Hatra – The Sad Death of an Historic Site

Hatra Temple

My research for the current book I’m writing has taken me to a place that has been in the news of late.

The news from the Middle East has not been good for many years, especially on the human scale. But things have taken another sad turn with the added destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. A couple weeks ago, we heard of the wanton destruction of the ancient, Assyrian Bronze Age city of Nimrud, and this loss of world heritage has shaken the archaeological and historical communities.

But last week, came yet another catastrophic blow. The ancient city of Hatra, just 290 kms northwest of Baghdad, was bulldozed to the ground. The supposed reasons for this vile act being that Hatra did not represent the religion of the group in question.

Hatra.

Hatra details

Prior to the levelling of this ancient site, I had been admiring its magnificent, intact ruins as part of my research for a prequel to my novel, Children of Apollo. This is… was… an amazing place.

Hatra was built in the third century B.C. under the Seleucid Empire, founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucas. It was later located on the edge of the mighty Parthian Empire with which Rome would wage terrible war.

The city of Hatra was one of the best-preserved Parthian cities in the Middle East. It had inner and outer walls that were about 6 kms around, with 160 towers. These walls were so strong and well-fortified that of all the Parthian possessions, including the capital of Ctesiphon, Hatra was the only frontier city that withstood attacks from Rome’s legions.

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

The emperors who laid siege to Hatra were no slouches either! Both the warlike emperors Trajan (in A.D. 116/117) and Septimius Severus (in A.D. 198/199) attacked the city, only to be turned away by the walls, the defenders, and the harsh environment outside of those walls. Some say, the gods themselves had a hand in the successful defence of Hatra…

Eventually, the city fell to the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur I in A.D. 241, but that warrior ruler did not destroy the city. Hatra stood for over two thousand years… that is, until last week.

Emperor Trajan

Emperor Trajan

It wasn’t the walls that kept Hatra standing, nor the power of the Parthians, for both of those things were breeched in the end. What kept Hatra alive, so to speak, was respect and a common sense of heritage.

In my research, it has been interesting to read about how Hatra was a place of religious fusion, of great harmony among faiths.

The architecture may have been a beautiful melding of Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the great temples at the heart of Hatra belonged to the Assyrian and Babylonian faiths, to the beliefs of Greeks, Syrians and Aramaeans, Arabians and Mesopotamians. The age-old gods of all of these faiths co-existed at the heart of this circular city in the desert, standing proud and protected around the base of the Great Temple itself, with its 30 meter columns.

The Great Temple

The Great Temple

I’ve not seen recent pictures, but from what I’ve heard, Hatra has been levelled.

There are no words, really.

Think of it this way – even Saddam Hussein saw value (however selfishly) and wanted to restore Hatra, as well as Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Babylon. He didn’t bulldoze them.

For over a thousand years, Muslims have preserved these ancient sites, including Hatra, because they represented a glorious past, humankind’s past. The towering columns and temple pediments, the ornate reliefs carved by our ancient ancestors did not represent a threat. They were artistic glories, the ornamentations of the houses of many gods, side by side.

In my prequel to Children of Apollo, I’ll be writing about Septimius Severus’ two sieges of Hatra, and how, despite his rage and being repelled twice, the city yet stood. Some stories say it was the threat of mutiny, others that it was the Empress, Julia Domna who urged him to spare the city because of the magnificent temples within that honoured so many gods.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Whether the story is true or not, Severus respected the gods, and the monuments built in their honour. He left them alone, even though the Hatrans angered him with their stubbornness.

Severus now crossed Mesopotamia and made an attempt on Hatra, which was not far off, but accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded…

…He himself made another expedition against Hatra, having first got ready a large store of food and prepared many siege engines; for he felt it was disgraceful, now that the other places had been subdued, that this one alone, lying there in their midst, should continue to resist. But he lost a vast amount of money, all his engines, except those built by Priscus, as I have stated above, and many soldiers besides. A good many were lost on foraging expeditions, as the barbarian cavalry (I mean that of the Arabians) kept assailing them everywhere in swift and violent attacks. The archery, too, of the Atreni was effective at very long range, since they hurled some of their missile by means of engines, so that they actually struck many even of Severus’ guards; for they discharged two missiles at one and the same shot and there were many hands and many bows hurling the missiles all at the same time. But they inflicted the greatest damage on their assailants when these approached the wall, and much more still after they had broken down a small portion of it; for they hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha, of which I wrote above, and consumed the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell. Severus observed all this from a lofty tribunal. When a portion of the outer circuit had fallen in one place and all the soldiers were eager to force their way inside the remainder, Severus checked them from doing so by ordering the signal for retreat to be clearly sounded on every side. For the place enjoyed great fame, containing as it did a vast number of offering to the Sun-god as well as vast sums of money; and he expected the Arabians to come to terms voluntarily, in order to avoid being forcibly captured and enslaved. At any rate, he allowed one day to pass; then, when no one came to him with any overtures for peace, he commanded the soldiers to assault the wall once more, though it had been built up during the night. But the Europeans, who alone of his army had the ability to do anything, were so angry that not one of them would any longer obey him, and the others, Syrians, who were compelled to make the assault in their place, were miserably destroyed. Thus Heaven, that saved the city, first caused Severus to recall the soldiers when they could have entered the place, and in turn caused the soldiers to hinder him from capturing it when he later wished to do so.

(Cassius Dio – Roman History LXXVI)

Who was living in Hatra last week, when it was ground to dust? No one.

All that was there were the silent stone monuments of history, tufts of grass and wildflower sprouting up from around the column bases, and the desert sand whirling about them, as it had for so many centuries.

Hatra columns

You may not have known of Hatra before last week, but now, I would urge you to spare a thought for its ghost and the shared history of the peoples who called it home over the ages.

Thank you for reading…

What are your thoughts on the destruction of Hatra and other sites? Let us know in the comments below…

For further reading, click HERE to see the UNESCO pages on Hatra.

Here is a video from UNESCO that will give you a short tour of this once-beautiful city:

 

 

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The World of Children of Apollo – Part IV – Rome: Caput Mundi

Colisseum 3

Today we’re going back into the world of Children of Apollo.

The second half of the book leaves behind the dunes and swaying palms of Roman North Africa for Italy, particularly Rome, as well as Cumae and Etruria. For this fourth instalment of The World of Children of Apollo we will focus on Rome itself.

Rome was indeed the centre of the world during this period, the omphalos to which all roads led and from which all decisions flowed. It was the ultimate goal in Severus’ civil war with Niger and Albinus and, despite his favouritism of Leptis Magna, the jewel the Emperor knew he must hold with his massive, loyal Praetorian Guard and the legion he had stationed at Albanum, outside of Rome.

Arch of Septimius Severus - Forum Romanum

Arch of Septimius Severus – Forum Romanum

It would take a whole book to scratch the surface of Rome so this will only be a very brief look at some of the sites that are a focus of Children of Apollo. Rome is one of my favourite cities, if not for the food then for the history that awaits you around every corner, that towers over you, and lies beneath your feet. Before my first trip to Rome, the glory of Rome, the Empire, had only been something I had read about. It was only when I walked those streets and set foot in the Forum that the idea came fully to life. Even among the ruins of the Forum Romanum, the glory of this ancient capital is keenly felt, whether it is the paving slabs of the Via Sacra, the Arch of Septimius Severus or the temple of the Divine Julius where people still lay flowers.

Artist Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

Artist Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

When Lucius and Argus leave North Africa, they put in at Ostia, the Port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber. It was here, at Rome’s port where most of the seaborne traffic headed for Rome came. The hexagonal port of Trajan was surrounded by warehouses where grain and goods from all over the Empire would be held. Beyond the warehouses, Ostia was full of well-decorated homes, and tabernae to serve residents and visitors in the prosperous port. Brothels, gambling establishments and fine dining all made for anything but a boring night out!

Forum Boarium and Temple of Hercules

Forum Boarium and Temple of Hercules

Those going on to Rome could have taken a barge up the Tiber, or travelled by land. When Lucius and Argus finally arrive in Rome, they find themselves in the Forum Boarium, the cattle market where a Temple of Hercules still stands. In the story, for various reasons, Lucius’ family’s home is now near this smaller forum where, in generations past, they used to live on the Palatine Hill.

In the early 3rd century A.D. the Palatine Hill was virtually one big sprawling Imperial palace complex, with various additions having been made by successive emperors. Severus was no different and built a massive new addition that jutted out from the southern edge of the hill to overlook the Circus Maximus. Front row seats for the chariot races! Looking down on the faint outline of the great circus, I could not resist writing an exciting chariot race scene in the book. The Circus could hold up to 250,000 spectators and their roar must have been deafening.

Severan Palace Complex from the Circus Maximus

Severan Palace Complex from the Circus Maximus

When walking about on the Palatine Hill, it felt peaceful, a world away from the busy fora of Rome. I imagine it was the same for members of the imperial family who could stroll about the gardens and palaces in peace to the cawing of peacocks and play of water in fountains. One of the main locations of Children of Apollo is the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where a crucial event of Lucius’ youth takes place. This temple, built by Augustus beside his palace, was only the second in the city dedicated to that god. If ever you get the chance to visit the Palatine Hill and the museum there, it is a definite treat, a world away from the busy streets below.

Forum Romanum

Forum Romanum

Septimius Severus left his mark in many ways on Rome and not only with his massive palace complex. Flanking the palace was a massive, decorative façade that was unveiled during the celebrations of his triumph. This structure, dubbed the ‘Septizodium’, was a huge wall ornamented with elaborate statuary where water flitted from section to section to dazzle spectators. Not much of it remains today but when it was unveiled, the populace must have been well pleased. The arch of Septimius Severus is one of the more impressive sites in the Forum and this can be seen directly in front of the Curia (Senate House) where he had it built as a reminder to the senators of Rome who the real power was. The artwork on the arch differs in style to others, the period heralding a gradual shift to what we recognize more as a Byzantine perspective.

Ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome

Ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome

All over Rome, there is so much to see and when there, I walked for days, never tiring of the sights that met my eyes, imagining what Lucius would have seen. From the mausoleums of Hadrian and Augustus, to the Colosseum, the Ludus Magnus and the Temple of Venus and Rome where Lucius has an important rendezvous, Rome is a city where life, past and present, is meant to be felt and enjoyed. One of the great joys of writing Children of Apollo was being able to visit Rome again.

Ruins of the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus

Ruins of the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus

So, I do hope that one day, your road will take you to Rome where, with gelato in hand, you can experience the majesty of this wondrous city.

Be sure to catch Part V of the World of Children of Apollo when we will visit one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Etruria (Tuscany!).

Thank you for reading!

apollofinal

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The World of Children of Apollo – Part III – The Severans

Imperial Family - The Severans

Imperial Family – The Severans

The Severans were a very interesting family and not without their tales of violence and greed and uniqueness of character. The period is not marked by something so brutal as the psychotic reign of Caligula, but there are certainly many more dimensions. It is a time of militarism, of a weakened Senate, a time of spymasters in various camps. It is a time marked by the rise of lower classes, the presence of powerful women and, over it all, a blanket of religious superstition at the highest levels. Many believe that it is this period in Rome’s history that marks the true beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.

The emperor at the time that Children of Apollo takes place is Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211). He was the son of an Equestrian from Leptis Magna in North Africa. When Commodus was killed in A.D. 192, Severus was governor of Pannonia. When the Praetorians decided to auction the imperial seat a short time later, Severus’ legions declared him Emperor. He subsequently defeated his two opponents who had also declared themselves Emperor: Clodius Albinus and Pescennius Niger. A purge of his opponents’ followers in the Senate and Rome made Severus sole ruler of the largest empire in the world.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus was a martial emperor, the army was his power and he knew how to use it, how to keep the legions loyal and happy. He increased troops’ pay and in a radical move, allowed soldiers to get married. Severus was good to his troops, his Pannonian Legions and victorious Parthian veterans. He promoted equestrians to ranks previously reserved for aristocrats and lower ranks to equestrian status. There was a lot of mobility within the rank system at the time due to Severus ‘democratization’ of the army. Remember, this was an emperor who favoured his troops, especially those who distinguished themselves. The Emperor is open and friendly with Lucius Metellus Anguis in Children of Apollo, but there are prices to be paid. No favour is free.

Julia Domna

Julia Domna

One of the most interesting characters of the period is Severus’ Empress, Julia Domna. She appears as one of the strongest women in Rome’s history, an equal partner in power with her husband who heeded her advice but also respected her. Julia Domna was the first of the so-called ‘Syrian women’, she and her sisters hailing from Antioch where their father had been the respected high priest of Baal at Emesa (Homs in modern Syria).

Julia Domna was also highly intelligent, known as a philosopher, and had a group of leading scholars and rhetoricians about her. They came from around the Empire to be a part of her circle, to win commissions from her. No doubt, her strength also bought her a great many enemies, including the Praetorian Prefect and kinsman to Severus, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus. The conflict between the Empress and the Prefect of the Guard is something that will cause Lucius Metellus Anguis a good deal of trouble in Children of Apollo and sequel, Killing the Hydra. To boot, Plautianus’ daughter, Plautilla, was married to the Empress’ son, Caracalla. One can imagine what family gatherings must have been like!

Gaius Fulvius Plautianus

Gaius Fulvius Plautianus

Apart from the power, their keen ability to wield it, and their nurturing of the army’s loyalty, a very interesting and important aspect of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna is the great faith they both placed in astrology and horoscopes. They consulted with their astrologer and the stars on all decisions. Astrology affected everything, including Severus’ choice of her as his wife – he was greatly impressed by her horoscope.

By all accounts Caracalla and Geta, Severus’ heirs, were both at odds much of the time. The two brothers seem to have tolerated each other’s presence and competed fiercely, even in the hippodrome where at one point they raced each other so fiercely on their chariots that they ended up with several broken bones, almost leaving their father without a successor. Caracalla seems to have been the favourite of the Empress, though in later years Julia Domna does come to Geta’s defence, however much in vain.

Julia Maesa

Julia Maesa

The Syrian women continued to hold power under the daughters of Julia Domna’s older sister, Julia Maesa who, herself, managed to save the dynasty for a time after the death of Caracalla. Julia Maesa was the mother of Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, both mothers in their turn, of the last Severan emperors, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus. These powerful women held the family together. However, in the end, under Alexander Severus, the loyalty of the army was lost, and what once gave the Severans their ultimate power became their downfall.

There is a lot more to each of the people I have mentioned so briefly here and it is a part of Roman history that is not often explored. However, the Severans made their mark on the Empire and brought about massive changes, from artwork, to marriage for legionaries, to a crippling of the Senate and the extension of Roman citizenship to people all over the Roman Empire. They were strong, religious, varied and flawed, and all make for fantastic fiction!

Caracalla

Caracalla

In the next instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, we’ll be following Lucius Metellus Anguis to Ostia and Rome itself as he leaves North Africa to return home after many years. If you are up for a Roman holiday, be sure to check it out!

What is your favourite imperial Roman family? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Thank you for reading!

 

apollofinal

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