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.


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.


Constantine’s Conversion Again

20 July 2011
Photo Marco Prins

Constantine

One of the responses to my initial posting on Constantine’s conversion contained this remark:

Though I see Constantine’s conversion as a total fake (I think he did not believe anything really and was an opportunist)…

This is a good point, that deserves a reply at some length. Constantine was pragmatic, certainly, but precisely because of that, I think that the vision – whatever it may have been – was real.

I am trying to imagine how I would respond to a politician who claims to have seen the light. I am not talking now about born-again American presidents like Jimmy Carter, but about someone who really claims to be on a mission from God. I think that I would, if I were in a bad mood, not trust him, and would, if I were in a good mood, recommend him to consult a psychiatrist.

My distrust, I think, is pretty common. Leaders who claimed to have experienced some kind of revelation, were nearly always subject to ridicule: Alexander‘s soldiers did not believe he was the son of Ammon, Jesus dryly commented that “a prophet is not honored at home”, and Muhamad had to leave Mecca. Joan of Arc was subject to ridicule first, and the French king refused to help her later, when the English had taken her captive. Polybius seems to shield Scipio Africanus from criticism by stating that the Roman general did not really believe in the mystical powers others attributed to him.

Pretending to have a divine revelation is just not smart for a politician. People like Joan of Arc, Muhamad, and Jesus really must have experienced something, and I think Constantine must indeed have seen a vision (as mentioned as early in 309/310 by the Panegyricist). It must have confused him profoundly, first interpreting it as a sign from the sun god, later reinterpreting it as a sign from Christ. Personally, I find the idea very attractive that the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth, felt himself led by Something Bigger Than Himself, but never quite never understood what that might have been.


Common Errors (40): Constantine’s Conversion

13 July 2011
Photo Marco Prins

Constantine (although I’m personally more reminded of Sylvester Stallone)

Constantine converted to Christianity. No one denies that. The problem is that we don’t know when and how.

The best-known story is that in October 312, Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in a battle near the Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome. Prior to the battle, the victor had seen  a cross in the sky together with the words “in this sign you will conquer”. After the fight, Constantine put an end to the persecution of the Christians and became a Christian himself. This is, more or less, as we learn it in school, this is how painters like Raphael have shown it, and this is how it is described by Eusebius, in the Life of Constantine (1.26-32), which he wrote in the late 330s.

At the end of his life, Constantine was indeed a Christian. If we cannot accept Eusebius’ statement that the emperor was baptized several days before his death in 337 – and some methodological scepticism is always prudent – we can deduce the emperor’s beliefs from the tomb he had designed: he was to be buried in Constantinople, together with relics of the twelve apostles. In other words, Constantine wanted to be commemorated as equal of the apostles (isapostolos) and as a second Christ – perhaps a bit blasphemous for modern Christian sentiments, but not below the standard of a Roman emperor, who was a dominus et deus.

Maxentius (Museum Dresden)

So, Constantine did convert to Christianity. But the story is far more complex than is commonly assumed.

In the first place, the age of the persecutions was over when Constantine and Maxentius clashed. In the western provinces, where not many Christians were living, the emperors had already put an end to persecuting them several years before. There’s some debate about the exact date, but it must have happened before 312. In the eastern provinces, the emperor Galerius terminated the persecutions in 311, shortly before his death. In a malicious treatise called The Death of the Persecutors, the Christian writer Lactantius suggests that God had sent Galerius an exceptionally painful illness to make him see the error of his policy (§33; cf. 2 Maccabees 9.5).

Constantine and the Sun God

So, the persecutions were not ended in 312, because they were over already. There was no vision either. That was a thing of the past as well: it happened in 309 or early in 310. At this stage, Constantine believed it was a manifestation of Apollo, whom he had identified as the sun-god. We have several coins from this years, like the one shown to the right, which shows Constantine with the sun-god’s chariot on his shield, and Apollo next to him. After Constantine had captured Rome, he rededicated the Colossus of the Sun, next to the Colosseum; that this monument was dear to him, is suggested by the fact that his triumphal arch was almost next to it.

The oldest description of Constantine’s vision is a speech by an anonymous orator (Panegyrici Latini 7 (6) 21.4-5), who was praising Constantine and the city of Trier, and refers to the emperor’s visit to “the most beautiful temple in the world”. Here, he had seen Apollo and Victory, who had offered him wreaths, promising him a rule of thirty years. We do not know what this vision may have looked like, but the description fits a sun halo like the one shown below. Halos are extremely impressive, and a large one may easily have been read as the Sun offering Constantine a wreath (or wreaths – there can be more than one halo), with three crosses indicating the number XXX.

