Improving Livius.org

2 March 2014

The study of history is not just a story based on sources. A scholar is able to explain why he does what he does; awareness of methodological problems is the difference between a professional and a dilettante. Explaining this is of the greatest importance, because there are two disturbing developments.

  1. An increasing number of people has received a higher education, and is capable of recognizing the errors made by professional scholars, who are increasingly specialized and are often insufficiently aware of developments outside their specialism.
  2. On internet, people select the information they like – and this is usually bad information, because bad information drives out good.
The first development causes scepticism, while the second allows it to flourish. We must, therefore, explain our methods: philogical, exegetical, archaeological, historical. In this way, people will understand why information offered by professional scholars is better than other kinds of information.

Although it has, since about 2005, been generally recognized that websites like Livius.org and books for a larger audience must not just present the facts but should explain method as well, no satisfying way to explain method has been found so far. However, we can at least try to create awareness that history is a serious discipline. I have put online some articles on methodological and related topics:

Comments are 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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.


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 Livius.org, 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

Cover

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.


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.

Literature

  • 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.

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 Tertullian.org 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.


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.

Sidon

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.

Beiteddin

Beiteddin

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.


Bagacum (Bavay)

25 November 2012
Photo Marco Prins

The Basilica

I visited Bavay in northern France several years ago, returning from Saulzoir, where Julius Caesar had once defeated the Nervii. The ruins of Bavay were something of a bonus after a day that had been very well-spent, and we were not in a particular hurry. So, we were too late to see the exhibition, but could take some photos of the forum and the basilica. They were impressive, which comes as no surprise, as Bagacum, as it was called, was some kind of showcase of Roman power.

Although I still hope to see the exhibition, some information is already available here.


J.D. Grainger, The Syrian Wars

28 October 2012

If you read this review to see whether a book is sufficiently good to buy it, read no further: John Grainger’s The Syrian Wars is a good book. It is even an important book, and if I will appear to be very critical, this is because it is worth criticizing.

The nine Syrian Wars, waged between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires over the possession of Coele Syria, are a neglected subject. There were few battles to attract the historians’ attention, but more importantly: Rome was at the same time uniting the Mediterranean, a process that was to have more lasting consequences than the eastern wars. Grainger, however, succeeds in showing that the Syrian Wars deserve more attention. He stresses that the conflict was central to the growth of the governmental system of two Hellenistic states, which he calls ‘competitive development’.

On which foundation does he build his thesis? On written sources and coins, of course, which he treats with great care. However, this also means that The Syrian Wars is essentially a N=1 study, which might be refuted easily. As Grainger indicates, any part of his reconstruction can be challenged by the discovery of new texts. If this happens several times, it will be fatal to his thesis.

When empirical foundations are weak, students of most disciplines invoke comparisons. When they do not have sufficient evidence to build a firm structure, it is useful to tie it to more solid objects. This is why historians of Antiquity are inevitably forced to compare their reconstructions to reconstructions of comparable processes in other pre-industrial societies.

Fortunately, the necessary parallels exist. Competitive development is hardly unique; historians and sociologists have often shown that state formation is usually a consequence of a prolonged military conflict. Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is a modern classic. If Grainger had referred to it, his book would have been more convincing, because its thesis would be based on more than one example. N=10 is better than N=1.

The need for comparisons is even greater, because Grainger appears to be unaware of a lot of recent literature. The new sources that might challenge parts of his reconstruction, have in fact already been published. For instance, Grainger’s dates of the Second Diadoch War are based on Manni’s ‘low chronology’ (1949), not on Tom Boiy’s little gem Between High and Low (2007). The relevant new sources are ostraca and cuneiform texts.

Occasionally, Grainger is unaware of new readings of well-known texts. It is strange to see how he antedates the Antigonid invasions of Babylonia to 311, and presents Ptolemy’s naval expedition to the Aegean in 309 as a trick to lure Antigonus away from the eastern theater of war. This leaves the reader with a sense of confusion, because one would expect the two operations to be more or less simultaneous. Fortunately, the problem is only apparent: the Chronicle of the Diadochs (= Babylonian Chronicle 10) dates the Babylonian War to 310/309. Grainger knows the source, but ignores recent scholarship.

This can also be said of his treatment of the reign of Antiochus IV. Fortunately, his treatment resembles Mittag’s beautiful Antiochos IV (2006). Both authors show that the king pursued a policy that is far more rational than the authors of the ancient sources are willing to admit.

Another omission is the set of twenty texts known as the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period. The evidence was known for some time already (seven of these texts were already included in Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975). Several statements of Grainger’s are directly contradicted by BCHP. For example, Grayson says that we do not know where crown prince Antiochus was when his father Seleucus Nicator was assassinated. He settles for Ecbatana, but Chronicles BCHP 5, 6, and 7 suggest that the crown prince often resided in Babylon. (Disclosure: I am involved in the publication, preparing the online editions that scholars use to discuss these chronicles.)

