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Posts Tagged ‘ancient history

“Rumors and reports of man’s relation with animals are the world’s oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves”*…

Aerial view of a kite in the Khaybar area of north-west Saudi Arabia. These ancient hunting structures were named ‘kites’ by aviators in the 1920s because, observed from above, their form is reminiscent of old-fashioned child’s kites with streamers.

… and on the surface of the desert. Vittoria Benzine explains…

In the 1920s, British Royal Air Force pilots over the Middle East recorded the first sightings of what they dubbed desert kites—massive patterns carved into rocky land, often resembling the famous flying toy.

Archaeologists have since debated the purpose of these enigmas, which appear across geographies and eras, dating back to the Neolithic Period (10,000–2,200 B.C.E.) in Jordan, the early Bronze Age (3,300–2,100 B.C.E.) in Israel’s Negev Desert, and the Middle Bronze Age (2,100–1,550 B.C.E.) in Armenia. Some thought they were cultural cornerstones. Still more posited they were pens for domesticating animals.

Three recent peer-reviewed papers confirm popular hypotheses that the desert kites actually served as mass hunting traps, allowing early desert dwellers to kill entire herds of game at once. While they were active, the kites funneled gazelle and ibex down tapered, wall-lined paths which ended in massive pits or sudden cliffs where creatures were trapped and killed. The kites’s particular placement, length, and shape generally demonstrate a sophisticated knowledge of landscapes and animal behaviors…

The full story at “Scientists Have Cracked the Origins of ‘Desert Kites,’ Massive Prehistoric Patterns That Were Carved into the Middle Eastern Desert,” from @vittoriabenzine in @artnet.

* Lewis Lapham

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As we we admire ingenuity, we might spare a thought for Siegfried Frederick (“S.F.” or “Fred”) Nadel; he died on this date in 1956. An anthropologist who did important work in Africa, he is best remembered as a theorist whose work built on the thinking of Bronislaw Malinowski, sociologist Max Weber, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and psychologist Kurt Koffka. In The Foundations of Social Anthropology (1951) he asserted that the main task of the science is to explain as well as to describe aim-controlled, purposive behaviour. Suggesting that sociological facts emerge from psychological facts, he argued that full explanations are to be derived from psychological exploration of motivation and consciousness. And in his posthumous Theory of Social Structure (1958), regarded as one of the 20th century’s foremost theoretical works in the social sciences, Nadel examined social roles, which he considered to be crucial in the analysis of social structure.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 14, 2023 at 1:00 am

“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.”*…

Brad DeLong on the dangerous misunderstanding at the root of the current discussion of the “Thucydides’s Trap,” a phrase coined by Harvard’s Graham Allison, meant to evoke the potentially deadly tensions that arise when a major rising power (read “China”) threatens to displace a major ruling power (read “the United States). Allison’s account is very pessimistic; DeLong argues that it needn’t– shouldn’t– be so..

“Thucydides Trap” claims to be shorthand way of describing the grand-strategic dilemmas of the Classical Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta in the second half of the -400s. But it is a bowdlerized version. The actual complexities of the situation have been elided.

Thus important parts of the lessons that can be drawn from Thucydides’s description in The Peloponnesian War of the start of the war have been ignored.

And lessons can be drawn. For, as Thucydides said, he had tried to write his history as:

a treasure for all time… [because] knowledge of the past… [is] an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it…

The situation in the second half of the -400s in the Greek world was thus:

The Spartan oligarchy had held preeminence. It had conquered and continued to dominate Laconia and Messenia. Its enserfment of their populations meant that Sparta alone, among major city-states, had a large and rich enough class of landlords who could train intensively for war, since they not have to assist in the farming themselves.

But there was a big problem with the Spartan system, as Aristotle was to note: Rich Spartan men tended to marry rich Spartan women. Thus, over time, wealth inequality grew. This diminished the size of the pool of Spartan landlords who could afford the full training régimen. The number of full Spartans in the military phalanx was dropping steadily, by perhaps a quarter in each generation.

The Athenian democracy, by contrast, was gaining in strength from generation to generation.

Athens held a central place as the maritime-commercial hub of a Greek world rapidly growing in population and wealth. Each generation saw more economic activity flow through Athens. Each generation saw Athens grow bigger and richer. Each generation saw more silver flow into its treasury. Athens had—excessively cleverly—transformed other city states’ agreements to provide warships to stave off any renewed Persian invasion into cash payments to Athens, which Athens then could and did use as it wished. Thus each generation saw the power of the Athenian state grow as well. And each generation saw a greater share of other Greek city-states become what local democrats elsewhere called “allies” and local oligarchs elsewhere called “subjects”.

In 500 Athens would have had no chance in an all-out war with Sparta. In 430 it could go toe-to-toe. By 360, had catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War been avoided, Athens’s hegemony would have been near indisputible.

In this situation what, from a rational perspective, should the grand strategy of Athens in the second half of the -400s have been? It is clear:

  • Do not annoy the Spartan lion.
  • Focus on growing trade and commerce
  • Focus on making alliances
  • Focus on solidifying the nascent Athenian empire.

