Fireside Friday: March 26, 2021 (On the Nature of Ancient Evidence)

Fireside this week, since the last post in our series on pre-modern textile production is not quite done yet (I had a fair bit of other writing to get done this week). Before I dive into this week’s musing, I want to note two things, in case you have missed them.

First, I am opening up ACOUP for guest posts, from other scholars and researchers in the fields of classics, history and archaeology (and broadly related subfields) who want to bring their research to a wider public audience. I am hoping in particular to give you all a greater sense of the wide range of interesting and useful work happening in the humanities as well as giving scholars an opportunity to get whatever small amount of attention my blog can provide on their work. I am especially interested in highlighting the research of graduate students and early career academics, but I am going to restrict submissions for now to folks in the fields of history, archaeology and classics broadly construed (which is to say, topics I feel at least somewhat qualified to assess).

I have set up a page with submission information here, including the general style and format I am hoping to maintain (and a link to a google doc with more precise guidelines). Exactly how guest posts fit into the blog’s posting schedule will depend on the number of submissions I end up getting, but my aim is to run them regularly in addition to my own weekly writings.

Second, in case you missed the announcement on twitter, I want to note that one of your fellow readers has very kindly narrated the Practical Case for the Humanities and Siege of Gondor series (all 300 minutes of it!) and uploaded them as videos. So, if for some reason, you want to hear my writing capably narrated (really, he does a great job, including good descriptions of the images for anyone who might not be able to see them) at a length rivaled by the Snyder Cut, now you can!

Now on to this week’s musing, where I thought I might expound at a little more length than I have done on twitter (not everyone, after all, is on twitter; in actual fact very few people are on twitter, which I think is interesting given its prominence) on the nature of our evidence for the ancient world and its limitations. I thought this might be a particularly good time for the topic, because it goes to some of the difficulties in talking about ancient textile production in particular.

As folks are generally aware, the amount of historical evidence available to historians decreases the further back you go in history. This has a real impact on how historians are trained; my go-to metaphor in explaining this to students is that a historian of the modern world has to learn how to sip from a firehose of evidence, while the historian of the ancient world must learn how to find water in the desert. That decline in the amount of evidence as one goes backwards in history is not even or uniform; it is distorted by accidents of preservation, particularly of written records. In a real sense, we often mark the beginning of ‘history’ (as compared to pre-history) with the invention or arrival of writing in an area, and this is no accident.

So let’s take a look at the sort of sources an ancient historian has to work with and what their limits are and what that means for what it is possible to know and what must be merely guessed.

The most important body of sources are what we term literary sources, which is to say long-form written texts. While rarely these sorts of texts survive on tablets or preserved papyrus (we’ll get to those), for most of the ancient world these texts survive because they were laboriously copied over the centuries. As an aside, it is common for students to fault this or that later society (mostly medieval Europe) for failing to copy this or that work, but given the vast labor and expense of copying and preserving ancient literature, it is better to be glad that we have any of it at all (as we’ll see, the evidence situation for societies that did not benefit from such copying and preservation is much worse!).

The big problem with literary evidence is that for the most part, for most ancient societies, it represents a closed corpus: we have about as much of it as we ever will. And what we have isn’t much. The entire corpus of Greek and Latin literature fits in just 523 small volumes. You may find various pictures of libraries and even individuals showing off, for instance, their complete set of Loebs on just a few bookshelves, which represents nearly the entire corpus of ancient Greek and Latin literature (including facing English translation!). While every so often a new papyrus find might add a couple of fragments or very rarely a significant chunk to this corpus, such additions are very rare. The last really full work (although it has gaps) to be added to the canon was Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia (‘Constitution of the Athenians’) discovered on papyrus in 1879 (other smaller but still important finds, like fragments of Sappho, have turned up as recently as the last decade, but these are often very short fragments).

In practice that means that, if you have a research question, the literary corpus is what it is. You are not likely to benefit from a new fragment or other text ‘turning up’ to help you. The tricky thing is, for a lot of research questions, it is in essence literary evidence or bust. We’ll talk about other kinds of evidence in a second, but for a lot of the things people want to know, our other forms of evidence just aren’t very good at filling in the gaps. Most information about discrete events – battles, wars, individual biographies – are (with some exceptions) literary-or-bust. Likewise, charting complex political systems generally requires literary evidence, as does understanding the philosophy or social values of past societies.

Now in a lot of cases, these are topics where, if you have literary evidence, then you can supplement that evidence with other forms (we’ll talk about in a moment), but if you do not have the literary evidence, the other kinds of evidence often become difficult or impossible to interpret. And since we’re not getting new texts generally, if it isn’t there, it isn’t there. This is why I keep stressing in posts how difficult it can be to talk about topics that our (mostly elite male) authors didn’t care about; if they didn’t write it down, for the most part, we don’t have it.

But let’s say you still have a research question that the ancient sources don’t answer, or only answer very incompletely. Where can you go next? There are a few categories, listed in no particular order.

Let’s start with the most text-like subcategories, beginning with epigraphy. Epigraphy is the study of words carved into durable materials like stone or metal. For cultures that do this (so, Mesootapmians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans: Yes! Gauls, pre-Roman Iberians, ancient Steppe nomads: No!), epigraphy provides new texts to read and unlike the literary texts, we are discovering new epigraphic texts all the time. The downside is that the types of texts we recover epigraphically are generally very limited; mostly what we see are laws, decrees and lists. Narrative accounts of events are very rare, as is the epigraphic preservation of literature (though this does happen, particularly in Mesopotamia with texts written on clay tablets). That makes epigraphy really valuable as a source of legal texts (especially in Greece and Rome), but because the texts in question tend to be very narrowly written (again, we’re talking about a single law or a single decree; imagine trying to understand an act of Congress renaming a post office if you didn’t what Congress was or what a post office was) without a lot of additional context, you often need literary texts to give you the context for the new inscription you are looking at.

