Alexandria in Aria (Herat)

20 August 2010

The walls of Herat

Several years ago, I was invited for a visit to northern Afghanistan. Because I was writing my book on Alexander, it would indeed have been useful to go there and see ancient Aria and Bactria, but instead, I spent my savings in Pakistan, which was just as useful; I blogged about it recently. But I’ve never been in towns like Herat (Alexandria in Aria), Farah (Prophthasia, the site of the Philotas Affair), Kandahar (Alexandria in Arachosia), Begram (Alexandria in the Caucasus), or Mazar-e Sharif (Bactra). It’s still my wish to go there, but for obvious reasons, this will probably remain a wish until the country is fully liberated.

For this reason, I was very happy when I received some photos of “Alexander’s Castle” in Herat, taken by a U.S. officer, Colonel John Bessler, the current deputy director of PKSOI. In its present form, the fortress is from the Timurid age, but it was founded by Alexander.

I have never met COL Bessler, or LTC Rich Holden, who forwarded the pictures, but I am very grateful; the least I could do in return is to put a banner onsite for an organization devoted to helping the brave people who risk their lives for the future of Aghanistan.

The photos are here.



10 July 2010

Hall of Hundred Columns

If I say that Persepolis has moved to this URL, you will understand that you have come across a new installment of the highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org. Actually, it’s the last installment, because I’ve now moved all html-pages away from the /a/-directory, which means that html-pages and jpg-files are now separated. I can now move forward to a content management system and leave behind a website that is essentially still running on 1994 software.

It is fitting that Persepolis receives this place of honor, because it is one of the most splendid places in the world. It is of course a matter of taste, but I think most people will agree that it is more impressive than, for example, Palmyra, Petra, or Lepcis Magna.

Gate of All Nations

Persepolis is actually part of a larger archaeological complex that also includes Naqš-i Rustam, Naqš-e Rajab, Istakhr, and the little-known Takht-e Rostam. The best way to visit it, if you are a tourist, is to do those sites in the early morning; Naqš-i Rustam takes about two hours, Naqš-e Rajab half an hour, while the two other sites can be used to have a picknick. They are not of the greatest importance and you may in fact ignore them without having the idea that you’ve lost very much.

A sphinx

After lunch, go to Persepolis itself. In the afternoon, especially after, say, half past four, the light will be softer. A first introduction takes about four hours. Then you’ve seen most buildings and understand the site.

Now the big trick: you must return the next day. Until ten o’clock, the light will be fine, and because you now know the site, you can really appreciate it. At half past ten, you want to be away anyhow, because the tourist buses from Shiraz will arrive by that time. During my two last visits, we took a hotel in the Persepolis compound itself, which was perfect.

A Nubian

Of course you can stay longer, but this double visit will for most tourists be sufficient. For a specialist, however, there will always be something new to discover. Personally, I am increasingly interested in the Hellenistic objects found in and near Persepolis. Of course, Alexander did not destroy it all: that would be impossible with ancient technology. The Palace of Darius, for example, has survived pretty well. The main symbols of the Achaemenid court ritual, the Apadana and the Treasury, were what Alexander destroyed. In the museums, you will find several Hellenistic objects.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been in Persepolis, you should go to Iran. The Iranians will welcome you, as they have done for centuries. So my last picture today is a drawing by Cornelis de Bruijn, one of the first westerners to visit the site (and a fellow-Amsterdammer). The new webpages are here.

View from the north

The Battle of Sagalassus (333 BCE)

26 June 2010

The battle site

The capture of the Pisidian town of Sagalassus is not the best-known or most important of Alexander the Great‘s battles, but at least we know exactly where it happened and the site has not changed. It is one of the few places where you can have an idea of the quality of the Macedonian soldiers, who had to fight an uphill battle. These men were strong, really strong.

I put online one photo and a brief explanatory note. Not terribly important, but if you’re interested, it’s here.

Common Errors (34): The Origins of Western Civilization

2 June 2010

The plain of Marathon - the battle was important but less decisive than used to be claimed

The Persian Wars are often presented as a turning point in world history. It was indeed an important conflict: the Greek national identity, until then expressed as a shared religion and language, had withstood a powerful attack and had been reinforced. With good reason, the Greeks believed that their fight against the armies of Xerxes had been their finest hour.

However, it is possible to overstate the importance of the conflict. Many nineteenth-century classicists argued that if the Greeks had lost their war against Persia, their new masters would have substituted the Athenian democracy with a tyranny, and the young Athenian culture would have vanished in a vortex of Oriental despotism, irrationality, and cruelty. Democracy and philosophy would have died, and Greek civilization would have had a different nature.

As it happens, the importance of the Persian War has been the subject of a famous theoretical discussion between Max Weber (1864-1920) and Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), who had written that if the Persians had won the war,

“the outcome would have been that some kind of church […] would have put Greek life and thought under a yoke and would have chained all free dynamics, and the new Greek culture would, like the oriental cultures, have had a theological-religious nature.”

