Ancient Maximalism! or ‘What BAR would Publish if it had existed in Antiquity’

I thought I might start a new series of posts over time collecting and blogging about ancient rationalizations about the past.  Our first contender for BAR fame? Palaephatus.  Now Palaephatus wrote in his introduction to his work Περὶ ἀπίστων:

Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them.  Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened.  My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories.  For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.

Palaephatus lists a great deal of “true stories” behind the myths.   In his work, he writes that Centaur’s were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)!  And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!


2 Responses

  1. Richard Carrier talks a great deal about how christianity in the first hundred years appealed to folks that were quite unhappy with their lives and society, how they were very uncritical, and how they were very similar to what people see as modern new agers (very uncritical, putting total emphasis on feelings). Links to all the chapters available here;

    Feel free to email me if this or any topic in early christian history interests you.


  2. Thank you for your comments on Palaephatus, whom I must write something about.

    The comment about Ignatius seemed a little odd to me; until I realised that these were presuming that an arrested person in antiquity (or, indeed, until very modern times) would be held in the sort of way that a modern police force would do. This is to forget the very different world that he lived in.

    I’m a bit tempted to write a blog post, following on from these remarks about Ignatius, because I think the misunderstanding might be widespread, and you put it very well. Would you feel pilloried, tho, if I did, and quoted them? (With or without your name)

    Just grabbing one item:

    “…only to be supplied by those same Romans with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about his same forbidden religion?”

    But would a prisoner be supplied by the guards with anything? Even food? He certainly would not be in English prisons until prison reform in the 19th century, you know, as we can see in the prison scenes in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers) If it worked like that, he could have anything he cared to buy. They just chained him up and ensured he was delivered to Rome. He was undoubtedly free to dictate to a slave — why write? — anything he wanted said to anyone. The soldiers wouldn’t care what he did, so long as he didn’t escape. Anyone could come and go.

    In a modern society we all have the legacy of Christianity, that laws should be obeyed, and endless spying and surveillance to make sure we do. Neither was true in antiquity. The ruler was just some greedy foreigner far away. Nobody in Greece pays tax even today, I am told, unless someone stands over them. So it was then.

    The fact that something was illegal meant only that a local authority could do something to someone without fear of a complaint to the emperor. Sometimes they did it anyway, legal or illegal (see Cicero In Verrem). Most of the time they did what the emperor wanted, which was keep the peace and send home taxes. The rest really did not matter.

    “And are we then to assume that his letters were kept or sent out by these same Romans”

    Not at all. His slaves arranged for messengers.

    “Are we to believe he had other ‘illegal Christian’ visitors”

    Certainly. The guards didn’t care, remember. He was arrested only because he annoyed someone powerful in Antioch. The charge was Christianity because that charge was available and convenient.

    There were Christians present at some of the executions at the Lyons persecution. One of them even ventured to object to some of the proceedings as illegal. Tertullian wrote his Apology direct to the magistrates of the city; and a letter to the proconsul, Scapula. Because Christianity was illegal, Christians could be harassed and blackmailed. But what Roman authorities wanted most was order; and, unless there was a reason, they tended to be reluctant to be all ideological about it.

    We must always remember that the Roman empire was not like a modern state. It did not possess any of the methods of enforcement that the latter possesses, nor the cohesion of a modern nation state. If we forget this, we will continually fall into anachronism.

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