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The Dual Monarchy of Sparta

by on August 9, 2016

By Julia Huse

When it comes to Ancient Greece I am particularly

spartaSpartan Warrior

fond of Athens. As the birthplace of democracy, the epicenter of Greek tragedy, and the intellectual hub of the classical age, Athens had a lot going for it.

Today, however, we look elsewhere. Classical Athens, after all, wasn’t the only place where new and dramatic changes were taking place.

You might be familiar with Sparta, the intensely militaristic city-state of the Ancient world made famous by the movie 300.

Imagine if the United States Marine Corp founded and governed their own country.

That would be Sparta…

Key players in the Greco-Persian War, we often admire Sparta for its toughness and courage. With a focus on its military, however, we hardly ever hear about its government. This is a real shame because Sparta had its own unique political system with two, count them, two kings sitting on the throne at once.

In his Histories, Herodotus explains to us how this dual kingship came about. A Spartan king named Aristodemus had twin sons. Almost immediately after the two boys were born Aristodemus croaked. The Spartans were then faced with a dilemma; who was going to be Aristodemus’ successor? The Spartans wanted to make the older of the twins the new king, as was custom, but the two boys were so “alike and equal” that they could not determine which of the two was the older twin. The Spartans then turned to the mother of the twins, Argeia, who told the Spartans that she couldn’t even tell them apart. This was a lie. She knew which of the two was older but she wanted both her sons to become king.

Better Ask the Oracle

So the Spartans, not sure what to do, did what any good city-state would do at the time: ask the oracle at Delphi.

When they asked the Pythia (for those who don’t know the Pythia was the priestess at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi who gave the oracle), she told the Spartans to make both the boys king. From that point on the Spartans had two kings, one from the lineage of each twin. As the twins grew up they were in constant competition with each other, which then became an important part of the dual kingship.

Power with Limits

These kings were equal in every sense. Both kings dealt equally in the matters of religion, laws and military. Over the years, however, the say that the two kings had in these matters dwindled. By the 5th century BC most of their judicial duties had been handed over to the ephors, a democratically elected group of law makers, and the gerousia, a group of 28 elders elected for life normally part of royal households. Even though their judicial power had been reduced, the kings still held a decent amount of military power.

Either king could lead armies in to war with the approval of certain councils, but it was not permitted for both the kings to lead an army at the same time. One king always had to remain in Sparta in order to prevent anarchy, or the ever-frequent helot (slave) uprising.

A Modern Revival?

The idea of monarchy in Sparta was clearly very complicated. Not only does the “mono” part of monarchy not really apply to their dual kingship, but also the power of these kings were closely regulated and controlled by other councils in their government. This rather odd form of monarchy was somewhat genius in its own way though. Not only did these kings have two councils to check their power, the competition between the two kings kept them in line as well.

The kings held opposing opinions on issues, thus providing a voice for citizens on either side of the issue. Also, making one king always remain in the city ensured order and calm for the Spartans even in times of war. The nature of the two councils also had added benefits. The relative permanence of the gerousia provided stability in their government while the annually elected ephors allowed the Spartans to have a voice in their government.

This whole system seems very similar to the perfect government described by Cicero in his De Re Publica with its mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Have we been so distracted by democratic Athens that we’ve missed the odd genius of the Spartan political system?

Now, I’m not calling for a modern revival. I’m not saying that the United States, just as an example, should elect two presidents. Put Hillary AND The Donald in office; let them sort it out amongst themselves.

Yeah…that would work.

But for the ancient Spartans, it DID work, for a while at least.

The next time you think of Sparta, put out of your mind the image of behemoth warriors in leather speedos. Instead, perhaps remember the ancient Spartans as innovative, dare we even say revolutionary, political thinkers.

The Good Kind of Strife

by on August 8, 2016

We recently made the claim that societies need a bit of strife. After all, without strife, there can be no greatness.

You may or may not subscribe to this sentiment, the idea that the hottest forge creates the strongest steel, but it was nothing short of a cultural cornerstone in the earliest days of ancient Greece.

hesiod
The poet, Hesiod

Take Hesiod for example.

Historians today remember the ancient poet Hesiod as a true giant of ancient Greek literature. As an epic poet, Hesiod is credited with penning The Theogony, which details the ancient Hellenic ideas of the creation of the world and establishes much of our understanding of the pantheon of Olympic gods and goddesses.

As an ancient writer, Hesiod is second only to Homer. And there are still a few things he can teach us.

Almost three thousand years ago, Hesiod wrote that there were two kinds of strife. The first strife would “foster evil war and battle.” But the other strife would spur men, and societies, to greatness.

…and she (strife) is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth.

 

Potter against potter

It’s possible that this sort of work ethic might have saved the ancient Greeks from a dire fate.

Several hundred years before Hesiod, sometime in the 14th or 13th century BC, the great and glorious Bronze Age of Greece came to an end.

The civilizations of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, the civilizations that inspired The Iliad, were destroyed either by internal conflict or foreign armies.

Knosos
The ancient remains of the palace at Knossos, a Bronze Age Minoan castle.

Ancient Greece enters a dark age. The people encounter plights that we in the modern world are unacquainted with- famine, mass migration, and an economic collapse of the known world.

A lot of strife to be sure, but with strife comes opportunity. With the collapse of traditional kings and rulers, the commoners, maybe for the first time in history, had the opportunity to toil for their own self-advancement and not just for the benefit of the ruling elite.

Here we come to Hesiod’s idea of competing craftsmen- potter against potter, minstrel against minstrel. Each is competing to get his little slice of the pie.

 

This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.

 

From this strife comes a revolutionary idea, it’s an idea that is still with us in the modern age. Here we find the first glowing embers of what would become known as “the cult of the individual”, the idea that a person can strive and toil to create their own fortunes, their own futures. A commoner could, for the first time, be the author of his own story.

Times might have been tough, but it was this idea, that strife can lead to greatness, that set the stage for the so-called “glory days” of ancient Greece several hundred years later.

Perhaps we don’t need less strife in our modern age. We just need the right type.

The Fall of Jerusalem (Part 2)

by on July 28, 2016

It was not often said of the Romans that they were an empire tolerant of seditious behaviour.

Though arguments can be made that they often bestowed certain benefits on the peoples they subjugated (a certain well-known scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian springs to mind), once a nation lost its statehood and became a Roman territory, acts of physical dissent were not taken, in any sense, as constructive criticism.

Thus, when the people of Judea rose up to initiate the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73AD), the Latin overlords neither ‘umm-ed’ nor ‘ahh-ed’ about the course to take next. The responsibility for putting the Jews back in their place, and reinforcing that said place now belonged not to them, but to Rome, fell to the legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus.

A Surprising Defeat

 

Jerusalem

Whether through incompetence or an underestimation of the foe, and despite some initial gains, Gallus was soon humbled at the Battle of Beth Horon—at which he not only lost 6000 men, but the very symbol of Roman imperium, the legion’s eagle!

For the Jews, this great victory was a recruiting tool no amount of Roman repression could equal; there was now belief that the interlopers in their land could not merely be resisted, but defeated.

“It’s difficult to overstate how important the eagle was to a legion. For example, the ones lost at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9AD) were passionately sought after, the last taking 32 years to recover!”

The Romans soon realized that this conflict was not going to be won simply because the enemy were overawed by their shiny breastplates and neat formations, this was a fight that needed to be taken seriously. In true Hollywood style, the floundering Emperor Nero turned to a legendary commander, one currently in the political wilderness (having previously been booted off the ‘force’ (possibly for falling asleep during one of Nero’s theatrical recitals)), but who was now called back for one last job because, damn it, he was the best.

