Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The wren boys

They had to start the rounds early, because by midday, the locals' reserve of holiday cheer would be depleted. If yours was the first roving band of wren boys to come to a house, you'd do well, but if you were the third or fourth, they might not even answer the door, no matter how well you sang. After the novelty wore off, you were just another beggar, and this was a banner day for beggars.

My father, the postman's son, would wear his Sunday best, save for some walking shoes and a bright green scarf around his neck. The latter was his lone concession to an ancient tradition that would have dressed their leader, an older boy with a strong baritone, in straw and blackface and festooned my father with every piece of colored ribbon from their mothers' dressers. In the town, some of the more established wren boys still bothered with the old trappings, often to the detriment of some poor wren. My father's wren boys were more pragmatic. The town was two miles away and saturated with competition, but they owned the countryside. They skipped the hunt, sparing the wrens to take shortcuts across fields and bogs, through hedges and over fences. When they arrived at each farm, my father was the tenor.
The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his family’s great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
The version my father and his friends sang was in Irish Gaelic and was much less deferential towards the ladies of the houses. They usually answered the door anyway, and listened with expressions of obligation, patient indulgence, and sometimes real enjoyment. A few listened with desperation, and those would often implore the wren boys to stay for an extra song, or two, or three, or perhaps come inside for some tea and cake. They'd do the requests, but the invitations were usually declined, because there was money to be made and the sun was sliding across the low southern sky.

Their Iron Age predecessors may have paraded a dead wren around the countryside as part of a ceremony that imbued its receiving households with a small portion of the wren's supposed powers of divination and foresight. It's probably just as well that that my father and his friends left the wrens alone; as it was, they learned soon enough that a wren boy's windfall was as good as it got in the hills of West Cork.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

FEAST!

Bill & Ted used a time-traveling phone booth, but in a pinch, a tatty old Ford Taurus will also do. This funny series of history-themed ads for Snickers candy bars has recently begun airing in the U.S.:



You can find episodes 2-8 (!) here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The baths (?) are alive with the sound of music

Anyone planning on visiting Hadrian's Wall this Saturday may want to note this bizarre little news item so that they can plan their visit accordingly. I have no pretensions to being a travel consultant, but my humble advice to such folks would be to schedule a late lunch:
Choirs, including Carlisle’s Margaret Frayne Singers, will be accompanied by loofahs, bath toys and shower caps.
That said, if anyone reading this is in the vicinity, I'd love some photos or video.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Sinister?

Breaking the silence with a link: The Times has a tight, evocative travel piece on Rome. I don't know what's so "sinister," as the headline claims (I'm fortunate to be permitted to write my own headlines, most of the time), but Salley Vickers gets to a handful of places that might not otherwise be on the itinerary of a first-time visitor.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

America and Rome, Part II

If I didn't think I would write Part I of this post, I certainly didn't expect to find myself writing Part II. However, my blogfriend Judith Weingarten stopped by to comment. I began responding in that thread, but it was getting so long that I decided to make it a new post.

She writes, "OK, I know it's facile but one parallel with ancient Rome gives me nightmares: an over-mighty mercenary military. Think Septimius Severus, the 3rd century, and onwards."

What an image! GHW Bush counseling GW and Jeb Bush with his dying breath, "Keep the army happy and ignore the rest." My money's on GW as the Caracalla of that scenario, but I may be underestimating Jeb.

American military leaders might wish they held that kind of sway over the executive. Though I'll gladly defer to Judith's expertise, it seems to me that the Roman army and American military have less in common than some other analogous institutions.

Aside from the American military's diminished kingmaking ability (which was, unlike Rome, nearly always a function of the electorate's positive perceptions of military service...I could imagine MacArthur marching on Washington, but not Ike), I doubt the mindset of the American soldier very closely resembles that of a Roman legionary. U.S. rank and file soldiers aren't in it for the money, which is mediocre. If you're able to become a U.S. soldier, you are also able (if the economy is even somewhat vibrant) to find any number of other jobs that pay better and don't require such dramatic commitments of time and freedom.

If not money, then what? Adventure, respect, vocational cachet, and, even in these dark days, patriotism. Check out this new recruitment ad for the U.S. Marines:



And if you do join, by God, they'll make an epic Anglo-Saxon hero out of you:



How important were ideas like this to young men in the 3rd and 4th century empire? I don't know, but now I'll have to do some reading.

One similarity I'll grant is the manner in which the modern American army is becoming disproportionately composed of 1st and 2nd generation immigrants who see military service as one avenue to greater acceptance into American society. They are eagerly received by recruiters who have a tough time selling the volunteer military to a disinterested native populace that is preoccupied with its own entertainment (and is, at best, dimly aware of the ways that events on the world stage affect daily life). When the McDonald's-eating sons of America do enlist, they often can't handle basic training. The end result, says former soldier Brian Mockenhaupt, is that standards and soldiers are both getting softer.

In any case, I don't think the military is especially "over-mighty" or "mercenary" these days, at least, not when compared to the Romans or even to itself in the 1950s. As for the current administration, it didn't follow Septimius Severus's legendary advice: it has spent far more energy ensuring the loyalty of the corporate sector than that of the military. I guess it doesn't see David Petraeus as a threat to march on Washington. Eh, he wouldn't look good in purple, anyway.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Oldest known" Irish ringfort found

The Irish Examiner has an item about the discovery of a 20-acre ring fort in County Cork, Ireland:
Radiocarbon dating shows that the ringfort was constructed about 1200BC, confirming it as the oldest known prehistoric ringfort in Ireland, according to Prof William O’Brien of University College, Cork. This puts its importance on a par with prehistoric sites such as Dún Aengus on Inishmore and Mooghaun, Co Clare.
Hat tip to Archaeoblog.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Under new management

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are the new owners of a French vineyard that supplied ancient Rome.

Château Val-joanis is located near the old Via Domitia, and the remains of the Roman villa are supposedly visible on "the lower part" of the property. I'm not sure whether that means "topographically lower" or "south."

