

Would we be better off with a random decision than one made for political expediency? Who knows? Just out of curiosity, I “rolled the dice” in a simulation to see what advice I would get. The answer, straight from the dice-oracle interpretation texts, seems ominously appropriate for contemporary decisions:

  • 44466         24          Cronos the Child-Eater
  • Three fours and two sixes. This is the god’s advice:
  • Stay at home and go not elsewhere,
  • Lest the destructive Beast and avenging Fury come upon you;
  • For I see that the business is neither safe nor secure.[3]

Be safe out there.

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png


[1] Lev 16:8; Josh 18:6, 8, 10; 1 Chron 24:31, 25:8, 26:13-14; Neh 10:34, 11:1; Job 6:27; Ps 22:18; Joel 3:3; Ob 1:11; Jonah 1:7; Nah 3:10; Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24; Acts 1:26; and Greek Esther 9:24, 26; 10:10.

[2] Fritz Graf, “Rolling the Dice for an Answer,” in Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, eds S. I. Johnston and P. Struck (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 60-94.

[3] George E. Bean, Turkey’s Southern Shore (New York: Norton, 1979), 98-99.

Seeking Answers to an Unknown Future in the Distant Past

One of the mixed blessings of being human is the ability to formulate thoughts and make strategic decisions in response to circumstances rather than just react in an innate way. The “curse” aspect of this trait is the frustration of not knowing the future. We realize—often too late—that our plans may be thwarted by unforeseen events. Even if we can see a crisis, not knowing its trajectory or the outcome can paralyze our thinking. Logic and prudence are easily overcome by preoccupation with the unknown and the result is irrational thought and action (Rule 2). Certainly, this is a widespread phenomenon as I write this during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

But obsession with the unknown is not unique to us or our times. Antiquity is full of records and remains attesting to this most human pathos,[1] the “need” to know the future. This post, then, is the first of an envisioned(!) series on places, events, and practices from the ancient world involving attempts to discern information normally unknowable to mortals.

Dodona: the sacred tree and house in the Fall (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-10-30)

“Oracle” designates a medium, often a priest or priestess, through which a god or goddess is supposed to deliver a message. The word also is used for places where such messages are delivered and for the answers received when inquiring there. These things have been around since the beginning of recorded civilization, but it was in ancient Greece that oracles became an institutionalized and essential component of religious practice. The earliest Greek oracle, referenced already in Homer, was at Dodona and is the subject of this piece.

Dodona was an oracle of Zeus instead of Apollo, who held sway at most others. It was also at the fringe of the classical Hellenic world in Epirus (northern Greece). Homer’s references, from perhaps the 7th century BC, have Achilles calling on “lord Zeus of Dodona, . . . wintry Dodona, where the Selloi your interpreters sleep on the ground with unwashed feet” (Homer, Iliad 16.131) and Odysseus “gone to Dodona, to hear the will of Zeus from the high-crested oak of the god” (Odyssey 14.321). Archaeology has revealed cult activity at the site from the Late Bronze Age (the putative time of Homer’s events) and an open-air sanctuary with bronze cauldrons encircling a sacred oak until the late 5th century BC. Later writers assume that the tree gave oracles through the rustling of its leaves (Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.552).

Dodona: the sacred oak and house in the enclosure wall, viewed from behind the sanctuary (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-10-30)

At some point in historic times, the prophetic men gave way to a trio of “old women” who assumed the duties of priestesses and interpreters. Herodotus (the “Father of History,” writing in the 5th century), relates two tales of the shrine’s establishment. From Egyptian priests in Thebes he heard that two women in service of the cult of Zeus there were abducted and sold in Dodona and Siwa, where they founded similar oracles. At Dodona, however, he was told that two black doves flew from Thebes, alighting in trees at the two places. The one in Dodona spoke from the oak with a human voice, saying that an oracle should be established. Herodotus attempted to harmonize the competing stories by surmising that the women slaves established oracles but, being foreigners, sounded like birds and were called “doves” (Herodotus, Histories 2.53-55)! In any case, the priestesses were still referred to as Πέλειαι (“doves”) in the 2nd century AD (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.12.2).

Dodona: a model of the extant ruins with the oracle indicated (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-11-03)

In the 4th century BC at small temple was built adjacent to the sacred oak, with additions of a perimeter wall and Ionic colonnades over the next century. These changes may be related to revision of the interpretive process and “competition” (Rule 3) with the more central oracle at Delphi (to be treated in a future post). Temples to associated deities, including Zeus’ local consort Dione (the feminine form of Zeus), were built in a line with the “sacred house,” and a theater and other “big city” features added.

Dodona: the sacred house (with oak), and the newer Temple of Dione in the foreground (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-21)

Exactly how oracles were obtained at Dodona is not clear, but we are privy to the kinds of questions asked. Excavations have uncovered many lead tablets with questions for the god inscribed on them, a few of which also contain apparent answers.

