Thursday, June 24, 2010

Caesar and Pompey in Albania

I've recently returned from taking a group on a cultural heritage tour of Albania, and it was good to see that there have been lots of positive changes since the last tour. The most important change is the upgrading of several main roads, and in particular the beautiful coast road from Saranda to Vlore. 



Our group was quite small, but some of them had a particular interest in the Roman Civil War, so I made sure to point out as many of the pertinent places as possible. There are quite a few - Caesar and Pompey played cat and mouse up and down the coastal plain of Albania before heading East to meet up at Pharsala in Thessaly.

The stretch of coast where Caesar landed his troops is today a long, white almost deserted beach between Saranda and Vlore, and I suppose pretty it looked much as it would have done two thousand years ago - apart from the fact that Caesar landed in the midst of winter. You can imagine the ships coming in to the beach with the waves lashing the sterns and the wind howling into the ears of the troops as they stood on deck. Nor was there respite when they reached dry land - they then had to face a climb of awe-inspiring steepness up into the hills and across the quarry-pitted Karaburuni peninsula to reach the relatively safe harbour of Orikum. You can still see the path the estimated 30,000 troops took, and the narrowness of the track makes you wonder how many hours it took for the whole army to wind its way over the heights of LLogara. 
 (You can just make out the horizontal track in this photograph)

Having left a garrison at Orikum, and ships in the harbour, Caesar headed north to meet up with Marc Antony who had landed at Shengjin, the harbour of ancient Lissus. They would join up, or else they would make a pincer movement on Pompey's forces, which were stationed near Dyrrachion (Greek Epidamnus), where Pompey taken his troops on hearing that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon. Pompey headed back to try and stop the two forces joining up, but (as often happens in ancient warfare) bypassed the two armies and was then forced to make camp in Asparagium (Rroghozina) in order to regroup and re-assess. However, he did receive the good news that his son Pompey Junius had taken Orikum and destroyed 30 of Caesar's ships.  There was no turning back for Caesar.

Caesar, inland from Dyrrachion, ordered his troops to build earthworks, hoping to immobilise Pompey, but Pompey realised that he could not allow himself to be trapped and so, in a bold move, broke through the newly erected earthworks and fortifications and gave battle somewhere near Petra (Kavaje?). It was a hard fought engagement, but with no definite conclusion, and Caesar withdrew his men, leaving 690 of them dead on the field of battle. He led his troops south east and into Macedonia, passing Apollonia, a town famed for its School of Rhetoric, which was staunchly pro-Caesar.

Pompey, buoyed by Caesar's haste to get away, calmly took the Via Egnatia, the famous road leading from Dyrrachion all the way to Byzantium, and also crossed the mountains into Macedonia, thence down into Thessaly to meet his fate. Albania's role in the Civil War was over.

There is a post-script to the story, however. Later, when Caesar had defeated not only Pompey but Marc Antony too, he sent his heir Octavian away from Rome, to toughen up a bit and to gain some experience abroad. He sent him to Apollonia, and it was in that city that the young Octavian heard of the assassination of Julius Caesar and returned to Rome to take up his destiny.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gladiators in the North of England

Knowledge of the Roman period in Britain is growing all the time, thanks to new excavations and the application of scientific techniques. Human remains from the site at Driffield Terrace in York have been the subject of speculation for some time: were the 80 plus skeletons of young men exhumed over the last decade a group of aristocrats punished for their part in a revolt against the Roman Emperor Caracalla? That was one theory, but it seems that forensic science has revealed that the truth is something quite different – it was a graveyard for gladiators.


The group of well-built young men had been decapitated, leading to bizarre theories about pagan rites, or punishment for outsiders such as Christians. They also had evidence of hammer blows to the head, which became of greater interest when a group of burials of gladiators with the same type of blows, and also decapitation, were discovered in Ephesus, Turkey, three years ago.

The result of forensic work on the skeletons, recently announced, show a variety of evidence which would support the view that the men were gladiators. Many of the 1,800-year-old remains indicate much stronger muscles in the right arm, a condition to be expected in men who had been subjected to years of training. Analysis of the tooth enamel showed that the men came from a wide range of Roman provinces, including North Africa, also a normal feature of gladiator recruitment.

Imagine coming from North Africa to fight in York! York was a provincial capital and major military base for the Romans, and is famous for the fact that the Emperor Constantine took the purple there is AD306. It seems that the town was a flourishing place with a social life which included watching man pitted against beast in the amphitheatre. And it seems that the residents ate well too, if the funeral feasts are anything to go by. Literary sources tell us that gladiators were the ancient equivalent of premier footballers, with huge followings and lavish lifestyles for those who survived long enough. The funeral feasts for these Northern ‘stars’ included beef, pork and horsemeat and they were provided with a variety of grave goods for the afterlife.

Decapitation was a common way to meet one’s death at the end of a contest (witness also the skeletons excavated in the amphitheatre in Durres, Albania) and the coup-de-grace was often delivered by a hammer to the head. But it was the evidence of a bite from a large animal that really sealed the interpretation – probably from a lion, tiger or bear. There were also a broad range of other healed and unhealed injuries associated with violence found on the skeletons. As Dr Michael Wysocki, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, put it: "It would seem highly unlikely that this individual was attacked by a lion or tiger as he was walking home from the pub in York 2,000 years ago." So, gladiators it is then……