Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christ Illustrated

It is Christmas time, a season that calls for a religious blog post. Fortuitously, I recently discovered the magisterial La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ ("The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ") by Jacques (James) Tissot, which is suitably biblical.

Tissot no. 23

The French painter Tissot (1836-1902) had a fairly conventional artistic career, until his support for the Paris Commune forced him to flee to London, where he lived and worked for ten years. Some years after his return to Paris in 1882, he experienced a spiritual conversion during a visit to the Church of Saint-Sulpice, which led him to devote the remainder of his life to religious painting.

Religious Revival

By chance, the nineteenth century had seen the birth of the pictorial Bible, along with related works such as the Landscape Illustrations of the Bible (published by John Murray in 1836). The German artist Julius Schnorr was an early exponent of the genre. Alongside this new trend came a revival in religious painting, by artists such as Ford Madox Brown, William Dyce (more famous for his Arthurian scenes), and particularly William Holman Hunt (famous for his 1860 painting of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple). At roughly the same time, Tissot's countryman Gustav Doré had great success when the publication of a Bible illustrated with 228 of his engravings led to a London exhibition which ran almost continuously throughout 1868-9, closing only on Sundays.

Travelling In The Footsteps

Tissot no. 26

Like Holman Hunt, who had travelled in Egypt and Palestine in order "to make more tangible Jesus Christ's History and Teaching", Tissot headed east. (However, unlike Hunt, he does not appear to have experienced any street scuffles or colourful scenes in brothels.) Between 1886 and 1889, he made studies for an ambitious series of paintings that became La Vie de Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ.

Tissot no. 32

Completed in 1894, the 365 paintings were exhibited in Paris (1894-5), London (1896) and New York (1898-9), before being purchased by the Brooklyn Museum in 1900.

Tissot's scenes have been influential, as (for example) the inspiration for D. W. Griffith's cinematic biblical epic of 1916, and doubtless many of its successors. I'm sure we can still see Tissot's influence in the biblical epics of today.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Counting Down from Marathon

Marathon Logo

On November 13, long distance runners from all over the world converged on Athens for the 29th Athens Classic Marathon. This old arithmetically-challenged emperor assumed that it was organized to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary (25th centenary) of the Battle of Marathon, fought in 490 BC. However, the official logo of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (pictured here) makes it clear that they considered 2010 to be the centenary. So who's correct?

An Ancient Event

It used to be thought that the Battle of Marathon was fought in 491 BC. That date can be found in the Cambridge Ancient History (original edition) volume 4 (1926) by J.A.R. Munro, although others had long championed 490 BC.

It was well known that ten years had separated the two Persian invasions of Greece. The Greek victory over Xerxes at Salamis, ending the second Persian attempt, occurred in 480 BC, but some scholars clung to the view that, because Xerxes had actually set out from Susa in 481 BC, counting back 10 years gave 491 BC for Marathon.

(Thucydides may have contributed to the confusion when he wrote that the Battle of Marathon occurred ten years after the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias from Athens, which had occurred in 511/0 BC. Confusingly, the Attic calendar ran from summer to summer, so that, technically speaking, the tenth anniversary of the expulsion of Hippias spanned 491 and 490 BC. However, it is known that Phainippos, the Athenian archon for 490/89 BC, was in office at the time of the Battle of Marathon, which virtually guarantees that it fell in 490 BC.)

Dating Problem

However, the AIMDR (and they're not the only ones) have fallen foul of a different problem; a problem that continues to bedevil chronological calculations involving BC and AD dates. (See previous post for BC and AD dates.) This problem is caused by the absence of Year Zero.

Arithmetic calculations involving negative numbers (like BC dates) and positive numbers (like AD dates) assume that zero is the pivot, the fixed point between the two types of numbers. Subtract minus-10 from 10 and the result is 20.

Unfortunately, historical chronology doesn't work the same way. AD 10 is only 19 years after 10 BC, not the 20 years that we might naturally assume. (Think about it: 9 BC is one year later, 8 BC is two years later, ..., 1 BC is nine years later, AD 1 is ten years later, AD 2 is eleven years later, ..., AD 10 is nineteen years later.) Similarly, AD 2010 (the anniversary celebrated by AIMDR on their logo) is only 2,499 years after 490 BC. (Let's ignore the fact that they've gone for "2010 AD" instead of AD 2010.)

Only J.A.R. Munro and his fellow supporters of a battle in 491 BC could justifiably have celebrated last year! However, this year, all those keen runners who braved the unseasonal chill of Athens last week to run in the 29th Athens Classic Marathon were, perhaps unknowingly, celebrating the real anniversary, the 25th centenary of the greatest battle in ancient Greek history. Congratulations to all of them!

Monday, 31 October 2011

AD, CE, does it matter?


I think it may have been Voltaire's fault.

Recently, there has been a certain amount of internet discussion about the terms CE and BCE as replacements for the venerable AD/BC dating system. The wickedly subversive commentator Mary Beard (that's her description, not mine) helpfully informs us that "CE and BCE have been around for years, and < are > often used instead of BC and AD". But surely the question is: "why?"

