Skip to Content

It’s Not How You Say It…

by on December 8, 2014


I once had a philosophy professor who told my class, with all the authority and reverence he could muster, that…

“As of right now, you are all philosophers. The days of winning arguments by simply screaming louder than your opponent are over.”

I usually don’t like to call myself a philosopher. I think there are a lot of negative assumptions that go along with that title. People tend to imagine “philosophers” as that one weird guy who goes to parties just to sit in a corner and chain smoke cigarettes. I’m not saying that’s fair, it is just the consensus I’ve gathered over the years.

GorgiasI also don’t refer to myself as a philosopher because, despite what some might think, I never really had any aspirations to pursue philosophy as a career. I considered it for a time. When I expressed this idea to a friend of mine he replied by telling me, “You really ought to do that. It will work out great because they just opened a big philosophy warehouse right down the road.”

Well, the jokes on both of us. There wasn’t any philosophy warehouse down the road, but I still managed to find a job where I deal with philosophy on a weekly basis.

All joking aside, I do understand what my professor was trying to get at that day. You and me, dear reader, are philosophers in our own way. Our aim is truth, making others see truth, not berating our colleagues until they admit defeat. When you get right down to it, arguing in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right time, is really all philosophers do.

This brings us to the all important saying-it’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.

At least that ought to be the saying.

All of this leads me rather conveniently to our topic of the day. Today we will talk about the platonic dialogue Gorgias. This dialogue, once again, pits the Father of Western Philosophy, Socrates against an Athenian character who simply cannot see the error of his ways.

The dialogue explores, among other things, the nature of rhetoric, the morality of possessing rhetorical skills, and the difference between truth and belief.

Gorgias, the dialogues namesake, is an Athenian rhetorician. His job consists in shaping any who come before him into persuasive, eloquent speakers; the type who can bring round to their side anybody who listens. Anybody but Socrates it would seem.

Socrates, the curious kind of guy that he is, begins to question Gorgias on the definition of “rhetoric” and a “rhetorician” . Socrates proposes that if we were to ask for a definition of a physician, we could say that a physician is one who is knowledgeable of the art of medicine and possesses particular skills of healing.

Similarly, Socrates would like to know of what type of practice a rhetorician partakes in. Gorgias proposes that rhetoricians, obviously, are involved with rhetoric! This answer, at least according to Socrates, is ambiguous.

Certainly a mathematician or a business man or a teacher would partake in the practice of rhetoric as well. However, their true art is not rhetoric in itself. These types of men are concerned with understanding mathematical relations, money-making, and instilling knowledge respectively.

The dialogue continues in this manner until Gorgias, having been prompted slightly by Socrates, comes to admit that the final aim or art of a rhetorician is persuasion.

AHA! Now we are getting somewhere.

Socrates seems to like where the conversation is going, but he prods a bit more. On what matters do the rhetoricians attempt to persuade people on?

Gorgias proposes that the rhetorician persuades on the most grand and most important topics within society. That is to say that rhetoricians concern themselves with the matters of politics, legislation and, most importably, justice and injustice.

“I answer, Socrates, that rhetoric is the art of persuasion in courts of law and other assemblies, as I was just now saying, and about the just and unjust.” -Gorgias (Plato’s Gorgias)

Now we are really getting somewhere, don’t you think? Socrates certainly thinks so.

SocratesWe are now getting to the crux of the argument. Socrates asks if there is such a thing as belief and if there is such a thing as knowledge. Gorgias consents that yes, this is true.

Socrates then asks if there is such a thing as a true belief and such a thing as a false belief. Gorgias consents that there is. Then Socrates asks if there is such a thing as true knowledge and false knowledge. Gorgias concludes that this can not be. Knowledge, by its very definition, must be true knowledge.

Socrates then asks if the rhetorician, whose job is to persuade people on matters of justice or injustice, inspires in people knowledge or belief without knowledge. Gorgias admits that he can only inspire belief and cannot instill true knowledge.

“Then rhetoric, as would appear, is the artificer of a persuasion which creates belief about the just and unjust, but gives no instruction about them?” -Socrates (Plato’s Gorgias)

Socrates then asks Gorgias if an understanding of justice and injustice is a prerequisite to becoming a rhetorician. That is to say if a boy, who was ignorant of justice, came to Gorgias, would Gorgias teach the boy the art of rhetoric, the art of persuading the ignorant on matters of justice when he himself does not know justice?

Gorgias, who is perhaps a bit taken aback by this questions, concludes that, if that were the case, then he would simply have to teach the boy of justice and injustice.

You might have already figured out Socrates beef with Gorgias and the speech makers of Athens. Socrates criticizes Gorgias because it would seem that he would be willing to teach anybody rhetoric whether or not that person was knowledgeable of justice.

It would seem then that rhetoric alone is not a moral endeavor. Socrates believes that without knowledge, without philosophy, rhetoric alone is not an art at all. It is a form of flattery, a way to coax the uneducated into accepting a position that is not necessarily correct, moral, or even just.


Rhetoric without knowledge is like the blind leading the blind. More specifically, it is the ignorant leading the ignorant.

And that brings us right back round to our original point. Say it with me now…

It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.

I wouldn’t consider myself particularly cynical, but I do believe there is a rather unhealthy tendency to emphasize style over substance, presentation over content.

I would encourage you to remember that in a world where everybody has an opinion and in an age with technology that allows everybody’s belief to be heard, the plausibility of an assertion is not judged by how many people agree with it. The validity of an argument is not gauged by how loudly it is being hurled at you.

And that, dear fellow philosophers, is really all I have for you today. Speak again soon.

Terence: The African Comic

by on December 5, 2014

By Ben Potter

Regular readers may recall a recent article on Plautus, a comedic playwright who adapted Attic comedy and presented it to the Roman masses. This week, we will look the life and works of the man who followed him down this path, though leaving his own footprints on the way.


This was none other than Publius Terentius Afer, better known simply as Terence.

Though Terence was a fine artist and innovator in his own right, there is a similarity between he and Plautus that cannot be ignored… both were comedic playwrights who adapted Attic comedy and presented it to the Roman masses.

But despite this shared penchant for pilfering (they called their works fabulae palliatae – ‘dramas in Greek cloaks’), there is much that is dissimilar about the two men; not least their origin, trials and tribulations.

For instance, Plautus was a well-educated Italian, though he did have his fair share of mishaps and setbacks. Terence, meanwhile, is able to boast a story that is not merely rags, but restraints-to-riches.

He does not quite have the claim of being the first slave to become a successful writer (that gong goes to Aesop), but he may have been the first African to make headway in the field.

However, this is little more than a calculated assumption from the fact that his cognomen, Afer, means ‘the African’.

Roman Map

Suetonius, writing some 200 years after the fact, confirms that Terence was born in Carthage. However, he cannot be viewed as a wholly reliable source, even though we have no reason to doubt his sincerity.

Other speculations consider that he could have been Libyan rather than Carthaginian, as the term Afri would not have been used to denote a Carthaginian at this time.

Less popular are the suggestions that he hailed from one of the towns of Magna Grecia, the Greek colonies of Southern Italy and Sicily. This idea, as well as being considerably less romantic, does nothing to account for the ‘Afer’.

Regardless, it is universally accepted that he was brought to Rome in the thrall of the senator Terentius Lucanus, thus accounting for his nomen, ‘Terence’.

The senator ensured Terence received an education, a surprisingly common deed in those days. However, the senator also performed a very atypical act; he granted freedom to Terence, even though he was seen as a valuable piece of property. This was even more exceptional when considering that he was still relatively young. (It was more often done after a lifetime of service, or upon the master’s death).

Freedom was most probably granted here because Terentius was impressed by the young man’s artistic talents and he didn’t want to stand in the way of a potentially glittering career.

And glittering, though brief, it indeed was.

Brief because he died at sea on his way to Greece, either at the tender age of 35, or the positively raw age of 25!


And glittering because Terence is in an elite group of ancient writers who have their entire canon preserved, intact.

The fact that this opus consists of only six plays does not detract from the fact that his work demands considerable respect.

Though it appears respect was precisely what Terrance was hoping to achieve… And we know this because of his innovative use of the prologue.

Unlike Plautus and his Greek forebears, Terence didn’t do anything as crass and vulgar as to give essential contextual information. Indeed, he was a staunch believer in letting the audience work things out for themselves:

“Do not expect the plot of the Play; the old men who come first will disclose it in part; a part in the representation they will make known”

So what was the purpose of a prologue, if not to “lay our scene”? Why, to rebuke one’s critics of course:

“He [Terence] is wasting his labor in writing Prologues, not for the purpose of relating the plot, but to answer the slanders of a malevolent old Poet”.

Terence certainly had a unique approach to the prologue, a trait that differentiates him from Plautus; one, in fact, of many.


