Christianity

Early Christianity offered its adherents contact with the divine, community with fellow believers, and the promise of eternal life in heaven. But the religion was suspicious to the Romans for a number of reasons:

• It was not classy: it was a novelty (Romans respected antiquity in religion), and attractive to those on the lower end of the social pyramid, e.g. slaves, women, and merchants. Plus, they worshiped an executed criminal! As I like to say, it was like Scientology without the celebrities.

• Christians also met privately in people’s homes for their religious rituals. What were they up to? Romans practiced their religion in public, and the Twelve Tables forbade people meeting at night. If Christians had nothing to hide, then surely they wouldn’t be so secretive? It may have been a caricature of anti-Christian sentiment, but the notions of one Caecilius Natalis, a character in the Octavius of Minicius Felix (d. ca. 250), probably reflect a certain strain of opinion:

I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites…

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

You can see how the liturgical consumption of bread and wine, designated the “body” and “blood” of Jesus, might lead to this accusation of ritual murder and cannibalism. (Ironically, Christians would accuse Jews of doing much the same thing during the Middle Ages.)

• Perhaps most important, the religion was monotheistic. Or rather – Christians claimed to be monotheists, and spent a good deal of mental energy attempting to save this particular appearance, even though their God had three different aspects in a complex relationship. But they were not tolerant of any other gods, and unlike the Romans, who were religiously broad-minded and instinctively syncretic, Christians refused to acknowledge even the possibility that other deities existed. The Romans, for their part, could not understand this. They didn’t care what you actually believed; participating in the state sacrifices was like standing for the national anthem. Just do it! Then go and do whatever else you want. But when Jupiter looks down and sees that not all the people in the city are honoring him, he might get cranky and punish it. So Christianity was sporadically persecuted by the Roman authorities, not because of anything that the Christians believed, but because of their refusal to participate in the state sacrifices. They represented a security risk.

But in one of the most remarkable reversals in history, Emperor Constantine (306-337) called it all off (his predecessor in office, Emperor Diocletian, was a particularly enthusiastic persecutor of Christians). Constantine’s mother was a Christian, and the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312) sealed the deal: he claimed that God gave him the victory, so he became the patron and protector of Christianity over the course of his long reign. Not only that, but he established a Christian dynasty; following Constantine, all emperors were Christian (except for Julian the Apostate, who reigned for only two years in the 360s). Thus, over the course of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was increasingly Christianized, and its traditional paganism increasingly denigrated. The two classic documents to illustrate this trend are Edict of Toleration of 313, which granted protection to Christians and restored their expropriated property, and the Theodosian Code of 380, which essentially outlawed paganism.

Needless to say, this shift profoundly changed the Roman Empire. But it also changed Christianity – for good and for ill. If nothing else, Christians had to go from hating the empire to defending it, which was psychologically discombobulating. They had to imagine that the conversion of the empire was all part of God’s plan all along. Now it is safe to say that this phenomenon is why Christianity exists today. If the conversion had not occurred, Christianity may very well have gone the way of Mithraism or the cult of Isis. So some people see the conversion of the Empire as a profound triumph. Others see it as an example of someone gaining the world but losing his own soul. In the third century, there were certain benefits to being a Christian, but you stood a very real chance of dying for your faith if you became one. So you had to mean it. Now that Christianity had the backing of the state, people started to convert opportunistically, and so it lost some of its fervor. You didn’t need to be a Christian to get a job with Constantine, but it sure helped. So people became Christians, but did they really mean it? At the same time, Constantine may have been Christian, but he was still the emperor, meaning that he had to do all the political things that emperors do, like executing criminals, waging war, cheating people to reward others, etc. Like a political party out of power, at one point Christians could afford to be ideologically pure, but once they got their hands on power, they needed to make all sorts of compromises. (Right from the start! Does the God of the Christians really make his will known by the results of battles?)

