Anatolia, The Roman Empire

Hagia Sophia: How Rome moving east changed architecture forever

All roads lead to Rome the saying goes: A great city who later fell and whose spectacular ruins let us contemplate today the former heart of an empire. This view is only partially historically accurate. Yes, the Roman influence expanded from Rome but always with a natural inclination towards the east. Tracing their own origins from there, that’s where all other great former empires besides Egypt also had come from. The greek influence – considered prevalent during the Roman empire – is often understood as having captured the conquering romans, resulting in greco-roman culture.

The greek influence was actually there all along from when greek colonists first stepped ashore on Sicily and southern Italy, a process having been underway since before the founding of Rome. The capital eventually consumed vast resources during the hight of empire, moving far beyond what could be produced locally. This caused problems for Rome whose supply lines ultimately became its Achilles’ heel. Goods in high demand came from as far away as China, making the silk road trade effectively come under Roman control though establishing trade stations and ports in present day Jordan and Pakistan.

Adding then also the volatile germanic tribes of northern Europe to the mix whose presence became increasingly problematic for Rome: First a conquest of these lands had been a high priority, present day France and Britain having both been successfully pacified, but after things went terribly wrong in Teutoburger Forest all plans to rule these lands were abandoned indefinitely in the first century CE. Threats of new germanic attacks coupled with a new religion firmly rooted in the east, Christianity, also eventually combined with Rome’s constant problems to sustain itself made an eventual move of the capital to the east, possible, plausible, perhaps even inevitable.

Constantine the Great supported the Edict of Milan in 313 that decreed tolerance for Christianity in the empire. He then called the First Council of Nicaea in 325, after which the Nicene Creed was professed by all Christians and he was finally the Roman emperor to build a new imperial residence at Byzantium and renaming the city Constantinople after himself, making it in fact become the new capital of the empire. It would remain so for over one thousand years.

Justinian I (East Roman emperor 527-565) sought to revive the empire’s greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the historical Roman Empire, thus he’s sometimes been called the “last Roman” in modern historiography. This ambition resulted in the partial recovery of territories of the fallen western empire. Belisarius, his general, restored parts of North Africa, Dalmatia, Southern Spain, Sicily, Italy, and Rome to the empire as well as parts of the Black Sea coast never before under Roman rule. Justinian reformed Roman law with Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many countries today and his reign yielded a general blossoming in culture with such masterpieces as the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian basilica and later converted into an imperial mosque after the Ottoman conquest thousand years later and is today a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. From its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople (it was briefly a Catholic cathedral in 1204-1261) and was then converted into a mosque and remained so between 1453-1931 and has been a museum since 1935. Its massive dome is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was built in 1520. The current building was built in 532-537 by Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles on orders by Justinian  who wished to rival the Pantheon in Rome by combining it’s dome with a basilica.

The church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God, the Logos, the second person of the Holy Trinity and its full name in greek means “Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God”. The church contained a large collection of holy relics and was the focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly a millenium. The upper gallery is laid out in a horseshoe shape that encloses the nave until the apse. Several mosaics are preserved in the upper gallery, an area traditionally reserved for the empress and her court. The best-preserved mosaics are located in the southern part of the gallery.

The upper gallery of Hagia Sofia also contains runic graffiti presumed to be from the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine Army in the 10th-14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Emperors. They where primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Scandinavians (it was formed about 200 years into the Viking age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon emigration, part of which found employment in Byzantium).

The film was made from personal footage of the Hagia Sophia with additional footage and animations from a NOVA/PBS documentary titled ’Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Mystery’. It’s a interesting look into how the Hagia Sophia has been able to withstand earthquakes for nearly 1500 years. The Song in the film is ’Soulburner’ by Hands Of Doom.

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Standard
Italy, The Roman Empire

The Colosseum

The Flavian Amphitheatre is the greatest monument from the Roman Games. It has become a lasting symbol for western civilization, much like the Parthenon in Greece, a sentiment captured in these famous lines by Lord Byron:

”While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls – the World.”

