The recent dust-up over the alleged “Roman” sword supposedly found off of Oak Island is only the latest in a string of claims for Roman incursions into America made over the last 500 years or so. The oldest is probably Lucio Marineo Siculo, writing in De rebus Hispaniae memorabilibus 19 (1533), who claimed that a Roman coin of Augustus had been unearthed in Panama shortly after Spanish colonization began. “This wonderful thing has ripped the glory from the sailors of our time, who once boasted that they had sailed there before all others,” he wrote, “since the evidence of this coin now makes certain that the Romans once reached the Indies” (my trans.).
Winsor led me to an interesting note in Brasseur de Bourbourg’s History of the Civilized Nations of Mexico, composed in French, which alleged a Greek intrusion into the Americas that I hadn’t seen before. In fact, I don’t think it’s even mentioned in fringe literature, certainly not in the sources I surveyed today. I give the text as he did, from the Nouvelles annales des voyages for 1832, a collection of articles and reprints about sea voyages and geographic questions. The piece in question is from a Columbian original, in my translation:
Discovery of a Greek Tomb.
Abundant evidence leaves no doubt that the New World had been visited by the ancients centuries before Columbus. Without mentioning the temples of Mexico, which were built on the same plan as that of Delphi, here is a new proof of this assertion:
“In the village of Dolores, two leagues from Montevideo, a farmer discovered a tombstone with unknown characters. Under this stone, he found a brick vault containing two antique swords, a helmet and a shield quite damaged by rust, and an earthen amphora of great dimension. All this debris was sent to the scholar Father Martines, who managed to read the words in Greek characters on the stone: ‘Viou tou Filipp …… Alexand …… to … macdeo …… basi … epi tes execou …… k …… tri …… oly …… en to … top …… Ptolem ……,’ which is to say, in completing the words, ‘Alexander, the son of Philip, was king of Macedonia, during the 63rd Olympiad, to this place Ptolemy…,’ and the rest is missing.
“On the swords’ (sic) handle is engraved a portrait that appears to be that of Alexander, and on the helmet we see a carving representing Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy. Must we conclude from this discovery that a contemporary of Aristotle had set foot in Brazil? Is it likely that Ptolemy, the well-known head of the fleet of Alexander, driven by a storm, through what the ancients called the Great Sea, was thrown on the coasts of Brazil, and there marked his passage by this monument, making for a very curious case for archaeologists?” (Universal Gazette of Bogota.)
Brasseur de Bourbourg, however, wasn’t able to determine whether the story was true, and it certainly bears the hallmarks of the same kind of tall tale told in the past, from the “discovery” of a tomb by a farmer to the crumbling weapons and the attribution to Antiquity. Substitute in giant bones for the sword, and you’d have any number of similar claims, none of which panned out. If there were any truth to the story, it would more likely be Spanish or Portuguese weapons and armor (which are a better match for the imagery described, being much more common in Renaissance-era armaments) and an ambiguous inscription (or even natural grooves) misread through wishful thinking.
It’s a shame the J. Hutton Pulitzer, advocate of the Oak Island sword, isn’t a better researcher, or he’d have found these Old World “swords” before I did.