Or:  Who Knew The F***ing Lions Could Swim?

I found myself in a Northern one-horse town some 20 miles west of Aquilea  with no apparent means of getting back to Rome. No, let me amend that, from my personal perspective, it might as well have been a no-horse town. Romans and their money! With every new emperor the denarius becomes worth less than before. And so the ten denarii I still called my own (which of course were all new denarii) wouldn't even buy me a horse. Thanks much, emperor!  Actually, when I left Aquilea – rather in a mad rush on the spur of the moment – I had a lot more money with me than ten denarii. Little did I know that pillaging gangs of Marcomanni had already invaded the empire. I learned about this the hard way, as I encountered a troupe of these bandits three leagues to the West of Aquilea. I can thank Glycon – all hail Glycon!-  and probably several of the other gods profusely that I actually survived the encounter. After all, it is well-known what these Germanic brutes are capable of when they are putting their mind to it. Unfortunately this inadvertent crossing of paths with the barbarian hordes cost me my horse and most of my money. Not to mention my coat and my boots. The only reason why I was left these 10 denarii was that they didn't find my spare purse, which I wear affixed in a place that robbers don't check most of the time, unless they're really hard up. In a way it is an example of poetic justice, or injustice, depending on one's viewpoint. I probably should accept my fate without demur though, since I had to agree with Alexander that to remain in Aquilea was simply no longer an option.

That cheeky little git Commodus – what is he, 10 years old? 11? – even made up a limerick about some unnamed 'Greek fraud and his Roman butt-boy' that he kept reciting all day long and it was pretty clear to everyone whom he meant. I swear that rascal has a glint of Caligula in his eye, it's probably no coincidence that he shares his birthday. Of course the auguries all pronounced a glorious future for the git when he was born, regardless of that unmistakable  hint the date of his birth provided them with. I actually doubt that he is the emperor's son, he's much too healthy for that.  Faustina must have cuckolded Marcus, the gods know she had plenty of opportunity. To think that this naughty and cruel child could one day become emperor makes me shudder. Anyway, that very same day, when we had retired after dinner, Alexander called for me, inviting me to a night-cap. We inevitably turned to discussing recent events with a good helping of trepidation and Alexander pointed out that it was probably rather significant that no-one had attempted to discipline the boy. His tutors made as though they hadn't heard anything, a number of people were giggling as if he had told the joke of the year and the emperor himself reacted mainly by occasionally fixing us with that rather cold glare he sometimes affects.


“My dear Vitellius, I think this is a very bad sign indeed”, Alexander said and I had to agree with him. Alexander knows people, I never had reason to doubt his judgment on that score. It occurred to us that we were rather exposed and given we had been made into scapegoats, there was obviously a growing danger to life and limb. We had so far relied on Alexander's excellent connections keeping us safe, but there were probably limits to how much protection those could project. So we decided to beat a rather hasty retreat that same night without saying our good-byes. In order to make things more difficult for putative pursuers, we split up and agreed to meet again in Rome, at Publius Mummius' pad in the city.

A worshiper of the Macedonian snake deity Glycon – all hail Glycon! – doesn't have it easy these days, let me tell you. It could be argued that things started to go downhill already around two or three years ago, when that cheap hack Lucian of Samosata claimed that Glycon – all hail Glycon! –  was a 'hoax' and that his temple was in reality inhabited by a 'sock puppet' and not a snake god. Wait, it gets even worse. He also he called our great prophet, my friend and mentor Alexander of Abonoteichos, an 'oracle-monger' and 'charlatan'! Can you believe the gall of this man?

Let us not forget here, it was Alexander himself who brought the sacred egg to Abonoteichos from whence Glycon – all hail Glycon! – the legitimate heir of Asclepius, emerged. Subsequently, with Glycon's (all hail, etc.) help, he made predictions, discovered fugitive slaves, detected thieves and robbers, caused treasures to be dug up, healed the sick, and in several instances actually raised the dead. Does that sound like a charlatan to you? Great miracles were performed!

Luckily the honorable Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, pro-consul of Asia, has declared himself a protector of the oracle and the great consul and emperor Antoninus Pius had the Roman mint strike coins with Glycon's image, so a number of very important people clearly appreciated Glycon's (all hail, etc.) greatness, in spite of Lucian's calumnies. It probably helped that Publius Mummius is Alexander's son-in-law, but still. Surely no-one will remember that poison-spewing, hate-filled Glycon-denier Lucian of Samosata, whereas Alexander's place in history is definitely assured. 

