How To Make Archaeology Look Ridiculous

29 August 2010

Claudius, who created the Dutch part of the limes

Houten is a town in the Netherlands, south of Utrecht, immediately below ancient Fectio, one of the many Roman forts along the Lower Rhine. On several occasions, archaeologists have excavated objects from the Roman period, and it comes as no surprise that the town has decided to give a new quarter of the town, which has a remarkable rectangular shape, the name of “Castellum“. I like the idea. It is good that people realize that they are living on top of their past.

It is also a good idea to give the streets suitable names. Legion Road and Limes Lane, for example, might help indicating the military nature of this part of the Empire. Or Claudius Square, to tell the inhabitants about the man who created the Dutch part of the limes. You can also name a street after one of the units garrisoned in this section of the frontier (Thracians and Spanish), to suggest how international the Roman Empire was, many centuries before the world “globalization” was invented. In this way, the people will understand something about the past, can put their own lives into perspective, and will understand a bit of the archaeologists’ and historians’ work.

Unfortunately, a different choice has been made. The street names will be completely different. According to this list, the inhabitants will be forced to live in: Cella Asia, Cella Gallia, Cella Helvetica, Cella Syria, Fossa Iberica, Fossa Italica, Fossa Hispanica, Porta Basilica, Porta Castra, Porta Tegula, Porta Toga, Via Arena, Via Culina, Via Horta, Via Tunica.

What will the people deduce? It is easy to predict. They will think that people study Antiquity, not because it helps to put our own world into perspective, but to enable classicists, like real snobs, to quote words from a dead language. Knowledge of the past is for high-brow name-droppers, not because we may actually benefit from it. Houten has found the perfect way to make archaeology look utterly irrelevant and completely ridiculous.

Announcing the Destruction of a City

29 August 2010

Defenders of Niniveh, killed in action while trying to prevent the sack of their city

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture in which someone discussed the speech of the Rabshakeh, an Assyrian commander who besieged Jerusalem in 701. In 2 Kings 18.25, he announces that he will sack the city: “Is it without the will of the Lord that I have come up to this place to destroy it?”

At this point, the lecturer paused and asked to those present if they could name another example of the announcement of the destruction of a city. No one knew. The speaker mentioned Thucydides‘ Melian Dialog, in which the Athenians threaten to destroy the city of Melos, which my friend found surprising. He summarized the lecture for me, and I got the impression from his words that the speaker had suggested that there were only two examples of a direct threat.

That turned out not to be the case, but since I read his summary of that lecture, I have been wondering how often commanders announced that they would destroy their opponents’ city. After all, it seems like a nice adhortation to your own men that they will be allowed to plunder. At the same time, it must be demoralizing for the besieged if they know that they will be molested, raped, killed. I would have expected that there would be evidence for threats like these, and indeed remembered Censorinus’ speech at Carthage (Appian, Punic Wars 81).

And that’s it. I’ve posted it at RomanArmyTalk (here), but even the guys over there, who are usually well-informed, could not mention a fourth instance. Anyone any thoughts?

Caesar and Ariovistus

29 August 2010

The battlefield north of Colmar

In 58, Julius Caesar had invaded Gaul. After some initial successes against Helvetian migrants, he realized that they were not the only people who wanted to settle in Gaul, and by the end of the year, he was facing a coalition of Germanic tribes led by Ariovistus. It has been suggested that this battle took place north of modern Colmar.

Friends of mine who were on a hiking trip in the Elsace visited the place and took some photos. They are now available here. I hope they did not forget to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, which is of course a better reason to visit Colmar.

Common Errors (38): Via Belgica

25 August 2010
The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Gaul, even centuries before the Celtic culture spread over Europe, there were already people living in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Although these people were usually farmers, there must have been traders among them too, because we are certain that already in the last phase of the Neolithicum, there were important roads. They can be recognized if you plot the burial mounds on a map; immediately, you will see that they are arranged in long lines. The people wanted to be buried along a road.

One road appears to have been of extreme importance, as people continued to be buried along it in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman Age as well. It leads from modern Amiens to Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – in other words, it connected the capitals of the Atrebates, Nervians, Tungrians, and Ubians, the main ethnic units of Gallia Belgica at the time of the Roman conquest. It was used by Caesar when he invaded Belgica in 57 BCE and defeated the Nervians, was used by the Fourteenth legion Gemina when it had to suppress the Batavian Revolt (70 CE), and was used in the late fourth century by Frankish warriors who left Toxandria and settled on more fertile soils.

