Monday, July 26, 2010

Homer’s World

Interior of the Treasury of Atreus

In a previous essay I talked about how Homer’s Epics The Iliad and Odyssey, although among the very greatest of man’s literary feats is not and cannot be used, except in the most general sense as a source for the Bronze Age history of Greece.

This view can be described as the standard view of today although it is possible and is in fact argued that perhaps kernels of actual history can be found in the poems.1

One thing does seem clear the social world described is most categorically NOT the world of the Mycenaean palace culture. How do we know this? We know this because we have impeccable contemporary documents. In this case Linear B tablets written in Greek. Now these tablets are almost always accounts. In other words filing records, of who did what work, who owned what, who got paid what, etc. They are indisputably exceptionally dull. However they are also indisputably entirely germane to telling us what Mycenaean society was like.2 Finally unlike Homer’s epics which were written / composed at least four centuries later the Linear B tablets are contemporary with the society that Homer was once thought to have been describing.3

Some resist the above conclusion with what amounts to statements of faith:

But in fact one wonders whether the very complexity and comprehensiveness revealed by the Linear B tablets may not giving a false impression of what life was really like in Mycenaean Greece.4

The implication is obvious, the above authors want to believe that Homer is describing the Mycenaean period. Of course just how Homer could be describing the Mycenaean period accurately when he lived over 350 years later is ignored. It is important to remember that the end of the Mycenaean period was characterized by massive devastation, mass movements of peoples and depopulation. In other words it was a disaster. To expect Homer to describe this period accurately is just not reasonable.5

Recent attempts like Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War, both film and book, are ultimately not the slightest bit convincing in showing us that the world of Homer’s poems is Mycenaean.6

What the Linear B tablets show is a Palace centered culture in which the Wanax (King) has centralized control over agriculture, aided by a system of bureaucracy loyal to him, who administers the system. Further the tablets reveal that the system was feudal with the bureaucracy assigning land to be farmed. Further there is a system of labour obligations and tribute collection.7 perhaps the most revealing indication of the differences between Homer’s world and the world of the Mycenaean tablets is the following list of the eight most high status positions mentioned in the poems and in the tablets. The poem’s list is on the left hand side the tablet’s on the right.

Anax – Wanax
Basileus – Pasireu (basileus)
Hetairos-Eqeta (hepetes)
Hegetor-Korete (and Porokorete)
Medon-Tereta (Telestas)8

What is notable is the difference between the terms used between the Iliad / Odyssey and the Mycenaean tablets. It should be pointed out that the term Wanax which Homer uses for King in his poems sometimes was soon to pass out of use entirely. Meanwhile Homer uses much more frequently the term Basileus for King and soon it was to take over the function of referring to King among the Greeks which it still has to this day. Interestingly among the Mycenaean’s the term Basileus referred to a bureaucratic individual in charge of stores. All of which indicates a break between the actual world of Mycenaean Greece and the world as described in Homer’s poems.9

In fact the entire Mycenaean system of tribute gathering, trade, legal obligation and the network of officials to collect, administer and finally record assets and tribute (taxes) owed to the king is entirely absent from the poems. In fact Homer’s Kings do not seem to have a functional bureaucracy at their command at all. In fact we learn from the Odyssey that one man keeps a record of all Odysseus’ possessions in his head.10

The Mycenaean King was head of bureaucratic machine and had significant institutional means of enforcing his will. Further the society he controlled had a hierarchy of status' and positions that are not reflected in Homer’s poems. For example It appears that a large segment of the Mycenaean population was en-serfed i.e., partially un-free. In Homer’s world status and position sem to be relatively simple men are free, slave and noble. Serfs of any kind don’t seem to exist in Homer’s world.11

Also in both the Iliad and Odyssey there is mention of assemblies. In the Iliad the soldiers meet and decide issues and the various Kings and warriors like Achilles vie for the approval of the assembly. In fact King Agamemnon seems to singularly lack any coercive means to enforce his will. He relies on persuasion to get his way. And the King is dependent on his pursasive ability in order to win support from the common warrior. No tribute system collected, stored and administered by a coercive bureaucracy enables him to collect tribute or enforce his will. Although the Mycenaean Wanax had such a coercive bureaucracy at his command.12

Thus in the poems:

Hence we should appreciate the fact that the epics mention so many meetings of assembly and council. This reflects a basic reality: an assembly is called, often combined with a council meeting, and public debate is arranged in a polis, army, or band of warriors whenever an important issue requires discussion and decision.

Normally, the leader makes conscious efforts to convince the assembly (hence the great importance attributed, among the leader’s qualities, to persuasive speaking) and, although there is no formal vote, respects the peoples opinion.

