J.D. Grainger, The Syrian Wars

28 October 2012

If you read this review to see whether a book is sufficiently good to buy it, read no further: John Grainger’s The Syrian Wars is a good book. It is even an important book, and if I will appear to be very critical, this is because it is worth criticizing.

The nine Syrian Wars, waged between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires over the possession of Coele Syria, are a neglected subject. There were few battles to attract the historians’ attention, but more importantly: Rome was at the same time uniting the Mediterranean, a process that was to have more lasting consequences than the eastern wars. Grainger, however, succeeds in showing that the Syrian Wars deserve more attention. He stresses that the conflict was central to the growth of the governmental system of two Hellenistic states, which he calls ‘competitive development’.

On which foundation does he build his thesis? On written sources and coins, of course, which he treats with great care. However, this also means that The Syrian Wars is essentially a N=1 study, which might be refuted easily. As Grainger indicates, any part of his reconstruction can be challenged by the discovery of new texts. If this happens several times, it will be fatal to his thesis.

When empirical foundations are weak, students of most disciplines invoke comparisons. When they do not have sufficient evidence to build a firm structure, it is useful to tie it to more solid objects. This is why historians of Antiquity are inevitably forced to compare their reconstructions to reconstructions of comparable processes in other pre-industrial societies.

Fortunately, the necessary parallels exist. Competitive development is hardly unique; historians and sociologists have often shown that state formation is usually a consequence of a prolonged military conflict. Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is a modern classic. If Grainger had referred to it, his book would have been more convincing, because its thesis would be based on more than one example. N=10 is better than N=1.

The need for comparisons is even greater, because Grainger appears to be unaware of a lot of recent literature. The new sources that might challenge parts of his reconstruction, have in fact already been published. For instance, Grainger’s dates of the Second Diadoch War are based on Manni’s ‘low chronology’ (1949), not on Tom Boiy’s little gem Between High and Low (2007). The relevant new sources are ostraca and cuneiform texts.

Occasionally, Grainger is unaware of new readings of well-known texts. It is strange to see how he antedates the Antigonid invasions of Babylonia to 311, and presents Ptolemy’s naval expedition to the Aegean in 309 as a trick to lure Antigonus away from the eastern theater of war. This leaves the reader with a sense of confusion, because one would expect the two operations to be more or less simultaneous. Fortunately, the problem is only apparent: the Chronicle of the Diadochs (= Babylonian Chronicle 10) dates the Babylonian War to 310/309. Grainger knows the source, but ignores recent scholarship.

This can also be said of his treatment of the reign of Antiochus IV. Fortunately, his treatment resembles Mittag’s beautiful Antiochos IV (2006). Both authors show that the king pursued a policy that is far more rational than the authors of the ancient sources are willing to admit.

Another omission is the set of twenty texts known as the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period. The evidence was known for some time already (seven of these texts were already included in Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975). Several statements of Grainger’s are directly contradicted by BCHP. For example, Grayson says that we do not know where crown prince Antiochus was when his father Seleucus Nicator was assassinated. He settles for Ecbatana, but Chronicles BCHP 5, 6, and 7 suggest that the crown prince often resided in Babylon. (Disclosure: I am involved in the publication, preparing the online editions that scholars use to discuss these chronicles.)

Grainger’s discussion of the Third Syrian War ignores BCHP 11, a chronicle that not only proves that the Egyptians captured Babylon, but also offers interesting details about the fights. After an unsuccessful siege of Seleucia-on-the-Euphrates, Ptolemaic heavy infantry (‘ironclad Macedonians who are not scared of the gods’, according to the chronicler) attacked Babylon, which held out twelve days until it fell on January 20. The citadel remained in the hands of its Seleucid garrison, however, and early in February, the commander of Seleucia tried to lift the blockade. He was defeated and the Seleucid troops who had remained in Seleucia, were massacred. We do not know what happened next, but this is important information. Grainger, unaware of this first-rate source, concludes ‘that Ptolemy crossed the Euphrates but did not reach Babylon’.

The real problem, however, is not that Grainger ignores useful comparisons and recent scholarship. The study of ancient societies is complex, no one can know everything, and scholars cannot even establish what they do not know. Ancient history is the discipline of the unknown unknowns. To fill the lacunas in the knowledge of their writers, publishers have boards of editors. If Grainger is unaware of the existence of BCHP – which is, like so many cuneiform resources, only available online – it is the editors’ task to help. This time, however, the board has been sleeping, which may also explain the unusually great number of typos and the unusually poor maps.

