Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus

29 January 2010

A dedication to Elagabal by Alexianus (Römisches Museum, Augsburg)

The Syrian nobleman Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus (c.155-217) is not among the most famous Romans, and yet he was one of the most important officials during the reigns of the emperors Septimius Severus (193-211) and Caracalla (211-217). He was the husband of Severus’ sister-in-law, Julia Maesa; the couple had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, who were to become the mothers of the emperors Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander.

Alexianus’ own career is quite interesting. After the usual military offices, he was responsible for the food supply of Rome, and may have played a role during the coup of Severus. He appears to have taken part in the campaign against Pescennius Niger and the Parthian Empire as commander of the Fourth Legion Flavia Felix, and was made governor of Raetia. After his consulship, his career came to a standstill, probably because it was obstructed by Plautianus; after his fall, he occupied several other prefectures and governorships. There’s more about him here.


Closing Museums and University Departments

28 January 2010

A good teacher

Today, I was invited to sign a petition (this one) against the closing of the Canterbury Roman Museum. I’ve not been there yet – perhaps I will go there in April – but because the man who wrote the recommendation is someone I have come to appreciate, I signed the document. In other words, what mattered was the person who recommended this cause.

I was reminded of a similar invitation, which I received in October 2009. The University of Sheffield was about to close its Biblical Studies Department. I read all kinds of reasonable arguments why the department ought to remain, but I never read why the university had decided to cut the financing in the first place. This surprised me. Scholars ought to act like scholars always. They cannot try to be unbiased in the library while accepting bias when their institution’s under attack.

The fact that counterattack is more difficult, makes an institute vulnerable. (Everything of value is almost by definition vulnerable.) Scholars may regret that, but only if they live according to their vocation, they can inspire people. Because of the Sheffield theologicians’ disingenuity, I could not support their cause. What mattered was, again, the person who recommended the cause. If scholarship is, these days, not sufficiently funded, it may have something to do with the scholars’ inconsistency, which has caused a lack of credibility.

Common Errors (28): Cleopatra’s Viper

23 January 2010

Cleopatra with a cobra ("Esquiline Venus"; Musei Capitolini, Rome)

It’s a great story, perfectly suited for a theater or movie adaptation: the final moments of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra, who had herself bitten by a viper. There is indeed ancient evidence for this story, which is told by Plutarch (Marc Antony, 86):

It is said that the viper (aspis) was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: “There it is, you see,” and baring her arm she held it out for the bite.

However, this cannot be true. A viper’s bite is not fatal. Only a few scholars have realized the problem, and they have argued that in fact a cobra must be meant. However, the Greeks and Romans were perfectly capable of distinguishing several kinds of snakes. The poet Lucian even offers a catalog of reptiles (with their poisonous effects) in his Pharsalia, book nine.

I do not know what really happened, but I have an idea: Octavian sent a soldier to kill the queen, because he could not afford to capture her. Just imagine that he returned to Rome with a woman tied to his triumphal chariot. The Romans would joke that he had not won a major war, but had merely defeated a woman. There is, of course, no evidence for this theory, but at least it is possible. That’s more than we can say about a fatal viper’s bite.

<Overview of Common Errors>

More Archaeological Disinformation

20 January 2010

Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi

As the readers of this little blog will have noticed, I am increasingly disappointed in the quality of archaeological journalism. Some nations, like Greece, have modest and more or less reliable journalists, but often, journalists swallow the most ridiculous claims by archaeologists.

The problem is important. When people will realize that archaeologists abuse the press for their own purposes (explained here), they will start to hate archaeology, just like people have become skeptical about climatology. The credibility of politicians and bankers was already reduced to zero, scientists and scholars will be next. That is a very, very serious matter, because it means that debates can no longer be solved by credible experts.

Some of the archaeologists’ tricks we already know. From Egypt, we get a lot of prepublicity about the so-called tomb of Cleopatra; even if it is true (which I doubt), the result can not match the hype. In Italy, any find is immediately connected to a text – so a villa becomes the Villa of Vespasian and a beautifully decorated cave becomes the Lupercal. In Israel, anything is connected to the Bible. An interesting ten-century BCE ostracon becomes “a Biblical inscription“, although there is absolutely no Biblical connection whatsoever. I suspect that money is the root of all these evils. Once your excavation has received media attention, the continuity of your funding is certain.

I thought I had seen it all, but this week, I discovered a new trick. What to do when you are excavating a relatively unknown site, belonging to a civilization that is not really popular in the West? That makes it difficult to grab attention. The Syrian-Swiss team that is excavating Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi, an early Umayyad fort, has found the solution: you just write that you excavated your finds in Palmyra, which everyone knows. It’s 100 kilometers away; it’s as absurd as saying that Oxford identical to London; and yet, the Syrian-Swiss team managed to have this nonsense published – or was too lazy to correct a mistake by a journalist, which amounts to to the same. 5 on the Ctesias Scale.

Ambassador of Rome

5 January 2010

Ambassador of Rome

This reenactor stands close to the Colosseum. If you give him some money, you can stand next to him, and someone will take a photo of you, the Colosseum, and an ancient Roman. And what a beautiful Roman he is! His helmet crooked, his leather cuirass too short, his belt somewhere near his ribs, his legs covered with tights.

The reason why I asked my travel companion to take this photo, is that I was surprised that he was allowed to stand over there, where thousands of visitors gather every day. Being next to the Colosseum makes you some kind of ambassador of Rome. If I were the city’s mayor, I would create a license system and make sure that the people over there are perfectly dressed. The reenactors of XXX Ulpia would certainly love to offer advice. Right now, this man represents Rome. This is the way the city wants to be seen.

Roman Holiday (Summary)

4 January 2010

The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius

As the readers of this little blog will have noticed, my friends and I visited Rome. We had a great time. The eternal city is not exactly beautiful – for beauty, you must go to Venice or to the historical center of Florence. Nor is Rome a real city: it can be surprisingly provincial. If you want to visit an Italian metropole with an international outlook, Naples and Palermo are the places to be. What does make Rome special, however, is historical interest. This is the place where it all happened: emperors, popes, dictators… the seven hills have witnessed them all. To me, it is a place where I can find new energy.

Yet, it is hard to deny that Rome has known better days. The airport is no longer as tidy as it used to be, there’s more dirt in the streets, and the cats appear to have left the Colosseum. The Vatican has become a place to avoid. The Colosseum tries to attract tourists by pretending to offer an exhibition that is not what they say it is. At the Forum Romanum, you’re supposed to pay for closed monuments.

On the other side, some museums have greatly improved. I’ve blogged about the Museo nazionale romano in the Baths of Diocletian, and I might have added the Palazzo Massimo next to it. The Museo nazionale della civiltà romana is no longer partially closed. The new building of the Ara Pacis is fine. The Capitoline Museums are even better than they used to be. I will always love museums like the Palazzo Altemps and the Villa Giulia. I could go on forever describing the many delights of Rome.

But as a whole, the city is more shabby than it used to be just three years ago. The best symbols of Rome are no longer Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, or the She-Wolf, but the reenactors near the Colosseum: lousy and uninterested. Romane memento: you can cheat your guests. They will pay anyhow.

Severus’ right-hand man: Plautianus

4 January 2010


It would be strange if I wouldn’t post some new articles on ancient Rome. After all, I just spent a holiday in the urbs ipsa. And indeed, I wrote two pages on Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, the praetorian prefect of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who transformed the old office. His daughter Plautilla also received a brief article; the poor girl had to marry Caracalla, a union that was very unhappy. She was executed by her husband.

In the Vatican, we took photos of the sarcophagus of Sextus Varius Marcellus, who is perhaps best known as the father of Heliogabalus, but is far more interesting than you’d expect. One could write a novel about the man.

I also added a piece on Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages. The connection with my Roman holiday is that we saw his bust in the Vatican Museums. Finally, Bill put online an article on “Recent Discoveries on the Palatine Hill” – recent in 1913 that is, but interesting nevertheless, if only because it is written by the great Boni himself.