One of Rome’s major monuments has gone missing

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Ancient Rome (Detail)

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe map above is a closer look at a map of ancient Rome by Allyn and Bacon. It’s inter­est­ing because it shows the pos­i­tion of the Solarium, or the Horologium Augusti, a giant sun­dial set up by Augustus. It’s the sub­ject of a paper in the Journal of Roman Studies by Peter Heslin: Augustus, Domitian and the So-called Horologium Augusti. This is a bril­liant paper twice over. First he shows that the Horologium could not have exis­ted as it is shown on this map. This is con­tro­ver­sial because extremely emin­ent archae­olo­gists in the German Archaeological Institute have claimed they’ve found the Horologium. This paper by Peter Heslin emphat­ic­ally shows they’re wrong. Then he goes on to give an explan­a­tion of what they’ve found which makes sense archae­olo­gic­ally, his­tor­ic­ally and astronomically.

What is there on the Campus Martius?

The Campus Martius was an area of ground on the north side of Rome, prone to swamp­i­ness. It lay out­side the the early bound­ar­ies of Rome, which meant it could be used for a vari­ety of things not allowed in the City. It’s here the Mausoleum of Augustus is found. There are temples and altars. It was also the closest place to the walls where the army could leg­ally muster. This made it an import­ant area, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that Augustus gave it his atten­tion. One of the things he set up there Heslin notes is an obelisk. We have a record of the erec­tion of the obelisk and its use from Pliny’s Natural History:

Augustus used the obelisk in the Campus Martius in a remark­able way, namely to cast a shadow and thus mark the length of days and nights. A paved area was laid out to com­men­sur­ate with the height of the mono­lith in such a way that the shadow at noon on the shortest day might extend to the end of the pav­ing. As the shadow gradu­ally grew shorter and longer again it was meas­ured by bronze rods fixed in the pav­ing. This device deserves study; it was the res­ult of a brain wave Facundus Novius. Novius placed a gil­ded ball on the apex of the mono­lith oth­er­wise the shadow cast would have been very indis­tinct. He got this idea, so it is said, from see­ing the shadow cast by a man’s head. These meas­ure­ments, how­ever, have not agreed with the cal­en­dar from some 30 years. Either the sun itself is out of phase or has been altered by some change in the beha­vior of the heav­ens, or the whole earth has moved slightly off center.

Translation from UOregon’s Solarium site.

It would seem that archae­olo­gists and his­tor­i­ans can agree that there was at least an obelisk and a line with cal­ib­rated meas­ure­ments for the length of days. Beyond that people start to argue.

The opin­ion which holds sway at the moment is based on work by Edmund Buchner of the German Archaeological Institute. Buchner has recon­struc­ted the Horologium. He argues that the obselisk was placed so that the shadow of the obelisk would fall on the Ara Pacis, the altar of Peace, on Augustus’s birth­day. There’s also a con­nec­tion to the Mausoleum Augusti, his burial place, so that the whole area was a reflec­tion of Augustus’s impos­i­tion of cos­mic order. Heslin puts Buchner’s ideas as part of a long series of recon­struc­tions dat­ing back to the 17th century.

That was explained to me when I was part of a trip to Rome, and the explan­a­tion made no sense. If the shadow fell on the altar on Augustus’s birth­day, which may have been on the 23rd of September, then the shadow must have passed over it at some time of day every day between the 20th of March and his birth­day. The pro­fessor guid­ing us around the sites of ancient Rome was a pro­fessor of Ancient History, rather than Astronomy. A good choice, but it meant he couldn’t answer this query. It had been in the back of my mind to look more closely at the prob­lem when I had time.

Why can’t it be a sundial?

Campus Martius

Buchner may be one of a long line of people to pro­pose the exist­ence of a sun­dial on the Campus Martius — the about paint­ing dates from the 19th cen­tury — but Heslin also sees he is the latest in a slightly shorter line of schol­ars debunk­ing the exist­ence of the sun­dial. He cites Angelo Maria Bandini as writ­ing the defin­it­ive refut­a­tion of the sun­dial. In 1750! There are two closely con­nec­ted ques­tions. Why can’t it be a sun­dial, and if it can’t why has the idea that it is per­sisted for so long?

Meridian line in Rome
A Meridian line in Rome. Photo from Wikipedia.

One reason the recon­struc­tion fails is that the sun­dial would not work is hin­ted at in the paint­ing above. If you look, you can see that the shadow gets lighter as it falls fur­ther from the base of the obelisk. This is accur­ate. The longer shad­ows get, the more dif­fuse they become. The German phys­i­cist Schütz has cal­cu­lated the height of the obselisk from the cal­ib­ra­tion of a meridian line found in the cel­lar of a house on the Via di Campo Marzio. This shows that the shadow could never have reached as far as the Ara Pacis.

Additional evid­ence tends to evap­or­ate on close inspec­tion. Heslin goes through the argu­ments Schütz has made against the exist­ence of a sun­dial. Buchner’s inscrip­tions seem to come from entirely dif­fer­ent places to where Buchner claims. Heslin is scath­ing of Buchner’s work. He com­ments on Buchner’s inter­pret­a­tion of text to bol­ster a claim of an even more massive horo­lo­gium:

Buchner’s solu­tion is to dis­miss these incon­veni­ent parts of the pas­sage as a ‘fantasy’. The real fantasy is this ‘wind-rose’ with its vast cir­cu­lar pave­ment, which was an attempt to sal­vage the erro­neous claim that the sun­dial was found in San Lorenzo in the face of Schütz’s demon­stra­tion that the shadow of the obelisk could not use­fully have reached that far. The tragedy is that this pure fic­tion is now enshrined in such fun­da­mental ref­er­ence work as the Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae.

Heslin 2007:12

It doesn’t really get more bru­tal than that amongst ancient his­tor­i­ans, though the com­pre­hens­ive take-down of Buchner’s work by Heslin shows that it’s not said lightly.

If the paper were simply a debunk­ing of the sun­dial, then that would be use­ful. However, Heslin goes on to put for­ward a bet­ter explan­a­tion which makes sense archae­olo­gic­ally, astro­nom­ic­ally and historically.

If it’s not a sun­dial what is it?

There is archae­olo­gical evid­i­ence of a meridian line. The pas­sage of Pliny above describes a meridian line. Heslin’s pro­posal sounds odd because it’s blind­ingly obvi­ous. The obelisk, he argues, is a meridian.

A meridian is subtly dif­fer­ent to a sun­dial. A sun­dial tells you the time of day. A meridian tells you the time of year. It’s one long line run­ning north-south. At mid­day the sun is due south in Rome. When the sun is high in sum­mer, the mid­day shadow is short. When the sun is low in winter, the mid­day shadow it casts is longer. If you look to see how long the shadow is when it’s aligned dir­ectly over the meridian line, then you can tell what day of the year it is. The archae­olo­gical excav­a­tions have revealed a line that runs dir­ectly north-south. One it are inscrip­tions, as an example on one side is ΤΑΥΡ[ΟΣ] and [ΛΕ]ΟΝ. Taurus and Leo, mark­ing where the Sun was when it cast its shadow. The other inscrip­tions are about the time of year, not the time of day. But why set up a meridian rather than a sundial?

Julius Caesar reor­gan­ised the Roman cal­en­dar. Unfortunately there was a mix up with his instruc­tions. Caesar said to insert a leap year every four years. Unfortunately the priests coun­ted inclus­ively, so they were insert­ing leap years like this:

* Year One — leap year
* Year Two — stand­ard year
* Year Three — stand­ard year
* Year Four — fourth year so must be a leap year

Augustus had to make calendrical reforms of his own, because this is a leap year every three rather than four years. Mucking about with the cal­en­dar is not some­thing you do on a whim. The usual explan­a­tion for cal­en­dars is that they’re for know­ing when to plant crops. This isn’t likely. Farmers were able to har­vest with the older inac­cur­ate cal­en­dar. Calendars are more about social and reli­gious order, which is eas­ily con­fused with nat­ural order. By fix­ing the cal­en­dar Augustus was mak­ing peace with the heav­ens, and that’s some­thing worth mark­ing. The meridian was a graphic illus­tra­tion of the order Augustus had brought to the heav­ens, just as the Ara Pacis was pro­pa­ganda to show how he had brought peace to earth. Heslin (2007:14–6) puts the two monu­ments in con­text of their pos­i­tion along­side the Via Flaminia, one of the main roads out of Rome.

It’s a cliché to say that his­tory books will need to be re-written, but in this case Heslin has exposed some shock­ingly basic flaws in schol­ar­ship, not just in Buchner’s work but also in the work of many other schol­ars who have cited Schütz without enga­ging with the cri­ti­cisms, or else simply ignored any cri­ti­cisms alto­gether. Hopefully by expos­ing the flimsy nature of Buchner’s evid­ence, and provid­ing a plaus­ible altern­at­ive, Heslin’s work will have more impact that those who have tried pre­vi­ously to debunk the sundial.

Peer Reviewed Heslin, P. (2007). Augustus, Domitian and the So-called Horologium Augusti. Journal of Roman Studies, 97, 1–20.

HBO’s Rome: Down with this sort of thing! (Careful now)

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[Cross pos­ted to Revise & Dissent]

Rome returns this week on HBO, so per­haps there’ll be a spring or sum­mer show­ing in the UK. However, as Adrian Murdoch says, not every­body is happy. Mediawatch-uk has already com­plained about the pro­gramme, though it’s uncer­tain as to whether any of their mem­bers have seen it yet.

I have to admit I haven’t seen the first whole series yet. I only got the DVD at Christmas and I have a couple of epis­odes to go. However so far I’m enjoy­ing it. I may lose Classics-cred for that, but the scene where Vorenus was offered a dormouse, around a cen­tury after they’d ceased being din­ner items, didn’t ruin the series for me. There are ana­chron­isms but on the whole I think it’s view of Rome is a com­pli­ment to I, Claudius.
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America really really isn’t the new Rome

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[A ver­sion is cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial based, ulti­mately, on the Pantheon in Rome. Photo by dbking.

Now this could be a car­ni­val in the mak­ing. A round-up of all the America is the New Rome stor­ies on the web. I’ve already pos­ted on how you can inanely cherry-pick ele­ments of the past to bol­ster a polit­ical asser­tion. It’s an unquench­able well.

It’s awful polit­ics though. Important polit­ics issues are hid­den behind what is often poor his­tory. In many of the America is the new Rome art­icles there’s an idea that situ­ations lead to inev­it­able con­sequences, like the idea that if America is the new Rome then moral decline and the fall of Empire are inev­it­able. You end up with the situ­ation where people argue that soci­ety is mono­casual, or close to it, rather than the com­plex inter­play of cre­at­ive indi­vidu­als. An example is an ana­lysis by William Federer which I found via The Lighthouse Patriot Journal, but a search on Google shows it’s been quoted with approval by many dif­fer­ent people. It’s a shame because you could prob­ably write a whole book about the errors in it:

Rome fell September 4, 476AD. It was over­run with illegal immig­rants: Visigoths, Franks, Anglos, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Lombards, Jutes and Vandals, who at first assim­il­ated and worked as ser­vants, but then came so fast they did not learn the Latin Language or the Roman form of gov­ern­ment. Highly trained Roman Legions mov­ing rap­idly on their advanced road sys­tem, were strained fight­ing con­flicts world­wide. Rome had a trade defi­cit, hav­ing out­sourced most of its grain pro­duc­tion to North Africa, and when Vandals cap­tured that area, Rome did not have the resources to retali­ate. Attila the Hun was com­mit­ting ter­ror­ist attacks. The city of Rome was on wel­fare with cit­izens being given free bread. One Roman com­men­ted: ‘Those who live at the expense of the pub­lic funds are more numer­ous than those who provide them.’ Tax col­lect­ors were ‘more ter­rible than the enemy.’ Gladiators provided viol­ent enter­tain­ment in the Coliseum. There was injustice in courts, expos­ure of unwanted infants, infi­del­ity, immor­al­ity and per­ver­ted bath­houses. 5th-Century his­tor­ian Salvian wrote: ‘O Roman people be ashamed… Let nobody think oth­er­wise, the vices of our bad lives have alone conquered us’.

The corn dole was insti­tuted around 50BC and as surely as night fol­lows day over five hun­dred years later the city of Rome fell. Except it wasn’t Rome — it was Ravenna that fell in 476, the cap­ital of the Western Roman Empire, but I assume Rome was syn­onym. Gladiators provided viol­ent enter­tain­ment in the Colosseum? Not after AD 404 they didn’t — the Emperor Honorarius banned them. Attila the Hun was com­mit­ting ter­ror­ist attacks? No. Not only is ter­ror­ist is not a syn­onym for nasty, Attila died in 453. He wasn’t ter­ror­ising any­one. Infidelity? That’s a human con­stant in all soci­et­ies. So is talk­ing, but so far no-one has sug­ges­ted Rome could have remained great if it had embraced mime. Or if they have I haven’t heard them.
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Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment” by Valerie Shrimplin

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[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Valerie Shrimplin’s Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in “Michelangelo’s Last Judgment” is a dif­fi­cult book to write about. I like it, but it tackles such a var­ied range of sources that it raises a lot of intriguing ques­tions. Certainly more than can be covered in one blog post so, for now, I’ll leave them for a later post. For now I’ll start from the pop­u­lar, if incor­rect, view of the arrival of Copernicanism.

Sometime in the 16th cen­tury Nicolaus Copernicus dis­covered that con­trary to the teach­ings of the church, the Earth went round the Sun. Fearing con­dem­na­tion by the Church he refused to pub­lish his the­ory until his death. The next day Galileo buys a copy of the book and is inspired to dis­cover Jupiter’s moons with a tele­scope. This proves Copernicus’s the­ory and he tells the world about it. In the Vatican all hell breaks loose, fig­ur­at­ively speak­ing. The Inquistion is sent to deal with Galileo, much to his sur­prise, and so the church becomes an army of dark­ness in the War for Enlightenment.

The above is non­sense, but per­haps a fair ste­reo­type of the Science vs. Religion battle that con­tin­ues to this day. So what would it mean if there was a depic­tion of a helio­centric uni­verse in the Sistene chapel dat­ing from the six­teenth cen­tury in full view of everyone?

The Last Judgement
The Last Judgement: Image from Wikipedia.

In the midst of all assuredly dwells the Sun. For in this most beau­ti­ful who would place this luminary in any other or bet­ter pos­i­tion from which he can illu­min­ate the whole at once? Indeed, some rightly call Him the Light of the World, oth­ers, the Mind or ruler of the Universe: Trismegistus names him the vis­ible God, Sophocles’ Electra calls him the all-seeing. So indeed the Sun remains, as if in his kingly domin­ion, gov­ern­ing the fam­ily of Heavenly bod­ies which circles around him.

Shrimplin begins her book with this quote which could be read as a descrip­tion of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. It’s not. It’s from De revolu­tionibus orbium coe­les­tium. Ok, so Michelangelo could have been inspired by Copernicus. The prob­lem is that Michelangelo fin­ished his paint­ing in 1541 and De Revolutionibus was not pub­lished until 1543.
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When in Rome did they start doing as the Romans did?

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Archived from Revise and Dissent


Julian Forum. Photo by Gauis Caecilius.

You may have noticed a the news story that the skel­eton of a 30-year-old woman had been uncovered dur­ing excav­a­tions in the Julian Forum. They tend to share a head­line which sug­gests that the skel­eton is 300 years older than Rome. This is pecu­liar. The LA Times for instance says that the skel­eton dates from the tenth cen­tury BC. Rome was said to have been foun­ded in 753 BC, which is the eighth cen­tury BC. Mathematical puzzles aside, how do the archae­olo­gists know this woman dates from before Rome?

As it hap­pens she was found with a neck­lace and some pins, and she’s not alone. There are many crema­tions, so there’s plenty of ways of giv­ing a rough date to the burial. It’s not the date of the burial that I’m ques­tion­ing. It’s the found­a­tion of Rome. Famously it wasn’t built in a day, but does it really make sense to say it was built in a spe­cific year either?

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America is not the new Rome

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Carnivalesque ButtonPeter Jones writes a weekly column for the Spectator magazine Ancient and Modern which looks back to the past for par­al­lels to cur­rent affairs. I’m envi­ous because it’s some­thing I have great dif­fi­culty with. For instance a lot of people write America as the New Roman Empire pieces. But is there really a com­par­ison with the plots and polit­ics of ancient Rome and mod­ern America. I’m not sure. Some polit­ical situ­ations were surely unique to the ancient world. Take for instance Suetonius’s record of the life of Caligula.

George W Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln
Unlike Caligula, George Bush served as an act­ive mem­ber of the armed forces dur­ing a war.

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Archaeology as it should be

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Trajan's Markets
Trajan’s Markets. Photo by MHarrsch.

A story from Ansa​.it has caught my eye. I spend a lot of time study­ing the cursed remains of pagan temples, but I’ve never come across unspeak­ably giant mon­sters guard­ing ancient secrets while I do it. It turns out I’ve been look­ing in the wrong place. Part of ancient Rome is now home to giant crabs. They get bonus mon­ster points for eat­ing the corpses of dead cats, rats and pigeons.