Review: R. Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2)

21 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first part can be read here.]


Miles offers an interesting twist to the well-known story of the war of Hannibal, the son of Hamilcar, against Rome (218-201): he focuses on Hannibal’s use of the myth of Heracles. Miles is not the first to mention the cult of this macho deity as an instrument to create unity in the multi-ethnic expeditionary force, but he presents new readings of the ancient myths. He suggests that Hannibal’s self-presentation as the new Heracles must have been deeply disturbing to the Romans, who had justified their conquest of Italy with the same myth.

Miles connects little-known stories to better known archaeological monuments and offers a fine story. His reconstruction of the propaganda war is fascinating – no doubt about it. Yet, I am not convinced that Miles’ reading of this ideological clash is correct. It is hard to accept that the Italian nations were reminded of Heracles and the cattle of Geryon when they saw Hannibal’s elephants. (Only one survived to reach Cumae.) Miles tells a good story, connecting many pieces of evidence to create meaning, but I do not believe that these connections were also recognized in Antiquity.

As is well-known, Hannibal was in the end unsuccessful. Although defeated several times, Rome refused to recognize its defeat and its allies remained loyal. At precisely this point, the reader would have appreciated a causal explanation. After all, this is the heart of the matter: why did the Italian cities accept the burdens of war? What did Rome offer that made it attractive to continue a fight for what seemed to be a lost cause? What was Carthage lacking? In any case, the Roman commander Scipio managed to transfer the war from Italy to Africa, and forced the enemy into surrender. The sack of Carthage was postponed for half a century.

Miles serves a dessert. The Romans believed that they had won this conflict because they had superior virtues, virtues that were the opposite of the Carthaginian vices. The Carthaginian became the anti-Roman, which meant that the image of Carthage had to change with Rome’s self-presentation. When Rome got involved in civil wars, when it became a monarchy, when the provinces became equal to their capital: every time, the image of Carthage changed.

I liked this chapter very much, but was left wondering whether the historical significance of this once great North African metropolis was really nothing more than its contribution to Rome’s self-presentation. Unfortunately, Miles has little else to offer. “Attempts to conjure up contemporary relevance with regard to the ancient world can often appear trite and labored at best, and fatuous and false at worst,” he correctly observes, continuing with the platitude that “Western civilization was never an exclusively Graeco-Roman achievement” (does anybody say it is?) and “was the result of a much more complex set of interactions between many different cultures and peoples”. But who denies this?

Miles could have proved the importance of his subject, though. He could have pointed out that the volume of Mediterranean trade had been expanding for some time already before the Carthaginian-Roman wars started and that the interaction between the Mediterranean regions was intensifying. Greece, Rome, and Carthage were all subject to this process, and the unification of the Mediterranean world was less caused by generals like Hannibal and Scipio than by this deep process of economic integration. A structural analysis of this ancient process of globalization might have resulted in a more convincing book. Although Carthage Must Be Destroyed contains a fascinating story, the reader is in the end left unsatisfied.

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2)

19 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first one is here.]


Nevertheless, Gruen tackles a non-problem. I do not think there are many scholars who believe that the Romans were always hostile about the Germans, that the Greeks never said something kind about the Egyptians, and that everybody disliked the Jews. Granted, Gruen refers to Antony Pagden, the author of Worlds at War (2008), as an example of someone who makes gross mistakes; but who takes Pagden’ simple ontological holism seriously? As the regular readers of this little blog will be aware, I am usually the first one to agree that the current generation of classicists and ancient historians is not up to their tasks (example), but they are not as short-sighted as Pagden. Really. I think that most readers of Gruen’s book will read the words “the distance between cultures could be crossed in multiple and intriguing ways that elide the antithesis” with a certain indifference. Duh.

As I said, Gruen asks the wrong question. His answer is also incomplete. Granted, the subject matter is so rich that it is impossible to deal with every single aspect. No one will blame Gruen for not mentioning the temple of Isis in Rome, a fully Egyptian enclave in Italy about which many hostile stories were told, but which was still the largest sanctuary in a city that did not lack large sanctuaries. (Come to think of it, on the Palatine, the core of the core of Rome, the tallest temples were dedicated to Cybele and Elagabal.)

Yet, if Gruen wants to prove that cultural interconnectedness was important, it is not smart to use evidence from comparatively little-known authors like Silius Italicus. Why not Virgil himself, with his borrowings from Jewish literature in his account of Aeneas’ descent into the Netherworld? A chapter on xenophobia and xenophilia in Rome’s greatest authors might have strengthened Gruen’s thesis.

Summa summarum: Rethinking the Other in Antiquity has some conceptual weaknesses, but it is fascinating and interesting, and the reader will enjoy the pleasant feeling that there is still a lot to be discovered about the ancient world. “Classical” does not mean that everything about it has already been said.

More than once, I was reminded of my teacher, the late Pieter Willem de Neeve, who once had to review another book by Gruen, which he considered to be only partly successful, but which he also liked very much, because Gruen had shown many new aspects of texts which De Neeve had believed he already knew. This was also my experience, which says a lot about Gruen’s broad look at things, and about the texts from the ancient world: you can read them a hundred times, and they continue to surprise you.

References to Lévi-Strauss are mercifully absent.

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)

19 June 2011


Rethinking the Other in Antiquity is a fascinating book. This conclusion is in itself interesting, because author Erich Gruen asks the wrong question and offers an incomplete answer. However, he also offers much interesting information. In the end, the book is pretty successful.

First, the wrong question. Analysis of “the Other” has been a fashionable topic for quite a long time already. Typically, an ancient historian or classicist collected everything that the Greeks and Romans had written about one of their neighbors (e.g., the Persians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans) and investigated how the classical authors presented their subject matter. The Carthaginian from literature often turned out to be a kind of anti-Roman, with all vices that the Romans detested most in themselves. In an interesting chapter in his Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2010), British classicist Richard Miles showed how the Carthaginian vices changed with the developing self-image of the Romans.

To the best of my knowledge, no classicist or historian has ever claimed that the “Other” was only the anti-Greek or anti-Roman. When I read an article about, say, Greek images of Egypt, I never have the impression that the modern author implied that the Greeks did not also recognize the Egyptians as human beings with whom they had a lot in common. Yet, Gruen sets out to show that the same sources that are read as presentations of the Other, can be read as evidence that the ancient nations recognized similarities.

The result is, as I said, fascinating and certainly worth reading. Of course, the relations were not just black and white, “we” versus “the other”, antagonistic only. The stories that the ancient nations told about each other, indeed show that they often believed that they had a lot to share.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the Other”, Gruen deals with Greek ideas about the Persians and Egyptians, Roman views of Carthage, Caesar’s Gauls, Tacitus’ Germans and Jews, and ideas about people with a different color. In the brilliant second part, “Connections with the Other”, Gruen presents the patterns used to stress cultural interconnectedness. In their foundation legends, for example, the Greeks and Romans presented themselves as descendants from other nations; in genealogical lists, Greeks and Jews could describe themselves as brothers of other nations; and there was always a possibility to adopt each other’s roles, like a Greek presenting a Jew as in the traditionally Greek role of philosopher.

Often, Gruen’s conclusions seem a bit too obvious. I was not surprised to read that Aeschylus does not present us with a hostile portrayal of the Persians in his famous play with the same title. Still, Gruen has a lot of interesting observations to make. I had not expected that the famous expression “Punica fides” is in fact very rare. There were many surprises, especially in the second part of the book.

[to be continued]

Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (4)

18 June 2011

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


I argued that Cameron’s thesis that there was no late fourth-century pagan revival looks convincing. However, this could also be said of Gibbon’s reconstruction of the events, which looked convincing for no less than two centuries. How can we establish which theory is better, in a field of scholarship where eight sources is many? We cannot test the two theories empirically: the necessary facts are too ‘soft’.

In situations like these, we need a logical principle to proceed. To paraphrase Karl Popper: the theory that tells most, is to be preferred. That is to say, a theory that has more empirical content: covering more ancient information of a more diverse nature. Now Cameron covers more ground than all of the earlier scholars: even though the number of sources has not expanded very much, he deals with more coins, more inscriptions, more objects of art. Our lack of information about this age is still disastrous, but Cameron uses his small advantage completely. There is not a single aspect of Late Antiquity – or at least the Latin part of it, because I would have loved to read more about the eastern half of the Empire – that he does not discuss.

This means that his book is also very long: 808 pages of text, excluding the index, an appendix and a “selected” bibliography of forty-six pages of fine print. You need to know something about Late Antiquity (don’t consider buying it if Rutilius Namatianus is unknown to you), but Cameron offers at least two weeks of intellectual adventure. This was the most interesting and rewarding book I have read since the fourth volume of Meyer’s Marginal Jew.

Complex and detailed, but The Last Pagans of Rome is superb. Summarized unfriendly, Cameron proves that paganism did not resist Christianity. How could it have been different? Christians were well-organized, while the pagans did not recognize themselves as one group, and never organized themselves.

But as Cameron indicates, there’s another, more positive way to look at it. The classical tradition was so completely absorbed by Christianity that we often cannot identify who was pagan and who was Christian. Both parties cared for the classical heritage. This has still consequences for us: the classical canon that we know, which includes texts in “silver Latin”, is not identical to the set of texts that was most popular when Rome was at its cultural zenith. What we can read today, reflects the taste of Late Antiquity.

The opposition between Christians and pagans, in which only the last-mentioned were the keepers of the classics, is a false one. Not the fathers of the Church and the fanatical pagans are typical for the late fourth century, but the moderates, who changed religion but did not abandon the classics. I imagine they were just too polite and well-mannered to make religion a divisive issue. With one host, they joined in a Christian prayer; upon entering another house, they burned some incense for the ancestors. And when they went home, they invited a rabbi to bless the crops: his blessing had been beneficial in the past, so why stop now?

This ambiguity may explain why Bacurius, the officer I mentioned in the first part of this laudatio review, was considered a Christian by a Christian, and a pagan by a pagan.

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

18 June 2011

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


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

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

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

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

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

[to be continued]

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

18 June 2011

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


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

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

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

[to be continued]

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

18 June 2011

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


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

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

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

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

[to be continued]

Velleius Paterculus and the Gospel of Mark

18 August 2010

Augustus (Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida)

One of the (many) interesting aspects of the Gospel of Mark is that the reader knows more than the dramatis personae. In the first line, essentially the title of this short book, Jesus is identified as the Son of God. Unclean spirits (3.11-12, 5.7), the high priest (14.61), and a Roman officer (15.39) are aware of Christ’s divine nature, but the disciples remain puzzled. Maybe even Mark’s Jesus is unaware of his true nature, because he consistently calls himself Son of Man.

Perhaps Jesus believed that the Son of Man and the Son of God were identical. That is how I would read 14.61-62, but christology is not my subject and I want to focus on Mark’s double message. At first sight, Mark offers a story about the most miserable of men: in spite of successes, he has to leave his homeland, and in Jerusalem, he is abandoned by his disciples, arrested, judged by a Jew, mocked by Jews, abandoned to the Romans, judged by a Roman, mocked by Romans, abandoned to the cross, and mocked by criminals. His dying words show that he realizes even his Father has abandoned him (“Why have you forsaken me?”).

A Christian believer who reads this same text, will understand it differently. He knows that he must not focus on the opinions of the disciples, but on the words of Jesus’ enemies, who correctly identify that big loser as the Savior. The Gospel of Mark is a text with a message and a countermessage. Whatever you believe, this is great literature.

I had to think of this when I was occupied with the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus, about whom I blogged yesterday. In his Augustan narrative, he employs the same contrasts. There’s a message of praise, as was common in Roman sources about Augustus, and a highly critical countermessage. Take, for instance this line:

It was in keeping with his fortune and his clemency that not one of those who had borne arms against him was put to death by him, or by his order (2.87.2).

But this is immediately contradicted by the nine examples Paterculus offers: four of these people preferred suicide to the delights of Augustan clemency. Worse, in the next section, 2.88, we read how ruthlessly efficient Maecenas got rid of one of Octavian’s opponents. True, Augustus had no blood on his hands, but Velleius offers a strong counterpoint.

There’s more. The statement that everybody delighted in Augustus’ restoration is contradicted by three references to conspiracies. We learn that the prince of peace sacrificed his political friend Cicero to his alliance with Marc Antony and Lepidus, failed to control his men at Perugia, left the supreme command in battle to Agrippa, and did not properly educate his daughter.

This is not the work of a clumsy writer. It is intentional. Augustus’ successes are mentioned in passing, like the war in Spain, or ignored, like the rebuilding of Rome and the Secular Games. We read a lot, on the other hand, about the Third Civil War, which was launched by Octavian; about the Actium campaign; about the Pannonian Revolt, which proves that the pacification of the provinces was unsuccessful; and finally the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest, ‘the greatest calamity experienced by the Romans since the defeat of Crassus in Parthia‘ (2.119.1).

Message and countermessage. For every boast of Augustus’ propaganda, Velleius offers a counterpoint. I wonder whether there are more ancient texts structured like this. Suggestions, anyone?

Velleius’ Chronology

17 August 2010

The Fasti Capitolini

For the past two weeks, I have been occupied with Velleius Paterculus, a Roman historian from the age of Tiberius who wrote a brief account of the history of Rome, which he dedicated to his friend Marcus Vinicius. I think I’ve made a small discovery.

It has been observed before that although Paterculus makes kind remarks about Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, his Roman History tells a different story. For example, although we’re supposed to believe that Caesar’s clemency was almost superhuman and his assassination undeserved, we hear nothing about his countless reform measures. Not even his calendar reform is mentioned, which is odd, because Paterculus is obsessed with chronological precision.

His work contains many chronological references, like “In the consulship Lentulus and Marcellus, 703 years after the founding of the city and 78 before your consulship, Marcus Vinicius, the civil war burst into flame”. The great scholars of the nineteenth century already noted that the dating system Paterculus uses starts in 752/751 BCE, and not in 754/753, as we are used to. This means that Paterculus used Cato’s chronology of the Roman Republic.

It also means – and I have not seen this in the articles I’ve read – that he does not use the Varronian system, which he must have known and which had become the authorized chronology. It was inscribed on the Arch of Augustus on the Forum Romanum (the inscription, known as the Fasti Capitolini, is now in the Capitoline Museums). Chosing not to use this system, Velleius made quite a statement: he was essentially saying that Caesar and Augustus were liars, who endorsed Varro’s propagandistic fabrications, the notorious “dictator years”.

Revised webpage here.

Tabula Leersumiana

17 July 2010

The "Tabula Leersumiana"

Tabula Leersumiana” is the modern name of a fragment of an ancient Roman inscription in bronze, found near modern Leersum in the Netherlands. It is too damaged to make sense of it, but there is one interesting aspect: it was found north of the limes. The object must have been taken away from a Roman military settlement by German looters, who cut it into pieces to melt it in an oven. Several fragments escaped, were found in 2003, and are now in the Leiden Rijksmuseum van oudheden.

The full text is here, and if you understand what it’s all about, Dutch historians will be eternally grateful.

Moral duty

10 June 2010


This morning, I’ve put a text onsite, in English translation, that is already online in at least ten places: Cicero’s de Officiis.

Normally I’d never do such a thing, and I’m quite happy to link to existing online material, especially if it’s something like philosophy in which I have very little interest. And if that other site has a few typos, well I’m sure my own stuff does too — in fact, I’m reminded so about twice a week, when my e‑mail brings me (welcome) notice of them in my own house — and if they don’t slavishly reproduce the Loeb edition, well there’s no harm in that, and often enough that’s even an improvement.

But when on a rare foray into the meat of what it was Cicero might have said, I discovered that these Ten Sites — all, as far as I can tell, cribs of one single scan — print such things as this:

The pirates’ sense of can be expedient?

and find that the Loeb edition actually has:

The pirates’ sense of honour is higher than the senate’s. “But,” someone will say, “the revenues were increased, and therefore it was expedient.” How long will people venture to say that a thing that is not morally right can be expedient?

— I draw the line. (Go ahead, Google that phrase, in quotes: you’ll find 8 pages with that nonsensical line. One of them is brought to us by the “Britannica Online Encyclopedia”, actually hosted by; and another is apparently a printed book.)

