Thursday, March 25, 2010

Benefactors of humanity

More than once in the past I have said that Roger Pearse is a benefactor of humanity. It still seems to be true. Why is he our benefactor? He has taken it upon himself translate or commission translations of a great many early Christian works which have until now been available only to people who could read the original languages. Some people think that's fine -- if you don't know ancient Greek you would not understand these sources anyway -- but that's not my attitude, nor is it Roger's. As someone who has studied late antiquity and read a lot of obscure Christian literature from that era, I am in awe of Roger's generosity. The translations that he posts and otherwise gives away are not a complete substitute for the originals, but they make available part of the cultural and religious legacy of early Christianity to many new people.

I was inspired to say something about Roger by a blog post he published today, just one of the interesting posts of his that I've read since I discovered he had a blog. the Post announces a new translation of Hippolytus's Chronicon, one of the very first world chronicles written by Christian, in this case a third century Roman clergyman who eventually was martyred. (He is sometimes considered the first antipope.) In an earlier incarnation I had to know something about Hippolytus; it would have been nice to have this translation then.

But one of the interesting things about this new translation is that it is not, as far as I can tell, one of Roger's projects! There is another benefactor of humanity out there and this person is named T. C. Schmidt. Thank you very much, T.C.!

Image: Hippolytus being martyred, dragged behind a horse, from the Wikipedia entry on him.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Syme's Roman Revolution

David Meadows provided this link to a new review of a 70-year-old classic: Ronald Syme's The Roman Revolution. I read this as background material early in my teaching career, because people I respected had vaguely referred to it as a classic. And it was indeed a great book, one that felt fresh decades after publication.

Here's a bit of Steve Donoghue's appropriately well-written review:
Watching how Syme handles all his sources –watching the intricate, hitherto unseen connections and uprootings that he effects by sifting through everything so carefully (he’ll find a passing comment in an epic poem that sheds light on legionary cooking techniques, or a well-known paragraph from Cicero that can be read in a startling new way) – is at once humbling and exciting, and it’s no wonder The Roman Revolution has cast such a long shadow. The subject matter – the carefully-implemented plan by which Octavian took sole, personal control of the Roman Empire (and the equally careful plan to prevent the Romans from realizing the full import of what he was doing) – has been taken up many times by many historians in the ensuing seventy years. Syme’s masterpiece is in all their bibliographies, and most of those later histories of Augustus or the end of the Roman Republic would have been unthinkable had not Syme so impeccably paved the way.

The sobering fact is how little any of those later books manage to offer even a small amplification of Syme. Even now, The Roman Revolution is the first, best modern history of Rome’s preventable and misunderstood transition from Republic to Empire. Surely a Penguin Classic of it is finally in order?

Image: Gaius Octavius, disguised as a conservative senator.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Le Siècle de Libanios : littérature, culture et société du IVe siècle après J.-C. dans l'Orient méditerranéen

On the off chance one of my readers has both a reading command of French and an interest in the cultural, political, and intellectual life of the late 4th century AD, I include this link. Have fun, o lucky reader.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book review Sunday: Europe's Barbarians AD 200-600, by Edward York

Leonard Lipschutz over on MEDIEV-L contributes this:
Last month Edward James, author of The Franks (1988) published an outstanding new scholarly work, Europe’s Barbarians AD 200-600 (2009). The first chapters provide an up-to-date chronological survey, and analytical chapters expertly review current debates, on ethnicity, archaeology, reception by Rome, migration, assimilation, conversion and government. The bibliography is super.

At p. 50 he calls movements of Visigoths and Vandals, movements of “barbarian peoples,” showing reluctance to depart completely from old paradigms. But in the analytic portion, at p. 172, he caves in, stating: "My own conclusion would be that the break-up of the Western Roman Empire occurred because, in the different provinces, local populations began to give their allegiances to local warlords, rather than to the emperor, because those warlords were more effective as protectors and patrons. Not all these warlords were barbarians, but the majority were, because of the domination of barbarians within the Roman army." At the end of the book he states that he has not addressed directly the role of barbarians in the collapse of the western empire. Indeed, he does avoid saying anything about Heather’s Huns thesis. But James seems to anticipate further paradigm changes than he has conceded: "We tend to laugh or sneer at the simplicities or distortions of past views of the barbarians; sooner or later, this will be the fate of this book too."

Regarding ‘warlords’ it would be helpful to have a bold admission that the original forces of Alaric, Geiseric or Clovis, usually described as peoples or tribes, were in fact mercenary armies recruited on Roman soil and named for the ethnic origin of their leader. Regarding ‘the break-up,’ most likely it was not Huns, but a Roman struggle for power in 405 that set off a series of events leading directly to the break-up. When Stilicho finally hired Alaric, in that year, to support his intended attack on the east, the great eastern minister Anthemius responded in kind by hiring Radagaisus and Godegisil to raise armies in Pannonia and create a diversion in the west. Goffart made such a suggestion on p. 79 of Barbarian Tides (2006), and I think that interpretation will ultimately prevail.

Edward James' The Franks was a really good book which I would recommend to anyone with an interest.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

A late-antiquity moment in the news

This reminds me of the 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus.

Not a very cheerful thought, really.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Walter Goffart on Rome and the Barbarians: an interview at Kalamazoo, May, 2009

Walter Goffart, now of Yale but formerly of the University of Toronto, is one of the most influential historians of the late Roman Empire and early medieval Europe. Much of his work has been shaped by skepticism that the barbarians were capable or even interested in destroying the Empire by military force. At this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Peter Konieczny of interviewed Goffart about his ideas about the Early Middle Ages.

There are three other Kalamazoo interviews, with the military historians Kelly DeVries, John France, and Donald Kagay, and Thomas Bisson, also linked to the main page.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Barbarian invasions!

I used to think quite a bit about barbarian invasions and the late Roman world, and I still have an interest. So imagine my delight when Jonathan Jarrett posted his notes on a seminar delivered by Peter Heather at Cambridge earlier this month. Heather is one of the foremost champions of the somewhat contested idea that there were big organized barbarian invasions and that they were significant for the Roman world's ultimate fate. If you're interested in the state of play on this issue, go have a look at an abbreviated version of Heather's arguments and Jarrett's report of skeptical rejoinders

Image: The Total War fantasy version of Barbarian Invasions from

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pilgrimage, modern and medieval

Jeff Sypeck, a Washington-based medievalist, reflects at Quid plura? a propos the Obama inauguration, on a pilgrimage of the Crusading era, which I link to for the benefit especially of students who last term took Crusade and Jihad.

An excerpt:

The medieval Romans may not have draped patriotic bunting across the facades of their buildings, but 710 years ago, they braced for unprecedented crowds. In late 1299, apparently with no official prompting, pilgrims began streaming into Rome, driven by the widespread belief that the year ahead offered special blessings to those who visited the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Here’s Paul Hetherington on what became the Church’s first Jubilee Year:

The word spread like wildfire through Europe, and even by New Year’s Eve of 1299 a great crowd had assembled at St. Peter’s to greet the opening of the Jubilee Year at midnight. From then on, the crowds flocked to Rome from all over the known world. No one had ever experienced anything like it before. The crowds were so massive that the papal police had to institute a keep-right system for all the crowds crossing the bridge on foot that led over the Tiber to St. Peter’s . . .

The spontaneity and scale of the Jubilee took everyone by surprise. Even the pope, Boniface VIII, seems to have been nonplussed by it, and only issued the decree authorizing it late in February 1300. The various estimates made by contemporaries of the numbers that visited Rome vary so wildly that none can be regarded as trustworthy, but it was probably somewhere between one and two million...

