Babylon Exhibition in the Louvre

30 March 2008
The Codex of Hammurabi

The Codex of Hammurabi

The great Babylon Exhibition in the Louvre museum contains many interesting objects, but some of them are especially intriguing: they promise a story, but do not finish it. Take, for example, the request from the Babylonian king Burnabariash II to his Egyptian colleague Echnaton: will the pharaoh be so kind to execute two travelers, who have killed several merchants and stolen their silver?

That is all we know – the beginning of a story, but not the conclusion. Did Echnaton investigate the case, or was Burnabariash’ letter sufficient evidence? The only thing that is certain is that a Babylonian king in the fourteenth century believed his request was reasonable.

The Alexander Chronicle

The Alexander Chronicle

All our knowledge of ancient Babylon is based on fragmentary data like these. Of course the inhabitants of the cultural capital of the ancient Near East wrote many texts. In the British Museum alone, some 100,000 cuneiform tablets are waiting to be deciphered. However, these tablets are often damaged. One example may suffice. In one of the displays in the Louvre is an ancient chronicle (photo to the left) that mentions Alexander the Great, but precisely at the point where it appears to mention the death of Darius III and the accession of Bessus, the text becomes illegible. There is a reference to Kidinnu – is it the astronomer? There is a reference to a plot – is the Philotas affair meant? We do not know.

Herodotus (bust from the Agora Museum, Athens)

Herodotus (bust from the Agora Museum, Athens)

Greek and Roman authors have given descriptions of Babylon, but often, they are unreliable. Herodotus of Halicarnassus (third picture) suggests he visited the city – although he does nowhere really say it explicitly, and merely makes remarks like “this was still the case in my days”. His description is full of mistakes. Still, several modern scholars continue to believe Herodotus’ tales, even now that we have thousands of cuneiform tablets that contradict him.

Archaeological research is difficult too. The rivers Euphrates and Tigris create problems, but the political situation is far too complex. At this moment, eleven teams are active, but it is not very inspiring that Babylon has for several years now been used as barracks by the forces that have liberated Iraq. The ancient city did in fact have the “honor” to be the first monument to be removed from the UNESCO world heritage list. Google Earth photos show how cars are riding across the ruins; a team from Germany is now trying to find out whether there’s still a possibility to recover something.

Researching ancient Babylonia and the roots of our civilization is, therefore, difficult, and this makes the well-balanced Louvre exhibition even more remarkable. You can see splendid works of art like the “treasure of Babylon”, which consists of crystal and onyx. Less beautiful, but very important for economic historians, is the archive of the Egibi family, a bank that was among the most important ones in the ancient Near East.

Tablet with a list of eclipses between 518 and 465, mentioning the death of king Xerxes (British Museum)

Tablet with a list of eclipses between 518 and 465, mentioning the death of king Xerxes (British Museum)

In one of the displays is the oldest tablet in which the zero is employed – not an Indian or Arab invention, as is often maintained. In mathematics, the Babylonians were very advanced; the same can be said about astronomy. (The photo shows a list of eclipses from the fifth century.) When Alexander the Great conquered the city in 331, he immediately ordered the records with observations to be translated and sent to Greece, where a pupil of Aristotle named Callipppus improved the calendar.

Cuneiform tablet mentioning the capture of Jerusalem in 597

Cuneiform tablet mentioning the capture of Jerusalem in 597

There is also a wall of glazed bricks in the Louvre, and the visitor can also see a four millennia old wall painting from Mari. Right in front of it is the stone monolith on which the Laws of Hammurabi were writte, somewhere in the eighteenth century BCE. In another room, you will find Chronicle 5, which mentions Nebuchadnessar’s capture of Jerusalem (photo), and the blueprint of the Etemenanki sanctuary, also known as Tower of Babel.

Of course not many visitors can read those cuneiform tablets, but the explanations are clear. No visitor can be left in doubt: these objects really are the beginning of our civilization and much of our literature. In one display you will see the Epic of Atrahasis, a poem about the Great Flood that was composed about a millennium before the Bible – which actually quotes from the Babylonian text. It is also quoted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to which an entire display is devoted.

In still another display are the fragments of the text known as “I will praise the lord of wisdom”, a poem that -like the Biblical book of Job- addresses the question how god can allow evil. Under normal circumstances, these fragments are not united, because they are in several museums. And this is an aspect of the exposition that somehow irritates me: why did we have to wait until 2008? It now turns out that bringing these objects together was easy – and it was always easy: of the 330 ancient objects, only 29 are not from the Louvre, the British Museum or the Vorderasiatisches Museum.

What the organizers wanted to show and what was the reason to organize this exposition, was the collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Iraq, which became accessible after the liberation of Baghdad. As is well-known, the museum was looted for three days – and instead of a splendid exhibition that would contain every important object, we are now left with an exposition that might have been organized ten years earlier. This makes the exhibition, impressive as it is, also a sad reminder that we have for good lost a part of our view on the roots of our civilization.

The website of the Louvre is incomplete, as it fails to mention that photography is strictly forbidden. If you want to study the objects at your leisure, you will be forced to buy the catalog, which is beautiful but of course never contains a photo of the particular details you would have photographed yourself. So, if you have already visited the main museums in Europe, or want to improve your knowledge by making photos, there is no need to go to Paris. Otherwise, there is no excuse: anyone interested in the cradle of our civilization, should go to the Louvre as soon as possible.

The exposition in the Louvre lasts until 2 June after that, it will visit Berlin and London.


Last days of Silchester

26 March 2008

Silchester! Let’s face it: there’s something seriously wrong with a schoolboy when he has read Rosemary Sutcliff‘s The Eagle of the Ninth and did not develop (a) a life-long love for everything Roman and (b) a longing to visit Silchester. Those of us who have not yet been able to visit the remains of the ancient Roman city, will be delighted with the century old article from the English Historical Review on the Last Days of Silchester that is now online at LacusCurtius. The eagle is mentioned in footnote 6.

Also available: an even older article with English Topographical Notes; two lists of brief entries, beginning with B and L, to the online edition of Plattner’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome; and again two discourses by Dio of Prusa, to wit 9 (the “Isthmian Oration”) and 73 (On Trust).


Marktbreit am Main

23 March 2008

In 1985, German archaeologists discovered a Roman legionary base from the reign of Augustus east of the German town Marktbreit am Main. What was unusual, was that the fortress had never been used. It was probably built for two legions that were to attack the kingdom of Maroboduus, the leader of the Marcomanni, in Bohemia. This military operation was to take place in 5 CE, but an insurrection in Pannonia prevented its execution and the base at Marktbreit was abandoned. Some photos (not very spectacular) are here; the satellite photo is not very helpful either.


Forum Hadriani (Voorburg)

22 March 2008

Forum Hadriani, modern Voorburg, was the capital of the Cananefates, a romanized tribe in the western part of the Netherlands. It was a small town with about 1,000 inhabitants, that appears to have grown from a settlement that may have been founded by Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, who in 47 ordered his soldiers to dig a canal to connect the rivers Meuse and Rhine. Today, I revised an older article, and put it online. If you want to visit the site: prepare for a disappointment – it is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage and can therefore not be excavated. Still, you can visit the small, charming museum Swaensteyn.


Star Names. Their Lore and Meaning

22 March 2008

In 1899, Richard H. Allen published his book Star Names. Their Lore and Meaning, in which he collected information on the nomenclature and historical evolution of the constellations and their stars, but also on ancient myth and religion, folklore, astrology, and the occasional bit of botany or zoology. If you like Pliny the Elder‘s Natural History, you will also appreciate Allen’s book, as it is a similar collection of facts, based on extensive reading, presented in a slightly chaotic fashion.

Sometimes, his information is outdated – especially where he discusses ancient Mesopotamian astronomy. Still, the subject matter is interesting and when he presents Greek and Roman mythology, the book has not been superseded by more recent studies.

Bill Thayer prepared the online edition; he also put online three discourses by Dio of Prusa: 23 (in which he argues that a wise man is fortunate and happy), 26 (On Deliberation), and 51 (In Reply to Diodorus). To the online edition of Platner’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Bill added Balnea and Ludi – the two things that ruin life and make it worthwhile. Finally, a piece on the cottabos game.


Synesius of Cyrene online

21 March 2008

Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher and a sophist, who converted -without much personal conviction but because as a wealthy landowner he had to take care of a war-stricken country- to Christianity and became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. I discovered his publications about two years ago, and found his more than 150 letters and his treatises extremely interesting. They tell a lot about the problems of his city, which was attacked by native Libyan warriors, relations with the imperial court in Constantinople, philosophy, religion, and daily life. In the past months, I’ve made a translation of his complete works available at Livius.Org.

Today, the last treatise went online: the Dio, in which Synesius discusses the relation between general education (study of the arts) and philosophy – symbolized by the Muses and Apollo. General education, or paideia, is a preliminary to philosophy, comparable to the development of Dio, who was (according to Synesius) a sophist first, but later converted to philosophy. General education in itself is insufficient to become happy: the sophist and the grammarian are unhappy people, and even Socrates was interested in poetry. The best part of the Dio is a diatribe against uneducated people who pretend that they are philosophers and can tell something about the Divine – no doubt an attack on the Christians, which makes Synesius’ conversion even more remarkable.


New at LacusCurtius (4)

21 March 2008

Bill Thayer added several new items to LacusCurtius. To start with, the Greek text of three discourses by Dio of Prusa: Discourse 5 (a Libyan fairy tale that may or may not be related to the sanctuary at Slonta), Discourse 59 (Philoctetes), and Discourse 71 (on philosophers). In the second place, a long list of brief entries, all beginning with T, to the online edition of Plattner’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Finally, from Allen’s Star Names, a piece on the Galaxy.


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