Descent from antiquity

Descent from antiquity

Descent from Antiquity (DFA) is the project of establishing a well-researched, generation-by-generation descent of living persons from people living in antiquity. It is an ultimate challenge in prosopography and genealogy.

The idea is by no means new. Hellenistic dynasties, such as the Ptolemies, claimed descent from gods and legendary heroes. In the Middle Ages, major royal dynasties of Europe sponsored compilations claiming their descent from Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, in particular the rulers of Troy (see also British Israelism, Euhemerism). Such claims were intended as propaganda glorifying a royal patron by trumpeting the antiquity and nobility of his ancestry. These descent lines included not only mythical figures but also stretches of outright fiction, much of which is still widely perpetuated today. The distinguishing feature of a DFA compared to such efforts is the intent to establish an ancestry that is historically accurate and verifiable. Nevertheless, DFA research still focuses on the ancestries of royal and noble families, since the historical record is most complete for such families.

The possibility of establishing a DFA as a result of serious genealogical research was raised in a pair of influential essays, by the Albany Herald, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, and the late Garter King of Arms, Sir Anthony Wagner. Wagner explored the reasons why it was difficult to do, and suggested several possible routes, based on the work of genealogists such as Prince Cyril Toumanoff, Prof. David H. Kelley, Christian Settipani and Ford Mommaerts-Browne. The term ‘Descents from Antiquity’ was coined by T. Stanford M. S. Mommaerts-Browne in 1984/5. The following years have seen a number of studies of the possibilities. These are highly variable in the quality of their research. Many, if not most, of the DFA-related publications widely used by amateur genealogists are essentially worthless.

No DFA has been proven at this time. However, research has established the outlines of several possible or likely ancestries that could become DFAs. Moreover, the project has stimulated detailed inquiry into the prosopography of ancient and early medieval societies, an effort which is of great value in illuminating the social transformations which took place in those societies.



The terms descent and antiquity both bear some discussion.

Genealogical research usually focuses on biological descent as established by documentary evidence. However, DFA research requires investigating genealogical links in many different societies, which may have had different notions of descent that may, moreover, have changed over time. Terms of relationship such as "uncle" or "cousin" may change radically in meaning over time. Adoptions may not be distinguished from biological births in the available documents – a particular feature of societies such as India or China. Hence the project forces the researcher to decide whether to adopt a biological or a cultural notion of descent.

A second issue is the so-called undetected adultery problem. Available documentation typically gives more information about paternity than maternity, and usually reflects the parentage that was accepted in an individual's lifetime. An example relevant to DFA is the paternity of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI: his mother, Eudokia Ingerina, was married to the future Basil I, whose ancestry is uncertain, while still mistress of Michael III, arguably a Mamikonian descendant, at the time of his birth. While the adultery rate surely fluctuated over time and by social class, it is clear that any very long patrilineal descent is unlikely to be biologically accurate, even if the historical accuracy of the documentation for each link is unimpeachable.

Definitions of "antiquity" may also differ. The usual definition of the end of ancient history in Europe is the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476. There are Irish (e.g., from Niall of the Nine Hostages) and Welsh descents which are generally considered reliable to the early 5th century, which would formally meet this definition. But these are Dark Age societies, and such ancestries are not usually considered DFAs for this reason. Instead, an ancestry which reaches the later Roman Empire in the 4th century is often considered early enough for a DFA. However, the term "antiquity" is normally thought of as classical antiquity, or earlier. With this definition, an acceptable DFA should seek to establish descent from an ancestor who lived before the Crisis of the Third Century or before the legalization of Christianity by Constantine.

In principle, DFAs could also be established in non-European societies, such as China or India. Such a DFA implies a definition of "antiquity" that is appropriate to such societies. For example, a Chinese DFA might seek to establish descent from the time of the Han dynasty, or before the unification of China; an Indian DFA might seek to establish descent from the time of the Gupta dynasty or earlier.

Caucasian route

The most complete proposal for a DFA is the Bagratid one. The route starts with Arsaces, the first of the Arsacids, flourishing ca. 250 BC. One of his descendants, king Tiridates III of Armenia, who reigned early in the 4th century, is known to have been ancestor of Nerses the Great. The latter's son Sahak I was the father-in-law of Hamazasp I, an Armenian ruler from the Mamikonian dynasty. Then the line can be traced, though not with certainty, to a much later Mamikonian, Samuel II of Armenia, whose son-in-law was Smbat VIII Bagratuni, Constable of Armenia and forefather of all the living Bagratids. The advantage of this route is that its crucial links (from Arsacids to Gregorids, from Gregorids to Mamikonids, and from Mamikonids to Bagratids) may be corroborated by near-contemporary sources, dating to within a century after the key marriages took place.

Genealogists wishing to trace a DFA to Western Europe through the Bagratids face the difficulty of establishing a valid line of descent from them to the nobility and royalty of Western Europe. One possibility is the Taronid link. It is known that one of the branches of the Bagratids were rulers of Taron. After they entered Byzantine service, one Maria Taronitissa married John Komnenos, dux in Cyprus, whose daughters were the wives of the Crusader monarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem. Thence a line can be traced easily to the Lusignans and hence to the House of Savoy as well as to James III of Scotland through Louis I, Count of Flanders. Another line, researched in a paper by Dr. Rafal T. Prinke, a well-known Polish genealogist, leads through Helena Komnene, wife of George I "Longhands", Grand Duke of Kiev, and is based on identyfing her mother Irene as Kata, daughter of David IV "the Builder", King of Georgia.

The DFA of the Mamikonian Samuel II of Armenia (above) is fairly solid back to the 4th century, and in principle is traceable to the 3rd century BC. However, the genealogy of the Arsacid dynasty itself is poorly known, both in its Armenian branch and its main line. Archaeological discoveries in Iran and Iraq in recent decades have improved our knowledge of the main line genealogy, but it is still incomplete. That of the Armenian branch, and its relationship to the main line, is still very obscure. Nevertheless it is universally agreed that the kings of Parthia and Armenia over several centuries all belonged to the same line of descent.

Pre-Arsacid descents to this line have also been proposed. The Roman historian Strabo states that "the royal dynasty of Atropatene married into the royal families of Armenia, Syria, and most recently Parthia". In conjunction with other information about these marriages, Settipani interpreted Strabo's statement as showing that a blood link very probably existed between the Arsacid rulers of Parthia-Armenia, the kings of Media Atropatene, and the kings of Commagene. The latter are known to have been descended from the Seleucids, and the Seleucids (as was well known to the ancient authors) prided themselves on being female-line descendants of the Achaemenids.

Prospects for tracing ancestries before the Achaemenids are currently slim. Settipani proposed in 1989 an Egyptian connection through the marriage of the princess Nitetis recorded by Herodotus, and suggested descent lines from her back to Ramses I; connections between the 18th Dynasty and the 19th Dynasty have been suggested but none are plausible. However, the Nitetis descent seems most improbable and Settipani himself has since repudiated it. Chris Bennett proposed a conjecture that Darius I may have had Babylonian ancestry traceable to the 8th century BC, but this path is also highly speculative. The most desirable pre-Achaemenid path would be one that led to an Assyrian descent. The Assyrian kings claimed descent from one Adasi, king in the 17th century BC.

Another line of descent from the Bagratuni to Western Europe starts with Ashot II (d. 928), grandfather of Aron of Bulgaria, father of Tsar Ivan Vladislav, grandfather of Maria, mother of Irene Doukaina, who married the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Their great-grandson (Isaac II Angelos) was the grandfather of Elisabeth Hohenstaufen, mother of Alfonso X of Castile.

