A eunuch who founded a small empire and more

This review of Ancient History Magazine issue 3 was originally published in NRC Handelsblad of 28 May 2016, written by Hendrik Spiering (source: NRC Media, Hendrik Spiering). It was translated from the Dutch by Christy Beall.

Every information junkie and lover of ancient history that takes a look through the pages of Ancient History Magazine will have a difficult time suppressing both a shout of joy and perhaps also a sigh of relief. That’s because this bi-monthly, English language magazine (published in the Netherlands) is absolutely chock-full of interesting facts about antiquity that you’ve probably never heard before. You won’t find any pedantic explanations meant to win souls here, with the usual absurd parallels to contemporary events, but instead clear and factual accounts concerning largely unknown facets of the ancient world. This is a true feast for the history lover, but definitely a serious feast. Nonetheless, it remains quite accessible for the beginner.

In this issue, we are presented with some less well-known facts concerning the intriguing city of Hatra in Northern Iraq: the site of a mysterious temple complex and a failed siege by the Romans, it was eventually destroyed completely by the Sassanid Persians. We get to read – over the course of several articles – an in-depth history of the kingdom of Pergamon, located along the coast of Ionia. A eunuch originally founded this powerful city-state in 300 BC. Having been entrusted with the wealth of one of Alexander the Great’s successors, he was sent to the area, only to strike out on his own. His nephew succeeded him and went on to found a successful dynasty.

The city was famed for both its library and its rivalry with Alexandria as a center for knowledge and learning. The fairly famous story that parchment was first invented in Pergamon is (fortunately!) included, but (obviously!) also given some context. It seems probable that book-crazy Pergamon invested heavily in the production of parchment when Egypt decided to ban the export of papyrus. In what is certainly an appropriate digression on this same topic, the magazine also includes an excellent article on papyrus (which contains a section on how you too can make a sheet of papyrus, ready for writing).

Also unique in this issue is an ode to the Roman segmental bridge, a completely underappreciated piece of Roman ingenuity. This type of arched bridge – to put it plainly – was not in the shape of a simple half-circle (the standard ‘Roman’ arch), but rather taken from a smaller segment of the circle. This type of bridge can span greater distances with a lesser height, and at the same time has a much lighter, more modern form. This type of construction is generally seen as medieval, but nothing, it turns out, is further from the truth.

From the perspective of an academic journalist, it is perhaps surprising that the topics of the articles don’t really have any specific goal or purpose: a new perspective, a recently released study, or a new book? No, not really. But, so what? You could also say that this magazine fits perfectly with the definition of ‘news’: something that you don’t yet know, but would definitely like to learn. Yes, you do need to be interested in classical antiquity, but that isn’t really such a great obstacle.

Earlier editions have covered topics such as ‘explorers in antiquity’ (did the Carthaginians really sail around Africa?) and ‘Emperor Caracalla’ (what did he do besides murdering his brother Geta?).

The strength of this international magazine is of course its choice of subject matter. It would be easy enough for it to drown in an endless sea of factoids and ‘did you knows’, but that danger seems to be far away at present. The magazine is edited by the independent historian Jona Lendering, who also runs Livius, a teaching and travel institute in Amsterdam. Lendering – who also reviews books for this newspaper – is famous for his often-harsh criticism of the manner in which Dutch classicists promote their study to a broader public. In this magazine, he shows another sort of academic communication: high level, but also crystal clear.

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