production-to-stock for early Christian epitaphs

production-to-stock stone for epitaph of Maria, wife of Euplous

In sixth-century Corinth, a Christian epitaph for Maria, the wife of Euplous, apparently was made from a production-to-stock stone with a generic inscription.  Additional inscription personalized the epitaph for Maria.  Here’s the inscription, translated into English organized in accordance with the lines of the Greek inscription:

Here lies {Maria},
{the modest spouse of Euplous,
the charioteer}.  Purchased
the grave {Euplous} from
Anastasios the subdeacon
for one and one half gold pieces;
I gave the purchase price to Anastasios,
received full rights from him,
and put the epitaph in place.
died {my blessed wife
the eleventh day before the Kalends of September} [1]

The words enclosed in braces {} above represent the personalized inscription for Maria.  Bracketed between the conventional “here lies” and “died” in the production-to-stock inscription is important public documentation of Maria’s right to be buried in the associated grave.

fully inscribed epitaph of Maria, wife of Euplous

Knowledge about the retail market for tombstones in the ancient Mediterranean world is sparse.  The Maria epitaph’s production-to-stock inscription is specific to the minor church official Anastasios.  The stone on which the epitaph was cut is a thin, schisty-marble rectangle.  It appears to be builder’s surplus from slabs used for floors and wall decorations.[2]  Anastasios may have had a stock of such slabs with pre-cut inscriptions.  The production-to-stock epitaph slabs may have been a standard component in Anastasios’s business of selling graves.  The point of pre-inscribing documentary language may have been to ensure standard, authoritative terms for the selling of graves.

production-to-stock stone for Julianus epitaph

The Julianus Christian epitaph from Athens in the fifth or sixth century also apparently was made from a production-to-stock stone.   The Julianus stone’s hypothesized production-to-stock inscription is more generic than that of the Maria epitaph.  Any seller of graves or gravestones could have offered the production-to-stock stone that was the basis for the Julianus epitaph.  Unlike the production-to-stock inscription on the Maria epitaph, the production-to-stock inscription on the Julianus epitaph makes sense as a marketing strategy.  The pre-cut figural design and acclamation create an impressive gravestone to sell from stock.[3]

Julianus funerary stone for Christian in Athens

The existence of production-to-stock stonework in the ancient Mediterranean world has been a matter of scholarly controversy.  One leading work on classical Attic tombstones has observed:

The topic of tombstones ready-bought or commissioned can be discussed in only very hypothetical terms … one cannot but conclude that memorials already completely finished — save for the inscriptions! — lacked attraction for the buyer. [4]

A recent detailed analysis of the economics of the Roman stone trade concluded:

larger stone objects—architectural elements, sarcophagi, statues—were expensive, complicated projects that consumed enormous quantities of labour and material, and usually had to be tailored to the specific needs of the customer. … production-to-stock of these objects was probably never the norm. In the main such items were entirely ill-suited to this mode of production, with the possible exception of roughly squared blocks or perhaps simply hollowed-out sarcophagus chests. [5]

However, a leading work on classical Greek sculpture noted that about sixty classical Athenian gravestones were produced per year from about 430 to 317.  This work states that evidence suggests a market for ready-made (production-to-stock) gravestones:

Standardization of any sort is rare until after ca. 400, but then increases dramatically along with the actual number of stelae produced.  Simultaneously the range of compositioned schemes decreases markedly, and high-relief stelai with multiple figures come more into vogue, where it is often impossible to tell who is dead if the inscription is missing.  Even when it survives, the deceased’s name sometimes does not even correlate in sex or positioning with the figure who is the center of attention. [6]

The Maria and Julianus epitaphs are much less costly than sarcophagi and classical Greek tombstones with elaborate sculptures.  Economic arguments against production-to-stock are capital outlay, market risk, and foregone opportunities for customization.  Those arguments are rather weak for the specific circumstances of the Maria and Julianus epitaphs.

Production-to-stock for early Christian epitaphs in Greece suggests well-developed early Christian communities there.  Relative to custom production, production-to-stock is more suitable for larger markets and lower-cost items.  Production-to-stock requires more complex institutions than custom production.  The interests and wealth of particular persons could motivate the construction of large churches.  Production-to-stock of early Christian gravestones indicates community at a more ordinary level of action.

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[1] John Kent’s translation, as cited in Walbank & Walbank (2006) p. 268, with Walbank & Walbank’s suggested corrections  (teamster -> charioteer, servant -> subdeacon) and my lineation.  The separation between the production-to-stock inscription and the custom inscription is based on Walbank & Walbank’s expert evaluation of the lettering.  Id. pp. 275-8.

[2] Id. pp. 278-9.

[3] Sironen (1997) no. 79 is reconstructed as, “{The sepulcher of- – -}us for sal{e}.”  Perhaps “for sale” indicates a retail epitaph “sales room” specimen.

