Monday, 30 October 2017


‘... in a single day and night of misfortune,
the island of Atlantis disappeared
into the depths of the sea.’
-- Plato, 360 B.C.
-- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001), opening caption
... under the assault of a harsh day and night, the whole of your (Athens’) military body sank beneath the earth.
-- Plato (for real), Timaeus 25d (trans. M. Anderson)
The popularity of the Atlantis story comes and goes in waves. It was big in the 1990s, but in the years since 2001 it has had a quiet patch: conspiracy theorists have had other things on their minds. You might think that would still be the case now. But it seems to be making a little bit of a comeback: I suspect it’s because of the current trend to bundle all manner of fringe theories into a single politicised bundle -- flat-earthism, pizza shops, chemtrails, uranium, Atlantis, you name it.

Just yesterday among my alerts I was vaguely distressed to see a Reddit thread where someone was arguing for the reality of Atlantis -- in the middle of a thread full of all manner of deranged misinformation -- and even the main voice raised against the Atlantis-hunter was giving far more credence to his/her arguments than any sensible person should. A range of other seemingly-sensible-but-also-dead-wrong theories were also floating around in that thread too.

So, why not? Let’s do Atlantis.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001)

A story about Atlantis Athens

Our sole source is Plato, writing around 360 BCE. The story is spread between two of his dialogues, Timaeus (20d-25d) and Critias (108d-121c). Timaeus is a direct continuation of a much longer conversation in Plato’s Republic, and Critias is a continuation of the Timaeus. The storyteller is Critias, a prominent politician of the late 400s. Here’s the gist:
Long ago, in 9600 BCE, the peoples of the Mediterranean Sea lived in harmony. Then everything changed when the Atlanteans attacked. Only Athens, the finest and best-governed city in the world, could stop them. Athens single-handedly beat off the invaders, who came from a huge island just beyond the strait of Gibraltar, at least half the size of the lower 48 states of the USA. Afterwards, over the course of millennia, the Atlantean civilisation kind of faded away. But Athens was more resilient and survived.
A tad different, isn’t it? If you look back at the quotations at the top of this post you’ll see something similar going on there. Two important points to make here:
  1. It is not a story about Atlantis, it’s about Athens.
  2. The story is not about a continent sinking. It’s about a plucky little city, with 10,000 fighting men (Critias 112d) and the ideal philosophical constitution, successfully fighting off a large and aggressive power from Outside.
Floods do come into it, of course, but they’re definitely not the main thrust of the story: they look more like a way of removing Atlantis from the world map of the present day. And the flooding, too, doesn’t happen quite the way you may expect -- we’ll come back to that later.

Why is Plato telling a story about Athens single-handedly saving the world? Well, around 360 BCE it so happened that a large and aggressive power from Outside -- Macedon -- was starting to get involved in Greek affairs, and there was one plucky little city, where Plato happened to live, and which happened to be the main Greek power that is still independent of Philip II of Macedon, and made serious attempts of its own at empire-building in the 370s and 350s ...

In this light it makes perfect sense for Critias, or rather Plato’s Critias, to be telling a story that casts Athens as the saviour of the Hellenic world, able to resist any threat, no matter how large.

Of course at that date, and probably to the end of his life, Plato presumably had no idea just how far Macedonian influence was going to end up spreading ... but let’s not criticise him for being a poor fortune-teller.

Map of the main city of Atlantis, as described by Plato Critias 115d-116a and 117d-e. Plato gives exact distances in stadia; in the legend I’ve adopted the rate of 185 metres to the stadion. The outermost canal around the citadel is 27 stadia in diameter (ca. 5 km).

Critias and his ‘sources’

The Republic dealt with the organisation of the ‘ideal’ state; the story in the Timaeus is about a time when Athens actually was that ideal state. The aims of the Critias are a bit harder to judge, because the text breaks off partway through.

But Timaeus 20d-22a gives us the ‘chain of evidence’, so to speak. Critias explains that he got the story from his grandfather, also named Critias; old Critias got it from his father, Dropides; Dropides got the story from his good friend Solon; Solon got the story while travelling in Egypt; Egyptian priests got the story from having lots of Really Old Things floating around.

Two of these figures need a bit of background. Solon was a famous reformer, poet, philosopher -- one of the so-called ‘Seven Sages’ -- and traveller. There are other legends about his meetings with various contemporary figures, like the story in Herodotus about his conversations with the Lydian king Croesus about who was the happiest of all people. He was believed to have played an important role in the formation of the Athenian constitution, and was universally revered.

Critias, Plato’s storyteller, was a notoriously hawkish politician active in the late stages of the Peloponnesian War. But he was more than that: he was a brutal thug, widely loathed as a betrayer and mass murderer. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, in 404 BCE, the victorious Spartans established a government in Athens under a group called the ‘Thirty Tyrants’, with Critias as their ringleader. The Tyrants abused their power and murdered somewhere between 5% and 15% of the male citizen population to seize their property for themselves. (This is one of those rare times when comparisons to Hitler actually make sense.)

But wait, there’s more. Critias had also led an attempted anti-democratic coup d’état in 411. He was suspected of being involved in an infamous vandalism of state and religious property in 415 (‘the mutilation of the Herms’) to sabotage the city’s morale immediately before a major military operation. Socrates’ links to Critias, and other people involved in these misdeeds, were almost certainly the true motivation behind his own trial in 399 (that’s what we find in the only 4th-century reference to the trial that isn’t written by one of Socrates’ fans: Aeschines, Against Timarchus 173).

Imagine a story where Hitler reveals secrets from thousands of years ago, which had been passed down secretly in his family, and which one of his ancestors had got from Goethe himself. Goethe in turn had got these secrets from a funny little old man who interpreted some ancient Sumerian tablets for him. Does that sound plausible?

That’s pretty much the situation we’ve got with the Atlantis story. It would certainly have sounded just as farcical to Plato’s contemporaries as the Hitler-Goethe story does to us.

Plato’s description of the circular design and canals of Atlantis crop up in most modern depictions: see the Disney film (above), and here, the classic adventure puzzle game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (LucasArts, 1992), widely regarded by its players as the true sequel to the classic Indiana Jones films.


In the 300s BCE, some Greek thinkers based in Athens believed that the sea beyond Gibraltar was unnavigable because it was all shallow mud. In reality that’s completely untrue, of course. But that’s the belief we find in Plato (Timaeus 24e, 25d) and Aristotle (Meteorology 354a.22-3): evidently someone had given a false report of the region, which took a long time to get corrected.

(This wasn’t a universal Greek belief: there’s a report of people sailing beyond Gibraltar in Herodotus 4.43, for example.)

This ‘muddy Atlantic’ piece of truthiness is the context for the sinking of Atlantis in Plato’s story. Here are the relevant bits:
... your city (Athens) once successfully resisted a ... power that bestirred itself from out of the Atlantic sea. At that time the sea there was navigable, for there was an island before the mouth that your people call the Pillars of Herakles, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined ...
-- Plato Timaeus 24e
The island Atlantis likewise sank beneath the sea and vanished, wherefore even now the sea in that area is unnavigable and unexplored, for there is an impediment of mud just beneath the water produced by the settling of the island.
-- Plato Timaeus 25d
So bear in mind that the sinking of Atlantis is, at root, Plato’s backstory for a natural phenomenon that doesn’t actually exist.

Aside from that, popular imagination has the sinking of Atlantis as a single cataclysmic event: the island drops into the sea, or a colossal tsunami swallows the whole land for good in one go. This is not at all what Plato describes.

What Plato actually describes is a series of many catastrophic floods over the millennia, each of which destroyed civilisation not only in Atlantis but everywhere (Timaeus 22c-23c; Critias 109d-e, 111a-b) -- except Egypt. Each flood wipes out all civilisation in that era, and only ‘the illiterate and uncultivated’ survive; this is supposedly why no one recalls events that far back, except in Egypt, which according to the story is protected by its unique geography. The greatest of these periodic floods was supposedly the mythical flood of Deucalion.

It just so happens that in the course of these occasional disasters, Athens always reemerged from the waters, and so survived to the present day. Atlantis, whose chief city was in the middle of a vast coastal plain a bit bigger than California, did not.

The Disney Atlantis isn’t just based on Plato: it takes much of its design inspiration from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, which is in turn based on the flying city of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Top: stills from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001). Bottom: stills from Castle in the Sky (Studio Ghibli, 1986). Note the repetition not just of the circular city (which is also in Swift), but also the robot sentinels, and the glowing blue crystal pendants -- which must surely owe something to the fantasies of the occultist Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), who believed that Atlanteans used precious stones to harness the energies of the earth and sun.

This is also the context for Aristotle’s more serious discussion of the mud that supposedly blocks off the Atlantic:
The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where theres is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. ...

But the whole vital process of the earth takes place so gradually and in periods of time which are so immense compared with the length of our life, that these changes are not observed, and before their course can be recorded from beginning to end whole nations perish and are destroyed. ...

[W]e must take the cause of all these changes to be that, just as winter occurs in the seasons of the year, so in determined periods there comes a gerat winter of a great year and with it excess of rain. But this excess does not always occur in the same place. The deluge in the time of Deucalion, for instance, took place chiefly in the Greek world and in it especially about ancient Hellas, the country about Dodona and the Achelous, which has often changed its course.
-- Aristotle Meteorology 351a.19-25, 351b.8-13, 352a.28-b.1 (trans. E. W. Webster)
This is just a couple of pages before his reference to the mud that makes the Atlantic unnavigable. This discussion is a few decades later than the Timaeus, but it looks to be inspired by the same material. Plato’s reasons for specifying a period of 9000 years; the periodic floods, including Deucalion’s flood; and Atlantis itself -- all these things become a lot clearer in light of Aristotle’s discussion.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Black Romans

Governors of Britain

Remains of Tiddis, Lollius’ home town
Quintus Lollius Urbicus. Urbicus was born probably in the 70s CE, in Tiddis, Numidia. He enjoyed a very successful military career, becoming commander of the Tenth Legion Gemina. Afterwards he became consul at Rome in 135 or 136, then governor of Lower Germany (ca. 137-139), then Britain (ca. 139-142). He was a novus homo, a man whose family had no previous tenure in the senate. After achieving success he built an impressive family mausoleum in his hometown Tiddis, which is still standing. Several inscriptions in northern England and southern Scotland attest to his work overseeing fortifications there, including the initial phases of building the Antonine Wall. After his governorship he returned to Rome to become Urban Prefect; his actions in that role led to criticism from Justin Martyr, who perceived Christians as being persecuted by Urbicus.

Quintus Antistius Adventus. Born in Thibilis, Numidia in the early 100s CE. Adventus served in the military in the Parthian War (162-164) and subsequently became governor of Arabia. After a consulship in 167, he became governor of Lower Germany, then Britain. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about his activities in Britain, because of a lack of epigraphic evidence.

An extremely rare gold coin (aureus) of ‘Imperator Caesar Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus Augustus’ (195-197 CE)
Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus. Aside from his distinguished military career and his governorship in Britain, Albinus also became co-emperor, after a fashion. He held the title of ‘Caesar’ along with Septimius Severus (who was also African) in 193-195 CE. In 195-197 the two fell out, and Albinus staked a claim to sole emperorship: it did not end well. If Albinus were alive today he might be called ‘white-passing’: the surname ‘Albinus’ reportedly comes from his having unusually light skin for an African. He was born in Hadrumetum, in what is now Tunisia, in the mid-100s. The details of his military career that we get in the Historia Augusta are pretty much all fictional, unfortunately, or at best untrustworthy. However, he did have a consulship, and emperor Commodus appointed him governor of Britain probably ca. 190. In 193, Commodus’ successor Pertinax was assassinated without an heir, and a flurry of provincial governors claimed the throne -- the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’. Albinus was one of the main contenders, but not the winner. Severus won out in Rome. But Albinus had a very strong position, with the strongest provincial army in the empire. The settlement was that Albinus would stay with his legions in Britain, and Severus would appoint him ‘Caesar’ at a distance. In 194 Albinus was co-consul again (with Severus), in spite of his absence. The situation wasn’t stable. In 195 Albinus declared himself ‘Augustus’; Severus declared him an enemy; and there was a short civil war. Albinus invaded Gaul (France) with three legions from Britain. He enjoyed early success, but in 197 Severus defeated him at his base in Lugdunum (Lyon). Albinus probably died in the rout. There are lurid stories of Severus abusing Albinus’ corpse and his family, but they’re probably fictional.

