Improving Livius.org

2 March 2014

The study of history is not just a story based on sources. A scholar is able to explain why he does what he does; awareness of methodological problems is the difference between a professional and a dilettante. Explaining this is of the greatest importance, because there are two disturbing developments.

  1. An increasing number of people has received a higher education, and is capable of recognizing the errors made by professional scholars, who are increasingly specialized and are often insufficiently aware of developments outside their specialism.
  2. On internet, people select the information they like – and this is usually bad information, because bad information drives out good.
The first development causes scepticism, while the second allows it to flourish. We must, therefore, explain our methods: philogical, exegetical, archaeological, historical. In this way, people will understand why information offered by professional scholars is better than other kinds of information.

Although it has, since about 2005, been generally recognized that websites like Livius.org and books for a larger audience must not just present the facts but should explain method as well, no satisfying way to explain method has been found so far. However, we can at least try to create awareness that history is a serious discipline. I have put online some articles on methodological and related topics:

Comments are welcome.


Question

9 January 2014

Messianic symbols: the star of David on the rebuilt Temple

I am currently writing about the rise of eschatological speculation in the second century BCE. Many texts, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, are quite allusive: you need to know what the Branch, the Shoot, the Star and so on mean to understand what the text is about. It’s one big intertextual web.

But why?

I do not think it was necessary to write in code. At first, I thought it was a bit of a toy for the writing elite, which is not without parallel in ancient literate societies. The Epic of Gilgamesh already contains puns and word plays. But another thought crossed my mind: you can see a similar, highly allusive, kind of poetry at the same time in Alexandria.

If Greek concepts like the soul can find their way to sectarian Jewish religious texts, and if even an anti-Hellenistic text like Maccabees dates events to the Seleucid era, is it possible that a Callimachus influenced Jewish writers?

On a related note: is it too far-fetched to draw a parallel between the use of a dead type of Greek in the Second Sophistic and the use of Hebrew in the Mishna? (Personally, I think this is far-fetched, but perhaps someone knows more.)

Your input is welcome.


Ancient Afghanistan

30 November 2013

holtWhen we think of ancient Greek civilization, we rarely think of Afghanistan and the Punjab. We’re not alone. Most historians ignore these countries too. One of the few exceptions is the American historian Frank Holt, who has been studying ancient Bactria and Gandara for many years.

Lost World of the Golden King is his latest and most interesting book, but unlike his earlier publications, he is not focusing on Antiquity but on the study of Antiquity. In this way, he shows the study of the past at its best.

Read the rest of this entry »


Henchmen of Ares

10 November 2013

ares_coverHere is a book I would like to recommend: it is called Henchmen of Ares. Warriors and Warfare in Ancient Greece, and it is written by my colleague Josho Brouwers. It was published a couple of days ago by Karwansaray, which is also responsible for my own Edge of Empire. If you still were under the impression that this little piece was in any way objective, I will add that I am the book’s editor.

That being said, I probably would have recommended this book also if I had not been heavily involved in this project. The book, which is a reworked and revised version of the author’s Ph.D. thesis, is an attempt to seriously combine all kinds of evidence, both the written sources and the archaeological finds, to reconstruct the way the Greeks fought their wars in the Mycenaean and Archaic Ages. I learned a lot from it.

This being a book by the publisher who is also responsible for Ancient Warfare magazine, you know what you can expect: a good text that is lavishly illustrated, lots of up-to-date information, good maps, excellent illustrations by well-known military artists like Johnny Shumate and Graham Sumner.

Writing for a large audience no longer is what it used to be. The age in which professional academics “sent” their information to an audience has passed. The audience, nowadays, is highly educated (up to 40% in the western world), selects information, and will not accept the facts, unless they also learn how scholars have established these facts. More and more, the content they need resembles an academic publication, except for the fact that the larger audience is not interested in which scholar has reached what conclusion. That’s only important for the academic bean counters counting publications, creating citation indexes, and killing the humanities.

The common system, often used by people writing for a larger audience, of creating a “ladder” (a list of books of increasing difficulty that brings the reader to the frontiers of scholarship) is not well-suited to books. In Henchmen of Ares, we have instead decided to offer an exceptionally long chapter full of bibliographic notes. The ugly end notes and foot notes have been replaced by a chapter in which the sources are mentioned for every subject. This is a quite novel way of presenting the information: the reader can use it as a ladder and can ignore it, but he will never have a dull text. This system will not be useful for all books, but it may be a way to serve an increasingly fragmented audience.


Syrian refugees in Lebanon

19 September 2013

Syrian refugees sit around a stove inside their tent during a winter storm in Zahle. The vast majority of the refugees are from the hard-hit provinces of Homs and Damascus. (c) Washington Post

This blog is on ancient history, but today, I make an exception. Those who have followed me over the past year and a half, know that I’ve been to Lebanon three times – and it is for this country modern that I ask your attention. (Next time, I will be blogging about some site in Gaul, some senator, or some Anatolian king again. Promise.)

According to last week’s UNHCR figures, about two million people from Syria have left their country. Some 720,000 people have been registered in Lebanon, a country with some four million inhabitants that already hosts some 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Because I cannot really understand what it means, I decided to ask Maya, who lives in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, some twenty kilometers from the Syrian border.

First two questions about numbers. 720,000 people is almost incredible. Do you believe that it is accurate?
When it comes to counting refugees, accuracy is always an issue. We have the non-registered, the registered, and the ones who come back and forth to Lebanon. But all in all, I think the number is much more than that. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon may be more than 900,000.

You live in Zahle. With some 50,000 inhabitants, it is the first major town a refugee from Damascus will visit. How many Syrians are there in your hometown?
In fact, the Bekaa Valley itself rather than Zahle, which is already on the slopes of the mountains, is the main destination for refugees. The valley is closer to the Syrian border, most refugees settle in Bekaa regions like Ghazzeh, Kabelias, Barelias, Majdel Anjar, Saadneyel, Marej, Taalabaya. Fewer Syrians settle in Zahle since it’s more expensive to live here; in the regions I mentioned the number of refugees is high because they can set up tents, something we rarely see in Zahle. Approximately 400,000 Syrians live in the Bekaa.

How are these people sheltered?
I think it’s important to keep in mind that Syrians from different social classes are settling in Lebanon. The rich Syrians settle mainly in Beirut, while the less fortunate settle in the Bekaa. Those who have a good financial status may choose Zahle and Chtaura, while others have no other choice than staying in tents or old buildings and garages.

Who is paying for that? Is it just the UNHCR?
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, many NGOs gathered and united to help the refugees, many organizations cooperate in order to assist those people in need. NGOs are helping refugees by giving food vouchers, hygiene and baby kits, mattresses and blankets, stoves during wintertime, establishing toilets …. UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, World Vision, ACF, DRC, NRC among others are highly contributing to the Syrians’ cry for help.

I recall that Zahle is a Christian town in a predominantly Shi’ite region. Does this mean you receive mostly Christian refugees?
I believe that this issue is hard to elaborate on since most refugees do not mention any personal religious details,  but I think we live in a zone where people have always preferred to live with people of the same religious background. I believe this is still applicable nowadays (each town contains people from the same religion), so I must say that refugees will choose to settle in regions where they would feel comfortable among people who share their religious beliefs. With religious conflicts arising in Lebanon and the Arab countries, refugees have to avoid such problems.

Are the new people in your town a very visible group? How did their presence change your lives?
I think that the main impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is financial: we noticed an increase in prices of houses, rental fees, prices of food items … Still, we can’t associate this increase to the refugees only, because we have always experienced price changes in Lebanon; but the rate of the increase is getting bigger. Another main problem we are facing nowadays is the sense of insecurity of the Lebanese people. Refugees have no money, they lost everything they owned in Syria, and have nothing left to lose. This has made them consider stealing and begging as a way to make money.