Here's the modern winery on Google Maps. I can't see anything that's obviously the villa site, but the image resolution varies over the area. Maybe a more discerning eye can spot it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The America and Rome post

The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius. John William Waterhouse, 1883
I decided some time ago that I wasn't going to write a post like this one, but the "U.S. as Rome" meme, which had recently begun to fade, has been given fresh legs by the imprimatur of David Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States. Here's an excerpt from Walker's speech at an August 7 meeting of the Federal Midwest Human Resources Council and the Chicago Federal Executive Board:
There are striking similarities between America’s current situation and that of another great power from the past: Rome. The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, but only about half that time as a republic. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar?
I got tired of the steady stream of "U.S. as Rome" comparisons months ago, not only because the blogosphere seems to produce several new ones each day, but also because most of them—even a few of those written by apparent professionals—read like comparison-and-contrast essays for a high school English class. Some mangle basic facts of the history of the United States, ancient Rome, or both. Most distastefully, a disturbing number are noticeably steeped in schadenfreude. Unlike Walker or Cullen Murphy, they don't offer analyses on the shared problems and strengths of two states separated by two thousand years of history, but are instead rhetorical cudgels wielded against America's alleged self-image. The Romans got what was coming to them, and so will America, or so goes the thinking.

Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), who has reinvented himself as a popular historian, has been a celebrity standard-bearer for this phenomenon with his various television programs about ancient Rome and its neighbors. Tony Keen observed last summer that Jones seemed at least as concerned with allegory as documentary:
Jones has an agenda, of course, one some right-wing commentators predicted early on, and which emerges most strongly in the programme on the 'barbarians' of the east. That agenda is the equation of ancient Rome with the modern United States. So, the Roman occupation of north-west Europe is a 'war on the Celts', and he talks of how the Romans came a cropper in the Middle East, just as the Americans are now doing (Jones doesn't say this out loud - he doesn't have to). (Here, Jones has his cake and eats it - the Parthians beat the Romans because their values were utterly different from Rome's, whilst the Sassanians prevailed through being exactly the same as the Romans, only more so.) As it happens, I tend to agree with Jones' opinion of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But this simplistic equation helps us understand neither Rome nor America.
Ah, yes. George W. Bush. America was such a swell old superpower until he came along in 2001 and mucked it up with his darned unilateralism. If only we could have that America back. But then, here's Eddie Izzard, performing in San Francisco in 1998:



I don't mean to suggest that it's somehow invalid to compare the U.S. and Rome. Cullen Murphy, who appeared on Book TV last month in support of his newest book, Are We Rome?, correctly pointed out that even if the U.S. didn't enjoy the world's catbird seat, it would still invite these comparisons with everything from the design of its capitol's public buildings to the name of its governing assembly. The architects of the nation borrowed heavily from Republican Rome. The enshrined ideal of Rome, or, more precisely, what Rome could have been in more Enlightened hands, was as powerful a lure for them as it was for ten centuries of Europeans before them. America was designed to be, among other things, a revised Rome.

Also, David Walker is right. The problems he cites don't all have parallels with late Rome, but that doesn't make them any less daunting. The U.S. is spending lots of money it doesn't have. A huge segment of the population is heading into retirement with the expectation of a plush government pension. The military is overextended. The infrastructure is badly in need of repairs and modernization.

Like Walker, I'm confident that these problems are surmountable. But if this is a terminal decline, its Western spectators shouldn't look on with any degree of satisfaction. Here's Britain's Bryan Ward-Perkins, writing about the "kinder, gentler" fall of Rome that has pervaded late Roman historiography for the last generation:
My worries about the new Late Antiquity, however, go deeper...there is a real danger for the present day in a vision of that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and all decline. The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.
He's not just addressing America, but all of Western (and Westward-looking) civilization. If, in the coming decades, the loci of geopolitical and economic clout begin to shift in the way many observers believe, I suspect the world will miss the so-called American Empire when it's gone. And it's then that the U.S. and ancient Rome will display their strongest parallel: as idealized symbols of golden ages past.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Maximus the Confessor


Seventh century Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor is the subject of today's featured article on Wikipedia.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hadrian colossus, redux

Last week's discovery of a huge Hadrian statue in Turkey has filtered down to the mainstream news outlets. Here is National Geographic's take, and here's the Beeb.

All the hubbub inspired Tony Keen to reflect upon our modern perceptions of Hadrian.

Update: Yet more coverage at The Independent.

Set of HBO's Rome destroyed by fire

An overnight fire at Rome's Cinecitta Studios has destroyed the sets of the recently-completed HBO/BBC television series, "Rome." The older areas of the studio, where "Ben Hur" was filmed, were undamaged.

On a mostly unrelated note, the show's storyline ended in 30 BC, but it wasn't until AD 6 that Augustus got around to establishing a fire brigade...

Update: The original link to the Times story has vanished, but here's ABC News to the rescue. Also, a clarification on the supposed destruction of the "Rome" sets:
The main set of "Rome," which includes a mock Roman forum, wasn't destroyed, but other parts were heavily damaged, said HBO spokeswoman Mara Mikialian.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Nomads, then and now

Today's New York Times has a piece by Ilan Greenberg (accessible without registration via the IHT) on how the ancient social order of nomadic societies in central Asia weighs upon their present political realities:
Scientists are discovering that nomadic cultures are flexible, switching between transient and more sedentary ways of life, and assimilating and inventing new ideas and technologies. Nomads created durable political cultures that still influence the way those countries interact with outsiders or negotiate internal power struggles.
While reading this, I was reminded of Mark Whittow's observations about the Eurasian steppe peoples in his 1996 book, The Making of Byzantium. While noting that "the potential of steppe nomad states was enormous," Whittow writes that social underpinnings based on small tribes and familial connections didn't do much for the stability of those states:
The closer to its roots a nomadic society was, the more likely it was to be politically unstable. A major setback or crisis and the nomad empire could dissolve into its fragmentary, stateless past. If the states of the settled world could surmount the initial crisis of a nomad attack, their institutions were much more likely to endure in the long term. On the other hand, if a nomad state developed away from this structure, and became closer in form to a sedentary state, it might well become more stable but only at the price of losing the characteristics that made it militarily formidable in the first place.
I think it's reasonable to say that many parts of central Asia have had their share of "major setbacks" and "crises" over the last few decades, with fragmentation and statelessness the result in, say, Afghanistan. I leave it to others to speculate on whether the "flexibility" described by Greenberg is better at creating "durable political cultures" than the more permanent-sounding transformation described by Whittow. Greenburg's article implies that it may not be possible for a nomadic culture to fully transform into what we think of as a "state":
Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may take on the trappings of modern, Western nation-states, with parliaments, justice departments and other governmental agencies, researchers say. But politics are still driven by the customs and institutions of nomadism, in which political disputes were settled at the level of family, clan and tribe.
Aha! So that's why Pope Leo simply asked Attila to go away. He knew nation-building would have been a tall order.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Giant Hadrian statue found in Turkey

