The Frontiers of Classicism

1 September 2015
Taxila-Sirkap: Buddhist stupa of the double-headed eagle. Note the columns with the Corinthian capitals.

Taxila-Sirkap: Buddhist stupa of the double-headed eagle. Note the columns with the Corinthian capitals.

Next month, I’ll visit Uzbekistan. I have never been there, so I am currently busily preparing. Among the things I had to do was to get a permit to visit Kara Tepe, an archaeological site not far from Termez on the Afghan border. “Why on earth,” asked someone, “do you want to see those dead stones?”

“Because it’s there,” I quoted George Mallory, but of course that’s no real answer. The real answer is far more serious: “because I want to understand the classics”.

Now you may wonder if it’s not easier to read, say, Sophocles or Seneca. Isn’t it better to study the core of the classics? The least you can say for it is that it saves you an unpleasant night flight to Tashkent. The more I travel, the more I hate it.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Killing a King

10 August 2015
The road from Cirrha to Delphi, site of the attack.

The road from Cirrha to Delphi, site of the attack.

The story is told by Livy: in 172 BC, King Eumenes of Pergamon came to Rome, where the Senate received him with all pomp and fanfare the Romans believed to be due to one of their most loyal allies. The king had something to say indeed: he warned the conscript fathers that King Perseus tried to restore Macedonian power and might become dangerous.

After the summit, Eumenes returned to the east, making a brief stop in Cirrha, the port of Delphi, because he wanted to visit the sanctuary of Apollo. Apparently, Eumenes’ religious sympathies were well-known, because a Macedonian agent had sent assassins, who knew that the king would want to pay his regards to the god. They knew where to strike.

The report that the Macedonians had killed a king confirmed all suspicions against Macedonia and during the winter of 172/171, diplomats traveled everywhere to create coalitions for the war that had become inevitable. The Third Macedonian War lasted from 171 to 168 and was the end of Macedonia.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Heroes: the chonological debate

15 June 2015
Scaliger (portrait from Leiden university)

Scaliger (portrait from Leiden university)

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Nanni of Viterbo (1437-1502), the man who claimed to have rediscovered several ancient texts that confirmed what the bible told about the ancient history of the Jews. His books stimulated a lot of debate. Among those who believed that the texts were genuine, was Martin Luther, but others were more skeptical. They turned out to be right, but it took almost a century until this was accepted.

Of course, it was a bit suspicious that Nanni had discovered so many texts, but in itself that was not an argument that every text was fake. The fact that each text confirmed the biblical account was not decisive either, because few doubted that the biblical account was true. But what to think of the words of ‘Berossus’ that the ten lost tribes of Israel had migrated to Spain, the home country of Pope Alexander VI? What to make of the claim that Noah, calling himself Janus, had been king of Italy? Was it really possible that Osiris had been a king, not a deity, and that the first capital of the world had been Nanni’s own hometown Viterbo?

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Time, part 7: a world without time

8 April 2015
Aristotle (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Aristotle (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

If God is perfect, he cannot change. After all, if he would, he would be imperfect either before or after that change. Now if God cannot change, how can he have created the universe? This was more or less the argument that Aristotle used to prove that the world was not created and, therefore, had to be eternal.

It’s a good point and it took centuries before it was refuted. The most famous treatment is by Augustine of Hippo, who addresses the question what God did before the creation in the Confessions. After having joked that before the creation, God created Hell for people who ask improper questions, he made the simple but profound point that if God created everything, time had been created as well, and that there was no “before” before the creation. Aristotle’s question was devoid of meaning.

[Read the whole story on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: Erasmus

31 March 2015
Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Yesterday, I discussed how Poliziano discovered the principles of textual criticism . In other words, he found out how scholars might reconstruct texts of ancient authors. Establishing the tradition, however, is just a first step.

Take, for example, the manuscripts of Arrian’s Anabasis , his book about the campaigns of Alexander the Great. In some copies, we read about a Babylonian canal named Pollakopas; in other copies, it’s called Pollakottas. As it happens, the solution is simple, because a Pallukkatu-canal is known from cuneiform sources, which means that Pollakopas is wrong. Probably, a scribe read π instead of ττ. A critical edition of the Anabasis will therefore opt for Pollakottas.

Still, we cannot entirely ignore Pollakopas: after all, we’re not interested in what Arrian should have written but want to know what he actually wrote. We cannot exclude the possibility that he himself was responsible for the error, which may have been corrected by a good scribe. Both words are therefore important and a critical edition will have a footnote with the ineliminable variants that the editor has decided not to use. These footnotes are called an ‘apparatus criticus’ and look like a cloud of abbreviations.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: from Poliziano to Lachmann

30 March 2015
Ghirlandaio's portrait of Poliziano

Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Poliziano

Yesterday, I told about Angelo Poliziano, the man who realized that ancient sources are sometimes dependent on each other and should be dealt with accordingly: the original source can be used, the secondary text can be eliminated. Poliziano applied this principle also on the medieval manuscripts that had so diligently been copied by countless anonymous monks: realizing that manuscripts could depend on earlier manuscripts, he proposed the elimination of secondary manuscripts. This was the beginning of what is called textual criticism, the study of texts in order to reconstruct their original wording.

Our Greek, Latin, and Hebrew sources are handed down to us in medieval manuscripts, and because it is humanely impossible that a scribe copies a long text without mistakes, our manuscripts contain scribal errors. In the Middle Ages, copiists had often recognized these mistakes and had tacitly corrected them. However, their conjectures were usually pure guesswork. In fact, the medieval scribes contributed to the proliferation of errors.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: Angelo Poliziano

29 March 2015
Ghirlandaio's portrait of Poliziano

Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Poliziano

There’s a lot to say about Angelo Ambrogini. Some biographical details first. Born in 1454 in the wine city of Montepulciano, and therefore nicknamed “Poliziano”, he became a student of Marsilio Ficino, one of the great philosophers of the Renaissance and a courtier of the Medici family. Poliziano remained in this city and was one of the teachers in the Florentine Academy until his death in 1494. Although he had many students, he was able to publish the poems of Catullus, translate parts of the Iliad, and publish all kinds of observations on the ancient texts.

In fact, he created a new way to write about classical poetry and prose. Until then, scholars had offered commentaries on the ancient texts, line by line, section by section, chapter by chapter. Poliziano jumped from one text to another, without much system. We might call his writings “essays”, although he himself likened his mixed bag to the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius.

[Read more on the website of Ancient History Magazine]


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