This was how Vespasian, together with his son Titus and 60,000 troops, began systematically breaking the Jewish resistance in town after town across Judea. The wily old soldier knew that, as long as he was making headway, as long as cities were falling and Jews were dying, there was no need to engage the bastion of Jerusalem itself, but leave the rebels to stew and hear daily news of their comrades’ deaths or enslavements.

A Nation Divided

Another, unforeseen, advantage for the Romans was that the radicals they failed to kill in the outlying towns fled to, and took refuge in, Jerusalem. And, as is so often the case when schisms abound, vicious infighting broke out. There resulted, therefore, a bizarre situation wherein the hardliner Jewish forces (the Zealots) were besieged inside the Temple by the more moderate faction, themselves inside the city walls. A separate, but equally radical group (the Edomites) came to relieve their fellow extremists who managed to sneak out of the Temple and unbar the gates during a thunderstorm, thus admitting their remorseless comrades.

Jerusalem

The result would undoubtedly have brought a smile to Vespasian’s lips; at least 6000 Jewish soldiers and countless civilians lost their lives. The cruel irony is that this occurred in 68AD, a year in which Rome was at her weakest. The assisted suicide of Nero had ushered in the Empire’s own era of civil infighting in what was to become known as the Year of the Four Emperors; the fourth and final of which was a popular soldier who had shown great skill, tact and loyalty to his country, Vespasian.

A Bloodthirsty New Threat

The new Emperor left Judea in the charge of his son, Titus (who would one day also inherit the throne from his father). Titus, finally unbound from the steady and prudent influence of his sire, unleashed his youthful impetuosity by marching on and besieging Jerusalem – though not without decimating any unfortunate towns that lay in his wake.

The siege was, in engineering terms, a colossal one. Titus’ forces dug a trench around the entire city’s circumference and, outside of that, built their own walls to completely isolate Jerusalem from the wider world – as well as ensuring anyone exiting it was promptly caught and crucified.

In spite of the enemy being at the gates, infighting was still prevalent in the city itself; a masochistic bickering epitomised by the decision of the Zealots to burn the city’s food reserves in order to force the undecided into an ultimatum: fight or starve. Though many suffered the latter fate, the city finally began to cohesively defend itself as the threat of a full-on Roman assault became evermore imminent.

Some accounts estimate those besieged inside the three vast city walls at close to half a million, whilst contemporary

“Titus’ forces dug a trench around the entire city’s circumference and, outside of that, built their own walls to completely isolate Jerusalem from the wider world – as well as ensuring anyone exiting it was promptly caught and crucified.”

Jewish historian, Josephus, claimed it was about double that. Either way, such numbers would have meant that this once proud beacon of Jewish civilisation could only have been a picture of squalor, starvation, disease and death during the seven long months that Titus’ troops took to breach the three, seemingly impenetrable, walls; they finally managed to break through in the summer of 70AD.

Titus
The Fall of Jerusalem, depicted on the Arch of Titus

Once inside, the Romans were merciless. The city was ransacked and burned. The surviving population was enslaved. The Second Temple was looted and destroyed.

Though it took another three years to seek out and destroy the last of the Judean resistance, the fall of Jerusalem was the de facto point at which Roman victory was assured.

Josephus tells us that over a million civilians died during the great siege with another hundred-odd thousand sold into slavery. Though such contemporary accounts are usually considered to be inflated, if the reality was only a fraction of this, then it must still have been one of the most horrific and bloody episodes in antiquity.

The importance of the event in the history of their respective civilizations was lost on neither the Romans nor the Jews. The former celebrated the campaign both on official coins and on the—still standing—Arch of Titus, whilst Jews today still recall the destruction of the Second temple on their annual day of mournful reflection, Tisha B’Av.

Haters Gonna Hate

by on July 22, 2016

Hate is not something unique to the modern age. The ancients were hating right up there with the best of them.

Hate, it would seem, does not relegate itself to any one culture, race, or time period. It’s an equal opportunity employer, if you will.

I hate women who are chaste in words but secretly engage in ugly escapades.

–Phaedra (Euripides’ Hippolytus)

I have learned to hate traitors.

