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A Political Woman

by on July 27, 2015

By Van Bryan

Yes, that’s right dear reader. It most certainly wasn’t easy being a woman during the ancient times. The classical age certainly had a lot going for it. After all, it’s been argued that the ancient thinkers laid the foundation for over two thousand years of progress in fields like philosophy, literature, historiography, and theatre.

AspasiaAspasia of Miletus by Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans

However, progressive rights for women would not be listed among these accomplishments. Even in Athens, which was the intellectual and cultural hub of the classical age, women were often relegated to the home. Not allowed an education, the right to vote, or to participate in public discourses, the highest aspiration a woman could reasonably hope to achieve was to become a wife and bear children.

To an extent, we just have to accept that. It is rather easy for us now, blessed with thousands of years of societal evolution, to look back on the classical civilizations and think ourselves above them.

However, it takes a more nuanced mind to recognize that whatever advancements we have made as a species was only made possible because there were brave individuals, sometimes thousands of years in the past, who took the first meager steps toward progress.

Even with all that in consideration, we must realize a woman’s lack of rights in ancient times means that there are very few notable women who pop up on the classical timeline. After all, it’s hard to shape the direction of Western society when you are viewed as little more than property.

The ones who do catch the attention of history, therefore, are made all the more remarkable. Aspasia of Miletus was one such woman.

She is perhaps best described as a political woman who possessed a knack for rhetoric, a taste for philosophy, and the ear and heart of the most powerful statesman of classical Athens.

Aspasia was venerated and denigrated by the ancient writers. Viewed by some as a shrewd political player, by others as nothing more than a harlot, it was said that she was the lover of Pericles, the great aunt of Alcibiades, the supposed author of Pericles’ famous “funeral oration”, she was even reported to have taught Socrates a few lessons in philosophical argumentation!

Aspasia paintingAspasia by Henry Holiday

Even though all of our sources on this mysterious woman are less than reliable, perhaps even down right fallacious, the fact that such controversy surrounds her makes her a prime candidate for our inspection, and perhaps even admiration.

It was said that Aspasia was born to the historically important island of Miletus off the coast of Asia Minor sometime in the early fifth century BC. She must have been born to a wealthy family, for it is reported that she received a first-rate education, a rare thing for a woman in ancient times. It is important to note that these two statements are the only two pieces of universal concord surrounding Aspasia. That isn’t to say that everything else is hearsay, but it sure isn’t historical fact. We are just going to have to take a leap of faith on this one.

Anyway…where was I? Oh, yes!

We can be rather certain that Aspasia traveled to Athens sometime around 440 BC. One hypothesis suggests that she made the journey while in the company of her sister and new brother-in-law, Alcibiades II (grandfather to the famous general of the same name). If this hypothesis were true, it would explain how Aspasia came to know Pericles, a man who had close ties to the Alcibiades family.

Once in Athens, it is believed that Aspasia became a hetaerae (ἑεταίρα) and probably ran a brothel. Hetairai (plural form of hetaerae) were not common prostitutes. Rather, they were highly educated, highly sophisticated courtesans who would have been skilled at dance, song, conversation, and would have likely been present in the inner circles of powerful, affluent men.

Hetairai were probably the closest thing to liberated women during this time. They were allowed to pursue education, engage in civic debate, they even paid taxes! Additionally, Aspasia had the advantage of being a foreigner. This meant she was forbidden to marry an Athenian citizen. A consequence of this was that Aspasia would not have been bogged down by the restrictions placed upon married women.

She was free, therefore, to explore the societal landscape of the Athenian elite, and explore she most certainly did.

Aspasia is perhaps best remembered as the lover of Pericles. After the famed Athenian general divorced his first wife, he came to live with Aspasia. And while it is assumed that the two were never married, we do know that Aspasia gave Pericles a son who was bestowed with his father’s name.

PericlesPericles was the dominant statesman of the age and was said to have loved Aspasia

While we might assume that the statesman was attracted to Aspasia for her physical beauty, Plutarch tells us that he truly loved the woman and devoted himself entirely to her.

“…he (Pericles) took Aspasia, and loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the market-place, he saluted and kissed her.” –Plutarch (Life of Pericles)

It is suggested, however, that Pericles might have been too devoted to Aspasia. It is likely that she advised, or otherwise persuaded, Pericles to take specific actions within his role as Stratego (general). Plutarch seems to believe that Pericles might have been motivated to declare war on the island of Samos simply because they were attacking Aspasia’s hometown of Miletus.

“Pericles, however, was particularly charged with having proposed to the assembly the war against the Samians, from favour to the Milesians, upon the entreaty of Aspasia.” –Plutarch (Life of Pericles)

While in the company of Pericles, it was said that Aspasia’s home became something of a hub for prominent Athenian figures. Generals, poets, even the philosopher Socrates was said to have visited Aspasia and Pericles’ home on a number of occasions.

Aspasia’s connection to Socrates is significant, because there is evidence to suggest that she might have been one of the philosophers first, and best, teachers in the art of rhetoric. Plato says as much within his dialogue, Menexenus.

“That I should be able to speak is no great wonder, Menexenus, considering that I have an excellent mistress in the art of rhetoric,—she who has made so many good speakers, and one who was the best among all the Hellenes.” –Socrates (Plato’s Menexenus)

It is even suggested within this dialogue that Aspasia, not Pericles, was the true author of the now famous “funeral oration”, found within the pages of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

“I heard Aspasia composing a funeral oration about these very dead. For she had been told, as you were saying, that the Athenians were going to choose a speaker, and she repeated to me the sort of speech which he should deliver, partly improvising and partly from previous thought, putting together fragments of the funeral oration which Pericles spoke, but which, as I believe, she composed.” –Socrates (Plato’s Menexenus)

We must consider the possibility that Plato’s use of Aspasia in this dialogue was intended as a humorous device. The idea of a woman teaching rhetoric to a man? Ha! How fanciful!

