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Constantine: Convert or Con-artist?

by on October 17, 2014

By Amy Zahn

When most people hear the name “Constantine,” all they think is the word “Christian.” And there’s good reason for that – Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor, after all.

However, there is much more to his story than just that.

Constantine Bust

Most people don’t know, for instance, that Constantine wasn’t even meant to be emperor in the first place. He had to dismantle the existing system of government – Diocletian’s Tetrarchy – and win a civil war to take power!

Additionally, his religious affiliation, one of Constantine’s most identifying features, is a topic of debate. Was he truly Christian? Or was his abrupt change of heart, right before battle, yet another skillful move by a political mastermind?

But let’s rewind to the time before Constantine came to power…

Constantine’s predecessor, Diocletian, reigned from 284-305 CE and made sweeping changes to the way the empire was governed. Not only did he abolish the age-old practice of having only one emperor, but in his belief that the empire had become too large to be governed by a single man, he divided Rome into two parts, the east and west.

Under this revolutionary new system, there would be one emperor called an Augustus to rule each half of the empire. Each Augustus would have a “deputy” emperor called a Caesar, both of whom would be groomed to eventually take the place of his Augustus. (NB: Since Roman succession was traditionally hereditary, this change was a big deal.)

Tetrarchy Map

Diocletian’s system of government would be called the Tetrarchy because the empire was, in effect, actually split into four parts, since the Caesars each governed large provinces as well.

When Diocletian created the Tetrarchy, he made himself Augustus in the east, and Maximian, a soldier, Augustus in the west. Their two Caesars were Galerius and Constantius, respectively, two other experienced soldiers.

By 301, Diocletian was in his sixties and ready to retire. To ensure an orderly succession, he wanted Maximian, his fellow Augustus, to retire as well so that they could both be succeeded by their Caesars.

Maximian learned of this in 304 when he was told that both he and Diocletian would be celebrating 20 years in power, despite the fact that Maximian had actually been emperor for a year less than Diocletian. Maximian was also informed that he was being forced to retire, and that Diocletian had taken the liberty of selecting the new Caesars.

Maximian Bust

However, Maximian and Constantius, both of whom had sons who were old enough to inherit the empire, were not pleased to see that traditional succession by inheritance was being totally snubbed in favor of this new system. In fact, Diocletian had not even reached his retirement palace in Solonae when Constantius, now senior Augustus, had begun to scheme.

During this time Constantius’ son, the one and only Constantine, had been residing at the court of his father’s co-Caesar, Galerius. Unfortunately, Constantius died shortly after requesting that his son be returned to him, leading his army to declare that the son, Constantine, was now emperor. This infuriated many people, and after a series of conflicts that came to a head in 311, Rome’s future was in the hands of two factions: one in favor of Constantine, and the other in favor of Maxentius, the son of Maximian.

Our attention now turns to Constantine’s famous conversion to Christianity.

The year was 312, and his conflict with Maxentius was still in full swing. Like most rulers, Constantine had adopted a guardian divinity, the Sun god, who was supposedly offering him protection and guidance. Being a deeply religious person, Constantine most likely truly believed that gods spoke to him, and he had begun to wonder about a strange god he had heard about – the god of the Christians.

Constantine Statue

This is where history becomes a little fuzzy. Because of our lack of primary sources, nobody can ever really know what happened during this part of Constantine’s invasion of Italy, though we do have some ideas. We know that Constantine declared his faith for a new god, one he referred to as “mens divina,” or “divine mind.” We cannot be sure, however, which god this was, since contemporary sources do not tell us, and it does not appear that Constantine himself was very specific.

Thus, most of our information about this crucial time comes from Eusebius of Caesarea, our main primary source about Constantine. According to Eusebius, Constantine told him that:

“about the time of the midday sun […] he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, ‘By this conquer.’”

Eusebius then goes on to describe the next event in Constantine’s conversion, a dream in which:

“the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared to him in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign […] and to use this as protection against the attacks of the enemy.”

Then, on October 28, Maxentius was defeated in a pivotal battle near the Milvian Bridge. Constantine had won.

Battle at Milvian Bridge

As far as most people are concerned, this was the start of the new Christianized Roman Empire. With nearly all of Constantine’s adversaries safely out of the way (with the exception of his longtime ally, Licinius, who Constantine eventually declared war on and defeated), Constantine was more or less free to do as he wished. This is why his moves as emperor are puzzling; rather than make any decisive actions for or against either Christianity or paganism, Constantine appears to have been playing both sides.

For example, the language of the Edict of Milan, a proclamation of religious freedom issued by Constantine and Licinius in 313, is extraordinarily gentle to both Christians and Pagans. Christians were to be permitted to practice “freely and without molestation,” and all others were granted “full authority to observe that religion which each preferred.”

