The Influence of the Memory of Romans who Died while Traveling: the Maison Carrée

This is a brief followup to the previous post in my series on monuments to dead Romans. That post featured a forgotten cenotaph to Gaius Caesar, one of two adopted grandsons of Caesar Augustus and presumed heirs to the first true Roman emperor. As noted in that post, Gaius Caesar died on the way home in AD 4 after physical and mental wounds incurred leading a military campaign to the east. His younger brother, Lucius Caesar, had meanwhile died at Marsalla (modern Marseille) en route to military training in Hispania (Spain) in AD 2.

Death from illness while traveling was a real threat in the ancient world, as highlighted by my recently-defended thesis in Geography (“Malaria Risk on Ancient Roman Roads . . .”). Augustus himself died in the month named for him in AD 14 while visiting Nola in Campania. His health was already failing, but the region’s nature and timing of Augustus’ demise make malaria a suspect in my mind. This aside is prompted by the fact that I am writing this on a layover while returning prematurely from a journey to southern France and Spain because of the COVID-19 chaos and panic.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

Happily, I was able to hit most important goals of my trip before the sudden need to return due to presidential fiat and cancelled flights. One of those targets was the Maison Carrée, one of the best-preserved of all Roman temples, in Nîmes, France.

The deep porch of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

The Maison Carrée (“square house”) functioned as part of the imperial cult in which Augustus and a personification of Rome were worshiped; but was dedicated (or rededicated) to the deceased brothers Gaius and Lucius Caesar, probably by their father Marcus Agrippa in AD 4-7.

We know about the dedication from an inscription in bronze letters, removed in medieval times (no doubt for the metal), but cleverly reconstructed from the position of the mounting holes by local Nîmes scholar Jean-François Séguier in 1758.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes; in this panorama the mounting holes for the missing dedicatory inscription can be seen on the frieze and architrave above the columns (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

In addition to being one of the best-preserved Roman monuments, the Maison Carrée is a textbook example of a “Tuscan” style temple in the Corinthian order as described by the ancient architect Vitruvius. It is pseudoperipteral, meaning that the appearance of surrounding columns is created by the embedded pilaster columns in the sides and back wall. A deep porch emphasizes the front of the building.

The rear of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, showing the pilaster columns creating the pseudoperipteral effect (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

While the deceased Caesar brothers’ memory was long-forgotten with respect to the Maison Carrée, the structure was a major influence in neo-classical architecture. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was moved by the building which inspired his architectural ideas seen in the Virginia state capital and Monticello. Indeed, the Maison Carrée would look right at home in most American cities as a post office, or court building.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

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What Might Have Been: The Gaius Caesar Cenotaph at Limyra

Today (21 February 2020) marks the 2016th anniversary of the passing of Gaius Caesar. “Who?”—you ask? He was once the presumed heir to the throne of the new Roman Empire; now largely forgotten, much as his monumental cenotaph in Turkey. This brief remembrance of that structure is the latest in an apparently very occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity. But first, the backstory . . .

Limyra: Lycian tombs in the E Necropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

The first true Roman Emperor, Augustus (formerly Octavian), had a wildly successful reign (31 BC to AD 14) that transformed Rome forever (and for better or worse). But Augustus had no son, and succession was a major issue for him. His only daughter, Julia, produced three sons by Augustus’ right-hand man and son-in-law Marcus Agrippa, and the oldest was Gaius Caesar. Gaius and his three-year younger brother Lucius were adopted by Augustus and named as heirs and raised as such.

Byzantine wall, likely built with some materials from Gaius Caesar’s cenotaph, constructed across the middle of the Hellenistic “Ptolemaion” structure; above now flooded ruins of a basilica (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At the young age of 18, Gaius was commissioned by Augustus to deal with troubles in Syria with Parthia and Armenia. He was dispatched to the region with some advisors in 1 BC. The boy’s inexperience was questioned by some, but Augustus apparently praised him for not offering prayers (presumably to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities) when he visited Jerusalem (Suetonius, Augustus 93).

Limyra: view from the theater to the remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Peaceful negotiations with Parthia included a meeting between Gaius and the Parthian king Phraates on the Euphrates. But soon after Parthia incited rebellion against a new ruler of Armenia installed by Gaius. Military action ensued. Gaius, lured into a trap on promise of information, was wounded. The Romans prevailed, but Gaius struggled physically from the injury and in spirit over the next year. By the end of AD 3, he resigned his command and withdrew to Syria, announcing his desire to stay there and retire from public life (princes tiring of royal duty and family intrigue is not a new thing!).