[4] Clairmon & Conze (1993), Introductory Volume, p. 67.  Id. p. 68 suggests that production-to-stock may have occurred for children’s tombstones.  Many tombstones had inscriptions added, e.g. an additional family member buried in the tomb.  Id. Vol. VI, pp. 71.  Many tombstones also had inscriptions erased and re-inscribed.  Id. Vol. VI, pp. 148-9.  Like Shakespeare’s tomb, early Christian gravestones warned against tampering with the tomb.  For example, a Christian epitaph from Attica, probably from the fourth century, begins with a cross and declares:

Sepulcher of Andreas and Athenais and their child Maria; they have lived through a good life. If anybody has the impudence to open up (the grave) and bury another (person), he shall have the lot of Judas and total darkness shall overwhelm him and God shall destroy him on that Day (of Judgment).

Sironen (1997) no. 231, p. 266.  See also id. nos. 51, 84, 90, 96, 106, 114, 226, 236.

[5] Russell (2013) p. 358.

[6] Stewart (1990) p. 62.  Carroll (2006), pp. 106-108, discusses texts shared across epitaphs.  Id. p. 109 notes the existence of prepared gravestones lacking only personalized inscriptions.   Id. , p. 110, Fig. 38, shows a “ready-made stele from Mainz with a blank epitaph panel that was never inscribed.”  The stone is from the  1st century GC and is held in the  Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Mainz.  The top of the stone has a carved pediment and vegetal motifs.  Id. p. 112.  discusses other such examples.

[image] 1) Proposed reconstruction of precut plaque of Maria epitaph, made by J. Herbst, Fig. 5 in Walbank & Walbank (2006) p. 276. 2) Maria Epitaph, Corinth Museum, inv. no. I-2301, Figure 4 in Walbank & Walbank (2006) p. 275, available under Creative Commons BY-NC license. 3) Proposed production-to-stock stone for Julian epitaph, my creation from stone image. 4) Julianus epitaph, from Feissel (1981) p. 485, available under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.


Carroll, Maureen. 2006. Spirits of the dead Roman funerary commemoration in Western Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clairmont, Christoph W., and Alexander Conze. 1993. Classical attic tombstones. Kilchberg, Switzerland: Akanthus.

Feissel, Denis. 1981. “Notes d’épigraphie chrétienne (V).”  Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 105(1), pp. 483-497.

Russell, Ben. 2013. The economics of the Roman stone trade. Corby: Oxford University Press.

Sironen, Erkki. 1997. The late Roman and early Byzantine inscriptions of Athens and Attica: an edition with appendices on scripts, sepulchral formulae and occupations. Helsinki: Hakapaino Oy.

Stewart, Andrew F. 1990. Greek sculpture: an exploration. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Walbank, Mary E. Hoskins, and Michael B Walbank. 2006. “The Grave of Maria, Wife of Euplous: A Christian Epitaph Reconsidered.” Hesperia. 75 (2): 267-288.

Julianus gravestone suggests ancient, mass-produced Christian gravestones

Julianus gravestone for Christian in ancient Athens

Made for a Christian in Athens in the fifth or sixth century, the Julianus gravestone has a figural design at the top, an acclamation, and a simple epitaph.   An acclamation is rare on surviving early Christian gravestones from Attica.[1]  Nonetheless, gravestones like the Julianus gravestone were probably mass-produced.

The figural design of the Julianus gravestone has generic forms.  The shape of the stone is like a simple building with a centered chimney or cupola.  At the peak of the stone are two doves symmetrically flanking a Latin cross.  Two figures symmetrically flanking a Christogram are a common early Christian design.   The dove frequently occurred as a symbol in early Christianity.[2]  The doves on the Julianus gravestone seem to be using the vertical line of the cross to suggest doves carrying olive branches.  A dove carrying an olive branch is a sign of reconciliation from the biblical story of Noah.  A passage from a psalm declares:

My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.” [3]

The doves up against the top edge of the stone and the chimney/cupola are consistent with the idea of flying away to an eternal home.  These symbols broadly resonate in Christian understanding and are generally appropriate for gravestones.

The acclamation is similarly generic.  The acclamation declares:

Glory to you, Lord, who yourself alone understand the mystery of life and death. [4]

“Glory to God” opens an angelic song greeting Christ in the Gospel of Luke.  Those words adapt the opening of several psalms.  They were an early part of Christian liturgy.[5]  All the elements of the Julianus gravestone’s acclamation are attested in epigraphs ranging as far as southern Anatolia (Lycia and Corycus).  The mystery of life and death seems to refer to coming before god in judgment after death.[6]  The acclamation serves well generically for Christian gravestones.