The future was on the side of Athens.

Korkya came to Athens at the start of the 430s, and said “we will join your alliance if you well help us push Sparta’s ally Korinth out of Epidamnos”. The Athenian answer should have been this: “You have not been our friend in the past. Join our alliance first. Then, in a generation, we will back you in all your disputes. But not now.”

Instead, Athens backed Korkyra with military force. And Korinth went to Sparta. Sparta was, usually, wary of large long-term commitments outside its heartland—the main purpose of its army, after all, was to keep the helots subservient and the taxes flowing, which was hard to do if the Spartan phalanx was far from Laconia. But Athens’s choice of open military confrontation with a key Spartan ally was enough to overcome their reluctance.

And so the Athenian Empire fell.

The lesson for a rising power? Whatever you seek to do now that may be very difficult will be easy in two generations. So postpone doing anything potentially difficult and wait for the tide to bring all the good things to you.

The lesson for a declining hegemonic power it is somewhat more complex. Outside the frame of Thucydides is the Peloponnesian war, Sparta was not the beneficiary of its generation long war against Athens. The beneficiaries were in the short-run, Persia; in the medium-run, Thebes; and in the long-run, Makedon. A declining power should take a long, hard look at itself, and consider whether curbing this particular rising power is in its own long-run interest. The task for a declining power is to create a world in which it can live comfortably when it is no longer hegemon. You can argue over whether Sparta would have had a comfortable and valued place in a counterfactual Athenian Empire circa -300. But it certainly did not have such a place in the post-Athenian Ægean world of Thebans, Argaiads, and Hellenistic despots.

From his invaluable newsletter, Grasping Reality, “The Deceptive Thucydides Trap,” @delong.

Margaret MacMillan

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As we heed history, we might recall that on this date in 1966, the #1 song in the U.S was The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 8, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The Greek temple is the creation, par excellence, of mind and spirit in equilibrium”*…

Edmund Stewart outlines the requirements for building a Greek temple…

If, like me, you have ever wondered what goes into building a Greek temple, then fear not: I here present a list of everything you will need. Admittedly, when compared with the wonders made possible by Roman concrete or a mediaeval gothic arch, the hundreds of temples scattered across the Greek world may perhaps look a bit small. Yet they are certainly elegant, sometimes with a slender beauty typical of the Ionic order, or else the sturdy grandeur of the Doric. And, when examined closely, the process of building one may quickly become worryingly complex…

Indeed, as The Browser observes, it’s a challenge…

In brief: [one would need] quite a lot. An architect, obviously, though architects were relatively cheap in ancient Greece; ships to bring in the marble; a hundred slaves for heavy lifting; a dozen carpenters; six craftsmen per column to dress the facade; sculptors and painters for the ornamentation; a door-maker; and do be sure to order your floor-tiles well ahead of time, they may take two years to arrive..

A fascinating and entertaining read: “What You Need to Build a Greek Temple,” in @AntigoneJournal, via @TheBrowser.

* Edith Hamilton

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As we contemplate construction, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Charles Thomas Newton; he was born on this date in 1816. An archaeologist, he excavated sites in southwestern Turkey and disinterred the remains of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (at present-day Bodrum, Turkey). Newton joined staff of British Museum in 1840, where he helped to establish systematic methods for archaeology and ultimately became its first keeper (curator) of Greek and Roman antiquities.

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“Troy has perished, the great city. Only the red flame lives there now.”*…

Detail from a 4th-century B.C. Persian sarcophagus, thought to depict a Greek-Anatolian battle scene, found in a tomb near Troy

It wasn’t just a legend. As Joshua Hammer explains, archaeologists are getting to the bottom of the city celebrated by Homer nearly three millennia ago…

It has been nearly 3,000 years since Homer wrote the Iliad, one of the foundational works of Western literature. The epic poem describes, in gory and lyrical detail, 52 days near the end of the ten-year siege of Troy, the “well-fortified” city ruled by the kindly King Priam. According to the legend, Priam’s son Paris (sometimes known in Turkey as Alexandros) ignited the war by seducing the “lovely haired Helen,” wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and spiriting her to the Citadel at Troy. In response, Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, the “king of kings” who ruled from Mycenae on the Greek mainland, led a fleet of warships across the Aegean to recapture Helen and take revenge against the city. 

The question of which of these people and events, if any, are historical has captivated scholars for centuries, and though there’s little conclusive evidence that any scene happened as Homer described it, he invested his characters with such vitality and complexity that it can be hard to remember that much of the story is likely made up. His epic, based on centuries of oral tradition, plays out among the ships in the harbor, inside the walls of Troy, and on the plain in between… It was there, according to the legend, that the Greeks, led by “god-like” Achilles, confronted Priam’s son Hector and his Trojan force. With its stirring descriptions of martial pageantry, its dramatic accounts of close combat, its heroic but flawed characters, its sacrifices, betrayals, grieving lovers and parents, and its powerful descriptions of loss and human suffering, the Iliad shaped Western literature through millennia. “Poets must sing the story over and over again, passing it from generation to generation, lest in losing Troy we lose a part of ourselves,” the British actor and scholar Stephen Fry wrote in his recent best seller Troy.

