Mamaea's Travels in the East
For there flowed to [Antioch] like rivers to the sea, all the soldiers, all the bowmen and horsemen and the horses, both those of the fighting men and those carrying burdens, and every camel and every band of soldiers, so that the ground was covered with men standing and men sitting; the walls were covered with shields hung up and spears and helmets were to be seen everywhere.... This is how the great orator, Libanius, described the situation in his native city as soldiers from all the Roman provinces gathered in the eastern capital, in a force to match the reported size of the Persian invasion.
The catch is that all these troops were assembling more than a hundred years later, in 360 AD, when the Emperor Constantius II was preparing yet another Persian campaign. For the war that Severus Alexander was about to begin would continue, with only intervals of comparative peace, for more than 400 years. Imagine, if you would, a war like Europe's Hundred Years' War, but four times as long – with all the concomitant destruction, slaughter, betrayals, revolts, and plagues, that would mark such endless battles. And, really, in the end, it was all for naught: war between the Romans and Sassanian Persians would drain the lifeblood and treasures of both empires – until the rivalry was finally settled in favour of neither, but by the Arab conquest of the east.
Of course, in the years 230/231 AD, one had reason to be optimistic, even if the whole Roman empire was in a state of complete upheaval. As Alexander and Mamaea journeyed eastward, they collected additional large forces from the Illyrian provinces. The Roman legions were brought up to full strength. The cost of raising the extra troops, however, meant that Alexander had to reverse Caracalla’s double pay for the soldiers – a necessary policy but one that stored up trouble for the future. Still, it must have seemed worthwhile: all who saw the army of Alexander, we are told (and we may well believe):
immediately realized the power of Rome. In short, [Alexander] made every effort to appear worthy of his name and even to surpass the Macedonian king.And now, if ever, he may have made that puerile boast that there should be a great difference between a Roman and a Macedonian Alexander.
Unlikely words from an unwarlike emperor. Herodian says that he was "naturally gentle and docile," and that "since childhood he had been brought up in conditions of peace and had always been attached to the comforts of the city." It was more in character that he first tried to negotiate with the Persians rather than fight. He sent letters to Ardashir from Rome, and, when this didn't work, he tried again as soon as he reached Antioch:
[sending]another diplomatic mission to the Persians to discuss a peaceful alliance, in the hopes of persuading them or frightening them by his actual presence. But the barbarian king sent back the representatives empty-handed.
Now, he really needed Good Fortune, and she appeared to be at hand. The goddess Fortuna ('Tyche' in Greek) was a colossal bronze statue made for the city of Antioch in the early 3rd-century BC, but, in these times, she took on an entirely new significance: the traditional gods had become much more dubious entities, and of much less significance than the universally recognized and overriding power of Chance. Her statue disappeared long ago: the image at the top of the page shows a Roman marble copy which gives us some idea of how she looked: now magnify it into a bronze female colossus! The goddess was not just Fortune in the abstract, but the fortune of this particular city, Antioch on the Orontes. Her turreted mural crown represents the actual city walls, and the boy river-god swimming out from under her feet is the river Orontes.
I think she was placed at the main city gates.
This medieval parchment is a copy of an ancient Roman map (probably 4th-century AD). Obviously, the artist had never seen the Fortune of Antioch, but he had heard of her: he drew a huge female statue seated on a throne, with a nude boy standing next to her. She is clearly set within the walls and near a great gateway. So, Fortune might well have been the first sight that greeted the imperial eyes as Alexander and Mamaea entered Antioch.
But, as an ancient saying goes, 'What depends on the chances of Fortune is very rarely secure'.
Alexander at War
This was the plan.
The army was divided into three columns, the first having orders to reconnoitre the northern region and, marching through Armenia, attack the Persians in the north. Armenia then, by the way, was not where Armenia is today, but quite far to the south, roughly in the Kurdish-inhabited mountains of modern Turkey and Iraq. This part of the plan made good sense as the Armenian king was a Parthian, related to the dynasty recently deposed by the Persians. He was now a bitter enemy of the Persians, and a Roman ally. The second column probably intended to sail down the Euphrates from Dura Europos to attack the Persians from the southern flank, and later to reunite with the main force of the third column. The third column, the cream of the army, was led by Alexander, and presumably would have entered Persian territory by a central route, meeting up with the southern column once the territory between them was under control.
But, first, the Emperor made a great detour through the desert and came with part of his army to Palmyra.
This time, Mamaea did not go with him.
Perhaps she felt that, being almost 50 years old, she wasn't in shape to prance through the Syrian desert. And, although Antioch was a city of legendary pleasures, I cannot believe she was impressed by that aspect of the city...
...where life was a continuous round of social festivities. So little do [Antiochenes]take exercise, but so much do they enjoy luxury, that they use their gymnasiums as baths, and when they bathe they anoint themselves with costly oils and perfumes, every day, as if it is a feast day. And when they’re not at the baths, they practically live in the eating halls, stuffing themselves with rich foods and wine for the better part of the day.In keeping with her serious side, we know of only one thing that she did at Antioch and that was absolutely extraordinary: she invited Origen, the most famous Christian teacher of the time to visit her.
Origen, a native of Alexandria, was born of pagan parents (his Egyptian name means 'son of Horus') who converted to Christianity: his father later lost his life in a persecution. Perhaps inspired by his father's martyrdom, Origin adopted a relentlessly ascetic way of life. While still a young man, in an excess of frenzy against the temptations of the flesh, he castrated himself.
