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Cleopatra and coffins

Another short posting this time, and one that is also rather behind the times. There has been a fair bit about Cleopatra in the news of late. The BBC showed a documentary which claimed, on the basis of no convincing evidence whatsoever, that they had found the tomb and skeleton of her sister Arsinoe IV at Ephesus. They aged the skeleton to 17, and while these things are not exact it certainly did not fit with her probable age when she was killed on Antony’s orders – middle to late twenties. Then an Egyptian team announced that they were hoping to find Cleopatra and Antony’s tomb. On the evidence released so far I cannot really see the basis for any confidence.

However, interesting though it would be to carry out a full scientific analysis, I must confess that a big part of me hopes that their remains are never found. There is something uncomfortable about looking at human remains in a museum cabinet, or indeed the knowledge that plenty of other bones are stored in their basements. Antony and Cleopatra were not the nicest of people – few famous figures from Antiquity were – but they had pretty turbulent lives, and I can’t help thinking they deserve a bit of peace. Not that I would not eagerly read the reports if they were found and analysed.

On a vaguely connected note, I happened to be looking at the Egyptian galleries in the British Museum just recently. A mother and a child of about four were there, and the little girl seemed very taken with the painted coffins. You could tell she really fancied the idea of sleeping in one of those. So in an impatient voice she suddenly asked, ‘When can we die, mummy?’

New Books in History interview

Just a quick post to say that earlier today I did an interview about How Rome Fell with Marshall Poe for his website New Books in History.

You can listen to it here

I have been travelling a little lately, hence the lack of any new entries. Last week I visited the battlefield of Waterloo and here is one of the pictures taken on a drizzly day. This was taken from the edge of the Chateau of Hougomont, looking towards the position of the ridge, marked by the Lion Mound. It was over these fields that the grand Fremch cavalry charges were delivered on the 18th June 1815. Being there makes you realise just how densely packed the squadrons must have been. On the day the ridge was markedly higher, but sadly the construction of the monument drastically altered its shape. Still, it does make a good viewing platform.

Timewatch Young Victoria
For those in the UK, BBC2 are repeating Kate Williams' Timewatch documentary about the early life of Queen Victoria this Saturday at 8.35. It's well worth catching.
Easter and the Roman Army

With the Easter holidays just past, no doubt lots of TV stations have rolled out some of the old Hollywood epics. As a kid I used to sit watching these, waiting excitedly for the scenes with Roman soldiers and then complaining that their armour and equipment was wrong! These days I do not get upset quite so easily. It is interesting though that even dramas or documentaries that say they want to get things right always tend to depict the soldiers at the crucifixion as legionaries. They usually have the famous segmented armour, a semi-cylindrical rectangular shield and carry the pilum.

Judaea was a minor province governed by an equestrian prefect - the title became procurator c. AD 40. Equestrians were the social class below the sentorial order. There were thousands - probably tens of thousands of them - compared to about 600 senators. Apart from in Egypt, legions were always commanded by a senatorial legate. Since a senator could not serve under an equestrian, no legionary troops were stationed in Judaea. Instead the garrison consisted of auxiliaries. These were not Roman citizens, although they gained Roman citizenship at the end of their twenty-five years of military service. Many of the men in the army in Judaea are likely to have been Syrians. Their centurions may or may not have been Roman citizens, but were often local men. The prefect or tribune commanding a cohort would have been both a citizen and an equestrian. Later in his career he might rise to govern an equestrian province, although the majority did not achieve this.

Jerusalem normally seems to have had a garrison of a single cohort - probably 480 men, although in the Book of Acts there seems to be a mixed cohort containing some cavalry as well as infantry stationed there. The prefect spent most of his time at Caesarea, which was an overtly Gentile city. He would go up to Jerusalem for volatile periods like the Passover and take another cohort or so with him. Josephus tells us that when Pontius Pilate did this for the first time there was rioting because his men brought their standards - including the imagines which were images of the imperial family - with them into the Fortress of Antonia which was built onto the corner of the Temple.

Anyway, auxiliaries wore a different uniform to legionaries. They carried a flat shield, usually oval, but sometimes rectangular, wore mail or scale armour instead of the segmented cuirass, and carried one or more spears (such as the lancea) instead of the heavier pilum. Roman soldiers of all types frequently performed police duties, including carrying out executions. Whether they would wear full equipment at such times is unclear. A soldier would anyway be marked out by his hob-nailed boots (caligae) and the weapons' belt which girded his long tunic up around his thighs. Still, I suppose the classic legionary is immediately recognisable as a Roman soldier, and that is probably all that will matter to film or TV producers. Just be nice if someone would get it right sometime!


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