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.


Common Errors (30): The Menorah

20 February 2010

The Menorah as shown on the honorary arch of Titus.

In 455, the Vandals captured and looted Rome. They took many objects of art with them, including the Temple Treasure that had been in Jerusalem until the Roman commander Titus had sacked that city (in 70 CE). The Vandals took the objects to Carthage, and lost them to the Byzantines, who captured the city in 534. According to Procopius (History of the Wars, 4.9), the Jewish treasures were taken to Constantinople, where general Belisarius displayed them during his triumphal entry.

Among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus … had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. And one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the emperor and said: “These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gizeric captured the palace of the Romans, and that now the Roman army has captured that the Vandals.”

When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.

So, the treasures of the Jewish temple were returned to Jerusalem. They are not in the Vatican, as some people seem to think. I heard that urban legend for the first time in Italy, some fifteen years ago, and believed that the story, which is so flatly contradicted by a well-known and accessible ancient author, had died a well-deserved death, but I was wrong. When Benedict XVI visited Israel last spring, this myth was suddenly in the headlines again, because two pious Jews demanded that the pope would be seized and kept until the Menorah was returned. The judge dismissed the case on 11 May 2009 – unfortunately argueing that a foreign chief of state was immune, instead of saying that lunatic fringe theories ought to be ignored.

It must be noted, though, that there are other stories about the Temple Treasure. Ibn Abdelhakam writes that the Arabian conquerors of Spain found the “Table of Solomon” when they captured Toledo in 711 (History of the Conquest of Spain, 21). It was brought to Damascus. If this is a reference to the Table of the Table for the Shewbread, this suggests that at least one object was brought to Spain instead of Carthage. In any case, there is not a single piece of evidence that connects the Menorah to the Vatican.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Common Errors (27): Christians in the Colosseum

24 December 2009

The Colosseum

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180), the Roman Empire started to experience increased pressure on its frontiers. Germanic tribes started to organize themselves better and in the East, the Parthians were replaced by the Sasanian Empire, which was more aggressive than its predecessors had been. The Roman emperors took countermeasures and tried to gain divine support by persecuting religious minorities, like the Manichaeans, the Jews, and the Christians. By ancient standards, this was a logical decision: the fact that they did not worship the gods of the state, offered sufficient explanation for Roman military defeats.

The Persecutions were very serious, and you do not need to be a Christian to abhor from the state’s violence against its own citizens. It is always fitting and proper to commemorate the slaughtered innocents. For this reason, pope Benedict XIV (r.1740-1758) dedicated the Colosseum to the memory of the Christian martyrs killed in the arena. The problem is that this is probably not a historical fact.

There are several texts about the martyrdom of Roman Christians. We know that Sebastian was executed on the Palatine and that Agnes suffered in the Stadium of Domitian. But no one is mentioned as being killed in the Flavian Amphitheater, as the execution theater was officially called. In the Acts of Justin, Chariton, Charito, Euelpistus, Hierax, Paeon, Liberian, and their Company, we read that these people were led “to the usual place”, which has been taken as a reference to the Colosseum, because we do not know which alternatives exist. However, this is poor evidence, and the fact that the Colosseum is not mentioned in Medieval catalogs of martyr shrines can mean only two things: if Christians were killed in the Colosseum, it was forgotten in the Middle Ages, or there were no Christians killed over there.

Of course, this does not mean that Benedict’s cross must be removed. It is part of the history of the Colosseum, and besides, it is never wrong to spend a thought about the terrible things that happened on this terrible place.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Mithra and Mithras

26 November 2009

Mithras killing the celestial bull. Roman relief from Dormagen, now in Bonn's Rheinisches Landesmuseum.

Yesterday, I received an impressive present: a book on the cult of Mithra(s). Impressive: it measures 50×31 centimeters and was published more than a century-and-a-half ago, in 1847. To be honest, I do not think that Félix Lajard’s Introduction à l’étude du culte public et des mystères de Mithra en Orient et en Occident, is still useful today. Yet, it is a beautiful book, and it is charming to read that it was printed “par autorisation du roi à l’ imprimerie royale”. Such were the courtesies of the ancien régime.

