Roman Inscriptions

25 September 2009
Inscription of an officer of III Cyrenaica, found near the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella.

Inscription of an officer of III Cyrenaica, found near the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella.

You don’t have to visit Rome to know at least one stereotypical phrase from the city’s inscriptions: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, which stands for “Senate and People of Rome“. Another expression that has gained wide currency is Pontifex Maximus: originally the high priest, now the title of the Pope. Tens of thousands of Latin inscriptions have survived: among the oldest is a text on a block of tufa near the Curia, and among the most recent ones is a self-laudatory text to commemorate that in 2004, a European Constitution had been signed on the Capitol.

This example proves that if the stones speak, you mustn’t believe everything they say. (The treaty has been rejected, redesigned, found unconstitutional, and so on.) The reliability of inscriptions is an important issue, but the American classicist Tyler Lansford does not systematically deal with it in his book The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. Nor does he devote many words to the fact that inscriptions were relatively cheap and can, therefore, offer information about ordinary people’s lives. Lansford ignores them. For example, when he describes the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, he discusses its epitaph, digresses upon the owner’s identity, upon her husband, upon her husband’s grandfather, upon his death near Carrhae, and upon Carrhae being on the far side of the Euphrates, but he ignores the inscription of the soldier of III Cyrenaica next to the mausoleum.

Of course, any collection is a selection, and Lansford has a right to choose what he likes. Yet, his focus on official inscriptions contradicts one of his own three criteria of selection: “presence in situ, accessibility, and historical or linguistic interest” (page xiii). Only if we return to an eighteenth-century definition of history like “account of military and political deeds by great men”, Lansford’s actual selection can be harmonized with the criterium of historical interest.

Lansford has realized the problem. He admits, on the same page, that his work does not “pretend to offer a survey of the historical topography of the city of Rome, much less of her artistic, social, political, and cultural history”. As a description of his own book, that is adequate and I will not blame Lansford for writing a book that ignores these subjects, but I fail to understand how this fits the “historical interest”.

Besides, it should be noted that the criterium of historical interest contradicts the two other criteria, presence in situ and accessibility. The historically most important inscriptions are now in museums, and are therefore not included in The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. “Rome’s oldest known Latin inscription”, which is mentioned on the book’s back cover and which I take to be a reference to the tufa inscription mentioned above, is not included in the book. I get the impression that Lansford more or less carelessly inserted  “historical interest” in his list of criteria, without giving much thought to these words .

Does all this mean that The Latin Inscriptions of Rome is a bad book? No, certainly not. Lansford’s commentaries are impeccable. The sixteen maps are masterpieces. The glossary is excellent. The index of sites and the index of first lines are useful, and so is the list of abbreviations. This is a fine book for anyone who learned some Latin and wants to check his knowledge during a visit to Europe’s cultural capital, or wants to impress his companions.

I am writing these last words without sarcasm. After all, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance inscriptions were intended for people who wanted to display their knowledge. A Roman senator knew perfectly well who had been honored by that triumphal arch in front of the Curia, but he loved to read its inscription aloud -nobody read in silence, back then- and show to the world that he was a literate man. Roman inscriptions were there to enable people to say “I can read, you cannot, and that’s why I am powerful and you are a plebeian”.

Inscriptions were always meant for pedants. There is nothing wrong with that. Knowledge can be delightful, and there is no reason not to enjoy it. Nor is there anything wrong with Lansford’s ignoring this historical aspect of his texts (I would not write about The Latin Inscriptions of Rome if I didn’t believe the book is valuable). Yet, he should not have mentioned that “historical interest” was a criterion of choice.

[A Dutch version of this review can be found here.]


More Plutarch

25 September 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer continues to add texts documenting Greek intellectual life. To start with, there’s Plutarch‘s Consolation to Apollonius, “into which quotations from earlier authors have been emptied from the sack rather than scattered by hand”, as the author of the introduction to the Loeb edition remarks. His explanation for this odd phenomenon is that this text is the rough draft of a letter. If this is true, we can see how Plutarch really thought – jumping from one quote to another. This man’s thoughts were shaped by classical texts, literally.

The second text is Plutarch’s Dinner of the Seven Sages, which is essentially a fun text comparable to an imaginary meeting of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne. What would the Seven Sages have said, had they been able to meet each other? The joke is, of course, that real quotes of the seven sages had to be used.

The third text is Theophrastus’ Weather Signs (Περὶ σημείων): a mixed collection of popular wisdom. I found it more interesting than I had expected. One would have expected something more profound from a pupil of Aristotle.

Claudian Army Reforms

21 September 2009
Diploma of an Isaurian soldier named Lualis, from Weissenburg (Germany)

Diploma of an Isaurian auxiliary soldier named Lualis, from Weissenburg (Germany)

Cassius Dio knew that Augustus had some kind of masterplan to convert the Roman republic into a monarchy. However, Dio adds,

Augustus did not immediately put into effect all his suggestions, fearing to meet with failure at some point if he purposed to change the ways of all mankind at a stroke; but he introduced some reforms at the moment and some at a later time, leaving still others for those to effect who should subsequently hold the principate [Roman History, 52.41.1-2].

Dio was one of the first to attribute to Augustus a general policy of reform that encompassed almost every field of the administration, and in many books on Roman history, the chapter after the civil wars is devoted to Augustus and the Augustan system. Of course the authors know better, but the structure of their books makes it easy to overestimate the importance of Augustus.

To the army, the reforms of Claudius must have been just as important. Many aspects of the military changed considerably in the early forties, and even if we have certainty about only a couple of them, the general picture is reasonably clear:

  • The layout of forts changed.
  • The Mainz swords were replaced by Pompeii swords; there were changes to the shields; the bronze Coolus helmet was replaced with the Imperial-Gallic type.
  • The auxiliaries were reorganized; terms of service became standardized; from now on, citizenship (and diplomas) were given to those who were demobilized.
  • Along the Rhine, the limes was created – buildings have stone foundations, the Classis Germanica was organized, watchtowers erected.
  • The careers of the officers changed.

Some of this is controversial, but it is interesting, and a useful antidote against attributing everything to Augustus. You can read more about the reforms, and some caveats, here.


C. Thomas, “Claudius and the Roman Army Reforms”, in: Historia 53 (2004)

The Positivist Fallacy

17 September 2009


The Positivist Fallacy is a logical error, sometimes made by historians, when they confuse “what happened” with “that for which we have evidence”.

For example, many books about the Persian Wars end after an account of the battle of Mycale or Plataea. These are the last events mentioned by Herodotus and are the last events about which we know some details. But the war continued: we know that a Greek navy attacked Cyprus, we know that the Spartans invaded Thessaly, we know that a coalition army was active in the Bosphorus, and we know that the Persian fortress at Eïon was captured. It was only then, when the Persians were expelled from Europe, that hostilities ceased. But this stage of the war is poorly documented – and therefore, ignored. Yet, a historian can not make his account dependent on the randomness of the tradition.

Read more about the positivist fallacy here.

Jim West is Right

17 September 2009
Writing back to another blogger

Writing back to another blogger

Discussing the possibility that the American president Barack Obama is the Antichrist (something apparently believed by a minority of American conservatives), Biblioblogger Jim West makes a remarkable comment:

You know, don’t you, who the Antichrist is, right?  I do.

παιδια εσχατη ωρα εστιν και καθως ηκουσατε οτι αντιχριστος ερχεται και νυν αντιχριστοι πολλοι γεγονασιν οθεν γινωσκομεν οτι εσχατη ωρα εστιν. εξ ημων εξηλθαν αλλ ουκ ησαν εξ ημων ει γαρ εξ ημων ησαν μεμενηκεισαν αν μεθ ημων αλλ ινα φανερωθωσιν οτι ουκ εισιν παντες εξ ημων (I John 2)

No need for speculation.

I will not digress on the theological merits of West’s comment. After all, I am not a theologician. But his joke to keep the relevant lines untranslated, goes straight to the heart of an important matter, which is not just a problem to theology. Ancient history suffers from it as well: too many people think they can understand ancient texts without having the proper qualifications. Such as learning a dead language.

This is an odd idea. I would not like to go to an amateur dentist. No politician would pay for the experiments by amateur particle physicists. But if ancient texts are involved, expertise is suddenly unnecessary. Books by “self-educated historians” or theological code-breakers are printed by publishing houses that are, essentially, selling out scholarship to make a few quick bucks.

One of the reasons is, of course, that ancient texts are accessible and delightful to read. You easily get the impression that you can make sense of them. There is little to do against this – fortunately, because there is nothing against enjoying a good book. Yet, I would appreciate it if publishers stopped presenting Plato as if he were a normal writer whose books deserve in the bookstores a place between Sylvia Plath and Chaim Potok. He deserves a book with explanations and a lot of footnotes, nothing else.

Another reason is that scholarly levels are falling (example). It is possible to become an ancient historian without ever having visited an archaeological excavation; and it is possible to become an archaeologist without having been taught that Thou Shalt Not Take Texts Literally. Things go wrong when these specialists start to comment on subjects that are outside their direct competence.

For instance, many classicists have argued that the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest was the cause of a rift between German and Romance languages/cultures, confusing causes and conditions. They should have kept their mouths shut, and ought to have left history to historians. I have also heard an art historian say that it was virtually certain that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and I used to own a copy of a book by a professional theologian that starts with a remark that Mary Magdalene is depicted on Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Irresponsible classicists and art historians, but also ancient historians and archaeologists, are showing by example that anyone can comment on everything; so we should not be too surprised that the man in the street, who would never visit an amateur dentist, does not realize that amateur scholars are just unqualified scholars.

Plutarch, On the Control of Anger

16 September 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Few additions to LacusCurtius‘ steadily growing collection of translations of Plutarch‘s Moralia were better timed than yesterday’s On the Control of Anger. I was really upset, even angry, by the way the Dutch government had announced plans to get out of the economic crisis, and I was surprised at my own anger. Dutch political life never really influences my mood but yesterday, it did. When I was on my way to the place where I had to lecture, I had a feeling that it was sort of obscene to tell the students something about Herodotus now that obviously a time had come to carry daggers under myrtle-branches. Of course, when I entered the classroom and saw my students, those pathetic thoughts vanished into thin air, and when I returned home, I found Plutarch’s essay, which was remarkably suited to the occasion.

The English translation, as I said, is here; and the Greek text, with a French translation, is here. I would like to add that you will like it even when you live in a country where the politicians are still in touch with the people. But I had decided to control my anger, so I just say that you will like it and I will not say the rest.

The Everest Fallacy

11 September 2009

Not an average senator

Everest Fallacy” is a little-known name of an often made logical fallacy: the confusion of the exception with the norm. For example, if you start to research mountains, Mount Everest will be the first summit you notice, but it is hardly a typical mountain. Cicero is the best-known Roman senator, but his works have survived because he was a brilliant speaker, which gave him some assets that his colleagues lacked – so, his career is atypical.

The Everest Fallacy is of course nothing but a special case of the fallacy of eliminating qualification, and any scholar who has a master’s degree ought to recognize it. So I am a bit amazed to notice how much energy scholars devote to fighting pseudo-scholarship (e.g., this interesting article). Of course it is good to fight against it, but the energy can be devoted more efficiently. The outrageous claims by amateur-historians are only extremes; there are types of poor knowledge that occur far more frequently – and it is more prudent to fight the real enemy.

The 3,200-3,600 questions that are the foundation of my book on common errors strongly suggest that the main reason why there is so much incorrect knowledge of Antiquity, is the fact that historians have become too specialized. Still, when writing for a larger audience or teaching to first year students, historians have to speak about subjects outside their own specialty; and in those situations they have to fall back on outdated information. As a consequence, the errors of our doctores and professores are a far more serious cause for oncern than pseudoscience.