Running away

The consequences of believing bollocks

Stories about people who run away usually focus on their adventures. But Lucian provides us with a view from the home front when a young person takes an unexpected trip.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

Stories about running away, whether from a bad life situation or simply out of boredom, are not hard to find. It’s human nature, I think, to occasionally want or need a change of scenery. There have been times in my life that I wished I could drop what I was doing and run off to somewhere new and (therefore) exciting.

In the ancient Mediterranean, tales of people running off were not uncommon. Even the supposed foundational piece of Greek literature, the Iliad, can be seen as the story of Helen running away from Sparta! Aeneas, as portrayed in the Aeneid, fled his home of Troy rather than dying in its futile defense.

These are, of course, mythological stories about “heroes” and their deeds. But we know that in historical times, people also ran away, for one reason or another. For one Paphlagonian household in the second century AD, a son’s sudden and unscheduled departure led to the deaths of servants and a public confrontation for one of the era’s most controversial conmen.

Back in Roman Egypt

Sometime during the period in which Alexander of Abonoteichus (ca. 105-ca. 170) was preaching his newly created Cult of Glycon (an ancient snake god), a son from a presumably well-off Paphlagonian household was studying in Alexandria.

One day, the young man decided to take a boat ride up the Nile. This was probably a relaxing escape from the bustling city that sat in the vast river’s delta. Going up the river, he would have seen a variety of wildlife, cities, towns and villages scattered about, and the constant flow of traffic carrying goods north and south. Egypt’s great river was the super highway, the Autobahn, of its time.

He went all the way to Clysma, an important, though probably small, settlement at the head of the Gulf of Suez. Its importance lies in the fact that roads from Sinai, Palestine, and Egypt intersected there, and because it was positioned at the outlet of a canal that linked the Nile and the Red Sea.

Here, the young student made a fateful decision; he hopped aboard a ship bound for a faraway land. As Lucian puts it in the mouth of an unnamed Epicurean, “as a vessel was just putting to sea, [he] was induced to join others in a voyage to India” (Alex. 44).Show From the translation found here.

His choice was not an inconsequential one for two reasons. The first is that this was a trip that would probably take around a year. Using the annual monsoons to get back and forth across the Indian Ocean means that ships would linger in the east until they could catch a helpful wind back towards the Red Sea. Thus, the student was making a long-term commitment, perhaps unknowingly.

The second reason that this was a consequential decision, is that it ultimately led to the deaths of his servants. When he didn’t return from what should have been a short journey up the Nile, they reported back to his family in Paphlagonia. Although it seems that the father was at first unsure what to do, Alexander the False Prophet, as Lucian referred to him, prevailed upon him “to put his servants on trial for their lives.”

Thus, they were brought before the Roman governor of Galatia and charged with murdering the son. They were found guilty and executed, perhaps by being fed to animals in a gory public display. Lucian says that they were killed, “given over to the wild beasts.”

Not long after this, though, the son showed up, perhaps with a tropical tan and a new understanding of the hardships faced by sailors. His servants had been sentenced to death for a crime that they didn’t commit – a crime that actually never occurred.

The moral of the story

Within this story, used as evidence of Alexander’s status as a “false prophet” and a dangerous man, we learn a few interesting things. India was an alluring place in the second century AD; so much so that a story of a young, studious, man deciding on a whim to sail thither was perhaps not considered out of the ordinary.

Although we are not privy to his decision-making process, I assume that it was the draw of an exotic place and, probably, romantic tales of sailors and merchants. As we will see in a book soon to be reviewed here on Ancient World Magazine, there is good reason to believe that by this time Mediterranean imaginations had been captured by the east, and India in particular.

But we also learn something of the relationship between master and servant from this tale. The servants sent to Alexandria with the unnamed son were clearly trusted individuals, and probably had been with the family for some time. But when the student did not return to Paphlagonia, the father did not listen to the servants’ ideas of what could have happened. They suggested that maybe he died on the cruise up the Nile, or that he was taken by brigands.

Instead, the father listens to a wandering prophet of an emergent faith, Alexander. He put more trust in the “oracle” provided by this man than in the words of his own servants. This is probably an indication of the dire situation in which people of this class found themselves. They died when their master elected to believe the bollocks of a snake god salesman.