Saturday, 12 April 2014

Jesus Christ, magician and emperor

It’s easy to forget that we have no idea what Jesus Christ actually looked like.

The earliest accounts of his life were written a generation or more after his death, and none of the Gospel writers ever knew him. His face was essentially a blank.

In the early centuries, when Christianity was a small, occasionally persecuted cult, its adherents didn’t even try to depict Christ visually. The earliest portraits only date from the third century, and explode in number from the fourth century, when Christianity became an official religion of the Roman empire.

What does Jesus look like in these early portraits? Nothing like our modern image, that’s for sure. He normally appears youthful and beardless, a kind of idealised, Apollo-esque hero. And for good measure he sometimes carries a magic wand. Less Christ Pantocrator, and more Harry Potter (except without glasses).

Roman hero 

Take a look at this late fourth-century ivory panel from Rome. It depicts the two Maries discovering Christ outside his open tomb after the Resurrection. No wand in this image – but if you look closely at Christ in the lower left, you can see he’s clutching a scroll in his left hand. A Roman looking at this image would instantly understand the scroll as a standard symbol of literacy and education. (Statues of Roman emperors and aristocrats often show them holding scrolls.)

Likewise the two-finger gesture comes from Roman oratorical tradition, and was adopted into Christian art as a symbol of blessing.

In fact almost everything about this ivory panel makes Christ look right at home in fourth-century Rome. The upper frame shows his tomb as a grand circular mausoleum, not unlike those of Augustus, Hadrian and Constantine’s daughter Constantina. The dozing soldiers are wearing the tunics and distinctive box-hats (pillei) of the late Roman military. On the lower frame the doors of the tomb are carved with images from the Gospels, just like the famous fifth-century doors of Santa Sabina.

The only obvious Christian symbols are the winged ox and man at the top of the upper panel, representing the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Otherwise this particular Christ is sitting quite happily in the late Roman world, a long way from first-century Palestine. He looks almost as content as he does in this fourth-century villa mosaic from Hinton St Mary (Dorset).


Magician

A magic wand is a curious addition to early iconography of Jesus. In depictions of the wedding feast of Cana, for example, Christ is shown touching the jars of water with his wand to turn them into wine. This ‘Christ the Magician’ appears especially on sarcophagi and catacomb paintings, but is also carved on the doors of Saint Sabina and on the ivory Andrews Dipytch (click on links for images).

Of course, none of the Gospels describe Jesus wandering about with a magic wand. Fourth- and fifth-century Romans, though, clearly thought he needed one. They effectively turned him into the sort of magician they associated with eastern mystery religions.

Emperor

After his stints as Apollo and Harry Potter, Jesus settled down as Emperor of the Universe.


Christ probably looks more familiar to modern eyes in this mosaic from the apse of Santa Pudenziana. It dates from between 401 and 417, a period which saw savage suppression of paganism and the final triumph of Christianity as the sole Roman state religion. The Church now identified itself powerfully with the Roman state; as a result, religious images were swamped with imperial symbolism.

In the mosaic, Christ is no longer a youthful magician, but an emperor: bearded, stern and distant, wrapped in folds of golden cloth, sitting on a jewel-encrusted throne.

He holds a book displaying the words ‘Lord Protector of the Church of Pudentia’. Behind him are depicted drapes of Tyrian purple and gold thread, as one would see in the audience hall of a Roman emperor.

The imperial iconography continues around him. The Apostles are seated to either side in the tunics and togas of Roman noblemen, looking for all the world like the members of a heavenly Senate.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meanwhile, are being crowned by female religious figures inspired by the traditional goddess of Victory depicted on Roman coins. Even the architecture, intended to represent the Heavenly City, looks suspiciously like Rome, with its marble arcades and gilded roof tiles.

We’ve become so used to this ‘Romanised’ way of depicting Christ, it seems natural. Take the portrait on the left, which is pretty typical of how Christ is portrayed for a modern audience (image from jesuschristsaviour.net).

Even if the imperial pomp has been put to one side and Jesus has been given a more compassionate, ‘human’ face, he’s still wearing the toga, and he still has that two-finger gesture of benediction. The essential elements put in place during the fourth and fifth centuries have clearly stuck. Sadly the wand never caught on.

I think Jesus has been wrapped in that toga for so many centuries, it would be hard to depict him wearing anything else. But his hand gestures? No reason we can't update them...


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  • Image of ivory panel from John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (1979), fig. 36

Monday, 7 April 2014

The mystery of Ostia

Located at the mouth of the Tiber, Ostia is one of the greatest Roman treasures.

