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]


Time, part 3: lists, lists, lists

4 April 2015
Fragment of the Assyrian Limmu List (British Museum)

Fragment of the Assyrian Limmu List (British Museum)

Dating events and objects is one of the most basic things a historian can do, but that does not mean it is simple. Radiocarbon dating offers no precise dates, but only a possibility that an object dates from a certain age. Dendrochronology is impossible if there is no tree ring sequence available for the area you are studying.

This means that the old methods of establishing a chronology have not been superseded. In turn, this means that unless something is dated according to the common, Christian era (or a similar era), you will have to make use of ancient lists of kings and magistrates.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Time, part 1: measuring time

2 April 2015
The Gezer calendar (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

The Gezer calendar (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Let’s face it: life is just one day after another. “The sun ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose,” says Ecclesiastes, adding that this was all very wearisome. Given the tedious repetition of days, it is a bit odd to count them. Neither hunters nor the first farmers needed a calendar. The changing seasons gave sufficient warning of what was going on. Once your crop was ready, you could harvest it. In most agricultural societies, there was no need to measure time very accurately. There certainly was no need to construct a complex calendar.

The first calendars were impractical. Here is W.F. Albright’s translation of a calendar found in Gezer in Israel (now in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul). It dates to about 900 BC.

His two months are harvest
His two month are planting
His two months are late planting

His month is hoeing up of flax
His month is harvest of barley
His month is harvest and feasting

His two months are vine-tending
His month is summer fruit.

[Read more on the website of Ancient History Magazine]


Mandaeans on Pluto

1 April 2015
A Mandaean (?) incantation bowl (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

A Mandaean (?) incantation bowl (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

The bowl on this photo, which you can see in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is an ‘incantation bowl’. It is decorated with an almost endless, spiraling text that is supposed to protect the owner against a host of evil spirits. These bowls were made in Sassanian Mesopotamia and were used by every religious minority. There are Christian incantation bowls, but they were also used by Jews, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, and Mandaeans. I remember from my visit to the the museum that this particular bowl was Mandaean, but I cannot check it.

Mandaeans?

After all, what do I know about Mandaeans? Hardly anything is known about them. We know a bit of their theology: they are dualists who believe that the soul wants to be with God but is in exile on earth after a Great Cosmic Accident. However, there is secret knowledge that helps the soul return to its origin and destiny. This theology is not unlike the Gnosis of Antiquity and it is probably no coincidence that the name of this faith is derived from Aramaic manda, which means “knowledge”, just like Greek gnosis.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: Erasmus

31 March 2015
Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Erasmus. Statue in the Royal Library of the Netherlands (The Hague)

Yesterday, I discussed how Poliziano discovered the principles of textual criticism . In other words, he found out how scholars might reconstruct texts of ancient authors. Establishing the tradition, however, is just a first step.

Take, for example, the manuscripts of Arrian’s Anabasis , his book about the campaigns of Alexander the Great. In some copies, we read about a Babylonian canal named Pollakopas; in other copies, it’s called Pollakottas. As it happens, the solution is simple, because a Pallukkatu-canal is known from cuneiform sources, which means that Pollakopas is wrong. Probably, a scribe read π instead of ττ. A critical edition of the Anabasis will therefore opt for Pollakottas.

Still, we cannot entirely ignore Pollakopas: after all, we’re not interested in what Arrian should have written but want to know what he actually wrote. We cannot exclude the possibility that he himself was responsible for the error, which may have been corrected by a good scribe. Both words are therefore important and a critical edition will have a footnote with the ineliminable variants that the editor has decided not to use. These footnotes are called an ‘apparatus criticus’ and look like a cloud of abbreviations.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: from Poliziano to Lachmann

30 March 2015
Ghirlandaio's portrait of Poliziano

Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Poliziano

Yesterday, I told about Angelo Poliziano, the man who realized that ancient sources are sometimes dependent on each other and should be dealt with accordingly: the original source can be used, the secondary text can be eliminated. Poliziano applied this principle also on the medieval manuscripts that had so diligently been copied by countless anonymous monks: realizing that manuscripts could depend on earlier manuscripts, he proposed the elimination of secondary manuscripts. This was the beginning of what is called textual criticism, the study of texts in order to reconstruct their original wording.

Our Greek, Latin, and Hebrew sources are handed down to us in medieval manuscripts, and because it is humanely impossible that a scribe copies a long text without mistakes, our manuscripts contain scribal errors. In the Middle Ages, copiists had often recognized these mistakes and had tacitly corrected them. However, their conjectures were usually pure guesswork. In fact, the medieval scribes contributed to the proliferation of errors.

[Read more on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]


Heroes: Angelo Poliziano

29 March 2015
Ghirlandaio's portrait of Poliziano

Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Poliziano

There’s a lot to say about Angelo Ambrogini. Some biographical details first. Born in 1454 in the wine city of Montepulciano, and therefore nicknamed “Poliziano”, he became a student of Marsilio Ficino, one of the great philosophers of the Renaissance and a courtier of the Medici family. Poliziano remained in this city and was one of the teachers in the Florentine Academy until his death in 1494. Although he had many students, he was able to publish the poems of Catullus, translate parts of the Iliad, and publish all kinds of observations on the ancient texts.

In fact, he created a new way to write about classical poetry and prose. Until then, scholars had offered commentaries on the ancient texts, line by line, section by section, chapter by chapter. Poliziano jumped from one text to another, without much system. We might call his writings “essays”, although he himself likened his mixed bag to the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius.

[Read more on the website of Ancient History Magazine]


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