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.

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.

BREAKING NEWS – TURKEY DEFEATS THE ROMANS

BREAKING NEWS – TURKEY DEFEATS THE ROMANS (563 years ago – too late to celebrate?).

Talk about being desperate for good news! Over the weekend the autocratic regime of Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan (image at right) mounted a major celebration to mark the anniversary of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s (“The Conqueror”) victory over the final Roman Emperor, Constantine XI (“the Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine greet supporters during a rally marking the 563rd anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans 29 May 2016 EPAMarble Emperor”). A million people were expected to attend the celebrations and the President’s extravaganza would feature the army, navy (replete with submarines), etc. Just in case the nasty Romans pop up to ruin the festivities?

None can deny that when Mehmed finally pierced Constantinople (now Istanbul’s) Theodosian City Walls on April 6 1453, it marked a turning point in world history. The Turks had spent nearly 700 years trying (unsuccessfully) to take the city that had been the center of human civilization since it was founded by Constantine the Great in 330CE, and thanks to some of the largest cannon ever cast they finally succeeded.

A sad day for lovers of Roman history!

And evidently a very happy day for Erdogan. Nothing like kicking a dog when he’s down, especially when the dog (the Roman Empire) has been down for about six hundred years.

Yet another enduring testament to the power of Rome – still resonant, and relevant, six centuries after it finally disappeared from the face of the planet.

Some images from that fateful day, including one of the Marble Emperor, one of the famous canons, and one of Mehmed entering the city.

Constantinople_1453 220px-Dardanelles_Gun_Turkish_Bronze_15c 220px-Walls_of_Constantinople 220px-Fall-of-constantinople-22 200px-Constantine_XI_Palaiologos_miniature Zonaro_GatesofConst

A Roman Tomb in Turkey, Lost and Found

A Roman tomb, graffiti clad, filled with water, quenches thirst, lost in Çakırköy, Turkey.

This little snippet (below) fascinated me. How this 2,000 year old Roman tomb was unearthed and somehow wound up as a fountain in this small town in the heart of what once was Roman Anatolia and is now Turkey – somewhere between Istanbul and Ankara – no one knows. But there it is in the picture below, alive, used. Perhaps that is best. One wonders what the thirsty passerby thinks when they lean in to take sip…

image

“A 2,000-year-old tomb from the late Roman era serves as a fountain in the village of Çakırköy in the western province Afyonkarahisar.

Nike, the god of victory, is depicted on four sides of the Roman tomb, which was discovered in 1986 by the Turkish Grain Board. On one of the long sides of the tomb, the reliefs depict a man and woman, who were most probably the owners of the tomb, and two Medusa heads on the other side. The writings on the tomb have been destroyed, as reported by Aktüel Archaeology magazine. The tomb is thought to have served as an important family grave in the ancient age.

Museum officials say the tomb is used as a fountain in order to keep treasure hunters away from the area.”
March/29/2016 – From Hurriyet Daily News

General Belisarius Enters Rome – on this day in 536CE

On this day, December 9th in 536CE, Roman General Flavius Belisarius (pictured above) entered the city of Rome through the Asinarian Gate (seen below) with his small cohort of Roman knights.

250px-Porta_Asinaria_2948

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 when the Goth warlord Odoacer toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.

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.

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 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.

Absolutely fascinating stuff!

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