Shame, where is thy blush?

28 July 2009
Some historians deserve a box on the ear

Some historians deserve a box on the ear

If we were still lacking evidence that today’s ancient historians are not up to their tasks, the preface of Heckel/Tritle’s Alexander the Great. A New History offers just the proof we needed:

One of the strengths of this volume is that it includes contributions by scholars outside the English-speaking world.

This is overstepping the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Heckel and Tritle are of course right that a scholar ought to read articles written in foreign languages, and they are also right that this is no longer self-evident. But they should be making plans how to reach normalcy again, and implement those plans. Presenting as something special that a team of historians reaches the expected level, is the same as accepting lower standards. Claiming that it is a strength, is just insolent.

LacusCurtius, comments please

25 July 2009

Bill Thayer joins me in my invitation to offer comments and suggestions for his website, LacusCurtius. Are there texts you would like to see in a digital form? Articles from Smith’s Dictionary you think are useful? Translations you need from Daremberg & Saglio?

He is already working on Ammian, Athenaeus, Columella, Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Gellius, Plutarch’s Moralia, and Strabo, and several other texts. Texts that are already online elsewhere will get a low priority.

Note that Bill’s website is very broad: it also contains an interesting section on Umbria (the most beautiful part of his site, in my opinion) and a subsite on the history of the United States (new items being recorded pointed out here).

Three Turkish Towns

24 July 2009
Helios. Part of the decoration of the theater at Myra

Helios. Part of the decoration of the theater at Myra

The southwestern coasts of Turkey, the ancient landscapes of Caria, Lycia, and Pamphylia, are beautiful, and there are several equally beautiful ancient towns over there. Most worthwhile is Xanthus, where many monuments have been preserved but where you will not see many tourists. Myra has a nice theater and many intrigueing rock tombs; the main attraction, however, are the ancient port with its granaries and the basilica of Saint Nicholas. Both cities are worth visiting.

This cannot be said of Side, which is crowded by visitors. This may be a sign that the ruins are beautiful, but if this is really the case, that escaped my notice because I was usually too occupied with trying not to walk against other people. Still, we managed to make photos, which are now online; you don’t have to go there.

Also available: a small fact sheet on the Roman empress Plotina, wife of Trajan.

New Historical Atlas

23 July 2009

If a book supposed to cost 179 euro is sold for 225 euro, you may feel cheated. And if you immediately spot a very grave error, you’re in a bad mood. But the new Historischer Atlas der antiken Welt is too beautiful to complain for too long. It is also a very good book, and even 225 euro is not an unreasonable price.

Anne-Maria Wittke, Eckart Olshausen and Richard Szydlak have succeeded in making an atlas that will be with us for the next two or three decades. It is more than just a set of 184 full-color and 53 b/w maps. There’s always a helpful explanation on the opposite page, which has benefited from the Neue Pauly, the encyclopedia this atlas tries to supplement. Most maps are attractive and I was quite tempted to leaf through the book for an hour or two. I have not resisted this temptation, and soon forgot my initial disappointment. Although a couple of maps are loaded with too much information, most of them are quite clear. The use of colors on the following map is particularly illuminating:

This book sets a new standard, and there lies a problem: it’s just not good enough. I looked up the map of Germania Inferior, a part of the Roman world where I can check information and that offers a simple litmus test that the Historischer Atlas fails to pass. The most detailed map of this part of the Roman Empire has “the so-called Batavian Revolt” as its subject, and is clearly based on the map of the “Batavenaufstand” in volume 2 of the Neue Pauly (1996), which was made by Olshausen. In the Historischer Atlas, he has meticulously copied all his errors.

Take, for instance, the coastline of the Zeeland archipelago, which did not exist until the Middle Ages. The only evidence for islands in Antiquity is Caesar, Gallic War, 6.31.3, a clearly topical description of the edges of the earth that is not to be taken seriously. These phantom islands can be seen on many maps, but Olshausen should have known better: he ought to have consulted a palaeogeographical map (e.g., Zagwijn’s Nederland in het Holoceen, 1986). Instead, he based his map on outdated maps that were in turn based on written sources. This is worse than carelessness: ignoring palaeogeography and uncritically trusting literary evidence is a very grave methodological error.

Other mistakes on the same map: the Insula Batavorum (“the island of the Batavians”) is the land between the branches of the Rhine (Tacitus, Germania, 29), not an island off the coast; the Brittenburg (why this sixteenth-century name, and not its Latin name Lugdunum?) is on the place of the town of the Cananefates, who have moved to the country of the Frisii Minores; they have in turn moved to the land of the Chauci, who have migrated to the east. Traiecum, De Meern (an outdated name), Helinium, and Fectio are also on the wrong place. Although these mistakes are less serious than forgetting to consult a palaeogeographic map, they are inexcusable: any Dutch archaeologist could have explained things, the Barrington Atlas has got these details right, even websites (e.g., have not made so many mistakes. If internet sites can have the facts straight, a team of three university-employed scholars ought not to make errors.

There’s more outdated information. On page 165, Caesar defeats the Belgians at the Sambre instead of the Selle, even though Turquin’s article on the location was published more than half a century ago; on page 172, the Forum of Trajan is shown with the temple in the northwest – it was excavated in the southeast; the map of the Roman Empire during the reign of Septimius Severus on page 207 shows southeastern Iraq as part of the Roman world, while the annexations in Tripolitana, correctly shown on page 212, are ignored; Waššukanni, the lost capital of Mitanni, is correctly shown as unidentified on the map of the ancient Near East in the 15th-14th centuries, but becomes a known site on the map of the thirteenth century, when it was probably abandoned; the map of Alexander‘s campaign is supposed to be based on Bosworth’s commentary, but still, the Macedonian conqueror makes a detour to Ecbatana in 330 BCE, although Bosworth has convincingly shown that Alexander in fact made a short-cut to overtake Darius. Et cetera.

I know these mistakes are rather trivial, but in a book that is sold for this price, the information ought to have been checked and rechecked. Still, the Historischer Atlas is far better than similar publications, and it is unlikely that other scholars will now publish another, equally ambituous atlas. For the time being, this will be the standard. And although I am critical, your 179 or 225 euro are, in the final analysis, well-spent. I had never seen maps of Rome’s Persian Wars (219), the Palmyrene Empire (221), the Sasanian Empire (215 and 217), and the duel between the Sasanians and Byzantines (241) of this quality and beauty. It has already received a place on my desk, next to my dictionaries and the Neue Pauly. I expect that it will remain there for the rest of my life.

PS: Another contribution by Patrick Charlot: Qadamgah.

The ziggurat of Choga Zanbil

22 July 2009
Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven

A ziggurat is a pyramid-shaped artificial mountain, which served as the base of a temple. The most famous example is the “Tower of Babel“: a temple tower meant to “reach into heaven”, as the author of Genesis states – a claim that has indeed been made by the Babylonian kings Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar. The best-preserved ziggurat is in Choga Zanbil, in Khuzestan (Iran).

It is also one of the largest: it occupies a surface of 110×110 meters, and still rises some 25 meters high, less than half of it original heighth. But Choga Zanbil is not just a big heap of ancient tiles and bricks: there are courts and temples, there’s a water refinery, and there’s a royal palace with royal tombs. To be honest, everything is small compared to the building erected by king Untaš-Napiriša (1275-1240).

A “zanbil”, BTW, is a bucket, usually made of leather or rubber. From an excavation in Greece (Halos), I remember that we carried away the dirt in “zambilis”, which suggests that the word has entered modern Greek as a loanword from the Turkish language. Perhaps it’s originally an Arabic word, that was borrowed by the Turks first?

I used to have two pages on the site, based on photos from 2004. But I’ve been there again and again, sometimes twice a year, so I revised everything, and it’s now here.

Iranian Rock Reliefs

21 July 2009
Relief at Sarab-i Qandil

Relief at Sarab-i Qandil

One of the things I like best in Iran, is its ancient rock art. From the Bronze Age to the Sasanian dynasty, and even later, kings have ordered workers to cut reliefs. Some of them are rightly famous, like the Behistun relief and its inscription, others are not so well-known. Every time I visit the country, I try to make photos of at least one relief I’ve not yet seen; you may remember that I’ve blogged about Sar-e Pol-e Zahab and Dukkan-e Daud in March.

I’m not the only one who is interested. Mr Patrick Charlot from Niort, France, is another fan. Today, he surprised me with two articles for the Livius website and photos of an Elamite relief at Kurangun, which dates back to the seventeenth century BCE, and a Sasanian rock relief at Sarab-e Qandil.

They are not Mr Charlot’s first contributions. On earlier occasions, he sent me photos of Barm-e Dilak, Guyum, and Sarab-i Bahram. Thank you!


21 July 2009
Marble table in the synagogue of Sardes

Marble table in the synagogue of Sardes

If all history of Antiquity were summarized, the result would look like Sardes, or Sardis. The city dates back to the Bronze Age but did not become important until the Cimmerians had overthrown the Phrygian kingdom, and Gyges reorganized what was left: the Lydian Empire, capital Sardes. His dynasty became famously wealthy because next to Sardes is the Pactolus, which contains gold dust. The immense size of the royal tombs at nearby Bin Tepe reflects the wealth of the city.

The Persians took charge in thr 54os or 530s and introduced eastern religious practices. From Sardes, the indomitable western barbarians were divided and controled, but in 334, their leader Alexander the Great defeated the Persian forces and took over the eastern empire. Now, Sardes became a capital in the Hellenistic world, successively ruled by Antigonus, Lysimachus, Seleucus, his successors and several rebel princes, and after 188 by the Attalids and, after 133 BC, the Romans.

The city prospered and may have had some 100,000 inhabitants. Many monuments survive, even though Sardes has received less attention than, for example, nearby Ephesus. The presence of Jews and Christians is attested; in the Byzantine age, the city was rich enough to build new churches. It was the Sasanian king Khusrau II who made an end to the city’s prosperity.

I’ve rewritten an older article and added several new photos: go here.


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