Sheet of lead (525 – 500 BC) with a question posed by a visitor named Hermon, inscribed: “who is the god he should pray to in order to acquire useful descendants from his wife Kretaian” (© Acropolis Museum, Athens)

Unlike Delphi, where most recorded consultations were about national policy, inquiries at Dodona were overwhelmingly personal in nature. They included questions about business, travel, house-building, and relationships. One, for example, reads:

Callicrates asks the god whether I will have offspring from Nike the wife whom I have by remaining with her and praying to which of the gods.[2]

A lead tablet from Dodona (C. Carapanos, Dodone et ses ruines, Paris, 1878, pl. LX, 1).

COVID-19 and the current pandemic atmosphere could easily be imagined as a context for some of the petitions about matters of health and disease. A tablet from the 4th-3rd centuries BC asks:

Leontios asks about his son Leon, whether he will be healthy and cured of the disease which has gripped him?[3]

It is suddenly easy to imagine the anguish of a parent desperate for answers, whether then or now.

Other seekers of advice echo the uncertainty of our own times:

Good luck. Parmenides asks Zeus Naios and Dione whether he will fare better if he stays home?[4]

In the current environment, it doesn’t take an oracle to answer this question. Finally, another fragmentary lead tablet seems to be an early April of 2020 answer to the previous one or a slightly different inquiry from a lock-down area:

. . . for him to stay home and put up with it . . .[5]

An Oracle for you, the reader:

STAY HOME. PUT UP WITH IT. (And read AncientDan)

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png


[1] OED, s.v. “pathos,” usage 4; viz. “Physical or mental suffering; sorrow” now “obsolete. rare.” (but I like it).

[2] H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 265.

[3] Esther Eidinow, Oracles, Curses, and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 105.

[4] Parke, 270 (no. 22); Eidinow, 81 (no. 27).  

[5] Eidinow, 81 (no. 28).


Go to the next installment in the series on Oracles

Beware the Ides of March: the Hazards of Tax Day & a Monument to a Dead Roman

This is actually a revised rerun of a post from a bit less than a year ago. I realized this date (15 March) was more appropriate for it and that the original was not tagged with my subsequently inaugurated occasional series, “Monuments to Dead Romans.” Also, since the COVID-19 scare has given everyone something else to beware this Ides of March, it seems apt; AND since Italy is pretty much closed at the moment, it allows a bit of virtual tourism . . .

Panorama of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the subject of this post is at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum. Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.

The central Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the Temple of Divus Julius is the ugly brown mass at lower center with idlers milling about in front, as usual (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned funeral pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.

The remains of the Temple to Divus Julius (foreground) in the Roman Forum; it is hard to get a pic clear of people because the railing in front of the nondescript ruins make a convenient spot for groups to wait around (as you can see here, unaware of the significance); note the later Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (converted to a church) in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform) is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing. A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.

Altar associated with the Temple to Divus Julius, concealed from the crowds by the wall on the right; note the floral offerings on top, and many coins wherein folks apparently “rendered unto Caesar” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.

Silver denarius issued by Brutus (on obverse); with (reverse) “Ides of March” under Pileus (freedom cap) and two daggers (photo: British Museum)

While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. That also seems a timely issue on this Ides of March, 2020.

The original of this 2019 “seasonal” post related to the looming April 15 tax deadline in the USA. My consideration of a tax theme was solidified when the New Testament passage (Matthew 22) and related sermon at University Baptist Church dealt with the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. I promised a follow-up post on Jesus’ answer to the question and the business of public perception. For some reason, I never produced that (I had to work on my taxes . . . ), but now with my travel-induced quarantine and cancellation of most gatherings (including church and school), perhaps I can finally deliver.

BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. As was the case last year at this time, I am glad.

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png

Go to MAP of all Pic Of The Day locations!

The Influence of the Memory of Romans who Died while Traveling: the Maison Carrée

This is a brief followup to the previous post in my series on monuments to dead Romans. That post featured a forgotten cenotaph to Gaius Caesar, one of two adopted grandsons of Caesar Augustus and presumed heirs to the first true Roman emperor. As noted in that post, Gaius Caesar died on the way home in AD 4 after physical and mental wounds incurred leading a military campaign to the east. His younger brother, Lucius Caesar, had meanwhile died at Marsalla (modern Marseille) en route to military training in Hispania (Spain) in AD 2.

Death from illness while traveling was a real threat in the ancient world, as highlighted by my recently-defended thesis in Geography (“Malaria Risk on Ancient Roman Roads . . .”). Augustus himself died in the month named for him in AD 14 while visiting Nola in Campania. His health was already failing, but the region’s nature and timing of Augustus’ demise make malaria a suspect in my mind. This aside is prompted by the fact that I am writing this on a layover while returning prematurely from a journey to southern France and Spain because of the COVID-19 chaos and panic.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

Happily, I was able to hit most important goals of my trip before the sudden need to return due to presidential fiat and cancelled flights. One of those targets was the Maison Carrée, one of the best-preserved of all Roman temples, in Nîmes, France.

