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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Roman opponents: The Parthians

Yesterday I finished the Great Courses lecture series "Between the Rivers" presented by Professor Alexis Castor, Franklin and Marshall College.  The name of the course refers to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and covers over 3,000 years of history in the region of modern day Iraq.  One of the last lectures focused on the Parthians, originally a nomadic people from modern day Iran, that challenged the Seleucids, Alexander the Great's successors, in the region beginning in the 3rd century BCE.  The Parthians wrested control of the Silk Road from the Seleucids and finally captured their capital, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, in 129 BCE.  The Parthians built their own capital nearby at Ctesiphon.

Although those of us who study Roman history are well aware of the dramatic Roman defeat of the legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus at Carrhae, and the famous Parthian archers with their Parthian shot, I was not as familiar with their administration or that their coins featured Greek inscriptions.  The ruling dynasty, called the Arasacids after their first king Arsaces organized their empire rather loosely, allowing local control to remain intact and local economies to operate unmolested except for the payment of tribute, in some ways very similar to the Romans.  But, Parthian kings did not supply royal troops for defense.  Instead, they expected regional leaders to maintain their own armies.  This did result in the occasional attempt of a local leader to occasionally challenge the current king for the throne but it also provided flexibility so the Parthians could recover from military setbacks much more easily, resulting in the Parthian domination of the region for almost 500 years.

Three times in the 2nd century CE, the Romans attacked and captured Ctesiphon and the Parthians survived to fight another day.  It was not until Ctesiphon  was sacked by Septimius Severus in 197 CE who killed or enslaved the entire population of the Parthian capital were the Parthians weakened enough to allow their defeat a few decades later by the Sassanians, another Iranian people from within their own borders.

Artistically, the Parthians were skilled metalworkers and created beautiful objects in silver and gold usually featuring animal or mythological motifs.  I have photographed their artifacts at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art in Washington D.C., at the British Museum, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the Getty Villa, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Parthian Belt adornment with an eagle and its prey The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1st-2nd century CE

Parthian buckle bronze 150 BCE to 225 CE photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Parthian buckle bronze 150 BCE to 225 CE photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Closeup of a Parthian Wine Horn with Lion Protome Iran 1st century BCE - 1st century CE Silver and Gilt photographed at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

Closeup of a Parthian Wine Horn with Lynx Protome Iran 1st century BCE - 1st century CE Silver and Gilt photographed at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

Statue of a Parthian Prince at the National Museum in Iran courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dorieo

Parthian frieze from Ephesos 169 CE courtesy of the Ephesos Museum, Vienna.

Parthian gold earring shaped like an amphora 1st - 2nd century CE courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harness Disk with Lion Attacking a Stag Parthian 225-100 BCE Silver and gold photographed at the Getty Villa.

Parthian Horse headpiece (Prometopidion) with a siren and a sphinx Parthian 200-100 BCE Silver photographed at the Getty Villa.

Closeup of Rhyton with Goat Protome Iran Parthian Period (150 BCE-225 CE) Silver with mercury gilding photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Parthian man returning the eagle standards to Augustus after they were lost by Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC

Parthian Wine Horns with animal protomes Iran 1st century BCE - 1st century CE Silver and Gilt photographed at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery

Parthian Rhyton (Drinking horn) with lion Parthian 100-1 BCE Silver Gold and Garnet photographed at the Getty Villa.

Closeup of Rhyton with a Stag Parthian 50 BCE-50 CE Silver gold glass and garnet photographed at the Getty Villa

Rhyton with a Stag Parthian 50 BCE-50 CE Silver gold glass and garnet photographed at the Getty Villa

Parthian Silver Plate showing Dionysos either late Parthian or early Sasanian 2nd - 3rd century CE Afghanistan photographed at the British Museum

Parthian Silver Plate showing Dionysos either late Parthian or early Sasanian 2nd - 3rd century CE Afghanistan photographed at the British Museum


Silver-gilt rhyton for libations or drinking Greco-Parthian Hellenistic 2nd century BCE photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Parthian Vessel 150 BCE to 225 CE bronze photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Parthian warrior from Nysa 2nd century BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zereshk

Young Man With Parthian Costume Palmyra 3rd century CE at The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor World Imaging

Parthian Mounted archer courtesy of the British Museum


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Roman gaming and learning not to sweat the small stuff

Almost every day, I try to share a meaningful quote from the ancient sources such as this one from Marcus Aurelius:

Remember that the attention given to everything has its proper value and proportion. For thus thou wilt not be dissatisfied, if thou appliest thyself to smaller matters no further than is fit.  Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations.  Book 4.

While looking for artwork to illustrate it, I stumbled across this picture and was amazed.  Although I've seen Roman dice, knucklebones, and Romans of all ages playing these games of chance, I've never seen one of these gaming "towers" before!

Roman gaming tower image courtesy of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, Germany and Wikimedia Commons. I increased the size of the image with AI software.
This dice tower was found in Germania Inferior near the modern villages of Vettweis and Froitzheim, dating back to the fourth century, specifically around the time of Emperor Constantine.  As well as ornately carved pinnacles and dolphins, the tower contains text reading in translation: ‘Victory over the Picts, the enemies have been defeated, play in safety!’ (sort of the Roman version of 'not suitable for small children).

Along the back is the phrase ‘vtere felix vivas’ which can be translated as ‘use this and live with luck/happiness’ or more loosely ‘live happy and play well’. The tower is designed to eliminate the effects of loaded dice and prevent cheating in a gambling environment. According to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, Germany the top of the dice tower is open, allowing for the introduction of dice, and it contains three levels of projecting baffles which would produce random motion in the dice as they fell through the tower. The dice would then emerge at the base of the tower via a miniature flight of steps. The dice, while emerging, would ring three bells which formerly hung above the exit. (One of these bells survived intact).

"You can almost imagine the situation: a bunch of wealthy and influential Romans lose a lot of money in a provincial gambling house and suspect the proprietors of cheating (after all, why would they be more honest than modern casino-owners?). Faced with a scandal, the gambling house decides to invest in a number of elaborate devices to secure their reputation by supposedly eliminating these foul practices." - Alex Shaw,  https://earlyworks.weebly.com/roman-games-2.html

King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene: Meeting the Challenges of a Buffer Kingdom

Head of King Antiochus I at Nemrut Dağ, Turkey,
courtesy of Carole Raddato
The hierothesion (burial complex) of King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene is 50-meter-high man-made burial mound situated upon the peak of Nemrut Dağ within the Taurus mountain range of South-East Turkey, over 2,150 m above sea level. The site was rediscovered in the early 1881 by Karl Sester, a German engineer assessing transport routes for the Ottomans, who reported the discovery of a large number of colossal statues, which he incorrectly believed to be Assyrian in origin. Excavations in the 20th century dated the monumntal tomb to the latter part of the reign of Antiochus I, about 50-36 BCE. The complex is flanked on the north, east, and west with terraces.  The East and West terraces have the remains of colossal seated statues as well as rows of relief stelae (orthostates). The statues have been identified as Antiochus I and a pantheon of Greek, Armenian, and Iranian deities. Antiochus practiced astrology of a very esoteric kind, and laid the basis for a calendrical reform, by linking the Commagenian year, which till then had been based on the movements of the Moon, to the Sothic (Star of Sirius) cycle used by the Egyptians as the basis of their calendar. This would suggest that Antiochus was knowledgeable about, if not fully initiated into Hermeticism,  a tradition based primarily upon writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a pagan philosopher, who taught belief in a single, universal spirit.  He also supposedly invented the process of making a glass tube airtight, hence our term for "hermetically sealed."

Although a vassal state of the Seleucids, Commagene asserted its independence in the 1st century BCE but suffered hardships during the Roman war with Pontus and Armenia. Although Armenia initially succeeded in extending its influence over Commagene, Antiochus was ultimately forced to side with the Romans when the commander Pompey declared war against him.  Although Antiochus claims in his inscriptions on Mount Nemrut to be a friend of the Romans, he was distrusted by them, especially by Cicero.  In 57-37 BCE, he allied with the Parthian monarch Orodes II and offered his daughter Laodice to Orodes in marriage. Later, in 51 BCE, however, some disaffection prompted Antiochus to provide intelligence about Parthian forces led by Prince Pacorus I to the Romans.  But when Pacoras was defeated and killed by the Romans in 38 BCE, the Parthian army fled to Commagene where Antiochus gave them refuge.  This, of course, angered the Romans and the Roman general Publius Ventidus Bassus laid siege to Antiochus' capital of Samosata. Antiochus offered a reimbursement of 1,000 talents and a renewed alliance to the Romans but this offer was rejected by the senior Roman commander Marc Antony, who then took over the siege.  However, Antony failed to capture the capital and finally accepted a new offer of only 300 talents.  Antiochus disappeared from history after this except for a notation by Cassius Dio who said Antiochus was killed by the Parthian king Phraates IV, in 31 BCE.

For a thorough description of Nemrut Dağ and portfolio of images, see Carole Raddato's excellent article at:

https://followinghadrianphotography.com/2019/01/21/mount-nemrut/
.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Sirens in ancient mythology and beyond

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous creatures who lured nearby sailors to their deaths by enchanting them with music and singing voices which resulted in their shipwreck on the rocky coast of the sirens' island. Roman poets placed them on some small islands called Sirenum scopuli. Later, their "flowery" island of Anthemoessa, or Anthemusa, was considered to be  Cape Pelorum or the Sirenuse, near Paestum.  Plato said there were three kinds of Sirens: the celestial, creatures of Zeus,  the generative of Poseidon, and the cathartic of Hades. Originally, Sirens were shown to be male or female, but the male Siren disappeared from art around the fifth century BCE.

In addition to their role in menacing seamen, sirens were also thought to accompany souls on the journey to the afterlife, hence their portrayal on funerary art.  Sirens were first believed to look like a combination of women and birds in various  forms in ancient Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art. With their legendary male attraction, sirens were a popular motif for perfume vessels where they were often depicted as birds with large women's heads, wings, feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps and lyres. By the Middle Ages, however, they began to take on the attributes of mermaids.

Some of my favorite portrayals of sirens are on display at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.  Dating to 350-300 BCE, these almost life-sized sculptures  were found in a funerary context in Tarentum in southern Italy along with a musician thought to be Orpheus. In another funerary context, sirens are portrayed on a relief that once adorned a Lycian sepulchral tower now in the collections of the British Museum.  Of course I find the smaller perfume vessels and other objects depicting sirens endearing as well.

Images: Some of the images I have taken of sirens at the Getty Villa, British Museum, and the Walters Art Museum as well as other images from the British Museum, National Archaeological Museum in Athens, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Perfume bottle in the form of a siren Greek mid-4th century BCE photographed at the British Museum

Terracotta flask in the form of a siren, Greek, made in Kythera, Crete 600 BCE photographed at the British Museum

Funerary sculpture of a siren from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE photographed at the Getty Villa

Funerary sculpture of a siren from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE photographed at the Getty Villa

Funerary sculpture group of two sirens and a musician thought to be Orpheus from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE courtesy of the Getty Villa

Funerary sculpture of a siren's feet from Tarentum in southern Italy 350-300 BCE photographed at the Getty Villa
Attic Black figure plate with Gorgon's head and bands of animals and sirens ceramic 600 BCE photographed at the Walters Art Museum

Ceramic Vase in the form of a siren Greek 540 BCE photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Etruscan bronze weight in the form of a siren with loop 475BC-425BCE courtesy of the British Museum

Marble Siren found in the Necropolis of Ceramics in Athens beside the stele of Athenian warrior Dexileo who fell in combat in 394 or 393 BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Gold earring in the form of a siren, Greek, mid-4th century BCE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harpy tomb originally part of a Lycian sepulchral tower 480-470 BCE courtesy of the British Museum

Oil Jar (Askos) in the shape of a Siren Greek from South Italy 480-450 BCE Bronze photographed at the Getty Villa

The Siren of Canosa, south Italy, Greek, 4th century BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Luis Garcia.

Water Jar Handle (Kalpis) with a Siren Greek 450-425 BCE Bronze photographed at the Getty Villa


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.