Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, doctor of Claudius who participated in the conquest of Britain, is honoured at Kos
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.):
Between Pyli and the sea, on the island of Kos (Greece)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum):
Square base broken on top and polished on the bottom
Stone, most likely marble
65 centimetres in height and 40 centimetres in width
Paton, Hicks, The Inscriptions of Cos, no. 345 [IGRR IV.1086; SIG3804]
The format of this inscription looks unremarkable among the many honorific texts monumentalised in the eastern Mediterranean. The importance of our document instead resides in the exceptional career of the man that is praised. Even if the upper part of the stone is broken, we can still restore his full nomenclature as Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, son of Heraklitos, and member of the Roman tribe of Cornelia. This restoration is possible because of the large quantity of related inscriptions also found on the Aegean island of Kos, which will be discussed below.
After the name and filiation, the honours continue with the position for which Gaius Stertinius Xenophon was most distinguished: chief doctor (ἀρχίατρος/archiatros) of the emperors. He did not rise to such prominence by chance, so it is convenient to analyse the circumstances that brought him so close to the imperial court. First of all, Kos was already renowned in the Greek world as one of the most prestigious schools of medicine. Hippocrates was said to come from this island, and the tradition continued in Roman times as attested by the uninterrupted activity of the local healing centre called the Asklepeion (Strabo, Geography XIV.19, see Sherwin-White, Ancient Kos, p. 256-289). Second, this imperial doctor was known to Tacitus, who reports that Xenophon was believed to be a descendant of those families originating from Asklepios (Aesculapius) himself, so his knowledge (scientia) was somehow ancestral (Annals XII.61). From both pieces of information, we can assume that Xenophon received medical training in Kos and was ready to amaze the Romans with his superior abilities. One of the first encounters most likely happened as early as 23 CE. In this year, the Coans sent a delegation to defend the advantageous inviolability (or ἄσυλος/asylos) of their Asklepeion (Tacitus, Annals IV.14) and Xenophon probably acted as ambassador in such an impressive manner that the consul Gaius Stertinius Maximus ended up supporting his grant of Roman citizenship. This would certainly explain the Roman name of the doctor. The peak of his career was reached in the reign of Claudius. The contemporary Pliny the Elder, for example, reports that the emperor had to give him the high salary of 500,000 denarii because Xenophon could easily make more money with private consultations in Rome (Natural History XXIX.7).
His abilities also went beyond medical practice. Indeed, ancient doctors were normally illustrated men, with training in both science and literature. This education made him suitable for the second position of his career listed: “in charge of the Greek responses” (l. 4-5). This corresponds to an imperial office (ab epistulis graecis in Latin) which managed the many official letters sent from Greek communities to the Roman emperor. Claudius was famous for acknowledging the importance of administrators and appointing capable freedmen such as Tiberius Claudius Narcissus to do the job (Levick, Claudius, p. 81-91). His transformation of the chancellery system continued during the 1st century CE, progressively incorporating members of the equestrian order as endorsed, for example, by Vitellius (Tacitus, Histories I.58). Xenophon, a full Roman citizen ascribed to the tribe of Cornelia, decided to follow this equestrian career acting as a military tribune (χιλιάρχης/chiliarchês) and prefect (ἔπαρχος/eparchos). The latter position corresponds to the Latin sequence praefectus fabrum and concerned the supervision of technical services for the emperor. Another inscription related to Xenophon (Maiuri, Nuova silloge, no. 475) notes that he held the office in Rome, and this detail would explain the appearance of his name on a lead plaque presumably prepared by one of his subordinates (CIL VI.8905). An additional statue base of him also provides more information about his military rank (Segre, Inscrizioni, EV 241), specifying that Xenophon was tribune of the 8th legion. Some of its units seem to have participated in the Claudian conquest of Britain (CIL V.7003), and Xenophon could therefore be awarded “the golden crown and spear” during the subsequent triumphal celebrations (l. 8-10). These honours were almost expected for military commanders (Pflaum, Les carrières, p. 43) and, consequently, do not necessarily mean heavy involvement on the battlefield (see Buraselis, Kos, p. 66-75). Instead, Xenophon would have accompanied Claudius mainly as the best doctor of an emperor who was actually accused of inventing fake military posts (Suetonius, Claudius 25).
It is impossible to know how long Xenophon spent assisting the emperor in Rome, a city in which he had time to prepare a funerary monument for his daughter and wife (CIL VI 8905). What is certain is that he returned to his home island, and there was considered a prominent benefactor (εὐεργέτης/euergetês) and worthy of the title “son of the people” (l. 10; see Sherwin-White, Ancient Kos, p. 283-285). To this local phase of his career belong the positions of high-priest of the gods and perpetual priest of the emperors, Asklepios, Hygeia, and Epionê – Asklepios’s mythical wife (l. 14-16). Not coincidentally, these offices combined the two most distinctive aspects of Xenophon’s activities. On the one hand, he was absolutely qualified to supervise the religious activities of the healing deities that promoted his reputation and fame. Furthermore, we have more than a dozen inscriptions from Kos dedicated to the “ancestral gods” and containing vows for Xenophon’s salvation (Martin, “Review of Mario Segre”), and local coins with his portrait represent precisely Hygeia and the Asklepeian serpent (British Museum Coins p. 215, no. 211-215). On the other hand, there is no doubt that he, as a member of the imperial service and Roman equestrian order, could sponsor actions related to the cult of the emperors in Kos. The double local and international nature of his career justifies the remarkable series of honorific adjectives in which his affection for the Caesars (φιλοκαῖσαρ/philokaisar), the emperors (φιλοσέβαστος/philosebastos), the Romans (φιλορώμαιος/philorhômaios), and his fatherland (φιλόπατρις/philopatris) is celebrated.
The interpretation of the erased reference to Nero (φιλονέρων/philonerôn) is more nuanced. Claudius, as other emperors did (see Marasco, “I medici”), had regarded very highly his personal doctor to the point that he granted total immunity to Kos as a reward (Tacitus, Annals XII.61). Letters from the emperor inscribed on the island confirmed this affection (IG XII, 4.1: 254-257 =SEG 58. 855-857), which became very beneficial for the local population. And yet, Xenophon, despite calling himself “Claudius’s lover” (e.g. Segre, Inscrizioni, EV 22, 83, 124, 241), does not appear to have been equally loyal in return for such favours. According to Tacitus (Annals XII.63), the doctor used his medical knowledge to instruct Agrippina on how to poison and murder her husband. Our inscription would consequently illustrate the late transformation of Xenophon into a “lover” of one emperor, Nero, who ended up suffering damnatio memoriae and accordingly having his name erased in both Rome and the provinces of the Empire.
The doctor of Claudius honoured at Kos Author(s) of this publication: Aitor Blanco Pérez Publishing date: Wed, 07/04/2018 - 21:15 URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/doctor-claudius-honoured-kos Visited: Wed, 03/03/2021 - 15:30