Aspasia paintingAspasia and philosophers by Michel II Corneille

Still, the fact that Plato felt Aspasia’s name was worthy of mentioning at all speaks volumes for the type of reputation she must have had as a rhetorician.

Additionally, there are other sources that claim Aspasia was well versed in what would become known as Socratic dialogue, and may even have taught Socrates a thing or two about winning an argument.

Cicero tells us that Aspasia might have been the one to teach Socrates the rhetorical tool Inductio, or getting people to agree to a statement by having them agree previously to similar statements.

Cicero writes of a supposed conversation between Aspasia, a man named Xenophon (not the historian), and Xenophon’s wife.

“Please tell me, wife of Xenophon, if your neighbour had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?”
“That one, ” she replied.

“Now, if she had dresses and other feminine finery more expensive than you have, would you prefer yours or hers?”

“Hers, of course,” she replied.

“Well now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?”

At this the woman blushed. But Aspasia then began to speak to Xenophon. “I wish you would tell me, Xenophon,” she said, “if your neighbour had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?”

“His” was his answer.

“And if he had a better farm than you have, which farm would your prefer to have?”

“The better farm, naturally,” he said.

“Now if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?”

And at this Xenophon, too, himself was silent.
Then Aspasia: “Since both of you have failed to tell me the only thing I wished to hear, I myself will tell you what you both are thinking. That is, you, madam, wish to have the best husband, and you, Xenophon, desire above all things to have the finest wife. Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men.” –Cicero (De Inventione)


By having her listeners assent to questions with similar circumstances, she entraps her opponent into conceding a later, sometimes embarrassing, admission that proves her point. This was a technique that Socrates would make famous several years later.

Aspasia paintingAspasia and Socrates by Nicolas André Monsiau

It is perhaps unsurprising that Aspasia, with her keen political mind and ability to outmaneuver men during conversation, would garner some personal attacks.

Plutarch tells us in Life of Pericles that the Athenian comic playwright Cratinus referred to Aspasia as “a harlot” in one of his plays. Additionally, she was put on trial by the comedian Hermippus. She was accused of impiety and of corrupting the women of Athens with her strange and unhealthy life style.

Interestingly, these charges were remarkably similar to the ones lodged against Socrates in 399 BC. Unlike Socrates, Aspasia was saved from execution by a rare emotional outburst from Pericles.

Other ancient critics, Plutarch only refers to them as “some of the Megarians”, believed that many of Pericles’ military blunders were actually the fault of Aspasia. A woman, after all, ought to have no place in military affairs!

It is suggested, however, by the author and modern historian Madeline Henry that Aspasia’s critics would have had their own personal reasons for attacking the outspoken woman. After all, a political woman in the age of classical Athens was a subject of great frustration for many powerful men.

Even with her critics, Aspasia enjoys a sterling reputation in our modern age. She was arguably one of the most important intellectual figures during the height of Athenian power, and she was undoubtedly the most remarkable woman to have ever lived during that age.

She is perhaps best described by Lucian in his a Portrait Study

“We could choose no better model of wisdom than Milesian Aspasia, the admired of the admirable ‘Olympian'; her political knowledge and insight, her shrewdness and penetration, shall all be transferred to our canvas in their perfect measure.


Caligula’s Contribution

by on July 27, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—not many people are familiar with the name, but very, very many are familiar with the man. We know him by his nickname, his debauchery, and his thirst for blood: Rome’s third emperor, Caligula.

CaligulaThe tales of Caligula’s excesses are well known and have led many scholars to believe that the young emperor was severely deranged—some even call him insane. After all, we’re talking about the man who, if ancient scholars are to be believed, was planning to name his beloved horse consul (the highest and most coveted position on the Roman Senate). We’re talking about the man who allegedly carried on a love-affair with his own youngest sister, brazenly, in front of her husband. We’re talking about the man who made senators trot alongside his litter, made the battle-hardened Roman Legion pick up seashells on the coast of the English Channel, and generally spilled rivers of blood arbitrarily, wherever he went.

Clearly, Caligula wasn’t all there.

If he wasn’t insane, then at the very least we can say that the power of his station—which he took at the young age of twenty-five—severely went to his head.

However, it may be surprisingly difficult to argue that Caligula’s excess was all bad for Rome.

His constant pursuit of luxury, his need to display absolute power and superiority, and his complete lack of compunctions when it came to spending taxpayer money, actually led to incredible advancements in Roman invention and engineering. It wasn’t until the evidence of these advancements was found—buried in silt at the bottom of a mile-wide lake—that modern archeologists and scholars understood the true capabilities of Roman thinkers (thinkers under pressure, I might add—you could be killed for mentioning a goat in Caligula’s presence, let alone trying to tell him that his demands were impossible).

What they found at the bottom of that lake left modern archeologists speechless—and essentially rewrote history.

And nearly all of it existed—was created and expertly fashioned—because Caligula wanted a yacht.

LiburnianArtist’s depiction of a Roman Liburnian

History tells us that Caligula had a great love of anything having to do with ships and the sea. It’s through the writings of Caligula’s biographer, Suetonius, that we learn of Caligula’s frequent spending on custom-made ships, though he starts small—according to Suetonius, Caligula ordered the construction of an extravagant Liburnian, a light and fast galley that was part pirate-ship and part sailboat, in which he enjoyed lazy mornings on the water between Rome and the Bay of Naples.