Perhaps it isn’t as well known as Pompeii, but Ostia has a few advantages. First, it’s easy to reach from Rome itself, just a half-hour train ride. It’s also roughly the same size as Pompeii, but with far, far fewer visitors – and the coach parties that do arrive tend to stay only a couple of hours to take in the major sights.

Map in the Museum of the Ostian Way, showing Ostia (lower left) and Portus in relation to Rome

Access off the beaten track is less restricted than in Pompeii, so it’s easy to wander into the ruins and not see another soul for an hour or more. Finally, while we know exactly how Pompeii met its end, Ostia’s story is much more mysterious.

Decline and fall

This is a melodramatic way of saying that archaeologists still don’t really know when Ostia was abandoned, or why. The traditional story is that the city lost its defining function as a port, partly because Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) constructed a massive artificial harbour at Portus to the north, partly because the Tiber itself shifted course and left Ostia’s wharves facing nothing but mudflats and sandbanks.

Apartment of the Aurighi
Through the fourth century, the city’s docks and massive warehouses were abandoned, the working classes moved out, and their apartment blocks were replaced with fancy town houses belonging to the well-to-do of Rome. For a brief period Ostia became a kind of luxury seaside resort.

Yet by the end of the fourth century, so the story goes, the city was in deep decline. ‘Its one remaining glory,’ wrote the poet Rutilius Namatianus in 416, ‘is to have welcomed Aeneas.’

He was alluding to the myth that the founder of the Roman race, having sailed across the sea from Carthage, first made landfall at the future site of Ostia; but in Rutilius’s day, the left branch of the Tiber was ‘inaccessible’.

As the political situation worsened over the following decades – Rome and Ostia were both captured by the Goths in 410, and by the Vandals in 455 – even the posh set moved out, and the few remaining citizens moved to a new settlement a little way upriver. The one-time commercial jewel of the empire, what had been a city of 50,000 people, was left to weeds, stone robbers, and ruination.

New questions, new answers

But is the whole story? In a recent study, Douglas Boin of Georgetown University argues that Late Antique evidence from Ostia has long been neglected by archaeologists. The first large-scale modern excavations took place under Mussolini in the 1930s; obsessed with the glories of the High Empire, these ideologically-driven investigators tended to pay scant attention to activity later than the second century AD. The circular logic developed that the city quickly collapsed after this period, and so any late evidence could be dismissed as unimportant.

Ostia in its heyday - model in the Museum of the Ostian Way

This imbalance continues with the modern presentation of the site. I bought an official guidebook which speaks of a ‘grave and irreversible crisis’ by the middle of the fourth century, and claims that ‘beginning in the V century A.D. the real and definitive decline of the city was evident in all its desolation, as recalled by the poet Rutilius Namazianus [sic]’. (In fact Rutilius only mentions that the river had silted up, and says nothing about Ostia itself.)



According to Boin, the picture emerging from modern excavations is much more interesting and complex than this. Proper attention paid to Late Antique evidence is showing that an awful lot was happening in the city through the fourth and well into the fifth century.

Continued life

The city Forum, for instance, was still the busy, bustling heart of the city. Members of the élite were installing new monuments and refurbishing older buildings right through the fourth century. There was fresh commercial investment, with the building of a new market space in the latest architectural style. In the fifth century shops around the Forum were still being repaved, and judging from recent pottery analysis more than half of the town’s imported wine was coming from the eastern Mediterranean.

The Capitolium, a massive temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, still stood proudly over the ancient civic space, its facade of mixed marble – purple-veined pavonazzetto, honey-coloured Tunisian giallo antico, the wavy green ribs of Karystian cipollino – still gleaming in the sun.

The Capitolium as it survives today

Religious communities, too, were investing in ambitious new projects. Ostia’s seafront synagogue was heavily refurbished in the fourth century, and in 1996 a team of German archaeologists discovered evidence of the earliest Christian basilica in the city, which was given a baptistry in the fifth century (and actually remained in use until about 800 A.D.).

Corridor in the Apartment of the Aurighi
Even as more and more Ostians left behind the traditional Roman cults for Christianity, there is no sense that they wanted a break with the past. On the contrary, in the fifth century it seems that the old sanctuary complex of Magna Mater (‘Great Mother’) was turned into a collecting space for statues and inscriptions – a kind of museum, or ‘a treasure chest of the town’s cultural heritage’, as Boin puts it. In the middle of the fifth century the citizens of Ostia were still holding their annual games in honour of Castor and Pollux.

A whimpering end

Gradually, over two hundred years, the rhythms of the traditional religious calendar were replaced with the cycle of Christian holy days, but the people of Ostia were no less Roman for it. The latest archaeological evidence for building work in the city dates from the sixth century.

At this point the city was in true decline, but this hardly marks it out from countless other Italian cities (including Rome itself) during the troubled decades of the Gothic Wars. Perhaps Ostia suffered more than most because of its strategic importance; it was used as a military depot and camp by the Byzantines. I also wonder if the bubonic plague of the sixth century also played its part – as an entry point into Italy, Ostia would have been on the front line when the deadly infection arrived.



In any case, by the ninth century it had been truly abandoned and replaced by a new, far smaller settlement just half a kilometre to the east. The rationale for this move was defensive, to provide security against worsening Saracen raids on the Italian coast.

By the twelfth century, the old city of Ostia was known as calcaria – the place of the lime kilns. Its sole function was now as a handy source for cheap building material. ‘Life at Ostia ended not with a Vesuvian bang,’ writes Boin, ‘but with a whimper.’

So, is the mystery of Ostia’s end finally answered? I doubt it; there are still so many gaps in the story, as Boin acknowledges. Much of the city has yet to be excavated (barely half of it is even visible), and there must be many more secrets waiting to be revealed by archaeologists. Only one thing is certain: the story of Ostia is not yet over.

  • Douglas Boin, Ostia in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2013)
  • Angelo Pellegrino, Ostia: Guide to the Archaeological Excavations (Rome, 2013)
  • www.ostia-antica.org - an excellent online resource on Ostia and Portus

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Back in Rome

Has it really been twelve years since the last (and first) time I was in Rome?

Well, to be accurate it’s been twelve and a half years. My first day in Rome turned out to be a day to remember, wherever you happened to be – September 11, 2001. I was a naïve 21-year-old backpacker who had just interrailed his way through Paris, Marseilles, Nice, and Pisa, and had arrived in Rome without thinking to book accommodation in advance.

The city’s youth hostels were fully booked, and I didn’t have the cash for a hotel room, so my 9/11 was spent frantically heading from one tourist office to the next, studying my hopelessly inadequate Rough Guide map to work out where places were, darting between public phones (no mobile in those days), and fumbling with loose change to call pensiones that inevitably turned out to be fully booked as well.

Every time I entered a tourist office, all I saw on the TV was the image of the Twin Towers. Tourists were staring at the screen in that strange suspension of horror and belief we all felt that day. As evening drew on and the tourist offices closed, I had the added fear that I might end up sleeping that night on a bench in Termini Station.

Eventually, through sheer luck, I ended up staying in the spare room of an old Italian lady who spent the whole evening in front of her TV, watching the news coverage from New York. She spoke no English, and I spoke no Italian, not that it mattered. ‘Mammia mia,’ she muttered, over and over again, shaking her head.

Thankfully my second arrival in Rome has been less eventful, and this time I’ve even got a place to stay for a week. I’ve also come properly equipped for some hard-core Roman sightseeing.

  • Filippo Coarelli, Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide (2007)
  • Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 2nd edn (2010)
  • John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, 2nd edn (1979)

Together, these books offer an unbeatable guide to Classical and Late Antique Rome. They point the reader towards some lesser-known sites, as well as revealing the more arcane secrets of the necessary tourist traps of the Colisseum, Forum, and so on.

Needless to say, there’ll be some intense (and overdue!) posting on this blog over the coming days, as I explore ancient Rome to a depth I’ve been dreaming of for years... please subscribe to the mailing list above, to make sure you don't miss a post!

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Lion and the Lamb - new paperback cover

My publishers over at Hodder & Stoughton have revealed the new paperback cover for The Lion and the Lamb, which is out on April 10.

As you can see, it's pretty dramatic! It really draws out the intrigue and drama (fire, smoke, snarling lion face), and the figures below allude to the impact of war and devastation on family life...


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Visualising Late Antiquity

One of the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction is trying to visualise what everyday life was like.

How did people dress? What did they eat and drink? What would you have seen, heard and smelled as you walked through an ancient city?

The problem is that most historical texts are concerned with high politics or religion, and not with telling us about humdrum realities. Sometimes we get a glimpse of daily life, as in this famous (and rather snobbish) passage by Ammianus Marcellinus on the fourth-century plebs of Rome:

But of the multitude of lowest condition and greatest poverty some spend the entire night in wineshops, some lurk in the shade of the awnings of the theatres [...] or they quarrel with one another in their games at dice, making a disgusting sound by drawing back the breath into their resounding nostrils; or, which is the favourite among all amusements, from sunrise until evening, in sunshine and in rain, they stand open-mouthed, examining minutely the good points or the defects of charioteers and their horses.