Julianus’ epitaph is the last two lines on the stone.  It is specific to Julianus:

The sepulcher of Julianus {the most pious?} reader.[7]

Readers read scripture in the Christian Mass.  In the circumstances of low literacy, reader was an officially recognized occupation in the early Christian church.  Occupation was a common personal description included on ancient epitaphs.  Julianus’ epitaph would be completely normal as the sole inscription on a gravestone in ancient Athens.

Julianus’ epitaph seems to be a customization of a mass-produced Christian gravestone.  Julianus’ epitaph is written in considerably smaller letters than the acclamation.  Moreover, the epitaph’s lettering is considerably more uneven than that of the acclamation.  The epitaph looks like it was added to a mass-produced, generic Christian gravestone containing the figural design and the acclamation.  Some early Christian stones from Athens were oblique in their Christian references and meaning.  They are probably unique constructions serving highly particular needs.  The Julianus gravestone’s simple, easily understood symbols suggest that gravestones like it, with added, personalized epitaphs, served the demands of a mass market.

While one cannot be certain that the Julianus gravestone represents a customized instance of mass-produced Christian gravestones, considering that possibility at least highlights two important points.  First, artifacts that have survived over a long duration of history are not necessarily representative of the population that originally existed.  Second, scholars have tended to consider inscribed texts apart from the over-all context of the physical artifact.  More holistically considering the physical artifact can provide additional insight.[8]

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[1] Sironen (1997), inscription #191, p. 234.  The Julianus gravestone is held in the Greek Epigraphical Museum (EM 403).   The gravestone was broken and its left-side piece lost at an unknown time in its history.  The above image of the Julianus gravestone is from Feissel (1981) p. 485.  That work has been generously made available under a Creative Commons AT-NC-SA license.  The dating of this and other stones is based on the forms of the inscribed letters and the style of the writing.  Estimated dates could easily be off by two centuries.

[2] A Christian epitaph from fourth/fifth-century Attica (Greek Epigraphical Museum EM 9981; Sironen (1997) # 247), features a less schematic dove:

dove and Christogram

Another Christian stone from fifth/sixth-century Athens (Greek Agora Museum I-1070; Sironen (1997) # 332) has graffito-like inscriptions and a dove on the lower left:

Christian epitaph with dove from fifth/sixth-century Athens

Images from Creaghan & Raubitschek (1947) Plate X.  Compared to the above stones, the Julianus gravestone is much more professionally designed.  Jenner (1910), p. 149, observes:

The Dove and the Fish were the two most recognized types of Christians during the first ages of the Church.

Here some analysis of a tax-paying fish in early Christianity.

[3] Psalm 55:5-6.  The account of Noah and the returning dove is in Genesis 8:6-12.

[4] Adapted from the translation in Sironen (1997) #191, p. 233, and in Feissel (1981) p. 483.   Despite the missing letters, the standard form of the acclamation allows its reconstruction with little doubt.

[5] Luke 2:14. Cf. Psalms 111-113.  “Glory to God” is the opening of what’s now called the greater doxology, Gloria in excelcis Deo.

[6] Feissel (1981) pp. 484-488.  On the mystery of death, id. cites a gravestone from third or fourth century Palestine.  See Stewart Macalister (1902), pp. 240-2.

[7] Sironen (1997) p. 234, adapted slightly.  The phrase “the most pious” is Sironen’s conjecture for the missing letters.  The rest of the epitaph can be reconstructed with little doubt.

[8] Stears (2000) makes this second point for Athenian gravestones from the fourth and third centuries BGC.


Creaghan, John S., and A. E. Raubitschek. 1947. “Early Christian Epitaphs from Athens.” Hesperia. 16 (1): 1-54.

Feissel, Denis. 1981. “Notes d’épigraphie chrétienne (V).”  Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 105(1), pp. 483-497.

Jenner, Mrs. Henry. 1910. Christian symbolism. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.

Sironen, Erkki. 1997. The late Roman and early Byzantine inscriptions of Athens and Attica: an edition with appendices on scripts, sepulchral formulae and occupations. Helsinki: Hakapaino Oy.

Stears, Karen. 2000. “Losing the Picture: Change and Continuity in Athenian Grave Monuments in the Fourth and Third Centuries BC.” Ch. 11 in Rutter, N. Keith, and Brian A. Sparkes. 2000. Word and image in ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Stewart Macalister, Robert Alexander. 1902.  “Reports by R.A. Stewart Macalister.” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 34.3 (July 1902): 232-249.


purple parchment, gold-lettered books across time and space

purple parchment from the Rossano Gospels

In Rome in 385 the Christian scholar Jerome offered advice to his student, the well-born maiden Eustochium.  Jerome condemned the ostentatious practices of elite Roman Christian women:

Today you may see women cramming their wardrobes with dresses, changing their gowns from day to day, and for all that unable to vanquish the moths.  Now and then one more scrupulous wears out a single dress; yet, while she appears in rags, her boxes are full.  Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.[1]

Elite women wearing luxurious clothes and rich jewelry have been a constant throughout history.  Purple parchment with gold lettering is less well-known.  However, a group of purple-parchment codices of the New Testament in Greek have survived from the sixth-century.  Other purple-parchment codices from subsequent centuries have also survived.