Arch of Constantine detail

Also noteworthy is the Arch of Constantine, which is littered with pagan imagery. It features both the Sun and Moon gods driving chariots, and its inscription attributes Constantine’s victories to an ambiguous, unnamed god – not any pagan god, and not the god of the Christians. This intentional ambiguity, as well as the imperially sanctioned pagan imagery that was commonplace during this time, might suggest that Constantine had not truly converted to Christianity as he claimed.

After all, why would a Christian emperor allow pagan ideals to run rampant in his empire? And why would he initially act so openly tolerant towards beliefs so different than own? (Remember, in the ancient world, this was rare.)

So, then, did Constantine truly convert to Christianity at the fabled battle at the Milvian Bridge, or was his conversion, as many suspect, something other than sincere? The question then is this: What political benefit, if any, could Constantine have gained from a disingenuous conversion to another religion?

To answer this, one must recall that Constantine took power by force and had a rather flimsy claim to the throne. Something else to remember is that the Romans were, at their core, a deeply traditional people. Long-established customs, particularly regarding religion, were revered and something that the average Roman profoundly believed in.

Further, Christianity was historically a very disliked religion in the empire, and had undergone persecution under several emperors, including the quite recent Diocletian. This indicates that there was no political benefit to be had from pretending to convert; in doing so, he risked alienating the empire by snubbing their traditions with a strange religion they despised.

In this context, it is easy to see why a Christian Constantine was so willing to allow many aspects of paganism to flourish in his empire. Why would somebody whose claim to power was sketchy at best and totally illegitimate at worst want to trifle with his peoples’ most ancient, revered, beliefs?

The answer is, he wouldn’t.

Edict of Milan

And Constantine didn’t. This is evidenced by the Edict of Milan and the Arch of Constantine, among other instances of pagan ideas that appeared under his rule. In order to govern successfully, Constantine needed legitimacy and a secure seat on the throne, and he could not accomplish these things by taking over an empire and immediately doing away with its religion.

Thus, his fabled conversion and subsequent actions as emperor seem to suggest that he had, in fact, actually converted. The evidence of him suddenly starting to worship a god that he refused to initially name in 312 supports this, and his decisions after this conversion evoke a man desperate for the acceptance of the empire he had just taken over, despite his newfound religion.

Ancient Bickering: The American Founding Fathers and the Classics

by on October 13, 2014

By Spencer Klavan

The American Founding Fathers knew a thing or two, and one of those things was how to read the Classics. By this I don’t mean that their Latin was good (it was), or that their knowledge of ancient history was infallible (it wasn’t).

JeffersonI mean that they didn’t use Classical writing the way modern thinkers often do, as an Ultimate Authority to be unerringly obeyed. Instead, the statesmen who founded America treated those who founded Athens and Rome as equal partners in an ongoing debate. They challenged their ancient forbears like college roommates haggling over a philosophy paper. That dialogue is the one that built America.

Take Thomas Jefferson: he hated Plato. Hated him passionately, almost with relish, the way beleaguered high school readers often hate him. The Republic, Jefferson wrote, was…

“the heaviest task-work I ever went through,” full of “whimsies . . . puerilities, and unintelligible jargon.”

He was shocked “that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense.” I remember a few kids in my 11th grade Civics class expressing similar opinions.

Jefferson preferred Epicurus, whose philosophy survives through the Roman poet Lucretius. Lucretius wrote that only knowledge and science could redeem humanity, which “lay crushed under religion” and irrational superstition. Those words appealed to Jefferson, an amateur scientist who mistrusted the Bible and would eventually re-write it to excise any mention of the supernatural: “I too am an Epicurean,” he enthused. He proved it by arguing forcefully and effectively for a controversial new doctrine — the separation of church and state.

Now, Jefferson’s enduring legacy is the epoch-making Declaration that “all men are created equal.” Of course the man who wrote those words abhorred Plato, who advocated brainwashing the lower classes to believe their souls were made of inferior material, destined to subservience.

This kind of open élitism repulsed the radically populist Jefferson. Epicurus, Jefferson thought, had it right: different souls are just different arrangements of identical atoms, uniform matter recombining in endless structures. No one is born to rule: we’re all made of the same stuff, quite literally “created equal.”

But we might never have heard of those words — might never have broken away from England — if it weren’t for John Adams and Marcus Cicero. From boyhood, Adams treasured a copy of Cicero’s Orations. Rome’s great statesman became Adams’ confidant, his lifelong friend, and most of all his role model. He worked hard to emulate Cicero’s iron-willed integrity and compelling rhetoric.

