Semitic Words in Greek


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The tube stop just outside the tower of London, June 2019. I don’t entirely understand the topography, but anything higher than the walls is out of bowshot of the moat (currently drained and replaced with a dry ditch, and the water gate is only accessible through a long tunnel).

Back in 2013, Jerker Blomqvist took the time to compare three books on Semitic words in ancient Greek texts. Scholars often disagree about which arguments are “certain,” “probable,” or to be “rejected.” Out of about 400 words which have been seen as loans, he found about 25 which are accepted by all three authorities:
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Cross-Post: Oxbow Books Sale


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Oxbow Books, purveyors of choice tomes on archaeology, history, and ethnology, is having a spring and summer sale. If your purse is deeper and your dwelling is wider than mine, check it out! I have picked out some titles which my gentle readers might be interested in.

  • Rose Mary Sheldon, Ambush! Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare (Frontline Books, 2012) {Sheldon, John Lynn, and Myke Cole- soldiers or the teachers of soldiers- are doing the work of rebutting some false and bigoted ideas about the ancients in a form that ordinary people actually read}
  • Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia Second Edition (Oxbow Books, 2019) GBP 30 {big ideas book on ritual magic in the Norse world which combines the sagas, archaeology, and modern ethnography/comparative religion}
  • Alireza Askari Chaverdi & Pierfrancesco Callieri, Tang-E Bolaghi (Fars) Sites TB76 and TB77: Rural Settlements of the Achaemenid and Post-Achaemenid Periods (Archaeopress, 2016) GBP 43 {the first published excavation of a rural site from Achaemenid Fars!}
  • B. V. Andrianov and Simone Mantellini, Ancient Irrigation Systems of the Aral Sea Area. American School of Prehistoric Research Monographs (Oxbow, 2016) GBP 13 {apparently a translation of a work from the 1970s, but data does not go out of date like interpretations do and Rudenko published when Stalin was still alive}
  • Daniel T. Potts, Nomadism in Iran (Oxford University Press, 2014) {argues that until the Turkish migrations of the 11th century CE, most herders in Iran lived in villages and sent only a few people to watch the flocks when they migrated to distant pastures. A similar book by Silvia Balatti is on my to-read list}
  • Melanie Schuessler Bond, Dressing the Scottish Court 1543-1553: Clothing in the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland. Medieval and Renaissance Clothing and Textiles volume 3 (Boydell & Brewer, 2019)
  • Cecilie Brøns, Gods and Garments: Textiles in Greek Sanctuaries (Oxbow Books, 2016) GPB 15 {heavily discounted! books like this are best purchased when they are published, because rare copies become very expensive}

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Was Hadrian’s Wall Proceeded by an Earth-and-Post Construction?


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Hadrian’s wall across Britain has left complex traces in the forms of trenches, pits, scraps of stonework which were not salvaged by later farmers and road-builders, and of course inscriptions boasting of what the dedicator had accomplished.

Geoff Carter, the archaeologist of Britain, is working on his theory that Hadrian’s Wall was first built as a dirt-and-cross-beams construction just in front of the later stone wall. At the eastern end of the wall the stone wall was completed, at the western wall the dirt-and-cross-beams wall survived as what archaeologists call the turf wall. He sees the deep ditch behind the wall as a construction trench for a stone road which was never completed rather than as a marker defining the southern edge of a military zone or a barrier to keep the soldiers’ horses, mules, and donkeys from straying.

If he is correct, the obvious explanation was that plans changed and the initial, very expensive plan for a 73 mile long stone wall and stone highway had to be scaled back. The evidence for this is post-holes, mounds of spoils and rubble, pollen analysis of the western “turf wall,” Statius’ description of how a Roman road was built, and a fort which was built over part of the wide ditch not long after its initial excavation. His theory also implies a considerable use of local labour to dig ditches and fell timber aside from the soldiers who left inscriptions on stone to commemorate their work.

While he decides what form of formal publication to make, he has blog posts at and videos at Geoff Carter Theoretical Structural Archaeology (warning: Youtube).

He is convinced that he got caught up in an ideological battle between scientific archaeologists (like he sees his own work) and post-processural archaeologists (he tried to do a PhD on what kinds of building a set of post-holes could support, in a department which wanted him to talk about the cosmologies of prehistoric societies, and he just did not see a way to talk confidently about such abstract things using postholes and potsherds as evidence). Not being a Briton or an archaeologist, I can’t comment, but I like that his theory matches what we know about other monumental building projects in general (cathedrals often spend a few hundred years half-built) and Roman military engineering in particular (most forts and frontier defences were built first in earth and timber, and only later replaced with stone). So I hope he can find time to finish his book. In my experience, most scientists are open-minded about a new theory, as long as it is published as a formal argument with an accepted academic press or journal.

