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.

Moving Livius.Org (13)

24 May 2009
Ghirza, one of the buildings in the town.

Ghirza, one of the buildings in the town.

If I say that an incomplete page about ancient Sabratha has moved to this place, and if I add that photos of the Villa Selene are now here, and if I mention that the pages on Ghirza’s can be visited here, you will understand that you have come across a new installment of the highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org. The mosaics of the Villa Dar Buc Ammera can be admired here.

I can add that there are also new photos on the the pages on Maastricht, Tongeren, Kalkriese, and the Chaussée Brunehaut, and that there is a brief new article on the tombstone of a Burgundian prince named Hariulf.

Still 89 pages to go…


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.

Common Errors (11): The Capitoline Wolf

15 May 2009
Investigating the Capitoline Wolf

Investigating the Capitoline Wolf

The bronze she-wolf in the Capitoline Museums in Rome is one of the best-known symbols of the eternal city. Pictures of it can be seen on many places, it is the logo of A.S. Roma, and has been parodied too often to be funny. She figures in all books on early Roman and Etruscan art, where we read that the famous statue was made in the sixth or fifth century BCE.

This illustrates how dangerous it can be to date works of art stylistically, because the lupa romana is much younger. It had already been observed that casting technique was Medieval, and this was confirmed in 2007, when metallurgists published a report in which they announced that thermoluminescence dating suggested that the Capitoline wolf dates back to the Early Middle Ages.


Adriano La Regina, “La lupa del Campidoglio è medievale; la prova è nel test al carbonio“, in: La Repubblica, 9 July 2008.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (10): Aspasia

15 May 2009
Aspasia (Archaeological Museum of Izmir)

Aspasia (Archaeological Museum of Izmir)

Aspasia was the lover of the Athenian politician Pericles. Born in Miletus, she was a metic, a non-Athenian living in Athens. In the later 430′s, when the politicial opponents of the elder Pericles (a/o Hagnon) tried to accuse him of impiety, Aspasia was also mentioned as someone acting impiously, but she was not convicted. After the death of her lover in 429, Aspasia lived together with his friend Lysicles, but this affair was ill-fated: her second lover was killed in action during a campaign in Caria in 428/427.

This is all we know. Although the philosopher Aeschines, a pupil of Socrates, wrote a dialogue that was titled Aspasia (now lost), no author has ever written about Aspasia herself. If she is mentioned, it’s because she was Pericles’ partner. She is in fact a historical unperson.

Still, she is mentioned several times. In Athenian comedies, she is called a harlot and a brothel keeper and is supposed to have had great influence on her husband’s policy. In 425, Aristophanes parodied the prologue of Herodotus‘s Histories, suggesting that the Archidamian War had broken out because a group of Megarians had taken away two girls from Aspasia’s brothel (quote).

Compared to the way Aristophanes portrayed Cleon, Euripides, and Socrates, the comedian is kind towards Aspasia. But that does not make these remarks reliable biographical information. They were meant to strike at Pericles, who, it is suggested, shared his lover with other men, something that was considered to be a stain on his honor. And a man without honor, it was believed, could not command an army or lead the city.

The remarks also tell something about the Athenian contempt for a metic woman who seems to have played a role in the cultural life of her adopted hometown. “Seems”: although several sources portray Aspasia as a woman of great intellectual powers who “taught Pericles how to speak” (and was, therefore, a philosopher and an orator in her own right), this is again parody. Any Greek politician was believed to have learned the tricks of the trade from someone else; making Pericles the pupil of a woman was again a form of mud-slinging.

So we are left with a rather disappointing conclusion: nothing is certain about Aspasia. She was the lover of Pericles, and that is all we know.


Madeleine M. Henry, Prisoner of History. Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition (1995)

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (9): The Gnostic Gospels

15 May 2009
The Council of Nicaea: fresco at the Soumela Monastery (Turkey)

The Council of Nicaea: fresco at the Soumela Monastery (Turkey)

Every now and then, the argument returns: the early Church destroyed texts that it did not like. Manuscripts were burnt at the stake, and their owners were not certain of their lives too. This, we are told, is why we no longer have access to ‘heretical’ texts (e.g., the Gospel of the Egyptians) and why, for instance, the homo-erotic poetry of Sappho has disappeared.