Via rogueclassicism, this astonishing find from Turkey: fragments from a 5-meter statue of the emperor Hadrian. As the RC notes, there's no English coverage yet, but here is a brief item in French. Pardon my rough, paraphrased translation:
A team of archaeologists from the KUL has discovered fragments of an exceptional statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian during an excavation in Sagalassos, Turkey, reports the VRT (Belgian state TV).

Part of a leg was found with sandals, which indicate that the wearer is an emperor. Part of a thigh and a nearly intact, 70 cm head were also found. The complete statue would have measured 4-5 meters in height. It appears to date to the second century. According to professor Marc Waelkens, who leads the team, it is one of the most beautiful representations of the Emperor Hadrian.
For comparison, here's a bust of Hadrian from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Update: Archaeology Magazine now has an online feature on the find.

Update #2: Link provided to the Sagalassos dig.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Alexandria, before Alexander

Via Alun Salt's nifty Historyscape feed comes this LiveScience article about Rhakotis, a town on the site of what would later become Alexandria. Sediment cores from the harbor suggest that there was a "flourishing urban settlement" more than 700 years before Alexander marked out his city's limits.

Archaeology is usually a grimy business, but the Smithsonian's Jean-Daniel Stanley says that getting these cores set a new standard in that regard:

Collecting these samples underwater proved challenging. "Alexandria now is home to as many as 4 million people, and we were in the unfortunate position of having to deal with their discharge—human waste, municipal waste, industrial waste—which got released into the harbor," Stanley said. "It's not funny, but you have to sort of laugh."
The Smithsonian's magazine ran a more extensive piece on this dig back in April.

ETA: Apologies to David Meadows for inadvertently stealing the title of his entry on a similar article...

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Louvre's Roman collection comes stateside

Eric at Campus Mawrtius tells us that the Indianapolis Museum of Art is the first of three stops for an exhibition of 184 selected Roman pieces from the Louvre. The show opens September 23 and runs until January 6, 2008.

The American Federation for the Arts says that next year, the exhibit will go to Seattle (February 21 to May 11) and Oklahoma City (June 19 to October 12).

I'm glad to see this going to some lesser-known museums, especially those in Indy and OKC. Can't let the coastal cities have all the fun!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Saxons probably didn't have a word for "frosting"

Anyone considering applying to the AIRC's field school, as featured in the previous post, should know that working on a dig can be very physically demanding. The field school tuition does provide a daily meal to keep your constitution up, but it's unlikely that any actual artifacts are on the menu.

Should you actually feel like chowing down on a piece of history, tonight's episode of Ace of Cakes featured a birthday cake in the shape of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

Roman baths find announced

Popping up everywhere, as AP bulletins do, is this story about a bath complex once owned by Quintus Servilius Pudens, a buddy of the emperor Hadrian. It was unearthed at the big Parco degli Acquedotti dig site, in the suburbs south of the old city. The American Institute for Roman Culture, which runs the dig, has a page which suggests this was actually discovered last year (assuming this is the same "imperial" bath complex mentioned on that page).

With a hat tip to Adrian Murdoch, here's a Google Maps link to the Parco degli Acquedotti. Many previously excavated areas are visible, and if you pan back, the American school's presence is betrayed by the baseball fields (!) to the south. So much for "when in Rome..."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Peter Heather on HNN

Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians came out in 2005, but the paperback only hit U.S. shelves a few weeks ago. Heather summarizes his thesis—yes, it was barbarians, and Rome made them—in a new essay at HNN.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A murder mystery preserved in peat

The summer solstice brings us new Prehistoric and Roman Britain galleries at The British Museum, and the Guardian celebrates same with a nice tie-in piece about the death and times of Lindow Man:
A single brown fingernail lies on the leather bag of his chest, which tapers to nothing where the peat-cutting machine chopped him in two. His arm lies next to him, but these fragments of a body would mean nothing, were it not for the look on his face. A face that is 2,000 years old is not expected to have a "look". Death destroys individuality - but not his. When the remains came rising out of a Cheshire bog in 1984, that deflated torso would turn out to be packed with biological information, clues to a violent death, but it's all there for anyone to see, the full horror of it, in his face. It is the face of the eternal victim, bound and garrotted and thrown into the marsh.
Full article is at the Guardian.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The walls of Durobrivae

A quickie as I head out the door this morning...

Archaeologists working on the medieval castle in Rochester, Kent—founded by the Romans as Durobrivae shortly after the invasion in 43—have stumbled upon the remains of a Roman-era city wall. Graham Keevill, an archaeologist on the dig, was enthusiastic about the condition of the accidental find:
"We don't have many Roman city walls surviving in England. To get an unexpected one like this is fantastic. It is also a perfect example."

He said the wall had "high-quality" facing stones on each side, and its rubble core, made up of stone, flint, sand, and gravel, would have been poured in "to set hard almost like concrete, to bind the whole wall together".

Friday, June 15, 2007

Justinian's Flea

The Economist has a mixed review of William Rosen's Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. Some highlights:

Mr Rosen argues his position methodically and thoughtfully. He has a lot of ground to cover and he will not be rushed. So there are chapters not only on Justinian and the plague but also on the migration of the Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Huns; on Byzantine architecture; on Roman law; on China and the silkworm; and on the emergence of Islam...

At this point, thumbing the remaining 200 or so pages to come, one begins to wonder whether the whole thing might be somewhat overlong and overdone. There is no sense of its having been padded—just a slightly crushing abundance of riches, of multiple lines of inquiry, to every one of which Mr Rosen gives his close attention...“Justinian's Flea” reads like several books in one and the glut is, by the end, a little hard to digest.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Grip harsh iron rather than the tender wheat


Piazza San Silvestro, Rome
By 799, they didn't observe the Robigalia in Rome anymore. Gods of mildew were a thing of the past, as were vile sacrifices of dog and sheep guts. But people still knew that a higher power had to be enlisted on April 25 to prevent the crops from succumbing to blight and mold. They turned to the bishop, as they had done for most things since the days when chunks of masonry first began falling off the empty buildings on the Palatine Hill. Just as his fifth-century namesake had interceded on Rome's behalf against other, more immediate (and better armed) threats to the public interest, Pope Leo III stepped into the void.

His service was not welcomed by all. Leo struggled to establish himself in the long shadow of his dynamic predecessor, Pope Hadrian, who had been dead for less than four years. Most of the awestruck pilgrims lining the papal procession route hadn't heard the rumors swirling around the new pope, which were scandalous. He had told lies before God, some said. He was an adulterer, whispered others. These were not the sorts of things that were said about popes, even unpopular ones. The rumors were a matter of concern even in distant Aachen, where the Frankish king Karl—the man later generations would call Charles the Great, or Charlemagne—worried that his pious friend, Hadrian, had been succeeded by a moral midget.

Two of Hadrian's relatives who served on Leo's staff were determined, with the help of some friends, to resolve the problem. The Major Litany, as the Christianized vestiges of the Robigalia were now called, took Leo from the Lateran to the Milvian Bridge by way of the monastery of SS Stephen and Silvester, eventually winding up at the fourth-century Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill.

It was near the monastery that they made their move, according to the Liber Pontificalis:

They suddenly leapt out of their place of ambush so as to slay him impiously...when this happened, all of the people round him, who were unarmed and ready for divine service, were scared of the weapons and turned to flee...without mercy, they [the attackers] cut his clothes off him and attempted cruelly to pluck out his eyes and totally blind him. They cut off his tongue and left him, or so they thought, blind and dumb in the middle of the street.

Unfortunately for the attackers, they couldn't bring themselves to deliver the coup de grace. They locked Leo up in a monastery on the Caelian Hill, near the great round church of San Stefano Rotondo. Grievous as his wounds were, Leo made a full recovery within a few weeks. Soon after that, while his erstwhile assassins debated what to do with him, Leo's chamberlain successfully executed a late-night jail break. He would return to the immediate safety of St. Peter's, yes, but then what...?

You'll have to buy the book to find out what happened next, but Jeff Sypeck's "Mutilation of Pope Leo III Commemorative Walking Tour" proved just as unexpected a highlight of our whistle-stop trip to Rome as did our twilight visit to the Salarian Gate. When he's not nagging Charlemagne to stop leaving funny little hairs stuck to the soap, Jeff can often be found at his new blog, Quid plura?

(Title is from Ovid: Fasti, Book IV.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Endangered sites

The World Monuments Fund has released its annual list of the world's 100 most endangered historic sites. Iraq's sites get top billing, as do Machu Picchu and Ireland's Hill of Tara, which is infamously threatened by a highway construction project.

That Chicago Tribune article is mistaken about the Tara project, which would not actually go through the hill. Ireland may appear to be busily ignoring its heritage in favor of its economic boom, but they're not quite that far gone...yet. The highway would be about a mile from the site, but its reasonably supposed that many undiscovered Tara-era sites are imperiled by the construction. As it happens, the highway project was temporarily halted in April after preservationists discovered an Iron Age temple.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A very small carnival

This is one of the more thorough news articles I've seen on the c. 400 Roman man under Trafalgar Square.

Over at the Huffington Post, Byron Williams compares Jerry Falwell to Constantine.

Smintheus at Unbossed.com opened a discussion on The Golden Ass, the only (if I'm not mistaken) surviving novel from the Roman imperial period.

...finally, a shout-out to Clioaudio for linking to the Serapeum entry. A needed jolt after an unplanned, six-week hiatus. Thank you!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Serapeum

Serapis stood alone. The statue of Alexandria's patron god wore the same expression of divine detachment as it had for seven hundred years, with a grain measure balanced on his head to symbolize his blessings of plenty upon his city.

But the people assembled before him now were not his followers. They were gone, fled or hidden after the imperial herald read a pronouncement from the Emperor Theodosius: The Hellenes, as the Christians called anyone who followed the old gods, would receive amnesty for their role in the bloody siege that had paralyzed "the crown of all cities" for weeks, but their cult was now illegal.

Serapis had become deus non gratis in his own city, and this was his reckoning. As his followers scattered, the soldiers had marched confidently into the massive temple, but now they paused. Declaring a cult illegal and driving off its adherents was one thing. Raising arms against a god was quite another. Folk wisdom held that if harm came to the statue, the earth would open beneath the city and bring the heavens crashing down.

So they stood there, the statue and the mob, and they faced off. Glances and nervous murmurs were exchanged as some wondered who would make the first move while others marveled that it had come to this.

It had all started when some men working on a house near the Agora had stumbled upon a buried shrine to one of the old gods. Some said it had been a Mithraeum, while others said it just was a few crumbling idols of Ammon, forgotten beneath the floorboards. Nobody was really sure, but it no longer mattered. If the workmen had just dismantled it and kept working, nobody would have been the wiser, but that wasn't what happened. They were Christians. Unnerved by their accidental defilement of the shrine, they sought protection from their own god and sent for one of their priests. That priest told Theophilus, and Theophilus, of course, was the bishop of Alexandria.

Theophilus was regarded as well as any man in his position might hope to be, but six years into his episcopate, he was still trying to fill the shoes of his mentor. Bishop Athanasius, who had been born in the days before the Christian religion was officially tolerated, was a towering figure who'd once planted himself in front of the the great emperor Constantine's horse to demand an audience. Perhaps more impressively, Athanasius had survived the reign of Constantine's son, Constantius, an Arian who'd sent him into exile. Athanasius was the friend and biographer of Saint Antony, one of the holiest Christians Egypt had ever produced. In this city, Athanasius was a legend. Theophilus was...well, he was Athanasius's secretary.

Theophilus had continued Athanasius's dogged campaign to drive the old religions from the public square. Like bishops throughout the empire, he used his influence to help ensure that all the best public jobs and business went to Christians. With the support of the praetorian prefect, ancient temples which had fallen into disuse were destroyed or converted into churches. But Theophilus's ultimate wish was to achieve a goal set out by Athanasius—the closing of the Serapeum, a building which constantly reminded the city's Christian elite that their god's triumph was incomplete. Shutting it down would give Theophilus his own legacy, but the Serapeum wasn't some dilapidated roadside shrine. It was one of the city's signature buildings, a great source of civic pride and a place which reassured the city's traditionalists that they still mattered. After all, everyone knew that it was Serapis, not the Christian god, who convinced the god of the Nile to flood the fields every year. Let the Christians distribute the daily bread in their god's name. Without Serapis, Alexandria wouldn't have any.

Closing the Serapeum, then, meant directly confronting Serapis's cult—and, by extension, all the old cults. The last man in Alexandria foolish enough to attempt such a thing, an Arian bishop from Cappadocia named George, once paused before the Serapeum and asked the crowd, "How long shall this sepulchre stand?" Not long after that, an angry mob tore him apart.

That was thirty years ago. The Christian ascendancy had proceeded apace since then, but nobody in the establishment wanted to become the next George, least of all Theophilus.

Still, when Theophilus learned of the workmen's find, he saw an opportunity to preach his god's superiority. He rounded up the shabby idols and other mysteries and paraded them through the Agora in a parody of an imperial triumph. Christian crowds gathered to jeer and throw rubbish at the old statues.

Then someone threw a punch, and a Christian fish seller went down in a heap. Theophilus slinked away and thus avoided George's fate, but the city descended into bedlam. Hellenes rioted everywhere. One, a grammar teacher named Helladius, boasted later that he had singlehandedly killed nine Christians.

Unfortunately for the Hellenes, they had played into Theophilus's hands. There weren't enough of them to actually take control of the city, and they eventually retreated to the district surrounding the Serapeum, where their numbers were strongest. The Serapeum itself became a citadel, and for several days the Hellenes used it as a base to conduct raids on Christian businesses and churches while the authorities tried to figure out how to resolve the situation. The Emperor Theodosius made it clear that he didn't want the massacre that would result if the soldiers stormed the temple, but he, too, was a Christian, and what had happened in Alexandria couldn't be allowed to happen again.

So now Serapis, his expression ever serene—or, perhaps, resigned—waited to see which of the soldiers would test the ancient warning.

It happened suddenly. One soldier (a Christian, of course), took an axe and furiously attacked the statue. His comrades initially drew back and braced themselves, but as Serapis's jaw fell to the ground without divine retribution, they joined in the rout. Alexandria's patron god was quartered and burned in every district of the city, except for his trunk, which was placed atop a pyre in the theater. In the following weeks, Serapis idols gradually vanished from doorjambs and windows all over the city. A god who couldn't protect himself offered no protection to his followers.

The following year, the Nile flooded like no other time in living memory, threatening to swamp the city. Serapis was gone, but the Nile didn't seem to care.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Balkan amphorae

Illyrian ships found under a swamp near Capljina, Bosnia-Herzegovina date to the 2nd century B.C. and were apparently shipping wine, according to a preliminary analysis of the remaining amphorae.

Friday, April 06, 2007

More Egeria

A few days after Egeria's mention here, the Reverend Chloe Breyer gives her a more thorough treatment in Slate:
The ease with which she attained military escorts through far-flung and dangerous places suggests high connections in the imperial court. Indeed, one line of research makes her out to be the daughter of a Spanish member of the court of Theodosius the Great, emperor from 379 to 395, and possibly the leader of what St. Jerome rancorously described as a wealthy and ostentatiously behaved travel party heading to the East at about that time.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Roman tomb find

Archaeologists have uncovered a Roman-era tomb on the Greek island of Kefalonia. The AP report is vague, but there's a photo of seating in what looks like a theatre of some kind. The caption implies that this is in the same area as the tomb. More details in the coming days, hopefully.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Religious tourism, then and now

The NYT's Michael Slackman reports today on the doings of Egypt's chief archaeologist in the Sinai peninsula. His team has recently unearthed a military fort which dates to the period of the Exodus, but he doesn't think much of the Exodus itself:
“Really, it’s a myth,” Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom.
Whatever the official position of the state, local tourism businesses remain happy to capitalize on eager believers:
In Egypt today, visitors to Mount Sinai are sometimes shown a bush by tour guides and told it is the actual bush that burned before Moses.
It's unclear whether Slackman is referring to the bush in Saint Catherine's Monastery, which has enclosed the purported site of Moses' vision since the third century. In any case, pointing out the bush to wide-eyed religious tourists is not a recent innovation.

Egeria, an aristocratic Spanish pilgrim who traveled to the region in the early 380s, describes how her "holy guides" led her to the bush at Saint Catherine's in her Itinerarium Egeriae:
...there were very many cells of holy men there, and a church in the place where the bush is, which same bush is alive to this day and throws out shoots. So having made the whole descent of the mount of God we arrived at the bush about the tenth hour. This is that bush which I mentioned above, out of which the Lord spake in the fire to Moses, and the same is situated at that spot at the head of the valley where there are many cells and a church. There is a very pleasant garden in front of the church, containing excellent and abundant water, and the bush itself is in this garden.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Whither Ithaca?

