Things you Probably Don’t Know about Augustus and Augustus Probably Doesn’t Want you to Know

Things you Probably Don’t Know about Augustus and Augustus Probably Doesn’t Want you to Know

Augustus is, in a word, fascinating. Instead of launching into an abridged biography the way I did with Alcibiades and Mithridates, I’m going to talk about some hilarious fun facts about Rome’s Pater Patriae.

“He desired also to revive the ancient fashion of dress, and once when he saw in an assembly a throng of men in dark cloaks, he cried out indignantly, “Behold them Romans, lords of the world, the nation clad in the toga,”and he directed the aediles never again to allow anyone to appear in the Forum or its neighbourhood except in the toga and without a cloak.” – Suetonius, Life of Augustus

Augustus was very concerned about things like tradition and fashion. Suetonius mentions that most of the time he wore basic clothes unless there was a special occasion, but he DID wear sandals with little platforms built into them so that he could appear taller. He would also saunter about in the summertime with a broad sunhat in order to keep cool.

Bronze Head of Augustus
Okay can we just agree that statues with eyeballs are just wrong and creepy?

Apparently he was a very dainty eater, and consumed wine very moderately. In fact, if he had more than a glass of it, he would intentionally throw it up later.

Here’s a fun quotation I found about his preferred way to exercise as he got older:

“Immediately after the civil war he gave up exercise with horses and arms in the Campus Martius, at first turning to pass-ball and balloon-ball, but soon confining himself to riding or taking a walk, ending the latter by running and leaping, wrapped in a mantle or a blanket.”

So what I can infer from this, you know, as a historian, is that Augustus would take a running leap in a beautiful cape like the goddamn superhero of the Ancient World he was.

Okay one more:

“To divert his mind he sometimes angled and sometimes played at dice, marbles and nuts with little boys, searching everywhere for such as were attractive for their pretty faces or their prattle, especially Syrians or Moors; for he abhorred dwarfs, cripples, and everything of that sort, as freaks of nature and of ill omen.”

Just..I’m out.

Oh, and he was absolutely terrified of thunder and lightning. Suetonius says he would carry a seal skin for protection and hide in a vaulted underground room every time a thunderstorm happened. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the living deity Augustus.

So, one of the main things you can take away from Suetonius’ Life of Augustus is that he tried to live life as simply, modestly, and conservatively as possible. One of the greatest struggles he had in his entire life was trying to find and keep an heir that wouldn’t die, as well as dealing with all the shit his daughter put him through on the reg.

Julia the Elder was the daughter of Augustus and his second wife Scribonia. She was, how you say, a wild trollop. And good for her! Augustus married her off three times to Marcellus, his number one homie for life Agrippa, and finally to Tiberius (who would succeed Augustus.)

One of my favourite stories about her is an episode in which lead to her banishment from Rome and the forced exiles, suicides, or executions of several men. Ancient rumour has it that she would partake in nightly ‘drinking parties’ (see also: wild orgies) at the Roman Forum. She was banished to an island that was roughly one squared kilometre. I’m sure Augustus would not want that to be what you remember, but because this blog post is essentially Gossip Girl: Ancient Rome Edition, it felt necessary to mention.

Bacchanali by Auguste Levêque. Probably exclusive footage of one of Julia’s Forum orgies.


Before I prance off into the horizon, I’m just going to leave you with this page I found on Augustus that is just full of nonsense but may just be one of the best things I’ve ever seen. According to this website, Augustus’ full title was: Emperor Augustus Julius Caesar. Squiggle-Prince of the Roman Republic When Doves Cry, Conqueror of Traitors, Stabbers, Barbarians, Oriental Seducers.. Etc Etc. Nice guy.

As a historian, I’ll allow it.

Besotted with History: Themistocles and the Battle of Salamis

Besotted with History: Themistocles and the Battle of Salamis

Today I’d like to take you on a journey through the mists of time to the beginning of the 5th Century BCE. Athens was still a new democracy, and it wasn’t yet recognized as a nauti superpower.

The Greco-Persian wars may sound like something you’ve never heard of, but they might be more familiar than you think:

Diapers made of solid gold and decorative chains was a sign of being a true gangster in the Ancient World.