Perhaps civilization will both stand and fall along with the eternal city and its Colosseum, but its massive scale and mythical status aside, it was simply the largest amphitheatre anywhere in the Roman world for spectacles and bloodsports. Some other venues actually came close to it in size however and every large Roman city had an amphitheater during the height of Empire. The average Roman Circus was even larger and some could fit several Colosseums worth of spectators. The elliptical shape of the arena floor probably offered the best way for experiencing gladiatorial combat. The lack of corners where gladiators could become trapped increased the tension making the fights more entertaining. The circus was instead used mostly for chariot racing. There are many known instances though where the Romans choose many different venues for the same popular games.

The rising importance of the Roman Games during the first two imperial dynasties help explain why the Colosseum was built. The Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 BCE – 68 CE) began with the first Roman Emperor Augustus who had 3,500 animals killed while also staging gladiatorial games described by Suetonius as unprecedented on all levels. As Caesar before him, Augustus then had an artificial lake made on the Tiber’s western shore staging a sea battle, reenacting the Battle of Salamis. It was even fitted with a small island in the middle just like at the Bay of Salamis and filled with ships and 3,000 soldiers. His successor Tiberius went in the opposite direction, making massive budget cuts and limiting state involvement in the games, largely transferring them to the private sector. This led to a badly designed wooden amphitheatre collapsing during a packed private game with supposedly gruesome death rates as a result.

Caligula, third Emperor of Rome, was an innovator in the games. During his short and notorious reign he decided to have a small pool constructed on Saepta Julia behind the Forum where he felt gladiatorial games would have more suitable surroundings. When the basin was complete only a single ship could actually fit making Caligula subject to ridicule from the masses. He had further plans for a larger venue in the same place behind the Forum, but his successor Claudius disliked the idea and cancelled the project. Claudius, the fourth Emperor, arranged many games, often attending them himself with reportedly great enthusiasm. He even enjoyed the midday executions where criminals where sentenced to damnatio ad bestias and thrown to wild animals between the more popular animal hunts and gladiatorial combats.

In 52 CE 19,000 rowers and soldiers fought against each other at Lake Fucine in the largest naval battle ever staged during the games. According to Tacitus, the doomed combatants had fought well making Claudius unsure weather to have them go on fighting to the last man, have them all killed, or perhaps spare the remaining men. Rising from the sidelines he then started running back and fourth along the riverbank. Claudius suffered a limp and the sight of the Emperor on the beach supposedly caused great amusement among the crowds of spectators. After enough men had either been killed or wounded Claudius decided to spare the survivors. This particular game was surrounded by a large Roman military force carefully monitoring the unfolding events.

Nero, fifth and final Emperor of the Julio-Claudians, did much to develop the games during his time in power. He introduced new elements in the program he thought would amuse the audience and felt as Caligula before him that a new, better venue was needed for the games. He built a large wooden arena in the Campus Martius and as many of his predecessors staged a sea battle, filling his new wooden arena with water. A variety of fish and marine animals where thrown in as Nero gave the starting signal for a battle between Athenians and Persians, a popular theme at this time. Nero’s wooden arena was destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. After his death the Flavians had his palace demolished and it’s adjacent private artificial lake filled in where they instead built the Colosseum. A clear signal that this part of the inner city now belonged to the people of Rome and that the new Emperor had a different style. A colossal statue of Nero remained from the previous palace, and was incorporated into the new architectural layout, giving rise to the name the ”Colosseum”. The building was originally referred to as the Amphitheatrum Flavium or Amphitheatrum Caesareum.

The Flavian Dynasty began with Vespasian’s rule (69-79 CE) who’s rise to power had been far from obvious. He did’t belong to the traditional power elite of the Roman nobility but instead came from the Ordo Equestris, the knightly class. His career during Claudius’ reign culminated with a consular office in the year 51. During Nero his career took off again and he was appointed proconsul of Africa in 63-64. He accompanied Nero on his trip to Greece and in the year 67 he was given the task of restoring order in Judea and Galilee. When a power struggle erupted in connection with Nero’s suicide Vespasian initially stayed out, before managing to gather support from one Roman legion after another until he soon came into possession of most of them. He was bestowed imperial status and associated privileges on December 22 in the year 69 CE.

