Monday, July 6, 2020

First impressions of Pompeii

In my research of the early excavations in Pompeii, I found a book by ingrid D. Rowland entitled "From Pompeii" published in 2014.  In it Rowland describes 19th century visits of several famous people to Naples and the newly rediscovered cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum including Mozart, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and others.  I was particularly struck by her discussion of author and revolutionary  Madame de Staël and how she incorporated her impressions of Pompeii into one of her novels.

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, was a woman of letters and political theorist of Genevan origin who in her lifetime witnessed at first-hand the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era up to the French Restoration.  Madame de Staël visited Pompeii on a "Grand Tour" in 1803.  While there, she witnessed a very active Vesuvius as well.  In 1807, she penned a novel entitled "Corinne" where she provides what amounts to an eye-witness account of a lesser eruption of Vesuvius:

"The torrent is a funereal color; when it burns the vines or the trees, however, you can see a clear bright flame coming from it. It flows slowly like black sand by day and red by night. When it comes near you can hear a little noise of sparks, all the more frightening because it is slight, and cunning seems to combine with strength. Thus the royal tiger arrives secretly with measured tread. . . . Its glare is so fiery that for the first time the earth is reflected in the sky, giving it the appearance of continual lightning; in turn the sky is repeated in the sea and nature is set ablaze by this triple image of fire."

Madame de Staël also describes a poignant impression of seeing the remains of the ancient city through the eyes of her protagonist:

"When you stand at the centre of the crossroads, on every side you can see almost in its entirety the still surviving part of the town; it is as if you were waiting for someone, as if the master is about to arrive, and the very semblance of life in this place makes you even more sad at feeling its eternal silence. It is with pieces of petrified lava that most of these houses have been built, and they have been buried beneath other pieces of lava. So there are ruins upon ruins and tombs upon tombs. This history of the world where periods are counted from ruin to ruin, this human life whose trail is followed by the gleam of the volcanic eruptions that have consumed it, fills the heart with profound melancholy. What a long time men have existed! What a long time they have lived, suffered, and perished! Where can their feelings and thoughts be found again? Is the air you breathe amongst these ruins still marked with their traces or are they forever deposited in heaven where immortality reigns? A few burnt manuscripts found at Herculaneum and Pompeii, which people at Portici are trying to unroll, are all that is left to enable us to learn about the unfortunate victims consumed by earth’s thunderbolt, the volcano. But as you pass by those ashes which art manages to bring back to life, you are afraid to breathe, in case a breath carries away the dust perhaps still imprinted with noble ideas."

I experienced the same bitter-sweetness when I visited Pompeii for the first time.

Image: A portrait of Madame de Staël by Marie Éléonore Godefroid after François Pascal Simon Gérard, sometime between 1818-1849, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The provenance of skeletal remains in Pompeii

Today, I started listening to Mary Beard's "Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found" and Professor Beard brought up something I had not considered when thinking about the skeletal remains found in cubiculum (c) of the House of the Prince of Naples. Professor Beard pointed out that the discovery of skeletal remains was highly sought after by early royal visitors to the excavations in Pompeii.  I had thought about the motivation of excavators and the listed "finds" at the site but had not considered planted skeletal remains as well.

So, the "victim" found in the house could have been a looter as posited by Professor Strocka, a deceased patient as I have theorized based on the finds of surgical instruments and equipment found in the room and elsewhere in the townhouse, an owner or member of his household who returned to salvage property at the site, or merely planted remains by late 19th century excavators wanting to provide this particular thrill to the visiting Prince and Princess of Naples.

I remember reading Professor Penelope Allison's book about finds of skeletal remains in a group of 30 atrium houses including the House of the Prince of Naples and she wonders about the reason why holes in the surrounding walls are often present in rooms containing skeletons.  She says there might be the possibility that trapped victims might have made the holes. But, it looks to me like there is also the possibility the skeletal remains were deposited there on purpose to heighten the morbid imagination of royal visitors!

Books That Matter: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Yesterday, I finished listening to the Great Courses lecture series, Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire presented by Professor Leo Damrosch of Harvard (I listen to audiobooks while I exercise!).  Although Professor Damrosch summarizes the content of the actual volumes, he is more focused on analyzing the lifestyle and Enlightenment thinking of Edward Gibbon and those he associated with as he wrote the great work.  As a rather impoverished member of Britain's aristocracy, Gibbon apparently thought aristocrats both in ancient Rome and in his late 18th century homeland should be entitled to a life without the drudgery of manual labor so they could explore and discuss ideas and study the writings of other great thinkers as well as the cultures of the past.

I have heard Gibbon frequently criticized by modern historians but Professor Damrosch makes it clear that Gibbon's research was meticulous and he did not shy away from conflicts in religion or fail to salute those individuals of the past that clearly excelled in their endeavors.  One of his main blindspots, though, (according to Damrosch) was Gibbon's dislike of the Byzantine period and his disregard for most of the Byzantine emperors who he described as "feckless" with the exception of Justinian.  I noticed, though, that he did not appear to have addressed the jealous rivalry between Belisarius and Theodora and seems to have welcomed the writings of Procopius as a reliable source. Although Procopius appears to be accurate during his early years on campaign with Belisarius, his later "Secret History" describes such ridiculous events as the emperor's head being able to disassociate itself from his body and float through the halls of the palace in Constantinople.  Maybe one of these days I'll have time to read Procopius in its entirety and I'll try to determine at what point in the narrative he sort of "runs off the rails."  (The hazard of reading for research purposes is that you usually only read the portion of a work that pertains to your inquiry and not the work in its entirety!)

Damrosch also thinks Gibbon was a bit too dismissive of religion in general and the internicene conflicts within the Christian church in particular.  Damrosch said Gibbon essentially attributes the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to barbarian incursions and the "triumph" of religion (not in a positive way). Some scholars call Gibbon an atheist but he was actually more of a theist who simply didn't ascribe to the myriad of divine relationships  identified by various religious sects. Gibbon was far more comfortable explaining events as much as possible by the actions of influential individuals and  factual evidence, as far as can be determined from reliable ancient sources, not by attributing anything to the vagaries of divine preference or will.

Gibbon lived in a time before archaeology was developed into a procedural discipline so his only sources were ancient records, many fragmentary at best. So, obviously, Gibbon may have interpreted some events differently if he had access to some of the analysis of remains we have today.  But, all in all, Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is considered a masterpiece of both history and literature, and a worthy monument to the twenty years Gibbon spent in this endeavor.

Mosaics at the Musée de la Romanité in Nîmes, France

Opened in June 2018, the Musée de la Romanité is adjacent to the famous Arena of Nîmes, an imposing Roman amphitheater built in the 1st century CE and one the world’s best-preserved examples of Roman architecture.  Founded by the Romans in the 1st century BCE with the name of Colonia Nemausus, Nîmes quickly achieved importance during the Roman Empire for its strategic position halfway along the Via Domitia that connected Italy and Spain. The city still retains some of the most impressive Roman buildings in Europe, including the Maison Carrée, the Temple of Diana, a part of the ancient walls with two gates, the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, and the Amphitheater.
The new museum houses some of the finest Roman mosaics in France.

Here are a few examples:

Medusa mosaic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Finoskov

This mosaic looks very similar to one I've seen from Pompeii. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Rjdeadly

Mosaic of a Nereid riding a hippocamp courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Graeme Churchard

Another Medusa mosaic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Herbert Frank

Mosaic of birds and griffins courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor 
Carole Raddato

Mosaic of a wreathed human figure courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor 
Carole Raddato

Pentheus mosaic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Finoskov

Leopards with Krater mosaic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Finoskov

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Horse trappings in the time of Alexander the Great

The power of mobility  given by mounted units in warfare was recognized early on, but was offset by the difficulty of raising large forces and by the inability of horses (then mostly small) to carry heavy armor. Nonetheless, there are indications that, from the 15th century BCE onwards, horseback riding was practiced amongst the military elites of the great states of the ancient Near East, most notably those in Egypt, Assyria, the Hittite Empire, and Mycenaean Greece. Cavalry techniques, and the rise of true cavalry, were an innovation of equestrian nomads of the Central Asian and Iranian steppe and pastoralist tribes such as the Iranic Parthians and Sarmatians.  Initially, riders had no spurs, saddles, saddle cloths, or stirrups. Fighting from the back of a horse was much more difficult than mere riding. The cavalry acted in pairs. The reins of the mounted archer were controlled by his neighbor's hand. Even so, at this early time, cavalry used swords, shields, spears, and bows.

During the classical Greek period cavalry were usually limited to those citizens who could afford expensive war-horses. Three types of cavalry became common: light cavalry, whose riders, armed with javelins, could harass and skirmish, heavy cavalry, whose troopers, using lances, had the ability to close in on their opponents, and finally those whose equipment allowed them to fight either on horseback or foot. The role of horsemen did however remain secondary to that of the hoplites or heavy infantry who comprised the main strength of the citizen levies of the various city states. However, Thebes produced Pelopidas, their first great cavalry commander, whose tactics and skills were absorbed by Phillip II of Macedon when Phillip was a guest-hostage in Thebes. Thessaly was widely known for producing competent cavalrymen, and later experiences in wars both with and against the Persians taught the Greeks the value of cavalry in skirmishing and pursuit. The Athenian author and soldier Xenophon in particular advocated the creation of a small but well-trained cavalry force; to that end, he wrote several manuals on horsemanship and cavalry operations.

Phillip and later, his son, Alexander, went on to develop both the heavy Companion cavalry as well as lighter horsemen, the prodromoi, for scouting and screening. Alexander also employed the Ippiko, a heavy cavalry armed with a kontos (cavalry lance) and sword who wore leather armor or mail and a helmet.

Images: Horse trappings dating to the time of Alexander the Great I photographed at the British Museum.  The fierce faces on the roundels depicting satyrs and a bearded man were meant to intimidate the enemy: