Roman Egypt

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

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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.

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China Discovers the Ancient Near East

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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.

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

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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]

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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]

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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.

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