Tag: ancient world

The Essenes: A Historical Hoax?

Israeli scholar Rachel Elior has rocked the blogosphere with her allegation that The Essenes didn’t exist at all, and Josephus likely made them up to make Jews look tough to the Romans:

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.” She adds, “He was probably inspired by the Spartans. For the Romans, the Spartans were the highest ideal of human behavior, and Josephus wanted to portray Jews who were like the Spartans in their ideals and high virtue.”

Early descriptions of the Essenes by Greek and Roman historians has them numbering in the thousands, living communally (“The first kibbutz,” jokes Elior) and forsaking sex — which goes against the Judaic exhortation to “go forth and multiply.” Says Elior: “It doesn’t make sense that you have thousands of people living against the Jewish law and there’s no mention of them in any of the Jewish texts and sources of that period.”

Source: TIME: Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed

Her strongest proof here is the lack of evidence. The Talmud and other Jewish texts are voluminous beyond belief, and cover pretty much every detail imaginable, every law, every heresy against it that the sages knew of, yet a heretical sect as radical as The Essenes never merited a mention? No sages noticed The Essenes?

Elior’s case is far from air-tight, but personally I’ve always been suspicious of the Essene story too. It’s just so against the Jewish character, and, frankly, weird, for Jews to hide in caves waiting for the afterlife, and forgo sexual contact in a culture that puts such emphasis on marriage and mating. Jewish culture is a culture of shidduchim (matches) and the shadchan (matchmaker) and finding your b’sheret (soulmate). And the “are you married yet? why not? want to meet my daughter?” attitude comes through strongly, even in the earliest rabbinic sources.


New Civilizations Discovered

Discovery of Middle Asia Cities Recasts Ancient History

Thu Aug 9, 11:05 AM ET

New discoveries at dig sites in Middle Asia are rocking the archaeological world and redefining the origins of modern civilization.

Numerous sites in modern-day Iran and the surrounding region suggest that a vast network of societies together constituted the first cities, whose residents traded goods across hundreds of miles and forged parallel but strikingly independent cultures.

Archaeologists have thought that modern civilization began in Mesopotamia, where the large Tigris and Euphrates rivers bounded a fertile valley that nurtured an increasingly complex society.

The social structures, wealth and technologies of this society slowly spread along the Nile and then the Indus rivers in the 3rd millennium B.C.

The findings at the new sites may have shaken conventional ancient history to its very foundations, reporter Andrew Lawler told LiveScience.

“People didn’t think you could have large settlements this early without large rivers emptying into an ocean. No one knew of these sites,” said Lawler, who reported in the Aug. 3 issue of Science magazine on the key findings, which were discussed at a recent archaeological conference in Ravenna, Italy.

Full article

"Are We Rome?" Part VI: The Final Chapter

One always must be very careful with historical parallels; they are frequently used and abused to score political points.
I’ve heard anti-immigration people saying “Rome collapsed ’cause they let in too many illegal aliens who turned on them!” Please! The Roman Empire succeeded because it was so intensely multicultural, not in spite of it. Often the generals and emperors themselves were “aliens!”

I’ve also heard the anti-gay crowd insisting that “Rome fell because of all that sodomy. If they would’ve cracked down, Romans wouldn’t have had a slumping birth rate that forced them to staff their armies with foreign mercenaries who turned on them! We have to ban homosexuality now, or we’ll go the way of Rome!”

It’s impossible to know exactly why the Roman Empire disintegrated. German professor Alexander Demandt published a collection of 210 theories on why Rome fell. My personal guess is that it was centuries of an absurdly overextended military (they fought the Persians for Iraq for centuries) combined with several economic crises, combined with plagues, combined with barbarian hordes sacking Rome (never a good sign) plus general downward momentum (nothing lasts forever).

In Europe and Asia, empires usually collapsed when they were too weakened and rotted out to cope with other nations invading and displacing them. Due to America’s unique geography (between two expansive oceans) an invasion is not possible. Bush’s rhetoric aside, there’s no realistic circumstance that would allow Iraqi insurgents to take Muncie, Indiana, and I doubt Canada or Mexico will ever be able to overpower us militarily. We could change governments drastically, and we’re ripe for an economic collapse, but America will never “fall” like Rome did.

With this series, I myself may have overreached with the historical comparisons. Maybe I should’ve dubbed it “Do We Want to be Rome?” instead. We’re not Rome, and Iraq ain’t Parthia.
My point with this series wasn’t to draw direct parallels; however clumsily I did it, I wanted to illuminate the fascinating history of the Roman Empire, discuss the severe challenges of America in the 21st century, and examine the concepts of violence and imperialism which seem ingrained in the human soul and have dominated history. Empires have to ask themselves: do we really want to be an empire? How much blood is it worth? What is our nation about?
Is the blogosphere a latter-day Cicero, doing its best to exhort our people back toward the values of the Republic instead of empire?

How will we finally reach our destiny?

…“they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” — Isaiah 2.4

“Are We Rome?” Series:

Part I: Cullen Murphy

Part II: Dubbia Bushius

Part III: Architecture

Part IV: The First Roman Invasions of Iraq

Part V: The Spoils of Ctesiphon


“Are We Rome?” Part V: The Spoils of Ctesiphon

There were many wars between the Romans and the Iraqis / Persians, too many wars to adequately describe here, one time a Roman general even defected to the Parthians and invaded Syria, but suffice it to say, neither side ever gained much territory long-term. The wars continued into the era of the Byzantines vs. the Caliphate, and, arguably, the continuation of this West / East clash is ongoing as we speak.

When the Roman Empire was at its furthest territorial extent, Emperor Trajan was able to make the greatest gains against Parthia in Roman history.

Statue of Trajan

Internal divisions plagued Parthia, and Trajan crushed the Parthian army, took the key cities of Babylon, Seleucia and captured their capital at Ctesiphon in 116 AD. He deposed the Parthian king, annexed Mesopotamia and made the territory into two new Roman provinces. According to Edward Gibbon, Trajan was the first (and last) Roman Emperor to sail in the Persian Gulf.

Trajan’s conquests were the closest the Romans would ever come to their dream of duplicating Alexander the Great’s empire; they would never advance this far east again.

But the Roman hold on Mesopotamia was tenuous and short-lived. The population was still loyal to Parthia, and had no interest in being Romanized.

The Jews, who for centuries the majority of whom lived in Babylonia (thanks to the many expulsions from Judea by enemies) rose up in full insurrection against Rome. Little is known about the Kitos War (Second Jewish Rebellion) and its causes, but I suspect that Rome looting Jews’ property to finance their wars against Parthia, the continued repression and attempts to impose idolatry on the Jews, the need for revenge for the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and general sympathy for the Parthians (Jews had usually been partial to the Persians, one of the only uses of the word messiah in the Tanakh refers to Cyrus the Great) contributed to the worldwide uprising of what some would call a “fifth column” of Jews against Rome.
Around 115-117 AD, Jews revolted from Libya to Cyprus to Babylon, and according to Roman sources, it was horribly violent;
Lukuas, a Jewish “king,” basically declared Jewhad (word made up for Jewish jihad) and led the community on a rampage through Egypt, razing temples of idolatry and bathhouses, destroying roads and massacring hundreds of thousands of Hellenes, genocide so extensive that Rome had to repopulate North Africa (though they probably exaggerate all this to demonize the Jews). Unlike the First Jewish Rebellion and the Third (Bar Kokhba’s Revolt) there is little direct evidence of the Second Jewish Revolt, aside from scant Roman accounts and a Latin inscription (below) referring to the city of Cyrene being rebuilt after the tumultu Iudaico, the Judaic tumult.

The Roman reaction to the revolt was just as violent and horrifying. Moorish general Lusius Quietus (the only black African to be Roman consul) led a campaign of rape and ethnic cleansing in Babylonia (and was rewarded with the governorship of Iudaea province) and rebellious Jews in N. Africa and Judea were executed en masse.

The Second Jewish Rebellion forced Trajan to divert legions to Judea, and this loosed his hold on Mesopotamia. The Jews were not yet fully crushed when Trajan died of edema August 9, 117 and Hadrian succeeded him as emperor. Hadrian gave up on controlling Iraq and stationed the Sixth Legion to permanently occupy Judea. They had lost the war to Parthia.

But it wasn’t the last time Rome would attack
Mesopotamia. Hardly. After Parthia reconquered Armenia, the Romans under Marcus Aurelius retaliated and annexed Northern Mesopotamia in 165 AD (they would’ve conquered even more but were crippled by a plague of measles). They held it for decades, but it was an enormous burden in manpower and money to keep such a resistant, unstable area secured.

Seeing an opening during the chaos of a new Roman civil war in 193 AD, the Parthians retook the region. But in 198, new Roman Emperor Septimius Severus counter-attacked and quickly reconquered it, and subjected the capital Ctesiphon to its worst looting yet, taking enough silver and gold back to Europe to postpone an economic crisis for decades. Without its treasury, Parthia was impoverished, went into rapid decline and faded into history, and by 226 AD had been replaced with a new Persian empire (the Sassanids) that retook Iraq and would prove far more formidable than their predecessors.

Despite Rome outliving the Parthian Empire, they remained deeply etched in the Roman memory, and were so respected and feared, Christians in the East later had a prophecy that emperor Nero would rise from the dead as the anti-Christ, and the zombie emperor would lead a horde of fearsome Parthian horsemen to sack Rome.

Ruins of Ctesiphon Palace

Emperor Severus’ plunder of
Ctesiphon brings the motive of war into stark relief; it’s money. Plato warned the Greeks that “all wars are fought for the sake of getting money” and Cicero told Rome “endless money forms the sinews of war” (he was later beheaded for trying to stop tyranny) but we evidently don’t learn much from the words of wise men, or from history. Humans continue to put together vast empires in the hope of vast profits, even though large empires, whether it is Rome, Germany, Russia, Japan, Britain or the U.S., always require vast violence to maintain.

If we haven’t learned yet, how will we learn?


Next: The Final Chapter

“Are We Rome?” Part IV: The First Roman Invasions of Iraq

Did you know that for nearly 150 years off and on, the Roman Empire fought to conquer Mesopotamia?

At the time, the area that is now Iraq, Iran (Persia) and more was ruled by the Parthian Empire.

What was the Parthian Empire like, and how did they collide with mighty Rome?

The Parthians formed from the steppe tribes of Central Asia (for details on these tribes and their impressive contributions, you can listen to this mp3 of the Hardcore History podcast).

The Parthians rose and wrestled Persia back from Alexander the Great’s successors, and combined the martial prowess of the steppe tribes (they were unmatched horsemen) with the cultural, organizational and technological achievements inherited from the Persian empires of old. While the Parthian Empire was never as powerful, or expansive, as the Persian empires of Cyrus the Great and Darius that preceded them, or the Sassanids that followed them, they were nonetheless very formidable, and even their Roman enemies recognized they were not “barbarians,” but an advanced urban civilization to be respected and feared. Their capital was near modern Baghdad.

Coin showing King of Parthia Mithridates I

Rome even sent ambassadors and tried diplomacy with the Parthians when they weren’t attacking them. The first contact the Romans had with Parthia was around 96 BC, when they sent an envoy that negotiated the boundary between the two empires at the Euphrates. Plutarch reports that at the meeting, the Roman ambassador managed to arrogantly take the center seat at the table, and that the Parthian king quickly put his ambassador, Orobazus, to death for allowing such an affront to Parthian dignity.

The Romans did not view the Parthians, or anyone, as equals. Rome saw itself as the greatest nation ever, superior to any other empire in history, so they often viewed invading and annexing other peoples as helping them (i.e. “they will greet us as liberators!”) But, to be fair, they usually DID benefit the lands they conquered. It’s like in that Monty Python movie Life of Brian when the head of the “People’s Front of Judea” says:

Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Attendee: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, peace – shut up!
Reg: There is not one of us who would not gladly suffer death to rid this country of the Romans once and for all.
Dissenter: Uh, well, one.
Reg: Oh, yeah, yeah, there’s one. But otherwise, we’re solid.

On the other hand, for conquered peoples, the Roman experience (even in the best case scenario) included loss of autonomy, moderate to severe brutality and religious repression, and oppressive taxation (and what I’m talking about isn’t like taxes today, it’s more like “Roman legionaries show up unannounced and loot your $#!t.”) Also, any resistance to Roman authority may be punished with you and your entire village being crucified, and full-scale revolts could end in mass deportation and genocide.

I don’t want to glorify either the Romans or Parthians, as both were incredibly brutal, and from an era where horrific violence was fairly commonplace and men slaughtered large numbers of other men up-close with swords. But we should still examine history closely and glean all the lessons we can from it.

The Parthian border was supposed to be at the Euphrates, with Armenia as sort of a buffer state between the two empires, but with Rome feeling,
as the Hellenic heirs of Alexander the Great, they were entitled to his Persian conquests, plus their lust for glory and loot, peace didn’t last long.

The first major expedition directly against Parthia happened during the First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus).
Marcus Licinius Crassus was the rich consul and general who had brutally put down Spartacus’ slave revolt by crucifying all six thousand rebels and leaving them lining the road as an example. However, Pompey stole the credit and told the Senate it was his victory. This made Crassus furious, and he despised Pompey for the rest of his life. Crassus, who had made himself ruler of Syria, was not content with his incredible wealth; he had to one-up Pompey and gain more prestige and power for himself.

What was his plan? Invade Iraq.

Many members of the Senate tried to dissuade him from invading Iraq, but Caesar and Pompey stood firmly behind him and the Senate relented.

Plutarch gives us the low-down. Crassus gathered around 35,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry in Syria and crossed the Euphrates at attack Parthia. Did this work? Not so much. Despite being badly outnumbered, a Parthian force of 9,000 horse archers and 1,000 armored horsemen crushed the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae. The Parthians
were one of the only foes in ancient times able to destroy an entire Roman legion at the height of its power.

How did they do this?
They were the best horsemen in the world, and they hopelessly outmaneuvered the Roman infantry. If the Romans ever chased them, they shot backwards while retreating, the famous Parthian shot. Crassus made his men assume the protective testudo (turtle) formation to block the onslaught of arrows.

