Most recent update:5/1/2004; 5:36:55 AM

 Tuesday, April 20, 2004

CHATTER: Library of Alexandria

Okay ... while I was having my network travails a while back, my father (who, incidentally, failed Latin as a lad, snicker) sent me a clipping from the Calgary Herald about Robert Blackburn's theory about the fate of 40,000 books from the Library of Alexandria. Obviously that article has long expired, if it was ever on the web, but I did manage to find a University of Toronto news item which tells much the same. Here's the salient bit:

“It was a true wonder of the world, holding 700,000 handwritten papyrus scrolls. Legend has it that when Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in 48 BC and deposed Cleopatra’s young brother and consort Ptolemy XII — who had to be deposed if Cleopatra was to take her rightful place as queen — she showed her gratitude by offering him her library.” To the horror of her librarians, Caesar accepted the gift.

“And so, the whole library was packed up and loaded onto ships,” Blackburn says of the old legend. “But the night before the fleet was set to sail for Rome a great fire in the harbour destroyed all the ships and cargoes. Nothing was saved and that was supposedly the end of the library.”

But Blackburn cannot accept this turn of events. “Running this story through my mind, I realized that it could not be altogether true. It is too full of improbabilities.”

Improbabilities, he says, that include the time it would take to pack and transport these scrolls to the docks. Also, Blackburn believes Cleopatra would never have agreed to part with the whole of her beloved library that had helped to make Alexandria the new intellectual, cultural and commercial centre of the Hellenic world — he believes the librarians would have done everything possible to stop Caesar from taking the books.

Further, Blackburn can’t figure out how a fire could destroy everything so completely that not a single scroll was saved or found later. And then there was Livy, a contemporary of Caesar, who wrote that 40,000 books were destroyed in the fire — a mere fraction of the 700,000 volumes in existence at the time. Many historians think the fire spread throughout the city and reached the main library, consuming the rest of the 700,000 books but how could this be true, Blackburn asks, considering the city was all stone and marble and the library was a considerable distance from the waterfront?

According to a book by another Alexandria researcher, E.A. Parsons (who sifted through all the known records of the library up to 1950), there are many conflicting statements about what really happened that night. So, did the librarians hatch a plan to fool the Romans and if so, where are the books now?

This is what Parsons — and Blackburn — believe took place. Reports of the time say Cleopatra was eager to please Caesar and at a special banquet had her librarians regale him with the grandiosities of the library. During the dinner she tells him to take whatever books might interest him. Caesar accepts but decides to take not a few examples of her generosity but 40,000 home with him, thus horrifying the queen’s librarians.

Blackburn believes Caesar was duped and that the scrolls loaded onto the waiting Roman ships were actually straw-filled bags that eventually went up in smoke. The great fire that began on the docks — either accidentally or on purpose — supposedly destroyed all the books but Blackburn believes they were sent to a nearby cave for safekeeping.

Blackburn continues to fine-tune his theory and wonders what might be found if an expedition were mounted today. “The cave would probably be within a day’s camel ride from the former city,” he says. [the whole article]

Over the past week I've asked the folks who would know (a.k.a. the Classics list) whether they had ever heard of this 40,000 tome gift of Cleopatra and none had. I would, therefore, dismiss this as a 'nutty' theory if it wasn't for the important detail added by the U of T thing about Blackburn's bona fides. The Calgary Herald had simply identified him as an "author, librarian, and historian" (in that order), which set off alarm bells in my skull for some reason. The U of T piece notes he was chief librarian at Robarts in Toronto (probably the best research library in Canada) for close to thirty years; so he must know something. The only problem is, I still do not know the source of this story ... if anyone out there can help, it would be greatly appreciated.

By the way, the article on the fate of the Library of Alexandria is very well assessed in an article at Bede's Library -- especially (for our purposes) the section on Julius Caesar. The passage from the younger Seneca's de tranquillitate animi mentioned therein, which might be connected to the 40,000 number, does not mention Cleopatra.

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ante diem xii kalendas maias

... nothing ... not even a martyr ... (and no, it is not the birthday of Marcus Aurelius, as some other sites suggest)

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NUNTII: A New 'Rosetta Stone'

The caffeine must have just hit ... piles of folk have sent this in for Explorator, and I just realized it has to do with the ancient Greek world (well duh!):

A team of German and Egyptian archaeologists working in the Nile Delta has unearthed "quite a remarkable" stele dating back 2 200 years to Ptolemaic Egypt which bears an identical inscription in three written languages - like the famed Rosetta Stone.

Announcing the find on Monday, University of Potsdam chief Egyptologist Christian Tietze said the stone fragment was "quite remarkable and the most significant of its kind to be found in Egypt in 120 years".

The grey granite stone, 99cm high and 84cm wide, was found "purely by accident" at the German excavation site of the ruined city of Bubastis, a once important religious and political centre 90km north-east of modern-day Cairo.