Vespasian would build much in Rome during his following nine years as Emperor. Beside the Colosseum he also built the Temple of Claudius commemorating the previous dynasty. To finance this he increased taxes, for among other things the public toilets. When the urinal slowly started to return to European cities during the 19th century, they were thus called Vespasiani in Italy and Vespasiennes in France. His son Titus criticized the urinal tax and as a reply he supposedly got a coin inserted under his nose by his father asking him if he thought it smelled? Titus replied in the negative and Vespasian replied in turn that the coin had come from the urinals. Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell) is a saying associated with his rule. Vespasian was mindful of his spending, but no expenses seems to have been spared for the games. Building the Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome represented a monumental undertaking, along with a second amphitheatre slightly smaller in size with the same name in Pozzuoli. When Vespasian had secured both his position of power, his succession, and had managed to collect enough tax revenue (as well as the spoils of war from Jerusalem) he immortalized his dynasty’s reputation with the Colosseum, as Martial obsequiously called a world wonder:

”Let barbarous Memphis speak no more of the wonder of her pyramids,nor Assyrian toil boast of Babylon; nor let the soft Ionians be extolled for Trivia’s temple; let the altar of many horns say naught of Delos; nor let the Carians exalt to the skies with extravagant praises the Mausoleum poised in empty air. All labor yields to Caesar’s Amphitheater. Fame shall tell of one work in lieu of all. “

Vespasian would die before the inauguration of the Colosseum however and his son and heir Titus was left to oversee one hundred days of unbroken games in the capital, which was probably on an unprecedented scale. Titus short reign (79-81 CE) was halted by a sudden illness soon followed by death. His fell ill already during the closing ceremonies for the inauguration. According to Cassius Dio Titus was quite generous during these games towards the spectators and had wooden balls thrown into the stands bearing the name of a particular item. It could be food, clothing, silver or gold items, horses, other livestock or slaves. Anyone who received a wooden ball could go to the responsible officer and collect their prize. This practice continued during his successor Domitian’s reign. Titus was reportedly along with Caligula, Hadrian, Lucius Verus and a few others one of the few Emperors to actually appear in the arena as gladiators.

Footage from the Colosseum taken in 2015. Additional footage and animations from a NOVA PBS documentary titled ’Roman Death Trap’ and its extended version ’Secrets of the Colosseum’ (Scenes from these documentaries were actually filmed during my visit).

The full documentary offers a possible reconstruction of the trap door elevators in the arena floor, probably used during animal hunts and the particularly hair-raising executions using wild animals. Song in the film is ’Carnival’ by Hands Of Doom.

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Standard
Spain, The Roman Empire

Roman Zaragoza

Caesaraugusta is the only Roman city bearing the full name of its founder, Caesar Augustus. Its thought to have been founded in 14 BCE, perhaps 23rd December, coinciding with the 54th birthday of the Emperor. Caesaraugusta received the status of tribute-exempt colony of Roman citizens. During the 1st and 2nd century CE it experienced a period of splendour in which large public works were undertaken. The Roman City Walls, Theatre and River Port are just some of the remains from the Roman period still visible in Zaragoza where the former colony’s commercial, economic and cultural activities took place.

The Roman Theatre was discovered by chance in 1972 when construction of a new building began on Verónica street. After archeological campaigns Zaragoza City Hall took over the final excavations 1998-2002, and the museum was built. Of the Roman buildings from Caesaraugusta, the theatre is the best preserved of the city. For 200 years it was a meeting place, a focal point for social life and leisure activities for both the city and its surrounding area, transmitting the cultural, political and religious values of the Roman Empire.

