Casey on the Mythicist Jesus

28 July 2014

caseyDon’t I have a heart, to write a piece about an unsuccessful book by a writer who has died only recently? Mustn’t a reviewer stick to the principle that of the dead, we say nothing unless it is something good?

Yes, of course. Except when the author has raised a topic of particular interest. Maurice Casey’s Jesus. Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? is such a book and if I am quite critical about it, it is because I think the author has recognized the urgency of a very serious problem that deserves much more attention.

Read the rest of this entry »


Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages Are Important

25 February 2013

Mithras relief from Dormagen

When, in 2040, the departments of humanities will be closed, an elderly historian will perhaps wonder what caused the demise of scholarship. Probably, he will answer that the humanities no longer wanted to live. Somewhere between 1995 and 2005, the will to survive vanished. The ancient, venerable scholarly disciplines no longer wanted to add something meaningful to the shared heritage of mankind.

The turning point, our historian will find out, had been the invention of the internet. Until then, scholars and scientists had communicated their results to the larger audience in a way that can be described as transmitter and receiver: researchers sent out information – books, journals, TV – and the people listened. But at the turn of the millennium, communication became more interactive. People could talk back and could shape the nature of the discourse. Our historian will gladly quote from Time Magazine, which had chosen “you” as the person of the year 2006. The transmitter-receiver metaphor no longer applied; the best metaphor to describe the way in which scientists and scholars explained themselves to the people, became the dialog.

A fine example, our historian will conclude, is Wikipedia, which was a kind of meeting place of good and bad information. Our historian will concede that the designers of the encyclopedia had realized the importance of debate from the very beginning: if someone had a question about someone else’s contribution, they could discuss these issues. It was good that in these debates, people immediately started to refer to their sources, and our historian will recognize that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, everybody recognized the importance of at least looking scientific or scholarly. Compared to the beginning of the twentieth century, that was a leap forward. The greatest achievement of western civilization in the twentieth century was that one-third of the population had had access to higher education.

Unfortunately, our historian will notice, this was not a guarantee of quality. He will discover that the online debates were easily hijacked by activists, because in the debate between good and bad information, between good and poor scholarship, bad information drove out good. Our historian will find it incredible, but he will establish that reliable information was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, deliberately kept away from the larger public by pay walls. In the fight against activists, bona fide scholars and scientists fought with their arms tied, and by 2005, the damage was done.

This being the nature of the game, one would have expected that philologists, historians, archaeologists, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars would have fought back, but our future historian will discover that this rarely happened. If something was done at all, it was just presenting the facts, which were often correct indeed, but they were offered without any further explanation.

Still, there were professional researchers who investigated how to explain science and scholarship to the people successfully. They recommended scientists and scholars to explain methods and theories, but few scholars bothered to take care. Where was the book, our historian will be wondering, that explained the Lachmann method or the hermeneutic cycle to the larger audience?

Slowly, he will start to understand why so many people could, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, claim to be scholars, and were never contradicted: the scholars never explained how they achieved their results, giving the impression that scholarship was not a real, professional discipline, but a kind of amateurish hobby to which anyone might contribute. Precisely when information was transferred less by transmitter-receiver and more as a dialog, and when a highly educated audience demanded more information than just facts, the scholars retreated from the debate, not explaining what mattered most.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our historian will think, three things ought to have been the top priorities if the humanities were to survive:

  1. online encyclopedias, written by professional scholars – and of course for free, because the people had already paid taxes and the information was already theirs;
  2. a sound explanation of methods and theories;
  3. an active policy to refute errors and mistakes.

Our future historian will notice that scholars refused to live up to the expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. There were some websites on which something was explained, but they were rare, they were created after the damage had been done, and they covered only the first of the three requirements. Too little, too late, too incomplete. There will be a wry smile at the historian’s face when he writes about the self-pity of the early twenty-first century scholars: they were never tired of complaining that nobody seemed to understand why the humanities mattered, but they rarely explained.

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide. Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best. People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.

***

One of these is Roger Pearse, the webmaster of Tertullian.org and a tireless fighter against quack history. In December, he has started a website on the Roman god Mithras. It offers a basic account of the Mithraic mysteries, it offers the sources, and most of all: it offers the arguments to refute theories that present Mithraism as an essentially Persian cult (it isn’t) and that it heavily influenced Christianity (it didn’t).

If we want to avoid that a historian, writing in 2040, will conclude that our generation is the one that killed scholarship, we desperately need more websites like these. But I am not optimistic. As long as our academics are more interested in the length of their publication list than in their duty to the larger audience, the humanities are doomed.


Gregorovius, sort of

25 December 2012

I’ve been remiss about posting here; I’ll try to do better this year. I’ve added all kinds of things that haven’t been reported here, the most important of which are Cicero’s De Finibus, ps‑Aristotle’s Mechanica, Asclepiodotus and the much more interesting Onasander in English translations; Manetho in both English and Greek.

But a few weeks ago, my friend Susan Rhoads (she of Elfinspell, known to many who will be reading this as one of the richer sites on medieval Italy and 19c American literature) sent me a nice Christmas gift: so by last night, just in time for Christmas, I’m sharing it rather than hogging it for myself. The complete book, Latian Summers, by Dorothea Roberts, is now online. It’s her translation of about ⅕ of Gregorovius’ Wanderjahre in Italien: as her title indicates, the Lazio parts, although not absolutely complete. The translation is flawed, but nothing that can’t be corrected; I’ve also added about a hundred notes of my own, especially to her last chapter, which is an excursion Gregorovius made thru Umbria, a region I know well. I’ve also added 9 GoogleMaps and three photographs, the most handsome of which is one taken by Jona in the Museo di Villa Borghese. Enjoy!


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]


“Original research” at Wikipedia

14 September 2012

I’m currently completing my online transcription of Strabo, and reached XIII.1.36, in which a woman named Hestiaea is mentioned as follows, in toto:

Demetrius cites also Hestiaea of Alexandreia as a witness, a woman who wrote a work on Homer’s Iliad and inquired whether the war took place round the present Ilium and the Trojan Plain, which latter the poet places between the city and the sea; for, she said, the plain now to be seen in front of the present Ilium is a later deposit of the rivers.

I’d never heard of her, and was curious to see if anything else had been said of her, so headed over to Wikipedia; and found an article which called her “Hestiea of Alexandria Troas”, and said by way of prooemium that she wrote influential critical works on the epic poems of Homer, repeating the statement in a section titled “Published Works”, as follows:

During her lifetime Hestiea became an influential critic and grammarian and published her works. Her works of criticism on Homer’s epics were commented on by Strabo in his work Homerica. Specifically, she published a treatise on “the possibility that the War of Troy had occurred in contemporary Ilium”.

This was footnoted with a citation of Charles MacLaren, The Plain of Troy described. . . (1863).

Since the Wikipedia statement was completely wrong, I replaced it by this:

Hestiea is known to us from the following single brief sentence by Strabo in the Geography (XIII.1.16, C599): “Demetrius cites also Hestiaea of Alexandreia as a witness, a woman who wrote a work on Homer’s Iliad and inquired whether the war took place round the present Ilium and the Trojan Plain, which latter the poet places between the city and the sea; for, she said, the plain now to be seen in front of the present Ilium is a later deposit of the rivers.”

— giving my reasons as:

(1) why cite a secondary work instead of the ultimate primary source? (2) no indication that she was famous or influential; (3) the article misunderstood the purport of her work.

to which I could have added that Strabo wrote no work titled the “Homerica“, and that, though plausible from the context, the Alexandria that Hestiaea was from was not certainly the one in the Troad.

Within a few hours I was of course reverted, with the following comment:

Reversed your deletion of material; point (3) that you made is your opinion/interpretation; you can’t just up and delete sourced material from Wikipedia. Do you have evidence to back up your claim that the paper misinterpreted her work or Strabo’s? Another point I want to mention is that Wikipedia’s policies are to discourage original research, which would be an obstacle to basing the article on primary sources, which is what you wanted, if I understood your edit comments correctly. And she’s notable as a rare example of a female Hellenic scholar, giving her some importance in women’s history; reference to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation.

