30 November 2008
The young shepherd and his lamb

The young shepherd and his lamb

In the third quarter of the fifth century, the sanctuary of Saint Simeon Stylites was rapidly expanding: there were at least three basilicas, a mausoleum, a baptistery, and a monastery. Pilgrims were arriving from all parts of the Near East. To make travel easier, it seems, road stations were built, and of course there had to be churches for the pious travellers. One of these stations was at Mushabbak, halfway between modern Aleppo and the Saint Simeon complex.

We arrived there late in the afternoon; the sun was setting, and we were distracted by the young shepherd who arrived with his flock, carrying a lamb that was born only minutes before our arrival. It was easy to be distracted, but we did make some photos, now online.

While I was occupied with Cyrrhus and this little church, Bill Thayer put online Book 20 of Diodorus of Sicily‘s Library of World History, which deals with the years before the Battle of Ipsus. He is still proofreading, but the text can be consulted.



30 November 2008
Photo Marco Prins.

Roman bridge at Cyrrhus

The base of the Tenth legion Fretensis in northern Syria, Cyrrhus, has never been excavated, and the nearby city was investigated only superficially. With a little luck, a visitor can find a still unknown inscription or the tombstone of a Roman soldier (as we did).

However, archaeologists have already a few parts and there is much to see: two Roman bridges, a well-preserved mausoleum (probably the tomb of a centurio), the traces of the wall (built by Justinian), two gates, a theater, and a basilica. A satellite photo can be found here, and my new article is here.

Meanwhile, Bill Thayer has put online Book 18 and Book 19 of Diodorus of Sicily‘s Library of World History. It’s a good read.


13 November 2008
Domitian (Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla, Spain)

Domitian (Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla, Spain)

The Roman historian Tacitus (c.55-c.120) wrote three delightful monographs (Agricola, Germania, and the Dialogue on the Orators) and two monumental histories: the Histories and the Annals, a dark work that is his masterpiece. His central theme is how a wealthy man had to act in an age of tyranny: he had duties towards society that he could not honorably evade, but this was not without danger – emperors were jealous and cruel.

For centuries, scholars have praised Tacitus’ style and the depth of his analysis. Some of this praise is exaggerated (arguably, Cassius Dio is a better, less biased historian), and it cannot be denied that the ghost of Domitian, who had acted despotically but to whom Tacitus owed his career, hovers over Tacitus’ accounts of other reigns. Still, he is certainly an efficient writer who knows how to employ stereotypes to create a story that is utterly unputdownable.

I have now added an article on Tacitus to my website, and you can find it here; an earlier version was published in Ancient Warfare.

More Misery

12 November 2008

Another essay of Plutarch’s, either closely related to the one I put up a coupla days ago, or even part of the same one; since both are fragmentary and deal in the same kind of subject, it’s hard to tell. Anyway, online, in Greek and English: Πότερον τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς ἢ τὰ τοῦ σώματος πάθη χείρονα.

Diodorus Siculus

11 November 2008

Welcome back, Jona; I hope the end of your trip went as well as the rest of it seems to have gone.

I’ve just completed putting the first 17 Books of Diodorus’ Library of History online at Lacus; English translation only, no Greek, about 2000 pages of print. Non-Jonas out there should know that he did a fair chunk of the work himself: the quasi-endless proofreading of I don’t know how many Books  (for which my warm thanks, and maybe yours as well, gentle reader, because otherwise we may never have got this monster online) — so that this is an appropriate welcome-back item, I guess.

The remaining Books, 18-40, will find their way onsite in the fullness of time. It’s in fact not as bad as it sounds, since these Books are for the most part fragmentary or even very fragmentary, and thus what’s still missing onsite accounts for only 30% of what we have of him.

Only the wicked know misery

10 November 2008

— in celebration of which, I’ve put the appropriate essay of Plutarch’s online, in Greek and English: Εἰ αὐτάρκης ἢ κακία πρὸς κακοδαιμονίαν.

The Middle East and Its Pasts

5 November 2008

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

As it happens, I was able to visit some of the most beautiful museums of the Middle East in just over one year. About a year ago, I visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara; in January, I was in the National Museum in Cairo; and right now, I am in Syria, where I have been to the two national archaeological museums at Damascus and Aleppo.

The Egyptian museum, which offers objects from everywhere in Egypt, was a bit of a disappointment. Oh yes, the objects were beautiful, but I felt dissatisfied, and it took some time until I realized why: because there had been hundreds of objects illuminating the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, but the Late Period had been treated – well, to be honest, it had hardly been treated. Two centuries of Persian domination received one room – not very much, compared to the many rooms devoted to, say, Tutanchamun.

It is the same here in Aleppo. Ther museum has an extremely interesting collection of finds from the Bronze Age: Ebla, Mari, Ugarit, and Tell Halaf are represented with dozens of fine objects, all shown in nice displays with good explanatory signs. Especially the recently redesigned Tell Halaf rooms are splendid. But after the Early Iron Age, it stops. I saw 1 (one) Achaemenid cup from Tell Ahmar, and – except for some coins – no Seleucid finds whatsoever (although Aleppo is a Hellenistic town, once known as Beroea). There is indeed a department of Roman and Byzantine art, but it is comparatively small; and still, this is close to the ‘Dead Cities’ and one of the thirty or so main military settlements of the Roman Empire, the legionary base of Cyrrhus.

This is not to say that Aleppo is a bad museum – on the contrary. We could spend a full day taking photographs, even though we had forgotten to ask for a permit. The director personally arranged that we could do our job, for which I am very grateful – where on earth is a museum director so concerned with the visitors’ well-being?

The point is that the museums of Aleppo and Cairo, or the ministers of education in Syria and Egypt, have chosen to highlight the ‘national’ part of the past, when their countries ruled themselves. There is also a difference: that Egypt’s national past is absolutely monocultural, whereas Syria’s national past is pluriform: the sites I mentioned above were open to influences from Babylonia, Anatolia, and Egypt. The same can be said about the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations: Turkey is a palimpsest of older cultures.

What these national archaeological museums have in common, is that they ignore that part of the past in which the countries had lost their independence. You will find few Assyrian or Persian objects in those museums, although the Greek and Roman periods are not completely forgotten. We may regret this, but at least it is a choice: it is better than displaying everything without any thought at all – any museum must make a selection, always.

Still, I regret that the periods in which these countries were ruled by foreign masters, are so poorly covered. The Achaemenid period – two century – is too important to ignore. Besides, interaction between civilizations is interesting, and it gains significance when it is not just cultural cross-fertilization within a region (so well-illustrated in Ankara and Aleppo), but when a political dimension is added. This is not to say that these museums have not made me enthusiastic, but a different – more relevant – approach is possible.