Midas: Fiction and Fact

30 May 2010

The so-called Tomb of Midas in Gordium

King Midas of Phrygia is best known from Greek legend: the story about the drunken Silenus, the story about “the Midas touch”, the story about the donkey ears, and several others, including a nice parallel to the Roman story about the Lacus Curtius.

Yet, the Greeks also remembered him as a real king, the first to send presents to Delphi. This Midas had fought against the Cimmerians, had been defeated, and had committed suicide. He is almost certainly identical to the Mit-ta-a of Muški mentioned in the Annals of the Assyrian king Sargon II.

I’ve made a new page, which you can find here.


29 May 2010

A man and a bul on an ivory inlay

I am still moving all kinds of pages that are in the wrong directories if I want to migrate Livius.org to a CMS, and this time, it’s Gordium‘s turn. We’ve visited the capital of Phrygia twice, in 2003 and 2008, and it remains one of the most impressive sites I know. Imagine a vast plain, with dozens of funeral mounds. The largest of these is called “tomb of Midas“.

Opposite this tumulus is a museum, where you can also see the mosaics from the Phrygian citadel and a Galatian tomb; other objects can be seen in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara – like the finds from the Tomb of Midas. I’ve put it all together on this page, and I added a note on the river Sangarius.

Only thirty pages to go…

Greek and Roman Household Pets

27 May 2010

A cat from Side

One of the gems in Bill Thayer’s LacusCurtius is the Antiquary’s Shoebox, a collection of articles – 153 if I counted correctly – from old scholarly journals. This stuff is often still valuable, but usually hidden for you and me in pay sites like JSTOR. It remains inexplicable and unacceptable that people have to pay taxes to allow scholars to do their work, and that they have to pay another time to have access to the results.

Today’s addition is Francis Lazenby’s piece on “Greek and Roman Household Pets“, from the Classical Journal 44 (1949). Enjoy!


25 May 2010

Part of the decoration

About three weeks ago, I revisited Didyma, one of the oracles of Apollo. From my first visit, in 2003, I remember that I was disappointed. It was big, just big, and some parts of the sculpture were nice, but there was nothing really interesting. To be honest, that remains my opinion – even though I am well aware that only the dead and the mad never change their mind. It’s big, yes; the sculpture – see picture to the right – is nice, indeed; but the site is not nearly as interesting as, for example, the oracles of Delphi or Siwa.

Still, I took some photos, and today, I renewed the Didyma webpage. One of the improvements is that I could ask photos from the Louvre and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Nothing spectacular, but at least the webpage is now a bit more complete.


24 May 2010

Tomb of Cyrus

I fondly remember my first visit to Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. Although it was an amazing idea to be at the place where the great conqueror had actually lived, but the plain itself was what impressed me most. It still does. Although there’s a village next to it, it feels as if the place is terribly empty.

Our photos have been online since 2003. Much has improved since then. The road that made it possible to reach Gate R and Palace S by car, which created vibrations that threatened the monuments, has been removed (I remember a team of Afghan laborers, two summers ago, destroying the pavement with big hammers). Inexpert repairs to the tomb of Cyrus have been reverted, and in general, everything looks better than it used to.

It was about time to update my webpages. So here it is, and here are other links: Gate R, the bridge (small page), the audience hall in Palace S, the residential Palace P, the water works in the garden, the Zendan, the Tall-i Takht, and finally the tomb of Cyrus, with a rare photo of its interior. Plus: a reference to a cuneiform text that may be related to the destruction of the Tall-i Takht in 280. It doesn’t prove much – as always, there’s a lacuna where it shouldn’t be – but at least it’s probably worth a thought.

A Sarcophagus from Antioch

23 May 2010

The deceased, pooring a libation

Searching through my collection of pictures, I stumbled across some photos we took about three years ago in the Archaeological Museum of Antioch (which, as it happens, is built on the exact place where the Crusaders, having found the Holy Lance, famously broke out from the besieged city). So here it is, a nice, well-preserved sarcophagus from the mid-third century. Nothing really special, just nice, and evidence that Antioch was still a prosperous town during that age of crisis.

Common Errors (33): Cradle of Civilization

23 May 2010

Bronze Age city Ebla

One of the things that made me smile in Damascus was the use of slogans. Tourists are attracted with the sincerely brilliant “Come to Damascus. Get a vision”. (The place where Paul of Tarsus saw the light is along the main road to Bosra.) Less felicitous was a series of posters that showed the president, apparently modeled on Harvey Dent and even including a paraphrasis of his slogan (“I believe in Syria”).

Another slogan states that Syria was the “cradle of religions” – which indeed attracts visitors. Western Christians come to Damascus to see the place where Paul escaped across the city wall. I once flew from Tehran to Damascus in the company of a group of pilgrims who wanted to visit the tomb of Huseyn, the third imam.

Most relics are of rather doubtful authenticity – the window from which Paul was lowered is medieval – but there is a more serious problem with this religious tourism. To understand it, we must go back a while, two centuries, to Berlin. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the government of Prussia was reorganizing its educational system, and founded a new university that was not based on a medieval model, but on the needs of science and scholarship. Generally speaking, this reform was a great success, and many modern universities are based on the Berlin model.

However, for ancient historians, the new model was disastrous, because it became part of two faculties. People studying ancient Greece and Rome had to learn Greek and Latin first, and had to visit the subfaculty of classical languages; those who wanted to study the ancient Near East, had to attend courses at the subfaculty of Semitic languages. What had always been a unity, now became divided – and unfortunately, this division became popular in other countries.

In those days, the Greeks and Romans were a source of inspiration to the civilized, liberal bourgeoisie, which believed that the ancients had been free people who thought rationally. Classical Athens and Rome were, therefore, studied from a humanist point of view. On the other hand, scholars interested in the Near East studied the past to better understand the Bible. This was considered to be so important that, once the cuneiform script had been deciphered, priority was given to the publication of those tablets that helped to illuminate the rise of Judaism. Administrative documents, for example, were neglected.

So, in the nineteenth century, one part of Antiquity was explored from a humanist point of view, and the other from a religious perspective. Texts were selected accordingly, and it was inevitable that the difference was projected on the past itself. People started to think that the ancient Near East was the cradle of our religions and that Greece marked the rise of rationalism.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, all this started to change. Cuneiform tablets have shown beyond reasonable doubt how much the ancient Babylonians had achieved as scientists, echos from Semitic poetry have been found in the oldest Greek literature, and books like Eric Dodds’ famous The Greeks and the Irrational have made it clear that it is silly to think of the ancient Greeks as Enlightenment philosophers avant la lettre. No professionally trained historian can accept the previously mentioned dichotomy.

Unfortunately, they are still employed in the mass media – think only of Frank Miller’s 300 (review) and a book like Tom Holland’s Persian Fire (review). Occasionally, a serious scholar succumbs to the charms of simplicity, like classicist Paul Cartledge and political scientist Anthony Pagden, who are apparently serious when they write that East and West are involved in an eternal struggle between freedom and despotism, rationalism and mysticism.

The truth is that there is not so much difference between on the one hand Greece and Rome, and on the other hand the ancient Near East. It is quite ironical that the Syrians have accepted the western prejudices about the “cradle of religion”. Syria has a lot more to offer than that.

<Overview of Common Errors>


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