Archive for the 'From my diary' Category

A time to hold and a time to give – when to pass on old books

Today I made a decision to do something necessary, yet it was a wrench.  I decided to give away my copy of the 1608 Commelin edition of Tertullian’s works.

I bought it over the internet, years ago.  In those days we had no PDFs online.  The only way to get hold of the detailed apparatus, found in early editions, of the works of Tertullian was to venture onto the market and buy copies.

Indeed most Tertullian scholars have little collections of early editions; the 1539 of Rhenanus, the 1545 Paris edition, the 1550 of Gelenius – if they could find one – and the 1583 Pamelius edition, high-point of the counter-reformation scholarship.

My Commelin is a reprint of the Pamelius.  It is still bound in the original ornate white leather binding, a bit battered after the centuries but perfectly sound.  The book itself has clearly seen little use.

I got it from a German book dealer.  It arrived in a big yellow Deutsche Post box – for it is a folio volume, and some two inches thick.  And in that box it has remained; for, like most people, I live in a little house and I have no bookshelves suitable for folio-sized volumes.  There seemed no point in taking it out, merely to expose it to dust.

Also it would need to rest on its side.  I knew better than to stand it on end, thereby placing the whole weight of this heavy volume on its ancient stitching.  Where to put it?

This has been the question for many years.  I have seldom opened it.  Once it sat in a cupboard, inside its box.  For the last couple of years, or maybe more — how quickly the years pass these days, without my being aware of them – it has sat, big and obtrusive, atop a set of bookshelves that I constructed myself in younger days.

No more.  Today I decided that it was time for us to part.  I can’t sell it.  I don’t know the rare books market, and I don’t live near any dealers.  I could post it, and get it back, and do all that; but I do not care to, and I should certainly be taken advantage of.

Instead I have agreed with a fellow Tertullian scholar to donate it to him.  He will treasure it, I am sure.  Tomorrow I shall take it to the post office and send it on its way.

It has long been my policy not to keep a book unless I believe that I will read it again, or, in the case of reference books, have use of it in future.  This is particularly essential for novels, for which most of us have a tyrannous appetite.  Unless you have some similar policy, you will quickly find your book cases, and then your house, filled with books which you have no appetite to read.  I have a pile in the corner of one room, to which I assign books that I believe I will not read again; and, if after a suitable period, a book is still there then I dispose of it.  I took two bags full of books to a charity shop yesterday, in fact.

It is harder to know what to do with scholarly books that we no longer need.  Some have donated their books to libraries; yet I know too much about libraries and their practices to suppose that any such donation would be more than temporary.

Let us accept the fact that one day they must go on, and let us donate them freely to our fellow workers.  They will value them; and we need not grieve at their departure, knowing that they go to serve another as they have served us.

For one day all of our books will pass into the hands of others.  Rough hands will pull at our shelves and throw our treasures into boxes, most of which will perhaps end up in some second-hand shop.  The little paperbacks we bought at college, once fresh and bright as we ourselves then were, now foxed and yellowed, and which have accompanied us through life, and are almost friends to us, will end up in some second-hand shop.  If they are lucky they will pass into the hands of one whom we might have been pleased to call friend.

Sic transit gloria.  For the world and all that is in it are always passing away.

But the Christian has hopes of more than this from life!  He can thank God for Good Friday.  And so can all of us, if we sign up with them.

NOTE: Annoyingly WordPress deleted a large section of this post when I posted it.  I will try to recover it from memory.

Rufinus’ account of the fall of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria

This evening I  happened across some files on my hard disk containing an English translation of the Ecclesiastical History of Rufinus.  The following account is given of the fall of the Serapeum in Alexandria:[1]

11.23. I suppose that everyone has heard of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria, and that many are also familiar with it. The site was elevated, not naturally but artificially, to a height of a hundred or more steps, its enormous rectangular premises extending in every direction.

All the rooms up to the floor on top were vaulted, and being furnished with ceiling lights and concealed inner chambers separate from one  another, were used for various services and secret functions.

On the upper level, furthermore, the outermost structures in the whole circumference provided space for halls and shrines and for lofty apartments which normally housed either the temple staff or those called hagneuontes, meaning those who keep themselves pure.

Behind these in turn were porticoes arranged in rectangles which ran around the whole circumference on the inside.

In the middle of the entire area rose the sanctuary with priceless columns, the exterior fashioned of marble, spacious and magnificent to behold.

In it there was a statue of Serapis so large that its right hand touched one wall and its left the other; this monster is said to have been made of every kind of metal and wood. The interior walls of the shrine were believed to have been covered with plates of gold overlaid with silver and then bronze, the last as a protection for the more precious metals.

There were also some things cunningly devised to excite the amazement and wonder of those who saw them.

There was a tiny window so orientated toward the direction of sunrise that on the day appointed for the statue of the sun to be carried in to greet Serapis, careful observation of the seasons had ensured that as the statue was entering, a ray of sunlight coming through this window would light up the mouth and lips of Serapis, so that to the people looking on it would seem as though the sun was greeting Serapis with a kiss.[2]

There was another like trick. Magnets, it is said, have the power to pull and draw iron to themselves. The image of the sun had been made by its artisan of the finest sort of iron with this in view: that a magnet, which, as we said, naturally attracts iron, and which was set in the ceiling panels, might by natural force draw the iron to itself when the statue was placed just so directly beneath it, the statue appearing to the people to rise and hang in the air. And lest it unexpectedly fall and betray the trick, the servants of the deception would say, ”The sun has arisen so that, bidding Serapis farewell, it may depart for its own place.”

There were many other things as well built on the site by those of old for the purpose of deception which it would take too long to detail.[3]

Now as we started to say, when the letter had been read our people were ready to overthrow the author of [the] error, but a rumor had been spread by the pagans that if a human hand touched the statue, the earth would split open on the spot and crumble into the abyss, while the sky would crash down at once.[4]

This gave the people pause for a moment, until one of the soldiers, armed with faith rather than weapons, seized a double-headed axe, drew himself up, and struck the old fraud on the jaw with all his might. A roar went up from both sides, but the sky did not fall, nor did the earth collapse. Thus with repeated strokes he felled the smoke-grimed deity of rotten wood, which upon being thrown down burned as easily as dry wood when it was kindled.

After this the head was wrenched from the neck, the bushel[5] having been taken down, and dragged off; then the feet and other members were chopped off with axes and dragged apart with ropes attached, and piece by piece, each in a different place, the decrepit dotard was burned to ashes before the eyes of the Alexandria which had worshiped him.

Last of all the torso which was left was put to the torch in the amphitheater, and that was the end of the vain superstition and ancient error of Serapis.

  1. [1] Book 11, ch. 23.  Tr. Philip R. Amidon, The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia, Oxford, 1997. p.80-82.  I’m afraid some of the numeral references are corrupt in my copy.
  2. [2] The existence of the window is confirmed by Alexandrian coinage, and the same arrangement for sun and window is found in other Egyptian temples. The Egyptians thought of the sun as reviving the statues of gods by shining on them and thus recharging them with vital force. The image of the sun kissing Serapis is found on coins and lamps of the period; cf. Thelamon PC 183184, 195197.
  3. [3] The use of magnets in temple ceilings for the purpose Rufinus describes is well attested; cf. Claudian Magnes 22.39; Pliny Natural History 34.42 (a magnet in the ceiling of an Alexandrian temple); Ausonius Mosella 315317; Augustine City of God 21.6.; Thelamon PC 182, 184.
  4. [4] The Egyptians feared the world would collapse in chaos if the customary rites were not performed; cf. Thelamon PC 200, note 19 (papyrological evidence); Corpus Hermeticum, Asclepius 2:4; Ps. Iamblicus, De mysteriis 6.7; Epiphanius, Panarion 18.3.12.
  5. [5] Serapis was depicted with a modiusjug on his head.

