“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.