In mid-ninth-century Baghdad, the celebrated translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq referred to luxurious Greek books.  He described these books as containing portraits of philosophers in illustrations and words.  Hunayn described the books as:

works of the ancients in letters of purple, which is a red colour like wine, written with gold and silver, and letters written in gold, and designs written in other colours.  … Till the present day the Greeks {Byzantines} do this with their books and psalters, writing (them) with gold and silver in letters of these colours, with a picture of the wise man represented at the beginning. [2]

The reference to “letters of purple” is probably a corruption of pages of purple.  Hunayn plausibly was referring to purple-parchment books like those to which Jerome referred and like the purple-parchment codices that have survived from the sixth century.

In Spain about 1130, John of Seville included a mythic history in the introduction to his translation of Secret of Secrets from Arabic.  John of Seville described a certain translator searching for the book of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander the Great.  The translator searched among temples and philosophers.  He arrived at a temple of Hermes at which the sun was venerated.  There the translator attached himself to a learned old man.  After long entreaties, the old man finally revealed the book that the translator sought.  According to John, the book was written in gold letters.  Surviving Arabic manuscripts of Secret of Secrets do not mention gold lettering.[3]  Perhaps John added that detail based on his experience of sumptuous books.

Not only ideas traveled from ancient Rome to early Islamic Baghdad to early medieval Spain.  The specific physical form of sumptuous books was also communicated across large expanses of time and space.

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[1] Jerome, Letter 22, To Eustochium, s. 32, from Latin trans. W.H. Fremantle (1892).   In his preface to his translation of Job according to the Hebrew, Jerome declared:

Let those who want them have antique volumes, or books written on purple parchment in gold and silver ink, or in what the vulgar call “inch-high” letters, so that they are burdens rather than books, so long as they let me and mine have our wretched pamphlets and our copies not so much beautified, as corrected.

From Latin trans. Williams (2006) p. 181.

[2] From Muhammad b. al-Ansari, Kitab adab al-falasifah (MS. Escorial 760), quoting what Hunayn ibn Ishaq stated.  Trans. Dunlop (1952) p. 467-8, n. 2.  I’ve removed a “(?)” inserted after the word “design” (which seems to me a plausible translation) and excised the descriptive phrases in the text, “Hunain b. Ishaq said.”

[3] The Latin text and an English translation of John of Seville’s introduction is available in Williams (2003) Appendix 1.  John does not give the Arabic translator’s name:  “This book a certain translator, by the command of his emperor, sought with much effort.”  Id. p. 357.   Surviving Arabic manuscripts of Secret of Secrets name the translator Yuhanna ibn al-Batrik (lived c. 750 – 815).  They also typically describe the philosopher Aesculapius as having built the temple.  Secret of Secrets, from Arabic trans. Ali (1920) p. 177.

[image] The parable of the Good Samaritan, folio 7v from the Rossano Gospels (6th century),


Ali, Ismail, trans. 1920.  Kitab sirr al-asrar (The Book of the Secret of Secrets). Pp. 176-266 in Steele, Robert, ed. 1920. Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi.  Vol. 5. Secretum secretorum, cum glossis et notulis : Tractatus brevis et utilis ad declarandum quedam obscure dicta. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dunlop, D. M. 1952.  “The Dīwān Attributed to Ibn Bājjah (Avempace).” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 14,No. 3, Studies Presented to Vladimir Minorsky by His Colleagues and Friends, pp. 463-477.

Williams, Megan Hale. 2006. The monk and the book: Jerome and the making of Christian scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Williams, Steven J. 2003. The secret of secrets: the scholarly career of a pseudo-Aristotelian text in the Latin Middle Ages. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


punched cards for library book circulation

library punched card

I recently found a punched-card book circulation card in a library book.  Old-fashioned forms of meta-data incorporated in the book indicate:

  1. The book was published in 1971 by Librarie Droz of Geneva.  Information printed on title page.
  2. The book was printed in Belgium.  Information printed on end page.
  3. The Georgetown University Libraries acquired the book about June 19, 1973, apparently unbound.  Stamped on end page.
  4. The Heckman Bindery (“bound to please”) bound the book in July, 1973, in N. Manchester, Indiana.  Heckman Bindery used an “approved library binding.” Sticker applied to inside back cover.

The punched-card circulation card probably was incorporated into the book in 1973.[*]  That’s only 40 years ago.  This library book is now checked out with a light-scanned barcode feeding into a computerized, online-queriable book circulation system.  The contents of the book, Kitab Bilawhar wa Budasf, were probably written in eighth-century central Asia.  Imagine this library book in circulation 1300 years in the future!