A marvellous collection of photographs – Following Hadrian, by Carole Raddato

Over the last couple of months, I have become aware of another individual who, quietly, and without any fanfare, is making a real difference to ancient history online.  Her name is Carole Raddato, and she writes the Following Hadrian blog.

What she is doing is travelling all over the Roman Empire, and photographing its material remains.  The results appear on Flickr here.

She’s going into museums, and photographing exhibits, and placing them online.  In quantity:  there are over 14,000 photographs in that Flickr collection.  And at very high quality: far, far better than anything we see in published literature.

I became aware of her work, while working on the Mithras site.  Again and again I found that a striking, clear, good quality image would be … by Carole Raddato.  It might be in Wikimedia Commons (a site that takes a pretty casual attitude to copyrights of others); more usually on her own Flickr feed.

Again and again I would look for some artefact in some museum and then find … Miss Raddato had visited that museum and made a collection of photographs, all now freely online.

The path she is following – that of the Emperor Hadrian in his travels about the empire – is taking her to the major sites and repositories of the ancient and modern world.  The result is this marvellous collection of material.

A lot of people put holiday photos online.  They are of variable quality.  But I don’t know of anybody else who is undertaking such a herculean task, and doing so in a way that is of permanent value.

We are all in your debt, Madam.  May your camera flash never grow dim!

Copyright and critical editions – a French court says the text is not copyright

Today I learned via  of a fascinating court case in France, here, (in French).  The question is whether editing a critical text of an ancient author creates a copyright.

The dispute is between two companies, Droz and Garnier.  Garnier placed online the text (without apparatus or commentary) of certain medieval texts, using the text published by Droz.  Droz sued.

The court ruled:

Therefore it appears that the company Libraire Droz has not provided proof that the raw texts used by the society Classiques GN are protected by copyright.  Thus its cases, which are solely based on infringement, must be rejected.

It is worth reading the page, even as translated into English in the Google Translate version, because the points made are interesting and generally relevant.  A work is protected if it is fixed in form (i.e. an idea is not protected) and it is original in character, reflecting the personality of its author.  But the court stated:

However, it should be noted that the law of intellectual property is not meant to include all intellectual or scientific work, but only that based on a creative contribution which arise

This indicates the direction of the court’s thinking.  They are plainly familiar with the fact that one critical edition may differ only slightly from another, and argue that the process of textual criticism, since Lachmann, is largely mechanical.  Specifically copyright does not apply to someone doing a lot of tedious work; only to creative work.

This demonstrates enormous common sense on the part of the court.  Nobody, nobody, when the copyright laws were invented, imagined that stuff like a critical edition of an ancient text was involved.  They were thinking of novels, belles-lettres, poetry, composed by modern figures and sold for money.  They were quite right.

The practical effect, if we say that the raw text of an ancient author, as given in a critical edition, is the copyright of the editor, is to make the text of that ancient author into the property of this or that modern publishing house.   That, frankly, is ridiculous.

Of course the plaintiffs are appealing.  The case has considerable importance.  But I hope that we will get a clear ruling on this.

The commentary in a critical edition may reasonably be copyright.  The apparatus, largely compiled by mechanical methods, seems doubtful to me.  But the raw text … surely the whole point of the edition is NOT to create an original work, but rather to give us Homer, or Origen, or Martial, or Juvenal?

Let’s think of a modern example.  I do not believe that someone should acquire a copyright over my work, enough to allow him to bar access to others, simply because they did some work on my spelling, or fixed some errors from a corrupted hard disk file!  That would be the modern equivalent.  It’s palpably fraudulent.  So why should it be different, simply because the author lived long ago?

Let us raise a glass to the common sense of the French court, and hope that the higher courts are not pressured or bribed by publishing interests.

