Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Hannibal's Route Over The Alps or just Horse S***?

Hannibal embodying perseverance at the Mausoleum of Engelbert II
of Nassau and Cimburga van Baden in the Grote Kerk or
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) in Breda, Netherlands.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Vassil.
Digitally enhanced by Mary Harrsch.
A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

Earlier this month the news media was whipped into a frenzy by reports that Bill Mahaney, a geologist and professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, Canada, had "found" Hannibal's route over the Alps.

Unfortunately, many of the mainstream media outlets, eager to garner a bump in pageviews by armchair historians, published the findings and inferred a resolution without attempting to verify if the information provided was, in fact, definitive or could have had an alternative explanation. Some even used the word "pinpoint" even though the findings are based primarily on the inexact process of Carbon 14 dating.

One of the less sensationalized articles appeared in The Guardian, a UK online news magazine:

Dr. Patrick Hunt, the director of the Stanford University Alpine Archaeology Project, is another researcher who has been seeking Hannibal's route across the Alps since 1994. He is quoted towards the end of the above article but he, however, is more in favor of a northerly route.

"The route in question is too often promoted by popularists who've never climbed competing Alpine routes, of which about 10 passes need to be totally eliminated before this study has any real credibility," Hunt observes, "The fact that so many today in the popular media are claiming this now solves Hannibal's route is both sadly superficial and premature. Although they could be hypothetically right, there's no real hard material evidence presented yet. Until they find actual material artifacts, it's moot. Datable remains of elephant dung would be much better, but possibly not enough because Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal followed him a decade later. I know several other Alps passes with at least as much corroborating evidence and one pass far better in terms of fitting Polybius, the best source."

Although famed naturalist Gavin de Beer first proposed the Col de Traversette as Hannibal's crossing point in his 1955 book Hannibal's March: Alps and Elephants, eminent Polybian scholar, F.W. Wallbank rejected de Beer's theories the following year in his 1956 article Some Reflections on Hannibal's Pass published in volume 46 of The Journal of Roman Studies.

Dr. Hunt's Stanford research team thinks the Clapier-Savine Coche is at least as good and actually closer to what Polybius describes as the Col de Traversette.

"The Clapier-Savine Coche has a huge campground right by the summit as Polybius describes," explains Hunt, "while the campground on the Traversette route is much lower, around 3000 feet lower, on the west side of  the Col de Traversette summit.   The Traversette summit is also a knife blade scarcely capable of holding 100 people, let alone an army. There is no way Hannibal could have addressed his army encouragingly from the Traversette summit."

Hannibal shows his army the valley of the Po from the summit of the Alps by Alfred Rethel, 1842.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons
"Also, Polybius states Hannibal's forces slipped through fresh snow to ice below from the previous winter on the initial descent, not frozen ground or firnpack as interpreted by the Traversette group," Hunt continues, "Such snow traces fitting Polybius are found each year on the summit of the Clapier-Savine Cloche around 8200-8500 feet but there is still ample grass for animal foraging and cattle graze there currently as well."

Furthermore, Hunt thinks a route leading to the Col de Traversette must be twisted somewhat to make it fit the description given by Polybius.  Polybius says after Hannibal's army marched north of the point where the Rhone and Iskaras Rivers meet for approximately 800 stades (about 91 miles) the army began their ascent of the most rugged part of the Alps and found their way blocked by a fierce mountain tribe known as the Allobroges (according to Livy the most famous and powerful tribe in Gaul).  The border of the Allobroges territory was defined historically by the "Iskaras" (Polybius) or "Arar" (Livy) River, which Hunt thinks corresponds to the modern Isère River.

"Given that the Rhone delta and mouth were less extended southward in antiquity due to less alleviation buildup and that Hannibal crossed at least a day's march inland - both because there were more salt marshes (etangs) then around the Rhone mouth and in order to avoid Massilian Roman allies around Marseilles - the Rhone crossing should be around Avignon, an ancient fording place", Hunt observes. "The traditional Allobroges boundary - like that of so many tribes partly demarcated by a river confluence - would then be the Isere-Rhone junction beyond Valence, not the more southerly Drome-Rhone confluence, proposed by Mahane's Traversette group."

Hannibal traverses the Rhône by Henri Motte, 1878, (Public Domain) 

"Mahane's team proposes the first ambush occurred in the upper Valdrome (which was not Allobroges territory).  This would require Hannibal to make a double Alps crossing then drop down southeastward into the Durance River watershed," Hunt continues, "They then have Hannibal marching up the Durance but turning away from the perfectly accessible broad northeast Mont-Genevre route (which they claim could be blocked by hostile Celts, but isn't very likely) detouring into the narrow Guil far southward into the Queyras region and over the extremely  difficult Traversette, which takes them southward away from Torino and the Taurini tribe, the point where Hannibal eventually emerged according to Polybius."

