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Sanctuary of Zeus Stratios

Photos of the remains of the Sanctuary of Zeus Stratios found in the archeological altas from [Image below (C) Copyright onder giritli, is used under CC BY-SA 3.0]

Amasia (variants: Amasea, Amasya, Amaseia) sits in a narrow pass or gorge on the river Iris between two large hills or mountains. Cut into the rock faces above the river Iris are five magnificent tombs of past kings and princes and below these stood the palace of the kings of Pontus.

"The only real city in the interior of the kingdom (Pontus) had likewise grown up around one of the royal strongholds. This was Amaseia, sits on the Iris a few miles below the fertile plain where the river is joined by Scalyx. In a situation famous for its romantic grandeur, the city lies in a defile formed by two massive cliffs, which tower above the course of the Iris. "
-Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor, p.180-181

A modern photo of the tombs of Pontic kings in Amasya, Turkiye, photo by Ingeborg Simon on 23-May-2019, is used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Strabo from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens, Thevet, André, 1502-1590.

Birthplace of Strabo

According to Strabo, who was born in Amasia around 64 BC, the Greek name Ἀμάσεια comes from Amasis, the queen of the Amazons, who were said to have lived here. His name, Strabo, means "cross-eyed".

"There remain to be described the parts of Pontus, situated between this country and the districts of Amisus, and Sinope, extending towards Cappadocia, the Galatians, and the Paphlagonians.

Next to the territory of the Amiseni is Phazemonitis. which extends as far as the Halys, and which Pompey called Neapolitis. He raised the village Phazemon to the rank of a city, and increasing its extent gave to it the name of Nea, polls. The northern side of this tract is bounded by the Gazelonitis, and by the country of the Amiseni; the western side by the Halys; the eastern by Phanarœa; the remainder by the territory of Amasis, my native country, which surpasses all the rest in extent and fertility."
-Strabo, Geography, 12.3.38 

Strabo, a historian, geographer and philopsopher, was born in the 1st century BC in Amasia, and describes the fertile plain:

"The country at the foot of the mountains produces so large an autumnal crop of spontaneous-grown wild fruits, of the vine, the pear, the apple, and hazel, that, in all seasons of the year, persons who go into the woods to cut timber gather them in large quantities; the fruit is found either yet hanging upon the trees or lying beneath a deep covering of fallen leaves thickly strewed upon the ground. Wild animals of all kinds, which resort here on account of the abundance of food, are frequently hunted."
-Strabo, Geography, 12.3.14

Zeus, Protector of Pontus

High up in the mountains to the east is the sanctuary of Zeus Stratius, the "God of the armies" and protector of Pontic kings.

- Greek, Roman & Byzantine Coins in the Museum at Amasya, Stanley Ireland, Royal Numismatic Society, Special Publication #33, 2000, p.5.

A Sullan Connection

Mithradates IV of Pontus celebrated his victory over Roman general Lucius Licinius Murena at the end of the second Mithridatic War (81-83 BC) with a massive offering to Zeus Stratius.

"The latter [Mithridates] drove all of Murena's garrisons out of Cappadocia and offered sacrifice to Zeus Stratius on a lofty pile of wood on a high hill, according to the fashion of his country, which is as follows. First, the kings themselves carry wood to the heap. Then they make a smaller pile encircling the other one, on which they pour milk, honey, wine, oil, and various kinds of incense. A banquet is spread on the ground for those present (as at the sacrifices of the Persian kings at Pasargadæ) and then they set fire to the wood. The height of the flame is such that it can be seen at a distance of 1000 stades from the sea, and they say that nobody can come near it for several days on account of the heat. Mithridates performed a sacrifice of this kind according to the custom of his country."
-Appian, Mithridatic Wars, 9.66 

The war was an embarrassment for Rome which Murena had instigated and Aulus Gabinius was sent in the reconcile and settle a peace between Ariobarzanes of Cappadocia and Mithridates of Pontus. Mithridates betrothed his 4-year old daughter to Ariobarzanes' son to seal the agreement. Despite this Sulla arranged a triumph for Murena in Rome.

Cicero, in 63 BC, had the audacity to tout as he defended Murena's son. For me, this is one of many examples that seem to sum up Cicero's approach to defending and prosecuting: exaggerate and invent to support your position with no regard to any objective truth.

"But to have served campaigns in that war [against Mithridates] which was not only the greatest, but the only war which the Roman people were waging at that time, is a proof of valor; to have served most willingly under his father, who was commander-in-chief, is a proof of piety; that the end of his campaign was the victory and triumph of his father, is a proof of good fortune. There is, therefore, no room in these matters for speaking ill of him, because praise takes up the whole room."
-Cicero, pro Murena, 5.12 

A 35mm AE Coin

This coin 3rd centure AD coin from the reign of Severus Alexander was minted in Amasia and shows a massive altar that is likely the altar of Zeus Stratios with a tree to the left and an eagle and quadriga above.

Severus Alexander, 222-235 AD, AE35, Amasia, Pontos, CY 234 = AD 231/2.

Obv: AVT K CEVHPOC AΛEΞANΔPOC, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right, seen from behind.

Rev: AΔ CEY AΛEΞ AMACIAC MHN ΠP Π, eagle with wings spread standing atop altar (Zeus Stratios); above, Helios in facing quadriga; tree to left of altar, ЄT CΛΔ (date) flanking eagle.

Ref: RPC VI 6475, SNG von Aulock 43; SNG Copenhagen 118; BMC 39.

This higher grade coin at RPC appears to be a double die match to the coin above:

Christina Williamson writes about these coins in 2014 in a chapter on the sanctuary of Zeus Stratios and Imperial politics. The imagery on the coin emphasizing the importance of Amasia as the Pontic city and the importance of the altar to the city.

"The frequent appearance of the altar on the coinage of Amaseia in the imperial period certainly bears testimony to its importance to the polis at this time. The altar is depicted as a large rectangle with rows of horizontal and vertical lines, perhaps representing ashlar masonry. To the left pf the altar stands a tree; an eagle typically flies over the altar and a quadriga is often depicted in the upper zone. While the earliest of these coins date from the reign of Trajan , most were produced in the later second century and especially in the Severan era in the early third century. Under Severus Alexander a fascinating series of bronzes was minted which present· a view of the city of Amaseia on the reverse, with the characteristic twin peaks and a temple to the upper left, all within a representation of the city walls and gates. If the temple depicted in the upper zone in fact symbolizes the sanctuary of Zeus Stratios, then it represents a fantastic distortion of pictorial space, since the shrine was located on a mountain behind the viewer in the opposite direction from the citadel. Martin Jessop Price and Bluma L. Trell argue that although the shrine was left out of earlier coins with city views struck in the reign of Domitian, its inclusion at this time stems from Amaseia's desire to combine in a single view its greatest civic monuments, symbols of its grandeur and importance as prime city in Pontos."
-Christina Williamson, “Power, Politics, and Panoramas. Viewing the Sacred Landscape of Zeus Stratios near Amaseia.” p.184

Barbara Burrell challenges the identification in "Nekoroi Greek Cities and Roman Emperors", 2004, argues that Price & Trell in "Coins and their cities: Architecture on the ancient coins of Greece, Rome, and Palestine", 1977, provided no evidence for naming this sanctuary Zeus Stratios. Burrell suggests that this could be a temple of the imperial cult.

Frans Cumont defined the site as a monumental altar to Zeus Stratios in 1901 (see references). Although he did not go so far as the commit that this was the altarthat this is the location that Appian references. The distance and visibility from the sea are off from the descriptions in Appian and it may have been another location, closer to the Pont-Euxin, near the camp where the army was assembled.

Emperor Alexander Severus probably visited Amasya near the time that this coin was minted 232 AD. The young emperor led the Roman armies against the Sassanids, led by Ardashir I (224-241). Severus Alexander claimed great victories, however the war was inconclusive and the Sasanian wars would continue for another hundred years. Even before the time of Severus Alexander, in writing about Septimius Severus, Cassius Dio remarks that the wars with the Sassanians, who he calls Scythians, were a great expense with little return.

"On the contrary, it is shown by the facts themselves that this conquest has been a source of constant wars and great expense to us. For it yields very little and uses up vast sums; and now that we have reached out to peoples who are neighbour of the Medes and the Parthians rather than of ourselves, we are always, one might say, fighting the battles of those peoples."
-Cassius Dio, Roman History, 75.3.2 

The Death of Severus Alexander

A few years later, in 235, Alexander Severus was assassinated along with his mother by his own troops. This was not an unusual ending for subsequent 3rd century AD Roman emperor. See my note on a Soldier Emperor for a table of causes of death of 3rd century emperors.

Historia Augusta describes his end this way:

"And finally, while he was in quarters with a few men in Britain, or, according to some, in Gaul, in a village named Sicilia,​ some soldiers murdered him. This was not done in response to any general sentiment but rather as the act of an assassin, the ringleaders being men who had thriven on the gifts of Elagabalus and would not tolerate a stricter prince. Many, indeed, relate that he was slain by some recruits dispatched by Maximinus​ (to whom they had been assigned for their training), and many others give different accounts. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that those who killed him were soldiers, for they hurled many insults at him, speaking of him as a child and of his mother as greedy and covetous.

He ruled for thirteen years and nine days, and he lived for twenty-nine years, three months, and seven days.​ He did everything in accordance with his mother's advice, and she was killed with him."
-Historia Augusta, 59.1

See also "The Last Several Emperor"& "Power Behind the Throne" for more coins and stories of Severus Alexander.


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