Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria Ariana (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in the Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Food for thoughts

Strolling through the Graeco-Roman section of a museum, I often come face to face with a statue or a head of Antinoüs, the lover of Emperor Hadrian. His outstanding beauty and the perfect traits of his being are a true eye-catcher.

Hadrian, who lived 76-138 AD, was a world traveler in our modern concept. He regularly visited many cities of the prosperous Roman Empire and the occasion was often thankfully remembered by the citizens who built a triumphal arch. Many such monuments are still visible today. They have become so familiar that I genuinely miss them when they are absent. This was the case, for instance, in Albania. In the historical context that is not surprising but as it turned out, I got used to the comforting idea of having Hadrian around.

As the arches remained in place, the statues of the emperor were generally safely removed to a museum. It is there that Antinoüs pops up next to him. In the back of my mind, I am confident that when you see one, you are almost certain to find the other nearby.

In antiquity, a man having a male friend or lover was a way of living. Such relations were commonly accepted not like today when many people raise their eyebrows to put it mildly and condemn the relation entirely. In our modern world, people belonging to LGBTQ groups are still far from being accepted. But that is not the point I want to make and this is not the place to discuss the matter either.

We’ll find various examples of such relationships in Classical Greece. The Theban Band, which was ultimately destroyed by Alexander at Chaironeia, consisted of elite pairs of lovers. It was a fierce and unbeatable Band of Brothers, precisely because they were lovers and would defend their partner to the very end. It was a great honor to belong to this Band famed to be invincible, that is, till they were defeated by Alexander.

Achilles and Patroclus as described by Homer is another example. They were so vividly remembered that when Alexander reached the tomb of Achilles in Asia Minor, he and Hephaistion stripped their clothes and ran around the burial mound. They identified themselves with Achilles and Patroclus.

Another famous pair of lovers was Harmodius and Aristogeiton from Athens, who became the symbol of democracy after committing an act of political assassination in 514 BC. They killed Hipparchus, the last tyrant of the city during the Panathenaic Festival. The Athenians recognized them as the founders of democracy and erected a bronze statue group in their honor. It stood on the Acropolis till it was robbed by Xerxes during the Persian War in 480 BC and it was installed in Susa. This is where Alexander found the group in 330 BC, and he sent it back to Athens.

Clearly, the friendship/love between Alexander and Hephaistion was nothing new. It was common knowledge among the troops, who accepted it for what it was. The special place Hephaistion occupied in Alexander’s life was, however, a source of envy and even resentment among the other Companions and generals. They must have watched that relationship with Argus’ eyes as they all coveted Hephaistion’s privileged position. Yet, Hephaistion never took advantage of that position. He must have walked a tightrope trying to stay aloft and still accomplish the missions Alexander entrusted to him. He must have been a gifted diplomat, blessed with a huge dose of self-control and endless love for Alexander.

I find it quite intriguing that most of the statues of Hadrian and Antinoüs were made during their lifetime and have survived to this day. This is not the case for Alexander, whose statues were made after his death. Most are Roman copies from the 1st and 2nd century AD based on originals by Lysippos, Praxiteles and other great artists whose works no longer exist. The images of Hephaistion are even scarcer, and one could wrongly assume that his relationship with Alexander was not important enough to be underscored in the art world.

On the other hand, we know that after the death of Hephaistion, many effigies were made. They were presented to the mourning Alexander by his generals. Perhaps they hoped to clear their own conscience or to find a way to console Alexander. It remains to be seen whether that gesture was genuine or only a way to plea their own case to obtain favors. It is not impossible that after Alexander’s own death, his generals destroyed the effigies of Hephaistion in an ultimate urge to satisfy their own desire for revenge.

The fact remains that Alexander and Hephaistion are rarely seen together. I have come across only two such cases. One set of statues stood in a showcase at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (see: Alexander and Hephaistion side by side). Those statues, found in Alexandria, are a little less than life-size and date from the 1st century BC. The other example is their respective heads that are on display at the Getty Museum in Malibu, California (see: Ode to Alexander and Hephaistion). They once belonged to a larger group made as early as 320 BC and found in Megara, near Athens. Both heads have been reworked in antiquity, and Hephaistion’s hair has been trimmed in the process.

Both men are evidently also depicted on the famous Alexander sarcophagus, now at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. But they are not placed next to each other but on either side of the sarcophagus. Alexander is depicted fighting a Persian on one panel and Hephaistion is part of a hunting scene on the opposite side.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Historical truth and legends surrounding Alexander

In his lifetime, Alexander was a living legend. As he marched ever further eastward, his impact was told and retold over the centuries to the extend that nobody, in the end, knew where reality stopped and legend started. Today’s traveler will easily meet locals ready to share their tales or direct him toward the routes the conqueror has followed more than two thousand years ago.

It is quite remarkable that the most prominent figure in history left us almost no contemporary documents. As a comparison, Julius Caesar, who lived some three hundred years after Alexander, managed to put down detailed accounts of his campaigns. His best known books are The Conquest of Gaul and The Civil Wars, whereas The African Wars, The Alexandrian Wars and the Hispanic Wars are also attributed to him.

The results for Alexander are very meager. Among his historians we count his royal secretary, Eumenes of Cardia, and the keeper of his official diary, Callisthenes of Olynthus. As contemporary authors of Alexander, we may also include Ptolemy, Aristobulus, Nearchus and Onesicritus who participated in his campaigns and lived the events first hand. Despite these apparent sources, only a few fragments have survived, no matter how deep we dig.

Callisthenes inspired Onesicritus as well as Cleitarchus. Cleitarchus turned out to be the key figure for many historians to rely on. He, in fact, had access to earlier accounts by Nearchus, Ephippus, Polycleitus, Megasthenes and Aristobulus (who also drew from Onesicritus himself).

Under these circumstances, it becomes obvious that we have sources that are very much truncated over the centuries. In the 1st century BC, Diodorus of Sicily wrote his history of Alexander based directly on Cleitarchus. Curtius Rufus, in the 1st century AD composed his version of the events, leaning heavily on Cleitarchus and to a lesser extend on Trogus and Ptolemy. Shortly afterwards Plutarch made headlines with his Lives using, besides Cleitarchus, Aristobulus, Chares (who was in charge of Alexander’s journal) and remaining bits of the official Ephemerides that were kept by Eumenes. Arrian, in the 2nd century AD, seems to be our most reliable source. For his Anabasis, he mainly trusted Ptolemy. However, he also consulted other historians like Aristobulus, Megasthenes, Nearchus (who himself wrote Indica to recount his sea voyage from India back to Persia) and the surviving  texts of the Ephemerides as well. It should be noted that Trogus book is almost entirely lost but his story has been summarized, not all too well, by Justin two hundred years later.

This is quite a cocktail of information and it becomes very hard to sift through so many versions and interpretations of the facts and figures.

On my quest to find the sources, I came across an extensive list of lost works on Wikipedia that I insert hereafter. I added the appropriate dates in as far as I could find them.

Life of Alexander by Aesopus (no dates found)
Works of Anaximenes of Lampsacus (ca 380-320 BC)
Works of Aristobulus of Cassandreia (ca. 375-301 BC)
Geographical work of Androsthenes of Thasos (was one of Alexander’s admirals who sailed with Nearchus)
Deeds of Alexander by Callisthenes (the official historian)
Personal Notebooks, or Hypomnemata, by Alexander himself (possibly inauthentic)[4]
History of Alexander by Cleitarchus (4th century BC)
On the empire of the Macedonians by Criton of Pieria (2nd century AD)
Histories (also listed as Macedonica and Hellenica) by Duris of Samos (350-after 281 BC)
Ephemerides (royal journal) of the royal secretary Eumenes (existence or authenticity disputed)
Work of Hagnothemis upon which Plutarch rested the belief that Antipater poisoned Alexander.
Work of Hieronymus of Cardia (354?-250 BC)
On the education of Alexander and Macedonian history by Marsyas of Pella (ca 356-ca 294 BC)
Work of Medius of Larissa (general under Alexander and senior commander under Antigonus Monophthalmus)
Work of Nearchus, the primary source of Arrian's Indica
How Alexander was Educated and geographical works by Onesicritus (ca 360-ca 290 BC)
Work of Ptolemy I Soter (ca 367-282 BC)
History of Alexander by Timagenes (1st century BC)
Historiae Philippicae by Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus (1st century BC)

This list cannot be exhaustive. There must have been many more documents. Nobody mentions, for instance, Alexander’s correspondence with his mother and his sister, with Aristotle, with Antipater in Macedonia, with Queen Ada and Queen Sisygambis. The letters exchanged with the many embassies that contacted him or came to visit him. The entire world evolved around Alexander and strangely enough, there is not a single document left to prove it. The famous  Library of Alexandria must have held scores of such precious testimonies. Besides, the later Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Empires most certainly produced a literature of their own. 

We do have, of course, the Alexander Romance (see: Le Roman d’Alexandre, traduit du grec par A Tallet-Bonvalot). The oldest known version dates probably from the third century AD and its author is unknown, although it has been attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes. This document is generally called version α and served for all subsequent accounts which were published on a more or less regular base until the 16th century. They were written in Latin, Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, Islamic, French, English, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Ethiopic, Mongolian and several medieval patois. Useless to say that each translation or interpretation contributed to embellish the legendary person of Alexander.

Historians generally agree that Pseudo-Callisthenes based his tales on the writings of Onesicritus, who used Callisthenes.

The legends about Alexander are endless and great many of them have not been put in writing. They are part of the oral tradition of many peoples. They were told and retold by travelling barters over the centuries, and we can still find those tales today in the countries crossed by Alexander.

From the top of my head I remember the story about the Prison of Alexander in Yazd, Iran (see: Alexander’s Prison?), and that of his general Farhangi-Sarhang in Nur, Uzbekistan (see: Sogdian Forts and Alexander Fort in Nurata).

There also is the later tale of Alexander Rex that is part of the mosaic in the church of Otranto in southern Italy (see: Alexander's presence in Magna Graecia). Or Saint Alexander depicted in Byzantine and Orthodox art appearing in the 12th century’s Church of S. Demetrius in Vladimir, Russian Kiev. Around the 15th and 16th century, Alexander became a symbol of vanity. Several churches in Greece display frescoes of monks who meditate on vanity while gazing down on Alexander’s body at their feet. For instance, at the church of St John the Baptist in the Peloponnese and at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at the Meteora (see: Alexander, from hero to saint).

The references to Alexander are endless and I am talking mainly about written documentation here. His legacy in architecture, paintings, statues, coins, jewelry and other decorative elements constitutes another fascinating testimony of Alexander to the world.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

About Sabratha (Libya)

Sabratha is the lesser-known city of the Roman Tripolitania after Oea (Tripoli) and Leptis Magna, but it is the only one that has remains from Punic occupations to show.

It is a strange and most bizarre monument labeled as a Punic Mausoleum. I have never seen any building from that era and have nothing to compare it with. We owe this reconstruction to the Italians who worked here in the days of Mussolini. To recover the elements, they had to demolish a section of the Byzantine city wall and houses of a later date. The monument may be inspired by the Libyan-Numidian Mausoleum of Duga in modern Tunisia which is, however, a square building.

The Mausoleum of Sabratha stands 23 meters high and ends in a turret that is missing its tip. It is resting on a triangular base. The Punic construction collapsed during the earthquakes that occurred in the 4th century AD. The debris was then readily used by the Byzantines to build the city walls and to reconstruct some houses.