This rather fanciful scene thought to depict Hannibal battling the Romans at Cannae adorns the shield of Henry II of France.
Today it can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Gallery 374.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"They claim the Po River only starts near Traversette," Hunt says, "but that's a geographic fallacy as there is no one source for a major river and the Dora Riparia is a primary Po watershed as well and runs directly eastward into the Po west of Torino.   They also say only the insanely narrow Traversette has the view for Hannibal's speech but clearly must have only tried the modern Clapier footpath and not the adjacent Savine Coche broad ridge immediately west where the ancient path ran, which has a great view of Torino and the Po plain."

"If you assess the northern route toward the Clapier-Savine Cloche, you will find a satisfying first ambush place in the Isere near Voreppe, (clearly Allobroges territory)," Hunt points out.

The likelihood that a major confrontation could have taken place there was also suggested by the recent discovery of what appears to be the remains of a large Celtic oppidum (hill fort) near there.

Significant differences in the geophysical features between the two proposed passes is discussed in an article that appeared in this 2010 post in Earth Magazine:

In this article Hunt also describes a two-tier rockfall at the Clapier-Savine Coche pass a short distance from the summit.

"Polybius actually describes more of a multi-tier precipice," Hunt says, "and the Clapier-Savine Coche descent has multi-tiered rockfalls that geological weathering dates to more than a few thousands years ago."

Hannibal crossing the Alps from The illustrated history of the world for the English people, 1881.

But perhaps the best analysis of all candidate passes was prepared by John Hoyte, a British engineer whose team actually took an elephant over the Alps in an effort to settle the question in July 1959.
Hoyte first distilled a list of conditions defined by Polybius in his Histories.

(a) be large enough to camp 30,000 men and about 5,000 horses (on its French side)

(b) command a panoramic view of the Po valley

(c) have a difficult descent

(d) be high enough to have large areas of snow, from two consecutive winters on its flanks

(e) have a place for pasturing the horses immediately after the difficult stretch of the descent

(f) give a distance of three days' march, from here to the plains.

(g) lead straight down to the land of the Turini.

(h) be a day's march from a probable site for the 'bare-rock' ambush (or a day and a night for the baggage and elephants).

(i) be positioned so that the most direct route to it from the Rhône passes by the 'Island' (where the river 'Skaras' meets the Rhône) seven days' march from the sea (three days from the sea to the crossing of the Rhône and four from the crossing to the Island).

He then scored each pass on a scale of 0-5 for each of these parameters with 5 awarded for a complete fit and less for more doubtful cases.

Hoyte's group launched their attempt from Montmelian, France and followed the valley of the Arc River with the goal of crossing the Col de Clapier, since that pass scored the highest in Hoyte's comparison study of Polybian parameters.  However, the pass had become narrowed and dangerous due to rockfall so the group retracted down into the valley and crossed the Col du Mon Cenis, a route proposed by Napoleon.  After 10 days of travel, the expedition successfully reached Susa in Italy.
Details of the expedition and a wonderful series of photographs can be viewed on Hoyte's website (

Hoyte also published an account of the expedition in his book, Trunk Road for Hannibal - with an elephant over the Alps, in 1960.  It was republished in 1964 under the title Alpine Elephant - In Hannibal's Tracks.

But in the latest research, Mahaney tackles the question from a different perspective.  The new findings most recently reported are based primarily on the discovery of a layer of soil disturbance and the findings of "a mass animal deposition event" -  bacterial remains indicating the presence of a large number of equines in the vicinity.  Although the articles currently circulated by the media claim the Carbon 14 dates obtained for the material in the disturbed layer point to 218 BCE, Carbon 14 dating methods are not that precise and are often within a range of 60 - 80 years give or take (standard deviation).  Contamination is always a concern and testing waste from ruminants can also be problematic as vegetation can have varying amounts of carbon that could impact test results.  All of these issues can make reliance strictly on Carbon 14 dating methods tricky.

"The new hypothesis places the boggy dung mass on the eastern side at 2580 meters," Hunt points out, "Given the warmer climate around Traversette, since it's further south, vegetation is more lush there, so Alpine tribes have grazed animals there for thousands of years."

In fact, Hannibal's expedition through the Alps, although truly legendary in its scope and military context, was not the first mass migration across the mountain range that could have left sizable animal waste deposits.

When Hannibal harangues his troops about their fear of crossing the Alps, Livy says Hannibal himself describes earlier mass migrations.

"What on earth do you think the Alps are except a collection of high mountains? Perhaps you think they are even higher than the Pyrenees? So what?  Nothing on earth can ever reach the sky; no mountain is too high for man to conquer. People actually live in the Alps, for goodness’ sake! They till the ground; animals breed and grow fat there. If a small group of natives can cross them, so can an army.  Look at these delegates from the Boii – they didn’t grow wings and fly here over the top. Even their ancestors were not born here; they came here as immigrant peasants from Italy; they crossed these selfsame Alps in huge migrating hordes, with all their women and children – and lived to tell the tale." - Livy, Book 21, Chapter 30.6 - 30.8 

A reconstructed late La Tène Period (3rd-1st century BCE) Celtic settlement in Havranok,Slovakia.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In fact, activities preceding the Gallic War of 225 BCE culminating in the Battle of Telamon had involved large scale movements of Gauls across the Alps.

