A House Full of Flowers, Again

22 April 2011

The award, made by Carla Rump

Some time ago, I had the honor to be given an academic prize (this one), and I could blog that my house was suddenly full of flowers. Ever since, I’ve bought a bouquet every week, because I liked the scent.

Now history appears to be repeating itself, because yesterday evening, the NKV (a well-known, large association of people in the Netherlands and Belgium interested in classics) gave its annual award to De rand van het Rijk, a book I wrote with my Livius colleague Arjen Bosman. Again, my house is full of flowers.

The chairman of the jury, Mr Van Reeth from Antwerp, delivered a speech about the nominated books that made the Dutch people in his audience realize that the art of speaking in public is better preserved in Belgium than in the Netherlands. His speech is probably what I will remember best.

What I also liked was the bronze statuette we received. It represents a dancing Muse and is made by Dutch sculptor Carla Rump, who “creates images because they do not exist in reality”. That is a most unclassical point of view: in Antiquity, art was meant to represent reality (mimesis, imitatio), and it was only in the nineteenth century that artists decided to create images that did not exist. Not imitatio but creatio. The statuette is a modern approach to an ancient subject, exactly as we must necessarily approach Antiquity.


Common Errors (38): Via Belgica

25 August 2010
The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Gaul, even centuries before the Celtic culture spread over Europe, there were already people living in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Although these people were usually farmers, there must have been traders among them too, because we are certain that already in the last phase of the Neolithicum, there were important roads. They can be recognized if you plot the burial mounds on a map; immediately, you will see that they are arranged in long lines. The people wanted to be buried along a road.

One road appears to have been of extreme importance, as people continued to be buried along it in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman Age as well. It leads from modern Amiens to Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – in other words, it connected the capitals of the Atrebates, Nervians, Tungrians, and Ubians, the main ethnic units of Gallia Belgica at the time of the Roman conquest. It was used by Caesar when he invaded Belgica in 57 BCE and defeated the Nervians, was used by the Fourteenth legion Gemina when it had to suppress the Batavian Revolt (70 CE), and was used in the late fourth century by Frankish warriors who left Toxandria and settled on more fertile soils.

In the Middle Ages, the road from Bavay to Tongeren was called Chaussée Brunehaut (“road of Brunhilde”), a name that is still officially used and can be found in many municipalities in northern France and southern Belgium. This Brunhilda was one of the most powerful rulers of the late sixth and early seventh century. She became the heroine of many sagas, and it is now difficult to see behind the legend and find out whether she really had something to do with the streets still named after her.

The modern name Via Belgica, coined by archaeologists and planologists, is rather ill-chosen. The Romans named their roads after the men who built them: Via Appia or Strata Diocletiana. If a street has a geographic element in its name, this invariably indicates a destination, not the country it traversed (Via Labicana, Via Portuense). Via Belgica would therefore be the name of the road leading to Belgica and can never have been an indication for a road through Belgica.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Tongeren Lead Bar

22 August 2010
Lead bar with the name of the emperor Tiberius

Lead bar with the name of the emperor Tiberius

In May 2009, the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren, one of the best museums in the Low Countries, announced that it had acquired a lead bar that dated to the reign of the emperor Tiberius, 14-37 CE. The inscription, IMP TI CAESARIS AVG GERM TEC, is a bit puzzling, but the message is clear. The first words refer to Imperator Tiberius Caesar Augustus, the “tec” is mysterious but almost certainly refers to the mine, and the surprise is that this mine is in Germania. That means, at first sight, the east bank of the Rhine.

The problem is that most historians believe that Germania had been evacuated after the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest. This can be read in many ancient sources, like TacitusAnnals, 2.88, where we read that the German commander Arminius was, “without any doubt the liberator of Germania”, or the Epitome of Florus, who believes that an expanding empire that had been able to cross the Channel had been halted at the Rhine (2.30). Although these authors wrote a century after the events and some seventy years after the creation of the limes, the decisiveness of the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest has always been axiomatic, and Roman finds on the Rhine’s east bank are automatically dated prior to the year 9. Perhaps the deepest cause is that Florus and Tacitus used to be popular school texts.

But was the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest decisive? In the first place, the only contemporary source, Velleius Paterculus, does not say that Germania was evacuated, and reports that fighting continued on the east bank, where the frontier roads were reopened (Roman History, 2.120). Although this is exaggerated and we do not know what limites meant exactly, it is unsound method to immediately assume it was an outright lie. In the second place, Tacitus explicitly says that the Roman base at Aliso remained in Roman hands and that forts were built along the Lippe (Annals, 2.7). In the third place, it seems that the goldmine on the Feldberg was never abandoned – although I may be wrong here. In the fourth place, there is some evidence, published by Rudolf Aßkamp, that Haltern was still in use after 9. In the fifth place, the Claudian army reforms appear to have been pretty important, and we know for a fact that Claudius has evacuated land beyond the Rhine – Tacitus’ Annals 11.19 follows on an account of a successful campaign against the Frisians, but this context does not exclude the possibility that a larger area was evacuated. In the Netherlands, this was the beginning of the creation of the limes; the first watchtower (Utrecht) is soundly dated in the forties.

I am not arguing that the Romans did never evacuate Germania; my point is that the date of the evacuation is very much open to debate. It may have been Claudius’ decision, and I am not alone in my doubts. “Es ist falsch die Varusschlacht als historischen Wendepunkt aufzufassen, wie dies geschichtswissenschaftlich Unkundige gerade in diesen Tagen wiederholt propagieren,” as P. Kehne summarizes in one of the splendid catalogs of last year’s Teutoburg Forest expositions: “It is wrong to accept Varus‘ defeat as a historical pivotal moment, as people without sense of history are propagating these days”.

This makes the Tongeren ingot quite sensational. Is this, again, evidence that the Romans were still in Germania? Were the Claudian army reforms the real pivotal moment? From the press release (9 May 2010), I get the impression that the museum has not completely realized the importance of this object. It writes that isotope analysis has shown that the lead could be from the Sauerland (Germania) and the Eifel (Gallia Belgica) and concludes that, since the Romans left the east bank in 9, we must assume that it is from the west bank. But this is assuming what needs to be proved!

I think that this lead bar deserves more study. In the first place, we may perhaps have a more precise isotope analysis. This, however, is not my specialty and perhaps this is impossible. In the second place, I’d like to know which sources prior to the Claudian army reforms call the west bank of the Rhine, which was indeed occupied by German immigrants, “Germania”. To the best of my knowledge, Caesar, Varro, Strabo, and Velleius Paterculus consistently use names like Belgica, Celtica, or Gaul. If we find evidence that “Germania” could be used to describe the west bank, we must assume that the lead bar can be from both banks; if there is no such source, as I suspect, we may add the Tongeren lead bar to the evidence that the Romans did not evacuate the east bank prior to the Claudian army reforms.

Roman Festival Nijmegen

20 June 2010

A Roman cavalryman

Few sites are as suited for a Roman festival as the Kops Plateau in Nijmegen, one of the oldest Roman military settlements in the Low Countries, and almost certainly the headquarters of the legions that Augustus sent out to conquer the east bank of the Rhine. Drusus must have been here, perhaps Tiberius too. The site was later used by a mounted unit of auxiliaries, and may have hosted Caligula and Corbulo.

This weekend saw the third installment of the “Romeinenfestival”. There were shows by several Roman reenactment groups (from Holland Fectio, Corbulo, and X Gemina; from Belgium XI Claudia and the Corpus Equitum Legionis X Equestris; from Germany XV Primigenia and Time Trotter; from Britain the Roman Military Research Society, and from Hungary the Familia Gladiatoria). Elsewhere, you could buy books and objects. My friend Richard, who accompanied me, was more interested in pottery and returned home with a replica of a Drachendorff 37 bowl. I bought some books and a lead defixio; I still have to think of a person I want to curse, write down the name, bury it with a dead cat, and we’ll see what happens.

It was possible to eat Roman-style food, and various archaeological companies explained their activities. Children could take part in an excavation, and on one part of the Kops Plateau, the archaeology of the Prehistory and the Middle Ages was explained. It was interesting to compare the products of the various smiths on the field. The object I found most interesting was a big fifteenth-century gun: a careful replica of an original found in the Meuse. The Roman coach was also worth seeing.

Among the shows were the usual military exercises, which are always impressive. We watched a gladiatorial contest and a reconstruction of a Roman cremation. Had we been there on Saturday, we might have seen a reconstruction of the Mithraic mysteries – plus the soccer match Holland-Japan, because there are more important things than ancient history and archaeology.

One of the most interesting things was the place where people could show old objects they had found in their backyard – usually recent stuff, but who knows what they may have discovered. Maybe a dead cat with a lead defixio.


Meanwhile at LacusCurtius: chous.

Common Errors (35): Ambiorix

2 June 2010

Tongeren's Statue of Ambiorix

I love Belgium – my favorite Amsterdam pub is the Flemish Cultural Center – and I love the city of Tongeren, so it is with some regret that I am going to bust a Belgian national myth: that the Eburonian leader Ambiorix in 54 BCE destroyed Caesar‘s Fourteenth Legion at Tongeren. Yes, there is a deservedly famous statue in Tongeren (discussed here), but it’s on the wrong place.

Granted, Caesar calls the site of the defeat of the Fourteenth “Atuatuca”, and this name was also applied to Tongeren. The problem is that there are no Roman archaeological finds from Tongeren that can be dated prior to 30 BCE. Of course it is often said that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, but that is only true when a town has been poorly excavated. That cannot be said of Tongeren, which has been the focus of much research.

The walls of Caestrich

The walls of Caestrich

So, where did Caesar lose his legion? It must have been somewhere in the southern part of what is now called Limburg. The treasures of Hees (2000) and Maastricht (2008) are uncontested evidence that Ambiorix’ Eburones lived in this area. A possible location of the Roman defeat is the fort at Caestert, just south of Maastricht, on the Belgian side of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. It was built in the second century BCE, and the archaeologist Heli Roosens, who excavated the site in the 1970s, has mentioned that he had found hundreds of cremations – which he did not live to publish.


  • Guido Cuyt, ‘Geef aan Caesar wat Caesar toekomt…’ in: AVRA-bulletin 7 (2006).

<Overview of Common Errors>

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.

Portrait of Ptolemy of Alexandria

3 September 2009
Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

If I attend a meeting, and am listening to what is said, I will invariably doodle something in the margin of my notes. And when I am lecturing, I am not surprised to see people make little drawings of things I have mentioned. If you speak about, say, Herodotushippopotamus and the long western tradition of deliberately incorrect descriptions of that animal,* you will see a lot of students drawing hippos.

Medieval copiists couldn’t resist the temptation either. Their manuscripts often contain little drawings. Two weeks ago, one of the libraries of Bruges announced that an astronomer who was consulting a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Almagest of Ptolemy of Alexandria, had discovered two small portraits of the great astronomer. The ink is now a bit pale, but you can clearly see that the copiist has done his best, making a pretty, detailed picture of what he thought Ptolemy must have looked like. I think it is beautiful.

You can read more about it here (in Dutch) and download four photos here.

*The best one is, of course, T.S. Eliot’s Hippopotamus.