Female Gladiators and True Scholarship

29 April 2012

Breestraat 113, Leiden

Last week, I had to speak in the Leiden Museum of Antiquities. As I live in Amsterdam, I had to take the train, where I read the newspaper and learned that a statuette had been found of a female gladiator. She was topless, the journalist added. The banality of this article irritated me, especially when I noticed, during my walk to the museum, a nice stone tablet I had not seen before. It said that in this house, Joseph Scaliger had lived.

Scaliger was one of the greatest scholars of all time. He established the chronology of the ancient world, and although he made mistakes, he realized that the chronology of the Bible was inconsistent with what he had learned from other sources. In his quest for the truth, he sacrificed Biblical literalism, just the way Galileo would do, a couple of years later, in his Letter to Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine. With Scaliger, the “Secularization of our World Picture” started, which in turn opened the road to the Enlightenment.

The study of Antiquity is important. If I my quote an earlier post, here is a too short list of its contributions:

  • The way Politian dealt with texts, inspired Erasmus of Rotterdam, and caused the Reformation.
  • Without Scaliger’s studies – see above – no Enlightenment.
  • The discovery of the relations between languages has shaped the way we define nationality.
  • The Lachmann method was the model of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • Frazer’s hypotheses about human sacrifice influenced decision-making in the years prior to the First World War.
  • The simplistic exegesis of Tacitus’ Germania gave rise to the Aryan myth.
  • Archaeologists have given us a Prehistory, and offered evidence for the hypothesis that human history is defined by progress.

I am not claiming anything that is controversial. So how come that every time the newspapers write about Antiquity, they are writing about trivialities? Why are we always forced to read about the curse of the pharaoh, war-minded Spartans, or gladiators, topless or not?

Over here in Holland, we have a state secretary who declared not to understand the importance of archaeological museums. Actually, he is right. If the tax payer, in return for his money, does not get a decent book about the subjects I mentioned above, there’s no reason to continue the funding of our universities.


Common Errors (18): Pilate

28 June 2009

Pilate's inscription from Caesarea

Some ten years ago, two colleagues approached me with a request: could I read the general introduction to ancient history they had once written and was about to be reprinted? They wanted to seize the opportunity to remove all errors they might have made, and invited me to point out everything I could possible find.

Among the mistakes they refused to correct, was their qualification of Pontius Pilate as a procurator. True, this is what Tacitus writes in his Annals (15.44):

Christ, from whom the sect of the Christians has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.

But Tacitus is wrong. An inscription from Caesarea, found in 1961, is our evidence. It contains several lacunae, but Pilate’s title is clearly legible:

[dis  avgvsti]S TIBERIEVM
[praef]ECTVS  IVDA[ea]E
[fecit d]E[dicavit]
To the august gods, this temple of Tiberius, … Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea, erected and inaugurated.

There is no doubt about it: Pilate was a praefectus (a soldier), not a procurator (a civil official). This is not a mere triviality: the trial of Jesus was a matter of military urgency, not a civil trial.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Antiquary’s Shoebox

5 May 2009
Drawing of a pyxis from Smiths Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Drawing of a pyxis from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Several years ago, LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer started to put online some articles from scholarly journals. They are a bit old, but nevertheless, they are a treasure-trove of interesting and varied stuff. He called this section the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and like most shoeboxes, it accumulates scraps over time, as Bill discovers items that catch his fancy.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 137 articles. The latest contributions are on Early British Christianity, St. Nerses the Graceful (including some of the hymns of this 12c Armenian patriarch), an emendation to Tacitus’ Agricola, and Claudius and the Quaestura Gallica.

A glut of Tacitus

26 April 2009

I’ve now delivered on my threat of some time back: Tacitus’ Annals are now online on LacusCurtius. Just in English translation, although a more recent translation than the Church and Brodribb seen in a few copies elsewhere on the Web.

By something like 90% coincidence, my friend Susan Rhoads has just completed, if with my own fingers in the pie in some minor respects, putting online Tacitus’ Agricola and Germania, also just in English. There was, that I know of, no English translation of the Agricola anywhere online.

Tacitus’ Histories

30 December 2008

Strewn across the Internet the diligent Googler will find several copies of the works of Tacitus in English, and a couple in Latin. There is thus no particular virtue or novelty in one more, but I got tired of not finding the convenience of local links, so I’ve added my own, just in English for now: the Loeb edition — translation by Clifford H. Moore — is about 75 years more recent, and as usual on Lacus, my transcription has its full complement of local links. Here.


13 November 2008
Domitian (Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla, Spain)

Domitian (Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla, Spain)

The Roman historian Tacitus (c.55-c.120) wrote three delightful monographs (Agricola, Germania, and the Dialogue on the Orators) and two monumental histories: the Histories and the Annals, a dark work that is his masterpiece. His central theme is how a wealthy man had to act in an age of tyranny: he had duties towards society that he could not honorably evade, but this was not without danger – emperors were jealous and cruel.

For centuries, scholars have praised Tacitus’ style and the depth of his analysis. Some of this praise is exaggerated (arguably, Cassius Dio is a better, less biased historian), and it cannot be denied that the ghost of Domitian, who had acted despotically but to whom Tacitus owed his career, hovers over Tacitus’ accounts of other reigns. Still, he is certainly an efficient writer who knows how to employ stereotypes to create a story that is utterly unputdownable.

I have now added an article on Tacitus to my website, and you can find it here; an earlier version was published in Ancient Warfare.