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.


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.


Narbo Martius and Arelate (Narbonne and Arles)

8 August 2008
A small part of the Via Domitia

A small part of the Via Domitia

The capital of Gallia Narbonensis was Narbo Martius, modern Narbonne in southern France. It was founded in 118 BCE when the Romans built the Via Egnatia, which connected northern Italy with Catalonia. Soon, it became an important city, partly because Julius Caesar settled veterans of the Tenth Legion in this city.

A similar story can be told about Arelate, modern Arles: a Roman city in southern France, home to soldiers of Caesar’s Sixth legion Ferrata. Both sites have some ancient monuments left – Arles a bit more than Narbonne, which has a Celtic oppidum across the corner.


Alexander of Molossis

7 August 2008
The world of Alexander of Molossis

The world of Alexander of Molossis

King Alexander of Molossis was an uncle of Alexander the Great (the brother of Olympias). He united Epirus and accepted an invitation from the Greeks in southern Italy to defend them against the Samnites, Lucanians, and Bruttians. The Epirote achieved several successes and concluded a peace treaty with the Romans (who were also at war with the Samnites). Eventually, Alexander was defeated in 331 – more or less at the time of the foundation of Alexandria by his nephew, as the Roman historian Livy notes (History of Rome since its Foundation, 8.24).

The story is not very well-known, but is important. His intervention in Italy, which resembles that of his great-nephew Pyrrhus, prevented the Samnites from capturing the Greek towns, and ensured that the Samnite federation would always have to fight two wars at the same time – against Rome and against the Greeks. That Italy would sooner or later be united, was inevitable, but Alexander’s intervention made sure that Rome would be the master of the Apennine Peninsula.


Devotio

5 August 2008
Monument of the Lacus Curtius

Monument of the Lacus Curtius

Devotio was an ancient Italian ritual, in which a soldier -usually the general- voluntarily accepted his own death, devoted himself to the gods of the Underworld, and allowed his enemies to kill him. The wrath of the gods was, by this ritual, placed on the enemy. There are several parallels from Greece and Carthage, and several stories (like that of Marcus Curtius) may be understood as rationalizations of devotio legends. I’ve summed it up here.


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