Sean Manning

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Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 2: van der Spek versus Rollinger and Ruffing

Last week I discussed how two cuneiform tablets in the British Museum preserve an account of Alexander’s invasion of Babylonia. These tablets are very important, because they are contemporary (not written hundreds of years later like the surviving Greek and Latin accounts) and by Babylonians (also unlike most of our written sources). Yet just like any ancient text, their contents must be interpreted, and scholars with different backgrounds can interpret them in different ways.
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Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 1: Background

It is notorious that few stories about Alexander the Great written during his lifetime survive. The embroidered narratives by Greek and Latin writers which form the basis of most modern accounts were written 300 to 500 years later. A few of Alexander’s coins and inscriptions have been preserved, but they naturally give his point of view. A few chance references in Greek literature give a sense of the shock which many contemporaries felt that the king of a land on the edge of civilization suddenly overthrew the greatest power which had ever existed and conquered places which were little more than legends. One of the few long stories about Alexander which does survive in a version written during his lifetime is a cuneiform text, the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela. This week I thought that I would write an introduction to the Diary and what is involved in reading such a text. Next week I will talk about two different ways of reading them as represented in articles by R.J. van der Spek (English: Darius III, Alexander the Great, and Babylonian Scholarship) and by Robert Rollinger and Kai Ruffing (German: ‘Panik’ im Heer: Dareios III, die Schlacht von Gaugamela, und die Mondfinsternis vom 20. September 331 vor Christ). I hope that the second will be helpful for readers who are interested in ancient history but not comfortable reading German.
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Recreating Combat in the Viking Age

A number of people are trying to recreate prehistoric European martial arts: ones which have left neither a living tradition, nor manuals. One of the most serious attempts focuses on early medieval combat with sword and shield and is lead by Roland Warzecha:

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How the Grafs Trapp Acquired the Armour of the Vogts of Matsch

No energy to be poetic sorry
Schloss Churburg as seen from a third-story balcony outside the walls of Glorenza. Photo by Sean Manning.

Most weeks I post about things which I have seen or read myself, about domains in which I have reason to consider myself an expert, and refer to supporting evidence which my gentle readers can check if they doubt me.  This is a kind of history which began to take shape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along with other kinds of modern science.  It is certainly not the only way to tell stories about the past.  So this week I decided to try something more Herodotean.  What I will tell you this week comes from people met here and things read there, and I think that it tells something important, but in the end it is still a story about things long ago and far away, and just because it is great fun does not mean that every detail is true.  This is the story of how the Grafs Trapp acquired Schloss Churburg and the armour of the Vogts of Matsch.

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The Petition of Marcus Aurelius Sarapion

A bare marble statue of a torso in armour with shoulder flaps and a sash
Torso in a Hellenistic tube-and-yoke cuirass (on display in Palazzo Te, Mantua; photo Sean Manning)

One category of evidence central to this issue [of the abuse of civilians by soldiers] is the large number of petitions directed to officials, where in one sample roughly a third were directed to centurions acting in a local police role (Hobson 1993). The sheer number of petitions suggests that abuse was widespread. A still further complication could be that a centurion was petitioned concerning abuse by a soldier. How likely is fairness in this regard? Such was the case for Aurelius Sarapion in a petition to the centurion Aurelius Marcianus:

there is nothing more dreadful or harder to bear than maltreatment. At the time of life I have reached, being over eighty years, I served faithfully as an Arab archer. A sow having escaped from my daughter in the village and being reported to be at the house of the soldier Julius, I went to him to demand his oath about this matter, and he laying hands on me, despite my age, in the village in the middle of the day, as if there were no laws, laboured me with many blows. (P. Graux 4 [248])

He goes on to list witnesses and to seek redress.

From Colin Adams, “War and Society in the Roman Empire” in B. Campbell and L. A. Tritle eds., The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2013) p. 267

(I do not have access to that volume of P. Graux, so I cannot give the original text)

Adams uses this papyrus to ask a question about how often Roman centurions (who often acted as judges and police in the countryside) gave justice when a civilian accused a soldier. Today I will ask another question. In this passage an ancient person tells us a great deal about who he was, or who he wanted to be seen to be. So what was Sarapion’s ethnicity? I would encourage my learned readers to really think about this whether or not they click “more” to see my opinion.

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Fortification Report: Glorenza

No excess poetry to use here sorry
May mowing between the Etsch and the walls of Glurns in the Vinschgau, South Tyrol, Italy

Most travellers from Lombardy to the Germanies take the road up the Adige from Catullus’ Verona past Trent of the council. When they come to Bolzen beneath its castles the road divides to the right and left and they can follow the Eisack towards the Brennerpass or the Adige (now called the Etsch as one moves into German-speaking areas) towards the Reschenpass. In rich and well-organized ages, most travellers prefer the first route, because the Brenner has certain advantages if one can build bridges and cut roads and drive tunnels through the most difficult sections. If they take the second they will find themselves in a district called the Vinschgau where the fields yield rye more readily than wheat and the orchards apples and pears more readily than grapes. In that district on the bank of the Adige is the remarkable town of Glorenza.

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A Deed Never Yet Done

Line drawing of a relief where pharaoh with a falcon overhead draws his bow as his two-horse chariot tramples he fallen or fleeing enemy
A deed done over and over again: two dynasties after Amenhotep, Ramses III smites the Libyans (from The Epigraphic Survey (eds.), Medinet Habu, Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Plate 18 c/o the generous Oriental Institute https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oriental-institute-publications-oip )

While I do not think that many Bronze Age or Classical bows were as powerful as the longbows from the Mary Rose or the hornbows from the Tokapi Palace, I can think of one or two exceptions. Today I would like to give one which I recently stumbled over while reviewing an article by Pierre Briant. As often happens, reading this passage again revealed something which I had not remembered.

The Great Sphinx Stele tells the following story of Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the New Kingdom:

He also came to do the following … Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next. Then his Majesty appeared on the chariot like Mont in his might. He drew his bow while holding four arrows together in his fist. Then he rode northward shooting at them, like Mont in his panoply, each arrow coming out of the back of its target while he attacked the next post. It was a deed never yet done, never yet heard reported: shooting an arrow at a target of copper, so that it came out of it and dropped to the ground.

Andrea M. Gnirs, “Ancient Egypt,” in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge MA, 1999) p. 84 citing the Great Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 41, 42.
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History as Rhetoric

A pale red marbe statue of a man in robes and cap seated at a weighty desk
The protective statue of Virgil, Mantua’s patron, now looks down from the inside wall of a museum instead of the outside wall of the Palazzo della Ragione (Palazzo Te, collezione civiche inv. n. 11605, photo by author)

There is a school of thought which says that ancient Greek and Roman historians were more interested in telling pretty stories than about critically comparing different reports to understand what had happened in the past. Generally advocates of this view appeal to later and Roman writers like Livy and Tacitus, and to proscriptions by rhetoricians about how history ought to be written; opponents appeal to earlier and Greeker writers like Thucydides, and note that those proscriptions were seldom written by working historians, and often fail to say what the relativists wish they said. And like unto the battle-lines in Homer, back and forth the combat goes, enlivening the discussion periods at conferences, fattening journals, and keeping librarians busy delivering the latest salvo. Since ancient historians only left incidental traces of their working methods in their writings, and not many non-historians wrote anything about the subject at all, the debate will keep scholars happily bickering for decades to come. I tend to lean against this way of thinking, but because the debate focuses on later periods than I do, I would recommend that interested readers check Luke Pitcher’s book below for an introduction.

One of my favorite tools in such situations is to look for parallels. Medievalists tell me that very little is known about how chroniclers worked in the middle ages, and little research has been done (Anne Curry’s book on Agincourt has some helpful footnotes here). More seems to be known about writers from the sixteenth century as in the following quote from Robert Black, Machiavelli (Routledge: London and New York, 2013) pp. 248-252. I was struck by his remarks on how Italian humanists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries wrote history, and since they are evidence against my own views they deserve to be quoted:

Machiavelli intended his work to conform to the norms of humanist history, aiming to imitate Bruni’s and Poggio’s Florentine histories. The text is laden with features characteristic of ancient Roman historiography such as lengthy speeches … It is clear that Machiavelli was attempting to recreate the periodic style of the classical Roman historians, and particularly Sallust and Livy, in the modern vernacular … In line with the conventions of humanist historiography, Machiavelli showed little concern for factual accuracy. The work’s many methodological shortcomings, errors and even inventions have been frequently highlighted, beginning in the sixteenth century with the definitive historian of grand-ducal Florence, Scipio Ammirato (1531-1601) …

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The Siege on the Amathus Bowl

See blog post for description
The Amathus bowl, British Museum catalogue number ANE 123053 © Trustees of the British Museum

In 1875, an old tomb on Cyprus was cleaned out in search of antiquities. One chamber contained a copper cauldron, and in that cauldron were shield fragments, an iron dagger, and about half of a corroded metal bowl 16 cm in diameter. The looters had cast it aside as they broke the sarcophagi open and ransacked the tomb for salable goods. This was a mistake, because the bowl was of wrought and engraved silver and contained a beautiful series of reliefs in concentric bands. Shortly after it was discovered, the bowl was sketched by a careful artist and published in a volume on the archaeology of Cyprus so that it would be available to scientists. Thanks to the generosity of the Gallica project in France, this volume is now available to the world.

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A Three-Year Campaign

A line drawing of a cuneiform tablet with the lines numbered in the margins
J.N. Strassmeier’s sketch of tablet Dar. 253 from 1892

[number lost] minas 4 shekels of silver, loin-girdling for the horse troops who are going to the encampment of the king [for] three years: 1 donkey which was bought for 50 shekels of silver in the hands of Ina-Esagil-Liša; 1/2 mina 6 shekels of silver, donkey-fodder; 12 mountain garments; 12 coats; twelve caps; 12 leather bags; 24 leather shoes; 1 PI oil; 2 PI salt; 1 PI cress, travel provisions for three years from the month Nisannu 9th year which are given to … [one name lost], Rīmūt-Bēl, Itti-Šamaš-balaṭu, and Akkadaia who are going to the encampment / Month Abu 10th day 9th year of Darius King of Babylon King of Lands.

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