Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Veni, Vidi, Gone: A Death Map of Roman Emperors
Most Roman emperors died violent deaths, and many were far from Rome when they did
Totalus Rankium is “a fun, informative podcast (ranking) the Roman Emperors based on: fighting ability; madness; their successes; what they looked like and how long they lasted”. For that last metric, the podcast also produced this map, showing the locations where Roman emperors expired.
To be the Emperor of Rome was to be leader of the biggest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen. Yet even in a world where life already tended to be nasty, brutish and short, it was one of the more dangerous jobs: only about a quarter of all Roman Emperors died natural deaths.
According to this graph, of the 70 Emperors to rule Rome between 14 and 395 AD, more died of assassination (23) than of natural causes (20), and that’s not even including those who were possibly assassinated (8), executed (3) or forced to commit suicide (5). A further 9 met a violent death on the battlefield.
Most of the emperors died in or near Rome; this short selection of those who expired elsewhere shows that if American politics is House of Cards, Roman politics was Game of Thrones.
Septimius Severus Constantius, 21st Emperor (reigned 193-211), is the only one to have died in Britain. He is also the most prominent of the handful of Emperors with African roots. Severus was born in 145 in Libya from an Italian mother and a father with Berber and Punic ancestry. He seized power in the so-called Year of the Five Emperors - luckily for him, he was the fifth. Severus defeated his rivals, consolidated his power, annexed the Kingdom of Osroene and sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, pushing the Roman frontier to the Tigris river. He also consolidated Rome’s frontiers in Arabia and North Africa. In Britain, he reinforced Hadrian’s Wall, re-occupied the Antonine Wall to the north of it and invaded Scotland. However, that conquest was cut short by the illness that was to fell him in Eburacum (now York) on February 4th, 211. His dying words to his sons Caracalla and Geta, who would succeed him, were: "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men". At his death, the Roman Empire had the greatest extent it would ever have, encompassing an area of 2 million square miles (5.18 million sq. km) - two thirds of the continental U.S. (1).
Severus Alexander, 26th Emperor (r. 222 - 235) is the only Roman Emperor to have met his death in Germany. He was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty, founded by Severus (the one who died in York). Alexander gained control of the empire at the tender age of 13, following the assassination of his cousin Elagabalus. Alexander was an able and tolerant administrator, and Rome prospered under his reign - although the fact that he relied heavily on the advice of his mother and grandmother was much resented. The rising Sassanid empire in Persia inflicted a number of defeats on Rome’s armies in the east. When he tried to appease the Germanic tribes in the north with bribes rather than meet them in battle, this alienated many in the Roman army and ultimately led to his assassination. Alexander and his mother were assassinated on March 19, 235 by mutineering soldiers of the 22nd legion at Moguntiacum (now Mainz). His assassination kicked off the Crisis of the Third Century - fifty years of wars, invasions and economic collapse.
France - or as it then was called: Gaul - proved to be the death of no less than four emperors.
Serbian-born Gratian, 67th Emperor (r. 367-383), first was junior co-emperor with his father (Valentinian I), then senior co-emperor with his brother (Valentinian II). He was the last emperor to lead a military campaign against Germanic tribes across the Rhine. Gratian favoured Christianity, refused to accept the divine attributes of imperial rule and had all pagan temples and shrines confiscated by the government. When a Roman general in Britain revolted and invaded Gaul, Gratian fled from Paris to Lyon, where he was betrayed and assassinated on August 25th, 383. Ironically for a promoter of Christianity - and like most emperors before him - Gratian was still deified after his death, in keeping with Rome’s pagan state cult.
Flavius Valentinianus, 68th Emperor (r. 375-392) was four years old when he was acclaimed Augustus by his father’s generals, succeeding his father Valentinianus I as the co-emperor to his half-brother Gratian. As Valentinianus II, he first held court in Milan and ruled over a central part of the empire (including Italy and North Africa). In 388, after the defeat of the usurper whose invasion of Gaul had led to the death of Gratian, he was installed in Vienne under the guardianship of Arbogast, a Frankish general and ally of Theodosius, emperor of the eastern half of the empire. Relations between the two were not amicable, to say the least. Arbogast killed a friend of the emperor before his very eyes, forbade Valentinian II of leading an army into Italy to counter a barbarian invasion, and tore up the resignation letter Valentinian had presented him with. Valentinian was found hanged in his residence on May 15th, 392. He was only 21. Arbogast claimed it was suicide. Most believe it was Arbogast.
