Johannes De Laet and Hugo Grotius

28 July 2011

Johannes de Laet:
Notice his beard, which is part of the 'controversy'.

This seems a better place than elsewhere to report a small new item on my American history site: a transcription of a journal article in the Catholic Historical Review (October 1917), “Origin of American Aborigines: A Famous Controversy”.

The paper is not so much about the origin of the native peoples of the American continent as about the quarrel between two eminent 17c Dutch savants. In the author’s view, the less-known De Laet (whose geographical work places him, however, among the top scientists of his time in that field) comes out on top, for both his historical insight and his personal and professional courtesy.

That said, the various theories then held about where the American peoples might have come from do get enumerated; and all the candidates still in the running today — for genetic studies haven’t completely settled the question — were already being discussed, with here and there some surprisingly modern arguments (Acosta on animal migration, De Laet on linguistic drift).

The paper is of additional interest in that it touches on Dutch religious controversies, which the principals themselves more than hint at: Catholic vs. Protestant — although the writer could have dug more and presented a more interesting and affirmative result.


Why Cuneiform Studies Matter

28 July 2011

The Ptolemy III Chronicle

I have just written a review, to be published in Ancient Warfare, of John D. Grainger’s book The Syrian Wars. It is an important book, because the author shows that the Syrian Wars were crucial for the formation of the two largest Hellenistic states. Grainger essentially proves that Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is also applicable to Antiquity.

The trouble is that he might have written an even better book if he had been more aware of cuneiform studies. I know, those tablets are being published slowly, frustratingly so, and it is tempting to ignore them. Grainger is to be praised for at least reading the Astronomical Diaries, but still, he appears to be unaware of, say, the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period.

This is understandable. Like so many cuneiform texts, the chronicles have been published online only. In fact, they are still being discussed (compare this recent post). Nevertheless, the information is important. For example, Grainger is aware that during the Third Syrian War, the Ptolemaic army crossed the Euphrates, but concludes that it did not reach Babylonia. The Ptolemy III Chronicle (BCHP 11) in fact describes how the Egyptian forces massacred the garrison of Seleucia and captured Babylon. The Third Syrian War was much bigger than Grainger realizes, and Egyptian strategy was far more ambitious than he assumes.

Another mistake, less important, is Grainger’s date of the Babylonian War: the Antigonid attempt to drive out Seleucus, dated by Grainger to 311. He also writes that, to help the embattled Seleucus, Ptolemy launched a naval expedition to the Aegean. Grainger correctly dates this to 309-308, but this makes his overall reconstruction unconvincing: Ptolemy can have lured Antigonus‘ armies away from Babylonia only if the two operations took place more or less simultaneously. Fortunately, the problem vanishes once we realize that the Antigonid offensive in fact took place in 310. Grainger has not used the latest literature on the Diadochi Chronicle.

I am not writing this to diminish Grainger’s scholarship. As I said, he proves how important the Syrian Wars were, and an occasional error does not fundamentally change that. I wrote the above section to stress that two often ignored specialties actually matter: the study of cuneiform sources and the study of chronology.

There are two other points to be made. To start with, it would be nice if the students of cuneiform sources did a bit more to let the world know what they are doing. The Ptolemy III Chronicle, for example, might have been published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies. Grainger cannot be blamed for not knowing the Near-Eastern texts if there is not a signpost to give directions.

In the second place, the field of ancient history has become too complex. No one can know everything, and therefore, authors must invoke the advice of their colleagues. (This is why BCHP is preliminarily published online: to enable others to look at it, and make sure that no information is ignored.) And because no one can know everything, publishers have editorial boards. Grainger’s book deserved better editors, who might have spotted that their author had ignored, for example, Mittag’s Antiochos IV and Boiy’s Between High and Low.

Scholarship would really benefit were manuscripts to be put online first and books not to be published before a round of consultation. We have the means, we have the knowledge, and we have the technology to produce better books – so what are we waiting for?


