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
Free Image Hosting at

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)