Tag Archives: greek

The purple people

It’s a sketch—I’ll paint it in purple

According to the great historian Herodotus, the Phoenicians were called ‘the purple people’ because of the dyed purple cloth they sold. The dye was long-lasting and impossible to wash off their hands. Purple is an expensive pigment (they got it from sea-snails that live inside murex shells). Traditionally, only royalty (or at least the very rich) can afford purple robes.
Take a look at this site about the history of color: http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/purples.html#:~:text=Purple%20is%20typically%20defined%20as%20a%20mixture%20of,violet%2C%20prepared%20in%201859.%20Timeline%20of%20purple%20pigments.

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Canaanite turquoise miners fool around with hieroglyphics during lunch break

My pals (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregulars) Ilene L and Jeffrey K each sent me a link to this Nova series on PBS about the origins of the alphabet—in it, archaeologist Orly Goldwasser asserts that a group of Canaanite turquoise miners working in Egypt were fooling around with hieroglyphics and almost-by-accident invented the alphabet. I think it’s a compelling theory—that’s exactly how a creative mind works: by fooling around. Okay so far. If that’s how it happened, their invention would still need to be promoted, spread far-and-wide, made popular. How do you do that?

The beautiful top drawing of an ox head was drawn by an expert drawer. Under that is an ox head as the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol Aleph. Under that is a pathetic attempt at drawing ox heads by some ham-fisted Canaanite turquoise miner. At the bottom is our letter A.

The Phoenician traders and all their customers needed an efficient writing system to keep business records. The alphabet turned out to be the writing system they needed. The Phoenician trade routes were a communications network—like social media today but without the kitten photos. Those sea-captains visited every port around the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Phoenicians started using the alphabet, everybody started using the alphabet.

And how did the Canaanite miners get their invention to Phoenician sea-captains? You kids who go to Sunday school and Hebrew school knew this one already. Look in the back of your study bibles at the map—the Phoenician cities Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are in the Land of Canaan. Canaanites = Phoenicians.

Very good article here: https://barzilaiendan.com/2012/06/08/cine-a-inventat-alfabetul/

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The hardest cryptogram evurrrr

Champollion doing that weird Napoleonic hand-in-the-vest-for-my-portrait thing

A cryptogram is a puzzle where the letters of words are replaced with ciphers. A cipher is any symbol. To ‘decipher’ a code is to replace the ciphers with the correct letters. I told you the secret to solving cryptograms: you look for a short, common word, like ‘the.’ Young began the process by correctly identifying the word ‘Ptolemy.’

Jean-François Champollion (ZHEHN frahn-SWAH shahm-pōl-YŌN) was the tireless French scholar who broke the hieroglyph code. He started with Young’s discovery and used the Greek words to decipher the hieroglyphic and Demotic versions. He figured out that Ptolemy’s name was a rebus—meaning that those symbols must represent sounds. That was a beginning. He still had years of diligent work ahead of him. Eventually, in 1822 he was able to show that hieroglyphic symbols could stand for things, ideas, syllables or sounds. Demotic symbols stood for syllables or sounds. He’d sorted out how the reader can tell which of those a symbol stands for.

And so, after thirteen centuries of silence, the hieroglyphics could speak again. Nowadays if you put ‘Rosetta Stone’ in your search engine you’ll get ads for a company that teaches foreign languages. The Rosetta Stone was so crucial to solving the hieroglyphics mystery that it’s become a symbol for understanding all languages.


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Cartouche is not something you get from a long automobile trip

The Rosetta Stone has 3 writing systems: hieroglyphic, Demotic and ancient Greek

The big deal here is that there is one message written 3 times in different languages—just like Darius’ proclamation a few posts back. One of the Rosetta Stone languages is Greek. If you can read Greek, maybe you can piece together Ancient Greek. The next step is to treat the hieroglyphs and Demotic like a cryptogram. You look for common, recognizable words. An English physicist named Thomas Young saw the word ‘Ptolemy’ in Ancient Greek and figured it must also show up in the other 2 versions. Ptolemy was the pharaoh—a pretty important guy.* The hieroglyphic version of the Rosetta Stone has some symbols that look more important than the others. They’re inside a rounded rectangular shape called a cartouche (kar-TOOSH). Could those symbols spell out ‘Ptolemy?’

Here’s a close-up of the hieroglyphics with the cartouche: https://www.ancient.eu/image/5317/rosetta-stone-detail-hieroglyphic-text/?=&page=3
Scroll down to see the 3 different versions of ‘Ptolemy:’ https://abagond.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/rosetta-stone/

* Ptolemy was 13 years old when the Rosetta Stone was inscribed. He was Pharaoh of all Egypt. When I was 13 years old I was drawing cartoons in my room. My favorite food was peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

You can be a pharaoh, too! Just create a rebus of your name inside this cartouche which I thoughtfully drew for you. For example, if your name is ‘Doug,’ draw a dog. If your name is ‘Bethany-Mehitabel,’ you’ll need to do a lot more drawing.

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Napoleon’s soldiers discover something big

Here we go—we’re zooming ahead another bunch of centuries. I know, I know, we’ve bounced around time like a bb in a boxcar. You still want to find out how we know what ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics say, right? Of course you do.

It’s ad 1799, everybody! England had her trading empire—in Canada, the Middle East and India. Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte was building the French Empire. Napoleon was another of those military geniuses who considered the day wasted that wasn’t spent conquering some country. He was utterly ruthless and would do anything for more power. Napoleon had the idea to establish a military base in Egypt from where he could launch attacks on British forces in the Middle East. One day, on the Nile delta near the town of Rashid (‘Rashid’ was too much of a mouthful so the French soldiers shortened it to ‘Rosette’) Napoleon’s engineers were expanding the foundations of his fort. As they dug, they ran into rubble from old, forgotten walls. A piece of this rubble was a ‘stela’ (STAY-lah): a stone with lettering chiseled into it.

Hang on, though—the lettering was in 3 writing systems: hieroglyphic, Demotic and Ancient Greek. The French officer in charge, Pierre-François Bouchard (pee-AIR frahn-SWAH boo-SHAR), was a smart cookie who recognized right away how important the Rosetta Stone is. He had the soldiers stop digging with their iron shovels and picks and carefully, very gently, tenderly lift the Rosetta Stone out of the sand and wipe it clean with soft cloths. After that he let them go back to shooting cannonballs at the sphinx’ nose. (Kidding! Kidding!—they didn’t really.)

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In hock Señor Wences

I deserve every “Okay, Boomer” sneer I get for this lame gag. I pray Señor Wences’ ghost will forgive me.

The persecuted Christians of the Roman Empire adopted a strange symbol to represent themselves: the Cross. The cross was the torture device used to kill Jesus. Maybe it was a way of saying they knew they might be put to death for worshiping Christ, and accepted that possibility.

We’re zipping ahead to ad 304—the Roman Empire was enduring a civil war. Emperor Constantine and Emperor Licinius were at it. It looked like Licinius had all the military advantage. But Constantine had a dream the night before the big decisive battle: the dream told him to fight under the banner of Christ. Constantine must’ve dreamed in Latin, so the takeaway message was: ‘In hoc signo vinces’—‘In this sign you will conquer.’ He had his soldiers paint crosses on their shields and they won the battle and the war. After that, Constantine decreed that all religions would be permitted in the Roman Empire and no one would be punished for worshiping Christ.

Here’s a very good read:

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Ptolemy I Soter

Ptolemy started a dynasty in Egypt—a royal family of several generations. So during this time Egypt’s royals were Greek/Macedonian.

The regular shmoes of Egypt spoke Egyptian and the ruling class spoke Greek. How did they communicate with each other? Well, often royal decrees were chiseled onto big stones which were set up in public places where they could be read. To make sure everybody got the message, a decree might be written in 3 writing systems: hieroglyphic, Demotic and Greek.

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Hypatia, the lady philosopher/mathematician/astronomer

Sometimes writing about history is hard. At the beginning of this project, I’d envisioned a fun and slightly wacky tour through Western Civilization presented by a fun and slightly wacky uncle. The story of human beings is often violent and cruel, though. Human beings are flawed creatures. There are parts of civilization’s history that make me heartsick.

I want to tell you about a glorious and brilliant woman who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century ad. Her name is Hypatia. She was the daughter of a philosopher and mathematician, and she became a philosopher and mathematician herself. Hypatia was lovely to look at, but her intellect was what made her irresistible. I became interested in her when I read that if she hadn’t outright invented the astrolabe, at the least she played an big part in developing it.

Hypatia helped her dad expand Ptolemy’s work on astronomy. She eventually did her own scholarly work on the stars and the geocentric model of the universe. It might have been she who came up with the idea of ‘flattening’ the spheres to create the star-map that is central to the astrolabe’s design (this is my own conjecture).

Hypatia was also a philosopher. Her philosophy was Neo-Platonism, which adapts Plato’s ideas about what makes the world tick. Hypatia was a gifted teacher. She often gave lectures in the agora (Greek for public square) about philosophy, astronomy, and her many intellectual interests. At that time Alexandria was boiling with religious trouble. Christians and Jews battled with each other and with philosophers who rejected a belief in God. The Roman Empire was in its last days, about to split into East and West. Politics absolutely played a part in the violent clashes between religion and philosophy.

I’m sorry and ashamed to tell you that a mob of Christians ambushed Hypatia, and murdered her. It’s nearly impossible for me to believe that these were followers of Jesus. But it happened. They behaved as a mob—the very opposite of civilization—and murdered a woman for promoting a philosophy that rejects Christianity.

You can read more about Hypatia here and here. There’s a movie about her, too.  Here’s a review—caution: some violence.  (I have a quibble with History Buff’s conclusion that, because of Christianity, scholarship was discouraged in the Dark Ages. Beginning with Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire fostered a culture of learning that was encouraged in the monasteries. Monks copied books by hand—the books from the Greek philosophers that had been translated into Arabic, which the monks then translated into Latin. See How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.)

Archimedes and his odometer

Archimedes was a Greek mathematician who specialized in measuring space. He was certain that there must be a way to accurately measure how much space is in a circle—area—or how much space is in a sphere or a cylinder—volume (he figured out how to measure volume when he noticed that a certain amount of water spilled out when he got into a bath tub). Archimedes was influenced by other great mathematicians, like Pythagorus and Euclid.

Archimedes invented many wonderful machines, like a screw for drawing up water, or catapults that were used to fight off invading navies. Although we don’t have his plans for it, Archimedes is said to have invented a way to measure distance. This machine is called an odometer.

Archimedes’ odometer operated on the idea that every time a wheel goes around, it travels its own circumference. The odometer adds up those circumferences and marks when the wheel has traveled a mile. In our last post, we showed how a standard Roman chariot wheel goes around 42 times to travel a mile.

We know about Archimedes’ odometer because the Roman military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80–70 bc – 15 bc), or Vitruvius for short, wrote about it in his 10-volume book De Architectura. Engineers build stuff. As the Roman Empire expanded, the army took along a corps of engineers to build fortifications; siege engines; bridges; tunnels; aqueducts to provide water; and roads. These engineers did such a good job that you can still find Roman bridges, aqueducts and roads today.

Emperor Caesar Augustus wanted to know exactly how big the empire was and decreed that mile markers should be put up along the newly-built roads. Vitruvius decided to build Archimedes’ odometer to accurately measure the miles.

We only know what Vitruvius’ odometer looked like from a fanciful drawing. We don’t know exactly how it worked. Some people, including Leonardo da Vinci, have come up with some pretty good guesses about how it worked. You can see Leonardo’s drawings here—plus, you can even download plans if you’d like to build one yourself! Now that’s cool.

We do know that every time the chariot wheel goes completely around, it moves other gears. The other gears are set up to mark a mile at the 42nd revolution of the chariot wheel. The trick is gear ratio—meaning some gears are bigger, some gears have more teeth. If the gear on the drive shaft has only one tooth and the gear holding the marbles has 42, the marble-gear moves 1/42 of a revolution every time the chariot wheel goes completely around. At the 42nd revolution, a hole with a marble lines up with a hole underneath the gear and the marble drops into a bucket. Each dropped marble represents one mile traveled.



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How he did it

Just to recap from the last couple of posts: First, Eratosthenes guessed the Earth was round like a ball. Second, he knew that at noon on the Summer solstice, the Sun shone directly overhead in the town of Syene, which was 5,000 stadia south of Eratosthenes.

Third, Eratosthenes guessed the Sun was really big—huge, even. He noticed that shadows cast by the Sun are all parallel, so all the Sun’s rays must be parallel, too. Parallel means 2 or more lines that never touch—they stay the same distance from each other. Think train tracks.

SO, Eratosthenes—in Alexandria, 5,000 stadia north of Syene—put a stick (like the gnomon of a sundial) in the ground and made sure it was plumb. That stick was pointing down to the center of the Earth. If Earth is round, the well in Syene and Eratosthenes’ stick won’t be parallel, right? They’ll be at an angle to each other. Eratosthenes didn’t know exactly how many degrees that angle was, but in Alexandria at noon on June 21st, his stick cast a shadow.

There weren’t any shadows in Syene, because the Sun was directly overhead. He measured the stick, he measured the shadow, and used those measurements to draw an angle. The angle turned out to be a little over 7 degrees, or 1/50 of a circle.

Eratosthenes knew the distance from Alexandria to Syene was 5,000 stadia. He multiplied 5,000 by 50 to get the circumference of the Earth—250,000 stadia. In modern measurements that works out to be 28,738.418 miles or 46,250 kilometers.

The actual polar circumference of Earth is about 24,860 miles or just a bit over 40 thousand kilometers. The stadion Eratosthenes used may have been a little different from the standard unit. But even today, right now, if you search the internet for the circumference of the Earth, you won’t get just one answer.

Eratosthenes was a genius who used what he knew and observed, along with what he guessed at, to calculate something that no one knew—and he did it pretty accurately.

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