Sasanian Rock Reliefs

30 August 2008
Investiture of Ardašir I (from Naqš-i Rustam)

Investiture of Ardašir I (from Naqš-i Rustam)

The Sasanian Rock Reliefs belong to the most beautiful monuments I have ever seen in Iran. Unlike Achaemenid court art, which is dignified and static, Sasanian art is dynamic and almost expressionist. And where the Achaemenids wanted to express that their monarchy was eternal and therefore refrained from individualism, the Sasanian sculptors show us particular kings and noblemen, who can be identified from their crowns and badges.

The reliefs can be found on several places in Iran: for example, in Bishapur, Sarab-i Bahram, Taq-e Bostan, Barm-e Dilak, Naqš-e Rajab, Guyum, Firuzabad, and especially Naqš-i Rustam. The standard book on the subject is Louis Vanden Berghe’s Reliefs rupestres de l’ Iran ancien (1983 Brussels).

30 pages on Constantinople

28 August 2008
Eagle and Snake in the Istanbul Mosaic Museum

Eagle and Snake in the Istanbul Mosaic Museum

Voilà, the first major contribution to my website in about a year: thirty pages on Constantinople. Interested in the Greek origins? Go here. Constantine’s city? Here is your page. Photos of the impressive land walls? Here you are. The full Latin text of the Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae is here, the Bosphorus has not been forgotten, and the photos of the Mosaic Museum are here. And if you want to have an overview of all pages – it’s here. Enjoy; I enjoyed my holiday.

Roman Festival, Nijmegen

23 August 2008

Nijmegen is not only the oldest Roman city of the Netherlands, it also boasts the Kops Plateau, an archaeological site that has been called “the Night Watch of Dutch Archaeology”. The comparison to the most famous painting ever made by a Dutchman is a bit exaggerated –Dorestad did more to change our perception of the first millennium- but it’s only a minor exaggeration: the Kops Plateau is one of the most important Roman settlements north of the Alps. It’s the only place that has been identified as the HQs of an entire Roman army – not just a legion, but four of them, with their auxiliaries and allies. This is the place from which Drusus and Tiberius led the invasion of the country east of the Rhine.

On Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 August, this historical site is the scene of a great festival, in which all kinds of Roman activities are displayed. We witnessed a gladiatoral contest, a potter making ceramics, and an impressive demonstration of a Roman catapult. We also had some Roman food, and met the author of a recent book on ancient Nijmegen (Paul van der Heijden, Romeins Nijmegen), who gave us his autograph.

I cannot deny that I found the soldiers the most interesting part. The most spectacular activity was the reconstruction of a part of the original wall of the base, with replicas of the original tools, which have been excavated at the Kopse Hof. As I wrote a book on ancient warfare, I think I know something about legionaries, and I was impressed by the reenactors’ accuracy and love for detail. Several professional ancient historians might learn a thing or two about that (example).

Among the people demonstrating ancient crafts and armies were gladiators from Hungary, soldiers and citizens from several groups from Belgium and Holland (Corbvlo, XI Claudia, Chariovalda, Noviolocus), and legionaries, a writing tablet maker and cooks from Germany (Römercohorte Opladen). I am pretty sure I heard several reenactors speaking English, but I was unable to find out to which group they belonged. The men of X Gemina were at home: the historical legion with that name was stationed in Nijmegen (here‘s a little movie they made). It struck me that only twenty years ago, an international line-up like this would have been impossible, so perhaps the most impressive thing of the festival is that it’s a display of the successful European unification.

So, it was an exciting afternoon. I had prepared very well, even recharging the batteries of my camera. Being Jona Lendering, this of course meant that when I arrived, I discovered that -ahem- I had forgotten to put the batteries in the camera again. The photos I add to this article were made by my friend Jan Pieter van de Giessen, whom I would have met at the Kops Plateau if my travel companion Marco could have left a bit earlier. However, he had to go to a specialized dress shop first to buy his fiancée’s bridal gown. Of course that’s more important – though he might have considered taking part in the grand finale of today’s part of the festival: the Roman marriage ceremony.

