Londinium AD 120: The first British Gladiators?

A new forensic examination of skulls which were discovered in 1988 in the Walbrook Valley has suggested that they could be the remains of gladiators. The examination, carried out by the Natural History Museum in conjunction with the Museum of London, found that the skulls had suffered “blunt force trauma” to their front and sides. As a result of this examination, several theories have been put forward to explain what had happened to the victims – mostly young men who had died between AD 120-160. One suggestion is that they are the severed heads of barbarian enemies taken by the Roman armies on the frontiers of Britain. However, more credible are the ideas that they were executed as criminals in the nearby London amphitheatre, or else had perished in combat as gladiators. Such gladiatorial graves have been found on mainland Europe, and it could be the case that this is the first example of the phenomenon in Britain.

One remembers the old adage from Viz, “A Pint and a Fight, a Great British Night”. From gladiators to glassings, tastes in London don’t seem to have changed much. A friend from Kentish town was shaking his head mournfully over the weekend: “there are two murders every week in the local paper” – but if these skulls are anything to judge, ’twas ever thus in London. Or as the Romans would say, “nihil sub sole novum“.

Ahmed Rashid: “If they just talk to ordinary people, the Taliban will change…”

Further to my earlier post on Ahmed Rashid’s SOAS speech on Friday, there is another statement Rashid made which deserves to be questioned further. He suggested that there was an essential flexibility in the Taliban’s ideology, and that it would be softened if and when the Taliban spent more time talking to ordinary people. Should they spend more time speaking to ordinary people, the Taliban would understand their needs better and consequently moderate their behaviour and approach to governing any areas they hold, be more accommodating of modernity, and be more inclined to making a peace settlement.

There are two comments one should make in response to this striking idea:

1. The Taliban are, by Rashid’s own reckoning, a natural movement arising from the Pashtun peoples in the south of Afghanistan and the Tribal Areas (albeit stimulated and supported by external agents). If they ultimately are of the people, would they not since their emergence as a force in the mid-1990s already have had some little time to get to know their own people and understand their needs? Perhaps not. Kate Clark and Christine Roehrs, in her excellent analysis of the Taverna du Liban bombing of Kabul last week on the Afghanistan Analysis Network, points out that the Taliban’s main occupation seems to be the killing of rather than listening to Afghan civilians. In a recent UNAMA report, the Taliban were found to be responsible for 74% of civilian casualties in 2013, most of them Afghans, including “government officials, mullahs or tribal leaders judged to be pro-government, women activists or alleged spies”, i.e. people trying to get on and live ordinary lives.

2. Is it really the case that a movement whose tenets are held to come from a divine revelation going to moderate them for the exigencies of modern life? What substance does the movement have if it forsakes these notions?

Ahmed Rashid: Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Western pullout

Speaking last night at a joint SOAS/Pakistan Society lecture, the author Ahmed Rashid painted a predictably gloomy picture of the future for Afghanistan, and even more so for Pakistan. Although there was much in his analysis which seems to make sense, some of his observations about the current state of play were surprising and call for further comment.

The danger to Afghanistan at this juncture is perfectly clear. The political institutions have remained half-baked and prone to corruption. The President, Hamid Karzai, has been reluctant to prevent a culture of bribery and criminality in the highest echelons of the Afghan state. He has proved to be a vacillating leader, interested in leaving a legacy but not sure what it should be, or how to go about it. The legitimacy of the Kabul government amongst the people is not strong. The withdrawal of Western forces threatens the Afghan economy – much of the employment has been dependent on the presence of foreign institutions and aid donors, and without it many educated Afghans will be jobless. No significant economy beyond this field has developed over the last 12 years. The army and police forces are not reliable to enforce security or unity. The absence of Western forces will allow the Taliban or other actors to take over the government in the south and east of the country. Extremist movements, such as Laskhar-i Taiba, which were originally associated with Pakistan, are now operating more freely in Afghanistan and linking together with similar Central Asian movements. The neighbouring powers are not yet deeply involved in the conflict, but should one choose to enter the fray, then a conflagration involving Russia, Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India in Afghanistan is certainly not impossible.

There is as great a danger for Pakistan. The absence of a visible enemy – the West – on Afghan soil could encourage the extremist movements to be more ambitious in bringing about their objectives of an Islamic state in the region and the overthrow of the current government in Pakistan. Terrorism in Pakistan has recently been on the increase, with indiscriminate bombings and the murder of senior officials calculated to demoralise the population. The region has not come to terms with the fact that the West will be withdrawing from the region shortly, and that the age of “Fixing Failed States” is coming to an end. Rather than the elites of the region looking to the West to bail them out and support them whilst they themselves refuse to solve the underlying problems and stand on their own two feet is a fair and important comment. Indeed, the West itself, wearied by intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Libya, is perhaps not questioning itself about the consequences of losing interest in intervention – greater repression and the development of new dictatorships are the likely results.

Thus far, the analysis seems good. However, some of Rashid’s other statements, as I said earlier, were surprising:

1. He said that the question of a military transition was relatively unimportant. What matters over the next four months is an election which is seen to be free and fair. A government legitimised by the democratic process was a necessity for any future negotiation with the Taliban. If the next election is rigged or seen to be without legitimacy, that might act as the catalyst for a new civil war which could be worse than that of the 1990s and spiral into regional conflict.

2. He suggested that the US withdrawal would cause the “peace party” within the Afghan Taliban to swell. The Taliban were now more understanding of the needs of a modern state and government than they had been in the 1990s. They were reconciled to allowing cosmopolitan and relatively free cities, recognising that they were necessary drivers of economic growth and prosperity. Indeed, the older generation of the Afghan Taliban who had lived through the Jihad of the 1980s and the Civil War of the 1990s, followed by the post 2001 exile were eager to come to a settlement and return to a peaceful existence.

3. Pakistan had lost interest in the old doctrine of “Strategic Depth” – a Great Game style notion, whereby they would be the de facto ruler of the south of Afghanistan up to the Hindu Kush (including Kabul, Ghazni and Kandahar), and call on this territory in the event of any major conflict with India. Pakistan had lost any interest in attempting to govern in Afghanistan or project its hegemony there. This, indeed, was confirmed by a representative of the Pakistan High Commission who was also present.

4. He also suggested that, although this was difficult to verify by concrete research, many of the ordinary inhabitants of FATA (the tribal areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the former North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan) actually welcomed the use of drone strikes against extremist militant leaders who had caused much misery in these areas over the last few years.

One might append a few comments to these points:

1. It seems strange to put democratic elections ahead of the question of a secure military handover. Without the apparatus of security, no state in Afghanistan is going to be able to preserve itself against the many players who wish to overthrow or disregard it. A successful democratic election is hardly going to overawe extremists or external actors who do not consider an election – free and fair or otherwise – as a means of legitimating a government.

2. It seems incredible that the Taliban is going to allow a free cosmopolitanism in the Afghan cities – it would be completely against its essence. One only has to look at the vile and idiotic bombing of the Taverna du Liban in Kabul yesterday to see this. The Taliban is in essence an outgrowth of the historic conflict between the conservative countryside and the cosmopolitan cities in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban forsakes this idea it forsakes one of the very basic tenets of its identity.

3. Perhaps this is in truth the case, but if so it would be a change of policy overturning hundreds of years of geo-politics. The regional power based in the Indian subcontinent has always tried to control Afghanistan up to the Hindu Kush.

4. Perhaps the ordinary people of FATA do welcome drone strikes against militant leaders, but one wishes it were easier to understand their wishes. I asked Rashid whether Pakistan’s new-found interest in seeing an independent and stable Afghanistan extended to offering a negotiated settlement of the troubled question of the “Durand Line” – the outdated frontier established by the British in 1893 which is one of the basic generators of instability in the FATA Tribal Region as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan (see my articles here and here) – but unfortunately, according to Rashid, there is no particular interest in dealing with this fundamental problem. As I relate in my articles, the British who set up the line in the 1890s foresaw that it was basically ungovernable and that hot pursuit would have to be allowed to maintain its security – i.e. that something along the lines of drone strikes would happen sooner or later. A frontier constituted in such a way is hardly the basis for generating modern and secure states.

