Thursday 5 July 2018

All Along the Watchtower: Roman Lusitania and its towers

Conquering Spain was hard for the Romans. They inherited an interest in it from Carthage – Hannibal had been ruling there before he attacked Italy. However, Spain – or rather Hispania – was a difficult land to conquer and harder still to rule.

The hardest part was Lusitania, much of which forms the territory of modern Portugal, plus a bulge into west central Spain. The Lusitani are recorded first in Livy in 218BC, allied to the Carthaginians. Even after the defeat and annexation of the Punic territories, they continued to resist Rome, fighting a war against the Republic in 194BC, which lasted until 179BC, when L. Postumius Albinus was awarded a triumph for defeating them. This lasted till 155BC, and a Lusitanian insurrection led by a man called Punicus, presumably a Carthaginian still living there, which reached Gibraltar, where L. Mummius, the Roman praetor, defeated them.

What brought them to Spain was metals. Tin is found only here and western Britain. Gold, solver, copper, lead, mercury and iron also abound. It has often been said that the purpose of all war is to obtain resources or prevent others from taking them. It’s quite likely that Roman interest in Britain stemmed from that too.

A few years later, the propraetor Servius Sulpicius Galba declared war on the Lusitani, then appeared to accept their surrender; they went to his base at Conistorgis (in the Algarve, north of Faro) in three sections to surrender; as each one arrived it was slaughtered. Perhaps the Lusitani were naïve – they had previously defeated and killed 7,000 Roman soldiers. One of those who escaped was Viriathus, a major hero to Portuguese and Spanish people.

A modern statue of Viriathus

Viriathus seems to have been a product of the Lusitanian elite, beginning as a shepherd (Spanish flocks have always been huge, so he may have been an ‘executive shepherd’), then joining their army and rising to leadership after the massacre of the Lusitanian elite youth commanded by Punicus in 150BC.

Viriathus ran a guerrilla campaign between 147 and 139BC to free Hispania from Roman rule. It may have been that the Romans were distracted by other fights – the Third Punic War would lead to the destruction of Carthage in 146BC, while parallel wars in Greece which began as the Fourth Macedonian War and became the Achaean War, which ended in 146BC with the destruction of Corinth in the same year. Viriathus timed his rebellion well – Roman resources were being used heavily elsewhere.

Within Spain, the Lusitanian War was sandwiched between two phases of the Numantine War and can probably be seen as part of a wider rebellion. In the Numantine war, well known people were involved, including Scipio Aemilianus, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius and Jugurtha, then on the Roman side.

This war leader was mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, a younger contemporary of Julius Caesar, by Appian and Livy. Diodorus calls him ‘lord of all’ and faithful to his word, while Livy comments on his honesty, Appian tells us of the great skill of Viriathus at warfare.

The readiness of the Lusitani to get rid of the Romans is shown by their willingness to back a Roman to do it. Quintus Sertorius, an Italian from Nursia, rebelled against Roman command in 80BC and held much of Spain against Rome until 72BC. He had earlier served in Spain as a military tribune and been awarded the Grass Crown, the rarest and highest honour in the Roman Army. On returning to Spain as a political figure for the Populares, he was rejected by the Roman leaders in Spain, who were Optimates, on the side of his enemy, Sulla, and who were robbing the Lusitanian people. The honesty and military effectiveness of Sertorius led them to hail him as their general, and join his army. He was assassinated by M. Perpena Vento, a Roman general in 72BC, upon which Pompey killed Vento to put an end to the uprising.

The Roman tower of Centum Cellae. The upper parts may be post-Classical

 The Romans may have considered they needed to keep a watch on Lusitania in particular. The great tower of Centum Cellae is dated from the first century AD. While it’s often considered a villa rustica, it is positioned on top of a hill in Portugal’s Castelo Branco district, and in the middle ages was indeed as a lookout tower for royal forces. The seven fortresses built to encircle Numantia by Scipio Aemilianus possibly formed part of a culture of constant observation.

It’s possible that we can associate the Centum Cellae with the governorship (apparently moderate, according to Suetonius) of M. Salvius Otho, the second in the Year of the Four Emperors, who was made its governor at the age of 26, a post which he held for ten years, having been banished as far west as Nero could manage, in order for Nero to take Otho’s wife Poppaea, allegedly at Poppaea’s insistence.

The Emperor Otho, who ruled for three months in AD69

 The  Caladinho watchtower and others within the Alentejo area of Portugal have been investigated in the last few years. The question is whether they form part of a system of surveillance imposed upon the people, as author Joey Williams suggests, or something else.