"After their defeats by Rome in the 280s, the Gauls were quiescent for forty-five years; but eventually a younger generation took their place, 'full of unreflecting passion and without experience of suffering or peril' (Polybius' Histories 2.21.1-2).  They began to disturb the existing equilibrium with Rome, and invited Gauls from across the Alps to participate in a new war...The leaders of the Po Valley peoples held out to the leaders of the Gauls beyond the Alps the promise of the rich loot that awaited them in Italy, along with assurances that Gallic military power could easily overcome the Romans; after all, this had happened before, when Rome itself had been taken and held for seven months by Gallic warriors (Polyb. 2.22.4-5)." - Arthur M. Eckstein, Polybius, the Gallic Crisis, and the Ebro Treaty. 

Hannibal's crossing was also followed by more than twelve years of war-related traffic, again mentioned in Livy:

"He [Hannibal] had believed, indeed, that his brother [Hasdrubal] would come over into Italy that summer; but when he recalled what he had himself endured during five months, in crossing first the Rhone, and then the Alps, in conflicts with men and the nature of the country, he looked forward to a crossing by no means so easy and so soon accomplished. This accounted for his slowness in leaving winter quarters. But for Hasdrubal everything moved more quickly and more easily than had been expected by himself and others. For not only did the Arverni, and then in turn other Gallic and Alpine tribes, receive him, but they even followed him to war.  And not merely was he leading an army through country for the most part made passable by his brother's crossing, although previously trackless, but, thanks to the opening up of the Alps by twelve years of habitual use, they were also crossing through tribes now less savagely disposed.  For previously, being never seen by strange peoples and unaccustomed themselves to see a stranger in their own land, they were unfriendly to the human race in general. And at first, not knowing whither the Carthaginian was bound, they had believed that their own rocks and fastnesses and booty in cattle and men were the objects of attack.  Then reports of the Punic war, with which Italy had been aflame for eleven years, had made it quite plain to them that the Alps were merely a route; that two very powerful cities, separated from each other by a wide expanse of sea and land, were contending for empire and supremacy." - Livy, The History of Rome, Book 27.39

Replica of a Celtic warrior's garb
In the museum Kelten-Keller, Rodheim-Bieber, Germany
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
These activities all occurred within the time encompassed by the Carbon 14 dating period of the Col de Traversette equine waste remains.

In fact, Hasdrubal's crossing of the Alps in 207 BCE, significantly complicates the search for Hannibal's crossing.  Although Livy makes it sound like Hasdrubal followed in the path of Hannibal, Polybius uses the word "shorter" in his fragmentary reference to Hasdrubal's easier crossing  in Polybius' Histories.  Much of the easier aspect can be attributed to Hasdrubal's much more friendly reception by native tribesmen who have, by then, decided to join the Carthaginian's war efforts.  But to have a reportedly shorter journey suggests a deviation from Hannibal's original route at some point.  Furthermore, Hasdrubal brought war elephants with him as well, so even finding pachyderm waste or remains may not definitely prove a route was Hannibal's and not Hasdrubal's.

Apparently,The London Times has expressed their skepticism about the latest claims, too, as have noted historian Tom Holland and others.

"We are unlikely to know definitively but the literature of ancient military campaigns has an allure regardless of strict accuracy. Caesar's Gallic War recounts a fantastical tale of how German tribesmen caught elks through a cunning plan reminiscent of Piglet's heffalump trap. Polybius and Livy tell of how Hannibal's elephants crossed the Rhone by walking along the riverbed and using their trunks as snorkels; evidently no one told these historians that elephants can swim. There is a pleasing symmetry that the latest scholarship of the ancient world is literally rather than metaphorically a pile of manure." - Elephantine Enigma: Scientists believe they have identified Hannibal's route over the Alps, Editorial, The Times (London), April 5, 2016

Tom Holland was a little more succinct, "The evidence is s***," he said.

"The amount of evidence needed is substantial indeed across multiple parameters; this new claim just does not have the kind of support required despite sounding so scientific," Hunt observes.

The bottom line as I see it is that, despite our wishful thinking, none of the current findings are truly definitive without the discovery of supporting archaeological remains.

Perhaps we should take the advice of Polybius, who once cautioned his readers about fully embracing statements by another Roman historian, Q. Fabius Pictor, "My own opinion is that one must not treat his authority as being of little weight, but at the same time one should not regard it as final."

