A Sword is a Two-Edged Gift

Tags

, , , ,

A long, straight, two-edged dagger of solid gold with a hilt cast into ram's heads

A golden akinakes in a private collection. “Said to be from Hamadan” (ancient Ecbatana), first documented in 1956. 41.27 cm long, 817 g. For details, see Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia p. 233 no. 430
Courtesy of Samira Amir https://www.pinterest.com/samiraamir/

A time long ago- maybe in Darius’ Ecbatana, maybe in the bazaars of Tehran around the time Mosaddegh was overthrown- someone made this golden dagger. The classical sources let us see what such gifts could mean.

For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.8

I don’t know whether Xenophon was correct about that last point: lots of Persians in sculptures from court or cemeteries in the provinces wear golden bracelets and silver torcs (and in fact, in the sculptures at Persepolis the subjects are giving the king jewellery rather than the other way around). But he knew that gifts were a serious matter.

Continue reading

Our Transliterations are Inconsistent

Tags

, , , , ,

A photo of a tabbycat sitting on a pathway and staring at a closed door with a white rabbit painted on it

Although a brute beast who does not even know aleph bet gamel, this cat knows exactly what that sign means! A model of clear communication. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2017.

Over on Language Hat, people are arguing about how to pronounce LaTeX, the encoding for mathematical formulas: does it end with <k> like in <tech> or <ks> like in <hex>?

And for me it was worth it just for this footnote: “TeX is pronounced ‘tek’ and is an English representation of the Greek letters τεχ, which is an abbreviation of τέχνη (or technē).” All these years I’ve been saying “tex” (and “latex” for LaTeX) like a doofus!

And LaTeX is pronounced [lɑːtɛk]

If you cast your mind back to “How do you pronounce those accented characters in ancient Near Eastern languages anyways?” two lines on the chart might spring out:

Table 1: Special Characters Used for Transcribing Ancient Languages

Character Name Approximate Pronunciation IPA
n/a
H with breve below
Classical Greek chi, <ch> as in Scots loch, German ich x
x n/a
x
In Old Persian, <ch> as in German auch (not [ks] as in English hex) x

One letter in Latinized Akkadian (ḫ) and one in Latinized Old Persian and the International Phonetic Alphabet (x) have the same pronunciation. But look at which pronunciation it is!

Continue reading

Change in Plans

Tags

,

The innsbrucker Stadtlweg at afternoon rush hour in the fall

One of the streets near the Zentrum für alte Kulturen, Innsbruck. Sorry for the rush-hour traffic, but sun waits for no photographer!

This blog is in its fourth year, and I have posted almost every week. But in this fifth year (my years start in September), I have a dissertation to finish and some issues in my private life to deal with. For the past few months, writing a post every week has felt like a burden. So I am moving to an irregular schedule, with probably two or three posts a month. I may let myself post more lighthearted things about whatever inspires my whimsy, and not try so hard to balance different themes every month.

On this blog I try to practice a certain kind of Internet culture: one centred around curiosity, acknowledging other people’s hard work and good ideas, and trying to learn about other communities and share ideas from my community with them. That culture is important to me, but it is not useful to the people who are mangling the Internet so that power and wealth fall into their hands. More and more websites appear blank unless you enable a dozen Javascript libraries and download megabytes of cruft; more and more material is hidden unless you sign up for a service with a gigantic multinational which controls what you can say and what you can search for and makes its money by tracking you and propagandizing you. I have noticed many creative and sensitive people from the UK and USA stop posting to the public Internet in the past year. But while I don’t like slowing down, I hope it is better than stopping completely.

I hope to have some academic publications to announce and pictures of cats to share in the coming months. Thanks to everyone who stops by!

Cross-Post: A New Life of Hypatia

Tags

, , ,

There is a new life of Hypatia of Alexandria out for a modest price ($30). Hypatia is a figure who has a significant role in modern pop culture (there is even a good film about her!) and polemics about religion, but comes from a place and time which is not as accessible as Socrates’ Athens or Marcus Aurelius’ imperium. But Alexandria in the fourth century CE was a colorful place, full of faction-fights and nations, sects, and languages all jumbled together. So if you want a look at that world by someone who is more interested in the ancient world than scoring points in modern debates, you might want to check it out (you can find a new or used copy on bookfinder).

