The Arab Queen Who Took on the Roman Empire

I’ve recently become fascinated with the ancient historical figure of Zenobia, a third century Arab queen who is the only woman to almost rule the Roman Empire.

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An idealized portrayal titled Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

Zenobia came to power as regent to her ten year old son, who inherited the throne of Palmyra, an ancient Mesopotamian city that was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the ancient world. (You may recall it was targeted by ISIS for destruction, which led to literally millennia of history being lost.)

By the time it came under Roman control in the first century, Palmyra was already a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, mostly Arab but with large minorities of Greeks, Armeans, and other ethnic groups. Multiple languages were spoken, a variety of faiths were tolerated, and there was even a Greco-Roman style senate that ran various civil affairs. Its incredible wealth and beauty—including cutting edge urban planning and numerous monuments and public works—earned it the moniker “pearl of the desert”. Situated at the crossroads between the Roman Mediterranean and the Western Asia, its caravans went across Europe, Africa, and even the Silk Road, making it a huge asset to Rome—and allowing its rulers uniquely significant autonomy under Roman imperial rule.

In fact, by the time Zenobia became the de facto queen of Palmyra in 267, the desert city-state had essentially become an allied power rather than a province; not only did it bring commercial goods and revenue, but it offered protection against unruly Arab tribes and eastern rivals, most of all the old nemesis, the Persians. Hence when the Roman Empire began to unravel during its “Crisis of the Third Century”, Zenobia apparently saw an opportunity for her people to attain well deserved greatness.

The Palmyrene Empire she founded spanned most of the Roman east, from central Turkey into western Iraq and down to Egypt (then one of the richest provinces of Rome). While she declared both herself and her son as emperors of all of Rome, she was never able to extend her rule past these territories, though her conquest of Egypt and managing to keep the Persian at bay (who had detected Roman weakness) had been impressive enough. Zenobia was definitely a product of her city: She spoke four languages, received a comprehensive education, and was steeped in the latest philosophy and science. Her reign was characterized by a policy of religious tolerance and intellectualism. While she worshipped a pantheon of Semitic gods, she was familiar with other faiths and cultures, and accommodated all religious groups, from the small but controversial cult known as Christianity, to the Jews who had long been in conflict with Rome. She invited scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers from all over the known world to her royal court, seeking to turn Palmyra into the next Athens.

While her empire barely lasted three years before it was subdued by Rome—her ultimate fate remaining unknown—Zenobia left a lasting legacy.

The Augustan History, a fourth-century Roman collection of biographies of emperors and usurpers lamented that “all shame is exhausted, for in the weakened state of the [Roman] commonwealth. . . a foreigner, Zenobia by name . . . proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle [and ruled] longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.” She is also a point of pride to the people of Syria (where the Palmyrene kingdom was located) and remains a role model to women across the Arab world and beyond. Even Edward Gibbon, the famous seminal historian of the Roman world, remarked that few women in history were as influential as her.

What an Ancient Broken Femur Says About Civilization

There is an apocryphal story about the anthropologist Margaret Mead that has a timeless and universal message, though it’s relevant now than ever.

Years ago, she was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.

But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Many thanks to my friend Arthur K Burditt for sharing this.

Ancient Links Between Rome and Sri Lanka

It never ceases to amaze me how well connected and globalized the ancients were. We think of globalization as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, yet the seeds of it were planted centuries or even millennia ago, where global connections would have seemed impossible. 

As Science reports:

Visit Mantai, nestled into a bay in northwestern Sri Lanka, and today you’ll see nothing but a solitary Hindu temple overlooking the sea. But 1500 years ago, Mantai was a bustling port where merchants traded their era’s most valuable commodities. Now, a study of ancient plant remains reveals traders from all corners of the world—including the Roman Empire—may have visited or even lived there.

Mantai was a hub on the ancient trade networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and connected the distant corners of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The port town flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 850 C.E. During that time, it would have been a nexus for the spice trade, which ferried Indonesian cloves and Indian peppercorns to Middle Eastern and Roman kitchens.

[…]

The team also found remains that could link the port city to the ancient Mediterranean world—processed wheat grains dated to 100 to 200 C.E. and grape seeds dated to 650 to 800 C.E. Neither crop can grow in Sri Lanka’s wet, tropical climate, so they had to be imported, possibly from as far as Arabia or the Roman world. Kingwell-Banham says her team is studying the chemical isotopes absorbed by the plants to determine where they were grown.