Excavations at the Caladinho Wtchtower

 They appear to be positioned along certain Roman roads. Williams suggests this is part of a ‘panopticon’ system, where everyone was watched in order to modify local behaviour. That is, nobody would now rebel against the Roman authorities because they could be spotted before they could achieve anything. Williams derives this idea from the design of prisons in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The area is called a ‘contested landscape’ by Hannah Friedman in her review of Joey Williams’ book The Archaeology of Roman Surveillance in the Central Alentejo, Portugal in the American Journal of Archaeology(issue 221, January 2018)

While Spain was a place for colonial settlement, the towers were built in the first century AD, a hundred years after the revolt of Sertorius and maybe 200 after the major uprising of Viriathus. Moreover, we should consider this within the wider settlement and exploitation of the Roman peripheral territories. Who else was watched like this? 

Britain eventually had Hadrian’s Wall, and there were limites on the Rhine and Danube frontier. But they were often nowhere near where people lived. Hadrian’s Wall was not a place of fear, but a tourist destination, as the various pieces of commemorative ware show (the Amiens skillet, etc.). This is not to say that nobody was monitored, but while there was a system of spies and informers, nowhere else seems to have been subject to a regime such as Williams proposes.

As mentioned earlier, this part of Spain is extremely rich in metals, and it may have been that the watchtowers, positioned along Roman roads, were intended to keep a protective watch on brigands, who would otherwise have put such precious cargoes at risk. Various members of the family of Pompey fled to Spain to resist Caesar, setting off further rebellions among the Cantabrians and a civil war that drew in Augustus. 

Spain seems to have thrived under Roman rule. It should never be forgotten that Trajan and Hadrian, although of Italian stock, grew up there, and Martial was certainly Spanish. It has been suggested too that Juvenal, Martial’s friend and someone who thrived under the ‘Spanish emperors’ may have been Spanish too.

Spanish Romans included the Seneca family, father, son, nephew Lucan and geographer Pomponius Mela. The poet Florus, born in Africa, lived there much of his life. Lucius Cornelius Bocchus was a Lusitanian author on natural history and one of the sources of Pliny the Elder. The agricultural author Columella, author of De Re Rustica, came from Cadiz and lived in the Julio-Claudian era, as did the rhetorician Quintilian.

Much later, Theodosius came from Spain, so his various offspring had roots there – Constantine III had to apologise after killing some of the Spanish cousins of Honorius, who were running things there. Magnus Maximus, a cousin of Theodosius, was also Spanish. The theologian and historian Paulus Orosius came from Seville, while the late Roman bishop and author of erroneous etymologies, Isidore of Seville, actually came from Cartagena. Hydatius (or Idacius), bishop of Chaves in Portugal, is the author of a fifth century chronicle of  the eventual Germanic conquest. The Christian poet Prudentius came from Saragossa.

The point of this summary is to note that Spain was not a backwater or marginalised society like Britain, but an active part of the Empire. Watchtowers along the Rhine, Danube, Maghreb and Hadrian’s Wall make sense. Internal watchtowers within Spain and Portugal make less sense, unless the primary watch was on brigands, bacaudae and general thieves, rather than subjected nations in rebellion. Hispania was a ‘normalised’ Roman society by the first century AD, when most of the watchtowers were built. Whoever built them and for whatever purposes, their use remains ambiguous.

Sunday 17 June 2018

A Visit from the Book Burner: Romans burning books

As everyone knows, a lot of Roman books have disappeared. In some cases, every work by authors esteemed in their lifetimes has completely vanished, while some others survive in tiny fragments. What caused that? And why do we have any books at all from this period, other than Christian works, which were generally preserved because of the religious hostilities of the fourth century?

Some of this we can hang on the emperor Valens, whose paranoid behaviour is often seen as setting the whole thing going. We have two clear accusations from Ammianus Marcellinus:

‘throughout the oriental provinces owners of books, through fear of a like fate, burned their entire libraries; so great was the terror that had seized upon all.’ (XXIX. 2.4, p.293)

Here he comments on the misdeeds of Valens persecuting nobles for involvement in prophetic works. Similarly:

‘innumerable writings and many heaps of volumes were hauled out from various houses and under the eyes of the judges were burned in heaps as being unlawful, to allay the indignation at the executions, although the greater number were treatises on the liberal arts and on jurisprudence’ (XXIX. 1. 41, p.292)

Bust of Valens
Note that Ammianus is talking about the eastern empire; the context here is Valens’ reaction to the coup of AD371 intended to put on the eastern throne Procopius, a cousin of the recently deceased ‘pagan’ emperor Julian. By denouncing the books possessed by wealthy pagans as prophetic works, predicting his death, he tried them for maestas, treason. 

Burning books is a feature of Daniel Sarefield’s doctoral thesis (Sarefield, 2004). He points out that book burning was not confined to intolerant Christians, but had been applied by supposedly wholesome pagans for several centuries before that, even under the Republic. To burn a book which was deemed contrary to the will of the gods was, Sarefield says, an act of piety. 

American newspaper recording Nazi book burning

 Burning books is something we of course associate with the Nazis and their Feuersprüche, ‘fire sayings’ as they burnt non-Nazi works. Sarefield points out that destruction of literature that failed to conform was a feature of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of Chairman Mao, where between 1966 and 1976 many ancient Korans, Buddhist scrolls and Confucian books and objects were destroyed. In 1971, Sinhalese militants destroyed 97,000 rare Hindu books in the National Library of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. 

Maoists burning books during the Cultural Revolution

In case we in Europe start to feel superior, in 1992, ‘the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, home to the region’s largest collections of manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, Bosnian Slavic written in Arabic script, and other archival documents from the period of Ottoman rule, was shelled and completely burned to the ground’, destroying 1.5 million rare volumes (Sarefield, 2004, p.7).

Without going into too much tedious detail, there is a human appetite for the destruction of enemies which is probably far worse today than in antiquity and killing the literature of a people is arguably worse than killing individuals: new people will be born, but a culture torched is lost forever, and we needn’t feel that the internet will save us. Even in the US there were book burnings of gay-themed books in the US in the 1990s, while in 2001 an insane Christian minister burnt the entire Harry Potter series of books as ‘an abomination to God’ (Sarefield, 2004, p.10). 

American Christian marks the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks 

 Readers may say that there is no chance of very popular works like the Harry Potter books being destroyed in full, but people probably said that about the Roman popular historian Marius Maximus, a continuator of Suetonius up to the fourth century, whose many books have all been destroyed.

Burning books in Savonarola's 'Bonfire of the Vanaities'

 Arthur Pease (in Sarefield, 2004, p.14) suggests that in antiquity, an author’s writings were considered an extension of their person, so by a process of sympathetic magic, killing the books was killing them. Can we then say if an author or holder of books burnt them themselves, it was an act of suicide, or at least self-immolation? 

As an example of this we have the incidents report by Ammianus above. Sarefield refers to

…letters written to [St] Augustine by a Christian named Consentius living in the Balearic Islands. They detail the case of a monk, Fronto, who uncovered a circle of heretics in Tarragona, Spain, one of whom, a local priest, possessed magical books. In order to bring a speedy conclusion to the inquiry, which threatened to discredit several local bishops and other members of prominent families, a group of seven bishops decided to burn the incriminating books and all other documents related to the case and restore everyone to communion. 
(Sarefield, 2004, p. 15, n. 31)

By contrast, Dirk Obbink, an expert on ancient manuscripts, has commented that a lot of MSS were destroyed not by deliberate fire but by neglect, being devoured by worms, mould and moisture. No doubt this is true, but is does take a perverse attitude to torture a book to death. Failing to copy a book is worse than burning it, if you know it will self-destruct anyway.

Supposedly tolerant pagan authorities in Rome burnt the prophetic works of occult writers under the Republic. Livy, writing about the Second Punic War, tells us (Livy 25.1.11–12) about the decision of the Urban Praetor, Marcus Aemilius decreed that ‘all persons in possession of books containing prophecies, forms of prayers, or written formulae for the performance of rituals must surrender them to him by an appointed date’ (the term is ‘quicumque libros vaticinos’). Such destruction was political – anything that dented Roman ideas of its own manifest destiny. In 213BC, with the suppression of the Bacchic priests at Rome, their books were destroyed too. Over the next decades, thousands of people were killed for their beliefs. 

In 181BC, chests were discovered that claimed to contain the writings of Rome’s claimed Second King, Numa Pompilius (Livy book 40, Pliny the Elder book 13). These were probably not to do with Numa, who lived before the Romans were literate, if he existed at all, and if he did, he was an Etruscan. The Etruscans were literate, if not in the eighth century BC, so if the works were in Etruscan, there were still Etruscan speakers at that time, who might be able to understand those writings. However, half the books were supposedly written in Latin.

Whatever it was that they found, it must have shocked the elite of the second century BC, because they destroyed them. The books, said to have been in good condition, were destroyed by Quintus Petellius, the praetor of that year, by means of victimarii, who would have sacrificed animals, who burnt them on bonfires. We can only speculate about what they said, but one guess is that there was no mention of Romulus. 

Romulus was probably invented in the fourth century BC to be an ancestor for the Romans. He and Remus were probably repackaged out of Parrhasius and Lycastus, joint kings and founders of Arcadia in Greece, sharing their special birth and upbringing by a wolf (discussed by Plutarch Moralia 4.36).  

Sarefield, citing Walter Burkert, considers this to be a ‘ritualised aggression’, creating an antagonistic community brought together by communal book burning (Sarefield, 2004, p.48). Fire, it is noted, is a means of communicating with the gods; the books were being sacrificed to them, expiating their crime by vivicomburium, being burnt ‘alive’.  This seems to be the last recorded book burning at Rome under the Republic. However, Augustus would return to it with gusto.

Augustus, father of the fatherland and bookburner in chief

 Suetonius reports how the emperor burnt 2000 Greek and Latin prophetic texts in the Roman Forum (Augustus31). Burning something in a public square is an act of justification, like killing someone in public because you feel justified. Maybe it’s a sign of insecurity. Vitellius, during his brief reign, expelled booksellers from Rome (Tacitus Histories 2.62; Suetonius Vitellius 14.4). 

It should be noted that the Romans did not only burn books; all records that were no longer immediately useful or required were routinely destroyed; the Vindolanda Tablets were intended to be destroyed, but survived because the ground was too damp. 

A Vindolanda Tablet, preserved due to Britain's damp climate

The idea of preserving all records forever if possible in a late medieval one. In England, it was a decree of King Henry II that from the start of the following reign (Richard I) all governmental records were to be preserved (see Michael Clanchy From Memory to Written Record). The types of document intended to be burnt at Vindolanda ranges from routine records like muster rolls for the army to personal letters. We do need to understand that the maintenance of surplus records in the Roman World was minimalist. While authors like Cicero, Pliny the Younger and Sidonius Apollinaris kept copies of letters for years to permit publication, few others did. While Pliny’s Book X preserves letters of Trajan, nobody else did. Roman Law may have been written, but it didn’t privilege text over speech; you can’t cross examine a book or letter.

Everyone should read this book

 Catherine Nixey’s excellent (if intemperate) 2017 book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical Worlddetails the destruction of many ‘pagan’ works across the whole empire. Besides self-censorship, we come across several acts of destruction for the victims’ own good. Nixey (2017, p.161) quotes Zacharias Rhetor in the late fifth century AD approving of one Severus who went through Berytus (Beirut) seizing and burning private libraries which contained ‘pagan’ works; some were hidden in a secret compartment in a chair (p.161) He was ‘spared the law but forced to burn his books’ with his own hands (p.162). Elsewhere she quotes John Chrysostom and Theodoret gloating over the deliberate destruction of classical literature (p.166). It is clear from the sources that copyists no longer recopied classical works, nor held stock and moved into copying exclusively Christian works; a holder of books, like the man in Berytus, could be denounced by fellow-citizens simply for possessing them and it could be considered that destruction of books was a ‘liberation’.

Why did so many books disappear? A reasonable argument is that people stopped copying them, and that they simply failed to survive due to degradation and damage to MSS. But why did scribes stop copying them? It is hard to suppose that they found no market for the autobiography of Augustus De Sua Vita, or that works being pagan and hundreds of years old were simply not copied; all works by Virgil and most by Ovid and Horace survived, yet the contemporary Ab Urbe Conditaof Livy is mostly lost, apparently due to a decision made by Pope Gregory I who ‘burnt all manuscripts of Livy which he could find, since the author was full of idolatrous superstitions’ (Clark, 1921, p.13).

However,  many orthodox Christian authors of the later empire wrote works which have not survived, including two books by Eusebius, a Father of the Church and favourite of Constantine.

In discussing the survival or otherwise of texts from antiquity, we need to be aware that there was no publishing industry, as we would understand it, at that time, and that we have no idea to what extent works we value now – or wish we had – were valued then. While there has been extensive work on what books have been lost, we might properly ask why anything has survived. 

Books were created to order, sometimes by private subscription. Somehow it would be announced that a new work was available and could be ordered. Older books might be bought second hand and in Rome there was a lively book market. In addition, wealthy people might privately contract to have a copy made of older works from professional scribes. 

There were also expert networks, as discussed in Haines-Eitzen (2000, p.77), who cites the following examples. Cicero’s Letters to Attalus13.8 asks him ‘Please send me Brutus’ Epitome of the Annals of Caeliusand get Panaetius’On Foresight from Philoxenus’. This suggests that wealthy and connected people knew of personal libraries and what was in them and that there was a social expectation that books could be borrowed and perhaps copied, under a principle of reciprocity. This is reinforced by a letter of Pliny (Ep. 8.15.1), where Terentius asks to borrow books. Jordanes in sixth-century Constantinople borrowed the Gothic History of Cassiodorus Senator (now lost), and wrote his Getica as an amended and compressed update, commenting that he had to write mostly from memory, since he had to return the book before copying it.

Similarly Oxyrhynchus Papryrus 2192 has its anonymous author ask his addressee to ‘Make and send me copies of books 6 and 6 of Hypsicrates’ Characters in Comedy, for Harpocration says they are among Polion’s books. But it is likely that others have them too’.

This envisages a professional copyist who seeks out works, travels to someone else’s house, copies the work, and that works could be transmitted in a partial state. This may explain why some works have survived as individual sections and not in full.