Lebanon does not produce enough electricity for its needs. Blackouts are quite normal. Has this increased?
Blackouts are still occurring, there was and still is a great need. I don’t think demand should increase any further.

Is it only a tragedy? I can imagine that there must be people in Zahle, like the owner of a bakery or grocery, who must make lots of money right now.
People who are benefiting the most are land owners, landlords, and shop owners, especially those who are partnering with NGOs in order to exchange food vouchers with food items.

How do the Zahleans respond?
Lebanon always lacked tranquility, and Syria has had a great role in adding to that. Perhaps you have heard that a couple of years ago, Syrian tanks and military forces left Lebanese lands and went back to Syria. What most people don’t know, however, is what exactly happened prior to this retreat: how the Syrians mistreated the Lebanese people, harmed, killed, and took advantage of many things and people. It’s safe to say that the problems between Lebanese and Syrians go way back and lots of Lebanese citizens have suffered losses because of this dark period, in which the dominance of Syrian forces was inescapable.

For that reason, the Lebanese find it difficult to be welcoming, even though many refugees are innocent people. But after bloodshed, some things can’t be forgotten. Nevertheless, no problems were caused by Lebanese against Syrians, but the frustration is starting to show through people’s nagging about the great number of Syrians, the prices increase…

And most importantly, the Lebanese people themselves are getting no aid from NGOs yet many of them are in need as well, and they too are affected by the Syrian crisis. For example, Syrian people easily take jobs in Lebanon, especially as laborers. Since they accept lower wages than Lebanese people, this increases the unemployment rates in Lebanon and causes Lebanese citizens to get even more frustrated.

I was told that the situation was so difficult, that there some refugees were going back to Damascus. Is that true?
That’s true. There are two groups of them. Some of them go back because they find it hard to live in Lebanon, where everything is more expensive than Syria. (This might change shortly because an increase in prices is taking place in Syria.) Others go back and forth to check on their families, relatives, and possessions. After all, Syrian refugees never miss a chance to express their eagerness to go back to Syria and always wish things would go back as they were before the crisis began.

Thank you for answering these questions.

Last week, the UNHCR announced that their lack of funding was catastrophic. If you want to donate some money, you can do it here.


Roman Toulouse

17 August 2013

Relief from the Musée Saint-Raymond, Touloyse

I have never met Mr Michel Gybels, who lives somewhere in southern France, likes to visit ancient ruins, and writes nice pieces about them. He already wrote for the Livius website about several cities in ancient Greece and Anatolia, and about the excavations in southern France. I must not forget that he knows an awful lot about medieval Catharism as well – this is his Dutch website – which explains why he has also contributed a piece on Manicheism.

His latest piece is about the excavations west of Toulouse, ancient Tolosa. I have added a history of the city, and was glad that I could refer to so many sources that are nowadays online available. Most photos by Gybels.

You will find the Toulouse stuff by Gybels and yours truly here.


Roman Military History

10 August 2013

Although nothing seems to change at LacusCurtius and Livius.org, that’s not really true. At the first site, Bill Thayer is doing a lot of proofreading, while at the second site, I have corrected a lot of minor and major factual errors. One of these had been in my inbox for nine months, because I am occupied with many other things, including my book on the “parting of ways” between Judaism and Christianity.

I am also trying to have the website converted to better software. The trouble is that I neither have sufficient time to do it myself nor €12,000 to outsource it. If someone has a brilliant plan, drop me a line.

Still, we’re adding things, although it’s mostly Bill, who is adding all kind of ancient texts to the “Roman Military History” section of LacusCurtius. You will find an English translation of Caesar’s Civil Wars and Hirtius’ Alexandrine War (Latin/English), African War (Latin/English), and Spanish War (Latin/English). The Gallic War will be there too, but not yet. Also available: Onasander, The General (Greek/English) and Aeneas Tacticus (Greek/English).


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