The Later Rome, A lot Like Us…

“Dad, don’t take this personally, but I sort of prefer the early Romans to the later Romans…”

So announced my 10 year old yesterday afternoon. Granted, it’s an odd conversation anyway you slice it – the fellow is 10 years old after all. But leaving that aside, one understands his attraction to the polish and power of Octavian’s Rome, or Scipio’s Rome. Theirs was a Rome of potential, a Rome of power still-in-store, a world-beating Rome.
And yet I still gravitate to the later Rome, the Rome that snooty Victorians (and Hollywood along with the popular press) called “Byzantine”. For two hundred years we have denigrated them rather than giving these Romans – that survived everything that human-kind and nature could throw at them – their due. For 1,000 years after their cousins in the West gave up the ghost they survived (from 476 to 1453), managing a more mellow “greatness” than Old Rome despite overwhelming odds. Knowing that the proverbial writing was on the wall they soldiered on in philosophy, art, law, diplomacy, architecture, etc. for our benefit. In short, even though the darkness fell around them, the Eastern Roman Empire kept the flame of culture and civilization alive longer than anyone, even their own contemporaries, expected. In fact, they kept this flame burning just long enough for the semi-barbarous nation states of the West to “rediscover” it, to appropriate it as their own and to call it the “Renaissance”.
In the last few weeks two exciting archaeological discoveries caught my eye and reminded me (and the 10 year old) how great was the span of my preferred Rome – the Justinian-era Rome of the 6th century – centered in Constantinople. Enjoy this touch of their cool and immortal Empire as so much in our 2017 world seems to reek of shrill and decline.
ROME IN CHINA
The first of these discoveries surfaced last month in China, when archaeologists opened a mid-6th century tomb of a wealthy Chinese man and found what the archaeologists described as coins minted during the reign (and sporting the likeness) of Justinian the Great who ruled Rome from 527CE to 565CE. As described in the China Daily News:
“The tomb’s owner, Lu Chou, died in 548 and the burial artifacts excavated include intact colored pottery figurines, camel figures and, most importantly, two gold coins from the Eastern Roman Empire… The gold coins are thought to be the earliest foreign currency coins to have been found in China.”
Surprised? It makes one wonder why Marco Polo receives such adulation still for “opening up” China in 1271CE when the Romans had regular trade with China stretching back to the days of the Roman Republic. This Roman-Chinese relationship remained active up until (and beyond) Justinian’s reign as the recovery of these coins illustrates. Rome was extremely desirous of Chinese silk, one of the most mysterious and prized substances in the Empire for many centuries, used to clothe Emperors and the Senatorial class. In fact, it was during Justinian’s rule, and at his behest, that Roman spies (dressed as priests) smuggled silkworm nests out of China in hollow canes so that the Romans might begin to manufacture their own silk, thereby cutting out Persian and Arab middlemen.
This daring does not sound like the work of a “lesser” Rome to me.
Please see pictures of the coins, and the tomb in which they were found, in the first two images below.


ROME IN ISRAEL
Across the globe this week archaeologists announced the most exciting Justinian-era discovery in some years, a perfectly intact Greek inscription commemorating the construction of a hostel for Roman pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem (which at that time was known to Romans as Aelia Capitolina, as named some centuries before by the Roman Emperor Hadrian who rebuilt the city that had been destroyed by the Romans during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70CE).
Nothing similar had been found in Jerusalem since the 1970’s when archaeologists stumbled upon the Nea Church, built by the Emperor Justinian as a replica of Solomon’s original temple and believed to possibly housed the Treasure from Herod’s second temple, a treasure that had been recovered by Justinian’s great general Belisarius after he nearly single-handledly defeated the Vandals and recovered Roman Africa for the Empire (highlighted in my novel, “Avenging Africanus”).
So, Titus destroyed Jersusalem and committed countless atrocities on its Jewish residents in the process, Hadrian rebuilt (a pagan) Jerusalem, Constantine made her a Christian city and Justinian made her a major Roman city, the most important city of Roman Palaestina.
The triumphant, miraculous Greek inscription recovered this week had been buried just below the surface of Jerusalem’s Old City for 1,500 years and escaped certain destruction by a matter of mere hours, since the area where it was located was to be leveled and excavated the following day in order to lay communications cables outside the American Consulate in Jerusalem. Justinian’s words come directly to us thanks to sheer chance, discovered on the very last day of the dig! Had one more day passed this message from the latter-day Romans would have been pulverized so that the latter-day Americans might send their messages more efficiently.


The Greek inscription was deciphered by the Hebrew University’s Dr. Leah Di Segni, an expert on ancient Greek inscriptions and reads as follows:
“In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction.”
The archaeologist who discovered it believes that it was written to commemorate the founding of the building — presumed to be a pilgrim hostel — by a priest named Constantine, the ‘hegumen’ of Jerusalem. The word “indiction,” said Di Segni, “is an ancient method of counting years, for taxation purposes. Based on historical sources, the mosaic can be dated to the year 550/551 CE.”
So, in short, our ‘later’ Romans, our much maligned Byzantines, traded with China, sheltered pilgrims in Jerusalem, and created works of enduring beauty and influence as the wider world crumbled about them. These are not the achievements that will necessarily hold a child’s attention, nor will it attract Hollywood’s celebrity, but for my druthers it does not get much better than this.
And finally, at the end of a long hot summer where there has been much (too much) talk of the USA’s decline and fall, I for one take heart from Rome’s endurance. She waxed and waned but she survived, inspired, and remained relevant even after “early” turned to “late”, lighting the way forward for those who came after.

Riding the ‘Subway’, in Ancient Rome

Urban dwellers will recognize this map at first glance! But when you look a little closer you will see that you are not in Kansas anymore.

You are, in fact, in the Roman Empire in the year 125CE. And the “subway lines” you see are the Roman highway system as it existed in that year to the best of our knowledge (with some assumptions). Solid lines reflect existing routes, dotted lines reflect Roman aspirations or partially complete routes where the Romans might have been active but had not yet established the control required to extend their infrastructure.

The map is the brainchild of a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Sasha Trubetskoy and it is absolutely brilliant, rendering the stunning breadth and scope of the Roman footprint in such a tangible way. I have not stopped marveling at it and I’m sure that you will as well.

Hop on the highway in Londinium and ride it to Petra? No problem, it could be accomplished within the confines of the Empire. To provide a concrete example of this marvelous system, Mr. Trubetskoy estimates that a trip from Rome to Constantinople would take approximately 2 months on foot, a journey that could be reduced by half if the traveler “transferred” to sailboat for part of the trip…

In addition to Trubetskoy’s subway map, below you will find images depicting the design of the typical Roman highway as well as actual examples of such roads as they currently continue to exist across the Empire (including in war-torn Syria such as in this image to the right), where two thousand years later the accomplishment of Roman engineers is still remarkably evident.

 

For those interested in readying more please see the website of the map’s creator by clicking here.

 

PENN Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology

If you happen to find yourself in Philadelphia, please do yourself a great favor and visit one of the world’s most remarkable museums the PENN Museum Archaeology and Anthropology on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.Penn Museum in Spring

Founded in 1887, for 130 years the Museum has been a trail-blazer in the world of Archaeology and Anthropology, transforming our understanding of the ancient world and even more importantly today, in an era when civilization itself seems to be under assault, helping to secure the future of our human patrimony.

I am greatly honored to be involved with the Museum, and was recently there for the opening of their newest exhibit:

CULTURES IN THE CROSSFIRE: STORIES FROM SYRIA AND IRAQ

Cultures in the Crossfire 1

Like many I have been horrified by the years of bloodshed in Syria, during which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more displaced as the world has stood by and watched.

Not only is modern Syria under assault but ancient Syria (and Iraq), the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of human civilization, is also under assault.Fertile Crescent Map

I am honored to be involved with the PENN Museum (and its Penn Cultural Heritage Center), whose extraordinary archaeologists are at work on the ground in Syria and Iraq, trying to protect the ancient sites and antiquities that are most at risk from the ongoing civil war and unrest. Ancient sites like Palmyra have been bombed, looted, and deliberately destroyed. The footprints of the Assyrians, Sumerians, Persians, Phoenicians and Romans are being erased. By helping to preserve the work of our ancestors, not only do these brave women and men benefit the wider world, they are providing the residents of Syria and Iraq a piece of the foundation upon which they can start to rebuild once the violence in their countries end.

Regarding this haunting new exhibit, the Museum writes:

“This new exhibition, created in conjunction with the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, sheds light on the ongoing destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East by showing what’s at stake—the rich history of the region and the diversity of its people—and what’s being done to prevent the loss of this history and cultural identity. Fascinating ancient art and artifacts from the Penn Museum’s extensive Near East collection tell stories of the cultures of Syria and Iraq through time. Contemporary artwork from Issam Kourbaj, a Syrian artist based in Cambridge, UK, provides an art intervention—a modern-day response to the artifacts and themes. The exhibition features the important work being done by the University of Pennsylvania and Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with individuals and groups in the Middle East to help combat the loss of irreplaceable cultural heritage.”

 

The impact of this exhibit is profound, and in addition to the new exhibit you could easily spend hours at the Museum where there is so much more to see (the stunning Sphinx below – the largest such creature on display outside of Egypt is just one example).
The collection is unlike anything else you will find in the Western Hemisphere (only the British Museum in London has a larger collection of antiquities). Treat yourself, and your family, and visit – you will not soon forget the experience.

Penn Sphinx

Follow this link to plan your visit:

https://www.penn.museum/

 

 

 

Restoration of Justinian’s Basilica Cistern

Exciting news emerged this week from the world of Archaeology pertaining Mosaic_of_Iustinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna)to the Emperor Justinian the Great and one of the greatest Roman feats of engineering and architecture still standing (albeit underground).
 
Anyone who has ever visited Istanbul has surely visited the Basilica Cistern, known in Turkish as the “Yerebatan Sarnıcı”. Located across the street and 645x400-basilica-cistern-set-for-comprehensive-restoration-1483481203740 underground from the Hagia Sophia in the heart of what once was Constantinople – capital of the Roman Empire for one thousand years and before that it was the Greek colony of Byzantium – the Cistern is an architectural marvel completed by the Emperor Justinian the Great (though it was likely begun during the reign of his uncle, the Emperor Justin).
 
The cistern was built to hold water that might keep the city’s thirst quenched in the event of siege or drought – though it was one of many that littered the city it was far and away the most important. But to call it a reservoir is to do it a grave injustice. It is a work of grace and beauty, built underneath the city streets in the heart of Constantinople. To enter it is to enter a magical space, in some ways (to me at least) it feels as ethereal and transcendent as the grand basilica above. The roof that towers above is supported by 336 columns rising 30 plus feet into the air, reflected in the water that still partially fills the room. A number of those columns contain recycled elements, including 0x0-basilica-cistern-set-for-comprehensive-restoration-1483481201380masonry that the Romans recovered from the more ancient Greek city of Byzantium like the absolutely breathtaking Medusa heads that form the base of two columns (see picture to the right).
 
To walk into the Cistern is to step 2,000 years back in time to the last era of the Romans when they still possessed the technological expertise, capital, and desire to build truly monumental works. Imagine that this place (pictures below) was never built to be seen, to entertain visitors, to awe tourists – it was simply built to hold water! Could we build something so regal today even if we tried? Its hard to contemplate. One cannot look at such a thing and wonder about, and to be awed by, the civilization that was capable of creating it.
 
So, the news this week is that Turkey will embark upon an ambitious restoration of the Cistern (along with the Milion that rests above it – the mile-marker from which all distances in the Empire were measured since Old Rome was lost to the Goths). One cannot help but wish them well and hope that the restoration is done with tact.
 
For more on the restoration see here
 

News of a Tyrant in Jerusalem.

nero-in-jerusalemArchaeologists digging on Mount Zion just unearthed a truly beautiful Roman coin, exceptionally rare both for its quality, condition and the era in which it
was minted (and lost).

The coin (see below) depicts the Emperor Nero, the last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was estimated to have been minted and buried in approximately 56CE, just over a decade before Jerusalem was leveled by the
Romans during the devastating Revolt. The coin was unearthed on the grounds of a private villa that was sat on the slopes of Mount Zion and that was almost certainly razed during the subsequent destruction of the city by the Roman Army as the team of archaeologists from the University of North mount-zion-2Carolina who said:

“This mansion and others like it were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground,” he said. “It is likely
– owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin – [that] it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.”

A coin of this quality is very rarely found and it is particularly interesting mount-ziongiven the fact that it points to the Romans’ presence in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70CE).

For more on this discovery see this link to the Jerusalem Post.

Caesar’s Gold, A Murder Mystery in Sweden

On a windswept island twenty times the size of Manhattan off the coast of Sweden, investigators are scouring a crime scene for clues, to understand who was behind a terrifying massacre whose details are only now coming to light. Yellow crime scene tape circles the remains of homes, and the remains of their former inhabitants, under a slate grey sky. Many dozens of people, Sandy-Borg-Excavations-CISmen, women and children fell victim to a horrendous attack on the island. Most remarkable is that the dastardly attackers had to overcome towering fifteen foot stone walls capped with battlements and manned by some of the most fearsome warriors Europe has ever known to commit their crime.

So what does it have to do with Rome?

To begin with, this attack happened some 1,500 years ago.Oland Map

And the investigators that even now study this dark deed are archaeologists from Kalmar County Museum, located on the mainland just across from the island.

As described in Archaeology Magazine (link to the full article below):

“Built around A.D. 400, it encircled an area the size of a football field. Now called Sandby Borg, the site is one of more than a dozen similar “borgs,” or forts, on Öland, all built during the Migration Period, a tumultuous era in Europe that began in the fourth century A.D. and hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire.”

But there is more “Rome” in this story than simply the time period in which Sandby Borg was devastated by unknown assailants. Again quoting from Archaeology Magazine:

“Archaeological excavations and chance finds [on Öland] have turned up hundreds of Roman coins, bronze statues, glass beads, and vessels dating to
the first four centuries A.D., when Öland had extensive contact with the Roman Empire. As the empire began to decline, Scandinavian warriors from the islands of Bornholm, Gotland, and Öland found that a set of skills different from what they had sharpened before was now in demand. They had traveled thousands of miles south between a.d. 350 and 500 to work as mercenary bodyguards for the last of the Roman emperors, who paid well to guarantee their loyalty. Ölanders had long brought their wages back to the windswept Baltic island in the form of Roman solidi, gold coins commonly issued in the late empire. The solidi found on the island are distinctive, matching dies that have been uncovered in Rome. “A lot of them are very fresh, in mint condition,” Victor says, without the characteristic wear of coins that have been passed from hand to hand in trade. “There’s a direct link to Rome, and later to Milan and Arles.”

Stones at Oland

So this long, exposed island was populated by retired bodyguards that had enriched themselves in service of Caesar, the last Caesars to rule the Western Empire. And when they were released from duty they returned home with the gold that they had accumulated and they stashed that wealth in homes with turf walls that they raised behind massive stone fortifications knowing that word would spread of their wealth. That their hard won wages would prove to great a temptation in their horrendously violent age.

And that concern would prove to be terribly prescient.

Caesar’s bodyguards, and their families, fell not long after those protective walls were built.

Their story is dark, and fascinating, and well recounted in Archaeology Magazine for those interested in more..

 

From Londinium, With Love…

“I ASK YOU IN YOUR OWN INTEREST NOT TO LOOK TOO SHABBY.”

A message that only true friends or family could deliver and only then with a certain degree of caution – it takes love to tell the unvarnished truth!

The note could easily have been written by any of us today, in a text or email. Instead it was written 2,000 years ago in a Roman settlement known as LONDINIUM, modern London. It, along with a treasure trove of
wood tablets was just discovered during a construction project for Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in London.

Bloomberg headquarters construction

Most amazing is that this note (one of 405 writing tablets unearthed on London’s Queen Victoria street), was written on bees’ wax pressed on wood. The original wax has long disappeared but impressions from the writing were pressed into the wood which was miraculously preserved.

As one article described:

“The preservation of the tablets is in itself remarkable, as wood rarely survives when buried in the ground. The wet mud of the Walbrook, a river that dominated the area in the Roman period but is now buried, stopped oxygen from decaying the wooden tablets, preserving them in excellent condition.”

image_3925_1-Bloomberg-Tablet-30 Tablets found on site

The find is historical for another reason. On one of the wood tablets, archaeologists identified the earliest mention of the city’s name ever found, dating to mere years after the city’s founding in 43CE.

“IN LONDON, TO MOGNOTIUS.”
(“Londinio Mogontio”)

image_3925_2-Bloomberg-Tablet-6

 

 

 

Sends chills up the spine….