I do not have many words left this week, and I have been a bit verbose and academic lately, so this week I think I will show some photos from my collection. The Tiroler Landesmuseum, Innsbruck has a large collection of arms and armour from graves on display in its basement including these helmets.
A discussion on another blog revised an old controversy, namely what size of sword the Italian master Ridolfo Capo Ferro expected his students to use. I am not a student of any seventeenth-century art, whether rhetoric or fencing, so I can’t contribute to the discussion with a perspective on what length of sword works best with his techniques, or what length was most common in northern Italy in 1610. I am a student of ancient literature, so this week I will talk about some things from the ancient world which help me to interpret his manual.
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.
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.
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 )
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.
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.
[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.
The Greek alphabet is adapted from the consonantal writing systems of the Levant, and I used to have a vague idea that Greek got its vowel signs by adapting signs for Semitic consonants not present in Greek. Greek has no aspirated “s”, for example, so Greeks using the Northwest Semitic abjad to write Greek found that they did not need the sign shin ש for transcribing Greek consonants and could use it for something else. As I learn a bit of Aramaic I realize that the process was much more straightforward.
In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the Greek-speaking Romans systematically copied the military methods of the Huns and Avars who were ravaging Europe. One effect of this was that Roman soldiers and scholars began to write treatises on archery, and when Arabs and Turks conquered their lands they also adopted the practice of writing about archery. Because a certain YouTube video by a trick shooter (to which I will only link indirectly) has been making the rounds, I thought that it would be a good idea to post a passage from the only one of these treatises which I have to hand. This is the Strategikon of the Emperor Maurice, written within a decade or so of the year 600 (I quote from page 11 of G.T. Dennis’ translation).
Before Christmas a senior colleague recommended that I should read the new volume of Spätbabylonische Privatbriefe from Ugarit-Verlag. I am grateful that they did. The orientalists in Vienna are working on a project on Babylonia from the end of the seventh century BCE to the end of cuneiform writing on clay, and as part of this project they are editing the many letters which survive from this period. For some reason few school texts and libraries of literature have been found from this period, so private letters are our best view of the living language and everyday life. This volume contains 243 of which eighty have never been published and 58 never transcribed and commented upon. Every one is translated, and there is an introduction to the dialect of the letters and a dictionary with entries for every Babylonian word with references to use. Most of these letters are 100 to 200 words long and deal with instructions, property, and travel. A reasonable number, however, deal with military affairs and strong emotions.