Sunday, 10 December 2006

Imperial insignia?

The papers are full of a new find on the Palatine hill at Rome: the imperial insignia of the Emperor Maxentius.

For example, USA Today reports that "Clementina Panella, the archaeologist who made the discovery, said the insignia were likely hidden by Maxentius' people in an attempt to preserve the emperor's memory after he was defeated by Constantine I in the 321 A.D. battle of the Milvian Bridge — a turning point for the history of the Roman empire which saw Constantine become the unchallenged ruler of the West."

The link with a known historical personage seems a little far fetched. Associated Press claimed that "The depth of the burial allows experts to date them to the early 4th century A.D.", and quoted Ms. Panella as having explained that "These artifacts clearly belonged to the emperor, especially the scepter, which is very elaborated, it's not an item you would let someone else have."

I remain sceptical.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

Bisotun again

Last week, Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organisation (ICHTO) celebrated Bisotun's registration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Coincidentally, in their travel section, AOL are running an article on the most visited World Heritage sites, in which they include Mount Perdu on the Franco-Spanish border, the Iguazu Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border, and Waterton Glacier Park on the US-Canadian border. However, the theme of borders does not extend to our own dear Antonine Wall!

Back at Bisotun, the Iranian people evidently have a keen sense of history. The director of the ICHTO Archaeology Research Centre hoped that the celebration "teaches the Iranian children the importance of their cultural heritage and how to preserve it".

Perhaps we can learn a lesson there?

Saturday, 21 October 2006

Would the real King Arthur ...

Clive Owen makes a splendid Roman officer, don't you think?

Last week, I watched King Arthur again. Now, I would be the first to admit that there's precious little historical fact in that movie. But I do appreciate a rip-roaring action movie, competently acted and well directed.

Imagine my surprise when I found that some people believe King Arthur to be less of a movie and more of a documentary. In particular, a certain Dr. Linda Malcor (her Doctorate is in folklore and mythology) has posted an on-line article on why she believes that a second-century Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus is really the King Arthur of legend.

The most glaring problem would appear to be chronology: for the historical Arthur is mentioned in the later 5th century, whereas the Roman Artorius lived 300 years earlier. This is the least of the movie's historical problems. Others have provided detailed criticism, but it was Dr. Malcor's misrepresentation of Artorius's career ("... a brilliant cavalry officer" !) that I found striking.

A Roman inscription that seems to be the tombstone of Artorius Castus was published in 1873 (as CIL III 1919) by the great German scholar Theodor Mommsen. Thought to date from the AD 180s, it reads as follows:

D(is) [M(anibus)]
L(ucius) ARTORI[us Ca?]STUS
(centurio) LEG(ionis)
[(centurio) le]G(ionis) VI FERRA-
(centurio) LEG(ionis) II ADI(utricis) [i]TEM
(centurio) LEG(ionis) V M[a]-
C(edonicae) ITEM P(rimus)P(ilus) EIUSDEM PRAEPOSITO
VICTRICIS DUCI(!) LEGG(ionum) [alaru]M BRITAN(n)IC{I}-
NARIO(!) PROVINCIAE LI[burniae iure] GLADI(i) VI-

The man was clearly a career centurion, one of these courageous, highly paid officers (each one in charge of 80 men) who moved from unit to unit (legion III Gallica, legion VI Ferrata, legion II Adiutrix, legion V Macedonica) until finally attaining the coveted position of primus pilus, the chief centurion of a legion. In that post, he had the regiment's 59 other centurions under his authority, and was one of the legionary commander's closest advisors. A secondment as praepositus classis Misenatium (commander of the fleet at Misenum) occurs at this point. But the next step in the ambitious centurion's career was the post of praefectus castrorum (gradually becoming known as praefectus legionis, "prefect of the legion"), which recognised the man's years of experience by charging him with the smooth running of the legionary fortress for a year before his honorable discharge. At this point in Artorius's career, he was entrusted with the command of an army drawn from the legions and cavalry of Britain, in an expedition against the Armoricans of northern France. (His temporary command gave him the grand title of Dux legionum et alarum Britannicarum.) This was a perfectly standard assignment for a man of his seniority, to command detached troops in a war zone; we find numerous examples of chief centurions and legionary prefects in the same role.