(Blokes hanging out to get drunk, play pub games and argue about sport? Maybe the Roman world wasn't so weird after all...)

Archaeology is also incredibly useful, along with the work of re-enactors who experiment with clothing, cooking and the countless other details of ordinary life that most historians rarely have to think about.

This is why I'm excited about a current research project based at the University of Kent, Visualising Late Antiquity.

This project is bringing together a whole range of academics and research students to piece together a clearer picture of 'everyday urban society' in the late Roman period. So far they've published fantastic visual reconstructions of city life in Ostia, along with articles on basket weaving, tunics, and even spices (which, it seems, were not just used in cooking).

True, this project isn't going to teach anyone about the lives of emperors and empresses, or about epic wars or the adventures of great heroes - but it's a real treasure trove for the historical novelist, and for anyone interested in the humdrum lives of the 99%!

Monday, 3 February 2014

Author interview

I was recently interviewed by Grace Ranola for the Butler Scholarly Journal, a student-run online publication at Durham University.

Grace asked some thought-provoking questions, and I had fun answering them - here's a link.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Dungeons & No Dragons

I am ridiculously excited about this new video game. 

It's called 'Kingdom Come: Deliverance', and comes from the brand new company, Warhorse Studios, based in Prague. They’ve had the crazy idea that there is an audience for an RPG (that’s ‘role-playing game’, for the uninitiated) that has a medieval-esque setting, but approaches the Middle Ages like a grown-up.

In other words, without any of this:


Or this:


And definitely none of this:


Not the most practical set of armour ever devised

The typical formula for an RPG is that you start off as some lowly nobody, and gradually develop your character through a series of missions, adventures, and encounters, until you become a hero of epic renown.

The video game industry, like the movie industry, doesn’t like to stray from tried-and-tested formulas. In this case, thanks to the legacy of Tolkien, the formula involves a brain-crushing dose of magic and monsters that turns the whole thing into a kind of rainbow-coloured pantomime.

Brienne of Tarth, a true warrior maiden...
That’s all well and good, but the world of orcs, wizards, and improbably-proportioned elf warrior-maidens has never done it for me. I mean, I love Skyrim to bits, but I always play as a human rather than some weird talking cat-person (for example), and I have as little to do with magic as possible.

It’s also telling that Game of Thrones is such a massive hit, when magic is all but absent in the first couple of seasons.

Aren’t the Middle Ages exciting enough without all that frippery? Who doesn’t want to be truly immersed in a living, breathing virtual medieval world, complete with all its intrigue, adventures and dangers?

These were the questions asked by the people at Warhorse Studios. ‘Dungeons & No Dragons’ is how they pitched it.

Naturally the big games developers weren’t interested, so Warhorse have launched a kickstarter campaign online. They want to prove that there is an audience for a realistic medieval RPG, with the help of thousands of individual investors (you can invest anything from £3 to £5000).

It seems to be working, too. They reached their initial target of £300,000 within three days, and it currently stands at more than £500,000.

Both the video game nerd and the medievalist inside me are so chuffed about this. The only downside is that we have to wait till late next year to see the final product...


Sunday, 26 January 2014

Holy hippies

They don’t work. They don’t wash. 

They roam across the country, preaching sanctimoniously about peace and love, despite being dangerously ill-informed. They dress in a way that is somehow shabby and pretentious at the same time. Worst of all, they have no respect for government or power structures.

Clearly, something has to be done about these ‘monks’.

Weirdos 

For an Anglo-Saxonist like me, there’s nothing weird about monks. Right through the Anglo-Saxon period, monasteries were at the heart of the church – indeed, it was founded by Irish and Roman monks. For the Anglo-Saxons, it would have been weird to have a church without monks.

The respectable face of Christianity: Santa Sabina, Rome
But it wasn’t always like this.

Let’s pretend to be a typical Christian in late Roman Gaul, circa 430.

The church, like everything in civilised life, is based around the city. It has tidy structures of bishops and priests and deacons, and congregations of ordinary people. It’s staffed by educated, cultured men from the middle and upper classes.

It’s clean, respectable.

Yes, far away in the east, in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, there have always been oddballs who go out in the wilderness and live in caves.

Saint Antony in the desert
The Greeks call them monachoi – ‘those who dwell alone’. They starve themselves to the point of madness and then claim to have visions and miraculous powers.

Yes, some of these weirdos get reputations as ‘holy men’, and attract followers from the more gullible segment of society. Some even group into small communities.

A bunch of fanatical zealots bunched up together, obsessed with the end of the world? That’s fine, as long as they keep themselves to themselves.

