Tag Archives: Greek

To The Black Sea And Back: The Late Antique Dura-Europos ‘Shield’ Map


Dura-Europos as visualized on the Pelagios Project’s Peripleo map.

Dura-Europos is an ancient site on the Euphrates river in modern-day Syria. The objects excavated at the site by Yale University (later famously led by Mikhail Rostovtzeff), and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters during the 1920s and 1930s provide some of the most vivid wall paintings, mosaics, and material culture from the ancient world that we have today. One of the most stunning finds is a parchment shield cover that dates to around 260 CE, which has a map of the Black Sea on it. There is debate over whether it was on the inside of a shield used by a soldier or was a dedicatory object; however, the map provides a rare glimpse into how geography was visualized.


Surviving parchment fragment of the Black Sea ‘Shield Map’ from Dura Europos dated to before 260 CE. It depicts staging posts along the Black Sea (Bibliotheque Nationale Gr. Suppl. 1354, no. 5). Images via Cumont (see citation below) with added scale and color enhancement. 

Hand drawing of the map via Wikimedia (D. Herdemerten Hannibal21, CC BY-SA 3.0).

The parchment contains a number of place names in Greek, but is interestingly mixed with the distances in Roman miles. Here is the transcription as provided by Papyri.info:

[Π]αν[υσὸς ποτ(αμὸς) μί(λια)   ̣  ̣]
Ὀδεσ[σὸς μί(λια)   ̣  ̣]
Βυβόνα [μί(λια)   ̣  ̣]
Κάλ[λ]ατις μί(λια)   ̣  ̣
5Τομέα μί(λια) λγ
Ἴ[σ]τρος ποτ(αμὸς) μί(λια) μ
Δάνουβις ποτ(αμὸς) [μί(λια)   ̣  ̣]
Τύρα μί(λια) πδ
Βορ[υ]σ[θέν]ης [μί(λια)   ̣  ̣]
10Χερ[σ]όν[ησος -ca.?- ]
Τραπε[ζοῦς -ca.?- ]
Ἀρτα[ξάτα μί(λια)   ̣  ̣]

The map is oriented west-southwest and thus is a reminder that most maps did not consistently orient north until the early modern period. The stations on the shield maps are listed in Greek with vivid white, while the ships are manned by small sailors. It is a two-dimensional visualization of a Euxine route that shows the mix of languages and peoples in the late antique Eastern Mediterranean. In particular, it visualizes the Roman relationship with places in modern Armenia. An interesting mention of Ἀρτα[ξάτα] (Artaxata=Artashat) hints at the Roman connection to this busy commercial center. 

Although the map was likely on a round shield, the only surviving scutum from antiquity is from Dura-Europos. It too dates to the 3rd c. CE. It is now at the Yale Art Gallery. Image is in the Public Domain.

As historian Dragoş Hălmagi puts it, “The surviving sequence runs clockwise along the shores of Black Sea, from Odessos in Thrace to the Cimmerian Bosporus, and indicates a symmetric original design, consisting of a circular coast surrounding the Black Sea and perhaps parts of the Mediterranean, as well.” About a century earlier, the historian and governor Arrian had written a work in the form of a letter to the emperor Hadrian (131/2 CE) called Περίπλους τοῦ Εὐξείνου Πόντου (The Periplus of the Euxine Sea) while in Cappadocia. Arrian demonstrates the beginnings of the late antique fascination with the geography of this area that would continue into the third and fourth centuries CE when the rise of the Sassanids would be a point of major contention.   

The circumnavigation of the Black Sea as recounted by Arrian, Periplus Maris Euxini, in a firsthand report (1–11) and a secondhand description (12–25). Adapted by Erenow from A. Liddle, ed. and trans., Arrian, Periplus Ponti Euxini (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2003), 136–39, maps 1–2.

As we know from the Antonine Itinerary and many other itinerary inscriptions, the listing of locations and the miles between was quite common for itineraria, but this is our earliest surviving example of a route map from antiquity. Today this rather small piece of parchment lives in Paris, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (ms. Suppl. gr. 1354 V, nr. 5), but seeing as I had never viewed a color version of it before, I thought it might be nice to get a glimpse at that technicolor world of the Romans I am always talking so much about. 

Attempted restoration of the entirety of the shield as drawn in Figure 1 in Arnaud (1989).


Monsieur Pascal Arnaud, ‘Une deuxième lecture du “bouclier” de Doura-Europos,’ Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 133e année, N. 2, (1989): 373- 389.

Franz Cumont, ‘Fragment de bouclier portant une liste d’étapes,’ Année 6.1 (1925 ): 1-15. 

Leif Isaksen, “The application of network analysis to ancient transport geography: A case study of Roman Baetica,” Digital Medievalist. 4. DOI:http://doi.org/10.16995/dm.20.

Dragoş Hălmagi, “Notes on the Dura Europos map,”  CICSA Journal, New Series 1 (2015): 41-51.


The Argument Made By The Absence: On Whiteness, Polychromy, And Diversity In Classics

It has been a few days since I published a piece on my Forbes blog regarding the perception of whiteness and statues in antiquity. I knew when I started taking notes on the subject of polychromy many months ago that this column would likely cause a stir within the field, among colleagues, and online. I had thought that I was prepared for the internet trolls. After all, I have crossed many proverbial bridges on Twitter––where they usually lurk. However, the hatred and invective I received from this post was more than anything I have ever received to date. As a result, I wanted to write a post on my personal blog in order to:

1) to provide a context for my argument through a broader bibliography on the subject of polychromy 2) to encourage the incorporation of the subject of race and art history into course syllabi and to provide an open discussion of racism in the 19th and 20th centuries to our students 3) to use these materials to recognize and then address the severe lack of diversity in the field of Classics.

My main thesis is that despite our knowledge of the prevalence of polychromy on ancient statuary, there is a predominantly neon white display of skin tone in respect to classical statues and sarcophagi. This assemblage of neon whiteness thus creates a false sense of homogeneity across the Mediterranean world. Moreover the idea that white marble is beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it was in part developed by influential art historians during the early modern period in Europe. This visual argument continues to be asserted and to shape what we in the West consider to be pulchritudinous.

As I pointed out in the column, a number of fantastic museum shows throughout Europe and the U.S. in recent years have addressed the issue of polychromy. Digital humanists and archaeologists played a large part in making these shows possible. Archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann in particular has applied technologies such as ultraviolet light in order to analyze the minute vestiges of paint on ancient statues and then recreate polychromy versions of them.

If you have a moment, check out the 2003 “Gods of Color” exhibit that travelled the world after its initial display both at the Glyptothek in Munich and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. Many of the photos in this post come from that exhibit––including the famed Caligula bust (Forbes column) and the Alexander Sarcophagus (above). One of my favorites is the archer from the Temple of Aphaia in Aigina (490-480 BCE). Also make sure to check out the open content and images on the Getty Portal from a show called “The Color of Life“, which was on display at the Getty Villa in 2008.


Blank marble and polychromy version of the archer from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia in Aigina (490-480 BCE). Reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkmann.

Now that we have some background, the next question is: How can we address the problem of the lily white antiquity that exists in the public imagination? To be clear, I am not suggesting that we go back with a bucket in hand and repaint every marble statue across the country. However, I believe that better museum signage, the presentation of side-by-side 3D reconstructions, and the use of light (e.g. projections similar to the ones used on the Ara Pacis) can supplement and produce a contextual frame for understanding pieces. What a number of commenters have pointed out is that even when these statues are given color, they remain “white” and that, regardless of their color in antiquity, the restored color is simply too gauche. First, what do you even mean by “white”? I do not have the time to get into the cultural construction of whiteness and how it has changed to include Greeks and Italians in the 20th century, but please refer to historian Nell Irvin Painter‘s work on the subject and particularly to her piece in the New York Times, “What Is Whiteness?” White is not a category of analysis or identity used by those in antiquity.



The 2008 light show at the Ara Pacis museum, which sought to use color mapping to restore the polychromy to the Ara Pacis of Augustus. The image is via La Repubblica.

In doing the research for this piece and then reading Painter’s book on the subject of whiteness, I had to confront the incredible amount of racism that has shaped the ideas of scholars we continue to cite today in the field of ancient history. Art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (d. 1768) is just one example. A more current racist that is often cited by Roman economic historians is Tenney Frank. Recently, I came across Frank’s disturbing article, “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire” (The American Historical Review, 21.4 [Jul., 1916]: 689-708) while looking through an edited volume. The article was then reprinted without comment in Greek historian Donald Kagan’s collection of articles on the “fall of Rome” (published in 1962) called Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Why Did It Collapse? I am not suggesting that Prof. Kagan is or is not a racist, but I am arguing here that the essay deserved to be contextualized in his introduction to the volume and highlighted as an example of the virulent racism in Classics in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As Denise Eileen McCoskey points out in her excellent book, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Frank’s attempt to count inscriptions in order to gauge whether “race mixing” contributed to the decline of Rome is not only untrue, it is dangerous. It also provides ammunition for white supremacists today. I am not telling you to avoid citing Frank altogether, but just like those museum placards, we must annotate, contextualize, and question the theories of these individuals closely before we use them.

