The Roundup #68

The US President is threatening nuclear war with North Korea and military action in Venezuela. On the upside, Ghana launched its first satellite this week, the Perseid meteor shower hits its peak this weekend, and various sports seasons are upon us. So if the world doesn’t end in the next few weeks, we can enjoy innovation, beauty, and athletes.

In the meantime, here’s this week’s roundup. Enjoy!


In light of an upcoming solar eclipse in the Northern Hemisphere this Monday, petroglyphs in New Mexico have been discovered that depict another eclipse from 1097.

A colossal statue from the Iron Age has been discovered in Turkey.

DNA work on Medieval manuscripts is yielding new information about the animals used for the manuscript pages and even if those pages were frequently kissed by humans.

A review of a Third Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh has researchers wondering if, rather than just being tall, Sa-Nakht suffered from gigantism.

From Aleteia:

A 1,200 year old wine press has been discovered in the Negev desert of Israel that was once used by a Roman army unit. However, the math doesn’t seem to add up here so read with caution.

From the CBC:

A replica of the RMS Titanic is being built as a tourist destination in Daying, China.

Dead Links Two: The Letters of Aristotle and Hephaestion

Conversation can be an intimate experience. Moreso correspondence which, unlike the temporary titillation of eavesdropping, can be poured over for ages. It was the premise of A.S. Byatt’s romance Possesssion, and she won the 1990 Booker prize for her efforts (1). And it is the topic of this Dead Links post, for people of the Ancient World are famous for their letters and, oftentimes, famous because of them.

It’s easy to talk about Alexander the Great. The moniker “ὁ Μέγας” has been awarded to him with good reason. It’s easy to focus on his exploits and his empire, his personality, and the Hellenistic empires that grew up after his death in the Mediterranean. But he was hardly alone on his adventures, and hardly can his exploits be chalked up to him alone, even though they often are.

Alexander had with him a group of generals, men he had known since childhood when they were educated together in Macedonia. These generals, upon the death of the king, would carve up his empire and create the Hellenistic world, their names synonymous with their kingdoms: Ptolemy, Antigonus, Seleucus. And one amongst his generals was Hephaestion, considered “dearest of all the king’s friends… [who was] brought up with Alexander and shared his secrets” (2).

Hephaestion was a Macedonian youth who, along with the sons of other important Macedonian leaders, were educated at Pella in the fourth century BCE, trained in the arts of war and tutored in the arts of the mind (3). Philip had convinced (or cajoled) the philosopher Aristotle to leave the Academia in Athens where he had been working under the famous Socratic philosopher Plato to educate these young men, and there he developed longstanding relationships with Alexander, Hephaestion, and Ptolemy.

Much of what we know about Alexander is scattershot and spread across more than a millenium. His exploits are covered to their fullest extent in the Anabasis by the Greek military historian Arrian in the 2nd century CE, the work itself modeled on the Anabasis of Xenophon that detailed the March of the Ten Thousand (anabasis means “journey from the sea”). There is also the highly fragmented Historiae Alexandri Magni of the first century Roman historian Q. Curtius Rufus. And, of course, there were the court historians who rode with Alexander – Callisthenes, Ptolemy (who would become Pharaoh of Egypt), Nearchus, and Aristobulus – none of whose works survive.

The most famous if not the most reliable extant work is the Romance of Alexander, the earliest manuscript of which dates to approximately the 3rd century AD (4). It has indulged the story of Alexander, and even co-opted the use of his court historian Callisthenes as its author. We now refer to the author as Pseudo-Callisthenes because, simply, we don’t know what else to call him (or her, or them). The other major source for information on Alexander comes from the work of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote a history of eminent philosophers, probably in the 3rd century AD as well but an exact date remains elusive.

From these incomplete and varied sources, historians have pieced together a history of Alexander and his generals as they pursued their ambitions across Greece and Asia all the way to India. The army that came with them, composed of soldiers, “staff”, baggage, animals, women and children, and other hangers on relied on an imperfect system of relays back to Macedonia. What good was conquering the world if no one ever knew about it? Despatches and letters travelled the length of the army train back by a series of messengers to Pella, where replies were drafted and returned the same way. This process would have taken months at a time, but was as close to ‘instant messaging’ as was available before the postal service of Augustus in the early Principate. Alexander wrote back to his court, his mother, and to his tutor, Aristotle. And so too did Hephaestion.

The oldest reference that I can find to that personal correspondence is in Diogenes Laertius Book V, Section 27, and it is a tiny line item in a long list of the collected writings of Aristotle, nothing more (5). “Letters to Hephaestion, One Book” (5). And yet, to me, it is more intriguing than the letters Aristotle received from Alexander or Philip, which occur a few lines up in the same list. From those, we could imagine something similar to the despatches Caesar sent back to the Senate, compiled into the Bellum Gallicum; propaganda meant to bolster one’s position and quicken the imaginations of the people. But Hephaestion’s letters to Aristotle may very well have contained something different.

Hephaestion acted as both a general in the army and an engineer, and he may have been asking Aristotle’s opinion on upcoming projects or the ethics of the conquest of Asia they were undertaking. He might have asked about home, or what new books Aristotle was writing. And the correspondence may have been of a much more personal nature indeed.

It is a fairly established theory that Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship was of an intimate sexual nature. The social dictates of sexual preference were much less constrained than they are today. A man was expected to bear children and carry on the family line, but could also maintain a deep, personal relationship with pretty much whomever he chose. ‘Bisexuality”, “homosexuality”, “heterosexuality”: these terms had no meaning in the Ancient World. The Ancient Greek relationship between an older man (erastes) and a youth (eromenos) has been ridiculed as paedophilia and, in some cases, it may well have been. But the purpose of the relationship was just as often not primarily sexual, but was rather a kind of mentorship as a way for the young man to network within society and develop the skills necessary to succeed in that society. It is entirely unknown whether Hephaestion and Aristotle had this kind of relationship, but it is safe to say that the relationship they did have was one that extended beyond a child and his teacher, since the correspondence apparently carried on right up to Hephaestion’s death in 324 BCE.

As such, the correspondence between Hephaestion and Aristotle could offer up perspective on several questions:

  1. What could the missing correspondence have told us about Alexander, Hephaestion, and Aristotle? What could it have told us about the relations between them?
  2. What could the letters have told us about the erastes-eromenos relationship itself?
  3. And what could it have revealed about a close confidante of the famous Alexander the Great, of his experiences on the campaign trail, and of his impressions of the man who changed the face of history in only ten short years?

Unfortunately, we will never know. But if anyone needed a writing prompt, this is certainly a good one.




(1) The Booker Winner, 1990

(2) Curtius 3.12.16

(3) Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon. University of California Press, 1991. pp 58-59

(4) Wikipedia. “Alexander romance“. Accessed August 6th, 2017 at 18:05 EST.

(5) Perseus Tufts. “Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers“. Accessed August 6th, 2017 at 18:13 EST.


The Roundup #67

We’re having what’s affectionately called “unsettled weather” to start off the long weekend in Toronto, so in between bouts of laundry and cleaning the house and getting groceries, here is this week’s roundup! Enjoy!

From The Guardian:

A Roman neighbourhood discovered in Vienne in the south of France is being hailed as a “little Pompeii” by archaeologists excavating now until the end of the year.

A two-meter high statue has been discovered in Angkor Wat, and is likely to be a symbolic guardian of the hospital from the medieval site.


A baptismal font has been discovered at the site of an early Christian basilica in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

A small brass crucifix has been discovered at a major fur trade hub near the Straits of Machinac in Michigan.

Excavations at a Groswater peoples site in Newfoundland has yielded tools that archaeologists believe made this a processing centre for sealskins.

High resolution satellite imagery has been used to identify hominid sites near ancient lakes in Saudi Arabia.

Analysis of DNA from ancient Minoan and Mycenaean sites compared with nearly 300 other peoples, including modern Greeks, suggests that there wasn’t a lot of sharing of genetic material, to put it euphemistically, despite the fact that the Ancient Mediterranean was a crossroads of trade and cultural interaction.

And a skull of the Ainu peoples of Japan has recently been repatriated when it was handed over to the Japanese Embassy in Berlin.

The Roundup #66

In the week since I last posted an archaeology roundup, it feels like seven years instead of seven days has passed in the absurdity of the Trump White House. Spicer out; Scaramucci in. Then Priebus out; Kelly in. Then Scaramucci (Mrs.) out. Trumpcare out; Obamacare in. McCain out; McCain in. Etc, etc, etc. ad nauseam. It’s a good thing that one of the tenets of archaeological study is care and consideration, and so news of this sort is released with a certain degree of stability.

And so, without further ado, here is this week’s roundup. Enjoy!

From The Guardian:

A 1,300 year old wooden coffin – considered the most important wooden object in England from before the Norman invasion – is going on display in Durham, where St. Cuthbert’s body was interred following his death in the 7th century.


A 16th century musical score has been recreated with the help of Ad Lib.

Dafna Langgut, an archaeobotanist, has tracked the introduction of citrus fruit from Southeast Asia to the Ancient Mediterranean.

A monumental tomb, referencing a famous brawl after a gladiatorial match in 59 AD, has been discovered in Pompeii.

Dead Links One – Mago of Carthage

146 BCE: Carthage is burning. After three years and a war waged reluctantly by the people of Carthage and rigorously by the people of Rome, the great African city was collapsing into rubble and embers. For nearly a hundred years, Carthage had countered Rome at every turn, there around every corner as Rome expanded her reach from the village by the side of the Tiber to a conglomeration of cities throughout the Italian peninsula and beyond. The city that had tormented Rome by her proximity was no more.

Once the city had formally surrendered, and before she was put to the torch, she was ransacked, and its population was raped, murdered, and enslaved (or at least two out of three). There is a remarkable article breaking down this systematic razing of a city that was part of the regular modus operandi of the Roman army, but I can’t find it at the moment (*). Carthage’s library was gifted to the kings of Numidia – Massinissa’s sons, Gulussa, Mastarnable, and Micipsa (obviously, these were latinized versions of their names in Numidian) – as partial payment for service as allies of the Romans during the siege. However, one book was kept back from this gift to Numidia, on explicit command of the Senate: the agricultural treatise of Mago of Carthage (1).

Written in the Punic language anywhere from the 6th century BCE down to the 4th, it was 28 books (read: scrolls) on farming techniques (2), and, one could argue, the collected cultural knowledge of the peoples of North Africa. It is understood that it was brought back to Rome and, at the expense of the Senate, translated into Latin by Decimus Junius Silanus after the fall of Carthage in 146 BC (3). There was also apparently an abridged Greek translation completed by Diophanes of Nicaea around the same time. This treatise, saved from the fires of a dying city above all others for Rome, no longer exists. And here’s the worst part: neither do the first Latin and Greek translations of it.

What was in it that Rome demanded it be returned and translated at its own expense?Was the Senate hoping this treatise would teach them how to maximize agricultural output for a growing city population? Rome’s proverbial bread basket did not remain Italy for long. The population of the peninsula grew too quickly for it to feed itself, and the city had been trading and importing grain from Sicily and North Africa for some time before the fall of Carthage.  Did they feel that it could perhaps hold the key to agricultural success in Africa itself? Despite being an enemy of Rome, was Mago considered a great scholar of the ancient world? Did he write well, poetically, beautifully or badly, comedically, clumsily? Did Rome know that his work was prized by the Carthaginians, and so took it to deal a last twist of the knife to the city itself? So many questions!

Mago’s treatise is lost, but it is quoted in the remains of four other works that we do have – insofar as any ancient writer utilized another’s work, it was not quoted verbatim so much as referenced in a paraphrasing or anecdotal way: Columella’s De Agricultura (4), the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder (5), Varro’s De Re Rustica (6), and fragments of Gargilius Martialis (the biography of Alexander Severus in the Historia Augusta is sometimes attributed to him) (7).

But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Let’s look at the chronology so far:

  • Mago writes his treatise on agriculture in Punic somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE
  • Carthage is destroyed in 146 BCE (mid-second century) and the treatise taken to Rome to be translated by Decimus Junius Silanus into Latin and, around the same time, by Diophanes of Nicaea into Greek
  • Varro was a 1st century BCE Roman writer who lived during the fall of the Roman Republic and into the reign of Augustus
  • Columella was a 1st century CE Roman writer who lived during the reign of the Julio-Claudian emperors and died around the same time that Vespasian took over
  • Pliny the Elder was another 1st century CE Roman writer and admiral, who likely died during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum (not selflessly; he was trying to get his ship closer to observe the volcano)
  • Gargilius Martialis lived in the 3rd century CE and wrote about horticulture, botany, and medicine

We’re looking at two to four hundred years between when Mago wrote his treatise and Carthage was destroyed, another 50 or so years from when the treatise arrived at Rome to when Varro wrote about it, another century from when Varro wrote about it and when Pliny and Columella referenced it, and a further 200 years before Gargilius Martialis got a hold of it. Oh yeah, and another 600 years after that before the first extant manuscript of any of these authors’ work can be dated to the 9th or 10th centuries CE and the Medieval period. That’s a separation of what, six or seven degrees from original to what’s available to researchers today?

