Plutarch, Progress in Virtue

6 April 2010

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer is now especially occupied with making available the biographies of a long series of nineteenth-century American officers (here), but in the meantime also continues to put online some ancient stuff.

Today’s contribution came, to me, as a pleasant surprise: Plutarch’s essay How We may Become Aware of Our Progress in Virtue, one of my favorite texts from Antiquity. It’s polemical: the Stoics had argued that only wise people can be virtuous, and Plutarch shows that this is absurd. Admittedly, Plutarch’s suggestions on how we realize that we’re becoming more virtuous/wise, is rather commonplace. Yet, it is a good question – perhaps one of the best questions we may expect from philosophers.


The Tyche of Antioch

4 April 2010

Tyche (Vatican Museums)

The goddess Tyche, “fortune”, became an important, frequently venerated, goddess in the decades after the conquests of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (r.336-323), when the outcomes of many wars seemed to depend on nothing but capricious luck. The good fortune of the ruler who was able to create or destroy a city, was one of the best examples of the influence of Fate, and it comes as no surprise that one of those new cities, Antioch, venerated its own fortune in a temple.

The cult statue was made by Eutychides of Sicyon and is essentially an assemblage of symbols, almost an allegory. The goddess is seated on a rock (=Mount Sipylus), has one foot on a swimming figure (=the river Orontes), and has several ears of grain in her hand (=the city’s fertility). On her head rests a mural crown, which is an orientalizing influence: mural crowns had been used in the art of ancient Elam and Assyria.

I added two small articles today: one on Tyche, and one on the Mural Crown.


Severus’ right-hand man: Plautianus

4 January 2010

Plautianus

It would be strange if I wouldn’t post some new articles on ancient Rome. After all, I just spent a holiday in the urbs ipsa. And indeed, I wrote two pages on Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, the praetorian prefect of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who transformed the old office. His daughter Plautilla also received a brief article; the poor girl had to marry Caracalla, a union that was very unhappy. She was executed by her husband.

In the Vatican, we took photos of the sarcophagus of Sextus Varius Marcellus, who is perhaps best known as the father of Heliogabalus, but is far more interesting than you’d expect. One could write a novel about the man.

I also added a piece on Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages. The connection with my Roman holiday is that we saw his bust in the Vatican Museums. Finally, Bill put online an article on “Recent Discoveries on the Palatine Hill” – recent in 1913 that is, but interesting nevertheless, if only because it is written by the great Boni himself.


Common Errors (26): Et tu, Brute?

2 December 2009

Daggers on a coin of Brutus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

The last words of Julius Caesar are often quoted as Et tu Brute?, “You too, Brutus?” They are also quoted as Tu quoque, Brute?, which means the same. The second variant has been sufficiently popular to make logicians apply these words to a well-known logical fallacy (“pot calling the kettle black“).

That those famous last words are quoted in two versions, already suggests that something’s gone wrong. They cannot both be correct. As it turns out, the expression “Et tu Brute” has been coined by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1); they are not the dictator’s final words, though, because he reflects upon his own death in characteristic third-person, “Then fall, Caesar”.

That leaves us with Tu quoque, Brute. But Caesar probably did not even say that. According to Suetonius, he just sighed, or said something in Greek:

When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” (καὶ σὺ τέκνον;)

[Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 82.2]

<Overview of Common Errors>


Naqš-i Rustam

15 November 2009

Little noticed by the visitors, a couple of eagles guard Naqš-i Rustam.

Naqš-i Rustam, where the Achaemenid kings lie buried and the Sasanian kings proclaimed how they had defeated Roman emperors, is one of the main archaeological sites of Iran. The oldest monument dates to the Bronze Age. No one knows why the people started to make rock reliefs on this site, but I am tempted to think that it had something to do with acoustics: there are not many places with such a beautiful echo.

Four Achaemenid kings (Darius the Great, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II) were buried in the rocks of Naqš-i Rustam. These men were also responsible for several other monuments, like the mysterious structure that is called “Ka’bah-i Zardusht“.