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[*] Punched card library book circulation systems were in use in the 1970s.  CalMeachem over at the Straight Dope Message Board wrote:

When they first switched over to computers, Rutgers University library had an IBM card punch machine at the checkouts. When you took out a book they manually punched in the call number on the card, along with your information, then duplicated the card. One went into a stack to be batch-processed in those pre-network days, the other into the card holder glued into the book from pre-computer days. Checking out a stack of books could take a long time. And I kinda miss than quaint Ka-CHUNK, chunka-chunka-chunka-CHUNK of the old IBM card punches. Nowadays they just laser-scan the bar code and it all automatically goes into the system.

Giles added:

I worked in two academic libraries in Australia that had similar systems back in the 1970s.


good old-fashioned social television watching

In the good old days, friends and family used to gather together in the living room to watch television.  It’s not like that any longer.  Now 40% of YouTube video views occur on mobile devices.  The social experience of television is becoming more imaginary.

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Video note: The above video contains an excerpt of Jamie Davidovich’s “Blue, Red, Yellow” (1974), live at the Hirshhorn Gallery (2013).  Davidovich’s work contains three television screens and runs for 12 minutes and 2 seconds.  It loops continuously.


translations and substitutions in ancient medicine

About two decades ago, sequencing the human genome was thought to be a highly profitable path to developing new medicines and medical treatments.  The immediate results of genetic research for drug development have been largely disappointing.  But genetic research has increased biological understanding fundamentally.  Researchers now have much greater appreciation for the importance of a living organism’s bio-chemical communication with its environment in shaping gene expression, protein synthesis, and the organism’s behavior.[1]

Arduous study of the recently discovered Syriac Galen Palimpsest can contribute to understanding human communication that encompasses bio-chemical communication.  The Syriac Galen Palimpsest is a manuscript apparently containing as an undertext a sixth-century Syriac translation of Galen’s work On Simple Drugs.[2]  Galen wrote in Greek.  Translating Greek medicine into Syriac is thought to have been an important early stage in the long communicative circuit of Greek medicine throughout western Eurasia and north Africa.  The Syriac Galen Palimpsest documents materia medica moving across cultures, languages, and physical environments.

Syriac Galen Palimpsest

Linguistically translating materia medica is closely related to making material substitutions.  Sergius of Resh Aina translated Galen’s On Simple Drugs into Syriac.  To each of the individual books of Galen’s work Sergius prefaced a list of the form “x which is y, with x being a Syriac transliteration of a Greek botanical term, and y its suggested Syriac equivalent.”[3]  The suggested Syriac equivalent y could be a linguistic translation of x.  But given the different bio-geography relevant to the translation, y could also be a material substitute.  Ancient lists of substitute medicines exist in the form “if not x, then y.”  Surviving evidence shows that translating Greek medical texts into Syriac included adapting, acclimatizing, and combining the Greek texts.[4] Making material substitutions could have been an additional dimension of translation, broadly understood.

The relative weights of linguistic translation and material substitution depend on the specific circumstances of communication.  Galen’s On Simple Drugs includes physical and ecological descriptions of materia medica.  Translation through material substitution could create incoherence in physical and ecological descriptions.  That’s not necessarily implausible.  Surviving texts explicitly described as lists of substitutes lack logical coherence across substitute pairs.  Linguistic translation probably contributed to the form of lists of material substitutes.  To the extent that linguistic translation dominated material substitution, translation probably was a relatively formal process separate from medical practice.[5]  Close study of the Syriac Galen Palimpsest could lead to better insight into the relation of linguistic translation and material substitution.

Linguistic culture is highly distinctive to humans.  Bio-chemical culture is important to all living organisms.  Studying the translation of materia medica across the long duration of human development and a wide geographic span of human societies provides a unique window into human being and human welfare.

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[1] Kohl (2012) provides a helpful review and synthesis of relevant biological research.  Humans are highly distinctive animals in their bio-cultural evolution and development.  If you want to understand the creation of human life, studying human DNA is not sufficient.  Nor is studying what’s traditionally understood as human culture: what humans see, say, hear, read, and write.  Fundamentally important to human behavior is what humans smell, eat, and touch.  By those means, humans, like other living organisms, engage in bio-chemical communication with their environment.

[2] Bhayro, Hawley, Kessel & Pormann (2013) describes the manuscript.  It was scientifically imaged in 2010. The image data are publicly available, along with a brief description.  Preliminary study (id.) indicates that the Syriac Galen Palimpsest includes Books IX to XI of Galen’s On Simple Drugs.  The Syriac translation of those books had been regarded as lost.

