Archive | November 2021

Hercules on the edge

Some thoughts about the structure immediately above, thoughts that I’ve needed to have, then park while I crack on with other, more urgent things.

You are looking at the Tropaeum Alpium, Trophy of the Alps, or Tropaeum Augusti, Trophy of Augustus, in La Turbie (which takes its name from it), a town on a rise above Monaco in the South of France. However we choose to call it, this monument is certainly concerned with both the Alps and the emperor Augustus. What interests me about it, though, is that it is also concerned, albeit more obliquely, with the hero Hercules, on whom one day I shall assuredly write A BOOK.

Unless I don’t.

The first thing to appreciate about the Tropaeum Alpium is that, while it was dedicated by the Senate and People of Rome in 7/6BC, what you you see in La Turbie today is really a confection dating back just a century. The Middle Ages were not kind to the monument (one story, if anyone reads Provençal, tells how St Honoratus miraculously destroyed it, the fortress of a giant named Apollo, but the reality wasn’t much less dramatic). Shortly before the First World War, and then again from 1929 to 1934, two architects, Jean Camille and Jules Formigé, father and son, undertook a very creative reconstruction, and the result is a landmark which probably tells us as much about French culture in the early decades of the Twentieth Century as it does about Augustus.

There is nevertheless a lot we know about the Trophy, not least the inscription it bore, which was recorded by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (3.136-7) and explained that the monument marked the conquest of the Alps by the emperor Augustus a mari supero ad inferum, from the higher to the lower sea, i.e. from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea. We’ll come back to Pliny, because his record of the Tropaeum is interestingly located within his own text. But what I’m most concerned with is the meaningful association established by Sophie Binninger (all citations are at the bottom) between this monument celebrating Augustus on the heights above Monaco and the hero/god Hercules — who was so important to Monaco that he seems to have given his name to the place.

We know that the port of Monaco, and apparently the heights above it, were perceived to have a special connection to Hercules. Strabo, for instance, informs us that “the harbour of Monoikos is a mooring-place for only a few, small ships, with a temple of Herakles ‘Monoikos’, as he is known” (4.6.3), while other sources give emphasis to the neighbouring heights. If there was a specific cult site, at any rate, we don’t know where it was. But the connection was established enough for the Hercules worshipped here, under that moody epithet Monoikos (“solitary; who lives alone”), to give the location a name today very familiar to us.

It is on this basis that Binninger makes the case, unanswerable it seems to me, that the placement of the monument honouring Augustus is designed to imply an assimilation with Hercules, and she suggests that treating Augustus as a Herculean figure suggests military prowess, divinity present or future, and a civilizing power closely related to the establishment of roads and communication. Ammianus Marcellinus (15.10.9) describes Hercules as the builder of the first road along the coast en route to dealing with the three-bodied giant Geryon, and adds that he also “consecrated the harbour and citadel of Monoecus to his own everlasting memory”. (The context for Hercules’ presence in the western Mediterranean, whether in Rome, Tangier or Monaco, is generally his mission to kill Geryon in Spain and drive Geryon’s superlative herd of cattle back to Greece.) Augustus’ Tropaeum seems to have been coordinated with the Via Julia Augusta, the road from Italy to Gaul recently constructed or renovated by Augustus.

But I think we can push the Herculean associations of the Tropaeum Alpium a bit further, and particularly that last idea of communication. Hercules was all about pathways and access, certainly, but by extension he promoted the meeting and mingling of peoples. Within Italy Hercules’ close association with the cattle trade, and the drove roads by which cattle were herded around the peninsula, had made him the agent of intermingling and unification described by Dionysius, who imagines a rationalised Hercules as the greatest general of his day, leading a great army with which, among other things, “he mingled barbarians with Greeks, and inhabitants of the inland with dwellers on the sea coast, groups which hitherto had been distrustful and unsocial in their dealings with each other” (Rom. Ant. 1.41.1).

Meanwhile, the story was told around the Mediterranean and beyond of peoples descended from Hercules and a local woman: see here on Rome, Herodotus 4.9-10 on the Scythians, and Plutarch, Sertorius 9.3-5 on the people of Tangier. This recurrent myth clearly encoded the establishment of reciprocal relations between Greek colonisers and native peoples, albeit by implication on Greek terms. In ancient France we find stories, collected by Jane Lightfoot in her edition of Parthenius, that make Hercules the ancestor of the Celts. As Parthenius tells it, when Hercules was driving the cattle of Geryon back to Argos, he came to the court of king Bretannos in the country of the Celts. The inevitable liaison with Bretannos’ daughter Keltine resulted in the birth of Keltos, ancestor of the Celts.

Hercules’ capacity to bring peoples together is one of his most remarkable characteristics, and at first sight hard to square with this club-wielding epitome of male violence. It no doubt has a lot to do with the ubiquity of muscular civilising gods across peoples. The Greeks encountered the Carthaginian Melqart and saw Heracles, and vice versa. Another illustration is the worship of Hercules Magusanus by the Batavians of what is now the Netherlands, as explained by Nico Roymans: the syncretism of a local and a Roman god, Magusanus and Hercules, facilitating the Batavians’ assimilation within the Roman Empire, resulting inter alia in one more Lysippan Hercules to join all the others.

Another illustration again is Virgil’s Aeneid, where Hercules the communis deus, “god who is common to all” (8.275), appears on both sides of the conflict between Aeneas’ forces and Turnus’ forces, as comrade or ancestor, in the second half of the poem, and seems to promise a unity in Italy when all the fighting’s done. In Virgil the tension between that peaceful outcome and the violence Hercules displays is quite deliberately drawn out, I think. (I investigated some of these Herculean associations as they were exploited by Horace in the article cited at the bottom.)

Well, if the monument to Augustus at La Turbie does indeed by its position provoke thoughts of Hercules, that position (which was clearly chosen very, very carefully) answers in various suggestive ways to these aspects of the hero. Monaco, as Binninger explains, can be seen as the end of the Alps, illustrating the claim of the inscription that the mountains had been pacified from sea to sea. But we are also here on a frontier, Hercules’ natural space: Binninger cites a medieval gloss on the Antonine Itinerary which remarks of this location usque hic Italia, hinc Gallia, “Thus far Italy; henceforth Gaul”. At Monaco Hercules presided over the meeting of Italians and Gauls as well as Greeks and Celts.

Photo by Berthold Werner:

But I think the most interesting implication of all arises from the text of Pliny the Elder which preserves the inscription that graced the Trophy, and indeed allowed the structure at La Turbie to be identified as the Tropaeum Alpium. Binninger again points out that Pliny’s reference to the Tropaeum comes at the end of a long account of Italy (3.38-138), just before his resounding conclusion, “This is Italy, sacred to the gods, these its races, these its people’s towns…” Pliny’s account is structured by Augustus’ organisation of Rome and Italy into regiones, a reform which may have been introduced around the time of the Trophy’s dedication. In other words, Pliny’s account of Italy, and its climax with the Tropaeum Alpium, may well follow an Augustan logic. Binninger talks of the idea in Pliny that the Alps (and the Trophy) “round off” Italy, and again I am put in mind of Hercules.

In the Aeneid, or at least in my reading of the poem, Hercules represents a kind of summation of Italy. All in Italy worship him, and in him, symbolically, is found unity between Italians, even as they fight each other. The paradox, which is also present to some degree at La Turbie, is that Hercules/Augustus stands for violent conquest, and yet also for equality and collaboration. Just maybe, then, there is an Augustan pattern of thought here, centred upon the mythical figure of Hercules and shared between Virgil’s epic and this monument on the heights above Monaco.

* * *

S. Binninger, “Le Tropaeum Alpium et l’Héraclès Monoikos. Mémoire et célébration de la victoire dans la propagande augustéenne à la Turbie”, in M. Navarro Caballero and J.-M. Roddaz (eds.), La Transmission de l’idéologie impériale dans les provinces de l’Occident romain (Pessac, 2006), 179-203;

Le trophée d’Auguste à La Turbie (Paris, 2009);

E. Bispham, “The Regiones of Italy: between Republic and Principate”, in M. Aberson, M.C. Biella, M. Di Fazio & M. Wullschleger (eds.), Nos sumus Romani qui fuimus ante… Memory of ancient Italy (Bern, 2020), 23-51;

H. Cornwell, “The King Who Would Be Prefect: Authority and Identity in the Cottian Alps”, Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015), 41-72;

J. Lightfoot, Parthenius of Nicaea: the Extant Works, Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Oxford, 1999);

I. Malkin, Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (Cambridge, 1994);

Ll. Morgan, “A Yoke Connecting Baskets: Odes 3.14, Hercules, and Italian Unity”, Classical Quarterly 55 (2005), 190-203;

N. Roymans, Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power: the Batavians in the Early Roman Empire (Amsterdam, 2004), 235-50.

Edict XII, lost & found

A few final words on the N-W Frontier, the upshot of finishing a co-written book on a late nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Harold Deane, and then writing a review of a book on an earlier nineteenth-century archaeological enthusiast, Charles Masson, shortly afterwards. Both men were British and both found themselves in a place named Shahbazgarhi (شھباز گڑھی), but Masson was there in 1838, and Deane in 1888; and Deane, as we shall see, was perhaps responsible for the more illuminating discovery.

What both of them were doing at Shabazgarhi was studying an ancient inscribed text. Another difference between them, fifty years apart, was that Deane knew he was looking at the words of the great Indian emperor Ashoka.

With Luca Olivieri I’ve been editing over the last couple of years the manuscript draft of Harold Deane’s influential article on the archaeology of Swat and Peshawar, “Note on Udyana and Gandhara” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1896). Deane was by 1896 a British Political Officer based at Malakand in Swat, and it was in the garrison at Malakand that Prof. Olivieri found the early draft of his “Note”.

One of the valuable things about setting this draft against Deane’s finished version in the Journal is the access it gives us to the more personal material that was lost as it was refined into an academic article. One such moment, in this instance crossed out in the editing process by Deane himself, traces the fascination for archaeology that he had developed during a series of postings in the vicinity of Peshawar: “I add here a few notes I have made from time to time regarding the adjoining Province of Gandhara [“the British District of Peshawar” added above] in which I was first led to taking an interest by discovering the 12th Edict missing from the large Asoka-inscription at Shahbaz Garha.”

We’ll come back to Deane, but let’s start with Charles Masson, whose visit to Shahbazgarhi came at an important juncture in his complicated and remarkable life. A deserter from the army of the East India Company, Masson had settled in Kabul, safely beyond British jurisdiction, and from there investigated Buddhist sites and the plain of Begram, where the huge collection of coins he gathered allowed him to identify it as the location of the city of Alexandria ad Caucasum, which as Kapisa, the coin record told him, survived for well over a thousand years after Alexander. Masson’s archaeological activities were interrupted by events preceding the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. He left Afghanistan in 1838 and went back to what he was most comfortable doing, discovering antiquities:

“Released from the thraldom in which I had been kept since 1835, I then made an excursion to Shah Baz Ghari in the Yusef Zai districts, to recover some Bactro-pali inscriptions on a rock there, and was successful, returning with both copies and impressions on calico.” (Narrative Of Various Journeys In Balochistan, Afghanistan, the Panjab and Kalat (1842-4), Vol. 3, 493)

A few years later, in 1846 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Masson gave a fuller account of his “excursion from Pesháwer to Sháh Báz Ghari” in October 1838. He indicates that he is following the guidance of Claude-Auguste Court, a Napoleonic veteran who was in the service of Ranjit Singh, Maharajah of the Punjab, and whose description of the environs of Peshawar (with the map at the top that Masson may well have been using) had been published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1836, including a reference (pp. 481-2, and pl. XXVIII) to this inscription.

Masson traces his route from Peshawar across what is now the city of Mardan, his arrival in Shahbazgarhi and the welcome he received from the senior Malik of the village. (Masson’s account acknowledges quite well the help he received from locals in Peshawar and along the way.) He then describes his efforts to record the inscription, written on both sides of a rock, both by copying the text by hand and by coating it with ink and then catching as much of the engraved text as he could imprinted in reverse on calico—around 50 yards of it in total. This material he gifted to the Royal Asiatic Society on his return to Britain in 1842.

All Masson really knew about the inscription was that it was big and its script was the same as that on coins he had found in Afghanistan, some of which bore the script, now known as Kharosthi, on one side and Greek on the other. But from the copies that he had taken others, E. Norris and J. Dowson in this same issue of the journal (calling it the Kapur-di-Ghiri inscription), were able to decipher enough of the text to recognise that the inscription at Shahbazgarhi was substantially the same, although written in a different script and with some slight linguistic differences, as two other inscriptions at Girnar in Gujarat, western India, and Dhauli in Odisha (Orissa), eastern India, one side of which is beautifully carved into the shape of the front end of a royal elephant.

It was left to H.H. Wilson, a scholar closely associated with Masson and Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, to collate all three inscriptions at Girnar, Dhauli and Shabazgarhi, and translate the Shahbazgarhi text alongside the others. Wilson confirmed the essential similarity between them, but also highlighted one peculiarity: the text was divided into fourteen sections, all of them represented at Girnar, but Shahbazgarhi lacked the twelfth.

The inscriptions at Dhauli, Girnar and Shahbazgarhi have these days been joined by quite a few more, and they are now identified as copies of decrees issued by the Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. The subset of a larger corpus of Ashokan inscriptions to which they belong is referred to as Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts, and their location when plotted is clearly significant: as a group they ring the territory controlled by Ashoka’s Mauryan Empire, marking its boundaries: at Kandahar they were written in Greek.

Yet the Twelfth Edict of Ashoka, as I’ve mentioned, was missing from the inscription recorded by Charles Masson at Shahbazgarhi. Harold Deane’s contribution half a century later was to find it, on a separate rock fifty yards away from the main inscription. But the difficulty of finding Edict XII at Shahbazgarhi tells us something quite interesting about it. The same Twelfth Edict seems to be given special status on another inscription on the N.-W. Frontier at Mansehra, a few miles from Abbotabad. As at Shahbazgarhi the Mansehra Edict XII is inscribed separately, and in both places it is more carefully engraved than the other edicts, and in larger letters (É. Senart, Journal Asiatique 11, 1888, pp. 516-7). In other collections of the Edicts, at Girnar and at Khalsi in the hills near Mussoorie, Edict XII just quietly takes its place in the sequence I to XIV; while at others again, at Dhauli and Jaugada (also in Odisha), the Twelfth Edict doesn’t feature at all.

The natural conclusion is that Edict XII was particularly pertinent to the part of Ashoka’s empire represented by Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra. It is known as the Toleration Edict, and essentially enjoins mutual respect between religions. Here is an excerpt from Amulyachandra Sen’s translation in Asoka’s Edicts (Calcutta 1956):

“Whoever praises his own sect or blames other sects, all (that is done) out of devotion to one’s own sect (with this thought), viz. ‘That we may glorify our own sect’. But by doing so, one injures one’s own sect all the more severely.

Therefore it is intercommunion that is commendable, that is to say, that (people) should listen to and respect the doctrines of one another.”

It’s easy enough to suppose that this frontier region in the North-West supported an unusual variety of religious traditions, and that Ashoka considered Edict XII especially important for his subjects in this location to hear.

The two Britons I’ve been concentrating on in this blog are in many ways very different figures. Masson was at times a strident critic of British imperial activity, while Deane ended up as the first Chief Commissioner of the newly constituted North-West Frontier Province (NWFP; now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). One of the most important observations in our work on Deane is how inseparable his interest in the history of this area was from the information gathering that was of the essence of his role as a Political Officer on the frontier, maintaining colonial control over territory in as discreet a manner as possible.

Between them, nevertheless, Masson and Deane made an important historical document available to the less adventurous scholars who could read it, while in Deane’s case a piece was added to the puzzle that shed light vividly on the character of the N-W frontier of Ashoka’s empire more than two millennia ago.

There’s a nice account of a recent trip to Shahbazgarhi here. I meanwhile have a new pipedream, visiting all of Ashoka’s Major Rock Edicts across India and Pakistan.