Later, the Sasanian rulers added many reliefs: in chronological sequence, the Investiture relief of Ardašir I, which became the model for several other reliefs; the famous Triumph Relief of Shapur I; the Audience Relief of Bahram II; the Equestrian Relief of Bahram II and the Double Equestrian Relief of Bahram II; the remarkable Investiture Relief of Narseh; the Equestrian Relief of Hormizd II; and finally the badly damaged Audience relief of Shapur II.

I am grateful to the Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, whose work normally graces the pages of the National Geographic; she allowed me to use a splendid picture of Naqš-i Rustam in the winter.


Qasr Bshir

6 November 2009

Leaving one of the most splendid sites of Jordan

A visit to Qasr Bshir ought to be obligatory to any visitor to Jordan. The Roman castle, founded in c.300, is not a ruin, as so often, but is almost intact. It is a square limes fort of about 50×50 meters with four towers, so that it is often typified as a “quadriburgium”. That it is a fascinating place can be deduced from the fact that two young women in our company, who were not known for their great interest in military architecture, were the last ones to leave.

The most amazing aspect of the best-preserved Roman castle in Jordan, however, is that you will be alone. For those who cannot believe that, I will repeat it: you won’t find a soul at a site that is arguably the kingdom’s third archaeological site, after Petra and Jerash.

This is all the more surprising because Jordan’s Castel del Monte is situated almost next to the Desert Highway, the main road from Damascus to Amman to Saudi Arabia. To reach it, go from Qatrana to the north. At your left hand, you will pass the “Petra Tourist Complex” (terrible coffee); after this, take the first asphalt road to the left. It is perpendicular to the highway, leading almost straight to the west. After you have passed the first of two electricity lines, the road turns to the right and winds itself to the northwest. After some eight minutes, you will see the fort to your right. The walk to the castle takes about 15-20 minutes and is easy. Your satellite photo is here.


Jim West is Right

17 September 2009
Writing back to another blogger

Writing back to another blogger

Discussing the possibility that the American president Barack Obama is the Antichrist (something apparently believed by a minority of American conservatives), Biblioblogger Jim West makes a remarkable comment:

You know, don’t you, who the Antichrist is, right?  I do.

παιδια εσχατη ωρα εστιν και καθως ηκουσατε οτι αντιχριστος ερχεται και νυν αντιχριστοι πολλοι γεγονασιν οθεν γινωσκομεν οτι εσχατη ωρα εστιν. εξ ημων εξηλθαν αλλ ουκ ησαν εξ ημων ει γαρ εξ ημων ησαν μεμενηκεισαν αν μεθ ημων αλλ ινα φανερωθωσιν οτι ουκ εισιν παντες εξ ημων (I John 2)

No need for speculation.

I will not digress on the theological merits of West’s comment. After all, I am not a theologician. But his joke to keep the relevant lines untranslated, goes straight to the heart of an important matter, which is not just a problem to theology. Ancient history suffers from it as well: too many people think they can understand ancient texts without having the proper qualifications. Such as learning a dead language.

This is an odd idea. I would not like to go to an amateur dentist. No politician would pay for the experiments by amateur particle physicists. But if ancient texts are involved, expertise is suddenly unnecessary. Books by “self-educated historians” or theological code-breakers are printed by publishing houses that are, essentially, selling out scholarship to make a few quick bucks.

One of the reasons is, of course, that ancient texts are accessible and delightful to read. You easily get the impression that you can make sense of them. There is little to do against this – fortunately, because there is nothing against enjoying a good book. Yet, I would appreciate it if publishers stopped presenting Plato as if he were a normal writer whose books deserve in the bookstores a place between Sylvia Plath and Chaim Potok. He deserves a book with explanations and a lot of footnotes, nothing else.