All this should not distract us, however, from the simple fact that Grainger has written an important book that no student of Hellenistic institutions or military history can afford to ignore. With a more energetic board of editors, it might have been a good book, but still, Grainger has achieved his aim: to prove that the continuing conflict forced two Hellenistic states ‘to undertake measures to strengthen themselves internally, financially, militarily, politically, by alliances, and by recruiting manpower, so that they could face yet another war which both sides came to anticipate’.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare]

Classics in Decline

29 September 2011

In 2011, I wrote a book called De klad in de klassieken, “Classics in Decline”. It is about the way classicists, archaeologists, and historians try to guarantee that their information is adequate. The seven first chapters deal with their craftmanship, the three final ones with the problems they are facing in the Dutch, bureaucratic universities. The book was published in January 2012. Below is an English synopsis; a Dutch summary is here.


Scholarship is in a state of crisis and the first branch that is no longer capable of keeping up with the others, is the study of Antiquity. This is not just the problem of classicists, Biblical scholars, archaeologists, Egyptologists, Assyriologists, historians, and so on. The causes of the decline of the classics are relevant to other branches of scholarship and science as well.

1 ‘A field of study, too easy for truly great minds’

What is the study of Antiquity? Subdisciplines. Poliziano and the origin of textual criticism; Nanni and source criticism; Erasmus; Pyrrhonism; antiquarianism and the widening scope of history; the Enlightenment.

2 Three Geniuses and a Politician

Winckelmann and Gibbon and the synthesis of earlier approaches; Philhellenism; Wolf defines the scope of the study of Antiquity; the organizer Von Humboldt; the rise of institutes; pros and cons of institutes. Four main problems:

  1. insufficient attention to the ancient Near East,
  2. archaeology insufficiently appreciated,
  3. acceptance of an unproven continuity from Antiquity up to the present day,
  4. historicism.

3 Words from the Past

Linguistic interpretation of ancient texts; cultural interpretations; intertextuality; subjectivity; Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics; Dilthey; formalism; oral literature. The fifth main problem: outdated information, because of (among other factors) outdated hermeneutic approaches.

4 Facts and Comparisons

Eyewitness accounts and primary sources; secondary sources; facts, indirect facts, aggregated facts; logical problems with empirical study; from fact to language; problems with historicism; acceptance of wide comparisons; justification of comparanda; need to collaborate with the social sciences.

5 The Handmaid of History

From antiquarianism to archaeology; Schliemann; archaeology as the handmaid of history; Kosinna; Childe; culture-historical archaeology and nationalism.

6 Archaeologies

Collaboration with the social sciences breaks historicism (a way to solve main problem #4); decisive changes (functionalism, Clark, radiocarbon); spatial archaeology (Iraq-Jarmo Project); the so-called New Archaeology; possibility to say meaningful things about continuity (a way to solve main problem #3); postprocessual archaeologies and hermeneutics; classical archaeology until 1970; Snodgrass; archaeology no longer a subdiscipline of classics (solution to main problem #2); Greece no longer considered the cradle of civilization; more attention to the ancient Near East (solution to main problem #1).

7 Facts and Explanations

The five explanatory models

  • hermeneutics,
  • positivism,
  • comparativism,
  • narrativism,
  • physics of society.

Just when four of the five main problems were potentially solved, new problems arose.

8 The Fifth Main Problem

Three examples of serious disinformation; types of error (pseudo-history, quack history, exaggeration, contamination, outdated information); the rise of outdated information and its explanations:

  • the internet*, combined with pay sites*, offer quack historians an opportunity to refer to sources, whereas true scholars can only refer to pay sites and will lose any online discussion;
  • students must obtain their MA’s in too short a time*, and are no longer recognize capable of recognizing outdated information;
  • the Convention of Valletta caused an archaeological data explosion.

We’re living in an age in which outdated information can spread faster than reliable information, while academics are less capable to fight against disinformation.

9 Waterskiing behind a Wine Ship

What is quality? Doubts about truth claims,* bureaucratic solutions.* Other problems: insufficient cooperation between historians, classicists, archaeologists; unanswered questions; insufficient theoretical innovation. Poor explanation to non-academicians; rise of a class of aggressive sceptics.*

How things went wrong. Failure of quality control;* underfunding;* disadvantages of bureaucracy;* no control whatsoever of the information sent out to the larger audience.

Must we accept the end of the classical studies? No, but reform is necessary and possible.

10 Leaving the Procrustean Bed

Scholarship should serve society, but the present Dutch universities are a Procrustean bed. What to do?

  • Answer ignored questions about comparanda and continuity;
  • Form follows content: only when we know what we really want, we can create a new system of study. Independent institutes are better than large universities. If creating an institute for all classical studies, is only possible by making it an elitist institute, that is acceptable.
  • Make sure that the larger audience understands what scholarship is about.
  • Create efficient types of control, not focused on the amount of articles published every year, but on the correctness of information that is circulating in society.

Subjects indicated with * are also relevant to other fields of scholarship.

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2)

19 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first one is here.]


Nevertheless, Gruen tackles a non-problem. I do not think there are many scholars who believe that the Romans were always hostile about the Germans, that the Greeks never said something kind about the Egyptians, and that everybody disliked the Jews. Granted, Gruen refers to Antony Pagden, the author of Worlds at War (2008), as an example of someone who makes gross mistakes; but who takes Pagden’ simple ontological holism seriously? As the regular readers of this little blog will be aware, I am usually the first one to agree that the current generation of classicists and ancient historians is not up to their tasks (example), but they are not as short-sighted as Pagden. Really. I think that most readers of Gruen’s book will read the words “the distance between cultures could be crossed in multiple and intriguing ways that elide the antithesis” with a certain indifference. Duh.

As I said, Gruen asks the wrong question. His answer is also incomplete. Granted, the subject matter is so rich that it is impossible to deal with every single aspect. No one will blame Gruen for not mentioning the temple of Isis in Rome, a fully Egyptian enclave in Italy about which many hostile stories were told, but which was still the largest sanctuary in a city that did not lack large sanctuaries. (Come to think of it, on the Palatine, the core of the core of Rome, the tallest temples were dedicated to Cybele and Elagabal.)

Yet, if Gruen wants to prove that cultural interconnectedness was important, it is not smart to use evidence from comparatively little-known authors like Silius Italicus. Why not Virgil himself, with his borrowings from Jewish literature in his account of Aeneas’ descent into the Netherworld? A chapter on xenophobia and xenophilia in Rome’s greatest authors might have strengthened Gruen’s thesis.

Summa summarum: Rethinking the Other in Antiquity has some conceptual weaknesses, but it is fascinating and interesting, and the reader will enjoy the pleasant feeling that there is still a lot to be discovered about the ancient world. “Classical” does not mean that everything about it has already been said.

More than once, I was reminded of my teacher, the late Pieter Willem de Neeve, who once had to review another book by Gruen, which he considered to be only partly successful, but which he also liked very much, because Gruen had shown many new aspects of texts which De Neeve had believed he already knew. This was also my experience, which says a lot about Gruen’s broad look at things, and about the texts from the ancient world: you can read them a hundred times, and they continue to surprise you.

References to Lévi-Strauss are mercifully absent.

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)

19 June 2011


Rethinking the Other in Antiquity is a fascinating book. This conclusion is in itself interesting, because author Erich Gruen asks the wrong question and offers an incomplete answer. However, he also offers much interesting information. In the end, the book is pretty successful.

First, the wrong question. Analysis of “the Other” has been a fashionable topic for quite a long time already. Typically, an ancient historian or classicist collected everything that the Greeks and Romans had written about one of their neighbors (e.g., the Persians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans) and investigated how the classical authors presented their subject matter. The Carthaginian from literature often turned out to be a kind of anti-Roman, with all vices that the Romans detested most in themselves. In an interesting chapter in his Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2010), British classicist Richard Miles showed how the Carthaginian vices changed with the developing self-image of the Romans.

To the best of my knowledge, no classicist or historian has ever claimed that the “Other” was only the anti-Greek or anti-Roman. When I read an article about, say, Greek images of Egypt, I never have the impression that the modern author implied that the Greeks did not also recognize the Egyptians as human beings with whom they had a lot in common. Yet, Gruen sets out to show that the same sources that are read as presentations of the Other, can be read as evidence that the ancient nations recognized similarities.

The result is, as I said, fascinating and certainly worth reading. Of course, the relations were not just black and white, “we” versus “the other”, antagonistic only. The stories that the ancient nations told about each other, indeed show that they often believed that they had a lot to share.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the Other”, Gruen deals with Greek ideas about the Persians and Egyptians, Roman views of Carthage, Caesar’s Gauls, Tacitus’ Germans and Jews, and ideas about people with a different color. In the brilliant second part, “Connections with the Other”, Gruen presents the patterns used to stress cultural interconnectedness. In their foundation legends, for example, the Greeks and Romans presented themselves as descendants from other nations; in genealogical lists, Greeks and Jews could describe themselves as brothers of other nations; and there was always a possibility to adopt each other’s roles, like a Greek presenting a Jew as in the traditionally Greek role of philosopher.

