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 in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR 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 Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 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 29, 2014

More about Magna Graecia: a testimony from Calabria

The Province of Calabria is generally seen as the stepchild of Italy although very few people ever took the trouble to visit this region so rich in history and culture. Sorry to add that I haven’t been there either … yet.

Situated at the southern tip of Italy, it was widely settled by the Greeks in the period between the eighth and the fourth century BC (see: Magna Graecia, the forgotten Greek legacy) and the modern cities of Reggio (Rhegion), Rosarno (Medma), Lamezia Terme (Terina), Crotone (Kroton), Catanzaro (Scylletium), Caulonia (Kaulonia), Locri (Epizephyrian Locris) and coastal cities of Bruttium (Scyllaeum and Petelia) have their roots back in those early days.

Among those forlorn towns there is Riace near the toe of Italy that merits all our attention as it made history in 1972 when an amateur snorkler and diver discovered by chance two magnificent bronze statues – one of Italy’s greatest discoveries of the past 100 years. As we don’t know who they represent, they are simply called the “Riace A” and “Riace B” – not very evocative, of course.

Except for a few vague architectural remains, no shipwreck that could give any indication about their provenance or destination was found, which evidently fueled further speculations. Meanwhile it has been established that the statues were made about thirty years apart: “Riace A” was apparently created between 460 and 450 BC whereas “Riace B” fits between the years 430-420 BC. So far, archeologists have not been able to agree whether they represent warriors, athletes or gods. Both are larger than life-size and measure nearly two meters. Both men are naked; the older man (Riace B) wears a helmet and the younger one (Riace A) shows his wavy hairdo. They may have carried a spear and shield; both are made of cast bronze but their eyelids and teeth are of silver, their nipples and lips of red copper, while their eyes are composed of ivory, limestone and a paste of glass and amber. 

Scholars do not agree about the makers of these bronzes. “Riace A”, a man conscious of his good looks, may have been made by Myron of Eleutherae, an Athenian based artist of the mid 5th century BC; “Riace B” on the other hand, depicts a more mature man in a relaxed pose with a kind look in his eyes and could be from the hand of Alkamenes, a pupil of the great Phidias.

These magnificent bronzes made headlines again recently when after four years lying on their backs pending some repair and cleaning as victims of budget cuts and lots of red tape, they finally are back at the Archeological Museum of Reggio Calabria. They are now once again standing in all their glory for everyone to see.

At the end of last century both statues went on a triumphant pilgrimage through Italy to cities like Rome, Florence and Milan, but this kind of travel will not be repeated for the World Fair in Milan next year because their overall condition is far too delicate. Their exhibition for the G8-top in Genoa held in 2001 had already been refused. So, whoever wants to see these unique bronzes will inevitably have to travel to Reggio Calabria – an opportunity to visit more of Magna Graecia on the way?

[pictures from ANSA]

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Plutarch’s Lives or The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans by Plutarch

Plutarch's Lives (ISBN 978-0375756764) is an excellent reference book and very worthwhile reading as he describes the lives of prominent Greeks and Romans individually and  draws parallels between them according to their status or function.

This translation by John Dryden (revised by Arthur Hugh Clough) may seem old-fashioned and in a way it is. Yet it somehow adds an extra flavor to the antique texts. It is not as easy to read as any other contemporary translation of Plutarch's work but it has a feel of being close to the original script and the original way of understanding what Plutarch meant. A native English speaker will not find it so difficult to read as a foreigner, yet it is definitely worth the effort.

As far as Alexander the Great is concerned, Plutarch is the only author from antiquity to tell us something about Alexander’s youth – all the others start right away with his conquests and generally at his crossing to Asia Minor, leaving out the fierce campaign he had to lead at home before crossing the Hellespont. 

It is rather obvious that Plutarch compares him with Julius Caesar ...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Ladies of Morgantina

Alexander lived during the rich days when the Classical Greek art had reached its apogee. We can only guess what beautiful architecture and statues he may have grown up with and may have surrounded him. In whatever I see, I always wonder if it is something that Alexander may have known or if it was the product of his spreading of Hellenism.

Once in a while though, I find myself confronted with striking objects or out of common statues and on such occasions these questions surface once again. This is exactly what happened in the small but very fine Archaeological Museum of Morgantina, Sicily that exhibits quite a few special artifacts.

For now, let’s focus for a moment on a group that is generally called The Ladies of Morgantina. It is the strangest pair of women I’ve ever seen, in fact only marble acroliths: two heads, three feet and three hands. The statues themselves would have been made of wood, now gone, to which the extremities were attached. The faces have that serene expression, typical for the classical period with almond-shaped eyes and enigmatic smile, which led experts to date them to around 530 BC. The heads and hands are perfectly well preserved while the feet are strangely worn, perhaps because of repeated caresses by their worshippers. The Ladies’ hair and their jewelry like diadems and earrings were probably made of some precious metal and the statues themselves were wrapped in a mantel of linen or wool, the head covered with a veil. They must have looked extremely true to life.

Lots of speculations and debates have surrounded these statues but in the end most scholars agree that both are female and could represent Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The position of their fingers suggests that they must have held an object in their hands.

The way they sit today in Morgantina’s Museum does them credit. A simple wire construction hidden by dark tulle outlines the body of these goddesses while the spotlights lay the accent justly on the acroliths, making them again very respectable as they stare at their visitors from the height of their podium. They have a very dignified posture and pose, accentuated by the correct light and their timeless smile.

It is a great pleasure to see these goddesses right here where they belong after having traveled around for many years. They were smuggled out of the country after illegal digging in the second half of last century and eventually found their way to the United States. Shortly after 2005 they luckily came home to Morgantina and it is no surprise that they are a prized possession of the museum.

[For more pictures click on this link to the Morgantina Museum]

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Magna Graecia, the forgotten Greek legacy

Many, many years ago I travelled to southern Italy off season to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum. Unfortunately my lodging address was much further away than what the travel brochure made me believe and I wound up way south of Salerno. This is how I discovered the existence of sites like Paestum and Velia, once part of Magna Graecia. Till then I had not heard of Magna Graecia and I had no idea what it actually meant for when we talk about Greece, we automatically think of mainland Greece and Athens in particular but not of any colonies or overseas settlements.

That trip was my very first encounter with Greek civilization, even if it had been adapted and reshaped by the Romans. In those days before internet, before color TV and few books with colored pictures, my perception of Pompeii and Herculaneum was based on lots of imagination but I was over the moon to be able to investigate these places by myself. It was February, a time no tourist in his right mind would venture to those parts of Italy and I remember that only seven cars were parked outside Pompeii. In short, I was not disturbed or hampered by any crowd, meaning that conditions were right to get a true feeling of these antique remains.  I found the same emptiness in Herculaneum where I thought I still could inhale the smell of the burnt wooden beam that have survived, much unlike Pompeii. The Archeological Museum of Naples war nearly empty, making me feel lost till I came face to face with Alexander on the famous mosaic from the Villa of the Faun. It felt like a private audience with Alexander the Great, an unforgettable experience!

This was my very first “archeological” trip and I learnt many precious lessons for the future. The very first lesson was that I should prepare a trip, inquire locally about what to see and what the opening hours are. Second lesson: get all the information you can about a museum before going there as I spent several hours in Naples before reaching those rooms with Alexander and other precious objects I really wanted to see. Third lesson: do your homework. Since then, I did all that and never had to regret missing anything major.

As I said, I was staying much too far away, actually a good two-hours drive from Salerno over winding local though beautiful roads. But there was an advantage to this unfortunate situation for I was close to the ancient sites of Elea (modern Velia) and Poseidona (modern Paestum). This was my introduction to Magna Graecia. Life takes strange twists at times …

It was here that I heard for the first time how an impressive number of Greek colonies were founded all around the Mediterranean. For various reasons often including famine or overpopulation at home but also frictions and competition between the rising city-states, induced many Greeks between the eighth and fourth century BC to emigrated in search of new opportunities overseas. After all, the Greeks were always seeking business opportunities and perfectly understood the advantage of  establishing good trade relations with foreign countries. Settlements varied widely from the Black Sea, including Crimea, and Asia Minor to North Africa and the Iberian and Italic peninsulas. One of the most flourishing area was to become known as Magna Graecia or Great Greece, i.e. the coastal region of southern Italy which generally also includes Sicily, heavily colonized by the Greeks during the 8th and 7th century BC.

Basically there were two types of  colonies like those that existed as an independent city-state and the widely spread trading-colonies. We have to thank these Greek colonies for spreading Hellenistic culture as most cities around the Mediterranean somehow have Greek roots.

Paestum was my first city to visit and it looked familiar right away since I discovered it was the setting of the well-known Sissi II movie in which the Empress of Austria, who according to history went to Greece to recover from tuberculosis, is walking among these very temples! I have not returned there since but in those days the only buildings standing were the three temples: the Temple of Ceres, the Temple of Poseidon (Neptune) and the Basilica. Beside that the main roads had been exposed with the Decumanus exiting the city at the Porta Marina in the West and the Porta Sirena in the East, while the Cardo linked the Porta Aura in the North to the Porta Giudizia in the South – all gates clearly visible in the still standing city walls. The central Forum and part of the Amphitheatre had been excavated, but that was about all.

I was very impressed by the compact and sturdy Basilica or possible Temple of Hera which counted an unusual nine columns in its façade while all temples basically have an even number of columns (another thing I learnt). For this reason the temple has only one row of columns running in the middle of the cella. Striking is that in this Basilica built around 500 BC the optical correction of the columns was apparently not yet known and looking carefully we clearly see how the columns seem to lean inwards.

The middle temple dedicated to Poseidon (or maybe also to Hera) was built about one hundred years later and the optical corrections in the architecture of this edifice have been carried out to perfection. Time wise it corresponds to the construction of the Parthenon in Athens when the purity of proportions reached its peak. No wonder that this Temple of Poseidon steals the show in every way! A curious oddity used in only few temples is the two rows of superposed columns inside the cella, the place where the god resides. These columns are especially slender and elegant and seem to make the temple feel very light. Greeks in antiquity would laugh at our admiration for these ruins which they would have torn down without mercy, but they have not seen how the color of the travertine stone turns to golden as the material aged and hardened over the centuries. It is now a most wonderful spectacle to watch how sun and shadows play with the ocher-colored colonnades set against a steel-blue sky.

The Temple of Ceres on the other hand is more austere, probably because like for the Basilica, the construction material comes from a different quarry than for the Temple of Poseidon. Smaller than the two other temples, it stands a little to aside and has the oddity of counting 6x13 columns instead of the normal proportion of 6x12. There are exceptions to every rule, even when it comes to building temples, it seems.

Poseidonia was founded early in the sixth century BC by Acheans and by the end of the fifth century the city was conquered by the Lucanians who more or less followed the customs of the early settlers. In 273 BC, however, after siding with Pyrrhus against Rome and sharing his defeat, it became a Roman city under the name of Paestum. It continued to flourished till the fourth century AD, at which time decline set it and by the Middle-Ages Paestum was entirely abandoned.

The story of Elea is slightly different. It was founded by Greeks from Phocaea who fled Asia Minor around 538-535 BC after a siege by the Persians. As opposed to Paestum, Elea was not conquered by the Lucanians but fell to Rome at the same time in 273 BC. More important is probably that it was the home of the Eleatic School founded by the philosopher Parmenides at the beginning of the fifth century BC that included Zeno of Elea and Melissus of Samos – maybe even Xenophanes but that is not proven.

The very location of Velia as I saw it was quite striking. The light was still gentle and the skies were pale blue as they generally are in spring. The landscape was very green for the valleys were filled olive trees, fig trees and vines which the Greek had introduced. The mimosa was blooming and the small mountain oranges were ripe for picking. In a distant the snow capped mountains of the Apennines kept watch over these lands, unchanged over the centuries. What a choice place to found a city!

High on the Acropolis of Elea stood an Ionic temple of which only the crepidoma remains and a few stubs of columns as most of the material has been reused in the construction of the medieval tower that stands on top of it, commanding the view from afar. To reach the Acropolis, I remember walking over a most beautiful Greek road made of cobblestones with intermittent horizontal slabs to keep them in place and flanked on each side by a deep gutter (4th-3rd century BC). This road ends at the Porta Rosa a magnificent example of a vaulted gate built by the Greeks and the only one of its kind to be found in Magna Graecia.

In the lower part of Elea, the Porta Marina was the eye-catcher. In antiquity Elea was an active port that has as is often the case been silted up and now lies much further inland. The surprise was to find this southern city gate flooded after recent rainfall making it look like a gate to the sea. The five kilometers long city walls were built in the sixth century BC and two centuries later they were reinforced with sturdy towers to defend Elea against a possible attack by the Lucanians. Explanations were non-existing but I managed to locate some Roman Bath which turned out to be built by Emperor Hadrian. There was also a vast Roman residence and other unidentified remains. Looking for pictures of Elea on the internet I’m surprised to see that a Roman theater and an Asclepion have been excavated but I see no traces of the aqueduct that I discovered there, partially running underground and covered by two slabs of stones in between the cisterns that used to filter the water before reaching the lower city. Well, enough to be intrigued and high-time for me to return and see it all for myself.

In any case, my visit to Paestum has set in motion my life-long love for and understanding of Greek art. First in the Classical Period but mostly during the following Hellenistic era a degree of perfection was reached that was never surpassed in later centuries by any civilization. We are blessed that in spite of time and repeated wars so many of the buildings, statues, pots, jewelry, and other remains have come to us. The many temples in Magna Graecia tend to give us the impression that the colonizers were even more Greek than the Greeks themselves!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Amazing charioteers

Speaking of a charioteer, the tall and slender bronze statue from Delphi immediately comes to mind. Standing in front of this unique figure with his large inlaid eyes and delicate eyelashes is an unforgettable experience. 

Erected either in 478 or in 474 BC to honor the victory of a chariot team in the Pythian Games that were held every four years at Delphi for the Pythian Apollo, it incarnates the typical conventional style of the late Archaic period as well as that of the early Classical ideal although we easily tend to look beyond his rather rigid pose simply because his face is so fascinating. This charioteer is supposed to have stood behind the chariot drawn by four or six horses, assisted by two grooms forming a quite imposing group in its days. It is believed to be made in Athens and shows certain similarities with the Piraeus Apollo, but nothing is certain.

But there is another charioteer, although much less known who is at home at the Museum of Motya in Sicily. This is a most remarkable marble statue dating from around 440 BC, which by its pose alone expresses great confidence. It may have been made by a Greek master and scholars even think that Phidias may have been its creator. This work is much more realistic, fully belonging to the Classical period. As it was found buried in a shallow grave on the road to the sanctuary his face and vital parts have been abraded, but otherwise, he is amazingly well preserved. He lost the bronze band around his chest and his arms which he held in quite a defiant pose. In fact he carries his entire body in a rather provocative pose and the tight long dress gives him a sexy appearance.

On second thought, this statue may not be that of a charioteer but rather represent the Phoenician god Melgart (equal to the Greek Heracles), the supreme god of Tyre, or even an unknown Carthaginian hero. Personally, I favor the idea of a charioteer, were it only because of the elongated lower body and his dress which corresponds entirely to his Delphian counterpart.

Both statues also come together in Sicily as the inscription found on the limestone base of the Delphian charioteer states that the bronze was dedicated by the tyrant of Gela, a Greek colony in Sicily to thank Apollo for helping him to win the chariot race (Polyzalos dedicated me … Make him prosper, honored Apollo). The marble charioteer, on the other hand, was extracted from Sicilian soil more recently.

It never ceases to amaze me how close the relationship among the peoples around the Mediterranean was. In the fifth century BC, Sicily was indeed very wealthy and the local rulers could easily have afforded the most magnificent offerings to the gods. The Motya charioteer is proof for that.

[Click here for more pictures of the Motya charioteer]
[Picture of the charioteer from Delphi is taken from Wikipedia]

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

New speculation about Alexander’s tomb

It is beyond doubt that whoever finds the tomb of Alexander the Great will go down in history as having made the discovery of the century, so the hunt is still on. Theories about the location and or/ discovery of Alexander’s tomb make the headlines on a more or less regular base. Its seems that in Egypt in alone at least 140 unsuccessful searches have been recognized, and only a few months ago the gamble took place in Amphipolis, Greece (see: Nonsense about Alexander’s grave in Amphipolis). Another theory was exposed in a YouTube film (see: TheLost Tomb of Alexander the Great in Egypt?), yet again non-conclusive. Over the past years, Andrew Chugg has developed a possible theory that Alexander’s remains were taken to the San Marco Basilica in Venice as they were mistakenly identified as pertaining to the Evangelist by the visiting Venetians (see: The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great and The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great).

[Picture from World News Daily Report]

The latest news this time comes from Alexandria in Egypt, the city where Alexander was buried as recorded by several two thousand years-old sources. His tomb must be there “somewhere”. An article published in the World News Daily Report mentions how a team of Polish archaeologists researching the crypt of an early Christian church have found a richly decorated mausoleum which they attribute to Alexander based apparently on an inscription reading “King of Kings, and Conqueror of the World, Alexander III”. It sounds too good to be true, if you ask me - as if someone kindly left his business card.

The site shows mixed influences from the different cultures of Alexander’s empire: Macedonian, Greek, Egyptian and Persian. Strangely enough, said article specifies that the monument held a sarcophagus made of crystal glass (how convenient!) that was broken by looters at some point in the past but apparently before the third or fourth century when the tomb was sealed off. Archeologists also found 37 broken bones pertaining to a male adult. Carbon dating should shed some light on the age of the male in question, while other unspecified tests are undertaken to determine whether these bones could be those of Alexander. Beside the bones and shattered glass, only a small number of artifacts have been recovered - mainly pieces of pottery - said to belong the Ptolemaic and Roman eras.

Personally I find the tone of the article not too enthusiastic and the so-called proofs rather vague. The inscription mentioned above, for instance, may have been taken out of its context as they say that the texts were written partially in Greek and partially in hieroglyphs.

It was Ptolemy, Alexander’s general and later king of Egypt as Ptolemy I Soter who kidnapped Alexander’s remains while underway to Macedonia and had them temporarily entered in Memphis. It was his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who finished the construction of the Mausoleum for Alexander in Alexandria and who transferred his remains to this city where it laid in state for many centuries and was visited by Roman emperors like Julius Caesar, Caligula and Caracalla. The very existence of the Mausoleum is traceable till the fourth century, but with the rise of Christianity and Islam it slowly fell in oblivion. Some Arabian travelers however reported to have seen Alexander’s tomb as recently as the ninth and the sixteenth century but don’t give any information about its location.

In short, the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great is still unknown and I believe that finding it will only happen by chance.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

More Treasure Finds from ancient Macedonia

It is wonderful news that in spite of its poor financial state, excavations in Greece are still on-going. To my greatest satisfaction, the most recent discoveries are coming from the Vergina area, ancient Aegae.

The pieces recovered from five different tombs are very refined and one of them could have belonged to King Cassander, the bloody ruler of Macedonia who took the Macedonian crown after killing Alexander’s mother, wife and son(s). Himself being the son of Antipater, Alexander’s regent while campaigning in the east, Cassander married Alexander’s sister Thessaloniki, establishing the Antipatrid dynasty. 

Another quite important tomb shows a large underground room whose walls are decorated with garlands of ivy and flowers. Based on the impressive ceramic objects and an iron sword found in this tomb it can be dated to 420-410 BC and could well belong to King Perdiccas II, one of Alexander’s ancestors who died in 413 BC.

Yet another Macedonian tomb was discovered showing Doric columns and a façade that is similar to that of the tomb that supposedly belongs to Alexander IV, the son of Alexander the Great.

[Attic lekythoi and Funeral mourning representation found at the Royal Necropolis of Aegae, Vergina. Pictures from Archaeology News Network, Credit: ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ/ΥΠΠΟ/STR]

In total twenty tombs were excavated ranging from the 4th to the  3rd century BC . Although these burial sites have been plundered in the past, they still yielded some impressive artifacts.

Further to the south, in ancient Corinth, a hoard of 51 Macedonian gold coins has been found in a cavity in the rocks. The coins featuring Philip II were minted in Pella and Amphipolis in Macedonia, while those showing Alexander the Great come from Amphipolis in Greece, Miletus and Tarsus in Asia Minor, Salamis in Cyprus and from Sidon in Phoenicia. The hoard was concealed shortly after 330 BC when Alexander was still in Asia and a Macedonian garrison was posted in Corinth to protect the isthmus.

[Picture from Pinterest]