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The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 2: The General


It is especially good also to have an understanding of warfare. For I have also often wondered why outcomes in armed conflicts vary, and that whereas the Greeks have as a result been defeated by the Romans and the Persians by the Greeks, even so the Persians have never been defeated by the Romans; instead the nations of inner Asia are boasting of freedom and persist in asserting equality with us. So in allowing myself to consider this question, I found that the cause is neither superior generalship nor overall military power (for in war, no account is taken of numbers by the valiant), but rather the armament and the form of the military equipment.[1]

Thus Africanus began the section of the Kestoi concerning military matters. By the time he wrote the Kestoi between 227 and 231 Rome had been fighting the Parthians in the east on and off for 280 years with little success.[2] During Africanus’ own lifetime Septimius  Severus sacked the the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon but just as quickly withdrew. His successors Caracalla and Macrinus had diminishing success in their attempts to keep the Parthians at bay. The situation became even worse in 224 when Ardashir I overthrew the Parthians, established the new Sassanid dynasty, and announced his intention to restore the borders of the ancient Achaemenid Empire.[3]

War was clearly imminent, and when Africanus dedicated the Kestoi to the young emperor Alexander Severus it seems he intended the sections on military matters to serve as advice for the emperor or any other Roman military officer for the coming war.

His views were simply stated: War is decided by training, technology, and tactics. Superiority in all three will ensure victory. While this may seem obvious in the age of high-tech war, this was not always the case, and in the ancient world it was much more common to see fighting spirit and morale as the keys to victory rather than weapons technology. But Africanus seems to have been there, and done that, either on Sepitimius Severus’ campaign in 198, or Caracalla’s invasion in 216, or both. The gritty, down to earth viewpoint of the foot soldier seems to have been quite familiar to him, and we can surmise that he was possibly a junior officer.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Classical Greek depiction of a hoplite in armor.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

Roman legionnaire showing tight-fitting helmet, chain mail armor and oblong shield.

In his chapter titled “armaments,” he noted that the Greeks fought with heavy armor and long spears. Their soldiers wore strong helmets with a leather liner on the inside that provided extra padding, greaves, breastplates and carried large round shields which attached to the forearm with two straps. With so much armor, they could only run short distances, but that was enough to run under the arrows of Persian armies and fight at close range.

The Romans, on the other hand, wore tighter-fitting helmets without the leather liner, and tying the cheek protectors made it difficult to turn the head. They wore chain mail instead of heavier scale armor, and their shields were tall and oblong and held by one hand, which made covering the shoulder difficult. But the Romans defeated the Greek phalanxes, because their lighter armor made them more agile and gave them more endurance, while Greek armor left their necks exposed to a quick slice or thrust by the longer Roman swords.

Yet as Africanus noted, “[those who have] been constantly victorious over the Greeks seldom defeated those who had been continually defeated by the Greeks.” In his estimation, Roman soldiers were too quick to lock their shields into a testudo formation and attempt to ride out the Parthian arrow attacks. “Truly such a habit is impractical,” argued Africanus, for while “one stands untouched, distressed by sun and toil, the barbarians in relay [are] attacking and withdrawing again, while by means of attacking successively, the nations are taking rest.” Furthermore,

Roman infantry locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman infantry re-enactors locking shields in a testudo formation for protection against archers. Africanus argued this was a poor tactic which gave the enemy the initiative.

Roman helmets were too tight-fitting and made it difficult for soldiers to duck to avoid an arrow or slingstone. They were also prone to throw their javelins in one mass shower, “expending ten of them on once chance kill.” Their spears were far too short for holding off a charge from heavily armored Persian cataphracts who carried twenty-foot lances.

To solve this, he recommended that Roman troops be given Greek style helmets and breastplates, and longer spears, and trained to fight with individual initiative as well as in units. They should also be trained to charge the Persians immediately to get underneath the trajectory of their arrows rather than hiding under their shields trying to wait them out.[4]

Persian armies relied on cavalry, and Roman armies fighting the Persians would also need a lot of cavalry. Africanus spent much of his chapter on military affairs discussing the proper care and training of horses. The Parthians trained their horses to remain silent in battle so as not to give away an ambush, and Africanus suggested the Romans should do the same. He also gave recipes for number of noxious potions whose smell startled horses and made them dump their riders.[5]

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

Relief of a heavily armored Sassanid cataphract at Taq-e-Bostan, Iran.

But by far the greatest threat to Roman cavalry and infantry came from the Sassanid war elephants, and Africanus discussed in detail how to fight them. “An elephant in combat makes the impression of a mountain,” he wrote. “It overturns, it hurls down, it smashes, it annihilates, and it does not disdain at all anyone lying in its way…it overthrows the one who makes a stand, the one who flees it seizes, the one who falls it tramples, the horseman it terrifies, and the charioteers it hits from its tower.” Since horses are terrified of elephants, cavalry should be kept far away from them. Instead, Africanus recommended the use of archers firing burning arrows. Once the wooden tower on the elephant’s back was set on fire, the terrified beast would throw it off.

However, a terrified elephant was even more of an indiscriminate killing machine than a battle-trained one. “I personally am of the opinion, however, that it is better to neither stand up to the elephant at the outset nor to come in close with this manifold danger, but rather to anticipate its threats, its charges, its battles, and its falls,” wrote Africanus. Even better than the flaming arrows were iron caltrops. The army could feign a retreat and bury the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Walking into this early minefield, the elephants would step on the spikes, and in the end “either in its suffering, it destroys those who are trying to relieve its incurable pain, or unable to stand it, collapses in a heap.”[6]

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Sassanid war elephants fight Armenians at the Battle of Avarayr (AD 450) in this medieval Armenian depiction.

Africanus may have learned about caltrops at the Battle of Nisibis in 217. There, Macrinus’ Roman forces  made a tactical retreat and buried the sharp iron spikes in the sand behind them. Parthian cavalry mounted on horses and camels trod on the spikes and threw their riders. The Roman infantry then turned back and finished off the dismounted, lightly armored riders in hand-to-hand combat.[7]

His interest in elephants is all the more intriguing because the Parthians do not seem to have used them. It was the Sassanids who reintroduced war elephants, but when Africanus was writing the Romans had not yet encountered a Sassanid army. In fact, it is not at all clear that the Sassanids used elephants in battle against the Romans until the mid fourth century. But Africanus seems most concerned with practical advice, and it seems strange that he would describe a threat that had not been seen for hundreds of years. But elephants were linked to the Sassanid kings from the very beginning; stories about the rise of Ardashir mentioned a vision his grandfather saw a vision of a man riding on a white elephant, symbolizing power and kingship. It seems more likely that Africanus had some sort of intelligence about Sassanid affinity for elephants and that they were possibly training them for use in war. Anticipating that Roman troops would have to fight them, he consulted the history books to find out how to do it.[8]

Africanus had some other suggestions for training and tactics. Trenches made effective barriers against cavalry charges. Mathematical formulas were given for calculating the heights of walls and the width of rivers. Recipes were given for combustible chemicals that could be applied to enemy siege weapons in the middle of the night and would then burst into flame in daylight. Somewhat more strange were his designs for “intercepting sound” by digging a hole and covering it with a cloth. He claimed that a man standing in the hole could hear distant sounds not normally audible to the human ear. Other seemingly batty ideas probably worked just fine if people thought they would work. If you think that wearing a dead bat around your neck will keep you awake when on late night guard duty, it will. If you think eating a fighting rooster the night before a battle, in Africanus’ words “makes the one eating it heir to its own invincibility, and migrates along with its military prowess to the man,” it will.[8]

But battlefield tactics were only part of the equation. Africanus advocated a war strategy to take advantage of all the weaknesses of the Persian armies. “With them,” he wrote, “the marshaling of an army is makeshift, and means are limited, depending instead on booty from a surprise attack. They bring with them rations measured in days, and a fixed number of missiles also; when they are used up, flight is foreordained.” Persian armies were not professional but were made up of noblemen and ordinary civilians called up for military service. The lack of a rigorous logistics element in Persian armies made them vulnerable to certain strategies, he argued. “What then, is the point in confronting an enemy onslaught, when, if I wait them out, I will see them chased down by the time they have appointed for themselves? Starvation descends upon them the day after time runs out, their meager provisions having been used up to no end.”[9]

To defeat a citizen army Africanus advocated total war. His recommendations are sometimes shocking. In his section titled “On the Destruction of Enemies,” he advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and instead targeting the means for keeping an army in the field:

Time first of all, and attrition, starvation and deadly pestilence must especially be deployed against the barbarians…Let us see if we might even keep them from fleeing in starvation; let annihilation overcome them without the use of the sword, and death without battle. Let us defeat them with the air as an ally and water as our support, with the elements let us arm ourselves against them. I am commander of a secret battle array. The battle I am waging is in the shadows. Let every adversary fall down, when he breathes, thirsts for a drink, or eats. I make everything his peril.[10]

He advocated avoiding battle whenever possible and harassing the enemy with night raids to prevent sleep and weaken an opponent. The enemy’s fields were to be plowed with salt or seeded with poisonous hellebore. Fruit trees in enemy country should be cut down. “For me, more to be commended is one who orders the destruction of everything that grows in abundance,” he argued. The goal was “total annihilation.”[11] (more…)

The Life and Works of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 1: The Diplomat


bannerPt1Christianity at the end of the second century AD found itself at a crossroads. The new religion had survived persecutions and spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Yet, the last of those who had  known Jesus in the flesh had died a hundred years before. There were no longer any eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, or even anyone left alive who knew the eyewitnesses. Knowledge about Jesus and the Apostles was now available only from church tradition and the written word.

At the same time, the growing faith was coming under increased intellectual attack. At around 165 AD the Syrian satirist and sharp-witted Epicurean Lucian of Samosata penned The Passing of Peregrinus, in which the title character, a murder and a child molester on the run from his native land, travels to Palestine and bamboozles the Christians into declaring him a prophet second only to Jesus.[1] Sometime towards the end of the century, Celsus published his famous critique of Christianity in which he argued that Jesus was a poor illegitimate child who learned sorcery while working in Egypt and returned to Galilee to proclaim himself a god.[2] Even the emperor Marcus Aurelius joined the discussion, writing in his Meditations that a man should be prepared to die at any moment, but ideally “this readiness comes from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerably and with dignity and in a way to persuade another without tragic show.”[3]

The same basic criticism was being repeated by all three pagan critics: Christianity had no legs to stand on. Christians followed their religion on blind faith with no real intellectual argument as to why they or anyone else should do so.

In reverse, many Christians seemed to have decided that science, philosophy and reason were purely pagan constructs with no value. Clement of Alexandria lamented that some Christians “who think themselves naturally gifted, do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic; nay more, they do not wish to learn natural science.” Such people “demand bare faith alone, as if they wished, without bestowing any care on the vine, straightway to gather clusters from the first.”[4] His work titled Stromata was a double appeal for Christians to not reject Greek philosophy and Greeks to not reject Christianity as barbarian irrationality.

Traces of the Aelia Capitolina of Africanus' day peek up throughout modern Jerusalem. This street and accompanying shops of the Eastern Cardo were discovered next to the Western Wall plaza.

Traces of the Aelia Capitolina of Africanus’ day occasionally peek up through the surface of modern Jerusalem. This street and accompanying merchant’s stalls were discovered next to the Western Wall plaza.

Into this world walked Sextus Julius Africanus.

We do not know when exactly he was born, although we can estimate he was born sometime around AD 170. He once referred to Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem, renamed by Hadrian after the Bar Kokhba revolt) as “the ancient fatherland” and also had longstanding ties to Emmaus a few miles away. If he wasn’t born in Jerusalem itself, it seems likely he was born and raised nearby.[5]

Of his family and early life we know nothing. His education, though lost to us, must have been extensive, for he showed not only command of Greek and Latin but also Hebrew and Aramaic. By faith he was most certainly a Christian, although when he came to this faith is not known. By nationality he was undoubtedly a proud Roman citizen. In his career he would serve as a military officer, diplomat and civil official in the empire who gained the Emperor’s ear at a time when Christians are often [mistakenly] thought to have pacifists and outsiders on the margins of society. As a scholar, he was a polymath with a wide variety of interests. Along with Clement and Origen, Africanus represented a new type of Christian intellectual, one who would harness the best of Greek and Roman philosophy and science in the service of Christianity.

Bust of Septimius Severus from the Altes Museum in Berlin.

Bust of Septimius Severus from the Altes Museum in Berlin.

At some point, likely early in his adult life, he entered the great source of social mobility in the Roman empire: the army. What has survived of his military writings reveals a man with plenty of experience fighting on the Euphrates frontier and an intimate familiarity with Parthian tactics  and weapons. There would be plenty of opportunities to gain experience.

On New Year’s Eve AD 192, Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus was murdered in Rome. The Praetorian Guard proclaimed Pertinax emperor, then murdered him three months later and sold the throne at auction to Didius Julianus. The sale of the entire empire scandalized Rome, and three generals from the provinces vied to seize the throne. Septimius Severus arrived first and dispatched Julianus, then defeated his other two rivals in a four year civil war.[6] In March 194 he defeated Pescennius Niger in a series of battles in Asia Minor, and then purged Syria of his supporters. Those who escaped execution fled across the Tigris into Parthia.[7]

While the Romans were fighting each other, their former client state of Osroene banded together with the Parthian client state of Adiabene and besieged the frontier city of Nisibis in Syria. Severus marched to relieve the city, then sent three armies into the renegade kingdoms to restore them to the Roman orbit. Abgar VIII of Osroene gave over some of his children as hostages to assure Severus of his future loyalty. The small kingdoms were brought to heel, but once they had to be occupied with garrisons they were no longer effective buffer states between Rome and Parthia. As Cassius Dio put it, Severus “used to declare that he had added a vast territory to the empire and had made it a bulwark of Syria. On the contrary, it is shown by the facts themselves that this conquest has been a source of constant wars and great expense to us. For it yields very little and uses up vast sums; and now that we have reached out to peoples who are neighbor of the Medes and the Parthians rather than of ourselves, we are always, one might say, fighting the battles of those peoples.”[8]

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East c. 200 AD. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.



“The Bible,” Episodes 3 and 4: The Protestant Midrash is Strong in This One

After last week’s opening episodes, I still held out hope that The Bible would show improvement as it moved into better documented periods of history.

This was only partially vindicated. On the strong side, the narrative and storytelling really took off in these episodes. Samson’s one man war against the Philistines, the manhunt for his capture, and his death in a collapsing Philistine temple were exceeded in thrilling drama only by the tragedy of Saul’s rise to power and descent into madness. Saul and Samson (played by Francis Magee and Nonso Anozie) gave the series something it lacked up to this point: Complex, internally conflicted, morally ambiguous characters.

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III's mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III’s mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

The series gets some plaudits for its accurate depiction of the Philistines, who are shown as suitably Aegean in appearance, with accurate dress, leather cuirasses, feathered headress helmets, and long broadswords. Most of our knowledge of Philistine battle dress comes from the Medinet Habu reliefs of Rameses III, and the costume designers for this show did their homework in this regard. The series also gave a nod to scholars who translate kidon in 1 Samuel 17:6 as an Egyptian khopesh (sickle-sword) by showing Goliath armed with a large version of that weapon.

The geography of the episodes was also much improved. While not exact matches, Jerusalem was shown on a hillside, Jericho was shown in the Rift Valley at the foot of hills, and Saul’s war in southern Israel actually looks like southern Israel. The one obvious goof in this regard are the external shots of Saul’s hometown of Gibeah, which is shown situated at the foot of a massive cliff in the series. Ancient Gibeah was actually on a hilltop, with expansive 360-degree views of the surrounding territory.

    Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Yet, the series continued to make a large number of basic factual errors which directly contradict history, archaeology and the biblical text. The Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle is repeatedly violated by Joshua and David seeking to pray before the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, in the opening scene of Episode 3 the Ark is sitting in the open, shaded from the sun by a tarp. The characters continue to write in block Hebrew script (500 years too early), Delilah is paid to betray Samson with silver coins (also 500 years too early), the Philistine temple has proto-Ionic column caps (an Israelite phenomenon) and (my favorite) a Canaanite soldier is seen fighting Joshua in hand-to-hand combat while wearing a Roman lorica segmentata cuirass.


What is much more baffling is the presence of cavalry throughout both episodes both in battle and as messengers. Chariots were common in Late Bronze and Iron Age I warfare, but we have no evidence of mounted cavalry in the Near East until Tukulti-Ninurta II introduced them into the Assyrian army in the early 9th century BC.[1] Even then, Assyrian cavalry had no spurs or saddles (although these may have been necessary in the film for safety reasons). For the wars between the Israelites and Philistines in the 11th century BC, cavalry comes three centuries too early. Donkeys were the transport animal of choice. Chariots would have been the only use for horses, which were extremely expensive and hard to care for.

In a previous article on Mary I used the term “Protestant Midrash” to describe interpretations of the Biblical text which have no explicit textual basis and are not historically supported, but have entered into tradition anyways because they teach a desirable moral lesson. The Bible is full of this.

The most obvious example is the series’ treatment of Samson. Much of the plot revolves around Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman, her murder, and his subsequent relationship with Delilah. In the book of Judges, Samson’s father disapproves of his marriage, asking “Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?”[2] His father in law then gives his wife to a Philistine husband, and she is later murdered by a Philistine mob.

samsonClearly, tension between the Aegean Philistines and semitic Israelites led to both communities disapproving of intermarriage. The Bible then tries to translate this into terms understandable to the modern viewer by keeping the Philistines Greek but casting an Afro-British actor as Samson. This takes the moral lesson out of the world of the Iron Age southern Levant and into the cultural language of our modern world, in order to teach a lesson about racism.

While admirable in intent, this ahistorical method of storytelling misses a much bigger story that is lurking under the surface of the Biblical text, waiting to be unearthed by historical scholarship.

David’s companion Uriah appears as a major character throughout episode 4, loyally fighting alongside David until David has him killed and takes his wife. But look closely at Uriah’s identity in 2 Samuel 11:3 or 1 Chronicles 11:14. Uriah the Hittite. That’s right, Uriah was neither an Israelite nor even a Semite, he was of Indo-European ancestry. How did this happen? Later on in 2 Samuel, David buys a threshing floor in Jerusalem from a man named Aravnah the Jebusite. It seems that David did not massacre the inhabitants of Jerusalem when he captured it. They were still living in the city and Israelites were living alongside them.

This implies that not only did the Israelites not massacre the entire Canaanite population of the land from Dan to Beersheva, it indicates that non-Israelite inhabitants of the land could rise to positions of great prestige in the early Israelite kingdom. The moral lessons here – of meritocracy, of earning rank on the basis of ability, of a society based around allegiance to a common set of religious ideals rather than ethnic ancestry – are profound. Yet, you’d miss them entirely in the Bible of our popular cultural imagination. It takes a careful, scholarly reading of the text to bring it into the light.

Regardless, I’ll still be watching. This show may still have some surprises yet. Also, most of the critics whose names have been attached to this series are New Testament scholars, so I’ll be interested to see how the second half of this series (which begins next week) is going to look.


[1] H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria (Londong: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984), 71-72.

[2] Judges 14:3

Image Sources:; Photo of Gibeah © Christopher Jones 2012; last 2 are screen caps from the series.

Article © Christopher Jones 2013.


“The Bible,” Episodes 1 and 2

Films about the ancient Near East are few and far between, and since this blog is largely about legacy and historical memory, it would be remiss to let a new attempt at the subject pass without comment.

The Bible is a 10-part TV miniseries based on, well, the Bible, and produced by Mark Burnett (in his first non reality TV effort) and Roma Downey. The series has been noted for its small army of A list scholars who served as consultants. However, as one of the consultants, Rabbi Joshua Galloway, has noted, “the goal of the production was to remain faithful, or at least as faithful as possible, to the narrative and text of the Bible, as opposed to a historical critical approach.”

This means, for example, that Noah’s Flood is shown as global. It also sometimes means that the visuals tend towards a representation of modern western Sunday School flannelgraph ideas about what the world of the Bible looked like. As a result, the production at times felt like an updated Cecil B. DeMille epic, where Moses and Abraham are not solely based on what the Biblical text and scholarship tell us about their times, but must conform to what we expect them to look like. Certain conventions are observed, such as Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus growing up as rivals in the palace, simply because this is how we are used to seeing them portrayed on film.

This past Sunday’s episodes focused on Abraham and Moses, respectively, and the theme of faith is given strong weight as both men are seen doing things that appear completely insane to everyone around them. The scenes of Abraham leaving his home, almost sacrificing Isaac, and trusting that he would someday have a son were an excellent representation of Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Abraham, as a “knight of faith” plunging into the unknown based on his trust in God in spite of all reason to the contrary. This comes off to both his contemporaries and the modern viewer as borderline insane, but that is precisely the point. Trust is not always a rational act.

As far as historical commentary, there is not much to say about Abraham because there is not much that can even expect to be verified. Nomads by their very nature leave few archaeological remains. As a result, studies of Abraham and the Patriarchs have taken two approaches.

Bottom: Abraham from The Bible TV series. Top: Wall painting of Semitic Middle Bronze Age nomads from Beni Hasan, Egypt.

Bottom: Abraham from “The Bible” TV series. Top: Wall painting of Semitic Middle Bronze Age nomads from Beni Hasan, Egypt. Note the nomad’s woven patterns on their clothes and dresses, compared to the plain brown garb from most characters in “The Bible.” Also note that the nomads in the Beni Hasan painting are armed with spears and bows, while in “The Bible” Abraham and his men are armed primarily with curved Bedouin-style daggers.

The first is to study cultural context and geography, and try and pin the Patriarchs in some time frame (the Middle Bronze Age, the Intermediate Bronze Age, etc) where the culture matches the culture described in the Bible. At the end of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2200 BC) urban culture collapsed and cities all over Canaan were abandoned. For the next 200 years, the population was almost entirely nomadic before cities began to be re-established in the Middle Bronze Age II. Because Abraham was constantly bumping into and getting into conflicts with people in cities when his massive flocks started eating up every green thing around their farmland, most scholars who accept a historical Abraham choose to situate him in the Middle Bronze II.[1]

Others point to anachronisms in the text as a basis for arguing that the stories were composed in the mid 1st millennium BC and therefore too long after the fact to contain any historical information. The presence of camels, whose domestication is otherwise unattested until the 1st millennium, and Abraham’s frequent interaction with “Philistines” who did not arrive in the area until after 1175 BC, are longstanding problems in the narrative.[2]

One can point to some meager remains of camels from the 2nd millennium – a camel figuring from 19th century Byblos, a camel jaw found in a Middle Bronze tomb in Tell el-Farah, a figurine of a loaded camel from a tomb in 13th century Egypt, and so on.[3] The possibility has also been raised that the “Philistines” of Genesis as a use of a later name for a region that was inhabited by Canaanites in the Middle Bronze Age. It is worthy to note that “Abimelech” (the Philistine king in Genesis 21-26) is a thoroughly Semitic name.

Or, one could do what The Bible does and ignore all of this entirely, and make Abraham essentially timeless. Instead of being rooted in Middle Bronze Age nomadic culture, The Bible’s Abraham strides through the generic landscapes of our biblical imagination. Instead of Abraham, Middle Bronze Age sheikh and wealthy leader of a clan, we see Abraham, the leader of a motley group of suitably dirty individuals dressed in suitably dirty, vaguely “biblical” clothes, in a vaguely Bedouin setting, set in a brown and suitably “biblical” landscape.

Top: Abraham in "The Bible." Not much in view for Abraham's copious flocks to feed off of. Bottom: Area around Beersheva after winter rains, when nomads would have been grazing their flocks.

Top: Abraham in “The Bible.” Not much in view for Abraham’s copious flocks to feed off of. Bottom: Area around Beersheva in March after winter rains, when nomads would have been grazing their flocks.

The Bible’s treatment of Moses takes a similar approach, taking all of our assumptions about the story and returning them to us in the form of a production clearly indebted to The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Details such as Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus growing up together to become adult rivals are a staple of fictional portrayals of the Exodus, but are not actually in the Bible. The costumes and set design all seem designed to appeal to our American expectations of what the Exodus story should look like, rather than what ancient Egypt actually looked like. The world of The Bible is the world of our cultural imagination of the Bible, rather than the actual world of the Bible.

At the end of his book The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, Thomas L. Thompson wrote that:

But the stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel’s relationship with God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in their historicity, but in their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced. To the extent that this experience can be communicated, it is a revelation of the faith that was Israel’s. And it is through this communication in word that Israel’s experience became ours, and Israel’s faith our faith; for it is through this revelation that we are enabled to see through to the reality and the truth of the human experience which transcends the historical forms in which this experience has been expressed.[4]

While The Bible may seem to many to be fundamentalist in its outlook, it is actually fully in line with the views of Thompson. For The Bible does not intend to be historical, it is rather a “historically determined expression” about a “relationship with God” which is given in a form legitimate to our time. It seeks to express theological truths, but not by making references to solid history, but rather by “communication in word…to the reality and the truth of the human experience.”

Historical context has a way of changing our perceptions and deepening our understanding of the Bible by moving us beyond our cultural blinders and into the Bible’s own world. But, by creating an image separated from historical background, The Bible has (for its first week at least) given us faith disconnected from history. It is the same story we know from childhood, and it looks the same way it looked back then.


[1] For a recent defense of the historicity of the Patriarchs, see chapter 7, “Founding Fathers or Fleeting Phantoms?” in Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eerdmans, 2003).

[2] For more critical views, see Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (New York: Touchstone, 2001); Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (New York: De Gruyter, 1974).

[3] Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 338-341.

[4] Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, 330.

Image Sources:;

Article © Christopher Jones 2013.

China Discovers the Ancient Near East


It was the summer of 326 BC when Alexander the Great reached the banks of the Hyphasis River in India. His army had just won a hard fought battle against a minor local ruler named Porus. On the far side lay the Nanda Empire, armed to the teeth and ready to meet Alexander’s dwindling army with overwhelming force. “It was said,” reported Plutarch, “that the kings of the Gandaridae and the Praesii were waiting for Alexander’s attack with an army of 80,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 8,000 chariots and 6,000 fighting elephants.”[1] Such stories only made Alexander more eager to take on the challenge of battle, but discontent spread in his camp. To restore his men’s courage, he gave a speech before his army:

For a man who is a man, work, in my belief, if it is directed to noble ends, has no object beyond itself…if any of you wish to know what limit may be set on this particular campaign, let me tell you that the area of the country still ahead of us, from here to the Ganges and the Eastern Ocean, is comparatively small. You will undoubtedly find that this ocean is connected with the Hyrcanian Sea, for the great Stream of Ocean encircles the earth…and to this empire there will be no boundaries but what God Himself has made for the whole world.[2]

Alexander had no way of knowing that there was much more to the east than a “comparatively small” country. The Greeks were only dimly aware of India and were completely unaware of lands beyond it. In reality, past the Ganges lay Burma and Indochina, the Irrawaddy and the Mekong, and then China, a land with resources and population on a scale Greeks had never dreamed existed.

Alexander’s men were unmoved. They refused to go on. Alexander retreated to his tent in rage and did not emerge for three days, believing his troops’ failure of courage the only thing preventing him from becoming master of the entire world.[3]

At that time, China was mired in two hundred years of conflict known as the Warring States Period. By 206 BC, the Han Dynasty was in power and locked in a long brutal war with the nomadic Xiongnu. In 138 BC, Imperial official Zhang Qian was dispatched by the Emperor Wu in search of the Yuezhi, enemies of the Xiongnu with whom the Emperor sought to make an alliance. Not long after departing China, Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu and held a prisoner for ten years before he finally managed to escape. He finally reached the Yuezhi near modern day Bactria, only to find that they were no longer interested in an alliance. On his return to China, he was again captured by the Xiongnu and held prisoner for a year until a palace coup threw their society into chaos and he was able to make another escape.

Zhang Qian's travels.

Zhang Qian’s travels.

Thirteen years after his departure, Zhang Qian returned to great honor at the Imperial court, who one can imagine had likely given up all hope of his survival. Although he never traveled west of Bactria, he spoke with travelers and tradesmen from lands to the west and brought news of these territories back to the Emperor, as recorded in the Han Shu:

Anxi [Parthia] may be several thousand li west of the Yuezhi. The people live in fixed abodes and are give to agriculture; their fields yield rice and wheat; and they make wine of grapes. Their cities and towns are like those of Ta-yuan. Several hundred small and large cities belong to it. The territory is several thousand li square; it is a yery large country and is close to the K’ui-shui [Oxus]. Their market folk and merchants travel in carts and boats to the neighboring countries perhaps several thousand li distant. They make coins of silver; the coins resemble their king’s face. Upon the death of a king the coins are changed for others on which the new king’s face is represented. They paint [rows of characters] running sideways on [stiff] leather, to serve as records.[4]

Coin of Orodes I of Parthia.

“They make coins of silver; the coins resemble their king’s face. Upon the death of a king the coins are changed for others on which the new king’s face is represented.” — Coin of Orodes I of Parthia.

One li equaled 415.8 meters or approximately 1/4 of a mile. Zhang Qian also heard of lands to the west of Parthia:

Li-kan [Syria] and T’iau-chi [Mesopotamia] are several thousand li west of Anxi and close to the Western Sea. It [referring to T'iau-ch'i] is hot and damp. The inhabitants plow their fields, in which they grow rice. There is a big bird with eggs like jars. The number of its inhabitants very large and they have in many places their own petty chiefs; but Anxi [Parthia], while having added it to its dependencies, considers it a foreign country. They have clever jugglers. Although the old people in Anxi maintain the tradition that the Jo-shui and the Si-wang-mu are in T’iau-chi, they have not been seen there.[5]

These reports set the pattern for much of Han China’s knowledge of the Near East. Explorers visited Central Asia and brought back secondhand but nevertheless accurate information that was equal parts random facts and useful knowledge for merchants and diplomats.


Inventions of the Ancient Near East, Part 3: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History


Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phoenicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own.[1]

Thus the philosopher Tatian began his Address to the Greeks. An Assyrian by birth who was living in Rome in the mid 2nd century AD, Tatian first joined a pagan mystery cult before encountering the Christian Bible. He later described his conversion to Christianity:

I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending east of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being.[3]

As a result, Tatian jumped into the role of a cultural critic of the society that he once embraced. The Greeks saw themselves as the height of human civilization, but Tatian argued that many of their cultural and technological triumphs originated amongst the “barbarians” that 2nd century Greeks looked down on.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Cuneiform star chart from the Royal Library of Nineveh. From the British Museum in London.

Where we can check Tatian’s claims many of them prove to be accurate. Babylonian astronomy is well known to pre-date Greek civilization by thousands of years. Mathematical texts show us that the Egyptians made numerous advances in geometry and were able to calculate volume, the area of a triangle, and may even have developed a basic understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras.[4] And all the alphabets in the world are descended from the writing system of the Canaanites and Phoenicians which developed in the 2nd millennium BC.

So, why dispute the ages of inventions with the Greeks? Tatian’s main argument was that Judaism, and by extension Christianity, pre-dated Greek paganism and was therefore more likely to be true. Moses, after all, pre-dated Homer, for no one could agree when Homer actually lived while the histories of the Babylonians and Phoenicians established the early date of the Jews.[5]

Furthermore, he argued that Greek paganism was not only a recent invention but also immoral:

Aristotle, who absurdly placed a limit to Providence and made happiness to consist in the things which give pleasure, quite contrary to his duty as a preceptor flattered Alexander, forgetful that he was but a youth; and he, showing how well he had learned the lessons of his master, because his friend would not worship him shut him up and and carried him about like a bear or a leopard He in fact obeyed strictly the precepts of his teacher in displaying manliness and courage by feasting, and transfixing with his spear his intimate and most beloved friend, and then, under a semblance of grief, weeping and starving himself, that he might not incur the hatred of his friends.[6]


Mary, Mother of God


Any historian who sets out to write a biography of the historical Mary is immediately confronted by two divergent narratives. The first view, held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and in part by Muslims) sees Mary as a girl consecrated from birth, who remained completely devoted to the service of God before, during and after the life of Jesus. According to this view, Mary was perpetually a virgin, married in name only, and had no biological children. On the other hand, the Protestant view (as well as that held by many modern critical scholars) is that Mary was a young, poor peasant girl raised, betrothed and married in the normal fashion. After the birth of Jesus she gave birth to other biological children.

Tradition holds this grotto under the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem to be the birthplace of Mary, however this tradition only seems to date to the 5th century AD.

Tradition holds this grotto under the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem to be the birthplace of Mary, however this tradition only seems to date to the 5th century AD.

Every aspect of her life is muddled by the tension between the two views. Each view of Mary – prototypical nun or wife and mother – comes loaded with its own set of theological implications that are beyond the scope of this article. Most authors simply choose one interpretation, mention the other view in order to quickly dismiss it, and call it a day. But this fails to answer the important question of how we ended up with two narratives in the first place, and why so many people believe one or the other to be correct. Rather, this article will begin at the beginning of Mary’s life, take all sources into account, and work from there.

One immediately runs into difficulties establishing any basic facts about Mary’s early life. Her parents are not named in any 1st century sources, but tradition in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches holds that they were named Joachim and Anna. This cannot be traced earlier than the 2nd century.

Scholars have long grappled with the different genealogies given for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Matthew traces the descent of Jesus from David and Solomon, through the Judean kings and then through the descendants of Jehoiachin in the post-exilic period. Luke on the other hand traces Jesus’ descent from David’s lesser known son Nathan.[1]

Many scholars beginning with John of Damascus in the 7th century have sought to explain the two competing genealogies by arguing that Matthew shows the ancestry of Joseph while Luke shows the ancestry of Mary. Yet, Luke explicitly identifies Jesus as “the son, so it was thought, of Joseph son of Heli.”[2] Advocates of this view are forced to propose a textual corruption of some sort and that the text originally read that Jesus was a descendant of Heli. The text would be reconstructed as something like “the son (as it was supposed, of Joseph, but really) of Heli.” Advocates of this view further argue that the name Heli is short for Eliakim, another variant of the name Joachim, the traditional name for the father of Mary.[3]

But why is Mary never mentioned in her own genealogy? John of Damascus argued that it was because “it was not the custom of the Hebrews nor of the divine Scripture to give genealogies of women,” ignoring that Matthew’s genealogy lists four of them and the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-8 mention numerous women whenever they were deemed to be  worth mentioning. It seems rather strange that Luke, who otherwise paid much more attention to Mary than Joseph, would fail to mention Mary in his account of her lineage and substitute Joseph instead. Other scholars came up with different explanations for the discrepancy. For instance, in the early 3rd century, Sextus Julius Africanus argued that the line of Joseph had been muddled with numerous levirate marriages, and that original records had been lost, leading Matthew and Luke to reconstruct the ancestry of Joseph as best they could from oral traditions and private family records. Hence, they ended up with different lists.[4]

Regardless of the names of Mary’s parents, Luke does inform us that Mary was related to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest and the mother of John the Baptist. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were descendants of Aaron, the first high priest. Zechariah “belonged to the priestly division of Abijah,” one of the 24 priests named by David in Jerusalem.[5] This implies that Mary did not belong to the tribe of Judah, as is often alleged, but to the tribe of Levi. It also means that, contrary to the common Protestant claim that Mary was a poor peasant, she was in fact born into the hereditary ruling class of Jewish society. She definitely was not some sort of proto-marxist heroine of the lower classes as envisioned by certain neo-Anabaptist authors. Protestant Midrash aside, by the end of the 1st century BC, the priestly families of Jerusalem lived in large houses, had accumulated extreme amounts of wealth and held a lot of political power. Most of them seemed to have belonged to the Sadducee sect which attracted the powerful and wealthy but had little influence amongst the general population.[6]

Beneath the foundations of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem lie the remains of mansions belonging to the priestly families of Judea from the 1st century AD. If Mary was born into a priestly family, she likely grew up in a setting similar to this, enjoying the finest things that the land of Judea had to offer.

Beneath the foundations of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem lie the remains of mansions belonging to the priestly families of Judea from the 1st century AD. If Mary was born into a priestly family, she likely grew up in a setting similar to this, enjoying the finest things that the land of Judea had to offer.


More Inventions of the Ancient Near East

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

My post from last month highlighting a number of less well known inventions from the ancient Near East proved quite popular, so a sequel is of course forthcoming. Once again, this series avoids covering well known innovations like cities, writing, schools, agriculture and the wheel. Here are some more inventions that you may not know came from the ancient Near East.

1. Investment Banking

The Great Ziggurat of Ur. Sumerian temples played a major role in the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

Modern banking traces its origins to Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. Ancient Mesopotamian temples always had a redistributive economic function. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. They then redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor (sometimes the temples became corrupt and hoarded wealth, but that’s a topic for another article).

After a thousand years of this, the priests who ran the temples were literally sitting on giant piles of money. So around the time of Hammurabi (in the 18th century BC), they began to make loans. Old Babylonian temples made numerous loans to poor and needy entrepreneurs. The loans were made at reduced below-market interest rates lower than those offered on loans given by private individuals, and sometimes arrangements were made for the creditor to make food donations to the temple instead of repaying interest.[1]

Nevertheless, the temples still lacked many of the features of a full bank. They did not take deposits, issue checks, or engage in fractional reserve banking. They were religious institutions offering loans as a charity service, closer to modern microfinance initiatives than to Goldman Sachs.

Something closer to modern banking emerged in the neo-Babylonian period in the 7th century BC. Banking was conducted by certain families who passed the trade on from parents to children. The Ea-iluta-bani family of the city of Borsippa was active from 687 to 487 BC. Beginning as mid-level land owners possessing several tracts of agricultural land, the men of the family married well, received decent sized dowries, and invested their liquid assets (mostly silver and food products) in loans.

Cuneiform tablet detailing a loan of silver, c. 1800 BC. The text reads:
“3 1/3 silver sigloi, at interest of 1/6 sigloi and 6 grains per sigloi, has Amurritum, servant of Ikun-pi-Istar, received on loan from Ilum-nasir. In the third month she shall pay the silver.”
1 sigloi=8.3 grams.

Numerous contract documents have been recovered which list recipients of loans, the amount loaned, the term of the loan and the interest rate to be paid. When the loan was repaid, the tablet was usually broken. This gives us a possibly skewed picture of loans, because the only tablets we can read are from the loans that were not repaid.

What we can tell is that the Ea-iluta-bani family generally loaned at 20% annual interest. In other cases, possibly when the debtor was less reliable, items were taken as security in lieu of interest. If the loan was not repaid, the item would be kept and sold. Sometimes the security was an item that increased in value, such as a slave that could perform service for the creditors for the duration of the loan. This was in effect a disguised form of interest.

The Ea-iluta-bani family tended to make about half of their loans in silver and the other half in food products. There were no coins in use, so silver was measured by weight and purity. Silver had the advantage of having a fairly constant value. Food products on the other hand tended to decrease in value shortly after the harvest time and increase in value during times of the year when they were less plentiful. The family, therefore, tried structure contracts so as to lend out foodstuffs when they were cheapest and get repaid when they were more more expensive, making a greater profit.

Silver, on the other hand, could be loaned out at any time. 80% of our surviving contracts are for periods six months or less, but this may simply indicate that short term loans were less likely to be repaid. The Ea-iluta-bani family women would often loan out their dowry as a long term investment in order to make a steady stream of profit from interest payments.

By the time of the Persian Empire, finance was a major business in the cities Babylon, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa and Ur. Banking families such as the Egbi in Babylon, Iddin-Nabu of Babylon and Murashu of Nippur became very wealthy and even engaged in international commerce with countries outside of Mesopotamia. The Murashu broadened their investments under Persian rule, in addition to simple loans they branched out into real estate and managed and rented land. Due to their large land holdings, the Murashu family became extremely powerful in Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. They may have become too powerful. All record of their activity ceases after the 10th year of Darius II in 413 BC. Either the records are lost, or Darius moved to end their power.[2]

2. Poison Gas

In AD 256, the Sassanid Persians under Shah Shapur I laid siege to the Roman border fortress town of Dura-Europos in Syria on the Euphrates River. During the assault, the Persians built several siege ramps. They also dug a number of mines to try and cause the walls of the fortress to collapse.[3]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria. Tower 19 was situated in the middle of the wall to the left side of the picture.


Christians in the Roman Army: Countering the Pacifist Narrative

Christian pacifism has raised its profile in recent years, likely prompted by dissatisfaction with increasing political polarization, and promoted by some influential writers. Ideas promoted in the past century by Cecil John Cadoux and John Howard Yoder with little headway have found a modern defender in Stanley Hauerwas and a popularizer in Shane Claiborne, whose books, speaking tours and radical lifestyle have attracted many admirers if few followers.

Central to all of these authors’ ideas is the concept of the “fall of the church.” They hold that early Christianity was pacifist and anarchist in character, and rejected the ideas of military service and loyalty to the state. As Christianity came to be accepted by the Roman government at around the time of Constantine, the church became corrupted by its relationship with state power. After Constantine the church became willing to acquiesce to state power and wage war, execute people in the name of the state, force conversions, and recognize the authority of rulers other than Jesus. According to Yoder, the behavior of the early church is important because the early Christians “read the Bible in a first-century context. They read the New Testament in the same world in which it was written, in the same language in which it was written. They probably read it, therefore, with more understanding than we do. Hence, how they read the New Testament is helpful to us in our reading of the New Testament, whatever the limits of their faithfulness.”[1]

While the emperors and soldiers of the late Empire clearly used Christian symbolism, what about the army before Constantine?

I shall leave the theological portion of this debate for other websites. What I will do is examine the central historical claim of the “fall of the church” thesis: That Christians before the era of Constantine were pacifists who did not enlist in the Roman military. Unfortunately, none of the pacifist authors who have tackled this question have much experience in ancient history and it has led them to make certain errors which have led to erroneous conclusions.

First, to cover some basics of the Roman Army from Augustus to Constantine. The Roman army during this period was an all-volunteer force. No one was in the army who didn’t want to join. The Army was made up of two groups: The Legions and the Auxilia. Recruitment for the legions was open only to Roman citizens, who served for 20 years unless they were injured and medically discharged or were kicked out. On the other hand, the auxilia were recruited from the peregrini, the non-citizens of the provinces. Their term of service was 25 years, after which they received Roman citizenship as well as conubium, the right to marry a non-Roman wife but still pass on Roman citizenship to their children. The navy was smaller and accepted more non-citizens, but the model was essentially the same. As a result, service in the auxilia was a common route for social and economic advancement for those who were not Roman citizens. In 212, the emperor Caracalla decreed that everyone in the Roman Empire was now a Roman citizen, but  the auxilia did not disappear (many units were now centuries old with a storied battle history they were loath to part with), rather, they ceased to be a method for social advancement and became just another type of unit which included special units such as cavalry and archers.

Like everything else in Roman society, the army also had a pagan religious element. Festivals, sacrifices, and sacred ceremonies honoring the gods, the emperor, the Legion’s standards, and nonspecific deified ideals such as virtus and disciplina were commonplace. How Christians in the ranks would deal with the requirement to partake in these ceremonies would become a major issue.[2]

In the 1st century, we have some scraps of evidence of Christians in the Roman military. The gospel of Luke states that some soldiers (possibly from the Roman puppet Herod’s auxiliary forces) asked John the Baptist for religious advice, and he told them “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” Matthew mentions that Jesus was visited by a centurion in Capernaum who asked him to heal his sick servant. Later, the book of Acts records that Peter preached at the house of a centurion named Cornelius who was stationed in Caesarea, and the man and his household became some of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity.[3]

From the conversion of Cornelius at about AD 39 to AD 173, we have absolutely no sources referencing Christian participation in the army. None. It may have happened, it may not have happened. Either way, we know nothing about it, so speculating is futile.[4]

In 173, we have a story that would be easy to dismiss were it not documented by five sources. During the Marcomannic Wars, emperor Marcus Aurelius was leading the Legio XII Fulminata (“Thunderstruck”) campaign along the Danube against the Quadi, erstwhile allies of Rome who had switched sides. The Quadi met the legion with a superior force and drove them to an open field away from water sources. It was a hot day, and the Quadi halted their attack to allow heat and thirst to take its toll.

Surrounded, outnumbered, out of water, growing weak from thirst and in desperate straights, what is clear from the sources is that lots of men began to pray. Soon, a thunderstorm materialized. Lightning struck the treeline where some of the Quadi had gathered, scattering many of them. Rain and hail poured from the sky. No battle could be fought in such weather, so the Quadi withdrew, which was fortunate for the Romans as they were so busy gulping down water collected in their helmets and shields that they were hardly in a position to fight.

Relief on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, showing Roman troops surrounded by the Quadi as a rain god arrives with a thunderstorm on the upper right.


The Great Persecution

Christianity may have begun as a small group of a few dozen followers of Jesus, but it grew at a steady clip for the next two centuries. By the late 3rd century AD this growth had exploded into a major religion within the Roman Empire. Many members of the upper classes had converted, especially women. Christians served in the army and held positions in the civil service. Christian churches were organized throughout much of the empire, with bishops in major cities and pastors leading local congregations throughout towns and villages. Churches were built in most cities as Christians moved out of meeting in private houses to create their own places of worship.[1]

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire was falling apart in fifty years of unrest known as the Third Century Crisis. The prosperous, largely peaceful empire of the Severan Emperors gave way to constantly changing governments, weak emperors and numerous military coups. Foreign invasions threatened all of the borders of the empire and some regions of the empire sought to secede and break away. The protracted unrest caused the economy to take a nose dive. The government sought to address the problem of low tax revenues by devaluing its currency, which made the problem worse. Poverty caused many people to leave cities and become semi-serfs, working land owned by large landowners.

Romans were looking for answers as to why their once powerful empire was in decline. As in so many similar cases throughout history, many of them answered these questions by blaming religious minorities. Traditional Roman religion did not recognize any such concept as the separation of church and state. The state employed numerous priests to conduct rituals, make sacrifices and read omens, all to ensure the favor of the gods upon the state. If the state was experiencing ill fortune, then the gods must be displeased and punishing the Roman people.

If the gods were displeased, for many people the obvious reason for their displeasure were the Christians, the Manichaeans and other religious groups growing in numbers across the empire. The Christians argued that they were good citizens – they paid taxes, lived moral lives, followed the laws, and served in the military – and that this qualified them as loyal Romans despite their refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. Most of the time, the Roman authorities had tacitly if not officially accepted this argument. Sporadic persecutions occurred numerous times, but in the 3rd century they became more frequent and drastic. The emperors Decius and Valerian each issued decrees that Christians must sacrifice to the Roman gods or be executed.

This stage of persecution ended when Valerian was captured by the Persians in 260 and Christianity was again tolerated, but the crisis continued. Nevertheless, friction between pagans and Christians continued. The Christian church, with its hierarchical structure, social support networks, and ruling bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, was viewed as a threat to Imperial power, a sort of potential fifth column who did not follow the Roman gods and therefore was damaging the Roman state. To make matters worse, Christianity’s outlaw status made it an attractive religion for all those within the empire who hated Rome. Especially in Egypt and North Africa, Christianity became associated with local nationalism and anti-Roman sentiment.[2]

In short, Christianity was viewed as an internal threat to the unity and security of the empire. This view was especially strong amongst Imperial officials, whose hatred of Christians is evidenced by the numerous tortures many of them devised which went above and beyond their mandate. As is also often the case throughout history, leaders sought to pin blame on a disliked minority in order to divert attention from their own failings.

Late 3rd Century bust of Diocletian, now on display at the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul.

Into this world stepped a 40 year old army officer named Diocles. Born in Salona, Dalmatia (modern day Solin in Croatia) to parents of low birth, he had enlisted in the army and worked his way up through the ranks. In 284, the reigning emperor Numerian was murdered by soldiers in Syria. The army then declared Diocles emperor, and he changed his name to the more Latin-sounding Diocletian. After defeating an army led by Numerian’s brother Carinus in modern day Serbia, he took control of the entire empire in 285.

Diocletian set out to radically transform the entire Roman Empire. The first and most obvious problem to be rectified was the growth of military power: between 235 and 285 there had been no fewer than 13 military coups. To put a stop to this, in 293 Diocletian split the empire into four parts, called the Tetrarchy. Two sections of the empire would be governed by Augusti, theoretically ruling as equals but with Diocletian as the practical senior partner. Two other sections would be governed by lesser rulers given the title of Caesar, who would be trained to eventually succeed the Augusti. This system kept army commanders from gaining too much power, as each was under the control of a more local ruler.

Diocletian named Maximian the Augustus of the western empire, ruling Italy, Africa and Spain with his capital at Milan. Constantius was named Caesar of Britain and Gaul with his capital at Trier. In the east, Diocletian himself took control of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor, with his capital at Nicomedia. He named Galerius Caesar of the Balkans and Greece, with his capital at Sirmium on the Danube. All three of these men also hailed from the Balkans: Maximian came from Sirmium in modern Serbia, Galerius from Serdica in Dacia (modern Sofia, Bulgaria) and Constantius from Dardania in what is now Serbia. Rome was no longer the capital city of the empire that bore its name.[3]

Map of the Tetrarchy, as established in 293.

Aside from this decentralization of power into four parts, the rest of Diocletian’s reform involved accumulating as much power as possible to the person of the emperor. Whereas Augustus and those who followed him had adopted the title princeps, claiming to be a “first among equals” and striving to preserve the fiction of the old Republic, Diocletian adopted the title dominus, formerly a term used by slaves to refer to their masters. Now, instead of a “first among equals” from among the free citizens, the Roman people were his slaves and he was their master. Visitors to the imperial court were required to prostrate themselves before him, and if they were lucky they were allowed to kiss the hem of his robe. Previously, the power and legitimacy of the princeps was said to be derived from the Senate and the Roman people. Diocletian instead declared himself to be the gods’ representative on earth. His legitimacy was derived from the gods, not from any earthly source. He gave himself the name Jovian, as the earthly representative of Jupiter. Maximian followed suit, calling himself Herculius to compare himself to Hercules. The Senate was almost completely ignored, reduced to ruling the now unimportant city of Rome.[4]


A Gallery of Inventions

Part 2: More Inventions of the Ancient Near East
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

It is not a stretch to say that the ancient Near East is known in the modern world primarily for its inventions. World-changing Near Eastern inventions such as agriculture, metallurgy, the wheel, writing and the chariot are well known. Yet, these are just the tip of the iceberg of ancient Near Eastern ingenuity and engineering. Here, we will examine some more familiar everyday items that trace their origins to the ancient Near East.

1. Pin Tumbler Locks

Simple barred doors are effective at keeping people out of something, but they suffer from a major flaw: They can’t be opened from the outside. You can lock your front door to keep intruders out at night, but a barred door won’t do you any good to keep people out of your house when you’re not there.

So the solution was to figure out ways to lock and unlock doors from the outside. At around 2000 BC, the Egyptians invented a complex key system that involved using strings to manipulate several cylindrical pieces of wood through a hole. When the space between the cylinders on the string lined up with the edge of the door, the door opened.

Modern replica of an Assyrian pin lock. The back plate would be bolted to the outside of a door. The paddle-shaped object is the key, which is inserted into the bar and pushes up the pins, allowing the bar to be removed.

A less clunky and more elegant solution to the problem came from Assyria. The palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (built from 717-706 BC) featured a new type of lock that used loose pins to hold the bolt in place. This was a simple version of the modern pin tumbler locks used on most doors in the modern world.

This lock worked by putting the bar on the outside of the door instead of the inside. This bar had a notch cut into it, and holes drilled into the top. When the bar was in place, loose pins in the door dropped into the holes and held the bar in place. To unlock the door, a key with pins sticking out of the end that matched the holes was inserted into the notch and used to push the pins upwards, allowing the bar to be slid free of the door.

The Romans later copied this design, and modern pin tumbler locks operate on the same principles. Their main improvements in modern locks have been to make the pins different lengths (so different keys open different doors), make the whole system smaller and add rotation to make it easier to open.[1]

2. Penicillin

Ancient Egypt was famous throughout the ancient world for its advanced medical practice and excellent doctors. Numerous papyri survive which contain instructions on the diagnosis and treatment of injuries. While doctors in the rest of the world were a singular profession, Egyptian doctors developed a range of specialized fields including dentistry, gynecology and proctology. While many of the prescriptions for drugs are now known to be useless, in some cases the Egyptians stumbled upon something useful.[2]

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus, a textbook on treating wounds, head trauma, fractures and spinal injuries of the upper body that dated from the 17th century, recommended the following diagnosis and treatment for a wound that appeared to be infected:

If thou examinest a man having a diseased wound in his breast, while that wound is inflamed and a whirl of inflammation continually issues from the mouth of that wound at thy touch; the two lips of that wound are ruddy, while that man continues to be feverish from it; his flesh cannot receive a bandage, that wound cannot take a margin of skin; the granulation which is in the mouth of that wound is watery, their surface is not and secretions drop therefrom in an oily state.

Thou shouldst say concerning him: “One having a diseased wound in his breast, it being inflamed, (and) he continues to have fever from it. An ailment which I will treat.”

Thou shalt make for him cool applications for drawing out the inflammation from the mouth of the wound:

a. Leaves of willow, nbs’-tree ksnty. Apply to it.

b. Leaves of ym’-tree, dung. hny-t’, ksnty, Apply to it. Thou shalt make for him applications for drying up the wound: a. Powder of green pigment wsb-t, thn.t, grease. Triturate bind upon it.[3]

Blue Penicillum bread mold, whose antibiotic qualities were utilized but not fully understood by the ancient Egyptians.

We now know that willow bark has antiseptic qualities that reduce inflammation. Later Egyptian doctors took this treatment further and began prescribing “bread in a rotten condition” to be applied to infected wounds that were discharging pus. Blue bread mold is better known in the medical world by its scientific name Penicillum, making the ancient Egyptians the first to use antibiotics.[4]

Some scientists have expressed skepticism that the amount of penicillin absorbed would have been enough to be effective, but even trace amounts applied directly to a wound would have had some effect on the infection.[5]

The Egyptians did not know that infection was caused by bacteria and did not understand the scientific principles underlying the use of antibiotics. Rather, they figured out the effectiveness of bread mold by trial and error. While throwing anything at an infected wound in hopes that something would work, some Egyptian doctor somewhere decided to try moldy bread, and – surprise -  he got results.


Assyrian Agricultural Technology

Assyria is famous primarily for its military innovations. Siege warfare, cavalry, and the integration and methodical organization of warfare were all advanced considerably by the Assyrian state in its insatiable desire to conquer its neighbors. What Assyria is not well known for are its civil innovations. Yet, Assyrian armies were sacking foreign cities, the Assyrian homeland was being enriched with various things stolen and looted from other countries. The Assyrians may not have been great innovators, but they were great derivators, taking inventions from various parts of the world and adapting them to their own needs.

Assyria was a land power for sure, which means that its power was at its roots based on agricultural production. As both an agrarian society and a highly militarized state, Iron Age Assyria is not the type of society where one would expect to find much independent thought or innovation in the civilian sector. This is partly true. Few pieces of Assyrian agricultural technology were new. Most were adapted from surrounding cultures. But some great agricultural innovations and feats of engineering did arise.

Modern day farmer's fields along the Tigris River near Diyarbakır, Turkey.

The heart of ancient Assyria was situated along the Tigris River, in what is now northern Iraq. The Two Rivers were vital to farming in what would otherwise be a desert, but they also carry six times the silt of the Nile River. This means that their river beds are shallower and fill up faster, and therefore the rivers change courses more often. They also flow faster, and the Tigris flows even faster than the Euphrates. While the Nile flooded regularly and predictably and gently inundated Egypt’s fields every year, the shallow beds, fast rate of flow and heavy silt load meant that the Tigris and Euphrates were prone to violent, unpredictable floods that spilled over their banks and washed away fields rather than replenished them.[1]

As a result, systems of levees and canals were built in Mesopotamia from as early as Sumerian times. Canals were used to trap water, which could then be used to irrigate fields. There were no sluice gates to control the water flow, rather, fields were flooded by digging through the canal wall to flood the field, and then shoveling mud into the breach to seal it back up again once the desired amount of water had come through.This meant that each farmer’s field had to directly border a canal. As a result, complex canal systems sprung up everywhere people lived in Mesopotamia. Maintaining the canals was a major duty of government. The nation’s food supply depended on it.

Flood irrigation from canals is still used by many farmers in modern Iraq.

Rivers flooded in the spring as mountaintop snows melted at the sources of the rivers. Canal breaching was done at this time on fallow fields to prepare them for planting. The fields would then be plowed in autumn after a rain. If there were no rains, more irrigation was required. Once the field had dried out enough so that the ground was not wet, but before it was rock hard, it was ready to be plowed.

Plowing was done with oxen, typically four to a plow. The soil was tough enough that the plow required three or more passes for the point to break up the soil create a good furrow. It took three men to work a plow team, to guide the oxen and hold down the plow handles. There was no steering mechanism on plows or any wheels. Once the end of the furrow was reached, the oxen had to be unhitched and the plow turned around, and the oxen re-hitched and the process begun again in the other direction.


“Magi from the East”

It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament: the gospel of Matthew reports that sometime shortly after the birth of Jesus, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”[1] The enigmatic nature of Matthew’s account stems from its brevity. He apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time would already have known who they were. But who were they?

The origins of the Magi begin with the live of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra). Unfortunately, we know very little about Zoroaster’s life. We don’t even know what century he was born in. Most of his writings have been lost. What we do know is that he lived in what is now central Asia or eastern Iran, and that his teachings formed the core of a new monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrianism.

In the meantime, Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century BC, not in Persia but in the kingdom of the Medes. Herodotus listed the “Magoi” as one of the six tribes of the Medes. They were described as a priestly class, but their main task appears to have been the interpretation of the king’s dreams. In this respect they were like similar “wise men” kept at the courts of various Near Eastern monarchs such as the Babylonian kings.

Persians and Medes on a relief from Persepolis. The Persians were cylindrical hats and the Medes wear rounded hats.

Dream interpretation would be the Median Magi’s downfall. According to Herodotus’ semi-legendary account, the Median king Astyages had a series of dreams which the Magi interpreted as meaning that his grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia. He ordered his infant grandson to be murdered. However, the man assigned to kill the child did not do so but gave away the child, who was raised by a cowherd and his wife in the Median hills.

The boy was later summoned before Astyages, who recognized his facial features. Astyages again consulted his Magi, who told him that there was now nothing to fear, because “some of our prophecies come to very little significance” and suggested that because the boy had been playing “king” with other children, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. The Magi reminded Astyages that they had every reason to seek to keep him in power, as their own power and status depended on it.

The boy later gained the name Cyrus, and led a revolt of Persians against Astyages. After Astyages suffered a defeat, he had the Magi who advised him to let Cyrus live impaled in the capital city of Ecbatana. Nonetheless, Astyages’ army was defeated again and Astyages was captured by Cyrus in 550 BC. This ended Media’s independence and inaugurated the era of the Persian Empire. Cyrus would go on to capture Babylon in 539 and rule the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Judea to Anatolia to the Hundu Kush.[2]

The next mention we find of the Magi was their institution by Cyrus as Zoroastrian priests. The government of the Persian Empire was inextricably linked to Zoroastrianism. Cyrus himself sang a hymn every day and made sacrifices as the Magi dictated. Magi accompanied Cyrus from his early campaigns onwards. They were present at the capture of Babylon and were given the authority to select first-fruits offerings from the plunder of the city.[3]

The Magi also directed Cyrus to make sacrifices to the local gods after capturing Babylon. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda (God) created all religions and chose to manifest himself to different peoples in different ways, and therefore all religions are equal, and the righteous from all religions go to heaven. This belief shaped the Persian Empire’s policies of religious toleration. Cyrus is famous for issuing the Edict of Restoration allowing Jews to return to their homeland, but everywhere the Persians conquered they allowed the locals to worship in the manner which they thought best.[4]

Two abandoned Dakhma or “towers of silence” in Yazd province, central Iran. The remains of deceased Magi were left in towers like these to be eaten by carrion birds and decay naturally before the bones were buried.

Other nations may have had their gods, but Ahura Mazda was the God of the Persian people and his priests were tasked with ensuring the rulers and the people performed proper worship. “The Persians,” according to the Greek writer Xenophon, “think that they ought to consult professional instructors in affairs relating to the gods more than in others.”[5] The austere religious customs of the Magi seemed strange to surrounding polytheistic peoples. According to Herodotus, “the Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race.” Their temples contained sacred fires which were kept constantly burning. Their dead were disposed of on top of a Dakhma or “Tower of Silence,” where they were left to be eaten by vultures and decay until the only the skeletons remained so as to avoid polluting the air, earth or water.[6]


High North: Carthaginian Exploration of Ireland

In the ancient world, the British Isles were on the edge of knowledge, so far from civilization as to be placed in the realm of the almost mythical. Prior to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC, few men from the Mediterranean had been there. Winston Churchill chose to begin his History of the English Speaking Peoples at this point, because that is the point when he saw Britain as first making contact with the outside world. Modern archaeology has shown this assessment to be manifestly unfair. Britain was inhabited for millennia prior, its inhabitants built great tombs, mounds and stone circles, and traded across water with mainland Europe. Immigration, invasions and population exchanges took place with the mainland. Goods found their way through trade networks across Gaul to the Mediterranean.

Yet, if Britain was mysterious to classical authors, Ireland was the very edge of knowledge, a mysterious island with fertile soil but inhabited by strange and savage people. Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, indeed, the island’s recorded history did not begin until St. Patrick visited the island in the 4th century AD. Yet, there is evidence of earlier contacts.

The Phoenicians had colonized the area around the Straits of Gibraltar from at least the 9th century BC. But their settlements did not range far, and there is little evidence of Phoenician exploration along the Atlantic coast past the settlements at Gadir and Mogador. Phoenician traders were content to buy their wares from local traders in Tartessos and Morocco and then resell them across the Mediterranean. Their suppliers in turn bought their wares from the interiors of Europe and Africa where Phoenicians could not reach.

Himilco's Voyage.

This situation began to change in the 6th century. The first change was that the disparate Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean were all gradually brought under the control of Carthage. Now united as one maritime empire, their pooled resources could be used for greater ventures. One of these ventures was to go to war to protect the Carthaginian sphere of influence and monopoly on trade. The Greeks were halted in 535 BC after the battle of Alalia and the westward expansion of Greek colonies past Massalia was halted. A treaty was concluded with Rome in 509 BC which recognized separate spheres of influence and trade for Carthage and Rome.[1]

The second venture was to outfit expeditions to explore the coasts of the Atlantic. Exploration could find new opportunities for trade and markets for Carthaginian goods. It could also cut out some of the middlemen in Spain and Africa, creating greater profits for Carthaginian traders.

A large scaled expedition under the command of Hanno explored the coast of Africa, founded several colonies along the coast of Morocco, and possibly reached as far as Cameroon. An account of the expedition has survived, but the exact date of this expedition is not known. Pliny the Elder says that it took place “while the power of Carthage was at its height.” Greek sources in the 4th century BC seem to have had knowledge of Hanno’s account.  A general consensus has formed around a date of approximately 500 BC or the early 400s.[2]

“At about the same time,” according to Pliny, an explorer named Himilco was sent to “to explore the remote parts of Europe.” Unfortunately, Himilco’s account of his voyage has not survived. Pliny does not mention anything about the expedition except that it happened.[3]

We do have one ancient author who cited sections of Hanno’s report (or cited someone who cited Hanno’s report). Oddly, the source is Ora Maritima, a poem by the 4th century AD Roman poet Rufus Festus Avienus. Ancient sailors used a type of document called a periplus as a guide when sailing unfamiliar regions. A typical periplus contained listed information about winds, currents, maritime hazards, and sailing distances between ports. Ora Maritima (“The Sea-shore”) is a periplus written in the form of a poem. Given that this is roughly equivalent to writing a poem based on Mapquest directions, modern critics have been rather charitable to describe Avienus’ work as “rambling” and “rather second-rate.”[4]


The Quest for Herakles

The Greek historian Herodotus left us one of the earliest and most popular works of ancient history. While focused on the history of the Persian Wars, he digressed far and wide, covering the cultures, history and customs of many regions. He even visited some of these regions, such as Egypt. Other regions, such as Scythia, he described based on the accounts of others but does not claim to have visited the regions himself.

Herodotus traveled to Egypt sometime in the mid 400s BC. “I conversed with the priests of Hephaistos,” he later wrote. “And I also went to Thebes and Heliopolis, since I wanted to see if they agreed with what was said in Memphis. For of all the Egyptians, the Heliopolitans are said to be the most learned in tradition.”[1]

Herodotus did not mean that the Egyptians had a temple to worship the Greek god Hephaistos. Rather, Herodotus, like many Greeks, saw all polytheistic religions as worshiping the same gods, just under different names. In a way, they were correct. The gods of all ancient polytheistic religions were anthropomorphic manifestations of various natural phenomena, emotional states and other forces which acted upon individual humans.

Obelisk of Senusret I in Heliopolis. Senusret I reigned from 1971 to 1926 B.C., so this monument had already been standing for almost 1,500 years when Herodotus visited Egypt.

Religious mythology sprung up around each of these characters, and a series of rich and complex stories took shape in various cultures. Rituals, offerings and temples developed to please the gods and gain their goodwill. These myths were not meant to be taken literally, rather, they served as a way to understand the complex, often destructive  and seemingly random world. Ancient religious thought was generally abstract and not meant to be taken literally. It’s not that the ancients believed these events did or didn’t happen, it’s just that the question of actual temporal existence was altogether unimportant. Since all cultures observed things such as water, storms, rage, the wind, knowledge, war, and so on, they tended to develop similar deities. Herodotus credited the Egyptians with being the first to develop this, saying that “They said that the Egyptians were also the first to establish the tradition of identifying names for the twelve gods, and that the Hellenes [Greeks] adopted this practice from them. They were also the first to assign altars, statues, and temples to the gods and to carve their figures in relief on stone.”[2]

When Herodotus traveled to Heliopolis, he visited one of the most important centers of Egyptian religious thought. The Heliopolitan priests had worked out a series of complex myths to explain the origin of the gods and the origin of the world. Herodotus doubtless learned of their myths, but declined to relate them in his history, explaining that “I have no desire to relate what I heard about matters concerning the gods, other than their names alone, since I believe that all people understand these things equally. But when my discussion forces me to mention these things, I shall do so.”[3]


Parthians at Philippi

The Parthian empire had once been an ally of Rome. Parthians and Romans had fought together to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, and enjoyed peaceful relations after. This all changed in 54 BC, when the ambitious Roman Marcus Licinius Crassus launched an unprovoked invasion of Parthian Syria with the intent to march on Seleucia and conquer the Parthian empire. Instead, his army was annihilated in the Syrian desert at the Battle of Carrhae. Of Crassus’ 38,000 men, only 8,000 or so made it back to Roman territory. 20,000 Romans were killed, and 10,000 were prisoners in Parthia.

The immediate result of the campaign was a Parthian invasion of Roman Syria under the command of a general named Osaces and  Pacorus, the son of the Parthian ruler Shah Orodes II. The death of Crassus and many of his officers left Gaius Cassius Longinus as the ranking Roman commander in Syria. While the Parthians besieged Antioch, Pacorus was recalled to Parthia by his father. Cassius rallied the remaining Roman troops in the area and broke the siege, then defeated the Parthians again at Antigonea. In this battle, Osaces was killed and his troops dispersed.[1]

The first round of Roman-Parthian conflict thus ended in a status quo ante bellum. As a result, like the United States and USSR 2000 years later, the two superpowers of the ancient Near East in the 1st century BC saw continued direct war as too risky and destructive when compared to its potential benefits. Therefore, the struggle between them for regional supremacy turned from confrontation to war by proxy. Struggle between armies was replaced by each side meddling in each other’s internal struggles, supporting rebel factions and fighting proxy battles with client states.

Shah Orodes II of Parthia (ruled 57 BC to 38 BC). He meddled in Roman affairs for much of his reign, seeking to prevent factions hostile to Parthian interests from gaining power.

The first shot of the proxy war came from Cassius’ replacement as governor of Syria. Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus arrived in 51 BC to take control of the province from Cassius. He sought to divide the Parthians against each other so as to preclude further invasions of Roman territory. Bibulus befriended a Parthian satrap named Ornodapates, who carried an old grudge against Orodes. Using Ornodapates as a go-between, Bibulus constructed a plot to stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Orodes and install his son Pacorus on the throne in his stead. The plot failed, but the resulting strife temporarily distracted Parthia from any westward expansion.[2]

While the Parthians were otherwise preoccupied, the political situation in Rome was spiraling out of control. Once allies, Julius Caesar and Ganeus Pompey were now enemies. In 49 BC, their rivalry and refusal to disband their armies spilled over into open civil war. Julius Caesar rapidly marched on Rome, forcing Pompey to withdraw to Greece without a fight. Pompey spent the winter of 49-48 BC regrouping in Greece and preparing for a decisive showdown against Caesar.


