Ancient book history

What the Digital Dark Age Can Teach Us About Ancient Technologies of Writing

Editors’ Note: due to the disruption of academic networks and institutions caused by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, JHIBlog will shift to once-a-week publication for the time being, supplemented by a selection of older posts from our archives. We are grateful for our readers’ understanding, and hope to resume normal scheduling as soon as possible.

By guest contributors Sara Mohr and Edward C. Williams

In contemporary science fiction it is hard to avoid the trope of an archaeologist or explorer unearthing a piece of ancient advanced technology and finding that it still functions. This theme may have its roots in the way we often encounter artifacts from the ancient world—decayed but functional or legible, as material culture and/or as carriers of written language. However, the prototypical “ancient technology” in fiction often resembles the electronic information technology of our modern age. Keeping our modern technology active and functional requires orders of magnitude more energy than the neglect implied by ancient ruins—delivery of spare parts fueled by cheap energy, complex schematics and repair manuals, and even remote connections to far-off servers. The idea that our technology would work hundreds of years in our future without significant intervention is unbelievable. In a certain sense, a Mesopotamian clay tablet is far more similar to the ancient advanced technology found in media—if it’s in good enough condition, you can pick it up and use it thousands of years later.

Will the archaeologists of the future see the information storage of the digital age not as sources of knowledge about our time, but undecipherable black boxes?  The general problem of data preservation is twofold: the first is preservation itself and the second is the comprehensibility of the data. The BBC Domesday Project recorded a survey of British life in the 20th century on adapted LaserDiscs—a format that, ironically, requires considerable emulation (the process of enabling a computer to use material intended for another kind of computer) efforts to reproduce on a modern machine only 35 years later. This kind of information loss is often referred to as the coming of the Digital Dark Age (Bollacker, “Avoiding a Digital Dark Age”). Faced with the imposing pressure of a potential Digital Dark Age and the problematic history of modern data storage technology, perhaps it is time to rethink our understanding of ancient technology and the cultures of the past who were able to make their data last long into the future.

Scholars of the Ancient Near East are intimately familiar with the loss and recovery of written information. Our sources, written in the wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, are numerous and frequently legible despite being thousands of years old. Once the scribal practice that transmitted the script was interrupted, considerable scholarly work was required to reconstruct it, but the fundamental media of data storage—the clay tablets—were robust. Even then, many valuable tablets have been lost due to mishandling or improper storage. Despite the durability of the medium, once the system of replicating, handling, understanding, and deliberately preserving these tablets were lost much information was lost as well.

But cuneiform writing is more than just the act of impressing words onto clay with a reed stylus; it is deeply rooted in the actions and culture of specific groups of people. This notion is certainly true of technology as a whole. An interrelationship exists between all elements of a society, and each constituent element cannot be considered or evaluated without the context of the whole (Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, 4). Rather than focus on the clay and the reeds, it is necessary to take into account the entire “socio-technical system” that governs the interaction of people and technology (Schäfer, Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, 18). Comparative studies of cuneiform writing and digital technology as socio-technical systems can inspire further insight into understanding ancient technology and illuminating why it is that humble cuneiform writing on clay tablets was such a successful method of projecting information into the future, as well as informing us about the possible future of our contemporary data storage.

Only recently have those who work regularly with cuneiform tablets studied the technology of cuneiform.  Cuneiform styli could be made of various materials: reed, bone, bronze, or even precious metals (Cammarosano, “The Cuneiform Stylus,” 62). Reed styli were the most common for their advantageous glossy, waterproof outer skin that prevented them from absorbing humidity and sticking to the clay. Another key part of scribal training was learning the art of forming tablets by levigating and kneading raw clay (Taylor and Cartwright, “The Making and Re-Making of Clay Tablets,” 298), then joining lumps of clay together in a grid pattern or by wrapping an outer sheet of clay around a core of a thin piece of folded clay (Taylor, “Tablets as Artefacts, Scribes as Artisans,” 11).

But cuneiform technology goes beyond the stylus and tablet and must include the transmission of cuneiform literacy itself. Hundreds of thousands of legible cuneiform tablets have been found and documented to date, with many more in the processes of being excavated. With such perishable materials as clay tablets and organic styli, how is it possible that these texts have survived for thousands of years? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in how we think about modern technology, data preservation, and our fears of losing records to the Digital Dark Age.

The problem is growing worse, with more recent media demonstrating shorter lifespans compared to older media. We see a variety of different projects that look back to older forms of information storage as a stop-gap between now and the possibility of a Digital Dark Age. For example, The Rosetta Project, from the Long Now Foundation, has been collecting examples of various languages to store on a 3-inch diameter nickel disc through microscopic etching. With minimal care (and the survival of microscopy), it could last and be legible for thousands of years.

We tend to think that a return to older forms of information storage will solve the problem of the Digital Dark Age—after all, the ancient technology of stylus + clay preserved Mesopotamian data neatly into the modern era. However, such thinking results from an incomplete understanding of the function of technology as it applies to the past. Technology is more than just machinery; it is a human activity involving technological aspects as well as cultural aspects interwoven and shaping one another (Stahl, “Venerating the Black Box: Magic in Media Discourse on Technology,” 236). Regardless of the medium or time period, the data life cycle largely stays the same. First, people generate data, which is then collected and processed. Following processing comes storage and possibly analysis.

But in the end, we always have humans (Wing, “The Data Life Cycle”).

Humans are the key to why information written in cuneiform on clay survived as long as it did.  In ancient Mesopotamia, scribal culture meant copying the contents of clay tablets repeatedly for both practice and preservation. There are texts we know from only one copy, yet in order for that copy to survive several other copies had to have existed. The clay and the stylus did not ensure the preservation of cuneiform information—it was the people and their scribal practice.

It is somewhat surprising that the discussion of ancient technology has not yet embraced the social aspect that accompanies the machinery, especially when we so readily acknowledge its impact on modern technology. To avoid losing electronic data, users are exhorted to intercede and make regular backup copies. We also find that the history of obsolete technology is based in innovative technology that died as a result of socioeconomic pressures (Parikka, “Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology,” 227). The technology was perfectly sound, but it was never a good match to the social and economic times of its release.

This need for protection from loss largely comes from the idea that “electronic writing does not have the permanence of a clay tablet” (Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, 268). However, those of us who work with clay tablets are more than aware of the frightening impermanence of the medium. We are well acquainted with the experience of opening a box meant to contain a cuneiform object only to find that it has been reduced to a bag of dust. It has been said that more redundancy usually means less efficiency, but that does not hold for all circumstances. Mesopotamian scholars generated redundancy through productive training, and we now look to redundancy to save our digital future. However, redundancy was not a part of the physical technology, but rather the surrounding cultures that used it.

At its core, writing is an information technology. It is a system of communication developed for use by particular groups of people. In the case of cuneiform, the scribe who wrote the latest known datable cuneiform tablet composed an astronomical text in 75 AD (Geller, “The Last Wedge,” 45). Despite being able to date its final use, the last wedge, we are still able to read and understand Akkadian cuneiform today. However, it was not the process of incising the wedge itself that made this continuity possible. Rather, it was the scribal culture of ancient Mesopotamia that committed to copying and re-copying over the course of millennia.

The possibility of a Digital Dark Age has the world thinking of ways in which we can adjust our cultural practice around technology. Examples from Mesopotamia highlight the importance of the connection between human activity and machinery in technology. We would do well as historians to take notice of this trend and use it as an inspiration for expanding how we study ancient technology like cuneiform writing to incorporate more on human attitudes alongside the clay and the reeds.

Sara Mohr is a PhD student in Assyriology at Brown University. Her research spans from digital methods of studying the ancient world to the social function of secrecy and hidden writing. 

Edward Williams (Brown ‘17.5) is a software engineer at Qulab, Inc, working on machine learning and computational chemistry software for drug discovery. He acts as a technical consultant for the DeepScribe project at the OI, developing machine learning pipelines for automated cuneiform transcription.

Ancient history of science Intellectual history

Genres of Math: Arithmetic, Algebra, and Algorithms in Ancient Egyptian Mathematics

By contributing author E.L. Meszaros

As non-native readers of Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphics, our understanding of the mathematics recorded in these languages must necessarily go through a process of translation. Such translation is both necessary to allow us to study these problems, but also precarious. If done improperly, it can prevent us from true understanding. One way that we approach translating Egyptian math problems is by grouping them into genres, using categorization to aid in our translation by thinking about problems as algebraic or geometric equations, crafting them into algorithms, or piecing together word problems from their prose. If the process of understanding Egyptian math problems relies so heavily on translation, and translation in turn is influenced by categorization, then we must consider how our processes of categorization impact our understanding of ancient Egyptian math. 

The necessity of translation for the modern study of ancient mathematics has been the source of a great schism within the community. In an infamous 1975 paper, Unguru argued that one of the unintentional consequences of translation was the attribution of algebraic thinking to these ancient cultures. Mathematicians and historians tend to translate the word problems of ancient Iraq or Egypt into the abstracted symbolic statements we are familiar with today. This has helped us to better understand ancient mathematical ideas, but has also done a disservice to the math itself. The process of abstraction manipulated the geometry or arithmetic of ancient math into algebra, a way of examining mathematical problems that Unguru argued these ancient cultures never used (78).

Image of a fragment of the Moscow Papyrus showing problem 14 on how to calculate the volume of a frustum. The top portion shows the original hieratic, which has been translated below into Egyptian hieroglyphics.

However, others have pushed back against Unguru. Van der Waerden suggests that Unguru has misunderstood “algebra” by attributing such importance to the symbolic representation of data. Rather, van der Waerden emphasizes the convenience of symbols as a way of interpreting, analyzing, and comparing data, rather than the structural language of understanding data (205). Freudenthal similarly takes umbrage with Unguru’s understanding of what algebra is. “Symbols,” he writes, “…are not the objects of mathematics…but rather they are part of the language by which mathematical objects are represented” (192).

We can compare the strict translation of an Egyptian word problem to its algebraic translation by looking at problem 14 of the Moscow Papyrus.

Prose English translation:
Method of calculating a / ̄\.
If you are told a / ̄\ of 6 as height, of 4 as lower side, and of 2 as upper side.
You shall square these 4. 16 shall result.
You shall double 4. 8 shall result.
You shall square these 2. 4 shall result.
You shall add the 16 and the 8 and the 4. 28 shall result. 
You shall calculate  ̅3 of 6. 2 shall result.
You shall calculate 28 times 2. 56 shall result.
Look, belonging to it is 56. What has been found by you is correct. (Translation by Imhausen 33)

Algebraic Translation:
V = 6 (22 + (2*4) + 42)/3

Abstracted Algebraic Translation:
V = h (a2 + ab + b2)/3
h (height) = 6
a (base a) = 2
b (base b) = 4
V = volume

The algebraic translations are at once easier to take in but also visibly shorter, clearly missing information that the prose translation contains.

As an alternative to these translation techniques, Imhausen proposes the use of algorithms. Imhausen suggests that we translate Egyptian mathematical problems into a “defined sequence of steps” that contain only one individual instruction (of the type “add,” “subtract,” etc.) (149). These algorithms can still represent math problems in multiple ways. A numerical algorithm preserves the individual values used within Egyptian problems, while a symbolic form abstracts the actual numbers into placeholders (152). 

Numeric Algorithmic Translation:

  1. 42 = 16
  2. 4 x 2 = 8
  3. 22 = 4
  4. 16 + 8 + 4 = 28
  5.  ̅3 x 6 = 2
  6. 2 x 28 = 56

Here the first three numerical values are the given bases and height from the problem. The unfamiliar ” ̅3″ is the standard way of writing a fraction of 3, namely 1/3, in ancient Egyptian math.

Symbolic Algorithmic Translation:

  1. D22
  2. D2 x D3
  3. D32
  4. (1) + (2) + (3)
  5.  ̅3 x D1
  6. (5) x (4)

Drawing out the scaffolding of the problem by defining such algorithms allows scholars to easily compare math problems. The abstraction into symbols, the removal of extraneous information, and the sequential rendering allow us to more easily notice variation or similarity between problems (“Algorithmic Structure” 153). Imhausen suggests that identifying the substructure encoded beneath the language of presentation allows us to compare individual math problems not only with each other, to generate groups of mechanisms for solving and systems of similar problems, but also to look cross-culturally. Breaking down problems from Mesopotamia, China, and India may reveal similarities in their underlying algorithmic structures (158). 

The generation of algorithmic sequences from Egyptian word-based math problems does not solve all of our translation problems, however. Any act of translation, no matter how close it remains to the original language, is a choice that necessitates forgoing certain options. It also allows for the insertion of biases on the part of the translator themselves—or rather, such insertion is unavoidable.

In the example from the Moscow Papyrus, for example, the initial given values of the frustum are not specifically identified. The images from the original problem are missing, as are the verbs for the mathematical operations. Imhausen herself points out that this algorithmic form reduces some interesting features. The verb “double” in the original problem, for example, is replaced with “x 2” in the algorithmic translation (75). Making these changes requires us to confront the choice between algorithmic structure and staying true to the source material. “Fixing” these differences allows us to more easily compare math problems, but also presumes that we know what was intended.

The translation of Egyptian math problems into schematic algorithmic sequences is, therefore, not without its own set of problems. While Imhausen claims that they avoid some of the pitfalls of translation into algebraic equations that have so divided the community (158), algorithm interpretations are still likely to present the material in a way that differs from how ancient mathematicians thought about their own material. However, when applied carefully, such mapping may provide valid interpretations of these texts and a focal point for comparison.

Thinking about the genre of translation, the use of algebraic or geometric or algorithmic tools to interpret ancient math, is important for a number of reasons. We have already seen that the choice of genre impacts ease of understanding. Modern scholars used to thinking about math problems in an algebraic format will, unsurprisingly, read algebraic translations more easily. But these choices also impact what aspects of the original we preserve — algebraic translations lose information about the order of operations and remove the language used to present the problem.

However, paying attention to generic classification can also prevent us from reading ancient math problems with the “Western” lens. While algebraic interpretations are an artifact of modern scholarship, they are also an artifact of European scholarship. Too often the idea of geometry is put forward as an entirely Greek invention, while algebra is thought of as belonging to Renaissance Europe. By privileging these ways of thinking about ancient math problems we may be inherently white-washing native Egyptian thinking. Prioritizing algebraic interpretations, even if they aid in understanding, work to translate Egyptian math into the more familiar “Western” vernacular. Instead, scholars should work with the unfamiliar and think about these math problems without filtering them through these modern concepts.

Regardless of who one sides with in the debate between algebra and arithmetic, prose and algorithm, we must be cognizant of the fact that categorizing ancient Egyptian math is a conscious choice that influences how these problems are understood. Much like the act of translation itself, categorization is a process that is inherently influenced by the biases—intentional or otherwise—of the scholar. There may be nothing wrong with thinking about Moscow 14 in terms of an algebraic equation as long as we understand that this is an act of translation from the original and, therefore, reflects a reduced understanding of the native problem itself and incorporates aspects of the translator’s biases.

Which is all to say: tread carefully, because even numbers are not immune to the bias of translation.

E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at Brown University. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time.

Ancient Classics Early modern Europe Literature

Translating the Canon

By Contributing Writer Julian Koch

Unless we are unashamed linguistic chauvinists, some, maybe most, of the works of literature we consider to be part of any form of literary canon are inevitably written in languages we do not understand, and we read them in translation. Thus, a notion of translation tacitly underlies any notion of canonicity. Yet, our understanding of translation and its place in our thinking—and consequently its bearing on our conception of the canon—has undergone a remarkable but relatively unnoticed change between the Latin Middle Ages and our present day. Today, in English, we take the word translation inevitably to mean the transfer of a work from one language to another. What is translated how, when, and where is fundamental to whether a work can receive admission into the canon.

But this notion of translation as a cross-linguistic transfer is a relatively recent one. It was preceded by a notion of translation that we only rarely stumble upon today: the transfer of something from one place or time to another. The Latin translatio simply means “to carry over,” and in the Latin Middle Ages the term was used accordingly broadly—as the Latin term for metaphor or as the ceremonial transfer of a saint’s relics from one place to another, among many other meanings. The most relevant use of translatio for the notion of canon in the Latin Middle Ages, however, was the idea of a translatio studii et imperii as a spatio-temporal transfer of learning and power. This idea was used by European kings to legitimize their hold on power or by institutions of learning to establish intellectual pedigree. For instance, Chrétien de Troyes writes in his Prologue to Cligès:

Our books taught us Greece was extolled


for learning and for chivalry.

Then chivalry came next to Rome;

now all that knowledge has come home

to France, where, if God has ordained,

God grant that it may be retained.

(ll. 25-42)

Frenchmen drew on the theme of the translatio studii in order to establish the Université de Paris as the center of learning by evoking a temporal continuity between the university and the ancient centres of learning (cf. Jeauneau, Translatio studii, 24-36). If such a historical and locational transfer from venerable ancient institutions was perceived to be successful by enough scholars, legitimacy was bestowed upon the institution that so claimed its lineage.

Similarly, Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, better known as Barbarossa, legitimated his power by tracing it, in an act of translatio imperii, to Charlemagne’s which, in turn, was understood to have renewed—and therefore received its legitimacy from—the Roman Empire (Curtius, European Literature, 29). Certainly, such claims of translatio studii or translatio imperii were not uncontested by other centers of learning (especially Oxford and Cambridge) or other emperors. Yet, such rivalries shared the core idea that legitimacy was derived from translatio studii et imperii. Whoever established themselves as the translator of knowledge and empire, so to speak, would occupy (or at least claim to) center stage in Christendom and would trace their lineage back to the ancients. The notion of time, which is at the heart of this spatio-temporal translation, was understood to be continuous and linear (Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 165). Likewise, the spatial horizon implied in the translatio studii et imperii is a universal, not national, one (Curtius, European Literature, 29; on medieval space cf. Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 138, 165).

This notion of spatio-temporal translation was fundamental to the understanding of canonicity in the Latin Middle Ages. The canon was universal and eternal, irrespective of the fact that the works thought to be comprised within it differed depending on whom was asked.

While spatio-temporal translation was central, cross-linguistic translation played no role in this understanding of canonicity. Even though canonical texts—first and foremost the Old Testament—were often read in (cross-linguistic) translation, this was not acknowledged. In fact, the Church actively suppressed any notion of the Vulgate being a translation of the (mostly Hebrew) Old Testament (Weissbort and Eysteinsson, Translation, 100), and interdicted any translation of it into other languages.

How we view canonicity along the lines of languages as well as time and space changed considerably with Dante’s Convivio and De vulgari et eloquentia (both written in the first decade of 1300). Dante made the canon malleable by language and thereby gave the canon spatial and temporal specificity. Certainly, in his Convivio, written in vernacular, Dante holds that: “Latin is eternal and incorruptible, while the vernacular is unstable and corruptible” (Book 1, Chapt 5). Yet, despite the eternal status of Latin, Dante writes most of his works in (Tuscan) vernacular. Dante’s conflicting relationship with the vernacular is perhaps most apparent when his De vulgari et eloquentia emphatically communicates the possibility of a vernacular aesthetics rivaling that of Latin, despite the work itself being written in Latin. His Magnum Opus the Divina Commedia, of course, is written in vernacular. The Commedia’s reception into the canon inevitably introduced the vectors of time and space into the notion of canonicity, since  “our [vernacular] language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but […] it must vary according to distances of space and time” (De vulgari et eloquentia, Book 1, Chapt 9). Despite these developments, the crucial role of translation in creating the canon was still awaiting full acknowledgement.

Five-hundred years later, it was Goethe who went beyond the mere inadvertent admission of the canon’s changeability because it now comprised works written in languages reflecting the spatio-temporal vicissitudes of daily life. Goethe rethought the notion of canonicity altogether. Goethe’s canon—his Weltliteratur (world literature)—comes into being through a different notion of translation. Whereas the Latin Canon relies on the mechanism of historical transfer with implicit claims to universal validity in its translatio studii et imperii situating the canon in a realm beyond time and space, Goethe’s world literatureis characterised by a geographical and temporal concurrency enabled by cross-language translation.

Goethe envisions a highly unusual notion of cross-language translation, as he explains in his notes to the West-Eastern Divan. He believes that there are three successive epochs of translation, and in the third, most radical epoch, the translation takes the original’s place and assumes its identity (258; for this interpretation see also Olschner 153). We could not imagine a more decisive departure, at least in theory, from the principles of the medieval canon which was thought to comprise timeless and placeless original works. As we saw, even if the Vulgate Bible was a translation, its canonical status was possible only by the Church’s rigorous exorcising of the notion that it was not an original. Goethe, however, believes that, at least in the third, most mature, epoch of translation, the duality of the original and its translation is transcended (256).

Unfortunately, Goethe remained famously opaque on how these epochs are reached, and it is unclear exactly what transcending the duality of translation and original means for translation in practical terms. Furthermore, Goethe did not always practice what he preached. Indeed in some of his musings on the German language, Goethe seems to attempt a form of translatio studii when he claims that the German language is the true inheritor of Greek and Latin (Krobb, “Priapean Pursuits,” 6).

Goethe’s flaws in formulating notwithstanding, his message of the age of world literature enabled by translation gained currency. Perhaps surprisingly, given that he was later ennobled, Goethe’s message resonated with two figures who sought to fundamentally transform European politics: Marx and Engels. Perhaps the most radical pronunciation and enactment of world literature by cross-linguistic translation is found in their Communist Manifesto (published anonymously). The Manifesto embraces world literature and in so doing its perspective is decidedly geopolitical and contemporaneous. All trace of translatio studii et imperii is gone. Rather, the Manifesto’s purpose was to spread the idea of Communism presently and as far as possible—a task only achievable through translation.

Thus, in order to facilitate translations, it seems that Marx and Engels resorted to a remarkable ploy: they concealed the Manifesto’s original language. Consequently, we have the curious situation that the authors call for the Manifesto to be published in—and thus translated into—a variety of languages without giving any indication of the original language (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution, 51). In accordance with such ideas of linguistic and translational relativity, the Manifesto was, at times, even translated from translations (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution 53).

Endowing translation with such importance may seem exaggerated, especially given that translations only make up 3% of the UK and US book market. However, a look at canons tells a different story. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canonlists Henryk Ibsen, among 13 other non-English authors (out of a total of 26), whose original works would be intelligible only to Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish speakers—a group comprising only about 20 million people. Broader and more multicultural, the recent Norton Anthology of World Literature consists almost entirely of translated works. Cross-language translation is so prominent in canons that they do not exist without it. Given the near-universal presence of (cross-language) translation in canons, we are well into Goethe’s third epoch and the real issue is to remain aware that many, probably most, of “our” canonical works are only accessible to us as translations.

