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.


Tonight’s Lunar Eclipse, Seen from Babylon

15 June 2011

Astronomical Diary, mentioning the battle of Gaugamela. The Babylonian astronomers correctly predicted the rise of Alexander and the demise of Darius III.

The ancient Babylonians were great astronomers. It is too easy to laugh about their astrological achievements: we know about the earth’s orbit around the sun and we understand why the seasons change with the constellations, but back then, it was quite a discovery that the rise of Aquarius always announced the rise of the water level in the Euphrates and Tigris.

In an age prior to the invention of statistics, it was also hard to recognize that within an interval of a hundred days, there’s always a ruler whose reign comes to an end (there are so many states and so many rulers, while their tenure of office is limited), so the astronomers’ discovery that within a hundred days after a lunar eclipse, there’s always a ruler who dies, retires, or is overthrown, is not to be derided.

As it happens, we understand the four systems with which the astronomers predicted the end of the rule of the leaders of independent states, because we can read the ancient handbook, Shumma Sin ina tamartishu. The eclipsed lunar disk was divided into four quadrants (top, down, left, right), which stood for Syria, Assyria and the north, Elam, and Babylonia – or, to use the ancient names, Amurru, Assyria and Subartu, Elam, and Akkad. The first quadrant touched by the umbra of the eclipse, indicates the direction where the threatened ruler lived.

The direction of the shadow offered a similar clue, although top, down, left, and right now stood for Babylonia, Elam, Assyria and Gutium (the east), and Syria.

There were supplementary systems, which offered some room for personal interpretation to the astrologer. First, the months of the year represented one of the four regions mentioned. For example, Simanu, Tašrîtu , and Šabatu corresponded with Syria. Then, the day of the eclipse, which can only be on the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th of a lunar month, correspond to Babylonia, Elam, Syria, and Assyria/Subartu.

Some minor points: the moment of the eclipse (early evening, midnight, after midnight) represented the consequences of the end of the reign: plague, diminishing markets, or recovery. If Saturn was visible, the power of the celestial omen doubled; Jupiter, on the other hand, protected the king.

So, what does this mean for tonight’s lunar eclipse? I do not believe in astrology, but I was surprised to discover that the four systems indicate more or less the same, plausible outcome. The moon is first eclipsed at precisely the edge of the left and top quadrant: so that means that leaders in Elam and Syria are in peril. The umbra leaves the lunar disk in the eastern part, threatening Syria again.So, the main system indicates trouble in the west, allowing for problems in the east. Iraq itself is safe.

Using the supplementary systems, we get the same result. Tonight’s date, after sunset, is 14 Simanu: the day promises the end of the reign of a ruler in Elam, while the month represents, again, Syria. Jupiter is not visible, Saturn is; and as far as the time is concerned, we can say that in Iraq, the eclipse is more or less around midnight, so the markets will diminish.

If astrology were a science, this would mean that within a hundred days, a leader who lives in Syria or the west is in grave danger. Alternatively, and with a smaller likelihood, the leader of Elam is in trouble – modern Khuzestan or the east. Now I am not a prophet, but if Assad or Ahmedinejad will be forced to resign, I think there will indeed be a big panic on the stock markets.

Literature

Postscript, September 1, 2011

OK, it turns out that the eclipse referred to Khadaffi.


New items on Livius.org

26 March 2011

The stele of Marcus Valerius Severus in Volubilis. Photo Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum

I have been abroad for some time and it was difficult to add things to the Livius website, but there are some additions that you may or may not find interesting. Bouke Slofstra wrote about the ‘Libyan’ Inscriptions in Numidia and Mauretania: an interesting subject I did not know about. Bouke also wrote a piece on the stele of Marcus Valerius Severus in Volubilis (in what is now Morocco).

I also made available a double review of the recent book on Alexander the Great by Heckel and Tritle. In the first part, I judge it as a historian, and conclude that it is “a state-of-the-art series of articles”; in the second half, I look at the book from a more general point of view, and I conclude that the art itself is seriously in decline. The book is better than average, but for a discipline that is no longer what it should be.

Other stuff: some photos from Israel, illustrating 1 Maccabees 9, the career of Pilate (the stadium of Caesarea and the famous inscription), king Agrippa II, the legions IIII Scythica and VI Ferrata, and – from Iran – the river Araxes.


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.


Oh, please…

19 January 2011

Small bust of Caligula (Palazzo Massimo alle terme, Roma)

Caligula’s tomb found” is the headline of an article, today, in The Guardian. It may be true, but it may also be another exaggerated claim made by an archaeologist angling for funds. The author of the article mentions several arguments that a recently discovered monument near Lake Nemi is indeed the final resting place of Rome’s third emperor:

  • Caligula owned a villa near Lake Nemi;
  • a splendid statue has been found over there;
  • a tomb raider has shown a previously unknown archaeological site.

There are no photos of the statue, and I get the impression that it is only identified as a statue of Caligula because it wore military boots (caligae). I would have liked to see the statue’s head.

The final sentence is “the tomb raider led them [the police] to the site, where excavations will start today”. In other words, research still has to start. It may as well be a large but common tomb, where a normal villa owner was buried, with some statues as decoration. Even if the statue represents Caligula (again, a photo would come in handy), the simple hypothesis that the tomb dates back to his reign or the final years of Tiberius, explains all. There is no need to make bold claims.

There are now two possibilities: either the tomb is Caligula’s, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, an archaeologist has desinformed us and journalists have contributed to it. If it is, excavation will be more difficult because many people will visit Lake Nemi. In both cases, scholarship suffers. Everybody would have been a lot happier if there had been no report before certainty had been reached.


Novaesium (Neuss)

5 September 2010

Tombstone of a standard bearer

Built on a natural terrace west of the Rhine, Novaesium was, together with Nijmegen, the oldest military base in Germania Inferior, founded by Drusus before 16 BCE. He used this base, which is exceptionally large, to conquer the valley of the Lippe. When the conquests had been given up, Neuss remained in use as a Roman fortress, at least until the end of the first century CE.

The camp village survived the departure of the legionaries; the town was still in existence in the Merovingian age. The site of the ancient fortress is overbuilt by modern use, but many objects have been excavated.

I uploaded extra photos, which I took in the Clemens Sels-Museum. It’s all here.


Velleius’ Chronology

17 August 2010

The Fasti Capitolini

For the past two weeks, I have been occupied with Velleius Paterculus, a Roman historian from the age of Tiberius who wrote a brief account of the history of Rome, which he dedicated to his friend Marcus Vinicius. I think I’ve made a small discovery.

It has been observed before that although Paterculus makes kind remarks about Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, his Roman History tells a different story. For example, although we’re supposed to believe that Caesar’s clemency was almost superhuman and his assassination undeserved, we hear nothing about his countless reform measures. Not even his calendar reform is mentioned, which is odd, because Paterculus is obsessed with chronological precision.

His work contains many chronological references, like “In the consulship Lentulus and Marcellus, 703 years after the founding of the city and 78 before your consulship, Marcus Vinicius, the civil war burst into flame”. The great scholars of the nineteenth century already noted that the dating system Paterculus uses starts in 752/751 BCE, and not in 754/753, as we are used to. This means that Paterculus used Cato’s chronology of the Roman Republic.

It also means – and I have not seen this in the articles I’ve read – that he does not use the Varronian system, which he must have known and which had become the authorized chronology. It was inscribed on the Arch of Augustus on the Forum Romanum (the inscription, known as the Fasti Capitolini, is now in the Capitoline Museums). Chosing not to use this system, Velleius made quite a statement: he was essentially saying that Caesar and Augustus were liars, who endorsed Varro’s propagandistic fabrications, the notorious “dictator years”.

Revised webpage here.


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