Archive for November, 2007

The Last Pagan Emperor of Rome – Part 1/3: The Early Years (331 – 363 AD)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

Julian the Apostate, birth name ‘Flavius Claudius Julianus’, was the last pagan ruler of the Roman Empire.Born in 331 AD, Flavius Claudius Julianus was thrust into some rather complicated family dealings at a very early age. After the death of Constantine the Great in 337 AD, Julian’s rather zealous cousin Constantius II – an Arian Christian – led a massacre against Julian’s entire family, in order to establish himself as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

For some reason, he allowed a few males related to Constantine the Great to live, namely Julian and his brother Gallus, and two of the murderer’s own brothers. Constantius II proclaimed himself and his brothers to be joint emperors, and he gave them each a portion of Roman territory to watch over. He then established a strict regimen of Arian Christian education for the young Julian and Gallus.

According to traditional accounts, Julian was tutored by the famous Arian Christian Bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius – along with his maternal grandmother and a Gothic eunuch named Mardonius. However, it was in 342 that both Julian and Gallus were exiled to Cappadocia, where Julian remained until the exile was lifted at the age of 18.

In 340 AD, Constantine II died after attacking his brother Constans to try and take over his territory – and a decade later, Constans fell during a war against a potential usurper named Magnentius. This left only the man who’d murdered Julian’s family as the sole emperor. Naturally, he was somewhat desperate for support, and so he gave Julian’s brother Gallus a position as Caesar of the East in 351 AD. The problem was, Gallus hadn’t exactly had the best role models for leadership… and his briefly imposed reign of terror over the East resulted in his execution only four years later.

In an effort to avoid a potential quest for vengeance, Julian was imprisoned for a short time while the pain of his brother’s death wore off. Unfortunately for Constantius II, there were far too many threats to the Roman Empire which he simply couldn’t take care of on his own – and so he turned to his late surviving male relative, Julian. He released Julian from prison, made him Caesar of the West, and quickly had him married off to his cousin – and sister of Constantius – Helena.

Now, it was Julian’s turn to defend the Empire… and to take his own revenge on Constantius II who had not only murdered his entire family, but also forced him into exile and the acceptance of Christianity.

…to be continued…

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Tomorrow: Part 2 of course!

Life is a (Kelp) Highway (ca. 10,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

Ancient humans coming to North America from Asia may have followed an ‘ocean highway’ made of densely packed kelp.One of the fascinating components and great mysteries of ancient migration movements is how people – without GPS or maps – managed to make their way from one continent to the next, without getting horribly lost, starving to death, or making fatal wrong turns in the process. As it turns out, ancient humans who came to North America from Asia may have managed to make their way across the ocean by following a highway made of densely packed kelp.

Typically, “coastal migration theory” has centered around the idea that early seafaring people moved from one island to another by boat, hunting the sea creatures that lived in kelp forests for food. The potential ‘kelp highway’ from Asia to America only lends strength to this theory, and certainly provides a rational explanation for how so many people moved themselves across such a vast distance.

Kelp forests are among some of the richest ecosystems in the world today – as they were in ancient times – and are home to an incredible number of living creatures: abalone, urchins, hundreds of varieties of fish, otters, seals, and more, all of which would have provided excellent nutrition value and practical materials for people moving across the ocean.

Often referred to as ‘maritime people’, the ancient humans who made the migration move are believed to have boated along the Kurile and Aleutian Islands from Japan to Alaska approximately 16,000 years ago – some settlements of around 12,000 to 9,000 years old have been discovered along the coastlines of these islands, and they also have rich kelp forests that ecologists believe existed tens of thousands of years ago.

A group of maritime people who lived in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands around 35,000 to 15,000 years ago are known to have had the ability to travel 90 miles or more at once while moving between islands, so at the very least, humans already knew how to cover vast distances in relatively simple boats. In a place called Daisy Cave in the Channel Islands, located off of southern California, remains of some kelp resources have been found that date to around 10,000 BC!

With kelp forests found right next to plenty of the Americas’ earliest known archaeological coastal sites, it certainly seems that the ability of ancient peoples to move such enormous distances across the ocean was dependent on these kelp forests – after all, even today, a nearly continuous ‘highway’ of kelp stretches from Japan all the way across Siberia, past the Bering Strait to Alaska, and then moves down along the coastline of California!

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Tomorrow: The last Pagan Emperor of Rome

Vying for Top Model in the Neolithic (ca. 5700 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

This Neolithic figurine depicts a young woman in an ornately decorated top and a rather short skirt, suggesting that European women have been concerned with fashion for over 7000 years!

At the Plocnik archaeological site in southern Serbia, several female figurines have been uncovered that point toward a rather extensive history of feminine concern with fashion. The site was once occupied by the Vinca culture, Europe’s largest prehistoric civilization, and it appears that they were somewhat more advanced than previously assumed – finds from the site point to a well-developed and sophisticated metropolis with a flare for art and fashion.

According to the figurines, the young women who lived at this site were dressed similar to the modern young women of today – wearing short, decorative tops, miniskirts, and jewelry like bracelets around their arms. Unlike many early cultures whose figurines were highly similar one to the next, the group of Vinca who lived here created over 60 different styles of pottery and figurines – and surprisingly, they weren’t all made to depict deities! Plenty of the figurines appear to have been created just for fun, for the pure enjoyment of creating art.

The pursuit of beauty isn’t something that has normally been associated with prehistoric cultures, but humans have been occupied with creating beautiful things since, seemingly, time began. The culture here had a rather advanced form of labor division and social organization, with things like stoves, special trash holes in the ground, wool and fur mats to sleep on, and leather, wool or flax clothing. Even a thermal well nearby to the settlement may be evidence of the first European spa!

Another Neolithic figurine created by the Vinca culture, this time showing a rather fashionable female goddess seated on a bench.

Plenty of animal toys and clay rattles, as well as awkward clay pots created by children – the equivalent of today’s finger-painting efforts, perhaps – show that children were also a large component in the community. Specialized areas in the homes also point to the keeping of certain kinds of animals as pets.

The discovery of a metal workshop at the site has also been extremely important in potentially pushing back the date of the Chalcolithic period, or Copper Age, in Europe to having begun nearly 500 years earlier than previously thought. The Vinca are now thought to have been the first culture with metalworking capabilities in Europe – and considering their high interest in fashion and art and specific focus on children and community, it seems that the people of prehistory are not so far removed from modern society as some might think.

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Tomorrow: Life is a kelp highway! What?

Baby Spears – But Not the Britney Kind (ca. 380-250 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

A mummified toddler is prepared for a CT scan, in order to determine whether a spear in it skull was what killed the child.

The mummy of a child from ancient Egypt caused scientists to do a bit of a double-take when they performed a CT scan on the body – images revealed that a spear-like object was wedged inside the child’s skull and upper spine!

CT scans are commonly performed on mummies so that not all bodies need to be unwrapped for study – in many cases, the mummies are so fragile that unwrapping them might potentially destroy the remains. Instead, X-rays on the body reveal things like how a person was wrapped and buried, the condition of the skeleton, and whether there are any added items inside the wrappings such as jewelry or ornamentation.

The child with a spear in its head was probably between three and five years old when it was buried, and the scan seemed to show that the child had an unusually large head. While scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint the cause of the abnormality, the bone structure of the head and face may result in a facial recreation sometime over the next several years.

However, the primary question still remains – was the spear in the child’s head a cause of death, or did the embalmers insert the spear in order to keep the head and neck steady during the mummification process. Either explanation is entirely plausible, though the former explanation is far more disturbing to consider.

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Tomorrow: Pre-History’s Next Top Model

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