Until about 150 years ago, it was widely believed that Troy was a fiction, a mythical city like Atlantis or El Dorado. And yet throughout antiquity there was a tradition linking Hisarlik to Troy. The classical Greeks, who lived hundreds of years after the events described by Homer would have taken place, believed that Hisarlik had been the site of the Homeric city of Troias, and they built a Greek settlement with a lavish temple, theater and city council building there. Writing in the first century A.D., Plutarch described a visit by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. to celebrate the Mycenaean conquest nearly a millennium earlier—and to grieve at the supposed tomb of Achilles. The Romans, for their part, believed that they descended from the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled to Italy after Troy’s destruction, as recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid; Julius Caesar was said to have visited Hisarlik in 48 B.C. to pay homage to Aeneas, Hector and other Trojan heroes. The emperor Constantine even considered making Hisarlik the new capital of his empire before choosing Byzantium, later to become Constantinople, then Istanbul. In the fifth century, a series of earthquakes led to the city’s abandonment, and its links to Homeric Troy were largely forgotten. Still, as late as the 15th century, a Castilian traveler and writer named Pedro Tafur visited a collection of ruins—apparently Hisarlik—and described it as “that place which they say was Troy.”

In the modern era, the first person to suggest Hisarlik as the site of Troy was the Scottish polymath Charles Maclaren, a one-time editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But it would be nearly half a century before an amateur archaeologist named Frank Calvert began to explore the mound overlooking the Dardanelles that the Turks called the “Place of Fortresses.” A wealth of detail in the Iliad suggested to him that Hisarlik and Troy were one and the same. Homer had placed the city on a hill situated between two rivers, the Scamander and the Simoeis, which some modern scholars suggest correspond to the rivers now known as the Karamenderes and the Dumrek Su. The Iliad also contains dozens of references to mile-high Mount Ida, 20 miles south of Hisarlik, from which Zeus “the cloud-gatherer” and his “ox-eyed queen” Hera observed the fighting and intervened on behalf of favored warriors. And there is a tantalizing description of “two well-heads of lovely water,” one hot and one cold, around which Achilles pursued Hector toward the end of the Iliad. (In the late 1990s, archaeologists discovered an underground reservoir that some believe fed the wells described by Homer.) Calvert uncovered temples and other ruins from Hellenistic and Roman towns, but he ran out of money to dig further. When he met a self-taught German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann, who was in Turkey conducting his own search for Troy, he encouraged Schliemann to pick up where he left off… 

Follow the story of discovery at Hisarlik from there all the way to today: “In Search of Troy,” from @Joshuaiveshamme @SmithsonianMag.

* Homer, The Illiad

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As we ponder the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 861 that the Viking burned Paris to the ground (for the third time since the Siege of Paris, on this same date in 845).   The invaders also torched the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which they pillaged again in 869.  In 870, King Charles the Bald ordered the construction of two bridges, the Grand Pont and the Petit Pont, to block the passage of the Vikings up the Seine.  In 885, Gozlin, the Bishop of Paris, repaired the city wall and reinforced the bridges, enabling the city to resist an attack by the Vikings, who tried again twice (in 887 and 888), but were repelled each time.

Paris then enjoyed 90 years of (relative) peace, until 978, when the city was laid siege by The Holy Roman Emperor Otto II.

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“The ancient Oracle said that I was the wisest of all the Greeks. It is because I alone, of all the Greeks, know that I know nothing.”*…

The site of the oracle at Dodona

Your correspondent will be off-line for the next 10 days or so; regular service will resume on or around April 26th. In the meantime, a meeting of the (very) old and the (very) new…

The Virtual Reality Oracle (VRO) is a first-person virtual reality experience of oracular divination at the ancient Greek site of Dodona circa 450 BCE. Immerse yourself in the lives of ordinary people and community leaders alike as they travel to Dodona to consult the gods. Inspired by the questions they posed on themes as wide-ranging as wellbeing, work, and theft, perhaps you in turn will ask your question of Zeus?…

Homer mentioned Dodona; now you can be there, then. An immersive experience of the ancient Greek gods: “Virtual Reality Oracle.”

* Socrates

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As we look for answers, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that both the Apple II and Commodore PET 2001 personal computers were introduced at the first annual West Coast Computer Faire.

Ironically, Commodore had previously rejected purchasing the Apple II from Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, deciding to build their own computers. Both computers used the same processor, the MOS 6502, but the companies had two different design strategies and it showed on this day. Apple wanted to build computers with more features at a higher price point. Commodore wanted to sell less feature-filled computers at a lower price point. The Apple II had color, graphics, and sound selling for $1298. The Commodore PET only had a monochrome display and was priced at $795.

Note, it was very difficult finding a picture with both an original Apple II (not IIe) and Commodore PET 2001. I could only find this picture that also includes the TRS-80, another PC introduced later in 1977.

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The photo mentioned above: The Apple II is back left; the PET, back right

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 16, 2021 at 1:01 am

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