This does not sound altogether incredible. After all, Christian clerics have ordered the burning of books, witches, and heretics in the sixteenth century. Besides, early Christianity had been persecuted, and it is not too strange a thought that the victims decided upon a policy to do to the pagans what they had done to the Christians. Indeed, the angry polemics of the fathers of the Church certainly leave one with the impression that these men were intolerant fundamentalists. However, the wanton destruction of books was rare. It was unnecessary.


It was quite possible to have an opinion that was different from the majority of the Church leaders. There were a couple of theological points that they considered to be important (like the date of Easter and the precise definition of the relation between Jesus and the Creator), but more often, bishops were willing to strike compromises. If people could be saved from Hell by allowing them to continue some pagan cult in a Christian form, the Church would not obstruct it. As a consequence, the cult of the Twins in northwest Spain was converted into the cult of Jesus’ brother James, the Greek demigod Perseus became Saint George, and the spruce and fir that decorated Germanic homes during the Yule festival survived as Christmas tree. The great majority of bishops was not interested in the destruction of heretical Gospels or homo-erotic poetry. They were pastors who took care of their flock, and as a consequence, Christianity was multiform and many-colored.

And even if the Church would have wanted to enforce an orthodoxy, it would have been impossible. An interesting parallel is the Roman government, which was incapable of unifying Roman law. It is significant that several emperors are credited with a Lex citandi, a law that established which juridical texts were acceptable authorities. The fact that these laws had to be repeated, proves that not everyone knew, understood, or accepted them. If the powerful emperor and his legions were unable to unify legal practice, the Church was certainly incapable of unifying beliefs.

As far as we know, possessing unChristian texts was not considered to be a sin. The fact that the fathers of the Church were able to quote them, is decisive evidence. A treatise like Celsus’ True Account has been quoted so extensively, that modern scholars have been able to reconstruct its contents.


So, if early Christianity was multiform, and if the Church was incapable of enforcing the few beliefs it would have liked to prescribe, why did so many ancient texts disappear? Where have the Gospel of the Egyptians and the poems of Sappho gone? Why can’t we read those books by Suetonius with  tantalizing titles like Lives of Famous Prostitutes, Dictionary of Invectives, and -last but not least- Physical Defects of Men? The answer may sound like a sophism, but it isn’t: these texts are lost because they were not saved. The main difference between now and then, between us and them, is that today, a text survives unless it is destroyed, whereas in Antiquity, a text disappeared unless it was saved.

Ancient texts were typically written on papyrus, which is vulnerable. As a rule of the thumb, we can assume that a scroll had to be copied every century. If parchment was used, replacement could take place less frequently. However, preparing a skin and making parchment was extremely expensive. Most texts were, therefore, written on papyrus and subject to decay and disappearance. If there were many copies of the same text, the chances of survival were greater, but professional writers were expensive and texts usually circulated in small numbers. A surprisingly great number of ancient texts has survived in only one copy, which shows how vulnerable the process of transmission was.

The best way to conceptualize the process is, therefore, that ancient texts always disappeared, unless a rich lord or lady decided to hire a scribe and copy a scroll. Inevitably, selections were made. There was no need to copy the Histories of Valerius Antias once Livy had published the History of Rome from its Foundation; there was no need to copy the speeches of Greek orators of the third and second centuries BCE because the sophists of the second century CE were so much more eloquent; and there was no need to copy archaic poetry like Sappho’s because it was written in a poorly understood, archaic language. The publication of new texts was the greatest danger for the survival of older texts.

The same applies to religious texts. The religious authorities did not need to make an Index of prohibited books (yet); the books they did not like were bound to disappear anyhow. Once the rabbis of Yavneh had decided which works were divinely inspired, these works were copied and the remainder (e.g., the Enoch literature) was not. The temple establishment of ancient Greece may not have liked the ideas of the charismatic teacher Apollonius of Tyana, but destroying his book On Sacrifice was unnecessary.


The question is not why certain texts have disappeared, but why others have survived. In the second century, a man named Marcion of Sinope proposed to reduce the number of Christian texts. The Old Testament, he argued, was no longer useful to the believer, and there was no need to waste money on copying it. The Gospels often repeated each other, so it was better to create one single, authorized version.

Several bishops, including Irenaeus of Lyon, responded. They thought that the new faith needed more than one account of the life of Jesus, and therefore several Gospels, even if they contained repetitions. Christianity also needed the Jewish Bible. The agreement on this plurality was decisive for the survival of religious treatises. For example, the Christian scholar Origen prepared an important scientific edition of the Hebrew text (the Hexapla), and for the first time, books were published that contained more than one Gospel.

The agreement that at least four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, several epistles, the Book of Revelation, plus the entire Jewish Bible (and even a bit more than the Jews accepted) was needed for the new faith, was not a decree against other texts. However, the result was comparable.

The people who accepted Marcion’s suggestion started to develop the ideas that are now called Gnostic, and the Gnostics started to write treatises of their own (like the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of John, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas). There must have been many of these texts, but they are lost.

Like all ancient texts, they needed scribes to survive, but the Gnosis never recruited enough people. Its ideas were too austere. Unlike other branches of Christianity, the Gnosis made a sharp distinction between good and evil, between the good God of Christ and the evil creator worshiped by the Jews, between mind and matter. The implied hostility towards sexuality made the Gnosis unattractive and by the end of the third century, Gnosticism was a small minority within the wide variation of Christian beliefs.

In the end, it was a man named Hosius of Cordoba who convinced the emperor Constantine, who already sympathized with monotheism, that he should accept Christianity. Like Irenaeus and Origen, Hosius believed that the Jewish Bible was of vital importance and because the emperor agreed, senators started to convert to this type of Christianity too. Soon, the believers started to organize themselves, and many others accepted the Christian beliefs as they had been interpreted by Hosius.

Most Gnostic texts did not survive. Not because the leaders of the now dominant type of Christianity launched a war on Gnosticism, but because ancient texts needed copyists, and the Gnosis had been unable to recruit sufficient people for the survival of its ideas.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (8): The Year 547

15 May 2009
Nabonidus Chronicle, obverse (British Museum)

Nabonidus Chronicle, obverse (British Museum)

One of the most important texts for the study of the chronology of the sixth century BCE is the Nabonidus Chronicle, which seems to prove that the Persian king Cyrus the Great captured the Lydian capital Sardes in 547. This is an important synchronism between the chronologies of Greece and the ancient Near East. However, things are more complex than they are usually presented: it was not Lydia, but Urartu that was overthrown.

The historian’s first task is to get the sequence of events right. The more important issues, like explaining the events and explaining their significance, must wait until the chronology has been established. Those studying the eastern Mediterranean in the Archaic Age, have to cope with two problems:

  • The absence of a common era;
  • An incredible lack of sources.

At the moment, dendochronological researchers are making great advances, but the complications for the centuries before 490 BCE are still great, and our chronology remains to a large extent based on Egyptian king lists (overview) and Babylonian chronicles and Astronomical Diaries.

For Greece, the sequence of events in what we call the sixth century BCE is more or less known from Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The Histories contain a general account of the history of towns like Sparta, Corinth, and Athens, and many synchronisms: people who knew each other, battles, et cetera. It is obvious that Herodotus uses two chronological systems, which appear to be out of step for a generation, but his outline of Greek history -the relative chronology- is pretty clear. Unfortunately, it is difficult to establish an absolute chronology, i.e., to make a match between the events and the number of years.

However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. It is clear that the rule of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, coincided with the reign of the Persian king Cambyses, and that Polycrates’ downfall occurred after the double coup d’ état in Persia that took place in 522. We can be reasonably certain that the death of Polycrates occurred in 522-518. Finally, there is another synchronism between Greek and Persian history: the conquest of Lydia and the death of its king Croesus. This event is mentioned by Herodotus and several other authors, and took place between 550 (when the Persian leader Cyrus the Great overcame his Median overlord Astyages) and 539 (the year in which Cyrus took Babylon).

The Nabonidus Chronicle, also known as ABC 7 (= document #7 in A.K. Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975), appears to offer more information. The text mentions Cyrus several times. In the first place, there’s a reference to his overthrow of Astyages in the sixth year of the Babylonian king Nabonidus, i.e. 550 or 549. In the second place, the events in the ninth year of Nabonidus, 547/546:

In the month of Nisannu, Cyrus, king of Persia, called up his army and crossed the Tigris below the town of Arbela. In the month of Ajaru he marched against the country [damaged], killed its king, took his possessions, put there a garrison of his own. Afterwards, his garrison as well as the king remained there.

The damaged word is of course the crux. One sign can be read, and there is space for two other signs. In 1924, Sydney Smith proposed to read Lu-…, which he took as the first syllable of the word Lydia. Grayson thought that even a second sign could be read, and reconstructed Lu-u[d-di]. If this is correct, the king who was killed was Croesus, and we have a synchronism between the histories of the Near East and the Aegean world.

A first problem, however, is that Herodotus says that Croesus was not killed. Cyrus wanted to burn him alive, but when Croesus prayed to Apollo, it started to rain, and Cyrus -understanding that the Lydian was blessed by the gods- accepted him as a courtier. But this story poses no real problem. The Greek poet Bacchylides writes that when the last king of Lydia wanted to burn himself alive, the god intervened and took him  away to the mythical Hyperboreans in the extreme north. This is another way of saying that the god had pity and gave Croesus a tranquil death – he was not tortured but quietly “taken away” to a better place. Herodotus has rationalized this story and used Croesus to shape his narrative: the former king is always the “tragic warner” who invariably gives sound advice that is ignored. This is not historiography as we like to read it, but this is how Herodotus does things.

So, Croesus was killed or killed himself when Sardes was captured, and Herodotus’ story is no objection to accepting the synchronism. Most historians have put the end of Lydia in 547, which gives us the possibility to date several important events in Greece. An example is the battle of Thyrea between the Spartans and the Argives, which took place at the time of the fall of Sardes.

Of course, this assumes that Smith and Grayson are right that the damaged word is Lu-u[d-di]. However, Zadok pointed out that the orthography of Lydia is Lu-ú-du, and Grayson says in the “Addenda and Corrigenda” to ABC 9 (included in the second edition) that the signs may indeed be Lu!?-ú!?-[du]. However, he also notes that Lambert read the first sign as Zu. To make matters worse, the first scholar to read this text, Hagen in 1894, read Su.

Nobody accepts the synchronism any more, and many scholars feel a bit embarrassed that they have so long seen on this tablet what they wanted to see. The only thing we know for certain is that in 547, Cyrus conducted a successful campaign west of the Tigris. In 1977, Cargill summed up the evidence and concluded: “There exists [...] no clear evidence for the exact date of the conquest of Lydia”.

But this was too pessimistic. In 1997, Oelsner decided to settle the issue once and for all, and concluded that the sign is Ú, the first sign of Urartu. This makes sense. It is likely that Cyrus, after he had conquered Media, spent several years to establish his power in Iran – in other words, he demanded subjection by the tribes that had once been loyal to Astyages. Urartu belonged to these territories. If this is correct, we may assume that Sardes was in fact captured in 542 or 541, although a date after the fall of Babylon (539) can not be excluded: we have only Herodotus’ word that Sardes was captured before the cultural capital of the ancient world.


  • J. Cargill, The Nabonidus Chronicle and the Fall of Lydia, in: American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977) 97-116
  • A.K.Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975)
  • J. Oelsner, “Review”, Archiv für Orientforschung 46/47 (1999/2000) 373-380.
  • R. Rollinger, “The Median ‘Empire’, the End of Urartu, and Cyrus’ Campaign in 547” in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).
  • Sydney Smith, Babylonian Historical Texts Relating to the Capture and Downfall of  Babylon (1924)
  • R. Zadok, Répertoire Géographique des Textes Cunéiformes:   Geographical Names According to New and Late Babylonian Texts 8 (1985)

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (7): The Frisians

15 May 2009
A model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersen Wierde.

A model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersen Wierde.

In the third century C.E., many old Germanic tribes merged into large federations, like the Saxons, the Franks, and the Alamans, which were to become important during the Middle Ages. To this rule, the Frisians appear to have been an exception: they are already mentioned in sources that deal with the Early Empire. Their ethnogenesis took place at least two or three centuries before the other tribes originated. They can still be distinguished.

At first sight, the Frisians show a remarkable ethnic continuity, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pieter Boeles (1873-1961), one of the founding fathers of Frisian archaeology, had different ideas. He noticed important cultural changes in the fourth and fifth century, which he believed were evidence for colonization by the Saxons (from northwestern Germany) and the Anglians (from Schleswich-Holstein). After they had conquered the Frisians, they continued to Flanders, and from there, they conquered parts of Britain. However, Boeles argued, although these tribes subdued the Frisians, their name remained in use, which is why there are still provinces called Friesland in the Netherlands and Germany.

He was right about the Anglo-Saxon settlement – almost. What appears to have happened, is that the country of the Frisians had become empty, for reasons that we do not fully comprehend. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth century, the Frisians are not mentioned in our sources, even by authors who had reason to write about them. When the Saxons and the Anglians arrived, there was no one to subdue, because there was no one living over there.

The name returns in the sources in the seventh century, in an age when other ancient names also return. For example, Gregorius of Tours describes the Frankish king Clovis as a ‘Sugambrian’ – after a tribe that had been annihilated in the first century. These archaisms were usually ignored, but the name of Frisia was accepted. People in what is now North Holland, Utrecht, and Friesland started to call themselves after the district in which the Merovingian and Carolingian authorities had placed them. The continuity of the ancient nation and the ancient name are only apparent.


J. Bazelmans, ‘The early medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians’, in: T. Derks en N. Roymans (red.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity. The Role of Power and Tradition (2009) blz. 321-337.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Macedonian Questions

15 May 2009
The Sun of Vergina

The Sun of Vergina

A message in my mailbox: an invitation to sign a petition against a statue of Alexander the Great that is to be erected in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. I read it, notice that it’s also sent to some scholars I admire, and feel honored to be named in their company. I also read the message that the sender, an American colleague I sincerely appreciate, has added. He introduces the petition with the words that ‘of course’ he is against the monopolizing of the Macedonian past by Greece, but, he adds, he is ‘even more against the policy of the FYROM’.

He has a point. It is outrageous that the FYROM claims Alexander as one of its sons; and we have seen more acts like these. After all, when the former Yugoslavian republic gained its independence, it also claimed the Sun of Vergina and the White Tower of Thessalonica as its national symbols. More recently, an airport was called after Alexander. It is tactless – no: stupid – for a young state to create a conflict with its neighbors.

At the same time, my colleague is completely wrong. To start with, it is unlikely that my signature will be appreciated. Every week, I receive hate mail from Greece because in my book on Alexander, I distinguish Macedonia from Greece. It would surprise me if the Greek nationalists behind the petition will be happy with my support.

But there’s a more serious problem, which I expected my American friend to understand: whatever the ethnic affiliations of ancient Macedonia (Greek or non-Greek; certainly not Slavonic), ethnicity should be irrelevant to modern politics.

In the first place, because ethnicity is extremely fluid. My American friend must know this: his ancestors were German, but they were accepted as American, and ever since the family has been proud to be American. His wife descends from an Italian family, and Italy was nothing but a geographical concept when her greatgrandparents left Sicily. In Antiquity, ethnicity was even more complex and fluid. The Frisians are a case in point (more…). It is unscientific to found modern political claims on ancient history, and it is even worse to found them on something that was so much in flux.

But there is a more important point to be made. Even if it were possible to claim that Macedonia has been Greek for centuries, what does that mean? The answer is: nothing. Antiquity is past, and can not be used for whichever type of political claim in the present. Women have had less political rights than men for at least forty-eight centuries. No one will argue that this justifies denying them voting rights today.

I’ve written to my American friend that I will not sign the petition and have called on him to ignore it. In fact, I think we should write another petition, directed against academicians who dignify the stupidity of politicians by playing along with them. Studying the past should not be tainted with politics. Academicians ought to understand that.

Common Errors (6): IIII or IV?

14 May 2009

The cenotaph of Marcus Caelius (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The cenotaph of Marcus Caelius (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

People often contact me to suggest improvements to the Livius site – on average, about two or three every day. One of the suggestions I have most often received, is that the names of the legions IIII Scythica, IIII Flavia Felix, and IIII Macedonica ought to be written like IV Scythica, IV Flavia Felix, and IV Macedonica. And VIIII Hispana is supposed to be IX Hispana.

The system that we use to write Roman numerals, however, was not used by the Romans themselves. I have never checked it, but I suppose it is a Renaissance invention. What I did check, on the other hand, was a number of inscriptions that I saw during a holiday in Germany, in which I visited the Saalburg, the Mainzer Steinhalle, the Lapidarium of Stuttgart, and the Limes Museum in Aalen. The Romans had a clear preference for IIII and VIIII; but that may be just the epigraphic habit of Germania Superior. Anyhow, this is why I prefer IIII to IV, VIIII to IX, and XIIII to XIV.

Perhaps, aesthetical considerations determined what the sculptor used: that, at least, appears to be behind the XIIX on the famous cenotaph of Marcus Caelius.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (5): The Alphabet

12 May 2009
Poster in Paris

Poster in Paris

The Phoenicians are not the ancient world’s most famous nation, but people who know them, are almost always aware that they invented the alphabet. When in 2007/2008 the Institut du Monde Arabe organized an exposition about the Phoenicians, Paris was full with posters asking inviting questions like “Quel visage avait la civilisation qui nous a donné l’alphabet?”

However, it is not true that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, although the error is venerably ancient. The ancient Greeks already believed it, and made jokes about it. When the sophist Hadrian of Tyre delivered his inaugural address in Athens, he modestly started his speech with the words “Again, letters have come from Phoenicia”.

Still, the alphabet is much older. In 1904-1905, the famous Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) discovered alphabetic inscriptions in the Sinai desert. They were older than anything written in Phoenician. In 1998, his American colleague John Darnell discovered texts that were even more ancient; the inscription from the Wadi el-Hol are, for the moment, incomprehensible, but the oldest we have. They date back to c.1900 BCE.

So, the alphabet was invented in Egypt, was applied in the Sinai, was adapted by the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, who gave it to the Greeks.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Antiquary’s Shoebox

5 May 2009
Drawing of a pyxis from Smiths Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Drawing of a pyxis from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Several years ago, LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer started to put online some articles from scholarly journals. They are a bit old, but nevertheless, they are a treasure-trove of interesting and varied stuff. He called this section the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and like most shoeboxes, it accumulates scraps over time, as Bill discovers items that catch his fancy.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 137 articles. The latest contributions are on Early British Christianity, St. Nerses the Graceful (including some of the hymns of this 12c Armenian patriarch), an emendation to Tacitus’ Agricola, and Claudius and the Quaestura Gallica.


5 May 2009
Justinians bridge

Justinian's bridge

Tarsus was the capital of ancient Cilicia and is best known as the city where the apostle Paul was born. At that moment, the city was already fifteen centuries old: it is mentioned for the first time in a Hittite text from c.1450 BCE. It was subjected to the Hittites and to the Assyrians, was occupied by Nabonidus of Babylonia, conquered by the Persians and by Alexander the Great, was part of the Seleucid, Roman, and Byzantine Empires, and was the object of much warfare between the Muslims, Byzantines, and Crusaders.

The site remains occupied to the present day, which explains why there are not many monuments to be seen. Still, there’s a Byzantine bridge, a gate, and a small set of beautiful mosaics, now in the Archaeological Museum of Antioch. My own page is available here.

1000 Ancient Sites on Google Maps

1 May 2009
Bu Njem

Bu Njem

What you are looking for, is here.


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