Charred Black Potato Ash asks:

How did they build the Pantheon?

I have to assume that this question is less about Roman architectural techniques and materials generally and more about the thing that’s super distinctive about the Pantheon, so that’s what I’m gonna talk about.

The Pantheon is a big Roman temple in the heart of the city of Rome.  The name Pantheon (or Pantheum) is not on the building itself anywhere, but it’s mentioned in ancient Latin texts.  It’s Greek for “[Temple to] All the Gods” and seems to have been a nickname given to the building because it housed cult statues of multiple patron deities of the imperial family, including Mars and Venus.  The Pantheon is also known today (and for the last several hundred years) as the Church of Santa Maria della Rotonda, and that name is a big clue to the thing that’s impressive about it: the rotunda.  From the front the Pantheon looks like a fairly standard Roman temple with a triangular pediment and colonnaded porch, but from the side, you see that it isn’t rectangular like a normal temple; it has a humongous round butt sticking out the back, and once you go inside, it turns out to have a massive domed ceiling that you can’t easily see from the front.  We used to think that the Pantheon was originally built as a fairly ordinary rectangular temple in the reign of Augustus, the first emperor (r. 31 BC – AD 14), by his right hand man Marcus Agrippa (whose name is on the dedicatory inscription), and was subsequently rebuilt as its gloriously unique self by Hadrian (r. AD 117-138) after being destroyed in a fire; this is what I was taught when I was in high school, back in the 1840s.  New research says that, in fact, the Pantheon we have today was probably built during the reign of Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan (r. AD 98-117), and Agrippa’s original Pantheon probably also had a dome.

So… whence the dome?

Continue reading “Charred Black Potato Ash asks:”

Do you like Greece? Do you like old things?

If you’re reading this here, chances are you mostly know me for writing about Pokémon, but you might also be aware that I’m a classicist – someone who studies the history, culture and languages of ancient Greece and Rome. And you’ve probably guessed by now that I like writing.

so, uh… I have a book? That you can buy, like, on paper and everything.

The backstory to this is, in 2017-2018 I spent a year in Greece studying archaeology at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and we visited some archaeological sites. And I foolishly decided to write a short poem about each one – something to preserve the facets of the experience that photography alone falls short of capturing. And it turns out there are a significant number of archaeological sites in Greece (who knew, right?), so in the end I wrote about 300 of them – about places, and history, and memory, and conflict, and travel, and friends, and discovery, and wonder, and all kinds of other amazing things I learned.

So if YOU like Greece, or old things, or travel, and if YOU are trapped in a bubble because the world is ending and miss being able to go to amazing far-off places, this might be the book for you! Come to Greece with me, and let me show you something new.

It’s called “Travellers in an Antique Land,” and you can buy it print-to-order from at, or as an e-book for Kindle Fire or any Apple device at

(Also if you’re one of the, like, 6 people who watches me and Jim the Editor streaming on his YouTube channel on Fridays/Saturdays, yes, this is the thing he’s been nagging me to tell everyone about for weeks)

Leo MR [Patreon cultist] asks:

So in the course of researching Heracles (particularly the Laomedon episode) I learned that Hera, Poseidon, and Apollo once tried to rebel against Zeus and had him chained (?) but Zeus was freed by Thetis, Achilles’s mother (?!) and then Poseidon and Apollo were punished by Zeus to work in Troy for a few years under human disguises (???) What the Hades was this whole story about and how did it come to be?! I tried looking up more details online but could only find a scant handful of information; do you know anything more about it?

Y’know, I think that is basically the entire story (although I think the business with Apollo and Poseidon working for Laomedon at Troy is a separate issue; the rebellion Thetis helped to stop involved Athena, not Apollo). I’ve only ever encountered it as part of the backstory of the Iliad, and it is there… well, pretty much because Homer needs a reason to have Zeus owe Thetis a favour. This is the memory she invokes when she goes to Zeus in Iliad I and asks him to punish Agamemnon for disrespecting her son by tipping the scales against the Greeks. If you run into the story outside of that context… yeah, you’re absolutely right, it’s bizarre! I don’t think there are any other references to it anywhere in Greek literature – I mean, there are texts I haven’t read and mythology isn’t really my specialty, but if there’s something else out there dealing at length with a rebellion against Zeus among the Olympians, it’s hella obscure. Most scholars working on Homer today think that the epics were originally produced by bards through oral composition-in-performance – that is, “Homer” (who wasn’t a real person, unless he was; readers who are new to my bull$#!t about this should Google “the Homeric Question”) made it up as he went along, knowing the broad strokes of the plot from centuries of tradition, but improvising on a lot of the details. And… honestly I think this bit might genuinely have been improv? The poet knows the way the story is supposed to go – Achilles leaves the battle, and the Greeks are met with disaster for the next several days until Agamemnon relents. He may know that this happens because Zeus is in Achilles’ corner on this one. He might not know exactly why Zeus is willing to step in. So… he goes back to what he does know, because it’s a fact of the tradition: Achilles has a divine mother, who presumably would be able to intercede on his behalf. He could narrate Thetis making a persuasive argument, either to Zeus or to a council of all the gods, but for the most part, characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey tend to get each other to do things by invoking existing relationships and outstanding favours, because that’s how politics works in Iron Age Greece. So the poet comes up with a reason why Zeus might owe Thetis something, and because he’s quite clever, he makes it a reason that has some applicability to the current situation: when Zeus’ authority and station were challenged, Thetis upheld them. He should do the same for her son.