But, as with most things Caligula loved, he needed more. He wanted a much bigger boat, a lavish, palatial pleasure ship that would not only rival, but far surpass the enormous royal barges of the Hellenistic world, particularly those of the Ptolemaic kings in Egypt.

With this goal in mind, he summoned engineers from the Roman naval headquarters and with their help designed two enormous, unusual ships, both of which were to be constructed near and eventually released upon Lake Nemi.

NemiCaligula already had a great deal of attachment to this tiny, secluded volcanic lake. Nearly nineteen miles south of Rome, Lake Nemi was an ideally quiet, relaxing spot which Caligula could visit to escape the oppressive heat of a Roman summer. The lake, known in Caligula’s time as “Diana’s mirror,” was also considered a sacred site to the goddess Diana, with whom Caligula was relatively infatuated. Her mysterious cult, which practiced ritual sex and allegedly performed human sacrifices, was the perfect mixture of sexy and bloody for Rome’s perverse young emperor. Well before he ordered the construction of his Nemi ships, Caligula had already built himself a luxurious villa at the edge of the lake, very close to the sanctuary of Diana on its shore. For Caligula, the construction of enormous, extravagant vessels on which he could relax in the middle of his favorite lake, instead of just on its shores, was the logical next step.

nemi shipsElectronic recreation of the Nemi ships

Why two ships? In keeping with his devotion to the goddess Diana, Caligula designed the first ship to be a floating temple dedicated to her worship. The second was a little more casual—it was meant to be used for pure luxury and relaxation, a floating villa on which Caligula could entertain his friends and perform any other sort of debauchery. Each ship, when completed, was about the size of a football field—so that, just as Caligula planned, the two barges together dominated the small lake.

bronze fittingsBronze fittings recovered from the ships

According to Suetonius, Caligula spared no expense for his floating palaces. The barges were made of expensive cedar wood with elegantly fashioned bronze fittings, cast in the detailed shapes of animals, satyrs, and fauns. The sails were made of purple silk, the floors were covered in priceless mosaics and had a heating system resembling those present in the Roman Baths, and the decorations were made of gold, silver, and alabaster. There was even running water—hot and cold.

Even more impressive is the number of technological marvels on the ship—mini machines and inventions that made Caligula’s demands possible, and could have changed the course of history. That is, until the barges sank to the murky bottom of the lake—by orders of the Roman Senate.

After Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D. after just four years of rule (what some historians call his “Reign of Terror”), the brow-beaten Senate began a process which scholars call a de facto damnatio memoriae, or a damnatio memoirae–a “damnation of memory,” in the sense that all evidence of a person ever having existed will be destroyed—that takes place somewhat erratically, without an official declaration of intent. Clearly Caligula was not systematically erased from history, but the Senate did order the destruction of the most flamboyant examples of his extravagance, including the beautiful Nemi ships.

nemi shipsOne of the ships after it was recovered from the lake

For hundreds of years the Nemi ships lay forgotten at the bottom of lake, almost completely buried in silt. It wasn’t until 1932 that the ships were finally recovered, under orders from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini—whose government undertook the project as part of a push to connect Mussolini’s regime with the glory of imperial Rome. It took about five years in total to recover the ships (and basically required the partial and temporary draining of Lake Nemi), but what archeologists saw when they finally got to examine the barges made their jaws drop.

NemiThey found, among other things, a wooden anchor in the Admiralty Pattern style (the shape with which most people are familiar today), which was thought to have been invented in the 18th Century until the anchor at Nemi was discovered. They found expertly fashioned bronze water taps which were used to control the flow of water into the ships’ storage tanks and which appeared so modern in design that archeologists actually had the taps tested to prove that they came from the same time period as the ships. The taps were so well made that even after hundreds of years buried at the bottom of the lake, they nonetheless produced a water-tight seal—in fact, similar designs are still in use by modern companies today.

The remains of hand operated pumps that used air pressure to move water were extremely technically advanced, as were the chain-and-bucket “waterwheels” that were used to remove excess water from the bilges (the bilge being the lowest part of the ship where the two sides meet below the waterline).

Nemi bearingsA seemingly insignificant find that proved to be astonishing was that of a circular platform with embedded lead ball bearings. Ball bearings were thought to have been invented by Leonardo Da Vinci during the Renaissance, but the ball bearings found at the bottom of Lake Nemi predated Da Vinci by a full fourteen-hundred years. Most scholars believe that they were created by Caligula’s engineers in order to satisfy the emperor’s demand for a rotating statue of Diana—the life-sized statue would sit on the wooden platform, which would rotate slowly thanks to a mechanism below-deck and the ball bearings, producing the desired “wow effect” among Caligula’s guests.

These are just a few of the technological marvels found onboard Caligula’s Nemi ships—marvels that made us reexamine what we thought about history and Roman naval engineering. Many historians believe that it was a mistake to sink the Nemi ships in the first place, no matter how angry the Senate was at Caligula. The desire to forget the despotic and sadistic emperor also led to the forgetting of impressive technologies that, for all intents and purposes, had to be “reinvented” centuries later.

museumOne of the ships inside the Nemi Museum

A large museum was built on the shores of Lake Nemi to house the incredibly well-preserved ships; but, sadly, visitors and archeologists only got fifteen years to enjoy the ships and examine their secrets. During World War II, the ships were burned to cinders, either by American artillery fire or retreating German troops. Only a few pieces of wood, bronze, and miraculously, the original anchor, survive.