It shows a royal decree, written in ancient Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphs, that mentions King Ptolemy III Euergetes I along with the date 238 BC.

"The decree is significant because it specifically mentions a reform of the ancient Egyptian calendar which was not in fact actually implemented until some 250 years later under Julius Caesar," Tietze said.

The inscription consists of 67 lines of Greek text and 24 lines of Demotic along with traces of Hieroglyphs outlining the calendar reform and praising Ptolemy.
[more from IOL]

There will be more links on this in this weekend's Explorator ...

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CHATTER: Another Appeal to Antiquity

I've been on the alert for news coverage which seems to appeal to Classical Antiquity and/or Classical authors to lend an air of authenticity to a particular argument. Here's another one from Arutz Sheva:

Seldom, if ever, does it appear in the mainstream media (except in the words of angry readers' or listeners' responses) that those lands in Judea and Samaria -- known as the "West Bank" only in this past century due to British imperialism and Transjordan's illegal seizure of the west bank of the Jordan River in its attack on a reborn Israel in 1948 -- were unapportioned areas of the original Mandate for Palestine, open to settlement by all peoples, not just Arabs. These lands were mostly state lands, passed on from the Ottoman Turkish Empire (which ruled it for over four centuries) to the British after World War I, and then on to the Jordanians and Israel after 1967.

Purely Arab Jordan was created itself from some 80% of "Palestine's" original post-World War I land. The British separated the Mandate's territory east of the River in 1922 in the creation of Transjordan, partially as a reward to their Hashemite Arab allies.

The name "Palestine," itself, was the name Rome gave to Judaea after the Judaeans' (Jews') second of two major revolts, recorded by the Roman historians themselves, for independence in 133-135 C.E. Tacitus, Dio Cassius, etc. speak of Judaea, not Palaestina, in their accounts. Listen to this one telling quote from Tacitus:

"It inflamed Vespasian's resentment that the Jews were the only nation who had not yet submitted." (Works of Tacitus, Vol. II)

To squash their hopes supposedly forever, Emperor Hadrian renamed the land after the Jews' historic enemies, the Philistines (of David and Goliath fame), a non-Semitic sea people from the eastern Mediterranean or Aegean area.

There never was an Arab country of Palestine. When the Arabs ruled the land -- as a result of their own imperial conquests of the region from the 7th through the 9th centuries C.E.-- it was from out of their two imperial Caliphal capitals, Damascus and Baghdad.

That Colonia Aelia Capitolina thing never caught on either ...

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CHATTER: Parthenon/Elgin Marbles Redux

The Marbles issue reared its pentelic head in Question Period at Whitehall the other day, according to the Scotsman:

Returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece would “rip the heart out of the British Museum” and must be resisted by ministers, Tories urged today.

Museums minister Estelle Morris said the historic dispute – a source of friction between Greece and Britain for more than 200 years, was not a matter for Government.

But she stressed the artefacts were well displayed at present and that the British Museum attracted millions of visitors each year.

A new initiative to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, the Marbles Reunited campaign, wants the 2,500-year-old treasures returned “on loan” in time for the Olympic Games in Athens this summer.

The British Museum, home to the disputed marbles for the past 200 years, has said it has no intention of handing them over.

An ambitious new museum is under construction at the foot of the Acropolis to house the treasures.

Under the proposals, the British Museum would retain ownership of the marbles and responsibility for their conservation.

In return, the Greek Government has promised that other significant treasures would be brought over to Britain for an exhibition which would visit London and regional museums.

At question time, Labour’s Andrew Dismore (Hendon) said this offer would ease the British Museum’s financial problems and provide extra resources for regional museums.

“Isn’t it about time the Parthenon sculptures went back to their proper home in Athens,” he demanded to cries of “no” from Tories.

Ms Morris said it was a matter for the British Museum. “It should stay that way and it will stay that way,” she added.

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CHATTER: Trireme Hype

Good to see hype building (in the New York Times, no less!) for the upcoming expedition to try and find a trireme intact off Mt. Athos:

The Persian Wars may be famed in history, but few artifacts and material remains have emerged to shed light on how the ancient Greeks defeated the Asian invaders and saved Europe in what scholars call one of the first great victories of freedom over tyranny.

It is well known that a deadly warship of antiquity, the trireme, a fast galley powered by three banks of rowers pulling up to 200 oars, played a crucial role in the fierce battles. Its bronze ram could smash enemy ships, and armed soldiers could leap aboard a foe's vessel in hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears, an innovation that merged land and sea tactics in a bloody new form of combat.

Yet no wreck of a trireme has ever come to light, and questions abound about the ship's design and operation, leaving much room for scholarly debate and wishful thinking.

Now, the first big expedition has gotten under way to look for the lost fleets of the Persian Wars, seeking to bring triremes back to life and retrieve some of the vast treasure of arms and armor believed to have gone down with the warships.

A team of more than two dozen Greek, Canadian and American experts is seeking the remains of 1,000 or so triremes, both Greek and Persian, as well as hundreds of support vessels. The hunt is alluring, they say, because the sea is far more likely than land to have preserved artifacts from the Persian Wars. The victorious Greeks, who named them, saw the series of battles as a defining moment: the defeat of a ruthless state that had enslaved much of the known world from the Balkans to the Himalayas.

The team hopes to illuminate the battles and solve trireme mysteries. For instance, modern experts built a 120-foot copy, but neither it nor recent theorizing and experimentation have explained how the ancient warships moved so rapidly.

"That means somewhere there is a mistake," said Katerina Dellaporta, director of underwater antiquities for Greece and a leader of the project. "They were very, very steady in naval battles and very fast."

Last year, the team, working off Mount Athos in the northern Aegean, found tantalizing hints of what may be the first of five sunken fleets. Next month, the experts plan to return to the site and survey the seabed for the remains of ancient ships, arms and armor. Especially, they hope to find the bronze rams from trireme bows, which are considered more likely than wood to have survived ages of neglect.

"This is the most exciting underwater archaeology project I could imagine," said Dr. Robert L. Hohlfelder, a team member who is a historian at the University of Colorado. "The potential is so great. This is the big prize in the Mediterranean."

The venture, a collaboration between the Greek government and the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens, has attracted top investigators from some of the best American undersea groups, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M.

Experts see the work as challenging because of strong currents, recovery uncertainties and fierce storms in the Aegean that can strike unexpectedly. In fact, gales rather than enemy action destroyed three of the five ancient fleets. [more]

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CHATTER: Classics Alive and Well in Florida

Wow ... first my Flames make it past the first round, now the 'news' that Classics is doing just fine in Florida:

Professor Konstantinos Nikoloutsos and his FAU students are on an Aegean cruise of the mind these afternoons, accompanying the wily Odysseus on his long journey home from Troy.

They have to keep a weather-eye out for the man-eating Cyclopes, the drug-pushing Lotus Eaters and the horrible boulder-heaving Laestrygonians.

"What term encapsulates the main theme of The Odyssey?" Nikoloutsos demands.

Silence. It's 2 p.m., beautiful springtime weather outside and the pleasant post-lunch digestive torpor tends to dull the keen edge of intellect.

"Does anyone remember?" the teacher prods. "This was what we discussed, first class."


"Nostos, right?" the professor supplies the answer. "And what does nostos mean?"

"Homecoming," one student perks up.

"Correct. There is a word in English that comes from it. Nostalgia, right?"


But Nikoloutsos isn't about to let this last. He does what all good Greek teachers do: Let Homer inspire the class.

"Let's read some lines. Sallie!"

Sallie Trudden takes us all to Book Nine, 42-63, and the battle with the Cicones:

From Ilion the wind took me to the Cicones,

In Ismaros. I pillaged the town and killed the men.

The women and treasure that we took out

I divided as fairly as I could among all hands

And gave the command to pull out fast...

That's the stuff. The class catches fire. Homer always kindles the brain.

Nikoloutsos and his class are living proof that the classics can't be counted out, even in balmy-palmy South Florida, a land of the Lotus Eaters if there ever was one. After two decades of starveling neglect, Greek and Latin are coming back.

Some people call it the "Gladiator Effect," from Ridley Scott's epic 2000 movie starring Russell Crowe. Whatever the cause, the effect is undeniable.

Florida Atlantic University is one of five in the state offering classics courses. The others are the University of Miami, Florida International University, Florida State University and the University of Florida.

But FAU's future seems singularly bright.

With money from the Hellenic Society Paideia, FAU will build a two-story, 14,000-square-foot, classical-columned complex at the eastern entrance to the campus, to be named the Hellenic Society Paideia Aristotle Center.

Why study classical works such as The Odyssey?

"It's a great tale, man," said one student, Bishop Bower of Macon, Ga., speaking in a rich Southern accent. "It's got women. It's got nymphs. It's got war. It's got sex. What more does a man need?" [more from the Palm Beach Post]

Dactylic hexameters? Coffee?

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AWOTV: On TV Today

11.00 p.m. |HISTU| The Real Spartacus
Long before Stanley Kubrick's film starring Kirk Douglas, Spartacus
had unwittingly become a mythological icon of resistance against
oppression worldwide. We'll look at the real Spartacus, focusing on
his struggle against Roman forces, his time as a gladiator, and his
role in the infamous slave revolt against Rome in 73 BC, which
convulsed the great empire for 2 years before the uprising was put
down and 6,000 slave rebels were crucified along 150 miles of the
Appian Way.

HISTU = History Channel (US)

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