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 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.

Think Piece

Rejecting Church and State in Medieval Anatolia

by guest contributor Hugh Jeffery

The Çaltısuyu, a tributary of the Euphrates, flows through the dramatic canyons of eastern Anatolia. At around 1,225 meters above sea level, it emerges onto a barren highland plateau overlooked by the crumbling remains of a medieval castle. The small town of Divriği lies on the gentle slope beneath. Although its ornate thirteenth-century mosque has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, few tourists make the journey to this remote and mountainous region.

The Great Mosque of Divriği, photograph by Avniyazici
The Great Mosque of Divriği, photograph by Avniyazici

Accessibility is usually something of a prerequisite for the establishment of a new town. Quite the opposite was true for Divriği. This site was first settled around the middle of the ninth century CE by a group of religious dissidents known as Paulicians. The event is recorded by Peter the Sicilian, an Orthodox Christian monk writing in tenth-century Constantinople: “[…] [T]hey went and founded Tefrice [Τεφρική] and lived there. So that at one and the same time [they] might escape the tyranny over them of the Agareni [Arabs] of Melitene, and also, imitating the demons completely in the avoidance of mankind, might be near both Armenia and Romania” (trans. Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton, 91).

The Islamic emirate of Melitene lay to the south of the new Paulician settlement. To the east, the Christian nakharars (lords) of Armenia ruled the valleys and plains of the mountainous southern Caucasus. To the west was the medieval Roman Empire administered from its capital at Constantinople. The Paulicians were seeking an area out of the reach of contemporary states. According to the same source, this refuge attracted not only fellow heretics fleeing persecution but also “the greediest and most licentious and foolish people from the frontier regions” (92).

Around a month ago, I picked up Yale anthropologist Jim Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. It’s a fascinating book, one whose central theses are applicable to many premodern historical contexts. The object of Scott’s study is Zomia, a rugged inland massif covering some 2.5 million square kilometers, stretching from northeast India to southern China, and incorporating parts of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The lowland kingdoms have traditionally seen the approximately 100 million people living in this region as “living ancestors,” Neolithic savages stumbling over the starting line of the race to Civilization.

Ma Pi Leng Pass (Vietnam), at the eastern edge of the Zomia, photograph by Jaybeelarsay
Ma Pi Leng Pass (Vietnam), at the eastern edge of the Zomia, photograph by Jaybeelarsay

Scott begins with an analysis of the limits of state space, suggesting that landscapes that impede travel and communication, such as mountains and marshes, are inherently more difficult to control. His second contention is that the movement of groups and individuals between state and non-state space goes in both directions. The concentration of population in premodern states resulted in high mortality rates from disease and malnutrition, and so such structures have frequently been dependent on coercive or incentivized ingathering of peripheral groups to maintain population levels. The inhabitants of non-state spaces, far from being relics of the Stone Age, are often fugitives from embryonic or expansionist lowland states. Such communities are therefore post-agrarian, post-state, and sometimes even post-literate. Moreover, groups wishing to distance themselves from the state employ social institutions and agricultural technologies that actively prevent their incorporation. Rice is a perfect crop for state building. The need for constant maintenance of the paddies roots the peasant population in place, and the brief annual window in which the grains must be harvested allows for easy appropriation. By way of contrast, the sweet potato, introduced to Southeast Asia from the New World in the sixteenth century, was an immediate hit among the hill communities. Delicious, nutritious and virtually invisible above ground, root crops can be left in the earth for up to two years and harvested at any time. They are fiscally illegible.

The mountains of central Asia Minor present a similarly fractious and state-resistant zone. That Scott’s propositions might be relevant in this landscape was first noted by Peter Thonemann in his essay “Phrygia: An Anarchist History.” He argued that the collapse of the archaic Phrygian state on the plateaux of the Anatolian highlands between the sixth and fourth century BCE ought to be read as a deliberate adaptation to the impositions of Achaemenid Persian imperialism. By the time of the birth of Christ, Asia Minor was nominally under Roman control, and would remain so until the incursions of Seljuk nomads in the later eleventh century. Yet the empire was never able to extend its sovereignty far into the highlands. These remained the domain of “barbarian” peoples, such as the Isaurians of the southern Taurus Mountains. In the sixth century CE, Emperor Justinian attempted to impose imperial control on Tzanica, the mountainous region south of modern Trabzon, through the construction of roads, garrisons, and churches—the most fundamental instantiations of the Roman state. Even in the twenty-first century, many such areas are home to Kurdish guerrilla fighters evading the military might of the modern Republic of Turkey.

