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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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5c17c34df71391c4e9bd07fd3bda91bbThe Brazilian Goldsmith Carlos Martin manufactured the Imperial Crown of Brazil in 1841 for the coronation of Emperor Dom Pedro II.  The crown is also known as the Diamantine Crown—because it is covered with 630 diamonds—ooh, so sparkly! I guess, the crown also has 77 large pearls too, but nobody really talks about them.  The imperial crown of Pedro II replaced the unremarkable crown of the extremely remarkable Dom Pedro I, a revolutionary and reformer who was responsible for many of the things which went right for Brazil.  We’ll have more to say about him later this week.

With 8 magnificent golden arches meeting beneath an orb and cross, the crown of Brazil echoes the crown of Portugal…and rightly so, since the great South American nation began as the most magnificent Portuguese colony (although Goa, Macau, Agola, and Mozambique were quite nice too).  Here is a picture of Emperor Pedro II looking exceedingly magnificent (and perhaps a bit silly too) as he opens the annual Parliamentary session in 1872.

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So lovely was the crown of Brazil that is was the central motif of the Brazilian flag until the monarchy was abolished in 1889.  Unlike other crowns which were sold or stolen after independence, the Brazilian crown has remained in posession of the Brazilian republic and can currently be seen at the Imperial Palace in the City of Petrópolis.

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Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

The Assyrians were one of the great palace civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. As one of the first known civilizations, their culture came of age along the upper Tigris River in tandem with Sumer, Ur, and Babylon (Semitic kingdom states which blossomed along the pattern of ancient Eridu).  The old Assyrian empire was an early Bronze Age empire which lasted from 2025 BC-1393 BC.  The Middle Assyrians were united under a series of politically powerful king priests and flourished until the great Bronze Age Collapse—a century of chaos and horror which lasted from 1055–936 BC.  After this cataclysm, the shattered remnants of Assyrian society rebuilt along the same lines—but now they had a technological breakthrough—iron.  With strong political leadership they were well-positioned to utilize this innovation, and the Iron Age Neo-Assyrians were charioteers and conquerors.  Their armies set about building the greatest empire the world had ever known based around iron, axels, horses, and ruthless political hegemony.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Into this picture came Ashurnasirpal II, who ascended the Assyrian throne in 883 BC. Ashurnasirpal II was a great builder, thinker, and a reformer.  He moved the capital of the empire from Assur to Nimrud and erected a series of new walled cities.  He collected zoological and botanical specimens from all around the known world in hopes of furthering agriculture and fostering a deeper understanding of living things (presumably).  Alas, he was also a political theorist and he realized he could utilize horrifying violence as a political tool.  He reasoned that if he tortured and killed the entire population of one rebel city, other cities would not rebel (a theory which pretty much worked after the first vivid demonstration). History remembers him as a ghastly butcher, but he was also famed in his day as a mighty conqueror and an innovator.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Anyway, the Neo Assyrians in general, and Ashurnasirpal II in particular feature in this week’s blog because they wanted their violence to be as gruesome as possible.  Threats and executions worked best if people were truly & utterly terrified.  Far beyond merely killing their enemies, the Neo-Assyrians needed to kill them slowly, painfully, and with real flair.  Their favorite methods for accomplishing this were spitting and burning (which is how they are remembered in the Bible). However their most hated enemies were flayed alive—which we know because we have pictorial evidence in the form of horrible bas reliefs.  Not only that, we have a direct quote from Ashurnasirpal II, who ponderously (but chillingly) said:

I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.

It is not exactly an idealistic political statement, but it has a real visceral power. And it did have real power: the Neo-Assyrians conquered the rest of Mesopotamia, and then the Near-East, and then Egypt itself.  They kept on moving using fast chariots to sweep away armies and terror to keep control. However, like so many conquerors they were trapped by their lifestyle.  The Assyrian kingpriest’s power came from building great temples to the Assyrian gods, he accomplished this with booty from conquest. When the conquest stopped the whole nightmarish system came tumbling down, and the enemies of Neo-Assyria quickly learned ways to defeat chariot armies. By the 7th century the victories began to dry up, and the empire collapsed in 627 BC. Today the Neo-Assyrians are remembered, not as cutting edge innovators, but as monsters—the first masters of the blitzkrieg and of mass terror sponsored by the state.

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A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

Because Greco/Roman civilization takes such a central place in the foundations of contemporary Western society, we tend to forget the true counterweight to Greece and Rome.  East of the Roman Empire lay the vast and powerful Persian Empire.  Western classicists tend to think of Persia monolithically—but it was actually three great empires: the  Achaemenid Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), and finally the Sasanian dynasty (224 AD to 651 AD).

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

Today’s post features a peek into the last of these great Persian eras. The Sasanians were the antithetical power to the Roman/Byzantine Empire and much of the history of the two civilizations involved their struggle against each other.

A bust of a Sasanian King--probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

A bust of a Sasanian King–probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

Here is the bust of a great Sasanian King–Shapur II (AD 310-379) who was the tenth monarch of the dynasty. He is pictured wearing a typical crenelated crown topped with a striated orb and a crescent (which he is also wearing in the sculpture at the top of the post). The actual crown Shapur II wore is lost in the mists of history, but it was atypical in that he was literally crowned before his birth.  His predecessor Hormizd II, was unpopular with the Persian nobility.  When Hormizd died, scheming nobles killed his eldest son, blinded the second oldest, and imprisoned/exiled the youngest.  They chose to crown his unborn son as emperor, in order that the child could be brought up as an ideal pawn, and the Zoroastrian priests placed the crown on him while he was yet unborn (resting it on his mother’s gravid belly).

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

As often happens in such circumstances, Shapur II stymied his puppetmasters by growing wise in the ways of the court as a child and ruling as a powerful sovereign.  He defeated the greatest Roman attack against Persia in classical history (the all-out assault by Emperor Julian the apostate.  He left the Sasanian dynasty much stronger than it was under his father.

Gold Coin with Shapur II

Gold Coin with Shapur II

It is interesting to see how similar the idea of a Persian crown—a crenellated circlet topped with a scepter–was to the crowns which later became the norm in Christendom. The Byzantine emperors wore a diadem instead.  I wonder how the Persian ideal became the standard for Western Europe in the centuries that followed.

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