The Edge of the World: Life in the Phoenician Colony of Gadir

In ancient Greek and Roman geographic texts, Gadir (known in Latin as Gades, in Greek as Gadeira, and in modern Spanish as Cadiz) stands out as a marker, a boundary. Here was the end of the line, the western edge of civilization, the last traces of urban, settled familiar society. Gadir was inhabited by “people who dwell at the limit where the world ends.” To the north were the barely explored coasts of Iberia, Gaul, Britainnia and mysterious Hibernia (Ireland). To the south lay the even less well known shores of Africa, a land of inhospitable terrain, strange peoples and terrifying wildlife. Due west lay the great Ocean which ran around the edges of the world. Rumors and legends persisted of land across the waters to the west, of Hesperides, of Fortunate Islands or Islands of the Blessed, but none had been there, for the gods did not permit man to cross.[1]

What was life like on this colony at the edge of the world? Archaeological excavation of the city has been limited, because the site has been continuously inhabited and any large-scale excavation would involve unacceptable demolition of the modern city of Cadiz. We are left with the descriptions of ancient historians and what archaeological evidence is available.

Gadir is situated on the Atlantic coast of Spain, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Oddly, given its location on the far edge of the Mediterranean world, the ancient sources indicate that the city was the first Phoenician colony founded in the western Mediterranean. The dates given by Velleius Paterculus and Pomponius Mela indicate that the colony was founded shortly after the Trojan War, at around 1100 BC.[2] This would mean Gadir was founded before Carthage, before Utica, before Lixos or any of the other Phoenician colonies. Archaeologists have long disputed the early dates given to Phoenician colonization, but more recent discoveries have placed the founding of the first Phoenician colonies back to at least the late ninth century, definitely prior to Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean.[3] The earliest colonial outposts were likely small and would have left little to no archaeological evidence behind. Alternately, the founding date could have been the date of first contact with the area and establishment of trade, with permanent settlement structures being built at a later date. Whether Gadir was founded in 1100 BC or several centuries later, its great age and precedence over the western Greek colonies seems assured.

The Pillars of Herakles: The Rock of Gibraltar in the foreground and Jebel Musa in the background.

The people of Gadir traced their history to an oracle received by the people of Tyre directing them to set up a colony at the “Pillars of Herakles” (the strait of Gibraltar). They sent out an exploratory expedition, which reached the strait but assumed that the passage marked the edge of the world and did not dare to go further. They landed on the Mediterranean side of the straits, but the omens from their sacrifices proved unfavorable and they returned to Tyre. A second expedition was dispatched some time later, which plucked up the courage to venture through the straits and along the Atlantic coast of Spain for 1500 stadia. They found an island, but once again the omens proved unfavorable and the expedition returned. The third Tyrian expedition to the region founded the colony of Gadir.[4] Despite the founding story’s emphasis on the role of oracles, the tale as handed down to us does not mention any favorable omens associated with choosing the successful site. While other texts such as the Voyage of Hanno attest to the great influence given to divination and oracles in Phoenician exploration, one can also safely assume that the third expedition built on the discoveries of the first two. The idea of several scouting expeditions being made in preparation for finding an area for permanent colonization is entirely plausible.

Phoenician colonists were careful and shrewd in selecting the locations for their cities. They preferred to site colonies on small offshore islands or peninsulas, where they could be secured against sieges and attacks. They chose islands with good harbors and easy access to favorable trade winds. Because Phoenician colonies were primarily trade-driven rather than settlement-driven, they only needed small outposts rather than large land areas.[5]

Map of the island of Gadir as it appeared in ancient times.

The Tyrian colonists founded Gadir on what was then three small islands at the mouth of the Guadalete River. In today’s city of Cadiz, the islands have since filled in with sediment and connected to the mainland to form a narrow peninsula. The city of Gadir was built on the northern end of the islands, farthest away from the mainland. There was a temple to Ba’al Hemmon in the city proper, but on the tip of the south side was situated a temple to the god Melqart, which would grow to great size and become world famous by time of the Roman Empire. The nearby Guadalquivir River allowed easy access to the interior of Spain for communications and trade

The economic benefits of the site were enormous. The island was just offshore of the Spanish kingdom of Tartessos. The Tartessans appear to have been on friendly terms with the Phoenicians at Gadir and traded heavily with them. Tartessos was rich with mines that produced lead, tin, silver, copper and gold. The most valuable of these minerals was tin. Tin is required for the manufacture of bronze, yet it is a very rare mineral. On the other hand, bronze was used to make almost everything in the ancient world, even after the introduction of iron. Tin was only found in significant amounts in a few locations known to the ancient Mediterranean world, notably Britain, Spain and Germany.[6]

Two of these three locations were most easily accessed through the ocean route. Ships can move faster and carry more goods than caravans of pack animals moving overland. The colony at Gadir put the Phoenicians in prime position to trade not only with Tartessos but with the entire Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula as well as the mysterious “Cassiterides”, the “tin islands” commonly associated with the coast of Cornwall. What’s more, the location of Gadir meant they were now in a prime position to monopolize this trade by controlling the Straits of Gibraltar. At first, there was no competition, for no other nation thought to sail this far to trade. By the 6th century BC, all the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean became part of the Carthaginian empire, and from then on Carthage set their foreign relations and national trade policy. The Carthaginian treaty with newly Republican Rome in 508 BC set spheres of influence and trade for each nation. The Romans were forbidden from trading or traveling anywhere west of what is now the north coast of Tunisia. Polybius speculates that this was to prevent the Romans from becoming familiar with the area, and he was probably right. What’s more, archaeological evidence indicates that the Greek colonists in Massalia (modern day Marseilles, France)  ceased trading with Tartessos at around 500 BC. It seems that the Carthaginians had a general policy by 500 BC of prohibiting non-Carthaginian trade in their western territories.[7]


The Persian Royal Mail

In 500 BC, the Persian Empire was the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Its territory stretched from the Indus River to the Black Sea and the coast of North Africa. Within its borders, the empire ruled over as much as 20% of the world’s population.

The empire contained dozens of formerly independent states and dozens of languages. Administering this massive realm required new systems of control than anything that had been used before. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and Egyptians had each controlled a small fraction of the territory now ruled by the Persians. To administer the empire, Cyrus the Great created and Darius I refined the division of the empire into 23 satrapies. Each satrap was a viceroy of the Shahanshah (“king of kings”) who ruled in the capital. The satraps exercised the authority of the king in governing and managing the provinces.

The satraps were not kings or vassal rulers, rather, they served at the pleasure of the Persian monarch. Administering the provinces, therefore, required the ability to send rapid communications between satraps and the capital. The king needed to be kept abreast of the situation in all parts of the empire in order to make well-informed decisions in a timely manner. Conversely, the king needed to be able to rapidly send orders back to different parts of the empire. If the satraps were given too much autonomy to take independent action without waiting for a word from the king, they could develop separatist tendencies and become rebellious. [1]

A typical letter from the late Assyrian Empire with its clay envelope, found at Ziyarat Tepe in Anatolia. This letter dates to around 611 BC.

Previous empires in the ancient Near East had operated messenger systems for official business. The Assyrian mail system dated back to 1800 BC as evidenced by numerous letters found at Karum Kanesh in southeastern Anatolia. The Hittites and Egyptians also operated relay systems of messengers to transmit official business.[2]

The more immediate antecedent, however, was the mail service of the neo-Assyrian empire. The Assyrians had built an empire larger than any that had come before, and therefore faced some of the same communications problems on a smaller scale which the Persians would later face. The Assyrians created a system of stations along major roads, situated about a day’s journey apart from each other where messengers could stop, rest and change horses. This relay system allowed messages to be rapidly carried throughout the empire. It took a courier from Nineveh only a few days to reach the Levant with a message.[3]

First, the Persian Empire needed roads to enable communications. Previous civilizations had built plenty of roads to varying degrees of complexity, but no road network ran the distance of the Persian empire. Cyrus the Great’s solution to this problem was to connect segments of pre-existing roads into a massive highway which ran from Sardis on the Aegean coast of Anatolia to Susa, one of the four capital cities of the Persian Empire. Constructed in much the same way that smaller highways are expanded and connected to form interstates in the modern United States, the Persian highway was dubbed the Royal Road.[4]

Darius I, who likely completed Cyrus' work on the Royal Road and mail system.

The Royal Road’s route can be traced based on the descriptions of it left by Herodotus as well as remains of ancient roads and bridges. Beginning in Sardis, the first sections were based on an earlier Phrygian road which ran across the central plains of Anatolia. From Phrygia, the road crossed the Halys River into Cappadocia. A “huge guardhouse” and gates were built at the river to control access to the road. The other end of the Cappadocian leg was guarded by two more guardhouses and accompanying gates. From there, the road crossed the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers and ran on to the Persian capital of Susa.[5]

There was also a southern route which has been traced but was not mentioned by Herodotus and may have been added at a later date, which ran from Sardis through southern Anatolia, into Cilicia. This route passed through the Cilician Gates, a narrow mountain pass guarded by two massive fortresses. According to Xenophon, who traveled the southern route in 401 BC, “A river, called the Carsus, a hundred feet in breadth, runs between the two fortresses. The whole space between the fortifications was six hundred yards, and it was out of the question to force a way through, since the pass was narrow, and the walls extended to the sea, and above them were sheer cliffs.”[6]


Making the Near East Relevant

A little less than two months ago, I wrote a piece about why academic study of the Ancient Near East is important despite often playing third string behind Greek and Roman studies in the world of ancient history. Yet, while the Near East is clearly important, it lacks not only the academic support but also the popularity of the classics.

The world of ancient history scholarship is a small one. At the top of this world are academics, tenured professors of history, archaeology and classics whose illustrious careers have broken new ground or provided old interpretations of ancient history. They publish much of what we read about ancient history, both technical and popular. Below them are the popular authors, who are not professors but write for a broader audience and tend to make more money from it. Separate from the authors, you have the normal academic hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students and undergraduates with their sights set on graduate school.

Separate from them are the enthusiasts, who read the popular books, watch the History Channel, play computer games such as Age of Empires or Rome: Total War and watch movies such as Gladiator and Alexander. These people may have majored in classics or ancient history in college, but it’s a hobby for them, not a career. In addition, you have producers of popular entertainment based on ancient history, from edutainment TV shows, to dramas, movies and computer games.

Every one of these components of the ancient history world is dominated by ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Egypt and Biblical lands make a few inroads here and there. Babylon, Assyria, Phoenicia, Mitanni, Persia, Nubia, Hatti and the rest make little impression on the popular imagination. Few popular works, movies or games focus on these civilizations. Few people can name any famous Babylonians or Assyrians.

If one takes a moment to browse the ancient history section at your local Barnes & Noble or on, one finds the field populated by biographies and books about battles. Cicero, Cleopatra, Augustus, Alexander the Great and many others have been the subject of numerous recent biographies. Books analyzing an ancient battle such as Thermopylae or Salamis and assessing its place in history and influence on western civilization make up most of the rest of the selection.

Why are these themes popular with the general public? The public is not so much interested in issues of cultural change, class and identity which consume much academic scholarship. Rather, they are interested in learning from the lives of great men. Part of it is the trend in recent historical writing to try and pinpoint “tipping points,” those precise moments where the course of history hinged on the decisions of one man (whether or not history actually works this way is something I’m not going to get into here).

Now, don’t get me wrong, studying culture, class and identity are vital to understanding the ancient world. Such things should continue to be studied and published. But when academia’s entire output consists of such topics, it does something far more dangerous to ancient history in the long term: It makes history boring.


