Let’s begin at the beginning, with Ammianus Marcellinus. The date is AD 371-2. The streets in Antioch are running red with blood. Quite literally; Ammianus’ descriptions of the tortures would even today be NSFW; very rough indeed, for people who can’t take a joke. He saw conspiracies and heresy around every corner. But even paranoid people have enemies; as one specialist has put it, “Valens’ [trials] overturned a seamy rock of conspiracy under which were crawling some truly threatening creatures.” As a result, virtually nobody in Antioch was having a good time.
Along came Hilarius and Patricius, in league with one Theodorus. Hilarius described it:
“O most honored judges, we constructed from laurel twigs under dire auspices this unlucky little table which you see, in the likeness of the Delphic tripod, and having duly consecrated it by secret incantations, after many long-continued rehearsals we at length made it work. Now the manner of its working, whenever it was consulted about hidden matters, was as follows. 30 It was placed in the middle of a house purified thoroughly with Arabic perfumes; on it was placed a perfectly round plate made of various metallic substances. Around its outer rim the written forms of the twenty-four letters of the alphabet were skillfully engraved, separated from one another by carefully measured spaces. 31 Then a man clad in linen garments, shod also in linen sandals and having a fillet wound about his head, carrying twigs from a tree of good omen, after propitiating in a set formula the divine power from whom predictions come, having full knowledge of the ceremonial, stood over the tripod as priest and set swinging a hanging ring fitted to a very fine linen thread and consecrated with mystic arts. This ring, passing over the designated intervals in a series of jumps, and falling upon this and that letter which detained it, made hexameters corresponding with the questions and completely finished in feet and rhythm, like the Pythian verses which we read, or those given out from the oracles of the Branchidae. 32 When we then and there inquired, ‘what man will succeed the present emperor’?, since it was said that he would be perfect in every particular, and the ring leaped forward and lightly touched the two syllables ΘΕΟ, adding the next letter, then one of those present cried out that by the decision of inevitable fate Theodorus was meant. And there was no further investigation of the matter; for it was agreed among us that he was the man who was sought.”
Ammianus Marcellinus 29.29-32
29.”Construximus”, inquit “magnifici iudices, ad cortinae similitudinem Delphicae diris auspiciis de laureis virgulis infaustam hanc mensulam quam videtis, et inprecationibus carminum secretorum choragiisque multis ac diuturnis ritualiter consecratam movimus tandem: movendi autem, quotiens super rebus arcanis consulebatur, erat institutio talis.
30. conlocabatur in medio domus emaculatae odoribus Arabicis undique, lance rotunda pure superposita, ex diversis metallicis materiis fabrefacta. cuius in ambitu rotunditatis extremo elementorum viginti quattuor scriptiles formae incisae perite, diiungebantur spatiis examinate dimensis.
31. ac linteis quidam indumentis amictus, calceatusque itidem linteis soccis, torvlo capiti circumflexo, verbenas felicis arboris gestans, litato conceptis carminibus numine praescitionum auctore, caerimoniali scientia supersistit cortinulae sacerdos pensilem anulum librans, sartum ex Carphathio filo perquam levi, mysticis disciplinis initiatum: qui per intervalla distincta retinentibus singulis litteris incidens saltuatim, heroos efficit versus interrogationibus consonos, ad numeros et modos plene conclusos, quales leguntur Pythici, vel ex oraculis editi Branchidarum.
32. ibi tum quaerentibus nobis, qui praesenti succedet imperio, quoniam omni parte expolitus fore memorabatur, et adsiliens anulus duas perstrinxerat syllabas THEO cum adiectione litterae postremae, exclamavit praesentium quidam, Theodorum praescribente fatali necessitate portendi. nec ultra super negotio est exploratum: satis enim apud nos constabat hunc esse qui poscebatur”.
For all the good it did them. Valens was definitely not amused:
33 And when Hilarius had laid the knowledge of the whole matter so clearly before the eyes of the judges, he kindly added that Theodorus was completely ignorant of what was done. After this, being asked whether they had, from belief in the oracles which they practised, known beforehand what they were now suffering, they uttered those familiar verses which clearly announced that this work of inquiring into the superhuman would soon be fatal to them, but that nevertheless the Furies, breathing out death and fire, threatened also the emperor himself and his judges. Of these verses it will suffice to quote the last three:
“Avenged will be your blood. Against them too
Tisiphone’s deep wrath arms evil fate,
While Ares ranges on the plain of Mimas.”
When these verses had been read, both were terribly torn by the hooks of the torturers and taken away senseless.
Ammianus Marcellinus 29.1.33
33. Cumque totius rei notitiam ita signate sub oculis iudicum subiecisset, adiecit benivole id Theodorum penitus ignorare. Post haec interrogati an ex fide sortium, quas agitabant, ea praescierint quae sustinerent: versus illos notissimos ediderunt clare pronuntiantes capitalem eis hanc operam scrutandi sublimiora cito futuram: nihilo minus tamen ipsi quoque cum cognitoribus principi caedes incendiaque flagitantes furias inminere; quorum tres ponere sufficiet ultimos:
οὐ μὰν νηποινίγε σὸν ἔσσεται αἷμα καὶ αὐτοῖς Τισιφόνη βαρύμηνις ἐφοπλίσσει κακὸν οἶτον ἐν πεδίοισι Μίμαντος ἀγαιομένοιο Ἄρηος
quibus lectis, unguibus male mulcati separantur exanimes.
The conspiracy obviously failed. What Ammianus never mentions, since all would know, is that if Heckle & Jekyll had not stopped with THeod, assuming Theodorus was meant and gone further they would have had THeodos, Theodosius, who did become the next emperor.
Hilarius and Patricius’ last words are not extant, but one suspects “dang me” would not be inappropriate.
Now it’s Valens’ turn to have a bad day. Remember he was an Arian Christian, and that kind of prophecy was a big no-no, as Hilarius & Co. learned to their sorrow. But Valens…listen, pally, you should have known better. When Valens fell at the Battle of Adrianople AD 378:
“8 This will be enough to say about Valens, and it is fully confirmed by the testimony of records contemporary with me. But it is proper not to omit the following story. At the time of the oracle of the tripod, for which, as I have said, Patricius and Hilarius were responsible, he had heard of those three prophetic verses, of which the last is:
When in Mimas’ plains the war-god Ares rages.
Being uneducated and rude, he disregarded them at first, but as his very great troubles increased he became abjectly timid, and in recalling that prediction used to shudder at the mention of Asia, where, as he heard from the mouths of learned men, Homer and Cicero have written of a mountain called Mimas, rising above the city of Erythrae. 9 Finally, after his death and the departure of the enemy, it is said that near the place where he was thought to have fallen a monument made of a heap of stones was found, to which was fastened a tablet engraved with Greek characters, showing that a distinguished man of old called Mimas was buried there.”
Ammianus Marcellinus 31.14.8-9
8. Haec super Valente dixisse sufficiet, quae vera esse aequalis nobis memoria plene testatur. Illud autem praeteriri non convenit, quod cum oraculo tripodis, quem movisse Patricium docuimus et Hilarium, tres versus illos fatidicos comperisset, quorum ultimus est:
ἐν πεδίοισι Μίμαντος ἀγαιομένοιο Ἄρηος
ut erat inconsummatus et rudis, inter initia contemnebat, processu vero luctuum maximorum abiecte etiam timidus, eiusdem sortis recordatione Asiae nomen horrebat: ubi Erythraeo oppido superpositum montem Mimanta et Homerum scripsisse et Tullium doctis referentibus audiebat.
No everybody’s saying “dang me”. And this is hardly the first time; antiquity is rife with stories of allegedly intelligent people who neglected to ask one followup question of he prophet/oracle. With rather unfortunate results. More on that soon. But for now, in commemoration of the jerks who didn’t ask the followup question: