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!)

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>

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>

Common Errors (34): The Origins of Western Civilization

2 June 2010

The plain of Marathon - the battle was important but less decisive than used to be claimed

The Persian Wars are often presented as a turning point in world history. It was indeed an important conflict: the Greek national identity, until then expressed as a shared religion and language, had withstood a powerful attack and had been reinforced. With good reason, the Greeks believed that their fight against the armies of Xerxes had been their finest hour.

However, it is possible to overstate the importance of the conflict. Many nineteenth-century classicists argued that if the Greeks had lost their war against Persia, their new masters would have substituted the Athenian democracy with a tyranny, and the young Athenian culture would have vanished in a vortex of Oriental despotism, irrationality, and cruelty. Democracy and philosophy would have died, and Greek civilization would have had a different nature.

As it happens, the importance of the Persian War has been the subject of a famous theoretical discussion between Max Weber (1864-1920) and Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), who had written that if the Persians had won the war,

“the outcome would have been that some kind of church […] would have put Greek life and thought under a yoke and would have chained all free dynamics, and the new Greek culture would, like the oriental cultures, have had a theological-religious nature.”

It is not true, as is often said, that the question “what if…?” is meaningless. It is discussing why and how we’ve become what we are. Nothing less. Meyer focuses on an important point. However, we can no longer answer the question with his dogmatic certainty.

Weber, who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences but started his career as a pupil of the great ancient historian Theodor Mommsen, discussed this matter in a rightly famous essay, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik”. I will not summarize it, and will concentrate on one simple question: how did Meyer know that a Persian victory would have obstructed the rise of freedom, democracy, and rationalism? Weber easily proved that Meyer’s reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event by pointing at what would have happened if it had not taken place. And counterfactual explanations are, as any student of history learns in his first year, rarely reliable.

Let’s take a look at some uncontested facts. In the first place, in 493, the Persian general Mardonius accepted democracy in the Greek cities in the Persian Empire (Herodotus, Histories, 6.43); we cannot be certain that Xerxes would have abolished the Athenian democracy. In his account of the great war, Herodotus does not refer to Persian plans for regime change in Athens, and his description of the negotiations in 480/479 even suggests that the great king had no problems with democracy.

In the second place, the axiom that the Persians were opposed to rationalism was perhaps acceptable in 1901, before the great cuneiform archives were known. We cannot blame Meyer, but his idea can no longer be accepted: the research program of the Chaldaeans in the satrapy of Babylonia, for example, is perfectly rational. An Athens under Persian control would have accepted a Plato or an Aristotle (who, as a matter of fact, was to do some of his best research in Persian-controled Assos). Meyer’s qualification of the ancient Near East as theological-religious in nature, has been shown to be incorrect, and tells a lot about the prejudices of his age (more…).

Meyer’s ideas have been refuted, and what’s more: Weber’s essay has become one of the foundations of historical theory. Not many students actually read it, but in the first year, when students learn to define causality, get acquainted with the three (or four) explanatory models, learn what kinds of argument are acceptable and which are not – in short, when they learn the logical and epistemological foundations of their discipline – they are in fact getting acquainted with ideas formulated for the first time by Weber.

To return to the initial question: Meyer later admitted he had been too optimistic. The truth is that we simply do not know whether Greek culture would have been very difficult. And even if it were, it is hard to pass judgment – to state that there would have been no Plato or Aristotle is as absurd as saying that under Persian domination, Greece would have avoided a lot of epistemological speculation and might have proceeded directly to the inspiring ethical systems of Epicurus and Zeno.

We cannot answer Meyer’s important question. We have to live with that. People who cannot accept incertitude, simply must not study ancient history.


  • Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (1901), vol. III, pp. 445-446
  • M. Weber, “Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik” in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (1973), esp. pp. 286-287

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (33): Cradle of Civilization

23 May 2010

Bronze Age city Ebla

One of the things that made me smile in Damascus was the use of slogans. Tourists are attracted with the sincerely brilliant “Come to Damascus. Get a vision”. (The place where Paul of Tarsus saw the light is along the main road to Bosra.) Less felicitous was a series of posters that showed the president, apparently modeled on Harvey Dent and even including a paraphrasis of his slogan (“I believe in Syria”).

Another slogan states that Syria was the “cradle of religions” – which indeed attracts visitors. Western Christians come to Damascus to see the place where Paul escaped across the city wall. I once flew from Tehran to Damascus in the company of a group of pilgrims who wanted to visit the tomb of Huseyn, the third imam.