The assembly has an important function in witnessing and legitimizing communal actions and decisions, from the distribution of booty to ‘foreign policy’ to the resolution of conflicts.13

In fact this is a world were mere raids for cattle are considered worthy of heroic remembrance by Kings. For example by King Nestor of Pylos. In other words this is a world of small scale warfare and petty Kings and of many raids, small scale piracy etc. Once again it is not the world of the tablets.14

In the case of the Odyssey. Odysseus’ son Telemachus attempts to drive the suitors who are pillaging Odysseus’ wealth while ostensibly wooing Penelope from the palace, by appealing to the Demos or people at an assembly. They refuse to help feeling the matter is none of their concern. The Mycenaean Wanax did not need such an institution and his powers and authority were apparently uncontested legally at least. Such assemblies do not fit into the world of the Mycenaean tablets but they fit into the world of the Greek dark ages; in the period after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization.15

Perhaps the best indication of the difference between the two worlds is the central place given in the poems to gift giving. Unlike the world of the tablets were tribute / taxes are the major sources of wealth, a situation almost entirely absent from the poems along with written record keeping, gift giving is absolutely integral to the economy of Homer’s world.16

Gift giving is not just important for economic reasons but because:

Gift-giving too was part of the network of competitive, honorific activity. And in both directions: it was as honourable to give as to receive. One measure of a man’s true worth was how much he could give away in treasure. Heroes boasted of the gifts they had received and of those they had given as signs of their prowess.17

Just as the Feudal and Bureaucratic nature of the Mycenaean system is absent from poems so is the gift-giving system absent from the tablets.

In fact the need to win over by threats, by bribery and by persuasion etc., means that the Kings in Homer’s world signally lacked the coercive institutions at the command of the Mycenaean Wanax. Agamemnon simply could not order people about he must persuade and this includes the men in his own army who are from his own kingdom. This represents a Heroic age in which each warrior views himself as acting in his own interests and subject to no one’s orders except by a consent that can be withdrawn. Such a situation recalls other Heroic periods like the Viking Age and the ethos of Viking warriors not the palace culture of Mycenaean Greece.18.

Unlike the Mycenaean kings who had at their command a network of institutions to collect revenue in the form of taxes and tribute; kings in Homer’s poems rely on gift giving and much more importantly on the production of their privately held property. The Mycenaean tablets refer to a whole property regime that is entirely absent from Homer’s poems. In the tablets there is a form of state property, mainly of land, the use of which will be granted to individuals in return for services and or taxes / tribute. There are also state owned slaves and serfs and even property owned by the gods. There is also a system by which funds are paid for sacrifices and other services due to the gods.19. In Homer’s poems the situation is quite different.

Property is almost entirely privately owned. Homer’s kings rely on the production of their privately owned estates, state property seems altogether absent. The Mycenaean system of land use seems to be absent. Taxes seem to not exist and neither does regularized tribute of any kind. Religion also seems to be privatized also. Temples seem to be largely absent and no system of state support of religious activity seems to exist.20.

We get a conformation of the lack of any real institutional basis, unlike the Mycenaean kings as revealed in the tablets, for a Homeric kings power from what happened to Odysseus after he returns to Ithaca. There Odysseus is forced to rely almost entirely on personal support for himself in his efforts to reclaim his kingdom. No institutional system either helps or hinders him he must rely on his personal authority and on individuals willing to give him their support.21

Over thirty years ago the British writer / historian Michael Wood starred in the BBC documentary series In Search of the Trojan War. What the show should have been entitled was In Search of Michael Wood’s Critical Faculties, which were conspicuous by their absence in this show. The show was characterized by a gee whiz attitude and tons of romantic glop all centering around the trope that Homer was in his poem’s describing the Mycenaean period. Occasionally, very occasionally, Michael Wood would admit that Homer’s Achaeans were not Mycenaeans, but those moments would pass and the romantic treacle would flow in torrents. From a man who is so critical of things like the legend of Arthur to so fully surrender to a romantic myth is awe inspiring.22

Despite all of Michael Wood’s then and continuing efforts the fact, and it seems indeed to be a fact, is that the world described by Homer is not the world of the Mycenaean tablets. Socially at least the world of Homer is of the Greek dark ages.

Mycenaean Fresco

1. Finkelburg, Margalit, Greeks and Pre-Greeks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 1-3.

2. Finley, M.I., Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, Penguin Books, London, 1981, pp. 213-232.

3. Finley, M.I., The World of Odysseus, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp. 144-146.

4. Simpson, R. Hope, & Lazenby, J. F., The Catalogue of Ships in Homer’s Iliad, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1970, p. 9.

5. Finley, M. I., Early Greece, W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, 1970, pp. 58-68, Osborne, Robin, Greece in the Making, 1200 – 479 B.C.E., Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2009, pp. 35-51, Deger-Jalkotzy, Sigrid, Decline, Destruction, Aftermath, in The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, Ed. Shelmerdine, Cynthia W., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 387-415.

6. Wood, Michael, In Search of the Trojan War, Revised Edition, BBC Books, London, 2007. The TV Show can be found at Here. Both the book and TV series show in abundance Michael Wood’s surrender of his critical faculties to romantic tripe.

7. Footnote 2.

8. Finley, 1981, p. 219.

9. IBID, pp. 217-222.

10. Finley, 1978, pp. 51-73, Shelmerdine, Cynthia W., Economy and Administration, in Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309.

11. IBID, Finley, pp. 74-107, Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309, Raaflaub, Kurt A., Homeric Society, in A New Companion to Homer, Ed. Morris, Ian & Powell, Barry, Brill, New York, 1997, pp. 630-633.

12. Raaflaub, pp. 641-645, Finley, 1978, pp. 92-93, 116-120, Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309.

13. Raaflaub, pp. 625-648, at 642-643.

14. Finley, 1978, pp. 108-141, Osborne, pp. 144-146.

15. Finley, 1978, pp. 92-93, Finley, 1981, pp. 199-232, Raaflaub, pp. 633-645, Osborne, pp. 141-144.

16. Finley, 1981, pp. 199-212, Finley, 1978, pp. 61-69, Donlan, Walter, The Homeric Economy, in Morris et al, pp. 650-667, at pp. 661-665, Osborne, pp. 146-149, Raaflaub, 637-638.