The museum, however, still stands, with its hangar-like rooms serving as a testament to the massive size of the original ships. Sketches, photographs, recreations of certain machines, and one-fifth scale models of the ships are still on display for the public. The town of Nemi and the museum are also working together to slowly fund and build a life-size recreation of one of the ships, which is being assembled right outside the museum.

Caligula may have been crazy, then—or at least wildly immature—but his constant need to display his wealth and power resulted in technological marvels that, had they not been erased from history, may have completely changed the path (and our modern perception) of Roman naval engineering. And, if the ships had not been destroyed so soon after being pulled from the depths of Lake Nemi, who knows what we might have learned about Rome and Caligula?

If anything, the Nemi ships—their construction and destruction twice-over—teach us that we still have much more to learn.

The Mausoleum of Augustus: Propaganda, Deification and Dynasty

by on July 16, 2015

By Ben Potter

The story of Augustus (née Octavian) is one of those tales from the classical world familiar even to those whom do not routinely ‘leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime’.

Though we’re all well aware of the impressive résumé of the protagonist of HBO’s Rome, let’s quickly recap a few of his highlights:

- Claims descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas and the goddess Venus

– Adopted son and heir of the murdered then deified Julius Caesar

– Avenged said father with the help of swaggering ladies’ man Marc Antony

– Defeated said philanderer and his Egyptian girlfriend, Cleopatra, for control of The Greatest Empire the World has Ever Known (TM)

Pretty impressive stuff. But what then? Prosperity, expansion, peace, stability, wealth, high morality, art, literature, incredible public services and, perhaps most importantly, a constant supply of food are but some of the boasts the princeps could make from his tenure as emperor.

But this is small fry… it seems clear that Augustus had big plans for himself, and indeed for Rome’s future. Plans that would only truly take seed on 19th August 14AD – the date on which Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus’ long and illustrious life finally came to an end.

What came next was Augustus’ crowning glory; deification and a hand-picked succession.

In the first part, deification cemented the emperor’s position as not merely one of the greatest men to have ever lived, but as something more: something eternal, ethereal, indissoluble and, literally, supernatural.

The second part gave Augustus what had been denied to that Macedonian meteorite, Alexander the Great: a dynasty! A dynasty not only in the sense of emperors, rather than senators, ruling Rome (the very hubris for which Julius Caesar had been assassinated), but also in that those emperors were of Julio-Claudian bloodline.

Though there were obviously many facets that went into securing this improbable and impressive duel feat, one of the finest examples of Augustus’ devotion to securing both his terrestrial and celestial legacies is his impressive Mausoleum.

The gargantuan structure (87 metres in diameter and 40 metres high) was built on the Campus Martius (field of Mars), and would have dominated the landscape of Rome from the Tiber to the Via Flaminia.

MausoleumWhat the Mausoleum would have looked like in its time

Almost everything about this impressive monument seemed designed to fulfill the two above goals – as well as reinforce the two invariable and continuous aims of the regime, i.e. to legitimize and glorify itself.

The location of the Mausoleum was no coincidence, but carefully planned to gain maximum effect. The Campus Martius was not merely an ancient and sacred area of the city, but was especially reserved as the final resting place of exceptional citizens.

In hindsight this seems the most natural place in the world for the first, and possibly greatest, Roman emperor to be buried, but ground was broken on the Mausoleum as early as 28BC, only three years after the battle of Actium (in which Antony was defeated) and, crucially, a year before Augustus became emperor – while he was still only Mr. Octavian, consul of Rome.

This bold move, a move that had unequivocal echoes of the thing Romans hated most of all, Hellenistic-style kingship, would have caused a bedewing of the armpits on even the most lightly-knit senatorial togas.

That such an abode was a fitting resting place for a god may well have been an instinctive reaction upon seeing it. However, the link to dynasty was a shade subtler as, though invariably referred to as the Mausoleum of Augustus, the tomb was in fact designed to house the entire imperial family. The significance of this is that anyone related to the emperor (by blood or adoption) would be automatically given a burial on a site previously reserved only for those who had made an outstanding contribution to the state.

MausoleumA diagram of the Mausoleum, viewed from above

The design of the building was also significant; not only in its regal and hubristic scale which would surely have delivered the message ‘I have conquered’ to the average awe-struck plebeian (and, indeed, senator), but also because it was, extremely unusually for the time, circular.

Though it’s possible the tomb’s style was a mere coincidence, a personal preference or a passing whim, it’s hard to imagine that a politician as adept as Augustus would have neglected the connotations such a building brings up.

It’s thought that the Mausoleum was round either to evoke Etruscan architecture and therefore possibly (and rather riskily) make an association to the old kings of Rome, or otherwise to reinforce the idea that Augustus was of Trojan lineage; an oblique nod to Homer’s Iliad in which such structures are mentioned.

MausoleumAll that is left of the Mausoleum today is its core

If it seems improbable that the Roman public could have swallowed such a flagrant piece of regal self-aggrandizement, it’s worth considering that they may have been placated by the notion that a king, if a Roman king, is still better than an Egyptian one.

Augustus’ daring decision to build a gigantic tomb for himself and his family while only in his thirties was a stark message that he not only intended to serve Rome during his life, but also to remain truly Roman after his death. This message of posthumous permanence and loyalty was in stark contrast to that of Marc Antony who stated in his will (illegally acquired and published by Augustus) that he wished to be buried alongside Cleopatra in Egypt.

Thus the tomb was not merely a symbol of loyalty, but also a contrast to the burial chamber of a vanquished and ‘foreign’ foe. It would have taken a very, very brave senator, especially if he’d previously been sympathetic to Antony, to raise his voice against this patriotic exhibition.