I know that, in English, pedigree is everything. A bit like a squatter in someone else's house: if he's been there long enough, he gets to stay. If Mary Beard's friends have been using CE long enough, they get to continue. Thank goodness they haven't been using YsHtGD ("Years since Herod the Great Died"). However, Mary Beard prefers BC and AD because BCE and CE sound alike when she says them in a lecture theatre (so she probably wouldn't have liked YsHtGD and YbHtGD, either).

A Christian System?

Of course, not everyone uses the BC/AD system: Jews and Muslims have their own chronologies. Many supporters of BCE/CE claim that it is more respectful to these other faiths. This is a spurious argument. (Would we expect Jews and Muslims to give up their traditional systems in order to find a universal, neutral chronology?) In fact, the average history student (for who else uses the terms?) has no interest in knowing what BC and AD stand for, only what they mean chronologically.

A better point might be that the BC/AD system is a western tradition. As Mary Beard observes, "it is now impossible to imagine unpicking the Christian calendar". And, in any case, why should we be expected to overturn a perfectly good tradition that everybody understands?

A neutral system?

As many perceptive readers already realise, the BCE/CE system actually perpetuates the so-called "Christian" system by adopting the same cross-over point. The underlying system remains the same. 27 BCE is still the same as 27 BC, only it takes an extra letter to say so. So why change the abbreviations? Why does it matter?

It's all Voltaire's fault

Historical chronology began with biblical scholars. Writing in Latin, they naturally used the phrases ante Christum (before Christ) and anno Domini (in the year of the Lord) for dating biblical events. When secular historians tackled the chronology of ancient Greece, they naturally slotted events into the biblical timescale of "years before J.C." For example, in 1732, when James Anderson compiled his Royal Genealogies (subtitled The Genealogical Tables of Emperors, Kings and Princes, from Adam to these Times), he tabulated thousands of events beginning with the creation of the world "in the imaginery Year of the Julian Period 710, on the 23rd Day of October, Afternoon, before the Christian Era 4004 Years". He acknowledged that the only existing chronological framework was a Christian one.

Subsequent events were dated "A.M." (Anno Mundi, "in the year of the world"), with the equivalent year "before Christ" (being 4004 minus the year A.M.), with alternatives in the "Julian Period" (being A.M. + 710) and various other chronologies (olympiads, "era of Rome", "era of Nabonassar"). The Year 4714 of the Julian Period (= A.M. 4004) began a new era, according to Anderson, "which by long use is call'd the Era of Christ, and its Year call'd (Anno Domini) the Year of our Lord; tho' strictly it should be call'd (Anno Erae Christianae) the Year of the Christian Era". All subsequent dates are given A.D.

This was the milieu in which historians were working in the 18th and 19th centuries. When men like Voltaire came to write, they used phrases like "in the common era" or "in the Christian era" or "in the vulgar era" interchangeably. There was no Christian overtone. They simply made use of the chronologies worked out by men like James Anderson.

Which is better?

Any chronological system requires a fixed point. AD 1 painlessly gives us our fixed point, whether or not we agree with the reason for its invention. Any alternative chronological system would require a different fixed point to be agreed upon.

Perhaps it's simplest to stick with the BC/AD system. If some people feel the need to disguise its origins by relabelling it CE, who am I to complain?

Friday, 30 September 2011

Antonine Wall Museum

Distance SlabIt has been a while since the Antonine Wall was in the news.

One of the recurring features of this blog -- besides championing a sensible interpretation of the disappearance of the Lost Ninth Legion (most recently here) -- is to follow developments on the Roman frontier in Scotland (most recently here). So this emperor was excited to learn that Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum -- home of many spectacular finds from the Antonine Wall -- has re-opened after a two-year refurbishment.

The Guardian newspaper reports, with not a little hyperbole, that "one of the Roman empire's most enigmatic monuments is set to reveal some of its secrets". Enigmatic? Secrets? (Well, I suppose journalists have got to drum up interest in their stories somehow.)

In fact, journalist Charlotte Higgins' second attempt at the story is a lot better: no hyperbole; just the bare facts (to parody her headline). She draws attention to the beautiful new gallery showcasing the permanent "Antonine Wall: Rome's Final Frontier" exhibition, and praises the designers' avoidance of gimmicky interactive displays. Here, rather than a "most enigmatic monument", the Antonine Wall is described -- perfectly -- as "this relatively little-known patch of Britain's Roman past". Second time's a charm, Charlotte.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Medieval Armour Was Heavy

Various press reports have latched onto the recent publication of some findings in the field of armour research.

A team involving academics from Leeds, Milan and Auckland measured the effects of walking and running in a 30-40kg suit of plate armour, and discovered -- surprise, surprise -- that wearing armour has a detrimental effect on a man's breathing.

Actually, their analysis is slightly more detailed than this. They have discovered that distributing the weight around a man's body and along his limbs in a suit of armour has a rather different effect from loading the same weight into a backpack. When suited up, a man's energy expenditure is around 2.2 times higher when walking, and 1.9 times higher when running, although his mass has increased by only 1.4 times.

