The Battle of Actium

Did you know that 2,048 years ago one of the most important naval battles of history took place near Actium, on the western coast of Greece? On 2 September 31 B.C., the forces of Octavian (future Emperor Augustus) opposed those of the famous Cleopatra and Mark Antony.  The battle itself is indecisive, but Octavian gained the upper hand when Cleopatra fled with her Egyptian galleys and Mark Antony managed to follow her. A few days later, their ground troupes surrendered and the victory went to Octavian. The Battle of Actium changed the face of the Mediterranean in Antiquity.  Not only did it put an end to the civil war of the Roman Republic, it gave birth to the Roman Empire, with Octavian becoming its first emperor.

In the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art there is a gilded tempera painting on panel that depicts this very important naval battle important. The painting was created in 1475-80 by Italian artist Neroccio De’ Landi and his workshop.



My ARCHAEO-Crush for the month of April is a wonderful site in Syria that has suffered tremendously in the last year and has been in the media a lot recently.


Type: site (ancient city with various monuments)
Civilisation: Ancient Syria (part of/controlled by various empires during its long history)
Date: Bronze Age to Middle Ages, 2nd millennium BCE to 1st millennium CE

ARCHAEO-Crush: Palmyra is a ancient city in an oasis in the middle of the Syrian Desert.  The Romans were the ones to give the city its name in the 1st century BCE, but the site is also known as Tadmor and it predates the Roman period. In the 19th century BCE, the city is mentioned in tablets from Mari (another Syrian city) as a stop for trade caravans and nomads. Indeed, due to its location (between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates), Palmyra connected the Roman world and Mesopotamia and became a wealthy city on the route between the East and West.
There are fantastic ruins in Palmyra: the Grand Colonnade, Triumphal Arch, various temples (to Bel and Baal-Shamin, for example), an agora, a senate house, a theatre, tower tombs and even Christian churches. There are also baths, which date to the rule of Diocletian but are labelled “bathes of Zenobia” on the signposts. Actually, Zenobia is one of the famous personalities of Palmyra. She was the second wife of Odaenathus, Rome’s client ruler of Palmyra. When her husband and his son from a previous marriage  were assassinated, she became the regent of her very young son and declared herself queen of Palmyra (some say she was behind the murder). However, Zenobia had no desire to remain a client of Rome: in 269 CE she seized Egypt, then conquered much of Asia Minor and declared her independence from Rome. Emperor Aurelian defeated her armies in Antioch (Turkey) and Zenobia was captured.  Palmyra’s prosperity declined after her death (sources differ about the rebellious queen’s actual fate). The city was taken in the name of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, in 634 and was ruined by an earthquake in 1089.

Bucket list status: I was tremendously fortunate to vacation in Syria after the dig at Madaba, Jordan, back in 1999. Syria is spectacularly beautiful… and I had a fabulous time at Palmyra.
Additional information: Palmyra has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage since 1980 (no. 23) and was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2013. Unfortunately, several monuments in my pictures were destroyed by ISIL in 2015.  You can find heartbreaking before and after photos of the monuments here.  You can also read ASOR’s Cultural Initiative Special Report on Palmyra.

The Head of Augustus from Meroe

December’s ARCHAEO-Crush is one of my favourite artefacts at the British Museum that comes from the site of Meroe in Sudan.

The so-called ‘Meroe Head’ (or Head of Augustus) at the British Museum is a magnificent bronze head of Emperor Augustus excavated in Meroe, Sudan.


Type: artefact (statue fragment)
Civilisation: Roman Empire, rule of Augustus, 27 BC – AD 14
Date:  27 BC – 25 BC
ARCHAEO-Crush: I have mentioned elsewhere that I have a soft spot for Augustus, the first emperor of Rome,  but I’m not quite sure why. (I mean the guy defeated Cleopatra and Antony at Actium and Egypt became a Roman province. I’m an Egyptologist… I shouldn’t like Augustus!) It might be that I am partial to his statues’ beautiful features–his idealised boyish good looks found in both marble and bronze. And, in this particular case, his eyes! These amazing eyes are the original inlays with glass pupils set in metal rings and irises made of calcite.  However, of all the statues of Augustus an archaeologist (or a tourist) will come across, this one is the most amazing in my very humble opinion…  Even more so because it was not found in any part of the Roman Empire… it was discovered in Sudan at the Royal City of Meroe!
This story includes the Romans getting their butts kicked by a girl, the great Meroitic Candace Amanirenas (perhaps more on that another day), whose army looted statues of Augustus that were set up at Aswan during the Kushite attack in 25 BC (remember Egypt had become a province of the Empire and there were statues of the emperor all over the place). The booty was taken back home to Meroe, capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Clearly, not all statues were returned after the Romans and the Kushites negotiated a peace treaty because this more than life-size head of Augustus was excavated by John Garstang at Meroe in 1910 (you’ll find great pics here).  Interestingly, the bronze head of Augustus was discovered underneath the steps of a temple, metaphorically being trampled by the feet of those entering (needless to say it was deliberately placed there). The lovely head’s fate is a remarkable illustration of the Kushites’ opposition to the Roman rule of Egypt.  The Romans never controlled Kush…
Bucket list status:
I have seen this fabulous bronze head a few times, but, strangely enough, I photographed it only once–the first time I went to the BM–before I even owned a digital camera. I had been wanting to blog about it, but had wait until I came home for Christmas to scan the picture because the original was at my parents’ house!
Additional information: 
The accession number for this object is 1911,0901.1 and you can read more about it on the British Museum website.  It was featured in the BM’s wonderful series History of the World in 100 Objects as object #35, and you can listen to the entry by clicking on the pink button using the link.

The Hangman’s Daughter and Emperor Augustus

I am currently reading Oliver Pötzsch’s international bestseller, The Hangman’s Daughter, a story that takes place in Bavaria in 1659, after the 30 Years war. Although the characters live in a small town called Schongau, there are many references to the big town nearby: Augsburg. One of the reasons I am enjoying the book is that, earlier this year, after the CIPEG conference in Munich ended, I visited Augsburg with my friend Dana. What on earth does that have to do with archaeology?

Well, the city of Ausgburg was actually found in 15 BCE by Tiberius and Drusus on the order of their step-father, Roman Emperor Augustus. (I’ll admit that I do have a soft spot for Augustus…) The city, Augusta Vindelicum, which was originally a military camp, soon prospered thanks to its prominent location at the crossroads of various trade routes and became the capital of the Roman province of Raetia. While there is a Roman Museum in Augsburg that would have liked to visit, it was closed during our day trip. I’ll have visit again because I would very much like to learn more about the Roman period in Augsburg and the region.

On this note, I leave you with three photos of this beautiful city… including a nice shot of a statue of Emperor Augustus.