Call for Comment: Invented Sources

30 March 2012

I am currently writing an article about the Historia Augusta, which is so well-known for its use of fake documents. About one of these sources, Cordus, the author writes that he is unreliable. In other words, he has invented a source to disagree with. It’s a great joke. What I am trying to find out, is whether there are older parallels.

The only possibility I know of, is “Damis”, who is quoted in PhilostratusLife of Apollonius. Personally, I am not convinced that Damis is a fake source, but that is a completely different question. For the moment, I hope to discover (other) parallels to the SHA‘s joke.


Dio, continued

26 March 2012

Up on Lacus in the last few days, a few more of the Greek originals of the Discourses of Dio Chrysostom: 53, 56, 57, 60, 80. For a while, some of the wind was taken out of my sails when I discovered that Perseus has them all — but in fact, on closer inspection, they only have 1‑13 and 31‑35, which right now is nice complementarity, since of those I only have 5 and 9. At any rate, for the Greek originals, the situation is currently: 39 of them only on Lacus, 16 only on Perseus, and 2 on both: with 23 not online anywhere that I know of. For English translations, Dio is complete on Lacus, and as far as I can tell, neither Perseus nor anyone else has any of them.

Back to Dio Chrysostom

20 March 2012

Another straightforward little item which reveals all kinds of less straightforward things. The item: the transcription of the Greek original of Dio Chrysostom’s 62d Discourse, joining the English translation which has been onsite for a coupla years.

Frequent visitors to my DC orientation page know that almost all the Greek text of that author is online somewhere: nearly evenly split between my own site and the University of Louvain’s; in my Table of Contents, I provided links to theirs as well as mine.

Imagine my surprise then when a few hours ago I went to find one of theirs — and discovered that they’ve all been yanked offline. The occasional French and English translations that had been there, still are: but of the Greek, zilch. Gone. And with that, gone off the Web, as far as I know.

The first thing this little event shows is just how incomplete and, above all, fragile the Web is. One person somewhere makes a decision, for whatever reason, and zap! the world over, the efficiencies of this wonderful new medium are wiped out, sending students and profs alike scurrying back to that single copy of Dio’s Greek that may be squirreled away in their University library, if they’re lucky. As for independent scholars, or students in a small impecunious college, or a havo teacher on the island of Saba — forget it, they’re up the creek again. Of course in the case of the transcription of a common published text like Dio’s, there’s no ultimate loss; but the loss of online availability sets up all the old barriers against the people who aren’t in the academic loop. The situation is worse for original work, some of it quite good: pulled offline, it’s like it never existed.

Second concern: there’s really rather little communication out there. Despite instantaneous e‑mail and blogs like this one, and bulletin boards and mailing lists, there may be less day-to‑day communication on matters of detail like this than in the humanist age of say, the fifteenth century. The debating of grand ideas and the adjustment of additional little discoveries is in better shape than in the 15c, thanks to the blossoming of thousands of (print) journals: but the sharing of manuscripts (as it were), as one reads constantly in the letters of medieval clerics and renaissance humanists, seems to be less efficient.

Switching gears now: read on for an unabashed plug of Typinator, an extremely handy tool which allows its users, in this case me, to churn out good Greek text with minimum difficulty. Typinator is a text expander, designed to reduce the time spent typing. The idea is not new, and there are a few of them out there, and some word processors have a certain level of text expansion built into them: but Typinator goes well beyond that, and I’m very glad I have it. Of course I use it for English; but I also have a separate set for polytonic Greek. Those who struggle with typing Greek with all its (absurd and mostly unnecessary, but traditional) squiggles — breathings, accents, subscript iotas, diaereses, combining in seemingly endless ways — will understand immediately. How mind-numbing to input pages of this stuff, requiring multiple keystrokes per character! Κελτοὶ δὲ οὓς ὀνομάζουσι Δρυΐδας, yipes! But, with training, once Typinator has seen a word it will put all its squiggles on for you if you like, and get them right: you just type “Κελτοι δε ους ονομαζουσι Δρυιδασ” (yes, no need to fidget for the final sigmas, either), and it comes out correctly bedizened with its Byzantineries; even enclitics can be accommodated, if with a bit of juggling. To anyone dealing in lots of Greek, this inexpensive little piece of software is worth its weight in gold.

Anyhow, here we go with the remainder of Dio.

Where is our Easter hoax?!

8 March 2012

Christians are preparing themselves to celebrate Easter, so it’s not a wild guess that Biblical scholars are by now preparing their annual archaeological fundraising hoax. But something seems to be wrong. The big question is: why haven’t we seen anything yet?

I mean, I like those old customs. Just like Christmas would be incomplete without an astronomer who, unaware of the rules of textual exegesis, repeats some mumbo-jumbo about the Star of Bethlehem being a comet/nova/conjunction, Easter is incomplete without some piece of ridiculous archaeology.

Last year, we had Colin Humphreys, but this year… I’ve only seen a lame attempt to focus on an old manuscript that is supposed to exist and, hey, there was Simcha Jacobovici again. But let’s be honest: our scholars can do better.

They must, in fact, because we’re entitled to the annual spectacle of archaeologists making themselves look ridiculous. If the BBC can present Stephen Dando-Collins as a serious scholar, they must this year again be able to sell out to a decent quack historian. Easter traditions are to be taken seriously.


OK, there it is, this year’s scholarly self-harm: Jesus may have been a hermaphrodite. Why on earth does a scholar allow herself to be summarized like that? Why does someone respond without checking the original article? Damage done. Thanks.

Die römische Armee im Experiment

4 March 2012

[Fourth part of a series of articles; 1, 2, 3; this is a review/summary of Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011]

In the introduction and two first chapters, Christian Koepfer and Sebastian Bernhard describe the project: an attempt to reconstruct the equipment of the Roman soldiers of the age of Augustus. The objects found at Augsburg, Haltern, Dangstetten, Anreppen, and Kalkriese offer a wealth of information. Using the reconstructed equipment, the members of this project group, called Legio XIII Gemina, did several experiments, like building a road in a mountain area (six men could build about twenty meters of road in two days) and a fourteen-day march.

During these experiments, Legio XIII Gemina collaborated with locals schools and a Bavarian broadcasting organization, but the results can be applied by anyone involved in Roman re-enactment. One chapter in the book, by André Niebler, deals with the didactic methods, and explains how the participants interacted with their audience. A similar article, by Florian Himmler, compares the project with an earlier project, and explains how previous errors were now prevented.

Incendiary arrow

After this, the books contains twenty-one chapters on the various aspects of the soldiers’ equipment, tactics, and strategy. In the first of these, Robert Wimmers describes some finds from Augsburg-Oberhausen from a blacksmith’s point of view. I had not expected that I would ever read an article with interest about forging handcuffs, knives, or an “object of unknown purpose”. Florian Dörschel shows in his article that one of Wimmers’ objects may have served as an incendiary arrowhead.

A soldier with shield, spear, and sword

The next weapon to be dealt with is the spear. Mischa Grab vindicates Plutarch, who describes how Marius invented a pilum with a wooden peg that would break upon impact, making it impossible to throw back the missile (Marius 25). The truth of this statement has recently been challenged, but Grab suggests that Plutarch may be right after all.

Building a catapult

Dominik Molnar’s checked Vitruvius’ description of a catapult; he concludes that it is useful as a do-it-yourself guide, but that one needs to have practical experience to understand the tensions within the machine. There must have been a mouth-to-mouth tradition in the Roman army about the finer details.

Moving from weapons to armour, Andreas Raab checked the types of leather that might have been used in a lorica segmentata, and concludes that chamois leather was best.

Three shields

Christian Koepfer, Matthias Bofinger, and Johann Schmalhofer conducted some interesting experiments with shields. In his account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, Cassius Dio says that the shields of the legionaries beame useless because it was raining (Roman History, 56.21.3), but the experiment proved that. although the weight of the shields did indeed vary with the air humidity, this change was not enough to make them unusable or even difficult to use. Nor did the shape become unstable. This again proves that Dio’s account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest is not as reliable as it seems.

