Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Byzantium explored in exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London

The first major exhibit of Byzantine art in the last 50 years in the UK is on display now until March 22, 2009 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I hope those of you near London or visiting London during this time will take the opportunity to see these breathtaking works. Alas, my travel calendar is already booked for the coming year.

[Image - Perfume brazier in the form of a domed building, Constantinople or Italy, end of the twelfth century. Silver, partially gilded, embossed and perforated, 36 x 30 cm. On loan from the Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Tesoro, inv. no. 109. Photo per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice]

"Byzantium 330–1453 follows a chronological progression covering the range, power and longevity of the artistic production of the Byzantine Empire through a number of themed sections. In this way the exhibition explores the origins of Byzantium; the rise of Constantinople; the threat of iconoclasm when emperors banned Christian figurative art; the post-iconoclast revival; the remarkable crescendo in the Middle Ages and the close connections between Byzantine and early Renaissance art in Italy in the 13th and early 14th centuries.

Between 1204 and 1261, Constantinople was in the hands of the Latin Crusaders, but the return of the Byzantine Emperors to the city initiated a final period of great diversity in art. Art from Constantinople, the Balkans and Russia show the final phase of refinement of distinctively Orthodox forms and functions, while Crete artists like Angelos Akotantos signed their icons and merged Byzantine and Italian styles. Up to the end of the Byzantine Empire, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, manuscripts, micromosaics and metalwork demonstrates the virtuosity of its artists.

The exhibition shows the long history of Byzantine art and documents the patrons and artists and the world in which they lived. Seeing themselves as the members of a Christian Roman Empire they believed that they represented the culmination of civilisation on earth. The art emits an intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy, yet is distinctive for the expression of passionate belief and high emotion within an art of moderation and restraint."

The Academy's website includes a downloadable illustrated guidebook and a podcast from curator Robin Cormack.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Trajan and the Jewish Revolt on Cyprus


An interesting reference to Roman clashes with the Jews on Cyprus during Trajan's reign:

[Photo: My image of a bust of Trajan at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. All of my images are freely available for noncommercial use with attribution on Flickr]

"Under Roman rule Cyprus remained in peace or "pax romana" as it was known for over three hundred years until 115 AD. At this time the Jews inspired by a belief that the coming of their Messiah was imminent started a revolt against Rome on the Island. They were led by a man called Atermion a Jew who had taken a Greek name as was the custom at the time. There were hardly any Roman troops stationed in Cyprus at this time which explains why the revolt grew so quickly. The Roman emporer Trajan dispatched one of his generals to the Island and the rebellion was quelled. Historians say that 24,000 Jews were massacred on the Island by this roman army but there is a likelyhood that the actual numbers were significantly less. Following the revolt a decree was issued that Rome would forbid any Jew to ever set foot in Cyprus ever again even if shipwrecked." - Destinations

Livius.org gives us much more details:


The revolt started in Cyrene, where one Lukuas -sometimes called Andreas- ordered the Jews to destroy the pagan temples of Apollo, Artemis, Hecate, Demeter, Isis and Pluto, and to assail the worshippers. The latter fled to Alexandria, where they captured and killed many Jews. (With a population of some 150,000 Jews, Alexandria was Judaism's largest city.) In 116, the Jews organized themselves and had their revenge. The temples of gods like Nemesis, Hecate and Apollo were destroyed; the same fate befell the tomb of Pompey, the Roman general who had captured Jerusalem almost two centuries before.

Meanwhile, the Cyrenaican Jews plundered the Egyptian countryside, reaching Thebes, six hundred kilometers upstream. The future historian Appian of Alexandria records that he made a providential escape from a party of Jews pursuing him in the Nile marshes (more...). There was nothing the Roman governor Marcus Rutilius Lupus could do, although he sent a legion (III Cyrenaica or XXII Deiotariana) to protect the inhabitants of Memphis.

