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A Late Roman Mystery

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. 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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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, who mysteriously died in Anatolia. 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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Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II, who promulgated the Codex Theodosianus while in Constantinople.

 

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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Solidus of emperor Valentinian I, an experienced military officer and the last emperor to cross the Rhine frontier. Credit to Adrian Murdoch.

 

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?

Recently, Professor Emanuela Sibilia of the University of Milano-Biccocca, was able to date the statue. According to the thermoluminescence dating technique employed, the bronze statue was cast between 300 and 500 AD, making Valentinian I and Theodosius II the most likely of candidates.

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Zoroastrianism: an overview

When we think about the Sassanid Persian Empire, we often visualize it as a mighty enemy of ancient Rome, but don’t contemplate its own unique entity. In this article, we will examine some of this identity by discussing the history of its official religion, Zoroastrianism. This ancient religion is still practiced in areas of Iran and India, as well as by members of the diaspora in countries such as the United States, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s smallest religions, with some sources estimating that there are now only around 150.000 followers worldwide.

Zoroastrians worship one God, Ahura Mazda, the “Wise Lord”,  and believe he created the universe. In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda has an adversary called Ahreman, the Evil Spirit, the Anti-God. There is a hierarchic structure within Zoroastrianism. Under Ahura Mazda are the six Holy Immortals, which are emanated by God but are not God. These emanations are seen as the divine attributes of Ahura Mazda. Each is associated with a particular aspect of creation. For example, Asha is associated with fire, a vital element of Zoroastrian rituals. Beneath the Holy Immortals are the Venerables, such as Mithra and Daena, who help the Holy Immortals. Finally, the Fravashi or “preexistent souls” are guardian spirits, with each being having a Fravashi. Even Ahura Mazda himself is believed to have one.

Zoroastrianism is characterized by the dualism of Good and Evil. Man can choose the path of Evil or the path of Righteousness. The first leads to hell, the latter to happiness in Heaven.

The main source of Zorastrianism is the Avesta, a collection of texts compiled in successive stages. Within the Avesta are the Mantras, very ancient sacred formulas often recited during rituals. Within the Mantras are the five Gathas, five religious hymns which are attributed to Zarathustra. They are written in a dialect different from the rest of the Avesta.

The founder of Zoroastrianism is considered to be Zarathustra, Zoroaster in Greek, an obscure historical figure who is believed to have extracted elements of his “new religion” from ancient Iranian Pagan cults.

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Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran. Credit to Nick Taylor.

The famous “Towers of Silence”, commonly found in India and Iran, are built as places in which the dead bodies of Zoroastrian followers are laid out exposed to the sun and left to be eaten by animals. Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies are impure, and that contaminating natural elements such as earth, air, fire and water with corpses is a sacrilege to the Holy Immortal linked to that element. Modern Zoroastrians however often opt for cremation.

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.

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