Limyra: Remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At Augustus behest, he reluctantly agreed to return to Rome and took a trading ship to Lycia where he died suddenly at Limyra on 21 February AD 4 Velleius Paterculus, 2.101-102). His brother Lucius had also died at Massalia en route to military training in Spain the previous year, leaving Augustus and Rome with no heir apparent. Grief-stricken Augustus had a cenotaph erected to honor his grandson Gaius’ short life at the site of his death. Meanwhile, the brothers’ ashes were interred in the mausoleum prepared for Augustus in Rome (read about the Augustus Mausoleum here).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph; looking SE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Like Gaius Caesar’s memory in popular Roman history, his cenotaph stands unnoticed in a marshy field at the edge of the ruins of Limyra; a nondescript hulk of ruined masonry. It’s former glory is hinted by the nice pavement surrounding the base. Visitors rarely go there; for the picturesque tombs, theater, and other ruins of Limyra are more attractive. But there is a better story and more mystery with the cenotaph. Even in ancient times, there was rumor of involvement by Livia, mother of the eventual heir Tiberius, in the deaths of Gaius and Lucius (Cassius Dio, Roman History 55.10-11).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph, looking NW, with the Limyra acropolis on the right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

What might have been? Augustus’ sorrow over his progeny may have been an omen for Rome’s future.  

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Mississippi’s Ground Zero Monument

I do not wish to downplay other tragic locations associated with the term, but “Ground Zero” was originally used only for the surface location closest to the detonation point of a nuclear explosion. Mississippi is home to one of those fortunately rare spots.

The Salmon Site (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, 2018)

Fifty-five years ago (as of today) an atomic bomb was detonated—on 22 October 1964 (and on purpose)—in south Mississippi. It was the first of two nuclear test explosions in the same location, and the only ones east of the Mississippi River. The nuclear test detonations, along with two later gas explosions, were conducted by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense in the Tatum Salt Dome, 21 miles southwest of my home in Hattiesburg, MS.

Surface Ground Zero in a small clearing among the pines at the Salmon Site (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

The two nuclear explosions were part of a larger project called the Vela Uniform Program, which was concerned with developing methods of detecting (and perhaps limits for avoiding detection of) underground nuclear tests in light of potential test ban treaties. The Tatum Salt Dome provided a capped chamber some 1500 feet below low-permeable strata; well-suited for certain parts of the program. A shaft was drilled 2,710 feet into the salt dome, where on 22 October 1964, the 5.3 kiloton yield nuclear device code-named “Salmon” was lowered and detonated, creating a chamber in the salt dome (duh). A second nuke, the 380 ton yield device called “Sterling,” was suspended into this chamber and detonated on 3 December 1966. The two nuclear tests were collectively called “Project Dribble.” Two methane and oxygen explosions in the same chamber, “Diode Tube” on 2 February 2 1969 and “Humid Water” on 19 April 1970,  were part of “Project Miracle Play.”[1]  

Cross-section of the Salmon Site (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, 2018)

The “Salmon Site,” as the 1,470 acre tract above the Tatum Salt Dome is now known, was sealed, cleaned, and passed from the AEC to the Department of Energy in 1992. The DOE retains the underground rights for the land and continues to monitor it via numerous test wells for radiation.

Plan of the Salmon Site, showing the outline of the subterranean Tatum Salt Dome, test wells, and Surface Ground Zero (U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, Environmental Monitoring Report, Salmon, Mississippi, Site 2017, September 2018)

Surface ownership of the parcel was ceded to the State of Mississippi for use “as a wildlife refuge and working demonstration forest.”[2] Meanwhile, the detonation chamber apparently contains a stratum of highly radioactive material, covered by a recrystallized melt puddle, and fluid, all safely contained by the salt envelope and sealed shafts above.

Surface Ground Zero monument at the Salmon Site, Mississippi; three monitoring wells are visible beyond the monument (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

Today a concrete marker with two plaques marks the Surface Ground Zero of Mississippi, 2,710 feet above the detonation point and resulting radioactive chamber. It is a truly awkward monument. For starters, it is not easily visited, as the vehicle access “roads” are unmarked, gated, and locked. When the monument is finally reached, the main informational bronze plaque faces away from any who approach, as if embarrassed to reveal its story.

Surface Ground Zero at the Salmon Site (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

The SGZ monument seems guarded by six closed and securely locked test wells, each in turn protected by concrete-filled security poles. A rusty electrical panel box stands close by (wasps prevented me from testing the outlets in it) next to the stump of a formerly large tree.

