Female Gladiators and True Scholarship

29 April 2012

Breestraat 113, Leiden

Last week, I had to speak in the Leiden Museum of Antiquities. As I live in Amsterdam, I had to take the train, where I read the newspaper and learned that a statuette had been found of a female gladiator. She was topless, the journalist added. The banality of this article irritated me, especially when I noticed, during my walk to the museum, a nice stone tablet I had not seen before. It said that in this house, Joseph Scaliger had lived.

Scaliger was one of the greatest scholars of all time. He established the chronology of the ancient world, and although he made mistakes, he realized that the chronology of the Bible was inconsistent with what he had learned from other sources. In his quest for the truth, he sacrificed Biblical literalism, just the way Galileo would do, a couple of years later, in his Letter to Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine. With Scaliger, the “Secularization of our World Picture” started, which in turn opened the road to the Enlightenment.

The study of Antiquity is important. If I my quote an earlier post, here is a too short list of its contributions:

  • The way Politian dealt with texts, inspired Erasmus of Rotterdam, and caused the Reformation.
  • Without Scaliger’s studies – see above – no Enlightenment.
  • The discovery of the relations between languages has shaped the way we define nationality.
  • The Lachmann method was the model of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • Frazer’s hypotheses about human sacrifice influenced decision-making in the years prior to the First World War.
  • The simplistic exegesis of Tacitus’ Germania gave rise to the Aryan myth.
  • Archaeologists have given us a Prehistory, and offered evidence for the hypothesis that human history is defined by progress.

I am not claiming anything that is controversial. So how come that every time the newspapers write about Antiquity, they are writing about trivialities? Why are we always forced to read about the curse of the pharaoh, war-minded Spartans, or gladiators, topless or not?

Over here in Holland, we have a state secretary who declared not to understand the importance of archaeological museums. Actually, he is right. If the tax payer, in return for his money, does not get a decent book about the subjects I mentioned above, there’s no reason to continue the funding of our universities.


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