Monthly Archives: December 2016

‘Pie Zeses’: Toasting To A New Year

Another year of blogging is almost in the proverbial books and I must say that while 2016 was a wretched year socio-politically, it was professionally quite satisfying. My first book, Trade and Taboo was published and I even began writing for Forbes regularly. There is no doubt that I have much to be thankful for as I sit here sipping coffee at my home in snowy Iowa City. In the midst of all the self reflection that accompanies the end of the year, I began mulling over the use of toasts as oral rites of passage in our lives. They are oft- overlooked rituals used to help us to move forward, even if they memorialize the past. Greeks and Romans frequently raised a glass to the Gods, to their health or to a handsome lover, and their exclamations can tell us a great deal about the things they held dear in life–just as our own toasts at 11:59 pm likely reveal our own personal anxieties or the people we cherish. As I wrote about a few years ago on this blog, epigraphic texts on ancient cups, bowls and drinking vessels often enshrine such ephemeral exclamations for posterity, so try out a few of these as you raise your glass tonight.

Dignitas Amicorum Pie Zeses Vivas!” (“Worthy among your friends! Drink that you may live. May you live!”) A toast to a fruitful 2017, amici, and please feel free to leave comments below concerning what you want to hear about on the blog or perhaps how you will be toasting tonight.

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Late antique Roman mosaic with an asarotos oikos “unswept floor” now on display in Switzerland at the Chateau de Boudry. 

‘The Eagle Huntress’ And The Ancient History Of Falconry

Over at the Forbes blog this week, I discuss the ancient and medieval history of falconry in the Mediterranean. After seeing the new documentary film ‘The Eagle Huntress,’ about a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan learning to become an eagle hunter with her father in Mongolia, I went back to some class notes on Greco-Roman attitudes towards the eagle and the later development of falconry. This post was a good excuse to emphasize that there is little material evidence for falconry in the Roman world until the period of Late Antiquity. It is possible that the Vandals or Visigoths popularized the sport within the late Roman world. During the early middle ages, falconry and particularly the use of not only falcons, but also hawks, became popular among both male and female elites. Falconry was a courtly sport and in the late medieval period, we even have writings from women on the topic. I am certainly not a bird expert, but writing this piece was one way to commemorate the majesty of birds of prey and to establish humanity’s long connection to them.

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“Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lady observing her hawk bringing down a duck, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 73v.” Image and caption via the British Library Blog and is in the Public Domain.

Numbering The Stars: Remembering the Contributions of Medieval Muslim Astronomers And Catalogers

This week over at the Forbes blog, I discuss the International Astronomical Union (IAU)‘s publication of an official catalog of 227 star names. The list was published this week in order to further standardize how we reference stars and constellations, since each one has had numerous monikers in Greek, Roman, Chinese, Arabic and many other languages over the many millenia that people have been studying the stars.

Although I laud the IAU’s attempt to streamline naming, I was dismayed to see that in the section of the website recounting the history of cataloguing of the stars, the association begins with the western astronomers that worked during the European Renaissance. By crediting Johann Bayer’Uranometria atlas of 1603 as the first such popular catalog of stars, they in fact omit the great contributions of ancient astronomers and Muslim celestial cataloguers in particular. I attempt to remedy that by recounting a short history of Muslim mathematicians and astronomers (as well as a few forgotten medieval women).

I am also posting a list of digital resources and manuscripts below that I consulted for this article, so that you too can investigate the myriad contributions of Muslim scientists via the manuscripts themselves:

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Ursa major (الدب الأكبر) as viewed on a celestial globe (upper) and as viewed in the sky (lower) (Or 5323, f.8v). Image via the British Library and is in the Public Domain.

  1. Library of Congress, “Astronomical Innovation in the Islamic World”
  2. Marika Sardar, “Astronomy and Astrology in the Medieval Islamic World
  3. Abd-al-Rahman al-Sufi, “Tables from the Book of the constellations of the fixed stars (Kitab suwar al-kawakib) in a Latin translation,” via the British Library
  4. Ursula Sims-Williams, “Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library,” Asian and African Studies Blog, via the British Library.
  5. The J. Paul Getty Museum, “Astronomical and Medical Miscellany: Toledan Constellation Tables; De Dispositione Aeris; De Prognosticationibus Egritudinem; etc., English, late 14th century, shortly after 1386Ms. Ludwig XII 7
  6. Elly Decker, Illustrating the Phaenomena: Celestial cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
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I am grateful for the help given to me by the University of Iowa’s Special Collections librarians. Map librarian Paula Balkenende pulled a number of celestial maps for me and then gave me a special look at Lanciani’s Forma Urbis Romae–just for kicks.