The evidence that Constantine saw only one cross with a written command to win “in this sign” (ἐν τούτῳ νίκα), is more than a quarter of a century younger. It can be found in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine (1.37-40). Under normal circumstances, we would discard this text, because it is younger and appears to be based upon a misunderstanding of the light vision of 309/310. The most plausible scenario is that Constantine experienced a light vision, which he at first interpreted as a sign of Apollo, but later – after he had conquered the Christian provinces in the east (in 324) – reinterpreted as a Christian miracle.

Licinius (Bode Museum)

This becomes even more attractive when we take into account that Eusebius does not know anything about a Christian vision in another book, the History of the Church; in §9.9, he describes the Battle at the Milvian Bridge as the prelude to the Edict of Milan, in which Constantine and his ally Licinius reaffirmed Galerius’ decision that Christianity was acceptable, and even promised some compensation to the Church. This must have been Licinius’ proposal, because he ruled in the eastern provinces and the new faith hardly mattered in the West. Apparently, it was Licinius who introduced the pro-Christian policy.

To sum up: Constantine experienced the Light Vision in 309/310, agreed to Licinius’ pro-Christian policy, pursued this policy himself after he had defeated Licinius, became Christian in the last phase of his reign, and reinterpreted the vision. But if this is so plausible, why is everything attributed to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?

Tombstone with the Christianized “chrestos” symbol (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The answer can be found in Lactantius’ Death of the Persecutors, written immediately after the Edict of Milan. He tells that before his fight with Maxentius, Constantine had a dream, in which he was ordered to put the -sign on the shields of his soldiers. When taken out of context, this confirms the story that Eusebius told a quarter of a century later, about the cross vision. The confirmation appears to be strong, especially because in the Life of Constantine, Eusebius continues his account of the vision with a description of Constantine’s military standard, and in his History of the Church, he mentions that the emperor wanted to be shown with the “salvation-bringing symbol” in his hand.

However, Lactantius does not claim that Constantine converted to Christianity and does not even claim that the symbol was Christian. The same applies to Eusebius’ History of the Church: we read that Constantine wanted to be shown with the symbol in his hand, but it is not stated that Constantine realized that it was a Christian symbol. This may seem an unfair objection, but it must be stressed that Lactantius also mentions that Licinius has had a dream, in which angels announced his victory. Because this dream is an obvious invention by Lactantius, it is certainly possible that Constantine’s dream is an invention too.

There’s another problem. The -sign certainly was a Christian symbol in the final years of Constantine’s reign. The symbol was also in use prior to the fourth century: readers used it to indicate in the margin of a text that something was chrestos, “useful”. Because an /e/ and an /i/ were more or less interchangeable at this time (iotacism), it is easy to understand why Christians started to use this well-known sign. The problem is when they started to use this.

There is, to the best of my knowledge, only one -sign that possibly dates to the period before the Edict of Milan. It was found in the Preconstantine necropolis underneath the basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome. It is certainly possible that this graffito was created by one of the construction workers, building the now famous church. (BTW: after 326, evidence again that Constantine did not pursue an active pro-Christian policy prior to the conquest of the eastern provinces.) To the best of my knowledge, all other -signs postdate the Edict of Milan, which creates the question what was meant by Constantine when he ordered his soldiers to paint it on their shields, why he put it on a standard, and why he wanted to be shown with the “salvation-bringing symbol”.

The answer is that we don’t know for sure, but the symbol happens to be known from a temple of the Sun God from Illyricum. It is a combination of two symbols: the sun ✲ and the moon crescent Ͻ. We do not know whether Constantine knew this, but it is certainly tempting to assume that he had dedicated his army to the god of light, which he first believed to be Apollo, and later believed to be Christ.

I am not claiming to know exactly what happened, but the normal story about Constantine converting after a cross vision and putting an end to the persecutions, is simply not true. It seems that three emperors contributed to the victory of Christianity: Galerius put an end to the persecutions, Licinius started to cooperate with the Church, and Constantine continued this policy, and really converted at the end of his life. He had, literally, seen the light.

<Overview of Common Errors>

There was an interesting response to this article, which is discussed here.


Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (4)

18 June 2011

[This is the fourth part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]

Cover

I argued that Cameron’s thesis that there was no late fourth-century pagan revival looks convincing. However, this could also be said of Gibbon’s reconstruction of the events, which looked convincing for no less than two centuries. How can we establish which theory is better, in a field of scholarship where eight sources is many? We cannot test the two theories empirically: the necessary facts are too ‘soft’.

In situations like these, we need a logical principle to proceed. To paraphrase Karl Popper: the theory that tells most, is to be preferred. That is to say, a theory that has more empirical content: covering more ancient information of a more diverse nature. Now Cameron covers more ground than all of the earlier scholars: even though the number of sources has not expanded very much, he deals with more coins, more inscriptions, more objects of art. Our lack of information about this age is still disastrous, but Cameron uses his small advantage completely. There is not a single aspect of Late Antiquity – or at least the Latin part of it, because I would have loved to read more about the eastern half of the Empire – that he does not discuss.

This means that his book is also very long: 808 pages of text, excluding the index, an appendix and a “selected” bibliography of forty-six pages of fine print. You need to know something about Late Antiquity (don’t consider buying it if Rutilius Namatianus is unknown to you), but Cameron offers at least two weeks of intellectual adventure. This was the most interesting and rewarding book I have read since the fourth volume of Meyer’s Marginal Jew.

Complex and detailed, but The Last Pagans of Rome is superb. Summarized unfriendly, Cameron proves that paganism did not resist Christianity. How could it have been different? Christians were well-organized, while the pagans did not recognize themselves as one group, and never organized themselves.

But as Cameron indicates, there’s another, more positive way to look at it. The classical tradition was so completely absorbed by Christianity that we often cannot identify who was pagan and who was Christian. Both parties cared for the classical heritage. This has still consequences for us: the classical canon that we know, which includes texts in “silver Latin”, is not identical to the set of texts that was most popular when Rome was at its cultural zenith. What we can read today, reflects the taste of Late Antiquity.

The opposition between Christians and pagans, in which only the last-mentioned were the keepers of the classics, is a false one. Not the fathers of the Church and the fanatical pagans are typical for the late fourth century, but the moderates, who changed religion but did not abandon the classics. I imagine they were just too polite and well-mannered to make religion a divisive issue. With one host, they joined in a Christian prayer; upon entering another house, they burned some incense for the ancestors. And when they went home, they invited a rabbi to bless the crops: his blessing had been beneficial in the past, so why stop now?

This ambiguity may explain why Bacurius, the officer I mentioned in the first part of this laudatio review, was considered a Christian by a Christian, and a pagan by a pagan.


Iphigenia in Umbria

6 March 2011

Iphigenia being led to the sacrifice

A few weeks ago by happenstance I found myself at Under the Umbrian Sun, a site that documents the recent and ongoing excavations at Vicus ad Martis on the Via Flaminia in Umbria; and to my surprise bumped into an entry titled “Bill Thayer on Massa Martana and Umbria”, which praised me for a rather weak site on the town, although to some extent rightly: among the blind the one-eyed is king, as the proverb goes. But it was really embarrassing; all the more so that I’d been sitting on a few dozen photos of the very church that stands just 100 meters from the ad Martis digs: an interesting church that I know pretty well — and in 14 years I’d managed to avoid having a webpage on her. A 3‑page site now repairs that, with 23 of those photographs; and although it’s nominally about a medieval church, the site follows the church itself, about half of which is about Roman stone, including a carved fragment that has been identified as a Sacrifice of Iphigenia.

The process of writing up the carving also resulted in me translating the entry “Iphigenia” in Daremberg & Saglio; I wasn’t completely happy with what I’d been finding about her elsewhere online in English, so this is an additional resource.


The Letoon

11 May 2010

A Stoa at the Letoon

This afternoon, we visited the Letoon, a sacred place from Antiquity near Xanthus. With an extremely well-preserved theater, a double stoa, a nymphaeum, a Byzantine church, and three temples, this is a very nice site. One can understand why the Lycian League chose this sanctuary as its meeting place.

According to an old legend, told by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorfoses, 6.317-381), one of the temples is built on the site where Leto and her two children, Artemis and Apollo, had an encounter with a group of ill-mannered peasants. It was a very hot day and everything was dry and dusty. So, Leto, thirsty, requested some water, but those Lycian peasants denied it to her. When she requested a drink for a second time, they used their sticks to make the water of the pool more troubled. Immediately, the gods punished them, changing them into frogs, so that they could continue to pollute the waters and speak dirty language.

The well no longer exists, and we found it easy to imagine how dry this land can be. Near the theater, the soil was full of cracks. On the other hand, near the temples, the changing water-table has created a new pool. The frogs are again there, and their noise is deafening.


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