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Tenney Frank, “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire” The American Historical Review, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Jul., 1916): 689-708. This article was then reprinted without comment in Donald Kagan’s collection of essays on the “fall of Rome” (1962) called Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Why Did It Collapse.

The last thing I wish to argue for in this post is a moment of reflection that endures. When we ask ourselves, as classicists, why we are such a non-diverse field we must consider whether we make it easy for people of color to want to study the ancient world. Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them? Because they should. Moreover, discussing the shifting idea of what whiteness is remains important. Notably, I am a pretty white-looking lady, though I became less so in the eyes of internet trolls who this week found a blog post I wrote earlier in my life, wherein I discussed the fact that my maternal grandmother was indeed Jewish. Thanks for the parentheses treatment, guys, but I am quite okay with my heritage.

The dearth of people of color in media depicting the ancient world is a pivotal issue. Until I played Ryse: Son of Rome with my friend and colleague Hannah Scates Kettler, I didn’t realize how extreme this was. Hannah is a digital librarian and an ancient art historian, but she is also a woman of color. As she remarked to me, she does not see herself when watching movies or playing video games set in antiquity. I am not suggesting that we can change this fact over night, but I am telling you that 70% of my students tell me that these very video games and the watching of movies like Gladiator (which has a man from New Zealand playing the Spaniard Maximus) and the 300 (which has xenophobic depictions of Persians and predominantly northern European people playing Spartans) led them to take my course. If we want to see more diversity in Classics, we have to work harder as public historians to change the narrative, to talk to filmmakers, to write pop articles, and to do more outreach that emphasizes the vast palette of skin tones in the ancient Mediterranean. We do have the power to return the technicolor to the ancient world, but it does start with us.

‘Pie Zeses’: Toasting To A New Year

Another year of blogging is almost in the proverbial books and I must say that while 2016 was a wretched year socio-politically, it was professionally quite satisfying. My first book, Trade and Taboo was published and I even began writing for Forbes regularly. There is no doubt that I have much to be thankful for as I sit here sipping coffee at my home in snowy Iowa City. In the midst of all the self reflection that accompanies the end of the year, I began mulling over the use of toasts as oral rites of passage in our lives. They are oft- overlooked rituals used to help us to move forward, even if they memorialize the past. Greeks and Romans frequently raised a glass to the Gods, to their health or to a handsome lover, and their exclamations can tell us a great deal about the things they held dear in life–just as our own toasts at 11:59 pm likely reveal our own personal anxieties or the people we cherish. As I wrote about a few years ago on this blog, epigraphic texts on ancient cups, bowls and drinking vessels often enshrine such ephemeral exclamations for posterity, so try out a few of these as you raise your glass tonight.

Dignitas Amicorum Pie Zeses Vivas!” (“Worthy among your friends! Drink that you may live. May you live!”) A toast to a fruitful 2017, amici, and please feel free to leave comments below concerning what you want to hear about on the blog or perhaps how you will be toasting tonight.


Late antique Roman mosaic with an asarotos oikos “unswept floor” now on display in Switzerland at the Chateau de Boudry. 

‘Bind His Hands’: Curse Tablets and Charioteer Magic in Ancient Sports

Over on the Forbes blog this week, I wrote a bit about how social anxiety can be viewed through magic. In the case of curse tablets involving charioteers, we see an incredible amount of energy invested in sports. The culture of athletic competition and rivalry in chariot racing is not all that different from the seriousness with which Red Sox fans curse the Yankees or Green Bay Packers fans scream at the Minnesota Vikings–but the use of magic is something a bit different from the modern day. Fans, factions managers, and even the charioteers themselves often engaged in the writing of curse tablets later buried in graves, wells, on boundary zones, or on the outskirts of the hippodrome itself. They reveal a society that put at least some stock in the potency of magical practices like curses and apotropaic amulets, but also demonstrate the long history of people attempting to seize agency within athletic competitions. For fans and bystanders who felt so much emotion connected to the circus factions, magic was an outlet for fear and angst that gave them at least a modicum of perceived control. Read more over at the blog! 

