Roman Inscriptions

25 September 2009
Inscription of an officer of III Cyrenaica, found near the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella.

Inscription of an officer of III Cyrenaica, found near the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella.

You don’t have to visit Rome to know at least one stereotypical phrase from the city’s inscriptions: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, which stands for “Senate and People of Rome“. Another expression that has gained wide currency is Pontifex Maximus: originally the high priest, now the title of the Pope. Tens of thousands of Latin inscriptions have survived: among the oldest is a text on a block of tufa near the Curia, and among the most recent ones is a self-laudatory text to commemorate that in 2004, a European Constitution had been signed on the Capitol.

This example proves that if the stones speak, you mustn’t believe everything they say. (The treaty has been rejected, redesigned, found unconstitutional, and so on.) The reliability of inscriptions is an important issue, but the American classicist Tyler Lansford does not systematically deal with it in his book The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. Nor does he devote many words to the fact that inscriptions were relatively cheap and can, therefore, offer information about ordinary people’s lives. Lansford ignores them. For example, when he describes the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, he discusses its epitaph, digresses upon the owner’s identity, upon her husband, upon her husband’s grandfather, upon his death near Carrhae, and upon Carrhae being on the far side of the Euphrates, but he ignores the inscription of the soldier of III Cyrenaica next to the mausoleum.

Of course, any collection is a selection, and Lansford has a right to choose what he likes. Yet, his focus on official inscriptions contradicts one of his own three criteria of selection: “presence in situ, accessibility, and historical or linguistic interest” (page xiii). Only if we return to an eighteenth-century definition of history like “account of military and political deeds by great men”, Lansford’s actual selection can be harmonized with the criterium of historical interest.

Lansford has realized the problem. He admits, on the same page, that his work does not “pretend to offer a survey of the historical topography of the city of Rome, much less of her artistic, social, political, and cultural history”. As a description of his own book, that is adequate and I will not blame Lansford for writing a book that ignores these subjects, but I fail to understand how this fits the “historical interest”.

Besides, it should be noted that the criterium of historical interest contradicts the two other criteria, presence in situ and accessibility. The historically most important inscriptions are now in museums, and are therefore not included in The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. “Rome’s oldest known Latin inscription”, which is mentioned on the book’s back cover and which I take to be a reference to the tufa inscription mentioned above, is not included in the book. I get the impression that Lansford more or less carelessly inserted  “historical interest” in his list of criteria, without giving much thought to these words .

Does all this mean that The Latin Inscriptions of Rome is a bad book? No, certainly not. Lansford’s commentaries are impeccable. The sixteen maps are masterpieces. The glossary is excellent. The index of sites and the index of first lines are useful, and so is the list of abbreviations. This is a fine book for anyone who learned some Latin and wants to check his knowledge during a visit to Europe’s cultural capital, or wants to impress his companions.

I am writing these last words without sarcasm. After all, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance inscriptions were intended for people who wanted to display their knowledge. A Roman senator knew perfectly well who had been honored by that triumphal arch in front of the Curia, but he loved to read its inscription aloud -nobody read in silence, back then- and show to the world that he was a literate man. Roman inscriptions were there to enable people to say “I can read, you cannot, and that’s why I am powerful and you are a plebeian”.

Inscriptions were always meant for pedants. There is nothing wrong with that. Knowledge can be delightful, and there is no reason not to enjoy it. Nor is there anything wrong with Lansford’s ignoring this historical aspect of his texts (I would not write about The Latin Inscriptions of Rome if I didn’t believe the book is valuable). Yet, he should not have mentioned that “historical interest” was a criterion of choice.

[A Dutch version of this review can be found here.]

More Plutarch

25 September 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer continues to add texts documenting Greek intellectual life. To start with, there’s Plutarch‘s Consolation to Apollonius, “into which quotations from earlier authors have been emptied from the sack rather than scattered by hand”, as the author of the introduction to the Loeb edition remarks. His explanation for this odd phenomenon is that this text is the rough draft of a letter. If this is true, we can see how Plutarch really thought – jumping from one quote to another. This man’s thoughts were shaped by classical texts, literally.

The second text is Plutarch’s Dinner of the Seven Sages, which is essentially a fun text comparable to an imaginary meeting of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne. What would the Seven Sages have said, had they been able to meet each other? The joke is, of course, that real quotes of the seven sages had to be used.

The third text is Theophrastus’ Weather Signs (Περὶ σημείων): a mixed collection of popular wisdom. I found it more interesting than I had expected. One would have expected something more profound from a pupil of Aristotle.

Claudian Army Reforms

21 September 2009
Diploma of an Isaurian soldier named Lualis, from Weissenburg (Germany)

Diploma of an Isaurian auxiliary soldier named Lualis, from Weissenburg (Germany)

Cassius Dio knew that Augustus had some kind of masterplan to convert the Roman republic into a monarchy. However, Dio adds,

Augustus did not immediately put into effect all his suggestions, fearing to meet with failure at some point if he purposed to change the ways of all mankind at a stroke; but he introduced some reforms at the moment and some at a later time, leaving still others for those to effect who should subsequently hold the principate [Roman History, 52.41.1-2].

Dio was one of the first to attribute to Augustus a general policy of reform that encompassed almost every field of the administration, and in many books on Roman history, the chapter after the civil wars is devoted to Augustus and the Augustan system. Of course the authors know better, but the structure of their books makes it easy to overestimate the importance of Augustus.

To the army, the reforms of Claudius must have been just as important. Many aspects of the military changed considerably in the early forties, and even if we have certainty about only a couple of them, the general picture is reasonably clear:

  • The layout of forts changed.
  • The Mainz swords were replaced by Pompeii swords; there were changes to the shields; the bronze Coolus helmet was replaced with the Imperial-Gallic type.
  • The auxiliaries were reorganized; terms of service became standardized; from now on, citizenship (and diplomas) were given to those who were demobilized.
  • Along the Rhine, the limes was created – buildings have stone foundations, the Classis Germanica was organized, watchtowers erected.
  • The careers of the officers changed.

Some of this is controversial, but it is interesting, and a useful antidote against attributing everything to Augustus. You can read more about the reforms, and some caveats, here.


C. Thomas, “Claudius and the Roman Army Reforms”, in: Historia 53 (2004)

The Positivist Fallacy

17 September 2009


The Positivist Fallacy is a logical error, sometimes made by historians, when they confuse “what happened” with “that for which we have evidence”.

For example, many books about the Persian Wars end after an account of the battle of Mycale or Plataea. These are the last events mentioned by Herodotus and are the last events about which we know some details. But the war continued: we know that a Greek navy attacked Cyprus, we know that the Spartans invaded Thessaly, we know that a coalition army was active in the Bosphorus, and we know that the Persian fortress at Eïon was captured. It was only then, when the Persians were expelled from Europe, that hostilities ceased. But this stage of the war is poorly documented – and therefore, ignored. Yet, a historian can not make his account dependent on the randomness of the tradition.

Read more about the positivist fallacy here.

Jim West is Right

17 September 2009
Writing back to another blogger

Writing back to another blogger

Discussing the possibility that the American president Barack Obama is the Antichrist (something apparently believed by a minority of American conservatives), Biblioblogger Jim West makes a remarkable comment:

You know, don’t you, who the Antichrist is, right?  I do.

παιδια εσχατη ωρα εστιν και καθως ηκουσατε οτι αντιχριστος ερχεται και νυν αντιχριστοι πολλοι γεγονασιν οθεν γινωσκομεν οτι εσχατη ωρα εστιν. εξ ημων εξηλθαν αλλ ουκ ησαν εξ ημων ει γαρ εξ ημων ησαν μεμενηκεισαν αν μεθ ημων αλλ ινα φανερωθωσιν οτι ουκ εισιν παντες εξ ημων (I John 2)

No need for speculation.

