A portion of the cemetery of Valentia, from the Roman Republic
Last week, work took me to Valencia, a city on the east coast of Spain. Like many Spanish cities, it is built on layers of history, and luckily for the visitor, archaeologists digging under one of the city squares found a rich collection of remains from various periods. These have been preserved as El Centro Arqueológico de l’Almoina.
With some 2,500 square meters of remains uncovered between 1985 and 2005, it displays numerous buildings from the Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish periods. Some of them date back to the city’s founding in 138 BC during the Roman Republic as a home for retired soldiers. The city, called Valentia, expanded with typical Roman efficiency until it was obliterated, with equal Roman efficiency, by Pompey in 75 BC during the Roman civil war. It remained abandoned for more than 50 years.
The destroyers came out from the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness had been terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire.
Thus starts the controversial new history of the pagan/Christian transition by Classics scholar Catherine Nixey. Making a deliberate parallel between the early Christians and ISIS is a bold move, intended to shock and turn our historical and cultural presumptions upside down.
It’s only the first of many. For 250 pages, Nixey makes a full-on assault against the dominant narrative that Christians were brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire, before peacefully taking over by winning the debate against an exhausted and decadent paganism.
In Palmyra c. AD 385, a horde of black-robed monks swarmed out of their desert caves and crude shelters to break into the city’s temple of Athena. There they came upon a graceful, larger-than-life statue of the goddess. They hacked the head from its shoulders, then battered at the head where it lay on the ground. When they left, their rage satiated, the head lay where they had left it for centuries until uncovered by modern archaeologists.
All across the Late Roman Empire, this scene was played out again and again with increasing frequency as Christians grew in number and confidence.
Mirror case, France, 1370-1400. Ivory. It depicts a love scene in a
garden where the happy couple hold a heart as cupids hover
overhead holding a shield and a hooded figure looks on.
One of Madrid’s leading private galleries is hosting a major exhibition on medieval art. The Pillars of Europe: Middle Ages in the British Museum brings together more than a hundred objects ranging from 400 to 1500 at CaixaForum’s Madrid branch.
The exhibition aims to show through objects and images how Europe transformed from the fragmentation after the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and into the emerging nation states at the beginning of the Renaissance. An excellent map shows how borders shifted over the century, and a slideshow gives period depictions of Europe’s cities as they grew and became more prominent. The objects are grouped into four themes: Royal Power, Heavenly Treasures, Courtly Life, and Urban Life.
It’s the one thousand, five hundred and fifty sixth anniversary of the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, otherwise known as the Battle of Chalons!
Not heard of it?
AD451. Just as the Roman Empire fades into the Dark Ages. At the Catalaunian Fields near Chalons, a grudging alliance of Romans and Germannic tribes confronts Attila the Hun’s confederation of Huns and yet more Germannic tribes.
Hundreds of thousands of warriors grind through a Ragnarok-grade battle on the scale of Waterloo but fought with cold steel… a battle so murderous that, in the morning, nobody much feels like doing any more fighting.
I’m fascinated by this forgotten battle — I’m even writing a YA Historical series that will put the hero in the midst of the mayhem — so I was overjoyed to receive a review copy of Osprey’s new book, The Catalaunian Fields AD451. Imagine, then, how I felt when, I discovered the chapter called, “The Battlefield Today.”
What? OMG they found it!
The location of this battle has been hotly debated for centuries. Now here’s an Osprey book casually pinpointing the battlefield and using it as the basis for its maps and diagrams!
In previous posts, I’ve been exploring the newly renovated Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid. We’ve looked at the museum’s Celtiberian and Roman collections, and now let’s see the museum’s other great collection, that of the medieval period.
The Hunterston Brooch, c. 700, Hunterston, Ayrshire, Scotland. Gold, silver, amber. Diam. 12.2cm.
Runic inscription says, ”Melbrigda owns this brooch.’ Copyright National Museums Scotland.
They journeyed boldly;
Went for gold,
Fed the eagle
Out in the east,
And died in the south
In Saracen land.
— Gripsholm Runestone (AD 1000-1100)
The British Museum has come up with another blockbuster with its new exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend. Bringing together hundreds of artifacts from around the world, this massive exhibition tells about Norse life, art, and beliefs through everyday objects, works of art, magical objects, and even an entire Viking ship.
There are many surprises. For example, a whalebone axehead from Greenland dating to 1000-1300 AD shows that far-flung Norsemen in harsh regions used whatever material they had at hand. I’m sure the owner of this axehead wanted a real one of iron — the axe appears to have broken at the socket! There are also charming reminders of family life, such as some wooden toy boats from Dublin dating to around 800-1050 AD.