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 Drangiana/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, Afghanistan) - 329 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)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Alexander and Hephaistion side by side

It is absolutely thrilling to find these two great men side by side at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.


I often wonder why there are so few images of Hephaistion, but one should consider that none of the men in Alexander’s entourage were ever depicted while the king was still alive. We do have pictures – mainly coins – showing the members of his bodyguards (somatophylakes) but only when they became king in their own realm after Alexander’s death simply because it was a king’s privilege to be portrayed.

The most obvious example is beyond doubt Ptolemy who started ruling over Egypt immediately after Alexander’s death. Lysimachos had to wait a little longer in the ensuing battle of de Diadochi to be recognized as king of Thrace and to be represented as such on his coinage. The same applies obviously to Seleucos and Antigonus-the-One-Eyed. Yet none of the king’s Bodyguards like Aristonous, Peithon, Leonnatus, Peucestas or even Perdiccas have ever been carved in stone, hence we don’t know what they looked like.

This being said, I should not be ungrateful for the few images we have of Hephaistion, i.e. the head (probably reworked in antiquity) now at the Getty Museum in Malibu, California, and the smaller than life-size marble statue at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens where he is standing next to Alexander.

Alexander looks rather shabby but in my eyes Hephaistion is exactly how he is supposed to be. However, I struggle with the label at the museum, which states "Marble statue of Hephaistion. Possibly a group erected in Alexandria honouring Hephaistion, 1st century BC". Why would Alexander show up next to an honorific statue for Hephaistion? And how come Alexandria is (still) honouring Hephaistion in the first century BC when the Ptolemaic dynasty is reaching its end with the famous Queen Cleopatra fighting for Egypt’s survival? When Hephaistion died in 324 BC, Alexander would have loved to see him deified by the Egyptian priests, who tactfully promoted him to hero instead. So a cult in honour of Hephaistion is not surprising but I find the time-frame and this kind of association with Alexander rather disturbing.

When I wrote my “Ode to Alexander and Hephaistion” I had completely forgotten to mention this group of statues. Shame on me! But then I also had omitted to mention the portraits of both men on the famous Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon, now at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

This sarcophagus in fact deserves a closer look, of course. To start with it does not belong to Alexander the Great but most probably was made for King Abdalonymus of Sidon who was put on the throne by Alexander (with the help of Hephaistion) after conquering the city in 332 BC. It has been dated to some time between 325 and 311 BC and was discovered in 1887 at the Royal Necropolis of Sidon, i.e. when Phoenicia was still part of the Ottoman Empire.


One of the long sides of the sarcophagus definitely shows Alexander fighting a Persian, probably King Darius (but this is not certain) at the Battle of Issus that occurred only a few months earlier and where the Persians were defeated by the Greeks. The other long side represents two hunting scenes, those of a lion and a deer in which both Greeks and Persians participated as well. The short sides of the sarcophagus show respectively a panther hunt and a battle scene.

Alexander is the only figure that has been identified with certainty since he is wearing Heracles’ headdress and the Amon ram’s horn. Hephaistion is probably depicted in the hunting scene where he attacks a lion together with a Persian. It is most unfortunate that the other personages cannot be tied to a name although Perdiccas and Abdalonymus have been suggested. It is a wonderful historical document that sadly has not been entirely deciphered.

Although the appearance of these high reliefs is very Greek, the craftsmen were masters in the Eastern art of decoration. This is based on the use of eagles in the upper row of the acroteria, who according to ancient Syrian believes carried the souls of the dead to heaven. The heads of women added at the bottom refer to the worship of the mother goddess as known from prehistoric times in Mesopotamia. The acroteria above the pediments on the sides represent Persian griffons. Also, there is a lion lying on each corner of the sarcophagus, symbolizing protection. These meagre beasts look more like dogs and seem to be from Ionian origin.

The attentive eye will notice subtle traces of paint all over this marble sarcophagus. Colours range from purple, blue and red to violet and yellow and it is thought that the figures themselves were slightly varnished. Thanks to the intensive work carried out by Vinzenz Brinkman over the past 25 years (see: Ancient Greece in full Technicolor), we can now have a very vivid image of what this sarcophagus must have looked like at the time of its completion.

This being said, we owe a great deal to the owner of this masterpiece. King Abdalonymus is definitely displaying immense gratitude towards both Alexander and Hephaistion since without them he would never have ruled over his city. When the people of Sidon heard of Alexander’s victory over Darius at Issus, they decided to deposit their ruling king, Straton II who was a friend of Darius and opened the city gates to Alexander whose task was then to appoint a new king. He instructed Hephaistion to find the appropriate candidate. It is said that he discovered this distant relative of the dynasty of Sidon, living in the countryside. Abdalonymus, his name meaning “servant of the gods” in Persian, clearly took his task seriously. What an honourable tribute he paid here to both Alexander and Hephaistion!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Alexander’s Tomb by Nicholas J. Saunders

I don’t remember why exactly I purchased Nicholas J. Saunders’ book “Alexander’s Tomb, the Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror” (ISBN 978-0465072033). As far as I am concerned, everything has been said by Andrew Chugg (see: The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great and The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great) and to my knowledge no new elements that definitely would have made headlines, have surfaced.

It probably was the name of the author that caught my attention more than my search for any new development about the tomb of Alexander the Great, and I was not disappointed. Facts are facts and it does not matter by which author they are expressed, and Nicholas Saunders has projected the known facts about Alexander’s tomb against the political situation in Egypt and the rest of world over the past two thousand years in which people have been venerating the person of Alexander and his achievements.

His tomb remains enigmatic and although it has been mentioned repeatedly in ancient history, nobody seems to have taken the trouble to describe the tomb or its exact location. It seems it was so obvious that it didn’t need to be recorded.

Ptolemy, once one of Alexander’s generals and later founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, treated Alexander’s remains with due reverence, and so did his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus who deified his father as Soter (savior god) and established a religious festival in his honor known as the Ptolemaia. By glorifying the Ptolemies he emphasized their connection with Alexander, whose memory was still very much alive in the ancient world, especially in Alexandria, the city he founded.

For the first time, I’m reading this description of the Ptolemaia, apparently reported by Callixeinus of Rhodes, which throws a unique light upon the flagrantly expensive celebrations held every four years. When Queen Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies died the Roman emperors were more than happy to follow suite and to continue the Alexander cult till the early Christian leaders felt threatened fearing that Alexander would be more popular than Jesus. Then the Arabs conquered Alexandria and built their own mosques, maybe above or near Alexander’s tomb.

But after that, Alexander and his tomb slowly sank back in time, although his name and great exploits remained forever etched in people’s memory. In the 18th century Napoleon and his entourage tried in vain to retrace the burial site, followed in the 19th century by the famous Heinrich Schliemann and several Greek and Italian archeologists. And in 1995 the Greek Liana Souvaltzi made headlines by declaring that Alexander’s tomb had been located at Siwah; the building she was referring to was, however, an already excavated Ptolemaic temple. So, we are back to square one as far as Alexander’s Tomb is concerned.

The only “trail” we have till now is Andrew Chugg’s suggestion that Alexander may lie in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Italy. In the end, Nicholas Saunders is nowhere closer to finding Alexander’s tomb and his remains, but the background information makes his book interesting reading.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Petra is revealing precious wall paintings

In a previous article (see: Hellenistic Petra, an indirect heritage of Alexander) I explained how Petra, although it was not explicitly conquered by Alexander the Great, the land of the Nabataean of which Petra is the capital city inevitably became part of his empire after he swept through Greater Syria on his way from Egypt to Gaugamela in 331 BC.

The Hellenistic influence is everywhere and it is not surprising to hear that recently Hellenistic-style wall paintings have been found in a cave complex in what is called Little Petra, about five kilometers away from the main site of Petra that draws busloads of tourists. The pictures were hidden underneath layers of black soot and smoke that covered the walls and ceilings after many people like the local Bedouins lived there for centuries.

This discovery is even more significant since only very few Hellenistic paintings survive today and we have only hints of lost masterpieces. With great care, the Petra National Trust (PNT) has restored the paintings which slowly emerge from the blackened layers of dirt.

The uncovered and cleaned paintings are of exceptional artistic quality and it is clear that the Nabataean artists found their inspiration in earlier Hellenistic work. The frescoes that are brought to light were found in a dining area, a main chamber and a smaller alcove apparently used for ritual dining. The best quality frescoes are found on the vault and the walls of this niche. They all are very naturalistic and so far three different kinds of vines – grapes, ivy, and bindweed – have been identified, all referring to the Greek god Dionysus. As for the birds, a demoiselle crane, and a colored Palestine sunbird have been recognized. Also exposed are scenes with cupid-like figures picking fruit and chasing birds. It is important to note that the quality of the paintings is enhanced by the use of gilding and glazes; they provide a rare insight into the lifestyle of these still mysterious Nabataeans.

Little Petra was home for the affluent Nabataeans and the paintings probably date from the first century AD, although they may be older. From a historic and artistic point of view, they are very important and represent a unique synthesis of Hellenistic-Roman culture.


So far, the paintings in this cave complex are the only surviving figurative frescoes from the Nabataeans still in situ. A good reason to include Little Petra more often in future visits as the site is very much at a human scale where one can get the feeling that the ancient Nabataeans have just left the premises.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Little Petra]

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alexander in Athens

Alexander’s visit to Athens is one of those events that is generally overlooked when reading about his exploits, even by ancient historians.

After the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC where Alexander annihilated the Theban Band at the head of his father’s left wing, the young prince went to Athens together with Alcimachus and Philip’s weathered general and most probably senior diplomat, Antipater. Their goal was to negotiate peace with Athens, a highly sensitive matter that required serious political skills. They took with them the ashes of the cremated Athenians from the battlefield, as well as the two thousand Athenian prisoners made at Chaeronea for which no ransom was demanded. They only requested that an Athenian embassy would go to Philip to discuss a mutual peace.

For Antipater this was not his first mission as envoy of King Philip and not his first mission to Athens either. During earlier negotiations for peace in 346 BC, Athens had sent a heavy embassy of ten men to Pella that was answered by Philip’s usual confusing diplomacy. What Philip really wanted was a treaty of peace and alliance where he and the Athenians were equals, something that probably did not sink in with the Athenians. As soon as the delegation that included Philip’s sworn enemy Demosthenes left, the king set off for Thrace. In order to keep Athens on their toes he sent Antipater, together with Parmenion and Eurylochus to the city. Demosthenes however convinced the Assembly to go for a Common Peace in which every state was free to join. Antipater bluntly refused, because these were not his king’s terms. In the end, the Athenians and their allies had to comply and they swore their oaths to the peace and alliance to Macedonia.

Now, in 338 BC after the Battle of Chaeronea had ended all parties’ uncertainty whether to side up with Philip or with Athens, these two main players finally agreed on a treaty of friendship and alliance. The Athenians went even as far as conferring citizenship to Philip and Alexander, which by itself was not an exceptional gesture but it shows that they set a step forward in order to please the King of Macedonia. They even erected an equestrian statue of Philip on the Agora.


Unfortunately we don’t have any details about Alexander’s visit. Was Alexander, only 18 years old, merely accompanying Antipater? Or was Alexander put in charge, upon instructions of his father and coached by Antipater? Or was Alexander’s presence at the negotiations simply part of his education, or maybe his presence added more weight to Antipater’s argumentation? We can speculated at length about any of these theories, but no answer will be conclusive, I’m afraid.

I also wonder where Alexander, with or without Antipater, met the Athenian delegation. The Pnyx is not a likely location for this is where the Athenian people gathered for their own democratic elections, which have nothing to do with foreign policy. The Theater of Dionysus sounds an appropriate place in my eyes but it may be too large for the assembled company, so the smaller Bouleuterion on the Agora would offer a better alternative. Who knows?


It is pretty safe to assume that while in Athens Alexander walked up the Acropolis. The Parthenon, the Temple of Niké and the Ereichteion would have shone in their freshly painted flamboyant colors. From there the young prince would have looked out over the harbor of Piraeus only 12 km away and beyond that all the way to the island of Salamis, just as we can today. And whether or not the meeting with the Athenian delegation took place at the Theater of Dionysus, I’m sure he will not have missed the opportunity to attend a play by one of the most popular protagonists at that time.

It is very difficult to look at Athens through Alexander’s eyes, simply because we hardly have any fact to go by. So, I just keep on wondering and dreaming …

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hierapolis, stepchild of Pamukkale

Tourists flock by dozens of busloads to visit the thermal springs of Pamukkale, which in Turkish means  “cotton castle”, hardly aware of the existence of Hierapolis

As the spring water is cooling in contact with the air, it leaves behind a thick coat of travertine that sets in the shape of basins cascading all the way downhill. It appears like a giant white scar in the landscape. Visitors loved to wade through these basins, trampling the fragile formation and polluting the mineral waters, with catastrophic results as even hotels were being built right on top. Luckily the government put a stop to these practices and hotels have been dismantled while visitors are now generally ushered over wooden boards laid over the inviting basins.

For me, this is the first time I hear of Hierapolis, an ancient city half swallowed by or integrated into the travertine deposits of Pamukkale. Upon arrival, I catch a first glimpse of the many impressive sarcophagi alongside the road, the largest concentration of Anatolia.