Edward J. Watts, Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher. Women in antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.. Pp. xii, 205. ISBN 9780190210038. $29.95.

Reviewed by Aistė Čelkytė, Underwood International College, Yonsei University (aiste.celkyte@gmail.com)

This monograph, dedicated to reconstructing the life and career of the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, is part of the Women in Antiquity series. The study has a strong historical focus, so that little is said about Hypatia’s philosophical views, apart from identifying Hypatia as a Plotinian Platonist, that is, one who did not engage in theurgical practices popular among contemporary Platonists. The choice of a historical focus might seem surprising as the evidence for her life is very sparse, but Watts presents a detailed picture of Hypatia’s career by means of innovative use of a large variety of texts. The book is comprised of introduction, ten chapters and concluding remarks.

Continue reading

Some Things That the HEMA Movement Gets Right

Tags

, , ,

Several men and women in plate armour rest on the grass in the shade while others look on or chat

Some happy warriors after a historical fencing event in the Midwestern USA.

Quite a few people seem to be finding their way to my post about why I drifted away from the historical fencing movement. While I think it needed to be said, it might leave someone wondering what I found attractive about that world in the first place. Some of the reasons seemed obvious: the historical fencing movement gives people the chance to learn horse archery in Vancouver and a reason to get happy and sweaty with a group of friends (sometimes leading to to other more private happy-sweaty times). Those are wonderful things! And while I am not sure how much we can know about how ancient Greeks or Viking Age Norwegians used their shields, I think that someone who wants to know would be wise to get one and spend time moving it (because Thucydides and Snorri Stirluson wrote for an audience who had all used spear and shield). So this week, I would like to talk about some good things which the community does in 2017.
Continue reading

Just Like the Persians in Pictures

Tags

, , ,

Like many historians who work with Xenophon, I get very frustrated with the way that his calm, manner-of-fact style can hide evasions of the truth. I don’t think he is more unreliable than most old soldiers (and he does not make any great claims for his own reliability), but he is such a good writer that he often lulls readers into trusting him when they should not. But sometimes, like in a passage which I recently rediscovered, he hints at what he is trying to do.

At the beginning of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon describes Persian institutions for raising young men at some ill-defined time. In their teens and early twenties they spend their time guarding the city, practicing with the bow and javelin, and hunting, and then they graduate to a stage of life where they are expected to engage in more difficult kinds of fighting:

But if soldiering is called for, those who have been educated in this way go soldiering armed not with the bow or even the javelins (palta), but with what is called kit for hand-to-hand combat: body armour (thorax) about the breast, a wicker shield (gerron) in the left hand, just like the Persians are drawn holding, and a machaira or kopis in the right.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.13 (tr. Manning, my Greek is very rusty)

Just like the Persians are drawn (γράφονται) holding? Xenophon is appealing to vase paintings for support! This is remarkable, because the crescent-shaped shields and curved swords which barbarians often wield in Attic art are characteristic of the Aegean. They were popular with nations like the Athenians and Thracians and Lydians, not (as far as we know) amongst the Medes or Persians. Moreover, by Xenophon’s day easterners in South Greek art are hard to identify with specific ethnic groups: their clothing and weapons seem to be a mix of Thracian, Scythian, and Anatolian fashions. So what is he doing when he compares the weapons of Cyrus’ Persians to the weapons of generic orientals?