But the arrows were so strong, some pierced the Roman armor. And they never ran out of ammo; they had a caravan of arrow camels there so they could reload endlessly.
But Crassus insisted on “staying the course” and not breaking formation. Then (while still bombarding them with arrows) the armored cavalry (“
cataphracts“) charged, and butchered the infantry. The Romans were routed. Crassus’ son’s head was put on a pike and paraded by the Parthians. Then Crassus asked to parley with the Parthians, but when he reached their camp to discuss terms, they executed him, and kept his head as a souvenir.

The loss of Crassus was devastating. The First Triumvirate no longer existed. The delicate balance of power between the three men was shot. Without the Crassus buffer, Pompey and Caesar soon clashed, leading to civil war and Caesar crossing the Rubicon to declare himself dictator perpetuus. Crassus’ debacle in Mesopotamia was one of the final nails in the coffin of the Republic, and the birth pangs of the new Empire.

Here is a fun tidbit: the Romans lost their famous eagle flagpole standards in the battle, a grave defeat and evil omen, and it took roughly a half-century of diplomacy for them to get it back.

They finally secured it by offering a displaced Parthian king safe haven if he agreed to broker terms for the return of the standards. He did, and the Parthians exchanged the standards for a bunch of money and some concubines.
Here’s where the plot twist comes in. According to Josephus, one of the concubines traded for the eagle married the King of Parthia. She had the other heirs sent away as hostages to Rome, poisoned the King, and took the throne as Queen Musa, and ostensibly co-ruled with her son. That’s right: the only woman to ever rule Parthia was a Roman concubine! Ha!!!

Queen Musa

Josephus says she then married her son (ew!) and this was too much, so the Parthians deposed her.

Are we Rome? Not really. America is very different, more like the British interventions in Iraq which I discussed here.

But the Iraqis are even more different today. They are carved out into separate countries, divided, weakened, stripped of their former might. What struck me the most when researching Parthia is what proud, advanced civilizations Mesopotamians have crafted over the years. The centuries of imposing Western plans on them, the lack of freedom to decide their own borders or form larger, more powerful empires is the source of much of the animosity in the region. We should lift our jackboot from their throats and allow the Iraqis the actual freedom to create a new nation.

And we should really learn from history. Attacking the Mesopotamians never works. Ever. They are a people that have never tolerated foreign conquest for any length of time.

In the next edition: more invasions of Iraq, and the fall of Rome.

Hope you’re enjoying the series!


"Are We Rome?" Part III: Architecture

American architecture isn’t even subtle in saying that we’re like Rome.

The White House

The Temple of Hercules Victor in Rome

The Washington Monument in DC (left) and Trajan’s Column in Rome (right)

U.S. Supreme Court Building

Roman Temple of idolatry, built 19-16 BC. Still standing in Southern France.

The Colosseum in Rome

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas

US Capitol building, prior to 1850s expansion

Jefferson Memorial

University of Virginia Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson himself

Antoine Desgodetz’ engraving of the Pantheon in Rome

Roman fasces, symbolizing many rods becoming strong through unity, is the root of the word fascist, and was used heavily by Mussolini.

The fasces on the U.S. mercury dime.

Roman eagle, was Rome’s main symbol and sat atop Imperial flagpoles in battle (left)
U.S. mint silver coin (right)

In the newly renovated West Wing press room, notice the Roman column and eagle atop the flag.

I don’t mean to demonize Rome, the Founding Fathers wanted to reference the ideal Republic, the good side of Rome; Cicero and Archimedes and all that.

But I wonder how much the Founders predicted we, like Rome, would become an Empire?


Me, victorious at new federal courthouse in Montgomery (notice the Roman eagle)


"Are We Rome?" Part II: Dubbia Bushius

From David Horsey, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Read the rest at Empire Rising: A Satirical History, Part V

"Are We Rome?" Part I: Cullen Murphy

“Are We Rome?” the book, by Cullen Murphy

If you didn’t catch it, this is the video of Stephen Colbert interviewing Cullen Murphy, author of the new book “Are We Rome?” Stephen comes out in full centurion armor, with an American flag cape, which is hilarious, and the interview is fascinating.

It is great someone has devoted a book to dissecting these parallels. “Are We Rome?” Cullen Murphy says yes and no.

We have some of the same strengths as Rome. We’re the greatest, biggest, wealthiest Empire since Rome. Our military is unrivaled.

And we face some similar challenges.

Murphy mentions:

  • We’re overextended and trying to hold a gigantic Empire which we don’t have a large enough military to hold, while simultaneously we can’t afford the huge military we have.
  • The government is for sale to the highest bidder, and everything is becoming increasingly privatized. Everything is the private sector, and controlled by a corrupt oligarchy.
  • We are increasingly relying on mercenaries who could turn against us.

What do you think?