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Scuta (Roman Infantry Shield, ca. mid 3rd century AD) painted rawhide and wood

Here is a particularly fascinating historical object: an original Roman semi-cylindrical legionary shield (scutum) from Dura-Europos (a very strange Roman border city which requires its own post). Although pieces of other ancient Roman shields have been found, this is by far the finest and most complete example. Yet even this stunning shield has some deficiencies–it was found in thirteen flattened pieces which had to be reassembled, and it is missing its iron boss (a hardened round dome in the center used for ramming and for deflecting swords, spears, cavalry lances, and javelins). 

Even if the most important piece is gone, this shield demonstrates the construction of such protective devices. These large curved shields were made of steam curved layers of wood annealed together on top of each other in cross-grained patterns to be light yet resistant to the sharpest and hardest stabbing weapons. The edges were lined with metal to strengthen the against hacking attacks or shattering. Plus, in lieu of a boss (of which we have other examples) this shield still has the original legionary artwork in extremely fine condition. Shields were painted with different emblems so that men could swiftly recognize their units in the chaos of battle, however these designs always reflected the Roman iconography of victory. This example features an eagle with a laurel wreath, winged Victories, and a lion. Gorgons, bulls, boars, winged horses, and above all Zeus’ lightning bolts seem to have also been popular.

Probably a military historian would write at length about Roman armor, swords, ironwork, fortresses, roads, organization, ballistae, and goodness knows what else. Yet, to my eyes, this is the definitive piece of Roman military hardware. In order to be useful, a shield of this sort requires endless drilling with lots of other soldiers with the same sort of shield. Imagine going into a battle in the Roman-age world. There would be direct visceral carnage everywhere. Your opponents have war chariots, huge axes, enormous pikes and goodness knows what else and you would have…a curved piece of plywood and a very long iron knife? And yet with training, nerve, and discipline, each shield became an impervious scale of a giant armored monster made of men.

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I am extremely sorry that my posts have been so thin on the ground for the last fortnight.  I don’t have very good excuses for last week (although maybe the brain-melting heat wave which swept through the region provides some cover), but last night there was a blackout in Brooklyn, and there was no way I could write anything in the digital realm!  Being cast back in time made me reflect on the world before the internet and electricity.  Specifically I became fascinated by non-electrical lamps (which you never really think about until you need them).

Although I filled up my darkened house with LED tea candles and glowsticks, other peoples have not always had recourse to such safe options–like the Romans, who were forced to rely on candles, fires, torches, and their favorite night time standby, the oil lamp.  Ferrebeekeeper has touched on how the symbols and visual culture of Ancient Rome do not always make sense to us today…and indeed today’s post offers a powerful example of that.  Oil lamps came in all sorts of shapes and sizes (some of them seem to have been commemorative, or tourist trap items), but one of the absolute favorite lamp shapes was a foot.  These oil foot-lamps were sometimes bare and sometimes super ornate, but most often they are wearing handsome sandals.

So, why are these things shaped like feet?  Trying to research this question on Google resulted in me being whisked to various strange theological explanations of the Book of Romans by Dr. Lightfoot!  I was hoping that this was the foot of Mercury or something, but I never did get to the bottom of what is going on.  Speaking of which, the best hint I got was that the lamps may have been placed at the bottom of a mural so that the painting glittered in the darkness…which is to say these were the original and literal footlights.  This makes no sense to me, but it is sort of a modern English pun, I guess.  Perhaps it was a pun or a satisfying visual cue to the Romans as well.

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Roman Foot Lamp with Sphinx Handle (Excavated in Libya, manufactured ca.1st century AD) Pottery

Whatever the case is, I love the feet!  These lamps are truly satisfying to look at, so maybe the Romans were on to something (they got roads and aqueducts right, after all).  If anybody wants to make a new old-style lamp company I am opened to that.  Also, if there are any classics majors out there who could explain this, please help us out in the comments!  I am unhappy with the “footlight” explanation and I long for a real understanding of what is going on with these charming feet!

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Roman Imperial Foot-Lamp (Ca. 3RD-4TH Century A.D.) bronze

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Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper’s special Halloween series about cities!  Obviously, no such effort would be complete without venturing once again into the realms of the Gothic, that ill-defined but very real concept which encompasses literature, history, culture, and architecture in exceedingly different (and yet weirdly unified) ways across a span of 1700 years.  My first inclination here was to present some famous Gothic fantasy cities—Minis Tirith, Gotham, Lankhmar, Oldtown, and Ankh-Morpork (sob) but the daunting nature of this project quickly became obvious.  Maybe we will revisit these places later (I feel like I have lived in each of them), but right now let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most successful actual extant Gothic city, which is also a place I don’t know nearly as well as those fantasy burgs: the great metropolis of Barcelona!

