Sunday, 18 December 2016

Commagene, Crossroads of Empire

Commagene in southern Anatolia was a Roman province from AD79 onwards, something which may have slipped the attention of many, since it occurred at the same moment that Vesuvius was destroying Pompeii.

It had originated as a Hurrian kingdom called Kummukh, speaking a variety of the language which became Armenian. There is a discussion of its early 9th century BC inscriptions in The Boyepinari Inscription of Panamuwatis of Commagene by Gabriel Soultanian. This was a literate state at least 150 years before Homer enlightened the Greeks.

In the wake of Alexander’s invasion, Commagene rapidly developed a Hellenistic royal culture, and for some time avoided domination by Europeans and Persians alike.

This is best seen at Mount Nemrut (Nemrud Dagi in Turkish), a religious site which illustrates the interplay of Greek and Persian religions. There, colossal statues were carved, which can be seen there to this day. A full description can be read in Herman Brijder’s book Nemrud Dagi: Recent Archaeological Research and Preservation and Restoration Activities in the Tomb Sanctuary on Mount Nemrud (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2014).

The Nemrut statues syncretise a number of gods from eastern and western traditions. They were erected for King Antiochus I Theos in 62BC. Of course, Theos means ‘god’ and the Commagenean kings were considered living gods, something that was not going to please the Romans. The imperial cult of the Romans never worshipped the living emperor, only dead ones and then only a minority of them.

Antiochus I Theos was in turn following a similar cult centre (called a hierothesion) of his father Mithridates I Callinicus (r. 109BC-70BC). Groups of seated statues of gods and the god king sat in rows; their heads were later removed by Christians and ritually defaced, as can be seen in these photos.

Head of Zeus-Aramazd, Mount Nemrut

Head of Apollo-Mithra-Helios, Mount Nemrud

Head of Vahagn-Herakles, Mount Nemrut; note the nose damaged by Christians

 It is interesting to note in passing that in the Greek world, it is possible for a living person to be a saint, but in the west sainthood is always post mortem; I think this must echo attitudes in prior religions.

In classical Armenian religion, all the gods had once been living people, notably Vahagn, syncretised with Heracles, Aramazd, the Armenian form of the Persian Ahura Mazda, syncretised with Zeus, Astghik with Aphrodite/Ishtar. This relates to Persian cultural conquest of Armenia and neighbouring areas in the 7th century BC, after the era of Panamuwatis, where Khaldi was the chief god and formed a trinity with his sons Telspas and Shivini.

What we can see from this is an Anatolian culture which readily adopted and modified gods according to the winds of politics; rarely strong enough to assert itself, Commagene defeated its enemies by rolling with the punches. That is why Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion, and why eventually Islam took over the area so easily.

Antiochus’ son, Epiphanes, fought alongside Titus at the Siege of Jerusalem in 70AD, and met Flavius Josephus, who describes him as one of the richest tributary kings. The conversion of Commagene from independent, but neutralised, kingdom to Roman province came about in the 70s AD, when the Roman governor of Syria, Caesennius Paetus, wrote to Vespasian to tell him that the king of Commagene, Antiochus IV and his son Prince Epiphanes planned to revolt against Roman overlordship and ally instead with the Parthians. According to Josephus (Bel Jud 7.7) this was malicious and Antiochus was very loyal. Vespasian allowed Caesennius Paetus to invade the country’s capital Samosata with legio VI Ferrata from Syria and annexe Commagene to that province.

The whole deal turned odd when Antiochus and his sons left for Parthia, but then returned under imperial protection as honoured guests, received imperial honours and enough money to run a royal household (M. Speidel 2000, Early Roman Rule in Commagene). The sons were recognised as legitimate royals, and in AD109, Epiphanes’ son, known to us as Philopappos (literally ‘grandfather lover’) who had earlier been made a senator was elevated to Cos. Suffectus by Trajan.

Note there the subtle difference: not Consul Ordinaris, the ones who gave their names to the year, nor even suffect to the Consul Prior, but suffect to the Consul Posterior, and he didn’t even serve out the whole year, serving only from May to August. Hardly an honour at all. It seems like the former governor of Syria, Aulus Cornelius Palma Frontonianus (a member of the powerful Cornelius clan), who was Consul Prior at the start of AD109 and had the ear of Trajan, felt it would be politically useful to include Philopappos.

So who was Philopappos and how had the former royal family gone from enemies of Rome to the consulship in a generation? Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights notes that Philopappos was always referred to as ‘king’ (basileus) and referred to himself as such. His actual name at birth was Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes. There had to be something in it beyond just money. I suspect it was the ancestry of the Commagenian royal family, who were descended from the Seleucid rulers of Asia Minor and perhaps from the same family as Alexander the Great.

The Philopappos Monument, built in his honour by his sister after his death in AD116, gives him three distinct identities, as a Greek, a Roman and a Commagenian. The monument is on what was once the Mouseion Hill in Athens, close to the Acropolis. Pausanias, in his Guide to Greece (i.25.8), refers to this as ‘monument built for a Syrian man.’ This seems quite snotty, and we can assume Pausanias was looking for a way to denigrate Philopappos, who was not a Syrian, and whose mother was an Alexandrian Greek, Claudia Capitolina.

Philopappos Monument, Athens, detail

As a Roman, he was termed in Latin as ‘Caius Iulius Antiochus, son of Caius, of the Fabian tribe, consul and Arval brother, admitted to the praetorian rank by the emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Optimus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus’, stressing his voting tribe, his membership of the Arval Brotherhood and his close links to Trajan.

As a citizen of Athens, he is noted on another part of the monument in Greek as ‘Philopappos, son of Epiphanes of the deme of the Besa’. Note how his Roman names are missing and his father has gone from being Caius (or Gaius as we would say) and kept his real name, and his imperial and Roman titles are ignored, with his deme to the fore.

In a third niche, now lost, was a further title ‘King Antiochus Philopappos, son of King Antiochus Epiphanes’, again in Greek.

Philopappos Monument, long view

The sister who dedicated the monument was named Julia Balbilla, who was born in Rome, and unusually she was a writer, and even more curiously, four of her poems have survived:

When the August Hadrian Heard Memnon

Memnon the Egyptian I learnt, when warned by the rays of the sun,
speaks from Theban stone.
When he saw Hadrian, the king of all, before rays of the sun,
he greeted him - as far as he was able.
But when the Titan driving through the heavens with his steeds of white,
brought into shadow the second measure of hours,
like ringing bronze Memnon again sent out his voice.
Sharp-toned, he sent out his greeting and for a third time a mighty roar.
The emperor Hadrian then himself bid welcome to
Memnon and left on stone for generations to come.
This inscription recounting all that he saw and all that he heard.
It was clear to all that the gods love him.

When with the August Sabina I Stood Before Memnon

Memnon, son of Aurors and holy Tithon,
seated before Thebes, city of Zeus,
or Amenoth, Egyptian King, as learned.
Priests recount from ancient stories,
greetings, and singing, welcome her kindly,
the August wife of the emperor Hadrian.
A barbarian man cut off your tongue and ears:
Impious Cambyses; but he paid the penalty,
with a wretched death struck by the same sword point
with which pitiless he slew the divine Apis.
But I do not believe that this statue of yours will perish,
I saved your immortal spirit forever with my mind.
For my parents were noble, and my grandfathers,
the wise Balbillus and Antiochus the king.


Son of Aurora, I greet you. For you addressed me kindly,
Memnon, for the sake of the Pierides, who care for me,
song-loving Demo. And bearing a pleasant gift,
my lyre will always sing of your strength, holy one.

For pious were my parents and grandfathers:
Balbillus the Wise and King Antiochus;
Balbillus, the father of my mother of royal blood and King Antiochus, the father of my father. From their line I too draw my noble blood,
and these verses are mine, pious Balbilla.

These show a huge pride in Balbilla’s non-Roman ancestry, descended on her mother’s side from Balbillus, an Egyptian magician, and the ability for non-Romans to interact with the imperial family. Her mythological references marry Classical deities with Egyptian gods like Memnon and Apis, not syncretising them, but running each alongside the other.

Commagene found a way to negotiate a complex cultural identity without being swamped by any of it.

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