[3] Bhayro (2005) p. 162.  Sergius occasionally stated “x which is perhaps y.”  Id.  That statement of probability suggests a mapping of words to physical materials.  Translation, however, doesn’t typically imply complete correspondence for words or physical materials.

[4] Bhayro (2013) pp. 126-135; Bhayro, Hawley, Kessel & Pormann (2013) pp. 141-143.  Socio-economic circumstances seem to have affected the materials of medicines.

[5] Sergius of Resh Aina was a Christian priest.  Yet that doesn’t mean that he didn’t offer services like those of physicians.  Jesus of Nazareth and his first disciplines competed with incumbent providers of medical services.  Over time Jesus acquired the epithet “the good physician.”

[image] Detail from an image of the Syrian Galen Palimpsest, SYR 178r Pseudocolor, thanks to the Galen Syriac Palimpsest Image Bank.


Bhayro, Siam. 2005. “Syriac Medical Terminology: Sergius and Galen’s Pharmacopia.” Aramaic Studies. 3 (2): 147-165.

Bhayro, Siam. 2013. “The Reception of Galen’s Art of Medicine in the Syriac Book of Medicines,” in Barbara Zipser (ed.), Medical Books in the Byzantine World (Bologna: Eikasmós), pp. 123-144.

Bhayro, Siam, Robert Hawley, Grigory Kessel, and Peter E. Pormann. 2013. “The Syriac Galen Palimpsest: Progress, Prospects and Problems.” Journal of Semitic Studies. 58 (1): 131-148.

Kohl, James V. 2012. “Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors.” Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology. 2.


writing on the wall and the Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus Cylinder

According to the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian King Belshazzar held a great feast for thousands of lords.  King Belshazzar and his lords proudly drank wine from the sacred gold and silver vessels that they had plundered from the temple at Jerusalem.  They praised gods made from gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.  These were gods made from materials indiscriminately ranging from highly precious to most common.

But then a disembodied man’s hand appeared.  Its fingers wrote on the wall: “mene, mene, tekel, peres.”  Those Aramaic words represented measures of currency.  The Jewish captive Daniel interpreted those words for Balshazzar:

Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.  Tekel, you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians. [1]

Daniel’s interpretation echoed the Egyptian weighing of the heart in an other-worldly judgment.  Belshazzar’s merit did not meet the required weight.  That very night, the Persians captured Babylon and killed Belshazzar.

The Cyrus Cylinder, now on exhibit at the Sackler Gallery, is a physical artifact interacting with Daniel’s story of Belshazzar.  The Cyrus Cylinder documents and legitimates the Persian King Cyrus‘s conquest of Babylon without a battle about the time of King Belshazzar.[2]  The Cyrus Cylinder describes the bad deeds of the Babylonian king, declares Cyrus’s divine mandate to overthrow him, and records Cyrus’s order that peoples and their sacred objects (gods) be returned to their home places.  Both Hebrew scripture and classical Greek texts celebrate Cyrus as a great and just ruler who upheld within his vast Persian empire important freedoms.[3]

writing on the wall for Napoleon

The form of writing helps to give it authority.  A disembodied hand writing on the wall isn’t the action of a human person.  It suggests the hand of god.  The Cyrus Cylinder’s cylindrical shape gives it the authority of a personal seal.  Persian kings used small cylindrical seals.[4]  Relative to a king’s seal, the football-sized Cyrus Cylinder is a monumental seal declaring Cyrus’s identity through his conquest of Babylon, his rebuilding of it, and his righteous behavior towards its residents and captives.  The Sackler exhibit includes fragments of Cyrus’s text from a contemporaneous tablet.  The Cyrus tablet surely served a less politically important communicative function than the Cyrus Cylinder.

The writing on the wall means that God acts in history to bring about justice and freedom.  If you cannot believe that, then hear this: the writing on the wall means that tablets, cylinders, and many other communicative device forms will proliferate.  That prophecy cannot be doubted.

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The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning is on display at the Sackler Gallery through April 28, 2013.  Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, gave an excellent TED talk on the Cyrus Cylinder.  Here’s an English translation of the surviving Cyrus text.

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[1] Daniel 5:26-28.  Daniel’s interpretation invokes passive verbs — numbered, weighed, divided — related linguistically to the currency weights.

[2] While the Book of Daniel describes Belshazzar as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, other records (the Nabonidus Chronicle and the Nabonidus Cylinder) indicate that Belshazzar was the son of King Nabonidus.  Belshazzar acted as regent for King Nabonidus while Nabonidus was outside Babylon.  The Cyrus Cylinder declares that Marduk (the Zoroastrian god) delivered Nabonidus to Cyrus without a battle.  Cyrus text, l. 17.  The Book of Daniel describes the conqueror of Babylon as “Darius the Mede.”  That name is not otherwise known.  Despite these specific referential problems, the Book of Daniel’s description of Belshazzar and his fate plausibly refers to the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BGC.

[3] Isaiah 44:28-45:6, 2 Chronicles 36:20-23, Ezra 1:1-11, 6:3-5; Xenophon, Cyropaedia and its subsequent Greek admirers.  The surviving Cyrus text is similar to other Babylon decrees of conquest and rebuilding.  See Kuhrt (1983).  The ancient reputation of Cyrus, however, indicates that his actions were perceived as distinctive.  Thomas Jefferson’s library included two copies of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia.

[4] The Darius seal is on display in the exhibit.  It’s also the second item in the exhibit slideshow.

[images] The Cyrus Cylinder.  Clay, Babylon, Mesopotamia, after 539 BCE.  D x H: 7.8 – 10 x 21.9 – 22.8 cm British Museum, London, ME 90920. Photo: ©The Trustees of the British Museum, courtesy of the Sackler Gallery Press Office.  Cropped version of “The hand-writing upon the wall.” Js. Gillray, published Aug. 24, 1803, London.


Kuhrt, Amélie. 1983. “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy.”  Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 8 (25): 83-97.


Trithemius on printing, scribes, and reason

world didn't end; judgment day mispredicted

As movable-type printing presses were rapidly being set up across Europe, Johannes Trithemius wrote in praise of scribes.  Gutenberg constructed the first movable-type printing press in Mainz, Germany, about 1450.  In 1483, the twenty-one-year-old Trithemius became abbot of an undistinguished and undisciplined Benedictine monastery in Sponheim, Germany.  Trithemius went on to become a monastic reformer, Christian humanist, German patriotic humanist, and advocate of magic.[1]  The magic that particularly interested Trithemius was using spirits to communicate over long distances (he lived before the rise of telegraph and telephone services).  While abbot of Sponheim, Trithemius expanded the monastery’s library from 40 books to 2000 books, including many printed books.  Trithemius described printing as a “marvelous” art.[2]  Trithemius had his own books printed.  Trithemius, however, advocated to his monks hand-copying texts:

Brothers, no one should think or say “Why do I have to wear myself out writing by hand, when the art of printing has brought so many books to light, so that we can cheaply put together a great library?”  Truly, whoever says this is trying to conceal his own sloth. …  He who ceases the work of a scribe because of printing is not a true friend of Scripture, because heeding no more than the present he takes no care to educate posterity.  But we, dearest brothers, heeding the reward of this sacred labor we will not cease our work, even if we have many thousands of printed volumes.  Printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence.[3]

Trithemius was a learned man of contradictions.  Those who are more intelligent and more learned are better able to formulate rationalizations.  Rationalizations are an esteemed branch of public magic.

Belief makes more sense than reason.  Conserve brainpower – only believe.

inquisitive face of a horse

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[1] Brann (1981).

[2] Printing is a “marvelous and hitherto unheard of art.”  Trithemius, Annales Hirsaugienses (1110), I. 349, quoted and trans. Brann (1981) p. 146.

[3] From Trithemius, De laude scriptorum manualium, Ch. 7.  Above text trans. by Dorothea Salo.  Trithemius had this work printed in 1494.  Behrendt (1974) provides an English translation of the whole work.


Behrendt, Roland, trans. 1974. Johannes Trithemius.  In praise of scribes. De laude scriptorum. Lawrence, Kan: Coronado Press.

Brann, Noel L. 1981. The Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516): the renaissance of monastic humanism. Leiden: Brill.


materia medica of Paulus Aegineta and Māsarjawaih

In the seventh century, the Byzantine physician Paulus Aegineta copied a list of medical substitutes that he attributed to Galen.  In Baghdad early in the eighth century, the Jewish physician Māsarjawaih also produced a list of medical substitutes.  Comparing the most popular substantive words in their medicine lists shows some significant differences:

  1. Māsarjawaih’s medicines are more elaborate than Paulus Aegineta’s medicines.  The top three words from Māsarjawaih’s medicines are oil, electuary, and ointment.  The top three words from Paulus Aegineta’s medicines are juice, seed, and root.
  2. Māsarjawaih’s medicines are more palatable than Paulus Aegineta’s medicines.  Honey, milk, and sugar are within the top-15 words from Māsarjawaih’s medicines.  Sugar doesn’t occur in Paulus Aegineta’s list, honey occurs only once, and milk only twice.  Stone and dung are in Paul Aegineta’s top-15 words, but not in Māsarjawaih’s.

These differences suggest that Māsarjawaih’s medicines served a more developed, more popular medical market did Paulus Aegineta’s.

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Data: word popularity counts from the medical lists of Paulus Aegineta and Māsarjawaih (Excel version)

Related posts:


Lev, Efraim, and Zohar Amar. 1951. “Practice versus Theory: Medieval Materia Medica According to the Cairo Genizah.” Medical History. 51: 507–526.  See especially Table 3.

