Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Roel Konijnendijk and Fernando Echeverría

By Alex Collin

Roel Konijnendijk is Darby Fellow in Ancient History, at Lincoln College, Oxford. He studied History at Leiden University, followed by a PhD in Greek warfare at UCL, which he completed in 2015. He researches Classical Greek military thought and practice as well as the encounters between the Greek and Persian military systems. His publications cover topics including Greek tactics, Athenian democracy, Spartan traditions, Persian kingship, Herodotus, and the way modern scholarship has shaped our understanding of Greek warfare. His latest book Between Miltiades and Moltke: Early German Studies in Greek Military History was published by Brill in 2023.

Fernando Echeverría graduated in History and Classical Philology and obtained his PhD in Ancient History from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid with a research project on the theory of the “hoplite revolution” and historiography of the Greek polis. Since 2012 he has been a member of the faculty at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. His research has focused on Greek military history, as well as archaic and classical literature and iconography, especially archaic Attic vascular painting. He is part of the Editorial Board of the Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World series published by Brill.

Konijnendijk and Echeverría spoke with Alex Collin about their recent JHI article, “Max Weber, the Rise of the Polis, and the “Hoplite Revolution” Theory” (volume 84, issue 1).


Alexander Collin: History is still largely a discipline of single authored papers—not exclusively, but by and large—so why did you decide to collaborate for this one? What does the collaboration add that might have been missing from a sole authored paper?

Roel Konijnendijk: I suppose I should answer this because I was the one who initiated it. I was asked to give a paper on Max Weber as an ancient historian for a seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research in London. I had never worked on Weber before but it was tangentially related to historiographical work that I was doing, so I felt out of my depth on Weber. Initially I asked a different friend of mine, Jeroen Bouterse, to come and give the paper with me—I would do the ancient history side and he would do the Weber side because he knew more about that. And in the course of setting it up, I found that I had something to say about this aspect of Weber’s theory which hadn’t been covered by any other scholarship.

But when I set out to write that up, I immediately ran into the debate about the “hoplite revolution,” which is so tied into Weber’s work. This is where Fernando comes in; he is the expert on this. He wrote his thesis on it and has continued to develop this kind of work. So, as far as I was concerned, doing all the work myself would firstly be unnecessary and secondly would be taking away the spotlight from somebody who really deserves to be a part of something like this. So I felt that collaborating would be a really good way to make sure that my new idea was well grounded and that we would draw on each of our strengths to try and make this useful as possible.

Fernando Echeverría: Well, you’re very kind, Roel. We’ve known each other for some time and I find myself in agreement with most of what Roel says or writes, so for me it was a natural step. My feeling is that each of us had one of the pieces of the puzzle. So it was pretty straightforward to just to put them together because I had, as Roel has said, included Weber in my own research on the “hoplite revolution.” I was influenced initially by my supervisor, Domingo Plácido, who is a social historian.

I didn’t realize at the time that, as far as I can tell, I was the only one considering Weber as part of the theory, none of the reconstructions even mention him. And Roel had been digging into German historiography of the nineteenth century, where he noticed not only Weber’s extremely peculiar position in the field at that time, but also the omission of his work by later historiography, which doesn’t recognize him as one of the forerunners of the “hoplite revolution” theory.

AC: Let’s start by putting the article in a little bit of context. Where does this “hoplite revolution” theory come from? What is it responding to? What’s the histography that precedes that on the Greek world and the rise of the polis.

RK: Ancient history in this period is still developing as a discipline. So there isn’t a very long tradition of serious scholarship that offers different theories to try and explain things. It’s more just people reading these ancient texts, and maybe they have some theories or some holistic ideas, but the idea of trying to explain things that aren’t already in the text is still emerging.

I think most of these German historians are still responding to George Grote, who wrote in the 1830s and 1840s. He wrote his History of Greece, but he was not a historian as a profession because that profession essentially didn’t exist yet. So you just had this one guy who in his spare time wrote a history of Greece, but given his own background as an English person and someone who works in finance, his view of the rise of an urbanized culture with a somewhat democratic-tending political system was obviously that it had to be prefaced by, or predicated on, a rising bourgeoisie. That it had to be because there was new money on the rise and that broke the power of a landed elite. And so he posited that as his theory for the emergence of the city state culture that we know from ancient Greece.

I think most of the early German work is essentially taking that for granted. I mean, once you have a theory in mind, you can always find bits of the sources to confirm it, right? So then you can work that out and say, well, there it is. So that’s what we’re going with. And I think Weber was one of the first to chafe against that and say, that’s not how it works, that’s not how ancient cities actually emerge. But because he was leaning so heavily on [Eduard] Meyer, he wasn’t able to separate himself entirely from it. That only came much later.

FE: Regarding the origins of the theory, the connection to the ancient world in all those reflections was basically Aristotle. They were all following, to some extent, Aristotle’s observations on the transition from monarchy to oligarchy and then to democracy. So that was, let’s say, the framework of how the rise of the Polis was reconstructed at that time. I would say that the major difference between the “hoplite revolution” and previous histography is probably the development of causality.

The old German scholarship probably took Aristotle’s sequence of political transformation at face value. It saw the transitions between the different stages as rather mechanical. Twentieth-century scholarship put some effort into establishing the causes behind those transitions. They incorporated technological determinism and class struggle, which were arguments that were really fashionable in the first decades of the twentieth century. So the “hoplite revolution” is a twentieth-century construct based on nineteenth-century assumptions.

AC: That brings us nicely to a question that I was going to ask later, but I’ll jump to it now, which is about the centrality of Aristotle’s Politics. You mentioned that, even now, this tends to be the starting point. Why is that particular text so central compared to other texts that you might begin from when thinking about Greek politics?

FE: Well, there are so many reasons why Aristotle is at the center of the discipline. He’s been an extraordinary authority in Western thought and philosophy for so many centuries, and it’s almost impossible to start thinking about anything remotely connected to Greece without considering Aristotle. But for historians and classicists, I would say that it has to do with the fact that Aristotle provides explanations of historical processes, not only details of events like the classical historians.

So the fact that those explanations may be theoretical or anachronistic hasn’t always been a deterrent. But there are alternative accounts that we probably should take into consideration, such as Thucydides’, which have an alternative reconstruction of the early stages of Greek history, probably more materialistic, let’s say, more grounded on economic means.

RK: One of the things that has made Aristotle more prominent than he perhaps deserves to be is that the later Greeks, whose texts we have from the classical and the Hellenistic periods, they didn’t know their own archaic history. They had a limited sense of what had happened more than a century back, beyond oral history. And so there are very few accounts of events in that period. So whenever anybody offers what seems like a theory about how their present had developed, it often sounds very authoritative because we kind of assume that they must know something on which to construct it.

But in practice, they are just models. They are just ideas about how things may have happened, which are not founded on any real information. But in the absence of any kind of competing historical narrative or grounded arguments, I think it can be very tempting to mistake something like Aristotle’s theory for something based on a thorough reading of Archaic Greek history. But that reading just didn’t exist.

Even for Aristotle, there was nothing for him to use except poetry to understand the period he was talking about. So even for the Greeks themselves, there’s just very little of the kind of historical insight that we would want. And so whenever we find a scrap of it, we tend to put a lot of weight on it. I think that a lot of historians have fallen into that trap.

AC: How reflective is that problem with Aristotle of the sources more broadly for this period? It’s a very ignorant, non-ancient historian’s question, I know, but what do we have? How reliable is what we have? To what extent is the material we have now different from what the nineteenth-century scholars were working with?

FE: In terms of literary sources, we’re pretty much dealing with the same scraps and pieces as scholars a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty years ago. We’ve been twisting and turning the same pieces for over two centuries. Archaeology, I think, has made a real difference in the last decades. This is the only field that can guarantee a permanent incorporation of new evidence. Regarding the “hoplite revolution” theory, it was, in fact, archaeological observations by Anthony Snodgrass that opened the first cracks in the theory.

So archeology has been a major source for innovation in the field, and still is. Not only in terms of the weapons, and the artifacts themselves, but also contexts and settlements. There’s so much to say about the rise of the Polis from the perspective of archeology, also taking into account the colonial contexts, in Sicily, southern Italy, and the Black Sea.

RK: You see that in the period we were writing about too, that is the time when you get a quite radical change in the perception of Greek history because of archaeology. Around the time the first of these histories are being written, people didn’t know about the world of Troy and Mycenae. They thought that Homer represented some kind of early stage in Greek history, maybe the late Bronze Age, but it wasn’t really clear, and that kind of conception didn’t really exist or wasn’t connected to any tangible material culture.

And when that was eventually discovered, first by Schliemann and then by more serious archaeologists, it created a problem where Homer became detached from this period because he clearly wasn’t referring to the same period as the archeology and became therefore unmoored in time, which is something that we’re still trying to resolve.

So the nineteenth-century writers were trying to fill a gap, essentially, between the material culture of the late Bronze age, which had now been discovered, and the Greek world that they knew, which looked and felt and wrote very differently. If you’re trying to explain something like the rise of the Polis neither the Mycenaean Greeks nor the Homeric narrative seem to be much help. And so you have to try and work out a new theory almost out of whole cloth, because there’s just nothing else there that you can use to say, okay, well, this is where we start, this is our baseline, to get to this thing that we know so much better. I think this evidence for a period that had not previously been recognized as such, made life a lot more difficult for scholars at that time but also opened up the way for these radical theories about what supposedly happened connected with that.

FE: And to be fair, I would also mention one of the revolutions in the interpretation of the literary text, which is the work by Joachim Latacz in 1977. As I was saying before, the only novel thing you can do with the literary sources is to look at them differently. And what he did was absolutely crucial because it completely demolished the idea that heroes were the only warriors present at the battlefields in the Homeric world. Research took a new impulse from that observation. A lot of later research has benefited so much from that idea. It is a very significant book written in German, but never translated into other languages. It’s an example of how unfair historiography is sometimes, what happens with really relevant and crucial contributions.

AC: Next I’d like to focus on those cracks that Fernando mentioned opening up in the theory from the second half of the twentieth century. As the “hoplite revolution” has become a theory that’s less dominant, what attracted you to writing about it now? Why is it still important to shed more light on the historiography of the “hoplite revolution”?

FE: Well, I think that it’s still pretty much alive. We sometimes think that there’s been a lot of questioning and criticism, so it must be a thing of the past, and perhaps that is true for the dozen or so colleagues that are working on Greek warfare. For the rest, I think it still looks like a reasonable argument, very intuitive and straightforward. So I think it still has its appeal.

For my part, I think it’s fairly common now to try to offer alternative views to new generations of students, alongside the “hoplite revolution,” because they often come with very vague ideas of how political and military transformation works. In that sense it’s really important to spread alternative views and try to find a proper place for them in the formation of new scholars.

RK: Your thesis was intended specifically to try and undermine this theory, wasn’t it, Fernando? It basically sets out to prove that this theory doesn’t work.

FE: I was trying to collect all the criticism that had been growing separately and scattered in different places. I was trying to put that together in order to find a coherent “counter narrative,” so to speak. That has been my main effort for the past years.

RK: I think the key point with the “hoplite revolution” theory today is that there is always a lag between what happens at the cutting edge of a particular subfield, what reaches academics in that field more generally, and then what reaches pop history and wider audiences. Those things always take a lot of time, especially if there are reasons to retain the older narrative.

There can be a lot of resistance against adopting the new ideas that are developed by the people who actually work in a field, because, exactly as Fernando says, the appeal of the “hoplite revolution” theory is that it is so holistic. It seems to draw in everything, it makes sense of the whole history of archaic Greece by connecting military to political to social to economic developments and saying: all you need to understand about this entire period is this one thing which drives everything else. It lets you easily explain how to make sense of everything all at once for an entire period, in which very little evidence exists.

FE: Yes, that is central to the problem here. If you’re explaining the Greek colonization, and the tyrannies, and the presence of mercenaries abroad, and so many different processes with this single argument, you obviously must be suspicious, especially when everything comes down to one single item, which is the hoplite shield. That’s definitely something to be suspicious about.

RK: It becomes difficult to replace that with anything else because people are going to say that any new idea doesn’t explain things quite as comprehensively as this one does. It’s just so tempting and so convenient, but, of course, you should be suspicious of anything that is that convenient. The evidence is very thin; it’s a few lines in Aristotle, that’s pretty much all it is. Still, the convenience of the explanation is very powerful. So it will at least remain something that’s very widespread among people whose last encounter with Greek history was maybe when they were in school or when they read about it at some point in their lives. It’s going to be a long journey to try and convince a wider audience that this theory is actually not what we believe and that there are good reasons to doubt it.

AC: To pivot a little away from the classical side of the article, and more into the nineteenth-century intellectual material, there are a lot of references to class struggle and to the rise of the bourgeoisie throughout the piece, which give one the feeling of Marx lurking in the background here. But as far as I could see, he never actually appears. Is he involved in the debate around the “hoplite revolution,” either personally or through his influence?

RK: It’s an odd thing, obviously, Marx was a classicist, but I don’t know if he ever actually wrote about this himself. You’’e absolutely right that his thought is influential in the later nineteenth century. You get a couple of scholars who deliberately tried to renew their broad histories of ancient Greece by making it more focused on social and economic factors. This kind of argument is obviously an idea that comes out of Marx and others saying, look, there are bigger things than just the surface level of generals leading their armies around.

On the other hand, people who do that—people like Robert von Pöhlmann, who I cite very much—might be interested in labor history, but almost to prove Marx wrong. So it’s not necessarily that this language is them just saying, Marx had some really nice ideas, let’s incorporate those. It’s more that Marx makes these factors part of the debate, but other writers don’t necessarily either agree with him or want to include him in that debate

Weber and his contemporaries were obviously influenced by him too, in that they were trying to see history through a sociological lens. But again, there’s no explicit reference. There’s no point where someone says: well, obviously, this is what we’re going for, this is a Marxist model. Rather, I think that those kinds of thoughts are there in the background, but never explicitly invoked or debated. It’s one of those weird situations where you feel like it should be there, and you feel like they should be engaging with it, and you feel even like this must be the entire reason why they’re asking these questions, and yet it doesn’t seem to be there.

The answer may be that there is an increasing sense among historians in this period, especially in Germany, that the only people with valid opinions on this must be people who are trained and working in it. So there’s a professionalization of the discipline which leads to them no longer listening to amateurs. Even if the entire subfield was built on the work of George Grote, who was an amateur, just half a century ago.

By the late nineteenth century they’re basically saying you need to have a degree and training in order to have valid opinions. And they may have thought: Marx, well, he went off the rails, so we don’t have to listen to him anymore. They do react very violently to people who work outside that system, like Schliemann. There’s so much polemic against something like that, these people are reviled. So that might be one reason why they don’t directly engage with Marx and other non-specialists.

AC: I don’t know how interesting this question is, so by all means skip it if you feel there’s nothing to say, but the phrasing in the article piqued my interest. You mention Meyer’s version of the “hoplite revolution” being influenced by a controversy around Hans Delbrück’s comparative military history. What is the controversy, and what is it that Meyer gets from it?

RK: So this is where you have to stop me because I’m going to talk for too long. But Hans Delbrück is an intensely controversial figure because he was trying to become a military historian in the academy, and that was something that just didn’t exist at the time. Military history was something that was done by the general staff, and they did it for the practical reason that they needed to educate officers and, generally speaking, they denied that historians had the authority to write about military history because they didn’t know warfare. There was a very strong claim to military history, being an exclusively military pursuit, a part of military science.