Grainger’s discussion of the Third Syrian War ignores BCHP 11, a chronicle that not only proves that the Egyptians captured Babylon, but also offers interesting details about the fights. After an unsuccessful siege of Seleucia-on-the-Euphrates, Ptolemaic heavy infantry (‘ironclad Macedonians who are not scared of the gods’, according to the chronicler) attacked Babylon, which held out twelve days until it fell on January 20. The citadel remained in the hands of its Seleucid garrison, however, and early in February, the commander of Seleucia tried to lift the blockade. He was defeated and the Seleucid troops who had remained in Seleucia, were massacred. We do not know what happened next, but this is important information. Grainger, unaware of this first-rate source, concludes ‘that Ptolemy crossed the Euphrates but did not reach Babylon’.

The real problem, however, is not that Grainger ignores useful comparisons and recent scholarship. The study of ancient societies is complex, no one can know everything, and scholars cannot even establish what they do not know. Ancient history is the discipline of the unknown unknowns. To fill the lacunas in the knowledge of their writers, publishers have boards of editors. If Grainger is unaware of the existence of BCHP – which is, like so many cuneiform resources, only available online – it is the editors’ task to help. This time, however, the board has been sleeping, which may also explain the unusually great number of typos and the unusually poor maps.

All this should not distract us, however, from the simple fact that Grainger has written an important book that no student of Hellenistic institutions or military history can afford to ignore. With a more energetic board of editors, it might have been a good book, but still, Grainger has achieved his aim: to prove that the continuing conflict forced two Hellenistic states ‘to undertake measures to strengthen themselves internally, financially, militarily, politically, by alliances, and by recruiting manpower, so that they could face yet another war which both sides came to anticipate’.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare]


Velsen

28 October 2012

There’s no particular reason to put online this drawing by Graham Sumner, except for the best reason of all: that I like it. What you see is the Roman naval base at Velsen, just west of Amsterdam, which was in use during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. It is almost certainly identical to the fort named Flevum mentioned by Tacitus. You can read more about it here, or in Edge of Empire.

You can order Edge of Empire here.


Edge of Empire

3 October 2012

Cover

So, here it finally is: the cover of Edge of Empire. Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine. The book is about the Roman occupation of the Low Countries – say Belgium, Netherlands and northern Germany – and contains every relevant literary text, the more interesting inscriptions, and a lot of archaeological information. Basically, my coauthor Arjen Bosman and I use the archaeological data to illustrate that all sources are prejudiced about the people living on the edge of the earth; at the same time, we try to show that you cannot interpret archaeological finds without a profound understanding of textual analysis.

The book has a history of its own. I wrote it in 1999 and it was published in 2000. The reviews were extremely favorable and it was recommended to university students. However, there was a quarrel within the publishing house, and the woman whose project it had been, went away. My book was sort of forgotten and disappeared from the bookshops. Still, I continued to keep notes and improve the text.

The “Lord of Morken”, a Frankish warrior (drawing Johnny Shumate)

Two years ago, another publisher, Athenaeum, decided to reprint it. I asked my colleague Arjen Bosman, who is a professional archaeologist, to contribute, because he knows a lot about the ancient Frisians, a subject that needed more attention. The book was adapted, renamed, and republished with all kinds of illustrations. Again, good reviews and even an award.

And now, Karwansaray publishers makes it available in English. This is also the publisher of Ancient Warfare, which means that it will have the same superb illustrations by people like Johnny Shumate, José Antonio German, and Graham Sumner, and maps by Carlos Garcia.

Order your copy using the links on this page.


Baalbek, Tyre, Belgrade

2 October 2012

Tyre, Al-Bass: Great Arch, probably dedicated to Hadrian.

Over the past months, I have traveled to Lebanon and along the Danube. I have put online quite a lot of stuff.

That’s it for today.

 


“Die Welt der Kelten”, Stuttgart

28 September 2012

Glass bracelet

When archaeologists talk about the Celts, they are usually referring to the Hallstatt and La Tène civilizations: the Iron Age cultures of the people living in Central Europe between, say, 850 and 50 BCE. Right now, there are two exhibitions in Stuttgart about the Celts, together called “Die Welt der Kelten”.

The first exhibition, “Kostbarkeiten der Kunst”, is in the Altes Schloβ. I liked it, even though I profoundly hate it when objects are left in the half-dark, just being beautiful in poorly-illuminated rooms. The quality of the information – important questions like “is this art?” were not ignored – offered sufficient compensation. Moreover, this exhibition is important. The idea is still alive that the Celts were making primitive imitations of classical art. The fact that Paul Jacobsthal’s Early Celtic Art, which was published in 1944, is still a standard work, proves that the subject is a bit ignored.

Princely tomb

The other exhibition, “Zentren der Macht” in the Kunstgebäude, was even better. It is about the history of the Celts, and while the first exhibition was a successful attempt to explain an unusual type of aesthetics, the second one is an extremely successful attempt to introduce you to the ancient people themselves. The two first rooms allow you to understand the problems (“what is a Celt?”, “how reliable are the sources”), and after that, there is the real story.

Dying Gau (Rome): a Celt from the migration age

You can see how social stratification came into being when Celtic leaders managed to control the trade in Mediterranean products. These people were very rich, as you can deduce from their splendid tombs. Agricultural innovations made them even wealthier. After 400, the Celts started to migrate: peasants and bands of warriors reached Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

The end of the exhibition illustrates its high quality. You learn that around 80/70, the great settlements came to an end, and after that, you get information about the campaigns of Julius Caesar (58-50) and Augustus (20-15). In this way, the traditional account, based on written sources, that the Roman conquests put an end to the Celtic states, is challenged. You learn that textual and archaeological evidence are asymmetric.

Yes, this is a good exhibition. And it is so nice to see al those objects together: the Coligny calendar, the Warberg warrior, the finds from Eberdingen-Hochdorf, a copy of the Vix crater. There are animations, models, and drawings; quotes from the ancient authors are written on the walls, and are clearly secondary to the archaeological evidence.

I would have loved to know more about the place of the Celts in nineteenth-century European culture. It was believed that they were, for their own good, subdued by the Romans, and this made them the ancient counterparts of the subjects in the European colonies. I am not convinced that this image is now completely dead.

Heuneberg

Another point of criticism is that photography is prohibited. Granted, there is a good catalog, but catalogs never show the objects from the angle from which you want to study the object. There ought to be some kind of rule against this prohibition, which is the museological equivalent of the paywalls that scientistific publishers use to keep information away from the people who are most interested.

There are two small additional exhibitions, one for school classes and one about the excavations at the Heuneberg (“das Schwäbische Troia”). You will need about five hours to see it all.


Online Sources in the Classroom

15 August 2012

[A response to this post by James F. McGrath]

In 1995 I started my first personal webpage, which I used to publish information on ancient history. It was the beginning of the website that is now called Livius.org. One of the first pieces was a translation of the Behistun Inscription, which was almost immediately copied on the website of a major American university. Because I realized that my website was apparently useful, I decided to improve my articles by adding references to good books.

Somewhere in 1997 (if I recall correctly), I received an e-mail with a letter by four American universities, requesting me to stop adding these references, because my pages were copied by students and presented as assignments. Always wanting to help scholars, I obliged. This means that although I do my best to summarize the communis opinio, or to offer the best interpretation of a given text or event, no user can check the quality of my webpages.

Now the main point of science and scholarship is that the information is not just someone’s opinion, but that it is based on (a) established facts and (b) a well-understood explanatory model (hermeneutics, positivism, comparativism, narrativism, physics of society). And the main point of a popularizing website on ancient history is not that it presents the facts, but that it explains to the people that they must always check the facts and understand the explanatory model. By obliging to the universities’ request, and leaving out what was vital, I essentially killed my own website.

My website is, for me, some kind of open nerve. By trying to help the universities, I missed a chance to make something really useful. When the Dutch classicists and ancient historians offered me an award, I had very, very mixed feelings. Of course a compliment is nice, but people who offer a scholarly award to a website that does not meet the basic requirements, prove that they do not understand what explaining history to a larger audience is all about. That rather diminished the value of the compliment, and I was happier when the Dutch classicists and historians invited me to a meeting to explain a couple of things.

If students cannot check the information – if they cannot know how the facts have been established and which explanatory model is used – students must avoid a website. That’s the first basic lesson. This means that in the present situation, students must just avoid the internet and check their library. Books are a far better source of reliable information.

But there is a more important thing. There used to be a time, not so long ago, that the universities “sent out” information, which society “received”. This is the “sender-receiver model”. The internet now  offers society a possibility to talk back: the “debate model”. Look at the Wikipedia, where activists can change articles to make them suit their own agendas. Or, if activists create a lot of noise, they can silence the voice of reasonable scholars. Communication of scientific and scholarly information has become a debate, and occasionally a shouting match.

In the perfect situation, a bona fide scholar and an activist will both refer to their sources, and can establish what is correct – or comes closest to being correct. Unfortunately, there is no level playing field. After all, bona fide scholarly articles are to be found on pay sites, so in an online debate, the bona fide scholar cannot refer to them.

An example can be found in my own country, where we used to have a minister of Education, Culture, and Science named Maria van der Hoeven, who is on record with some favorable remarks about Intelligent Design. We learned that the woman responsible for our higher education did not understand what the “incompleteness of a theory” meant. There were many publications by professional biologists and other scientists, and there were evangelical Christians who defended the minister. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if I now want to find information about this, I can easily find the Christian information, while the other publications are all behind pay walls. You get the impression that she is the victim of a smear campaign by unthinking scientists. Their voices have been silenced. The second basic lesson about online information is that as long as there is no free access, bad information drives out good. And to some fields of research, the damage is already done.

To sum up: at this moment there is no good reason why students should use the internet. Let’s face it: the internet has failed.


A Divine Comedy

20 July 2012

Dante’s vision of the heavens

I confess that there have been weeks, even months in which I haven’t thought of a brief ancient text called the Apocalypse of Paul. As a matter of fact, until yesterday, I had not even heard of this treatise, which is one of the texts from Nag Hammadi.

But I am not going to start this blog post with an obscure treatise from the Egyptian desert; instead, I start with a better known piece of world literature: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Published between 1308 and 1321, it describes how the poet has a vision, in which he descends into Hell, climbs the Mount of Purgatory, and arrives in Heaven. His guide is the Roman poet Virgil, and it has been assumed that Dante based the structure of the Comedy on the Aeneid, in which the poet descends into the Underworld.

This is of course unsatisfactory. Dante’s poem is too optimistic to be modelled upon a descent into Hell. The Spanish scholar Miguel Asín Palacios discovered a far more plausible model: the Islamic story about Muhamad’s ascension to the seven heavens, the Mi’raj. The classic account of Muhamad’s vision can be found in Ibn Ishaq’s Life of the Prophet, but there are many legends about it. They have been collected in the eleventh-century Kitab al-Miraj (the “Book of the ladder”), which was in 1264 translated into Spanish as La Escala de Mahoma by Abrahim Alfaquim. Dante knew it through his teacher, Brunetto Latini.

In other words, a part of Muhamad’s biography has been embellished; these legends were translated; and Dante used this in his masterpiece. It is always interesting to see how literary themes can jump from one culture to another.

As a matter of fact, the Mi’raj story itself is also an example of this: the Prophet is negotiating with God about the number of prayers that the believers have to say, in a story that very closely resembles the Jewish account of Abraham negotiating with God about the number of righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Dante and Muhamad, however, are not the only visitors of Heaven. In the ancient Jewish world, there used to be a substantial literature about the patriarch Enoch, who is mentioned in Genesis 5.18-24 as one who “walked with God” and who was “taken by God”- in other words, he never died. Since the third century BCE, many stories were told about what Enoch had seen in Heaven, and how he witnessed the great battles between Good and Evil in the early days. This subject matter used to be extremely popular.

However, the rabbis who organized the Jewish Bible excluded the Enochite literature, because they were not convinced that it was Divinely inspired. The early Christians did sometimes quote from Enoch, but in the end also excluded the texts from their scriptures. The exception is the Ethiopian Church, and it is possible that the Mi’raj story is based on the Ethiopian Enoch. However, I think that the Apocalypse of Paul offers a much closer parallel.

It is a very short text – three pages in the translation I consulted – but that is enough to see that it refers to an ascension to heavens. The plural “heavens” is crucial. It is derived from the Pauline epistles, when the apostle says he ascended to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12.1-4). So, I would guess that the Apocalypse of Paul is the missing link between the Book of Enoch and the story of the Mi’raj. However, there are alternatives; Enochite literature was known to Jewish mystics, and they can also be a missing link.

In sum: a motif jumps from one religion to another. The author of the Apocalypse of Paul has combined Enochite and Pauline themes, and is the missing link between Enoch’s ascension to Heaven and the Mi’raj. It might be interesting to look at a connection to the myth of Etana, who was brought to heaven by an eagle.


Thuin

15 July 2012

The same excavation, two times

Last Tuesday, we visited Thuin, not far from Charleroi in Belgium. It is, at the moment, the place that is considered the most likely location of the Belgian defeat against the legions of Julius Caesar. Absolute certainty cannot be achieved, but it is not too far from the Sabis battlefield and Caesar’s description fits the situation quite well. The matter is dealt with in N. Roymans e.a. (eds), Late Iron Age gold hoards from the Low  Countries and the Caesarian conquest of Northern Gaul (2012), and you can read more here, here (with map), and here.

To be honest, Thuin is not worth a detour, and we only went there because we wanted at least one photo for the English translation of De rand van het Rijk (“Edge of Empire”), the book Arjen Bosman and I wrote about the Roman presence in the Low Country.

The site is covered by a nice forest where it is nice to walk; it’s called the Bois du Grand Bon Dieu, and there’s a nice chapel. It is best approached from a country house called “l’Ermitage” in the southwest or from northeast; over here, you can still see the remains of an old excavation – see photo above.

Other photos here. More about Edge of Empire here.


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