Why August (not September) is called August

What's that fat little bugger doing to my leg?

The month of July gets its name from the birthday of Gaius Julius Caesar. Fair enough. But what about August?

This one always baffled me. Octavian, who was Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son (as everybody discovered to great surprise when reading Caesar’s will), and who would be the future Emperor Augustus was born in September, not August.

September was also when, in 31 BC, Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the sea battle of Actium, thus ending the long civil wars and, in effect, the Roman republic, and installing himself as princeps. Before long he would be “Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus”, or “Commander Caesar, son of god, the Illustrious.” I have asked my wife to address me in this fashion and eagerly await her reply.

So why the month before September?

Well, I just found out, while still reading about Cleopatra, whom I have just made a minor character in one chapter of my book. As it turns out, it had everything to do with Cleopatra. It took Octavian a good year to consolidate his gains after Actium, and he only showed up at Cleo’s capital of Alexandria–you guessed it by now–on August 1 of the following year.

A few icy gestures later, and Antony had shoved a sword into his abdomen, while Cleopatra injected herself with the venom of a snake–Virgil says “two asps”–or perhaps a comb. That was not yet all, however. Cleopatra had had a son with Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion (“little Caesar”) and he was the one man alive who might compete with Octavian in claiming to be Caesar’s heir. Cleo had sent him running as soon as Octavian was approaching, but Octavian’s thugs caught up with him. No more Caesarion.

So August was a big month for Octavian, which is why, when he became Augustus, he named it after himself. Now that I know how these things work, I’m going to try to do something, oh, next November or so. Kluthy. Kluthust. Kluthember. Details to be announced.

The Parthian Shot

Parting Parthian

Parting Parthian

You’ve heard people talk about a “parting shot”, when, for example, somebody makes a miffed exit and on the way out emits a toxic word or two. Well, that’s wrong. It’s not a “parting” shot. It’s a Parthian shot. Who were the Parthians that we name a shot after them?

I bring this up because I’m still reading about Cleopatra as research for my book. And I’m now approaching the bit where Mark Antony, her second lover (after Julius Caesar, the first), is preparing to head east to conquer those Parthians, even as Cleopatra was four or five months pregnant with their third child.

Those are the same Parthians that had succeeded the mighty Persian empire, and who had only a generation before slaughtered an entire Roman army under Crassus, after presenting him his son’s head on a stake. They were utterly not to be messed with. Indeed, Mark Antony, too, would turn back in disaster, with two-fifths of his army killed. The Parthians would remain invincible for another century and a half.

Now to the point: Their most insidious and effective tactic was the retreat, real or feigned. The mounted Parthian archers would suddenly gallop away, drawing the enemy army after them in hot pursuit. But the archers, in full gallop (no reins or stirrups needed), would turn and shoot back, arrow after arrow.

In short, a great party trick, to this day.