Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dona Militaria: Rome's Lost Valor

One of nine Silvered bronze phalerae depicting a mythological figure (Zeus Ammon)
awarded to Titus Flavius Festus Roman 1st century CE.  Photographed at the
Neuses Museum in Berlin, Germany by Mary Harrsch © 2016

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

A few months ago I visited the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany.  I was with an ancient Egypt study group so, of course, the bust of Nefertiti along with the large collection of artifacts from the Amarna region was our main purpose for going there.  However, being an ancient Roman history enthusiast, I gravitated towards the museum's Roman collection and was excited to find a set of Roman phalerae belonging to Titus Flavius Festus found near Lauresfort, Germany a few miles south of the site of the large Roman fortress of Castra Vetera.

Castra Vetera was founded by the Roman commander Drusus, a stepson of emperor Augustus and brother to the future emperor Tiberius, on the hill now known as F├╝rstenberg, about sixty Roman miles below the capital of Germania Inferior, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (modern Cologne). Vetera controlled the confluence of the rivers Rhine and Lippe. Drusus used Castra Vetera as one of his bases when he invaded the east bank of the Rhine.

Archaeologists aren't sure which legions were stationed there but a cenotaph of Marcus Caelius found there mentions the Eighteenth Legion that was annihilated in the battle of the Teutoburg Forest in September of 9 CE. After the battle, Tiberius ordered fortifications made of wood to accommodate two legions, V Alaudae and XXI Rapax. Both units took part in the Germanic campaigns of Germanicus in the first years of the reign of Tiberius (14-16 CE) and the unsuccessful campaign against the Frisians of 28 CE.  After 43 CE, XXI Rapax was replaced by XV Primigenia.  In 69-70 CE (Yes, that fateful year of the four emperors!) Castra Vetera was razed to the ground during the Batavian revolt and all of the soldiers who defended the fort were murdered after they surrendered.

A silver pendant depicting a double sphinx awarded to Titus Flavius Festus Roman 1st century CE found near the site of the
Roman fort Castra Vetera near modern-day Xanten, Germany.  Photographed at the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany by
Mary Harrsch © 2016.
Whether these phalerae were awarded for any of these activities, we simply don't know.  The set of nine dona militaria, carefully buried in a silver-lined copper box, were uncovered during the construction of a drainage ditch in 1858.  However, at that time archaeology was in its infancy.  Antiquarians had not yet developed methods for stratification so all contextual information was lost.

The depictions of mythological figures and a lion's head, though, do look very similar to the depictions of phalerae shown on the cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, who appears to have served in the 18th Legion.  If so, perhaps Titus Flavius Festus served in the 18th as well and buried his precious dona before leaving on that fateful march through the Teutoburg Forest.

Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, centurion of the 18th Legion.  Image courtesy of Jona Lendering
I had read about phalerae and seen them depicted on sculptures but had never seen real ones before in any of the museums I have visited.  As I began to research more about them, I soon learned why.  Apparently, the phalerae exhibited at the Neuses are the only ones crafted of precious metal thought to have been worn by an individual soldier ever found, although I did find a reference to about 30 chalcedony sculpted discs thought to be military decorations recovered in eastern Europe, including one recovered from a Sarmatian warrior's grave (he had reused it for a sword pommel) in the Ural mountains  (See "The Roman military phalera from the Perm Urals  by Alexander Kolobov, Andrej Melnitchuk and Nadeshda Kulyabina)

Chalcedony phalera from the Perm Urals.  Image courtesy
of Alexander Kolobov, Andrej Melnitchuk and Nadeshda Kulyabina
This surprised me since thousands of Roman soldiers served across Europe, north Africa and around the Mediterranean for almost a thousand years.  So I began digging into the research to find out when the Roman army began awarding military decorations, who were eligible for such decorations, what percentage of men received such decorations and what may have happened to all of them.

The best reference I found was "The Military Decorations of the Roman Army" by Valerie A. Maxfield of the University of Exeter published in 1981.  Fortunately for me, although the hard copy can still be purchased up on Amazon it is rather expensive, I found the volume in its entirety up on Google Books.

In it, Maxfield explains, "The first recorded example of Roman military decoration dates to the very early years of the Republic, to the middle of the fifth century BC [although we'll see that she doubts the accuracy of this reference].  At the other end of the scale, award-giving on a regular basis came to an end in the early third century AD, though sporadic examples do occur to the very end of the Roman Empire in the West and into the Byzantine era." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

In his review of Maxfield's book, Professor Lawrence Keppie explains further, "The award of dona militaria can be traced back to the very beginnings of the Roman state.  Evidence from the Republic is slight, in the absence of a substantial epigraphic record, but we should not necessarily be led to suppose that no hierarchy of award had yet been devised.  Certainly, by the late first century A.D., a system as complex as that used by any modern army was in being.  Awards were related to military rank rather than degree of heroism.  Ordinary soldiers were given sets of torques (necklets), armillae (bracelets) and phalerae (medallions);  evocati and centurions might receive the same, plus a corona aurea (golden crown); equestrian and senatorial officers were given sets of coronae, hastae purae (spears, perhaps silver-tipped), and vexilla (standards), according to their rank.  Much less is known about the corniculum (little horn?) and phiale (dish), which do not seem to have continued in use into the Empire."

One of the nine phalerae from Lauersfort depicts a young Bacchus or satyr.
Bacchic imagery was a popular motif on military decorations because the melee
of combat was said to resemble  Bacchic revelry.  Photographed at the Neues Museum
by Mary Harrsch  © 2016
Maxfield attributes the development of a reward system to the introduction of a professional army and the expansion of Roman territory beyond the Italian peninsula.

"Such a professional standing army required a career structure with incentives to the potential recruit, the prospects of advancement in rank and status, and the security which came from adequate regular pay, good conditions of service and a gratuity on discharge sufficient to ease the transition back into civilian life.  Likewise, the expansion of Rome's military commitments led to a steady proliferation of permanent regular units requiring to be officered.  This, together with the acquisition of overseas territories to be governed, necessitated changes in the structure and organization of command at its higher levels." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

Maxfield bemoans the paucity of evidence relating to the award of decorations.  She divides most of the evidence available into three categories: literary sources, inscriptions on stone (and occasionally on metal) and sculpture, acknowledging that archaeological evidence of the decorations themselves is patchy at best.

Surprisingly, most literary evidence is found in Republican Period sources.

"Doubtless there existed in the Roman period a written code of practice relating to the presentation of awards for gallantry; such a code would be necessary for the efficient and equitable running of the system, but none such has survived, nor any of the rolls of honour which must have been maintained at Rome, nor the soldiers' individual files which would have recorded all details of their military career including any distinctions gained in the field...Many of the conclusions which will be put forward about the development and functioning of the system of military reward are based on negative rather than on positive evidence and must therefore be regarded as far from definitive - no more than one way of interpreting the [extremely limited] material available." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

The Gorgon, Medusa, was popular imagery because of the legionaries' beliefs
in its protective properties.  Photographed at the Neues Museum
by Mary Harrsch  © 2016
Since I am particularly interested in phalerae, I took note that Maxfield discusses a speech given by Dionysius of Halicarnassus reciting the awards of the famous 5th century BCE legendary warrior named Lucius Siccius Dentatus (known as the Roman Achilles) who is said to have won 1 corona obsidionalis (the famous Grass Crown), 14 coronae civicae (for saving the lives of Roman citizens), 3 coronae murales (for being the first over the wall of an enemy city), 8 coronae aureae, 83 torques, 160 armillae, 18 hastae and 25 phalerae.  Since I had seen references to Celtic phalerae in the research literature, I had wondered if the Romans had adopted this form of decoration from that culture like it did the torques and armillae. But this would probably not have been the case back in the 5th century BCE.  However, Maxfield views this 1st century BCE source with "deep suspicion," although a further seven writers refer to the case of Dentatus as well.

"All the sources are in broad agreement over the detail of his military awards and yet the list is out of place in a fifth-century context.  It is, for example, highly doubtful whether specific crowns for saving the lives of Roman citizens and for being the first to scale an enemy wall had developed as early as this.  The whole thing is suspiciously anachronistic..." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

If Maxfield is correct, perhaps the inclusion of phalerae in the list of awards is also anachronistic and the award form may have been adopted after intensive contact with the Celts during Hannibal's invasion and/or Caesar's later Gallic Wars after all.

Although this phalera may depict Juno or Minerva, it may be a portrait of
Agrippina, wife of the popular Roman commander Germanicus.
Photographed at the Neues Museum by Mary Harrsch  © 2016
Maxfield is much more comfortable with information on military decorations provided by Polybius in Book VI of his history.  She says Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius provide excellent information on the origins of the various military crowns while Varro, Verrius Flaccus and Isidor of Seville provide fragmentary evidence on the origin of decorations other than crowns.

Then she addresses the problem of  epigraphic evidence concentrating on centurions and officers. Of the inscriptions found, she points out that most come from the first and second centuries CE.

"Although the practice of setting up inscriptions to honour the dead or the living was one which spread over almost the whole social scale, the quality and quantity of information given are heavily weighted towards the top end of the economic and social ladder.  The reason for this is readily apparent.  The cutting of monumental inscriptions was a skilled job and the stonemason would have charged accordingly; the more competent the mason the higher the fee he could command, the longer and more verbose the text the greater the cost.  A legionary centurion of the Principate earned more than sixteen times as much as did a common soldier, a camp prefect two-and-a-half times as much again.  An equestrian officer at the height of his military career had a salary comparable to that of the camp prefect but only half that which a decenarian procurator could command." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

Like Maxfield, I launched into a search for references to decorations on Roman military tombstones. The easiest to find were often stones with images of decorations and military equipment, sometimes without any inscription at all.  Maxfield says sometimes a reference could be as subtle as just the letters "d.d." for "donis donatus" meaning "having been decorated."  Another problem she points out is the wealthy, who may have had multiple monuments erected to them, may not have mentioned the details of military service but include only a general summary like two of three monuments honoring P. Cominius Clemens found in the cities of Concordia and Aquileia.  His illustrious equestrian career in which he commanded three auxiliary units and was decorated during the second of these commands is merely summarized as "omnibus equestribus militiis functo" ("having served at all the equestrian military levels.")

"While the relatively poor might not be able to afford to record the career in full, the richer and more powerful who have attained positions of honour and influence might not deem it worthwhile to specify the lower posts held.." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

Sculptural evidence is similarly concentrated with most dated to the Augustan period.  She attributes this to the generous donatives given by the emperor to his troops after the upheavals of the Civil War.
So, how many were actually awarded?

In a study of 70 Roman military funerary monuments, Professor Lawrence Keppie found only one depicting dona militaria.

Maxfield explains, "The surviving evidence for the officers and men of the Roman army is so partial that it will never be possible to work out a reliable figure for the proportion of serving soldiers who received military decorations.  One thing which is certain, however, is that dona militaria never became campaign medals simply designed to acknowledge the active participation of a soldier in a given campaign: the individual who wished to receive a decoration of any sort had to fight harder, better and more successfully than those around him." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

Maxfield does include an analysis of a couple of lists of soldiers from particular units, though.  The first list was comprised of names of men recruited to the praetorian guard between 153 and 156 CE then discharged between 169 and 172 CE.  They may have accompanied Verus on his Parthian campaign (162-166 CE) and Marcus Aurelius and Verus on the early part of the German war of 166-175 CE.  Although the list is incomplete, of sixty-nine men, nine (13% had the d.d. designation).  She points out that this percentage is considerably higher than indicated on records of Legio VII Claudia stationed near Viminacium in Moesia Superior at about the same time.  In a list of 195 of their names, Maxfield found only ten (less than 7%) were designated d.d.

This may not be as atypical as Maxfield thinks, however.  Men who distinguished themselves in the legions were often recruited for the praetorian guard so the caliber of individual soldier in the praetorian guard was already a step above field recruits.  We also don't know if the d.d. designation represented awards given after their induction into the praetorian guard or at some other point in their career.  There would also be the "exposure to the illustrious" factor.  As the emperor's chosen corps, they would be under more scrutiny by the emperor in the field, so valorous actions would probably be more quickly observed and documented by the emperor's staff than similar actions in other units.

One of the Lauersfort phalerae depicting a lion head.
Photographed at the Neues Museum by Mary Harrsch  © 2016
But, of these men, how many even survived their military careers?  Centurions constituted the largest percentage of the decorated so let's examine them.

Polybius described the qualities required of a centurion: 'they do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard-pressed and be ready to die at their posts.'

Roman reenactor dressed as a centurion.  Photo by Luc Viator courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Julius Caesar noted that in a battle against the Nervii in 57 BCE, 'all the centurions of the fourth cohort had been slain and a standard-bearer likewise...almost all the centurions of the other cohorts were wounded or killed, among them the chief centurion, P. Sextius Aculus, bravest of men, who was overcome by many grievous wounds so that he could no longer hold himself upright.'

So what happened to the dona militaria of those killed in action? Were their decorations sent to their families?  Maxfield thinks not.

"On the death of the soldier who won them, they may well have been returned or sold back to his unit (this was a common practice with standard military equipment) and later re-used..." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

What other activities could have also resulted in the loss of dona militaria?

"A passage from the Histories of Tacitus points to what may well have been the ultimate fate of large numbers of decorations in times of financial crisis.  Tacitus tells us how some of the supporters of Vitellius at Cologne in AD 69, not having money to give to help finance the war, were urged to part with their valuables including their phalerae...Another allusion to the melting down of military decorations appears in the pages of the Elder Pliny: 'if only Fabricius who forbade gallant generals to possess more than a dish and a salt-cellar of silver would see how nowadays the rewards of valour are made from the utensils of luxury or else are broken up to make them.'" - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

Roman portrait once thought to be Vitellius.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The ancient sources also describe the offering of military decorations at the funerals of famous commanders.

