Jesus Christ is often assumed to be a real historical figure but many academics question this assumption with some believing he wasn’t a man but a myth. This especially divides agnostics into historicists and mythicists. Both sides don’t believe he was the Son of God or a supernatural being. But they are bitterly divided over whether he was a historical figure (historicists) or a literary construct (mythicists).
And both sides have compelling arguments. It’s a fascinating topic because at the heart of it is the question – how did Christianity ever get off the ground? How did an eastern mystery cult, built around an executed Judaean seditionary, become the state religion of the Roman Empire?
Historicists are faced with the challenge of bridging a gap of about forty years between the likely date for the crucifixion of Jesus and the first gospel. They normally claim that the first gospel writer, widely recognised as Mark, got the biographical details on Jesus from a mix of sayings past down and oral traditions. Mythicists retort – you have no hard evidence. And why didn’t Paul, who was writing before Mark, ever refer to the life story of Jesus?
Then we have the next two gospel writers, chronologically….Matthew and Luke. Mythicists say they basically rewrote Mark but with twists designed to appeal to their specific Christian communities. Historicists say they used Mark but also a long lost book of sayings referred to as “Q” and sources unique to each of them – accounting for the differences in their accounts.
And then both historicists and believing evangelicals like to point to non-Christian (pagan) Roman sources that seem to prove the existence of a historic Jesus. Roman historians like Tacitus, Josephus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius. But even historicists will admit that Christian scribes very likely altered texts and added references to Jesus to suggest he was a recognised figure in his lifetime – or shortly afterwards. Mythicists scoff at these Roman sources as faked interpolations.
We always think of the Roman Empire as being completely invincible. But the Romans lost a few battles and some of them pretty disastrously. There were at least two occasions when Roman emperors were killed and one where the emperor was captured and then executed.
Take for example the Battle of Carrhae in the dying years of the Roman Republic. This was a time when three men – the so-called Triumvirs – shared control of Rome. They were Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The latter was an obscenely wealthy senator who also famously crushed the slave revolt of Spartacus.
But in 53BC he overreached himself in a bid for glory by attempting to invade the Parthian Empire with its base in modern Iran. He marched a vast army through the deserts of the Middle East being drawn deliberately deep into Parthian territory. The enemy cut down the legions with an astonishing number of arrows that showered down ceaselessly. Here is an amazing computerised depiction of the battle.
Some of you will have watched Barbarians on Netflix. This is a loose retelling of how several Germanic tribes wiped out three legions under the control of a Roman general called Publius Quinctilius Varus under the first Roman emperor, Augustus.
Like Crassus, Varus was guilty of overreach and hubris. He also ignored good advice when deciding to launch punitive raids against the so-called ‘barbarians’. At this stage of history the military balance favoured the Roman Empire overwhelmingly. But the terrain didn’t. Roman armies just weren’t cut out for fighting in dense forests and that proved to be their undoing.
And then if we go to the closing centuries of the Roman Empire, we come to the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in the year 378. The empire was now ruled by two co-emperors with Valens in charge of the eastern half with his capital at Constantinople.
He’d been moderately successful in repelling the Persian based Sassanian Empire in the east but then faced demands from a huge mass of Goths north of the Danube river to be admitted into the empire.
Now, this wasn’t unusual. The Romans had often allowed in tribes from outside the empire but they were disarmed on entry and settled on Roman terms. However, Valens was busy on the Sassanian border and the local governor simple didn’t have the troops to enforce the required conditions.
This led to an uncontrolled influx of armed Goths into Roman territory. The rest, as you might say, was history. By the time Valens marched his armies up to meet the Goths, the whole thing had spun wildly out of control. The resulting battle of Adrianople saw the Romans defeated and the emperor possibly burned alive after taking refuge in a barn.
The metal detector is making a comeback with treasure hunting enthusiasts back out again looking for ancient loot. But in the United Kingdom, this has led the government to rethink the law on ancient artefacts dug up by amateur enthusiasts.
Changes are being made to the 1996 Treasure Act (yes, such a piece of legislation exists!) that will re-define metal detector finds as treasure. That’s if they are of major historical or cultural significance. Which means, you can’t make off with them so easily. Or at least, that’s the idea.
The normal definition is that a find has to be over 300 years old, made of gold or silver or found alongside artefacts made of precious metals. In 2014, a Roman figure of a man nearly left Britain for a private collector because it didn’t meet these criteria. The export was stopped at the last minute.
Roman statues cast in bronze have slipped through the net and disappeared, which is very sad. New rules mean that will no longer happen. Or at least, if it does – it’ll be illegal.
I was given a metal detector back in the 1970s when I was about 11 years of age. Epping Forest was at the top of my road and I got hopelessly addicted. Those beeps and whines of the machine were great fun. Unfortunately, despite the huge amount of history in the area where I grew up – Roman, Saxon and medieval treasure eluded me.
In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Paris with work. And I’m very aware that many metal detector enthusiasts make their way to the battlefields of the two World Wars looking for artefacts. I suppose because my father was alive during the last War I’m a bit queasy about this.
So are the French authorities. At the Gare du Nord rail station in Paris there are placards held up by employees warning Eurostar travellers that if they smuggle stuff out then there will be consequences.
The Colosseum was the largest arena of its kind in the Roman Empire – a place where spectators came to watch executions, animal hunts and gladiatorial combat. At the end of any major festival, the place was literally dripping blood.
I’ve visited a few times and I wrestle mentally trying to imagine what it must have been like for a Roman spending the day there. Arriving to this huge structure with a ticket and entering under one of the many arches.
The scale of the building is best appreciated in the corridors that took you to your seat. And I hope I’ve conveyed that with the images below taken in 2015. If you were a slave or a woman, you’d have made your way to the upper galleries. Equites and Senators were closer to the front. And the emperor in the imperial box.
A Roman would have been treated to public executions as spectacle but also a warning that – this could happen to you! Crucifixion, burning and being attacked by wild beasts were the main forms of execution. But contemporary accounts also say that criminals were killed by re-enacting gory scenes in Greek and Roman myths.
Then wild beast hunts. When the Colosseum was first opened, the Roman audience watched thousands of animals slain. What happened to all these lions, tigers and leopards? Quite possibly their meat was offered to the populace as this was a society where the poor had a protein-deficient diet.
Finally, gladiatorial games where trained fighters fought in armour depicting traditional enemies of Rome. The gladiators were often well-known personalities like footballers today but their social status was the lowest of the low. They were slaves though if they survived long enough could save enough money to buy their freedom – if their master permitted it.
One final point, the Colosseum earned its name not from the size of building the enormous statue next to it. There was a huge statue of the Emperor Nero, estimated to have been about 98 feet high, that had been in place before the Colosseum was built.
The site of the Colosseum had been Nero’s palace that covered about a fifth of the city. After his assassination, the palace was built over by the Flavian emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. They were making a public statement that Rome was a city for the people and not the play thing of one man.
But – for some reason – the statue stayed. And the Flavian amphitheatre was named after it. Some historians believe that the statue of Nero may have remained up to the seventh century AD. But at some point, it went. While the Roman Colosseum remained and despite being quarried and vandalised over two thousand years – it’s still with us.
Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.
GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt
The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.
Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.
The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.
Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!
In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.
Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.
In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.
One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.
But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.
Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.
They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.
GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)
The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.
All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!
This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.
Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.
Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!
His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.
GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities
Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.
His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!
Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.
He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.
Coronavirus has been a huge shock. But history is brimming with pandemics and plagues. So, what can we learn from them?
Here’s the bad news first.
Diseases like Coronavirus have an amazingly long history
Viruses have been part of our evolutionary history since we stood on two feet and spread out of Africa. Viruses are not strangers – they have been with us for millions of years – and more than likely, will be with us forever.
Coronavirus isn’t a wholly new phenomenon or a moral judgment on our species – as some seem to suggest (on Twitter for example) – it’s just the latest manifestation of a long running phenomenon.
Here’s the really freaky thing – because of the way in which viruses hijack our cells and mess us up – they have probably played a role in our evolution as a species. So close is our relationship to viruses, that they could even be manipulated in the future to cure cancer or genetic disorders. Small comfort now.
But while the Coronavirus is taking a terrible toll – we could one day harness viruses to be a force for good. Basically instructing a virus to do something useful in our bodies instead of harming us. That’s the science of tomorrow – so what about the impact viruses have had on us in history.
Ancient Greek history – disease with a Coronavirus like impact
A catastrophe like a plague can be absorbed by a civilisation in otherwise robust health. But at a critical moment, it can have a devastating impact. The trouble is – pandemics in history often seem to occur when or because of a broader crisis. So – we know that ancient Athens was racked by plague in 430BC at the height of the Peloponessian War – which killed the great Greek leader and statesman Pericles.
Plague after plague in the Roman Empire
History shows us that the greatest empire of them all could succumb to the equivalent of Coronavirus and its might and majesty provided no cure.
The Roman Empire saw two huge plagues at turning points in its history. The Antonine plague of the second century AD came at the end of a period of relative stability but now the eastern frontier with Persia was becoming increasingly problematic. And it’s possible that returning soldiers from those battlefields brought the disease back into the heart of Rome.
In the following century, the Plague of Cyprian (recorded by a bishop called Cyprian) bore all the hallmarks of an influenza-driven pandemic. Cyprian wrote about fevers, the passing of blood and aching limbs. When all factors are taken into consideration, it seems the Romans at that time succumbed to an Ebola type of disease. It came at a time when the empire was divided and at war on many fronts – when its usual reserves of vitality were severely depleted.
Spanish Flu – a Coronavirus type pandemic in history
Today in 2020, the British prime minister Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. But he’s not the first leader of the United Kingdom to have fallen victim to a pandemic. In 1918, the news was hushed up that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George – who had just led the country to victory in World War One – had contracted the deadly Spanish Flu.
I was never told about this studying the “Great War” as a child in the 1970s. Britain had just beaten Germany after a four year war and the establishment didn’t want anybody to know that the Prime Minister was flat on his back in bed attached to a ventilator. Ironically, he may have picked up this disease during the many celebrations at the end of the war. And tragically, the Spanish Flu ended up killing more people than died in the trenches.
The tragedy of HIV/AIDS
The societal impact of a virus can ultimately be positive despite the terrible human cost. HIV/AIDS was an appalling illness that ripped through the gay community in the 1980s. I knew two men who died of AIDS and that was immensely tragic. But the virus forced gay identity to the top of the media agenda. Initially that was a negative. Gay people were accused of spreading a plague.
But within the gay community it built a gritty determination and anger to break through and demand tolerance and acceptance. And among the wider population, gay people went from largely invisible to highly visible. Families were forced to realise that a son, father or cousin was gay – because they finally had the courage to come out.
The Coronavirus has up-ended our lives. There’s already a mass of academic content on how things will be different. The state looks set to play a bigger role. Populism in politics will be in the dock. Experts may come back into fashion. And so on. Let’s see!
I was in Berlin in February 2020 just before the Coronavirus struck and led to the city going on lockdown. It seems incredible that at the time of writing this, I was in Berlin three weeks ago and walked around the incredible Pergamon Museum – whose doors are now closed.
But – I don’t want you to be denied the amazing sights of the Pergamon Museum just because of this wretched virus. So luckily, I had my iPhone and captured the incredible Roman gateway that was shipped a hundred years ago from what is now Turkey to Germany. The Gate of Miletus was then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in a vast room.
Viewer discretion: The following blog post does include images of two thousand year old bog bodies – those of a delicate disposition may wish to skip this post– as we look at an ancient bog body murder.
All over northern Europe, mysterious two thousand year old bodies have been dug up from peat bogs. These so-called bog bodies are remarkably well preserved in many cases.
Disturbingly, they seem to have been victims of human sacrifice. Evidence of being hit and strangled can be detected.
Ancient bog body – victim of murder or ritual sacrifice?
I was in the National Museum of Ireland last month and saw several examples of these bog bodies. The damp conditions of peat bogs means that their skin and internal organs are in remarkably good condition.
And most of these bog bodies date from what we call the Iron Age and are found in those countries to the north of the emerging Roman Empire – such as Britain, Ireland and Denmark.
Clonycavan Man – Iron bog body in savage murder
Let’s start with one bog body called Clonycavan Man found in February 2003 at a peat extraction works in County Meath, Ireland. He was damaged from the waist down because of the action of a peat harvesting machine but his upper body and head were in a good state.
So much so that archaeologists were able to reconstruct what he looked like when he was killed between 392 and 201 BC. Note the moustache, beard and the “man bun” hairstyle, made popular again by hipsters in our time.
He was killed by a series of blows to the head and may also have been disembowelled. Here is what this bog body looks like today in a glass case at the Museum of Ireland.
Baronstown West Man was found during peat cutting in 1953. He was at a depth of around 1.9 metres. A layer of interwoven birch or hazel sticks had been placed on top of him and there was something resembling a woollen shroud fixed to his body. It’s believed that at the time of death he was between 25 and 30 years of age.
He’s not one of the better preserved specimens and dates from around 200 to 400 AD.
In the British Museum today you can see the remains of Lindow Man who was discovered in Cheshire in 1984 with very clear evidence of having been strangled and struck in a sacrificial rite.
Bog body confused for modern murder
A year before, a female bog body was unearthed that at first was believed by police to be the corpse of a woman murdered in the 1960s.
For two decades the police had been trying to find the remains of a woman called Malika de Fernandez. Her estranged husband had long been suspected of having done her in. When the body of Lindow Woman emerged, police thought they had solved the crime and they confronted her husband who immediately confessed to the murder.
Unfortunately for him, it was then revealed in subsequent forensic tests that the body was not twenty years old – but two thousand years old! He tried to retract his confession but was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence in prison. You could say that this bog body had the last laugh!
I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.
The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!
Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.
Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!
Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!
There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.
Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…
And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.
For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.
This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.
The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.
It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.
It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics
I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.
His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:
Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?
It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.