Some comments on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years

May 25, 2012

There’s a lot to like about David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) which is essentially a history of the relationship between money and morality from the dawn of civilization in Sumeria up to the present day. However, in a work that spans so many centuries, regions, and academic disciplines (anthropology, economics, history), some minor errors are bound to crop up. I offer the following comments on Graeber’s references to ancient history in the hopes that they might be fixed in a future edition:

Territories that had never been under Roman rule – in Ireland, Wales… [Graeber, page 61]

The Romans did conquer Wales.

Nehemiah… received permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar more than two centuries earlier… [Graeber, page 81]

This implies that the Temple had been in ruins for two hundred years but rebuilding began in the sixth century with help from the Persian king Cyrus [see the beginning of the book of Ezra]. Perhaps Graeber meant to refer to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls?

[Annikeris] A Libyan philosopher of the Epicurean school… [ransomed Plato] [Graeber, page 197].

Epicurus lived after Plato so this Annikeris cannot be an Epicurean philosopher.

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Eastern Mediterranean in the Age of Ramesses II

December 8, 2009

This is a great overview of a fascinating period with chapters on, among other things, the economy, war & diplomacy, and food & drink:

In Egypt the drink [beer] was made from thick loaves of partly-baked barley flour that were mixed with water and fermented. The result was a thick soup that needed to be sieved. In Babylonia the brewers worked with loaves of malted grain that was crushed and, together with hulled grains, heated in ovens. The mush was mixed with water and a sweetener, such as date syrup or honey, to ferment. The liquid obtained was strained before drinking but still contained a lot of sediment, which made it necessary to drink beer through tubes

– Marc Van De Mieroop The Eastern Mediterranean in the Age of Ramesses II (2007) 139.

Review of Patterns

September 1, 2009

My review of Patterns in the Economy of Roman Asia Minor is now available here.

Contested Triumphs

June 16, 2009

MPP book I just finished reading my friend Miriam Pelikan Pittenger’s Contested Triumphs: Politics, Pageantry, and Performance in Livy’s Republican Rome. Concentrating on the late third and early second centuries BCE, she looks at senate debates concerning whether returning commanders deserved triumphs. Part one considers the general standards governing triumphs. Did you have imperium? Had you killed a sufficient number of enemy soldiers? Things like that… Though there were some ‘guidelines,’ “the Romans of the Republic never settled upon a foolproof set of positive criteria for the awarding of triumphs” [26]. Given the rivalries within the Roman upper-class, this ambiguity occasionally led to bitter political struggles. Part two looks at some of these struggles. Particularly interesting are chapters 13 and 14 which discuss, respectively, the case of M. Popilius Laenas, who went a little too far after the Statellates surrendered to him unconditionally, and that of L. Aemilius Paullus whose triumph seemed like a sure thing until he angered his own soldiers (over their share of the spoils, of course). This is a fascinating and well-written book which shows that the early second century can be just as interesting as the Second Punic War or the fall of the Republic.

Bob Dylan and the Classics

January 21, 2009

Early on in the fascinating Chronicles: Volume One (2004) Bob Dylan describes the library in the home of a New York acquaintance:

There were all types of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General – a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine. [page 36]

Thucydides evidently made a lasting impression on Dylan (the passage seems to refer to the early 60s). Of some other books in the library he notes “This stuff pales in comparison to Thucydides” [37]. While Dylan clearly read Thucydides – the reference to words changing their meaning comes from the account of a civil war at Corcyra (book 3, section 82) – it is curious that Dylan gets the titles wrong. Thucydides, though he was an Athenian general, did not write a book called The Athenian General. He wrote a history the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the late 5th century BCE. Furthermore, there is no book by Pericles called Ideal State of Democracy, though Thucydides’ history does contain speeches, attributed to Pericles, discussing Athenian democracy. The Twelve Caesars is a real book (by Suetonius) but what are Tacitus’ lectures? As for the letters to Brutus, presumably that’s a reference to one of Cicero’s works. Inaccuracies aside, it is worth noting that Thucydides (and some other classical authors) apparently had a substantial impact on one of the foremost twentieth century songwriters.