The question of loyalty would have been further forced home by the pair of pillars outside the entrance of the Mausoleum upon which were inscribed a copy of the Res Gestae. This was a self-penned manuscript Augustus wrote outlining his achievements (i.e. what he had done for Rome) as well as reminding everyone that technically he did not have any supreme power, but merely ‘surpassed others in influence’.

However, the icing on the cake was the Solarium, a gigantic sundial built next to the Mausoleum, the needle of which was an Egyptian obelisk – a blatant message to the people of Rome to remember upon which side their bread was buttered.

N.B. Another great work of Augustan propaganda, the Ara Pacis, would later complete this tripartite of imperial glorification. Unfortunately the eminently believable and utterly charming hypothesis that the dial cast a shadow on the Ara Pacis on Augustus’ birthday is unverifiable.

Though Augustus obviously wasn’t there to witness his own interment he probably had a pretty good idea of what went on, as he’d left three sealed scrolls with the Vestal Virgins (the same lovely girls from whom he’d purloined Antony’s will) giving instructions for the order of the day.

Though we’ve no idea if what occurred was in line with Augustus’ wishes, it seems more than likely that it was.

AugustusAlong with plenty of ivory, purple (the most precious thing in the ancient world) and gold, including a golden likeness of Augustus, almost everything at the funeral was contrived to ensure the deceased was seen as someone in mid-apotheosis – an eagle was even released from the burning pyre – and that his heir, Tiberius, would be next in line to the throne of Rome.

According to Tacitus, Tiberius himself was the one to ‘provide for the last honors of his father, whose body he could not leave’; an excellent image of power smoothly changing hands. Moreover, the fact that the two eulogies were read by Tiberius and his own heir, Drusus, shows a distinct hierarchy was already in place.

The Mausoleum was a monument of subtle balance, not necessarily architecturally, but in terms of the relationship between hated kingship – that which Antony had sought – and loyal and traditional Roman values – to which Augustus ‘aspired’.

The great success of the Mausoleum was that, for all of its regal evocation, it technically did not overstep that deplorable line. In contrast the towering Egyptian obelisk would have left no doubt as to Antony’s kingly intentions.

That such a vast and splendid structure could contain an iota of subtlety is testimony to the shrewd and fertile mind of Augustus, a man whose great intellect foresaw that ‘the hand that wields the knife shall never wear the crown’.

However, Augustus had no desire for the crown, only for the powers that went with it, the knowledge that they would be passed on to his chosen successor, and (because why stop when you’re on a roll?) that he would be able to oversee Tiberius from his lofty perch alongside the other gods of the Roman pantheon.

Why Tragedy Is Good For Humanity

by on July 14, 2015

It is probably worth mentioning, before we get started on anything else, that The Poetics of Aristotle is sometimes looked upon with disdain and mistrust. A soul as unpoetic as Aristotle’s has no business speaking on matters

PoeticsThe Poetics, by Aristotle

of drama and art, let alone telling poets how it is they ought to be going about their business!

Aristotle, some contend, reduces the art of tragedy down to its language, and then reduces the language even further with his disconnected, almost aloof, examination and contemplation. Such philosophical, investigative methods that are common of Aristotle might be fine and dandy for metaphysics, epistemology, maybe even politics. But the theatrical arts? Never!

However, we must believe that Aristotle had great respect for the theatrical arts. Specifically he had great respect for the arts of tragic theater and epic poetry, both of which he speaks of at length within his Poetics.

Indeed, Aristotle so respected the old masters of Greek poetry and theater that it is believed that he personally edited a copy of The Iliad for his student Alexander the Great, who reportedly carried it with him all over the world. Additionally, Aristotle believed that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex was the best example of tragic theater and refers to it again and again within the course of his book.

Therefore we must ignore the people who decry Aristotle for his foray into poetics. We sane individuals can see Poetics for what it truly is- a critical examination and interpretation of an essential art form; it is a treatise that, even to this day, provides us with one of our best understanding for the structure and function of a universal institution, that of storytelling.

And if you are an aspiring playwright or screenwriter, then you might do well to read Poetics. There are all sorts of tips that you could make use of.

Within Poetics, Aristotle writes extensively on what makes a tragedy good and a story appealing.

TitanicPeripeteia consists of a dramatic change in fortune for the characters

For instance, when writing a tragedy, you ought to make use of Peripeteia (περιπέτεια), or a sudden change in fortune. Think of Leonardo Dicaprio getting on board the Titanic and falling in love with Kate Winslet. Pretty good! Then the Titanic hits an iceberg. What a terrible change in fortune!

A good tragedy also tends to include Anagnorisis (ἀναγνώρισις), or a moment in the story when a character makes a startling discovery. Imagine Darth Vader, “I am your father”. Nooooooooooo! (Luke falls into the pit)

Today we won’t be looking so much at what Aristotle says makes a good tragedy, what elements must combine to create a compelling narrative. Rather, we will look at a much more important question. Why should we care about tragedy? What is the end goal of theatrical storytelling?

Put simply, if a bit more broadly, what’s the point of art?

The blockbuster art form of the day was live theater. Men like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides would have been household names during the days of Aristotle. The philosopher defined this culturally significant medium of storytelling as…

…an animation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. -Aristotle (Poetics, Chapter VI)

The final sentence of this definition is what is of supreme importance to us. Aristotle says that a proper tragedy must elicit both fear and pity. Moreover, a tragedy will, ideally, purge us of these emotions.

