Roman Toulouse

17 August 2013

Relief from the Musée Saint-Raymond, Touloyse

I have never met Mr Michel Gybels, who lives somewhere in southern France, likes to visit ancient ruins, and writes nice pieces about them. He already wrote for the Livius website about several cities in ancient Greece and Anatolia, and about the excavations in southern France. I must not forget that he knows an awful lot about medieval Catharism as well – this is his Dutch website – which explains why he has also contributed a piece on Manicheism.

His latest piece is about the excavations west of Toulouse, ancient Tolosa. I have added a history of the city, and was glad that I could refer to so many sources that are nowadays online available. Most photos by Gybels.

You will find the Toulouse stuff by Gybels and yours truly here.


Marathon in Brescia

22 July 2013

Marathon Sarcophagus, Museo Santa di Santa Giulia (Brescia)

The photo above shows a battle scene on a sarcophagus in the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia in northern Italy. It’s very common to decorate sarcophagi with representations of the Trojan War or the clash between the Greeks and the Amazons, but this is not a mythological fight: it represents the final stage of the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians repulsed a Persian army.

Some thirty, forty years after the battle, the Athenians dedicated a monument to their victory: the Stoa Poikile or Painted Colonnade. There were four paintings, made by either Polygnotus or Micon and Panaenus (the sources are contradicting), and one of these represented the fight at Marathon. The author Pausanias mentions “the fight at the ships and the Greeks slaughtering Persians as they jump into them”.

To be honest, I am not very sure about the identification. It is easy to recognize the Athenians, who are shown in heroic nudity and wear Greek helmets, but the Persians do not strike me as very realistic. I would have expected the man who is carried to the ship to wear trousers: the normal way in which the Greeks represented Persians. On the other hand, I would not know who else might be shown with this kind of headband.

So let’s assume that it’s indeed the Battle of Marathon we are witnessing. Then we have important evidence to reconstruct the fight. The classical account is written by Herodotus, who wants us to believe that the Athenians, after a stalemate of several days, unexpectedly crossed the plain and attacked the Persians. This is strange, because we would expect the Persians to send mounted archers to obstruct the Athenian advance. Where was the Persian cavalry?

There is, however, another story about the Battle of Marathon, which can be found in the biography of the Athenian commander Miltiades by the Roman author Cornelius Nepos (first century BCE) and in the Suda, a tenth century Byzantine lexicon. According to these sources, deserters from the Persian army had come to the Athenian camp, telling that the cavalry were away. But why? It has been argued that the Persians had become uneasy with the situation on the plain. They may indeed have decided to evacuate the place to attack the Athenian port, and if this is true, they must have led their horses to their ships. I have always liked this hypothesis.

The Brescia relief suggests a different possibility. To the left, you can see a horse. If you look carefully, you can see how a Greek, facing to the left, unsaddles the Persian rider, who is shown tumbling behind his horse. Only his head is still visible. This would suggest that there was indeed Persian cavalry on the battlefield, which in turn suggests that the horses were not on the ships, but were somewhere else and returned to the battlefield in the final stage of the fight. So, here we have additional evidence, and the main result is only the falsification of a hypothesis. It is not much, but it’s something.

Final remark: it is long ago that I visited Brescia. I have no photos, but this one comes to me through my friend Sepideh Ramezani, a student in Trento, who asked her fellow-student Luca Adami to help me get this photo; and he asked Mr Alessandro Frassine, who took the photo. Thank you very much!


Lebanon, again

31 December 2012
Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

For the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege to visit Lebanon. Starting in Beirut, where we visited the splendid National Museum again, we embarked upon a very, very leisurely trip around. At the Nahr al-Kalb, we managed to reach the inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which is covered by all kinds of vegetation, and will soon have disappeared.

Byblos, which I could not really appreciate during my earlier visit because I did not understand its stratigraphy, turned out to be a lot more accessible now that I knew what to expect. It was interesting to think where Wen Amun must have built his tent and where the king must have had his throne.

We proceeded to the Kadisha valley, which is the heartland of Maronite Christianity. Before entering it, we visited Amioun, Bziza, and Aïn Akrine, three sites with Roman temples. In Bsharre (the town of Kahlil Gibran), we climbed to a Phoenician tomb, and had lunch with a view of the snow-covered cedar trees.

Cedar tree

After this, we visited the Bekaa valley and Baalbek. Because we had started early and had slept in a hotel in the valley, we could arrive very early in the morning, and were almost the only people at the site, except for the guards. Returning to our hotel, we passed along Qsarnaba, Niha, and Nabi Ayla.

We also saw the Palestinian refugees who had been bombed away from Damascus – but this is not the place to write about those poor people, who most certainly did not deserve this.

Sidon

Next day, it was raining cats and dogs, but we were in Sidon, where we greatly enjoyed watching how the storm pushed the surf against the sea castle. Some of the waves must have been fifteen meters high and it was really spectacular. The same can be said of the lovely mosaics in the Beiteddin palace. The last place we visited in Beirut was the museum of the American University.

There was a bonus, though: our airplane was delayed and we were unable to catch the connecting flight in Istanbul. So, our trip lasted an additional day, and we saw a snow-covered Hagia Sophia and, in the archaeological museum, the royal sarcophagi from Sidon.

Beiteddin

Beiteddin

I cannot wait to go back to the only place in the world where you can listen to “o come let us adore him” and at the same time hear a mu’ezzin’s call for prayer. My Facebook photos are here and here; and today I added photos of the temples of Aïn Akrine, the rock tombs of Amioun, the Phoenician tomb at Bsharre, the sanctuary at Bziza, and the temple at Qsarnaba. Some older stuff from Lebanon is here.


Edge of Empire

3 October 2012

Cover

So, here it finally is: the cover of Edge of Empire. Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine. The book is about the Roman occupation of the Low Countries – say Belgium, Netherlands and northern Germany – and contains every relevant literary text, the more interesting inscriptions, and a lot of archaeological information. Basically, my coauthor Arjen Bosman and I use the archaeological data to illustrate that all sources are prejudiced about the people living on the edge of the earth; at the same time, we try to show that you cannot interpret archaeological finds without a profound understanding of textual analysis.

The book has a history of its own. I wrote it in 1999 and it was published in 2000. The reviews were extremely favorable and it was recommended to university students. However, there was a quarrel within the publishing house, and the woman whose project it had been, went away. My book was sort of forgotten and disappeared from the bookshops. Still, I continued to keep notes and improve the text.

The “Lord of Morken”, a Frankish warrior (drawing Johnny Shumate)

Two years ago, another publisher, Athenaeum, decided to reprint it. I asked my colleague Arjen Bosman, who is a professional archaeologist, to contribute, because he knows a lot about the ancient Frisians, a subject that needed more attention. The book was adapted, renamed, and republished with all kinds of illustrations. Again, good reviews and even an award.

And now, Karwansaray publishers makes it available in English. This is also the publisher of Ancient Warfare, which means that it will have the same superb illustrations by people like Johnny Shumate, José Antonio German, and Graham Sumner, and maps by Carlos Garcia.

Order your copy using the links on this page.


Das goldene Byzanz

28 September 2012

Saw and mill

“A series of one thousand years of crime, weakness, iniquity, and lack of character”: that is how Georg Hegel described the history of the Byzantine Empire. This image still exists – if there is an image at all, because the western world has almost forgotten Byzantium. In our schools, there is hardly any attention paid to the medieval empire, and in our daily conversation “Byzantine” is almost synonym to luxury, decadence, splendor, corruption, and overcomplexity.

One example may suffice: during last year’s primaries, the Republican candidate Herman Cain called for abolishing America’s “Byzantine tax system”. As a matter of fact, the Byzantines knew only two taxes: a poll tax and a land tax. Compared to this, Cain’s own 9/9/9 plan was quite, eh, Byzantine.

My fascination for Byzantium started when a friend took me to the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki. Since then, I have visited several other museums, churches, castles, and other monuments, in Istanbul, Greece, Syria, Israel, Italy, and Turkey. I have read several sources and once made a detour to Manzikert. So, it was inevitable that I would visit the exhibition “Das goldene Byzanz” in the Renaissance castle of Schallaburg in Austria, along the road from Munich to Vienna.

I do not regret it. There are beautiful animations, nice models (of a ship, for example), and good maps. The first thing you see is an engine that used a water-mill to saw natural stone. The number of objects is not very large, but they have been chosen well: beautiful busts, icons, and manuscripts.

Not just Byzantine objects, by the way. Sassanian, Arabian, Slavonic, and Turkish objects show Byzantium’s relations to surrounding nations. You will see both objects from daily and courtly life, although the stress is on the latter. (The title “Golden Byzantium” illustrates this.) The final room illustrates Byzantine influence on western civilization, and was the one room that might have been better: there is more to say about the subject and we also must say more about it. The catalog, on the other hand, is a good one.

If I may offer one point of criticism: the castle is a bit too small and dark for this exhibition. During my visit, two groups occupied entire rooms, making it difficult for other visitors to enjoy the many, many beautiful objects, which are certainly worth a detour.


“Die Welt der Kelten”, Stuttgart

28 September 2012

Glass bracelet

When archaeologists talk about the Celts, they are usually referring to the Hallstatt and La Tène civilizations: the Iron Age cultures of the people living in Central Europe between, say, 850 and 50 BCE. Right now, there are two exhibitions in Stuttgart about the Celts, together called “Die Welt der Kelten”.

The first exhibition, “Kostbarkeiten der Kunst”, is in the Altes Schloβ. I liked it, even though I profoundly hate it when objects are left in the half-dark, just being beautiful in poorly-illuminated rooms. The quality of the information – important questions like “is this art?” were not ignored – offered sufficient compensation. Moreover, this exhibition is important. The idea is still alive that the Celts were making primitive imitations of classical art. The fact that Paul Jacobsthal’s Early Celtic Art, which was published in 1944, is still a standard work, proves that the subject is a bit ignored.

Princely tomb

The other exhibition, “Zentren der Macht” in the Kunstgebäude, was even better. It is about the history of the Celts, and while the first exhibition was a successful attempt to explain an unusual type of aesthetics, the second one is an extremely successful attempt to introduce you to the ancient people themselves. The two first rooms allow you to understand the problems (“what is a Celt?”, “how reliable are the sources”), and after that, there is the real story.

Dying Gau (Rome): a Celt from the migration age

You can see how social stratification came into being when Celtic leaders managed to control the trade in Mediterranean products. These people were very rich, as you can deduce from their splendid tombs. Agricultural innovations made them even wealthier. After 400, the Celts started to migrate: peasants and bands of warriors reached Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

The end of the exhibition illustrates its high quality. You learn that around 80/70, the great settlements came to an end, and after that, you get information about the campaigns of Julius Caesar (58-50) and Augustus (20-15). In this way, the traditional account, based on written sources, that the Roman conquests put an end to the Celtic states, is challenged. You learn that textual and archaeological evidence are asymmetric.

Yes, this is a good exhibition. And it is so nice to see al those objects together: the Coligny calendar, the Warberg warrior, the finds from Eberdingen-Hochdorf, a copy of the Vix crater. There are animations, models, and drawings; quotes from the ancient authors are written on the walls, and are clearly secondary to the archaeological evidence.

I would have loved to know more about the place of the Celts in nineteenth-century European culture. It was believed that they were, for their own good, subdued by the Romans, and this made them the ancient counterparts of the subjects in the European colonies. I am not convinced that this image is now completely dead.

Heuneberg

Another point of criticism is that photography is prohibited. Granted, there is a good catalog, but catalogs never show the objects from the angle from which you want to study the object. There ought to be some kind of rule against this prohibition, which is the museological equivalent of the paywalls that scientistific publishers use to keep information away from the people who are most interested.

There are two small additional exhibitions, one for school classes and one about the excavations at the Heuneberg (“das Schwäbische Troia”). You will need about five hours to see it all.


Meanwhile, in Syria

28 May 2012

Shelled: Crac des Chevaliers

There’s a civil war in Syria. I always feel it is somehow inappropriate to talk about archaeology, classics, or heritage, when people are fighting to survive. Nevertheless, I think it is not unimportant to pay some attention to the damage to the cultural damage. Here is a report by the Global Heritage Network. It’s quite depressing. Below is a quote from page six. After that, there are forty-five other pages.

Sites known to have been affected by the shelling are:

  • World Heritage Site – (parts of the) Archaeological Villages of Northern Syria, in particular al-Bara, Deir Sunbel, Aïn Larose.
  • World Heritage Site – Bosra.
  • World Heritage Site – Crac des Chevaliers.
  • Tentative World Heritage Site – Apamea and the citadel of Qal’at al-Mudiq. Also the town surrounding the citadel, which is known to date from at least the 16th century. Damage has been confirmed at the 16th century Mosque al-Tawhid, and is suspected at the Islamic caravanserai which forms the museum.
  • Tell Sheikh Hamad (Dur Katlimmu) – Assyrian temple collapsed after shell fire and the site was “transformed into a battlefield between deserters and army”.
  • Mosque of Idlib Sermin (Fatimid era).
  • Mosque of al-Tekkiyeh Ariha minaret destroyed.
  • Al-Qusaayr – Great Mosque and Mar Elias monastery damaged.
  • Mosque al-Herak in the Dara’a region.
  • Oldest mosque in city of Sermin.
  • Our Lady of Seydnaya Monastery – Earliest part of monastery dates to early Christian era (circa 547AD) – shell through back wall.
  • Tomb of the Sheikh Dahur al-Muhammad in Rityan, in Aleppo province.

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