Rome through the eyes of Meroë: an enemy trampled underfoot

As part of the ‘Ancient Egypt in Focus’ project has allowed us to take a closer look at the history of John Garstang’s excavations, life at these sites and the discoveries made there.

M/J/16 Detail of the fresco of site 292 (the skull was not originally in the wall, it was placed there as a macabre addition of black humor)

M/J/16 Detail of the fresco of site 292 (the skull was not originally in the wall, it was placed there as a macabre addition of black humor)

During the second season at Meroë, Sudan in 1910, the expedition uncovered a number of brightly coloured frescos (in an area known as ‘site 292’). Sadly, the years were not kind to these delicate pieces of art, as they were destroyed a few years after the excavations when a storm removed the roof of the structure built by Garstang to protect the paintings from the elements.

M/JA/29 The structure built by Garstang to protect the frescos of site 292.

M/JA/29 The structure built by Garstang to protect the frescos of site 292.

One of these frescos depicts a king sat on a throne decorated with an image of the god Bes. The King’s footstool is decorated (or made of) bound captives. The motif of the king trampling on their enemies is common throughout Pharaonic history. Particularly notable examples of this were found upon a number of footstools from the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Detail of the top of one of the footstools of King Tutankhamun showing bound captives- intended for the feet of the king to cover them. Image from Grifiith Institute (http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/gif-files/Ross_photo_0049.jpg)

Detail of the top of one of the footstools of King Tutankhamun showing bound captives- intended for the feet of the king to cover them. Image from Grifiith Institute (http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/gif-files/Ross_photo_0049.jpg)

(For another example of this motif from the tomb of Tutankhamun clicke here: http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/php/am-makepage1.php?&db=burton&view=gall&burt=&card=&desc=footstool&strt=1&what=Search&cpos=12&s1=imagename&s2=cardnumber&s3=&dno=25)

Most commonly, the enemies shown are from African, Asiatic and Aegean civilisations. However, in the Meroitic fresco one of the enemies appears to be wearing the uniform of a Roman soldier (the figure on the far left). During this period of history, the Roman Empire stretched through Europe and down the Nile into southern Egypt. However, with conquerors and settlers, the previous inhabitants do not always take kindly to the imposition of rule.

M/J/14 Detail of the painted fresco of the footstool, amongst more traditional enemies is a bound captive (on the far left) who wears a brightly colored Roman style tunic and possibly a Roman helmet.

M/J/14 Detail of the painted fresco of the footstool, amongst more traditional enemies is a bound captive (on the far left) who wears a brightly colored Roman style tunic and possibly a Roman helmet.

The Greek historian Strabo in Book 17 of his Geographica mentions the campaign of a legendary one-eyed Meroitic Queen Candace (Not a singular individual, more likely a corruption of the royal title Kandakes, meaning “Queen”). This campaign involved the sack of a Roman settlement in southern Egypt, during this campaign a bronze statue of the Emperor Augustus was decapitated, with the head returning to the city of Meroë.

The decapitated head was buried underneath the doorway to the building in which these frescos were painted. It has been suggested that this structure was built to mark this victory over the Romans, the Roman figure eternally under the feet of the figure in the fresco, and the head of Augustus ignominiously under the feet of all those who would cross the doorway!

For more on the Meroë head of Augustus and this act of decapitation, click on the link below to the British Museum’s blog on the subject.

http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/12/11/the-meroe-head-of-augustus-statue-decapitation-as-political-propaganda/

For the passage of Starbo click here: http://rbedrosian.com/Classic/strabo17d.htm

 

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