De Vos, Paula. 2010. “European materia medica in historical texts: Longevity of a tradition and implications for future use.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 132 (1): 28-47. See especially Table 3.

Bakhtīshū chooses season for relaxation

The Bakhtīshū were a Christian family of Syrian-Persian physicians serving Abbasid caliphs.  Bakhtīshū ibn Jibrā’īl ibn Bakhthīshū (d. 870) became extraordinarily wealthy.  He was so wealthy that he could reverse the season for his pleasure, or at least so a story told.  Here’s what a scribe supposedly heard from his grandfather:

I visited Bakhtīshū on a very hot day and found him sitting in a place covered with several sheets of brocade, with a black cloth between each pair of embroidered sheets.  In the middle there was a dome covered with a gold and silver embroidered cloth, which showed gum wood dyed with rose water, camphor and sandal-wood. The physician was clad in a heavy Sa`īdī upper garment from Yemen and a silk robe. I was astounded at his apparel, but when I drew nearer to him in the dome, I started to shiver from intense cold. He laughed, ordered that I be brought an upper garment and a silk robe and then told his servant to uncover the sides of the dome. When they were uncovered, lo! There were doors opening off the dome, leading to areas filled with snow; there were servants blowing that snow and a great cold came forth, which had reached me. He then ordered his food. A most beautiful table was brought in, laden with exquisite things, lastly, roasted chickens were brought in, extremely well done. The cook came in and shook them all, and they fell apart. The physician said: “These chickens were raised on almonds and grain and pomegranate juice.”

I revisited him one very cold day during the midst of winter and found him dressed in a padded garment and a cover.  He was sitting in a cabin inside his palace, which was situated in a most beautiful garden. The cabin was covered with sable furs and had in it and on it sheets of dyed silk, felts from the Maghrib and leather hides from Yemen. In front of him was a gilded silver fire-pot alight, and a servant dressed in very refined brocade was burning Indian-wood in it. When I entered the cabin, I felt the heat to be very strong. He laughed and ordered a brocade tunic for me, then uncovered the sides of the cabin, and lo! There were rooms with iron windows beyond wooden openings and in them fire-pots containing tamarisk-charcoal. There were servants blowing this charcoal with bellows like those of the hammer-smiths.  He then ordered his food to be brought in, and it came as usual, all choice and clean. Some chickens were brought in also, white to the extreme, which I found unpalatable, for I was afraid they were raw. But the cook came in and shook them, and they fell apart. When I asked, the physician told me they were fed on peeled nuts and given sour milk to drink. [1]

The two parts of the story mirror each other.  Details in each part also seem to be carefully in parallel.  The story seems to be a deliberately constructed courtly tale, rather than an actual recounting of experience.  The point of the tale is clear: Bakhtīshū enjoyed fabulous luxury.

luxurious basin of Christian patron in Islamic world

While Christians and other non-Muslims legally had inferior status (dhimmi status) in the Islamic world, Bakhtīshū was not the only Christian who gained high social status and great wealth.  Al-Jahiz (d. 869) describes Arab Christians as numerous.  He describes them as engaged in high-status occupations: theologians, physicians, and astrologers, and also secretaries, kings’ flunkeys, noblemen’s physicians, perfumers and money-changers.[2]   Al-Jahiz declares with considerable resentment:

we know that the Christians now have costly mounts and thoroughbred horses, that they have packs of hounds, play polo, wrap themselves in madini, wear mulham and mutabbaqa {these are all types of expensive fabrics}, employ {Muslim} servants, and take as their names or kunyas Hasan, Husain, ‘Abbas, Fadl, and ‘Ali; all that now remains for them is to call themselves Muhammad and take the kunya of Abu al-Qasim {the Prophet’s father}.  Many Christians have forsaken the zunnar {girdle that dhimmis had to wear to identify themselves as such}, and others only wear it under their clothes. [3]

The resentment in this account centers on Christians’ formally inferior status not being realized in actual life in the ancient Islamic world.

The tale of Bakhtīshū’s great wealth, in contrast, includes no sense of an inappropriate position for a Christian.  That tale evokes only the wonder and marvel of fabulous luxury.

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Related posts:


[1] HP pp. 267-8.

[2] Al Jahiz, Refutation of the Christians, paras. 133, 135, trans. Pellat (1969) p. 87.  Having “money-changers” included as a high-status occupation is quite surprising.  Al-Jahiz contrasts Christians’ high-status occupations with Jews’ low-status occupations — dyers, tanners, barbers, butchers and tinkers.  In medieval Europe, which had a culture of anti-semitism, money-changing was an occupation associated with Jews, and money-changers were despised.

[3] Id. para. 135, trans. Pellat (1969) p. 88.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Pellat, Charles. 1969. The life and works of Jāḥiẓ: translations of selected texts, Charles Pellat. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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