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Death between the Dunes

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Al-Mutawakkil Great Mosque and archaeological site (9th century AD). In June 363 AD, it must have been boiling hot and wearing roman heavy armor certainly did not help.

In June of year 363 AD, near the city of Samarra in modern day Iraq, a large professional Roman army was in a state of total chaos. The Romans were led by Princeps Julian, a cultured and competent leader who had led the army to victory near the Persian capital of Ctesiphon a month earlier. Julian however failed to capitalize on this important tactical victory, and did not siege the city as an incoming force led by the King of Kings Shapur II was closing in from the east. Near Samarra, Julian’s army of 35,000 was intercepted by skirmishing cavalry sent by Shapur. The Persians attacked the roman cohorts who were advancing in square formations to avoid encirclement. Julian, seeing his troops panicking in front of the sudden Sassanid attack, rushed forward without his armor in order to encourage his men to fight on. He was however spotted by Sassanid officers who sent an arab regiment of auxiliary cavalry to assassinate him. Julian was hit on his back by a javelin and was immediately rushed to the rearguard. His doctor Oribasius couldn’t do anything, as the Emperor died a few hours later in his tent. The roman army, now without a leader, chose Jovian (Julian’s Comes Domesticorum) as the new emperor. Facing continuous raids from the Sassanids, the Romans were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Shapur II. Shortly after the peace negotiations, emperor Jovian died in his tent in Anatolia (Dadastana) under mysterious circumstances.

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Emperor Julian (361-363 AD) is famous for his struggle against the now dominating Christian faith in the Roman Empire. Julian’s beard symbolyzes his philosophical erudition and his attachment to the pagan tradition.

 

The Sogdian Rock

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Babak Castle, located in North-Western Iran. The Achaemenid and Sassanid Persians were famous for building their castles on top of steep mountains.

In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, had conquered most of the persian Achaemenid empire and defeated the King of Kings Darius III in numerous battles. Alexander had arrived in Central Asia, in a region known then as Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and had encountered stiff resistance from the Iranic peoples that lived in the hereto unexplored region. One of the leaders of the resistance was Oxyartes, a persian nobleman who had a beautiful daughter named Roxanne. Roxanne was sent by her father to a fortified castle near the city of Maracanda (Samarkand). The castle was considered impregnable, as it was located on the top of a steep mountain and therefore nicknamed “The Sogdian Rock”. While Alexander was preparing the troops for the siege, the confident defenders told him that to take their castle he would need “men with wings”. Alexander took 300 volunteers experienced in rock climbing (Macedonia being a mountainous region, his men were skilled climbers) and sent them up the slopes of the mountain. When the men arrived on the top, Alexander sent messangers to tell the Persians that if they looked up on the walls, they would have seen their winged men. The Persians, astonished, surrendered to Alexander. After the siege Alexander married Oxyartes’s daughter Roxanne, who gave him a son, Alexander IV.

The Pompei of the Desert

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Ancient Paleo-Christian baptistry of Dura-Europos.

On the western bank of the Euphrates, near the border of modern day Iraq and Syria, once stood the ancient walled town of Dura-Europos. Founded as a military colony by Selecus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s successors, Dura-Europos became a sprawling city, serving as a crossroads of cultures and empires. Under Roman rule, the city became one of the most strongly fortified points on the eastern border with the Sassanid Persians. In the year 256 AD, the Sassanid King of Kings, Shapur I, laid siege to the city. The siege was extremely violent, with the Sassanids trying multiple times to undermine Roman defenses. The Persians may have also used poisoned gas, stemming from ignited sulphur crystals, in order to kill the roman defenders, in what is an ancient example of chemical warfare. The skeleton of the Sassanid soldier who was most likely responsible for the release of the gas was found by archaeologists. Even a siege ramp was erected by the Sassanid troops in order to breach the defenses of the city. Eventually the Sassanids did manage to take the city, deporting the survivors to Ctesiphon and selling them as slaves. The city then became a ghost town, as emperor Valerian was defeated and captured by Shapur’s forces near Edessa in 260 AD and therefore could not intervene in time. Desert sands would gradually cover the city’s buildings, miraculously preserving them for future archaeology. Evidence of Dura’s cultural diversity throughout the centuries can be found in the retrieved works written in Greek, Latin, Palmyrean, Hebrew and Middle Persian. The city contained a Christian chapel, a Synagogue, a Mithraeum and an Agorà, proof of the greek/macedonian origin of the town. Dura also housed a Roman military camp, the base from which the Roman garrison operated the defense of the walls in 256 AD. The extensive archaelogical evidence (which included also many pagan temples, the Praetorium and the city walls) present in the town led to the city being called: “the Pompei of the Desert”. Contemporary satellite images show that 70% of the site has been destroyed by looters and by ISIS operations in the region. One of the guards of the archaeological site has been beheaded. Dura-Europos is now lost to the the desert winds of Eastern Syria.

