More paintings of the Meta Sudans

The vanished Roman fountain next to the Colosseum, demolished by Mussolini, but not before being photographed, is a long-term interest of mine.  In its later years, the monument was only half its former height.  But if we look at older paintings of the scene, we can see how it was during the 18th century.

A correspondent, Ezio, has sent in a useful list of links from which I have extracted the following images.  Click on the image to see it properly.

Let’s start with a 1694 painting by Jacob de Heusch, on Wikimedia Commons.


This shows the Meta Sudans, with the vegetation on the top which is characteristic of the monument before it was reshaped in the 19th century.  In the background is the Arch of Titus, as it was before Valadier extracted it from later buildings, and the entrance to the forum.

In Heusch’s painting, the fountain is still in use!  But I fear that this is artistic licence, just as his depiction of the Colosseum is.  So we don’t learn much from this except that the interior on this side was already gouged out, presumably by treasure hunters.

Next we have Caspar van Wittel’s paintings from 1707-1711, one of which I have shown before in a low-resolution form.  These are here, here, and here.  Let’s show the Meta Sudans from the first of these, against the background of the Arch of Constantine (so on the other side):


I have auto-leveled the colours, so that we can see it clearly.  This has no vegetation, but shows a tall, slender monument which has been gouged on the side facing the Arch of Titus also.

The third picture is from the same angle as the Heusch painting:


Sadly the online image is still low resolution; but this shows the vegetation at the top, the bulge part way up, the gouged out interior, and the Arch of Titus in the background.

Finally let’s see the painting by Panini (1747), which I have shown before, but this time at a decent resolution.


Again I have auto-leveled this.  It shows that the vegetation starts at the top and trails over towards the Arch of Constantine.  The bulge around the middle – which appears on ancient coin depictions – is present clearly.

Thank you Ezio for these!

It is really worth tracking down these old paintings.  They show a Rome that no longer exists, and there is historical data to be gleaned from them.


Materials for the study of the Ethiopian version of the history of al-Makin

The Arabic Christian historians are largely unknown.  Starting in the 9th century, the main ones are Agapius, Eutychius, al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus, and one whom I always forget [Yahya ibn Said al-Antaki].

Al-Makin wrote in the 13th century, and contains a version of the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus, which appears in Shlomo Pines’ much-read but much-misunderstood paper on the subject.  But anyone wishing to consult the text of al-Makin, in Arabic, must find a manuscript; no printed edition exists.  I did attempt to do something about this, a few years ago, but in vain.

Al-Makin, like other Arabic texts, was translated into Ethiopian.  A correspondent writes to tell me about some sources for the Ethiopian version.

Firstly, an article on translation technique from Arabic to Ethiopic,  “Arabisch-äthiopische Übersetzungstechnik am Beispiel der Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) und des Tarika Walda-‘Amid” (i.e. “Arabic-Ethiopian translation techniques using the example of Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) and Tarika Walda-Amid”) by Manfred Kropp, with al-Makin as one of the examples, in the ZDMG, is now online in high resolution here.  In Ethiopian chronicles Al-Makin is known as Giyorgis Walda-Amid (George, son of Amid) while Tarika Walda-Amid (Chronicle of Walda-Amid) is the title given to his “Blessed Collection”.

Kropp has also published a book, Zekra Nagar – Die universalhistorische Einleitung nach Giyorgis Wala-Amid in der Chronikensammlung des Haylu aka (The preface to the Universal History of Giyorgis Walda-Amid in the Chronicle Collection of Haylu” – Haylu was an 18th c. Ethiopian prince).  There is a Google Books preview here.

Modern Ethiopians speak Amharic, not Classical Ethiopic or Ge’ez.  I learn that Prof. Sirgiw Gelaw from Addis Ababa University has prepared a translation of the Ge’ez version of Al-Makin into Amharic.  The manuscript is 560 pages long and is still waiting publication.

A manuscript copy of the Ethiopian version of the first part of Al-Makin – he divides his work into two parts, pre-Islam and post – is actually online at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, here.  The catalogue entry is here.

My thanks to Ezio for all this material!


A parchment fragment of Agrippa Castor “Against Basilides”?

