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African encounters in Roman Britain

Hadrian’s Wall has been in the news again recently for all the wrong reasons. Occasional wits have pondered on its significance in the Scottish Referendum, neglecting the fact that it has never marked the Anglo-Scottish border, and was certainly not constructed to keep the Scots out. Others have mistakenly insinuated that it is closed for business, following the widely reported demise of the Hadrian’s Wall Trust. And then of course there is the Game of Thrones angle, best-selling writer George R R Martin has spoken of the Wall as an inspiration for the great wall of ice that features in his books.

Media coverage of both Hadrian’s Wall Trust’s demise and Game of Thrones’ rise has sometimes played upon and propagated the notion that the Hadrian’s Wall was manned by shivering Italian legionaries guarding the fringes civilisation – irrespective of the fact that the empire actually trusted the security of the frontier to its non-citizen soldiers, the auxilia rather than to its legionaries. The tendency to overemphasise the Italian aspect reflects confusion about what the Roman Empire and its British frontier was about. But Martin, who made no claims to be speaking as a historian when he spoke of how he took the idea of legionaries from Italy, North Africa, and Greece guarding the Wall as a source of inspiration, did at least get one thing right about the Romano-British frontier.

There were indeed Africans on the Wall during the Roman period. In fact, at times there were probably more North Africans than Italians and Greeks. While all these groups were outnumbered by north-west Europeans, who tend to get discussed more often, the North African community was substantial, and its stories warrant telling.

Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrians Wall (8751341028)
Hadrian’s Wall, by Carole Raddato. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most remarkable tale to survive is an episode in the Historia Augusta (Life of Severus 22) concerning the inspection of the Wall by the emperor Septimius Severus. The emperor, who was himself born in Libya, was confronted by a black soldier, part of the Wall garrison and a noted practical joker. According to the account the notoriously superstitious emperor saw in the soldier’s black skin and his brandishing of a wreath of Cyprus branches, an omen of death. And his mood was not further improved when the soldier shouted the macabre double entendre iam deus esto victor (now victor/conqueror, become a god). For of course properly speaking a Roman emperor should first die before being divinized. The late Nigerian classicist, Lloyd Thompson, made a powerful point about this intriguing passage in his seminal work Romans and Blacks, ‘the whole anecdote attributes to this man a disposition to make fun of the superstitious beliefs about black strangers’. In fact we might go further, and note just how much cultural knowledge and confidence this frontier soldier needed to play the joke – he needed to be aware of Roman funerary practices, superstitions, and the indeed the practice of emperor worship itself.

Why is this illuminating episode not better known? Perhaps it is because there is something deeply uncomfortable about what could be termed Britain’s first ‘racist joke’, or perhaps the problem lies with the source itself, the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta. And yet as a properly forensic reading of this part of the text by Professor Tony Birley has shown, the detail included around the encounter is utterly credible, and we can identify places alluded to in it at the western end of the Wall. So it is quite reasonable to believe that this encounter took place.

Not only this, but according to the restoration of the text preferred by Birley and myself, there is a reference to a third African in this passage. The restoration post Maurum apud vallum missum in Britannia indicates that this episode took place after Severus has granted discharge to a soldier of the Mauri (the term from which ‘Moors’ derives). And has Birley has noted, we know that there was a unit of Moors stationed at Burgh-by-Sands on the Solway at this time.

Birdoswald eastern wall
Hadrian’s Wall, by Midnightblueowl. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, Burgh is one of the least explored forts on Hadrian’s Wall, but some sense of what may one day await an extensive campaign of excavation there comes from Transylvania in Romania, where investigations at the home of another Moorish regiment of the Roman army have revealed a temple dedicated to the gods of their homelands. Perhaps too, evidence of different North African legacies would emerge. The late Vivian Swann, a leading expert in the pottery of the Wall has presented an attractive case that the appearance of new forms of ceramics indicates the introduction of North African cuisine in northern Britain in the second and third centuries AD.

What is clear is that the Mauri of Burgh-by-Sands were not the only North Africans on the Wall. We have an African legionary’s tombstone from Birdoswald, and from the East Coast the glorious funerary stela set up to commemorate Victor, a freedman (former slave) by his former master, a trooper in a Spanish cavalry regiment. Victor’s monument now stands on display in Arbeia Museum at South Shields next to the fine, and rather better known, memorial to the Catuvellunian Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates from Palmyra in Syria. Together these individuals, and the many other ethnic groups commemorated on the Wall, remind us of just how cosmopolitan the people of Roman frontier society were, and of how a society that stretched from the Solway and the Tyne to the Euphrates was held together.

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Playing Man: some modern consequences of Ancient sport

Playing Man (Homo Ludens), the trail-blazing work by Johan Huizinga, took sport seriously and showed how it was essential in the formation of civilizations. Adult playtime for many pre-industrial cultures served as the crucible in which conventions and boundaries were written for a culture. Actions were censured for being “beyond the pale”, a sports metaphor for being “out of bounds”.

A quasi-sacred time and space set apart for games were a microcosm for the lives of all who played and for the spectators. Sport was a place in which individual merit was the rule and performance was regulated by the terms of the event.

The Ancient Olympic Games, an invention of the 700s BCE, preceded Athenian Democracy by about 200 years, and yet those earliest Games allowed any free citizen to participate and win the supreme Panhellenic crown. Yes, probably most of the first contenders were wealthy by token of having more leisure time to train and travel to the festival. 

Yet in the pre-democratic centuries, the sporting model showed that what counted was individual ability and acquired skill, not status by birth. So the era of rule by tyrants and elite families was balanced by models of egalitarian display in the stadium in footraces, wrestling, boxing, and other track and field events.

Chariot racing was of course still the exclusive domain of the wealthy, a vestige of heroic tradition, but the athletes contending mano a mano ushered in more meritocratic ways. The Greek custom of requiring athletes in track and field and combat events to participate in the nude underscored this democratic ethos, perhaps popularized among the communally oriented Spartans by 600 BCE, but soon adopted universally by all Greeks.

The double entendre in my title “playing man” is intentional, with allusion to the sense that sport has been for most of history and globally a performance by and for males. For the Greeks, athletics were for men only, with a few interesting exceptions, notably girls’ ritual races at Olympia to ask Hera for a happy marriage.

In the modern Olympics, there was no women’s marathon race until 1984, almost 90 years into the games. Even then, in 1984, only 25% of all Olympic participants were female; today it is still at less than half (45% in 2012). The first women boxing events came in 2012. 

A competitor in the long jump, Black-figured Tyrrhenian amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, Greek, but made for the Etruscan market, 540 BC, found near Rome, Winning at the ancient Games, British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A competitor in the long jump, Black-figured Tyrrhenian amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, Greek, but made for the Etruscan market, 540 BC, found near Rome, Winning at the ancient Games, British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Women’s participation in sports at all venues and events has slowly improved over the last 30 years, thanks to gender equity movements as a whole. Still, males have been the participants in and the most avid audiences for competitive sports globally throughout history.

Is it tradition and culture or nature (testosterone and men’s greater muscle bulk) that has driven this trend? Scholarly disagreement continues, but the answer must include nature and culture, with nature perhaps playing a heavier role. The attempts to bring women’s sports to the fore have largely not succeeded: world viewers, broadcasters, and corporate sponsors overwhelmingly prefer male contests.

Overt displays of machismo characterized the ancient Greek contest, or agôn, whence our term agony, the pain of struggle. Combat sports of boxing and wrestling topped the popularity charts and the rewards at the festivals that gave valuable prizes.

At the Olympics, there were no second or third place prizes; only first counted, and one boxer said “give me the wreath of give me death”. Many were brutalized or killed, as is shown on vases in which blood streams from the contestants.

The Greeks were overly familiar with violence meted out by men in war on a daily basis, and so violent sport here did not inspire violence. But the association of athletes with Homeric heroes maintained the display as acceptable and even superhuman (see the funeral games of Iliad 23).

Greek sport, then, is worthy of our attention as the model in many ways for our own very different contests. Yes, the modern Olympics appropriated the Greek ones for its own very different aims. But arguably the ‘deeper’ social inheritances from the Greek men who “played” are, on the one hand, a greater egalitarianism, and on the other a heroized violence and machismo with which we all still wrestle.

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Earthquake at the lightning huaca of San Catequilla de Pichincha

On 12 August 2014 at precisely 2:58 a.m., a 5.1 earthquake struck, centered at the hilltop lightning huaca San Catequilla de Pichincha. Since this initial earthquake, there have been 57 aftershocks, all centered at or close to this hill. Cerro Catequilla is situated where the Río Monjas empties into the Río Guayllabamba, approximately 15 kilometers north of Quito in the Pomasqui Valley directly east of the town of San Antonio. This is the only known Inca huaca located directly under the equator at 0°0’02” S by 78°25’43” W at 2,683 meters above sea level, making this the paradigmatic place of the astral positioning. The southern terminus of the summit is situated directly on the Mitad del Mundo at the equator, 0º0’00” S, beside a series of natural springs. The mountains surrounding Cerro Cetquilla range from 3,000 to 4,000 meters above sea level and the Cerro Pululagua volcano is located due west.

John E. Staller - Circular Platform
Northwest circular platform. The small circular platform is still visible on the summit of San Catequilla, as it appeared in July 2008. Photo by John E. Staller.

Volcanoes have symbolic associations to lightning and the importance of this valley is evidenced by the two branches of the Inca road, or Camino Real, one to the east and the other to the west side of the hill. Numerous Inca sites are in the surrounding landscape, including Pucara de Rumicucho, an Inca fortress and administrative center. The lightning huaca is made up of two superimposed earthen platforms; a buried rectangular platform measuring about 100 meters N/S and about 80 meters E/W, below a large circular earthen platform measuring 60 meters in diameter. The locations of these superimposed platforms on the southwestern slopes of Cerro Catequilla are the only places on the 200-meter long hilltop where the equator is directly overhead. This is one of three Inca huacas with Catequilla toponyms between the equator and 3° N. Catequilla de Pichincha was the most highly venerated because of its location under the equator.

In 1609, the chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega stated that the pillars and columns on many platforms around Quito and to the north in Cayambe and Ibarra were “broken to pieces” by the Conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar, who tore them all down because the Andeans worshiped them idolatrously. There is very little information in the Spanish chronicles or from the Audiencia de Quito on how temporal cycles were recorded in and around Quito during the Contact Period. Most scholars have found astronomical calculation regarding the solar calendar was achieved through shadow casting. The most highly venerated gnome was Catequilla de Pichincha, primarily because when the sun was overhead during certain parts of the annual cycle there was increasingly diminished shadow around the pillar or gnome at this lightning huaca.

John E. Staller - Cerro Catequilla
Cerro Catequilla, Pichincha Province, Ecuador, looking east from the town of San Antonio. Archaeological evidence of earlier occupation pertaining to Panzaleo culture at the base of the hill and the earthen architecture at the huaca on the summit suggests it was venerated before Inca expansion into this region. Cerro Catequilla stands at 2638 masl at the southern terminus of the summit directly under the Mitad del Mundo, or the equator. Indigenous informants mentioned that only maize may be cultivated on the summit and every year around the December solstice, rituals are still carried out and offerings are made to thehuaca. Photo courtesy of Cristóbal Cobo.

The Inca constructed over a hundred ceremonial platforms and shrines (villcas), some on mountain passes (apachitas), others on the summits of the highest mountains in their empire, between 1438 and the Spanish Conquest in 1532. Lightning was the major theophany of weather in Inca religion, known as Ilapa, now Illapa, the Hispanic spelling. Huacas with “Catequil” or “Catequilla” toponyms were associated with the spread of Catequil, a religious cult to lightning throughout their empire. Lightning veneration extended from Quito to Cuzco during the early Colonial Period. The principal huaca associated with lightning, was another hilltop huaca in northern highland Peru, Catequil de Huamacucho, a huaca said to make other huacas “speak,” and therefore believed to have the ability to predict earthquakes. Spirits associated with lightning are malevolent, have ancient origins in Andean cosmology and religion, and are symbolically depicted in various cultural traditions.

Many lightning huacas around the equator and regions to the north have circular stone enclosures or platforms which local Andean informants have said to me are places where lightning struck and are therefore sanctified. Such features have also been identified archaeologically in and around the nearby Inca fortress at Pucara de Rumicucho. Circular stone enclosures or platform features generally measure between three to four meters in diameter and are dispersed throughout this region. However, these were not destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores because they were not venerated in an “idolatrous” manner. Some are located in indigenous towns in the surrounding valley and those in the nearby towns are clearly visible from the summit of Cerro Catequilla. My preliminary research at this site indicates that such features also had astronomical function in association with sight lines to the surrounding horizon, solar cycles, and constellations in the night sky. In the Andes, thunder and lightning have symbolic associations with rain, hail, earthquakes, and the metallurgical arts, particularly gold and silver, agricultural fertility, and fire and damaging hail storms.

Featured image: Andean landscape, north of Quito. This photo is looking north across Cerro Catequilla and was taken from the lightning huaca at 0°.00 latitude. This valley has historically been of critical importance to cultivation, transport, and the movement people and food crops into northern Ecuador and Colombia. Photo by John E. Staller.

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Gods and mythological creatures of the Odyssey in art

The gods and various mythological creatures — from minor gods to nymphs to monsters — play an integral role in Odysseus’s adventures. They may act as puppeteers, guiding or diverting Odysseus’s course; they may act as anchors, keeping Odysseus from journeying home; or they may act as obstacles, such as Cyclops, Scylla and Charbidis, or the Sirens. While Gods like Athena are generally looking out for Odysseus’s best interests, Aeolus, Poseidon, and Helios beg Zeus to punish Odysseus, but because his fate is to return home to Ithaca, many of the Gods simply make his journey more difficult. Below if a brief slideshow of images from Barry B. Powell’s new free verse translation of Homer’s The Odyssey depicting the god and other mythology.

Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His new free verse translation of The Odyssey was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. His translation of The Iliad was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. See previous blog posts from Barry B. Powell.

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The Odyssey in culture, ancient and modern

Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey recounts the 10-year journey of Odysseus from the fall of Troy to his return home to Ithaca. The story has continued to draw people in since its beginning in an oral tradition, through the first Greek writing and integration into the ancient education system, the numerous translations over the ages, and modern retellings. It has also been adapted to different artistic mediums from depictions on pottery, to scenes in mosaic, to film. We spoke with Barry B. Powell, author of a new free verse translation of The Odyssey, about how the story was embedded into ancient Greek life, why it continues to resonate today, and what translations capture about their contemporary cultures.

Visual representations of The Odyssey and understanding ancient Greek history

Why is The Odyssey still relevant in our modern culture?

On the over 130 translations of The Odyssey into English

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