Two Kingdoms, Both Alike in Dignity


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A collection of Roman potsherds in front of a painting of a kitchen at Pompeii by Peter Connolly

Rimini is another part of the ancient world whose history may be more complicated than the stories about Greek colonies and Roman cities in the historians, but that is a story for another day. The City Museum, Rimini, October 2018.

We do not talk about the Red Sea much, except for news stories about the Saudi intervention in Yemen or conscripts in Eritrea forced to spend 20 years teaching school for a token wage. But every thousand years or so it becomes one of the key chokepoints for world trade. The sea is shallow, dotted with reefs and islands and prone to dangerous storms, but still a cheaper way to move goods from the Indian Ocean to the Nile than camel trains or railway cars. One of these periods of trade began at the end of the second century BCE when the secret of the monsoons escaped the Arabs and reached Egypt, where the Ptolemies were looking for new sources of revenue and exotic goods to balance the decline of their empire overseas and the wonderful things which were filtering into Syria over the Silk Road around the Tarim Basin. Rather than dredge out Darius’ old canal, they built harbours at Myos Hormos and Berenike and Arsinoe and set up guard posts along the sun-baked paths from the Nile to the Red Sea like Hatshepshut. But the straits at the mouth of the Red Sea are dangerous, and the best ship for following the monsoons back and forth across the Indian Ocean is not the best for navigating the narrows and small harbours from the Gulf of Suez to the Gulf of Aden. So two kingdoms emerged to control the havens at the narrows, Ḥimyar on the Arabian shore and Axum on the African.
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The 9th and the 11th


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The plaque in memory of the Canadian Corps outside the Malatesta wall and the Roman gate of Rimini, October 2018

A few weeks ago I came to Rimini from the north fresh from the silversmith’s church in Ravenna. Caesar came that way a long time ago as the first strike in his civil war, but seventy years ago the Canadian Corps was marching the other way round along the beaches and through the wheat fields and gardens. They took it on 21 September, and as the sad song says “debouched onto the Po.” And that was a very hard thing to do, because by September 1944 the German army was very good at defending static positions with Teller mines and machine-guns and Panther turrets atop concrete bunkers, and it was very important, because the Nazis were determined to keep the murder-machine running until the last camp was overrun. Canadians know something about what happened, because Farley Mowat was able to write about that campaign twice: once in the safe jargon of The Regiment, and again more personally in And No Birds Sang after the scar tissue had thickened and he could not assume that his readers were up on the technical details. It took the Romans two hundred years to conquer Italy, and it took the allies less than two to liberate it, but those two years were time enough to bleed.

A series of posters of personal effects with names and short biographies printed on them

Maria Nanmova, Tadeusz Markowski, Ernö Gottlieb, Rudz de Wijs, Nathan van Dam, Iwan Krzwiak, Mayimiery Biel, Helga Thörl … most died in Neuengamme concentration camp in 1944 or 1945 of hunger, overwork, epidemic disease or misplaced allied bombs. The #stolenmemory: Returning Memories Stolen from Nazi Victims exhibition in Innsbruck.

This weekend spans two anniversaries: Kristallnacht on Friday, and the end of the First World War on Sunday. They have put a roof back on the temple in Rimini and scraped the molten lead off the sculptures, but there are thinly-disguised fascists plotting murder in every country I have visited but Iran,* and Krak Des Chevaliers has fallen to its last besiegers, and I do not know what to do. So I will return to the paradox that comes up again and again in these posts.

Most wars are remarkably stupid and wasteful things (did you know that when Austro-Hungary stripped the Russian frontier bare and invaded Serbia in 1914, it was driven back out in a few days?) And yet sometimes you find yourself in 1944, and the only way to end the horror is to fight your way through. You can debate whether Canada has been wise to join the great power game and dutifully send troops to first British and then American wars, and grumble about the bureaucratic madness that left Paul Hellyer learning one set of parade-ground drill for the Air Force, then another for the Army after the Air Force decided it did not need him, and my grandfather Reginald Bull shaving his hairless cheeks every day. But the men and women who find themselves at war don’t have time and distance to appraise the situation with Olympian detachment, and they make decisions in Romulus’ dump for petty or glorious human reasons. And there are times when it is very very important to have some good men-at-arms on your side.

The war memorial on the Kalvarienberg over Hötting, March 2018.

* Iran has its own political problems and politicians who rant about Jews, but it would be hard to call their anti-semites fascists. Sadly, people with an irrational hatred of Jews find many different excuses for their obsession.

Voluntary Peer Review is Not Exploitation


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If you spend enough time in academic circles on the Internet, you find passionate statements that providing free peer review for for-profit journals is exploitation. I have heard this from a distinguished Roman Army scholar who has not been well-treated by his academic employers, and on the birdsite you can find things like this:

a screenshot of a twitter post beginning "Please retweet if you have ever conducted a manuscript review"

Nathan C. Hall: “Please RT if you have ever conducted a manuscript review for a journal while not employed in a tenure-track/permanent academic job. As many peer reviews are done by precarious academics (grad students, postdocs, adjuncts), lack of compensation is basic exploitation.”

Now, in my time as a graduate student I have peer-reviewed one journal article, and reviewed half a dozen manuscripts from friends, and I have to say that the claim I am being exploited is absurd. Any wise writer sends their writing to a few trusted friends before they send it out into the world. This is such a basic feature of academic life that academia dot edu built a whole module for it, Princeton and Stanford host a series of Working Papers in Classics, and an Australian economist posts drafts of his books one chapter at a time on Google Docs with invitations for readers of his blog to comment on them. When I agree to comment on a friend’s manuscript, asking them for money would be as offensive as inviting them to my apartment for dinner and then sticking a credit-card reader in their face. Trading favours is a basic part of social relations between equals. As scholarly authors, we read other people’s work (and cite it or review it) so they will read ours. Reading yet another article on a subject is tiresome, but we do it because sometimes it will be our article on someone else’s desk when they really want to go to bed and the recycling bin is so very very close.
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Notes for a Life of Victor Davis Hanson


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A broad, sandy beach reinforced with rows of piles

The banks of the river Inn near Hall in Tirol

Victor Davis Hanson has lived at least three lives: one as a small-town grape farmer from Selma, California who discovered that it was almost impossible to make a living running a human-sized farm (1980-1984), one as a classics professor who taught large classes and published some very important but flawed work (1985-2004), and one as what Americans politely call a pundit or political commentator (beginning around 2001). At some point he retired from his position at California State University, Fresno, to focus on his third life. However, his biographies online have been scrubbed as clean as the ones which Robert A. Heinlein used to let them print in the back of his books, and they very carefully do not say when he retired. California State University Fresno has the usual gushing lists of honours, publications, and awards; Wikipedia is as useless as you would expect; and the pages from his talks and fellowships usually draw on them.

Back in 2004, Rone Tempest at the Los Angeles Times published a piece on him which gives the key dates. He was hire to launch the classics program in 1985 and retired with emeritus status (so he has library privileges, probably a pension, and maybe an office) in the summer of 2004 after only 20 years of teaching. That seems to be the year that he launched his weekly columns in several papers. He received an advance of $500,000 for A War Like No Other around 2003.
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A Luristan Akinakes


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A square with trees, modern apartment buildings, old brick buildings, and young people talking and sitting on benches

It is still summer in Rimini! Photo by Sean Manning, October 2018.

I had a post about people being Wrong on the Internet scheduled for this weekend, but last week was a big week in Canada, and it seems like time for something more mellow. So how about a post about another of those studies of early iron from the ancient Near East?

Western Iran is an extremely important area for the history of early ironworking, because in the 9th, 8th, and 7th centuries large amount of iron and bronze were deposited in graves. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s these have attracted wealthy collectors in rich countries, and almost immediately the locals organized to feed this market: digging up promising mounds, importing old iron to sell under a name foreigners recognized, and casting and forging their own “Luristan bronzes.” This left museums and collectors with drawers full of objects which are interesting as artwork, but hard to use as archaeology. Relatively few sites from this area have been scientifically excavated and published in a western language, and I don’t know of any metallurgical studies of iron from these excavations. In the 1960s Cyril Stanley Smith decided not to wait, bought half a dozen pieces of old iron from dealers in Tehran, and analysed them as best as he could (and while he was working at the dawn of historical metallurgy, that was very well indeed: yes, this is the Cyril Stanley Smith with the Manhattan Project, Theophilius, and Biringuccio on his CV). One of these objects was an akinakes. He guessed that it dated to the 7th century BCE, but I would take that with a pinch of salt.

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Cross-Post: Medieval Dress and Textile Society CFP


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A narrow footpath through a forest of deciduous trees turning yellow

Fall is almost coming in Tirol … time for some nice cozy wool lined with silk cloth?

The Medieval Dress and Textile Society is organizing a conference in London on the theme “Wool: Cloth, Clothing, and Culture” in Europe c. 500-1600 CE. They want the usual 20 minute paper with a title and 200-word abstract. Themes might include:

  • Production
  • Techniques
  • Trade and transport
  • Fashion in wool fabrics and garments
  • Wool textile art
  • Utilitarian and recycled wool cloth

Deadline for Proposals: 30 October 2018 (early proposals gratefully accepted!)
Date of Conference: 6 April 2019
Send Proposals To: gale DOT owencrocker AT ntlworld DOT com

The original CfP seems to be only available as a photo on Twitter (!?!) Edit 2018-10-23: They have a website with a page for the conference at

Sallets in 1406


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Side views of two infantry helmets (one tall and open, one short with a projecting tail and low visor) with a manuscript illustration of the Canaanites smiting the Jews in between

How did we get there from here? A late-15th-century barbuta (left: Metropolitan Museum of Art 04.3.232), a late 15th century sallet (right: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 04.3.227), and a page from the Paduan Bible Picture Book (British Library Additional 15277) painted seventy years before they were forged.

Most people interested in medieval armour think that the word sallet is first attested in the inventory of the Gonzaga family armoury after the death of Francesco I Gonzaga in 1407:

#23: Vna cellata coperta velluto carmesi pilloso cum certis dindinellis racamatis viridis “One sallet covered with plush crimson velvet with certain green embroidered fringes”
#25: Quadraginta tres cellate ferri “43 sallets of iron”
#124: Triginta stufe a celata “30 coverings for sallets”

That is the oldest reference in Claude Blair, and his book in 1958 was the last book on European armour by someone who spent a lot of time reading medieval documents in the original. In fact, there are another group of references from this time which have not yet been brought into the debate. These are in the Archivio Datini di Prato in Tuscany and were published by Luciana Frangioni in her article “Bacinetti e altre difese della testa nella documentazione di un’azienda mercantile, 1366-1410.” She copied and printed all of the references to armour for the head in this archive, and now I have copied them for you.
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A Basic Problem in Interpreting Herodotus


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A Roman bridge across a hundred-metre-wide river at sunset

At Rimini there is an old stone bridge over an arm of the sea called Portocanale. The Riminese say it was built by their emperors Augustus and Tiberius, but I did not see the inscription.

The ancient and medieval writers who claim to have travelled the farthest- Herodotus, Marco Polo, Ibn Battua- have not convinced all their readers. Herodotus goes to great trouble to cite different views on controversial questions, give verifiable evidence to support his opinions, and remind his audience that knowing about the past requires deciding between contradictory and self-interested sources, but he also says that Upper Egypt is only narrow for a few days’ sail upriver after which it widens out like the Delta, gives detailed accounts of bedchamber conversations between Xerxes and Amestris, and says that flax is only worked by the Colchians of the South Caucasus and the Egyptians (2.105). One of Herodotus’ most influential and radical critics was the late Detlev Fehling. Fehling’s polemical work attracted a lot of passionate responses, and I would recommend that people read it rather than let someone else tell them what to think about it. However, I think that the following passage from one of his later articles is a good statement of the problem:

Any discussion of Herodotus’ methods will necessarily have to begin with a basic problem, which has been seen clearly by all serious scholars for more than a century. … There are no direct autobiographical statements in Herodotus (except that he calls himself a citizen of Halicarnassus, a small town on the coast of Asia Minor, but that counts as part of his name). But there are distributed over his work quite a number of passages where he says that he is reporting what is said in diverse places: ‘The Egyptians say …’, ‘the Spartans say …’ etc. There is also a smaller number of passages which, if what Herodotus states is correct, unequivocally imply his presence at the place he is talking about: ‘I heard from …, I asked …, I saw …, they told me …’, and in one exceptional case even: ‘I went to Tyros in order to ascertain …’ (ii.44.1). I do not count these as autobiographical, because they are clearly not meant to tell about Herodotus himself, but are closely bound up with the information he is presenting. Now the problem with these remarks– and I repeat: a problem recognized by everybody- is that much of what Herodotus tells us precisely in these places cannot be taken at face value, mainly for two or three reasons. [Fehling gives them] … We should not treat Herodotus as if he awoke one morning and said to himself: ‘I have a splendid idea how to make my name famous for many a century: let me be the first historian. Of course, this puts me under the moral obligation to behave like a conscientious historian, but, being an honest man, I should be able to live up to that.’ It has often been pointed out that the nearest thing to Herodotus’ enterprise existing in Greek literature before his time were the Homeric epics. The Greeks used to believe that the war which was the subject of these epics was, in principle, historical, and yet no Greek could or did overlook the fact that they consisted for the most part of pure fiction. Such considerations should help us to solve the dilemma in which Herodotean scholars always found themselves enmeshed. They believed that they had only the choice between Herodotus the truthful scholar and Herodotus the liar and impostor. They simply thought that between these two tertium non datur. Given this, it is understandable that the second possibility never had many friends. Herodotus so obviously makes the impression of a morally responsible and serious personality that nobody felt happy about catching him in a lie. Rather scholars would feel that it was not decent to do so, and so many of them preferred to close their eyes firmly in front of obvious observations.

Detlev Fehling, “The Art of Herodotus and the Margins of the World” in Z.R.W.M. Martels (ed.), Travel Fact and Travel Fiction: Studies on Fiction, Literary Tradition, Scholarly Discovery and Observation in Travel Writing (Leiden: Brill, 1994) pp. 1-15, the quotes come from pages 1, 2, and 7. You can find the article on Google Books.

You could say many things about this passage, but I think that Fehling has struck upon the key reason why few others accept his ideas completely. Herodotus sounds like a careful investigator with a keen interest in epistemology and encouraging his readers to think critically about what they are hearing. It is hard to believe that he lied, or that when he said ‘I asked them and they said …’ he did not mean that he, himself, talked to his sources. Many of his stories resonate with Near Eastern texts which are otherwise unknown in the classical tradition. At the same, it is obvious that he saw the world, its laws, and his duties as a storyteller differently than anyone does today. In his worldview, big things tend to become small and small things big not because of entropy or imperial overstretch but because such cycles are part of the world, and the Nile in Libya and the Danube in Europe are not just two big rivers but balanced parts of the earth whose forms and functions correspond in a way out of James George Frazer’s work on magic not a textbook on geology and the water cycle. The same man who carefully undermined his readers’ expectations and the messages which they would want to draw from his words also wrote that only the Colchians and the Egyptians work linen (2.105) in a world where linen had been grown, spun, and woven everywhere for thousands of years (Nosch, “Linen Textiles and Flax in Classical Greece: Provenance and Trade”).

Just what Herodotus felt was acceptable to do in turning other people’s stories into his own is a hard problem. It is very hard to believe that he systematically invented sources, but it is also hard to believe that he saw and heard everything which he says he saw without at least massaging them to fit his own needs and his audience’s expectations.

