Crossing the Rubicon

On 10th January in 49 BC, Julius Caesar and his troops famously crossed the Rubicon, the river marking the boundary between the province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. Taking the 13th Legion over this forbidden frontier constituted an act of treason and triggered civil war in Rome. According to the historian Suetonius, Caesar uttered the famous phrase ālea iacta est (“the die is cast”).

The Green Caesar, Greywacke from Egypt, 1 - 50 AD, Altes Museum Berlin; Rubicon. Image © Carole Raddato.
The Green Caesar, Greywacke from Egypt, 1 – 50 AD, Altes Museum Berlin. Image © Carole Raddato.

Destinations Rich in History and Culture

The world contains numerous cultures, traditions, cuisines and languages that make excellent destinations for any history buff.  The featured countries’ rich history and heritage evoke images of the days gone by and lure hundreds of tourists to taste their interesting cultures.

Get a Taste of Italian Culture

Italy. Image © Federico Baccari.

Known for its rich art and architecture, Italy has inspired the architecture of many Western nations. Be it Michelangelo’s statue of David or Leonardo da Vinci’s eternal portrait of the Mona Lisa, these artworks are beyond excellence and people from across the world still stand in large queues to glimpse these masterpieces. Some of the world’s famous structures like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Colosseum and Sistine Chapel call Italy their home.

It’s not just the art and architecture that attracts thousands of tourists to this beautiful country — it’s also a love for traditional Italian music and dance. Hordes of music lovers, singers, and musicians gather from different corners of the world to be part of country’s rich heritage. You will be amazed to know that today’s world-famous opera has its roots in Italy.

Italians are also famous for their fashion sense. Some of the world’s famous luxury fashion brands such as Armani, Roberto Cavalli, Prada, Gucci, and Versace were born in Italy. Italian cuisine has also today made its mark on the menus of world’s top notch restaurants.

If you are on an exploration trip of world’s history and culture, Italy should be top on your exploration list.

Walk Through Lanes of Greece Lost in History

Parthenon, culture
The Parthenon . Photo © Andrew Griffith.

Greece has always been on the radar of historians, archaeologists, and curious travelers. Since ancient times, Greece has left its mark in various domains, be it art, music, philosophy, literature, or politics. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are considered to be the Fathers of philosophy who brought about change in the common man’s thinking and those works were a step towards development in science, astronomy, physics and mathematics.

Greece also has many different styles of designs and architectural forms that greatly influenced Roman architecture. They were the first to build based on geometric calculations. The Temple of Athena and Theatre of Epidaurus are a testimony to Greece’s excellent architectural work.

The culture of Greece has evolved over years and today Greeks take pride in having successfully overcome their turbulent past. A trip to Greece is surely an eye opener for many tourists and history buffs alike.

Discover Peru’s Archaeological and Cultural Treasures

Machu Picchu. Photo © Dan Merino.

Art has always been an integral part of Peru culture, even though the styles have gone through significant changes over different ages. Besides its art, Peru is also home to some of the world’s richest heritages and archaeological gems – Machu Picchu is one of them that needs no introduction. The country’s plethora of sites dating back to the pre-Incan civilization lures thousands of curious tourists, history buffs, scientists and archaeologists; the enigmatic Nazca Lines still remain a mystery today.

Explore India’s diversities

Taj Mahal, culture
Taj Mahal. Photo © Dennis Jarvis.

India’s history dates back 5,000 years. The country has been ruled by several dynasties, each one leaving its mark with its architectural masterpieces. From Mughal monuments in Agra and Delhi to magnificent forts and palaces in Rajasthan to Dravidian temples in Kerala and Karnataka to rock cut cave temples, there is no end to India’s architectural marvels.

Architecture, music, dances, and festivities have always been an inseparable part of India’s rich culture and traditions. With each state specializing in its own folk music and dances, it would take a lifetime to gather an insight in all these cultural extravaganzas.

A trip to India is a must for those seeking a paramount exposure to varied traditions, customs and cultures of the world’s greatest diversified society.

Go off the Beaten Track in Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo © Dennis Jarvis.

The culture of Cambodia has been strongly influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. The Angkor period lasting between the 9th and 14th century CE marked a golden age for the country during which it saw great advancement in its art, architecture, and music. Architects and sculptors of the Angkor era created many unmatched pieces of artwork that drew strong inspiration from mythical creatures of Hindu and Buddhist cultures – the Angkor Wat Temple is a great example of this era.

The country still holds an old-fashioned charm and the warm and hospitable people of Cambodia are its true treasure. A visit to this South-Asian country is sure to touch your heart.

Uncover the Mysteries of Buddhism in Bhutan

Bhutan. Photo © Jean-Marie Hullot.

The world’s last remaining Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan, is known for its ancient Buddhist culture and traditions that have been successfully preserved to this day. Buddhism spread its roots in Bhutan during the 7th century CE, when many monasteries and Buddhist temples came into existence. For an ardent explorer, a trip to Bhutan is a must to get an insight in the country’s mystic cultures and customs. Artwork and paintings based on themes and legends related to life of Buddha give you a deep understanding of Bhutanese rich traditions. Uniquely shaped monasteries, temples and Dzongs with elaborate motifs, carvings and wall paintings boast of Bhutan’s exclusive architecture.

Festivities are an integral part of Bhutanese culture. Chaam dances, colorful costumes, and elaborate spread of traditional food and wine during these festivals display rich cultural heritage of this Himalayan country.

While Bhutan still maintains its ancient Buddhist traditions, it has whole-heartedly embraced modern development and advancement. Where other countries measure their progress through GDP, Bhutan measures it through ‘Gross National Happiness’ – no wonder why it is called the land of mysteries!

Learn about Pharaonic History in Egypt

Pyramids of Giza. Photo © Dungodung.

Egypt is known to be one of the earliest civilizations in the world with its history dating back 6,000 years or more. The country’s ancient treasures such as the Pyramids of Giza and temples of Luxor, Karnak, and Abu-Simbel, built during the time of the pharaohs, have drawn many tourists and history buffs. One of the biggest fascinations about Egypt is its legacy of mummies which can still be seen today in Egyptian Museum of Cairo.

Besides architecture, literature has also been an important part of Egypt’s culture. Symbolic writings can be seen on temple, tombs and pyramids walls.

Those with a keen interest in ancient civilizations will also find Egypt to be a paradise.


Art and Sculptures from Hadrian’s Villa: The Marble Theatrical Masks

This month’s masterpieces from Hadrian’s Villa are the larger than life-size marble theatrical masks that once decorated the scaenae frons (stage-front) of the odeon of the villa.

Theatrical masks from the South Theatre (Odeum) at Hadrian's Villa, Cortile del Belvedere, Vatican Museums. Image © Carole Raddato.
Theatrical masks from the odeon at Hadrian’s Villa, Cortile del Belvedere, Vatican Museums. Image © Carole Raddato.

Paleolithic Caves in Iraqi Kurdistan

There are two Paleolithic caves in Iraqi Kurdistan (the northeast area of the Republic of Iraq): Hazar Merd and Shanidar. Iraq, the cradle of civilization, has become a dangerous destination for tourists. Instead of discussing their deep archaeological details, I will you take on a cyber-tour to see these caves.

Hazar Merd Group of Caves

Hazar Merd Cave (Kurdish: هه زار ميرد ; Arabic: هزار مرد) is located in the area where I live. Each and every day, when I go to work at 8 AM, I see the mountain which houses the cave. It is located within the Governorate of Sulaymaniyah. It lies 13 km (35°29’39.22″N;  45°18’37.66″E) to the west of modern-day Sulaymaniyah city, Kurdistan Region, Iraq.

It is not a single cave, but rather a collection of adjacent caves of various sizes within a cliff of a small mountain. The usual destination for tourists is two caves; the largest cave (see the image below) and an adjacent cave to the left of it (Ashkawty Tarik in Kurdish, “the Dark Cave”), where most of the excavation works were conducted. The cave appears to date back to 50,000 years BCE.

In 1928, the British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968) conducted a short-term excavation in the caves. She unearthed hand-axes, animal bones, and other stone tools, but no human remains were found. Some of these artifacts are housed in the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad and in the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Sulaymaniyah Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. Nowadays, the site is very easily accessible! I go there every now and then with my daughter.

Heading from Sulaymaniyah to Hazar Merd caves. The largest cave appears clearly within the cliff of the mountain. Photo © Osama S. M. Amin.
Heading from Sulaymaniyah city to Hazar Merd caves. The largest cave appears clearly within the cliff of the mountain. The smaller cave next to it (on the right side of the viewer) is Ashkawty Tarik (Kurdish for “The Dark Cave”). These two caves were excavated by Dorothy Garrod in 1928. Photo © Osama S. M. Amin.
Exhibitions Interviews

The Art of Ancient Dion

Enjoying a privileged and bucolic position on the eastern slopes of Mount Olympus, the ancient Greek city of Dion prospered for thousands of years as a sacred center for the cult of Zeus and as the gateway to Macedonia. Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus, now on show at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York, N.Y., examines the development and trajectory of Dion, from a small rural settlement to a thriving Roman colony, through the presentation of remarkable archaeological artifacts not seen outside of Greece.

Cult Statue of Zeus Hypsistos 2nd century AD. Marble. H. 33.7 in; W. 18.1 in; D. 25 in (H. 85.5 cm; W. 46 cm; D. 63.5 cm). From Dion. Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, Cella. Archaeological Museum of Dion. Photo © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Ephorate of Antiquities of Pieria, and the Dion Excavations. Courtesy Onassis Cultural Center NY.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Dimitrios Pandermalis about this exhibition and Dion’s importance in the wider Greco-Roman world.


The 115 AD Earthquake in Antioch

Exactly 1900 years ago¹, Hadrian survived a violent and devastating earthquake while wintering in Antioch during Trajan’s campaign in the east. Hadrian had been in Syria since January 114 AD as imperial legate (envoy to the emperor), and as such, had taken up residence in Antiochia ad Orontem (Antioch on the Orontes). The city served as headquarters for the Parthian wars. Trajan had returned from a campaign in Armenia when disaster struck in the morning of December 13th of 115 AD.
The earthquake in the Orontes valley, of an estimated magnitude of 7.5 on the Moment Magnitude scale (MMS), almost totally destroyed Antioch, Daphne and four other ancient cities including Apamea. It was felt all over the near East and the Eastern Mediterranean up to Rhodos and triggered a tsunami that hit the harbour city of Caesarea Maritima in Judea.

The 115 AD Antioch earthquake
The 115 AD Antioch earthquake.

Antioch on the Orontes was one of the most important cities of the Graeco-roman period. It was founded in 300 BC by Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and became the Seleucids’ capital city. The ancient city stood on the eastern side of the Orontes River. It is currently partly covered by the modern city of Antakya (Turkey). Its location destined Antioch to be a mixture of diverse cultures as well as a trading centre. Caravans from Asia Minor, Persia, India traveled through the city where exchanges on a large scale were conducted. After Rome conquered Syria in 64 BC, the city became a Roman stronghold. Roman culture added to the city’s luxury with a forum, an amphitheatre, baths, a hippodrome, a theatre, a great colonnaded street (Via Triumphalis) and an aqueduct carrying water to fountains, public buildings and villas. The city was thriving and was known as the “Queen of the East.” At the time of the earthquake of 115 AD Antioch had a population of about 500,000.

Map of Antioch, capital of Syria.
Map of Antioch in Roman and early Byzantine times. Image © Wikipedia author Cristian94.


The most vivid description of the catastrophe came from the Roman historian Cassius Dio. In his Roman History (Book LXVIII), he described how Antioch was crowded at the time of the earthquake due to the emperor Trajan overwintering within the city.

While the emperor was tarrying in Antioch a terrible earthquake occurred; many cities suffered injury, but Antioch was the most unfortunate of all. Since Trajan was passing the winter there and many soldiers and many civilians had flocked thither from all sides in connexion with law-suits, embassies, business or sightseeing, there was no nation of people that went unscathed; and thus in Antioch the whole world under Roman sway suffered disaster.

He then painted a dramatic picture of the destruction witnessed by the population.

First there came, on a sudden, a great bellowing roar, and this was followed by a tremendous quaking. The whole earth was upheaved, and buildings leaped into the air; some were carried aloft only to collapse and be broken in pieces, while others were tossed this way and that as if by the surge of the sea, and overturned, and the wreckage spread out over a great extent even of the open country.

Soldiers and civilians were killed by falling debris while many others were trapped. The aftershocks that followed the earthquake for several days killed some of the survivors, while others, trapped in collapsed buildings, died of starvation.

And as Heaven continued the earthquake for several days and nights, the people were in dire straits and helpless, some of them crushed and perishing under the weight of the buildings pressing upon them, and others dying of hunger.

Trajan survived and escaped with only minor injuries but was forced to take shelter in the circus as the aftershocks continued for several days (see an aerial photo of circus of Antioch here).

Trajan made his way out through a window of the room in which he was staying. Some being, of greater than human stature, had come to him and led him forth, so that he escaped with only a few slight injuries; and as the shocks extended over several days, he lived out of doors in the hippodrome.

Unfortunately nothing is reported on how Plotina, Trajan’s wife, or Hadrian managed but they obviously survived unscathed. Many soldiers, including members of the imperial entourage perished. One of the most prominent victim was the consul ordinarius Marcus Pedo Vergilianus. In total 260,000 are said to have died during or in the aftermath of this event. The population of Antioch was reduced to less than 400,000 inhabitants and many sections of the city were abandoned.

Mosaic of the Judgment of Paris, 115 - 150 AD, from Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey), Louvre Museum
Mosaic of the Judgment of Paris, 115 – 150 AD. It was discovered in 1932 in Antioch in the Atrium House. This panel was placed in the floor of a dining room which was redone shortly after the earthquake of 115 AD. Now in the Louvre, Paris. Image © Carole Raddato.

Soon after the disaster Trajan started to restore the city. Since the 6km long aqueduct running between Daphne’s springs and Antioch was seriously damaged, Trajan began the construction of a new aqueduct or repaired an existing one he had built earlier (see an image showing the masonry on the aqueduct of Trajan here). As Trajan did not live to finish the project, work on the aqueduct was completed by Hadrian.

According to the 6th century AD chronicler John Malalas, a native from Antioch, Trajan commemorated the rebuilding of the city by erecting a gilded copy of the Tyche of Eutychides in the theatre. Tyche was the patron deity of Antioch. She was a goddess who presided over the prosperity of the city, bringing hope and good fortune to its citizens. The most renowned sculpture of Tyche was a bronze statue by the Greek sculptor Eutychides, a pupil of Lysippos, created for the city of Antioch in the early 3rd century BC, the best extant version of which is in the Vatican Museum (see below). It shows the goddess, crowned with towers, seated on a rock, symbolic of Mount Silpius, with her feet resting on the river Orontes, depicted as a swimming youth.

The Tyche (Fortune) of Antioch. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Eutychides of the 3rd century BC. By Jastrow (2006) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Tyche of Antioch. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Eutychides of the 3rd century BC. Image by Jastrow (2006) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Like his predecessor, Hadrian improved the water supply to Antioch. In addition to the completion of the repairs done on the aqueduct, Malalas records the building of a theatron (a theatre-like water reservoir that may have resembled the Hadrianic reservoir at Zaghouan, as suggested by Richard H. Chowen) and a Temple of the Nymphs at the springs of Antioch’s suburb Daphne which contained a great statue of Hadrian.

One year and eight months after the earthquake, on August 11 of 117 AD, Hadrian was proclaimed emperor by the army in Antioch. He remained  in the city until September 117 when he set out to reach Rome.

Antioch will be the start of my Hadrian1900 project. Unfortunately, not much is left to see of ancient Antioch. However I will make sure to visit the archaeological museum, which has one of the best collections of ancient mosaics in the world (see loads of beautiful images here).

Antiochia ad Orontem (Antioch)
Antiochia ad Orontem on the Tabula Peutingeriana.
¹ The date of December 115 AD appears to be established by John Malalas as well as in the Fasti Ostienses as restored by Vidman – [ID(ibus) Dec(embres) terrae m]otus fuit. However the date is subject to debate among scholars. Anthony R. Birley believes the earthquake took place in January 115 AD.


  • Cassius Dio, Roman History, 68.24.1-25.6 (link)
  • Birley, Anthony R. (1997). Hadrian. The restless emperor. London: Routledge. p. 71
  • Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. (2002). Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Priceton: Princeton University Press. p. 136-139
  • Chowen, Richard H. “The Nature of Hadrian’s Theatron at Daphne”. American Journal of Archaeology 60.3 (1956): p. 275–277
  • Glanville Downey. — A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest. p. 221-223
  • National Geophysical Data Center. “Comments for the Significant Earthquake”
  • Reinhardt, E.G.; Goodman B.N., Boyce J.I., Lopez G., van Hengstum P., Rinnk W.J., Mart Y. & Raban A. (2006). “The tsunami of 13 December A.D. 115 and the destruction of Herod the Great’s harbor at Caeserea Maritima, Israel”
  • Blog: Antiochepedia (Musings Upon Ancient Antioch) by Christopher Ecclestone (link)

Originally published at Following Hadrian; republished with permission.


Visiting the Roman Baths in Bath, England

In the heart of southern England, the city of Bath emerges from the countryside with picturesque stone buildings and neoclassical Georgian architecture. I recently visited the city’s Roman baths, which were built nearly two millennia ago and continue to impress over a million visitors each year.


Roman Glass from the Archaeological Museum of Pavia

Roman glassware includes some of the finest pieces of art ever produced in antiquity and the very best were valued higher than wares made with precious metals. However, plain glass vessels such as cups, bowls, plates, and bottles were also used as everyday containers, in particular, for storing and serving food, drinks, and perfumes. The Romans also used glass for its decorative qualities and could be incorporated in mosaics and decorative panels in both walls and furniture. The material was also used for windows, to create jewellery, mirrors, game pieces, magnifying glasses, sculpture and, in the form of powder, even as a medicine and toothpaste. The sheer quantity of Roman glass would not be matched until the boom in Venetian glass in the 15th century CE.

Below are some examples from the collection in the Archaeological Museum of the Museo Civico in Pavia, Italy. All images copyright of Mark Cartwright.

These cups, bottles, and perfume containers all date to the 1st and 2nd century CE.


A two-handled cup. Roman glassware at the Archaeological Museum of Pavia. Image © Mark Cartwright.

Culture Exhibitions

May 2016 Museum Listings

Back by popular demand, Ancient History Encyclopedia will once again share news, on a monthly basis, about select museum exhibitions and events of interest to our global audience via AHetc. Exhibitions are arranged in alphabetical order by geographical location and region within this post: the Americas, United Kingdom, Europe/Middle East, and East Asia/Oceania. Here is a taste of what is on show at major museums around the world in May 2016:


Sicily: Culture and Conquest

There I stood, the slopes of Mt. Etna rising before me, the glorious Sicilian coastline reflecting the brilliant blue sky. I hadn’t taken a trip to Sicily, but was rather at the British Museum’s latest exhibition, Sicily: Culture and Conquest, gazing into one of the many photographic vistas that adorn the walls.

When I first entered the exhibit, two objects immediately caught my attention. On the left, a terracotta pot dating to 650-600 BCE. Its importance? It is the earliest known depiction of what is now the official symbol of Sicily, the triskelion (three legs in a circle). The influence of Greek culture on Sicily is still felt to this day it seems.

The other object was a wonderfully ornate ivory casket. Made by Muslim craftsman, it bears a long Arabic supplication, but also Christian iconography (two haloed saints holding crosses). The casket was most likely made as a gift for the Cathedral of Bari, and demonstrates Norman Sicily’s multicultural exchange and religious co-existence.

These two objects sum up the story of this exhibition, which focuses on two key periods of Sicilian history. The first half of the exhibition explores the island’s early cultures, primarily those of its Phoenician and Greek settlers. The second half explores the role of Sicily’s Norman rulers in creating a period of vibrant cultural exchange.

The exhibition is divided into five key areas and runs from the 21st April until the 14th August (more info below).

Sicily: Culture and Conquest
Ceramic Dinos with Triskelion
Ceramic dinos with triskelion, Fired clay, Palma di Montechiaro, Sicily, c.650–600 BC. Museo
Archeologico Regionale Di Agrigento © Regione Siciliana


Sicily’s First Inhabitants

This period is conjured as one of myth, monsters and mysteries. A curious tomb door presents almost alien imagery, a terracotta basin alludes to a long-lost religious rite, and a Phoenician mask cuts a gruesome grinning image. These decidedly human artefacts are contrasted with how the Greeks viewed the first inhabitants of Sicily. Thucydides, the famous Athenian historian, wrote that the earliest inhabitants of Sicily were the famously barbarian Cyclopes, and the equally barbarian and cannibalistic Laistrygones (Thuc.6.2). For the Greeks, the earliest settlers of Sicily belonged to the realm of myth, whereas for us, while the earliest settlers of Sicily are still shrouded in mystery, their material culture shows a concern and care for death that is less mysterious than it is universal.


Sicily: Culture and Conquest
Gold Libation Bowl
Gold libation bowl decorated with six bulls, Sant’ Angelo Muxaro, c.600 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum


The Rise of Greek Sicily

As a self-professed philhellene, this was perhaps my favourite section of the exhibition, which looks at monumental architecture, chariot-racing, war, and the Sicilian tyrannoi who funded it all. It paints Sicily as a region of antagonistic cities, but a region which commanded a lot of power within the wider ancient world. Despite this, the monumental temples of Sicily were primarily of local stone, since importing foreign marble was very expensive (the island did not have its own local supply). The value attached to marble is witnessed through a fragmentary marble tomb relief of the 5th century, which shows signs of being reused and re-carved.

Sicily’s fortunes through the Hellenistic period were also explored in this section. Of particular interest to me was how Sicily developed its own style of pottery in order fill the gap left by the decline of Athenian red-figure pottery. A funerary vessel from Centuripe shows an eros flying towards a central seated figure flanked by two standing figures. The bright yellows and blues set on a vibrant pink background mark this as a truly Sicilian development.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest
Limestone head from a temple Selinous, Sicily, c. 540–510 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale A Salinas, Palermo, © Regione Siciliana.


1,300 Years, 6 People

With the rise of the Roman republic, Sicily’s autonomy began to wane. Rome’s war against Carthage, and subsequent alliances and sieges all influenced the fate of Sicily, as she became the first province of Rome. Sicily nevertheless had great importance as the ‘granary of Rome’, in fact, the export of grain from the island was blocked on two occasions by politicians wishing to excerpt their power and influence over Rome. As the centuries progressed, Sicily was conquered by a number of peoples. First, the Vandals in 468 CE, then Odoacer, King of Italy, in AD 476. The Ostrogoths conquered Sicily in 493 CE, followed by the Byzantines in 535 CE. From the 660s CE, numerous Arab raids were made on Sicily, before the long Arab conquest of Sicily from 827-965 CE. It was then in 1061 CE, that the Normans began their conquest of Sicily.

As is the nature of such a condensed section, the objects on display act as foci for key events or changes to society that occurred during this long period. A Roman ship’s bronze battering ram acts as a witness to the decisive Battle of Egadi Islands, and a collection of humble lamps illuminate the different religions that were worshipped on Sicily. The carefully selected objects accelerate you from Greek Sicily to Norman Sicily.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest
Bronze Rostrum
Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC.
Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana


The Norman Kingdom of Sicily

Under their Norman Kings (the emphasis being on Roger II), Sicily developed into a world power, rivalling the might of the Byzantine Empire, the Egyptian Caliphate, and the Papal States. This Mediterranean island was now home to Byzantine Greeks, Muslim Arabs, Jews, and Christian Normans, creating a crucible of cultural collaboration.

Arabic influences are most strongly seen in the Arab-Norman architecture of Palermo, recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. A photographic vista captures the skyline, and surviving architectural artefacts illuminate the interior splendour of these buildings. In contrast to Arabic inspired arches and geometric patterns is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary, originally from the Palermo Cathedral, which alludes to similar Byzantine forms.

While Roger II was a great benefactor of the arts, he was also a patron of the sciences. One of the oldest copies of a map created by Al-Idrisi, the Arabic cartographer, is on display, showing Roger’s concern over scientific investigation and his interest in the wider world. This scientific interest was continued by Roger II’s grandson.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest
12th century mosaic Byzantine-style mosaic showing the Virgin as Advocate for the Human Race. Kept at Museo Diocesano di Palermo, originally from Palermo Cathedral, c.1130-1180 AD. Museo Diocesano di Palermo Please note this object will only be on display until 14 June 2016


An Enlightened Kingdom

Roger’s grandson, however, was no ordinary citizen. This grandson grew up to be Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor who stationed his royal court at Palermo. Not only does this section of the exhibition continue to explore Arabic influences on Norman Sicily, it also explores how Frederick II emulated the grandeur of the Roman Empire. This can be seen in the way his coins mimicked the earlier mints of the Roman Emperor Augustus, and in a colossal marble bust which depicts Frederick as Augustus (or possibly Constantine).

The grandeur of this exhibition ends almost as abruptly as Norman Sicily did, for Frederick II died without an heir, and the kingdom of Sicily would never again maintain the level of autonomy that it once had. The final object on display, Antonello da Messina’s ‘Virgin and Child’, acts as an epilogue, a beacon of Sicilian artistic independence, soon to be outshone by the wildfire of wider European renaissance.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest
Bust of Frederick II
Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. ©
H. Behrens, DAI Rom


Having outlined the core elements of the exhibition (and leaving much for the reader to discover for themselves!), I will now highlight some of my favourite features and objects.



A lot of thought has gone into how the variety of objects are actually are displayed. A mirror was placed behind a Greek storage jar in order to see its rear decoration, so make sure to lean to the side and look at the rear reflection! Another favourite was a map of Sicily with coins from the various poleis placed where that city was. This gave a clear representation of each city’s unique iconography and visual allusions, but also of the unified medium in which their messages circulated. In the Norman section, the famous wooden honeycomb ceiling of the Cappella Palatina is reproduced on a backlit display on the ceiling, providing you with a perspective not too dissimilar to the one you would get viewing it in situ. I also really appreciated the photographic vistas of Sicily that decorated the walls, they really brought the essence of the Island to life.

Good news for anyone visiting with children too, various objects include a blue display marked by a gorgeion asking fun and engaging questions that make one think about the object for a little longer than a quick glance in a display case might. For example, I was asked to play ‘spot the difference’ with the three goddesses that decorate the below altar.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest
Terracotta Altar with three women
Terracotta altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana.



My favourite object in the exhibition is the Etruscan helmet dedicated by Hieron I of Syracuse at Olympia after a military victory. One of my favourite works of Greek literature happens to be Xenophon’s, Hiero, a fictional dialogue between the Sicilian tyrant and the poet Simonides. Being able to see some solid remnant of the tyrannos, and the way he interacted with the wider Greek world was particularly exciting. My second favourite object is the Sicilian temple drainage system because of its combination of aesthetics and utility. Each drainage spout is decorated in a different polychrome pattern, and in torrential rain the cascading waterfall that would have surrounded the temple would have been a spectacle in itself.

These are my personal favourites, different features and objects will appeal to different people… I leave you to decide what your favourite is! If you want a sneak-peek at some of the objects on display, including the helmet dedicated by Hieron I, check out the below video, where the exhibition’s curators discuss some of the objects that are on display in more detail!



Sicily: Culture and Conquest offers a fascinating insight into the island’s two key periods. The objects not only speak for themselves, but they communicate with each other, the monumental temples of Sicily’s Greek tyrannoi foreshadowing the architecture of Sicily’s Norman kings. Of particular interest is the exhibition’s allusion to a world that isn’t often heard today, Islamophile, for that is what the Norman Kings were. In the second half of the exhibition, the viewer is definitely encouraged to reflect upon how our modern multiculturalism measures up to the Norman’s.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest delivers what it promises, and is the culmination of three years of preparation and collaboration with twenty-four different museums, the Regione Siciliana, Assesessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identita Siciliana, and Julius Bar, who sponsored the exhibition. “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” is recommended viewing for everyone able to visit. Further information about booking and opening hours is provided below.


Sicily: Culture and Conquest

21 April – 14 August 2016

Room 35

British Museum

Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG

Sponsored by Julius Baer

In collaboration with Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana


Tickets £10.00, children under 16 free

Group rates available

Booking fees apply online and by phone

+44 (0)20 7323 8181


Opening times

Saturday –Thursday 10.00–17.30

Friday 10.00–20.30

Last entry 80 minutes before closing time.


The British Museum is also running a series of lectures and public events throughout the duration of the exhibition. More information is available from their Press Office or via: