New Online Journals

18 June 2009

Maybe these French journals were already available online for some time, but I learned about it today:

And there’s a lot more (but unrelated to ancient history) here. This is really something to be very, very happy about.

Common Errors (13): Octavian

18 June 2009
A very young Octavian (Mainz, Landesmuseum)

A very young Octavian (Mainz, Landesmuseum)

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, several factions tried to seize power. The assassins themselves were quickly outmanoeuvred by Caesar’s right-hand man and fellow-consul, Marc Antony, who tried to balance the interests of the Caesarian faction with those of the Senate. Readjustment of powers might have been swift, but Antony had one problem: Caesar had adopted his second cousin, a young man named Gaius Octavius.

Back then, it was not uncommon that an adopted son choose a name that commemorated both his adoptive father and his original father. Caesar’s assassin Marcus Junius Brutus, for instance, added Caepio to his name after his adoptive father Quintus Servilius Caepio; and a well-known general named himself Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, the Scipio born in the Aemilian family. Caesar’s adopted second cousin might might have called himself Gaius Octavius Caesar or Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

Historians always call him just Octavian, as if he choose the latter. Two Caesars is indeed a bit complex, if only because they both launched civil wars and both staged a coup d’état. After Senior had destroyed the Republic, Junior founded the monarchy, accepting the surname Augustus in 27 BCE.

It’s not just laymen who think that the young son, between the moment of his adoption and the moment he was proclaimed Augustus, called himself Octavian. But he was no fool: “The name of Caesar was the young man’s fortune”, as the well-known ancient historian Ronald Syme summarized Junior’s position in his famous The Roman Revolution (1939).

<Overview of Common Errors>

Plutarch, That a Philosopher ought to Converse especially with Men in Power

18 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Although LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer is also occupied with putting online texts on the history of the United States, he continues to put online the Moralia by Plutarch. Today’s contribution is a brief treatise with the dazzling title That a Philosopher ought to Converse especially with Men in Power.

Plutarch addresses an old question. Plato had argued that in the best constitution, the state was ruled by philosophers. When he was offered to organize Syracuse according to his ideas, Plato failed miserably. His pupil, Aristotle, argued that it was better if a king had philosophers as his advisers. Plutarch essentially sides with the latter, arguing that one should not put a light under a bushel.

A Marginal Jew, vol.4

16 June 2009

The most important book on ancient history, at this moment, is John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I am aware that many scholars think that investigating the life and opinions of the Jewish woodworker from Nazareth is the subject of theology, but that is simply a misunderstanding of the “third quest“, which is historical in nature. As a matter of fact, it belongs to the most innovative and methodologically advanced parts of the discipline of ancient history. And within this advanced part, Meier’s Marginal Jew is simply the best book.

Well, books, actually. Originally, there were supposed to be three volumes, which have appeared in 1991, 1994, and 2001. The main conclusions, however, will be presented in the fifth book of the increasingly inaccurately named Marginal Jew trilogy. But the fourth installment is now finally here, bringing the grand total of pages to 2990, and dealing with Jesus as teacher of the Law -  as a rabbi, to use the ancient Jewish expression. Meier stresses that the historical Jesus is a Jewish Jesus and explains this truism by repeating almost ad nauseam that a Jewish Jesus is a halakic Jesus. It is boring, it is shocking that this stress is still necessary, but he is of course right.

The issues Meier addresses are divorce (permitted by the Law, but Jesus was nevertheless opposed to it), the prohibition to take oaths (something that the Law not just permits, but even demands), activities allowed on the sabbath (as far as we know, Jesus did not break with the Law), and ritual purity. In the final chapter, we learn that Jesus, as a charismatic, felt that he could abrogate individual commandments (e.g., on divorce); this claim relates somehow to the double command to love God and one’s neighbor, but Jesus was not a system builder and it is not entirely clear how these are related. This may not be a very surprising conclusion, but at least this is solid knowledge, obtained by applying a clear, careful method. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or atheist scholars would arrive on exactly the same conclusions.

The point that impressed me most was that Jesus was not just a teacher of the Law, but that his opinions, which we like to call “humane” and “liberal”, were in fact nothing but “the commonsense approach to halaka that probably many ordinary Jewish peasants had no choice but to follow in their pinched and fragile existence” (page 267).

Any ancient historian should read A Marginal Jew to see how one tackles an historical problem. The books are not only meticulously researched – I counted two notes Forschungsberichte that were twelve pages long! – but Meier also proceeds methodologically and shows, page after page, that he is interested in the past for the past’s sake. “Relevance is the enemy of history”, as he summarizes his position.

How ministers and pastors can apply this historical knowledge, is an altogether different question, but those who fear that historical research may in the end lead to nihilism, can rest assured: the book received an imprimatur.

Love, alla greca

15 June 2009
A satyr trying to rape Aphrodite (Athens, National Archaeological Museum)

Aphrodite and a satyr

New on Lacus today: ps-Plutarch, Love Stories/Ἐρωτικαί διηγήσεις. Five charming stories of rape, murder, and vengeance — not a word about love in any of them — as only the Greeks could write them.

Actually, that’s not quite true: parental love is in there, poking its head out from the various slaughters, curses, and suicides. If you really do want to read a Greek love story though, you’ll do much better to read Heliodorus’ Aethiopica.

Marcus Caelius Exposition

13 June 2009
Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph

Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph

The museum of Xanten has recently been reopened, and there’s a nice exposition on Marcus Caelius, called “Marcus Caelius – Tod in der Varusschlacht”. According to the inscription of his famous cenotaph, this centurio of the Eighteenth Legion was killed in action during the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest.

The exposition tries to evoke the man’s life. For example, you will find information on Roman Bologna, the place where he was born, but also on his activities as a soldier. In short, the exposition informs you about “arms and the man”. I liked it very much, especially the drawings from the seventeenth century, which illustrate how later generations have used this monument, which was discovered in 1620 and is one of the first and finest examples of Roman sculpture made north of the Alps.

The exposition lasts until 30 August, and will be in Bonn’s Rheinisches Landesmuseum from 24 September 2009 to 24 January 2010.

Two texts by Plutarch

13 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has returned to putting online the Moralia by Plutarch, and today, we can read two well-known treatises:

Both texts are fragments of larger discourses. The ideas are not very original, which the ancients almost expect from texts on this subject. The constitutional debates in Herodotus (Histories, 3.82), Cassius Dio (Roman History, 52), Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 19), and Philostratus (Life of Apollonius, 5.31ff) are surprisingly similar. Plutarch’s ideas are another branch of this tree.

Haltern, Imperium Exposition

11 June 2009
Relief showing the Capitoline geese from the Ostia Museum

Relief showing the Capitoline geese from the Ostia Museum

It’s two thousand years ago that the Roman commander Varus and three legions were defeated by Germanic tribesmen led by Arminius. The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest has always been a lieu de mémoire in German history, and it comes as no surprise that there are several expositions devoted to this event. In Xanten, there’s a charming exposition on Marcus Caelius, one of the soldiers killed in action (more…). In Kalkriese, there’s an exposition called “Conflict” on the relations between Rome and the Germanic tribes (which I already mentioned in passing); in Detmold you can visit the “Myth” expo, on the Nachleben of the battle; and finally, there’s  “Imperium” in the Seestadthalle in Haltern, which tries to show to which civilization Varus belonged.

“Imperium” is the most overwhelming exposition I have visited in five years or so. You will see art objects from the first centuries BC and AD documenting the origins of Rome, like the relief shown next to this article;  imperial propaganda (e.g., the Vatican Actium relief and works of art pertaining to the Ara Pacis); portraits of the main actors (Pompey, Caesar, Augustus, Cleopatra, Tiberius, Gaius and Lucius…) and cultural icons (Virgil, Maecenas…); you can see frescoes from the homes of Rome’s rich and famous (from the Palazzo Massimo); there are codices with the poems of Ovid and Propertius; coins with Varus’ portrait; objects illustrating his career in Syria; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Best of all, you can make as many photos as you like. I have on at least five occasions tried to make photos in the Ostia museum, because I wanted to study the geese relief – it was always forbidden, but now I finally was able to make my photos. I have one complaint, though: the illumination was rather old-fashioned – the objects were still shown in poorly illuminated rooms in which only a couple of objects are to be seen in low-key light. This was, now that new museums like Tongeren and Xanten have decided to abandon this approach, an unpleasant surprise. Still, the set of objects that has been collected is splendid and I was suffering from exhaustion when I had seen it all.

The official website of the Imperium – Conflict – Myth expositions is here, while Xanten’s Marcus Caelius exposition is here.

The Glory of Athens

10 June 2009
The Parthenon

The Parthenon

So many of the Greek and Roman texts I transcribe and present on Lacus can be considered as irrelevant to us today, if not in their most general lines of course, certainly in their details. One of today’s items, though, is not: Plutarch’s fragmentary essay On the Glory of Athens. I hadn’t read it, but it was part of the immense backlog of items not online or not onsite that I was eventually going to get around to; Jona’s entry a few days ago on the runner of Marathon decided me to put it up, mostly so he’d have something to link to for the careful reader eager to read the actual source. The incidental mention of Marathon aside, however, the essay itself turned out to be so relevant to the modern world and to modern America, that I’m not far from considering it part of my American history site. (The Greek original is also up.)

While I was at it, I noticed that a squib of Plutarch that I’d already put up in English translation, the Greek wasn’t that long, why not — so it’s now gone to join it: Εἰ διδακτόν ἡ ἀρετή.

Ancient Warfare: Teutoburg Forest Special

10 June 2009
Ancient Warfare III.3

Ancient Warfare III.3

I am probably not the most neutral reviewer of the latest issue of Ancient Warfare, a special on the massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. In the first place, because I have always been fascinated by the clash in the blogs of the Northgerman Lowlands. In the second place, because I am one of the contributors to this issue. Still, I am not completely uncritical, and I like to point out that there’s something missing: an article on the Claudian Army Reforms.

The battle’s significance, we are always told, was that it meant the liberation of Germany. That was, in any case, the vision of Tacitus and Florus, who wrote in the second century AD. Contemporaries had a different vision. Velleius Paterculus believed that, as a disaster, it was less important than Carrhae, and did not notice any change in Roman policy. To agree with Paterculus and to say that nothing changed, would be exaggerating, but it is certainly possible to overestimate the significance of the battle. The Romans had always combined diplomacy and the use of arms, the first one being Tiberius’ preference and the second one being Drusus’ preference vis-à-vis the Germanic tribes. The only thing that changed was that when Tiberius became emperor, direct military occupation was abandoned, and diplomatic means were preferred to control the land east of the Rhine. But there were still campaigns, the tribes were essentially vassals of the empire, and the river was not yet considered a boundary.

The real change took place almost half a century later, when  – during the reign of Claudius – the limes was created and Rome decided that the Rhine would be the limit to the empire. The river was now becoming a real frontier zone. Florus and Tacitus attributed this to the Teutoburg Forest massacre, and they were not completely wrong, but they were not completely right either. A perfect issue on the epic battle would have treated the significance of the battle, showing that the Europe indeed became divided between a Latin and a Germanic zone, and that this division can only partly be explained by the fight in the marshes.

(The traditional, more exaggerated interpretation is an example of the “positivist fallacy”: we happen to have sources on this battle, so we think it is important, but in reality, there are more important events about which we have no sources.)

All this being said, this issue is easily the best publication on the subject of this anniversary year. Many traditional errors have been avoided – no, there is no evidence that the Romans wanted to proceed to the Elbe – and the look- how-relevant-ancient-history-really is-section on the battle’s afterlife in modern German nationalism is mercifully absent. I will not sum up the individual contributions because that would self-laudatory, but I honestly believe that this is one of the best things to read on the subject. You can subscribe here.

Roman Boat in Madurodam

8 June 2009
The Roman boat

The Roman boat

Madurodam may be the smallest city of the Netherlands, it can now claim one of the most spectacular Roman finds in recent history: during an excavation, the remains of an ancient ship were found. The mayor, Mr Friso Wesseling, and the Dutch minister of Education, Mr Ronald Plasterk, immediately visited the place, being escorted -for the occasion- by a small bodyguard of two lictores reenactors. Many people attended the press conference.

Excavators The Roman boat again Minister Plasterk

Joking apart now, Madurodam is an open air museum, where important monuments have been rebuilt on a 1:25 scale. It is also a war memorial, dedicated to George Maduro, a decorated war hero who died in Dachau; the proceeds of the museum are for the Society for the Support of the Dutch Student Sanatorium. The Madurodam Roman ship is about a meter long, corresponding to the twenty-five meters of the original boat, which archaeologists know as the “De Meern 1″. As it happens, there’s also a full-scale reconstruction (more…).

The presentation of the new model was part of a symposium on what is, somewhat grandiloquently, called “reverse archaeology” – the idea that archaeology can better be integrated into large building projects, so that people may become more aware of their history.

Caesar’s Gallic War

2 June 2009
A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

I’ve made several small additions to the Livius website during the Pentecost weekend. In the first place, I put online an article I wrote about a year ago on Caesar‘s literary aims in his Gallic Wars. It was originally published in Ancient Warfare. As you already guessed, the Roman general tried to cover up what went wrong and to broadcast what went right. Still, there may be some interesting notes about lesser known topics, like the way he presents the topography of Gaul. The article is here, but of course it is also possible to subscribe to Ancient Warfarehere.

Other additions are a brief article on ostraca and the photos of Taucheira, which have moved to another location, which is here.


1 June 2009
A Greek hoplite preparing for war

A Greek hoplite preparing for war

In 445, Athens and Sparta put an end to a war that had lasted fifteen years. Both sides were exhausted and sincerely longing for peace. Immediately after the treaty had been concluded, the Athenians were invited to found a colony in southern Italy, Thurii, and they called it an all-Greek (“panhellenic”) town to prevent irritation in Sparta and its ally Corinth, which traditionally were interested in the far west. This gesture was appreciated, and when the island of Samos revolted against Athens (440), the Corinthians and Spartans refused to support the rebels.

Peace reigned and few would have believed that within seven years, Corinth and Athens would clash in a big naval battle near Sybota, and that in 431, war between the two alliances would be renewed. It was to last twenty-seven years and was believed to be the greatest war ever.

I put online an article that was published a year ago in Ancient Warfare: read it here (or subscribe to Ancient Warfare).

Fort Matilo

1 June 2009
Hand of an ancient statue from Matilo

Hand of an ancient statue from Matilo

Although the Dutch town Leiden has been called Lugdunum Batavorum ever since the Renaissance, its real Latin name was Matilo. (The real Lugdunum was closer to the sea.) The Roman fort has been identified southeast of Leiden’s center, at the place where the river Rhine divided into the branch that emptied itself into the North Sea and the Canal of Corbulo. The site has not been excavated, but the place of the walls has been identified by georadar. On many occasions, objects have come to the surface, which are currently on display in Leiden’s Rijksmuseum van oudheden.

I updated my article (here), and a satellite photo is here. The greenhouse is on the site of the ancient fort.


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