The Tahtalı Mountains in Central Anatolia, photograph by Joonas Plaan
The Tahtalı Mountains in Central Anatolia, photograph by Joonas Plaan

The final chapter of Scott’s book concerns the doctrinally heterodox, millenarian, and militant religious tendencies of the upland peoples of Southeast Asia. In medieval Asia Minor too, the highlands were associated with heresy and religious dissent. Perhaps the most prominent of these dissenting traditions was that of the Paulicians, discussed in some detail by a few texts in medieval Greek and Armenian. That they were a consciously self-reproducing group with an independent literary tradition is clear from some of our Greek sources, which cite texts composed by the Paulicians themselves. They rejected the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople and Armenia and functioned with only a minimalist hierarchy, with no church buildings or distinctions of dress. By the ninth century they were capable of mobilizing large raiding forces from their mountain strongholds. In 870 CE, the Paulician Chrysocheir sacked the city of Ephesus on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, stabling his horses in its magnificent cathedral in a calculated gesture of contempt.

There exists a Soviet-Armenian historiographical tradition in which the Paulicians play the role of class-conscious revolutionaries. I have no intention of returning to this rightly discredited model. However, I would like to suggest that Scott’s theses of state evasion through the strategic use of natural geography and heterodox cosmology may be useful in explaining the evident appeal of Paulicianism. Let’s return to ninth-century Anatolia. Warfare was endemic, with annual raids launched from the Arab emirates met by slash-and-burn tactics from the generally smaller Roman frontier armies. In such circumstances, pastoralism, inherently more mobile and therefore better suited to insecure conditions, prevailed over arable farming. Those who grew cereals were exposed not only to hostile raiding parties but also to the Roman taxman. The tax assessment was based on an inflexible ascribed value of the land, rather than the total product produced in a given year. A poor crop invited financial disaster. In addition to these routine dangers, the Anatolian peasantry also faced the threat of mass deportation to Constantinople and its Thracian hinterland. For example, the eighth-century emperor Constantine V ordered the forced transportation of those living in the vicinity of the fortresses of Theodosiopolis and Melitene. The response of the Roman state to heterodoxy might quickly degenerate into indiscriminate violence. In or shortly after 843 CE, the empress-regent Theodora charged a group of noblemen with the task of converting the perceived Paulician minority within the Anatolian population to Orthodoxy. According to the chronicler Zonoras, “they handled their commission clumsily and to no avail, and not merely wasted their labour but drove the entire people (who number many thousands) to apostatize” (Hamilton and Hamilton, 63).

The sack of Ephesus in 870 was too great a provocation to ignore. Within two years, Roman field armies had captured and destroyed the settlement at Tephrike (Divriği). The Paulician leader Chrysocheir was killed, though his name would survive in the oral epic poetry of the frontier region. Nevertheless, before his death he had made a highly unusual demand of the Roman state. Military uprisings in this period were not uncommon. Typically, the leader of a rebellion, such as Thomas the Slav in 821–23, would declare themselves emperor and march their troops to Constantinople. What Chrysocheir demanded was the secession of the eastern provinces from Constantinopolitan control. Modern historians have often described Tephrike as the capital of a Paulician state. While I do not wish to suggest that the sect was aiming to create an anarchist utopia, I would contest the simplistic deployment of this term. It was not simply the case that Paulicians were attracted to remote places in which they might practice their religion without fear of violence. Those who sought to evade the state would also have been attracted to Paulician refuges, where the art of not being governed was being practiced with remarkable effectiveness.

Hugh Jeffery is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, specializing in the archaeology of medieval Asia Minor.

JHI Think Piece

Chronology’s Forgotten Medieval Pioneers

by guest contributor Philipp Nothaft

According to a metaphor once popular among early modern scholars, chronology is one of the “two eyes of history” (the other being geography), which is an apt shorthand for expressing its tremendous utility in imposing order on the past and thereby facilitating its interpretation. Yet in spite of the undiminished importance chronology possesses for the study and teaching of history, latter-day historians tend to lose relatively little sleep over the accuracy of the years and dates they insert into their works. Assyriologists may continue to argue among themselves about variant Bronze Age chronologies, but for that happy majority focused on the development of civilization since the dawn of the first millennium BCE, errors in historical dating appear to be a local possibility rather than a global one. We may be wrong in attributing a Greek astrological papyrus or the foundation of a Roman military fortress to, say, the late second rather than the early third century of the common era, but even then we remain secure in the knowledge that the centuries themselves retain their accustomed place, containing as they do a fixed and familiar inventory of historical events. On the whole, it looks like the timeline is under our control.

Like so many amenities of modern life, this feeling of security is the hard-won result of a long process of trial and error, one that can be shown to have started a good deal earlier than commonly assumed. For the thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher Giles of Lessines, who turned to historical chronology in a pioneering Summa de temporibus (ca. 1260–64), the intervals of years between the major events of biblical and profane history were still a bewildering patchwork of individual puzzles, not all of which allowed for an easy solution. Problems were posed above all by the Old Testament, which in spite of its status as a divinely inspired, and hence exceptionally reliable, record of history since the world’s creation confronted Christian historians with a range of pitfalls. Even those who felt equipped to smooth out some of the contradictions encountered in the Bible’s chronological record still had to admit the existence of two discrepant versions: the Hebrew Masoretic text, represented to Latin Christians by St Jerome’s Vulgate translation, and the Greek Septuagint, which differed from the former in several numerical details. On Friar Giles’s count, the Greek translation added a total of 1374 to the Vulgate’s tally of years between Creation and Christ, which effectively double the nine different chronological readings he had been able to extract from the “Hebrew truth,” leaving him with a range of possibilities between 3967 and 5541 years. The margin of plausible intervals was mystifying and threatened to expose the scriptural exegete to the same sort of uncertainty that was encountered in profane chronicles and works of history, where scribal corruption, but also mendacity and ignorance on the part of authors, could mean that dates, years, or even centuries suddenly vanished or were retroactively inserted into the historical record.

In spite of such discouraging signals, Giles of Lessines believed that he had identified a class of sources that was worthy of his unreserved trust: works of astronomy, which linked observed phenomena such as eclipses of the sun and moon to particular dates in history, usually identified according to years of the reigns of ancient kings and emperors. Since these observations provided the raw material for astronomical theories, which in turn underpinned computational algorithms and the tables based on them, it was possible to assess their trustworthiness long after the event. Astronomical books, Giles wrote, “depend on years in the past being noted down with utmost certainty—otherwise the rules and principles they contain would not be dependable for the future” (Summa de temporibus, bk. 2, pt. 3, ch. 2). The predictive success of mathematical astronomy hence guaranteed the accuracy of the underlying chronological data, and vice versa. Friar Giles’s pièce de résistance in exploiting this insight were three lunar eclipses the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy had observed during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian: more specifically in years 133, 134, and 136 CE. As a seasoned astronomical calculator, Giles was able to use the specific criteria of these eclipses (their time, magnitude, and location) to establish the interval between Ptolemy’s observations and the present. The exercise gave him an entering wedge into the chronology of the Roman Empire, which, among other benefits, made it possible to confirm—against certain medieval critics—that the Church’s practice of calculating the years of Christ’s birth from 1 CE rested on a sound historical basis.

Giles of Lessines was far from the only medieval author to experiment with astronomical techniques in an effort to put chronology on a sure footing. A prominent case is the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–1292?), who had read Giles’s Summa de temporibus, and who was to use astronomical tables to establish the date when Jesus died on the cross. His result of 3 April 33 CE, though unorthodox at the time, continues to be viewed as plausible by many contemporary scholars. In the following century, the application of astronomy to history was pursued by authors such as the Swabian astronomer Heinrich Selder, who used Ptolemy’s eclipses to bring order into biblical, but also ancient Greek and Near Eastern, chronology. Others, like the Benedictine monk Walter Odington (Summa de etate mundi, 1308/16) and the Oxford astrologer John Ashenden (Summa iudicialis de accidentibus mundi, 1347/48), tried to tame the timeline by bringing in assumptions of an astrological, as opposed to just astronomical, nature. In Odington’s case, his efforts to extort the age of the world from a calculation based on 360-year planetary circles proved irreconcilable with biblical chronology, prompting him to boldly surmise that the numbers encountered in Scripture had to be read in an allegorical rather than a plain historical way—an idea that stands in striking contrast to the assumptions made by present-day Young Earth Creationists.

Seven centuries down the line, we possess sufficient hindsight to discern more or less exactly where authors such as Giles of Lessines and Walter Odington went wrong or, conversely, where their arguments produced results of lasting validity. More so than any particular date proposed in these medieval texts, what remains unchanged is the fundamental soundness of their insight that the predictive capacities of natural science can furnish historical chronology with the sort of security its conclusions would otherwise be lacking. To this day, astronomical phenomena, from comets and the positions of stars to the intervals revealed by ancient eclipses, remain absolutely essential to the basic grid of ancient dates displayed in our reference works. In addition, the range of possibilities has been greatly expanded by novel chronological tools such as stratigraphy, radiometric dating, dendrochronology, and the study of Greenland ice cores.

Owing to these methodological developments, our conventional chronology of the past three millennia rests on such a solid basis that twenty- and twenty-first century attempts to subvert it have been staged almost exclusively from the fringes of respectable scholarship. One of the few flavors of such chronology revisionism to have captivated a larger audience is Heribert Illig’s so-called phantom time hypothesis, which argues for the fictitious character of the period we usually refer to as the Early Middle Ages. If Illig is right, which is more than unlikely, the reign of Charles the Great and all the other persons and events historians of medieval Europe assign to the years 614–911 were no more than an invention, retroactively inserted into the historical record by a cabal of powerful men involving the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (980–1002) and Pope Silvester II (999–1003).

Beyond the tiresome hermeneutics of suspicion and outright falsehoods that pervade the hypothesis propagated by Illig and his followers lies a valuable reminder to the effect that historians should, at least on occasion, try to assure themselves of the foundations on which their accepted narratives rest. In a sense, the revisionists are indeed correct in assuming that some of these foundations can be unearthed deep in the Middle Ages. Their actual shape, of course, looks very different from what they would have us believe.

C. Philipp E. Nothaft is a post-doctoral research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of “Walter Odington’s De etate mundi and the Pursuit of a Scientific Chronology in Medieval England,” which appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.