After the frescoes: the rise and fall (and rise) of Ephesus

Visitors touring Ephesus might easily end their visit at the Terraced Houses, with their beautiful frescoes and opulent marble floors. The degree of preservation is stunning. Left to the elements frescoes do not survive undamaged to such a height but as there is no trace of immediate reconstruction as such, one is left to wonder how and why they were protected. Taphonomy (the way artefacts are accrued to the archaeological record) can shed light on the process.

The destructive event is dated to around AD 620, an act either of human aggression (the Sassanids) or a natural disaster (earthquake)—or indeed both. The damage was terminal: the houses were not repaired but nor was the site abandoned. A quick backfill followed and the location was terraced again, at an unspecified time, and occupied by a long narrow building, apparently used for storage. This is Late Antiquity, a time when archaeological evidence becomes quite scarce. Buildings, generally speaking, were flimsier constructions, while early excavators looking for solid Roman and Greek solid stonework tended to clear the surface of any later structure, skimp on recording and sometimes publish nothing. From this period on, archaeology is greatly assisted by historians—eminent among them Clive Foss—who have pondered over any available documentation from archives to travellers’ accounts, to graffiti, to piece together Ephesus’s trajectory from the fateful event in the early 7th century to about 1,000 years later, when the great metropolis truly died.

The next two centuries are in many respects a black hole, but one thing is clear: Ephesus regrouped and took a fateful decision. Defence came to the fore. Ephesus received a new set of walls that halved the size of the city, leaving out the whole of the Embolos and both agoras. All efforts were concentrated on the Harbour. The wall, 4m thick (squared stones filled with rubble), ran from the Harbour to the Theatre, along the Arcadian Way and up to the Stadium, and then back to the Harbour.

Map of ancient Ephesus, showing the new walls that cut the ancient city in half. The locations of the Temple of Artemis and Basilica of St John, to the north and northeast, are indicated.

About a mile to the northeast, the barren hill known to the Byzantines as Helibaton (‘The Steep One’), where Justinian had built the grand basilica dedicated to St John the Apostle in about the mid-6th century, another Ephesus had developed, cashing in on the pilgrimage trade. St John had apparently died here and his grave lay beneath the altar. In addition to this, there was the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, a holy site for pagans, Christians and Muslims alike. And there was always the passing trade of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.

Helibaton, according to the archaeology, was not settled at the time; it was used as a necropolis, the oldest grave being Mycenaean. So, how come its fortune changed? Procopius, the contemporary historian, states very clearly that there was no water. One has to conclude that the aqueduct that made settlement possible dates roughly to the time of the grandiose church, another mark of imperial favour. A wall was built to defend the settlement, using spolia from earlier structures both nearby (the Temple of Artemis) and far away (the Stadium). In these new circumstances, Ephesus fared better than contemporary Sardis (a fortress and some villages) and Pergamon (a small fort). That was certainly the impression of Bishop Willibald, who visited on his way to the Holy Land in 721. After the great havoc of the Arab incursions, the ravages of the plague and other afflictions such as civic unrest, our bishop found Ephesus the capital of a thema (a Byzantine military and administrative district), functioning although diminished. In addition to trade, Ephesus had always had a rich and productive hinterland, not having in its Greek past dissipated its energies in setting up colonies, as Miletus had done.

The next 350 years of Byzantine presence mark a steady decline. By about the 10th century the harbour had silted up, making it no longer suitable for the Byzantine fleet. The fleet moved about ten miles south, to Phygela, an unexcavated Genoese colony also known as Scalanova, now covered over by the modern settlement of Kuşadası. Trade suffered. Tellingly it is about now that the whole of Ephesus started to became known as Hagios Theologos (from which later on it became Ayasoluk for the Muslims and Altoluogo for the Latins).

The time of Lascarid rule was particularly auspicious. This was when the Latins ran Byzantium, in the first half of the 13th century, and the ruling Byzantine dynasty was based in Anatolia. Borders were well defended by the akrites, a sort of elite caste of freelance fighters, and the marauding Turks from the east were kept in check. The walls of Ayasoluk were remodelled, with the building of a separate fortress with pentagonal and rectangular towers, the ancestor of the tower we can admire today. The great basilica seems to have fared less well: according to Bishop John Tornikes, it was full of hedgehogs, bird droppings and fallen mosaics. The atrium was covered in buildings. Indeed, while Ephesus emptied, Ayasoluk was bursting at the seams and expanding beyond the walls. The original trickle of nomads from the east, after the fateful battle of Manzikert 1071, was now turning into a flood down the Meander valley. Recent political developments such as the setting up of the Sultanate of Konya had upset the pattern of trade. Communication with the east was severed.