Press reports (e.g. The Guardian newspaper, with video) have enthusiastically attributed the English victory at Agincourt in 1415 to the fact that "the French knights were knackered". Hopefully, historians will have a more sophisticated analysis of the battle!

Report: G.N. Askew, F. Formenti & A.E. Minetti, "Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers' locomotor performance", in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, online content: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0816

Friday, 8 July 2011

Under The Sun

Recently, I saw an advert for a book called "Everything Under The Sun". I don't know what kind of associations that phrase evokes for you, but for me it evokes King Solomon. And not in a good way.

There is, of course, a better known sun-related phrase, which I was reminded of while flicking through the Meditations of my adopted son (!), the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

I happened to be reading the wonderful old translation of Casaubon (1692), and came to the passage (VII.1) where he writes:

Generally, above and below, thou shalt find but the same things. The very same things whereof ancient stories, middle-age stories, and fresh stories are full: whereof Towns are full, and Houses full. There is nothing that is new. All things that are, are both usual and of little continuance.

C.R. Haines translates the same passage in the 1916 Loeb edition:

Look up, look down, everywhere thou wilt find the same things, whereof histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full; and full of them at this day are cities and houses. There is no new thing under the sun. Everything is stereotyped, everything fleeting.

His addition of the words "under the sun" betray the fact that Haines knew the Casaubon edition with its commentary by Monsieur and Madam Dacier, who wrote (in 1692) "Seeing there is nothing new under the Sun, and all things are at all times the same, we can renew our whole Life by renewing and bringing under our review, the things that have happened in our own time; for they are the same that we shall see afterwards".

The Wisdom of King Solomon

Of course, the Daciers did not invent the phrase. And here we return to King Solomon, because the phrase was first coined by him three millennia ago, as the writer of The Book of Ecclesiastes (1:9):

What has been will be again, What has been done will be done again, And there is nothing new under the sun.

The sentiment, evoking universal familiarity, is a hopeful one. Everything is renewed, everything begins again.

Perhaps less well known is another of Solomon's sayings, based around the phrase with which I began this post. The saying encapsulates quite a different sentiment: the opposite, negative version. On the subject of the vanity of pleasures, riches and wordly goods, he writes:

I was weary of my life, when I saw that all things under the sun are evil, and all vanity and vexation of spirit.

These words, which seem to sum up the opposite meaning, struck a chord with the seventeenth-century proponents of the "decaying world" theory. Far from everything repeating itself in a naturally renewing cycle, on the contrary, the world is constantly decaying.

In his History of the World in Five Books of 1614, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:

And as all things under the sun have one time of strength and another of weakness, a youth and beauty, and then age and deformity; so time itself (under the dreadful shade of whose wings all things decay and wither) hath wasted and worn out that lively virtue of nature in man, and beasts, and plants, yea the heavens themselves, being of a most pure and cleansed matter, shall wax old as a garment.

Raleigh well knew the connotations of the phrase "Everything under the sun". And they are quite different from the philosophy of "Nothing new under the sun". A philosopher like Marcus Aurelius would never make the mistake of confusing the two.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Another book, another wall

The latest book to land on my imperial desk is The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome by art historian Hendrik W. Dey, whose c.v. is eclectic in the extreme. (He has jointly authored papers on "Evidence for Holocene Marine Transgression and Shoreline Progradation Due to Barrier Development in Iskele, Bay of Izmir, Turkey" and "Tsunami waves generated by the Santorini eruption reached Eastern Mediterranean shores".)

The title of the book intrigued me, as it misuses the adjective "Aurelian". Dey requires a word that means "belonging to Aurelian", the emperor universally credited with building the visible walls of Rome. But the adjective "Aurelian" means "belonging to Aurelius" (as, for example, Marcus Aurelius' column at Rome is known as the Aurelian Column).

Think of Julius and the adjective "Julian", Augustus and the adjective "Augustan", Tiberius and the adjective "Tiberian", ... and then think of Trajan and the adjective "Trajanic", Hadrian and the adjective "Hadrianic", Diocletian and the adjective "Diocletianic". The word Dey needed is "Aurelianic".

This obvious error set my mind working: how did such an elementary mistake get past the editors at Cambridge University Press?

Aurelian's Wall

Although Dey's book is called The Aurelian Wall, and he mostly uses this phrase to describe it, he is well aware that "Aurelianic" is the correct form of the adjective: he refers to Aurelianic brickwork, and even occasionally (admittedly, very occasionally) risks confusing his readers by writing about the "Aurelianic Wall" (I counted only three instances). Clearly, he and his editors at Cambridge University Press have made the decision to re-christen the famous muri Aureliani "the Aurelian Wall".

It seems that Dey is not the first to make this mistake, though the perpetrators are usually North American. In 1898, the Canadian poet Bliss Carman wrote a poem entitled "By the Aurelian Wall", in memory of John Keats. Contemporary editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica were perhaps the source, as they seem to have opted for this same erroneous version. Yet a century earlier, the Scots philosopher David Hume correctly referred to "Aurelian's wall" in his 1758 essay "Of the Populousness of Antient Nations", and Edward Gibbon used the same phrase. Characteristically, the German wikipedia entry has it right, but not the American version.

So it must remain a curious puzzle, exactly when the mistaken form originated, and why. We wouldn't refer to Hadrian's Wall as "the Hadrian Wall", nor the Baths of Diocletian as "the Diocletian Baths", but for some reason, Cambridge University Press have chosen to throw their weight behind "the Aurelian Wall". Odd.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Biggest Inscription of the Ancient World

I recently noticed that the University of Köln, in collaboration with publishers Rudolf Habelt, have begun to put the journal Epigraphica Anatolica online. The latest available issue, EA volume 40 (2007), includes a paper by Martin F. Smith and Jürgen Hammaerstaedt entitled "The inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda". It seems that work is continuing on this, the biggest inscription of the ancient world.

Giant Inscription

Smith, an independent scholar based in Shetland, has been studying this remarkable inscription, set up by the Epicurean philosopher Diogenes of Oinoanda, since 1968. Prior to that year, eighty-eight fragments were known to nineteenth century scholars; Smith added a further 125 during the years from 1968 to 1994, 10 more in 1997, another in 2003, and five in 2007, bringing the total to 229 pieces.

Oinoanda Fragment 12It seems that the inscription, proclaiming the wisdom of the third century BC philosopher Epicurus, occupied an entire wall of a stoa, or collonaded gallery, perhaps 100m long, which Diogenes had built in the city agora at Oinoanda (Turkey). When the city fell into disrepair, the stoa must have been gradually dismantled and the individual blocks dispersed for reuse across the site, some of them in an emergency defensive wall.

Scholars believe that the inscription includes several individual works; the title of one of them, Old Age, appears on Fragment 137. Others include miscellaneous Epicurean maxims, and a treatise on ethics, around half of which survives. One of the fragments explains that "I wanted, by making use of this stoa, to set out the remedies which bring health and safety".

Smith has estimated that only around one-third of the enormous jigsaw has so far been pieced together. Much work remains to be done. Hammerstaedt and Smith promise more discoveries in Epigraphica Anatolica volume 41 (2008), which will soon be going online, too.

Official Oinoanda, City of Diogenes web site:

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Julius Caesar and Jesus

Bellini - The Resurrection

It is Easter again, and it has become a blogging tradition (observed here and here and here) to select an Easter theme.

I recently heard someone remark that "there is more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ than there is for Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 BC".

This is an intriguing variation of a perennial chestnut: that, somehow, the truth of Christianity can be proved by employing the techniques of historiography. In other words, if we can demonstrate what little evidence exists for other commonly accepted events in ancient history, we must surely accept the existence of Jesus Christ on similarly scanty evidence.

Religion vs. Ancient History

The most recent source of this argument was, I think, the late E.M. Blaiklock, sometime Classics lecturer and Christian apologist, who complained that "Julius Caesar is not thus dismissed, or his rather unsuccessful reconnaissance across the English Channel relegated to legend, despite the fact that our principal informant is Julius himself (in a book designed to secure his political reputation) and that confirmatory evidence of that campaign consists merely of a shield in the river at the Chelsea crossing of the Thames, a few lines in Cicero's voluminous correspondence, and only a handful of later references".

His point was that, if we are willing to believe everything that Julius Caesar wrote, why shouldn't we give the Gospel-writers a similar degree of trust? (As if proof of the mere existence of a man named Jesus contributes anything to a Christian's faith in the existence of a loving God. But that's another question.)

Christianity and the Philosophers

Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the philosopher David Hume realised that "some human testimony has the utmost force and authority in some cases ... [for example] when it relates the battles of Philippi or Pharsalia". His point was that we have no reason to dispute the descriptions of the ancient writers who recorded these events (chiefly Appian for the former, and Caesar himself for the latter). Much the same argument holds for Caesar's "rather unsuccessful reconnaissance across the English Channel", otherwise known as the first Roman invasion of Britain.

So, does the same apply to the Gospel accounts of the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

No less a thinker than Dr Samuel Johnson came at the problem from a different direction. Rather than casting doubt on random events from antiquity (whether they involved Caesar or Christ), he realised that it was perfectly possible to cast doubt upon a well-established contemporary truth. The example he selected was the well-known British taking of Canada in 1763, which he demonstrated to be so unlikely as to be doubtful: the French were far more numerous than the British aggressors, for example, and the sources of information on the event were all British. If doubt could be cast on so certain an event, what chance did the Resurrection have?

Returning to Blaiklock's comparison between Caesar and Christ, the intellectual Tom Paine had already considered this, but drew a less favourable conclusion: "The story of Jesus Christ appearing after he was dead is the story of an apparition, such as timid imaginations can always create in vision, and credulity believe," he wrote, with hard-headed pragmatism. "Stories of this kind had been told of the assassination of Julius Caesar not many years before, and they generally have their origin in violent deaths, or in execution of innocent persons".

In Good Company

But Johnson again took a different tack: "As to the Christian religion", he wrote, "besides the strong evidence which we have for it, there is a balance in its favour from the number of great men who have been convinced of its truth, after serious consideration of the question". One of those was the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who scorned the search for evidence of Christianity. "Make a man feel the want of it, and you may safely trust to its own Evidence, remembering only the express declaration of Christ himself: No man cometh to me, unless the Father leadeth him" (citing John 6:44).

We should perhaps remember the words of the philosopher John Locke, who wrote that "a beneficent Creator has placed some things beyond the reach of human comprehension, but also has endowed us with faculties capable of grasping a few essential truths with certainty and many others with sufficient probability for belief and action". Christianity is not, after all, ancient history. It's a faith.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

New Twist on the Lost Legion

The Eagle movie is due for release in the UK on 25 March, and publicity has reached fever pitch. Under the headline "Lost Legion", the BBC online magazine for 16 March 2011 asks: "Did a mysterious Roman military disaster change Britain?"

Archaeologist Miles Russell, a prehistorian from Bournemouth University, asks "could a brutal ambush have been the event that forged the England-Scotland border?"

Well, this old emperor can tell you right now: the answer is "No".

The BBC magazine suggests, rather simplistically, that "for the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown "Davids" successfully taking on a relentless European "Goliath". For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, the tale has gained extra currency - freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists."

Crazy Leap of Logic

Dr Miles Russell, self-professed exponent of extra-terrestrial archaeology, believes that "there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. It's just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty". ("Guess" is such a loaded term; let's say "theory" instead. But, in any case, Dr Russell is mistaken, as regular readers of this blog will know.)

Miles Russell Roman ExpertBut almost immediately, he contradicts himself. (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.) "Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain," he continues, "But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes." However, a senior lecturer in archaeology really ought to know that tile-stamps cannot be dated. And if the Ninth Legion never left Britain, as Dr Russell is keen to assert, how on earth could they be on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes? He seems rather confused.

In fact, the manufacture of tiles in the Netherlands by the Ninth Legion does indeed prove that the legion had been transferred from Britain. There is no other explanation (... apart from extra-terrestrial involvement, I suppose).

Glossing over this inconvenient truth, Dr Russell then seizes upon the comment of an anonymous late Roman writer that, when Hadrian became emperor, "the Britons could not be kept under Roman control". In a huge leap of logic, he concludes that "It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain." (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.)

Absurd Conclusion

Surely a senior lecturer in archaeology ought to realise that "guesses" like this one really should be supported by some sort of evidence?

Having devised this fatuously simplistic theory, which fails to address any of the intricate evidence carefully assembled by generations of scholars, Dr Russell simply rests his case! (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.)

"The loss of such an elite military unit", he continues, begging the question and blithely passing over the fact that he has failed to demonstrate such a loss, "had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day". What could this unexpected twist be? Dr Russell's answer is ... Hadrian's Wall! Thus, "the ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain".

Reality Check

Wait! First, Dr Russell has not proved that the Ninth Legion was lost in Britain. He has not even contributed in any sensible way to the ongoing debate. He has simply belittled alternative theories (branding them "guesses") while asserting his own theory. Is this really how archaeology is taught at Bournemouth University?

Miles RussellAnd second, Dr Russell has failed to make a link between his alleged destruction of the Ninth Legion in a British ambush and the building of Hadrian's Wall. There has been much discussion of the circumstances surrounding the building of Hadrian's Wall, but -- again -- Dr Russell has not contributed in any sensible way to this discussion. He has simply asserted that Hadrian's response to the loss of the Ninth Legion was to build a wall!

Digging himself deeper into the mire of illogicality, he concludes: "The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions". (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.) What arrant nonsense. Even a glance at a map of Britain would show that the Scottish-English border is not marked by Hadrian's Wall. Hadrian's Wall lies entirely in England.

I'm only a grumpy old emperor, but am I wrong to expect more sense from a senior lecturer in archaeology?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Why History should not be written by Film-makers

Sometimes one post sparks off another. This has been particularly true where the subject of the "lost" Ninth Legion is concerned. (Over the years, I have blogged about it here, here and here.) One of my readers (thank you, Juliette) recently drew my attention to a press item which heralded exciting new information about the Lost Legion.

More fact than fiction

According to The Daily Mail, "experts have revealed that the children's book [Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth] is more fact than fiction".

The report claims that "a group of experts" -- presumably including "historian and film-maker" Phil Hirst and "historian" Neil Faulkner, both named in the press release -- have brought "dramatic new evidence" to light, proving that "the elite infantry force [i.e. the Ninth Legion] was indeed defeated by a band of barbarians in a military catastrophe that shamed the empire, prompting a conspiracy of silence"!

A bold claim. So what is the "dramatic new evidence"?

Dramatic old evidence

The Daily Mail report announces that "the dramatic new evidence hinges on a single gravestone tribute and was brought to light by historian and film-maker Phil Hirst". So much for the press hyperbole. What about the truth?

RIB 3364

At the end of April 1997 -- roughly fourteen years ago --, an inscribed slab was found during excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland (England). The slab formed the lefthand side of a funerary inscription, which had been re-used as a building stone during a later phase of refurbishment at the fort.