Works could be disseminated fast when required. Haines-Eitzen (2000, p.78), cites an early Christian work called The Shepherd, produced in Rome in Greek by Hermas in the late first century AD, which is cited shortly afterwards by writers in both Alexandria and Lyon. It may be the case that the organised nature of Christianity led to the founding of professional scriptoriain leading cities. We learn from a passage at the end of the Martyrdom of Polycarpthat ‘These things Gaius copied from Irene’s, the student of Polycarp… and I, Socrates, copied it in Corinth from the copies of Gaius’ (Haines-Eitzen, 2000, p.81).

Clearly there were scribal networks which preserved works by copying; this self-same text also carries a message from Peonies who had ‘gathered it together when [it] had been worn out with age’ (Haines-Eitzen, 2000, p.81). We can argue that scribal networks which Christians used had also existed in earlier times and that social networks of friends caused works to be copied and disseminated.

As long as such networks of friendship and reciprocity were maintained, classical literature could be maintained too. It is feasible that professional scribes might keep stocks of works they knew they could sell, such as the works of Virgil. The number of MSS of some authors’ works that have survived may reflect not only the value placed upon them, but also the number of copies made. 

Another feature of the destruction of ancient books is the Byzantine edict of AD691 forbidding the creation of palimpsests from Christian religious texts. This meant that Christian writers turned to ‘pagan’ texts. The conquest of Egypt by Islam in AD640 had ended the supply of papyrus, so scraping vellum and reusing it was the only option. We should note that in many cases the scraped vellum was turned sideways and recut to the desired size. I consider that to be the equivalent of making a cross on the forehead of a pagan bust, baptising the text. Ironically, sometimes the later works put onto the palimpsest were themselves scraped off to create a double palimpsest. New works might even be placed over multiple older works, such as a work by St Severus of Antioch, written on top of portions of the Iliad, the Gospel of Luke and a manuscript of Euclid. Here we can can see the effects of severe resource depletion rather than wilful destruction.

It seems then that the Roman process of burning books and other records created a market for new papyrus, which became in short supply in the West with the loss of control of the western Mediterranean after the Vandal conquest of Carthage. Instead of burning a resource they couldn’t replace, it became acceptable to reuse the papyrus as a palimpsest. The East continued to have plentiful access to Egyptian papyrus until the Persian Wars in the early sixth century, culminating with the permanent loss of Egypt to the Muslims in AD640, and finally the decree of 691 made sure only ‘pagan’ texts were scraped. It’s a marvel any pagan work survived, and I will return to the survival and recovery in a later posting.

Monday 29 January 2018

Pallacinae – Rome’s Lost District

In AD104, Rome faced yet another fire, probably the worst since the one Nero supposedly started fifty years previously. St Jerome remembered it three hundred years later in his cell at Bethlehem. At the very least, it destroyed part of the Domus Aurea of Nero.

Was this an accident, the sort of thing that happens to ancient cities which were often jerry-built and overcrowded? Or was there a public intent?

The area destroyed was the district of Pallacinae, which underlies the Forum of Trajan. Once it had been an elite district on the edge of the city. A chunk of it had once been the suburban villa of Sextus Roscius, who many will remember was the client of Cicero in the famous murder trial Pro Roscio Amerino in 80BC. Roscius was accused of murdering his father (who had the same name), but the case was trumped up so that the dictator Sulla could seize his estate. Although Cicero won his case, which made his reputation, the Roman government never returned Roscius’ land. The estate of Roscius was close to an ancient set of baths, the Balneal Pallacinae, a place which prostitutes often gathered, according to the very much later Liber Pontificalis.

In 38BC, the ally of Augustus, Asininus Pollio, acquired the authority to rebuild the district of Pallacinae. He use the proceeds of looting Illyria in the civil wars to demonstrate his power and authority. He built houses, flats, shops, two libraries, one Latin, one Greek, and most importantly of all the Atrium Libertatis, the hall of liberty.

This was where the Censor’s office moved to, probably because the previous offices had been damaged in the civil wars. Besides the official census, the lustrum, the Censor was responsible for two important functions of the state. The first was the registration of the manumission of slaves. Official diplomas were issued to manumitted slaves, not least to enrol them as citizens, and prevent any attempt to enslave them by prior owners. As citizens, of course, they were liable for taxes.

The other function of the Censor was to issue tickets which entered the holder into the annona, the dole, originally of corn, which would then be collected from an office in the Forum Boarium, which is close to the Aventine Hill, which had the temple of Ceres, close to the location of large grain stores (horrea) and the mills which produced much of Rome’s flour, themselves close to the wharves where imported grain was unloaded.

Augustus abolished the ancient post of Censor and took the administration of the annona in house. This doesn’t mean of course that the Atrium Libertatis ceased to run things; the dole was handled by a praefectus annonae and his deputy. Since the prefect was a largely honorific position and indeed a political one, the regular staff would have been left to their own devices, and probably used the existing offices. The marble pan of Rome shows an Atrium Libertatis  as the southern wing of Trajan’s Basilica Ulpia.

Plan of Basilica Ulpia with Atrium Libertatis marked

In AD104, the area seems to have been consumed by fire. Was this an accident? Trajan may have had a role in this. It was his custom to change his consuls very frequently, and in every year apart from 104, there were about five holders of the consul prior and four or five consules posterior. Not in 104, when one man held each consulship for the entire year. In that year, one of the consuls was Marcus Asininus Marcellus, the great grandson of  the same man who had rebuilt Pallacinae in 38BC.

Historians don’t like coincidences, and it’s too much of a coincidence that a Pollio built the quarter of Pallacinae and his descendent happened to be consul when it burnt down. I think that Trajan wanted the old quarter razed, and had Pollio made consul posterior, the first Pollio in 150 years to be raised to the consulship, to buy his approval.

Why did Trajan arrange for the vicus of Pallacinae to be destroyed? It was nearly 150 years old and had survived the Neronian fire and the urbanisation of the entire city area. The Domus Aurea had already encroached on the district, and needed to be expunged. My speculation is that Trajan and his architect Apollodorus of Damascus wanted an ambitious new district to emerge, one fired by the admiration that Trajan clearly had for all things Syrian. He had largely grown up there as his father was the governor of Syria, and as a young man Trajan had commanded troops as a military tribune there.

My guess is that while the fire was severe and may have been more widespread than intended, it was set by the imperial authorities with intent to remove it and permit for the last time an emperor to make his mark on the city’s infrastructure.

Apollodorus was an experienced architect, and had worked for Domitian, but had continued under Nerva and Trajan, including his bridge across the Danube to further Trajan’s Dacian campaign. He seems to have designed the entire precinct, including the Baths of Trajan, the Forum of Trajan, the Market of Trajan,  the Column of Trajan, the two libraries and the Basilica Ulpia.

The Markets of Trajan

 There is a story in Cassius Dio (Book 46) that once when Hadrian, who fancied himself as a bit of designer too, came to Trajan while he was in a meeting with Apollodorus with his latest designs and the latter told him to take his ‘pumpkins’ and go away. These would be orientally influenced domes and the like. The result might well have been like the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, build for the Prince Regent in Mughal style by the English seaside. Hadrian remembered the slight and later, when emperor, had Apollodorus executed.

Royal Pavilion Brighton, built for the Prince Regent, Later King George IV

 The builders were quite probably the Haterii, Rome’s top master building firm. They had already constructed a temple for Domitian in Rome, possibly the Temple of Isis and Serapis, both Hellenistic deities. You can see in this picture the barley-sugar twists of the columns, ideas that would find full expression on the Column of Trajan some thirty years later.

Tomb of the Haterii, Rome's master builders, now in the Vatican Museum

 The unusual thing about the Column of Trajan was that the emperor was buried at the foot of the temple, although the room in the base was looted centuries ago and his ashes lost. Unusual, in that he was the only one to be buried within the sacred boundary, the pomerium, which was otherwise banned on grounds of hygiene. Of course, as Rome expanded, so did the pomerium, so there must have been ancient burials placed outside the limit of its day, but which later fell within it.

The Column of Trajan, now topped with a renaissance statue of St Michael

 Not only was Trajan the late emperor, he had died on his way back from Antioch in Syria and been burnt at Tarsus, so he was hardly a health risk. The burial is reported by Cassius Dio, Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, and therefore probably featured in the official (but now lost) history of Rome, known as KG (for Kaisergeschichte)

Apollodorus fell out of favour with Hadrian soon after the death of Trajan. He was exiled and then executed. While Dio put this down to the revenge of Hadrian to an earlier slight, as mentioned above, there is a possibility of fraud. After Apollodorus, all bricks used in the construction of public works at Rome in Hadrian’s reign carried a stamp with the names of the current consuls, so that they could be dated. The suspicion could therefore be that the imperial treasury was being billed for the same goods on multiple occasions, and someone – Apollodorus perhaps – was pocketing the proceeds of it.

Many will remember the Third Satire of Juvenal, in which Umbricius, the shadow man, speaks to Romans listening in the street around his house why he’s leaving the city. You’ll probably remember that ‘I cannot abide, Quirites, a Greek-struck Rome (Graecam urbem, in the Accusative). Juvenal makes it clear that it’s not classical Greece he hates, but one dominated by Syrians.

For Umbricius, it’s the Orontes, the river which flows from Apollodorus’ home city of Damascus to Trajan’s favoured city of Antioch. which is dropping its dregs into the Tiber. The poem is dated to Trajan’s reign. Syria had been associated with popular culture already, with the aphorist Publius Syrus leading the way.

In fact, there had been a rising influence from Syria upon the Roman World. From the Roman invasion of 168BC to support the revolt of the Jews against their Hellenised Syrian overlords, who wanted to turn the Temple at Jerusalem into one dedicated to Zeus. This revolt, famously led by the Maccabee brothers and reported in the Hebrew Book of Maccabees, was an excellent pretext for Rome to engage with a weaker state within the Hellenistic east. The battles against Mithridates of Pontus would later show Rome was potentially weaker. The conquest of Syria led to the annexation of the Kingdom of Pergamum in 133BC (creating instability, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus and ultimately the collapse of the Republic).

By contrast, the second century AD is one is rising Syrian influence in the Empire, which is why it had upset Juvenal through his mouthpiece Umbricius, as he lists a catalogue of Syrian things he objects to.

However, this was the century in which Apuleius, the Syrian writer Lucan and other Hellenistic writers of the Second Sophistic thrived, in which the Syrian Empress Julia Domna ran a dazzling literary salon, and ended, with a bang in the first quarter of the third century with the emperor Elagabalus.

Friday 27 October 2017

Bloomberg SPACE: Rewriting Roman London?

In October 2017, a major exhibition space opens under Bloomberg LLP’s new European headquarters. Called ‘London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE’, it returns to its find-site the Third Century Temple of Mithras, excavated in 1954 by Grimes (Grimes, 1968); see also Shepherd (1998). The demolition of Bucklersbury House in 2005 permitted further investigation in 2010-14 by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Bloomberg, a major US financial data firm, bought the land in 2010, when the archaeology was already underway and from the outset intended to display finds in a dedicated exhibition space  (Symonds, 2013 p.17).

Interviews in 2013 were framed almost entirely by studies of the structure of the site, dubbed ‘London’s Pompeii’. The emphasis was on ‘star finds’ of artefacts used as landfill, with waterlogged conditions accidentally preserving wood, leather shoes)and wicker (Symonds, 2013, p.16). There was however a paragraph about some wooden tablets with text, one of which had been translated (Symonds (2013) p.17).

Little more was written until a major Current Archaeology article, again by Matthew Symonds (Symonds, 2016) prepared as part of a major Public Relations exercise by Bloomberg. On 1 June 2016, besides Symond’s article, there was a major new entry by MOLA (’s-oldest-hand-written-documents-released) and a major article by National Geographic magazine (

Symonds’ 2016 article makes no mention of any artefacts except the texts, now dubbed ‘the Bloomberg Tablets’. The MOLA webpage includes a glossy video and a plug for the £32 book (Tomlin (2017)). The excavations are termed ‘Bloomberg Excavations’, although mostly completed before Bloomberg bought the site.

The problem with the foregrounding of the texts over the site is the texts are not from a sealed context, unlike the Vindolanda Tablets (Bowman, 1998). They were tipped in as discarded material over many years. Their value was as landfill, not as text.

Commerce has long funded permanent structures (e.g. Courtauld Institute, Tate Gallery, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich), but didn’t own the buildings. Sponsorship by newspapers was commonplace (White and Barker (1998) on Wroxeter, Cunliffe (1998) on Fishbourne), driven by a need for spectacular Roman finds, the ‘rush to Roman’ over archaeological value. Martin Millett comments that ‘Londinium is now probably both the most extensively and best-excavated major town of the Roman world ‘ (Millett, 2016, p.1692) but bemoans the absence of academic studies of sites, unpublished ‘grey literature’.

Bloomberg had not been involved in the vacant site, which had once been earmarked for Schroeders until 2010 (Entertainment Business Newsweekly 26/12/2010) but took it on, knowing the implications. The 501C3 US charitable structure expects rapid outlays to prove charitable, tax-deductable, intent.

There are two issues to consider from the Bloomsberg exhibition. First, unlike museum sponsorship, the display will be in the Bloomberg European Headquarters, designed by Norman Foster, rather than in the Museum of London; the Bloomberg building is designed to last a hundred years and the exhibition is permanent. It was already decided in 2013 that this would be so (Symonds 2013, pN), indicating this was not a decision that emerged over time, but was in place when Bloomberg bought the site.

In 2013, the emphasis was not on the writing tablets, only one of which had then been translated (Symonds, 2013); rather the research at that time was very much about the Walbrook riverfront. By 2016, the emphasis had changed strongly in favour of the texts (Symonds, 2016). I would ascribe this to the interests and agenda of Bloomberg.

The selection of Current Archaeology  and National Geographic, popular rather than specialist publications, as media outlets suggests that, as Millett suggests, academic studies have been neglected and a firm emphasis has been developed towards mass entertainment, as the new Bloomberg Space is listed on tourism websites under ‘things to do’ (

I should to comment on the words of (or written for) founder Michael Bloomberg:

As steward of this ancient site and artefacts, Bloomberg has embraced the City of London’s rich heritage. And as a company that is centered on communications – of data, information, news, and analysis – we are thrilled that Bloomberg has been at the core of a project that has provided so much new information about London’s first half-century (’s-oldest-hand-written-documents-released)

The Mithraeum had been in a safe relocation for 63 years. The Bloomberg PR refers to it ‘coming home’. Why is moving it from a public site on Queen Victoria Street nearby to a private site on top of where it was significant? The Mithraeum has nothing to do with the texts, so why show them together?

Some discontent about this is evident in an Evening Standard article (Holland, 2017) which informs readers about the Mithraeum but avoids mentioning Bloomberg. The Wikipedia article on the Mithraeum was recently edited by Bloomberg, adding ‘Visitors will also enjoy a series of contemporary art commissions responding to one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites’ (Wikipedia edit 19/9/17). Is this a museum, art gallery, or merely a puff for Bloomberg?

The change in emphasis between 2013 and 2016 is startling. In 2016, there was no discussion of the Walbrook site or any artefacts. Box revetments and interesting shoes don’t sell exhibitions. Or make us like intrusive companies.

I see no evidence that Roman culture favoured business at all, the elite authors finding it ‘vulgar’ (Cicero De Officiis); quite a lot was known about the business opportunities at the time of the invasion (Pomponius Mela Chorographia). Greater interest seems to have been shown in mining, a state monopoly (Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia)
The Bloomberg Space with its permanent exhibition is a perfect form of ‘edutainment’, a portmanteau term coined in 1954: it entertains people by purporting to educate them. The ‘blockbuster’ exhibition is something to tick off the list; tasteful and well-presented with subdued lighting and somewhere to sit. The audience for such exhibitions is usually older and looking for a good day out. To reuse Banksy’s phrase, they ‘exit through the gift shop’. They attend and briefly engage, but leave with a fridge magnet.

A Wall Street Journal article summed it up neatly: ‘Museums are also embracing the ability to use storytelling to engage people … in hopes to increase attendance; all the while, though, it is possible for the focus and purpose of museums to be diluted’ (Gamerman, 2015).

The change in emphasis from serious archaeology to edutainment (‘things to do’), casting early Roman London into a place for swashbuckling capitalism, seems designed to frame Bloomberg as its natural successor. The risks of that were highlighted in 2014 by Ballofet et al., commenting on ‘the appropriateness or potential risks of edutainment’.

Of course, edutainment is nothing new; I could argue that Aeschylus’ Persians was a staged event, while Augustus tells us in his Res Gestae how he reenacted the naval battle of Actium in the arena. What after all is a Roman triumph with its display of captured riches and bedraggled captives but live edutainment?


Primary Sources

Cicero De Officiis 1.42.151, Loeb, (trans. W. Miller, 1989)
Pliny the Elder  Naturalis Historia
Pomponius Mela Chorographia (trans. and ed. F.E. Romer 1998) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Secondary Sources
Angela, A. (2013) The Reach of Rome Trans. G Conti, New York: Random House.
Balloffet, P., Courvoisier, F.H. and Lagier, J. (2014). ‘From Museum to Amusement Park: The Opportunities and Risks of Edutainment’, International Journal of Arts Management. 16 (2).
Bowman, A.K. (1998) Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People, London: Routledge.
Cunliffe, B. (1998) Fishbourne Roman Palace, Stroud: Tempus.
Gamerman, E. (2015). "ARENA --- The Museum of The Future --- From 3-D headsets to holograms, new technologies are revolutionizing exhibits; is it entertainment or education?" The Wall Street Journal 16/10/2015.
Gillam, J.P., MacIvor, I & Birley, E. (1954) 'The Temple of Mithras at Rudchester'. Archaeologia Aeliana XXXII, 176-219.
Gillam, J.P. and Richmond, I. (1949) 'Excavations on the Roman site at Corbridge 1946-1949',  Archaeologia Aeliana XXVI, 152.
Grimes, W.F. (1968) Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Holland, T. (2017) ‘The glory of Ancient Rome is right beneath our streets’ Evening Standard 8/8/17; viewable at  <>
Millett, M. (2016) ‘Improving our understanding of Londinium’ Antiquity, 12/2016, Vol.90(354), pp.1692-1699
Shepherd, J.D. (1998) The Temple of Mithras, London: excavations by W. F. Grimes and A. Williams at the Walbrook London: English Heritage.
Symonds, M. (2013) ‘London’s Pompeii? The rise and fall of a London waterfront’ Current Archaeology 280, May 2013, 12-17.
Symonds, M. (2016) ‘Letters from Londinium: Reading the earliest writing from Roman Britain’ Current Archaeology 317, June 2016, 36-40.
Tomlin, R.O. (2017) Roman London's First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations, 2010-14: 72, Monograph Series; London: Museum of London Archaeology.
White, R. and Barker, P. (1998) Wroxeter: Life and Death of a Roman City Stroud: Tempus.


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(All websites consulted 14/9/17, except Wikipedia (2/10/17))