This was not a good idea. Besides the obvious disadvantage, it proved a stumbling-block to his career: tradition opposed the ordination of a eunuch as priest. So, he taught instead, attaining such fame that pagans as well as Christians were attracted to his lectures. Where he differed from most Christian teachers is that he was able to accommodate Christian revelation to Greek philosophy. Unsurprisingly, his bishop did not agree: he complained that Origen's work was more fit for a pagan philosopher than a simple follower of Christ. One sees something of his point: Origen believed in an innumerable succession of worlds, in the pre-existence and reincarnation of the soul: if Christ cannot win a human soul in this life, he defers it to the next.
In Alexandria, he was in ecclesiastical disgrace.
So, by the time Mamaea arrived in the East, Origen had moved to the easier religious environment of Caesarea on the coast of Palestine. Here, he founded a school that soon surpassed that at Alexandria in renown.
When the Empress invited Origen, she must have considered him best qualified to explain to her the tenets of Christianity in a language she could appreciate. That he was a eunuch was no obstacle; it might even have reminded her of the eunuch priests of the Syrian goddess and the ecstatic rites in the Emesa in her youth. His teaching was also not utterly opposed to the ideas and values of pagan society. Discussing those who ascribe divinity to the sun and moon, as did the priests of Elagabal, he declared that, although they erred, it was a stage in the process whose culmination was the coming of Christ.
Eusebius, a later bishop of Caesarea [in the early Christian empire (314-340 AD)] records their meeting in his Ecclesiastical History
Origen's fame was now universal, so as to reach the ears of the Emperor's mother, Mamaea by name, a religious woman if ever there was one. She set great store on securing a sight of the man, and on testing that understanding of divine things which was the wonder of all. She was then staying at Antioch, and summoned him to her presence with a military escort. And when he had stayed with her for some time, and shown her very many things that were for the glory of the Lord and the excellence of the divine teaching, he hastened back to his accustomed duties.This brief report does scant justice to an event without parallel in the history of the Empire -- an official invitation to a Christian leader to confer with the Emperor's mother, who held more effective authority than the Emperor himself. Like her aunt, Julia Domna, Mamaea was interested in ideas, and ready to listen no matter where they came from. While the Christians with whom Julia Domna came in contact repelled her by opposing faith to reason, Origen was able to link revelation to philosophy and fit it into the familiar background of Greek culture.
What would have happened, one wonders, if Mamaea and Origen had been given the time to collaborate, and the new religion had attained recognition in these tolerant times? It was, in any event, a momentous meeting and reason enough not to go with Alexander to Palmyra.
Alexander in Palmyra
As far as we know, this was the first time that Roman legions were at the city. What were they doing there? Was it to warn the Palmyrans not to treat with the Persians - as they might have been tempted to do? For the Persians had already conquered Charax, the port on the Persian Gulf (near modern Basra) which was the departure point for the fleets sailing to India -- perhaps choking off the Palmyran end of the Silk Route. Of course, it might have been merely to give his soldiers training under field conditions. We simply don’t know; but it does seem that Palmyra’s balancing act between East and West was over.
The city’s leading citizen, J. Aurelius Zenobius, gave the emperor a royal welcome to the city, for which he got his statue, raised high above the crowds in the Great Colonnade, and an inscription in Greek and Palmyrene which tells us what he did:
Statue of Julius Zabdilah (Greek: Zenobios), son of Malkho, son of Malkho, son of Nassum, who was general of [Palmyra] at the time of the coming of the divine Emperor Alexander; who assisted Rutilius Crispinus, the general in chief, during his stay here, and when he brought the legions here ... It is why the senate and People have raised this statue) to him to honour him.This Zenobius, you will recall, is the father of the future queen Zenobia. He will almost certainly have attached his troops to the Roman army and participated in the invasion of Mesopotamia; if he did, it is only too likely that many of them died there. The emperor’s campaign, which began splendidly, soon turned into disaster: as the second column advanced deeper into enemy country, the Persians unexpectedly attacked. Outnumbered, the Romans were unable to stem the attack of the Persian cavalry; firing their arrows from all sides at the encircled soldiers, they massacred the whole army. It was a staggering disaster for Rome.
Alexander had failed to link up with them.
Perhaps it was due to fear -- no doubt he wanted to avoid risking his own life and limb for the Roman empire. Or his mother may have restrained him because of her womanly timidity and excessive love for her son ... convincing him that it was other people's job to take risks for him, not his to get involved in the battle.But Herodian, in blaming Mamaea, forgot that she was not with the Emperor: in 232/233, she was still in Antioch.
Now Alexander fell seriously ill, as had the greater part of his army. The Mesopotamian climate is often insalubrious, to say the least.
He refused to endure his indisposition and the stifling air any longer. The entire army was sick and the troops from Illyricum especially were seriously ill and dying, being accustomed to moist, cool air and to more food than they were being issued.Alexander led his own force back to Antioch, and many of them perished too, while the first column, caught between the mountains and plains (somewhere between modern Mosul and Kirkuk) was almost totally destroyed and only a handful of those who started the march managed to reach Antioch.
Both Alexander's judgment and his luck had failed, with the result that of the three ... army groups he had lost the greater part in a series of different disasters, disease, war and cold.
Despite the reality of "this terrible disaster, which no one likes to remember", Alexander took on the titles of Persicus Maximus (Conqueror of Persia) and Parthicus Maximus (ditto of Parthia?!?), and now devoted himself to enjoying the pleasures which Antioch offered. He -- or was it Mamaea? -- attempted to restore the morale of the soldiers and calm their anger with a generous distribution of money, believing this to be the only remedy which would restore his popularity with them. For a time, it seemed to work.
But, then, dispatches arrived from the governors in Illyria that the Germans were on the march across the Rhine and Danube, devastating the Roman empire. The presence of Alexander and the entire army, they said, was essential.
As another old saying has it, 'Fortune is not content with hurting anyone once'
Next, Mamaea's Last Posting.