Lucius Alfenus Senecio. Senecio was born in Cuicul, Numidia. His father was a financial officer (procurator Augusti), and he achieved the same position in Belgian Gaul and Mauretania Caesariensis. After a consulship in Rome, he went on to become governor of Coele Syria, then Britain around 205-207 CE; Septimius Severus was still emperor at the time. Britain was a troubled place during his governorship, and there were complaints of invaders from the north having the run of the province. (After Senecio’s time these troubles led Severus to come in person to Britain to try -- and fail -- to conquer Scotland.) Senecio oversaw substantial restorations at Hadrian’s Wall.

Note: we know of around 53-57 governors of Roman Britain. In the province’s first 50 years, starting in 54 CE, all of the governors whose background can be identified were Italian. From 104 CE up until the end of Septimius Severus’ reign we have 3 Numidians, 2 Italians, 2 Dalmatians, 1 African (the province, not the continent; approximately modern Tunisia), and 13 unknowns. Of the unknowns, one has been suggested to be Sicilian, one Spanish, and one a further Numidian. Wikipedia claims yet another Numidian (Gaius Valerius Pudens) but mistakenly. Of the Italians, Pertinax (later emperor) was born in Italy but is of unknown ancestry, since he was the son of a freedman.

Manuscript illustration showing a scene from Terence’s play the Mother-in-law (Hecyra). (15th century, Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Literary figures

Whitewashed Terence: manuscript illustration dating 1000 years after his death (Vatican. Lat. 3862 fol. 2r)
Terence. One of the most celebrated playwrights of antiquity. Terence initially came to Italy as a slave. By birth he was an Afer, an ethnic group who are probably the origin of the name ‘Africa’. He probably passed through slave markets in Phoenician Carthage, which was still standing in his lifetime. It’s likely he learned Greek while there. In Italy he was freed, and as was customary, took the name of his former owner, one Publius Terentius. Terence went on to become one of the most famous comic playwrights of all time. His genre was New Comedy, a form also represented by two other surviving playwrights (Plautus, and the Greek writer Menander). Terence’s six plays were popular throughout antiquity and the Mediaeval period, and influential on Renaissance-era drama, including Ralph Roister Doister and the comedies of Ariosto and Shakespeare. Terence’s comedy is more mannered than Plautus’, less bombastic and farcical, and shows impeccable style. While his characters are very three-dimensional, Terence’s decorousness tends to make him a bit dull for present-day audiences. His plays work much better on stage than on the page.

Terentianus Maurus. Grammarian, ca. mid-200s CE. Terentianus, a Mauretanian (the origin of the word ‘Moor’), was author of three surviving poetic treatises On letters, On syllables, and On metres, which got a new edition in 2002 (ed. C. Cignolo). The second and third are among the most important surviving documents on the subject of ancient poetic rhythms. Terentianus has one famous line: pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli, ‘books have their own destinies, adjudicated by the reader’s reception.’

Apuleius. Author of the only complete surviving Latin novel, the Metamorphoses (or Golden Ass, as his later fellow countryman Augustine calls it). Apuleius’s full name is unknown. He was Numidian, born in Madaura ca. 125 CE. He became a well-known orator and a Platonic philosopher, famous to the point that he had statues erected of him during his lifetime. His Metamorphoses is the earliest picaresque novel. It is a bawdy story of a rogue named Lucius, told in the first person. Lucius’ pursuit of a girl leads to an encounter with a witch in Thessaly, who turns him into an ass. On the run in ass shape, he has a series of episodic misadventures. Halfway through comes a long and famous telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche. Finally, Lucius is turned back into a human by the grace of the goddess Isis, and in an unexpectedly serious turn, the story ends with him converting wholeheartedly to her religion. Apuleius’ prose style was immediately influential on Christian writers, though they sometimes took his novel as autobiographical and true, and accused him of being a magician ... Apuleius would probably have been amused.

Whitewashed Augustine?
Fresco in the library of the Lateran Palace, Rome, popularly thought to be a depiction of Augustine (if so, the earliest: ca. 600 CE, about 170 years after Augustine’s death).

Some notable Christian writers

Tertullian. Coiner of the word ‘Trinity’ (Latin Trinitas) to refer to the Christian deity. Tertullian was born in Roman Carthage around 160 CE. He was trained in rhetoric and law, and had a superb knowledge of contemporary pagan literature (including Apuleius, above). He wrote a few lost works in Greek, but most of his writings led the way in promoting the use of Latin in the western churches. Tertullian was extremely intolerant of religious disagreement, and regularly called his opponents idiots (or worse). After 200 he split from the mainstream church to join the Montanist sect.

Cyprian. Thascius Cyprianus was born probably sometime after 200 CE, and converted to Christianity after 240. We don’t know his hometown, but Thascius is a Phoenician name and he lived in Carthage. So somewhere near Carthage is a decent bet. He became bishop of Carthage in 248/9. His tenure was troubled by two decrees from the Roman emperor in 250 and 257 requiring participation in the imperial cult, and by a dispute with the Roman church because he readmitted Christians who had obeyed the decrees. Cyprian’s writings emphasise the unity of the church, and seem to envisage the church as supplanting the Roman state.

Arnobius. Rhetorician and Christian apologist, 3rd-4th cent. CE. Arnobius was Numidian, from Sicca Veneria. He reportedly converted to Christianity because of a dream, and wrote his lengthy treatise Against the Pagans to prove his sincerity to the local bishop and get baptised. Arnobius became a vigorous apologist, with some quirks: he avoided allegory and parable, and he regarded the pagan gods as real beings.

Lactantius. Lactantius was not so much a theologian, but more a rhetorician who wrote about his Christian beliefs. He was born in Numidia ca. 250 CE. We’re told he studied under Arnobius at Sicca Veneria, but it’s hard to be sure since Lactantius’ writings don’t mention Arnobius. He was very successful, and enjoyed the favour of emperor Diocletian, who gave him a teaching position in Nicomedia (modern Turkey). There he encountered the future emperor Constantine and the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry. He also converted to Christianity, and Diocletian was not keen on Christianity. He had already resigned his post when Diocletian demolished the Nicomedian church in 303 and decreed that all Christian priests and bishops should be arrested. When Constantine took the western throne in 306 things improved, and around 315 the emperor installed him in a new post in Gaul (possibly in Trier), where he died shortly after 324. Lactantius’ most important work is the Divine instructions. While an excellent rhetorician, the best-known aspect of Lactantius’ influence is not so positive, and relates to his espousing of flat-earthism (Div. Inst. 3.24), making him one of the very few known western Christian flat-earthers until the modern era. This has earned him widespread scorn in later centuries -- and that’s fair enough, really.

Augustine. One of the greatest Christian theologians, and one of the finest thinkers of antiquity. Aurelius Augustinus was Numidian, born in Thagaste to a non-Christian family in 354 CE. He and his mother Monnica spent time living in Carthage, and later Rome, where he converted to Christianity. Afterwards he returned to Africa and became bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine’s Confessions is pretty much the world’s first autobiography. Several of the most important religious tracts in the history of Christianity are his work, such as On the city of God and On catechising the uneducated. I’m particularly a fan of his phenomenological discussion of the nature of time in Confessions book 11.


