How Great a General was Alexander?

JAMES ROMM Paul, our topic this week is whether Alexander was as great a general as he’s cracked up to be. No one can deny his success rate in major battles — 100% — and his enormous skill in matters of logistics, strategy, even military technology. I suppose the nub of the question, for me, is how great a challenge he faced in his enemies. He fought first the Theban Greeks, then the Persians, then the Bactrians and other Central Asian peoples, and finally the Indian peoples of the Punjab. Could any of these opponents have been expected to pose difficulties for him, given the size, experience and equipment of his army? Or were his victories more or less predetermined (as his own officer Cleitus grumbled) by the innovations and training methods devised by his father, Philip?

PAUL CARTLEDGE Gosh, Jamie. that’s a tall order of a question… but it does indeed go to the heart of Alexander’s ‘great’-ness. I’m on record as putting Alexander right up there in the premier league of all time – with Genghis Khan, John Churchill, Napoleon, and very very few others…., so why do I think that? Three reasons: 1. Napoleon allegedly said that the morale factor in warfare is three times as important as all the other factors put together – Alexander, despite a couple of very serious mutinies, the first of which occurred only after a whole 8 years of massively draining nonstop campaigning over ferocious and alien terrain and huge distances, maintained most of his troops’ morale at a very high level through a combination of success and charisma 2. successful generalship requires a synergistic combination of successful strategy and successful tactics – conquering an entity of the type and size of the Persian empire in 334 demanded devising a completely new type of strategy (not to take anything away from father Philip’s army reforms and generalship, he’d never had to face such a challenge) and winning three major set-piece encounters each in very different circumstances 3. one of Alexander’s ‘Successors’ earned the monicker ‘the Besieger’, but actually if anyone deserved that title it was Alexander himself. Philip had suffered only two defeats – both failed sieges against Greek opponents. Alexander never failed in a siege against Greeks or nonGreeks, except (partially) at Halicarnassus in 334, and won two absolutely extraordinary and crucial siege victories – Tyre in 334 (an offshore island-city with formidable walls), and the (nearly naturally impregnable) Rock of Aornos in 327.

JR Well, I have a footnote to your point #1, but there is lots more to be said about point #2. First, the footnote regarding morale. I have just been researching the current theory that the mutiny at the Hyphasis river in India, the point at which the army rejected Alexander’s order to advance, was not in fact a mutiny but a staged event designed to give Alexander a good pretext for doing what he already wanted to do, i.e. stop advancing and head back toward the middle of his empire. I don’t find this theory convincing (do you?), but if there’s anything to it at all, it would cause our measurement of Alexander’s charisma to go even higher than it already does. Now, as to point #2, the quality of the armies Alexander faced, which principally means the Persians. I’m reminded of a speech in Thucydides where the Corinthians, speaking of the war against Xerxes in 480 B.C., say that the Greeks did not win that engagement so much as the Persians lost. We also have the campaigns of Xenophon’s 10,000 mercenaries in 401, and of Agesilaus the Spartan in the 390’s, as evidence that phalanxes of Greek hoplites could beat Persian armies that greatly outnumbered them. It seems possible to me that the Persians were a paper tiger, capable of putting huge numbers together but relatively ineffective, even incompetent, in using them. What do you think were the odds in the matchup between Alexander and Darius, at the outset of the invasion of Asia?

PC ‘Paper tiger’, eh? Well, at least the tiger did flourish in a part of the then Persian empire, so I’ll go along with you to that extent… Point 1: The Hyphasis mutiny – the modern interpretation of it as purely stage-managed has, I think, no solid basis in any surviving ancient source, but I’m prepared to accept that elements of it were indeed staged – Alexander could be very theatrical when he thought it appropriate, as it certainly was here and was to be again later, for example, when still in what’s today Pakistan he miraculously recovered from a death’s door combination of a near-fatal wound and serious fever, possibly aggravated by excess alcohol intake, and made a stagey appearance in public to convince the army that he really was still alive. His troops, mostly Macedonians by then, went crazy with joy and relief. But their earlier mutiny had had a solid basis, not so much in a collapse of their morale (in the sense of a critical loss of confidence in Alexander’s powers of leadership) as in their perception that Alexander’s strategic objectives were by no means confined to conquering and holding an enlarged Persian Empire, whereas they felt that enough was enough, and many indeed were straightforwardly homesick (not an affliction from which Alexander seems ever to have suffered much).

But to get to your main point, point number 2: just how good were the opposition? Frankly they performed well below capacity, and partly – crucially – through lack of a leadership in anything like Alexander’s class. Had the Greek from Rhodes called Memnon, who served Persia as a mercenary general (as the Spartan Clearchus had served Cyrus the Younger in his failed attempt to seize the throne from his older brother in 401) not died from illness early on in the campaign, Alexander might have been given a much tougher ride. But then we must allow a great deal for chance and luck throughout, must we not – for example, had Cleitus the Black not intercepted the blow, Alexander might well have been killed at the Granicus River Battle in 334, so that the campaign – his campaign – would have been over almost as soon as it started. As it was, Alexander was able to capitalise on a structural feature of the Persian army’s military organisation and capacity, that any army raised by any Great King was almost a ’scratch’, pick-up force of a multifarious, multi-ethnic composition, lacking the cohesion that came from a common, strongly identified Macedonian and/or Greek military and political culture. And it has also to be said that no general on the Persian side – the Great King Darius III very much included – was anything like as competent as Alexander – or even Alexander’s much older number 2, Parmenion (no 2, that is, until Alexander had him put to death for alleged treason, but only well after the final decisive pitched land battle of Gaugamela in 331).

JR Gaugamela was indeed the consummate expression of Alexander’s art of warcraft, if we can call warcraft an art. His use of various stratagems to deal with the threat of encirclement — a very potent threat considering he was outnumbered perhaps three to one, even by conservative estimates — are rather remarkable. I’m thinking especially of the way the battle began, with Alexander sending cavalry units to his far right, as though trying to outflank Darius, when by all rights Darius should have been the one doing the outflanking. Darius reacted to this effrontery by stretching his line thin in an effort to counter Alexander’s move, and that, ultimately, created the opening through which Alexander charged — thus inflicting the decisive blow. I suspect — though I can’t prove this — that Alexander foresaw that whole chain of events when he ordered the initial move to the right. So he really was thinking several moves ahead, was he not?

PC He surely was, Jamie – though I suppose we should add that any reconstruction of how the Gaugamela battle went has to be a bit tentative and speculative, given the nature of the evidence available and the nature of battle (any battle). The image I’m left with, finally, is of Alexander himself leading in person the decisive Macedonian Companion Cavalry charge, mounted on his faithful Thessalian Greek stallion Bucephalas (‘Ox-head’), and scything through the opposition straight at Darius III who fled the field.

Originally Posted @ Forbes

What Caused The Death Of Alexander The Great?

