The Ancient Historian

Ancient history, mountaineering, cycling and other outside adventures

Climbing Mt Whitney in March

Finally, I am getting around to reporting on my climb of Mt Whitney via the Mountaineer’s route this past March. As usual, I used IMG, simply an outstanding guiding company, and they did not disappoint. A first class experience all the way. That does not mean it was easy, because it wasn’t. We had a team of five climbers, and two guides, one of whom was one of the owners of IMG and a legend in the mountaineering world, George Dunn. The other guide was Tristan Sieleman, of Sierra Mountaineering International, an authorized guiding company in the Inyo National Forest. One heck of a great guide. So we were set for an adventure. I fly into Las Vegas on March 12, picked up the car ( a yellow bug ?!), hit the cheap hotel, behind the strip, and slept. I spent the next morning waiting for George to arrive, I had great luck that he needed a ride out to Lone Pine CA and I was happy to have his company. We left Vegas around noon and drove West, through Death Valley. Quite something in itself, and my first time seeing this truly spectacular place. Hitting Pahrump NV we passed a promising looking Mexican Restaurant, and had lunch. Simple, but very good. We continued on and hit Lone Pine at around 4 or so. I knew nothing of this town, but it has a real history, and quite a lot of charm for being so remote. I Stayed at the Dow Villa, famous as a place where the movie stars stayed filming the dozens of westerns shot in Lone Pine over the years. A very nice spot. After a quick pizza, I packed up my pack for the early start the next day, took a photo of the Sierras, with Whitney front and center 15 miles away, and wondered what the next day would bring.



The Ptolemaic Serapeum at Sakkara and the Archive of Ptolemy, son of Glaukias, the recluse


I’ve been reading through the early part of a very famous archive from Sakkara, dated to the 160’s BC with students in my Daily Life in the Greek Papyri course this term. It is one of the most fascinating group of texts from the ancient Mediterranean world for sure. Dorothy Thompson’s (who by the way is the next Rostovtzeff lecturer here at Yale, November 2013) Memphis under the Ptolemies, Princeton U Press ( now just out in a 2d ed.) analyzes the archive (all in Greek, but some of the petitions anyway were probably originally in Demotic and translated) in wonderful detail. The BBC did a kind of docudrama of some parts of the archive-makes for fun watching, especially after having read and thought about the texts. I was just recently in Vienna, where the famous Apis embalming text (mentioned in the film) is on display in a lonely corner of one of the rooms. A bit of a shame. It is a profoundly beautiful text written in the finest Demotic hand I’ve ever seen.  There are a few howlers in the film, but it’s fun. The actors are speaking mainly Moroccan Arabic, but there is some Coptic in the dialogue, attempting to vocalize the spoken demotic of the 2d century BC.

The file is here (may take a while to load)

And an American version in 5 parts on Youtube is here

Widespread destruction of antiquities in Egypt continues

From recent BBC reporting found here. Just awfully depressing.

Brief Review of Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization

This brief review, meant to appear in the WSJ, did not make it in, for reasons obscure to me. So I post it here. I am doing a fuller review of it for the Journal of Economic History. After I submitted this, a big piece was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Evolution as Revolution

The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations. (Princeton University Press, 2013).

In this fascinating follow up to his blockbuster Why the West Rules—For now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal about the Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), the historian and archaeologist Ian Morris explains how human civilization in the West and in East Asia (China mainly) have evolved over the last 15,000 years. This is big History, and it is comparative History on a grand scale. Both “big” and “comparative” need to be explained. It has to be big, covering the last 15,000 years, to get a sense of how human societies have developed, and it has to be comparative in order to understand which historical variables matter. Morris’ work is revolutionary and profoundly imaginative, creating a “unified evolutionary theory of history” (p. 238), which, he also hopes, can give us a glimpse of our future.

Morris’ arguments were laid out in great detail in Why the West Rules. The Measure of Civilization now provides an extended analysis of his data. Some of Morris’ historical reconstructions, he freely admits, are educated guesses. And some critics will say that this kind of work goes down the wrong track entirely, analyzing the wrong things—History, critics say, cannot and should not be a predictive science. Economists, too, after all, try to predict the future with sophisticated mathematical models. And they end up being better historians than seers. So is all this imaginative use of historical data worth it? Well, yes.

The idea behind both of Morris’ books is that human societies are biological organisms and, like human evolution, societies evolve or die out. Both of Morris’ volumes are very much in the vein of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. But as in the University of Connecticut Biologist Peter Turchin‘s work in Cliodynamics, Morris wants to quantify human history. He does so in four key variables inspired by the United Nations Human Development Index: energy capture, the “backbone of History” (p. 142), social organization, which is measured by the largest urban settlements in each period, Information Technology, and war-making capacity. The result is what Morris calls the Social Development Index.

In itself, the basic idea behind this work, that history is a laboratory, is not new. The idea of explaining “progress” was a common theme in European scholarship in the 19th century. Morris briefly traces some of this scholarship, beginning with the famous English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who set out, in an essay written in 1857, to explain what lay behind England’s progressive society. There were others. On a geological time scale examining the evolution of living things, there was Charles Darwin, whose famous On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859. For human institutions, there was Henry Maine’s Ancient Law of 1861. Later in Germany, the Sociologist Max Weber’s comparative historical analysis formed the basis of all later work in Sociology and Economics. So Morris is in fairly good company. But his efforts at quantifying social development are new and highly imaginative.

Why should the general reader care? Take a quick look at any of Morris’ charts. They all move rightward and explosively upward after 1800. The perspective that Morris gives us by quantifying the human experience will give the reader pause. We live in a rapidly changing world, with a population approaching seven billion, with resource competition and climate change. Morris’ historical techniques here are valuable. The implications in both of Morris’ studies are important; we may well be reaching a “hard ceiling” as he calls it, of energy capture, and of our ability to sustain economic growth.

What about lived human experience on an individual level, the great stories, the ideas, institutions, historical experience creating national identity, Culture with a capital “C.” This is, after all is what most historians of most places write about. Insignificant? Well no, says Morris. But humans are essentially the same everywhere, and over the longer run Culture does not explain very much. What matters for Morris instead are the “hard” realities of the world, the biology of human populations, behavior in groups (sociology) and location (geography). Examine these and you get why History really matters—why and how are human civilization successful, or not.

Morris has given us a model on long-term historical change. One might add important contingencies, of course; global pandemic would be one. There are other scales of historic time one can consider, more middle range and focused on political economies. And certainly one can quibble. Take, for example, geographical boundaries and time scale. His “classical Mediterranean” world, 500 BC-200 AD, is centered on Greece and Rome, or “southern Europe.” But there were contemporary civilizations in western and southwestern Asia (modern western Turkey, Syria, Egypt) that were at least as developed. The “reforming” rulers Akhenaten and Nefertiti are accused by Morris of a “bizarre religious and political experiment” (p. 141). I see it, rather, as an attempt (failed ultimately) of political and religious reform, indeed of transformation. But there is more to it. Just after their reign, ca. 1300 BC, Egyptian religion did transform, in processes we do not fully understand, long before the Philosopher Karl Jasper’s Axial Age civilizations, the subject of some attention in Why the West Rules (p. 669). Notably Jaspers left Egypt out of the story of civilizational transformation seen in Greek, Indian Hebrew and Chinese philosophers. But Egypt was simply precocious in transforming earlier. It is not an accident that one of the most famous poems in the Book of Psalms (104) bears great similarity to one of Akhenaten’s famous hymns to the sun. We should not brush aside such interconnections. Yet Morris’ higher-level view is crucial. He does not regale the reader with tales. Instead, his work reconstructs the underlying story of the lived human experience.

Will we humans face collapse and extinction, or create a unified world civilization? Or is there a third path in between these yet to be imagined? I don’t have the answer. And Morris honestly says that he doesn’t either. But this book, like his brilliant Why the West Rules, should be required reading for everyone interested in the fate of humans on the planet.

Destination Mt Whitney

Just finished packing up the duffels, leaving tomorrow for the Inyo National Forest via Las Vegas and Lone Pine CA to climb My Whitney in Late Winter. It offers up special challenges, including fairly heavy snow on the approach, so that means snowshoes and heavy packs going in.  We are climbing the Mountaineer’s route. If you look at Whitney in the far right of this photo, we climb up the couloir which is quite visible, and steep! And them a scramble up to the top. I’ve been training, but I never do feel it is enough-the mountain will certainly finish the job of good training, no doubt. One of the more interesting features of this climb is that, driving through Vegas and Death Valley, I will go from the lowest point of the continental US to the highest in just a couple of days. Full report when I get down on Sunday. There should be a blog post or two on the IMG blog, and if I can update you all via twitter, I will. One of the treats on this climb are there are just 5 of us plus two guides, one of whom is the legendary climber George Dunn, an owner of IMG. A serious privilege to climb with someone of that caliber and experience for sure.


Important New Dead Sea Scolls Book

My friend and colleague John Collins of the Yale Divinity School has recently published a great new book on the Dead Sea Scrolls- The Dead Sea Scrolls. A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2012. He was interviewed on February 4th by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. You can listen here.

Cover of The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography

Land and power in the ancient world

The 3d meeting of the Austrian Academy of Sciences sponsored project at the University of Vienna, “Imperium et Officium” will take place in a couple of weeks. I’ve been lucky enough to be an external partner of this project and have attended the launching meeting a few years ago as well as the meeting last year on Bureaucracy and law. My Austrian colleagues are superb hosts and this promises to be an outstanding academic meeting. This year the theme is “Land and Power,” a topic close to my heart, and it gives me an opportunity to revisit an important topic and to see many old friends. It’s a great program of papers:

Programme (provisional)

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

9–9.30 a.m. Welcome address by Jursa, Michael and Palme, Bernhard (Vienna)

Section 1: Elite Formation

Chair: Jursa, Michael

9.30–10 a.m. Garfinkle, Steven J. (Washington): Landownership and Office-Holding: Pathways to Privilege and Authority under the Third Dynasty of Ur

10–10.30 a.m. Kaiser, Anna (Vienna): Flavius Athanasius, dux et Augustalis Thebaidis

10.30–11 a.m. coffee break

11–11.30 a.m. Scheuble-Reiter, Sandra (Chemnitz): Military Service and the Allotment of Land in Ptolemaic Egypt

11.30–12 a.m. Paulus, Susanne (Münster): The System of Landownership in the Middle Babylonian Time (1500–1000 BC)

12 a.m.–2 p.m. lunch break

Section 2: Feudalisms

Chair: Baker, Heather

2–2.30 p.m. Sarris, Peter (Cambridge): Land and Power in Byzantium c. 700–1000

2.30–3 p.m. Moreno García, Juan Carlos (Paris): Land, Elites and Officialdom in Pharaonic Egypt: Land Tenure Strategies in Elite Building and State Reproduction

3–3.30 p.m. Mazza, Roberta (Manchester): Land and Power in Late Antiquity: The Egyptian Point of View

3.30–4 p.m. coffee break

4–4.30 p.m. Reculeau, Hervé (Paris): Patrimonial and Official Land-Tenure in 2nd Millennium Upper Mesopotamia

4.30–5 p.m. Tost, Sven (Vienna): The riparii domorum gloriosarum: Police Power and Large-Scale Landholding in Late Antique Egypt

5–5.30 p.m. Selz, Gebhard (Vienna): Land, Property and Rights of Disposal: A Glimpse at Mesopotamian Sources of the 3rd Millennium

Keynote address:

6.30–8 p.m. Morony, Michael (Los Angeles): Issues and Opportunities in the Study of Land and Power

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Section 3: Centre and Periphery I

Chair: Tost, Sven

9.30–10 a.m. Waerzeggers, Caroline (Leiden): The Persian State in Babylonia: Integration and Control of Office-Holding Élites

10–10.30 a.m. Malczycki, W. Matt (Auburn): Caliphal Policy and the Baladiyyūn of Ifriqiya 757–800 CE

10.30–11 a.m. coffee break

11–11.30 a.m. Pirngruber, Reinhard (Vienna): Land and Power in Late Achaemenid Babylonia

11.30–12 a.m. Palme, Bernhard (Vienna): From City Council to Senate: Landlords from Late Antique Egypt Becoming Imperial Aristocrats

12 a.m.–2 p.m. lunch break

Section 4: Control and Taxation of the Country and its People

Chair: Procházka, Stephan

2–2.30 p.m. Varisco, Daniel Martin (Hempstead): Why the Sultan is Rich: A Case Study of Bureaucracy in Rasulid Yemen (13th–14th centuries)

2.30–3 p.m. Kehoe, Dennis (New Orleans): Urbanization, Land, and Political Control in the Roman Empire

3–3.30 p.m. Frantz-Murphy, Gladys (Denver): Environment and History in the Early Islamic Middle East

3.30–4 p.m. coffee break

4–4.30 p.m. Manning, Joseph (New Haven): Patrimonial Power, State Power, and Land in Greco-Roman Egypt

4.30–5 p.m. Heidemann, Stefan (Hamburg): The Seljuq Form of Government in Northern Syria and Northern Mesopotamia

Friday, 22 February 2013

Section 5: Centre and Periphery II

Chair: Palme, Bernhard

9.30–10 a.m. Mathisen, Ralph (Urbana): The Settlement of Barbarians in the Late Roman World: Barbarians Who Got Something

10–10.30 a.m. Baker, Heather (Vienna): Land and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire

10.30–11 a.m. coffee break

11–11.30 a.m. Bsees, Ursula (Vienna): The Partition of Land and Power at the Periphery: Some Notes on the Agreements between St Catherine’s Monastery and Surrounding Bedouin


11.30 a.m.–13.00 p.m. Résumé by Keenan, James (Chicago) and general discussion

Ice Festival in North Conway NH ending today

The great ice festival up at Mt Washington, now 20 years old (!) and run by the great people at IME and the International Mountain Climbing School ended today. I was hoping to get up there but alas, work prevailed. This is fast becoming one of the best ice climbing festivals, not as sexy as Ouray maybe, but a cooler, and older, event (alright, I show my regional prejudice). They had awful weather last year, this year, lots of cold and ice.


Yale Himalaya Show

Yale University has, I just learned (!) a famous collection of Himalaya material. For an orientation to the collections, see here. As part of the Yale Himalaya Initiative, a show of a part of the collection will open next week at Sterling Library. It looks like a great show. I plan on getting involved in the Himalaya Initiative, so I’ll be reporting on their events from time to time-they have a great line up of lectures and movies about the region from many points of view. A high res poster image can be grabbed here.


studying Egyptian papyri in the shadow of Mt Fuji, Japan

RJ and I have finished our first day examining a collection of papyri at Tokai University, near Mt Fuji. A gloriously clear day, as you can see. Wanted very much to get some climbing in, and what a beautiful mountain! Anyway, we spent all day looking at texts, and there were many surprises, including finding several Saite Period documents, and some Ptolemaic documents (fragmentary, but some good information) and even a few late Greek texts as well. Quite a range of material

More anon of course


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