This passage, mind you, is not the isolated accident. It’s just one of about 20 such passages of nonsense, all of them involving the mindless skip of two to six lines at the bottom of the page being scanned: except for two inexplicable skips of fully three-quarters of a page each. All of them make it quite clear that the perpetrator didn’t read what they were throwing online. Here are two more, and notice how insidious the first one, which appears to make a sort of sense:

One’s purse, then, should not be closed so tightly that a generous impulse should be observed and that limit should be determined by our means.

where the correct text is:

One’s purse, then, should not be closed so tightly that a generous impulse cannot open it, nor yet so loosely held as to be open to everybody. A limit should be observed and that limit should be determined by our means.


It is their teachings that I am following in these books, and for these problems, if conducted by those who consider whatever is morally right also expedient and nothing expedient that is not at the same time morally right, will be more illuminating than if conducted by those who think that something not expedient may be morally right and that something not morally right may be expedient.

where the correct text is:

It is their teachings that I am following in these books, and for this reason: the older Academicians and your Peripatetics (who were once the same as the Academicians) give what is morally right the preference over what seems expedient; and yet the discussion of these problems, if conducted by those who consider whatever is morally right also expedient and nothing expedient that is not at the same time morally right, will be more illuminating than if conducted by those who think that something not expedient may be morally right and that something not morally right may be expedient.

Jona rails, and does well to do so, at certain academics who are slovenly and untrustworthy in their facts and interpretations; but what are we to say of people, including publishers of printed books and that first line of defense against ignorance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, who throw up nonsense like this? Clearly, without reading it. The first of these two slovenlinesses is tragedy; the second is just plain farce.

And why would anyone put stuff like this online? This to my mind is where farce, like all really good farce, falls back into tragedy, and it’s also what gets me downright angry. Putting Cicero online is a sort of decoration: it’s like decorating one’s house with a piece of art bought somewhere because it goes with your sofa. It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve read it, or whether you expect anyone else to; it doesn’t matter what it says, whether it’s true or not, or hell, whether it even makes sense. What matters is the façade. These are the same people, the same mentality, that say “amphitheatre” for “theatre” because the longer word sounds cool; that toss out as a decorative tag Wotton’s 1624 translation of a sentence in Vitruvius, “Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight” — then to talk about commodities (this bizarre interpretation on an academic webpage!), or Wotton’s “quaintness” — rather than read Vitruvius in modern English and actually understand him.

I’m not a thinker or a philosopher, and can’t hold a candle to Jona or much of anyone else when it comes to historiography or archaeological evidence; but I can understand that the truth starts with plain facts, and behind that, with an attitude that things matter, and that getting them right matters. Caring for Truth is, to coin a phrase, a moral duty.

A Writing-Tablet from Tolsum

6 June 2010

The Tolsum Writing Tablet: front (Fries Museum, Leeuwarden)

In 1914, laborers digging in the “terp” (artificial dwelling hill) of Tolsum, in the Netherlands, found a wooden writing-tablet. In 2009, it was deciphered, and it turned out to be a part of a loan-note, written in February 29 CE.

In other words, it dates from the winter after the Frisian Revolt (Tacitus, Annals, 4.72-74). Assuming that it was not brought to Tolsum on a later date, this means that the Romans regained or retained control of the Frisians. This is corroborated by the excavation in Velsen, which was attacked during the Frisian Revolt, remained Roman and saw a new building phase in 35. Probably, the Romans never lost control of the northern coastlands.

The text and a translation is now here.

The Letoon

11 May 2010

A Stoa at the Letoon

This afternoon, we visited the Letoon, a sacred place from Antiquity near Xanthus. With an extremely well-preserved theater, a double stoa, a nymphaeum, a Byzantine church, and three temples, this is a very nice site. One can understand why the Lycian League chose this sanctuary as its meeting place.

According to an old legend, told by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorfoses, 6.317-381), one of the temples is built on the site where Leto and her two children, Artemis and Apollo, had an encounter with a group of ill-mannered peasants. It was a very hot day and everything was dry and dusty. So, Leto, thirsty, requested some water, but those Lycian peasants denied it to her. When she requested a drink for a second time, they used their sticks to make the water of the pool more troubled. Immediately, the gods punished them, changing them into frogs, so that they could continue to pollute the waters and speak dirty language.

The well no longer exists, and we found it easy to imagine how dry this land can be. Near the theater, the soil was full of cracks. On the other hand, near the temples, the changing water-table has created a new pool. The frogs are again there, and their noise is deafening.

Historia Augusta – more than one author after all?

1 March 2010

Bust of Aurelian or Diocletian; Archaeological Museum of Istanbul

Ouch. The press release over here is written in Dutch, or perhaps not even that, because it contains a terrible Germanism in the headline. That’s not a recommendation for an article on linguistics. The fact that the author of the press release dates Diocletian to 284 Before Christ does not inspire much confidence either.

Yet the article is actually interesting. It’s about a Ph.D. thesis, Style and structure of the Historia Augusta, by classicist Diederik Burgersdijk; he argues that there are substantial differences between the various parts of the Historia Augusta, which he connects to the use of different sources. We already knew that, but if the press release is correct, Burgersdijk also argues that there were various stages of composition as well. And that is, as I said, quite interesting.

Cleopatra’s Pearls

25 December 2009

Cleopatra VII

Now that we’ve had our Christmas dinner – nasi goreng in my case – LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer serves us something to read and help you digest it: Cleopatra’s Pearls, an article that originally appeared in the Classical Journal 52 (1957).

It’s a highly amusing piece that contains parallel stories, tricks to dissolve your own pearls (“a small pearl is dissolved in boiling vinegar in 8‑15 minutes” – or perhaps not), an apt quote from Hamlet, a relevant comparison to the use of Coca Cola, and a good joke at the end. Enjoy!

Good news for modern man

2 December 2009

The four evangelists

Neither Livius nor Lacus, but the occasional exception: on Kevin Knight’s New Advent site (home of the Catholic Encyclopedia and other stuff) his much-improved Bible, open for business as of three or four days ago, which really is the Best Bible Online. Three parallel columns: Greek Septuagint, Latin Vulgate, an English translation. The books of the Bible are webpaged in chapters, so the pages are short and easy. The verses are marked, of course, but also each one has its local link, so that linking to any Scripture verse is simple and easy. Key words in the text of the Bible are linked to the appropriate articles of the Encyclopedia (and maybe elsewhere, I didn’t read the whole Bible today….). Occasionally, special exegetical notes and links. The format is uncluttered, streamlined. The server loads fast. I’m sure I’m failing to praise something; but until now, linking to Bible passages had been unintuitive and slow, and even finding them wasn’t always that easy: to say nothing of the instant trilingual view. Origen would be proud; I’ve spent a chunk of the afternoon switching over all my links.

An extremely useful epigraphical tool

3 October 2009
IRT 607

IRT 607

One of the most useful websites I know is the Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss/Slaby (EDCS), maintained by the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. The English site is here. I use it nearly every day, and it rarely disappoints. These days, I am reorganizing my collection of photos, and it often helps me find the catalog numbers of the inscriptions.

Take, for instance, the photo to the right: an inscription from Lepcis Magna, which we photographed in 2006. There is no explanatory sign, but using the words “Lepcis Magna”, “Septimiae” and “splendidissimi”, it was easy to discover that this was inscription #607 of J.M. Reynolds & J.B. Ward Perkins, Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania (1952 London). You will also find a photo of the inscription, which describes the setting up of a statue – the most expensive silver statue of Roman Africa, to be precise.

Some time ago, I used the EDCS to check which deities the ancients actually venerated. I obtained some remarkable results, which I would not have reached in so little time -one evening- if I had had to use those massive books of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum – which I happen to love, but are less easy to use than the EDCS.

Roman Inscriptions

25 September 2009
Inscription of an officer of III Cyrenaica, found near the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella.

Inscription of an officer of III Cyrenaica, found near the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella.

You don’t have to visit Rome to know at least one stereotypical phrase from the city’s inscriptions: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, which stands for “Senate and People of Rome“. Another expression that has gained wide currency is Pontifex Maximus: originally the high priest, now the title of the Pope. Tens of thousands of Latin inscriptions have survived: among the oldest is a text on a block of tufa near the Curia, and among the most recent ones is a self-laudatory text to commemorate that in 2004, a European Constitution had been signed on the Capitol.

This example proves that if the stones speak, you mustn’t believe everything they say. (The treaty has been rejected, redesigned, found unconstitutional, and so on.) The reliability of inscriptions is an important issue, but the American classicist Tyler Lansford does not systematically deal with it in his book The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. Nor does he devote many words to the fact that inscriptions were relatively cheap and can, therefore, offer information about ordinary people’s lives. Lansford ignores them. For example, when he describes the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, he discusses its epitaph, digresses upon the owner’s identity, upon her husband, upon her husband’s grandfather, upon his death near Carrhae, and upon Carrhae being on the far side of the Euphrates, but he ignores the inscription of the soldier of III Cyrenaica next to the mausoleum.

Of course, any collection is a selection, and Lansford has a right to choose what he likes. Yet, his focus on official inscriptions contradicts one of his own three criteria of selection: “presence in situ, accessibility, and historical or linguistic interest” (page xiii). Only if we return to an eighteenth-century definition of history like “account of military and political deeds by great men”, Lansford’s actual selection can be harmonized with the criterium of historical interest.

Lansford has realized the problem. He admits, on the same page, that his work does not “pretend to offer a survey of the historical topography of the city of Rome, much less of her artistic, social, political, and cultural history”. As a description of his own book, that is adequate and I will not blame Lansford for writing a book that ignores these subjects, but I fail to understand how this fits the “historical interest”.

Besides, it should be noted that the criterium of historical interest contradicts the two other criteria, presence in situ and accessibility. The historically most important inscriptions are now in museums, and are therefore not included in The Latin Inscriptions of Rome. “Rome’s oldest known Latin inscription”, which is mentioned on the book’s back cover and which I take to be a reference to the tufa inscription mentioned above, is not included in the book. I get the impression that Lansford more or less carelessly inserted  “historical interest” in his list of criteria, without giving much thought to these words .

Does all this mean that The Latin Inscriptions of Rome is a bad book? No, certainly not. Lansford’s commentaries are impeccable. The sixteen maps are masterpieces. The glossary is excellent. The index of sites and the index of first lines are useful, and so is the list of abbreviations. This is a fine book for anyone who learned some Latin and wants to check his knowledge during a visit to Europe’s cultural capital, or wants to impress his companions.

I am writing these last words without sarcasm. After all, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance inscriptions were intended for people who wanted to display their knowledge. A Roman senator knew perfectly well who had been honored by that triumphal arch in front of the Curia, but he loved to read its inscription aloud -nobody read in silence, back then- and show to the world that he was a literate man. Roman inscriptions were there to enable people to say “I can read, you cannot, and that’s why I am powerful and you are a plebeian”.

Inscriptions were always meant for pedants. There is nothing wrong with that. Knowledge can be delightful, and there is no reason not to enjoy it. Nor is there anything wrong with Lansford’s ignoring this historical aspect of his texts (I would not write about The Latin Inscriptions of Rome if I didn’t believe the book is valuable). Yet, he should not have mentioned that “historical interest” was a criterion of choice.

[A Dutch version of this review can be found here.]

New in the Antiquaries’ Shoebox

14 July 2009
Drawing of a pyxis from Smiths Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Drawing of a pyxis from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Several years ago, LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer started to put online some articles from scholarly journals. He called this section of his website the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and every now and then, he adds to it. The articles may be a bit old, but at least you do not need an expensive JSTOR account.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 140 articles. The latest contributions are on seven places in Italy called Ferentum and Ferentinum and on Roman Milestones and the Capita Viarum (which also deals with more than one place called Nuceria). Finally, it’s a somehow reassuring thought that someone has written an article on The Roman Craze for Surmullets.

Common Errors (19): Vespasian

28 June 2009

Head of a statue of Vespasian from Narona (Museum of Vid)

After their death, good Roman emperors were venerated as gods. The judgment whether the ruler had been sufficiently good to receive divine honors, was dependent on one factor: did he have a son who would succeed him and force the Senate to recognize the apotheosis? The emperor Vespasian (69-79) had two sons, Titus and Domitian, and could reasonably expect that people would make sacrifices to him after his death. Many modern books tell us that he died with the last words Vae, puto deus fio – “Dammit, I fear I’m turning into a god.”

The Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that Vespasian indeed made this joke shortly before he died (Life of Vespasian, 23.4), but he does not say that these were the emperor’s last words. Those were in fact far more impressive: “An emperor ought to die standing” (24.1).

<Overview of Common Errors>