Now I know that some of you thought that Vacuna was a somewhat bewildered-looking furry pack animal grazing the high Andes, but I’ll have to burst your bubble: it’s something I’m good at. The very obscure Sabine goddess Vacuna, you see, happens to have been worshipped in an even more obscure shrine somewhere in what is now Rieti province or maybe across the border in my beloved Umbria, in Terni province. Now scholars will argue about anything, even when there is so little information that there’s nothing really to argue about; human nature is amazing. So in the year of grace 1923 Mary Grant, disagreeing with other scholars of course, wrote a little paper about it, with a map and grammatical commentary, that doesn’t really convince me one way or the other, but it’s a good thing to have on an Umbrian site: The Location of a Shrine of Vacuna (CJ 18:220‑224); enjoy.
There used to be a time when a visitor to the Roman Forum went to one of the entrances, bought a ticket, and could roam across the ancient ruins wherever you liked. I fondly remember how my girlfriend and I once had lunch, sitting in the grass, somewhere within the ruin of the Basilica Julia.
This changed in 1997. From then on, the Forum was accessible for free, which was -above all- practical. If you were staying in the Via Cavour, as I sometimes did, and needed to be at the Foro Boario, you could make a shortcut and did not have to make a detour around the Capitol. At the same time, many momuments were no longer accessible, like the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Basilica Aemilia, and the Basilica Julia. This was unpleasant, but it made sense. The number of visitors had increased and it was impossible to guard everything properly.
This year, I discovered that you have to buy tickets again. I would have expected that they would now reopen the closed monuments, but they haven’t. In fact, they closed things that used to be accessible, like the Horrea Vespasiana.
I do not like this at all. In an ideal world, everything is free and you can see everything. I understand that this is not possible and I realize that we have to live with one of the systems described above: either you pay for a ticket and can see everything, or you get free access but will find some monuments closed. What I find outrageous, is that they have managed to combine the disadvantages of the two systems: we now have to pay to see closed monuments.
If you think that the message of the Catholic Church has something to do with love for humankind, you haven’t visited the Vatican Museums yet. It is impossible to leave the building without feeling a profound hatred against other people – all of them, and that means quite a lot in the Vatican Museums.
Simply stated, the collections are not a museum in the normal sense of the word, but a decorated route to the Sistine Chapel and back, and everything is organized to make sure that as many people as possible – and if possible a bit more – will stand under Michelangelo’s ceiling. The Vatican Museums have little to do with showing people things, enabling them to study, or teaching them something.
Several important departments are closed. During our visit, it was the New Wing (with the famous Augustus of Primaporta), the Museo Gregorio Profano, and the Museo Pio Christiano. The friendly lady at the information desk was unable to tell when they would be reopened, and I think that the Vatican authorities are not in a hurry, because the last time I was able to visit them was in 1984. (Marlous claims to have been in the Museo Pio Christiano in 2004 or so.) Yet, the directors are aware that people are interested in these collections; after all, the museum sells replicas of objects from those departments. Take my advise: allow the visitors to see the works of art themselves.
When we had discovered that these departments were again closed, we hesitated. For a moment we wanted to leave, but in the end we decided to stay and make the most of it, more or less against our better judgment.
At first, our decision seemed justified: when we reached the Quattro Cancelli, where you enter the museum itself, we found the terrace open, so that we could get some fresh air, which we badly needed, even though we had just arrived. From here, you can go to the Picture Gallery, which is usually delightfully quiet. However, this time we wanted to take photos of the ancient objects, so we decided to visit the Egyptian museum.
Stupid. Many people had made the same choice and were strolling around, not knowing what they were gazing at, not understanding what they were actually doing there. Yet, Marco managed to take some photos: the naophoros of Wedjahor-Resne for example, the statues from the Canopus in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, and two Ptolemaic statues of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his sister-wife Arsinoe II. They were found in the Gardens of Caesar in Rome, and there’s a third statue of Drusilla.
It was only when we were back at our hotel that I realized that there must have been a fourth statue, representing Drusilla’s brother-lover Caligula. They must have wanted to show that their incestuous affair had venerable precedents. Usually, I understand what I am seeing in a museum, but in this time, I could only look without seeing.
