Casey on the Mythicist Jesus

28 July 2014

caseyDon’t I have a heart, to write a piece about an unsuccessful book by a writer who has died only recently? Mustn’t a reviewer stick to the principle that of the dead, we say nothing unless it is something good?

Yes, of course. Except when the author has raised a topic of particular interest. Maurice Casey’s Jesus. Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? is such a book and if I am quite critical about it, it is because I think the author has recognized the urgency of a very serious problem that deserves much more attention.

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Pregnant stone delivers

3 July 2014
The baby stone

The baby stone

Today, I received a message from a friend in Beirut, who recently visited Baalbek. When you arrive to that city, you will pass the ancient quarry, where you will see the largest stone that was ever cut by men. It is called Hajar al-Hibla, the “pregnant stone”. The owner of the nearby souvenir shop greeted my friend with the words that “the pregnant has delivered!”

What had happened? Archaeologists had been inspecting the site, when they discovered a small, straight stone edge. They investigated it, and soon discovered a “baby stone” that is probably even bigger than its mother. Hajar al-Hibla has a length of twenty meters and a height and width of 4½ meters, this one is 5 meters wide; its width is still unknown. No doubt, both stones were cut out for the nearby temple of Jupiter.

The photo above was sent to me by my friends at travel agency Libanva.


Judith Weingarten reminds me of the unfinished obelisk attributed to Hatshepsut. It is 42 m long and 2.5-4.4 m wide. It is even bigger than the stones at Baalbek.

Collapsing Civilizations

4 May 2014

clineCenturies after the destruction of Troy, its mighty walls still stood, eight meters high. Its sanctuaries and well house were recognizable. It is easy to imagine how the shepherds on the plain were impressed and told stories about the ancient city. Once, there had been a terrible war, they will have said, and the warriors had been people of superhuman strength. Not even those heroes, however, could have built the walls: they were not made by men but by gods.

Gods, heroes, and century-old ruins: that was all that a poet like Homer knew about Bronze Age Troy, the background of his Iliad. Other bards sung about Knossos, Mycenae, and Thebes, and in their poems we can also recognize echoes from the fourteenth and thirteenth century BCE. Echoes, only echoes: the poems were largely fictitious. The Aegean Bronze Age civilization was almost completely forgotten.

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Major Archaeological Discovery!

1 April 2014


My Dutch blog has more readers than my English one. Perhaps it has, in Holland, even some influence. After I had written how Israeli archaeologists are angling for funds by presenting every find as confirming this Biblical story or contradicting that one, I was invited even by a Christian broadcasting organization to explain how this was damaging the study of ancient society.

Today, I received an interesting e-mail from an Israeli archaeologist who liked my point of view but wanted to show me that occasionally, archaeology does indeed confirm the story of the Bible. So, I now have a real scope: the discovery of the stone shown above.

Discovered in Cafarnaum, it looks like a normal stone, but it isn’t. It has been identified as the very object that is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew (8.20) and Luke (9.58): the place which the Son of Man did not have to lay his head.


9 January 2014

Messianic symbols: the star of David on the rebuilt Temple

I am currently writing about the rise of eschatological speculation in the second century BCE. Many texts, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, are quite allusive: you need to know what the Branch, the Shoot, the Star and so on mean to understand what the text is about. It’s one big intertextual web.

But why?

I do not think it was necessary to write in code. At first, I thought it was a bit of a toy for the writing elite, which is not without parallel in ancient literate societies. The Epic of Gilgamesh already contains puns and word plays. But another thought crossed my mind: you can see a similar, highly allusive, kind of poetry at the same time in Alexandria.

If Greek concepts like the soul can find their way to sectarian Jewish religious texts, and if even an anti-Hellenistic text like Maccabees dates events to the Seleucid era, is it possible that a Callimachus influenced Jewish writers?

On a related note: is it too far-fetched to draw a parallel between the use of a dead type of Greek in the Second Sophistic and the use of Hebrew in the Mishna? (Personally, I think this is far-fetched, but perhaps someone knows more.)

Your input is welcome.

Ancient Afghanistan

30 November 2013

holtWhen we think of ancient Greek civilization, we rarely think of Afghanistan and the Punjab. We’re not alone. Most historians ignore these countries too. One of the few exceptions is the American historian Frank Holt, who has been studying ancient Bactria and Gandara for many years.

Lost World of the Golden King is his latest and most interesting book, but unlike his earlier publications, he is not focusing on Antiquity but on the study of Antiquity. In this way, he shows the study of the past at its best.

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Henchmen of Ares

10 November 2013

ares_coverHere is a book I would like to recommend: it is called Henchmen of Ares. Warriors and Warfare in Ancient Greece, and it is written by my colleague Josho Brouwers. It was published a couple of days ago by Karwansaray, which is also responsible for my own Edge of Empire. If you still were under the impression that this little piece was in any way objective, I will add that I am the book’s editor.

That being said, I probably would have recommended this book also if I had not been heavily involved in this project. The book, which is a reworked and revised version of the author’s Ph.D. thesis, is an attempt to seriously combine all kinds of evidence, both the written sources and the archaeological finds, to reconstruct the way the Greeks fought their wars in the Mycenaean and Archaic Ages. I learned a lot from it.

This being a book by the publisher who is also responsible for Ancient Warfare magazine, you know what you can expect: a good text that is lavishly illustrated, lots of up-to-date information, good maps, excellent illustrations by well-known military artists like Johnny Shumate and Graham Sumner.

Writing for a large audience no longer is what it used to be. The age in which professional academics “sent” their information to an audience has passed. The audience, nowadays, is highly educated (up to 40% in the western world), selects information, and will not accept the facts, unless they also learn how scholars have established these facts. More and more, the content they need resembles an academic publication, except for the fact that the larger audience is not interested in which scholar has reached what conclusion. That’s only important for the academic bean counters counting publications, creating citation indexes, and killing the humanities.

The common system, often used by people writing for a larger audience, of creating a “ladder” (a list of books of increasing difficulty that brings the reader to the frontiers of scholarship) is not well-suited to books. In Henchmen of Ares, we have instead decided to offer an exceptionally long chapter full of bibliographic notes. The ugly end notes and foot notes have been replaced by a chapter in which the sources are mentioned for every subject. This is a quite novel way of presenting the information: the reader can use it as a ladder and can ignore it, but he will never have a dull text. This system will not be useful for all books, but it may be a way to serve an increasingly fragmented audience.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

19 September 2013

Syrian refugees sit around a stove inside their tent during a winter storm in Zahle. The vast majority of the refugees are from the hard-hit provinces of Homs and Damascus. (c) Washington Post

This blog is on ancient history, but today, I make an exception. Those who have followed me over the past year and a half, know that I’ve been to Lebanon three times – and it is for this country modern that I ask your attention. (Next time, I will be blogging about some site in Gaul, some senator, or some Anatolian king again. Promise.)

According to last week’s UNHCR figures, about two million people from Syria have left their country. Some 720,000 people have been registered in Lebanon, a country with some four million inhabitants that already hosts some 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Because I cannot really understand what it means, I decided to ask Maya, who lives in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, some twenty kilometers from the Syrian border.

First two questions about numbers. 720,000 people is almost incredible. Do you believe that it is accurate?
When it comes to counting refugees, accuracy is always an issue. We have the non-registered, the registered, and the ones who come back and forth to Lebanon. But all in all, I think the number is much more than that. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon may be more than 900,000.

You live in Zahle. With some 50,000 inhabitants, it is the first major town a refugee from Damascus will visit. How many Syrians are there in your hometown?
In fact, the Bekaa Valley itself rather than Zahle, which is already on the slopes of the mountains, is the main destination for refugees. The valley is closer to the Syrian border, most refugees settle in Bekaa regions like Ghazzeh, Kabelias, Barelias, Majdel Anjar, Saadneyel, Marej, Taalabaya. Fewer Syrians settle in Zahle since it’s more expensive to live here; in the regions I mentioned the number of refugees is high because they can set up tents, something we rarely see in Zahle. Approximately 400,000 Syrians live in the Bekaa.

How are these people sheltered?
I think it’s important to keep in mind that Syrians from different social classes are settling in Lebanon. The rich Syrians settle mainly in Beirut, while the less fortunate settle in the Bekaa. Those who have a good financial status may choose Zahle and Chtaura, while others have no other choice than staying in tents or old buildings and garages.

Who is paying for that? Is it just the UNHCR?
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, many NGOs gathered and united to help the refugees, many organizations cooperate in order to assist those people in need. NGOs are helping refugees by giving food vouchers, hygiene and baby kits, mattresses and blankets, stoves during wintertime, establishing toilets …. UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, World Vision, ACF, DRC, NRC among others are highly contributing to the Syrians’ cry for help.

