Common Errors (12): Marathon

31 May 2009
A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

In 490 BCE, Hippias, a former tyrant of Athens, attempted to return to his native city, which was, by now, in the hands of the democrats. His interests matched those of the Persian king Darius I the Great, who liked the idea of a pro-Persian regime among the Yauna-across-the-Sea. The expedition turned out to be an epic failure: the army was defeated at Marathon. After the Athenian victory, a man named Thersippus of Eroeadae ran to Athens to announce the outcome; having told his compatriots that they were safe, he fell down dead.

At least, that’s what Plutarch says in his treatise The Glory of Athens. But the reliability of this anecdote is about zero. Plutarch lived about six centuries after the events. Worse, he adds that other sources report that the runner was called Eucles, and that he covered the distance while wearing his panoply, which is physically impossible. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived shortly after the famous battle and could interview the survivors, knows nothing about the Marathon runner, although he does mention a long-distance runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcement.

Whatever the reliability of the story, Plutarch’s anecdote inspired the organizers of the first modern Olympics, in 1896 in Athens, to invent an athletic contest of epic dimensions: the marathon run. It was repeated on later occasions, and since the Olympic Games of London (1908), the distance has always been 42 kilometer. Many people now believe that it’s also 42 kilometer from the battlefield to the Athens, but that is not the case. It is in fact about 35 kilometer, depending on your route. I once covered it in a little over seven hours. Without panoply.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Ancient Rock Art

25 May 2009


One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, is the rock art of the Wadi Mathendoush (in the Libyan Sahara), which was created almost ten thousand years ago. You will see all kinds of wild animals: elephants, rhinoceruses, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and crocodiles. Obviously, the desert was more fertile back then, and indeed, it seems to have been some kind of savana. (Petrified forests are additional evidence.) You will also find rock paintings of ostriches, cattle, horses, and dromedaries in the desert, but these are younger.

I have made a page on the history of those ancient works of art, which you can find here. It is one of the pages I love best. The Wadi Mathendoush is here, and finally, there is a brief note on a related subject: the Troglodytes, or cave men. I recommend starting here, and I promise you will find it interesting.


24 May 2009
Garamantian chariot. Rock painting at Tina Nivin (Libya)

Garamantian chariot. Rock painting at Tina Nivin (Libya)

The Garamantes are described in the classical sources as nomads and brigands, and there will be some element of truth in this, but it must be noted that they were also the builders of a big city in the center of the desert, which has been found near modern Germa. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century BCE) refers to them as great warriors, who still use chariots; later, the dromedary was domesticated, and they became caravan traders, who connected the Roman Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa. Still, Rome had to fight several wars with the Garamantes.

It’s fascinating how a civilization could exist under the extreme desert conditions. Read more about them here, in my first real contribution to the Livius website in a couple of months.

An Urban Legend: Ambiorix’ Statue

21 May 2009

Tongeren's Statue of Ambiorix

One of my archaeology teachers used to tell that the statue of Ambiorix in Tongeren had been made by a Frenchman, and actually represented Vercingetorix. It was erected, he said, on the market of the Belgian town because in France, there was no need for a statue of the Gallic prince after the monument in Alesia had been made. So they sold it to the Belgians.

Because my teacher was a serious man without any bias against Belgians, I never suspected that the story might be untrue. If I had any doubts, they were laid to rest because I heard the story on several occasions, even by an English travel guide standing in front of the statue. And I confess that I have contributed to the story’s gaining popularity, because I have repeated it to others.

But it is not true. Here are the facts: the statue was designed by Jules Bertin (1826-1892), who was indeed a Frenchman, but had left his country after the events of 1848, and had been living in Tongeren since 1859. The statue was commissioned by Tongeren’s town council and finished in 1866. Yet, there is a connection to Vercingetorix, although it’s the other way round: Bertin was later requested to make a nice Vercingetorix for the French town of Saint-Denis. It seems to have resembled the Ambiorix closely – past tense, because it’s lost since the Second World War.

My guess is that this urban legend was invented by the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Tongeren to discredit their nineteenth-century, Walloon officials. The story may have survived because it is amusingly absurd that one nation recycles the national symbols of another nation – the other day, I stumbled across the same joke.


21 May 2009
Excavations at Barkhausen

Excavations at Barkhausen

After an uneventful trip, I reached Düsseldorf, where I spent the night. The only thing remarkable is that the train passed through Würm, where I saw the small river with the same name – but there was no ice to be seen. After a night’s rest I continued to Minden. It is close to the place where the river Weser passes through the Wiehengebirge, through the “Porta Westfalica” gorge. For a long time, scholars have suspected that this was the place where Varus started on his ill-fated march against the rebellious Chauci, which ended at Kalkriese: the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest.

Recently, some evidence has surfaced that supports this hypothesis. In the first place, at Hedemünden, a supply base was excavated, from Minden upstream. If there’s a supply base, there has to be something to be supplied, and the obvious places are Minden and Hamelin: we know that there must have been at least one Roman base east of Anreppen, because there is a road leaving from its eastern gate, which can have crossed a minor mountain range on only two places, bringing the traveler to either Hamelin or Minden. Even better was the discovery of a number of Roman finds at a place called Barkhausen (satellite photo). It reportedly included a millstone, which proves that it was a settlement of some importance. There was every reason to go there.

I arrived at the railroad station of Porta Westfalica – an impressive gorge indeed – at half past eleven, and was walking to the site of the excavations when I was saluted by a car’s honk – my friends Arjen, Jasper, and Paul, with whom I would visit the site. Over there,  Mrs. Kröger and Mr. Bérenger, the excavators, explained to us what they had found: something from about every period – from the Funnelbeaker culture to the Thirty Years’ War – which was to be expected, because this is a really strategic point.

There are indeed Roman finds: coins, sherds, brooches, and a small oven – the charcoal still has to have a C14-dating, which is not expected until September. But so far, no traces of ditches have been found, and the identification of the site as Varus’ base may be incorrect.

Mr Berenger brought us to the monument of the German emperor Wilhelm I, and later showed us the remains of a remarkable church from the tenth century, and a monastery. After this, we said goodbye, and went to Kalkriese, where we visited a new exposition on the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. To be honest: this site always fails to impress me, but the exposition contained many objects I had never seen before, so that the visit was, in the end, worthwile – and the four of us all went home with the 60 euro catalog: three massive books, beautifully illustrated, and weighing at least six kilo.

Paul’s car brought us to Deventer, where we said goodbye, and the train brought me to Amsterdam, where I went to the Brakke Grond and arranged my 287 photos. End of a nice little holiday.


18 May 2009
The walls of Caestrich

The walls of Caestrich

I’m on a little holiday. After a business meeting this morning, I could catch the train to Maastricht, the charming city in the south of the Netherlands, and home of one of the most beautiful statues of the Holy Virgin, “Star of the Sea” –  a statue that, like Marcus Aurelius in Rome, I can never pass by without saluting it.

I had rented a bike at the railroad station – after all, I was heading for Belgium, the country of Eddy Merckx. My first goal was an Iron Age settlement called Caestert, or Kanne-Caster. As the name already indicates, the Romans called it a castra, a fort. It is situated on a hill, about sixty meters above the Meuse, and it can dendrochronologically be dated to the year 31 or 30 BCE. It is immediately south of Maastricht, southeast of a village called Kanne, just across the border (satellite photo).

The date has generated a lot of debate. Originally, it was believed that this hill fort was built in 57 BCE, which would make this site a very likely candidate to be Atuatuca, where Ambiorix defeated the Fourteenth Legion. In fact, it remains the only plausible candidate: everything fits Caesar‘s account, and it is often speculated that the wood that was tested dendrochronologically, belonged to a later repair.

I had been there before, but had forgotten that a bike is not the ideal means to climb to the platform. Still, I managed to get there, made my way through the muddy forest, and took some photos. Although most of the site is covered by trees, several walls and two gates can be distinguished. Fortunately, there is no place to buy ice cream; the beautiful area is still the domain of people walking at their leisure, and an occasional cyclist.

Passing through villages like Zussen and Bolder, I reached Val-Meer, with a miraculous crucifix and a small medieval church that is still impressive. I made photos of the remains of the Roman road from Tongeren to Maastricht, and crossed to Herderen, where I wanted to see an ancient tumulus. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it, and because I was getting tired, I decided to continue to Genoelselderen, where I had a snack at the local “frietkot“. Not much later, I reached Tongeren, where I am now staying at the Ambihotel – it took some time before I understood the pun, which is easier to understand if – like the Belgians – you do not pronounce the H.

After a brief nap, I cycled en lisant around the Roman city walls. There were more ruins than I had expected, and the forest west of the city, where the view of the remains of the ancient aqueduct at sunset was splendid.

I am really enjoying myself. When I was eating my patates frites in Genoelselderen, sitting in the sun, enjoying a nice view of the Haspengouw, I realized how badly I had needed this trip.

[To be continued]

Fort Gholaia (Bu Njem)

16 May 2009
The Roman fort at Bu Njem; oasis in the distance

The Roman fort at Bu Njem; oasis in the distance

My favorite site in Libya is Bu Njem, ancient Gholaia: a well-preserved fort of the Limes Tripolitanus. Today, this area is arid, but it has not always been that way. By building all kinds of dams, the emperor Septimius Severus changed the entire ecosystem and converted this area into a fertile zone, where sufficient food was produced to feed the soldiers in the fort.

The French archaeologists who excavated the site, first had to remove all the sand, but the rewards were great: besides the remains of the ancient buildings, there were several interesting inscriptions and dozens of ostraca, which document daily life in Gholaia.

My photos have been online since 2006, but I revisited the site last year. The new photos and an improved text are now available here. The satellite photo is also worth looking at: here.