Shame, where is thy blush?

28 July 2009
Some historians deserve a box on the ear

Some historians deserve a box on the ear

If we were still lacking evidence that today’s ancient historians are not up to their tasks, the preface of Heckel/Tritle’s Alexander the Great. A New History offers just the proof we needed:

One of the strengths of this volume is that it includes contributions by scholars outside the English-speaking world.

This is overstepping the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Heckel and Tritle are of course right that a scholar ought to read articles written in foreign languages, and they are also right that this is no longer self-evident. But they should be making plans how to reach normalcy again, and implement those plans. Presenting as something special that a team of historians reaches the expected level, is the same as accepting lower standards. Claiming that it is a strength, is just insolent.

LacusCurtius, comments please

25 July 2009

Bill Thayer joins me in my invitation to offer comments and suggestions for his website, LacusCurtius. Are there texts you would like to see in a digital form? Articles from Smith’s Dictionary you think are useful? Translations you need from Daremberg & Saglio?

He is already working on Ammian, Athenaeus, Columella, Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Gellius, Plutarch’s Moralia, and Strabo, and several other texts. Texts that are already online elsewhere will get a low priority.

Note that Bill’s website is very broad: it also contains an interesting section on Umbria (the most beautiful part of his site, in my opinion) and a subsite on the history of the United States (new items being recorded pointed out here).

Livius.Org, comments please

25 July 2009

As you may know from my highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org, I am slowly preparing to move from old html to a content management system. It may take about a year, perhaps even more, until the site will start to look differently. Then, I can add all kinds of facilities now absent from the site. This migration will be my main objective, but that does not mean that I will not add orginal content.

On this page, you can see the subjects that I hope to write about one day. I also have some 20,000 photos that I want to make available – think of Syria and Greece (3,800 photos!), that have until now been more or less ignored, but also of Italy, Turkey, and Libya.

What would you like to see first? Write down your suggestions, and I will see what I can do – without promising anything, because I also have a job. And please take into consideration that Britain, Israel, and Greece have been dealt with elsewhere. Much though I would like to write on Hadrian’s Wall, Greek art, or the rise of Rabbinical Judaism, it’s unnecessary because other people have already written about it, and better than I possibly can.

[PS: If you know a trick to get some money, I'd love to hear it. If I could concentrate on my website for one month, I'd be able to perform miracles.]

Three Turkish Towns

24 July 2009
Helios. Part of the decoration of the theater at Myra

Helios. Part of the decoration of the theater at Myra

The southwestern coasts of Turkey, the ancient landscapes of Caria, Lycia, and Pamphylia, are beautiful, and there are several equally beautiful ancient towns over there. Most worthwhile is Xanthus, where many monuments have been preserved but where you will not see many tourists. Myra has a nice theater and many intrigueing rock tombs; the main attraction, however, are the ancient port with its granaries and the basilica of Saint Nicholas. Both cities are worth visiting.

This cannot be said of Side, which is crowded by visitors. This may be a sign that the ruins are beautiful, but if this is really the case, that escaped my notice because I was usually too occupied with trying not to walk against other people. Still, we managed to make photos, which are now online; you don’t have to go there.

Also available: a small fact sheet on the Roman empress Plotina, wife of Trajan.

New Historical Atlas

23 July 2009

If a book supposed to cost 179 euro is sold for 225 euro, you may feel cheated. And if you immediately spot a very grave error, you’re in a bad mood. But the new Historischer Atlas der antiken Welt is too beautiful to complain for too long. It is also a very good book, and even 225 euro is not an unreasonable price.

Anne-Maria Wittke, Eckart Olshausen and Richard Szydlak have succeeded in making an atlas that will be with us for the next two or three decades. It is more than just a set of 184 full-color and 53 b/w maps. There’s always a helpful explanation on the opposite page, which has benefited from the Neue Pauly, the encyclopedia this atlas tries to supplement. Most maps are attractive and I was quite tempted to leaf through the book for an hour or two. I have not resisted this temptation, and soon forgot my initial disappointment. Although a couple of maps are loaded with too much information, most of them are quite clear. The use of colors on the following map is particularly illuminating:

This book sets a new standard, and there lies a problem: it’s just not good enough. I looked up the map of Germania Inferior, a part of the Roman world where I can check information and that offers a simple litmus test that the Historischer Atlas fails to pass. The most detailed map of this part of the Roman Empire has “the so-called Batavian Revolt” as its subject, and is clearly based on the map of the “Batavenaufstand” in volume 2 of the Neue Pauly (1996), which was made by Olshausen. In the Historischer Atlas, he has meticulously copied all his errors.

Take, for instance, the coastline of the Zeeland archipelago, which did not exist until the Middle Ages. The only evidence for islands in Antiquity is Caesar, Gallic War, 6.31.3, a clearly topical description of the edges of the earth that is not to be taken seriously. These phantom islands can be seen on many maps, but Olshausen should have known better: he ought to have consulted a palaeogeographical map (e.g., Zagwijn’s Nederland in het Holoceen, 1986). Instead, he based his map on outdated maps that were in turn based on written sources. This is worse than carelessness: ignoring palaeogeography and uncritically trusting literary evidence is a very grave methodological error.

Other mistakes on the same map: the Insula Batavorum (“the island of the Batavians”) is the land between the branches of the Rhine (Tacitus, Germania, 29), not an island off the coast; the Brittenburg (why this sixteenth-century name, and not its Latin name Lugdunum?) is on the place of the town of the Cananefates, who have moved to the country of the Frisii Minores; they have in turn moved to the land of the Chauci, who have migrated to the east. Traiecum, De Meern (an outdated name), Helinium, and Fectio are also on the wrong place. Although these mistakes are less serious than forgetting to consult a palaeogeographic map, they are inexcusable: any Dutch archaeologist could have explained things, the Barrington Atlas has got these details right, even websites (e.g., have not made so many mistakes. If internet sites can have the facts straight, a team of three university-employed scholars ought not to make errors.

There’s more outdated information. On page 165, Caesar defeats the Belgians at the Sambre instead of the Selle, even though Turquin’s article on the location was published more than half a century ago; on page 172, the Forum of Trajan is shown with the temple in the northwest – it was excavated in the southeast; the map of the Roman Empire during the reign of Septimius Severus on page 207 shows southeastern Iraq as part of the Roman world, while the annexations in Tripolitana, correctly shown on page 212, are ignored; Waššukanni, the lost capital of Mitanni, is correctly shown as unidentified on the map of the ancient Near East in the 15th-14th centuries, but becomes a known site on the map of the thirteenth century, when it was probably abandoned; the map of Alexander‘s campaign is supposed to be based on Bosworth’s commentary, but still, the Macedonian conqueror makes a detour to Ecbatana in 330 BCE, although Bosworth has convincingly shown that Alexander in fact made a short-cut to overtake Darius. Et cetera.

I know these mistakes are rather trivial, but in a book that is sold for this price, the information ought to have been checked and rechecked. Still, the Historischer Atlas is far better than similar publications, and it is unlikely that other scholars will now publish another, equally ambituous atlas. For the time being, this will be the standard. And although I am critical, your 179 or 225 euro are, in the final analysis, well-spent. I had never seen maps of Rome’s Persian Wars (219), the Palmyrene Empire (221), the Sasanian Empire (215 and 217), and the duel between the Sasanians and Byzantines (241) of this quality and beauty. It has already received a place on my desk, next to my dictionaries and the Neue Pauly. I expect that it will remain there for the rest of my life.

PS: Another contribution by Patrick Charlot: Qadamgah.

The ziggurat of Choga Zanbil

22 July 2009
Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven

A ziggurat is a pyramid-shaped artificial mountain, which served as the base of a temple. The most famous example is the “Tower of Babel“: a temple tower meant to “reach into heaven”, as the author of Genesis states – a claim that has indeed been made by the Babylonian kings Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar. The best-preserved ziggurat is in Choga Zanbil, in Khuzestan (Iran).

It is also one of the largest: it occupies a surface of 110×110 meters, and still rises some 25 meters high, less than half of it original heighth. But Choga Zanbil is not just a big heap of ancient tiles and bricks: there are courts and temples, there’s a water refinery, and there’s a royal palace with royal tombs. To be honest, everything is small compared to the building erected by king Untaš-Napiriša (1275-1240).

A “zanbil”, BTW, is a bucket, usually made of leather or rubber. From an excavation in Greece (Halos), I remember that we carried away the dirt in “zambilis”, which suggests that the word has entered modern Greek as a loanword from the Turkish language. Perhaps it’s originally an Arabic word, that was borrowed by the Turks first?

I used to have two pages on the site, based on photos from 2004. But I’ve been there again and again, sometimes twice a year, so I revised everything, and it’s now here.

Iranian Rock Reliefs

21 July 2009
Relief at Sarab-i Qandil

Relief at Sarab-i Qandil

One of the things I like best in Iran, is its ancient rock art. From the Bronze Age to the Sasanian dynasty, and even later, kings have ordered workers to cut reliefs. Some of them are rightly famous, like the Behistun relief and its inscription, others are not so well-known. Every time I visit the country, I try to make photos of at least one relief I’ve not yet seen; you may remember that I’ve blogged about Sar-e Pol-e Zahab and Dukkan-e Daud in March.

I’m not the only one who is interested. Mr Patrick Charlot from Niort, France, is another fan. Today, he surprised me with two articles for the Livius website and photos of an Elamite relief at Kurangun, which dates back to the seventeenth century BCE, and a Sasanian rock relief at Sarab-e Qandil.

They are not Mr Charlot’s first contributions. On earlier occasions, he sent me photos of Barm-e Dilak, Guyum, and Sarab-i Bahram. Thank you!


21 July 2009
Marble table in the synagogue of Sardes

Marble table in the synagogue of Sardes

If all history of Antiquity were summarized, the result would look like Sardes, or Sardis. The city dates back to the Bronze Age but did not become important until the Cimmerians had overthrown the Phrygian kingdom, and Gyges reorganized what was left: the Lydian Empire, capital Sardes. His dynasty became famously wealthy because next to Sardes is the Pactolus, which contains gold dust. The immense size of the royal tombs at nearby Bin Tepe reflects the wealth of the city.

The Persians took charge in thr 54os or 530s and introduced eastern religious practices. From Sardes, the indomitable western barbarians were divided and controled, but in 334, their leader Alexander the Great defeated the Persian forces and took over the eastern empire. Now, Sardes became a capital in the Hellenistic world, successively ruled by Antigonus, Lysimachus, Seleucus, his successors and several rebel princes, and after 188 by the Attalids and, after 133 BC, the Romans.

The city prospered and may have had some 100,000 inhabitants. Many monuments survive, even though Sardes has received less attention than, for example, nearby Ephesus. The presence of Jews and Christians is attested; in the Byzantine age, the city was rich enough to build new churches. It was the Sasanian king Khusrau II who made an end to the city’s prosperity.

I’ve rewritten an older article and added several new photos: go here.

Google Earth: Better Photos of Iran

20 July 2009
Takht-e Soleyman

Takht-e Soleyman

Google has obtained better photos of Iran, and as a consequence, I could improve my page with links to satellite photos of ancient sites in Iran. Some errors have been corrected, and on many places you can now see the actual ruins, something that was often impossible. For example, you can now discern the Apadana and Great Gate of Susa, and I was able to spot my favorite picknick site (Gandj Nameh). All this is, to use the phrase you have already heard a million times today, “a giant leap forward”. I was impressed by the Zoroastrian shrine at Takht-e Suleyman. and the ziggurat of Choga Zanbil, both of which have become visible only now.

Sometimes, you can see that the people at Google are still working on it. This photo of the Persian Gate shows an imperfect match on precisely the place where the Macedonians were trapped by Ariobarzanes.

If you are interested in downloading my masterfile (which runs on Google Earth, not Google Maps), you can download it from Jim West’s blog, here. Why Jim rebaptized it “biblical”, I don’t know; in any case, the masterfile has markers from Pakistan to Scotland and from Morocco to Ukraine.

Babylonian Exile: New Sources

17 July 2009
The Chronicle Concerning the Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar II or Jerusalem Chronicle or ABC 5 mentions the deportation of many Jews in 597 BCE.

The "Chronicle Concerning the Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar II" or "Jerusalem Chronicle" or "ABC 5" mentions an early deportation of many Jews in 597 BCE.

When I started this blog, I wanted to use it to announce what was new on LacusCurtius and Livius, occasionally adding a review of a book or a museum. What I never wanted to do, was “recycle” other people’s content. I’ve always found that a bit cheap. However, here is an interesting newspaper article that summarizes cuneiform research on the exile of the Jews in Babylonia, which is usually dated to 587/6-539 (the return may in fact have taken place three or four generations later). The article discusses exiled Jews mentioned in the Murashu Archive, who apparently lived near Nippur. This confirms a statement by Ezekiel, who calls this settlement Tel Abib.

There’s something to be added to that newspaper article. The Talmud refers to another Jewish settlement, more to the northwest, near Sippar, called Nehardea. At the moment, we can not establish whether this Jewish town, which certainly existed in Parthian times, dates back to the Exile. The Talmud was written more then a millennium after the events it describes, and contains many old legends, so we may be forgiven for being a bit skeptical.

Other Jews lived in Babylon. The article refers in passing to tablets that record Jehoiachin’s stay in that city. You can find translations online on my website: here. Other evidence for the Jewish presence in Babylon can be found in Josephus and a tablet that may mention a man named Baruch: both refer to the reconstruction of the Etemenanki during the reign of Alexander.

On two occasions, my friend Bert van der Spek, coeditor of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Age, told me that one of his colleagues had discovered tablets that refer to Jewish temple in Babylonia. I would like to know more about those tablets.

New in the Antiquaries’ Shoebox

14 July 2009
Drawing of a pyxis from Smiths Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Drawing of a pyxis from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Several years ago, LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer started to put online some articles from scholarly journals. He called this section of his website the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and every now and then, he adds to it. The articles may be a bit old, but at least you do not need an expensive JSTOR account.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 140 articles. The latest contributions are on seven places in Italy called Ferentum and Ferentinum and on Roman Milestones and the Capita Viarum (which also deals with more than one place called Nuceria). Finally, it’s a somehow reassuring thought that someone has written an article on The Roman Craze for Surmullets.

Of poisons and pigs

3 July 2009

A wild pig, the companion of St. Anthony.

Up on Lacus this morning, a little piece on Poisons and Poisoning among the Romans: it could have, should have, been entertaining, but is instead a pretty bland compendium of the subject in Roman authors, and only the more famous of them at that. Still useful: it collects a number of sources.

These days, though, I’m never too far from Plutarch: and sure enough, here too the fine Italian hand of that author; my only real reason for putting up the poison article was that it’s cited in a footnote to Plutarch’s much more entertaining Gryllus, a charming dialogue between Odysseus and a pig, in which Grunter comes out better, naturally — hey, he’s a sophist. The Greek text and a French translation, as often, can be found on Philippe Remacle’s site.

My illustration — since Jona seems to crave one for every posting — is not quite as irrelevant as it might seem. Once again, Plutarch has written us something that reads rather like the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the first of whom was St. Anthony, staying in his cave well away from people (sensibly enough) and keeping a pig and a raven for company; the faithfulness of the crow comes in for praise from Plutarch in this dialogue as well. This pig was prominent in the life of the saint, becoming one of Anthony’s two main iconographic attributes; even when saint and inscription have vanished from a medieval depiction, the pig is enough to identify him. This particular bit of fresco is, if I remember correctly, one of those. It’s in Bovara, a little town near Trevi in Umbria, named not after pigs but cows; it seems to have been an important cattle market in Roman times — see my page on the place.

Common Errors (24): Trajan

1 July 2009
Trajan (Glyptothek, München)

Trajan (Glyptothek, München)

It is often said that the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent in the final years of Trajan, who was emperor from 98 to 117. As far as I know, the French philosopher Montesquieu already said so at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Two centuries later, Mussolini ordered maps of several stages of the Roman expansion to be made (the last one being the Fascist Empire); the map of the empire’s greatest extent under Trajan is still visible at the Via dei fori imperiali. In 2007, a Dutch schoolbook repeated that under Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent. Everybody seems to know this – but it’s not the full truth.

What is true, is that Trajan added Dacia (modern Rumania) and Arabia Petraea (modern Jordan) to the Roman Empire. He also invaded Iraq, in 114. At first, the Roman armies were successful and reached the Persian Gulf, and in 115, victory was declared. Armenia and Mesopotamia were added to the empire, which at this moment indeed reached its greatest extent at this moment. However, almost immediately, revolts broke out, and 116 saw several rounds of inconclusive fighting. Trajan himself headed back toward Rome, but died on the way, and his successor Hadrian abandoned all conquests east of the Euphrates.

Septimius Severus (Archaeological Museum, Thessaloniki)

Septimius Severus (Archaeological Museum, Thessaloniki)

For about twenty-five months, the Romans claimed to control Armenia and Mesopotamia. It is misleading to say that this was the moment of the greatest extent of the Roman Empire. We must be looking for something more solid, more lasting. We can find it during the reign of Septimius Severus (198-211), who conquered much land between the Euphrates and Tigris, which the Romans never gave up, until they lost it to the Muslims, more than four centuries later.

In 201-202, Severus added several oases in the Libyan desert to the Roman Empire; several forts were built to ensure that Roman presence would be lasting. The desert between these forts was irrigated and developed. This project is called the Limes Tripolitanus. This was to remain loyal to Rome until the Vandals took over, more than two centuries later.

Septimius Severus added even more to the Empire. There was a small correction of the border near the Danube, and in 208, he tried to conquer Scotland. At some stage, he could rightfully boast to have expanded the empire in all directions. But to be honest, the occupation of Scotland is identical to the conquest of Iraq: it was Roman in name only. Severus’ son and successor Caracalla recalled the troops from Scotland. So 208-211 does not really count as the moment of Rome’s greatest territorial extent. 202 is a better candidate.

<Overview of Common Errors>


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