Dutch History

23 April 2013
Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Fourteen years ago, I published a small Dutch book, Hollands glorie, which offered a history of the Dutch consensus culture, from its very beginnings to the latest developments, covering more or less the millennium that was, in 1999, coming to an end. Reprinted several times, it was completely revised and republished in 2005, this time called Polderdenken.

The text, which I have decided to call Consensus and Crises, has been translated by my friends Marie Smit-Ryan and Bill Thayer, and I have made a web version, which you can find here. Parts of it have been adapted, because I cannot reasonably expect foreigners to know Dutch topography. Most illustrations are from Amsterdam – I’m an Amsterdammer after all, and proud to be one – but I hope to add photos from other towns as well.

The text is about 35,000 words and tries to explain why the Dutch political system is currently in crisis, but this precise theme has not prevented me from digressing on things I found interesting.

Again, you can find it here. I hope you will enjoy it.

Trapezus (Trabzon)

12 October 2011
Photo Ab Langereis

The Hagia Sophia

I was in Trabzon when its football team, Trabzonspor, beat Inter Milan. I have never seen a city that went so completely out of its mind: people honking their cars and even the ships in the port sounding their horns.

It’s an ancient city, originally called Trapezus. It became famous in the Middle Ages, when the Comnenian dynasty of Byzantine emperors settled in “Trebizonde” (as it was known back then) and made it the capital of a mini-empire, after Constantinople itself had been captured by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. In all aspects, Trebizonde had to resemble the real capital of the Byzantine world, which meant that there was also a lovely Hagia Sophia: smaller but more refined than its namesake in Constantinople. You can still visit the place.

There’s nothing left from the Greek and Roman age, but the city has an interesting history. You can read more about it on my new page: here.

Ballistic Protected Vehicle (for sale)

20 July 2011

It is true: I have visited Iran and Pakistan. And in the Middle East, I have seen both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. My mother is sometimes a bit worried about my safety. Still, I was a bit surprised to see what was offered to me today. I’m also wondering what “beast regards” are.

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.


30 April 2011

The excavators

Exactly two years ago, the town of Apeldoorn suddenly and sadly caught the world’s headlines, and as a former inhabitant of that quiet city, I am glad that this year, I can blog about something more trivial but also nicer: the discovery of several iron melting ovens from the Roman age.

It was already known that in the Merovingian age, people were producing and melting iron ore, but the activity appears to have started earlier. So far, six or seven ovens have been found, and it turns out that some unidentified remains discovered several years ago, also belong to the Roman age. The place where charcoal was produced, has been identified as well; last month, a farm was discovered. Apeldoorn suddenly has an important Roman past.

The finds are unexpected, but they fit a more general pattern: the Romans were able to exploit the natural richness of the country beyond the Rhine, even though they must have done so indirectly.

The Rise of Islam (2)

24 November 2010


As I already indicated, I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. On the one hand, much criticism of the rationalized legend was fair: the lateness of the sources is indeed a problem and the presence of Christian soldiers in Islamic armies demands an explanation. However, it was obvious, at least to me, that the alternatives were worse, and I did not believe that we would ever come closer to what really happened in Mecca and Medina at the beginning of the seventh century.

But I was too pessimistic. I just read Fred Donner’s recent book Muhammad and the Believers, which may be the equivalent of E.P. Sanders’ book on the historical Jesus, The Historical Figure of Jesus: a common-sense book on a religious innovator that, although not every scholar will agree with every aspect, will be well-respected and will dominate the field for quite some time. I am very impressed. This may be the new synthesis.

According to Donner, Muhammad did not set out to create a new religion. He was a radical monotheist, who accepted in his band of followers all Jews, Christians, and Arabs who believed in one God. To these ecumenical ideas, the Believers added some doctrines of their own, but the main point was that at the end of times, which they believed to be near, only monotheists would be saved. They wanted to prepare the world for this Judgment, cooperating closely with other righteous monotheists.

It was much later, in the early eighth century, that the Muslims became a new, self-consciously different monotheistic religion. Among the factors that contributed to this development was the fact that the Believers and other monotheists recognized that the ideas about God’s uniqueness and oneness, as maintained by the Jews and Muslims, could never be reconciled with the Trinitarian theologies of the Christian churches. Another factor, equally important, was a growing awareness that not all people would accept the Quran as the most important revelation or Muhammad as the seal of the prophets. The end of Islamic expansion may have contributed to this awareness: the conquest of Uzbekistan was extremely difficult and a crisis in Andalusia made it impossible to subject the Frankish kingdom – but this is a point that Donner does not digress upon.

He tells his story well. I really liked his book, not only because of the general thesis, but also because along the road, Donner makes a lot of extremely illuminating remarks. When we discuss the great conquests, he says, we must assume that diplomacy was more important than we can deduce from our sources. He may be right: perhaps, the battles were just violent interruptions of a mostly peaceful process of conversion to ecumenism. The main destructions, at least, seem to belong to the terrible Byzantine-Sassanian War (602-628), and appear to be unrelated to the wars of the Righteous Caliphs.

Donner does not stress it, but people may indeed have become Believers because they were sick of Byzantine and Sassanian violence. They may have regarded the conflict as one of the tribulations of the end time. Apocalyptic ideas, Donner correctly observes, were still very much alive at the end of the seventh century, and he is probably right when he proposes that the Dome of the Rock was meant to be “the locale in which [Caliph] ‘Abd al-Malik (or one of his successors), as leaders of the righteous and God-fearing empire of the Believers, would hand over to God the symbols of sovereignty at the moment the Judgment was to begin”.

The idea that the Believers were originally ecumenical monotheists is simple. Reading the book, I found myself wondering why nobody thought of this before. But now that Muhammad and the Believers has been written, it is hard to think differently. It explains why Christian soldiers joined Arab armies and why, as late as 800, a Zoroastrian could be tax collector in northern Mesopotamia. We need new questions to proceed beyond Donner’s fine book.

Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (2010)

The Rise of Islam (1)

24 November 2010

The Byzantine-Sassanian War: Heraclius defeating Khusrau II (Louvre)

What happened when Antiquity came to an end? What marks the beginning of the Middle Ages? It will be hard to enumerate all aspects, but at least it’s certain that the imperial institutions disappeared from western Europe: no Roman state, no Roman taxes, no Roman armies. In the East, the transition was less abrupt. The Byzantine Empire continued to demand taxes, continued to build armies, continued to exist. Yet, it had to give up territories: the Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There was also a mental change: for the ancients, ‘us’ and ‘them’ had been identical to ‘Graeco-Roman civilization’ and ‘barbarians’, but after the transition, the basic opposition was ‘Christianity’ versus ‘Islam’.

This makes Muhammad one of the most influential people of Late Antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages. Without him, no Islam and no loss of eastern provinces for the Byzantine Empire. The prophet, his message, and his followers are extremely important subjects to any student of Antiquity, but they are very hard to understand. Our main sources are the Quran, which is not a work of historiography, and the traditions (hadith), which were written down many years after Islam had come into being. Even worse, many traditions have been regarded with suspicion from the outset. Using what he believed to be reliable traditions, Ibn Ishaq wrote the extremely influential Life of the Prophet in the 750s, more than a century after the death of Muhammad.

Until quite recently, modern western scholars have accepted the events mentioned by Ibn Ishaq as essentially historical. Although the miracle stories were ignored, the other anecdotes were considered to be reliable. The result was a more or less rationalized legend; an example is the book by Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad (1960). This approach was not unlike the way Thomas Jefferson dealt with the gospels. Rodinson’s view has become more or less canonical – Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad. A Prophet for Our Time is an example – but we might have expected something more critical than “believing everything in the sources except that which presupposes a suspension of the laws of nature”. Accepting sources in this way, without asking why they were written down in the first place, is called “naïve positivism”.

Because rationalized legends became untenable, there have been new quests for the “historical Muhammad”. There is, for example, the Luxenberg thesis, which implies that the Quran is not written in Arabic, but in a mix of Syriac and Arabic. This is not as far-fetched as it seems, because Syria was certainly important in early Islam and the Quran is written in a “defective script” without vowels and with possible confusion of several consonants (e.g. bt, and th). The Luxenberg thesis indeed helps to expel some minor problems, but also creates one big problem: we have to assume that the Quran was not recited for a sufficiently long time to forget its original language. This seems extremely implausible (more…).

Yet, the Luxenberg thesis is not the worst new idea. There are also a couple of nonsensical theories. Although it is certain that Nestorian and Monophysite Christians left the Byzantine Empire and settled in the Syrian and Arabian Deserts, and although it is certain that many warriors in the early Islamic armies were Christians, it is ridiculous to assume that Islam was created when people no longer understood the Monophysite hymns and prayers. Granted, the name “Muhammad” means “the blessed one”, but it is unlikely that people, after singing a Syriac or Arabic version of “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” asked “who is that Mr Blessed?” and started to invent both the anecdotes about and the person of the Prophet.

I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. But I was wrong, as I will show in my next posting.

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>

The skulls, plural, of John the Baptist

11 August 2010

The tomb of John in Damascus

Breaking news from Bulgaria: archaeologists excavating a monastery devoted to John the Baptist have discovered a skull, a hand and a tooth, which they believe to be relics of the famous Jewish prophet who “prophesied the birth of Christ and baptized Jesus in the River Jordan”.

The journalist has obviously messed up the information. It’s not really necessary to mention that they’ve found a tooth after you’ve already mentioned the skull, of course, and John did of course not predict the birth of Christ; he was one of the first to recognize that Jesus was the Christ. You don’t have to be an archaeologist or historian to do this right.

But there’s another problem. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you indeed find the bones of John. Then it is inevitable that people won’t believe you, because the famous skull is already venerated in Rome and Damascus. Both places of worship, the Lateran basilica and the Umayyad Mosque, are very well-known. There are also relics in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. So, if you want to sound convincing, you must at least address the question that your reader will immediately ask: “But aren’t those bones somewhere else?”

Our archaeologists would have done a better job explaining their discovery – which is sufficiently interesting to report to the press – if they had said something like: “Well, similar relics can be found on other places, and of course it is impossible to prove that one of them is really John, because we don’t have a sample of the man’s DNA. However, this skull is very old indeed, and so we will do some additional testing to see whether it’s from the first century.” Readers would see their doubts addressed, would recognize the doubts that are characteristic of a true scholar, and would not be left puzzled. The present report, although it does mention further tests, will only add to people’s doubts about the professionality of modern archaeology.

A Life of Maimonides

17 May 2010
Moshe ben Maimun

Moshe ben Maimun

Today’s new item on my site is medieval rather than my usual haunts of Antiquity and American history — but I’m not too old to learn new tricks, even if my Dog has to teach them to me. It’s in fact such a departure for me that I have no commentary and no context for it, and those who find it useful will just have to enjoy it: David Yellin and Israel Abrahams’ elegant, streamlined little book, Maimonides.

Luttwak, Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire

11 May 2010

In 1984, the German historian Alexander Demandt published his now-famous study Der Fall Roms, in which he evaluated the ways in which people have judged the decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. The last page was devoted to a list of 210 factors that have been mentioned as relevant, listed alphabetically from Aberglaube to Zweifrontenkrieg. It is abundantly clear that the subject has continued to fascinate people.

Yet, to some extent, all debate is ill-directed. The Imperium Romanum did not vanish. Certainly, in Western Europe, the descendants of German immigrants seized power, but in the populous and urbanized provinces of the East, the ancient state continued to exist. That historians no longer call it a Roman Empire, and instead talk about a Byzantine Empire, incorrectly suggests a discontinuity.

In his recent book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, the American military analyst Edward N. Luttwak tries to offer an explanation for the survival of the eastern half of the Empire, which he finds in the continued existence of monetized taxation, which allowed the development of a new strategy, which was unaffordable to the West.

This new strategy had, according to Luttwak, become necessary when Attila’s Huns invaded Europe with large, very mobile armies of mounted archers, which could not be defeated with traditional means. For some time, Constantinople bought off its enemies, and in those years, it discovered how useful diplomatic contacts could be. Spending a lot of gold, Constantinople created a network of allies, and when it had finally created its own armies of mounted archers, the emperors refused to pay money to the Huns, which were decisively beaten.

It was the beginning of a new look at strategy, which was only briefly abandoned by Justinian, who tried to reconquer the west but could not proceed when the Plague broke out. But this was exceptional. Usually, the Byzantine armies did not fight to conquer or to defeat an enemy completely. Today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally, and besides: when the first group of nomadic tribal warriors had been eliminated, another horde would come to fill the vacuum. There were no decisive victories so they were not worth striving at.

What mattered, was the way in which enemies and allies were manipulated. Sometimes, violence was unavoidable, but there were more approaches. Reliable intelligence was of crucial importance, and Luttwak offers nice examples of Byzantine diplomats traveling to far-away countries to create alliances and obtain information. He might have digressed a bit more on the Christian missionaries, who were able to win foreign tribes for the Byzantine cause and return with accurate knowledge.

The Byzantines transmitted collected information in military handbooks. Luttwak’s description of these texts is the best part of the book. He describes their practical nature and shows how they remained up to date. For example, Maurikios’ Strategikon, written in c.600, offers no account of the Arabs, but later authors added this immediately after the great Arabian conquests. This may seem self-evident, but it is not. In the western provinces, an author like Vegetius, the author of another handbook, did not look at the actual enemies, but excerpted ancient texts, which he did not even understand. (Luttwak offers a funny example about the training of achers.) Compared to this antiquarianism from the late Roman Empire, the Byzantine approach, self-evident though it may seem, was an advance.

Luttwak tells a good story and he tells it well. There are a number of minor errors – I was surprised that he mentioned German tribes crossing the notorious frozen Rhine, even after quoting the actual source – but usually, he has a nice way to display his vast knowledge. Unfortunately, he has added a number of remarks about the world of modern Islam that are not always necessary. Islam was still in a process of inventing itself in the period Luttwak is dealing with, and it is, therefore, not allowed to use today’s Islam as comparandum.

Unless, of course, Luttwak is not really writing about the distant past, and is actually writing about the present. And indeed, several aspects of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire – like its stress on diplomacy, the importance of reliable intelligence, and the impossibility to win certain wars – leave one with the impression that Luttwak is in fact outlining an ideal strategy for the United States of America. In the final section, he lays down his mask and states that the Byzantines methods ‘are in part applicable even today, or perhaps especially today’. A professional historian, versed in the epistemological foundations of his discipline, would never be so confident about the possibility to understand the past and draw lessons from it.

Another point of criticism concerns Luttwak’s ignoring of the archaeological evidence. This is a serious matter. Had he plotted the Byzantine forts on a map, he would have learned which areas were considered important. For example, the site of Bu Grada proves that even in the Syrte, land communications were considered to be sufficiently important to build fortifications on a very difficult site. At the same time, the relative sizes of and distances between the forts would have learned us how several units were cooperating at the operational level. The absence of a spatial analysis is remarkable, especially since Luttwak included very illuminating maps in his Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1976). Moreover, archaeologists might inform us whether the Byzantine army really consisted of mounted archers, something Luttwak takes for granted but is highly contested.

Another problem is lack of conceptual clarity. Luttwak does not prove that the new strategy was Byzantine; he only shows that the Byzantines used it, but does not prove that Byzantium’s competitors had a different approach. However, they did almost the same. The Sasanian Empire, the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus, the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, and the Merovingian and Carolingian kings of the Franks also understood the value of gold, diplomacy, and sound intelligence. The new strategy was not Byzantine, but Early Medieval. Luttwak explains why the Byzantine Empire survived the Roman Empire in Western Europe, butdoes not explain why it also survived the Sasanians, Umayyads, Abbasids, Merovingians, and Carolingians. The decisive factor must have been another one.

So, there is room for criticism. Still, Luttwak has written a nice, interesting book. It may be especially useful for people who like a thematic introduction to the Byzantine Empire, focused on the financial, military, ethnographic, religious, and literary aspects of Byzantine culture. For those who prefer a more nineteenth-century “history of great men” approach, there’s still J.J. Norwich’s highly readable Byzantium, but those who want to understand which structures were there for those great men to use, can do worse than reading The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

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>

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.]

Portrait of Ptolemy of Alexandria

3 September 2009
Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

Drawing from the Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge, manuscript 519

If I attend a meeting, and am listening to what is said, I will invariably doodle something in the margin of my notes. And when I am lecturing, I am not surprised to see people make little drawings of things I have mentioned. If you speak about, say, Herodotushippopotamus and the long western tradition of deliberately incorrect descriptions of that animal,* you will see a lot of students drawing hippos.

Medieval copiists couldn’t resist the temptation either. Their manuscripts often contain little drawings. Two weeks ago, one of the libraries of Bruges announced that an astronomer who was consulting a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Almagest of Ptolemy of Alexandria, had discovered two small portraits of the great astronomer. The ink is now a bit pale, but you can clearly see that the copiist has done his best, making a pretty, detailed picture of what he thought Ptolemy must have looked like. I think it is beautiful.

You can read more about it here (in Dutch) and download four photos here.

*The best one is, of course, T.S. Eliot’s Hippopotamus.

Common Errors (17): Frozen Rhine

28 June 2009
The river god Rhenus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln)

The river god Rhenus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln)

The German historician Alexander Demandt enumerates in his fascinating book Der Fall Roms (“The Fall of Rome”, 1984) no less than 210 factors that contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire, arranged alphabetically from Aberglaube, “idolatry”, to Zweifrontenkrieg, “war on two fronts”. This illustrates a debate about the causes of the demise of the ancient world that has now lasted more than two, three centuries. It is unlikely that we will ever reach consensus.

All modern authors agree on one point, however: when the Vandals, Suebians, and Alans invaded the empire on the last day of 406, an event that must have played a role in the transformation from Antiquity to Middle Ages, they crossed a river Rhine that was frozen.

But how do we know? The subject has been debated at RomanArmyTalk, where it was shown that this little detail was not in our sources, and that it was probably invented by the British ancient historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). In 1781, he wrote in chapter 30 of his famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

‘On the last day of the year, in a season when the waters of the Rhine were most probably frozen, they entered without opposition the defenceless provinces of Gaul.’

Why did he speculate that the river must have been frozen? Partly to explain why the barbarians didn’t meet any opposition, we’re tempted to think – and probably, we’re right. However, it may also be relevant that Gibbon used to live in Switzerland for some time, and may have seen how the upper reaches of the Rhine can indeed be covered by ice. And he certainly read the following lines by Herodian, who presents an account of extreme circumstances as if it is a description of an average winter. Gibbon, who had never seen the Middle and Lower Rhine, may well have been led astray by his excellent command of the sources – in this case, Herodian, Roman History, 6.7.6-8:

The Rhine in Germany and the Danube in Pannonia are the largest of the northern rivers. In summer their depth and width make them easily navigable, but in the cold winters they freeze over and appear like a level plain which can be crossed on horseback.The river becomes so firm and solid in that season that it supports horses and men. Then those who want drinking water do not come to the river with pitchers and bowls; they bring axes and mattocks and, when they have finished chopping, take up water without using bowls and carry it in chunks as hard as rock. Such is the nature of these rivers

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (14): Flat Earth

28 June 2009
World map of Agrippa

World map of Agrippa

It is of course a great image in the cinema: the actor playing Columbus (1451-1506) is looking at the horizon and sees how a ship disappears – first the hull, then the masts. He looks at the orange or apple he happens to be eating, and you can see how he is thinking and realizes that we live on a spherical earth.

Great cinema, indeed, but unhistorical. The people of the fifteenth century were not that stupid. The Italian poet Dante (1365-1321) already assumed that the earth is a globe: people descending into hell eventually leave the netherworld on the other side of the planet. Seventeen centuries before Dante, Aristotle (384-322) already knew that the earth is a sphere.

So how come that so many people, not only in Hollywood, “know” that the ancients believed that the earth was flat? It’s all based on a misunderstanding of a remark by the Andalusian bishop Isidore of Seville (560-636). In his Etymologies, he says that the earth’s orb has this name because it is as round as a wheel (Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est; 14.2). Careless reading indeed gives the impression that the venerable writer believed the earth was wheel-shaped, but we know that Isidore in fact knew better (e.g., Etymologies 9.2.133).

It may be added the many ancient maps also give the impression that the makers believed that the world was flat, but the maps of Hecataeus and Agrippa are not a real argument: our own maps are also two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world. Herodotus of Halicarnassus may have been the latest author to believe that the world was flat.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (11): The Capitoline Wolf

15 May 2009
Investigating the Capitoline Wolf

Investigating the Capitoline Wolf

The bronze she-wolf in the Capitoline Museums in Rome is one of the best-known symbols of the eternal city. Pictures of it can be seen on many places, it is the logo of A.S. Roma, and has been parodied too often to be funny. She figures in all books on early Roman and Etruscan art, where we read that the famous statue was made in the sixth or fifth century BCE.

This illustrates how dangerous it can be to date works of art stylistically, because the lupa romana is much younger. It had already been observed that casting technique was Medieval, and this was confirmed in 2007, when metallurgists published a report in which they announced that thermoluminescence dating suggested that the Capitoline wolf dates back to the Early Middle Ages.


Adriano La Regina, “La lupa del Campidoglio è medievale; la prova è nel test al carbonio“, in: La Repubblica, 9 July 2008.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (9): The Gnostic Gospels

15 May 2009
The Council of Nicaea: fresco at the Soumela Monastery (Turkey)

The Council of Nicaea: fresco at the Soumela Monastery (Turkey)

Every now and then, the argument returns: the early Church destroyed texts that it did not like. Manuscripts were burnt at the stake, and their owners were not certain of their lives too. This, we are told, is why we no longer have access to ‘heretical’ texts (e.g., the Gospel of the Egyptians) and why, for instance, the homo-erotic poetry of Sappho has disappeared.

This does not sound altogether incredible. After all, Christian clerics have ordered the burning of books, witches, and heretics in the sixteenth century. Besides, early Christianity had been persecuted, and it is not too strange a thought that the victims decided upon a policy to do to the pagans what they had done to the Christians. Indeed, the angry polemics of the fathers of the Church certainly leave one with the impression that these men were intolerant fundamentalists. However, the wanton destruction of books was rare. It was unnecessary.


It was quite possible to have an opinion that was different from the majority of the Church leaders. There were a couple of theological points that they considered to be important (like the date of Easter and the precise definition of the relation between Jesus and the Creator), but more often, bishops were willing to strike compromises. If people could be saved from Hell by allowing them to continue some pagan cult in a Christian form, the Church would not obstruct it. As a consequence, the cult of the Twins in northwest Spain was converted into the cult of Jesus’ brother James, the Greek demigod Perseus became Saint George, and the spruce and fir that decorated Germanic homes during the Yule festival survived as Christmas tree. The great majority of bishops was not interested in the destruction of heretical Gospels or homo-erotic poetry. They were pastors who took care of their flock, and as a consequence, Christianity was multiform and many-colored.

And even if the Church would have wanted to enforce an orthodoxy, it would have been impossible. An interesting parallel is the Roman government, which was incapable of unifying Roman law. It is significant that several emperors are credited with a Lex citandi, a law that established which juridical texts were acceptable authorities. The fact that these laws had to be repeated, proves that not everyone knew, understood, or accepted them. If the powerful emperor and his legions were unable to unify legal practice, the Church was certainly incapable of unifying beliefs.

As far as we know, possessing unChristian texts was not considered to be a sin. The fact that the fathers of the Church were able to quote them, is decisive evidence. A treatise like Celsus’ True Account has been quoted so extensively, that modern scholars have been able to reconstruct its contents.


So, if early Christianity was multiform, and if the Church was incapable of enforcing the few beliefs it would have liked to prescribe, why did so many ancient texts disappear? Where have the Gospel of the Egyptians and the poems of Sappho gone? Why can’t we read those books by Suetonius with  tantalizing titles like Lives of Famous Prostitutes, Dictionary of Invectives, and -last but not least- Physical Defects of Men? The answer may sound like a sophism, but it isn’t: these texts are lost because they were not saved. The main difference between now and then, between us and them, is that today, a text survives unless it is destroyed, whereas in Antiquity, a text disappeared unless it was saved.

Ancient texts were typically written on papyrus, which is vulnerable. As a rule of the thumb, we can assume that a scroll had to be copied every century. If parchment was used, replacement could take place less frequently. However, preparing a skin and making parchment was extremely expensive. Most texts were, therefore, written on papyrus and subject to decay and disappearance. If there were many copies of the same text, the chances of survival were greater, but professional writers were expensive and texts usually circulated in small numbers. A surprisingly great number of ancient texts has survived in only one copy, which shows how vulnerable the process of transmission was.

The best way to conceptualize the process is, therefore, that ancient texts always disappeared, unless a rich lord or lady decided to hire a scribe and copy a scroll. Inevitably, selections were made. There was no need to copy the Histories of Valerius Antias once Livy had published the History of Rome from its Foundation; there was no need to copy the speeches of Greek orators of the third and second centuries BCE because the sophists of the second century CE were so much more eloquent; and there was no need to copy archaic poetry like Sappho’s because it was written in a poorly understood, archaic language. The publication of new texts was the greatest danger for the survival of older texts.

The same applies to religious texts. The religious authorities did not need to make an Index of prohibited books (yet); the books they did not like were bound to disappear anyhow. Once the rabbis of Yavneh had decided which works were divinely inspired, these works were copied and the remainder (e.g., the Enoch literature) was not. The temple establishment of ancient Greece may not have liked the ideas of the charismatic teacher Apollonius of Tyana, but destroying his book On Sacrifice was unnecessary.


The question is not why certain texts have disappeared, but why others have survived. In the second century, a man named Marcion of Sinope proposed to reduce the number of Christian texts. The Old Testament, he argued, was no longer useful to the believer, and there was no need to waste money on copying it. The Gospels often repeated each other, so it was better to create one single, authorized version.

Several bishops, including Irenaeus of Lyon, responded. They thought that the new faith needed more than one account of the life of Jesus, and therefore several Gospels, even if they contained repetitions. Christianity also needed the Jewish Bible. The agreement on this plurality was decisive for the survival of religious treatises. For example, the Christian scholar Origen prepared an important scientific edition of the Hebrew text (the Hexapla), and for the first time, books were published that contained more than one Gospel.

The agreement that at least four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, several epistles, the Book of Revelation, plus the entire Jewish Bible (and even a bit more than the Jews accepted) was needed for the new faith, was not a decree against other texts. However, the result was comparable.

The people who accepted Marcion’s suggestion started to develop the ideas that are now called Gnostic, and the Gnostics started to write treatises of their own (like the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of John, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas). There must have been many of these texts, but they are lost.

Like all ancient texts, they needed scribes to survive, but the Gnosis never recruited enough people. Its ideas were too austere. Unlike other branches of Christianity, the Gnosis made a sharp distinction between good and evil, between the good God of Christ and the evil creator worshiped by the Jews, between mind and matter. The implied hostility towards sexuality made the Gnosis unattractive and by the end of the third century, Gnosticism was a small minority within the wide variation of Christian beliefs.

In the end, it was a man named Hosius of Cordoba who convinced the emperor Constantine, who already sympathized with monotheism, that he should accept Christianity. Like Irenaeus and Origen, Hosius believed that the Jewish Bible was of vital importance and because the emperor agreed, senators started to convert to this type of Christianity too. Soon, the believers started to organize themselves, and many others accepted the Christian beliefs as they had been interpreted by Hosius.

Most Gnostic texts did not survive. Not because the leaders of the now dominant type of Christianity launched a war on Gnosticism, but because ancient texts needed copyists, and the Gnosis had been unable to recruit sufficient people for the survival of its ideas.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (7): The Frisians

15 May 2009
A model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersen Wierde.

A model of the terp (artificial mound with farms) of Feddersen Wierde.

In the third century C.E., many old Germanic tribes merged into large federations, like the Saxons, the Franks, and the Alamans, which were to become important during the Middle Ages. To this rule, the Frisians appear to have been an exception: they are already mentioned in sources that deal with the Early Empire. Their ethnogenesis took place at least two or three centuries before the other tribes originated. They can still be distinguished.

At first sight, the Frisians show a remarkable ethnic continuity, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pieter Boeles (1873-1961), one of the founding fathers of Frisian archaeology, had different ideas. He noticed important cultural changes in the fourth and fifth century, which he believed were evidence for colonization by the Saxons (from northwestern Germany) and the Anglians (from Schleswich-Holstein). After they had conquered the Frisians, they continued to Flanders, and from there, they conquered parts of Britain. However, Boeles argued, although these tribes subdued the Frisians, their name remained in use, which is why there are still provinces called Friesland in the Netherlands and Germany.

He was right about the Anglo-Saxon settlement – almost. What appears to have happened, is that the country of the Frisians had become empty, for reasons that we do not fully comprehend. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth century, the Frisians are not mentioned in our sources, even by authors who had reason to write about them. When the Saxons and the Anglians arrived, there was no one to subdue, because there was no one living over there.

The name returns in the sources in the seventh century, in an age when other ancient names also return. For example, Gregorius of Tours describes the Frankish king Clovis as a ‘Sugambrian’ – after a tribe that had been annihilated in the first century. These archaisms were usually ignored, but the name of Frisia was accepted. People in what is now North Holland, Utrecht, and Friesland started to call themselves after the district in which the Merovingian and Carolingian authorities had placed them. The continuity of the ancient nation and the ancient name are only apparent.


J. Bazelmans, ‘The early medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians’, in: T. Derks en N. Roymans (red.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity. The Role of Power and Tradition (2009) blz. 321-337.

<Overview of Common Errors>