Bust of so-called "Marius", Augustan copy of a 2nd cent. B.C. original, Marble
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.
Egadi 1 Ram & Egadi 3 Ram, Bronze, dated to 241 BCE
RPM Nautical Foundation
Today's artefacts are some of the most exciting we've seen so far – although I know at first glance they might not look it. To a modern eye these strange bronze objects don't make much sense: but to an ancient, they would have been a recognisable element of one of the most important military assets – battleships.
These are, in fact, ancient bronze rams—discovered in 2008 (and another in 2010) on the seabed off the coast of Sicily—which would have been fitted to the front of a ship (see reconstruction below) and used to ram into the sides of enemy ships. What makes them particularly fascinating is that archaeologists have been able to date them precisely, using both state-of-the-art carbon dating and detailed accounts by the historian Polybius, to a specific battle: the naval battle of March 10 of 241 BCE between the Romans and Carthaginians, during the First Punic War.
The First Punic War was an explosive conflict between the nascent power of Rome and Carthage, an ancient civilisation based in modern Tunisia and a significant presence in the Mediterranean, over the island of Sicily. ("Punic" comes from the Latin name for the Carthaginians, Punici.) It marked the first of three major conflicts between the two powers which would define the third century BCE and proved to be a major turning point in the development of Rome's naval and military strength, and the beginnings of the spread of Roman control throughout the Mediterranean.
What's fascinating about the rams discovered is that we have examples of both Roman and Carthaginian rams – giving us a rare picture of both sides of the war. The left-hand ram above (Egadi 1) bears a Latin inscription, whereas the right (Egadi 3) has an inscription in Punic, the language of the Carthaginians. The problem is that we have very little evidence for pre-Roman Carthage – in spite of how powerful it was as a presence in the Mediterranean before the Punic Wars – because, after its conquest by the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War (146 BCE), the city was completely destroyed, razed to the ground and (so the story goes) sown over with salt to prevent its ever being settled again. However much truth there may be to this myth, this pair of rams provides evocative evidence of the reality of the Punic Wars – on both sides of the conflict.
Sarcophagus of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, early to mid 3rd cent. B.C., Tuff
The Vatican Museums, Rome
As we move into the 3rd century BCE we turn briefly from Greece to Italy, where Rome was engaged in the third of a series of Samnite Wars (we saw the First Samnite War possibly depicted in no. 37 of this series). This sarcophagus, or coffin, belonged – as the inscription tells us – to Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, who held the shared post of head of the Roman state ("consul") in 298 BCE. During the third of the Samnite Wars, fought between Rome and neighbouring populations in Italy, Scipio Barbatus led the Roman troops to victory against the Etruscans (whose funerary urns and sarcophagi we saw earlier in the series) at Volterra. Scipio Barbatus stands at the beginning of what would be a century of Roman conquest across the Mediterranean, building the foundations of the vast Roman empire.
Before we leave the late classical period to move to the Hellenistic period proper, I wanted to visit one last artefact, and perhaps one of my favourites from the ancient world – this gorgeous gold-sheet myrtle wreath, found in the antechamber to the tomb of Philip II of Macedon in Vergina, Greece. Thought to have belonged to Meda of Odessus (d. 336 BCE), Philip's fifth (or sixth – the order is contested) wife, it is a stunning example of late classical/early Hellenistic craftsmanship. Myrtle blossoms – a symbol of Aphrodite, goddess of love, in the ancient world – and leaves are formed from hammered sheets of gold, embossed and incised with details, and then attached to the crown itself with gold wire. It forms the counterpart to an equally famous gold oak wreath found at Vergina, thought perhaps to have been Philip's own: just as the myrtle was associated with Aphrodite, the oak was the symbol of Zeus, king of the gods, and thus a particularly appropriate match for the king of Macedon. Whichever of the royal queens of the Macedonian house this myrtle wreath was created to commemorate, its lifelike appearance and detailed treatment is a real testament to the achievement of Macedonian goldsmiths and jewellers.
#HOCW42: The Alexander mosaic. From Pompeii, Italy. Circa 100 BCE, copy of an early 3rd century BCE painting.
This mosaic, featuring the clash between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE, ranks among some of the most famous works of art from the ancient world. It is made up – as the close-up image of Alexander shows – of millions of tiny tesserae, tiny coloured tiled arranged together to form the scene. It was originally set in the floor of the tablinum or 'receiving room' of the House of the Faun in Pompeii, but now resides in the Archaeological Museum at Naples (a modern copy stands in its place in Pompeii). Although it is dated to around 100 BCE, it is likely that it was a copy of an earlier Hellenistic painting dating to the early 3rd century BCE, not long after Alexander's death in 323 BCE. It's fascinating to compare the depiction of Alexander here with his image on contemporary coins like the one minted by Lysimachus.