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Category Archives: Archeology

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Do All Roads ACTUALLY Lead to Rome?

by August 1, 2018

We all know the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?
The Power of Pavement
There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 BC, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.
And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.
In 20 BC, the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.
Markers on the Roman Roads

The Golden Milestone

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.
The Center of the World
Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the center of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):
‘There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.’
Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.
Milestones on Roman roads

Roman Milestones in the Bologna Archaeological Museum. (C Davenport)

The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century BC, but from the first century AD, emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.
More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.
Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances.
Part of the milion - roman roads

The surviving part of the Milion in Constantinople. (C. Davenport)

The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century AD, he built an arch called the Milion at its center, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.
Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century AD, even helpfully includes shortcuts for travelers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.
The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very center of the known world.
Part of the Tabula Peutingeriana

Tabula Peutingeriana (section)—top to bottom: Dalmatian coast, Adriatic Sea, southern Italy, Sicily, African Mediterranean coast

Proverbial Roads
Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:

‘A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.’

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):
‘right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.’
The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.
In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.
This article was originally published under the title ‘Mythbusting Ancient Rome – did all roads actually lead there?’ by Caillan Davenport and Shushma Malik on The Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.

Tabula Cortonensis

by May 11, 2018

By Natalia Klimczak, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
2,200 years ago, a pair of skilled Etruscan hands crafted a tablet that became a key to the language of this remarkable civilization. This unique bronze artifact is known as the Tabula Cortonensis and, apart from its role in deciphering a lost language, it also contains untold secrets of the Etruscan civilization if you read between the lines of its text.
The Etruscan civilization is a mysterious one. They created their own language, religion, architecture, and other cultural aspects. Their culture has been separated as one of the treasures of ancient times due to their amazing achievements before Romanization. However, there are still more questions than answers about the enigmatic people. Therefore, a discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis is priceless because it brings us one step closer to the Etruscans.
Tablets in Cortona

The Etruscan tablets.

A Curious Tablet
The tablet was discovered near the city of Curtun, which was known as Corito in the Roman Empire, and is now called Cortona. It lies in Arezzo Provincia in Tuscany. The site is well-known for the discovery of a 4th-century tomb that may have belonged to the famous mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras.
Cortona, Italy

Modern Cortona, Tuscany, Italy.

The tablet was unearthed in 1992, however it wasn’t exhibited for many years. This artifact is made of bronze and, for unknown reasons, it had been cut into eight fragments. Unfortunately, one of the pieces is lost. The tablet is 2-3 millimeters (.08-0.12 inches) thick and measures about 50 by 30 cm (19.69 x 11.81 inches). Researchers discovered that the tablet was made using the lost wax process. It has been suggested that the sheet may have been cut so it could be used for different purposes.
Some researchers believe the tablet was created in this way to be hung. However, there is no place for a ring or hook, so this seems unlikely. It is also uncertain if the Etruscans had specific measurements for different documents created on bronze tablets. There are some suggestions that the tablets for religious purposes had a specific size, but it is possible that contracts like the Tabula Cortonensis were also created with a precise pattern.
The Transfer Agreement
The text on the Tabula Cortonensis is a common record of a land transfer agreement between two parties. The text itself was written with skill, but its content is not unique. Although it is relatively wordy, the document isn’t the longest Etruscan writing discovered either – the Capua Tablet and the Liber Linetus from Zagreb are both longer.
The tablet was carefully studied by Luciano Agostiniani and Francesco Nicosia. They found that the inscription was clear in its content, but also full of specific information for the situation. For example, the names of the people who agreed to the contract are provided. The text also provides information about the Etruscan style and language used for this kind of agreement – a language which was thought to be the same in every region of Etruria.
Keys to a Forgotten Language
The lengthy text makes this artifact a useful tool in research on the Etruscan language. However, the researchers were surprised by the differences between the language they thought they knew and the text which had been written on the tablet. According to Agostiniani and Nicosia:
The letters are, with a few exceptions, those of the normal north Etruscan alphabet of the later 3rd or 2nd century BC. The absence of Phi and of the aspirate H is probably a coincidence: there are no words in the inscription in which they would have occurred. The gamma has the curved shape that becomes the Latin C. (Etruscan did not have the sounds of B, G or D. Their neighbors, the Romans, first pronounced C either with the sound of K, the Etruscan way or as gamma, the Greek way. Until the letter G was invented, they pronounced Caius Julius Caesar as Gaius Iulius Kaisar.) Two signs are unusual. The backward E, epsilon, though rare, is known from other inscriptions from Cortona. The “paragraph” sign used to set off four of the seven sections of this legal document (lines 7, 8, 14, 23) is unique. It would be perfectly understandable to any modern proof-reader.
The tablet records a contract for the sale, or lease, of land, including a vineyard (vina), in the plain of Lake Trasimeno (celtineitiss tarsminass), between the Cusu family (Cusuthur), to which Petru Scevas belongs, and 15 people, perhaps a group of buyers, witnessed by a third group of names sometimes listed along with their children and grandchildren (clan, “son”, and papals, “grandson”).
Map of Etruscan civilization