17. Finley, 1978, pp. 120-121.

18. Finley, 1978, 142-158, Osborne, pp. 146-149, Raaflaub, 634-636.

19. Finley, 1981, pp. 199-232, Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309.

20. Finley, 1978, pp. 51-107, Finley, 1981, pp. 233-248, Donlan, pp. 649-667.

21. Finley, 1978, pp. 84-88.

22. See Footnote 6. For Michael Wood’s critical treatment of the legend of King Arthur see Wood, Michael, In Search of England, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, pp. 23-42.

Pierre Cloutier

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Claudius’ “Pumpkinification”

Emperor Claudius

One of the most curious pieces of surviving classical Latin literature is The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius. The author was the stoic philosopher and politician Seneca, (3 BCE – 65 C.E.). It is a viciously satirical treatment and lampoon of the deification of the recently deceased Emperor Claudius (10 B.C.E. – 54 C.E.).1

The term apocolocyntosis, means to turn into a gourd. It means in effect to call some one the equivalent of a cabbage head or vegetable in other words an idiot.2 Robert Graves in his novel Claudius the God, provides a translation of The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius, but translates the title as The Pumpkinification of Claudius,3 which is certainly is not a exact translation although a very amusing. Of course one has to also note that Pumpkins are in fact a type of gourd.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, called the younger, was during his life time a philosopher, poet, playwright and politician. He is best known today for his philosophical writings and more specifically his letters on various subjects, although he also wrote plays.4


Seneca was a Stoic philosopher and his main influence was on later western philosophy through his philosophical writings. He also had an effect on the development of play writing and theatre and drama through his plays.

Although Seneca in his writings portrayed himself as a Stoic philosopher, basically indifferent to wealth and fame, contemporary attitudes towards him were highly ambivalent. The writer Robert Graves in his novel Claudius the God has his character Claudius says concerning Seneca:

There was a lot more about my wonderful loving-kindness and mercy and a passage putting into my mouth the most extravagant sentiments about the noblest way of bearing the loss of a brother. I was supposed to cite my grandfather Mark Antony's grief for his brother Gaius, my uncle Tiberius's grief for my father, Gaius Caesar's grief for young Lucius, my own grief for my brother Germanicus, and then relate how valiantly we had each in turn borne these calamities. The only effect that this slime and honey had on me was to make me quite satisfied in my mind; that I had not wronged anyone by his banishment except perhaps the island of Corsica.5

The context of the above is a revoltingly suck-up piece of writing that Seneca wrote during his exile in Corsica, (by Claudius), in which Seneca lays on the flattery with a trowel.6

Seneca despite his statements concerning his un-interest in money and power was both ambitious for power and greedy for money. He became both a very wealthy and a very powerful man. He was recalled from exile in c. 48 C.E., and became the tutor of the future Emperor Nero. When Claudius died, was murdered, in 54 C.E., Seneca became one of Nero’s most important advisers and became very rich and was enormously powerful. Seneca eventually fell out of favour with Nero, retired and a few years later was forced to commit suicide after being accused of plotting to kill the Emperor Nero.7

Thus it appears that Seneca was in many ways was indeed what Grave’s character describes as:

-that flashy orator, that shameless flatterer, that dissolute and perverted amorist.8

The term apocoloccyntosis is a mocking pun on the term apotheois which means deification. For after Claudius’ death it was declared that the Emperor Claudius was a god and in fact temples were dedicated to him.9

Seneca probably had a grudge against Claudius for being exiled and further the Emperor Nero seemed to have enjoyed mocking his dead father by adoption Claudius. So that sometime in the 50s C.E., Seneca wrote this piece of satire including it, as per Seneca’s rather servile attitude towards power some flattery of Nero.10

There is some debate over if Seneca wrote this piece of satire but it seems to be settled that he did. The historian Dio Cassius does in fact mention Seneca as the writer of the The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius, which seems to be conclusive as to authorship.11

The satire is about the now dead Claudius’ attempts to be accepted as a god by the other gods in heaven.

Being Seneca he begins with a piece of servile flattery of Nero:

I wish to give future generations an account of the events in heaven on the thirteenth of October of this new year of grace that inaugurated our present period of prosperity.12

There is then some cutting references to Claudius’ ill health and lameness and some jokes concerning his liberality in granting Roman citizenship. Claudius is also wondering around lost until the god Mercury finds him.

There is then a poem concerning Nero which is quite effusive and revolting in its sucking up. To quote:

As the shining Sun, whenso the ruddy Dawn,
The shades of night dispersed, brings back the day
Looks on the world and starts his chariot off:
So Caesar comes, so Nero appears to Rome,
His bright face fired with gentle radiance,
His neck all beauty under his flowing hair.13

Emperor Nero

Seneca than mocks Claudius’ death:

His last words heard on earth came after he’d let off a louder noise from his easiest channel of communication: ‘Oh my! I think I’ve shit myself’ For all I know, he did. He certainly shat on everything else.14

The Gods then here that Claudius is there and demanding to be heard but that:

He was making some sort of threat, as he kept shaking his head; he was also dragging his right foot. When asked his nationality, he made some answer with a confused noise and in indistinct tones. It was impossible to understand his language: he was neither Greek nor Roman, nor any known race.

Claudius flared up at this point and fumed as loudly as he could. No one understood what he was saying. He was, in fact, giving orders for the goddess Fever to be taken away. With his shaky head, which was steady enough only on those occasions, making the familiar gesture with which he had people’s heads cut off, he had ordered her to be decapitated. You’d have thought they were all his freedmen the way no one took any notice of him.15

The god Hercules questions Claudius who responds. There is then a gap in the text before it resumes. Hercules in the missing portion seems to have been convinced to become Claudius’ champion. When the text resumes Claudius is being questioned about his qualifications to become a god.

Their follows a series of speeches about whether or not Claudius should become a god. Just when it seems that Claudius might win the Augustus intervenes, (he is a god having been deified after his death), to condemn the motion. After accusing Claudius of murdering many of Augustus’ descendants, Augustus says:

Do you now want to make this man a god? Look at his body – the gods were angry when it came into the world. In short, let him say three words one after the other and he can drag me off as his slave. Who’s going to worship him as a god? Who’ll believe in him?16

Augustus than asks the heavenly Senate to instead punish Claudius for the wrongs he as done. There follows a list of Claudius’ murders and the recommendation that he be deported. So Claudius is deported.

There follows a digression about Claudius’ funeral and about how Lawyers are in mourning a mock funeral dirge. Part of which goes:

Weep, Weep
For the man’s good judgements.
Who could master
Hearing either
One or neither.

Pound, pound
Your breasts
In solemn mourning,
Lawyers for retainers
And all the other gainers!
Weep, weep
Ye new poetic prattlers
And ye tribes of
Lucky dice box rattlers!17

Claudius is sent to Hades, (hell) where is greeted by the spirits of those who he had killed. There follows another listing of Claudius’ victims:

The rumour spread quickly that Claudius had arrived. Up rushed first of all the freedman Polybius, Myron, Arpocras, Ampheus and Pheronactus – all of whom Claudius had dispatched ahead to avoid being anywhere without attendants.18

Claudius is then sent before a tribunal to be tried for his numerous murders and there is then some debate over the appropriate punishment. After some nonsense concerning punishing Claudius by having him toss dice with a box with a hole in it, Gaius Caesar, (the Emperor Caligula), shows up. He claims Claudius as one of his slaves. Claudius is then given to Gaius Caesar who then employees him as a legal secretary.

The piece is very funny and like much satire rather unfair. As per usual Seneca flattered Claudius while was alive but did not hesitate to ridicule him once he was safely dead. Of course what helps to make it even funnier, in a black comic way, is that Seneca who seems to have built his political career on excessive flattery of those in power was eventually forced to kill himself by Nero who he had flattered with oceans of praise.

1. Sullivan, J. P., Introduction, Petronius, The Satyricon, Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis, Penguin Books, London, 1986, pp. 209-218, at 212, Wikipedia Claudius Here.

2. IBID, Sullivan, p. 209.

3. Graves Robert, Claudius the God, Penguin Books, London, 1934, pp. 427-439, and Petronius, The Satyricon, Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis, Penguin Books, London, 1986, pp. 221-223.

4. Sullivan, Wikipedia Seneca the Younger Here.

5. Graves, p. 164.

6. Robert Graves is not inventing this the piece is called The Consolation for Polybius, does indeed exist and does contain some of the most stomach turning suck-up to the then Emperor Claudius imaginable. It can be found at Stoics Home Page Here.

7. Claudius, Seneca the Younger.

8. Graves, p. 402.

9. Claudius.

10. Sullivan.

11. Cassius, Dio, The Roman History, Book 60, s. 35, at LacusCurtius Here.

12. Petronius, The Satyricon, Seneca, The Apocolocyntosis, p. 221.

13. IBID, p. 223.

14. IBID, pp. 223-224.

15. IBID, pp. 224, 225.

16. IBID, p. 228.

17. IBID, p. 230, 231.

18. IBID, pp. 231.

Pierre Cloutier

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Night Descending
Movie poster for Agora

Recently I saw the movie Agora (2009) directed by Alejandro Amenabar and staring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, Michael Lonsdale as Hypatia’s father Theon, Oscar Issac as Orestes, Max Minghella as Davus, Rupert Evans as Synesius and Sami Samir as St. Cyril.

The movie takes place in the late 4th century C.E., in the city of Alexandria, then part of the Roman Empire. Hypatia the heroine of this movie is a philosopher and teacher at the University or Mouseion attached to the library attached to the temple of the God Serapis called the Serapeum. Later I will discuss the historical veracity of this movie.

In Hypatia’s class are two students, Synesius and Orestes who are in love with her. Also in love with her is her slave Davus. Tension between Christians and Pagans is rife in Alexandria leading to incidents of violence between the groups. Theon whips Davus when he takes the place of a slave who has a cross in her possession. Hypatia tries to keep peace between the Christians and non-Christian among her students.

Things come to a head when a Christian mob egged on by Cyril, then a priest, start pelting the statutes of pagan gods with filth and rotting vegetables / fruit. The Pagans at the Serapeum egged on by the chief priests and with the approval of Theon arm themselves and attack the mob killing many. The Christians rally and receiving reinforcements drive the Pagans into the Serapeum which they besiege. The pagans take some Christians as hostages. Hypatia pledges to protect her Christian students.