Passing along the Nineveh reliefs – there’s an interesting scene of an Assyrian attack on Arabian tents – we reached the tombstones of the Scipiones, where we took photos. Usually, no one looks at those old epitaphs, but once we were taking our photos, other people started to pause and took pictures too. (As I said, they don’t know what they are looking at and do not understand what they are doing in a museum – my hatred of human beings was already growing.) We passed along the Apoxyomenos, one of my favorite statues, and proceeded to the Octagonal Court, where we caught some fresh air again and could take photos of the Laocoon Group. Marlous discovered the tombstone of Varius Marcellus, the father of Heliogabalus.
As always, the rooms with the animals were closed – I have only visited them in 1984 – and the famous Belvedere Torso was just an obstacle to most people, who were too tired to admire it. It is one of those statues that have become more impressive because they’re incomplete; had all limbs been there, it would be just a statue, now it suggests something more beautiful than it can in reality ever have been. Looking around, we took photos of some of the busts standing over there, smiling at the maxim on the pedestal of the bust of Bias of Priene.
It was impossible to take photos in the Sala Rotonda, but we did discover that the bust called “Pertinax” in fact represents Plautianus, whose photo was still absent from our collection. (Generally speaking, explanatory signs in the Vatican Museums are outdated, but this was done well.) The multitude pushed us to the Hall of the Greek Cross, where we did our best to take photos of the sarcophagus of Helen, and we were almost pushed into the corridor leading to the Sistine Chapel; however, we climbed across a fence, broke away from the masses, and walked to the restaurant.
We were lucky. At 12:30, it was not terribly crowded, and for a fast-food restaurant, the Vatican osteria is efficient and offers good food. We needed it, because we were already getting tired. It is hard to enjoy art when you have to concentrate on not walking into the people around you.
In the afternoon, we managed to take photos in the Gallery of Maps (nice little pictures of ancient battles), survived the Stanze di Raffaelo and even enjoyed them, and reached the Sistine Chapel. As always, I was too tired to be able to appreciate Michelangelo’s double masterpiece, but once I had found a chair, I could at least watch one of the paintings by Pietro Perugino. I slowly realized that “The Delivery of the Keys” is in fact also a representation of the Temple Cleansing.
On our return – people with baby buggies obstructing one of the corridors – we passed through the Gallery of Urban VIII, where usually exhausted people are trying to make their way to the exit. We felt exhausted too, but managed to take photos of the statues of Lysias and Aelius Aristides, and admired the objects from the Catacombs. There was some fine glasswork. Of course, our making photos made other people curious, so that the rooms became quite crowdy.
Rather unsatisfied, and full of odium generis humani, we left the museum. It was about half past three, and we decided to walk back to our hotel and have some fresh air. I was so exhausted that I was already walking in the wrong direction; if Marco hadn’t intervened, we would have made a long detour. When we reached the Tiber, we vowed that this was the last time that we would vow that this was our last visit to the Vatican Museums.
Well, sort of. The Vatican Museums can easily become nice again, so that people might actually appreciate their visit. The trick is to separate the people who want to see the Sistine Chapel from the visitors of the museums. As the chapel already has an exit to Saint Peter’s Square, making an additional entrance cannot be too difficult.
Another simple measure is to double the price of a ticket, and invest the proceeds in quality. The Capitoline Museums and the Museo Nazionale delle Terme di Diocletiano show how things can be done. People are willing to pay any price, and 28 euro is not excessive for one of the world’s most important art collections. Something needs to be done, because right now, the objects are suffering from the simple fact that you cannot look at them your leisure.
Because that’s the real problem: a truly superb collection has become inaccessible. You simply cannot study the objects. I am not against museums trying to welcome as many visitors as possible – there are perfectly sound financial reasons for that – but the object of a visit is to learn something. If this has become impossible, something is wrong.
I visited the Villa Giulia for the first time in 1982, a couple of days before my eighteenth birthday. I had read the first five books by Livy and had become fond of early Roman history, which naturally drove me to this museum, which is devoted to art of ancient Etruria and archaic Latium. I still have some of the slides I made back then, but I do not remember much of my visit, except the double surprise that there was a picture of an elephant and that the building itself was a monument from the Renaissance.
Two years later, I returned with my father, and I remember (a) the excellent coffee and (b) that the museum was very, very big. They seemed to believe that they had to expose every object. On later visits, I started to recognize some system, and it seemed as if the size of the museum was, after all, limited. Still, I overestimated it; when I visited the Villa Giulia last week, I believed I needed several hours, but in the end, a couple of hours were sufficient to see everything and take photos.