Trajan sent out two expeditionary forces. One, consisting of VII Claudia, restored order on Cyprus; the other was to attack Lukuas' rebels and was commanded by Quintus Marcius Turbo. The Roman general sailed to Alexandria, defeated the Jews in several pitched battles and killed thousands of enemies, not only those in Egypt but also those of Cyrene. It is unclear what became of Lukuas, except for the fact that according to our Greek source Eusebius he had styled himself 'king' (= Messiah?). After this war, much of northern Africa had to be repopulated. The emperor Trajan and his successor Hadrian confiscated Jewish property to pay for the reconstruction of the destroyed temples.

Trajan was afraid that this revolt would spread to the Jews in the rebellious eastern provinces. Perhaps, there was some cause for his anxiousness. After the end of the revolt in Mesopotamia, someone had written the Book of Elchasai, in which the end of the world was predicted within three years. Of course, Trajan did not read this book, but he may have sensed that the Jews remained restless.

Therefore, he ordered the commander of his Mauritanian auxiliaries, Lusius Quietus, to clean the suspects out of these regions. Quietus organized a force and killed many Cypriote, Mesopotamian and Syrian Jews - in effect wiping them out; as a reward, he was appointed governor of Judaea. (He is one of the few blacks known to have made a career in Roman service.) He was responsible for a forced policy of hellenization; in response, the rabbis ordered the Jewish fathers not to teach their sons Greek (Mishna Sota 9.14).

Meanwhile, Trajan had reached his military aims and returned home. On his way back, he fell ill, and not much later, he died (8 August 117). His successor Hadrian gave up the newly conquered countries and dismissed Lusius Quietus, who was killed in the Summer of 118."

We are supplied with the following sources:

The revolt against Trajan is the subject of a book by Marina Pucci, La rivolta Ebraica al tempo di Traiano (1981 Pisa). Another discussion of this rebellions can be found in Gedaliah Alon's The Jews in their land in the Talmudic age (1980 Harvard).

Stolen Hecate Bust Recovered

I'm truly grateful the police were able to recover this piece but can't help but feel outraged over the facts around its initial theft.

[Photo courtesy of Reuters]

A rare 9th century three-faced marble head of the Greek goddess Hecate was seized from a store in Rome's historic center after it was stolen by thieves last year, Italian police said on Wednesday.

The unusual bust was one of hundreds of stolen ancient artifacts ranging from large earthen jugs to small saucers that Italian police displayed after recovering them during various operations.

A probe at a small lake south of Rome led to the discovery of more than 500 miniature antiquities, while a Roman mosaic dating to the 4th-3rd century B.C. was seized after police stumbled across an Internet posting, hawking it for 55,000 euros ($77,060).

The bust of Hecate, the Greek goddess linked to witchcraft and the afterlife who is usually depicted with three heads, was found in a store near Rome's Campo dei Fiori square.

It had been missing since June 2007, when thieves made off with it from a Roman house after drugging the owner's family with sedatives. - More, Reuters India

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Romans believed drinking from amethyst kept you sober


I found this interesting reference in an article in the American Chronicle. There was no source quoted but it sounds like a typical Roman legend:

The name [of amethyst] is Greek for "sober." Now, this makes sense once you hear the story of Bacchus. He was the Roman god of wine and revelry. One day, he was in a foul mood and set his tigers on the next person to cross his path. This unlucky person happened to be a maiden named Amethyst who was on her way to the Goddess Diana's temple. Diana turned her into a pillar of quartz to stop the tiger attack. Bacchus was so remorseful; he poured wine over the pillar as an apology and stained the pillar purple.

As a result, the stone was believed to have the power to stave off drunkenness. In fact, the ancient Greeks and Romans would carve drinking goblets from the violet quartz rather than wear them as amethyst and diamond rings, in an attempt to remain sober as they drank their wine.


I found a reference to amethyst cups, though, in the book "Roman Life In The Days of Cicero" by Alfred John Church. Apparently, the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres, ripped off the amethyst cups of good king Antiochus:

The dining-room and table were richly furnished, the silver plate being particularly
splendid. Antiochus was highly delighted with the entertainment, and lost no time in returning
the compliment. The dinner to which he invited the governor was set out with a splendour
to which Verres had nothing to compare. There was silver plate in abundance, and there
were also cups of gold, these last adorned with magnificent gems.

