The Fayum mummy portraits

Some Fayum portraits, dating collectively to the period AD70-250. The numbers refer to discussions in the text.

Some Fayum portraits, dating collectively to the period AD 70-250. The numbers refer to discussions in the text.

She is very beautiful. Her face is flawless: long and olive skinned, the nose long too, but neat and narrow, the brows crafted, the chin just firm enough to suggest a certain liveliness of character. She has dark hair, and one gets the distinct impression that it has potential for unruliness, but it has been called to order and fashionably styled, cut short over the ears in order to display expensive jewellery. A half-smile plays about her lips, and it does not seem too much to read a hint of amusement into her large brown eyes. It is easy to imagine meeting her at some elegant affair, for she seems alive – yet she is dead, and has been dead for rather more than 1,800 years [1].

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A visit to the underworld: the unsolved mystery of the tunnels at Baia

Baiae and the Bay of Naples, painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1823, well before modernization of the area obliterated most traces of its Roman past. Image: Wikicommons.

Baia and the Bay of Naples, painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1823, well before modernisation of the area obliterated most traces of its Roman past. Image: Wikicommons.

Now revised and updated to September 2016.

There is nothing remotely Elysian about the Phlegræan Fields; nothing sylvan, nothing green. The Fields, which lie on the north shore of the Bay of Naples, are part of the caldera of a volcano that is the twin of Mount Vesuvius, the destroyer of Pompeii, a few miles to the east. The volcano is still active, but, today, its most obvious feature is this barren, rubble-strewn plateau. Fire bursts from the rocks in places, and clouds of sulphurous gas snake out of vents that lead up from deep underground.

The Fields, in short, are hellish, and it is no surprise that they have always been associated with all manner of strange tales. Most interesting, perhaps, is the myth of the Cumæan sibyl, who took her name from the nearby town of Kyme – Cumæ – a Greek colony that flourished in about 550 B.C., when the Etruscans still held sway much of central Italy and Rome was nothing but a city-state ruled over by a line of tyrannical kings.

Sulfur drifts from a vent on the barren volcanic plateau known as the Phlegraean Fields, a harsh moonscape associated with legends of prophecy.

Sulphur drifts from a vent on the barren volcanic plateau known as the Phlegraean Fields, a harsh moonscape associated with legends of prophecy.

The sibyl, so the story goes, was a woman named Amalthæa who lurked in a cave on the Phlegræan Fields. She had once been young and beautiful –beautiful enough to attract the attentions of the sun god, Apollo, who offered her one wish in exchange for her virginity. Pointing to a heap of dust, Amalthæa asked for a year of life for each particle in the pile, but (as is usually the way in such old tales) she failed to allow for the vindictiveness of the gods. Ovid, in Metamorphoseshas her lament that “like a fool, I did not ask that all those years should come with ageless youth as well.” Instead, she aged but could not die. Virgil depicted her scribbling predictions of the future on oak leaves that lay scattered about the entrance to her cave, and states that the cave itself concealed an entrance to the underworld.

The best known – and from our perspective the most interesting – of all the tales associated with the sibyl is supposed to date to the reign of Tarquinius Superbus – Tarquin the Proud. He was the last of the mythic kings of Rome, and some historians, at least, concede that he really did live and rule in the 6th century B.C. According to legend, the sibyl travelled to Tarquin’s palace bearing nine books of prophecy that set out the future of Rome. She offered the set to the king for a price so enormous that he summarily declined – at which the prophetess went away, burned the first three of the books, and returned, offering the remaining six to Tarquin at the same price. Once again, the king refused, though less arrogantly this time, and the sibyl burned three more of the precious volumes. The third time she approached the king, he thought it wise to accede to her demands. Rome purchased the three remaining books of prophecy at the original steep price.

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The mysterious Mr. Zedzed, the wickedest man in the world

basil zaharoff

Zaharoff promenade.jpg

Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, better known as Sir Basil Zaharoff: arsonist, bigamist and pimp, arms dealer, honorary knight of the British Empire, confidant of kings, and all-round international man of mystery.

Late in November 1927, an elderly Greek man sat in his mansion in Paris and tended a fire. Every time it flickered and threatened to die, he reached to one side and tossed another bundle of papers or a leather-bound book into the grate. For two days the old man fed the flames, at one point creating such a violent conflagration that his servants worried he would burn the whole house down. By the time he had finished, a vast pile of confidential papers, including 58 years’ worth of diaries that recorded every detail of a most scandalous career, had been turned to ash. Thus the shadowy figure whom the press dubbed “the Mystery Man of Europe” ensured that his long life would remain, for the most part, an impenetrable enigma.

Few men have acquired so scandalous a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer—a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.

In his prime, Zaharoff was more than a match for the notorious Aleister Crowley in any contest to be dubbed the Wickedest Man in the World. Still remembered as the inventor of the Systeme Zaharoff—a morally bankrupt sales technique that involved a single unscrupulous arms dealer selling to both parties in a conflict he has helped to provoke—he made a fortune working as a super-salesman for Vickers, the greatest of all British private arms firms, whom he served for 30 years as “our General Representative abroad.” He expressed no objection to, and indeed seemed rather to enjoy, being referred to as “the Armaments King.”

Men of the Constantinople Fire Brigade, an Ottoman army unit well-known in the 19th century for its corruption. In the 1860s Zaharoff was employed there as an arsonist, setting fires that could be extinguished for profit.

Zaharoff’s youth remains shrouded in mystery and rumor, much of it put about by Zedzed himself. He was born in the Turkish town of Mughla, the son of a Greek importer of attar of roses, and soon proved to be an astonishing linguist—he would later be described as the master of 10 languages. At some point, it is supposed, the family moved briefly to Odessa, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where they Russified their name. But remarkably little proper documentation survives from this or any other period of Zaharoff’s career. As one early biographer, the Austrian Robert Neumann, put it:

You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! a fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office. The folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…. He buys a château in France and—how does the story of the editor of the Documents politiques go?—”Sir Basil Zaharoff at once buys up all the picture postcards… which show the château, and strictly prohibits any more photographs being taken.”

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Truth, beauty and Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa pictured shortly after the Battle of Ojinaga, in January 1914 – an engagement he delayed for the benefit of American newsreel cameras. The still comes from Mutual Film’s exclusive footage.

The first casualty of war is truth, they say, and nowhere was that sage old aphorism more true than in Mexico during the revolutionary period between 1910 and 1920. In all the blood and chaos that followed the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz, who had been dictator of Mexico ever since 1876, what was left of the central government in Mexico City found itself at war with several contending rebel forces – most notably the Liberation Army of the South, commanded by Emiliano Zapata, and the Chihuahua-based División del Norte, led by the even more celebrated bandit-rebel Pancho Villa. The three-cornered civil war that followed was notable for several things: its unrelenting savagery, its unending confusion, and – north of the Rio Grande, at least – its unusual film deals. Specifically, it’s remembered for the bizarre contract Villa was supposed to have signed with a leading American newsreel company in January 1914. Under the terms of this deal, it is said, the rebels undertook to fight their revolution for the benefit of the movie cameras – in exchange for a large advance, payable in gold. More

Erotic secrets of Lord Byron’s tomb

Byron in death, Greece, spring 1824.

It was hot and dusty in the crypt, and it had been hard work breaking into it. Now the vicar had gone, along with his invited guests, to take his supper. The churchwarden and two workmen armed with spades were left to wait for their return, loitering by the grave they had come to examine – the tomb of Lord Byron the poet.

We didn’t take too kindly to that,” said Arnold Houldsworth. “I mean, we’d done the work. And Jim Bettridge suddenly says, ‘Let’s have a look on him.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ I says. ‘Just you watch me,’ says Jim. He put his spade in, there was a layer of wood, then one of lead, and I think another one of wood. And there he was, old Byron.”

“Good God, what did he look like?” I said.

“Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly,  “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”

“How many of you take sugar?” said Mrs Houldsworth, coming with the tea. More