27 February 2007

More Uppity Women: the 4 Julia's (Part III)

The Third Julia, Julia Soaemias

How would a mother feel whose elder daughter has just been brutally murdered and her body thrown into an open sewer along with the mutilated remains of her grandson?

Would she have felt any differently if that grandson had been Emperor of Rome?

But what if he were the Emperor Elagabalus?

When we left Julia Maesa, you may remember, she was sitting in the Senate and speaking up in debate. She was also watching her imperial grandson with growing anxiety during the three years, nine months and four days of his rule.

Elagabalus was not interested in running the empire. Provincial duties bored him: once in Rome, he never left the city again. He had no enthusiam for the army or for conquest: “I do not want titles derived from war and bloodshed,” he supposedly said. “It is enough for me that you call me Pius (pious) and Felix (happy, prosperous)." What he did care about was the Sun-god, Elagabal, whose priest he was (and by whose name he is known). And he wanted to make Elagabal the first god of the empire, placed high above all other deities. Accordingly, he brought the black stone that he worshipped from Emesa to Rome:

A six horse chariot carried the stone
[pictured left in its Emesan temple], the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer. Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses' reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

Instructions were issued to every Roman magistrate or person conducting public sacrifices that Elagabal's name should precede any other gods invoked by the officiating priests.

Next, he built an enormous and magnificent temple for his god near the imperial palace, on the Palatine Hill - a remarkable achievement in such a short reign - on a site perhaps usurped from Jupiter. He took the title of High Priest of The Unconquered Sun, Sol Invictus Elagabal (relegating the traditional dignity of Pontifex Maximus to a footnote).

The photo (© M. Prins & J. Lendering) shows the massive terrace and foundations, all that’s left of this vast temple (the little church to the right, dedicated to the Christian martyr, Saint Sebastian, marks the spot). After Elagabalus' death the temple was once again dedicated to Jupiter and the black stone shipped back to Syria.

The Roman elite looked at Elagabalus askance. They had every reason.

I will not describe the barbaric chants which [he], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to Elagabal, or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up a lion, a monkey, and a snake in the god's temple, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites, while he invariably wore innumerable amulets.

The ‘Assyrian’, as he became known, was on a slippery slope.

The offence consisted, not in his introducing a foreign god into Rome or in his exalting him in very strange ways, but in his placing him even before Jupiter himself and causing himself to be voted his priest, also in his circumcising himself and abstaining from swine's flesh, on the ground that his devotion would thereby be purer. He had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether, but that desire was prompted solely by his effeminacy..

Clothes make the man

He wouldn’t wear the Roman toga, but was "frequently seen even in public clad in the barbaric [long silk] dress which the Syrian priests use, and he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech."

No doubt he was only honouring his god, but Maesa was extremely worried when she saw this, and continually tried to persuade him to change into Roman clothes. In Rome, she knew, this kind of finery was more appropriate for women than men. And it led, of course, to salacious tittle-tattle.

[Elagabalus] used to have the story of Paris played in his house, and he himself would take the role of Venus, and suddenly drop his clothing to the ground and fall naked on his knees, one hand on his breast, the other before his private parts, his buttocks projecting meanwhile and thrust back in front of his partner in depravity.

The ‘Assyrian’ now plumbed the lascivious depths:

He gathered together in a public building all the harlots from ... places of amusement and from the public baths, and delivered a speech to them, as one might to soldiers, calling them "comrades" and discoursing upon various kinds of postures and debaucheries. Afterwards he invited to a similar gathering procurers, catamites collected together from all sides, and lascivious boys and young men. And whereas he had appeared before the harlots in a woman's costume and with protruding bosom, he met the catamites in the garb of a boy who is exposed for prostitution.

Shameful, Lawless, and Cruel!

..when addressed with the usual salutation, "My Lord Emperor, Hail!" he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon [the beautiful athlete] with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: "Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady."

I could go on, but we’re not that kind of blog.

"No one could endure to tell or hear of " what Elagabalus got up to, an ancient author insists - who then proceeds to tell us every bit of it. For those who wish to know, all the texts are preserved on a fascinating (alas, no longer updated) website celebrating the decadent emperor, The Electronic Library of the Bath House

He wasn't just a wimp and did put his foot down at times, taking a dim view, for instance, of lèse-majesté: Although the emperor seemed to spend all his time dancing and performing sacrifices, he executed many distinguished and wealthy men, after information was laid that they disapproved and made fun of his way of life. No third century emperor, it seems, could fail to leave a trail of dead bodies.

To all appearances, too, he batted both ways. He married a woman from the most aristocratic family in Rome, in order, as he said, that he might sooner become a father. He soon divorced her and married the Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa, thereby most flagrantly violating Roman religious law. “I did it," he was purported to have said, "in order that godlike children might spring from me, the high priest, and from her, the high-priestess." However, he divorced her, too, and married a second, a third, a fourth, and still another; after that, he returned to Severa, his no-longer-virgin Vestal.

But true love lay elsewhere: [Elagabalus] was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. The husband of this 'woman' was Hierocles, a charioteer, and ... his affection for this 'husband' was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion. He wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter.

Julia Maesa moved quickly. She had another grandson waiting in the wings, her younger daughter's son, Alexianus (now renamed Alexander). At her urging, Elagabalus brought his cousin ...before the senate, and having caused Maesa and Soaemias to take their places on either side of him, formally adopted [Alexander]as his son; and he congratulated himself on becoming suddenly the father of so large a boy— though he himself was not much older than the other.

Alexander was about 13 ½ years old at the time, Elagabalus 17.

As Elagabalus’ popularity drooped, Alexander’s rose. The stage is set for drama between their mothers, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea. But this post is already overly long. To be continued (tomorrow if I can).

Update (23 May 2008): There is an interesting dedication from Woerden, The Netherlands, that shows the Syrian Sun-god was already known on the other side of the empire more than a half century before the reign of Elagabalus. Published yesterday by LacusCurtius & Livius.Org

Pro Salute Imperatoris Caesaris Titi Aelii HAdriani
Antonini Avgusti Pii
BASSVS Signifer COHortis
For the good health of the emperor caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus
Antoninus Augustus Pius,
to the invincible sun Elaga-
bal and Minerva has

Lucius Terentius
Bassus, standard bearer of the third
unit of Breuci [erected this altar].

19 February 2007

Cybele and the Silk Road

I couldn't resist.

This silver medallion enriched with gold in relief is such an amazing image(© Thierry Olivier /musée Guimet), just one object in the astonishing exhibition at the Guimet Museum in Paris, Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés.

The show includes the famous "Bactrian gold" discovered in northern Afghanistan shortly before Soviet forces moved into the country in 1979. These stunning finds survived the Soviet occupation and later civil war locked in the vaults of the National Bank in Kabul, where they were "rediscovered" after the US-led invasion in October 2001. There is also a rich display of glass from Alexandria and Indian carved ivories excavated at Bagram (sadly, better known today for its military base and prison) and from Aï Khanoum, north of Kabul, almost certainly the historical city of Alexandria on the Oxus, founded on the ruins of a Persian town after Alexander the Great's conquest of the area in the late fourth century BC.

The medallion - 10 inches across - comes from the 3rd Century BC temple in Aï Khanoum ("Moon Lady" in Uzbek): the goddess Cybele rides with a winged female divinity on a chariot drawn by a pair of lions across a mountainous tract. A priest in a long robe and pointed cap holds an umbrella over their heads, while another priest burns incense on a fire altar. The Sun-god and the crescent moon and a star hang in the sky. The picture is Greek but the style is strongly Oriental, a beautiful combination of east and west in art.

The temple, on the other hand, is distinctly eastern in form, and decidedly non-Greek in its conception. It was built on the Zoroastrian model, with massive, closed walls instead of the open column-circled structure of Greek temples. So, who really are these deities? Is the Sun-god the Greek Helios or a manifestation of the Zoroastrian Ahura-Mazda (Zoroaster, the religious teacher of the sixth century B.C., is thought to have lived in northern Afghanistan)? And has this Cybele, originally a mountain mother goddess from Anatolia, assimilated with a local 'Moon Lady'? Such things happen in Afghanistan, aptly called the "roundabout of the ancient world".

What is the Palmyra connection?

Aï Khanoum (a big dot on this small map) seems more of a strategic site than a trading centre. It lies on a high mound at the confluence of the Oxus and Kokcha rivers, with a moat and massive rampart with enormous bastion towers to protect the vulnerable northeast entrance. Masonry platforms to hold heavy ladders and siege machinery at the foot of the towers speak of intense military activity; of riches within, and enemies without. From the citadel on top of the mound, one can see the plains of Central Asia stretching away into the distance. Alexander spent two years on these plains and suffered numerous setbacks at the hands of mounted horsemen roaming the steppe. He must have been impressed by the strategic position of this tract of land and it may be that he himself ordered the establishment of a colony to protect the defile, an open back-door to the prosperous new province of Bactria. More details on the city here.

