Sunday, 23 March 2008

A Gathering of Eagles

It is Easter, and I have been reading Matthew's Gospel.

My eye was particularly drawn to chapter 24, verse 28: "Wherever there is a dead body, the eagles will gather" (Good News Bible, adapted*) or, in the resounding words of the excellent King James "Authorised" version, "Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together".

* I was forced to adapt the Good News version because, for some unaccountable reason, the translators have chosen to render hoi aetoi as "vultures". But the vulture has its own Greek name: gups. The aetos was most definitely the eagle. Perhaps the Good News folk thought that only vultures would gather, particularly where a carcass was to be found. So are they right? Did the Gospel writer get it wrong?

It might be more interesting to ask: what is this gathering of eagles, and what is the carcass? As a Roman emperor, I immediately thought of imperial legions and their eagles (aquilae). Did Matthew (writing towards the end of the first century AD) think the same? And is the corpse then the destruction which habitually followed them? In short, is Matthew describing the apocalyptic last battle of Rome?

I think that's more likely than a bunch of vultures picking at a carcass.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Roman nonsense

Mehercule! What a lot of Roman nonsense there is on the internet.

One of my posts from January 2007 (entitled The Lost Legion) recently attracted a comment which relied on information drawn from an official-looking web site. The web site in question,, with its clashing colors and flashing graphics, was purportedly "designed to introduce the West Highland Way in its national, historic and cultural richness". (There is, incidentally, an official West Highland Way web site, which is altogether easier on the eye.) But along the way, Mr Albawest provides two lengthy pages on "The ancient Picts of Caledonia and their resistance to Roman invasion". Sadly, the content, lacking the charm of historical fiction, falls squarely into the category of misinformation.

Map borrowed from PICTART web site

Roman Scotland

Our knowledge of Roman-era Scotland (which, of course, wasn't called Scotland at the time, but rather Caledonia) comes largely from two ancient writers. One, a Greek geographer named Ptolemy, helpfully listed the indigenous peoples known at the time. (I have borrowed a map from to illustrate where these peoples are thought to have lived.) And the other, a Roman senator named Tacitus, happened to be related to the Roman general who first set foot in Caledonia, and wrote a flattering account of his military campaign. Mr Albawest devotes the bulk of his survey of the Picts to this very campaign, without apparently noticing that neither Tacitus nor Ptolemy ever mentions Picts. (In fact, the Picts first emerged as a people only around AD 300.)

Comedy of errors

First of all, for some obscure reason, Mr A insists on calling the Roman province "Pretania", rather than Britannia. And secondly, he refers to Roman "legionnaires", a term properly restricted to the French Foreign Legion. Third: he calls the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome the "Coliseum', which is a well-known theatre in London. (The famous Roman amphitheatre inaugurated in AD 80 was actually known as the Colosseum, on account of a colossal statue nearby.) Fourth: the Roman general Agricola may well have "brought his son-in-law the historian Tacitus with him on the invasion", but Tacitus wrote his father-in-law's biography (with the description of his Caledonian campaign) fully 20 years later, and not (as Mr A seems to think) as an embedded reporter! Worst of all, Mr A calls me "Antonius Pius" and claims that my wall was "lost after less than 10 years of guerilla war". (In fact, I'm rather proud to say that the Antonine Wall was occupied for about 20 years!)

The Lost Legion (again)

My correspondent was evidently duped by Mr A's entirely fictional account of the Ninth Legion and its involvement in Agricola's conquest of Caledonia. Mr A puts a bizarre new spin on the disappearance of the legion by dating it to AD 82! By implication, of course, because Mr A isn't inclined to give us facts when there is fiction to be spun. But he draws the setting of his tale from Tacitus' report of Agricola's sixth season (Agr. ch. 26), normally dated to that year. (Incidentally, we know that the legion was still functioning happily in AD 108.)

First, we are told that "the IX [Ninth] Legion seem to have been especially hated by the Picts perhaps because of some heinous act of brutality" ... for which there isn't a shred of evidence or a glimmer of likelihood. Then, we are asked to believe that a 30,000-strong Pictish war-band over-ran the legion's camp and cut them to pieces. "Agricola eventually came to the rescue just in time to save the remnants of the IX. More than half the Ninth Legion had been lost." Mr A goes on to explain that "they had to bring in a replacement Legion, pull the remnants of the IX out of Caledonia, re-form the whole Legion and repopulate it with new recruits and officers. ... The new IX Hispana Legion proudly marched north - and simply disappeared."

There's more ... but it only gets worse. What a lot of Roman nonsense.