The historians in the academies generally didn’t do military history, because they didn’t feel like they could challenge the authority of officers. So Delbrück was doing something really odd as an academic by saying he was going to be a military historian. And essentially everybody hated it. Nobody wanted to accept this. Officers could not bear that this historian, this civilian, was challenging their interpretations of military history, and historians felt that he was claiming for himself a role that he couldn’t justify.

And when he was doing this in a diachronic way, trying to be a military historian of all ages, he stepped onto the toes of experts in all of the periods that he was working on. They would all be saying, no, you don’t know our period. You don’t know—when you start writing about the Persian Wars. Well, what do you know about that? You’re not a classicist. You’re just a historian. You wrote your thesis on medieval history. So there was a lot of resistance against what he was doing. And almost everything he wrote was controversial. But it was not just because of the project that he chose, but also because he was just a person who courted controversy. He just liked to say things and write things that he knew were going to get everybody riled up.

When it comes to Greek history and what Meyer is working with, Hans Delbrück had launched this theory that the Persian Wars were not actually the victory of civilized Greeks against this massive but poorly organized rabble of the Persian army, but rather that because the Persians were a very highly effective and enormous empire, they must have had a strong, small, professional army. He just sort of theorized away these numbers and argued that the Greeks must have won because they had either numerical superiority or maybe a very small numerical discrepancy, but they were fighting in a more disciplined way. So they had these unit formations which allowed them to defeat the Persians, because the Persians were focused on individual skill and professionalism but weren’t as well organized.

And that apparently makes sense of some of the accounts that you find in the sources. And it also follows from some of the theories about the emergence of the hoplite and the phalanx that you see in earlier periods. But it was controversial because it essentially said: okay, these sources with these numbers, we can just throw them out because they cannot be true. And historians reading that say, you can’t treat the sources that way, you can’t just throw them out and hypothesize what history must have been regardless of what the sources tell you. So everything that Delbrück wrote about this was controversial, but it did launch some radically new interpretations of the history of that period, which allowed people to think in different ways about, for instance, the hoplite and the phalanx.

So that’s fundamentally why I flagged up that theory’s influence on Meyer, but also I wanted to highlight that Meyer’s acceptance of Delbrück’s influence should not be taken for granted. He should be applauded for even listening to Delbrück because many of his colleagues would not. In fact, Meyer himself would eventually just give up on Delbrück. He would effectively say, I can’t engage with him because he will never give in and he won’t listen, he just argues and argues and argues, so I’m done with him. So Delbrück was an impossible person and he fought everyone all the time, but his ideas were creeping in nonetheless and having their effect, that’s why I wanted to point that out.

AC: To then broaden out from the questions about particular thinkers, the Greek polis was not just a historical topic, but also an inspiration and a model for European political thinkers in the nineteenth century, and indeed earlier. There’s a very strong identification between some political assemblies and what they would see as their classical forebears. What connections do you see between that modern political milieu and the understanding of Greek politics that develops alongside it? Does it affect the “hoplite revolution” theory, particularly Weber’s version of it, in any notable ways?

RK: There is a huge question about the extent to which contemporary culture influences the emergence of any historical theory. Obviously, we’ve just highlighted a few points where we can be reasonably certain that aspects of contemporary life were affecting the way that people were looking at the “hoplite revolution.” But it’s very difficult, I found, to see concrete links.

One of the things that often gets noted is that in nineteenth-century Germany, and indeed in earlier periods of German history, there was a lot of association between Germany and ancient Greece. They had an ideological sense that being politically fragmented but culturally united was something Germany shared with Greece, as well as having a cultural significance that is outsized relative to their worldly power, so to speak. That was something that a lot of educated Germans in this period were drawn to; this idea that you can still be great even without political or military dominance.

That narrative shifts in the course of the nineteenth century. One part of that is the professionalization of the discipline, which makes it harder to appropriate some part of Greek culture and say “I know this, this is mine as well.” If you want to talk about ancient history, you increasingly need specialist knowledge. A second aspect is that, in the nineteenth century, Germany could no longer claim to be politically fragmented and powerless in a military sense. They were claiming superpower status. So it becomes much harder to associate yourself with fragmented realm of hundreds of little states when that is no longer your own reality.

So, you see this kind of identification with Greece much more strongly in an earlier period. Around the revolutions of 1848, you see a lot of people trying to champion Greek democracy, for instance, and try to bring out the idea that democratic states are more efficiently organized, they have more participation and buy-in from their populations. You see these are modern political ideas being bounced off antiquity, so to speak. And you see works getting criticized for being overtly political in the way that they read ancient history. But by the end of the nineteenth century, you see this less and less, for the reasons that I already mentioned.

FE: For me this is a reminder that historiography needs to be researched more. As historians, we are always encouraged to make use of the latest works and the latest papers and so everything older than, let’s say, fifty or sixty years gets almost forgotten. It’s like a cycle. We tend to repeat those ideas from seventy or eighty years ago, because we forget about them and so they look new to us. So, it’s really crucial for us to know the history of our discipline and how our own ideas have been evolving across different periods.

