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]
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Posted by Jona Lendering
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:
- insufficient attention to the ancient Near East,
- archaeology insufficiently appreciated,
- acceptance of an unproven continuity from Antiquity up to the present day,
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.
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
- 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.
2 Comments | ancient egypt, ancient germany, ancient greece, ancient history, ancient Iran, ancient mesopotamia, ancient persia, ancient rome, ancient syria, Archaeology, Classics, historical theory, Livius.Org | Tagged: De klad in de klassieken | Permalink
Posted by Jona Lendering
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?
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Posted by Jona Lendering
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.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
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)
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Posted by Jona Lendering
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. b, t, 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.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
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.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
23 May 2010
Bronze Age city Ebla
One of the things that made me smile in Damascus was the use of slogans. Tourists are attracted with the sincerely brilliant “Come to Damascus. Get a vision”. (The place where Paul of Tarsus saw the light is along the main road to Bosra.) Less felicitous was a series of posters that showed the president, apparently modeled on Harvey Dent and even including a paraphrasis of his slogan (“I believe in Syria”).
Another slogan states that Syria was the “cradle of religions” – which indeed attracts visitors. Western Christians come to Damascus to see the place where Paul escaped across the city wall. I once flew from Tehran to Damascus in the company of a group of pilgrims who wanted to visit the tomb of Huseyn, the third imam.
Most relics are of rather doubtful authenticity – the window from which Paul was lowered is medieval – but there is a more serious problem with this religious tourism. To understand it, we must go back a while, two centuries, to Berlin. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the government of Prussia was reorganizing its educational system, and founded a new university that was not based on a medieval model, but on the needs of science and scholarship. Generally speaking, this reform was a great success, and many modern universities are based on the Berlin model.
However, for ancient historians, the new model was disastrous, because it became part of two faculties. People studying ancient Greece and Rome had to learn Greek and Latin first, and had to visit the subfaculty of classical languages; those who wanted to study the ancient Near East, had to attend courses at the subfaculty of Semitic languages. What had always been a unity, now became divided – and unfortunately, this division became popular in other countries.
In those days, the Greeks and Romans were a source of inspiration to the civilized, liberal bourgeoisie, which believed that the ancients had been free people who thought rationally. Classical Athens and Rome were, therefore, studied from a humanist point of view. On the other hand, scholars interested in the Near East studied the past to better understand the Bible. This was considered to be so important that, once the cuneiform script had been deciphered, priority was given to the publication of those tablets that helped to illuminate the rise of Judaism. Administrative documents, for example, were neglected.
So, in the nineteenth century, one part of Antiquity was explored from a humanist point of view, and the other from a religious perspective. Texts were selected accordingly, and it was inevitable that the difference was projected on the past itself. People started to think that the ancient Near East was the cradle of our religions and that Greece marked the rise of rationalism.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, all this started to change. Cuneiform tablets have shown beyond reasonable doubt how much the ancient Babylonians had achieved as scientists, echos from Semitic poetry have been found in the oldest Greek literature, and books like Eric Dodds’ famous The Greeks and the Irrational have made it clear that it is silly to think of the ancient Greeks as Enlightenment philosophers avant la lettre. No professionally trained historian can accept the previously mentioned dichotomy.
Unfortunately, they are still employed in the mass media – think only of Frank Miller’s 300 (review) and a book like Tom Holland’s Persian Fire (review). Occasionally, a serious scholar succumbs to the charms of simplicity, like classicist Paul Cartledge and political scientist Anthony Pagden, who are apparently serious when they write that East and West are involved in an eternal struggle between freedom and despotism, rationalism and mysticism.
The truth is that there is not so much difference between on the one hand Greece and Rome, and on the other hand the ancient Near East. It is quite ironical that the Syrians have accepted the western prejudices about the “cradle of religion”. Syria has a lot more to offer than that.
<Overview of Common Errors>
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Posted by Jona Lendering
22 May 2010
Apollodorus (?) (Glyptothek, Munich)
I am blessed because I am in the position to travel widely. Usually, I have a camera with me, and sometimes, it happens that I can combine things. Webpages based on these combinations, I find most satisfying.
Take Apollodorus of Damascus. His story is online at LacusCurtius (here), I could take a photo of his possible portrait is in the Munchen Glyptothek, and I found an inscription in the garden of the Damascus Archaeological Museum. The forum he built in Rome is among the best known monument of the city. The only thing I’ve never seen is the ruin of his famous bridge, but it is represented on the Column of Trajan (casts in the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana), and it is represented on coins. And I put everything together here.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
4 April 2010
Tyche (Vatican Museums)
The goddess Tyche, “fortune”, became an important, frequently venerated, goddess in the decades after the conquests of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (r.336-323), when the outcomes of many wars seemed to depend on nothing but capricious luck. The good fortune of the ruler who was able to create or destroy a city, was one of the best examples of the influence of Fate, and it comes as no surprise that one of those new cities, Antioch, venerated its own fortune in a temple.
