Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (3)

18 June 2011

[This is the third part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]


As I said, Cameron’s thesis is that there was no late fourth-century pagan revival that needed to be suppressed with violence at the banks of the Frigidus. Let’s focus on the battle, although it is only one chapter in this rich book. Cameron has access to more or less the same sources as Edward Gibbon, who mentioned eight sources and called the emperor Eugenius a pagan. One of these is a letter by Ambrose of Milan, published after the death of Eugenius and after Theodosius’ victory. In this letter, Ambrose addresses Eugenius and makes him several reproaches. Gibbon accepted these words as authentic, but Cameron points out that there is no certainty that Ambrose had really sent this letter.

Later, one of Ambrose’s disciples, Paulinus, interpreted the letter incorrectly, exaggerating the saintly bishop’s resistance against Eugenius. Another author, the church historian Rufinus, presents Eugenius’ usurpation as a pagan affair, and converted the battle of the Frigidus into an epic clash between orthodoxy and paganism. Later authors like Theodoret, Sozomenus, and Socrates, copied this and elaborated the story. Where Gibbon and his followers believed that Eugenius’ paganism was proved by several sources, Cameron points out that they are not independent, that some of them can be eliminated, and that others just don’t mention what has been read in them.

Now we may object that the youngest sources contain information that cannot be found in Rufinus. Cameron’s counterargument is that these authors never add the same information, and proves that the extra information is nothing but elaboration. There were no statues of Hercules and Jupiter at the battlefield, missiles thrown by Eugenius’ soldiers were not returned to them by a violent storm (which is of course impossible), and so on. Because Cameron refutes about every counterargument you can imagine, his book is complex – and very, very rich.

This was just one aspect of the book. Cameron offers many other new readings of well-known texts. Macrobius’ Saturnalia? Not a real evocation of ancient paganism and no proof that the author was pagan. Pagan priestly colleges? They continued to exist and people felt honored when they were invited to join, but many members did not fulfill their obligations. Prudentius’ famous description of a taurobolium? Unreliable, and no proof that these sacrifices still took place.

After reading The Last Pagans of Rome, the world of literature of Late Antiquity has another face. Pagan authors turn out to have been Christians. The pagan senator Symmachus, who has been considered one of the leaders of the revival of classical literature, turns out to be a bit old-fashioned; Christians like Augustine were better aware of the latest literary fashion. The main point is that no one appears to have associated the classical texts with a pagan opposition. The late fourth-century renaissance has, in short, nothing to do with a pagan revival that had to be suppressed violently at the Frigidus. Cameron needs a lot of words and pages to make his point, but his reconstruction is convincing.

[to be continued]

Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (2)

18 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]


In the twenty-seventh chapter of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon describes the battle of the Frigidus, a small river in western Slovenia, which took place in September 394. The Christian emperor Theodosius I, with the help of among others the Bacurius mentioned above, defeated the army of the usurper Eugenius and his general Arbogast. In a note, Gibbon mentions no less than eight sources, which is a lot for an event in the fourth century. Feeling confident, the British historian accepted all information, and he repeated that Eugenius was a pagan, or supported paganism, as is indicated by several authors. In the next chapter, Gibbon described how Theodosius’ reign marked “the total extirpation” of ancient paganism.

For two centuries, no one has doubted this reconstruction. In fact, it was used to support new theories. Eugenius’ reign was believed to be the political aspect of a pagan revival in the late fourth century, a desperate renaissance in which many old texts were copied again and new texts were written. The idea that there was an Indian Summer for paganism is very common: to offer but one example from popular culture, it is the assumption beyond Gilles Chaillet’s well-documented series of comics, La dernière prophétie. The recent movie Agora also presupposes a sometimes violent conflict between Christians and pagans.

Unfortunately, the reconstruction is not correct. That is the central message of Alan Cameron’s book The Last Pagans of Rome. The Italian pagan elite did not offer resistance. In 382, the emperor Gratian put an end to state payments to the pagan cults, forcing the pagan aristocrats to make a choice between on the one hand paying for the shrines themselves and making themselves unpopular at court, or accept the demise of the cults and remain eligible for the magistracies to which they owed their fame. As was to be expected, the great men found their own honor more important than the honor of the gods. The liberal arts were to flourish one last time, but not because pagans were making a last stand.

[to be continued]

Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (1)

18 June 2011

[This is the first part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011)]


Bacurius was an officer in the Roman army of the fourth century AD. The church historian Rufinus calls him a Christian. He may be right: the two men had met in Jerusalem. Bacurius’ friend Libanius of Antioch, however, considered the officer a pagan. There may be an easy explanation, like conversion, but that’s not my point. Far more interesting than Bacurius’ religion is the question what modern historians would have thought if only Rufinus’ History of the Church had survived and Libanius’ letters were lost. I am quite sure that no one would have suspected that Rufinus’ information might have been incorrect. Bacurius would have been considered a Christian.

This example illustrates the central problem of the study of Antiquity: there are not enough sources. Researchers are not able to check whether their information is correct. The problem is sometimes identified with a proverb from Roman law: testis unus, testis nullus. Disagreeing sources are, therefore, any historian’s dream: finally a way to contrast evidence and check information.

Usually, ancient historians have only one source. Of course they ask – or should ask – which information might refute that one source, whether that information has ever been around, why that information no longer exists, and by which miracle the surviving source has come down to us. The ancient historian who believes that he has done his job by merely quoting a source, uses a method that is often called naïve positivism.

In the eighteenth century, this was the best historians could offer. Edward Gibbon was sometimes incredibly naïve when he wrote his Decline and Fall; uncritically, he accepted the information from the Historia Augusta, never realizing that this source was a hoax, never asking which sources were used by its author, never preferring that information to the Historia Augusta. In a sense, it is to be regretted that the master of irony is still in print, because it has led generations of amateur historians to believe that “telling a story based on the sources” is all a historian has to do.

[to be continued]

Tonight’s Lunar Eclipse, Seen from Babylon

15 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Postscript, September 1, 2011

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

Lead Codex Hoax Again

15 June 2011
Some journalists deserve a box on the ear

Some journalists deserve a box on the ear

Being a journalist must be very difficult. You read all kinds of words that you do not understand, like “radio carbon testing”. So many syllables! That is more complexity than any human can handle, so you will be forgiven when you write

Preliminary lab results indicate that a collection of metal books unearthed in northern Jordan may indeed represent the earliest Christian texts ever discovered, according to experts.

According to the Department of Antiquities (DoA), initial carbon tests to determine the authenticity of lead-sealed metal books billed as the greatest find in biblical archaeology since the Dead Sea scrolls have been “encouraging”. (Source)

Carbon testing. Of an object made of lead. Sure. It’s like that notorious gaffe of Zahi Hawass, who referred to a C14-date of an object made of stone.

For those who do not have a dictionary: archaeologists use radiocarbon dating to estimate the age of organic remains.

Babylonian Calendar Conversion

2 June 2011

A Babylonian astronomical text from the British Museum. It mentions the comet of Halley.

The Babylonian calendar is one of the greatest achievements of Antiquity: it combines a solar and a lunar cycle in such a way that the beginning of the year never wanders far from the Spring equinox. The basic theoretical principle is well-known: in a cycle of nineteen years, we have twelve years of twelve lunar months and seven years of thirteen months. Theoretically, dates in ancient Babylonian texts can be converted to our calendar; there are several webpages that offer converters, which are also useful for dates on Jewish calendars.

And that’s the problem. The Babylonian calendar is not exactly the same. In the end, a new month started when the new moon was actually observed, which means that the months could sometimes be one day longer or shorter, depending on the circumstances in Babylon or Jerusalem.

A more or less correct conversion is mentioned in the tables of Parker & Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C. – A.D. 75 (1956; update 1971). Now, Dutch astronomer Rob van Gent of Utrecht University has made a calendar converter that’s not derived from the Jewish calendar, but is directly based on Babylonian information.

It’s still not perfect; from the Astronomical Diaries, we know that there are still discrepancies of one or two days. However, Van Gent’s converter is a giant leap forward. You can find it here.

Death in Roman Mainz

16 May 2011

Death statistics for Roman Mainz

If you visit a museum with Roman inscriptions and read the tombstones, you will notice that old people invariably died at 60, 70, or 80. The ancients didn’t know exactly how old they were (except, of course, for that man mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who said he could prove that he was 130 years old – from his tax records).

I wanted to check this, so I decided to look at the inscriptions from a city where many tombstones have been found. Mainz was a logical candidate: its Landesmuseum has a nice “Steinhalle” (hall of ancient stones). Besides, there were legions over here, which – I assumed – must have kept some kind of administration. I expected a more or less regular pattern with similar results for successive years until the late forties, when the soldiers left the army. After that I expected high peaks at 60, 70, 80, and lower peaks at 55, 65, 75.

Tombstone of Gaius Faltonius Secundus

The Epigraphik-Datenbank of Clauss and Slaby offered 2826 inscriptions, of which 245 contained formulas like “MIL LEG XXII PR AN XLVI STI XXI HSE” (= miles legionis XXII Primigeniae, annorum XLVI, stipendiorum XXI, hic situs est, “soldier of the Twenty-second Legion Primigenia, 46 years old, 21 years of service, is buried here”).

As the picture above shows, it did not work out as I expected, but still there is an interesting result. Between 20 and 50, there’s a peak every 5 year. After that, there is only a minor peak at 70. I deduce that the army kept no administration.

Among the other finds: the tombstone of a soldier who must have entered the army at thirteen (no unit mentioned, but a Roman citizen), the tombstone of an officer who served in four legions and apparently served 45 years, and some odd numerals like VL and XLIIX.

Oppian, Cynegetica

6 May 2011

A pair of opisthuretic Dogs going at it

It’s been a long while since I’ve put up anything new on the Graeco-Roman section of my site, at least anything of any size or consequence. But American history notwithstanding, I’m still committed to providing crumbs of Antiquity to the numberless eager masses starving to feed on them.

Today’s morsel is Oppian’s Cynegetica, in both Greek original and English translation: nominally a manual on hunting, much of it is in fact a textbook on zoology, frequently cribbing from the incredible, towering genius of Aristotle, but also standing on its own as a good snapshot of what the Mediterranean world knew about animals in the early 3c AD, and so written — it’s poetry, or at least it’s in verse — as to make it a natural ancestor of all those wonderful medieval bestiaries. It’s an interesting book, and worth the trouble of putting up.

And transcribing the Cynegetica has indeed proved to be a tremendous chore, mostly because its editor and translator, the Scotsman A. W. Mair, did exemplary work, his voluminous annotations being extraordinarily thorough, as well as relevant and intelligent, which is more than can be said of some other modern editings found in the Loeb Classical Library: at any rate, Prof. Mair’s notes range from the ever seminal Aristotle of course to Sir Walter Scott; from Pliny and Ovid to Schemseddin Mohammed (16c) and Shakespeare; from Plutarch and the Bible to modern zoological works. Those copious notes are in Latin and Greek, German, French and Italian, and thank goodness there’s not very much Hebrew, since that particular language is a pain for me to transcribe. Mmm, I forgot — a smattering of English, too.

Further complicating the transcription is that Oppian — whether he or someone else by the same name, as the old saw goes — also wrote Halieutica, on fishing; and the two works are very tightly related, so that Prof. Mair’s notes constantly link from one to the other, and his 80‑page introduction covers both: this in turn means that, until I also get the Halieutica fully up (only a draft for the moment), some few of the links to it may not work; patience, folks, we’ll slay this monster yet.

Similarly, the many, many, citations of Athenaeus and Strabo and of Plutarch On the Intelligence of Animals — all three also in progress on LacusCurtius (i.e., incomplete and in their bathrobes as it were) — had me detouring thru those writers and making sure at least that they’d brushed their teeth, and fixing the worst rips in their pajamas: links to them are correspondingly incomplete and may occasionally be erratic as well, reader be warned.

Still, when I get done, taking it all together, LacusCurtius will have a solid nucleus on ancient zoology. The next step would be Aristotle; I wonder if I’ll take it.

More Nonsense about Sodom and Gomorrah

1 May 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

I already blogged about Sodom and Gomorah: people are looking for it at the bottom of the Dead Sea, although the Bible is quite explicit that the remains were visible on the land (Zephaniah 2.9). When you write about Antiquity, the sources are the thing you can ignore, of course.

Or, if you have actually read the sources and haven’t found what you need, you just invent it: Archimedes’ Heat Ray, Herodotus’ visit to Babylon, or Octavian calling himself Octavian – just three examples of things not mentioned in our sources, reproduced by professional historians, employed by universities. Sources are only there to be either ignored or expanded with the stuff you need.

Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell of Bristol University are exceptional, because they are capable of making both mistakes simultaneously, if I am to believe this article. They have written a book called A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels’ Impact Event, in which they argue that a cuneiform tablet now in the British Museum contains a description of a Sumerian observation of a very large meteor – actually an asteroid over a kilometre in diameter – that impacted a place in Austria called Köfels. They can date it to June 29, 3123 BCE.

So far, so good. I wonder if there were Sumerian astronomical records that long ago, but for argument’s sake, I assume they are right. Now if the article I linked to refers to their own words, they also assume that a piece of this meteor destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, the Bible refers to a terrible shower, and does not mention anything similar to a meteor:

Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven (Genesis 19.24).

In other words, Bond and Hempsell are adding something to their source that simply isn’t there. It’s the same approach of texts that I discussed here: if an ancient text says that the Nile has converted into blood, you think “blood is red”, and because algae can be red too, you read the Biblical account as a description of algae. A meteor is destructive and falls out of heaven; the rain of the Lord is destructive and falls out of heaven; hence, a meteor is the rain of the lord. Textbook examples of the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

But even when we accept that Genesis describes a meteor impact, there remains another problem. Bond and Hempsell have decided to accept the story in Genesis as sufficiently trustworthy to be studied. So, why don’t they accept the chronology of Genesis as well? Even if we accept the longlevity of the Biblical patriarchs, there is no way to date the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to the twenty-first century BCE.

Bond and Hempsell want to have it both ways: they want to accept the Biblical story about the destruction of the cities, but don’t want to accept the dates implied in the Bible. That is possible. Historical criticism is intended to help you establish why you can use which parts of the same text, and why some parts are more reliable than others. And fortunately, historians have been looking at the stories of the Abraham cycle. Although the consensus is not uncontested, many scholars will date Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age, let’s say in the seventeenth century. Again, this cannot be combined with a meteor impact in late fourth millennium. (I won’t discuss the theory – very likely, in my view – that the Abraham cycle is not historical at all.)

Bond and Hempsell ought to have stuck to reading the tablet itself. Their proposal is sufficiently interesting. As it now stands, they are adding a meteor to the Bible that is not mentioned and ignore a chronology that is. I hope that the journalist of the article I linked to, messed up things, but I am not sure.


30 April 2011

The excavators

Exactly two years ago, the town of Apeldoorn suddenly and sadly caught the world’s headlines, and as a former inhabitant of that quiet city, I am glad that this year, I can blog about something more trivial but also nicer: the discovery of several iron melting ovens from the Roman age.

It was already known that in the Merovingian age, people were producing and melting iron ore, but the activity appears to have started earlier. So far, six or seven ovens have been found, and it turns out that some unidentified remains discovered several years ago, also belong to the Roman age. The place where charcoal was produced, has been identified as well; last month, a farm was discovered. Apeldoorn suddenly has an important Roman past.

The finds are unexpected, but they fit a more general pattern: the Romans were able to exploit the natural richness of the country beyond the Rhine, even though they must have done so indirectly.

Mercury in Amsterdam

30 April 2011


Between 1600 and 1800, somewhere around ten thousand European ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to Persia, the Indies, China, and Japan. Half of these came from Holland. Of the vessels that sailed from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, two-thirds flew the red, white and blue flag. Another ‘triumph’ for the Dutch entrepreneurship was the 45 per cent market share they had in the slave trade.

At that moment in time, Holland owned seventeen hundred ships, more than the fleets of France and England put together. It should also be borne in mind that the Holland flute ship could be manned by fewer sailors than ships from other countries, making for a much higher profit per ship.

Holland was responsible for sixty per cent of the Gross National Product of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and within Holland, Amsterdam produced the lion’s share. So, it comes as no suprise that if there is an ancient god who is almost omnipresent in Amsterdam, it is Mercury.

I put some photos here.

Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft

24 April 2011

F.A. Wolf

Last week, I read Friedrich August Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft. Written in 1807, after the collapse of the German states in the war against Napoleon, it shows its readers how they might regain a future: the only thing they have to do is study Antiquity and become almost as brilliant as the ancient Greeks.

I knew that this was the text that reduced Antiquity to Greece and Rome, and indeed, it’s not always nice to read that Asians and Africans had reached only the lower levels of civilization, and were not cultivated – after all, they had produced no literature. This is disingenuous: Wolf knew everything about Judaism. His more famous Prolegomena ad Homerum were innovative because Wolf understood the rabbinical commentaries and knew how to deal with the A-Scholia. Putting a blind eye to the great cultures of the ancient Near East was unkind.

I expected nothing when I started to read, but it proved to be a page turner. After his infelicitous remarks about the limits of Antiquity (indeed, neglect of the eastern part of the Mediterranean world), he explains what “Altertumswissenschaft” – the rejuvenated study of Antiquity – is about, and what it demands from its students. They need to study six disciplines and eighteen subsidiary disciplines; Wolf explains why and how, and does not make exaggerated claims. He is fully aware of the superiority of the sciences, and accepts it – the senseless claims, so often repeated by modern classicists, that science has made us more powerful but not more humane, are absent from the Darstellung.

In the end, the student has a sound, encyclopaedical knowledge of ancient society in all its aspects and would learn to think like the ancient Greeks. They had been the first to reach the upper levels of civilization, and had therefore been the only one people to be cultivated while retaining the nobility and originality of the preceding stages. It is all nonsense of course, but what did Wolf know about cuneiform? It is hard not to share his enthusiasm.

It is also hard not to like the teacher that Wolf must have been. The following words, exaggerated as it may sound, betray a man who knew his young students well, was able to show them something of very great value, and was happy when they were making progress:

Even the first attempts to explain an ancient text can have splendid results, and allow young people to look independently at the higher levels of achievement of the human mind.

Wolf’s Darstellung der Altertumswissenschaft is available at Google Books (here).

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.

Maundy Thursday / Wednesday

21 April 2011

Salvador Dalí, The Last Supper

No one likes to be in the chair of an amateur dentist. No one likes his government to spend money on nuclear research by amateurs. But everybody seems to believe that amateur historians can add something valuable. Now I am not denying that amateurs have contributed enormeously to the development of ancient history – but Winckelmann and Gibbon lived in the eighteenth century and Schliemann in the nineteenth. As a rule of the thumb, we can accept that, unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is an unqualified historian.

As an example, I mention the British physicist Colin Humphreys, who has recently claimed that the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday, and not on Maundy Thursday. Well, there is a problem indeed. The Gospel of John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (Marc, Matthew, Luke). The latter describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal; Jesus is crucified on the next day. John, on the other hand, presents it as a normal meal, and states that on the day of the crucifixion, the Jews were still preparing the Passover meal. All agree that Jesus was arrested on a Thursday evening.