Hierapolis, meaning “sacred city” was founded by Eumenes II, King of Pergamon in 190 BC, and was famous for its woven fabrics, mainly wool. Like so many cities in the area, it surrendered to the Romans in 133 BC. However, a large part of the city was destroyed during the earthquake of 60 AD but most of it was rebuilt afterwards, and Hierapolis prospered once again reaching its apogee between 196 and 215 AD. By 395, The Byzantines took over and it was still known for its gladiator fights till it was abandoned in the 6th century and a good part of the buildings disappeared under the travertine formations.

The necropolis I saw upon arrival is huge and counts no less than 1200 sarcophagi and tombs built in the shape of Roman houses mostly, but others date from earlier Hellenistic or later Christian eras. I’ve never seen such a large concentration! A city by itself!

Old Hierapolis is a little further down the road, where the Arch of Domitian leans against a thick round fortification tower. From here the 14 feet-wide colonnade street, the so-called Plateia, runs straight ahead for about 1,500 meters. To the left are the remains of the Agora leading to the antique theatre with high crooked walls ready to tumble down any moment since the earthquake of 60 AD. The large Theatre at the other end of town dates from 2nd century AD and once seated 20,000 people. Although only about thirty tiers of seats remain, it is worth to admire the Baroque stage that has been recently restored. In the upper part of the stage reliefs of Septimus Severus and his wife Julia were found. It seems this Roman Emperor loved Hierapolis and contributed to building this very theatre whose architecture is said to be unique.

Nearby we find the poor remains of the Nymphaeum with the adjacent pool which might be the only testimony of the Temple of Apollo. This site was abandoned after the earthquake of the 7th century and the marble portico collapsed into the spring waters. Today’s visitors are welcome to swim between these idyllic marble columns among luxuriant flowers and bushes of pink laurel. What a setting!

Because of the hot springs, Hierapolis was a popular health centre in Roman times when literally thousands of people bathed in one of the fifteen baths, each seeking one that was appropriate for his/her health problem.

From down here I try to take in the site. There is still a lot of excavation work to be done in this large city. Lots of antique artifacts must be simply for the taking as I see no fence or surveillance, while the locals freely swarm out over the site with their embroidered pillow cases, crocheted napkins, postcards and booklets as if they own the place. Well, in a sense they do, of course, but I would expect some stricter control over an archaeological site.

I climb to a higher point among the ruins, basically to get away from the noisy crowds. I reach the sturdy walls of Philip’s Martyrium, a church built in de 5th century on the alleged spot where Apostle Philip was stoned and crucified upside down in 80 AD. All along the outside of the church runs a corridor where the pilgrims could find a room for the night. The square Martyrium measures no less than 20 x 20 meter and in its centre lays an octagonal rotunda surrounding a crypt that for years stayed connected with the apostle. Excavations in 2014, however, have located Philip’s gravesite in a 1st-century Roman tomb at the centre of a new Christian church, some 40 meters away. This church was built around the very tomb in the 4th/5th century.

[This picture is from Archaeology News Network]

Excavations are still ongoing at Hierapolis and in 2013, a unique head of Aphrodite was found, clearly dating from the Hellenistic era based on the hairdo and the facial features. More marble sculptures were unearthed and all have been moved to the nearly Hierapolis Archaeology Museum.

About the same time, the statue of a 1.5 meter-high marble Cerberus was found. He was the mythological three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld or Hades, the so-called Gate of Hell. It was discovered thanks to the remains of small birds that appeared to have fallen dead at the mouth of a cave spewing deadly carbon dioxide fumes. Apparently Cicero visited this very cave in the 1st century BC and reported the phenomenon. Sparrows but also bulls fell dead at the entrance of the cave. Beside this Cerberus, archaeologists found a huge marble serpent, another mythical guardian of the entrance to the after-world.


Wait and see what else the archaeologists will discover in the future.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Ecbatana, where Hephaistion died

Hephaistion died in Ecbatana  in October 324 BC after being seriously ill with high fever for about seven days. His symptoms may indicate a case of typhoid. When he seemed to have been over the worst and his appetite returned he is said to have consumed a whole chicken and a large bottle of wine. This was against his doctor’s orders, but Glaucias had left his patient to attend the games at one the festivals organized for the entertainment of the troops. Alexander himself was at the theater when the news reached him that Hephaistion had fallen into agony and by the time he arrived at his friend’s bedside he had already died. The city was in mourning and its crenellations were shorn.