XXXThat came in handy: when Jefferson’s Declaration came down to a nail-biting vote, it was the powerful oratory Adams learned from Cicero that tipped the scales in favor of independence. In a two-hour speech, with Ciceronian flair, Adams convinced the Continental Congress to vote for revolution. Colleagues called Adams “the man to whom the country is most indebted for . . . independency.”

For the country that was born in Philadelphia that day, we have Adams — and Cicero — to thank.

Later, as Adams advised the writers of the new constitution, he turned to his tried and true mentor for advice. Cicero gave Adams the idea of “a mixed constitution of three branches,” each restrained by a delicate equilibrium of checks and balances. Adams adopted that concept in his Defence of the Constitutions, which guided the framers as they wrote their own founding document — the one America upholds today.

These days, modern thinkers tend to put the Ancients on an untouchable pedestal, hailing them from afar without really engaging. Politicians from Obama to Palin use quotes from Plato and Aristotle as indisputable maxims, truths they can cite to support their agenda.

That leaves listeners with an all-or-nothing choice: either you agree with this lapidary, monolithic authority called The Classics, or you don’t. That choice is an illusion. There’s never been any such authority. There’s only ever been a motley crew of gifted, contentious intellectuals, arguing tirelessly, contradicting one another — and sometimes themselves — with vehemence and urgency. The history of Greco-Roman thought is a history of incessant bickering. That’s what makes it great.

By doing some bickering of their own, the Founding Fathers picked up where the Greeks and Romans left off. Early American thinkers treated Classical writers as interlocutors, as adversaries — most of all, they treated them as old friends.

Old friends don’t tiptoe around each other or pretend to agree unconditionally: they mix it up. They debate. Old friends speak their minds and hash it out. The early Americans kept the ancient conversation alive — they used it to found a nation. The beauty of the Classical canon is that it makes us part of that conversation, puts modern readers face-to-face with discussion partners across thousands of intervening miles and years. It’s not our job to revere them. It’s our privilege to argue with them.

The Assyrian War

by on October 3, 2014

By Cam Rea

Northern Iraq, northeast Syria and southeastern Turkey, this was a region once known as Assyria. A nation that established its dominance by unleashing its Iron Army, Assyria commanded the Near East from the 10th century BCE to the 7th century BCE at the tip of the sword. At its apex, Assyria stretched from the borders of Iran to Upper Egypt; the largest and most powerful empire the world had yet seen.

Assyrian Empire

The Assyrians were the first to engulf the region (and then some) under one imperial power… but this empire, like all those before and after, was not to last…

But let’s begin with their rise, before recounting their fall.

The Assyrians were originally Semites who migrated to the upper reaches of the Tigris in northern Mesopotamia. It was there, seemingly undiluted by heterogeneous ethnic elements that they carved out their “warrior nation.”

Though they didn’t start that way. The earliest leaders are recorded as, ‘kings who lived in tents’, and may have been independent Akkadian semi-nomadic pastoralist rulers. However, at some point these kings became fully urbanized and founded the city state of Ashur.

By the 21st century BCE, the role of the Assyrian king had changed. Through ritual purification by both divine and human attendants, the king was considered a mediator between the gods and his subjects. Unlike the pharaoh of Egypt, he was not exactly divine but despotic… and prone to battle.

The only consequence of a war mongering king was…well, war.

Assur God

The Assyrians used military force to punish the enemies of Assur, the city’s Patron God. Battle chariots, cavalry, infantry, archers, and siege engines fought together as an iron juggernaut, guided by the king and utilized as the divine tool of Assur’s wrath.

“States make war, but war also makes states,” writes Bruce D. Porter, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.

Assyria was no exception to this rule and, moreover, the Assyrians benefited greatly at other people’s expense… once they burst forth from their borders.

But, in reality, Assyria’s rise to power was a gradual one.


Assyria was not unlike its city-state counterparts that dotted Mesopotamia, with its capital Assur located on the Tigris River. Additionally, Assyria straddled important trade routes that connected them with the Egyptians, the Hittites, and the Mittani, where traders spread the use of writing in the form of the Mesopotamian cuneiform script. It was those trade routes, however, that the powers just listed sought to control.

While Assyria benefited from these marketable channels, Assyria’s economic base was still insufficient. The people depended on agriculture, which in turn relied on the fortunes of the Tigris River. But subduing the Tigris was anything but easy. The Tigris River, unlike the Nile, was not a gentle river; violent floods threatened Assyria’s way of life, requiring the need for major irrigation projects.

This was problematic, for Assyria lacked manpower to build or maintain such projects.

Thus, war, conquest, and the enslavement of peoples, alleviated the problem. With fresh new slaves and resources being brought in to help maintain the Assyrian way of life, the Assyrians were able to focus on other needs… such as iron.