The incorporation into the Emirate of Aydın (which moved its capital to Ayasoluk) brought some sort of stability. Trade resumed, with Venetian and Genoese merchants looking for raw materials (alum, grain, rice, wax and hemp) in exchange for manufactured products such as the ever-popular brightly coloured cloth. The original harbour, now unusable, was abandoned. The new harbour (Panormus) was at a location four miles due west of Ayasoluk. A map drawn by Choiseul-Gouffier, French ambassador to the Porte from 1784–91, shows the spot just north of the mouth of the Cayster. It is labelled ‘Lake full of reeds’ and was at that time by the sea, whereas the present coastline is two miles further west. Older accounts mention merchants’ houses, docks, churches, a lighthouse and a ‘deep’ harbour around the eastern end of the inlet. Investigations have been sporadic. Merchandise could move by road and down the river. The local emir pocketed the dues and indulged in some piracy to supply the slave market. Times were prosperous. The Isa Bey mosque went up, the first monumental building in the area since the time of Justinian. The court of the emir patronised the arts and sciences.

St John’s basilica was turned in part into a mosque (the frescoes were hidden under coloured marble slabs) and the rest of the building was used as a market for the produce of the fertile hinterland. Locally minted gold coinage imitated that of Florence. By now the fame of St John had acquired an extra twist: not only did the sacred tomb beneath the altar exude a miraculous manna on certain dates, but the saint, it turned out, was not really dead. He was merely asleep, and his snoring could be heard. Pilgrims continued to flock to the sacred site and paid the entrance fee imposed by the business-minded Turks.

This sort of mutually beneficial cohabitation required a lot of delicate footwork, not least because the emir’s authority was never beyond challenge by other members of his family. The intervention of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezıt I (known as Yıldırım, the ‘Thunderbolt’) was as unwelcome as it was inopportune. He plunged the emirate into chaos in 1390. When Tamerlane captured him at the battle of Ankara in 1402, the Anatolian emirs breathed a collective sigh of relief. But the respite was short-lived. The Ottomans returned in 1425, and this time they stayed. Serious decline set in. Trade gradually moved to Scalanova and Izmir. Istanbul was distant and indifferent. Nomadism took root in the hinterland, with serious ecological consequences: deforestation, the neglect of drainage ditches and therefore increased silting. 

Under the conservative Ottoman rule, Ephesus maintained its administrative role as the head of a kaza, an administrative division under a kadı (a judge); the mint still operated. Western travellers attracted by the Classical ruins had to go to Ayasoluk to find lodgings and to pay their respects to the kadı, a process that involved bringing a suitable gift (coffee and sugar were welcomed). Their accounts paint a dismal picture of the place: houses with earthen roofs, lodgings full of fleas, howling jackals; but the Isa Bey mosque was in good repair and was at times mistaken for St John’s basilica. Evliya Çelebi, who visited in the mid-17th century, was certainly not fooled. Finding little reason to rejoice in the present state of Ayasoluk, he berated the locals and their laziness for the sad state of affairs while at the same time conjuring up a mythical, glorious Islamic past when Ayasoluk had had 300 baths, 20,000 shops, and 3,800 mosques, both large and small. The reality was that the place was riddled with malaria, a fact greatly responsible for the misery witnessed by visitors.

By the 18th century the Turkish population had moved into the castle while the Greeks had decamped to the surrounding hills. By the 19th century the castle was in ruins but there was still a kadı; he lived in the village.

The planned railway put Ephesus back on the map as a communication hub, which had been its calling since antiquity. Its construction brought with it a young engineer, John Turtle Wood, who pinpointed the correct location of the Artemision and thereby started the rebirth of Ephesus.

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum

The Colour Purple

Empires that tend to be large, and try to unite peoples of disparate ethnicities under one ruler, certainly have a communication problem, more so in antiquity when getting ideas around was a much slower business. The power, the benevolence—indeed the very existence of a new emperor had to be drummed in one way or another. Coinage was pressed into service. Everyone needed coins to pay taxes while soldiers, paid in coins, could see the ruler’s portrait on them.

Colour, as exclusive to the top end of the ruling class, was also used at least from the 2nd millennium BC according to written sources. And the colour used was purple, the colour of a dye extracted from a marine mollusc and developed on the east Mediterranean coast and subsequently commercialised widely by the Phoenicians. The Hittites and later the Assyrians mention it as a tribute extracted from the area. Persia adopted purple wholeheartedly. Such success, apart from personal taste, is probably down to the fact that it was the only colour-fast commercial dye known in antiquity. Empires are not supposed to fade. And besides, it was very expensive, reassuringly so, worth its weight in silver. Wannabes who tried to cheat with a dye extracted from radicchio endives were soon exposed.

When Alexander the Great toppled the Persian Empire, he adopted the Persian style with enthusiasm: purple hat, purple shoes, tunic, mantle and a profusion of purple soft furnishings: cushions, rugs and carpets. He gifted purple things to his entourage as a mark of favour. The chosen few were called the ‘porporati’. As he died in Babylon it was left to his successors, the diadochoi, to bring the fashion westwards. The up-and-coming power of the time, Rome, adopted purple as a symbol of power but in a more modest version, as consonant with a republic that did not wish to be associated with the absolutism and tyranny of the defunct Persian Empire. Senators and other worthies had bands of purple on their togas, of differing widths according to rank. Only a victorious general was allowed a full purple toga embroidered with gold (the toga picta).

