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The fight of the eagle with the snake: the old narrative(s) behind iconography and epigraphy

Minories-Eagle-and-Serpent-c-MOLA-Andy-ChoppingIn September 2013 a spectacular Roman find was discovered in London, ancient Londinium. A beautifully carved Roman statue dated on the late 2nd century A.D. was found on the territory of a Roman cemetery.

The particularity of this statue lies in its iconography: the small sized eagle is represented in a fight with a snake, wrapped around the predator’s neck and body. This iconography appears on few representations in Britannia but not only, often appears in the Eastern provinces too., as it was highlighted by professor M. Henig and his co-authors in the latest publication of the famous statue. (I’m very thankful for prof. Henig citing me in his article).

IDR III.5. 136bWhen I saw the statue in the press in 2013 I was remembering suddenly one of the most peculiar inscriptions of Apulum from Roman Dacia, which mentions a prodigy, a “miracle” associated with the fight of an eagle and the snake (IDR III/5, 136):

I(ovi) o(ptimo) m(aximo) / Aur(elius) Marinus / Bas(s)us et Aur(elius) / Castor Polyd/ i circumstantes / viderunt numen / aquilae descidis(s)e / monte supra dracone(m) / res validavit / supstrinxit aquila(m) / hi s(upra) s(cripti) aquila(m) de / periculo / liberaverunt /v(oto) l(ibentes) m(erito) p(osuerunt)

This unique inscription dedicated by two Syrians shows, that a particular story, a narrative or even many versions of a myth existed and was wide-spread in the Roman Empire about the fight of the supreme god and the symbol of the evil power, the snake.

Daniel Ogden just sent me a reference, which serves a great analogy for this narrative behind the iconogaphy of the London-statue and the inscription from Apulum (Alba Iulia, Romania). The passage of Aaelian (Characteristics of Animals 17.37) describes exactly the mythical fight of an eagle with the snake:


Bemutató1The story of Aelian, the inscription of Apulum and the iconography of the new statue from Londinium shows not only the mobility and wide spread of ancient myths and religious narratives, but also the local appropriations of these stories beyond iconography and epigraphy.


Mithras in the Danubian provinces

Copy of IMG_8414Last year, exactly a year ago (June, 2016) we organized the very first session dedicated to the Roman cult (or religion) of Mithras in the Danubian provinces. Although nowadays the study of Roman religion do not promote the focus on singular divinities, but on more holistic, complex views on religious communications, our session was an important one, because collected new materials from an area of the Roman Empire which is less known for the Western scholarship.

The seven contributions of our panel (around 200 pages) will be published in the forthcoming number of the Acta Antiqua. The articles will focus on particular aspects of the Mithras mysteries in Dalmatia, Pannonia, Dacia and Moesia Inferior. It will contain also the first comprehensive Supplement for the CIMRM of Dacia.



On the amulets from Viminacium

Last year a spectacular discovery entered in the Western and Central-East European press: two mysterious tablets (one in gold and one in silver) were found in the world famous cemetery of Viminacium, Serbia. As one of the most well researched cemeteries of the Roman Empire, Viminacium offers indeed a striking example to analyse religious experiences and the dynamics of funerary rites and changes. The two small tablets were 10-Srebrna-plocica-s-tajansdiscovered in a tomb dated on the 4 th century A.D. in a part of the cemetery used by mixed, Pagan and Christian communities. This “syncretism” and cohabitation of the two groups is well known from others parts of Pannonia and the Empire too.

Despite of the “sensational” news, it is not surprising at all to find pagan burials within Christian communities. The two objects – often presented wrongly in the Western and Serbian press as defixiones, or curse tablets – has nothing to do with cursing. It is certainly gives an interesting glimpse in the magical practices and popular religious culture of the ancient people in the late antique period, when Jewish, Egyptian and Syrian influences were well established in the Roman magical practices.

The two tablets (one in silver, one in gold) are certainly amulets, protecting the soul of the 10-zlatni-svitak-s-tekstom-_620x0dead. While the silver one is full with charakteres, the golden lamella has an Aramaic text written in Greek. Similar golden lamella was found also in Dierna, Romania and recently in Aquincum. The Serbian golden lamella – after the text presented in the international press – contains 3 mysterious demon names, or voces magicae:Thobarabau, Semeseilam, Sesengenfaranges. The first one, Thobarabau is well known from several magical sources (Supplementum Magicum 1990, 41, 42, 43.1, PGM 7, 977, Kotansky 1994, p. 80, Vannier et al. 2000). Semeseilam appears less frequent, but is is also a well known magical word (Janelli 1831, 220) and it probably derives from the Hebrew word of eternal sun or from a Syrian divinity or demon (Németh 2010, 185). Sesengenfaranges (or more probably, Sesengebarpharanges) is also an Aramaic or Hebrew word, with uncertain origins (probably related to a Hebrew mythical narrative hard to reconstruct today: Németh 2010, 186).

Although, the vox magicae certainly leads to the Jewish magical traditions, would be hard to affirm, that the dead person’s family, who want to protect the soul of their beloved person were Jewish or from the Eastern part of the Empire. These magical words and practices were extremely well spread all over the Empire and rarely can be interpreted as ethnic-cultural agents.

New Mithraic inscription from Dacia

fig-1bA new Mithraic inscription was reported in March 2015 to have been seized by the police at Timişoara in Romania. The inscription is the second known dedication of Dioscorus, recorded already on a remarkable monument discovered in the 19th century in Apulum (Alba Iulia) in a mithraeum. My publication of the inscription with Imola Boda, Calin Timoc and Victor Bunoiu as co-authors you can read HERE.

A Photo 3D model  of the monument was made by Claudiu Toma from the University of Timisoara. See also the:  RECONSTRUCTION OF THE MONUMENT.

New perspectives in the study of Roman religion in Dacia

Roman religion and the archaeology of religion became a popular topic also in Romanian research in the last decade. Due to the internationalisation of the humanities, the accessibility of Western literature and the mobility of Romanian scholars in Europe and beyond positively stimulated the research of Roman religion in Dacia.

With more than 1100 titles published on Roman religion, the research was focusing especially on creating catalogues, analysing individual cults and social aspects of some divinities or the religious “life” of some cities. Some of the topics, such as early 10367786_827479320605025_5899925886689648426_nChristianity was a priority, even if there is no direct proof of Christian groups in Dacia or even in later periods.

The new tendencies of the research (Lived Ancient Religion approach, new methods and approaches in the archaeology of religion) offered also for the Romanian scholars alternatives to interpret the materiality of Roman religion from Romania in a different way. New excavations opened opportunities to reform our view on archaeology of religion and a newly emerging theoretical discussion on this topic will be hopefully useful for further researches.

Our new edited volume – a special edition of the Studia UBB Historia Journal – is a first step for such an attempt. Many of the articles are trying to introduce a new approach and to interpret the material beyond iconography or typologies, but focusing on use, production, material and the relationship with human and divine agencies.

Actualities of 2016

2016 was again, a very prolific year in the research of Roman religion. More than 40 monographs and volumes were published focusing on general and particular aspects of this topic. The list you can find HERE.

80140100037550lAll the 3 “big” names of the discipline, Jörg Rüpke, John Scheid and Clifford Ando published new volumes, expressing at least two or three different methodologies and views on Roman religious communication. Numerous archaeological monographs on sanctuaries were published too. Some of the volumes are still focusing on individual divinities, while others are worth to open mostly because of their amazing photographs. In long term approach, the most important contribution of this year are the books of Jörg Rüpke and John Scheid, although Roman religion, 15442as religion of books, senses and emotions are also open new doors for further researches. Numerous publications were focusing also on medicine and religion and studies on Roman magic are also flourishing.

Conferences and workshops of this year were focusing on new approaches on materiality and Roman religious communication, small group religions (especially Mithras), medicine and Roman religion and finally, the relationship between Roman economy and religion.

The projects of John Scheid on sanctuaries in Italy and the Lived Ancient Religion project are still running, preparing their last stand and big conferences for the next year.

Hopefully, 2017 will produce also new and interesting books and contributions in the study of Roman religion.


Mithraeum of Marino

Participants of the international conference focusing on the mysteries of Mithras and other mystery cults in ancient world had the opportunity to visit in June, 2016 the famous mithraeum of Marino, recently reopened for the greater public in a modern subterranean museum. Here you find some photos from this truly amazing site. Important to note, that the modern lights within that marvellous space created already a unique environment and religious sensescape, but if one imagine the same space with small Roman lamps and other lighting objects, it would increase the mystical aspect of this tableau vivant, as recently L. Dirven named the sacred cave of Mithras.