The deep porch of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

The Maison Carrée (“square house”) functioned as part of the imperial cult in which Augustus and a personification of Rome were worshiped; but was dedicated (or rededicated) to the deceased brothers Gaius and Lucius Caesar, probably by their father Marcus Agrippa in AD 4-7.

We know about the dedication from an inscription in bronze letters, removed in medieval times (no doubt for the metal), but cleverly reconstructed from the position of the mounting holes by local Nîmes scholar Jean-François Séguier in 1758.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes; in this panorama the mounting holes for the missing dedicatory inscription can be seen on the frieze and architrave above the columns (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

In addition to being one of the best-preserved Roman monuments, the Maison Carrée is a textbook example of a “Tuscan” style temple in the Corinthian order as described by the ancient architect Vitruvius. It is pseudoperipteral, meaning that the appearance of surrounding columns is created by the embedded pilaster columns in the sides and back wall. A deep porch emphasizes the front of the building.

The rear of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, showing the pilaster columns creating the pseudoperipteral effect (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

While the deceased Caesar brothers’ memory was long-forgotten with respect to the Maison Carrée, the structure was a major influence in neo-classical architecture. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was moved by the building which inspired his architectural ideas seen in the Virginia state capital and Monticello. Indeed, the Maison Carrée would look right at home in most American cities as a post office, or court building.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png

Go to MAP of all Pic Of The Day locations!

What Might Have Been: The Gaius Caesar Cenotaph at Limyra

Today (21 February 2020) marks the 2016th anniversary of the passing of Gaius Caesar. “Who?”—you ask? He was once the presumed heir to the throne of the new Roman Empire; now largely forgotten, much as his monumental cenotaph in Turkey. This brief remembrance of that structure is the latest in an apparently very occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity. But first, the backstory . . .

Limyra: Lycian tombs in the E Necropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

The first true Roman Emperor, Augustus (formerly Octavian), had a wildly successful reign (31 BC to AD 14) that transformed Rome forever (and for better or worse). But Augustus had no son, and succession was a major issue for him. His only daughter, Julia, produced three sons by Augustus’ right-hand man and son-in-law Marcus Agrippa, and the oldest was Gaius Caesar. Gaius and his three-year younger brother Lucius were adopted by Augustus and named as heirs and raised as such.

Byzantine wall, likely built with some materials from Gaius Caesar’s cenotaph, constructed across the middle of the Hellenistic “Ptolemaion” structure; above now flooded ruins of a basilica (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At the young age of 18, Gaius was commissioned by Augustus to deal with troubles in Syria with Parthia and Armenia. He was dispatched to the region with some advisors in 1 BC. The boy’s inexperience was questioned by some, but Augustus apparently praised him for not offering prayers (presumably to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities) when he visited Jerusalem (Suetonius, Augustus 93).

Limyra: view from the theater to the remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Peaceful negotiations with Parthia included a meeting between Gaius and the Parthian king Phraates on the Euphrates. But soon after Parthia incited rebellion against a new ruler of Armenia installed by Gaius. Military action ensued. Gaius, lured into a trap on promise of information, was wounded. The Romans prevailed, but Gaius struggled physically from the injury and in spirit over the next year. By the end of AD 3, he resigned his command and withdrew to Syria, announcing his desire to stay there and retire from public life (princes tiring of royal duty and family intrigue is not a new thing!).

Limyra: Remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At Augustus behest, he reluctantly agreed to return to Rome and took a trading ship to Lycia where he died suddenly at Limyra on 21 February AD 4 Velleius Paterculus, 2.101-102). His brother Lucius had also died at Massalia en route to military training in Spain the previous year, leaving Augustus and Rome with no heir apparent. Grief-stricken Augustus had a cenotaph erected to honor his grandson Gaius’ short life at the site of his death. Meanwhile, the brothers’ ashes were interred in the mausoleum prepared for Augustus in Rome (read about the Augustus Mausoleum here).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph; looking SE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Like Gaius Caesar’s memory in popular Roman history, his cenotaph stands unnoticed in a marshy field at the edge of the ruins of Limyra; a nondescript hulk of ruined masonry. It’s former glory is hinted by the nice pavement surrounding the base. Visitors rarely go there; for the picturesque tombs, theater, and other ruins of Limyra are more attractive. But there is a better story and more mystery with the cenotaph. Even in ancient times, there was rumor of involvement by Livia, mother of the eventual heir Tiberius, in the deaths of Gaius and Lucius (Cassius Dio, Roman History 55.10-11).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph, looking NW, with the Limyra acropolis on the right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

What might have been? Augustus’ sorrow over his progeny may have been an omen for Rome’s future.  

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png

Go to MAP of all Pic Of The Day locations!