Friday, November 17, 2017

Academic Position Opening

ERC-project REDHIS – position for a post-doctoral researcher:

"Studio delle opere giuridiche romane nella Tarda Antichità: manoscritti e papiri" "A study of Roman legal writings in Late Antiquity: manuscripts and papyri".

Deadline for application: November 27th, 2017

The research project REDHIS (“Rediscovering the Hidden Structure. A New Appreciation of Juristic Texts and Patterns of Thought in Late Antiquity”) is opening a position for a post-doctoral researcher. The appointment will be for two years.

REDHIS is an interdisciplinary research project hosted by the Universit√† di Pavia (Italy) and funded by an ERC-advanced grant (Principal Investigator: Prof. Dario Mantovani; Senior Staff: Prof. Luigi Pellecchi). The project studies the continued existence of a high-level legal culture in Late Antiquity, as shown among other things by the copying and continued use of the writings of the classical jurists. A comprehensive understanding of legal culture includes therefore the study of the transmission of these texts and the reception of their contents. To learn more about the REDHIS Project, visit our website at

In line with the goals of the project, the appointee will be asked to contribute several well-researched chapters, written in English, to an extensive collaborative volume on the circulation, use, and reception of Roman juristic writings in Late Antiquity. Depending on her/his precise qualifications, the appointee may also be asked to contribute to the project’s annotated corpus of juristic papyri.

In pursuing her/his research, the appointed applicant will be supervised by the Principal Investigator. She/he will collaborate with other staff and post-doctoral researchers in an interdisciplinary working group. Place of work: University of Pavia, Pavia (Italy).

Preference will be given to applicants who hold a PhD awarded by a University from outside Italy, with a doctoral dissertation in one of the following scholarly areas: Classical Philology, Palaeography, Papyrology, Ancient History, Latin, and/or Roman law. The doctoral dissertation has to show that the applicant is competent in and comfortable with applying a philological approach to the study of Roman legal texts, in Latin and Greek, in order to contribute fruitfully to the research objectives of REDHIS. We are looking for someone with experience in writing in (and translating into) English.

The closing date for applications is 27 November 2017. Applicants are advised to make sure that their applications comply with Italian regulations as laid out in the official “bando” of this post, which can be found in Italian and English at

In case you have any questions or require assistance of any kind with the formalities, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Matthijs Wibier (

Further informal enquiries may  be directed to Prof. Dario Mantovani (

Interesting Quora

I answer questions on Quora as someone who understands Ancient History. It’s been an interesting experience, because the readers over there are less knowledgeable about the subject matter than the people that come here. They also have different agendas. I’ve answered 160 questions since May and there are many new questions each day about ancient history.

The questions break themselves down into about four categories: Really good ones, what ifs, time machine, and do my homework.

An example of a really good question is “Why didn’t Caesar choose Marc Antony as his successor?” That person had read the history but what seemed obvious to him, wasn’t.

What ifs are questions about changing an event in ancient history. For example, “What if Caesar hadn’t been assassinated. Would the Republic have survived? Most of these are easy to answer because important trends in history develop their own momentum, which cannot be stopped by changing a single event. The Republic was doomed to fail because of inevitable failure of the Senate to control the entire landscape of the Republic.

Time machine questions are my favorites and are usually good for a laugh. For example, if the American Army went back to the ancient world, could they have defeated the Spartans? Or a variation of this is “If the Spartans had AK47s, would they have controlled all of Greece?” 

The last, and most egregious type of question is “Do my homework.” For example, “Give the three most important reasons why the Roman Empire fell and write them in complete sentences.” LOL.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Let me take you on a tour of the Roman Forum

I have just completed an  Audio Tour of the Roman Forum in conjunction with Voicemap, a company that offers audio tours of cities and famous places. The concept is interesting. You play the tour on your phone and the app uses GPS to know when to start and stop the narrative based on your location. Each stop has a story to tell and you start to hear that story as you approach.

You can have the phone in your pocket and listen to the tour with earbuds. As you move about, there is a map on your phone screen which can serve as an aid in case you lose your way.

