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.

Introduction

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 The fifth main problem: outdated information, because of (among other factors) outdated hermeneutic approaches.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.

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Mainz Pedestals For Sale?

12 July 2011

One of the twelve reliefs

Of course, the Mainz Pedestals are not for sale. They are safe in the Steinhalle in the Landesmuseum in Mainz, and although the room itself is currently under reconstruction, there is no reason to despair about the museum’s finances. Nevertheless, here is the text of an e-mail I received this weekend:

Hello

Am Mr Roy and am inquiry into your company about Mainz Pedestals? And i will like you to get back to me with the types,sizes and prices of them so  i can proceed with the one am ordering.And i will like to know if you do Accepts major credit card as the mode of payments,And try and include your contact details  when getting back to me , so i can give you a call as soon as possible,

your Prompts response and assistance will be much appreciated,

Thanks, Roy

I confess that I was tempted to reply to Mr Roy that I would love to buy the famous sculptures.


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.]

Cover

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

Cover

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]


Death in Roman Mainz

16 May 2011

Death statistics for Roman Mainz

If you visit a museum with Roman inscriptions and read the tombstones, you will notice that old people invariably died at 60, 70, or 80. The ancients didn’t know exactly how old they were (except, of course, for that man mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who said he could prove that he was 130 years old – from his tax records).

I wanted to check this, so I decided to look at the inscriptions from a city where many tombstones have been found. Mainz was a logical candidate: its Landesmuseum has a nice “Steinhalle” (hall of ancient stones). Besides, there were legions over here, which – I assumed – must have kept some kind of administration. I expected a more or less regular pattern with similar results for successive years until the late forties, when the soldiers left the army. After that I expected high peaks at 60, 70, 80, and lower peaks at 55, 65, 75.

Tombstone of Gaius Faltonius Secundus

The Epigraphik-Datenbank of Clauss and Slaby offered 2826 inscriptions, of which 245 contained formulas like “MIL LEG XXII PR AN XLVI STI XXI HSE” (= miles legionis XXII Primigeniae, annorum XLVI, stipendiorum XXI, hic situs est, “soldier of the Twenty-second Legion Primigenia, 46 years old, 21 years of service, is buried here”).

As the picture above shows, it did not work out as I expected, but still there is an interesting result. Between 20 and 50, there’s a peak every 5 year. After that, there is only a minor peak at 70. I deduce that the army kept no administration.

Among the other finds: the tombstone of a soldier who must have entered the army at thirteen (no unit mentioned, but a Roman citizen), the tombstone of an officer who served in four legions and apparently served 45 years, and some odd numerals like VL and XLIIX.


II Adiutrix’ base in Nijmegen found

16 February 2011

Detail of the Peutinger Map: Noviomagus

In 19 BC, the Romans founded a legionary base on the Hunerberg, east of Batavodorum (modern Nijmegen, Netherlands), the capital of the Batavians. Even when the legions were transferred and the soldiers’ expenditure disappeared as a source of income, this civil settlement continued to flourish.

As is well known, the Batavians revolted during the Year of the Four Emperors. Tacitus writes that when the Roman general Cerialis arrived to restore order in 70, the rebels set fire to Batavodurum (Histories 5.19). The Roman historian also says that the site was occupied by the Second Legion Adiutrix (5.20). Archaeologists had already established that the civil settlement, Noviomagus, was rebuilt a bit more to the west.

Recently, Dutch archaeologist Harry van Enckevort has identified the remains of a praetorium and a ditch of a hitherto unknown fortress. The absence of objects from the Flavian period suggests that it was built immediately after the revolt had been suppressed, which can only mean that its inhabitants were soldiers of II Adiutrix. Built on the ash layer of Batavodurum, the fortress controlled a new civil settlement.

The stone foundations of the praetorium prove that II Adiutrix was supposed to stay in Nijmegen. Eventually, however, it followed Cerialis to Britain and was replaced by X Gemina, which reoccupied the Hunerberg.

[Also published in Ancient Warfare; thanks to Harry van Enckevort]


The Early Career of Pertinax

8 December 2010

Replica of the Bruhl Inscription. Museum für Antike Schifffahrt, Mainz.

The first stages of the career of the emperor Pertinax are known from the opening lines of his biography in the Historia Augusta (“Pertinax“, 1.5-2.4). This information was confirmed by an inscription from Brühl near Cologne, which is interesting because – even though it is extremely damaged and only forty-nine letters survive – could be restored almost completely by the German scholar H.G. Kolbe. Having reconstructed the original wording, he even managed to add some details to the outline offered in the Historia Augusta.

You can read it here.