Cyrenaica, part 6: Synesius

16 April 2015
Byzantine church in Ptolemais, perhaps the one where Synesius served

Byzantine church in Ptolemais, perhaps the one where Synesius served

He is one of the most interesting authors from Antiquity: a philosopher, an aristocrat, a traveler, a sophist, a soldier, a bishop, and a descendant of the royal house of Sparta – or so he said. He was also a genuinely kind man. He left a considerable oeuvre of six essays, ten hymns, three speeches, two sermons, 158 letters. But nobody reads it. I am referring to Synesius of Cyrene.

From his essays and letters, we know a lot about his life. As the son of a very wealthy family, he was able to travel. He must have been some twenty years old when he visited Greece, where he seems to have been inaugurated in the Mysteries of Eleusis, shortly before the Emperor Theodosius put an end to this pagan cult (392). Returning to Africa, Synesius settled in Alexandria, where he was one of the students of the famous philosopher and mathematician Hypatia. Even as an old man, Synesius would refer to her as the philosopher: to him, there was only one who really mattered.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine.]


Cyrenaica, part 5: Simon of Cyrene

15 April 2015
Simon of Cyrene

Simon of Cyrene

Cyrene was the hometown of many famous Greeks. Eugammon was the author of an important but lost poem about the events after the homecoming of Odysseus, the Telegony. Mathematician Theodorus of Cyrene developed the theory of irrational numbers. Another Theodorus was one of the founders of atheism. Callimachus was one of the most influential poets of Antiquity, while Eratosthenes was the first to measure the circumference of the earth. Philosophers of the Cyrenaean School taught that pleasure was the best thing in life.

They are all forgotten or almost forgotten. The best remembered Cyrenaean is a Jew named Simon, who is mentioned in the gospel of Mark (15.21).

And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.

That’s all.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Cyrenaica, part 4: Cyrene

14 April 2015
Downtown Cyrene

Downtown Cyrene

Cyrene was one of the great cities of the classical Greek world, comparable to Athens, Miletus, Syracuse, and Corinth. It was founded by people from the small island of Thera (Santorini), who first settled on another small island, off the African shore, before they settled on the mainland. When the colony proved successful, other settlers came, who founded Barca, Taucheira, and Euesperides (Bengazi). Ptolemais and Apollonia were originally the ports of Barca and Cyrene, but eventually became cities in their own right.

Being Greek cities, they looked to the sea. The Arkesilas cup, which was discussed on this blog the day before yesterday, illustrates the international contacts: to Greece of course, but also to the west. There were trade contacts with Carthage, Egypt, Phoenicia, and the inhabitants of the oases in the Sahara. Ostrich eggs and elephant tusks prove contacts with people much further, beyond the Sahara. The inhabitants of Cyrenaica were very international. There were also native Libyans, who must have shared characteristics with the Psylloi and the people from Slonta.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Cyrenaica, part 3: Slonta

12 April 2015
The snake of Slonta

The snake of Slonta

The day before yesterday, Edwin wrote about the Psylloi, and mentioned, at the end of his article, that several ancient authors attribute to the Libyan tribe a remarkable resilience to snake-venoms. That would be one of those countless ancient ethnographic stories which, back then, sounded plausible and were repeated by even the most intelligent writers, but fail to convince us. We wonder what on earth made a talented man like the elder Pliny believe that it was the custom of the Psylloi “to expose children at birth to extremely fiery snakes, and to use these snakes to test to faithfulness of their wives, since snakes do not flee people born of adulterous blood” (Natural History 7.12).

We will never understand the reality behind these stories, even though we know an archaeological site that may somehow support the stories about the Psylloi and the snakes: Slonta. It is hard to date precisely, but a Ionian column base proves that the site was in use in Antiquity. The main relief represents a big snake.

[Read more – and the other pars of this series – on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Mosul and Hatra

9 April 2015
Statue of a Hatrene nobleman. This is a cast in the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz; the original is in the Baghdad Museum, which was recently reopened.

Statue of a Hatrene nobleman. This is a cast in the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz; the original is in the Baghdad Museum, which was recently reopened.

Yes, they are shocking, those images of the destruction of the museum of Mosul and the vandalism in Hatra. Still, I would suggest that you don’t pay attention to it. There are three reasons to ignore the news, sad though it is.

(1) Let’s be glad that the members of the so-called Islamic State are wasting their time destroying antiquities instead of human lives.

(2) We only see what is shown. Although it is terrible that ancient statues are destroyed, they are quite often well-documented. We know what is lost. The real problem is that there are illegal excavations and that the museums’ storerooms have been looted. The objects thus acquired are sold and we do not know what is lost. We don’t have footage of the clandestine trade – which funds ISIS – in ancient art. The footage shown to us, is a decoy.

(3) Let’s focus on the real news: Tikrit has been reconquered. Because the so-called Islamic State does not like that news, it shared a movie of the vandalism in Hatra. (Compare ISIS’ response to its defeat at Kobani: broadcasting the execution of Muath Al-Kassasbeh.) Because we are shocked – as we ought to be! – we start telling others and share the footage on social media. By doing so, we become unwitting allies of the so-called Islamic State, because we’re helping to distract from the fact that ISIS is suffering defeats and is forced to retreat.

If you feel outrage, the best thing to do is NOT share the news. If you want to do something, write a letter to a politician and call for legislation to stop the illicit trade of ancient artifacts.

[Originally on the website of Ancient History Magazine]


Time, part 7: a world without time

8 April 2015
Aristotle (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Aristotle (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

If God is perfect, he cannot change. After all, if he would, he would be imperfect either before or after that change. Now if God cannot change, how can he have created the universe? This was more or less the argument that Aristotle used to prove that the world was not created and, therefore, had to be eternal.

It’s a good point and it took centuries before it was refuted. The most famous treatment is by Augustine of Hippo, who addresses the question what God did before the creation in the Confessions. After having joked that before the creation, God created Hell for people who ask improper questions, he made the simple but profound point that if God created everything, time had been created as well, and that there was no “before” before the creation. Aristotle’s question was devoid of meaning.

[Read the whole story on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Time, part 4: the date of Easter

5 April 2015
Thirteenth-century Paschal Table (British Library)

Thirteenth-century Paschal Table (British Library)

In the first article of this series, I wrote about the quest for a good calendar, and I mentioned the Babylonian version: a cycle of nineteen years, in which the third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth, and last year get an additional, thirteenth month. In other words, it is a cycle of 19×12 + 7 = 235 months, which are indeed – give or take a few hours – identical to nineteen years. New Year’s day will always be the New Moon closest to the beginning of the spring.

Because the Babylonian cycle, which is also known as the Cycle of Meton, is nearly faultless, it was adapted by several other nations, including the Jews. The document known as Some Works of the Law, which is probably a letter to the high priest Jonathan (r.150–143 BC), seems to be a response to the adoption of a foreign calendar: the author tries to persuade the addressee that there are better calendars. The high priest was  not convinced, however, and the Jews use the Babylonian calendar until this very day.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


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