Sealed shaft behind the Ground Zero monument at the Salmon Site, Mississippi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

A ominous sealed shaft beyond the monument and panel is unmarked except for the label added to the lid by the talented welder, “PS 3 – PLUGGED 6-18-79.” All this odd setting is put in context by the smaller—and arguably more important—plaque on the concrete monument, facing any arriving visitor and warning them against excavation of any kind. Good idea.

Plaque on the more prominent side of the Surface Ground Zero monument at the Salmon Site, Mississippi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-03)

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[1] Government project codenames fascinate me . . . other Vela Uniform underground tests were conducted in Nevada and at one site in Alaska with various codenames, including “Long Shot,” “Diamond Dust,” and “Diamond Mine;” with “Sterling” and “Miracle Play,” it sounds like some kind of casino game or lottery—the latter of which Mississippi is starting next month.

[2] U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management, “Fact Sheet: Salmon, Mississippi, Site,” https://www.lm.doe.gov/Salmon/Fact_Sheet_-_Salmon.pdf, Nov, 2018. This and other official documents can be found at https://www.lm.doe.gov/salmon/Documents.aspx.


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A Man Named Doris

Today—12 October 2019 (as I write this)—would be the 100th birthday of a World War II hero whose remembrance has been wildly variable, and for whom a recent memorial also deserves mention.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco, Texas (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

Doris Miller, often referred to as “Dorie,” was born near Waco, Texas, on 12 October 1919; the third of four sons born to sharecroppers Connery and Henrietta Miller. The midwife attending his birth was convinced he would be a girl, thus the child was named Doris. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and was eventually assigned to the battleship USS West Virginia. I have not been able to locate any anecdotal information on what it was like to be a man named Doris in the Navy; but . . . it was the case that Doris Miller was the heavyweight boxing champion aboard the West Virginia.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

As an African American seaman in the segregated U.S. armed forces of the day, Miller was placed in a service role and promoted to Mess Attendant, Second Class in the ship’s mess. On 7 December 1941, the USS West Virginia was at anchorage in Pearl Harbor. Miller was collecting laundry when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor commenced and the first of at least five aerial torpedoes struck the ship.

Miller ran to his battle station which he found destroyed and then reported to the central meeting point of the battleship. There he was ordered, because of his physique, to accompany an officer in an attempted evacuation of the ship’s mortally wounded captain from the bridge. Unable to safely remove the Captain, they moved him to a safer position behind the conning tower. Then Miller, though not trained on its use, manned an unattended Browning 50-cal. anti-aircraft gun. He fired until the ammunition was exhausted and he was forced to retire by spreading flames on the sinking ship. Miller later describing his actions:

It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.[1]

Statue of Doris Miller standing “on deck” as he appeared having just received the Navy Cross pinned to his chest; at the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

While firing the anti-aircraft gun is the most famous part of his actions, Miller afterwards also “was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”[2]

Early lists of those receiving commendations for actions at Pearl Harbor mentioned an unnamed negro. This ignited attention by the press and NAACP. Finally, the Navy confirmed Miller’s identity, and some reports appear to have printed it with a typo, giving rise to the moniker “Dorie Miller.” In any case, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, presented by Admiral Nimitz on 27 May 1942. He became an icon for the African American community, was sent on a war bonds tour, and appeared in a recruiting poster. Having been transferred to the USS Indianapolis immediately after Pearl Harbor, Miller was promoted to Cook, Third Class and assigned to the new escort carrier USS Liscome Bay following the bond tour.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-13)

Those who know WW II naval history may realize from the foregoing that hero’s lives often do not end happily. The Indianapolis became one of the worst and most controversial naval losses of the war, and a story in itself. Miller, however, was transferred off the Indianapolis; but to the Liscome Bay . . . which would become the most deadly aircraft carrier loss in U.S. history. On 24 November 1943 the Liscome Bay was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine which set off a huge munitions explosion. Miller was among the 644 men lost, the great majority of whom went down with the ship. In a cruel irony, Doris’ parents were informed of the loss on 7 December 1943, exactly two years after his heroic actions at Pearl Harbor.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco from above (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-13)

The photos in this post are of the newish Doris Miller Memorial standing adjacent to the Brazos River in Waco. It is a moving monument, incorporating the shape of the battleship on which Miller served. The statue of Doris was unveiled on 7 December, Pearl Harbor Day, in 2017. A new biography of the hero, released on the same day, credits Doris Miller’s actions at Pearl Harbor as a catalyst for abolishing the U.S. Navy’s segregationist policies and, in a chain of events, for helping launch the civil rights movement.[3]

As it happens, “Doris” also designates a deity of the sea in ancient Greece, the name coming from Greek words for “gift” and “pure.” A man named Doris. Indeed.

Statue of Doris Miller at the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

[1] “Miller, Doris”. Naval History and Heritage Command. 6 June 2017.

[2]Cook Third Class Doris Miller, USN: USS West Virginia‘s Action Report, 11 December 1941; with 3 enclosures mentioning the actions of Dorie Miller”. Naval History and Heritage Command. 29 November 2017.

[3] Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement (Texas A&M University Press, 2017).


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An August Mausoleum or August?

The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, died on this day, 19 August, AD 14.[1] Occasioned by the 2005th anniversary of that event, this post is a brief follow-up to “Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü,” featuring a probable Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan (d. AD 117). Since that entry (first in a new occasional series) was posted on the most likely day of Trajan’s death, this one too is timed for the anniversary of the Emperor’s death.

The Mausoleum of Augustus as reconstructed in the Model Plastico di Roma, a 1:250 scale model of Imperial Rome now in the Museum of Roman Civilization, which is . . . closed now, for several years (pic shamelessly appropriated online because Ancient Dan cannot access the actual model)

Like Trajan after him, Caesar Augustus died on his way back to Rome. His ashes were placed in the huge tomb Octavian (his given name) prepared for himself already in 28 BC, before he even obtained the title Augustus by which he is remembered.[2] It was a huge circular Mausoleum built of concrete and tufa reticulate (small blocks of volcanic conglomerate in a diamond pattern, often as a form for the concrete). The outer of six concentric structural walls measured 300 Roman feet (c. 89m) in diameter, and the 40 Roman feet (c. 12m) high. The 2nd and 3rd walls were consequtively higher and bonded with the outer, making 25m thick ring. A single entrance on the south pierced the outer walls, opening to a vaulted corridor around the 4th wall, through which 2 entrances led to another corridor around the 5th wall, with a single entrance to the burial vault (for urns, as the Romans practiced cremation). The ruined state of the building makes the superstructure details unclear and several reconstructions have been imagined, most assuming a finished overall height of 150 Roman feet (40-45m).

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome, currently still closed, as seen from an open portico in the building to the south (the only way to see the entrance); the entrance passes through the 3 outer wall rings, which are linked by buttresses as seen at left; the ruins of this outer ring support the ring of current trees (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

According to Strabo, the Mausoleum was the most impressive of local monuments, “which consists of a mound of earth raised upon a high foundation of white marble, situated near the river, and covered to the top with ever-green shrubs. Upon the summit is a bronze statue of Augustus Cæsar, and beneath the mound are the ashes of himself, his relatives, and friends” (Strabo 5.8.3). One would expect such an impressive monument would be remembered, respected, restored, and revered.

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome in its present state; the best view of the full width of the sides, obtained by shooting from an opposite street corner (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

Sadly, that has not been the case. The Mausoleum was converted into a fortress in the medieval period, destroyed in 1167, and robbed for building stone. The building became an ornate garden in the 16th century, an arena for bullfights in the 18th, a theater and circus arena in the 19th, and a concert hall with 3,500 seats in the early 20th century.[3] Thereafter the site fell into total neglect, became overgrown, and deteriorated even after some attempt at clarifying it with a surrounding plaze by the Fascist government in the late 1930s.

A better view of the outer ring wall of The Mausoleum of Augustus, now stripped of decorative white marble/limestone; the staircases were added by the Fascist government of Mussolini in the late 1930s (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

The original white limestone facing was robbed along with other usable limestone within. Trees dominate the upper surface of the ring defined by the outer walls today, perhaps simulating hinting at the appearance described by Strabo (above). The site has been closed for some time, and restorations were supposed (by one report) to be completed in April of this year. At last check, the Mausoleum is still inaccessible, but Google Earth photos give some hope of progress.

My advice: if you get to choose whether to have a month named for you or have a fantastic monument . . . take the month.


[1] The month August was named in his honor—a non-physical and more enduring “monument.”

[2] Bonus for footnote readers—because I never get to share this one in class anymore: if you ever have to watch Disney’s Cinderella (original animated), as I have with two daughters and then two granddaughters, you might notice that when the new fat mouse is discovered, he gives his name as “Octavius.” But Cinderella says, “we’ll call you ‘Gus’ for short.” How does Octavius become Gus? Octavius = AuGUStus. This almost makes up for the annoying music.

[3] Most details from Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 181-84. BTW, this series is the most helpful and undersold of archaeological guides; the new edition of Rome is here.

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