On This Day – The End of Rome…

ON THIS DAY, May 29th, in the year 1453 the last Roman Emperor, a remarkable man who ruled under the name Constantine XI (born Constantine Palaiologos) died and with him what was left of the Roman Empire – which at this late date was reduced to the capital city of Constantinople with some minor appendages – was finally extinguished.

Constantine was killed leading troops into battle against a vastly larger Ottoman army led by Mehmed the Conqueror. Mehmed had finally succeeded in piercing Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls after a lengthy siege and years of preparation with the aid of modern artillery. It would be the first time these otherworldly walls were so breached (but for the brief Latin incursion) in their 1,100 year history). Unwilling to live in a world in which Rome had ceased to exist, the noble-hearted Emperor stripped the Imperial insignia from his armor so that he would not receive special treatment and plunged headlong into the melee. His body was never found, and he lives on in legend as the “Marble Emperor” who will one day return to his capital to rescue his subjects and to reestablish the Empire.

Rome was founded in 753 BC by refugees from Troy (according to the myths the Romans told themselves) in a swamp beside the Tiber River. There it had been ruled by foreign (Etruscan) kings until 509BC whereupon it chose self-rule as a republic until a young man named Octavian changed his name to Augustus and succeeded where his uncle Julius Gaius Caesar had failed in 27BC, ending the Republic and ushering in the birth of the Principate, lead by the Imperator. In 330CE Constantine I formally moved the capital from Rome to “Nova Roma”, known as Constantinople among its denizens.

One thousand four hundred and eighty years later both the Principate and the nation of Rome herself died there on the banks of the Bosporus, on May 29th 1453, scant years before Christopher Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue.’

Tell me if that does not spark the imagination?

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.
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.

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.

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 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:





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.

1,300 Pounds of Roman Treasure

We all feel a little thrill when we put on a pair of pants or a jacket and find a long forgotten bill inside, the thrill of found money. But nothing quite like this!
Construction workers in Tomares, Spain (just outside Seville) were at work last week, digging a ditch in order to lay electricity lines in an urban park when they struck something unusually hard a few feet below the surface. Coin CLoseupQuick work revealed 19 terracotta jugs (known as “amphorae”) – containers that were commonly used in the Roman Empire to transport everything under the sun, from wine and olive oil to valuables, including coins.
That was the case with these amphorae which contained 1,300 pounds of silver Roman coins in pristine condition, dating to the era of Constantine the Great. It is the greatest collection of Roman coins ever found – dwarfing all previous discoveries.Coins in the trench
The coins were minted in the Eastern Roman Empire (where Constantine had relocated the capital from Italy to the old Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus which he re-christened Nova Roma or Constantinople – now known as Istanbul) and transported to Spain. The archaeologists that are analyzing this massive hoard (the number of coins has not yet been identified as the collection is so massive and the find so recent) were likely sent to Spain (then Hispania, one of the original Roman provinces dating to 218BC) to pay the Roman army’s wages.
Why were the coins buried? And why were they forgotten? That is the mystery…
For more, see the Washington Post article.
Open Amphoras Amphora broken open Analyzing Coins Coins in the trench

Roman Grave Discovered in Istanbul Shopping District

I love when a little piece of ancient Rome pops up unexpectedly in modern Istanbul reminding everyone of the city’s prior and longest tenured residents – the Romans!

The skeletons were found beneath the “Casa Garibaldi”, also known as “Societa Operaia Italiana di Mutuo Soccorso in Costantinopoli,” built in 1863 and located close to Taksim Square in a part of Istanbul closely associated with the city’s Ottoman past.  Taksim Square lies across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet – the historical center of the Roman and Greek city.

What were the Romans doing in this fashionable Ottoman district?Beyoglu, the neighborhood where the Casa Garibaldi is located was once in fact a Roman suburb of Constantinople.  It’s not known precisely when these Romans were buried, or why, or what precisely had been located on this spot in Justinian’s day and perhaps we will never know.  But I am heartened by the fact that more attention is being given to these types of discoveries in Istanbul despite the clear opposition of the Turkish state to archaeological studies of the city’s Roman past.  A recently founded department of Byzantine (Roman) Studies at Istanbul’s Bosporus (Bogazici) University is a reflection of this movement.

Orthodox Christian monks from the monastery at Mount Athos were invited to bless the skeletons before they were moved to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

For more on this discovery, see the article in Hurriyet.

Belisarius – the “Africanus of New Rome” – in the news

It’s not often that a mainstream blog or news outlet posts something on General Flavius Belisarius so I thought that I would pass along this link to a recent post in the Ancient Origins blog which does a decent job of providing an overview of Belisarius’ life and achievements.

The piece also repeats many of the fallacies pioneered by Sir Edward Gibbon 300 years ago that have been repeated in similar pieces and histories about the Justinian era ever since (i.e. the Roman Empire is the “Byzantine” empire, Romans are”Greeks”, etc.).

That said, it’s entertaining nonetheless for those not familiar with the General.

Please click here for the full article.

And please note that for a fictional account of General Belisarius’ life and times, my Legend of Africanus trilogy in which he figures most prominently is now available on amazon.com here.