Snakes on a …. boat? I don’t think so …

As I was pondering New Year’s Resolutions and the like last night while watching assorted Times Square Events, the gods smiled on me and dumped a ‘made-for-rogueclassicism’ item in my lap. The story was broken by ANSA and really has to be reproduced in full:

Italian zoologists have identified three live specimens of the rare javelin sand boa in Sicily, according to findings published Thursday in Acta Herpetologica scientific journal. The javelin sand boa – also known to zoologists as Eryx jaculus – is usually found in Africa, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It is the only species of boa in Italy.

In September 2014, it was rediscovered in Romania near the Danube River after being extinct there since 1937.

The little boa – which grows to 50-80 centimeters in length – is harmless to humans and lives underground, which may be why it has escaped notoriety for so long.

Zoologists from the Sicilian cities of Comiso and Messina as well as Bologna University researchers were moved to look for the sand boa after repeated sightings were reported over the past 80 years on the beaches around the seaside town of Licata in Agrigento province.

The team finally identified six Javelin sand boas, capturing three in order to study them. Their findings showed the presence of a stable and reproductive Eryx jaculus population over some 40 square kilometers in a flood plain known locally as La Piana, near the River Salso.

The location of the snake colony in turn led zoologists to surmise that this creature that is so rare in Europe may have been imported by the ancient Greeks when they colonized Sicily.

“The Greeks used to use snakes as projectiles,” explained Comiso Natural History Museum Director Gianni Insacco, who wrote up the team’s findings. “They would throw them onto enemy ships before the assault, to instill fear and create disarray. They generally used vipers that had been deprived of their venom, and species similar to the javelin sand boa as an alternative”.

The area where the javelin sand boas now live was the site of two major battles in the former Greek colony of Himera, one around 405 BC and the other in 310 AD.

The story was also picked up by the Telegraph and given a headline which pretty much guarantees it will be picked up by other outlets with a similar spin (Scientists in Italy rediscover snake that was used by ancient Greeks as a weapon of war).  This struck me as kind of silly, so last night when I posted this to twitter, I included @amayor as a specific recipient since Adrienne Mayor’s Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs tome should be the ‘go to’ book for any use of snakes-as-weapons in the ancient world.  Her response:

Fortunately, the news items did give a path to follow. The article in Acta Herpetologica is available for free online (INSACCO, Gianni et al. Eryx jaculus (Linnaeus, 1758): a new species for the Italian herpetofauna (Squamata: Erycidae). Acta Herpetologica, [S.l.], v. 10, n. 2, p. 149-153, dec. 2015. ). The snakes-for-battle thing is only mentioned in passing on page three of the piece:

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The references can be followed up online as well … the Massetti and Zuffi item is actually really interesting: “On the origin of the asp viper Vipera aspis hugyi Schinz, 1833, on the island of Montecristo, Northern Tyrrhenian Sea (Tuscan archipelago, Italy)”: The Herpetological Bulletin 117.1. It includes a whole section on the use of snakes — specifically vipers — in various battle situations in Italy and Sicily. Here’s the salient bits (apologies for the size … you may have to do some zooming):

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First thing to notice here is that Mazetti and Zuffi are referring specifically to the island of Montecristo, which obviously isn’t Sicily, and also that they don’t think there is any historical evidence for Sicily being the source of the vipers which the article is all about (not boas).

The other reference is to a very old tome: Di Blasi, G.E. (1844): Storia del Regno di Sicilia, Vol I.  It too is available online and I looked in vain within for any mention of the use of snake weaponry at the battles which were fought at Himera. We should note that the dates given for the battles where they were supposedly used (405 B.C.  and 310 A.D.) don’t match up to what we would consider the battles (there was one in 409 B.C. or thereabouts, but it was a land battle; the earlier one in 480 B.C. was also a land battle … no mention of snakes). I can’t find any reference to a battle in 310 A.D. (not that that really means anything; I just can’t find it).

That said, even without the ‘backstory’ we really should be thinking (especially the folks at the Telegraph): the snake the article is about is a boa. It is not venomous. What would be the purpose of hurling a snake at a ship or in a seige situation that is basically going to crawl off and look for a rat to squeeze?

 

Catching Up with Cambyses’ Lost Army

Longtime readers of rogueclassicism will recall a short series of posts dealing with claims about Cambyses’ army which supposedly disappeared in the Egyptian desert lo those many years ago:

As such, a press release from Leiden University (from a month or so ago) offering an alternative explanation is of obvious interest:

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. Leiden Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved the riddle.

Herodotus
It must have been a sand storm, writes the Greek historian Herodotus. He tells the story of the Persian King Cambyses, who entered the Egyptian desert near Luxor (then Thebes) with 50,000 men. The troops supposedly never returned; they were swallowed by a sand dune. A fantastic tale that was long the subject of many debates.

Long quest

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it: ‘Since the 19th century, people have been looking for this army: amateurs, as well as professional archaeologists. Some expect to find somewhere under the ground an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sandstorm, let alone have an entire army disappear.’