OedipusTragedy was a culturally significant insitution and the most popular medium for storytelling

Some commentators have suggested that Aristotle listed pity and fear as the first two emotions in an assumed list. That is to say that some people believe that Aristotle means that a tragedy should elicit fear, pity, anger, etc.

I believe we can reject this possibility. Aristotle was not a man to pick his words capriciously. If he writes that a tragedy needs to elicit fear and pity, then that’s just how it needs to be!

It is also important to know that a tragedy must elicit fear AND pity and not one or the other.

We do have genres that elicit one emotion and not the other. A play or film that elicits only pity is usually referred to as a “tear jerker” (think Dostoyevsky). The genre that elicits only fear might be considered the horror or slasher genre (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

The former type of story is typically more popular with an older audience, people who have had the opportunity to experience life and who would benefit from purging the regrets of their life in an outpouring of uncontrollable pity.

Horror is perhaps more popular with a younger audience. Teenagers, for instance, are at a point in their lives when they are consumed by uncertainty and fear. The anxieties of adolescence can be directed towards something external, grotesque, and ultimately ridiculous in an attempt to “clear the air”, so to speak.

However, horror and tearjerkers are ultimately insufficient. They do not, in short, elicit the “tragic wonder” which Aristotle describes as the end and ultimate goal of tragedy and art in general.

You would not describe your feelings after watching “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as “emotionally or spiritually transcendent.”

It is only at the intersection of fear and pity that we experience the tragic wonder, that all-important catharsis.

Now we are getting to the heart of things.

The idea of catharsis is perhaps misunderstood in the English language. The English word does not possess all that is contained within the Greek. While we might believe catharsis means to rid or purge ourselves of something, in ancient Greek the word would actually mean to rid or purge ourselves of the baser or worse aspects of something. With this in mind, we begin to see that catharsis is more inline with purification, not necessarily purgation.

You see, human beings are naturally hard-hearted. We often do not give pity where pity is due. When it comes to fear, we have the tendency to either exaggerate our fears or suppress our fears all together. Neither of these are marks of the excellent person.

AchillesEpic Poetry like The Iliad brings about fear and pity, resulting in tragic catharsis

The tragic catharsis then is a way for us to purify our minds and souls and to understand truths about suffering, loss, misery, adversity, and redemption.

Within The Iliad, we witness Hector crying out to the gods, “Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle…” and we instantly identify and appreciate the human instinct to combat our inevitable, unforeseeable demise.

In Oedipus Rex, we read the lines “Let every man in mankind’s frailty consider his last day; and let none presume on his good fortune until he find Life, at his death, a memory without pain”, and in doing so we recognize the miseries of life and how they can so often befall us.

And here we have the goal of tragedy and art in general. It is meant to purify us, to make us better and to allow us to understand significant and universal truths. And there it is-truth! It’s the battle cry of all philosophers and the death knell of ignorance.

When reading Poetics with Aristotelian philosophy in mind, we tend to see things fall into place. Aristotle believed that all things have a final cause, a goal at which they aim. The final cause of a human being is to be happy and to be in harmony with virtue and knowledge.

Tragedy then is a way for us to attain this final cause, this goal of life. When we witness the horrors of Oedipus Rex or read the unfolding tragedies of The Iliad we are moved and impassioned by their beauty and expressions of the miseries of life. We are transcended, forced to confront the naked truths that we so often ignore.

Tragedy, therefore, allows us to partake in wonder, and we are better off because of it.

Agnodice: The First Female Physician…Maybe

by on July 9, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

Sometime in the fourth century B.C.E, an Athenian woman by the name of Agnodice was brought before a jury full of incredibly angry men—and she responded by calmly taking off her clothes.

AgnodiceAgnodice disrobing

Before I make it seem as if this is an article about ancient prostitution (or plain mental instability) let me clarify: Agnodice had been dressed as a man, and was brought before the jury under charges of having seduced the women of Athens—in taking off her clothing she not only proved her true gender and the charges false, but also made medical and gynecological history.

Before we can really dive into Agnodice’s story however, it’s important to point out that it is one of those tales which has always been, and will probably always be, a historical mystery. Some scholars adamantly believe that it is historical fact, while others place it in the realm of myth and legend. We may never know the real answer—but it is, without a doubt, a good story.

According to legend, Agnodice, also called Agnodike, was born into a wealthy Athenian family around the fourth century B.C.E. As she grew up, Agnodice was appalled by the high mortality rate of infants and mothers during childbirth, a traumatizing factor of female life that inspired Agnodice to study medicine—or at least to desire it. She had unfortunately been born into a time during which women were prohibited from studying or practicing any form of medicine, especially gynecology—in fact, it was considered a crime punishable by death.

Ironically, not long before Agnodice was born, women had had something of a monopoly on female medical treatment. Before the advent of Hippocratic medicine, childbirth was overseen by close female relatives or friends of the expectant mother, all of whom would have undergone labor themselves, and could therefore draw from their own experience as they coached other women through the process. Women who had a particular knack for this position slowly came to be known as maia, or midwives.

midwifeStone relief of a midwife assisting with childbirth, Isola Della’ Sacra, Ostia, 1st century CE

This practice was widely accepted for several years, and over time it truly began to flourish. Midwives began to accumulate an impressive breadth of lore and talent, learning enough to perform abortions, teach women about contraception and supposedly (though this is more unlikely) help women practice gender determination when attempting to become pregnant.

