Friday, August 8, 2014

The Battle of Actium, September 2, 31 BCE

The battle for the Roman world
Came down to boy meets boy meets girl:
Antonius, Caesar’s magister,
Was mired in a love affair
With Cleopatra Philopater
(Who also was his children’s mater).

He picked a very foolish fight--
In truth he wasn’t very bright.
He challenged young Octavian
Agrippa, and his navy and
Then with his queen began a battle
With ships stuffed full of sails and chattel.

Thus the once-triumvirate
Their ships with weapons aristate,
Met and clashed in mighty fracas
Rome v. posse comitatus,
Led by M. Vipsan. Agrippa
Naval whiz and valiant skipper.

For Cleo and Marc Antony
There would be no amnesty;
In manner most Shakespearian
(Some would say, ophidian)
They shuffled off their mortal coils
Leaving Rome with all the spoils.

Octavian had won the Nile,
Its grain, its every crocodile;
And though the war was slightly civil
No one raised the smallest cavil
Octavian, in fact of matter
Was made a triple triumphator.

And so that day at Actium
Augustus won imperium.
Like a less depressed Aeneas,
(Devoid of any thought impious)
He gave the world the Pax Romana
In truth, Memento Augustana*.

*Neuter accusative plural- things Augustan.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

King Mesha of Moab

Mesha was a king of Moab, Israel's neighbor, in the 9th century BCE. He was a contemporary of the kings Omri and Ahab who was husband of Jezebel of Tyre. He took back Moabite land that the Israelites had conquered and commemorated his deeds in the Mesha stele, also called the Moabite Stone.

It's interesting for a number of reasons: it tells the Biblical story of the Moabite revolt from the other side; it contains the earliest extra-biblical mention of YHWH, and it may (depending on how you read it) mention the House of King David. It's also a look at what a king deemed worthy to record: battles, building projects, and his devotion to his god, Kemosh.

Wikipedia has a rather good literal translation as well as the story of the stele's discovery. The Israelite side of the story is in 2 Kings 3. The biblical version describes, "King Mesha of Moab ... used to deliver to the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs, and the wool of one hundred thousand rams" and also mentions that Mesha sacrificed the eldest son of the Edomite king to his god Chemosh.

For your pleasure, I present my translation in verse, a la Thomas Macauley. The spelling of the proper names is subjective since the Hebrew/Moabite language does not record vowels. The last lines of the stele are quite damaged.

The Mesha Stele
I am King Mesha, Kemosh-yatti’s son
He ruled 30 years, and then my day begun.
After my father, the Dibonite lord,
I ruled over Moab and saw my reward.
I built this high place for Kemosh in Qarcho
By his stern grace I had quashed all of our foes.

Omri was then-king of Israel’s land
He swore he would show me the might of his hand.
His son also ruled and he swore to oppress
And while Kemosh was angry, he found brief success,
But city by city, I did repossess.
Forever I conquered his house and his nation
Devastation I wreaked for all generations.

Omri had ruled in the land of Medaba
For 40 years clutching his desert-derata.

But Kemosh returned it to Moab and Mesha
And I, King of Moab, restored its foundation.
Baalmeon I built and I stockpiled its waters
Qiryaten I built; Ataroth I slaughtered.
The once-king of Israel had built it for Gad
But I gave it to Kemosh, and all that they had,
The hearth-altar of David I dragged to Qiryot
I settled there men of Sharon and Machrot.

Now Kemosh said, “Go, from the Ivri take Nebo!”
I travelled by night--“cherem” was my credo.
I fought through the dawn to the heat of the day
Men, women and children, all were my prey,
Seven thousand I killed, nor once did I falter.
And the vessels of YHWH?  Ashtar-Kemosh’s altar.

Yahaz was once built by Israel’s king
But he ran from his city when he felt the sting
And the lash of Kemosh who drove him out
So I seized all his captains and finished the rout.
I annexed it to Dibon, by his own chosen men,
I made Qarcho better than once it had been:
The acropolis, gates, its towers and waters
A fine royal palace, all built by my orders.

In the midst of the city, no cistern was there,
So I built water channels and made it my care
Each man for his home would have its own well
All built by my prisoners from Eretz Israel.

Aroer I built, and the roadway of Arnon
The ruins of Bet-bamot, I next turned my eyes on;
Bezer lay in ruins before Mesha of Dibon,
Bet-Medaba, Diblaten and Bet-Baalmeon,
All these I rebuilt, and for many were rubble
The heaps became towers and Moab redoubled.

The men of all Dibon stood in formation
For I held all of Dibon in my subjugation.

I ruled over hundreds in my annexed towns
I grazed my fine flocks in lands all around.

The house of old David had dwelt in Hauranen,
But Kemosh said, Mesha, go down, put your hand in
He delivered Hauranen, just as he swore it,
In my days, the great days, Lord Kemosh restored it.

[Reconstructed final lines]
From the high place of justice, I rule Moab’s land
By Kemosh’s will and the power of my hand.
Secure in my kingship, I say from my throne:
Woe to the one who smashes this stone
Woe to the king who erases my name
May he go down to death with no son, with no fame
The throne of my kingship will overturn—never.
Mesha rules Moab from now till for ever.


They say I gave innumerable flocks
“Paid tribute” is their taunt.
They say I sacrificed a prince
Believe it if you want.

My stele is as black as night
Endless is my fame
Son of Kemosh, Moabite,
Mesha is my name.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Many Waters

Stories of a great deluge occur across many cultures. The return of the primeval waters drowns wickedness and leads to a regenesis of life.

Speculations on the historical source of these stories include a meteor, a tsumani caused by the eruption of Thera and changing water levels after the last ice age. There is no geological evidence in Mesopotamia or Israel of a universal, catastrophic flood.

The flood story word-clouds below (created using Wordle), are Mesopotamian, Greek and biblical. Identify which is which in the comments to win a $5 Amazon gift card.

Extra credit for explaining your reasoning, making a good pun or identifying a common ark-etype.




Good luck!

Update 1/9: won via Facebook!  More coming soon..boatcha coulda got it if you trid-ent!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Headlining at Ashurbanipal's Garden Party

Ashurbanipal was the last powerful Assyrian king, ruling from about 668 BC to 627 BC. He is famous for amassing a large library at Ninevah, lion hunting, military accomplishments and extreme cruelty to his enemies.

Which is why I was surprised, on my visit to the British Museum, to see a wall relief called "The Garden Party of Ashurbanipal:"

Here is Ashurbanipal with his queen, reclining in a leafy pavilion. They are drinking wine and being cooled by fans and serenaded by musicians. The king, as is customary, is depicted as slightly taller, and seated slightly higher than anyone else. The detail of the furniture, the instruments, and the plants, is exquisite. I remember seeing this with my husband and commenting how unusual a domestic and romantic scene like this was in Assyrian art. I really liked the queen's crown too.

My husband, like King Ashurbanipal, had his eye on the big picture. "What's on that tree over there," he asked, "...a head?"

Yes, the King is looking over his queen and her crown, at the head of his recently decapitated enemy, King Teumman of Elam, hung festively in a tree.

Well, why settle for a party lantern when you've got an Elam-(l)ite? Say what you will about their garden parties -- the Assyrians knew how to get ahead.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hercules, Diogenes and Ulysses

Truthfully, I'm not sure the actual title of the fabulous movie referenced above--I think it was "Hercules and the Princess of Troy"--but it featured Hercules, Diogenes and Ulysses. I always liked the combination: one is mythological, one is historical, and one is fictional.  But they're all sailing to(!) Troy and fighting pirates together.

In that spirit, dear reader, I bring you three tag clouds, courtesy of Wordle. One is classical, one is biblical and one is liturgical (from a Jewish poem).  Can you guess which is which?  Extra credit for author or title.  Leave your best guess in the comments!

Mazel tov and bona fortuna!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Gazelles & Warriors in the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) is like a garden in the desert, lush and unexpected. It has more in common with Egyptian love poems than with other books in the Tanach. It's been elaborately allegorized, interpreted in dazzling multiplicity, and called the holy of holies. It's at least 2,000 years old and still packs a poetic punch.

There are many words and phrases that are unique in the Bible and notoriously hard to understand. Here is verse 3, line 5:
I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,   
by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field,
that ye stir not up, nor awake my love,
till he please.

In context, this line doesn't actually seem too strange. The translators are largely consistent here...with the exception of the Septuagint, which balks at swearing by gazelles and hinds (hinds are young female deer). The phrase in question in Hebrew:

בִּצְבָא֔וֹת א֖וֹ בְּאַיְל֣וֹת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה
Bitz'vaot (by the gazlles) o (or)  b'aylot (by the hinds) hsadeh (of the field)

The Septuagint translates:
ὥρκισα ὑμᾶς θυγατέρες Ιερουσαλημ ἐν ταῖς δυνάμεσιν καὶ ἐν ταῖς ἰσχύσεσιν τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἐὰν ἐγείρητε καὶ ἐξεγείρητε τὴν ἀγάπην ἕως ἂν θελήσῃ

“I have adjured you, o daughters of Jerusalem, by the powers and forces of the field,
Do not stir up or awaken love until it wishes.”

Why does the Septuagint translate “by the powers and forces” rather than “by the gazelles and by the does”?

The translator of the Septuagint knows the words as "gazelles and does" and translates them accordingly in Deuteronomy in describing clean and unclean animals. (Deut 12:15, 12:22, 14:5, 15:22). Closer to our passage, the bride compares her lover to a gazelle leaping on the mountains, and the Greek translates "gazelle:" Songs 2:9, 4:5, 7:3, 8:14,  δορκάδι, deer, gazelle, n.f.; in Songs 2:17, δόρκωνι, roe [deer] n.m.. There are two different Greek words but both are for ruminant herbivores, not “powers and forces.” 

So the translator (no surprise) knew what he was reading. But does swearing by gazelles and deer make any sense?  Clearly other translators, like Jerome, saw this as part of the poem's pastoral vibe. But then again, these animals are used elsewhere in the Songs only as part of a metaphor or simile. Moreover they are known for swiftness, as in 2 Samuel 2:18, “Asahel was as quick on his feet as one of the gazelles in the field.” So, the translator might wonder, why swear by a shy animal that would run away?

But what else might these words mean?  The Hebrew word for gazelle, צְבִי (tz'viy) has a second root meaning “beauty, honor” as in the passages Isaiah 13:19, “Babylon, the most admired of kingdoms” and Jeremiah, 3:19, “a beautiful heritage among the armies of nations", nachalat tsviy tsvaot goyim) נַחֲלַת צְבִי צִבְאוֹת גּוֹיִם.

"Beauty" might work as a swear-by but now we have a better choice.  The clue is in Jeremiah’s wordplay: צְבִי צִבְאוֹת, heritage among the armies: צָבָא, army, host.  Heritage=tsviy, (with plural tsvaot) and armies=tsvaot. These root words for "beauty/heritage" and "army" are Jerome sounds like "inheritance of the infantry," only better.

Adonai Tsvaot is Lord of the Hosts, a frequent appellation of God in the Bible. So in fact the verse sounds like "swear by of-the-Hosts"; and “swear by of-the-hosts” could be a read as a shortened form of God's name used out of respect given the context. If I were an Alexandrian Jew, translating my sacred work for a large audience of intellectuals and--heavens forfend--classicists, I might not want to show Jews swearing by animals. (Clean animals, but still). But now I have another interpretation for my tsvaot.

The Greek for Lord of the Hosts: frequently κύριος τῶν δυνάμεων, kurios ton dunameon, (I Kings 18:15, 2 Kings 3:14, Psalm 24:10). So, δυνάμεσιν dunamesin of the field makes sense. δύναμις dunamis means “power, might, strength.”  And "deer" is similar to a word that means "ram" or "oak" or "leaders"; and in it you can hear "El."  Parallelism is the engine of biblical poetry, and isxus, force/strength is a good parallel for dunamis, power.  Isxus also captures the idea of "leaders."

Now we have a nice compromise: the "powers and force of the field" have a nice pastoral quality connoting the numinous powers of the countryside and for the in-crowd, we're really swearing by Jahweh.
Michael Fox, in his wonderful "The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs" (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985) cites a more scholarly and complete version of this argument: 

The best explanation is that of Gordis (1961:26-28), who argues that צְבָא֔וֹת and אַיְל֣וֹת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה are circumlocutions for titles of God, the first for צְבָא֖וֹת אֱלֹהֵי, (God of) Hosts, the second for and El Shadday… The author uses these animal names to avoid divine titles in a secular context…We see here the first sign of a tendency, which becomes important in the Talmudic period, to substitute for divine names and titles in oaths various words, sometimes meaningless words such as “by the fish net” and “by the life of summerfruit.” (Fox, 110)

The "El Shadday" comes from the deer and of-the-field, sadeh. 

So what does the poem say:  armies, gazelles or God?  In a poem filled with wordplay, the answer is surely "yes." Gazelles are often used figuratively of young warriors in the ancient Near East (although the Septuagint translators wouldn't have known that) and the warriors of David make an appearance later in the Song. The circumlocutions for God certainly work; and the gazelles and deer are like the maidens of Jerusalem (all are feminine) and fit the lush pastoral setting.

So knowing all this, we come to the next question: is the speaker, the bride, asking the maidens of Jerusalem to swear by a pun?

“How are you going to make it move? It doesn't have a – "

"Be very quiet," advised the duke, "for it goes without saying."

And, sure enough, as soon as they were all quite still, it began to move quickly through the streets, and in a very short time they arrived at the royal palace.”
― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

I leave it to you, dear reader, to translate.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Lamassu

I was lucky enough to visit the British Museum last year.  My visit was on a Friday night, about an hour before closing, when it had that magic-twilight empty “night at the museum” quality.  

Friday night in Assyria
In the fabulous Assyrian collection is the lamassu, a winged, human-headed lion. He guarded the entrances into the throne room of King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC).  Lamassus also guarded the gates of cities. According to the British Museum, “The helmet with horns indicates the creature's divinity.”

The museum also has relief panels in its Ninevah room showing the transport of lamassu sculptures. According to the Museum, these guys weighed up to 30 tons. You think they would have carved them in place, but maybe the king didn’t like the hammering.

Their most interesting feature, and one I completely failed to notice, is that lamassus all have five legs. From the front, they appear to be standing firm and protecting the gates, and from the side, striding forward, going forth to protect the city.
Photo from the British Museum -
count the feet!

I wonder how this came about? A mistake? Two sculptures seem from an angle that gave someone a great idea?  Or just one visionary sculptor?  If ever you feel like a fifth wheel, remember lamassu guarding the king from the demons of chaos, and take heart. You’re in good company.  

If you want to read more, here is the British Museum’s  description of the lamassu.