Petoebastis III

Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated. ‘My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert; its final destination was the Dachla Oasis. This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III. He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses, and in this way managed from his base in the oasis to reconquer a large part of Egypt, after which he had himself crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.’

Spin doctor

The fact that the fate of the army of Cambyses remained unclear for such a long time is probably due to the Persian King Darius I, who ended the Egyptian revolt with much bloodshed two years after Cambyses’ defeat. Like a true spin doctor, he attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the events, all Herodotus could do was take note of the sandstorm story.

Pieces of the puzzle

Kaper made this discovery accidentally; he was not looking for it actively. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he was involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in the Dachla Oasis. Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks. ‘That’s when the puzzle pieces fell into place’, says the Egyptologist. ‘The temple blocks indicate that this must have been a stronghold at the start of the Persian period. Once we combined this with the limited information we had about Petubastis III, the excavation site and the story of Herodotus, we were able to reconstruct what happened.’

See also:

Seems like a reasonable explanation; I doubt it will stop folks from speculating, though …

Stephen Fine and YU Students Tracking the Temple Menorah

When last we heard about Stephen Fine and his crack teams of Yeshiva University students, they were detecting the colour of the Temple Menorah on the Arch of Titus (The Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus). Now the WSJ reports on their activities checking into the semi-frequent claims that the Temple Menorah, after the sack, eventually ended up in some secret place in the Vatican. Definitely research we need on record here (and a tip ‘o the pileus to Joseph Lauer for alerting us to the article):

It is a tale that seems at home in an espionage thriller about ancient religious secrets, such as the “The Da Vinci Code.”

For nearly 2,000 years, stories have circulated about the ultimate fate of sacred Jewish objects plundered from the Jerusalem Temple by Romans in A.D. 70—including a human-size, solid-gold Menorah. One widely shared theory among some Jews holds that the artifacts are hidden inside the Vatican, which many believe inherited the wealth of the Roman Empire.

There is only one problem, say many scholars: It isn’t true.

Steven Fine, a Jewish history professor at Yeshiva University, has dedicated the past two decades to debunking these stories. This summer, he turned the question into the subject of his class on the Arch of Titus, an ancient monument still standing outside the Roman Forum that commemorates the capture of Jerusalem and depicts the Menorah being paraded through the streets of Rome in A.D. 71.

The assignment was prompted by a recent public flare-up: In late May, Mr. Fine spotted an open letter to then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. In it, Israeli Rabbi Yonatan Shtencel urged Mr. Peres to approach the Vatican and ask for the return of the Menorah, a cultural symbol so important it is pictured on Israel’s state seal.

“I have a myth to kill,” said Mr. Fine, speaking of the secret-Vatican-hoard theory. Mr. Fine is writing a book about the Menorah and its many legends, to be published next year by Harvard University Press. “If we don’t nip it, it’s going to get worse,” he said.

In their own letter to Mr. Peres sent last month, Mr. Fine’s students disputed each assertion in the rabbi’s letter, after contacting his sources and consulting rare books. They haven’t received a response from Mr. Peres, who left office this month, they said.

Rabbi Shtencel said he hadn’t read the Yeshiva University response because it is in English, but said, “These aren’t my claims. I am relying on several extremely serious sources.”

Among them: Shimon Shetreet, a former Israeli minister of religious affairs, who said he raised the question of the artifacts during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1996 and separately with the Vatican’s secretary of state, but got no answer. He wasn’t surprised by that, he said, because “they are a very silent organization.”

He said the issue wasn’t raised when Mr. Peres traveled to the Vatican in early June.

“No one can dispute that they were taken to Rome,” said Mr. Shetreet of the artifacts. “The question is what happened. It lies between legends, rumors and facts.”

The Vatican dismissed accusations that it had the objects in a statement provided to The Wall Street Journal.

“I had heard once in the past rumors about such [a] story. But I never thought it was worthy of attention,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman. “It belongs to the genre ‘mysteries of the Vatican,’ in which some people exercise their fantasy.”

Paolo Liverani, a professor at the University of Florence, said he received a handful of letters every year asking about the Menorah when he worked at the Vatican as a museum curator, but never came across the artifacts in the Vatican storerooms.

Still, he said, “it is very difficult to demonstrate things that don’t exist.”

Scholars say the myth surfaced in the U.S. during the 1950s and ’60s, as the Vatican was working to improve relations with Jews in the wake of World War II. Additionally, they say troves of lost, buried Jewish treasures do exist—many hidden by Nazis.

“There’s a whole world of subterranean manuscripts and antiquities,” said Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. “A lot of that world is real.”

But, he said, the Vatican theory isn’t. “The story was created in the 20th century,” Mr. Schiffman said. “There’s no historical continuity.”

Myths are also hard to uproot once they take hold, said Mr. Fine.

“People still feel pain,” Mr. Fine said. “It’s hard to get rid of that.”

Some of Mr. Fine’s students were initially wary of the class assignment. “At first I was almost afraid that this was anti-Jewish,” said David Silber, a 21-year-old rising junior at Yeshiva. “But as we went further, the truth is the truth.”

While the Arch of Titus and rabbinical sources depict the treasures in Rome in ancient times, that doesn’t mean they ended up in storerooms of the Vatican, which was founded centuries later.

Some books Rabbi Shtencel cited in his letter weren’t available in the U.S., so students had friends in Israel track down copies in university libraries there. Scouring the texts, they said they didn’t find any eyewitness accounts of the temple artifacts inside the Vatican, as Rabbi Shtencel had claimed.

Their research didn’t prove that the Vatican doesn’t have the treasures. But “I’m convinced that his proofs are not valid proofs,” Mr. Silber said.

There are many myths surrounding the fate of the Menorah, which is linked with the coming of the Messiah in Jewish lore, experts say. Some hold that it was stashed in a cave in Galilee, others that it lies submerged in silt under the Tiber River in Rome and still others that it is buried under a monastery in the West Bank.

Mr. Fine has his own theory: that it was taken by invaders who ravaged Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries and probably melted down.

“I say to people when I give lectures, ‘Gold doesn’t disappear. Maybe you’re wearing the Menorah in your ring,'” he said. “That’s a really unsatisfying answer for a lot of people.”

 

If the claim is new to you, you might want to check out The Vatican and the Temple Vessels (reprinted from the December issue of  Ami Magazine) which includes many comments from Rabbi Shtencel and Dr Schiffmann. Almost a decade ago, Dr Fine penned this (available online in pdf):

… which is good for showing why there might be a belief that the Vatican has it somewhere.

Roman Golf Origins?

Something that has popped up on a semi-regular basis (usually in the context of one of golf’s majors) is a claim that golf can be traced back to the Romans. Most recently it’s popped up at the News.Az site in an article that begins:

Some historians trace the sport back to the Roman game of paganica, in which participants used a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. One theory asserts that paganica spread throughout Europe as the Romans conquered most of the continent, during the first century BC, and eventually evolved into the modern game. […]

This link to ‘paganica’ is popular on a pile of sites, all apparently deriving (it seems) from an entry in Encyclopedia Britannica. A little digging and one finds the rather tenuous base on which the claim is made. In an aged tome called Gallus: or, Roman scenes in the time of Augustus, we get a nice summary of what is known about paganica in a section on Roman ball games (I don’t think our knowledge on it has advanced in a century and a half). Here’s the text version (I think I caught all the OCR typos; a link to the original follows):

Roman authors mention numerous varieties of the game of ball, as pila simply, follis or folliculus, trigon, paganica, harpastum, sparsiva, in addition to which we have the expressions, datatim, expulsim, raptim ludere; geminare, revocare, reddere pilam. But it seems that we can only admit of three different kinds of ball; pila, in the more confined sense, the small regular ball, which however might be harder, or more elastic, for different kinds of play; follis, the great ballon, as the name indicates, merely filled with air (like our foot-ball) and paganica. Concerning the use of the last we have the least information; Martial mentions it only in two passages, vii. 32:

Non pila, non follis, non te paganica thermis
Praeparat, aut nudi stipitis ictus hebes.

and xiv. 45:

Haec quae difficili turget paganica pluma,
Folle minus laxa est, et minus arta pila.

As the paganica is opposed in both places to the follis and the pila, and no fourth kind is mentioned in addition to them, we must suppose that one or other of these three balls was used in all varieties of the game. The words paganica, folle minus laxa, minus arta pila, are incorrectly explained by Rader and Mercurialis, as applying to the contents of the ball. The use of both adjectives leaves no doubt that the size of the ball is spoken of, and in this respect it stood between the follis and pila. No doubt it also so far differed from the former, that it was stuffed with feathers, and was consequently somewhat heavier; this is all that we know about it. The poet gives no hint concerning the origin of the name, nor about the game for which it was used. On an intaglio in Beger, (Thes. Brand. 139), a naked male figure sits holding in each hand a ball, supposed to be the paganica, because apparently too small for the follis, and too large for the pila, for they are not clasped within the hand. But this is evidently a very insecure argument, and, as regards the game, nothing would follow from it.

… so it seems likely that the golf connection was solely made on the basis of balls filled with feathers (as were early golf balls); no mention of a ‘club’ really, so, as often, a likely spurious connection.

The Search for Cleo’s Tomb is on Again!

Brief item from CDN (dated February 14) … just the concluding bit:

[…]

Explicó que en su visita al presidente Medina le contó de su experiencia, y le informó que ha recibido los permisos de lugar para iniciar una nueva temporada.

La arqueóloga informó que la investigación comenzó en el año 2005 y que actualmente solo le quedan unos meses para finalizar dicha investigación.

“Será el próximo domingo cuando iniciemos la etapa final, la más importante del proyecto y el Presidente de la República se sintió muy orgulloso y me brindó todo su apoyo”, dijo.

In case you don’t want to press the google translate button, basically Martinez has the permit by now and is digging for at least a month … stay tuned.