Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Intriguing pyramid in Rome

Many years ago, I remember how this “piramide” (in Italian with the accent on the “ra”) was my beacon to find my way to my lodgings on the road to Ostia. Back then, I did not investigate its origins and just dismissed this dirty monument as one of those extravagant imitations we may encounter anywhere.

This being said, I was truly surprised to hear that this pyramid was an iconic landmark dating from the first century BC and that a Japanese businessman made funds available for its restoration in gratitude for his flourishing business in Italy. The world is certainly full of surprises!


This steep Pyramid was built around 18-12 BC over the tomb of Gaius Cestius measuring at its base 29.6 meters over a height of 37 meters. The tomb itself was a barrel-vaulted chamber of 6x4 meters and 4.8 meter high, once richly decorated with frescoes that were still visible in 1660 when the tomb was opened for the first time since antiquity. Although the tomb had been sealed after construction, it has, as so often, been looted in antiquity. Today it is empty and only scant traces of fresco survived.

Once the place was cleaned up, it appears that this once grim and obscure pyramid is covered with Carrara marble, which evidently has suffered much from physical, chemical and biological decay over the centuries. Thanks to the use of innovative materials and techniques, which will benefit future conservation projects as well, the restoration team was able to deal with Romes pollution issues.

As a bonus, we now can even read the inscriptions carved on the east and west flanks of the pyramid reading Gaius Cestius, son of Lucius, of the gens Pobilia, member of the College of Epulones, praetor, tribune of the plebs, septemvir of the Epulones. On the east side only, this inscription is followed by these lines: The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by the decision of the heir [Lucius] Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothus, freedman.

The shape of the pyramid is a close reminder of those found in Nubia, which had been conquered by Rome in 23 BC. Because of this similarity, it is possible that Cestius somehow participated in the Roman campaign in that country where the idea caught on. It seems that there were other examples of pyramids built in Rome at that time, like the Pyramid of Romulus that was taken down by Pope Alexander VI who used the marble for the steps of St Peter’s Basilica. Before the Roma hype, these pointed pyramids were already favored by the Ptolemy’s in Egypt, a country that fell to Octavian in 30 BC with the dead of the famous Queen Cleopatra.

What a shame that such an odd construction has been taken out of its context and now sits in the middle of the city’s heavy traffic. But there is good news too as the Pyramid is now open to the public every second and fourth Saturday of the month.

Friday, June 16, 2017

La Fasification de l’histoire de la Macédoine by Nicolaos K. Martis

La Falsification de l’histoire de la Macédoine or in English, The Falsification of the History of Macedonia, is written by Nicolaos Martis and has been translated from Greek into French by Marc and Jean-André Vlachos.

In 1984, the Commercial Bank of Greece, in a serious effort to defend the historical truth, financed the translation of this book and copies were distributed to private and official Hellenistic organizations in order to provide the most complete information about Macedonia as an integral part of Greece from antiquity till now.

Nicolaos Martis starts off by quoting texts and using referrals from early antiquity, including the Macedonian kings, the Old Testament, the archaeological finds at sites all over Macedonia with special attention for its most northerly frontier with modern Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Of course, much attention is given to Alexander the Great and his Empire, followed by the role played by Macedonia after antiquity, in Byzantine times.

A big jump is then made towards Macedonia’s contribution to the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman rule. This process started in the early 1800s when one Balkan country after the other became independent. These were very roaring times that are seldom tackled by modern historians. This part of history is indeed very complex but eventually, these events lead up to form a new country in 1929, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

At the end of WW2, in 1945, the monarchy was abolished and one year later the new Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was officially established with President Tito as their leader. At his death in 1980, the country was renamed again to become the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, composed of six separate republics: the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Socialist Republic of Croatia, the Socialist Republic of Montenegro, the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, the Socialist Republic of Serbia and finally the Socialist Republic of Macedonia.

This latest name is what started all the confusion as it was meant to be a state of ethnic Macedonians, with “Macedonian” as their official language. As Nicolaos Martis manages to prove at the end of his book, there is no such language as Macedonian and there never was either – not even in the days of Alexander the Great! Besides, this Socialist Republic of Macedonia had nothing to do with Greece’s northern province of Macedonia.

