Decapolis and Capitals

31 August 2009
The ruins of Scythopolis (Beth Shean, Israel)

The ruins of Scythopolis, one of the towns of the Decapolis

Continuing my series of articles on Jordan in Antiquity, I added two articles today: one about the Decapolis and one about capitals. The latter is meant as an addition to yesterday’s piece on the Nabataeans, who tried to stress their cultural autonomy by designing a building order of their own, that was not recognizably Greek. If I wanted to explain it, I needed to show photos of other capitals: the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and so on. For one reason or another, I enjoyed writing this piece of antiquarism.

The Decapolis was part of the original series of Jordanian articles. It was a group of towns in northern Jordan, northeastern Israel, and southwestern Syria. The name suggests that there were ten cities, but there were at least twelve, and at some point even eighteen members of the Decapolis. What they shared, was their (accepted) Greek legacy. This made them completely different from the Nabataeans, who rejected Hellenism.

The Decapolis is here and the capitals are here; and Bill made available a new text by Plutarch, On Tranquillity of the Mind.

The Nabataeans

30 August 2009
Roman coin, commemorating the annexation of Arabia Nabataea (Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen)

Roman coin, commemorating the annexation of Nabataea (Valkhof, Nijmegen)

The Nabataeans were an Arabian tribe that, in the age of the Persian Empire, settled in the kingdom of Edom. The Greeks were unable to conquer them, although they tried in c.312 BCE, and the Nabataeans retained their independence, outside the Hellenistic world. Later, when the Roman commander Pompey the Great reorganized the Near East, they again managed to retain their autonomy.

The key to their independence was, at least partly, their control of the Incense Route: a caravan route through the western part of what is now Saudi Arabia, all the way to Yemen, where spices and incense could be found. As long as they controlled trade, they were left alone. However, once Rome had conquered Egypt, trade was increasingly often conducted by sailors, and Nabataean income diminished. In 106 CE, the Roman emperor Trajan annexed the country of the Nabataeans.

My new page on this subject is here.

Battle of Qarqar (853 BCE)

30 August 2009
Statue of Šalmaneser III from Aššur (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)

Statue of Šalmaneser III from Aššur (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)

I did not intend to write about the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, but when I was again forced to refer to the clash between the Assyrian king Šalmaneser III and a coalition of some twelve Syrian states, this time in a piece on the Nabataeans that I find more important, I decided to put online a page, if only to get rid of it. Of course, when I was occupied with the subject, I started to like it.

Well, “like it”: it remains warfare, which is a dirty job. Šalmaneser himself says that he filled the plain of Qarqar (in northwestern Syria) with the corpses of his dead enemies, that he “made the blood of his defeated enemies flow in the wadis”, that “the field was too small for laying flat their bodies,” that “the broad countryside had been consumed in burying them,” and that he “blocked the Orontes river with their corpses as with a causeway”.

There is some reasonable doubt whether the Assyrians really overcame their enemies. In fact, they appear to have been on the defensive during in the next years. Yet, in 841, they reached Damascus and king Jehu of Israel offered tribute. Qarqar may not have been the decisive Šalmaneser claims it had been, but it surely marked the beginning of the end of independent Syria.

One of the coalition members, by the way, was king Ahab of Israel, who is better known as one of the archvillains of the Bible. During the battle, he commanded one of the largest units. You can read more about the battle here.

Inscriptions from Jordan

29 August 2009
Funeral stone from Madaba (Louvre)

Funeral inscription from Madaba (Louvre)

The regular readers will by now have realized that I am currently focusing on Jordan in Antiquity; I will visit that country in November, in šāʾ Allāh. Before I will put online a page on the Nabataeans, I’ve first made available several inscriptions. The photo to the right shows a funeral inscription now in the Louvre; it is from the tomb of a grandfather and a grandson, and contains an interesting Greek loanword.

Three other inscriptions can be found here; one of them dates -amusingly- from the exactly the beginning of our era, the month of Tebeth of the ninth year of Aretas IV, i.e., the two last weeks of 1 BCE or the two first weeks of January 1 CE.

The Deir ‘Alla Inscription is about eight centuries older. It describes the revelations of the prophet Balaam, son of Beor, who is also known from the Biblical book of Numbers. In the first part, he describes how a group of evil deities wants to destroy the world, and how Balaam is able to avert this danger; a second part describes Sheol, the Underworld.

Meanwhile, Bill has made available uncle Plutarch‘s unfinished declamation On Affection for Offspring.

Edom and Idumea

28 August 2009
Edom and its neighbors

Edom and its neighbors

Edom was one of the Iron Age states adjacent to the kingdom of Judah. It is already mentioned during the reign of pharaoh Merenptah (1213-1203); Edomite nomads were allowed to cross the Sinai and enter Egypt. It is better known, however, from the first centuries of the first millennium BCE, when it was sometimes subject, sometimes at peace, and sometimes at war with the Judaeans. The books of Samuel and Kings are important sources, and so are the Assyrian documents.

During the Babylonian Exile of the Jews, the Edomites conquered the southern part of Judah, perhaps expelled from their own country by the Nabataeans, who were, since the fourth century, certainly in control of the original homeland of the Edomites. The new country of the Edomites is usually called Idumea, and was forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonaean leader John Hyrcanus (r.134-104).

More about Edom can be found on this new webpage.

Plutarch, for a friend

27 August 2009
fictitious portrait of Plutarch

A fictitious 16c portrait of Plutarch

Another “request” item; this time, a real request, from my friend Susan, whose site Elfinspell is a Wunderkammer of mediaevalia and classical Antiquity. So, tracking down a sort-of citation in chapter 5 of Sir John Lubbock’s The Pleasures of Life, another bit of Plutarch: On Brotherly Love; just in English. A French translation is available at Philippe Remacle’s site; neither of us yet have the Greek.

There’s a lot of Plutarch left! Right now, only 40% of the Moralia are onsite (40.2%, to be precise).


26 August 2009
The Jabbok

The Jabbok

Continuing my series on the antiquities of Jordan, here’s the second piece: the Ammonites. According to Numbers, their relation to Israel and Judah was determined by a conflict in the Late Bronze Age, when Amorites took control of the east bank of the river Jordan and founded two small kingdoms in land traditionally occupied by the Ammonites. Moses’ wandering Hebrews expelled the Amorites, and the tribes of Rueben and Gad settled on the east bank, creating a casus belli for times to come. Jeptha, Saul, and David are all credited with victorious campaigns against the Ammonites.

My article is here, and the next piece will be about the Edomites.


25 August 2009
Moab and its neighbors

Moab and its neighbors

As I will be visiting Jordan pretty soon, I am reading a bit about the history of the Hashemite kingdom, and I will be adding articles to the website on its ancient history. First installment: Moab, an Iron Age kingdom directly east of the Dead Sea.

So far, not many texts have come to light from this area, but the Mesha Stela is quite interesting. As a political unit, Moab certainly existed in the Late Bronze age, and the Biblical book of Judges offers an interesting story about Moab’s king Eglon; more evidence for the history of Moab can be found in the books of Samuel and Kings. In the end, the kingdom shared the fate of Judah, Ammon, and Edom: after being vassal states of Assyria, they became subjects of Babylonia, Persia, and disappear from history in the Hellenistic age, when the Nabataeans became more powerful.

More about that later. The article on Moab is here.


25 August 2009

Writing can be fun

Some time ago, I invited you to mention subjects you’d like to see on the Livius website. I think that we can divide my plans for the future in several categories.

  • Requests: Alexandria, Alexandrine Judaism, Apollodorus of Damascus, Carneades of Athens, Comenius, Crocotta, Cyrus Cylinder, Ishtar, Tolsum. Of course there is already a page on the Cyrus Cylinder, but it is indeed extremely useful to indicate the exact quotes from Assyrian sources.
  • Preparations: I will be going to Jordan this Autumn, so it is useful for myself to write about Ammon, Edom, the Nabataeans, the Tobiads, Arabia Petraea. Moab is already done (here).
  • More preparations: Turkey is on my travel list for next Spring, so Lycia, Gordion, Zeugma, Nemrud Dagi are obvious. There are already pages on these places, but they need to be updated, and moved to new URLs.
  • Moving: Other places that need to move are  Naqsh-e Rajab, Naqsh-e Rustam, Taq-e Bostan, Bishapur, Pasargadae, and Persepolis – probably in this sequence.
  • Finishing things up: There’s still something to do about Woerden and Zwammerdam, Lepcis Magna and Sabratha, and finally Cyrene.

Knowing how I work, I will almost certainly do other things in the meantime. After all, moving pages on Troy led to pages on the Trojan War and the Epic Cycle.

The Odyssey

24 August 2009
Another anonymous avenger, another shoot-out

Another anonymous avenger

Finishing my series of articles on Troy, Wilusa, the Trojan War, and the Epic Cycle, I’ve also put online a summary of the Odyssey. There’s no need to tell much about Homer‘s famous story, which is essentially the ancient equivalent of our western movies. A mysterious foreigner arrives and appears to be up to something (revenge); there’s a flashback; there’s a pretty girl surrounded by evil man; and there’s a shoot-out.

Thirty-seven years ago, when I was a boy scout of seven years old, one of our leaders told the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, including the joke “My name is Nobody”. This was the moment that the classics entered my life: the beginning of a love affair that may perhaps last another thirty-seven years.

The Iliad

23 August 2009
Nothing has really changed

Nothing has really changed

The Iliad was probably composed in the eighth century BCE, when the Greek cities started to grow and old ideas and values were no longer self-evident. Homer‘s famous poem is essentially about the question what it means to be an aristocrat: one has to be a hero, one has to be pious, one has to be generous, and most of all, a leader had to be able to control his anger. “With great power,” as a superhero of our own age would say, “comes great responsibility”.

My summary is now available here.

The Epic Cycle (twice)

23 August 2009
Achilles kills Memnon (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

Achilles kills Memnon (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

As a spin-off from my pages on the Trojan War, about which I blogged earlier, I decided to make available all fragments of the Epic Cycle. These are poems like Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, and although they are younger and only very fragmentary preserved, they are fascinating. The Aethiopis, for example, may have been a convincing story about a soldier who makes a serious mistake, admits it, grows as a person, and dies at the moment of his supreme glory.

Next stop: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The texts are already online on many pages and there are good essays on it, but for completeness’ sake, I will add my own pages. I will certainly enjoy my stay with the Master, but somehow it does not feel right to make these pages right now. Homer is one of the Really Big topics of ancient history, and I have a feeling I am not yet ready for that. So I will stick to a summary – which is of course, in the land of poetry, a serious error.

Anyhow, the Epic Cycle is now more or less ready. If you want to have a verbatim rendering of Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s translation in the Loeb series, with annotation and page numbers, go to LacusCurtius: here. If you do not need the notes but prefer my own treatment, go here.

Supporting document

22 August 2009
Achilles and Troilus

Achilles and Troilus

And due to what was apparently a misunderstanding on my part, Eager Beaver put up the Loeb Classical Library’s version of the Epic Cycle; just in English. The Greek will likely follow in the fulness of time, unless of course someone impatiently needs it.

Troy and the Trojan War

21 August 2009
Steep Troy

Steep Troy

In 2003, my friend Marco and I visited Troy. To be honest, the site itself is a bit of a disappointment, but when you climb to the summit of one of the nearby funeral mounds and look over the wide plain, it is impossible not to be impressed, even frightened. You sense something dreadful in the air, which I also experienced when I climbed the Cithaeron south of Plataea and watched the Boeotian plain, “Ares’ dancefloor”. Yes, I am a hopelessly romantic soul.

Judgment of Paris; f.l.t.r. Hermes, Iris, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. Etruscan amphora, c.530 BCE (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Judgment of Paris (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Still, the plain with the funeral mounds is more impressive than the site, which is fascinating as an archaeological site only. It’s interesting to stand at the Schliemann trench and to see how later generations have been digging there, certainly; but where science and scholarship rule, the legend cedes. Disenchantment is inevitable. That’s a good thing in itself, but the magic is gone.

Anyhow: the photos are now online here, with comments on Troy I-V, Troy VI and VIIa (“Homeric” Troy), and Troy VIII-IX (Classical Troy); a three-page summary of the Epic Cycle (Cypria; Iliad; remaining poems); the Scamander; and of course a page about the funeral mounds.

Pottery from Troy VI (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Pottery from Troy VI (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Writing it all was fun. It meant rereading the Iliad, checking those interesting Hittite texts (that Wilusa stuff is easily the most fascinating puzzle of the twentieth century), and seeing lots of ancient vase paintings, sculpture, and other works of art. I realized that I used photos from fifteen museums to illustrate my pages. Others may have written better poems (I would not mind trading a Homeric hymn or two for some T.S. Eliot); other archaeological sites may be more spectacular (e.g., Palmyra); and other wars may have been more important, but when all is said and done, Homer, Troy, and the Trojan War remain something truly special, and I am glad to have visited the place.

Tepe Hesar

20 August 2009
Finding a skull

Alas poor Yorick

Sometimes, when you visit an archaeological site, you can see the sherds, loom weights, and simple architectonic remains. Occasionaly, there’s a coin. In Tepe Hesar, we found a skull. After that, the site itself was less important, because this skull was so well preserved that we believed that we should not report this to the archaeological authorities, but to the police.

The site itself is the cornerstone of northern Iranian archaeology, because the chronology of the first half of the Bronze Age was established here for the first time. It was abandoned in c.1900 BCE, and reoccupied in the concluding stages of the Bronze Age; surface finds prove that there were people living over here in the Iron Age – I bought a ring from Tepe Hesar once, in London. These younger settlements have not been investigated. A well-preserved Sasanian serail, however, is too big to ignore and is the youngest monument. When the Arabs came, the site was abandoned for good.

1350 Ancient Sites on Google Earth

16 August 2009
The Roman fort at Hardknott

The Roman fort at Hardknott

What you are looking for, is here.


9 August 2009


The river Scamander is the place of one of the most famous scenes of Homer‘s Iliad: Achilles fighting against the river god himself. It’s an impressive story, but already in Antiquity, it was ridiculed: the river might have been a deity, but wasn’t it a bit strange that he could speak beneath his flood (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 4, 85)?

The Scamander was best known from the age of the legendary heroes, but is also mentioned in more reliable sources. For example, Herodotus tells us that its waters were insufficient to supply the army of the Persian king Xerxes, who invaded Greece in 480 BCE (Histories, 7.43). A new web page is now here.

Common Errors (25): Caesar on the Sabis

7 August 2009
Battle of the Sabis

Battle of the Sabis

Among the mistakes in the new historical atlas (the subject of an earlier posting) is the identification of the river Sabis, where Caesar defeated the Nervians, with the modern Sambre. It is true that the words resemble each other, but that’s about all evidence there is for this identification.

A much more plausible place is the little river Selle, which empties itself into the Scheldt near modern Valenciennes. The obvious objection is that Selle does not look like Sabis at all, but looks can be deceptive. In 706, the river was called Save; in 964; we find a reference to the Seva; the change to Sevelle is a normal development in the twelfth and thirteenth century, and in 1476, presto, the little stream was known as Selle.

This identification also explains why the Nervians could surprise the Roman invaders. The Selle is crossed by a very ancient road, about which I’ve blogged before, which Caesar used: he writes that he left for the Nervians from the Ambiani, who lived near modern Amiens. The legions just took the main road, and were nearly defeated at a place that is now called Saulzoir, in northern France.


Pierre Turquin, ‘La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l’ An 57 avant J.-C.’ in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156

<Overview of Common Errors>


5 August 2009

Schematic of a cithara.

Another donkey item (often that means I’m actually preparing something else, a large item, in the background, which I am): the article Cithara from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Now one can reasonably wonder why on earth put a bland article from a 98-year-old encyclopedia, commonly accessible in libraries thruout the world; and sure enough, from time to time I get some acid-penned e-mail to that effect. And that article is available elsewhere online: in one place, scanned and unproofread, with none of its 6 woodcuts; in another, as a photocopy, the citations unlinked, and itself unlinkable. OK well maybe Wikipedia’s article now supersedes it, since they often start by grabbing the 1911 (about which Wikipedians by and large have nothing good to say), then improve or degrade it, as the mood strikes ‘em over there — mostly the latter, as in this case: the article Cithara at Wickedpedia has been dumbed down, has seen some errors introduced, and is next to worthless. But what of “my” own Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities? Well, what of it indeed: no separate article, the cithara covered mixed in with the lyre, really a different instrument, and in an unsatisfactory and confusing way: Smith’s is often not as good as it could be, its writers being classicists and not technical experts in the topic in question. So — now at least there’s a basic article on the instrument out there, written by a historian of musical instruments, and properly done.

Counting gods

3 August 2009
The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 1981, Ramsay MacMullen published his Paganism in the Roman Empire, a great book on, well, paganism in the Roman Empire. What I have never forgotten, is how the American scholar tried to investigate which gods were really popular. He used the indices of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, counted the deities to which people had dedicated inscriptions, and discovered that people in, for example, North Africa venerated other gods than the people in Gaul and the German provinces.

This tedious labor must have taken lots of time. Today, we have digital archives and can do the same job in one evening, for example with this nice databank. I know this, because I checked some thirty deities, trying to zoom in a bit more than MacMullen has been able to. One of his categories was “Gaul & Germany”, and I needed to know whether there were differences between Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. I compared my results to Latium (minus Rome). Here are the results; the popularity of the deities is relative to Jupiter (=100).

Latium Germania Inf. Belgica
1 Mars 194 Matres 168 Mercurius 139
2 Venus 101 Jupiter 100 Mars 136
3 Jupiter 100 Nehalennia 67 Jupiter 100
4 Fortuna 92 Mercurius 43 Liber Pater 84
5 Hercules 71 Mars 37 Apollo 52
6 Silvanus 45 Hercules 34 Hercules 41
7 Diana 44 Fortuna 21 Sol/Mithras 37
8 Sol/Mithras 43 Juno 16 Matres 30
9 Victoria 40 Diana 16 Minerva 19
10 Cybele 36 Sol/Mithras 16 Diana 13
11 Juno 30 Apollo 11 Juno 13
12 Ceres 28 Minerva 11 Fortuna 8
13 Isis 25 Isis 8 Victoria 8
14 Mercurius 25 Silvanus 8 Venus 5
15 Apollo 24 Victoria 7 Silvanus 3

I had expected that Jupiter and Mars would be the only gods to make it to the top-5 everywhere, but there were a few surprises. In the first place, the relative unpopularity of Isis, Minerva, and Neptune. In the second place, the popularity of Mercurius and Liber Pater in Belgica, who must be “romanized” local gods. In the third place, I had not expected that Silvanus -extremely popular in Italy- was also pretty well-known in the north. In the fourth place, I had expected Cybele to rank high in Germania Inferior and Belgica, because she is well-known from representations (statuettes can be seen in any museum); but this popularity is not matched in the epigraphical record.

Finally, the people of Latium were “wide” polytheists, venerating many gods, while the people of the north concentrated on a few deities. This was the greatest surprise – I had never realized that there might have been various degrees of polytheism.

And of course, what MacMullen already knew remains valid when we zoom in on smaller geographical units: that book on ancient mythology you have, you can throw it away. Those twelve Olympic Gods were completely irrelevant.


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