The other issue with epigraphy is that it is very difficult to read and use, both because of wear and damage and also because these inscriptions were not always designed with readability in mind (most inscriptions are heavily abbreviated, written INALLCAPSWITHNOSPACESORPUNCTUATIONATALL). Consequently, getting from ‘stone with some writing on it’ to an edited, usable Greek or Latin text generally requires specialists (epigraphers) to reconstruct the text, reconstructing missing words (based on the grammar and context around them) and making sense of what is there. Frankly, skilled epigraphers are practically magicians in terms of being able figure out, for instance, the word that needs to fit in a crack on a stone based on the words around it and the space available. Fortunately, epigraphic texts are published in a fairly complex notation system which clearly delineates the letters that are on the stone itself and those which have been guessed at (which we then all have to learn).

Related to this is papyrology and other related forms of paleography, which is to say the interpretation of bits of writing on other kinds of texts, though for the ancient Mediterranean this mostly means papyrus. The good news is that there is a fairly large corpus of this stuff, which includes a lot of every day documents (tax receipts! personal letters! census returns! literary fragments!). The bad news is that it is almost entirely restricted to Egypt, because while papyrus paper was used far beyond Egypt, it only survives in ultra-dry conditions like the Egyptian desert. Moreover, you have all of these little documents – how do you know if they are typical? Well, you need a very large sample of them. And then we’re back to preservation because the only place you have a very large sample is Egypt, which is strange. Unfortunately, Egypt is quite possibly the strangest place in the Ancient Mediterranean world and so papyrological evidence is frequently plagued by questions of applicability: sure we have good evidence on average household size in Roman Egypt, but how representative is that of the Roman Empire as a whole, given that Egypt is such an unusual place?

Outside of Egypt and a handful of sites (I can think of two) in England? Almost nothing. To top it all off, papyrology shares epigraphy’s problem that these texts are difficult and often require specialists to read and reconstruct them due to damage, old scripts and so on. The major problem is that the quantity of recovered papyrus has vastly outstripped the number of trained papyrologists, bottle-necking this source of evidence (also a lot of ancient papyri get traded on the antiquities black market, potentially destroying their provenance, and there is a special level in hell for people who buy black market antiquities.).

What about pictures? We call this representational evidence. Representational evidence can be quite good at telling you what something looked like (but beware of artistic conventions!), but is of course little help for the names-and-dates kind of historical work. The larger problem though is that representational evidence especially becomes difficult to interpret without literary or archaeological evidence backing it up. The problem of correlating an image to a specific person or object can be very hard (by way of example, the endless debates about what is meant by kotthybos in the Amphipolis military regulations). Representational evidence gets a lot more useful if you can say, ‘Ah, X depicts Z events from B-literary-source” but obviously to do that you need to have B-Literary-Source and B is going to do most of the heavy lifting. To see just how hard it can be to use representational evidence without a robust surviving literary tradition, one merely needs to look at work on pre-historic Gaul (it’s hard!).

Which brings us at last to the big dog, archaeological evidence (although all of the aforementioned also show up in the archaeological record). Archaeology is wonderful, easily the biggest contributor to the improvement in our knowledge of the ancient world over the last century; my own research relies heavily on archaeological evidence. And the best part of it is we are getting more and better archaeological evidence all the time. Some archaeological finds are truly spectacular, like the discovery of the remains of the wrecks from the Battle of the Aegates Islands (241), the decisive engagement that ended Rome’s first war with Carthage (underwater archaeology in general in a young part of archaeology, which is itself a young field so we may well expect more marvels to come).

But (you knew there would be a but), archaeological evidence is really only able to answer certain specific questions and most research topics are simply not archaeologically visible. If your research question is related to what objects were at a specific place at a given time (objects here being broad; ‘pots’ or ‘houses’ or ‘farms’ or even ‘people’ if you are OK with those people being dead), good news, archaeology can help you (probably). But if your research question does not touch on that, you are mostly out of luck. If your object of study doesn’t leave any archaeological evidence…then it doesn’t leave any evidence. Most plagues, wars, famines, rulers, laws simply do not have archaeologically visible impacts, while social values, opinions, beliefs don’t leave archaeological evidence in any case.

Take, for instance, our evidence for the Cult of Mithras in the Roman Empire. This religion leaves us archaeological evidence in the form of identifiable ritual sanctuaries (‘mithraeums‘). Archaeology can tell us a lot about the normal size and structure of these places, but it can’t tell us much about what people there believed, or what rituals they did, or who they were, with only a handful of exceptions, which is why so much of what we think we might know about Mithraism is still very speculative.

Moreover, archaeology only works for objects that leave archaeological remains! Different materials preserve at different rates. Ceramic and stone? Great! Metals? Less great; these tend to get melted down when they don’t rust. Wood or textiles? Worse, almost never survives. This is why we have so much data on loom weights (stone, ceramic) but less on looms (wood, textile), and so much data on spindle whorls (stone, ceramic) but less on spindle-sticks or distaffs (wood). Compounding this are preservation accidents, in that things that survive tend to be things thrown away or buried with bodies and those practices will impact your archaeological record.

But the best part about archaeology is that it has network effects, which is to say that the more archaeology we do, the more useful each find becomes. New discoveries help to date and understand old discoveries and with lots of archaeological evidence, you can do really neat things like charting trade networks or changing land-use patterns. The problem is that you really do need a lot to generate a representative sample so you know you aren’t wrongly extrapolating from exceptions, and for right now, only the best excavated regions (Italy, to a lesser extent Greece and Egypt) are at the point where we can talk about, for instance, changing patterns of land use and population with any detail. And even then, uncertainties are huge.

Finally, archaeology, like everything else, works best with literary evidence. Take, for example, pre-Roman Gaul. The Gauls, due to their deposition practices are very archaeologically visible. Rich burial assemlages, large ritual deposits and archaeologically visible hill-fort settlements mean that the archaeological record for pre-Roman Gaul is very robust (in some cases more robust that the equivalent Roman context; we can be far more confident about the shape and construction of Gallic weapons than contemporary Roman ones, for instance). But effectively no literary sources for Gaul until contact with the Romans and Greeks. Consequently, almost everything about their values, culture, social organization in the pre-Roman period is speculative, with enormous numbers of questions and few answers.

If you want to ask me, “When did the Gauls shift to using longer swords” I can tell you with remarkable precision, in some cases, region by region (but generally c. 250 BC, with the trend intensifying in the late second century). But if you want to ask, “what was it like to rule a Gallic polity in c. 250 BC?” The best we can do is reason from what we see Caesar describing in c. 50 BC and hope that was typical two hundred years earlier.

Which at last brings us to the weakest form of evidence, comparative evidence or as I tend to call it (by way of Jurassic Park), the ‘frog DNA.’ Basically, if the evidence to answer a narrow question doesn’t exist, you can fill in the blank with a similar but better attested (perhaps more modern) society. Comparative evidence is weak, but better than just guessing or, in proper mid-19th century fashion, just assuming that ancient elites and nobles were really rather a lot like your fellow British/French/German/American aristocrats and extrapolating from there.

While comparative evidence can be brought to bear on effectively any question, societies are in fact different from each other; often very different, especially when separated by hundreds of miles or half a dozen centuries. Comparative evidence thus works best when there is a reason to think these societies are similar, for instance when dealing with topics rooted in relatively unchanging realities. For instance, ancient people need to eat too and have similar bodies (and thus dietary needs) to modern humans, so it is possible to reason backwards from early modern subsistence patterns to ancient ones, so long as changing technology and crops are carefully taken into account. That can help fill in the gaps between attested farming practices that show up in either the archaeological or literary evidence (this can be especially true with very simple tasks no literary source bothers to describe in detail because everyone knew, like hand-spinning).

A big part of the training of ancient historians is learning to use all of these sorts of evidence and what their limitations are (and I should note this is only the broadest of overviews, with significant gaps). There is, I think, a mistaken assumption in much of the public that because history (like many humanities disciplines) is done in ‘plain’ English that it requires no particular training. But I hope that even just running over the sorts of sources an ancient historian might use (I should note that the sources for a modern historian are almost entirely different, but no less complicated; plumbing the depths of an archive is its own trained skill) serves to demonstrate some of the necessary training to be able to effectively spin history from the raw wool of the primary sources.

Our trusty research assistant Ollie, having a bit of a nap after a day of hard work.

On to Recommendations.

If for some reason, you want to actually hear my voice instead of just reading, I’ve been on a few podcasts lately. On Russell Hogg’s Subject to Change podcast, we discussed (in what turned out to be two episodes) the military history behind Helm’s Deep and the Siege of Gondor (also be sure to check out some of the other guests that have been on the podcast, including Tom Holland on 300 and the Spartans and David Abulafia talking about The Boundless Sea). I was stopped in on the Warhammer 40k Chapter Tactics podcast to talk imperial dynamics with reference to the setting’s Imperium of Man, which turns into a wide ranging conversation covering tributary empires, administrative state capacity, mobilization and conscription systems and, of course, cohesion.

Over on Youtube, Drachinifel is approaching the end of his informative rundown of the naval aspects of the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II. The series is particularly valuable for getting into some of the nuts-and-bolts of individual engagements where you can really see the impact of information flow and gathering capabilities, with commanders being forced to make decisions based on the incomplete picture they have in a chaotic series of mostly night engagements. The fact that each individual engagement is given its own (often fairly long) video drawing out the movements of individual ships and the decisions of their captains (and in some cases more junior crew) really brings those elements out very clearly.

From Peopling the Past, check out this blog post with Najee Olya, a classical archaeologist graduate student as he discusses depictions of Africans in ancient Greek vase-painting, discussing the promise of examining representational evidence particularly as a way of probing non-elite (or at least, less elite) values and the Greek conception of non-Greeks. I think Olya’s point that we shouldn’t assume a “neat alignment” between the views of the literate elite and the more general Athenian populace is an excellent one (similar to the point I’ve made about not trying to understand ancient religion through ancient philosophic writings), and I personally am really excited to see where this research project goes.

For this week’s Book Recommendation, I’m going to suggest The Army of Ptolemaic Egypt, 323-204 BC: An Institutional and Operational History (2020), by Paul Johstono. Of the armies of the three great successor states of Alexander (the Antigonids, Seleucids and Ptolemies (the latter also called the Lagids)), we have perhaps the best evidence for the Ptolemaic army (a case where papyrus makes the difference; in the literary sources, the Antigonids are the best attested). Johstono uses that evidence to craft an approachable history of the Ptolemaic army down to 204.

The book essentially details two stories that are entwined with each other, tracking both the operational fortunes of the Ptolemaic army – battles and campaigns won and lost – alongside a discussion of the changing institutions and personnel makeup of the army. The two focuses complement each other, the former neatly answering the question of how one gets from the army that Ptolemy I inherits from Alexander to the army that Ptolemy IV marches to Raphia with in 217. The Ptolemaic Army is frequently neglected (and typically somewhat poorly represented in popular culture; the Total War games have never really done the Ptolemies the same justice they’ve done Rome, for instance), so an accessible treatment that the general public can actually read is of great value.

The book has several great virtues. It is, I think, quite accessibly written, despite covering a very technical subject. Even when digging through detailed census data gleaned from Egyptian papyri, the information is kept clear with snappy tables, clearly explained technical terms and so on; this is a book that an beginner in the Hellenistic world could, I think, make sense of with little difficulty. At the same time, the topic is technical, Johstono handles those details well and foregrounds the exact evidence he is using, both in the text (where he frequently refers to specific papyri) and in the notes. For the specialist (or the enthusiast looking to access specialist knowledge), I think Johstono’s book makes an excellent companion to C. Fischer-Bovet’s, Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt (2014), though the two books have somewhat different focuses and do not always agree. In particular, Johstono’s sometimes narrower focus benefits his book; he is, as the title implies, rather more focused on the army than the society and covers it rather higher ‘resolution’ (so to speak) than Fischer-Bovet.

Now if only we could get someone to give the Seleucid army the same treatment (and thus replace the age-worn B. Bar-Kochva, The Seleucid Army (1976); good for its time but alas now decades beyond its sell-by date) and then get an English translation of M.B. Hatzopoulos’ L’organisation de l’armée macédonienne sous les Antigonides (2001) – which is, assuming you read French, I think to be preferred over N. Sekunda, The Antigonid Army (2013) – we ought to at last have a good set of foundational treatments of the major armies of the Hellenistic world.

90 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: March 26, 2021 (On the Nature of Ancient Evidence)

  1. Wondering — I keep occasionally seeing articles about how people are going to extract text from physically-preserved-but-would-crumble-if-you-opened-them scrolls from Pompeii and Herculaneum by means of X-ray based imaging (and software that can account for how distorted everything can be). I guess that effort hasn’t turned up anything major so far? Or do you know anything about the status of that? Like it seems like that could turn up a lot but I guess there aren’t the people and equipment to do it on any large scale?

    (Also kind of wondering whether that would get classed under papyrology or what. 🙂 )

  2. Love the post. Went to (try to) listen to the warhammer podcast, but what happened to your microphone?! Do you not have a real mic? It seemed like it was constantly cutting halfway in and out.

  3. “Unfortunately, Egypt is quite possibly the strangest place in the Ancient Mediterranean world”

    I am now suddenly interested why Egypt was strange. Unusually plentiful food? (after all, it was exporting grain to Rome in significant amounts – but how much of that was ending among local popularion)

    High population density, clear contrast between Nile flooplains and dessert?

    1. I think the abundant food had a lot to do with it. With lots of food you can afford a large class of specialists and elites, and you have huge amounts of manpower to build monuments. Egypt was also relatively isolated from outside influences by leagues of desert giving it the opportunity to develop in unique ways. There definitely was cultural exchange with the Levant and southern African cultures but it was mediated and reapplied in their own way.

    2. We may discuss this later. Part of it is the geology and ecology, but a lot of it is culture. Egypt (like Mesopotamia) is the birthplace of a ‘pristine state’ – a state that formed on its own, not in interaction with other states – and so the cultural and political institutions there are rather unique. Moreover, Egypt didn’t blend as easily into the culture koine of empires that controlled it. In the Roman case, this was intentional – Augustus’ fear that Egypt was the natural base for a potential rival led him to keep Egypt out of the standard organizational pattern of the Roman Empire.

      There’s a lot more there and we may discuss it later, but it’s quite a complex set of factors.

    3. Pre-Christian Roman writers mention that the Egyptians did not practice infanticide, a peculiarity they shared only with the Jews. So, yeah, plentiful food is important and present.

      1. Grain was the real source of Egypt’s wealth, not the gold mines n Nubia or the turquoise mines in the Sinai.

  4. Former archaeologist here — one of my favorite aspects of the field is “experimental archaeology,” where you do things the way you hypothesize they were done in the past, and then see if the remains it leaves behind look like the remains you’ve found. This can be everything from building an Iron Age British hut and then burning it down from the inside in an attempt to determine whether the one you’ve dug up was destroyed by a cooking fire that got out of control or by enemy action from without, to trying different methods of production on a thing and seeing if the detritus that creates looks right.

    My favorite probably came from a dig I worked on at Castell Henllys in Wales (some years before I was there): they found a cache of sling-stones just inside the gate of the hillfort, and they knew from artistic evidence how long slings of the period tended to be. So they found a guy who knew how to use a sling and got him to experiment with some of the stones, and lo: it turned out that the defensive embankment around the fort was, as you might guess, right at the optimal distance for slinging. Enemy charges over embankment; enemy gets rock to the skull.

    1. In college, one or my ancient history professors told me not to go to grad school (not that I was tempted) but to go out and make a lot of money so that I could finance the construction of a fleet of triremes with which we could do experiments in battle tactics. (Actually, you might need two fleets for this experiment.) I have made more money than a classics professor, but alas not enough for this project.

    2. That sort of thing is great. It’s been a huge frustration of mine that academic historians often write a lot of social history about technical things they seem to know nothing about.

      For example I’ve heard academic historians being interviewed on podcasts confidently asserting things about brewing that are simply impossible from a technical standpoint.

      I know a lot about brewing but I know next to nothing about farming etc. which makes me very worried that I’m reading confidently-asserted nonsense about agricultural societies written by people with no practical knowledge of farming etc. etc. and I’d have no way of knowing due to my own ignorance.

  5. The (adorable) picture of Ollie made me think. What’s the earliest attestation we have and how widespread was the practice of keeping pets? For purposes of this inquiry, I’m talking about people who are permanently keeping animals which are NOT work animals. Someone keeping a cat around because he needs something to cut down on the local rodent population isn’t counting, I’m specifically looking for someone keeping a cat around because they enjoy having a cat around and there’s little in the way of conventional practicality about it.

    I realize there’s almost certainly overlap, and I admit to not having a fully definied transition point, but I am curious about the subject.

    1. The Ancient Egyptians were definitely keeping cats as pets bbythe Middle Kingdom if not earlier. Representational evidence in tomb reliefs and stela show cats sitting under their master’s chair and assorted types of dogs. Geese, monkeys, baboons and even Cheetahs were kept. We have burials of what were evidently pet animals, because they died a natural death and so weren’t sacrifices, including dogs, baboons and even a small mare. We have the sarcophagus of a young prince’s pet cat, the Lady Now, and a recently discovered roman era pet cemetery.

          1. There’s another kind of cat?
            Oliver is a beauty isn’t he? And so studious!

          1. Miw was the AE word for cat. Guess why. 😁 Interestingly pet cats don’t seem to have been given names, possibly because cats don’t respond to names? Dogs do and they were named. One dog, belonging to a Middle Kingdom prince was called the Cook P.ot.

          2. Of course, the Romans of the classical period did not give their daughters names, although they did name their horses. Not sure about cats.

          3. Roman girls carried the name of their gens with distinguishing prefixes. In later times they would have whole strings of names derived from their ancestry. Roman boys weren’t much better off. Admittedly they got prenomen but the choice was so limited you had endless generations of the same identical prenomen and nomen.

          4. And then, when you let more than one girl live, you gave them nicknames as well.

          5. Note that the archaeological evidence for Roman infanticide is significant but as far as I know, generally doesn’t seem to suggest a strong sex-selective bias.

          6. Giving your boys names to tell them apart but not your girls is a strong hint.

          7. Not when it contradicts the archaeological record.
            An alternate reason would be boys need to be distinguished because they will remain lifelong member of family and gens but girls will go to other families carrying the gentilical name to indicate the alliance.

          8. Note that, even in a society that severely devalues women (and the Romans were only average in this regard), the individual family calculus may be very different from the social one. Teenage girls may be very profitable, if they spin for the family: more profitable than boys who are off soldiering, even if society values the latter activity more highly. In infanticide, as in so many things, private greed usually triumphs over public good.

            I mostly just think it’s funny that the Romans gave their horses names, but not their daughters.

          9. Nevertheless, despite the extremely limited number of letters we have from the ancient world, we have an instruction from a man to his wife: “If it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it.”

      1. I remember an egyptologist mention that while egyptians kept cats, they didn’t (as far as we can tell) give them names, unlike their dogs (who got basically people-names)

  6. Then you get things like — Caesar wrote about his campaigns in Gaul, and also descriptive passages telling you what Gaul is like. He discusses druids and makes them out to be very important and influential in the later, but if they were so important, why do they have NO mention in his campaigns?

    1. That actually makes me wonder about something else. It’s relatively straightforward to take something like the Gallic Wars and cite to a passage in it to at the very least prove Caesar wrote such and such. In a scholarly paper, how do you cite to the absence of something from a historical document. If I wanted to say that in all of the Gallic Wars, Caesar never once writes about X, I can’t exactly point to a each individual sentence and say how X wasn’t discussed.

    2. Then you get things like — Caesar wrote about his campaigns in Gaul, and also descriptive passages telling you what Gaul is like. He discusses druids and makes them out to be very important and influential in the later, but if they were so important, why do they have NO mention in his campaigns?

      People or institutions can be important in society as a whole without having much to do with fighting specifically. The Catholic Church was a hugely important part of medieval society, but that doesn’t mean that a military history of the Hundred Years’ War would be full of bishops and priests.

      1. It would certainly mention priests or bishops. At least once or twice.

        Druids do not appear in the campaign accounts. AT ALL.

        1. One of the French negotiators before the Battle of Poitiers was, IIRC, a cardinal, but other than that I can’t think of any time when churchmen were involved in the military aspects of the war. And that was in a conflict which lasted, on and off, for one hundred and sixteen years, as opposed to Caesar’s mere eight.

          1. So someone would write a history in which Joan of Arc just got command without the simplest mention of how she got there? That strikes me as improbable.

          2. So someone would write a history in which Joan of Arc just got command without the simplest mention of how she got there? That strikes me as improbable.

            She went to Chinon and convinced the Dauphin to let her join his army. I don’t think any members of the formal Church hierarchy were particularly involved.

          3. On the contrary, he immediately called in the Church to investigate her claims. At the other end, it was an ecclesiastical court that condemned her.

          4. On the contrary, he immediately called in the Church to investigate her claims.

            Which is the sort of detail which can be, and often is, omitted in military histories of the war.

            At the other end, it was an ecclesiastical court that condemned her.

            This, I will grant, is more important, but it’s still the exception that proves the rule. It would be possible to write an account of the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War and only mention the Church once or twice, and so we need not be surprised if it’s possible to write an account of the campaigns of Caesar’s (much shorter) conquest of Gaul without mentioning the druids.

          5. Moot in the case of Caesar’s writings, which were not a military history in the narrow and technical sense you are using. That a different sort of history would have omitted such details is not evidence that he did.

          6. Moot in the case of Caesar’s writings, which were not a military history in the narrow and technical sense you are using. That a different sort of history would have omitted such details is not evidence that he did.

            You were saying that druids didn’t appear in the “campaign accounts”, that is, the military history parts of the Commentaries.

            If you’re saying that the Commentaries weren’t *just* military histories, that’s true; but then, it’s also true that they do actually mention druids.

          7. there’s a difference between military histories and accounts of his campaigns. the other information he DOES include in the campaigns makes the omission anomolous.

    3. It was my impression that the Commentaries are considered a propaganda piece based on the military notes of JC while the ‘ethnographic’ stuff is the result of a compilation of legends by the scribes (not JC!) who did the job of actually writing the thing. The conformity to the original is not even certain and it may have been distorted by copists to fit ulterior wannabe Caesars.

      1. As far as I’m aware, no scholar doubts that the Commentaries were written by Caesar, or that the form we have them in is pretty much the form they had at the time of writing.

      2. Caesar wrote and published the Commentaries as he was fighting in Gaul; they’re reports, roughly contemporary to the events described. At that time, Caesar was probably planning to return home in glory, rather than overthrowing the republic, at which point all those *other* patricians in his legions would have been asked whether Caesar really did take a place in the line in this or that battle, as he claims.
        Of course, the reports are meant to enhance Caesar’s personal standing in Roman society, but at the same time, he must have been aware that any outright lies would have been discovered – and Proconsul Gaius wasn’t invulnerable to legal or social censure, a fact of which he was quite aware (and which the Commentaries, by making Caesar out to be a bona fide Roman hero, are meant to mitigate).

  7. Two small bugs: the “Mesootapmians” and, in “if you didn’t what Congress was”, the verb (probably “to know”) is missing. Unless this is a way to show us what the work of epigraphists look like?

  8. The downside is that the types of texts we recover epigraphically are generally very limited; mostly what we see are laws, decrees and lists.

    And graffiti, which is cool but rarely enlightening on its own. (“Halfdan was here” isn’t very insightful without some idea of why someone with a Norse name would be at the Hagia Sophia. Arguably, it still isn’t.)

    1. The graffiti covered walls of Pompeii are very entertaining and somewhat informative but mostly concern personal matters, Gaius loves Cornelia, Marcus wants Lucius to die! Vote for Piso, that sort of thing.
      There’s classical graffiti all over the colossi of Memnon confirming the story that they ‘sang’.
      And Ancient Egyptian work gangs used to dab their group name, of which ‘Drunkhards of Menkhaura’ is the best, suggesting high morale among the workforce.

      1. I’d argue that graffiti tells us more about the common folk than most literary sources before (at best) the modern period, but you did a pretty good job arguing that yourself with that last example.

  9. I was told by an Africanist archaeologist around 15 years ago that medieval Arab universities often have poorly catalogued archives and collections. He said some of the stuff is quite old and it’s possible there were lost classical works just waiting to be discovered (copies of copies and not originals, of course). Would you say the assessment was correct?

  10. First off 40K has NOTHING to do with reality 😄
    Secondly I think the amount of local trade is being underestimated. You have specialized worlds; Agri worlds who feed Forge worlds and Hive worlds neither of which can possibly sustain themselves.
    There is a vast imperial fleet that ships troops all over the place, because as we know There Is Only War.
    All that given it’s clear that the Imperium of Man is a lot more decentralized than the ideology admits. Sectors and sub-sectors are mostly self sustaining though tithes are paid to Holy Terra and help can be called for from the center. But mostly it’s sector and Segmentum assets taking care of their own.
    The Imperium is basically held together by the religion of the Emperor and the pressure of all those external enemies
    Of course I know 40k from the literature. The game mechanics can be different.

    1. The functional independence of sectors, sub-sectors, and occasionally even worlds combined with the vagaries of warp travel, are one canonically stated reason why it can take the Imperium decades to twig to the fact that Planet A in sub-sector BCD, Sector E, Segmentum Obscura, has declared independence and is now run by the enemy du jour.
      And then it takes a few decades more to assemble the crusade forces needed to bring the entire sub-sector to heel, what with communication difficulties, raising new Guard regiments, repositioning a Chapter’s worth of Astartes and the naval assets needed, not to mention Mechanicus elements like the Titan Legions.

  11. Ironic that some of the most prominent occupants of that “special level in hell” in recent years have been a group of hardcore evangelical Christians, Hobby Lobby founder David Green and his children, who funded the construction of something called the “Museum of the Bible” in DC and apparently tried to stock its collection with looted artifacts from post-invasion Iraq, including cuneiform tablets. (On the plus side, at least the “Wahhabi Lobby” jokes write themselves…)

  12. As a datapoint, I am a regular reader here (great content btw.), and not only I am not on Twitter, I placed it under selfblock few months ago. I wanted to avoid wasting my time via pointless doomscrolling. Also it brings totally unnecessary risk of getting fired after ten years when something I will write today will be grossly ofensive due to changing social norms.

  13. Interesting summary, thanks!
    I think Charles Mann said that we have more Aztec writing (post-Conquest, I assume) than all the ‘classics’.

    typo: underwater archaeology in general in a young part of archaeology

      1. I dunno, but I checked and Mann’s assertion is “In fact, the corpus of writings in classical Nahuatl, the language of the Alliance, is even larger than the corpus of texts in classical Greek.”

        So, not including the Latin classics. On the flip side, not counting post-Conquest Mesoamericans writing in Spanish, either.

  14. At the complete opposite end, Dr Hamish Maxwell-Stewart presented a paper about his work on the convict records from colonial Australia, which are so complete that when specific records were missing (ie pages torn out of a book) it was generally possibly to identify the specific individuals whose records were lost based on other records. I think he said that there’s genealogical evidence to suggest these were often the ancestors of local elites trying to destroy evidence of any “convict stain”.

    Like, just based on the convict records you could map out the industries of specific towns in Britain in the early 19th century because it had everyone’s place of origin, occupation, height and weight, age, etc etc.

  15. It was interesting to me, after I studied Koine Greek, to take a tour of Israel and Jordan and find Greek inscriptions on stone and in mosaics and realize just how much *abbreviating* ancient people did. On reflection it makes sense that people haven’t changed all that much, but I’ve always had this unconscious idea of the ancient chiseler/mosaic maker unhurriedly perfecting his creation, taking the time to write everything out perfectly, etc.. Perhaps I’m biased by the printing press making writing cheap enough to be able to write things out in full without needing to resort to excessive abbreviations.

    1. Writing down a few extra letters is easy, but chiseling them in rock is a lot more work! At least if my essay runs long I can just grab another sheet of paper; what do you do if you get to the end of the stele and realize you still have three more lines?

  16. Check out Virginia Postrel’s op Ed in the NYT today about textiles. Apparently it’s the hot cultural topic this month.

  17. I don’t have the reference, but I remember reading about a huge Near Eastern inscription that, as far as students of the language can tell, was horribly misspelled by the inscriber/sculptor. No back space key when you are carving in stone…

  18. I happen to have seen the two Loeb volumes on “Greek Mathematics”, and based on your description of the collection they deviate from the norm. On the Wikipedia article it is the only topic labelled “extracts”, and indeed rather than containing the full content of Euclid, Archimedes, etc. it give many extracts of discussions of mathematics, often from text that would be represented in other volumes. Are there any other specialized topics that receive this treatment? I’m not sure of the size of the ancient mathematical corpus, and I don’t expect it to be more than a dozen Loeb volumes’ worth if represented in full, but if other topics are like this then that could significantly increase the size of the Mediterranean corpus. Your description of legal epigraphy looks like it puts it in a similar category.

    1. I don’t know the state of mathematical texts. Epigraphic texts are not generally included under ‘literary’ sources and have their own collections. Latin inscriptions are collected in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) in 17 volumes. Greek inscriptions are collected in the Inscriptiones Graecae (IG) in 49 physical volumes (with varying divisions, leading to citations that read things like IG IX.1^2 (that is, IG 9, first part, second edition)). The other systematic collection of this sort of the Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG), which is more or less annually released and aims to cover all new published inscriptions.

      All three works are profoundly unfriendly for non-specialists. Commentary is generally in Latin (just as the titles, yes, even for the Greek inscriptions) and no translations are generally offered.

      1. I’m asking because, from my understanding as a non-historian interested in mathematics and its history, Greek mathematical seem to fall under literature in your classification, in the sense that these texts were of interest to people from the time they written to today and are preserved through copies of copies. If only fragments of the extant texts are in the Loeb collection, this undercuts your claim that this collection represents the size of the extant ancient Greek and Latin literature. I’m wondering whether this is a small gap that happens to fall in an area of personal interest or whether there are other similar gaps in the Loeb collection in specialized areas of narrow historical interest. After the previous comment I made some spot checks for ancient technical writers I am aware of:

        * Vitruvius: Only one extant work, represented in two volumes in Loeb, I assume fully.
        * Claudius Ptolemy: A Loeb volume for Tetrabiblos, his work on astrology, but not, as far as I can tell, his more scientific work.

        My comparison with legal epigraphy was strained because as you point out epigraphy has a very different nature to literature. I’m wondering if any work occupies an intermediate space, and how much.

        1. According to a German article by M.P. Streck which I summarized as “Counting the Words that Remain” (Ancient History 7, 2016) up to the year 300 CE about 57 million words of classical Greek, 10 million words of Latin, 10 million words of Akkadian, and 6 million words of Egyptian have been published. So my impression is that the Loebs under-represent the size of the ancient Greek corpus because the more estoeric technical texts are less likely to be included, and until the 2nd millennium CE those texts are much more often in Greek than Latin.

          1. Is “classical Greek” meant to be a subset of “Greek written before 300 CE”? Or is that verbal formulation only meant to exclude modern Greek? Assuming it’s the latter, so that we are talking about all surviving Greek texts written before 300 CE, the question is, if anyone has either (i) the energy to do the analysis or (ii) better yet, the knowledge to cite to someone else who has done it: of those 57 million words, how many have been published in the Loebs or other reasonably accessible editions? The same question(s) would apply to the 10 million Latin words.

          2. @ey81 texts in the Classical Greek language written up to 300 CE are a subset of all texts written in the Classical Greek language (like Latin, there are still people writing that language!) There is so many Christian texts in Greek and Latin after 300 CE that the authors decided it was a handy cutoff date.

          3. What does “published” mean in this case? Like if we are taking the corpus of greek literature and the corpus of greek *texts* they can end up as very different things (even if we exclude stuff like epigraphy) thinks like lists, inventories, etc. are texts but usually not considered literature, for instance.

          4. @Arilou in philology, published means published in a print edition (or occasionally website) by a reputable academic publisher in a format which allows anyone who can read the original language to read the text. That might be a facsimile or a transcription or a sketch. If you want the technical details, read the magazine article and track down the journal articles it cites!

          5. @Arilou the reason for “published” is that its hard to turn “12 shelf feet of uncatalogued manuscripts” or “an unknown number of fragmentary tablets” into a word count. The original journal articles go into the choices the authors made, but I can’t summarize from memory in a comment.

    2. There is no Loeb of Aelian’s tactical manual (actually no edition based on the best MS by any publisher). I think most of the books on engineering are missing too. They prioritized what the most people wanted to read!

      They found a treatise by Archimedes in palimpsest a while ago, and a treatise by Galen on the fire that burned his warehouse at Rome in 2005.

      1. Yes, there are some odd gaps in the Loeb’s collection, though they are relatively few and the Loebs represent the most complete collection so far. Oddly, while Aelian isn’t there, most of the rest of the technical military writers are, including a Loeb with Asclepiodotus, Onasander and Aeneas Tacticus (though the translation is, I think, from 1923).

        1. In fact, we have to say that the Loebs plus Migne’s Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina represent the most complete collection so far. There’s no evident reason to make some later texts “Classical” enough to become a Loeb. For some reason, they include the biography of a Christianized Buddhist saint and the ultra-Christian autobiography of Augustine, but not his book about how to read and speak in public? At least City of God made it in. Augustine alone will win you ca. 5,000,000 more words in your count of ancient Latin literature. Of course, plenty of both Patrologiae are firmly post-Classical; but the cut-off must lie after Augustine’s own lifetime, wherever it falls.

  19. On Epigraph texts. I really the trend to publish curse tablets, and the fact that are now deemed a useful endeavor. Its interesting the little slices of common or say ‘working’ class life they show vs the texts written by and for aristocrats of one sort or another. In a similar way numismatics CW about coins and small change – that it was a late addition – ended. Because people sorta stared to looking for it an or when back to examine dusty boxes and records and realized well looks we have just sort of been ignoring it for a century.

  20. So if I was an eccentric history nerd billionaire throwing a bunch of money at training a bunch of people to deicpher papyrus records would be useful. Out of curiousity what would be other low hanging fruit in historical research that just need a whole bunch of trained bodies thrown at them?

    Oh and to respond to something Brett said on Twitter: back when I was in college (class of 2003) a lot of horrobly jargon laden post-modern history was being thrown at BA students who really weren’t given the training to make head or tails of a lot of it. One of the reasons why everyone in my major agreed that Historiography was the hardesr class of the major. So a lot of really jardony history is (or at least was) read by not only academics but often fairly low-level students as well and it was often a major impediment to understanding.

    I got to the point where I could understand it pretty well and while some of it was very insightful (I remember liking Holy Feast, Holy Fast a lot after initially thinking ” oh god not more of this crap”) a lot of it just didn’t have any evidence or analysis except for some very weak argument by anaology and a lot of handwaving that then got covered up by a thick layer of horroble jargon. I remember reading one piece on the development of individualism in Africa that all boiled down to “mirrors!” *jazz hands* once you stripped out all the jargon-infested verbiage, there was literally nothing else.

      1. Translating Mesopotamian texts – we have thousands and too few versed in the languages. Cataloging and copying texts in Middle Eastern collections – monasteries and Islamic centres of learning.Survey archaeology – provides a picture of settlement patterns and changes, especially when coupled with systematic sediment analysis. So much for our billionaires to do!

  21. I’m listening to the second hour your guest appearance on the Subject to Change podcast. It is fantastic! Please continue to share for those of us not on the Twitter or plugged in to these other places.

  22. It gets complicated by language, but wouldn’t the Gospel of Thomas (which we found a coptic translation of a presumable greek original) be later? Or do we tend to separate christian texts even when they are still in from the height of the roman empire?

    1. Maybe it’s not Christian texts per se, but more narrowly Scripture that isn’t considered “Greek literature” even if it was originally written in Greek. At least that’s my extrapolation from the fact that the Loeb collection does not feature anything written by (or ascribed to) Paul of Tarsus, but does contain Christian theological writings from the Classical period.

      1. Its an interesting distinction. I can kind of see why “stuff just ended up like that”, but its still a bit weird.

  23. Nth-ing the “I liked you on podcasts, please keep us posted!” Listened to the Helms Deep one, and even if it had “just” been a verbal retread of your posts it would have been fun, but there was lots of fresh stuff there. Excited for Gondor, and even more excited for your take on 40k (not noted for the verisimilitude of its worldbuilding…).

  24. Re: Subject to Change, Scott Alexander referred to you as a “wider celebrity” on his blog.

  25. A great example of something archeology can’t preserve is fishing. A very common form of subsistence. Fishgig is made of wood, fishing net – of natural fiber, boats from wood. Fish rot notoriously quickly, and their bones are not very sturdy. How exactly did a fisherman’s life look? Fishermen commonly had low status, so the elite weren’t eager to write about them.

    In recent years, some people make a case that agrarian/pastoral is a false dichotomy. It’s missing fishing.

  26. A very delayed response to your Imperium of Man podcast. Just a few disconnected thoughts I came up with while listening:

    1) The Imperium of Man doesn’t have a hard shell military force because it lacks territorial contiguity. Its enemies aren’t at its borders, the Imperium is a sparse empire of habitable planets with no ability to maintain a hard border.

    2) 33min: the Roman Empire created the elite armies under the Emperor because one of the major lessons of the Crisis of the 3rd Century is that elite armies need to be under careful supervision (of the Emperor).During the Principate the Emperor did not have to lead the elite forces directly because he could trust subordinate generals not to rebel. From Diocletian onward, that assumption no longer holds.
    By contrast, after the Horus Heresy the lesson learned is the opposite one – that you should not put too much power under one man, lest that one man pose a mortal threat to the Imperium. This is more like surviving the coup of Julius Caesar but then learning the lesson of not allowing one man to hold too much power (as opposed to what actually happened)

    Overall very enjoyable!

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