The author has collected all kinds of drawings of Iranian and Roman reliefs, seals, and coins, and tries to trace the development of the cult of Mithras in Iran and the Roman Empire. In other words, we get lots of pictures of oriental and Roman art objects that Lajard believed to be relevant to the study of the mysteries of Mithras.

It is hard not to be impressed by his attempts to get the details straight. He had not traveled as widely as we expect scholars to do, and was therefore unable to decide which representation of a particular relief was the best, so we often get two pictures of the same monument. I was surprised to learn how large the differences between drawings can be.

This late Iranian Mithra shows no similarities to the contemporary western bull-slayer reliefs (Taq-e Bostan)

The problem was, of course, that he had no idea what he was looking for. The decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform, which revolutionized our knowledge of the Near East, took place in 1857, and Lajard still could adduce parallel illustrations that we now know to be irrelevant, or only marginally relevant, to the study of Mithraism.

The main problem, and a problem that Lajard could have avoided, was the assumption that there was a continuity from Iran to the Roman Empire. Of course it would be exaggerated to state there was no continuity at all: the name Mithras is clearly derived from Mithra and one of the grades of the Roman mysteries was called “Persian”. But the cult of Mithras is essentially a Roman phenomenon. With one possible exception, no Mithraic cave has ever been excavated in Iran, nor are there indications that Avestan hymns were chanted in the Roman mithraea.

It often happens that elements from one civilization cross over to another, and it would certainly have been possible for an Iranian god to join the Roman pantheon. But how much that was Iranian was he allowed to take with him? Compare it to Christianity, which is essentially a type of Judaism accepted by Greeks and Romans. Some converts believed that only a couple of ideas were really useful; men like Marcion of Sinope thought that the Old Testament books could be done away with, and that the Jewish context was best forgotten. Other Christian authors, like Irenaeus, stressed the need to keep in touch with the original foundations. The Roman cult of Mithras seems to have originated with a Marcion-like prophet, who took a couple of lose elements and abandoned the rest of Iranian Mithraism.

Bull and lion on an Iranian relief (Persepolis): no connection to the Roman mithraic reliefs.

This is now very obvious, but it has taken some time to get here. The study of the cult of Mithras has for a long time been dominated by Cumont and Vermaseren, great scholars who believed, just like Lajard, that there had been some kind of continuity.

As I said, Lajard could have avoided the mistake. Even the most unattentive reader thumbing through the pages of his beautiful book will immediately realize that not a single element of the Roman Mithras reliefs – all those bulls being killed – can be connected to ancient Iran. Almost all elements of the Roman monuments, like the bull, the snake, the raven, the cup, the raven, the scorpion, the ear of wheat, and finally the twins Cautes and Cautopates, are absent from the Iranian iconography. (The lion may be an exception, but in Iranian art, the animal is either killed by the king or attacking a bull. He is not watching how someone else kills a bull.)

Yet, Lajard put the eastern and western iconography together as if they had much in common. He was essentially assuming what needed to be proven.

And this, it seems, is what happens often to the study of Roman Mithraism, and not just by people studying its origins. People studying its influence make the same error: assuming a continuity from the Roman mysteries of Mithras to Christianity that needs to be proved. I will not digress on this last point; I just refer to Roger Pearse’s interesting blog articles on this subject. I found his most recent installment and this article especially worthwhile, but he has written more articles on Mithras (which I would love to use for my collection of common errors). Recommended.


Two Poorly Understood Sites

9 November 2009

Rujm al-Malfouf

To be honest, I wanted to call this topic “two mysterious sites”, but as we all know, ancient historians must avoid clichés like “mystery”, “lost city”, and “treasure” – that would be the equivalent of “gathering war clouds”, “ghosts from the past”, or “child of nature”. Yet, today I have to introduce two sites that are, well, quite mysterious:

Go there to learn more, and understand less. Two other items: LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has added an article on Roman fire worship to his Antiquaries’ Shoebox, and on his blog, Bill Heroman refers to a common mistake about the Temple of Herod.


Spijkers op laag water

9 September 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Only once have I visited a drydock, but I immediately understood what the Dutch expression spijkers op laag water zoeken (“searching for nails in pools”) means. Standing on a scaffolding, some carpenters were preparing the hull of a yacht, and they had dozens of nails with them. When a nail fell to the ground, it was rather silly to go downstairs and look for it, if only because the nails usually dropped into pools and were invisible. I could imagine that one day, the dock’s manager checked those pools, took the nails, presented them to his workers, complained, and ignored that they had actually been able to finish a hull that day. Ever since that day, the carpenters must have said that someone was “searching for nails in pools” when he was focusing on minor errors.

I took this proverb as the title of my book on common errors, because I did not want to suggest that all mistakes were really serious. Two of my best friends believe that the title is wrong, because people will not understand  its  self-deprecating nature. My publisher and another friend believe that the irony will be understood, so in the end I agreed, although some nagging doubt remains.

And there is another doubt. Are the mistakes I am dealing with really that innocent? Many of them certainly are, but if professional scholars repeat them, addressing the problem is not searching for nails in pools, but saying that our academics have become too specialized to have a good view of the entire field.


The Epic Cycle (twice)

23 August 2009
Achilles kills Memnon (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

Achilles kills Memnon (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

As a spin-off from my pages on the Trojan War, about which I blogged earlier, I decided to make available all fragments of the Epic Cycle. These are poems like Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, and although they are younger and only very fragmentary preserved, they are fascinating. The Aethiopis, for example, may have been a convincing story about a soldier who makes a serious mistake, admits it, grows as a person, and dies at the moment of his supreme glory.

Next stop: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The texts are already online on many pages and there are good essays on it, but for completeness’ sake, I will add my own pages. I will certainly enjoy my stay with the Master, but somehow it does not feel right to make these pages right now. Homer is one of the Really Big topics of ancient history, and I have a feeling I am not yet ready for that. So I will stick to a summary – which is of course, in the land of poetry, a serious error.

Anyhow, the Epic Cycle is now more or less ready. If you want to have a verbatim rendering of Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s translation in the Loeb series, with annotation and page numbers, go to LacusCurtius: here. If you do not need the notes but prefer my own treatment, go here.


Counting gods

3 August 2009
The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 1981, Ramsay MacMullen published his Paganism in the Roman Empire, a great book on, well, paganism in the Roman Empire. What I have never forgotten, is how the American scholar tried to investigate which gods were really popular. He used the indices of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, counted the deities to which people had dedicated inscriptions, and discovered that people in, for example, North Africa venerated other gods than the people in Gaul and the German provinces.

This tedious labor must have taken lots of time. Today, we have digital archives and can do the same job in one evening, for example with this nice databank. I know this, because I checked some thirty deities, trying to zoom in a bit more than MacMullen has been able to. One of his categories was “Gaul & Germany”, and I needed to know whether there were differences between Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. I compared my results to Latium (minus Rome). Here are the results; the popularity of the deities is relative to Jupiter (=100).

Latium Germania Inf. Belgica
1 Mars 194 Matres 168 Mercurius 139
2 Venus 101 Jupiter 100 Mars 136
3 Jupiter 100 Nehalennia 67 Jupiter 100
4 Fortuna 92 Mercurius 43 Liber Pater 84
5 Hercules 71 Mars 37 Apollo 52
6 Silvanus 45 Hercules 34 Hercules 41
7 Diana 44 Fortuna 21 Sol/Mithras 37
8 Sol/Mithras 43 Juno 16 Matres 30
9 Victoria 40 Diana 16 Minerva 19
10 Cybele 36 Sol/Mithras 16 Diana 13
11 Juno 30 Apollo 11 Juno 13
12 Ceres 28 Minerva 11 Fortuna 8
13 Isis 25 Isis 8 Victoria 8
14 Mercurius 25 Silvanus 8 Venus 5
15 Apollo 24 Victoria 7 Silvanus 3

I had expected that Jupiter and Mars would be the only gods to make it to the top-5 everywhere, but there were a few surprises. In the first place, the relative unpopularity of Isis, Minerva, and Neptune. In the second place, the popularity of Mercurius and Liber Pater in Belgica, who must be “romanized” local gods. In the third place, I had not expected that Silvanus -extremely popular in Italy- was also pretty well-known in the north. In the fourth place, I had expected Cybele to rank high in Germania Inferior and Belgica, because she is well-known from representations (statuettes can be seen in any museum); but this popularity is not matched in the epigraphical record.

Finally, the people of Latium were “wide” polytheists, venerating many gods, while the people of the north concentrated on a few deities. This was the greatest surprise – I had never realized that there might have been various degrees of polytheism.

And of course, what MacMullen already knew remains valid when we zoom in on smaller geographical units: that book on ancient mythology you have, you can throw it away. Those twelve Olympic Gods were completely irrelevant.


Common Errors (19): Vespasian

28 June 2009

Head of a statue of Vespasian from Narona (Museum of Vid)

After their death, good Roman emperors were venerated as gods. The judgment whether the ruler had been sufficiently good to receive divine honors, was dependent on one factor: did he have a son who would succeed him and force the Senate to recognize the apotheosis? The emperor Vespasian (69-79) had two sons, Titus and Domitian, and could reasonably expect that people would make sacrifices to him after his death. Many modern books tell us that he died with the last words Vae, puto deus fio – “Dammit, I fear I’m turning into a god.”

The Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that Vespasian indeed made this joke shortly before he died (Life of Vespasian, 23.4), but he does not say that these were the emperor’s last words. Those were in fact far more impressive: “An emperor ought to die standing” (24.1).

<Overview of Common Errors>


Common Errors (15): White Sculpture

28 June 2009
Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph.

Reconstruction of the colors of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph (Xanten)

The ancient Greeks were brilliant sculptors, who were the first to accurately render the human body in bronze or stone. Perfection, defined as understanding contrapposto, was reached at the beginning of the fifth century BCE.

It has often been assumed that the old statues were made of white marble from Paros or the Pentelic Mountains. The absence of color was even lauded as a brilliant abstraction, an aesthetic judgment comparable to the idea that old black-and-white movies have a beauty of their own, and that it is blasphemy to make a colored version of, for example, Buster Keaton’s The General.

Yet, the ancients did in fact paint their sculpture. On many statues, we can still see traces (example); yes, even when we can not discern these traces, our scientists, applying all kinds of modern technology, know how to reconstruct them. According to our standards, ancient sculpture had screaming colors and was absolutely campy. I remember a lecture in Oxford, the introduction to a series of lectures on ancient sculpture, in which people burst out into laughter on seeing a slide with an exquisitely ugly Primaporta Augustus.

Polychromy was also characteristic of ancient architecture. The monuments on the Forum Romanum were made of green, purple, red, or white marble, and grey or purple granite, while the floors were covered with stones that had yellow, green, or purple veins. Exposed to centuries of sunlight, the colors have now vanished, but if you look at the floors of Rome’s medieval churches, which are covered with mosaics made of ancient marble, you get an idea of the splendid colors of the ancient city.

An interesting website, in German and unfortunately with music you’re forced to listen to, on the subject is here.

<Overview of Common Errors>


A Marginal Jew, vol.4

16 June 2009

The most important book on ancient history, at this moment, is John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I am aware that many scholars think that investigating the life and opinions of the Jewish woodworker from Nazareth is the subject of theology, but that is simply a misunderstanding of the “third quest“, which is historical in nature. As a matter of fact, it belongs to the most innovative and methodologically advanced parts of the discipline of ancient history. And within this advanced part, Meier’s Marginal Jew is simply the best book.

Well, books, actually. Originally, there were supposed to be three volumes, which have appeared in 1991, 1994, and 2001. The main conclusions, however, will be presented in the fifth book of the increasingly inaccurately named Marginal Jew trilogy. But the fourth installment is now finally here, bringing the grand total of pages to 2990, and dealing with Jesus as teacher of the Law –  as a rabbi, to use the ancient Jewish expression. Meier stresses that the historical Jesus is a Jewish Jesus and explains this truism by repeating almost ad nauseam that a Jewish Jesus is a halakic Jesus. It is boring, it is shocking that this stress is still necessary, but he is of course right.

The issues Meier addresses are divorce (permitted by the Law, but Jesus was nevertheless opposed to it), the prohibition to take oaths (something that the Law not just permits, but even demands), activities allowed on the sabbath (as far as we know, Jesus did not break with the Law), and ritual purity. In the final chapter, we learn that Jesus, as a charismatic, felt that he could abrogate individual commandments (e.g., on divorce); this claim relates somehow to the double command to love God and one’s neighbor, but Jesus was not a system builder and it is not entirely clear how these are related. This may not be a very surprising conclusion, but at least this is solid knowledge, obtained by applying a clear, careful method. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or atheist scholars would arrive on exactly the same conclusions.

The point that impressed me most was that Jesus was not just a teacher of the Law, but that his opinions, which we like to call “humane” and “liberal”, were in fact nothing but “the commonsense approach to halaka that probably many ordinary Jewish peasants had no choice but to follow in their pinched and fragile existence” (page 267).

Any ancient historian should read A Marginal Jew to see how one tackles an historical problem. The books are not only meticulously researched – I counted two notes Forschungsberichte that were twelve pages long! – but Meier also proceeds methodologically and shows, page after page, that he is interested in the past for the past’s sake. “Relevance is the enemy of history”, as he summarizes his position.

How ministers and pastors can apply this historical knowledge, is an altogether different question, but those who fear that historical research may in the end lead to nihilism, can rest assured: the book received an imprimatur.


The Antiquary’s Shoebox

5 May 2009
Drawing of a pyxis from Smiths Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Drawing of a pyxis from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Several years ago, LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer started to put online some articles from scholarly journals. They are a bit old, but nevertheless, they are a treasure-trove of interesting and varied stuff. He called this section the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and like most shoeboxes, it accumulates scraps over time, as Bill discovers items that catch his fancy.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 137 articles. The latest contributions are on Early British Christianity, St. Nerses the Graceful (including some of the hymns of this 12c Armenian patriarch), an emendation to Tacitus’ Agricola, and Claudius and the Quaestura Gallica.


Doors

2 February 2009
A cat opens a door (Side).

A cat opens a door (Side).

If you think that a door is just there to enter a house, you haven’t read James Yates’ article Janua, which was published in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities and has now been made available by LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer. I was impressed that there was so much to tell about the structure of a door, about customs (like knocking), and about religious beliefs. Yates’ piece was written in 1875, and much archaeological and anthropological research has been done since then, but I wonder if it is possible to add more information. So, enjoy it.


Cicero, On Divination

15 February 2008
Cicero  (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

Cicero (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

Bill Thayer is no fan of the Roman author Cicero, but has put online an English translation (Loeb) of the two books On Divination. Bill’s very own synopsis: “He doesn’t believe in it”. The webmaster of LacusCurtius adds that the text “appeals more to our sense of reasonableness than to reason: its refutation of the various superstitions involved makes for pleasant reading, but humor and loose captiousness are hardly proofs, and the main interest of the work is in the details he winds up furnishing about the odd practices he makes fun of.”

To which I have only to add that the text was, until today, not available online, and that the Latin text can be found here.


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