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.

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/

 

 

 

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.

Chinese Travelers in Londinium

2nd-century-roman-empireIn the second century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire stretched from the Red Sea (Mare Rubrum where the southernmost Roman Legion was stationed at the Limes Arabicus on the Gulf of Aqaba) to deep in the Scottish Highlands (where the Antonine Wall bisected the British Isle from the Firth of Forth to the Irish Sea).

Stunning really. Just look at the world today, fragmented, at odds, in retreat, and contrast that with a world (equally as barbaric of course as anything we know today) where such a broad swathe of humanity looked to Caesar in Rome, for better or for worse.

These things are known. We also know that the influence of the Empire stretched far beyond the imperial borders. Rome’s merchants actively traded with far flung lands, down the African coast, to Yemen, India and even to Asia where the Roman presence has been well documented (where, for example, a splendid piece of Roman glass was uncovered last year in an ancient Japanese burial mound).

Yet a find announced this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals the discovery of skeletons in an ancient Roman cemetery in South location-of-southwark-cemetery-on-lant-streetLondon – the Roman’s Londinium – that appear to have belonged to two men of Chinese origins – proves that the Romans retain the ability to surprise.

Chinese in Londinium in the 2nd Century! Moreover, two additional skeletons of African descent were also found in the same small cemetery after sampling dental enamel from 20 sets of human remains from between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE. Who were they? Where did they come from? Did they travel there of their own free will, or as soldiers or slaves (or as the native born descendants of any of the above)? These questions remain unanswered skeleton-lant-street-teenager-museum-londonthough scientists and archaeologists continue to explore little Southwark, mere steps away from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

The City of London is known as a cosmopolitan place and much was made of immigration in the recent debate over Brexit, as immigration is being discussed in much of the Western world. The argument goes that the City was once a certain, way, and then immigration changed the fundamental nature of things. These skeletons provide an interesting wrinkle that will not change the discussion but perhaps it should.

Here we have proof that nearly 2000 years ago the Romans were able to create and sustain a world in which travelers from the opposite side of the planet could comfortably travel and did so, from China (which the Romans knew as Serica, its people as Seres) to Londinium. The find also weakens the previously held view that Roman-era London was a parochial, homogeneous place.

It would appear that London has been cosmopolitan ever since it was Londinium, back in the mists of time.

And that seems something to celebrate.

For more on this find see the following link:

http://www.independent.co.uk/…/chinese-skeleton-discovery-r…

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