Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Roman Statues Found in Pozzuoli

Despite the rarity of extraordinary, career defining archaeological finds, archaeologists dig up valuable artifacts every day. Value, of course, is subjective; a coarse-ware clay bowl may not have much "value" to an art historian, but it can mean a lot to a cultural anthropologist. Most archaeological finds don't make the news not because they are unimportant, but because they are not exciting to the general public. Every once and a while though, archaeologists dig up something "exciting." Such finds usually revolve around objets d'art simply because people find pieces of sculpture more worthy of their time than a pile of ancient roof tiles. Public disinterest in archaeology is unfortunate, but in my opinion the over-hyped art historical finds benefit archaeology as a whole. Finding a Roman sculpture or Greek vase is the desert after an otherwise bland meal of culturally and historically significant, if not pretty, artifacts. The exposure that archaeology gets when artistic finds surface makes people think about archaeology and hopefully convinces them that archaeology is a good and necessary thing.

Recently, a marble head of the Roman Emperor Titus was found in Pozzuoli. Several other artifacts were discovered, including a marble Gorgon head as well as fragmentary statues, columns and inscriptions. Finds like this are great for art historians and archaeologists, but also good for the public. It is basically good PR for archaeologists to dig up statues and the like. "Visually stimulating" archaeological discoveries help archaeologists justify to the lay masses that what they do is important and should be funded.

We've got his head, but who was he? Titus was the second Emperor in the Flavian Dynasty, which was started by his father Vespasian. Vespasian was the fourth Emperor in the so called Year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE. It all started in 68 CE with Nero's suicide and the subsequent usurpations of Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Vespasian and his son Titus where in Judea at the time, attempting to suppress the Great Jewish Revolt. While in the East, Vespasian was declared Emperor by his troops and he subsequently returned to Rome to establish his position, leaving Titus to finish the Jewish War. Titus finished the war in 70 CE with the infamous siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Second Temple. Returning the Rome, Titus held several governmental offices under his father, including seven consulships. Upon Vespasian's death in 79 CE, the purple was seamlessly transferred to Titus, who would go on to become the darling of the Roman people. Though Titus' reign lasted just over two years, it saw three important events in Roman history: the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, the opening of the Colosseum in 80 CE and the fire in Rome in 80 CE. Titus died in 81 CE at the age of 41 leaving Rome in the hands of his younger brother Domitian. Domitian was quite a bit different from his brother and father and his rule has been has been compared to those of Gaius and Nero, though recent studies have tried to clear his name, so to speak. Sounds like another post topic to me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rome's Aurelian Wall in Danger

Societies have long used walls to protect themselves from real or imagined dangers. In the ancient Greek and Roman world, walls were used extensively around cities and towns to act as barriers against attack. Military technology being what it was, walls did a relatively good job at keeping out people who weren't welcome. Not until Rome's sophistication of artillery and siege works did walls loose some of their protective value; but walls continued to be widely employed until the 19th century. Walls were often constructed out of dry or mortared ashlar masonry and many incorporated towers at set intervals as well as gates. Gates grew in size and complexity during antiquity; the double gates of Classical Athens come to mind. It is interesting to note that Sparta never had city walls.

Like most other major cities during antiquity, Rome had its share of walls. The so called Servian Wall was built in the 4th century BCE after Rome was sacked by Gauls. This wall had a circumference of roughly 11 km and enclosed an area of 426 ha. Made of tufa blocks and nearly 10 m tall, little remains of this wall, which served Rome for hundreds of years. By the time of Augustus, the city of Rome had long spread beyond the borders of the Servian Wall and a newer and longer wall wasn't deemed necessary until the 3rd century CE. Due to military pressures existant in the troubled 3rd century, the Emperor Aurelian built a new circuit of walls in 271-75 CE. This new wall was 19 km long and enclosed an area of 1,372 ha, completely enclosing the Servian Wall. This so called Aurelian Wall was made of brick faced concrete with towers every 100 Roman feet and a series of impressive gates. The Aurelian Wall was used through the 19th century CE for the defense of Rome; Cadorna was forced to breach it in 1870 during the Risorgimento. Today the Aurelian Wall is obviously no longer used to defend the city, though much of the wall remains; it's state of preservation due to its long use.

Ruins from ancient Rome are fragile and require diligent stewards to care for them. As I've talked about before, Italy is swollen with ancient sites that not only require watchful eyes but millions of Euros to protect. Recently, some pieces of the Aurelian Wall came crashing down, forcing the closure of a near by street. It's now believed that the remaining sections of the wall may be in grave danger. The cause of the damage? Money, or lack there of I should say. Italy just doesn't appropriate enough funds for the upkeep of it's history, as the condition of Pompeii can attest. Not that the Italian government is entirely to blame; the costs facing it are enormous, especially in this economy. I'm not an economist, but I do realize the importance of history. Ancient sites need protection so we and future generations can learn from them and enjoy them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ancient Scrolls May Soon Reveal Their Secrets

I have an illimitable appetite for books. I buy books all the time and am always reading at least two are three at once. The knowledge contained in books is certainly their first draw, but my passion for books goes far beyond mere information. I can get information online quicker than in a library or my own bookshelves. Looking at words on a computer screen, though, just isn't the same as holding a book in your hands. There is something romantic about holding a book, feeling it and smelling it (yes, smelling it). Books have their own personalities and I consider them more as companions rather than possessions (who would ever say such a thing about a web-site!).

In today's society you can buy books everywhere and books are written about every conceivable subject. In the ancient world, books didn't exist, let alone paper. Texts were written on scrolls made mainly of papyrus (though parchment, wax tablets and other forms were in use), and such items were reserved for the those wealthy enough to afford them. Publishing as we know it did not exist and scrolls were far less common than books are today. Libraries existed and it was common for wealthy persons to send one of their trained slaves to such libraries to copy texts for the home library (copyright laws didn't exist). Scrolls were covered with text written with no spaces and no punctuation and were not very long; several if not dozens of scrolls were needed for long works. One can imagine the organization required to keep a library, whether public or person, in a condition were anything could be found. I'm sure to the bibliophiles of the day, their scrolls were prized possessions, even more so since every scroll was a unique hand written copy.

Our knowledge of ancient literature is very comprehensive, yet we can only speculate at the amount of works lost to time. The works that have survived are mostly a result of copies made during the middle ages; the original scrolls having long disintegrated. There have been many fragments of scrolls found, mainly in Egypt and the near east, but their number doesn't rival the 1,785 scrolls found at the Villa of the Papyri near Herculaneum in Italy. The scrolls, turned to carbon during the volcanic eruption of 79 CE, were found in the 18th century and have been kept safe in Italy and France since then. Scientists are now trying to "unroll" the scrolls via computer and if they are successful, the world of ancient literature could be turned on it's head. We can only imagine what great lost works are hidden in these scrolls. Of course, they could be nothing more than grocery lists either, but that's not the point. Any written words from the past would help with our understanding of the ancient world. I'm always amazed at what technology can do for archaeology and I hope the scientists and scholars involved in this project are successful.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Complexities of Roman Religion

The face of religion in Ancient Rome was complex and dynamic. Though the state religion, based on the Greek model, was pervasive throughout the empire, the worship of the Olympians was hardly the only religious practice. To understand religion in the Roman world, you must forget much of what you know about religion today. Religion in the modern sense (in regards to Christianity, Judaism and Islam) is based on sacred texts which dictate moral dogma to the religion's followers and requires those followers to perform codified rituals. The latter applied to religion in Ancient Rome, but no the former. There were no sacred texts in Roman religions and moral behavior was not dictated by religion. Instead of following a certain dogma in order to gain eternal salvation, worshipers in the Roman Empire viewed religion as a means to appease the gods. The gods were seen as fickle and their power unlimited, so placating them was in man's best interest. The purpose of religion was as a safeguard for society; making the gods happy, through sacrifice, prevented them from reigning down wrath upon man. If the gods were happy, man was happy, and if the gods were especially pleased, certain gods might be extremely generous with their benevolence.

There certainly were moral lessons to be learned in Roman religion, but the ultimate goal was somewhat different when compared to modern religions. In the "big three" religions of today, adhering to the moral code laid down by your respective religious text not only benefits you and your fellow man, but is your ticket to paradise. Not so in the ancient world. In the view of Romans, everyone went to the Underworld. Only the most wicked or hated mythological figures went to Tartarus and experienced Hell as we know it. The Underworld was not Heaven as we think of it. Elysium was the island in the Underworld where heroes and virtuous souls spent eternity, but it must be reiterated that Roman religion did not promise a paradisical afterlife. How a Roman acted in day to day life didn't matter when he was dead. The moral lessons inherent in Classical mythology were concerned with the present; offend the gods and they will exact revenge on you. Being a productive member of society was the goal of moral lessons both then and now, but the rewards differ greatly.

Finally, monotheism is the most prevalent type of religion today; in the Roman world, polytheism was the rule. Not only was the state religion made of up dozens of gods, but there were many other religions that people followed in addition to their obligations to the state. Some notable examples from the Greek world include the cults of Dionysus and Demeter. The word "cult" has modern negative connotations and can be misleading when applied to ancient worship, but its use is standard. Both Dionysus and Demeter were long established Greek deities, but their worship was outside of the standard religious practices of both the Greeks and Romans. So called foreign cults were also prevalent in the Roman world. The Egyptian goddess Isis became very popular (see article below) and the worship Mithras from the Near East also flourished. As the Roman Empire spread, soldiers took the state religion with them, but also adopted local gods into their worship, so in far off places like Gaul or Britain, it was not uncommon for Jupiter to be worshiped along side some minor local deity. The Romans also added dead emperors to their list of gods and in some parts of the empire the living emperor was worshiped as divine. So, not only were the Romans polytheistic, they also incorporated other religions into their own or worshiped other gods along side their traditional tutelary deities.