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 of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, 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)

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

The surprise of Butrint, ancient Buthrotum in Epirus

Under Roman rule, the Via Egnatia strategically connecting Byzantium via Thessaloniki to Rome thanks to the crossing of the Adriatic Sea between Dyrrhachium and Brundisium. But there was another lesser road that led south to the city of Buthrotum, modern Butrint right across from Saranda, one of the newest bay-resorts in Albania.




Yet Buthrotum was not born with the Romans but like most towns in the area it was founded by colonists from Corinth and Corfu at some time during the 7th or 6th century BC – although according to the legend its founder was a son of King Priam of Troy, which is a more noble ancestry, of course. To me, this is Epirus, the homeland of Queen Olympias, Alexander’s mother and it is not surprising that in her days the city was important enough to have a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius with its own theatre and agora; besides, it was protected by a city-wall with five entrance gates.

For some reason I always thought that all of Epirus was part of modern Greece, but it seems that this ancient country has been split up between Greece to the south and Albania to the north. All I knew about it was the oracle of Dodona, so it is a surprise to hear that Buthrotum was important before the arrival of the Romans. The main attraction may well have been the sanctuary of Asclepius which was built on a series of terraces rising from a paved area in front of the theatre. The reconstruction as shown on the billboard at the entrance of the site is very clear but it is much harder to find pre-Roman evidence on the site itself. The sanctuary included a temple, a stoa and a treasury, all modified by the 3rd century BC to include a theatre and a building that may have served as a hotel for the pilgrims.

As early as 228 BC, Buthrotum became a Roman protectorate and its influence spread steadily till the city was included in the province of Macedonia. Julius Caesar thought it was an appropriate place to settle his veterans after fighting Pompey in 44 BC, but a wealthy local landlord, Titus Pomponius Atticus, objected to these plans and went so far as to plead his case at the Roman Senate through his friend, the orator Cicero. He was successful and only a small number of settlers were relocated at Buthrotum. They blended in pretty easily with the locals and their presence left a definite Roman stamp on the city.


It seems appropriate to take a closer look at this Titus Pomponius Atticus, one of the richest men of his time. He lived in Athens for almost twenty years (hence the name Atticus) and showed great interest in Greek culture and philosophy. He bought an estate near Buthrotum and probably acquired more land in neighbouring Epirus and in Corfu. Although his villa is explicitly mentioned in his correspondence with Cicero, it has not yet been found but it is generally accepted so far that it was situated in the river valley, where cool breezes soften the heat of summer. Atticus’ wealth, which he acquired as financier and by managing his land-properties, gave him great influence in politics as we have seen above. He was a gifted politician who managed to remain on good terms with both parties involved, the Romans and the locals. He died in 32 BC, aged 78, shortly before the Battle of Actium. Five years earlier, he gave his daughter Caecilia in marriage to Agrippa, Augustus’ friend and general. Consequently, Atticus’ influence continued after his death through his son-in-law.

In 31 BC, Emperor Augustus conceived plans similar to those of Caesar for after his victory over Marc Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium (some 200 km south of Butrint) he considered Buthrotum to settle his veterans. Once again, the new arrivals though limited in number, blended in well and the city expanded rapidly, doubling in size even. At this stage Buthrotum required a major building plan, which was funded by Augustus in person as well as by his family or private parties. Main projects were the construction of a new aqueduct to feed the many fountains and bathhouses and a bridge across the Vivari Channel. At this stage the city appears as Colonia Augusta Buthrotum. Most of what we see today at Butrint may date from Augustus’ reign since statues of the emperor and of his wife Livia have been found – a sure sign of the city’s loyalty and support.

As in any excavation site, the theatre is what we see first. Although the earliest construction goes back to the 4th century BC when it was part of the Sanctuary of Asclepius, it was clearly rebuilt and enlarged during the 2nd century AD to become the Roman centrepiece of the city. Today the lower part of the theatre, mainly the stage, is flooded by groundwater, adding a romantic touch with its reflexion in the pool. Unique are the many manumission inscriptions that have survived on the outside walls of the theatre, dating from shortly after 232 BC. The freeing of slaves, which seems to have lasted for sixty years, was accomplished in the name of a god, generally Asclepius, hence the close link between the theatre and its inscribed walls with the treasury of which close to nothing remains.

Behind the cavea of the theatre are the remains of the Roman Baths, rather appropriated flooded also. Part of the hypocaust is being preserved exposing some of the fire-resistant bricks used in the floor heating – always an exciting element, I’d say.

The Forum is located next to the theatre and the Baths, and originally was located at the heart of the Hellenistic city. In those early days, i.e. late 2nd/1st century BC, it measured a modest 4.5x25 meters. Towards the 2nd century AD the area was enlarged to the size we see today, 52x20m, but most of it still remains buried.

Further down the island, around the corner of abovementioned buildings are the remains of a rather imposing Nympheion that must have lined up with the Roman aqueduct that ran across the Vivari Channel and the valley floor to the hills from where the water was transported. Thanks to one of the billboards, I am able to locate the header tank of this aqueduct on the other side of this channel. The spring itself has not been located with certainty but seems to be found near Çuka e Aitoit (Eagle Mountain), a rough 12 km away. This fountain, once enhanced with statues of Dionysus and Apollo, appears to lean against the city wall, basically built in the 6th century AD but mixed with remains of earlier Roman constructions. The access to the Vivari Channel however was preserved as there are several entrance gates in this wall, still easily recognizable. Today it is a very peaceful water channel where time seems to have come to a standstill. It is not certain, but this aqueduct may well have served as the first bridge across the channel, and as such adding to Buthrotum’s status since the city was now connected with the wider Roman world. Aqueducts were very costly enterprises and only rich cities or those sponsored by private patronage could afford them. Great cities like Athens or Corinth for instance didn’t have any aqueduct till the rule of Emperor Hadrian! That definitely proves how wealthy and how important Buthrotum was in its hey-days!

This is also the area once occupied by the Gymnasium but which in Byzantine times was filled by the Great Basilica and it dependences. It is here that we find a Baptistery from the 6th century AD with an exquisite mosaic floor, covered for its own protection which is unfortunate for us visitors. It consists of seven circulars bands around the baptismal font and thus creating the figure eight, the Christian number for salvation and eternity, I am told (although I have not encountered this explanation before). The mosaics show animals (representing land), birds (representing air) and fish (representing water), in accordance once again with early Christian symbols of salvation. The entrance is flanked by two mosaics of large peacocks (symbolizing paradise and immortality) with a vine growing out of a vase (symbols for the blood of Christ).  Apparently the roof of this Baptistery was supported by two circular rows of columns of which only the bases remain. It is worthwhile to mention that this is the second largest Baptistery in the Eastern Roman Empire after the Aya Sophia is Istanbul.


From the 3rd century onward, Buthrotum started to decline and a severe earthquake destroyed large parts of the city. It shrunk and a new smaller city wall was needed. The relief of the so-called Lion Gate on the road to Epirus which was added in the 5th century to reduce the size of the gate is a clear illustration. Even an untrained eye can see how this wall has been altered time and again, with steps leading nowhere and dead-end tunnels. When Buthrotum became the seat of a bishop in the 6th century, the Baptistery and Basilicas mentioned above were built and at the same time the city walls were reinforced.
But like its neighbours it was attacked and sacked by the Huns. Over the following centuries Butrint was occupied in turn by several foreign forces till it turned into a malaria infested swamp.

The very top of today’s Butrint is crowned by a castle that was reconstructed over the ancient acropolis and now serves as a museum that badly needs some improvement or modernisation – unfortunately. It houses finds from Butrint itself but also from other nearby sites, showing some piece from Hellenistic occupation but mostly from the prosperous Roman period.

Today a flat barge ferries men and cars across the Channel to the Vrina plain on the other side. In Roman times, that was the location of a thriving suburb of Buthrotum where the rich and famous had their vast residences. It is here that archaeologists are looking for the remains of Titus Pomponius Atticus’ estate. Work in progress …

[Click here to see all the pictures of Buthrotum/Butrint]

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