If you’ve seen the 300 movies, you’ve seen one of the most cracked out depictions of the Ancient World to date. I say ‘one of’ because we can’t forget about Caligula and Fellini’s Satyricon. Seriously.

So, Greco-Persian wars, not as far removed from at least the entertainment industry of today’s world as you thought. Basically, the Persians were trying to conquer the Western World, and the Western World was having none of it. Athens won a huge victory in the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, ten years before Salamis. Marathon was a Big Deal™ for the Athenians and their allies, because it repelled the first Persian invasion and was seen as a win for democracy instead of a monarchy.

The aftermath of this battle is likely more familiar.  After the Greeks achieved their victory forever, Pheidippides the messenger reportedly ran the distance from Marathon to Athens to deliver the triumphant news. Apparently he was so exhausted afterwards that he collapsed and died. And now people run that distance for fun and glory, because we live in a world of masochists.

Ten years after this win, rumours are flying that Persia is coming back for more. Uncertainty and arguments among Athens’ relatively newly minted democracy ensues. Enter Themistocles.

Themistocles, a general who would rather live free or die hard.

Themistocles is described as being a sassy and cunning upstart. Also, he hated Persia. He wasn’t descended from the aristocracy or the gods, but was instead of lowly birth and thus a man of the common people. Plutarch says he was born for public life, and was a controversial politician. Probably because he was so sassy.

Three years before the Persians made their second invasion attempt, something very important happened. A vein of silver was discovered in the mines of Moria  Laurium near Athens. Usually when this happened, every citizen would be paid a sum of money and they would lease out the mining rights. Themistocles had other ideas.

He proposed that they use the silver to purchase the materials for and build 100 new triremes to make Athens a substantial naval power and become masters of the sea. His rival, Gary Oak Aristides, wanted to divide up the money as per usual. The Athenians put it to a vote.

Now, a way that the Athenians kept things democratic AF was to honourably ostracize people for ten-year periods of time. This was done in the hopes that people who were getting too powerful or vehemently opposing winning plans would get to go chill for a minute and let people forget about them and focus on what The People wanted to do.

This ostracism was particularly important, because had Themistocles lost, the ships would have never been built, Themistocles would have been ostracized, and the Persians probably would have conquered Greece and changed the face of history forever.

But we don’t have to worry about the what-ifs because Themistocles won the vote, Aristides was exiled, and the ships were built. Good thing, too, because in 480 BCE Xerxes and his immense Persian army came back.

Before cannons and stuff, ships were basically mobile battering rams and were the optimal weapon for bashing and sinking other ships.

The details of the battle itself are sketchy at best, but there’s no question that the Persian army vastly outnumbered the Greek fleet’s 350-400 triremes.  The odds against them were mounting. Themistocles had made the perfect attack plan.

As the story goes, Themistocles sends a slave on a sneaky nighttime adventure to the Persian naval fleet’s headquarters. The slave told the Persians that the fragmented and unsteady alliance of the Greeks had failed and they were retreating. Somehow this plan worked, and the Persians began to advance.

Battle MapBy the morning of September 25, 480 BCE the entire Persian fleet was visible on the horizon, and the battle began. Themistocles’ plan was to lure the Persians into the narrow strait near Salamis, and it worked beautifully. The Persians came through and were systematically crushed by the badass new gods that were the Greek naval power.

Themistocles was able to unite the common people, the farmers and merchants and sometimes slaves in order to defend their democratic society against the invaders from the east. This was the first battle where they weren’t just a bunch of different city-states, for three days they were all Greeks, and it was glorious. After their defeat, Xerxes and his homies went back to Susa and eventually lost the war.

If these events hadn’t happened, the entire history of the WORLD AS WE KNOW IT would be different. We likely wouldn’t have the great tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus or the comedies of Aristophanes. The golden age of the Athenian Empire and the philosophy and culture that stemmed from it likely would have never taken place and influenced the development of Western civilization. Wild, isn’t it?

Notes and Other Resources

Most of what we know about this battle comes from our homies Herodotus and Plutarch. There is also another great book by Barry Strauss  if you’re looking for an awesome narrative about the causes and aftermath of Salamis.

John Green also has a great video about historical bias in the Greco-Persian War from one of my favourite humans, John Green, on Crash Course World History:

Besotted with History: Alcibiades ie. The Playboy of the Peloponnesian War Pt. 2

Besotted with History: Alcibiades ie. The Playboy of the Peloponnesian War Pt. 2

Before delving into the second half of the scandalous life of one Alcibiades, you should make sure you get the backstory.

The Peloponnesian War was a legitimately terrifying time to be an Athenian. If you’ve ever seen the movie 300, you have an idea of what it was like to fight Sparta. They were some of the most insane badasses to ever exist, and they were laying siege to Athens every single day.

Nauti Fun Times in Sicily

In 415 BCE, Alcibiades found himself as one of three generals about to set off on a nautical adventure known as The Sicilian Expedition. Shortly before he was scheduled to leave he was accused of an epic act of vandalism around the city, as well as making a mockery of the Eleusinian Mysteries in a drunken revel. It was decided that he would stand trial upon his return, which made Alcibiades extremely suspicious, but off he sailed into the sunset anyhow.

With Alcibiades out of the way, his sneaky enemies were able to sully his good name without him there to charm them back into their good graces. He was convicted in his absence, and all of his property was confiscated. As former resident consul for the Spartans in Athens, Alcibiades decides to say a huge FU to his homeland and defects to Sparta.

Adulterous Adventures in Sparta

While he’s there, he actually helped King Agis do a lot of damage to Athens. According to a bunch of historical dead guys, Alcibiades had this fantastic ability to adapt to his surroundings. Spartan life was, how you say, much more austere and hardcore than Athenian life and Alcibiades was able to blend in seamlessly. Except for this one time when Agis was out on a campaign and Alcibiades seduced his wife. Except for that time.

He “corrupted” Agis’ wife Timaea, and got her pregnant with a son. He said that he did it so that his descendants might be kings. But because he denied nothing, and probably bragged about it, Agis found out and once more our lecherous young hero was on the run.

He decided to go to Persia with one of Agis’ satraps, Tissaphernes. Tissaphernes and Alcibiades had a beautiful friendship, culminating in Tissaphernes naming a lush garden after his homie.

Dalliances in Persia

While he was in Persia, he starts trying to persuade Tissaphernes to support Athens again. He figures that if Sparta wins the war this is likely not going to be a good thing for him, on account of they all hate him now for impregnating the king’s wife.

The people of Athens finally decided they missed Alcibiades’ beautiful hair and wild antics too much to stay mad at him, and asked him to return. Not one to return empty handed, he decides he wants to return in a “blaze of glory” which is an actual quote from actual Plutarch.

“You most hateful water, our master lays his judgment on you thus, for you have unjustly punished him even though he’s done you no wrong! Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you wish it or not!”…In these ways he commanded that the sea be punished and also that the heads be severed from al those who directed the bridging of the Hellespont.         -Herodotus, Histories

The Triumphant Return to Athens’ Good Graces

So there’s this battle at the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles) famous for things like being whipped by Xerxes during the Greco-Persian Wars for ruining his bridge plans with a great storm. The anecdote is too fantastic not to reference. Especially the afterthought of “oh and yes please decapitate everyone who built the bridge that was destroyed in the storm.” How very Xerxes.

Ahem, anyways. The scene for this battle is set. Peloponnesians versus Athenians sitting there in their triremes. Suddenly, they spot eighteen triremes on the horizon, with Alcibiades at the forefront. Literally no one knows how to feel, because they have no idea what side he’s going to fight for. After what seems like a lifetime, Alcibiades hoists aloft Athenian colours on his ships, and the Peloponnesians collectively swore under their breath.

After winning the day, Alcibiades thought it would be a good idea to amass the booty and bring it over to his old pal Tissaphernes in hopes that he could win him over to the Athenian cause. Alas for him, Tissaphernes was afraid of King Agis, resident cuckold, and throws our hero into a Sardinian jail.

After about a month he manages to escape and is able to finally make his triumphant return to Athens and has his property restored to him.

Going Down in a Blaze of Glory 

Our main man wasn’t one to lead a peaceful existence, and as my homie Plutarch puts it: “And it would seem that if ever a man was ruined by his own exalted reputation, that man was Alcibiades.” The day he died he was living in Phyrgia with a courtesan named Timandra. A conniving group of schemers decided it was time for Alcibiades to die, but there was no way in Hades they were going to challenge him directly.

alcibiades death
Philippe Chéry (1759-1838), La Mort d’Alcibiade

Instead, they set his house on fire while he’s inside. Alcibiades manages to emerge unscathed from the burning building, and the group of assassins pull the old ‘run away’ maneuver, before launching a flurry of arrows and javelins at him from a safe distance. He was no match for a sea of sharp pointy things thrown from afar.