Julian Koch is a German and Translation Studies Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick. His research interests include Translation, Post-WWII German and French poetry, narratology, documentaries on genocide, analytical approaches to continental philosophy (esp. Kant), and philosophical notions of the imagination (18-19th century).

Ancient Classics empire history of science Mediterranean Political history

Divi filius: The Comet of 44 BCE and the Politics of Late Republican Rome

By guest contributor Dora Gao

Celestial objects and events have appeared in the historical record for a myriad of reasons, serving as portents of either fortune or doom or asserting the divine authority of a ruler. The comet of 44 BCE is one example of the way in which astronomy played a role in political narratives, given its use to legitimate the young Octavian (later known as Augustus) as a significant and serious figure in the politics of the late Roman Republic. We can look at the fact of this comet’s occurrence and its interpretation as a case study to examine the use of celestial phenomena as a sociopolitical tool.

The comet of 44 allegedly appeared in the sky over the funeral games that Octavian had put on for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in July of that year. As Octavian himself would later write in his Memoirs, “On the very days of my games, a comet (sidus crinitum) was visible over the course of seven days, in the northern region of the heavens (= near Ursa Major). It rose at about the eleventh hour of the day (= ~5 – 6:15 PM) and was bright and plainly seen from all lands” (Memoirs, fr. 6 [Malcovtai], translation and interpretation by Ramsey and Licht). According to Octavian’s testimony, “the common people believed the comet to signify that the soul of Caesar had been received among the spirits of the immortal gods” (Memoirsfr. 6 (Malcovtai)).

The comet and its interpretation had significant ramifications given the political climate of the late Roman Republic. With a growing schism between the conservative senatorial faction and popular politicians that culminated in the assassination of Caesar and threatened open civil war, the Roman Senate was facing a leadership vacuum. Though Caesar had named Octavian as his son in his will, Octavian was only eighteen years old with no political or military experience at the time, and had been adopted by Caesar only months before. There was no reason for the Roman Senate to view him as a legitimate contender for leadership. The fortuitous appearance of the comet in July, then, presented an opportunity for Octavian to distinguish himself. 

In order to examine the role that the comet of 44 played in Roman politics, it is first necessary to evaluate whether there was any comet at all. Though some may argue that the existence of the comet is secondary to its impact on Roman history, it is important, for our purposes, to question whether the comet’s existence in Augustan imagery may have been prompted by an actual celestial event. Such an inquiry is necessary to distinguish whether political messages were created in response to astronomical phenomena, or whether existing methods of discourse regarding heavenly bodies alone shaped the form of propaganda. The case for the comet certainly appears suspect, given that the first attestation of its existence is from Octavian’s own Memoirs. Astronomers, furthermore, would ideally verify any comet with six unique parameters and then use the information to cross reference with a catalogued comet, but the paucity of rigorous astronomical data on this comet from our ancient sources makes it impossible to verify its existence under these standards.

Despite these problems, we cannot  say conclusively that the comet did not exist. First, the Romans were not particularly disciplined about their stargazing at this time; thus, the lack of any astronomical records is not indicative of the lack of astronomical events. Second, the fact that the comet cannot be identified in our existing catalogue does not necessarily mean that it did not appear over Rome. The best orbital reconstruction scholars have managed given available data indicates that the comet likely would have had an unstable orbit that takes several hundred years to complete. As such, it likely would have been thrown off course before it returned to Earth to be catalogued during a second viewing (Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games, 124-5). 

So scholars cannot rule out the existence of the comet from incomplete evidence. Furthermore, historical context and Roman attitudes towards celestial phenomena provide a compelling case  for its occurrence . The Romans, up to Octavian’s time, had viewed comets as bearers of misfortune and did not often receive them with optimism (e.g. Cicero, De Divinatione If there had in fact been a comet, one can imagine that Octavian might have felt the need for an interpretation advantageous to himself—or, at the very least, as something less ominous than usual readings of a comet, especially in light of the political situation at Rome. If there had been no comet, however, Octavian would have picked a surprisingly inconvenient object to construct in his favor. In addition to the traditional stigma attached to comets, a bright object that allegedly could have been seen from all lands and that remained in the sky for seven days would have by no means been an easy event to fake. More likely than not, then, the appearance of a comet in Octavian’s earliest messaging was due to a real, unexpected celestial phenomenon.

If the evidence suggests that the comet of 44 did indeed exist, the next question we must ask is how did Octavian deal with this phenomenon? Interestingly, the appearance of the comet in Octavian’s early political imagery was not the result of existing Roman discourse regarding the positive significance of comets. Instead, it was a response to a natural event of ominous nature which was then reinterpreted and redefined within a new and specific political context. By claiming the comet to be a sign of Julius Caesar’s deification, Octavian was also asserting himself as a divi filius, the son of a god. Such a statement had two immediately advantageous effects for the eighteen year-old: first, it established a clear legitimizing link between himself and his adoptive father; and second, it allowed him to showcase his commitment to filial and religious piety. 

Denarius minted by Augustus depicting himself on the obverse, the comet of 44 and divus Iulius (the divine Julius) on the reverse, c. 19-18 BCE (

Octavian’s bond with his adoptive father was tenuous compared to Caesar’s long-time relationships with his trusted generals and advisors. The teenage Octavian’s only legitimizing quality lay in his adoption by Caesar, and he thus would have benefited greatly from creating additional connections. Octavian had already begun to strengthen the relationship through the funeral games, themselves a public display of Octavian’s filial piety towards his late father. His declaration of Caesar’s apotheosis during those games would have further validated the association, since Caesar’s soul was rising to heaven during the time at which his son chose to honor him. 