This tour includes 32 different locations and you learn the history of the structures you see at each stop. We've made sure to cover all the most interesting structures: the Senate House, Temple of Castor and Pollux, House of the Vestal Virgins, and the Arch of Septimius Severus, to name a few.

The Forum was originally laid out in 625 BC, when the swamp that occupied the space between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, was drained. The sewer built to drain it, called the Cochlea Maxima is still in operation today. Later, the Capitoline Hill became the site of Rome's sacred temples and the Palatine became the home of the Caesars.

Golden Age
The Forum most likely reached its Zenith during the second century AD, sometimes called the Golden Age. There were four emperors during this period; Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Although the personalities of these men were very different, together they succeeded in keeping the Empire stable. The Sacra Via (central roadway in the Forum) would have seen the triumphs of these men and the speeches they gave at the rostra. By that time, the Senate House had lost its standing because political power had been removed from the Senate. Still, it remained standing (as it does today), symbolizing the accomplishments of the Republic.

Fall of the Empire
The Forum met an inglorious end when the Western Empire fell. Its monuments were neglected and the marble and bronze hauled off to be used in the construction of Christian monuments. The church retained no respect for structures erected by a pagan empire, so fourteen centuries saw the Forum waste away as a Campo Vaccino (cow pasture). It wasn’t until 1898 that excavations of the Forum began in earnest. By then, a united Italy was an independent nation looking to its own history and accomplishments with pride and wanted to share them with the world. I’ve been to the Forum twice (twenty-five years apart) and the excavations that took place between those trips brought to light many new structures.

Here are the instructions for downloading the app.

1) Install VoiceMap from the iTunes App Store or Google Play, 
or by going to  
2) Sign up with Facebook or email
3) Select Rome from the list of cities and regions
4) Select “Rome The-roman-forum”
5) Buy the tour (The Forum tour is free right now). The download will start immediately.

VoiceMap works offline and uses GPS to play audio automatically

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Melodramatic Funeral of Julius Caesar

Almost everyone knows the story of the death of Julius Caesar, as Shakespeare has reminded us. He was assassinated on the Ides of March 44 BC by a group of disgruntled Senators who believed him to be on a path to become dictator and destroy the Republic.

The truth is Caesar was merely one of many who pushed the Republic to extinction. The collapse began in 133 BC with the murder of Tiberius Gracchus, continued through the dictatorships of Marius and Sulla, and ended with the formation of the Principate under Augustus in 30 BC. That didn’t matter to the Senate of 44 BC that was struggling to hold on to power.

Caesar’s image had been carefully cultivated by his followers prior to and after his ascension to power. His military accomplishments were advertised and his efforts on behalf of the people were socialized. Caesar was a patrician, latest member of the ancient family of the Julii, which dated to the founding of Rome. That historical link helped lend a sense of honor and stability to the name Caesar.

Caesar’s greatest offence was to put his image on Roman coins, a place previously reserved for the gods. This was calculated symbolism designed to reinforce the notion that Caesar himself was a god, and this was proven by his image on the coins.

But this was a marketing campaign aimed directly at the people and never bought into by the Senate, so they assassinated him as a threat to their power.

Appian describes Caesar’s funeral and its melodrama.

Caesar’s father-in-law, Piso brought his body to the forum and it was placed on the rostra surrounded by an armed guard. The large crowd was of one emotion and Antony saw it as his role to whip them into a fever pitch.

It is not right, my fellow-citizens, for the funeral oration in praise of so great a man to be delivered by me, a single individual, instead of by his whole country.

Antony went on to read out all the honors bestowed on Caesar, one at a time, using words like "sacrosanct", "inviolate", "father of his country", "benefactor", or "leader", a combination never used to describe another Roman.

And he read out the oaths, by which they all undertook to protect Caesar and Caesar's person with all their might… those who failed to defend him were to be accursed.

Antony turned to the body and chanted heavenly praise for the dead man,

And you", he said, "were also the only man to avenge the violence offered to your country 300 years ago, by bringing to their knees the savage peoples who were the only ones ever to break in to Rome and set fire to it." This is a reference to Caesar’s victory over the Gauls who had attacked Rome in 390 BC.

