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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize. The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors. To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard). This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.
Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana. He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!
The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles. The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship. If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success. On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all. Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.
But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory. He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard. “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said. The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware. They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor. Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him. By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships. The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana. Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.
Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves. The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile. Thus ended his political and military career. The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world. But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet. I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up. However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.
From 600 BC until 146 BC Carthaginian civilization vied with Greco-Roman civilization to control the Mediterranean in a series of increasingly bitter wars. Ultimately Rome was completely victorious in the great contest: the Carthaginian territories in North Africa and Iberia became Roman territories and the city of Carthage was destroyed and the ground sowed with salt. Rome sat about effacing Carthaginian language, culture, and art from the world. To this day nobody can figure out what was actually normal in Carthaginian civilization and what was a crazy bitter smear campaign by the Romans.
But no matter how greatly the Romans tried, they could hardly destroy everything left over from a vast ancient civilization, and so we have actual Carthaginian artifacts and artworks today. In fact there are many of them, and they tend to be very bizarre and beautiful–but it is difficult to find consensus on what they represent and how they were used.
That is the loose background for these terracotta statues from the Iberian Peninsula from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Back then, Spain was not just Carthaginian territory–in fact it was the top secret source of most of Carthage’s vast wealth–which came from tin mines (tin was a raw material for the bronze which held classical antiquity together).
These statues seem to be the great goddess Tanit, the dark queen of the heavens. Tanit and her ram-god consort, Ba’al-Hamon, were the principal divinities of Carthaginian civilization. Tanit seems to have evolved from fierce warrior sky goddesses like Astarte (who once was Ishtar at the dawn of civilization) and especially the Ugaritic goddess Anat. Anat was a bloodthirsty and horrifying goddess—myths about her involve all sorts of impaled entities, seven-headed serpents, oceans of blood, fire, grinding up of bodies and such like dark elements (Ugarit was an ancient port in Syria).
Tanit seems to have been a dark goddess as well and she was probably the focus of Carthaginian child sacrifice, assuming such a thing existed and was not a Roman propaganda invention (scholars are fiercely divided about child sacrifice in Carthaginian culture, although I am inclined to side with the archaeologists who believe that it happened). You are beginning to see some of the historiographic problems that Carthaginian scholars and art historians face!
Whatever the case, the sculptures are magnificent and they certainly suit a dark enigmatic sky goddess who thirsts for blood. Look at Tanit’s crown of celestial vegetation and her almond Babylonian eyes! Sometimes when I fall into a strange humor I look at Carthaginian art online and try to grasp what it meant as I enjoy its sinuous lines, mocking smiles, and leonine power, but it always eludes me and ends up filed in my head as a near-eastern cypher. I’ll try to feature some more of it—you’ll quickly see what I mean. In the mean time enjoy (?) Tanit, bloodthirsty sky goddess.
Happy 407th birthday to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn! The master’s peerless paintings and etchings show a unique understanding and empathy for the human condition. Rembrandt painted faces more expressively than any other artist–because of this strength, his works attain deep emotional complexity. To illustrate this, and to celebrate his birth, here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid. The painting is magnificent! A pensive noblewoman (modeled by Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia) in resplendent jewels and silks takes a nautilus cup from a little page. Behind her stands a strange gray figure, half-visible in the gloom—an apparition? a servant? The painter himself? It is unclear. The painting itself is a mystery which has been discussed an argued about for centuries.
Rembrandt painted the work in 1634 (which we can see from his prominent signature and his inimitable style), but, uncharacteristically we do not know the title. The painting is either “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” or “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.” If the first title is correct, then the nautilus cup which is dramatic focus of the painting contains the ashes of Queen Artemisia’s husband/brother, Mausolus, satrap of Persia. Mausolus’ immense tomb (constructed by Artemisia) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave us the word “mausoleum”. Yet the great tomb was empty: Artemisia had Mausolus’ ashes mixed into wine which she drank day after day until she had completely consumed his remains (the Greeks were fascinated by the fact that Artemisia was simultaneously the sister and wife and devourer of Mausolus).
However, if the second title is correct, then the seashell cup contains deadly poison. Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Gisco. Upon his defeat, she took poison so as not to endure the humiliation of being part of a Roman triumph. Nautilus shells allegedly had the magical power to negate poison (safety tip: this is not true at all). That Sophonisba would commit suicide with such a cup indicates the true moral of the painting: the real poison is defeat and slavery. Poison and a proud death are her antidotes.
So which answer is right? Or are they both wrong? Saskia’s strange diffident anxiety could be fitting for either story, yet her manner and dress are not those of a grieving Persian sister-queen. I favor the interpretation of the painting as that of the stoic Sophonisba. These are her last moments and the gray figure is as much an inhabitant of the underworld as a flesh-and-blood attendant. The strange whimsical garb is the fantasy raiment of vanished Carthage. But I could well be wrong. What do you think?