Tour des Fouilles (16): Mons Seleucus - Roman globalization in the high Alps
So today, the peloton enters the Alps. Compared to the Pyrenees, there is a lot more happening in this area in the Roman period - and understandably so, since the Alps were bordered on the west by the wealthy and densely populated Rhone Valley, and on the East, by the Po Valley, which was even wealthier and more densely populated. Moreover, there was, as the Peutinger Table indicates, there were at least two major roads over the passes connecting the two - one used the Col de Montgénèvre, and the other one, further to the North, over the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard. Today and tomorrow, the race is in the Durance Basin, which was crossed by roads connecting Valence and Arles to Augusta Taurinorum (Turin).
One of the places along these roads was called Mons Seleucus, which is present-day La Bâtie-Montsaléon - the race rides past it some 55k before the finish line. The name of Mons Seleucus is remarkable for a place in Gaul, since it seems to refer to the monarchs of the Seleucid Empire (who were all called 'Seleucus') - which was situated in present-day Syria, Iraq and Iran (and parts of Turkey) in the third and second centuries BC. We do not know the story behind the name, but it is attested in several ancient itineraries. Mons Seleucus also played its part in Late-Roman political history: on July 3rd, 353 AD, the Roman emperor Constantius II beat his rival Magnentius here, in what is called the Battle of Mons Seleucus (Magnentius committed suicide afterwards - this is how these things go).
In antiquity, Mons Seleucus seems to have been a small village with a large sanctuary attached to it. On the picture above, you can see the 2005 rescue excavation of part of the site, which features some free-standing buildings, probably temples. The main temple, which was excavated earlier on, is well visible through the crop marks in the field. It stood at the end of a major street access that ran right through the centre of the village.
It is unclear to which deity the temple was dedicated, but a lot of dedicatory inscriptions to a variety of Gods have been found. These include 'regular' figures from the Roman pantheon, such as Mars, Silvanus and Iuppiter, but also some more exotic deities. One inscription refers to the Egyptian goddess of Isis, who was frequently honoured throughout the Roman world. Another two inscriptions refer to the even more exotic figure of Mithras. One of these you see on the image below.
The inscription was only partially preserved, but the combination of the remaining text with the scene make it clear that none other than Mithras can be referred to. It was a small statue of white marble, which long could be found in the Museum of Gap, but apparently now has gone lost. The mithraic cult was a mystery religion of Near Eastern origin. The mystic character indeed really means that we don't know the details, but a lot of the iconography evolves around the so-called Tauroctony - the slaying of the bull by Mithras, a depiction of which stood in the centre of every Mithraeum - it is also depicted on the above picture. The exact meaning of the scene is a hotly debated issue that I am not going to go into here.
However, what is relevant is that the presence of both Isis and Mithras in a small mountain village like Mons Seleucus shows how the Roman world, culturally, cosmopolitized, and how cultural phenomena from specific regions could appear throughout the Roman world (indeed, a dedication to Isis and Serapis was found as far north as Voorburg, here in the Netherlands).
|Héricart de Thury, L. (1806) Archaeologie de Mons Seleucus in regione Voconciorum, aujoud'hui Labâtie-Montsaléon. Gap: Allier.|
|Leveau, Ph.; Segard, M.; Barbier, Ch.; Bertucchi, G; Simon, B. (2002) 'La Bâtie-Montsaléon, Mons Seleucus. Vicus et sanctuaire dans le Haut Buëch (Hautes-Alpes)'. RevArchNar 35, 111-128.|