It is not true, as is often said, that the question “what if…?” is meaningless. It is discussing why and how we’ve become what we are. Nothing less. Meyer focuses on an important point. However, we can no longer answer the question with his dogmatic certainty.

Weber, who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences but started his career as a pupil of the great ancient historian Theodor Mommsen, discussed this matter in a rightly famous essay, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik”. I will not summarize it, and will concentrate on one simple question: how did Meyer know that a Persian victory would have obstructed the rise of freedom, democracy, and rationalism? Weber easily proved that Meyer’s reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event by pointing at what would have happened if it had not taken place. And counterfactual explanations are, as any student of history learns in his first year, rarely reliable.

Let’s take a look at some uncontested facts. In the first place, in 493, the Persian general Mardonius accepted democracy in the Greek cities in the Persian Empire (Herodotus, Histories, 6.43); we cannot be certain that Xerxes would have abolished the Athenian democracy. In his account of the great war, Herodotus does not refer to Persian plans for regime change in Athens, and his description of the negotiations in 480/479 even suggests that the great king had no problems with democracy.

In the second place, the axiom that the Persians were opposed to rationalism was perhaps acceptable in 1901, before the great cuneiform archives were known. We cannot blame Meyer, but his idea can no longer be accepted: the research program of the Chaldaeans in the satrapy of Babylonia, for example, is perfectly rational. An Athens under Persian control would have accepted a Plato or an Aristotle (who, as a matter of fact, was to do some of his best research in Persian-controled Assos). Meyer’s qualification of the ancient Near East as theological-religious in nature, has been shown to be incorrect, and tells a lot about the prejudices of his age (more…).

Meyer’s ideas have been refuted, and what’s more: Weber’s essay has become one of the foundations of historical theory. Not many students actually read it, but in the first year, when students learn to define causality, get acquainted with the three (or four) explanatory models, learn what kinds of argument are acceptable and which are not – in short, when they learn the logical and epistemological foundations of their discipline – they are in fact getting acquainted with ideas formulated for the first time by Weber.

To return to the initial question: Meyer later admitted he had been too optimistic. The truth is that we simply do not know whether Greek culture would have been very difficult. And even if it were, it is hard to pass judgment – to state that there would have been no Plato or Aristotle is as absurd as saying that under Persian domination, Greece would have avoided a lot of epistemological speculation and might have proceeded directly to the inspiring ethical systems of Epicurus and Zeno.

We cannot answer Meyer’s important question. We have to live with that. People who cannot accept incertitude, simply must not study ancient history.


  • Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (1901), vol. III, pp. 445-446
  • M. Weber, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik” in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (1973), esp. pp. 286-287

<Overview of Common Errors>


24 May 2010

Tomb of Cyrus

I fondly remember my first visit to Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. Although it was an amazing idea to be at the place where the great conqueror had actually lived, but the plain itself was what impressed me most. It still does. Although there’s a village next to it, it feels as if the place is terribly empty.

Our photos have been online since 2003. Much has improved since then. The road that made it possible to reach Gate R and Palace S by car, which created vibrations that threatened the monuments, has been removed (I remember a team of Afghan laborers, two summers ago, destroying the pavement with big hammers). Inexpert repairs to the tomb of Cyrus have been reverted, and in general, everything looks better than it used to.

It was about time to update my webpages. So here it is, and here are other links: Gate R, the bridge (small page), the audience hall in Palace S, the residential Palace P, the water works in the garden, the Zendan, the Tall-i Takht, and finally the tomb of Cyrus, with a rare photo of its interior. Plus: a reference to a cuneiform text that may be related to the destruction of the Tall-i Takht in 280. It doesn’t prove much – as always, there’s a lacuna where it shouldn’t be – but at least it’s probably worth a thought.

The Portrait of Artaxerxes II Mnemon

20 May 2010

Artaxerxes II

Achaemenid art was not very innovative. In the days of Darius I the Great, the basic forms were established, and later artists did not really change these patterns. A king was shown sitting on a throne (example), or killing an animal (example), or sacrificing (example). On seals, there is some variation, but essentially, the Achaemenid artists preferred to emulate good art instead of inventing something new.

As a consequence, they never invented the portrait, and all kings look like Darius, with the same beard. Until now, I knew only one representation of an Achaemenid king by an artist who wanted to show what the ruler really looked like: the portrait of Artaxerxes III Ochus in the Amsterdam Allard Piersonmuseum, made in Egypt. We may perhaps add the Darius III Codomannus on the Alexander mosaic, although I can hardly believe that the Greek painter whose design was used as a model, had really seen the great king.

In the Archaeological Museum of Antalya, I discovered another candidate: Artaxerxes II Mnemon is represented on the tomb of (probably) the Lycian leader Pericles of Limyra. Unfortunately, it is very damaged, but the man clearly has his tiara tied up so that it stands erect. You can also recognize the diadem. Did the sculptor really see the great king?

Armenian bits and pieces

1 May 2010

Lake Van

Today, several small articles, which have nothing in common, except for the fact that they are somehow related to ancient Armenia:

Nothing terribly important, although I have fond memories of our trip to that part of Turkey.