Polybius’ Portrait

25 December 2009

polybius_cast_cleitor_mncr1Kleitor was a major town in Arcadia, not far from a river named Aroanios. Pausanias complains that, even though he waited until sunset, he did not hear the singing spotted fish for which Kleitor used to be famous. There are a few remains, and perhaps even that is an overstatement: one of the most interesting remains, the portrait of the historian Polybius (200-118), is now lost.

It appears to have been found in the 1920s and was reportedly kept “in the schoolhouse of Mazeika”, a town that has in the meantime been renamed Kato Kleitora. After the discovery, a cast was made that was sent to Berlin, but ended up in Rome, in the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana. The original is now lost, and the cast in Italy is all we have.

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Common Errors (1): Archimedes’ Heat Ray

20 April 2009

It is one of the most impressive movie scenes I have ever seen: how Archimedes set Roman warships afire with a burning mirror, in the famous Italian movie Cabiria (1914; scene starts at 20’24). The incident, which took place during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, can be found in many history books and continues to amaze. Unfortunately, it can not be true.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

Scene from Cabiria: Archimedes' hexagonal mirror (top) sets a Roman ship (front) afire.

There are two arguments. In the first place, the laws of physics. On at least three occasions, people have tried to repeat the trick; they established that, if you use dozens of mirrors, you can indeed set fire to an object at a short distance (50-60 meter). The sources, however, refer to only one mirror or a couple of mirrors. Worse, the object must remain on the same place for some time, which is not very likely: the Roman galleys were subject to waves, winds, and swell. To really work, the mirror must have a diameter of at least eleven meters, which is larger than the largest telescope mirror ever made.

As a practical instrument, the weapon can, therefore, not exist, unless Archimedes could suspend the laws of nature. The story is pseudoscientific in its most elementary sense.

The second argument is that the famous incident is not recorded in our sources. Historians like Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch offer detailed descriptions of the siege of Syracuse and mention new weapons, but the heat ray is not among them. This is sufficient to send the story to the country of fairy tales.

But what are the origins of the story? Now, things become more complex.

The first to refer to Archimedes as firemaker appears to have been the satirical writer Lucian, who praises an engineer for having surpassed several legendary engineers, including Archimedes, who invented an instrument to set ships afire (Hippias 2). We know more about this from Lucian’s younger contemporary Galen, who offers an account of spontaneous combustion of houses, and adds that “this, they say, was how Archimedes set fire to the enemy ships by means of pyreia” (On Temperaments 3.2). Pyreia is usually translated as “firesticks”. Note that Lucian and Galen do not identify the enemy.

As far as I know, the first to refer to Archimedes using mirrors, is the Byzantine author Anthemius of Tralles (sixth century) in a book called On miraculous engines. On page 153 and 156 (ed.Westerman), he informs us that Archimedes’ secret weapon consisted of many small, flat mirrors. The Byzantine author Tzetzes (twelfth century) even offers a detailed description:

Archimedes constructed a kind of hexagonal mirror, and at an interval proportionate to the size of the mirror, he set similar small mirrors with four edges, moving by links and by a kind of hinge, and made the glass the centre of the sun’s beams … So after that, when the beams were reflected into this, a terrible kindling of flame arose upon the ships, and he reduced them to ashes a bow-shot off (Chiliades, 2.109-123).

This is the instrument shown in Cabiria, but the experiments have shown that it is too simple to do the job; Tzetzes cannot have used an authentic source.

There’s perhaps one author before Anthemius who may have referred to burning mirrors: the third-century historian Cassius Dio, but his account of the siege is lost. However, Tzetzes’ older contemporary Zonaras summarizes Dio’s History of the Roman Empire, and refers to the burning mirror. The problem is that Zonaras often introduces stories to his excerpt, and this may be one of these additions; worse, he also writes that this weapon was used in 514 by one Proclus, when he defended Constantinople against the ships of the Gothic adventurer Vitalianus (Annals 14.55).

Summa summarum: I think that Proclus’ experimental weapon, which must have been known to Anthemius, is the origin of the story. Alternatively, the story of Archimedes’ mirrors appears to have been invented in the age of Lucian, Galen, and Cassius Dio, about half a millennium after the siege of Syracuse.

This is not unique: think only of Pythagoras, who is never credited with the theorem that is now named after him, until the fourth century CE.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Antiochus IV Epiphanes Vindicated

5 April 2009
Antiochus IV

Antiochus IV

In the Biblical book of Daniel, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r.175-164) is presented as a monster and a blasphemer: ‘the king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvelous things against the God of gods’ (11.36). The Greek author Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118) offers a similar judgment: ‘Antiochus surnamed Epiphanes gained the name of Epimanes [madman] by his conduct’, he writes (World History, 26.1), and continues with a catalog of mad acts.

There must of course be another side to the man, and the German historian Peter Franz Mittag has recently written an admirable book on the Seleucid king: Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie (2006). It is a historical study as it should be. The author knows his sources – especially literary and numismatic – and also knows how to present them well.

After two introductory chapters and a chapter on Antiochus’ stay in Rome and coup, the fourth chapter deals with the empire at the beginning of his reign. It offers an interesting analysis of the (sometimes conflicting) political aims of the Seleucid administration, and an overview of its financial means. Mittag suggests that the yearly income was about 15,000 talents, which helps us understand that famous figure: that, according to the terms of the Peace of Apamea, the Seleucid Empire had to pay 1,000 talents to Rome every year. It was an immense sum, but it did not cripple the Seleucid economy. The Romans sheared their flock but did not skin it.

In the next two chapters, we read about the way in which Antiochus Epiphanes’ stabilized his power. Gifts to Greek towns created sympathy, which could be useful; embassies to Rome were equally important; Antioch benefitted from some building projects; and there were several cultic measures (there is no evidence for the forced introduction of a cult of Zeus Olympius). The assassination of Antiochus’ nephew, who might have claimed the throne, and a trip to the Phoenician cities are also presented as stabilizing measures.

No less than four chapters are devoted to the Sixth Syrian War. The first of these chapters describes Antiochus’ invasion of Egypt in 169, in which he reached Alexandria, which he found impossible to take. Next, we read about the ways the Seleucid king made his empire benefit from his victory: for example, a monetary reform served to improve conditions for trade. There is also a discussion of the status of Babylon in this chapter. The two remaining chapters deal with the second invasion of Egypt and Rome’s ruthless intervention. Mittag stresses that, although Antiochus was humiliated, it was not the disaster that Polybius says it was: the terms of the Apamea treaty appear to have been suspended – Rome did not complain about the Seleucid navy and Antiochus’ war elephants, even though they were forbidden.

The Maccabean revolt is the subject of the eleventh chapter. Mittag argues that Antiochus was – as always – especially interested in stabilizing and strengthening the empire, and supported the high priest Menelaus, who promised more tribute but was unable to keep this promise. When Antiochus realized his mistake, it was too late, but his consequent policy shows that he tried to restabilize the area. It might have worked, Mittag argues: general Lysias was able to pacify the area, and Judaea might have remained a province of the Seleucid Empire. However, Antiochus died and Lysias had to go to Damascus, which made it possible for the Maccabees to obtain their independence.

The festivities in Daphne (Polybius, World History, 30.25) receive a full chapter, and after this, we read about Antiochus’ anabasis to the east: he regained control of Armenia, visited Babylon, refounded Charax, visited Elam and Persis. The stories about his (unsuccessful?) looting of a temple are discussed, and presented as an attempt to regain arrears of tribute. Mittag finds no evidence for plans to attack Parthia and Bactria, and thinks that the town where Antiochus died was not Gabae/Isfahan, as is always believed, but a town with the same name in eastern Persis.

Cuneiform sources may one day settle this problem, which is important, because a visit to Gabae/Isfahan can be seen as a preliminary to a war against the Parthians, and a visit to Persian Gabae suggests that Antiochus was more interested in the Persian Gulf area.

The fourteenth chapter deals with Antiochus’ death and succession; the last chapter offers a general assessment of this king’s rule. In Mittag’s view, he was especially interested in stabilizing and strengthening his kingdom – or, as Appian says, ‘he governed Syria and the neighboring nations with a firm hand’ (Syriaca, 45).

As I already said, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie is excellent. I would have liked to learn more about the introduction of the Roman-style soldiers that Mittag mentions in his account of the festival in Daphne, but that is only a minor quibble. Generally speaking, Mittag has reduced the biblical monster to more human proportions and reintroduced him into history as one of the most capable and efficient rulers of the Hellenistic age.

  • Peter Franz Mittag, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie (= Klio: Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte. Beihefte, neue Folge Band 11) Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2006.  ISBN 3-05-004205-2; €69.80.