Historical story

In Babylon were hanging gardens

The ancient world is laced with myths and legends. The further back in time you go, the harder it is sometimes to separate myth and history. Many stories have taken on a life of their own over the centuries. Some developments from antiquity are too easily extended to modern times. Others can't be right because they go against the laws of nature.

'In Babylon were hanging gardens'

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are one of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Various Greek and Roman authors describe a terraced garden complex of about one and a half hectares, supplied with water with an ingenious system of screws. They are said to have been built under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC) for his queen, a young woman from Persia who longed for the mountains of her homeland.

But all these sources are Greek and Latin, dating back centuries after the time of Nebuchadnezzar II. The Hanging Gardens are not mentioned in the tens of thousands of Babylonian clay tablets, in the older writer Herodotus, or in the Bible. Archaeologists were also unable to determine the location of the gardens anywhere.

Perhaps, then, we should not look for the gardens in Babylon, but in the Assyrian capital Nineveh, Oxford University's Stephanie Dalley recently argued in a new book. Greek authors frequently confused Babylon and Assyria, and evidence of the existence of gardens and irrigation systems has been found in Nineveh.

But the fact that all sources talk about Babylon weakens her argument, writes Bert van der Spek, professor of ancient history at the VU, in a review of Dalley's work. Van der Spek himself investigated the origin of the legend. The gardens may have been a fairytale name for Nebuchadnezzar's own palace, he says. Van der Spek has no real proof either, but he and Dalley agree that there has never been a real hanging garden in Babylon.

'Our democracy comes from Greece'

“Our form of government is called a democracy because it is in the hands of many and not a few. In our personal disputes, our laws ensure equal justice.” That's what the Athenian "father of democracy" Pericles would have said. And many a modern politician would not say otherwise. Our understanding of popular sovereignty certainly bears some resemblance to the ancient Greek system. But apart from the name, our system has little to do with Athenian.

Athenian democracy came after 317 BC. an end, after which this type of government was no longer looked after for centuries. Our modern constitution has its roots no earlier than the late European Middle Ages, when kings would convene an assembly of estates from time to time. In those meetings the three estates – nobility, clergy and urban citizenry – were represented to assist the king in word and deed.

In the Netherlands, all the regions sent their delegates to the estates, or 'staten'-general, the great assembly in The Hague. These assemblies, also called parliaments (from the French parler =to talk), tried to expand their power and influence. The most striking examples of this are the revolutions in England in 1688-89 and the French Revolution of 1789. In the nineteenth century more and more countries introduced universal suffrage (for men!) and parliaments gradually became real representatives of the people.

If an Athenian saw our form of government he would not recognize it as democracy. The Athenian citizens had direct control over political affairs, without the intervention of a parliament. A Greek would rather see our democracy as an olicharchy, in which a small group rules. Moreover, the accompanying idea of ​​citizenship was not based on having political rights and duties, as with us, but had features of a cultic religion.

Archimedes set fire to Roman ships with mirrors

There are quite a few stories about the Greek engineer and mathematician Archimedes. He is said to have discovered his law of Archimedes in the bath, after which he shouted 'eureka' and started running naked through the streets of Syracuse. In the second century AD, the Greek Lucius wrote that Archimedes had saved his city from a Roman naval fleet by setting fire to the Roman ships. A version of this that can still be found in contemporary stories about antiquity is that Archimedes concentrated sunlight in mirrors and set the sails on fire.

These stories have been disputed for centuries. In 1648 the scientist Athanasius Kircher came to the conclusion after experiments that you could start a fire with a mirror at a distance of 25 meters, but only if the target is not moving, and that is a bit much in demand for a warship. The TV show Mythbusters did it again in 2008, and concluded the same. In order to function as a weapon, such a fire mirror would have to have a diameter the size of the largest telescope lens ever sharpened. Very impractical as a weapon..

But the main argument that the story is nonsense is that it is nowhere in the sources. Polybios, Livy and Ploutarchos, who describe in detail the siege of Syracuse and Archimedes' inventions, do not mince words with mirrors. So where does the story come from? There are some vague conjectures, but unfortunately no one knows for sure. This has not prevented ancient historians from still presenting the Byzantine fairy tale as an established fact in our own twenty-first century.

'Ancient statues were white'

Who does not know them, the beautiful Greek and Roman statues of gods, heroes or emperors? The Greek sculptors of the fifth and sixth centuries BC in particular managed to perfectly depict the human body with all its muscles and tendons. The statues as you see them in museums are made of white stone. For a long time, art historians have believed that they have always been white. Tight white works of art, that confirmed the image of the classical Greeks as the inventors of an abstract concept of art.

But the Greek sculptors, like their Roman colleagues, did use color. Paint remnants can be found on some images. Using special lighting equipment, researchers have tracked down those leftovers and made reconstructions of what the images once must have looked like.

Bright, sparkling colors popped up. The images even have something garish, almost kitschy, by our standards. So the Greek artists did not work that abstract. A similar feast of colors was found on classical Greek and Roman buildings. They were painted red, green, yellow and purple. Together with the beautiful mosaics on the floors, the classical world was a lot more colorful than we can now imagine.

'Christians were killed in the Colosseum'

On the edge of the arena the Collosseum in Rome stands a huge crucifix. Pope Benedict XIV has dedicated the site to the Christians who were allegedly tortured, burned or torn by wild animals there by the ancient Romans. Indeed, the Roman Empire persecuted quite a few Christians. When the empire faced border pressures and military defeats since the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, they sought the cause in the wrath of the gods. In response, the Romans began to exterminate religious minorities, such as the increasing numbers of Christians.

Although various later images show that Christian persecution took place in the Colloseum, to the enthusiastic cheers of a huge audience, this is nowhere apparent from the sources available to us. There are several texts about the martyrdom of Roman Christians, but only a few mention the place. Sebastian is killed on the hill Palatine and Agnes in the Stadium of Domitian.

In the Martyr's Act of Justin, Chariton, Charito, Euelpistos, Hierax, Paion, Liberian and their congregation only states that they were killed "in the usual place." It is unlikely that this meant the Colloseum, as nothing else is known about massacres in the Colloseum. So if Christians were killed for faith reasons in the Colosseum, it was apparently forgotten, while all other places were remembered.

More about antiquity on Kennislink