Friday, April 24, 2009

The Obelisk (?)

The Patriarch of Antioch, Euphrasius, had a varied end. Normally we do not deal with the Christian history of the city as it paralleled (and maybe partly caused) the city's decline. However in looking at the obscure subject of the obelisk in the circus the name of the patriarch appears.

The versions are various. All have one thing in common in that he died during the massive earthquake of 526 AD. We initially heard that he was crushed while conducting a service at the Golden Octagon when some part of the structure fell upon him. More recently we see it related in Humphrey's Roman Circuses that he was killed and buried by the falling obelisk that stood on the central barrier running along the circus. Presumably he had taken shelter there (like Trajan in 115 AD) when the earthquake hit.

Then we stumbled on The Chronicle of Pseudo-Dionysius (or the Zuqnin Chronicle) as edited by Witold Witakowski. This book is a Syriac historiographical work dating from the end of the eighth century. The work is written from the point of view of a religious dissident, (he was a Monophysite) whose personal experience as a persecuted monk in his native Mesopotamia, as well as his later life in Constantinople, make the chronicle an interesting and offbeat source. In his version the rescuers found the body of Euphrasius "... was found in a cauldron of pitch used by wineskin makers, who worked beneath his episcopal residence. When the residence collapsed and fell, he happened to fall into the cauldron. The whole of his body sank down in it and he was cooked in the pitch. His head was found (hanging, as if he had) fainted, outside the rim of the cauldron. Thus he was recognised from his face while his bones were found stripped of their flesh in the pitch".

We have to chuckle as this end would have suited a martyr but for a bishop going about his daily business it was scarcely one of the usual hazards of the job. However the author notes "for the believers however it was a wonderful thing for they remembered the impudence of his evil deeds, his cruel plans, persecution and pillage which he had done". Being a fitting end, in the author's opinion, might imply some embellishment, including moving the place of death and the means! It is hard to figure out why the Patriarchal Palace should also have doubled as a wineskin factory. Boiling pitch would have made the place insufferably odorous.

In a footnote to the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus it is noted that
pseudo-Zacharias and Malalas have him thrown by the convulsion into a vat of boiling wax (a sticky end indeed) while the Chalcedonian writer Marcellinus comes has him crushed by an obelisk in the hippodrome (this being the source for Humphrey).

No further information is forthcoming on this obelisk. A number of circuses did have them on the central barrier. The Circus Maximus had several which have now migrated to other parts of Rome. The genuine article of course came from Egypt, so we are left to wonder whether Antioch's obelisk was an Egyptian import and what happened to it after it had fallen. Was it irretrievably smashed or was it moved somewhere else in the city when the Island was abandoned and the hippodrome was cannibalised for building materials for the expanded city walls? As it was probably of granite, if it was like the other obelisks from Egypt, it would not have been fodder for the limeburners who did so much damage to the marble and limestone of the city as parts were abandoned.

It may still await discovery, though it is most certainly not still to be found at the hippodrome.

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