I will not digress on the theological merits of West’s comment. After all, I am not a theologician. But his joke to keep the relevant lines untranslated, goes straight to the heart of an important matter, which is not just a problem to theology. Ancient history suffers from it as well: too many people think they can understand ancient texts without having the proper qualifications. Such as learning a dead language.

This is an odd idea. I would not like to go to an amateur dentist. No politician would pay for the experiments by amateur particle physicists. But if ancient texts are involved, expertise is suddenly unnecessary. Books by “self-educated historians” or theological code-breakers are printed by publishing houses that are, essentially, selling out scholarship to make a few quick bucks.

One of the reasons is, of course, that ancient texts are accessible and delightful to read. You easily get the impression that you can make sense of them. There is little to do against this – fortunately, because there is nothing against enjoying a good book. Yet, I would appreciate it if publishers stopped presenting Plato as if he were a normal writer whose books deserve in the bookstores a place between Sylvia Plath and Chaim Potok. He deserves a book with explanations and a lot of footnotes, nothing else.

Another reason is that scholarly levels are falling (example). It is possible to become an ancient historian without ever having visited an archaeological excavation; and it is possible to become an archaeologist without having been taught that Thou Shalt Not Take Texts Literally. Things go wrong when these specialists start to comment on subjects that are outside their direct competence.

For instance, many classicists have argued that the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest was the cause of a rift between German and Romance languages/cultures, confusing causes and conditions. They should have kept their mouths shut, and ought to have left history to historians. I have also heard an art historian say that it was virtually certain that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and I used to own a copy of a book by a professional theologian that starts with a remark that Mary Magdalene is depicted on Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Irresponsible classicists and art historians, but also ancient historians and archaeologists, are showing by example that anyone can comment on everything; so we should not be too surprised that the man in the street, who would never visit an amateur dentist, does not realize that amateur scholars are just unqualified scholars.

Plutarch, On the Control of Anger

16 September 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Few additions to LacusCurtius‘ steadily growing collection of translations of Plutarch‘s Moralia were better timed than yesterday’s On the Control of Anger. I was really upset, even angry, by the way the Dutch government had announced plans to get out of the economic crisis, and I was surprised at my own anger. Dutch political life never really influences my mood but yesterday, it did. When I was on my way to the place where I had to lecture, I had a feeling that it was sort of obscene to tell the students something about Herodotus now that obviously a time had come to carry daggers under myrtle-branches. Of course, when I entered the classroom and saw my students, those pathetic thoughts vanished into thin air, and when I returned home, I found Plutarch’s essay, which was remarkably suited to the occasion.

The English translation, as I said, is here; and the Greek text, with a French translation, is here. I would like to add that you will like it even when you live in a country where the politicians are still in touch with the people. But I had decided to control my anger, so I just say that you will like it and I will not say the rest.

The Everest Fallacy

11 September 2009

Not an average senator

Everest Fallacy” is a little-known name of an often made logical fallacy: the confusion of the exception with the norm. For example, if you start to research mountains, Mount Everest will be the first summit you notice, but it is hardly a typical mountain. Cicero is the best-known Roman senator, but his works have survived because he was a brilliant speaker, which gave him some assets that his colleagues lacked – so, his career is atypical.

The Everest Fallacy is of course nothing but a special case of the fallacy of eliminating qualification, and any scholar who has a master’s degree ought to recognize it. So I am a bit amazed to notice how much energy scholars devote to fighting pseudo-scholarship (e.g., this interesting article). Of course it is good to fight against it, but the energy can be devoted more efficiently. The outrageous claims by amateur-historians are only extremes; there are types of poor knowledge that occur far more frequently – and it is more prudent to fight the real enemy.

The 3,200-3,600 questions that are the foundation of my book on common errors strongly suggest that the main reason why there is so much incorrect knowledge of Antiquity, is the fact that historians have become too specialized. Still, when writing for a larger audience or teaching to first year students, historians have to speak about subjects outside their own specialty; and in those situations they have to fall back on outdated information. As a consequence, the errors of our doctores and professores are a far more serious cause for oncern than pseudoscience.