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View of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates. The city held a strategic position as a military fort and trading center. 

The Last Bastion of the West

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Stunning view of the Abbaye Saint Jean des Vignes in Soissons, Aisne, France. Credit to Dronestagr.am.

By the time teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic general Odoacer in 476 AD, the western Roman world was fragmented and governed by mostly “barbarian” rulers who led the so called “romano-barbarian” kingdoms. There was however a land in northern Gaul, near the city of Noviodunum (modern day Soissons), which still claimed to be part of the Roman Empire. The leader of the domain of Soissons was Afranius Syagrius, the son of the able Magister Militum per Gallias, Aegidius. He was referred to as “King of the Romans” by the Frankish nobles, and tried to maintain a successful Gaullic-Roman state in the middle of a mostly germanic ruled western Europe. Syagrius succeeded in pursuing his objective for about 25 years, but, in 486 AD, he was challenged by the ambitious king of the Franks, Clovis I. Syagrius confronted the armies of Clovis near Soissons, in the modern French department of Aisne. The Franks managed to crush the Roman forces, as Syagrius was forced to flee to the Visigothic court of Alaric II. Alaric, intimidated by the powerful Franks, handed Syagrius over to Clovis, who summarily executed him. Gregory of Tours wrote about the event, claiming that Syagrius was stabbed in secret. With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule in the West came to an end. This is not to say that Roman culture disappeared entirely, as the Eastern Roman Empire was still strong and the new germanic kingdoms viewed Rome as a model, which they copied extensively, from administrative posts to military tactics and ranks.

The “Fifth” Maritime Republic

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View of the bay of Gaeta from the villa of Mamurra in Gianola, Formia, southern Latium. Legends say that Ulysses met the dangerous sorceress Circe nearby the city.

After the gradual disintegration of the Western Roman empire and the Eastern Roman reconquest of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century AD, a small castle called Castrum Cajetanum, situated on the southern Tyrrhenian coastline of Italy, began to flourish under Byzantine rule. The fortified castle, on the slopes of Monte Orlando (a place full of greco-roman legends) slowly started to gain autonomy from the central authority of Costantinople, becoming de facto independent by the 9th century AD. During this time, the rulers of Gaeta and its surroundings were called Hypati, a Byzantine title equivalent to the Latin Consul. During the high Middle Ages, the rulers of Gaeta allied themselves with the pope and fought against saracen pirates, defeating them at the battle of Ostia in 849 AD and at the battle of Garigliano in 915 AD. From this time onwards, Gaeta gradually turned into a sprawling trading centre, with its ships reaching as far as Constantinople, Syria and North Africa. Gaeta became so powerful and rich, that it was commonly referred to as the “fifth” Maritime Republic along with Amalfi, Venice, Pisa and Genoa. Gaeta’s golden age ended in 1140 AD, when the city was absorbed by the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, led by King Roger II.
One of the main primary sources on the history of Gaeta is the Codex Diplomaticus Cajetanus, a collection of historical documents, written in the nearby Abbey of Montecassino. The famous Caetani family, of which pope Boniface VIII is part, is said to descend from the powerful Hypati of Gaeta.

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12th century medieval bell tower of the dome of Gaeta, episcopal residence since the 9th century AD.

An Expedition to Carnuntum: The Main Roman Fort on the Limes Pannonicus

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Map of the Danube frontier around Vindobona. Down the river to the east, the Romans built the fort of Arrabona, modern day Györ, Hungary.

Carnuntum was one of the main roman forts on the Danube frontier, and, in particular, on the Limes Pannonicus, a section of the Danube Limes. Carnuntum is a center of celtic origin, its name deriving from from “kar” or “karn” which means rock in Celtic. During late roman times, the castrum was used by emperor Valentinian I as the main springboard for his aggressive campaigns against the Quadi tribes, germanic people. Carnuntum had a legionary fortress, an auxiliary fort and was home to the Pannonian river fleet. The auxiliary fort hosted the Ala I Thracum, a cavalry regiment, which, as the name suggests, came from the roman province of Thracia, in modern day Bulgaria. Ruins of a large amphitheater built around the second half of the 2nd century AD, which could host around 12.000 spectators, are still visible today.

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A photo of me in the town’s roman amphitheater built around 200 AD. Petronell-Carnuntum, Lower Austria. 19 January 2017. 

