Mummy Portrait of a young woman

AD 120-140 

Roman Period Egypt

This panel was not painted in the areas where the mummy wrappings have would covered the edges. Once in the wrappings, the background was gilded, and a gilded line was drawn to frame the lower end of the painting. Gold leaf was also used for the wreath and the lower necklace, a gold chain with a crescent (called a lunula). The woman’s face and neck are thickly painted in cream, heightened with pink on the cheeks and nose and around the eyes. The shades are built up from a dark ground.

The woman’s oval face, large eyes, and slightly open lips give the portrait considerable presence. Venus rings on her neck call attention to her youthful plump beauty. The hairstyle is typical for the period of the Emperor Hadrian, except for the corkscrew locks around the forehead, which may be a regional style.

(Source: The Met Museum)


A quick look at: the gladiators of Rome

I turned in to the games one mid-day hoping for a little wit and humor there. I was bitterly disappointed. It was really mere butchery. […] Then men were thrown to lions and to bears: but at midday to the audience. There was no escape for them. The slayer was kept fighting until he could be slain. "Kill him! Flog him! Burn him alive” was the cry: “Why is he such a coward? Why won’t he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won’t he die willingly?” (Via the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook).

The above passage is given by Roman historian Seneca (Epistles 7), offering us a vivid (albeit, aristocratic) eyewitness account of gladiatorial games in the age of Nero. A unique product of Rome and Italy, the sensation of gladiators has become one of the most famous aspects of Roman society, and epitomizes the Roman taste for blood sports. 

There never seemed to have been a shortage of willing participants in Rome for this grim life. Candidates were originally found among captives and slaves, those with nothing to lose. However, as the popularity of the sport continued to grow, so did the need for other avenues of supply. During the empire, noblemen were sent by emperors into the arena for committing crimes. Freedmen and imperial citizens came to enter the auctorati, a class of people who sold themselves to gladiator schools. The auctorati gave an oath of service, by which they agreed to submit to burning, beating, and death if they didn’t perform the tasks required of them as gladiators. As we may imagine, it took a truly desperate man to enter into such a grim life of combat and death, a measure that was prompted in times of economic or political hardship. This was a way to escape debtors for those in poverty.

Shown at the top of the post are a series of Roman mosaics depicting gladiatorial scenes. The first is from the Villa Borghese, and on view at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Note the names of the gladiators inscribed next to the figures, and the Θ symbol (it seems likely here that it is the Greek letter Θ for θάνατος, ‘dead’), which marks those who have died in combat. The second mosaic is from Römerhalle in Germany, and the remaining mosaics are from the Roman villa in Nennig, Germany.

The first image is via the Wiki Commons, and the rest are courtesy of & taken by Carole Raddato.

Emperor Caligula
  • Allegedly committed incest with his three sisters
  • He frequently prayed for a great military catastrophe, or for famine, plague, fire, or “at least an earthquake.”
  • In his campaign in Britain, he declared war against Neptune and made his soldiers attack the sea itself and collect seashells as spoils of war
  • He tried to make his horse consul
  • He was so sensitive about his premature baldness that he made a new law banning anyone to look down upon him from high places and ordered those with fine hair to be shaved

Portrait of an elderly man 

Portrait is made on sycomore wood. Material used is tempera. The man is flanked by Egyptian gods; on the right the god Horus and on the left the goddess Hathor. 38 cm high and 22.4cm wide ( 14 15/16 x 8 13/16 inch.) 

Egyptian, made in the Roman Period, around 250 AD. 

Source: Metropolitan Museum


The Forgotten Antonine Wall,

I’m sure just about everyone has heard of the world famous “Hadrian’s Wall”, the ancient Roman wall separating iron age Scotland and Roman England which essentially served as the frontier of the Roman Empire.  However the Antonine Wall doesn’t get nearly as much press, and is largely forgotten by all except historians.

Like many emperors before him Antoninus Pius (reign 138-161) cemented his rule over the Roman people through a program of public building projects and territorial expansion.  As part of that program, Pius ordered the invasion of Southern Scotland beyond Hadrian’s Wall.  They conquered all territory up to the Scottish highlands, then set a new border complete with a new wall.  Located between the Firth of Forth and Firth of Clyde, Antonine’s Wall had the same purpose of the earlier Hadrian’s Wall; to define the border of the Roman frontier, prevent the barbarians from crossing into Roman territory, and serve as a buffer in case of invasion.  Unlike  Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall was not made entirely of stone.  Rather it was built from turf, piled upon a stone foundation and lined with stone and wood for added strength.  At the top of the wall would have been a wooden palisade, and in front of the wall was dug a large moat, as well as a series of trenches, pitfalls, and various other obstacles.  The wall itself was 10 feet high and 16 feet wide.

Altogether the Antonine Wall stretched from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, covering a total of 39 miles.  However it was not the wall by itself that kept barbarian invaders out, but the men who manned the wall.  Across the wall, spaced out at two mile intervals were 16 forts, in between which were a series of guard houses and guard towers.  In addition a number of forts were built north of the wall to protect trade routes leading to and from what the Roman’s called “Caledonia”.  To supply the defenders of the wall, and allow for a quick response in case of invasion, a 39 mile long Roman military road was built on the southern side of the wall.

The Antonine Wall took 12 years to build, but was short lived.  The Romans were never able to pacify the Caledonians, and thus the wall was under constant attack.  In 162 Emperor Marcus Aurelius ordered the wall abandoned and its legions retired to Hadrian’s Wall.  While the exact reasons behind abandoning the wall are unknown, it was most likely because the wall guarded territory that was not worth holding, in an attempt to rule over a people who had little to offer in tax revenue.  In 208 the wall was re-occupied and repaired under order of Emperor Septimus Severus.  However the new occupation was even shorter lived, only lasting a few years.

Over time the wall was deconstructed as locals used the wall for building materials.  Eventually time and the weather also wore down the turf walls into small mounds.  Today all that remains of the Antonine Wall are a line of mounds, trenches, and stone foundations, as well as the remains of Roman forts.  

When Agrippina saw them, she knew for what they had come, and leaping up from her bed she tore open her clothing, exposing her abdomen, and cried out; “Strike here, Anicetus, strike here, for this bore Nero.”

-Roman historian Cassius Dio on the murder of Agrippina (translation: LacusCurtius).

A quick look at: Agrippina the Younger.

Agrippina the Younger (15-59 AD) was the mother of emperor Nero, and perhaps one of the most powerful women of her time in the Roman Empire. Our Roman historians characterize Agrippina as extraordinarily power-hungry, scheming for years, figuring out how to gain the throne for her son. Her status and power dramatically increased by 49, upon her marriage to her uncle, emperor Claudius. Agrippina successfully convinced her uncle to make Nero heir to the throne. Not long after, Claudius died, apparently poisoned by Agrippina.

With the title of Augusta, Agrippina essentially ran most of the empire in the early days of her son’s rule, who was only 17 upon becoming emperor. Nero, in short, became tired and resentful of his meddling mother, and sought to have her killed. After a number of (often bizarre) assassination attempts, Anicetus was sent by Nero to kill Agrippina. The quote given at the top of the post describes this final moment of her life. Upon seeing soldiers gather around her bed, she apparently jumped up, thrust out her abdomen, and screamed for Anicetus to stab her in her womb -wishing to be first destroyed in the part of her body which gave birth to her son, symbolic of the betrayal she felt. Agrippina was then killed, a victim of the son she had raised to the throne.

The Getty provides the following description on portraits of Agrippina:

Portraits of Agrippina were produced during the reigns of the emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They fit an overall style used for depicting the reigning Julio-Claudian dynasty. Although the portraits of the male members of the dynasty became more naturalistic over time, the women retain an ageless, classicizing style enlivened by elaborate coiffures. Agrippina is distinguished by her narrow face, dimpled chin, and protruding upper lip. She wears her hair parted in the middle and pulled back, with tight curls surrounding her face.

Shown sculpture courtesy of & currently located at the Getty Villa, Malibu, USA: 70.AA.101. Photo taken by justaslice.

Carthago delenda est, Carthage must be destroyed.

October 19, 202 BC- Scipio Africanus leads his Roman legions to victory against a Carthaginian army under Hannibal Barca at the Battle of Zama, the last battle of the Second Punic War. Despite outnumbering the Romans and commanding 80 war elephants, Hannibal’s entire army is killed or captured while the Romans suffer minor losses. Having lost so decisive a battle on their home territory, Carthage soon sued for peace. The terms were so humiliating and punishing, Carthage could never challenge Rome again. Fifty years later, Rome would start the Third Punic War and wipe Carthage out completely, razing the city and killing all but a few citizens.

Picture- Carthaginian war elephants engage Roman infantry at the Battle of Zama, Henri-Paul Motte, around 1890

Rare Roman Special Purpose Arrowhead, from Pannonia, c. 2nd-4th century AD

This rare special purpose arrowhead is made of iron with a wide flat head pierced by two holes and strengthened by a central rib. It’s very rare, an excellent example and in excellent condition, especially for an ancient iron artifact. The exact use of these rare arrowheads is not certain. Experts speculate that they carried either fire or messages, likely signal streamers attached to the two holes for signaling legions during combat.

Pannonia was an ancient province of the Roman Empire bounded north and east by the Danube, coterminous westward with Noricum and upper Italy, and southward with Dalmatia and upper Moesia. Pannonia was located over the territory of the present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition - repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, - where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.

In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, and exhibited a Circensian game, indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers, though guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment, because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.

—  Roman historian Tacitus’ account of Nero’s persecution of Christians, from his book Annals, published a few years after the event. At the time, Tacitus was a young man from an equestrian family (roughly equal to a knight’s family) living in Rome.
Ancient game found in Roman era city

Two game pieces from the Roman era 1,800 years ago have been found in the ancient city of Kibyra, in the southern Turkish province of Burdur’s Gölhisar district.

