Long Form Articles
I began this blog in 2011 writing long-form articles to bring stories from the ancient Near East to a popular audience. While I now write about a wider variety of posts, I still write long-form articles from time to time. Here is the ever-growing archive:
The Assyrian Empire is not commonly recognized for its feats of civil engineering, but the Assyrians made use of such inventions as automatic seeder plows, underwater irrigation channels, canal locks, and the first known aqueducts.
When Marcus Licinius Crassus invaded Parthia in 53 BC, his army of 30,000 men was opposed by only 10,000 troops under the Parthian general Surenas. But Surenas was a master of desert warfare. Under orders to fight a delaying action to give the Parthian king time to gather his army, Surenas instead executed a series of brilliant tactical maneuvers to annihilate the Roman army.
During the Han Dynasty, Chinese explorers and traders occasionally ventured into the vast lands to the west. Some of what they found is recorded in the Weilue and Hou Hanshu, two Chinese histories that also contain an account of the Roman Empire.
It is a common trope to say that Christianity began as a pacifist religion, and only adopted violence as a tool of the state once Christians seized power during the reign of Constantine. But why did Diocletian first have to purge the army before he could begin the great persecution? The pacifist church, it seems, was just one side of the story, and many other Christians were not pacifists and served in the Roman Army in large numbers.
A tour of Parthian batteries, electric catfish, crackpot theories about the Pyramids, and other fun with ancient people’s encounters with electricity.
Diocletian sought to return the Roman Empire to its former strength, and this meant eliminating religious minorities who he blamed for the gods’ disfavor. Gradually, exclusion became vicious persecution.
The obscure story of Himilco the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer who dared to sail north from the Gates of Heracles.
Did you know pin-tumbler locks were first invented in Assyria? Penicillin in ancient Egypt? Beer in Sumer? Automatic doors and vending machines in Roman Egypt? Lenses in Assyria? World maps in Babylonia?
Did you know investment banking first emerged in Babylon? Poison gas in Sassanid Persia? Metal water pipes in Old Kingdom Egypt? That the Suez Canal was preceded by a canal dug during the reign of Darius I of Persia?
How did people from the ancient Near Eastern cultures who created these great inventions react to being superseded by the Roman Empire in power and technological sophistication? Two early Christian writers, Tatian and Clement of Alexandria, directly addressed this issue and reminded the West to remember where many of the inventions it took for granted came from.
Jehoishma daughter of Ananiah was a normal woman from the Jewish community at Elephantine in Egypt in the fifth century. Her life story, preserved on a number of papyrus documents, allows us to explore the concept of “normal.”
Only three women have ever ruled an independent Jewish state: Athaliah, Golda Meir, and Salome Alexandra. Salome ruled the Hasmonean kingdom of Judea at the height of its power and prosperity, a brief interregnum between civil conflicts and foreign domination.
Abgar V was the king of the small kingdom of Osroene, wedged between the competing empires of Rome and Parthia, seated in power in the wealthy trade city of Edessa. But what concerns us here is that in AD 30 he allegedly corresponded by letter with Jesus. Even though this likely never happened, it makes for an entertaining tour of the world of Edessa and some of the first monarchs to convert to Christianity.
Sextus Julius Africanus, forgotten polymath, soldier, general, diplomat, scientist, scholar and historian. He was also a Christian, and at a time when Christians were allegedly pacifists opposed to the Roman government he had favor in the highest circles of Severan politics.
Africanus wrote a detailed manual of military tactics, addressing what he saw as serious shortcomings in the equipment, tactics and training of Roman Army in fighting the Parthians. His writings also give us a sense of Christian views of warfare before Augustine formulated Just War Theory. The goal of war was total annihilation of the enemy, and any means possible was to be used to this end, including poisons, starvation, and chemical and biological weapons.
Who were the Magi who arrived after the birth of Jesus? An order of Median priests, watchers of the stars, keepers of sacred fires, and the stuff of many vivid stories and legends.
A great amount of attention has been paid to the historical Jesus, but not so much to the historical Mary. Was she poor? Was she consecrated at the temple? Why does so much meaning become attached to these interpretations? Exploring her life in history and tradition reveals some surprising results.
What happens when you get shot with a catapult? How much of a punch did an ancient ballista pack? Ancient accounts and archaeology can both help answer this question.
In Homer, Greeks and Trojans fought a long siege over a woman. In reality, Greeks and other Aegean peoples raided the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean at the collapse of the late Bronze Age. In Greek historical memory, they tended to remember the latter as what really happened.
2 Chronicles 26:25 describes the installation of “engines of war” built “for the purpose of shooting arrows and great stones” in the walls of Jerusalem? Was the catapult invented in Judah? Unlikely. But various claims have been made about the possibility of the catapult being invented long before it was allegedly invented in the workshops of Syracuse 399 BC. But ultimately, the evidence just isn’t there.