So. That brings us to the end of the life of possibly one of the greatest humans to ever exist, in my opinion. It’s shocking to me that there hasn’t been a movie made about him yet. Perhaps someday. Until then, I shall continue to read his stories over and over.


Besotted with History: Alcibiades ie. The Playboy of the Peloponnesian War Pt.1

Besotted with History: Alcibiades ie. The Playboy of the Peloponnesian War Pt.1

One of the things I love the most about the ancient world is that it has some of the most insane stories that no one has ever heard. Alcibiades lived a life equivalent to a blockbuster movie, and so few people even know about this charming megalomaniac. His entire life is rich with stories, and we’re going to take a little journey into some of the choicest moments. This post will explore his childhood and early adulthood, and its sequel will focus on the Peloponnesian War and his exploits during that time.

Plutarch puts his life between 450 and 404 BCE, for context.

Alcibiades is described as having been one of the most beautiful humans to ever exist. His luscious golden hair, chiseled jawline, and physique were renowned across the ancient world. Plutarch even says “Of Alcibiades’ beauty I probably do not need to speak, except to say that it bloomed out in childhood, youth, and manhood, at every age and season of his life, making him lovable and charming.” This worked well for him, because not unlike our present society, the Greeks viewed handsome people as being of good and virtuous character. Go figure.

This painting is literally called: “Socrates dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure” – Jean Baptist Regnault, 1791

He was descended from an old and illustrious lineage, the ancient world equivalent of “old money,” and was the ward of Athens’ most revered and arguably most brilliant statesman Pericles. Pericles. Growing up, many admirers were clamouring for a moment or two alone with this beautiful and charming young man.

The most prominent relationship he had in his youth was with the philosopher Socrates, treasured mentor and rumoured cock-blocker. During the Battle of Potidaea  they fought alongside one another, with Socrates saving his life. They also reportedly shared a tent, so interpret that as you will.

Eventually he married a young woman named Hipparete, who is described as being “a decorous and affectionate wife,” but who was upset because her husband was always cavorting about town with the courtesans. There was this law in Ancient Greece that stated if a woman wanted to divorce her husband, she was totally allowed to, but she had to appear in court herself. This basically means that if the husband is able to capture her and take her back home, she can’t get divorced. So, Alcibiades manages to catch up with Hipparete as she’s on her way to the magistrate’s and hoists her over his shoulder before marching straight back home. One might think that this is a romantic gesture meant to save a relationship, but as the story goes, he basically just spent her entire dowry and couldn’t afford to pay it back to her family.

“But all of this statecraft and eloquence and lofty purpose was attended with great luxuriousness of life, with wanton drunkenness and lewdness, with effeminacy in dress – he would trail long purple robes through the marketplace, – and with prodigal expenditures.” (Alcibiades 16.1)

Some of his favourite things to do were: draw attention to himself, spend obscene amounts of money, and win at everything. In the 416 BCE Olympic Games, he entered seven chariots and ate off of the city’s ceremonial gold plates and utensils as if they were his own within his magnificent tent.

He slept in lavish hammocks on his triremes instead of on the hard decks, and he would trail long purple robes through the marketplace. Once he imprisoned a painter in his house until he had adorned it with beautiful paintings. He had a golden shield made for himself that didn’t serve any ancestral purpose but instead featured Eros, the god of erotic love, wielding a thunderbolt.  Apparently he also had a lisp that made him pronounce his ‘r’s as ‘l’s and the good people of Athens found it endlessly endearing.

He was a constantly controversial character, as most people equally loved and hated him. Aristophanes’ puts it best in his play The Frogs. He was kind of like the first problematic celebrity.

“It yearns for him, and hates him too, but wants him back.”

– Frogs, 1425 1431‑1432.

The real scandals of his life would begin after 420 BCE, when the Peloponnesian War had been going on for some thirteen years. Part two of this majestic character’s life will be on the horizon imminently.