Regardless of these points, we should consider what Rashid says about the end of the era of Western intervention, especially in the region. The West may have behaved carelessly or criminally in many respects, but their presence has provided a scapegoat for enemies and a support to a fragile order. In the West’s absence, more extreme forms of government could well develop, and it is necessary to ask if the moral ease which the West gains from refusing to interfere in affairs which it considers not its own is ultimately the right option, both in terms of moral as well as practical correctness.



The Ara Pacis: Resetting the Sundial of Augustus

Work by archaeologists at the University of Indiana has overturned a long-standing theory about two monuments raised by the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, and perhaps also cast a new light on his ideas about religion and government.

View of the Ara Pacis (Creative Commons, Manfred Heyde)

In 13 BC, after Augustus had returned from a three-year expedition to Gaul and Hispania, the Roman Senate voted to dedicate an altar in his honour. It was to be called the Ara Pacis or “Altar of Peace”, intended to celebrate the tranquility which Augustus had brought to the Roman Empire after a century of civil war. The Altar was dedicated in 9 BC, and although not large in scale is both beautiful and steeped in allusion to Augustus’ religious policy and his vision for the resurrection of the Empire. Resurrection, even in this context, is not too strong a word. The altar is covered in realistic depictions of indigenous burgeoning foliage, suggesting an almost elemental return of life to a land once sunk in winter and despair. On friezes around the altar are depicted processions of the Roman imperial family and other dignities engaged in sacrifice. Their expressions are grave and dignified, an example of the piety and sober behaviour which Augustus hoped to encourage amongst Romans after the selfish and irreligious violence of the civil war.

The "Tellus panel" from the Ara Pacis (Creative Commons)

The cultivation of an apparently neglected religion as a cure for the evils which had beset both Rome and the character of its people was one of Augustus’ primary policies. The idea is perfectly expressed in one of Horace’s Roman Odes (III.6.1-8):

Delicta maiorum inmeritus lues,
Romane, donec templa refeceris
     aedisque labentis deorum et
     foeda nigro simulacra fumo.

Dis te minorem quod geris, imperas:               
hinc omne principium, huc refer exitum.
     Di multa neglecti dederunt
     Hesperiae mala luctuosae.

(Although without guilt, you will pay for the sins of your ancestors, O Roman, until you restore the tottering shrines of the gods and the images stained with black smoke. Because you make yourselves lowly before the gods, you rule: to this point lay every undertaking, and to it every result. The neglected gods have given many woes to wretched Italy.)

Yet, if one were to accept Horace’s idea that the Romans should make themselves lower than the gods (dis te minorem… geris), there was something that jarred about the Ara Pacis. Sited near it on the Campus Martius was a 70-ft high red granite obelisk – the Obelisk of Montecitorio – which had been brought back from Egypt in 10 BC. The pavement around the Obelisk had been marked with lines so that it might serve as a sundial – all well and good – but according to observations which had been made by archaeologists over the last 50 years, the ensemble was designed so that on the day of Augustus’ birthday (23rd September) the shadow from the tip of the obelisk should fall across the centre of the Ara Pacis.

There were many ideas circulating during that time about Augustus’ almost cosmic role. The whole of the Aeneid, the Roman foundation epic written by Virgil just before this time, suggests that Augustus was fated by Jupiter to bring peace to Rome and extend its dominions across the earth. Yet there is something that always seemed to me excessive about the Sundial of Augustus; a suggestion that there was some grand coincidence of the cosmos looking down and bringing Augustus to birth. If the Altar was ultimately dedicated to the gods, then a proclamation of Augustus’ heavenly grandeur in a monument of piety to the traditional goods looks out of place; it is hardly dis te minorem… geris.

Yet, the new research about the sundial has brought this old theory crashing down. By computer simulations and the use of astronomical data, they have found that the Obelisk was actually designed not to point to the altar on Augustus’ birthday, but on 9th October – the Festival of Palatine Apollo. The revelation makes much more sense of the monument. Augustus was known for his dedication to Apollo: he attributed his victory at the 31 BC Battle of Actium (where he routed Antony and Cleopatra and assured his victory in the Civil War) to Apollo’s presence. A sundial which paid tribute to the guiding hand of Apollo over Augustus’ affairs and the peace of the Roman Empire is much more in keeping with Augustus’ own history and his vaunted piety to the gods, handing the ultimate tribute for Roman peace and victory not to himself, but them.