Johannes De Laet and Hugo Grotius

28 July 2011

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.


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