The inscription (officially designated RIB 3364) appears to commemorate a centurion named Titus Annius (or possibly Annaeus), "killed in war". But was he a centurion of the cohort, commanding a squad of 80 men, or was he a high-ranking legionary centurion, seconded from his legion to command the entire regiment? The real experts are divided on this. Professor Anthony Birley, who first published the inscription in 1998, believed that a substantial part was missing; perhaps as many as 20 letters from each line, allowing the insertion of a legion's name. However, Professor Roger Tomlin, who included the inscription in the official Roman Inscriptions of Britain publication in 2009, took a different view; he believed that only half-a-dozen letters are lost from each line. The resulting interpretation differs radically from Birley's.

So Titus Annaeus (or perhaps Annius) was killed in war. But which war? And when? This time, the real experts are in broad agreement. The auxiliary unit mentioned in the inscription (the First Cohort of Tungrians) is attested at Vindolanda over roughly a fifty year period (broadly AD 90-140).

Which war, and when?

Film-maker Phil Hirst is quoted as saying that "the discovery of a tombstone of a centurion stationed at the Northumbrian fort of Vindolanda shows the Romans were under attack from the north 20 years later [than the battle of Mons Graupius]" (i.e. AD 104). But the stone does not mention a date or a dateable event, and Professor Birley has noted that "there are not enough securely dated stones from the area to draw inferences about date from the style or quality of carving". In essence, it cannot be dated within the Tungrians' fifty-year occupation of the fort. Professor Birley's own preference was to link the stone with known unrest in Britain under Hadrian (r. AD 117-138). Professor Tomlin is in broad agreement, based on his observation that the word stipendiorum on lines 4-5 (usually abbreviated to STIP) is unlikely to occur "later than c. 125".

Of course, as seems to be standard practice, tentative suggestions have a habit of becoming historical facts, and facts get blurred. One recent handbook of Roman Britain claims that "a centurion's tombstone was found at Vindolanda which suggests the date of death as AD 118". (In reality, nothing on the stone suggests any date.) Another recent book, referring to the Hadrianic troubles in Britain, is more economical, claiming only that the Vindolanda centurion was "killed in a war about this time". (Of course, we have no idea precisely when he died.)

More fiction than fact

You may have noticed the singular absence of the Ninth Legion in all of this. The "dramatic new evidence" of its demise turns out to be rather old evidence of an auxiliary unit's involvement in an unknown war. Meanwhile, Neil Faulkner (according to the Daily Mail report) piles conjecture onto already shaky foundations by adding: "My guess is that the Ninth Legion was destroyed in a carefully executed ambush by northern tribes".

Well, at least we have established that the "dramatic new evidence" solving "the 2,000 year riddle of Rome's lost Ninth Legion" comes down to a guess. History really shouldn't be written by film-makers.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

Sometimes throwaway remarks -- suggestions that seemed reasonable at the time -- are picked up by other writers, and what began as a good idea becomes a theory, and finally a fact.

This process has, I think, occurred in the case of the Britannia coins of the Roman empire. And I am grateful to a recent visitor (Fvrivs Rvfvs) for prompting this latest reflection of an old emperor, once again demonstrating the value of a blog in firing up new ways of thinking about old problems.

Hadrian's Provincial Coinage

To begin with the facts, it seems that the emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138) issued a series of "provincial" coins, celebrating his famous tours of the provinces. He certainly had cause to celebrate, for not one of his predecessors had managed to work his way around the entire empire, visiting each frontier in turn.

Hadrian's coinsHere are the reverse "tails" sides from a few of the coins, showing (from left to right) Africa, Britain, Dacia, Germany, and Spain. Each province was personified by a deity, displaying some of the stereotypical attributes of the land. Thus, Africa wears the elephant-skin cap and, leaning against a basket of grain, reclines beside a lion.

Dacia, on the other hand, is seated on a pile of rocks, symbolising the mountainous terrain, and holds in one hand a standard and in the other the long, curved falx which was the characteristic weapon of the Dacians.

Germania, the scene of much Roman campaigning, is depicted as a proud warrior maiden, standing in defiant pose with spear and shield. And Hispania, another land of plenty like Africa, reclines holding an olive branch, while the rabbit motif at her feet symbolises fertility.

Britain, or Britannia, is a warrior maiden like Germany, with spear and shield, but her pose, like Dacia, is seated, indicating that, again like Dacia, she has been tamed by Rome, and her rocky seat is the stereotype of a mountainous province.

Frustratingly, none of Hadrian's coins can be dated accurately, but the Britannia coin (issued at some point during the years AD 119-127) is often said to date from AD 122 and to symbolise the commencement of Hadrian's Wall in that year. This standard interpretation probably began somewhere as "a good idea" and has become "a fact" which you will find in the standard books about Roman Britain and Hadrian's Wall.

Antoninus Pius and Britain

Having originated the personification of the various provinces under Hadrian, the Roman moneyers continued periodically to use the same characters whenever deemed appropriate. Thus, when Lollius Urbicus reconquered lowland Scotland for Antoninus Pius (your very own blogger, r. AD 138-161), coins were issued during the period AD 142-144 displaying Britannia on the reverse. The coin depicted below-left is an example of this.

Britannia coinsHowever, coins issued during AD 155 (see above-center for an example) are usually said to depict a "dejected" Britannia, symbolising a disaster in the province. Perhaps the mauling of a legion, as Fvrivs Rvfvs seems to suggest. No doubt, this "dejection" theory began as somebody's good idea, but has now become a fact which you will find in the standard books about Roman Britain and the Antonine Wall. But the "sad" Britannia is really just a slight variation on the original personification found on Hadrian's coinage (pictured above-right).

Roman coins have been likened to the news agencies today. The reverse images carried topical messages around the empire. No doubt the depiction of a province like Britannia meant that something was going on there. But this old emperor would suggest that it was successes that were celebrated on coinage, and the "depressed" Britannia of AD 155 is really just the standard depiction of the deity. Of course, emotion is in the eye of the beholder ...

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

What Roman Soldiers Wear

Book cover

A year ago, I blogged on the subject of "out-of-date" books and what that term might mean.

So I was interested to read an on-line review of the late H. Russell Robinson's booklet, What the Soldiers wore on Hadrian's Wall. While generally enthusiastic, the review -- entitled "Interesting but Outdated" -- still noted that the date of publication (1976; repr. 1979 and 1985) "makes the book slightly outdated".

To set the scene, the 40-page booklet (which is really a single long chapter entitled "Arms and Armour of the Wall Garrisons") discusses cavalry (pages 3-13, with further cavalry-related illustrations on pages 14-19, 26, 28, 30, 34, 36 and 37), the infantry cohorts (pages 25-27, with further infantry-related illustrations on pages 19-23, 30 and 32), the cohortes equitatae (mixed cohorts) (pages 27-29, with illustrations on pages 24 and 38), the cohors sagittariorum (infantry archers) (page 29, with illustrations on pages 33 and 39), and numeri and cunei (irregular troops) (page 31, with relevant illustrations on pages 35 and 40).

The (rightly famous, now deceased) illustrator Ron Embleton supplied nine colour paintings, and some of the characters from these paintings appear on the cover (shown above). Besides copious photographs and sketches of tombstones and artefacts, the book also includes Peter Connolly's drawing of a "bronze helmet for an infantryman of a cohors equitata, 2nd century" (on page 38).

The on-line reviewer, perhaps not realising the pedigree of Russell Robinson (Keeper of Armour in the Tower of London, 1970-78, and author of The Armour of Imperial Rome, 1975), prefers the Embleton-illustrated Hadrian's Wall in the Days of the Romans, with text by the publisher and enthusiast Frank Graham. Of course, as Robinson makes clear in his introduction, Embleton simply followed his instructions to create the paintings that appear in this booklet (many of which reappear in Frank Graham's later compilation). So, in both, we are seeing Robinson's ideas brought to life in full color.

But I wonder why the on-line reviewer thought that Robinson's book was "interesting but outdated". Interesting, certainly. Here are the thoughts of a practising armourer, gathering together evidence for (probably) the first time, and guiding the brush of an illustrator to re-imagine the soldiers of Hadrian's Wall. But outdated? What could be outdated? (Answers on a postcard, please, if you find any out-of-date information in this booklet!)

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Problem of the Picts

Aberlemno standing stoneLast week, I was honored to receive several visits from Taleworlds, a games-related forum hosted by a Turkish software company.

The topic there was "Why did Rome fail to conquer the Picts?" An interesting question, which continued: "Why did they fail while the Scots from Ireland succeeded?" (The questioner reminded us that "the Picts were a loose group of tribes while the Romans were a powerful empire".)

In amongst the robust repartee (which is common on most online forums), there was some inevitable misinformation. For example, in response to the observation that "Erm, Rome did conquer Scotland", referring to the Agricolan campaigns of AD 79-84, came the put-down: "there is debate over the legitimacy of Agricola's claims, though. Some believe it to be propaganda". Some probably do, but not generally those who have studied the subject.

Equally, there were some interesting observations, such as: "the Picts did not have enough trinkets, good land, gold, badassery to be worth it", and "It was too far, too full of smelly, hairy men, too little gold and, in general, they couldn't be bothered". All quite understandable opinions, if based on nothing more than gut reaction.

How Did Rome Conquer?

Along the way, I was struck by the following perceptive contribution:

  An area needs a certain amount of development before it can be forced into an empire. You need towns, significant trade in bulk necessities like grain, etc. If all you've got is a bunch of hundreds of mostly self-sufficient villages and farmsteads, then you can march an army in and march an army out without really making much of an impact. You can burn and loot a bit, but there's not enough agricultural surplus to support a big garrison, and even if you do set up big forts in the valleys controlling the major rivers and fords, no one cares, because they're not dependent on trade anyway.
  The way that places like Scotland and Wales were historically conquered was by settlement -- some other Germanic or Celtic group invaded, settled in the villages, intermarried with the existing tribes, and became the new tribal overlords. If you try that with professional soldiers, they will no longer be professional soldiers. An invading army might be able to change the demography or the language of such areas, but can't make them answer to an imperial or provincial capital.
Interesting ideas, which Roman scholars would do well to take on board. But more relevant, perhaps, to the wider geographical question, Why Did the Romans Fail to Conquer Scotland?, than to the specific query posed by the Taleworlds questioner.

Why Didn't the Romans Conquer the Picts?

The problem with this question is that it lacks historical perspective. Which Romans are we talking about? And did they try to conquer the Picts?

I have mentioned the problem of the Picts before, here, here, and here. But perhaps it's worth repeating the main points, for those readers who are not already sick of them.

Which Romans are we talking about? In the context of the Picts, we have stepped forward into the fourth century AD. Many would agree that, by then, the Roman army had passed its prime. But even if we cling to ideas of Roman invincibility, the army that rode north from York with Constantius Chlorus in AD 305 was a very different creature from the one that had crushed the Caledonian tribes at Mons Graupius in AD 84.

Did they try to conquer the Picts? There is every indication that, by the fourth century, Rome had grown accustomed to a British province that stopped at Hadrian's Wall. Septimius Severus may have dreamed of extending Rome's dominions in Britain in AD 210, but throughout the next hundred years, no other emperor had shared his vision. Constantius Chlorus' expedition bears all the hallmarks of a punitive raid, designed to show the flag to Rome's new, aggressive neighbours. It seems to have worked. A whole generation passed before the next recorded trouble in winter AD 342/3. And almost another before the campaigns of the 360s. And another before the campaign of AD 382. And almost another before that of AD 395.

Sadly, we lack details for any of these events. But it seems clear that these are not the actions of an aggressive empire attempting conquest. Rather, they suggest an exasperated empire slapping down an increasingly irritating neighbour.

Our lack of detailed evidence means that we view the Pictish picture through a glass darkly. But one thing is clear: the Romans did not "fail to conquer the Picts". Rather, they never attempted conquest. And in doing so, they failed to solve the problem of the Picts.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Eagle Draws Nearer

Eagle movie posterThey're ramping up the publicity for the movie version of Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth (which I blogged about here and here).

The movie will be released as "The Eagle", apparently to avoid confusion over the fate of Eagles I-VIII.

Last week, the Film Stage web site pointed to the featurette on Yahoo! Movies, claiming that The Eagle is "a movie I'm fairly certain I had never heard of until ten minutes ago". Shame on you, Film Stage! Some of us have been following the slowly unfolding saga since 2003.

The stand-out quote for this old emperor was Director Kevin Macdonald's claim, in the context of "Roman Britain, Celtic Britain", that "no-one knows what people who lived then were like". So it seems that the archaeologists may as well just pack their bags and forget it.

But he is right when he says that "it's a great, great story, and there aren't many great stories in the world which just take hold of your throat and lead you the entire way, and I think this is one of those great stories."

True. But is it going to be one of those great movies?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

ExplorersHappy New Year!

Late last year, I noticed that the Palestine Exploration Fund had put up a lot of photographs onto Flickr. Apparently, they have a collection of 40,000 images dating from 1850 right up to the present day; their Flickr photo-stream comprises 162 items, mostly from the 19th century.

One photograph (reproduced here) caught my eye. It shows "a group of explorers", the members of the Jerusalem Survey Team, relaxing on the evening of 15 August 1867. But this is truly a league of extraordinary gentlemen.

Introducing the Gentlemen

The fine figure in the centre, looking uncannily like Michael Palin from the Ripping Yarns television series, is the Reverend Dr Joseph Barclay (1831-1881), who became the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem in 1879, two years before his untimely death. He had come to Jerusalem in 1861 as head of the London Society Mission, but resigned in 1870 in disgust at the organisation's poor standards of management. In 1867, when this photograph was taken, he was presumably still an enthusiastic representative of the Mission.

Seated on the right is Corporal H. Henry Phillips of the Royal Engineers, who is credited as the photographer. The Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, which began in 1864 with the stated aim of improving the poor sanitation and water supply in the city, was carried out by volunteers from the Royal Engineers. It was in direct connection with this that the Palestine Exploration Fund was set up in 1865. Corporal Phillips recurs as Sergeant Phillips during the surveys of the 1870s.

The reclining figure in the foreground is Mr F. A. Eaton, M.A. (1836-1913), later Sir Fred Eaton, joint author of The Royal Academy and Its Members, 1768-1830 and sometime Secretary to the Royal Society.

Duffer Warren

Most interesting of all, though, is the figure seated at the left. This is Lieutenant Charles Warren R.E., later General Sir Charles Warren (1840-1927). After working for the Palestine Exploration Fund (1867-70), surveying and excavating in Jerusalem, he returned to Britain to further his career. In 1882, he was sent to Sinai to discover the fate of the Palmer expedition, and in 1886 became Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. In late 1899, aged almost 60, he took command in the Boer War, during which he bungled the relief of Ladysmith and was responsible for the massacre at Spion Kop. His incompetence was rewarded with promotion to Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Engineers.

What amazing stories are concealed in the peace and tranquility of this photograph.

The photo can be found at: