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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A New Theory Regarding Hadrian's Wall

A recent study claims that the ditch on the north side of Hadrian's Wall originally served as the foundation for a temporary wooden. British archaeologist Geoff Carter believes that the ditch was not used as a defensive barrier but instead is the remains of the wooden wall that preceded the famous stone wall. In Carter's hypothesis, the wall's milecastles were built first (of stone) with a wooden wall spanning the distances between them. After the mile castles were completed, the wooden wall served as a temporary defensive barrier while the stone wall was being constructed. It was previously believed that the ditch and corresponding post holes were part of a defensive barrier in front of the stone wall, a view that is being challenged by Carter. Hadrian's Wall was not constructed as a massive defensive barrier but as a permanent, permeable border, though it is still believed to have had considerable defensive barriers in the form of ditches in front of the wall. Only further studies will determine how Carter's theory is compatible with current views on the wall's defenses.

The emperor Hadrian acted in marked contrast to his predecessors by halting imperial expansion. Upon his succession, he quickly abandoned Trajan's territorial gains in the east, correctly determining them to be unsustainable. During his reign, Hadrian was faced with military troubles from many regions in the empire and it was decided that Scotland was a prize not worth fighting over. Starting in 122 CE, a temporary wooden wall was constructed from coast to coast in northern Britain, to be followed by the stone wall that is a well know landmark today. The wall was just over 73 miles long and is thought to have been around 20 feet tall. Forts were incorporated into the wall every Roman mile (called milecastles) and there were also forts located north and south of the wall.
Though a monumental building project, the fate of Hadrian's Wall was in jeopardy not long after his death. In 138 CE the emperor Antoninus moved the border 100 miles north of Hadrian's Wall, building a new turf wall known to history as the Antonine Wall. This wall was short lived though, being abandoned forever in 164 CE in favor of Hadrian's Wall. The garrisons along the wall faced several attacks in the late 2nd century CE and much of the wall was restored under the emperor Septimius Severus. The wall continued to be used as the border between Roman Britain and the unconquered north until the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 CE.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Possible Imperial Villa Found

An enormous Roman villa has recently been unearthed north of Rome in the Sabine Hills. Dating from the 1st century CE, the villa is believed to have been the country home of the Emperor Vespasian. Archaeologists at the site say the that the size and location of the villa point to Vespasian, though they admit that they have found no inscriptions or any other archaeological proof as to the owner's identity. Though this discovery is indeed special, it demonstrates a phenomenon that has been going on in classical archaeology since the birth of the field. Throughout the history of of Greek and Roman archaeology, erroneous attributions have been made to artifacts without any justification what so ever. Heinrich Schliemann and his "Mask of Agamemnon" comes to mind as an early example. Also, the countless number Roman statues attributed to famous people is astonishing. It was common practice one upon a time to dig up a bust and proclaim that it represented whoever you thought it did. Many positive identifications of Roman statues have been based on coin portraits, but that is a more recent science. You can still go to museums today and find a "Marius" or "Brutus" statue that could in reality be anyone.

I'm not saying that the villa found in Italy is not Vespasian's, but I am saying that simply finding a sumptuous villa in the Sabine Hills does not mean that it was the home of an emperor. If there are more facts to support the hypothesis that the villa belonged to Vespasian, where are they? I realize that a Discovery Channel story isn't the proper venue to document archaeological discoveries, but I'm suspicious when claims are made with little to no evidence presented. I don't particularly blame the archaeologists for making such a claim; I'm sure the excitement of the dig is overwhelming. Also, headlines stating that you've found an emperors villa are far better than saying you've found "some guy's" villa. I guess you could say headlines first, facts later.
Now for a little about Vespasian, or Titus Flavius Vespasianus to be precise. Vespasian was born in 9 CE during the reign of Augustus. Growing up during the reign of the Julio-Claudians, he probably never thought about becoming emperor himself. After obtaining public offices and military posts, Vespasian took park in Claudius' invasion of Britain in 43 CE as Legate of the Legion II Augusta. After Britain he became Consul in 51 CE, after which he retired from public service only to hold office again in 63 CE, this time as governor of Africa. After returning from Africa, Vespasian joined Nero on his tour of Greece. It was there that Vespasian apparently fell asleep during one of Nero's performances, ending his political career. In 66 CE, Vespasian's political exile ended with his appointment to Judea to suppress the revolt there. The appointment Judea was to prove fortuitous, for it was from here that Vespasian got to watch the downfall of Nero and the subsequent civil war from a distance. Always the popular general, Vespasian was urged by his troops to seek the purple and he actively did so in 69 CE. While Vespasian remained in Egypt to secure the grain supply, his forces were put under the command of Marcus Antonius Primus, who defeated Vitellius and secured Rome for Vespasian. The next ten years were spent undoing the extravagances of Nero and the crippling bankruptcy of the civil war. Vespasian died in 79 CE having set the stage for his sons Titus and then Domitian to succeed him. Despite his many achievements, Vespasian is probably best remembered by the world as the man who built the Flavian Amphitheater, known today as the Colosseum.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Enjoying "Playful Idleness"

Several years ago I went to Madison to see In Stabiano at the Chazen Museum of Art. The exhibit showcased frescoes and artifacts from ancient Stabiae, which was destroyed in the 79 CE eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The exhibit was a delight; gorgeous frescoes covered the walls with marble sculptures and bronze artifacts interspersed, all in Madison care of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. There was even a recreation of a triclinium with the original wall paintings assembled in their correct order so when you entered, you actually got the feeling of being in the ancient room. I'm not aware of any attendance figures, but I can only imagine that In Stabiano was a success for the Chazen. Though seeing such artifacts was a rare treat for me living in Wisconsin, the residents of Italy can see them at their leisure. The New York Times reports (see below) that Ravenna is home to a new exhibit entitled Otium Ludens (Latin for "playful idleness") which features nearly 200 wall paintings, many of which I was fortunate enough to see at the Chazen. The exhibit looks like yet another great collection of Roman art that will be displayed around the world; the New York Times states that the exhibit will travel from Ravenna to Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Madrid and Valencia.

Ancient Stabiae is located on the Gulf of Naples on a cliff overlooking the sea. The views are as amazing today as they were in antiquity and it is no surprise that Stabiae was the playground of the rich and famous. Several palatial villas have been excavated there and the quality of art discovered rivals any in the Roman world. Stabiae started out as a small Oscan port in the 6th century BCE. After its sacking in 89 BCE by Sulla during the Social War, Stabiae was reconstructed and began its life as a rich resort town. Stabiae remained a retreat for wealthy senators and the Imperial family until its destruction in 79 CE.
Though many works of art have been discovered in Stabiae, it is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Pompeii. In fact, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed many towns in the area and all have produced amazing archaeological finds. The area to the south of Vesuvius bore the brunt of the destruction; it is here that Pompeii, Oplontis and Stabiae lie. Herculaneum, which lies to the west of the mountain, was also destroyed. Fortunately for the residents of nearby Neapolis (present day Naples), the mud and pyroclastic flows of the eruption traveled away from their ancient city.