How the Italian archaeologists have been able to sort out the parts belonging to the Punic Mausoleum seems a near-impossible task. To me, this monument is a jumbled mixture of Egyptian and Greek symbols (in the friezes above the columns) where the Egyptian god Bes is depicted taming the lions, while Heracles is attacking the lions in very Greek fashion. Both gods are known for helping to overcome death in order to guarantee eternal life. The three consoles supposedly held 3-meter-high statues of Greek kouroi. Initially, the entire mausoleum was coated with a layer of red and blue stucco, making it an unmistakable landmark in the middle of the old city.

The eye-catcher in Sabratha nowadays is its imposing theater that is said to be the largest in Roman Africa. It was built in the 3rd century AD using local stone, and it was decorated with black and white marble columns as well as cipolin marble. The capitals were quite unique, often enhanced with masks or faces.

It is, however, exciting to access this theater through the artist entrance for I had no idea such a thing existed in antiquity. These are large rooms with colorful marble floors and walls. From here, the artists could immediately enter the now wooden stage that is 40 meters wide. It is a treat to walk in their footsteps and to look into the theater from their point of view. The high skene is three stories tall. It is said that 96 of the original columns have been put back into place, but I am not exactly charmed by the quality of this restoration. 

The ledge of the first floor once held an inscription of which, strangely enough, only the word “lacuna” has survived. The theory goes that this is what remains of “lacunaria” referring to the wooden overhang that covered the podium to increase its acoustics. The edge of the podium facing the public is decorated with marble reliefs displaying theater masks for comedies and tragedies, two philosophers in an intimate discussion and a dancing girl wrapped in a whirling tunica.

When the restoration work was completed in 1937, the theater was inaugurated with due pomp and circumstance by Mussolini, who personally attended the performance of Antigone by Sophocles. Walking through the vaults and corridors gives at least an inkling of the logistics involved. It is a unique way to sniff the atmosphere from times past. From the top tiers of seats, I am rewarded with a panoramic view of the ancient city and today’s harbor.

Like the theater, most buildings in Sabratha were constructed using the local yellow sandstone that is readily available. These stones were covered with stucco that was painted afterwards. In the glory days of the Roman occupation, the stucco was replaced by more precious marble slabs.

Near the beach stands a temple dedicated to Isis, an eastern cult that was popular among the Romans. The goddess was depicted with a headdress of bent cow horns framing a solar disk. This temple was built under Emperor Augustus and was enlarged in 69-79 AD by Vespasian. The main entrance was facing east where an ample colonnaded space opened toward the sea. All we see today are the steps to this entrance and a few rooms in the back of the temple for the worship of other gods. Archaeologists have, however, managed to re-erect six columns that serve as a lonely beacon. Nothing much remains of the original cella that held the cult statue of Isis and the lay-out is otherwise rather puzzling.

Nearby is another temple from the 2nd century AD with no name. It may have been kept anonymous on purpose to serve the seafarers from the entire Mediterranean to worship their own gods. Most of the building stones have sadly been removed to be re-used elsewhere.

The Forum looks like a construction site with lots of rubble and piles of stones that seem to belong to different temples and other official buildings. A key position is occupied by the remains of a temple dedicated to Antoninus Pius and his family. Across lies a Basilica whose entrance is framed with pillars decorated with vines intertwined with the now-vanished silphium plant. It should be noted that silphium was by far the largest export product of North Africa - the only place in the world where this plant could be found and now disappeared entirely. It was a natural medicine, a contraceptive and aphrodisiac that was in high demand, especially in Rome. It was an efficient remedy against cough, fever, indigestion, wards and all kinds of other ailments – in fact, the aspirin of antiquity. I find it quite exciting to see traces of this unique plant.

Also recognizable is the Curia from the 4th century AD, i.e., the meeting room for the state council in which the people of Sabratha with the highest incomes could have a seat and their say. Then as now, money meant power, and we should not forget that it was the rich who took care of the maintenance of the streets, water pipes and conduits, bathhouses and other public facilities of the city.