I personally think people overreacted slightly to the Parthian affair as it is often referred to today. It all started out with the emperor Antoninus Pius raving on his deathbed about king Vologases IV of Parthia and what an untrustworthy bastard he was. Vologases was subsequently eyed with a certain measure of mistrust from Rome and rightly so, as immediately after the emperor's death that idiot set upon replacing the Roman client king of Armenia with his own king. Did he really think he would get away with this? One can only shake one's head in disbelief at his naivete.

Unfortunately, Alexander and I actually somewhat underestimated Vologases, or rather his general Chrosrhoes, and overestimated our own vaunted 9th Legion and its leader. The governor of Cappadocia, Marcus Sedatius Severianus, was in fact a good friend of ours, generous to a fault as I recall (his donations to Glycon's temple were always lavish) and he found himself right at the front line. We naturally assumed that our boys would make short shrift of the Parthian usurpers, after all, we're talking about highly trained and extremely well-equipped Roman legionnaires here. Marcus Severianus moreover hailed from Gaul, where he had occasion to become an experienced military leader. What could possibly go wrong?

So when Marcus popped in to ask for Glycon's advice, we told him what he so clearly wanted to desperately hear: namely that he would reap a glorious victory and return to Rome in triumph. He was appropriately grateful for this forecast and gifted a donation to Glycon's temple that was remarkably large even by his standards. The size of this particular donation would later console us over what happened next.

It took Marcus just three days to have his entire legion massacred by general Chrosrhoes' troops at Elegia, a mere stone's throw from the Cappadocian border. Marcus grew so bitterly disenchanted with this unexpected negative outcome that he promptly fell on his sword.

Well, at least we didn't have to listen to his complaints, but word did get around, at least in the province of Syria and elsewhere in the East. In hindsight it is actually slightly surprising how little damage that mishap did to our reputation. I have two explanations for that: Publius Mummius Rutilianus (Glycon bless him), and the fact that people simply want to believe, regardless of what evidence they are presented with. I was worried that our business would suffer, but Alexander assured me it wouldn't. “You'll see”, he said, “there's nothing to worry about. I know how people's minds work”. And sure enough, not long after the Parthian mishap, the donations flowed like never before, the entire Roman aristocracy in the Eastern provinces still hung on Alexander's every word and the plebeians kept flocking to Glycon's temple, getting predictions at one drachma and two oboloi per question answered. As an aside, Alexander delivers those predictions in proper iambic rhyme, so the whole act is really quite classy if you think about it.

Furthermore, these days people are simply used to us Romans losing a few legions in an initial bout with barbarians. Even today people still remember Noreia and Arausio, where the Cimbri, Teutons and Ambrones kicked the crap out of several Roman armies. People were terrified at the time, and rightly so. These were truly fearsome barbarian hordes, the Marcomanni are positively civilized by comparison. Actually, Quintus Caepio and Gnaeus Maximus managed to lose the equivalent of 12 legions in Arausio alone. Can you imagine? If you add to that the two legions Gnaeus Carbo let them massacre in Noreia (incidentally, just around the bend from Aquilea), then the two kings Boirorix and Teutobod  between them managed to completely annihilate 14 Roman legions all told. Not even Hannibal killed that many at Cannae, and he was for along time considered the biggest butcher ever to have walked the face of the earth. They meandered pillaging through Gaul for a few years, and were getting ready to march on Rome before Gaius Marius finally put a stop to their marauding. Sure enough though, Rome came out way ahead in the end. We lost 14 legions in the beginning, but Gaius Marius and Quintus Catulus literally wiped the Teutons and Cimbri off the map in Aquea Sextiae and Vercellae, as in, destroyed the buggers completely, for all time. So you see, we have sort of gotten used to losing a few big battles along the way and winning the wars in the end.