The cult statue was made by Eutychides of Sicyon and is essentially an assemblage of symbols, almost an allegory. The goddess is seated on a rock (=Mount Sipylus), has one foot on a swimming figure (=the river Orontes), and has several ears of grain in her hand (=the city’s fertility). On her head rests a mural crown, which is an orientalizing influence: mural crowns had been used in the art of ancient Elam and Assyria.
I added two small articles today: one on Tyche, and one on the Mural Crown.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
29 January 2010
A dedication to Elagabal by Alexianus (Römisches Museum, Augsburg)
The Syrian nobleman Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus (c.155-217) is not among the most famous Romans, and yet he was one of the most important officials during the reigns of the emperors Septimius Severus (193-211) and Caracalla (211-217). He was the husband of Severus’ sister-in-law, Julia Maesa; the couple had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, who were to become the mothers of the emperors Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander.
Alexianus’ own career is quite interesting. After the usual military offices, he was responsible for the food supply of Rome, and may have played a role during the coup of Severus. He appears to have taken part in the campaign against Pescennius Niger and the Parthian Empire as commander of the Fourth Legion Flavia Felix, and was made governor of Raetia. After his consulship, his career came to a standstill, probably because it was obstructed by Plautianus; after his fall, he occupied several other prefectures and governorships. There’s more about him here.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
20 January 2010
Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi
As the readers of this little blog will have noticed, I am increasingly disappointed in the quality of archaeological journalism. Some nations, like Greece, have modest and more or less reliable journalists, but often, journalists swallow the most ridiculous claims by archaeologists.
The problem is important. When people will realize that archaeologists abuse the press for their own purposes (explained here), they will start to hate archaeology, just like people have become skeptical about climatology. The credibility of politicians and bankers was already reduced to zero, scientists and scholars will be next. That is a very, very serious matter, because it means that debates can no longer be solved by credible experts.
Some of the archaeologists’ tricks we already know. From Egypt, we get a lot of prepublicity about the so-called tomb of Cleopatra; even if it is true (which I doubt), the result can not match the hype. In Italy, any find is immediately connected to a text – so a villa becomes the Villa of Vespasian and a beautifully decorated cave becomes the Lupercal. In Israel, anything is connected to the Bible. An interesting ten-century BCE ostracon becomes “a Biblical inscription“, although there is absolutely no Biblical connection whatsoever. I suspect that money is the root of all these evils. Once your excavation has received media attention, the continuity of your funding is certain.
I thought I had seen it all, but this week, I discovered a new trick. What to do when you are excavating a relatively unknown site, belonging to a civilization that is not really popular in the West? That makes it difficult to grab attention. The Syrian-Swiss team that is excavating Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi, an early Umayyad fort, has found the solution: you just write that you excavated your finds in Palmyra, which everyone knows. It’s 100 kilometers away; it’s as absurd as saying that Oxford identical to London; and yet, the Syrian-Swiss team managed to have this nonsense published – or was too lazy to correct a mistake by a journalist, which amounts to to the same. 5 on the Ctesias Scale.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
3 October 2009
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.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
9 September 2009
Spijkers op laag water
Only once have I visited a drydock, but I immediately understood what the Dutch expression spijkers op laag water zoeken (“searching for nails in pools”) means. Standing on a scaffolding, some carpenters were preparing the hull of a yacht, and they had dozens of nails with them. When a nail fell to the ground, it was rather silly to go downstairs and look for it, if only because the nails usually dropped into pools and were invisible. I could imagine that one day, the dock’s manager checked those pools, took the nails, presented them to his workers, complained, and ignored that they had actually been able to finish a hull that day. Ever since that day, the carpenters must have said that someone was “searching for nails in pools” when he was focusing on minor errors.
I took this proverb as the title of my book on common errors, because I did not want to suggest that all mistakes were really serious. Two of my best friends believe that the title is wrong, because people will not understand its self-deprecating nature. My publisher and another friend believe that the irony will be understood, so in the end I agreed, although some nagging doubt remains.
And there is another doubt. Are the mistakes I am dealing with really that innocent? Many of them certainly are, but if professional scholars repeat them, addressing the problem is not searching for nails in pools, but saying that our academics have become too specialized to have a good view of the entire field.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
30 August 2009
Statue of Šalmaneser III from Aššur (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)
I did not intend to write about the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, but when I was again forced to refer to the clash between the Assyrian king Šalmaneser III and a coalition of some twelve Syrian states, this time in a piece on the Nabataeans that I find more important, I decided to put online a page, if only to get rid of it. Of course, when I was occupied with the subject, I started to like it.
Well, “like it”: it remains warfare, which is a dirty job. Šalmaneser himself says that he filled the plain of Qarqar (in northwestern Syria) with the corpses of his dead enemies, that he “made the blood of his defeated enemies flow in the wadis”, that “the field was too small for laying flat their bodies,” that “the broad countryside had been consumed in burying them,” and that he “blocked the Orontes river with their corpses as with a causeway”.
There is some reasonable doubt whether the Assyrians really overcame their enemies. In fact, they appear to have been on the defensive during in the next years. Yet, in 841, they reached Damascus and king Jehu of Israel offered tribute. Qarqar may not have been the decisive Šalmaneser claims it had been, but it surely marked the beginning of the end of independent Syria.
One of the coalition members, by the way, was king Ahab of Israel, who is better known as one of the archvillains of the Bible. During the battle, he commanded one of the largest units. You can read more about the battle here.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
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., limes.nl) 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.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
12 May 2009
Poster in Paris
The Phoenicians are not the ancient world’s most famous nation, but people who know them, are almost always aware that they invented the alphabet. When in 2007/2008 the Institut du Monde Arabe organized an exposition about the Phoenicians, Paris was full with posters asking inviting questions like “Quel visage avait la civilisation qui nous a donné l’alphabet?”
However, it is not true that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, although the error is venerably ancient. The ancient Greeks already believed it, and made jokes about it. When the sophist Hadrian of Tyre delivered his inaugural address in Athens, he modestly started his speech with the words “Again, letters have come from Phoenicia”.
Still, the alphabet is much older. In 1904-1905, the famous Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) discovered alphabetic inscriptions in the Sinai desert. They were older than anything written in Phoenician. In 1998, his American colleague John Darnell discovered texts that were even more ancient; the inscription from the Wadi el-Hol are, for the moment, incomprehensible, but the oldest we have. They date back to c.1900 BCE.
So, the alphabet was invented in Egypt, was applied in the Sinai, was adapted by the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, who gave it to the Greeks.
<Overview of Common Errors>
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Posted by Jona Lendering
5 April 2009
In the Biblical book of Daniel, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r.175-164) is presented as a monster and a blasphemer: ‘the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvelous things against the God of gods’ (11.36). The Greek author Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118) offers a similar judgment: ‘Antiochus surnamed Epiphanes gained the name of Epimanes [madman] by his conduct’, he writes (World History, 26.1), and continues with a catalog of mad acts.
There must of course be another side to the man, and the German historian Peter Franz Mittag has recently written an admirable book on the Seleucid king: Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie (2006). It is a historical study as it should be. The author knows his sources – especially literary and numismatic – and also knows how to present them well.
After two introductory chapters and a chapter on Antiochus’ stay in Rome and coup, the fourth chapter deals with the empire at the beginning of his reign. It offers an interesting analysis of the (sometimes conflicting) political aims of the Seleucid administration, and an overview of its financial means. Mittag suggests that the yearly income was about 15,000 talents, which helps us understand that famous figure: that, according to the terms of the Peace of Apamea, the Seleucid Empire had to pay 1,000 talents to Rome every year. It was an immense sum, but it did not cripple the Seleucid economy. The Romans sheared their flock but did not skin it.
In the next two chapters, we read about the way in which Antiochus Epiphanes’ stabilized his power. Gifts to Greek towns created sympathy, which could be useful; embassies to Rome were equally important; Antioch benefitted from some building projects; and there were several cultic measures (there is no evidence for the forced introduction of a cult of Zeus Olympius). The assassination of Antiochus’ nephew, who might have claimed the throne, and a trip to the Phoenician cities are also presented as stabilizing measures.
No less than four chapters are devoted to the Sixth Syrian War. The first of these chapters describes Antiochus’ invasion of Egypt in 169, in which he reached Alexandria, which he found impossible to take. Next, we read about the ways the Seleucid king made his empire benefit from his victory: for example, a monetary reform served to improve conditions for trade. There is also a discussion of the status of Babylon in this chapter. The two remaining chapters deal with the second invasion of Egypt and Rome’s ruthless intervention. Mittag stresses that, although Antiochus was humiliated, it was not the disaster that Polybius says it was: the terms of the Apamea treaty appear to have been suspended – Rome did not complain about the Seleucid navy and Antiochus’ war elephants, even though they were forbidden.
The Maccabean revolt is the subject of the eleventh chapter. Mittag argues that Antiochus was – as always – especially interested in stabilizing and strengthening the empire, and supported the high priest Menelaus, who promised more tribute but was unable to keep this promise. When Antiochus realized his mistake, it was too late, but his consequent policy shows that he tried to restabilize the area. It might have worked, Mittag argues: general Lysias was able to pacify the area, and Judaea might have remained a province of the Seleucid Empire. However, Antiochus died and Lysias had to go to Damascus, which made it possible for the Maccabees to obtain their independence.
The festivities in Daphne (Polybius, World History, 30.25) receive a full chapter, and after this, we read about Antiochus’ anabasis to the east: he regained control of Armenia, visited Babylon, refounded Charax, visited Elam and Persis. The stories about his (unsuccessful?) looting of a temple are discussed, and presented as an attempt to regain arrears of tribute. Mittag finds no evidence for plans to attack Parthia and Bactria, and thinks that the town where Antiochus died was not Gabae/Isfahan, as is always believed, but a town with the same name in eastern Persis.
Cuneiform sources may one day settle this problem, which is important, because a visit to Gabae/Isfahan can be seen as a preliminary to a war against the Parthians, and a visit to Persian Gabae suggests that Antiochus was more interested in the Persian Gulf area.
The fourteenth chapter deals with Antiochus’ death and succession; the last chapter offers a general assessment of this king’s rule. In Mittag’s view, he was especially interested in stabilizing and strengthening his kingdom – or, as Appian says, ‘he governed Syria and the neighboring nations with a firm hand’ (Syriaca, 45).
As I already said, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie is excellent. I would have liked to learn more about the introduction of the Roman-style soldiers that Mittag mentions in his account of the festival in Daphne, but that is only a minor quibble. Generally speaking, Mittag has reduced the biblical monster to more human proportions and reintroduced him into history as one of the most capable and efficient rulers of the Hellenistic age.
- Peter Franz Mittag, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie (= Klio: Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte. Beihefte, neue Folge Band 11) Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2006. ISBN 3-05-004205-2; €69.80.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
7 February 2009
The southern wall and the citadel
The big wars between the Roman Empire and the Sasanian king Shapur in the mid-third century proved that Rome’s defenses on the Euphrates were insufficient. The Palmyrene rulers therefore built Fort Zenobia, named after their queen/empress, and now better known as Halebiye. It was rebuilt several times, a/o by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. This reconstruction is described in some detail by Procopius (Buildings, 2.8.8-25).
On the opposite bank is a similar fort, poorly preserved, now called Zalebiye. This gained some fame as the place of an Israeli air strike in September 2007.
A view from the citadel.
Zenobia, which covers about twelve hectares, remains impressive: the fifteen massive towers and the praetorium are almost intact, just like Justinian’s fantastic walls. The southern wall is about 550 meters long and connects the citadel on the hill to the river; the northern wall is 350 meters long. The praetorium is adjacent to the northern wall, halfway up the hill: a multi-storeyed building with a very large hall that would have been called a knight room in more recent fortifications.
Less well preserved are the 385‑meter-long wall along the river, which had to contain the Euphrates, the bathhouse, the palaestra, the governor’s house, and the two basilicas. The East Basilica probably dates to the fifth century, the West Basilica was built by Justinian.
My new webpage is here. And it is little bit special, because it is the 3333rd page on the site.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
22 January 2009
Macedonian horseman, perhaps Perdiccas. Detail from the Alexander Sarcophagus (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul).
During the Battle of Issus, on 5 or 6 November 333 BCE, the Macedonian king Alexander defeated the Persian king Darius III Codomannus. This defeat marked the end of the Achaemenid Empire. True, Darius was able to build a new army, but it consisted of recruits, who abandoned their king at the first possible occasion: during the battle of Gaugamela, after the most dreadful celestial omens (which are discussed here).
The Battle of Issus is known from various sources, which complement each other. Where Arrian tells the story from an officer’s point of view, Curtius Rufus tells what the soldiers did, and where Plutarch has a pro-Macedonian bias, Diodorus is interested in the Persian side of the story. Several works of art illustrate the battle: the Alexander Mosaic in Naples for example, and the Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul.
The river Payas.
Even better, the ancient river Pinarus, where the fight took place, has been identified with the modern Payas. This allows something like a “face of battle” description, and I have attempted to give an impression of what it was to be there, on that fateful day. You can read it here.
Suggestions for improvement are welcome. I translated this from my own Dutch, and I know that my English will be a bit clumsy. Still, the story is sufficiently interesting to present it, and hope for stylistic advise.
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Posted by Jona Lendering
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