The Oracle of Ammon

28 June 2010

The oracle of Ammon

The oasis of Siwa, some 500 kilometers west of Cairo, deep in the desert, is hard to reach, and no doubt that explains why the oracles by the god Ammon used to be highly esteemed. You didn’t travel such a distance to return with a prediction you might as well have obtained from your local village futurologist – it had had to be something very special. Among Ammon’s devotees were Egyptian kings Amasis and Nectanebo II, the Greek poet Pindar, the Athenian commander Cimon, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, and the Carthaginian leader Hannibal.

Coin from Cyrene showing Ammon (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

I visited the place in January 2008. What I remember best was the mud: it had been raining, which had caused great damage, because the old houses of Siwa are made of dried mud, as is common in the desert. (Many people now live in houses of concrete and bricks, of course, but the old mud houses are the town’s main monuments.) The Siwans complained that this was the fifth heavy rain in five years, and I realized, for the first time, what climate change really means.

Other memories include the women of Siwa, who wore grey burqas, and the purchase of a white bridal gown, decorated with small shells, which must be extremely expensive in an oasis 250 kilometers from the nearest beach. I do not remember how I got that robe through the mud to the hotel, but it was still white as snow, and remained splendidly white, even though I had to take it with me for another two weeks through the desert.

It would be unfair to put online a photo of that wedding gown before its present owner will use it, so you’ll have to settle for a page on the history of the oasis, a page on the deity, and a photo page.


The Battle of Sagalassus (333 BCE)

26 June 2010

The battle site

The capture of the Pisidian town of Sagalassus is not the best-known or most important of Alexander the Great‘s battles, but at least we know exactly where it happened and the site has not changed. It is one of the few places where you can have an idea of the quality of the Macedonian soldiers, who had to fight an uphill battle. These men were strong, really strong.

I put online one photo and a brief explanatory note. Not terribly important, but if you’re interested, it’s here.

On Liberty

26 June 2010

A summary offense

For once, a comment that has nothing to do with ancient history, but everything with politics. The city where I am staying at the moment, Berlin, almost demands it. We were walking along the Friedrichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, when we heard some people singing. At first I believed they were football fans, but we soon discovered that it were people on a “beer bike”, a kind of riding pub that can be seen in other touristic cities as well. As long as the driver remains sober, nothing ought to go wrong, but in Amsterdam, we nevertheless had three people wounded last year.

Our beer cyclists were singing “Checkpoint Charlie, sha-la-lalala”, passed along us, down the Friedrichstrasse. People were staring at the drunkards, in disgust. At some point, the beer cyclists tried to turn around, which they couldn’t, blocking the traffic; some of them left the vehicle, pushed to get it moving again, and jumped in again. Shouting “Checkpoint Charlie, sha-la-lalala”, they cycled back again. Where are the VoPos when you need them?

My initial response was “that’s why they sent food supplies to Tempelhof, that’s why people risked their lifes, that’s why general Clay sent in the tanks, that’s why Kennedy declared to be a Berliner, that’s been the purpose of the Cold War: to pass along Checkpoint Charlie while drunk”. Second thought: “I may not like their taste, but these people live in a free country, and are free to sing in public”. It was much later that I remembered the maxim of classical liberalism: a person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins.

Next time, no political theory, but something about Antiquity again.

Roman Festival Nijmegen

20 June 2010

A Roman cavalryman

Few sites are as suited for a Roman festival as the Kops Plateau in Nijmegen, one of the oldest Roman military settlements in the Low Countries, and almost certainly the headquarters of the legions that Augustus sent out to conquer the east bank of the Rhine. Drusus must have been here, perhaps Tiberius too. The site was later used by a mounted unit of auxiliaries, and may have hosted Caligula and Corbulo.

This weekend saw the third installment of the “Romeinenfestival”. There were shows by several Roman reenactment groups (from Holland Fectio, Corbulo, and X Gemina; from Belgium XI Claudia and the Corpus Equitum Legionis X Equestris; from Germany XV Primigenia and Time Trotter; from Britain the Roman Military Research Society, and from Hungary the Familia Gladiatoria). Elsewhere, you could buy books and objects. My friend Richard, who accompanied me, was more interested in pottery and returned home with a replica of a Drachendorff 37 bowl. I bought some books and a lead defixio; I still have to think of a person I want to curse, write down the name, bury it with a dead cat, and we’ll see what happens.

It was possible to eat Roman-style food, and various archaeological companies explained their activities. Children could take part in an excavation, and on one part of the Kops Plateau, the archaeology of the Prehistory and the Middle Ages was explained. It was interesting to compare the products of the various smiths on the field. The object I found most interesting was a big fifteenth-century gun: a careful replica of an original found in the Meuse. The Roman coach was also worth seeing.

Among the shows were the usual military exercises, which are always impressive. We watched a gladiatorial contest and a reconstruction of a Roman cremation. Had we been there on Saturday, we might have seen a reconstruction of the Mithraic mysteries – plus the soccer match Holland-Japan, because there are more important things than ancient history and archaeology.

One of the most interesting things was the place where people could show old objects they had found in their backyard – usually recent stuff, but who knows what they may have discovered. Maybe a dead cat with a lead defixio.


Meanwhile at LacusCurtius: chous.

Ancient History, Poor Information, and the Internet

19 June 2010

Flowers in my office

(Since 1995, I have maintained a website on ancient history. I have also written a couple of books. In 2010, the Dutch national research school of classicists, Oikos, awarded its annual popularization prize to me. The 14½ remarks below were my acceptance speech; the original Dutch text is here.)