Another reason is that scholarly levels are falling (example). It is possible to become an ancient historian without ever having visited an archaeological excavation; and it is possible to become an archaeologist without having been taught that Thou Shalt Not Take Texts Literally. Things go wrong when these specialists start to comment on subjects that are outside their direct competence.

For instance, many classicists have argued that the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest was the cause of a rift between German and Romance languages/cultures, confusing causes and conditions. They should have kept their mouths shut, and ought to have left history to historians. I have also heard an art historian say that it was virtually certain that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and I used to own a copy of a book by a professional theologian that starts with a remark that Mary Magdalene is depicted on Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Irresponsible classicists and art historians, but also ancient historians and archaeologists, are showing by example that anyone can comment on everything; so we should not be too surprised that the man in the street, who would never visit an amateur dentist, does not realize that amateur scholars are just unqualified scholars.


Battle of Qarqar (853 BCE)

30 August 2009
Statue of Šalmaneser III from Aššur (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)

Statue of Šalmaneser III from Aššur (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)

I did not intend to write about the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, but when I was again forced to refer to the clash between the Assyrian king Šalmaneser III and a coalition of some twelve Syrian states, this time in a piece on the Nabataeans that I find more important, I decided to put online a page, if only to get rid of it. Of course, when I was occupied with the subject, I started to like it.

Well, “like it”: it remains warfare, which is a dirty job. Šalmaneser himself says that he filled the plain of Qarqar (in northwestern Syria) with the corpses of his dead enemies, that he “made the blood of his defeated enemies flow in the wadis”, that “the field was too small for laying flat their bodies,” that “the broad countryside had been consumed in burying them,” and that he “blocked the Orontes river with their corpses as with a causeway”.

There is some reasonable doubt whether the Assyrians really overcame their enemies. In fact, they appear to have been on the defensive during in the next years. Yet, in 841, they reached Damascus and king Jehu of Israel offered tribute. Qarqar may not have been the decisive Šalmaneser claims it had been, but it surely marked the beginning of the end of independent Syria.

One of the coalition members, by the way, was king Ahab of Israel, who is better known as one of the archvillains of the Bible. During the battle, he commanded one of the largest units. You can read more about the battle here.


Moab

25 August 2009
Moab and its neighbors

Moab and its neighbors

As I will be visiting Jordan pretty soon, I am reading a bit about the history of the Hashemite kingdom, and I will be adding articles to the website on its ancient history. First installment: Moab, an Iron Age kingdom directly east of the Dead Sea.

So far, not many texts have come to light from this area, but the Mesha Stela is quite interesting. As a political unit, Moab certainly existed in the Late Bronze age, and the Biblical book of Judges offers an interesting story about Moab’s king Eglon; more evidence for the history of Moab can be found in the books of Samuel and Kings. In the end, the kingdom shared the fate of Judah, Ammon, and Edom: after being vassal states of Assyria, they became subjects of Babylonia, Persia, and disappear from history in the Hellenistic age, when the Nabataeans became more powerful.

More about that later. The article on Moab is here.


The Iliad

23 August 2009
Nothing has really changed

Nothing has really changed

The Iliad was probably composed in the eighth century BCE, when the Greek cities started to grow and old ideas and values were no longer self-evident. Homer‘s famous poem is essentially about the question what it means to be an aristocrat: one has to be a hero, one has to be pious, one has to be generous, and most of all, a leader had to be able to control his anger. “With great power,” as a superhero of our own age would say, “comes great responsibility”.

My summary is now available here.


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.


Troy and the Trojan War

21 August 2009
Steep Troy

Steep Troy

In 2003, my friend Marco and I visited Troy. To be honest, the site itself is a bit of a disappointment, but when you climb to the summit of one of the nearby funeral mounds and look over the wide plain, it is impossible not to be impressed, even frightened. You sense something dreadful in the air, which I also experienced when I climbed the Cithaeron south of Plataea and watched the Boeotian plain, “Ares’ dancefloor”. Yes, I am a hopelessly romantic soul.

Judgment of Paris; f.l.t.r. Hermes, Iris, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. Etruscan amphora, c.530 BCE (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Judgment of Paris (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Still, the plain with the funeral mounds is more impressive than the site, which is fascinating as an archaeological site only. It’s interesting to stand at the Schliemann trench and to see how later generations have been digging there, certainly; but where science and scholarship rule, the legend cedes. Disenchantment is inevitable. That’s a good thing in itself, but the magic is gone.

Anyhow: the photos are now online here, with comments on Troy I-V, Troy VI and VIIa (“Homeric” Troy), and Troy VIII-IX (Classical Troy); a three-page summary of the Epic Cycle (Cypria; Iliad; remaining poems); the Scamander; and of course a page about the funeral mounds.

Pottery from Troy VI (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Pottery from Troy VI (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Writing it all was fun. It meant rereading the Iliad, checking those interesting Hittite texts (that Wilusa stuff is easily the most fascinating puzzle of the twentieth century), and seeing lots of ancient vase paintings, sculpture, and other works of art. I realized that I used photos from fifteen museums to illustrate my pages. Others may have written better poems (I would not mind trading a Homeric hymn or two for some T.S. Eliot); other archaeological sites may be more spectacular (e.g., Palmyra); and other wars may have been more important, but when all is said and done, Homer, Troy, and the Trojan War remain something truly special, and I am glad to have visited the place.


1350 Ancient Sites on Google Earth

16 August 2009
The Roman fort at Hardknott

The Roman fort at Hardknott

What you are looking for, is here.


Scamander

9 August 2009
Scamander

Scamander

The river Scamander is the place of one of the most famous scenes of Homer‘s Iliad: Achilles fighting against the river god himself. It’s an impressive story, but already in Antiquity, it was ridiculed: the river might have been a deity, but wasn’t it a bit strange that he could speak beneath his flood (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 4, 85)?

The Scamander was best known from the age of the legendary heroes, but is also mentioned in more reliable sources. For example, Herodotus tells us that its waters were insufficient to supply the army of the Persian king Xerxes, who invaded Greece in 480 BCE (Histories, 7.43). A new web page is now here.


Common Errors (25): Caesar on the Sabis

7 August 2009
Battle of the Sabis

Battle of the Sabis

Among the mistakes in the new historical atlas (the subject of an earlier posting) is the identification of the river Sabis, where Caesar defeated the Nervians, with the modern Sambre. It is true that the words resemble each other, but that’s about all evidence there is for this identification.

A much more plausible place is the little river Selle, which empties itself into the Scheldt near modern Valenciennes. The obvious objection is that Selle does not look like Sabis at all, but looks can be deceptive. In 706, the river was called Save; in 964; we find a reference to the Seva; the change to Sevelle is a normal development in the twelfth and thirteenth century, and in 1476, presto, the little stream was known as Selle.

This identification also explains why the Nervians could surprise the Roman invaders. The Selle is crossed by a very ancient road, about which I’ve blogged before, which Caesar used: he writes that he left for the Nervians from the Ambiani, who lived near modern Amiens. The legions just took the main road, and were nearly defeated at a place that is now called Saulzoir, in northern France.

Literature

Pierre Turquin, ‘La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l’ An 57 avant J.-C.’ in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156

<Overview of Common Errors>


Buthrotum (Butrint, Albania)

2 August 2009
Lake Palodes

Lake Palodes

The city of Buthrotum was founded in the mid-seventh century as a port of trade where Greeks could exchange goods with the native Chaonians. We know little about it: the town is not mentioned often in our sources. Fortunately, the site, which is situated on the western shore of Lake Palodes, has been excavated, and a theater, city walls and gates, temples to Athena and Asclepius, a stoa, a prytaneum, churches, the bishop’s palace, and an exceptionally large baptistery have been excavated.

I never visited the site, but my friend Lauren did; she also took the photos, which you can see here. It makes me looking forward to a trip to Albania too. And if Lauren’s photos are not enough for you, here’s the splendid official website.


The ziggurat of Choga Zanbil

22 July 2009
Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven

A ziggurat is a pyramid-shaped artificial mountain, which served as the base of a temple. The most famous example is the “Tower of Babel“: a temple tower meant to “reach into heaven”, as the author of Genesis states – a claim that has indeed been made by the Babylonian kings Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar. The best-preserved ziggurat is in Choga Zanbil, in Khuzestan (Iran).

It is also one of the largest: it occupies a surface of 110×110 meters, and still rises some 25 meters high, less than half of it original heighth. But Choga Zanbil is not just a big heap of ancient tiles and bricks: there are courts and temples, there’s a water refinery, and there’s a royal palace with royal tombs. To be honest, everything is small compared to the building erected by king Untaš-Napiriša (1275-1240).

A “zanbil”, BTW, is a bucket, usually made of leather or rubber. From an excavation in Greece (Halos), I remember that we carried away the dirt in “zambilis”, which suggests that the word has entered modern Greek as a loanword from the Turkish language. Perhaps it’s originally an Arabic word, that was borrowed by the Turks first?

I used to have two pages on the site, based on photos from 2004. But I’ve been there again and again, sometimes twice a year, so I revised everything, and it’s now here.


New in the Antiquaries’ Shoebox

14 July 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. He called this section of his website the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and every now and then, he adds to it. The articles may be a bit old, but at least you do not need an expensive JSTOR account.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 140 articles. The latest contributions are on seven places in Italy called Ferentum and Ferentinum and on Roman Milestones and the Capita Viarum (which also deals with more than one place called Nuceria). Finally, it’s a somehow reassuring thought that someone has written an article on The Roman Craze for Surmullets.


Of poisons and pigs

3 July 2009

A wild pig, the companion of St. Anthony.

Up on Lacus this morning, a little piece on Poisons and Poisoning among the Romans: it could have, should have, been entertaining, but is instead a pretty bland compendium of the subject in Roman authors, and only the more famous of them at that. Still useful: it collects a number of sources.

These days, though, I’m never too far from Plutarch: and sure enough, here too the fine Italian hand of that author; my only real reason for putting up the poison article was that it’s cited in a footnote to Plutarch’s much more entertaining Gryllus, a charming dialogue between Odysseus and a pig, in which Grunter comes out better, naturally — hey, he’s a sophist. The Greek text and a French translation, as often, can be found on Philippe Remacle’s site.

My illustration — since Jona seems to crave one for every posting — is not quite as irrelevant as it might seem. Once again, Plutarch has written us something that reads rather like the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the first of whom was St. Anthony, staying in his cave well away from people (sensibly enough) and keeping a pig and a raven for company; the faithfulness of the crow comes in for praise from Plutarch in this dialogue as well. This pig was prominent in the life of the saint, becoming one of Anthony’s two main iconographic attributes; even when saint and inscription have vanished from a medieval depiction, the pig is enough to identify him. This particular bit of fresco is, if I remember correctly, one of those. It’s in Bovara, a little town near Trevi in Umbria, named not after pigs but cows; it seems to have been an important cattle market in Roman times — see my page on the place.


Moving Livius.org (14)

30 June 2009
Persian Gate

Persian Gate

If I say that Hecatompylos has moved to this URL, and if I add that Masjid-e Solaiman is now here, and if I mention that the page on the Persian Gate can be visited here, you will understand that you have come across a new installment of the highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org. Of these three sites, only the last one is really worth visiting, although I have excellent memories of the other Iranian sites too.

The same can be said of Priene in Turkey, where I once spent a leisurely afternoon. The climb to Oenoanda, on the other hand, was exhausting, but certainly worth the effort: the ruins are impressive. Because there were wild animals over there, we hired a hunter and his friend to keep us company. It was the first time that I was escorted by a man who carried a gun.

Still 77 pages to go…


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