Another was Terence’s conversational and realistic dialogue. It is thought that he may have been the man to create the dramatic use of the ellipsis, those little dots that nicely hint at a missing word, such as….

Indeed, his characters are far less prone to wallow in the cunning punning or absolutely arbitrary amounts of alliteration found in Plautus.

This, together with the fact that he was loath to break the fourth wall, has led to Terence being dubbed ‘the father of Sitcom’!

However, if his works were to be considered sitcoms, then they could only be HBO ones. No G rating for this Roman.

While his choice of subject matter is one of the most interesting things about Terence, there are moments when he skirts the boundary of what is now, and perhaps was then, good taste.

The Hecyra

The Hecyra, for example, shows a newly minted marriage thrown into jeopardy when it turns out the bride is pregnant as the result of a rape she suffered before the wedding. But all turns out for the best in the end when it materializes that, unbeknownst to all, the groom was the rapist all along!

Of course, it is difficult to gauge just how much tastes have changed.

It is possible that the plot line was tolerated mainly because the play was set in Greece, a supposedly decadent foreign land in which rape was taken with a pinch of salt. That said, Terence does deal with the topic with greater sensitivity in Eunuchus.

There are also times when he focuses on the dynamics of the father/son relationship, generating a good deal more empathy than in some of his other tales.

Even though it seems his plays were enjoyed by the masses, Terrence was not rightly appreciated as an artist until after his death.

Within 100 years of his premature demise, Terence had become a set text for all Roman schoolboys.

His place on the curriculum was retained throughout European schoolrooms until the nineteenth century, as he was regarded as the perfect conduit through which to study Latin.

In fact, the Catholic church may have done its fair share to keep Terence’s works alive, as it was a necessity to learn Latin for mass and bible study. His plays were often chosen because they were popular and approachable texts… and perhaps a bit more entertaining than endless psalms.

Though, curiously, Terence’s most quoted line:

“homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto” – “I am a man, I regard all that concerns men as concerning me”

….has been misappropriated as a piece of sagacious philosophy. In fact, it was originally put into the mouth of a nosy neighbour looking to justify his own snooping!

Nonetheless, the view of Terence as a fine and noble scholar, one worthy of our attentive consideration, is espoused by that fine man of letters, President John Adams. It is to him that we shall give the last word as to why Terence was, is, and always will be of interest to those with classical or literary interests:

“Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin…His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model”.

The Ages of Ancient Greece

by on November 28, 2014

By Ben Potter

Archaic. Classical. Hellenistic. These terms are often (and quite naturally) conflated together under the generic heading of ‘classical’, or, at the very least, ‘old’. It appears that organizing history into clear, distinct eras can be a tricky business.

This, of course, is more true for the Greeks than for the Romans.

This is because it’s relatively easy to get one’s head around the fact that the Romans smoothly traversed the ages from Monarchy to Republic to Empire. (Obviously there are many more nuances to the situation than that – but let’s save those for a later date).

In contrast, the Greeks were not one ‘people’, but a series of distinct, if similar, factions (Athenians, Spartans etc). As such, they have fewer common events that can be used to separate periods in their history.

This, however, doesn’t stop us from trying…

So, let us delve head first into the past in order to try to understand the various ages and epochs of Ancient Greece…

Prehistoric Greece

Classicists usually divide prehistoric Greece into the Stone and Bronze ages.

The Stone Age is chiefly remarkable for establishing the foundations of Greek farming (including viticulture) and can be further eroded into three periods: the Palaeolithic (9000 BC and before), Mesolithic (9000-7000 BC) and Neolithic (7th-4th millennia BC). It was during this last age that metallurgy began to take root and ushered the Ancients into the Bronze Age.


It was then, in the Bronze Age, that we saw the prevalence of the bull-fancying Minoan civilization of Crete (c.3500 BC).

Some argue that the Minoans were never true Greeks, as they probably did not communicate using the Greek language. However, as their civilization paved the way (at least on Crete) for the Mycenaeans, who did speak Greek, they are impossible to remove from the equation.

And language, or its absence, is precisely what marks both the end of the Mycenaean period and the end of the Bronze Age.

It has been posited that these well-organised proto-Greeks fell foul of invaders, migration, natural disasters or even climate change!

It cannot be known for sure which of the above rang the death knell for the civilization that conquered Troy (c.1200 BC – if it happened at all), but what is clear is that the written language of the time, Linear B, died along with them. Thus we are shepherded into the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100-776 BC).