[From a pilgrim's account:]

The Pope received an untold amount of money from them, as day and night two priests stood at the altar of St. Paul’s holding rakes in their hands, raking in infinite money…

Jeff will be on Connecticut Ave. adding that medieval touch:
I’ll be pacing the sidewalk with ful devout corage and wielding my new favorite medieval-themed religious implement, the money rake. Commit yourself to change—or simply fling cash. I promise it will go someplace deserving. Weary pilgrim, have faith in me: I wol yow nat deceyve.
Image: Basilica of St. Paul's outside the Walls, Rome.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Archaeological riches of Ephesus (Turkey)

Jonathan Jarrett's blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has a fascinating piece inspired by a seminar talk by Professor Charlotte Roueché on the challenges of archaeology at Ephesus (mainly, a common one: everyone wants to concentrate on their favorite period) and the particular insights that can be gained at this amazing locale:

[T]he extent of stone-carving in these cities, which is huge—Professor Roueché had a picture of a fair-sized wall at Aphrodisias covered in imperial edicts, including Diocletian’s price edict which you may have heard of and which we only have from stone—was apparently dwarfed by the number of more temporary painted inscriptions. Such an amazingly lettered culture is implied by this that it does seem quite alien to Westerners, who too often acquire an idea that writing is the preserve of the Latin Church. At Ephesus, the theatre seats are covered in carved graffiti; as Professor Roueché said you begin to think that everyone was carrying a chisel and hammer in their back pocket in case they passed a blank surface…

Lots more good stuff there!

Also, Jarrett has, for you philosophical scholars and would-be scholars, a meditation
on owning books.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Memories of Rome (President's Choice?)

At home, Americans are arguing over whether the financial system will collapse or whether the rich will be allowed to turn everyone else into debt slaves. Meanwhile, in South Asia, American forces have been crossing the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and Pakistan has been shooting down American drone airplanes. And no one much seems to be paying attention to the second. Or the fact that the Pakistani government almost almost got blown up en masse a few days ago.

This reminds me of those good old Roman days when the entire provinces might rise in revolt because of senatorial money lending practices, and when the senators involved were forced to commit suicide, it was in regards to some entirely unconnected matter, like pure imperial animus.

Image: the death of Seneca, whom Abelard and Eloise thought was a great philosopher, but whose moneylending contributed to the great British revolt against Rome. I wonder if A and E knew about that? I doubt it. Painting by Gerrit von Honthorst.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is this a fake?

The bronze statue above, the Lupa Capitolina, is a famous 5th century BC depiction of the wolf who suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. (The boys themselves have been long known to be Renaissance restorations.)

Now news comes out of Italy that the wolf, too, may be late (13th century A.D.?), and produced by a method unknown in antiquity.

For more details, see the story from the BBC.

Just goes to show you how our links to the past are always uncertain, or maybe, as Henry Ford said, "the bunk."

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dacia, Decebalus, and Sarmizegetusa

Today in Ancient Civilizations class I will be discussing the era of the Officially Good Emperors and will touch on the emperor Trajan's conquest of the kingdom of Dacia (roughly modern Romania over the Danube). About a year ago a good friend of mine was trekking through Dacia and visited the ruins of its pre-Roman capital, Sarmizegetusa. His account and reflections on Dacia are here. The various episodes are in blog-order: You have to start with the entry for May 12 or 13 and work up the page.

Image: The ruins of Sarmizegetusa today.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Roman games

Ancient Civilizations students who want to follow up on today's lecture on The Arena might want to look at this book in our collection: Gladiators and caesars : the power of spectacle in ancient Rome edited by Eckart Köhne and Cornelia Ewigleben.

It is well illustrated and has insights born from systematic re-enactment efforts.

Film clips from the Ben Hur chariot race sequences from 1925 and 1959 can be found at Those must certainly count as re-enactments.

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Female gladiators

For students who can't wait for today's lecture on the Roman arena, why not have a look at this article on a possible grave find of a female gladiator discussed by Steven Murray in the Journal of Combative Sport?

Or a short article in Discover Magazine about archaeologist Steven Tuck's research into death in the arena?

Read both articles and come to lecture and you'll have a "Steven hat-trick."

Image: from the JCS article, two female gladiators, Amazon and Achillea.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Laughing along with Cornelius Tacitus

The Roman historian Tacitus (wrote circa AD 100) is not usually associated with humor -- and no wonder, since he chronicled the bloody intrigues of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Mordant, or bleak might be better words. However, I was recently reading Michael Grant's lively Penguin translation, and it occurred to me that he sometimes might have been going for laughs, and not just a sour little chuckle.

Read these two passages and see what you think:

Pharasmanes [leading a group of Iberian mountaineers against the Parthians] reminded his troops that they had never submitted to Parthia -- the loftier their aspirations, he said, the greater the honour of victory, and the disgrace and peril of defeat. Contrasting his own formidable warriors with the enemy in their gold-embroidered robes, he cried: "Men on one side -- on the other, loot!"

OK, maybe that's a doubtful case (though whether you laugh or not, it does sound like something out of 300), but consider this:

[An honorary triumph was awarded to Curtius Rufus, a commander in Upper Germany:] He had sunk a mine in the territory of the Mattiaci to find silver. Its products were scanty and short-lived, though the troops suffered and toiled, digging channels and doing underground work which would have been laborious enough in the open. This forced labour covered several provinces. Worn out by it, the men secretly appealed to the emperor, in the name of all the armies, begging him to award honorary triumphs to commanders before giving them their armies.
What do you think now? (NB: no blood was shed in either anecdote.)

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cornelius Tacitus speaks

One of the old greats, the Roman historian Tacitus ("I, Claudius" is derived from his vision of the early empire) says it all, or at least something significant:

Contradictory rumours have raged around [an imperial death] among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of error are magnified by time.

Of course, Tacitus himself has often been seen as the greatest of those who "twist truth into fiction."

The translation is by the prolific Michael Grant.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rome (2005 & 2007)

Since Christmas I've had the opportunity to see all of both seasons of the HBO series Rome and I was just as impressed by the entire work as I was by the two episodes I saw back in November. I am not a classicist or a Roman-era archaeologist, so I may have missed some things, but it's the most amazing visual re-creation of a distant time and place I've ever seen. The writing and acting were mostly excellent. There were very few places where I thought the producers and directors were pandering to modern prejudices and preconceptions. All in all, one of the best video presentations of anything I've ever seen. For instance, the episode where Pompey dies was riveting. There was so much in it, and it worked perfectly.

I had my disappointments. In an effort to avoid Cranky Academic Syndrome, I'll mention only one. There were no Greek elements in the presentation of Egypt, Alexandria, or Cleopatra's court. It wouldn't have taken more than a few Greek references to make me happy.

Warning: Rome is full of sex, brutality, and a fair amount of brutal sex. And very few characters, even your favorites, abstain from doing something horrible, generally murder.

Image: Kerry Condon playing Octavia; there are worse things than being a parasitic, drugged-out daughter of the upper class.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Historical treasures, imagined and real

Over at Blogenspiel, Another Damned Medievalist has posted Carnivalesque XXXIII, a collection of links to interesting Ancient/Medieval items from recent blogs. Aside from cutting remarks about Beowulf and Neil Gaiman's role in it (go look it up!), there is a fine item from Tony Keen on what he'd like to see recovered from Pompeii if further digs discover more lost literature on the lines of the Greek library already found there. Posts like this can be tiresome but I liked Tony's so much that I followed his link to a post by Mary Beard, who earlier asked her readers for their wish lists.

It may seem that this wishing is ridiculously unrealistic. Well, wishes almost never come true in the way you'd like them to. But this week has shown that the unexpected can occur in a stunning manner. At least, I was stunned by two discoveries.

The first was a seemingly 7th-century royal cemetery in the North of England, the only such, with some individual pieces reminiscent of the Sutton Hoo material from East Anglia. This is really hot stuff, which will be analyzed for a long time to come.

Even better, if you are interested in Rome, is the apparent discovery of the Lupercale in Rome. To quote the Guardian, it's

a large vaulted hall beneath the Palatine hill ... almost certainly the fabled Lupercale - a sanctuary believed by ancient Romans to be the cave where the twin boys Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf.
The Guardian site has some video footage. You see, the cavern is in bad shape, and has only been seen via a probe-camera inserted from above. Watching it, you can imagine the excitement of the archaeologists and technicians who first saw it. The lead archaeologist, Andrea Carandini, said it's ""one of the greatest discoveries ever made" and whose to say that's wrong?

One story I saw said this shrine was accessible until the 16th century. Does any reader know more about this, and how the Lupercale was lost?

Let's call this Good News Friday and leave it at that.

Image: The English finds, from the BBC story.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rome (2005)

Thanks to NU's Classics Club, I saw the first two episodes of the mini-series Rome. I was impressed the minute the initial credits came on, which made me think that this is surely the era when animators rule the screen. As a whole it was perhaps the best recreation of ancient scenes I can remember, though the early-70s Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers were comparable, and the recently-seen Joseph Andrews and The Duellists are comparable.

Image: Polly Walker playing Atia of the Julii, the mother of the emperor Augustus.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

The Chronography of 354

I have mentioned here before Roger Pearse's public-spirited project to publish in translation as many late ancient and early Christian primary sources as he legally can. Roger is an Internet hero.

His most recent publication might be of interest to some readers: it's the kind of thing that you might never hear of unless you were a specialist in late ancient historiography (that's how I came across it first): The Chronography of 354.

This work, which is unique is an almanac including various calendars and chronological lists commissioned by or presented to a man (presumably a man who lived in Rome) named Valentinus. The original, which no longer exists, was a real luxury product, including fancy calligraphy and lavish illustrations. (The illustration that you see above and the others preserved in various manuscripts are copies made in the Renaissance, a thousand years after the originals were made.)

What I found most interesting about the almanac when I first looked at it, is that it gave me a look at what aristocrats in mid-fourth-century Rome thought was important. Some of the material is Christian -- lists of bishops of Rome, lists of local martyrs -- but a lot of the visual material seems completely strange (pagan?) to my later eyes. A non-graphic example of surprising material can be seen in the Philocalian Calendar, part 6 of the Chronography, which gives all the official holidays, Senate meetings, good and bad luck days, observed in the city. Likewise part 16, the Chronicle of the City of Rome gives a summary of what local leaders might be expected to know of the history of the city and to a very limited extent, the empire. Have a look and see how much of this "Roman History" you've heard of!

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Walter Goffart's "Barbarian Tides"

Alas and alack, though Walter Goffart has repeatedly delivered what should be deathblows to the notion that the fall of the Roman empire can be best understood as the result of barbarian invasions, that venerable hulk keeps staggering on.

I referred to the latest round of debate in this post back in January, when I discussed recent books with easily confused titles by Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather. Both argued that at the beginning of the fifth century, catastrophic military defeat led to cataclysmic civilizational collapse. Both pooh-pooh alternative view points, which the bundle together as "the transformation of the Roman World." They seem to think that anyone who doesn't believe in military catastrophe's ability to thoroughly wreck a worthy civilization in short order is soft, too soft to think that the barbarians were the bad guys.

Do we really need an analysis of the fall of Rome no more advanced than the one offered by Edward Gibbon? Gibbon's still on the shelf and his scathing view of the Christian Middle Ages is hard to beat if that's what you want.

Without being notably pro-barbarian myself, I find this attitude to the fall of Rome, even the notion of a unique fall of Rome, not very productive of true historical understanding. I am much more sympathetic to two other books, Walter Goffart's Barbarian Tides and Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages. Two quite different books have one thing in common. They take the attitude that just because a particular style of late Roman imperialism came to an end, the world did not. They are not nostalgic books.

Ward-Perkins and Heather for some reason have picked on Goffart as the epitome of the soft-hearted "transformationalists" who apparently believe that nothing really bad happened in the fifth century. This strikes me as a bizarre characterization. Walter Goffart is actually best known for a detailed analysis of an old and creaky theory of barbarian settlement that doesn't hold up to modern scrutiny. He's also a skeptic of theories of historical development that depend on romantic imagery of "barbarian migration." Barbarian Tides is his re-entry into the argument.

One thing that keeps niggling at me is this question: if you are an English historian, or one who grew up reading English, are you more likely to be enamored of the notion of civilizational collapse, simply because the economic and social structure of Roman Britain did indeed collapse to be replaced by something quite different? One of the strong features of Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages is that he admits that something quite unique happened in Roman Britain; but also that every other region of early medieval Europe had its distinctive character, too. This strikes me as a more useful way of thinking about things than trying to locate that unique moment when "Rome" (capable of being defined in so many ways) fell.

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