Gunnar Heinsohn: Porphyry and Power

Textbooks tell us that the catastrophic collapse of the porphyry quarries at Egypt’s Mons Porphyrites/Gebel Dokhan, which had been active since 18 AD, didn’t take place until the mid 4th century.

This late date was chosen to accommodate the porphyry sculptures of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, which according to mainstream chronology bloomed between 305 and 324 AD.

However, secondary finds for dating this collapse suggest it happened in the early 3rd rather than the early 4th century AD.

The most famous of the Tetrarchy’s porphyry works is the statue of its four emperors (Diocletian, Maximinian, Galerius, and Constantius Chlorus), who carry swords.


This unusual sculpture, which stands today in San Marco basilica in Venice, is important not only for the dating of the demise of the porphyry quarries but also for the history of Roman swords.

These vital weapons are well documented in the Roman Empire up to the beginning of the 3rd century.

After that they disappear, in a so far unexplained way.

Strangely, this disappearance happened at a time when at least as many swords would have been needed as in the reign of Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD), 300 years earlier.

After all, Diocletian’s armed forces were almost exactly –– a miracle in its own right –– as large as the armies in the 300-year earlier Augustan period.

“Although Roman weapons attributed to Late Antiquity [4th-6th century] are repeatedly found in rivers, settlements and graves, larger find groups, such as those found in the destruction layers of the 1st or 3rd century AD, are not known to date”1
(Fischer 2012, 350).

Although Diocletian’s armies match the armies of Augustus in size and armaments, the raw material for their swords suddenly became extremely scarce within the Empire:

“The assessment of the late Roman sword armament is made very difficult by the almost complete lack of sword parts in provincial Roman contexts of the 4th century AD. One reason for this may be the possible increased reuse of scrap metal with a simultaneous reduction of metal sword fittings”2 (Miks 2007/I, 453).

The few swords nevertheless labelled as “Late Antique” do not belong to Roman legions but come from contexts that are influenced by Germanic groups (mostly Merovingian, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian), or by Persians and Huns, which is why they are also referred to as “imported weapons”3 (Minks 2007/I, 464).

Yet, such swords can be found

“only in find contexts outside the imperial borders (especially in graves and mire sacrificial deposits) or in burials of ‘foreign’ population groups within the”4 Empire’s borders (Miks 2007/I, 17).

Independent “late antique” (4th century ff.) Roman weapons disappeared from the provinces of the Empire “already in the course of the 3rd century AD”5 (Miks 2007/I, 148).

The “complete lack of sword sheaths in Roman find contexts of the 4th century AD”6 is also lamented (Miks 2007/I, 373).

There is simply no hard evidence for indigenous Roman swords after the 3rd century AD.

Nobody knows how Diocletian’s legionaries defended themselves.

Nobody knows what weapons the legions of Justinian carried into battle in the 6th century AD.

Though Roman swords of the 4th-6th centuries are missing throughout the entire empire, there are, at least, very rare sword representations on sculptures.

The most famous of these is the portrayal of the four tetrarchs, which was made of porphyry marble.

The four rulers carry swords with bird head handles.

The Tetrarchy swords are sensational because they represent by no means a new level of weapon development.

Rather, they bring a completely inexplicable relapse to 300 or even more years earlier pieces from Late Hellenism:

“Bird head handles […] also appear on monuments of the Hellenistic period, such as the balustrade barriers (after 188 BC) of the Athena Shrine in Pergamon […] After that they are well represented at the beginning of the imperial era” of the late 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD” 7 (Miks 2007/I, 210).

This regression by some 300 years makes Diocletian, admired as a brilliant general, look incompetent.

For his soldiers there are no weapons at all, and even the emperors have only 300 year old specimens at their disposal.

The enigmatic “Renaissance of Hellenistic forms”8 (Miks 2007/I, 211) –– instead of developing appropriate weapons to match the most advanced enemies –– causes enormous difficulties of interpretation.

Perhaps, it is proposed, the repeated “promotion of traditional Italian-Greek design details […] was meant to underline the eternal West-East (Greek-Persian) confrontation“9 (Miks 2007/I, 463).

If Diocletian went into battle with outmoded swords or no weapons at all for power-symbolic reasons, he must have been out of his mind.

If, however, he was, as all the sources show, a concerned and reasonable leader, our chronology must be erroneous.

Many stratigraphies show the simultaneity of Diocletian and Augustus.

This parallelism occurred neither in the 1st nor in the 4th century, but –– in real time –– in the early 8th century.

The Tetrarchs tried to show a unified front as border emperors because, after half a century of civil war (88-31 BC), the Empire needed a new beginning.

As contemporaries of Augustus and Tiberius these sub-Caesars acted exactly as expected.

With the dating of the Tetrarchy into the early 1st instead of the early 4th century, the decline of the prophyry quarries can finally be dated correctly.