The Trojan Horse

The Trojan Horse is one of the most recognizable literary motifs in the western world. The legend is familiar: Odysseus came up with the plot to open the gates of Troy by a trick. Epeios the carpenter built a wooden horse in the camp, and Odysseus and a handful of picked men hid inside. The Greek fleet sailed away, the Trojans took the horse inside the city, where the Greeks emerged and opened the gates for the returning Greek army. And thus the term “Trojan Horse” entered the western world’s vernacular to describe any method of gaining access through deception.

(In fact, while writing this post my computer was infected with the modern version of the Trojan Horse, an event partly responsible for the delayed posting of the past two weeks).

Ironically, the most recognizable symbol of the Homeric age is barely mentioned in Homer. The horse does not appear at all in the Iliad and only appears briefly in the Odyssey, where Menelaus is recounting Odysseus’ deeds during the siege of Troy:

What a piece of work the hero dared and carried off
in the wooden horse where all our best men encamped,
our champions armed with bloody death to Troy…[1]

The most detailed account of the horse appears in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks build the horse, hide their chosen men inside of it, and sail away. The Trojans take the horse inside their city, thinking it is a votive offering. The Greeks wait until nightfall, break out and open the gates. The same story is told by the 4th century AD Greek poet Quintus Smyrnaeus in his The Fall of Troy.

The Mykonos Vase, one of the earliest depictions of the Trojan Horse legend.

Even though detailed accounts of the Trojan Horse legend appear only in later works, art from around the time of Homer indicates that the legend was widely known in early Greece. A fibula brooch from around 680 BC shows a fragment of a horse with wheels. A detailed relief on the outside of a storage jar from Mykonos which dates to between 675 and 650 BC contains a much more detailed depiction of a horse hiding armed men inside.[2]

Therefore, while the Trojan Horse is barely mentioned in Homer, the story was obviously part of the collection of folklore surrounding the Trojan War which swirled around the popular consciousness of early Greece. Some of these stories found their way into Homer’s authoritative collation, and some did not.

As has been discussed before on this site, the ancient Greeks knew that Homer was writing fiction and that the stories and folklore were not works of history. A few ancient writers mentioned possible explanations for the Trojan Horse legend. The Greek 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias wrote of the legend that “Anyone who does not suppose that Phrygians are utterly stupid will have realized that what Epeios built was an engineer’s device for breaking down the wall.”[3] In a chapter on the origins of various inventions, the Roman Pliny the Elder wrote that “The battering-horse, for the destruction of walls, which is at the present day styled the “ram,” was invented by Epeus, at Troy.”[4] Generally, ancient writers seemed to have believed that the Trojan Horse had been some sort of siege weapon, probably a battering ram.


The Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C.

Scarcely had Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire than it began to rise from the ashes. While most former Persian territory was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, in 247 BC, Shah Arsaces I founded the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia. Parthia had been a minor outlying province in what is now northeastern Iran, but after much hard fighting they seized Iran from the Seleucids, and finally allied with the Roman general Pompey the Great to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, leaving Parthia and Rome as the major powers in the Near East. Between them lay minor buffer states and client kingdoms.

At this point, the two sides were at peace. The Parthian king Mithridates III wanted no further territorial expansion, and Rome had its hands full consolidating its newly acquired territory in the East and did not want trouble with another great power.

Yet by the 50′s B.C., Rome’s internal political machinations spilled over into Parthia. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a powerful but informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Crassus and Pompey were both elected consuls in 55 BC after instigating mob violence against their opponents on election day. Their first acts were to extend Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul (which he was still in the process of conquering), and make themselves the governors of Spain and Syria once their term in office expired. They cast lots to see who would govern which territory. Pompey won Spain, and Crassus won Syria.[1]

Bust of Marcus Crassus.

Crassus was fabulously wealthy, with a net worth in 54 B.C. of an estimated 7,100 talents or about $142 million. He made much of his fortune through seizing the property of those murdered in Sulla’s purges of 88 BC. Other sources of income included his ownership of silver mines as well as a profitable business in real estate development.[2] Crassus was fond of saying that no man was truly wealthy unless he could buy his own army.[3]

Crassus was also brazenly ambitious. Plutarch would later condemn this as “foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything.” After he was assigned the governorship of Syria, he immediately began laying plans for the conquest not only of Parthia, but of Bactria and India as well until Rome’s borders stretched all the way to the “Outer Sea.” Crassus was exceeding his authority here, as the law making him governor of Syria carried with it no authorization for war with Parthia. What’s more, his plans were highly unpopular with the Roman public. Many people viewed Crassus’ plan to launch an unprovoked surprise attack on a Roman ally who presented no immediate threat to Rome’s interests as both dishonorable and unwise. The anti-war faction was led by the tribune Ateius Capito, who tried to have Crassus arrested to prevent him from leaving Rome for Syria. He was dissuaded by the other nine tribunes, and had to content himself with placing a ritual curse on Crassus as he passed through the city gates.[4]

Coin of Shah Orodes II.

In Parthia, on the other hand, in 54 BC Mithridates III was overthrown in a coup d’etat and fled from the capital of Ctesiphon across the river to Seleucia. His brother Orodes seized the throne and besieged Mithridates III in Seleucia with the aid of his brilliant general Surena, finally forcing the city’s surrender and seizing full control of the throne of Parthia. He was still in a shaky position, which led Crassus to think that victory would be easy and that many Parthian cities needed only a little prodding to revolt and side with Rome.[5]


On the Possible Near Eastern Origins of the Catapult

The generally accepted history of the catapult holds that it was first invented in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 399 BC. The Syracusan general Dionysius I had led a military coup in 405 BC that overthrew Syracuse”s democratically elected government and installed himself as a dictator. His first acts as dictator were to put Syracuse’s society and economy on a war footing. Dionysius planned to go to war with Carthage, who controlled the western half of Sicily, and seize total control of the island.

In order to do this, the Syracusans sought new weapons. Dionysius brought in engineers from around the Greek world to work on new technology. The Greeks in Italy had previously invented an early crossbow called the gastraphetes, which had superior range to a manually drawn bow. Dionysius’ engineers took this a step further and created arrow and stone-throwing machines to be used in assaulting Carthaginian fortifications.[1]

An early Greek catapult, basically a scaled-up crossbow.

These early catapults developed into the double-armed torsion catapults used all over the ancient Mediterranean world (the Chinese developed catapults independently at around the same time). They were used by the Romans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Macedonians and all the Hellenistic kingdoms. Some catapults grew to very large sizes and packed enormous destructive power.

Yet, there are indications here and there that the Syracusans were not the first to come up with the idea of using levers, springs and torque to fling boulders at their enemies. Several vague clues from ancient writers indicate that the idea of the catapult might have a more eastern origin.

The first comes from the Biblical book of Chronicles’ record of the reign of King Uzziah of Judah. Uzziah reigned for 52 years in the mid 8th century BC. During his reign Judah undertook a large-scale military buildup, including improving the fortifications of Jerusalem. As part of the fortifications, he “made devices invented for use on the towers and on the corner defenses so that soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl large stones from the walls.”[2]


The Trojan War in Greek Historical Sources

The first modern ancient historians often took a harshly critical view of Homer. By the beginning of the modern era, western scholars generally held that the Iliad and Odyssey were myth, that the Trojan war was not an actual event and that the characters of Homer’s poems were not real people. Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées that Homer “did not think of making a history, but solely a book to amuse; he is the only writer of his time; the beauty of the work has made it last.” He went on to write that “Every history which is not contemporaneous…[is] false, and found to be false in the course of time. It is not so with contemporaneous writers,”[1] which, if taken literally, would mean that this website is in fact a web of falsehood and the practice of studying history should cease. In his massive 11-volume History of Greece (published between 1846 and 1856), George Grote wrote that the only real Trojan War occurred in the minds of the poets, summarized it in a few pages, and then excused himself to move on to “the real history of the Greeks.”[2]

All of this changed in 1871, when German amateur archaeologist and ardent proponent of Homeric historicity Heinrich Schliemann began excavations of the mound of Hissarlik. In a few years of whirlwind excavations, Schliemann destroyed most of the parts of Troy that were actually from the time of the Trojan War, lost his dig license, founded the field of Anatolian archaeology, and despite it all definitively proved that there had been a Bronze Age city at the region that ancient geographers identified as the location of Troy.

Fortunately, further excavations by actually competent people have rescued our knowledge of the Hissarlik site. We now know that ancient Troy had 9 principal levels corresponding to different historical periods. Most importantly, Troy VIIa was violently destroyed by fire at around 1190 BC, at about the time the Greeks report that the Trojan war happened.[3] Whereas earlier writers had only ancient texts to work with, we now had hard evidence to back up the texts. As a result, views of the Iliad swung back towards the side of historicity.

The gate of the citadel of Troy VII. This level was destroyed by fire and corresponds with the traditional date of the Trojan War.

This changed again in 1954 with the publication of M.I. Finley’s book The World of Odysseus. Drawing upon the previous 75 years of excavations of Greek Bronze Age sites, Finley showed that the societies described in Homer’s poems looked nothing like the highly bureaucratic city-states of the Bronze Age. Rather, they looked like the societies of Homer’s own time in the 8th century BC, where towns were ruled by local strongmen.[4] As a result, opinions shifted again. There may have been a Troy, and it may have been destroyed, possibly even by Greeks, but Homer knew hardly anything about it.

However, in this great debate it is sometimes overlooked that the ancient Greeks themselves knew that Homer was writing fiction. The historians of ancient Greece did not accept Homer as a historical source for Trojan War. Instead, they tried to write their own, more accurate and historically based accounts.


The Jewish Queen

In all of history, only three women have governed an independent Jewish state: Athaliah, who ruled Judah from 842 to 837 BC, Salome Alexandra, who ruled from 76 to 67 BC, and Golda Meir, who was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.

In 163 BC Judas Maccabeus led a revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes due to Antiochus’ repressive policies against the Jewish people. Judas Maccabeus’s successors were constantly at war to retain their independence, and succeeded not only in preventing a new Seleucid invasion but expanded the borders of the kingdom to contain many of the areas controlled by ancient Israel. The first Maccabees served as high priests rather than royalty. It was not until the reign of Simon Maccabeus in 140 that the royal Hasmonean dynasty was established. Simon and his successor John Hyrcanus held the office of prince and High Priest simultaneously.

Despite the anti-Greek character of the Maccabean revolt, by the end of the 2nd century BC Greek cultural influences had begun to affect the ruling Hasmoneans. This led to conflict between the Hellenized Jews of the ruling class and the Pharisees, a religious sect which advocated strict adherence to the Torah and Mosaic Law. The Pharisees viewed the Hellenized Jews as traitors who flouted the Mosaic Law, translated the Old Testament out of its original language and brought in dangerous foreign influences, while the Hellenized Jews tended to view the Pharisees as dangerous religious fanatics. The rift began to deepen under the rule of John Hyrcanus’ son Judah Aristobulus, whom Josephus called “a lover of the Greeks.” Aristobulus was the first Hasmonean to call himself a king and wear a crown, despite the fact that he was not a descendant of King David. He then ruled as just another near Eastern autocrat. His mother had been designated John Hyrcanus’ successor, so she was imprisoned and starved to death. Aristobulus also viewed three of his younger brothers as threats to his rule and had them imprisoned in irons.[1]

It is here that Salome Alexandra first enters into the picture. She was born in 139 BC, and was married to Judah Aristobulus at an unknown date. Despite her clearly Greek second  name and marriage to a Hellenized Jewish king, she was the sister of the influential Pharisee Rabbi Simeon Bin Shetach.[2] She was 36 when Aristobulus became king.



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