The Canal of Drusus

31 January 2009
The Gelderse IJssel

The Gelderse IJssel

The Canal of Drusus is mentioned by Suetonius (Claudius, 1) and Tacitus (Annals, II.8); it appears that it was dug when the Roman general Drusus campaigned east and north of the Rhine in 12-9 BCE. There have been several theories about its location, one of them being that it is identical to the river Vecht, another stressing that both Suetonius and Tacitus use a plural, and that a second canal had to exist, which was localised between Lake Flevo (the modern IJsselmeer) and the Wadden Sea.

The consensus, however, was that the Canal of Drusus connected the Rhine to the IJssel, and was identical to the water course between modern Arnhem and Doesburg, now called Gelderse IJssel. The main argument was that a monument known as Drusus’ Mole can be found a bit east of this watercourse, at Herwen (ancient Carvium).

This hypothesis now turns out to be incorrect. In a recent article in the Netherlands Journal of Geosciences 87/4 (2008 ) by B. Makaske, G.J. Maas & D.G. van Smeerdijk, “The age and origin of the Gelderse IJssel“, radiocarbon data are mentioned that date the oldest part of the Gelderse IJssel to the tenth century. Of course, it remains possible that the Canal was between Arnhem and Doesburg, later changed its course, and that the samples were taken from this new meander.


The Battle of Issus (333 BCE)

22 January 2009
Macedonian horseman, perhaps Perdiccas. Detail from the Alexander Sarcophagus (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul).

Macedonian horseman, perhaps Perdiccas. Detail from the Alexander Sarcophagus (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul).

During the Battle of Issus, on 5 or 6 November 333 BCE, the Macedonian king Alexander defeated the Persian king Darius III Codomannus. This defeat marked the end of the Achaemenid Empire. True, Darius was able to build a new army, but it consisted of recruits, who abandoned their king at the first possible occasion: during the battle of Gaugamela, after the most dreadful celestial omens (which are discussed here).

The Battle of Issus is known from various sources, which complement each other. Where Arrian tells the story from an officer’s point of view, Curtius Rufus tells what the soldiers did, and where Plutarch has a pro-Macedonian bias, Diodorus is interested in the Persian side of the story. Several works of art illustrate the battle: the Alexander Mosaic in Naples for example, and the Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul.

The river Payas.

The river Payas.

Even better, the ancient river Pinarus, where the fight took place, has been identified with the modern Payas. This allows something like a “face of battle” description, and I have attempted to give an impression of what it was to be there, on that fateful day. You can read it here.

Suggestions for improvement are welcome. I translated this from my own Dutch, and I know that my English will be a bit clumsy. Still, the story is sufficiently interesting to present it, and hope for stylistic advise.

An Important Source from Babylon: The Nabonidus Chronicle (ABC 7)

21 January 2009
The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle is one of the most important historiographical texts from the ancient Near East. It documents the main events of the reign of the last king of Babylonia, Nabonidus. It does so without bias: the king’s defeats are mentioned, no attempt is made to hide the fact that he did not really care for the Babylonian cult. Of course, the text was written during the reign of Nabonidus’  successor, Cyrus, but the chronicle also records how this Persian king kills citizens after a battle. So, although this text is limited in outlook, it is a valuable source.

We learn that during his first regnal years, Nabonidus campaigned in the west, and then settled in Tema, an oasis in the western desert; although no explanation is offered, the consequences are repeatedly stressed: the Akitu Festival could not be celebrated. As the bottom of the tablet is missing, we do not know under which circumstances Nabonidus returned to Babylon, but on the reverse of the tablet, we find the king at home again.

The tablet also describes the rise of Cyrus the Great, who is first presented as the ruler of Anšan who subdued the Median leader Astyages (550); we also learn that Cyrus conquered Urartu in 547; and we read how -in October 539- he outmaneuvered the Babylonians in a battle at Opis, which was followed by the killing of citizens. Babylon is captured, Nabonidus is taken captive, and Cyrus enters a peaceful city. The final remarks of the tablet deal with Cambyses, who appears to have made a mistake during the Akitu Festival.

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

I have put online the well-known edition by A.K. Grayson, with two important changes. In the first place, I have inserted his own “Addenda et Corrigenda”, which are too often neglected by students of his Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975, 2000). The consequences are disastrous: it is, for example, time and again stated that the Nabonidus Chronicle dates Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia to 547, which is simply untrue, and was already corrected by Grayson himself.

The fact that almost nobody seems to check the additions and corrections, has allowed an erroneous chronology of Anatolia and Greece to survive for more than a generation. And I am afraid it will continue to bedevil us, because it has been accepted in Asheri e.a., A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV (2008), which may become the commentary on Herodotus for some time.

In the second place, I took the liberty to invite my friend Bert van der Spek, who is one of the authors of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period, to add several other notes to make the commentary up to date. Of course, they have been indicated, so that no one will be in doubt about the authorship of the comments – they may be Grayson’s original ones, his own corrections, or additions by Van der Spek or myself. (I think that Grayson, who used the second edition of his book to correct himself, would not have objected.)

The text is here.

The End of Antiquity and the Origins of Europe

19 January 2009

It is something of a truism that Europe has its origins in the great migrations and the fall of Rome. Before these events, about a third of mankind identified themselves with the Mediterranean civilization and called themselves Romans. They distinguished themselves from the aggressive Sasanian Persians in the east and the barbarous Germanic tribesmen from the north. However, in the fifth century, these tribal warriors settled within the former Empire, while the Sasanian Empire ceased to exist in the early seventh century. The old Mediterranean Empire desintegrated, and the new superpowers were Byzantium and the Caliphate of Damascus. It is commonly taken for granted that ‘Europe’ originated in this messy period.

In his book God’s Crucible. Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (2008, Norton New York) Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis tries to trace the origins of European civilization more precisely, but he has to do a lot of groundwork first. In the first chapters, he describes the long struggle between the Byzantine emperor Heraclius and the Sasanian shah Khusrau II. Christian orthodoxy and Zoroastrian beliefs played a role in this conflict, and religious purity was something that both the emperor and the shah were interested in. Lewis points out how the two empires were exhausted after this war, and that it was relatively easy for the first Muslims to conquer Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. I found these chapters more accessible than Hugh Kennedy’s detailed Great Arab Conquests (2008), which is also a very good book.

Lewis devotes several chapters to the Arab conquest of Andalusia, the attacks on the Frankish kingdom north of the Pyrenees, and the story of ‘Abd al-Rahman I, the adventurer who created the Emirate of Cordoba as an independent Islamic state. In between, Lewis deals with “the myth of Poitiers”: the idea that the battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732 in some sense stopped the Islamic expansion north of the Pyrenees. He convincingly shows that the Muslim armies continued to invade Aquitaine and the Provence, and that the real reason why the Arab conquests came to a standstill was a Berber insurrection followed by a civil war in the Caliphate. (Kennedy offers the same analysis.)

Nevertheless, the battle of Tours is crucial to Lewis’ account, because the victor, general Charles the Hammer, now had an excellent reputation for efficient leadership, which he used to increase his power. The official Frankish kings became increasingly irrelevant, until Charles’ son Pippin proclaimed himself king and was anointed by the pope. As a quid pro quo, the Christian leader demanded that Pippin defend Rome against the Langobards. The architect of this bargain may have been the capable archbishop of Mainz, Boniface.

Lewis also deals with the reign of Pippin’s son and successor Charlemagne, who inherited the deal with the papacy and decisively beat the Langobards. He also subdued the Saxons, who were mercilessly forced to become subjects of both the Frankish ruler and the pope – a sad story to read. Charlemagne’s policy was the exact opposite of the one pursued in the Emirate of Cordoba, which never forced its subjects to become Muslims.

Charlemagne’s harsh religious policy is important for Lewis’ book. In 778, the Frankish king invaded Catalonia, but the war was not the success he had been hoping for; worse, the commander of the rear guard, count Roland, was defeated by Basque warriors at Roncevalles. In the Chanson de Roland, written by an author who presented Charlemagne more as leader of Christianity than as a Frankish king, this rearguard action was converted into an epic struggle between Christianity and Islam.

By now, a new cultural identity had been created. People could call themselves ‘Europenses’, and it was obvious to anyone that this meant that they belonged to Latin Christianity, had to be distinguished from the Byzantines, and were opposed to Islam. The Reconquista put the ideas of the Chanson de Roland into practice, and provoked an intervention from the Moroccan Almoravids and Almohads, who were just as intolerant as their Christian enemies. The opposition between Europe and Islam had been created; and we are only too familiar with the consequences.

At least, this is what Lewis writes. I think he is right. After all, his ideas are not very new. His account of Visigothic Spain and the Emirate of Cordoba does not offer much that can not be found as well in the books by Roger Collins (e.g., The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797 (1989). Still, this is a good book and a useful counterpoison against those theories that place the origins of Europe in the Greek wars against Persia. This idea was already refuted more than a century ago by Max Weber in his well-known ‘Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik’, and it is shocking to see that it is still repeated today.

Lewis’ book is not perfect, though. His account of early Islam is strangely conservative, essentially a rational retelling of the Islamic sources. You don’t have to believe the Luxenberg Thesis or the (in my view unconvincing) reinterpretation of the rise of Islam proposed in Ohlig and Puin’s Die dunklen Anfänge; but ignoring them altogether is a bit cheap. But this is the only major objection I have.

Still, there are too many minor errors. The Germanic tribes did not invade the Roman Empire after the sack of Rome in 410, but four years before that event (page 109); there were no rabbits north of the Pyrenees, although the Frankish noblemen may have appreciated hares (p.296); the Sharia in Spain was – as far as I know – Zahiri, not Malikite (passim); Otto I was not a member of the Hohenstaufen family and ‘Abd al-Rahman does not mean ‘Champion of the Religion of God’ (both on p.321). There are several printing errors (caesares becomes cesari on p.8 and on p.242, we find ‘Franksih’ noblemen). On one point, Lewis appears to have believed modern-day propaganda by Iranian royalists and I would not be surprised if some of the information on p.6 was taken from the Wikipedia. The old canard that the Romans tried to reach the Elbe in Germany is mentioned on p.233 (no military bases have been identified east of the Weser). The observations on the sexual lives of Muhammad and Charlemagne are irrelevant to the main thesis. Et cetera, et cetera.

Lewis acknowledges the help of three research assistants and seven people “who read evolving versions of this book”. They have obviously been sleeping and, worse, are employed by well-known universities. Is it really possible that none of them has spotted that France is not east of the Pyrenees, that Ctesiphon is not north of Baghdad, and that Bari is not south of Rome – somewhere in the Tyrrhenian Sea? For a moment, I was wondering what I could possibly learn from an author who makes mistakes like these. But that would be unkind. Although it contains too many minor errors to be a real page turner, God’s Crucible offers a convincing interpretation of the origins of Europe. I sincerely recommend it.

Issus (town)

17 January 2009
Photo Marco Prins.

A Medieval comb with a lion.

The port of Issus, or Izziya as the Hittites called it, or Kinet Höyük as it is called today, would have been completely forgotten, if the Macedonian king Alexander the Great had not defeated the Persian king Darius III Codomannus on the plain immediately south of it on 5 or 6 November 333 BCE.

Without that famous battle, the twenty-six meter high mound would have been like any other Bronze and Iron Age settlement in greater Syria: inhabited since the Late Neolithic, several strata, normal houses made of mud brick, countless household items, and statuettes of that ubiquitous naked goddess holding her breasts, which have been found in Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Hellenistic contexts.

To be honest, the site isn’t worth a detour,  but the objects are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Antioch, with some excellent explanatory signs. I hope to put online photos of the battle site soon; for the moment, the old page is here.


15 January 2009
Photo Jona Lendering.

The Granicus (Biga Çayi)

The Battle of the Granicus was the first fight during Alexander‘s campaign against the Achaemenid Empire, which had, since the death of Artaxerxes III Ochus in 338, been torn apart by civil war. Artaxerxes IV Arses – his throne name is recorded in the famous Xanthus trilingue – had been forced to deal with insurrections in Babylonia (Nidin-Bel), Egypt (Chababash), and Armenia (Artašata). In the end, Artaxerxes IV was replaced by the rebel satrap of Armenia, who was to rule as Darius III.

During this civil war, the western territories had been attacked by a Macedonian army commanded by Parmenion and Attalus. The Greek mercenary leader Memnon of Rhodes and the western satraps had been able to repell the invaders, but in the spring of 334, Alexander arrived with the main force.  What happened at the Granicus, is something you can read here.

Finishing things: Bevan’s House of Ptolemy

14 January 2009

I like to think that there are 114 books on my site (62 primary ancient sources or authors, 29 modern works on the Old World, 23 works on American history — yes, a large American history site too); but it’s only partly true. Not that I’ve gone and cheated: if I count the 31 pages of Ampelius as one book, I also count the 3000+ pages of Diodorus, or the complete works of Claudian, each as only one book, or the 5 volumes of Gayarré’s History of Louisiana together as just one, so that concern balances out pretty much.

But not all those books are complete. One of them (Ptolemy’s Geography in the Stevenson “translation”) is actually abandoned, as intractably bad: I should never have started it in the first place; and some few are still in progress and not announced or much linked to (like the Annals of Tacitus, or Henry Adams’ History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson). Quite a few, however, are not “quite” finished. Usually, it’s detailed proofreading — a dull, thankless chore — but sometimes it’s images that need to be scanned, or an index completed, or a combination of things like that.

Edwyn R. Bevan’s House of Ptolemy used to be one of these unfinished items; now it’s done. (Well … see below!) It is, in the words of its subtitle, A History of Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Published in 1927, it is, of course, like most of what copyright law allows us to read online, superseded; but it’s very readable, and good enough that only in its finer points are we omniscient moderns likely to quibble with it: it’s therefore a useful introduction to its subject. Not my fault that the photographic illustrations in the 1968 facsimile edition I worked from are dark and pasty; so for now, no illustrations — fortunately, not essential to the text, although not merely decorative either — and I’ll have to find an original edition to get good scans from. Drat; not “finished” after all.