Today the city of Ecbatana has changed its name to Hamadan, literally meaning “the place of gathering”. It seems very few people remember Ecbatana’s name and fame from antiquity, once the capital of the Medes founded as early as the 8th century BC. After the conquests of Cyrus the Great in 549 BC, the city became part of the Persian Empire. After his death, it was re-conquered by the Medes but not for long since the new Persian king Darius I took it back in 521 BC (this victory is depicted in the large relief at Bisutun). Since then, the Achaemenid kings used Ecbatana as their summer residence, a custom that was imitated by later Seleucid and Parthian kings alike.

If we consult the Greek historian Polybius, we are told that Ecbatana was the richest and most beautiful city in the world. It had no walls, only the palace that was set on an artificial terrace had its fortifications that were approximately 1,250 meters long. This means that the palace stood on a plateau of approximately 300x300 meters (as compared to Persepolis’ 450x300m). Five hundred years earlier, Herodotus, on the other hand, wrote that the city was surrounded by seven concentric walls in different colours with the most inner walls plated with gold and silver. People were dwelling around the wall, meaning outside the palace walls on the fertile plain. These are apparently the only ancient texts we have to go by, and in the contradictory and confusing descriptions, we may wonder whether they are talking about the city walls, the palace walls or maybe even the walls of the citadel. It all seems to be jumbled together.

Polybius does mention, however, that most of the precious metals were stripped off during the invasion of Alexander, but I can hardly believe this especially if he means the palace walls. Further stripping is said to have taken place by Antigonus-the-one-Eyed and by Seleucos, which is more plausible in my eyes.

Arrian, in turn, mentions the citadel of Ecbatana where the captured Persian treasure was kept under the watchful eye of Harpalus.

I was quite surprised to hear that there were ruins of old Ecbatana left at all and I only see dusty hills behind a fence. It seems the French dug here first, but since 1995 Iranian archaeologists are excavating the site with unclear results so far. They may have found only the Parthian level, meaning that the Achaemenid and the Median levels are to be sought much deeper – or as suggested in 2007, at another nearby location. The problem is that part of modern Hamadan is built right on top of the ancient site. Good luck to the future archaeologists!

Alexander visited Ecbatana twice. The first time was when he dismissed his Greek allied contingents, sending them back home will full payment for their services and an additional 2,000 talents as a gratuity. He was, however, willing to hire any of these soldiers in his service and put them on his regular payroll, and a great number of volunteers did indeed enlist. Those who returned home were escorted by a mounted guard and once they reached the Aegean they were shipped to Euboea. At this stage, it is clear that Alexander having conquered Persia considered the League war as ended; from now on his campaigns were a Macedonian affair.

Alexander’s second visit took place six years later after the lavish mass wedding ceremony at Susa when he was on his way to Babylon. This is when Hephaistion fell ill and died. His body was transported by Craterus to Babylon where the funeral ceremony was held in November 324 BC, hardly seven months before Alexander’s own untimely death.

At Ecbatana are the poor remains of a lion that is connected to Hephaistion, either once part of a monument built in his honor or his mausoleum. I had seen pictures of this lion at its present location, high on an appropriate pedestal but the monument was not part if our visiting program. I pleaded my cause with the local guide, who agreed to make a small detour.

The Lion definitely is Hellenistic, apparently one of a pair that was still lying around in the late 1800s and a favourite toy for the local boys who climbed on it for a ride on its back. The prospect of having to leave Hamadan without a proper tribute to Hephaistion was simply beyond me after having travelled thousands of miles to get here. So I was lucky after all. I am now at peace with the place they have granted this poor shapeless lion. Hephaistion definitely deserves better but this is all there is although the lion may date from Seleucid or Parthian times.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

City with no name – yet.

How unlikely to find an unknown and unchartered city, but this is what happened just recently high up Mount Pindos in Northern Greece!


At first glance and based on the coins, ceramics and some metallic equipment it has been established that the city dates from the 4th century BC. Some fragments of inscriptions have been recovered, one of which reading IEP… and could refer to a sacred place. Archeologists tend to believe that this was an important place of worship for ancient Macedonians.

The scattered remains and the geographical location of this city in the area of Kastri prove that it occupied an important place in the ancient Macedonian kingdom. So far, large portions of the fortified acropolis have been excavated which leads to conclude that the city had “a religious character”. A large amount of copper arrows and traces of fire indicate, however, that the city was destroyed after a violent war at some point during the 2nd century BC.

Further excavations are needed, of course, but it is extremely exciting to come across such a new archeological site and ancient city of which nothing is known so far. Being located in Macedonia it may even be a city connected to Alexander the Great, who knows?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great by A.B. Bosworth

Strangely enough, Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great by A.B. Bosworth (ISBN 0-521-40679-X) is on my bookshelves for years and it is one of those books that I consult on a pretty regular base when I need to elucidate a particular aspect of Alexander’s life. High time to add it to my blog-library!

The book is in fact split in two distinct sections.

The first part The Gaining of empire (336-323 BC) tells us about Alexander from his accession to the throne to his final year, i.e. his death. It is written in Bosworth’s unique style, crisp and clear, using sentences in which each word plays its role avoiding confusing or superfluous adjectives or descriptions.

The second half of the book, which appears under the title Thematic Studies, gives a detailed and extremely useful analysis of Alexander’s campaigns and the many facets of his life that have to be taken into consideration. Bosworth has divided these studies into four separate chapters:

A.  Mainland Greece in Alexander’s reign, generally covering the events in Greece while the king is marching east;
B.  Alexander and his Empire, shedding some light on the financial administration and the government of his newly acquired empire;
C.   Alexander and the Army, concentrating on the changes he has to implement in his armed forces as the clashes with the enemy move from organized battle formations to guerilla warfare;
D.    The divinity of Alexander, discussing divinity as perceived by the Greeks in general as well as Alexander’s self-proclaimed divinity.

Speaking for myself, I widely use this book as reference material and I’ve never been disappointed by Bosworth’s expert explanations and background research. Everybody wanting to learn more about Alexander than a mere succession of fights and battles should get a hold of this quality reading material.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Water laws, still unchanged after nearly two thousand years

The year is 144 AD, the location the city of Laodicea near Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale), the lawmaker Aulus Vicirius Matrialis who was State Governor under Emperor Antoninus Pius, and the law regulating the use and misuse of water is still very current. 


It reads as follows:

Those who divide the water for their personal use should pay 5,000 denarii to the empire’s treasury. It is forbidden to use the city water for free or to grant it to private individuals. Those who buy the water cannot violate the Edict of Vespasian; those who damage the water pipes will pay a fine of 5,000 denarii. The water depots and water pipes of the city should have a roofed protection. The governor’s office will appoint two citizens as curators every year to ensure the safety of the water resource. Those who have farms close to the water channels cannot use this water for agriculture.

These are the explicit does and don’ts as can be read on a marble inscription recently unearthed in Laodicea. It regulates the use of water running down the nearby Karci Mountains that was channeled through the city and that fed many of its fountains. The text was presented by the Laodicea Assembly to the proconsul of Ephesos for approval. This proconsul in turn approved the law on behalf of the Roman Empire. The fact that the law was supervised by Rome proves how important water management already was 1,900 years ago – maybe earlier than that.

Water was vital for Laodicea as it was (and still is) for any other city and it is not surprising that the fines were pretty steep. The basic amount of 5,000 denarii would represent more than 16,000 Euros in today’s money. Those who polluted the water, damaged the water channels or broke the water seals of the pipes could be fined 12,500 denaii, i.e. 40,000 Euros. The same penalty would apply to senior staff that overlooked the illegal use of water. It would make you think twice before tampering the water conduits! There was a system of justice in place also, for whoever denounced the polluters would receive one-eight of the penalty as reward.

The discovery of this law tablet is part of the ongoing excavations in the ancient city of Laodicea, exposing some 2,300 artifacts retrieved from among the monumental columns of the Sacred Agora, the Central Agora and the Stadium Street. It looks like one of those must-see places in Turkey!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Traces of the Ptolemy’s at Paphos, Cyprus

Because of its copper mines, Cyprus occupied a prominent position in de production of armoury, swords, and other objects in bronze since early antiquity. The quality of those arms was already praised by Homer and we know that Alexander’s sword, a gift from the King of Kition (modern Larnaca), was extremely light and of excellent quality. Another richness of the island was its shipbuilding and its navy that made it the envy of many nations and kings. Alexander was no exception as he called upon a sizable fleet from Cyprus to assist him during the siege of Tyre in 332 BC.

Cyprus is also the birthplace of Aphrodite, so the legend goes. Nobody can visit the island without being taken to the very beach where Aphrodite rose from the sea, a spot that is forever marked by a boulder on the seashore. True or not, it is indeed a lovely place to enjoy in the quietness of a sunset.

This is not far from Paphos, not my first choice destination but the place has lots of interesting sites worth visiting, especially since it was founded at the end of the fourth century BC as the first capital of Cyprus. When the island was annexed by Rome in 58 BC, Paphos kept this privileged status till it was destroyed by the successive earthquakes of the fourth century and the capital was subsequently moved to Salamis.

One of the most appealing sites of Paphos may well be the so-called “Tombs of the Kings” although the name is very misleading. No king has ever been buried in any of these underground tombs, but the place is impressive all the same. I stumbled on this peculiar site quite by accident, surprised by the name and by its location, hardly two kilometres from today’s town of Paphos.

The “Tombs of the Kings” is a series of underground tombs and burial chambers that create the feeling of a small city – a city of the dead, that is. It started to be used as early as the 3rd century BC by Ptolemaic aristocrats and remained in use till the 3rd century AD. The burial practice was continued by early Christians who even turned one of the tombs into a chapel. Today it has been declared a World Heritage Site. The tombs are carved out of the solid rock and show a definite Greek if not Macedonian influence. This is not surprising since Cyprus was part of Ptolemy’s heritage after the death of Alexander the Great and has been fought over for decennia by his competitive Diadochi time and again.

Some tombs appear like miniature houses with a central courtyard surrounded by Doric columns shading frescoed walls. Not all columns are fluted but the architraves and door lintels often are crowned with the typical frieze alternating triglyphs and metopes, including the regulae and guttae. The walls around the courtyard and along the corridors are punctuated by empty niches that once contained the remains of individual corpses. Some of the spaces in between have been enhanced with interesting reliefs. The costly grave goods and jewellery have long since been looted, but it is not difficult to mentally recreate a lively picture. Some of these villa-like constructions are rather elaborate with arched passages and staircases running up and down. Originally most walls and tombs were covered with stucco and decorated with frescoes of which many traces have survived. It was customary to celebrate the anniversaries of the deceased loved ones with a ceremonial meal, sharing the food with the dead as so often was the case in antiquity, but here it creates a rather homely feeling.

One of the tombs has a large stone block left in the middle of the atrium, creating space for extra niches. Archaeologists have counted 18 burial sites here, all from Hellenistic times and three of them were still intact when located. One of these three contained the remains of a child buried in a terracotta pipe, while the two other tombs revealed precious gifts like a gold myrtle wreath and a fine amphora from RhodesA highly unusual site and most definitely worth a visit!

In the city of Paphos there are many more antiquities although it takes some walking around to find them.

There is, for instance, a very large basilica with seven naves that was built using spolia from antique buildings destroyed during the severe earthquakes of 332 and 342 AD. Excavations of this Panagia Chrysopolitissa have revealed a number of geometric mosaics and remains of columns in different types of marble including cipollino. At some time during the 6th century the basilica was reduced in size, probably because of the dwindling population. By the 11th century a small Byzantine church, the Agia Kyriaki, was built in the apse of the old basilica. Here we also find a stub of a column which reportedly is the column where St Paul was flagellated while on his missionary tour of the island. The small church we see here today dates from around 1500 and still functions as an Anglican Church.

Another intriguing place is a large pistachio tree covered with hundreds of white pieces of cloths that belongs to the church of Agia Solomoni. The tree is said to be sacred and is still being used by those seeking help with their health problems; it will cure whoever hangs a personal votive offering on its branches, in particular those having eye problems. It is a sign-post for ancient catacombs, used by Christians in the second century or, as believed by others, originally dug out during Hellenistic times. One of the tombs has been turned into the Chapel of the Seven Sleepers that was particularly popular during the Middle-Ages. It is dark inside but there are still remains of the 12th century’s frescoes, including graffiti left by the Crusaders. Interestingly, the locals refer to this cavern as the Tomb of Ptolemy, without specifying which one of the pharaohs is meant.

The Agora, in turn has not much to offer except some foundations giving shape to the open space and the surrounding four porticos. The West side is best preserved and it is here that we find the Odeon, which has undergone some restorations so it can be used for various cultural events. This section dates from the second century AD.

The theatre in turn was built around 300 BC and remained in use till the end of the 3rd century AD. It has gone through several stages of remodelling and renovation over the centuries, but knew its heydays in the second century AD when the stage façade was entirely clad with marble. It could seat as many as 8,000 spectators. Excavations are underway and I am looking forward to what new information the Australian Archaeological Mission may bring to light.


Most popular in Paphos is the impressive collection of mosaic floors unearthed among the houses located south of the Agora. It is not often that we see so many of them still in situ. They all clearly belong to the villas of the Roman rich and famous living here between the 2nd and 5th century AD. They generally show compositions from Greek mythology and were created using a combination of tesserae and glass paste. These mosaics really stand out and are of much better quality and finesse than what we usually find in Roman buildings after the second century AD.

The first villa I encounter is the House of Aion, only partially excavated but it treats the visitor to a most spectacular floor mosaic from the fourth century. It is divided in several panels and shows The birth of Dionysus, Leda and the Swan, the beauty contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids, Apollo and Marsyas, and the Triumph of Dionysus. Each and every composition deserves our full attention!

Next stop is at the House of Theseus built at the end of the second century AD on top of earlier Hellenistic and Roman buildings. This large villa that was occupied till the 7th century counted at least one hundred rooms, leading scholars to believe that this was the residence of the governor of Cyprus. Most of its floors have mosaics with geometric patterns, but three rooms are most remarkable since they show human figures.

The oldest and most striking mosaic depicts Theseus and the Minotaur, a very well recognizable labyrinth with Theseus at its centre. It dates from the end of the 3rd/early 4th century AD with obvious restorations probably carried out after the repeated earthquakes. The mosaic showing Poseidon and Amphitrite was created about a century later and seems to belong to a bedroom. At the beginning of the fifth century a new mosaic floor was laid out in the reception area where only the scene of Achilles’ first bath has survived. Another typical floor has a geometrical pattern with at its centre a picture of The Three Horaes, goddesses of the seasons.

Last but not least, there is the Villa of Dionysus also built at the end of the second century AD and abandoned after the severe earthquakes that destroyed so much of Paphos in the fourth century. The construction is Greco-Roman with the rooms arranged around a central courtyard. One quarter of the 2,000 m2 floors is paved with mosaics in very lively colours and there is one blue vase that truly catches my eye. There is a large collection of lovely hunting scenes with tigers, bulls and boars; and a collection of figures set in round and square frames; and, of course, several mythological figures.

In the end, although I was very sceptic about visiting Paphos, I was in for many unexpected but pleasant surprises. It really pays off to venture out and about instead of following the beaten path of organized tours.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Paphos]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Symposium by Plato

The Symposium by Plato (ISBN 0-14-044024-0) is not exactly my kind of reading, but must be for those persons really interested in philosophy. I found the book on a fair for second-hand books and bought it because the subject is quite intriguing and I hoped to find out more about it. Beside that, Plato was the tutor of Aristotle who in turn was called to Macedonia by King Philip to teach young Alexander. Reason enough to have a close look.

The stage is set in Athens of 416 BC where a group of people from the upper-class are coming together to eat, drink and talk at the house of the poet Agathon. The other guests are Phaedrus, an aristocrat; Pausanias, the legal expert; Eryximachus, a physician; Aristophanes, the great comic poet; Socrates, the philosopher and Plato’s teacher; and towards the end of the Symposium enters Alcibiades, a prominent statesman, orator and general – quite a mixed company.  It is being decided that, since they all recently have been drinking heavily, they will amuse themselves with talk in the form of a speech instead of the usual entertainment with flute girls and wine. Each participant will take his turn and the subject that is chosen is Love.

Each character evidently develops his own vision and opinion. Love as expressed during this symposium is mostly homosexual love between men as was current in classical Greece at that time. The one before last speaker is Socrates who asserts that the love of wisdom is the highest level of love, introducing the bases for what is to be known later on as platonic love. At this stage, Alcibiades bursts in with some drunken companions and takes the lead. He sketches the character of Socrates and his own love and admiration for the philosopher. A last drunken party erupts and mingles, and in the end, some of the guests go home while others stay put and fall asleep. In the early morning hours only Agathon, Aristophanes and Socrates are still awake, talking and drinking. The last “survivor” is Socrates who leaves the house as sober as when he arrived.

So much for the story itself, the philosophy has to be taken as it comes by those who want to linger on these deep reflections about the human soul. In Socrates’ speech, the question is clearly asked whether Achilles would have died to avenge Patroclus if he had not believed that his courage would live on in men’s memory. The desire for immortal renown and glory is the incentive to his action; he is in love with immortality. This book definitely leads to some deep reflection on the subject.

What I find interesting is the general concept of what we call today homosexuality and the intensity of the shameless drinking. This is, of course, seen through the eyes of our modern society. True love between men prevailed and was accepted without question, something we should seriously consider when talking about Alexander’s love for Hephaistion. The heavy drinking that could go on for hours is another aspect of ancient life that we should take into account in Alexander’s life. He probably wasn’t drinking more or any less than his companions or his army buddies. Judging facts that happened more than two thousand years ago is extremely hard and I think in this aspect we could be a little more tolerant towards Alexander as a man.