A correspondent writes to tell me that there is a 5th century parchment item in the Bodleian Library in Oxford – a fragment from Egypt, of course – listed in the catalogue here, which the cataloguer attributes to Agrippa Castor:

Shelfmark:  MS. Gr. th. g. 3 (P)
Summary Catalogue no:  31812
Summary of contents: Theological controversy with B (? part of Agrippa Castor’s lost refutation of Basileides).
Language: Greek
Origin: Egyptian
Date: 5th century (?)
Material: parchment

This is very interesting, and I could wish that the parchment was online.

Agrippa Castor wrote around 135 AD against the 24 books of the gnostic Basilides.  Unfortunately all his work is lost, and we know about him only from Eusebius (HE IV, c.7), Jerome (De Viris Illustribus c. 21), and Theodoret (Haereticarum Fabularum Compendium I, c.4, PG 349C).  The Eusebius is as follows:

5. But as there were at that time a great many members of the Church who were fighting for the truth and defending apostolic and ecclesiastical doctrine with uncommon eloquence, so there were some also that furnished posterity through their writings with means of defense against the heresies to which we have referred.

6. Of these there has come down to us a most powerful refutation of Basilides by Agrippa Castor, one of the most renowned writers of that day, which shows the terrible imposture of the man.

7. While exposing his mysteries he says that Basilides wrote twenty-four books upon the Gospel, and that he invented prophets for himself named Barcabbas and Barcoph, and others that had no existence, and that he gave them barbarous names in order to amaze those who marvel at such things; that he taught also that the eating of meat offered to idols and the unguarded renunciation of the faith in times of persecution were matters of indifference; and that he enjoined upon his followers, like Pythagoras, a silence of five years.

8. Other similar things the above-mentioned writer has recorded concerning Basilides, and has ably exposed the error of his heresy.

Jerome writes as follows:

Agrippa surnamed Castor, a man of great learning, wrote a strong refutation of the twenty-four volumes which Basilides the heretic had written against the Gospel, disclosing all his mysteries and enumerating the prophets Barcabbas and Barchob and all the other barbarous names which terrify the hearers, and his most high God Abraxas. whose name was supposed to contain the year according to the reckoning of the Greeks. Basilides died at Alexandria in the reign of Hadrian, and from him the Gnostic sects arose. In this tempestuous time also, Cochebas leader of the Jewish faction put Christians to death with various tortures.

Theodoret writes:

And Basilides also had prophets, Barcabas and Barcoph and some others equally barbarian. And he formed other most abominable myths from these which I have not included because of the damage to those who will happen upon them.

And Isidore, the son of Basilides, with a certain addition, strengthened the mythology of [his] father. And Agrippa, surnamed Castor, Irenaeus, Clement’s Stromata and Origen struggled against these, while contending for the truth.[1]

Catalogues of fragments are not a reliable guide to the contents.  No doubt the fragment utters some anti-gnostic sentiments, perhaps mentions Basilides; and it would be most interesting to see it!

  1. [1]Glenn Melvin Cope, An analysis of the heresiological method of Theodoret of Cyrus in the “Haereticarum fabularum compendium”, thesis, Catholic University of America, 1990; p.92.

Reasons to hate Microsoft, part 2

A beautiful morning, I have just got up, and already I hate Microsoft.

That’s because part of my routine is to turn on my laptop and look at my email.  This I did and … it wouldn’t let me in.

I don’t have a password on my laptop; it never leaves my house, and only I use it.  But … yesterday I installed some software via the Windows Store – a first – and it made me login with my “Microsoft account”, and then reset the password, and a load of other nonsense.  Then Apple made me do the same.  I did my task and thought no more about it.

This morning I discover that Windows silently applied that “Microsoft Account”, not to the Windows Store as the display suggested, but to my entire computer.  And that is why I was presented with a demand for a password.  Of course I don’t know it – it’s a junk password.  I don’t *want* to login to my PC using that account.  So I requested shutdown, to see if I might get the option to “login as another user”.

Nope.  What I got was “we are installing an upgrade”.  Very very slowly.

They’re still doing it.  Almost half an hour later, it’s “working on updates 15%”.  I’d like my breakfast, please, but Microsoft have forced me this morning – twice – to fight with their software.

I’m typing this from a backup laptop.  I’ve found easily some Google results that suggest I can get rid of the unwanted account from my PC.  I imagine that an hour’s work will undo the havoc: an hour of my life gone, simply because of corporate arrogance.

Is it too much to ask, Microsoft, that you ask me before you screw up my morning?

UPDATE: An hour and a half after I first guilelessly wandered into my study, things seem to be back to normal.  I’ve returned the PC to use a local account.  In the process I found that Microsoft decided that I wanted to use tapping on my touchpad, so I had to work out where that was and disable it.  Then, when I restarted, it didn’t go to the desktop, but sat, displaying some pretty landscape picture – yes, they’d decided, silently, to force display of a picture on the “lock screen”.  I disabled that too.

Amusingly they also fiddled with my taskbar.  I don’t use Edge – does anyone? – so I put Internet Explorer as the left-most icon.  Microsoft primly moved Edge back to the prime position, and moved IE two along.

We need legislation.  This is a lovely morning, and half of it is gone, and I have no redress, purely because of arrogance by someone whom I have never heard of.


Al-Aktal on “halal” food

While reading this post by Nassim Nicholas Taleb yesterday, I encountered the following interesting statement:

.. the 7th Century Christian Arab poet Al-Akhtal made a point to never eat halal meat, in his famous defiant poem boasting his Christianity: “I do not eat sacrificial flesh”

The article is talking about ways in which a minority can impose its values on a culture, and the context is the creeping way in which foodstuffs are made kosher or halal by manufacturers, simply for sales reasons.

But this is not important here. However I can quite imagine the quotation taking on a life of its own, and I’d like to track it down.

We do not tend to think of 7th century Arab poets who were a Christian.  I’d never heard of al-Akhtal.  So who was he?

Via a Google Books preview of an Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, I found this article by G.J.H. Van Gelder:[1]

al-Akhtal (c. 20- C. 92/ c.640-c.710)

Ghiyath ibn Ghawth al-Akhtal was one of the great poets of the Umayyad period. Although he was, like his tribe, Taghlib, a (monophysite) Christian, he was favoured by leading Umayyad statesmen such as Ziyad ibn Abihi and al-Hajjaj. and even became the most important court-poet of the caliph Abd al-Malik. He was probably born in Hira in Iraq. In his youth he was a close companion of caliph Yazid I, with whom he shared a taste for heavy drinking. The many passages on  wine and drinking in his poems make al-Akhtal an important early bacchic poet. His fame as a poet rests mainly on his panegyric and invective, which are often combined in his numerous poems supporting Umayyad policy and attacking its opponents – state politics being, to a large extent, tribal politics. His career is closely associated with that of his contemporaries al-Farazdaq and Jarir; siding with the former against the latter, he produced a series of flytings or naqa’id in which personal and tribal invective mix with politics. In his poetry, which serves as both political propaganda and literary entertainment, he builds on the diction, themes and forms of pre-Islamic poetry. The panegyric ode of al-Akhtal and his contemporaries acquired a classical status: it became a model for subsequent periods. Not yet affected by the characteristics of the ‘modern poets’ or muhdathun, its language and diction were accepted by philologists and critics as sources of ‘pure Arabic.’

Text editions

Naqa’id Jarir wa-al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (ed.), Beirut (1922) (the recension incorrectly attributed to Abu Tammam). [Online here]
Shi’r al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (Salhani) (ed.), Beirut (1891) [Online here]; with supplement, Beirut (1909); Fakhr al-Din Qabawa (ed.), Beirut, (1979).

Further reading

Abbot, Nabia, Studies in Arabic literary papyri, III: language and literature, Chicago (1972). passim.
Jayyusi, Salma K., ‘Umayyad Poetry’, in CHALUP, 387-413.
Kratchkovsky, L, ‘Der Wein in al-Aktal’s Gedichten’, in Festschrift G. Jacob, Leipzig  (1932), 146-64.
Lammens, H., ‘Le chantre des Omiades. Notes biographiques et litteraires sur le poete arabe chretien Aktal’, Journal Asiatique 9, vol. 4 (1894), 94-176, 193-241, 381-459.  [Online here].
Mattock, J., ‘A ba’iyya of al-Aktal in Praise of al-Walid b. ’Abd al-Malik’, Wagner Festschrift, 120-30.

Other materials can be found about Akhtal online, which repeat anecdotes of his role as a poet at the Damascus court of the Ummayad caliphs.  What I was unable to locate was any sign of English translations.  Nor was I able to find any source for the quotation (although I have tweeted an enquiry to the article author).

Let me end instead with an Academia article here by Suzanne Stetkevych which perhaps might illuminate the context in which Akhtal may have made his remark.[2]  The anecdote is by someone named al-Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī:

Al-Akhṭal came before ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān who asked him to recite for him. “My throat is dry,” responded the poet, “Order someone to bring me a drink.” “Bring him some water,” ordered the Caliph. “That’s for donkeys,” said al-Akhṭal, “and we have plenty of it.” “Then give him milk.” “I’ve long since been weaned!” “Then give him honey.” “That’s for the sick!” “Well, what do you want?” “Wine, O Commander of the Faithful!” “Have you ever known me to serve wine, you bastard?! If it weren’t for the inviolable bond between us, O what I would do to you!” So al-Akhṭal left and came upon one of ʿAbd al-Malik’s attendants. “Damn you,” he said to him, “the Commander of the Faithful ordered me to recite, but my voice was hoarse. Give me some wine!” So he did. Then al-Akhṭal said, “Match it with another!” So he did. “You have left the two of them fighting in my stomach, better give me a third!” So he did. “Now you’ve left me listing to one side, give me a fourth for balance.” The servant gave it to him, and al-Akhṭal went before ʿAbd al-Malik and recited:

Those that dwelt with you have left in haste
departing at evening or at dawn,
Alarmed and driven out by fate’s caprice
they head for distant lands.

When he finished the poem, ʿAbd al-Malik said to a servant boy, “Take him by the hand, boy, and help him out, heap robes of honor upon him, and reward him generously.” Then he proclaimed, “Every people has its poet, and the poet of the Banū Umayya is al-Akhṭal.”

The poem is in fact much longer than the single verse given, and endorses the Ummayads at length.  The “transgression” above is for asking the Muslim ruler for wine.  Indeed Akhtal was so visibly drunk by the end that he had to be helped out of the room!  But the importance  to an Arab ruler of being endorsed by an established poet was greater than any newly made-up rules about wine.

It is curious to note that there is no real interest in our society in making Arabic literature  accessible to us all.  A proper handbook of Arabic literature, like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, but readable and brought up to date, would be a benison.  As it stands, who but specialists can even access this literature?

UPDATE: Well, well.  On p.116 of the Journal Asiatique article are the verses we seek.  The caliph Abd-al Malik was hardly very committed to Islam, but still made the effort.

One day, when Akhtal came to recite a brilliant panegyric, the prince asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”

“I will,” said the poet, laughing, “so long as you grant me the use of wine and an exemption from Ramadan.”

Abd-al Malik, whose proposal was serious, took this ribaldry badly.  “Know,” he said, “that once you become a Muslim, if you neglect even one of the obligations of Islam, I’ll have you beheaded.”

Unfazed, Akhtal responded with these verses:

“No! I will never observe the fast of Ramadan, nor eat the flesh of sacrifices.
Never will I drive a young and robust camel towards the valley of Mecca in the time of pilgrimage.
Never will I cry out like a donkey, “Come! To prayer!”
But I will continue to drink the blessed liquor, and to prostrate myself at daybreak.”

“But,” said the Caliph, “what attraction has this wretched drink for you?”

“Sire,” replied Akhtal, “when I drink then I don’t worry about you any more than about the strap of my sandal.”

“Improvise some verses on this thought,” said the Caliph, decidedly in a bad mood, “or I will lift your head off from your shoulders!” The poet had to comply; but luckily in this matter he was not taken off-guard:

If my wish makes me take two goes to empty three cups of a generous vintage, I get up, dragging the folds of my robe as if I was your master, O Master of the Faithful.[3]

The first reference given is “Divan 156 and 154”.  This appears to be a publication “Divan of Akhtal”, published by the Catholic press at Beirut “last year”.  This is probably an Arabic publication of some kind; at any rate, beyond my ability to locate.  Is it perhaps the “Shi’r al-Akhtal” listed above?

Still good news to find even this much.

UPDATE: See the comments for more information.  I have just added a link to the other edition to the post.

