New Ancient History Magazine

15 January 2015
aw-issue-vii4--66e

One of the covers of Ancient Warfare. Perhaps the new magazine will look like this.

Karwansaray, the publisher of a/o Ancient Warfare, has plans for a new magazine on Antiquity. You may wonder: don’t we have many magazines about Antiquity? The surprising answer is that they are quite rare. Archaeologists have journals about their perspective on the ancient world. There are magazines about the classics. There are magazines about the ancient Near East. There are magazines about Greece and Rome. But magazines about the ancient world are pretty rare.

So the general idea is to make something that connects all ancient regions and all kinds of scholars. Like Ancient Warfare, it will be lavishly illustrated, journalistic, bimonthly, and devoted to a theme. “Thrace” and “creation stories” come to mind, but of course everything else is possible. Unlike Ancient Warfare, it may be 60 pages or a bit more. The editors will be Josho Brouwers and Jona Lendering, and we’re not completely sure whether it should be called “Ancient History Magazine“.

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Marathon in Brescia

22 July 2013

Marathon Sarcophagus, Museo Santa di Santa Giulia (Brescia)

The photo above shows a battle scene on a sarcophagus in the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia in northern Italy. It’s very common to decorate sarcophagi with representations of the Trojan War or the clash between the Greeks and the Amazons, but this is not a mythological fight: it represents the final stage of the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians repulsed a Persian army.

Some thirty, forty years after the battle, the Athenians dedicated a monument to their victory: the Stoa Poikile or Painted Colonnade. There were four paintings, made by either Polygnotus or Micon and Panaenus (the sources are contradicting), and one of these represented the fight at Marathon. The author Pausanias mentions “the fight at the ships and the Greeks slaughtering Persians as they jump into them”.

To be honest, I am not very sure about the identification. It is easy to recognize the Athenians, who are shown in heroic nudity and wear Greek helmets, but the Persians do not strike me as very realistic. I would have expected the man who is carried to the ship to wear trousers: the normal way in which the Greeks represented Persians. On the other hand, I would not know who else might be shown with this kind of headband.

So let’s assume that it’s indeed the Battle of Marathon we are witnessing. Then we have important evidence to reconstruct the fight. The classical account is written by Herodotus, who wants us to believe that the Athenians, after a stalemate of several days, unexpectedly crossed the plain and attacked the Persians. This is strange, because we would expect the Persians to send mounted archers to obstruct the Athenian advance. Where was the Persian cavalry?

There is, however, another story about the Battle of Marathon, which can be found in the biography of the Athenian commander Miltiades by the Roman author Cornelius Nepos (first century BCE) and in the Suda, a tenth century Byzantine lexicon. According to these sources, deserters from the Persian army had come to the Athenian camp, telling that the cavalry were away. But why? It has been argued that the Persians had become uneasy with the situation on the plain. They may indeed have decided to evacuate the place to attack the Athenian port, and if this is true, they must have led their horses to their ships. I have always liked this hypothesis.

The Brescia relief suggests a different possibility. To the left, you can see a horse. If you look carefully, you can see how a Greek, facing to the left, unsaddles the Persian rider, who is shown tumbling behind his horse. Only his head is still visible. This would suggest that there was indeed Persian cavalry on the battlefield, which in turn suggests that the horses were not on the ships, but were somewhere else and returned to the battlefield in the final stage of the fight. So, here we have additional evidence, and the main result is only the falsification of a hypothesis. It is not much, but it’s something.

Final remark: it is long ago that I visited Brescia. I have no photos, but this one comes to me through my friend Sepideh Ramezani, a student in Trento, who asked her fellow-student Luca Adami to help me get this photo; and he asked Mr Alessandro Frassine, who took the photo. Thank you very much!


O’Reilly, The Lost Legion Rediscovered

22 June 2012

Donald O’Reilly’s The Lost Legion Rediscovered is a remarkable book. The author, a retired teacher of history, tries to describe the adventures of the Theban Legion, a Roman military unit that is mentioned for the first time in 383 by bishop Eucherius of Lyon, who tells that the Christian soldiers had refused to follow an order they considered immoral, and were consequently killed in a town now known as St Maurice-en-Valais in Switzerland.

The key detail is that this happened under orders of caesar Maximian. This is, at first sight, sufficient to discard the story. After all, Maximian ruled from 285 to 305, so there is a considerable gap between the legionaries’ martyrdom and the first source. However, if the story were invented, Eucherius would have given his villain the rank of augustus, not caesar, which he held in the winter of 285/286 only. For O’Reilly, this is the ‘smoking gun’ that proves that Eucherius had access to reliable information.

O’Reilly argues that the soldiers of the unit were recruited by the emperor Probus in southern Egypt and send to Italy, where they found themselves in a civil war. This was the confused age of the peasant insurrection of the Bagaudae in northwestern Gaul, of the usurpation of Carausius, and the clash between on the one hand the emperors Carinus and Numerian and on the other hand Diocletian and Maximian. O’Reilly argues that the Theban Legion, which was trained by an officer corps that consisted of veterans converted to Christianity, refused to massacre the Bagaudae, whose “chief offence … was not paying taxes. Killing them would not resolve it.” The refusal to follow an order they considered impractical and immoral, cost the legionaries of the rearguard their lives. Nevertheless, the unit was not disbanded, and it was the “mother” of the four Theban units that are mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum.

It’s a complex story. The late third century is difficult to study, and O’Reilly has to deal with subjects as varied as the demise of the pagan religions in the crisis of the third century, civil wars, slave revolts, and Christian values, and he has to use numismatics, papyri, little-known Coptic and Syriac texts, and damaged inscriptions. Nevertheless, he tells his story well and it is possible that the Christians in a recently created unit were indeed killed in the western Alps.

Possible. But there is little direct evidence that it actually happened. Worse, O’Reilly makes many mistakes that can easily be recognized by anyone interested in ancient warfare, and will leave him with the idea that the author was not up to his task. For example, he uses the Historia Augusta, which contains hardly any reliable information for this period, almost uncritically. A very substantial part of his reconstruction is built on very shaky foundations. O’Reilly only proves that the massacre of a Theban Legion is possible, not that it is likely.

However, a negative judgment would not do justice to the book. O’Reilly is, essentially, interested in something far more profound than the historical details. He is in fact arguing that

… to be intelligently honest, a person needs to be a cynic, but ultimately there is need to be cynical even of cynicism. That is where faith enters.

Everyone – Christian or not – has some basic believes about the value of human life, and any civilized person must try to deescalate violence. O’Reilly is not advocating pacifism, but a professional militarism. The best soldiers are not those who uncritically follow any order, but those who think. The soldiers of O’Reilly’s Theban Legion are the Roman equivalents of the German officers of the Von Stauffenberg conspiracy.

As a book about ancient military history, The Lost Legion Rediscovered is not good enough, but it addresses important questions about a warrior’s moral obligations.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare magazine]


Lebanese Antiquities

12 April 2012
Photo Jona Lendering

The Great Temple of Niha

When we announced that we wanted to visit Lebanon, many people thought that we had gone mad. After all, when we in Holland read about the country of the ancient Phoenicians, it is usually because of some eruption of violence. And indeed, the last chapter of the Footprint Handbook for Lebanon is a depressing catalog of disasters.

Nevertheless, the country appears to have come to rest, and I think it is useful to write briefly about our too short holiday. We were not disappointed and have already decided to return. Lebanon has much to offer to tourists, and tourists – for example, the lovers of ancient history that read this little blog – may help the country overcome some of its traumas. I promise you: you will like it.

And related:


Lebanese Antiquities: What to see

12 April 2012
Photo Jona Lendering

The cella of the Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

[Back to overview]

The main ancient monument in Lebanon is, of course, Baalbek. The temple of Bacchus is bigger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Athens; the temple of Baal-Zeus-Jupiter next to it must have been one of the largest shrines of the ancient world (after the Egyptian temples, of course).

National Museum

Beirut is a very modern city, which is currently being rebuilt, so don’t expect too much of the ancient ruins. This is the place to be if you like modern architecture. Still, it has two of the best museums in the Middle East: the National Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University.

We loved the Roman ruins of Faqra and Machnaqa, but were unable to visit Yanouh, Afqa, and Sfiré. The Roman temples at Niha were splendid – do not forget to go into the cellar of the great temple.

Photo Jona Lendering

The Crusader Castle of Byblus

To the north, there is Byblus, which has been inhabited for thousands of years. You can see Neolithic and Chalcolithic buildings, temples from the Bronze Age, Phoenician royal tombs, a Persian terrace, Greek and Roman structures, a mosque, a perfectly preserved Crusader castle and ditto church, and so on. If you go up north from Beirut, do not forget to visit the reliefs at the Nahr al-Kalb, where about every army has left an inscription – from Ramesses II to the Lebanese army that forced out the Israeli troops in 2000.

Photo Jona Lendering

Remains Tyre’s Crusader church, with pillars from the Temple of Melqart

I really loved Tyre, which offers two big excavations. At Al-Bass, there’s a hippodrome and a large necropolis, while at Al-Mina, you will see the remains of the city itself. Here are also the remains of a Crusader church, which is more or less on the place of the ancient temple of Melqart.

This was only a selection. If you want to see all sights mentioned by Guillaume Gernez and Ingrid Périssé-Valéro, you will need about two weeks.

[Back to overview]


The Bagayasha Chronicle

25 July 2011

One of the fragments of the Bagayasha Chronicle

Finally, after years of struggling, Irving Finkel and Bert van der Spek have decided that it is time to bring the “Bagayasha Chronicle” online. It is an extremely difficult text, which still defies proper understanding, but seems to be part of an astronomical diary of about the 130s BC.

Nevertheless, it is reasonably clear that the text deals with the brother of the Parthian king Mithradates I the Great, Bagayasha, who visits Babylon for a punitive action. What happens exactly, is not really known, but the council of Greek elders has to explain things, generals are present, there is a reference to plundering, and the Greek citizens leave their homes. After this, we read about supplications from the Babylonians in the city, led by the šatammu; someone intercedes for the citizens; Bagayasha seems to agree and leaves for Borsippa. It seems that Babylon has acted treacherously, somewhere in the years following Mithradates’ conquest, perhaps when the Seleucid king Demetrius II Nicator was trying to regain his dominions (in 141-138).

Finkel and Van der Spek think that they have made all progress they were able to make, and have decided to an evulgetur, and I had the honor of preparing the online edition. They invite scholars to suggest new interpretations (more).

They have another fragment concerning Bagayasha in stock, which will be published ASAP. You can find the new chronicle here.


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.]

Cover

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.