A Numidian horseman by Hocine Ziani, an Algerian artist who is a founding member of the Central Army Museum in Algiers.  Other examples of his amazing work can be viewed on Pinterest.
I must admit I was intrigued with the possibility of finding ancient equine DNA from a breed originating in North Africa, though.  Hannibal's elite Numidian cavalry probably would have brought their own mounts with them so that does pose an opportunity for further study. However, finding the whereabouts of ancient equine DNA from North Africa for comparison, possibly locked away in some museum or research institution's dusty basement, may prove as challenging as trying to find a crated Ark of the Covenant in a government warehouse!


Polybius, Histories

Ball, P. (2016, April 3). The truth about Hannibal’s route across the Alps. The Guardian. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from

Walbank, F. W.. (1956). Some Reflections on Hannibal's Pass. The Journal of Roman Studies, 46, 37–45.

Hoyte, J. (1960). Trunk road for Hannibal; with an elephant over the Alps. London: G. Bles.

Livy, The History of Rome

Eckstein, A. M.. (2012). Polybius, the Gallic Crisis, and the Ebro Treaty. Classical Philology, 107(3), 206–229.

Elephantine Enigma: Scientists believe they have identified Hannibal's route over the Alps. (2016, April 05). The Times (London). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from

A Kindle preview of related reading:

Other suggested reading:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Roman Slavery and the Rate of Manumission

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015

A Roman slave medallion at the
Baths of Diocletian venue of the
National Museum of Rome.  Photographed
by Mary Harrsch © 2005
It seems that very time the Roman Empire is discussed someone always points out the number of slaves that were exploited by Roman citizens as if the Romans invented slavery. One thing that was unique about Roman slavery compared to slavery in other parts of the ancient world is the Romans had a structured process of social advancement that provided a means for slaves to become freedmen through the procedure called manumission. Scholars have debated just how often manumission was used in Roman Society and how many slaves were freed as a result.

Today, I noticed this post up at About: Ancient History:

"In 357 BCE Rome passed a law called the Lex Manlia imposing a manumission tax. Freeing slaves from then on would incur a 5% fee. Because 5% is one twentieth, the tax was referred to as a Vicesima. (Livy VII.16)

This 2nd century BCE relief depicting a Greek banquet includes an attending slave.  His lower social status is indicated by
his difference in scale.  Photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, CA by Mary Harrsch © 2014
Update (3/16/16) This legislation was initially proposed by the consul Gnaeus Manlius Capitolinus while encamped with his army so it is said to have been passed "in castris."  The purpose of the law was to reduce the number of manumissions, both the freeing of slaves and the manumission of children since it was feared some families would use manumission of their minor children to gain access to more land since there was also a 500-acre limit per male head of household specified in another law included in the Leges Liciniae Sextiae passed at that time..

H.H. Scullard, in A History of the Roman World 753-146 BC (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1980) says that based on records of these taxes, by 209 B.C.E., an estimated 1350 slaves may have been manumitted each year."

Theoretically, both Greeks and Romans used the prospect of manumission to encourage loyal service from their slaves but only Roman law granted citizenship (albeit with some restrictions) for manumitted slaves.
Gravestone of a high status woman with her slave attendant Greek 1st century BCE Marble.  Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014

The most common form of manumission was termed the Manumissio vindicta.

"In this, the most commonly practiced form of manumission, the master, the slave, a third party, and a praetor gather to manumit the slave. The third party member lays a freedom rod, called a vindicta , on the slave pronouncing the slave free. The master then follows suit by placing his or her vindicta on the slave while the praetor witnesses both performing this action to the slave." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Another common method of manumission was called the Manumissio testamento.

 "In this form one of two things can happen: In the first condition, a slave is set free by a proclamation to do so in the master's will. In the second condition, the master entrusts his slave to another freeperson on the grounds that upon doing so, the slave be set free by the new master. In the second condition, the slave may not be immediately set free because the slave will only be freed when the new master frees him or her, and, until the slave is freed, the slave is classified as a statuliber." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Apparently, freeing slaves in an individual's will had become so widespread in the late Republic that in 2 BCE the Lex Fufio-Caninia was passed limiting the number of slaves a citizen could free in their wills.

"The Fufia Caninia made the number of testamentary grants of freedom permitted to cives Romani dependant upon the total number of slaves owned by any one Roman citizen master.  One who owned from three to ten slaves was permitted to manumit one half of them in his will;  one who owned eleven to thirty, one third of the total.  If the slaves of the Roman citizen numbered from thirty-one to one hundred, he might free one fourth of them; if their numbers ran one hundred to five hundred only one in five or twenty percent, might be freed by testamentary manumission.  The law further provided that no Roman citizen could free by testament more than one hundred, however many slaves he might have." - William Linn Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity

Six years later this law was further amended by the Lex Aelia-Sentia that restricted the rights of Roman youths under the age of 20 to free their slaves and specified that only slaves over 30 years of age could be freed although there was a mitigating provision that an exception could be granted of approved by a committee of ten persons made up of five senators and five equites. Modern scholars think Augustus promulgated these laws due to the influence of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.  The esteemed historian Dionysius had pointed out that many freedmen were enriching themselves from sordid occupations such as robbery and prostitution and emphasized the danger of allowing their proliferation in the city of Rome.  Being a Greek, Dionysius probably ascribed to the Athenian perspective on slave manumission.  In Athens, slaves could be manumitted but were not granted citizenship as under Roman law.  Athenian freedmen could not partake in government or bear free children.