As men began to realize the capabilities of midwives, however, they began to feel extremely uncomfortable—even intimidated. In a world in which anxiety over lineage and heirs dominated much of the culture, the sheer amount of sexual independence offered to women by midwives and their reproductive knowledge posed a seemingly enormous threat. Men no longer wanted midwives to practice their medicine. Instead, they themselves attempted to dominate the medical field—a goal that, by the end of the fifth century B.C.E, was made more attainable with the help of Hippocrates (known today as the “Father of Medicine”) and his teaching facilities, which only admitted men. It is at this point that midwifery became punishable by death.

HippocratesHippocrates, known as the Father of Medicine

This proved to be a terrible blow to women—not just the women who suddenly had to give up their livelihoods, but also to the women whose labors and deliveries, without the guidance of a midwife, often ended in disaster. If you’re wondering why male doctors didn’t just take over and prevent these deadly deliveries, they certainly tried; but, in a society that highly valued female modesty, the transition from female midwives to male doctors did not prove easy. Despite the advances of medicine ushered in by Hippocrates, and despite the willingness of newly trained men to take over the gynecological profession, women adamantly refused to let male physicians perform examinations or help with deliveries. This shyness earned women an extremely poor reputation with doctors, who began to see women as stubborn creatures with no interest in their own treatment or health. Many Hippocratic treatises that survive today describe this problem, though none admit that it could have been avoided if men had not outlawed midwifery. Worse still than this unnecessarily poor reputation was the skyrocketing number of deaths related to childbirth.

Enter Agnodice. Determined to do something about the deaths and excruciatingly difficult deliveries that so appalled her, but legally prohibited from helping, Agnodice cut off all her hair, dressed in male clothing, and traveled to Alexandria to study medicine under Herophilos of Chalcedon (335-280 B.C.E.).

HerophilosHerophilos is considered the Father of Anatomy and was the first physician to use the pulse for medical purposes.

Under Herophilos, who was a follower of Hippocrates and a co-founder of the famous medical school at Alexandria, Agnodice—always in the guise of a man—learned a great deal of medicine. She then traveled back to her native Athens, where, legend has it, she heard the agonized screams of a woman in labor as she walked down the street. When she rushed in to help—still looking like a man—the mistrustful women in the room tried to force Agnodice out. Frustrated, Agnodice pulled aside her robes and revealed herself as a woman. The amazed and relieved expectant mother then accepted help from Agnodice, whose medical knowledge resulted in a safe delivery.

After this first success, news of Agnodice—who continued to dress as a man in order to practice medicine—spread throughout the female community. Suddenly, it seemed as if the services of a “male” doctor were constantly in demand. This was immediately suspicious to the men of Athens, who believed that Agnodice was somehow seducing their wives, sisters, and daughters. Some men even claimed that the women of Athens were faking illnesses in order to be seen by Agnodice. It is because of these accusations that she was first brought before a jury.


Clearly, Agnodice could do nothing to disprove these charges other than to display the most obvious (and perhaps most scandalous) proof: and so, the legend goes, without hesitation she pulled open her robes and exposed herself to the jury.

This, of course, only made things worse for Agnodice. The revelation of her secret pushed the men of the jury from angry to livid. Furious that a woman had been practicing medicine openly, right under their noses, they immediately sentenced Agnodice to death and set a date for her execution.

Things were not looking good for this courageous cross-dresser—that is, until her patients realized what had happened.

A massive group of Athenian women (including a few very highborn wives of the men who wanted Agnodice dead) stormed the assembly, demanding that Agnodice be released. “You men are not spouses,” they said, “but enemies, since you are condemning her who discovered health for us.”

Faced with the wrath of their wives, the men relented and—amazingly—decided to change the law. Thanks to Agnodice, freeborn women could legally study and practice medicine, as long as they treated only female patients.

Agnodice’s story has earned her the title of “first female physician” or “first female gynecologist” in many circles, particularly in the medical world, and she herself has become a symbol of female equality, determination, and ingenuity. The big question here is, of course, did she really exist?

FabulaeHyginus’s Fabulae, illustrated with astronomical woodcuts

The only surviving record of Agnodice’s story is attributed to a Latin author named Gaius Julius Hyginus (64 B.C.E.—C.E. 17), most of whose many treatises have been lost. What now survives are two abbreviated texts—Fabulae and Poetical Astronomy—which are so poorly written that most scholars believe them to be a novice schoolboy’s notes on Hyginus’ treatises. The story of Agnodice’s cross-dressing and medical practice can be found in Fabulae, and comprises no more than a single paragraph in a section called “Inventors and their Inventions” (Section CCLXXIV).

While some scholars believe that this short record represents historical fact, or at least a legend built up around a real, historical personage, there are many factors that would seem to disprove this theory.

For example, Agnodice’s story contains key tropes which were often present in ancient legends and stories. Her bold decision to remove her garments in order to display her true gender, for instance, is a relatively frequent occurrence in ancient myths—so much so that archeologists have unearthed a number of terracotta figures which appear to be dramatically disrobing.

Agnodice’s name itself also makes her story seem less realistic. When literally translated, the name means “chaste before justice.” This practice of endowing a character with a name that points to some aspect of their story was very common in Greek myth and literature.

And, of course, there is the fact that her story appears at all in Hyginus’ Fabulae. After all, “fabulae” means “stories”—the text describes close to three hundred myths and divine blood lines, many of them extremely recognizable. It is essentially a collection of the Greek myths that any well-bred and cultured Roman student was expected to know. The very fact that Agnodice’s tale is included in such a text places her more in the realm of legend than of fact.

Myth or not, however, there is a lot to be learned from a story like Agnodice’s. In the end, Agnodice not only represents the (to this day slightly contentious) desire for women to control their own bodies, but also the underdog’s determination in the face of impossible odds or deadly threats. Her story also teaches us the importance of banding together as a community. Agnodice alone could never have changed the law in Athens—it was only with the help and support of her community that she was able to really effect any change. It is for these reasons that she remains an inspiration to women and men alike today.

Socrates the Prophet?

by on June 17, 2015

By Van Bryan

I originally thought of this article idea some time ago. I remember standing in the basement of Strands bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf at random in the history/ philosophy section. It was an introduction to Socratic thought and the life of Socrates.

Sounds good to me.

I remember that in the Foreword the author had,

SocratesWas Socrates a Prophet?

somewhat capriciously I thought, referred to Socrates as “the Christ of Greece.” The author didn’t bother to add any real clarification to this statement and I was rather taken aback by the absence of any substantiating evidence. It was as if I was just supposed to accept that statement in the same way I might accept the statement “Dublin is the capital of Ireland.” In other words, I got the impression that the author believed such a statement to be demonstrable, unimpeachable; and here I was, some senseless boob who just hadn’t gotten the memo.

But you can’t just compare Socrates to Christ and then expect everybody to move on from there! At the very least give me a few paragraphs to go off of so I can write a decent article.

The author did not, unfortunately, bring up the topic again, so far as I could tell. And I never bought that book so I don’t have the luxury of a second look.

I know that this might turn out to be a rather controversial column. Still, this is a newsletter dedicated to all you classical lovers, and budding classical lovers, so I figure that question is as good as any to discuss in a weekend newsletter. Was Socrates, after all, a prophet?

The word “prophet” comes from the ancient Greek word “profétés” (προφήτης), which is a derivative of pró (before) and phēmí (I tell). In the context of ancient Greece, a prophet would have been someone who, among other things, interpreted the words of the oracles, the holy priestesses who were said to commune with the gods and speak on their behalf.

If this were our sole understanding of a prophet, then there certainly is evidence that Socrates was indeed one. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates recounts how the Oracle of Delphi declared him the wisest man in all of Greece. Hoping to make sense of such a claim, Socrates embarks on a quest to find others who are wiser than he.

Oracle at DelphiThe Oracle of Delphi, by
John Collier

What follows is Socrates retelling how he had met with various artists, poets and politicians who, while appearing to be wise, knew very little. Moreover, these people did not even know how much they did not know, instead associating their false beliefs with absolute knowledge.

From this, Socrates draws the conclusion that true knowledge is recognition of ignorance. Socrates, like the artists and poets, does not know anything truly and definitively. However, unlike the artists and poets, Socrates recognizes this and is better for it. We see now that Socrates is truly wise because he does not believe he is wise.

While slightly paradoxical, this idea has been championed through the centuries among philosophers. By coming to such a conclusion, Socrates interpreted the words of the oracle and is, at least according to the ancient Greek meaning, a prophet.

However, this is not what we truly mean when we ask if Socrates is a prophet. Instead, our understanding of a “prophet” is probably closer in line with the ancient Hebrew word “navi” (נָבִיא) which traditionally translates to mean a teacher or mentor who is divinely inspired and labors amongst his people to bring them a better understanding of morality, virtue, or to instill in them some divine truth that was otherwise unknown.

And even here, there is some evidence to suggest that Socrates might fit this description.
“Virtue is knowledge”, is Socrates’ great maxim. He who comes to understand the knowledge that underlies his actions will be better for it. By understanding truly the ideas of “Justice”, “Wisdom”, “Virtue”, and so on, we will be better suited to live according to these axioms and improve ourselves and our souls.

Socrates may very well have been a teacher of righteousness to the Athenians, and we can see that he went about his mission with a burning zeal that could not be quenched even by the prospect of death.

Moreover, Socrates may also have been divinely inspired. Within Plato’s Apology, Socrates claims that a heavenly voice speaks to him from time to time and guides him away from wickedness and towards righteousness and philosophical study. This voice, which is commonly known as a “daemon”, is the reason Socrates began his philosophical career in the first place. The voice prompted him away from politics and public life and towards a life of contemplation and dialectic.

“This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am planning to do, but never commands me to do anything.”-Socrates (Plato’s Apology)

At this point, it is probably important that we recognize that the story of Socrates is a type of fiction. That isn’t to say, however, that it is untrue. The tale of a simple craftsman with a keen mind and an aversion to nonsense who goes about challenging the prevailing paradigm of knowledge and truth, and who is ultimately


executed for his troublesome nature is all too familiar for us. It’s the same story that has been told time and time again in undergraduate philosophy classes and found in the pages of every meaningful piece of philosophical literature since about the fourth century BC.

However, because we become acquainted with Socrates through the works of his students, specifically Plato, there is no way of knowing how much of Socrates the man lines up with Socrates the icon. Within each of Plato’s philosophical dialogues, the superior argument invariably ends up in the mouth of Socrates, while the other philosophical combatants, who are thought to represent the prevailing ideas of 5th century Athens, appear shortsighted and flawed to a modern reader.

As a result of this, we tend to scoff at the Athenians who persecuted Socrates. How foolish those ancients must have been to execute such a fine and noble teacher like Socrates! His death takes on a feel of martyrdom and therefore the idea that he might have been a prophet gains credence.

However, what we often do not realize is that Socrates was, in many ways, attempting to undo the mortar of the classical Greek world and topple a cultural paradigm that had, up until this point, created one of the greatest societies the world had ever seen. It is possible then that he was not a prophet at all, but a bona fide threat to the Greek way of life.

What do I mean by this? Tune in next week to continue this discussion and find out for yourself.