As the book was written in 1984, i.e. before the dismantling of the six republics of Yugoslavia upon the death of President Tito, the question of the legitimacy of the new republic and the new name FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) in 1991 is not discussed here.

Tempers fire up regularly, mostly in FYROM as the Macedonian Greeks and Greece as a whole want to keep peace with their northern neighbors. This is obviously a very controversial matter and whatever people’s opinions and convictions, this is not the place to give vent to them. The reason for posting this book is purely informative. And it is not just any book since it received a prize from the Academy of Athens and has been dedicated to the President of the Hellenic Republic, Constantin Caramanlis.

The author, Nicolaos Martis was born in Moustheni (department of Kavala) in 1915. During WW2 he fought against the German invasion, participated in the battles of El Alamein and Rimini and the liberation of Athens in 1944. He held office as Secretary General of the Ministry of Northern Greece (1955-1956), State Secretary of Commerce (1956-1958), Minister of Industry (1958-1961), and finally served as Minister of Northern Greece (1974-1981). He died in 2013.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Your enemy’s table has become your footstool

The expression can be taken philosophically but in the case of Alexander, it was meant literally. The scene is set in Susa, where he arrived in late 331 BC after having spent four weeks in Babylon. Here he installed Sisygambis, Darius’ mother, as well as her grandchildren, who had traveled with her since the aftermath of the Battle of Issus in 333 BC.

The Treasury of Susa was handed over, intact, meaning a bullion of 40,000 talents of gold and silver and 9,000 talents in gold darics. This was the largest amount Alexander ever collected in one take. Happy with this outcome and the surrender of Susa, Alexander sat down on the royal throne of Xerxes to savor the moment. This throne, however, outsized Alexander’s small stature and his feet did not reach the footstool that belonged to his royal seat. One of his attentive pages noticing this shortcoming pulled up a table that had belonged to Darius and slid it under the king’s feet. Alexander was much pleased with this solution but looking around he noticed that one of Darius’ eunuchs was lamenting and crying. He evidently asked him what was the matter and the eunuch replied that he was grieved so see that the table which Darius used for his meals now to serve in such an insulting way. Alexander realized that in the eyes of the Persians he had committed an act of arrogance and ordered the table to be removed. But then Philotas intervened by saying that this was an omen since the table of his enemy had been turned into the king’s footstool. Alexander apparently took the remark at heart and ordered the table to be left at the foot of his throne.

One can argue that Philotas was right, of course, but on the other hand, this was clearly a lack of respect for centuries’ old Persian royal traditions. This incident may well have been one of the first such confrontations between west and east. In Macedonia, things were done in a rather austere way and the eastern wealth with its protocol and glamor was something entirely new.

Alexander’s first encounter with the Oriental way of life occurred right after the Battle of Issus when Darius’ tent had fallen into Macedonian hands and had been prepared for Alexander as he returned from his unsuccessful pursuit of the fleeing Darius. When he entered his enemy’s tent, he remarked – rightfully so – this is what it means to be a king!


Yet, as impressive as these traveling quarters were, it certainly was only a faint hint of what he found two years later in Babylon. Although the origins of Babylon may go back as far as the 23rd century BC, its first archives date from 2286 BC. After being occupied by the Assyrians (Ashurbanipal) and the Neo-Babylonians (Nebuchadnezzar), the Empire fell to the Persians (Cyrus the Great) before Alexander arrived in October 331 BC. This implies that the Palace of Babylon was built, destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries and in spite of the shiny blue tiles it has a somewhat reserved appearance.

Susa, on the other hand, was founded circa 4,200 BC and has Elamite origins. This is where the famous Code of Hammurabi stood from 1175 BC onwards. The city was also conquered by Cyrus the Great to eventually become part of the Persian Empire. Yet the glazed bricks walls in Susa are friendlier than those at Babylon as many pastel colors were implemented, giving the walls automatically a more pleasant appearance. It is clear that the palace and its decorations must have impressed Alexander and his entourage. After all, they had not seen Persepolis yet!


Certainly, at this stage, Alexander had no idea of the wealth and luxuries that still awaited him making his enemies tables nothing more than his footstools.

Interestingly, the very stone slab on which the king’s throne once stood is still in place among the ruins of Susa and it is hard to realize that this is the very throne on which Alexander once seated himself. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Babylon and Alexander’s reorganization of the army

Most ancient authors do not spend much time in Babylon. After Alexander’s triumphal march into the city and his appointment of Mazaeus as governor, they quickly move on to Susa, his next stop.

Well, it seems they moved a little too quickly for after all Alexander spent exactly 34 days in Babylon and that time was certainly not spent sitting idle. The only ancient writer giving us more details is, as usual, Curtius.

[Charles LeBrun, Alexander's arrival in Babylon, The Louvre] 

For a start, he mentions that upon arrival, Alexander is met by Mazaeusthe foremost Persian general at the recent Battle of Gaugamela, who surrenders himself and the city. Babylon was a well-defended stronghold with a 68 km-long wall and would have been a tough nut to crack had Mazaeus, not presented it to the new King of Asia.

Alexander entered Babylon in a chariot surrounded by his armed men, many people went out to see him. Among them was Bagophanes, guardian of the citadel and of the royal treasury. He went as far as to strewing the entire road with flowers. On both sides of the Procession Way, he had placed silver altars loaded with frankincense and all kinds of perfumes. He did not come empty handed either, leading herds of horses and cattle, while lions and leopards were brought before Alexander as well. This procession was followed by the chanting Magi and the Chaldeans singing and playing musical instruments. The cortege was closed by the Babylonian cavalry looking their smartest. The townspeople were allowed to join the march-past at the very end, after the infantry.

Curtius admires the beauty and antiquity of the city, which he shares with Alexander and whoever lays eyes on it. He gives us a pretty detailed description of Babylon, stating that its walls were built of small baked bricks that were cemented with bitumen – a substance the Macedonians were to discover for the first time. These walls stood 22 meters high and were 10 meters wide and it is said that two four-horse chariots riding on top could pass each other. The wall towers were even three meters taller than the wall itself. No construction leaned against the inside of the city wall and none of the buildings were continuous, leaving an open spaces that could be cultivated – a very handy asset in case of a siege.

The fact, however, that the River Euphrates flew right through Babylon did not seem to create any security concern to the Babylonians. Remarkably, they built a stone bridge over the river in order to connect both sides – not a small achievement considering the inconstant flow of the river and its alluvial deposits.

The Citadel is another impressive feature of Babylon. Curtius mentions that it was 25 meters high (the foundations ran ten meters deep) and that it was surrounded by a nearly four-kilometer-long circuit. The famous Hanging Gardens are, according to this author, to be found at the top of this citadel, just peeping over the top of the city walls, although they generally are seen as being part of the Royal Palace. The entire story of these Hanging Gardens, apparently built by Nebuchadnezzar for his homesick wife, is shrouded in mystery. In spite of being labeled as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it remains one of the unsolved enigmas that I will not develop here.

We know that Alexander settled in the comforts of the Royal Palace, receiving ambassadors and delegates from all over his empire and catching up with his many administrative duties. The newly appointed Mazaeus as governor of Babylon (the first “oriental” to receive this honor) was assisted by two military commanders of Alexander’s choice, Apollodorus of Amphipolis and Menes of Pella. He also designated Agathon of Pydna to guard the Citadel. From the freshly acquired treasury, Alexander distributed a bonus to his cavalry and infantry as well as to all the mercenaries in his service.

His army had been very much welcomed by the Babylonians with plenty of food and wine and … women. Curtius brings this generosity to another level by stating that fathers and husbands allowed their daughters and wives to prostitute themselves to the liberators provided that a fair price was paid in return. The women who took part in these drinking parties are said to have peeled off one layer of clothing after the next to “gradually disgrace their modesty”. It seems that prostitution was regarded as a courtesy. Whatever the extent of these feasts, the debauchery had to be stopped and the best remedy was for Alexander to march his men to their next destination, Susa, another Persian capital.