The problem is, they don’t. Monachoi are spreading from east to west like diseased rats, infecting the whole Mediterranean with their pernicious teachings.

And now the disease is spreading into the Gallic church itself.

 
Martin

The warning signs have been there since the 360s. An illiterate, obnoxious young Pannonian called Martin, who had been dishonourably discharged from the army and kicked out of more than one city for stirring up trouble, tried to set himself up as a monachos on Gallinara, a tiny island off the north-west coast of Italy.


Having no idea what he was doing, the idiot almost killed himself by eating a poisonous plant. Undeterred, he came to Gaul and latched onto Bishop Hilary of Poitiers – another rabble-rouser who had just returned from exile.

After a few years, Hilary and his buddies engineered the election of Martin as bishop of Tours, even though he was completely unsuited to the post. He preferred to spend his time living in a shack beside the river Loire, where (of course) he quickly attracted a bunch of hangers-on – dozens of pious layabouts, disillusioned posh types who thought the best way to respond to the world’s problems was to bury their heads in the sand.

The modern Abbey of Marmoutier, successor to Martin's original hermitage
Oh, sure, they were just like those brave monachoi who lived in the depths of the desert. That is, if by ‘depths of the desert’ you mean a half-hour stroll along the banks of the Loire. They they lived in caves, true, but it’s not like they were willing to get their hands dirty: all the manual labour was done by the servants they brought with them!

They’re also famous for wearing camel-hair shirts, just like the desert monachoi. How did they come by camel-hair shirts in Gaul, you might ask? Why, they were so devoted to simplicity and poverty that they had them specially hand-crafted and imported from the across the Mediterranean.

Naturally, all this would be bad enough. But when Martin wasn’t sitting in his shack, he was traipsing around the countryside with his fanatical thugs, looking for innocent pagans to terrorise. Are monachoi not meant to be devoted to peace? It's hardly surprising that when Martin died, there was an ugly squabble between the monachoi of Tours and Poitiers over which community would get to keep his corpse.

‘Swollen with black bile’

Unfortunately this Martin started a trend. Even a former imperial governor and consul – a consul, the highest dignitary in the empire! – was brainwashed into following his footsteps, becoming a housebound monachos.

This man, the illustrious Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus, retired (with his wife, I might add) to one of his estates in Spain, where he kept himself busy weaving baskets and eating porridge, cutting himself off from all his friends except to write them pompous letters about how pious he was.

Then there’s the self-made man, Claudius Postumus Dardanus, a former prefect of Gaul. I hardly know where to start with this character. After a career of treachery, back-stabbing and murder, he didn’t just retire, but went and built himself a fortified enclave in the mountains where he now rules as a sort of robber king.

It's accessible only up a narrow, winding valley, at the top of which is a gate and an inscription proclaiming his achievements and holiness. Theopolis, he calls it – ‘the City of God’. Is there anything more offensive, more hypocritical, than this?

Google Earth image of Theopolis, near Sisteron, France - a natural fortress enclosed by 500-foot cliffs

Inscription on the road leading into Theopolis

At least Paulinus still lived a civilised life. These days it seems that every lump of rock off the coast is crowded with scruffy monachoi. Rutilius Namatianus wrote about them in the poem about his voyage from Rome to Gaul. Here’s what he says about Capraria:

"The island is a mess, filled with men who flee from the light. They call themselves monachoi, a Greek name, because they want to live by themselves, with no one to see them. They are afraid of fortune’s gifts, even while they fear the harm she causes. Who would avoid being miserable by choosing to be miserable? [...] I don’t know whether they are trying to punish themselves for their deeds with a prison or whether their melancholy insides are swollen with black bile."


And about the island of Gorgona:

"I turn away from the cliffs, monument to a recent calamity. Here a fellow countryman was lost in a living death. For not long ago one of our youths, rich in ancestry with property and a wife to match, was driven by the furies to abandon home and society and entered a shameful retreat, a credulous exile. The unfortunate fellow thought that filth is conducive to heavenly endeavours and inflicted on himself more cruelty than would offended gods."
 
He really hits the nail on the head. You must be filled with twisted self-loathing to punish yourself like some of these monachoi do.

The monastic master plan

And what can we say about the island of Lérins? Of all the monachoi, these are the worst. They’re taking the legacy of Martin to the next level. They don’t just want a comfortable retirement home: they want to take over the entire Gallic church.

The island of St-Honorat, with the modern monastery of Lérins

Given their wealth and resources, this is frighteningly possible. One of the founders of Lérins, Honoratus, has already managed to bully his way into the bishopric of Arles. Bishop Proculus of Marseilles is just as bad; he’s been squatting in his see for years, ignoring papal rulings whenever he feels like it. He’s even been implicated in the murder of the previous bishop of Arles!

The tomb of John Cassian in the church of Saint Victor, Marseilles
And he’s now sheltering John Cassian, a smug, self-styled ‘expert’ on eastern monachoi who is trying to make the Gallic variety even more extreme. There is no end to the self-absorbed callousness one finds in his writings.

What will happen if we let such men usurp every bishopric in Gaul? Pope Celestine has recently written a letter in a desperate attempt to avert this disaster. He makes some good points about their ridiculous ‘desert fancy-dress’ of wooden staffs, and camel-hair shirts girded at the loins.

"What is this get-up doing in the Gallic Church, so that the custom of so many years and so many bishops is now turned into another form of dress? The laiety and others are to recognise us by our teaching, not our garments; by our way of life, not our costume; by purity of mind, not custom. For if we begin to follow novelties, we trample underfoot the order given to us by our fathers, to create a place of pointless superstition."

‘Pointless superstition’ – the words of the bishop of Rome himself! Not that these monachoi will pay any attention to him, since they never have in the past.

They will ignore his complaint about their silly costumes, just as they will ignore his complaints that they deny absolution to the dying, that they harbour wanted criminals, that they violate the territory of other bishops, that they impose foreign bishops on unwilling cities, that they ordain unqualified men to holy orders, and that they accept bribes for doing so.

The monachoi consider themselves above criticism by any power on earth. They are radical zealots, detached from reality, unwilling to compromise, and absolutely convinced of their own righteousness.

Heaven help us if they ever come to rule the church!



All images from Wikipedia Commons unless otherwise stated



Sunday, 19 January 2014

The highs and lows of Roman Lyon

Good times and bad, Lugdunum saw them all. 

Its first citizens were refugees, Romans expelled by the Gauls of Vienne in 43 BC. They retreated north up the Rhône to the confluence with the Saône, where they pitched camp on the rocky heights overlooking the rivers.



Happy, Abundant Colony 

This was where, by senatorial decree, a new Roman colony was to be founded. The natives called the place Lugodunon, ‘the Hill-Fort of Lug’, Lug being a Gallic deity; but the city was given the more cheerful name of Colonia Copia Felix Munatia, or ‘Happy, Abundant Colony of Munatia’, named after the main founder, Governor Lucius Munatius Plancus.

Model in Lyon's Musée Gallo-Romain, looking south
Despite inauspicious beginnings, the city came to deserve its Roman name as it prospered and grew over the following century. Four great aqueducts were built to serve the expanding population, the longest of them bringing water from more than 40 kilometres away. Temples, government offices, a forum, theatres, and all the other organs of a Roman city crowded the Fourviere Hill, as wharves and docks bustled on the river bank below.

Most impressively, Lugdunum (as the Romans came to call it) was chosen as the site of the Sanctuary of the Three Gauls, a political-religious temple complex that also hosted the annual Gallic Council. Every year, on the first day of August, tribal delegates from all over Gaul would converge on the city, making it the most important Roman centre north of the Alps.

Imperial favour 

The high point came under Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54). Lugdunum was the city of his birth, so of course he had a fondness for it, and in 48 AD he even convinced the snooty Roman Senate to open up its membership to citizens of Lugdunum (provided they met the property requirements, of course).

Claudius had a transcript of his speech to the Senate inscribed on bronze plates and sent to Lugdunum, where it was proudly displayed in the Sanctuary of the Three Gauls. There it remained for hundreds of years, until the temple itself fell into ruin and was forgotten. Eventually a vineyard grew over the site; and this is where, in 1528, a section of the long-lost tablets was accidentally ploughed up.

Image from Wikipedia Commons

The outstanding Musée Gallo-Romain in Lyon has a lot of archaeological treasures, but the Claudian Tablets are surely the greatest.

Outside the museum lie the remains of what one might call the 'theatre district' of Lugdunum - the impressive odeum and the even larger theatre, built right next to one another.

On the image to the right you can see the theatre and the odeum, along with some government offices and shops. The entire site is free to access, the only charge being for the museum itself.

The stage facades are long gone, of course, as are the roofs and upper tiers of wooden seating. Originally they would also have been largely clad in gleaming marble, long since stripped away; the only marble remaining is in the pavements of the orchestras, around which is the area demarcated for 'posh' seating - so the fancy folk didn't have to mix with hoi poloi. My favourite part of the complex is the multi-coloured marble of the odeum pavement - each different colour is a specific type of marble sourced from a different part of the empire.

The large theatre
The smaller odeum
The odeum orchestra, showing the elaborate pavement and posh seating area (they brought their own cushioned chairs)
Painted wall plaster on a staircase leading up to the odeum

The surviving theatre at Bosra in Syria gives some notion of what the theatres would have looked like in their heyday, as does the scale model in the Musée Gallo-Romain. They were built into the slope of Fourviere Hill, and the odeum even had an upper gallery behind the stage facade so the well-to-do could promenade between performances with clear views of the Alps to the east.

Model in the Musée Gallo-Romain - note the upper promenade behind the odeum facade

Imperial disfavour 

Lugdunum prospered for another 150 years before the wheel of fate brought it down.

During the civil wars of 193-197, the citizens of this ‘Happy, Abundant Colony’ made the fatal error of choosing the losing side. The final battle of the wars took place on the doorstep of the city on 19th Feburary 197.

This was remembered as one of the largest and most terrible battles ever fought between Romans, involving – even by modern estimates – upwards of 100,000 men.

When the ultimate victor, Septimius Severus, rode into the city, he was not in the mood for clemency. Lugdunum had supported his enemy, and needed to be punished.

The good days were over. With the loss of imperial favour, and later administrative reforms that reduced the city’s political importance, Lugdunum, once the heart of Roman Gaul, sank into provincial obscurity.

Twilight of the empire

As money dried up, so did the aqueducts; the city could not afford to maintain them. People began to flee the Fourviere Hill for the lower ground by the river.

Slowly the vast hilltop citadel became a haunted wasteland. Over time the marble-decked temples crumbled, roofs fell through, columns toppled into the weed-choked streets. Even the great facades of the theatres fell to ruin.

Certainly by the fifth century, the much-reduced population was huddled on the right bank of the Saône and the peninsula between the Saône and the Rhône. Their new focus was the cathedral of Saint John the Baptist.

The only places still used up on the hill were the funeral churches of Saint-Just and Saint-Irénée, outside the old city walls.

In 428 the monk Eucherius wrote In Praise of the Wilderness, a hymn glorifying the monastic island of Lérins, off the south coast of Gaul. ‘Faithful to her reputation,’ he wrote, ‘she takes in her faithful arms those who come to her from being shipwrecked in the stormy world.’

The haunting death-mask of a young girl
This idea of retreating from the ‘stormy world’ appealed strongly to religious-minded people of the time. During these twilight years of the western Roman empire, men and women sought refuge in the promise of the next world. It was in 435 that a monk named Romanus left his monastery near Lyon and ventured into the deep valleys of the Jura Mountains to become a hermit.

Eucherius was elected Bishop of Lugdunum about the same time. For him, the looming ruins of the old citadel must have been a potent reminder of earthly transience.

Yet even among the most religious, the dream of Rome lived on. Eucherius himself owned a miscellany which included not only a calendar with the traditional Roman festivals recorded alongside the Christian ones, but also lists of Roman emperors and provinces, a breviary of Roman history, and a sort of compendium of must-see sights in Rome itself.

Eucherius, who died about 449, did not live to see the end of Roman Gaul. This came in 476, with the deposition of the last western emperor. By now Lugdunum was well and truly part of a barbarian kingdom, ruled over by the Burgundians from their court in Geneva.

Ursus ‘of good memory’ 

But still the people of Lugdunum considered themselves Roman. For another generation at least, Christians buried their dead in the graveyards of Saint-Just or Saint-Irénée and dutifully inscribed the tomb slabs with the date of death – giving not the regnal year of the Burgundian king, but the names of the eastern Roman consuls, as though they were still a full part of the empire.

IN THIS TOMB RESTS URSUS OF GOOD MEMORY, WHO LIVED IN PEACE ?40 YEARS [AND] DIED ON THE SECOND DAY BEFORE THE NONES OF MARCH IN THE YEAR AFTER THE CONSULATES OF THE MOST ESTEEMED ANASTASIUS AND RUFUS (6th March 493

This grave slab feels as though it is teetering between worlds. On the one hand, it is so Roman: the tidy Latin script, the traditional formula, the reference to the consuls. But then there is the Christian imagery of the birds and the twisting vines, and the little slips in grammar (bone for bonae; annus for annos; obiet for obiit).

Most telling, though, is the way the grave is dated by the previous year’s consuls. The consuls were officially appointed on 1st January every year; in 493 they were Albinus and Eusebius. Ursus died in March, and when he was buried news of these latest appointments had still not reached the city.

For Ursus and his fellow-citizens of Lugdunum, the empire, now based in distant Constantinople, was well and truly beyond the horizon. What we now call 'the Middle Ages' had begun.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A Kentish jaunt

It’s odd that you can live for three decades in a country the size of England and still never have visited whole corners of it. 