Ancient history is no longer what it used to be. I am not talking about its decreasing popularity, which is regrettable but inevitable, but about incorrect information. Over the past fifteen years, I have answered about 3,400 questions, and I can discern a rising number of incorrect assumptions about the past. Although the trend is not uniform, it is real, and several other authors have recognized a similar pattern.


Information about Antiquity is divulged through several media.

  1. Living history-projects (like Archeon and the Roman Festival here in Holland) are usually very good.
  2. Specialist magazines (e.g., Ancient Warfare) are also very good, but have a limited reach.
  3. Radio and TV do not really contribute; people look at it as amusement.
  4. The quality of popularizing history books appears to have decreased.
  5. The main source for poor information is the internet.

Items 4 en 5 are in fact the same, as many books are now based on information from the internet. I have in several books seen outdated information from my own website.


The reason why the internet can have a bad influence, is the absence of the universities. At this very moment, we seem to witness a change for the better, and there are some very good projects online already (e.g., the Olympic Games website of the University of Leuven), but the damage has already been done.


The classics are not the only discipline to suffer. Distrust against science and scholarship is more general. Just think of Climategate; the hysteria surrounding the outbreak of swine flu; the Lucia de Berk affair here in Holland; and the rapidly decreasing reputation of economists. Think also about the press releases of our colleagues, the archaeologists, which often contain exaggerated claims (examples). I am not claiming that scientists and scholars are failing – most of the people involved are pretty honest – but they have a serious image problem, which is partly caused by their dedication to their good work. However, they ignore how this is perceived (example).


Under these circumstances, we must consider how we explain scholarship and science; we must ask ourselves how we really achieve results.


As far as I am concerned, I think that at this moment, we must refrain from spreading new insights, and must instead focus on the refutation of errors. It is logical to concentrate on the internet and books first.


It seems obvious that the universities must increase their presence on the internet. We can learn from earlier failures, like, which offers insufficient references.

My greatest blunder is that I once agreed to a request by four American universities, which asked me to refrain from putting online annotated articles, because students might copy them in their assignments. I ought to have ignored this request, and very much regret my decision.


Academic pay sites ought to disappear. In debates between scholars and activists, the latter can often link to websites on which their claims appear to be confirmed; but real scholarly publications are inaccessible at pay sites like JSTOR. On the internet, which is a battlefield between good and bad information, real scholars fight with their arms tied.

So far, I have discussed the spread of poor and inaccurate information. I will now focus on it cause.


No classicist, no historian, no orientalist, no archaeologist is capable of understanding the entire field. Yet, classicists, historians, orientalists, and archaeologists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct field of competence. Imagine someone who knows everything about Greek literature of the Antonine Age who explains the Peloponnesian War during an introductory course for first-year students. Think of someone writing a popularizing history of the Roman Empire.


This type of disinformation – academics who have to talk about subjects outside their direct specialism – is a more important cause of misunderstanding than the more outrageous examples of pseudoscholarship. It is also harder to refute, because an academician has titles like doctor or professor, which give some weight to their mistakes. This is comparable to the “Stephen Hawking Effect”: if a famous professor writes a mediocre book, it will be praised more highly than a good book by a science journalist.


Those who believe that science and scholarship are increasingly distrusted because of a rise of pseudoscience, confuse the conspicuous with the representative (the Everest Fallacy). Pseudosciences and pseudoscholarship are only important as strawmen, used by scientists and scholars who do not want to look at their own mistakes.


A solution to the problem of the specialist talking outside his direct sphere of competence, is the creation of new handbooks for ancient history, written by large teams, as is common in the sciences. Handbooks cannot be written by one or two people. Reprints ought to be checked meticulously. I am also hoping that popular accounts are read, prior to publication, by large groups of scholars. What’s the use of colleagues if we ignore their knowledge?


Popular science and scholarship are a serious matter and need serious reflection. I invite the Dutch classicists and ancient historians to write down ideas about it – must we focus on spreading new insights or must we refute old errors? How do we check the quality of our books? What goals can we achieve? If our friends, the archaeologists, can think about this systematically, we can do the same.


I am very grateful for the prize that has been awarded to me. My website is not perfect, but I will do my best to match the standards set in Leuven. To the jury, I say “thank you”, and to the others, I say “thank you for your attention”.


A more specific article is here.

A House Full of Flowers

18 June 2010

Flowers, everywhere

I recently was awarded an academic prize (this one), and several people sent me flowers. They’re pretty rare in my room, which usually is graced only by dusty books, coffee mugs, and one sansevieria. Now there are no less than four bouquets, and because I have only three vases, I have invented a new use for a wine cooler.

So thanks to Aad, Ab, Anita, Anneke, Ansika, Dirk, Ellen, Ettie, Eric, Frans, Fred, Jeannette, Karin, Marjo, thanks to Edith, thanks to George, and thanks to Nora! I had to take this photo with my cellphone, so you cannot see how beautiful these flowers really are, but believe me – they’re splendid.

Nemrud Daǧi

13 June 2010

A lion guarding the main altar

Nemrud daǧi is one of the most spectacular ruins from Antiquity. On the top of a mountain, a large tumulus covers and protects the tomb itself; in the southwest and northeast, there are two terraces, dominated by statues of the great gods and king Antiochus I Theos of Commagene.

Did I say “spectacular”? Yes, it certainly is. During our first visit, we were really impressed by the almost magical atmosphere at sunset. It was easy to forget that there were other people. On the other hand, when we arrived on the mountain for a second time, the magic was gone and we found it hard to remember how impressed we once had been.

I reorganized my old pages, put online in 2003, and added photos we took in 2008. There will be additions later, but from now on, the page is here.