The focale is the subject of the article by Josef Löffl. He suggests that on rainy days, it protected a lorica segmentata’s inside against rain, and on hot days, it protected the carrier against the heat of the metal.

The nails of a sandal

In his article about military boots, Florian Himmler arrives upon a very curious conclusion: a legion that was marching for about a month, lost about half a million sandal nails. I was very surprised, but it is interesting to know that the march route of the soldiers to the Harzhorn battlefield can be reconstructed from the lost shoenails.

Turning to the soldiers’ food, Philip Egetenmeier argues that an average legionary or auxiliary soldier might lose some weight during a march. I would have liked to know more, and fortunately, the author seems to be looking forward to further research.


The usefulness of water buckets is the subject of Marcel Giloj’s contribution, which had more to offer than I had expected. They were really designed to be very practical, for example to be filled very quickly. Water bags, on the other hand, might leak easily, as Reinhard Nieβner shows; again, information about how to make objects, must have been rendered orally from one craftsman to another, and things are not as easy as they seem.

At the end of the book are several chapters about subjects that are not directly related to the experiments. One of these is an attempt to reconstruct what a German warrior might have looked like in the early third century. He was better armed and protected than I had expected. Ross Cowan deals with fourth-century battle tactics, proving that the army was still excellent, but that its strength was wasted by too many civil wars.

The participants

Markus Handy deals with the strategic roles of XIII Gemina (the historical unit) and XV Apollinaris in Pannonia in the second half of the first century. It seems that the Fifteenth was more often involved in actual fighting than the Thirteenth. This cannot be an optical illusion, caused by the incompleteness of our evidence, because the commanders of the Fifteenth were selected on military experience. Meike Weber offers a similar account of strategy and space, showing that long before the distinction between limitanei and comitatenses was created, there was already a mobile reserve in the hinterland.

All in all, this was delightful to read. Given the nature and scale of the Legio XIII Gemina Project, it is inevitable that Die römische Armee im Experiment does not deal with all aspects of the Roman army, but one theme was almost conspicuous by absence: the way the Romans dealt with information. How to make a perfect water bag or a catapult, the function of certain objects, how to carry a shield and where to march – all this must have belonged to an oral tradition. This book is essentially an attempt to recover the lost stories that belong to the objects, and left me wondering how information spread from Britain to Pannonia to Syria.

Final note: that perennial insult to Anglo-Saxon scholars, the English summary of a text they understand perfectly well, is mercifully absent.

Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl (eds.), Die römische Armee im Experiment. 2011 Frank & Timme; 978-3-86596-365-9; €24,80

Photos on this page taken from the Facebook page of Legio XIII Gemina.

Bridging the gap

4 March 2012

On more than one occasion, I have indicated how the study of Antiquity is its own reward (example, example). What it offers, is essentially a sensation: a surprise, the experience that this text or that battle changed your own life, the sense that you’ve made contact with someone in a distant past, the Aha-Erlebnis of realizing how things actually were.

This is of course a personal experience, but that doesn’t mean that academic study is useless. It’s nice to know that your experience of the past is based on correct facts, and besides: the study of Antiquity has offered us much of great value.

As researchers, ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists have little to be ashamed of. Their work is highly relevant and offers much pleasure. Still, they exclude the man in the street. As I already indicated, books for the larger audience are often of very poor quality and have little to offer to those who are most interested.

This is why I am happy to review Die römische Armee im Experiment by Christian Koepfer, Florian Himmler and Josef Löffl, which was published in 2011. Admittedly, the study of Roman army equipment is not of the greatest importance, but the contributors manage to combine the professional standards of the university with the enthusiasm for the past found among re-enactors. They show that is possible to share the excitement of research with those who are really interested. Experimental archaeology is better-suited for this purpose than other subdisciplines, but this book is a clear sign to any scholar that it is possible to keep the larger audience within scope.

[to be continued]