Maximum extent of the Etruscan civilization and the twelve Etruscan League cities.

The ancient inscription is full of mistakes, or, it provides evidence of gaps in modern knowledge about the Etruscan language. Agostiniani explains this by saying that the tablet contains a unique language used by the people who lived specifically in Cortona. That would mean people could have used different language in various parts of Etruria.
Searching for the Lost Civilization
Researchers need to complete additional excavations and analysis of previously discovered Etruscan artifacts to reveal more fascinating information about this unique civilization. But every discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis provides new information that allows us to create a clearer picture of their daily life and language, something that looks to be more complicated than once believed.

The Only Library Ever Recovered from Antiquity

by May 3, 2018

By Wu Mingren, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
Ancient Books

Fresco depicting a young man reading a scroll from Herculaneum

The Villa of the Papyri is the name given to a private house that was uncovered in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. This city, along with nearby Pompeii, is perhaps best remembered for its destruction during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Because of this natural disaster, the buildings of these cities were preserved under a thick layer of volcanic ash.
Drawing of the city of Herculaneum

1859 Imaginative drawing of the city of Herculaneum. ( Public Domain )

The Villa’s Elaborate Presence
One of these buildings was the Villa of the Papyri, named as such due to the discovery of a library in the house that contained about 1800 scrolls of papyri (known today as the ‘Herculaneum Papyri’), which were carbonized due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Villa Ruins

Ruins of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. (Erik Anderson/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Researchers believe the Villa of the Papyri belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. This villa is located in the northwestern part of Herculaneum, on a slope of the volcano overlooking the Bay of Naples. Built in terraces down to the sea, the villa was a grand structure, covering an area of 30,000 square feet (2787 sq. meters). The front of the villa stretched for more than 820 ft. (250 meters), and offered its inhabitants an unobstructed view of the bay. The villa included two peristyles, a swimming pool, gardens, living and reception quarters.
Rediscovering the Villa
It was only during the 18th century that the villa was rediscovered. In 1709, the city of Herculaneum was rediscovered when workmen digging a well in the town of Resina stumbled upon the upper level of the ancient town’s theatre. Excavations began to be carried out and were funded by the House of Bourbon. In 1750, the Villa of the Papyri was uncovered, and an excavation was soon undertaken under the direction of Karl Weber, a Swiss architect and engineer.
Map of the villa

Weber’s map of Villa of the Papyri Herculaneum. ( Public Domain )

A Very Special Library
Two years later, in October 1752, the villa’s library was discovered, and with it, the first cache of papyri was brought to light. Containing about 1800 scrolls, the collection of this library is relatively small. Yet, it is the only known library to have survived from the Classical world.
Hence, the library has a great importance in the eyes of both archaeologists and classicists. Exposure to the volcanic gas and ash meant the scrolls were carbonized – they were turned into charred cylindrical lumps. In fact, the papyri were initially mistaken for lumps of charcoal or burnt logs, and their value was only recognized later. The carbonization of the scrolls effectively preserved them, though at the same time, it made them extremely difficult to unroll.
Papyrus found in Herculaneum

Herculaneum Papyrus 1428: Philodemus, On Piety. ( The Friends of Herculaneum Society )

A Difficult Process Begins
Attempts have been made to read the contents of these scrolls. Some were unceremoniously hacked open with a butcher’s knife, whilst others were simply unrolled. Needless to say, damage was done to the fragile artifacts. An ‘unrolling device’ was even invented by Antonio Piaggio, a Piarist monk, specifically for the unravelling of these papyri. Though the scrolls were unrolled with this device, they remained fragile, and the process took a very long time. The first scroll took four years to unravel.
Nevertheless, progress was being made, and by 1790, reports on the contents of the library were being published. Over the next two centuries, various techniques have been developed in the hope that the contents of the papyri may be accessed. Some of the most recent attempts involve digital, rather than physical, unravelling of the scrolls. In order to do so, methods such as X-rays, digital photography, and microscopy have been utilized.
However, it is still very difficult to view the writings on the papyri. The main problem is that the ink and the papyri are physically similar, as the Romans used a carbon-based ink made from smoke residues. In other words, it is not easy to differentiate the writings from the carbonized papyri.

