The "Ides of March" denarius commemorates one of the most famous events in history – the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Struck by the tyrannicide Brutus in late summer/early autumn 42 BC, it bears the portrait of Brutus himself along with (just visible across the top) the words BRUT IMP, or "Brutus the general" – particularly apposite, as Brutus and the other conspirators were at the time readying themselves for a battle against Caesar's supporters and heirs (the Battle of Philippi, which would take place later that year in October 42 BC). The reverse bears the striking inscription EID MAR – Eidibus Martiis, or the Ides of March, commemorating the date of Caesar's death – beneath the pileus, the cap of liberty given to freed slaves, symbolising the new liberty of the Republic, and two daggers, standing for the two principal conspirators, Brutus and Cassius. Only around eighty examples of this coin survive, as they were later recalled by the victorious Mark Antony and Octavian after Brutus and Cassius' defeat at the Battle of Philippi.
As we approach the end of the Republic, it is impossible not to mention Cicero, the great statesman and orator whose speeches and letters provide one of the most detailed accounts of this turbulent historical period. Cicero was born in 106 BCE in Arpinum, and rose through the ranks of the Roman political system against the odds to become consul in 63 BCE. During his consulship, he discovered and made public a plot against the Republic by the aristocrat, Catiline, and delivered a series of brilliant speeches later known as the Catilinarians, which would ultimately see the conspirators condemned to death. When Cicero's opponents claimed, however, that his sentencing of the conspirators without trial was illegal, Cicero was exiled in 58 BCE. He returned to Italy in 57 BCE and became one of the leading figures in the later years of the Republic, supporting first the general Pompey against Julius Caesar, and then Caesar's great-nephew Octavian against Caesar's former general, Mark Antony. When Octavian and Antony joined together to form an alliance in 43 BCE, however, Antony and Octavian together issued Cicero's name on a list of brutal proscriptions of enemies of the state; and Cicero was caught and killed as he left his villa in Formiae in December 43 BCE.
It is impossible to be certain of the identity of Cicero's villa; however, the villa above, Villa Rubino (now in private ownership) has historically been identified as belonging to Cicero. While it is likely no more than wishful thinking – several opulent villas have been discovered in the area, any one (or none) of which might have been his – it is tantalising to say the least to imagine the Roman orator departing from this 1st century BC nymphaeum (shrine to the nymphs, pictured above) and setting out to try to escape his death.
Today's artefact is particularly close to my heart. In 2006 I was lucky enough to take part in an archaeological dig in Pompeii with the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii (AAPP), working in the north-western corner of the ancient city (Region VI, Block 1). One of the many fascinating aspects of digging in this area of Pompeii was that it was particularly affected by the Social Wars, the civil conflict that tore apart Italy from 91 BCE when the "allies" of Rome revolted against the Romans – probably because they wanted full citizenship, to be "full members of Rome's club", as Mary Beard puts it. Pompeii was besieged by none other than Sulla, the Roman general and dictator who we saw in the previous History of the Classical World entry – and evidence of his attack still remains at the site today. In the first photo, the walls of Pompeii show evidence of ballista strikes – the ancient equivalent of cannon balls. The second image, from an earlier AAPP dig in 1999, shows lead shot – ancient bullets, launched from slings. It's a striking reminder that, even though we think of the cities of Italy as thoroughly Roman, it wasn't always the case – and that Romanness (or Romanitas) was both highly contested and highly prized.
Bust of so-called "Sulla", Augustan copy of a late 2nd cent. B.C. original, Marble
Although it's tempting to identify this bust with Sulla – as we saw in the previous HOCW entry, its pair was identified with Marius – unfortunately, historians no longer believe that this is a representation of the famous Roman general and dictator. However, the Marius and Sulla pair in the Munich Glyptothek have had a long and rich reception history, and it is on that account – as well as the importance of the historical figures they were thought to represent – that it is included here.
HOCW51: Bust of "Marius". Late 1st cent BCE/early 1st century CE copy of a 2nd century BCE original.
Bust of so-called "Marius", Augustan copy of a 2nd cent. B.C. original, Marble
As we enter the first century BCE, we enter a century of turmoil in Rome's history which would ultimately lead to the civil wars, the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, and the fall of the Roman Republic with the principate of Caesar's great-nephew Augustus. Perhaps one of the most important figures in the story of this struggle is Gaius Marius, who may (there is some controversy over the identification) be depicted in the portrait bust shown above, currently housed in the Munich Glyptothek. Marius, as he is commonly known, was born in 157 BCE in a small town outside Rome, and rose by the end of his career to hold the consulship (the top political job in Rome) for an unprecedented seven times. A military man, he reformed the Roman army, led a series of campaigns against Jugurtha in Numidia, the Germanic tribes in the north, and the rebel cities of Italy during the Social War, gaining more political power than had ever been thought possible. The Roman Republic's careful system of checks and balances, with two consuls elected to counter each other and the term of office no longer than a year, seemed to be breaking beneath the strain of individual ambition and the demands of a burgeoning empire. Marius' example paved the way for a series of other generalissimos over the course of the first century BCE, who we will be meeting during our next History of the Classical World entries: Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony, and, of course, Augustus himself.
Fasti Antiates, circa 67–55 B.C., painted plaster
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Museo Nazionale Romano
We're into our second half of the History of the Classical World in 100 Objects, and with it we enter the first century BCE with a remarkable object – the oldest recorded calendar from ancient Rome. Here's what James Grout, writing for the Encyclopaedia Romana, has to say about the Fasti Antiates:
HOCW49: Half shekel with portrait of Hannibal (?)/Melqart [obverse] and elephant [reverse]. 213-210 BCE.
