Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

13 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

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

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

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

There are two reasons to be suspicious.

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

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


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


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


Libyan Bits and Pieces

11 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Mausoleum F from Ghirza; museum of Bani Walid

Over the years, my friend Marco and I made some 40,000 photos, which we have arranged geographically: there’s a directory for country X, which is subdivided into directories for towns A, B, and C. The names of the photos are usually sufficient to find back what we were looking for. That is to say, over the past two years, I have made it a habit to give them names immediately: usually, that means that during a foreign trip, when we are at our hotel, I spend some time transferring the photos to my laptop computer, and renaming them.

There used to be a time when I renamed the photos after our return to Amsterdam. Sometimes, I was unable to remember what I had seen, or was too occupied with other things. That meant that the photos got names like “toponym_01”, “toponym_02”, and so on. This was less than perfect, and over the past months I have used the late hours of the evening to check the photos again and see if I could be more precise.

Often, I could, and I made some nice discoveries. I now know that we own a photo of a bust of the Greek philosopher Carneades from Munich, plus a photo of its original pedestal, in the Agora Museum in Athens. I like that; maybe, I will put it online, when I feel like it.

Today I put online photos of this funeral monument from Ghirza, which is in the museum of Bani Walid. I had not realized what it was, and I am glad that the photos are now available, next to the photos of the other mausoleums of Ghirza. I also put online the text and translations of three inscriptions from Bu Njem -nothing special. Finally, one photo of the temple of Dolichenus in Lepcis Magna. Not terribly important, but a reminder to myself that I should continue with putting online the Lepcis stuff.

An extremely useful epigraphical tool

3 October 2009
IRT 607

IRT 607

One of the most useful websites I know is the Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/Slaby (EDCS), maintained by the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. The English site is here. I use it nearly every day, and it rarely disappoints. These days, I am reorganizing my collection of photos, and it often helps me find the catalog numbers of the inscriptions.

Take, for instance, the photo to the right: an inscription from Lepcis Magna, which we photographed in 2006. There is no explanatory sign, but using the words “Lepcis Magna”, “Septimiae” and “splendidissimi”, it was easy to discover that this was inscription #607 of J.M. Reynolds & J.B. Ward Perkins, Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania (1952 London). You will also find a photo of the inscription, which describes the setting up of a statue – the most expensive silver statue of Roman Africa, to be precise.

Some time ago, I used the EDCS to check which deities the ancients actually venerated. I obtained some remarkable results, which I would not have reached in so little time -one evening- if I had had to use those massive books of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum – which I happen to love, but are less easy to use than the EDCS.

New Historical Atlas

23 July 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PS: Another contribution by Patrick Charlot: Qadamgah.

Caesar’s Gallic War

2 June 2009
A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

I’ve made several small additions to the Livius website during the Pentecost weekend. In the first place, I put online an article I wrote about a year ago on Caesar‘s literary aims in his Gallic Wars. It was originally published in Ancient Warfare. As you already guessed, the Roman general tried to cover up what went wrong and to broadcast what went right. Still, there may be some interesting notes about lesser known topics, like the way he presents the topography of Gaul. The article is here, but of course it is also possible to subscribe to Ancient Warfarehere.

Other additions are a brief article on ostraca and the photos of Taucheira, which have moved to another location, which is here.

Ancient Rock Art

25 May 2009


One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, is the rock art of the Wadi Mathendoush (in the Libyan Sahara), which was created almost ten thousand years ago. You will see all kinds of wild animals: elephants, rhinoceruses, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and crocodiles. Obviously, the desert was more fertile back then, and indeed, it seems to have been some kind of savana. (Petrified forests are additional evidence.) You will also find rock paintings of ostriches, cattle, horses, and dromedaries in the desert, but these are younger.

I have made a page on the history of those ancient works of art, which you can find here. It is one of the pages I love best. The Wadi Mathendoush is here, and finally, there is a brief note on a related subject: the Troglodytes, or cave men. I recommend starting here, and I promise you will find it interesting.


24 May 2009
Garamantian chariot. Rock painting at Tina Nivin (Libya)

Garamantian chariot. Rock painting at Tina Nivin (Libya)

The Garamantes are described in the classical sources as nomads and brigands, and there will be some element of truth in this, but it must be noted that they were also the builders of a big city in the center of the desert, which has been found near modern Germa. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century BCE) refers to them as great warriors, who still use chariots; later, the dromedary was domesticated, and they became caravan traders, who connected the Roman Mediterranean with Sub-Saharan Africa. Still, Rome had to fight several wars with the Garamantes.

It’s fascinating how a civilization could exist under the extreme desert conditions. Read more about them here, in my first real contribution to the Livius website in a couple of months.