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


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.