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>

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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.]