We need to be aware of how current theories and current assumptions are based on previous ones. They rarely come directly from the ancient world. That’s my point. They always go through the lens of our modern perspective. That happened in nineteenth-century Germany, it happened in early twentieth-century North America and Great Britain and it’s happening to us as well. So it’s a nice reminder of that duty, to pay attention to the historiography of the discipline.

AC: Thank you. I have one final question on the modern aspect of the article. Weber lived for another twenty years after publishing Agrarverhältnisse im Altertum. How did he respond to people not really paying much attention to it? Did he did he try and push it to find an audience? Or did he just accept that it had not quite worked out and move on to the next thing? Do we know how he responded?

RK: I don’t know of any direct response. I don’t think he would have gotten upset that no one was reading it. The one thing that we obviously do know is that he wrote a first version of it, and then he wrote a second version, and he wrote an enormously expanded third version over the course of almost fifteen years. So he was obviously not satisfied with the way that he had initially written it, and he kept returning to it. But when he’s writing about ancient history, I wonder if he’s just doing that in order to get a sense for his own understanding, that he can then use for the models that he was developing about the rise of the city state and things like that. 

So I think it would not have been very like him, I would say, to be upset about people neglecting the Agrarverhältnisse, especially because he may have recognized that he was not the expert on this; he was following Meyer for a lot of things. So, he may not have written this for the sake of changing a debate about ancient history, but rather about changing wider debates about historical development of political and economic systems.

In that way he is a real contrast to Hans Delbrück, who we mentioned earlier. Delbrück added an appendix to a book on something totally different just to argue with Weber about the development of states in the ancient Mediterranean. And as a reader you think, neither of you are experts on the ancient Mediterranean, why are you arguing about this? But Delbrück always pursued controversy, always wanted people to think his way, and would never stop arguing until they accepted. Whereas, Weber seems to have thought much more, “this is what I’m doing, you can do with it whatever you want.”

AC: Okay, one last question on the “hoplite revolution,” as a theory in its own right. Where does it stand now in the academic literature? We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but as you say, the idea turns so much on this one pivotal piece of technology. Where does our understanding of that stand now at the start of 2023?

FE: It’s funny because we have this concept that you can build a whole narrative based on the hoplite and the development of military technology in archaic Greece and so on. But now, the theory is much more fragmented, or at least I see fewer scholars attaching themselves to the whole theory. Instead you have people just picking out specific ideas or selecting particular elements from the theory. But it’s difficult to see the whole structure being pushed forward in the way that it was thirty years ago, for example by Hanson.

So there’s no clear successor to Hanson’s position. But, in so far as scholars have picked up particular ideas or arguments from the theory, those parts are quite alive. But no one is constructing or rewriting the narrative all over again, because it has been set by Hanson.

On the other hand, revisionism is probably trying another approach. Revisionist historians, scholars who are very critical of the idea of the “hoplite revolution,” are more interested in trying to build a narrative themselves. But I don’t think that is particularly relevant or even necessary. It’s not a matter of competing narratives, but of revisiting the ancient sources and coming up with significant interpretations. It’s an interesting development that revisionism seems to be leaning towards the building of an alternative narrative, while the orthodoxy, is leaning more towards picking out specific elements. That’s my impression of the field, at least. Roel, would you agree with that?

RK: I think that’s right. Although, I do think there may be some merit to those narrative building projects; in trying to come up with a way to explain archaic Greek history that is at least equally instinctively attractive, if not as all-encompassing as the “hoplite revolution.” As you said, so much of the appeal of the “hoplite revolution” comes from how convenient it is. And if there is a way to talk about Greek history that way, then it would be great if we had another way to do it that is more responsible and that is more embracing of the evidence.

And I think Hans van Wees in his Farmers and Hoplites has done a pretty good job of that. So it’s an attempt to write the history in a similarly straightforward way, which generalizes and you can quibble about the different aspects of it, but which makes more sense of the actual evidence. Especially if it doesn’t require us to hinge all of history on the development of a second grip on the shield, but argues for a slow rise of a new way of fighting as wealth increases over a long period characterized by struggle over political rights and available resources. I think this new theory, that has been launched about a decade ago now, does a better job of acknowledging that, rather than just saying, oh, whatever Aristotle says goes.

FE: I agree with that. I don’t see how another “monument” is supposed to counteract a previous “monument,” but I can see the merit of those projects. It is certainly a more interesting path to follow than the older ones, like technological determinism, that revolved so much around weapons and their use, or how heavy they were.

AC: Okay, I think that’s perhaps a nice point to end on for our discussion. Do either of you want to add a quick remark on what you’re working on now, if you have any forthcoming work you’d like to let people know about.

RK: What are you working on now, Fernando? I don’t actually know.

FE: I have co-edited a volume on Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in Spanish and I am working on a synthesis of warfare in the Classical world for students. But the “hoplite revolution” is still in my list. My bet for the future of the theory is that a new argument reinstating orthodoxy will probably come up in a few years, because if you look backwards into the history of the theory, that’s exactly what happened. Both fundamental positions have been reacting to each other in periods of, let’s say, ten to twenty years. For my part, I will continue to dig into alternative ways to think about political and military change.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. 

Featured image: Oil flask showing the head of a hoplite, Allard Pierson Museum, photo by Dick Osseman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual 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.

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.

Intellectual 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

Reptiles, Amphibians, Herptiles, and other Creeping Things: Variations on a Taxonomic Theme

by Contributing Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

King Philip Came Over For Good Soup. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Few mnemonics can be as ubiquitous as the monarch whose dining habits have helped generations of biology students remember the levels of the taxonomic system. Though the progress of the field has introduced domains (above kingdoms), tribes (between family and genus) and a whole array of lesser taxons (subspecies, subgenus, and so on), the system remains central to identifying and thinking about organic life.

Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus): a reptile, not an amphibian (photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

Consider “reptiles.” Many a precocious young naturalist learns—and impresses upon their parents with zealous (sometimes exasperated) insistence—that snakes are not slimy. The snake is a reptile, not an amphibian, covered with scales rather than a porous skin. Reaching high school biology, this distinction takes on taxonomic authority: in the Linnaean system, reptiles and amphibians belong to separate classes (Reptilia and Amphibia, respectively). The division has much to recommend it, given the two groups’ considerable divergences in physiology, life-cycle, behavior, and genetics. But, like all scientific categories, the distinction between reptiles and amphibians is a historical creation, and of surprisingly recent vintage at that.

When Carl Linnaeus first published his Systema Naturæ in 1735, what we know as reptiles and amphibians were lumped together in a class named Amphibia. The class—“naked or scaly body; molar teeth, none, others, always; no feathers” (“Corpus nudum, vel squamosum. Dentes molares nulli: reliqui semper. Pinnæ nullæ”)—was divided among turtles, frogs, lizards, and snakes. Linnaeus concludes his outline with these words:

the benignity of the Creator chose not to extend the class of amphibians any further; indeed, if it should enjoy as many genera as the other classes of animals include, or if that which the teratologists fantasize about dragons, basilisks, and such monsters were true, the human race could hardly inhabit the earth” (“Amphibiorum Classem ulterius continuare noluit benignitas Creatoris; Ea enim si tot Generibus, quot reliquæ Animalium Classes comprehendunt, gauderet; vel si vera essent quæ de Draconibus, Basiliscis, ac ejusmodi monstris si οι τετραλόγοι [sic] fabulantur, certè humanum genus terram inhabitare vix posset”) (n.p.).

Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis), an amphibian according to Linnaeus (photo credit: Friedrich Böhringer)

In the 1758 canonical tenth edition of the Systema, Linnaeus provided a more elaborate set of characteristics for Amphibia: “a heart with a single ventricle and a single atrium, with cold, red blood. Lungs that breathe at will. Incumbent jaws. Double penises. Frequetly membranaceous eggs. Senses: tongue, nose, eyes, and, in many cases, ears. Covered in naked skin. Limbs: some multiple, others none” (“Cor uniloculare, uniauritum; Sanguine frigido, rubro. Pulmones spirantes arbitrarie. Maxillæ incumbentes. Penes bini. Ova plerisque membranacea. Sensus: Lingua, Nares, Oculi, multis Aures. Tegimenta coriacea nuda. Fulcra varia variis, quibusdam nulla”) (I.12). Interestingly, Linnaeus now divides Amphibia into three, based on their mode of

  1. Reptiles (“those that creep”), including turtles, lizards, frogs, and toads;
  2. Serpentes (“those that slither”), including snakes, worm lizards, and caecilians;
  3. Nantes (“those that swim”), including lampreys, rays, sharks, sturgeons, and several other types of cartilaginous fish (I.196).

Smokey jungle frog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus), a reptile according to Laurenti and Brongniart (photo credit: Trisha M. Shears)

Linnaeus’s younger Austrian contemporary, Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti, also groups modern amphibians and reptiles together, even as he excludes the fish Linnaeus had categorized as swimming AmphibiaLaurenti was the first to call this group Reptilia (19), and though its denizens have changed considerably in the intervening centuries, he is still credited as the “auctor” of class Reptilia. The French mineralogist and zoologist Alexandre Brongniart also subordinated “batrachians” (frogs and toads) within the broader class of reptiles. All the while, exotic specimens continued to test taxonomic boundaries: “late-eighteenth-century naturalists tentatively described the newly discovered platypus as an amalgam of bird, reptile, and mammal” (Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid, 132).

It was not until 1825 that Brongniart’s compatriot and contemporary Pierre André Latreille’s Familles naturelles du règne animal separated Reptilia and Amphibia as adjacent classes. The older, joint classification survives in the field of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and the sadly underused word “herptile” (“reptile or amphibian”).

“Herptile” is a twentieth-century coinage. “Reptile,” by contrast, appears in medieval English; derived from the Latin reptile, reptilis—itself from rēpō (“to creep”)—“reptile” originally meant simply “a creeping or crawling animal” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). The first instance cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c.1393): “And every neddre and every snake / And every reptil which mai moeve, / His myht assaieth for to proeve, / To crepen out agein the sonne” (VII.1010–13). The Vulgate Latin Bible uses reptile, reptilis to translate the “creeping thing” (רֶמֶשׂ) described in Genesis 1, a usage carried over into medieval English, as in the “Adam and Eve” of the Wheatley Manuscript (BL Add. MS 39574), where Adam is made lord “to ech creature & to ech reptile which is moued on þe erþe” (fol. 60r). Eventually, these “creeping things” became a distinct group of animals: an early sixteenth-century author enumerates “beestes, byrdes, fysshes, reptyll” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). I suspect the identification of the “reptile” (creeping thing) with herptiles owes something to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden being condemned by God to move “upon thy belly” (Gen. 3:14). The adjective “amphibian” is attested in English as early as 1637, but in the sense of “having two modes of existence.” Not until 1835—after the efforts of Latreille and his English popularizer, T. H. Huxley—does the word come to refer to a particular class of animals (“amphibian, adj. and n.” in OED).

The crucial point here is that the distinction between the two groups, grounded though it may be in biology and phylogenetics, is an artifact of taxonomy, not a self-evident fact of the natural world. For early modern, medieval, and ancient observers, snakes and salamanders, turtles and toads all existed within an ill-defined territory of creeping, crawling things.

Fourteenth-century icon of Saint George and a very snakelike dragon (photo credit: Museum of Russian Icons, Moscow)

The farther back we go, the more fantastic the category becomes, encompassing dragons, sea serpents, basilisks, and the like. Religion, too, played its part, as we have seen with Eve’s serpentine interlocutor: Egypt’s plague of frogs, the dragon of Revelation, the Leviathan, the scaly foes of saints like George and Margaret, were within the same “reptilian”—creeping, crawling—family. To be sure, the premodern observer was perfectly aware of the differences between frogs and lizards, and between different species (what could be eaten and what could not, what was dangerous and what was not). But they would not—and had no reason to—erect firm ontological boundaries between the two sorts of creatures.

When we go back to the key works of medieval and ancient natural philosophy, the same nebulosity prevails. Isidore of Seville’s magisterial Etymologies of the early seventh century includes an entry “On Serpents” (“De Serpentibus”), which notes,

the serpent, however, takes that name because it crawls [serpit] by hidden movements; it creeps not with visible steps, but with the minute pressure of its scales. But those which go upon four feet, such as lizards and geckoes [stiliones could also refer to newts], are not called serpents but reptiles. Serpents are also reptiles, since they creep on their bellies and breasts” (“Serpens autem nomen accepit quia occultis accessibus serpit, non apertis passibus, sed squamarum minutissimis nisibus repit. Illa autem quae quattuor pedibus nituntur, sicut lacerti et stiliones, non serpentes, sed reptilia nominantur. Serpentes autem reptilia sunt, quia ventre et pectore reptant.”) (XII.iv.3).

The forefather of premodern zoology, Aristotle, opines in Generation of Animals “there is a good deal of overlapping between the various classes;” he groups snakes with fish because they have no feet as easily he links them with lizards because they are oviparous (II.732b, trans. A. L. Peck).

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), a reptile according to modern phylogenetics (photo credit: NOAA Photo Library—anim1991)

As it turns out, our modern category of “reptile” (class Reptilia) has proved similarly elastic. In evolutionary terms, this is because “reptiles” are not a clade—a group of organisms defined by a single ancestor species and all its descendants. Though visually closer to lizards, for example, genetically speaking the crocodile is a nearer relative to birds (class Aves). Scientists and science writers have thus claimed—sometimes facetiously—that the very category of reptile is a fiction (see Welbourne, “There’s no such thing as reptiles”). The clade Sauropsida, including reptiles and birds (as a subset thereof), was first mooted by Huxley and subsequently resurrected in the twentieth century to address the problem. Birds are now reptiles, though they seldom creep. If I may be permitted a piece of Isidorean etymological fantasy, perhaps this is the true import of the “reptile” as “creeping thing,” as they creep across and beyond taxonomic boundaries, eternally frustrating and fascinating those who seek to understand them.




Think Piece

The First of Nisan, The Forgotten Jewish New Year

by guest contributor Joel S. Davidi

It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12: 1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.”As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.

Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). This ritual takes place annually on the first of Nisan. The name denotes a celebration of the unity of God and the miracles that he wrought during this month surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. The way the congregation celebrates it and how this custom survived illuminates important dynamics of how Jewish ritual has been standardized over time.

Ahba Veahva’s members celebrate Rosh Hashanah in September like other rabbinic Jews. The Seder al-Tahwid, however, is a remnant of an ancient custom of the Jews of the near East (variably referred to as Mustaribun or Shamim) to commemorate the first day of the Jewish month of Nisan as  a minor Rosh Hashanah as per Exodus 12:1. On their website, Congregation Ahaba Veahva explains the celebration as follows:

The Great Exodus of Egypt:
On Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month of Nisan), beni Yisrael (the children of Israel) heard the nes (miracle) that they were going to be redeemed on the night of the 15th, later in that very month. We hold this evening to remember the miracles and the hesed (kindness) that Hashem (God) does for His nation.
“In Nisan we were redeemed in the past, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (a midrashic quote (Exodus Rabbah 15:2) asserting that just as the Exodus from Egypt took place in Nisan so too will the ultimate messianic redemption)
We hold this evening to put everyone in the correct spiritual mindset- to realize with all their might that this could be the month of the Geulah (messianic redemption).

The Alexandrian pamphlet describing the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy.

The only printed version of the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy is found in an anonymous 10 page pamphlet printed in Alexandria. The prayers focus on many themes found in the Rosh Hashana prayers such as blessing, sustenance and messianic redemption in the year to come. The liturgy is found in a somewhat longer form in a tenth century manuscript fragment from the Cairo Geniza, the  repository of documents found in the late nineteenth century in the synagogue in old Fustat.

The celebration of al-Tahwid begins with special liturgy on the Sabbath closest to the day and on the day itself the community refrains from unnecessary labor similar to intermediate days of Jewish holidays. They also recite a Kiddush (a prayer that sanctifies a day, recited over a cup of wine) followed by a festive meal and the recitation of liturgical poetry. One such poem presents a debate among the twelve months to determine which one will have primacy. In one stanza, for example, Nisan argues that the following month of Iyyar cannot be chosen since its zodiacal sign is Taurus, the same species as the golden calf that Israel made in the wilderness. The concluding stanza is a triumphal declaration from Nisan: שליט אנא וריש על כול”ן”
literally, I am the ruler and the head of all of you.
תקיפה עבדי פרוק לעמיה ובי הוא עתיד למפרוק יתהון
or, “A deliverance of slavery did I [Nisan] impart upon the nation and in me [Nisan] is he [God] destined to deliver them [again]” (as per BT Rosh Hashanah 10B). Other prayers more explicitly cast the day as the beginning of the new year. One liturgical poem begins:  יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוהינו ואלוהי אבותינו…שתהיה השנה הזאת הבאה עלינו לשלום, translated as, “May it be your will lord our god and the god of our fathers…that this coming year should come upon us in peace.”

The celebration of the first of Nisan as the beginning of the new year is rooted both in Biblical and Talmudic sources. Exodus 12:1-2 states that Nisan is the first month in the intercalation of the new year and the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1 describes the First of Nisan as one of the four beginnings of the Jewish New Year:

There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle. … On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables…. On the first of Shevat is the new year for trees…

In an article on the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy, liturgical scholar Ezra Fleischer postulates that the Kiddush ceremony on the holiday was based on an earlier Mishanic-era institution. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 2:7 describes how the Sanhedrin, the high religious court of Talmudic-era Israel,  consecrated the new month by declaring “it is sanctified”, at which point the entire assemblage would respond in kind, “it is sanctified, it is sanctified”. This declaration was performed with pomp and publicity in order to make it clear that the final word in the intercalation of the Jewish calendar belonged to the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael and no one else. In the context of the Seder al-Tahwid this ritual serves to highlight Nisan’s role as the first month of the Jewish lunar year, the beginning of this process of sanctifying the new moon.


If the first of Nisan is such an important date to both the Bible and Talmud then, why is the day celebrated today only by this small Jewish community? To answer this question we must look to the Geonic period of jewish history, corresponding roughly to the second half of the first millennium. Over  the past decade, historians increasingly see this period  as one in which a number of variations of Judaism were vying for supremacy. These included several schools of Jewish jurisprudence based in different geographic constituencies across the Mediterranean Diaspora. Two of the most prominent were the Babylonian (Minhag Babhel, based in Baghdad) and Palestinian (Minhag Eretz Yisrael) rites, as well as Karaite Jews who did not follow the Rabbis at all but formed their own, non rabbinic madhab or creed.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was abolished in the 5th century by Byzantine decree. Its various successors could not recapture its prestige and the Rabbis of Eretz Yisrael gradually lost their power to sanction the new moon. The Karaites developed their own system of intercalation but within the rabbinic tradition, in the absence of the Sanhedrin, the Babylonians and Palestinians often found themselves at odds.

The most notorious controversy between the two schools involved the often-confrontational Saadiah ben Joseph Al-Faumi, the head of the Babylonian Academy better known as Saadiah Gaon, and Aharon ben Meir, the head of the Palestinian Academy. In 921-923, the two engaged in an extended and very public argument regarding the sanctification of the Hebrew year 4682 (921/22). While the core of this debate surrounded the complicated methods of calculating the Jewish calendar, it became a referendum on which academy and by extension rite would become authoritative in the diaspora. Saadiah emerged victorious (historians Marina Rustow and Sacha Stern argue that his authority on these matters may have resulted from his mastery of Abbasid advances in astronomy).

In Palestine, however, the Jewish community, based in Jerusalem, continued to follow the Minhag Eretz Yisrael, which also exerted influence on other Near Eastern Jewish communities such as Egypt. The heads of the Jerusalem academy still often insisted that the right to intercalate the year rested solely with them. As late as the 11th century, Rabbi Evyatar Ha-Kohen, the head of the Palestinian Academy (partially in exile in Cairo) would declare:

The land of Israel is not part of the exile such that it would be subject to an Exilarch (a title often applied to the head of the babylonian academy) and furthermore one may not contradict the authority of the Prince (a title at times applied to the head of the palestinian academy), on the word of whom [alone] may leap years be declared and the holiday dates set according to the order imposed by God before the creation of the world. For this is what we are taught in the secrets of intercalation.

ארץ ישראל אינה קרואה גולה שיהא ראש גולה נסמך בה, ועוד שאין עוקרין נשיא שבארץ ישראל, שעל פיו מעברין את השנה וקובעין את המועדות הסדורים לפני הקב”ה קודם יצירת העולם, דהכי גמרי בסוד העיבור

In a continuation of this post, I will elaborate as to how the Seder al-Tahwid was likely maintained as well as suppressed during the geonic period, similar practices that are preserved among non rabbinic communities and the ritual’s reception today.

Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at