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]

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.

Trapezus (Trabzon)

12 October 2011
Photo Ab Langereis

The Hagia Sophia

I was in Trabzon when its football team, Trabzonspor, beat Inter Milan. I have never seen a city that went so completely out of its mind: people honking their cars and even the ships in the port sounding their horns.

It’s an ancient city, originally called Trapezus. It became famous in the Middle Ages, when the Comnenian dynasty of Byzantine emperors settled in “Trebizonde” (as it was known back then) and made it the capital of a mini-empire, after Constantinople itself had been captured by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. In all aspects, Trebizonde had to resemble the real capital of the Byzantine world, which meant that there was also a lovely Hagia Sophia: smaller but more refined than its namesake in Constantinople. You can still visit the place.

There’s nothing left from the Greek and Roman age, but the city has an interesting history. You can read more about it on my new page: here.

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.


26 July 2011

A satyr on a panther

I have never been to Zone, in the northwest of Greece, but I recently received an article and some photos from Mr Michel Gybels from Belgium. The town was settled in the seventh century BC by people from Samothrace, served as port of trade for the Thracian hinterland, and floutished in the early Hellenistic period. I loved the figurine of the satyr on the panther shown to the right: it’s perfect and beautiful.

The new webpage is here.

The Bagayasha Chronicle

25 July 2011

One of the fragments of the Bagayasha Chronicle

Finally, after years of struggling, Irving Finkel and Bert van der Spek have decided that it is time to bring the “Bagayasha Chronicle” online. It is an extremely difficult text, which still defies proper understanding, but seems to be part of an astronomical diary of about the 130s BC.

Nevertheless, it is reasonably clear that the text deals with the brother of the Parthian king Mithradates I the Great, Bagayasha, who visits Babylon for a punitive action. What happens exactly, is not really known, but the council of Greek elders has to explain things, generals are present, there is a reference to plundering, and the Greek citizens leave their homes. After this, we read about supplications from the Babylonians in the city, led by the šatammu; someone intercedes for the citizens; Bagayasha seems to agree and leaves for Borsippa. It seems that Babylon has acted treacherously, somewhere in the years following Mithradates’ conquest, perhaps when the Seleucid king Demetrius II Nicator was trying to regain his dominions (in 141-138).

Finkel and Van der Spek think that they have made all progress they were able to make, and have decided to an evulgetur, and I had the honor of preparing the online edition. They invite scholars to suggest new interpretations (more).

They have another fragment concerning Bagayasha in stock, which will be published ASAP. You can find the new chronicle here.

Zahi Hawass: Departure of a Comedian

18 July 2011

The Dutch newssite Nu.nl made an interesting mistake today. The news that Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian minister of Antiquities, had been dismissed, was preceded by another news item: “The end of a great comedian”.

Let’s hope that Hawass’ successor takes more care of his own people and does not prefer to write his books in English. The Egyptians deserve someone who explains their past, and the past deserves Egyptians who understand why they should not loot excavations. Failing to educate his own people is Hawass’ greatest error.

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]

Oppian, Cynegetica

6 May 2011

A pair of opisthuretic Dogs going at it

It’s been a long while since I’ve put up anything new on the Graeco-Roman section of my site, at least anything of any size or consequence. But American history notwithstanding, I’m still committed to providing crumbs of Antiquity to the numberless eager masses starving to feed on them.

Today’s morsel is Oppian’s Cynegetica, in both Greek original and English translation: nominally a manual on hunting, much of it is in fact a textbook on zoology, frequently cribbing from the incredible, towering genius of Aristotle, but also standing on its own as a good snapshot of what the Mediterranean world knew about animals in the early 3c AD, and so written — it’s poetry, or at least it’s in verse — as to make it a natural ancestor of all those wonderful medieval bestiaries. It’s an interesting book, and worth the trouble of putting up.

And transcribing the Cynegetica has indeed proved to be a tremendous chore, mostly because its editor and translator, the Scotsman A. W. Mair, did exemplary work, his voluminous annotations being extraordinarily thorough, as well as relevant and intelligent, which is more than can be said of some other modern editings found in the Loeb Classical Library: at any rate, Prof. Mair’s notes range from the ever seminal Aristotle of course to Sir Walter Scott; from Pliny and Ovid to Schemseddin Mohammed (16c) and Shakespeare; from Plutarch and the Bible to modern zoological works. Those copious notes are in Latin and Greek, German, French and Italian, and thank goodness there’s not very much Hebrew, since that particular language is a pain for me to transcribe. Mmm, I forgot — a smattering of English, too.

Further complicating the transcription is that Oppian — whether he or someone else by the same name, as the old saw goes — also wrote Halieutica, on fishing; and the two works are very tightly related, so that Prof. Mair’s notes constantly link from one to the other, and his 80‑page introduction covers both: this in turn means that, until I also get the Halieutica fully up (only a draft for the moment), some few of the links to it may not work; patience, folks, we’ll slay this monster yet.

Similarly, the many, many, citations of Athenaeus and Strabo and of Plutarch On the Intelligence of Animals — all three also in progress on LacusCurtius (i.e., incomplete and in their bathrobes as it were) — had me detouring thru those writers and making sure at least that they’d brushed their teeth, and fixing the worst rips in their pajamas: links to them are correspondingly incomplete and may occasionally be erratic as well, reader be warned.

Still, when I get done, taking it all together, LacusCurtius will have a solid nucleus on ancient zoology. The next step would be Aristotle; I wonder if I’ll take it.

Mercury in Amsterdam

30 April 2011


Between 1600 and 1800, somewhere around ten thousand European ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Persia, the Indies, China, and Japan. Half of these came from Holland. Of the vessels that sailed from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, two-thirds flew the red, white and blue flag. Another ‘triumph’ for the Dutch entrepreneurship was the 45 per cent market share they had in the slave trade.

At that moment in time, Holland owned seventeen hundred ships, more than the fleets of France and England put together. It should also be borne in mind that the Holland flute ship could be manned by fewer sailors than ships from other countries, making for a much higher profit per ship.

Holland was responsible for sixty per cent of the Gross National Product of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and within Holland, Amsterdam produced the lion’s share. So, it comes as no suprise that if there is an ancient god who is almost omnipresent in Amsterdam, it is Mercury.

I put some photos here.

The sign of Socrates

5 February 2011
A stylized starburst


Yet another chunk of Plutarch: the De Genio Socratis; just in English, since the Greek text, along with a French translation, is already available at Philippe Remacle’s site.

We need not be misled by the title, “On the Genius (Sign, Daemon) of Socrates”; maybe a third of it discusses in what his guardian voice might have consisted, and it is embedded in a typically Greek matrix of (1) moral concerns, (2) mysticism, and (3) murder — this last, the Theban uprising of 379 BC, forming the unlikely setting and in fact the main topic: after a spirited discussion of Buddhist reincarnation, virtue and the paths of the planets thru the Milky Way, the philosophers run off to assassinate the heads of their government.

Samples of (1), (2), and (3), in order:

For if it is a noble act to benefit friends, it is no disgrace to be benefited by them; for the favour, requiring a recipient no less than a giver, needs both to be made perfect in nobility. He who refuses to accept the favour, like the man who refuses to catch a well-directed ball, disgraces it, allowing it to fall to the ground without achieving its end. For what target is so delightful to hit and so painful to miss, as a man deserving kindness at whom we aim a favour? Yet in the case of the target the man who misses has only himself to blame, as the mark is fixed; whereas with favours, the man who declines and moves aside is guilty of an offence against the favour, allowing it to fall short of its goal.

Some of it was of the pure hue of the high seas, while elsewhere the colour was not unmixed, but turbid and like that of a pool. As they crested the surge the islands came back, without, however, returning to their point of departure or completing a circle; but with each new circuit they advanced slightly beyond the old, describing a single spiral in their revolution. The sea containing these was inclined at an angle of somewhat less than eight parts of the whole toward the midmost and largest portion of the surrounding envelope, as he made out; and it had two openings receiving rivers of fire emptying into it across from one another, so that it was forced far back, boiling, and its blue colour was turned to white. All this he viewed with enjoyment of the spectacle. But looking down he saw a great abyss, round, as though a sphere had been cut away; most terrible and deep it was, and filled with a mass of darkness that did not remain at rest, but was agitated and often welled up. From it could be heard innumerable roars and groans of animals, the wailing of innumerable babes, the mingled lamentations of men and women ….

[W]hen Melon, the first to make a move, set out through their midst, his hand on his sword hilt, Cabirichus, the magistrate appointed by lot, caught his arm as he passed and shouted: “Isn’t this Melon, Phyllidas?” Melon, however, disengaged himself, drawing his sword as he did so, and rushing at Archias, who was having trouble getting to his feet, did not slacken his blows until he had killed him. Philippus was wounded by Charon near the neck, and as he defended himself with the goblets set before him, Lysitheüs threw him from his couch to the ground and dispatched him. We endeavoured to quiet Cabirichus, adjuring him not to lend aid to the tyrants but help us set his country free, as his person was sacred and consecrated to the gods in that country’s behalf. But as he was not easily to be won over to the wiser course by an appeal to reason, the wine also having its effect, but was getting to his feet, excited and confused, and couching the spear our magistrates are accustomed to keep always with them, I seized it in the middle and raising it above my head shouted to him to let go and save himself, as he would otherwise be cut down; but Theopompus came up at his right and struck him with his sword, saying: “Lie there with these you toadied to: may you never wear the chaplet when Thebes is free and never sacrifice again to the gods before whom you have invoked so many curses on your country in your many prayers for her enemies.” When Cabirichus had fallen, Theocritus (who was standing near) caught up the sacred spear from the blood, while we dispatched the few servants who had ventured to fight back and locked up the rest ….

