The Frontiers of Classicism

1 September 2015
Taxila-Sirkap: Buddhist stupa of the double-headed eagle. Note the columns with the Corinthian capitals.

Taxila-Sirkap: Buddhist stupa of the double-headed eagle. Note the columns with the Corinthian capitals.

Next month, I’ll visit Uzbekistan. I have never been there, so I am currently busily preparing. Among the things I had to do was to get a permit to visit Kara Tepe, an archaeological site not far from Termez on the Afghan border. “Why on earth,” asked someone, “do you want to see those dead stones?”

“Because it’s there,” I quoted George Mallory, but of course that’s no real answer. The real answer is far more serious: “because I want to understand the classics”.

Now you may wonder if it’s not easier to read, say, Sophocles or Seneca. Isn’t it better to study the core of the classics? The least you can say for it is that it saves you an unpleasant night flight to Tashkent. The more I travel, the more I hate it.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Queen Hatshepsut

30 August 2015

featured_promoI must confess that I have considered calling this piece “lifting the veil”, but that’s too much of a cliché. Still, the banner above does indeed offer a glimpse of the first issue of Ancient History Magazine. It’s a detail of Miłek Jakubiec’s cover design. I have also considered asking you whether you could guess what it represents, but that would be a cliché as well. And that would be wrong. Not just for stylistic reasons, but also because Ancient History Magazine will try to avoid the standard and the safe, and wants to offer fresh perspectives instead.

So, without lifting the veil or making you wonder: it’s (or will be, in its finished version) Queen Hatshepsut, who is talking to the leaders of the expedition to the Land of Punt. This happened in c.1471 BC and is the oldest voyage of discovery mentioned in our debut issue. Jakubiec’ drawing is based on a relief in Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]

A known unknown

24 August 2015
Portrait, believed to represent Plutarch (Delphi)

Portrait, believed to represent Plutarch (Delphi)

Let me offer you a little puzzle. It’s about the famous land bill of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. Here’s the evidence.

Livy writes (Periochae 58.1) that Gracchus’ land bill implied that no one was to own more than 1,000 iugera of public land. Then, there’s Plutarch, who lived a century later and states that no Roman was to own more than 500 iugera of land (Life of Tiberius Gracchus 8.2). There’s an obvious contradiction here, but things are even more complex than that. Some two generations after Plutarch, Appian of Alexandria informs us that Gracchus’ land bill provided

that nobody should hold more than the 500 iugera of the public domain, and added a provision that the sons of the occupiers might each hold one-half of that amount (Civil Wars 1.8).

What to make of this?

[Read the answer on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


17 August 2015


Pergamon was a small town on a steep hill, dominating a fertile plain. It was the perfect place to keep a treasure: the hill was easy to defend, the plain offered sufficient opportunities to feed the garrison. So in 301 one of Alexander’s successors, Lysimachus, decided to store his money in Pergamon. The commander of the city, a man named Philetaerus, promised to take care of it.

Except that he didn’t. Somewhere in the 280s, after he had improved the fortifications, he decided to leave his master and collaborate with Seleucus, the “king of Asia”, who claimed (with some justification) to be Alexander’s true successor. We don’t know exactly why Philetaerus changed his mind: our sources state that he got involved in a conflict within Lysimachus’ family, but that may well be propaganda.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


14 August 2015
Along the Incense Route (illustration Shin Fei)

Along the Incense Route (illustration Shen Fei)

The clock of the medieval church of Zutphen has just struck ten and I am sit here on the patio of my hotel, with a glass of local beer and a laptop. It may seem a bit strange that I am still working at this time of day – and let’s face it: it is strange – but it is a fine way to close what has been an excellent day.

Over the past weeks and months, we have done a lot to create Ancient History Magazine. Not just a particular issue, but the magazine itself, which must have a face of its own. We had to make decisions about the themes we wanted to devote attention to, we had to attract subscribers, we had to think about the lay-out, we had to make our trial issue, we had to attract new illustrators. People like Shen Fei and Ken Broeders, whose work I trust you’re going to like. And, of course, they had to find out what it is to work with us. The illustration on the right, by the way, is by Fei.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]

Killing a King

10 August 2015
The road from Cirrha to Delphi, site of the attack.

The road from Cirrha to Delphi, site of the attack.

The story is told by Livy: in 172 BC, King Eumenes of Pergamon came to Rome, where the Senate received him with all pomp and fanfare the Romans believed to be due to one of their most loyal allies. The king had something to say indeed: he warned the conscript fathers that King Perseus tried to restore Macedonian power and might become dangerous.

After the summit, Eumenes returned to the east, making a brief stop in Cirrha, the port of Delphi, because he wanted to visit the sanctuary of Apollo. Apparently, Eumenes’ religious sympathies were well-known, because a Macedonian agent had sent assassins, who knew that the king would want to pay his regards to the god. They knew where to strike.

The report that the Macedonians had killed a king confirmed all suspicions against Macedonia and during the winter of 172/171, diplomats traveled everywhere to create coalitions for the war that had become inevitable. The Third Macedonian War lasted from 171 to 168 and was the end of Macedonia.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]

Archaeology in Israel (2)

6 August 2015

probabilityIn the first part of this article, I explained how information from ancient sources is not always confirmed by archaeology. In asymmetric situations like these, “maximalists” assume that the information from written texts can be accepted: this is supposed to be reliable unless archaeology contradicts it. “Minimalists”, on the other hand, think that information from written sources can only be accepted if it is archaeologically confirmed.

Usually, it is not important which of these two research strategies is preferred. No Englishman cares there is no archaeological confirmation for Caesar’s claim to have invaded Britain and no Iranian is worried that Herodotus’ seven walls of Ecbatana have not been found. This is different in Israel, where there is no unequivocal archaeological evidence for the powerful state of King Solomon. Given the fact that Israel has supporters who believe the Bible to be literally true, and given the fact that it has enemies who will mercilessly point out flaws in the Biblical narrative, the asymmetrical evidence has political consequences.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]