Bust of a Roman slave boy from the Trajanic Period 98-117 CE
Photographed at The Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Under Roman law, although freedmen were barred from the cursus honorum, they could vote in city assemblies and their children would be considered free citizens with full rights of Roman citizenship. The isus sacrum which allowed slaves to practice certain aspects of religion, to be properly buried and to join certain religious associations was further amended to allow freedmen to become priests in the emperor cult.  These religious magistrates became known as the Augustales.

Like most things in life there was a major exception to the granting of these rights, however.

"The Lex Aelia Sentia requires that any slaves who had been put in chains as a punishment by their masters or had been branded or interrogated under torture about some crime of which they were found to be guilty; and any who had been handed over to fight as gladiators or with wild beasts, or had belonged to a troupe of gladiators or had been imprisoned; should, if the same owner or any subsequent owner manumits them, become free men of the same status as subject foreigners (peregrini dediticii)... "

Gladiator helmet depicting scenes from the Trojan War recovered from Herculaneum 1st century CE
Photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington
by Mary Harrsch © 2015

"...'Subject foreigners' is the name given to those who had once fought a regular war against the Roman People, were defeated, and gave themselves up...."

"...We will never accept that slaves who have suffered a disgrace of this kind can become either Roman citizens or Latins (whatever the procedure of manumission and whatever their age at the time, even if they were in their masters' full ownership); we consider that they should always be held to have the status of subjects." - Selections from the Lex Aelia Sentia

The third method of manumission was known as Manumissio censu.  

"In this form the slave goes before the censor and proclaims to be a freedperson  [with witnesses and/or evidence], at which time, if the censor agrees, the censor will record the slave's name down as a freedperson, and thus the slave will be manumitted." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Roman slaves were allowed to manage some personal property, often a small wage, called a peculium.

Roman coin bank depicting a beggar girl 25-50 CE.
Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014

"This peculium could consist of a myriad of things including money and a slave's slave called a vicarius.  The peculium could be used by the slave in many ways, but the slave was restricted in that all contracts entered by the slave involved the master, and the slave could not give his peculium to someone else so that the other person might use it to buy the slave's freedom. The slave could save peculium and buy its freedom, but this usually only happened when the peculium outweighed the slave's value." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Although manumission was treated as a sought after privilege, it was not always altruistically granted.  Elderly slaves were sometimes manumitted because they were no longer productive and their masters no longer wished to provide for them.  If a slave was privy to incriminating information, a master might manumit them to avoid the slave providing incriminating information under torture. Slaves were also sometimes promised manumission if they served as soldiers in civil insurrections.

A Kindle preview of a bit of a tongue-in-cheek guide to Roman slavery:

Additiional suggested reading:

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review: The Last Roman: Honour by Jack Ludlow

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015

When we left a young Flavius Belasarius in  the first book of Ludlow's "The Last Roman" series "Vengeance", Flavius had successfully avenged the death of his father and brothers at the hands of a treacherous Roman senator and had been accepted into the household of his father's old comrade Justinus, commander of the excubitors, the emperor's imperial guard in Constantinople.  Book 2, "Honour", picks up three years later in which Flavius, now a young excubitor officer, has been sent to the eastern Persian frontier by Justinus to hone his military skills.

There, Flavius discovers Persian raiders frequently cross into Byzantine territory to plunder Roman settlements then flee back across the border, usually without consequence because Emperor Anastasius has standing orders for the Roman army not to cross the Sassanid border.

Anastasius, flush with gold, has traditionally paid tribute to the Persian King Kavadh to prevent clashes along the Byzantine frontier.  But Kavadh's nobles are a fractious bunch and when they start getting restless and threaten rebellion, Kavadh must initiate raids into Byzantine territory to extort more Roman gold and resupply the Persian coffers from which Kavadh will essentially buy his continued rule.  This cycle of extortion has apparently gone on for some years.

 One day in 518 CE he receives a message from Justinus' nephew recalling him to Constantinople where the Emperor Anastasius lies dying.  Upon arrival, the nephew, Petrus Sabbatius (the future Emperor Justinian), quickly entangles Flavius in a conspiracy to spirit away a cache of gold from a powerful courtier planning to use it to support a new candidate for the imperial throne.  Petrus subsequently uses the gold to buy support for his uncle and when Anastasius finally expires, the excubitors, like the praetorians of old Rome, proclaim Justinus Emperor Justin I.

Flavius convinces Justin and Petrus to let him raise and train a special unit of armored cavalry that are mounted on faster horses, wear lighter armor than the Persian cataphracts and are proficient with a Hunnic compound bow.  This unit will become known as his bucellarii and will be an important component in Belisarius' future victories.