I wish I had more, but I think that may genuinely be the beginning and end of this one.

Herald of Opera asks:

So, it’s been nearly five years now, but I hope it’s not too late to remind you to tell us all about the centaur preserved in honey. You never told us about the centaur preserved in honey, and I don’t feel like looking up translations of Pliny the Elder’s work.

It’s never too late to ask me about Pliny the Elder.

So, in book 7, chapter 3 of the Natural History, Pliny is talking about unusual or miraculous births, beginning from twins and triplets, moving up to more… dubious reports.  He then says the following (my translation):

“It is written that Eutyche of Tralles was laid on her funeral pyre by 20 of her children, having borne 30, and Alcippe gave birth to an elephant.  However, this must be counted as a portent [i.e. the result of divine intervention; in Roman culture the gods were thought to convey their will or displeasure through miraculous or ominous events], just like when a slave girl gave birth to a snake at the beginning of the Marsian War; and there are a wide range of creatures born with multiform bodies that should also be considered omens.  Claudius Caesar [who, in addition to being Emperor, was a prolific historian] writes that a horse-centaur was born in Thessaly and died on the same day, and during his reign I myself saw one, brought to him from Egypt in honey.”

And, well, he could be making this up, but I don’t think that’s his style.  If Pliny says that he saw this centaur, I believe that he believes it.  I think it’s more likely that he was taken in by a hoax.  I think that some Roman bastard in Egypt, looking to curry favour with the Emperor, stitched together parts à la Fiji Mermaid from the dead bodies of a horse and a human (probably either a condemned criminal, whose bodies were sometimes used for medical experiments in Alexandria, or a slave, whom I can only hope died of natural causes) and Fed-Exed the awful thing to Claudius in Rome.  The honey would have kept it “fresh,” because – as the Romans apparently knew, on the basis of this passage – honey has antibacterial properties.  There are jars of honey found in Egyptian tombs of the New Kingdom that are still recognisable as honey and theoretically still edible, although I don’t think anyone has dared to try it.  It was probably the best substance readily available at the time for preserving biological specimens.

I want to imagine a sort of fish-tank setup with big transparent panes of glass and clear golden honey so you could actually see the alleged centaur floating inside.  Sadly, as a Roman glass nerd I know that in Claudius’ time even the Emperor would probably not have been able to get hold of large glass panes of high enough quality to create a setup like that.  More likely, it was sent to Claudius stuffed into a big terracotta jar, and he kept it there and had someone fish it out for Pliny to take a look.

The Romans were weird people.

A Black Lizard-Lion on a Grey-Green Field asks:

How exactly was Athens able to take over the Delian League without anyone contesting it until it was too late to not incite violence?

and related:

A bald eagle implies the existence of a hairy eagle asks:

Why did Athens take over the Delian League?

So… “why” I think is actually pretty simple: because it made them richer and more powerful.  I mean… obviously it’s more complicated than that, and publicly they professed altruistic motives and said the word “freedom” a lot (…remind you of anyone?), but honestly… when you get right down to it, I think it was because wealth and power are useful to have.  Classical Athens was a democracy and we remember it for its literature and art and philosophy, but that doesn’t mean they were “the good guys” in any meaningful sense.  Thucydides, who wrote the main contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War, seems to think that they trapped themselves into it: the more power you gain, the more you have to be afraid of what happens if you lose it, and the more desperately you have to fight to hold onto it, potentially to the exclusion of all ethical concerns.

Continue reading “A Black Lizard-Lion on a Grey-Green Field asks:”

Chocolish, Chocolite, and Chocoluxe asks:

2 questions.
What’s your all time favorite dinosaur?
What are some obscure Greco-Roman creatures from mythology?

First part, easy: Parasaurolophus.  Couldn’t exactly tell you why; it’s a childhood thing.  The trumpet horn is neat and it’s kinda funny that people used to think it was a snorkel (good Pokémon design fodder there; it’d make a nice Water-type).

As for the second part… hmm… well, how obscure are we talking here?

‘cause some of the weirdest bull$#!t isn’t even really from “mythology” per se, but from geography and ethnography – Greek and Roman scholars writing down whatever half-baked rumours they could scrape together about distant lands and their inhabitants.  For instance: ya boi Pliny the Elder talks in book VIII of the Natural History about this animal that supposedly lives in Ethiopia, a place he had definitely never been to, called the crocotta, which is the product of either a dog mating with a wolf or a hyena with a lion – unclear which; possibly both (also, according to Pliny, hyenas attract dogs as prey by mimicking the sound of a man vomiting, and touching a hyena’s shadow will cause a dog to go mute, so frankly his description of a “hyena” might as well be a mythical creature too).  The crocotta has the legs and hooves of a deer, the body and mane of a lion and the head of a badger, and instead of teeth it just has this one long ridge of bone that goes all the way around the inside of its mouth.  Oh, and it can imitate a human voice for some reason, and uses this ability to call people by name at night to draw them out into the wilderness where it can eat them.  It’s just an aggressively terrible animal and I’m glad it doesn’t exist because if it did then I, personally, would be morally obligated to exterminate it.

Make a Pokémon outta that and smoke it.

Son of Iris asks:

I know this blog is about Pokemon, but due to your recent chain on twitter about a Percy Jackson TV series, how would you rate & rank each of Riordan’s books, at least the ones you have read in full.

honestly, dude, I’ve had so many classics questions coming in lately I don’t actually know what this blog is anymore

I’m not going to do a whole rank-and-rate numbered list thing, because… frankly there’s a lot of them.  That just sounds like more work than I want to do, especially since it’s been a while since I read most of them; like, the original Percy Jackson and the Olympians books came out when I was a teenager and I don’t think I’ve reread any of them in full since then; I also haven’t read book 4 of Trials of Apollo yet.  I think the Magnus Chase books are probably my favourites in the Percy Jackson ‘verse, which is not entirely because of Alex Fierro but honestly that’s a pretty significant factor.  I think those books are also a really good example of how minority representation in fiction is good, not just for people who don’t often get to see characters like them in media, but because working with diverse perspectives can actually make a story just flat-out more interesting.  Riordan’s whole schtick is reinventing mythology as a presence in the modern world, and that just works better with the widest possible range of character backgrounds.

Continue reading “Son of Iris asks:”

Dosidicus Giygas asks:

Can you recommend any good resources for learning about Aegean depictions of cephalopods?

That’s a… concerningly specific request

and this is coming from a guy whose thesis is on Roman window glass

So, uh… I mean, there’s nothing off the top of my head that isn’t ludicrously dry and technical; like, if you have JSTOR access or similar you could search for some of Penelope Mountjoy’s articles on the Late Minoan IB “Marine Style” but they’re, um… not exactly page-turners.  They probably won’t make a lot of sense without a fairly thorough grounding in Minoan archaeology, and honestly I’m not even sure they’ll tell you what you want to know, if you’re interested in, like, the accuracy of anatomical details.  Is the Marine Style what you mean?  Because that’s where my mind instantly goes on hearing “Aegean depictions of cephalopods,” but without context that phrasing is… kinda broad.  There’s a bunch of Attic black and red figure pots with octopuses(-pi/-podes) on them that you can find by searching the Beazley Archive database (type “octopus” into the “decoration description” field and hit “list” at the bottom of the page); I dunno if anyone’s ever written anything about them and at a glance it looks like a lot of them just have the octopus as a shield device or a generic ocean-themed ornament, but… I mean, they’re there if you want ‘em, I guess.

Cosmic Crunch asks:

Should Hannibal have gone for Rome?

Well… to my mind, he did.  I mean, that’s what he was doing in Italy.  It’s just that the Romans’ strategy after Cannae was to ensure that a direct assault on the city would always be prohibitively difficult and dangerous.  I’m not a military historian or an expert on the Middle Republic, and maybe I’d have stronger opinions about this if I were, but I just don’t think our sources for the Second Punic War give us a good enough picture of the overall strategic situation for there to be any profit in second-guessing the moves of a general who was there on the ground.  Like, clearly he thought attacking the city wouldn’t have worked, and he knew a lot more about the capabilities of both the Roman and Carthaginian armies than anyone alive today.  Jim the Editor thinks Hannibal probably saw attacking Rome as too big a gamble, risking his entire army and his foothold in Italy when he could just keep wearing the Romans down and demoralising them until they eventually capitulated.  That’s not actually what happened, of course, but it’s very difficult to know whether the alternative strategy would have produced better results.

Herald of Opera asks:

It just occurred to me… with a name like “Great Thinker” and our primary source being the Atlantis guy talking him up, how sure are we that Socrates actually existed?

So… we’re pretty sure he existed, because Plato is our main source but not the only one who talks about him.  After his death,  we also have philosophical texts written about him by Xenophon, another of his students.  More importantly, while he was alive and long before Plato started writing philosophy (possibly even before Plato was born), Socrates was parodied by Aristophanes in his comedy, the Clouds, so it’s pretty definite that he wasn’t just completely made up in hindsight by Plato.  There are comments in some of Plato’s dialogues suggesting that he was trying to undo the play’s effect on Socrates’ reputation.  Also, although the events of the dialogues are fictionalised (with the exception of the Apology and maybe parts of the Phaedo), almost all the characters in them are real people, attested in other historical texts like Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War or Xenophon’s Hellenica, whose positions in the philosophical debates reflect their real reputations and life stories.  It would be… weird, put it that way, for Plato to construct such an elaborate fiction of a guy who never existed, tie it into the lives of so many other people, many of whom were Plato’s own friends, acquaintances and relatives (several of them dead by the time Plato started writing, most of them not peacefully), and give him a backstory deeply woven into the traumatic events of the Peloponnesian War.  If nothing else, I suspect it would have been in very bad taste.

Continue reading “Herald of Opera asks:”