The riches of Bactria depended on the Silk Road, one route of which passed through the finger of the Wakhan Corridor and ran south of Aï Khanoum to Balkh where it met up with the northern route from Merv (now in Turkmenistan: the middle dot on the map). Two stelae written in the Palmyrene language were found at Merv, which shows that Palmyran merchants were travelling at least that far from their Syrian desert home. But a much earlier Afghan link comes even closer to home. Some 200 miles south of Aï Khanoum, in Laghman Province, there is an Ashokan Edict written in Aramaic (the official language of the Persian Empire).

What's an Ashokan Edict?

Ashoka was a king of the Mauryan Dynasty which had united the petty kingdoms in India shortly after Alexander the Great left the subcontinent. In 305 BC, the Mauryans brought much of Afghanistan, too, under their sway, when Seleucus I traded it away for 500 elephants and an Indian princess (possibly the best land deal before Manhattan island was sold to the Dutch). The renowned Mauryan King Ashoka, who reigned from 268-233 B.C., was a fervent Buddhist. He sent messengers to explain his new faith to every part of his empire, and even to the Greek monarchs of the west. He had the rules of Buddhism engraved on rocks and stone pillars. The western-most of these 'Edicts' (as they are known) are from Afghanistan, a good illustration of Afghanistan's traditional role as the crossroads between east and west.

Afghanistan and Palmyra

Two of Ashoka's rock inscriptions were found in the old city of Kandahar, inscribed in both Aramaic and Greek. They spell out his precepts for a life devoted to charity and compassion. The Edict from Laghman Province, which is written only in Aramaic, also contains the phrase:

"At a distance of 200 'bows' this way to (the place) called Tadmor."

Tadmor is the Aramaic - and Palmyrene - name for the city of Palmyra (third big dot on the left), and the boulder on which this was written stood beside the highway which led from India to the Middle East.

One day I hope to blog about Hellenistic Palmyra (aka Tadmor), only recently starting to come to light. It is already a town with some pretensions: large mudbrick structures built on solid limestone foundations, some showing traces of wall paintings and stucco decoration. This may have been the settlement, incidentally, burnt by Mark Antony in 41 BC.

Which brings this post (and the last two) almost full circle and to a close.

PS: you'll find wonderful photo's of the Bactrian gold on the PHDiva blog,
here, here, here, and here.

15 February 2007

Cleopatra Thea or Cleopatra VII?

When Zenobia was hailed as the 'New Cleopatra', which Cleopatra was meant?

Cleopatra Thea (c. 164-121 BC), whom she claimed as her ancestress, and about whom we wrote last week, or

Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC)? Cleopatra VII may have herself recalled the earlier queen in her titles (shown on this coin from Antioch, issued jointly with Mark Antony in 36-33 BC): BACILICCA KLEOPATRA QEA NEWTEPA Queen Cleopatra Thea (or Goddess) the Younger.

If this does refer to Cleopatra Thea, it is her last trace in history. Whereas (as I wrote) statues of Cleopatra VII were still being cared for in Egypt well into the Christian period. It's one thing for Zenobia to remember her own ancestors, quite another for others to do so too. So, I'd bet a silver tetradrachm that those who praised her as the 'New Cleopatra' were harking back to Cleopatra VII.

I'd like to hear your views. Vote: Cleopatra Thea or Cleopatra VII (or indeed, Cleopatra II ... but I'm not going to be side-tracked into that, not now).

Next week, I'll return to Julia Soaemias and her son, the bizarre Elagabalus.

07 February 2007

Cleopatra Thea

"Would Zenobia, who wanted to be Empress of the East, want to explicitly associate herself with a woman [Cleopatra VII] who ALMOST did the same thing, but was ultimately defeated by Rome? And wouldn't Cleopatra Thea, a much bigger figure in Syrian history, be more advantageous to claim descent from anyway?"

A good question posed by Frank and one I wasn't sure I could answer. So, I turned to Prof. Janet Johnson of the Oriental Institute in Chicago for an expert opinion. Janet, as mentioned before, gave a wonderful lecture on Cleopatra as CEO: Bureaucracy and Scandal in the Hostile Takeover of a First-Century (BCE) Multinational -- not only a great title but an elegant disentangling of Roman propaganda from the historical and archaeological records. She kindly replies,

I do believe Cleopatra [VII] had a grand vision of what she could accomplish, with assistance, and if she had succeeded, she would certainly have been hailed as a heroine. But she didn't. And I do think it quite likely that [Cleopatra Thea], who married into the Syrian royal family, may have been much more important in the eyes and psyches of later Eastern Mediterranean people. Cleopatra VII herself stressed these connections, implying that the earlier Cleopatra was already seen as an important factor in the dynamics of the day.

A crucial bit of evidence is the Great Cleopatra's change of cult title when, late in 37 or early in 36 BC, Marc Antony granted her the Roman provinces of Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia. She proclaimed this to be Year 1 of a new era and changed her title to Κλεοπατρα Θεα Νεωτερα. This can be read either as 'the younger goddess' or 'the younger Cleopatra Thea'. If the latter, of course, she is expressly recalling Cleopatra Thea's rule over the Seleucid Empire. Sometimes, her coins add the word Φιλοπατρισ, which means 'the country-loving [goddess]', the country implied being Syria. So it does seem that Cleopatra VII was stressing the shared Macedonian roots of the Egyptian and Seleucid Greeks, particularly the ruling classes, in a bid to legitimize the territorial restoration of a greater Ptolemaic Empire.

So far, so good.

It's fair to assume that Cleopatra VII viewed her ancestor in a positive light (and, of course, she knew much more of her story than we do today). Obviously, she would have approved of Cleopatra Thea's strong character -- most Macedonian princesses were unbelievably feisty -- but I'm not so sure that many others would have agreed...

Rather, they might have argued that her love of power seems to have overridden natural affection: she contrived the assassination of her husband, Demetrius II; she murdered one of her sons, and tried to murder her other son, when they stood in the way of her ambition.

What do we know about Cleopatra Thea?

Husband # 1

Cleopatra Thea’s father, Ptolemy VI of Egypt, was clever at the intrigues that all his family were known for. So, when a pretender claimed the Seleucid throne of Syria from his cousin, Demetrius I, of course Ptolemy sent an army to help him overthrow the reigning king. The pretender was Alexander Balas – a good-looking young man, probably of base origin, but passing himself off as a son of an earlier king. Demetrius duly fell to the combined assault and Balas was installed as king. Surprisingly, Ptolemy gave him Cleopatra Thea in marriage. Perhaps he thought that if she was even half as good as her hyper-feisty mother (Cleopatra II), she’d be the real power behind the Seleucid throne.

Husband # 2 (Part I)

In two years' time, another claimant to the Syrian throne appeared, the young Demetrius II (son of Demetrius I). He threatens to invade Syria and Ptolemy enters the country with a strong force, ostensibly to support his son-in-law; in reality, he was out to regain some old Ptolemaic possessions. Ballas, who can do without such 'help', attempts to assassinate Ptolemy (or is he framed to cover Ptolemy's betrayal?). Ballas flees to Cilicia, leaving his wife behind. Having repossessed his daughter, Ptolemy transfers her, as if she were a piece of furniture to Demetrius, who ascends the throne in turn. Balas returns with a new army but is routed in battle. He flees to the protection of an Arab chieftain in a neighbouring territory. In the battle, Ptolemy had been thrown from his horse and five days later he dies. Before he died, he had the satisfaction of seeing the head of his late son-in law, which had been sent in by the Arab chief.

Demetrius is not popular. His capital, Antioch, rises against him. The rising is brutally put down and a large part of the city is burnt. The Syrians are cowed, but nemesis is at hand. Demetrius enters Mesopotamia in an attempt to retake it from the Parthians. Though initially successful, he is soon captured by the Parthians and is consequently off the scene for a while.

Husband # 3

Antiochus VII, Demetrius's younger brother, is proclaimed King and marries Cleopatra Thea (even though her husband is presumably still alive). In 130 BC, he attacks Mesopotamia and reconquers Babylonia. The desperate Parthian King releases Demetrius II to stir revolt among the Syrians. Antiochus is caught, outnumbered by the Parthian army, and killed. The Parthian king immediately sends cavalry to recapture Demetrius but is too late.

Husband # 2 (Part II)

Demetrius regains both his throne and Cleopatra Thea. Foolishly, he invades Egypt but botches the job. In revenge, the new Egyptian king, Ptolemy Euergetes, discovers a son of Balas known as Antiochus Zabinas (is he really the son of Balas? does anyone care?). Zabinas defeats Demetrius, who retreats to the border only to find that Cleopatra Thea has closed the gates of his intended refuge. He boards a ship to flee, but is killed on her orders.

The Co-regency(125 BC to 121 BC)

Cleopatra decides to rule in her own right and kills her eldest son (by Demetrius) when he is rash enough to put forward his own claim. She shares the throne instead with his younger brother, the 15-year old Antiochus Grypus (‘hook-nosed’). Grypus proves to be less and less pliable. Things come to a head when Cleopatra offers him a cup of (poisoned) wine when he returns from the hunt. Grypus has a hunch this is not maternal concern. He insists she drink the wine. She drinks. She dies.

End of story.

It would not be difficult to deconstruct this tale of overweening female ambition. At the very least, we may doubt the story of the poisoned wine. Grypus went on to demonstrate the superiority of male rule by spending his time feasting and writing verses on poisonous herbs and snakes. This is probably how the poison entered her story and, since it fits the stereotype of the 'evil queen', it stayed. Anyway, after Cleopatra Thea's death, it was all down-hill for the Seleucids. As the historian Peter Green puts it, "If the word 'degenerate' has any meaning at all the later Seleucids and Ptolemids were degenerate: selfish, greedy, murderous, weak, stupid, vicious,sensual, vengeful....

By these standards, Cleopatra Thea may be judged to have played a good game with the bad hand of husbands dealt her. Still, we must admit that history has not been kind to her name. I am only surprised that we hear nothing of sexual misdeeds, an easy charge against powerful females. Certainly, it was made against the Great Cleopatra: Cleopatra [VII] was of insatiable passion and insatiable avarice; she was swayed often by laudable ambition, but often by overweening effrontery. Her sexual appetite and hot Oriental depravity became staples of Roman propaganda, as the lamp illustrated at the top of this post vividly demonstrates.

So which Cleopatra did Zenobia choose to emulate?

After the battle of Actium, the victorious Octavian had many images of last queen of Egypt destroyed. A man named Archibios, probably a priest, paid him the enormous sum of 2,000 talents to save the statues of Cleopatra in Egypt, and Plutarch (in his Life of Antony) tells us that Octavian took the money and agreed. A graffito on a temple at Philae shows that her statues were still being cared for as late as AD 373, when Egypt, and indeed the whole of the Roman Empire was officially Christian. So the cult of Cleopatra as divine ruler of Egypt survived into late antiquity. In fact, a 7th century Coptic bishop, John of Nikui, remembers Cleopatra as The most illustrious and wise of women: this suggests that her memory in Egypt was kept in a most unRoman way. Finally, the Arab historian Al-Masudi, who died in 956 A.D., wrote of her, that "She was the last of the wise ones of Greece."

I'd put my money on Cleopatra VII.

05 February 2007

More on the Pagan Revival

The Guardian reports on the ceremony at the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus.

But would a high-priestess have officiated there in pagan times?

03 February 2007

All Roads Lead To ... Emesa

An odd coincidence

I was wondering what had happened on the site of Sun-god's temple before the Church of San Silvestro in Capite was built in 761 AD. Such an important pagan temple would hardly have been left alone, untransformed and unChristianized, for almost 450 years. Many hours of fruitless searching later, I still have no answer ... but there are some curious points in the history so far.

The St Silvestro honoured by this church was Bishop of Rome from 314 - 335 AD. An auspicious time, for, in 312, the Emperor Constantine had beaten his co-emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, an epochal victory won under the vision of the flaming cross. Constantine liked to spread such stories: earlier, Apollo-Sol Invictus had appeared to him in battle with omens of success and, accordingly, his coins boasted that the Emperor's companion was the Unconquered Sun. He now switched sides and signs and, the following year, the Christians were granted toleration and favour. Silvester thus was the first Pope to reign without fear of persecution. A good time to be Pope, made better still by legend and "the most famous forgery in history", the Donation of Constantine. He died on 31 December 335. Christ's birthday is first known to have been celebrated on December 25 in 336, so it seems likely that Silvester had fixed the date of the Christian event. In other words, Silvester usurped the Sun-god's birthday. And would eventually be rewarded with his church on the spot. QE(possibly)D.

Which came first?

When you enter the church of San Silvestro in Capite, the first side chapel on the left contains the relic of a fragment of the head of St John the Baptist. That is the head that presumably gives the church its designation in Capite. By a strange coincidence, however, the area around the church was known in the Middle Ages as in capite domorum (the head of the houses). Did the church take its name from the locality, and the head (so to speak) followed later? It is said that Pope Innocent II (1130-1143) gave this relic to the church. Yet, when Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, wrote his Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints in 1275, he knew nothing about this venerable gift nor any part of the head's presence in Rome. On the contrary, he tells a long-winded story of how the Baptist's head was taken from Jerusalem in 353 and reburied secretly in Emesa. There it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453, after which it was carried to Constantinople and, as the Catholic Encyclopaedia says, "long is the list of the churches claiming possession of some part of the precious treasure." The tradition that the head spent 100 years in Emesa is an old one, and certainly the tale told by the Eastern Orthodox churches. How or why it ended up in the successor to the Sun-god's temple is a mystery, or miracle (if you prefer).

With the next post, I'll get back on-topic and try to answer Frank's challenging comment on Cleopatra Thea.

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