Maximian, 52nd Emperor (r. 285-310). The son of a Panonnian shopkeeper, he served in the army with Diocletian. After Diocletian’s accession to the top job, he appointed Maximian as his co-ruler, or Caesar, because of his military prowess. Maximian subjugated the Frankish king Gennobaudes, thus re-establishing Roman dominance in the Rhineland but failed to dislodge Carausius - a rebellious general who had founded a secessionist ‘British Empire’ (Imperium Brittaniarum). He led a military campaign in North Africa against Frankish pirates and Berber raiders. Maximian and Diocletian jointly retired from imperial office, but Maximian got re-involved in imperial politics, ultimately with fatal consequences. Following his failed rebellion against the emperor Constantine, he was captured in Massilia (Marseilles) and strongly advised to commit suicide - he hung himself in July 310. Constantine issued a damnatio memoriae, erasing all public inscriptions and destroying all public works bearing the name of Maximian. He was reconsecrated as a god from 317. Via his two daughters, he was grandfather or great-grandfather to every reigning emperor from 337 to 363.
Constans, 62nd Emperor (r. 337-350). The son of Constantine I, Constans co-ruled first with his brother Constantine II and then with his other brother Constantius II, who would eventually succeed him. His homosexuality (including “scandalous behaviour with handsome barbarian hostages”) and favouritism of his personal bodyguard lost him the support of the army. While on the run to Spain from a rebelling general, he was assassinated in February 350 in Vicus Helena (now Elne in France), thus (sort of) fulfilling a prophecy that he would die in the arms of his grandmother - Helena, the mother of Constantine.
Two Roman emperors died in Africa:
Gordian I and II, joint 28th Emperors (r. 238). This father-and-son team clung to power for just 21 days in 238, also known as the Year of the Six Emperors. They reluctantly assumed the leadership of a tax revolt against Maximinus Thrax, who had gained the imperial purple by killing Alexander Severus in Mainz. Although the Senate and a number of provinces sided with them, they were ultimately defeated in their power base of Carthage following the invasion of a Roman legion from the neighbouring province of Numidia. Gordian junior was killed in action, Gordian senior hanged himself with his belt. Both were deified by the Senate.
Asia, or as we now would call it: the Middle East, saw several emperors meet a tragic end:
Gordian III, 32nd Emperor (r. 238-244), was the grandson of Gordian I and the nephew of Gordian II. It was basically in their memory that he was proclaimed emperor. He was only 13 years old at his proclamation, younger than any other sole emperor of the unified Empire. When the Sassanid Persians invaded Roman Mesopotamia, Gordian III became the last emperor in history to open the gates of the Temple of Janus (a symbol for Rome being at war; closed doors meant peace). Sassanid sources say Gordian III fell in battle near present-day Fallujah in Iraq, sealing a major Roman defeat. Roman sources do not mention this battle, and say the emperor died in northern Mesopotamia.
No Roman ruler died as ignominiously as Valerian, 40th Emperor (r. 253-260). After his defeat at Edessa in 260, he set up a peace negotiation with his Persian counterpart Shapur. But his opponent seized him and held him captive for the rest of his life, which was spent in humiliating slavery. Shapur reportedly used Valerian as a human footstool when mounting his horse. When Valerian offered to gather a ransom for his release, Shapur had Valerian killed by forcing him to swallow molten gold. The emperor’s skin was stuffed with straw and kept as a trophy in the main Persian temple. Some historians, however, suspect the horrific tale is a deliberate exaggeration by a Christian scholar to demonstrate that persecutors of Christians (like Valerian) were destined for gruesome deaths.
Carus, 48th Emperor (r. 282-283) successfully fought Germanic and Sarmatian tribes in the west, annexed Mesopotamia and sacked the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon in the east. For his victories, he received the titles Germanicus Maximus and Persicus Maximus. His death, near the Tigris, has variously been attributed to natural causes, assassination, a combat wound and lightning.
Numerian, 50th emperor (r. 283-284), son and successor of Carus, together with his older brother Carinus. While Carinus was in charge of the west, Numerian led a Roman retreat from Persia. For much of that voyage, Numerian travelled in a closed coach, supposedly because of an inflammation of the eyes. By the time the coach reached Bithynia, a terrible smell emanated from it. Upon opening the curtains, Numerian’s soldiers found him dead. As his successor, the soldiers chose Diocletian, who swore he had nothing to do with Numerian’s death and pinned the blame on the late emperor’s aide Aper, whom he then personally and publicly killed.
Julian, 63rd Emperor (r. 355-363), also known as Julian the Apostate. Although both his parents were Christians, he was the last non-Christian emperor and tried to revive paganism. He reopened pagan temples, removed Christian privileges and fostered division between various Christian sects. In an attempt to promote any religion other than Christianity, he even proposed to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Early in his career, Julian defeated a Germanic army three times larger than his own at Argentoratum (Strasbourg). But he was mortally wounded in combat against the Sassanid Persians, dying in Maranga, Mesopotamia. His last words are reported as: “You have won, Galilean”, an acknowledgement of his failure to defeat Christianity. Several of Julian’s literary works survive, including Misopogon (‘Beard-Hater’), a satirical essay on the dislike of the citizens of Antioch of the emperor’s own ‘philosopher’s beard’, in a time when the fashion was for clean-shaven faces.
Strange Maps #857
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) i.e. minus Alaska and Hawaii: 3.1 million sq mi, 8.0 million sq. km
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
View this post on Instagram
During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
A post shared by LKCNHM (@lkcnhm) on
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
If computers can beat us at chess, maybe they could beat us at math, too.
- Most everyone fears that they will be replaced by robots or AI someday.
- A field like mathematics, which is governed solely by rules that computers thrive on, seems to be ripe for a robot revolution.
- AI may not replace mathematicians but will instead help us ask better questions.
The following is an excerpt adapted from the book Shape. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Will machines replace us? Since the origin of artificial intelligence (AI), people have worried that computers eventually (or even imminently!) will surpass the human cognitive capacity in every respect.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge, in a television interview from the early 1960s, said, "I am convinced that machines can and will think in our lifetime" — though with the proviso, "I don't think my daughter will ever marry a computer." (Apparently, there is no technical advance so abstract that people can't feel sexual anxiety about it.)
Let's make the relevant question more personal: will machines replace me? I'm a mathematician; my profession is often seen from the outside as a very complicated but ultimately purely mechanical game played with fixed rules, like checkers, chess, or Go. These are activities in which machines have already demonstrated superhuman ability.
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
But for me, math is different: it is a creative pursuit that calls on our intuition as much as our ability to compute. (To be fair, chess players probably feel the same way.) Henri Poincaré, the mathematician who re-envisioned the whole subject of geometry at the beginning of the 20th century, insisted it would be hopeless
"to attempt to replace the mathematician's free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it."
But machines can make deep changes in mathematical practice without shouldering humans aside. Peter Scholze, winner of a 2018 Fields Medal (sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of math") is deeply involved in an ambitious program at the frontiers of algebra and geometry called "condensed mathematics" — and no, there is no chance that I'm going to try to explain what that is in this space.
Meet AI, your new research assistant
What I am going to tell you is the result of what Scholze called the "Liquid Tensor Experiment." A community called Lean, started by Leonardo de Moura of Microsoft Research and now open-source and worldwide, has the ambitious goal of developing a computer language with the expressive capacity to capture the entirety of contemporary mathematics. A proposed proof of a new theorem, formalized by translation into this language, could be checked for correctness automatically, rather than staking its reputation on fallible human referees.
Scholze asked last December whether the ideas of condensed mathematics could be formalized in this way. He also wanted to know whether it could express the ideas of a particularly knotty proof that was crucial to the project — a proof that he was pretty sure was right.
When I first heard about Lean, I thought it would probably work well for some easy problems and theorems. I underestimated it. So did Scholze. In a May 2021 blog post, he writes, "[T]he Experiment has verified the entire part of the argument that I was unsure about. I find it absolutely insane that interactive proof assistants are now at the level that within a very reasonable time span they can formally verify difficult original research."
And the contribution of the machine wasn't just to certify that Scholze was right to think his proof was sound; he reports that the work of putting the proof in a form that a machine could read improved his own human understanding of the argument!
The Liquid Tensor Experiment points to a future where machines, rather than replacing human mathematicians, become our indispensable partners. Whether or not they can take hold of the soul of the fact, they can extend our grasp as we reach for the soul.
Slicing up a knotty problem
That can take the form of "proof assistance," as it did for Scholze, or it can go deeper. In 2018, Lisa Piccirillo, then a PhD student at the University of Texas, solved a long-standing geometry problem about a shape called the Conway knot. She proved the knot was "non-slice" — this is a fact about what the knot looks like from the perspective of four-dimensional beings. (Did you get that? Probably not, but it doesn't matter.) The point is this was a famously difficult problem.
A few years before Piccirillo's breakthrough, a topologist named Mark Hughes at Brigham Young had tried to get a neural network to make good guesses about which knots were slice. He gave it a long list of knots where the answer was known, just as an image-processing neural net would be given a long list of pictures of cats and pictures of non-cats.
Hughes's neural net learned to assign a number to every knot; if the knot were slice, the number was supposed to be 0, while if the knot were non-slice, the net was supposed to return a whole number bigger than 0. In fact, the neural net predicted a value very close to 1 — that is, it predicted the knot was non-slice — for every one of the knots Hughes tested, except for one. That was the Conway knot.
For the Conway knot, Hughes's neural net returned a number very close to 1/2, its way of saying that it was deeply unsure whether to answer 0 or 1. This is fascinating! The neural net correctly identified the knot that posed a really hard and mathematically rich problem (in this case, reproducing an intuition that topologists already had).
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
Dr. Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a number theorist whose popular articles about mathematics have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Slate. His most recent book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.
Laughing gas may be far more effective for some than antidepressants.
- Standard antidepressant medications don't work for many people who need them.
- With ketamine showing potential as an antidepressant, researchers investigate another anesthetic: nitrous oxide, commonly called "laughing gas."
- Researchers observe that just a light mixture of nitrous oxide for an hour alleviates depression symptoms for two weeks.
The usual antidepressants don't work for everyone. That's what makes a new study of the antidepressant properties of nitrous oxide so intriguing. It looks like just a single low dose of what your dentist may call "laughing gas" can help alleviate symptoms of depression for weeks afterward.
The study, from researchers at University of Chicago and Washington University-St. Louis, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Resistance to anti-depression medications
Nitrous oxide: two atoms of nitrogen, one of oxygenCredit: Big Think
According to the senior author of the study, Charles Conway, "A significant percentage — we think around 15 percent — of people who suffer from depression don't respond to standard antidepressant treatment."
"These 'treatment-resistant depression' patients," Conway says, "often suffer for years, even decades, with life-debilitating depression. We don't really know why standard treatments don't work for them, though we suspect that they may have different brain network disruptions than non-resistant depressed patients. Identifying novel treatments, such as nitrous oxide, that target alternative pathways is critical to treating these individuals."
"There is a huge unmet need," says lead author Peter Nagele. "There are millions of depressed patients who don't have good treatment options, especially those who are dealing with suicidality."
If ketamine can help, can nitrous oxide?
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
The researchers wondered if some of the anti-depression properties seen in ketamine might also apply to nitrous oxide. Nagele explains, "Like nitrous oxide, ketamine is an anesthetic, and there has been promising work using ketamine at a sub-anesthetic dose for treating depression."
The researchers conducted a one-hour session — they describe it as a "proof-of-principle" trial — in which 20 individuals with depression were administered an air mixture with 50 percent nitrous oxide. Twenty-four hours later, the researchers found a significant reduction in the participants' symptoms of depression versus a control group.
However, the individuals also suffered the unpleasant side effects that laughing gas often causes in dental patients: headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Smaller dose, longer effect
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
"We wondered if our past concentration of 50 percent had been too high," recalls Nagele. "Maybe by lowering the dose, we could find the 'Goldilocks spot' that would maximize clinical benefit and minimize negative side effects."
In a new trial, 20 people with depression were given a lighter nitrous oxide mix, just 25 percent, and the individuals tested reported a 75 percent reduction in side effects compared to the a control group given an air/oxygen placebo. This time, the researchers also tracked the effect of nitrous oxide on symptoms of depression for a far longer period, two weeks instead of just 24 hours.
"The reduction in side effects was unexpected and quite drastic," reports Nagele, "but even more excitingly, the effects after a single administration lasted for a whole two weeks. This has never been shown before. It's a very cool finding."
Nagele also notes that, despite its popular renown as laughing gas, even a light 25 percent mix of nitrous actually causes people to nod off. "They're not getting high or euphoric; they get sedated."
Delivering help to people with depression
Nagele cautions, "These have just been pilot studies. But we need acceptance by the larger medical community for this to become a treatment that's actually available to patients in the real world. Most psychiatrists are not familiar with nitrous oxide or how to administer it, so we'll have to show the community how to deliver this treatment safely and effectively. I think there will be a lot of interest in getting this into clinical practice."
After all, Nagele adds, "If we develop effective, rapid treatments that can really help someone navigate their suicidal thinking and come out on the other side — that's a very gratifying line of research."