27 June 2008

Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum in southwestern Turkey, is probably best known for one man and one building: the Greek researcher Herodotus (c.480-c.429) was born in this city and the Mausoleum was built there. The town (satellite photo) is still worth a visit: it has a nice theater, parts of the ancient walls are still standing, there is a splendid museum, but the Mausoleum is a bit of a disappointment: most stones were reused to build the castle and most sculptures of this Wonder of the Ancient World are now in the British Museum.


The Black Pharaohs

26 June 2008

Taharqo; sphinx from the Louvre.It is impossible to call the period of the Nubian pharaohs an unknown chapter from Egyptian history; I guess every three years, a book is written about them (e.g., R.G. Morkot, The Black Pharaohs. Egypt’s Nubian Rulers [2000]), and I have seen two major exhibitions about them in my small country.

Perhaps, the importance of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty is overestimated. By the mid-eighth century, it seemed that divided Egypt was slowly reuniting again, although it was unclear who was to do this. In the north, Tefnakht of Sais (Twenty-fourth Dynasty) was increasingly powerful, and from the south, king Kashta seized control over Thebes. The collision between the two powers is documented on Piye’s Victory Stela: when Tefnakht started to gain control of Upper Egypt, Piye of Nubia defeated Tefnakht’s armies, captured Memphis, and subdued the princes of Lower Egypt.

His successors, Shabaqo, Shebitqo, and Taharqo (photo), ruled over both kingdoms, and found themselves entangled in the conflict between Assyria and the city states of Palestina. In 701, Egyptian armies were defeated, but they prevented the Assyrian king Sennacherib from seizing all of Palestine; as is well-known, Jerusalem kept its independence.

Thirty years later, Sennacherib’s successor Esarhaddon invaded Egypt and expelled the Nubians in 671. King Taharqo managed to get back, but was defeated again by Esarhaddon’s successor Aššurbanipal. When he found himself caught in a civil war, he recalled his troops from Egypt, and the country was reunited by Psamettichus, a descendant of Tefnakht, who founded the Twenty-sixth Dynasty.

Plutarch, Consolation to his Wife

24 June 2008

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

A list of ancient Greek texts that have been read throughout the ages will probably include Homer’s Iliad, the New Testament, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, Euclid’s Elements, the classic Athenian tragedians, HerodotusHistories, and Plutarch‘s Consolation to his Wife (Consolatio ad uxorem). It was written after a daughter of two years old had died – a shocking event in any age.

This famous text is now online at LacusCurtius, with an excellent introduction that shows that the text contains all traditional motifs that were supposed to be in a text of this kind, and that Plutarch was able to treat these ideas with great freedom. It is this mastery that makes the text a classic.

The Battle of Cynoscephalae (197 BCE)

24 June 2008

FlamininusThe Battle of Cynoscephalae (June 197) became famous because Roman legions, commanded by Titus Quinctius Flamininus (the portrait is from the museum of Delphi) defeated king Philip V‘s Macedonian phalanx. The army that had once been the best in the world and had defeated Persian kings, Indian raja’s, and Sogdian nomads, now had to recognize that the legions were better. The key to the Roman victory, however, was that the site of the battle was extremely hilly, hardly the place where a phalanx could be employed.

The site was identified by the famous military historian N.G.L. Hammond, who published his theory in 1988. I visited the place some fifteen years ago and made several slides. A kind Albanian shepherd helped me find the well near the remains of one of the Roman camps, and kept the dogs away. Your satellite photo is here and Polybius’ famous analysis of the battle – a military classic – is here.

The Syrian Wars in Daniel 11

24 June 2008

One of the most impressive texts from the Bible is the book of Daniel, which contains several visions, usually concentrating on the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (picture). The most famous vision is that of the four animals in Daniel 7, representing the world empires, culminating in the coming of the Son of Man.

Daniel 11, however, is equally interesting. It contains an accurate description of the wars between two rulers, the King of the South and the King of the North, who can be identified with the Ptolemies and Seleucids. The wars described are the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Syrian Wars; the last one culminated in the near-capture of Alexandria by Antiochus IV, his humiliation by the Romans, and the beginning of the persecution of the Jews.

The prophecy is accurate until the year 166; after that it becomes a real prediction – and goes astray, enabling us to date this part of Daniel to the second half of the 160s. It is interesting to note that the author opposes the Maccabaean Revolt. The text and explanation are online here.

Plutarch, On the Education of Children

22 June 2008

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

The brief treatise On the Education of Children (De liberis educandis) is the very first text in the collected works of the Greek author Plutarch (photo), but it was probably not written by the Sage of Chaeronea. Nevertheless, it is interesting -albeit slightly disorganized- and humane. The author offers some commonsensical advise, and a lot of it is in fact, quite appropriately, about educating fathers:

Fathers ought above all, by not misbehaving and by doing as they ought to do, to make themselves a manifest example to their children, so that the latter, by looking at their fathers’ lives as at a mirror, may be deterred from disgraceful deeds and words.

In our age, we might add the mothers as well, but let’s face it: what else is there to be said about education?


21 June 2008

A place called Nysa is mentioned by Homer, and when he recited his poem, everybody knew where it was. Later generations, however, did not, and there were all kinds of speculations: it might have been a town in Boeotia, or a peak in the Caucasus, or a place in Libya. None of this was really convincing. When Alexander the Great visited the Punjab, he saw the mountain that was known to the Indians as the world mountain and visited a town called Nysa, and he immediately concluded that he had found the legendary place where the great god Dionysus had been born.