Fireside Friday, March 3, 2023

Hey, folks, fireside this week! As this is going up, I am preparing to appear digitally on a panel on “History and the Public, Now and in the Future” at the University of Maryland. March may end up with more than the usual number of firesides, because I actually have three of these invited talks this month, all scheduled before I thought I would be teaching this semester. Still, my hope is to at least start the series on the structure of civic governance that I’ve been wanting to run; we’re beginning with the Greek polis and then later we’ll at least do the Roman Republic. I am hoping to also talk a colleague or two into coming on to discuss medieval town governments. Since that means I have been looking through the organization of Greek poleis, that makes this a great time to talk about a rocky topic: epigraphy! First we’re going to talk a little about what epigraphy is and how it is done, and then a little more about the kinds of things we find that way.

After a hard day of not working, the Academicats get some much needed rest.

Now we have talked a bit about epigraphy already in the fireside from March two years ago on the nature of the ancient evidence. To briefly recap that, epigraphy is the study of inscriptions (the Greek for which is ἐπιγραφή (epigraphe), from γράφω meaning to scratch, carve or write1 with the prefix ἐπι meaning on or upon, thus ‘writing on a surface’), which is to say texts carved into durable, inorganic materials like stone or metal. While metal is included, what we mean here is going to almost always be stone; there is an irony here that metal inscriptions, because they were written into prestige materials like bronze, tended to get melted down by later societies and repurposed. Stone inscriptions, too, as we’ll see, were sometimes put back to work, but in ways that make them more recoverable. Consequently, the vast, vast majority of inscriptions are in stone.

Precisely because the materials used in inscriptions were chosen for their durability, they tend to survive to the present day in a wider range of climates and conditions than more perishable writing media like paper, wax tablets, wooden-leaf tablets, etc., which is of course really handy for us moderns looking to study the past. That said, while these materials are more durable, they are not infinitely durable and so a lot of epigraphic study is dealing with inscriptions which are damaged or incomplete in some way. Not only, of course, can stone be broken, leaving a fragmentary, incomplete inscription, but it can also be worn down. Just a few decades of heavy foot traffic, after all, can begin to wear away the edges of things like stairs and flagstones; an inscription reused letters-up to make, say, the floor of a public building, is likely to be worn smooth very quickly by human feet. That’s especially true because the letters on inscribed material aren’t cut all that deep, so just a few millimeters or a centimeter or two’s worth of wear is going to render the letters unintelligible. Lesser damage may render them uncertain – think about how little wear it might take to make it impossible to distinguish between ‘T’ and ‘I’ or ‘C’ and ‘O.’

Then there are the challenges imposed by the writing at the time. Our modern writing has all of these lovely spaces and systems of punctuation, along with capital and lower case letters all to make reading easy. But those are innovations that emerge over time. Some of them emerge over the course of antiquity, but relatively late. As a result, ANCIENTINSCRIPTIONSAREWRITTENMOSTLYINALLCAPITALLETTERSWITHNOSPACESORPUNCTUATIONBETWEENWORDSORSENTENCESTHISCANMAKETHEMCHALLENGINGTOTRANSLATEEVENWHENTHEYARENOTDAMAGED.2

To compound this problem, inscriptions tend to be very heavily abbreviated. Writing in stone was very expensive both in material and time and so the commissioners of inscriptions had a lot of incentive to keep things as brief as possible. Thus you can get inscriptions like, “LVIBIVS·L·F·TRO·VECILIA·LHILAR [line break] L·VIBIVS·FELICIO·FELIX·VIBIAL·L·PRIMA” which actually stands for the Latin, “L(ucius) Vibius L(ucius) F(ilius) Tro(mentina), Vecilia l(iberta) Hilar[a] [line break] L(ucius) Vibius Felicio Fe[l]ix, Vibia L(ucii) L(iberta) Prima” which in turn we might translate into plain English as, “Lucius Vibius, son of Lucius of Tromentina, freedwoman Vecilia Hilara, Lucius Vibius Felicio Felix, and Vibia Prima, a freedwoman of Lucius.”3 It’s a list of the four members of this family who have been buried there: a freeborn citizen man, his freedwoman wife, their son and finally a freedwoman who was a client of his.4

Via Wikipedia, this is the funerary relief with the inscription discussed above. It is from the Vatican Museum dated to the first century BC (inv. 2109).

Now of course you may well imagine the difficulty of combining all of these things at once: a heavily abbreviated inscription with little to no punctuation or spacing that has sustained meaningful damage wiping out often entire words or sentences. Thus despite the fact that presumably all classicists can read Latin and Greek inscriptions, we often rely on specialists, epigraphers, to handle them. Epigraphers are essential in particular for taking the raw inscription on stone and producing an edited text of it (in the original language) which the rest of us can read. Part of that task is determining what badly worn letters might be; one method here is the ‘squeeze’ – the use of special wet paper, pressed into the face of the inscription which when it dries holds its shape when removed, which both lets the inscription be inspected remotely but can also ‘bring out’ letters that would otherwise be hard to see. There are also efforts, of course, to use lasers and 3D imaging on inscriptions this way, but my sense is that so far they struggle with the demanded precision, since letters are often only a few millimeters deep.

Then the epigrapher has to turn the raw letters of the original stone into a readable published text. That means filling out abbreviations into their full words, breaking up words where there is no spacing, providing punctuation and so it. It also means interpolating missing words and letters. You can see that in the inscription above: we have “FE[.]IX”5 and a clever Latinist is going to be able to realize that the word where is almost certainly ‘felix,’ ‘lucky’ – a common enough nickname. Now that is an extremely easy interpolation (the only sort my meager skills will support), but trained epigraphers can do a lot better than that, often supplying whole words that are grammatically necessary based on the size of gaps that can be many letters long or realizing that very large gaps fit standard legal formula. Frankly, a good epigrapher’s work often resembles a sort of wizardry as they lean on their massive mental database of inscriptions and philology to see if they can’t be sure what word used to be there (or if certainty is impossible, provide a workable but uncertain reading).

All of that work then leads to an inscription which can be published (often as an article) and then included in the major inscription compendia, like the CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, “Body of Latin Inscriptions), the IG (Inscriptiones Graecae, “Greek inscriptions”) and SEG (‘Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, “Supplement of Greek Epigraphy”). Publication generally follows the Leiden system for publishing inscriptions, with a whole system of marks to indicate missing letters, supplied words, uncertain interpolations and so on. For instance, because we might have a sense of how big even a heavily damaged inscription is, we can indicate gaps with [ ] (gap of unknown length) or something like […………] (a twelve-letter gap).

So that’s how epigraphy works, but what sort of things does it let us find? As moderns, we might be puzzled by the value of reading things inscribed in stone because we generally don’t inscribe many things in stone; at most they tend to be labels like the names of buildings or very short dedications. But clearly the ancients used inscriptions a lot more widely and for different kinds of texts.

Inscribed stone came with three big advantages: permanence, publicity and status. Permanence is a pretty easy one to think about there: if you want the document to be around for a long time, inscribe it in stone. But there’s more to it than that. Remember, these are societies where paper is expensive and books (scrolls, in this case) are relatively rare and hard to produce. So while we might make a document permanent by, say, putting it in some sort of register that is reprinted regularly with updates, the cost of doing that for an ancient society would be quite high. That ties into the second value: big stone inscriptions were available to the public, able to seen and read (those are different activities!). Finally, as noted inscribing things in stone was expensive and so that makes inscriptions valuable as a status display (even if they can’t be read): they communicate either than the commissioner was important, that the document is important, or both.

All of that then leads into what we call the ‘epigraphic habit.’ That’s a term that emerged in the study of Greek inscriptions and is mostly associated with ancient Greece and to a lesser extent Rome, but we should be clear that the Greeks didn’t invent inscribed texts. Indeed, public inscribed texts far older than the Greek polis are known, things like the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC) or the Kadesh Inscription (c. 1270) among many others. Most of these early inscriptions are royal documents (like codes of laws or royal pronouncements) because of course kings (and to a significant but lesser extent, important temples) were the sorts of people with the resources to put up an inscription. And of course for the kings, putting up a permanent record of something in stone was also an important legitimacy-building enterprise, even if few could read it. You don’t need to be able to read the decorated stone stele for instance to say, ‘gee, that looks important and will last forever.’6

But, as we’re going to discuss, the situation is a bit different in a self-governing small community like a polis (or the Roman Republic). Instead of a king, that community has leaders who are in some sense responsible to a larger citizen constituency (which may or may not be defined by minimum property or limited to a small band of elite families). Consequently there’s a desire both that those magistrates’ actions can be observed by the community and also a desire that those actions might be checked against some clear code of conduct. Thus the first laws in Greek poleis (and the Roman Republic, with the Twelve Tables) are often understood as efforts to restrain the sort of elites that would get elected into high office, because written laws were supposed to limit what they could do by clearly spelling out the penalties they could inflict for a given set of crimes. But for that to work, those written laws need to be durable and public.

So you inscribe them in stone. You inscribe the laws in stone, but also major actions by magistrates might also get a record inscribed in stone. Status still matters here; in some cases it’s not even clear the inscribed documents could be clearly ready (the stele was tall and the letters small), but of course having a bunch of inscribed laws and decrees and so on communicates the status of the collective government and thus of the citizenry, the same way it might have once done so for a king.

And those demands of civic government then get the ball rolling on a much wider use of inscriptions as well as literacy. More people can read and more people are familiar with using inscribed documents to communicate both a text but also status and importance and so they begin using them to do that in other ways. For instance, let’s say you did something good for the community, maybe you paid to have a big section of the city wall repaired because you are a rich, security-conscious fellow. The city might then vote you some honor – the sort of thing where we’d name a post office after you. In a Greek polis often this would mean the city might vote you a crown of some precious metal, which you then devote to a god in a temple (you don’t keep the crown, that’s not the sort of community we are). Well, you might want to make sure that everyone knows – for as long as possible – just how cool you and your crown and wall repairs were. So you take the text of that decree giving you a crown and you pay someone to inscribe it on stone in the most public place you can. Most Greek poleis end up with clusters of inscriptions either on their acropolis (the mountain citadel with the most important temples) or agora (the market, meeting and government area) like this.

And you can then see how that habit begins to extend to other sorts of things once it is widespread, like the funerary inscription above, or other sorts of important official documents. In the Roman Empire, any community could petition the emperor by letter and it seems to have been pretty normal if your community received a favorable response to put that up in stone, both to preserve the record of your new rights and privleges but also as a sign of your community’s status: we wrote to the emperor and he7 wrote back.

So these communities came to have a whole mess of inscribed documents set up, some by the state, many by individuals. That influences the sort of things we find inscribed. Official documents are quite common and funerary inscriptions are very common. But it’s very rare that inscriptions give us much of a narrative or are very creative in their own right; they tend to be formulaic, practical documents (with exceptions, of course; funerary inscriptions often have neat artwork). But they are fantastically valuable for understanding how these states functioned, the activities of some of the elite that could afford to commission these sorts of things, the role of literacy in these societies and so on. Inscriptions can often attest to minor officials that might have only the dimmest presence in our literary sources (which are more focused on the activities of the highest magistrates). And sometimes we get nearly complete laws or legal codes, which are can be tremendously important finds (especially in Greece where we lack complete law codes for any polis; Roman law is much better attested thanks to the Corpus Iuris Civilis, aka Justinian’s Code (and then some)).

So that’s a brief primer on epigraphy! I’ll admit I don’t myself interact a lot with epigraphy directly. I had my training in Greek and Latin epigraphy in graduate school (it was not a strength of mine, but I got through), but epigraphy tends to be less focal in the Middle Roman Republic because we have less of it for that period as compared to, say, Classical Greece or Imperial Rome. Still, working with published inscriptions is one of those things that every ancient historian needs to be able to do, even if the transmutation of raw stone to usable text is mostly managed by specialist wizards epigraphers.

(Seriously though, epigraphers and papyrologists are, to me at least, some of the most impressive members of our big ancient studies field.)

On to Recommendations!


First this week, for all of the Tolkien fans out there, the Prancing Pony Podcast has reached the Siege of Gondor in their march through the Lord of the Rings and they invited me on to do a series of short appearances in those episodes, starting this week. The PPP is generally a must listen for Tolkien fans so I was very excited indeed to put in some appearances!

In a bit of an odd recommendation, I am going to recommend Walter Scheidel’s “Resetting History’s Dial? A Critique of David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn Of Everything: A New History of Humanity.” Over the past year or so I’ve been asked, on Patreon and in the comments here and on Twitter for my view on The Dawn of Everything, which I’m always hesitant to offer first because I don’t specialize in pre-history and second because the last time I had an opinion on the matter, David Wengrow personally dove into my Twitter mentions multiple times to assure everyone I was wrong. So instead I am going to let Walter Scheidel speak for me on this one, giving voice to a wide range of problems with the book. I find Scheidel’s reading of the evidence closer to mine: not that there were all sorts of brilliant alternatives to farming and the state which were left untried, but that they were all tried and failed.

Meanwhile, on contemporary state activity, Ryan Evans over at War on the Rocks interviewed Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl and Counselor to the Secretary of State Derek Chollet on American policy in the War in Ukraine. Now I should note of course that these fellows are literal government actors and so any listener should be taking what they say with more than a grain of salt, but at the same time conversations like these are quite valuable for getting a sense of what the people involved in the policy process are thinking and also generally to get a sense of how military and foreign policy decisions emerge (for more on that, be sure to check out the last Fireside’s book recommendation, The Regime Change Consensus!).

For this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend T. Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West in World History (2016), which has by some mysterious alchemy escaped my recommendation list so far. I’ve mentioned this book quite a few times but it is well worth a full recommendation. Andrade covers the development and spread of gunpowder technology from its origins in China in the Song Dynasty, through its introduction into Europe by the 1300s, through to the Great Divergence visible in the Opium Wars (1839-1842; 1856-1860). The shear breadth of the study is one of its strengths, making for a remarkably complete tracking of the progress of gunpowder technology from China to Europe and then catastrophically back again.

The core of Andrade’s argument is that military pressure, created by periods of high fragmentation was what drove firearms development. Europe, being fragmented continuously through the entire period thus eventually outpaced other regions of the world in firearms technology. Crucially, Andrade notes that in periods where China was also fragmented, its firearms technology advanced quickly, but then stagnated again in periods of unity. As he bluntly puts, it, “Rates of warfare correlate with military effectiveness.” But Andrade’s argument is pleasantly multi-casual beyond this point; he emphasizes also the importance of statecraft in the development firearms – not merely the technology, but also the doctrine and practice of use. It isn’t enough to merely be a highly fragmented and violent region, because effective deployment of firearms also requires (internally) strong and well-organized states. Moreover, Andrade’s book is tremendously useful because he also considers directly (and discards) many of the fairly lame ‘cultural’ explanations for rapid firearms development in Europe or slow firearms development elsewhere; things like property rights, systems of government and so on (though he is in the conclusion interestingly open the idea that European science really was a different sort of thing and might thus be its own significant factor).

