Don’t let readers photograph rare books – let thieves steal them instead

An interesting story in the Guardian a few days ago highlights the criminal foolishness of the British Library policies.  These prohibit legitimate readers from photographing pages. 

A Cambridge graduate who stole more than £1m worth of rare books during his career as a professional book thief was today found guilty of stealing £40,000’s worth of books from a celebrated library.

William Jacques, nicknamed “Tome Raider” after stealing hundreds of rare books in the late 1990s, drew up a “thief’s shopping list”, targeting the most expensive books that he could access.

He used a false name to sign in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley library in London before hiding valuable books under his tweed jacket, Southwark Crown Court was told.

Detective Constable Paul Howitt said Jacques, the son of a farmer from Selby, North Yorkshire, was an “extremely arrogant man, a very greedy man who was obsessed by money” and was “responsible for the biggest ever raid of our leading libraries”.

The Cambridge graduate began selling stolen books at auction houses in the late 90s. The haul that led to his previous conviction, some 500 rare antiquarian books and pamphlets from the British Library, Cambridge University Library and the London Library, was one of the biggest of its kind in British legal history, and many of the works were damaged in an attempt to disguise their origins.

Jacques was jailed for four years in May 2002 by a judge at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court for 21 counts of theft. He now faces a similar time in jail after his most recent offences.

Libraries cannot be secure unless they stop being libraries and turn into vaults.  It is of the highest importance to record the holdings of all our libraries, and especially of unique items.  Any long-established collection contains items that once belonged elsewhere.  Indeed medieval manuscripts travel more widely than all but a few of us!  They flit around like bumble-bees.

Any library that believes that preserving the collection means preventing photography is criminally negligent.  Instead it should manage such a process.


From my diary

It’s been almost too hot to breathe for the last few days.  I’ve been very grateful that I purchased an air-conditioning unit for home a year or two back — last night it didn’t get below 27C upstairs until after 11pm! 

So not much is happening.  At work we sit at our desks in heat-exhaustion; in the evenings we lie around and hope for a cooling breeze.

When the air-con is working at work, I’ve been working some more on QuickGreek.  This has been going very well.  I hope to add in all the proper names from the Septuagint sometime, when I can think straight.

The library tell me that Vermaseren’s publication of the excavations at the Mithraeum under Santa Prisca in Rome in the 60’s has arrived.  I was rather doubtful that anyone would do an interlibrary loan for such an item, but apparently they have.  I shall take a look at it this weekend, and see if it makes more sense at home.

Correspondence is slacking off too, as everyone goes off for summer.  But I have had an email from someone looking at Eusebius of Caesarea on the Psalms.  A couple of people have bought copies of QuickLatin, bless them.

I’ve done no more on the Eusebius Gospel Problems project – just too hot.  I need to get back to this and get it finished.  People are still writing to me showing interest in it, and no blame to them.

My current freelance contract comes to an end in a couple of days.  I hope to take a few weeks off, but then job-hunting will be the order of the day.  Finding work in a recession is always challenging, and it will be interesting to see how I get on.  I won’t commission anything very expensive while I’m between contracts, of course.


Driving in Rome

This morning I found myself wondering where the church of Santa Prisca was in the city of Rome.  Naturally I thought of Google maps, and experimentally typed to see what would happen. 

Sure enough I found the church easily; and then I noticed that Google Streetview was active for that area.  Quickly enough I found myself driving up the Via di Santa Prisca in my web-browser.  The light in the images was precisely that of Rome early in the morning, and I found myself nostalgic for my visits there.  There was even a hotel next door to the church.

A visit to TripAdvisor suggested that the hotel was rather dodgy, so I don’t think I’ll stay there!  But … aren’t we fortunate to live in days when such a marvellous thing is available!


Images from the Santa Prisca Mithraeum

In the Mithraeum under the church of Santa Prisca in Rome, there are a number of verses written on plaster around the walls, in between or above various images in the frescoes.  The frescoes themselves have been badly damaged, partly because of the poor quality of the material on which they were placed, but also because of intentional damage not later than 400 AD.

One of these verses has attracted wide attention.  It reads as follows:

Primus et hic aries astrictius ordine currit;
Et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso;
Offero ut fiant numina magna Mithre.

The meaning is less than obvious:

Here too the ram runs in front, more strictly in line.
And you saved us after having shed the eternal blood.
I bring offerings so that the great power of Mithras may be shown.

Even Vermaseren is not sure whether this gibberish makes up one sentence or three independent sentences.  The middle line has been eagerly seized on by the headbangers, although the Mithraeum was constructed in 220 AD, and so is not evidence for any pre-Christian beliefs.