The conventional wisdom is that Homer's Ithaca is the modern island of Ithaki, off the coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea. British archaeologist Robert Bittlestone is challenging that assumption, and modern science will be at his disposal.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Late Antique Yemen

On the heels of the last post, I was entranced by this lush travel article in the New York Times (free registration required) about the Yemeni island of Socotra, off the Horn of Africa. It's not difficult to imagine traders on that Alexandria-India run porting here for one last pit stop before the big push across the Arabian Sea:
Socotra is significantly inhabited, and has been for some 2,000 years. More than 40,000 people now live there: many in Hadibu, the island’s main town, the rest scattered in small stone villages, working as fishermen and semi-nomadic Bedouin herders. Nature and culture are longstanding neighbors.
I especially liked this bit:
Lying on the rocky ground, with the scent of frankincense fresh in memory, I felt as though I had stumbled into a chapter of the Old Testament. Well before dawn I woke to the sound of the family patriarch’s voice warbling a long, mournful prayer. He finished after a few minutes, and the night closed over the sound. I listened awhile longer to the holy darkness, then fell again to sleep.
Mainland Yemen was a player on the Late Antique geopolitical scene. Throughout most of antiquity, the region was politically fragmented among several small kingdoms, but by 300 it had been unified under the mountainous western kingdom of Himyar. Himyarite rule lasted until 525, when the Jewish ruler incurred the wrath of the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia (roughly, modern Ethiopia). The Abyyssinian king, Kaleb, converted the Himyarites to Christianity at sword-point and placed a puppet on the throne.

Soon after, Abraha, one of the generals Kaleb left behind to manage the occupation, seized power and broke off from Abyssinia, but he overextended himself with an attempt to conquer more of the Arabian peninsula in 552. In 570, Sayf ibn dhi-Yaz'an, a Yemenite Jewish aristocrat, appealed to Sassanid Persia to oust the Christians. The Sassanids, who were engaged in their seemingly neverending struggle with the Byzantine Empire, were happy for any opportunity to widen their sphere of influence. They promptly sent troops, displaced what was left of Abyssinian rule, and installed a governor. In 632, as the forces of Muhammad were conquering what would become the Islamic empire, the last Persian governor of Yemen threw his support to them. Once the most powerful state on the Arabian peninsula, Yemen was unceremoniously subsumed by the first caliphate and declined into a backwater.

Sayf ibn dhi-Yaz'an's gambit was nominally successful, in the long run. Under Islamic rule, Yemenite Judaism enjoyed a resurgence that lasted until the 19th century, but Christianity was virtually wiped out on mainland Yemen. The gilded cathedral in the Himyarite capital of Sana'a (still the capital of Yemen today), built by Abraha to demonstrate his power and attract Christian converts from wandering Arab tribes, was destroyed in the 8th century. Some of its bricks and columns are part of the modern city's great mosque.

Out on Socotra, among the frankincense trees, Islam did not come with Muhammad. Yemenite Christianity on Socotra managed to hang on until the 16th century, when Islam finally hitched a ride to the island via Portuguese traders in the Indian Ocean.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Indian spices and Roman trade deficits

There is news from India today on continued archaeological efforts to identify the site of the ancient Indian city of Muziris, one of the most important ports for trade between India and Rome.

Traders from Alexandria and the rest of Roman Egypt would wait until July to set out for India. Under typical conditions, it was a two month journey, but departing any sooner would place a ship off India's southwest coast during the most dangerous sailing conditions of the year—even modern maritime insurers are reluctant to offer summer coverage in the area.

For the wealthy, high-powered Alexandrian merchants who could afford to underwrite such expensive voyages, the payoff was enormous. Arriving in India in September and leaving in December, the traders would ride home on the winds of the northeast monsoon, hulls packed with incense, myrrh, ivory, spices, silk, wild animals, pearls, and other luxuries of the Far East. After they docked at the Red Sea ports of Berenice or Myos Hormos, caravans would take the goods across the eastern desert to Alexandria, where other ships would distribute them—with a very profitable markup—across the Mediterranean heart of the empire.

Roman exports to India were paltry by comparison, and at least one contemporary felt that Rome was getting a raw deal. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, lamented that "in no year does India drain our empire of less than five hundred and fifty millions (!) of sesterces, giving back her own wares in exchange, which are sold among us at fully one hundred times their prime cost." (Natural History 6.26)

ETA: Adrian Murdoch, who graciously sent some readers my way on Friday, thinks about this stuff for a living. I'm not surprised to discover that he posted on this dig when the first news releases hit the wire last summer.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Homebrewed Masses in the 4th century

Fordham University's Kimberly Bowes will explore the division between public and private expressions of Late Antique Christianity in her upcoming book, Possessing the Holy: Private Worship in Late Antiquity. From the article:

In the fourth century, said Bowes, the concept of “church” was not yet defined—many people still worshipped in private home chapels or in estate churches which served both their owners and local peasantry. “There was no consensus on what the church was,” said Bowes. Once the Christian church became established, the bishops, who often called such worship heresy, condemned private gatherings. “You’ll find some really angry texts [written by bishops] from this period,” said Bowes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Laeti and foederati

Anthropologist Stefano Fait offers an essay on the 5th century invasions that nicely surveys the major events of the period while framing the "barbarians" within the modern debate on immigration, assimilation and ethnic identity.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Porta Salaria


Salarian Gate, Rome
Buses, scooters and Smart Fortwos roll through a breach in Aurelian's wall as wide as any made by the 19th century artillery that ended the last vestige of the Papal States. Their drivers meet only a little less resistance than the Italian army did when they blasted through, a few hundred feet to the east.

The Salarian Gate didn't survive the onslaught, and when they cleared the rubble, it revealed the tomb of an 11-year-old poet laureate. In 94, Sulpicius Maximus won a poetry contest held in honor of Jupiter Capitolinus, but the light of his fame burned too briefly to prevent him from being lost under a pylon two centuries later. His monument was whisked off to the Capitoline Museum, and a replacement for the old gate was erected soon after. It, in turn, gave way to the march of progress in 1921; room had to be made for bigger things than salt merchants' carts.

Now there's an enormous gap that would have horrified the city's ancient defenders. It's flanked by a wine bar called "Friends." Young, well-dressed modern Romans congregate inside, smiling and talking. At midnight, they may raise toasts. None are to Sulpicius, and none are to the people whose homes, buried in another midnight meters below the men's room, were set ablaze by Alaric's army of Goths when someone opened the gate sixteen centuries ago.

It's the sort of place where one can almost feel the archaeological strata, like free-weights on a barbell. Like Alaric, though, we were only in Rome for three days. Diesel fumes egged us along, and locals gave us sidelong glances, as if wondering why we weren't buying nine-euro hot dogs down near the Forum. We let Sulpicius say his piece and moved on.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Pilgrimage


6th C. tomb epigraph, S. Silvestro in Capite
I'm back from my first visit to Rome, where I discovered that one can pack a lot of quality sightseeing into 60 hours if one picks their spots carefully. I also discovered how very, very little I really know and understand about the Roman world, despite all the reading and studying I've done. I was an armchair expert without my armchair. It was very humbling (in a good way).

Just breaking the silence for the moment; there is more to come on my weekend in Urbs Aeterna. In the meantime, enjoy this 6th century tomb epigraph (I think? Anyone?) from San Silvestro in Capite.

ETA: As Judith mentions in the comments, she wrote about San Silvestro in Capite just a few weeks ago.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Open House

Two rooms in the House of Augustus on the Palatine Hill will be reopened to the public later this year, acccording to this tourism story. Of course, if you talk to the right people, you can get in right now.

The Italy Magazine piece says the site is being "reopened" for the first time since 1961, but if that's accurate, the first opening must have been a very limited engagement. Time Magazine's online archive includes a 1961 story on the discovery and original excavations.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Friday, February 23, 2007

Desert flower


Ruins of Palmyra
Photo courtesy of Hovic.
Palmyra had never really wanted or needed to be part of anyone's empire. Located on the largest oasis in the Syrian desert, it had been inhabited by Bedouins and similar nomadic peoples since before 1000 B.C.. Its position near the western end of the Silk Road provided access to all the best trade routes to Persia, India and the Far East, and local families did a brisk business in outfitting caravans for the perilous journey.

This specialization came in handy in 41 B.C., when Mark Antony, learning of Palmyra's wealth, tried to raid the city. The Palmyrans got wind of his approach, and easily spirited their treasure across the Euphrates until the danger passed. Palmyra improbably persisted as an quasi-independent state on the border between two mutually antagonistic superpowers.

But the city's situation remained precarious. In A.D. 18, an envoy from the Emperor Tiberius arrived, probably to make the usual imperial offer of being Rome's friend...or not being Rome's friend. Whatever the exact substance of his visit, a Roman garrison set up shop, roads were built and Palmyra was incorporated into the Roman province of Syria.

Still, its economic power allowed it to operate with a degree of independence that was fairly unique in the Roman world. A vivid example of its autonomy is provided by the Parthian empire, which permitted Palmyra to establish and maintain trading posts within its borders, even after it came under Roman rule. It's not surprising, then, that when Rome descended into the chaos of prolonged civil war during the middle of the third century, Palmyra readily resumed control of its own affairs.

By 258, the lack of an effective Roman response to the new Sassanian state in Persia had contributed to the rise of Septimius Odenathus, a Romano-Palmyran aristocrat. He assumed the titles dux ("leader"; the English word "duke" is a cognate) and corrector totius orientis ("improver/corrector of the entire East"). When the Emperor Valerian was defeated and captured while campaigning against the Sassanids in 260, Odenathus stood virtually alone against the might of Persia and effectively stalemated them. He was assassinated in 267, but his wife, Zenobia, assumed regent power for their son, Vaballathus.

Like Odenathus, Zenobia operated as a putative vassal of Rome. Around 270, the Roman mint at Antioch was issuing double-headed coins with the new emperor, Aurelian, on one side, and Vaballathus (under the distinctly un-Roman honorific rex) on the other. Around the same time, however, and for reasons which remain unclear, Palmyra went on the offensive and took control of much of the Roman East, sweeping as far as Alexandria. It's possible that the Palmyrans were acting against regional challenges to their authority, but whatever their intent, Aurelian regarded their actions as treasonous.

Aurelian marched east in 272 and defeated the Palmyrans in battles at Immae and Antioch before sacking Palmyra itself in 273. The city never recovered, and was probably completely abandoned by the mid-4th century. Zenobia herself was captured and sent to Rome to appear in Aurelian's triumph; the sources disagree on what happened after that. By some accounts, she died on the journey to Rome. One source says that Aurelian had her beheaded after displaying her during his triumph. The most poetic of Zenobia's possible fates has her living out her days at an estate in Tibur (modern Tivoli), while her short-lived desert empire began its descent into the ruins you see above.

Judith Weingarten has done Zenobia and her kingdom much better justice than I can. She has written a historical novel about Zenobia, and maintains an excellent weblog.

ETA: Judith was kind enough to drop by and provide me with a correction; see the comments.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Deva redux

Mary Beard has some additional observations on the Chester amphitheatre buzz, and I found myself nodding to this excerpt:

"But my main argument was that historians and archaeologists, as well as journalists, have wildly over-estimated the importance of gladiators in the ancient world. It’s us who is obsessed with the arena, not (so much) the Romans...The inhabitants of Roman Chester would have been lucky to see a handful of B team gladiators twice a year. The more interesting question for us is what went on in these amphitheatres on the other 360 or so days."

I think this rings true, but on the other hand, we wouldn't make such a big deal of the Super Bowl (the annual American football championship game) if it were held on a monthly basis. Infrequency doesn't translate to a lack of interest, and it may have had the exact opposite effect, ensuring that the place was packed to the rafters with excited fans when those poor B-team gladiators filed in.

ETA: Tony Keen correctly points out that in any event, gladiator fights played second fiddle to the chariot races.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Belisarius's last command

By the final years of Justinian's reign, the heady era of Belisarius's western reconquests was only a memory. In 542, a devastating plague—very likely an earlier strain of Y. pestis, the bacterium behind the medieval Black Death—swept through the East and killed a third or more of the population. It took the economic and military stuffing out of the Empire, forcing it to buy an expensive peace from the Sassanid king Khosro I in 545 and leaving it unable to check the ravages of the nascent Slavs and Bulgars in the Balkans. Constantinople was on the defensive.

The emperor himself hadn't been the same since his wife Theodora had died, probably from ovarian cancer, in 548. Without the counsel and support of the woman who had convinced him not to abandon his throne during the Nika riots in 532, Justinian showed little interest in governing his shrinking, increasingly destitute empire. He instead preoccupied himself with the theological disputes for which Byzantium would become so infamous to later historians. It took barbarians at the gate to bring his focus back, if only temporarily.

In 559, about 4,000 Kotrigurs (probably a Bulgar group) crossed the Danube, marched through Thrace and came within 20 miles of the capital which, but for its massive walled fortifications, was nearly defenseless. Civilians fled across the Bosporus into Asia Minor. Justinian played his oldest, best hand, calling Belisarius in from pasture and charging him with neutralizing the Kotrigur threat.

Belisarius, by this time well into middle age, didn't have much to work with. He rounded up 300 of his former veterans, who probably weren't much younger than he was, and supplemented them with militia mustered from the city and its immediate environs. He ambushed the Kotrigurs on their approach to the city, inflicting 400 casualties on them and sending the rest into retreat.

Justinian, who had always loved Belisarius as long as he didn't get too popular, rewarded him by dismissing him, assuming command of his "army", and holding a triumphal parade for himself. A few years later, Belisarius was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of conspiracy against Justinian, who let him rot for eight months before restoring his honor to him in 563.

The two men, who between them had briefly appeared as though they would restore the Roman Empire to its ancient glory, died a few months apart in 565. Within five years, Italy, with the exception of Rome, Ravenna, and some minor outposts, was lost to the Lombards. It would never be in imperial control again. By 584, all that remained of Belisarius's reconquered territory was North Africa, which would hold out until the Islamic onslaught of the 7th century.

On that cheery note, a more whimsical look at Belisarius's last hurrah.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sassanids in New York

Late Rome's great nemesis, Sassanian Persia, tends to get overlooked in favor of its Achaemenid and Parthian predecessors. The Asia Society is giving them some time in the spotlight with their new exhibit, "Glass, Gilding, and Grand Design: Art of Sasanian Iran (224–642)."

The New York Sun has a review up. The New York Times review is better but, of course, requires a login.

ETA: Additional coverage with pretty pictures over at PhDiva.

Seating for 10,000 and free parking to boot

The Roman amphitheatre in Deva (modern Chester, England), constructed in the late first century, was the largest amphitheatre (that we know of) in Roman Britain. It may have been used for as little as 20 years before being converted into a municipal trash pit, then enjoyed a renovation and brief period of reuse in the late third century.

Local amateur historians have entertained the idea that the site hosted gladiatorial combat, but this morning, the Telegraph reports official confirmation of that purpose from the archaeological team that's been digging up the site for the past couple of years.

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the site last summer, and I took the photos below. Please compare them with the artist's conception in the Telegraph story; it's a good study in the kind of imagination one needs to use when visiting some of these sites.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us
Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us

Monday, February 05, 2007

Remnants of Carrhae in western China

In 1955, Homer Dubs, a professor of Chinese at Oxford, posited the idea that in 36 BC, Han China installed about 145 Roman mercenaries—recaptured remnants of the forces defeated by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53—at the frontier town of Liqian, in what is today China's Gansu province.

For years, the only "evidence" for Dubs's theory was the continued persistence of oddly Western features in the local population. Then, in 2003, a 5' 11" male skeleton with straight teeth and long lower limbs—i.e., not a local—was found in a 2,000 year old tomb near ancient Liqian.

Fox News reports that scientists have now taken blood samples from 93 people in an attempt to substantiate their Roman genetic heritage.

Professor Xie Xiaodong, a Lanzhou University geneticist, was appropriately cautious about his description of the exercise when he was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald:

"Even if they are descendants of the Roman Empire, it doesn't mean they are necessarily from the Roman army," he said. "The empire covered a large area … so anything is possible," said Xie.

(Lifted from Bits of News)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

March of progress

Last weekend's Wall Street Journal had a piece about the recent truce between Rome's subway operator, Roma Metropolitane SpA, and the city's preservation office.

Metro wants to provide subway service to the tourist-clogged old city, but in most of that district, you can't plant a sapling without hitting a piece of antiquity with your spade. In the past, city planners got things done by trying to hide projects from the archaeological community until it was too late to do anything about it.

In the most egregious example, under Mussolini, builders of a canal alongside the ruins of the Forum trucked out their excavated dirt, artifacts and all, without pausing to examine any of it. Then they clipped a corner off the foundation of the Colosseum. Work continued uninterrupted.

When city preservationists asserted themselves in the 1950s, the result was gridlock. When construction of the Metro A line began in 1962, it ran smack into the Baths of Diocletian (much of which were repurposed into St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, a 16th century basilica). Plans were redesigned, sacrifices were made, and the first train didn't run until 1980.

Fortunately, the city preservation office understands that a tourist mecca with 2.5 million people needs to continually improve and maintain its mass transit. They have worked with Metro to hash out the current subway plan, which will run 80 feet underground—below the oldest archaeological strata—and allow the archaeologists to get first crack at any dig site. The WSJ article featured a photo of workers excavating an ancient tavern near the Colosseum.

Ironically, the subway project, which is scheduled for completion in 2015, has been an unexpected boon for the preservation office. "We never get to dig in the center of Rome," said Angelo Bottini, the head of the office.

I'll actually be in Rome in a few weeks (!), so I'll try to get some photos of the dig.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Neato stuff roundup

Maxentius, the Roman usurper primarily known for his defeat at the hands of Constantine (another usurper) in 312, hid his treasure on the Palatine Hill before heading off to the fateful battle at the Milvian Bridge. This week, archaeologists announced that they've found it.

***

Lars Brownworth's lectures on Byzantine history are free on iTunes, and are apparently quite good. So far, I've only listened to the introductory episode, but he has an appealing mixture of familiarity, enthusiasm and humility which I appreciate.

***

The thousand-year-old library of the Abbey of St. Gall is being digitized and put online for free. I don't have the expertise to appreciate the full significance of the material available there, but the fact that it's now available for blokes like me to closely examine—no cotton gloves, academic credentials or letters of recommendation necessary—is really exciting.

(Lifted from Gypsy Scholar)