Spijkers op laag water

9 September 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Only once have I visited a drydock, but I immediately understood what the Dutch expression spijkers op laag water zoeken (“searching for nails in pools”) means. Standing on a scaffolding, some carpenters were preparing the hull of a yacht, and they had dozens of nails with them. When a nail fell to the ground, it was rather silly to go downstairs and look for it, if only because the nails usually dropped into pools and were invisible. I could imagine that one day, the dock’s manager checked those pools, took the nails, presented them to his workers, complained, and ignored that they had actually been able to finish a hull that day. Ever since that day, the carpenters must have said that someone was “searching for nails in pools” when he was focusing on minor errors.

I took this proverb as the title of my book on common errors, because I did not want to suggest that all mistakes were really serious. Two of my best friends believe that the title is wrong, because people will not understand  its  self-deprecating nature. My publisher and another friend believe that the irony will be understood, so in the end I agreed, although some nagging doubt remains.

And there is another doubt. Are the mistakes I am dealing with really that innocent? Many of them certainly are, but if professional scholars repeat them, addressing the problem is not searching for nails in pools, but saying that our academics have become too specialized to have a good view of the entire field.

Varus and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (2)

8 September 2009
Merkel at the

Merkel opening one of the expositions

In the first part of this article, I noticed a discrepancy between the way Germans deal with their ancient past and the way the French, Belgians, and Dutch deal with theirs. While great nineteenth-century national myths about Vercingetorix, Ambiorix, and Julius Civilis have almost disappeared, and while German scholars correctly observe that the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest was not decisive, Germany is now commemorating that battle with beautiful expositions. They were opened by the Chancellor, Mrs Merkel, suggesting that the events of September 9 are still very much part of Germany’s shared past.

Why can’t the Germans say goodbye to it, as the French, Belgians, and Dutch have done to their distant pasts? I would like to suggest that it has something to do with the tremendous difficulties the Germans have with their more recent past.

If there is one thing I admire in modern Germans, it’s the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the often difficult struggle to come to terms with their (parents’) past. Their will to face and, if possible, to expiate what has been done is almost heroic, and contrasts favorably with the lack of such ambition in several other countries. As a consequence, however, modern Germans have few certainties about their recent past.

Take, for instance, the interpretation of Von Stauffenberg, the German officer who on July 20, 1944, tried to assassinate Hitler. Von Stauffenberg knew this was high treason and it is not surprising that he has been called a traitor, which meant that his wife did not receive a war veteran’s pension. In 1952, he was rehabilitated during the Remer Trial, and has become a hero of the Federal Republic, honored with a statue, busts, stamps, temporary and permanent exhibitions, and annual celebrations. The documentary The Valkyrie Legacy offers a good summary, and concludes that Von Stauffenberg’s failure might be seen as a triumph, because it proved to future generations that the spirit of liberty had always lived on in Nazi Germany. It gave the Germans a past to be proud of, and created the conditions of the nation’s rebirth.

All this is very true. And yet, the text known as the “Schwur” of the conspirators proves that they had different things on their mind: they explicitly stated that they despised “the equality lie” and demanded respect for the aristocracy  (“wir verachten die Gleichheitslüge und fordern die Anerkennung der naturgegebenen Ränge”). Next to the freedom fighter of the Federal Republic now stands an aristocratic hero. This development proves that Germany has become a stable nation, “ein kerngesundes Land” capable of entertaining more than one vision on its recent past. That’s quite an achievement, which -perhaps- was crowned today with the rehabilitation of the deserters during the Second World War.

But no one can live with a past that is completely in flux. Every nation needs to have some kind of shared past that is beyond debate. What I here suggest is that the importance the Germans still attach to the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, is the necessary corollary of their successful coming-to-terms with their more recent past. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands can leave behind Vercingetorix, Ambiorix, and Julius Civilis, but leaving behind Arminius is a luxury the Federal Republic cannot afford yet.

Varus and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (1)

8 September 2009
Merkel at the

Merkel opening one of the expositions

On various occasions, I have blogged on the splendid expositions in Germany, dedicated to the battle in the Teutoburg Forest (here, here, here). There is nothing wrong with these exhibitions, on the contrary; I am envious – why can’t they do something like that in my own country? Yet, a thought occurred to me: why do the Germans actually commemorate the battle at all?

If I summarize the communis opinio correctly, no scholar still believes that the Varian disaster forced the Romans back to the Rhine, created the limes, and caused the rift between Romance and German civilizations that contributed to German wars against France in 1870, 1914, and 1940. The old interpretation that the battle in the Teutoburg Forest marked der Tag, an dem Deutschland entstand (“the day on which Germany was born”) is now absent from serious scholarship. The idea that the inhabitants of the land west of the Weser spoke German, is currently reevaluated. And it is obvious that the limes, which did really cause a rift, was not created before the Claudian army reforms.

So, why still commemorate the battle in the Teutoburg Forest? After all, school curricula are continually updated. In Holland, we used to think that the Batavians were important. They were not, and they are now almost absent from school education. In a recent “canon” of fifty historical subjects every Dutchman is supposed to know, Julius Civilis was not included; the limes, on the other hand, was. I may be wrong, but I think the Belgians and French have developed a tongue-in-cheek approach to Ambiorix and Vercingetorix.

Why can’t the Germans update their vision of the past? On the one hand, German scholars correctly state that es ist falsch die Varusschlacht als historischen Wendepunkt aufzufassen (“it is wrong to interpret the battle of Varus as a pivotal moment in history” – the Mythos catalog), but on the other hand, the battle is commemorated. And here’s another paradox: the expositions correctly present the battle as part of the pan-European phenomenon of Roman imperialism – yet it was not Mr Barroso but Mrs Merkel who opened those expositions. I am left with the impression that modern Germans fear to accept the real conclusion of modern scholarship: that there is no reason to commemorate the battle (except, of course, as a regrettable aspect of nineteenth-century nationalism that contributed to a hatred towards France). It is as if it still is some kind of national event, worthy of the presence of the Chancellor.

What happened in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, is not happening in Germany. I am not sure why, but I have an idea, about which I will blog later.

On Talkativeness

4 September 2009

It’s bad.

Ten Year Seti@Home

3 September 2009

Completely off-topic (but hey, this is my blog!): today I celebrate my tenth anniversary as a participant of Seti@home. In case you’ve never heard of it: in this scientific program, about five million desktop computers around the world – like the one you are using right now – are connected to analyze data from radio telescopes searching for signals of extraterrestrial intelligence.

If you want to participate, you must download the basic software, BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), and once you’ve installed that, you can chose the program you want to support. For me, that’s Seti@home, because I like the idea to make contact with an alien civilization, and ClimatePrediction, for obvious reasons. Every time I switch on my computer, these programs start themselves up, and there’s nothing I have to do. It’s so simple – and yet, I am contributing to science.

So, if you want to be the first human to make contact with E.T.: go here and download the software.

Portrait of Ptolemy of Alexandria

3 September 2009
Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

If I attend a meeting, and am listening to what is said, I will invariably doodle something in the margin of my notes. And when I am lecturing, I am not surprised to see people make little drawings of things I have mentioned. If you speak about, say, Herodotushippopotamus and the long western tradition of deliberately incorrect descriptions of that animal,* you will see a lot of students drawing hippos.

Medieval copiists couldn’t resist the temptation either. Their manuscripts often contain little drawings. Two weeks ago, one of the libraries of Bruges announced that an astronomer who was consulting a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Almagest of Ptolemy of Alexandria, had discovered two small portraits of the great astronomer. The ink is now a bit pale, but you can clearly see that the copiist has done his best, making a pretty, detailed picture of what he thought Ptolemy must have looked like. I think it is beautiful.

You can read more about it here (in Dutch) and download four photos here.

*The best one is, of course, T.S. Eliot’s Hippopotamus.

More addictive than cocaine

1 September 2009

The new version (Valley Games)

This is very, very good news: Valley Games will release The Republic of Rome again. In the mid-1990s, we used to play this extremely complex board game for hours and hours, usually starting at noon and continuing until ten o’ clock, only interrupted when the pizza man arrived. We would have liked to continue after ten, but the first bottles of beer were usually open at four, and at ten, we were too tired. Usually, we reconvened next week, and another week. But even after three weeks, thirty hours of game play, eighteen pizzas, and countless beers, we usually had no winner.

Perhaps, we lacked the ruthless determination that was necessary to win. Playing was too much fun – why spoil it by winning?

The Republic of Rome was about six factions of senators trying to make one of their members the first man in Rome. You would have to negotiate with other factions (but were not obliged to keep your promises) to obtain the consulship, fight wars, and gain influence. But having won a war, you had created a province, which meant that someone had to become governor; and this someone was not in Rome, which changed the number of votes and the balance of power. On the other hand, when you were in a province, you were able to improve it, and gain additional influence.

The old version

The old version (Avalon Hill)

In the first phase, you didn’t have to think about eliminating a fellow player, because the enemies of Rome were too dangerous. The Punic Wars were difficult, especially when the Hannibal card was on the table. The Roman who defeated this opponent, would immediately be excluded from any further office, more or less like happened to Scipio. Ignoring the war was impossible, because “the game would win” and all players lost.

It was only in the second phase, when the main enemies had been eliminated, that the power struggle between the factions could start. As I said, perhaps we never properly learned this part of the game. We were too amazed about its realism: it could be pretty nasty when Spartacus was in the neighborhood, evil omens prevented attacking him, and one of your fellow players was known to contemplate marching on Rome. Fortunately, there was always the possibility of introducing a landbill, while persecuting an opponent was also an option. Cilician Pirates, exploding Vesuvii, manpower shortage, slave revolts… it was all there, just like tribunes, consuls, an occasional dictator, his master of horse, and the pontifex maximus.

What made these evenings so special? In the first place, the complexity of the game. Monopoly becomes boring because it is simple and yet lasts pretty long. Settlers of Catan is also simple, but remains nice because it is finished in an hour or so. The makers of The Republic of Rome had chosen to make a game that was as realistic as possible. You understood why the pontifex maximus mattered, why you had to organize games, why it was dangerous to revoke a landbill. The course of the game always remained surprisingly close to reality, and this made it a useful educational tool as well, but most of all, it was a good game: you had to have some luck (it’s quite frustrating to see your fleet sink in a storm after you’ve just won a naval battle and are ready to invade Africa), but you were challenged to use your brains too.

Jeanne Tripplehorn

Jeanne Tripplehorn

In the second place, good company. By chance, we had a nucleus of four men, twenty-something, who liked the game, and some others who would join more or less irregularly. As things go, we developed a jargon of our own. The mortality chits were drawn by the “hand of death”; the player of the Julius Caesar card would inevitably be saluted with cries that Julius had to die; and so on. It was imperative that there was a portrait of Jeanne Tripplehorn on the wall. (Boys will be boys, for sure, although one of the best players was a girl, who went on to study Classics in Oxford.) We had just great fun.

The key to successful gaming was, of course, the willingness to read the 17 pages of the rules. The first afternoons/evenings, you will be absolutely shocked, and think how you can possibly ever master all rules. But you will learn. We benefited from an excerpt of the rules, printed on big paper sheets, that we attached to the wall, next to the photo of La Tripplehorn.

It’s good to know that the game will be available again this autumn; read more about it here, and read about a hickup in the production here. I notice that there will be a map added to the game; maybe a useful innovation – in any case the artwork looks great. I can’t wait to have a new copy, and will try to invite the old gang again. Although one of them now lives in Oxford, three are married, one of them has a son, one became a teetotaler, and things may be complex, I am sure all will like the idea to gather once more.


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