Some other effects of the conversion of the fourth century include:

• A concern with orthodoxy (“correct belief”). The longer that Christianity went on, and the wider it spread, the more likely it was that different people would adopt different opinions about what it all meant. When the state was persecuting Christians, these differences were of secondary importance, but once the state started to favor Christians, they immediately started sniping at each other and jockeying for position. Constantine, embarrassed by this, personally called the Council of Nicaea (325) to sort out the question of whether “there was a time when Jesus was not.” (Answer: No! Don’t be fooled by the titles “God the Father” and “God the Son” – the one did not give rise to the other, as the names would suggest; both of them, along with the Holy Spirit, existed from before all time.) Since Christianity is not tied to a particular ethnic group, there is nothing to distinguish the Christian from the non-Christian except belief, expressed through the Creed (from credo, “I believe”). Christianity acted like Communism, with a party line that you had to adhere to. If you didn’t, you were a heretic (from the Greek word for “choice,” which was invariably a wrong choice). The early Christians did not “celebrate diversity” the way we do – “following the devices and desires of our own hearts” will lead straight to Hell, and people need firm guidance to in order avoid it. Other opinions declared heretical around this time included Pelagianism (the idea that you can work your own salvation), Donatism (the idea that the sinfulness of a priest renders the communion he performs inoperative), and Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one divine nature while on earth, instead of two).

• A concern with theology. When educated pagans converted to Christianity, they were appalled at its intellectual poverty. Thus did St. Augustine (354-430) and other so-called Doctors of the Church attempt to provide some philosophical heft to the religion. Augustine’s City of God, for instance, provided a Christian interpretation of all world history. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul had declared that the world’s wisdom was foolishness. After the fourth century, this was no longer the case.

• A reimagining of the concept of sainthood. At the very start, I understand, Christians called each other “saint” (“holy”) in the same way that Communists used to call each other “comrade.” Members of the LDS church still adhere to this custom. Soon the title was reserved for martyrs: people who had been witnesses for their faith, even unto death. Martyrdom was a one-way ticket to heaven and martyrs were hugely prestigious for the Christian communities that produced them. Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”; a more contemporary way of putting this would be “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” But with the conversion of the empire, there were no more martyrs being created. Some people felt relieved about this, I’m sure. Others were deeply disappointed, as though they were always hoping to achieve this happy state. The disappearance of martyrdom did not lead to a withering of the concept of sainthood, however: other servants of the church like competent and well-loved bishops, generous church patrons, or learned theologians could all became saints, and did.

• The advent of the intercessory power of sainthood. With the conversion of the empire, it was easy to figure heaven as parallel to the imperial court. Just as a supplicant could not approach the emperor directly, but had to go through one of his courtiers, so also Christians started to think that it was presumptuous to pray directly to God. It was much better to go through a saint, who was in heaven with God and who had his attention, but who had once been human and was familiar with human concerns. The saint could pass your prayer on to God; he might even be deputized to answer prayer himself. Thus did certain saints come to exercise particular competencies, which were often suggested by details from their lives: if St. Lawrence was executed on a gridiron, he could become the patron saint of cooks; if St. Lucy had her eyes gouged out, you should pray to her if you’re experiencing eye trouble.

• An emphasis on relics and pilgrimage. Some people claim that the Christian veneration of relics (the bones of saints, and other things they left behind) grew out of the pagan cult of heroes. Indeed, there is an interesting story in book one of the Histories of Herodotus, when the Spartans asked the Oracle at Delphi whether they should go to war again against Tegea, and the Oracle replied they should acquire the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon – which they did, and which helps to explain the Spartan advantage in war. But the pagans were nowhere near as obsessed with relics as Christians were, and to my mind the Christian interest in relics derives from their doctrine of the resurrection of the dead – in the Last Days, the dead will be raised for the final judgment. Saints retained a certain connection with their earthy remains, which Christians treated with the utmost respect. (All the same, I suppose the notion of relics holding power would be something that a newly-converted pagan would understand.) Prayers to saints were particularly effective in the presence of these relics, so people would sometimes travel long distances to make their requests (or to give thanks for prayers already answered). This is known as pilgrimage and it was a distinctive feature of medieval Christianity.

• The rise of monasticism. If martyrdom was no longer an option, some people tried to become ascetic “living martyrs.” The entire empire was ostensibly Christian, but it was just as bad as it ever was, so some people wanted to withdraw from it. St. Anthony (d. ca. 356) was one such – he withdrew into the Egyptian desert, ate as little as possible, and prayed full time to God. (Unfortunately for him, he achieved such a reputation for holiness that he attracted great throngs of people seeking his advice.) His performance was designated “eremitical” monasticism, and it inspired numerous other people hoping to reach the same level of holiness. Not everyone was quite as dedicated as Anthony, however, and eventually some of these desert fathers began pooling their efforts – one person went to look for food, while the others stayed behind to pray or do other tasks. This represents the beginning of “cenobitical” monasticism, which achieved its most celebrated form in The Rule, a blueprint for establishing a community of monks, by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Monks, especially Benedictine monks, became a regular feature of life throughout the medieval west.

Needless to say intercessory sainthood, relics, pilgrimage, and monasticism are not endorsed by the Bible and as a consequence were rejected by most Protestants in the sixteenth century. A lot of them were skeptical of the conversion of the empire.

Disasters

• What caused the Bronze Age Collapse? Eric Cline, author of 1177, gives an interview about it:

The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible. Certainly some of the members of the general public who have left reviews of my book on Amazon seem to want that still, and are miffed that I even-handedly go through the evidence and then conclude that there isn’t a simple solution. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multi-causal explanation, because in this case Occam’s Razor (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it. Although I think it seemed very logical to early scholars like Gaston Maspero and others to blame the Sea Peoples, they originally formulated that hypothesis based on Ramses III’s inscription at Medinet Habu and not much else. But, it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. As you point out, the mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that we can’t just blame the Sea Peoples for everything, much as one might want to do so.

Thus, my main thesis is that there must have been a ‘perfect storm’ of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BC. There is both direct and circumstantial evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions, all at that approximate time. Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?

• From the National Post:

Everyone was dead: When Europeans first came to British Columbia, they stepped into the aftermath of a holocaust

Everywhere they looked, there were corpses. Abandoned, overgrown villages were littered with skulls; whole sections of coastline strewn with bleached, decayed bodies.

“The skull, limbs, ribs and backbones, or some other vestiges of the human body, were found in many places, promiscuously scattered about the beach in great numbers,” wrote explorer George Vancouver in what is now Port Discovery, Wash.

It was May 1792. The lush environs of the Georgia Strait had once been among the most densely populated corners of the land that is now Canada, with humming villages, harbours swarming with canoes and valleys so packed with cookfires that they had smog.

But the Vancouver Expedition experienced only eerie quiet….

“News reached them from the east that a great sickness was travelling over the land, a sickness that no medicine could cure, and no person escape,” said a man identified as Old Pierre, a member of what is now the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

After an emergency meeting, the doomed forebears of the Katzie decided to face the coming catastrophe with as much grace as they could muster: Every adult returned to the home of their parents to wait for the end.

“Then the wind carried the smallpox sickness among them. Some crawled away into the woods to die; many died in their homes,” Old Pierre told the anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.

• Just over one hundred years ago, the steamer Eastland overturned in the Chicago River, killing some 800 people. From the History Channel website:

The disaster was caused by serious problems with the boat’s design, which were known but never remedied.

The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.

On July 24, employees of Western Electric Company were heading to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at 6 a.m. at the dock between LaSalle and Clark streets to be carried out to the site by five steamers. While bands played, much of the crowd—perhaps even more than the 2,500 people allowed—boarded the Eastland. Some reports indicate that the crowd may also have all gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photographer, thus creating an imbalance on the boat. In any case, engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ballast tanks, which holds water within the boat and stabilizes the ship, and the Eastland began tipping precariously.

Some claim that the crew of the boat jumped back to the dock when they realized what was happening. What is known for sure is that the Eastlandcapsized right next to the dock, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people alive. More than 800 others perished. Police divers pulled up body after body, causing one diver to break down in a rage. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent bodies from washing out into the lake. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.

Things I did not know until this year

• According to a drama major in one of my classes, a theater (-er) is a place, while theatre (-re) describes the acting profession. And here I thought it was just a British variant spelling still acceptable in the US.

• “Thespian” to describe an actor derives from Thespis of Icaria; “Thespian” as a demonym describes someone from Thespiae in Boeotia. These Thespians were with the Spartans at Thermopylae (not that the movie 300 shows them).

Thoughts on Book 4 of the Histories of Herodotus

Of all the people described by Herodotus, the Scythians seem the most “barbaric,” in both senses of that word (according to 46, though, they are quite “clever”). The Scythians are to the Persians what the Picts are to the Romans, or the Mongols to the Chinese: semi-nomadic invaders from the north, who cause nothing but trouble. Unfortunately their barbarian nature makes them hard to conquer, or so Darius discovers.

The Scythians are not the only people detailed in Book 4. Along with Scythian neighbors (such as the Budini, Issedones, and Hyperboreans), the reader is also treated to some details about Libya – in Herodotus, a general name for Africa, or at least North Africa. Herodotus explicitly compares Scythia with Libya in 29-30, through the lens of climate: Scythia is cold, and Libya is hot, and this affects the growth of animal horns: in Libya they grow quickly, and in Scythia hardly at all (also 129: “there is not in the whole country of Scythia an ass or a mule at all, because of the cold”; see also Herodotus’s remarks on the thickness of Persian and Egyptian skulls in 3:12). At this point, Herodotus invokes “the testimony of Homer,” citing a line from the Odyssey about horn-growing Libyan sheep as “correct” evidence for his theory. One certainly gets the sense here that Herodotus is aware of Homer’s prestige, but that he is writing a different sort of work; he cites the poet, but minimizes his overall importance. (Interestingly, Herodotus does not cite Homer when discussing the Libyan Lotus-Eaters in 177, even though they appear in book nine of the Odyssey.)

In 151, the Oracle tells the Thereans to colonize Libya, and they found Cyrene, to the west of the Nile, under Battus. After a rocky start the Oracle recommends a Mantinean commissioner for reform (in 161), to help the Cyreneans organize themselves as a proper polis. They have an influence on their Libyan neighbors, like the Asbystae, who “more than any others of the Libyans, are drivers of four-horse teams to the chariot, and in most of their customs they imitate the Cyrenaeans” (170). Otherwise, Libyans are strange: among the Auschisae it is the custom for “each man to have many wives, but their enjoyment of them is in common” (172). The Garamantes “avoid everyone and the company of anyone. They have no warlike arms at all, nor do they know how to defend themselves” (174). The Auseans “enjoy their women in common. They do not live in couples at all but fuck in the mass, like cattle” (180).

The successful Greek colonization of Cyrene contrasts with the unsuccessful Persian attempt against the Scythians. Herodotus reveals his bias in this book – and suggests that he is better than Homer, or at least a worthy successor.

Thoughts on Book 3 of the Histories of Herodotus

I gave a short lecture this evening on Book 3; my comments are reprinted below:

Book 2 deals largely with Egypt, and Book 3 marks a return of Persia to the narrative, although we get the usual Herodotean diversions, including Samos and Corinth in the Greek world; and India, Arabia and Ethiopia on the periphery. Of course, the farther afield you go, the more exotic the people’s customs, like the Ethiopian crystal coffins or the Indian use of ants to collect gold.

An important episode in Book 3 is the so-called Constitutional Debate, starting at section 80. A group of seven Persian conspirators has deposed and killed the Magi who have usurped the throne. They then hold a debate on what sort of constitution they should adopt for their new regime. Otanes goes first, and speaks in favor of popular government (isonomia, or equality before the law), although this speech is more anti-monarchical than pro-democratic and reminds me of Samuel’s speech on the dangers of monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. Essentially, by giving monarchs absolute power, it absolutely corrupts them. Equality before the law acts as a check on this tendency. Megabyzus then speaks in favor of oligarchy, or rule by a few, on the principle that the masses are fickle and feckless. Oppression by kings is bad, but at least kings act deliberately; mobs do not. The next best thing is to adopt a constitution favoring rule by a few – included, of course, would be all the conspirators themselves. Finally Darius speaks in favor of monarchy. It is best to have one ruler – provided he is the best. Oligarchy leads to violent quarrels among the members of the ruling clique, from which a victor, and thus a monarch, emerges – so why not just pick a monarch right off the bat? Democracy, too, leads to faction and partisanship, and then the advent of a people’s champion (a monarch again) who promises to break it up. And anyway, says Darius, Persia has always been a monarchy – why change now? The remaining four conspirators find this speech convincing, and vote for it. So Persia does indeed remain a monarchy.

Now it is highly unlikely that this debate actually occurred. Herodotus himself claims that “some Greeks refuse to believe the speeches took place, nevertheless they did” – without providing any further evidence. It is easy to see why people would be skeptical. Discussing the ideal constitution was a Greek pastime (as the works of Plato and Aristotle confirm), and really only applicable at the level of the polis, where one could afford such constitutional experiment. Ancient democracy, or even oligarchy, did not really scale up; empires required emperors. So of course Darius won the day with his vigorous defense of the traditional arrangements – as though there was ever really another choice.

We have talked about how Herodotus is genuinely curious about and even respectful of other peoples’ customs. But it seems to me that ultimately The Histories is pro-Hellenic, since ultimately it is a Greek history of the Persian Wars. It makes sense that the Persians should choose the form of government that suits them – as Herodotus says in 38: “if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country.” But I would say that Herodotus, the Greek, in this case ultimately looks down on the Persian system. Darius claims that monarchy is good if the king is “the best” – but how does one guarantee this? Does monarchy really serve Persia well when someone like Cambyses is on the throne? Cambyses of course is the Persian successor to Cyrus, and defeats the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, thereby incorporating Egypt into the Persian empire. He executes numerous Egyptians who offer him resistance, humiliates the family of Psammetichus, burns the body of the Pharaoh Amasis in defiance of both Persian and Egyptian custom, and in a fit of anger sends his men on an expedition into Ethiopia without proper supplies, leading to the loss of most of them. But his greatest crime is the impious killing of the Apis bull in Memphis, for which the gods punish him with madness. In this state he kills his brother and sister, shoots a boy through the heart with an arrow, arbitrarily buries twelve Persians upside down, kills the men who had not carried out an order that he had come to regret, and many other crimes. He is put out of his misery when a self-inflicted wound becomes gangrenous.

This is the major drawback of monarchy. There is no guarantee that you’ll get the best man for the job.

Karl Marx proposed that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. He was referring to the advent of Louis-Napoleon in nineteenth-century France, but he might as well have been referring to Book 3 of the Histories. As we read, it is Darius, the defender of monarchy, who becomes monarch. Having agreed that they should have one king, the conspirators devise a method to see which one of them should assume the office. Rather than selecting the one most likely to rule well, they essentially cast lots for the job by seeing whose horse would neigh first at dawn. Of course, this process is gamed by Darius through the judicious use of the pheromones of a mare in heat. Herodotus can’t resist a story of cleverness, and perhaps, he implies, such skills are precisely what a monarch needs to have. But I can’t help but feel that the whole thing makes the Persian monarchy into a sort of joke.

Darius does not die until Book 7, and enjoys certain successes throughout his reign. But before Book 3 is out he is already executing his co-conspirators and their families because he has grown suspicious of them. This is another drawback of monarchy.

Thoughts on Book 2 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book 2 of the Histories largely concerns itself with Egypt. Herodotus is not just the father of history,* he is also the father of ethnography, and his description of the Egyptians suggests that they often do the opposite of whatever the Greeks do: in Egypt, women pee standing up, men sitting down; Egyptians, “preferring cleanliness to comeliness,” practice circumcision; women go to market and are employed in trade, while men stay home and do the weaving (which they do downwards, not upwards). But the Egyptians are not so odd that they have nothing in common with the Greeks. Although they may not be the oldest people in the world (the pharaoh Psammeticus ran a language deprivation experiment and determined that the Phrygians were older), they are certainly older than the Greeks. And Herodotus, being the lumper that he is, matched up Greek with Egyptian gods – and assumed that the Greeks derived their gods from the older Egyptians. (Elsewhere he suggests that the Greeks learned geometry and other things from the Egyptians as well.)

This is a touchy subject. If modern Europeans looked back on the Greeks with admiration, African scholars, in riposte, idealized the Egyptians. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, but the Herodotean notion of cultural priority was emphasized quite a lot by so-called Afrocentrists, including Marcus Garvey, George James, and Cheikh Anta Diop, and was developed into the charge that the Greeks stole everything from the Egyptians – just as nineteenth-century Europeans colonized Africa and expropriated its resources. (When I lecture on this topic I try to say that it is silly to hold the past hostage to present day concerns. Greeks are not stand-ins for “Europe,” nor is Egypt symbolic of “Africa.” They were different people in a different time, and interacted in various ways that may bear little resemblance to our current age. They should be studied as much as possible on their own terms.)

Herodotus is still our main source for Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC), but not for nothing is he called the “father of lies.” It seems that he can’t resist a good story, and I often get the distinct impression that his informants are pulling his leg, while he earnestly writes down everything they tell him. His theory of Egyptian cultural priority is an example of another characteristic: he often draws logical inferences from the facts as he discovers them, which may not actually be borne out by further investigation. Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) suggested that Europeans abandoned Herodotus’s Egyptian theory in the nineteenth century because their racism couldn’t bear the thought that the Greeks weren’t original, but Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa (1997) points out another reason: the decipherment of hieroglyphics in the 1830s meant that we no longer solely dependent on Herodotus for our information on ancient Egypt. As a consequence, we started to discover just how original the Greeks really were, and how Herodotus was simply wrong on this count.

*Patrick Wadden of Belmont Abbey College noted that Herodotus’s extensive discussion of the geography of Egypt, and how it has changed over time, is a topic that historians have only recently returned to.

Thoughts on Book 1 of The Histories of Herodotus

I am currently teaching a multi-institutional course on Herodotus through Sunoikisis, “a national consortium of classics programs.” Combined with the Council on Independent Colleges’ seminar on Herodotus that I participated in last summer at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, I have been learning quite a lot about this most fascinating of ancient authors. Here are some notes on Book 1; others may follow.

***

“I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history.” Thus it begins: the father of history designates himself as the author of his own prose work, winning glory (and presumably taking responsibility for any errors that he may commit). Such a move, of course, contrasts with Homer’s call to the muse to help him sing of gods and heroes at Troy, in dactylic hexameter. So just as Herodotus puts himself forward as the author of his own work, the gods themselves play little direct role in the Histories – although the actors reverence gods in various ways, and frequently consult the Oracle, which is never proven wrong.

Herodotus, for the most part, acts as his own authority. He narrates events, including direct speech, as though he were a witness to them (e.g. 84: “This is how Sardis was captured”). But we know that he was not – how then did he get this information? He claims direct observation for his ethnographic descriptions (131: “I speak from personal knowledge [about Persian customs]”), and this we can accept, even if we are skeptical of some of the more outlandish stories he relates. We can assume therefore that his major source was simply conversations with various people in order to collect information about their past, and indeed he occasionally reveals that he has heard things, particularly when he encounters contradictory information, or when he disagrees with it. (20: “So much I know, for I heard from the Delphians that this was how it was. But the Milesians add this besides…”; 76: “I do not accept… the general report of the Greeks”; 172: “personally I believe that the Caunians have always lived in the same country though they themselves say they are from Crete”). But these are simply groups; he does not list any one person as a source.

(One instance of him consulting a historical record as such comes at the very beginning, when he invokes “Persian chroniclers.” He proceeds to dismiss them, however (5: “For my part I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus.”) A poem of iambic trimeters by Archilochus of Paros is also cited as corroborating evidence of the story of Gyges and Candaules in 12.)

Whether Herodotus is “true” is a question for which we would dearly love corroborating evidence of our own. We are heartened, however, to read that the author is unafraid, at least occasionally, to employ reason to test the veracity of his stories.

Different Sources

One of the maddening things about the history recorded in the Hebrew Bible is that it is not corroborated by many other primary sources. There is no Egyptian evidence, for instance, that the Hebrews were ever enslaved in Egypt – and no archaeological evidence that 100,000 of them were wandering around the Sinai Desert for forty years. Some scholars even dispute the existence of King David. But as we move forward in time some events are attested in other sources. Two of my favorites are below – and they provide very interesting examples of differing perspectives on the same event. The first takes place in 701 BC, when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded the kingdom of Judah and besieged Jerusalem (his predecessor Shalmaneser had already defeated and deported the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC).

2 Kings 19: King Sennacherib sent messengers to Hezekiah with this word: “Say to Hezekiah king of Judah: Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.’ Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered? Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them?… Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: “O LORD, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God… That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.

“185,000 men” is  probably an exaggeration, but we can be pretty certain that this actually occurred, for one of the documents dug up at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the nineteenth century was Sennacherib’s Annals, recorded in Akkadian cuneiform on three hexagonal clay prisms. The relevant bits:

As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with earthwork in order to molest those who were at his city’s gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be delivered annually.

“Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, [and] surrounded him with earthwork.” And…? The reader is expecting a third clause, something about taking Jerusalem, putting the inhabitants to the sword, and razing the Temple. But no such thing is mentioned! Cleary he didn’t manage to take Jerusalem for some reason – and a plague breaking out among his men is as likely a reason as any. (I doubt that it had much of a long-term effect on his state, though, and as he brags he did quite a bit of damage to Judah otherwise.)

It was the Babylonians, of course, who succeeded where the Assyrians failed, who took Jerusalem in 587 and then deported its inhabitants to Babylon as slaves. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539, he famously allowed the Jews to return home. Here is what the book of Ezra has to say about it, the first of our second pair of documents:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

If you think that it’s odd that Cyrus should be so inspired by Yahweh, the God of the Jews… you’re probably right. From the Kurash Prism, a more direct source for the king’s motivations:

I am Kurash [“Cyrus”], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth… whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…. As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.

No mention of the Jews or their God at all! Instead, Cyrus is working to please Marduk, the god of the Babylon he has just conquered – and he ordered everyone to return to their former habitations, not just Jews.

Methinks that the author of Ezra has succumbed to the very human desire to believe that It’s All About Me.

(Both of these pairs [1, 2] may be found in the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.)

Heraldry Before Heraldry

In addition to the post below on medieval heraldry, I have also collected numerous examples of “heraldry” before it came into existence. For your pleasure:

• Herodotus, The Histories, book I: “The Greeks are indebted to [the Carians] for three inventions: fitting crests on helmets, painting devices on shields, and making shields with handles.”

• Numbers 2:1-2: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.'”

• Vegetius, De Re Militari, II:18: “To prevent soldiers straying from their comrades at any time in the confusion of battle, they painted different signs for different cohorts on their shields, digmata, as they call them themselves, and it is customary to do this even now. Also the name of each soldier was inscribed in letters on the face of his shield, with a note of which cohort or century he was from.”

• Tacitus, Germania, ch. 6: “There is nothing ostentatious about [the Germans’] equipment: only their shields are picked out in the colours of their choice…. To throw away one’s shield is a supreme disgrace, and the man who has thus dishonoured himself is disbarred from attendance at sacrifice or assembly.”

• Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum: “Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ.”

• Beowulf (lines 331-37). Beowulf arrives at Heorot:

A high-mannered chieftain
then inquired after the ancestry of the warriors.
“From whence do you bring these embellished shields,
grey mail-shirts, masked helmets,
this stack of spears? I am spokesman here,
herald to Hrothgar; I have not seen
a body of strangers bear themselves more proudly.”

• Homer, Iliad, bk. 18. Hephaestus makes a shield for Achilles:

First of all he forged a shield that was huge and heavy,
Elaborating it about, and threw around it a shining
triple rim that glittered, and the shield strap was cast of silver.
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.

(This passage is followed by 124 lines describing all those things, including the earth, the sky, the sea, the sun and moon, two cities [one celebrating a wedding feast, the other at war], a field, a vineyard, a farmyard, and a dancing floor, making it the earliest recorded blazon, and surely the longest.)

Code of Hammurabi

It should really be the Code of Marduk, of course. Just look at the bas-relief sculpture at the top of the stele:

Hammura1

American Historical Association.

According to people more informed than I am, King Hammurabi (ruled in Babylon, in Mesopotamia, in the early 18th century BC) is the one standing in the posture of respect to the god, who is sitting, holding a symbol of authority, and telling the king which the laws he wants instituted. The classic comparison here is Moses atop Mount Sinai getting instruction from Yahweh; in both cases we see how religion helps to justify the system. These laws aren’t arbitrary! Some human, as important as he was, didn’t just make them up on the toilet one morning. They come from a god, so you’d better obey them.

The two notable features of the Code of Hammurabi are retributive justice (“an eye for an eye”), and differentiated punishment, based on one’s social status. Generally, if you harm a social equal, you suffer the same harm back, but if you harm someone beneath you in the social hierarchy (that is, if you’re an aristocrat and you hurt a commoner, or if you’re a commoner and you hurt a slave), you can always pay a fine and get out of being hurt yourself.* Nowadays we’re appalled by this, of course: as the bumper sticker says, “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind!” And really, if someone harmed me, I wouldn’t be satisfied by getting to inflict the same harm on him – I’d much rather have some cold hard cash for compensation instead. But I have a theory about the lex talionis. That is, nowadays murder, assault, battery, grievous bodily harm, etc. are all crimes – crimes against the state, whose subjects have been harmed and whose peace has been disturbed. Thus does the state reserve for itself the right to punish such actions. This wasn’t always the case – in many other times and places hurting someone was something between you and him – or more accurately, between your people and his people. The state was much more self-interested and self-preservative. Harming someone else was like putting up a fence three feet beyond your actual property line and trying to claim a bit of your neighbor’s yard. This is not something he can call the police about, and it’s not something that anyone will even enforce save for him complaining about it. Violent revenge, in other times and places, was legitimate in a way that it is not in the present-day United States. What retributive justice did, therefore, is to impose a ceiling on the amount of revenge you could take. It’s an eye for an eye – not two eyes, seven teeth, and an ear. It is natural to escalate, to inflict far more suffering than you have suffered, but even ancient states had an interest in stopping such cycles of violence. Thus the proportional (and limited) violence allowed.

* As far as the formal laws were concerned, of course. We have no idea whether these laws were actually enforced, or merely rhetorical. (Nevertheless, laws remain a good historical source for a given society, because no one passes a law against something that isn’t happening.)

Some of my favorite laws from the Code of Hammurabi:

2. If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

This is a wonderful description of trial by ordeal. The river knows! But don’t make your accusation lightly (the stakes are a little higher here than losing a civil suit and having to pay your opponent’s court costs, as is the case in Canada.)

I hope that enterprising Babylonians taught themselves how to swim.

53. If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.

Agriculture was dependent on irrigation – but everyone had to pull together to make sure that it worked.

57. If a shepherd, without the permission of the owner of the field, and without the knowledge of the owner of the sheep, lets the sheep into a field to graze, then the owner of the field shall harvest his crop, and the shepherd, who had pastured his flock there without permission of the owner of the field, shall pay to the owner twenty gur of corn for every ten gan.

Oh, the farmer and the shepherd should be friends! It’s interesting how you either raised crops or you raised animals – rarely did people do both. It’s also interesting how raising crops seems to be the more important activity here – in contrast to ancient Hebrew society, which seemed to favor pastoralism (viz. the gifts of Cain and Abel in Genesis).

104. If a merchant give an agent corn, wool, oil, or any other goods to transport, the agent shall give a receipt for the amount, and compensate the merchant therefor. Then he shall obtain a receipt from the merchant for the money that he gives the merchant.

Here we see evidence of long-distance trade carried out by merchants and their employees – and the perennial temptation to cheat.

108. If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.

110. If a “sister of a god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

Then as now bars were disreputable places. They watered down the liquor! They were so bad otherwise that the Babylonian equivalent of nuns were forbidden to enter them. I wonder if they weren’t associated with prostitution, with the feminine tavern-keeper playing the role of the madam.

142. If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: “You are not congenial to me,” the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house.

It’s definitely a man’s world in ancient Babylon, but I like how women have some rights. Here, she can actually initiate divorce, and as long as she is “guiltless,” she can leave.

215. If a physician make a large incision with an operating knife and cure it, or if he open a tumor (over the eye) with an operating knife, and saves the eye, he shall receive ten shekels in money.

218. If a physician make a large incision with the operating knife, and kill him, or open a tumor with the operating knife, and cut out the eye, his hands shall be cut off.

So Babylon had professional physicians. I wonder if the ten shekels was a floor or a ceiling – that is, was it an especially generous reward for competence, or was it a maximum, to prevent the greedy physician from charging even more? Note that you were punished exceedingly if you failed. That’s just the way it is in the Code of Hammurabi!