"...soldiers of Sulla and Caesar, who, wearing their decorations at the funerals of their one-time commanders, cast the dona on to the funeral pyres as a final tribute (App., BC I. 105; Suet., Caesa. 84.4.,  App., BC II.148)"

Maxfield points out that not one military crown of any type has ever been identified.  She also says  not a single vexillum nor a hasta pura has ever been found either, although scholar M. Rostovtzeff, in his paper "Vexillum and Victory", published in 1942 in the Journal of Roman Studies, purports to have identified at least one vexillum.

Although the most coveted crowns like the corona obsidionalis were made of perishable vegetation from the scene of the action, it seems hardly possible that not a single corona aurea has been found.  I've seen so many 5th - 3rd century BCE gold Greek wreaths in museums and traveling exhibits I have lost count.  But, apparently, such Roman crowns are nonexistent.

Fragment of a gold wreath Greek 320-300 BCE from a tomb at
Zaneskaya Gora in the region of the Crimea on the northern shore of the Black Sea.
Photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by
Mary Harrsch © 2007
Another problem contributing to the loss of dona was grave robbers.  Decorated veterans were sometimes buried with their dona in isolated graves on their land plots.

In his paper, "Having Been a Soldier:  The Commemoration of Military Service on Funerary Monuments of the Early Roman Empire", Lawrence Keppie explains:

"The great majority of memorials at Este, and at least half of those from Antiochia, were not erected in cemeteries at the towns themselves, but often in what appear isolated contexts in the territorium, that is most obviously on the land plots which the colonists had obtained at the close of the military service...In many cases, the memorial would be seen principally, not by fellow colonists or any serving military men (like those erected outside a legionary fortress such as Mainz), but by family and neighbours."

Such isolated burials would be prime pickings for passing grave robbers and thieves.

In his paper, "Vexillum and Victory" published in Vol. 32 of The Journal of Roman Studies, Rostovtzeff says, "The representation on a monument of specific allusions, e.g. military standards or dona militaria, is really quite rare, and presumably restricted to those entitled to be so depicted.  [However,] The dona themselves are often shown very prominently, and when painted would have been easily distinguished from afar."

I was particularly intrigued by Keppie's reference to a case in Cremona where a soldier, serving under Augustus had his dona militaria interred with his ashes.  I wish Keppie had been more specific.  He only footnoted a 1971 publication by Pontiroli which is pretty hard to track down without a title or the name of the journal in which it appeared.  I thought, perhaps, the dona militaria may have ended up in the local archaeological museum which in the case of Cremona would be The Museo Archeologico di San Lorenzo.  So,  I eagerly viewed as many images of that museum's collections as I could find, including images taken by visitors uploaded to TripAdvisor, but saw no funerary monuments from the Augustan period or dona militaria, although the museum's website mentions ceramic/glass/bronze grave goods and dona militaria were often silvered bronze.  I later found a reference that mentioned bronze torques being found but no mention of anything else.  Based on Maxfield's discussion of how decorations were usually awarded in sets, there should have been more decorations found than just a couple of torques.

Professor Keppie also pointed out that a number of soldiers' graves were plundered by later Christians for stone to build their churches.

"...a panel showing phalerae is built into the thirteenth-century bell-tower of the Cathedral at Benevento...There are certainly numerous fragments of sculptural decoration of what must have been large monuments, most probably to primipilares, equestrian officers and even senatorial commanders." - Lawrence Keppie, 'Having been a soldier': The Commemoration of Military Service on Funerary Monuments of the early Roman Empire

Keppie says that a number of sculptured panels are also built into the church of San Domenico at Sora (Lazio), which include an eagle and military standard.  I would assume that any dona militaria found containing precious metals would have been similarly confiscated and melted down especially in view of their pagan imagery.

Maxfield says one of the underlying problems is the difficulty in identifying military decorations in first place.  She explains that some of the minor awards were derived from personal ornaments and there appears to be no standard design used for the dona. Bronze torques found during the excavation of the Roman fort of Benwell on Hadrian's Wall could have just as well been local native ornaments traded for Roman goods as military decorations.

"The commonest type of decoration to be found is the phalera.  The problem of interpretation here arises from the fact that phalerae were used for purposes other than military award; they served for example as horse-trappings and these trappings are not always readily distinguishable from military decorations - both are ornate metal discs design to be attached to leather straps.  Only in cases such as that of the Lauersfort phalerae where a complete set [of nine] was found in close proximity to a legionary fortress (Vetera bei Xanten in Lower Germany) can we be confident that we are dealing with genuine dona militaria." - Valerie A. Maxfield, The Military Decorations of the Roman Army

At least I had the opportunity to view one set!  Judging from their rarity, they should be worth more than the Hope Diamond!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ben Hur 2016: Definitely Not A Blast From The Past!

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

Last week I went to see the new Ben-Hur remake on opening day.  I realize the producers had a very narrow religious agenda but I had to see for myself since historical films about the ancient world have been in such short supply lately.  I had read a review in the Huffington Post saying the CG chariot race alone was worth the price of admission and they were definitely right about that!

The classic Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston has been the gold standard since 1959 even though it is based on an inspirational but broadly historically-flawed novel by Civil War Major General Lew Wallace.

Major General Lew Wallace, 11th governor of the
New Mexico Territory.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I saw it as a girl and have watched it many times since - even more often than Heston's other blockbuster, "The Ten Commandments."  I was pretty much prepared for a retelling of a very familiar tale with different actors and CG effects thrown in.  But, what I saw was a significantly altered story with a lot of Roman bashing!  If you are totally unfamiliar with the story of Ben-Hur and want to see the new remake with no idea what to expect, you should probably stop reading at this point.  Last warning....

The new film begins with the famous chariot race, although it shows just a brief clip before fading to a horse race between a very young Messala and Ben-Hur.  When Ben-Hur's horse stumbles and falls, he is thrown violently to the ground and is severely injured.  Messala runs over to him, scoops him up and staggers back to the Hur residence with his now badly bleeding friend.  There we see Ben-Hur's mother, a very unsympathetic character, shout at Messala, blaming him for her son's condition.  Ben-Hur's sister, though, who is obviously in love with Messala, tells him it's not his fault and together they begin the bedside vigil waiting for Ben-Hur to regain consciousness.

So far, the producers actually had me interested.  In the 1959 film, an allusion is made to Messala's relationship with Ben-Hur's sister Tirza but that's about it.  I actually liked this little anecdote from Ben-Hur's past.

Ben-Hur finally wakes up and he seems to recover fairly swiftly.  It becomes apparent that Messala feels out of place in Ben-Hur's royal family home.  Messala finally confesses to Ben-Hur that he wants to become his own man among his own people and plans to enlist in the legions.  Messala alludes to an apparently disreputable grandfather and how Messala hopes to regain the family honor. So far, so good.

Then we see a series of clips of Messala fighting bravely in brutal combat across the empire.  The filmmakers still have me on board!

Messala is finally deployed back to Jerusalem where zealots have been clashing violently with the legions. Jerusalem appears to be the headquarters of a legion - first major historical error.

Scholar Tim O'Neill tells us, "The Prefects and, later, Procurators, who governed Judea were lower level officials of the equestrian class, subordinate to the higher ranking governors of the province of Syria, who were of Senatorial rank.  Only a senatorial official could command legions.  The Prefects/Procurators of Judea commanded several cohorts of auxiliary troops, not legionaries.  These would have been Greek speaking Syrians or locally recruited Samaritans rather than Romans, though commanded by Roman officers."

"Later in the first century AD, in the wake of the failed Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD, one of the legions that took part in the suppression of the uprising and the destruction of Jerusalem - Legio X Fretensis - stayed behind to occupy Judea  and was based in Jerusalem.  It remained based in Judea for the next 150 years."

Pontius Pilate makes his entrance and is portrayed as thoroughly nasty.  The filmmakers have attempted to demonstrate his elevated rank by including in his costume a fur capelet and fur-lined boots - much more suited to Germania than the blazing desert sun of Jerusalem.  At no point in the film does he demonstrate any compassion to anyone even though Christian scriptures say he tried to dissuade the chief priests and the mob from seeking the execution of Jesus. Pilate is also dressed in military uniform throughout the film even though he served as an administrative magistrate and would have worn a toga as was portrayed in the 1959 film.  He is also barely older than Messala even though he holds such an elevated position and, in history, dies a "mature" man just ten years later.  Obviously, at this point, from a Roman history perspective, things start turning noticeably south.

Messala has apparently made his way up the ranks to become a tribune. However, tribunes were typically posts reserved for young men of the equestrian class with aspirations for a senatorial career.  There are a number of types of tribunes but Messala appears to be a tribunus laticlavius, second in command to the legionary legate.  A legionary ranker may rise to the position of a centurion, a non-commissioned officer post, or even a primipilares (first spear), a senior centurion, but not a tribune. To make matters worse, for those of us who have studied military decorations, Messala arrives at the house of Hur for dinner dressed in a full set of phalerae - awards bestowed upon centurions.  By the first century CE, tribunes and other staff officers could earn coronae (crowns of various types and designs), hasta purae (special spears - some scholars think they were silver-tipped) and vexilla (symbolic standards) - but not phalerae, the sculpted bronze discs worn on a leather harness strapped over the chest of a centurion on formal occasions.  I realize Hollywood frequently uses anachronistic pieces of Roman equipment that the general public associates with Roman soldiers, but I think they should be held accountable for poor research!