(Believe it or not, I had planned out this post before seeing Mary Beard’s recent blog post on Lollius Urbicus, and before hearing that Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors came out a couple of weeks ago -- and by the way, it looks like a really interesting book.)

In antiquity, race was tied to geographical and tribal identifiers, not skin colour. You weren’t white or black: you came from the Aedui or the Afri. ‘White’ and ‘black’ as ethnic categories didn’t emerge until around 500 years ago. They’re modern ethnic categories, and they have nothing to do with historical methodology. So when we talk about skin colour in antiquity we’re not properly ‘doing history’ -- what we’re doing is making colour visible. And that’s fine. It’s important to do history right, but the modern reception of history is important too.

Greek black-figure vase: an Aethiopian archer with two Amazon warriors (Brussels, Musée Cinquantenaire A 130; mid-500s BCE)
The ‘invisibility’ of colour in Greco-Roman antiquity isn’t because it didn’t exist. It’s because the Greeks and Romans themselves paid almost no attention to it. Roman writers hardly ever mention anyone’s complexion -- that just isn’t how they thought about race.

Where colour does seem to exist, it can even be artificial, or misleading. If a Roman got the surname Niger (‘black’) because of a physical feature, it was probably more often for their hair than their skin. And in the Greek vase shown here, with an Aethiopian archer flanked by two Amazons, the Aethiopian has some characteristics based on real Africans, but the skin colours have nothing at all to do with race or ethnicity: they’re about gender. It was the convention in Greek art of the time that all men were painted with black skin, and all women were painted with white skin. That’s why this style of vase painting is called ‘black-figure’.
Note: I use the old spelling ‘Aethiopian’ here because pinning down the Greek word Αἰθίοψ to just one meaning would be misleading. The classical Greeks used Αἰθίοψ to refer to (1) a mythical people, the ‘burning-looking ones’, who supposedly lived near the places where the sun rises and sets; (2) real-life Africans away from the north coast, including the region south of Egypt around modern Ethiopia. Both meanings appear in this vase. The archer is an Αἰθίοψ in the mythical sense, because Amazons and the legendary Aethiopians both turn up at the Trojan War (the contingents of the Amazon Penthesileia, and of Memnon, son of the dawn goddess); at the same time, the archer’s hair and face suggest that the painter was trying to depict real Nubian-Ethiopian physical features.

Some individuals in my catalogue may not actually have had African ancestry: a few might be children of Italian migrants, or somesuch. Instead of worrying over specific cases, let’s assume I’ve misidentified some proportion of them. Pick a high proportion if you want, it doesn’t matter. Because migration was emphatically not a one-way street: mobility through military service, and through slavery and subsequent manumission, saw to that. If a certain proportion of these Roman Africans were actually of European stock, we must also assume that a comparable proportion of Europeans were of African stock. Even if Augustine might possibly have had migrant ancestry, for all we know exactly the same might be true for Ambrose or Jerome.

A definite shortcoming in my catalogue is that I’ve stuck to the Latin west, and avoided the Greek east altogether. I’m relying on the tidy linguistic split between ancient Morocco-Algeria-Tunisia (‘Latin’ Africa) and Libya-Egypt (‘Greek’ Africa). If modern race categories are a poor fit for ‘Latin’ Africa, they’re an even poorer fit for ‘Greek’ Africa, which saw intensive Greek migration starting in the 7th century BCE, and there the migration was much more one-way. We can’t even begin to guess at how mixed the ancestry was for Alexandrians like Heron, Menelaus, or Diophantus.
One of the traits that most people would associate with race -- skin color -- is a terrible classifier. ... [Our] study really discredits the idea of a biological construct of race. There are no discrete boundaries between groups that are consistent with biological markers.
-- Sarah Tishkoff, The Atlantic, 12 Oct. 2017, interviewed about a new study on skin colour genes in African populations