–Prometheus (Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound)

There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out all through.

–Achilles (Homer’s The Iliad)

To foster the conviction that God supports the murder of innocents requires a tightknit group and a settled hatred of the Other: in these circles, whites hate blacks and Jews; Jews and Christians hate Muslims and vice versa; anti-abortion crusaders hate gynecologists. All of them seem to have it in for homosexuals and most, even the Americans, hate contemporary America.

-Isabel Hilton, “’Terror in the Name of God’: Everybody Hates Somebody Somewhere”, New York Times (quoted from The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks by David Konstan.)

I hate you, I hate you, I don’t even know you and I hate your guts. I hope all the bad things in life happen to you and nobody else but you.

–Dave Chappelle (The Chappelle Show)

 

Modern Hate

 

XXX

So much hate! But now to the heart of the discussion.

What is hate?

Who do we hate?

And why?

In a modern context, “hate” is often assumed to mean any form of bigotry or prejudice against a class of people because of their race, religion, etc.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, Dave Konstan quotes the author Jack Levin when he writes…

Until recently, the term ‘hate’ referred to any intense dislike or hostility, no matter its object… Beginning in the mid-1980s, the term ‘hate’ became used in a much more restricted sense to characterize an individual’s negative beliefs and feelings about the members of some other group of people because of their race, religious identity, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability status.

 

In this way, “hate” became, if not synonymous, then closely related to “prejudice”. We are all familiar with “hate crimes” and “hate speech”. As a result of this narrower definition, the kneejerk reaction is to denounce all forms of hate. Modern, supposedly “enlightened” individuals hate hate (try to excuse the paradox implied).

But this wasn’t always the case. Hate, some classical writers contend, can be quite justified.

Classical Hate

Aristotle takes a contrary view to our modern understanding of hate.

The philosopher compares hate to anger. Both are a feeling of enmity. Anger, however, is typically directed at an individual and is a result of some slight committed against us. Angry people wish for the same injury committed against them to be felt by the offending party.

Aristotle

Hate on the other hand, is more detached. Unlike anger, we hate groups of people. If we believe a person to be of a certain type, that is reason enough to hate them. Hate, Aristotle continues, does not require us to wish any particular punishment on a hated group. Rather, we simply wish that the hated peoples cease to exist.

Perhaps most importantly, anger can be erased by time, but hate is incurable.

All sounds plausible so far, but here is where things stop gelling with our modern sensibilities.

Aristotle does not flatly reject hate, nor does he label it as a consistent vice. He does contrast hate with love, saying that they are opposites. But love, to Aristotle, is an examination and acceptance of a person’s virtues. We very often wish good upon those we love because we consider them to be in possession of admirable qualities like moderation, justice, or courage.

Love, then, is a moral judgment. Hate, as its opposite, is also a moral judgment. While we love those we consider virtuous, we hate those whom we consider to possess vice. Aristotelian hate is not the prejudicial hate that we are familiar with, but rather it is a conscious determination of a persons vicious character and a corresponding emotion that crops up when encountering such odious people.

Aristotle gives the example that we often hate thieves or traitors. These people do not possess admirable virtues, but despicable vices, and therefore accrue our hate rather than our love.

Importantly, Aristotle implies this as the only justified type of hate. For instance, he does classify women and non-Greeks as being naturally inferior to Greek men in his The Politics. But these people are capable of virtue in accord with their nature (all people are). Consequently, they are undeserving of hate.

We therefore should not hate those who are different from us, but only those who are of a deficient character.

 

Defeat hate with more hate!

Aristotle’s definition of hate as a moral judgment of a person’s vices is starkly opposed to our modern interpretation of hate as an unjustified sense of enmity because of a person’s color, creed, or religion.

Could it be then that we need not do away with hate, but rather adjust our understanding of it?

Roman Concrete: A Forgotten Stroke of Genius

by on July 15, 2016

I can hear some of you thinking now: Concrete? Is she really writing about concrete?

Believe me, reader, the same sort of thoughts passed through my mind when I began to do my research for this article–but let me ask one question (especially to those of you lucky ducks who have gotten to visit Italy): Is there anything more impressive than to turn a corner in Rome and come face to face with an incredibly ancient structure that, somehow, is still standing after thousands of years?

Colosseum

There’s just no doubt: Ancient Roman architecture holds a gold medal for durability. Despite some crumbling here or there, there are so many structures–particularly harbors–that continue to stand soundly unbroken and un-ruined after two thousands years or more. They’ve largely withstood wars and earthquakes and encroaching modernity. But how?

One of the reasons is simply that many of these structures were made entirely or partly out of concrete–but it’s not just the presence of concrete that helped. We know from experience in modern times that concrete is strong but not infallible, and certainly not capable of withstanding two thousand years of wear and tear! No, it wasn’t the presence of concrete necessarily–instead, it was the type of concrete.

Just Add (Salt) Water

Concrete

For many years, the durability of Roman concrete baffled historians and scientists alike. In particular they were perplexed by the concrete that had been used to construct ancient harbors–even after two thousand or more years of being pummeled by saltwater, the harbors were largely intact.

To put this into perspective, Portland cement, which is the most commonly used concrete blend today, is serviceable for only about fifty years if exposed constantly to saltwater. Not a small difference!

What, then, made Roman concrete so different? The answer wasn’t found until recently, when, a few years ago, researchers began to take an interest in the subject. Research teams led by both Italian and American scientists collected samples of ancient Roman concrete from a breakwater in Pozzuoli Bay, Italy. The concrete was analyzed in state-of-the-art facilities in Italy, United States’ U.C. Berkley, Germany, and even Saudi Arabia, where Advanced Light Source technology allowed researchers to analyze the structure of the concrete at a miniscule scale.

Concrete fragmentSample of Roman concrete

What they found was incredibly exciting: instead of fighting to create a substance that could withstand the eroding force of the sea, ancient Romans had harnessed that force and incorporated it into their concrete making process. They mixed lime and volcanic ash and, after packing the mixture into wooden molds, they submerged it all in seawater. The saltwater then set off a chemical reaction–it hydrated the lime in such a way as to make it react with the ash, which ultimately formed an incredibly sturdy, solid bond.

(For all you chemists out there, this was apparently a C-A-S-H bond, or calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate)

It’s largely for this reason that ancient Roman concrete was so incredibly durable–especially when exposed to saltwater.

A Better Alternative?

One of the most important aspects of this super-strong ancient concrete, besides its durability, is its overall carbon footprint.

Though Portland cement–our modern concrete–has been in use now for nearly two centuries, it can’t really hold a candle to Roman cement when it comes to the issue of environmental impact. The cement industry (cement being a major component of concrete) is, worldwide, a primary producer of carbon dioxide, which is an atmospheric pollutant and greenhouse gas. Apparently, the cement industry alone accounts for approximately five percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, which is a staggering amount for one industry.

Carbon

Much of this cement is produced specifically for the manufacturing of Portland cement concrete mix. In fact, according to researchers, roughly nineteen billion tons of Portland cement are used every year.

The biggest problem with the production of this cement is really the production methods themselves. To make the cement, a mixture of limestone and clays has to be heated to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit), and it’s this process–which burns up so much fossil fuel and burns it so hot–that produces the majority of the carbon dioxide.

Roman concrete, on the other hand, because of its unique ash mixture, uses far less limestone and only requires that the limestone be baked at 900 degrees Celsius (1,652 degrees Fahrenheit)–which uses only a fraction of the fossil fuels used to make Portland cement and results in fewer carbon dioxide emissions overall–and the finished product is hundreds of times stronger.

Clearly, the carbon footprint of our modern concrete is not so great–at the end of the day, we are causing more environmental damage to produce a concrete that just doesn’t bind nearly as well as Roman concrete.

Can we bring this dead secret back to life?

The question is: has all this new research led us to a grand solution for the issue of carbon emissions in the cement/concrete industry? Could it revolutionize the way we build, and the durability of our structures?

The tentative answer is yes…and no.

Duomo
The famous Duomo is a solid shell of Roman concrete

According to experts, it’s a complicated issue. While the obvious answer seems to be that Roman concrete is a better, stronger, more environmentally-friendly option, many experts believe that it would be impractical to begin using it again, largely because of the setting time. In the modern world of construction, concrete needs to harden quickly and efficiently–something that seawater concrete can’t do (and we all know how our modern society values convenience and speed).

However, the discovery of this ancient “secret” to concrete production is having some positive benefits. Inspired by the ancient Romans’ use of volcanic ash, scientists have been experimenting with the use of fly ash (a waste product of coal-burning, which is readily available in large quantities in many countries) and even, again, volcanic ash (in those countries where fly ash is not so available) to produce stronger, greener forms of concrete.

According to some experts, a successful outcome to these experiments could lead to concrete mixes that utilize local resources intelligently and replace at least forty percent of the worldwide demand for Portland cement.
It’s just one more way in which our society is learning to look to the past, and learn from our ancestors. Sometimes, modernity doesn’t have all the answers after all–sometimes the answers were discovered and perfected long ago. All we have to do is rediscover them.

Big News from the Ancient World

by on June 30, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen, divers off the coast of Antikythera Island, Greece have discovered….a lead cylinder!

Alright, alright–all joking aside, the recent discovery of this lead cylinder actually marks an extremely interesting bit of news, because as it turns out, this cylinder had a very specific nautical purpose, and if experts are correct in what they’ve called it, this unassuming hunk of lead is currently the only one of its kind.

Bonus points to you, reader, if the name “Antikythera” is sounding familiar as well. Some of you may know that the name is also used to refer to the “Antikythera Wreck”–an ancient shipwreck just off the coast of the island which has yielded invaluable treasures since its discovery (including the lead cylinder which is the star of the show right now)…

A Unbelievable Discovery

The year is 1900. October. Captain Dimitrios Kondos and his team of sponge divers sail right into a brutal storm that brings their return from Africa to a screeching halt. They choose to take shelter on the island of Antikythera and wait out the storm.

As they wait for the storm to pass, the team does what it does best and dives for sponges right off the coast of the island, where diver Elias Stadiatis spots a terrifying sight about 45 meters from the surface. He immediately signals to be pulled back up, and when his gear is taken off him he claims to have seen rotting corpses of men and horses on the seabed.

Divers
Captain Kondos’ sponge-diving crew

Kondos, believing that Stadiatis is suffering from what will come to be called “nitrogen narcosis” (a condition in which a diver will become “drunk” or lose consciousness after inhaling gases, such as those in an oxygen tank, that have been altered by the high pressure of deep-sea depths), chooses to investigate himself.

When he signals to be pulled to the surface, he returns from the depths holding an enormous bronze arm.

What the sponge-diving team had discovered that day in 1900 was the sunken wreck of a massive ancient ship, Roman in construction–and on that ship, one of the most impressive and historically important hoards of treasure to have ever been found.

A Slow Process

Divers

The discovery of what would come to be known as the Antikythera Wreck immediately spurred a process of recovery. The sponge divers, assisted by the Greek Education Ministry and the Royal Hellenic Navy, began working tirelessly to pull artifacts to the surface. They recovered a vast array of statues, priceless glasswork, coins, utensils, pottery, and other prizes–until the death of a diver and the paralysis of several more (caused by decompression sickness) brought the recovery process to a halt.

The search was resumed years later, in 1976, thanks to the initiative of French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who also recovered armfuls of artifacts and brought them to the surface.

Since then, recovery expeditions have been sporadic but always incredibly fruitful, with each expedition yielding new and exciting discoveries. Even to this day, new items and artifacts are being brought to the surface. It is now suspected that the Roman ship sunk sometime in the second quarter of the 1st Century BCE, as it returned to Italy from Greece (then controlled by Rome). Some experts speculate that the vast treasure on the ship was the loot of Roman General Sulla, while others suggest that the looted Greek treasure was being hauled back to Rome to display in a grand victory parade for Julius Caesar.

Statues
Recovered artifacts on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

The recovered treasure–priceless artifacts and artwork that date back to at least the 4th Century BCE–are now housed and displayed to the public at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. This includes one of the most staggering discoveries in history: the world’s first analog computer.

World’s First Computer?

In May of 1902, Spyridon Stais–the former Minister of Education–was in the National Archaeological Museum and was examining the recovered artifacts when he made a mind-boggling discovery: he noticed that a severely corroded lump of bronze was covered with inscriptions and had a small gear embedded in its surface. As he examined it further, he came to realize that he had stumbled across one of the most technologically advanced pieces of craftsmanship from the ancient world.

Mechanism
The largest gear from the Antikythera Mechanism

It turns out that the lump of bronze, which came to be known at the Antikythera Mechanism, had once been a complex system of gears and pointers that functioned as an analog computer and orrery, and was once used to predict the movements, positions, and eclipses of astronomical bodies for astrological and especially calendrical purposes (as well as keep track of Olympiads, or the four-year cycles that the Ancient Greeks used to measure the passage of time).

This incredible machine, believed to have been designed by Greek scientists, was composed of at least thirty bronze gears (the largest with a diameter of about 5.5 inches and 223 teeth) and is truly a marvel. Until its discovery, it was not believed that the ancient world had the means or resources to produce such a complex mechanism, and in fact the Antikythera Mechanism is the only one of its kind in existence–modern scientists have uncovered no other examples of such precise craftsmanship, leading many to believe that the technique for creating such a machine was somehow lost. Mechanical objects of such complexity would not be seen again until the 14th Century, in Europe.

Mechanism
Digital reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism

However, the astounding Antikythera Mechanism does not happen to be the only artifact salvaged from the wreck to mark a historically important discovery. In fact, it’s not even the only artifact from the wreck to be the only one of its kind. And so we are back to our lump of lead.

A Dolphin in the Deep

In 2012, a new comprehensive expedition to the wreck, led by American marine archaeologist Brendan P. Foley, was approved by the Greek government. Thanks to new and sophisticated diving equipment (including robots), Foley’s team and Greek scientists were able to discover and recover even more artifacts from the wreck (which is now at a depth of about 200 meters).

One of these artifacts (the most recently discovered) was our unassuming lump of lead, which the divers first assumed was ceramic until they tried to move it and realized it was massively heavy. The cylinder had a hole through one end and came to a blunt point on the other (like a cone), and for a while no one had any idea what it could be.

In the hopes of finding more clues, Foley began to peruse the ancient literature, and in the writings of Greek historian Thucydides he happened to come across a description of a defensive armament known, in its time, as a “dolphin.”

Dolphin
Scientists examine what they believe to be an ancient weapon called a “dolphin”

According to Thucydides, all the biggest ships of classical antiquity were outfitted with a dolphin, and based on his description of the weapon, modern scholars speculate that the dolphin was used almost like a wrecking ball: when an enemy ship came too close, sailors could hoist the dolphin up and let it fall so that it would swing against the enemy ship and smash a hole in its hull.

If Foley and his team are correct in thinking that the lead cylinder they discovered is, in fact, one of these ancient dolphins, the discovery (unassuming as it seems) is amazing. This would be the only artifact of its kind to be discovered, making it priceless and massively important to maritime history. And, of course, it marks the second time an artifact recovered from the Antikythera Wreck has, in some way, changed history.

But the search continues. Foley and his team–like all good explorers and scientists–know that these discoveries are only the tip of the iceberg. They plan to return to the site in September in the hopes of uncovering new treasures.

And who knows what this ship–so long at the bottom of the ocean and yet so laden with priceless riches–will yield up next?