Half shekel with portrait of Hannibal (?)/Melqart [obverse] and elephant [reverse], c.213-210 B.C., Silver
Burnett Enna Hoard 123; SNG Copenhagen 383
The figure of Hannibal (possibly pictured on the obverse [front] of the coin above) couldn't be a more fitting halfway point to A History of the Classical World in 100 Objects. The Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage (218–201 BCE) is one of the most famous of all ancient military confrontations, including as it did Hannibal's legendary crossing of the Alps with his army and war elephants. On the coin above, probably minted between 213-210 BCE during Hannibal's expedition against Sicily in the wake of his triumphant defeat of the Romans at Cannae (216 BCE), we can see one of those famous elephants depicted in glorious detail. The obverse of the coin shows a portrait head in profile, wearing a laurel wreath with ribbons floating above the nape of the neck. The upwards-tilted eyes, tousled hair and diadem-like wreath clearly look back to coin portraits of Alexander the Great (like the one we saw earlier in the series): Hannibal, commander of the Carthaginian forces in the attempt to overthrow Rome, is quite clearly allying himself symbolically with the great conqueror, asserting his identity in the struggle for imperial control over the Mediterranean. Opinions differ over whether this portrait actually depicts Hannibal himself, or the Carthaginian god Melqart – most likely it is a fusion of the two, a deliberate blurring of boundaries between god and mortal, as Alexander himself had done before.
Comic Mask, 300-200 B.C., Terracotta
Tarentum, South Italy
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Many objects ago on the History of the Classical World we had another dramatic mask – a tragic mask made of bronze, made in the Hellenistic period (i.e. 4th-2nd cents BCE) but imitating classical Athenian models. This mask is quite different. Not only is it made of terracotta rather than bronze – you will notice at once that the facial expression and style marks it as a comic mask. Here the mouth is curved up in a slight smile, the cheeks are tensed in exaggerated jollity, and the eyebrows are raised. However, this is not a classical Athenian-type comic mask – which normally has a wide, open mouth and highly exaggerated features – but represents rather a later style of comedy which flourished from the 4th century BCE on, called 'New Comedy', and which seems to have been especially popular among the Greek colonies of South Italy. This type of comedy, pioneered by a dramatist called Menander, featured stock characters like "The Flatterer" (Kolax, in Greek), "The Parasite", "The Slave", "The Prostitute" and so on, and engaged in formulaic plots often involving situational comedy and character satire. The mask above is typical of "The Flatterer" type, with its subtle smile and lidded eyes – note the holes in the top of the mask, where it would have been fastened to the head, and traces of paint remaining on the cheeks and hair.
Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer's Odyssey, c.285-250 B.C., Papyrus
7 1/2 in. (19.1 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum, New York
This fragment of Homer's Odyssey – one of the earliest ever discovered – has to be a personal highlight for me, as a classicist who spends most of my time working with ancient Greek texts. Here's the description of the papyrus fragment pictured above from the Metropolitan Museum object page:
For the ancient Greeks, papyrus, a paper made from the stalks of the papyrus plant, was the preferred material on which to record permanent writings, such as a marriage contract or, as here, a book. Writing on papyrus was done with a stylus, such as a sharpened reed with a split point or a bronze pen with nib, and ink, usually made of lampblack in water.
This is the first early Ptolemaic fragment of the Odyssey ever discovered. It contains three lines from Book 20 that do not occur in the standard text preserved today and is a physical testimony to the fact that local variations of this famous work existed in the third century B.C.
The most important repository of Homeric texts in the Hellenistic world was at the library of Alexandria, Egypt, the first comprehensive public library ever built, which was founded by the Ptolemaic kings in the early third century B.C. As Homer was the poet par excellence, his work was central to the library's collections, which contained copies of the Homeric poems from many different city-states, including Chios, Argos, and Sinope. One of the first endeavors of the Alexandrian scholars was to establish a standard text for these most cherished works of Greek literature.
The Antikythera Mechanism, circa 205 BCE, Bronze
Fragment A above: 140 millimetres (5.5 in) [diameter]
The National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece
Although it doesn't look that exciting, the fragment shown above forms part of a machine that can lay claim to being the oldest computer in the world. The Antikythera Mechanism, as it is now known, was discovered in 1901 as part of an ancient Greek shipwreck, discovered on the seabed off the coast of Antikythera. The fragment above (known as Fragment A) forms part of a series of 30 toothed gears, along with dials, scales, axles and pointers, all of which were housed in a wooden box (you can see a reconstruction of part of the mechanism below and linked here).
So what did the Antikythera Mechanism do? Well, scientists and historians are still working on uncovering the finer parts of the mechanism: but, thanks to the fact that we can now use X-ray analysis to read parts of the inscriptions that cover the machine, we are beginning to get a clearer picture. It seems that it was used as a sort of portable astronomical calculator – probably both for scientific calculations as well as for teaching purposes. It displayed the positions of the Sun, the Moon and (probably) the five planets known in antiquity, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; it could be used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, and displayed the dates of Pan-Hellenic games (from which dates in the ancient world were calculated before the birth of Christ). It was originally dated to the 1st century BCE, but that dating has since been challenged and an earlier date of 205 BCE suggested.