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.

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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.]

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: R. Miles: Carthage Must Be Destroyed (1)

21 June 2011

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The trouble with historical facts is that we cannot observe them. We will never see how the ancient Carthaginians were trading with the merchants of Andalusia, never have a look at the gardens in their cities, never hear them talk. It’s all forever lost. What we can do, however, is study the traces of these ancient acts. Carthage’s endless wars on Sicily were described in texts that we can still study. We can excavate Carthaginian houses. The influence of trade on social relations can be deduced from the archaeological record.

For historians, the indirectness of our knowledge is embarrassing. They want to reconstruct the connections between the events – they want to explain them, in other words – but if the facts are hard to know, the connections between them are even harder to understand. Establishing a cause is next to impossible. As a consequence, several theoreticians have argued that history is less about establishing causes than about telling a convincing story. Because the connections are irrecoverable, the meaning of the past cannot be deduced from the historical facts themselves. Instead, we can connect events and can create a meaningful narrative.

Although he does not discuss these postmodernist theories, Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed. The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization is an example of this approach. After an introduction in which he tells that it is his intention to retrieve “the historical significance of this once great North African metropolis”, he tells a beautiful story about Carthage’s origins, rise, splendor, and decline, without looking for deeper causes.

The outline is well-known. Carthage was founded by Phoenician settlers, grew to become the master of the Western Mediterranean, and struggled against Syracuse to obtain supremacy on Sicily. Although wars were depressingly frequent, neither side was able to expel the other from the island. The Romans were more successful and Miles’ description of the First Punic War (264-241) is among the best parts of the book.

After this war, Carthage was at the nadir of its fortunes. For a moment, it seemed that rebellious mercenaries would destroy the city, but Hamilcar Barca defeated them and gained support for an ambitious project to compensate for the loss of Sicily: the conquest of Andalusia.

[to be continued]


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

18 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tonight’s Lunar Eclipse, Seen from Babylon

15 June 2011

Astronomical Diary, mentioning the battle of Gaugamela. The Babylonian astronomers correctly predicted the rise of Alexander and the demise of Darius III.

The ancient Babylonians were great astronomers. It is too easy to laugh about their astrological achievements: we know about the earth’s orbit around the sun and we understand why the seasons change with the constellations, but back then, it was quite a discovery that the rise of Aquarius always announced the rise of the water level in the Euphrates and Tigris.

In an age prior to the invention of statistics, it was also hard to recognize that within an interval of a hundred days, there’s always a ruler whose reign comes to an end (there are so many states and so many rulers, while their tenure of office is limited), so the astronomers’ discovery that within a hundred days after a lunar eclipse, there’s always a ruler who dies, retires, or is overthrown, is not to be derided.

As it happens, we understand the four systems with which the astronomers predicted the end of the rule of the leaders of independent states, because we can read the ancient handbook, Shumma Sin ina tamartishu. The eclipsed lunar disk was divided into four quadrants (top, down, left, right), which stood for Syria, Assyria and the north, Elam, and Babylonia – or, to use the ancient names, Amurru, Assyria and Subartu, Elam, and Akkad. The first quadrant touched by the umbra of the eclipse, indicates the direction where the threatened ruler lived.

The direction of the shadow offered a similar clue, although top, down, left, and right now stood for Babylonia, Elam, Assyria and Gutium (the east), and Syria.

There were supplementary systems, which offered some room for personal interpretation to the astrologer. First, the months of the year represented one of the four regions mentioned. For example, Simanu, Tašrîtu , and Šabatu corresponded with Syria. Then, the day of the eclipse, which can only be on the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th of a lunar month, correspond to Babylonia, Elam, Syria, and Assyria/Subartu.

Some minor points: the moment of the eclipse (early evening, midnight, after midnight) represented the consequences of the end of the reign: plague, diminishing markets, or recovery. If Saturn was visible, the power of the celestial omen doubled; Jupiter, on the other hand, protected the king.

So, what does this mean for tonight’s lunar eclipse? I do not believe in astrology, but I was surprised to discover that the four systems indicate more or less the same, plausible outcome. The moon is first eclipsed at precisely the edge of the left and top quadrant: so that means that leaders in Elam and Syria are in peril. The umbra leaves the lunar disk in the eastern part, threatening Syria again.So, the main system indicates trouble in the west, allowing for problems in the east. Iraq itself is safe.

Using the supplementary systems, we get the same result. Tonight’s date, after sunset, is 14 Simanu: the day promises the end of the reign of a ruler in Elam, while the month represents, again, Syria. Jupiter is not visible, Saturn is; and as far as the time is concerned, we can say that in Iraq, the eclipse is more or less around midnight, so the markets will diminish.

If astrology were a science, this would mean that within a hundred days, a leader who lives in Syria or the west is in grave danger. Alternatively, and with a smaller likelihood, the leader of Elam is in trouble – modern Khuzestan or the east. Now I am not a prophet, but if Assad or Ahmedinejad will be forced to resign, I think there will indeed be a big panic on the stock markets.

Literature

Postscript, September 1, 2011

OK, it turns out that the eclipse referred to Khadaffi.


Iphigenia in Umbria

6 March 2011

Iphigenia being led to the sacrifice

A few weeks ago by happenstance I found myself at Under the Umbrian Sun, a site that documents the recent and ongoing excavations at Vicus ad Martis on the Via Flaminia in Umbria; and to my surprise bumped into an entry titled “Bill Thayer on Massa Martana and Umbria”, which praised me for a rather weak site on the town, although to some extent rightly: among the blind the one-eyed is king, as the proverb goes. But it was really embarrassing; all the more so that I’d been sitting on a few dozen photos of the very church that stands just 100 meters from the ad Martis digs: an interesting church that I know pretty well — and in 14 years I’d managed to avoid having a webpage on her. A 3‑page site now repairs that, with 23 of those photographs; and although it’s nominally about a medieval church, the site follows the church itself, about half of which is about Roman stone, including a carved fragment that has been identified as a Sacrifice of Iphigenia.

The process of writing up the carving also resulted in me translating the entry “Iphigenia” in Daremberg & Saglio; I wasn’t completely happy with what I’d been finding about her elsewhere online in English, so this is an additional resource.


Oh, please…

19 January 2011

Small bust of Caligula (Palazzo Massimo alle terme, Roma)

Caligula’s tomb found” is the headline of an article, today, in The Guardian. It may be true, but it may also be another exaggerated claim made by an archaeologist angling for funds. The author of the article mentions several arguments that a recently discovered monument near Lake Nemi is indeed the final resting place of Rome’s third emperor:

  • Caligula owned a villa near Lake Nemi;
  • a splendid statue has been found over there;
  • a tomb raider has shown a previously unknown archaeological site.

There are no photos of the statue, and I get the impression that it is only identified as a statue of Caligula because it wore military boots (caligae). I would have liked to see the statue’s head.

The final sentence is “the tomb raider led them [the police] to the site, where excavations will start today”. In other words, research still has to start. It may as well be a large but common tomb, where a normal villa owner was buried, with some statues as decoration. Even if the statue represents Caligula (again, a photo would come in handy), the simple hypothesis that the tomb dates back to his reign or the final years of Tiberius, explains all. There is no need to make bold claims.

There are now two possibilities: either the tomb is Caligula’s, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, an archaeologist has desinformed us and journalists have contributed to it. If it is, excavation will be more difficult because many people will visit Lake Nemi. In both cases, scholarship suffers. Everybody would have been a lot happier if there had been no report before certainty had been reached.