Common Errors (33): Cradle of Civilization

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>


Apollodorus of Damascus

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.

The Tyche of Antioch

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.

Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus

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.

More Archaeological Disinformation

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.

An extremely useful epigraphical tool

3 October 2009
IRT 607

IRT 607

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

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

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

Spijkers op laag water

9 September 2009
Spijkers op laag water

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.