Yes, photos. Officially, photography is not allowed, but permission to take them can easily be obtained. In every room, I went to the guard to explain that I had a permesso, but somehow, everyone already knew and smiled. I really felt as if they warmly took care of me, almost as if I belonged to a family.
The collection itself is beautiful, and explanatory notes are really good. I was impressed by the Pyrgi temple façade and the gold tablets, the statues from Veii, and the finds of Satricum. The latter are admittedly not very special and the best piece, the Lapis Satricanus, is now in the National Museum, but I have met some of the excavators, which made these finds special, at least for me. The only object I did not see, was the elephant, which happened to be on loan to another museum.
The porter of the Palazzo Altemps, just north of the Piazza Navona, is so uninterested that he does not even look in the book he has taken with him. He’s just bored. After he’s sold you a ticket and has started to gaze at the door again, your bag will be checked in an X-ray machine by a guard who is at the same time watching a soccer match. Abandon all hope, all ye who enter… if only because it will make your surprise even bigger.
The Palazzo Altemps, a Renaissance palace now beautifully restored, is the home of the former Ludovisi collection, which once graced the gardens of a villa on the Via Vittorio Veneto. Among the works of art are the Ludovisi Ares, the Ludovisi Throne, and the Ludovisi Sarcophagus (the lid of which is in Mainz). Many of these pieces were already known in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when the owners felt obliged to return their precious possessions to their former splendor and invited artists to restore them. The grip and pommel of the sword of the Ludovisi Ares, for example, were made by Bernini, who managed to create something that both suits the original work and attracts your attention.
Many museums have a policy to remove these Renaissance and Baroque additions. Occasionally, a nose is allowed to remain, but armless, headless, and legless statues are normal. The directors of the Palazzo Altemps (or, better, of the National Museum, of which the Altemps palace is part) have decided to present their collection as the Renaissance collectors wanted it to be. Clear explanatory signs indicate which parts are ancient and which are not.
It is a remarkable and courageous choice. But when you walk through the stately rooms of the fifteenth-century mansion, and when you see the sculpture together with the Baroque frescoes and the lowered ceilings, you recognize that the gamble has paid off. The Palazzo Altemps is one of the most surprising museums in Rome.
I already blogged on the Christian martyrs venerated in the Colosseum, and pointed out that there is no evidence that Christians were killed on that terrible place. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite. No Medieval list of martyrdom sites mentions the Colosseum. There is actually more evidence of Jewish martyrdoms: the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) mentions an emperor ordering a rabbi to be thrown into an arena full of wild animals. It’s not much, but more than we can say about Christian martyrs.
Yet, you will not find a Jewish memorial in the Colosseum, and not because our Talmudic scene deals with an amphitheater, not the amphitheater of Rome. The reason is much more profound.
Christians will go to the places where people have been killed and say their prayers, believing that God will hear them. The Omnipresent is also present where atrocities have taken place. To some extent, secular people share this idea: even though they will not say a prayer, they erect monuments on crime scenes. In Rome, the memorial of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre is a case in point.
This is not the way Jews look at things. Places like the Colosseum are somehow outside the realm of God’s goodness. This means that there are better places to say your prayers, and even if we had absolute certainty that out rabbi faced martyrdom in the Colosseum, there would still not be a Jewish monument. The locations of the horrors are not the place of worship, and are best abandoned.
I am not saying that this view is better than the Christian/secular view. Nor do I think that we should abandon the Colosseum altogether. Yet, the Roman archaeological authorities, who have always been able to present their many treasures in an often beautiful fashion, ought to be capable of creating a more dignified atmosphere at the Colosseum – without shouting tourist guides, without exceptionally amateurish reenactors, without souvenir shops. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve heard from the tourist authorities, a proposal to organize gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum again, was singularly revolting. Rome should be capable of inventing something better.
The Musei Capitolini belong to the oldest public museums of the world. They used to be located in two buildings on the southern and northern side of the Piazza del Campidoglio, known as the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo, but recently an eastern wing was added while the southern part was expanded. Although the original departments retain much of their old charm, the result is a completely new museum.
The Palazzo Nuovo is perhaps the least worth a visit, although it contains a famous collection of busts of Roman emperors, which is often used by tourist guides to explain the succeeding artistic styles. The Palazzo dei Conservatori is far more interesting: here, you will see the famous head of Constantine the Great, several impressive second-century reliefs, the so-called Brutus, and the famous she-wolf (which is Medieval, not Etruscan, as is often said). One of the rooms is the place where in 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed.