Often, Gruen’s conclusions seem a bit too obvious. I was not surprised to read that Aeschylus does not present us with a hostile portrayal of the Persians in his famous play with the same title. Still, Gruen has a lot of interesting observations to make. I had not expected that the famous expression “Punica fides” is in fact very rare. There were many surprises, especially in the second part of the book.

[to be continued]

Zahi Hawass to Jail

17 April 2011
Some historians deserve a box on the ear

Some scholars deserve a box on the ear

Never a dull moment with Zahi Hawass. He left his job, he returned, he launched his own clothing line. And even now that he is sentenced to one year in jail, there’s an unexpected twist: it’s “for refusing to fulfill a court ruling over a land dispute”.

I would have preferred to see a different verdict: neglect of his main duties.We all know him from English-spoken TV-series and English books; he was always occupied with foreigners. If only he had devoted his limitless energy to his real responsibilities and had explained the importance of antiquities to the Egyptian people, he might have achieved really something and might have become a truly great scholar. The excavations would not have been looted this February. A trial in which he were accused of “failure to educate the nation” would have been far more interesting than the present one.

Cooking utensils

6 November 2010


Romano-Egyptian strainer

And Jona missed one; the reason for my translation of the tiny gridiron article in Daremberg was that it was cited in a journal article I put up, Roman Cooking Utensils in the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology. Why one should care about pots and pans in Toronto in 1921 is — well, the editors of the American Journal of Archaeology felt as I do: the paper’s descriptions and good drawings of them are worth having to put up with the rather obtrusive shill for the young Museum. Among the items salvaged from these Roman cooks in Egypt, a ladle with an extension handle; I’m a fair cook myself and have never seen one, ancient or modern.

SMS from Turkey

3 October 2010

Tarkasnawa of Mira

In 2003, Marco and I rented a car and made a trip through Turkey. As always, we didn’t have time to visit the most important sites (I still haven’t been in Perge or Pergamon), because we lost way too much time on silly trivialities like finding the rock relief of king Tarkasnawa of the Hittite vassal kingdom Mira. It is not terribly important, but it’s mentioned by Herodotus, who believed it to be an Egyptian relief (more…). I think we spent about two hours, searching in vain, before we decided to give up. At that very moment, we spotted the small stairs along the road that indicated the place where we ought to climb to the rock. I will never forget the shout of Marco, who was the first to go up, that he saw the object of our quest.

I most have told this story several times, not ignoring our futile attempt to ask a Turkish woodcutter, who spoke only Turkish, whether he knew the relief. Apparently, my stories must have made some friends curious, because the other day, I received an SMS from two friends who were, at that moment, standing next to Tarkasnawa, and knew they would cause me great joy by letting me know where they were standing.

More here; satellite photo here.

The End of the Library of Alexandria

12 September 2010

Sphinx of Horemheb at the Serapeum

Roger Pearse is currently blogging (1, 2) on the origin of the story that Caliph Omar ordered the destruction of the library of Alexandria. There are several other stories: the library was destroyed when Julius Caesar captured the city, it vanished in the 365 earthquake, Aurelian‘s soldiers are responsible, Christian agitators set it afire.

But perhaps it is not necessary to look for such an event.

There are several reports about the number of scrolls in the library. 400,000 is one of the lower estimates. Now a papyrus scroll is vulnerable and a book needed to be copied after a century. This means that every year, about 4,000 scrolls had to be copied. If we assume that one scroll took one month, we need about 300 to 350 writers, excluding the correctors, illustrators, the people who prepared ink and papyrus, and so on. All these people were highly paid professionals.

These numbers are all guesswork, but they serve to illustrate a point: the library was too big to survive. Even if Caesar and Aurelian hadn’t attacked the city, even if there had been no earthquake, even if there had been no interventions by Christian and Muslim fanatics, the library would have vanished.

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.

Circumnavigating Africa

2 May 2010

A Phoenician ship on a Phoenician coin

One of the most interesting anecdotes in the HerodotusHistories is the story about the circumnavigation of Africa by a group of Phoenician explorers (4.42). In Aubrey de Selincourt‘s translation:

Africa is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who … sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the African coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year’s harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Africa, they had the sun on their right – to northward of them. This is how Africa was first discovered by sea.

The last detail is of course the most interesting point: Herodotus’ argument that the story cannot be true, is the best proof that it really happened. In class, I often use this to explain Herodotus’ method: he tells the stories he heard, but he does not always believe it himself. He’s not a simple teller of tall stories, but is sometimes skeptical, and the reader must be extremely alert if he wants to learn – to decode – Herodotus’ own ideas. (Nearly all modern literature about the battle at Thermopylae is irrelevant, because almost all scholars have ignored that it is introduced with the highly significant gnomê, “in my opinion”: Herodotus does not claim that Leonidas’ presumed self-sacrifice is a fact.)

But to return to our Phoenician explorers, it is interesting to know that at this very moment, a group of mostly British sailors is trying to repeat the great voyage. You will find their website here and you can track them here. I must confess that I am a bit puzzled about their route, because they do not stay close to the shore, as the ancient Phoenicians must have done (explanation). I can understand that they wanted to evade the Somalian pirates, so it makes sense that they made a detour to a point even east of the Seychelles, but I am surprised that in the Atlantic, they visited Saint Helena. As a landlubber, I can only think of sea currents, but somehow, it strikes me as a bit inauthentic.

That being said, it is a good thing that archaeology can be presented as an adventure. The real adventure is, of course, intellectual, but our neo-Phoenicians make science accessible and comprehensible in a way that is better than imitating Indiana Jones, as Zahi Hawass does.

Silly Science

9 April 2010

Ramses II

The Biblical plagues that devastated Ancient Egypt in the Old Testament were the result of global warming and a volcanic eruption.” This time, it’s a professor Augusto Magini, paleoclimatologist at Heidelberg University, who helps give science a bad name.

He argues that there was a dramatic climate change in the second half of the reign of Ramses II: after a favorable climatic period with plenty of rain, a dry period started. That is very interesting as it helps us understand the collapse of the Bronze Age world system. I would love to know more about it. For instance, is there corroboration from other areas?

Magini is apparently not content with one interesting result. He continues to argue that the climate change triggered the Biblical plagues. Now things become embarrassing. He and a colleague named Stephan Pflugmacher, biologist at the Leibniz Institute in Berlin, argue that rising temperatures would have caused the Nile to dry up, which would in turn have caused the arrival of the first plague: the river turning to blood – or toxic algae, as the scientists prefer to read the text. From here, they jump to frogs, lice and flies. Finally, the exploding volcano Thera would explain the darkness. And so on, and so on.

News reports like this are published every year, usually in the weeks before a major religious festival. This time, it was Passover; the “scientific” reading of the Quran usually makes the headlines during the Ramadan, while scientific explanations of the Star of Betlehem belong to Christmas like sending cards and eating turkey. I am not claiming that all scientists are necessarily wrong, but Magini obviously is.

In the first place, if he wants to take the Bible litterally, why does he accept the description of the events (the sequence of plagues, for example), but doesn’t he accept the chronology? You cannot only use the part that suits you and ignore the part that doesn’t. The Bible is pretty explicit about chronology (1 Kings 6.1), and there is simply no way to put the Ten Plagues during the reign of Ramses. Of course I am aware that many scholars have argued away the chronology of the Exodus, but these scholars also accept the story of the Exodus as a literary text, not as a historical event. If you’re a litteralist and want to believe that the Ten Plagues are a fact – fine, but then you must offer arguments why you don’t accept the text in its entirety.

In the second place, the Bible does not refer to rising temperatures or a dry climate. Of course Magini can answer that the Bible does not mention a lot of things -the name of the pharaoh for example – but he will admit that “you can add to a text any element you need” is not sound logic. By adding an element that’s just not there, Magini’s second mistake is the converse of his first one: leaving out what did not suit him.

I could go on ’till the cows come home. The authors of the Bible were not stupid. They were perfectly capable of distinguishing between algae and blood, for example. And whenever the Thera exploded, it was not during the reign of Ramses. And so on. But my main point is this: history is a profession. You need some training. Reading an ancient text is less easy than is often assumed – even by historians themselves, as I often need to point out on this little blog.

Scientists can do a lot of things, like establishing that there was a climate change in the third quarter of the thirteenth century. That’s good and I am grateful for that. But reading ancient texts is something else. I am not saying scientists should not discuss history, because I know that the two fields sometimes overlap. But when I have to discuss, say, ancient astronomy (here), I check things with a professional scientist. It would have been better if Magini, who works at a university with an excellent history department, had walked to his colleagues and asked what they thought about his idea.

Until now, I have received eighteen e-mail messages about Magini’s article. If he had been a bit more careful, a bit more scientific, he might have saved me a lot of time.

He shoulda watched where he stepped….

19 March 2010


What’s a poor writer to do? someone, some day, for some reason, will annotate you: and naturally, being long dead, you won’t be up to defending yourself. And so it is with the writer of a biographical sketch of the 19c American general George McClellan, famous for being so cautious not to lose battles that he would have lost the war had he not quickly been replaced by President Lincoln: our anonymous writer had the misfortune to use what was at the time a fairly conventional phrase — but one that in our own age, less attuned to the classics, got him a dose of annotation right between the eyes. I prolly wouldn’t mention any of this if (a) it weren’t a somewhat out-of-the-way place for this item; and (b) if it weren’t considerably better than the corresponding Wikipedia entry, yet very likely at the cost of half the expenditure of time. Jona, you’ve been there, and will doubtless have further, um, annotations on it all.

Common Errors (28): Cleopatra’s Viper

23 January 2010

Cleopatra with a cobra ("Esquiline Venus"; Musei Capitolini, Rome)

It’s a great story, perfectly suited for a theater or movie adaptation: the final moments of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra, who had herself bitten by a viper. There is indeed ancient evidence for this story, which is told by Plutarch (Marc Antony, 86):

It is said that the viper (aspis) was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: “There it is, you see,” and baring her arm she held it out for the bite.

However, this cannot be true. A viper’s bite is not fatal. Only a few scholars have realized the problem, and they have argued that in fact a cobra must be meant. However, the Greeks and Romans were perfectly capable of distinguishing several kinds of snakes. The poet Lucian even offers a catalog of reptiles (with their poisonous effects) in his Pharsalia, book nine.

I do not know what really happened, but I have an idea: Octavian sent a soldier to kill the queen, because he could not afford to capture her. Just imagine that he returned to Rome with a woman tied to his triumphal chariot. The Romans would joke that he had not won a major war, but had merely defeated a woman. There is, of course, no evidence for this theory, but at least it is possible. That’s more than we can say about a fatal viper’s bite.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Cleopatra’s Pearls

25 December 2009

Cleopatra VII

Now that we’ve had our Christmas dinner – nasi goreng in my case – LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer serves us something to read and help you digest it: Cleopatra’s Pearls, an article that originally appeared in the Classical Journal 52 (1957).

It’s a highly amusing piece that contains parallel stories, tricks to dissolve your own pearls (“a small pearl is dissolved in boiling vinegar in 8‑15 minutes” – or perhaps not), an apt quote from Hamlet, a relevant comparison to the use of Coca Cola, and a good joke at the end. Enjoy!

Egyptian Evidence for Babylonian Chronology?

20 November 2009

Hammurabi (left)

I would like to know more about this little news item: a seal of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, found in Egypt. The seal itself is not what intrigues me, it is the reference to a similar seal, which has been discovered (at an unspecified moment) in the tomb of the Egyptian king Khayan.

I am always interested when disciplines interact, but this may turn out to be truly special – at least, if the statement is correct that the Hyksos ruler Khayan was king of Egypt from 1653 to 1614 BCE. (I am not an Egyptologist, and the last time I ventured into the Hyksos age, many dates were still in doubt.)

But if we assume that Khayan’s regnal dates are correct, then we may finally come within reach of the solution of the main chronological problem of Babylonian history, where four chronological systems are possible. According to these, Hammurabi’s reign can be dated to 1848-1806 (“high chronology”), 1792-1750 (“middle chronology”), 1728-1686 (“low chronology”), and 1696-1654 (“ultra-low chronology”).

Now this seal must have been attached to a document or an object sent from Babylonia to Egypt. I do not know how long correspondence was kept in ancient archives, but if the Amarna Letters are a valid comparison, we must think of no more than thirty years. Calculating wildly, I’d say that the year 1653+30=1683 BCE ought to be within the series of regnal years of Hammurabi, which brings us to the ultra-low, or possibly the low chronology.

Again, I am not a specialist, and I may be completely wrong. For the time being, I will cling to the conventional “middle chronology”. Yet, about one thing we can be certain: ancient historians ought to be interested in all ancient cultures. They never have access to sufficient sources to solve even the most basic problems, like the chronology of second millennium Mesopotamia, so they cannot afford to become specialists, studying only one civilization.

Dishonest Archaeologists

14 November 2009

Photo montage of a flooded Pasargadae

I already blogged about the recent claims that Cambyses‘ lost army had been found. When I finished my article, I briefly suspected that I had been too harsh in my criticism, and when I found a press release stating that the people who had made the claim were not involved in the project, I initially thought that this was mudslinging among colleagues fighting for a scoop. But it turns out I was too kind: read David Meadows’ article here.

The journalists who swallowed the initial press release, ought to have checked their facts, and the problem is that no one seems to do that any more. We have seen the now notorious Pasargadae Hoax: the Iranian authorities are building a dam in the Sivand (true) and the tomb of Cyrus will be flooded (not true, but you can always make a  photo montage to prove a point). We have seen the press releases by Dutch archaeologists. We have seen the outrageous claims made in Israel, where connecting a find to a Biblical person results in a miraculous multiplication of funds.

I know that there are sincere archaeologists, who really do their best to tell the truth. I also know that there are honest journalists. But archaeology is rapidly becoming a suspect discipline.

Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

13 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Persian soldiers, on a glazed relief from Susa, now in the Louvre.

You can leave it to archaeologists to make exaggerated claims and you can leave it to journalists to swallow the nonsense. The readers of this little blog know that I have introduced the Ctesias Scale to measure poor archaeological journalism. A possible example of wilful disinformation was the announcement, earlier this week, that the remains of Cambyses‘ lost army had been found: go here or here for examples.

The story: in 525 BCE, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt. After that, he sent an army to the west, to conquer the Oracle of Ammon. It never reached the place, and the Greek researcher Herodotus says that it was destroyed by a violent desert storm. Now, two Italian archaeologists, the twin brothers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, claim to have found remains of the army, partly on a sheltered place where people might have tried to find cover against a sandstorm.

There are two reasons to be suspicious.

In the first place, Herodotus is not a very reliable author. Not because he is not interested in the truth: on the contrary, he is certainly one of the most truthloving writers of the ancient world. But it was hard to get correct information, and Herodotus was standing in a tradition that appreciated an artful presentation. So, in his Histories, Xerxes‘ failed expedition is mirrored by the failures of earlier Persian rulers. So, Herodotus says that Cyrus was defeated by the Massagetes (according to Xenophon, Cyrus died of natural causes); that Darius lost a navy in a storm at the Athos; that Darius also lost an army during a Scythian campaign; and that Cambyses lost an army in the desert. These stories are not necessarily untrue, but the repetition makes one suspicious. I would not be surprised if some of these stories were created by Herodotus because he believed they had to have happened.

But even if we assume that Cambyses sent out an expedition to the Oracle of Ammon, there is still a reason not to believe the claim by our two Italian archaeologists. What they have found, or claim to have found, is a set of Persian weapons (e.g., arrowheads), skulls, and bones. Even if we assume that they are indeed Persian, it is a serious logical fallacy to assume that they belong to soldiers of Cambyses’ campaign. The Persians controled Egypt for more than a century (from 525 to c.401) and there must have been dozens of occasions on which soldiers were sent to the west. All these expeditions may have found itself lost in the western desert. What archaeologists can find, is evidence that a Persian army got into trouble; but stating that the finds belonged to a particular expedition is introducing a secundum quid. I think we must be suspicious.


Perhaps this message at Andie Byrnes’ Egyptology Blog may be relevant too; although it leaves the Cambyses story itself unchallenged, it suggests that the Castiglionis are not completely bona fide. That may be mudslinging, but I think that suspicion about the report is completely justifiable.


It helps to check the facts; David Meadows investigated the case. The journalists who swallowed this nonsense, ought to be under orders to read his article.

Portrait of Ptolemy of Alexandria

3 September 2009
Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

If I attend a meeting, and am listening to what is said, I will invariably doodle something in the margin of my notes. And when I am lecturing, I am not surprised to see people make little drawings of things I have mentioned. If you speak about, say, Herodotushippopotamus and the long western tradition of deliberately incorrect descriptions of that animal,* you will see a lot of students drawing hippos.

Medieval copiists couldn’t resist the temptation either. Their manuscripts often contain little drawings. Two weeks ago, one of the libraries of Bruges announced that an astronomer who was consulting a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Almagest of Ptolemy of Alexandria, had discovered two small portraits of the great astronomer. The ink is now a bit pale, but you can clearly see that the copiist has done his best, making a pretty, detailed picture of what he thought Ptolemy must have looked like. I think it is beautiful.

You can read more about it here (in Dutch) and download four photos here.

*The best one is, of course, T.S. Eliot’s Hippopotamus.

New Historical Atlas

23 July 2009

If a book supposed to cost 179 euro is sold for 225 euro, you may feel cheated. And if you immediately spot a very grave error, you’re in a bad mood. But the new Historischer Atlas der antiken Welt is too beautiful to complain for too long. It is also a very good book, and even 225 euro is not an unreasonable price.

Anne-Maria Wittke, Eckart Olshausen and Richard Szydlak have succeeded in making an atlas that will be with us for the next two or three decades. It is more than just a set of 184 full-color and 53 b/w maps. There’s always a helpful explanation on the opposite page, which has benefited from the Neue Pauly, the encyclopedia this atlas tries to supplement. Most maps are attractive and I was quite tempted to leaf through the book for an hour or two. I have not resisted this temptation, and soon forgot my initial disappointment. Although a couple of maps are loaded with too much information, most of them are quite clear. The use of colors on the following map is particularly illuminating:

This book sets a new standard, and there lies a problem: it’s just not good enough. I looked up the map of Germania Inferior, a part of the Roman world where I can check information and that offers a simple litmus test that the Historischer Atlas fails to pass. The most detailed map of this part of the Roman Empire has “the so-called Batavian Revolt” as its subject, and is clearly based on the map of the “Batavenaufstand” in volume 2 of the Neue Pauly (1996), which was made by Olshausen. In the Historischer Atlas, he has meticulously copied all his errors.

Take, for instance, the coastline of the Zeeland archipelago, which did not exist until the Middle Ages. The only evidence for islands in Antiquity is Caesar, Gallic War, 6.31.3, a clearly topical description of the edges of the earth that is not to be taken seriously. These phantom islands can be seen on many maps, but Olshausen should have known better: he ought to have consulted a palaeogeographical map (e.g., Zagwijn’s Nederland in het Holoceen, 1986). Instead, he based his map on outdated maps that were in turn based on written sources. This is worse than carelessness: ignoring palaeogeography and uncritically trusting literary evidence is a very grave methodological error.

Other mistakes on the same map: the Insula Batavorum (“the island of the Batavians”) is the land between the branches of the Rhine (Tacitus, Germania, 29), not an island off the coast; the Brittenburg (why this sixteenth-century name, and not its Latin name Lugdunum?) is on the place of the town of the Cananefates, who have moved to the country of the Frisii Minores; they have in turn moved to the land of the Chauci, who have migrated to the east. Traiecum, De Meern (an outdated name), Helinium, and Fectio are also on the wrong place. Although these mistakes are less serious than forgetting to consult a palaeogeographic map, they are inexcusable: any Dutch archaeologist could have explained things, the Barrington Atlas has got these details right, even websites (e.g., limes.nl) have not made so many mistakes. If internet sites can have the facts straight, a team of three university-employed scholars ought not to make errors.

There’s more outdated information. On page 165, Caesar defeats the Belgians at the Sambre instead of the Selle, even though Turquin’s article on the location was published more than half a century ago; on page 172, the Forum of Trajan is shown with the temple in the northwest – it was excavated in the southeast; the map of the Roman Empire during the reign of Septimius Severus on page 207 shows southeastern Iraq as part of the Roman world, while the annexations in Tripolitana, correctly shown on page 212, are ignored; Waššukanni, the lost capital of Mitanni, is correctly shown as unidentified on the map of the ancient Near East in the 15th-14th centuries, but becomes a known site on the map of the thirteenth century, when it was probably abandoned; the map of Alexander‘s campaign is supposed to be based on Bosworth’s commentary, but still, the Macedonian conqueror makes a detour to Ecbatana in 330 BCE, although Bosworth has convincingly shown that Alexander in fact made a short-cut to overtake Darius. Et cetera.

I know these mistakes are rather trivial, but in a book that is sold for this price, the information ought to have been checked and rechecked. Still, the Historischer Atlas is far better than similar publications, and it is unlikely that other scholars will now publish another, equally ambituous atlas. For the time being, this will be the standard. And although I am critical, your 179 or 225 euro are, in the final analysis, well-spent. I had never seen maps of Rome’s Persian Wars (219), the Palmyrene Empire (221), the Sasanian Empire (215 and 217), and the duel between the Sasanians and Byzantines (241) of this quality and beauty. It has already received a place on my desk, next to my dictionaries and the Neue Pauly. I expect that it will remain there for the rest of my life.

PS: Another contribution by Patrick Charlot: Qadamgah.

Common Errors (5): The Alphabet

12 May 2009
Poster in Paris

Poster in Paris

The Phoenicians are not the ancient world’s most famous nation, but people who know them, are almost always aware that they invented the alphabet. When in 2007/2008 the Institut du Monde Arabe organized an exposition about the Phoenicians, Paris was full with posters asking inviting questions like “Quel visage avait la civilisation qui nous a donné l’alphabet?”

However, it is not true that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, although the error is venerably ancient. The ancient Greeks already believed it, and made jokes about it. When the sophist Hadrian of Tyre delivered his inaugural address in Athens, he modestly started his speech with the words “Again, letters have come from Phoenicia”.

Still, the alphabet is much older. In 1904-1905, the famous Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) discovered alphabetic inscriptions in the Sinai desert. They were older than anything written in Phoenician. In 1998, his American colleague John Darnell discovered texts that were even more ancient; the inscription from the Wadi el-Hol are, for the moment, incomprehensible, but the oldest we have. They date back to c.1900 BCE.

So, the alphabet was invented in Egypt, was applied in the Sinai, was adapted by the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, who gave it to the Greeks.

<Overview of Common Errors>