One of nine silvered bronze phalerae depicting a mythological figure
(Bacchus or a young satyr?) awarded to Titus Flavius Festus Roman 1st century CE.
Bacchic imagery was popular in the legions because the melee of combat was
said to resemble the frenzy of Bacchic revelry.  Photographed at the Neues Museum
in Berlin, Germany by Mary Harrsch © 2016
We also see Roman soldiers wearing the classic segmented armor known as lorica segmentata which, although the time period is correct, would have probably been too hot in the desert.  At least there were a few scenes with soldiers in mail shirts (lorica hamata) which would have been more reasonable.

A Roman reenactor wearing lorica segmentata at an event
at St. Alban's.  I was practicing my compositing skills and
time traveled him to medieval Yorkminster!
Photo by Mary Harrsch  © 2006
More sinister, though, from a psychological perspective, was a scene where Roman soldiers are seen plundering the Jewish necropolis for stones to build the hippodrome.  There is no evidence this type of activity ever occurred there. Romans typically did not interfere with local religious or funerary customs.  In fact, although Rome expected conquered peoples to worship Roman gods along with their native pantheon, Jews were declared exempt from this requirement after they were conquered in 63 BCE. Judaism was declared a legal religion and the Jews were allowed to worship freely.

The reason I found this scene particularly pernicious, though, was that this past week I have been researching why so few Roman military decorations have ever been found and came across pictures of Christian churches with the tombstones of Roman soldiers incorporated into their walls. These images were produced by Professor Lawrence Keppie to illustrate his paper "Having Been A Soldier: The Commemoration of Military Service On Funerary Monuments of the Early Roman Empire," published in the Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies.

Roman veterans who were decorated for their valor were sometimes buried with their military decorations crafted from precious metals.  We can only assume the dona militaria were also plundered and probably melted down by church workmen or officials. So this scene depicting the Romans in the act of desecrating graves was not only historically inaccurate but indicted the Romans for unsavory acts the later Christians actually practiced. I also heard the local inhabitants in the film referring to the Romans under their breath as killers.

Then I was surprised that instead of Tirza knocking a loosened tile from the roof to rain down on the prefect's entourage as depicted in the 1959 film, we see a young zealot, who has been recuperating in the Hur household, fire an arrow that misses the prefect and kills a nearby Roman signifer.  The boy runs away and Ben-Hur takes the blame to try to protect his mother and sister.  But, all are dragged away and Ben-Hur is sentenced to the galleys.  Of course, this is where the novel itself is totally inaccurate. Rome did not use slaves on its military galleys.  They were manned by trained sailors and marines. The Romans did not want a battle's outcome dependent upon the performance of slaves. But, to be fair, this information may not have been known to Lew Wallace in 1880 when he published Ben-Hur.

Fresco of a Roman war galley from Pompeii 1st century CE.  Photograph by
Mary Harrsch © 2007
In reality, prisoners like Ben-Hur that somehow escaped execution would have been sentenced to the mines or the quarries.  However, it would have been difficult for Ben-Hur to rescue a Roman naval commander there like he did in Lew Wallace's novel.

I actually liked the updated sea battle sequence.  The CG was pretty good and heightened the tension. However, the Roman commander was portrayed as totally despicable and went overboard during the battle, apparently dying.  Ben-Hur did not rescue him or go to Rome and eventually be adopted by him as in the 1959 film. Instead, Ben-Hur is washed ashore and found by the kindly African, played by Morgan Freeman in dreadlocks, who wants to race horses in the hippodrome of Jerusalem.

That brings us back to the chariot race.  This part of the novel serves as the exciting climax both for it and the film adaptations. However, although thrilling, it is based on historical inaccuracy as well. Charioteers, although wildly popular, were, like gladiators and other Roman entertainers, members of the lowest social class in ancient Rome.  At this point in time, a Roman military tribune would have never competed as a chariot driver.  As I said, though, it was absolutely thrilling.  I even had to look away a couple of times because of the realistic violence.  I watched the following trailer on YouTube that included a "Behind the Scenes" look at the filming of the chariot race.  Although I'm sure some CGI was used, the actors actually did drive the chariots.  The filmmakers mounted cameras on the chariots themselves along with other moving camera vehicles to give us some really unique camera angles. I do hope none of the horses were injured during the filming!  Jack Huston looks like he's having the time of his life!

Of course, probably the most misleading scene of all depicted the Romans arresting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Even the Christian scriptures say Jesus was arrested by armed men sent by the Jewish high priests! That scene was inexcusable!! Talk about vilifying an entire culture to promote your own religious agenda!

But, the new film offers a totally alternative ending which I actually liked.  I will leave that for you to discover for yourself, though.