In the Middle Ages, the road from Bavay to Tongeren was called Chaussée Brunehaut (“road of Brunhilde”), a name that is still officially used and can be found in many municipalities in northern France and southern Belgium. This Brunhilda was one of the most powerful rulers of the late sixth and early seventh century. She became the heroine of many sagas, and it is now difficult to see behind the legend and find out whether she really had something to do with the streets still named after her.

The modern name Via Belgica, coined by archaeologists and planologists, is rather ill-chosen. The Romans named their roads after the men who built them: Via Appia or Strata Diocletiana. If a street has a geographic element in its name, this invariably indicates a destination, not the country it traversed (Via Labicana, Via Portuense). Via Belgica would therefore be the name of the road leading to Belgica and can never have been an indication for a road through Belgica.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Tongeren Lead Bar

22 August 2010
Lead bar with the name of the emperor Tiberius

Lead bar with the name of the emperor Tiberius

In May 2009, the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren, one of the best museums in the Low Countries, announced that it had acquired a lead bar that dated to the reign of the emperor Tiberius, 14-37 CE. The inscription, IMP TI CAESARIS AVG GERM TEC, is a bit puzzling, but the message is clear. The first words refer to Imperator Tiberius Caesar Augustus, the “tec” is mysterious but almost certainly refers to the mine, and the surprise is that this mine is in Germania. That means, at first sight, the east bank of the Rhine.

The problem is that most historians believe that Germania had been evacuated after the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest. This can be read in many ancient sources, like TacitusAnnals, 2.88, where we read that the German commander Arminius was, “without any doubt the liberator of Germania”, or the Epitome of Florus, who believes that an expanding empire that had been able to cross the Channel had been halted at the Rhine (2.30). Although these authors wrote a century after the events and some seventy years after the creation of the limes, the decisiveness of the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest has always been axiomatic, and Roman finds on the Rhine’s east bank are automatically dated prior to the year 9. Perhaps the deepest cause is that Florus and Tacitus used to be popular school texts.

But was the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest decisive? In the first place, the only contemporary source, Velleius Paterculus, does not say that Germania was evacuated, and reports that fighting continued on the east bank, where the frontier roads were reopened (Roman History, 2.120). Although this is exaggerated and we do not know what limites meant exactly, it is unsound method to immediately assume it was an outright lie. In the second place, Tacitus explicitly says that the Roman base at Aliso remained in Roman hands and that forts were built along the Lippe (Annals, 2.7). In the third place, it seems that the goldmine on the Feldberg was never abandoned – although I may be wrong here. In the fourth place, there is some evidence, published by Rudolf Aßkamp, that Haltern was still in use after 9. In the fifth place, the Claudian army reforms appear to have been pretty important, and we know for a fact that Claudius has evacuated land beyond the Rhine – Tacitus’ Annals 11.19 follows on an account of a successful campaign against the Frisians, but this context does not exclude the possibility that a larger area was evacuated. In the Netherlands, this was the beginning of the creation of the limes; the first watchtower (Utrecht) is soundly dated in the forties.

I am not arguing that the Romans did never evacuate Germania; my point is that the date of the evacuation is very much open to debate. It may have been Claudius’ decision, and I am not alone in my doubts. “Es ist falsch die Varusschlacht als historischen Wendepunkt aufzufassen, wie dies geschichtswissenschaftlich Unkundige gerade in diesen Tagen wiederholt propagieren,” as P. Kehne summarizes in one of the splendid catalogs of last year’s Teutoburg Forest expositions: “It is wrong to accept Varus‘ defeat as a historical pivotal moment, as people without sense of history are propagating these days”.

This makes the Tongeren ingot quite sensational. Is this, again, evidence that the Romans were still in Germania? Were the Claudian army reforms the real pivotal moment? From the press release (9 May 2010), I get the impression that the museum has not completely realized the importance of this object. It writes that isotope analysis has shown that the lead could be from the Sauerland (Germania) and the Eifel (Gallia Belgica) and concludes that, since the Romans left the east bank in 9, we must assume that it is from the west bank. But this is assuming what needs to be proved!

I think that this lead bar deserves more study. In the first place, we may perhaps have a more precise isotope analysis. This, however, is not my specialty and perhaps this is impossible. In the second place, I’d like to know which sources prior to the Claudian army reforms call the west bank of the Rhine, which was indeed occupied by German immigrants, “Germania”. To the best of my knowledge, Caesar, Varro, Strabo, and Velleius Paterculus consistently use names like Belgica, Celtica, or Gaul. If we find evidence that “Germania” could be used to describe the west bank, we must assume that the lead bar can be from both banks; if there is no such source, as I suspect, we may add the Tongeren lead bar to the evidence that the Romans did not evacuate the east bank prior to the Claudian army reforms.

Lutetia (Paris)

22 August 2010

Soldiers on the Pilier des nautes (Musée de Cluny)

An Iranian friend happened to be in Europe, so I went to Paris to meet him. Because we did not arrive on the same time, I had some time to visit the monuments from the Roman age, which I had never seen before. To be honest, the ruins of the amphitheater are a nice park, but not really worth a detour; nor are the Roman statues in the Musée de Cluny sufficient to justify a trip to France. What made this trip great was visiting the Louvre together, and sharing a pizza.

Yet, there’s certainly something to be seen in the capital of the ancient Parisii, which was once known as Lutetia. There’s a beautiful website here. My photos, with a short history of Lutetia, are here.

It’s this month’s only addition to the Livius site. Spending three days in Paris, while you have a lot to do at home, is deadly for any schedule – or at least makes it next to impossible to write more than one new page.

Painted Statues Again

21 August 2010
Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph.

Reconstruction of the colors of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph (Xanten)

News Update

  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Pluto has been, well, Plutoed, you can find the resolution here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Italy won the football world cup in Germany, you can find a news report here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature, you can find it here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Mickey Spillane has died, you can find an obituary here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Israel invaded Lebanon, you can find an overview here.
  • And for those who hadn’t noticed that archaeologists use UV-light to establish which colors the ancient statues had, you can find a news report here.

I always believed that in my list of common errors the one on painted sculpture was a bit unnecessary. But apparently, it wasn’t. At least one journalist hasn’t discovered we’re already living in 2010.

Alexandria in Aria (Herat)

20 August 2010

The walls of Herat

Several years ago, I was invited for a visit to northern Afghanistan. Because I was writing my book on Alexander, it would indeed have been useful to go there and see ancient Aria and Bactria, but instead, I spent my savings in Pakistan, which was just as useful; I blogged about it recently. But I’ve never been in towns like Herat (Alexandria in Aria), Farah (Prophthasia, the site of the Philotas Affair), Kandahar (Alexandria in Arachosia), Begram (Alexandria in the Caucasus), or Mazar-e Sharif (Bactra). It’s still my wish to go there, but for obvious reasons, this will probably remain a wish until the country is fully liberated.

For this reason, I was very happy when I received some photos of “Alexander’s Castle” in Herat, taken by a U.S. officer, Colonel John Bessler, the current deputy director of PKSOI. In its present form, the fortress is from the Timurid age, but it was founded by Alexander.

I have never met COL Bessler, or LTC Rich Holden, who forwarded the pictures, but I am very grateful; the least I could do in return is to put a banner onsite for an organization devoted to helping the brave people who risk their lives for the future of Aghanistan.

The photos are here.

Velleius Paterculus and the Gospel of Mark

18 August 2010

Augustus (Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida)

One of the (many) interesting aspects of the Gospel of Mark is that the reader knows more than the dramatis personae. In the first line, essentially the title of this short book, Jesus is identified as the Son of God. Unclean spirits (3.11-12, 5.7), the high priest (14.61), and a Roman officer (15.39) are aware of Christ’s divine nature, but the disciples remain puzzled. Maybe even Mark’s Jesus is unaware of his true nature, because he consistently calls himself Son of Man.

Perhaps Jesus believed that the Son of Man and the Son of God were identical. That is how I would read 14.61-62, but christology is not my subject and I want to focus on Mark’s double message. At first sight, Mark offers a story about the most miserable of men: in spite of successes, he has to leave his homeland, and in Jerusalem, he is abandoned by his disciples, arrested, judged by a Jew, mocked by Jews, abandoned to the Romans, judged by a Roman, mocked by Romans, abandoned to the cross, and mocked by criminals. His dying words show that he realizes even his Father has abandoned him (“Why have you forsaken me?”).

A Christian believer who reads this same text, will understand it differently. He knows that he must not focus on the opinions of the disciples, but on the words of Jesus’ enemies, who correctly identify that big loser as the Savior. The Gospel of Mark is a text with a message and a countermessage. Whatever you believe, this is great literature.

I had to think of this when I was occupied with the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus, about whom I blogged yesterday. In his Augustan narrative, he employs the same contrasts. There’s a message of praise, as was common in Roman sources about Augustus, and a highly critical countermessage. Take, for instance this line:

It was in keeping with his fortune and his clemency that not one of those who had borne arms against him was put to death by him, or by his order (2.87.2).

But this is immediately contradicted by the nine examples Paterculus offers: four of these people preferred suicide to the delights of Augustan clemency. Worse, in the next section, 2.88, we read how ruthlessly efficient Maecenas got rid of one of Octavian’s opponents. True, Augustus had no blood on his hands, but Velleius offers a strong counterpoint.

There’s more. The statement that everybody delighted in Augustus’ restoration is contradicted by three references to conspiracies. We learn that the prince of peace sacrificed his political friend Cicero to his alliance with Marc Antony and Lepidus, failed to control his men at Perugia, left the supreme command in battle to Agrippa, and did not properly educate his daughter.

This is not the work of a clumsy writer. It is intentional. Augustus’ successes are mentioned in passing, like the war in Spain, or ignored, like the rebuilding of Rome and the Secular Games. We read a lot, on the other hand, about the Third Civil War, which was launched by Octavian; about the Actium campaign; about the Pannonian Revolt, which proves that the pacification of the provinces was unsuccessful; and finally the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest, ‘the greatest calamity experienced by the Romans since the defeat of Crassus in Parthia‘ (2.119.1).

Message and countermessage. For every boast of Augustus’ propaganda, Velleius offers a counterpoint. I wonder whether there are more ancient texts structured like this. Suggestions, anyone?

Velleius’ Chronology

17 August 2010

The Fasti Capitolini

For the past two weeks, I have been occupied with Velleius Paterculus, a Roman historian from the age of Tiberius who wrote a brief account of the history of Rome, which he dedicated to his friend Marcus Vinicius. I think I’ve made a small discovery.

It has been observed before that although Paterculus makes kind remarks about Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, his Roman History tells a different story. For example, although we’re supposed to believe that Caesar’s clemency was almost superhuman and his assassination undeserved, we hear nothing about his countless reform measures. Not even his calendar reform is mentioned, which is odd, because Paterculus is obsessed with chronological precision.

His work contains many chronological references, like “In the consulship Lentulus and Marcellus, 703 years after the founding of the city and 78 before your consulship, Marcus Vinicius, the civil war burst into flame”. The great scholars of the nineteenth century already noted that the dating system Paterculus uses starts in 752/751 BCE, and not in 754/753, as we are used to. This means that Paterculus used Cato’s chronology of the Roman Republic.

It also means – and I have not seen this in the articles I’ve read – that he does not use the Varronian system, which he must have known and which had become the authorized chronology. It was inscribed on the Arch of Augustus on the Forum Romanum (the inscription, known as the Fasti Capitolini, is now in the Capitoline Museums). Chosing not to use this system, Velleius made quite a statement: he was essentially saying that Caesar and Augustus were liars, who endorsed Varro’s propagandistic fabrications, the notorious “dictator years”.

Revised webpage here.

Common Errors (37): Legionaries

17 August 2010

Lorica hamata (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

I have never been to America, but I know a lot about it. After all, I have seen a lot of movies and read many comics. I know that all Americans live in sky scrapers, that their president lives in a White House, that their policeman use the f-word in every sentence, that their countryside is full of Red Indians and Amish, that everyone carries a gun, that everyone owns shares in big oil companies which are always corrupt, and that superheroes make sure that crime never goes unpunished.

Of course most of this is not true. If you read Spiderman, it is easy to recognize which parts are fictional. We all know that humans cannot make webs. At the same time, it is tempting to believe that the background is real. That city is New York and the catastrophe in the Black Issue did, sadly, take place. MJ is as real as a girl can get – including the animal slippers she’s wearing in one of the Civil War issues. While Peter Parker and MJ are fictional, the background looks credible, and this makes the background of comics and movies an important source for disinformation – see the first section of this article again.

If I present the problem like this, you will immediately recognize the fallacy. But I am pretty sure that while you recognize that Don Quixote never existed, you will immediately accept that the books he has been reading, are real. Are you sure? And will you recognize how much is invented in other literary works? I do not know why we trust the background of our stories, but we do. The story of the wrath of Achilles presuposes a Trojan War. Did it happen? And so on.