After a short siege the people in the Serapeum are promised amnesty by the emperor, but only if they abandon the Serapeum to the Christians outside. Hypatia and her father with the aid of the various librarians of the library try to save as many books as they can before fleeing. Davus stays behind and joins the Christians. Subsequently Hypatia frees him. The Christians destroy the statue of the god Serapis and then destroy the library.

Shortly before the destruction of the Serapeum Orestes endeavours to court Hypatia and asks her to marry him, she refuses by giving him a cloth soaked with her menstrual blood. Thus establishing that Hypatia as no interest in ever getting married.

During the siege Hypatia becomes interested in the question of does the earth move and starts to reconsider the old abandoned idea that the Earth moves around the sun.

Many years have past and Orestes is now Governor of Alexandria and a Christian, at least nominally. Theon is dead. Davus is a member of a Christian militia group guilty of many outrages against both Pagans and Jews. The remaining non-Christians on the governing city council are being pressured to become Christians. Synesius is now Bishop of Cyrene, and Cyril has become Bishop of Alexandria. Hypatia continues to teach and to research the heavens. In one scene she conducts an experiment and notes that on a moving ship a weight falls as if the ship was not moving.

Cyril and Orestes are involved in a violent power struggle over who actually controls Alexandria and Cyril continues to incite violence in his bid for power. The attacks by Cyril’s militia against Jews incites a violent retaliation that in turn leads to a pogrom against the Jews and many leave the city. Meanwhile Cyril uses Hypatia as a stick to beat Orestes with including stage managing a scene designed to humiliate Orestes after which Orestes gets hit with a rock by a monk in a rioting mob.

Hypatia continues her research on the movement of the planets. Davus is meanwhile getting disillusioned with his overly fanatical friends. Finally Synesius and Orestes plead with Hypatia to become a Christian. She refuses with the line:

You don’t doubt your beliefs. I must!

The night before, Hypatia in a moment of inspiration, concludes that the orbit of the planets is an ellipse and discovers Kepler’s first law of planetary motion.

As Hypatia returns home she is set upon by a mob who take her to the Serapeum, now turned into a Church, to kill her in front of the alter. Davus has tried to warn her but is unable to get to her in time. Helplessly he has followed her to the Serapeum. The mob leaves to gather rocks to stone her with. There is however no escape except the blocked entrance. To save Hypatia the agony of being stoned, Davus suffocates Hypatia to death. Hypatia’s last sight is the ellipse shaped opening in the ceiling of the Serapeum.

Davus leaves never looking back. A brief text records that none of Hypatia’s writings survived and that shortly afterwards Orestes disappeared and that Cyril became St. Cyril.

That is the movie what does history say?

Amazingly the movie is actually quite accurate on many things. For example its depiction of the events that led to the destruction of the Serapeum, which occurred in 391 C.E., is quite accurate. Although in actuallity the desecration that served as a provocation by the Pagans to attack the Christians is not what is depicted in the movie. Also the involvement of Hypatia, Theon, Orestes and Synesius is not historical fact. The picture of Alexandria divided into different religious factions perfectly willing to kill each other, with the Christians in a position of dominance and using that dominance to impose their faith is accurate.1

The order of the Emperor that the Pagans evacuate the Serapeum and it being sacked and then turned into a Christian church is accurate. And yes the Pagans were besieged in the Serapeum after taking some Christians as hostages.2

Hypatia was almost certainly not teaching at this time in Alexandria. It is believed that she was born between 450-470 CE, with the later date more likely. It appears that she started teaching in Alexandria in c. 400 C.E., after the sack of the Serapeum.3

It is unlikely that the Serapeum had much of a library to be destroyed in 391 C.E. It appears to be the case that the library had ceased to exist in the Serapeum due to neglect, deterioration and lack of funds and people removing scrolls by 370 C.E. Although it is possible that some remnants of the former library existed to be destroyed in 391 C.E.4

However it is to the credit of the script writers and director that one of the characters mentions that the main library had been destroyed many years before. The destruction of Library of Alexandria as been alleged to have been caused by the soldiers of Julius Caesar setting fire to it, (48 B.C.E.) by the fighting between the soldiers of the Emperor Aurelian and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in 274 C.E., the above mentioned attack on the Serapeum in 391 C.E., and by the Arabs in 642 C.E.5

It appears that the fire caused by Julius Caesar’s soldiers may have destroyed some scrolls stored near the harbour only. The main library or Mouseion was apparently completely untouched. It appears that in fact the Mouseion or least the library associated with it was in fact destroyed during the fighting between Aurelian and Zenobia in Alexandria, (274 C.E.). After that the center of learning and research in Alexandria shifted to the Serapeum and its smaller library. As mentioned above it appears that their was little or no library to destroy in 391 C.E., when the Christians took over the Serapeum. The story of the Arabs destroying the library in 642 C.E. is a complete fabrication.6

Hypatia has I indicated above apparently began teaching in Alexandria in c. 400 C.E. Her father Theon, a renowned mathematician was called the “the man from the Mouseion”. Which indicates that part of the Mouseion, from which we get the word museum, still existed at the time. It was probably closed in 391 C.E., at the same time as the Serapeum was turned over to the Christians. For this was also the same time that Theodosius I decreed the closing of all Pagan temples in the Empire and turned over many of them to the Christians.7

Hypatia worked in astronomy and mathematics and was apparently a Platonist, and yes a Pagan. She did teach Orestes and Bishop Synesius of Cyrene. She wrote several commentaries and a text called The Astronomical Canon, which did not survive, along with editing what became the most common version of Ptolemy’s work the Almagast, which was the central text of Western and Middle Eastern astronomy for over a thousand years. So the movie showing her interested in astronomy and math is in fact accurate.8 The whole bit about her discovering Kepler’s first law of planetary motion is sadly almost certainly fiction. It is not however, impossible.8

The story of Hypatia rejecting a suitor by giving him a cloth with menstrual blood on it is true. Although the suitor was almost certainly not Orestes as depicted in the movie.9

Orestes, who was indeed a Christian, did in fact became governor (Prefect) of Alexandria and engaged in a power struggle with St. Cyril who did in fact use Hypatia as a weapon against him. The whole incident in the Church in which Cyril tries to humiliate Orestes, is sadly not an invention. Also the Christian militia that attacked non-Christians along with the violence between Christians and Pagans and Jews is also not an invention. The slave Davus is an invention however.10

Hypatia was in fact set upon a mob c. 415 C.E., and killed. In the movie she is suffocated; in actuality she seems to have been flayed alive and then burned. A rather more gruesome death than the one in the movie. In the movie this is suggested, but they decide to stone her instead.11

The movie telescopes events together and makes Hypatia much younger than she actually was at the time of her death (at least 45). Orestes did indeed disappear soon after and St. Cyril did in fact come to dominate Alexandria.

The depiction of St. Cyril in the movie will probably attract criticism. St. Cyril is considered a Father of the Church and of course a Saint. His involvement in the violence that tore apart Alexandria and led to the death of Hypatia, mob violence etc., is contested. Unfortunately there can be little doubt that St. Cyril was an intolerant, bigoted and power hungry individual despite his sincere faith. It is also sadly true that the scene in movie whereby St. Cyril praises as a martyr to the faith and puts in a church the body of the monk Ammonius, who had in fact been part of a mob that tried to kill Orestes and had in fact thrown a rock that had injured Orestes, really happened. The penalty for an attempt on the life of the Prefect of Alexandria was death. So Ammonius was put to a rather grisly death under torture. This was right after St. Cyril’s attempt to humiliate Orestes. The movie gets that right also.12.

If St. Cyril comes across as an unpleasant individual that is because from our point of view he probably was.

It appears likely that while Hypatia taught some remnant of the library and Alexandria’s position has a center of classical learning existed. With her death it probably vanished along with the any other Pagan philosophers working there.

A more germane criticism of the movie is that the movie ignores largely the positive features of Christianity showing a picture of no-nothing fanaticism. The fact that many of the Christians are depicted as dressed in black while Pagans get lighter colours is too much of a clich√©. The scene in the movie of Cyril and Davus giving bread to the hungry is undercut by the bread they are giving being Theon’s. That said the Pagans and Jews are also shown to be capable of intolerant murderous violence. For example during the Pagan attack on the Christians a Pagan Priest is urging a slave to stab and kill a injured man on the ground, in a screaming rage.

The movie relies less on CGI than you might expect and the sets, especially the Serapeum are impressive and convincing. Also convincing is the amazing accuracy and authenticity of the costumes worn, which are not only of the right cut of the time, but unlike most costume epics seem to be made not of modern fabrics but fabrics used at the time.

  Scene from the movie Agora
The acting is generally just serviceable. Max Minghella as Davus especially seems to be just going through the motions.

Rachel Weisz performance is wonderful. She gives it the gravitas and seriousness that it requires. Given that Rachel Weisz is a very good looking woman, (as apparently Hypatia was also in real life); she acts her role with enough conviction and in a convincing enough fashion to take this Hypatia seriously as an intellectual. With Rachel Weisz’s performance you can believe that you are meeting a genius. The fact is given the still sexist ways women are regarded it takes some effort to overcome the deeply ingrained notion that a women is her looks. Rachel Weisz overcomes it brilliantly.

Michael Lonsdale as Hypatia’s father Theon is the other good to great performance. He is shown as a man exceptionally proud of his brilliant daughter and anxious for her happiness. He is also an old man ill at ease. The world as changed in ways he doesn’t like and so there is in him a great anger. He feels impotent to alter the way the world is going and he lacks his daughter's cultivated sense of intellectual ease and basic serenity. The result is he is subject to dangerous impulsive decisions. Michael Lonsdale gives an excellent performance of a man who hates the way the world is changing and wishes it had not.

The other performances are as said above are merely serviceable. St. Cyril for example is far too much a cardboard villain.

In the end the movie has it right night is descending and the long period of decay that characterized the early Middle Ages in Europe is coming. Learning and the search for knowledge would not reawaken in Europe until the Renaissance. Until then it would take tremendous intellectual effort just to preserve the remnants of Classical knowledge.

1. Canfora, Luciano, The Vanished Library, Vintage, London, 1987, pp. 87, 190-193, Wikipedia, Serapeum, Here, Library of Alexandria, Here, Hypatia, Here, St. Cyril Here.

2. IBID, Serapeum, Canfora, pp. 111-114.

3. Hypatia.

4. Serapeum, Canfora, pp. 137-144.

5. Library of Alexandria, Serapeum, For details regarding those alleged burnings see Canfora.

6. IBID, Canfora, pp. 66-70, 81-99, 109-118, 123-125, 137-144, 183-197.

7. Canfora, p. 87, Serapeum, St. Cyril, Wikipedia, Theon Here.
8. Hypatia.

9. IBID.

10. IBID, St. Cyril, Serapeum, Canfora, pp. 87-88.

11. Hypatia, St. Cyril.

12. St Cyril, Serapeum, Hypatia.

Pierre Cloutier

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Hancock Woo
Graham Hancock
The following is an exchange I had with a true believer in “Alternavitis” at Counterknowledge Here. (The Counterknowledge Website no longer exists a copy of the page I'm referring to can be found at the Internet Archive Here.)
I thought it might be interesting as an example of people obsessed with pseudoscience woo. In this case someone who is enamoured with Graham Hancock's nonsense.
Incognitus July 2, 2010.

OK; Pacal, you want to play hard? Lest do it.You, Mr. Almighty encarnation of archeology, explain to me a few things and make me wise:
1) Baalbek in Lebanon: How did the ancients cut and moved blocks of 1500 tones? What is the technical method to to this? Why are our modern cranes not able to move them and the ancientswere?
2) How do you date stone using C14?
3) Why the similarities between cultures like the mayans and egiptians, why did both cultures were avid stargazers and built pyramids? Are all of these similarities “just coincidence”?
4) Why does the sphinx have evidence of erosion caused by massive water flow on it? When does the climate record say Egipt had a rainy weather? Robert Schoch put his reputation at stake saying this is the case with the sphinx…was he wrong?
4) Finally, how are we suppose to trust a horde of biased individuals when they can not even offer an open explanation to these dilemas?
5) Give the link to the archeological papers that show your points. If not, I will suposse you are a windbag and nothing more!!!!
Finally, Richard Feymann was very critic of scientific methods in social sciences (which includes archeology, as far as I understand), see and grow intellectually:
From the point of view of a phycisist, archeology is just a bunch of innacurate methods whose uncertainty grows the more we go back in time. It is not a natural science. When we are talking about pre-history events, I think archeology is more flawed than ever.
Incognitus said on 2 July 2010.
Sanji, sorry for what I said about you, I think I put you side by side with that discusting Pacal, which is already a painful mistake!!!Really sorry!!!
*Regarding No. 1, Sorry Baalbek is almost certainly Roman.

To quote:
The stones were transported over a path only 600 meters length and about 15 meters *downhill*. The quarry is 1160 meters high, and the temple 145 meters. So it was easy to keep the stones on an even level to their final resting place and it was unnecessary to lift them about 7 meters as some authors claim. As you might know, Rome is the city with the most obelisks outside of Egypt. They stole the things by the dozen and took them home. The heaviest known obelisk weighs 510 tons, and it was transported some 1000's of *kilometers*. This transport was documented by the roman author Marcellinus Comes. The Romans even left detailed paintings and reliefs about the ways to move such things : as on the bottom of the Theodosius-obelisk in Istanbul. They used "Roman-patented" winches, in German called "Göpelwinden" which work with long lever ways. To move a 900 ton stone, they needed only 700 men. The transport was slow, about 30 meters a day, because they had to dismantle and rebuild the winches every few meters, to pull the obelisk with maximum torque. But in Baalbek, where they moved several blocks, maybe they built an alley of winches, where they passed the block from winch to winch.
From Doug’s Archaeology Page, Here.

See also Wikipedia Here.

Regarding No. 2. Since when does anyone think carbon 14 dates rocks?

To quote:
a). "C-14 can't date stones." Well, this is obvious. It is also entirely irrelevant. Let's assume, for the moment, that C-14 COULD date stones. What would such dates show? They would reveal the age of the stone itself, and therefore render dates in the millions, not thousands of years. While such data might be of interest to geologists, it would be of no interest to archaeologists, who are concerned with when the stone was quarried, moved, and put in place by humans. To find that out, archaeologists would be looking at associated material to date the human activity by which the stone had been manipulated. And that is precisely what they do. So whether or not C-14 can date stone is entirely beside the point.
In short, the system works as follows. First and foremost, it dates organic material found in archaeological context. Archaeological context is usually sealed strata of occupation, layer upon layer from the bottom (oldest) levels of a site to the upper (most recent) strata. The strata are carefully recorded and, gradually, the stratigraphy of the site is mapped. Often the stratigraphy is determined by smallish excavation trenches (in some cases supplemented by numerous core samples) made at various points in a site, to be sure you are not getting an imbalanced or unrepresentative picture by focusing only on one small area.
From In the Hall of Maat, An Answer to Graham Hancock Here, written by an archaeologist, Garrett Fagan.

See also Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, 2nd Edition, Renfrew, Colin, Bahn, Paul, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, pp. 132-138.

Regarding No. 3. So why were there similarities between Egyptian and Mayan culture?

Well there were also massive differences such as the fact that the Egyptians did not but temples on top of their pyramids. Of course the pyramids were also constructed vastly differently. The Mayans and Egyptians also cultivated different plants and I could easily go on. Of course I could mention the almost total absence of any pre-columbian old world artifact in the new world. I could point out that all sorts of societies from the Chinese to megalithic builders etc., were star gazers. In fact studying the movement ands position of heavenly bodies seems to be a virtually universal human trait and seems to go back to the Palaeolithic times. Of course human civilizations have similarities because they are human civilizations.

If your interested you might want to read the following.

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, Third Edition, Feder, Kenneth L., Mayfield, Toronto, 1999, pp. 79-132, Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions and other Popular Theories About Man’s Past, Stiebing, William H., Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1984, pp. 131-166, Voyagers to the New World, Davies, Nigel, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1979, Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents, Wauchope, Robert, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962, Invented Knowledge, Fritze, Ronald H., Reaktion Books, London, 2009, pp. 63-103, Voyages of the Imagination, Frost, Frank J., in Archaeology, V. 46 No. 2, March/April, 1993, pp. 45-51, The Spanish Entrada: a Model for assessing Claims of Pre-Columbian Contact between the Old and New Worlds, Moeller, Roger W., in North American Archaeologist, v. 15 no. 2, 199994, pp 147-166, Robbing Native American Cultures, Haslip-Viera, Gabriel, de Montellano, Bernard Ortiz, Barbour, Warren, at In the Hall of Maat, Here,
In Search of Ancient Astronomies, Krupp, E. C, McGraw-Hill, Toronto, 1978.

Regarding No. 4. You are aware that Robert Schoch’s statements regarding the Sphinx are hotly disputed to put it mildly.

For example:
To sum up: the weathering seen on the Sphinx and it's enclosure do not resemble that caused by running water, there are no dominant channels such an idea implies. It is apparent that spherical weathering of the exposed limestone , caused by variations in temperature and humidity coupled with CrySIE, best explains what we see at the Sphinx - on the body itself and along the enclosure walls. Schoch's and Reader's assumption that conditions have changed dramatically since the time of the Sphinx's construction are not necessary to explain its current condition, and should be rejected.
From Age of the Sphinx, Alex Bordeau in In the Hall of Maat Here. The above mentioned web site has eight other articles about the age of the Sphinx; read them. See also Giza: The Truth, Lawton, Ian, Ogilvie-Herald, Invisible Cities Press, Montpelier Vermont, 2001, pp. 292-320. This book is especially interesting in that both of the authors are very sympathetic to “alternative” history.

Regarding no. 4? (It should be no. 5). Well it is a collection of useless ad-hominem comments and agitation propaganda. You have learned “alternative” speak quite well. Of course those “individuals” you so relentlessly deride have been able to offer explanations you just haven’t been looking very hard obviously. As for bias that is hilarious considering how biased Hancock and frankly you seem to be. Please look in the mirror. I just love how you refer to them as a horde. Not even really human are they? Once again the same old Manichean dualism of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. How trite.

Regarding no. 5? (It should be no. 6). So I would be a “windbag” unless I did the research that you should have been doing! You just don’t have the time to do your own research and I’m obligated to do your own research?! This is of course typical of many “alternatives” they propose the far-out bizarre theories but the onus is on the sceptic who doubts them to prove them wrong. Typical double standard. I did not notice you citing any papers, books etc. I am of course not surprised. It took me only about thirty minutes to put together the above from the books, articles etc., that I have in my possession and the web. If you want more detail may I suggest you do it yourself. Your not paying me. Also considering that you seem to hold Archaeologists in near total contempt why would you take seriously any of the papers books etc., I’ve listed?

Regarding Richard Feymann. Already took him in university. A very interesting writer. In that video you linked to Feymann is simply stating a truism about so-called soft sciences. Anyone who practices those sciences knows it is not physics, chemistry etc. It doesn’t mean that the data is not scientifically collected or that their may be aspects of hard science in the soft science. Neither does it mean that we can’t do it and get results that are reliable. Feymann was not a practitioner of any of these so called Soft Sciences and of course his knowledge of them was limited. Of course what he did know was that they are not physics. What you have here is the run of the mill problem with doing science in certain areas. It is in many ways a philosophy of science problem. Which would require reams of books even to get started on.

However none of this means that you can’t do the so-called soft sciences with rigor. After all just look at historiography, definitely a soft science if their ever was one but definitely it can be done if not absolutely rigorously at least more rigorously. People who do it don’t just make up stuff as they go along. (I hope!) And you certainly can’t make up stuff if you practice it rigorously.

I fail to see how the fact that Archaeology is not physics, chemistry etc, (although those can be used doing archaeology) helps Hancock and his nonsense at all. His stuff is far less based on “fact” and “truth” than on any so called “soft” “fact” of Archaeology. If anyone is making it up as he goes along it is Hancock.

In a previous post you referred to Archaeology as “this shit” you also made the demonstrably false statement that Archaeologists do not use a multidisciplinary approach.

It is obvious that you are making it up as you go along also. You have this view of Archaeology and the people who practice it that is sheer Manichean bullshit. Of course it is obvious that you have no interest in trying to learn what it actually involves. In the faint hope you might read it I suggest a book mentioned above, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice.

Incognitus its nice to know that you think I came from a “shithole”1 and that I am “disgusting”. As far as I’m concerned you are simply ignorant.

1. Counterknowledge Here
*Note My Reply as been removed from Counterknowledge.
Pierre Cloutier