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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.

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

I was going to write a post about the dwarf planet Ceres–which is currently being explored by the NASA New Horizons robot probe. The more we learn about the failed planetary fragment, the more enigmatic it becomes (the little exploded world seems to be covered with giant pyramid-shaped mountains and weird super reflective craters). However I decided to wait to write this Ceres post until August when New Horizons dips closer to the dwarf planet and we get some clear answers (or at least some better photos). Fortunately, as I researched the mysteries of Ceres, I came across the above statue of the goddess Ceres, and it immediately became one of my favorite artworks from classical antiquity (which is saying quite a lot).

The statue is Roman from the Augustan period. I assume the figure is Ceres (Demeter) but it is possible that it may be her daughter Proserpine (Persephone). Ceres is portrayed as the gentle and munificent goddess of agriculture who is friend to humankind. She is clad in the flowing raiment of a goddess and she holds the bounty of Earth, but her eyes are sad and full of wisdom. Her hands flow with full heads of wheat, but mixed in are the addictive poppies that soothe pain. Beside her two snakes whisper the secrets of the underworld. Agriculture gave us our knowledge and our power, but it also made our world of masters and slaves, and it looks like the goddess recognizes this in her ancient eyes.

Nüwa

Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).

When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys.  Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste.  On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation.  On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth.  On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses.  On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection.  She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself.  As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother.  All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning.  To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud.  Then she flicked the mud across the lands.  Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable.  Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.

Fuxi and Nüwa, an ancient painting from Xinjiang

Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship).  She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse.  Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping.  There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people.  However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril.  The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.

Nüwa in serpent guise

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