On This Day – 9/13/533 – Belisarius Recovers Africa for Rome

IMG_0717Humble milestones like the one picture here marked each mile throughout the Roman highway system, spanning the 250,000 miles of roadway that once stretched from modern Scotland to Yemen.

The milestones allowed the traveller to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.

In what had been Roman Africa, stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast. It was the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile).

At the tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on this day – September 13th of 533 – the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius (pictured here) met the Vandal King Gaiseric in a battle that would change the course of history.  Belisarius

The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations. The Romans were 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy). If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements. The Western Roman Empire had already ceased to exist with Romulus Augustulus’ abdication in 476 (in great part due to the Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome). If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy.

Belisarius and his Roman knights would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold. This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian. These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.

This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of the Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com here).

For those that would like to read more of the military history of Ad Decimum, see the excellent Byzantine Military blog on the subject by clicking here.

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.

 

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
 

Belisarius and the Siege of Rome

belisarius-mosaicOn this day, December 9th in 536CE, Roman General Flavius Belisarius entered the city of Rome through the Asinarian Gate with his small cohort of Roman knights.

The city’s residents had not seen a Roman Legionnaire for almost exactly 60 years, when what remained of the Western armies deserted the Eternal City after the Goth warlord Odoacer toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus (“little Augustus”).

Since that time, Rome (the city) had been under the control of a series of Goth rulers, including Odoacer, Theodoric (the “Great”), Amalasuntha (daughter of Theodoric), Theodad (cousin of Amalasuntha and her murderer) and at the time of Belisarius’ arrival, the Goth King Vitiges.250px-porta_asinaria_2948

Imagine that! For 60 years, the Roman Empire had gone about its business with an Emperor mounted on a throne in Constantinople, while Rome herself – the birthplace of Empire – was held by barbarians. Imagine a United States continuing to exist, and to thrive, with a Washington D.C. belonging to a foreign power. It sounds inconceivable and so it was to the Emperor Justinian who was determined to accomplish what none had dared, to return Rome to Rome.

By the time that Belisarius arrived in Rome his exploits (in Persia and Africa) were the stuff of legend. But he arrived woefully understaffed with barely

Vitiges (? - 540) Prince des Goths, roi des Ostrogoths de 536 à 540.
Vitiges (? – 540) Prince des Goths, roi des Ostrogoths de 536 à 540.

5,000 Roman knights, and soon faced a Goth army that exceeded 100,000 in number surrounding the city, determined to crush Belisarius and with it, Justinian’s aspirations of restoration.

Did Belisarius panic in the face of such impossible odds?  This quote from Procopius – an eyewitness to these events – makes the hairs on my neck stand on end every time I read it:

“On the eighteenth day from the beginning of the siege the Goths moved against the fortifications at about sunrise […] and all the Romans were struck with consternation at the sight of the advancing towers and rams, with which they were altogether unfamiliar.  But Belisarius, seeing the ranks of the enemy as they advanced with the engines, began to laugh, and commanded the soldiers to remain quiet and under no circumstances to begin fighting until he himself should give the signal.” – Procopius

300px-walls_of_rome_6th_century-1Belisarius stood atop the Aurelian Walls and drew his bow (a compound bow design that he borrowed from the Huns and improved upon) and in a blur fired three arrows that killed the three Goth field commanders that commanded the attack, causing chaos in the Goth ranks.  Then he began to fire one arrow after another at the oxen that drew the siege engines forth and order his knights to do the same, stopping the towers dead in their tracks.  The Siege of Rome that followed would last for one year and nine days and its outcome would make indelible history…

Absolutely fascinating stuff!

This Wikipedia link which does a decent job of summarizing the ensuing Siege of Rome.

Remembering the “Last Roman”

On this day in the year 565CE, one thousand four hundred and fifty one years ago, a truly extraordinary man died – a man who changed our world irrevocably. What’s more, the changes he wrought impact all of us, every single day in ways grand and small and yet most of us have never heard of him. It is safe to say that our world would be quite different had he not lived.

Mosaic_of_Iustinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna)At birth his name was Pietrus Sabbatius, citizen of the Roman Empire born to a family of little merit in the grasslands of Thrace, west of the capitol of the Roman Empire at Constantinople. A note on that city – at the time of his birth not only was it the seat of government (the Emperor Constantine had moved the capital to Constantinople, formerly known as Byzantium, known today as Istanbul in 335CE) – but it was the grandest city in the entire world, filled with a million inhabitants. By the time he died, Pietrus was known as the Emperor Justinian “the Great”, Caesar, “Restitutor Orbiter” (restored of the world) and later Saint of the Orthodox Church.

He was a most peculiar man, married to an equally peculiar woman by any standard who went by the name of Theodora – she was as beautiful and cunning as Cleopatra herself. Together the Imperial couple were (not by accident) surrounded by some of the most extraordinarily able, creative, and dedicated people that had ever been assembled in support of an idea, a sovereign, or a nation. In the case of Justinian’s cabinet (filled with such luminaries as the General Belisarius who won wars with ideas, John ‘the Cappadocian’ the able administrator, Anthemius of Tralles the architect and inventor responsible for the Santa Sophia, and Tribunian the Qaestor the man who codified the whole history of Roman law), they supported something that was at once of this earth and yet more, aspirational, otherworldly. A single word that captures their cause continues to enchant us for reasons that none can entirely explain so long after it ceased to exist – ROME. It enchanted Justinian as well, it motivated his every breath, for that reason he bears remembering this day.

Justinian ruled Rome (and hence the known world) for 38 years, rising to the throne 51 years after the last Western Emperor was forced off the throne by the Goth warlord Odoacer. This new Caesar did not accept the status quo of a dismembered Empire where barbarian princes ran roughshod over Roman peoples and principles. Eastern Emperors that had ruled before him, after the fall of the West, seemed resigned to this new, diminished, belittled Rome but not Justinian. He dedicated his life to stitching the Empire back together – his unequalled general by the name of Belisarius took a handful of elite Roman knights and reconquered Africa and Italy, defeating vastly superior barbarian armies in the process.

Although Justinian was known by contemporaries as the Last Roman, the very last Caesar of Rome, Constantine XI “Palaiologos” would die in 1465, nine hundred years later, scant decades before Columbus set sail for the New World. Yet Justinian was very much the last Caesar of the ancient world. Many scholars have sought to explain why the Western Roman Empire declined prior to Justinian’s ascension, and to distill the world-rending pressures that would forever change Rome after Justinian (I would warmly recommend “Justinian’s Flea” by William Rosen for any interested in a brilliant and unconventional analysis of Rome’s transition into the Dark Ages – for those interested in a fictional account of his reign I’d be honored if you would see my trilogy on the subject, the “Legend of Africanus” on Amazon).

That said, it is worth repeating a few of the simple reasons why Justinian’s life represents such a milestone in world history and why his controversial reign marks the end of the Ancient World. Here is a short list of my reasons why this man should matter to you.

– Justinian was the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue (after him they would speak Greek first, Latin as an afterthought if at all).

– His remarkable compilation of a thousand years of Roman law formed the basis of most modern Western democracies, continuing to provide their legal framework to this day.

– His legal reforms allowed woman to inherit property and decreed that the beaches of his territory were public property and could not be taken as private property nor could access to them be blocked (a tradition that is still enshrined in our legal system).

– He was the last Caesar to rule over a Roman Empire that included the city of Rome amongst its dominions (thanks to General Flavius Belisarius – another contender for the title of “Last Roman”).

And while he lived, Rome remained ‘The One’ – after him, she gradually became one amongst many. She would wax and wane over the next nine hundred years and for as long as there was a Caesar on the Bosporus she would influence the world in infinite ways large and small, but never again as she did under Justinian.

Ad Decimum – Belisarius Ends Vandal Africa…

roman-milestoneHumble milestones like the one picture above marked each mile throughout the Roman highway system, spanning the 250,000 miles of roadway that once stretched from modern Scotland to Yemen.

The milestones allowed the traveller to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.

In what had been Roman Africa,  stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast.  It was the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile).

At the tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on this day – September 13th of 533 – the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius met the Vandal King Gaiseric in a battle that would change the course of history.belisarius-mosaic

The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations.  The Romans were 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy).  If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements.  The Western Roman Empire had already ceased to exist with Romulus Augustulus’ abdication in 476 (in great part due to the Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome).  If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy.

Belisarius and his Roman knights would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold.  This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian.  These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.

This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of the Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com here).

For those that would like to read more of the military history of Ad Decimum, see the excellent Byzantine Military blog by clicking here.