Counting Years, 2

23 April 2012

There’s even a bit more to it than that. Astronomers — when they use calendar years at all, rather than the much more frequent Julian Dates — do have a Year 0, precisely because it makes calculations easier. In standard astronomical ephemerides, the year you and I call 1 B.C., astronomers call 0; our 2 B.C. is their -1. (For those who might need evidence, here’s a copy of the relevant page of a standard astronomical reference work, Bryant Tuckerman’s Planetary, Lunar and Solar Positions, Vol. 1, 601 B.C. to A.D. 1), p333, in which the year numbers head off the year’s worth of dates in the column after “Sun”:

This is important because the basis of all chronology is ultimately solar eclipses and other astronomical phenomena, for which we consult astronomical reference works, like Tuckerman, or Oppolzer’s Canon der Finsternisse, or Meeus’ more recent eclipse canon: we thus need always to remember that in such works, dates before Christ will be 1 off from our everyday reckoning: the 1961 Dover reprint of Oppolzer dots the i’s, as can be seen in this photostat: as Jona will tell us, the famous eclipses listed here (there are more on the next page) are referred to by everyone except astronomers as those of 1063, 763, and 648 B. C.

The closely related error of ignoring what the ancients meant by “20th year” or “20th day” pops up in all kinds of circumstances, and writers need to be careful. In ancient medicine, the Great Climacteric, the 63rd year of a person’s life, starts when that person turns 62, not when they have accomplished a full 63 years: a matter I’m amusingly aware of this year, since I turned 62 last November. References to “quinquennial games” are to games that occur every four years by our reckoning: and the kind of trouble modern writers can get in, leading to quack-like theories, is beautifully seen by the wrong-headed speculations of several amateur chronologists: see for example the edition of “De Die Natale” (sic!) by William Maude, 1900, where he refers with pride several times to an entire book he seems to have based on this misunderstanding of his: p21.

Similarly, I periodically get mail, sometimes irate, from modern astrologers whom I have the misfortune of reminding to be wary of the degrees of the exaltation of the planets. . . .

Moral: nothing is ever as simple as it looks, and we need to be on our toes constantly. Being careful and accurate is, of course, what scholars are paid to do, often very well paid, and not infrequently out of our tax money, directly or indirectly. (If your local university prof is sloppy and tells whoppers, write your congressman!)

Counting Years

22 April 2012

Rome was founded in 753 B.C. and we now live in 2012 A.D., so this year, Rome celebrates its 2765th birthday. Right?

I read it on several places yesterday, but it’s wrong. There’s no year zero. It happened 2764 years ago. The same mistake was made by those classicists who celebrated the battle of Marathon one year too early.

Another question: does it matter? I think most scholars will say that it doesn’t, if only because the year is legendary. But that is too simple. This is a type of mistake that non-specialists can recognize and do recognize. I remember that in September 2010, people in Athens were laughing at a newspaper that had made the error in print.

I am not terribly worried about the precise date on which Rome was founded or the battle of Marathon was fought. But what matters is that scholars, who are paid from public funds, must not give the impression that they do not take their jobs seriously. This means that mistakes, even the small ones, are never innocent.

Common Errors (40): Constantine’s Conversion

13 July 2011
Photo Marco Prins

Constantine (although I’m personally more reminded of Sylvester Stallone)

Constantine converted to Christianity. No one denies that. The problem is that we don’t know when and how.

The best-known story is that in October 312, Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in a battle near the Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome. Prior to the battle, the victor had seen  a cross in the sky together with the words “in this sign you will conquer”. After the fight, Constantine put an end to the persecution of the Christians and became a Christian himself. This is, more or less, as we learn it in school, this is how painters like Raphael have shown it, and this is how it is described by Eusebius, in the Life of Constantine (1.26-32), which he wrote in the late 330s.

At the end of his life, Constantine was indeed a Christian. If we cannot accept Eusebius’ statement that the emperor was baptized several days before his death in 337 – and some methodological scepticism is always prudent – we can deduce the emperor’s beliefs from the tomb he had designed: he was to be buried in Constantinople, together with relics of the twelve apostles. In other words, Constantine wanted to be commemorated as equal of the apostles (isapostolos) and as a second Christ – perhaps a bit blasphemous for modern Christian sentiments, but not below the standard of a Roman emperor, who was a dominus et deus.

Maxentius (Museum Dresden)

So, Constantine did convert to Christianity. But the story is far more complex than is commonly assumed.

In the first place, the age of the persecutions was over when Constantine and Maxentius clashed. In the western provinces, where not many Christians were living, the emperors had already put an end to persecuting them several years before. There’s some debate about the exact date, but it must have happened before 312. In the eastern provinces, the emperor Galerius terminated the persecutions in 311, shortly before his death. In a malicious treatise called The Death of the Persecutors, the Christian writer Lactantius suggests that God had sent Galerius an exceptionally painful illness to make him see the error of his policy (§33; cf. 2 Maccabees 9.5).

Constantine and the Sun God

So, the persecutions were not ended in 312, because they were over already. There was no vision either. That was a thing of the past as well: it happened in 309 or early in 310. At this stage, Constantine believed it was a manifestation of Apollo, whom he had identified as the sun-god. We have several coins from this years, like the one shown to the right, which shows Constantine with the sun-god’s chariot on his shield, and Apollo next to him. After Constantine had captured Rome, he rededicated the Colossus of the Sun, next to the Colosseum; that this monument was dear to him, is suggested by the fact that his triumphal arch was almost next to it.

The oldest description of Constantine’s vision is a speech by an anonymous orator (Panegyrici Latini 7 (6) 21.4-5), who was praising Constantine and the city of Trier, and refers to the emperor’s visit to “the most beautiful temple in the world”. Here, he had seen Apollo and Victory, who had offered him wreaths, promising him a rule of thirty years. We do not know what this vision may have looked like, but the description fits a sun halo like the one shown below. Halos are extremely impressive, and a large one may easily have been read as the Sun offering Constantine a wreath (or wreaths – there can be more than one halo), with three crosses indicating the number XXX.

The evidence that Constantine saw only one cross with a written command to win “in this sign” (ἐν τούτῳ νίκα), is more than a quarter of a century younger. It can be found in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine (1.37-40). Under normal circumstances, we would discard this text, because it is younger and appears to be based upon a misunderstanding of the light vision of 309/310. The most plausible scenario is that Constantine experienced a light vision, which he at first interpreted as a sign of Apollo, but later – after he had conquered the Christian provinces in the east (in 324) – reinterpreted as a Christian miracle.

Licinius (Bode Museum)

This becomes even more attractive when we take into account that Eusebius does not know anything about a Christian vision in another book, the History of the Church; in §9.9, he describes the Battle at the Milvian Bridge as the prelude to the Edict of Milan, in which Constantine and his ally Licinius reaffirmed Galerius’ decision that Christianity was acceptable, and even promised some compensation to the Church. This must have been Licinius’ proposal, because he ruled in the eastern provinces and the new faith hardly mattered in the West. Apparently, it was Licinius who introduced the pro-Christian policy.

To sum up: Constantine experienced the Light Vision in 309/310, agreed to Licinius’ pro-Christian policy, pursued this policy himself after he had defeated Licinius, became Christian in the last phase of his reign, and reinterpreted the vision. But if this is so plausible, why is everything attributed to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?

Tombstone with the Christianized “chrestos” symbol (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The answer can be found in Lactantius’ Death of the Persecutors, written immediately after the Edict of Milan. He tells that before his fight with Maxentius, Constantine had a dream, in which he was ordered to put the -sign on the shields of his soldiers. When taken out of context, this confirms the story that Eusebius told a quarter of a century later, about the cross vision. The confirmation appears to be strong, especially because in the Life of Constantine, Eusebius continues his account of the vision with a description of Constantine’s military standard, and in his History of the Church, he mentions that the emperor wanted to be shown with the “salvation-bringing symbol” in his hand.

However, Lactantius does not claim that Constantine converted to Christianity and does not even claim that the symbol was Christian. The same applies to Eusebius’ History of the Church: we read that Constantine wanted to be shown with the symbol in his hand, but it is not stated that Constantine realized that it was a Christian symbol. This may seem an unfair objection, but it must be stressed that Lactantius also mentions that Licinius has had a dream, in which angels announced his victory. Because this dream is an obvious invention by Lactantius, it is certainly possible that Constantine’s dream is an invention too.

There’s another problem. The -sign certainly was a Christian symbol in the final years of Constantine’s reign. The symbol was also in use prior to the fourth century: readers used it to indicate in the margin of a text that something was chrestos, “useful”. Because an /e/ and an /i/ were more or less interchangeable at this time (iotacism), it is easy to understand why Christians started to use this well-known sign. The problem is when they started to use this.

There is, to the best of my knowledge, only one -sign that possibly dates to the period before the Edict of Milan. It was found in the Preconstantine necropolis underneath the basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome. It is certainly possible that this graffito was created by one of the construction workers, building the now famous church. (BTW: after 326, evidence again that Constantine did not pursue an active pro-Christian policy prior to the conquest of the eastern provinces.) To the best of my knowledge, all other -signs postdate the Edict of Milan, which creates the question what was meant by Constantine when he ordered his soldiers to paint it on their shields, why he put it on a standard, and why he wanted to be shown with the “salvation-bringing symbol”.

The answer is that we don’t know for sure, but the symbol happens to be known from a temple of the Sun God from Illyricum. It is a combination of two symbols: the sun ✲ and the moon crescent Ͻ. We do not know whether Constantine knew this, but it is certainly tempting to assume that he had dedicated his army to the god of light, which he first believed to be Apollo, and later believed to be Christ.

I am not claiming to know exactly what happened, but the normal story about Constantine converting after a cross vision and putting an end to the persecutions, is simply not true. It seems that three emperors contributed to the victory of Christianity: Galerius put an end to the persecutions, Licinius started to cooperate with the Church, and Constantine continued this policy, and really converted at the end of his life. He had, literally, seen the light.

<Overview of Common Errors>

There was an interesting response to this article, which is discussed here.

Common Errors (39): Lead Poisoning

20 September 2010

Water conducts, made of lead, from ancient Himera (Archaeological museum of Palerm)

One of the best known theories about the fall of the Roman Empire is the one proposed by several German and French scholars in the nineteenth century and made famous in an article “Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome” (Journal of Occupational Medicine 7 [1965] 53-60) by sociologist S. Colum Gilfillan. Because the Romans were unaware of the risks of chronic lead poisoning, they suffered not only from loss of short-term concentration, coordination, and memory, but also of depression.

The main sources of lead poisoning were the pipes of the aqueducts and wine, which was often sweetened by a syrup that had been boiled down in lead-lined pots. Because only the rich could – according to Gilfillan – afford sweetened wine, lead poisoning was class selective. The Roman elite suffered heavily and in the end, the Roman Empire went down because of what Gilfillan called “aristothanasia”.

This theory has been challenged a long time ago. In the first place: the archaeological evidence shows that the syrup was not boiled down in lead-lined pots, but in pots covered with pitch. In the second place: although water conducts did have parts made of lead, the water ran quickly through them; in the parts where water could be stagnant, the Romans preferred terracotta (cf. Vitruvius, On Architecture, 8.6.10-11). And finally, there’s the evidence from mummies and ancient skeletons, from which we know that the ancients were exposed to less lead than we – about one tenth, to be precise. This is conclusive.

<Overview of Common Errors>


  • A. and E. Cockburn, Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures (1980)
  • Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms. Die Auflösung des römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt (1984) 365-366
  • Hans van Maanen, Encyclopedie van misvattingen (2010), pp.55-56
  • John Scarborough, “The Myth of Lead Poisoning Among the Romans: An Essay Review” in the Journal of the History of Medicine, 39 (1984), 469-475

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>

Ancient History, Poor Information, and the Internet

19 June 2010

Flowers in my office

(Since 1995, I have maintained a website on ancient history. I have also written a couple of books. In 2010, the Dutch national research school of classicists, Oikos, awarded its annual popularization prize to me. The 14½ remarks below were my acceptance speech; the original Dutch text is here.)


Ancient history is no longer what it used to be. I am not talking about its decreasing popularity, which is regrettable but inevitable, but about incorrect information. Over the past fifteen years, I have answered about 3,400 questions, and I can discern a rising number of incorrect assumptions about the past. Although the trend is not uniform, it is real, and several other authors have recognized a similar pattern.


Information about Antiquity is divulged through several media.

  1. Living history-projects (like Archeon and the Roman Festival here in Holland) are usually very good.
  2. Specialist magazines (e.g., Ancient Warfare) are also very good, but have a limited reach.
  3. Radio and TV do not really contribute; people look at it as amusement.
  4. The quality of popularizing history books appears to have decreased.
  5. The main source for poor information is the internet.

Items 4 en 5 are in fact the same, as many books are now based on information from the internet. I have in several books seen outdated information from my own website.


The reason why the internet can have a bad influence, is the absence of the universities. At this very moment, we seem to witness a change for the better, and there are some very good projects online already (e.g., the Olympic Games website of the University of Leuven), but the damage has already been done.


The classics are not the only discipline to suffer. Distrust against science and scholarship is more general. Just think of Climategate; the hysteria surrounding the outbreak of swine flu; the Lucia de Berk affair here in Holland; and the rapidly decreasing reputation of economists. Think also about the press releases of our colleagues, the archaeologists, which often contain exaggerated claims (examples). I am not claiming that scientists and scholars are failing – most of the people involved are pretty honest – but they have a serious image problem, which is partly caused by their dedication to their good work. However, they ignore how this is perceived (example).


Under these circumstances, we must consider how we explain scholarship and science; we must ask ourselves how we really achieve results.


As far as I am concerned, I think that at this moment, we must refrain from spreading new insights, and must instead focus on the refutation of errors. It is logical to concentrate on the internet and books first.


It seems obvious that the universities must increase their presence on the internet. We can learn from earlier failures, like, which offers insufficient references.

My greatest blunder is that I once agreed to a request by four American universities, which asked me to refrain from putting online annotated articles, because students might copy them in their assignments. I ought to have ignored this request, and very much regret my decision.


Academic pay sites ought to disappear. In debates between scholars and activists, the latter can often link to websites on which their claims appear to be confirmed; but real scholarly publications are inaccessible at pay sites like JSTOR. On the internet, which is a battlefield between good and bad information, real scholars fight with their arms tied.

So far, I have discussed the spread of poor and inaccurate information. I will now focus on it cause.


No classicist, no historian, no orientalist, no archaeologist is capable of understanding the entire field. Yet, classicists, historians, orientalists, and archaeologists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct field of competence. Imagine someone who knows everything about Greek literature of the Antonine Age who explains the Peloponnesian War during an introductory course for first-year students. Think of someone writing a popularizing history of the Roman Empire.


This type of disinformation – academics who have to talk about subjects outside their direct specialism – is a more important cause of misunderstanding than the more outrageous examples of pseudoscholarship. It is also harder to refute, because an academician has titles like doctor or professor, which give some weight to their mistakes. This is comparable to the “Stephen Hawking Effect”: if a famous professor writes a mediocre book, it will be praised more highly than a good book by a science journalist.


Those who believe that science and scholarship are increasingly distrusted because of a rise of pseudoscience, confuse the conspicuous with the representative (the Everest Fallacy). Pseudosciences and pseudoscholarship are only important as strawmen, used by scientists and scholars who do not want to look at their own mistakes.


A solution to the problem of the specialist talking outside his direct sphere of competence, is the creation of new handbooks for ancient history, written by large teams, as is common in the sciences. Handbooks cannot be written by one or two people. Reprints ought to be checked meticulously. I am also hoping that popular accounts are read, prior to publication, by large groups of scholars. What’s the use of colleagues if we ignore their knowledge?


Popular science and scholarship are a serious matter and need serious reflection. I invite the Dutch classicists and ancient historians to write down ideas about it – must we focus on spreading new insights or must we refute old errors? How do we check the quality of our books? What goals can we achieve? If our friends, the archaeologists, can think about this systematically, we can do the same.


I am very grateful for the prize that has been awarded to me. My website is not perfect, but I will do my best to match the standards set in Leuven. To the jury, I say “thank you”, and to the others, I say “thank you for your attention”.


A more specific article is here.

Common Errors (36): A Needle’s Eye

3 June 2010

A camel and its child, two hours old.

One of the most famous words of Jesus, an expression that has become proverbal, is that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10.25). Tour guides in the Near East will, when they bring tourists to a kervansaray, inevitably point at the small door-within-the-big-door, and tell the people that it is called “a needle’s eye”, that a camel might pass through it, and that Jesus’ words referred to this type of door.

That must be a very comfortable thought for wealthy Christian tourists. Just as a camel may, with some difficulty, enter the saray, they can enter the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the tour guide’s story is not true. Neither is the story true that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem that was called “the Eye of the Needle”. There is simply no ancient Jewish or Christian text that refers to such a gate. And it is also unlikely, although not completely impossible, that there was a scribal error, and that the Gospel in fact refers to a cable (kamilos) instead of a camel (kamelos).

Jesus’ words have a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b; Baba Mezi’a 38b): here, the difficulty of something is likened to an elephant being drawn through the eye of a needle. Jesus is quoting a Jewish proverb, meaning that something can never be done. This impossibility is also the subject of other stories: think only of the remark that “No one can serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Or take the parabel about Lazarus and the rich man – even though it is not said that the rich man has committed evil, he is punished in Hell (Luke 16.19ff). The fact that he was rich and could feast sumptously, is presented as sufficient explanation.

In Jesus’ view, the rich had already received their share of happiness. He was not predicting that in the not too distant future, the poor would be happier, he was announcing that the rich would be punished: “Woe to you that are rich … woe to you that are filled … woe to you that now laugh” (Luke 6.24). No one has every said that Jesus’ message was easy – on the contrary.

<Overview of Common Errors>