Monday, April 12, 2021

A Trajanic Period Roman in Egypt

This morning while I was researching a Fayum portrait of a priest of Serapis in the collections of the British Museum, I came across this encaustic portrait of what appears to be just a common Romano-Egyptian.  Although his face is painted with skill, he wears no adornments or displays even a hint of status from his clothing.  Because of the quality of the portrait, he must have been somewhat successful in whatever occupation he practiced, whether it was that of a tradesman or even a legionary.  

The British Museum points out that his mummy, found in the necropolis of Hawara, was simply wrapped in coarse linen.  His closely cropped hair is similar to Roman court portraiture of the Trajanic period and he is said to confront the viewer directly in the Roman manner. The portrait appears to be an example of what became known during Trajan's rule as the portrait of the decennial, an image seemingly devoid of emotion with firm, calm features emanating authority and dignity.  Scholars view this portrait style as a detachment from Hellenistic influence and a merging between two previously separate types of portraiture - the official, honorary, portrait, and the private, often funerary, portrait.

Trajan himself is depicted in this style on Trajan's column where he is shown in conversation with one of his commanders.  With simplicity, the emperor is depicted nonchalant while explaining a plan to the general, fixing him in the eyes and relaxing the palms of hands in front of him, illustrating a relationship of trust and respect between him and the subordinate, devoid of any orchestrated rhetoric or gestures of courtesy.

Image: Mummy portrait of a man in encaustic on limewood found in the necropolis of Hawara in the Fayum region of Egypt, 100-120 CE, at the British Museum in London.  Image courtesy of the museum and Wikimedia Commons. The portrait emphasizes  maturity and physical strength, the latter expressed in the rugged physique and sunburned countenance.

Sunday, April 11, 2021


The Visigoths were an early Germanic people who, along with the Ostrogoths, constituted the two major political entities of the Goths within the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or what is known as the Migration Period. The Visigoths emerged from earlier Gothic groups, including a large group of Thervingi, who had moved into the Roman Empire beginning in 376 CE and had played a major role in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. Relations between the Romans and the Visigoths were variable, alternately warring with one another and making treaties when convenient. Under their first leader, Alaric I, they invaded Italy and sacked Rome in August 410 CE. Afterwards, they began settling down, first in southern Gaul and eventually in Hispania, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries CE.

The Visigoths were never called Visigoths, only Goths, until Cassiodorus used the term, when referring to their loss against Clovis I in 507. Cassiodorus apparently invented the term based on the model of the "Ostrogoths", but using the older name of the Vesi, one of the tribal names which the 5th century poet Sidonius Apollinaris had already used when referring to the Visigoths.

The Visigoths first settled in southern Gaul as foederati to the Romans, a relationship that was established in 418. However, they soon fell out with their Roman hosts (for reasons that are now obscure) and established their own kingdom with its capital at Toulouse. They next extended their authority into Hispania at the expense of the Suebi and Vandals. In 507, however, their rule in Gaul was ended by the Franks under Clovis I, who defeated them in the Battle of Vouillé.

In the March/April issue of Archaeology Magazine is an interesting article, "The Visigoth's Imperial Ambitions".  In it author Jason Urbanus describes excavations of the former Visigoth stronghold at Reccopolis. I was actually disturbed by the fact that the city contained none of the typically Roman civic features of a forum, bath complex, theater, circus, or arena for public entertainment even though Hispania had been a Roman province for centuries and the Visigoths were previously Roman foederati. Instead the heart of the city was an enormous palatial compound  containing structures for administration, religious activities, and luxurious dwellings for the aristocracy.  Urbanus says scholars think this layout centered primarily around the rich was an effort by the local elite to emulate portions of Constantinople. 

The surrounding urban structures underscored the city's role as a major fiscal center (they had their own mint) and industrial complex (much of it focused on importing or crafting luxury items for the wealthy) but I was dismayed by the lack of public facilities for bathing with their libraries and gymnasia, or entertainment venues.  Even Constantinople had the hippodrome and public baths! At least Reccopolis was the only city constructed by the Visigoths with an aqueduct which brought water from a few miles away.  In fact, at the time there were only five remaining functional Roman aqueducts in Iberia so the aqueduct at Reccopolis was viewed as an important symbol of power and, so the author thinks, civic pride. 

To me, though, it seemed that what I view as devolution to a feudal model focused on selfish elite with little or no sense of civic duty and their control of government and use of religion to extract wealth from the populace had already taken shape.

Image: Visigothic votive crown that was part of the so-called Guarrazar treasure.  The "treasure" consisted of several crowns (more than twenty), crosses, chalices and other objects of gold and gems in a chest.  Image courtesy of Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, Spain.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Julia Domna and the Severan Prophecy

Julia Domna was born in Emesa (present-day Homs) in Roman Syria, the youngest daughter of the high priest of Baal, Julius Bassianus. The family had enormous wealth and was promoted to Roman senatorial aristocracy. Before her marriage, Domna also inherited the estate of her paternal great-uncle, Julius Agrippa, a former leading centurion. 

In 187 CE, she married Severus, who at the time was governor of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis. The Augustan History relates that, after losing his first wife around 186 CE, Septimius Severus heard a prophesy of a woman in Syria who would marry a king. So Severus sought out Domna from one of Syria's most prominent families as his wife.

As empress, Domna was famous for her political, social, and philosophical influence. She received titles such as "Mother of the Invincible Camps" because, unlike most imperial wives, Domna remarkably accompanied her husband on his military campaigns and stayed in camp with the army. After the elder of her sons, Caracalla, started ruling with his father, she was briefly co-empress with Caracalla's wife, Fulvia Plautilla, until the latter fell into disgrace. Following the death of Severus in 211, Domna became the first empress dowager to receive the title combination "Pia Felix Augusta", which may have implied greater powers being vested in her than what was usual for a Roman empress mother. 

Domna is said to have committed suicide in 217 CE upon hearing of her son Caracalla's assassination in the course of his campaign against Parthia, on which she had accompanied him as far as Antioch (present-day Antakya, Turkey).

Image: A Severan Period mold-made lamp, 2nd century CE, terracotta, at the J. Paul Getty Museum (Villa).  This unusual moldmade lamp depicts  a woman dressed in a long-sleeved garment standing next to a truncated column, playing a harp, which leans on her shoulder. Her hairdo is similar to a style worn by Empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus . The Filling-hole is on top of the instrument and the wick-hole pierces its base. 


Friday, April 9, 2021

Roman interior design: The use of the color yellow

According to Greek mythology, the sun-god Helios wore yellow robes and rode in a golden chariot drawn by four fiery horses across the heavenly firmament. The radiant yellow light of the sun personified his divine wisdom. Yellow was also associated with gold and therefore wealth so was a popular color for interior decoration.

"The Romans called yellow ochre ‘sil’, and recognised four variants, in decreasing order of quality. Sil atticum, of Greek origin, was highly sought-after for the decoration of buildings, though due to the presence of limonite in its composition, it dehydrated and turned red when heated, as happened in many of the wall paintings of Pompeii as a result of the tremendous heat of the eruption of 79 CE."

"Sil marmorosum was considered the most suited and widespread ochre for fresco painting.  Sil pressum, which was dark, is a clay containing manganese oxide, corresponding to Sienna or Umber, and finally we have sil lucidum Galliae."

"A lead-based yellow pigment called spuma argenti was also used, which derived its name from being found in silver mines. Yellow was also obtained by roasting lead-rich minerals, in which case it was called puteolanum, or ‘from Pozzuoli’" -  From Pompeii sites. 

Pliny the Elder mentions a vegetable yellow color he termed "holochrysi." A golden color was also extracted from naturally occuring sulphuret of arsenic known as orpiment.  Orpiment was mined in Hungary, Macedonia, along on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, and in Syria. Its Latin name, auripigmentum, means “gold pigment.”  A container of this arsenic extract was found in the Baths of Titus and mentioned by Theophrastus in his writings according to the 1852 text, "Ancient and Modern Colours: From the Earliest Periods to the Present Time" by William Linton.

Fourth Style Wall Painting (c. 20 AD to c. 79 AD): Wall painting at the House of Vestals, Pompeii, display at Archaeological museum Naples. (PD)

Cubiculum from the villa of P. Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale, thought to have been originally painted between 40-30 BCE recreated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Triclinium (Room G) from a Roman villa at Boscoreale courtesy of Stanton Abbott Associates

Fourth Style Wall Painting (c. 20 CE to c. 79 CE): Wall painting at Room of Pentheus, the House of Vettii, Pompeii courtesy of Pompeii sites.

Roundel with putteolanum background from Pompeii courtesy of Pompeii Sites.

An example of a fresco with sil atticum background in the House of Menander in Pompeii, courtesy of Pompeii Sites.

Fresco of a harp player from a Villa at the foot of Mount Vesuvius (First century CE) (PD)

Atrium of the House of Menander in Pompeii with Sil atticum turned red from the heat of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius on the edge of the left wall courtesy of Pompeii sites

The highly toxic arsenic trisulphide known as orpiment courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Signal musicians in the Roman Legions

The ancient Olympic Games in Greece included contests of trumpet playing in 396 B.C.E. These contests were judged not by musicality but by volume of sound. The instrument used by the Greek trumpeters was the Salpinx, a reported copy of which is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This Salpinx measures 157 cm. and is made of thirteen cylindrical parts made of ivory with a bell made of bronze, as is the mouthpiece.

But, signal musicians used as an integral part of a military organization appear first in the Roman Legion. These musicians, called aenatores, utilized a wide variety of trumpets, and signals were sounded on these instruments which the Romans inherited from the Etruscans. The Etruscans were superb metallurgists and smiths, and must have been skilled in the making of bronze or silver trumpets. A collection of forty-three signals were used in the Roman Army.

Instruments in the Roman Legion included trumpets such as the Tuba which was conical shaped and about 117 cm. long. It was a straight horn that had a slightly flaring bell with no bends. The Cornu was a long curved instrument made of bronze, in the shape of a “G,” which was more of a modern french horn shape and was played with the bell placed over the shoulder. Another was the Buccina, which was in the shape of a “J” and was more like an animal’s horn. The Lituus was also shaped like the Buccina, in the shape of a “J.” - Jari Villanueva,

Vegetius described the use of these horns to give signals:

"The music of the legion consists of trumpets, cornua and buccinae. The trumpet sounds the charge and the retreat. The cornua are used only to regulate the motions of the colors. The trumpets serve when the soldiers are ordered out to any work without the colors,  but in time of action, the trumpets and cornua sound together. The classicum, which is a particular sound of the buccina or horn, is appropriated to the commander-in-chief and is used in the presence of the general, or at the execution of a soldier, as a mark of its being done by his authority. The ordinary guards and outposts are always mounted and relieved by the sound of trumpet, which also directs the motions of the soldiers on working parties and on field days. The cornua sound whenever the colors are to be struck or planted. These rules must be punctually observed in all exercises and reviews so that the soldiers may be ready to obey them in action without hesitation according to the general's orders either to charge or halt, to pursue the enemy or to retire. For reason will convince us that what is necessary to be performed in the heat of action should constantly be practiced in the leisure of peace."

My closeup of the Statuette of a Roman bugler, bronze, 100-200 CE, at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California. 

Statuette of a Roman bugler, bronze, 100-200 CE, at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California. The figure wears armor including a crested helmet and a cuirass with one row of pteryges. Over his cuirass is a cingulum, a ceremonial sash or military belt that is wrapped around the waist and tied at the front with a square knot to protect the bearer from evil. A cloak is wrapped around his left arm, which is extended to support a now-missing bugle. The figure’s right arm is bent to hold the instrument to his mouth as he moves to the right. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Cornu depicted on the Grand Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, 251-252 century CE, found in 1621 near the Tiburtina Gate in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

My image of the Cornu depicted on the Grand Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, 251-252 century CE, found in 1621 near the Tiburtina Gate in Rome.

Greek Mural painting depicting a trumpeter at the Archaeological Museum of Delos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde.

Musicians playing the salpinx (trumpet) and the hydraulis (water organ), Romano-Egyptian, 1st century BCE, from Alexandria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Roman musicians on the Zilten Mosaic, 200 CE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dulcem and

Relief with a scene of gladiator fight, perhaps part of a funerary monument, 1st century BC. Two trumpet players proclaim the victory of the duel. The winner raises his sword and awaits the verdict of the spectators, who decide life or death for the loser. Relief now in the collections of the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.