Athenaeus Online

30 July 2010

FISH: Roman mosaic, Emporiae

Yesterday, having an 83-year-old friend to lunch, I had the opportunity to do a thorough scrub of my downstairs guest bathroom. Now I’m not overly addicted to cleaning house; I do it once a year on December 31st, whether it needs it or not, and usually catch a few nests of dog fur and a pocket or two of old catfood or spilled coffee. Nevertheless, yesterday I spent an hour at it in that one little room, spraying everything with bleach, scrubbing such things as the upper, lower, and hinge-side edges of the door just like I was back at the U. S. Air Force Academy many years ago (failing inspections, by the way, no matter what I did). Dunno how good it all was, but I did get the house to smell like a public swimming pool.

Yet finally I was surprised to find it was satisfying: I could see the result. Cleaning a whole house, on the other hand, is deadly: it’s just too much.

Inspired, I went on and cleaned one small room of a huge project long underway at LacusCurtius – to put onsite the complete Loeb edition’s English translation of the Deipnosophistae by Athenaeus: several thousand pages of Greek blather, mostly about FISH; although here and there he also talks about Homer, wine, whores, fish, music, religion, fish, the palaestra, literary conundrums, India, fish, spices, plants, etc. It’s a whole depressing houseful, and it’s been hanging undone for years, on my site, but not quite. I don’t normally like doling things out piecemeal, but in this particular case if I follow my usual practice and prepare all of it together, it’ll never get done at all. So now, then, one little room of it is done, and any ichthyophilous octogenarian out there with a hankering to read this stuff can now at least get a start: Book 1, in three webpages. The other 14 Books will stagger in over time, competing with other smaller and thus more satisfying projects, like tuna fighting the currents in the Bosporus.

An Interesting Experiment

30 July 2010

The High Alps

Not content with dressing like Roman legionaries, giving shows, and explaining things to the visitors – one of the most efficient ways to bring the results of scholarship to a great number of people – a group of Austrian and German reenactors has started to reconstruct a Roman road in the High Alps, on the original foundations, with original tools and methods. Of course it is nothing but a splendid piece of antiquarianism. The real questions we have, are different, and will not be answered by this experiment. But splendid it is.

Photos here. Watch them, if only for the beautiful landscape of the Mallnitzer Tauernpass.

A Little Known Roman Emperor

26 July 2010

Inconnus (Museum Jára Cimrman, Prague)

Long time ago, we drove to Italy, and someone joked that he wanted to meet that miss Caduta Massi, whose name was written on so many road signs. It became a running gag during a great holiday: we praised the paintings of Vietato Fumare in the Roman museum of contemporary art, asked directions to the home of Senso Unico, and were happy when A.S. Roma finally bought a new striker, Totò Calcio.

Some time ago, I was in the Louvre to take photos of Roman portrait busts, when a Dutch tour guide parked her group next to me, had a quick look at the explanatory sign, and asked attention for the bust of the Emperor Inconnus. Unfortunately, that was not a joke.

Tabula Leersumiana

17 July 2010

The "Tabula Leersumiana"

Tabula Leersumiana” is the modern name of a fragment of an ancient Roman inscription in bronze, found near modern Leersum in the Netherlands. It is too damaged to make sense of it, but there is one interesting aspect: it was found north of the limes. The object must have been taken away from a Roman military settlement by German looters, who cut it into pieces to melt it in an oven. Several fragments escaped, were found in 2003, and are now in the Leiden Rijksmuseum van oudheden.

The full text is here, and if you understand what it’s all about, Dutch historians will be eternally grateful.

So, where’s my Nobel Prize?!

15 July 2010

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


Suetonius writes like Shakespeare
Shakespeare writes like Lovecraft
Lovecraft writes like Doug Adams
Douglas Adams writes like James F. Cooper
James F. Cooper writes like … James F. Cooper

The backlog

14 July 2010

In one of the comics of Gaston, his increasingly frustrated boss Léon Prunelle starts to investigate why the office junior never manages to finish his jobs, and at some point explodes with the question “so answering this pile of letters has already been urgent for quite some time?!!” I do not remember the exact joke, except the date of the pile of letters: May 10, 1940.

The backlog of is not as long as that, but nevertheless, over the past five years, I have accumulated a lot of notes: see the photo to the right, to which some forty e-mails must be added. I will make a lot of minor updates in the next weeks, without idea how much time it will take. Suggestions are always welcome.


13 July 2010

Baal (Louvre, Paris)

After several postings on updated old webpages, I am happy to be able to announce a completely new page: Ba’al, the name or title of one of the main deities of the ancient Near East. He is of course notorious as one of the favorite targets of the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, but gods named Ba’al are known from Syria and Phoenicia as well.

Ba’al is especially well-known from a series of tablets from Ugarit, which tell the story about his fight against the sea god, his palace, and his temporary defeat in a conflict with the god of death. The god was also venerated in Carthage, had a twin named Bel in Babylonia, is mentioned on the Mesha stela, and is known from countless personal names.

The most famous story is, of course, that about the prophet Eliah, challenging the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When I was preparing my article, I received a message from a friend who has been there several times, and remarked that the ancient altars, which were apparently still there, had been removed, because conservative Jews might take umbrage over those pagan objects.

The new page is here.

Dormagen and Kneblinghausen

12 July 2010

Face mask of a cavalry helmet (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

One of the greatest advantages of the internet is the possibility to help people (or receive help). I am a member of the Roman Army Talk discussion forum, and was approached, some time ago, by a fellow-member who knew something about recent excavations at Dormagen, a limes fort along the Lower Rhine. I have now updated the page.

He also pointed out that I had to rewrite my page about Kneblinghausen, a Roman camp far east of the Rhine. I had written that the type of gate (a “clavicula”) suggested a date late in the first century; the fort might have been built during the campaigns of Domitian. However, my German friend pointed out that there was now evidence for this type of gate from the beginning of our era.

So many changes on the site today, some small, some great. Thanks Siggi!


10 July 2010

Hall of Hundred Columns

If I say that Persepolis has moved to this URL, you will understand that you have come across a new installment of the highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org. Actually, it’s the last installment, because I’ve now moved all html-pages away from the /a/-directory, which means that html-pages and jpg-files are now separated. I can now move forward to a content management system and leave behind a website that is essentially still running on 1994 software.

It is fitting that Persepolis receives this place of honor, because it is one of the most splendid places in the world. It is of course a matter of taste, but I think most people will agree that it is more impressive than, for example, Palmyra, Petra, or Lepcis Magna.

Gate of All Nations

Persepolis is actually part of a larger archaeological complex that also includes Naqš-i Rustam, Naqš-e Rajab, Istakhr, and the little-known Takht-e Rostam. The best way to visit it, if you are a tourist, is to do those sites in the early morning; Naqš-i Rustam takes about two hours, Naqš-e Rajab half an hour, while the two other sites can be used to have a picknick. They are not of the greatest importance and you may in fact ignore them without having the idea that you’ve lost very much.

A sphinx

After lunch, go to Persepolis itself. In the afternoon, especially after, say, half past four, the light will be softer. A first introduction takes about four hours. Then you’ve seen most buildings and understand the site.

Now the big trick: you must return the next day. Until ten o’clock, the light will be fine, and because you now know the site, you can really appreciate it. At half past ten, you want to be away anyhow, because the tourist buses from Shiraz will arrive by that time. During my two last visits, we took a hotel in the Persepolis compound itself, which was perfect.

A Nubian

Of course you can stay longer, but this double visit will for most tourists be sufficient. For a specialist, however, there will always be something new to discover. Personally, I am increasingly interested in the Hellenistic objects found in and near Persepolis. Of course, Alexander did not destroy it all: that would be impossible with ancient technology. The Palace of Darius, for example, has survived pretty well. The main symbols of the Achaemenid court ritual, the Apadana and the Treasury, were what Alexander destroyed. In the museums, you will find several Hellenistic objects.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been in Persepolis, you should go to Iran. The Iranians will welcome you, as they have done for centuries. So my last picture today is a drawing by Cornelis de Bruijn, one of the first westerners to visit the site (and a fellow-Amsterdammer). The new webpages are here.

View from the north

Poor, Poor Pakistan

9 July 2010

The Swat near Birkot, ancient Bazira

In 2004, Marco and I visited Pakistan. I was writing my book about Alexander, and because it is easy to make errors when you describe places you haven’t seen, I needed to go there. It was absolutely sensational – especially our first impression of the Grand Trunk Road, with sport cars on one lane and camels on the other. As Rudyard Kipling said: “touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harun al-Raschid”. Nor will I forget Uch: after driving through a forest of palm trees, there was the sudden view of those splendid medieveal buildings.

A Buddha from the Museum of Lahore.

A Buddha from the Museum of Lahore.

Peshawar, which has a nice museum of Gandara art, was unpleasant. In Islamic countries, mosques are always open to foreigners, just like churches are also open to anyone who wants to go there. God wants to be accessible for everyone who turns to Him, as an Iranian cleric once said to me, inviting me for a cup of tea. However, in Peshawar, I was for the first time denied access. It’s a long way from the Twelfth Rock Edict of king Ashoka, which we read later that day in Shahbazgarhi:

“Contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.”

Pathan boys collecting eggs in the ruins of Charsadda

We visited the Swat Valley, one of the most beautiful places on earth. The tea served in the Pakistan road houses is usually disgusting – the water is boiled with milk, butter, and sugar – but on that afternoon, we found it acceptable, and that evening, while we were sitting in a nice garden looking at the river at sunset, we felt completely at ease, even forgetting our customary precautions against mosquitoes.

Jaulian, detail of a stupa

Jaulian, detail of a stupa

That was 2004. The war in Afghanistan had already began. We saw several refugees, we listened to the opinions of our hosts, and we drank tea in a roadhouse with people who were at the same time angry at the West and fascinated by the two tall westerners who were visiting them. In Karachi, we heard, a bomb had exploded. Yet, we usually felt safe. It was only in a hotel at a bank of the Indus that we had something to fear: the malaria mosquito.

Back home, I saw TV-images of Multan, and I thought “Hey, I’ve been there!” But then I saw how a dead body was dragged through the streets. Not much later, an earthquake hit the central Punjab, and I am pretty sure that some people were killed in a house where we had been invited. The hotel in Islamabad where I bought my salwar and kameez, was destroyed by a bomb. The Swat valley was first destabilized by the Taliban, conquered, reconquered by government troops. Today, forty-five people were killed by a suicide bomber in a town we visited.

And yet. Pakistan is also the country of Taxila, the museum of Lahore, the Shalimar Gardens, Shingerdar, the Rhotas Fortress, and countless kind people. It’s the land of the restaurants in “food street” in Lahore, it’s the land of splendid rivers, it has roads with beautifully decorated lorries, and I will never forget Multan’s flowers. It is so sad what happens over there. Pakistan deserves better.

Isn’t science lovely?

7 July 2010

The death of Archimedes (Sixteenth century copy of an ancient mosaic; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

If a tree does not fall in a forest, and if there are people to see that the tree has not fallen, do you need to explain the fall of the tree? I thought that there are more useful activities than explaining historical facts that did not happen. Yet it is apparently a scientific enterprise – at least I am sure it may be so in Italy.

Here‘s the story: a mechanical engineer named Cesare Rossi, from Naples, proposes that the burning mirror that Archimedes used during the siege of Syracuse was in fact a steam gun of the type designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Rossi realizes that the story of the heat ray is a Byzantine fairy tale, which is a good thing – I know a professional ancient historian who had not yet reached this simple conclusion.

But beyond this point, I cannot understand Rossi anymore. Archimedes’ heat ray is not mentioned in our sources: Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch are silent about them, although they have described the siege of Syracuse at great length and offer detailed descriptions of Archimedes’ inventions. The story surfaces centuries later, is an invention, and cannot be true; this means that there is no need to offer a hypothesis. I expect Mr Rossi’s next proposal will be an explanation how Daedalus could have flown away from Crete – another fairy tale.

First page

1 July 2010

Two ‘new’ items on Lacus yesterday — a rather thin journal article from 1934 on the Basilica Argentaria, or rather, more properly despite the title, on the argentarii who hung out there; an entry in Platner & Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, inexplicably skipped years ago, on “Janus”: mostly about what the expression “Janus medius” might mean. The two items are related.

But as often, this new stuff has a little story behind it. I got a nice little e-mail from a young woman alerting me to the Basilica Argentaria article, letting me know it had a different interpretation from the one in Platner’s brief entry on it (that has long been onsite), and of course giving me the URL at JSTOR.

Now JSTOR is not public access, but it throws out teasers, that can be found by Google; and this was one of them: the first page of a three-page paper, to read the entirety of which you have to be a subscriber — to belong to a subscribing academic institution, or pay a hefty individual fee — or, on a one-shot basis here, you can pay $24 to read the remaining two pages. And of course, it’s only on the page turn (immediately!) that we read that the author of the paper disagrees with the “different interpretation” she threw out on page 1, agrees perfectly with Platner, and explains why!

Of course, seeing that, I put the article up, since the copyright on the paper expired in 1962, neither the journal nor the contributor having renewed it as required by the law then in force; but there’s a moral in all that. (No, not that one, Jona: I can see you coming from a parasang away.) As readers we need to be very careful; as writers with a thesis, we might as well write straightforward what we want to say from the git-go.


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