A known unknown

24 August 2015
Portrait, believed to represent Plutarch (Delphi)

Portrait, believed to represent Plutarch (Delphi)

Let me offer you a little puzzle. It’s about the famous land bill of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC. Here’s the evidence.

Livy writes (Periochae 58.1) that Gracchus’ land bill implied that no one was to own more than 1,000 iugera of public land. Then, there’s Plutarch, who lived a century later and states that no Roman was to own more than 500 iugera of land (Life of Tiberius Gracchus 8.2). There’s an obvious contradiction here, but things are even more complex than that. Some two generations after Plutarch, Appian of Alexandria informs us that Gracchus’ land bill provided

that nobody should hold more than the 500 iugera of the public domain, and added a provision that the sons of the occupiers might each hold one-half of that amount (Civil Wars 1.8).

What to make of this?

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

Archaeology in Israel (2)

6 August 2015

probabilityIn the first part of this article, I explained how information from ancient sources is not always confirmed by archaeology. In asymmetric situations like these, “maximalists” assume that the information from written texts can be accepted: this is supposed to be reliable unless archaeology contradicts it. “Minimalists”, on the other hand, think that information from written sources can only be accepted if it is archaeologically confirmed.

Usually, it is not important which of these two research strategies is preferred. No Englishman cares there is no archaeological confirmation for Caesar’s claim to have invaded Britain and no Iranian is worried that Herodotus’ seven walls of Ecbatana have not been found. This is different in Israel, where there is no unequivocal archaeological evidence for the powerful state of King Solomon. Given the fact that Israel has supporters who believe the Bible to be literally true, and given the fact that it has enemies who will mercilessly point out flaws in the Biblical narrative, the asymmetrical evidence has political consequences.

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

Archaeology in Israel (1)

3 August 2015
Jerusalem, "Large Stone Structure"

Jerusalem, “Large Stone Structure”

The study of the ancient world is so fascinating because all those cultures, nations, tribes, states, and civilizations share one characteristic: a great shortage of data. If you want to study an aspect of Antiquity, you need every bit of information you can get: texts, archaeological finds, parallels from other cultures. Antiquity, I’m sure you’ll agree, is the largest and most interesting puzzle the world has ever seen.

Unfortunately, the available information is often inconsistent. Herodotus tells us that Ecbatana was a big city with seven walls, but archaeologists found nothing. Caesar claims to have visited Britain, but not a single camp has been identified.

In situations like these, when information obtained from texts and excavations is asymmetrical, it’s up to the historian to decide what to do next. He might say: “I prefer to believe the written sources. If the archaeologists continue to dig, they will find what we’re looking for.” In other words, as long as archaeological data are absent, you lend maximum credence to your written sources. This approach is called maximalism. The alternative would be to argue “The sources may not be literally true. Unless the archaeologists find something, I must reconsider my way of reading the texts.” If you think you should not believe your source unless it is confirmed archaeologically, that’s called minimalism.

[Continued on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]

Heroes: The Sources of the Sources

29 June 2015


As I explained in an earlier installment of this series, Nanni of Viterbo (1437-1502) had published a collection of bogus sources on ancient history. The sixteenth century witnessed a lively debate about the authenticity of these texts. One of the advances during this debate was that scholars learned what they might expect of a reasonable chronology of the ancient world. However, this was not the only advance. The scope and potential of numismatics and epigraphy was recognized. Today, we’ll focus on source criticism: the study of the sources of the sources.

In the Renaissance, history was very much an instrument that could be used for other purposes. Historical truth was not the most important aspect. For example, historical examples could be presented to teach explicit lessons. An example is the famous list of Roman emperors in Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which the author offers examples that confirm his theories. Of course, we would not call this objective history, because the author left out what he could not use.

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

Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages Are Important

25 February 2013

Mithras relief from Dormagen

When, in 2040, the departments of humanities will be closed, an elderly historian will perhaps wonder what caused the demise of scholarship. Probably, he will answer that the humanities no longer wanted to live. Somewhere between 1995 and 2005, the will to survive vanished. The ancient, venerable scholarly disciplines no longer wanted to add something meaningful to the shared heritage of mankind.

The turning point, our historian will find out, had been the invention of the internet. Until then, scholars and scientists had communicated their results to the larger audience in a way that can be described as transmitter and receiver: researchers sent out information – books, journals, TV – and the people listened. But at the turn of the millennium, communication became more interactive. People could talk back and could shape the nature of the discourse. Our historian will gladly quote from Time Magazine, which had chosen “you” as the person of the year 2006. The transmitter-receiver metaphor no longer applied; the best metaphor to describe the way in which scientists and scholars explained themselves to the people, became the dialog.

A fine example, our historian will conclude, is Wikipedia, which was a kind of meeting place of good and bad information. Our historian will concede that the designers of the encyclopedia had realized the importance of debate from the very beginning: if someone had a question about someone else’s contribution, they could discuss these issues. It was good that in these debates, people immediately started to refer to their sources, and our historian will recognize that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, everybody recognized the importance of at least looking scientific or scholarly. Compared to the beginning of the twentieth century, that was a leap forward. The greatest achievement of western civilization in the twentieth century was that one-third of the population had had access to higher education.

Unfortunately, our historian will notice, this was not a guarantee of quality. He will discover that the online debates were easily hijacked by activists, because in the debate between good and bad information, between good and poor scholarship, bad information drove out good. Our historian will find it incredible, but he will establish that reliable information was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, deliberately kept away from the larger public by pay walls. In the fight against activists, bona fide scholars and scientists fought with their arms tied, and by 2005, the damage was done.

This being the nature of the game, one would have expected that philologists, historians, archaeologists, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars would have fought back, but our future historian will discover that this rarely happened. If something was done at all, it was just presenting the facts, which were often correct indeed, but they were offered without any further explanation.

Still, there were professional researchers who investigated how to explain science and scholarship to the people successfully. They recommended scientists and scholars to explain methods and theories, but few scholars bothered to take care. Where was the book, our historian will be wondering, that explained the Lachmann method or the hermeneutic cycle to the larger audience?

Slowly, he will start to understand why so many people could, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, claim to be scholars, and were never contradicted: the scholars never explained how they achieved their results, giving the impression that scholarship was not a real, professional discipline, but a kind of amateurish hobby to which anyone might contribute. Precisely when information was transferred less by transmitter-receiver and more as a dialog, and when a highly educated audience demanded more information than just facts, the scholars retreated from the debate, not explaining what mattered most.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our historian will think, three things ought to have been the top priorities if the humanities were to survive:

  1. online encyclopedias, written by professional scholars – and of course for free, because the people had already paid taxes and the information was already theirs;
  2. a sound explanation of methods and theories;
  3. an active policy to refute errors and mistakes.

Our future historian will notice that scholars refused to live up to the expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. There were some websites on which something was explained, but they were rare, they were created after the damage had been done, and they covered only the first of the three requirements. Too little, too late, too incomplete. There will be a wry smile at the historian’s face when he writes about the self-pity of the early twenty-first century scholars: they were never tired of complaining that nobody seemed to understand why the humanities mattered, but they rarely explained.

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide. Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best. People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.


One of these is Roger Pearse, the webmaster of Tertullian.org and a tireless fighter against quack history. In December, he has started a website on the Roman god Mithras. It offers a basic account of the Mithraic mysteries, it offers the sources, and most of all: it offers the arguments to refute theories that present Mithraism as an essentially Persian cult (it isn’t) and that it heavily influenced Christianity (it didn’t).

If we want to avoid that a historian, writing in 2040, will conclude that our generation is the one that killed scholarship, we desperately need more websites like these. But I am not optimistic. As long as our academics are more interested in the length of their publication list than in their duty to the larger audience, the humanities are doomed.

Online Sources in the Classroom

15 August 2012

[A response to this post by James F. McGrath]

In 1995 I started my first personal webpage, which I used to publish information on ancient history. It was the beginning of the website that is now called Livius.org. One of the first pieces was a translation of the Behistun Inscription, which was almost immediately copied on the website of a major American university. Because I realized that my website was apparently useful, I decided to improve my articles by adding references to good books.

Somewhere in 1997 (if I recall correctly), I received an e-mail with a letter by four American universities, requesting me to stop adding these references, because my pages were copied by students and presented as assignments. Always wanting to help scholars, I obliged. This means that although I do my best to summarize the communis opinio, or to offer the best interpretation of a given text or event, no user can check the quality of my webpages.

Now the main point of science and scholarship is that the information is not just someone’s opinion, but that it is based on (a) established facts and (b) a well-understood explanatory model (hermeneutics, positivism, comparativism, narrativism, physics of society). And the main point of a popularizing website on ancient history is not that it presents the facts, but that it explains to the people that they must always check the facts and understand the explanatory model. By obliging to the universities’ request, and leaving out what was vital, I essentially killed my own website.

My website is, for me, some kind of open nerve. By trying to help the universities, I missed a chance to make something really useful. When the Dutch classicists and ancient historians offered me an award, I had very, very mixed feelings. Of course a compliment is nice, but people who offer a scholarly award to a website that does not meet the basic requirements, prove that they do not understand what explaining history to a larger audience is all about. That rather diminished the value of the compliment, and I was happier when the Dutch classicists and historians invited me to a meeting to explain a couple of things.

If students cannot check the information – if they cannot know how the facts have been established and which explanatory model is used – students must avoid a website. That’s the first basic lesson. This means that in the present situation, students must just avoid the internet and check their library. Books are a far better source of reliable information.

But there is a more important thing. There used to be a time, not so long ago, that the universities “sent out” information, which society “received”. This is the “sender-receiver model”. The internet now  offers society a possibility to talk back: the “debate model”. Look at the Wikipedia, where activists can change articles to make them suit their own agendas. Or, if activists create a lot of noise, they can silence the voice of reasonable scholars. Communication of scientific and scholarly information has become a debate, and occasionally a shouting match.

In the perfect situation, a bona fide scholar and an activist will both refer to their sources, and can establish what is correct – or comes closest to being correct. Unfortunately, there is no level playing field. After all, bona fide scholarly articles are to be found on pay sites, so in an online debate, the bona fide scholar cannot refer to them.

An example can be found in my own country, where we used to have a minister of Education, Culture, and Science named Maria van der Hoeven, who is on record with some favorable remarks about Intelligent Design. We learned that the woman responsible for our higher education did not understand what the “incompleteness of a theory” meant. There were many publications by professional biologists and other scientists, and there were evangelical Christians who defended the minister. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if I now want to find information about this, I can easily find the Christian information, while the other publications are all behind pay walls. You get the impression that she is the victim of a smear campaign by unthinking scientists. Their voices have been silenced. The second basic lesson about online information is that as long as there is no free access, bad information drives out good. And to some fields of research, the damage is already done.

To sum up: at this moment there is no good reason why students should use the internet. Let’s face it: the internet has failed.

Abusing the Bible

4 July 2012

Marib, capital of Sheba

That was a nice article. Scientists confirmed that there are close links between Ethiopia and groups outside of Africa, which is evidence of long-ago genetic mixing between Ethiopian populations and Syrian and Israeli people. Not surprising, of course. Already in the Naqada Period, merchants sailed from Egypt to Syria and Nubia. They continued to do so for centuries. It would have been real news if there had been no genetic mixing.

Unfortunately, scientists do not like to confirm what is already known. Or, to be more precise: they themselves have no problem with it, because a confirmation is also interesting, but their financers do not like it. So, the article is introduced by referring to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem (1 Kings 10.1-13). And voilà, all journalists copy it, although Sheba is not in Ethiopia but in Yemen. I expect that the scientists involved will, when they establish genetic mixing between the Levant and Belgium, refer to Rhabanus Maurus’ story that Joseph of Arimathea visited England.

Why is the Bible always quoted? If the Thera explodes in 1629 BCE, we get a press release that Moses, during his travel through the desert, followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13.21). If scientists tell about lack of oxygen causing people to hallucinate, they refer to Moses on the mountain (Ex. 19.3). If archaeologists find an extremely old sanctuary between Euphrates and Tigris, they start talking about the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2.8-14). The golden rule appears to be: by referring to the Bible, you will attract large crowds, and can look forward to a miraculous multiplication of funds.

Of course the Bible does mention that Moses followed a pillar of clouds, that Moses went up a mountain, and that God planted a garden between four rivers. The theories founded upon these stories may be nonsensical, but at least there are fitting quotes in the Bible. But there is not a single line in the Bible that can be used to bring the Yemenite Queen to Ethiopia. And the medieval legend that is adduced, is precisely that: a medieval legend.

If scientists start referring to the Queen of Sheba for the genetic mixing in Ethiopia, something is very seriously wrong. Quack historians at least quote things that are actually in the sources. Official scientists are not even interested in that.