As an ex-chief centurion, Artorius had earned the status of a primipilaris, and thus qualified for entry into Rome's equestrian order, a level of nobility second only to the senators themselves. Equestrian status gave Artorius access to the well-paid procuratorships. The inscription proudly announces that he was procurator centenarius (meaning "with a salary of 100,000 sesterces") of Liburnia in Illyricum (modern Croatia), where the inscription was discovered. Many procurators were simply finance officers, assisting the regular military governors (who, as senators, outranked them on the social scale). But Artorius tells us that he had "the right of the sword" (ius gladii), meaning that he had ultimate jurisdiction over Roman citizens, so he was clearly governing the region of Liburnia. This was Artorius's crowning achievement, after which he no doubt retired.

Beyond his prolonged career as a centurion -- which may well have been fraught with danger if it occurred during the lengthy wars of Marcus Aurelius (although the inscription is not precisely dated) -- there is no particular sign of derring-do here. No knights of the round table, Sarmatian or otherwise. And no expeditions against Britain's enemies. No sign, in fact, that Lucius Artorius Castus was King Arthur.

Friday, 13 October 2006

World Heritage Marathon

Recognition of the Antonine Wall as a World Heritage Site appears to have moved closer, after the site was formally nominated. The process is far from over, though. UNESCO must still ratify the choice in February 2007. (Or 2008. Or 2009!)

This story could run and run ...

Sunday, 8 October 2006

Digital History

Last month, the University of Nebraska held a symposium on "History in the Digital Age". Sounds interesting. So what is digital history?

Symposium web site
Digital History Symposium
One of the symposium sponsors was the Nebraska University Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. Their (rather vague) mission statement is to advance "interdisciplinary research in the humanities by creating unique digital content, developing tools to assist scholars in text analysis and visualization, and encouraging the use (and refinement) of international standards for humanities computing". One of their resources is a searchable database of newspaper articles relating to the Birds of Nebraska, and another is the Early Treaties with American Indians. While the first simply presents the newspaper articles in text form, at least the second has scanned images of pages from an 1855 book as well as parallel ASCII text.

The University of Virginia's Center for Digital History was also represented at the symposium. Their mission statement is a little more focused, promoting "the teaching and learning of history using digital technologies". Again, there don't appear to be scans of original sources in their flagship Valley of the Shadow project; but the digitised text of letters, diaries and publications from the 1860s is joined by some slick animated battle plans.

In an earlier post, I asked what form digital scholarship should take. Perhaps digitising sources (ideally primary sources, as in the Virginia example) and posting them on the internet so that they can be searched is as good as it gets. But then, by that stage, hasn't the scholarship already taken place?

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Where's Roman Scotland?

I recently stumbled across a web page which purported to record the Roman ruins of Britain. Here's the accompanying map of Roman Britain!

Now, admittedly, as the sponsor of the Antonine Wall, I may be slightly biased. But I'm absolutely positive that the reach of Rome did not stop at the wall of my illustrious parent, Hadrian.

In fact, there were more than a few enclaves of Romans (admittedly, often barbarians in the pay of Rome, but supervised by fully accredited citizen officers) dotted around the Scottish lowlands for centuries.

But, most amusingly, if you click on any of the placenames on this map (in its original web location, of course), you are whisked off to a page about St. Albans, a town only marginally further north than Watford.

Roman ruins in Britain? I don't think so!

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Happy birthday ...

... to me!

So, I'm officially 1,920 years old, and I don't feel a day over 40. Now, where are all these birthday greetings?!

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

The past is a foreign country ...

As L.P. Hartley astutely observed, they do things differently there.