Relief Taq-e Bostan (Kermanshah Province in Iran) from the era of Sassanid Empire: One of the oldest depictions of a Persian cataphract.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Flavius is given his own command at the tender age of only 25 and ordered back to the Persian frontier and assigned a secretary/legal advisor named Procopius.  The rest of the novel closely follows the events described in Procopius' "Wars of Justinian".

Procopius of Caesarea turns out to be the most eminent of sixth century historians although many modern scholars have a tendency to doubt much of what he wrote in his most famous work "Wars of Justinian" because he is also attributed as the author of what has become known as "The Secret History" also known as the Anekdota, a virtual diatribe against Justinian and Theodora with even unflattering criticism of Belisarius, mostly surrounding his relationship with his wife, Antonina, a close friend of Theodora.

Mosaic depicting the Empress Theodora flanked by a chaplain on her right and a court lady believed to be Belisarius' wife Antonina on her left.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Scholar Charles F. Pazdernik thinks Procopius, though, was a classically trained historian who may have  attended the school of Thucydidean studies in sixth-century Gaza.

"...Procopius is our key witness to a period of great transition and upheaval, for which he supplies a continuous historical narrative conditioned by his own distinctive point of view.  Consideration of his allusions to Thucydides leads one to examine Procopius' broader political and cultural allegiances and the lively engagement he demostrates in all of his works with questions about the legitimate uses of power and their role in influencing historical change.  By calling attention to the position of lesser parties implicated in conflict and drawing striking parallels between their plight and comparable situation in Thucydides, Procopius presents himself as a powerful and nuanced critic of Justinian's expansionist policies." - Charles F. Pazdernik, Procopius and Thucydides on the Labors of War: Belisarius and Brasidas in the Field

A bust of Thucydides at the Pushkin Museum.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
He points out how Procopius astutely compared the campaigns of Belisarius with those of Brasidas, a classical Spartan general of the 5th century BCE Peloponnesian War.

"Both Brasidas and Belisarius proclaim a campaign of liberation, undertaken on behalf of the populations whose cooperation they hope to secure, against their opponents, whose rule they characterize as illegitimate and despotic."

He goes on to draw comparisons between the tactics of Belisarius in North Africa against the Vandals and at the siege of Naples during the Ostrogothic War with those employed by Brasida to sway Greek city-states away from Athenian influence.

"In depicting these battles for hearts and minds, however, both Thucydides and Procopius expose the cold calculations of Machtpolitik that lie at the heart of such appeals.  The inhabitants of the invaded territories are persuaded to be liberated, yet their welfare is not the foremost concern of the invader.  The respective fates of the Thracian cities of Mende and Skione at the close of the first phase of the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 4.120-24, 129-33, 5.18,32) and Naples at the outset of the Ostrogothic War (Wars 5.8-10) demonstrate the ambivalence of both figures.  Nor are the would-be liberators themselves free from entanglements with their respective governments.  In the end the priorities of the rulers at home, and not those of the crusading generals themselves, determine the objectives of the conflict."

We follow Flavius, with Procopius at his side, from his famous victory against the Persians at Dara to North Africa and the conquest of the Vandals then on to Italy.  But with Flavius' victories comes heightened suspicions back in Constantinople. Ludlow does appear to base much of the characters of Justinian, Theodora and Belisarius' wife Antonina on the information included in Procopius' Secret History.

Fragment of a North African mosaic depicting a vandal.  Public domain image.

Although I personally don't doubt the degree of corruption in Justinian's court, I have a problem with the thinly veiled propaganda in The Secret History.  It just sounds too much like the defamatory pieces I have read about Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Nero and Domitian.  The Roman Empire has a long history of patronized historians issuing "biographies" of unpopular emperors rife with sexual innuendos and vile behaviors.  Added to this the fact that this work attributed to Procopius was "discovered" in the Vatican Library almost a thousand years after it was written but not published.  Added to that, this discovery occured some time after the "Great Schism" between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Although The Secret History was not officially published by Niccolò Alamanni until 1623, those who support its authenticity point to its reference in the Suda, a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia.  But I think we cannot dismiss the fact that the Great Schism of 1054 also falls within this time frame.  Both Justinian and Theodora were sainted by the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It just seems too coincidental to me that a document villifying them is documented at this critical time in church history.

Anyway, at least for fictional purposes, the antics described in The Secret History certainly liven up a narrative.  It also made Belisarius even more admirable reading how honorable he tried to be in his dealings with the enemy and even his emperor only to be rewarded with suspicion and betrayal.

Again, Ludlow has produced a fascinating narrative filled with vibrant characters drawn from meticulous research and real historical events.  I was appalled by a review posted on Amazon by another reviewer accusing Ludlow of sloppy research.  In fact the incidents claimed to be erroneous in the review were incorrect on the part of the reviewer.  The John Vitalian referred to as a subordinate general to Belisarius during the effort to capture Ravenna was the nephew of the Vitalian the reviewer was thinking about who was murdered on the orders of Justinian near the beginning of his reign.  In the Audible version I listened to the Empress Euphemia was clearly the wife of Justin not Justinian.  Who knows, maybe that reviewer based his review on an unpublished rough draft or something.  Also, to criticize Ludlow for similarities to Robert Graves novel, Count Belisarius does not take into account that both authors used Procopius as their definitive ancient source.