There’s still a lot of Plutarch left: right now, only 45% of the Moralia are onsite.

New at LacusCurtius (8)

3 November 2010

LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has resumed putting online the Greek texts of Dio Chrysostom, the complete English being already up. Here are Discourse 25 (English), Discourse 43 (English), Discourse 45 (English) and Discourse 48 (English), which Bill summarizes as:

The new proconsul is coming to see us; for Heaven’s sake, people, let’s not embarrass ourselves in front of him by airing our dirty laundry right off — we can always do that later.

In the Daremberg & Saglio, the craticula, the gridiron, and in the Antiquaries’ Shoebox the ‘bridge’ at Aricia, and a series of three pieces on ancient Privernum (1, 2, 3).

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.

Marathon Again

12 September 2010

Roman Age?

It was not my intention to blog on Marathon today, because I did not want to resemble those innumerates who believe that today, it’s 2,500 years ago (please wait another year). But chance has a sense of irony: yesterday, I met a colleague who had spent some time in Kynouria, Greece, and had visited the nearby villa of Herodes Atticus (c.102-177). He told me that there was an inscribed column over there that recorded the names of people killed during the battle of Marathon. The alphabet used is the old Athenian one, which was in use prior to 403 BCE, and it is likely that the inscription comes from a monument from the plain of Marathon.

Photo Marco Prins

Herodes Atticus

So far, so good. It is certainly possible that Herodes Atticus, who owned a country estate near Marathon and claimed descent from Miltiades, used part of a fifth-century monument in another villa. However, if  we are to believe this article, Herodes Atticus put something back after he had taken away (parts of) an old monument: he constructed the funeral mound that is now the main monument. This would explain why Pausanias does not mention the tomb, and also fits the antiquarianism of the second century.

To be fair, I think the theory is worth a thought, but nothing more. I would like to see some additional proof.

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.

New Fragments of Ezekiel the Tragedian

1 September 2010

Phoenix (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam)

Greek family values: a mother has killed her husband and believes that her lover has killed her son. She rushes forward to see the dead body, but the bloody remains turn out to be her lover. Supreme irony, because the audience of the Electra already knows that Orestes has killed Aegisthus and knows which shocking discovery Clytaemnestra is about to make. No one will deny that Sophocles is one of the greatest playwrights ever.

It is easy to understand why classicists, time and again, return to Sophocles and his two Athenian colleagues, Aeschylus and Euripides. Already in Antiquity, people believed that no playwright could possibly surpass these men. There was a scholarly edition of their works of which a part survives (all Euripidean tragedies starting with an E). We also know that there used to be an annotated school edition of three times seven tragedies, a kind of “the best of”, chosen by a very good scholar. His selection is, from an educational point of view, excellent: with three tragedies about Electra, we learn a lot about the personal approach of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Perhaps our scholar did his work a bit too well, because his school edition became so popular that all other plays were lost. It was quite a sensation when in 2007 substantial parts of Euripides’ Phaethon were discovered. Yet, there have been many more ancient playwrights. They are all lost, except for one: Ezekiel, a Jewish author of the second century BCE. His work is not lost. Classicists just ignore it.

The Exagoge is one of the most fascinating pieces of ancient poetry, because the author uses a Greek genre, tragedy, to tell a Jewish story: the Exodus. About a quarter of it survives, and there are some brilliant lines, like Ezekiel’s description of the phoenix, of which our Athenians would not feel ashamed.

Another living creature we saw,
full wondrous, such as man has never seen;
’twas near in scope to twice the eagle’s size,
with plumage iridescent, rainbow-hued.
Its breast appeared deep-dyed with purple’s shade,
its legs were red like ochre, and its neck
was furnished round with tresses saffron-hued;
like a coxcomb did its crest appear,
with amber-tinted eye it gazed about,
the pupil like some pomegranate seed.
Exceeding all, its voice pre-eminent;
of every wing’d thing, the king,
it did appear. For all the birds, as one,
in fear did haste to follow after him,
and he before, like some triumphant bull
went striding forth with rapid step apace.

[Tr. R.G. Robertson]

And now we hear that hitherto unknown fragments have been discovered, from which Oxford classicist Dirk Obbink deduces that the Exagoge was widely read. This is interesting in itself, because we usually don’t know a thing about who read what. It is also interesting because Greek Judaism, which must have been very important, is not as well understood as its Rabbinical counterpart. Still, many Jews disagreed with the Maccabees that Judaism and Hellenism were incompatible, and did not follow the Pharisees in their use of Hebrew. Ezekiel belongs to this “other Judaism”, which did not make it.

And finally, the Exagoge shows that people who would no doubt be called ‘barbarians’ by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, appreciated at least one aspect of Greek civilization: the theater. The writing of tragedies was not just a Greek specialism, and classicists should, in future publications, devote a chapter to Jewish tragedy too.

Announcing the Destruction of a City

29 August 2010

Defenders of Niniveh, killed in action while trying to prevent the sack of their city

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture in which someone discussed the speech of the Rabshakeh, an Assyrian commander who besieged Jerusalem in 701. In 2 Kings 18.25, he announces that he will sack the city: “Is it without the will of the Lord that I have come up to this place to destroy it?”

At this point, the lecturer paused and asked to those present if they could name another example of the announcement of the destruction of a city. No one knew. The speaker mentioned Thucydides‘ Melian Dialog, in which the Athenians threaten to destroy the city of Melos, which my friend found surprising. He summarized the lecture for me, and I got the impression from his words that the speaker had suggested that there were only two examples of a direct threat.

That turned out not to be the case, but since I read his summary of that lecture, I have been wondering how often commanders announced that they would destroy their opponents’ city. After all, it seems like a nice adhortation to your own men that they will be allowed to plunder. At the same time, it must be demoralizing for the besieged if they know that they will be molested, raped, killed. I would have expected that there would be evidence for threats like these, and indeed remembered Censorinus’ speech at Carthage (Appian, Punic Wars 81).

And that’s it. I’ve posted it at RomanArmyTalk (here), but even the guys over there, who are usually well-informed, could not mention a fourth instance. Anyone any thoughts?

Painted Statues Again

21 August 2010
Reconstruction of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph.

Reconstruction of the colors of the Marcus Caelius Cenotaph (Xanten)

News Update

  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Pluto has been, well, Plutoed, you can find the resolution here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Italy won the football world cup in Germany, you can find a news report here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature, you can find it here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Mickey Spillane has died, you can find an obituary here.
  • For those who hadn’t noticed that Israel invaded Lebanon, you can find an overview here.
  • And for those who hadn’t noticed that archaeologists use UV-light to establish which colors the ancient statues had, you can find a news report here.

I always believed that in my list of common errors the one on painted sculpture was a bit unnecessary. But apparently, it wasn’t. At least one journalist hasn’t discovered we’re already living in 2010.

Athenaeus Online

30 July 2010

FISH: Roman mosaic, Emporiae

Yesterday, having an 83-year-old friend to lunch, I had the opportunity to do a thorough scrub of my downstairs guest bathroom. Now I’m not overly addicted to cleaning house; I do it once a year on December 31st, whether it needs it or not, and usually catch a few nests of dog fur and a pocket or two of old catfood or spilled coffee. Nevertheless, yesterday I spent an hour at it in that one little room, spraying everything with bleach, scrubbing such things as the upper, lower, and hinge-side edges of the door just like I was back at the U. S. Air Force Academy many years ago (failing inspections, by the way, no matter what I did). Dunno how good it all was, but I did get the house to smell like a public swimming pool.

Yet finally I was surprised to find it was satisfying: I could see the result. Cleaning a whole house, on the other hand, is deadly: it’s just too much.

Inspired, I went on and cleaned one small room of a huge project long underway at LacusCurtius – to put onsite the complete Loeb edition’s English translation of the Deipnosophistae by Athenaeus: several thousand pages of Greek blather, mostly about FISH; although here and there he also talks about Homer, wine, whores, fish, music, religion, fish, the palaestra, literary conundrums, India, fish, spices, plants, etc. It’s a whole depressing houseful, and it’s been hanging undone for years, on my site, but not quite. I don’t normally like doling things out piecemeal, but in this particular case if I follow my usual practice and prepare all of it together, it’ll never get done at all. So now, then, one little room of it is done, and any ichthyophilous octogenarian out there with a hankering to read this stuff can now at least get a start: Book 1, in three webpages. The other 14 Books will stagger in over time, competing with other smaller and thus more satisfying projects, like tuna fighting the currents in the Bosporus.