Finally, the book is just quite fun and readable. It is well-illustrated with lots of maps and black-and-white reproductions of historical artwork of firearms. And it’s just fun to learn about how this technology developed and all of the different weapons that resulted, from the “burning heaven fierce fire unstoppable bomb,” “fire lances,” the “thunderclap bomb” (seriously, pre-modern China was unbeatable at ‘cool weapon names’ and we should immediately begin naming our weapon systems this way) to Mehmet II’s massive siege artillery at Constantinople in 1453 and the ‘Frankish cannon’s’ arrival China in the early 1500s. Andrade writes very well, weaving an argument that is very readable even for a general audience, while still being an argument with substantial scholarly import. Also, there is, briefly, a “flying incendiary club for subjugating demons” and that’s just awesome. Also a “Great Bowl-Mouth Tube” gun and a “No Alternative” gun.

That’s it for this week. Next week, fortuna permitting, we’ll start in on our look at Greek civic governance!

  1. You can easily see how a society might built those meanings on each other when their early writing is on media other than paper.
  2. ancient inscriptions are written mostly in all capital letters with no spaces or punctuation between words or sentences. This can make them challenging to translate even when they are not damaged.
  3. We’ll discuss this in just a second, but the square brackets indicates indicate letters that are damaged or missing in the inscription as it survives to us, whereas the round brackets as you can see are letters abbreviated away in the original inscription.
  4. She might have been a close family friend, or perhaps the younger Lucius’ nurse. Roman elites were often as much raised by their enslaved nurses as their mothers and sometimes returned that attachment later in life.
  5. Square brackets with a number of dots between them is how we mark gaps. The number of dots is equal to the number of missing letters that would fit in the gap.
  6. Though it is worth noting both of my examples above are also illustrated in interesting ways. In both cases the illustration – a scene of the Battle of Kadesh on one and Hammurabi accepting the laws from the god Shamash on the other – prioritize the core status meaning of the text: the King is Very Important and Worthy of your Submission. Even if you can’t read Hammurabi’s laws (that’s what the judge is for), you can at least absorb the gravitas that he and they enjoy as a consequence of this scene of him receiving those very laws from a god.
  7. Actually his secretary ab epistulis, a high ranking functionary who will have handled nearly all of the emperor’s official correspondence. Ab epistulis means ‘for letters.’ Although really, you wouldn’t have gotten a response from the actual ab epistulis, because he’s probably running a whole office; this is a pretty important position.

127 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, March 3, 2023

    1. There shouldn’t be any difference in the content, so it depends on your preference. For what it’s worth, I read the paperback version.

  1. Call me crazy, but I think I would actually enjoy a post WRITTENALLINCAPSANDWITHNOSPAVESBETWEENWORDSASACRUTCHFORLEGIBILITY. Granted, the examples given weren’t that bad, but it’s surprisingly readable.

      1. That, and all the abbreviating words (typically common names or words, to be fair) to just the first and last letters with an overbar.

        1. This isn’t such a problem with a language that you really know. Colonial and nineteenth-century scribes abbreviated a lot, but you won’t have trouble with Wm., Thos. Jno., Eliz., etc. Or with U.S.A., A.D., etc. But most of us, even those who know Latin, aren’t quite that familiar with Roman names and common words.

    1. Sometimes deciding where to divide the words changes the interpretation. A delightful Latin example I read years ago:

      My favorite example of this kind is a matter of word separation. At the vulgar millionaire’s dinner party in Petronius’s Satyrica, the guests are discussing a friend who has just died. “Ah, he had a good life,” they say, “the abbot isolated him, and he died a millionaire.” There were no abbots in the days of Petronius, and anyhow the second clause is meaningless. In majuscules the phrase reads ABBASSECREVIT. Divide the words differently and drop one superfluous letter, and you get ab asse creuit, “he started with a nickel”.

      –Gilbert Highet, “The Survival of Records” (in “The Light of the Past”)

    1. The Dawn of Everything is already hella left-wing, one of the authors being an anarchist of course. Let me guess, the person who rips it apart is a tankie of some sort?

      1. Nope, anti-Stalinist socialist. Along the lines of what does Graeber think anarchism means? What kind of anarchist thinks exploitation and oppression are just a playful experiment, like some kind of kinky fun roleplay? Also more detail than you ever thought possible on the democratic and egalitarian dynamics of ‘immediate return’ hunter-gatherer societies.

      2. This is one of the (many!) points where left/right dichotomizing breaks down. Most “leftism” is friendly to the state as the source of solutions to social problems. Anarchism is anything but. Most “rightism” is friendly to solutions structured as markets; anarchism a la Graeber is suspicious of that, too, recognizing the role of statist authoritarianism in creating and maintaining modern “free” markets, and the many forms of collective action that rely on norms other than profit maximization.

        Talking about anarchism as either “left” or “right” per se isn’t helpful in getting to grips with its distinctive claims.

        1. Left/right is more reliably about equality vs. hierarchy and privilege, than it is about states and markets. All the way back to the French revolution, with a left-wing of middle-class liberals vs. monarchists and aristocrats. Today’s right-wing says “it’s _good_ that we have billionaires, and racial outcomes aren’t something we need to equalize”.

          So both lefty anarchists and more statist socialists are left, at least in their stated ideals, though you could argue anarchists are most lefty than “vanguard party” communists.

          1. Many have remarked on the inadequacies of a simple Left-Right spectrum. One alternative I think has merit is a combination of two axes for societies: one axis plots how individualistic versus collectivist the society is, and the other plots whether the society is optimized towards capitalizing on good times or surviving bad times:

            In this view, traditional political labels of left and right actually occupy the diagonal corners framed by the two main axes. In the example charts linked to one can actually plot other sociopolitical stances, such as survivalist/hardcore Randians, hippies, and the totalitarian Left/Right converging into a Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle-Dum similarity.

          2. The late Ronald Inglehart and his collaborators spent a lot of time working out a two-axis political taxonomy: one axis is roughly left vs. right, the other is roughly “cosmopolitan vs. traditionalist” or maybe “cosmopolitan vs. nationalist”. Like the first of your links, he thinks that the nationalist and cosmopolitan poles don’t really map well onto either left or right.

            The second of your links (Slate Star Codex) just seems….weird to me, as I associate the old, socialist left much more with a “survive” mindset than with a “thrive” one. (For what it’s worth, I’d put myself in the “highly coupled” / “survive” quadrant).

          3. I think it’s the difference between a ultraliberal nanny welfare state and a Marxist Revolution: both are “left” by some measure and strongly coupled, but the former assumes peace and easy times while the latter assumes a fight for its very existence and the need to be militantly regimented. And as I mentioned the combination of strongly coupled and high survive value applies equally to ultra-right doctrines like Nazism, with the two becoming Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum mirror versions of a single thing that used to be called “totalitarianism”.

    2. My view is you’re better off just assuming that everything Graeber has touched is based on a torqued reading of the evidence to fit a predetermined conclusion.

      1. The strawmanning of individuals and even whole academic diciplines also gets thoroughly worked over in the series. “Everyone else is wrong and I’ve figured something out no one has ever thought of before” is a depressingly common claim to validity. It’s just embarrassing when something’s presented as a revealed secret or a new theory or previously ignored thing, and you’re thinking “I knew about this in the 90s.” 🙂

        1. “Everyone else is wrong and I’ve figured something out no one has ever thought of before” is a depressingly common claim to validity.

          In general, if the speaker says everyone disagrees with him, I take that as evidence the speaker is wrong.

  2. “it’s not even clear the inscribed documents could be clearly ready” -read

  3. In the field of ‘Inscription just to make a point of how fricking Important I am’ the Behistun inscriptions deserve a shout-out. A 4000 square foot panel, carved high up on a cliff two and a half millenia ago, going into paragraphs of detail into what an awesome guy Darius I of Persia was, how he absolutely was *not* a usurper, and outlining exactly what he had done to all the people who had questioned this latter point.
    God knows who was supposed to be reading it up there, but it’s a testament to its creators that it’s still there, still telling its story.
    Bit like an elegant Fox News running on a loop forever…

    1. > God knows who was supposed to be reading it up there, but it’s a testament to its creators that it’s still there, still telling its story.

      another question is how on earth did they put such a giant inscription *on* the cliff face in the first place??

    2. My ‘I am an entirely legitimate emperor and not in any way a usurper’ epigraph is raising a lot of questions already answered by my epigraph.

  4. The bizarre thing I don’t understand about scriptio continua is that the Ancient Romans had·interpuncts·for·word·separation, butrandomlystoppedusingthem? Were they stealing Greek style, or what? Interpuncts are so much better than nothing for word separators…

    1. I noticed that the Lucius tomb inscription mostly used them, but skipped them in a couple of places.

    2. Could literally be a spacing/cost issue. If you want to use less stone, i.e. pay for less stone, you don’t use interpuncts.

    1. Because it’s cheap, available to most people, and your comments can be deleted at a whim?

      1. Let me rephrase, Twitter, datascraped and stored for parsing and analysis at the Utah Data Center, is the new stone of the ages. Similarly, Twitter never ACTUALLY deletes tweets for you. They simply render them “invisible.”

        Your delete key won’t alter those “petroglyphs.”

  5. On the Vibius family, does them all being listed together suggest that they died at the same time, or would it be a family crypt sort of thing where they allocated four spaces to be used when the person died?

    1. I think you just put the first one to be buried in a plot fairly deep then each subsequent set of remains go a foot or two shallower. Or they’re buried in different plots of the same graveyard but memorialised in the same place. How graveyards work depend on both cultural and geographical factors (the practicalities of interrment on a damp British moor will be very different to those on a sandy/rocky mediterranean hillside).

  6. It sounds like Classical inscriptions are published largely as transcriptions. Is that correct? In my field, Assyriology, the general standard is that any publication should if at all possible be accompanied by an autograph copy or, at least, photos. Is Classical epigraphy so reliable that this is considered unnecessary or are copies/photographs published separately?

    Also, tiny little nitpick: there’s no evidence that no judge ever used or referred to Codex Hammurapi or other Mesopotamian law codes in a real case, and the few recorded verdicts we have are often quite different from those prescribed in the codes. Which of course further adds to the impression that no one actually read them, except for the scribal students who copied them out as exercises.

    1. On classical inscription publication: correct, they are published as transcriptions, not translations. Photographs are often included, but the Big Damn Compendia of Inscriptions (IG, SEG, CIL) are primarily text.

      As for the nitpick: That’s a fair point, though of course there are a lot of unknowns. Certainly it isn’t the case that the common farmer was being expected to read it.

      1. I have read (Marc van de Mieroop) that Hammurabi and similar law codes were not actually codes but case examples. Not ‘if – then’ but ‘in this case I judged …”

  7. First this week, for all of the Tolkien fans out there, the Prancing Pony Podcast has reached the Siege of Gondor in their march through the Lord of the Rings and they invited me on to do a series of short appearances in those episodes, starting this week.

    Fantastic news! I remember back when they did the Battle of Helm’s Deep and your writings came up, and I thought, “Oh man, it would be great to have you on for both this and the Pelennor Fields battle”. I’m looking forward to it.

    I’m going to dig into that Scheidel piece tonight. I’ve really enjoyed the books I’ve read from him.

    The core of Andrade’s argument is that military pressure, created by periods of high fragmentation was what drove firearms development. Europe, being fragmented continuously through the entire period thus eventually outpaced other regions of the world in firearms technology. Crucially, Andrade notes that in periods where China was also fragmented, its firearms technology advanced quickly, but then stagnated again in periods of unity.

    That makes a lot of sense. Obviously, military hardware isn’t cheap now, but in the medieval to early modern era gunpowder, firearms, and cannon were expensive – this was not the type of technology where you would be paying to keep its capabilities intact or improve it unless you were under a real threat of warfare where you might need it.

    1. Paul Kennedy said something similar in “The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers”. Kennedy attributes the European Miracle in large part due to Europe’s political plurality: although the Hapsburgs and later Bonaparte tried, a continental empire whose chief concern would then be suppressing radical innovation and preserving the status quo never came about.

      1. It’s honestly a testament to the Romans’ luck and talents that they unified most of Europe’s land and population into an empire in the first place. Something Scheidel has pointed out is that a lot of places just had empire after empire form, sweep over the area, and replace the one that had previously been there even if there was an interregnum period of political fragmentation. Europe is unusual in that it was unified along with the Mediterranean for a couple centuries only, in between periods where it was never fully unified.

        1. Well, a big part of it is that Europe’s effective human geography radically changed from Roman times to the medieval and post-medieval period. Roman style agriculture optimized to the Mediterranean environment meant pretty low population density. Introduction of the heavy plow and state formation beyond the Rhine changes a lot.

      2. I thought the Habsburgs were actually quite enthusiastic about “innovation” in the scientific and technological spheres, or some of them were, anyway? (Not in the political or social spheres, of course, but that’s a very different thing).

        1. I was referring to the Hapsburg’s attempt to unify most or all of Europe under a transnational dynasty. Although certainly if they’d succeeded say around the middle of the seventeenth century, one can well imagine a reduced scope for military innovation, and possibly a repressive Counter-Reformation stifling intellectual inquiry.

          1. European fragmentation owes a lot to the rather odd basis of political legitimacy of post-Carolingian Europe. It derived from territorial elites and (possibly steppe-derived) ‘nationality’. IE, being ruler of the ‘Franks’ or ‘English’ relying on counts each with an established domain. The Hapsburgs were not so much emperors of one domain but a collection of kingships, duchies, counties and principalities united only in the head of the current holder.

  8. Interesting post. It reminds of this one by a Professor of Chinese Studies: “Why Chinese is so Damn Hard”: (

    Specifically the part about Classical Chinese.

    “Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the “personal” section of the classified ads that say things like: “Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”
    Plus Classical Chinese has weird calligraphy that makes it hard to read, as well as the Latin “feature” of no spaces or punctuation.

    1. Sheesh, and I thought learning biblical Hebrew was bad. This sounds pure torture. Although I do maintain that trying to learn abjads are a special brand of hell, especially since with inscriptions they tend to simply omit all the vowels. Doubly so whenever there’s a proper noun, which is common in inscriptions.

    2. I still have a theory that the reason why literacy develops so late in east Asia even when they have writings for very very long time is that the elites deliberately maintain obtuse writing system so that literacy remains to them and not the public. I first heard about this idea when there’s talking about how hard it’s to translate hieroglyphics. Even these days Japanese children can’t really even read newspaper until high school. This is just my rant against some idea that all writing systems are equally easy and needs no improvement just because it’s native.

      1. When Korea developed an easier to learn script, the officials enforced that all petitions had to be in Chinese characters to keep their monopoly.

        1. I’ve been reading a fantasy series by Christopher G. Nuttall (Schooled in Magic). Viewpoint character ends up in a world with magic; there was a world empire that fell leaving a lot of kingdoms sort of unified by the threat that ended the empire.
          The relevant point is that the empire introduced and enforced a universal language both spoken and written, with a logographic language and numbers similar to the Roman system.
          The character introduces an alphabet and Arabic numerals, causing lots of upheaval.
          The largest opposition comes from the scribes’ guilds of course.

      2. I don’t think it was *designed* that way, but it certainly was useful for maintaining a scholarly/noble class of people rich enough to spend their entire childhood memorizing obscure characters and ancient texts. I don’t know if you can say that literacy developed late there since they did, you know, invent paper and all that.
        I think the script is fine for every day vocabulary, but it gets hard with names and proper nouns. Imagine if like “Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell” was a series of special codes you have to memorize. I don’t think a typical US high school student really understands what the Fed does, but at least they can sound out the name.
        On the plus side, since Chinese characters are sound-agnostic, it means that all the different dialects/versions of Chinese can communicate with the same written language.

        1. Its a writing system designed for Empire with a capital E.

          i.e. its consistent across vast gulfs of time and space, but meant to be used by a tiny elite that has been specifically molded by education to have a strong common outlook and ethos.

          Ease of use and accommodation for particularities of region and time period promotes separatism and power not being in the hands of scholar bureaucrats. Our host might have ideas on how education into the classical Latin canon and modes of rhetoric served a similar function in Imperial Rome.

          1. Or indeed, the Medieval period and the Catholic Church; and how the rise of vernacular (especially after the introduction of printing) undercut that.

      3. The French elites also did this sort of thing: It’s a large part why French orthography is so obtuse. (There are letters in certain words which have probably never been pronounced in the entire time the words were written that way for “etymological” reasons. Similarly, the circumflex literally does nothing to how the letter in question is pronounced.) The other part, of course, is that all their dipthongs got squashed, so modern vowel spelling is truly unpredictable. The francophone dictation challenges end up making anglophone spelling bees look positively tame, between those two things.

        1. Ah, yes, some of still remember with horror: “Prenez une feuille de papier. Nous aurons une dictee.”

        2. > Similarly, the circumflex literally does nothing to how the letter in question is pronounced
          That’s wrong. Circumflex does indicated how the letter is pronounced in many words, and in some others it serves to distinguish betwen homonyms.

          There are some cases where either it’s a left-over, or the pronunciation evolved over time to not match it, but they’re rare and most languages got such cases.

        3. Eh, as a person who learned both as secondary languages I would say that the anglophone spelling is way way worse, specially when you add regional variation into it, I would put it just ahead of ideograms.
          But while the English student will soon learn that extracting spelling from the writing is useless and just memorize, French is more maddening, because the language tricks you into believing that is regular, to hit you with completely senseless exceptions. It makes for a more frustrating experience.
          Anyway, I would agree that in the history of both languages knowing how to read was used as a marker of class. British used to be able to tell the social class and regional provenance of the speaker as soon as it opened the mouth.

          1. The problem with English spelling (as an American, so I’m biased, TBF) is that it uses at least four different languages’ spelling rules without any real indication of which one each word is using. (unless you happen to know, Greek, Latin, some variety of Norse, and some sort of Germanic language…) Thus, for example, pediatrics has to do with children (Greek), while a centipede has “a hundred feet” (Latin). Noah Webster standardized some of it, which is why American spelling is different from British spelling, but he didn’t clean up that fundamental problem.

            French, on the other hand, strikes me as having many fewer authors of its inconsistencies, at least based on what I’ve read about the development of the French language.

          2. English spelling rules aren’t “useless”. They’re less useful than the spelling rules in most other languages (at least that I’m aware of), but that’s a far cry from saying they’re useless. The spelling of a word in English, most of the time, is highly informative as to how it’s pronounced. It’s just not 100% of the time, and not 100% informative. You have to learn what vowel sound is in “through”, for example, but you can be pretty sure the word isn’t pronounced “fish”.

            Part of the problem here is that English has more vowel sounds (maybe 15-20) than vowel letters, and we refuse to use diacritics to distinguish them. Also there’s the great vowel shift, the fact that English spelling was codified a long while back and pronunciations have changed, the fact that we borrow words from multiple source languages, etc..

          3. Meh. If I can’t read a word and then use that new word in conversation, they might as well be written using ideograms.
            If I had a penny for every time I had to write down a word to a native speaker, because I had never heard that word pronounced and none of my tries at spelling it where working for them…

          4. “Meh. If I can’t read a word and then use that new word in conversation, they might as well be written using ideograms.”

            You can still do this in English most of the time. Just not *all* the time or anything close. In many other languages it would be *all* the time, or almost all. English spelling is still much, much easier and more transparent than actual ideograms though (which is one reason more people across the world are interested in learning English rather than Mandarin).

            I think it’s an important point to make because there are nutty people out there in the field of education who think that teaching spelling is irrelevant to teaching reading (which is very much not true) and they use the (exaggerated) claim that English has *no spelling rules* to make their case.

          5. @ Richard H:

            Thus, for example, pediatrics has to do with children (Greek), while a centipede has “a hundred feet” (Latin).

            You can thank Mr Webster for that; in England we still write it “paediatrics”.

          6. “Eh, as a person who learned both as secondary languages I would say that the anglophone spelling is way way worse, specially when you add regional variation into it, I would put it just ahead of ideograms.”

            I think this is a bit of an exaggeration. There is ample evidence that English-speakers generally agree on how to pronounce novel words. Take all the books with invented words, for example. Tolkien invented “orc” and “mithril” and yet we all seem to know how to say them. And when there’s uncertainty, even then it’s between a limited number of options – does the first syllable of “Sauron” rhyme with “cow” or “roar”, for example. No one thinks that “Sauron” is actually pronounced “Luxury-Yacht”.

            Present a fluent literate Chinese speaker with a novel ideogram, though, and they will have no idea how to pronounce it.

      4. Except that Chinese officials grasped that enough peasants would be literate enough that pamphlets on better ways to weave cloth or plant New World foods would be understood and acted on – as they were.

        1. This raises an important distinction.
          Classical Chinese is a literary and philosophical langue of the ancient period (roughly, down to about 800 CE). There is later an “officialese” language, which is different though using most of the same characters – with additions over time – that bureaucrats used in administrative work, that merchants used in contracts, and those pamphlets that some peasants could read were written in. This officialese is “wenyan,” which is often but mistakenly translated as “the literary language.” Ancient Chinese is “guwen.”

      5. “As with most Heian literature, Genji was probably written mostly (or perhaps entirely) in kana (Japanese phonetic script) and not in kanji, because it was written by a woman for a female audience.” — wiki

        “During this period, since the language of most official documents was Chinese, most men of the nobility used Chinese characters to write poetry and prose in Chinese,[5] but among women the kana syllabary continued to grow in popularity, and more and more men adopted this simpler style of writing as well. Most of the works of literature from the Heian period that are still well-regarded today were written predominantly in kana. ”

        Japan apparently used its syllabaries more than it does now!

      6. As with Egyptian (where hieroglyphics are hard, but two other simpler scripts were in reasonably wide use), or Mesopotamian cuneiform, where lots of writing is simple enough that it is in wide use for standard documents intended for routine administration (but the literary canon is indeed obscure and highly self-referential), and while classical literary Chinese is very much the preserve of an elite, the demotic forms were easy enough that officials could circulate pamphlets giving useful advice on new techniques to farmers, shops advertise their wares and merchants label their goods. Also worth noting that the literacy rate in Japan is significantly higher than in the US.

    3. “A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place.”

      This sounds a lot like literary criticism.

  9. “Status still matters here; in some cases it’s not even clear the inscribed documents could be clearly ready (the stele was tall and the letters small)”

    One assumes that if the exact text became important, for example during a legal case, and was disputed, then the participants could get a man with a ladder to go and read the top of the stele.