Kent is one of those corners for me. Last week I ventured down to the mysterious lands beyond the M25 with my brother, a fellow Roman nut.

Cantia incognita

A typical Kentish scene
Growing up in Worcestershire, we heard all manner of tales about the Kentish folk. People spoke of them as Pliny and Martianus Capella had once spoken of the Blemmyes of Nubia: ‘They have no heads,’ they said, ‘and their eyes and mouths are on their chests.’ Some claimed that no such place as ‘Kent’ even existed, or if it did, it was probably in France.

So it was with great excitement and trepidation that we hurled ourselves over the Dartford Crossing, half-expecting to fall off the edge of the world.

As it turned out, Kent is lovely, even in the gloomy greyness of January. We only had one full day to explore, and had a few places we definitely wanted to see. For the most part these weren’t the usual tourist sites, which was useful, since a lot of those places are closed on winter weekdays.

Landing site

First stop was the beach between Walmer and Deal, the (probable) landing site of Caesar in his two expeditions to Britain. Nowadays this is a heavily stepped shingle beach that feels very exposed to both seaward and landward weather, hardly ideal for a massed landing of the two legions that Caesar brought over from Gaul in 55 BC.

When Caesar returned in 54 BC, he brought five legions; the later Claudian conquest involved about 40,000 troops, including both legionaries and auxiliaries.

Compare this with the size of the Norman invasion army in 1066, which probably numbered fewer than 10,000 men - the size of Caesar's initial 'scouting' force. Yet with this tiny army, Duke William was essentially able to conquer England after a single pitched battle. This highlights one of the most striking things about early medieval warfare, i.e. how small-scale everything got after the collapse of the empire.

Anyway, back to the Romans. The landing site was probably different in Caesar’s time, though, as this part of the Kentish coast has shifted and changed a lot over the centuries. The beach may have been sand instead of shingle, and sheltered somewhat by sand bars off the coast. In any case, Caesar chose the same site for his full-scale invasion the following year.


There's a modest monument to Caesar close to the beach, an unassuming flat sculpture with his head in profile. As you can see from the picture above, it could do with a bit of a scrub.

Hillforts

It was during his second invasion that Caesar ventured properly inland, fighting a skirmish next to a river usually identified as the Great Stour outside Canterbury, and capturing a hillfort that is commonly thought to be Bigbury. It’s the strongest contender, at any rate.

View from the Stour - the slight rise on the left skyline is the optimistically named 'Bigbury' hillfort

There isn’t much of archaeological interest to see at Bigbury now. The summit is occupied by leafy lanes and idyllic houses and gardens, and few of the surviving ramparts are accessible, though some were excavated in the 1970s. It was useful to visit the site, though, just to get some idea of its size and setting. As hillforts go it’s not an especially formidable one, which is why Caesar apparently captured it so easily (having 20,000 legionaries probably also helped).

The south gate at Oldbury - from this imposing entrance, the path runs up a narrow channel with ramparts on either side

Much more impressive was Oldbury in west Kent, just off the M26. This much larger hillfort dates from around the same time and may also have been captured by Caesar’s troops. Nowadays the entire hill is laced with tracks and bridlepaths snaking through dense woodland, so it’s hard to get a sense of the overall scale from the ground – that is, until you find yourself confronted by the surviving ramparts, which are still intimidating after two thousand years. When first constructed, even grizzled Roman legionaries must have found them a fearsome prospect.

Museum

A slave about to strangle her mistress...?
Canterbury Roman Museum was also a highlight, with its fine reconstruction scenes and selection of genuinely interesting artefacts. I've added a selection of photos from the museum below.

My own favourite items were the most mundane: a messy chi-rho scratched on the bottom of a dish, and an iron hinge-pivot that was found in situ during an excavation of one of the Canterbury city gates.

(I didn't know I could get so excited about a hinge-pivot, but being trained as an archaeologist does weird things to you.)

There’s clearly much more Roman stuff to see in Kent. Two sites I really want to visit, both sadly closed this time, are Richborough Roman Fort and Lullingstone Roman Villa – they’ll be top of my list on the next trip. If you have any other recommendations, leave a comment below!

The early Christian chi-rho symbol inscribed on bottom of dish

The wonderful hinge-pivot

If you squint, you might be able to make out the tiny chi-rho inscribed in the bowl of the lower spoon

Roman mouse

A late Roman soldier
Roman Canterbury at its height in the second century

Anglo-Saxon Canterbury, c. 700 - note the remains of the theatre, and the new cathedral complex in the distance