User: Sean

On Sketching Tablets

A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of graph-paper and bubble-wrap
Tablet HS 643 in Jena. On the graph paper in the background each small square is 1 mm wide.

At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of visiting the Frau Professor Hillprecht Collection in Jena to handle and sketch tablets. Doing so made clear to me some of the issues with reading and publishing cuneiform tablets. In this post, I will try to explain what those issues are.

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Bandits in the Achaemenid and Roman Empires

Map of the Euxine Sea (our Black Sea) showing elevation, rivers, and Greek cities courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the Euxine Sea (our Black Sea) showing elevation, rivers, and Greek cities courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Achaemenid historians with a background in classics are often impressed by the references to revolts and ungoverned areas in the Greek sources. Pierre Briant published a number of works in French on the subject of unruly mountaineers in the Zagros. Are these a sign that the Achaemenid empire was particularly flimsy, and achieved its great size by not worrying too much about the deserts between the great cities and fertile valleys? Did those wonderful, vigorous Greeks and Romans establish a new kind of state which was much more powerful and ambitious?

I have always thought that evidence from the Hellenistic and Roman periods might be helpful. When I read specialists in Roman history, it seems to me that they often quietly mention that large areas in the backwoods were effectively outside of Caesar’s power and in the habit of robbing, extorting, or murdering travellers and neighbours. Now and then this sort of unrest even appeared in Italy, and the army would have to go and haul a ruffian out of a swamp, proclaim him the ringleader, and put him to death creatively. However, it seems to have been especially common in Anatolia. Searching through some old notes, I finally found one reference:

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The Tiroler Scylla and Charybdis

A map showing a rectangular building in the bend of a street with another street running along its other two sides.
A map of the closed main route (red) and blue temporary route
around the Markthalle, Innsbruck. The official sign makes the changes look very orderly.

Odysseus overcame Scylla and Charybdis, Jason the clashing rocks. Cyclists heading towards the Innsbrucker Hauptuni while the streets are torn up to install storm drains face another fearsome challenge, the alley behind the Markthalle. I lost the words to tell stories some time ago, so below the fold I will reveal its horrors in pictures:

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The Domain of Cyrus the Younger

A map of the eastern Mediterranean showing the Aegean coast, Lydia, and Greater Phrygia loyal to Cyrus, the Peloponnese, the Chersonesos, Kilikia, and Paphlagonia allied to Cyrus, part of southern Anatolia in revolt, and everything else east ot the Hellespont loyal to the king
Map of Cyrus’ domain [tan], allies [orange], royalist territories [red], and unruly territories [grey] in 401 BCE. Territories uninvolved in the struggle are white. Map by Daniel Dallet with additions based on Xenophon and Strabo, original at

Three years ago I was presenting a poster at a different Melammu conference. Most of the contents of that poster are based on my dissertation (which is available for free download) or paintings and photographs which belong to other people, but I did create one map especially for the poster. This week, I thought I would share it, and some of my thoughts on what is wrong with this picture.

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Quaestiones Forojulienses: Why Do Fiore’s Jargon and Armour Jargon Overlap?

A man in a robe sits in an armchair with a circular table in front of him. The table rotates on a screw joint and supports two books, one open and upright and one horizontal and closed. In the background a glass window shows a dark night.
A student reading in his room, as painted in Paris circa 1420. British Library Royal MS 20 B XX. Cropped from an image in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which has been released under a Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

One of my academic interests is knightly combat in late medieval Europe as described in four manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi dating to the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fiore’s works, and those of his contemporaries in more northerly lands, give us a unique chance to understand how the weapons and armour racked in museums were meant to be used. They at the very least give anyone interested in how ancient people fought food for thought.

This series of posts is inspired by the Greek scholar Plutarch, who wrote an antiquarian essay asking why the Romans practiced some curious customs. Plutarch was wise enough to give questions not answers, and that will be my policy in these posts as well.