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I have legions of friends who return from Barcelona singing its praises as the world’s greatest party city, and I remember lots of partial factoids from the 1992 Summer Olympics (which were completely amazing: Thanks Barcelona!).  Sadly, I don’t know much about the actual city which is too bad–of all of the places on Earth, Barcelona has true claim to being the most Gothic city, not just because of its Gothic quarter (the somber medieval buildings were added to and spruced up at the end of the 19th century) , its ancient Gothic cathedral (the Barcelona Cathedral, seen at the top of the post and immediately above), its new Gothic cathedral (The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família designed by Gaudi, which is immediately below), or its many other Gothic architectural wonders, but instead  because of its history.

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Barcelona has two foundation myths, both of which are amazing.  According to legend it was either founded by the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s dad) or by Hercules himself as he roamed the Mediterranean world during his famous labors.  Wow!  The truth is only slightly less amazing.  The Romans first built Barcelona into a major city, but they built on top of a settlement which was already ancient.  Archaeologists have found artifacts/remains which can be dated back to 5000 years ago.

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 Ancient Roman Burial Ground in Barcelona

As the Roman Empire blew apart (because of climate change, cultural stagnation, and disastrous misrule by corrupt dolts), strange groups of barbaric invaders from the hinterlands marauded through what had once been the most prosperous provinces of the West. Among these tribes were Huns, Franks, Sueves, Vandals, Alans, and Burgundians (goodness help us), but perhaps the most infamous of these groups were the Visigoths, who sacked Rome itself in 410 AD.  The Visigoths warred with Rome and its allies for generations while they sought a permanent kingdom (hoping perhaps to become like the Franks, who grabbed up the most beautiful parts of France).  For a time it seemed the Visigoths had found a permanent home in what is now southern France, but the tides of War turned against them and they moved southwards.

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Thus, in the beginning of the 6th century AD, Barcelona was the capital of the Visigoth Kingdom.  In 511 AD, the king of the Visigoths was a nine-year-old child named Amalaric.  Amalaric was an Arian Christian, which is to say he was a follower of the nontrinitarian Christological doctrine of Arius, not that he marched around in studded jackets throwing dumb white power fist salutes (although, frankly, he probably did that too).  He was married to Chrotilda, the daughter of Clovis I and she was a devout Catholic devoted to the trinity. The two fought ferociously about religion and Amalaric would beat Chrotilda savagely to demonstrate the superiority of his Christological doctrines.  At one pointshe even sent a towel stained with her blood to her brother Childebert I to show him the benighted state of her marriage.

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Hmm…We have fallen down a bit of a Medieval history rabbit hole here in describing why Barcelona is a Gothic city.  To succinctly recap, it was the capital of the Visigoths and it has whole districts of Gothic buildings which are either Medieval, or made in faux Medieval styles.  And what about Amalaric?  In the early 530s, he fought the Ostragoth army and was defeated.  He fled back to Barcelona but was betrayed and murdered by his own men (perhaps at the command of Theudis, governor of Barcelona.  Some say you can still hear Amalaric’s ghost, angrily promulgating Arian doctrines among the midnight bubble disco parties of present-day Barcelona, but to me that sounds like something some disreputable blogger made up to get hits.

 

   

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Part of an ancient Roman town was just discovered off of the coast of Tunisia. The city of Neapolis in Roman North Africa was a major center for fishing. The town then prepared and exported the famous fermented fish sauce “garum” (which was the premier condiment of the ancient world) and salted preserved fish. Neapolis was a sort of cannery of the classical world and the underwater discoveries of an era inundated by a tsunami in the fourth century have confirmed the town’s specialty. Marine archaeologists working in the Mediterranean have discovered more than a hundred stone tanks for preparing the piquant sauce.
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I wonder what the place that makes Heinz ketchup will look like in two thousand years.

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OK everyone, I am very sorry that I have been missing so much lately. I was working on my show and I have been working on my next big project which involves animated drawings. I PROMISE I will get back to regularly scheduled blogging tomorrow (I have some angry things to say about fisheries and the derelict state of our nation in general right now), but for tonight, here is a teaser of my next big project. This is an animation of an oracular priestess turning into a dove and a ghost. The hard part was the Roman-style mosaic flounder in the background (which you hopefully noticed). With any luck wordpress will allow GIFS, but if not, I guess you can look at each broken tile in the flounder. As always let me know what you think and thanks for your patience and kind attention.

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A quick artistic post today: this is “Ein Augur erklärt Numa Pompilius nach dem Orakel des Vogelfluges zum König” by Bernhard Rode. It is an engraving made between 1768-69. Look at how beautifully it evokes the mystery of the classical world and reflects the Rococo German fascination with lovely melancholy classical ruins. Also notice the augur’s trademark lituus.

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There’s exciting news in the, um, news: French archaeologists have discovered brand-new ancient ruins! The beautifully preserved Roman town were discovered in Sainte Colombe, a contemporary French town next to the Rhône River (as an aside, Sainte Colombe was named after a famous Baroque-era master of the viola da gamba). The ruins, which date back to the second and third century AD, are currently being excavated. So far the researchers have discovered the shops of various artisans and metal workers, a wine warehouse, a temple to an unknown deity, and two luxury houses which belonged to wealthy Romans. The ruins are being dubbed a new Pompeii, since fire caused them to be abandoned and forgotten until present (and left them much more intact than other such discoveries. I love Roman ruins and I am looking forward to seeing more of this ancient town!

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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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One of the most popular and instantly recognized symbols of classical antiquity did not make it through the millennia.  The lituus was a spiral wand which looked a bit like a bishops crozier which was the symbol of augurs, diviners, and oracles in the Roman world.  If you waved one around today, people would think it was an obscure prop from PeeWee’s Playhouse or a messed-up art student’s idea of a fern frond.  Yet the lituus was everywhere in ancient Rome—it was on murals, and carved in statuary, and on the money.  Musicians even developed a great brass trumpet to look like the sacred symbol (or possibly it was the other way around—the Etruscans had a war-trumpet which looked a great deal like the littuus and possibly gave its name to the scrying instrument).

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Whatever the history and etymology, the Romans of the Republic and the Empire loved the lituus–and the whole world of divination, magical prophecies, and mystical portents which it represented.  The littuus itself was seemingly used to mark a section of the sky to the eye of the interpreter of signs.  Whatever birds flew through this quadrant represented what was to come.  Obviously, there was just as much fraud, skullduggery, and flimflam in Roman divination as there is in modern tealeaves, horoscopes, tarot, and other such bollocks—but at least the Roman art had the grace of the natural worlds (as well as the raw violence which was stock and trade of all aspects of society in the ancient world).

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Of course, it could be argued that the lituus isn’t quite as fully vanished as I have made it out to be.  Scholars of comparative religion see the same shape in the Bishop’s curling crozier (bishops seem to have stolen the hats of Egyptian priests as well).  To my eye the shape looks like a question mark, and has a similar meaning.  I wonder where question marks came from.

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(Crozier from Northern Italy in the early 14th century, bone and paint)

Musicians also owe fealty to the lituus, both as a symbol of otherworldly arcane spirit-knowledge and as a sort of ancient brass instrument.  Modern horns evolved, to a degree, from the lituus and I wonder if it found its way into the “fiddle heads of rebecs and violins (although I am not going to research those connections today).  Whatever the case, it is a lovely and interesting symbol for a branch of magical thought which the Romans held extremely dear and it is worth knowing by site if you plan on casting an eye on the ancient Mediterranean world.

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Here is a fresco of the Cumaean Sybil by Andrea de Castagno from his “Series of Illustrious People for the Villa Carducci.” In case you were curious, the other illustrious people were Boccachio, Petrarch, Dante, and Pippo Spano (who was apparently a confidant of of King Sigismund of Hungary).  This is sort of a strange group, but the oddest figure is the quasi mythical sybil from ancient Rome.  When we have more time to write a , we are going to come back to the Cumaean Sybil.  I need to write more about Apollo (a god who has been perplexing me more and more) and the Cumaean Sybil was one of the foremost priestesses of Apollo. In this picture (which dates from around 1450), she is dressed as a beautiful Renaissance noblewoman with a diadem and a regal purple gown.  Yet her book, her orator’s pose, and her sharp clever features clearly indicate her status a wise oracle.  Del Castagno was something of a sphinx among Florentine artists (all of Vasari’s juiciest details about his life are demonstrably wrong) yet the Cumaean Sybil here looks like she knows something.

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