I have long believed that the New Testament cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the contemporary culture which produced it. Now, a new book by Mark Chancey of the Southern Methodist University, Texas, "challenges the conventional scholarly view that first-century Galilee was thoroughly Hellenized".

A recent review concludes that Chancey "succeeds in challenging the overstating of a Greek setting for first century Galilee". But this is old news. In 1993, E.P. Sanders published a study in the journal Theology Today, warning against those who "think that a few Greek inscriptions and the construction of a few Hellenistic buildings by Herod prove that Palestinian Jews were swamped by, and accepted whole-heartedly, the entirety of Greco-Roman culture". Jesus, it seems, lived in a very Jewish context, despite the proximity of Herod's Hellenistic kingdom and the looming presence of Rome.

Scholarship is often cyclical, as current ideas fall out of favour and new theories turn out to be old theories with a fresh coat of paint. But it is important that we have such debates, to clarify the meaning of history for each new generation.

Monday, 4 September 2006

Under siege

There aren't too many books about ancient siege warfare.

Besieged book jacket

But the Ancient & Medieval History Book Club is advertising a new one. "Through use of outstanding photographs and explanatory diagrams of siege warfare", says their blurb, "this expert study examines the techniques and weapons used during the period."


Monday, 7 August 2006

Busman's holiday

The imperial coffers have been a little light this year.

As it was vacation time, rather than a visit to the Bay of Naples (like any self-respecting emperor), I decided to treat the empress to an inspection of our northern dominions. In other words, a road trip to Aberdeenshire and the charming village of Oyne.

Reconstructed Roman camp
Roman Camp (reconstructed at Archaeolink).

Much to the empress's dismay, we discovered a Prehistory Park there, "with a central focus on education, participation and fun". However, the reality has not yet caught up with the intention. Indoors, there is really only a short film show to entertain visitors, but the fine weather allowed us to wander around the scenic park. There we found some rather unimpressive reconstructions of the sort that have become a feature of this blog.

Believe it or not, this photograph shows what the folks at Archaeolink think that a Roman temporary camp might have looked like. Admittedly, we were told that it was currently "under review". Nevertheless, the empress was unimpressed, and I shall have to think seriously about Naples next year.

Friday, 28 July 2006

Painting by numbers

It is well-known that the Romans painted their statuary.

And they may have had a penchant for bright colors. For example, it has been suggested that Hadrian's Wall was whitewashed, and the joints between the stone blocks picked out in red mortar. But I recently came across the ultimate in garish decor.

First, some background. The construction of the Forth & Clyde canal in the 1770s, broadly following the ancient line of the Antonine Wall, uncovered various decorative stone slabs now known as "Distance Slabs" (because their purpose was to record the various lengths of wall completed by the different legionary work gangs). Agricultural activity periodically turned up additional slabs, so that 20 are now known, each one different.

In 1865 (according to Lawrence Keppie's Roman Inscribed and Sculptured Stones in the Hunterian Museum), a splendid example was unearthed near Bearsden, and was sold for £2 to a Glasgow lawyer. When Glasgow University declined to purchase the slab from him, it was sold to the American consul and shipped to Chicago!

Photo: Barbara McManus, 1986
Cast of a Roman inscription (Grosvenor Museum, Chester)
Courtesy of the VRoma image gallery.

But, before you cry out for the rendition and repatriation of such an important antiquity, there's bad news. For the slab was lost, presumed destroyed, in the great fire of Chicago in 1871.

Thankfully, the great Hadrian's Wall scholar, John Collingwood Bruce, had the foresight to order several plaster casts of the slab before it departed; which brings us back to the subject of decor.

The ghastly purple slab illustrated here is, in fact, one of these plaster casts, deposited in the Grosvenor Museum at Chester. Whether the Romans would, in fact, have used this color scheme is unknown. My own preference is for the example still to be seen in the Hunterian Museum (Glasgow), which has been rendered in altogether more sobre tones.

Thursday, 20 July 2006

Ahhh, Bisotun ...

Continuing the theme of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, it seems that Bisotun (more familiar to ancient historians as Behistun) has been included in the latest tranche.

This amazing rock-cut inscription, two-and-a-half thousand years old, has already been the subject of an exhaustive study by the indefatigable Jona Lendering on his excellent Livius web site.

The inscription at Behistun
Darius the Great's inscription at Behistun

Curiously, Darius apparently arranged for the relief to be cut 100m above the ground, so that nobody could tamper with the inscription. But, of course, it is entirely illegible from that distance!

When the Roman legions in Britain commemorated the building of the Antonine Wall with a series of splendid inscribed stones, we presume that they were at least displayed within sight of passers-by.

Monday, 10 July 2006

It's Magic

Magic map
OS Map of Temple of Boclair (courtesy of Magic).

I've discovered a little piece of Magic on the internet.

In a previous post, I drew attention to the Antonine Wall at Dobbies Garden Centre. Now, using the UK government's online rural GIS system (snappily entitled Multi Agency Geographic Information for the Countryside, or Magic), you can tap into large-scale Ordnance Survey mapping to analyse any geographical feature: say, the Antonine Wall at Dobbies Garden Centre!

Aerial view of Temple of Boclair
Aerial view of Temple of Boclair
(courtesy of Microsoft's Windows Live Local)

One of my visitors pointed out that all he could see of our premier Roman national monument was "a bumffle in a field". But what an exciting bumfle!

Using the Magic data, you can see that the Antonine Wall (running from west to east) crosses the A879 and turns abruptly SE. Amazingly, on the aerial view (courtesy of the really, really useful Windows Live Local), you can actually see it as it turns and heads off the right-hand side of the photo.

Now don't tell me that's not impressive. Or, in fact, Magic!

Saturday, 1 July 2006

Dead language?

How ironic.

At a time when interest in the Romans in Scotland stands at an all-time high; when a glance at the television listings suggests a general fascination for things Roman; and when Scotland's Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport has just endorsed the bid to grant the Antonine Wall World Heritage Status (continuing the theme from my previous post) ... How ironic that, at a time like this, Scotland's premier teacher training institution has chosen to "axe Latin".

Roman inscription from Bar Hill (RIB 2170)

Have the barbarians at the gates finally broken through? Are the philistines in charge? Of course, with even the teaching of History under threat in Scottish schools, the Culture Minister was careful to draw no links with the past, in her professed enthusiasm for res Romana. She simply stated that "This touch of Roman civilisation [sic!] in central Scotland [viz. the Antonine wall] is a reminder of the many European links of our country."

But what a pity if future generations of Scots, the descendants of David Hume and William Hunter, the heirs of Robert Adam and James Boswell, will not be equipped to decipher their rich Roman heritage.

Friday, 9 June 2006

Roman heritage

Back in 1972, UNESCO came up with the idea of World Heritage Sites, defined as properties having outstanding natural or cultural value.

Ecuador's Galapagos Islands were first on the list, and other early nominees included Auschwitz concentration camp, the Grand Canyon, and Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

In 1987, Hadrian's Wall, the frontier work named after my illustrious predecessor and adoptive father, Hadrian, achieved World Heritage status. The equally exciting Roman frontier remains in Germany, the so-called Obergermanisch-Rätischen Limes (ORL), were included in 2004. But what about my own frontier wall, virtually obliterated by the Forth & Clyde Canal and the small towns of Scotland's central belt? Surely it deserves recognition?

Antonine what?!
This sad sight, owned by Dobbies Garden Centre (Milngavie), is an "outdoor interpretation and display area" masquerading as a reconstruction of the Antonine Wall. The real thing, constructed around AD 142, must have been rather more impressive. It probably stood almost 3m high, and may have been surmounted by a timber palisade. In places, the ditch which fronted the wall was 12m wide and over 3m deep!

Happily, there has been a proposal to recognise the Antonine Wall as part of the new Frontiers of the Roman empire heritage site.

Fame at last!

Thursday, 1 June 2006

All you ever wanted to know about Ancient Greek Fortifications?

I recently acquired a copy of Ancient Greek Fortifications 500-300 BC, by Nic Fields, "a freelance author and researcher based in south-west France" (lucky Dr Fields). "This book", says the blurb, "details the construction and ongoing development of the defences that protected some of the most illustrious sites in Greece during the most famous period of its history."

I beg to differ.

The already-short book (it has 64 pages, and copious illustrations, many full-page) begins with a three-page "Chronology of major events". The only problem is that there's almost no sign of "the construction and ongoing development" of Greek fortifications here. Out of 132 date entries, I found only 21 that were relevant, chiefly through mentioning a siege or a capture (e.g., "332 BC sieges of Tyre, Gaza"), and only three that actually recorded the construction of a fortification (Athens twice, Kassandreia, and Thessalonika); none mentioned ongoing development.

Gyphtokastro (Attica, Greece)

The fortress of Gyphtokastro (Attica, Greece) guards the Kaza pass over the Mount Parnitha range, which was the main route from Athens to Thebes. The north wall stands to its original height of about 6m; the towers survive to about 8m, and may originally have been closer to 10m. (Each course of masonry is about 70cm high, and the average stone block is 2m long!)

A chapter on "Building Methods" is a good start, but Dr Fields spouts technical terms without explaining them: "ashlar blocks", anyone? Okay, I will grant that Wikipedia comes to the rescue for this one, but what about "socle"? The one-page Glossary at the back (p.63) isn't much help; it contains only 15 terms – like "Palisade: Barrier constructed from wooden stakes, which are positioned vertically in the ground" – and uses only half the page. (A socle, by the way, is a stone-built plinth designed to provide a solid foundation for a mud-brick wall, and could stand a metre or so high.)

The main chapter, entitled "Fortifications", is simply a description of four different sites (Athens, Gyphtokastro, Mantineia, and Messene), with briefer comments on 'Other fortifications' (Aigosthena, Eleusis, Eretria, Phyle, Sounion). The sites were perhaps selected to match Dr Fields' photo collection, and that's no bad thing. But we get no sense of the promised "ongoing development" of fortifications.

The third chapter, "Nature of conflict and society", discusses infantry combat and the hoplite phalanx at great length, leaving a single page on "siegecraft" (half of p.50 and half of p.51) and a half page (p.52) on "non-torsion catapult". The mention of catapults is interesting, in the light of the tables that pop up at random intervals in the text. On p.20, there's a table of "Calibrations of bolts for bolt-shooter", with no apparent tie-in to the text. (The index confirms that this is the only mention of "bolt-shooters and bolts" in the book.) Here, the reader will learn that "1-cubit" equates to "1 cubit (pechys - 462.4mm (18.21in.)", though what he or she is supposed to do with that knowledge is unclear. The catapult, invented in 399 BC, just squeezes in at the tail-end of Dr Fields' time-scale (500-300 BC), but doesn't really figure in the text. Several photo captions take it for granted that towers were for artillery and the painting on p.39 of a tower shows catapults inside. (Though, without bows or springs, they wouldn't have been very effective!)

All in all, I'm left with the feeling that a great opportunity has been missed. The average reader will surely be left bemused by the whole subject. On p.52, there's a table of "Engines of war", listing seven dates and seven towns. The book, I think, can be summed up by one of these seven entries, which hints at some action at Oinoe in 431 BC ("Thucydides 2.18.1 - mechanai, possibly battering rams"); a glance at the index shows that Oinoe appears on p.28, where we read that "the fortified Attic deme of Oinoe (Myoupolis) had been walled by the start of the Peloponnesian War at the latest (Thucydides 2.18.2)"; and, if we check the all-important Chronology, we find "431 BC ...", no mention of Oinoe!

So, is this book about "the construction and ongoing development of the defences that protected some of the most illustrious sites in Greece"? I don't think so.

Wednesday, 31 May 2006

A desirable property

We recently took advantage of the unseasonably fine Scottish weather to visit Kenmore. There we saw a splendid example of a crannog, or ancient loch dwelling, reconstructed in situ.

Loch Tay crannog

Apparently, the name (somewhat unimaginatively) means "timber structure", a fact which is missing from both Wikipedia and the excellent Time Team site.

The setting is very dramatic, and reminds us of the Iron Age penchant for conspicuous deployment of labour and consumption of resources.

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Roman Legions ... in color!

A new book is available in specialist bookstores near you.

Roman Legionary Fortresses
The jolly colorful cover conceals a wealth of information, fascinating to anyone who has ever wondered, "What did they do in Roman legionary fortresses, anyway?" or "How many legions did Antoninus Pius actually have?"

It has already received favorable commentary from those hard-hitting critics at Roman Army Talk. So, what's stopping you? Get straight out to a well-stocked Ancient History/ Humanities/ Archaeology newsstand near you, and start browsing.

You know it makes sense.

Thursday, 16 March 2006

Martial's blog

I recently came across a rather interesting blog, written by Mark Keith, a high school Latin teacher in America. The day I discovered his blog, Mark was describing his classroom. But in an earlier post, he quoted a snippet of the Roman poet Martial (in the original Latin, of course).

Feeling lazy, I launched an internet search for a translation, ... and found nothing. First port of call was the Perseus Project, but in its list of 489 ancient texts, Cornelius Nepos follows straight after Lysias, omitting Marcus Valerius Martialis entirely. The Latin text is certainly available in The Latin Library, but why are there no on-line translations? Surely not because of Martial's reputation for scurrilous (not to say disgusting) verse?

Well ... maybe so. The Artful Dodge magazine presents, on its web site, three of Martial's Epigrams, with an introduction by translator Joseph Salemi, where he reveals that not one of the 54 magazines he approached would publish his translations. This, he attributes to "our neurotic fear of offending anyone or any group".

But today, serendipity brought the Martialis blog to my browser. Beginning in June 2004, the author ("Nick") intended to translate one of Martial's poems every day. Although he ran out of steam last year, having managed 287 poems from Books I-III, there, in all its tiny glory, was Epigram I.61, the snippet quoted by Mark Keith: "Verona loves the syllables of the learned poet, Mantua is fortunate in Maro, ... as for you, Licinianus, our Bilbilis will boast of you, and will not be silent about me".

Postscript: If there are any Latin teachers looking for Advanced Higher tasks to set, how about continuing the on-line translation of Martial? I'm sure the pupils would enjoy it!

Sunday, 12 March 2006

In search of a search engine

I have a history of championing the underdog. Or, more accurately, boycotting market leaders, out of sheer stubbornness.

For example, I avoided Microsoft products for a long time. In truth, it wasn't difficult in 1991, when I was using WordPerfect (versions 5.1/6.0), Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase III+ (with Clipper). As the WWW took off, I again sidestepped the Microsoft product as a point of principle, moving from Netscape Navigator to the more W3C-friendly Opera browser. Of course, the irony is that, since 1992, I've been using various flavours of Microsoft Windows, when I should really have embraced Linux.

My latest ploy, as a fully paid-up Microsoft Office-user (the shame!), is to avoid Google. Actually, I have always been an AltaVista user, so I rarely feel the urge to "Google". But I used to occasionally use an "ancient world" specialist search engine called Argos. Sadly, when I tried to access it last week, I found that it had long since ceased to function.

Click to see bigger version of this image

Withdrawal of service notice for the Argos ancient world search engine

So I am now on the look-out for a suitable alternative. Any suggestions will be gratefully received.

Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

I recently came across a book entitled Warfare in the Ancient World by Brian Todd Carey. According to the jacket blurb, Professor Carey is a history lecturer in the American Public University System and vice-president of the Rocky Mountain World History Association. He tells us that the book is intended to accompany his undergraduate course at the American Military University: as he puts it, "unable to find a suitable text, I decided to write my own".

How peculiar. Isn't it school children who require text books? Shouldn't undergraduates be encouraged to read widely? "A little learning ...", as Alexander Pope said. Unfortunately, not even the author seems to have read widely. There are, on average, three end-notes per page (429 notes in all, spread over 149 pages). Something like 10% refer to primary sources: Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar - the actual descriptions of events surviving from antiquity. The rest borrow extensively from a core of modern American popular works: Arther Ferrill's The Origins of War: from the stone age to Alexander the Great; Richard Gabriel & Karen Metz's From Sumer to Rome: The military capabilities of ancient armies; Richard Gabriel & Donald Boose, Jr.'s The Great Battles of Antiquity: a strategic and tactical guide to great battles that shaped the development of war (phew!). He has consulted a similarly small cadre of modern British works, too: Warfare in the Ancient World, edited by General Sir John Hackett; John Warry's Warfare in the Classical World; and (of course) Peter Connolly's Greece and Rome at War.

But (and herein lies the problem) Professor Carey appears not only to have consulted, but to have borrowed heavily, while excluding more specialist works. How, for example, can anyone discuss Gaugamela, the great set-piece battle at the centre of Oliver Stone's recent movie, without referring to Eric Marsden's classic 1964 monograph, The Campaign of Gaugamela?

Academic disciplines like archaeology and ancient history are built on the study of the primary sources: the actual remains, supplemented by a reading of contemporary or near-contemporary textual accounts. For ancient warfare, we think of works like Victor Hanson's The Western Way of War, where the index of ancient citations runs to 11 pages; or Adrian Goldsworthy's The Roman army at War and Hugh Elton's Warfare in Roman Europe, AD 350-425, each based on the respective author's PhD research. To give Professor Carey his due, these works certainly appear in his bibliography, but I wonder whether he has read them.

For example, in the chapter entitled "The Roman Empire at War", we are informed that "the role of Roman cavalry on the battlefield increased because of prolonged contacts with cavalry-based tactical systems in the east" (p. 123). What does this mean? That the emperor Augustus suddenly discovered how useful cavalry could be? Isn't Professor Carey aware, for example, of the frequent cavalry skirmishes during Caesar's African war of 48-46 BC? Or does he mean to imply that the characteristic infantry legions were supplanted by the forerunners of the medieval knight? Elton, for one, has estimated that "at Strasbourg in 357 [the future emperor] Julian had 10,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry". Very similar numbers are found in Arrian's array of AD 132, in his plan to repulse an invasion of the Alans. So, where's the "increased role"?

Also, shouldn't we mistrust any military historian who cannot get the names of famous Roman generals right? It was P. Quinctilius Varus (not Quintilius) who lost three legions in the Teutoburger forest in AD 9, and T. Quinctius Flamininus (not Flaminius) who defeated Philip V of Macedon at Cynoscephalae in 197 BC. And "Scipio the Younger" (younger than whom?) is usually known as Scipio Africanus, and sometimes even Scipio Africanus the Elder!

It seems to me that Professor Carey has done his undergraduates a disservice. He has attempted to distill the contents of a few books which are already themselves distilled. In this digital age, it is surely more appropriate to post an annotated reading list as a web site, perhaps with a discussion forum to stimulate some intellectual activity. Then, indeed, Professor Carey's undergraduates can enjoy more than the shallow sip he has offered them.

Monday, 13 February 2006

Digital scholarship

The new CD-ROM edition of Gaspard Fossati's 1852 work, Ayia Sofia Constantinople, was the subject of a refreshingly informal appraisal, by Georgetown Professor of Classics James O'Donnell, in a recent edition of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
The latest on-line edition of the American Journal of Archaeology also carried a review by my colleague John Younger. In it, he points out that, in archaeological circles, "the [CD-ROM] format is still somewhat experimental". He's right. And there are certainly exciting possibilities in creating a digital book ab initio. But this particular CD-ROM is simply a PDF facsimile of a rare book.
I say "simply", but the digital version has two clear benefits over the original printed book of 1852. For one thing, the plates have been digitised at very high resolution, allowing magnification of 250%. And the publishers announce a "searchable, cross-linked English translation of the French text".
Amazingly, it costs only $30. The real bonus of this edition, along with companion digital facsimile editions of Newton, Shakespeare, Mercator, and Wycliffe, is (as John Younger notes) that "nearly everyone can afford a copy of these historic publications".
But there are cultural issues, too. I can sympathise with James O'Donnell, when he notes that facsimiles of rare books encourage the kind of affectionate care that a CD-ROM will never get. Until we can come up with the digital equivalent of a coffee table, there will always be a place for printed books.
Postscript: In a reply to John O'Donnell's review, Professor Dana Sutton of California University notes that, ironically, many classic books, printed before the era of acid-free paper, will require digitisation simply to guarantee their survival. And when the soaring cost of print publication forces academic publishers to restrict themselves to electronic forms of distribution (I am paraphrasing Professor Sutton), we shall have to think seriously, not only about archiving digital work, but increasing its accessibility.

Friday, 27 January 2006

Claudius and Caledonia

This week saw a most important date in the Scottish cultural calendar: January 25, the birthday of the National bard, Rabbie Burns. The same date, albeit some 1700 years earlier, saw the Roman emperorship thrust on a reluctant Claudius, the mad Caligula having been assassinated on the previous day.

Claudius is, of course, well-known to generations of English school pupils (less so, apparently, to their Scottish counterparts) as the man who ordered the Roman invasion of Britain (AD 43). By the time of his death in AD 54, the Romans were claiming the Severn and Trent as the bounds of their empire, while northern England had promised compliance; the area of modern-day Wales, however, remained bandit territory, and the land of Burns remained firmly terra incognita.

Or did it? Writing during the reign of Claudius, the geographer Pomponius Mela claimed that Triginta sunt Orcades, angustis inter se ductae spatiis * ("There are 30 Orkneys, with narrow straits between them"). How did he know? It is interesting to note that, later in his reign, Claudius claimed (on an inscribed triumphal arch) to have received the submission of 11 British kings. Was there a king of the Orkneys amongst them? Of course, by AD 83, a Roman fleet had circumnavigated Britain, and it became a commonplace for ancient authors to mention Thule (thought to be the Shetland Islands). But had Roman explorers already visited these lands thirty years before?

Perhaps long before, in fact. For, around 325 B.C., the Greek voyager Pytheas had already sailed the northern seas. Pytheas's own writings have not survived, but his feat is recorded by the elder Pliny, who famously died observing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius: quod fieri in insula Thyle Pytheas Massiliensis scribit, sex dierum navigatione in septentrionem a Britannia distante * ("Pytheas of Marseilles writes that this is the case for the island of Thule, which is six days' voyage north of Britain").

It seems that the ancients were not as ignorant, nor as primitive, as we sometimes think.

Friday, 13 January 2006

Soldiers & Ghosts

Just finished reading Soldiers & Ghosts by J.E. Lendon. Excellent! I can heartily endorse the verdict of Publishers Weekly:

Witty, erudite, and painstaking

From the U.S. Marines in Vietnam on p.1 to the fourth century Roman army on p.309, I could barely put it down. Subtitled A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity, it's actually a very perspicacious study of the ancient battle experience.

Veteran U.S. strategist Edward Luttwak, famous for his outsider's view of Roman military frontiers in The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, has reviewed the book for The London Review of Books. More helpfully, Polish scholar Jacek Rzepka presents his opinions in the on-line Scholia Review, hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (S Africa).

However, it is the Bryn Mawr review by Barry Strauss of Cornell University that hits the nail squarely on the head: "Unlike moderns", he writes, "the ancients measured themselves less by efficiency than by pedigree." In other words, in waging war, the Greeks and Romans did not share our modern obsession with technological advance, but were more interested in living up to their ancestral ideals. These are the soldiers and the ghosts of Lendon's title.