Agricultural Surplus is a Dangerous Idea


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A muddy, freshly plowed field with bare trees and a fence with billboards along one side

Its a rainy September, so how about the field across from the Atrium in a rainy September? The field is now a construction site.

A lot of historians throw around the term ‘agricultural surplus.’ By this they mean food which the farmers and their livestock don’t eat, and which can be used to feed stonemastons and metalworkers and scribes and priests and gentlemen farmers. In this theory, societies have to find a way to produce a larger surplus before they can produce things historians like such as books. I think this term is one of the terms which historians borrowed from economists in the early 20th century.

At first the idea seems harmless enough: if a family needs 20 bushels of barley to feed itself and its animals and have seed for next year, and they harvest 30, they will probably trade 10 for something else or use it to fatten stock. But in the real world there is rent and taxation. And when you look at the science of nutrition, you find that there is a range in the amount of food that farm workers eat. At the low end, they can’t work very well, lose most of their children, and die young of chronic diseases or infections which their weakened body can’t fight off; at the high end, they have a varied diet, grow taller and stronger, and can be pretty sure of having surviving children. Its not actually the case that people need a certain number of calories of Generic Food ™ a day, above which they just get fat and below which they die. Taxes and rents often come out of this margin in between. And it is usually taxes and rents which pay for the stone buildings, the scholars writing treatises on ethics, and the beautiful silver cups.
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Two Dresses a Year


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Three women in dressnding on bicycles with straight handlebars

Vivie Warren was more of a hiker and target shooter than a cyclist but this photo will do! Female cyclists from the end of the 19th century c/o the Victoria and Albert Museum

For 10,000 years or so, clothing was so expensive that most people could only afford a few outfits. Then over the past lifetime they suddenly became so cheap that for people in a rich country, storage space is the main concern. We see traces of this in inventories of family property during divorces outside the Valley of the Kings, in Babylonian invoices for one suit of clothing per soldier per year, and then in medieval post-mortem inventories and sumptuary laws, but it continued later than we like to remember. A snatch of old verse was stuck in Robert Heinlein’s head:

There’s a pawn shop on the corner
Where I usually keep my overcoat.

Now, today a synthetic winter coat would hardly be worth pawning (a day’s minimum wage?), but a woollen one of 2-5 yards of fulled cloth could last decades and cost accordingly. A passage by George Bernard Shaw touches on this from another angle.
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More Numbers with Curious Echoes


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Its a strange fact that the kind of hyperbolic numbers which Greek writers use for barbarian armies sometimes occur in the Old Testament, but rarely in other texts in Semitic languages. But if you look at numbers as part of a broad west Eurasian world, you sometimes still notice echoes.

There is an inscription written over these men, who were buried where they fell, and over those who died before the others went away, dismissed by Leonidas. It reads as follows: “Here four thousand from the Peloponnese once fought three hundred ten-thousands (3,000,000).”

– Simonides in Herodotus 7.228.1

Let a multitude be provisioned,and let it go out.
Let the mightiest army be provisioned.
Yea, let a multitude go out.
Let your strong army be numerous,
three hundred ten-thousands, conscripts without number,
soldiers beyond counting.

– Ugaritic epic of King Keret, KRT 2.85–91 translated in David M. Foults, “A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Large Numbers in the Old Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40/3 (September 1997) pp. 377-387 (download)

Edit 2019-09-09: If you want another translation, you can find one in André Caquot, Maurice Sznycerm and André Herdner, Textes Ougaritiques Tome I: Mythes et Legendes. Literatures Anciennes du Proche-Orient. Les Éditions du Cerf: Paris, 1974 pages 516, 517

Good King Robert’s Testament


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A group of soldiers in full suits of mail with bascinets and kettle hats and lances or axes and shields in their hands are standing in water on the left. A group of men in pseuydo-antique robes, one of them with a Jewish hat and the rest bare-headed, hold swords and axes and stand on land on the right

Soldiers and civilians in the age of Bannockburn (pharaoh’s soldiers drowning in the sea?) on folio 24v of the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library BL Royal 2 B VII, painted in London c. 1310-1320). A good general doesn’t plan for miracles!

Throughout the long five hundred years of war between Scottish and English kings, the Scots tended to win the wars but lose the big battles. Scotland was a smaller and poorer kingdom, and the way of fighting battles that the Scots were good at (lining up big masses of spearmen and axemen with jacks and steel caps) was not very effective against the way that the English were good at (dismounting their armed men and galling the enemy with arrows until they charged, breaking formation as they came because no prince in Europe could keep a large army together long enough to drill it). A fourteen-line gem of a poem describes the way of fighting which proved most successful in campaign after campaign:

On fur suld be all Scottis weire, // weire = Wehr, defense
By hyll and mosse themself to reare. // reare: roar? an earlier edition has weire “defend”
Lat woods for wallis be bow and speire,
That innymeis do them na deire.
In strait placis gar keep all store,
And byrnen ye planeland thaim before.
Thane sall thai pass away in haist
Wenn that thai find na thing but waist.
With wykes and waykings of the nyght // wyke: wake
And mekill noyis maid on hytht, // mekill: big, large
Thaime sall ye turnen with gret affrai, // affray: fright, alarm
As thai ware chassit with swerd away.
This is the counsall and intent
Of gud King Robert’s testiment.

– After Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War: The Middle Ages from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century. New and Cheaper Issue (Meuthen & Co.: London, 1905) p. 579

Now roll that around in your mouth a bit and savour it. Enjoy the language and the rhythm and the joy with which it describes something horrible in ways that poor crofters and shepherds can understand. Think about how rare it is to have something like this from the side which was wise to avoid battle. And then if you really must, go on where I ask my annoying academic question, namely where does this poem come from?
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The Number Problem in the Persian Wars 480-479 BCE


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A four-part bronze horse bit, aggressively cleaned and patinad, in a museum display case

A bronze horse bit from the archaic in Rimini. Similar forms were still used by Achaemenid cavalry. Quoth the label: Rimini, Friano. Corredi funerari con elementi di carro e morsa di cavallo in bronzo. Prima età del ferro, VIII-VII secolo a.C.

Quite a few people interested in ancient warfare know an article by one F. Maurice on the water and roads at the Hellespont. After reading Herodotus’ story that Xerxes marched through the area with 1,700,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, and 20,000 charioteers and camel-riders and hiking around the countryside in summer, he argues that an army of 150,000 soldiers, 60,000 noncombatants, and 75,000 animals is the absolute maximum that could have been fed and watered in the area (paragraphs 10, 21, 33). I think this was the Major-General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice who was forced out of the British Army for political reasons in 1918, became a journalist and an advocate for veterans, and died on 1 May 1951. People cite it because he was an experienced staff officer who had walked the ground and talked to classicists like J.A.R. Munro. Its full of details such as that the British Expeditionary Force of 72,000 men, with railroads for supply but just horses for transport, needed 20 square miles for its camp in 1914 (the cavalry were stationed elsewhere and the motor vehicles had not yet arrived). But its certainly not the last say, and while he was talking to British classicists, a retired Bavarian general was preparing a study of the same problem and addressing their arguments.

One Robert von Fischer (d. 1937) commanded the 1st Royal Bavarian Landwehr Division in France from September 1914 to December 1915 and received the honorary title of Bavarian General of Infantry in 1917. He had similar military credentials as Maurice: he commanded a division on the Western Front for 16 months, Maurice served in the Tirah Expedition in Afghanistan, the Boer War, and briefly on the Western Front. And after examining the whole route and the problems involved, he felt that the Persian army was probably no more than 40,000 soldiers strong.
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Climbing Down Slowly


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A playground with cycle trail, skateboard jumps, beach volleyball court and climbing gym.  The background is foggy mountains and a bright sky with clouds.

A playground on the edge of the new SportzentRUM on the left bank of the Inn

Early in my time in Innsbruck, they held a rock climbing world championship in the square outside the Markthalle. A few years later a new rock climbing centre opened near the railway arcade, and all the playgrounds sprouted climbing walls like potatoes kept too long in a heated room. At the beginning of May, there was a rock climbing European championship in Innsbruck. When you listen to interviews with officials, you can see that this all fits into a simple policy.

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Dis Manibus: Matthew Trundle (12 July 2019)


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Garrett G. Fagan died of pancreatic cancer in March 2017. His collaborator Matthew Trundle has also died of cancer. From the Canadian Classical Bulletin:

Matthew Trundle (12 October 1965–12 July 2019) obtained his PhD from the Department of History, McMaster University in 1996. He then taught at Glendon College in Toronto before being appointed as a Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, in 1999. He rose to the rank of Associate Professor in 2011. The following year, he was appointed to a chair in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Auckland. Matthew died from leukaemia in Wellington, NZ.

Trundle wrote a book on Greek mercenaries, and with Fagan he edited “New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare” which contains several useful articles including Peter Krentz on the weight of hoplite kit.

Edit: And don’t forget Trundle’s article on “The Spartan Revolution” which argued that the Spartans decided every Spartiate should be a hoplite in the sixth century BCE, well after the conquest of Messenia and enslavement of the helots. It was part of the shift in perspective on Greek warfare from trying to find an unchanging, pan-Hellenic “hoplite warfare” to seeing early Greece as a place where society and military practices continually changed.