Antony took the cape that covered Caesar’s body, stuck it on a spear, and waved it about so the crowd could observe the blood stains on it. By now the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy and was demanding the death of the assassins who had struck down their leader. Suddenly a wax body of Caesar rose above the rostra for all to see. It was sitting on a platform and attached to a mechanical device which utilized a crank to make the body rotate. On it were painted 23 marks of blood showing the locations of the stab wounds on Caesar’s body. Round and round it went for all to see.

When Antony was finished, people rushed to the rostra with the intent to take Caesar’s body up Capitoline Hill and burn it at the most sacred site in the city. But the priests intervened saying that the risk of an uncontrolled fire was too great and they would not allow the body to be burned there. So the people carried Caesar’s body to the east end of Forum square intending to create a funeral pyre there. They grabbed wooden benches and broke them up to provide fuel for the fire.

After the fire was lit, it burned for twenty-four hours in the midst of a crowd of thousands. Years later, the Temple of the Divine Caesar was constructed on that site. Today, the temple is gone, and only a part of the altar remains. Still, there are Romans who place flowers there every day in honor of the great man.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Ides of March and Julius Caesar

On the eve of the Ides of March we start with a cartoon -- Caesar with a contemporary twist.

My thanks to Guido Giuntini for allowing me to use this.

Does everyone know the details of Caesar’s death? Perhaps a review would be helpful.

The Ides were one of the three calendar divisions in the Roman month. In its original version, the Roman calendar designated the date of the new moon as the start of the Kalends, the date of the half moon the start of the Nones, and the date of the full moon the Ides. Oddly, the Roman days were referenced by counting down to the next period rather than counting up. So March 2 was VI Non Mar, or six days until the first day of the Nones. When the month reached the Nones, days were counted down until the Ides. After the Ides, the days were counted down until the start of the next month. So the day after the Ides might be XV Apr – fifteen days until April.

In the year 44 BC, Caesar planned to address the Senate on the Ides but at the last minute thought of cancelling the meeting because the auspices were negative. To make matters worse, his wife had nightmares about him being assassinated on the Ides, but Caesar dismissed these superstitions and kept the meeting as scheduled.

The conspirators sent Caesar’s cousin to fetch him knowing that he would not raise any suspicion. Then, with Caesar enroute, the conspirators waited with great anxiety. They feared being discovered and could hardly endure the endless passage of time. Finally Caesar arrived and took his seat. As the session began a Senator, Marcus Tillius Cimber, requested that he be allowed to read a petition. As he moved forward, several conspirators gathered around the dictator. Suddenly, Tillius seized Caesar’s toga and pulled it down exposing his neck as a sign for the dagger blows to begin. Caesar tried to rise and, according to one account, stabbed an adversary with his stylus, before being overwhelmed. Suetonius says that Caesar shouted “this is violence!”

As the attack continued, Caesar is said to have pulled the toga over his head, after realizing he would soon die in an attempt to retain some dignity in death. Shakespeare has Caesar utter, “Et tu Brute (you too Brutus?), but these were the playwright's words written for dramatic effect. Their work complete, the conspirators fled, either through fear or shame at what they had done. Caesar's body lay alone in the chamber for some time until it was retrieved by his slaves.

A physician was called in to examine Caesar’s body and counted 23 stab wounds. Only one was lethal, the second blow struck, which entered his chest.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Trump in the Ancient World?

I decided to interrupt my series on the Byzantine Empire to write a piece about the current political climate in the United States. Not in my lifetime has there been such a state of confusion in American politics, so I’d like to try and ease people’s minds using ancient history as a context.

Since Donald Trump took office, there has been a cataclysmic angst enveloping the country, which shows no signs of abating. This angst, in my opinion, is based on three factors. The first is the relentless attack on Trump by the left, through the media and in demonstrations. This has created pressure on elected democrats to adopt a scorched earth strategy regarding Trump (burn down everything). One would expect disappointment and anger to follow any close election, but it is outsized and more visceral this time, even when you consider the media’s handling of the drama.

The second factor is a rebound response from the left based on their shock that Hillary lost combined with second guessing on why this happened. The left was very comfortable with continuing the trend toward a more socialist/progressive federal government, and their ease with the prospects for it to continue after 2016 were fueled by the media and the wide rejection of Trump as a candidate who could win. Unfortunately, their arrogance led to complacency.

The third factor, which crosses all political stripes, is the break in behavior Trump has made from every president before him. He doesn’t play the establishment role -- no quiet consultation and analysis on issues, no stiff control of information, and no politeness, to be honest. This is jarring to the public, because it’s all new and gives an impression of chaos, or an approach to governance that seems out of control. Republicans are as nervous as democrats.

The great sociologist Max Weber wrote about the basis for legitimacy of political leadership and defined three types: hereditary, charismatic, and rational-legal. Hereditary legitimacy is power based on family. This is the traditional royal family model where the son of the king becomes king. An unfortunate byproduct of this form is uneven quality of governance in and between generations. If the son of a great king is a loser, the political system goes through a period of instability. I often cite the example of the British crown as an example of this phenomenon. At the time of Henry VIII, the British monarch had ultimate power over the realm and Parliament was operating as a powerless opponent. After Henry, and through subsequent generations, Parliament used periods of poor kingship as opportunities to transfer power to itself. The endpoint of that process was a ceremonial monarchy devoid of power.

Charismatic legitimacy is granted by popular opinion. The personality of the leader is such that citizens take pride in being ruled by and expect great things from someone who is an elegant speaker and can control their emotions. But there are at least two problems with this. The first is that the power only lasts as long as the leader. When the leader goes away, there is a vacuum created when the next leader is less charismatic, so this type of legitimacy the least stable of the three.

But there is a second problem also. Charisma is dangerous when the leader is motivated in a direction that runs counter to the interests of those being governed. Think Hitler. Definitely charismatic; but at the same time a bad actor. More recently, we have the example of Obama who, unlike Hitler, never wavered from his effort to make America better. His legitimacy was based on charisma; not experience. Prior to being elected, he had served four years in the Senate and seven years in the Illinois legislature -- a short resume. But he was the perfect charismatic candidate – a black man who was intelligent, articulate, accomplished, and convincing in his argument that he could usher in a new era of unity for the United States. He also enjoyed the lucky circumstance of running against a party that had been in power for eight years with an uneven record. In the end, despite his charisma, it’s fair to say that the Obama presidency accomplished less than the American people had hoped for.

The third type of legitimacy is called rational-legal. This describes a formal structure which, in itself, grants legitimacy. In the United States we have a system of voting that allows all citizens to cast ballots for a slate of candidates. Checks are in place to make sure that citizens are not denied the right to vote and that the votes that are cast are legitimate. The American public’s belief that this system is honest grants legitimacy to those elected. Recall the hanging chad election of 2000. Once the votes were checked and re-checked, and the American people saw there was no corrupt process at work, Bush took office, and was accepted as president by the American people.

Now, with Weber’s theory as a backdrop, I’d like to go back to antiquity and look at a couple of relevant examples. There was no rational-legal option in those days, at least in the way we would see it today. Most ancient political systems were authoritarian and in the case of a few exceptions, participation was not equal. Only men who were landholders could vote or serve as candidates, and there was the always the potential for large scale corruption of the voting process. That means that political legitimacy was limited to heredity or charismatic behaviors.

The first example is Solon, the great republican of Athens, who rose to power around 600 BC, at time when Athens was in great disarray. As Plutarch puts it, “the state was on the verge of revolution, because of the excessive poverty of some citizens, and the enormous wealth of others, and it appeared that the only means of putting an end to these disorders was by establishing an absolute despotism.” Solon was elected Archon in 594 because “most sensible men in Athens perceived that he was a person who shared the vices of neither faction, as he took no part in the oppressive conduct of the wealthy, and yet had sufficient fortune to save him from the straits to which the poor were reduced”. Solon’s charisma and forceful personality led party leaders to urge him to take absolute power and make himself king. But he saw risks in that title and refused.

Athens was the first great democracy in the history of the world, and stands as an enduring example of a government granting rights to their citizens, but Solon was not a democrat. He was a republican who believed that republics were a better form of government than democracies. He rejected democratic equality – choosing instead a way of creating a balance between the classes. He believed the strengthening of the middle class would neutralize the conflict between the upper and lower, a sentiment we often discuss today.

To rule properly, Solon thought it best to “combine force and justice together” and he became “Trump-like”. He started changing Laws. What laws? Nearly all of them. He cancelled all debts and obligations in Athens, repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own, and then he wrote a new constitution. These efforts were based on his judgment that the establishment was no longer working and needed to be overturned.

After his goals were accomplished, Solon resigned from power and left Athens -- a rare case of a man who held charismatic power but refused to be corrupted by it.

My second example is Julius Caesar. Highborn as a member of the family Julii, Caesar aspired to wealth and power. He knew that the family name and his status as a patrician gained him hereditary legitimacy for a career in government, but that was not enough. He wanted more. Caesar was intelligent with significant political instincts, but he saw obstacles in his intended path. He had enormous debts, which left him poor compared to men like Crassus and he possessed a weak military record which could not be compared to that of Pompey. The solution? Align with his two rivals until he could sharpen up his resume. 

Engaging his political skills, Caesar suggested that he, Pompey, and Crassus form a unique administrative structure called a triumvirate, which would have all three rule the republic as partners. Then, once that structure was put in place, Caesar had himself made governor of Gaul.

For ten years Caesar ruled Gaul through a series of wars that left him with first rate military credentials and great wealth based on tax collections and bribes. Now sensing superiority over his partners (Crassus indifference to power and Pompey’s lack of political skill), Caesar made his move when he crossed the Rubicon. Defeating his rivals, be became supreme dictator of the republic. But whatever charisma Caesar may have had, it was not enough to overcome the anger and displeasure of the ruling class toward his arrogant theft of power. The republic was not ready to give up its trappings, so Caesar was assassinated. Unfortunately, the resulting vacuum of power caused further instability. The Senate had no great leader to help them restore the old Rome, so the republic drifted through fourteen years of contests for power until Octavian was able to win out and build a new political system.

Unlike Solon, Caesar was corrupted by power. He used charisma to his advantage but went too far. The last straw for the Senate was when he put his image on Roman coins, a place previously reserved for the gods.
So now we fast forward to the current day, and return our discussion to Mr. Trump. Elections throughout history have shown us that leaders get elected for a reason, not luck. It’s usually the merging of a personality with the times (works in Trump’s case), based on events that occur during the election campaign, emerging external threats, or the failures of the previous administration. Trump got elected because a) the democrats had been in power for the previous eight years, b) Mrs. Clinton was a flawed candidate who represented the establishment, c) people we fed up with the failures of an establishment-driven government, and d) Trump, as a successful businessman and outsider, was able to communicate to the American people about what he could accomplish.

Trump’s style is populist, a cousin to charisma. One would not call him charismatic in Weber’s sense, although success in business might engender respect, but populists succeed because people like leaders who they think understand their problems and want to fix them. Trump created enough support so that the rational-legal legitimization process could carry him to the white house, even though he channeled more cowboy than statesman.

American elections are always about the political pendulum and which way it’s swinging. Right left right left. The swing is never uniform because its endpoint is partly determined by the uniqueness of the recent past, and we end up being pushed to a new place. Societies move forward in “fits and starts” because human behavior is often irrational, so a government can never be more than the sum of its people’s humanness.

There have been a thousand Trumps in world history even if there have been none in America. In the end, Trump like every other elected leader will endure or fail based on what he is able to accomplish for the American people. If we can become more relaxed about his style and avoid too many literal interpretations of his behavior, things have a chance to get better.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Byzantine Empire 610-668

The next chapter in the history of the Byzantine Empire features two emperors, Heraclius and Constans. Their ability to survive an onslaught of wars that would have brought down many an empire would solidify the Byzantine model for centuries to come.

As mentioned in the previous article, Heraclius became successor to Phocas when he led a rebellion against him in 610. Heraclius reigned until his death in 641, and his military accomplishments were amazing as you will soon see.

The map shown above summarizes the military activity of the Byzantine Army during the reign of Heraclius. Click on the image to enlarge it.

            611 – The Persians attack and take Antioch
            613 – The Byzantine Army is defeated at Antioch by the Persians
            613 -- The Persians move south and take Palestine
            616 – The Persians attack and threaten Anatolia near Constantinople
            616 – The Persians attack Alexandria
            622 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians in eastern Anatolia.
            624 – The Byzantines capture Theodosiopolis and move into Armenia
            625 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians at Atropatene
            627 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians near Nineveh
            628 – The Byzantine–Persian War ends with a peace treaty

Meanwhile, starting in 622, Muhammad took over the Arabian Peninsula creating the kingdom of Islam, which he consolidated until his death in 632. Then in

            634 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Palestine
            636 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Damascus
            637 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Ctesiphon, the Persian capital

The gap in the Byzantine–Persian War starting in 616, is explained by two factors. First, the Byzantines had to re-group after their initial losses, rebuild their army, and borrow money. Second, they were engaged in the Balkans fighting the Slavs, Goths, Bulgars, and Avars; enemies that had to be dealt with before the army could again be directed to the east again. At one point in 616, Constantinople, itself, was under siege by the tribes of the Balkans from the west and the Persians from the east.

Heraclius turned out to be the consummate war leader, who was able to withstand all the attacks on his empire, but died an ill man, broken by the pressure of war. His people did not appreciate all he was able to accomplish and did not miss him when he was gone.

Heraclius window, Martina, had a son with him, who she favored over Constantine the son of his first wife, Eudocia. Constantine was named emperor, but was sick with Tuberculosis, and died after three months as emperor. Martina supported her son Heraclonas as the replacement, but he was eventually pushed aside by the handlers of the eleven year old Constans, the son of Constantine. The boy matured quickly and by 645, ordered his navy to attack the Arabs (Islamists) at Alexandria. The attack force eventually had to abandon the effort when resistance stiffened. During the years 645-648, Constans was on the defensive as the Arabs attacked Byzantine Africa and Cyprus, but then his luck turned. The aforementioned losses were reversed and then in 654, as the Arabs were starting a major attack, an Arab civil war broke out.

Constans used the internal conflict between the Arabs as an opportunity to reorganize the Byzantine army, and he accomplished the task brilliantly. Creating a novel organizational structure called “themata” (themes), he divided the empire into geographical territories. Each theme was made up of a mobile army unit settled in a specific district that it was assigned to defend. Its soldiers were given land grants to tie them to the land and fund the purchase of supplies. This structure created loyalty because every man was now motivated to protect his own property. Each theme utilized a Greek name, such as Anatolian, Thracian, and Armeniac.

In 661, the Arab Civil War ended and from the Byzantine point of view, the wrong side won. The losing side had been easier to create treaties with than the winner, so Constans looked forward to a more hostile enemy. But he also had pressing problems in the west, so he put off going into battle with the Arabs, and sailed for Thessalonica in 662. After setting up a new theme on the Greek Peninsula, the emperor departed for Tarentum in the heel of Italy the next year. He fought the Lombards and was victorious over them before moving on to meet with the pope in Rome. Later that year, Constans moved on to Sicily which was strategic to his efforts to strengthen his control over Italy and Northern Africa.

In 665, there was an Arab attack on Africa which had to be fought off. Meanwhile the Arabs continued to peck away at imperial holdings in Anatolia. In 668, one of the Byzantine military leaders, Saborius, taking advantage of the emperor’s five year absence, declared himself emperor and put together an army force to attack Constantinople. On the way there, he fell off his horse and was killed. This good fortune enjoyed by Constans was short-lived, however, because the emperor was assassinated that summer while in the bath. Dead at 38, he had accomplished much – keeping the Arabs at bay and strengthening imperial holdings in Sicily and Africa.

Key words for this period – Hericlius, Mohammed, Islam, Byzantine Wars