While on the road, reinforcements sent earlier by Antipater joined Alexander’s ranks. They were Macedonian and Thracian cavalry and infantry as well as mercenaries both on foot and horse from the Peloponnese. With these troops, there also was a group of 50 young adult sons of Macedonian chiefs to serve as bodyguards to Alexander. We know that their function ended after four years of service and the timing for this replacement is entirely coherent since the present bodyguards presumably had started off with Alexander in 334 BC. Curtius is kind enough to give us the job description of these boys as follows: they should wait upon the king at the table, bring him horses during the battle, attend him during the hunting parties, and keep watch at the entrance to his bedroom. If they applied themselves they could be promoted to the level of general in his army.

These fresh recruits, however, had to be merged with the existing seasoned troops, a task Alexander never took lightly. He decided to halt about halfway between Babylon and Susa to make the arrangements and started by closely scrutinizing the reports of good or brave conduct of individuals and making sure they were rewarded accordingly. He arranged for many commanders to be promoted to an even higher post of command. By doing so, he managed to bind his men by strong ties of affection and leading, in the end, to a higher degree of effectiveness.

Meanwhile and in order to keep his men occupied, Alexander organized a contest in military valor overseen by judges he had appointed to this effect. There was much at stake as the bravest competitor would win the command over a troop of 1,000 men, the chiliarchae – the first time this number was used. Under eager attention and wide attendance, eight such Chiliarchs were nominated and they formed a new unit in Alexander’s army. This was also the time when Alexander appointed commanders over units that did not necessarily consist of men from their own region as had been the case under Philip and which Alexander had implemented till now. Another novelty was to replace the trumpet signal that sounded when the camp had to be moved. In the commotion more often than not it seems that the trumpet was not heard and it was therefore decided to place a pole on top of the general’s tent for all to see. The signal consisted of a fire visible by night and smoke during the day.

One may conclude that Alexander took his role as King of Asia very seriously but the reorganization of his army here in Babylon is very telling for the conquests that still laid ahead. He partially canceled the proven and tested rules put in place by his father and replaced them with several innovative features in order to be more efficient and more effective. 

He truly was a general in heart and soul who did not shy away from adapting his army to new situations and circumstances of which there were many more to follow in the years ahead.

[Except for the first and last photographs, all others are borrowed from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Good and bad news from Perge

The Hurriyet Daily News recently came with the news that many mosaics have been uncovered in the necropolis of Perge, glorifying them to be as magnificent as those that made the reputation of Zeugma. Yet the photograph in their article shows the side of a sarcophagus and none whatsoever of the mosaics that are apparently making the headlines.

However, this article raises many questions besides the matter of pictures. They write that “In front of the mausoleums were intact mosaics depicting the goddess of the sea Oceanus, which is said to be the first in Turkey,..”. Well, first of all, Oceanus is a god and not a goddess and secondly, Oceanus has been depicted in many other mosaics in Turkey as for instance at the Archaeological Museum of Antakya 


and, more to the point, at the Archaeological Museum of Gaziantep that exhibits the finds from Zeugma!


Sadly, this makes me doubt the eulogized information about this discovery. It is clear that Turkey is struggling to find enough tourists to visit their rich archaeological sites and Perge is no exception. In their article “Ancient Perge surviving, but locals are not” also published in May 2017 they confirm that the number of visitors has dropped drastically from 190,000 in 2014 to just 60,000 in 2016.

Perge certainly is one of those sites worth visiting and I warmly welcome everyone to spend prime time among those lovely ruins but it is not by advertising twisted information that this goal can be reached.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

All you need to know about Greek Symposia

Cigarettes, Whisky and Wild Wild Women” is the title of a song which the not so young among us may remember. Yet, there is nothing new under the sun for in antiquity the Greeks would enjoy their own version of fun with “Wine, Women and Wisdom” as these were the main ingredients for their Symposia.

The philosophic part may have been an elegant pretext for their decadent banquets where all was about enjoying themselves with wine, women and music. In an earlier post, The Symposium by Plato I touched the subject as I was more interested in Plato as tutor of Aristotle, who in turn was the tutor of young Alexander.