Humphreys says that Jesus and his followers used a different calendar than the Temple authorities. Using his own calendar, Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal on one day, as indicated in the Synoptic Gospels; while other Jews might celebrate it on another day, as indicated by John. This might mean that the Last Supper actually took place on a Wednesday, which would also create some room for the complex series of events between the arrest and the crucifixion.

Humphreys’ theory is not new. It was, in a slightly different form, proposed by Annie Jaubert, in 1957, in a book called La date de la cène. The trouble with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis is that it solves a problem that does not exist by using a method that is self-contradictory.

First, the non-existing problem. There is absolutely nothing inherently impossible in the series of events following the Last Supper: arrest, a hearing by Caiaphas during the late evening, transfer to Pilate during the night, trial early in the morning, flagellation, crucifixion. I visited Jerusalem quite recently and walked from the western slope of the Mount of Olives to the Davidson Center (which must have been the place of Caiaphas’ official residence), through the Jewish Quarter to the Citadel (Pilate‘s palace); after that, I walked back through David Street, through the Triple Suq to the Basilica of the Sepulcher (which is not far from Golgotha). This is more or less “the real Via Dolorosa” and I needed less than two hours, including coffee and conversations with shopkeepers.

Second, the self-contradicting logic. Any professional historian will immediately realize what is wrong with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis: they accept the gospels where they are contradicting each other (the date of the Passover meal) while they reject the evidence of the gospels where they are in agreement – Jesus was arrested on a Thursday. This is not logic, it is a travesty.

Unfortunately, this is not an innocent, funny story about scientists who should not pretend they are historians. They are common (example 1, example 2) and because everybody knows that unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is just an unqualified historian, they are not really dangerous. Still, there is a complication: Humphreys has an academic title, which gives credibility to his parody of scholarship. Our universities are sources of disinformation. This is the problem I am addressing with my series on common errors; a solution I do not have, but often I am wondering whether we should not create a system to retract a doctorate.

Iranian Panoramas

22 March 2011

During our visit to Iran, my sister Maria Kouijzer, who is a professional photographer, made these two nice panorama photos.The first one shows Persepolis from the southeast…


… and the second one the great square of Isfahan, taken from the terrace of the Ali Qapu Palace. From left to right you can see the entrance to the bazaar, the Lotfollah Mosque, and the Shah Mosque.


The Fate of the Ninth Legion Hispana

19 March 2011

This second century object mentions the Ninth Legion and is one piece of evidence that this unit existed after 117 (Valkhof, Nijmegen)

Opinions are immune to facts, and the notorious hoax that the Ninth Legion Hispana was destroyed during a Caledonian insurrection in c.117 has recently resurfaced. (Thanks Hollywood.) I have already discussed this in my series on common errors (here) and will not repeat myself; I merely refer to the fact that Duncan Campbell‘s excellent treatment of the evidence, “The fate of the Ninth“, can now be downloaded. It originally appeared in Ancient Warfare 4.5 (2010) 48-53.

A comparable online publication is P.J. Sijpestijn, “Die Legio Nona Hispana in Nimwegen“, in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 111 (1996) 281-282.


19 March 2011
Photo Richard Kroes

The Aryan Body Building School in Sari

The Iranians’ English will always be better than my Farsi, so it is somewhat out-of-place to criticize their use of English expressions. Yet, I would be happier if they stopped calling the ancestors of the ancient Medes and Persians “Aryans”.

The point is that, when you learn a language, you must not just learn words and syntax, but also the cultural codes that indicate which (grammatically correct) expressions you can and cannot use in a given context. For example, the former Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, is on record for publicly using the f-word; he was apparently not aware of the extreme vulgarity of the expression (although he must have known Joe Biden’s gaffe), and must have lost all credibility among native speakers of the English language.

Now, to return to the word “Aryans”: modern Iranians use that expression for the migrating tribesmen of the Iron Age, and I am aware that in Iran, it is completely acceptable. You can find an Aryan Hotel in Hamadan and the photo of the Arian Body Building School was taken in Sari. It is common. I also know that the expression has been used in English, German, French, and so on. I won’t blame the Iranians for using the expression in their own language. But the horrors of World War II have given the word, when used in English, a completely new meaning; it is no longer idiomatic and should be avoided when you write English.

It will, for a non-native speaker, always be difficult to know the latest colloquialisms, and no one will argue that we must use all politically correct expressions, but foreigners writing English must also seek to steer clear from false friends. In this case, “Aryan”, although perfectly acceptable in Iran and found in old books, is better substituted by “Indo-Iranians” or “Proto-Iranians”.

Persepolis 2011

19 March 2011

The Cyrus Cylinder in a Crystal Ball

A visit to the ruins of the palaces of Persepolis is always a pleasure and a prerogative. There are two hotels in the close neighborhood, which make it is easy to spend the two days you need without being forced to return to Shiraz. Compared to last year, the visit is even more delightful, because some shops have been reopened and there’s a new, small pub next to the Queens’ Quarters. The old pub, beyond the Treasury, used to be closed but is now a restaurant.

The reopening of the pub was long overdue. You cannot spend several hours on a site without having a cup of tea or coffee. The souvenir shop – well, let’s be honest: most of the objects are crap, and it is only rarely that they are so tasteless that they get a campy beauty of their own. I am glad I saw that replica of the Cyrus Cylinder in a crystal plastic ball. (Interesting question: Shi’ites and Roman Catholics have produced the most beautiful art – how come that in Iran and Italy, they also sell the most terrible kitsch?)

Still, it is better if they sell ugly objects and outdated books than nothing at all. Of course, I would prefer that they had a decent bookshop where you can buy, say, an excavation report (compare the Museum of Tabriz), but crap is at least something. People do take those souvenirs with them, will laugh about them at home, but will also say that Iran is a beautiful country where you can see, for example, the most splendid tile work in the world. They will add that the Iranians are friendly and courteous, that the landscape is incomparable, and that they had a superb holiday. They will show photos, and will convince others that Iran is not the terrible place it appears to be in the western media. This will – I hope – convince others to visit Iran. Postcards may have the same result, and fortunately, they are now for sale.

I will leave it to pundits to discuss the political benefits of people losing prejudices, and just mention that the road to good bookshops and nice souvenirs starts by creating a larger market. Persepolis is back on track.

Yet, much needs to be improved. What greatly disturbed me was “The World Heritage, Introduction Salloon” in front of the entrance. I passed along it, and there were loud sounds coming from it; an English voice explained the significance of the site, making several exaggerated claims. Now I can live perfectly with that; the Greeks believe they’ve invented about every art you can think of, in Syria they claim to be the cradle of religions, and I won’t even mention Israel, so the Iranians may boast a bit too much as well. But what I find unacceptable is the noise. Even when we were watching the Gate of All Nations and the Apadana, we had some difficulty to talk, because of the loudspeakers. I got the impression that no one entered the World Heritage Introduction Saloon, and it is not hard to understand why.

II Adiutrix’ base in Nijmegen found

16 February 2011

Detail of the Peutinger Map: Noviomagus

In 19 BC, the Romans founded a legionary base on the Hunerberg, east of Batavodorum (modern Nijmegen, Netherlands), the capital of the Batavians. Even when the legions were transferred and the soldiers’ expenditure disappeared as a source of income, this civil settlement continued to flourish.

As is well known, the Batavians revolted during the Year of the Four Emperors. Tacitus writes that when the Roman general Cerialis arrived to restore order in 70, the rebels set fire to Batavodurum (Histories 5.19). The Roman historian also says that the site was occupied by the Second Legion Adiutrix (5.20). Archaeologists had already established that the civil settlement, Noviomagus, was rebuilt a bit more to the west.

Recently, Dutch archaeologist Harry van Enckevort has identified the remains of a praetorium and a ditch of a hitherto unknown fortress. The absence of objects from the Flavian period suggests that it was built immediately after the revolt had been suppressed, which can only mean that its inhabitants were soldiers of II Adiutrix. Built on the ash layer of Batavodurum, the fortress controlled a new civil settlement.

The stone foundations of the praetorium prove that II Adiutrix was supposed to stay in Nijmegen. Eventually, however, it followed Cerialis to Britain and was replaced by X Gemina, which reoccupied the Hunerberg.

[Also published in Ancient Warfare; thanks to Harry van Enckevort]

The sign of Socrates

5 February 2011
A stylized starburst


Yet another chunk of Plutarch: the De Genio Socratis; just in English, since the Greek text, along with a French translation, is already available at Philippe Remacle’s site.

We need not be misled by the title, “On the Genius (Sign, Daemon) of Socrates”; maybe a third of it discusses in what his guardian voice might have consisted, and it is embedded in a typically Greek matrix of (1) moral concerns, (2) mysticism, and (3) murder — this last, the Theban uprising of 379 BC, forming the unlikely setting and in fact the main topic: after a spirited discussion of Buddhist reincarnation, virtue and the paths of the planets thru the Milky Way, the philosophers run off to assassinate the heads of their government.

Samples of (1), (2), and (3), in order:

For if it is a noble act to benefit friends, it is no disgrace to be benefited by them; for the favour, requiring a recipient no less than a giver, needs both to be made perfect in nobility. He who refuses to accept the favour, like the man who refuses to catch a well-directed ball, disgraces it, allowing it to fall to the ground without achieving its end. For what target is so delightful to hit and so painful to miss, as a man deserving kindness at whom we aim a favour? Yet in the case of the target the man who misses has only himself to blame, as the mark is fixed; whereas with favours, the man who declines and moves aside is guilty of an offence against the favour, allowing it to fall short of its goal.

Some of it was of the pure hue of the high seas, while elsewhere the colour was not unmixed, but turbid and like that of a pool. As they crested the surge the islands came back, without, however, returning to their point of departure or completing a circle; but with each new circuit they advanced slightly beyond the old, describing a single spiral in their revolution. The sea containing these was inclined at an angle of somewhat less than eight parts of the whole toward the midmost and largest portion of the surrounding envelope, as he made out; and it had two openings receiving rivers of fire emptying into it across from one another, so that it was forced far back, boiling, and its blue colour was turned to white. All this he viewed with enjoyment of the spectacle. But looking down he saw a great abyss, round, as though a sphere had been cut away; most terrible and deep it was, and filled with a mass of darkness that did not remain at rest, but was agitated and often welled up. From it could be heard innumerable roars and groans of animals, the wailing of innumerable babes, the mingled lamentations of men and women ….

[W]hen Melon, the first to make a move, set out through their midst, his hand on his sword hilt, Cabirichus, the magistrate appointed by lot, caught his arm as he passed and shouted: “Isn’t this Melon, Phyllidas?” Melon, however, disengaged himself, drawing his sword as he did so, and rushing at Archias, who was having trouble getting to his feet, did not slacken his blows until he had killed him. Philippus was wounded by Charon near the neck, and as he defended himself with the goblets set before him, Lysitheüs threw him from his couch to the ground and dispatched him. We endeavoured to quiet Cabirichus, adjuring him not to lend aid to the tyrants but help us set his country free, as his person was sacred and consecrated to the gods in that country’s behalf. But as he was not easily to be won over to the wiser course by an appeal to reason, the wine also having its effect, but was getting to his feet, excited and confused, and couching the spear our magistrates are accustomed to keep always with them, I seized it in the middle and raising it above my head shouted to him to let go and save himself, as he would otherwise be cut down; but Theopompus came up at his right and struck him with his sword, saying: “Lie there with these you toadied to: may you never wear the chaplet when Thebes is free and never sacrifice again to the gods before whom you have invoked so many curses on your country in your many prayers for her enemies.” When Cabirichus had fallen, Theocritus (who was standing near) caught up the sacred spear from the blood, while we dispatched the few servants who had ventured to fight back and locked up the rest ….

There’s still a lot of Plutarch left: right now, only 45% of the Moralia are onsite.