What Not To Wear: A Short History Of Regulating Female Dress From Ancient Sparta To The Burkini

Over on the Forbes blog, I talk about the history of dress codes for women. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I think a lot about clothing, color, and historical dress. This post is reacting to the recent burkini bans in towns along the French Riviera by mentioning the fact that Sparta, Rome, the Church, and many others have tried to control female dress as a means of advertising a communal identity. In short? Women often serve as blank political canvases that others (usually elite men in antiquity) may paint upon in order to advertise social hierarchy, communal ideals, or attitudes towards luxury. Below, I have also offered some links to other posts I have written on clothing both here and elsewhere.

Previous Posts on Ancient Clothing, Color, and Historical Dress:

  1. Clothing and Cross-Dressing in Antiquity
  2. The Popular Gaze: Roman Underwear, Nudity, and Visual Display

  3. with Kristina Killgrove, Caesar Undressing: Ancient Romans Wore Leather Panties And Loincloths

  4. Unlocking the Dark Ages: A Short History of Chastity Belts

  5. Good Mourning: Roman Clothing, Courtrooms, and the Psychology of Color

Short Bibliography in Order Of How Much I Love The Book (Because it is my blog and I do not have to go alphabetically):

  1. Upson-Saia, Kristi, Carly Daniel-Hughes, Alicia J. Batten, and Callie Callon. 2014. Dressing Judeans and Christians in antiquity.

  2. Upson-Saia, Kristi. 2011. Early Christian dress: gender, virtue, and authority. New York: Routledge.

  3. Edmondson, J. C., and Alison Mary Keith. 2008. Roman dress and the fabrics of Roman culture. Toronto [Ont.]: University of Toronto Press.

  4. Parani, Maria G. 2003. Reconstructing the reality of images: Byzantine material culture and religious iconography (11th-15th centuries). Leiden: Brill.

  5. Polychromy of Roman Marble Sculpture (Met Museum Guide).

A more extensive bibliography on ancient clothing is available via Miko Flohr’s website. 

As these resources demonstrate: when we reimagine the ancient world, we have to do so in technicolor. This means both for statues and for daily life. It means we must read the subtexts provided to us by mentions of colors in particular. Although these  aspects of premodern societies can go unnoticed, clothing, color, and laws that controlled these aspects can tell us a great deal about the past and the present.


The famed ‘Augustus of Prima Porta’ as it is today (left) and a reconstruction of the polychrome original, which would have been similarly painted (right). Screen cap from a video reconstruction you can find here.

What Rep. Steve King Gets Wrong About The Dark Ages — And Western Civilization

Over on my Forbes blog, I address the comments of Representative Steve King this week and explore the myths of the “Dark Ages” and of “Western Civilization.”  As I say, perpetuating the myth of western exceptionalism is a dangerous narrative to tell ourselves.

I Wear My Sunglasses at the Fight? The Emperor Nero and the History of Sunglasses


Nero princeps gladiatorum pugnas spectabat in smaragdo.
The princeps Nero viewed the combats of the gladiators in a smaragdus.
— Pliny, Natural History, 37.16.


A pair of imperial Roman-era emerald and gold earrings now at the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

There are many fantastical stories to be found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Part of the lure of this encyclopedic work is the (often misleading) conviction with which the statesman explored the objects, peoples, and places of the Mediterranean world. In book 37, Pliny discussed various precious stones valued by the Romans, particularly that of smaragdus (Gr. σμάραγδος). It is often translated as “emerald”, but was in fact a category of green stones that included but was not limited to emeralds. Emerald workers were in fact called Σμαραγταριοί after the stone, and ostraka indicate that Egyptian emerald workers even carried messages as they traded (cf. O Did. inv. 329).



An ostrakon from the “Longinus Archive” at Didymoi (77-92 CE) mentions an emerald worker (O. Did. 343 / inv. 329) Image via the IFAO.

As I have explored in earlier posts about the pearl trade, the notion of what is perceived as a “precious” stone is a social construction that can vary wildly from society to society. Roman jewelry tastes began to shift perceptibly after the acquisition of Egypt as a province at the end of the 1st century BCE, particularly because more emeralds could be found from the area that is modern day Ethiopia. The early medieval encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (16.7.1) notes that emeralds were third place in the hearts of mineral-loving Romans, who preferred the pearls and the unio (another type of pearl) before emeralds.

Like his predecessor Pliny, Isidore also mentions the fact that Nero used an emerald to watch fights, right after noting that the stone was soothing to the eyes of gem cutters. Although both literary mentions are a bit ambiguous (and certainly Isidore is known for simply blindly copying from sources such as Pliny), it is possible that Nero used a concave emerald in order to aid his nearsightedness and to take the glare off on a sunny day. Certainly we know that Roman men (particularly soldiers, farmers, and fishermen) and women wore hats in order to protect themselves from the sun, but sunglasses as such did not yet exist.

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A fisherman in a straw hat in a 2nd c. CE mosaic from Tunisia now in the Bardo Museum. Hats were often made either of straw or felt.

Although the citation is not definitive proof, many people have cited Nero’s “emerald” as the first sunglasses, despite the fact that it is unclear if  1. It really was a modern emerald that the emperor was using and 2. How Nero would have used it to reflect images for him. What perhaps lends some credence to the story is the fact that Nero’s tutor, Seneca, was an expert in light refraction, mirrors, and optics.

After reading earlier Greek treatises to inform his Naturales Quaestiones (‘Natural Questions’), the stoic philosopher remarked on the use of glass bowls filled with water in order to magnify small print. Certainly there was already a long history of convex lenses in the ancient world that date back to the ancient Near East (c. 2500 BCE), although arguments still abound over how they were used. Sir Arthur Evans is said to have found lenses at the palace at Knossos, and the British Museum contains the famed “Nimrud Lens” (c. 750 BCE), which is a convex lens from the area of modern-day Iraq that may or may not have been used as such.


The 8th c. BCE “Nimrud Lens” is now at the British Museum. Image via the British Museum.

Lenses in antiquity seem to have been predominantly rock-crystal lenses. Most were plano-convex ground for use in magnifying objects. One such lens was found in the “House of the Engraver” at Pompeii, and it has been proposed that such lenses helped engravers to achieve precision when carving gem stones or creating gold glass (a type of art I have discussed here).


The Lothair Crystal (London, BM) is an example of a rock crystal. It has eight intaglio-carved scenes (carved c. 855 CE) with the story of Susanna from the Vulgate, who was accused of incest. Image via Wikimedia. The Lothair Crystal is now at the British Museum.

Reflective surfaces used for concentrating rays for burning or those used as weapons were also quite known in Greco-Roman antiquity. The famed “death ray” mirror developed by Archimedes to catch the Roman fleet on fire in 212 BCE has indeed been shown as a feasible way to catch a ship on fire (with little cloud cover), according to an experiment performed at MIT. 

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Painting by Giulio Parigi in 1600, showing Archimedes’ “death ray” (Now in the Uffizi in Florence).


The “Bernward Cross” is now at the Hildesheim Cathedral. It uses a rock crystal to magnify the (now lost) splinter of the True Cross it once held. Image via the Hildesheim Cathedral Website. 

Although mirrors and magnifying glasses seem to have been common technology in antiquity, sunglasses do not appear to have been an ancient invention. Even the science behind what would become eyeglasses in the Western world was not fully understood until the 10th-11th century. The optical theory behind them was developed by the famed Islamic scientist Ibn al-Haytham, who was called Alhacen in the medieval West. His work on optics was translated into Latin by the 12th century, and his explanations of lenses would go on to influence Roger Bacon and many other Renaissance scientists.

In his exploration of the invention of the telescope, Rolf Willach points out that so-called “reading stones” were indeed used on reliquaries such as the “Big-Bernward Cross” (c. 1150 CE) in order to magnify splinters of the True Cross. Medieval monks began to increasingly place such stones on texts in order to magnify small print during the High Middle Ages, but spectacles were not invented until the 13th century (2010: 95-96). It is only then that optics are fully understood and the technology for grinding lenses to a proper fineness and clarity could be achieved (More info on medieval glasses here, via Erik Kwakkel). In other words, if Nero was watching the games through an emerald, it would have been pretty low resolution.


Image of Mark using clear eyeglasses from a 16th c. manuscript now at the British Library. Image originally found via Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr. 

So then who did invent sunglasses? Well, tinted quartz may have been used in China in the 12th or 13th centuries, but many say that the western world lagged behind and did not get sunglasses until the 18th century. It was then that London optician James Ayscough experimented with tinted lenses. What can be emphasized here is that green is indeed the suitable color for saving one’s eyes from the sun.

Into the 19th century, green spectacles were a popular and oft-referenced device found in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Clearly there may be some truth to Pliny’s story of Nero using a green stone of some sort in order to watch gladiatorial games, but I would venture to say that the emperor did not wear them as sunglasses and likely saw the games poorly through their use. Rather, Nero was more likely a nearsighted man desperate to impress and, just possibly, was trying out a secret passed onto him by his preferred jeweler or former tutor.

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A painting from the De Witt museum at Colonial Williamsburg showing a man in green sunglasses (1807). Image via the Two Nerdy History Girls Blog.