March 20, 2016
Epic battle between the Goths and the Greeks uncovered in ancient text
In 2007, Jana Grusková, PhD, of Masaryk University made an enormous discovery: Inside a manuscript of assorted Christian texts were what appeared to be fragments of a lost ancient Greek history. Technology at the time could only pull out roughly 15 percent of the writing, but with the advent of better technology, researchers have been able to read more and more of the fragments. And what they contain is fascinating—including records of a 3rd-century CE battle in the mountain pass where the movie 300* occurred: Thermopylae.
The Greek fragments date to a 13th-century addition to the texts, and went unnoticed for centuries likely because the pages were palimpsests—manuscripts where the original writing was washed or scraped away in order to write something new on the same page.Luckily for us, the original writing is often visible via indentations on the pages, and the development of new spectral imaging techniques reveals more and more of the hidden writing each year.
But in this case, Grusková hit gold with the manuscript pages. According to Grusková and co-author Gunther Martin in a paper published in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, the fragments are from a time period where we have few trustworthy historical sources—the decades following the beginning of the Germanic invasions of Roman territory in 238. The palimpsest fragments appear to be lost passages from a third-century historical work detailing wars between Rome and the Goths (a Germanic people) known as the Scythica. The author of this work, moreover, is seen as a generally credible source: Athenian historian Publius Herennius Dexippus.
The fragment concerning the battle at Thermopylae details events probably of the year 262, according to a paper in the Journal of Roman Studies.
According to the fragment, an army of Goths was making its way through Thrace and Macedonia (the territories bordering Greece to the north and east), plundering the countryside. But when they attempted to pillage the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, Thessalonica (modern-day Thessaloniki in Greece), they were rebutted.
Frustrated by the Macedonians, they set their sights for a better score: “The prevailing opinion of the host was to make for Athens and Achaia [a Roman province], envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries: for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect,” wrote Dexippus in the fragment.
But the Greeks caught wind of the plan, and sought to cut off the Goths in the access point to Athens from the north—the mountain pass of Thermopylae. “Some carried small spears, others axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste.”
The army was located on the site of one of the most famous Greek battles in history, so the clever generals used this to their advantage: “It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valor, so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up…”
The fragment even records part of this rousing speech, which was given by Marianus, the leader of the Greek army (although it is a common practice in ancient histories, when there was a speech given, to entirely make up that speech after the fact):
“O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state…So perhaps it may be good fortune, in accordance with the daimonion [heavenly power], that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past).”
Should this fragment detail the battle scholars believe it does—one that occurred in 262 CE—then this battle has a happy ending: Although much was plundered from Achaia, the Goths were turned back by Marianus and his army; Thermopylae saved Athens from a darker fate once more.
*Technically, the Battle of Thermopylae was actually fought by 300 or so Spartans and several thousand other Greeks. Fun fact of the day.
Image credit: Austrian National Library