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Is there a distinctive iconography for Sol Invictus?

It’s that time of the year, when the malevolent delight in posting wild claims that Christmas is “really” – in some undefined sense of “real” – the festival of Sol Invictus, recorded only in the Chronography of 354.

Few of us know much about Sol Invictus, the state cult created by Aurelian in 274 AD.  The literary record is very scanty, as I discovered some years ago when I created a page containing all the sources here.[1]

I found myself wondering … what does Sol Invictus, Aurelian’s god, actually look like?  If you do a Google search, what do you get?

The answer is frustrating: you get very little.  In fact most of the common online images attached to the name are NOT Sol Invictus.

Let’s start with something definite and positive.  Sol Invictus does appear, labelled as such by name, on the coins of the tetrarchy, and continues to appear as late as Constantine.  Here are a couple of examples.  (As usual you can click on the images for a larger size picture.)

The first example that I have is a coin of Probus, with Sol Invictus on the reverse, driving a four-horse chariot, with a pointy crown – which Probus also wears[2]

Here’s another example, this time of Constantine, who derived his legitimacy from the tetrarchy and whose coins continue its coin-types until 325 AD.  Does this too have an orb?[3]


Here the pointy crown is more clearly a crown of rays.  Sol Invictus is depicted standing.

Here’s yet another follis of Constantine, via a nice collection of Sol Invictus coins at Coin Talk here, and very clear:


This from 317 AD, from Trier.[4]

Yet another Constantine is this beautifully clear one, with a gorgeous picture of Constantine (from Cointalk):[5]


Better yet, again from Cointalk (I reproduce the details in case that site disappears) we have this from the reign of Aurelian himself, also holding a globe:[6]



But the coins do not help us as much as we might think.

Here’s our first example – a coin of Elagabalus, who also worshipped a “Sol Invictus”, who was actually Baal of Emesa.  The right hand is upraised, but the left hand holds a whip.[7]



And here’s a denarius of Alexander Severus:[8]

S Alexander 11_sol

This one of Florianus includes Sol, with orb.  He briefly followed Aurelian, so perhaps this is Sol Invictus.  But if so, he is not distinguishable from Severus, is he?[9]

Florianus a

Florianus b

This does not really help us to identify a distinctive iconography for Sol Invictus, it seems.

But the situation is worse when we look at stuff that is often labelled as Sol Invictus online.

First, let’s look at this image.  This is a Greek silver Kylix, 3rd century BC, from Panticapaeum in the Crimea, and depicts Helios.


This lovely object bears much the same image as we see on the coin of Probus, almost 6 centuries later; yet this is not Sol Invictus, but just boring old Helios, the personification of the sun.

At the Metropolitan Museum in New York we find the following fragment of a relief (also this one from Roger Ulrich on Flickr):[10]


The museum dates this to 1st-2nd c. AD, presumably by the lack of use of the drill.  But this is not Sol Invictus either: this is Helios, the sun: the man to the left is a Scythian slave about to flay Marsyas.  The relief is probably from a temple of Apollo.

The next item is from the British Museum website, inv. 1899,1201.2 (this particular photo here):


This is a disk of silver leaf, from Pessinus in Asia Minor, 3rd century.  But … again, why is this not just Sol, or Helios?

Now some Google results.  This one appears often enough, and the words “Sol Invictus” appear in the inscription.[11].


But … at the bottom of the inscription is a clear reference to “Iovis Dolichenus”, Jupiter Dolichenus, the Syrian deity beloved of the Severans.  The sacking of Doliche in the mid-3rd century put an end to this cult, and the last monument is supposedly from 268 AD, before Sol Invictus was invented.  And we can see in the relief, not just Sol, but also Luna, wearing her crescent, and some other chap, at least as important as Sol.  So this is certainly NOT Sol Invictus, but merely Sol, and “Sol Invictus” in the inscription merely is Latin for “the unconquered sun”.

Here’s another favourite, complete with inscription “Soli Sanctissimo Sacrum…”:


But … there is another inscription on the object, although I can find no photograph of it – in Palmyrene.  And this, rather than talking about Sol, bluntly states that the god is Malakbel!  This is a mid-3rd century item, although closer to Aurelian.[12]  So again, this is not Sol Invictus.

On to the next one:


But this is CIMRM546, and Mithras, not Sol Invictus at all.  Again “sol invictus” merely is Latin for “the unconquered sun”, rather than the title of the state cult.

There ought to be a paper somewhere on this subject.  But the impression that I get from this, far from scientific, survey of material is that there is no distinctive iconography of Sol Invictus, who is depicted using standard images used for Sol, or even for Helios.

  1. [1] I find that a Google search will not discover this page, which raises the question of what Google search is doing these days.
  2. [2] Details from Cointalk: PROBUS Antoninianus;  OBVERSE: IMP PROBVS AVG, radiate mantled bust left holding eagle-tipped sceptre;  REVERSE: SOLI INVICTO, Sol in galloping quadriga left, R-thunderbolt-B in ex.;  Struck at Rome, 275-6 AD;  4.2g, 24mm;  Roman Imperial Coinage 202
  3. [3] Another example here at Cointalk. Constantine AE Follis – Sol Invictus – Rome Mint;  Obverse: Laureate cuirassed bust;  IMP CONSTANTINVS PF AVG;  Reverse: Sol standing left with orb and raising right hand, captive to left of Sol;  SOLI INVICTO COMITI – Exergue: RP (Rome Mint); Catalog: RIC Rome 2 – Struck around AD 326 – Size: 19mm
  4. [4] AE follis – 20mm, 3.13g.  Trier, 317 AD.  laureate, cuirassed bust r.  CONSTANTINVS PF AVG.   Sol standing facing, head left, nude but for chlamys across left shoulder, r. hand raised, globe divided into hemispheres in l. hand.  SOL INVIC-TO COMITI  T | F, .ATR in ex. Roman Imperial Coinage vol. 7, Trier 135
  5. [5] CONSTANTINE I AE3;  OBVERSE: CONSTANTINVS P F AVG, laureate and cuirassed bust right;  REVERSE: SOL INVICTO COMITI, Sol, radiate, standing left, raising right hand, globe in left, chlamys across shoulder;  Struck at Trier 313-15 AD;  3.78 g, 18-19 mm; RIC VII Trier 42
  6. [6] Aurelian Antoninianus – Sol Invictus with Captive; Obverse: Radiate and cuirassed bust right;  IMP AVRELIANVS AVG;  Reverse: Sol standing left, right hand raised, holding globe, captive at foot;  ORIENS AVG – Exergue: S (Serdica mint);  Catalog: RIC Serdica 276
  7. [7] Elagabalus Denarius – Sol;  Obverse: Laureate and draped bust right;  IMP ANTONINVS PIVS AVG;  Reverse: Sol advancing left with raised hand and whip;  PM TRP II II COS III PP;  Catalog: RIC 40
  8. [8] SEVERUS ALEXANDER AR Denarius;  OBVERSE: IMP ALEXANDER PIVS AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right;  REVERSE: P M TR P X COS III P P, Sol, radiate. standing left with raised hand and globe;  Struck at Rome, 231 AD;  3.4g, 20mm;  RIC 109
  9. [9] Also via Cointalk, no details.
  10. [10] Inv. L. 1993.85.  Ulrich gives these details: Roman-period marble fragment carved to represent a kithara (a stringed musical instrument), perhaps belonging to a statue of the god Apollo. In the center, facing frontally, is depicted Helios, the sun god, driving his four-horse chariot (quadriga; note the challenge faced by the artist in depicting the four horses). Also partially depicted: the punishment of Marsyas (only his toes are visitble on the upper right), who is about to be flayed by a Scythian slave (shown sharpening his knife on the left). In the bottom left corner of the relief there is a worn image of a herm. The themes are all suugestive of Apollo: Helios is often associated with Apollo, as is the story of Marsyas, who unsuccessfully challenged Apollo to a musical contest and was hideously punished for his act of hubris. Dated by the Met in NYC to 1st-2nd cent. A.D. Loan by Ross H. Auerbach; inv. L. 1993.85
  11. [11] This stele is recorded as CIL VI.31181 on Wikipedia.
  12. [12] Altar is in the Capitoline museum in Rome. See J. Teixidor, The Pantheon of Palmyra, p.47: “This is the altar (which) Tiberius Claudius Felix and the Palmyrenes offered to Malakbel and the gods of Palmyra.  To their gods. Peace.”  Inscription is CISem II, 3903. “Malakbel” = “The angel/messenger of Bel”.

The Meta Sudans and the Djemila fountain in Algeria

I’ve posted a number of images of the Meta Sudans, the ancient Roman fountain that stood next to the Colosseum and was demolished by Mussolini, in posts such as this one.  Today on Twitter I saw a picture of a standing, much smaller, Roman fountain in Djemila in Algeria, posted by @AlgeriaTTours.  Here’s the image:

Roman fountain at Djemila in Algeria

Roman fountain at Djemila in Algeria

The Meta Sudans is depicted on coins, such as the sestertius of Titus.  I note that the drawing rather looks like the Djemila fountain; but the coins themselves rather suggest a tall base, with a platform on it, and then a relatively small cone at the top.  Anyway here they are:

Meta Sudans in sestertius of Titus

Meta Sudans in sestertius of Titus


The pictures of Djemila did look nice.  The government travel advice for Algeria, sadly, did not.

The temple that Cleopatra built for Caesarion at Armant

While I was looking at the Description de l’Egypte for information about the Serapeum as it was in Napoleon’s time, a whim came over me to look for the now-vanished temple at Armant (ancient Hermonthis), some 12 miles south of Luxor.

The temple was destroyed in 1861-3 in order to get stone to build a sugar factory, which still stands; but I vaguely recalled that there was a picture by the French scholars in the Description.

And so there is, in the first volume of plates of ancient monuments, here at Heidelberg.  In fact there are three drawings, plus a reconstruction and plan and some drawings of the reliefs.  Here is one of them (click on the image for a larger version).

The temple of Cleopatra and Caesarion at Armant

The temple of Cleopatra and Caesarion at Armant

The Napoleonic French soldiers standing on the roof are distinctive!

I then began to search for information about the temples of Armant.  This quickly showed the limits of the internet – there is practically no information to be had.  There was a great temple of Montu-Re at Armant, of which little remains.  In the grounds of this, just as at Dendera, a smaller temple was built, the one above, which was rebuilt by Cleopatra.  It was a mamissi, celebrating a birth, much like the one at Dendera.

Finally there is a temple with bull-burials.  But you try to find any maps of all this!  I believe that there is a monograph, written in 1940 or thereabouts – offline, of course.  Clearly someone needs to upload information about Armant (or Erment as it is sometimes known).

There are still remains of all these temples; although apparently none are open to the public.  I get the impression that parts of a pylon, and two Roman gateways, still exist.

But then I found this:

Cleopatra's temple at Erment. 1857. Francis Frith.

Cleopatra’s temple at Erment. 1857. Francis Frith.

That’s right – there is a photograph of the place!  It was taken, unbelievably, in 1857, only 4 years before demolition started.  In fact there are a number of photographs.  A certain Maxime du Camp published another in “Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie, 1852,” and Felix Teynard one in “Egypte et Nubie, 1858”.  I was sadly unable to find digitised copies of this.

Well, I had no idea when precisely photography started.  Apparently it was invented by Daguerre who experimented in secret between 1835-1839.  What happened next was startling: his process was purchased, in return for a pension, by the French government, which made it available to the world as an act of benevolence.  Needless to say not everyone felt benevolent – some adventurer in England managed to get a patent in, which meant that English people had to pay for what everyone else could use for free.  There are parallels here to Google Books!

But as soon as photography existed, it seems that people started to carry these new “cameras” down the Nile with them!  A register of very early photographs of Egypt might reveal many interesting things.

Those of us who have visited Egypt and experienced the way that possession of a camera marks the holder for extortion by officials and self-appointed “guardians” of monuments may be permitted to wonder whether the invention of the first camera was swiftly followed by the invention of the first Egyptian camera fees!

1603 Zuccaro drawing in red chalk of Old St Peter’s, Rome

Here’s another image of Old St Peter’s, part-way through the transformation into New St Peter’s.  The main entrance, steps and square are all still present.  From the Getty website:

Federico Zuccaro (Italian, about 1541 – 1609).  25.9 x 41.3 cm (10 3/16 x 16 1/4 in.)

Using red chalk in a highly detailed manner, Federico Zuccaro depicted Saint Peter’s Square in Rome as it appeared in 1603, with the Egyptian obelisk in place at the extreme left and the church dome complete. At the left, the archepiscopal palace adjoins the old facade of Saint Peter’s basilica. In the center, the three-story benediction loggia begun by Pope Pius II in 1462 adjoins the loggia painted by Raphael, lightly sketched at the extreme right. The bastion for the papal guard protects the front of the Vatican entrance, and statues of saints Peter and Paul from the 1400s adorn the foot of the staircase.

I’m rather impressed with the Getty site here. Who of us knew this even existed? (Click for larger image)


Latin translations of Chrysostom’s homilies on John – website

Chris Nighman writes to me:

I’ve just launched a new online resource for several Latin translations of Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Gospel of John. I will be seeking funding for this project in February and, if successful, expect that this resource will be completed by the end of next summer.

I also plan to produce a critical edition of Burgundio of Pisa’s 12th century translation, the only Latin version available for nearly 300 years, which has never been printed. If all goes well, this book should appear in about 5 years.

The translations are those made in ancient and medieval times, so we may wish him well!

The stadium, hippodrome or “Lageion” of Ancient Alexandria

Just to the south of the Serapeum, which stood on a hill, was a Greek stadium or hippdrome.  The temple overlooked it, and there was seating.  The following map by Judith McKenzie indicates the location (click to enlarge):[1]


The area of the stadium was built over in the 19th century.  But it was still visible when the French army under Napoleon occupied the area, and so there is a plan, with notes, in the Description de l’Egypte, 5th vol. of plates, planche 39, as I learned from the splendid article by McKenzie &c.  So I went and searched for the original and here it is, although north is bottom left for some reason (again click on the image for full size):


The “grand colonne” at the bottom left is Pompey’s pillar – the pillar erected in the Serapeum by Diocletian.  The temple stood on that squareish plateau, with the 100 steps of the entrance descending to the left around where the pillar is.  The Arab “Chemin d’Alexandrie” (Alexandria road) runs to the east of the temple, along the Roman street.

The left hand end of the stadium, is marked with “ruins”, where a semi-circular wall is visible, mostly at the north and middle.  Distinct remains are visible at b-b-b.  The most recognisable remains are at a-a-a.

Notable in the picture is the “spina”, at c, the Roman centre structure in all their chariot-racing stadiums.  The Greek stadium is narrow, intended for foot races; so the spina would be a later addition.  But it was only just visible above the ground to Napoleon’s scholars.  It was about 1m above the floor of the arena.  At e was a hole for the meta, the cone-shaped turning post at the end of the spina.

At d is a portion of a stylobate, from a temple frieze, some 2.3m high, next to the steps of an “amphitheatre”.  Possibly part of the stadium was converted to a theatre at some point, as elsewhere.  At f were remains of columns.  At l the remains of a small obelisk.  At o is the exit from the circus, leading to the necropolis.

The interior length of the stadium was 559.37 m, taken from P-P.  The internal width was 51.6m.  The exterior length, between i and q, including the “amphitheatre”, is 614.6m.

Pretty interesting, for a monument now vanished!  There is a book on the architecture of Alexandria, by the same Judith McKenzie, accessible in Google Books preview here, which includes material on the Lageion, and seems frankly very interesting by itself.

  1. [1] Judith S. McKenzie, Sheila Gibson and A. T. Reyes, “Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the Archaeological Evidence”, Journal of Roman Studies 94 (2004), pp. 73-121; p.75.  JSTOR.

List of volumes of the “Description de l’Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française”

Today I found that I needed to consult a plate in the Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte.  I had some difficulty in finding online volumes, and so I compiled the following list.  Please feel free to offer additions in the comments.

 First edition (Imperial edition)

  • Book 01 (1809), Volume I – Antiquités, Descriptions. Heidelberg.
  • Book 02 (1818), Volume II – Antiquités, Descriptions.  GoogleGoogleHeidelberg.
  • Book 03 (1809), Volume I – Antiquités, Mémoires. Google. Heidelberg.
  • Book 04 (1818), Volume II – Antiquités, Mémoires.  Google.
  • Book 05 (1809), Volume I – Etat Moderne. GoogleGoogle. Heidelberg.
  • Book 06 (1822), Volume II – Etat Moderne.  GoogleHeidelberg.
  • Book 07 (1822), Volume II – Etat Moderne (2´ Partie).  Google.  Google. Heidelberg.
  • Book 08 (1809), Volume I – Histoire Naturelle.  GallicaGoogle. Heidelberg.
  • Book 09 (1813), Volume II – Histoire Naturelle. Heidelberg.
  • Book 10 (18xx), Volume I – Préface et explication des planches.  Toulouse.
  • Book 11 (1809), Volume I – Planches : Antiquités.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 12 (1809), Volume II – Planches : Antiquités.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 13 (18xx), Volume III – Planches : Antiquités.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 14 (1809), Volume IV – Planches : Antiquités.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 15 (1822), Volume V – Planches : Antiquités.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 16 (1809), Volume I – Planches : Etat Moderne.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 17 (1817), Volume II – Planches : Etat Moderne.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 18 (1809), Volume I – Planches : Histoire Naturelle.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 19 (1809), Volume II – Planches : Histoire Naturelle.  Heidelberg.  Toulouse.
  • Book 20 (1809), Volume IIbis – Planches : Histoire Naturelle.
  • Book 21 (18xx), Volume I – Planches : Antiquités. (“Mammutfolio”)
  • Book 22 (18xx), Volume I – Planches : Etat Moderne. (“Mammutfolio”)
  • Book 23 (1818), Volume I – Planches : Carte géographiques et topographique.(“Mammutfolio”)  Heidelberg.

The volumes at Heidelberg. have a 300mb or 80mb download of PDF for each. The Toulouse volumes mostly seem to be imperfect.

Second edition (Panckoucke edition)

  • Book 01 (1821), Volume I – Tome Premier Antiquités-Descriptions. GallicaArchive.
  • Book 02 (1821), Volume II – Tome Deuxième Antiquités-Descriptions.  GallicaArchive.
  • Book 03 (1821), Volume III – Tome Troisième Antiquités-Descriptions.  GallicaArchive.
  • Book 04 (1822), Volume IV – Tome Quatrième Antiquités-Descriptions. Gallica.
  • Book 05 (1829), Volume V – Tome Cinquième Antiquités-Descriptions. GallicaGoogleGoogle.
  • Book 06 (1822), Volume VI – Tome Sixième Antiquités-Mémoires.  Gallica.  GoogleArchive.
  • Book 07 (1822), Volume VII – Tome Septième Antiquités-Mémoires. GallicaGoogleArchive.
  • Book 08 (1822), Volume VIII – Tome Huitième Antiquités-Mémoires. Gallica.  Google.
  • Book 09 (1829), Volume IX – Tome Neuvième Antiquités-Mémoires et Descriptions. Gallica.
  • Book 10 (1823), Volume X – Explication Des Planches, D’Antiquités.  Gallica.  GoogleArchive.
  • Book 11 (1822), Volume XI – Tome Onzième Etat Moderne. GallicaArchiveArchive.
  • Book 12 (1822), Volume XII – Tome Douzième Etat Moderne. GallicaGallicaGoogleArchive.
  • Book 13 (1823), Volume XIII – Tome Treizième Etat Moderne.  Google.
  • Book 14 (1826), Volume XIV – Tome Quatorzième Etat Moderne.  Gallica.  Archive.
  • Book 15 (1826), Volume XV – Tome Quinzième Etat Moderne. Gallica.  Archive.
  • Book 16 (1825), Volume XVI – Tome Seizième Etat Moderne.  GallicaGoogleArchive.
  • Book 17 (1824), Volume XVII – Tome Dix-Septième Etat Moderne. GallicaArchive.
  • Book 18 (1826), Volume XVIII – Tome Dix-Huitième Etat Moderne.  Gallica.  GoogleArchive.
  • Book 19 (1829), Volume XVIII – Tome Dix-Huitième (2´ Partie) Etat Moderne.  Gallica.  GoogleArchive.
  • Book 20 (1830), Volume XVIII – Tome Dix-Huitième (3´ Partie) Etat Moderne.  GallicaGoogleArchive.
  • Book 21 (1824), Volume XIX – Tome Dix-Neuvième Histoire Naturelle, Botanique-Météorologie.  Gallica.
  • Book 22 (1825), Volume XX – Tome Vingtième Histoire Naturelle. GoogleArchive.
  • Book 23 (1826), Volume XXI – Tome Vingt-Unième Histoire Naturelle, Minieralogie – Zoologie. GallicaArchive.
  • Book 24 (1827), Volume XXII – Tome Vingt-Deuxième Histoire Naturelle, Zoologie. Animaux Invertébrés
    (suite). GallicaGoogleArchive.
  • Book 25 (1828), Volume XXIII – Tome Vingt-Troisième Histoire Naturelle. Zoologie. Animaux Invertébrés
    (suite). Animaux Venteures. GallicaGoogle.
  • Book 26 (1829), Volume XXIV – Tome Vingt-Quatrième Histoire Naturelle, Zoologie. GallicaGoogle.
  • Book 27 (1820), Volume I – Planches : Antiquités.
  • Book 28 (182x), Volume II – Planches : Antiquités.
  • Book 29 (182x), Volume III – Planches : Antiquités.
  • Book 30 (182x), Volume IV – Planches : Antiquités.
  • Book 31 (1823), Volume V – Planches : Antiquités.
  • Book 32 (1822), Volume I – Planches : Etat Moderne.
  • Book 33 (1823), Volume II – Planches : Etat Moderne.
  • Book 34 (1826), Volume I – Planches : Histoire Naturelle.
  • Book 35 (1826), Volume II – Planches : Histoire Naturelle.
  • Book 36 (1826), Volume IIbis – Planches : Histoire Naturelle.
  • Book 37 (1826), Volume I – Planches : Atlas géographique.

The raw list of volumes is from Wikipedia, which unfortunately had no links.

Timestamp: Alexandria in the 5th century. Sinister goings-on in the ruins of the Serapeum, in Peter the Iberian

Peter the Iberian is a name that was unfamiliar to me.  He was a Georgian prince who lived in the 5th century A.D. and ended his days as a monk.  His Life was written by his close friend, John Rufus, in Greek.  The Greek is lost, but a Syriac translation survives in two manuscripts.  These are Ms. Berlin Staatsbibliothek, Sachau 321, written in 741 AD; and Ms. London British Library Addit. 12174, written in 1197 in Melitene.  It was edited by Raabe from these in 1895,[1] and the text printed with an English translation in 2008 by Cornelia Horn &c.[2]

By the time of Peter the Iberian, the temple of the Serapeum, standing on the highest point of ground in ancient Alexandria, had been ruined for two generations.  But the colonnaded enclosure in which it had stood still existed, as it was to do for centuries.  At the dark of night, however, unusual activity might be seen by the curious.

John Rufus takes up the tale:

 (§99) The daughter of one of the city’s notables was sick with a severe sickness. She was his only [child, moreover,] and he loved her like an only [child]. Her mother was a lover of Christ and a believer, and she greatly rejoiced in the saints. The father was indeed a Christian, but he was very much seized by the error and friendship of pagan philosophers. Hence, when he received promises from a certain leader of the magicians that, if [the magician] were to take the girl and bring her at night to the Serapeum and there perform on her rites[1] and [other] abominations of the arts of magic, he could heal her, he gladly obeyed and prepared to give the girl over [to him].

When her mother learned these [things] from a slave who [had become] aware of [it], who was a Christian and a strong believer, immediately she sent for the blessed Peter, informing him about the plan of the devil. She asked that he not disregard her and her husband and the girl, who were running the risk of falling into a real death through provoking the Lord to anger. The blessed one heard this and was inflamed with zeal, crying out with a loud voice, “Lord, shall the wicked live?”’

Having said this, immediately he took some of those saints who were with him in the night, and they went to the girl’s mother. He found her sitting with her daughter and tearing [herself] apart with weeping and lamentations and at the same time ensuring that the girl would not be delivered over by her husband to the wicked [magician]. Commanding that all those [who] were superfluous should go outside, he took oil and anointed the girl. After he had given her the holy mysteries, had consoled her mother with many words of consolation, and had encouraged her to trust undoubtedly in Christ, the Lord of life, he returned to where he was staying. The next day that girl was suddenly found healthy and free from her severe sickness.

The philosopher, however, [who] had contended with God was laid to rest. In this way the judgment of the saint, which he cried out when he was enraged, saying, “Lord, shall this wicked one be alive?” proceeded swiftly to [its] fulfilment, so that in all the city this wonder would become known and everyone would praise God on account of his grace given to his saints, and they would run to the blessed one and cleave to [him], and they would be strengthened more and more in the orthodox faith.

  1.  Syriac is equivalent to the Greek teleutai, sacred or magical rituals.

It is interesting to see that the location for the pagan ritual – or magical ritual – was the Serapeum.  A “philosopher” is becoming what he was in the medieval period, a “knowing person” who may well know magic.

This story is interesting as showing how superstition was endemic, among pagans and Christians in the city.  Fifty years later, the Alexandrian pagans were still going to the shrine of Isis at Menouthis to seek healings and the like.

  1. [1] R. Raabe, Petrus der Iberer, Leipzig, 1895.  Online here.  P.71 is the relevant page for us.
  2. [2] Cornelia B. Horn, Robert R. Phenix, The Lives of Peter the Iberian, Theodosius of Jerusalem, and the Monk Romanus, SBL 2008.  Ms info on p.lxxi, chap 99 on p.147 in Google Books preview.

What did the Serapeum in Alexandria actually look like?

The destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 392 AD by the Christian mob, headed by its leader, the patriarch Theophilus, is a famous moment.  It was the last temple to be closed, and by far the most famous.

It stood on the only high ground in the city, in the South-West.  Rufinus gives us a description of the destruction of the statue:

… a rumor had been spread by the pagans that if a human hand touched the statue, the earth would split open on the spot and crumble into the abyss, while the sky would crash down at once.

This gave the people pause for a moment, until one of the soldiers, armed with faith rather than weapons, seized a double-headed axe, drew himself up, and struck the old fraud on the jaw with all his might. A roar went up from both sides, but the sky did not fall, nor did the earth collapse. Thus with repeated strokes he felled the smoke-grimed deity of rotten wood, which upon being thrown down burned as easily as dry wood when it was kindled.

After this the head was wrenched from the neck, the bushel having been taken down, and dragged off; then the feet and other members were chopped off with axes and dragged apart with ropes attached, and piece by piece, each in a different place, the decrepit dotard was burned to ashes before the eyes of the Alexandria which had worshiped him.

Last of all the torso which was left was put to the torch in the amphitheater, and that was the end of the vain superstition and ancient error of Serapis.[1]

But what did the temple actually look like?

There is a rather marvellous article in the Journal of Roman Studies, by Judith S. McKenzie &c., that tells us.[2]  What it does is to sift both the literary and archaeological evidence, and a very fine job it does too.  In addition it gives some very useful pictures!  These, as ever, are worth a thousand words.

The site consisted of a large platform on top of the only hill in Alexandria.  A wall surrounded the platform, which was a colonnade on the inside.  The temple, a classical structure, stood inside the colonnade.

Here is a diagram of how the temple looked in the 3rd century.  The sea is to the North.

The Serapeum of Alexandria, by J.S.McKenzie

The Serapeum of Alexandria, by J.S.McKenzie

A hundred steps led up to the main entrance of the temple from the East.  Inside the entrance was a pool of some kind.  To his left, the visitor would have seen a building whose nature and appearance is unclear; the “south building”.

To his right he would see a classical Roman temple.  This was the temple itself, in which resided the wooden statue of Serapis.

There were also subterranean passages, the entrance to which is shown near the entrance to the main temple, and which still exist.

The emperor Diocletian added a monumental pillar late in the same century, which still stands and is known as “Pompey’s Pillar”.  The temple then looked like this:



When the temple was destroyed, it seems that it was the buildings inside the colonnade that were demolished.  The main enclosure and its colonnade remained, and are mentioned by medieval Arabic writers, until, as we learn from Abd al-Latif, a governor under Saladin destroyed them in 1169.

The site of the Serapeum was not turned into a church, but became disused.  Two churches arose nearby, rather than inside.

Paganism in Alexandria did not die at once, of course.  The Life of Peter the Iberian, by John Rufus, in fact describes a pagan healing ritual which took place in the 5th century in this very same enclosure of the Serapeum.  We have also seen in the Life of Severus of Antioch, ca. 500 AD, that pagans made trips to the temple of Isis at Menouthis, still open even then.

I hope to explore some more of the footnotes of Dr McKenzie’s article, but I would like to conclude with some very interesting words from it, which appear at the beginning:

Reconstructions by archaeologists are often treated with scepticism by historians and literary critics. Thus, it is essential to present in detail the evidence on which these reconstruction drawings of the Serapeum are based, as well as the reasoning involved, in a way which hopefully is accessible to non-archaeologists.

This article must be the basis for anyone who wants to think about this ancient site.  Recommended.

  1. [1] Philip R. Amidon (tr), The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia books 10 and 11, 1997, 81-82.
  2. [2] Judith S. McKenzie, Sheila Gibson and A. T. Reyes, “Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the archaeological evidence. JRS 92 (2004) 73-121.  JSTOR.

Images of Theophilus of Alexandria and the Serapeum in a 5th century papyrus codex

Today I came across an image which, although striking, was previously unknown to me.  It can be found on Wikipedia here, and in other places.  It depicts Theophilus of Alexandria, standing atop the Serapeum at Alexandria:

Goleniscev Papyrus - Theophilus and the Serapeum

Goleniscev Papyrus – Theophilus and the Serapeum

The destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 392 AD – the date is not precisely certain – at the hands of a mob, incited and led by the patriarch Theophilus, was an iconic moment in the end of paganism and indeed of antiquity.

The image above comes from the remains of a papyrus codex, once the property of Russian Egyptologist and collector Vladimir Golenischev. Today it is in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, with the other Golenischev papyri.  The codex may be as early as the 5th century AD, although others date it later.  It contains the remains of a Greek text, the Alexandrian World Chronicle.

The text and images were published – in colour! – in 1905 by Bauer and Strzygowski,[1] and, even better, the publication is online at the German digital library here.

The page of the publication from which the image comes is here.  A local copy of the page is below (click for full size image):

Alexandrian World Chronicle, fol. 6v. Theophilus and the Serapeum, &c.

Alexandrian World Chronicle, fol. 6v. Theophilus and the Serapeum, &c.

The text in grey is reconstructed by Bauer, although the later discovery of an additional fragment has verified at least some of his text.

Fortunately Richard Burgess has placed on here a paper which discusses this page in great deal.[2]  He gives a translation of that page, as follows, and I have abbreviated some of his very interesting notes for the general reader:

In this year with his son
Honorius Theodosius arrived
in Rome and crowned him
emperor on 13 June and
gave a congiarium to the Romans.
108. Augustus Valentinian IIII and
Neoterius vir clarissimus, when
[…] was augustalis.
Tatianus and Symmachus
viri clarissimi, when Evagrius was augustalis.

In this year Valentinian
died in Vienna
on 10 June and Eugenius
was proclaimed emperor
on 22 August,
which is 23 Thoth.
109. Augustus Arcadius II and Ru-
finus vir clarissimus, when the same
Evagrius was augustalis
of Alexandria.
In this year […] Eugenius
was executed on 6 January,
which is 8 Thoth, and in the same
year… [the codex ends here]

There are also titles above the figures: the one of the left has “Saint Theophilus”, while the kneeling figure is the luckless “Eugenius”.

The picture shows Theophilus standing on top of a façade with columns and a triangular entrance, which is painted in blue and yellow.  In the entrance is the bust of a beardless man with curly hair and a “modius” jar on his head.  This is characteristic of Serapis, and temples are often represented by a few columns and the cult image, so this is not necessarily an exact picture of the temple.  It would be interesting to wonder if the colours represent something real about the painting of the temple, tho.

Note also the colour of the statue – the face is blackened.  This confirms a statement by Clement of Alexandria in his Exhortation to the Greeks, ch. 3:

He gave personal orders, therefore, that a statue of Osiris his own ancestor should be elaborately wrought at great expense ; and the statue was made by the artist Bryaxis, — not the famous Athenian, but another of the same name, — who has used a mixture of various materials in its construction. He had filings of gold, silver, bronze, iron, lead, and even tin ; and not a single Egyptian stone was lacking, there being pieces of sapphire, hematite, emerald, and topaz also. Having reduced them all to powder and mixed them, he stained the mixture dark blue (on account of which the colour of the statue is nearly black), and, mingling the whole with the pigment left over from the funeral rites of Osiris and Apis, a he moulded Sarapis; … [3].

At bottom right is a building, again with a triangular façade painted in blue and yellow, with two white columns to the left, and a roof in blue at the right.  Below the façade the “modius” appears again … so this is again the Serapeum, and this is confirmed by the caption to the left, “[Sa]rapitos to [i]eron”, the “Temple of Serapis”.  This designation for the Serapeum of Alexandria appears elsewhere in ancient literature.  Two figures stand to the left of the temple, dressed in grey-blue tunics with arms upraised; some have thought these to be monks throwing stones at the temple.

The entry in the Chronicle that described the destruction of the temple is sadly missing.  But it must have stood there, for there is no reason otherwise for these pictures to be there.

  1. [1] A. Bauer and J. Strzygowski, Eine alexandrinische Weltchronik (1905), 71-3, pl. 6 Verso.
  2. [2] R.W. Burgess and Jitse H.F. Dijkstra, The ‘Alexandrian World Chronicle’, its Consularia and the Date of the Destruction of the Serapeum (with an Appendix on the List of Praefecti Augustales), Millennium Jahrbuch 10 (1013), 39-113.
  3. [3] Loeb translation, here