A d F o n t e s

(Latin: "to the sources")

Rathbone’s Economic Rationalism: Now “more saleable” than title suggests

Dominic Rathbone’s excellent study on economic sophistication in Roman Egypt is now in paperback.


This is great: it’s one of those studies that anyone interested in papyrology or economic history should really read and thoroughly digest. However, underscoring just how momentous an occasion this is, Cambridge University Press wrote this concerning the book:

• Growing interest in Roman Egypt • Valuable presentation of papyrus records • Much more saleable than is immediately suggested by the title

Indeed. The hardcover’s original list price was $140–the paperback is a mere $55.


June 28, 2007 Posted by | Academy, Classics, Papyrology | 1 Comment

Holy Grail Discovered!! (?!)

Indy and the Holy Grail

Here’s the jist:

ROME, June 21 (UPI) — An Italian archeologist says the Holy Grail — a cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper — is buried beneath a church in Rome.

Alfredo Barbagallo said ancient records show the cup is buried in a chamber beneath the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, one of the seven churches Christian pilgrims used to visit when they came to Rome, The (London) Telegraph said Thursday.

The archaeologist said he spent two years studying medieval iconography inside the basilica, and a description of the chamber in a guide to the catacombs written in 1938 by a Capuchin friar named Giuseppe Da Bra.

He said the cup, given the name the Holy Grail in the Middle Ages, disappeared in A.D. 258 after a deacon named Lorenzo — with whom Pope Sixtus V reportedly entrusted treasures of the early Church — was martyred.

Hmm… What do you think? It’s still very hard for me to imagine that at any point during or after the Supper or after the crucifixion that the disciples or the house owner would’ve decided to go find the cup and keep it, or that anyone that early in the Jesus movement would’ve cared.

HT: Paleojudaica

June 22, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Cicero, Roman Citizenship, and Due Process

Cicero Against Catiline

In my Latin class, we read a lot of Cicero. It is apparently an odd thing because his Latin is often so difficult that he–along with Sallust and Tacitus–is avoided till much later. I’m glad we are because I’m finding I enjoy his writing a lot. It’s the kind of thing that one can’t appreciate in English translation, like literatures of just about any language I’d imagine. I used to suppose that people thought Cicero was “so great” because such people were posturing or because what else would you say about one of the few such texts in Latin preserved (yes, we have a fair amount in Republican Latin, but much less than compared with other periods in history). I was wrong: he really is awesome. Part of it is he’s about the most cocky and insulting author you’ll ever read, but he is incredibly creative with his words. Like Reagan times 100. Its worth reading Latin just to read his orations against Verres and Catiline. Similarly is reading the contemporary poet Catullus just to hear him mock Cicero’s poetry, which was apparently so universally bad that none of it was preserved.

Anyway, in ch.12 of Keller and Russel’s Learn to Read Latin we read In Verres II.2.162, which describes Verres’ causeless beating and crucifying of a Roman citizen from Messana (an Italian town) in Sicily, where Verres was proconsul at the time. The scene depicted is interesting because it illustrates the Roman understanding of what Roman citizenship “means”: no punishment w/o due process of law; due process required of a court at Rome; the worst punishment is exile (social death), not execution (physical death). It was an enormous privilege, and when it was violated was a very big deal.

Fast forwarding a few decades to the Empire: for those interested in New Testament, this helps to illustrate Paul’s appeal to Roman Citizenship in Acts, when he was beaten by Roman soldiers, and why he was allowed to make his trip to Rome to beseech the Emperor. They had done as Verres in the century before and seriously violated Paul’s rights under Roman law, and quite possibly they could have been executed for doing so. And while a Roman citizen, his formal judicatory was that of Rome, not necessarily any local or provincial administration. As such, he was entitled to beseech the Emperor himself to judge his issue: namely grievances with the Jews, for which his dealings with the provincial governor got him nowhere.

One interesting question Paul’s behavior in Acts does raise is why he didn’t make use of his right of appeal earlier, when the governor first ruled against him. I’m not sure why. I’ll have to give it more thought. In any event, here’s Cicero’s speech against Verres to the Senate:

In the middle of the forum of Messana a Roman citizen, O judges, was beaten with rods; while in the mean time no groan was heard, no other expression was heard from that wretched man, amid all his pain, and between the sound of the blows, except these words, “I am a Roman citizen.” He judged that by this very reminder of his citizenship he could avert all blows, and remove all torture from his body. He not only did not succeed in averting by his entreaties the violence of the rods, but as he kept on repeating his entreaties and the assertion of his citizenship, a crossa cross I say–was set up for that suffering man, who had never witnessed such ruin.

June 17, 2007 Posted by | Bible, Classics | 5 Comments

Ovid and the Hebrew Bible on Creation (and Giants)

Artist's representation of Ovid's creation account.

In preparation for beginning my new PhD program in Classical Studies at Columbia, I have been taking intensive Latin courses. In twelve weeks we will have covered two full years of Latin. Westminster did a similar thing with Hebrew–one year in a summer. This is much much worse. I’m grateful for it because in a few short weeks I should be able to actually digest Virgil’s Anneid or Caesar’s Gallic Wars, but the course is so consuming that I wonder whether it’s even ethical to offer it. But like I said, I’m grateful, especially since I’ll have a Latin reading requirement for my PhD.

Anyway, we’re using a new textbook: Learn to Read Latin by Keller and Russel, which also comes with a very helpful workbook. One of the purposes of the book is to introduce students to “real Latin” early and throughout because the shock of encountering “real Latin” after finishing the intro grammars is one of students’ common complaints. It’s great though I do have some criticisms of the book–particular, it’s incredibly verbose, uses footnotes poorly, doesn’t have enough examples or tables and uses them inconsistently, doesn’t do enough internal cross-referencing, and isn’t thoroughly presented in outline form like other grammars–but I hope it’ll accomplish its purpose nevertheless.

One of the passages we were assigned to read earlier in the book was a selection from the Augustan author Ovid’s Metamorphoses (late 1st, early 2nd c. CE), a collection of 250 poems on the change of forms, beginning with the creation of the world. This account has a striking set of similarities to the Biblical account in Genesis 1. The poem is quite long, but I’ve quoted it in full below (in English of course)

Before the ocean and the earth appeared–
before the skies had overspread them all–
the face of Nature in a vast expanse
was naught but Chaos uniformly waste.
It was a rude and undeveloped mass,
that nothing made except a ponderous weight;
and all discordant elements confused,
were there congested in a shapeless heap.

As yet the sun afforded earth no light,
nor did the moon renew her crescent horns;
the earth was not suspended in the air
exactly balanced by her heavy weight.
Not far along the margin of the shores
had Amphitrite stretched her lengthened arms,–
for all the land was mixed with sea and air.
The land was soft, the sea unfit to sail,
the atmosphere opaque, to naught was given
a proper form, in everything was strife,
and all was mingled in a seething mass–
with hot the cold parts strove, and wet with dry
and soft with hard, and weight with empty void.

But God, or kindly Nature, ended strife–
he cut the land from skies, the sea from land,
the heavens ethereal from material air;
and when were all evolved from that dark mass
he bound the fractious parts in tranquil peace.
The fiery element of convex heaven
leaped from the mass devoid of dragging weight,
and chose the summit arch to which the air
as next in quality was next in place.
The earth more dense attracted grosser parts
and moved by gravity sank underneath;
and last of all the wide surrounding waves
in deeper channels rolled around the globe.

And when this God –which one is yet unknown–
had carved asunder that discordant mass

Then poured He forth the deeps and gave command
that they should billow in the rapid winds,
that they should compass every shore of earth.
he also added fountains, pools and lakes,
and bound with shelving banks the slanting streams,
which partly are absorbed and partly join
the boundless ocean…

At His command the boundless plains extend,
the valleys are depressed, the woods are clothed
in green, the stony mountains rise…

…And scarcely had He separated these
and fixed their certain bounds, when all the stars,
which long were pressed and hidden in the mass,
began to gleam out from the plains of heaven,
and traversed, with the Gods, bright ether fields:
and lest some part might be bereft of life
the gleaming waves were filled with twinkling fish;
the earth was covered with wild animals;
the agitated air was filled with birds.

But one more perfect and more sanctified,
a being capable of lofty thought,
intelligent to rule, was wanting still
man was created!
Did the Unknown God
designing then a better world make man
of seed divine? or did Prometheus
take the new soil of earth (that still contained
some godly element of Heaven’s Life)
and use it to create the race of man;
first mingling it with water of new streams;
so that his new creation, upright man,
was made in image of commanding Gods?

…and so it was that shapeless clay put on
the form of man till then unknown to earth.

Ok, that was still long. But lets summarize some of these neat parallels:

*Ovid’s earth was formless and void
*it didn’t initially have light
*Ovid’s god separated the waters from the waters
*the earth arose from the waters, collected, and solidified in one place
*Ovid’s god carved into a world of hills, plains, lakes, and rivers
*the god then created animals
*he then created humans from clay and made them in the image of the gods.
*man is intelligent and is fit to rule the earth
*man was also put on earth to till the ground.

Another interesting parallel comes in third of Ovid’s poems: on the “Gigantes,” giants. Those who know the Hebrew of Gen 6 and the history of Biblical interpretation also know that at some point after the creation, the “sons of god” had sex with the “daughters of man,” whose offspring were understood by the ancients to be giants. Though Ovid’s story doesn’t share the origin of these giants with ancient Bible interpreters, he nevertheless does assume they were present in primordial history. And it is worth bearing in mind that the presence of these giants goes far further back in the Greek and Roman west than the 1st c. CE: it’s present already in the days of Homer and Herodotus, back around the centuries with Gen 1-3 were probably penned.

…More later if I have time.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Bible, Classics | 1 Comment

It’s a Great Time to be in My Late-20’s

My wife and I were walking through one of Manhattan’s street fairs yesterday, and I happened to notice the poster on a billboard like this one:

My jaw dropped. Really?! A Transformers movie?! Could it really be?! I used to watch this show all the time when I was a kid in the 80’s. To see them alive on the big screen would just be incredible–too good to be true. So I got home and googled it to find out if it were true: sure is, out on 7/4, the same day that that Independence Day came out (I don’t know why that came to mind).

The trailer looked pretty cool, I must admit. It got me excited–got my wife excited too (she also was a Transformers fan as a kid). The only fear I had was that the movie could never capture the depth of character development and relationship building that occurred in the cartoons–both of which were pretty sophisticated. But hey, the series went on for several years and it seems to me some crucial bots were left out of this movie (e.g. the Dinobots), so perhaps there’s possibility for a sequel.

In any event, I think I’ll enjoy this. I have a feeling that though kids nowadays will enjoy it too, though I’m positive only people my age will truly be able to appreciate how important, how historically momentous this movie really is. The new Transformers movie just adds to the g

June 4, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Brewing Crisis for Cappuccino Connoisseurs


I’ve noticed a growing problem. It is getting harder and harder to find a properly made latte or cappuccino. More and more, when I go to a coffee shop and dare to try the cappuccino, I get something that has two distinct qualities: (a) they don’t use espresso beans, but finely ground normal beans, and (b) a thick layer of burnt milk, not foam on top of the drink. Those of who have had a properly made espresso drink like a latte or cappuccino, you know that this is an atrocity. Anyway, this new phenomenon is disgusting. I suspect that’s a major reason why so many coffee shops have so many different flavor options, e.g. the cinnamon, hazelnut, etc. They realize the sheer unimpressiveness of the drink they’ve created, and therefore need to mask it with something that actually tastes good. This new “version” of espresso drink has become so entrenched in the American coffee palate that it’s now culturally acceptable, or even preferred. It’s hard to find a good espresso drink because people don’t even know what it tastes like anymore—if they ever did to begin with—much less how to make it.

At least in New York, one cause of this phenomenon is pretty easy to see. I make it a point to chit chat with virtually every barista I meet at virtually every coffee shop I visit. One thing I’ve observed is that a significant percentage of them are former Starbucks employees and that the coffee-making techniques they employ are those they learned while on the job there, and which in turn is what they teach others.

That makes sense, though I should emphasize Starbucks isn’t wholly to blame (and here I should state (a) my goal is not to bash Starbucks but to explain a phenomenon, and (b) in real life I am a loyal Starbucks fan with many friends who are employees). I’d heard before that often Starbucks stores pass off finely ground coffee beans for espresso beans since it’s cheaper and customers don’t know the difference. I definitely know I’ve tasted it: it’ll taste weaker than espresso, won’t smell the same, won’t have the same kick. And I’ve watched how Starbucks employees make foam: they dunk the whole steamer in the milk and cook it until burnt milk collects on the surface of the container. The taste here is also different: burnt milk isn’t as dense as foam, its kinda bubbly like soap, it tastes bad, and will collapse in on itself a few minutes after being poured into a drink. Part of the reason they do this, I think, is just because it’s faster.
(bad cappuccino)

What you’re supposed to do is barely touch the steamer to the top of the milk, and do so at an angle, which will produce a loud hissing sound. As the milk heats it will fill up and mix with the air, and will produce a thick foam that can float on top of the drink and stay there.
Good Cappuccino
(good cappuccino)

In any event, the bad cappuccino/latte technique spreads, and thus New Yorkers get used to it. It’s all there is.

I suspect this kind of phenomenon explains a lot about bad cappuccinos and lattes in the rest the US too, though Starbucks can only be partially to blame (most coffee shop employees outside places like NYC are probably not former Starbucks employees). But since they are so popular, I still think they play a role in forming the broader American coffee tastes. And those tastes reinforce the reproducing the technique, even if the origin is indirect. But also, I wouldn’t be surprised if some coffee shops that want cappuccinos and lattes simply imitate what they see at other stores (or Starbucks), and therefore make their drinks incorrectly out of ignorance. It’s not obvious that one should use a different kind of bean for espresso than for normal drip; and it’s not obvious that foaming milk takes more than just heating it with a steamer. The subtleties need explaining—and practicing: it took me a lot of practice working in a store before I could foam milk correctly.

In any event, and however one explains this problem, I’m bummed. I had a good cappuccino back in January in Chicago, when my wife’s friend took me to a good place near Northwestern. I haven’t had a good one since. For New Yorkers who starve for a good cappuccino , my advice for New Yorkers is to instead get café con leche from good Dominican, Mexican, or Puerto Rican restaurants. One of my faves is La Floridita on 125th & Broadway; and (surprisingly) Havanna Central on 114th & Broadway isn’t bad (I say surprisingly b/c its bad overpriced Americanized latin American food).

June 1, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments