The Oracle of Ammon

28 June 2010

The oracle of Ammon

The oasis of Siwa, some 500 kilometers west of Cairo, deep in the desert, is hard to reach, and no doubt that explains why the oracles by the god Ammon used to be highly esteemed. You didn’t travel such a distance to return with a prediction you might as well have obtained from your local village futurologist – it had had to be something very special. Among Ammon’s devotees were Egyptian kings Amasis and Nectanebo II, the Greek poet Pindar, the Athenian commander Cimon, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, and the Carthaginian leader Hannibal.

Coin from Cyrene showing Ammon (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

I visited the place in January 2008. What I remember best was the mud: it had been raining, which had caused great damage, because the old houses of Siwa are made of dried mud, as is common in the desert. (Many people now live in houses of concrete and bricks, of course, but the old mud houses are the town’s main monuments.) The Siwans complained that this was the fifth heavy rain in five years, and I realized, for the first time, what climate change really means.

Other memories include the women of Siwa, who wore grey burqas, and the purchase of a white bridal gown, decorated with small shells, which must be extremely expensive in an oasis 250 kilometers from the nearest beach. I do not remember how I got that robe through the mud to the hotel, but it was still white as snow, and remained splendidly white, even though I had to take it with me for another two weeks through the desert.

It would be unfair to put online a photo of that wedding gown before its present owner will use it, so you’ll have to settle for a page on the history of the oasis, a page on the deity, and a photo page.

The Battle of Sagalassus (333 BCE)

26 June 2010

The battle site

The capture of the Pisidian town of Sagalassus is not the best-known or most important of Alexander the Great‘s battles, but at least we know exactly where it happened and the site has not changed. It is one of the few places where you can have an idea of the quality of the Macedonian soldiers, who had to fight an uphill battle. These men were strong, really strong.

I put online one photo and a brief explanatory note. Not terribly important, but if you’re interested, it’s here.

On Liberty

26 June 2010

A summary offense

For once, a comment that has nothing to do with ancient history, but everything with politics. The city where I am staying at the moment, Berlin, almost demands it. We were walking along the Friedrichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, when we heard some people singing. At first I believed they were football fans, but we soon discovered that it were people on a “beer bike”, a kind of riding pub that can be seen in other touristic cities as well. As long as the driver remains sober, nothing ought to go wrong, but in Amsterdam, we nevertheless had three people wounded last year.

Our beer cyclists were singing “Checkpoint Charlie, sha-la-lalala”, passed along us, down the Friedrichstrasse. People were staring at the drunkards, in disgust. At some point, the beer cyclists tried to turn around, which they couldn’t, blocking the traffic; some of them left the vehicle, pushed to get it moving again, and jumped in again. Shouting “Checkpoint Charlie, sha-la-lalala”, they cycled back again. Where are the VoPos when you need them?

My initial response was “that’s why they sent food supplies to Tempelhof, that’s why people risked their lifes, that’s why general Clay sent in the tanks, that’s why Kennedy declared to be a Berliner, that’s been the purpose of the Cold War: to pass along Checkpoint Charlie while drunk”. Second thought: “I may not like their taste, but these people live in a free country, and are free to sing in public”. It was much later that I remembered the maxim of classical liberalism: a person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins.

Next time, no political theory, but something about Antiquity again.

Roman Festival Nijmegen

20 June 2010

A Roman cavalryman

Few sites are as suited for a Roman festival as the Kops Plateau in Nijmegen, one of the oldest Roman military settlements in the Low Countries, and almost certainly the headquarters of the legions that Augustus sent out to conquer the east bank of the Rhine. Drusus must have been here, perhaps Tiberius too. The site was later used by a mounted unit of auxiliaries, and may have hosted Caligula and Corbulo.

This weekend saw the third installment of the “Romeinenfestival”. There were shows by several Roman reenactment groups (from Holland Fectio, Corbulo, and X Gemina; from Belgium XI Claudia and the Corpus Equitum Legionis X Equestris; from Germany XV Primigenia and Time Trotter; from Britain the Roman Military Research Society, and from Hungary the Familia Gladiatoria). Elsewhere, you could buy books and objects. My friend Richard, who accompanied me, was more interested in pottery and returned home with a replica of a Drachendorff 37 bowl. I bought some books and a lead defixio; I still have to think of a person I want to curse, write down the name, bury it with a dead cat, and we’ll see what happens.

It was possible to eat Roman-style food, and various archaeological companies explained their activities. Children could take part in an excavation, and on one part of the Kops Plateau, the archaeology of the Prehistory and the Middle Ages was explained. It was interesting to compare the products of the various smiths on the field. The object I found most interesting was a big fifteenth-century gun: a careful replica of an original found in the Meuse. The Roman coach was also worth seeing.

Among the shows were the usual military exercises, which are always impressive. We watched a gladiatorial contest and a reconstruction of a Roman cremation. Had we been there on Saturday, we might have seen a reconstruction of the Mithraic mysteries – plus the soccer match Holland-Japan, because there are more important things than ancient history and archaeology.

One of the most interesting things was the place where people could show old objects they had found in their backyard – usually recent stuff, but who knows what they may have discovered. Maybe a dead cat with a lead defixio.


Meanwhile at LacusCurtius: chous.

Ancient History, Poor Information, and the Internet

19 June 2010

Flowers in my office

(Since 1995, I have maintained a website on ancient history. I have also written a couple of books. In 2010, the Dutch national research school of classicists, Oikos, awarded its annual popularization prize to me. The 14½ remarks below were my acceptance speech; the original Dutch text is here.)


Ancient history is no longer what it used to be. I am not talking about its decreasing popularity, which is regrettable but inevitable, but about incorrect information. Over the past fifteen years, I have answered about 3,400 questions, and I can discern a rising number of incorrect assumptions about the past. Although the trend is not uniform, it is real, and several other authors have recognized a similar pattern.


Information about Antiquity is divulged through several media.

  1. Living history-projects (like Archeon and the Roman Festival here in Holland) are usually very good.
  2. Specialist magazines (e.g., Ancient Warfare) are also very good, but have a limited reach.
  3. Radio and TV do not really contribute; people look at it as amusement.
  4. The quality of popularizing history books appears to have decreased.
  5. The main source for poor information is the internet.

Items 4 en 5 are in fact the same, as many books are now based on information from the internet. I have in several books seen outdated information from my own website.


The reason why the internet can have a bad influence, is the absence of the universities. At this very moment, we seem to witness a change for the better, and there are some very good projects online already (e.g., the Olympic Games website of the University of Leuven), but the damage has already been done.


The classics are not the only discipline to suffer. Distrust against science and scholarship is more general. Just think of Climategate; the hysteria surrounding the outbreak of swine flu; the Lucia de Berk affair here in Holland; and the rapidly decreasing reputation of economists. Think also about the press releases of our colleagues, the archaeologists, which often contain exaggerated claims (examples). I am not claiming that scientists and scholars are failing – most of the people involved are pretty honest – but they have a serious image problem, which is partly caused by their dedication to their good work. However, they ignore how this is perceived (example).


Under these circumstances, we must consider how we explain scholarship and science; we must ask ourselves how we really achieve results.


As far as I am concerned, I think that at this moment, we must refrain from spreading new insights, and must instead focus on the refutation of errors. It is logical to concentrate on the internet and books first.


It seems obvious that the universities must increase their presence on the internet. We can learn from earlier failures, like, which offers insufficient references.

My greatest blunder is that I once agreed to a request by four American universities, which asked me to refrain from putting online annotated articles, because students might copy them in their assignments. I ought to have ignored this request, and very much regret my decision.


Academic pay sites ought to disappear. In debates between scholars and activists, the latter can often link to websites on which their claims appear to be confirmed; but real scholarly publications are inaccessible at pay sites like JSTOR. On the internet, which is a battlefield between good and bad information, real scholars fight with their arms tied.

So far, I have discussed the spread of poor and inaccurate information. I will now focus on it cause.


No classicist, no historian, no orientalist, no archaeologist is capable of understanding the entire field. Yet, classicists, historians, orientalists, and archaeologists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct field of competence. Imagine someone who knows everything about Greek literature of the Antonine Age who explains the Peloponnesian War during an introductory course for first-year students. Think of someone writing a popularizing history of the Roman Empire.


This type of disinformation – academics who have to talk about subjects outside their direct specialism – is a more important cause of misunderstanding than the more outrageous examples of pseudoscholarship. It is also harder to refute, because an academician has titles like doctor or professor, which give some weight to their mistakes. This is comparable to the “Stephen Hawking Effect”: if a famous professor writes a mediocre book, it will be praised more highly than a good book by a science journalist.


Those who believe that science and scholarship are increasingly distrusted because of a rise of pseudoscience, confuse the conspicuous with the representative (the Everest Fallacy). Pseudosciences and pseudoscholarship are only important as strawmen, used by scientists and scholars who do not want to look at their own mistakes.


A solution to the problem of the specialist talking outside his direct sphere of competence, is the creation of new handbooks for ancient history, written by large teams, as is common in the sciences. Handbooks cannot be written by one or two people. Reprints ought to be checked meticulously. I am also hoping that popular accounts are read, prior to publication, by large groups of scholars. What’s the use of colleagues if we ignore their knowledge?


Popular science and scholarship are a serious matter and need serious reflection. I invite the Dutch classicists and ancient historians to write down ideas about it – must we focus on spreading new insights or must we refute old errors? How do we check the quality of our books? What goals can we achieve? If our friends, the archaeologists, can think about this systematically, we can do the same.


I am very grateful for the prize that has been awarded to me. My website is not perfect, but I will do my best to match the standards set in Leuven. To the jury, I say “thank you”, and to the others, I say “thank you for your attention”.


A more specific article is here.

A House Full of Flowers

18 June 2010

Flowers, everywhere

I recently was awarded an academic prize (this one), and several people sent me flowers. They’re pretty rare in my room, which usually is graced only by dusty books, coffee mugs, and one sansevieria. Now there are no less than four bouquets, and because I have only three vases, I have invented a new use for a wine cooler.

So thanks to Aad, Ab, Anita, Anneke, Ansika, Dirk, Ellen, Ettie, Eric, Frans, Fred, Jeannette, Karin, Marjo, thanks to Edith, thanks to George, and thanks to Nora! I had to take this photo with my cellphone, so you cannot see how beautiful these flowers really are, but believe me – they’re splendid.

Nemrud Daǧi

13 June 2010

A lion guarding the main altar

Nemrud daǧi is one of the most spectacular ruins from Antiquity. On the top of a mountain, a large tumulus covers and protects the tomb itself; in the southwest and northeast, there are two terraces, dominated by statues of the great gods and king Antiochus I Theos of Commagene.

Did I say “spectacular”? Yes, it certainly is. During our first visit, we were really impressed by the almost magical atmosphere at sunset. It was easy to forget that there were other people. On the other hand, when we arrived on the mountain for a second time, the magic was gone and we found it hard to remember how impressed we once had been.

I reorganized my old pages, put online in 2003, and added photos we took in 2008. There will be additions later, but from now on, the page is here.

Tušpa (Van)

10 June 2010

The citadel

Tušpa was an ancient Urartian fortress on the eastern shore of Lake Van. It is situated on a high and steep rock, several kilometers west of the modern city of Van. Up there, you can see several tombs of Urartian kings, a couple of inscriptions (including an Achaemenian royal inscription), and many buildings from the Ottoman age.

I put some photos online, with a couple of notes. Unfortunately, when we visited the city, the museum was being renovated. The new webpage is here.

Moral duty

10 June 2010


This morning, I’ve put a text onsite, in English translation, that is already online in at least ten places: Cicero’s de Officiis.

