“Kromayer & Veith” Republished?

25 February 2010

The plain of Philippi, seen from the site where Octavian's men stood.

That I love classics does not mean that I cannot put them into perspective. Cultural contributions from ancient Babylonia and the world of Islam are just as important to us as contributions from Greek and Rome. It is good that scholarship has widened its focus, but it has come at a price. It used to be easier to invoke help from non-specialists, who felt honored to contribute to the study of ancient Greece and Rome, which they believed to be important.

Take, for instance, those German officers of the Wilhelminian and Weimar age. They had often visited the gymnasium (a secondary school with much emphasis on the classics), and had a sound knowledge of Greek and Latin. Later, they visited the military academy, and they were able to look at a landscape like a Roman officer: they knew which places were suitable for building a camp. The Roman forts along the Lippe were discovered in this way, and a new chapter was added to Roman military history.

Among the greatest monuments of this type of Altertumswissenschaft are the books by Johannes Kromayer and Georg Veith, with titles like Antike Schlachtfelder and Schlachten-Atlas zur antiken Kriegsgeschichte. Based on reports by German officers, these books contain reconstructions of ancient battles, illustrated with beautiful maps. The project was never without danger: one of the military men working for Kromayer and Veith was murdered in Turkey when he tried to investigate Caesar‘s Zela campaign. Often, these maps are still the best we have: Dyrrhachium is a case in point. On the other hand, sometimes new interpretations have been offered (Pharsalus for example), but this is only rarely.

The books have been out of print for a long time, but apparently, the publisher who holds the rights, is interested in a small reprint – about two hundred sets of Antike Schlachtfelder. That’s 2515 pages, four volumes, and thirty-nine splendid maps for €399,20 if you pre-order (otherwise, it’s €512 in the shops). That’s a lot of money, I know, but I can assure you that it’s actually cheap, and the book ought to be in any academic library worthy of that name. If you are interested, you can read more over here.


Common Errors (31): Pythagoras

21 February 2010

Pythagoras (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

One of the most famous anecdotes from Antiquity deals with the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras (c.570-c.495), who discovered the theorem that is named after him, and sacrificed an ox – or even one hundred oxen – to celebrate this. The joke that ever since the oxen are afraid of scientific progress has been used a bit too often by scientists dismissing critical reviews.

For several reasons, this anecdote is problematic. In the first place, because it is probably one of those unhistorical tales attributed to Pythagoras. Another example is his legendary visit to the ancient Near East, which is referred to for the first time in the second century CE, when Apuleius says that the Samian sage was “believed by some to have been a pupil of Zoroaster” (Apology, 31). In his Refutation of All Heresies (1.2.12), Hippolytus of Rome (early third century CE) implies that he had read this story in a book by Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. Yet, even if Hippolytus’ is right (which is doubtful), this means that Pythagoras’ eastern trip is unmentioned by earlier authors describing Pythagoras’ life and opinions, even though Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle had many opportunities to discuss it. The story is almost certainly invented, just like Pythagoras’ visit to India.

The same applies to the theorem that in right-angled triangles the square on the hypothenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the sides containing the right angle. Pythagoras and his pupils were interested in mathematical proof, certainly, but the first to attribute the theorem to the Samian sage is Proclus (412-485), who lived almost one thousand years after Pythagoras (On Euclid I, 426.6-14 [Friedlein]).

A second problem is that the principle was already well-known prior to Pythagoras. Several cuneiform texts from the twenty-first and twentieth century BCE prove the that the ancient Babylonians not only knew that a²+b²=c², but also knew that this principle was generally applicable. There is a difference in the way Babylonians and Greeks proved this rule, but it is possible to overstate Pythagoras’ importance.


J. Høyrup, ‘The Pythagorean “Rule” and “Theorem” – Mirror of the Relation between Babylonian and Greek Mathematics’ in: J. Renger (red.): Babylon. Focus mesopotamischer Geschichte, Wiege früher Gelehrsamkeit, Mythos in der Moderne (1999).

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (30): The Menorah

20 February 2010

The Menorah as shown on the honorary arch of Titus.

In 455, the Vandals captured and looted Rome. They took many objects of art with them, including the Temple Treasure that had been in Jerusalem until the Roman commander Titus had sacked that city (in 70 CE). The Vandals took the objects to Carthage, and lost them to the Byzantines, who captured the city in 534. According to Procopius (History of the Wars, 4.9), the Jewish treasures were taken to Constantinople, where general Belisarius displayed them during his triumphal entry.

Among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus … had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. And one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the emperor and said: “These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gizeric captured the palace of the Romans, and that now the Roman army has captured that the Vandals.”

When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.

So, the treasures of the Jewish temple were returned to Jerusalem. They are not in the Vatican, as some people seem to think. I heard that urban legend for the first time in Italy, some fifteen years ago, and believed that the story, which is so flatly contradicted by a well-known and accessible ancient author, had died a well-deserved death, but I was wrong. When Benedict XVI visited Israel last spring, this myth was suddenly in the headlines again, because two pious Jews demanded that the pope would be seized and kept until the Menorah was returned. The judge dismissed the case on 11 May 2009 – unfortunately argueing that a foreign chief of state was immune, instead of saying that lunatic fringe theories ought to be ignored.

It must be noted, though, that there are other stories about the Temple Treasure. Ibn Abdelhakam writes that the Arabian conquerors of Spain found the “Table of Solomon” when they captured Toledo in 711 (History of the Conquest of Spain, 21). It was brought to Damascus. If this is a reference to the Table of the Table for the Shewbread, this suggests that at least one object was brought to Spain instead of Carthage. In any case, there is not a single piece of evidence that connects the Menorah to the Vatican.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Poor Philemon

18 February 2010

A slave trader and two slaves. Tomb relief from Nickenich (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

Being the friend of an apostle is probably a mixed blessing. Just look at Philemon, one of the helpers of Paul of Tarsus. He was probably a man of some wealth, because his home was large enough to accommodate a Christian community. He was also able to lend Paul a slave, Onesimus. Still, Philemon was not sufficiently wealthy to offer the slave as a present; Paul had to give him back. Although certainly not poor, Philemon did not belong to the superrich. The ancients would have said that he still knew how many cattle he owned.

Paul wrote the Epistle to Philemon when he had to return Onesimus. It is a remarkable piece of writing. Without saying anything unkind, the apostle manages to force his friend to give up his property. Philemon must have been upset, but Paul played his cards brilliantly and left the owner of the slave no alternative.

In the first place, the apostle presents his request as a favor: “Although I could order you to do what you ought to do, I appeal to you on the basis of love”. Next, he explains how much he appreciates Onesimus, and reminds Philemon of the fact that he is in jail. This was of course unnecessary – the recipient of the letter already knew that Paul was a prisoner – but the implication is clear: Paul will miss the young man. In this way, the apostle presents the return of the slave as a friendly gesture towards Philemon, who is supposed to answer it and to release Onesimus.

In other words, Paul presents the matter as some kind of deal: I give up someone who has become dear to me and I expect you to do the same. Of course it is a fake bargain, because Paul is not talking about his own property. But Paul has more arguments. “If you consider me a partner,” he tells Philemon, “welcome him as you would welcome me.” This comes close to emotional blackmail: if you do not release him, you’ll lose my friendship. Philemon must have been angry, but Paul knew that his friend could not afford to lose the apostle’s sympathy. He had done too much for Paul. If he now decided to break off the friendship, all his friends and neighbors would know that his initial judgment had been unsound. That was a disgrace no one, back then, would find acceptable.

Releasing the slave was a big sacrifice. Philemon may have considered ignoring the letter, pretending he had never received it. However, Paul had anticipated this: he addressed the epistle not just to Philemon, but also to the community that met in his house. This was a master stroke. The man who delivered the letter, probably Onesimus himself, would hand it over to the addressee on a place where he was forced to acknowledge it. At the same time, Philemon was offered an opportunity to show his generosity to other people and accept their praise. Paul had carefully brought Philemon in the position where he could only do what Paul believed he ought to do.

The fact that the letter has survived, suggests that Philemon obeyed. Willy-nilly, probably, but he me may have believed that the release was part of the larger story of the coming of the Kingdom. That is, at least, how an orthodox Christian will read the Epistle to Philemon. Those who prefer a more secular point of view, will recognize another dimension. Although Paul did not condemn slavery, the Epistle to Philemon was a time bomb that forced people to rethink their attitudes towards this institution.

Common Errors (29): Roman Chronology

13 February 2010
The Fasti Capitolini: the list with the Varronian Chronology. (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

The Fasti Capitolini

No one claims that Rome was founded in 753 or 754 BCE. When modern historians or classicists refer to that date, they usually add that it is legendary. But that’s a bit too kind. It is not just one of Rome’s legendary foundation dates, it is also the only date about which we know why it is incorrect.

The study of ancient chronology is a technical subject, but the conclusions can be interesting, so let’s digress a bit. In the first place, we must realize that back then, people often measured from summer to summer. Rome’s various legendary foundation dates must, therefore, be written as a “double number”. 814/813 was the conclusion of the investigations by the Sicilian historian Timaeus; the Roman writers Fabius Pictor and Cincius Almenus believed their hometown had been founded in 748/747 and 729/828; Dionysius of Halicarnassus concluded the correct date was 752/751; and Marcus Terentius Varro, finally, believed that Romulus built the city in 754/753.

What made Varro believe that Rome was founded in 754/753? He first established that the first pair of consuls of the Roman Republic had ruled in 509/508. To this, he added thirty-five years for each of the seven known kings. It is self-evident that this method is unsound, and it is rather ironical that 753 has become canonical, because it is the only date about which we know why it must be incorrect. The other dates at least have the benefit of the doubt.

But things are even worse. We know that Varro’s 509/508 must be incorrect. During the Republic, the Romans dated documents with the names of the magistrates. 509/508 was, therefore, the year in which Brutus and Collatinus had been consul. Varro used a list of magistrates who had ruled before 300/299 – or hadn’t, because the list included one year of anarchy. The ancients knew that this list was incomplete: three or four colleges of magistrates were missing. They had several solutions: The historian Livy thought that the period of anarchy had not lasted one but five years. The anonymous Chronographer of 354 added four pairs of consuls. Varro added four years in which dictators had been governing the city – a constitutional absurdity – and continued to add four years of anarchy. Because he solved the same problem twice, his chronology is four (perhaps three) years too long. Rome’s first consuls did not rule in 509/508 but in 505/504.

It is easy to convert Varronian chronology into our chronology. In the age before 390 (according to Varro) = 387/386 BCE, we must subtract three or four years from the traditional, Varronian dates. We also know that the missing magistrates were in office between 390V=387/376 BCE and 350V=347/346 BCE; after this year, the Varronian chronology can be converted to our era by merely ignoring the dictator years.

All this is indeed a bit boring, but it is important, because it helps us connect Rome’s conquest of Central Italy to the history of the Mediterranean world in general. In 387/386 BCE, Rome was sacked by Senones, a Gallic tribe that lived near the Adriatic Sea. The Romans were deeply shocked, especially because they had no idea why they had been targeted. (The explanations offered by historians like Livy are nothing but moralistic anecdotes.) From Justin’s Excerpt of the Histories of Pompeius Trogus (20.5), we know that these Gauls were in 386 in southern Italy, where they joined a Syracusan army that was besieging Croton. It looks as if the Senones had been hired earlier – there was a Syracusan colony near their homeland – and had orders to sack Rome during their march to the deep south. Rome, which had just conquered Veii, may have been too powerful in the eyes of the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius. This is a hypothesis, based on only one source, but historians who stick to the Varronian chronology and continue to date the sack of Rome to the wrong year, will not even notice that the two stories are almost contemporary and may be connected.

The most ironic aspect is that many modern editions of Livy’s History of Rome from its Foundation offer Varronian dates in the margin or in notes. The author who offered a correct chronology, is explained with a chronology that it notoriously unreliable.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Sarvestan Palace

7 February 2010

The great dome

The small, fifth-century Sasanian building east of Sarvestan (satellite photo) is usually called a palace, but no one knows what the building really is. It may have been a hunting lodge or a religious site; but it may as well have been a palace, because it resembles the Qalah-e Dokhtar and the palace of Ardašir at Firuzabad. Whatever the function of the ruin near Sarvestan, it is well-preserved, and worth a visit. It will take an afternoon, if you rent a car in Shiraz. And if you don’t like to go to Iran, your photos are here.

Godin Tepe

6 February 2010

Godin Tepe from the southeast

The excavation of Godin Tepe, close to Kangavar along the road from Hamadan to Behistun, in 1965-1973 was important, because until then, the chronology of Iran’s Bronze Age and Iron Age was poorly understood. Hasanlu, Tepe Nush-e Jan, and Godin Tepe changed all that.

Today, there is not much to see. The Median mansion that once stood at the top, was destroyed when the archaeologists excavated the lower strata of the hill. Still, it is worth to interrupt your trip along the main road at Godin Tepe and climb to the ruins on the summit: the view of the plain is really splendid. The Median prince who built his house over here, knew what he was doing. There is more here.