Given the love for Caesar that the people of Rome held at this time, this ostentatious display of the link between Octavian and his adoptive father led both the general public and Caesar’s troops to view the former in favorable light and as a worthy successor to their beloved Caesar. This one claim would have been key in helping Octavian win the support he needed from the people and the legions, both vital constituencies for gaining political footing in Rome (Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 34).

The comet, as a symbol of Julius Caesar’s divinity, furthermore, granted Octavian the occasion to display both filial and religious piety and portray himself as a responsible youth dedicated to the moral traditions of the Republic. This in turn helped Octavian win the trust of the Senate and his first military command, aiding Decimus Brutus, upon whom Antony was laying siege at Mutina in 43. Indeed, the orator Cicero, who had been unwaveringly suspicious of Octavian only months before, wrote a letter to one of his confidants announcing his support of the protective force (praesidium) that the outstanding youth (puer egregious) had raised for the res publica (Cicero, Fam. XII 25.4). In a political landscape where Octavian needed to build his moral credibility over more seasoned politicians and generals, the comet provided him a way to capitalize upon an astronomical event and demonstrate his commitment to the Republic.

While we certainly cannot go so far as to say that the comet alone catalyzed Octavian’s rise within Roman politics, we can draw a clear narrative line between the fortuitous appearance of a celestial event and its appearance within the early self-fashioning of Rome’s first emperor. Though Roman political discourse had previously incorporated other celestial events, the use of comets as a symbol of divinity was a precedent set by Octavian through the comet of 44. For example, Suetonius writes that Vespasian famously joked, upon seeing a comet on his deathbed, “Woe’s me. Methinks I’m turning into a god” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 23.4). His interpretation of this phenomenon and the ways in which he used its appearance for his own political gain demonstrate both the role that astronomy played in the political life of Rome as well as its potential to shape the way in which Romans conceived of imperial legitimacy.

Dora Gao is an MA student in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies department at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in the mythology and cult worship of Diana/Artemis and the ways in which they inform the construction of identity for various groups under the Roman Empire.

Ancient Book reviews Colonialism environmental history film Medieval Think Piece

Should we “just keep swimming”?

By Contributing Editor Luna Sarti

Several recent publications in the environmental humanities discuss the need for new ways of experiencing and imagining the world around us, with the aim to free ourselves from what Ursula K. Le Guin called the “one-way future consisting only of growth” (A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be). In the hopes of forging a new (possibly less gloomy) future, scholars across disciplines, from art and landscape studies to field biology, call for slower practices of knowledge that can train us “to pay better attention” and to recover “those pasts we need to see the world more clearly” (Arts of living on a damaged planet G1-2). Walking has become an increasingly popular practice for fostering slowness and for attuning individuals to new ways of experiencing the world and to the forgotten histories embedded in our physical landscapes, particularly in socially engaged art. Less common, but equally interesting, is the idea to turn to swimming as a way to explore waterscapes and regain the perception of our environments as terraqueous assemblages. In Waterlog (2000), filmmaker and writer Roger Deakin provides readers with a wonderful example of what it means to re-imagine life from inside waters.
Deakin Waterlog (American cover)
It is an intriguing vision which exhorts us to recognize how learning processes train us to see certain things, while others are assigned to the background and thus remain blurred. Compared to other practices, swimming certainly allows us to unsettle the contemporary land-centered attitudes that tend to dominate institutional education and scholarship. However, one might wonder how to translate the concept of swimming into practice. Contemporary swimming techniques are, in fact, another byproduct of modernity and were developed in order to make the human body move as fast and efficiently as possible when in water.

Swimming seems to be an unusual object of history, but it is indeed a product of history. In its most common understanding, leisure swimming in pools and the sea, using standard techniques such as breaststroke, free style, backstroke, and butterfly is actually the result of specific political and cultural processes. Although humans have a long history with waters and references to swimming appear in different civilizations and throughout various sources, contemporary techniques have only recently been standardized according to criteria that are largely based on modern re-readings of Roman swimming traditions and that foster ideas of speed and efficiency when the human body is placed in water.

Nicholas OrmeA few scholars have engaged in recovering ancient and pre-modern cultures of swimming, most noticeably Ralph Thomas (1905), Nicholas Orme (1983), Richard Mandell (1984) and Jean-Paul Thuillier (2004). Historian Jean-Paul Thuillier discusses how only the Romans, and not the Greeks, practiced swimming, drawing on Grimal’s suggestion that “a transformation in the sporting habits occurred in Rome, with swimming taking over from racing or wrestling”, as the presence of water in training fields seems to indicate (421). According to Orme, there is no doubt that swimming was in use among the Germanic peoples during the years of Caesar and that it was not only practiced but also praised across Roman, Germanic, and Norse civilizations. From the evidence and the analyses presented in the works on the history of swimming, it seems reasonable to state that in most cases swimming was given a higher status when associated with martial practices.

The most extensive references to swimming do, in fact, occur in texts describing military history or training, most noticeably in Plutarch and Suetonius, who both recount episodes in which Caesar’s heroism and strength emerge through his extraordinary swimming skills. Such a connection between swimming and heroism characterizes also Vegetius’ Epitoma Rei Militaris, in which the ability to swim is described as necessary for soldiers, not only to cross rivers in the absence of bridges but also in the case of sudden floods (Book 1, chapter 10).

There certainly is an incredibly high number of references to swimming practices across authors as different as Caesar, Horace, Cato the Elder, and Seneca. In most cases, swimming does imply a specific way to engage with waters which is associated with what we might describe as ‘Promethean undertakings’, either over the physical environment or against less skilled enemies. At times, one can deduce swimming practices of the time, for example in his Astronomica, Manlius seems to describe something similar to butterfly and breaststroke (Vol. 5, p. 422).

Now lifting one arm after the other to make slow sweeps he will catch the eye as he drives a furrow of foam through the sea and will sound afar as he thrashes the waters; now like a hidden two-oared vessel he will draw apart his arms beneath the water; now he will enter the waves upright and swim by walking and, pretending to touch the shallows with his feet, will seem to make a field of the surface of the sea; else, keeping his limbs motionless and lying on his back or side, he will be no burden to the waters but will recline upon them and float, the whole of him forming a sail-boat not needing oarage (Translated by G. P. Goold).

Although no Latin author appears to have written a major work of instruction on the subject, and thus it is hard to assess what the word swimming (natare) meant at the time, the examples above seem to suggest that the concept was often associated with strength, conquest, and human mastery.

Interestingly enough, in medieval times there seems to emerge a tendency to depreciate the status of swimming for the same reasons that make it valuable in most Latin texts. It has also been observed how the section on swimming in Vegetius’ treatise is sometimes omitted in medieval copies (Chaline 101). Such a tendency is particular evident in both the tradition of biblical commentary and in courtly literature. Authors such as Gregory the Great and Bartholomeus Anglicus stress the dangers of water and minimize the human ability to survive in the element by his own exertions whether one can swim or not. Moreover, while Caesar and the heroes of Northern sagas are described as excelling in this practice which plays a significant role in their heroic achievements, the heroes of the chansons de geste and the romances are rarely or never depicted as swimming. According to Orme, swimming is rarely attributed to the knightly heroes of medieval tradition, and “was indeed seen rather as alien and incompatible with their usual behaviour” (33).

de arte natandi 2
A woodcut from Everard Digby’s De arte natandi.

Historians of swimming agree in identifying a significant change in attitudes towards the practice during the 16th century when swimming is mentioned in educational literature and manuals on the subject start to circulate.  Swimming is variously discussed in treatises such as The governor by Sir Thomas Elyot (1531), Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano (1528), The schoolmaster by Roger Asham (1564) and Richard Mulcaster’s Positions (1581). According to Thomas and Orme, the first work to be entirely devoted to swimming was Wyman’s Colymbetes, sive de arte natandi: dialogus et festivus et iucundus lectu (1538), in which Wyman explains how to swim using the popular form of a dialogue between two characters, Pampirus and Erotes. However, the first illustrated treatise on the practice is considered to be Everard Digby’s De arte natandi, which appeared in England in 1587 and describes both how and where to swim.

Although it has been observed how 16th-century swimming theories targeted literate nobility and gentry, and largely evolved as analytical speculation on the ‘ideal forms of swimming’ which might have had little influence on contemporary swimming practices, it is still significant that such a theoretical interest developed in the first place. European theorists began, in fact, to publish treatises on swimming in a time that is marked by overseas expansion, human mastery, and colonialism.

In an essay entitled Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World, historian Kevin Dawson has recently demonstrated how the interest in swimming that characterizes the 16th century is entangled with overseas expansionism, extraction economy, and violence. Not only did Europeans employ a high number of ‘enslaved divers’ in the Americas to collect pearls and to recover goods from sunken ships, drawing on native populations first and later on Africans, but they also looked at the swimming techniques of these skilled slaves who adopted variants of the freestyle which were unknown to Europeans. Such a connection between colonialism, slavery, and the development of swimming techniques casts another troublesome shade on the process that lead to the formation of standardized swimming styles.

It is perhaps ironic that a practice which is now associated either with leisure or forms of ‘returns to ecological statuses’ seems to have been fostered into higher social status and standardization not only in relation to conceptions of health and physical force, but also in association with practices of conquest and dominance, either over the physical world or other populations. As a swimmer and a strong believer in practices of care (as theorized for engaged environmental humanities), I wonder what implications this history has in the way we approach swimming and if this affects what we see from and inside the water. Perhaps it is an irrelevant question, but – should we be reconsidering the way we swim?


Ancient book history history of science

MUL.APIN and the Mesopotamian Canon

By Contributing Writer E.L. Meszaros

The concept of “canon” is mired in controversy. Should a canon be defined by the divine author of the component texts, by its continued use as a set of objects of study, or as a prescriptive ruleset? Defining a canon can be problematic, and the results often prove troublesome as well, often perpetuating ideas of white male importance (Black, Reconstructing the Canon).

“Canon” is no less controversial when applied to Mesopotamia, beyond the standard ideas of a biblical or “Western” canon. Scholars debate not only whether this term, which is borrowed from other fields, is applicable to the ancient near east but also its exact definition in this context. Is the Mesopotamian canon defined by the authority of the text, with a divine or legendary author like that required by the biblical canon? Standardization may also play a role in identifying canonical titles, with texts that are widely copied with little variation indicating a general cultural importance.

By looking at these characteristics of a canon in the context of one Mesopotamian text, we can see if there’s any value in borrowing this debated idea within Assyriology. Examining the validity of the concept of a canon within the Mesopotamian world by looking at its application to the exemplar text MUL.APIN allows us to evaluate the future — and necessity — of this concept.

MUL.APIN is a Babylonian astronomical treatise dated to the early 7th century B.C.E. at the latest, though possibly earlier (Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks, 1). The name comes from the first line of the text, a common practice for Mesopotamian literature, and translates to the name of the constellation “The Plough.” MUL.APIN is customarily presented in all caps separated by a period, as is standard for transliterations of Sumerian logograms. It compiles astronomical information like star lists and astral phenomena of planets, stars, the sun, and the moon, as well as more mundane information on weather patterns and shadow measurements (Steele, Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks). More than sixty copies of this text have been found as partially preserved tablets from a range of geographical locations (in Babylonia and Assyria as well as into Anatolia) and from different historical periods (from Neo-Assyrian to Seleucid), suggesting its wide use (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 4).

MUL.APIN Clay Table, Public Domain

MUL.APIN is generally presented in two tablets of some 400 lines (Watson and Horowitz, Writing Science Before the Greeks 2). These tablets show a remarkable consistency across the known preserved copies, though some versions appear on one or three tablets and the tablet division is not fixed (Hunger and Steele, The Babylonian Astronomical Compendium MUL.APIN 1). MUL.APIN is a particularly interesting vehicle for examining ideas of canonicity in Mesopotamia given its relatively stable form and long history of continued use.

We can attempt to interpret the unique stability and longevity of MUL.APIN through the lens of the canon to understand whether this framework is useful in the context of Mesopotamian texts. One critical component of canonical works is the authority of the text. Often, authority of a text is based on the authority of its author; in the case of the canon, this is perhaps most frequently associated with divine authorship. When gods are attributed as the origin of a text, the text itself gains authority in turn. This divine origin hearkens back to early problematical definitions of a biblical canon, associating the concept of a canon with divine nature. Despite conflicting ideas for the role of authorship in conferring authority (and therefore canonicity), the application to MUL.APIN is relatively easy as this text has no known author. Regardless of whether divine or historic authors convey authority, MUL.APIN benefits in no way from this.

Authority can be granted to a text by more than just its author, however. Rochberg-Halton (“Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts” 136) explains how antiquity confers authority, claiming that a divine author is no different in ability to establish authority from a legendary or historic author. Divinity does not have to be the focus, then, but rather historicity. MUL.APIN, with its continued use through many periods of Mesopotamian history, seems to be able to lay claim to antiquity even if it has no named historic author. By virtue of continued use over millennia, MUL.APIN becomes a text with authority because of its historic nature and established use over a long period of time.

Authority, however, as established through divine or ancient authorship or by continued use over time, is a problematic way to establish canonicity. The lack of an author for MUL.APIN rules out many methods for establishing the authority of this text. Additionally, membership within the group of texts viewed as “canonical” by this criterion happens over time and not as a result of conscious decision making (Lambert, “Ancestors, Authors, and Canonicity” 9). Thus, the authority of the text is a back-formation and not necessarily descriptive of how a text was used. Moreover, no clear definition of authority seems applicable. A canon defined by authority of texts is therefore problematic, has little explanatory power, and what it can help define can already be taken care of through other means of examination.

One of the most commonly regarded methods of determining membership in the Mesopotamian canon is through the standardization of text. Veldhuis (“TIN.TIR= Babylon, the Question of Canonization and the Production of Meaning” 80) writes that “In Assyriological literature canonicity has almost exclusively been defined in text-critical terms, taking standardization as a near-synonym of canonization.” The more variation found within a text, the less it has gone through the process of canonization. But this definition has its own associated problems in that what it means to be “standardized” is still hard to define. Rochberg-Halton (“Canonicity in Cuneiform Texts” 128) claims that “Exact wording does not seem to have been an essential ingredient in textual transmission,” and that the content of a given text could remain flexible in exact wording or even order, resulting in what she describes as “only a relative stabilization.”

Palace of Nebuchadnezzar

Panorama view of the reconstructed Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, 6th Century Babylon, Iraq

One of the unique characteristics of MUL.APIN is its unusual stability. Steele (“The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 2–3) writes that “The composition was remarkably stable with extremely few differences between the preserved copies.” Hobson (The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153) claims that in all sources of MUL.APIN there are only around 200 orthographic variants, ranging from missing determinatives and logographic/syllabic spelling substitution (characteristics of the cuneiform writing system), the use of case endings, and changes in grammatical number (Hobson, The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153–155). While many of these variations are particularly minor and agreement between individual tablets is fairly significant, Hobson (Hobson, The Exact Transmission of Texts in The First Millennium BCE 153) also notes that “the rule seems to be that where some sources agree in a particular aspect of their orthography they will disagree elsewhere.” These minimally diverse renderings suggest, not the lack of a definitive version, but rather equal employ of the differing variants. Despite the presence of variations, the number identified is limited and represents a highly standardized text within its cultural context.

Not only is MUL.APIN remarkably standardized, but standardization to this level is unusual in the astronomical texts (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy” 13–14). Such stability is not the result of few remaining copies of the text, either; more than sixty copies of MUL.APIN remain to us, fixing the stability of this text over a large number of documents. Our sources also come from wide geographical and temporal spreads, suggesting that the standardization of MUL.APIN survived movement and transplantation from city to city across time (Steele, “The Continued Relevance of MUL.APIN in Late Babylonian Astronomy”).

However, MUL.APIN is a much shorter text than others that have been assigned to the Mesopotamian canon, and often shorter texts display fewer variations. The reduced stability in these other, longer texts that are frequently assigned to the Mesopotamian canon suggests that stability is not a necessary attribute for canon membership. Attributing MUL.APIN’s substantial textual stability to a canon therefore does not explain why this text demonstrates unique standardization and is a trait that does not appear to define canonical texts.

Additionally, standardization can also be analyzed outside of the context of canonicity, as part of the Mesopotamian scribal school or even just in regular textual comparisons. All together, though examining standardization touches on interesting aspects of the MUL.APIN text, treating MUL.APIN as a canonical text in order to examine aspects of standardization is not necessary and does not provide new information.

For an idea that is already cumbersome, burdened by meaning and definitions from outside fields and disputed heavily within Assyriology, a canon provides little new information about MUL.APIN and no new tools for examination. Rather than continuing debate on how to define and delimit a Mesopotamian canon, it seems more productive to set the idea aside entirely and focus on individual components. An analysis of stability and authority outside of the context of a canon proves more useful to understanding MUL.APIN than any attempt to lump these characteristics under one overarching term. If the idea of a canon does not aid in understanding or interpreting, then it’s time to let go of this idea.

E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at Brown University. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time.