Conspicuous among the ornaments of the table was a drinking vessel, all in one piece,
probably of amethyst, and with a handle of gold. Verres expressed himself delighted with
what he saw. He handled every vessel and was loud in its praises. The simple-minded
King, on the other hand, heard the compliment with pride. Next day came a message. Would
the King lend some of the more beautiful cups to his excellency ? He wished to show them
to his own artists. A special request was made for the amethyst cup. All was sent without a
suspicion of danger.

But the King had still in his possession something that especially excited the Roman's cupidity. This was a candelabrum of gold richly adorned with jewels. It had been intended for
an offering to the tutelary deity of Rome, Jupiter of the Capitol. But the temple, which had
been burnt to the ground in the civil wars, had not yet been rebuilt, and the princes, anxious
that their gift should not be seen before it was publicly presented, resolved to carry it back with
them to Syria. Verres, however, had got, no one knew how, some inkling of the matter, and
he begged Antiochus to let him have a sight of it. The young prince, who, so far from being
suspicious, was hardly sufficiently cautious, had it carefully wrapped up, and sent it to the
governor's palace. When he had minutely inspected it, the messengers prepared to carry
it back. Verres, however, had not seen enough of it. It clearly deserved more than one
examination. Would they leave it with him for a time ? They left it, suspecting nothing.

Antiochus, on his part, had no apprehensions. When some days had passed and the candelabrum
was not returned, he sent to ask for it. The governor begged the messenger to come
again the next day. It seemed a strange request; still the man came again and was
again unsuccessful.

The King himself then waited on the governor and begged him to return it. Verres hinted, or rather said plainly, that he should very much like it as a present.

"This is impossible," replied the prince, " the honour due to Jupiter and public opinion forbid it. All the world knows that the offering is to be made, and I cannot go back from my word."

Verres perceived that soft words would be useless, and took at once another line. The King,
he said, must leave Sicily before nightfall. The public safety demanded it. He had heard of a
piratical expedition which was on its way from Syria to the province, and that his departure
was necessary. Antiochus had no choice but to obey ; but before he went he publicly protested
in the market-place of Syracuse against the wrong that had been done. His other
valuables, the gold and the jewels, he did not so much regret ; but it was monstrous that he
should be robbed of the gift that he destined for the altar of the tutelary god of Rome. -
Roman Life in the Days of Cicero: Sketches Drawn from His Letters & Speeches,By Alfred John Church,Published by Macmillan, 1895.

Beautiful Sphinx part of antiquities lot up for bid at Sotheby's Dec 10


I noticed there is an upcoming antiquities auction at Sotheby's slated for December 10. Although the news article I read enthused about a sculpture of an Egyptian priest, I found this beautiful Roman Imperial period bronze sphinx listed in the collection catalogue. I've seen a number of sphinx sculptures and statues from Greece and Rome at different museums but I don't think I've seen any as delicately detailed as this one. Although other sphinxes I have seen may have a female appearing face, this one even reveals the upper part of a female torso as well - sort of a blending of the huntress Artemis (the Roman Diana) with her prey.

I do hope it ends up in a public museum, as opposed to being secreted away in some private collection, so there is at least a possibility of seeing it someday. The late 1st century BCE to early 1st century CE Roman Imperial Period piece is expected to bring $8,000-$12,000.

If you've never been to Sotheby's website it's like an online museum in itself. You can browse the collections of upcoming auctions one item at a time. Each item has been photographed in very high resolution and can be examined with a zooming navigation tool to see all the fine details of a piece. Many items offer alternate views as well. They also offer a sold lot archive that is a lot of fun to explore. You can even purchase lot catalogues. The one for this particular lot of antiquities was listed at $48 - about what you would pay for an exhibit catalogue at a museum.

Roman Archaeology Timeline