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>