Its location, at the highest point of the city meant that it overlooked a line of monumental buildings of which important archeological remains are preserved in the city’s different museums: the forum and its area devoted to the river port, and the public baths. The theatre, built in the 1st century within the town perimeter, stood out from the rest of the buildings as a point of reference in an essentially flat landscape. As time passed the theatre’s activity declined and during the 2nd half of the 3rd century the building was looted for its materials that were then used to build the nearby city wall during a period of political instability. Visiting its ruins today its difficult to appreciate the grandiosity of the building which once stood some 25 metres high, the hight at which the present roof has been installed.

During the demolition of a series of old buildings in 1989, remains of the Roman River Port were discovered, from the northeast boundary of the Roman Forum of Caesaraugusta. The structures remaining from this sector of the forum, dating from between the end of the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, are the arches of a spectacular facade oriented toward the river, leading onto a vestibule and the flight of steps that joined the port docks and the forum square. In some of the ashlar stones in this sector there are still the quarry marks made by the builders: soldiers belonging to the VI Victrix legion which, together with the IV Mecedonia legion, founded the city of Caesaraugusta.

The Ebro River was navigable in Antiquity from the town of Vareia (Logroño) and its banks were dotted with wharfs and large ports. The port of Caesaraugusta occupied most of the right bank of the city along a straight, protected stretch of quiet waters after a tight meander. The port became the most supplying point in the centre of the valley. Imported goods were brought upstream from Dertosa (Tortosa) a sea and river port. The raw materials of the valley were transported downriver towards the Mediterranean. The coins minted by Dertosa bear images of the boats that sailed the Ebro in Roman times. Cables were used to pull the boats upriver, an activity requiring great physical strength and which was still used well into the 20th century.

Information and illustrations from Museums of the Ceasaraugusta Route and ‘Alexander Omega’ by Hands Of Doom.

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Standard
Italy, The Roman Empire

Pantheon: A temple to all the gods

The Pantheon is the best preserved architectural monument of ancient Rome. It’s long history notwithstanding it had a somewhat rough start. It was first commissioned by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 27-25 BCE under Augustus rule. That building was then destroyed in a fire, rebuilt under Domitian and in 110 CE lightning struck causing it to burn down again. It was finally rebuilt to its present form under Hadrian around 125 CE and it still bears Agrippa’s inscription above the portico as Hadrian would often commemorate the original builder during his own restorations.

M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT

“M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit,” meaning “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”

The Pantheon’s interior, though restored extensively during the Baroque period, is of  incalculable significance, both historically and architecturally. Its dome, the largest in Western Europe before The Renaissance, continues to inspire admiration for the sheer ingenuity and splendor of Roman civilization. It has remained a place of perpetual worship for nearly two millennia. The marble flooring and much of the interior survive from Hadrian’s time (with extensive restoration in places) and there were once numerous marble statues of all the most important Roman gods.

The Pantheon’s original function is not clearly known but it’s probably safe to assume it was commissioned by Agrippa in honor of the emperor Augustus. It’s innovative architectural features echoes both other temples and the spaciousness of public baths. Two monumental statues (probably of Augustus and Agrippa) each occupied sizable niches in the outer façade on both sides of the entrance. The statues themselves are of course long gone along with many other valuable materials removed through the ages.

An famous example of the pillaging that went on is how the original bronze-ceiling of the portico was stripped by Pope Urban VIII in the 17th century and later used (at least in part) by Bernini in creating his baldachin above the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pantheon and it’s riches possibly functioned as a tribute to the emperors. By being dedicated to all the Roman gods it could perhaps facilitate public appearances by the emperor in surroundings suited for the status of both themselves and their deified predecessors.

Animations in the film by http://idialab.org and ‘Space Pneumonia’ is by Hands Of Doom.

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Standard
France, The Roman Empire

Treasures at Nîmes

The Celts of Nîmes first accepted Roman rule in 121 BCE and a century later Augustus transformed it into Colonia Augusta Nemausus (27 BCE ) making it one of the most important towns of Roman Gaul.