The Mystery of the Roman Tunnels of Baiae

by April 27, 2018

By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Temple of Baiae

The so-called ‘temple of echo’ at Baiae. ( Wikipedia).

There are certain places on Earth in which nature is imbued with the supernatural. Over the ages, human beings attach mythological stories to these places of mystery; one such place is located at the ancient Roman resort of Baiae.
Baiae is located in the Southern Italian region of Campania. Situated on the Bay of Naples, Baiae was a seaside resort for the wealthy inhabitants of Rome. Consequently, Baiae became notorious for the hedonistic lifestyle of its patrons. Over the centuries, however, local volcanic activity has caused much of the ancient resort to be submerged underwater. Although one could view the Roman ruins in the Baiae Archaeological Park, one would be required to take an underwater tour to fully comprehend the splendour of Baiae. Yet, Baiae was not merely a getaway for Rome’s super-rich. The hot springs that attracted Baiae’s patrons also gave it a mythical attachment.
Painting of Baiae by Turner

Baiae as seen by J. M. W. Turner. Image source: Wikipedia

In 1932, the entrance to a hitherto unknown antrum (chamber) was discovered by an Italian archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri. As Maiuri and his team did not continue with their exploration after penetrating the tunnel for a couple of feet, the mystery of the antrum was left alone. It was only in the 1960s that the antrum gained attention again. This time, it was a British amateur archaeologist, Robert Paget, who explored the antrum. Along with an American colleague, Keith Jones, and a small group of volunteers, Paget began a decade-long excavation of the antrum. What he discovered was a complex system of tunnels.
Based on his findings, Paget speculated that this was the legendary ‘Cave of the Sibyl’ that was described by ancient authors. The Cumaean Sibyl, meaning the prophetess, is said to be a woman named Amalthaea who lived in a cave in the Phlegraean Fields, the area where the tunnel was found. According to legend, she had the power of prophesy, and scribbled the future on oak leaves scattered at the entrance of her cave.
Cumeaen Sibyl

Cumaean Sibyl by Andrea del Castagno. Image source: Wikipedia

During the reign of Tarquin the Proud, the last of the mythic kings of Rome, the Sibyl is said to have offered the king nine books/scrolls of prophesy for an extremely steep price. The king refused her offer, and the Sibyl left. When she returned, the Sibyl had six books/scrolls left, as she had three burnt. She offered the king the remaining books/scrolls for the same price, but Tarquin again refused. The Sibyl appeared for a third time with only three books/scrolls left, and the king finally accepted her offer. The books/scrolls were safely stored away in a stone chest in a vault beneath the Temple of Jupiter for hundreds of years after Tarquin’s reign.
These books/scrolls were only consulted when Rome was facing a crisis. The books/scrolls, however, were used as a ‘how-to’ guide for the performance of rituals that were believed to be able to avert the looming catastrophe.
Cumean sibyl with scrolls

The Cumaean Sibyl with her scrolls. Domenichino (1617 AD). Image source: Wikipedia

According to Paget, the features of the tunnel system suggest that it was constructed to mimic the visit to the mythical Underworld of the Greeks. For instance, the underground stream of sulphurous water may have represented the River Styx, which the newly dead had to traverse in order to enter Hades. As there was a ‘landing stage’ on one end of the stream, Paget speculated that a boat would have been waiting to ferry visitors across. At the end of the stream was a flight of stairs that led to a hidden sanctuary. Paget reckoned that the sanctuary would have housed someone posing as the Cumaean Sibyl.
Sulfur Drifts

Sulfur drifts from a vent on the barren volcanic plateau known as the Phlegraean Fields, a harsh moonscape associated with legends of prophecy. Photo: Wikicommons.

Along with other observations, Paget supposes that the tunnel system served a ritual purpose for the ancient Romans. Nevertheless, this interpretation is debatable.
Furthermore, there are numerous questions yet to be answered. For instance, no one knows for certain the builder(s) of these tunnels, and the time when they were built. What is certain is that the tunnels will continue to be a mystery until further evidence is found.

A Discovery That Shook the Archaeological World

by April 10, 2018

By Ryan Stone, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
“A gentleman and a scholar.” There are few such men who fit this description from the “archaeological” community of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were certainly gentlemen and scholars, yet those who understood the rules and propriety of historical investigations and those who studied the histories themselves were not always one and the same.
Enter Sir Arthur John Evans: Oxford graduate, philologist, excavator and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Today he is best known for his contributions to pre-Classical Aegean archaeology through his discovery of the Minoans. Yet how this man came to discover an untouched society, what and who inspired him, and—most importantly—which of his postulations were accurate and which false are as important to the examination of his research as the discovery itself.
Sir Arthur John Evans

Sir Arthur John Evans, archaeologist

The Ancient Cretean Archaeologists
Sir Arthur Evans’ predisposition for classical era research and Homeric literature was furthered by the “revolutionary” efforts of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy in the late 19th century. Though now scholars have determined that Schliemann’s success at Troy damaged more than it salvaged, archaeology was not yet a discipline when Schliemann’s efforts began. It was merely a hobby of the rich and elite—those who could afford trips to far off places, fancy devices for use in investigations, and the paychecks required by mercenary diggers and tour guides. His damages, however, are considered in part why archaeology developed into a proper scholarly practice.
Schliemann’s work at Troy and at Tiryns, where he “discovered” the Mycenaean civilization that he associated with the Trojan War, inspired Evans’ to turn away from his Italian, British and Balkan research, and toward the archaeology of the Aegean. However, Evans’ work is far more respected than Schliemann’s, due to his background—both in academics and political negotiations—and methodology.
Painting of Sir Arthur Evans

Portrait of Sir Arthur Evans by William Richmond, 1907 (Ashmolean Museum)

The Ashmolean Minoan Collector
Evans’ was well versed in art, history and philology, having made a name for himself as the author of many scholarly articles before he was entrusted as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum—a job he would not have been hired for lightly. Under the employ of the Ashmolean Museum, Evans’ Aegean investigations began while attempting to transfer private collections of ancient artifacts (i.e. the Fortnum collection) to the Ashmolean.
It was under Evans’ advisement that the museum as a whole transitioned into one focused on art and archaeology, and began the assemblage of what would become the greatest Minoan collection outside of Crete. The success of this transition and the untimely death of Evans’ wife led to a shift in Evans’ interests, this time away from the museum and towards physical excavation.
In a moment of great insight during a visit to the island, Evans’ purchased the land where he would uncover the palace complex at Knossos. Within three years he had achieved a great deal, exposing Minoan frescoes, writing and numerous rooms within the complex.
Conversely, it was his future attempt at reconstructions of an unknown civilization, with a to-this-day untranslatable language, that is of concern.
Ruins at Knossos

The palace complex ruins at Knossos

Evans’ Blurred Vision for Reconstruction of Knossos
Much like the man himself, the reconstruction Evans directed at Knossos could be described as short-sighted. In reconstructing his belief of what the complex at Knossos looked like in the Bronze Age, Evans inadvertently caused some damage like Schliemann did at Troy, though his intentions were for academic preservation and thus, he did not use dynamite.
At the time of his reconstruction (c. 1922), the name “Minoan” was borrowed from the Greek myth of King Minos and the Minotaur, and the various levels of construction were not accurately defined. (Such was the problem with Schliemann: his dynamite blasted through layers of Trojan culture before discovering that which has been determined as contemporary with Homer’s.)
A simple example of Evans’ miscalculation is his creation of the red, Minoan columns. There is no evidence that dark red columns—themselves constructed out of 20th century materials rather than what would have been used in the Bronze Age—looked as Evans depicted them. These Minoan columns were based on Greek models (despite the fact that the Greeks themselves borrowed the idea from older cultures), mounted on bases with capitals that resemble the Greek Doric style. Yet the Minoans likely had columns made from tree trunks, uprooted from the ground and flipped on their heads so the bottom of the tree held up the roof while the top of the tree served as the base.
Palace of Knossos reconstruction

