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<   No. 4092   2019-10-01   >

Comic #4092

1 Minnesota Jones: ... province of Macedonia was divided into three parts. No! Four parts, for one small island of indomitable Greeks still held out against the Roman invaders.
2 Minnesota Jones: Proconsul Lucius Julius Caesar was determined to conquer the holdouts. He had a cunning clockwork device of brass crafted as a secret weapon.
3 Minnesota Jones: Alas it was lost at sea before he could use it against the islanders of Kythera.
3 Monty: How do you know that?
4 Minnesota Jones: I recovered it from a Roman wreck around the turn of the century.
4 Prof. Jones: Some sort of anti-Kythera mechanism, huh?

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I spent a long time researching this strip.

I started with a simple Antikythera mechanism joke. To build up to it, I wanted Minnesota Jones to tell a story about how some ruler or other wanted to fight the inhabitants of the island of Kythera. (Although in reality the Antikythera mechanism is not named for being hostile to Kythera, it's named after the adjacent Greek island of Antikythera, in whose waters the shipwreck containing it was discovered. Antikythera itself though is named after Kythera, with the Greek prefix "anti-" meaning something like "across from".)

For historical accuracy and plausibility, I decided that the most sensible place for someone to want to conquer Kythera from would be the nearest part of the Greek mainland, which is the south-eastern region of the Peloponnese peninsula. In Ancient Greek history, this was the area known as Sparta.

Sparta! Perfect! A name that is familiar and resonant to the modern mind and which drips with history and legend! Sparta!

Whatever ruler of Sparta was contemporary with the creation of the Antikythera mechanism would be perfect, even if the particular name was not one of the well known rulers. But then I hit the first snag. The most evidentially supported estimate of the provenance of the Antikythera mechanism places its construction in the year 87 BC, with the shipwreck on which it was found occurring soon thereafter. Students of ancient history will no doubt already have spotted the problem.

Namely, Sparta was a prominent power from around 650 BC, but went into a decline following its loss to Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, and ceased to be a self-ruling state when it was subsumed into the Achaean League in 280 BC. The Achaean League itself was conquered by the Roman Empire in 146 BC.

After the Roman conquest, the Peloponnese was rendered something of a provincial backwater, not meriting its own Roman governor. Instead the peninsula was administered from the not-even-particularly-neighbouring Roman province of Macedonia. The former Achaean League territory, including the Peloponnese, would later be partitioned from Macedonia to become the new Roman province of Achaea in AD 15. However, that is too late for our anti-Kythera joke.

So now the research became a quest to find the Roman governor of Macedonia around 87 BC. I expected there to be a comprehensive list of governors on Wikipedia, or at least on some specialist history web site. No such luck. I presume that records from the time may be incomplete, thus discouraging the compilation of such a list. After following dozens of dead ends such as Marcus Antius Crescens Calpurnianus (governor around 200-190 BC - far too early), Lucius Varius Ambibulus (governor in 125-124 BC - too early), and Gaius Octavius (governor in 60 BC - too late), my somewhat haphazard searching finally led to Lucius Julius Caesar. He was governor of Macedonia in 95 BC, which is getting pretty close.

At this point I enlisted the aid of the IWC hive mind:

Help! Can anyone tell me the name of the governor/s of the Roman Province of Macedonia in the years between 95 and 87 BC? *After* Lucius Julius Caesar: https://t.co/Q20jkA62Re

— David Morgan-Mar (@dmmaus) August 30, 2019

as well as recruiting my friends to the task. One of them first uncovered this very promising lead: Sentia gens - an article about a Roman gens, or family line, named Sentia. The first entry in the list of individuals of this line is one Gaius Sentius C. f., who is noted briefly as "governor of Macedonia from 93 to 87 [BC]". Bingo!

The same friend who found this, however, also found that the year 87 BC was a Very Interesting year in the history of Macedonia. Mithridates VI of Pontus (also known as Mithridates the Great) had imperial ambitions of his own and waged a series of three wars against the Roman occupiers of modern Turkey and Greece to extend the kingdom of Pontus westward from the southern shores of the Black Sea. The First Mithridatic War took place from 89 to 85 BC. Mithridates' son Arcathias was one of his army commanders, and in 87 BC he marched on Macedonia. The historical records are not clear on whether the defending Roman legions were defeated in battle or driven out of Macedonia, but either way Arcathias was victorious, thus bringing a hiatus to Roman rule in Greece. The famous Roman general Sulla soon laid siege to Athens, inflicting a retaliatory defeat on the Mithridatic armies, and allowing Roman control of Greece to resume.

So we have the relevant governor of Macedonia in 87 BC, and some interesting history to boot. While this was all cool, in the end I decided to use Lucius Julius Caesar in the comic, because I thought the name was more evocative than "Gaius Sentius C. f." (I never figured out what the C. f. stand for, despite trying to work it out and following a few wikilinks which were not very illuminating), and it's also plausible that Lucius commissioned the anti-Kythera mechanism a few years before it was completed. But research is never wasted! Hopefully we all learnt something cool.


A few readers kindly wrote to inform me that "C." is an abbreviation for the name "Gaius" (one of the most common given names in Roman society), and "f." is an abbreviation for filius ("son of"). So "Gaius Sentius C. f." is Gaius Sentius, son of Gaius.

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