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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.

 

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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 mysterious Colossus of Barletta

The medieval Italian city of Barletta in Apulia, has between its narrow streets, a “little” hidden secret, which dates back to before the Middle Ages. In fact, near the Basilica del Santo Sepolcro, there is a mysterious and colossal bronze statue of an unidentified Roman emperor.

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The Colossus with the Basilica of the Santo Sepolcro in the background. Credit to milla74.

This statue however is not like the great portraits of Hadrian and Trajan. Instead, it represents a forgotten time in which classical antiquity was mixed with new ideas that would shape medieval art. The statue is about five meters tall, with an emperor displayed wearing a Lorica Musculata (a garment widely used by Roman emperors and senior commanders). The emperor is depicted wearing an imperial diadem, which screams of Costantinian portraiture, and has a haircut typical of the Late Roman period.

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The Colossus is known as “Aré” in the local dialect. Credit to BeautifulPuglia.

How this magnificent bronze statue came to Barletta is widely debated, but it has been in Barletta since at least the year 1309 AD. Some believe that the statue was taken from the city of Constantinople by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. The statue would have been stored on a boat but, when this boat went down at sea, the bronze emperor would have arrived on the southern coasts of Italy, eventually making its way to Barletta. A second origin story about the statue involves the former imperial capital of Ravenna. During excavations in the 13th century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen would have found the statue in Ravenna and could have brought it to Barletta. The first origin story has been discredited by experts, as no signs of salt water were found on the statue. So, it seems we are left with the second option, though this too does not seem entirely likely. What we know for certain however is that this fascinating piece of bronze represents a Late Roman emperor, characterized by strong facial features and a hard gaze: a warrior emperor in his fifties. The identity of the Augustus himself is the true mystery here though. The problem is, how do you identify a Roman Emperor? The answer lies in using coinage and literary sources to match him with an emperor of a similar time period and description. The first hypothesis is that he could be emperor Theodosius I, but we can see from his coinage that his facial features do not resemble the bronze statue.

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Coin of Theodosius I, the man who made the Roman Empire officially Christian. Credit to finds.org.uk

The colossus’s face does however resemble the facial features of Emperor Jovian. But therein lies another problem, as Jovian never reached either Constantinople or Ravenna, as he died in his tent in Anatolia.

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Coin of emperor Jovian. Credit to CNG Coins (www.cngcoins.com).

Could the bronze emperor therefore be Theodosius II?  The two do share some similarities, such as the short cut beard, but the shape of Theodosius’s face does not match the statue, and his bookish personality certainly is not identifiable in the harsh gaze and features of the colossus.

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Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II.

Could the statue therefore represent the mighty and strict warrior emperor Valentinian I? As we can see in his coinage, Valentinian is depicted with strong facial features and a square jaw.

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Coin of Valentinian I. 

By being a soldier emperor, Valentinian embodies the perfect candidate for the bronze statue as his martial and wrathful temper is present in the hard stare of the colossus. From Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman officer and author, we know that emperor Valentinian was “considerably tall and muscular, with grey eyes that were capable of an oblique hard stare, being overall a wonderful emperor figure”. Could Valentinian then be our man? Could he be our mysterious emperor?

 

 

 

 

 

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