Often criticized reconstructed red ‘Minoan’ columns at Palace of Knossos

Another concern of scholars is the restoration efforts of Evans and his team on the frescoes in the various “rooms” of the complex: the Throne Room, bathing room, etc. Though the color choices are believed to be relatively accurate based on comparisons with contemporary cultures and the natural ingredients in the area, the exactness of the frescoes is questioned. Scholars argue most fervently that Evans’ likely supplanted a “template” found intact at one wall to others as well, thereby incorrectly restoring the frescoes and injuring whatever symbolism had been intended by the original fresco and its location within the palace. (For example, the Tomb of the Diver in Paestum is believed to depict a diver as a metaphor for the transition from life to death. If the frescoes had a similar meaning in their particular locations at Knossos, that meaning has been covered by Evans’ restorations.)
Ancient Knossos Throne room

Throne room at Knossos with restored/reproduced frescoes

Evans’ Discoveries
Yet we do not wish to discount the strides Evans did contribute to understanding the culture known as the Minoans. One of the best iterations of his successes lies in his theory of bull-worship. This hypothesis was based on the numerous depictions of bull-leaping and prominent displays of the “Horns of Consecration” (also named by Evans).
Both before and during his tenure on Crete, Evans investigated the significance of the bull alongside images of a double-axe, the mystery of each leading him from Oxford to Crete in search of their original cultures in the first place. (In fact it is believed that finding the double-axe on Knossos convinced Evans that the site was worth purchasing and exploring.) Evans continued his investigations throughout his time on Crete, and he is credited with the preliminary understanding of what is believed to be Minoan religion.
Restored building

Restored building and frescoes at Knossos

Furthermore, Evans’ examination of bull-leaping frescoes led to the first somewhat defined chronology of the Minoans. Evans’ research of the frescoes insofar as dating, depictions, etc. led to the breakdown of the Minoan era into smaller periods similar to the Egyptian kingdoms—rather than Old, Middle and New.
The Minoan timeline is broken into Early, Middle and Late, and then further fragmented from there. Recent scholars such as John Younger have determined Evans’ religious assumptions and his chronological estimation of the practice of bull-leaping were both relatively accurate, and it is these initial parameters that allowed research into the Minoan period to propel forward rather than stagger.
Famous Bull leaping fresco

Bull leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Despite the questionability of early archaeological methods—if the practice can be called such under Evans and Schliemann—the discoveries of the early 20th century began investigations of what would become some of the most fascinating ancient mysteries. Though more is still unknown than known of the Minoan culture—including what they might have called themselves—without Evans’ shrewd work at the Ashmolean Museum, and his extensive academic background at Oxford, he might not have discovered the complex at Knossos. He might have been just another rich history fanatic, waving around Homer’s works while placing dynamite in strategically destructive places.
Schliemann was successful in such efforts, but there is no guarantee Evans would have been too. Without Evans’ foresight and determined attempts to understand the pre-Mycenaean civilization, an understanding of the culture—assuming it was still discovered—might have been set back decades.
Chaniotis, Angelos. 1999. From Minoans farmers to Roman traders: sidelights on the economy of ancient Crete . Stuttgart: Steiner.
Davis, Jack L., Vasiliki Florou, and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan . 2015. Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives. ISD LLC.
Evans, Arthur John. 1914. “The ‘Tomb of the Double Axes’ and the Associated Group and the Pillar Rooms and Ritual Vessels of the ‘Little Palace’ at Knossos.” Archaeologia. 65.1. pp.1-94. Accessed July 27, 2017.
Hamilakis, Yannis. (ed.) 2002. Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking ‘Minoan’ Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
MacEnroe, John. 1995. “Sir Arthur Evans and Edwardian Archaeology.” The Classical Bulletin . 71.1. pp. 3-18.
MacGillivray, Joseph Alexander. 2000. Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology f the Minoan Myth. New York: Hill and Wang.
Rubalcaba, Jill and Eric Cline. 2011. Digging for Troy: From Homer to Hisarlik . Charlesworth.
Stokes, Lauren. “Trojan wars and tourism: a lecture by C. Brian Rose”. Swarthmore College Daily Gazette. Accessed July 29, 2017.

The Lovers’ Coin

by April 7, 2018

by Brittany Marie Garcia

Anthony and Cleopatra on the Nile by Lawrence Alma Tadema

The story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra is a love story of seduction, exotic locations, love-triangles, family, politics, war, and suicide. And, just to make it more interesting, their tumultuous affair is connected to the rise and fall of both the Roman and Egyptian empires. And so, it is easy to see how this relationship has been an intriguing tale for centuries – with examples from Plutarch’s retelling to Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal to the HBO Rome Series.
While there are countless images representing the romantic and tragic lives of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, there is an extraordinary, newly found item that perhaps shines a new light on the infamous couple… and it comes in the shape of money.
A recent archaeological discovery in Tel Bethsaida (Northern coast of the Sea of Galilee) yielded a coin with the images of these notorious lovers.
This curious coin, despite its discovery in Tel Bethsaida, was actually minted in the port of Akko (known today as Acre) in the last half of 35 BCE and/or the first half of 34 BCE. Made of bronze, the coin is only the approximate size of a quarter (21-23 millimeters in diameter).

But let’s delve into the details of this fascinating currency.
On Cleopatra’s side of the coin, one can see the Greek word: ΠΤΟΛΕΜΙδΣ. This word is in the genitive form of the noun ‘Ptolemais’, which means: “of the people of Ptolemais.” Just to bring it full circle, ‘Ptolemais’ is the name for ancient Akko, which you may remember is the location of where the coin was originally minted.
So why would the city of Akko coin metal representatives of Cleopatra and Marc Antony?
Dr. Ariel, head of Israel Antiquities Authority Coin Department, has an answer for this: “The cities of the ancient Middle East had a habit of minting coins bearing the portraits of whoever was in power”. In the time of 35 BCE Antony had had a recent victory over the Parthians (peoples from Northeast Iran and Armenia) as well as had bestowed Armenia to Cleopatra’s sons and Cyprus to her daughter. These events may indicate why the ancient Middle East considered him powerful.
This would lead us to think that there would be a lot of coins with Cleopatra and Antony. However, this is not the case.
Dr. Ariel continued, “Coins with the portraits of Antony and Cleopatra are extremely rare. Only six have been found anywhere in the world.” According to the ancient numismatic reference site though, there have been more than six discoveries of Antony and Cleopatra coins. It would stand, however, that only six of the eight coins found are in good condition. The coin recently discovered in Tel Bethsaida would make the seventh.
It has to be asked again then, if the ancient Middle East considered Antony and Cleopatra powerful in 35 BCE (and perhaps other years as well) then why are there not more of these “lovers’ coins?”
Of course we cannot be completely certain of the reason, but it is not difficult to hypothesize that Augustus Caesar may have had them collected and destroyed after his victory at Actium. After all, Augustus did destroy Antony’s portraits after his death. For some reason, however, Augustus allowed Cleopatra’s statues to remain in Caesar’s Temple to Venus Genetrix. Perhaps Augustus admired Cleopatra. Even as a ‘foreigner’, her ambition, cunning, and wit made admiration understandable.
On the other hand, his unforgiving attitude towards Antony may have had to do with Octavia. Antony’s affair with Cleopatra was at the expense of Augustus’ sister and Antony’s wife, Octavia, as well as their children. Because Cleopatra was a foreigner it was understandable, even expected, that she was a less respectable being, but as a Roman male citizen, Antony’s actions were inexcusable.
This could have prompted Augustus to destroy any coin that represented the man who had broken such strong societal conventions. The result is only a few stray pieces that escaped the victor’s retribution.
Therefore it is these rare coins that provide us with a look into Antony and Cleopatra’s policy on their representation, including the portrayal, features, and idealized form. It is uncertain whether they wished to emulate a certain presence, as is suggested by the British Museum, “Antony was said to remind people of the Greek hero Herakles in paintings and sculptures, with ‘… a very good and noble appearance; his beard was not unsightly, his forehead broad, and his nose aquiline’” (Plutarch, Life of Antony, 4).
However, his portrait in the coin seems to have picked up Ptolemaic features, specifically the strong projecting chin of Ptolemy I, the founder of Cleopatra’s dynasty, and the hooked noses of Cleopatra and her father Ptolemy XII.
Maybe this was a reason for the coins to be destroyed? Does it reveal something new about Marc Antony or does it show the bias of the minter in the city of Akko, which was founded by Ptomlemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BCE?
We’ll never completely know, but what is certain is that this infamous couple continues to engage, fill, and plague our minds. Though they are long dead and their story known by most, they do not cease to be the topic of much discussion, debate, and obsession.