UPDATE: A tweet from Dr Taleb advises me that his source was this online collection of Arabic poetry, and this page here.  This gives the verses:


ولست بصائم رمضانَ طوعاً ولَسْتُ بِآكِلٍ لحْمَ الأضاحي
ولست بقائم أبداً أنادي كمِثْلِ العَيرِ حيّ عَلى الفَلاحِ
ولكني سأشربها شمولاً وأسْجُدُ عِنْدَ مُنْبَلَجِ الصَّباحِ


  1. [1]Edited by Julie Scott Meisami, and Paul Starkey.  1998.  Vol. 1, p.67.  Impossibly expensive to buy, of course.
  2. [2]“Al-Akhtal at the Court of `Abd al-Malik: The Qasida and the Construction of Umayyad Authority”, in: Christians and Others in the Ummayad state, ed. A. Borrut &c., p.133.
  3. [3]Un jour que celui-ci venait de lui réciter un brillant panégyrique : « Pourquoi, lui dit le prince, ne te fais-tu pas musulman ? — J’accepte, répondit le poète en riant, si l’on m’accorde l’usage du vin et la dispense du Ramadan. » ‘Abdalmalik, dont la proposition avait été très sérieuse, prit mal la plaisanterie. «Sache-le bien, répliqua-t-il, une fois musulman , si tu négligeais une seule des obligations de l’islam, je te ferais trancher la tête ! » — Sans se laisser déconcerter, Ahtal répondit par ces vers :
    Non! jamais je n’observerai le jeune du Ramadan, ni ne mangerai la chair des victimes.
    Jamais je ne pousserai vers la vallée de la Mecque an temps du pèlerinage une jeune et robuste chamelle.
    Jamais je n’irai crier comme un âne : Allons ! à la prière !
    Mais je continuerai à boire la bienfaisante liqueur et me prosternerai au lever de l’aurore!
    «Mais, demanda le prince, quel attrait a donc pour toi cette maudite boisson? — Sire, répondit Ahtal, quand j’en ai bu, je ne me soucie pas plus de ta personne que des courroies de ma sandale. — Improvise des vers sur cette pensée, dit le calife décidément de mauvaise humeur, ou je te ferai sauter la tête des épaules! » Le poète dut s’exécuter; heureusement sur cette matière il n’était jamais pris au dépourvu : Si mon commensai me fait à deux reprises vider trois coupes d’un vin généreux, Je me lève, traînant les pans de ma robe, comme si j’étais ton maître, O maître des croyants.

A new translation of Agapius into Italian, plus the publication of two more pages of the text

A correspondent has drawn our attention to a rarity – a new translation of the Arabic Christian writer, Agapius of Hierapolis (or Mahbub ibn Qustantin, in the graceless phrase of that language).  It is a translation into Italian, by Bartolomeo Pirone, who translated Eutychius back in the 80s.  Here’s the front cover:


Bartolomeo Pirone, Agapio di Gerapoli: Storia universale, Edizioni Terra Santa (2013), series: Monographiae vol. 21.  Links:,, and the Italian site of the publishers.  The ISBN is 978-88-6240-164-7, it is 494 pages long, and available for around $50, which is quite a lot.

For anyone interested in Arabic Christian studies who knows Italian, this is probably a must-buy.  The histories that a language group write about themselves are always the first items to read.

It is now a few years since I converted the old French translation of Agapius into English, and placed it online.  The second half of the work exists in only a single, water-damaged manuscript in Florence, Ms. Laurenziana Or. 323.  A few years ago Robert Hoyland went to look at the manuscript, and discovered that it had been conserved, and two pages, previously stuck together, were now readable!  He published them with an English translation; and has now uploaded that to here.  Which is rather marvellous, really!


The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 1 (part 1)

In the name of God, One, Pre-Eternal, Everlasting, without beginning or end, to whom we resort.

1. Let us begin, with the help of the Most High God and the goodness of His assistance, to write the Book of History, compiled critically and with verification, the work of Patriarch Eutychius, called Sa‘īd ibn Batrīq.

