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.

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 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).

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.

Dutch History

23 April 2013
Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Fourteen years ago, I published a small Dutch book, Hollands glorie, which offered a history of the Dutch consensus culture, from its very beginnings to the latest developments, covering more or less the millennium that was, in 1999, coming to an end. Reprinted several times, it was completely revised and republished in 2005, this time called Polderdenken.

The text, which I have decided to call Consensus and Crises, has been translated by my friends Marie Smit-Ryan and Bill Thayer, and I have made a web version, which you can find here. Parts of it have been adapted, because I cannot reasonably expect foreigners to know Dutch topography. Most illustrations are from Amsterdam – I’m an Amsterdammer after all, and proud to be one – but I hope to add photos from other towns as well.

The text is about 35,000 words and tries to explain why the Dutch political system is currently in crisis, but this precise theme has not prevented me from digressing on things I found interesting.

Again, you can find it here. I hope you will enjoy it.

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.

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]


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


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.


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.


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.

O’Reilly, The Lost Legion Rediscovered

22 June 2012

Donald O’Reilly’s The Lost Legion Rediscovered is a remarkable book. The author, a retired teacher of history, tries to describe the adventures of the Theban Legion, a Roman military unit that is mentioned for the first time in 383 by bishop Eucherius of Lyon, who tells that the Christian soldiers had refused to follow an order they considered immoral, and were consequently killed in a town now known as St Maurice-en-Valais in Switzerland.

The key detail is that this happened under orders of caesar Maximian. This is, at first sight, sufficient to discard the story. After all, Maximian ruled from 285 to 305, so there is a considerable gap between the legionaries’ martyrdom and the first source. However, if the story were invented, Eucherius would have given his villain the rank of augustus, not caesar, which he held in the winter of 285/286 only. For O’Reilly, this is the ‘smoking gun’ that proves that Eucherius had access to reliable information.

O’Reilly argues that the soldiers of the unit were recruited by the emperor Probus in southern Egypt and send to Italy, where they found themselves in a civil war. This was the confused age of the peasant insurrection of the Bagaudae in northwestern Gaul, of the usurpation of Carausius, and the clash between on the one hand the emperors Carinus and Numerian and on the other hand Diocletian and Maximian. O’Reilly argues that the Theban Legion, which was trained by an officer corps that consisted of veterans converted to Christianity, refused to massacre the Bagaudae, whose “chief offence … was not paying taxes. Killing them would not resolve it.” The refusal to follow an order they considered impractical and immoral, cost the legionaries of the rearguard their lives. Nevertheless, the unit was not disbanded, and it was the “mother” of the four Theban units that are mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum.

It’s a complex story. The late third century is difficult to study, and O’Reilly has to deal with subjects as varied as the demise of the pagan religions in the crisis of the third century, civil wars, slave revolts, and Christian values, and he has to use numismatics, papyri, little-known Coptic and Syriac texts, and damaged inscriptions. Nevertheless, he tells his story well and it is possible that the Christians in a recently created unit were indeed killed in the western Alps.

Possible. But there is little direct evidence that it actually happened. Worse, O’Reilly makes many mistakes that can easily be recognized by anyone interested in ancient warfare, and will leave him with the idea that the author was not up to his task. For example, he uses the Historia Augusta, which contains hardly any reliable information for this period, almost uncritically. A very substantial part of his reconstruction is built on very shaky foundations. O’Reilly only proves that the massacre of a Theban Legion is possible, not that it is likely.

However, a negative judgment would not do justice to the book. O’Reilly is, essentially, interested in something far more profound than the historical details. He is in fact arguing that

… to be intelligently honest, a person needs to be a cynic, but ultimately there is need to be cynical even of cynicism. That is where faith enters.

Everyone – Christian or not – has some basic believes about the value of human life, and any civilized person must try to deescalate violence. O’Reilly is not advocating pacifism, but a professional militarism. The best soldiers are not those who uncritically follow any order, but those who think. The soldiers of O’Reilly’s Theban Legion are the Roman equivalents of the German officers of the Von Stauffenberg conspiracy.

As a book about ancient military history, The Lost Legion Rediscovered is not good enough, but it addresses important questions about a warrior’s moral obligations.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare magazine]

Caesar and the Aduatuci

1 June 2012

Caesar (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)

Today, the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren (Belgium) announced the discovery of the site where Julius Caesar besieged and conquered the Aduatuci (in 57 BCE). The ancient hill fort was south of the town of Thuin, just west of Charleroi. This is the nicest archaeological news from the Low Countries in years.

In 58, Caesar had discovered that Gaul was essentially undefended. In the next year, het conquered the northern part of what is now called France and defeated, in modern Saulzoir, the Nervians, which he presents as terrible savages. After this, he invaded the area that is now called Belgium, where the Aduatuci were his first victims. You can read the story here, with photos of Huy on the Meuse, one of the locations which, until today, were believed to be the location of the oppidum of the Aduatuci. But it was, in reality, at Thuin, which suits Caesar’s description, and where sling bullets and several treasures have been found.

Press release by the Amsterdam Free University: here.

Meanwhile, in Syria

28 May 2012

Shelled: Crac des Chevaliers

There’s a civil war in Syria. I always feel it is somehow inappropriate to talk about archaeology, classics, or heritage, when people are fighting to survive. Nevertheless, I think it is not unimportant to pay some attention to the damage to the cultural damage. Here is a report by the Global Heritage Network. It’s quite depressing. Below is a quote from page six. After that, there are forty-five other pages.

Sites known to have been affected by the shelling are:

  • World Heritage Site – (parts of the) Archaeological Villages of Northern Syria, in particular al-Bara, Deir Sunbel, Aïn Larose.
  • World Heritage Site – Bosra.
  • World Heritage Site – Crac des Chevaliers.
  • Tentative World Heritage Site – Apamea and the citadel of Qal’at al-Mudiq. Also the town surrounding the citadel, which is known to date from at least the 16th century. Damage has been confirmed at the 16th century Mosque al-Tawhid, and is suspected at the Islamic caravanserai which forms the museum.
  • Tell Sheikh Hamad (Dur Katlimmu) – Assyrian temple collapsed after shell fire and the site was “transformed into a battlefield between deserters and army”.
  • Mosque of Idlib Sermin (Fatimid era).
  • Mosque of al-Tekkiyeh Ariha minaret destroyed.
  • Al-Qusaayr – Great Mosque and Mar Elias monastery damaged.
  • Mosque al-Herak in the Dara’a region.
  • Oldest mosque in city of Sermin.
  • Our Lady of Seydnaya Monastery – Earliest part of monastery dates to early Christian era (circa 547AD) – shell through back wall.
  • Tomb of the Sheikh Dahur al-Muhammad in Rityan, in Aleppo province.

Nahr al-Kalb

30 April 2012

Reliefs of Ramesses II (left) and Esarhaddon (right).

In the thirteenth century BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II left three reliefs on the south bank of the Nahr al-Kalb, north of Beyrut, which commemorated the northern campaigns that culminated in the battle of Kadesh (1274). Several centuries later, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon conquered Egypt, and chose to put a memorial opposite the relief of Ramesses. Ever since, armies have left inscription at the Nahr al-Kalb, a custom known to Herodotus (more).

All in all, there are twenty-two inscriptions and two monuments, with texts in seven languages (Egyptian, Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, and English). Together, they give a nice overview of Lebanese history.

A complete overview is here (and an overview of all Lebanese posts on this blog is here).


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