The Dark Ages

In addition to the loss of written language, Greek communities became more isolated in this time. And despite a dearth of information on the age, we can list one great highlight which was an inadvertent result of the absence of uniform literacy; the rise of the oral tradition.

It is from this that the yarns of Homer, so influential on the art and literature of the next 3000 years of European civilization, were spun.

The Archaic Age

It began in 776 BC. The twin date of the first Olympics and the end of the Dark Ages at first seems nothing more than a useful, but arbitrary milestone.

While this is very nearly true, it symbolically ushers in an age in which Greeks were no longer strangers to one another. Rather, they were engaged in reciprocal political, commercial and, in this case, sporting activity.

More than this, it was c.776 BC when iron replaced bronze, a new alphabet (borrowed from the Semites of the East) emerged, and the Greeks began to extensively and systematically colonize.

These advances were concurrent with the development of the polis, the Greek city-state.


Indeed, the Archaic period gave rise to everything we identify with as being broadly ‘Ancient Greek’, including gymnasiums, symposiums, sculpture, architecture, festivals, athletics, drama, homosexuality, religion and even war.

It is this last point which is the most unusual. Greeks began to recognise each other as the same ‘nationality’ and, as such, a collective consciousness developed regarding the rules of engagement (or, perhaps, vice-versa).

This curious phenomenon of brothers-in-arms being brothers-at-arms is best exemplified by its exception, i.e. The Persian Wars (492-490 BC and 480-479 BC).

Another remarkable aspect of the Archaic period is thought to have come about via warfare, or specifically from hoplite (heavily-armed infantrymen) warfare; tyranny.

While Argos and Corinth succumbed early to tyranny, Sparta managed to avoid it until Hellenistic times. Athens, too, tasted it in the latter half of the century, despite Solon’s reforms of 594 BC which paved the way towards democracy. However, the Athenians managed to overthrow that tyranny within a generation.

The Classical Age

If the Archaic Age established who the Greeks were, the Classical Age (510 BC or 480 BC – 323 BC) really cemented why they are remembered so fondly.

Indeed, one of the biggest distinctions between the two eras is the rise in artistic talent.

Temple of Aphaia

This is perfectly exemplified by the pedimental sculptures on the temple of Aphaia at Aegina. The west pediment shows the more clumsy sculptures of the archaic period and the east displays the newer, more sophisticated techniques of the classical era.

Additionally, this sensational period of artistic and intellectual fecundity gave rise to a plethora of remarkable men. There was Phidias (the genius behind the Parthenon), the sculptors Myron, Praxiteles and Polyclitus, philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the great playwrights Aeschylus (also active in the Archaic period), Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes… not to mention the historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

The commonly accepted date for the start of this period (480 BC) saw the Greeks repelling the Persians from their soil. In fact, it was war, every bit as much as art, that went into defining the Classical period.

Alexander the Great

The Greek-on-Greek Peloponnesian Wars (461-446 BC and 431-404 BC) were very much business as usual. Then the entire nation, along with Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan and India, was brought under the yoke of Alexander the Great.

The Great man’s death in 323 BC signalled the end of the Classical period and the beginning of the Hellenistic age.

The Hellenistic Period

The post-Alexandrian scuffle saw a variety of kings (who identified themselves as Greek) fighting each other and their neighbours on the edges of the civilised world.

With this whirlwind of power-mongering going on around them, the actual Greeks themselves split into various confederacies: the Boetians, Arcadians, Achaeans and Aetolians.

It was at this time that Roman eyes were drawn eastwards thanks to Illyrian piracy in the Adriatic Sea… a problem promptly quelled by the developing superpower.


Roman interest in the Greek world became critical when King Philip V of Macedon allied himself to Rome’s very own version of Osama Bin Laden: Hannibal of Carthage.

The Hellenistic age came crashing to an end in 146 BC when Rome defeated the doomed resistance offered by the Achaean Confederacy. In doing so, they utterly obliterated the ancient city of Corinth and enjoyed complete hegemony over Greece.

The Roman Period

From this point onwards Greek power, as something tangible and autonomous, was more or less nil. Her influence, however, remained – if solely because of her intellectual and cultural reputation.

Though it seems a sad, whimpering end to a great chapter of world history, it should be remembered that this reputation, forged in the mania of the Archaic period and brought to fruition in the splendour of the Classical age, did not die. Indeed, it continues to inspire, educate and amaze, and has not yet, and hopefully never will, fade away.

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