JAMES ROMM Paul, on the question of the cause of Alexander’s death, there is a 2,000-plus year debate between poisoning theorists and medical diagnosticians, still going on today. Both Plutarch and Arrian believed that Alexander died of a disease, and Plutarch rather brusquely rejected the idea that he was poisoned. However Justin (the summarizer of Pompeius Trogus) emphatically supports that idea, and we know from other evidence it was prevalent in the years just after Alexander’s death. Greek writers even claimed to know “whodunnit” – most of them pointed fingers at Antipater, Alexander’s viceroy in Macedonia, and his son Cassander. Just recently, a third theory has entered the arena, that Alexander died from a maladministration of hellebore, a medicine that, if given in too large a dose, could also be a toxin. Do you think there is enough evidence to ever resolve this question — barring recovery of Alexander’s mummified corpse?

PAUL CARTLEDGE Call me an old sceptic, Jamie, but somehow poison has to me much more of a Roman than a Greek ring to it, and it’s a fact that all our surviving narrative and other accounts of Alexander come from what’s usually called the Roman period (1st century BCE to end of the 3rd CE). Obviously, the Greeks knew enough about poisons to concoct a fatal dose of hemlock for Socrates, but the killing of a king or emperor secretly by poison is an almost hackneyed theme from Mithridates King of Pontus to Roman Emperor Commodus, so I’d need pretty good objective evidence to convince myself that Alexander too met his end that way. But unless we can find his mummy, as you say, we’re not going to nail his cause of death via DNA. Instead, I’d like to hear your reaction to a couple of the more recent – and imaginative – theories. One is supposedly impersonal and medical: West Nile Virus encephalitis. The other is a rather startling spin on the old Cassander theory – that what killed Alexander was bacterium-ridden water drawn from the River Styx in Arcadia (Peloponnese) brought to Alexander in Babylon by Cassander – in a mule’s hoof.

JR I’m familiar with Adrienne Mayor’s intriguing theory about the presence of poisonous bacteria in the river Styx, but we should note that Mayor does not claim to explain Alexander’s death with it. She’s primarily interested in the origin of the legends about the Styx — said by the Greeks to stupefy even the gods — than in identifying the cause of Alexander’s demise. As to the West Nile Virus theory, I understand it is connected with a phenomenon of mass bird deaths that was noticed in the area of Babylon in the Spring of 323, which seems to me a slender thread of evidence. The problem with all disease-based explanations is that they rely on diagnoses of Alexander’s symptoms, but these are reported very differently by our different sources. The only point on which the sources agree is that Alexander became paralyzed in his last days, which of course could be the result of almost any disease or toxin, but there does seem to be an especially close link to the effects of hellebore – at least, in the view of toxicologist Leo Schep. So let me bring you back to the hellebore theory for a moment, and press you to say what you think of it? I see that Richard Stoneman, a well-regarded historian, has given it credence.

PC Richard Stoneman is indeed a well-regarded Alexander historian, especially strong on the posthumous Alexander legends and fantasies, and Leo Schep I would judge to be an equally well-regarded toxicologist, but the Atlantic Productions documentary of 2003 in which his theory was exploited seemed to me one of the worst kinds of sensational treatments of Alexander’s death. A senior ex-policeman was hired to host the show, as if he were carrying out a non-medical coroner’s autopsy, in a sort of parody of a (living) ‘reality’ programme. To me the main problem with any such pseudo- or quasi-scientific approach is that, as you say, Alexander’s terminal symptoms are very differently described by the extant sources – which are we to believe? So, I tend to restrict my own enquiries to a simple dichotomy – murder or death by ‘natural’ causes, and I tend to think that by June 323 Alexander’s body had taken so much (non-legal) punishment over so many years that it was a bit of a miracle he was still alive rather than that he should have died so relatively ’young’ at 32 going on 33. Not that there weren’t members of his immediate entourage who weren’t all that sorry that he should have died when and where he did, and some of whom would not have scrupled at resorting to poison or whatever – you’ll know their names …

JR I too prefer clean dichotomies, but the old poison/illness argument has been getting more complicated lately. I refer not only to the hellebore thesis but to an intriguing 2009 Acta Classica article by John Atkinson, “Malaria and mind-games?” The article rehearses all the theories as to what killed Alexander and adds a new one: After the king became ill, his inner circle pushed him toward death by withholding treatment and robbing Alexander of his will to live. It’s speculative, but Atkinson is an expert who has the right to speculate. His assumption, also the assumption of Brian Bosworth in an influential 1973 article, is that Alexander’s top generals wanted their king dead, as that was the only way they could stop the now-endless campaign of conquest. I’m opposed to that view myself, but impressed at how much traction it has gained.

PC You are quite right about the traction, Jamie – and if we may refer to the broadest of mass media circulation, it’s a version of it that is expressed by Oliver Stone’s narrator Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) in his controversial movie Alexander (on which I co-edited a volume of academic ’Responses’ published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2010).

JR Well, on that note, let me announce that our blog will include Oliver Stone himself as a participant, for its last two installments — starting in March, after a week’s hiatus.

Originally posted @ Archaeology News

Two Great Historians Talk Alexander The Great, Part 6

Alexander’s Fusion of European and Asian Monarchic Traditions

JAMES ROMM: Paul, in our last segment we agreed to discuss what is sometimes called Alexander’s “fusion” policies — Principally, his attempt to hybridize Greco-Macedonian and Persian styles of monarchy in his own person. I wrote the appendix in the Landmark Arrian on fusion, and I said there that the difficulty for historians lies in distinguishing Alexander’s policy choices from his personal predilections. The decision to sport royal purples, for example — an affectation of Asian monarchies, seen as arrogant and autocratic by Europeans — has often been regarded as a sign of Alexander’s megalomania. But Arrian, in the eulogistic assessment of Alexander with which he ends the Anabasis, describes it as a carefully thought-out strategy by which Alexander increased his authority and legitimacy among his Asian subjects.

Alexander had an enormous leadership challenge, after all: How to win acceptance from the elite of the Persian empire, whom he had invaded, defeated, and whose royal house he had devastated. He could not hope to succeed among these proud nobles by pure intimidation; he ultimately had to win their respect and cooperation. All his “fusion” strategies have to be looked at in that context, do they not?

PAUL CARTLEDGE: They do indeed have to be looked at in context, Jamie, and I suppose the largest context of all is what overall view one takes of Alexander – positive or negative, pragmatic or idealist, and so on. I tend myself to the view held for instance by the great French scholar Pierre Briant that Alexander was in general and on the whole a pragmatist, but I would add that he infused his pragmatism with a certain amount of romanticism (modelling himself on Achilles, e.g.). In the case of ‘fusion’, I think Arrian got it basically right – Alexander’s aim was to create a new Greek/Macedonian + Iranian ruling elite for his new kingdom of ‘Asia’, so he began (in 330 B.C.) by appointing an Iranian (Mazaeus) to the top satrapy of Babylonia, then (327) recruited a huge number of young Iranians to bolster and eventually replace his mainly Macedonian core military forces, and then (324) conducted the mass-marriages at Susa. In 327 he’d had to abandon the idea of literally fusing his Graeco-Macedonian and his Iranian court circles, but it was in recognition of the absolute necessity of winning the respect, admiration and co-operation of the old Iranian ruling elite that he took on more and more of the outward trappings of oriental especially Persian regalia (the ‘purples’ you mention, etc).

JR And might I add to your pairs of antithetic views of Alexander, “emotional vs. rational.” It seems to me that where Arrian, and those who essentially follow him, differs from the vulgate sources and those who follow them, is that Arrian tends to see Alexander as a rational man making rational decisions, where others see him driven by emotion, impulse, and appetite. It’s an antithesis that goes right to the heart of the fusion question. To “Asianize” or “Persify,” in the Greek world, implied giving in to desires and impulses, as opposed to European models of behavior based on restraint and self-control. For Arrian, self-control — or karteria in Greek — was Alexander’s outstanding quality, whether in combat, relations with women or drinking habits. So also in matters of royal style: Alexander mixed his purple with plain white cloth, avoiding the temptation to go whole-hog despot.

PC I couldn’t have put it better myself… The West vs East (hard/rational/self-controlled West vs soft, irrational and self-indulgent East) culturally stereotyped dichotomy goes back to 5th-century BCE Greek writers. But in the case of Arrian it could be argued that, against his own better judgment perhaps (the ideal of karteria you mention), he did also see some degree of deterioration, some sort of decline, in Alexander from the ideal Greek-style monarch into an excessively despotic, oriental-style ruler. It is a good measure, I think, of how difficult it was for him to escape the cultural stereotyping he’d inherited, though it’s also a token of how good a historian he was that he didn’t swallow the Vulgate sources hook, line and sinker.

Originally Posted @ Forbes

Alexander The Great: Gay or Straight?

To celebrate the newly published Landmark edition of Arrian’s biography of Alexander the Great, the NYU Center for Ancient Studies and the Reading Odyssey are hosting a conference tonight (Feb 10, 2011) aimed at exploring why the writings of Arrian are central to our understanding of Alexander the Great and how the new Landmark edition will expand our understanding of Arrian. Click here for more info.)

PAUL CARTLEDGE Jamie, one aspect of Alexander’s life that still arouses huge controversy is what nowadays we’d call his sexuality or sexual identity. I remember that a rather conservative Greek lawyer, convinced that his ancient Greek hero must have been as red-bloodedly heterosexual as he, actually threatened to bring an injunction against Oliver Stone’s movie for portraying Alexander as engaging in sex with males. Personally, I think any attempt to categorise Alexander in terms of modern sexual identity is grossly anachronistic, but am I not right that Alexander probably did have sex with at least one male as well as with at least two females?

JAMES ROMM Well, I’m not sure whom you mean by the one male — Bagoas or Hephaestion? I’m guessing the former as the evidence for a sexual relationship is firmer than in the case of Hephaestion (where there is no real evidence, but plenty of assumptions). Even in the case of Bagoas – a eunuch given to Alexander as (dare I say it?) a boy toy by a Persian noble who wished to win his favor — there is some room for doubt, though I would venture to say he “counts” as a male object of Alexander’s sexual interest. As far as the women are concerned, I’d say two is a conservative count, assuming you mean the two women who bore Alexander’s children — Barsine, the half-Persian widow of the mercenary captain Memnon, and Rhoxane, Alexander’s first wife. But then, wouldn’t you say that Alexander’s marriages to Parysatis and Stateira, the second and third of his multiple wives, were also consummated (though how he pulled off the trick of a double wedding night, after wedding both women at the mass marriage ceremony in Susa in 324, is anyone’s guess)?

PC That was a bit of a teaser, I confess – but you got my drift absolutely right, on both sides of the blanket as it were. The evidence for actual sex with Bagoas is firmer than that for anything physical with Hephaestion, who may have been more of a ‘bosom buddy’ as we (used to?) say than a sexual partner. I’ll come back to Hephaestion. The relationship with Bagoas is simply extraordinary, isn’t it? He was a non-Greek non-man (as the Greeks saw it) – we know from Herodotus that ordinary Greeks had a peculiar culturally driven horror of the trade in eunuchs: a Greek slave trader called Panionius (the ‘all-Ionian’!) was into this business, which Herodotus condemned as ‘unholy’. So Alexander, in having an openly acknowledged sexual relationship with him, would have been transgressing all sorts of cultural-political boundaries. I’m inclined to believe he did – and to admire him for it. As for Alexander’s women, I’d also agree that two was a conservative estimate… even not counting the alleged one-night stand with an Amazon! But note again that three of those you mention were oriental – two noble Persian, one (Rhoxane) noble Sogdian, and one (Barsine) half-Persian – and note too that, as in the case of Bagoas, there was politics deeply er embedded with the sex.

JR Well as long as we’re correcting the scoreboard, let me note briefly that the “one-night stand” you refer to was actually thirteen nights – Sex between a world conquering man (Alexander) and an Amazon woman (Thalestris) being presumably more long-lasting and sensational than any ordinary lovemaking. But Arrian and Plutarch both rightly dismissed the tale as a fiction. Speaking of which, I should note, for the benefit of readers of the new Landmark Arrian, that they will not find Bagoas mentioned anywhere in Arrian’s narrative (OUR Bagoas, that is; a different Persian by the same name is mentioned in Book 2). The omission, together with the sensational nature of the stories told by Plutarch and the vulgate sources, prompted at least one modern historian (Sir William Tarn) to dismiss Bagoas as another fiction, as insubstantial as Thalestris. The evidence is carefully reviewed by Daniel Ogden in an article in the volume Alexander the Great: A New History (edd. Heckel and Tritle, 2009) — bearing out the title of the anthology by giving the first-ever in-depth discussion of Alexander’s sex life, that I am aware of. Does anyone today still follow Tarn in questioning Bagoas’ existence? And, to turn in a slightly different direction, what did you think of Oliver Stone’s use of Bagoas, and treatment of Alexander’s sexuality, in the film Alexander?

PC I stand corrected on Alexander’s Amazonian congress (13 nights, precisely, not a ‘one-night stand’, of course) – though with these fabulous tales once can never quite be sure, can we? And I take Oliver Stone’s Alexander movie to be one long fabulous tale, even though he tried to get the facts right, because the facts of Alexander’s life annoyingly just won’t stand up to be counted. In general, he took the Oxford ancient historian and Alexander-specialist Robin Lane Fox as his mentor and guide – but then his (Oliver’s) romantic instincts got the better of him when his Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) descended on Babylon. Yet, to give Stone his due, he was prepared to take on the chin the welter of homophobic criticism he received for depicting his hero in close homoerotic encounter with the Persian eunuch. And not just with him. At the risk of upsetting Hephaestion’s largely female fan-club (I mean the ancient personage Hephaestion, not his filmic avatar, Jared Leto) I’d say Stone was probably also right to imagine that Alexander had had sex with his boon companion Hephaestion, at any rate when they were younger. For ancient Greeks there was no contradiction between youthful homoeroticism and predominantly or wholly heterosexual adult proclivity and activity. It was ‘all so unimaginably different’ then, as Classicist poet Louis Macneice wrote in 1939, and ‘all so long ago’. (Interested readers may care to consult further a book I co-edited with Fiona Greenland, *Responses to Oliver’s Stone’s Alexander* [University of Wisconsin Press, 2010])

JR Whatever he may have got right or wrong about Hephaestion, Stone took some very big liberties in making a jealous Rhoxane responsible for Hephaestion’s death — an idea for which there is no evidence or even speculation in the ancient sources, to my knowledge, although there is a pictorial tradition in which Hephaestion looks on rather scornfully at the moment when Alexander first falls in love with Rhoxane (see the Rotari canvas pictured above). It’s curious that Rhoxane, who seems to have been a rather passive figure historically, has been turned into a Medea by some modern interpreters — a recent book even accuses her of murdering Alexander! But that’s looking ahead to our next blog topic, my current preoccupation: the theories about what caused Alexander’s death.

Originally Posted @ Forbes

Two Great Historians Talk Alexander The Great, Part 4

Fourth in a series of weekly conversations between historians James Romm [JR] and Paul A. Cartledge [PC], editor and introduction-author, respectively, of the new Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, just published by Pantheon under series editor Robert Strassler. This discussion was created by the Reading Odyssey, a non-profit that aims to reignite curiosity and lifelong learning for adults through lectures, reading groups and webcasts.)

In this episode, Romm and Cartledge try to answer the question: What was the Greek attitude toward Alexander?

JAMES ROMM Paul, the attitude of the Greeks toward Alexander seems to me to have been conflicted in the extreme. I’ll cite the example of the city I know best, Athens. When Alexander first took the throne in 336, Athens rejected him as regional hegemon and celebrated the death of his father, Philip; but then as soon as Alexander approached with his army, they sent envoys to hail him as leader and heap honors on him. The same pattern recurs at several points over the next decades, either under Alexander or his successors. Were the Athenians simply cowed by shows of force? Or should we think more in terms of a divided citizenry, with pro- and anti-Alexander factions getting the upper hand by turns? Can one even speak of a Greek attitude toward Alexander, or was the Hellenic world too fragmented and diverse to have a consensus view?

PAUL CARTLEDGE You are absolutely right, Jamie – contemporary Greek attitudes to ‘our hero’ (well, he’s mine anyhow) were indeed massively conflicted, and nowhere more so than at Athens. Part of the trouble was that his father Philip had been in a way too damned nice to the Athenians: even after they’d organised a major revolt against him, and been totally defeated in battle (Chaeronea, 338 BCE), he courteously sent back the dead Athenians’ ashes to their home city for burial under a royal escort led by none other than the 18-year-old Alexander (the only time he ever set foot in Athens, saw the Parthenon, etc etc). You are also right, I think, to talk of pro- and anti-Alexander (standing for Macedon) factions at Athens. The irony was that the Greek culture Alexander embraced and spread through the middle east was very largely Athenian Greek high culture.

For fans of historical novels (I confess I am) I can highly recommend Nick Nicastro’s Empire of Ashes, which cleverly and excitingly reviews Alexander’s entire career from an Athenian perspective by way of a characteristically Athenian (and perhaps also American…) democratic device – a lawsuit.

JR: Well I look forward to reading that novel! So then, if it seems we can’t get far trying to follow all the twists and turns of sentiment at Athens, maybe we can talk more usefully about the Greeks who were in Alexander’s entourage. Lawrence Tritle has made a very useful list of them in an article in the recent volume “Alexander the Great: A New History,” co-edited by Tritle and Waldemar Heckel, and they’re a rather impressive lot — thinkers, writers, dancers, poets, and musicians, as well as (of course) soldiers and sailors. To my knowledge all of them thought well of Alexander, with the sole exception of Callisthenes, Aristotle’ kinsman and student. This man, who went with Alexander as a kind of court historian, was a great supporter and cheerleader for six years until turning into a critic, rather suddenly, over the issue of whether Alexander ought to be greeted with a low bow, the way Persian monarchs were greeted. In Arrian’s history, Callisthenes receives a starring role, in that he delivers a long and impassioned speech against Alexander’s Asianized forms of court ritual. Arrian may have invented the speech and inflated Callisthenes’ contrarianism, of course. Do you find it significant that so many educated Greeks followed Alexander admiringly? Or that Callisthenes finally stopped doing so?

PC: Alexander did indeed intrigue Greek intellectuals, either as a case-study in absolute power corrupting absolutely, or conversely as a philosopher-king (or perhaps we should say as the man they hoped would turn out to be a philosopher king in accordance with their own political philosophy!). It would be nice to know what Aristotle really thought of his pupil: what we do know is that Alexander did not buy or practice all Aristotle’s most cherished doctrines, by any means – such as the natural slavishness of all barbarians. We assume Aristotle had a say in recommending his relative (nephew or great-nephew) Callisthenes to Alexander; he’d already collaborated with Callisthenes on compiling a list of all the known victors at the Pythian Games held every four years at Delphi since 582. But Callisthenes may well not have realised quite what he was letting himself in for. Actually there was no precedent in all Greek history for an ‘official’ historian appointment such as his, a sort of ‘Minister of Propaganda’ really. But for many years as you say he seems to have been content to try to sell Alexander to those many Greeks who were out of sympathy with his master’s aims and methods. And Arrian would surely not have invented from whole cloth a Callisthenes who fell out with Alexander over the issue broadly of ‘orientalization’ and specifically of Alexander’s requirement that all his courtiers conform to the Persian court ritual of obeisance in the king’s presence. It seems that even intelligent Greeks failed to realise this was a secular not a religious ritual and interpreted it as hubris: treating a mortal man as if he were a god. Callisthenes paid the price of his life for his opposition, and Arrian clearly sympathised with his stand.

JR Yes, and unfortunately we don’t quite know whether Alexander had Callisthenes summarily executed — a very-non-philosophic use of power — or merely imprisoned him for a later trial, after which Callisthenes contracted illness in confinement and died from that. Either way Alexander is responsible, but the latter scenario — that depicted by some sources — would be much more palatable to us Alexander fans. But I think this has to be counted as one of several insoluble problems in the Alexander record — or what is your opinion?

PC I agree with you, Jamie, that it’s a formally insoluble conundrum, but I have to confess that, fan of the great Alexander though I am, I’m one of those who think that Ptolemy’s brutally unadorned account of Callisthenes’s death – or murder, if you like – conveys the (indeed) unpalatable truth: that Alexander had his own official historian summarily executed for what he considered to be high treason. Alexander – painful as it is to contemplate – didn’t get where he got by being nice to courtiers who he believed had betrayed him, especially on an issue that was one not merely of personal loyalty but of high imperial policy. But then again, if Alexander hadn’t got where he did get, then he couldn’t have made the world-historical impact he did, I guess…

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Two Great Historians Talk Alexander the Great Part 3

Third in a series of weekly conversations between historians James Romm [JR] and Paul A. Cartledge [PC], editor and introduction-author, respectively, of the new Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, just published by Pantheon under series editor Robert Strassler. This discussion was created by the Reading Odyssey, a non-profit that aims to reignite curiosity and lifelong learning for adults through lectures, reading groups and webcasts.)

PC: Jamie, I’ve been reading the latest book publication by Pierre Briant, probably the world’s leading ancient Persologist (if there’s such a word) – technically he’s ‘Professor of the History and Civilization of the Achaemenid World and the Empire of Alexander the Great’ at the stellar College de France (founded in 1530 in Paris by Francois I). The book’s called Alexander the Great and his Empire, and has been translated for Princeton University Press by another leading Persologist, emeritus London Professor Amelie Kuhrt. What has struck me most about it is this: Briant is a leading light in the wave of scholarship that over the past 20-30 years has sought to re-place the history of Alexander within the history of the Middle East – to see him from an eastern rather than western perspective. Which is fair enough – provided the sources are there to do it. But actually Briant and those who follow him have a major problem of method – there’s no Persian equivalent of Herodotus, the world’s first historian properly so called, who wrote the history of the Graeco-Persian Wars of 490, 480-479 BCE. The Persian Empire (founded c. 550 by Cyrus the Great) and court produced lots of primary documents – but no historiography.