Other postulated routes

Innumerable alternative routes of descent from antiquity have been posited. One proposal is to establish Charlemagne's descent from one of the senatorial families of the later-day Imperial Rome based in southern Gaul. This project is of particular interest since all European royal families can trace their descent from Charlemagne, as can many other people who are able to trace their descent from European nobility. While such a link possibly existed, extant sources do not permit reconstructing it with any degree of certainty. The record of senatorial families in the 5th and 6th centuries is very sparse. The genealogical evidence about the Dark Ages of European history is so limited that a firm blood link between the Carolingians and the preceding Merovingian dynasty cannot yet even be reconstructed, although there are some plausible proposals. Moreover, while a large amount of data exists with which to construct a prosopography of the leading provincial families of Imperial Rome in southern Gaul, it is not yet possible to establish a Gallic line that traverses the Imperial Age, though a Roman line through a Gallic one had been proposed in 1991 by Christian Settipani. Therefore, all reconstructions of the DFA through Western European monarchs must remain precarious at best and speculative at worst. The most authoritative published research on these topics is by Settipani. Though two possible lines are proposed for the ancestry of Arnulf of Metz, both are linked to the ancestors who are in turn reputedly linked to the Gallo-Roman genealogies. One of these proposes a descent from the proconsul Flavius Afranius Syagrius.

A possible alternative route to Settipani's original scheme goes through the Counts of Coimbra in 9th century Portugal. That route was originally suggested in a discussion between Settipani and Francisco Antonio Doria; it starts with a Count Ardabastos (b. c. 611), son of a Visigoth refugee in Byzantium, Athanagild (in turn son of Saint Hermenegild) and of Flavia Juliana (a Byzantine noblewoman related to the family of Emperor Maurice), that later moved to Provincia Spaniae (Byzantine possession in Spain) and fathered Erwig, king of the Visigoths (680-687). It is argued that this individual was descended from a Byzantine Artavazd of the great Mamikonian clan. The line is documented in a controversial deed that links the full descent to the historically attested count Hermenegildo Guterres (878); however the genealogical data in that document seems to be sound. If that line holds, due to demographics most of Western Europe is descended from the Mamikonians, and therefore from their ancestors, as indicated by Settipani. However, it is also said that the mentioned Count Ardabastos was a great-nephew of Emperor Maurice, grandson of his brother Peter Augustus, whose ancestry, though Armenian, was of a lower birth. Interestingly, even if Count Ardabastos was "only" a great-nephew of Emperor Maurice, with no kinship to the Mamikonians, through his maternal grandmother Anastasia Areobinda (wife of Peter Augustus and great-great daughter of Flavius Anastasius Paulus Probus Sabinianus Pompeius, Roman consul in 517) he was a lineal descendant of the Valentinian and Theodosian dynasties, as well as of the very ancient gens Anicia, whose first mention dates back to the end of the 4th century BC (Quintus Anicius Praenestinus, curule aedile in 304 BC[1]). If the link between Count Ardabastos and Hermenegildo Guterres is confirmed, it is possible to trace a blood-link between Theodosius I or Valentinian I and Ramiro II of León (gradson of Hermenegildo Guterres) and so, virtually, to most (if not all) of the modern European royal houses.

Another such case for descent from antiquity originates in the Americas (i.e. pre-Columbian civilization) for the descendants of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (himself a direct descendant of the first Aztec king Acamapichtli), among whom can be counted titled members of the Bourbon, Stuart, Habsburg, and Hohenlohe noble houses[2][3] (as well as non-titled people such as Eduardo Matos Moctezuma) and the holders of the titles of Duke of Moctezuma de Tultengo, Dukes of Ahumada, Counts of Miravalle, Duke of Abrantes, Condes de la Enjarada, Condes de Alba de Yeltes,[4] Dukes of Atrisco[3] and Dukes of Alba.

The well known claim that the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia is descended from King Solomon is unverifiable since reliable documentation is lacking before the 13th century. However, an interesting possibility raised by David Kelley in Wagner's original essay was a DFA to the line of David king of Israel, through his descendants the kings of Judah and the Exilarchs, heads of the exiled Jewish community in Babylon. Kelley noted a study of the Jews of Narbonne by Arthur Zuckerman which proposed that a failed claimant to the exilarchate, Natronai ben Havivai, became head of the Jews of Narbonne under the title of Makhir and was better known to history as Theodoric, Count of Septimania, from whom many descents can be traced. Nathaniel Taylor has shown that Zuckerman's theory was based on a misreading of the key document.

Many Muslim families, including such leading families as the Hashemite kings of Jordan, the Alaouite kings of Morocco and the Aga Khans, claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad or his close relatives. The traditional genealogy of the Prophet's clan in the Quraish tribe is widely regarded as accurate to the 3rd century. While many such descents undoubtedly exist, it is difficult to verify them, since the ancestries of even the most exalted of these families include several generations lacking contemporary documentation, or for which the traditions are contradictory.

It has also proved remarkably difficult to establish a Quraish descent into Western Europe in medieval times. One of the more promising conjectures is a proposal by Francisco Antonio Doria (with the help of Marshall Kirk, and following some suggestions by Nathaniel Taylor), to trace the ancestry of several old noble families in Portugal to a family of the late 10th century, the Lords of Maia in northern Portugal. Doria found strong persuasive documentary evidence dating from 10th century Portugal that there were descendants of the Idrisid amirs of Morocco near Coimbra, and that they might have also have been ancestors of the Lords of Maia. There are several male line descents to the present day that can be traced to the Maia clan in a trustworthy manner; chief example is that of the great da Silva family (da Silva Pessanha (chiefs of lineage in both Portugal and Spain), Teles da Silva, da Silva e Meneses, da Silva de Mello Breyner and da Silva Teles da Gama).

In the East, a descent from antiquity may be easier to establish. The Japanese imperial family claims descent from the Emperor Ōjin, who is generally considered historical, though his time of life is uncertain. However, contemporary Japanese records do not commence till several centuries after Ōjin's time, and the tradition reports a major change to a cadet line shortly before the start of the literate period.

The oldest likely DFA is Chinese. Kung Tsui-chang, who succeeded to the title Sacrificial Official to Confucius in the Republic of China in 2009, is the 79th-generation male-line descendant of Confucius. The claim is quite true, the family tree can be proved every generation , and it is likely that some of the descent involves links by adoption. [5][6] Confucius himself is said to have been a distant relative of the Dukes of Song, who were themselves descended from the Shang Dynasty, the earliest ruling family in Chinese tradition which can be documented by contemporary records.

See also

Some ancestries have been proposed and researched, including:


  1. ^ T. Robert S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic (1952).
  2. ^ William Nemos, Thomas Savage, Joseph Joshua Peatfield (1883). History of Mexico, Vol. I 1516-1521. A.L. Bancroft. pp. XIV and 141. 
  3. ^ a b Donald E. Chipman (2005). Moctezuma's Children: Aztec Royalty under Spanish Rule, 1520-1700. University of Texas Press. pp. XIV and 141. ISBN 978-0292706286. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Confucius' Family Tree Recorded biggest". Retrieved 2009-09-27. 
  6. ^ "New Confucius Genealogy out next year". China Internet Information Center. 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-01. "With a history of over 2,500 years covering more than 80 generations, and the longest family tree in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records, the fifth edition of the Confucius Genealogy will be printed in several volumes in 2009, according to an organizer of the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee (CGCC)." 


Useful material on this topic can be found in the archives of the UseNet newsgroup soc.genealogy.medieval, (which is also archived at GEN-MEDIEVAL), and at GEN-ANCIENT. The Yahoo! group Ancient Genealogy discusses DFA-related issues.

Much of the published work on this topic is no more reliable than medieval genealogies, and should be used cautiously. A well-known example is:

  • R. W. Stuart, Royalty for Commoners: The Complete Known Lineage of John of Gaunt, Son of Edward III, King of England, and Queen Philippa (4th edn) (Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2002).

This is also true for most DFA material on the web, see e.g.

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