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Ancient civilizations › Historical places, and their characters

Ancient Volterra › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Volterra (Etruscan name: Velathri, Roman: Volaterrae), located in the northern part of Tuscany, Italy, was an important Etruscan settlement between the 7th and 2nd century BCE. After its destruction by the Romans in the 1st century BCE it became a modest town with the prosperity of its ruling elite into the early imperial period attested by the prodigious number of finely carved alabaster funerary urns in its many rock-cut tombs.


Settlement on the high sandstone plateau of Volterra began from at least the 10th century BCE. Iron Age peoples of the Villanovan culture, a precursor to the Etruscans, no doubt selected the site for its ease of defence. The site prospered due to the fertile agricultural lands in its territory across the Cecina valley and its rich mineral deposits. Although finds are not as impressive as the coastal Villanovan sites, evidence of a wider trade is found in such foreign imports as Sardinian bronze goods.


From the mid-8th century BCE, when the Villanovan had matured into the Etruscan culture proper, Volterra became one of the major towns in Etruria, probably controlling a large surrounding area given the distance between it and neighbouring centres. Faesulae (Fiesole) was just one satellite centre founded by Volterra. Funeral inscriptions reveal that many women from aristocratic families of Volterra married men from outlying villages such as Barberino, Castiglioncello, and Monteriggioni, thus consolidating the town's control over the region.
It is likely that Volterra was one of the Etruscan cities that formed colonies in the Po Valley to the north. Volterra was also one of the 12 to 15 members of the Etruscan League. Other members of this loose association included Cerveteri, Chiusi, Populonia, Tarquinia, Veii, and Vulci. Very little is known of this league except that its members had common religious ties and that leaders met annually at the Fanum Voltumnae sanctuary near Orvieto (exact location as yet unknown).
Volterra was noted for its production of bronze figurines, often used as votive offerings at temple sites and in tombs, which are extremely tall and slim human figures curiously reminiscent of modern art sculpture, perhaps a relic of much earlier figures cut from sheet bronze. Other locally made products include large and highly decorative alabaster funerary urns; red-figure pottery wares, including the distinctive column-kraters with two 'portrait' heads painted on the upper portion; and the unique Etruscan black pottery known as bucchero. Located as it was at the head of several river routes leading to coastal areas, Volterra was able to export these goods to other Etruscan cities and to inland sites in the Umbria region which were more isolated from the trade activities of the wider Mediterranean. Another local product, this time not for export, is the large stone gravemarkers produced from the 6th century BCE onwards. These stelae, standing well over 1.5 metres in some cases, were carved from the local nenfro stone and represented in relief prominent deceased members of the community in their guise as either warriors or priests.

Porta all' Arco, Volterra


Evidence of the town's prosperity and geographical spread, but at the same time also a concern for defence, takes the form of an enlarged circuit wall built in the 4th and 3rd century BCE. These fortifications totalled 7.28 km in length and were punctuated by arched gates, including the Porta all'Arco with its three sculpted heads decoration. The heads were probably representations of gods but are now badly weather-worn. A rebuilding of several temples at the site, the minting of cast-bronze coins inscribed Velathri, and the large number of rock-cut tombs with their fine alabaster funerary urns with relief carvings further attest to Volterra's continued success which now covered around 116 hectares.
However, from the 3rd century BCE, the town was faced with the threat of the territorially ambitious Romans. The Etruscans lost a battle with Rome in 298 BCE, and Volterra's status thereafter is unclear beyond that it contributed, as did many other Etruscan cities, to the campaigns of Scipio Africanus against Carthage during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE). According to the Roman writer Livy, it gave grain and timber for shipbuilding. Volterra then made the fatal error of backing the losing side in Rome's civil war, and as a consequence, the victor Sulla sacked the city in 80 BCE after a two-year siege. The Roman general then resettled many of his veterans in Volterran territory; the Romans were here to stay.


In the long-term, life under Roman rule was made more bearable due to the favourable influence the local Caecinae family enjoyed with various Roman rulers, including Julius Caesar and Octavian. Several members of the Caecinae clan served as consuls, and this perhaps explains the towns elevated status as a colonia Augusta. One prominent member of the family, Aulus Caecina, who, besides being an important writer and good pal of Cicero, is recorded as having raced his four-horse chariots at Rome's Circus Maximus.

Roman Theatre, Volterra

Another indicator of Volterra's growing stature was the construction of a theatre in the 1st century CE and then a Roman baths complex. Volterra's alabaster funerary urns become even more extravagant in this period and portray the deceased in often very life-like and uncompromising portrait sculpture on the lid. The sides of these large square or rectangular boxes carry impressive relief scenes from mythology. One 1st-century CE rock-carved tomb, the Inghirami Tomb, contained 53 such urns. Another claim to fame in the early imperial years was that Pope Linus (d. 76 CE), second bishop of Rome, came from the town.
By the 3rd century CE, some areas of the town were no longer inhabited, but Volterra soldiered on as a small Roman town for the next two centuries, overcoming the destruction of the Gothic invasion and then continuing as a Byzantine town with its own bishop. After a period of rule under the Lombards, Volterra was an important regional town in the medieval period from which much of its present-day architecture dates.

Ancient Timekeeping › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

The passage of time has always been a preoccupation of human beings, whether it be a question of satisfying basic needs such as when to eat and sleep, the importance of seasons for migratory and agricultural purposes or a more sophisticated measuring of time into defined periods of weeks, days and hours.


The earliest method of measuring time was through observation of the celestial bodies - the sun, moon, stars and the five planets known in antiquity. The rising and setting of the sun, the solstices, phases of the moon, and the position of particular stars and constellations have been used in all ancient civilizations to demarcate particular activities. For example, Egyptian and Minoan buildings were often constructed in orientation to the rising sun or aligned to observe particular stars. Some of our earliest texts such as those by Homer and Hesiod around the eighth century BCE describe the use of stars to specifically determine the best periods to sail and farm, advice which remains valid today.
Star calendars were created in the Near East and Greek calendars were likely based on the phases of the moon. The Greek Parapegmata from the fifth century BCE, attributed to Meton and Euctmon, was used to map a star calendar and a calendar of festivals linked to astronomical observations survives in an Egyptian papyrus from Hibeh dated to around 300 BCE. The celebrated Antikythera Mechanism dated to the mid-first century BCE and found in an Aegean shipwreck, is a sophisticated device which, through a complicated arrangement of wheels and gears, demonstrated and measured the movement of celestial bodies, including eclipses.

Antikythera Mechanism


The sun continued to be the primary source of time measurement throughout the Classical period. Indeed, sunrise and sunset determined the sessions of both the ancient Assembly of Athens and the Roman Senate, and in the latter, decrees decided after sunset were not deemed valid. Early sundials merely indicated months but later efforts attempted to break the day into regular units and indicate the twelve hours of the day and night first invented by the Egyptians and Babylonians. The origins of the half-hour measurement are unclear but it is mentioned in a fourth century BCE comedy by Meander and so must have been commonly used. The earliest surviving sundial dates from Delos in the third century BCE.
From Hellenistic times the measurement of time became ever more precise and sundials became more accurate as a result of a greater understanding of angles and the effect of changing locations, in particular latitude. Sundials came in one of four types: hemispherical, cylindrical, conical and planar (horizontal and vertical) and were usually made in stone with a concave surface marked out. A gnomon cast a shadow on the surface of the dial or more rarely, the sun shone through a hole and so created a spot on the dial. In the Roman Empire portable sundials became popular, some with changeable discs to compensate for changes in location. Public sundials were present in all major towns and their popularity is evidenced not only in archaeological finds - 25 from Delos and 35 from Pompeii alone - but also in references in Greek and Roman drama. There is even a famous joke on the subject attributed to Emperor Trajan, who, when noticing the size of someone’s nose, quipped : ‘If you put your nose facing the sun and open your mouth wide, you’ll show all the passerby the time of day’ (Anthologia Palatina 11.418). By the Byzantine period (c. 400 to 600 CE) highly sophisticated portable sundials were produced which could be adjusted to as many as 16 different locations.

Roman Sundial


Time measuring devices were also invented which used water. Perhaps evolving from earlier oil lamps, which were known to burn for a set period of time with a defined quantity of oil, the early so-called water-clocks released a specified quantity of water from one container to another, taking a particular time to do so. Perhaps the earliest came from Egypt around 1600 BCE, although they may have borrowed the idea from the Babylonians. The Greeks used such a device (a klepsydra) in Athenian law courts and it determined how long a single speech could last: approximately six minutes.
The Greek and Roman army also used water-clocks to measure shift-work, for example, night watches. More sophisticated water-clocks were developed which poured water into the device thereby raising a floating drum and consequently turning a cog whose regulated movement could be measured. The first such clocks are attributed to Ctesibius around 280 BCE and Archimedes is largely credited with developing the device to achieve greater accuracy. Large public water-clocks were also common and often measured a whole day, for example in the fourth century BCE agora of Athens there was such a clock which contained 1000 litres of water. The second century BCE Tower of the Winds in Athens, built by Andronicus, also contained a large water-clock and no less than nine sundials on its outer walls.

The Report of Wenamun & the Perils of Living in the Past › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Joshua J. Mark

The Report of Wenamun (also known as The Tale of Wenamun or The Report of Wenamon) is an Egyptian literary work dated to c. 1090-1075 BCE toward the end of the New Kingdom(c.1570 - c. 1069 BCE). The piece was originally interpreted as an actual official report, but the use of certain stylistic devices (dialogue and symbolism among them) has led scholars to conclude that the work is more along the lines of historical fiction than reportage.

The Report of Wenamun

The significance of Wenamun for scholars is the accurate depiction of Egypt’s state at the end of the New Kingdom and the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1069-525 BCE). The New Kingdom was the era of Egypt’s empirewhen conquest, diplomatic negotiations, and trade filled the royal treasury with riches and elevated Egypt’s status to one of the greatest nations of the time. The New Kingdom’s decline is characterized by a loss of that status, as well as attendant wealth and military strength, until by the reign of Ramesses XI (1107-1077 BCE) the central government was so inconsequential that the country was ruled jointly by Smendes (c. 1077-1051 BCE) the governor of Tanis and the High Priest Herihor (c. 1080-1074 BCE) of Thebes.
The Report of Wenamun is set during this time when Smendes and Herihor commanded a greater respect than the pharaohand Egypt was no longer regarded by other nations as a country of very great consequence. Wenamun is a government official sent on a mission by Herihor to procure wood from Byblos to refurbish the great Barque of Amun at Thebes, the ceremonial ship used to transport the image of the god at festivals. The story makes clear how, in the past, the wood was regularly provided without a problem but now, with Egypt’s status in decline, the foreign prince is less accommodating.


Egypt’s decline is clearly depicted through the first-person narration of Wenamun as he describes the difficulties he must endure to complete his mission; a mission which was previously accomplished with far greater ease. Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim comments on the central theme of the story noting how "the empire had been lost and thus so simple an enterprise as the purchase of Lebanese timber could be depicted as a perilous adventure" (224). Wenamun narrates his journey to make a point of how poorly he is treated as a representative of Egypt when once he would have received only the warmest reception.
It is this aspect of the story which continues to attract the attention of scholars, finding details about the state of Egypt at the end of the New Kingdom, but as a work of literature, it is the style and choice of details which make the work so interesting and e njoyable. Lichtheim writes:
What makes the story so remarkable is the skill with which it is told. The Late-Egyptian vernacular is handled with great subtlety. The verbal duels between Wenamun and the prince of Byblos, with their changes of mood and shades of meaning that include irony, represent Egyptian thought and style at their most advanced. What Sinuhe is for the Middle Kingdom, Wenamun is for the New Kingdom: a literary culmination. (224)
The comparison of Wenamun to Sinuhe is apt. The Tale of Sinuhe is a composition from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, which relates the story of an Egyptian noble driven into exile, his adventures abroad, and return home. Like Wenamun, Sinuhereflects the time in which it was written. It accurately describes the power and prestige of Egypt at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom with the same power and skill as Wenamun shows in presenting an Egypt in decline.

Tale of Sinuhe (Berlin 10499)

It is the stylistic devices - tone, mood, characterization – as well as the skillful use of dialogue which has led scholars to conclude the piece is literature. Official reports, throughout Egypt’s history, have none of the flair of the manuscript of Wenamun. The piece is regarded as historical fiction because, although the dialogue and even the events might be made up, the story reflects the truth of Egypt and its emissaries at the time it was written. A 'real' Wenamun would have experienced these same kinds of trials and suffered the same sort of frustration.
The text relies on a reader’s understanding of how simple the mission to retrieve wood for Amun’s ship would have been earlier in the New Kingdom of Egypt when the country was flourishing and neighboring lands could not do enough to court favor with the pharaoh. This juxtaposition of a dreary present with a bright and shining past is an example of the ubi sunt (Latin for "Where have they gone?") motif in literature. Whether the ancient Egyptians invented this type of story (only dubbed ubi sunt by later scholars) is debated, but there is no doubt they perfected it from the Middle Kingdom onwards, and Wenamun is among the best examples of this kind of work.


The story is preserved on two papyrus pages of 142 lines known as Papyrus Moscow 120. There are a number of lacunae throughout where the manuscript is damaged, and the end of the story is lost. It is assumed that Wenamun completes his mission and returns to Egypt where he then offers his report.
Written in the form of an official report, Wenamun begins his story with the date and introduces himself and his mission. He journeys from Thebes to Tanis where he is given a ship and supplies by Smendes and sent on his way. He then arrives at Dor, a port town on the coast of Palestine, where he is robbed by one of his own men, who takes the money he brought to pay for the wood. He appeals to the prince of Dor to find his goods but is laughed at for the presumption. The prince tells him that, according to standard practice, if it had been one of the prince’s own people who robbed Wenamun, he would replace the loss; but the Egyptian was robbed by one of his own people, and there is nothing to be done but try to find the thief.

The Report of Wenamun

Wenamun waits around for nine days but the thief is not found and the money unrestored, so he leaves Dor and solves his problem by robbing a ship belonging to the Tjeker – one of the Sea Peoples – who were related to the people of Dor. He informs the Tjeker on board that he is not actually stealing their money but only holding it until his own is found. He then sails for Byblos where he is poorly received. The prince of Byblos requests that he leave and refuses to grant him an audience for 29 days until one of his court, in a trance, receives a message from the gods that the envoy from Egypt should be seen.
The meeting between Wenamun and the prince of Byblos is among the most skillfully constructed scenes in the story. Wenamun expects an easy transaction in keeping with past traditions but the times have changed – as the prince informs him – and he will no longer give Egypt the wood for free. The prince further explains, bringing out his accounts, that this was never really the case anyway. The great kings of Egypt sent his father and grandfather lavish goods when they needed wood, and so it is wrong of Wenamun to appear at the port empty-handed and expect to be rewarded.
Wenamun argues that he is on a mission from Amun, not any earthly king, and deserves a greater showing of respect. All things belong to Amun, he tells the prince, and so the wood that the prince is claiming as his own is Amun’s also. The prince concedes this may be true, but he will still not provide the wood without payment. Wenamun sees there is nothing to be done but bend to the will of the prince. He, therefore, sends a ship to Egypt which returns months later with the goods and treasures, and the prince then has a ship loaded with the wood.
At this point, just when it seems Wenamun can successfully return home, the ships of the Tjeker, which have apparently been searching for him, appear in the harbor and demand his arrest. Wenamun falls to the ground in despair and weeps, and the prince sends a songstress and jugs of wine to him at the shore to console him. The Tjeker are granted an audience with the prince, who tells them that he cannot allow the arrest of an emissary of Amun in his land. He asks them to allow him to send Wenamun on his way and they can catch him somewhere off the coast.
Wenamun sets sail but is blown off his course and loses the Tjeker ships, but when he lands on Alasiya (Cyprus), he is attacked by the people (for reasons unspecified), who try to kill him. He fights his way through the crowd and manages to catch the attention of the princess Hatiba as she is walking from one of her houses to another. He requests sanctuary from her and she grants it, telling him he can spend the night, and at this point, the manuscript breaks off.


The author’s choice of detail combines to present not only a vivid adventure story and a portrait of a once great nation in decline but also to drive home an existential message about the dangers of clinging to the past. The scene between the prince of Byblos and Wenamun, as noted, is the most dramatic example of this, but Wenamun’s reception at Byblos where he is first told to leave and then forced to wait 29 days for an audience is also quite telling. Wenamun’s expectation of how he should be treated, based on the traditions of the past, is disappointed. He is living in a new time now with new rules he needs to adjust to.
The use of the Tjeker as adversaries is another fascinating detail in the story touching on a new paradigm. The Tjeker are listed among the tribes who made up the Sea Peoples, one of Egypt’s most troublesome enemies from the time of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) through the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE). By the time of the late New Kingdom, these people would have been legendary opponents but they are presented sympathetically in the story. The prince of Dor, who is related to the Tjeker, certainly does not go out of his way to help Wenamun when he is robbed but also is behaving according to custom, as he points out, and seems to make some effort to help find the thief. The Tjeker merchants are also presented in a positive light; they have no quarrel with Wenamun until he robs them to make up for his loss.
Traditionally, non-Egyptian characters are not presented sympathetically in Egyptian literature, but in Wenamun, they all are. The prince of Byblos is hardly the villain of the piece and makes clear that Wenamun is operating from a false assumption based on an idealized image of the past. The prince presents a rational argument as to why he will not provide the wood for free. Wenamun relates how the prince explains his case:
He had the daybook [accounts] of his forebears brought and had it read before me. They found entered in his book a thousand deben of silver and all sorts of things. He said to me: "If the ruler of Egypt were the lord of what is mine and I were his servant, he would not have sent silver and gold to say: 'Carry out the business of Amun.' It was not a royal gift that they gave to my father! I too, I am not your servant, nor am I the servant of him who sent you!" (Lichtheim, 226)
Although in the days of Egypt’s empire Wenamun would have been treated better, there is nothing especially vindictive or unfair in the way the prince answers his request. He later even gives Wenamun a head start in escaping from the Tjeker, who actually have every right to arrest him.
Through the careful construction of the narrator’s character, the author provides an audience with a fully realized individual who is also a type. Wenamun still clings to an image of Egypt as a powerful nation which commands respect and obedience when actually that paradigm no longer applies. Further, as the prince demonstrates, the vision Wenamun clings to of the past is unrealistic. The image of Egypt Wenamun keeps insisting on is now in the past, and this elevates the story from a simple adventure tale of historical interest to true literature.
The tendency to cling to the past and compare it favorably with one’s present is a constant of the human condition. People tend to not only remember the 'good old days' but insist that the present should oblige them by conforming to that golden standard. In reality, the 'good old days' are never as perfect as they appear in one’s memory and the present is never as terrible as it seems by comparison. Wenamun brings most of his problems on himself and then blames others when they do not respond as he thinks they should. In this, Wenamun is a kind of everyman and the story serves as a warning of the danger of insisting on how life should be instead of accepting life as it is.


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with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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