There are several well-preserved Roman monuments left in the area. The amphitheatre is from around the 1st century BCE, still used today for bull-fights and concerts, outside the city is the famous aqueduct Pont du Gard, and the piece de resistance is without a doubt the Maison Carrée with the most intact Roman temple façade remaining in the world.

The inscription removed in medieval times has been reconstructed:

C·CAESARI·AVGVSTI·F·COS·L·CAESARI·AVGVSTI·F·COS·DESIGNATO                                                                                                          PRINCIPIBVS·IVVENTVTIS

 ”To Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul; to Lucius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul designate; to the princes of youth.”

It was built in 4-7 CE by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (who also built the original Panthon in Rome) and dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons and adopted heirs of Augustus who both died young.

 

Song used in the film ‘Hide Away (New version)’ by Hands Of Doom
Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Standard
Italy, The Roman Empire

Hadrian’s Mausoleum

Castel Sant’Angelo was originally the tomb of Hadrian. He was Trajan’s adopted son and emperor of Rome 117-138 CE. Hadrian was a military man but also well versed in politics, art, music, philosophy and literature.

He built a large mausoleum for himself and his family comparable to that of Augustus. It was built in Ager Vaticanus amongst villas, tombs and gardens and linked to the centre of Rome by Pons Aelius, also built by Hadrian.

Only the base remains from roman times. The surrounding walls and top were added during late antiquity and medeival times. It was sacked by both Visigoths and Goths and then rebuilt and used as a castle by many subseqent popes.

Song used in the film: ‘Dark Heart’ of the Woods’ by Hands Of Doom

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

Standard
Italy, The Roman Empire

Chariots, Gladiators and Martyrs: The Circus Maximus

Looking at the Roman Empire one soon realizes just how much the Romans valued public spectacles. It was an integral part of the empire offering splendid entertainments whereby a lasting bond was forged between the common people and the ruling classes. This is why every large city had at least one amphitheatre. The Roman circus was even larger with oval tracks primarily used for chariot racing. The Circus Maximus (Latin for greatest circle) in Rome was the first, and for a long time the biggest venue for ludi, the public games connected to Roman religious festivals sponsored by leading citizens or the state for the benefit of the gods or the Roman people. Games were also held as part of celebrating military triumphs and the warlike and religous temprament of the Romans meant that Ludi were usually held at regular annual intervals on the Roman calendar.

The Colosseum was a much later addition (completed in the year 80 CE) to the many entertainments on offer in the capital and became the largest amphitheatre for gladiatorial games in the Roman world. Other bloodsports such as hunts, fights amongst beasts were on offer there as well, and during breaks in the program, public excecutions. Larger spectacles as chariot racing or naval combats, naumachia, needed a little more room for obvious reasons and were held either at the circus or at an actual lake, sometimes created especially for staging a battle. The Circus Maximus was for reasons like this necessarily much larger than Colosseum and though the actual seating structure has either been mostly removed or is buried below at least 6 meters of soil it’s former layout is still clearly visible as a grassy oval park area in Rome today. Chariot racing was especially popular on the grounds of the great circus, and horses were often exercised there between races but there were gladiatorial games and public excecutions held there as well. Contrary to popular belief it was actually at Circus Maximus and not at the Colisseum where many early christians were martyred. As big as the Colosseum was, larger than most other amfitheatres there were a few naval battles held even there as well on certain special occasions. Conclusive evidence that the Colisseum was in fact deliberately flooded with water a few times has since been found.

The Circus Maximus is located between the Aventine and Palatine hills in Rome and was the first stadium in the Roman Empire. It measured 621 m x 118 m and could hold around 150,000 spectators or perhaps even more, eventually becoming the model for every other circus throughout the empire. During it’s heyday the structure was on a truly massive scale, even compared to the largest venues we have today. It would still rank in the top 10 of the largest venues in the world and just half a century ago it would easily have been the biggest.

 

Standard