Proof-reading help wanted

The edition and translation of Origen’s Homilies on Ezekiel that I commissioned is now in its final stages.  I need someone to check that the latest bunch of changes were applied correctly, and also to go through the footnotes in one (long 150 page) section and check that the numerals are in the right places, and match up with the text at the bottom of the page.  It’s a bit tedious, and will probably take a few hours, and I haven’t the time to do it.  Unfortunately the proof-reader is otherwise engaged.

Would anyone like to volunteer to assist?  I can’t pay a lot, but I can pay something.  If you’d be interested, please contact me.

Chariot-racing at Leptis Magna in a mosaic

The circus of the Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya was plundered for stone by a rascally Frenchman a couple of centuries ago.  However we can get a good idea of what it looked like from a mosaic at the Villa Selene, nearby.  Unfortunately it’s not that easy to make out.  Here’s my 2006 photograph, taken from one end.

Villa Selene nr Leptis Magna - chariot racing (original)

Villa Selene nr Leptis Magna – chariot racing (original)

However I discovered a funny thing this evening.  I loaded that image into Paint.Net this evening and, idly, hit the menu option to “auto-level”.  This never does anything useful; but it’s the top option on effects, so I often try it.  And … there is always a first time, and this is what I got! –

Villa Selene, chariot racers - autoleveled

Villa Selene, chariot racers – autoleveled

Suddenly we can see!  The gates at one end, the spina, even the colours, all become possible.

Digital photography … it is such a gift!

A postit note

The task is done; the peace is signed,
Fearful tensions now unwind,
Peace in our time! the foolish cry,
The wise will keep their powder dry.
– Bob Harrison, Ashford, Kent, 27 Feb. 98, on BBC Ceefax.

It’s a new financial year, which means a new set of accounts here in the UK where I currently am staying.  I threw out a bunch of papers from 2008, and then went through my filing cabinet throwing out a bunch of old bills.

But attached to one of them was a stray postit note.  On it were the lines above.  I thought them worthy of record back then; I think them worthy of it now.

I don’t recall the crisis that must have provoked that dry comment.  The BBC’s teletext service, Ceefax, only just exists now, and its letters page is a memory, gone with the analogue TV service.

We forget, perhaps, that the majority of human thought and communication passes away, unrecorded.  Not all of it deserves to.

Digitising ancient texts – the future that did not happen

This morning I saw the following announcement:

We’re really proud to announce that EpiDoc XML versions of all 99 volumes of the monumental Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) are now being added to the Open Greek and Latin Project‘s GitHub repository!

What it means, for non-techno junkies, is that someone has scanned the 99 volumes of the CSEL, turned them into text, encoded that within the XML format, and uploaded them to a standard open-access repository.  The point of the XML is to preserve the footnotes and other weird formatting.  It will take some kind of viewer to make this useful.

In a way this is good news.  Only half the CSEL has been online, in page images scanned by Google and and others.

And yet … haven’t we been here before?

How is this different, in many ways, to what I was doing back in 1998?  I was taking printed Latin texts (by Tertullian), and creating an electronic text.  Mine was in HTML, rather than XML.  I didn’t always bother with apparatus – but then, there was only one of me doing it.

But essentially … isn’t this the same activity?

I was inspired by Harry Plantinga of the CCEL.  Even earlier than me – was it in 1995? – he had got Logos to digitise the 38 volumes of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, footnotes and all, and posted them online in text files.

Back then, we knew that the future was bright.  We knew that in ten years time, there would be a sea of texts online.

So what happened?  Because, unless I miss my calculation, it’s now sixteen years later.  And we’re only now getting something like this done, in much the same way as a solitary individual – myself – was doing it all those years ago.

The classical texts have mainly been the work of Bill Thayer at Lacus Curtius.  He’s been hacking away all these years.  Why isn’t his work long superceded?

The patristic texts have mainly been me.  Again, why hasn’t my site been overtaken by massive digitisation efforts?

What’s changed in the interval?  Yes, Google Books has scanned trillions of page images.  That has been great.  Microsoft started to do the same and then abandoned it.  Not so great. has flown the flag in its place, in a much lower budget way – well done, but not what we anticipated.  Publishers have, on the whole, been mainly concerned to ensure that Google Books would only educate Americans and people not living in Europe.  And nobody has cared.

In many ways the world is a far different place than it was in 1998, 16 years ago.  And yet, as we learn today, most of the ambitions of people like myself, like Harry, like Bill, and indeed others who have laboured in the same fields[1], have not been fulfilled.

Which is a bit sobering, really.

We are getting, gradually, the mass digitisations of manuscripts.  But … I was doing this back in 2000.  Undoubtedly I was ahead of my time, and I gave up after doing a handful.  But … with all the technical advances, surely in fourteen years we should be further down the line?

In other ways we are losing ground.  James Tauber created the electronic Greek New Testament in the MorphGNT text file, lemmatized and ready for processing by anybody.  The German bible society threatened litigation, on the basis that the Greek New Testament belongs to THEM, and not to some funny blokes named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and offline it went.  Nothing replaced it.  Nobody cared.

What I take from this is that we really must not simply assume that stuff will come online any time soon.  It isn’t happening.  There are any number of initiatives, and all these are welcome.  We’re in a much better place, in some ways.  And yet … compared to the progress of technology, the content has hardly moved forward.

Will the classical internet ever truly come to be?  Or the patristic internet?  In our life-times?

  1. [1] A list would be invidious – I’m just pulling a couple of names here, without disrespect to others.

Where have all the photos (of archaeology) gone? Gone to recycle bins, every one.

Amphitheatre, Leptis Magna.

Amphitheatre, Leptis Magna.

There’s no getting away from it: the Roman city of Leptis Magna in Libya is gorgeous.  It’s situated by the sea, the surrounding area is very underdeveloped, thanks to Gaddafi’s tyranny, and it gives you such a great idea of what a Roman city looked like.  I’ve been twice, and would gladly go again.  Even the approach to the amphitheatre (left) is like something out of a movie.

This thought was prompted by looking through some photographs of the city online.  At the moment there is no package tourism to Libya.  Nor will there be, until some kind of government arises once more.

Meanwhile, we do have photographs.  Everyone who did go made copious photographs, and a lot of them appear online.  Which is rather fortunate, really.

A couple of days ago I was searching vainly for photographs of Graeco-Roman objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  I found one site which presented as many photos of the Egyptian objects as it could find, with the note that photography was “no longer allowed” in the museum.  That particular policy seems very short-sighted now, considering the attempts to loot the museum during the revolution.  But at least some are online.

What I was looking for was the Mithraic monuments.  For some time now I’ve been collecting photographs of all sorts of Mithraic monuments for the Mithras site, to create a reference.  Even now I can tell that some interesting photos were once online, and no longer are.  But once offline, they are gone.

Sites like, which retain copies of sites, often omit photographs from the pages that they archive.  Other sites misguidedly block archiving, which is sad when they then vanish in their turn.

We really do need a proper archive of photos uploaded to the web.  It is a shame to lose what has been made and has been uploaded, when we need not.  All that is required is will, disk-space, and some copyright-friendly location.

Archaeologists are particularly in need of a photographic archive.  Their trade is one of physical monuments.  You might think these are permanent enough, yet it seems remarkably hard even to locate them sometimes.  I have been unable to discover the whereabouts of the finds from the Carnarvon / Caernarfon mithraeum, since the closure of the museum.  Photographs would be invaluable… but of course I can’t make them if I can’t find the objects.  Again and again in Vermaseren’s Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentum Religionis Mithriacae I find statements that such and such an altar is “lost”.  And, let’s face it … archaeologists are notoriously bad at publishing excavation reports.