As the wheels of history moved on and the Roman Empire became a reality, the colour purple took a new dimension. On 23 July AD 18, at the beginning of the reign of Tiberius, Caius Cominius Leugas discovered the quarries of red and black porphyry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. So says the inscription found in a location some 30km inland from Hurgada on the Red Sea in one of the quarry villages. The date suggests that the province of Egypt was being prospected for mineral resources. After the demise of Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt came under the direct control of the Emperor, being too rich and important to be left to senators or equestrians. The Egyptians had been aware of this stone, with its stunning purple hue dotted with white specks, but had not exploited the quarries. They had only used the odd loose boulder, found lying on the valley floor, to make vessels. Perhaps they did not particularly like it, or were defeated by the logistics of extracting and moving large pieces. Not so the Romans. About 50 years later the operation was up and running, roughly at the same time as the exploitation of the granite quarries on Mount Claudianus about 50km to the south. These in due course provided the columns for the front porch of the Pantheon, still there to be admired.

The Roman activity at Mons Porphyrites, which lasted almost without interruption until the 5th century, has recently been investigated by a British team. Another reason for the study is because the site is under threat from nearby tourist development at Hurgada. Access has become too easy: the desert is not what it used to be.

The area is mountainous and the porphyry is present as intrusions in dikes, most of which are vertical. Therefore the quarries are high up and connected to the wadi floor with slipways. Workers lived in villages; the military personnel, indispensable for security and for technical expertise, lived in a fort together with the administrative staff. It is thought that the workforce was mainly Egyptian, as the two temples identified are dedicated to Egyptian gods. The vexed question of slave labour remains difficult to solve but ostraka (pottery sherds reused to write messages on) talk of payments to workers—or at least, to specialists, such as the blacksmith for whom wood had to be found, as indeed it was: oak has been identified, which must have been sourced outside Egypt. A blacksmith was required for the metal tools. Porphyry being harder that granite, it could only be obtained with the use of metal wedges and chisels.

Transport, first to the Nile (some 140km), then down the Nile and finally to Rome, remains a bit of a mystery. If you look at Nero’s colossal monolithic basin, now in the Vatican Museums but formerly in his Domus Aurea, you can see the extent of the problem. The diameter of the basin (some 470cm, never mind the supporting structure which may not be original) suggests a weight of several tons (a cubic metre of porphyry weighs 2.7 tons), quite a job to shift and transport. Eighteenth-century evidence from Carrara in Italy suggests that a wagon load of 18 tons could be handled by 12to 18 pairs of  oxen. But this is a desert area and cattle do not prosper here. Indeed the animal remains suggest the presence of horses (for the military), donkeys, mules and camels. Camels are very strong but also have a foul temper and are difficult to harness in large numbers for a long trek. 

Photo © Paola Pugsley

Somehow or other, however, the stone was moved, starting off from Badia, a nearby fort just out of the wadi in a very fine location (as the picture above shows) to the southwest to Qena on the Nile. It was moved north in such quantities that when the Roman Empire collapsed there was enough porphyry in Rome to adorn the successor capitals from Ravenna (where Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, had a porphyry bath manoeuvred into his extravagant tomb) to Byzantium and beyond. There were enough spare columns to beautify churches and palaces, to satisfy everyone. Only statuary perhaps suffered, as there were no fresh blocks to carve. Byzantium went as far as panelling a whole room with porphyry for the heir to Empire to be ‘porphyry-born’ (Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus). Porphyry sarcophagi continued to be used; a good selection can be seen in the garden of the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul.

These were heady days for the Byzantines: the Arab incursions had been repelled and the Turks were not yet on the world scene. Many years later, Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who turned Byzantium into Istanbul, had no time for porphyry: the colour of Islam was green.

By Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey was published in 2020.

Cobbled together: the roads of Rome

All roads lead to Rome. And Rome still leads the world in roads. The streets of the ancient city were paved in huge, irregular blocks of stone known as basolato. Today only a very few segments of such paving survive: along the Via Appia, for example, or in parts of the Forum. But the streets of central Rome are still paved in stone: most retain their sanpietrini (or sampietrini), small, square, regular cobbles.

The skill of the ancient Romans in building roads throughout the empire was essential to their military victories. Many of the straight roads which they laid out are still used by modern thoroughfares, and are immediately recognisable all over Europe. In the Republican era, roads were the responsibility of censors and consuls, who had to see to their maintenance. Consular Roman highways were often provided with a raised kerb and sidewalks (crepidines) and good drainage. The key to a good road, however, lay beneath it, in the preparation of the bed on which the paving stones were laid. For centuries the durable Roman technique was forgotten and it was only in 1811 that John Loudon Macadam rediscovered it, noting that ‘a road made of small broken stone, without mixture of earth, of the depth of ten inches, will be smooth, hard and durable.’ He and his descendants went on to make a fortune out of designing Britain’s turnpikes, which came to be described as ‘Macadam’ or ‘Macadamised’ roads. 

In 2019 there were protests from some of Rome’s inhabitants, who complained that the streets were too uneven and were causing accidents. One can sympathise with these worries, but if ever the sanpietrini were to be replaced by the ubiquitous tarmac, as has happened in other historic towns where the ancient paving has been eliminated, the entire feel of Rome would be irrevocably changed. For now, at least, it seems the sanpietrini cobbles are here to stay, preserving the age-old appearance of the streets as a complement to the buildings at either side. 

Sanpietrini naturally have to be replaced from time to time, and the centuries’ old method of laying a sandy bed and hammering in each wedge-shaped piece of black basalt by hand is still the only way this can be done. The process includes the shovelling of fine sandy gravel onto the top of the stones at the end. The following series of pictures were taken in 2019, during work on the most recent edition of Blue Guide Rome. (All photos © Alta Macadam)

Pile of sanpietrini ready to be used to fill a hole. Note the specially tapered, nail-like shape of each cobble and the very simple handtools used by the workmen.
Pair of workmen painstakingly arranging the stone blocks.
Hammering down…
Aligning…
Tapping into position.
A barrowload of sandy gravel is poured onto the finished pavement.
A simple hand-held broom is used to brush the sandy gravel between the newly laid cobbles.
Job done.

Invisible archaeology

Archaeology used to be mainly about the material remains of the past. They stood as witnesses of events and civilisations long past and encouraged archaeologists in their main activity, namely digging to find out more. Normally, if no clues could be seen above ground, nothing very much happened. Seeing beneath the soil and knowing precisely where to put your spade has in the past years developed stupendously, as the recent work of the Armenian-German team at Artaxata has shown.

Artaxata in today’s Armenia, 30km northeast of Mount Ararat as the crow flies, just on the border with Turkey, might seem an unlikely place to look for Roman remains. Yet the Romans were here and going by the efforts they made to beautify the city they were intending to stay. That was certainly the emperor Trajan’s idea in the early 2nd century of the present era but things did not quite go according to plan. His successor Hadrian gave up on the provinces of Armenia and of Mesopotamia which the Romans could not defend against their eternal enemy in the East, the Parthians; relations were not much better later with the Sassanians.

Trajan the conquering emperor. In a scene from his famous column in Rome (centre of top band) he is shown in solider’s garb with a prisoner being thrust before him. Image © Blue Guides

Work has been going on in Artaxata since the 1970s, revealing among other things dwellings, fortifications, workshops and Roman inscriptions. Somewhere there must also be a military camp since we know that the Legio III Scythica was stationed here. Stamped bricks and roofing tiles, a monumental inscription of Emperor Trajan as well as munitions and weapons have been found. Among the monikers given to this legion, the one that goes ‘Operosa et felix’ (‘Industrious and fortunate’) is a good reminder that a soldier’s job was not limited to fighting. A legion of something like 3,000 to 6,000 people had its own surveyors, engineers and architects while at the same time the lower orders and the auxiliaries (the non-Roman citizen corps attached to a legion) would provide the manpower. It is very possible that the makeover of Artaxata was both intended to impress the local populace and to keep a lot of idle hands busy.

Among the building unearthed was a bathing complex with the tell-tale stacks of round bricks of the sospensura characteristic of the heating system of Roman baths. Normally baths imply a regular water supply, i.e. an aqueduct. This fact, together with stray remains of an urban piped water system, set the archaeologists looking for it. But there was nothing visible above ground; no clay or stone pipes, no stumps of arches, no holding tanks. An extensive geomagnetic survey of the area to the east of Artaxata revealed crucial anomalies set in a straight line, anomalies that upon excavation were proved to be the closely spaced foundation pillars of arches intended to control the gradient of the water arriving from the nearby mountains. The starting point of the aqueduct has not been pinpointed but the estimated total length varies between 25 and 30km, a distance well within Roman engineering capabilities.

Hadrian, the ruler who put an end to empire-building. Sporting a beard like a Greek philosopher, Hadrian was more interested in consolidating his borders than in expanding them. He conducted lengthy tours of his empire but did not attempt fresh conquest. Image © Blue Guides

That there were no surface remains is taken as proof that the aqueduct was actually never built. It had been carefully planned and the closeness of the foundations suggests that the engineers were well aware of the seismic nature of the area and of the dangers of building on marshy ground. Trajan would have been proud of them! But it seems as if the local people were not convinced.

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey

The Victory of Brescia

Remains of the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, findspot of the Winged Victory. Photo: Blue Guides.

I was last in Brescia in 2018, preparing for the first edition of Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes which was published the following year. Apart from the extraordinary beauty and interest of her museums and monuments (which I remembered from my last visit when at work for Blue Guide Northern Italy way back in 1996), I was deeply impressed by the multi-ethnic atmosphere of the city. The local government has not only ensured the integration of a new influx of immigrants but it has seen to it that Italian citizenship has been bestowed on the great majority of these new inhabitants. I was struck by many small details which suggested how successful this policy had been, somehow summed up in the simple small ‘supermarket’ outside the station with its sign boasting ‘Food from all the world’.

Little did I imagine that in March 2020, the province of Brescia together with that of her close neighbour Bergamo would have suffered the tragic record number of deaths from Covid-19 in all Italy. That month the army had to be called in to transport the coffins to cemeteries elsewhere in the country as there was no more room for them locally. We have learnt that whole communities of the elderly (many of whom had survived the last war) were wiped out in the valleys near the two cities. The President of the Republic has made a number of visits to these areas in the past few months (both in a public and in a semi-private form) to show his solidarity. And Brescia and Bergamo together (even if traditionally rival cities) are to be the Italian Capitals of Culture in 2023, as a way of helping them forward.

Although Lombardy is still the region of Italy hardest hit by Covid-19, there has been great rejoicing in Brescia this autumn to welcome back the city’s most astounding Roman bronze statue: a Winged Victory, which has spent the past two years in the state restoration laboratory in Florence.

In 2018 I saw it without its arms and its wings, which were already in Florence (in fact when it was unearthed in 1826, the arms and wings were not attached to the statue, but found nearby). Nevertheless, the impression made on me by this over-life-size lady, despite her shorn state, was immense. She glances down, while the folds of her delicate chiton descend to touch the ground having slipped off one shoulder. A heavier cloak clings to her legs.  

The statue was found in the early 19th century in the Capitolium of Roman Brixia, together with a hoard of other bronzes including six portrait heads from the Imperial age, so it is thought that someone had the idea of burying these wonderful artefacts all together in the hope that they would survive to be found again some centuries later. During restoration the Victory has been confirmed as dating from the reign of Claudius (AD 41–54) or from that of his successor Nero (AD 54–68). It seems to have been made, using the lost wax method, somewhere in northern Italy rather than in Rome. The statue is now lighter by some 100kg, as superfluous accretions both inside and out, many added during past restorations, have been eliminated. Traces of gilding and silver intarsia have been revealed. The Victory has many close similarities with the Aphrodite of Capua, preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The position of the Victory’s arms seems to indicate that she would have been holding a shield captured from the enemy on which she was writing the name of the divinity to whom the victory was owed, but the Greek model may have been Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, looking at her reflection in the shield of her beloved Ares, or Venus Victrix (the Conqueror) inscribing the victories of the first Roman emperors on the shield of Mars. The shield has not survived and we do not know in what material it would have been made. Another mystery is the raised left foot of the Victory, which has been interpreted by scholars as trampling a helmet (of the enemy).

The Aphrodite of Capua, a Roman marble of the Hadrianic era (2nd century) based on a Greek original. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC by 2.5.
The Winged Victory of Brescia, photographed before its recent restoration. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto.

When I saw the statue it was still in the superb Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia, which has an immense number of treasures from all periods, especially the Lombard era of the 6th century and the later Carolingian age (when the monastery of Santa Giulia was founded, in 753). These include an exquisite little ivory reliquary casket and the so-called Cross of Desiderius, as well as more mundane objects such as a perfectly preserved helmet apparently of the type worn in the Alpine area of Italy from the 4th–1st centuries BC, lined in leather for extra comfort. But since this museum is so large and needs much time to do it justice, the decision to display the Victory now in the southern hall of the Capitolium temple close by is a good one. It is also most fitting since the statue was found here. The design of the display has been provided by the Spanish architect and sculptor Juan Navarro Baldeweg. The Victory will be placed in a raised position (on an anti-seismic base) lit by a light symbolising the moon and reflecting the position of the shield. Although the statue is already here, it cannot yet be visited as all museums in Italy are closed due to Covid-19. But the Victory can be seen and the opening celebrations followed on her very own dedicated website

Alta Macadam, November 2020

New Blue Guide Rome reviewed

“Gripping” and “delicious”: Harry Mount reviews The Blue Guide’s latest offering for Chapter House in the Catholic Herald.

Ever since 1918, Blue Guides have been the best guides to European cities.

No other guide has the sheer quantity of facts. For people who want to know why a building is where it is, who built it, when and in what style, they’re the only option.

Alta Macadam, a Florence expat, has been writing Blue Guides since 1970. Annabel Barber, Editorial Director of the Blue Guides, has, like Macadam, tramped every cobble (or black, basalt sanpietrino) of Rome’s roads, and the roads leading to Rome – the entry on the Via Appia is peerless.

Read more»

The legend of Şahmeran

If you happen to be in Tarsus, driving east along the central Adana Blv, you will find to your left, at the large roundabout 100m north of the Ulu Cami and the so-called Church of St Paul, a fountain with an intriguing statue in the middle of a small basin. It shows a triton standing on its coiled scaly tail with back and sides covered with large erect snakes, twelve of them: they hold the water pipes. More smaller snakes appear to be arranged as a sort of crown on the head of the figure. This is Şahmeran, and the connection seems to be with Persia, since Şahmeran translates as ‘king of snakes’ in Farsi. However, there is also talk of Egyptian origins, but in any case the legend of Şahmeran appears widespread all over the East, normally with a reference to medicine and healing. In fact, the coupling of healing with snakes is still with us, as the staff of Aesculapius (a roughly-hewn branch with one coiled snake, illustrated here) well testifies.

A 50cm by 50cm relief of Şahmeran (now in Kars museum) was recently unearthed at Ani near the cathedral. The plaque shows a creature with a snake’s body, a dragon’s head protruding from its back and a human face that looks decidedly female. The Tarsus Şahmeran is definitely a man, at least according to local lore (you can find a number of images of him on the Internet, for example on this TripAdvisor page here). In Tarsus Şahmeran is linked to the nearby bath, the Şahmeran hamam. It is open for business today though its origins are very old. The building is c. 15thcentury, with 19thcentury restorations , but it is said to rest on top of a Roman bath, as yet unexplored. It is here that Şahmeran is said to have met his end, when he was discovered peeping at his beloved from an opening in the cupola. He was swiftly dispatched on the marble massage table by having his head cut off. Stains of his blood are apparently still visible and the local people have been dreading the snakes’ revenge ever since.

Meanwhile, Şahmeran left his body to science so to speak, with momentous consequences. Both the local ruler and his deputy had fallen seriously ill and Şahmeran instructed a young man by the name of Lokman in the art of medicine. He told him to take his (Şahmeran’s) body, cut it into three parts and boil it. The meat was served to the ruler, who was healed, and the stock to his ‘vizir’, who died—and rightly so, since he was devious and untrustworthy. Justice was done. From these promising beginnings, Lokman proceeded to learn about herbs, potions and infusions. Indeed, he acquired the skill of understanding the speech of plants. He would go for walks in the countryside, listen to what they said, and then he knew what to do: his career was assured.

by Paola Pugsley. Her Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, which includes Tarsus, will be published this summer. For other books by Paola on Turkey, see here.

SPQR and expressions of Rome

As work for the 12th edition of Blue Guide Rome goes full steam ahead, we found ourselves coming up time and time again against the letters SPQR, reproduced all over the city, on lamp posts, manhole covers and public fountains, not to mention in ancient inscriptions. Here is a little piece on that and other familiar quotations from ancient Rome.

Public fountain on the Caelian hill.

The Latin acronym SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’) has been used since the days of the Republic to represent the Romans (significantly giving ‘the people’ equal status with ‘the Senate’). Today it stands for the municipality and it appears carved, embossed and stencilled in numerous places all over the capital. In fact, it is still such a familiar ‘word’ that it was chosen by the Cambridge Professor of Classics Mary Beard as the title of her best-selling history of ancient Rome in 2015 (SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome).

Many of the other familiar quotations still in use in the English language are—perhaps not surprisingly—linked to the most famous character in ancient Roman history, Julius Caesar. His famous quip ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’) is reported by Plutarch and is meant to have been the message sent back by Caesar to the Romans about how he was getting on with his military campaigns in Gaul. It sums up the character of a general who managed to conquer enemy territory with astonishing speed.

The ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, used to signify an irrevocable step or point of no return, refers to the river which marked the northern boundary of Italy with Cisalpine Gaul, the province which had been allotted to Julius Caesar. When Caesar descended with his huge army and crossed into Roman territory, he became in effect an ‘invader’ and although at the time it seemed he would have been able to take over the rule of the Empire on his arrival in Rome, in fact this was delayed for some years and he was not able to prevent the outbreak of a civil war. The exact date of the crossing is still disputed (perhaps 49 BC) and interestingly enough the exact location of the river (possibly no more than a stream) has never been established.

It was Shakespeare who first used the phrase ‘Et tu, Brute?’ (‘You, too, Brutus?’) in his play Julius Caesar, when the wounded hero recognises the renegade Brutus in the group of his assassins. Other expressions which have survived the centuries include ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ and ‘Rome was not built in a day’ (perhaps first used in the early 17th century by Cervantes and Robert Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621).

One of the most famous re-interpretations to have survived is ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’), famously used by J.F. Kennedy in West Berlin in 1963 (‘All free men are citizens of Berlin: ich bin ein Berliner’), and subsequently voiced by political leaders as well as in public demonstrations against injustices. As Mary Beard has pointed out, the expression Civis Romanus sum was used in ancient Rome as a defence by citizens who were considered to have committed a crime (and St Paul, when condemned as a Christian, spoke out in his own defence as a Roman citizen): no Roman citizen could be condemned unheard, and nor could he be scourged or beaten without a fair trial. As a result of his citizenship, St Paul could not be condemned to death by crucifixion; he was beheaded instead. President Kennedy used the famous expression at a time when West Berlin was an embattled enclave surrounded on three sides by the hostile GDR.

by Alta Macadam. The new, fully revised and updated Blue Guide Rome (12th edition) will be published early next year.

The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last

The magnificent Seuso Treasure has finally gone on public display, at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. We have waited a long time for this. The Treasure (14 stunning pieces of late imperial Roman silver) has had an unsteady and sordid career, passed from hand to hand like an expensive courtesan whose origins are obscure and best not investigated too closely. After many decades, Hungary–who always stoutly maintained her claim to the trove–has redeemed it from its demi-monde existence and placed it on show as a magnificent piece of Pannonian patrimony.

The 14 pieces are as follows: four huge platters, variously decorated; a washbasin; five large ewers; two elaborate situlae (water buckets); an embossed amphora and a conical-lidded casket for perfumed unguents. They were almost certainly not made as a single set (dating from the 4th–5th centuries, there is a range of about five decades between the oldest and the youngest pieces) and they include items worked in vastly different styles. The elegant, strigilated washbasin and two ewers with incised geometric designs, for example, which are assigned by some scholars to a “Western” workshop, are stylistically worlds away from the jug and amphora with Dionysiac scenes of frenzied maenads and inebriated satyrs, punched out in a sort of bubbling, varicose repoussé that seems opulently “Eastern”.

Though Hungary’s ownership is no longer contested, the exact findspot of the Treasure remains unclear. In the 1970s a young man called József Sümegh stumbled on a Roman hoard packed into a wide copper cauldron in the vicinity of the village of Polgárdi, east of Lake Balaton. Sümegh did not live long to enjoy his find. He died in mysterious circumstances at the age of just 24 and the treasure vanished. What is most likely is that this is it, although the trail of the pieces when they cropped up on the art market was for decades deliberately obfuscated by dealers, smugglers, heisters and crooks. The Getty Museum was at one stage interested in purchasing the silver, but pulled out because its provenance documents turned out to be forgeries. By the time it ended up in the hands of Lord Northampton in England, it numbered 14 pieces, perhaps vastly fewer than had originally been stashed away, hurriedly and in panic, by a Roman family clinging to the coat-tails of their civilisation as it fled from the barbarian invasions of Central Europe. After long and intricate negotiations, Hungary finally succeeded in repatriating the Treasure in two tranches, in 2014 and 2017. The money that they gave for it (tens of millions of euros) was paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for long years of care and custody of the silver by others. This summer it went on permanent public display.

Why the “Seuso” Treasure? It was customary for the owners of valuable Roman pieces to scratch their names on them. Seuso, however, is mentioned in a dedication incorporated into the design of the large Hunting Plate: a huge salver with a decorated rim and a central roundel filled with a busy scene. In the middle are figures dining under a canopy. Around them are scenes of hunting and fishing. Above a band showing water teeming with fish is the word “PELSO”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The whole design is of silver gilt with the details picked out in niello (a black-coloured alloy of sulphur with copper and lead). Circling the roundel is the following inscription: H[A]EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECULA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS (“May these, O Seuso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily”). Small vessels these are certainly not: the total weight of the pieces is a whopping 68.5kg. It has been suggested that some of the silver came from a set that was presented to Seuso as a wedding gift (one of the picnickers on the Hunting Plate is a woman sporting a hairstyle in the manner of Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus). Anything smaller that may have belonged to such a set, however—cups, spoons, toothpicks—has not come to light.

Detail of the Hunting Plate, with the word PELSO bottom left.

Stylistically and in terms of subject matter there are a number of parallels. The Hunting Plate shows similarities to the Cesena Plate in Italy (for an image, see here). The scenes of hunting, with animals being chased into nets, slaves butchering them, and a family seated on a stibadium (curved couch) under an awning slung between trees, feasting and feeding titbits to a dog while their horses are tethered in the background, is identical in many details to the 4th-century mosaic floor of the Sala della Piccola Caccia in the Villa del Casale in Sicily. One way in which it differs is in the absence of a scene of sacrifice to Diana, which might be significant. Between the first and the last words of the Seuso inscription, encircled in a laurel wreath, is a tiny Chi Rho. Seuso might have been a Christian. Nothing otherwise is known of him. From his name he would seem to have been a Celt and from the scenes depicted on his tableware, we can surmise that he was a landowner and keen hunter who lived a gracious life in one of the fine villas that existed in Pannonia. A veteran general, perhaps, grown wealthy from service to an empire into whose culture and lifestyle he was fully assimilated. The heterogeneous nature of the hoard suggests that he might have received rich gifts as rewards for his service.

More personal details are entirely lacking but it is tempting to speculate. The strapline of the Hungarian National Museum’s 2018 Seuso exhibit was “Wealth, Erudition, Power”. Certainly, Seuso must have been wealthy and with that wealth would have come a certain degree of power. But how erudite was he? How deep did his Romanisation go? Petronius, in his Satyricon (1st century AD), the famous send-up of a vulgar, nouveau riche banquet, puts the following words into the mouth of Trimalchio, the host:

“I absolutely love silver. I’ve got about a hundred wine cups showing how Cassandra killed her sons—the boys are depicted lying dead in the most lifelike way. Then there’s a bowl my patron left me with a scene of Daedalus shutting Niobe into the Trojan Horse. And there are some goblets with the fights between Hermeros and Petraites. All of good heavy make. I wouldn’t sell my connoisseurship at any price.”

Cultivated Roman readers would have snobbishly tittered at the malapropisms. Trimalchio has no connoisseurship; he is an uneducated ex-slave, a parvenu from some further corner of the Empire posing as a man well versed in the culture of the native elite. He muddles Cassandra with Medea, Niobe with Pasiphaë and the Trojan Horse with Daedalus’ wooden cow. Was Seuso’s grasp of Graeco-Roman myth as hazy as this? We have no idea. But what the Petronius extract does suggest is that it was normal for possessors of fine works of art to make a show of knowing what they had. The pictorial world of ancient Rome was extraordinarily uniform. From Britannia to the Balkans and beyond people would have seen the same scenes depicted in exactly the same way, in sculpture, pottery, metalwork, painting and mosaic. “I’ve got two exquisite silver-gilt pails with the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra,” Seuso might have boasted, “And a gorgeous platter showing Meleager having just dispatched the Calydonian Boar.” It is a signal of Rome’s remarkable achievement in co-opting and homogenising so many diffuse civilisations that all of Seuso’s dinner guests would have known what he was talking about—or at least felt it necessary to pretend they did. It is also an extraordinary privilege to be able to admire those objects now, tangible vestiges of provincial pomp, of days of laughter and conviviality in some long-gone lacustrine willow grove.

The Seuso Treasure, on display at the Hungarian National Museum. For more details and good-quality images, see their website (at present in Hungarian only). The Museum has also produced an excellent booklet about the Treasure, in English and several other languages.

Good news from Florence

Antique bronze head of a horse, once owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

It is well known that the famous Medici and Lorraine collections are housed in various museums in Florence, not just in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries (recently re-united under one director). The scientific collections are in the Museo Galileo, the musical instruments in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Renaissance sculpture in the Bargello, the wax models in the Museo della Specola, etc., and the archeological material in the Museo Archeologico. But it is also a fact that all these ‘satellite’ museums are usually overlooked by visitors to the city, since it is the paintings that everyone seems to want to see (or at least that is what they are told by the tourist agencies).

It is therefore rare to encounter more than a handful of visitors in the Archaeological Museum (except when school parties are taken there). In fact throughout the many decades since the Arno Flood of 1966, when the entire ‘Museo Topografico’ of Etruscan finds from Tuscany was destroyed, it has had a rather neglected feel. But the exciting news is that with its new Director Mario Iozzo, under the umbrella of the ‘Polo Museale Toscana’, which since 2015 has been in the capable hands of Dr Stefano Casciu, the Museum has suddenly been spruced up and work is underway to open more exhibition space so that the works in the deposits can at last be seen.

Throughout the museum the display has begun to be renovated, with new stands for the pottery (and in some cases slowly moving circular bases so that you can stand still to see all the painted sides of certain vases). The garden, visible from many of the windows, is now beautifully kept with the fountain working again (but sadly still only open on Saturday mornings). The corridor with the Medici collection of precious antique gems and cameos is not yet regularly on view.

While work is going on, however (until March 2019), visitors can see a delightful exhibition, “The Art of Giving”, in the first hall. It documents recent donations including a huge collection of beautiful ceramics from burial sites and sanctuaries on the Ionian coast of southern Italy (the area known in antiquity as Magna Graecia). Many of the vases have scenes where the protagonists are exchanging gifts, making the title of the exhibition doubly meaningful. There is also a ceramic cup dating from the 6th century BC which has been recomposed using the missing piece which had found its way to the Akademisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn (in exchange, a fragment of another vase was given to the Bonn Museum so that it, too, could be reunited with the fragments they own). There are also some Roman marbles on view which have recently entered the collection (the sarcophagus with pairs of griffins between incense-burners is especially interesting).

In the permanent collection, the first room on the first floor is now used to exhibit the sensational Mater Matuta, an Etruscan masterpiece (c. 450 BC) showing a seated female god with a child on her lap. This is one of the treasures of the museum but has not been on show for decades. The famous bronze Chimera also has a room to itself, shared with a very beautiful bronze head of a youth found in Fiesole.

The Minerva, on the floor above, is now displayed without her right arm since it has been proved to have been an addition made by Francesco Carradori in 1784-5 in a mistaken restoration (the ‘modern’ arm is displayed close by, together with a cast of the statue as restored in the 18th century). The wonderful Arringatore is currently on exhibition in Karlsruhe but will be back here on 17th June. The bronze Horse’s Head (which belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and was restored in 2015) and the Roman portrait bronzes are all on show (in the past these were often in rooms kept locked). The famous François Vase, a huge Attic krater, has been given a room of its own with multi-media touch screens explaining all the details. The famous incident when a frustrated custodian seized his stool and smashed it is recorded by the presence of the stool itself (the vase was thankfully able to be restored, piece by piece). And for the first time, two more pieces of exquisite Attic pottery are displayed nearby, suggesting that they might have been part of the original hoard of artefacts found in the same tomb, placed there to accompany the deceased on his way to the underworld.

Further innovations are the scale model of the Chimaera at the entrance which can be felt by the visually impaired and stroked by young visitors, and a showcase before the ticket office displaying just three exquisite examples of the museum’s holdings to whet visitors’ appetites. One comes away with the feeling that at last the Museum is being well looked after and that there will be many exciting new developments there in the near future.

In this Florentine season of what has been termed ‘overtourism’, a visit to this Museum is highly recommended not only for the treasures it contains, but also for its peaceful atmosphere.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.