For the history of Alexander’s conquests, however, those who look at them from a western perspective also have a problem – there’s no Greek equivalent of Herodotus for that, either: i.e., though lots of contemporary Greek writers, including some probably quite good historians, treated the Alexander story, none of those contemporary works, not one, survives intact to this day. So it’s very noticeable that, like any other historian today, Briant for all his brilliance is forced to rely heavily on the history of Alexander’s campaigns written by a much much later Greek writer: Arrian of Nicomedeia (in modern northwest Turkey).

JR: Paul, you’re right to say that we have no Herodotus, and certainly no Thucydides, for the Alexander era — a situation I lamented in my editor’s introduction to the new Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander. However I also wrote there that we would be much the poorer if we did not have Arrian either. Granted, Arrian was writing at second hand — using accounts by two of Alexander’s officers that were by his time four centuries old — and granted, he had little of the depth of insight that puts those other two historians in a different league (he fancied himself a new Xenophon rather than a Herodotus or Thucydides, as though admitting he was a soldier with some intelligence and a reasonably good prose style, but not a literary heavyweight). But the picture he gives us of Alexander is clear, compelling and filled with fascinating detail, especially in the military realm. I suppose the central question for all modern readers is, how reliable is that picture? How much does Arrian cover up the faults of Alexander — whom he clearly admires — and highlight only the good points? There are various points of view on this question among modern scholars — What is yours?

PC I belong firmly in the PRO camp, I nail my colours to the mast. One admittedly rather emotive way of putting that would be to say that without him we would have no basically reliable narrative to go on – certainly we couldn’t start from the other surviving narrative sources and build up an account on the basis of theirs, however much colour – or alternatively prejudice – they may add. Because obviously Arrian too was indeed prejudiced: he chose as his two main ‘authorities’, as you say, two of Alexander’s officers (not any of the writers of hostile accounts). One of those was a top-drawer Macedonian who’d been a friend of Alexander’s since boyhood and shared his education by Aristotle, and who, though not royal by birth, went on to become King Ptolemy I of Egypt – Pharaoh Ptolemy, indeed, from the native Egyptians’ point of view. Clearly, Ptolemy’s memoirs will have been to some extent self-serving, in ways that Arrian perhaps didn’t quite fully appreciate; on the other hand, few officers and courtiers had been as intimately associated with Alexander and risen as high in the command of the empire as Ptolemy had, and what Arrian chiefly used him for it seems was the nuts and bolts of military campagning details which he – as a top-level general himself, who also commanded in Asia Minor – found plausible and persuasive.

His other main source of choice was a Greek called Aristoboulus – an architect or engineer by specialization perhaps with a special interest in natural history. Aristoboulus was sometimes over-generous in his estimate of Alexander – and underplayed some of his less attractive qualities, such as excessive alcohol consumption. But the combination of Aristoboulus and Ptolemy was an intelligent and rational choice by Arrian, especially given the alternatives…

JR ….By which I assume you mean mainly Cleitarchus, the shadowy Greek who produced the narrative that underlies most of Diodorus, Quintus Curtius, and Justin, and a handful of even less responsible writers. This alternate tradition dramatized the Alexander story in highly diverting ways, but took far less trouble than Arrian did over accuracy. The gap between them is not as wide perhaps as between modern tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, but the analogy applies, I think.

My main concerns about Arrian arise when he omits an incident altogether that the Vulgate sources report — For example, Alexander’s mass execution of Tyrian civilians after the siege of Tyre. In the Landmark Arrian I mostly noted these divergences without arriving at a verdict. We could spend days discussing them on a case-by-case basis, but let me ask you what your general principles are, before we conclude this segment of our discussion. When the Vulgate sources attribute an atrocity to Alexander and Arrian omits it, whom should we believe?

PC Your concerns are entirely justified. Whereas the so-called ‘Vulgate’ tradition of Alexander-historiography that stems from the contemporary but non-participant Greek Cleitarchus (based in Ptolemy’s Alexandria!) tends to exaggerate the more lurid and negative aspects of Alexander’s career, the ‘official’ tradition represented by Arrian tends to go in the opposite direction, palliating the unpalatable. The example you select is very well chosen indeed.

You call it a ‘mass execution of Tyrian civilians’ – but a source favourable to Alexander could surely have presented it rather as an exemplary massacre, in much the same way as the total destruction of Greek Thebes in 335 could have been presented as exemplary: that is, designed to prevent a repetition of a kind of resistance to his project that Alexander had found both unjustifiable and exceptionally annoying. Why then did Arrian not mention the Tyrian massacre, whereas he had not merely mentioned but given exceptional and quite negative weight to the destruction of Thebes as an unmitigated ‘disaster’? Was it because the Tyrian massacre had not actually happened but was an invention of a tradition hostile to Alexander? Or was it because Arrian too thought it was the not wholly rational action of a man excessively motivated by wounded personal pride and uncontrollable desire for revenge and therefore should be suppressed? (There is an exact parallel here to the accounts of the siege of Gaza that followed soon after that of Tyre: the Vulgate source Quintus Curtius describes a horrific quasi-Homeric revenge that Alexander allegedly took upon Gaza’s pro-Persian Arab commander Batis, whereas Arrian merely says Alexander sold the women and children of Gaza into slavery and repopulated the city as a fortress with nearby tribespeople – no mention of the fate of Batis).

Well, Arrian as mentioned could present Alexander’s behaviour quite negatively in regard to Greek Thebes, and he seems to have shared a widespread view that success went to Alexander’s head leading him into increasingly megalomaniac and irrational actions, so in principle I don’t think Arrian would have had to suppress the alleged massacre at Tyre in order to save (his own view of) Alexander’s good reputation. On the other hand, I myself find the idea of an exemplary massacre of Tyrian civilians quite plausible, as I pointed out in my 2004 book on Alexander. So it’s possible Arrian just didn’t find it worth recording – or (more likely) didn’t find it mentioned in his two main ‘authorities’., Ptolemy and Aristoboulus. A case of biassed reporting, then, but not necessarily the imposition of Arrian’s own direct bias?

Originally Published @ Forbes

Computer reveals stone tablet handwriting in a flash

You might call it "CSI Ancient Greece". A computer technique can tell the difference between ancient inscriptions created by different artisans, a feat that ordinarily consumes years of human scholarship.

"This is the first time anything like this had been done on a computer," says Stephen Tracy, a Greek scholar and epigrapher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who challenged a team of computer scientists to attribute 24 ancient Greek inscriptions to their rightful maker. "They knew nothing about inscriptions," he says.

Tracy has spent his career making such attributions, which help scholars attach firmer dates to the tens of thousands of ancient Athenian and Attican stone inscriptions that have been found.

"Most inscriptions we find are very fragmentary," Tracy says. "They are very difficult to date and, as is true of all archaeological artefacts, the better the date you can give to an artefact, the more it can tell you."

Just as English handwriting morphed from ornate script filled with curvy flourishes to the utilitarian penmanship practiced today, Greek marble inscriptions evolved over the course of the civilisation.

"Lettering of the fifth century BC and lettering of the first century BC don't look very much alike, and even a novice can tell them apart," Tracy says.

Eye for detail

But narrowing inscriptions to a window smaller than 100 years requires a better trained eye, not to mention far more time and effort; Tracy spent 15 years on his first book.

"One iota [a letter of the Greek alphabet] is pretty much like another, but I know one inscriber who makes an iota with a small little stroke at the top of the letter. I don't know another cutter who does. That becomes, for him, like a signature," says Tracy, who relies principally on the shape of individual letters to attribute authorship.

However, these signatures aren't always apparent even after painstaking analysis, and attributions can vary among scholars, says Michail Panagopoulos, a computer scientist at the National Technical University of Athens, who led the project along with colleague Constantin Papaodysseus.

"I could show you two 'A's that look exactly the same, and I can tell you they are form different writers," Panagopoulos says.

Average letter

Panagopoulos' team determined what different cutters meant each letter to look like by overlaying digital scans of the same letter in each individual inscription. They call this average a letter's "platonic realisation".

After performing this calculation for six Greek letters selected for their distinctness ‘ , ¡ , œ ,  , Ÿ and £ across all 24 inscriptions, Panagopoulos' team compared all the scripts that Tracy provided.

The researchers correctly attributed the inscriptions to six different cutters, who worked between 334 BC and 134 BC a 100-per-cent success rate. "I was both surprised and encouraged," Tracy says of their success.

"This is a very difficult problem," agrees Lambert Schomaker, a researcher at University of Groningen, Netherlands, who has developed computational methods to identify the handwriting of mediaeval monks, which is much easier to link to a writer compared with chisel marks on stone.

Database plan

Although Panagopoulos' team correctly attributed all the inscriptions to their rightful chiseller, Schomaker worries that shadows could distort the digital photographs used in the analysis. Three-dimensional lasers scans of the inscriptions may offer more precision, he says.

Panagopoulos says his team is looking to use 3D images in the future.

The Greek computer scientists would also like to build a comprehensive database of digital inscriptions and attributions, so any newly discovered or analysed inscription could be quickly attributed and dated.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Greek archaeologists uncover ancient austerity

Ancient Greeks were forced to tighten their tunics thousands of years before their descendants faced a similar fate under debt cutting austerity measures, a senior archaeologist said on Tuesday.

Graves excavated in recent months in the northern Greek region of Macedonia show the population scaled back on funeral offerings some 2,300 years ago, probably under royal decree, archaeologist Manthos Besios told Ta Nea daily.

The graves in Pydna, a prominent city in the ancient Macedonian kingdom elevated to fame by Alexander the Great, contained gold jewels, elaborate vases and ivory-plated beds in the fourth century BCE, Besios said.

But a century later, under King Cassander of Macedon, these offerings were phased out in favour of cheaper materials such as clay.

"At the close of the fourth century, a decree issued by Cassander's commander in Macedon-occupied Athens forbade the building of elaborate funeral monuments and limited spending on ceremonies," Besios, the deputy supervisor at the Pydna excavations, told the daily.

"It was like the period we are going through today -- one that will possibly be found by an archaeologist of the future," he jibed.

Greece on Tuesday asked the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to unblock the first tranche of an 110-billion-euro (140-billion-dollar) loan agreed only in exchange for harsh austerity measures.

"If one wanted to make light of the situation, one could replace the IMF with King Cassander in today's terms," Besios said.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Excavations in Ancient Tegea

The first stage of a five year (2009 2013) excavation project in Ancient Tegea, near Tripolis, has been completed by an international team of archaeologists led by the Norwegian Institute in Athens in Collaboration with the Greek culture ministry's 38th Ephoria for Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities and 25th Ephoria of Byzantine Antiquities.

The area of excavation is a field located to the west of the theatre and the Basilica of Thyrsos, where magnetometer survey 2003-2004 documented the probable location of a major north-south street and a stoa bordering the agora.

The two ongoing field-projects at Tegea, a survey of a side-valley to the east of the urban centre and an excavation in the centre of the ancient city, started in June, 2009.

Tegea was a settlement in ancient Greece, and it is also a municipality in modern Arcadia, with its seat in the village Stadio.

Ancient Tegea was an important religious center of ancient Greece,containing the Temenos (Temple) of Athena Alea . The temenos was founded by Aleus. Votive bronzes at the site from the Geometric and Archaic periods take the forms of horses and deer; there are sealstones and fibulae. In the Archaic period the nine villages that underlie Tegea banded together in a synoecism form one city.Tegea was listed in Homer's Catalogue of Ships as one of the cities that contributed ships and men for the Achaean assault on Troy.

Tegea struggled against Spartan hegemony in Arcadia and was finally conquered ca 560 BCE. In the fourth century Tegea joined the Arcadian League and struggled to free itself from Sparta.

The Temple of Athena Alea burned in 394 BC and was magnificently rebuilt to designs by Scopas of Paros, with reliefs of the Calydonian boar hunt in the main pediment. The city retained civic life under the Roman Empire; it was sacked in 395 by the Goths.

The site of ancient Tegea is now located within the modern town of Alea, which is located about 10 kilometers southeast of Tripolis.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Was Ancient Historian One Of The First Spin Doctors?

Without a man named Thucydides, the chances are slim that we'd know anything about the Peloponnesian War. A new book about the man attempts to correct what we know.

For more than a quarter of a century, starting in 431 B.C., two Greek cities faced off. Sometimes they confronted each other directly, and sometimes through proxies and allies. Thucydides recorded the details of the conflict throughout the war and, Yale professor Donald Kagan tells NPR's Guy Raz, "invented the modern understanding of history."

The war between Athens and Sparta has long since become an allegory of modern conflicts like the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq - even Afghanistan. Historians and students of Thucydides all draw comparisons back to that ancient conflict. Kagan says Thucydides was the first person to apply rigorous scholarship in the approach to storytelling.

Kagan's own four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War is considered a seminal work, widely cited by students and scholars. His latest book, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, delves into the ancient author and why he may not have always told the truth.

Thucydides was born around 455 B.C. to a noble Athenian family. During his youth, the Athenian empire was ruled by Pericles, who was something of a benign autocrat. But after Pericles' death in 429 B.C., the governance of Athens was taken over by a group of self-proclaimed democrats - most likely an affront to Thucydides' family, Kagan says, who would have had a deep skepticism of democracy.

In his history of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides attempts to assign blame for Athens' eventual demise on those democratic leaders.

"I think he tried the best he could to be objective," Kagan says, but Kagan's new book is an attempt to revise and even correct some of Thucydides' accounts. Kagan draws upon other sources to argue that, at times, Thucydides is selective in the way he uses direct quotations and reconstructs events.

Thucydides' work remains required reading at the U.S. military academies, and Kagan says there's still good reason. "One of the wonderful things that his work does is to make it clear to us what is so little clear when most people get into war - and that is how terrible war is."

Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, Chapter One Excerpt

by Donald Kagan

Thucydides the Revisionist

What is a revisionist? How can Thucydides be considered a revisionist, when he seems to have been the first man to write a history of the Peloponnesian War? What received opinions existed for him to revise? In a sense all historians are revisionists, for each tries to make some contribution that changes our understanding of the past. When we use the term revisionist, however, we generally mean something more fundamental: a writer who tries to change the reader's mind in a major way by providing a new general interpretation, one that sharply and thoroughly reexamines the established way of looking at a matter.

Given that Thucydides believed in the practical importance of history, we should expect him to be eager to set straight any errors of fact or interpretation that he found. But his critical spirit was brought to bear on a larger scale than merely factual detail. He uses the evidence of Homer, for instance, to show that it was the poverty of the Greeks, not the bravery of the Trojans, that was responsible for the length of the siege of Troy. He seems to have been the first to present the view that the Peloponnesian War was a single conflict, not a series of separate wars. Many other and greater and more controversial revisions will be discussed in this and later chapters.

If we grant that Thucydides had the instincts of a revisionist, what was there to revise? The answer is: the not yet fully formed or written opinions of contemporaries. In our own day these are easy to identify. Some of us still remember them from direct experience, and, in any case, modern revisionists usually confront and argue against their opponents. Thucydides' method is different. He argues with no one by name and presents no labeled alternative views, even to refute them, but gives the reader only the facts and the conclusions distilled from them that he deems necessary after careful investigation and thought. He has been so successful with this approach that for more than twenty-four hundred years few readers have been aware that any other point of view existed. But a careful reading of Thucydides himself and other ancient sources shows that there were different opinions in Thucydides' time and that his History is a powerful and effective polemic against them. Recovering these forgotten and obscured contemporary opinions and comparing them with Thucydides' own interpretations casts an interesting light on his mind and the significance of his work.

Originally posted @ Archaeology News

Aristotle school to become museum

The remains of the ancient school where philosopher Aristotle taught his pupils nearly 2,500 years ago are to be turned into an outdoor museum thanks to a donation from a betting company, Greece's Culture Ministry says.

The project in central Athens is slated for completion next year at a cost of ¤4.5 million ($5.9 million). But it will not use funds from the government, which has promised spending cuts amid the global financial crisis.

Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C., studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. Later, in Athens, he taught in the grounds of the Lyceum, a public sports complex frequented by the city's young men.

The outdoor museum will involve building a translucent roof over the site, Culture Minister Antonis Samaras said Wednesday. "Saving money from the (ministry) budget is very important," he said.

The scant remains are mostly foundations and lower courses of walls from a wrestling hall, as well as parts of Roman-era baths used by the athletes after workouts. They were discovered in 1996 during construction for a planned modern art museum that was later abandoned. Plans to open the site to the public have languished for about a decade.

"This is a big project," Athens archaeological service official Aris Koronakis said at the site Thursday. "The arc-shaped roof will cover the entire area which is 50-by-48 meters (yards)."

The official said construction is the main source of archaeological discovery in Athens. "That's how antiquities are found: The archaeological service inspects all main construction sites in Athens," he said. "All of the city is under scrutiny for possible archaeological remains."

Standing in what was once a wooded, riverside location outside the ancient city walls, the Lyceum was considered one of the three greatest schools of philosophy in ancient Greece and archaeologists had sought its remains for more than 150 years. Ironically, it was finally found at the end of a modern street named after the ancient school.

Samaras said he hopes the new outdoor museum would eventually help expand a network of ancient sites in the capital - including Plato's Academy -that are easily accessed by visitors touring the city on foot.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Greek archaeologists begin work to restore ancient Aristotle school

Greek archaeologists will begin work to restore the ancient school where philosopher Aristotle taught his pupils nearly 2,500 years ago, the Athens News Agency (ANA) reported Friday.

Archaeologists hope to begin restoring the site, which was discovered in downtown Athens 14 years ago, as soon as possible so that it can open to the public as part of an archaeological park.

Plans for an outdoor museum are also underway which will involve building a translucent roof over the site.

Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 BC, studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. Later, in 335 BC in Athens, he taught in the grounds of the Lyceum, a meeting place of the Athenian assembly and public sports complex frequented by the city's young men.

The ancient school is located outside the walls of ancient Athens and was sacked and razed to the ground by the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 86 BC. It was later rebuilt.

The site's location remained unknown for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1996 during excavations for Athens' New Museum of Modern Art.

Restoration work had been delayed for years do to the lack of substantial funding.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Pythagoras, a math genius? Not by Babylonian standards

Over 1,000 years before Pythagoras was calculating the length of a hypotenuse, sophisticated scribes in Mesopotamia were working with the same theory to calculate the area of their farmland.

Working on clay tablets, students would "write" out their math problems in cuneiform script, a method that involved making wedge-shaped impressions in the clay with a blunt reed.

These tablets bear evidence of practical as well as more advanced theoretical math and show just how sophisticated the ancient Babylonians were with numbers -- more than a millennium before Pythagoras and Euclid were doing the same in ancient Greece.

"They are the most sophisticated mathematics from anywhere in the world at that time," said Alexander Jones, a Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at New York University.

He is co-curator of "Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics," an exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York.

"This is nearly 4,000 years ago and there's no other ancient culture at that time that we know of that is doing anything like that level of work. It seems to be going beyond anything that daily life needs," he said.

Many scribes were trained in the ancient city of Nippur in what is now southern Iraq, where a large number of tablets were discovered between the mid-19th century and the 1920s.

Typical problems they worked on involved calculating the area of a given field, or the width of a trench.

These problems, says Jones, required the kind of math training taught to American Grade 10 students, but not in a format we would now recognize.

"It's not like algebra, it's all written out in words and numerals but no symbols and no times signs or equals or anything like that," he said.

This system, and the lack of recognizable Western mathematical symbols such as x and y, meant that it was several years before historians and archaeologists understood just what was represented on these tablets.

It took a young Austrian mathematician in the 1920s, named Otto Neugebauer, to crack the mathematical system and work out what the ancient Babylonians were calculating. But despite his advances, it is only recently that interest in Babylonian math has started to take hold.

"I think that before Neugebauer and even after Neugebauer, there wasn't a lot of attention placed on mathematical training in Babylon even though we have this rich cuneiform history with the tablets," said Jennifer Chi, Associate Director for Exhibitions and Public Programs at Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

One of the aims of the institute, she says, is to find interconnections between ancient cultures as well as look at what the institute sees as under-represented ancient cultures -- and the culture of ancient Babylonian math, she says, is ripe for popular revision.

"When we think of ancient mathematics, the first names that come to mind are Pythagoras and Euclid," she said, but that "this shouldn't be the case."

And though ancient Babylonia is often referred to in popular culture as a "lost" world, in fact much more evidence of mathematical learning from the period exists than from ancient Greece, said Chi.

Jones of New York University believes that there is much more that could be excavated but that, of course, current conditions in Iraq are not favorable. Still, there are enough tablets in collections across the world for mathematical historians to get stuck into.

For non-mathematicians, these tablets are a fascinating document of life in Mesopotamia. Most of the problems displayed are grounded in the everyday needs of ancient Babylonians.

But some tablets show the students engaging in what Jones calls "recreational math" -- math for math's sake.

"The only point of learning to do this kind of thing is really as a mental exercise, as a way of showing how smart you are," he said.