For those of you with a nostalgia for earlier productions of Ben-Hur, I will leave you with a link to a .pdf I created of a souvenir booklet for a 1900 live production of Ben-Hur that I found at a local flea market a couple of years ago: 

Scene from a 1900 live production of Ben-Hur.  Photo (now in the public domain) by Joseph Byron.

This play ran for 21 years in the United States, Britain and Australia, ending in 1920.  It is estimated over 20 million people saw it during that time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: The Siege (Book One of the Agent of Rome Series) by Nick Brown

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

At just 19-years old, Cassius Corbulo is probably the youngest centurion in the Roman Army.  Has he won a civic crown or been the first over the wall of a besieged town?  No.  Actually, he spent a few too many nights wooing the young women of Rome, so his father signed him up for the Imperial Security Service, sort of the Roman emperor's version of the FBI.  No one, including Corbulo's father, ever thought he would end up actually leading troops in the field, especially not in Syria where Queen Zenobia's troops, trained in Roman tactics and under the leadership of the fierce commander, Septimius Zabbai, are wreaking total havoc from Egypt to Asia Minor.

But when Corbulo arrives to assume his role on the Syrian governor's staff, he is immediately dispatched to Roman outposts in the region to collect up what troops remain and escort them back to Antioch.  He is told to assume the role of centurion, since that is the equivalent rank he holds in the security service, but he feels painfully aware of his total inexperience and is embarrassed to be issuing commands to the grizzled veterans he collects.

Palmyran Loculus Cover 2nd century CE.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch © 2005
His uncle, a successful merchant in Antioch, has provided Corbulo with a knowledgeable man-servant from Gaul but, unlike other "sidekicks" in similar tales, Simo has no demonstrated skill in arms.  Corbulo, himself, despite being distantly related to the famous general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, and undergoing the Roman equivalent of basic training, is actually clumsy with a sword.  Fortunately, his behavioral perception and ability to judge men's characters are significantly beyond his years.  So, unlike Harry Sidebottom's Marcus Claudius Balista or Douglas Jackson's Gaius Valerius Verrens, both quintessential warriors, young Corbulo will need to use his wits and his courage rather than his brawn to outwit the opponents he will face as the story unfolds.

Corbulo receives a dispatch to proceed to a ramshackle Roman fortress named Alauran, guarding one of the precious wells in the region, and hold it until a Roman relief force arrives.  There he finds less than half of the original century assigned to the post still alive and only a drunken praetorian, a disgraced hero of Rome suffering from a severe intestinal disorder, the only remaining officer.  With no leadership, the men, who have not been paid in almost two years, have little discipline left and have little faith in a contingent of slinger auxiliaries made up of local tribesmen with whom they share the compound.  But every available man will be needed if Corbulo is to withstand an attack.

Byzantine-era silver plate depicting the world's most famous slinger Goliath.  Photographed
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2007
Meanwhile, Zabbai sends an elite contingent, under the command of one of the most celebrated swordsmen in Palmyra, to capture the Roman outpost.

Brown does an excellent job of describing the setting and developing the characters of Corbulo, Simo, the praetorian, the appointed squad leaders and the Palmyran swordsman and commander, Azaf.  I found it interesting to see how Corbulo was going to rebuild a fighting force by selecting men who would respond to his leadership efforts and help motivate the remaining men to mount a formidable defense.

When the attack begins, the action is non-stop and the suspense builds to a gratifying conclusion.  I was listening to the unabridged version of the audiobook and must admit, though, at one point I shouted "throw the caltrops!" as it looked like Corbulo had forgotten them when he was actually waiting for just the precise moment for maximum effect.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review: The Last Roman: Triumph

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

The final chapters of Flavius Belisarius' life are the focus of Jack Ludlow's third and final installment in his series "The Last Roman" subtitled "Triumph".  In the second book, "The Last Roman: Honour", Flavius fights a vicious battle on two fronts as he struggles to retake the Italian peninsula for his emperor, Justinian I, while the empress Theodora, consumed with jealousy and paranoia, tries to thwart his success, both clandestinely and overtly.  Flavius, undermanned, poorly supplied and saddled with ambitious disloyal subordinates,  ends up having to resort to subterfuge to capture the Goth capital of Ravenna.  He receives an offer of the crown of the Western Roman Empire and allows the Goths to believe he is willing to accept it to obtain their surrender.  But this ruse does not go unnoticed by the treacherous Theodora and, although Flavius publicly refuses the crown that would have made him equal in rank to Justinian,  he is abruptly recalled to the imperial court in Constantinople to explain himself.

As book three opens, Flavius returns to Constantinople with the Goth treasure for the imperial coffers.  But, the imperial sycophants, fearful of the ruthless Theodora, whisper of his imminent downfall as his requests for an audience are ignored day after day.

