One night at university, just before midnight, I was walking down a dark alley. I had spent all day working on my Ancient History thesis – the deadline was just a week away. I’d signed up for a shift volunteering for a charity which started at twelve o’clock, but until twenty to twelve I’d been immersed in the world of Philetaerus, a eunuch who had lived in what is now Turkey 2,300 years ago. My head was still full of ancient evidence: stone inscriptions, gold coins, and Philetaerus’s mysterious building programme of several temples to the Mother-Goddess, Cybele.
The alley was narrow and zigzagging. Out of the darkness, a man staggered towards me, slurring heavily. “Oi, mate – got a light?”
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, and I kept walking.
The man stumbled over to me. “D’you go to this university, then?” he said, leaning so close to me that I could smell the alcohol on his breath.
“Yes,” I said shortly.
“That’s cool!” said the man. His eyes were unfocused and his head was bobbing as though he was too drunk to support its weight. “That’s really cool!”
“Sorry, I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I said, which was true. The man had his hand on my shoulder now, and I was trying to walk fast, but he was using me to prop himself up.
“So what’s your subject?” grinned the man. His face was even more uncomfortably close than ever.
“Ancient History,” I said, hoping that someone else would appear around the corner of the alley.
“Amazing! That’s amazing!” enthused the drunkard. “What’re you studying at the moment? The Romans or something?”
I had explained my thesis so often that I replied without even thinking about it. “I’m writing a thesis about a scheming eunuch called Philetaerus, who stole two hundred and thirty-six tons of silver from the King of Asia and used the money to set himself up as an independent warlord in a place called Pergamon, which is now in Turkey.”
“Woah! That’s so cool!” said the drunk man, still leaning on me. “How d’you know he was a eunuch?”
“Um,” I said, surprised by the question, “all the written sources say so.”
“Yeah, but they could be lying,” insisted the stranger. “Did you think about that?”
“Well,” I said, “the sources that are favourable to Philetaerus admit that he was a eunuch, but they seem embarrassed about it, so if it was a lie I don’t think they’d include it.” Please go away, I thought. Please leave me alone.
The man knitted his brow. “But what if he just wanted people to think he was a eunuch, but he wasn’t actually?”
“Why would he pretend to be a eunuch?” I said.
“Well,” said the stranger, “in third-century Asia Minor, the cult of Cybele was flourishing across Anatolia, and because she was the Mother Goddess, Cybele’s priests were usually eunuchs. So if your man Philetaerus was setting himself up as a warlord over the local Pergamene population, perhaps he was seeking to legitimise his rule by associating himself with a popular local cult such as the worship of Cybele. So by pretending to be a eunuch, he could be laying claim to an involvement with Cybele’s local cult.”
It was possibly the most dumbfounding moment of my life. “Philetaerus dedicated his most important temples to Cybele,” I said weakly. I’d been researching them that very afternoon.
“There you go, then,” said the man. “Think about it.”
It turned out he was a postdoctoral researcher in Hellenistic history who had happened to spend the evening getting colossally hammered. At the end of the alley, he cheerfully waved goodbye and staggered off. I hurried to the offices of the charity and let myself in.
“Everything okay, Ollie?” said one of the other volunteers. “You look a bit stunned.”
“I met someone on my way here,” I said, “and now I think I’ve got to rewrite my thesis…”