Edit 2018-10-09: Clarified what Herodotus says about linen in Egypt and Colchis and added a link to Nosch’s article

Innsbruck’s Tell


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A street which slopes visibly upwards, so that there are steps down from the sidewalk to the ground floor of the shops

Looking south along the Universitätstraße, Innsbruck

Mud brick has fallen out of fashion, so cities no longer rise ever higher on the jumbled bones of dead houses. When the Flood or the Umman-Manda next come, perhaps we will regret that, for there is nothing like a good tell for persuading nasty people to go brutalize someone else. But if you follow the Universitätsstraße which runs from a vanished city gate past the Hofkirche and a secularized cloister by the theological university towards the railway arcade, you can see this process still at work.

A gigantic excavation 6 or 8 metres deep with the foundations of mud-brick buildings at the bottom

The trench down to the Old Elamite 15th city in the Ville Royale at Susa. There are three tells like this at Susa covering a square kilometer.

I suspect that this rise in street level had something to do with the works to construct the railway arcade, or maybe converting the street from bare earth to asphalt with sewers below. These days the city fathers of Innsbruck have rediscovered that rebuilding the streets is a great way to create work, but they seem determined not to raise the streets any further just move a bus stop here and a tram station there. In a few thousand years, I don’t think Innsbruck will look like Susa. But customs change and the future is full of surprises.

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The Economics of Publishing


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A street scene of four-storey brick and concrete buildings with a bookstore at ground level

Even in sleepy Innsbruck with its fixed book prices, all is not well in any end of publishing. The Wagner’sche in the Museumstraße, Innsbruck (they own the first two storeys of the white building, and the second storey of the brown one).

One of my jobs is as a freelance writer, and it is a hard time for us. Advances and royalties are falling, and professional writers in a rich country earn an average of 10k a year from their writing (CAD, USD, GBP, EUR … the currencies vary but the numbers are similar). Elaine Dewar has seen a study that only 7% of the revenues of the Canadian publishing industry are paid to authors; I hope she names it in the print version of ‘The Handover’ and puts it next to how much goes to the publisher and how much to retailers, printers, server farms, and other middlemen and service providers, because another source estimates 10% to the writer, 10% to the publisher, 10% to production, and 70% to various middlemen. Chart writers’ incomes from their writing and you find a hockey stick: the top 5% of authors in the UK earned 42% of the income. If you follow novelists you will hear about the death of short fiction as a paying proposition in the 1970s, the midlist death spiral in the 2000s, or changes in search rules on Amazon or Facebook which devastate creative people’s sales. The central problems are, probably, that they keep inventing other forms of entertainment, and that so many people want to be writers even if the pay is bad. These days if you are interested in history you can watch YouTube or read blogs about books and swords instead of opening a book that someone paid for. (That said, I would really like to see some data on book sales over the last 10 or 20 years … right now all I have is anecdotes).

Now, people like Kris Rusch or Dean Wesley Smith will remind you that many writers change pen names as casually as some people change their clothes, and that surveys of writers are often answered by wannabes who do not write, do not finish what they write, do not put it on the market, and do not keep it on the market until someone buys it. If a favourite writer vanishes or only publishes a book now and then, they may well have switched to a new pen name or be spending time writing a different genre. However, I don’t see any reason to think that there were more wannabe writers in 2014 than 2005 to drive down the average income, and pay rates for short fiction have not increased much since the middle of the last century, while the value of a dollar or a pound has collapsed (the Science Fiction Writers of America, for example, count works paid at least 6 cents a word as professionally published … back in 1940 a penny a word was typical, but the penny was worth 17 times more). If rates are falling, clearly writers have to publish more to earn the same.

Talking about the publishing recalls the fable of the blind man and the elephant: everyone assumes that their little corner of the industry is the model for the whole. So in this post, I would like to talk about the situation in some kinds of publishing which are not as famous as novels.
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