God, powerful and exalted, created the world, with everything in it, and Adam and Eve, in six days.  The creation of Adam took place on the sixth day.  God blessed the seventh day, because on it He completed the work of creation, and led Adam and Eve into Paradise.  He ordered that they could eat of all the trees except for the tree of knowledge, of which He forbade them to eat.  The devil tempted Eve, and Eve disobeyed the order of the Most High God by eating the fruit picked from the tree and making Adam eat it.  Because they disobeyed their Lord, [God] drove them from the garden, in the ninth hour of Friday, and exiled them to a mountain in India.  He made them live on the earth and commanded them to reproduce so that they would multiply and fill the earth.  Adam lay then with Eve who became pregnant and gave birth to a boy and a girl.  Adam called the boy Cain and the girl Azrūn.  Eve conceived again, and gave birth to a boy and a girl, and the boy Adam called Abel and the girl he called Uwayn, which in Greek means “Lafūra”.[1]  When the two boys grew up, Adam said to Eve: “Let Cain take Uwayn, who was delivered along with Abel, and Abel take Azrūn, who was delivered along with Cain.”  Cain then said to Eve, his mother, “I will take my sister; let Abel take his”, because Azrūn was more beautiful than Uwayn.  On hearing these words, Adam was very distressed and said: “It is against the commandment to take the sister who was brought forth with you”.  Cain worked the land, and Abel was a keeper of sheep.  Adam said to them: “Take the fruit of the land and some kids, go up on top of this holy mountain and offer your sacrifice.  Then you may take your wives.”  Cain brought the fruit of his land as a good and pure sacrifice to God, and Abel took the firstborn of his flock as a good and pure sacrifice to God.  While they were intent on getting to the top of the mountain, the devil entered into the heart of Cain and incited him to kill his brother Abel because of his sister Azrūn.  So God did not accept the sacrifice of Cain.  For when they offered their sacrifices, God accepted Abel’s offering but disdained that of Cain.  Great was the anger and great was the hatred of Cain against Abel and he envied his brother.  As they were descending the mountain, Cain attacked Abel and struck him on the head with a stone and killed him.  Adam and Eve were very distressed and mourned the death of Abel for a hundred years.  God cursed Cain and his descendants.  Cain was in fear and terror, and wandered all the days of his life.  God sent him forth, still unmarried, to Nūd.[2]  Cain took with him his sister Azrūn and lived there.  Then Adam lay with Eve, who conceived – Adam was then already two hundred and thirty years old – and gave birth to a boy and [Adam] called him Shīt.[3]  Shīt was pleasant faced, a giant, with a perfect complexion like his father, and was the father of the giants who lived before the flood.  Adam gave to Shīt in marriage the sister of Cain, Uwayn, who bore him Anush.  To Anush was born Qinan.  Adam had many more children later.  Feeling close to death, Adam called to him his son Shīt, Anush, son of Shīt, Qinan, the son of Anush, son of Shīt, and Mahlali’il, son of Qinan, and gave them instructions saying: “This command will apply to all your children.  When I die, embalm my body with myrrh, frankincense and cinnamon and lay me down in the Cave of Treasures.  When your children leave the area near paradise, let them take with them my body and bury me at the centre of the earth, because there will be my salvation and the salvation of my descendants”.[4]  Adam lived in total nine hundred and thirty years.  He died on Friday, the fourteenth month, 6th Nisan, i.e. Barmūdah, in the ninth hour, in the same hour in which he had been cast out of paradise.  When Adam died, his son Shīt embalmed him, as he had commanded him to do, he brought the body to the top of the mountain, as he had said, and hid him in the Cave of Treasures.  They wept over him for one hundred and forty days.

  1. [1]Eutychius is drawing upon material from the Arabic text of The Cave of Treasures, but this gives different names to the daughters of Adam.  Josephus, Antiquities book 1, chapter 2, states that Adam had three daughters, but does not name them.  Pirone does not explain “lafura”.
  2. [2]Gen.4:16.  The Cave of Treasures calls the place al-Aksūriyā.  Josephus I 2:2 says Cain founded a city called Nud and lived there.
  3. [3]I.e. Seth.  Much of what follows is from The Cave of Treasures or a related source, which is trying to align the events of Adam’s life to prefigure those of Christ.
  4. [4]I.e. at Jerusalem, where Christ will be crucified.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – preface

The Arabic Christian historians are very little known.  But they preserve Byzantine historian material, and indeed materials from elsewhere also.  No English translations exist of their works; indeed some have not even been printed in the original language.  The first two are Agapius and Eutychius.  I don’t know Arabic, but a few years ago I made a translation of Agapius from an old French translation, mainly using Google Translate.  I have been working on Eutychius for a while, based on an Italian translation which almost nobody has access to.

I thought that I would go back to the start of Eutychius, and translate the opening prefatory section.  Bits of the Italian are really beyond me, so I have just done my best. 

Note that you can’t rely on this translation to give you more than the general sense; and if that is not enough for your purposes, then please make arrangements to get a better one made!  I have rather hurried through general theological stuff, and concentrated on the historical statements.  The purpose of all this, otherwise useless labour, is simply to get people reading and using Eutychius, and, with luck, to kick-start the process of making a real translation.


In the name of God, the One, Pre-eternal, Everlasting, Without beginning or end, to whom we turn.

Book of History, compiled with verification and checking.  The work of Patriarch Eutychius, also known as Sa’id ibn Batriq, written by him for his brother `Isa, concerning the knowledge of universal history from the time of Adam to the years of the Islamic Hegira.

May God inspire you, my brother, with the best and most useful blessings, and of those things which are distressing and sad, may you receive the least serious and dangerous; may He cover you all over with the veil of His protection and keep you always in greater strength. May He cause you to achieve, in this as in the other world, success, and also your share in this life and the next.  May He make you understand everything that pleases Him and may you never be distracted from whatever about Him that could turn you away.

May you understand what you have asked me to write for you – may you render to God blessings of virtue and preserve you from the sordid world of vices! – regarding all knowledge of universal history from the time of Adam to the years of the Islamic Hegira, and I have presented this in the months, the years and the centuries, should you need it, so that you can respond to questions by anyone, scholar or layman.  May you trace – May God make you the widest practicable path to happiness and make you know at any moment the most profound science and the highest usefulness! – a representation and a certain example in succinct and profitable form, and in the manner deemed appropriate by me up to your noble soul, adhering acumen of your high and sublime intelligence, quoting and extracting whatever I could find from the Torah and from the Gospel, as well as from other old and new books, then including all these in my book, so as to render it as good as possible, and as accurate as possible with this method.  So I have completed a result that can both satisfy those with intellect, and satisfy those who have understanding.  I have explained this to you, as well as to your brothers, so that it can be, both from us and to you, a prize and a blessing.

Sa`īd ibn Batrīq, the physician, spoke as follows: “Before anything else, let us begin by giving praise to our Lord, our Benefactor, to our Creator and the One who gives us life – Exalted be his praise! – and praise – Hallowed be His name! -, and it is the right way to begin every book and treatise. From him – Powerful and Almighty God – we ask help in what we are going to do, according to his usual benevolence.  It is right to praise God, who is the Lord and the Creator, and Who expects the thanks of His worshipers.  Indeed, he established the first things that they were created and governs them; He has made a way of truth to follow out of mercy and justice, and out of corruption and injustice a way of falsity which it is forbidden to undertake.  He has not imposed on his worshipers deeds beyond their ability, or prescribed things to his creatures which are outside their powers.  But He has made them arbiters of their actions, moderators of their works and responsible for themselves.  He has provided help to them in this, by virtue of judgment, discernment, the subtle reflection and [His] assistance, thanks to the intellect which He has awarded them, making it a final judgment of reason against their mistakes and a way that can be a guide to them, for the sake of their good and out of compassion for them.  Praise be made therefore to God, One alone.  He – Powerful and Almighty – in His eternal essence, in His eternal wisdom and in His life without beginning or end, is worthy of praise and celebration and worthy of glory and exaltation.  Nothing has He ever left ambiguous in His law that could give rise to doubt and nothing has he left uncertain in his Precepts that could cause dissention; but He has laid out everything in a clear and obvious way to the people, despite their diversity of origin and place, and given a clear understanding to all nations, despite their different languages and dialects, through the revelation made to his Prophets and Apostles, and by means of miracles and terrible signs [given by him].  Thus He has invited us to embrace his religion, promising the blessed vision to those who will believe in Him and a horrible end to those who turn their backs and deny Him.  Let us praise Him, then, because that attracts to us most of His good pleasure, and get us closer to Him.  I invoke Him and to Him I turn, to make sincere our intentions of welcoming what is acceptable, and so unfold our innermost desires towards that which promotes devotion to Him, and dedicate this to Him by His mercy.[1]

Anyone who, without knowledge of the foundation of any science, intends to discourse, in order to produce something, and who knows only one branch of that science without possessing a foundation to refer to, will only produce dull and rambling discourse, and the fatigue and the effort made by him in doing so will be almost completely a waste and a sham.  The Lord and Saviour in His holy gospel offered a simile of this, saying: “He who bumptiously builds his house upon the sand, a wind and a storm will pass over it, and soon heavy rains that overwhelm will destroy it; but he who builds his house on the rock, the winds and heavy rains will not destroy it”[Mt. 7:24-27].  Let’s take this as an example and lesson for those who can.  Anyone who speaks of any science without a foundation which to refer and to rest, will soon experience his own impotence, and will have to stop in a hurry, like the one who builds his house upon the sand.  With those who discourse of any science, knowing the foundation, sensible, bright, clear and balanced will be the discourse, because he has spoken with a foundation on which to rest and to refer to, like the one who builds his house on rock.  Indeed Plato and Aristotle have already spoken in books of logic and in other books on the principles of science, and their definitions, as well as on the principles and definitions of arithmetic, showing what is the way that the learned man must follow, if he intends to acquire knowledge of any science which he wants, explaining and setting forth everything at full length.  There is no need to repeat here what they have exhibited in an exemplary way, so that we don’t make our book too long.

Now since I stated earlier, at the beginning of my book, that anyone who wants to talk about the knowledge of a science, must know the foundation, it is necessary for me to give a foundation to refer to and on which to base ourselves.  Men, you know, have taken different and conflicting positions about history.  Whatever I thought right to excerpt from the Torah and other reliable books, after long consideration and much effort, I will set out in a comprehensive and clear way, and as succinct and concise information, so that my book is in itself sufficient, and it is not so necessary to resort to any other sources, in order to know more of the story.  And I shall start with the moment when God created Adam, and carry on up to the present day, so that you will have a clear understanding.  In God, our helper in achieving what is being asked, is our support, power and strength, and in Him is we can achieve the things useful to us if we obey Him and we make what is to his liking.  For He is in fact Almighty.

  1. [1]I’m pretty doubtful about this sentence, but it’s clearly devotional.

Two postcards of the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus (and the Meta Sudans)

I found two 19th century postcards, taken from the Palatine, looking towards the Colosseum, at this site, which also includes many other interesting images.

Note how the Basilica of Maxentius is enclosed in some now demolished building!


And this:



From my diary

It’s been a little while since I posted an update.  Of course it is summer, here at Pearse Towers, and I spend my days frolicking in the sunshine, away from the laptop.  Or perhaps not.

In truth the weather has discouraged indoor pursuits until this week.  Such time as I can spare from lazing around is spent on some tedious but necessary chores.

There are no translations in flight at the moment.  However a lady has offered to work on Eusebius’ Commentary on Luke, half of which was translated last year.  I do not know whether this will come to anything.

I shall have to return to work soon.  But while I am job-hunting, and as the weather worsens, I daresay that I shall return to turning Eutychius in Italian into not-very-good English.  Somebody has to, as a first stage in getting Eutychius better known, and evidently it falls to me.

While searching for the source of the prospect of the Colosseum in the last post, I stumbled across Goethe’s Journey into Italy.  Apparently this is a classic, although I had never heard of it.  But travelogues to Italy are always welcome.  Thanks to the power of Amazon, a copy of the Penguin translation should reach me tomorrow; and I hope to travel, with Goethe as my guide, across the Alps into the Italy of the late 18th century.

I was reflecting today on how much literature there is in Italian which is quite unknown in the English-speaking world.  It is bad enough that much US scholarship is oblivious of anything not written in English.  This means that excellent French and German literature goes unnoticed.  But Italian is in a far worse state; the very existence of Italian studies is hard to verify, and books and pamphlets in that language – and there are very many of these – are quite difficult to obtain.

Really this is something for some Italian philanthropist, to create an Italian equivalent of Google Books and mass-digitise the riches of the Italian past.  We have the marvels of Google Translate.  All we need is way to find the literature.