Common Errors (19): Vespasian

28 June 2009

Head of a statue of Vespasian from Narona (Museum of Vid)

After their death, good Roman emperors were venerated as gods. The judgment whether the ruler had been sufficiently good to receive divine honors, was dependent on one factor: did he have a son who would succeed him and force the Senate to recognize the apotheosis? The emperor Vespasian (69-79) had two sons, Titus and Domitian, and could reasonably expect that people would make sacrifices to him after his death. Many modern books tell us that he died with the last words Vae, puto deus fio – “Dammit, I fear I’m turning into a god.”

The Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that Vespasian indeed made this joke shortly before he died (Life of Vespasian, 23.4), but he does not say that these were the emperor’s last words. Those were in fact far more impressive: “An emperor ought to die standing” (24.1).

<Overview of Common Errors>


Common Errors (18): Pilate

28 June 2009

Pilate's inscription from Caesarea

Some ten years ago, two colleagues approached me with a request: could I read the general introduction to ancient history they had once written and was about to be reprinted? They wanted to seize the opportunity to remove all errors they might have made, and invited me to point out everything I could possible find.

Among the mistakes they refused to correct, was their qualification of Pontius Pilate as a procurator. True, this is what Tacitus writes in his Annals (15.44):

Christ, from whom the sect of the Christians has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.

But Tacitus is wrong. An inscription from Caesarea, found in 1961, is our evidence. It contains several lacunae, but Pilate’s title is clearly legible:

[dis  avgvsti]S TIBERIEVM
[...  po]NTIVS  PILATVS
[praef]ECTVS  IVDA[ea]E
[fecit d]E[dicavit]
To the august gods, this temple of Tiberius, … Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea, erected and inaugurated.

There is no doubt about it: Pilate was a praefectus (a soldier), not a procurator (a civil official). This is not a mere triviality: the trial of Jesus was a matter of military urgency, not a civil trial.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Common Errors (17): Frozen Rhine

28 June 2009
The river god Rhenus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln)

The river god Rhenus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln)

The German historician Alexander Demandt enumerates in his fascinating book Der Fall Roms (“The Fall of Rome”, 1984) no less than 210 factors that contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire, arranged alphabetically from Aberglaube, “idolatry”, to Zweifrontenkrieg, “war on two fronts”. This illustrates a debate about the causes of the demise of the ancient world that has now lasted more than two, three centuries. It is unlikely that we will ever reach consensus.

All modern authors agree on one point, however: when the Vandals, Suebians, and Alans invaded the empire on the last day of 406, an event that must have played a role in the transformation from Antiquity to Middle Ages, they crossed a river Rhine that was frozen.

But how do we know? The subject has been debated at RomanArmyTalk, where it was shown that this little detail was not in our sources, and that it was probably invented by the British ancient historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). In 1781, he wrote in chapter 30 of his famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

‘On the last day of the year, in a season when the waters of the Rhine were most probably frozen, they entered without opposition the defenceless provinces of Gaul.’

Why did he speculate that the river must have been frozen? Partly to explain why the barbarians didn’t meet any opposition, we’re tempted to think – and probably, we’re right. However, it may also be relevant that Gibbon used to live in Switzerland for some time, and may have seen how the upper reaches of the Rhine can indeed be covered by ice. And he certainly read the following lines by Herodian, who presents an account of extreme circumstances as if it is a description of an average winter. Gibbon, who had never seen the Middle and Lower Rhine, may well have been led astray by his excellent command of the sources – in this case, Herodian, Roman History, 6.7.6-8:

The Rhine in Germany and the Danube in Pannonia are the largest of the northern rivers. In summer their depth and width make them easily navigable, but in the cold winters they freeze over and appear like a level plain which can be crossed on horseback.The river becomes so firm and solid in that season that it supports horses and men. Then those who want drinking water do not come to the river with pitchers and bowls; they bring axes and mattocks and, when they have finished chopping, take up water without using bowls and carry it in chunks as hard as rock. Such is the nature of these rivers

<Overview of Common Errors>


Common Errors (16): Persepolis

28 June 2009
The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

In the first weeks of 330 BCE, Alexander the Great captured the capital of the Persian Empire, which the Macedonians and Greeks called Persepolis, “City of the Persians”. The living quarters were looted immediately, and when the invaders continued their expedition in early Spring, the palaces were destroyed as well.

Our sources are not in agreement about the way this happened. According to Arrian (Anabasis, 3.18.11), it happened after deliberations; it was a well-planned operation. On the other hand, Curtius Rufus (History of Alexander, 5.7.3-12) and Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 38) say that Alexander was drunk – by no means excluded.

Scholars have so hard been trying to find out what happened exactly, that they ignored a more important question: did it actually happen? The problem is that many buildings were simply left intact: the Gate of All Nations and the Palace of Darius the Great, for example. Of course, the wooden and the limestone parts have vanished, but the gates, windows, and lower parts of the walls are still standing. No traces of vandalism here.

Something else happened in the Palace of Xerxes: hardly anything survived. Fragments of the columns that once supported the roofs of Xerxes‘ rooms were discovered far away: these palaces were the victims of a gas explosion (a “delayed flash-over”, as the fireman I once interviewed on the subject explained). There’s also evidence for arson in the Treasury and the Apadana, the throne room where the Great King received embassies of the various nations. Here, the excavators found a stratum of one to two feet of charcoal: burnt cedar wood.

And that’s the smoking gun. These buildings were extremely significant: the Palace of Xerxes, because he had attacked Greece in 480; and the Apadana and Treasury, the symbols of the ritual of gift exchange that was Achaemenid equivalent of the social contract.

Of course fires are unpredictable, but why, out of a set of twelve momuments, were exactly these three buildings destroyed? It is almost impossible that these buildings, and these buildings only, were destroyed by a random process. The arsonists in Persepolis were not drunken vandals: this was a well-organized action.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Common Errors (15): White Sculpture

28 June 2009
Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph.

Reconstruction of the colors of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph (Xanten)

The ancient Greeks were brilliant sculptors, who were the first to accurately render the human body in bronze or stone. Perfection, defined as understanding contrapposto, was reached at the beginning of the fifth century BCE.

It has often been assumed that the old statues were made of white marble from Paros or the Pentelic Mountains. The absence of color was even lauded as a brilliant abstraction, an aesthetic judgment comparable to the idea that old black-and-white movies have a beauty of their own, and that it is blasphemy to make a colored version of, for example, Buster Keaton’s The General.

Yet, the ancients did in fact paint their sculpture. On many statues, we can still see traces (example); yes, even when we can not discern these traces, our scientists, applying all kinds of modern technology, know how to reconstruct them. According to our standards, ancient sculpture had screaming colors and was absolutely campy. I remember a lecture in Oxford, the introduction to a series of lectures on ancient sculpture, in which people burst out into laughter on seeing a slide with an exquisitely ugly Primaporta Augustus.

Polychromy was also characteristic of ancient architecture. The monuments on the Forum Romanum were made of green, purple, red, or white marble, and grey or purple granite, while the floors were covered with stones that had yellow, green, or purple veins. Exposed to centuries of sunlight, the colors have now vanished, but if you look at the floors of Rome’s medieval churches, which are covered with mosaics made of ancient marble, you get an idea of the splendid colors of the ancient city.

An interesting website, in German and unfortunately with music you’re forced to listen to, on the subject is here.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Common Errors (14): Flat Earth

28 June 2009
World map of Agrippa

World map of Agrippa

It is of course a great image in the cinema: the actor playing Columbus (1451-1506) is looking at the horizon and sees how a ship disappears – first the hull, then the masts. He looks at the orange or apple he happens to be eating, and you can see how he is thinking and realizes that we live on a spherical earth.

Great cinema, indeed, but unhistorical. The people of the fifteenth century were not that stupid. The Italian poet Dante (1365-1321) already assumed that the earth is a globe: people descending into hell eventually leave the netherworld on the other side of the planet. Seventeen centuries before Dante, Aristotle (384-322) already knew that the earth is a sphere.

So how come that so many people, not only in Hollywood, “know” that the ancients believed that the earth was flat? It’s all based on a misunderstanding of a remark by the Andalusian bishop Isidore of Seville (560-636). In his Etymologies, he says that the earth’s orb has this name because it is as round as a wheel (Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est; 14.2). Careless reading indeed gives the impression that the venerable writer believed the earth was wheel-shaped, but we know that Isidore in fact knew better (e.g., Etymologies 9.2.133).

It may be added the many ancient maps also give the impression that the makers believed that the world was flat, but the maps of Hecataeus and Agrippa are not a real argument: our own maps are also two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world. Herodotus of Halicarnassus may have been the latest author to believe that the world was flat.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Finishing things, sort of

26 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

When I was a kid I collected stamps. Back in those days, it was still not so far in the past that many countries issued stamps in “series” — a set of stamps with a single design, but each denomination in a different color. The stamp collector was thus very often enticed into trying to get the whole series, an amusing and harmless semi-competitive endeavor.

Well, this compulsive trait has surfaced again from my childhood. I originally had no intention of putting all of Plutarch online, many of his works being concerned with philosophy and Greek stuff, and I’m not fond of either. But little by little — at Attalus there is a page entitled “Plutarch: Moralia — list of translations”; and if anyone out there has been wondering why certain Plutarch items have been going up at Lacus rather than others, it goes far to explain it. I’m filling in the blanks, starting by and large with those texts that don’t appear to be online anywhere at all; and when I’m done with those, I’ll probably wind up by putting up the others as well … to “complete the series”. Right now, in addition to the Lives (complete), Lacus has just short of 30% of the Moralia.

Today’s item is an exception, though, since already up elsewhere, but it was short: On Envy and Hate (envy rather than hate, in fact) with Philippe Remacle’s Greek and French linked, as before. It’s a bland little essay, tells us a bit about envy, but not what to do about it; reminds me of the oft-told story, with various famous American divines in the title rôle, of the preacher who gave a two-hour sermon on Sin: when a parishioner was asked by an absent friend what he’d said, the reply — “He was against it.”


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