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.


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