But no matter their precise origin, the coexistence of rice and wheat is evidence of Mantai’s “cosmopolitan cuisine,” in which both local and foreign foods were eaten, she says. The discovery of wheat and grapes in Mantai “is entirely new,” and shifts the focus on goods transported from South Asia to the Roman world, to goods that went in the other direction,” Coningham says.


While there is no evidence that Roman merchants or other travelers lived in what is today Sri Lanka, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility: just a few years ago, remains were unearthed in London that appear to be of Chinese origin — and date back to between the third and fifth centuries C.E., when it was the Roman city of Londonium. 

A Lost Civilization in India?

It is amazing how we are still uncovering signs of early civilizations going back tens of thousands of years, forcing us to rethink the span of organized and sophisticated human society.  From the BBC:

The sheer variety of the rock carvings have stunned experts — animals, birds, human figures and geometrical designs are all depicted.

The way the petroglyphs have been drawn, and their similarity to those found in other parts of the world, have led experts to believe that they were created in prehistoric times and are possibly among the oldest ever discovered.

“Our first deduction from examining these petroglyphs is that they were created around 10,000BC,” the director of the Maharashtra state archaeology department, Tejas Garge, told the BBC.

The credit for their discovery goes to a group of explorers led by Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe, who began searching for the images in earnest after observing a few in the area. Many were found in village temples and played a part in local folklore.

“We walked thousands of kilometres. People started sending photographs to us and we even enlisted schools in our efforts to find them. We made students ask their grandparents and other village elders if they knew about any other engravings. This provided us with a lot of valuable information,” Mr Risbood told the BBC.

Although these mysterious people were likely hunter-gatherers–there are no depictions of farming or other agricultural activities–their ability to conceptualize art and abstract shapes is still quite impressive for the time period.

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Even more fascinating are those depictions of animals not known to have ever existed in the region:

Most of the petroglyphs show familiar animals. There are images of sharks and whales as well as amphibians like turtles,” Mr Garge adds.

But this begs the question of why some of the petroglyphs depict animals like hippos and rhinoceroses which aren’t found in this part of India. Did the people who created them migrate to India from Africa? Or were these animals once found in India?

The state government has set aside a fund of 240 million rupees ($3.2m; £2.5m) to further study 400 of the identified petroglyphs.

It is hoped that some of these questions will eventually be answered.

I hope so as well! I look forward to following up on this!

Study Claims No Single Birthplace for Humanity

As reported by The Guardian, an international multidisciplinary team led by Oxford archaeologist Dr. Eleanor Scerri has claimed that a comprehensive survey of fossil, archaeological and genetic evidence shows humans “mosaic-like across different populations spanning the entire African continent”. Thus, modern humans did not come from a specific area — namely East Africa, where the oldest confirmed Homo Sapiens fossils have been found — but are the end result of millennia of interbreeding and cultural exchange between semi-isolated groups.

The telltale characteristics of a modern human – globular brain case, a chin, a more delicate brow and a small face – seem to first appear in different places at different times. Previously, this has either been explained as evidence of a single, large population trekking around the continent en masse or by dismissing certain fossils as side-branches of the modern human lineage that just happened to have developed certain anatomical similarities.

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The latest analysis suggests that this patchwork emergence of human traits can be explained by the existence of multiple populations that were periodically separated for millennia by rivers, deserts, forests and mountains before coming into contact again due to shifts in the climate. “These barriers created migration and contact opportunities for groups that may previously have been separated, and later fluctuation might have meant populations that mixed for a short while became isolated again,” said Scerri.

The trend towards more sophisticated stone tools, jewellery and cooking implements also supports the theory, according to the paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Scerri assembled a multidisciplinary group to examine the archaeological, fossil, genetic and climate data together, with the aim of eliminating biases and assumptions. Previously, she said, scientific objectivity had been clouded by fierce competition between research groups each wanting their own discoveries to be given a prominent place on a linear evolutionary ladder leading to the present day. Disputes between rival teams working in South Africa and east Africa had become entrenched, she said.

“Someone finds a skull somewhere and that’s the source of humanity. Someone finds some tools somewhere, that’s the source of humanity,” she said, describing the latest approach as: “‘Let’s be inclusive and construct a model based on all the data we have available.”

Like any study, the claims will need to be confirmed, but from my layman’s perspective, it makes sense. What are your thoughts? (Especially if you have a background in this area.)

A Beacon of Progress in the Ancient World

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A tomb relief depicting the daily lives of average Egyptians. 

Egypt is one of a handful of “cradles of civilizations” that independently developed some of the earliest examples of writing, agriculture, engineering, mathematics, medicine, organized religion, and a centralized political structure. As if all that were not impressive enough, Egyptian law and culture were incredibly sophisticated for its time.