Normally I’d never do such a thing, and I’m quite happy to link to existing online material, especially if it’s something like philosophy in which I have very little interest. And if that other site has a few typos, well I’m sure my own stuff does too — in fact, I’m reminded so about twice a week, when my e‑mail brings me (welcome) notice of them in my own house — and if they don’t slavishly reproduce the Loeb edition, well there’s no harm in that, and often enough that’s even an improvement.

But when on a rare foray into the meat of what it was Cicero might have said, I discovered that these Ten Sites — all, as far as I can tell, cribs of one single scan — print such things as this:

The pirates’ sense of can be expedient?

and find that the Loeb edition actually has:

The pirates’ sense of honour is higher than the senate’s. “But,” someone will say, “the revenues were increased, and therefore it was expedient.” How long will people venture to say that a thing that is not morally right can be expedient?

— I draw the line. (Go ahead, Google that phrase, in quotes: you’ll find 8 pages with that nonsensical line. One of them is brought to us by the “Britannica Online Encyclopedia”, actually hosted by; and another is apparently a printed book.)

This passage, mind you, is not the isolated accident. It’s just one of about 20 such passages of nonsense, all of them involving the mindless skip of two to six lines at the bottom of the page being scanned: except for two inexplicable skips of fully three-quarters of a page each. All of them make it quite clear that the perpetrator didn’t read what they were throwing online. Here are two more, and notice how insidious the first one, which appears to make a sort of sense:

One’s purse, then, should not be closed so tightly that a generous impulse should be observed and that limit should be determined by our means.

where the correct text is:

One’s purse, then, should not be closed so tightly that a generous impulse cannot open it, nor yet so loosely held as to be open to everybody. A limit should be observed and that limit should be determined by our means.


It is their teachings that I am following in these books, and for these problems, if conducted by those who consider whatever is morally right also expedient and nothing expedient that is not at the same time morally right, will be more illuminating than if conducted by those who think that something not expedient may be morally right and that something not morally right may be expedient.

where the correct text is:

It is their teachings that I am following in these books, and for this reason: the older Academicians and your Peripatetics (who were once the same as the Academicians) give what is morally right the preference over what seems expedient; and yet the discussion of these problems, if conducted by those who consider whatever is morally right also expedient and nothing expedient that is not at the same time morally right, will be more illuminating than if conducted by those who think that something not expedient may be morally right and that something not morally right may be expedient.

Jona rails, and does well to do so, at certain academics who are slovenly and untrustworthy in their facts and interpretations; but what are we to say of people, including publishers of printed books and that first line of defense against ignorance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, who throw up nonsense like this? Clearly, without reading it. The first of these two slovenlinesses is tragedy; the second is just plain farce.

And why would anyone put stuff like this online? This to my mind is where farce, like all really good farce, falls back into tragedy, and it’s also what gets me downright angry. Putting Cicero online is a sort of decoration: it’s like decorating one’s house with a piece of art bought somewhere because it goes with your sofa. It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve read it, or whether you expect anyone else to; it doesn’t matter what it says, whether it’s true or not, or hell, whether it even makes sense. What matters is the façade. These are the same people, the same mentality, that say “amphitheatre” for “theatre” because the longer word sounds cool; that toss out as a decorative tag Wotton’s 1624 translation of a sentence in Vitruvius, “Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight” — then to talk about commodities (this bizarre interpretation on an academic webpage!), or Wotton’s “quaintness” — rather than read Vitruvius in modern English and actually understand him.

I’m not a thinker or a philosopher, and can’t hold a candle to Jona or much of anyone else when it comes to historiography or archaeological evidence; but I can understand that the truth starts with plain facts, and behind that, with an attitude that things matter, and that getting them right matters. Caring for Truth is, to coin a phrase, a moral duty.

Something seriously rotten

9 June 2010

I would have spelled it differently

Every month, I publish a newsletter (in Dutch), in which I summarize that month’s online news about ancient history. One of the discoveries I made, was that of the archaeological press releases, about 40-45% contains serious inaccuracies, mostly exaggerations. Probably, I am naïve, because people I tell about this, usually say something like “we already know that” – and indeed, some have already published about the unreliability of archaeologists (example). It seems that archaeologists have a serious image problem, and I am not the first one to point at it.

They are not the only ones. About a year ago, virologists warned us that the outbreak of swine flu would be absolutely catastrophic. As it turned out, nothing serious happened. A bit later, climatologists lost a lot of their credibility when it was discovered that some of them had been “improving” their results a bit. Or, to take an example from the study of Antiquity again: as the readers of the postscript to my book on common errors will know, among the greatest sources of disinformation are people who have a Ph.D.

What I am stressing is not that our academicians are corrupt, but that they are rapidly losing credibility. That is sad, because the great majority of them are still trying to find the truth. So, I would have expected that our academicians would do everything to regain our respect.

People who have studied image damage, agree about the things they have to do:

  1. Admit that mistakes have been made;
  2. Explain how this happened, and make sure that you leave no room for doubt;
  3. After that, concentrate on what really matters, do your best, and never show any sign of frivolity;
  4. Regain trust with interesting results.

The last thing our universities need, is publicity that reinforces the image that they’re not seriously interested in science and scholarship. But this is exactly what happens. At least in Leiden. Last week, some fifty students, several scholars, and a former rector magnificus, organized a demonstration – not about some serious issue, but against a proposal to abolish the Latin language from the university’s diplomas.

I was reminded of the famous story by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Mask of the Red Death”: people celebrating a party, ignoring the disaster that is about to strike. Or you may compare it to the man who complained about the ice cubes in his whisky when the Titanic was about to go down.

Until now, I had a feeling that the university still might rejuvenate itself, because I was convinced that there were still people seriously interested in the quest for truth. Now I’m not so sure any more. That serious scholars concentrate on silly things like these, and ignore cleansing Augeas’ stables, leaves me with the impression that, after all, my faith in our academicians’ integrity was naïve. They’re more interested in frivolity.

Ancient Nosejobs

6 June 2010

These days, I am occupied with proofreading my next book, De rand van het Rijk. De Romeinen en de Lage Landen (“The Edge of Empire. The Romans and the Low Countries”). There are many photos, and I am surprised to see that the same object can look completely different. Here is a set of photos of Julius Caesar and a set of Constantius Chlorus. Spot the difference.

Head of Caesar, said to be found at Nijmegen. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden (Netherlands). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust of Constantius Chlorus. Altes Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.

Top left, a bust of Caesar from Nijmegen, now in the Leiden Rijksmuseum van oudheden. When I took the photo, the nose was just damaged. Top right, the photo we use in the book – a damaged nose with a big hole.

Bottom left, a Constantius from one of the Berlin museums (I don’t know in which museum it is now; it used to be the Altes Museum). Again, a damaged nose; the hole, however, is missing on the photo that my publisher bought for my book.

I wonder what the explanation may be.

A Writing-Tablet from Tolsum

6 June 2010

The Tolsum Writing Tablet: front (Fries Museum, Leeuwarden)

In 1914, laborers digging in the “terp” (artificial dwelling hill) of Tolsum, in the Netherlands, found a wooden writing-tablet. In 2009, it was deciphered, and it turned out to be a part of a loan-note, written in February 29 CE.

In other words, it dates from the winter after the Frisian Revolt (Tacitus, Annals, 4.72-74). Assuming that it was not brought to Tolsum on a later date, this means that the Romans regained or retained control of the Frisians. This is corroborated by the excavation in Velsen, which was attacked during the Frisian Revolt, remained Roman and saw a new building phase in 35. Probably, the Romans never lost control of the northern coastlands.

The text and a translation is now here.

The heights of mountains

4 June 2010

Mount Soracte, N of Rome

It was bound to happen. I found the perfect journal article; and of course I put it onsite.

Subject: How have we learned to determine the heights of mountains? I can’t say I’d ever given the matter any thought; but it’s surprisingly interesting, being among other things curiously but intimately related to the determination of the radius of the earth. The first third of the paper is ancient Greeks, the second third is the heroic days of early modern science — Kepler and Pascal and Newton; the last is more recent, if not quite satellites and GPS. The reader will find in the article Babylonians and integral calculus, Pope Sylvester II and boiling mercury, Glasgow cathedral and Acosta’s History of the Indies; what more could one want?

The perfect article, from my point of view, because it addresses one of those gritty little topics that appeals to my unphilosophical, untheoretical, concrete mind; perfect because it’s at the interface between technology and history, my favorite corner of the world (in my 22 years as a French interpreter, for example, I specialized in machine tools and mechanical engineering: no poetry and politics for this guy); perfect because it deals with geography, which I love; perfect because it’s signed by one of the great names in the historiography of science, Florian Cajori, whose History of Mathematical Notations is one of the treasures of my little library; and perfect because it ties together the work of various people mentioned onsite: Pliny and Strabo and all those guys, and that wonderful polymath Antonio de Ulloa who figures prominently in the sections of my site devoted to the history of Chile and to the history of Louisiana, and a couple of 19c graduates of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, to which group I’ve been devoting so much time these past couple of months: in fact it was the West Pointers who led me to the article.

Enjoy: History of Determinations of the Heights of Mountains.

Common Errors (36): A Needle’s Eye

3 June 2010

A camel and its child, two hours old.

One of the most famous words of Jesus, an expression that has become proverbal, is that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10.25). Tour guides in the Near East will, when they bring tourists to a kervansaray, inevitably point at the small door-within-the-big-door, and tell the people that it is called “a needle’s eye”, that a camel might pass through it, and that Jesus’ words referred to this type of door.

That must be a very comfortable thought for wealthy Christian tourists. Just as a camel may, with some difficulty, enter the saray, they can enter the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the tour guide’s story is not true. Neither is the story true that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem that was called “the Eye of the Needle”. There is simply no ancient Jewish or Christian text that refers to such a gate. And it is also unlikely, although not completely impossible, that there was a scribal error, and that the Gospel in fact refers to a cable (kamilos) instead of a camel (kamelos).

Jesus’ words have a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b; Baba Mezi’a 38b): here, the difficulty of something is likened to an elephant being drawn through the eye of a needle. Jesus is quoting a Jewish proverb, meaning that something can never be done. This impossibility is also the subject of other stories: think only of the remark that “No one can serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Or take the parabel about Lazarus and the rich man – even though it is not said that the rich man has committed evil, he is punished in Hell (Luke 16.19ff). The fact that he was rich and could feast sumptously, is presented as sufficient explanation.

In Jesus’ view, the rich had already received their share of happiness. He was not predicting that in the not too distant future, the poor would be happier, he was announcing that the rich would be punished: “Woe to you that are rich … woe to you that are filled … woe to you that now laugh” (Luke 6.24). No one has every said that Jesus’ message was easy – on the contrary.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (35): Ambiorix

2 June 2010

Tongeren's Statue of Ambiorix

I love Belgium – my favorite Amsterdam pub is the Flemish Cultural Center – and I love the city of Tongeren, so it is with some regret that I am going to bust a Belgian national myth: that the Eburonian leader Ambiorix in 54 BCE destroyed Caesar‘s Fourteenth Legion at Tongeren. Yes, there is a deservedly famous statue in Tongeren (discussed here), but it’s on the wrong place.

Granted, Caesar calls the site of the defeat of the Fourteenth “Atuatuca”, and this name was also applied to Tongeren. The problem is that there are no Roman archaeological finds from Tongeren that can be dated prior to 30 BCE. Of course it is often said that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, but that is only true when a town has been poorly excavated. That cannot be said of Tongeren, which has been the focus of much research.

The walls of Caestrich

The walls of Caestrich

So, where did Caesar lose his legion? It must have been somewhere in the southern part of what is now called Limburg. The treasures of Hees (2000) and Maastricht (2008) are uncontested evidence that Ambiorix’ Eburones lived in this area. A possible location of the Roman defeat is the fort at Caestert, just south of Maastricht, on the Belgian side of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. It was built in the second century BCE, and the archaeologist Heli Roosens, who excavated the site in the 1970s, has mentioned that he had found hundreds of cremations – which he did not live to publish.


  • Guido Cuyt, ‘Geef aan Caesar wat Caesar toekomt…’ in: AVRA-bulletin 7 (2006).

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (34): The Origins of Western Civilization

2 June 2010

The plain of Marathon - the battle was important but less decisive than used to be claimed

The Persian Wars are often presented as a turning point in world history. It was indeed an important conflict: the Greek national identity, until then expressed as a shared religion and language, had withstood a powerful attack and had been reinforced. With good reason, the Greeks believed that their fight against the armies of Xerxes had been their finest hour.

However, it is possible to overstate the importance of the conflict. Many nineteenth-century classicists argued that if the Greeks had lost their war against Persia, their new masters would have substituted the Athenian democracy with a tyranny, and the young Athenian culture would have vanished in a vortex of Oriental despotism, irrationality, and cruelty. Democracy and philosophy would have died, and Greek civilization would have had a different nature.

As it happens, the importance of the Persian War has been the subject of a famous theoretical discussion between Max Weber (1864-1920) and Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), who had written that if the Persians had won the war,

“the outcome would have been that some kind of church [...] would have put Greek life and thought under a yoke and would have chained all free dynamics, and the new Greek culture would, like the oriental cultures, have had a theological-religious nature.”

It is not true, as is often said, that the question “what if…?” is meaningless. It is discussing why and how we’ve become what we are. Nothing less. Meyer focuses on an important point. However, we can no longer answer the question with his dogmatic certainty.

Weber, who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences but started his career as a pupil of the great ancient historian Theodor Mommsen, discussed this matter in a rightly famous essay, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik”. I will not summarize it, and will concentrate on one simple question: how did Meyer know that a Persian victory would have obstructed the rise of freedom, democracy, and rationalism? Weber easily proved that Meyer’s reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event by pointing at what would have happened if it had not taken place. And counterfactual explanations are, as any student of history learns in his first year, rarely reliable.

Let’s take a look at some uncontested facts. In the first place, in 493, the Persian general Mardonius accepted democracy in the Greek cities in the Persian Empire (Herodotus, Histories, 6.43); we cannot be certain that Xerxes would have abolished the Athenian democracy. In his account of the great war, Herodotus does not refer to Persian plans for regime change in Athens, and his description of the negotiations in 480/479 even suggests that the great king had no problems with democracy.

In the second place, the axiom that the Persians were opposed to rationalism was perhaps acceptable in 1901, before the great cuneiform archives were known. We cannot blame Meyer, but his idea can no longer be accepted: the research program of the Chaldaeans in the satrapy of Babylonia, for example, is perfectly rational. An Athens under Persian control would have accepted a Plato or an Aristotle (who, as a matter of fact, was to do some of his best research in Persian-controled Assos). Meyer’s qualification of the ancient Near East as theological-religious in nature, has been shown to be incorrect, and tells a lot about the prejudices of his age (more…).

Meyer’s ideas have been refuted, and what’s more: Weber’s essay has become one of the foundations of historical theory. Not many students actually read it, but in the first year, when students learn to define causality, get acquainted with the three (or four) explanatory models, learn what kinds of argument are acceptable and which are not – in short, when they learn the logical and epistemological foundations of their discipline – they are in fact getting acquainted with ideas formulated for the first time by Weber.

To return to the initial question: Meyer later admitted he had been too optimistic. The truth is that we simply do not know whether Greek culture would have been very difficult. And even if it were, it is hard to pass judgment – to state that there would have been no Plato or Aristotle is as absurd as saying that under Persian domination, Greece would have avoided a lot of epistemological speculation and might have proceeded directly to the inspiring ethical systems of Epicurus and Zeno.

We cannot answer Meyer’s important question. We have to live with that. People who cannot accept incertitude, simply must not study ancient history.


  • Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (1901), vol. III, pp. 445-446
  • M. Weber, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik” in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (1973), esp. pp. 286-287

<Overview of Common Errors>


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