Monuments of Mainz

21 August 2008
The Drususstein

The Drususstein

If you are interested in ancient history, Mainz, ancient Mogontiacum, is one of the most interesting places to visit. It was founded by Drusus, who used it as his base to conquer the valley of the river Main; after his death, the soldiers erected a cenotaph for their former general (photo). For about a century, there were two, sometimes even three, legions in Mainz. Only in the second century, the garrison was reduced to one legion, XXII Primigenia, which was still in Mainz in the early fifth century.

Reconstruction of one of the piers of the bridge

Reconstruction of one of the piers of the bridge

While the fortress decreased in importance, the civil settlement expanded. Although the town has always been occupied and excavation is difficult, archaeologists have identified a bridge across the Rhine (photo), a Jupiter Column with an interesting inscription, a temple of Isis and Cybele, and a theater.

One of the Mainz Pedestals

One of the Mainz Pedestals

The most impressive monument is, in my view, the collection of ten reliefs that is known as the Mainz Pedestals (photo). It may not be what you have in mind when you think about classical art. And it is true, the human body has been rendered better by other sculptors: the heads, arms, and legs of the figures on the pedestals are not well-proportioned. However, this monument was certainly made by a great artist who compensated his lack of anatomical knowledge by something that, lacking a better expression, I call “power”. They are far more interesting than those nude statues you see in an Italian or Greek museum.

It comes as no surprise that Mainz has several museums dedicated to ancient history, more than any other city north of the Alps. More about Mainz’ museums tomorrow.

Mesopotamian Olympics?

14 August 2008
A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

A legendary hero, shown on a relief from the Assyrian capital Khorsabad (Louvre)

The modern Olympics are not the subject of ancient history and under normal circumstances, I would not have mentioned the Games at all. But here’s a subject that I like to mention: Mesopotamian influences on the origins of the Greek Olympic Games. This is the link to a new website that presents the evidence for cultural borrowing; the author, David Chibo, claims to have found eleven parallels between oriental and Greek athletic contests.

He points at a key text from Babylonia: the Sumerian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was known throughout the ancient Near East and has jumped to Greece as well (it is referred to by Aelian, who also knows the name of “Gilgamos”). The idea that the archaic Greeks, who accepted oriental artistic motifs, were inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh, is by no means far-fetched, especially since Gilgamesh and Heracles (the mythological founder of the Olympic Games) closely resemble each other.

As I said, Chibo claims to have found eleven parallels. I was not convinced by all of them, but yes, athletic contests, in July/August, to honor the gods, awarding wreaths, ending with a victory banquet – well, five parallels is at least quite suggestive.

The remaining six parallels I find unconvincing and I think that the author overstates his case when he suggests that it is still necessary to prove “that civilisation evolved naturally at the confluence of three continenents rather than miraculously in the isolated mountainous terrain of Greece”. I think only very old-fashioned scholars still make the last-mentioned claim: no scholar worthy of that title denies, for instance, that the Alexandrine Library was inspired by Babylon or that Alexander the Great ordered the Mesopotamian astronomical texts to be translated into Greek. At least on my website, Livius, I have never excluded the ancient Near East, and I think Chibo is putting up a strawman.

That being said, he has found five parallels, and I think his article is worth reading.

Ancient sites on Google Earth (again)

11 August 2008

TWhat you are looking for, is here.

Moving Livius.Org (5)

9 August 2008


As I already announced, I am moving several pages of my website. Many pages from France this time: Nîmes (ancient Nemausus) with its splendid Maison Carrée and the Pont du Gard, Orange (ancient Arausio), St.Rémy-de-Provence (ancient Glanum; picture), and Vaison-la-Romaine (ancient Vasio).

From Germany: Waldgirmes, a very interesting Roman city on the east bank of the Rhine. From Greece: Halos in Thessaly, where I learned a thing or two about Mediterranean archaeology. From Iran: the so-called Wall of Alexander and the Elburz Mountains with the Caspian Gate. From Italy: the cave of Sperlonga. From Libya: the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Oea, modern Tripoli. And from Turkey: two small pages on Antandrus and Abydus.

Still 243 pages to go…


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