And so it was with the Parthians too – at first, after the defeat at Elegia, the Parthians had some momentum and sent the army of Syrian governor Attidius Cornelianus packing in disarray as well. But then Rome sent in the big guns in the form of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus and assorted experienced generals as their comes Augustorum, accompanied by legions from Gaul and the Northern border provinces.  Marcus soon went back to Rome and left the whole business in Lucius' hands. After some serious partying in various resorts in Greece and Syria, Lucius whipped the Syrian army back into shape by ordering hard drills and extensive training. These boys had gone soft over time, because the East had been peaceful way too long. Obviously, they were in dire need of a little war. In the end things went the way they always do…the  Parthians were taught their lesson with their capital Ctesiphon sacked, the proper client king was reinstalled in Armenia and Lucius and his generals returned in triumph to Rome.

Soon after their return, the trouble with the Germanic tribes started up. They could barely get an orgy or two in edge-wise. You know, in Germania we tend to sometimes suffer grievous defeats such as in the early engagements with the Cimbri and Teutons, but generally we rush from victory to victory, and for what? There's never an end in sight.

However, Rome has learned to be extra careful when it comes to these bearded, lice-infested, beer-swilling wild Northmen. And wouldn't you know, our illustrious emperor immediately called on Alexander personally in order get Glycon's – all hail Glycon! –  advice as to how best win the war against the barbarian hordes of the thrice-cursed Marcomanni and Quadi led by that poisonous toad Ballomar (may he rot in Hades). So we traveled to Aquilea, where Marcus Aurelius had made camp to conduct his newest war from up close. We arrived there in a pretty good mood, but things unfortunately went pear-shaped rather quickly.

Here is what happened: Alexander told the emperor that he should sacrifice two lions prior to the campaign. Definitely highly effective and valuable advice, one would think. And what does the emperor do? He orders that the lions be thrown into the Danube! Later people insisted that this particular method of dispatch was also chosen on Alexander's advice, but you will forgive me if I harbor some doubts on that particular point, because I never heard him say “throw them into the Danube”. What he said was “sacrifice two lions”, he didn't specify how exactly. Actually, the main reason why Alexander insisted on lions was that he thought that would get us three extra weeks of paid vacation in Aquilea while they brought the beasts up there from Rome. He got that much right. Maybe he did tell Marcus to throw them into Danube while I wasn't in earshot, I guess it's possible.

Then again, even if he did, how the hell should he or anyone else for that matter have known that the f***ing lions could swim?

I mean, think about where lions are usually found. Dry steppe and deserts wherever one looks! Not a drop of water in sight anywhere! Where did those beasts learn to swim, I ask you? They don't have a swimming pool in the Coliseum either.

And of course the lions promptly swam away from our boys, crossing the river and alighting on the territory of these Germanic primitives. At that point a few of the legionnaires expressed the hope that they might at least do some damage there, but evidently the Marcomanni are simply too stupid to be damaged by lions. They apparently took the lions for oversized dogs and battered them to death with wooden clubs. No respect whatsoever! In fact, they seemed to be rather amused by having been provided with this sport.

Take it from me, when Alexander became aware of this debacle, he most definitely  warned the emperor in no uncertain terms to leave the campaign be. He told me later that a vision of Marcus Severianus and his failed incursion into Armenia immediately assaulted his senses. But of course, when it would have been really important, no-one wanted to listen to him. And now the emperor is down three legions, and of course it's Alexander's fault. And mine, not to forget!

I'm sure you've heard that the emperor Marcus is our age's foremost stoic philosopher. Well, I can tell you that there are distinctly non-stoic aspects to his character, which Alexander and I found out shortly after those three legions got their asses handed to them. Our vaunted emperor unilaterally decided that we were to be blamed for the disaster, natch.  He totally flew off his handle there in his strategy tent, in front of the entire war council. Who knew he could be such a drama queen? Augustus reportedly cried out “Varus, give me back my legions”, after the Cheruskan Arminius decided to put an end to Publius Quinctilius Varus' little dictatorship in Germania Superior and sent him Varus' head. We were treated to the spectacle of Marcus Aurelius making a similar demand of Alexander and Glycon. “Alexander of Abonoteichos! You and Glycon, give me back my legions!”  Pathetic.

At that point we thought he would probably calm down again and remember that we always lose a few battles early on. That he would let his stoic philosophy guide him toward dutiful prosecution of the war until it's won. No doubt that will actually happen. In fact, Alexander pointed out in a calmer moment that the war's success could not be measured yet by the outcome of the initial skirmishes and hence it was too early to assess the effect of the sacrifice, but when Commodus started his poor attempts at rhyming we realized it was high time to high-tail it out of there.

And there I was now, stuck in a no-horse hick town with 10 devalued denarii to my name. The stable master had some unsolicited advice for me, telling me I might find some work in a nearby vineyard on account of the harvest soon beginning. Perhaps I would be able to save enough of my pay to buy one of his half-lame mares, which this cut-throat was selling for 25 denarii each. I decided instead to pay a call on the tavern, because what I needed most after all the excitement was a tankard of beer. As I was entering and sitting down, everybody stared at me, which I guess they always do when a stranger turns up in a hick town such as this one. The tavern was quite full, and a lot of drunken conversation in that Northern accent assaulted my ears. I tried to tune it out, but found I couldn't. It turned out the number one topic of the day was the 'failed Glycon sacrifice' and that untrustworthy Greek oracle-monger Alexander of Abonoteichus and his shifty right-hand man from Rome (that would be me). So the news had already traveled at least this far. Someone even mentioned something along the lines of 'first the Parthians and now this' and I heard even the name of Lucian the hack from Samosata mentioned. Apparently there were men of letters here as well. I considered myself lucky for having refrained from identifying myself up to this point. While I was nursing my second tankard, I had the impression that I kept being the target of sneaking and sullen looks and some of the whispering at the far end of the tavern seemed concerned with my person as well. I told myself I was probably just paranoid, but as the publican brought me my third beer, he stopped to stare at me.

“Anything I can do for you?” I asked, reasonably enough. He cleared his throat and started hemming and hawing a bit, but then he pulled himself together and asked: “Are you Vitellius Saufeius Vindex, the right-hand man of  Alexander of Abonoteichos, prophet of the snake god Glycon?” I thought I heard someone interject 'his butt-boy' at the back, but that might have been my imagination. Suddenly it grew so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. I briefly considered denying it, but it struck me that someone must have recognized me, so I decided on a flight forward. I thought it over for a moment and then said:

“That's exactly who I am you worm, and in the hour I have spent in this dirty shithole, I have heard nothing but lies about Alexander and myself and insults to Glycon.” I had started talking very softly, slowly raising my voice, so that I was almost shouting when I arrived at the phrase 'insults to Glycon', which I underscored by hammering the table with my fist. If the room could have grown any more quiet, I swear it would have. I had to remind myself of the potential seriousness of the situation so as not to break out in laughter right then and there. “You!” I shouted, motioning at everyone in the room with a sweeping gesture, “all of you! You may be be spared by the marauding Marcomanni and Quadi, because Glycon knows, this hick town probably has nothing they could possibly want. But do you seriously believe you can sit here and insult Glycon in your drunken stupor and hope to escape his wrath?”

The only sound that could be heard was the bleating of a sheep somewhere far away in a meadow outside. I was briefly wondering if they would hang me for my insolence, but I needn't have worried. What was it Alexander had said way back when in Cappadocia? It is extremely difficult to sully the reputation of something as fearsome as a snake god. The spell was broken when a fellow sitting at the table immediately to my right fell on his knees and started apologizing profusely, assuring me he had never meant to be disrespectful to Glycon or any of his prophets. Soon the whole tavern was declaring its allegiance to the deity and was begging my indulgence.

It is now the day after these remarkable events, and I find myself sitting on a fresh horse, wearing new boots and a new cloak, with two asses in tow that are laden with gifts to Glycon's temple. I have a spare horse as well, and there's a well-armed six man strong posse that is going to escort me to ensure my safe passage to at least the next bigger town. We wouldn't want one of the prophets of Glycon to fall prey to Marcomannian bandits again, would we? I'm giving the town my final benedictions, asking Glycon to protect it against the marauding tribes and the plague the soldiers have brought with them from Mesopotamia. Well, what can I say…Alexander sure had this figured out. I'm of a mind to turn around to see if the emperor is actually still in need of our services, but that would be tempting fate. Marcus Aurelius is just a tad too well-educated and dour. So off we ride, back to civilization.

All hail Glycon!




Statue of the fraudulent snake god Glycon, who grew extremely popular in Rome during the second century.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons, by Cristian Chirita)




Antoninus Pius coin

Coin issued by emperor Antoninus Pius, depicting Glycon.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)


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