Why These Three Questions?
Why did Tiberius select these questions? Did he choose them by chance, motivated simply by curiosity? Did they have a common theme? If we have read them aright, and given the correct answers, they did.
If Achilles was begat of a fire god or was himself one, as was Mars, the putative father of Romulus, then the Romans would have been cousins of the Greek hero. Oddly they were to find themselves at war with his descendants, even as Æneas had been with Achilles.
Epiros, we are told, was founded by Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, who was killed on Delphi, supposedly while despoiling the Temple of Apollo. In 279 B.C., an army of invading Gauls broke through a weak Greek resistance at Thermopylae and were bent upon ravaging Delphi for the wealth of the Oracle, when they were defeated by a small Delphian resistance that had been aided by supernatural beings, including the ghost of Neoptolemus. It was for this reason that his tumulus in Delphi was thereafter given the honors due to that of an hero by the Delphians, who earlier had despised it.
According Pausanias, fifteen generations separated Achilles from the grandfather of Pyrros of Epiros, the great king who became the first Greek since the Trojan war to attack the descendants of Æneas, when he relieved the Tarentines. There were in Pyrros' army elephants that had been brought from India by Alexander's returning generals and been taken as spoils by Pyrros in his wars in Macedon. The Romans, who had not yet seen such creatures, were put to rout when their cavalry mounts panicked before them, giving Pyrros a great victory, although at great cost, the better soldiery of his army having been slain. This occasion gave rise to the phrase "Pyrric victory", meaning one gained through the ruination of one's own strength. Pyrros over reached, however, when he attempted to take on the Carthaginians as well. After breaking their siege of Syracuse, he foolishly engaged the Phoenicians in a sea battle, in which he was routed, his Epirotes being inexperienced sailors. He withdrew from Sicily thence to Italy, whence he escaped the Romans by a stratagem. In his next campaign he nearly reduced Macedonia and was on the point of taking Sparta when he turned aside to fight Demetrios at Argos, where he won a great victory, only to be killed by a roofing tile while sacking the city. It was said that Demeter, disguised as a matron, had thrown the tile, an inglorious end for one whose ancestor had been felled by a bolt guided by the hand of Apollo. Argos, of course, was the native city of Diomedes who had so gravely wounded Æneas. Oddest of all, it was Appius Claudius Cæcus, ancestor of Tiberius, who had prevented the Romans from forming an alliance with Pyrros, thereby forging another link between Achilles and Tiberius. Ironically, it was another Claudian who finally drove the Carthaginians from Sicily.
Pyrros was a distant cousin of Alexander of Macedon, for Alexander was likewise descended from Achilles, but through his mother Olympias. Olympias, it will be recalled, claimed that Alexander was really the son of Zeus, who had entered her womb in the form of a serpent. Considering the number of sons fathered by Philip upon other women, it could not have hurt AlexanderÕs cause to have a divinity of that stature take an active interest in his advancement.
Hecabe, of course, was more directly connected to the Romans, since Æneas was related to her by marriage, Priam being his kinsman. But what about the story of the Sirens? The other two great epic wandering heroes of Antiquity, Jason and Odysseus, were both acquainted with the Sirens. Is it possible that Æneas also had dealings with them not recorded by Vergil? As it happens, we need not look for a lost book of the Æneid to find the relevance of the Sirens to Rome: one need look only to Tiberius himself. In Strabo (V.29.1), we read that:
After the mouth of the Silaris one comes to Leucania, and to the temple of the Argoan Hera, built by Jason, and near by, within fifty stadia, to Poseidonia. Thence, sailing out past the gulf, one comes to Leucosia, an island, from which it is only a short voyage across to the continent. The island is named after one of the Sirens, who was cast ashore here after the Sirens had flung themselves, as the myth has it, into the depths of the sea.
In front of the island lies that promontory which is opposite the Sirenussae and with them forms the Poseidonian Gulf.
This is a description of the Italian coast between the modern area of Paestum (Poeseidonia) and the promontory opposite the island of Capri (Capreæ), and Capri was the site of Tiberius's villa from which he ruled the Empire for the latter part of his principate. The island of the Sirens (one of them, at least) had claimed him. Suetonius records that Tiberius never returned to Rome after leaving it, attempting to do so but twice, each time interrupting the journey and returning to Capreæ. The Questions of Tiberius, we discover, all had personal meaning to Tiberius, who, descended from Æneas and Mars, lived on the island that had been named after the Siren Leuce1.
The island was also the site where Butes, son of King Pandion of Athens, according Apollonius, was snatched from the breakers by Aphrodite as he was about to become the victim of the Sirens. No doubt Apollonius hoped to explain by this means the Sicilian Bee cult of Aphrodite Eryx, called Erycina at Rome, Eryx being accounted the son of Butes by Aphrodite. Tiberius had a particular interest in the Siren song, because he was a distant cousin of Eryx through their mutual progenetrix, Venus. (Eryx, unlike Æneas, did not fair well. He was killed by Herakles, who then raped Psophis, Eryx's daughter. She gave her name to the Arcadian city formerly called Erymanthos, where Herakles sent her to raise their twin sons Ecephron and Promachos.) As Emperor, Tiberius restored the then very ancient Temple of Aphrodite of Eryx, which was considered by Pausanias to be second in wealth only to that of Paphos. (Suetonius says that the repairs were made by Claudius, but Levi, in a footnote to his translation of Pausanias [Vol. 1, Bk. VIII 24.4, footnote 170], ascribes the restoration to Tiberius. Although the chronology of Suetonius is sometimes defective or suspect, both may be correct. Tiberius was notoriously parsimonious, and several of his building projects were unfinished at his death due to his failure to provide funds for their completion. Gaius finished the construction of the Temple of the Divine Augustus and the rebuilding of the Theater of Pompey, both of which had been begun by Tiberius. Likewise, Claudius finished the aqueduct near Tibur that Gaius had started. It is possible, then, that the restoration of the Temple of Aphrodite of Eryx was begun by Tiberius, but, following his pattern elsewhere, he stinted the builders, and it remained for Claudius to bring the work to its end.) Pyrros took and held Eryx briefly before he was compelled to give up the island.
Butes had also the distinction of being the brother of Lykos (Wolf), the oracular hero whose sayings had been collected in antiquity and for whom the Lyceum in Athens had been named. Butes was, therefore, connected to the Romans and Tiberius through his brother as well as through his son.
Further, returning to Achilles the Myrmidon, we should not be at all surprised if the symbol of the Aiginaens were really the Bee instead of the Ant. It is possible that the heraldic Bee was interpreted as the Winged Queen or King Ant, because of the desire of mythographers to derive Myrmidon from ant. In like manner, the iconic Beehive could have been taken for an Anthill. If this confusion did occur, then the Aiginaens would have been related to the Erycinans and thus, also, to the Romans.
That was the real riddle that Tiberius was asking his guests to solve, the hidden one that tied all of the questions into one bundle and set them ablaze on his own hearth.
1 Leuce was also the name of the island near Troy on which the tomb of Achilles had been raised, making both the second and third questions even more closely entwined. Back to Text.