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]


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.

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?

Tonight’s Lunar Eclipse, Seen from Babylon

15 June 2011

Astronomical Diary, mentioning the battle of Gaugamela. The Babylonian astronomers correctly predicted the rise of Alexander and the demise of Darius III.

The ancient Babylonians were great astronomers. It is too easy to laugh about their astrological achievements: we know about the earth’s orbit around the sun and we understand why the seasons change with the constellations, but back then, it was quite a discovery that the rise of Aquarius always announced the rise of the water level in the Euphrates and Tigris.

In an age prior to the invention of statistics, it was also hard to recognize that within an interval of a hundred days, there’s always a ruler whose reign comes to an end (there are so many states and so many rulers, while their tenure of office is limited), so the astronomers’ discovery that within a hundred days after a lunar eclipse, there’s always a ruler who dies, retires, or is overthrown, is not to be derided.

As it happens, we understand the four systems with which the astronomers predicted the end of the rule of the leaders of independent states, because we can read the ancient handbook, Shumma Sin ina tamartishu. The eclipsed lunar disk was divided into four quadrants (top, down, left, right), which stood for Syria, Assyria and the north, Elam, and Babylonia – or, to use the ancient names, Amurru, Assyria and Subartu, Elam, and Akkad. The first quadrant touched by the umbra of the eclipse, indicates the direction where the threatened ruler lived.

The direction of the shadow offered a similar clue, although top, down, left, and right now stood for Babylonia, Elam, Assyria and Gutium (the east), and Syria.

There were supplementary systems, which offered some room for personal interpretation to the astrologer. First, the months of the year represented one of the four regions mentioned. For example, Simanu, Tašrîtu , and Šabatu corresponded with Syria. Then, the day of the eclipse, which can only be on the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th of a lunar month, correspond to Babylonia, Elam, Syria, and Assyria/Subartu.

Some minor points: the moment of the eclipse (early evening, midnight, after midnight) represented the consequences of the end of the reign: plague, diminishing markets, or recovery. If Saturn was visible, the power of the celestial omen doubled; Jupiter, on the other hand, protected the king.

So, what does this mean for tonight’s lunar eclipse? I do not believe in astrology, but I was surprised to discover that the four systems indicate more or less the same, plausible outcome. The moon is first eclipsed at precisely the edge of the left and top quadrant: so that means that leaders in Elam and Syria are in peril. The umbra leaves the lunar disk in the eastern part, threatening Syria again.So, the main system indicates trouble in the west, allowing for problems in the east. Iraq itself is safe.

Using the supplementary systems, we get the same result. Tonight’s date, after sunset, is 14 Simanu: the day promises the end of the reign of a ruler in Elam, while the month represents, again, Syria. Jupiter is not visible, Saturn is; and as far as the time is concerned, we can say that in Iraq, the eclipse is more or less around midnight, so the markets will diminish.

If astrology were a science, this would mean that within a hundred days, a leader who lives in Syria or the west is in grave danger. Alternatively, and with a smaller likelihood, the leader of Elam is in trouble – modern Khuzestan or the east. Now I am not a prophet, but if Assad or Ahmedinejad will be forced to resign, I think there will indeed be a big panic on the stock markets.


Postscript, September 1, 2011

OK, it turns out that the eclipse referred to Khadaffi.

The Rise of Islam (2)

24 November 2010


As I already indicated, I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. On the one hand, much criticism of the rationalized legend was fair: the lateness of the sources is indeed a problem and the presence of Christian soldiers in Islamic armies demands an explanation. However, it was obvious, at least to me, that the alternatives were worse, and I did not believe that we would ever come closer to what really happened in Mecca and Medina at the beginning of the seventh century.

But I was too pessimistic. I just read Fred Donner’s recent book Muhammad and the Believers, which may be the equivalent of E.P. Sanders’ book on the historical Jesus, The Historical Figure of Jesus: a common-sense book on a religious innovator that, although not every scholar will agree with every aspect, will be well-respected and will dominate the field for quite some time. I am very impressed. This may be the new synthesis.

According to Donner, Muhammad did not set out to create a new religion. He was a radical monotheist, who accepted in his band of followers all Jews, Christians, and Arabs who believed in one God. To these ecumenical ideas, the Believers added some doctrines of their own, but the main point was that at the end of times, which they believed to be near, only monotheists would be saved. They wanted to prepare the world for this Judgment, cooperating closely with other righteous monotheists.

It was much later, in the early eighth century, that the Muslims became a new, self-consciously different monotheistic religion. Among the factors that contributed to this development was the fact that the Believers and other monotheists recognized that the ideas about God’s uniqueness and oneness, as maintained by the Jews and Muslims, could never be reconciled with the Trinitarian theologies of the Christian churches. Another factor, equally important, was a growing awareness that not all people would accept the Quran as the most important revelation or Muhammad as the seal of the prophets. The end of Islamic expansion may have contributed to this awareness: the conquest of Uzbekistan was extremely difficult and a crisis in Andalusia made it impossible to subject the Frankish kingdom – but this is a point that Donner does not digress upon.