Most relics are of rather doubtful authenticity – the window from which Paul was lowered is medieval – but there is a more serious problem with this religious tourism. To understand it, we must go back a while, two centuries, to Berlin. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the government of Prussia was reorganizing its educational system, and founded a new university that was not based on a medieval model, but on the needs of science and scholarship. Generally speaking, this reform was a great success, and many modern universities are based on the Berlin model.

However, for ancient historians, the new model was disastrous, because it became part of two faculties. People studying ancient Greece and Rome had to learn Greek and Latin first, and had to visit the subfaculty of classical languages; those who wanted to study the ancient Near East, had to attend courses at the subfaculty of Semitic languages. What had always been a unity, now became divided – and unfortunately, this division became popular in other countries.

In those days, the Greeks and Romans were a source of inspiration to the civilized, liberal bourgeoisie, which believed that the ancients had been free people who thought rationally. Classical Athens and Rome were, therefore, studied from a humanist point of view. On the other hand, scholars interested in the Near East studied the past to better understand the Bible. This was considered to be so important that, once the cuneiform script had been deciphered, priority was given to the publication of those tablets that helped to illuminate the rise of Judaism. Administrative documents, for example, were neglected.

So, in the nineteenth century, one part of Antiquity was explored from a humanist point of view, and the other from a religious perspective. Texts were selected accordingly, and it was inevitable that the difference was projected on the past itself. People started to think that the ancient Near East was the cradle of our religions and that Greece marked the rise of rationalism.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, all this started to change. Cuneiform tablets have shown beyond reasonable doubt how much the ancient Babylonians had achieved as scientists, echos from Semitic poetry have been found in the oldest Greek literature, and books like Eric Dodds’ famous The Greeks and the Irrational have made it clear that it is silly to think of the ancient Greeks as Enlightenment philosophers avant la lettre. No professionally trained historian can accept the previously mentioned dichotomy.

Unfortunately, they are still employed in the mass media – think only of Frank Miller’s 300 (review) and a book like Tom Holland’s Persian Fire (review). Occasionally, a serious scholar succumbs to the charms of simplicity, like classicist Paul Cartledge and political scientist Anthony Pagden, who are apparently serious when they write that East and West are involved in an eternal struggle between freedom and despotism, rationalism and mysticism.

The truth is that there is not so much difference between on the one hand Greece and Rome, and on the other hand the ancient Near East. It is quite ironical that the Syrians have accepted the western prejudices about the “cradle of religion”. Syria has a lot more to offer than that.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (32): Teutoburg Forest

22 May 2010

The narrows, reconstructed

The Battle in the Teutoburg Forest in September 9 CE was, for a long time, recognized as a major turning point in European history. The Romans lost three legions (XVIII, XIX, and probably XVII), and many scholars have argued that this made the Romans retreat to the western bank of the Rhine, leaving the territories in the east unconquered. As a result, Germany was born. There is a lot to be said against this. For example, archaeologists have always dated all Roman objects prior to 9, but are now realizing that there is evidence for continued Roman presence in Germany.

But that is not the common error I want to discuss today. I want to argue that the Teutoburg Forest was not a forest. Granted, the Roman historian Tacitus refers to a Saltus Teutoburgiensis (Annals, 1.60), but for centuries, no one knew where this was, until Renaissance scholars argued that it had to be somewhere near the Upper Weser, in a densely forested area. They found what they were looking for: the hills known as Osning, between modern Rheine and Detmold. In the nineteenth century, the Osning was renamed Teutoburg Forest. However, archaeologists have found the battlefield at a place called Kalkriese, north of Osnabrück. The ancient name was given to the wrong site.

But as I said, there was not a forest at all. Of course Tacitus’ saltus can mean “forest”, but it can also mean “narrows” (e.g. Livy 36.17, and Livy, Periochae, 22.8, 49.13, and 67.8.). This meaning better fits the situation, as the Kalkriese site is indeed a narrow stretch of land between a hill and a great bog. The author of Tacitus’ source must have thought of this, and Tacitus must have misunderstood this information.

But from pollen research we know that there were no big trees, and the only ancient author who refers to them is Cassius Dio, who is well-known for the way he adds details to his stories to give them some local color. Those barbarians on the edges of the earth,  in his view, ought to live in an inaccessible country, full of mountains and forests. Naive faith in our sources has seriously impeded research – and perhaps we’re lucky because of that, because now, Kalkriese was found by professional archaeologists, and not looted in the eighteenth century by antiquarians.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (31): Pythagoras

21 February 2010

Pythagoras (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

One of the most famous anecdotes from Antiquity deals with the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras (c.570-c.495), who discovered the theorem that is named after him, and sacrificed an ox – or even one hundred oxen – to celebrate this. The joke that ever since the oxen are afraid of scientific progress has been used a bit too often by scientists dismissing critical reviews.

For several reasons, this anecdote is problematic. In the first place, because it is probably one of those unhistorical tales attributed to Pythagoras. Another example is his legendary visit to the ancient Near East, which is referred to for the first time in the second century CE, when Apuleius says that the Samian sage was “believed by some to have been a pupil of Zoroaster” (Apology, 31). In his Refutation of All Heresies (1.2.12), Hippolytus of Rome (early third century CE) implies that he had read this story in a book by Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. Yet, even if Hippolytus’ is right (which is doubtful), this means that Pythagoras’ eastern trip is unmentioned by earlier authors describing Pythagoras’ life and opinions, even though Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle had many opportunities to discuss it. The story is almost certainly invented, just like Pythagoras’ visit to India.

The same applies to the theorem that in right-angled triangles the square on the hypothenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the sides containing the right angle. Pythagoras and his pupils were interested in mathematical proof, certainly, but the first to attribute the theorem to the Samian sage is Proclus (412-485), who lived almost one thousand years after Pythagoras (On Euclid I, 426.6-14 [Friedlein]).

A second problem is that the principle was already well-known prior to Pythagoras. Several cuneiform texts from the twenty-first and twentieth century BCE prove the that the ancient Babylonians not only knew that a²+b²=c², but also knew that this principle was generally applicable. There is a difference in the way Babylonians and Greeks proved this rule, but it is possible to overstate Pythagoras’ importance.


J. Høyrup, ‘The Pythagorean “Rule” and “Theorem” – Mirror of the Relation between Babylonian and Greek Mathematics’ in: J. Renger (red.): Babylon. Focus mesopotamischer Geschichte, Wiege früher Gelehrsamkeit, Mythos in der Moderne (1999).

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (30): The Menorah

20 February 2010

The Menorah as shown on the honorary arch of Titus.

In 455, the Vandals captured and looted Rome. They took many objects of art with them, including the Temple Treasure that had been in Jerusalem until the Roman commander Titus had sacked that city (in 70 CE). The Vandals took the objects to Carthage, and lost them to the Byzantines, who captured the city in 534. According to Procopius (History of the Wars, 4.9), the Jewish treasures were taken to Constantinople, where general Belisarius displayed them during his triumphal entry.

Among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus … had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. And one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the emperor and said: “These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gizeric captured the palace of the Romans, and that now the Roman army has captured that the Vandals.”

When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.

So, the treasures of the Jewish temple were returned to Jerusalem. They are not in the Vatican, as some people seem to think. I heard that urban legend for the first time in Italy, some fifteen years ago, and believed that the story, which is so flatly contradicted by a well-known and accessible ancient author, had died a well-deserved death, but I was wrong. When Benedict XVI visited Israel last spring, this myth was suddenly in the headlines again, because two pious Jews demanded that the pope would be seized and kept until the Menorah was returned. The judge dismissed the case on 11 May 2009 – unfortunately argueing that a foreign chief of state was immune, instead of saying that lunatic fringe theories ought to be ignored.

It must be noted, though, that there are other stories about the Temple Treasure. Ibn Abdelhakam writes that the Arabian conquerors of Spain found the “Table of Solomon” when they captured Toledo in 711 (History of the Conquest of Spain, 21). It was brought to Damascus. If this is a reference to the Table of the Table for the Shewbread, this suggests that at least one object was brought to Spain instead of Carthage. In any case, there is not a single piece of evidence that connects the Menorah to the Vatican.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (28): Cleopatra’s Viper

23 January 2010

Cleopatra with a cobra ("Esquiline Venus"; Musei Capitolini, Rome)

It’s a great story, perfectly suited for a theater or movie adaptation: the final moments of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra, who had herself bitten by a viper. There is indeed ancient evidence for this story, which is told by Plutarch (Marc Antony, 86):

It is said that the viper (aspis) was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: “There it is, you see,” and baring her arm she held it out for the bite.

However, this cannot be true. A viper’s bite is not fatal. Only a few scholars have realized the problem, and they have argued that in fact a cobra must be meant. However, the Greeks and Romans were perfectly capable of distinguishing several kinds of snakes. The poet Lucian even offers a catalog of reptiles (with their poisonous effects) in his Pharsalia, book nine.

I do not know what really happened, but I have an idea: Octavian sent a soldier to kill the queen, because he could not afford to capture her. Just imagine that he returned to Rome with a woman tied to his triumphal chariot. The Romans would joke that he had not won a major war, but had merely defeated a woman. There is, of course, no evidence for this theory, but at least it is possible. That’s more than we can say about a fatal viper’s bite.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (27): Christians in the Colosseum

24 December 2009

The Colosseum

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180), the Roman Empire started to experience increased pressure on its frontiers. Germanic tribes started to organize themselves better and in the East, the Parthians were replaced by the Sasanian Empire, which was more aggressive than its predecessors had been. The Roman emperors took countermeasures and tried to gain divine support by persecuting religious minorities, like the Manichaeans, the Jews, and the Christians. By ancient standards, this was a logical decision: the fact that they did not worship the gods of the state, offered sufficient explanation for Roman military defeats.

The Persecutions were very serious, and you do not need to be a Christian to abhor from the state’s violence against its own citizens. It is always fitting and proper to commemorate the slaughtered innocents. For this reason, pope Benedict XIV (r.1740-1758) dedicated the Colosseum to the memory of the Christian martyrs killed in the arena. The problem is that this is probably not a historical fact.

There are several texts about the martyrdom of Roman Christians. We know that Sebastian was executed on the Palatine and that Agnes suffered in the Stadium of Domitian. But no one is mentioned as being killed in the Flavian Amphitheater, as the execution theater was officially called. In the Acts of Justin, Chariton, Charito, Euelpistus, Hierax, Paeon, Liberian, and their Company, we read that these people were led “to the usual place”, which has been taken as a reference to the Colosseum, because we do not know which alternatives exist. However, this is poor evidence, and the fact that the Colosseum is not mentioned in Medieval catalogs of martyr shrines can mean only two things: if Christians were killed in the Colosseum, it was forgotten in the Middle Ages, or there were no Christians killed over there.

Of course, this does not mean that Benedict’s cross must be removed. It is part of the history of the Colosseum, and besides, it is never wrong to spend a thought about the terrible things that happened on this terrible place.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (26): Et tu, Brute?

2 December 2009

Daggers on a coin of Brutus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

The last words of Julius Caesar are often quoted as Et tu Brute?, “You too, Brutus?” They are also quoted as Tu quoque, Brute?, which means the same. The second variant has been sufficiently popular to make logicians apply these words to a well-known logical fallacy (“pot calling the kettle black“).

That those famous last words are quoted in two versions, already suggests that something’s gone wrong. They cannot both be correct. As it turns out, the expression “Et tu Brute” has been coined by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1); they are not the dictator’s final words, though, because he reflects upon his own death in characteristic third-person, “Then fall, Caesar”.

That leaves us with Tu quoque, Brute. But Caesar probably did not even say that. According to Suetonius, he just sighed, or said something in Greek:

When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” (καὶ σὺ τέκνον;)

[Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 82.2]

<Overview of Common Errors>

Dishonest Archaeologists

14 November 2009

Photo montage of a flooded Pasargadae

I already blogged about the recent claims that Cambyses‘ lost army had been found. When I finished my article, I briefly suspected that I had been too harsh in my criticism, and when I found a press release stating that the people who had made the claim were not involved in the project, I initially thought that this was mudslinging among colleagues fighting for a scoop. But it turns out I was too kind: read David Meadows’ article here.

The journalists who swallowed the initial press release, ought to have checked their facts, and the problem is that no one seems to do that any more. We have seen the now notorious Pasargadae Hoax: the Iranian authorities are building a dam in the Sivand (true) and the tomb of Cyrus will be flooded (not true, but you can always make a  photo montage to prove a point). We have seen the press releases by Dutch archaeologists. We have seen the outrageous claims made in Israel, where connecting a find to a Biblical person results in a miraculous multiplication of funds.

I know that there are sincere archaeologists, who really do their best to tell the truth. I also know that there are honest journalists. But archaeology is rapidly becoming a suspect discipline.

Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

13 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Persian soldiers, on a glazed relief from Susa, now in the Louvre.

You can leave it to archaeologists to make exaggerated claims and you can leave it to journalists to swallow the nonsense. The readers of this little blog know that I have introduced the Ctesias Scale to measure poor archaeological journalism. A possible example of wilful disinformation was the announcement, earlier this week, that the remains of Cambyses‘ lost army had been found: go here or here for examples.

The story: in 525 BCE, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt. After that, he sent an army to the west, to conquer the Oracle of Ammon. It never reached the place, and the Greek researcher Herodotus says that it was destroyed by a violent desert storm. Now, two Italian archaeologists, the twin brothers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, claim to have found remains of the army, partly on a sheltered place where people might have tried to find cover against a sandstorm.

There are two reasons to be suspicious.

In the first place, Herodotus is not a very reliable author. Not because he is not interested in the truth: on the contrary, he is certainly one of the most truthloving writers of the ancient world. But it was hard to get correct information, and Herodotus was standing in a tradition that appreciated an artful presentation. So, in his Histories, Xerxes‘ failed expedition is mirrored by the failures of earlier Persian rulers. So, Herodotus says that Cyrus was defeated by the Massagetes (according to Xenophon, Cyrus died of natural causes); that Darius lost a navy in a storm at the Athos; that Darius also lost an army during a Scythian campaign; and that Cambyses lost an army in the desert. These stories are not necessarily untrue, but the repetition makes one suspicious. I would not be surprised if some of these stories were created by Herodotus because he believed they had to have happened.

But even if we assume that Cambyses sent out an expedition to the Oracle of Ammon, there is still a reason not to believe the claim by our two Italian archaeologists. What they have found, or claim to have found, is a set of Persian weapons (e.g., arrowheads), skulls, and bones. Even if we assume that they are indeed Persian, it is a serious logical fallacy to assume that they belong to soldiers of Cambyses’ campaign. The Persians controled Egypt for more than a century (from 525 to c.401) and there must have been dozens of occasions on which soldiers were sent to the west. All these expeditions may have found itself lost in the western desert. What archaeologists can find, is evidence that a Persian army got into trouble; but stating that the finds belonged to a particular expedition is introducing a secundum quid. I think we must be suspicious.


Perhaps this message at Andie Byrnes’ Egyptology Blog may be relevant too; although it leaves the Cambyses story itself unchallenged, it suggests that the Castiglionis are not completely bona fide. That may be mudslinging, but I think that suspicion about the report is completely justifiable.


It helps to check the facts; David Meadows investigated the case. The journalists who swallowed this nonsense, ought to be under orders to read his article.

Two Poorly Understood Sites

9 November 2009

Rujm al-Malfouf

To be honest, I wanted to call this topic “two mysterious sites”, but as we all know, ancient historians must avoid clichés like “mystery”, “lost city”, and “treasure” – that would be the equivalent of “gathering war clouds”, “ghosts from the past”, or “child of nature”. Yet, today I have to introduce two sites that are, well, quite mysterious:

Go there to learn more, and understand less. Two other items: LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has added an article on Roman fire worship to his Antiquaries’ Shoebox, and on his blog, Bill Heroman refers to a common mistake about the Temple of Herod.

Common Errors: Summing up

27 October 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Today, my little book on common errors, Spijkers op laag water, becomes available in the bookshops in the Netherlands and Flanders. I have, over the past couple of months, several times blogged about it; today, I finish this series with an article on the causes of error. It is, essentially, the epilogue of my book. You can read it here.

In this epilogue, I stress that professionalism does matter, and that “amateur historian” is just another word for “unqualified”. I also stress that specialization has disastrous consequences: there is no time to teach the logical foundations of scholarship, which means that quality control is reduced to mutual criticism. That 37 of the 50 errors presented in my book have been made by people with a Ph.D., proves that this type of control fails.

Worse, our specialists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct competence; you cannot expect from a classicist to explain ancient history – but in publications for the general audience and teaching to first year-students, scholars are forced to discuss subjects they are unqualified for. As a consequence, our academicians are now a more important source for false knowledge than pseudoscholars like Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken.

This may come as a shock, but I can substantiate this claim. Since 1995, I have probably answered 3,200-3,600 e-mail messages from “the general audience”, and I came to realize that there was a pattern behind the many misunderstandings: people are perfectly capable of distinguishing scholarship from pseudoscholarship, but will be fooled when a credible author makes a mistake.

I may be wrong, of course. I even hope so. But I am unaware of other studies to the causes of misunderstanding about Antiquity, and so far, the messages I have received appear to be the only data around. Unless professional scholars can offer better figures – which is certainly possible – I think that efforts to improve scholarship must not be directed against pseudohistorians; instead, we must focus on the universities.

Read more here, or order the book here.

Known and Unknown Unknowns

6 October 2009
We often have to believe the stories of Herodotus, because he is the only source, and we cannot evaluate the quality of his information.

We often have to believe the stories of Herodotus, because he is the only source, and we cannot evaluate the quality of his information.

Many people have ridiculed Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks about the known and unknown unknowns; he even got a satirical prize for them. That was highly undeserved, and not only because the Secretary of Defense’s words were a brilliant piece of found poetry:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

I am quoting these words in the first place because I like them as a free-speaking verse, but also because Rumsfeld made a very good point. He accurately describes an epistemological problem that faces every historian: unus testis, nullus testis.