While working on the Egyptian monuments in the CIMRM, I noticed that at least two photographs included in it seem to be reproduced (without credit) from earlier publications.  I don’t disapprove – on the contrary, such a catalogue of monuments might validly do just this.   I have often gone to older publications myself and found photographs of items, where the item is included in CIMRM but no photo is given.  But it shows that getting hold of images of monuments has long been a bottleneck.  All the same, I bet some tourist photos of them exist, uncatalogued and forgotten.

There’s a lot of room for improvement.  But it might start by taking rather more seriously the issue of archiving photographs that have been taken, that do exist, and could be of use.

The inopportune polemicist in my email inbox

I get a lot of email, either directly or through the form on this site.  Most of it is very interesting.  Some of it makes work for me.  And sometimes I get an email which makes me rub my eyes and wonder what – or if – the author was thinking.

A couple of days ago, I had a query from someone about a page on the site.  As a postscript it asked me to explain what I thought about the catholic claims of the apostolic succession, and why we should hold to the bible, and what I thought about the period before the New Testament canon had been closed.

Now this was a bit of a nuisance.  Who is this person to me, that I should stop what I am doing in order to scribble something on these subjects? We’re all busy people.

Like most people who are not themselves Catholics – and probably like a good many who are – I don’t spend any time thinking about peculiarly Roman Catholic claims.  It’s a terrible waste of my time to do so.  They don’t impact on my world in any way.  They’re not ancient in origin, mostly arising during the medieval period, so they don’t come within my field of interest.  And, in truth, I am far more interested in history than theology.  It was a proud moment when I finally worked out what the issue was in the Nestorian dispute!  It took me a long time!

Anyway, I responded to the first query, and added a demurrer on the second.  I mildly commented that writing intra-Christian polemics was a waste of both our time in a world so bitterly hostile to Christians, and especially to the Catholic church.

If I had written a couple of days later I might have referenced the appalling episode, reported here (but not, I suspect, where anyone can see it), where a Christian street preacher in England named John Craven was approached by two boys who demanded he tell them what he thought about homosexuality.  He read the bible passage to them, and told them that God hates sin but loves the sinner.  They promptly insulted him, and denounced him to the nearest policeman.  The old man was arrested and held for 15 hours without food or water, and only released a couple of hours after that.  The courts had just awarded damages against the police.  That is the environment in which we live.  Why bother with in-fighting?

I wrote: and thought no more of the matter.

Today I received a further email, brushing aside my demurrer and reiterating and enlarging the demand.

I belong to a generation that is polite.  Each time, I wondered if I should at least say something briefly.  I thought for a moment on the subject; and found myself irritated at these presumptuous conundra, carefully crafted, not to inform, but to cause people to change their beliefs.  I found myself on the verge of defining exactly why I am not a Roman Catholic.  And this I do not wish to do.

The focus of the hate of the establishment is directed at the Catholic  Church.  It is so directed, under various pretexts, by people who simply wish to undermine its moral authority in order to promote their favoured vices.  The rest is simply eyewash.

But these same wicked men have just as  much loathing for all of us.  It is not because the Catholic church is Catholic, that it is abused.  It is because it is Christian.  Mr Craven was not a Catholic, yet the policemen felt no hesitation in arresting him.

So I don’t want to go here.  On the important points of our time, the Catholic Church has stood like a beacon in the world.  With its defects I am not concerned, since none of them affect me.

Yet this polemicist managed to get me to the edge of writing polemic against it.

It’s a warning, when we write about Christian subjects to non-Christians who seem friendly.  Just because someone is not an overt enemy does not mean that they are receptive to our arguments.  They may just be polite, and unengaged.  Unless people see Christ in us, they will not become Christians, whatever we say.

I also get protestant cranks write to me, from time to time.  I suppose everyone has the lunatic fringe.

But it’s a warning to be careful.