Between this Curia and the sea, I find the well-known Basilica of Justinian, a Byzantine church from the 6th century AD, which unfortunately was entirely dismantled by the archaeologists in the 1920s simply because they underestimated its value. The mosaic floors, however, have been saved and were moved to the local museum (see: Sabratha, an old Phoenician colony in North Africa).

Strolling on further, I reach the street of the olive oil traders where several presses are still in situ. The inside of the successive basins was coated with waterproof stucco to make sure they saved the oil to the last drop.

Further down, are the Baths of Oceanus or Neptune displaying a significant number of mosaics. The most beautiful picture is that of Oceanus, now at the museum. That precaution is not exaggerated because these mosaics are not protected, and everybody can walk freely over them. What a shame! 

My travel experience through Libya dates from before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, and even then, I felt sorry that Libya had not taken better care of its archaeological heritage. The situation after the capture and execution of Muammar Gaddafi has gone from bad to worse. I honestly fear that many sites that have been unearthed so carefully are no longer cared for and are now left for grabs (see: Still hope, though scant, for Libya’s heritage).

Friday, May 15, 2020

Another sundial uncovered in Laodicea

As I stated in an earlier blog (see: What about sundials in antiquity?), the sundial is an exciting artefact to discover and not so uncommon as one might expect.

[Picture from Daily Sabbah]

It truly makes me happy to read that the site of Laodicea on the Lycos River has yielded a marble sundial from Hellenistic times. It clearly shows reference points to the seasons, months and hours, and is facing south. In fact, it is ready to be used again provided we add the missing gnomon, the metal needle that projects its shadow onto the concave dial surface.

Laodicea is located in southwestern Turkey and is set on top of the earlier city of Diospolis, the city of Zeus. It was Antiochus II who rebuilt and renamed the town Laodicea after his wife Laodike.

The proud city of Laodicea has been discussed in my blog Laodicea, great works in progress!

Let’s see what surprises future excavations have in store.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Travelling in the opposite direction of Alexander the Great

It is 330 BC when Alexander is marching through the heartland of Persia. That same year, a very little known Greek merchant named Pytheas started an astonishing voyage of his own in the opposite direction. There was much more happening on planet earth than Alexander’s campaign in the east.

This Pytheas made such name and fame that contemporaries and authors ended up moving his story to the lands of myths and legends that were discussed in belief and unbelief for centuries.

Our merchant from Massilia (modern MarseillesFrance) was also known as a skilled navigator, mariner and astronomer. His treatise On the Ocean, unfortunately, has not survived but has been quoted extensively throughout antiquity by people like Diodorus, Eratosthenes, Strabo, Polybius and Pliny the Elder. Each one of them interpreted and judged Pytheas in his own way, often reaching contradictory conclusions. Truth and fantasy went hand in hand and were so intertwined that nobody will ever be able to get to the bottom of the fact, I’m afraid.

Pytheas’ book was a kind of maritime log loaded with astronomical, geographic, biological, oceanography and ethnological observations that still catch the attention of modern scholars. The log also contained practical information with descriptions of the coastal landmarks and even astronomical notes.

The travel account was written in Greek around 325 BC. At that time, Nearchus was sailing from the Indus to the Persian Gulf to be reunited with Alexander who had survived his death march through the Gedrosian Desert.

Pytheas traveled through uncharted territory as well. Besides, we can only speculate about the route he took from his home town Massilia. After sailing through the Pillars of Hercules (modern Strait of Gibraltar), he then proceeded along the Atlantic coastline of Spain and France. He probably crossed the English Channel somewhere in French Brittany. Britain was a well-known source for tin, amber and gold that was exported via Gaul to the Mediterranean world. 

Once in Britain, the intrepid navigator probably continued along the coast of Wales and onward to Scotland. Here Pliny mentions Pytheas’ arrival at the Orcades Islands, north of Britain. These islands are generally recognized as the Orkney Islands.

More challenging was his route onward that is thought to have taken him as far north as Iceland and the Arctic Ocean where the giant Hyperboreans from Greek mythology lived. Modern scholars do not agree about Iceland, which Pytheas called Thule as mentioned by Strabo, but believe that the merchant reached Norway instead. In any case, he experienced the nearly continuous daylight typical at this high latitude during the summer months. 

Just one day sailing out of Thule, he reached what he called the “Congealed Sea” – a way to tentatively describe the frozen Arctic OceanStrabo describes the place as a sea lung, where neither earth, water, nor air existed but where all things were suspended together.

On his way back, Pytheas may have traveled down the east coast of Britain, past “Kantion” which may refer to the Kentish peninsula. There is evidence that he continued along the northern coastline of Europe, maybe meeting the Germanic people and perhaps venturing to Heligoland (Helgoland), a valuable source of amber. Some scholars argue that Pytheas sailed to the Baltic Sea as far as the Vistula River, now in Poland. It is not known when he arrived back in Massilia, but it is generally accepted that it was before 320 BC when his book was first cited by the writer Dicaearchus, a student of Aristotle.

It makes me wonder whether Alexander was aware of this travel expedition when he planned his own conquest of the western Mediterranean and the territories beyond. Julius Caesar likely used the book to acquire information about Britain and further northern areas. Copies of Pytheas’ work probably sat on the shelves of the great libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon where it could and would be studied freely.

Whatever ancient and/or modern scholars may think of Pytheas, we cannot dismiss the fact that he went on a journey to explore the world by direct observation, not unlike the young British young men who went on the Grand Tour in the 18th century.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The siege of Tyre in a nutshell

Pending a full description of Alexander's siege of Tyre, which deserves a blog on its own, the summarized YouTube presentation will be very helpful to picture the scene.

For now, do enjoy these images and put your imagination at work!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The caltrop, a weapon to be reckoned with

A caltrop is a little-known gadget used over the centuries by many armies as an effective and unnerving weapon. Basically, it is made up of two or more sharp nails or metal contraptions that are arranged in such a way that one of the “legs” always points upward. In antiquity, it was an effectual means to slow down the enemy soldiers, their horses and elephants. The upward nails would injure and impair the infantry soldier who stepped on them. The caltrop would also seriously hurt the feet of the unshod horses and the sensitive soles of the elephants’ feet.

Roman caltrop

It is not known who actually invented the caltrops or even who used them first. Caltrops are hardly mentioned in our historical records. In weaponry, it is clear that our attention goes to the protective outfit of the soldiers and to their apparent weapons like swords and lances and the kind. 

The caltrops may have measured about 5 or 6 cm. They were easy to make, easy to transport and easy to sow around.

The very first recorded use of the caltrop happened in Gaugamela where the Persians had thrown plenty of so-called crow’s-feet on the ground in front of the army. They must have caused Alexander some headache. Firstly, to discover and locate these weapons, which were often partially hidden or entirely buried; secondly, to avoid them as the troops rushed forward to attack the Persians. In any case, he managed to bypass the trap as he cleared a great number of these crow-feet and otherwise safely maneuvered around the devices. His infantry, as well as his cavalry, successfully penetrated the enemy lines.

It is still debatable whether the Greeks were familiar with the caltrops or saw them for the first time on the Battlefield of Gaugamela. Whatever the case, their effectiveness did not go unnoticed as Alexander’s successors used them repeatedly in their later combats.

At the Battle of Gaza in 312 BC, Ptolemy and Seleucos threw these spiked caltrops in front of their lines to annihilate Demetrius’ elephants. The trick worked perfectly, and after shooting down the mahouts, the elephants were captured by the joint forces of Ptolemy and Seleucos.

A few years earlier, in 318 BC, either caltrops or iron spikes were used to stop Polyperchon’s elephants at the siege of Megalopolis. In this case, they were driven in heavy wooden frames that were connected by chains and thrown in front of the elephants - spikes up. Eventually, Megalopolis did not accept the old general as the new Regent of Macedonia and chose to side with Cassander and Antigonus. Unfortunately, the siege of Polyperchon failed.

The Romans, who learned a lot from Macedonian warfare, were also quick to implement de caltrop, although nothing is mentioned about Julius Caesar using them. He probably was the exception for the Romans used the caltrops effectively in their war against the Parthians in 217 AD and again against the Sassanids in 637 AD. 

The caltrop kept being used throughout the Middle Ages, from Europe to North Africa and Asia - including China! The “fashion” did not die, and caltrops were again used during the Korean War. The principle of the caltrop is still effectively implemented today by the military and police to block vehicles.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Sabratha, an old Phoenician colony in North Africa

Since the toppling and execution of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is left in turmoil. The centralized government he had put into place has totally collapsed, and the country has fallen apart. The old Tripolitania in the west with cities like Oea (Tripoli), Leptis Magna, and Sabratha is separated from the Cyrenaica in the east around the modern city of Benghazi and old Cyrene. The deserts to the south have become a no man's land where smugglers, militias and armed groups of all kind roam and rule freely.

There is no room for archaeologists who fear the worst as the more than two thousand years old sites are the scene of armed conflicts or otherwise fall victim to urban expansion. Armed groups often gather inside archaeological sites from where they organize their attacks.

For decennia, the conservation and restoration of the antique sites were entrusted to western experts and archaeologists, but the political and practical insecurity has kept them away. Recently, a Spanish archaeological mission visited Sabratha and reached an agreement to restore the site. Pending due security measures, however, their good intentions cannot materialize (see: Still hope, though scant, for Libya’s heritage). 

Meanwhile, looting is still occurring on a large scale. Taking advantage of the lack of security, smugglers have no difficulty collecting archaeological treasures (see: Cyrene and other Lybian sites defaced and left for grabs). Occasionally, some of these artworks are seized, but there is no overview of the looting. The fact that Sabratha has become the departure point for illegal migrants from Africa is not helping either.

All museums have closed, including the major one in Tripoli. Some of the most precious artifacts have been stored in safe locations, but that will never be enough to truly safeguard the vast and varied amount of artwork.

I have found no particular information about the situation at the Museum of Sabratha that holds a rare collection of mosaics and frescoes.

One of the most striking mosaics is the Triumph of Bacchus that displays three inserted medallions. It appears that these medallions were created by specialized craftsmen in Alexandria who were famous for using tiny tesserae. Looking closely, one can easily notice the difference in size and style between the overall mosaic and the inserts. The top medallion shows Bacchus standing on a chariot that is pulled by two panthers. The central medallion contains a rather aggressive lion head and the bottom one a carefully executed panther head. 

Another remarkable piece of the museum is the sizeable mosaic retrieved from the Basilica of Justinian, which must have been exceptionally large. The work of art is filled with Byzantine-Christian symbolism, such as the vine surrounding an ostentatious peacock (representing immortality) and the bird in a cage (the human soul trapped in his body). The phoenix, in turn, stands for the resurrection. The mosaics that once covered the floor of the side naves of the Basilica are hung from the walls.

The frescoes, although rather small, are very well executed and very lively. Most of these pieces were recovered from the House of Leda.

The importance and significance of Sabratha deserve to be underscored. Few people realize that as early as the 10th century BC, Phoenicians from Lebanon founded three trading posts on the shores of North Africa. In time, these became known as the Tripolitania. It was the Greeks who founded the first colonies in the Cyrenaica in the 8th century BC, including cities like Cyrene (see: Picking up Alexander’s traces in Cyrene). After the death of Alexander, this area was ruled by the Ptolemies as the Cyrenaica was part of Egypt.