But it is clear that there is far more to say about these symposia that were open for men only – the only women present were hetaera hired to entertain the men – who met in a special room, the andron, where the couches shared by two men were lined up against the outer walls. Many of such rooms were found all over the Greek world and many such scenes were depicted on countless vases as the tradition goes back to the 9th century BC.

A very systematic and detailed article has appeared in National Geographic and it is very much worth reading as it highlights and illustrates the many aspects of the Symposia.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Luxurious Greek villa revealed in Paestum

It is great news to read that a monumental building with priceless Greek ceramics has been revealed during recent excavation works at Poseidonia, the Greek name for Paestum in southern Italy.


Until now, Paestum was mainly known for its splendid and well-preserved Doric temples among which the first Temple of Athena dating from circa 550 BC and the second Temple of Hera (originally attributed to Poseidon/Neptune by mistake) whose construction has been dated to 460-450 BC. The newly exposed remains are, however,  proof of how rich the Greek founders of this colony in Magna Graecia were (see also: Magna Graecia, the forgotten Greek legacy).

It has been established that the city founders came from Sybaris, at the bottom of Italy’s heel who were among the pilgrims that came to worship at these temples. A great number of Attic red-figure pottery and other luxury artifacts left behind by the crowds of worshippers certainly attest of the fabulous wealth of Paestum.

The unearthed villa may well be a very rich house or even a palace and seems to date to the early days of Poseidonia. Archaeologists are quite excited to have a view of daily life in the city at the time when the first temples were built. This sets the villa apart from the overall Roman remains from the mid 3rd century BC that were found till now all over Paestum.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Gold digging ants, legend or reality?

As always, it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff and in history, it is even more difficult to separate legend from truth. One of such cases is the fabulous story told by Herodotus in the 5th century BC about “outsized furry ants” that dug up enough gold to enrich the Persian Empire. Unless we find hard proof, such stories remain questionable even if Alexander the Great is said to have known about it.


The main problem may simply be that these “giant ants” live in the remote region of the upper Indus River close to the Himalaya Mountains. These creatures are said to be big marmots throwing up soil while building their underground burrows and this soil apparently contains gold. In more recent centuries, explorers were told by the indigenous people that they collected gold dust from these mounds of soil.

Gaining access to the area has been the major setback to expose the truth. The area has been pinpointed to the high plateau of Dansar which overlooks the Indus near the tense cease-fire line between Pakistan and India. Getting there from India is difficult enough but entering the Pakistani side is near-impossible. The high plateau is occupied by the Minaro villagers split up between the two modern countries living at an altitude of some 3,000 meters. Both sides share the same story but the marmots and their burrows can only be found on the Pakistani side of the border. Recently, a landslide had exposed a darker, gold-bearing soil from one meter below the surface and this is exactly the soil which the marmots throw up.

No big secret, but where does the description of “furry gold digging ants” come from? The answer is amazingly simple: Herodotus never visited India but in his days the country was under Persian rule and the Persian word for marmot is “mountain ant” – hence the confusion.

It is clear that this logical explanation needs to be supported by archaeological and geological surveys but the region is still a conflict zone and not safe for travel. Unfortunately, it seems that the population of marmots is dwindling rapidly because soldiers are constantly taking potshots at them.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Excavations at Alexandria-on-the Tigris also known as Charax Spasinou

Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, also known as Antiochia-in-Susiana and Charax Spasinou-on-the-Tigris, is one of the lesser known cities founded by Alexander the Great in 324 BC. Pliny in the 1st century AD was still aware of this important harbor, although by then it was called Charax on the coast of the Persian Gulf at the point where the Tigris and the Karun rivers met. Today, it is much harder to pinpoint this once grand port that served as an entrepȏt to Alexander because since that time so much silt and alluvium has been carried down by both rivers that it is nearly impossible to find traces of this last of Alexander’s Alexandria’s.


It seems that Alexander settled a number of his veterans in special quarters of Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, which he named Pella after this own hometown.

Geophysical surveys revealed that entire districts were present and waiting to be explored and soon enough archaeological excavations revealed the presence of monumental buildings. It soon became clear that the heydays of Alexandria-on-the Tigris occurred in the 1st and 2nd century AD and not during Alexander’s lifetime. Since the city was founded just one year before the death of the King of Asia, it may not have had the necessary support, more so since his successors had other things on their mind like their own rise to power. It was only when the Seleucids had secured their empire halfway the 2nd century BC that their attention went to rebuilding the city that had been severely damaged by repeated flooding. This is how it gained its new name of Antiochia-in-Susiana.

The major incentive came from King Hyspaosines who ruled from 127 until 124 BC after having functioned as a satrap earlier on under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of the waning Seleucid empire. Hyspaosines founded an empire of his own, Characene that flourished thanks to his naval superiority in the Gulf. At this time, the island of Failaka was attached as well (see: Alexander's outpost in the Gulf). Charax survived, changing hands to the Romans who in turn were expelled by the Persian Sassanids in the third century AD. The last traces of occupation have been dated to 715 AD when it was part of Umayyad Empire, after which Charax was finally abandoned.

For centuries, Charax was a turntable on the trade routes to Syria and the Mediterranean after passing through famous stops like Petra and Palmyra. Here the goods were transhipped from those ships sailing in from Arabia and even India in exchange for those products traveling in opposite direction. In its heydays, Charax spread over 5 km2 and was home to a large cosmopolitan population. Alexander certainly had a good eye when it came to building new cities!

Over the centuries, the coastline has changed dramatically due to the heavy silt deposits of the major rivers Tigris and Karun emptying into the Persian Gulf. Mud has covered most of Charax’s remains leaving only vague hints of its once so massive ramparts. Moreover, this area is now littered with debris from the recent conflict opposing Iran and Iraq. This is certainly not making the task any easier for any archaeologist daring enough to start digging in this utterly desolate flat.


Modern technology was brought in to the rescue; at least, that was the plan. A small team of geophysicists spent nine days trudging up and down the site with their magnetometers, hoping to find some remnants of this once so glorious city while at the same time they could test the possible presence of landmines. The results of their arduous efforts were beyond expectations as they were able to discover the Hellenistic gridded layout of the city and pinpoint many of the monumental buildings. Unfortunately, you don’t always get what you expect. In this case, the monumental buildings turned out to be mere layers of ephemeral phases and excavations were hampered by “inconsiderably-placed” dead bodies while what seemed to be a large city walls turned out to be nothing but a large ditch lined with pots. Test trenches have so far yielded only some pottery and a few badly weathered coins.

Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, Failaka and other towns in the Gulf area are clearly not going to disclose their treasures anytime soon for it will take many seasons of thorough excavations to get some indication about Alexander’s legacy in modern Iraq, yet again hampered by recent war situations.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

By the Spear. Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire by Ian Worthington

In this book, By the Spear, Ian Worthington (ISBN 978-0-19-992986-3) gives a good concise narration of the career and power of Philip II of Macedonia and his famous son, Alexander the Great. It may be a good way to get acquainted with the conquests and accomplishments of both rulers but then it tells the story in a nutshell. This, in fact, may discourage anyone to read it to the end because it is cramped with so many facts and figures.

Sadly, Ian Worthington in this book merely confirms what he previously wrote in much more details about these two great Macedonian kings in Philip II, King of Macedonia and in Alexander the Great, Man and God. I was hoping to find more information about these rulers’ effect on Macedonia during their lifetime as well as their legacy after Alexander’s untimely death. Maybe my expectations ran too high, but I fail to see the value of rewriting (even in a summarized form) what has already been said in his two previous books, especially since the last part of the promising title “Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire” has not really been developed.

It is clear that the author relied on an immense bibliography, which is listed at the back of his book. This by itself is an excellent source of information. The added Timeline is rather condensed, and so is the Cast of Principal Characters. The maps at the beginning of the book are, however, excellent.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Laodicea, great works in progress!

Only recently, Laodicea was in the news because a tablet explaining the laws for the city’s water management dating from Roman times was discovered (see: Water laws, still unchanged after nearly two thousand years).


It appears that excavations have intensified and that a sacred agora, the only such example in the world, has been exposed and is undergoing serious restoration. This agora, the largest sacred area in Anatolia because of the adjacent temple, collapsed after the severe earthquake of 494 AD and was covered under a layer of up to seven meters of rubble. It is leaning against a 100 meter-long and eleven meter-high back wall that was covered with paintings. Over its entire length ran a Stoa and the columns – some 34 of them - that once held the roof are now being reassembled.

At the same time, work has progressed in reviving the Hellenistic theater planning to make it accessible again in two years time. The lower tiers of seats have been preserved but the upper tiers survived only partially. Most of the restoration apparently seems to be needed around the skene, which in the 5th century became part of the city wall.

Archaeologists are still sorting through the reliefs, sculptures, vessels and jewels found on the site, generally transferred to the local museum.

Laodicea, which is located only ten kilometers from Hierapolis (next to Pamukkale) was founded by Antiochus II Theos of Syria and named after his first wife, Laodike. This Seleucid king is the one who is mentioned on one of the Ashoka pillars as Amtiyoko, king of Greater Syria and Bactria (see: When pillars with unknown writing were discovered in India).

In 188 BC, the city was ruled by the kings of Pergamon until it fell to the Romans in 133 BC. At this point and because of its strategic position, Laodicea flourished thanks to the intensive trade in black wool.


As mentioned before, there is far more to discover at Laodicea beside the Agora and the theatre. The list contains buildings like baths, several temples, another theater and a Bouleuterion.  The Stadion is in good condition and still contains the original seating on both sides, taking advantage of the narrow valley in which it has been built. At its western end are the remains of an underground passage used by chariots and horses to access the arena. Many streets were lined with columns and pedestals and there are even traces of a city gate, the Ephesos Gate. North of the city, closer to the adjacent Lycos River, the necropolis has been discovered with many sarcophagi whose lids have been removed in antiquity by tomb raiders.

Quite exceptional, however, is the aqueduct of Laodicea since it is very similar to the one found at Aspendos (see: Aspendos, the unfaithful). In both cases, an inverted siphon carried the water from the summit of a low hill down the valley all the way up to the header tank at the edge of the city. This certainly is great news, as until now Aspendos claimed the monopoly for this kind of Roman architecture. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra

The Getty Research Institute in Malibu, California, has put together an online exhibition about Palmyra with drawings made by the 18th-century architect Louis-Francois Cassas and the 19th-century photographer Louis Vignes.


Colonnade Street with Temple of Bel in background, Georges Malbeste and Robert Daudet after Louis-François Cassas. Etching. Plate mark: 16.9 x 36.6 in. (43 x 93 cm). FromVoyage pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phoénicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte (Paris, ca. 1799), vol. 1, pl. 58. The Getty Research Institute, 840011 

The Legacy of Palmyra gives a highly interesting look of what Palmyra looked like before it was so carefully and lovingly restored by archaeologists in the 20th and 21st centuries but was ultimately so savagely destroyed in the past decade.

It is a true ode to this once so grand and important city.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Time to Honor Emperor Hadrian

Emperor Hadrian was a true world traveler in the modern sense of the word. He understood Public Relations like no other and made sure all his subjects knew him whether in the far east or in remote Britain where he left his “Hadrian Wall”. It seems he was very much appreciated also since so many cities built arches in his honor and dedicated temples and baths to him. A rare exception on my travelling through Albania where I found no trace of him. Strange, to say the least!

Hadrian was born in 76 AD and died in 138 AD, after having reigned over the Roman Empire for twenty-one years. He belongs to the category of the five “good emperors”, joining ranks with Nerva, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius. More importantly, he ruled at the height of Roman power in the middle of the Pax Romana which started under Augustus in 27 BC and ended in 180 AD. This Pax Romana, a two hundred years-long period of peace, was in great part due to Alexander the Great – a detail that is generally overlooked. Through his two years of fierce guerilla wars in Sogdiana and in Bactria from 229 to 227 BC, Alexander had scared the hell out of the Scythian tribes on the northern frontiers of Central Asia to such an extent that they did not dare interfere with the Roman occupation in the following centuries.