I think you will find this series really brings the sixth century and the famous general Belisarius to life and I recommend it highly! 


Procopius and Thucydides on the Labors of War: Belisarius and Brasidas in the Field by
Charles F. Pazdernik, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 130 (2000), pp. 149-187

A Kindle Preview:

More suggested reading:

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Visiting the Via Appia Antica and Catacombs of San Sebastiano

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015

Remains of the Via Appia in Rome, near Quarto Miglio
Remains of the Via Appia in Rome, near Quarto Miglio
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Back in 2007 I saw this nice travel piece about the Via Appia. I had hoped to see the sights listed when I visited Rome in October 2007. I planned to take the relatively new hop-on-hop-off Archaeobus to the park and spend the day exploring the catacombs, the baths of Caracalla, the tomb of Cecilia Metella, and a couple of the churches and museums (if my feet didn't give out!). I also wanted to try the spit-roasted goat they mentioned was a local specialty!

The original travel article:

"A modern-day tour of the Via Appia Antica might start at the end of the Forum, just beyond the Circus Maxentius where charioteers raced seven times around an obelisk cheered by spectators in 10 tiers of stone bleachers. Near here, weary travelers beheld Rome's golden milepost - where all roads led. Soon the pleasant road, shaded with cypresses and umbrella pines, passes scattered piles of eroded bricks that once were grand mausoleums.

A short distance brings the traveler to the dome-shaped ruins of the ornate tomb of the noblewoman Cecilia Metella. She was the daughter-in-law of Marcus Crassus, who shared the triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Lord Byron muses whether she died young and fair or old and wise:

The remains of the tomb of Cecilia Metella along the Appian Way near Rome, Italy.
The remains of the tomb of Cecilia Metella along the Appian Way near Rome, Italy.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
"This much alone we know: Metella died, the richest Roman's wife. Behold his love or pride."

Pope Urban VIII ripped up the marble floor of her tomb to build the Trevi Fountain.

At Porta San Sebastiano is the landmark Church of Domine Quo Vadis. Here legend says St. Peter, fleeing Nero's persecutions after the great fire, saw a vision of Christ heading toward the city. "Lord, where goest Thou?" he asked, and the vision replied, "To Rome to be crucified again."

Also at Porta San Sebastiano stands the largest and best preserved of the fortified gates in the Aurelian Wall that embraced the seven hills of Rome for more than a thousand years. The twin gate towers house a small museum of wall artifacts. Here you can walk along the top of the wall for postcard views of the Appian Way and the distant Alban Hills. All about are vineyards producing Rome's refreshing Frascati wine.

The Porta San Sebastiano, the best preserved of the fortified gates iin the Aurelian Wall that encompassed ancient Rome.
The Porta San Sebastiano, the best preserved of the fortified gates iin the Aurelian Wall that encompassed ancient Rome.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the narrow ancient gate, the road dips slightly into a valley covering a maze of catacombs where thousands of bodies were buried along five levels of tunnels. Rome has more than 60 catacombs, some not yet fully explored.

The two most important catacombs open to the public along the Appian Way are St. Sebastian and St. Callixtus, where most of the early popes and many martyrs were buried. Walls and ceilings have paintings and frescoes of early Christian symbols like the fish, the dove and the anchor, and scenes from Scripture such as Jonah swallowed by the whale, Daniel in the lions' den, the raising of Lazarus and, most often, the Good Shepherd.

Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.
 Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
APPIAN WAY REGIONAL PARK: Web site offers information on tours of the Appian Way; how to get there by public transportation, bike or on foot; opening times for monuments and museums, and other information. Visitor center is located at Via Appia Antica 42 (open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., 2:30 p.m.-5 p.m.).

Update 3/9/2015: As it turns out, I was injured in Naples in 2007 and had to fly home for surgery rather than travel on to Rome on that trip.  However, I did manage to visit the Via Appia on another trip to Rome in March 2009.  My companion and I chose to try the hop-on hop-off Archaeobus with audio tour as I had originally planned.  However, I'm afraid, after experiencing that jarring, noisy ride, I do not recommend that mode of transportation.  The bus driver drove so fast you couldn't possibly get any good pictures of any of the sites along the way and there was so much noise that you couldn't hear what was being said using the earphones either. After lurching past the Aurelian Walls and flying past the tomb of Cecilia Metella, we decided to get off at the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.

My companion had seen catacombs before so she decided to enjoy the spring sunshine and parked herself on a bench to wait for me to go on the tour.  These catacombs were once an area of pazzolan mines.  Pozzolan is a mixture of minerals used in the production of concrete.  Then, in the 2nd century CE, the mines were abandoned and the caverns converted into a pagan burial ground.  By the late 3rd century CE, Christians began burying their dead in these chambers as well and continued to do so until the mid-4th century CE.

The 7th-century catalogue, Notula oleorum listed three martyrs buried in the San Sebastian catacombs including SebastianQuirinus and Eutychius. 

A fifth century source states Sebastian was a soldier from Narbonne, in Gaul (modern-day France), born of a family from Milan who died in Rome under the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian. His relics were kept in the catacombs until the 9th century when they were moved within the town walls. They are now back in the Basilica standing above the catacombs.

Quirinus was a bishop of Sescia, in Pannonia, whose relics were moved to Rome by pilgrims from that region between 4th and 5th century CE.

Nothing is known about Eutychius but his grave was discovered during excavations carried out in the 20th century in a deteriorated area of the catacombs.   A poem dedicated to him, by Pope Damasus I, is now displayed at the entry of the basilica.

In 258 CE, during the Valerian persecutions, the catacombs were temporarily used as a burial site for the apostles Peter and Paul and the basilica was dubbed the Basilica Apostolorum.  But their remains were later removed to their own respective basilicas in Rome.

I was really disappointed that they would not permit even non-flash photography within the catacombs. But I found the tour very interesting, nonetheless. (The photography ban may have been lifted as I found the image below of the interior of the San Sebastiano catacombs up on Wikimedia Commons).

Floral stucco reliefs on the ceilings of the catacombs of San Sebastiano outside  of Rome, Italy.
Floral stucco reliefs on the ceilings of the catacombs of San Sebastiano outside
 of Rome, Italy.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I saw the symbolic fish etched into the walls as we wound our way down through stuccoed and frescoed chambers until we were three levels below the entrance.  (Originally there were four levels but one level was destroyed during subsequent rebuilding efforts). We finally came upon some of the earliest Roman tombs clustered together in a round chamber known as the piazzola (initially pagan these tombs were later reused by the Christians).  These mausolea had architectural elements on their facades that, together, made them look like a small ancient city to me.

2nd century CE Mausolea in the heart of the catacombs of San Sebastiano.
2nd century CE Mausolea in the heart of the catacombs of
San Sebastiano.  Image courtesy of then
digitally enhanced by Mary Harrsch.
"The first one on the right is externally decorated with paintings (funeral banquets and the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac) and still bears an inscription with the name of the owner, Marcus Clodius Hermes; the interior houses graves and pictures and shows a vault decorated with the head of a gorgon. 
The second one, called Mausoleum of Innocentiores referring to the funeral college to which it belonged, has a vault decorated with refined stuccoes; some recesses show inscriptions with Greek characters but written in Latin, as well as a graffito with the initials of the Greek words meaning "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior" (Ichtys). 
On the left there is the Mausoleum of the Adze, from the tool depicted on the exterior, whose decoration consists of shoots of vine sprouting from kantharoi placed on false pillars." - Wikipedia
We continued our tour and emerged into a feasting chamber called the "Triclia" where funerary feasts were celebrated, not only immediately after an interment but periodically thereafter by family members.  Here, the plastered walls were covered with over 600 pieces of graffito left by visitors across the centuries and we were left to examine them before heading to the passageway that connected the catacombs to the basilica above.

etching of a Christ figure, Chi-Roh symbol and dove that was recovered from the catacombs
Even though I couldn't take pictures inside the catacombs at San Sebastiano, I photographed this etching of a Christ figure, Chi-Roh symbol and dove that was recovered from the catacombs that I found at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
The Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le mura (San Sebastiano outside the walls) was originally built by Constantine in the 4th century.  Many of the catacomb passageways and even the piazzola were filled into to form a base for this structure. (These areas were re-excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) In 826 CE, the remains of Saint Sebastian were moved to St. Peter's for safekeeping when the Saracens threatened Rome.  The basilica was subsequently destroyed by the Saracens but rebuilt by Pope Nicholas I (858-867).  Then the martyr's altar was reconsecrated by Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) in the 13th century.  The current edifice was commissioned in 1609 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese who selected first Flaminio Ponzio to reconstruct it and, after Ponzio's death in 1613, entrusted its completion to Giovanni Vasanzio.  

I found some marvelous sculptures in the Basilica including this wonderful putto that looks very much like the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini who sculpted similar figures I have seen at the Basilica of Saint Peter's in Vatican City:

Putto in the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano
Putto in the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano
Photo by Mary Harrsch 
© 2009

sculpture of Saint Sebastian
Somehow I missed this moving sculpture of Saint Sebastian also said to be in one of the knaves of the basilica.

I found this video on YouTube about the catacombs of San Sebastiano.  It doesn't have many images of the catacombs either but does have some marvelous views of the basilica and its ornate ceiling.

A Kindle preview of a 2015 book on the catacombs:

Other suggested reading: