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Seneca and “On The Shortness of Life”

by on November 24, 2014

Okay, so we are going to be talking about some pretty heavy stuff today. For starters, we are going to examine the looming prospect of our inevitable demise, our inability to picture time as a limited resource, and our unhealthy obsession with frittering our years away enthralled to our labors.

SenecaSeneca the younger, who is the author of On the Shortness of Life is not one of those philosophers to tackle insubstantial questions. As a stoic, he was committed to nothing short of a societal revolution that would see people abandon their superficial ways and embrace the tenents of stoicism not merely as food for thought, but as a viable way of life.

The problem with societal revolutions is that they can be kind of hard. It is likely then that the stoics, who were nothing if not flexible, decided that the best way to endow stoicism upon the Roman population would be to supplant the philosophy within the minds of Rome’s most notable figures.

It is possible that it was this thought that prompted Seneca to take a position as the tutor, and later an advisor, to a young Emperor Nero. Seneca wrote extensively to the young emperor, attempting to spur him in the direction of philosophy and away from political demagoguery.

Now I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but let’s just all agree that it didn’t really work out. Nero has been called a lot of things, but a “thoughtful, philosophical leader” was never one of them.

But now I am getting away from the subject at hand. We were talking about Seneca’s letter known as On the Shortness of Life or De Brevitate Vitae. The letter is addressed to Seneca’s friend, Paulinus who held the rather important position of supervisor of Rome’s grain supply.

As I mentioned, Seneca touches on a few topics that, at the very least, might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. For starters, Seneca tells us that most people refuse to accept the prospect of death and that we waste our lives on useless endeavors as a way to blind ourselves from the inevitable.

And so I thought it might be a good idea if we started with a joke instead, preferably one about the unavoidable darkness that awaits us all.


A priest stands before his congregation and warns them of the brevity of life and the suddenness of death. He declares to them all, “Before this day is done someone in this very parish might be dead!”

A little old woman in the front row stands up and shouts “Ha!”

“What is so funny?”, asks the priest.

“Well” said the old woman, “I’m not a member of this parish!”

Now that joke is from the book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Them Pearly Gates, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, and it accentuates one point very well.

Seneca bust
Most of us, if not all of us, do not accept that we are going to die. Oh sure, we can come to grips with the notion of death in a quasi-objective, 21st century-rationalist sort of way. We have empirically concluded that everybody from Sinatra to Seneca was once alive and now they are dead, so it logically follows that we will die as well.

However, we usually don’t KNOW that we will die. We don’t always BELIEVE that we will die with the same conviction that we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow or that our favorite sports teams will be forever cast into obscurity. Seneca tells us as much when he writes…

“You live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

Seneca argues that we fall into this delusion of believing that we shall live forever. We treat every day as if there would assuredly be another to follow. We view time as if it were an unlimited resource rather than a restricted commodity.

Seneca continues by telling us that we not only refuse to accept our limited time, but that we waste away what little time we do possess. The philosopher declares that we shackle ourselves to our labors, our professions.

Whether we are laborers or emperors, we willingly give parts of ourselves to others or to the faceless masses. And at the end of our days, we might drop dead while calling on a customer or arguing before a court. We will die as if we were children, never having learned how to live.

“How seldom you have enjoyed full use of yourself, how seldom your face wore an in artificial expression, how seldom your mind was unflurried, what accomplishments you have to show for so long a life, how much of your life has been pilfered by others without your being aware of it, how much of it you have lost, how much was dispensed on groundless regret, foolish gladness, greedy desire, polite society-and then realize that your death will be premature.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

In short, Seneca is telling us that we don’t want to be the kind of guy who dies, and upon his gravestone it is written “He always filed his expense reports”.

AugustusAs if to accentuate this point, Seneca begins to speak of Emperor Augusts who was deified by the Roman population, but who would be burdened by the responsibilities of his post. Seneca tells us that Augusts longed for the leisure that might come with old age, and that it was this thought alone that gave solace to his labors.

We then might be sorrowful to think of Augusts on his deathbed and that his final words were “Did I play the part well? Then applaud as I exit”, as if his life were a role he played for the benefit of the audience.

Seneca continues that even Cicero, who is remembered for posterity as one of Rome’s greatest politicians and orators, declares in a letter to his friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus that he feels as if he were “half a prisoner” while lounging in his Tuscan estate.

Perhaps it is because he was so entangled within his duties, so burdened by his commitments and authority, that even while in leisure Cicero felt as if he were a prisoner. And that, at least according to Seneca, is no way to live.

Okay, so we haven’t been discussing the most pleasant topics. So far Seneca has reminded us that we are all going to die and then he accused us of wasting our mortal life on professional endeavors.

So what should we be doing?! Give me a sign, Seneca! I want to live, Clarence!

Well, Seneca is, after all, a stoic philosopher at heart. So he tells us that the way we can learn to truly live is to, obviously, study philosophy! Seneca states rather bluntly that “The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live.”

“Only men who make Zeno and Pythagoras and Democritus and the other high priests of liberal studies their daily familiars, who cultivate Aristotle and Theophrastus, can properly be said to be engaged in the duties of life.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

It is important to remember that philosophy during the time of Seneca was not part of a structured course curriculum at a university. Seneca is not telling us that, if we want to learn to live, then we ought to go enroll in philosophy 101 at our local college.

Instead, we must realize that “philosophy”, at least according to Seneca, was a very conscious and deliberate pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. It is only by endeavoring to uncover true wisdom that we are properly engaged in the duties of life.

This sort of sentiment is to be expected, especially when we remember that Seneca was a stoic philosopher. The Stoics taught that we ought to live according to nature, that humans ought to live according to our human nature. And it is our ability to learn and become wise that is most natural and most pleasant within our lifetime.

“There is nothing that the lapse of time does not dilapidate and exterminate. but the dedications of philosophy are impregnable; age cannot erase their memory or diminish their force.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

I do have a small objection to this whole pursue-philosophy-or-you-are-not-really-living thing. Keep in mind that the person Seneca is addressing this letter to is responsible for managing the entirety of Rome’s public grain supply. Arguably, this man is the one chiefly responsible for ensuring that citizens are fed and that starvation and famine don’t run wild through the city.

Seneca drawing
And yet, here Seneca is arguing that being shackled to such responsibilities is no way to live ones life. If I had a family to feed back then, I would have been none too happy to hear that Seneca was attempting to incite an existential crisis within the man responsible for feeding an entire society!

Try to imagine if the entire IRS or the FDA collectively through up their hands and said “Screw this stuff, I’m going to go learn philosophy!” Yeah, you bet their would be some consequences.

Still, the heart of Seneca’s message is one I can support. And if you are looking for a bottom line, then here it is- we ought not to fear death, but accept it as an inevitable conclusion to life. Live every day as if it were your last, because it might just be.

Remember to put aside the expense reports and shut your computer every once in a while (a piece of advice that I have a hard time following) and take some time to live, really live your life.

We ought not to languish about our lot in life, but rather take time to cultivate our inner selves. And when we die, and die we will, we should die content with our lives, with ourselves, and with the beauty of our souls.

Women in Antiquity

by on November 21, 2014

By Ben Potter

The idea that women in antiquity were housebound is obviously ridiculous… and, paradoxically, true.

That is to say, the ‘ideal’, in ancient Athens certainly, is that a woman should be neither seen nor heard, but pervade an aura of feminine invisibility.

For example, Pericles (reported by Thucydides) addressed the women of Athens thus:

“Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you”.

However, such an obviously impractical thing was merely the luxury of the super-rich. Even relatively wealthy, but ‘normal’ women led an active and outdoor life.

Indeed, there is extensive evidence that women were walking about the streets of Athens: visiting their relatives, working, fetching, carrying and attending weddings and festivals. Proof that such activity was normal is given strength because the accounts don’t exclaim anything untoward in this. For example, “you’ll never guess what I saw a woman doing today…”! is not a commonly found phrase from the annals of the ancients.


That said, the ‘ideal’ is plainly laid out in Sophocles’ Antigone when Creon says of Antigone and Ismene that “they must be women and not range at large”.

This impractical and ignored state of perfection seems to have been largely for show and not given much gravity. We see a direct equivalent in the Roman world where women were simultaneously praised for suckling their young, but assumed that they also engaged a wet-nurse.

While the aristocratic/royal seclusion nicely represents one extreme, prostitution does well to show the other.

This largely, though by no means uniquely, female profession would have produced (or attracted) a peculiar ‘masculine’ subculture of women.


Essentially, prostitutes were required to blend in with the world of men. Hetairai (top-of-the-range prostitutes) were able to read and write, recite verse and play musical instruments. Indeed, they may well have been familiar with the politics and philosophy of the age.

For the average, non ‘man’ woman, these topics weren’t discussed in public. But the prevailing attitude towards formal female education wasn’t one of suppression, it was simply deemed unnecessary.

That said, women in general are now thought to have had more literacy than once assumed. This is because dealing with the various chits and orders flooding in and out of a household probably passed under the care of the matriarch – though some maintain that the actual reading and writing would have been left to the household slaves.


Nonetheless, women’s ‘lib’ should not be overstated, as they were subject to their guardian when it came to financial transactions. However, it is not clear how much of this was a matter of form and how much of it was actually restrictive.

What we do know is that in imperial Rome women with three children were rewarded with financial independence. It also appears that widows could inherit and run their husbands’ businesses.

Indeed, the age of the Caesars was, relatively and politically, the best time to be a woman in the ancient world. This is mostly because of the eroded powers of the senators and the rise of the emperors as (almost) all-powerful beings.

Despite their thoughts to the contrary, the emperors were still mortal men and, as such, had mothers, sisters, daughters and lovers who had direct access to the strings of power.


This is why women like Livia and Agrippina were able to play such important roles in the fate of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

While it may be difficult to judge the details of ancient women’s lives, attitudes towards them are far easier to investigate.

Men in antiquity had a schizophrenically ambivalent view towards the fairer sex.

On the one hand, women were thought to be physically and mentally inferior to men, unable to make sensible decisions and easily tricked. On the other, they were considered spiteful, treacherous, volatile, untrustworthy, capable of great evil and in need of being tamed.

This open contradiction perhaps has its origins in Hesiod’s or Plato’s suggestions that women were not another sex, but another race.

N.B. Plato’s suggestion was tongue-in-cheek, but may not have been taken as such.

In general, it can be said of women in the ancient world they were kept in a perpetual state of adolescence; they were without political rights, had little or no economic freedom, were restricted in their movement, undereducated and untrusted.

Spartan girl

That said, Athenian, Roman and even Spartan women (who were thought by the former two cultures to be distinct as they openly engaged in physical exercise) were renowned and revered for their loyalty and, above all, fecundity.

With the post-1970s renaissance of interest in the topic of ancient women there have been many interesting and entertaining ideas put forward, several with quasi-feminist interpretations.

One of which is from the late, great and radical Dr. John J. Winkler who posited the notion that the all-female festivals of antiquity were used as a pretext for women to gather together and make jokes about their husbands’ sexual inadequacy and unimpressive… organs.

Meanwhile, Dr Lesley Dean-Jones put forward the notion that Greek women, far from being disenfranchised, considered themselves prized objects whose bodies were too important to throw away on something as trivial as war!

Votive of Women

Cambridge University’s Robin Osborne suggested that women valued their role as king-maker of an oikos (household) and appreciated their own importance as revered chattel, without which society could not function.

Many articles of the past decade have made an effort to link the lot of the ancient female to that of the modern Muslim female. While many of the comparisons are stark, the thesis for this argument is not sustainable.

That said, perhaps the most telling, but least pleasant, link between the past and the present comes to us via ancient funerary inscriptions. These, almost universally, would praise a man for his valour and achievements but venerate a woman primarily for her appearance.

Flicking through the sexualised banality of modern magazines and TV channels, would an ancient in the modern world consider that times had really changed so much?

Postscript: Of the information provided above, a caveat must be put in place for the fine and fascinating women of Etruria. However, such a discussion requires many more words than would be tolerable for such an article. Perhaps it will come to light at a later date!

Plautus: No Latin Matter

by on November 14, 2014

By Ben Potter

It’s been often said that what was good about the Romans came from their cultural forefathers, the Greeks.

Like most (I refrain from saying ‘all’) generalisations, there are grains of both truth and falsehood to this claim.

Whilst there may well be startling similarities between Greek and Roman art, gods, drinking habits, sexual conduct and empire building, these are nothing compared to the parallels between the two cultures’ comedic theatre.

In this respect, the man we turn to in order to sample our very first taste of Roman literature, is the playwright Plautus.

As the world expert in the field, P.G. McC. Brown, put it:

“Latin literature begins with a bang, with a dazzling display of virtuoso verbal fireworks in twenty comedies written by Plautus between about 205 and 184 BC”.

And the fact that he borrowed a plot or two (or 130 according to some sources) does nothing to diminish Plautus’ status as the first and, many say, best exponent of Roman Comedy.

Tito Maccio Plauto

But before we dive headfirst into those literary waters, a quick biographical note (such as posterity enables us to provide).

Plautus hailed from Sarsina in Umbria, near modern day San Marino, and his journey to theatrical greatness is an unusually cyclical one.

The story goes that the young Plautus was originally some sort of stage-hand or set designer whose artistic curiosity eventually encouraged him to try his hand at acting.

After what must have been a moderate success, he’d saved enough money to abandon this disreputable pursuit (actors were not well thought of in Roman society) and invested everything in a maritime business.

As great as he was, Plautus was no entrepreneur. He lost his entire fortune and was reduced to working as a mill-hand by day and studying Greek comedy by night.

While this life of relative poverty and menial employment would suggest Plautus did not have a privileged upbringing, the very fact that he was extremely literate in both Latin and Greek means that this is no rags-to-riches story. To prove this point further, he was very knowledgeable of both nations’ politics and history, well-versed in poetry, and extensively well-read.

Even so, Plautus’ studious approach to the Greek practitioners of his art meant his knowledge bordered on the comprehensive, rather than merely the extensive.


Interestingly, his playwright of choice was not the master of Old Comedy, Aristophanes, but a figure who dominated New (Greek) Comedy… Menander (342-290 BC).

Menander’s brand of humour was much less fierce and acerbic than that of Aristophanes. While it was obvious he did engage in political satire and playful bawdiness, he never quite touched the subversive or perverse extremes that Aristophanes regularly reached.

He also liked to pepper his works with easily digestible, homespun maxims which must have made him one of the more easily quotable artists of the age.

These examples give us a flavour:

“Evil communications corrupt good manners”

“Whom the gods love die young”

“The property of friends is common”

Perhaps it was for this reason that Plautus chose Menander as his main influence rather than Aristophanes. Or maybe it was because Menander was closer in time than the Old Greek Comic… or that they were the only books Plautus could get his hands on.


Whatever the reason, the great Greek (and his contemporaries) had more than a little ‘influence’ on the Latin scribe.

Not that plot pilfering was either looked down upon or kept a secret.

In fact, in several of Plautus’ prologues he openly provides the original Greek title and author of the plays he has translated. While this was not always the case, we can safely assume that his intentions were not deceitful in this respect.

So blatant was this that originally it had been assumed by many that Plautus was much more a linguist than a true poet. But in 1968, the discovery of Menander’s original play, Dis Exapaton (The Double Deceiver), shed light on Plautus’ methods. It was from this script that his Bacchides (the Bacchis Sisters) was adapted.

Though the broad plot and sequencing are much the same, Plautus cuts a couple of scenes, changes the order of others and tweaks the stage directions here and there.

He also adds and cuts jokes as he sees fit, inserts or enhances puns (his favoured method of comic delivery) and changes the characters’ names.

Greek Theatre

This was about all that was required of Plautus in terms of characterisation, as both New Greek Comedy and Roman Comedy almost entirely relied on stock characters, e.g. the love-struck young man, his miserly father, the wily, manipulative slave, and the appetitive parasite to name but a few.

One thing Plautus did not do, surprisingly for us perhaps, is change the setting of the play from Athens to Rome.

While the Greek setting of Plautus’ plays is fascinatingly paradoxical for us, it would have been seen as mundane to the average Roman. This is because Plautus didn’t actually write ‘comedies’, he wrote fabulae palliatae (dramas in a Greek cloak).

This framework allowed for much artistic and comedic license on the part of the writer, as Roman in-jokes could be used in an abstract setting for comic effect. Indeed, the fact that ‘going Greek’ was a stock phrase to denote debauchery and excess tells its own story.

Robin hood

A modern parallel could be something like Blazing Saddles or Robin Hood: Men in Tights, as these movies tell us more about contemporary America than their respective historical periods.

Similarly, Plautus’ work is full of risqué and compromising situations, along with slapstick and a penchant for randomly inserting a musical number. However, as a poet and an artist, Plautus clearly had a lot more to offer than the impressively endless gag-reel for which he is famed.

His loftier side shines through in his cantica. These highly stylised and impressive arias seem almost capriciously inserted (often early in a play) and presumably serve the dual purpose of captivating the audience’s attention and showing off the true skill of the writer.

Indeed, Plautus’ contemporary legacy was an impressive one; his plays were still being performed in Rome up until the time of Horace (65-8 BC).

He was also popular in Renaissance Italy, especially after 1429 when 12 of his plays, presumed lost forever, were unearthed in Germany.

That said, his stock plummeted dramatically from the 17th century onwards.

It would not be hard to imagine that this was true in England because he was, well, replaced. It was during this period that Shakespeare did to Plautus what Plautus had previously done to Menander.

In the end, there is no better summary of Plautus the comedian than what given to him as an epitaph. Unlike many a great man, he was fortunate enough to have his immortal legacy suitably reflect the scope and splendour of his art:

Postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, Comoedia luget,
Scaena est deserta, dein Risus, Ludus locusque
Et Numeri innumeri simul omnes conlacrimarunt

Plautus is dead, and on the empty stage
Sad comedy doth lie
Weeping the brightest star of all our age
While artless Melody
And Jest and Mirth and Merriment forlorn
Their poet mourn

The Poet King and his ‘Kingdom’

by on November 7, 2014

By Abigail Russell

Alexander the Great

Alexander’s brief and militant kingship won the renown of the ages and awarded him the title ‘Great.’ He is revered among the greatest military geniuses in history and with good reason! Bringing the mighty Persian Empire to its ruin, decreeing himself Pharaoh of Egypt, and spreading Greek culture as far east as India, Alexander amassed an Ancient Empire to rival any contester.

This impressive, militant, and somewhat brutal side of Alexander is often presented without hesitation and has crowned him the Warrior King… and rightly so. But while many think of him only as the warrior, there are those who keep a watchful eye from Mount Olympus that would frown at such an injustice.

The Greek biographer, Plutarch, said in his Life of Alexander:

“For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.”

Plutarch understood that achievements alone do not completely illustrate character and therefore sought to show us the man underneath the helmet. While his military achievements and undoubtedly brutal conduct cannot, and should not, be dismissed, it is not the Warrior King to whom I pay homage.

It is, instead, the Poet King.

By ‘poet,’ I do not mean to imply that Alexander was a profound writer, although that is not entirely farfetched either. Poet, here, denotes a man capable of poetic, idealistic, and creative thinking and whose life is shrouded in romanticism… something that began long before Alexander’s military endeavors.

So, with Plutarch as our guide, here begins the story of the Poet King and his Kingdom.

Alexander and Aristotle

Ushered into this world by the hands of a goddess, Alexander lived a life full of divine encounters, dreams, and visions. His father commissioned the great philosopher, Aristotle, to tutor the young prince, and it was through his influence that Alexander developed a love of learning which lasted his entire life.

Aristotle also fostered in his pupil an intimate relationship with Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. A gift from his teacher, Alexander slept with the work under his pillow and next to his dagger. He carried it with him on expeditions and considered it to be his most valuable possession. Enraptured with the story of the great hero Achilles, Alexander found both a role model and companion in the legendary warrior. His fascination with this work of fiction, and his constant attachment to it, likely influenced his own character and actions.

Alexander on a horse

Coursing through his veins were stubbornness and competitiveness, mixed with a healthy amount of sentimentality. As a young boy he watched his father give up on a difficult horse and decided to take up the challenge for himself. Whether led by his competitive spirit, or by an instant connection to the animal, Alexander convinced his father to let him try and tame him. When, to his astonishment, his son succeeded, King Philip gave perhaps the greatest commission ever given by a father.

He said: “My son, seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself; Macedonia has not room for thee.”

And so it was with that charge that Alexander set out to conquer the world.

Accompanied by his new hooved comrade on his militant endeavors, his idealistic, romantic nature and his desire for civilized, educated subjects remained strong. In Plutarch’s analysis of Alexander’s fortune and virtue, he claims that it was, in fact, this side of Alexander’s character that made him a successful military commander in the first place.

“Was, then, Alexander ill-advised and precipitate in setting forth with such humble resources to acquire so vast an empire? By no means. For who has ever put forth with greater or fairer equipment than he: greatness of soul, keen intelligence, self-restraint, and manly courage, with which Philosophy herself provided him for his campaign?”

Plutarch goes so far as to call the people Alexander conquered his pupils and puts them on a level with those of Plato.

Alexander and Diogenes

From this we can see that despite his martial methods, Alexander’s vision for a unified kingdom went beyond the vast geographic empire of which he was ruler. Instead, he sought unification in morals, knowledge, marriage practices, and language. Quite an ambitious and, dare I say, poetic ideal… don’t you think?

Yet it is not this noble, albeit morally suspect quest that paints Alexander as the Poet King in my mind.

No. Instead, it is his founding of one city; one among many that bore his name. Alexandria, Egypt soared far above the rest in its purpose, intent, history, and the romance that radiates from its existence.

Alexandria Library

One might easily conclude that Alexander’s charge to “seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself” was accomplished in his immense geographic and cultural empire… and certainly for the Warrior King this is true. But I present that for the Poet King this single island city on the northern coast of Egypt was the “kingdom” equal to Alexander and the triumph of his identity as a poet, over his occupation as a warrior.

Legend tells that Alexander wanted to build a city of minds, where great thinkers could meet, learn, teach, and debate.

Indeed, it would be the focal point of an intellectual empire. The story goes that the location came to him in a vision, in which his beloved Homer told him to build on Pharos, an island off the northern coast of Egypt. The building of Alexandria commenced under the watchful rule of Ptolemy, Alexander’s friend and officer. Alexander continued on his campaigns elsewhere, but left instructions for a great Library to be built with the grand intent that it would house a copy of every book in the known world.

Light house

Moreover, Alexandria became home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

As magnificent as the lighthouse might have been, I believe Alexandria’s true glory shines from the very foundation of her existence. Imagine a city, home to the vast extent of the knowledge of man and gods, with streets walked by the greatest minds in the entire world, and walls that echoed with teachings of men and women like Hypatia, Archimedes, and Eratosthenes.

I don’t know how much more poetic you can get than a city that seems too wonderful to be true.

Alexander and Apelles

Regrettably, Alexander never saw the completion of his beloved dream city, but he can rest in peace knowing that it was accomplished. His death at the young age of 33 from a mysterious illness marks the final flourish of the Poet King. Was it poison? Treason? Disease?

From his birth to his death, Alexander the Great has remained shrouded in mystery and romance. Indeed, he carries with him a story worthy of Homer. This Warrior King, so admired through history, is dishonored when remembered for nothing more than military conquest. As a poet, warrior, builder, and philosopher, Alexander deserves to be celebrated for all his being, not just the part that conquered the world.

Inflating an Empire

by on October 31, 2014

By Ben Potter

Imagine a world where Europe is united under a common banner, has shared interests, open markets and… a single currency. A currency that has such an impact on the continent that it leads to mass inflation and threatens the very existence of the union itself!

Imagine… it’s easy if you try.

Of course we are talking about an event that happened over 1,500 years ago.

You see, it is a widely held belief that the Ancient Romans didn’t merely let their empire fall… they inflated it until it burst.

This is because there were only a few methods by which emperors could raise funds. While finding a convenient traitor and confiscating his lands was a good one, the two most popular ways to do it were: a) expanding the empire and b) debasing the denarius, the preferred Roman currency.

Roman Expansion

While the first was easier said than done, it was still done with aplomb.

The problem was that, after an initial boon to the coffers and a swelling of the slave-class, not every province was an automatic money-spinner. Indeed, some required a great deal of maintenance, both in terms of infrastructure and the military personnel needed to keep the peace.

The best way to deal with these problems? Expand even further of course!


However, the empire reached the height of its imperial power relatively early on, under Trajan in fact (98-117 AD). Thus a great deal of time, effort and, crucially, money was spent maintaining the great straining behemoth.

Therefore, many emperors adopted the notion that debasing the silver denarius was a much simpler and swifter way to swell the treasuries and give an embattled government some pecuniary respite. Though, inevitably, only a brief one.

The advantage was that, though the market would eventually adjust to the devalued coin, the imperial court would have a jump on such information and could spend its heart out accordingly… that’s because their denarius had more purchasing power than anyone else’s. By the time the now weaker currency reached the hands of the common people, its lesser worth had already been revealed.

Coin Clipping

If the emperor was lucky enough to die soon after this devaluation… then he’d be leaving a big mess for his successor. If he had the poor fortune to survive… then he’d have to deal with the fallout himself.

But how much damage could shaving a sliver of silver off the coin actually do?

Well, perhaps not that much, but this was no measly fraction. The denarius in the first century AD had a silver content of above 90%, after 100 years that dropped to 60% and by the time the empire had split into east and west, it was down to a paltry 5%.

But this wasn’t a simple, direct, one-way trajectory… Indeed, the western empire did manage to regain some of its financial bearings before its eventual fall.


One such rebound was due to the economic reforms of Constantine the Great, who used his newfound Christianity as an excuse to melt down offending iconography and re-base the currency in one fell swoop.

However, this was not enough to stop the empire’s collapse. There were other, larger forces at play.

For instance, the army, which many saw as an inevitable expense, was hemorrhaging denarii, not least because of Rome’s ever-increasing reliance on mercenaries. The use of these was a double-edged sword as they were not merely of fickle loyalty, but often broke out in open revolt against their paymasters.

Emperor Commodus

The origin of problems such as this are often traced back to the sinister figure portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, the emperor Commodus.

Although he did bankrupt the state, he was probably no more culpable than many of his successors. His problem was that his ineptitude came on the back of an era of the ‘5 good emperors’, thus his incompetence looked far more stark by comparison.

That said, his death undeniably marked a period of great instability; thirty different emperors reigned in the 100 years that followed (only 25 single-term presidents could rule in such a time).

Other causes to the western empire’s dissolution have been identified as a lack of cooperation from the eastern empire, diminishing trade routes, a rise in piracy, mass lead poisoning and even Christianity eroding traditional values!

However, none of these could compete with the effect left behind by the Huns.


As they drove into Northern Europe in the 4th century, not only did they make incursions into Roman territory themselves, but they forced numerous Germanic barbarian tribes to flee southwards.

Inevitably, the reason the empire fell was not just because of silver, but iron and steel.

The defeat to the Goths at the battle of Adrianople in 378 AD was not merely a crushing military blow, but one which made the barbarian hordes realize Rome was not all she once was.

The next 70 years saw defeat after defeat as the various tribes chipped away at Rome’s mighty empire.

When the end finally came, it was with a whimper rather than a scream.


The last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed with such little fuss that it’s rumored his conqueror, Odoacer, may have let him live a quiet retirement rather than put him to the sword.

Thus it could be said that, despite its various problems both financial and otherwise, the Western Roman Empire fell because it had stopped being good at what had made it great in the first place… war.

Or perhaps Rome was just rich, swollen, gouty and infected by its own success. In the words of the pre-eminent historian on the topic, Edward Gibbon:

“The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.”

The root of the root of all evil?

by on October 24, 2014

By Ben Potter

When we talk about money in the ancient world, we are talking about coins… or at the very least, metal.

Now, not surprisingly, the Greek philosophers of the day had plenty to say on this topic… but before we recount at what the likes of Aristotle and Plato thought about coinage, let’s take a look at the precious little discs themselves.

Ancient Coins

The ancient Greek drachma enjoyed ten centuries of popular usage from the Archaic period right up until Roman times. As such, it was not only one of the earliest unified and accepted world currencies, it was also one of the world’s longest serving monetary units.

N.B. The modern Greek drachma (1832 – 2001) can only be thought of as the ‘same’ currency by the most romantic of Hellenophiles.

Greek coinage seems to have originated around 600 BC and was originally made of electrum, a naturally occurring gold/silver alloy… though over time silver became the metal of choice.

A drachma was worth six obols which, though later coins themselves, were originally large metal sticks. An average man could carry six of these valuable stakes in one hand, thus giving etymological rise to the drachma (literally, a fistful).

The increasing commercial and political power of the Greek states meant that the coins were in use all over the Mediterranean basin – from Persia to Carthage to Italy. They even reached as far as the western dwelling Celts.

Despite their ubiquity, drachmae were not universally assumed to have the same value, but instead depended on the reputation of the city in which they were minted.

Charon and Psyche

Nonetheless, these handy coins were undoubtedly an essential part of everyday life. Indeed, they were also needed in the hereafter! It was standard practice to place a coin in the mouth of the deceased, thus enabling them to pay the ferryman, Charon, to convey them into Hades.

However, you may be of the opinion that all of this is just nickel-and-dime stuff. Much more important is: what did the great minds of the age have to say about coinage?

Well, the great student/master double-act, Aristotle and Plato, had clear and distinct thoughts about what a currency should be.

Plato’s ideas about money were like many of his on other topics i.e. largely theoretical, rhetorical and meant to generate intelligent discussion rather than provide a binding dogma for the state to follow.

Well that, and rooted in what critics would describe as socialist principles and what supporters would describe as…. well, socialist principles.


Plato spurned the idea of common money having any value and was therefore against using gold or silver coinage. Instead he preferred some officially recognised, accepted, but intrinsically worthless ‘tokens’ – much like the tickets you win at the fairground, but exchangeable for more than merely huge, stuffed Garfields.

That said, he did think that a standardized Greek currency of actual value could be useful for transactions between governments or traveling citizens… but not compatriots within the same city.

As for Aristotle, he often took a capriciously contrary view to his mentor and this instance was no exception. Though it is commonly accepted, with historical hindsight, that he ‘won’ the day with his ideas about money.

He didn’t do much to justify the necessity of it, but took the more practical approach; i.e. he considered its necessity to be self-evident:

“When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use”.

Sometimes even slightly patronisingly so:

“The various necessaries of life are not easily carried about”!

Nonetheless, Aristotle was clear in his distinction between money and wealth:

“How can that be wealth of which a man may have a great abundance and yet perish with hunger, like Midas in the fable, whose insatiable prayer turned everything that was set before him into gold”?


He also considered the key problem therein to be that, whilst a man could have evidently adequate wealth, there seemed to be no limit in the amount of coinage citizens wished to accrue:

“There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another”.

However, Aristotle reserved his true contempt for the money-lenders:

“The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself”.

In addition to all of the above, and unlike Plato, Aristotle was dogmatic about what a currency should be.

He considered that coinage must be:

  1. Durable – it must survive the trials and tribulations of daily life, i.e. of being carried around in people’s pockets, purses, or in the case of obols, in people’s mouths (this was in everyday life, not only for funerals)!
  2. Portable – a small item should be of a high value.
  3. Divisible – breaking a coin, either figuratively or literally, should not affect its relative value.
  4. Fungible – mutually exchangeable i.e. it doesn’t matter which particular coin you have as long as you have one.
  5. Intrinsically valuable – the coin’s material should be a worthwhile commodity.

Whilst largely in concord, it was in the practicalities of this last criterion that Xenophon, a student of Socrates, disagreed with Aristotle.

He considered that the value of silver should be fixed regardless of how much could be procured. Aristotle conceded that it needed to be controlled and not allowed to spiral freely, but must still must be treated as a commodity rather than simply a currency.

Aristotle’s ideas have been used throughout the ages in order to justify or denigrate various economic policies and innovations; from fiat printing to the most recent phenomenon of crypto-currencies.

Fall of Roman Empire

Indeed, ignoring this fifth tenet of Aristotle’s is what some believe helped bring about the hyper-inflation in the latter days of the Roman Empire – a potential source of its inevitable fall.

While poetical sound-bites, like this one from Aristotle’s dramatic predecessor, Sophocles, pleasantly roll off the tongue to make neat, glib maxims:

“Money: There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money”.

…and are well backed up by the homespun idealism of Socrates:

“I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private”.

…Aristotle was far more practical and prescient. Not only did he outline what a currency should be, but also what a society could become given its absence.

From the lofty ideals embedded in his lengthy prose, Aristotle allows us to infer that he would have rejected any ‘the root of all evil’ tub-thumping out of hand. Indeed he would have considered the exact opposite to be true… that money could help elevate man out of the mire and that the true evil was not the coin itself, but its absence.

He most succinctly and sagely put it thus: “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime”.

And it is with such pragmatic principles that his ideas have outlasted even the drachma itself.