1000 Ancient Sites on Google Maps

1 May 2009
Bu Njem

Bu Njem

What you are looking for, is here.

Common Errors (1): Archimedes’ Heat Ray

20 April 2009

It is one of the most impressive movie scenes I have ever seen: how Archimedes set Roman warships afire with a burning mirror, in the famous Italian movie Cabiria (1914; scene starts at 20’24). The incident, which took place during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, can be found in many history books and continues to amaze. Unfortunately, it can not be true.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes' hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

There are two arguments. In the first place, the laws of physics. On at least three occasions, people have tried to repeat the trick; they established that, if you use dozens of mirrors, you can indeed set fire to an object at a short distance (50-60 meter). The sources, however, refer to only one mirror or a couple of mirrors. Worse, the object must remain on the same place for some time, which is not very likely: the Roman galleys were subject to waves, winds, and swell. To really work, the mirror must have a diameter of at least eleven meters, which is larger than the largest telescope mirror ever made.

As a practical instrument, the weapon can, therefore, not exist, unless Archimedes could suspend the laws of nature. The story is pseudoscientific in its most elementary sense.

The second argument is that the famous incident is not recorded in our sources. Historians like Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch offer detailed descriptions of the siege of Syracuse and mention new weapons, but the heat ray is not among them. This is sufficient to send the story to the country of fairy tales.

But what are the origins of the story? Now, things become more complex.

The first to refer to Archimedes as firemaker appears to have been the satirical writer Lucian, who praises an engineer for having surpassed several legendary engineers, including Archimedes, who invented an instrument to set ships afire (Hippias 2). We know more about this from Lucian’s younger contemporary Galen, who offers an account of spontaneous combustion of houses, and adds that “this, they say, was how Archimedes set fire to the enemy ships by means of pyreia” (On Temperaments 3.2). Pyreia is usually translated as “firesticks”. Note that Lucian and Galen do not identify the enemy.

As far as I know, the first to refer to Archimedes using mirrors, is the Byzantine author Anthemius of Tralles (sixth century) in a book called On miraculous engines. On page 153 and 156 (ed.Westerman), he informs us that Archimedes’ secret weapon consisted of many small, flat mirrors. The Byzantine author Tzetzes (twelfth century) even offers a detailed description:

Archimedes constructed a kind of hexagonal mirror, and at an interval proportionate to the size of the mirror, he set similar small mirrors with four edges, moving by links and by a kind of hinge, and made the glass the centre of the sun’s beams … So after that, when the beams were reflected into this, a terrible kindling of flame arose upon the ships, and he reduced them to ashes a bow-shot off (Chiliades, 2.109-123).

This is the instrument shown in Cabiria, but the experiments have shown that it is too simple to do the job; Tzetzes cannot have used an authentic source.

There’s perhaps one author before Anthemius who may have referred to burning mirrors: the third-century historian Cassius Dio, but his account of the siege is lost. However, Tzetzes’ older contemporary Zonaras summarizes Dio’s History of the Roman Empire, and refers to the burning mirror. The problem is that Zonaras often introduces stories to his excerpt, and this may be one of these additions; worse, he also writes that this weapon was used in 514 by one Proclus, when he defended Constantinople against the ships of the Gothic adventurer Vitalianus (Annals 14.55).

Summa summarum: I think that Proclus’ experimental weapon, which must have been known to Anthemius, is the origin of the story. Alternatively, the story of Archimedes’ mirrors appears to have been invented in the age of Lucian, Galen, and Cassius Dio, about half a millennium after the siege of Syracuse.

This is not unique: think only of Pythagoras, who is never credited with the theorem that is now named after him, until the fourth century CE.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Churches of L’Aquila

7 April 2009

S. Maria di Collemaggio, 14c fresco

As promised yesterday, a site on the Churches of L’ Aquila is on its way: the orientation page is now up. For now, a photosampler of the 13 that I saw. The site will be expanded to cover at least some of the churches in their own pages.

Of these 13 churches, five are gravely damaged, including S. Bernardino da Siena, where the saint is buried. A sixth church, the most important in town both historically and artistically, the Basilica of Collemaggio, site of the first Catholic Jubilee and burial place of Pope Celestine V who instituted it, was apparently only slightly damaged, with both façade and papal tomb unscathed. The seven others, I have no information yet.


6 April 2009

Normally, I wouldn’t announce an item in progress, but there’s always room for an exception. In view of this morning’s devastating earthquake at L’Aquila in the Abruzzo that has left much of the town destroyed, including some of its best churches, for the next few days I’ll be dropping whatever else I was doing to put up a site on the Churches of L’Aquila. For now, just this appropriate photo of a detail of an outside door of the Duomo:

Iuvetur mortuus non lacrymis, sed precibus, supplicationibus, et eleemosynis

St. John Chrysostom’s precept in English: “Let the dead person be assisted not by tears, but by prayers, supplications, and alms.” If you have some spare cash, consider making a contribution to rebuilding L’Aquila; the Italian Red Cross’s website is also taking online donations for the immediate human needs.

850 Ancient Sites on Google Maps

1 March 2009
Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe

What you are looking for, is here.

The Neronian Sacra Via

7 February 2009

Map of the Neronian Sacra Via

The Via Sacra (or Sacra Via) in Rome is the road that connects the valley that is now dominated by the Colosseum, passing over the crest of the Velia, to the Forum Romanum. People celebrating a triumph used this road. What you can see today when you walk from the Temple of Caesar to the Arch of Titus is the road as it was in the age of Augustus.

However, it is possible to imagine what it looked like at a later stage. In an article originally posted in the American Journal of Archaeology (in 1923), Esther Boise Van Deman showed how the area was restructured during the last regnal years of Nero: a straight road leading to the Vestibulum of the Golden House (where the Colossus stood) with basilicas to the left and right – now the site of the Basilica of Maxentius and the Horrea of Vespasian. The article has been made available now by LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer, and you can find it here.

The Velia

5 February 2009

Most scholars (like this one) believe that Velia is the ancient name of the ridge that connects the Palatine and the Esquiline; it is one of the eight places mentioned in the list known as Septimontium. In an article on the historical topography of the Velia, originally in the Transactions of the American Philological Association, H.F. Rebert shows that the name Velia in fact refers to a slightly different area, to the west of what is now believed to be the Velia. The article has been made available now by LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer, and you can find it here.

Motya and other Mediterranean towns

15 December 2008

A Greek-Phoenician female mask; Museum Villa Whittaker.

A Greek-Phoenician female mask; Museum Villa Whittaker.

Motya is a Phoenician city, situated on a small island in a lagoon in the west of Sicily. The city was destroyed in 396 BCE by Dionysius of Syracuse, but was not really abandoned: archaeologists have found villas from the fourth century. Still, the island had become more or less empty, and remained so until archaeologists started to dig. They found city walls, a port, sanctuaries, and tombs. The finds are now in museums on the island itself, in Marsala, and in Palermo. You can find the first of three pages devoted to Motya here; a satellite photo is here.

I was also occupied with Assos, in the west of Assos. We visited the site in 2004, and later, we saw many finds in the Paris Louvre and the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. Everything is brought together on this page.

Slonta in Libya is one of the weirdest ancient sanctuaries, as you will see on this page; for a more regular ancient city, go to Roman Cordoba; and for the delighs of rural life, go to Suq al-Awty, which was part of the Limes Tripolitanus.

The regular reader of this blog will have noted that I am still moving pages. I still have 154 pages to go.

Photos from Rome

14 December 2008
Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Today, I moved the entire photo section of ancient Rome. Even though it is not a fraction of what there is to be seen in the capital of the Mediterranean Empire, it was still thirty-one pages, and even though many were just small, it cost me one day:

Plus Delphi (in fact still to be written), and that’s it for today. Only 161 pages left…

Diodorus Books 21‑22

2 December 2008

Νὴ Δία, what donkey-work. Books 21 and 22 now up: fragments, some of them interesting.

Book 21 has the story of Alaric’s treasure buried in the river (5c AD), or wait, no, is it Decebalus’ treasure buried in the river Sargentius (2c AD); no, hang on, it’s Audoleon’s treasure buried in the river Sargentius (3c BC) — hmm, probably only one of these stories is true, if any of them. Read: urban legend. River remains unidentified, and of course, none of these three purported treasures has ever been found.

Book 22 mentions toothpicks. An obvious idea, but there’s not much in our literary sources about ancient dental hygiene (other than the nastinesses of tooth powder etc., for which see Smith’s Dictionary, s.vDentifricium).

Going back a bit, Book 20 is interesting primarily for confirmation from an unlikely source — the writer of an ancient history himself! — that everybody knows that we don’t read those long-winded rhetorical speeches put by many ancient authors in their characters’ mouths (20.1.1‑5).

Diodorus Siculus

11 November 2008

Welcome back, Jona; I hope the end of your trip went as well as the rest of it seems to have gone.

I’ve just completed putting the first 17 Books of Diodorus’ Library of History online at Lacus; English translation only, no Greek, about 2000 pages of print. Non-Jonas out there should know that he did a fair chunk of the work himself: the quasi-endless proofreading of I don’t know how many Books  (for which my warm thanks, and maybe yours as well, gentle reader, because otherwise we may never have got this monster online) — so that this is an appropriate welcome-back item, I guess.

The remaining Books, 18-40, will find their way onsite in the fullness of time. It’s in fact not as bad as it sounds, since these Books are for the most part fragmentary or even very fragmentary, and thus what’s still missing onsite accounts for only 30% of what we have of him.

More Aetna

7 October 2008
The Etna, erupting.

The Etna, erupting.

Not to be left out of things, and inspired by you and by Jolanda’s striking photos, I too have put online an Aetna; the transcription of the Latin poem so long attributed to Vergil: in the original Latin, plus an English translation, plus the Loeb editor’s Introduction. It’s not much about Mt. Etna, and rather more about explaining volcanoes; and it’s interesting because it’s not altogether wrong, and emphasizes seeking knowledge by looking at things, instead of starting from a priori ideas. Anyhoo, Aetna is here.


7 October 2008
The Etna, erupting.

The Etna, erupting.

Mount Etna is the subject of a Latin poem that was probably written in the first half of the first century. The anonymous author does not belong to the greatest ancient poets, but his enthusiasm is sincere and he convincingly advises his readers to observe closely if they want to be good scientists. He tells several ancient myths about the mountain, but also argues that they are no sound sources of knowledge (“let none be deceived by the fictions poets tell”).

The full Latin text, with apparatus criticus and English translation, is now online at LacusCurtius: go here.

Moving Livius.Org (6)

4 October 2008
The Nepi aqueduct

The Nepi aqueduct

As I already announced, I am moving several pages of my website. Today, several towns in Italy -all very small pages- received new locations. In the first place, the Aeolian Islands and Mount Eryx, which means that now everything Sicilian is now more or less where it’s supposed to be for the next year. In southern Etruria, Nepete, Sutrium, and Clusium. Finally, in Latium Fidenae and Aricia. And outside Italy: four Roman milestones from The Hague. Don’t expect too much of it. As I said: very small articles.

Still 228 pages to go…


28 September 2008
The Etna

The Etna

Mount Etna is probably the most active volcano in Europe; it certainly is the volcano with the longest recorded history. Greek and Latin authors refer to no less than twelve eruptions.

When you visit the dark and inhospitable landscape, it is easy to imagine that in Antiquity, it was believed that the fire-breathing Enceladus was buried alive on Sicily; when he moved, earthquakes were the result. The god Hephaestion (or Vulcan) had his forge inside Mount Etna, and the Cyclopes were believed to have lived in caves. Because of its height, Mount Etna was also believed to have been a place where people had gathered during the Great Flood, and survived.

I’ve been there twice, but never had an opportunity to reach the summit. However, my friend Jolanda gave me some photos of flowing lava, which you can admire here (and more of her photos here).

Ancient sites on Google Earth (again)

11 August 2008

TWhat you are looking for, is here.

Moving Livius.Org (5)

9 August 2008


As I already announced, I am moving several pages of my website. Many pages from France this time: Nîmes (ancient Nemausus) with its splendid Maison Carrée and the Pont du Gard, Orange (ancient Arausio), St.Rémy-de-Provence (ancient Glanum; picture), and Vaison-la-Romaine (ancient Vasio).

From Germany: Waldgirmes, a very interesting Roman city on the east bank of the Rhine. From Greece: Halos in Thessaly, where I learned a thing or two about Mediterranean archaeology. From Iran: the so-called Wall of Alexander and the Elburz Mountains with the Caspian Gate. From Italy: the cave of Sperlonga. From Libya: the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Oea, modern Tripoli. And from Turkey: two small pages on Antandrus and Abydus.

Still 243 pages to go…

Alexander of Molossis

7 August 2008
The world of Alexander of Molossis

The world of Alexander of Molossis

King Alexander of Molossis was an uncle of Alexander the Great (the brother of Olympias). He united Epirus and accepted an invitation from the Greeks in southern Italy to defend them against the Samnites, Lucanians, and Bruttians. The Epirote achieved several successes and concluded a peace treaty with the Romans (who were also at war with the Samnites). Eventually, Alexander was defeated in 331 – more or less at the time of the foundation of Alexandria by his nephew, as the Roman historian Livy notes (History of Rome since its Foundation, 8.24).

The story is not very well-known, but is important. His intervention in Italy, which resembles that of his great-nephew Pyrrhus, prevented the Samnites from capturing the Greek towns, and ensured that the Samnite federation would always have to fight two wars at the same time – against Rome and against the Greeks. That Italy would sooner or later be united, was inevitable, but Alexander’s intervention made sure that Rome would be the master of the Apennine Peninsula.


5 August 2008
Monument of the Lacus Curtius

Monument of the Lacus Curtius

Devotio was an ancient Italian ritual, in which a soldier -usually the general- voluntarily accepted his own death, devoted himself to the gods of the Underworld, and allowed his enemies to kill him. The wrath of the gods was, by this ritual, placed on the enemy. There are several parallels from Greece and Carthage, and several stories (like that of Marcus Curtius) may be understood as rationalizations of devotio legends. I’ve summed it up here.

Battle of the Trasimene Lake (217)

4 August 2008
The battlefield

The battlefield

The Battle of the Trasimene Lake was one of Hannibal‘s most splendid victories. The Romans were well aware that the Carthaginian general was a dangerous, capable opponent, and sent out several armies, making sure that he could always be attacked from two sides at the same time. Hannibal, however, managed to elude his opponents, and attacked the army of the Roman consul Flaminius on the northern bank of Lake Trasimene. Roman losses were high; in the following year, only an army of recruits could be sent out, which met its doom at Cannae.


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