The MacLaren book, by the way, is online at Google, and far from stretching Ms. Hestiaea in the direction Wikipedia took her, is quite sober about her, saying merely this, again, in toto (p61):

“He [Strabo] refers to Hestiea, a lady of Alexandria Troas, who had published criticisms on Homer, and came to the same conclusion [that the Trojan Plain was narrower at the time of the Trojan War].”

The citation of Strabo has become original research, and a clear misinterpretation of the comment on Strabo by a 19c hack takes precedence over Strabo himself, requiring “evidence” to fix. Then we wonder why Wikipedia is such a mess.

The key, of course, is in the political propaganda of Judy Chicago: what is really sacrosanct is the use of Hestiea’s bare name, making her (maybe) more than she was, in order to pump up a feminist agenda. Golly, A Woman In Antiquity Who Wrote.


Minucius Felix

4 May 2012

Minucius Felix was a very early Christian apologist; we know next to nothing about him, which made him a candidate for a very brief article in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Why, you ask, would I put such a squib online, considering that the EB1911 entry was copied by Wikipedia and updated, and from there it spread to the four corners of the Net by what is euphemistically called “cloning”? Well, the original article didn’t seem to be online any more; and, as usual, it was far better.

Don’t believe me? Compare them! Here’s the virginal 1911, and here’s the meretricious modern version. I like WP’s nifty touch of deleting the argument for dating it in comparison with Tertullian, then adding “[citation needed]”. Correcting Cyprian’s title is a nice touch too, and disabbreviating the Lactantius title incorrectly: a little learning is a dangerous thing.

A better article than either is to be found in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.


Counting Years, 2

23 April 2012

There’s even a bit more to it than that. Astronomers — when they use calendar years at all, rather than the much more frequent Julian Dates — do have a Year 0, precisely because it makes calculations easier. In standard astronomical ephemerides, the year you and I call 1 B.C., astronomers call 0; our 2 B.C. is their -1. (For those who might need evidence, here’s a copy of the relevant page of a standard astronomical reference work, Bryant Tuckerman’s Planetary, Lunar and Solar Positions, Vol. 1, 601 B.C. to A.D. 1), p333, in which the year numbers head off the year’s worth of dates in the column after “Sun”:

This is important because the basis of all chronology is ultimately solar eclipses and other astronomical phenomena, for which we consult astronomical reference works, like Tuckerman, or Oppolzer’s Canon der Finsternisse, or Meeus’ more recent eclipse canon: we thus need always to remember that in such works, dates before Christ will be 1 off from our everyday reckoning: the 1961 Dover reprint of Oppolzer dots the i’s, as can be seen in this photostat: as Jona will tell us, the famous eclipses listed here (there are more on the next page) are referred to by everyone except astronomers as those of 1063, 763, and 648 B. C.

The closely related error of ignoring what the ancients meant by “20th year” or “20th day” pops up in all kinds of circumstances, and writers need to be careful. In ancient medicine, the Great Climacteric, the 63rd year of a person’s life, starts when that person turns 62, not when they have accomplished a full 63 years: a matter I’m amusingly aware of this year, since I turned 62 last November. References to “quinquennial games” are to games that occur every four years by our reckoning: and the kind of trouble modern writers can get in, leading to quack-like theories, is beautifully seen by the wrong-headed speculations of several amateur chronologists: see for example the edition of “De Die Natale” (sic!) by William Maude, 1900, where he refers with pride several times to an entire book he seems to have based on this misunderstanding of his: p21.

Similarly, I periodically get mail, sometimes irate, from modern astrologers whom I have the misfortune of reminding to be wary of the degrees of the exaltation of the planets. . . .

Moral: nothing is ever as simple as it looks, and we need to be on our toes constantly. Being careful and accurate is, of course, what scholars are paid to do, often very well paid, and not infrequently out of our tax money, directly or indirectly. (If your local university prof is sloppy and tells whoppers, write your congressman!)


Procopius: Buildings

19 April 2012

Byzantine squiggles:
a rather mild example.

Although the Buildings, in its English translation by Dewing (Loeb edition), has been on Lacus since 2003, the original Greek was not, nor was it to be found anywhere else online; and for years those who visited my orientation page have been reading there, “I have no intention of transcribing the original Greek text: the paucity of readers of ancient Greek out there make it a case of diminishing returns.”

It’s probably still true. The anecdotal evidence I have is that people who read Greek also have access to the TLG. But it recently became useful to me to run a software test on a product I’m developing, and since I’ve been unable to find the Greek text of the Buildings online, other than in a xerox of Migne (wonderful in its time but not so reliable and somewhat superseded by more recent text scholarship) the Buildings became my test document. Perseus has the Greek text of the Wars and of the Secret History, which are also reproduced in a GoogleBooks/Archive.Org xerox: ‘my’ Buildings, when complete, will put all of Procopius online.

All this by way of saying that Book I of the Greek text of the Buildings has now joined its English translation onsite, in 3 webpages. As elsewhere onsite, the text and the translation are crosslinked, if for now only rudimentarily: I’ll be putting in the chapter-by-chapter crosslinks, by and by. The other Books are on their way.

The “software product” — an overblown name for it, but hey, ya do computer stuff, ya follow da rules and give it a fancy IP-sounding moniker — may be more important than the test document. I mentioned it in an earlier post: an automatic text expander that lets you type ancient (polytonic) Greek without worrying about the breathings and accents. For those few who input even a small amount of Greek from time to time, it’s a boon; currently catching about 92% of non-technical text, and not much less even of text with high technical content. The expander, which runs on Macintosh only, takes the form of a Typinator “set” which works nicely now, but the good folks at Typinator (see their website) have asked me to hold off on releasing it until they in turn update Typinator to its next version: as a beta-tester for them I’d found some minor bugs, impacting the handling of Greek, that they’ve now fixed; but their new version is not available yet. The set will be available on their site and on mine, very likely within a coupla weeks.

At any rate, the test succeeded. I hadn’t used any of Procopius to create the expander dictionary, but my set caught about 90% of his somewhat technical text, and frankly, without it I would never have been able to input 45 pages of ancient Greek in three days; and typing in all the squiggles one by one is so depressing that I wouldn’t have tried: it’s currently the longest Greek text on my site. (Yes, you still have to proofread; but we all proofread anyway, rihgt?)


Dio, continued

26 March 2012

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


Back to Dio Chrysostom

20 March 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyhow, here we go with the remainder of Dio.


Cures

18 February 2012

Cures, near Fara in Sabina

Nothing earth-shaking, but at least I haven’t added Latin nonsense or falsified mileages: the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article “Cures” — being the little town in Sabine country that Titus Tatius and Numa apparently came from, and which was deemed in Antiquity to have been the origin of the name Quirites applied to the Roman people.

A brief article cribbed from a common 101‑year‑old encyclopedia should hardly be news, but alas it is, sort of. Wikipedia too, bless ’em, reproduces the same article, making essentially no changes: but the only two significant changes it does make are both mistakes. Small ones, but mistakes none the less: the ager Sabinus becomes an “alter Sabinus“; and 26 miles has been turned into 26 km. That in turn wouldn’t be terribly interesting if it weren’t that (a) the introduction of errors into the EB articles is very common at Wikipedia, maybe more common than not; and (b) the prevailing wisdom there, usually delivered with a sniff, is that the 1911 EB is antiquated, sexist, written in stodgy old English, and generally we people can improve all that.

And so we can. Our first step though, is to introduce no mistakes of our own. The next, which I’ve attempted to do on my own page, would be to add the source citations, links to what further websites may be relevant, and in this case a GoogleMap; and the dozen or so times Cures appears elsewhere onsite are now linked to it. Nothing major, but at least it’s not nonsense.


Historia Augusta

9 January 2012

Bust of Caracalla(Musei Capitolini)

The complete Historia Augusta has been up on LacusCurtius for seven years now, and in all that time the reader going to its orientation page will have read that there was an introduction by the Loeb editor, and a little section on the manuscripts — but that I hadn’t put them up, and would do so in the fullness of time.

Of course I quickly forgot about the missing items; yesterday must have been the fullness of time, and I had occasion to discover them again. They’re now up: Introduction and Manuscripts.

David Magie’s explanation of just how people consider the Historia Augusta a pack of lies is reasonably thorough and clear. But the more useful and interesting explanation is in fact on Livius; though less complete and technically detailed, that’s still the one I recommend.


Gur-e Dokhtar

13 October 2011
Photo Patrick Charlot

Gur-e Dokhtat

I have never met Mr Charlot from France, but he occasionally sends me photos from Iran, where he visits places that I never visit: Kurangun, Guyum, Qadamgah, Sarab-i Bahram, and Sarab-e Qandil. Last month, he sent me several photos of Gur-e Dokhtar, where an Achaemenid tomb can be seen. The small monument is remarkably similar to the more famous mausoleum of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae, but is interesting in itself.

You can read Mr Charlot’s article here.


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.

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.


Göbekli Tepe

24 September 2011

Göbekli Tepe; two oval enclosures visible

If someone would have asked me which excavations I would have liked to visit, I would have answered, without a monent´s thought, that my favorites would be Jiroft en Göbekli Tepe. Jiroft I will visit, inch’Allah, within a couple of months, but I no longer have to wait for Göbekli Tepe.

It is, to exaggerate a bit, the place where we can see the rise of mankind as a civilized being. Some 12,000 years ago, when the latest Ice Age was over, a process started that is known as the Neolithic Revolution: the rise of agriculture.

Göbekli Tepe proves that, when this process had only just started and mankind still consisted mainly of hunters and gatherers, monumental architecture was already possible. Hundreds of people must have been working on this site, so there must have been some kind of efficient leadership. We can even speak, very tentatively of course, about their beliefs, because Göbekli Tepe is a sanctuary and some of the statues may represent deities or ancestors. We will never be completely sure, of course, but it remains a fascinating thought.

Pylon 12

The first thing we saw was a couple of dromedaries and the caravan in which the German excavator, professor Klaus Schmidt, has his office. We saw Enclosure E (“the rock temple”, but essentially a wide, rocky plain) and Enclosures A, B, C, and D, where tall, T-shaped pylons used to stand in a circle or oval. The satellite photo above shows two of these ovals. They date back to the age that archaeologists call “Preceramic Neolithic A”, or the period between 9500 and 8300 BC.

Several pylons are decorated with arms and must resemble humans. The sides often show animals, like snakes, foxes, and ostriches. These statues are very primitive, but radiate a kind of power that I find hard to describe. This is art, and these pylons show that humans are cultural beings. To quote Schmidt: it is like a theater, and although we can no longer see the play itself and can only see the set, we know that the actors have put on the scene a truly grand play.

The visitor of the world’s oldest known sanctuary will be accompanied by a guard, who will, at the end of the tour, sell a book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel, written by professor Schmidt. I have now read about half of it and am very enthusiastic about the way he explains everything: very seriously and without unnecessary hypotheses. The guard offered me to ask Schmidt’s autograph; the scholar made it clear that he was actually a bit too busy, which I liked. Academics who waste time giving autographs, are to be treated with some distrust.

Getting there

From Sanli Urfa, where some of the beautiful finds are shown in the museum, it is easy to reach the excavation. Leaving the city center, you take the road in the direction of the suburb of Kara Köprü. At the great roundabout on the city’s northern edge, you take road D400 to the east, to Mardin. You will already have seen the brown signs to Göbekli Tepe. After 13 kilometers, you turn to the left and continue, even when the road is, for a short distance, unpaved. If this doesn’t work, ask directions for Örencik.


Modern cartoons, ancient ideas

11 August 2011

Martin Rowson is a British cartoonist. You can find his work in The Guardian, like this one, which connects the Tottenham Riots with the financial crises that continue to plague the western world:

I think it’s brilliant, but that’s not why I am writing this. The same comparison – politicians doing nothing while the world is burning – is made in the next cartoon, which appeared on 28 October 1912 in the German satirical journal Simplicissimus. It illustrates the outbreak of the First Balkan War: “Unfortunately,” the caption says, “the united European fire brigade was unable to stop te fire”.

The fact that two cartoonists make the same comparison, illustrates the power of the metaphor. The idea that the world can be set ablaze, is a very old one. I believe that it stems from Stoic ideas about ekpyrosis and Christian and Jewish apocalypticism. Both are, in turn, inspired by Zoroastrian ideas about the end of the world.


Johannes De Laet and Hugo Grotius

28 July 2011

Johannes de Laet:
Notice his beard, which is part of the 'controversy'.

This seems a better place than elsewhere to report a small new item on my American history site: a transcription of a journal article in the Catholic Historical Review (October 1917), “Origin of American Aborigines: A Famous Controversy”.

The paper is not so much about the origin of the native peoples of the American continent as about the quarrel between two eminent 17c Dutch savants. In the author’s view, the less-known De Laet (whose geographical work places him, however, among the top scientists of his time in that field) comes out on top, for both his historical insight and his personal and professional courtesy.

That said, the various theories then held about where the American peoples might have come from do get enumerated; and all the candidates still in the running today — for genetic studies haven’t completely settled the question — were already being discussed, with here and there some surprisingly modern arguments (Acosta on animal migration, De Laet on linguistic drift).

The paper is of additional interest in that it touches on Dutch religious controversies, which the principals themselves more than hint at: Catholic vs. Protestant — although the writer could have dug more and presented a more interesting and affirmative result.


Why Cuneiform Studies Matter

28 July 2011

The Ptolemy III Chronicle

I have just written a review, to be published in Ancient Warfare, of John D. Grainger’s book The Syrian Wars. It is an important book, because the author shows that the Syrian Wars were crucial for the formation of the two largest Hellenistic states. Grainger essentially proves that Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is also applicable to Antiquity.

The trouble is that he might have written an even better book if he had been more aware of cuneiform studies. I know, those tablets are being published slowly, frustratingly so, and it is tempting to ignore them. Grainger is to be praised for at least reading the Astronomical Diaries, but still, he appears to be unaware of, say, the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period.

This is understandable. Like so many cuneiform texts, the chronicles have been published online only. In fact, they are still being discussed (compare this recent post). Nevertheless, the information is important. For example, Grainger is aware that during the Third Syrian War, the Ptolemaic army crossed the Euphrates, but concludes that it did not reach Babylonia. The Ptolemy III Chronicle (BCHP 11) in fact describes how the Egyptian forces massacred the garrison of Seleucia and captured Babylon. The Third Syrian War was much bigger than Grainger realizes, and Egyptian strategy was far more ambitious than he assumes.

Another mistake, less important, is Grainger’s date of the Babylonian War: the Antigonid attempt to drive out Seleucus, dated by Grainger to 311. He also writes that, to help the embattled Seleucus, Ptolemy launched a naval expedition to the Aegean. Grainger correctly dates this to 309-308, but this makes his overall reconstruction unconvincing: Ptolemy can have lured Antigonus‘ armies away from Babylonia only if the two operations took place more or less simultaneously. Fortunately, the problem vanishes once we realize that the Antigonid offensive in fact took place in 310. Grainger has not used the latest literature on the Diadochi Chronicle.

I am not writing this to diminish Grainger’s scholarship. As I said, he proves how important the Syrian Wars were, and an occasional error does not fundamentally change that. I wrote the above section to stress that two often ignored specialties actually matter: the study of cuneiform sources and the study of chronology.

There are two other points to be made. To start with, it would be nice if the students of cuneiform sources did a bit more to let the world know what they are doing. The Ptolemy III Chronicle, for example, might have been published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies. Grainger cannot be blamed for not knowing the Near-Eastern texts if there is not a signpost to give directions.

In the second place, the field of ancient history has become too complex. No one can know everything, and therefore, authors must invoke the advice of their colleagues. (This is why BCHP is preliminarily published online: to enable others to look at it, and make sure that no information is ignored.) And because no one can know everything, publishers have editorial boards. Grainger’s book deserved better editors, who might have spotted that their author had ignored, for example, Mittag’s Antiochos IV and Boiy’s Between High and Low.

Scholarship would really benefit were manuscripts to be put online first and books not to be published before a round of consultation. We have the means, we have the knowledge, and we have the technology to produce better books – so what are we waiting for?


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.