Ænigmates Tiberii


It is the manner of authors of ancient literature that many details of the background of their stories remain unrecorded, whether because they were too well known at the time to merit mention, as a contemporary author when referring to a current political scandal will compound with its descriptor the word "gate" in allusion to the Nixonian criminal conspiracy called "Watergate", or that they were too important to be revealed publicly, as in matters of national security, or possibly because they had arisen from an unresolved body of conflicting but plausible accounts, none of which had been accredited by tradition. Consequently, it has been the avocation of scholars throughout the intervening centuries to raise or renew questions upon these matters, attempting to complete the background, as it were, which the authors themselves merely sketched, and a small body of commentary has been accumulated by which the points raised have been disputed. (Such matters are not to be confused with the famous riddles that were posed in many stories and which had to be solved by the protagonists thereof to obtain their goals, e.g. the riddles of the Sphinx, solved eventually by Oedipus. Nor should they be confounded with the various Sibylline pronouncements, which were almost always vague, double-edged, and often duplicitously phrased to admit of both an innocent and an injurious meaning according the temperament of the recipient. See the appended discussion of ancient futurity.)

Many of these problems appear now insoluble, especially as the passage of time has eradicated their literary and religious contexts, leaving them as fragments of an unknown larger fabric which, because of their isolation, have no readily discernible meanings. Some, because they originated in mystery, were deliberately involved in a protective obscurity to prevent their profanation, and are now doubly difficult to answer because the secrets concealed were kept so well, their cultists having taken the answers to whatever promised lands that awaited the faithful dead. But not all of the problems that have accumulated around the original questions must render them necessarily impenetrable to modern investigators. Any any rate, it is a pass time that is now harmless, though not always thus, and provides the subject of the present enquiry. Some of the answers will be more convincingly educed than others, and all of them are speculative, but each is, at least, defensible.


It is well known that Tiberius Claudius Nero Drusus Germanicus Cæsar, heir of Octavius Cæsar Augustus, was learned in both Latin and Greek matters, having taken up the study of abstruse subjects during his exilic residence on Rhodes. Suetonius1 records (Tiberius LXX) that it was the habit of Tiberius to test the literary knowledge and the deductive powers of his dinner guests by asking them difficult questions from Greek myth. "Quæ mater Hecubæ, quod Achilli nomen inter virgines fuisset, quid Sirenes cantare sint solitæ?" "Who was the mother of Hecuba2? What was Achilles' name among the maidens3? What song did the Sirens sing?"

One and one half millennia later, Sir Thomas Browne noticed those questions in his essay Hydriotaphia, Urne-Burial, remarking that they, "though puzzling Questions, are not beyond all conjecture." It is notable that he did not mention the first of the questions, confining his reference to the latter two, and resisted himself the urge to answer any of them, if only by conjecture. Herewith. we attempt what he would not.

Ænigmates Tiberii

Other Puzzling Questions

Additional Notes


Information on this site is extracted from the the book, On the Roman Religion, 344 pages, with extensive notes and a translation of Book One of Cicero's De Divinatione by Horace W. LaBadie, Jr., available as a .PDF file (Adobe's Portable Document Format) from FatBrain.com. Follow the link and buy the book.

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About Horace W. LaBadie, Jr.

HWL (adopting the third person) has written books and magazine articles on computing and other subjects, including:

  • On the Roman Religion
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1Suetonius Tranquillus, (b. ca. A.D. 69, d.ca. 140), son of the military Tribune Suetonius Paulinus. A lawyer and rhetorician, later private secretary to Hadrian, and author of the Lives of the Cæsars, his single intact surviving work, he had access to the state and Imperial archives, from which he drew material for his biographies. He read and used as a source the "brief and dry" autobiography of Tiberius, since lost. Suetonius was dismissed in disgrace by Hadrian for alleged impropriety with the Empress Sabina, but he was rehabilitated by Trajan at the urging of Pliny the Younger. Back to Text.

2 The Latin for Hecabe, second wife of Priam, King of Ilium, and mother of nineteen of his children, among whom were Hector, the great champion of the Trojans slain by Achilles, Alexander called Paris, the so-called Judge of Ida and Abductor of Helen, and Polyxena, sacrificial victim to the ghost of Achilles. Famous in English literature as the subject of Hamlet's own question: "What's he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him that he should weep for her?" Back to Text.

3 When sent by Thetis, his mother, into hiding at the court of Lycomedes, King of Scyros, Achilles was dressed as a girl and placed among the young women, this to prevent him from being called to the war against the Trojans. He was found out by Ulysses and subsequently joined the Hellenes in their siege. Back to Text.

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