“We don’t have too much information about this game but we believe that it was played by two people on squares … with dice,” Professor Ünal Demirer said, adding that the Roman-era game dated back 1,800-2,000 years ago at least.

The game was known as “Ludus duodecim scriptorium” or “XII scripta” (game of 12 markings).

Excavations in the ancient city are being conducted by Mehmet Akif Ersoy University’s (MAKU) Archaeology Department. Read more.

Here is one of the earliest known reliefs to commemorate the legitimate marriages of former Roman slaves. 

The Funerary Stele of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philematium is from the tomb on Via Nomentana, and dates to ca. 80 BCE.

The British Museum provides the following prose translation of the funerary stele:

“Aurelius Hermia, freedman of Lucius, butcher by trade from the Viminal Hill. My partner who departed this life before me was pure of body and loving of spirit. She was the only one for me, and lived her life faithful to her faithful husband, with equal devotion. She never failed in her duties through self-interest or greed. Aurelia, freedwoman of Lucius.

Aurelia Philematio, freedwoman of Lucius. In life, I was given the name Aurelia Philematium (little Kiss) and led a chaste, modest and sheltered life, faithful to my husband. Aurelius, my husband, whom I now sadly miss, was a fellow freedman. He was, in fact, much more to me than even a parent. He took me into his care at the age of seven. Now at the age of forty, I fall into the hands of death. He flourished in the eyes of others due to my constant and close support.”

Courtesy of & currently located at The British Museum, London, 1867,0508.55. Photo taken by Sebastià Giralt.

Rare Tetradrachm of Mithradates VI of Pontus, c. 115-105 BC

Diademed head of Mithradates right. On the reverse, Pegasus preparing to lie down, a star within a crescent to the left, a monogram to the right, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ inscribed above, ΜIθPAΔATOU EUΠATOPOΣ below; all within an ivy wreath.

The earliest issues of Mithradates VI are undated with his dated issues beginning only in 96/5 BC. These early types are all extremely rare. This coin bears a remarkably realistic portrait of Mithradates in fine Hellenistic style that is reminiscent of earlier Pontic coins.

Mithradates VI, also known as Mithradates the Great or Mithradates Eupator, was king of Pontus and Armenia Minor in northern Anatolia (now Turkey) from about 120–63 BC. Mithridates is remembered as one of the Roman Republic’s most formidable and successful enemies, who engaged three of the prominent generals from the late Roman Republic in the Mithridatic Wars: Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey. He was also the greatest ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus, a prince of Persian and Greek ancestry. He claimed descent from Cyrus the Great, from the family of Darius the Great. On the Greek side he was descended from Antigonus I Monophthalmus and Seleucus I Nicator, who were generals of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, they became kings of parts of Alexander’s divided empire.

Silver gilded mount for a spear shaft 

The 6 pointed star was not yet a jewish symbol in the 4th century. It was often used in germanic and roman art. It is 12 cm high and 2.7cm wide (4 13/16 x  1 1/16 inch.) 

Late Roman Period, made in Gaul, around 400 AD. 

Source: Metropolitan Museum


Gaius Julius and the Fall of the Roman Republic

After the death of Marcus Crassus in 53 B.C., Pompey and Caesar were in open conflict. While Caesar, as proconsul in Gaul, was adding to his political stature with military success, Pompey was consolidating power in Rome. In 49 B.C. Pompey the Great made a decisive move: he persuaded the Senate to order Caesar to disband his army. Instead Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the southern limit of his military command.  

They still loved Pompey in Egypt

With his Army and most of the Senate, Pompey withdrew to Greece. From there he planned to mount a campaign against Caesar, using control of his fleet to envelop Italy, But Caesar moved first. He attacked Pompey’s adherents in Spain, and then in Greece, routing Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 B.C. Again Pompey fled, but this time to a place where he would be safe. For he was still Pompey the Great in Egypt.   

The First Man in Rome

So Caesar returned to Rome more secure in his power than any Roman every had been before. In defeating Pompey, whose support came from the Senate,  Caesar had surpassed the Senate’s authority and became sole ruler of Rome. On the whole he used his powers well. He pardoned many of his enemies, including Cicero, and reinstated them in the government. He worked out the mechanics for a stronger more efficient administrative system, undertook extensive colonization projects, provided work for the poor, and tightened the laws against crime and usury. He planned a vast highway across Italy and gave Rome and Western Civilization, the Julian calendar. 

The Ides have come, but they have not passed

Despite these good works and acts of clemency, many Romans were filled with foreboding. It was clear Caesar meant to make his rule absolute, and a conspiracy formed. On the Ides of March, 44 B.C., Caesar was murdered in the Senate by the conspirators. 

From Republic to Empire

After Caesar’s death, Rome lived through the turmoil of another struggle for power. This time the combatants were the Senate and two of Caesar’s heirs: Mark Antony and this mysterious boy, Octavian. 

Of course these details are not important enough for history, and you will read them without any idea of recording them; if they seem scarcely worth putting in a letter, you have only yourself to blame for asking them.

Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book VI, Letter 20

(This is how Pliny ends his letter to Tacitus, in which he describes his memories of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.)