The Egyptians believed that men, women, and all social classes were equal under the law – even the lowliest peasant had the right to petition the pharaoh’s court for justice. Although slavery was practiced to some extent (as it was almost everywhere else at the time), slaves were mostly used as indentured servants, and were thus able to buy and sell their servitude, work their way toward freedom or even nobility, and were usually entitled to medical care while working. Continue reading

How Cicero’s Political Campaign is Still Relevant Today

What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.

For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading

The World’s Most Livable Cities

Which cities are the best places to live? The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has set out to answer this question with its livability survey, which asses 140 cities based on such factors as overall stability (25% of total score), health care (20%), education (10%), infrastructure (20%) and culture and environment (25%) — the sorts of things most people agree are fundamental to individual and collective quality of life.

Here are the results for 2014, courtesy of Mic.com:

For the fourth year in a row, Melbourne took the top spot with a total score of 97.5 out of 100. The impressive score can be partially attributed to their perfect scores in the health care, infrastructure and education classifications. Several of Melbourne’s fellow Australian cities filled out much of the top 10, along with a handful from the Great White North. Combined, Australia and Canada scored big, claiming 7 out of the top 10 cities.

The remaining three cities were Vienna, Austria (2nd place), Helsinki, Finland (8th), and Auckland, New Zealand (10th).

As the article notes, while these top ten performed well in all the indicators measured, health care had a particularly strong impact:

A common factor of these livable cities was a high score in the health care category. The top nine spots all garnered scores of 100 in that category. To determine health care, the EIU looked at the availability and quality of private health care, availability and quality of public health care, availability of over-the-counter drugs, and general health care indicators.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand offer a variety of very livable cities, thanks in large part to their great health care, education, culture and environment, affording the countries general stability. Plus, as all English-speaking countries, they’re especially attractive destinations for any Americans considering a move.

Not only does being healthy have the obvious benefit of improving an individual’s mood, comfort, and longevity — all vital to life satisfaction — but in the aggregate, it improves entire communities. Healthy individuals are likelier to be more economically and socially productive, helping businesses and societies at large. They will be less burdensome to more expensive emergency services, and will have more disposable income on hand, since pooling the costs of health care through socialized insurance is less costly then spending a lot per person on expensive treatments.

But this study also highlight that there is more to quality of life than the bare necessities. Each of these cities offer an abundance of recreational and leisure options — well-kept green spaces, cultural centers, community events and facilities — that enliven individual lives and cultivate a sense of shared community. Good infrastructure provides access to these areas and events while helping to create more cohesion and interaction between various neighborhoods and enclaves. It is also telling that all the top cities are medium-sized, which suggests that being too big could present challenges to accommodating residents optimally.

All of this should be pretty obvious. But unfortunately, not enough municipal governments in the world, including in the U.S., have the vision and/or finances to make it happen, and too many city residents are apathetic, disenfranchised, or lack the community spirit to come together. Sub-national and national governments could be doing more to help local communities as well, especially as most countries, and the world at large, are either highly urbanized or becoming rapidly so. As cities begin to house more of the world’s population, and become the main drivers of economic, social, and cultural life, we need to work on making them as ideal for the human condition as possible. We have much to learn from the like of Melbourne, Vancouver, and other successful polities.

Melbourne, Australia — by some accounts, the best city in the world to live. Source: Getty Images / Mic.com

The Top Ten Ancient Greek Artwork

As the cradle of western civilization and one of the most advanced societies known to have ever existed in the ancient world, it is little surprise that the ancient Greeks excelled in one of the key marks of an advanced civilization: art and cultural expression. Courtesy of the BBC are ten works that are noteworthy for their innovation and impact both at the time and for centuries after. 
 

Fallen Warrior from Temple of Aphaia (c 480-470BC)

Sculpture of a fallen warrior from the temple of Aphaia at Aegina. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images.

There is a tragic pathos to this mighty sculpture of a dying hero from a temple on the Greek island of Aegina. Tragedy is a Greek concept. The tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus are still performed. This statue shows a strong man fallen, heroic to his last breath.

The Pergamon altar (180-160BC)

Pergamon Altar. Athena against the giant Alcyoneus.

Pergamon Altar. Athena against the giant Alcyoneus. Photograph: Phas/UIG via Getty Images.

Classical Greek art changed rapidly as Greece itself went through wars and imperial transformations. In what is called the Hellenistic age it became much more emotional, sensual and even sensationalist. The furious sculptures on the Pergamon altar – which can be seen in its own museum in Berlin – are full of passion and psychological drama.

The Riace bronzes (460-420BC)

One of the two Riace bronzes: the Warrior

One of the two Riace bronzes: the Warrior Photograph: Alinari Archives/Alinari via Getty Images.

These tremendous statues found in the sea off southern Italy in 1972 are important because so few original Greek bronze statues survive. Most of the classical nudes in museums were carved in marble in the Roman era, as reproductions of such rare, and now largely lost, originals. Here we see the true majesty of Greek art in its classical age, which occurred in the fifth-century BC.

Goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon (c 438-432BC)

Three goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon

Three goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon. Photograph: ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Sitting and reclining in graceful unison, these goddesses carved in marble for the Parthenon in Athens are among the most beautiful and mysterious images of the human form ever created. Incredibly, the artist makes the draperies that cover their bodies as real and richly textured as similar garments painted by Leonardo da Vinci a millennium later – and who didn’t have to produce his illusions in stone. These are dream goddesses.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (c 447-438BC)

Metope from Parthenon, battle between Centaurs and Lapiths

Metope from Parthenon, battle between Centaurs and Lapiths. Photograph: DEA/G Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images.

Violence is a favourite theme of ancient Greek artists. Reared on the myth of the Trojan war and experiencing the reality of wars with Persia and between Greek cities, classical artists found new ways to show conflict. This human fighting a centaur, carved for the Parthenon in Athens, is astonishingly real in its detail and dynamic energy.

God from the sea, Zeus or Poseidon (c 470BC)

A bronze sculpture of the god Zeus, or possibly Poseidon

A bronze sculpture of the god Zeus, or possibly Poseidon Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images.

This majestic bronze, found in the sea off Greece, conveys the magic of Greek mythology. The god – probably Zeus, lord of Olympus himself – is caught in the act of hurling a thunderbolt. His body is charged with divine power, and yet, it is a human body, neither colossal nor ethereal but the mirror of ourselves. The Greek gods are human, all too human, and their petty squabbles cause wars and sorrow in the world.

The Siren vase (480-470BC)

The Siren Vase

The Siren vase. Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum.

In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the founding epics of Greek literature, Odysseus longs to hear the seductive yet dangerous song of the sirens that lure sailors to their deaths. So all his crew plug their ears, and Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast. This powerful painting captures the tension as Odysseus strains at his bonds, his whole body agonised, his head raised in rapt listening.

The Motya charioteer (c 350BC)

The Motya Charioteer

The Motya charioteer. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

This is one of the most startling Greek statues to survive, and highly revealing about the erotic charge of the Greek nude. This youth is not technically nude, but wears a tight-fitting garment that instead of hiding his body, heightens every contour. Greek statues are portraits of human beauty that are meant to be arousing as well as noble. This athlete poses in sensual triumph.

The Dionysus Cup by Exekias (c 540BC)

The Dionysus Cup by Exekias. Photograph: Matthias Kabel / Wikimedia.

Dionysus, god of wine and madness, sails on his boat, surrounded by dolphins, in this delightful painting. Part of the fascination of Greek art is that its themes were taken up by artists down the centuries, as the myths of this culture were constantly being rediscovered. So this image of Dionysus can be compared with later portrayals of the wine god by Titian, Michelangelo, or Cy Twombly.

Mask of Agamemnon (1550-1500BC)

Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Gold funerary mask

Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Gold funerary mask. Photograph: Universalimagesgroup/Getty Images.

When the enthusiastic, romantically minded archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered this golden mask at Mycenae in 1876, he had no doubt that it must be the death mask of Agamemnon himself, the king who led the Greeks in the Trojan war, only to be assassinated on his homecoming. Of course there’s no proof of that, but it is one of the most compelling faces in art.

How The Ancient Egyptians Spoke

If you have ever wondered how the Ancient Egyptian language sounded, listen to the liturgical hymns of the Coptic Church, the only place it is still widely spoken.

First recorded in 3400 BCE, Egyptian is the earliest known language in history, rivaled only by Sumerian. Like all languages, it evolved over its long lifespan, becoming Demotic by 600 BCE and Coptic by 200 CE. It began to decline thereafter, going extinct by the 17th century and surviving only as a religious language, with very few fluent speakers outside of some clergy (my research suggests that only one family is known to speak it as a first language).

There have been sporadic but unsuccessful efforts to revive Coptic for mainstream use. Below is one of the few videos I have found of Coptic being spoken outside of a liturgical context. Superficially, it sounds a lot like Arabic, which isn’t too surprising since it falls under the same large language family of Afro-Asiatic and evolved during centuries of Arab rule (some things do sound familiar to me, such as the term for “and”).