How to lose respect

28 July 2011
Some publishers deserve a box on the ear

Some publishers deserve a box on the ear

There used to be a time when the universities were well-respected. People who had gone there, were believed to be wise and impartial. If they said X, we knew it was X and not Y. However, people have grown sceptical, and their scepticism is sometimes justified. Here in Holland, our government recently came up with a plan for a mass vaccination against Mexican flu; people just stayed away, and in the end, it turned out that the risks had been overestimated. Scepticism is, therefore, not wrong in itself, although I do not like this same scepticism when we’re discussing the changing climate.

Scientists and scholars need to take this scepticism more seriously. About 28% of the people – I will blog about that figure later – start reading an article about science/scholarship with the intention not to believe it. This means that there must not be any serious, recognizable gap in the argument. Now look at the first line of the press release I spotted today:

Many of the cities of modern Europe owe their location to choices made some 2,000 years ago during the time of the Roman Empire, new research from a University historian has revealed.

New research? Really? To establish what everyone already knows and no one denies? I was tempted not to read any further, believing that it would be another nonsensical press release (compare, compare, compare, compare) and I am probably not the only one who was disappointed. I am afraid that this press release has done a lot damage, confirming the idea that scholars do a lot of silly, unnecessary work.

The authors of this book are probably hard-working scholars, who did not write this press release. I am not blaming him. To make sure that this blog post, which is about PR, will not turn up in a Google search about them, I won’t mention their names. Nevertheless, if you want to check this story, it’s here.


Zone

26 July 2011

A satyr on a panther

I have never been to Zone, in the northwest of Greece, but I recently received an article and some photos from Mr Michel Gybels from Belgium. The town was settled in the seventh century BC by people from Samothrace, served as port of trade for the Thracian hinterland, and floutished in the early Hellenistic period. I loved the figurine of the satyr on the panther shown to the right: it’s perfect and beautiful.

The new webpage is here.


The Bagayasha Chronicle

25 July 2011

One of the fragments of the Bagayasha Chronicle

Finally, after years of struggling, Irving Finkel and Bert van der Spek have decided that it is time to bring the “Bagayasha Chronicle” online. It is an extremely difficult text, which still defies proper understanding, but seems to be part of an astronomical diary of about the 130s BC.

Nevertheless, it is reasonably clear that the text deals with the brother of the Parthian king Mithradates I the Great, Bagayasha, who visits Babylon for a punitive action. What happens exactly, is not really known, but the council of Greek elders has to explain things, generals are present, there is a reference to plundering, and the Greek citizens leave their homes. After this, we read about supplications from the Babylonians in the city, led by the šatammu; someone intercedes for the citizens; Bagayasha seems to agree and leaves for Borsippa. It seems that Babylon has acted treacherously, somewhere in the years following Mithradates’ conquest, perhaps when the Seleucid king Demetrius II Nicator was trying to regain his dominions (in 141-138).

Finkel and Van der Spek think that they have made all progress they were able to make, and have decided to an evulgetur, and I had the honor of preparing the online edition. They invite scholars to suggest new interpretations (more).

They have another fragment concerning Bagayasha in stock, which will be published ASAP. You can find the new chronicle here.


Constantine’s Conversion Again

20 July 2011
Photo Marco Prins

Constantine

One of the responses to my initial posting on Constantine’s conversion contained this remark:

Though I see Constantine’s conversion as a total fake (I think he did not believe anything really and was an opportunist)…

This is a good point, that deserves a reply at some length. Constantine was pragmatic, certainly, but precisely because of that, I think that the vision – whatever it may have been – was real.

I am trying to imagine how I would respond to a politician who claims to have seen the light. I am not talking now about born-again American presidents like Jimmy Carter, but about someone who really claims to be on a mission from God. I think that I would, if I were in a bad mood, not trust him, and would, if I were in a good mood, recommend him to consult a psychiatrist.

My distrust, I think, is pretty common. Leaders who claimed to have experienced some kind of revelation, were nearly always subject to ridicule: Alexander‘s soldiers did not believe he was the son of Ammon, Jesus dryly commented that “a prophet is not honored at home”, and Muhamad had to leave Mecca. Joan of Arc was subject to ridicule first, and the French king refused to help her later, when the English had taken her captive. Polybius seems to shield Scipio Africanus from criticism by stating that the Roman general did not really believe in the mystical powers others attributed to him.

Pretending to have a divine revelation is just not smart for a politician. People like Joan of Arc, Muhamad, and Jesus really must have experienced something, and I think Constantine must indeed have seen a vision (as mentioned as early in 309/310 by the Panegyricist). It must have confused him profoundly, first interpreting it as a sign from the sun god, later reinterpreting it as a sign from Christ. Personally, I find the idea very attractive that the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth, felt himself led by Something Bigger Than Himself, but never quite never understood what that might have been.


Ballistic Protected Vehicle (for sale)

20 July 2011

It is true: I have visited Iran and Pakistan. And in the Middle East, I have seen both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. My mother is sometimes a bit worried about my safety. Still, I was a bit surprised to see what was offered to me today. I’m also wondering what “beast regards” are.


Zahi Hawass: Departure of a Comedian

18 July 2011

The Dutch newssite Nu.nl made an interesting mistake today. The news that Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian minister of Antiquities, had been dismissed, was preceded by another news item: “The end of a great comedian”.

Let’s hope that Hawass’ successor takes more care of his own people and does not prefer to write his books in English. The Egyptians deserve someone who explains their past, and the past deserves Egyptians who understand why they should not loot excavations. Failing to educate his own people is Hawass’ greatest error.


Common Errors (40): Constantine’s Conversion

13 July 2011
Photo Marco Prins

Constantine (although I’m personally more reminded of Sylvester Stallone)

Constantine converted to Christianity. No one denies that. The problem is that we don’t know when and how.

The best-known story is that in October 312, Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in a battle near the Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome. Prior to the battle, the victor had seen  a cross in the sky together with the words “in this sign you will conquer”. After the fight, Constantine put an end to the persecution of the Christians and became a Christian himself. This is, more or less, as we learn it in school, this is how painters like Raphael have shown it, and this is how it is described by Eusebius, in the Life of Constantine (1.26-32), which he wrote in the late 330s.

At the end of his life, Constantine was indeed a Christian. If we cannot accept Eusebius’ statement that the emperor was baptized several days before his death in 337 – and some methodological scepticism is always prudent – we can deduce the emperor’s beliefs from the tomb he had designed: he was to be buried in Constantinople, together with relics of the twelve apostles. In other words, Constantine wanted to be commemorated as equal of the apostles (isapostolos) and as a second Christ – perhaps a bit blasphemous for modern Christian sentiments, but not below the standard of a Roman emperor, who was a dominus et deus.

Maxentius (Museum Dresden)

So, Constantine did convert to Christianity. But the story is far more complex than is commonly assumed.

In the first place, the age of the persecutions was over when Constantine and Maxentius clashed. In the western provinces, where not many Christians were living, the emperors had already put an end to persecuting them several years before. There’s some debate about the exact date, but it must have happened before 312. In the eastern provinces, the emperor Galerius terminated the persecutions in 311, shortly before his death. In a malicious treatise called The Death of the Persecutors, the Christian writer Lactantius suggests that God had sent Galerius an exceptionally painful illness to make him see the error of his policy (§33; cf. 2 Maccabees 9.5).

Constantine and the Sun God

So, the persecutions were not ended in 312, because they were over already. There was no vision either. That was a thing of the past as well: it happened in 309 or early in 310. At this stage, Constantine believed it was a manifestation of Apollo, whom he had identified as the sun-god. We have several coins from this years, like the one shown to the right, which shows Constantine with the sun-god’s chariot on his shield, and Apollo next to him. After Constantine had captured Rome, he rededicated the Colossus of the Sun, next to the Colosseum; that this monument was dear to him, is suggested by the fact that his triumphal arch was almost next to it.

The oldest description of Constantine’s vision is a speech by an anonymous orator (Panegyrici Latini 7 (6) 21.4-5), who was praising Constantine and the city of Trier, and refers to the emperor’s visit to “the most beautiful temple in the world”. Here, he had seen Apollo and Victory, who had offered him wreaths, promising him a rule of thirty years. We do not know what this vision may have looked like, but the description fits a sun halo like the one shown below. Halos are extremely impressive, and a large one may easily have been read as the Sun offering Constantine a wreath (or wreaths – there can be more than one halo), with three crosses indicating the number XXX.

The evidence that Constantine saw only one cross with a written command to win “in this sign” (ἐν τούτῳ νίκα), is more than a quarter of a century younger. It can be found in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine (1.37-40). Under normal circumstances, we would discard this text, because it is younger and appears to be based upon a misunderstanding of the light vision of 309/310. The most plausible scenario is that Constantine experienced a light vision, which he at first interpreted as a sign of Apollo, but later – after he had conquered the Christian provinces in the east (in 324) – reinterpreted as a Christian miracle.

Licinius (Bode Museum)

This becomes even more attractive when we take into account that Eusebius does not know anything about a Christian vision in another book, the History of the Church; in §9.9, he describes the Battle at the Milvian Bridge as the prelude to the Edict of Milan, in which Constantine and his ally Licinius reaffirmed Galerius’ decision that Christianity was acceptable, and even promised some compensation to the Church. This must have been Licinius’ proposal, because he ruled in the eastern provinces and the new faith hardly mattered in the West. Apparently, it was Licinius who introduced the pro-Christian policy.

To sum up: Constantine experienced the Light Vision in 309/310, agreed to Licinius’ pro-Christian policy, pursued this policy himself after he had defeated Licinius, became Christian in the last phase of his reign, and reinterpreted the vision. But if this is so plausible, why is everything attributed to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?

Tombstone with the Christianized “chrestos” symbol (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The answer can be found in Lactantius’ Death of the Persecutors, written immediately after the Edict of Milan. He tells that before his fight with Maxentius, Constantine had a dream, in which he was ordered to put the -sign on the shields of his soldiers. When taken out of context, this confirms the story that Eusebius told a quarter of a century later, about the cross vision. The confirmation appears to be strong, especially because in the Life of Constantine, Eusebius continues his account of the vision with a description of Constantine’s military standard, and in his History of the Church, he mentions that the emperor wanted to be shown with the “salvation-bringing symbol” in his hand.

However, Lactantius does not claim that Constantine converted to Christianity and does not even claim that the symbol was Christian. The same applies to Eusebius’ History of the Church: we read that Constantine wanted to be shown with the symbol in his hand, but it is not stated that Constantine realized that it was a Christian symbol. This may seem an unfair objection, but it must be stressed that Lactantius also mentions that Licinius has had a dream, in which angels announced his victory. Because this dream is an obvious invention by Lactantius, it is certainly possible that Constantine’s dream is an invention too.

There’s another problem. The -sign certainly was a Christian symbol in the final years of Constantine’s reign. The symbol was also in use prior to the fourth century: readers used it to indicate in the margin of a text that something was chrestos, “useful”. Because an /e/ and an /i/ were more or less interchangeable at this time (iotacism), it is easy to understand why Christians started to use this well-known sign. The problem is when they started to use this.

There is, to the best of my knowledge, only one -sign that possibly dates to the period before the Edict of Milan. It was found in the Preconstantine necropolis underneath the basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome. It is certainly possible that this graffito was created by one of the construction workers, building the now famous church. (BTW: after 326, evidence again that Constantine did not pursue an active pro-Christian policy prior to the conquest of the eastern provinces.) To the best of my knowledge, all other -signs postdate the Edict of Milan, which creates the question what was meant by Constantine when he ordered his soldiers to paint it on their shields, why he put it on a standard, and why he wanted to be shown with the “salvation-bringing symbol”.

The answer is that we don’t know for sure, but the symbol happens to be known from a temple of the Sun God from Illyricum. It is a combination of two symbols: the sun ✲ and the moon crescent Ͻ. We do not know whether Constantine knew this, but it is certainly tempting to assume that he had dedicated his army to the god of light, which he first believed to be Apollo, and later believed to be Christ.

I am not claiming to know exactly what happened, but the normal story about Constantine converting after a cross vision and putting an end to the persecutions, is simply not true. It seems that three emperors contributed to the victory of Christianity: Galerius put an end to the persecutions, Licinius started to cooperate with the Church, and Constantine continued this policy, and really converted at the end of his life. He had, literally, seen the light.

<Overview of Common Errors>

There was an interesting response to this article, which is discussed here.


Mainz Pedestals For Sale?

12 July 2011

One of the twelve reliefs

Of course, the Mainz Pedestals are not for sale. They are safe in the Steinhalle in the Landesmuseum in Mainz, and although the room itself is currently under reconstruction, there is no reason to despair about the museum’s finances. Nevertheless, here is the text of an e-mail I received this weekend:

Hello

Am Mr Roy and am inquiry into your company about Mainz Pedestals? And i will like you to get back to me with the types,sizes and prices of them so  i can proceed with the one am ordering.And i will like to know if you do Accepts major credit card as the mode of payments,And try and include your contact details  when getting back to me , so i can give you a call as soon as possible,

your Prompts response and assistance will be much appreciated,

Thanks, Roy

I confess that I was tempted to reply to Mr Roy that I would love to buy the famous sculptures.


Looting

11 July 2011

It must have been in the late 1980s or very early 1990s; my girlfriend and I were staying in Osuna in Spain. I wanted to visit Irni, where the Lex Irnitana had been found a couple of years before. We had already met a friendly man from Osuna, who had shown us some ancient finds from his land. We told him about our plan to go to Irni, and I think our host told someone that there were two people from Holland in town, interested in antiquities.

Not much later, while we were eating tapas in a restaurant, a young man asked permission to join us, and told us about his work: with a metal detector, he was searching for antiquities, and he sold them to foreigners. I asked him whether he did not feel guilty, but he said he did not; he had in the past told professional archaeologists about his finds, but they had taken his finds to Madrid. So, he had decided to sell his finds to foreigners. In both scenarios, the objects were lost for Osuna, but by selling them, at least something returned to the region: money. (“For yourself”, I thought.)

He offered his help if I wanted to purchase something, which I declined. Apparently, he concluded that we wanted to go to Irni to dig for ourselves, because next day, when we were there, we found the site guarded by someone with a gun, who continued to keep an eye on us, and cheerfully waved us goodbye when we left.

I mention this, because the argument of the young man has always impressed me. If you find something and decide to cooperate with professional archaeologists, and if your only reward is that they send it to another place, there is no stimulus to cooperate. This is why I think that small local museums, like Rindern and Haus Bürgel, are extremely important. They make people realize that the past is also theirs, and make them more willing to cooperate.


Mosella

9 July 2011
Photo Jona Lendering

Downstream from Mehring

The Moselle is really beautiful! We went downstream today from Trier to the Roman villa of Mehring and to Kues (where Cusanus was born in 1401), moved to the hills and visited Belginum, and crossed to the villa of Nennig, with  a splendid mosaic. After that, we returned to Trier, along the beautiful river again. Recommended!

Not recommended: eating fish. Although Ausonius mentions the Moselle fish as a delicatessen, these days, the river is a bit polluted. Nevertheless, a splendid place to go.


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