Fiore dei Liberi was a startlingly intelligent man, and the words he chose to describe his art reflect this. He worked very hard to find words and design mnemonics which would help his audience understand and remember. Many of these words are still clear to students today, while some require a gloss. Because few of us hunt boar with spears, we need to be taught that the boar kills by ripping diagonally upwards with its fangs, and so does posta dente di cinghiaro (the position ‘boar’s tooth’). Quite a few of the words which he chose have another technical meaning within the world of arms and armour:

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Suppressio Veri and the Battle of Magnesia

Relief of jumbled infantry and horsemen in Greek clothing fighting each other
A detail of a battle on a marble Attic sarcophagus of the early third century CE. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, inventory number A.521. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

A few weeks ago I was distracting myself by chatting about the Battle of Magnesia with Michael Park, a very thoughtful lover of ancient history. This battle was a shocking upset where the Seleukid king and and army raised from his whole kingdom were scattered by a small army from Rome and Pergamon which had not seemed very eager for the fight. The longest surviving accounts are by Livy (written about 150 years after the fact) and Appian of Alexandria (about 300 years later) both of whom had access to contemporary sources. This campaign is interesting to me because Antiochus’ enemies trotted out some 300-year-old tropes from the Persian wars to depict him as an Asiatic despot seeking to enslave Europe with his countless but feckless soldiers. However, they were limited by the fact that Antiochus and his Friends paid people to tell their story in fashionable Greek, so they could not claim that Antiochus had hundreds of thousands of soldiers or wore foreign clothing or was too cowardly to go into battle himself. If they went too far, people who had heard other versions after dinner or read them in a library would cry foul.

In this battle the fighting began on the wings, and each side won on its right: Antiochus and his Friends drove a legion back to its camp with the first charge, while panic broke out on his left wing and Eumenes of Pergamon found himself in control of the field there. The infantry on both sides had not yet engaged: perhaps Antiochus was nervous of the stories that while thyreophoroi were normally no danger to a Macedonian phalanx, the Roman ones had a way of getting into the small gaps which emerged if a phalanx tried to move too quickly or crossed rough ground. Livy gives us his version of what happened next:

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Quote Dump

As always, citation implies neither approval nor disapproval.

A specialist in early medieval archaeology spells out one big problem with the modern fixation on fitting ancient people into boxes and assigning them distinctive labels:

Before I start, though, I want to address the obvious criticism of the topic, which is that modern scholars work a lot on identities, but did past people care as much? Certainly it can be argued that early medieval people did not say very much about identities, and nor do modern people, outside academia. But they did not say very much about a lot of things that modern scholars obsess over, such as gender, ethnicity, social age, or sometimes even aristocracy or nobility. The only social categories that they wrote much about were ones with precise legal importance, status that had implications for property and legal rights.

It is almost certainly the case that the inhabitants of sixth-century northern Gaul did not think of themselves in terms of many – perhaps most – of the categories that I have discussed here, although some of those aspects of their identity were remarked upon and thought of as important. Nevertheless, even if entirely modern in its framing, I think that, if theorised in sophisticated fashion, the concept of identities and their interplay provides a valuable means of analysing past societies and, on that basis, thinking about the present.

– The thinly pseudonymous Historian on the Edge

I’m writing about this now because these vulnerabilities illustrate two very important truisms about encryption and the current debate about adding back doors to security products:

1) Cryptography is harder than it looks.
2) Complexity is the worst enemy of security.

These aren’t new truisms. I wrote about the first in 1997 and the second in 1999. I’ve talked about them both in Secrets and Lies (2000) and Practical Cryptography (2003). They’ve been proven true again and again, as security vulnerabilities are discovered in cryptographic system after cryptographic system. They’re both still true today.

– Bruce Schneier, “Cryptography is Harder than it Looks,”

The re-enactment world in general, but the Roman one in particular, is very prone to breakaways. I have heard recently of a group of only six breaking in half as egos clash.

– Chris Haines, “History of the Guard,”

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Dashes and Alephs

Photograph of a forest on hills disappearing into fog
At least I am not claiming that I got lost in the mountains, although that is easier in Innsbruck this summer than you might think.

While troubles with my Internet connection have prevented me from posting anything substantial, this week I added a paragraph to my post on how to interpret the special characters in Latinizations of Near Eastern languages. Transliterations of Semitic names often contain dashes (<->) and alephs (<ˀ> or <‘>) and these can look a bit mysterious to the uninitated.

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Some Gargoyles in Prague

One of the original gargoyles from the Gunpowder Tower, Prague, now on display inside the attic of the tower.
One of the original gargoyles from the Gunpowder Tower, Prague, now on display inside the attic of the tower.

Because the Scholarly Skater has not been able to post for a few weeks, the supply of gargoyles on the Internet has been in decline. It is a little known fact that just as gargoyles in the real world channel away water away from flooding or dissolving the building to places where it can be used for irrigation and other useful purposes, gargoyles on the Internet channel spam and trolls so that instead of clogging the tubes they are safely redirected to a server farm in California where they keep spies and PhDs in Physics harmlessly busy. This week, I thought I would step in and fill the gap.

Although Prague is not known for its ancient history, I have some Achaemenid content at the end of this post.

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