I recall that Zahle is a Christian town in a predominantly Shi’ite region. Does this mean you receive mostly Christian refugees?
I believe that this issue is hard to elaborate on since most refugees do not mention any personal religious details,  but I think we live in a zone where people have always preferred to live with people of the same religious background. I believe this is still applicable nowadays (each town contains people from the same religion), so I must say that refugees will choose to settle in regions where they would feel comfortable among people who share their religious beliefs. With religious conflicts arising in Lebanon and the Arab countries, refugees have to avoid such problems.

Are the new people in your town a very visible group? How did their presence change your lives?
I think that the main impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is financial: we noticed an increase in prices of houses, rental fees, prices of food items … Still, we can’t associate this increase to the refugees only, because we have always experienced price changes in Lebanon; but the rate of the increase is getting bigger. Another main problem we are facing nowadays is the sense of insecurity of the Lebanese people. Refugees have no money, they lost everything they owned in Syria, and have nothing left to lose. This has made them consider stealing and begging as a way to make money.

Lebanon does not produce enough electricity for its needs. Blackouts are quite normal. Has this increased?
Blackouts are still occurring, there was and still is a great need. I don’t think demand should increase any further.

Is it only a tragedy? I can imagine that there must be people in Zahle, like the owner of a bakery or grocery, who must make lots of money right now.
People who are benefiting the most are land owners, landlords, and shop owners, especially those who are partnering with NGOs in order to exchange food vouchers with food items.

How do the Zahleans respond?
Lebanon always lacked tranquility, and Syria has had a great role in adding to that. Perhaps you have heard that a couple of years ago, Syrian tanks and military forces left Lebanese lands and went back to Syria. What most people don’t know, however, is what exactly happened prior to this retreat: how the Syrians mistreated the Lebanese people, harmed, killed, and took advantage of many things and people. It’s safe to say that the problems between Lebanese and Syrians go way back and lots of Lebanese citizens have suffered losses because of this dark period, in which the dominance of Syrian forces was inescapable.

For that reason, the Lebanese find it difficult to be welcoming, even though many refugees are innocent people. But after bloodshed, some things can’t be forgotten. Nevertheless, no problems were caused by Lebanese against Syrians, but the frustration is starting to show through people’s nagging about the great number of Syrians, the prices increase…

And most importantly, the Lebanese people themselves are getting no aid from NGOs yet many of them are in need as well, and they too are affected by the Syrian crisis. For example, Syrian people easily take jobs in Lebanon, especially as laborers. Since they accept lower wages than Lebanese people, this increases the unemployment rates in Lebanon and causes Lebanese citizens to get even more frustrated.

I was told that the situation was so difficult, that there some refugees were going back to Damascus. Is that true?
That’s true. There are two groups of them. Some of them go back because they find it hard to live in Lebanon, where everything is more expensive than Syria. (This might change shortly because an increase in prices is taking place in Syria.) Others go back and forth to check on their families, relatives, and possessions. After all, Syrian refugees never miss a chance to express their eagerness to go back to Syria and always wish things would go back as they were before the crisis began.

Thank you for answering these questions.

Last week, the UNHCR announced that their lack of funding was catastrophic. If you want to donate some money, you can do it here.

Roman Toulouse

17 August 2013

Relief from the Musée Saint-Raymond, Touloyse

I have never met Mr Michel Gybels, who lives somewhere in southern France, likes to visit ancient ruins, and writes nice pieces about them. He already wrote for the Livius website about several cities in ancient Greece and Anatolia, and about the excavations in southern France. I must not forget that he knows an awful lot about medieval Catharism as well – this is his Dutch website – which explains why he has also contributed a piece on Manicheism.

His latest piece is about the excavations west of Toulouse, ancient Tolosa. I have added a history of the city, and was glad that I could refer to so many sources that are nowadays online available. Most photos by Gybels.

You will find the Toulouse stuff by Gybels and yours truly here.

Roman Military History

10 August 2013

Although nothing seems to change at LacusCurtius and, that’s not really true. At the first site, Bill Thayer is doing a lot of proofreading, while at the second site, I have corrected a lot of minor and major factual errors. One of these had been in my inbox for nine months, because I am occupied with many other things, including my book on the “parting of ways” between Judaism and Christianity.

I am also trying to have the website converted to better software. The trouble is that I neither have sufficient time to do it myself nor €12,000 to outsource it. If someone has a brilliant plan, drop me a line.

Still, we’re adding things, although it’s mostly Bill, who is adding all kind of ancient texts to the “Roman Military History” section of LacusCurtius. You will find an English translation of Caesar’s Civil Wars and Hirtius’ Alexandrine War (Latin/English), African War (Latin/English), and Spanish War (Latin/English). The Gallic War will be there too, but not yet. Also available: Onasander, The General (Greek/English) and Aeneas Tacticus (Greek/English).

Le Clos de la Lombarde

31 July 2013

House of the Genius

Michel Gybels sent me a nice piece, with photos, of a usually closed excavation in Narbonne (France), called Le Clos de la Lombarde. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered the foundations of houses, workshops, and a bathhouse. Later, the remains of a Christian basilica and a cemetery were excavated as well.

Go here for the story and the photos.

Shameless self-advertising

28 July 2013


Some time ago, my friend and colleague Arjen Bosman and I could proudly announce that Edge of Empire, our book about the Romans in the Low Countries, had been translated into English. However, it took some time until it reached the bookshops, but now the award-winning book ought to be available easily. You can also order it on Amazon or buy it directly at the website of the publisher. If you live in Holland, this webpage is the place to go.

Why you should buy this book? To read it, in the first place. Without false modesty: this is a nice book about a subject that deserves more attention than it usually gets. An English review of the original Dutch version is here.

Marathon in Brescia

22 July 2013

Marathon Sarcophagus, Museo Santa di Santa Giulia (Brescia)

The photo above shows a battle scene on a sarcophagus in the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia in northern Italy. It’s very common to decorate sarcophagi with representations of the Trojan War or the clash between the Greeks and the Amazons, but this is not a mythological fight: it represents the final stage of the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians repulsed a Persian army.

Some thirty, forty years after the battle, the Athenians dedicated a monument to their victory: the Stoa Poikile or Painted Colonnade. There were four paintings, made by either Polygnotus or Micon and Panaenus (the sources are contradicting), and one of these represented the fight at Marathon. The author Pausanias mentions “the fight at the ships and the Greeks slaughtering Persians as they jump into them”.

To be honest, I am not very sure about the identification. It is easy to recognize the Athenians, who are shown in heroic nudity and wear Greek helmets, but the Persians do not strike me as very realistic. I would have expected the man who is carried to the ship to wear trousers: the normal way in which the Greeks represented Persians. On the other hand, I would not know who else might be shown with this kind of headband.

So let’s assume that it’s indeed the Battle of Marathon we are witnessing. Then we have important evidence to reconstruct the fight. The classical account is written by Herodotus, who wants us to believe that the Athenians, after a stalemate of several days, unexpectedly crossed the plain and attacked the Persians. This is strange, because we would expect the Persians to send mounted archers to obstruct the Athenian advance. Where was the Persian cavalry?

There is, however, another story about the Battle of Marathon, which can be found in the biography of the Athenian commander Miltiades by the Roman author Cornelius Nepos (first century BCE) and in the Suda, a tenth century Byzantine lexicon. According to these sources, deserters from the Persian army had come to the Athenian camp, telling that the cavalry were away. But why? It has been argued that the Persians had become uneasy with the situation on the plain. They may indeed have decided to evacuate the place to attack the Athenian port, and if this is true, they must have led their horses to their ships. I have always liked this hypothesis.

The Brescia relief suggests a different possibility. To the left, you can see a horse. If you look carefully, you can see how a Greek, facing to the left, unsaddles the Persian rider, who is shown tumbling behind his horse. Only his head is still visible. This would suggest that there was indeed Persian cavalry on the battlefield, which in turn suggests that the horses were not on the ships, but were somewhere else and returned to the battlefield in the final stage of the fight. So, here we have additional evidence, and the main result is only the falsification of a hypothesis. It is not much, but it’s something.

Final remark: it is long ago that I visited Brescia. I have no photos, but this one comes to me through my friend Sepideh Ramezani, a student in Trento, who asked her fellow-student Luca Adami to help me get this photo; and he asked Mr Alessandro Frassine, who took the photo. Thank you very much!

Several new pages

30 June 2013

One of the new Behistun photos

The Livius website was founded, in a different form and on another URL, in 1995: almost twenty years ago. It desperately needs to be rebuilt, using new software. Methodological points need to be explained as well, and I want to use the upgrade to add references to the sources that have in the meantime become available on reliable sites, such as LacusCurtius. I also want to undo the fatal error I described here: obliging to a request by several universities not to add references to secondary literature.

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to upgrade it, and I hesitate to add new pages, because I suspect that work I do now, will have to be done again after the conversion. So, that brings the website to some kind of standstill.

This does not mean that nothing happens. Mr Michel Gybels, who has already contributed to the website before, has sent me pages on several archaeological sites in Asia Minor: Euromos, Alexandria in Troas, Phocaea, Clarus, Labranda, and Magnesia on the Meander. I also added a page on Jupiter Heliopolitanus (the god of Baalbek) and Majdel Anjar, plus new photos of the Behistun relief.

The Eburones

24 April 2013
Model of the Eburonian village at Hambach-Niederzier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

Model of the Eburonian village at Hambach-Niederzier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 57 BCE, Julius Caesar conquered the valley of the Upper- and Middle- Meuse, which, he said, was inhabited by Belgian tribes. Among the members of the Belgic confederation were the Eburones. In his campaign notes, the Roman general mentions them together with three other tribes, adding that they were called Germanic (Gallic War, 2.4). This may indeed mean that they were of Germanic descent, but the four Eburonian names we know are perfectly  comprehensible in Celtic (Eburones is related to the word for yew; Aduatuca means “place of the soothsayer”; Ambiorix means “ruler-king”; and Catuvolcus means “hero”).

Caesar explains that the heartland of the Eburones was between the Meuse and Rhine (Gallic War, 5.24), which probably is more or less identical to the Belgian and Dutch provinces called Limburg, and the western part of Nordrhein-Westphalen. In any case, it was north of the Ardennes. South of these old mountains lived the Treverans, of whom the Eburones were a client-tribe, which was protected by the mightier tribe (Gallic War, 4.6).

Caesar tells his most important story about the Eburones in Gallic War 5.24-37. In the winter of 54/53 BCE, the Fourteenth Legion had its winter quarters on a place called Aduatuca or Atuatuca, when the Eburones attacked the Romans. Its commanders, Sabinus and Cotta, trusted the Eburonian king Ambiorix, who appeared to be trustworthy, even when he could not control his men. However, when the legionaries left their camp and started to march in the direction indicated by the Eburonian leader, they were unexpectedly attacked. After returning to Atuatuca, the Roman soldiers committed suicide.

This story is problematic. In the first place, we do not know where it happened. It is tempting to identify the Atuatuca of the Eburones with the later Roman city with the same name, modern Tongeren. However, there are no Roman finds that confirm the presence of the legion: it seems that the Roman city of Atuatuca was built on virgin soil. The objection that “absence of evidence is no evidence of absence” does not apply, because Tongeren has been investigated on many places.

The second problem is that the Eburones were a very small tribe. Caesar mentions them as being able to raise 40,000 soldiers together with three other tribes. Even if we assume that the Eburones were the largest of these four, it is impossible that they could raise sufficient warriors to annihilate a well-trained, heavily-armed legion.

Perhaps we will have more certainty about the campaign once Atuatuca has been identified. It must have been close to modern Tongeren, because the name was transferred from the camp of the Fourteenth to the later city. Two treasures from the mid-first century, found at Heers (2000) and Maastricht-Amby (2008), also suggest military activity in the neighborhood. A possible location is Caestert, where a Late Iron Age-hillfort has been identified; its excavator, Heli Roosens, has mentioned mass cremations, but has never published them, and it is not known where he has found it.

Caesar’s revenge was terrible. In the Spring of 53, he invited everyone who wanted to join him, to help massacre the Eburones. Ambiorix managed to escape (Livy, Periochae, 107) and his fellow-leader Catuvolcus committed suicide. Nothing more was heard of the Eburones. About three hundred days after they had defeated a Roman legion, they no longer existed as a political entity. Later, a tribe called the Tungri was living in the area.

However, it remains to be seen whether the Eburones were all wiped out, as Caesar claims. The ancient armies could hardly exterminate complete nations. On the other hand, from pollen findings in the area of Jülich (north of Aix-la-Chapelle), it appears that the number of pastures and cornfields fell from the mid-first century BCE and that forests were again growing there. On this land at least, there were no farmers any more. However, it is not clear if this is representative of the whole country of the Eburones, so this remains an open question.


  • Toorians, L., “Aduatuca, ‘place of the prophet’. The names of the Eburones as representatives of a Celtic language, with an excursus on Tungri”, in: Creemers, G. (ed.), Archaeological contributions to materials and immateriality, Atvatvca 4 (2013) 108-121.

The Tomb of Daniel

16 March 2013

The mausoleum of Daniel, seen from the Bronze Age settlement

We would have expected the tombs of Esther and Mordecai, about which I already wrote, in Susa, but they are in Hamadan. In Susa, though, you can find the tomb of the prophet Daniel, which you would have expected in Babylon.

In its present form, the mausoleum dates back to the twelfth century, with many more recent additions. It is mentioned by the Jewish writer Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Susa in 1167. You will not meet many Jews over there, because the mausoleum is Islamic. A modern wall painting quotes Imam Huseyn (the man who died at Kerbala), who invites Shi’ite Muslims to visit the place: “Anyone who visits my brother Daniel, it is like he visited me.” There used to be another wall painting, showing Daniel in the lions’ den, but it has been overpainted.

But why do Muslims venerate Daniel? After all, the prophet is not mentioned in the Quran. The answer is given by Tabari, a Persian collector of historical anecdotes who lived in the late ninth and early tenth century, and wrote about the Arabian conquests.

The tomb of the prophet

He tells that the Arabs had invaded southwestern Iran (Khuzestan) and started to besiege Susa. The Christian priests and monks insulted their enemy, boasting that the Arabs could only capture the city only if they’d receive support from the devil. However, the city gate collapsed more or less spontaneously, and the Arabs took Susa without much effort. Persian noblemen were executed and the treasury of the church was looted.

Here, the conquerors found a silver sarcophagus with a mummy, which was believed to Daniel’s. A signet ring showing a man between two lions seemed to confirmed this, and when Caliph Umar, who had first ordered the sarcophagus to be buried in the river Shaour, heard about this, he had second thoughts and ordered a decent funeral.

An ancient Christian cult for a Jewish prophet had become an Islamic cult, even though the Quran knew nothing about Daniel. This is quite interesting, because it proves that in the age of the great Arab conquests, the Islamic religion still had to get its own character. I like the idea, proposed by Fred Donner, that it was a kind of ecumenical movement of Jews, Christians, and Arabs who had accepted monotheism. If that was indeed the nature of early Islam, it is less of a surprise to find a Jewish prophet being venerated by Muslims.

The Tombs of Esther and Mordecai

16 March 2013
The mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai

The mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai

There have always been Jewish communities in the Islamic countries. After all, the Jews are “people of the book”, or dhimmis, who are entitled to protection and are not to be forced into conversion. However, there is no denying that the Jewish communities in the Near East are in decline. I am afraid that the beautifully restored synagogue in Beirut will never be used. There’s a famous joke that in Baghdad, there are only two Jews left, who are quarrelling. In Hamadan, a great city in western Iran, there are some thirty Jewish families, which is considerably less than the 3,000–6,000 Jews that used to live there after the Second World War, or the 30,000 mentioned in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, the place is of some significance to oriental Judaism, because in the city center, there’s a small mausoleum, which is dedicated to Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai, the two heroes of the Biblical book Esther. It is a beautiful, small building, made of bricks. Even when you don’t have a Ph.D. in architectural history, you can easily date it to the Middle Ages: it looks like a Seljuk türbe, or tomb-tower.

The two cenotaphs

The two cenotaphs

The two tombs inside the building can be dated to the thirteenth century. They are empty. The Hebrew inscription on the walls inform us that the cenotaphs were built by the mother of two brothers, who had served as physicians at the court of a Mongol ruler.

So, the mausoleum has nothing to do with the two Biblical persons. However, it must be noticed that the veneration of Esther and Mordecai is quite old: it was mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish author who visited Hamadan in the mid-twelfth century. Why the Jews of Hamadan had, by that time, started to venerate the Achaemenid queen and her relative, is a bit of a mystery: after all, the scene of the story is laid in Susa. Nevertheless, it seems certain that the cult of Esther and Mordecai antedates the building of the mausoleum that is now shown as their final resting place.

Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages Are Important

25 February 2013

Mithras relief from Dormagen

When, in 2040, the departments of humanities will be closed, an elderly historian will perhaps wonder what caused the demise of scholarship. Probably, he will answer that the humanities no longer wanted to live. Somewhere between 1995 and 2005, the will to survive vanished. The ancient, venerable scholarly disciplines no longer wanted to add something meaningful to the shared heritage of mankind.

The turning point, our historian will find out, had been the invention of the internet. Until then, scholars and scientists had communicated their results to the larger audience in a way that can be described as transmitter and receiver: researchers sent out information – books, journals, TV – and the people listened. But at the turn of the millennium, communication became more interactive. People could talk back and could shape the nature of the discourse. Our historian will gladly quote from Time Magazine, which had chosen “you” as the person of the year 2006. The transmitter-receiver metaphor no longer applied; the best metaphor to describe the way in which scientists and scholars explained themselves to the people, became the dialog.

A fine example, our historian will conclude, is Wikipedia, which was a kind of meeting place of good and bad information. Our historian will concede that the designers of the encyclopedia had realized the importance of debate from the very beginning: if someone had a question about someone else’s contribution, they could discuss these issues. It was good that in these debates, people immediately started to refer to their sources, and our historian will recognize that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, everybody recognized the importance of at least looking scientific or scholarly. Compared to the beginning of the twentieth century, that was a leap forward. The greatest achievement of western civilization in the twentieth century was that one-third of the population had had access to higher education.

Unfortunately, our historian will notice, this was not a guarantee of quality. He will discover that the online debates were easily hijacked by activists, because in the debate between good and bad information, between good and poor scholarship, bad information drove out good. Our historian will find it incredible, but he will establish that reliable information was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, deliberately kept away from the larger public by pay walls. In the fight against activists, bona fide scholars and scientists fought with their arms tied, and by 2005, the damage was done.

This being the nature of the game, one would have expected that philologists, historians, archaeologists, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars would have fought back, but our future historian will discover that this rarely happened. If something was done at all, it was just presenting the facts, which were often correct indeed, but they were offered without any further explanation.

Still, there were professional researchers who investigated how to explain science and scholarship to the people successfully. They recommended scientists and scholars to explain methods and theories, but few scholars bothered to take care. Where was the book, our historian will be wondering, that explained the Lachmann method or the hermeneutic cycle to the larger audience?

Slowly, he will start to understand why so many people could, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, claim to be scholars, and were never contradicted: the scholars never explained how they achieved their results, giving the impression that scholarship was not a real, professional discipline, but a kind of amateurish hobby to which anyone might contribute. Precisely when information was transferred less by transmitter-receiver and more as a dialog, and when a highly educated audience demanded more information than just facts, the scholars retreated from the debate, not explaining what mattered most.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our historian will think, three things ought to have been the top priorities if the humanities were to survive:

  1. online encyclopedias, written by professional scholars – and of course for free, because the people had already paid taxes and the information was already theirs;
  2. a sound explanation of methods and theories;
  3. an active policy to refute errors and mistakes.

Our future historian will notice that scholars refused to live up to the expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. There were some websites on which something was explained, but they were rare, they were created after the damage had been done, and they covered only the first of the three requirements. Too little, too late, too incomplete. There will be a wry smile at the historian’s face when he writes about the self-pity of the early twenty-first century scholars: they were never tired of complaining that nobody seemed to understand why the humanities mattered, but they rarely explained.

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide. Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best. People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.


One of these is Roger Pearse, the webmaster of and a tireless fighter against quack history. In December, he has started a website on the Roman god Mithras. It offers a basic account of the Mithraic mysteries, it offers the sources, and most of all: it offers the arguments to refute theories that present Mithraism as an essentially Persian cult (it isn’t) and that it heavily influenced Christianity (it didn’t).

If we want to avoid that a historian, writing in 2040, will conclude that our generation is the one that killed scholarship, we desperately need more websites like these. But I am not optimistic. As long as our academics are more interested in the length of their publication list than in their duty to the larger audience, the humanities are doomed.

Proud reenactors

13 February 2013

Untitled-5Every two years, the Roman Festival is celebrated in Nijmegen, a city in the Netherlands that was founded, more than two thousand years ago, by the Romans. Attracting thousands of visitors, the festival is the country’s main Roman event, and it takes place on one of the country’s main Roman sites: the Kops Plateau, once the headquarters of the army of Drusus. The visitors can see ancient trades, buy the latest journals and books, have a Roman snack, or listen to lectures offered by historians, classicists, and archaeologists.

But the reenactors are responsible for most fun. A first, too simple definition of a reenactor is that he is a volunteer, dressed in a historical costume, who explains how things used to be in the past. In Nijmegen, reenactors stage wedding and funeral ceremonies, but you can also see fighting gladiators and exercising soldiers.

Romans. Clothing from the Roman era in North-West Europe by photographer Stef Verstraaten contains more than 180 portraits of those modern Romans. You can see a potter, and when you turn the page, you face a mother with two children. A general just stood up from his chair, a surgeon with a bloody tunic stands next to a musician. You can see cavalrymen, a fortune-teller, a standard-bearer, a female slave and a priest. Two soldiers look at you from behind their catapult. One photo shows a beautifully dressed woman, and another photo shows her hairdo.

1Look at the details, like a soldier’s mantle, and you can see with how much care these clothes have been made. The chair of the Roman general is the reconstruction of a find from Nijmegen, the woman’s hairdo is from Palmyra, and the strange staff of the seer is a lituus from Kalkriese. As a reenactor, you don’t want to be seen in a costume that’s not perfect.

That reenactors aim for perfection is, of course, a good thing. However, debates about the perfect reconstruction can be very intense. Fortunately, most reenactors can laugh about it: the discussion about the colors of the uniform of Roman soldiers is mockingly called “the tunic war”. Sometimes, however, the debates get out of control and reenactment groups fall apart. It is the down side of a sincere passion.

The passion for accuracy is the reason why the definition offered above is too simple. Several reenactors do serious research and there is no clear distinction between reenactment and experimental archaeology. The book I reviewed before, Die römische Armee im Experiment by Koepfer, Himmler, and Löffl, illustrates some of the results of a project by the University of Augsburg.

2To be honest, scientists have conducted experiments of greater importance. It is not extremely important that, when there is 10 mm of rain, a Roman shield becomes only 500 grams heavier. Granted, a very famous description of soldiers being unable to fight in the rain because their shields were soaked, must be an invention by the author. And granted, this forces us to reconsider his account of a very famous battle. But the world will not really change by this new interpretation. The importance of reenactors for scholarship and science is, therefore, not terribly great, while their importance for the transfer of knowledge can hardly be overestimated.

But the question why reenactment is important, is in fact the wrong one. We don’t ask about the importance of a visit to a forest or a concert either. No one will contest your right to enjoy some lovely trees or nice music. And so it is with experiencing the past: it is nice, there is nothing wrong with that, and reenactors are specialists in helping people enjoy the past.

Romans. Clothing from the Roman era in North-West Europe shows what, nowadays, we think the inhabitants of northern Gaul, Britain, and the Germanic provinces must have looked like. But there’s more to enjoy. Verstraaten’s book also shows the proud faces of people who know that they can make their audience happy by sharing their love for the past. Reenactors are privileged people.

Lebanon, again

31 December 2012
Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

For the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege to visit Lebanon. Starting in Beirut, where we visited the splendid National Museum again, we embarked upon a very, very leisurely trip around. At the Nahr al-Kalb, we managed to reach the inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which is covered by all kinds of vegetation, and will soon have disappeared.

Byblos, which I could not really appreciate during my earlier visit because I did not understand its stratigraphy, turned out to be a lot more accessible now that I knew what to expect. It was interesting to think where Wen Amun must have built his tent and where the king must have had his throne.

We proceeded to the Kadisha valley, which is the heartland of Maronite Christianity. Before entering it, we visited Amioun, Bziza, and Aïn Akrine, three sites with Roman temples. In Bsharre (the town of Kahlil Gibran), we climbed to a Phoenician tomb, and had lunch with a view of the snow-covered cedar trees.

Cedar tree

After this, we visited the Bekaa valley and Baalbek. Because we had started early and had slept in a hotel in the valley, we could arrive very early in the morning, and were almost the only people at the site, except for the guards. Returning to our hotel, we passed along Qsarnaba, Niha, and Nabi Ayla.

We also saw the Palestinian refugees who had been bombed away from Damascus – but this is not the place to write about those poor people, who most certainly did not deserve this.


Next day, it was raining cats and dogs, but we were in Sidon, where we greatly enjoyed watching how the storm pushed the surf against the sea castle. Some of the waves must have been fifteen meters high and it was really spectacular. The same can be said of the lovely mosaics in the Beiteddin palace. The last place we visited in Beirut was the museum of the American University.

There was a bonus, though: our airplane was delayed and we were unable to catch the connecting flight in Istanbul. So, our trip lasted an additional day, and we saw a snow-covered Hagia Sophia and, in the archaeological museum, the royal sarcophagi from Sidon.



I cannot wait to go back to the only place in the world where you can listen to “o come let us adore him” and at the same time hear a mu’ezzin’s call for prayer. My Facebook photos are here and here; and today I added photos of the temples of Aïn Akrine, the rock tombs of Amioun, the Phoenician tomb at Bsharre, the sanctuary at Bziza, and the temple at Qsarnaba. Some older stuff from Lebanon is here.


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