The inscription appears on the left-hand wall, at the top of the lower layer of frescoes.  The colour images sent to me by a reader and published in Mysteria Mithrae, appendix 1, are the best I have seen; far better than the wretched effort by Vermaseren.  Here’s the context in which those three lines appear:

Location of the "nos servasti" inscription on the left wall of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum

It should be immediately obvious that the wall is badly damaged.  Also some sort of graphic — is  that a head? — intrudes into the middle of the text.  Note the word “FUSO” – that last word in the crucial sentence is the clearest element we get.  Note also the next lines of the inscriptions, on the right.

Let’s add the diagram by Vermaseren:

Fig.69: "et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso" - or is it?

And now the photograph.  Since this is long and thin, it’s in two halves; first the left, then the right.  Click on the images to get the full size.

The nos servasti inscription - left hand side

The "nos servasti" inscription - right hand half

Myself I would have thought that colour would be clearer, but  maybe not.  At all events, this is all we get.

Possibly more is visible on the wall than can be photographed.  But frankly… it’s not very good, is it?  How much of what Vermaseren read is imaginary?


More on the ancient Greek and Latin at Google

A few days ago I gave a link to 500 ancient Greek and Latin texts at Google.  What I had not realised was that this list was not just a bunch of pointers, but a new set of scans, done at high resolution specifically to aid OCR.  A reader has emailed me a link to an article on the Inside Google Books blog — itself new to me. This states, after an intro:

I’m pleased to announce that Google Books is now assisting this work by sharing high-resolution digital scans of over 500 volumes of Ancient Greek and Latin, dating from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. (Of course, downloadable versions of over a million volumes in all fields are available from, in a more compressed form.) Jon Orwant and I created this collection using a list of several thousand important Classics volumes identified by our collaborators Professor Gregory Crane and Alison Babeu of Tufts University. We are analyzing additional volumes and expect to be able to release more high-resolution scans in the future.

These scans will aid the development of accurate OCR (Optical Character Recognition) algorithms for Ancient Greek, and provide the basis for electronic versions of important editions of these Classics texts; but perhaps their greatest value will be for the development of new methods in this emerging field. We’re honored that Professor Crane called this donation “a major contribution to what scholars can do.”

It also mentions something equally interesting:

… scholars around the world can now consult a high-resolution digital scan of Venetus A, one of the best manuscripts of the Iliad, at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

Mind you, I find on linking to it that someone at the website decided to block people using Internet Explorer.  That’s strange, but a minor thing.  The great thing is to get the thing online.

Among the manuscripts of the Iliad, one of the oldest and most important is the manuscript in the Biblioteca Marciana, shelfmark gr. 822.  This is given the reference letter (=siglum) “A” in the editions.  It is not merely a very important copy, beautifully written, nor merely one of the oldest outside of the very extensive papyrus fragments.  It also contains the ancient scholia to the text, originating in the text critical school at the Museum in Alexandria ca. 150 BC.   I have yet to manage to see any of the pages, thanks to the quirk above, but it can only be a very good thing indeed!


How not to publish an excavation

I’m still (10:30am) in the West Room in Cambridge University Library, where I have been working on Vermaseren’s The excavations in the Mithraeum of the church of Santa Prisca.  The objective is to obtain an image of the inscription said to record that Mithras “saved” people by the shedding of the eternal blood, not least in order to see if it actually says any such thing.

Despite what the Google books preview might suggest, the book itself is a big heavy volume of large size.  It’s a shock to be reminded of how unwieldy a paper book can be, compared to a PDF.

There are terminals here, quite close together, which is fortunate.  The photocopiers are incredible – they’ve bolted on a scanner facility.  But… the interface is pretty hostile.  So I scan the image, then go back to the terminal to see if it came out OK.  I had to move terminals once, thanks to a chap with bad breath who came into this empty room and sat plumb next to me!

I’m disappointed with Vermaseren’s book.  The first question I have is as to where the inscription appears in the Mithraeum.  This I cannot determine.  The book is filled with waffle.  The nearest I can come is that there are two levels of paintings around the walls of the Mithraeum, an upper and a lower layer, and the inscriptions relate to the lower layer.  That’s not really very good.  Nor can I gain any overview of the layout from his book, because he dives into detail instead.


The upper layer consists of pictures of people, full length, walking toward the Mithras figure at one end.  These have names above them – “Nama Gelasius Leoni”, etc.  The lower layer seems to be similar stuff.  But… where oh where are the verse inscriptions located?

The plate is not very good.  It’s fine for what it is; but it is monochrome, and consequently everything is a jumble.  I’ve tried several times scanning at 600 dpi, and it won’t get any better than I have.  I’ll get this online, tho, for what it is.

It’s now 11am.  I think I’ve had enough of Vermaseren’s effusion.  Time to walk into Cambridge and get away from it for an hour.


Indolence at Cambridge University Library

Up this morning at 7:15 am and into the car.  I reach Cambridge at ten minutes to 9am, and cool my heels outside the front door.  The library only opens at 9am, you see — very nice for the staff, not so nice for anyone seeking to use the place.  Through the glass I see staff moving about, doubtless doing important tasks.  Three of us sit outside and wait. 

Nine O’Clock comes, and the bells in the college chapels ring.  The door remains firmly locked.  Eventually, some five minutes later, we are admitted. 

The book I want is Martin Vermaseren’s account of the excavations of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome.  This, I found before I started, had to be ordered in the West Room, and could not be reserved online.  There I head.  And … no entry.  A little sign outside says that the reference library and the west room are not open until 9:30am.

How nice for them.  How infuriating for me.

I get into work at 8am most mornings.  Workers in the City get in earlier still.  I don’t blame the library for opening at 9am, as most shops do.  But I do blame them for their negligence towards their customers.

Still, once the books are all online, these sorts of experiences — and the lazy staff responsible — will fade into history. 

Why do I tell you all this?  Well, I’m sat in the computer room at the library.  What else do I have to do?  And why don’t I make a complaint?  Because there is no complaints facility!


The nasty side of Roman life

A horrific story is reported by the BBC News here.  A mass burial of 97 new-born children, next to a Roman villa at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, has been excavated, and identified as waste products of a Roman brothel.

Imagine the story of human misery that lies behind these mute remains.  The women were slaves, little more than children themselves.  Raped incessantly until they got pregnant, then forced to provide whatever services they could in that condition until they gave birth.  Then the child was killed, and the woman, still sore, sent back to lie on her back again.  And so on, again and again, until death released them.

We take for granted so much that Christianity brought into the world.  An end to the casual infanticide of the Roman era was one of those things.  Another was the casual toleration of such evil.  The emperor Constantine closed few temples, but one exception was that at Heliopolis in Lebanon, or Baalbek as it is now known.  Travelling to Jerusalem he reached the town, and found that the whole place was dedicated to temple prostitution, and that there was not a married couple in the town.  He closed the “temples” that had supported such, forced the inhabitants to marry, and did what he could to put an end to the trade. 

Doubtless it continued in some form.  It was very profitable, as the magnificence of the architectural remains today is witness.  The trade was never to be extirpated.  But a line had been drawn in the sand — morality had come into the world.  The casual evil of the Hambleden brothel could no longer exist in broad daylight.


Celsus philosophus and the headbangers

The amount of fictitious material spewed onto the web by Christian-hating groups is extraordinary.  Another example came my way today, from one of the “Jesus is really pagan! tee hee!” types, whose ignorance is generally exceeded only by their credulity and quarrelsomeness.   I was told very positively that Celsus said the following:

Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians – and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs? In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe, except that they believe it to the exclusion of more comprehensive truths about God.

Of course the pamphlet of Celsus is lost – this must be from Origen’s Contra Celsum, somewhere, and until we see the context we can’t say much about it.  But when I did a google search, all I got was headbanger sites.  I did not get the CCEL site.

A bit of investigation revealed that we owe this gem to Freke and Gandy, a pair of authors who have managed to put more misinformation in more heads than I would have believed possible.  Rather to my surprise I found most of Freke and Gandy online in PDF form. 

And in turn, they say they got this from R. J. Hoffmann’s Celsus, p.120, a translation published by Oxford University Press.  Hoffmann was criticised by one of the only two reviewers for amending the arguments of Celsus in order to “improve” them to meet the objections of Origen.  A small section that I examined myself managed to misrepresent the argument.

Now Hoffmann did not make it easy for readers to check his version.  He gives no cross-references to Contra Celsum.  I have generally managed by looking for proper names.  I admit to being unenthusiastic about hunting for whatever lies behind this “quote” in the 8 books of Origen!  But now I have a page number, it should be possible!

And … it is still very difficult, but by going back a page, where he mentions “Apollo and Zeus”, I can find it.  The above paragraph is derived from Contra Celsum, book 8, chapters 45 onwards.  But … erm… something is wrong.

Here’s Hoffmann, with context:

Certainly the Christians are not alone in claiming inspiration for the utterances they ascribe to their god through their prophets. I need hardly mention every case of prophecy that is said to have occurred among our own people-prophets and prophetesses as well, both men and women, claiming the power of oracular and inspired utterance. What of those who have claimed the power to discern truth, using victims and sacrifices of one kind and another, and those who say that they are privy to certain signs or gifts given to them by the powers that be? Life is full of such claims: Cities have been built because a prophet says, “Build it!”; Diseases and famines have been dealt with in their oracles, and those who neglected their advisories have often done so at their peril. The prophets have foretold disaster with some accuracy; colonists have heeded their warnings before going to foreign parts, and have fared the better for it; not common people alone, but rulers have paid attention to what they have to say; the childless have gotten their hearts’ desire and have escaped the curse of loneliness because prophets have helped them; ailments have been healed. On the other hand, how many have insulted the temples and been caught? Some have been overcome with madness as soon as they blasphemed; others have confessed their wrongdoing; others have been moved to suicide; others have been punished with incurable diseases; some have been destroyed by a voice coming from within the shrine itself! Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians-and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs?

In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe, except that they believe it to the exclusion of more comprehensive truths about God. They believe in eternal punishment; well, so do the priests and initiates of the various religions. The Christians threaten others with this punishment, just as they are themselves threatened. To decide which of the two threats is nearer the truth is fairly simple; but when confronted with the evidence, the Christians point to the evidence of miracles and prophecies that they think bolsters their case.

Now look at the full text, in the Ante-Nicene Fathers translation (I see no reason to go behind this to the Greek).  In chapter 45 we find the start of this passage, as far as “some have been destroyed by a voice coming from within the shrine itself!”  But there the passage ends, and Origen’s dry response begins:

… Yea, some have been slain by a terrible voice issuing from the inner sanctuary.” I know not how it comes that Celsus brings forward these as undoubted facts, whilst at the same time he treats as mere fables the wonders which are recorded and handed down to us as having happened among the Jews, or as having been performed by Jesus and His disciples. For why may not our accounts be true, and those of Celsus fables and fictions? At least, these latter were not believed by the followers of Democritus, Epicurus, and Aristotle, although perhaps these Grecian sects would have been convinced by the evidence in support of our miracles, if Moses or any of the prophets who wrought these wonders, or Jesus Christ Himself, had come in their way.

Chapters 46 and 47 do not contain anything by Celsus; they continue the reply of Origen.  Then begins chapter 48, dealing with the next portion of Celsus, as Origen tells us.  I indent the words of Celsus, for clarity.

In the next place, Celsus, after referring to the enthusiasm with which men will contend unto death rather than abjure Christianity, adds strangely enough some remarks, in which he wishes to show that our doctrines are similar to those delivered by the priests at the celebration of the heathen mysteries. He says:

“Just as you, good sir, believe in eternal punishments, so also do the priests who interpret and initiate into the sacred mysteries. The same punishments with which you threaten others, they threaten you. Now it is worthy of examination, which of the two is more firmly established as true; for both parties contend with equal assurance that the truth is on their side. But if we require proofs, the priests of the heathen gods produce many that are clear and convincing, partly from wonders performed by demons, and partly from the answers given by oracles, and various other modes of divination.”

He would, then, have us believe that we and the interpreters of the mysteries equally teach the doctrine of eternal punishment, and that it is a matter for inquiry on which side of the two the truth lies. Now I should say that the truth lies with those who are able to induce their hearers to live as men who are convinced of the truth of what they have heard….

Can everyone see what has happened?  Hoffmann himself composed the words in bold above, the words attributed to Celsus.  They are not found in Contra Celsum at all. 

And indeed no wonder, for the reflect the views of a headbanger of the late 20th century, rather than pagan polemic.  Origen’s reply makes clear that neither side considers that Celsus is saying that Christians believe the same as pagans.  Celsus is attacking the well-known Christian morality, based on fear of judgement.  He asserts that pagans can’t be that immoral, since they believe in a judgement too.  Origen responds by dryly asking which side actually believe it, as evidenced in daily life.

I doubt that Dr Hoffmann intended a fraud.  Rather his enthusiasm got the better of him.   But in so doing, he started a falsehood.


Did victory for the Spartans destroy their state?

Mike Anderson has written a very interesting article about the Spartan army after the Peloponnesean war, with that invaluable thing, numbers attached. 

At the end of the war, by 398 BC, the Spartans could field 6,000 hoplites – Spartiates, who lived as permanent soldiers and ate in the communal messes, under their peculiar but egalitarian polity.   But the loot of the war wrecked the state.  Once there was money, there were rich and poor.  Rich men are not keen to live as conscripts, and their sons less so.

Famously the Spartan ascendancy came to an end at the battle of Leuctra in 371, when they were defeated by the Thebans under Epaminondas.  The result of the battle was met with general rejoicing among the Greeks.  But Mike points out that only 1,050 Spartiates were present.  The rest of the army was made up of Perioeci, the associates.  Luxury had destroyed the Spartan system; new methods of fighting did the rest.