"Not even the government officials could approach the Empress without expending much time and effort. They were treated like servants and kept waiting in a small, stuffy room for an endless time. After many days, some of them might at last be summoned, but going into her presence in great fear, they very quickly departed. They simply showed their respect by laying face down and touching the instep of each of her feet with their lips; there was no opportunity to speak or to make any request unless she told them to do so. The government officials had sunk into a slavish condition, and she was their slave-instructor." - Procopius, Anecdota

Proskynesis depicted on a Byzantine-era ivory plaque.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the streets of Constantinople, however, Flavius is openly revered and can walk among the people without a single bodyguard.  This infuriates the empress Theodora even more, since she remembers how she and Justinian nearly met a grisly fate at the hands of the mob during the Nika riots early in Justinian's reign.

Finally, Flavius is confronted by a publicly hostile Justinian. But after what appears to be a great show of imperial displeasure, Flavius is asked to attend Justinian in his private chambers.  There, Justinian's royal posturing dissolves into nervous pacing as Flavius is briefed on serious Sassanid incursions that are eating away at the eastern frontier.  Flavius realizes Justinian, who refuses to publicly cross his vicious empress, was putting on a show for her benefit, but actually needs Flavius' help and has not forgotten their friendship.

As we saw in book two, Justinian, like many of his predecessors, maintained the empire's long standing policy of averting outright war with the Sassanids by the payment of subsidies.

The Sassanian Empire was founded by Ardashir I in 224 CE, after the fall of the Parthian Empire and the defeat of the last Arsacid king, Artabanus V.   Just six years later, Ardashir's son, Shapur I begins a centuries-long cycle of Persian incursions and Roman retaliation when he raids deep into Roman territory in 230 CE.  Territory ebbs and flows between the two superpowers until Shapur finally engineers a highly advantageous peace treaty with the Roman emperor Philip the Arab in 244 CE, securing the immediate payment of 500,000 silver denarii and further annual payments.

Ghal'eh Dokhtar (or "The Maiden's Castle") in present-day Fars, Firuzabad, Iran, built by Ardashir in 209, before he was finally able to defeat the Parthian empire.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Sassanid king comes to rely upon these subsidies to pay Persian nobles to ensure their loyalty and keep him in power.  This arrangement does not last, however, when Shapur's forces, attempting to exploit past successes, advance into Asia Minor in 260 CE and suffer a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Romans led by Marcus Claudius Ballista and their Palmyrene ally Odaenathus.  (For an exciting series about this period, check out Harry Sidebottom's "Warrior of Rome" series of novels beginning with "Fire In the East".)

But maintaining troops is expensive and eventually Rome again resorts to paying subsidies sporadically to avoid the monumental cost of engaging in a full scale war with the Sassanids.  This continues for the next 270 years.  During that time, frontier skirmishes are used as a way for Sassanid kings to periodically extort more Roman gold whenever Persian nobles once more become contentious.

During one of these restless periods, a very young Flavius Belisarius faces the armies of Kavadh I, defeating them at the famous battle of Dara in 530 CE (detailed in book two).  But ten years have passed now, and as they say, glory is fleeting.   Justinian now expects Flavius to face the forces of Kavadh's son Khosrow I, but without adequate supplies, money or Flavius' fiercely loyal bucellarii, his personally trained armored cavalry.

Gilt-Silver plate depicting King Khosrow I hunting.  Sassanid 6th century CE.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Meanwhile, Theodora, not to be outwitted, sends Flavius' duplicitous wife, Antonina, Theodora's creature, east as well to keep tabs on Flavius.  Then the so-called Justinian's plague sweeps the empire.  Among the victims is the emperor himself so the troops turn to Rome's most respected general for leadership.

Ludlow's taut narrative keeps the reader immersed in the unending court intrigues and the military challenges Flavius faces as he doggedly attempts to remain loyal to an emperor that has allowed court politics to blind his once formidable administrative acumen.  Knowing that Theodora died of breast cancer at the relatively young age of 48, twenty years before Flavius and Justinian, I hoped that Flavius could at last put aside his loveless marriage originally engineered by Theodora, and enjoy at least some modicum of peace.  But, like toxic waste, Theodora's legacy of suspicion and paranoia lingers between Justinian and Flavius, a fate I felt Flavius did not deserve.  At least Justinian did not blind Flavius, as a popular medieval legend maintains, although the emperor periodically seizes Flavius' estates and allows him to be prosecuted on trumped up charges of corruption.

I realized as I finished this novel that the title did not refer to a military triumph, as I had originally assumed, but to Flavius Belisarius' triumph of maintaining his honor despite numerous imperial and personal betrayals throughout his tumultuous life. For this seemingly impossible achievement alone, I felt the Belisarius of Ludlow's novel truly earned his moniker as "The Last Roman."

A free Kindle preview:

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