The eastern wing is in fact an underground corridor that connects the two palaces. It contains an impressive epigraphic collection, which includes the tombstone of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi. From here, it is possible to walk to the so-called Tabularium, which offers a splendid view of the Forum Romanum and Palatine.
Finally, the addition to the southern palace. This is a completely new hall, for only two works of art: the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, and the bronze statue of Sylvester Stallone Constantine the Great. The two great emperors seem to salute each other. Beyond them are the remains of the terrace and podium of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which I remember having seen in the 1980s, but are now far better visible. Next to them is some archaic art from the Area sacra di Sant’ Ombono. This hall has rapidly become one of my favorite places in Rome.
The corridor that used to connect the temple remains to the Palazzo dei Conservatori is now home to the statue of Commodus-as-Hercules, the Esquiline Venus, and many objects from the gardens of Sallust, the Vettii gardens, and the gardens of Maecenas. These statues used to be in the Centrale Montemartini.
Now that we’ve had our Christmas dinner – nasi goreng in my case – LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer serves us something to read and help you digest it: Cleopatra’s Pearls, an article that originally appeared in the Classical Journal 52 (1957).
It’s a highly amusing piece that contains parallel stories, tricks to dissolve your own pearls (“a small pearl is dissolved in boiling vinegar in 8‑15 minutes” – or perhaps not), an apt quote from Hamlet, a relevant comparison to the use of Coca Cola, and a good joke at the end. Enjoy!
Kleitor was a major town in Arcadia, not far from a river named Aroanios. Pausanias complains that, even though he waited until sunset, he did not hear the singing spotted fish for which Kleitor used to be famous. There are a few remains, and perhaps even that is an overstatement: one of the most interesting remains, the portrait of the historian Polybius (200-118), is now lost.
It appears to have been found in the 1920s and was reportedly kept “in the schoolhouse of Mazeika”, a town that has in the meantime been renamed Kato Kleitora. After the discovery, a cast was made that was sent to Berlin, but ended up in Rome, in the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana. The original is now lost, and the cast in Italy is all we have.
The slab was erected by one Titus Flavius Polybius, who claimed to be a descendant of the great historian and lived in the second century CE. In that age, many Greeks and Romans were deeply interested in their past. When they wrote, they tried to imitate classical models (the “Second Sophistic”); an author like Pausanias was interested in the oldest religious cults; and the sculptor tried to represent Polybius as historically accurate as possible. Unfortunately, he exaggerated it a bit: Polybius’ military equipment was common in the fifth century BCE, not in the second.
In 58 CE, two people from the Low Countries, Frisian leaders named Malorix and Verritus, arrived in Rome. While waiting for Nero, who “had other cares to occupy him” (as Tacitus writes, full of innuendo), the two men visited the Theater of Pompey and caused a stir because they did not know how to act properly. To ancient Frisians, the city of the seven hills must have been an impressive place, with people living in buildings with four floors, with temples reaching unto heaven itself, and with the palace of the emperor lived, a man who needed only a single word to mobilize an army. Visiting Rome must have been a life-changing experience.
I can sympathize with my ancestors, and not just because I must over the years have broken every rule of polite Roman behavior. It is also because Rome has been a life-changer for me as well. My first visit in 1982, although overshadowed by a PLO assault on the synagogue, felt like some kind of spiritual homecoming. I was here again in ’84, and – after my service in the army – I decided to study history and archaeology. Always, there was a longing to return to what Livy somewhere calls the urbs ipsa, the “city itself”. In fact, I have often returned, sometimes twice a year.
Rome is, like the objects of every other love affair, not perfect and Romans are not always nice. I also think that, once a love affair has lasted some time, you realize that under different circumstances, you might have met and loved someone else. Mutatis mutandis, I know I might have loved other civilizations, and I do not sympathize with those historians who focus on Greece and Rome only, ignoring Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia. I also think that western historians consistently understimate the contribution of Islam to the rise of European civilization.
I have acted accordingly, visiting other countries, trying to broaden my scope. There’s much that is fascinating in the Sahara. I wrote a book about Islam. The interaction between Persia and Greece is an interesting subject, and I put the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online. I have had the privilege to travel extensively.
Yet, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it is only now that I can compare several cities, that I realize how special Rome actually is. The only answer to the question which city I love most is the classic one from Roman Holiday, when the princess realizes that Rome has to her been a life-changing experience: “each city is in its own way unforgettable, and it would be difficult to… – Rome, by all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”
During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180), the Roman Empire started to experience increased pressure on its frontiers. Germanic tribes started to organize themselves better and in the East, the Parthians were replaced by the Sasanian Empire, which was more aggressive than its predecessors had been. The Roman emperors took countermeasures and tried to gain divine support by persecuting religious minorities, like the Manichaeans, the Jews, and the Christians. By ancient standards, this was a logical decision: the fact that they did not worship the gods of the state, offered sufficient explanation for Roman military defeats.
The Persecutions were very serious, and you do not need to be a Christian to abhor from the state’s violence against its own citizens. It is always fitting and proper to commemorate the slaughtered innocents. For this reason, pope Benedict XIV (r.1740-1758) dedicated the Colosseum to the memory of the Christian martyrs killed in the arena. The problem is that this is probably not a historical fact.
There are several texts about the martyrdom of Roman Christians. We know that Sebastian was executed on the Palatine and that Agnes suffered in the Stadium of Domitian. But no one is mentioned as being killed in the Flavian Amphitheater, as the execution theater was officially called. In the Acts of Justin, Chariton, Charito, Euelpistus, Hierax, Paeon, Liberian, and their Company, we read that these people were led “to the usual place”, which has been taken as a reference to the Colosseum, because we do not know which alternatives exist. However, this is poor evidence, and the fact that the Colosseum is not mentioned in Medieval catalogs of martyr shrines can mean only two things: if Christians were killed in the Colosseum, it was forgotten in the Middle Ages, or there were no Christians killed over there.
Of course, this does not mean that Benedict’s cross must be removed. It is part of the history of the Colosseum, and besides, it is never wrong to spend a thought about the terrible things that happened on this terrible place.
Everyone has an innocent private sin. For instance, if I visit Rome, I prefer Chinese food for dinner, and in the afternoon, I like McDonald’s for lunch. (I want to see things, so I don’t want to waste time; fast food is fine with me.) Another sin I must confess is that amongst the museums I like most is the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana, a museum that owns not a single real object. Everything is fake.
But there are a lot of fakes, and it is the best place to get acquainted with Roman civilization. If I have to guide a group, this is the best place to start, even better than the Capitol. In the first rooms, you will see objects that document the historical development of the Empire: there are casts of, for example, old inscriptions and statues, and there are models of all kinds of buildings. There is also a large model of Rome in the archaic age, which is some kind of answer to the model for which the museum is deservedly famous: the large model of Rome in the age of Constantine. The other half of the collection is devoted to Roman culture: ancient medicine, farms, law, traders, libraries, and so on. This part was closed for a long time, but it was reopened a couple of year ago.
The reorganization has had some nice consequences. Many objects were added – you can see the full cast of the Column of Trajan again, although, this being Italy, today only half of it was illuminated. Explanatory signs have been translated into English. What remained the same is the team of nice people.
Yes, I like that place, and if you visit Rome, you must not be discouraged by the fact that it is a bit outside the center. See it as an opportunity to see some modern architecture, and try to ‘decode’ the structure of the museum itself. Look, for instance, at Italy’s borders on one of the maps, and notice that Dalmatia has become part of the country. The explanation is that the museum dates back to the Fascist years, when “Italia Irredenta” was still an important political issue. This map was meant to give people an idea of what Italy ought to be. In fact, the entire museum was an adhortation to Italy to become what it had once been – but that does not mean that you shouldn’t visit the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana.
When I visited Rome for the first time, back in ’82, the Museo nazionale romano was closed. I do not recall when I was for the first time able to visit it, although it must have been in the early years of digital photography, because our photos are, as digital files, pretty small. Today, I went back to fill the lacuna.
The rooms in which the inscriptions are exposed, are pretty old. One room, Aula X, is part of the ancient Baths of Diocletian; other rooms belong to a sixteenth-century monastery, which the new Italian state decided to convert into a museum in 1889. Several old private collections, like the objects collected by Athanasius Kircher, became part of the new museum, and the museum expanded when new archaeological finds were added in the twentieth century. It became too large, was closed for a long time, and was finally reopened, with the more artistic part of the collection in the nearby Palazzo Massimo. The rooms in the ancient baths were converted into a museum for Rome’s prehistory and epigraphy.
You will be alone. I noticed two people in the Aula X. There was also a Japanese lady somewhere upstairs. I have not seen any guard.
Of course, epigraphy is not a subject that attracts large crowds. If you go to the epigraphy museum of Athens or Stuttgart’s lapidarium, the guards will be pleasantly surprised that they can welcome visitors. But the unpopularity of epigraphy is undeserved, especially in the Museo nazionale romano. If you see the inscriptions about, for example, freedmen, the signs carefully explain what kind of life they had. You will understand what kind of bureaucracy ran the Empire. Aspects of the cursus honorum are explained: the senatorial careers of the Republic and the Empire, and also the equestrian careers. Other inscriptions tell about the armed forces in the city of Rome. In other words, the museum is essentially about the social history of Rome. As such, it is less beautiful but more interesting than the collection in the Palazzo Massimo.
The most famous inscriptions are in the very first room, where you will see the sixth-century BCE monument that was discovered below the Lapis Niger, and the Lapis Satricanus, an equally ancient inscription that appears to mention Valerius Publicola. Next to it is an old dedication to Castor and Pollux. I was impressed by a small cup that bore the name of Catilina, by the finds from the Tiber related to the cult of Asclepius, by the statues from Ariccia, and by the inscription that was recently discovered near the Meta Sudans. I had never realized that there was an inscription mentioning the historian Tacitus, until I saw it this afternoon.
On the third floor, you will find the inscriptions from ancient Judaism, Mithraism, and Christianity. Some of these texts are from the catacombs, others from a mithraeum found underneath Santo Stefano Rotondo. There’s also the prehistoric collection, which I have not visited this time; I remember it well from an earlier occasion – interesting finds from a/o Gabii – but after three hours of photography, I decided to call it a day. After all, the airplane with my friends Marlous and Marco had landed, and we had agreed to meet in the hotel.
Final note: returning to Rome after several years is a mixed blessing. Fiumicino, which I remembered as a clean airport, has become a shabby place. One of the things I liked about it was that you never had to wait very long for your luggage, but this time, waiting for my suitcase lasted an eternity, and my friends had the same experience. In the neighborhood of Stazione Termini, which has never been the city’s most posh quarter, I saw more beggars than I was accustomed to. I found the Porta Tiburtina, usually a nice place, dirty and smelly. A pub I used to visit is no longer a nice place; the blueish light in the man’s room proved that the owner had to cope with heroin addicts. Still, I love this old town, and I feel privileged to be here with friends and to be able to walk along the sites that mean so much to us.
It’s early in the morning, but this article has already completely spoiled my day: “Burial cloth found in Jerusalem cave casts doubt on authenticity of Turin Shroud“.
No, it does not cast doubt, because we know that the Turin Shroud is a medieval forgery. So why does this archaeologist answer questions about it? There are quite a lot of people who understand the basic principle of radiocarbon dating. Many people have had chemistry classes at high school, and even more people understand the gaussian curve that explains why it is so bloody unlikely that an object dated to 1325±35 can actually be from the first century.
The article illustrates a mistake many academicians make when they are asked to explain something to the press: underestimating that there are many people who are pretty well-educated. When talking to the press, academicians consistently ignore that in developed countries, up to 50% of the population at some time in their lives enter higher education.
My favorite example is an ancient historian from Cambridge who explained something about Constantine‘s conversion on TV, causing my girlfriend to say that she already knew this from her history classes long time ago. If this was the level of Cambridge historians, she added, she could only despise them. It was a bit exaggerated, but when you see a historian, a classicist, or an archaeologist on TV, it is hard not to start writing satire.
Now there are of course also people who do not understand radiocarbon dating. I do not think they will read the article that spoiled my day, but if they do, they will be left with the impression that the authenticity of the Turin Shroud is still contested. I am aware that our archaeologist intended to achieve the opposite, but he would have been more successful if he had said something like “that is not an issue anymore and it is a waste of time to discuss it – especially because I have something more interesting to tell”.
Because that is what is really sad about this article: our archaeologist has discovered something truly interesting. So you must read the story, after all, and try to ignore the crap. Good luck.
The ostracon to the right can be seen in the National Library of Austria. It was found in Elephantine in southern Egypt, and was written by someone who was obviously accustomed to writing many texts. A man named Amonios son of Amonios, tax gatherer, declares that a man named Soros, son of Pachompos, had paid the head tax in the fifth regnal year of the emperor Claudius (i.e., 45 CE). The man had paid sixteen drachms, for himself and seven relatives.
Nobody likes to pay taxes, and two drachms per person was a substantial amount (about two daily wages for a skilled worker). Before the taxes could be gathered, however, the Romans needed to know how many people lived in a province, which is why they organized censuses. So, when the Roman emperor Augustus decided to dethrone the Judaean ruler Archelaus and add his realm to the province of Syria, in 6 CE, governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius had to count the people. Many Jews tried to obstruct the census; their leader was Judas.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus suggests that there were disturbances (Jewish Antiquities 18.4-6, 23), and this can also be deduced from a remark in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is implied that Judas’ band of followers was dispersed and Judas was killed (5.37). However, the revolt is absent from the catalog of armed interventions by Syrian governors included in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus (5.9). This means that it was not necessary to send the legions, which in turn means that the rebellion cannot have been widespread.
Yet, the Jews remembered Quirinius’ census as a national disaster. Writing two or three generations after the events, Luke could assume that every reader knew Quirinius’ governorship, realized what calamity had befallen the nation, and how bad the situation had been (Luke 2.2). It is the background, black as the night, for the spectacle he is about to present: the coming of the Messiah. When Judas’ bandits and the Roman soldiers were fighting, when things were at their worst, God had shown Himself to be nearest.
The Roman Museum in Augsburg is situated in the historical centre of the city, in the Church of St. Magdalena, which was originally the church of a Dominican monastery. The church was built between 1513 and 1515 and contained the funerary chapels of several important Augsburg families. Between 1716 and 1724 the church was redesigned in the baroque style. The rich decoration was mostly removed during the German secularisation 1806/07. (An important statue of Mary Magdalen from this church can nowadays be seen in the Louvre, where it is known as the “Belle Allemande”, the Beautiful German Lady.)
The church was not damaged in WW 2, and since 1966 has been the home of the Roman Museum. The exhibition starts with objects from the Stone Age and from the Urnfield Culture, which had one of its largest centres in the area of modern Augsburg. One of the side-chapels contains objects from the Hallstatt period and the La Tène Culture, with a reconstructed cart-burial chamber. Most of the exhibit, however, consists of finds from Roman Augsburg and the surrounding area, from the beginning of the Roman occupation around 15 BCE to its end in the fifth century CE.
Augsburg has Germany’s third-largest collection of Roman Provincial artefacts, although only a small portion of them can be seen in the museum. The larger part remains in the storerooms. Important exhibits are:
- The finds from Augsburg-Oberhausen, consisting of more than 10,000 mainly military objects from the time of the Roman occupation;
- A gilded Roman genius from the Early Principate;
- Military objects from a Thracian cavalry unit, which was stationed in Augsburg in the seventies;
- A famous bronze horse-head from the 2nd century;
- Several Roman tombstones from military and civilian contexts, some of them still showing the original colour;
- An inscription of Claudius Paternus Clementianus, former governor of Noricum;
- Altars from a Roman sanctuary of Mercury;
- Several coin hoards from the third century;
- Architectural parts of Roman houses, like mosaics, wall paintings, floor and roof tiles;
- Domestic objects, like Roman glass vessels, ceramics, bronze items, amphorae, jewelry;
- A gilded late Roman helmet;
- An engraved glass plate depicting Adam and Eve, from around 340 CE;
- Alamannic weapons and jewelry;
- Grave inventories from the tombs of clerics from the 6th-7th century.
Recently, the church of St. Magdalena showed signs of structural distress, such as long cracks in the walls of the eastern apsis. The city has not yet responded to this alarming problem. Necessary measures would be either to build a new museum, or to close the collection for a longer period and renovate the building. Due to this problem, all special exhibitions have been postponed. Moving the Roman stones of the regular exhibit may already cause severe problems to the structural integrity of the church.
The building is only poorly suited to the needs of a modern museum. Despite its beauty, it is still a church, which means that its acoustics are very good: a problem as soon as more than one school class is in the museum. The Roman Museum is also a bit neglected in Augsburg, as the city officials tend to spend more money on the other museums and on cultural events, such as the Friedensfest-festival in 2005, or on the museums dedicated to the Medieval and Renaissance parts of Augsburg´s history. This is also visible when one passes Augsburg on the Autobahn A8, where there is a sign advertising Augsburg only as a Renaissance city.
Roman history, the reason for Augsburg’s existence, unfortunately does not play a large role in the city’s memory. This is mirrored in the Roman museum exhibit, which simply cannot afford modern equipment, as would be suited to such a fine collection. Despite all these problems, the Roman Museum is certainly worth a visit for anyone interested in Roman provincial history and archaeology.
[Text Christian Koepfer]
Today, I moved the pages of Bishapur, one of the places I like most in Iran. During my first visit, we were especially interested in locations that were Alexander-related, so we visited a lot of Achaemenid sites; yet, we all agreed that Sasanian Bishapur, for which we had not been prepared, was among the highlights of our trip. The six rock reliefs and the city are really spectacular. I already blogged about the recently reopened museum.
I’ve returned several times, and on each occasion, I discovered something new or met someone interesting. But the best memories belong to the climb to the cave with Shapur’s statue, one of the most splendid places in the world – not the cave with the statue, which is interesting but not very special, but the valley. It is the most beautiful place of Fars. You’ve just not been in Iran if you haven’t climbed that rock and enjoyed the scenery.
The Bishapur pages are something of a jubilee: Livius.org has now reached its 3500th page. I also added a very brief article on the Persepolis Treasury Tablets, and a third page of Amsterdam stone tablets, which brings the grand total to 3502.
And because there’s something to celebrate, here is the last version of my Google Earth markers (1437 sites).
The Allard Piersonmuseum, the home of the archaeological collection of the University of Amsterdam, is one of the nicest museums I know. I may be biased, though, because Amsterdam is my hometown. I cycle along the museum nearly every day and am a regular visitor.
One of its strengths is that it does not concentrate on Greek and Roman art, but also has a fine collection of objects from Egypt and smaller sets of objects from Cyprus and the ancient Near East. Yet, the visitor will notice that the main focus is on ancient Greek art, from the Mycenaean age to the Hellenistic period. This illustrates the history of archaeology as a discipline: initially, people collected art and admired Greece, but later, archaeology widened its scope and our sense of beauty changed.
The museum, founded in 1934, seventy-five years ago, is named after the university’s first professor of art history, Allard Pierson (1831-1896), but he has nothing to do with it. The museum was founded when a foundation of Dutch philhellenists bought the collection of a banker named Constant Lunsingh Scheurleer, and merged it with the private collection of deceased professor, who had bequeathed it to the university. Lunsingh Scheurleer’s son Theodoor was to become director of the museum. His successor Hemelrijk added many new objects, mostly Greek. In 1976, the museum moved to its present location on the Oude Turfmarkt: the former Dutch National Bank.
What are the main delights? It is hard to say, because the museum has only one object that is truly unique: the portrait of Artaxerxes III. It is the only portrait of an Achaemenid ruler that represents the great king as he really looked like – unlike the stereotypical official portraits. Nowhere on earth will you find something similar. I also like the large model of ancient Olympia, the fibulae from Nijmegen, the Coptic phoenix (one and two), the Hellenistic war elephant, the early eighteenth-century (!) painting of Palmyra, and the small Oannes. Others may like the Etruscan art, the chariot from Cyprus, the statue of Aphrodite, or the bust of Tiberius Gemellus.
The museum is not very large. It takes just an afternoon to see most of it. Yet, the explanatory signs are good, the collection is representative of all Antiquity, and what the museum lacks in quantity, it compensates with quality. The exhibitions are usually very well-done. If I must mention a point of criticism, it is the bookshop. There are two types of writing for a larger audience: on the one hand, explaining scholarship and pulling the people up, and on the other hand, simplifying scholarship and bowing down. The bookshop has chosen the second option, and is, in my opinion, underestimating the capacity of the general audience.
In the museum’s attic is a nice collection of casts of ancient Greek sculpture, which is not open to the public, but can be visited on request.
Nicholas was bishop of the Lycian port of Myra, and died on December 6. The year of his death has not been recorded, although a late tradition suggests that it may have been 342 or 343. The stories about him usually have parallels in Anatolian folklore (although I am unaware of another saint who, as a baby, refused his mother’s breast on Friday). If Nicholas published theological treatises, they have not survived. His first hagiography was written at least three centuries after his death by an obscure author known as Michael the Archimandrite. The most famous story about Nicholas, how he hit a heretic during the Council of Nicaea, is mentioned in a very late source and may be fiction.
To sum up: we know next to nothing about Nicholas of Myra, and I would not have written this brief blog entry if he hadn’t been the patron saint of my city, Amsterdam. Read more about him here – I promise you that it’s an interesting story.