    1. I’d imagine the text was also inscribed on something else more practical like clay tablets, papyrus, etc. for actual day-to-day use. If they can write it once, they can (get junior apprentices to) write it out a second time.

  10. Interesting topic, this time as well! Knowledge of the office of ab epistulis does give a rather different feel to the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. Also it is interesting to think that Suetonius served as such under Hadrian, something that fittingly was confirmed via epigraphy!
    I’m very much looking forward to a series on city-states!

    1. Pliny is a very senior senator when he’s writing to Trajan, so I would tend to assume his responses are actually from Trajan rather than a more junior functionary. Pliny as a senior consular governor of Bithynia et Pontus is one of the most senior Romans in the political system. I’m guessing he rates a direct response.

      But you should think of the ab epistulis any time you see letters from the emperor to, say, a town in the provinces.

  11. Hmm. Filling in blanks is a strength of ML language models – given appropriate training data. So we might be about to delegate a lot of the “black magic” with fragmentary inscriptions.

    I suspect “pleasantly multi-casual” should be “pleasantly multi-causal.” Well, better than confusing the marital with the martial arts…

  12. I was 12 years old when I got to study Latin for about two years and then dropped it. Our school went on an excursion to the city of Nijmegen (roman Noviomagum) where a roman history museum had all these ancient stone inscriptions. I could read almost all of them and a world opened up for me.

  13. A good book to read on the inscriptions is Paganism in the Roman Empire by Ramsay MacMullen because a VAST amount of our religious information is there. You can sometimes deduce what the sacrifice was for by the title the god was addressed with, and you get such things as “N raised this altar to Zeus Some-Title at the command of Apollo Some-Title.”

  14. Thanks, Bret. I won’t subject you or anyone else to my response with all capital letters with no gaps or punctuation. But here are some proofreading concerns, should you want to address them:

    punctuation and so it > and so on
    an inscription which can be published > that can be
    which are can be tremendously > [choose either are or can be]
    cannon’s’ arrival China in the early > arrival to China? in China?
    brackets indicates indicate letters > [choose one or the other, either one could be argued for or against]

  15. Thanks for the book recommendation.
    Apparently DeepMind’s Ithaca system showed promise with filling in partial inscriptions?

      1. Presumably you have the original source given to it, and so you can evaluate how likely you think the output it gave is relative to the input.
        You could also ask it to output a confidence level for each interpolation it makes so you have dozens (hundreds) of possible answers to choose from. There would be an eventual risk that the human skill of identifying likely meanings gets diminished and some bad inputs provide long term bad outputs, but that’s probably an event you could also attribute to Gibbon.

    1. Can you tell what it’s reasoning is? Once you know that, you can test the steps in its argument, but I imagine people will be reluctant to trust mechanical intuition.

  16. Regarding guns, Europe, China, organized states and fragmentation: this is old argument, but what always frustrated me was lack of inclusion of India in the comparison.

    It is so obvious it serves as a counterpoint to fragmentation that it is very frustrating not to see authors engaging with it. Is the mentioned book better in that aspect.

    I mean, if you have theory, you shoul look for ways to falsify, not confirm it…

    1. Kennedy compares the extant major civilizations ~1500AD including India to nascent Europe. He points out the dominance of the Moguls at the time and concludes that although India had many advanced features in the early use of artillery, art, literature, mathematics and even a nascent financier class, that progress was hampered by a socio-political system of open plunder whereby confiscatory taxes were extracted to support opulent luxury for the ruling class without even the concept of social well-being via prudent rule.

      1. Yeah, but the Mughals didn’t really control India until the late 1500s, before that confined to the Punjab/Ganges River region, perhaps the strongest, but in the same sense France was the strongest European country. By that time Portugal had been ruthlessly bullying the Indian states for a while.

      2. Minor nitpick and I’m sure this doesn’t alter the main thrust of Kennedy’s argument, but the Mughals didn’t even exist in 1526, let alone “were dominant”. They conquered Delhi in 1526. (They took Delhi from an, I think, ethnically Afghan dynasty that was, as I understand, even worse in terms of the open plunder as well as religious oppression).

        Also even at their height the Mughals never ruled *all* of India, and it wasn’t a very prolonged height. Later on, under the British, there were at least a few rulers who did care about social well-being, the construction of modern industries and universities, carrying out social reforms, etc. (the rulers of Mysore and Travancore come to mind), so I think if India (or Japan, or for that matter African societies) had been left to their own devices without colonialism, it’s perfectly possible that they could have modernized on their own.

        1. You might be interested in the science fiction novel “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s an alternate history where the Black Death wiped out 99% of the population of Europe, and so Islamic, Indian and Chinese cultures developed without interference.

          1. Thanks for the recommendation, I should definitely think about reading that!

            I read “The Peshawar Lancers” a while back, and although it has some serious flaws (the author’s research was so poor he couldn’t even spell Indian words right) it’s a pretty interesting read nonetheless. It’s premised on something somewhat similar to what you suggest, on a meteor shower hitting Europe in the late 1880s and effectively destroying European and North American civilization due to a four-year cold spell that makes agriculture essentially impossible. The British Empire relocates (and evacuates their most valuable upper and upper-middle classes) to India, the Russian empire relocates to Central Asia, the French to Algeria, and Europe becomes a barely populated post-apocalyptic wasteland. One interesting thing about the book – which I intuitively tend to agree with- is that the author postulates that rather than weakening Western imperialism, the demise of European civilization actually *strengthens* it: the British are far more motivated to hang onto India, because it’s become *their home*, and they no longer have an England that they can go home to.

            The book is also anti-Russian to a sort of comical extent, but while I would have *strongly* opposed that sort of thing during the Cold War- the moral suicide of Russia under the Putin regime has made me, well, less unsympathetic to it.

          2. KSR decided to write a story in which his utopia is built as a result of the extermination of basically an entire ethnic group, and to be completely honest I do sort of judge him a bit for that.

      3. Europe also had the advantage of horses, which make agriculture much more productive. Horses have a difficult time in Indian and African climates, and were used there for war (in India, and in certain African cultures like the Fulani in the Sahel zone) but were too valuable to plough with.

        1. But horses weren’t used to plough with in Europe either, until pretty recently. They weren’t big enough. Oxen were used.

          1. How recently was the switch from oxen to draft horses in Europe? My understanding was that although horses have a lot of disadvantages, the large draft horses are stronger than oxen and allow you to have much more productive agriculture.

          2. It took the introduction of the horse collar ~1000 AD to make horses more efficient draft animals, and then selective breeding to produce larger horses.

          3. “It took the introduction of the horse collar ~1000 AD to make horses more efficient draft animals, and then selective breeding to produce larger horses.”

            I understand, but about what century did horses become the more common draft animal in Europe relative to oxen? Was it early enough that it could have helped generate the surplus needed to finance the scientific revolution, etc.?

          4. Oxen were used for draught partly because they do not need high-content food, but also because they exert a steady pull. A bullock team will drag a wagon or a plough through mud better than a horse team – because the horses will try to jerk it forward and wear themselves out. India and Australia were both tied together by large numbers of bullock teams hauling large loads at a slow steady pace.

    2. This is going to sound overly simplistic and 19th century, but I really do think India and Africa suffer from being *tropical*, and having a disease burden (at least, before the invention of antibiotics) that colder climates don’t have to deal with.

      “I mean, if you have theory, you shoul look for ways to falsify, not confirm it…”

      Andrew Gelman has a great line to this effect: “if you love someone, let them go: you should be trying to disprove your theory”.

      1. Focusing in specifically on India, this should be testable.

        India’s had well-developed societies capable of organized record-keeping for a very, very long time. Is the historical evidence consistent with the expectation that India’s societies were materially handicapped by tropical conditions and thus prevented from developing some specific technologies?

        Which technologies, if we are being precise about it?

      2. Maybe but India did not lag behind China or Europe in general prior to divergence. Why would diseases prevent something only from that point or only in some areas?

        Mughals… Well, i guess Portuguese cannon and naval superiority could be excused as limited in scope, but it stretches the theory given limits of Mughal power. Until Aurangzeb southern India had incentive to develop fast, and that’s 1700. Is southern India big enough? Not sure. It is very connected to wider Indian ocean and also at that time to Europe.

    3. My understanding of the European Guns argument, is that they were originally mostly useful for sieges, so the important thing would not be that Europe had more battles than China, but that it had more sieges.

      So how common were sieges in India, compared to Europe?

      1. More specifically how common were sieges where guns would be useful? China had plenty of sieges, but their walls had adapted to the presence of (early) cannons. European castles had not and so even early cannons were ruinously effective. If Indian fortifications adapted to early cannons or adopted Chinese methods of resisting cannonfire, then cannons would not be the sea-change that they were in Europe and thus not become standard fare for monarchs and conquest.

        1. Interesting point. IIRC, Chinese sieges tended to be of cities with thick, rammed-earth walls, which would be a hard target for early cannon.

          Medieval Europe had a lot more castles – small fortresses with thin, stone walls, which would be a better target for cannon. So the killer app, so to speak, for early cannon might have been the ability to conduct a short siege against a small fortress, which might otherwise have taken as long to reduce as a large fortress.

          Having said that, I doubt that the window in which effective cannon coexisted with castles vulnerable to them, lasted very long compared to the history of firearms. There might have been a lot of vulnerable European castles in 1494, but probably not in 1594. That’s what vulnerable means.

          1. Star fortresses and walled cities were still vulnerable to cannon, which is why siege cannon continued to exist. It was more the case that traditionally designed castles couldn’t effectively mount counter-batteries to defend against enemy artillery.

            In any event, well before the mid-19th century introduction of rifled artillery firing explosive shells, western artillery were demolishing Chinese fortifications such as during the Opium Wars.

          2. Michael, I was intending to compare European fortress walls with Chinese ones. Thin masonry walls of European castles should have been more vulnerable to cannon than thicker rammed-earth Chinese city walls. That would have increased the importance of cannon in Europe, for a period.

            Those star fortresses would not have been more vulnerable than contemporary Chinese fortresses, which should have made it less true that cannon were more important in Europe than China.

          3. I wonder how even a star fortress compares to Chinese city walls. Cities are much bigger than forts.

            Anyway, I think the idea is that China didn’t have a friendly development path for cannon. European castles could be tackled by primitive cannon, which encouraged an arms race of better defenses and cannon. Chinese walls were so overwhelmingly superior that no one would think of investing in cannon.

            Kind of like how the development path for steam engines started with pumping water out of coal mines, because early steam engines were useless for anything else. Europe got lucky in having multiple gradual and immediately ‘profitable’ paths to industrialization?

          4. TBH I’m not sure the argument about Chinese vs. European walls is all that relevant — China was united for most of the time after the fall of the Southern Song (there were transitions from the Yuan to the Ming, and from the Ming to the Qing, but those didn’t last too long compared with, say, the transition from the Han to the Tang), so Chinese armies wouldn’t generally be besieging Chinese cities.

            Instead, it seems to me that the real reason why cannon didn’t take off in China was that most of its fighting was against nomads to the north, who lived in relatively arid land and didn’t have many big cities to besiege. Hence cannons would be both unnecessary and difficult to maintain logistically (it took a lot of horses or oxen to pull just one siege cannon), and so it didn’t make sense for the Chinese to put resources into that area.

          5. There were still a lot of vulnerable castles in Europe in 1594; it’s just that they were increasingly being abandoned because everyone knew that they wouldn’t last more than a few days against the royal artillery of whatever king or prince dominated the area, and it was more practical and comfortable for the local noble to move into a palace not fortified against anything more than a small peasant mob.

            The key is that the introduction of early cannon changed the landscape, strategically speaking. It turned a landscape where numerous widely distributed castles acted as very tough strongpoints into a landscape where only walled cities and the newest custom-built star forts could be used as strongpoints.

            But by the time that the little castles were no longer at all relevant or occupied, European militaries had already made the commitment to large-scale production of gunpowder and large scale cannon foundries. The trick, as in many cases, is to get over the initial barrier to investment, and the desire to defeat all those little stone castles provided that. Once the initial investment in big artillery trains had been made, the incentive to go on improving what was already there was easier to find.

  17. I’m gonna be honest, I do world-building stuff for fun in my free time and only a few weeks ago I was going nuts trying to figure out how to do the government system for Ancient Rome in Space and I was a little annoyed at how the civic governance series didn’t exist yet, and now that its finally happening after I moved onto something else I just had to face-palm my skull in frustration

    but I don’t want to sound like I am angry at you personally and understand completely that you only have so much time and I am excited to see you explain the dynamics of classical Mediterranean city-states

  18. “seriously, pre-modern China was unbeatable at ‘cool weapon names’ and we should immediately begin naming our weapon systems this way”

    Sometimes we do. There is a Thunderbolt (and I think a Thunderbolt II) and a Javelin at least. Sometimes there’s even a “folk name”, e.g. the MOAB. Admittedly the names are often pushed aside in favor of the alphanumerical designation (at least for American weapons).

    I think it’s because of the bureaucratic mindset, and also the designation requires more inside knowledge.

    1. Name things for the audience?
      – If you intend to parade the thing through the streets every year, give it a bombastic name.
      – If it’s uncertain whether Congress will fund the program, give it a very political name.
      – If there is as much public/political attention toward the program as toward a water treatment plant, name it the M1.

  19. Shouldn’t that inscription be read as L(ucius) Vibius L(ucii) Filius Tro(mentinae)? I.e., genitive case.

  20. Interesting stuff on epigraphy, and stone being relatively less expensive than we would think. I wonder if any of the “preserve stuff for deep time” groups have considered making fired clay tablets.

    I’d noted Andrade before, but you’re bumping it up.

    Any idea how good Graeber’s _Debt_ is? I only looked at the first part, he seemed plausible on the scarcity of barter, but I noticed that the barter Just-So story goes all the way back to Aristotle, not Smith as I think he said. (And looking at prison monies, I suspect the barter origin story could be perfectly accurate, it’s just that the barter phase is almost immediately replaced by some commodity money. But I digress.)


    they communicate either than [that]

    could be clearly ready [read]

    interestingly open [to] the idea

    1. In “Death’s End,” the last (and overall, to my mind, weakest, but that’s a different topic) volume of the “Three Body Problem” series, the archivists of humanity, anticipating the destruction of the solar system and the substantial disappearance of humanity, do settle on stone carving as the most reliable way of preserving a record of the species.

      1. From a geological perspective (and if we’re talking in terms of “long enough that the death of the star matters” this is the proper perspective), it depends on the stone. Limestone (including calcite and dolomite) are going to wear away fast, particularly in an industrial culture (lots of acids). Granite will too–it’s basically a bunch of interlocking mineral grains, and it’s pretty easy to break those crystals loose and is again susceptible to chemical weathering. You can see this for yourself–go to an old cemetery and you can see the different weathering rates for different types of rock. Something like basalt is probably your best bet–massive enough to prevent much in the way of weathering, but still composed of crystals so you don’t get the devitrification that can affect obsidian.

        It’s also going to depend on the type of information. You can carve letters and numbers and stuff into basalt fairly easily, but if you want to encode digital information it’s going to be bulky to say the least. There are certain minerals that may be useful for encoding digital information, but then you have the question of how to extract that information later on. A billion-year storage device doesn’t do you much good if the thing that reads it is obsolete in a few decades.

        All in all, I just don’t see it. People think of rocks as permanent, but on the scale of even tens of thousands of years they really aren’t. When you get to the scale of star lifespans you can essentially treat rocks as very viscus fluids (it’s wrong in every particular, but it’s a useful perspective). Even if your letters were the size of the Nazca Lines it won’t survive the next orogeny. Hand-sample size rocks may survive better, but you’re increasing surface area relative to volume.

        At that timescale I’d say your best bet, particularly with digital data, would be to find a mineral that could handle different stable isotopes of an element–say, calcite where C12 is used for 0 and C13 is used for 1. This of course assumes you’ve got a device that can 1) detect isotopes at the scale of individual atoms, and 2) translate that digital data into something useful, both potentially false assumptions.

        1. Not to dismiss your excellent points, but as I recall, in the book in question the destruction of the solar system is an artificial event happening on a significantly shorter than geologic time scale, and the archival stone carving is being done in an extraplanetary context.

          So, primary concern is survival of the destructive event, and then very different weathering conditions – but even in so-called “hard” vacuum, weathering is a real thing that must be accounted for. (It’s been a few years and I don’t recall off-hand the details mentioned in the book, so I can’t say more about the specific ways that this was addressed…)

          1. Yes, if I recall (I too read the book a few years back), memorials to humanity are inscribed on stone tablets erected on Pluto, which as I understand is geologically inert and has no substantial atmosphere. That said, not everything in this book, or any other work of science fiction, is guaranteed true: I wonder how long engraved stone tablets on Pluto would indeed survive.

          2. Fair enough. I haven’t read the book, so I wasn’t aware of the context. Thank you for the correction! Given that, this is probably plausible. Not easy, but not outlandish.

            The problems a rock would face in space are pretty much other rocks and radiation. It doesn’t take much mass to have sufficient energy to turn a rock into a pile of rubble. Size of course matters–get big enough and you’ll pull rocks to you, if you’re small enough you may slip by without encountering stuff (space is unimaginably big, which is why I’m discounting “hit a planet” or “hit a star”). Plus, it doesn’t have to be carved. You could cast the letters–carve them out, then put molten material in the void–reducing the effects of the impacts (which tend to be greater on edges, which is why rounding occurs).

            Radiation is trickier. It hits more or less everywhere, and given the times it takes to traverse interstellar space it can have significant effects. Peter Ward, in “Rare Earth”, discussed this as a plausible explanation for why organisms on Earth only use one type of certain chemicals that can form either left- or right-oriented molecules, for example. And minerals that are stable at Earth temperatures and pressures may not be stable if you put them in space (cold, essentially zero pressure) and subject them to radiation….Look at what happens with tin soldiers, for example. They get too cold the tin converts to a new phase and basically eats the toy. Still, very modest forces can have profound effects on this timescale. I wonder if a bit of magnetite mixed into the material (common enough in igneous masses that it’s used to back-calculate flow paths) would provide sufficient shielding?

    2. The first half of “Debt” is really interesting (where he’s writing like an anthropologist). The second part where he’s trying to write like a historian is … still interesting but not credible. That’s Graeber’s signature mix, stirring up interesting subjects without much rigor or accuracy. “Dawn of Everything” at least makes a virtue of that flaw.

    3. The barter story has been thoroughly debunked. We do have an excellent record of the development of money in Mesopotamia – essentially as the gradual widening of records of debts from the personal and particular (“Dagrim is entitled to 4 measures of barley and 3 baskets of onions monthly from the Temple of Innana”) to the general (“the holder of this token is entitled to goods to the value of 3 weights of silver wheresoever this token is recognised”). Reflected in the fact that the vast majority of money in circulation now and in all past times takes the form of transferable notes of debt (eg Visa pays seller, buyer owes Visa, bank credits one person, debits another).

      1. I don’t see how it could be debunked, if an actual barter phase lasts for maybe a month of frequent trading before everyone decides to converge on barley (or onions? haven’t heard that one before). And I don’t see what “the vast majority” has to do with money’s origins. The vast majority of M1 money today is fiat currency, a pretty new phenomenon (as something stable and well-managed, anyway), and not long ago our money was notionally or actually tied to amounts of silver.

        1. Pre-money ‘economies’ don’t use barter – they use gift exchange (equivalent to how today a bunch of friends might organise regular barbecues or fishing trips, with diversions into ceremonial occasions). ‘Fiat’ currency has always been the default – as in payment by note/tally stick/clay tablet from some authority or, very often, a private entity. The reference point was gold or silver, with ability to convert a test of creditworthiness – a last resort, as the amount of money in circulation always exceeded the value of gold or silver by a very large margin.

  21. On epigraphy, I have a vague recollection of a TV documentary some years ago claiming that the ‘Linear B’ script had been deciphered on the basis of tablets found around Crete and Greece, and which tablets constituted quartermaster or stores keeper records of some kind. I have a feeling that it was indicated that they were pottery tablets, and not stone, but it was some years ago that I saw the documentary, and my memory of what the records were inscribed in may be in error.

  22. Patreon — Help! I can’t get past the log-in page to Support! There’s not other place to send a help request. I tried signing in with my Google account but that screen never advances. Is there any way round? I can’t even find a Contact address via this site, since I am not on Twitter.

  23. Side note–since I don’t have a twitter, I’ll comment on the tweets RE: Sweet’s comments about public intellectuals here. If you’d rather not have this discussion here and want to delete this, I understand.

    To begin with, I think you’re absolutely right regarding the snobbery towards people who engage with the public in addition to their fellow academics, and I understand why you think that concerns about “presentism” are not what the academy needs to be focused on right now.

    However, in one of your blog posts about public engagement, you said something to the effect of “activism isn’t how you gain political capital, it’s how you spend political capital. You gain political capital by explaining non-political things to the public.” And right now, much of the public engagement that academics are engaging in is activism that is spending political capital that they do not have. And that problem is compounded when members of the public see something as “presentist,” which usually means “the scholarship wrapping over the activism was bad enough that I noticed,” which results in spending political capital and decreasing the ability to increase said political capital, because said members now trust the academics less.

  24. Completely off-topic: Andrade is a very prestigious surname in this part of the world (I mean NW Galicia, which is also NW Spain). When dictator Francisco Franco (incidentally, born a few blocks away from my home) wrote the script for a (horrible) propaganda film named “Raza”, he used as pseudonym “Jaime de Andrade”. The noble House of Andrade is well-known here. Here are the links to images of the Tower of the Andrade and the Castle of the Andrade (it´s usual for people to get confused and name one for the other). They are in the town of Pontedeume, and a local legend says there is a tunnel communicating both. The fact that one is in the town itself, at sea level, and the other over a hill, several kilometers away, is of course conveniently ignored in the legend.

    Of course, it can be another surname, not of Galician origin, but normally that happens with short surnames (like Lee), so this author may be a very distant relative. Just kidding, of course.

    On the other hand, its always nice someone mentioning Paul Kennedy. I´ve had his book for almost 30 years, and still it is one of my favourites.

  25. In a callback to a previous post, the interpolation done by epigraphers to figure out what words or letters are missing or have been damaged from an ancient inscription sounds like something that a really good AI predictive text programme might actually be able to help with. Think ‘ChatGPT but trained exclusively on latin/greek/persian/whatever text from X to Y dates and trained into shape by expert epigraphers’.

    As described, epigraphic interpolation sounds a lot like ‘predictive text trained on a vast mental database of similar inscriptions’.

Leave a Reply