But here’s my biggest question: more so that the tantalizing potential of what could have been in Mago’s work for the Romans to save it in the first place, why does the only contemporary account of the fall of Carthage not mention it at all? Polybius was a young man from Megalopolis in Greece who was taken to Rome as a hostage (a normal way for the conquering power, in this case Rome, to maintain control over a recently conquered place was to take high-profile hostages where, although they were treated well, it was understood that any action by the conquered city against Rome would mean their executions), and he was taken in and befriended by the Aemilii Paulii family, famous for their crop of conquerors. Aemilius Paullus, son of the Aemilius Paullus who died at the Battle of Cannae against Hannibal, conquered Macedonia. His son, Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, was active in Spanish campaigns in the second century BCE. And the son of Scipio Africanus, who put an end to Hannibal’s ambitions at Zama in 202 BCE, was Scipio Aemilianus, the man who gave the order to finally burn Carthage to the ground fifty-six years later. Polybius was with Scipio Aemilianus at Carthage (or shortly thereafter), and was an eye-witness to it all.

Polybius’s history of “how and by what system of polity the whole world was subjected to the single rule of Rome” (8) – again, available in its earliest form as a palimpsest, a single page reused for another text, from the 10th century CE, and as a complete manuscript dating from the 11th century CE (9) – is one of the primary sources that modern historians use to understand the Roman world during the Republican period. The fall of Carthage was a seminal moment, not only for the survivors of Carthage itself, but for Rome, as the last major Mediterranean power that could blunt its drive to Empire was reduced to ash. Polybius’s friend and former student, the general overseeing the destruction of the city, would be hailed as a hero at Rome when he arrived for his Triumph, at approximately the same time Mago’s treatise likely reached its translators. And yet, it is never mentioned.

Polybius was an industrious researcher, following goat-paths into the mountains to track Hannibal’s course over the Alps with his army and elephants from decades before. More importantly, as tutor to Aemilius’s family, he had access to the libraries of Rome and the archives of the family itself as he was writing his Histories. And yet, he never mentions Mago’s book.

So far as I can tell – though more work is required to confirm this beyond a doubt – the first time Mago’s book is mentioned as a survivor of the fall of Carthage is in Pliny the Elder, who wrote his Historia Naturalis more than two hundred years later. To offer some perspective, this is the equivalent of the knowledge that Napoleon loved Josephine being made public for the first time 23 years from now. I know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so I can only guess at why Pliny’s work is the first mention of the honour paid to Mago by the Roman Senate when they translated his book. But as a known unknown, the importance of Mago’s agricultural treatise is clear (10).

For now, I’m going to follow up with Varro (once the Loeb edition I ordered arrives), Appian’s Punica, and dig deeper into Richard Miles’ giant book of a history of Carthage. In the meantime, look forward to my next foray into this blog series in two weeks’ time.



works to be found and cited

(1) Pliny, Nat. Hist. 18.5 translated by Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff, 1906 – igitur de cultura agri praecipere principale fuit etiam apud exteros, siquidem et reges fecere, hiero, philometor, attalus, archaelaus, et duces, xenophon et poenus etiam mago, cui quidem tantum honorem senatus noster habuit carthagine capta, ut, cum regulis africae bibliothecas donaret, unius eius duodetriginta volumina censeret in latinam linguam transferenda, cum iam m. cato praecepta clarissimae familiae d. silanus. sapientiae vero auctores et carminibus excellentes quique alii illustres viri conposuissent, quos sequeremur, praetexuimus hoc in volumine, non in grege nominando M. Varrone, qui lxxxi vitae annum agens de ea re prodendum putavit.

(2) Wikipedia article on Mago (agricultural writer), accessed 22 July 2017 at 13:55 EST.

(3) Pliny, Nat. Hist. 18.5 (as above)

(4) Columella, De Agricultura, 1.1.18, 3.12.5, 4.10.1, 6.1.3, 6.37.3, 9.14.6, 9.15.3, 12.39.1, 12.46.5; Columella, De Arboritus, 4.10.1

(5) Pliny, Nat. Hist. 17.63-64, 17.80, 17.93, 17.128, 17.131, 18.5, 18.35, 18.97-98, 21.110-112

(6) Varro, De Re Rustica, 2.1.27, 2.5.18, 3.2.13

(7) Wikipedia article on Quintus Gargilius Martialus, accessed 22 July 2017, 14.:01 EST.

(8) Polybius. The Histories. (translated by W.R. Paton). Vol. VI. Loeb Classical Library: Harvard University, 1927, p.455

(9) Polybius. The Histories. (translated by W.R. Paton). Vol. I. Loeb Classical Library: Harvard University, 1922, pp.xv-xvi

(10) Famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, delivered in 2002 during a Department of Defense news briefing.


Loeb Classical Library editions of Varro, Pliny the Elder, and Polybius, among others.

Eckstein, Arthur M. Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius. University of California Press, 1995.

Mattern, Susan P. Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. University of California Press, 1999.

Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. Allen Lane UK, 2010

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The Roundup #65

It’s been a strange and unusual week for the archaeology news that I follow. Space archaeology, exhumations of modern artists, and a bit of stuff from the History Boys at the Daily Xtra. Enjoy!

From the Daily Xtra:

A feature piece on titillating narratives and the prevalence vs acceptance of lesbianism in the Roman Empire.

From ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives:

An update on the status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Leptis (or Lepcis) Magna, home of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (along with a few other people throughout the ages).

From the Royal Ontario Museum blog:

A bit of modern archaeology following a single-use water bottle across the world. Scary stuff!

From the CBC:

Salvador Dali’s body has been exhumed so as to test his DNA and compare it to that of Pilar Abel, who is claiming she is Dali’s daughter. As an extra bit of fun that the artist no-doubt would have enjoyed, it was discovered that his moustache is still in its iconic 10-past-10 position.


A 2,700 year old reservoir has been discovered in Israel, with human figures and other artistic representations carved into its walls.

The potential eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai, a volcano in Tanzania, could damage or even entirely destroy a set of 19,000 year old human footprints. Rest assured, the more famous Laetoli footprints from 3.7 million years ago are some distance away.

An eighth or ninth century fishing weir has been identified in the Thames estuary, helping archaeologists map the shoreline and erosion over the last thousand or so years.

The arrival of early humans in Australia has been pushed back a further 10,000 years after excavations in Madjedbebe in Northern Territory yielded stone tools dated to 65,000 years before the present. Now that’s quite a walkabout.

Faint drawings, so far only visible in sunlight – even a camera hasn’t been able to capture them yet – have been identified in the Orkneys at the site of the Ring of Brogdar, a set of standing stones and a nearby settlement.

Archaeologists have begun a 4-D mapping project of the International Space Station, which has been continually occupied since 2000, to develop an understanding of astronaut (read: human) culture in space.

From the Smithsonian:

A World War II Enigma machine with three rotors (the ones with four are rarer and therefore even more valuable) was bought at a flea market in Romania and purchased for $114 USD recently sold for over $50,000 US at auction to an anonymous bidder.

Dead Links – Introducing a new blog series

A six month hiatus from regular posting on this blog should be explained in all honesty.

I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to introduce you to my new project: a bi-weekly series called Dead Links.

Dead links, in the the world of the internets, are URL links that become broken, irrelevant, or otherwise unavailable over time (so says the Wikipedias). This is also called ‘link rot’, but I admittedly didn’t want to start what sounds like a study on trench foot, so Dead Links it is!

In the study of the Ancient World – or the study of any history at all – we are dependent on primary sources and other contemporary evidence to flesh out and lend credence to our work, as well as keep our occasionally wild interpretations grounded in some degree of reality. These are called extant sources (from the Latin extantem, the accusative singular participial form of extans, the third declension noun meaning “existing” or “standing out”), meaning that these sources are active and continuous.

However, as many historians know, there are a myriad of sources that we know did exists and would afford a wealth of new knowledge and perspectives if only they existed still.

This once-was-but-is-no-longer material is the focus of my new project. Every other week, I will post a summary introduction of the various materials I’m researching and update the bibliographies for each as my research goes further in depth than, say, a Wikipedia article. Ideally these will be part of a much larger cohesive project, but for now a post every fourteen days should keep me on the straight and narrow. Academic rigour, what?

My first four posts will be about the lost agricultural treatise of Mago of Carthage, the tantalizingly lost correspondence between Aristotle and right-hand-man to Alexander the Great, Hephaestion, the Sybilline Books, and the embalmed body of Alexander the Great himself. Watch for them, and enjoy!