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Saturday, August 8, 2020

Roman Mithraism

 Although scholars argue about whether Roman Mithraism arose in the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE, Plutarch mentions the pirates of Cilicia were practicing secret rites of Mithras in 67 BCE. Plutarch says these pirates were especially active during the Mithridatic wars (between the Roman Republic and King Mithridates VI of Pontus) in which they supported the king. The association between Mithridates and the pirates is also mentioned by the ancient historian Appian. The 4th century commentary on Vergil by Servius says that Pompey settled some of these pirates in Calabria in southern Italy. However, the unique underground temples or mithraea appear suddenly in the archaeology in the last quarter of the 1st century CE.  

The earliest monument showing Mithras slaying the bull thought to have been found in Rome bears an inscription that tells us it was dedicated by a certain Alcimus, steward of T. Claudius Livianus, commander of the Praetorian guard in 101 CE. The first important expansion of the mysteries in the Empire seems to have happened quite quickly, but not until late in the reign of Antoninus Pius (b. 121 CE, d. 161 CE) and under Marcus Aurelius.  Mithraism reached the apogee of its popularity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries in parallel with the worship of Sol Invictus. It was a religion of redemption and taught Mithras guided souls from their earthly life back to the light from which they issued upon their death. Mithraism survived until the late 4th to early 5th century CE when Christianity became strong enough to exterminate it by force supported by the anti-pagan decrees of the emperor Theodosius.

Image: Fresco of Mithras and the bull from the Temple of Mithras in Marino, Italy dated to the 2nd century CE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The symbolism of the Centauromachy

The Lapiths were a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, who were horsemen in the grasslands of Thessaly, in the valley of the Peneus and on the mountain Pelion, said to have invented the bridle's bit.  They were an Aeolian tribe, like Achilles' Myrmidons, and descendants of Lapithes, a twin to Centaurus and son of the god Apollo and the Nymph Stilbe.  

Lapithes was a valiant warrior, but Centaurus was a deformed being who later mated with mares producing the race of half-man, half-horse Centaurs.  Lapith warriors and kings, included Ixion, Pirithous, Caeneus, and Coronus, and the seers Ampycus and his son Mopsus. In the Iliad the Lapiths sent forty manned ships to join the Greek fleet in the Trojan War, commanded by Polypoetes (son of Pirithous) and Leonteus (son of Coronus, son of Caeneus).

At the wedding of the Lapith King Pirithous and the horsewoman Hippodameia, the famous Centauromachy erupted when the invited centaur, Eurytion, unused to wine, upon meeting the bride leapt up and attempted to abduct her. In the battle that ensued, Theseus came to the Lapiths' aid. They cut off Eurytion's ears and nose and banished the centaurs from Thessaly.

In later retellings, the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs eventually took on aspects of the struggle between civilized and wild behavior and was used to demonstrate the necessity of tempering wine with water to avoid the consequences of excess. The Greek sculptors of the school of Pheidias depicted the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs as a symbolic struggle between the civilized Greeks and "barbarians" on the Parthenon and on Zeus' temple at Olympia (Pausanias, v.10.8). The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs was also a familiar theme for classical Greek vase-painters.



Image:  A centauromachy relief on an ancient Roman sarcophagus, c. 150 CE, at the Museo Archeologico Ostiense courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor, Sailko.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Brading Roman Villa to reopen on selected days beginning Friday, August 7, 2020

The museum on the site of Brading Roman Villa preserves the West Range of the structure, built around 300 CE, which is the last and grandest of three buildings on the site. The foundations of two earlier North and South Ranges are now outlined in chalk outside. The South Range was erected around 100 CE, not long after Claudius' Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE and was followed by the completion of the grander North Range around 200 CE.

For those living here, this location was a perfect choice. It enabled the  freedom to communicate with and travel to local Island settlements, mainland Britain and cross the Channel to Gaul (France). Fertile arable lands around the Villa complex allowed good crops of grain to be grown. Sheep and cattle could fertilize the land between seasons and springs nearby gave a good water supply. 

By the early fourth century this high status house was completed. As a winged corridor villa, common in southern Britain, it provided separate private living accommodation for the owner and their family together with space for entertaining guests. Like modern homes today the West Range had many changes and adaptions to the living space. This included removing and moving internal walls and adding new mosaics.

The villa was rediscovered in 1879 by Captain John Thorpe and excavated from 1880-1883.  Over 100,000 artifacts were recovered including board games, jewelry, and farming implements.  The villa's mosaics are among the best preserved in Britain and depict mythological subjects including Orpheus, Bacchus, Ceres and other gods and goddesses framed with geometric patterns.




Image: The Orpheus Mosaic at Brading Roman Villa courtesy of their museum.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

VENUSTAS. GRACE AND BEAUTY IN POMPEII through January 2021 at the Palestra grande (eastern portico) of the Pompeii excavations

An immersion in what were the canons and aesthetic tastes of the populations of the Vesuvian area in ancient times (from the VIII / VII century BC to the first century AD), based on the finds, about 300 , found in the various sites of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii:  the protohistoric village of Poggiomarino, the protohistoric necropolis of Striano and that of the Archaic Age of Stabia, the sanctuaries of Pompeii and Stabia, the villas of Oplontis and Terzigno, and finally the town of ancient Pompeii and its surroundings.

Related video (no audio):


Note: Since the video has no audio, it runs rather slowly to give viewers a chance to read the text (in Italian). I tried to turn on translation but it doesn't work with this particular video.  However, the video does provide a selection of images of the frescoes, artifacts, and sculpture included in the exhibit.  I noticed from viewing information on past exhibits on this official website that apparently these types of displays have been presented since about 2017, some within the houses where the artifacts were actually found. I applaud this effort to provide a richer experience for visitors to Pompeii.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The art of ancient Yemen: Arabia Felix to the Romans

Ancient Yemen was composed of a number of regional kingdoms including the Minaeans in the north in Wādī al-Jawf, the Sabeans on the southwestern tip, stretching from the highlands to the sea, the Qatabānians to the east of them, and the Ḥaḑramites east of them.  They were all engaged in the spice trade, especially frankincense and myrrh. They left behind many inscriptions in the monumental ancient South Arabian script or Musnad, as well as numerous documents in the related cursive Zabūr script.  Scholars disagree about their origins with some claiming these kingdoms arose about 1200 BCE.  Others say they did not begin to flourish until the 8th century BCE and lasted until they were conquered by the Himyarites.  The Himyarite Kingdom conquered neighbouring Saba' for the first time in c. 25 BCE, Qataban in c. 200 CE, and Haḍramaut c. 300 CE. The Middle Saba' kingdom rose in the early 2nd century CE with its capital established at Ma'rib. Himyar's fortunes relative to Saba' changed frequently until it finally conquered the Sabaean Kingdom again around 280 CE. Himyar then endured until it finally fell to invaders from the Kingdom of Aksum in 525 CE.

Arabia Felix was one of three regions into which the Romans divided the Arabian peninsula: Arabia Deserta, Arabia Felix, and Arabia Petraea with Arabia Felix representing the southwest corner of the peninsula.  In 26 BCE, Aelius Gallus under Augustus's order led a military expedition to Arabia Felix, but after some beginning successes he was obliged by the unhealthy climate and epidemic to desist in the conquest of the area.  The ancient city of Eudaemon (modern Aden) was a  transshipping port in the Red Sea trade but by the first century CE it was by-passed to eliminate the costs associated with these middlemen.

The early archaeologist most associated with excavations in ancient Yemen was an American, Wendell Phillips.  Phillips was born in Oakland, California in 1921. His mother, Sunshine, was a gold prospector in California. His family was poor, and Phillips worked various jobs as a youth, including serving as a guide on Treasure Island during the San Francisco World's Fair. He suffered from polio as a young man and recovered in his early 20s.

Phillips graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1943 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in paleontology. His studies had been interrupted by World War II, in which Phillips served in the Merchant Marine before returning to college. Also during his college years, Phillips participated in fossil-hunting expeditions to Arizona, Oregon, and Utah, and corresponded with archaeologist William F. Albright, who later accompanied Phillips on his first archaeology expedition.

In the late 1940s, Phillips acquired funding from the University of California to organize a broad archaeological exploration of Africa. Though Phillips was inexperienced as an archaeologist, his used his charisma and persuasion skills to lead a team of approximately 50 scholars and technicians, equipped with trucks and an airplane. The expedition lasted 26 months and covered the entire length of the continent between Egypt and South Africa, receiving significant publicity in the United States. A highlight of the expedition's findings were jaws and teeth of a hominid from the Swartkrans site in South Africa.

Phillips's next expedition was in 1951 to the Arabian peninsula to explore the ancient city of Timna, a center for the incense trade in the ancient world. At Timna, Phillips's team excavated through layers of strata, allowing them to develop a timeline of the city dating to the 8th century BCE. An excavation at the House Yafash uncovered twin bronze lions and an alabaster figurine referred to by the team as "Miriam". The excavation also uncovered many utilitarian objects from daily life and funerary objects from a cemetery at Timna. Excavations included the Marib Dam, which was the largest of ancient times, and the Awwam Temple, which was one of the most important temples of the Sabaean people. Phillip's work was eventually brought to a halt by hostility from local Bedouin tribes.  At one point Phillips was even taken prisoner.

During his time in the Middle East Phillips became acquainted with the Sultan of Oman, who granted him the mineral rights to a modest oil producing region of his country, two offshore oil concessions, copper mining rights, and offshore fishing rights, the foundation for Phillips Middle east American Oil Company in 1954. Phillips traded some of his original concessions for more profitable mineral rights in Venezuela, Indonesia, and Libya.  By 1975, Phillips was the largest individual holder of oil concessions in the world, with a net worth in 1975 United States dollars of $120 million.

Here's a video on YouTube about his exploits:


Phillips' estate eventually donated the artifacts he recovered from Timna and Ma'rib to the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art.  I thoroughly enjoyed "Unearthing Arabia,"a fascinating exhibit at the Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2015 although at the time they did not allow photography of the objects. I have included the museum's image of the famous bronze erotes riding striding lions, though.

Arabia Bronze head of a youth in the Classical style with corkscrew hairstyle popular in ancient Saba 2nd century CE Ghayman, Yemen photographed by Mary Harrsch at the British Museum

Arabia Female Sculpture from ancient south Arabia 900 BCE - 600 CE photographed by Mary Harrsch at the British Museum

Arabia Fragment of a pediment depicting a nude fertility goddess and mythological creature South Arabia (Marib) 2nd century CE alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Walters Art Museum

Arabia Funerary Head-Stela of a Bearded Man South Arabia 5th-2nd century BCE Calcite-alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Walters Art Museum


Arabia Head of a man Qataban (Arabia Felix) 3rd-1st century BCE Alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Seattle Art Museum

Arabia Stela with bust of a priestess South Arabia 1st century BCE - 1st century CE calcite alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Walters Art Museum

Bronze Man of the Kingdom of Saba' (800 BCE - 275 CE) at The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor PHGCOM

Bronze erotes mounted on striding lions 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery