Mithras, God of the Morning

On a cold winter’s morning, in the 3rd century A.D., a centurion called Parnesius of the Ulpia Victrix stood on Hadrian’s wall and gazed at the bleak, heather-covered hillside to the barbarian north. This was not a posting he’d wanted, and he missed the olives and wine of his native Tuscany, but he had a job to do and he must make the best of things.

Mithras slaying the sacred bull, Ostia museum

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Crete in October

Visiting Crete in October, just as the tourist season is coming to a close, has many advantages. There are fewer tourists, the weather is still excellent, and the places you want to see – in my case, archaeological sites – have not yet closed for the winter months. However, this post is not specifically about the archaeology, fascinating though that is, instead it is a whistle stop tour of what’s Crete has to offer in October. We started off in beautiful Chania.

Chania: looking towards the Venetian lighthouse across the harbour

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Hidden Crete: The Temple of Lissos

The ancient history of Crete has been shaped by forces outside its control. A tsunami resulting from the volcanic eruption on Santorini (ancient Thera) in 1500 B.C. destroyed the Minoan palace of Knossos, and there have been other geological disasters. A massive earthquake in the 9th century A.D. was caused by the collision of two tectonic plates beneath the Aegean Sea, and the resulting tidal wave, suddenly raised the sea level of the ancient port of Lissos on Crete’s south-west coast by ten metres. The city never recovered.

Ancient olive tree amid the ruins of Lissos

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Xanten, Germany: in Falco’s Footsteps

A.D. 71, and Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis’s intrepid sleuth in The Iron Hand of Mars, is in Germania Inferior on a mission from the Emperor Vespasian. Reluctantly, he goes to Vetera, once a huge double fort on the River Rhine, now bearing all the hallmarks of a savage attack, with broken siege engines, toppled platforms and clear evidence of destruction by fireA few years before, it had been almost totally destroyed by the Batavian uprising, headed by rebel chief, Civilis, once Rome’s ally. It is only just recovering.

The impressive Gate House certainly makes a statement

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Boppard Roman Walls – plus dragon?

Boppard is an attractive German town on the Rhine with an interesting Roman history. In the 1st – 3rd centuries A.D., it was a small riverine trading settlement called Bodobrica. These were settled times, and the Roman Germania Superior frontier, the limes, fortified by stone watchtowers and a wall of sharpened oak stakes, was a long way to the east.

A stretch of wall with one of the semi-circular towers

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The Mysterious Etruscans

Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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From Domitian’s Villa to the Papal Barberini Gardens

Ever since Roman times, the rich and powerful have built villas in the hills surrounding Rome to escape the summer’s heat. Some, like Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, still survive. Others, like Castel Gandolfo, built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII as a summer palace, were built on top of Roman villa sites. And why not? The land was already levelled and useful top quality building material was there for the taking.

Castel Gondolfo Pope's palace

Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace

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Agrigento, Sicily: the Wow! factor

One thing I love about travelling is suddenly seeing that unexpected something which sends shivers down your spine and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: the beautiful gardens of Ninfa in Italy; local fishermen dancing in an old waterfront warehouse in Crete; or a small ruined temple set amidst olive groves full of spring flowers in Turkey. And at Agrigento in Sicily, I saw the telamon.

Agrigento museum telemon

The telamon in Agrigento Museum.; c0mpare his height with that of the women standing by his feet.

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See-sawing Ancient Greek Style

A Child’s Day through the Ages by Dorothy Margaret Stuart was one of my favourite books as a child. I particularly liked the story A Garland Over the Door, set in Athens in 438 BC, about the arrival of a baby brother to ten-year-old Ageladas and his little sister, Doricha – and it inspired me to try out something dangerous ….

Syracuse Mus pottery lion

Greek children’s toy: pottery lion

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