Additionally, a civil center developed around the forts, most probably inhabited by the family of the soldiers. In 308 AD the city hosted the Carnuntum conference, a diplomatic gathering between the main leaders of Diocletian’s tetrarchy. Emperor Valentinian rebuilt the military forts which had been destroyed by the repeated incursions of the Jazigi, a Sarmatian (Iranian) tribal group. After the death of Valentinian in 375 AD at the fort of Brigetio, in modern day Hungary, the forts of Carnuntum went into disrepair. Today’s emblem of the city  is the so called Heidentor, a monumental archway erected next to the fort probably dedicated to the reunion of the tetrarchs under Diocletian or to  Valentinian’s victories against germanic tribes.

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Heidentor, monumental archway erected around 300 AD. Petronell-Carnuntum, Lower Austria. 19 January 2017. 

The so called “amber road”, which can still be walked on, ran through the legionary fort in Carnuntum leading to Aquileia, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Rome. Memories of roman times are still strong, as many streets and hotels are named after roman emperors. Carnuntum remains the most ancient roman fort on the Limes Pannonicus, a true stronghold against barbarian hordes.

 

Late Roman Coin Collection of the Kunsthistorischesmuseum

The Coin Collection of the Kusnthistorischesmuseum in Vienna, Austria is one of the five largest and most important coin collections in the world. Its Münzkabinett owns over half a million objects which make it one of the largest collections of its kind, and it can be traced back until the 16th century. Most of the coins and medallions listed below are part of a special collection of the highest-carat gold pieces from the Vienna Coin Cabinet once-imperial collection. Many of the objects on display were honorific gifts to the emperor or were targeted acquisitions for the imperial collection.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Golden coin of Emperor Constantine the Great, a valiant general and the man responsible for the Edict of Toleration emanated in Milan in 313 AD.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin of Philip the Arab, one of the innumerable military emperors of the 3rd century AD.

 

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin of Eastern roman Emperor Theodosius II, author of the Codex Theodosianus, a compilation of general laws and edicts.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Medallion depicting emperor Constantius II, middle child of Constantine I and Fausta. Constantius is often underrated as a leader despite having successfully defended the Empire’s frontiers on various occasions.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Medallion of emperor Valentinian the Great. Soldier emperor, cultured man, excellent strategist and good administrator, Valentinian was one of the last strong political figures of the roman West.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Huge gold coin depicting the brother emperors, Valentinian the Great and Valens. Valentinian died of a stroke in 375 AD, in modern day Hungary. His brother Valens died in battle in 378 AD near Adrianople, modern day Edirne.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Splendid gold medallion depicting Eastern roman emperor Valens. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, Valens was a good looking man of medium height and with olive skin.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Another beautiful medallion of Valens. The emperor sternly defended the arian christian cause. Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that he was an extremely loyal friend.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Yet another medallion of Valens. Valens was the son of Gratian the Elder, a prominent military commander.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Guess who this is? That’s right, it’s our pal Valens. I think it’s safe to say he enjoyed being portrayed.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Valens my friend, how many times have I told you? Don’t be too narcissistic! The guy never listened…

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Medallion of Valens. The emperor began his career as a Protector Domesticus and was then elevated to the throne by his brother Valentinian I.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Amazing medallion of Constantine I, the emperor who built the city of Constantinople, modern day Instanbul.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin of emperor Constantine I, founder of the original Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

 Coin of Valentinian I, a legend of the Late Roman Era.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

 

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin of emperor Julian, also called “The Apostate”. He tried to revive the pagan cults in the mostly Christian roman empire.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Golden coin of Constans I, represented holding  a globe which symbolyzes power.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

 Coin of a byzantine emperor holding a cross.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Silver coin of emperor Constantine I, known as “Trachala” for his big neck.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Silver coin of Constantius II, wearing the imperial diadem.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett. 

Coin of Constantius II, the man who ordered the execution of Caesar Gallus.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin representing Valentinian and Valens seated on the throne. Barbarians or slaves are prostrating beneath them.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Golden solidus depicting Constantius II among his soldiers and officers.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Amazing and rare big medallion depicting emperor Valens on horseback.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin depicting emperors Carus and Carinus, military emperors of the 3rd century AD.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Golden bar which, on the left, depicts three emperors: Theodosius I, Valentinian II and Arcadius.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Golden bar issued by Theodosius I.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin of Constans I, youngest son of Constantine I.

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Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett.

Coin of emperor Maximian, soldier emperor and collegue of Diocletian. He is often portrayed as a violent and cruel man, especially by Christians. His real character was probably different, we will never know.

Federico II: Un Imperatore Medievale?

“La vostra fedeltà brilla come stella intorno a noi e invidiata da tutti i popoli risplende nel mondo” – Federico II di Svevia ai pugliesi

 

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Taglio dal Codex Manesse, conservato nella biblioteca universitaria di Heidelberg, raffigurante il cantore Konrad von Altstetten con la sua amante, spesso identificato con Federico II e Bianca Lancia di Agliano. 

Uomo, imperatore, mecenate, “anticristo”, “stupor mundi”, “puer Apuliae”, Federico II fu tutte queste cose e anche di più.

Seguito durante la sua infanzia e gioventù da tutori di prestigio, tra cui il Pontefice Innocenzo III, un Imam musulmano ed il futuro papa Onorio III, Federico diventerà un giovane uomo dalla forte personalità, saggio e sorprendentemente precoce nel raggiungere la maturità. Egli cresce in Italia e soprattutto in Sicilia, al tempo crocevia della cultura greco-bizantina, islamica e latina che Federico assorbirà totalmente. Sarà anche addestrato all’uso delle armi e alla cavalcata, abilità tipicamente riservate alle classi dirigenti medievali. Lo Svevo, nato dall’unione tra Costanza d’Altavilla, regina normanna, ed Enrico VI, imperatore germanico (figlio di Federico I “Barbarossa”), erediterà il Regno di Sicilia e si aggiudicherà il Regno di Germania, caratterizzato da una monarchia elettiva, con l’aiuto di Innocenzo III e Filippo II di Francia e con la vittoria sull’avversario politico, Ottone IV di Brunswick, a Bouvines nel 1214.

Convinto difensore della superiorità temporale dell’impero sulle altre autorità laiche e soprattutto sulla Chiesa di Roma, Federico attua politiche espansionistiche in Oriente attraverso le Crociate, diventando anche Re di Gerusalemme, ed in Italia settentrionale combattendo contro la seconda Lega Lombarda. Lo Svevo è in continuo contrasto sia con lo spirito universalistico della Chiesa di Roma che con i Comuni italiani, in buon numero coalizzati contro di lui e favorevoli alla politica papale, sui quali non riuscirà mai ad imporre la sua piena autorità.

L’imperatore è un uomo di grande cultura, un mecenate ed un poliglotta, animato da una forte curiosità scientifica. E’ autore attivo, patrono di una corrente letteraria siciliana, poeta e grande costruttore di edifici pubblici. Insieme con i suoi collaboratori, tra cui spicca la figura dell’amico Pier delle Vigne, sarà responsabile di un programma di accentramento del potere regio nel Regno di Sicilia, culminato con l’emanazione delle Costituzioni di Melfi nel 1231. Profondamente innamorato della Sicilia e soprattutto della Puglia, da lui considerata rifugio spirituale e definita “luce dei miei occhi”, Federico è considerato da molti come un sovrano illuminato, predecessore del Rinascimento.

Il mito federiciano è sempre stato al centro di un animato dibattito storiografico. Da un lato, autori quali David Abulafia, presentano il monarca come un sovrano puramente tradizionale e quindi medievale. Molti storici lo considerano un uomo radicato nel suo tempo perché legato ai principi della tradizione medievale quali la religiosità cristiana, il timore verso i papi, la scarsa tolleranza nei confronti delle fedi non cristiane e la concezione del re come come princeps romano. Dall’altro autori del calibro dello storico polacco Ernst Kantorowicz, tratteggiano la figura di Federico II come quella di un monarca illuminato, profondamente laico parchè uomo di scienza e avversario della Chiesa e precursore del pensiero Rinascimentale parchè uomo di cultura, mecenate e dagli interessi poliedrici.

A mio avviso, Federico fu entrambe le cose. Se da un lato intavolò rapporti amichevoli con le componenti islamiche del suo regno tanto da formare un suo corpo di guardia con militari provenienti da quelle regioni, atteggiamento insolito per quei tempi, dall’altro ordinò deportazioni di massa di cittadini islamici a Lucera dopo averne giustiziato i capi. In uno dei suoi scritti, lo stesso imperatore affermò di fare la guerra ai papi e non alla Chiesa, rivelandosi uomo profondamente cattolico, aspetto proprio della tradizione medievale. Allo stesso tempo, si dichiarava avversario della politica universale adottata dal Papato.

Federico è stato un grande uomo ma anche una figura eccessivamente idealizzata. Infatti, i pochi episodi di maltrattamenti di prigionieri di guerra nell’età medievale sono riconducibili proprio al sovrano Svevo. Ad esempio, quando nel 1237 a Cortenuova le sue truppe sconfissero l’esercito della seconda Lega Lombarda, una volta catturato il leader dell’esercito nemico Pietro Tiepolo, figlio del Doge di Venezia, l’Imperatore lo fece uccidere dopo averlo umiliato. Si tratta di un comportamento insolito da parte di un sovrano medievale, in quanto ai prigionieri di guerra veniva solitamente risparmiata la vita e riservato un trattamento d’onore.

Perno del suo Regno non sarà mai la Germania, terra politicamente instabile, bensì proprio l’Italia meridionale, resa potente a partire dalla dinasta normanna degli Altavilla, da cui Federico è discendente da parte di madre.

La vita sentimentale dello Svevo fu sempre soggetta alla necessità di stringere alleanze politiche, come dimostrano le sue unioni con Costanza d’Aragona, Jolanda di Brienne ed Isabella d’Inghilterra. Ci fu però una donna, Bianca Lancia, probabilmente di origine piemontese, che occupò il suo cuore dall’anno 1225 e che sposò sul letto di morte.

La sua dinastia si rivelò alquanto sfortunata poiché il primo figlio Enrico si suicidò dopo una ribellione contro il padre. Il figlio illegittimo Enzo, re di Sardegna, preso prigioniero dopo la battaglia di Fossalta, morì durante la prigionia senza che il padre lo riscattasse. Manfredi, invece, figlio di Bianca Lancia, morì durante la battaglia di Benevento nel 1266, sconfitto dalle truppe di Carlo d’Angiò. La morte violenta a Napoli del giovane nipote Corradino pose fine alla supremazia della dinastia Sveva che si era fatta portabandiera dell’universalità dell’impero.

Federico subisce da sempre il fascino dell’assolutismo degli imperatori romani. La nuova monetazione da lui introdotta, l’augustale, un chiaro riferimento alla romanità, riporta da un lato l’immagine dell’imperatore laureato e dall’altra l’aquila imperiale. Lo Svevo amava farsi ritrarre come sbarbato e laureato, similmente alla ritrattistica traianea, mantenendo i tratti giovanili anche in età matura. Questo aspetto propagandistico della sua immagine si può ritenere attinente al processo di accentramento del potere ed all’esaltazione della sua autorità.

Frate Salimbene da Parma, che conobbe l’imperatore di persona, lo descrive come un uomo di bell’aspetto e di media statura. Il francescano fu avversario dell’imperatore, e difatti lo descrisse come un uomo avaro, malvagio e lussurioso seppur poi ammettendo la presenza in lui di grandi qualità.

Federico II risulta a mio pare una figura estremamente affascinante. La sua personalità poliedrica, il suo carattere duro ma allo stesso tempo sensibile fanno di lui un monarca ideale, con il quale si può cacciare con il falco e dialogare di filosofia.

Bibliografia

Abulafia, D. (2015). Federico II. Einaudi.

Bocchieri, M. T. (2005). Federico II. Ragione e Fortuna. Laterza.

Houben, H. (2009). Federico II. Imperatore, uomo, mito. Il Mulino.

Di Svevia, F. De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus.

Kantorowicz, E. (2000). Federico II Imperatore. Garzanti.

Vellucci, L. (2016) Federico II. L’imperatore del mistero. Tipheret.

 

Giustina: A Late Roman Empress

Giustina was born in Picenum, Italy to Giusto, the governor of the city under the emperor Constantius II. She was famously beautiful and ambitious, marrying the usurper Magnus Magnentius, a commander of the Ioviani and HerculianiAfter his suicide in 353 AD, Giustina became the second wife of emperor Valentinian I, a man of complex personality and great military prowess. According to legend, Valentinian’s first wife, Marina Severa, was the one who, being struck by Giustina’s beauty, presented her to the emperor. She gave Valentinian a son, Valentinian II, and became the stepmother of the emperor’s first son Gratian. During Gratian’s reign, Giustina lived in Sirmium, Pannonia. As most Roman empresses, she wore elaborate jewels, sported eccentric hairstyles and long, rich earrings. When her son Valentinian II came to power at the age of four, Giustina ruled in his name, showing the full extent of her ambition and strong personality. Being a fervent Arian Christian, Giustina ferociously opposed the powerful and influential bishop of Milan, Ambrose who was a Nicean Christian. Giustina died in 387 AD while traveling. Lacking her protection, her son Valentinian II was assassinated soon after. Giustina demonstrated an impressive personality, able to control the political scene at court even when the odds were stacked against her. With her legendary beauty, she enchanted the late Roman courtiers while also dominating them with her iron personality.

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