I am asking, because one of the greatest sources of disinformation on ancient history is Asterix. Everyone knows that there never was a Gaulish village, and that magic potions don’t exist. But many people take the description of the Roman legions for granted, and believe that all soldiers wore the same armor.

But that’s not true. The type of armor worn by the legionaries in Asterix is called a lorica segmentata (a modern name). But there were other types.

Unarmored legionaries (Mainz Pedestals)

For example, there were always soldiers who wore mail armor, made of thousands of small rings. This is called a lorica hamata. The lorica squamata was made of small scales, resembling the scales a of fish. The Mainz Pedestals clearly show a soldier who wears no armor at all.

Perhaps the question whether all legionaries wore the same type of armor was never duly addressed because our own, modern soldiers all wear uniforms. But why should this apply for ancient Rome as well? There is strong evidence that ancient legionaries wore a variety of armor. If you visit the splendid new museum of Xanten, you can see for yourself: the remains of all kinds of armor, brotherly together in one display, all from one site, which was destroyed in the first weeks of the year 70. Three types of armor next to each other, worn in the same period.

The novels read by Don Quixote are real: there were indeed books called Amadis de Gaula and Belianis.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The skulls, plural, of John the Baptist

11 August 2010

The tomb of John in Damascus

Breaking news from Bulgaria: archaeologists excavating a monastery devoted to John the Baptist have discovered a skull, a hand and a tooth, which they believe to be relics of the famous Jewish prophet who “prophesied the birth of Christ and baptized Jesus in the River Jordan”.

The journalist has obviously messed up the information. It’s not really necessary to mention that they’ve found a tooth after you’ve already mentioned the skull, of course, and John did of course not predict the birth of Christ; he was one of the first to recognize that Jesus was the Christ. You don’t have to be an archaeologist or historian to do this right.

But there’s another problem. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you indeed find the bones of John. Then it is inevitable that people won’t believe you, because the famous skull is already venerated in Rome and Damascus. Both places of worship, the Lateran basilica and the Umayyad Mosque, are very well-known. There are also relics in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. So, if you want to sound convincing, you must at least address the question that your reader will immediately ask: “But aren’t those bones somewhere else?”

Our archaeologists would have done a better job explaining their discovery – which is sufficiently interesting to report to the press – if they had said something like: “Well, similar relics can be found on other places, and of course it is impossible to prove that one of them is really John, because we don’t have a sample of the man’s DNA. However, this skull is very old indeed, and so we will do some additional testing to see whether it’s from the first century.” Readers would see their doubts addressed, would recognize the doubts that are characteristic of a true scholar, and would not be left puzzled. The present report, although it does mention further tests, will only add to people’s doubts about the professionality of modern archaeology.

Censorship in the Netherlands

10 August 2010
The Dutch Justice Department deserves a box on the ear

The Dutch Justice Department deserves a box on the ear

As a historian, I want to have access to the sources I may need for my research. It is not the task of a government to select what I am allowed to see and what I am not allowed to see. Since we are all interested in history – it is not the privilege of a small class of scholars – access to historical sources has to be free to all people. Of course there are documents that need to be secret for some time; they are usually declassified after, say, fifty years.

So far, so good. The Dutch Royal Library is currently making available online all newspapers from the Second World War, which includes Nazi propaganda. Now the Dutch department of Justice has advised the library not to make digital versions of these publications, because it is possible that the Public Prosecutor might accuse the Royal Library of distributing publications that incite hatred.

This creates lots of problems. In the first place, “improved versions” will start to circulate. It is already possible to download versions of Mein Kampf that lack certain key passages, making it look less dangerous than it was; or alternatively, sections may be added to make it sound more convincing (compare the fake translations of the Cyrus Cylinder). If you want to neutralize the dangers of National Socialism, show the beast, don’t hide it.

In the second place, where to draw a line? If we allow that our governments discourage historians (professional or amateur) to study National Socialism, what’s next? Stalin? Lenin? Marx? Christian and Islamic texts about Jews may be the next target.

However, there is no need to hide sources from the public. What the people of the Dutch Justice Department appear to be unaware of, is that the majority of people is reasonably capable of critically reading historical texts – placing remarks in context and understanding a debate about it.

Of course, the Dutch universities have remained silent. It’s holiday, and who cares about censorship?


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