Archive | December 2016

The year, versified


annuus exactis completur mensibus orbis

the cycle of the year, with the conclusion of the months, is completed

Virgil, Aeneid 5.46: Aeneas, in Sicily, is informing his men that he will stage games in honour of his dead father Anchises, and that exactly a year has passed since his father’s death, also in Sicily. That year has been taken up by the action described in Books 1 and 4, the Trojans’ stay in Carthage, and Aeneas’s affair with the Queen of Carthage, Dido.

Some individual lines of Virgil’s 10,000-line epic are themselves tiny works of art. Here the poet sets out to embody the character of a year in the shape of his metrical line, the key idea in play being that the year is circular, a cycle, orbis. Aeneid 5.46 is a linear disposition of Latin words, a poetic line, but also, by virtue of the disposition of those words, as close as a line of verse can get to a circle.

Here it is again with the relations between the words of the line highlighted: this being an inflected language, the words are connected by their form, not proximity.

(((annuus ((exactis (completur) mensibus)) orbis)))

The verb expressing the fulfilment of the year, completur, sits at the centre of the line, while the two words at its far extremes, annuus and orbis, are in agreement: “the yearly cycle”, “the cycle of the year.” Immediately bracketing completur are exactis and mensibus, and they too are in agreement: an ablative absolute, “with the conclusion of the months.”

The line is thus a sense unit organized into a perfectly concentric shape; like a hailstone, its components arranged around its central element. If the cycle of the year can be expressed in the form of a verse, this is it.

Faustum annum nouum!


Zeus in Tokyo

(July 2016)


Image from P. Bernard, “Quatrième campagne de fouilles à Aï Khanoum (Bactriane),” CRAI 113 (1969), 313-55, at 339.

The foot is as beautiful as a foot can be, which it turns out is very beautiful. It is a left forefoot, strictly speaking, a piece of marble 21 cm across and 27 cm from its perfectly modelled toes to the strap of its sandal. “The sculptor worked well à la grecque,” wrote its excavator, Paul Bernard, “and I would go so far as to say, faced with the perfection of the work, that he could only have been Greek.” Yet it was found in the principal temple of Ai Khanum, a site beside the Oxus on the northern frontier of Afghanistan, and I am contemplating it in a display case in Tokyo.

It was unearthed in what had been the inner sanctuary of the temple. In a brilliant few pages of his report of the season’s excavations to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris, Bernard, Director of DAFA, the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan, extrapolated from this fragment to the full statue. It was two to three times life-size, probably seated, and an “acrolith,” the head, hands and feet rendered in marble with the rest of the statue modelled in clay over a wooden framework. As for the god’s identity, the sandal he was wearing is decorated with a palmette, rosettes and a third symbol that offers a powerful clue, two winged thunderbolts at either extremity of the strap. Thunderbolts point to Zeus, chief of the Greek pantheon, perhaps as depicted on contemporary coins with a sceptre grasped in his left hand (fragments of the statue’s left hand seemed to be closed around something cylindrical,) and an eagle or victory in his extended right. 

But this most Hellenic deity sat in a temple emphatically un-Greek in architectural form, and the ritual it hosted must have been comparably syncretic. This was Zeus assimilated to an eastern deity, the Iranian god Mithra most likely (coin images also give Zeus a solar crown, Mithraic iconography), but maybe the god of the river beside which he sat enthroned. Oxus was worshipped along his banks from the time of the Persian Empire up to and beyond the advent of Islam.

In its palpable Greekness the marble foot encapsulated one aspect of this remarkable, disorienting dig deep in Central Asia. The DAFA excavations at Ai Khanum extended from 1964 until 1978; the foot was found in 1968. What they had uncovered was “a Greek city in Afghanistan,” clear physical evidence, long but vainly sought by the French archaeologists, of a Greek presence in Central Asia in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the fourth century BC. In fact it was more than just “a Greek city”, as the architecture of the temple already indicates, but Ai Khanum did offer remarkable insight into Greek colonisation of the east. Evidence of such Greek cultural staples as drama, philosophical dialogues and olive oil contributed to a picture of Greek colonists doing all they could to convince themselves they were still Greek, 2,500 miles from their homeland.

The foot of a syncretic deity, carved by a Greek in Afghanistan, has already covered some metaphorical distance. But this particular piece had a great deal further to travel. Its next stop was the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, which by the 1970s, enriched by stunning discoveries at Begram (seemingly a merchant’s stock from the first century AD), Hadda (a series of richly embellished Buddhist monasteries) and Surkh Kotal (a dynastic cult centre of the Kushans, the dominant power in Central Asia in the first centuries AD) as well as Ai Khanum, had become one of the most celebrated collections in the world. (The National Museum of Afghanistan could also claim, refreshingly, that all its holdings originated in Afghanistan.)

In the anarchy of the 1990s, however, when the Soviets had evacuated Afghanistan and the forces of the anti-Soviet mujaheddin were fighting among themselves for control of the country, the museum found itself on the front line between government and opposing factions. The exhibits judged most valuable, including the “Bactrian gold” grave goods found at a nomadic burial site at Tillya Tepe in the late 1970s, were removed to secure locations in government buildings. Frantic efforts were made by staff and foreign volunteers to secure what remained in the museum, but the building was isolated, unstaffed, and hopelessly vulnerable to militias in need of funds.

One of the foreign volunteers, the architect Jolyon Leslie, described in the May 1996 issue of the SPACH newsletter (SPACH had been established to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage) the targeted nature of what followed:

“It is clear that once the news of the state of the Museum surfaced, the demand abroad for pieces from the collection, to a large extent, drove the looting. From the very beginning, it was evident that the intruders knew exactly what they were looking for. As the most portable objects (coins) and those of the highest value (including the ivories) disappeared, the looters have become ever-more audacious in their search for riches. Only months ago, a large schist Buddha (which we had presumed safe due to its weight) was hacked off the wall and spirited out of the lobby of the Museum overnight.”

Zeus’ foot was already long gone.

The logistics of transporting a solid stone sculpture from a warzone to a private collection in the developed world are complex, needless to say, but expertise was at hand. The bazaar in Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, played a key role in the trade. International dealers had the contacts there, and were happy to shell out exorbitant sums to representatives of militia groups in the confidence that collectors in the West and Japan would give them a 100 per cent mark up. Export licenses were forthcoming from officials in various transit countries for the right price.

No doubt dealers and collectors consoled themselves with the thought that they were rescuing precious antiquities from the perils of war. As it transpired, they probably were: neither Zeus’ foot nor an image of the Buddha would have escaped the attention of the Taliban when they entered the museum with sledgehammers in February 2001. But back at source in the mid-1990s, the price fetched by an image of the Buddha was funding a savage conflict for control of Kabul.

Another item looted to order was a fine second/third-century AD relief, also solid schist, of the Buddha converting the Kashyapa brothers, staunch Brahmans sceptical of the Buddha’s new doctrine. It was excavated by a DAFA team at the monastery site of Shotorak north of Kabul in 1937, and stolen from the first-floor corridor of the museum on 31st December, 1992. It is a striking example of “Gandharan art,” the meeting of a Greek aesthetic and Buddhist worship. At the far right of this relief stand images of the couple, Kushan elite, who dedicated it. “The man, although wearing garments of Kushan style, has a Hellenistic cast of features,” we read in David Snellgrove’s great compilation The Image of the Buddha, “while the woman has adopted an entirely Greek costume,” striking evidence of the continuing “vitality of the classical tradition” half a millennium after Alexander.

The ultimate destination of this relief was Japan; Zeus’ foot and the Buddha mentioned by Leslie (unearthed by farmers at Sarai Khuja north of Kabul in 1965, and again second or third-century AD) soon followed it. An exhibition of the “Bactrian gold” and other material placed in secure storage before the looting began, has been circling the globe, in various guises, since 2006. When it came to the British Museum in 2011, the Sarai Khuja Buddha was restored to the National Museum of Afghanistan’s collection with some fanfare by an anonymous London dealer, who had purchased it from a collector in Japan. This year, when the exhibition arrived in Japan, it was supplemented by a small collection of items “rescued” from the antiquities market, some of which also originated in the museum in Kabul. They include fragments of wall paintings from the monastic caves at Bamiyan, stucco figures, the relief of the Kashyapa Brothers—and the star exhibit, Zeus’ foot. The publicity for the exhibition in Japan stated that with the conclusion of the exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum all these items, like the Sarai Khuja Buddha, would be restored to the National Museum in Kabul.

How Zeus’ foot made its way from the National Museum of Afghanistan to the National Museum of Japan is clear enough in outline, less so in detail. It appears that the dealer who secured it in Pakistan and sold it on to a Japanese collector was British. Thereafter we’re dependent on a narrative that was first pitched in 2001 and to which the literature of the exhibition in Japan adheres very closely: it was the passion and commitment of one man, Ikuo Hirayama, that recovered these pieces from private ownership. Hirayama was a successful and wealthy nihonga (neo-traditionalist) painter. A native of Hiroshima, he was a hibakusha, survivor of the Bomb, and as well as that formative experience, his art reflected both a deep Buddhist faith and a personal interest in the origins of Japanese Buddhism. Afghanistan in the Gandharan period had a special place in Hirayama’s affections, a critical stage in the transmission of Buddhism to east Asia, and hence (to Hirayama’s mind) the source of much of what made Japan what it was. Bamiyan with its giant Buddhas, first visited by Hirayama in 1968, was a particular focus of his interest and a regular subject of his painting. His model and inspiration was the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang, who travelled to India in pursuit of sacred texts and left us the first and fullest account of Bamiyan when it was still Buddhist.

Hirayama was a generous benefactor, reflected in the Hirayama Conservation Studio at the British Museum, which specializes in the preservation of Asian paintings, funded by Hirayama and the Five Cities Art Dealers Association of Japan. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan one can visit the Ikuo Hirayama International Caravanserai of Culture. The Ikuo Hirayama Silk Road Fellowship Program supports academic research. He enters the saga of Zeus’ foot when, in 2001, he established the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties, its aim to safeguard art and antiquities displaced by conflict from their country of origin, with Afghanistan again the focus. The Committee collected a total of 102 artefacts smuggled out of Afghanistan with a view to returning them to Afghan ownership. Now in 2016 (Hirayama died in 2009) 15 of these illicitly trafficked antiquities are on display alongside the exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum, the foot among them, and the promise of repatriation is finally, it seems, to be honoured. [It was: in August 2016 the foot and other artefacts were returned to Kabul.]

What complicates this picture is that Hirayama was also a collector, and a voracious one. Two private museums in Japan survive him, one near Hiroshima concentrating on his painting, and another, the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture, which showcases his collection of artefacts from the Silk Road. The Gandharan material he managed to collect is of staggeringly high quality, quite comparable to the holdings of famous national museums, though only a fraction is on display in his museum.

As for the sources of his collection, some of it must originate in illicit digs, and some of it must come from Afghanistan: the lack of provenance makes it hard to be certain. The sculptures are exquisite but deracinated, strictly objets d’art in the absence of any information about the monastic environment for which they were created. Zeus’ foot is of course a vastly richer survival for the ritual context in which Paul Bernard and his team were able to set it. Nor is it self-evident by what principle the items in the Tokyo exhibition are being returned to Afghanistan, even though some of them did not originate in the National Museum, while ostensibly Afghan pieces in Hirayama’s private collection are not.

We are informed that Hirayama secured these items from Japanese collectors or dealers, but that no money changed hands. The aim is presumably to distance the operation from the antiquities market, but it’s hard to know how else it could have been managed. In any case, it all rather presupposes an expert understanding of the trade on Hirayama’s, or his advisers’, part: only a seasoned collector could have had the requisite connections or access. The exculpatory psychology, however, is familiar enough. Dealers and collectors of antiquities, like the rest of us, need to see their activities as culturally beneficial, protective rather than acquisitive. Given recent Afghan history, artefacts from that country have been especially easy to style as recipients of cultural rescue, and collecting as disinterested guardianship: the date of the establishment of the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties, 2001, when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up and antiquities that remained in the National Museum smashed by Taliban, was, a cynic might suggest, an excellent moment for dealers and collectors to present themselves as heroes. Nevertheless, Hirayama’s work on behalf of these “cultural refugees”, as he called them, brought him honours from UNESCO; and by his good offices Zeus’s foot, lost without trace since its theft from Kabul, was exhibited in Tokyo in the same year, clearly identified as a piece of Afghan cultural heritage.

If the ethical contradictions of collecting are on display in Tokyo, a more profound oddity of the commercial network in which Zeus’ foot was caught up is captured by a simple glance at a map of the Eurasian landmass. At one extreme is London, base of the dealer who apparently sold it; at the other, Japan, where he, and other dealers, found a ready market. Equidistant between the two, four thousand miles from each, lies Afghanistan. A market of course entails a taste for an artistic style. In the West Gandharan art commands top dollar at major auction houses, but the source of its appeal deserves greater attention. When Kipling, early in Kim, describes Gandharan sculpture in the Lahore Museum, “done, savants know how long since, by forgotten workmen whose hands were feeling, and not unskilfully, for the mysteriously transmitted Grecian touch,” he captures the thrill that Europeans found in Gandharan art, like Ai Khanum a beguilingly displaced piece of the familiar. As such, the Raj collectors of Gandharan buddhas, whose heirs donated them to British museums, were part of a larger colonial phenomenon, the identification in the traces of the Greek presence in north-west India of a charter myth justifying their own presence in a space where Europeans—and the archetypal European, Alexander—had left so potent a mark before them.

To find, as one does, that Gandharan art possesses a comparable mystique in Japan is thus intriguing, and nowhere embodies the phenomenon better than Hirayama’s own museum in Yamanashi. The visitor literature insists on the relevance of this material to Japanese identity: talk of origins is much in evidence. Hirayama’s trips to Central Asia, and Afghanistan especially, were undertaken “in search of the sources of Japanese culture”; the Silk Road art showcased here, Gandharan especially, illustrates how “what we now proudly call Japanese culture has been blessed with the cultures of many other countries.” Elsewhere Hirayama had described his first visit to Afghanistan in 1968, “to seek the origins of Japanese culture and to follow the way that Buddhism diffused” out of India and towards Japan. The physical setting of the museum reinforces this message. The Yatsugatake mountains around the museum, according to the pamphlet, were one of the centres of the prehistoric Jomon people, “the origin of Japanese Culture.” Most strikingly of all, the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum is so orientated as to capture from its upper terrace a perfect view of Mount Fuji, for Japanese and non-Japanese the ultimate symbol of the country. The implication is that art from Central Asia belongs, somehow, in Japan.


Fuji in cloud, from the museum.

Hirayama’s tastes were his own, but his preoccupation with Afghanistan reflects a wider Japanese interest in central Asian art and history. This is not independent of western cultural tastes, but is additionally motivated by Japan’s perception of its special relationship with the early Buddhist cultures of Asia. Since the Second World War this has driven an active humanitarian engagement with Afghanistan, but also archaeological activity. The focus of Japanese archaeologists has been Buddhist sites, although far from limited to them, and Bamiyan in particular. A project by Kyoto University in the 1970s, led by Professor Takayasu Higuchi, created a comprehensive photographic record of the site of Bamiyan, with its hundreds of monastic caves dotting the cliffs around the giant Buddhas. This, needless to say, has proved a precious resource since 2001, and indeed Japan was of all countries the most active in trying to dissuade the Taliban from destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The trade in Gandharan art is the dark side of this academic involvement, and the symmetry with the West again arresting. Perhaps inevitably, Japan’s taste for Gandharan art encapsulates in its own way the country’s modern history, a process involving both intense emulation of the industrialized West and energetic assertion of a unique Japanese identity. Insisting on Japan’s obligation to assume a leading role in safeguarding Asian cultural properties, Hirayama had asserted that “Only Japan can carry out such a task because it has close spiritual and cultural ties with Asian countries. Western countries cannot do that job.” One might counter that the Japanese attachment to Afghanistan, at any rate, is every bit as wishful and romantic as the western; it’s just that Alexander the Great has given place to Xuanzang.

We should be grateful that Zeus’ foot is returning to Afghan ownership, by whatever means, and applaud UNESCO’s pragmatic approach to the problem. As for the deeper reasons for the travels and travails of this particular antiquity, at the root of its discovery by French archaeologists at Ai Khanum, no less than its adventures in the international art market, is the aesthetic appeal of the fusion of east and west in a Gandharan Buddha, or in Zeus-Mithra’s foot. I for one travelled all the way to Tokyo to see it.


Back home in the National Museum, Kabul in August 2016 (photo courtesy of Zardasht Shams)


Version 2

Some flamens, photo by Sophie Hay

A curse is a spooky enough topic for Christmas, I reckon. But this blog about curses (exsecrationes in Latin) is really for me to get some thoughts straight in my head. I am still investigating a Roman priest known as the flamen dialis, a priest of Jupiter (as I touched on here, a strange figure who could be considered a kind of animate statue of the god), and one thing I want to understand better is how this priesthood was regarded during Augustus’ reign. (All ultimately with a view to deciding on a possible role for it in Virgil’s Aeneid, but that’s another matter.)

The most important thing to appreciate about this priesthood and Augustan Rome is that for the first half of Augustus’ reign there was actually no flamen dialis in post. This office, a crucial intermediary between Rome and its most powerful patron, the chief god Jupiter, had remained unoccupied since the death by his own hand of the flamen L. Cornelius Merula in 87BC. My assumption is that the absence of the flamen dialis from Rome was a cause of significant anxiety: the Romans were deeply superstitious people, setting great store by the pax deorum, the harmonious relations between them and their gods which could only be maintained by meticulous observation of their religious obligations.

If maintaining this special relationship with the divine realm was a priority, it was because the favour shown their city by the gods was for Romans the best explanation of their rapid rise to power in Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Equally, however, when their fortunes turned sour, and Rome shifted from seemingly unlimited expansion to a traumatic century of internal conflict (only finally brought to an end by Augustus), the Romans could only conclude that they had somehow offended the gods, and this was their punishment. A key element of Augustus’ project to restore Rome after this crisis was mending this all-important relationship, renovating temples, restoring neglected religious practices, in general returning Rome to what he could claim to be the lifestyle that drew the gods’ approval in the first place.

In the event, a new flamen dialis, Ser. Cornelius Lentulus Maluginensis, was at length appointed in (probably) 11BC, shortly after Augustus had finally secured the role of pontifex maximus for himself. The pontifex maximus or chief priest was responsible for selecting the flamen dialis (though he was also subordinate to the flamen in status, interestingly enough), but Augustus had had to wait to assume the role of pontifex until the death of the previous incumbent, the humiliated and sidelined former triumvir M. Aemilius Lepidus. A natural reading of this sequence of events would be that one of Augustus’ very first acts on becoming pontifex maximus in 12BC was to fill the yawning gap in Rome’s religious fabric, the office of flamen dialis. But there is some debate about the date of Maluginensis’ appointment, and the order of events is not so certain.

My hunch, as I’ve suggested, is that Rome could not bear the absence of such an essential religious figure with equanimity; and that when Augustus did select a new priest of Jupiter, a lifetime after the last flamen dialis had died, it would have been a very impressive gesture, a powerful contribution to the climate that Augustus sought, a perception that Rome, after all the trauma of the Civil Wars, was back on its feet; a profound crisis on the divine plane had been resolved.

Merula, the last flamen dialis, had been a particularly prominent victim of those wars, and that’s really all I need to have to argue for the research I’m doing. But an article by Bernadette Liou-Gille (“César, ‘Flamen Dialis destinatus’,” Revue des études anciennes 101 [1999], 433-459, to which I was alerted by Professor Roberta Stewart) opened up a new and weirder dimension to this story.

Liou-Gille is interested in the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Merula’s death in 87BC. The context is the furious rivalry for control of Rome between L. Cornelius Sulla and L. Cornelius Cinna, the latter supported by the great general C. Marius. In simple terms, Cinna, who was consul, had been driven out of Rome, and Merula, the flamen dialis, had been appointed consul in his place (Professor Stewart suggested to me, because no one would dare to harm a hair on the head of the priest of Jupiter). When Cinna and Marius proceeded to recapture the city, Merula resigned the consulship, and then, faced with efforts by Cinna to bring him to trial (Appian, BC 1.74), took his own life.

The most detailed account of his death is by Velleius (2.22.2):

Merula autem, qui se sub aduentum Cinnae consulatu abdicauerat, incisis uenis superfusoque altaribus sanguine, quos saepe pro salute rei publicae flamen dialis precatus erat deos, eos in exsecrationem Cinnae partiumque eius tum precatus optime de re publica meritum spiritum reddidit.

Meanwhile Merula, who had resigned his consulship in anticipation of the arrival of Cinna, slit his veins and drenched the altars with his blood, praying to the gods, to whom he had often as flamen dialis prayed for the wellbeing of Rome, to curse Cinna and his party. In this way he yielded up the life that had served Rome so well.

After that (and this is the main focus of Liou-Gille’s article) a teenage Julius Caesar (who was close to Cinna, married to his daughter, and a nephew of Cinna’s ally Marius) was designated flamen dialis in Merula’s place, but never actually assumed the priesthood, no doubt mainly because both Cinna and Marius were dead within a short time, and when Sulla recaptured Rome at the end of 82BC he promptly rescinded all the measures they had taken.

Liou-Gille takes Velleius’ account of Merula’s death literally, not as a historian’s rhetorical flourish: as Merula died, he drew down a curse upon his enemies, offering his own life to the gods in return for divine punishment of “Cinna and his party”. The way Velleius puts it suggests a polar reversal of the flamen‘s power, from promoting the good fortune of the Roman res publica to becoming an agent of vengeance. The effort to make Caesar flamen dialis in Merula’s place, Liou-Gille argues, was actually an attempt to neutralize the malign influence of this exsecratio, to mend relations with the hostile gods by making a close confederate of Cinna the priest who devoted himself to serving Jupiter.

I think what I like most about Liou-Gille’s reading of these events is her assumption that Romans, including the notoriously cerebral Julius Caesar, were motivated by superstition, by a genuine terror of the gods. It’s easy to misjudge the Romans, by some of the things put on paper by Cicero or Ovid, as rational types whose religion was lightly worn. But in fact it was their scepticism that was only skin-deep.

Caesar never did become flamen dialis, and perhaps Sulla had particular reason to block his appointment: Sulla was undoubtedly a superstitious man, and he had no interest in diverting the wrath of the gods away from his enemies. But my particular interest, as I say, is how all this might have looked from the standpoint of Augustus’ principate, sixty or seventy years after Merula’s death. In other words, what are the implications of a hiatus in the office of the priest of Jupiter that lasted for a human lifetime, and might entail a curse still unpropitiated twenty years into the Pax Augusta? Certainly the lack of a flamen dialis cannot have increased Romans’ sense of security. But if we do suspect that Merula’s curse still exerted an influence, at whom would that divine wrath at “Cinna and his party” be directed in the Augustan age? The least we can say is that, if Julius Caesar had felt himself a target, it was in important respects Caesar’s legacy that was embodied by Augustus. Augustan Rome not only lacked that hotline to its greatest benefactor, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, then; it could also not be confident that Merula’s ancient curse was not still targeted at them.

Well, I’m very sure that Augustus’ appointment of a flamen dialis in 11BC was more than just a piece of political theatre. In the absence of a flamen dialis for over half a century (and what a dreadful half-century it had been), Rome had lacked a fundamental means of maintaining relations with the gods, the bedrock of its success as a nation. Until that rupture was healed, Rome’s recovery under Augustus’ direction could never be complete.

As for the rest of it, I can’t be so sure, but it would seem to me very true to the Roman mindset if something altogether more primitive was in play, the raw dread provoked by a ghastly death and priestly imprecation generations before, a suspicion that the gods’ wrath at their appalling crimes, the bloodletting of the Civil Wars encapsulated by the death of Merula, persisted, unappeased. For as long as the role of Jupiter’s “animate statue” remained unoccupied, Rome was still cursed.

Merry Christmas!