And it seems there is still more to learn from the Babylonians. Duncan Melville is a Professor of Mathematics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, whose special interest is Mesopotamian mathematics.

According to Melville, teachers can continue to learn a thing or two about the way math was taught in Mesopotamia.

"You look at the way they set up their sequences of problems and it's all very carefully graduated, from simple problems to more complicated problems," he said.

"As a teacher of mathematics, it's very interesting to see how they organized their material," he continued. "There's still interesting things to learn from cutting-edge pedagogy 4,000 years ago."

With research continuing into this strand of ancient history, it remains to be seen whether Pythagoras's theorem will come to bear the name of an old Babylonian scribe instead.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Evidence Alexander the Great Was not First at Alexandria

Alexander the Great has long been credited with being the first to settle the area along Egypt's coast that became the great port city of Alexandria. But in recent years, evidence has been mounting that other groups of people were there first.

The latest clues that settlements existed in the area for several hundred years before Alexander the Great come from microscopic bits of pollen and charcoal in ancient sediment layers.

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. The city sits on the Mediterranean coast at the western edge of the Nile delta. Its location made it a major port city in ancient times; it was also famous for its lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and its library, the largest in the ancient world.

But in the past few years, scientists have found fragments of ceramics and traces of lead in sediments in the area that predate Alexander's arrival by several hundred years, suggesting there was already a settlement in the area (though one far smaller than what Alexandria became).

Christopher Bernhardt of the U.S. Geological Survey and his colleagues took sediment cores (long cylindrical pieces of sediment drilled from the ground) that featured layers going as far back as nearly 8,000 years ago as part of a larger climate study of the area.

In these sediment layers, Bernhardt and his colleagues took samples of embedded ancient pollen grains to look for shifts from primarily native plants to those associated with agriculture. They also analyzed levels of microscopic charcoal, whose presence can indicate human fires.

At a mark of 3,000 years ago, Bernhardt's team detected a shift in pollen grains from native grasses and other plants to those from cereal grains, grapes and weeds associated with agriculture. They also found a marked increase in charcoal particles, all of which suggests that a settlement pre-dated the great city of Alexandria.

"They're definitely using the landscape," Bernhardt said.

Interestingly, this idea is also supported in the stories of Homer: In Book 4 of "The Odyssey," there's a mention of a one-day sail from the coast near the Nile to the nearby island of Pharos. This suggests that a port settlement of some sort was already there, the researchers say.

"Fiction is true," in this case, Berhnhardt said.

Whether the early settlement was Greek, Egyptian or affiliated with some other culture isn't known. Nor can scientists say exactly how big the settlement might have been.

"At this point I don't think you can tell much about the people themselves," Bernhardt told LiveScience, adding that archaeologists are interested in learning more about them.

Bernhardt's findings were presented at a recent meeting of the Geological Society of America and will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Coastal Research.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

Archaeologists Discover Wall of Ancient City of Vergina

An exceptional fortification structure surrounding the ancient city of Vergina, located in northern Greece, was recently discovered by archaeologists from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

According to the university's announcement, cited by the website, the architectural elements of the enclosure indicate that it dates back to the reign of Cassander, in the early third century BC, a period when Macedonia was plagued by major turmoil, including civil wars and attacks from the outside.

The finding, according to the publication, is of remarkable importance because the wall is preserved in perfect condition.

In addition to the structure, the university's archaeological team also discovered a large number of artefacts, charred seeds and food, dating to the second and first centuries BC.

Vergina is a small town in northern Greece, located in the prefecture of Imathia, Central Macedonia. The town became internationally famous in 1977, when Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos unearthed what he claimed was the burial site of the kings of Macedon, including the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. The finds established the site as the ancient Aigai, which was once the royal capital of ancient Macedon, ruled by the Argead dynasty from about 650 BC onwards.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

How the Alexander Mosaic was Seen

Wear patterns on one of the most celebrated mosaics of antiquity have allowed researchers to reconstruct exactly how ancient Romans viewed the artwork.

Found during the 1831 excavations in the lava-buried town of Pompeii, the Alexander mosaic (now on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples) is the most famous example of an early tessellated mosaic.

Measuring 19 feet by 10 feet, the piece was made around 100 B.C. out of roughly 4 million tesserae (small mosaic tiles).

The artwork once decorated the floor of a room in the House of the Faun, one of Pompeii's grandest residences.

The tiny tesserae, applied following the "opus vermiculatum" technique (basically set in worm-like rows), depicted a dramatic scene from a battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian king Darius III.

"Although there is some disagreement as to exactly which battle the mosaic depicts [either the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C. or the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C.], we know many things about this mosaic. For example, it is uniformly agreed [that the mosaic is] a copy of a famous Hellenistic painting executed sometime around 300 B.C.," Martin Beckmann, of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, told Discovery News.

"What is less know is the mosaic's role as a floor surface in an Italian house. In this role, it has the potential to provide evidence of the tastes, interests and desires of the wealthy Romans during the late Republic," Beckmann said.

In his study, presented today in Anaheim, Calif., at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, Beckman looked at some large, entirely destroyed areas of the mosaic.

These areas were filled in ancient times with mortar and have been in the same condition since they were originally discovered.

Beckmann identified four mains pattern of wear: a large, crescent-shaped area around the portrait of Alexander, two patches in the upper portion of the mosaic and two other patches in the lower portion.

"The patches basically show us the mosaic through the Romans eyes, and tell us what interested the ancient viewer. Although Darius is the most prominent figure in the mosaic, the Romans were much more interested in Alexander," he said.

"They were also apparently fascinated by the plight of two Persians crushed beneath Darius' chariot, especially one who is shown with his face turned from the viewer but reflected in a shield -- a skillful artistic trick," he added.

"There is clear evidence of multiple ancient repairs in these damaged areas. The most recent restorations filled the gaps with mortar, while more ancient repairs used tesserae," Beckmann said.

According to Beckmann, the repairs tell a story. They indicate that the mosaic had been damaged by overuse, and often in exactly the same areas.

"Over time, even careful footsteps would have loosened the very small stone tesserae from their tenuous hold in the mortar of the mosaic's bedding. At least once, substantial repairs were attempted, but clearly by the first century A.D., these had been given up in favor of simple patching with plain mortar," Beckmann said.

The two upper patches of wear even allowed Beckmann to reconstruct a theoretical "tour" of the mosaic. Here is Beckmann's explanation:

Once the visitors had entered the room -- we might imagine a group of dinner-guests led by their host -- the tour would begin with Darius and his Persians.

The host would have stood above Darius' horses (1), explained why the great king was fleeing, and pointed out the artistic novelties in the lower portion of the mosaic.

The guests would have milled about at the foot of the mosaic, taking in the overall scene, and then briefly concentrated themselves around the figures of the two doomed Persians (a - b).

Then the host moved to the left and stationed himself in the area above the figure pair composed of Alexander and the unfortunate Persian he is spearing (2).

The guests marched right onto the mosaic and crowded around the image of the Macedonian king, standing right on top of his body (c ), being careful however not to step on his head or that of his horse.

The guests arranged themselves in a semicircle, so as to leave a line of sight open between them and their host, who was also able to see Alexander's head from his vantage point above.

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News