Hadrian comes to me as a good-natured and friendly person who liked his contacts with people. He is known to be generous to the soldiers under his command, making sure they were properly garrisoned; additionally, he implemented many military reforms and built appropriate forts. He was on good terms with the civilians of the cities he visited as well and is said to have defended the weaker population against the empowered ones, which may be one of the reasons why he was so popular. He loved everything that was Greek and that included his beautiful lover Antinous. He sought to make Athens the cultural capital of his empire and to this purpose he ordered the construction of many buildings all over the city. Best known is probably his arch in the center of Athens carrying two typical inscriptions reading on one side, Here starts the city of Hadrian and on the other, Here ends the city of Hadrian. Athens, in turn, honored the emperor with a bronze statue at the Theatre of Dionysus. According to Pausanias, Hadrian also built a gymnasium with columns of Libyan marble, a Temple of Hera, a large Library and a Pantheon dedicated to all the gods. We still can admire his life-size statue at the very heart of the Greek Agora. Another interesting feature of Hadrian’s legacy is the vaulted Eridanos River that has been exposed during the metro construction works at the Monastiraki station.

This emperor is also being remembered for his generosity and fairness, for changing the law generally to make sentences more humane and honest. In Rome, he restored many buildings, including the Pantheon and allowed himself the luxurious Villa Hadriana at Tivoli which he furnished with the most beautiful Greek statues he could find, if not the originals, then the best copies would do. During his travels, he often implemented public works projects and granted Latin rights to many communities.

Nothing much has transpired from his personal life, except his affair with the gorgeous Antinous (when you see the very recognizable Antinous in a museum, you can be sure that Hadrian is not far off). Whatever his relation with his wife Sabina was, she is often represented at his side. One such case that springs to my mind is Andriake, the harbor of Myra, where a bust of the couple enhances the entrance to the granary.


According to the latest news, the city of Antalya is renewing its appreciation for Hadrian by cleaning up the area around the gate built in his honor in 130 AD, known locally as the “Three Doors”. They are planning a rather fancy landscaping with lighting in the shape of the sun. The project is not too clear but it is nice to hear that this impressive city gate will gain in prestige after so many centuries of abandon.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How we can be tricked into relying on the internet

The internet is a most wonderful source of information but once again I discovered how tricky and misleading some of this information can be. It happened recently when on Pinterest I came across these three magnificent heads, most likely terracotta’s, labeled as Alexander, Olympias and Philip. They were very lively and very lifelike, so much so that I could hardly believe the labels to be correct.




I questioned the different sources who had posted these pictures on Pinterest but got no reaction at all. Are people just swallowing anything these days? The doubtful labels, however, linked these heads to the Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome. That was another reason to raise my eyebrows since that museum is specialized in Etruscan art and I fail to see their connection with Alexander and his family.

Getting nowhere, I decided to contact the Museum of Villa Giulia in order to clarify this interpretation. It was not surprising to learn that they had no knowledge of this Macedonian royal family in their collection.

The picture of this so-called Alexander is, in fact, a representation of Apollo recovered from the Etruscan Sanctuary of Scasata at Falerii Veteres, modern Civita Castellana in the province of Viterbo and has been dated to the end of the fourth/early third century BC. It was part of a terracotta group that enhanced the front pediment of the temple dedicated to Apollo, an oracle shrine. Some sources imply that this Apollo was inspired by the Alexander head created by Lysippos – not entirely improbable, I’d say.

It appeared that another nearby temple had been excavated as well and it had been determined that it was dedicated to Minerva (Athena), Juno (Hera) and Jupiter (Zeus). This temple yielded stunning terracotta sculptures from the early fourth century BC among which a cult statue of Juno, the one that is apparently mistaken for Olympias.

As to the head that supposedly represents Philip, I have no further information but I could speculate that if it was found near the Juno terracotta it might depict Jupiter.

These three heads are absolutely superb and I believe they are well worth a visit to the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia next time you are in Rome.