The Roman-Persian Wars: two views on borders

During this semester I was interested in researching the historical and ancient geopolitical situation of Antioch at the time of the mosaics and relating that to the mosaics themselves. This final blog finishes my chronology of the various “border” wars fought during the Roman-Persian wars, between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire was first founded as part of Diocletian’s reforms after the Crisis of the Third Century that I mentioned in a previous blog. He split the Roman Empire into the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire with two co-emperors to try to make the empire easier to run. However, his reforms failed and there were more civil wars until Constantine reunified the Empire. Eventually, after even more civil wars, Emperor Theodosius finished the process of dividing the Roman Empire in two by leaving the eastern and western halves to his two sons when he died in 395 AD.

The Sassanid Empire was founded when Ardashir I, who was the satrap, or governor, of Pars (modern day Fars Province of Iran) under the Parthians rose up and overthrew the last Parthian king of kings and proclaimed himself King of Kings of Persia. The mutual hatred between the Roman and Persian Empires that had existed for centuries continued even with this change in government because unlike the previous two Persian Empires, the Sassanid government was less religiously tolerant, more militantly Zoroastrian, more nationalistic (even though nationalism as we know it today did not yet exist) and more religiously conservative. The culmination of all these factors was many persecutions of Christians and Manichaeans under the Sassanids.

This angered the Romans, especially after the Roman empire turned Christian, and it was exacerbated when the Sassanids tolerated Christian sects that the Romans did not like. In their minds, any enemy of Rome was a friend of Persia. The Sassanids also tolerated Jews for the same reason, because Rome had always had a rocky relationship with Jews ever since they first revolted against Rome and the situation got even worse after Rome turned Christian.

This is a map of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire as they stood at the death of Theodosius in 395 AD.

images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a map of the Sassanid Empire at its greatest extent including areas occupied during the Roman-Persian Wars.

The Persians captured and recaptured Antioch many times during the course of the Roman-Persian Wars. As a result, as I have already mentioned in an earlier blog, Persian influence was very strongly reflected in Antioch as evidenced by the use of lions and geometric patterns in mosaics. This was also because of the presence of many Persian and other merchants from the Persian Empire that worked on the Silk Road in Antioch. Chinese, Indian, Central Asian and other goods traveled through the Persian Empire to get to Antioch. Its strategic position on the Silk Road and the other trade routes connected to the vast Indian Ocean trade network contributed to Antioch’s accumulation of its vast wealth. Despite the constant conflict around it, Antioch remained a tolerant, multicultural city.

I have talked previously about the acculturation that all of this geopolitical conflict created in the area around Antioch and pointed out the use of peacocks, lions, Greek writing and literature as examples. As I end my chronology with this discussion of the Sassanid Empire, I see the Persian influence in Antioch as reflected in the “borders” of the mosaics. Much like a fine Persian carpet, the mosaics often include layers of borders that frame the interior of the mosaics. Scholars of Persian textiles note this link, too. As Maryam D. Ekhtiar said in Art of the Early Caliphates (7th to 10th centuries), “Artistically, both empires have developed similar styles and decorative vocabulary, as exemplified by mosaics and architecture of Roman Antioch”.

image courtesy of

After the Roman-Persian wars, the ancient city of Antioch ended. It was gradually diminished and eventually devastated by a series of earthquakes in 526 and 528 AD. The city went on to be conquered by the Muslims and became a part of the Rashidun Caliphate. This conquest finally ended the Roman-Persian Wars.

image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a map of the Rashidun Caliphate at its greatest extent.

I am thankful to my classmates for what I learned from their various perspectives on the mosaics. I am especially thankful to Ella and Maya for what they shared about their efforts to create GIS maps of the existing Antioch mosaics around the world. Their work sparked a modern-day mystery for me—what happened to the Cuban mosaic after the revolution? That remains unsolved, but now when the world returns to its new normal, I will travel to Cuba and try to solve that modern-day mystery myself.

Hellenization and why Antioch has mosaics

As I continue to trace the history and geopolitics of Antioch, in this blog I focus on the Seleucid Empire, which lasted from 312-64 BC.

In an earlier post, I traced how in the precursor to Antioch, when Syria was part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, Alexander the Great conquered that Empire. Upon his death, his empire was divided between his generals. At that time, Rome was just a tiny hilltop farming settlement.

The heavy conflict in the region involved the biggest chunk of Alexander’s Empire, which included Syria and Mesopotamia. This went to General Seleucus and was referred to as the Seleucid Empire. Seleucus built Antioch in Syria and made it the capital of his Empire. Its rival was another division of Alexander’s Empire, Ptolemaic Egypt. The two empires fought many wars for control of the Levant.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the same, parts of the Seleucid Empire broke away. Judea broke away and the miracle that led to the first Hanukkah occurred. In another example, a nomadic people from northern Iran and southern Turkmenistan (who were related to the Persians) called the Parthians, moved to annex or capture many Seleucid provinces to form a new Persian Empire, the Parthian Empire, as a successor to the Achaemenid Empire. In Mesopotamia, the Parthians built their new capital, Ctesiphon, on the other side of the river from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. The Parthians also incorporated some former provinces of the Achaemenid Empire that were not under Seleucid control into their empire.

During the many wars to expand its influence in Asia Minor and mainland Greece, the Seleucid Empire (including Antioch) declared war on Rome. Earlier, during the time many provinces were breaking away, Eumenes I as governor of Pergamon, had also declared independence from the Seleucid Empire and proclaimed himself king of Pergamon. His successors allied with Rome against the Seleucids. There, the empire met its match. Eventually the Roman Republic took over the remainder of the Seleucid Empire in 64 BC. In 27 BC, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

In addition to the wars, the Seleucids brought Greek culture to the area, especially in Syria. Eventually, Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid Empire, and Alexandria, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, became the two richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean. Through acculturation, during the creation of the Seleucid Empire, the area around Antioch adopted Greek culture, including the language, literature and decorative arts. This was especially true of the rich cities—as Greek culture was very city-focused.

Thus, mosaics came to Antioch. Evidence of Greek culture can be seen in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s mosaics. The Lion and Humped-Ox Animal Friendship Mosaic fragment includes the Greek word for friendship. Under the Persians, the trade language of the Eastern Mediterranean was Aramaic. When Alexander arrived it was changed to Koine Greek and remained so even under the Romans until the Muslim conquest when it was replaced by Arabic.

Image obtained from Alex’s Twisted Ribbons post

Another fragment of the BMA’s Antioch collection depicts a scene from Greek mythology of “Europa and the Bull”. It shows Zeus in the form of a bull carrying away Europa after he kidnapped her.

A similar depiction was also used on the modern Greek 2 Euro coin in 2002.

Conflict and Fragmentation

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s fragments of the Antioch mosaics symbolize to me the fragmented nature of the Roman Empire from which they came. Researching the history and geopolitics at the time of Antioch leads to a repeated theme—conflict. Certainly, the Crisis of the Third Century—the Roman civil war to end all Roman civil wars—symbolizes this.

 It all started because there was endemic corruption in the government and a very unstable line of succession to the imperial throne beginning with the assassination of Commodus in 192 AD and the subsequent Year of the Five Emperors. After Septimius Severus ended this by becoming emperor, he and his successors increased the size of the Roman Army to better be able to deal with external threats. Because of this, the army eventually asked for a 50% raise. In order to give the army its raise, the Imperial government had to debase and devalue the currency, which led to runaway inflation and an economic crisis. That crisis led to the army becoming more powerful than the Imperial government. This reawakened the problem of the army being more loyal to its generals than the state, which had plagued Rome since the Marian Reforms of the late Republic. Next, Emperor Severus Alexander went to war with the Sassanid Persian Empire for the first time and was assassinated after returning home from the war.

These combined problems led to many Roman provinces breaking away and many generals and provincial governors declaring themselves emperor or being declared emperor by their troops whether they wanted the throne or not. For example, Postumus, the governor of the provinces of Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. He went on to conquer all of Gaul, get Britannia to side with him and declare independence from Rome. Many peoples outside the Roman Empire, such as the Persians and so-called barbarians like the Goths, Vandals, Alemanni, Franks and Saxons, took advantage of the increasing fragmentation and invaded.

Most importantly for our project, the Persians managed to invade Syria and Capture Antioch. Later, a Roman client king of Palmyra named Odenathus drove the Persians out of Syria and crushed many Roman usurpers in the eastern provinces by annexing them into Palmyra. The Romans proclaimed him Governor of all the East, but he, too, was assassinated. He was succeeded by his wife Zenobia, who formally declared Palmyrene independence from Rome. Eventually Aurelian was proclaimed Emperor and he reunified the Roman Empire by reconquering both the break-away Palmyrene and Gallic Empires. However, he was also assassinated.  The crisis did not finally end until Diocletian came to the throne and reformed the empire’s administrative structures to try to make it easier to run and prevent another civil war. But old habits die hard. Rome went on to have even more civil wars until it finally fell, but none nearly as destructive as the Crisis of the Third Century.

 Some of the mosaics we are studying date back to this time of conflict in the 200s AD and onward.

Given all of this division, it is in many ways a miracle that the Empire didn’t tear itself apart prematurely.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a postscript, when I was doing research on the topic, I noted Professor Paul Freedman of Yale’s comment on the pessimism of the Roman people during the crisis. He mentioned that when Diocletian came to the imperial throne and the crisis finally ended, the joy and relief of the Roman people was reflected in mosaics with messages like “joyful times everywhere” or “a world restored”.

The Crisis of the Third Century as Seen by Contemporaries by Geza Alfoldy

Roman household decorative arts in Pompeii at the time of Antioch

This blog piggybacks on Jen’s post of the video of the two newest excavated houses in Pompeii and Greg’s earlier post about Dobbins and Gruber’s digital reconstructions, including The House of the Faun at Pompeii. In this blog, I will share some of my experiences from the summer when I worked as a classicist with a team of mostly architects to create digital reconstructions of rooms in the Villa Ariana, in Stabiae–outside of Pompeii. We were working for Italy’s Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation. Here is a recreation of the seaside villa prior to its destruction by Vesuvius:

Our purpose was to document the interior for future generations. Unfortunately, our villa is falling off its precarious site atop a cliff. At one time that cliff overlooked the Bay of Naples, about four miles south- east of Pompeii.  Some of you may remember that Stabiae was where Pliny the Elder died during the volcano’s eruption. I was assigned Room 7 and specifically the west wall.  First we started with old-school scale drawings and orthographic drawings.  Here is a photograph I took of my wall with a digital camera:

Then we incorporated technologies such as Lidar, total station and EDM. Here is the Lidar reconstruction  of my wall in the room:

At the time, our goal was more preservation than recontextualizing.  Thinking back, many of the mosaics were already removed and are displayed in the MANN, the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.  Surviving examples of the mosaics show decorations of geometric design, similar to some in Antioch.  Pompeii’s mosaics tended to be less elaborate than Antioch’s, because Antioch was richer.  Pompeii’s spectacular Alexander the Great mosaic that Greg mentioned, was an exception. (The original of that, is also in the MANN and a copy is in Pompeii.) Because Antioch was situated on the western end of the Silk Road, it was probably richer than the whole Bay of Naples area, combined.

As my photo shows, the Villa Arianna is best known for its decorative frescos, so typical of elite Roman Villas. Perhaps you will recognize this one—one of four depicting the four seasons.

Resurrection of Antioch mosaics in Turkey

The BMA’s Antioch mosaics like the “Bird Rinceau” and the “Striding Lion” feature fish, a lion, gazelles and birds, including peacocks.  

The Bird Rinceau Mosaic

This blog focuses on the bird theme and particularly the latter fowl, and looks at how the geopolitics of the region allowed this exotic bird to become depicted in the art of Antioch. My earlier blog traced the arrival of Alexander the Great in the early geopolitics of what became Antioch.  Upon his death, his empire was carved up and the largest piece included Syria and Mesopotamia. Antioch was built as the new capital in what was then the Seleucid Empire. Eventually Antioch became part of the Roman Republic and then the Roman Empire.

Scholar P. Thankappan Nair notes that many credit Alexander the Great for “spreading the cult of the peacock from India to the West[1]” when he conquered the lands from Greece to India.  Yet, because the peacock was one of the sacred animals of Hera, the Greeks already held the bird in high regard. 

Christianity came into existence during the Roman Empire. As it spread and started to appeal to non-Jews, early Christians understood they need to appropriate pagan practices and symbols to make it easier for non-Jews to understand. Often, Christians assigned a new meaning to the symbols. Eventually, Christians appropriated the peacock from Greco-Roman pagans and remade it into a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection.  There was a well-known legend at the time that the flesh of a peacock could not decay, which probably supported the Christian resurrection story.  Also, Roman coins at the time frequently depicted the image of a peacock, too.  The Romans used the bird to symbolize a princess becoming a god after she died.  This, too, supported the Christian resurrection story. Christians used the peacock symbol of the resurrection to decorate their tombs, adopting it from the Romans who originally used pictures of peacocks to decorate their tombs and funerary monuments.

On the info plaque, the BMA says that the mosaic is from a Christian household because of the crosses on the border and the inclusion of peacocks.  As this blog illustrates, the history of the peacock is more complicated than that.

While I was working on this concept for the past few weeks, I was pleasantly surprised today to see a possible new example of Antioch’s use of peacocks in a mosaic in the Museum Hotel Antakya, in Turkey, where Antioch is today (no longer in the province of Syria as it was during the Roman Empire).  When construction began on what was proposed as a 400-room luxury hotel, they discovered artifacts from Antioch and decided to incorporate them into the hotel.  As a result, according to the Smithsonian,  the hotel hovers over the “world’s largest single-piece floor mosaic (more than 11,000 square feet) and the first intact marble statue of the Greek god Eros. All told, the researchers unearthed 35,000 artifacts representing 13 civilizations dating back to the third century B.C.[2]”  Below is a picture of one of the fabulous mosaics that was preserved, which looks similar to the Antioch mosaics at the BMA. 

A close up of a building

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Another spectacular mosaic at the hotel is replete with birds, including chickens, guinea fowl, and other exotics like an ibises, parrots, and possibly a flamingo and a female peacocks.  That mosaic is pictured below. Above the head of the physical embodiment of magnanimity in the mosaic’s center medallion is a bird with the typical female peacock’s brown coloration and telltale tuft on its head. 

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One of my earlier blogs remarked on the impact of the coronavirus on our research project and its impact is shown here, too.  After eleven years of incorporating the artifacts into the hotel’s construction, the Museum Hotel Antakya opened at the beginning of the pandemic only to have to close. Optimistically, they are taking reservations for June.

The Peacock Cult in Asia by P. Thankappan Nair, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2 (1974), pp. 93-170 retrieved from JSTOR

Thanks to Alex for the enlargement of the Bird Rinceau mosaic.

[1] The Peacock Cult in Asia by P. Thankappan Nair

[2], April 20, 2020

The lion in the East

#the striding lion

When I look at the Striding Lion in the museum’s prominently displayed mosaic, it reminds me of a similar lion on the Ishtar gate, (depicted below) in what was once Babylon. That makes sense, as both Mesopotamia and Syria (the precursor to Antioch) were part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. After Alexander the Great conquered that Empire, he eventually died and his generals divided up his Empire amongst themselves.  The biggest chunk of his Empire went to General Seleucus and included Syria and Mesopotamia, among other things. Seleucus built Antioch in what was then Syria and made it the capital of his Empire, switching it from Seleucia Pieria. After many wars, Antioch eventually became part of the Roman Republic in 64 BC. Then in 27 BC, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

Why did animals feature so prominently in the art of this period?  Like today, animals symbolized many meanings.  The Babylonians said that different animals embodied specific gods. For example, the lion was associated with the goddess Ishtar, the bull with the god Adad and the mushussu dragon was associated with Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon. Lions were also said to have protective qualities because the Babylonians viewed them as being strong. There are many examples of statues of lions in front of gates at sites throughout the former Neo-Babylonian Empire, implying that the Babylonians believed that having an image of a lion facing outward near the door could protect the building.  Babylonians also described lions as terrifying by nature, so it was believed that images of lions could scare away demons and evil spirits. A pair of lion statues found near the gate of a temple whose names are listed in a cuneiform inscription as “Dan-Bitim” and “Rašub-Bitim”. meaning “Strong one of the Temple” and “Terrifying one of the Temple” respectively. The names reveal that these animal statues serve the temple with their “strong” and “terrifying” nature.

 After the Achaemenid Persian Empire conquered the neo-Babylonian Empire, they adopted the practice of depicting bulls and lions, but not the mushussu dragon. Even though the Persians didn’t follow the same gods as the Babylonians, they allowed the people living in Mesopotamia to keep believing in them. The Persians also continued the use of the lion as the symbol of strength. Given the large Persian community in Antioch in the Third Century AD and its relative proximity to the border with the Sassanid Persian Empire, anyone from the Eastern half of the Empire who came to Antioch would know what the Striding Lion symbolized.


Pandemic affects Antioch

The 500-pound gorilla is coronavirus, so even though I planned on continuing to write about the geopolitics of Antioch during the time of the mosaics, the Roman Empire, this blog will address the gorilla and those centuries-old mosaics in the time of a modern pandemic. 

Our Antioch Recovery Project is shut down now along with other classes.  We are instead finishing the class portion of the course online. At our major research university, the research has shut down. Much has been written about the many important scientific and medical (ironically, many potentially life-saving) projects, often longitudinal, that will stop precipitously. This is truly dire.

Yet, often forgotten is the impact on non-scientific research.  Even though we continue our research online for this project, long anticipated field trips to see other Antioch mosaics at Princeton and beyond are cancelled.   Personally, my own research has been impacted because I can’t get to the library to look at ancient books in the rare books collection or borrow unique books from borrow-direct.

The biggest impact to me, however, involves collaborations.  For the past several weeks, my research for my next blog was on the “missing” Antioch mosaic sent to Cuba on July 8th 1937[1]. Via the internet, I was able to isolate its last documented location in a report from Princeton University.  According to the report, the mosaic’s provenance was Villanova University, Havana, Cuba.  After Castro’s 1959 revolution, religion was banned in 1961, and religious buildings were nationalized and “repurposed” (to borrow from current pandemic language). 

So began my adventure.  I reached out to a colleague, a History professor at the University of Havana, who had served as my translator when I did an archeology internship in Cuba in 2018 and who I have stayed in contact with and now consider a dear friend.  He told me that after Villanova University and its church were closed, it was abandoned for a while.  The church that accompanied it was almost destroyed. Now, the University is a technical institute in Playa Municipality of Havana Province.  He shared my energy for this historical mystery and agreed to travel the following week to the site to try to find the mosaic and return photographs via Facebook to me.  This would help our Antioch Recovery Project confirm not only the location of a missing Antioch mosaic, but give us an idea of its condition, as well. 

That was three weeks ago.  Since then, Cuba reported its first coronavirus infection statistics and its first deaths. And I haven’t heard from him on the project.  I suspect that he is well, and that Cuba is taking public health precautions by locking down the island but doesn’t want to report that.  Yet, each day that goes by, I wonder.  My concern is compounded by my technology.  About a week ago, the photos app on my cellphone pulled up some photos of us at the Bay of Pigs last spring break.  It was only a year ago, but in many ways that carefree time period seems as long ago as the third-century of the mosaics.