He tells his story well. I really liked his book, not only because of the general thesis, but also because along the road, Donner makes a lot of extremely illuminating remarks. When we discuss the great conquests, he says, we must assume that diplomacy was more important than we can deduce from our sources. He may be right: perhaps, the battles were just violent interruptions of a mostly peaceful process of conversion to ecumenism. The main destructions, at least, seem to belong to the terrible Byzantine-Sassanian War (602-628), and appear to be unrelated to the wars of the Righteous Caliphs.

Donner does not stress it, but people may indeed have become Believers because they were sick of Byzantine and Sassanian violence. They may have regarded the conflict as one of the tribulations of the end time. Apocalyptic ideas, Donner correctly observes, were still very much alive at the end of the seventh century, and he is probably right when he proposes that the Dome of the Rock was meant to be “the locale in which [Caliph] ‘Abd al-Malik (or one of his successors), as leaders of the righteous and God-fearing empire of the Believers, would hand over to God the symbols of sovereignty at the moment the Judgment was to begin”.

The idea that the Believers were originally ecumenical monotheists is simple. Reading the book, I found myself wondering why nobody thought of this before. But now that Muhammad and the Believers has been written, it is hard to think differently. It explains why Christian soldiers joined Arab armies and why, as late as 800, a Zoroastrian could be tax collector in northern Mesopotamia. We need new questions to proceed beyond Donner’s fine book.

Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (2010)

The Rise of Islam (1)

24 November 2010

The Byzantine-Sassanian War: Heraclius defeating Khusrau II (Louvre)

What happened when Antiquity came to an end? What marks the beginning of the Middle Ages? It will be hard to enumerate all aspects, but at least it’s certain that the imperial institutions disappeared from western Europe: no Roman state, no Roman taxes, no Roman armies. In the East, the transition was less abrupt. The Byzantine Empire continued to demand taxes, continued to build armies, continued to exist. Yet, it had to give up territories: the Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There was also a mental change: for the ancients, ‘us’ and ‘them’ had been identical to ‘Graeco-Roman civilization’ and ‘barbarians’, but after the transition, the basic opposition was ‘Christianity’ versus ‘Islam’.

This makes Muhammad one of the most influential people of Late Antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages. Without him, no Islam and no loss of eastern provinces for the Byzantine Empire. The prophet, his message, and his followers are extremely important subjects to any student of Antiquity, but they are very hard to understand. Our main sources are the Quran, which is not a work of historiography, and the traditions (hadith), which were written down many years after Islam had come into being. Even worse, many traditions have been regarded with suspicion from the outset. Using what he believed to be reliable traditions, Ibn Ishaq wrote the extremely influential Life of the Prophet in the 750s, more than a century after the death of Muhammad.

Until quite recently, modern western scholars have accepted the events mentioned by Ibn Ishaq as essentially historical. Although the miracle stories were ignored, the other anecdotes were considered to be reliable. The result was a more or less rationalized legend; an example is the book by Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad (1960). This approach was not unlike the way Thomas Jefferson dealt with the gospels. Rodinson’s view has become more or less canonical – Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad. A Prophet for Our Time is an example – but we might have expected something more critical than “believing everything in the sources except that which presupposes a suspension of the laws of nature”. Accepting sources in this way, without asking why they were written down in the first place, is called “naïve positivism”.

Because rationalized legends became untenable, there have been new quests for the “historical Muhammad”. There is, for example, the Luxenberg thesis, which implies that the Quran is not written in Arabic, but in a mix of Syriac and Arabic. This is not as far-fetched as it seems, because Syria was certainly important in early Islam and the Quran is written in a “defective script” without vowels and with possible confusion of several consonants (e.g. bt, and th). The Luxenberg thesis indeed helps to expel some minor problems, but also creates one big problem: we have to assume that the Quran was not recited for a sufficiently long time to forget its original language. This seems extremely implausible (more…).

Yet, the Luxenberg thesis is not the worst new idea. There are also a couple of nonsensical theories. Although it is certain that Nestorian and Monophysite Christians left the Byzantine Empire and settled in the Syrian and Arabian Deserts, and although it is certain that many warriors in the early Islamic armies were Christians, it is ridiculous to assume that Islam was created when people no longer understood the Monophysite hymns and prayers. Granted, the name “Muhammad” means “the blessed one”, but it is unlikely that people, after singing a Syriac or Arabic version of “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” asked “who is that Mr Blessed?” and started to invent both the anecdotes about and the person of the Prophet.

I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. But I was wrong, as I will show in my next posting.

A Sarcophagus from Antioch

23 May 2010

The deceased, pooring a libation

Searching through my collection of pictures, I stumbled across some photos we took about three years ago in the Archaeological Museum of Antioch (which, as it happens, is built on the exact place where the Crusaders, having found the Holy Lance, famously broke out from the besieged city). So here it is, a nice, well-preserved sarcophagus from the mid-third century. Nothing really special, just nice, and evidence that Antioch was still a prosperous town during that age of crisis.