Iron weapons

Assyria possessed few easily available iron deposits for the manufacture of weapons. It also lacked stone for its building projects, as well as wood (with the one exception of the weakly thin palm wood). Assyria was, for the most part, economically stagnant.

With Assyria lacking resources, the need to expand its borders was a necessity. But they had one problem; they were checked by their more powerful neighbor, Mitanni, to which they were vassals until 1360 BCE.

Then Mitanni fell into civil war, dividing them and allowing neighboring powers, such as the Assyrians and the Hittites, to take advantage of the situation. The Mitanni Kingdom was dismantled in 1360 BCE. The remaining traces of the once intimidating Mitannis, the mini state of Hanigalbat, was then finally annihilated in 1345 BCE by Assyria.

Zagros Mountains

With the Mitanni power removed, Assyria focused on their troublesome eastern neighbors, barbarians living in the Zagros Mountains. King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244-1208) BCE subdued them, taking thousands of prisoners, before turning his attentions to the Kassite king of Babylon, who was defeated in 1235 BCE. He then ruled over Babylon as king for seven years, taking on the old title “King of Sumer and Akkad”, first used by Sargon of Akkad.

With a large domain under their control, Assyria’s economic power centered on the three major cities of Nimrud, Nineveh, and Ashur, located on the Tigris River in northwestern Iraq.

However all good things must end; Tukulti-Ninurta was murdered by his son. With his death, Assyria’s borders rapidly receded.

With little goods and resources to utilize, the Assyrians remained mostly dormant during the “Late Bronze Age collapse,” which caused a domino effect throughout the Near East. With the collapse or partial collapse of the major civilizations, the vital trade routes were also affected, causing further economic regression in Assyria.

But from that low moment, Assyria began its slow three-hundred-year rise to power. It really only had one way to go! Under the direction of a line of capable successive kings, Assyria came onto the world stage, establishing an empire in the ninth century BCE.

Assryian War

However, a lack of resources and manpower stubbornly persisted, causing economic stagnation… and Assyria sought to fill this void by engulfing its neighbors via violently political means. Assyria was already firmly familiar with the art of war, and as time progressed (even when the borders fluctuated) Assyria only grew smarter and stronger militarily due to centuries of constant hostilities.

With each warrior generation, learning from the last, it was just a matter of time until Assyria felt comfortable enough to unleash its military machine onto the Near East.

That time came in 745 BCE, when Tiglath-Pileser III seized the Assyrian throne during a civil war and murdered the royal family.

Tiglath-Pilser II

While some Assyrian kings in the past had no issue with subjugating large tracts of land, they were never able to hold onto their newly found possessions for long… this was not the case with Tiglath-Pilser II.

Once king, he reformed the military, and turned it into a weapon of mass destruction, one of which would not been seen again until the time of Rome. The Assyrian army was professional and efficient in conquering. They confiscated both slave power and resources like never before, bringing both fear and torture to keep the spirits of the subjugated low. Any nation not within the sphere of Assyria’s influence had to think twice about confronting the amassing empire.

However, like all empires, there is a time when it must end.

What once was thought unstoppable in its unquenched quest to consume people and material fell in 605 BCE.

This was partially due to over-expansion, and its consequence, the inability to safeguard its borders. Their permeable boundaries opened Assyria to external invasions, which were able to penetrate, raid, and then leave unnoticed and without punishment.

While Assyria was struggling with external threats, internal troubles also boiled to a point. Those who pondered rebellion took action, politically shocking the empire to the core, and eventually causing its ultimate collapse.

In the end, the Assyrian state existed for approximately nineteen centuries (c. 2500 BC to 605 BC), spanning the Early Bronze Age through to the late Iron Age. But its duration and power didn’t manage to stop the tides of history… for no empire can last forever…

The Quietest, Coolest, Most Pleasant Place in the World

by on September 25, 2014

By Anya Leonard

“We passed along the coastline of Epirus
To port Chaonia, where we put in,
Below Buthrotum on the height…
I saw before me Troy in miniature
A slender copy of our massive tower,
A dry brooklet named Xanthus…and I pressed
My body against a Scaean Gate. Those with me
Feasted their eyes on this, our kinsmen’s town.
In spacious colonnades the king received them,
And offering mid-court their cups of wine
They made libation, while on plates of gold
A feast was brought before them.”

- Virgil, The Aeneid (Book III 388- 482)

Aeneas was quite surprised, you see. When Virgil had him utter those words above, the Trojan hero had been already traveling for some time and over great distances… so you can understand why he may have been a bit aghast when, arriving at Buthrotum, he found a miniature Troy, complete with familiar kin.

But why were there Trojans on what is now Albania’s coast, so far away from their homeland?

Aeneas trip

It all happened after the fall of Troy, when the fleeing seer Helenus, son of king Priam of Troy, and Hector’s widow, Andromache, stopped in Epirus. They decided they should sacrifice a bull, but as it turns out, the animal had alternative plans. The beast escaped, swam across the gulf and then immediately died upon reaching the other side. Helenus saw this as an auspice and founded the new city where the bull expired, naming it Buthrotum, or ‘wounded ox’.

When Aeneas arrived, therefore, he had a fruitful pit stop along his fateful journey. Not only was he able to rejoin friends and family, he also received a far-reaching prophecy… one that you might say, sort of makes the book. Essentially, he learns he has a planned, divine destiny that includes seeking out Italy, which his descendants will one day rule.

At least that’s how Virgil describes it…

So, you can see then why the Romans, Aeneas’ alleged progeny, might like the place. In fact, this mythological sea town, strategically located by the straits of Corfu, became a not so inconvenient real life destination for the rich and famous of Ancient Rome.

View from the castle

Caesar first thrust the then small settlement into the Roman spotlight in 44 BC, when he designated Buthrotum as a colony to reward soldiers who were loyal to him against Pompey. However, Buthrotum received only a meager number of colonists due to local landholders’ objections, in particular Cicero’s friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus.

Then in 31 BC Buthrotum’s growth was renewed, this time by the Emperor Augustus, fresh from his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. During this time, the town’s size doubled, and expanded to include an aqueduct, a Roman bath, houses, a forum complex, and a nymphaeum.

The popularity of the place, including its legendary and powerful summer guests, was in no doubt. The statues and inscriptions found within the city center offer ample evidence for this. For a brief period, the people who shaped the future of Rome took a very personal interest in Buthrotum, along with her shimmering clear blue waters.

But if Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither were her colonies…

Originally a town within the region of Epirus (as described in the quote from The Aeneid), Buthrotum was a major center for the Chaonians, an Ancient Greek tribe. These people had close contacts to the Corinthian colony of Corcyra (modern day Corfu), evidenced by Proto-Corinthian pottery of the 7th century and then Corinthian and Attic pottery of the 6th century. However, the earliest archaeological proofs of settled occupation date to between 10th and 8th centuries BC.


Buthrotum’s location and access to the straits developed its trade and importance, and by the 4th century BC, the settlement included a theatre, an agora, as well as a sanctuary to Asclepius. This latter feature attracted worshippers from around the region, pilgrimaging, with symbolic objects and money, to the sanctuary in order to be healed. In fact, the sacred powers of Buthrotum’s waters were revered as long as the town lasted.


Eventually, the settlement was large enough to warrant protection. Around 380 BC it was fortified with an 870 meters long wall and five gates. All up, it enclosed an area of four hectares. Many of these walls can be still seen today, illustrating fine craftsmanship, featuring reliefs with a lion eating a bull.

Then, as we already know, the Romans became involved. Buthrotum became a Roman protectorate, alongside Corfu, in 228 BC, but was increasingly dominated by the Romans after 167 BC. In the next century, it became a part of the province of Macedonia.

This, more or less, brings us up to speed to the time of Caesar, then Augustus and Virgil’s description of Buthrotum in The Aeneid.


The Makings of a Myth…

What truth lies in Virgil’s ancient telling of the town? Well, it turns out, not much.

While there have been objects that archaeologically date back to the Bronze Age within the region, nothing as yet has been found at Buthrotum. This doesn’t necessarily mean the town didn’t exist back then…. However, it may not be surprising to hear that there were certain incentives among rulers to suggest that it did.

After all, Virgil’s story is arguably very poetic propaganda for the Emperor Augustus, a way to connect his lineage back to the mythological greats. It seems that this wasn’t a new trick.

Indeed, it could be that Buthrotum’s association with Troy was developed as early as the 5th century BC by the Molossian Royal family. Back then, Epirus (the original region) was taken over by the Molossian tribe… and they wished to promote their status as having both Greek and Trojan ancestry.

The story went as follows: Their eponymous ancestor, Molossus, was supposedly the older son of Pyrrhus Neoptolemos, the child of Achilles and Andromache (Hector’s wife). Later on, his descendent, the Molossian King Pyrrhus of Epirus, choose to favor the Greek Achilles as his ancestor, in order to reinforce his familial links with Alexander the great. Apparently he was too young to serve with the Macedonian general so he used this PR effort to up his standing… well, that and establish himself as a natural opponent of Rome!

Pyrrhus of Epirus

Despite his efforts, Pyrrhus of Epirus in the end was remembered more for his ‘Pyrrhic victories’ than his mythological genealogy.

The town of Buthrotum, meanwhile, continued to maintain a fairly quiet, modest existence… that is until drawing the attentions of Caesar, and later the emperor Augustus, in the middle of the first century BC.

This makes us wonder then, dear reader, why did Caesar, and then more so Augustus, choose to highlight Buthrotum? Could it be that they were trying to connect themselves to the mythology as well? Or did Virgil write Aeneas’ journey his way to reinforce Augustus’ (and by association Caesar’s) choice in colonies?

Or could it be simply, with its sandy beaches, handy waterways, access to the Corfu straits and natural defenses, that it was not only a beautiful place to spend one’s time, but also a very strategic one?

View from walls

Backing up this latter theory, we must refer to the famous roman politician and orator, Cicero. In fact, much of what we know of Buthrotum’s history in this period actually comes from his letters. As mentioned, Cicero’s friend, Atticus, who owned an estate near Buthrotum, was concerned at the potential loss of land associated with the arrival of the colonists and lobbied against it. Although Atticus’ half of the correspondence is lost, Cicero’s replies provide a fascinating insight into the moment when Buthrotum briefly figured on the political stage of Rome itself.

He writes:

“Let me tell you that Buthrotum is to Corcyra (Corfu) What Antium is to Rome – the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world” – Cicero Letters to Atticus 4.8.1 (56BC)

We will never be certain of Buthrotum’s ancient, ancient past, nor the rulers’ motivations to connect with it… But standing on our final ferry trip, back to Corfu, we watch Albania’s gentle coast fade with the sunset… and know exactly what Cicero was talking about.

Thucydides and 2000 Years of Political Realism

by on September 22, 2014

While I tend to enjoy my time reading obscure philosophy texts and various translations of Homeric epics, I simply can’t contain my literary habits to one genre. The ancient classics are like ice cream. I love ice cream, but one can’t live off of frozen desserts alone.

One of my favorite newsletters to get into, when I’m not writing my own, is The Daily Reckoning.
XXXAnything from international affairs to the tenuous state of the global market, they got it all in healthy doses.

The following excerpt is from their September 18th edition, and it got me thinking on a few things:

“And so, Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko bellyached to Congress…

“With just one move,” he told in his scariest voice, “the world has been thrown back in time — to a reality of territrial claims, zones of influence, criminal aggression and annexations,”

One fist was pounding the podium. The other, extended in the hopes of getting military assistance. Apparently, fighting the Russians is trying… even after the U.S. has given $219 million in aid.

“The post-war international system” Poroshenko pleaded, “of checks and balances [is] effectively ruined.” -Peter Coyne (The Daily Reckoning)

That last little bit about how the international system of checks and balances being destroyed got me particularly riled up. Are you saying that the balance of power has been upset upon the international stage? Athens and Sparta will surely be at war!

Isn’t that what you were thinking? No? Well, maybe it should be.

Hostile annexations? Growing foreign powers? Unstable system of checks and balances upon the world stage? Those certainly are all charges that have been laid before us today, especially when considering the uneasy situation in Eastern Ukraine. Then again, it’s not the first time we have heard of such things.

That’s right everybody, we got all the proper ingredients to have ourselves a full-blown Peloponnesian War here. For it was the rising power of Athens, the continued expansion of the Athenian empire, and the subsequent fear it inspired in Sparta, more than anything else that lead to the bloody Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.


For almost three decades, the Athenians and the Spartans would butt heads in one of the most costly and most violent wars of the ancient world. And there all the while, eager to report on the occurrences and the causes of such a fiasco, was Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War.

I know what you are probably thinking. All that happened over two thousand years ago! Surely things have changed since then. And I suppose I would have to agree with you on that point, but I wouldn’t necessarily say things have changed for the better.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein explained this rather simply within their book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… when they write…

“Social and political philosophy examines issues of justice in society. Why do we need government? how should goods be distributed? How can we establish a fair social system? These questions used to be settled by the stronger guy hitting the weaker guy over the head with a bone, but after centuries of social and political philosophy, society has come to the conclusion that missiles are much more effective.”

- Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar)

Now that might get a laugh (try using it at cocktail parties) but the humor is also rather dark. For while we might think we have grown up over the millennia, evolved and become more civilized, the truth is that we are still killing each other for the same reasons that we were killing each other for back in 400 BCE. We’ve just become more efficient about the whole business.

Perhaps to explain this, we ought to take a quick peak at what is known as “political realism”, a school of philosophical thought that Thucydides is sometimes credited with founding (that is to say he was writing on it before Thomas Hobbes or Nicolai Machiavelli ever got the chance to.)

At the heart of political realism is the assumption that humans, deep down, are selfish, fearful, ambitious, and self-interested. This brutish nature of humanity is something of a dirty little secret. However, if we are to understand the causes for war, we must accept people for what they are, not what we would like them to be.

Fear, honor, and advantage are all factors that contribute to “normal human interactions” and by extension, they also contribute to actions between countries.

Political realism takes a rather pessimistic view of world affairs. The world stage is something of an amoral, value-free environment in which each and every country finds itself in constant conflict with every other player on the board.

Lacking some over-arching world government, each state is under constant fear of invasion or betrayal from its neighbor. States react to threats in the same manner that an individual human might react. We look upon weaker neighbors with ambitious thoughts of subjection and gaze at our growing enemies with dread.

“I will first write down an account of the disputes that explain their breaking the Peace, so that no one will ever wonder from what ground so great a war could arise among the Greeks. I believe that the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so compelled them into war.” -Thucydides (The History of the Peloponnesian War)

In the case of Thucydides, it was the Athenian empire that grew so rapidly and with such determination, that it would be inevitable that they would one day clash swords with the only remaining super power in the region, Sparta. That is perhaps one of the truest lessons we can learn from Thucydides. Any state growing too powerful, too fast will garner the disdain of its neighbors, and violence is often an inevitable conclusion.

XXXThe world view of political realists like Thucydides casts a rather bleak picture of human nature and the patterns of world affairs. The Greeks were cast into war much the same way the Romans were time and time again as their empire expanded. The American government of the 50’s and 60’s watched the rise of communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union with dread and concern. And again, we were cast into war.

Now, this is all very easy for me to say. Here I am sitting comfortably at my desk, reading philosophy while the tea kettle warms. The ins and outs of any armed conflict can never be explained as easily as this. Even the Peloponnesian war of Thucydides consisted of innumerable variables that lead to the bloody confrontation.

I will never be the first to say that I am intimately informed with the goings-on of the international community. I would perhaps say that I am slightly more informed than the average citizen (most of my friends watch too much reality television), but that does not give me the right to look down and judge an entire region.

I am, however, acquainted with political philosophy, and I am familiar with ancient history. Several months ago Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. This prompted a military engagement and the Ukrainian government is now asking for the support of the United States.

Two thousand years ago, the city of Corinth was annexed by the Athenian empire. What ensued was a military engagement where the Corinthians, you guessed it, turned to their neighbor, Sparta, for aid.

Are they exactly the same? No. Are there some similarities? Oh yes. And that, my friends, I find rather curious.

Thucydides gave us a dark picture of the world. Whether or not it was entirely accurate is a topic of some discussion. However, the same problems between nations do tend to repeat themselves, whether it is in the Mediterranean region in 400 BCE or Eastern Europe, circa 2014. I suppose the bottom line is that when it comes to war, war never changes.

Magna Graecia – or Greater Greece

by on September 19, 2014

by John Mancini

The ebb and flow of empires, societies and cultures… these are the elements that make western culture what it is today. More specifically, the spreading of ideas, agriculture and religion across different, often disparate cultures accounts for the rich diversity that makes up our combined heritage.

This “cultural diffusion”, as it is often called, also usually involves centuries of imperialism and violent upheaval.

For instance, the advance of culture in the Mediterranean, especially from the Middle East, devastated Ancient Greece and ended the Bronze Age there – but the collision between Phoenician traders and Greek citizens also helped lay the foundation for the Classical Period in Greece. This, in turn, spread across the Adriatic into Southern Italy, influencing the Romans and setting the stage for what would later become the Renaissance in Italy.

But let’s start from the beginning… with the Phoenicians.

They came from the Fertile Crescent, or Eastern Mediterranean (today’s Syria and Lebanon). They were a Canaanite culture that spread from 1550-300 B.C., and were unique in their advancements, especially when it came to shipbuilding and governing. In fact, their alphabet provided the basis for all later “phonetic” alphabets.


These merchants and magi were both revered and feared by the Greeks, who referred to them as the “traders in purple” (due to the rare Murex sea-snail that produced the dye they used in their clothing). They were a fierce seafaring people who carted objects from Egypt and Assyria, told tales of distant lands, friendly or hostile natives, and exposed their hosts to rare materials they had never seen before.

The Invasion of the Sea Peoples, as it is sometimes called, had both positive and negative effects on Greek culture. Initially, contact with the more advanced culture of the Phoenician raiders decimated Greek rule, destroyed their cities and plunged them into a Dark Ages for nearly five hundred years.

The Mycenaean Age was abandoned, its palatial cities burned, and its literacy lost. Greece experienced a massive population shift and a decline in arts and craft. But despite their political defeat, much of Hellenic culture persisted.

Greece actually emerged from this tumultuous period a more advanced civilization – in fact, they enjoyed the most rapid advancement of any civilization in history, accelerating their developments in arts, sciences, language and maritime rule. The “cultural diffusion” experienced at the end of the Mycenaean Age actually helped Greece transition from the Archaic to the Classical period, when they emerged as a polycentric seafaring civilization – one with a rich Pan-Hellenic religion that included Egyptian, Semitic, Iranian and Indian influences.

It was then time for the Greeks themselves to extend into other territories…

Magna Graecia

“Magna Graecia” is what the Greeks called their colonies in Southern Italy. Between the 8th and 5th century B.C., Greek rule expanded to include coastal cities from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. “Great Greece” would eventually be comprised of coastal city-states from the Iberian Peninsula all the way to Asia Minor.

As Plato said, “We Greeks sit around the sea like frogs around a pond.”

Meanwhile, the ancient Italians, especially Southern Italians, trailed behind the Greeks in material progress for centuries (much like Greece lagged behind their eastern neighbors). Metallurgy in Italy developed around 1800 B.C. as opposed to 2800 B.C. in Greece, and the Iron Age didn’t begin in Italy until 900 B.C. (about 400 years after it did so in Greece). Sicily, with its lucrative copper and iron mines, became one of the first Greek overseas efforts, which took place in 800 B.C. – thus beginning a campaign of Greek colonization in Southern Italy that lasted about 250 years.


Ancient Greek civilization at the beginning of the Iron Age was eclectic to say the least, and not nearly as uniform as Etruscan civilization. They promoted productive competition among their various city-states, and they were tolerant of many beliefs besides their state sanctioned religion, Hellenism.

Egyptian tribes that developed along the southern coast of Sicily, for instance, were allowed to erect their own temples, and eventually their gods were incorporated into the Greek pantheon as well. (Dionysus, among others, was thought to have come from Egypt.)

But these ancient Greek city-states, which dotted the coasts of Italy, Western Turkey and Greece still corresponded with Phoenician trade routes, and contact with the Persians continued for hundreds of years.

Indeed, it was the Persian invasions in the 5th century B.C. that helped unite Ancient Greece, especially following the decisive Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.

But back in Southern Italy, Greek colonization wasn’t over…


From 500 to 400 B.C. many Greeks, like the famous statesman and general Pericles, were still pressing for an Athenian city to be instituted in Italy. Empedocles, a Greek pre-socratic philosopher, also signed up to be a part of this “new city,” one that was to be founded on the most rational principles of the day.

Although Athens was a strong naval power, there was so much fighting in the Pan-Hellenic colonies at this time that it was impossible for the Greeks to maintain order within their dwindling population. Italians were too busy fighting the Persians, and eventually there just weren’t enough Greeks to populate a distant colony.

Although the new city, Thurii, did eventually gain approval from the Delphic Oracle, it was to be one of the last colonies of Magna Graecia, only lasting about five years before succumbing to neighboring invasions. Thurii’s allegiance with Rome led to the Pyrrhic War from 280-275 B.C.


Greece suffered a lot during this period, including not only attacks from Persia, but also Italy as well as Carthage – most notably the second Punic War, during which Hannibal demolished the Greek colonies.

Meanwhile, Rome, which had become a new power by 300 B.C., was busy forging alliances among the coastal city-states of Magna Graecia. The old independent Greek colonies along the coast of Southern Italy soon lost their independence and became supporters of the Pax Romana. Once Central Italy and Carthage had formally established themselves, it pretty much spelled the end of Greek maritime rule, and Greece lost hold of their Italian colonies. They were too busy defending themselves from being cleaned out by invaders on all sides.

The Romans finally conquered Greece in 146 B.C. at the Battle of Corinth.


Although the independent Greek spirit was officially subdued in Southern Italy, it had forever transformed the country. The cultivation of the vine and olives, which the first Greek settlers had brought with them, survived – along with many of their gods, such as Apollo and Heracles, who soon became Italian characters.

In the Middle Ages, Constantinople took control Eastern Italy, and there was a sharp divide among Italians. Western non-Greek Italy, for instance, did not share the language of eastern Italians, and remained separated.

But in the 14th century, the poet Boccaccio would be the first among Italian humanists to acquire what remained of Greek culture – even before the Byzantines began to reintroduce classical ideas from east of the Adriatic.

These findings provided the seeds of one of the most important cultural movements in Western civilization. Boccaccio’s discoveries also coincided with the end of the Dark Ages, when royal power was finally replaced with secular societies, and the Greek spirit officially returned to Rome in the “re-birth” of classical culture that we know as the Renaissance.​

Magna Grecia, in a way, lived on in her successors, much to our everlasting benefit.