Since the tetrarchs used porphyry at the beginning of its commercial use (early 1st century AD), their erroneous textbook dates can no longer be misused to prolong the work in the quarries unduly from the early 3rd to the early 4th century AD.

It should be remembered that the early 3rd century of our chronological dogma corresponds to the early 10th century of stratigraphy.

With the simultaneity of Imperial Antiquity, Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the mysterious repetitions of the Spatha, the most important sword of the first millennium AD, can also be explained.

In the last century BC it became the standard sword of the Roman legions.

After that, evolution should have come into its own.

But Late Antiquity, Spatha researchers are convinced, simply wanted to return to the Spatha in the 4th century, although tangible examples are missing.

In the Early Middle Ages of the 8th century, the Spatha experienced, so we learn, a no less mysterious second renaissance.

Now it became the standard weapon of the Carolingians (8th-10th century).

The early medieval Viking sword, too, was simply another incarnation of the Spatha (Peirce 2002; Schietzel 2014, 574-578).

In the High Middle Ages (from the 10th century onwards), however, evolution set in again:

“From the 10th century onwards, the Spatha gradually changed to the broadsword, which can be described as the classic knight’s sword. The blade here is often slightly longer and, unlike the classic Spatha, at least in the later forms, often pointed. The parry bar is significantly enlarged to protect the sword hand during parades” (Spatha 2018).

From the 10th century onwards, evolution resumed its expected activity.

That it seems to have stopped between the 2nd/3rd and the 9th/10th century is not due to bizarre preferences of the people of that time, but to inappropriate chronology ideas of today’s historians.

Once it is understood that the events of Imperial Antiquity, Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages are facets of the same period of the 8th to 10th century, then there are also enough swords.

In Diocletian’s time there are as many soldiers as 300 years earlier in the time of Augustus, because both men act simultaneously.

The swords found for the Augustus period are also the desperately sought-after swords of Diocletian’s time.

One doesn‘t have to spin legends about swordless battles anymore, but can finally start writing the history of war.


1 “Zwar finden sich immer wieder spätrömische Waffen in Fluss-, Siedlungs- und Grabfunden, doch sind bisher ausreichend sorgfältig geborgene größere Fundensembles, wie sie aus den Zerstörungsschichten des 1. oder 3. Jhs. nach Chr. vorliegen, nicht bekannt.”

2 “Die Beurteilung der spätrömischen Schwertbewaffnung wird durch das fast vollständige Fehlen von Schwertteilen in provinzialrömischen Kontexten des 4. Jhs. n. Chr. stark erschwert. Als Ursache hierfür mag unter anderem eine eventuell verstärkte Wiederverwendung von Altmetall bei gleichzeitig geringerer Nutzung metallener Schwertbeschläge anzuführen sein.”

3 “Importwaffen.”

4 “nur noch in Fundkontexten außerhalb der Reichsgrenzen (vor allem in Gräbern und Mooropferdepots) oder aber bei Bestattungen ‚auswärtiger‘ Bevölkerungsgruppen innerhalb derselben.”

5 “schon im Verlauf des 3. Jh. n. Chr.”

6 “vollständige Fehlen von Schwertscheidenteilen in römischen Fundkontexten des 4. Jh. n. Chr.”

7 “Vogelkopfgriffe […] treten auch auf Monumenten der hellenistischen Zeit, wie z.B. auf den Balustradeschranken (nach 188 v. Chr.) des Athena-Heiligtums in Pergamon [… und sind] dann auch schon zu Beginn der Kaiserzeit belegt.”

8 “Renaissance hellenistischer Formen.”

9 “Forcierung traditioneller italisch-griechischer Gestaltungsdetails […] die klassische West-Ostkonfrontation (Griechen-Perser) unterstreichen.”


-Fischer, Th. (2012),
Die Armee der Cäsaren, Archäologie und Geschichte, Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet

-Miks, Ch. (2007),
Studien zur römischen Schwertbewaffnung in der Kaiserzeit, Bd. 1: Text, Bd. 2, Katalog und Tafeln, Kö lner Studien zur Archä ologie der rö mischen Provinzen, Rahden: Marie Leidor

-Peirce, I.G., Oakeshott, E. (2002),
Swords of the Viking Age: Catalogue of Examples, Woodbridge, UK; Rochester, NY: Boydell Press

-Schietzel, K. (2014),
Spurensuche Haithabu: Dokumentation und Chronik 1963-2013, Neumünster/Hamburg: Wachholtz

-Spatha (2018) =, accessed 01-06-2018

Editorial Assistance

Thanks go to Clark WHELTON (New York), and to Tim Cullen (Malaga).

Gallery | This entry was posted in Guest Authors, Heinsohn Horizon, History. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gunnar Heinsohn: Porphyry and Power

  1. Pingback: Gunnar Heinsohn: Diocletian: Ingenious or Insane? | MalagaBay

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