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 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 here.

Pluto! Roman God?

I apologize in advance for a gratuitous post on something that I find absolutely fascinating and that has nothing to do with Rome but for the fact that 3 billion miles from earth an object – formerly a planet – carries the name of the Roman god of the underworld.


This morning at around 7:30AM EST, the New Horizons spacecraft, launched by NASA on January 19, 2006 approached within 8,000 miles of the surface of Jupiter and has already begun to send back the first close-up pictures of the mysterious dwarf in the Kuiper belt in our history.  Tonight at 8:30pm when the first pictures of today’s flyby reach planet earth we will know much more.

This is a human triumph.

Following is a picture of Pluto’s “heart”, a fascinating anomaly on the planet surface.

Pluto's Heart

Click here for more from NASA.

And again, apologies for the diversion, I will revert to the standard fare hereafter 🙂