Continue reading

In Memoriam, Jerry Pournelle

Tags

,

Dr. Jerry E. Pournelle died a few days ago. As someone who only knew him through his work, its hard for me to express what a brilliant, multitalented, frustrating individual he was. The summary of his career on Wikipedia gives some idea: born poor in Louisiana, conscripted into the US Army and sent to Korea as an artillery officer, he made his way through university by keeping a pot constantly simmering in his one-room apartment and got a doctorate in Political Science. Having just gotten started, he moved to Southern California and filled his life with political advocacy, academic work on the strategy of technology and operations research, hobbyist and professional wargaming, science-fiction fandom and the early SCA, fiction writing, a technology column for the early home computer movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and eventually a blog (not to mention marrying and having two children, one a multi-talented academic and another who prefers a quiet life). Like some other Catholic intellectuals in rich English-speaking countries, he was a contrarian by nature and loved a good rant. Throughout his life he was fearless in expressing his political opinions and attacking his political opponents, but since he had very different convictions than I do, particularly later in his life, I will say no more about that here. He did his best to save the world from communism and his country from its most threatening neighbours, and his writings were an important influence on my thought in my teens and early twenties.
Continue reading

The Wellcome Trust and the Urban Graveyard Effect

Tags

, , , , ,

In the first two weeks of August there was a great kerfuffle about a BBC educational cartoon which showed a couple in Roman Britain who would be called multiracial in Late Capitalist Britain. Angry essays were typed, tweets flew with the wrath of the Stymphalian Birds, and many people hurried to let the Internet know which faction they aligned with. Neville Morley did a good job of summarizing how most ancient historians think about the problem in his blog post Diversitas et Multicultaralismus (no, a dark-skinned official and his light-skinned wife would not have been unheard of at Bath or Hadrian’s Wall; genetic data is exciting but just one of many kinds of evidence which historians draw upon to understand the past; genes are only loosely connected to identity). The Romans could be horrible snobs and bigots, but most of their stereotypes and slurs were directed at people from other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean … they do not seem to have been very interested in whether people had dark skin and kinky hair. In this post, I would like to talk about one of the methodological questions I have after reading the Wellcome Trust paper from 2015 by Leslie et al. which some people have been citing as evidence that negligible numbers of people from Africa had children in Britain before the 20th century (doi:10.1038/nature14230).

Continue reading

Sometimes Bittner Was Right

Tags

, , , ,

A painted relief of a warrior on horseback stabbing downwards with a spear. His body armour has two layers of short flaps at the waist, a front and back running straight up and down, wide blocky sleeves ending before the arm joint, and a tab behind the head just as tall as the head.

The horseman on the Çan Sarcophagus wears an akinakes strapped to his right thigh. Copyright Troy Excavation Project, photo found at http://odysseion.blogspot.co.at/2010/05/oft-debated-tube-and-yoke-linothorax.html

Specialists in the Achaemenid Empire don’t like to talk about Stefan Bittner. His Doktorarbeit is the only monograph on the Achaemenid army which has ever been published, but it takes exactly the approach which was inspiring another group of scholars to organize conferences and rethink the field: it relies almost completely on Greek literature and artwork, and treats these sources as a precious collection of facts to be worked into a coherent whole. In the decades which followed, those other scholars knocked so many holes in this approach that it is hard for them work with a book like his, so they tend to cite his thesis and say nothing more. I don’t think that this is really fair, since nobody can predict how academic fashion will shift or what new evidence will become available. People who try too hard to ride the crest sometimes find themselves flailing in midair as the wave below them crashes down. There is a sad joke that farming is a simple job where you just have to predict the weather, fuel costs, and food prices a year in advance; PhD students have to predict the job market 3 to 10 years in advance. And in the early 1980s, it was not so easy to hear about conferences and intellectual movements in other countries as it is today. So this week, I would like to mention one of his good ideas which seems to have been ignored.

Continue reading

Cross-Post: Dis Manibus Muhammed Dandamayev

Tags

, , ,

Muhammad Dandamayev, the distinguished Russian Assyriologist and Achaemenid scholar, has died at the age of 88. He was startlingly multilingual (as he was born in Dagestan, even Russian was a second language for him) and untiring (the author of several books which required pouring through transcriptions of thousands of cuneiform tablets), and during the Soviet era built some of the few bridges between Russian and western European scholarship by having his works translated into French and English. Without his books and articles, it would be even harder for scholars without knowledge of Russian to learn what researchers in the Slavic countries are working on.

I suppose it is traditional at times like this to anoint his inscriptions with oil, but my photocopy of sixteen pages of The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran won’t survive that kind of treatment as well as good old diorite.

Further Reading: