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Long Live Latin

by on January 12, 2016

By Ben Potter

If you’ve ever taken even an hour of Latin class, then—more likely than not—the words of the title will have been the first that you learned in this ancient tongue.

This conjugation of the verb ‘to love’ (i.e. I love, you love, he/she/it loves…) is indelibly inked on the minds of schoolchildren the world over; though many may rather forget that they’d ever learnt it—because there’s no sugar-coating the fact that the study of Latin, despite how fascinating and rewarding it can doubtless be, is not for everyone.


Latin’s complexity undoubtedly plays a part in this; it is by no means the easiest language for a native English speaker to get their head around, in part due to the fact that, as seen above, a word’s suffix can drastically alter its meaning. That Latin’s nouns have seven cases, three genders, two numbers, five declensions, and its verbs have six tenses, four moods, two voices, and four conjugations (each with six different endings) only gives a taste of why it is not the most easily mastered of dialects.

This above passage cannot help but bring to mind the centurion character from Monty Python’s Life of Brian forcing the hapless protagonist to write Romani ite domum (“Romans go home!”) a hundred times as punishment for incorrectly daubing Romanus eunt domus (“people called Romanus they go the house”) on the side of Pontius Pilate’s palace.

The Most Logical Language?


Life of Brian
From Monty Python’s Life of Brian

However, despite this apparent disconnect from our own language, Latin is infinitely more logical, consistent and well-organised than English. Much like a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword clue, once the constituent pieces are in their correct places everything becomes a lot clearer.

Complexity aside, many turn away from Latin due to the fact that it’s a ‘dead language’ (i.e. one which has no living native speakers).

N.B. A word of caution here – unless you take a particular glee in raising the blood pressure of linguists, it might be best not to refer to Latin as ‘dead’, but instead state that it has suffered a type of pseudoextinction.

“Much like a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword clue, once the constituent pieces are in their correct places everything becomes a lot clearer. “

In other words, it has evolved and survived in the form of the Romance languages (e.g. Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian) even if it is no longer anyone’s native tongue. Of course, for all intents and purposes Latin is distinctly dodo-esque… but linguists can be such a prickly bunch!

Is Latin really “dead”?

What is striking about a language which has about it, at the very least, an aura of mortality is that it is actually in remarkably fine fettle! Don’t believe me? Check down the side of the sofa or under the fridge – there’s probably a bit of Latin hiding there.

“Many turn away from Latin due to the fact that it’s a ‘dead language’ (i.e. one which has no living native speakers). “

E pluribus unum (out of many, one) can be found on the reverse of U.S. pennies and both annuit coeptis (he favours our undertakings) and novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages) encircle the creepy pyramid on the back of the U.S. dollar bill.

The above mottos are but the tip of the iceberg; it is not difficult to call to mind bits of Latin officially used for states, universities, sports teams, social clubs and even some countries: Switzerland uses ‘CH’ for its ISO code in reference to its Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica.


Though these official renderings may seem like no more than ornamental pomposity, Latin pervades a lot deeper and more significantly than mere slogans.

First and foremost there is Latin’s most obvious legacy, its alphabet. Prone as we are to egocentrism, we often consider it remarkable that the vast majority of the world’s countries (including much of South East Asia and most of Africa) have adopted ‘our’ alphabet—so much so that we neglect to remind ourselves that said script isn’t ‘ours’ at all and, in fact, we are merely another in the long list of countries who have been linguistically colonised in this way – as such we have no greater claim to the ABC’s than late-comers like Turkey or Vietnam.

(N.B. We have a similar collective blind spot for numbers, being as they are, in fact, Arabic.)

However, we have taken more from Latin than merely its text. You’ve probably not even consciously noted that this article has been liberally strewn with abbreviations such as ‘e.g.’, ‘N.B.’, ‘i.e.’ etc.

(Oh, and now ‘etc’!)

The fact that countless others effortlessly spring to mind (AD, A.M., cf., et al., ff., per cent, Ph.D., P.M., P.S., re, s.o.s., sic., vs.) shows that Latin is clearly a pervasive force within contemporary society… Q.E.D.!

We could, but shall not, make an ad infinitum list of ‘English’ phrases borrowed from Latin; to do so would be to stress the point ad nauseam.

The Institution That Kept Latin Alive

Probably the greatest, if slightly inadvertent, champion of the Latin language, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, is the institution that was, in many ways, the heir to that institution, the Catholic Church.

The opening lines of Genesis in Latin

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Church’s insistence that Latin was the only suitable vehicle for transmitting the ancient and sacred words of a Nazarene Jew to the masses of Europe. Furthermore, not only did the Latin mass endure until the 1960’s, but Latin is even to this day the official language of the Holy See – meaning it is the official language of a nation state, albeit a rather small and select one.

Charmingly, Vatican City has the world’s only Latin ATM machine, but surprisingly is not the only country with Latin radio stations (Germany and Finland being two notable examples).

The topic of Latin is so vast that there is no time in these pages to talk either about the nuts and bolts of the language itself (its phonology, lexicon, morphology, syntax etc), or about its history and evolution from Old Latin (that of the ancient Roman Empire), to Classical Latin

“Latin is even to this day the official language of the Holy See – meaning it is the official language of a nation state, albeit a rather small and select one. “

(an artificially rarefied version of the language designed to distinguish itself from the speech of hoi polloi i.e. Vulgar Latin), to the corruptions of Medieval Latin, to the corrections of Renaissance Latin, through Early Modern Latin, and finally Modern Latin. Not to mention the numerous ways different people and nationalities pronounce Latin words today.

Obviously all of the above is only a brief précis of what is a topic huge in both importance and size, though this alone may be reason enough qualify it for further investigation.

A rare copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the original Latin

Regarding the study of this paradoxically obsolete and relevant language, many people may offer you convincing arguments that you should, or indeed convince you that you want to (or indeed, do not want to) learn Latin. As we can all recall from our schooldays, desire is the key to learning, and with languages, the desire to learning ratio is, if anything, intensified.

Should you decide that these ancient, though far from outmoded words are not ones you desire touching your lips, then it would be fruitless to convince you otherwise. However, I would insert two caveats to the above absolution: 1. even the slightest inkling, the most miniscule curiosity, is worth pursuing – it could turn an ignored itch into something quite beautiful, and 2. Latin is one of those things that, even when not actively engaged with, still bears fruit worthy of awareness (or perhaps the converse is true – it is pitiful to be wholly ignorant of that fruit).

On the other hand, if you are already full of vim and vigour and are itching to make these ancient words become newly learned, then I’ve only one thing to say to you, which is, rather predictably, carpe diem.

Such a flat and trite ending has me doffing my cap while shuffling my feet in the acknowledgment that the words of another, the popular classicist Mary Beard, give a far more poignant and no-nonsense justification for the merits of Latin. So it is with her winged words that I shall leave you:

You do NOT learn Latin because it helps you understand the spells in Harry Potter… because it helps you learn other languages… because it hones your critical and logical thinking… you learn Latin because of what was written in it – and because of the direct access that Latin gives you to a literary tradition that lies at the very heart (not just at the root) of Western culture. –Mary Beard

The Battle of Love and Law

by on December 29, 2015


By Nicole Saldarriaga

There’s a reason Euripides is often called the “people’s poet.” Though his plays were not the most popular in their own time, after his death they were soon recognized for their incredible attention to character.

Euripides, the People’s Poet

Euripides was able to take people on the outskirts of society—slaves, women, illegitimate children—and give them complicated psychologies and desires in a way that no tragedian was ever able to do before. One of his most famous plays, the Hippolytus, is a great example of this—by telling a story that seems fairly uncomplicated on the surface, Euripides is able to give us a glimpse into the complicated psyche of an illegitimate man who desperately craves legitimacy, and ultimately show us the intricate relationship between love and law.

Hippolytus begins with the appearance of the goddess Aphrodite on the stage. She introduces the audience to the major conflict of the play: Hippolytus, the illegitimate son of Athens’ King Theseus, has severely insulted Aphrodite by rejecting her and erotic love altogether in favor of a chaste life as a devotee of Artemis. As punishment, Aphrodite causes Theseus’ wife, Phaedra, to be overcome by a desire for her stepson—so that, once Phaedra’s unlawful attraction is revealed, Theseus will kill Hippolytus.

Aphrodite’s plan succeeds spectacularly: when Phaedra’s nurse, in an effort to save her mistress (who, rather than admit her shameful love, is attempting to kill herself by starvation) reveals Phaedra’s secret to Hippolytus, and the horrified Hippolytus angrily rejects it, Phaedra’s intense shame leads her to hang herself—but not before leaving a note for Theseus in which she claims to have been raped by Hippolytus.

The outraged Theseus uses one of three wishes given to him by Poseidon to curse his son, and as Hippolytus flees into exile, Poseidon sends an enormous bull thundering out of the sea, which startles Hippolytus’ horses; the man is thrown from his chariot, though he remains tangled in the reigns, and the horses drag him to his death against the rocks.

More Than Meets the Eye…

This brief summary only hints at the complexities hidden beneath the surface-story. To plumb these depths and reveal the underlying tension between eros (erotic love) and nomos (law or custom), we must take a closer look at Hippolytus and Phaedra.

When Hippolytus first appears, he is just returning from a hunt, and his first order of business is to give reverence to Artemis. “For you, dear Lady, I bring this garland, this lovely chain of flowers,” he proclaims as he stands before her statue and altar, “from a virgin meadow…virgin it is, and in summer the bees frequent it, while Purity waters it like a garden.”

Euripides wastes no time in showing the audience that Hippolytus not only esteems the goddess, but also the very concept of virginity—above all else. What seems like every time he is on stage, Hippolytus references his virginity and his commitment to chastity in some way—it is clear that he holds tightly to the ideal and to the holiness he hopes to gain from his chastity.


Why is Hippolytus so determined to reject eros—an erotic longing which, according to Phaedra’s nurse, is willed by the gods and cannot be withstood without a certain amount of arrogant presumption?

“Euripides wastes no time in showing the audience that Hippolytus not only esteems the goddess, but also the very concept of virginity—above all else.”

Even his own attendants attempt to warn Hippolytus that his rejection of Aphrodite is disrespectful and dangerous, but Hippolytus is resolute, responding simply with a sardonic “I don’t like deities who are marvelous after dark.” The blatant cynicism of that statement is our first clue in understanding Hippolytus’ character: his rejection of eros is largely related to the deep seated feelings of hate and anger which he holds in his heart.


Hatred of Women?

It would be all too easy to simplify Hippolytus’ hatred by calling it a hatred of women—his most famous speech, after all, delivered after the nurse informs him of Phaedra’s amorous desires, begins “Zeus! Why did you let women settle in this world of light, a curse and a snare to men?” and ends with “Let people say I am always harping on the same theme. Still I shall never tire of hating women.” His hatred of women is very real—however, to claim that it is the only reason for his rejection of eros is to over-simplify a much more complex decision which very likely can be traced back to Hippolytus’ identity as Theseus’ son.

Desperate for Legitimacy

Hippolytus’ history is not complicated to understand (in fact, stories like his seem all too common in Ancient Greek history and mythology), although it’s likely to have had some complicated consequences on Hippolytus’ character.

Hippolytus’ mother, named Hippolyta, represents a dark side to Theseus’ history as a legendary hero and upright citizen: she is one of many women whom he kidnapped and later deserted. While Hippolyta’s ultimate fate is unclear, we do know that she bore Theseus a son, and that Hippolytus grew up defined by his status as a bastard child of the king. His behavior, particularly his vow of chastity and hatred of women, openly points toward his resentment of his illegitimacy.

Hippolytus is dragged to his death

In striving always to be pious—a shining example of devotion to the gods—Hippolytus is showing an obsession with the law, with nomos. In rejecting eros—the erotic, the feminine, the familial—he is attempting to achieve a perfect lawfulness, uncomplicated by the powerful, natural force that often causes people (like Phaedra, like Hippolytus’ own father) to break the law and destabilize the city by undermining laws of inheritance and succession. He is, in essence, avoiding the force that leads to the birth of illegitimate children (who, it is important to note, are basically forced to live outside the law. Ancient Greece stripped illegitimate children of many if not most rights of citizenship).

Hippolytus’ desire to avoid that natural force of eros is perhaps most visible in his famous speech about women. He says to Zeus:

If you wished to propagate the human race you should have arranged it without women. Men might have deposited in your temples gold or iron or a weight of copper to purchase offspring, each to the value of the price he paid, and so lived in free houses, relieved of womankind..

Hippolytus dreams of a city in which love, marriage, and sex are unnecessary. Familial ties are based solely on an exchange of goods.

“Hippolytus is, in essence, avoiding the force that leads to the birth of illegitimate children.”

As classicist and philosopher Seth Benardete put it in his The Argument of the Action, “Hippolytus…judges nature in light of the law rather than law in light of nature. His scheme depends on keeping the law of private property: the abolition of nature is better than any cancellation of the law.” Hippolytus wants a world of perfect law without nature—nomos without eros. What he does not see, of course, is that this is an utterly impossible dream.

Nature, represented in the family, also represents a kind of paradox: it is both a threat to the city, and an absolute necessity to the city. Though loyalty to your family can certainly undermine your adherence to the law (love and loyalty to one’s mother, for example, could lead one to break the law if it meant defending or avenging her), the city is also built upon its families, because families provide the city with citizens. It’s for this reason, more than anything else, that marriage laws were formed in Ancient Greece—adultery was considered unlawful, of course, and in a certain way, marriage was expected of every law-abiding citizen, so that the population wouldn’t die out and the city would be kept going. Eros may be a threat to nomos in some ways, but they are also inextricably linked.


The goddesses in the play themselves function as examples of that link. While it may seem that they are at odds with each other and not on the friendliest of terms (in fact, at the end of the play Artemis promises to punish one of Aphrodite’s followers as revenge for the death of Hippolytus), they are also connected.

Eros may be a threat to nomos in some ways, but they are also inextricably linked.”

Artemis is the goddess of virginity (and she becomes, for Hippolytus, a kind of representation of self-control and lawfulness), but she is also the goddess of the hunt, and the hunt is a perfect symbol for erotic desire—it is the chase, the constant longing to obtain the object of obsession (this is particularly interesting in regards to Hippolytus, who is an avid hunter. One has to wonder whether his love of the hunt is a kind of displacement of his repressed erotic feelings).

Aphrodite is the goddess of love, and is associated with a certain amount of eroticism, but she is also (some would say first and foremost) considered the goddess of lawful marriage, and in this way she is important to the health of the city. Thus, the goddess of nomos (for the purposes of this play) also holds within her character an aspect of eros, and the goddess of eros holds an aspect of nomos. Aphrodite and Artemis are, in some ways, indecipherable from each other.

With Aphrodite’s relationship to the law in mind, we can see the punishment of Hippolytus in an entirely new light. Hippolytus, by refusing eros, is refusing to get married, and is thus disrespecting not only nature, but also the laws of the city (in essence it is a vicious circle: the man who grew up outside the law, in a desperate attempt to live within that law, continues to alienate himself from it).

In this case, though it may seem over-harsh to modern readers, Hippolytus deserves his punishment—his punishment is in keeping with the law.

Phaedra, Hippolytus’ step-mother, also seems to be caught in the same vicious circle of lawfulness which ensnares Hippolytus. When we first see Phaedra, we see her in a state of near-madness and physical sickness. She is wasting away, weak, her body twisted; and we soon learn (after much prying on the part of the Nurse and Chorus) that her sickness is lovesickness—though it is not eros that has made her ill, but her resistance of eros. Phaedra tells us:

Once I saw how my trouble was developing, I knew there was no medicine with which I could combat it; there was no changing my mind. Now I will tell you the way I reasoned it out. When love had wounded me I looked about how I might best put up with it. I began with the resolve to keep quiet and hide my disease…next, I intended to overcome my folly by my self-control, and so endure it. And thirdly, when I could not master Cypris by these means I thought it the best plan…to die. As I would not wish my good deeds to pass unnoticed, so I did not want a crowd of witnesses to my sin…There you have my reason for killing myself: the desire to spare my husband and children that shame.

Phaedra becomes an interesting sort of parallel character to Hippolytus. She has also committed herself to a kind of chastity—though she feels eros in a way that Hippolytus might not, she refuses to act upon it for the sake of her reputation and good name. Rather than bring shame to herself and her family, she tries to kill herself by refusing to eat. This self-inflicted punishment is particularly interesting in that it implies a desire for control.

If death was Phaedra’s only goal she could have achieved it differently, with a faster method (as we will see her do later in the play), rather than draw out her suffering; but her refusal to eat demonstrates a determination to have absolute control over her body and her natural instincts, which include her amorous desires. Phaedra is, in her own way, obsessed with the law and its clear-cut demands. Adultery is not only unlawful, but also incredibly shameful, and so her eros must be rejected in favor of nomos, even if it means Phaedra’s death. In fact, Phaedra is so supportive of the law that her support turns into a hatred of women similar to that of her stepson. She says:

I realized full well that I was that object of universal detestation, a Woman. A foul curse on the woman who first committed adultery with strange men!…Those women who talk chastity, but secretly have their disreputable affairs, I hate. Sea-Goddess Cypris! How in the world can they look their husbands in the face, without quaking for fear lest the darkness, the partner in their crimes, some day take voice; or the walls of their chamber?


A World Without Eros


Phaedra, like Hippolytus, wants to live in a world in which eros does not interfere with the carrying out of nomos—and nomos, for her, is very linked with the idea of reputation and societal custom. Shame is Phaedra’s worst enemy—she cannot bear the thought of what people will say. Interestingly enough, one has to wonder whether Phaedra’s acute sense of shame and hatred of adultery is a result of her own family history.

Hippolytus rejecting Phaedra, by Jozef Geinaert

Her mother, Queen Pasiphae, had an adulterous affair with a bull and gave birth to the legendary Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. Perhaps the labyrinth that was this monster’s home was not built solely for the purpose of sacrificing Athenian youth, but also as a way for King Minos to inter the family shame.

It is partly for this reason, really—the obsession with nomos that both Phaedra and Hippolytus share—that Aphrodite’s plan works so brilliantly (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say tragically). Phaedra’s fear of shame is what leads her to fabricate the lie that Hippolytus raped her, in order to hide the true reasons for her suicide and save face, and Hippolytus’ refusal to break an oath sworn before Zeus, even when his life is in danger, both ultimately lead to the success of the divine plan.

Whatever Happened to Theseus?

This brings us to a new question: what is Theseus’ role in this divine plan? He is central to the decisions of the other characters, and yet he is absent for the better part of the play. Theseus is a particularly interesting character in that for all intents and purposes, he seems to be a great bastion of nomos.

Despite being king of Athens, he does not consider himself exempt from the law. In fact, the only reason he and Phaedra are in Troezen (the setting of Hippolytus and Hippolytus’ home) is Theseus’ obsession with following the law, even when technically unnecessary. Theseus, in an effort to defend his throne, killed several of the Pallantides (Pallas’ sons)—this would have been considered a perfectly justified killing (especially as the Pallantides were attempting to attack Theseus first), but Theseus imposed upon himself a needless year-long exile in Troezen, simply for the sake of ritual tradition (and despite the danger involved in leaving his throne unattended—he did not kill all the Pallantides, after all).

By this example alone, Theseus seems as obsessed with the law as are his wife and stepson; and yet, there is a side to him that is not quite that committed. After all, Hippolytus himself is proof that Theseus has committed adultery and has had children out of wedlock (we must remember, too, that Hippolyta is not the only woman Theseus kidnapped—he has committed this crime more than once). Moreover, there is an implication in the play that Theseus is not adhering to the laws of legitimacy and succession. Phaedra’s nurse, while attempting to discover the source of Phaedra’s illness, says:

if you die you will betray your children and deprive them of their father’s house, as sure as the horse-loving Amazon queen bore a master for your own children, a bastard, but with no bastard heart.

According to Benardete, the Nurse’s argument does not make sense unless we assume that Theseus is considering Hippolytus as an heir. “Why should the illegitimate Hippolytus be favored over Phaedra’s legitimate children?” he says, “Her death cannot be the cause; rather, Theseus must already have decided to make Hippolytus his heir, and only if Phaedra stays alive could he possibly be dissuaded”.

If this is truly the case, it means that Theseus is openly defying the laws of marriage and legitimacy, and it would not be bold to assume that Aphrodite’s plan is meant to punish Theseus as much as it is meant to punish his son.  There is actually a small hint of this idea in Aphrodite’s opening speech. “Yes, she must die;” Aphrodite says of Phaedra, “I shall not let the thought of her suffering stop me from punishing my enemies to my heart’s content” (76 – emphasis mine). In many ways, Theseus has insulted the ideals of lawful marriage and family just as much as Hippolytus—Aphrodite could easily consider him an enemy.

One has to wonder whether Theseus’ disregard for these laws is actually due to a deep-seated mistrust of his own legitimacy. According to the legend of his birth, Theseus’ mother, Aethra, slept with both the king of Athens, Aegeus, and Poseidon in one night. Theseus is thus considered to have a dual-paternity (this is part of what gives him his heroic strength and bravery). However, if viewed from a different standpoint, Aethra’s night with two men would not lead to dual-insemination, but instead to an uncertainty about the true paternity of the child. There is no way of knowing for certain, then, whether Theseus has a right to the Athenian throne (This is also throws into question Theseus’s killing of the Pallantides. If he is not truly the heir of Aegeus, the deaths would not have been considered justified. Perhaps this explains his seemingly overzealous need to purify). This is further complicated by the fact that Aegeus and Aethra were not in a lawful marriage at the time of Theseus’ conception—so, even if Aegeus is truly Theseus’ father, the law should have prevented Theseus from ascending the throne. How much of himself does Theseus see in his son?

It is clear, then, that the Hippolytus is about much more than a woman who falls in love with her stepson and a father who makes a horrible mistake. That tragic surface-story hides a complex struggle between eros and nomos—two fundamentals that are often mistakenly believed to exist separately from each other. In fact, eros and nomos are inextricably linked—we see this in the similarities between the goddesses (a fact that Hippolytus tragically fails to recognize) and in the failure of each character’s attempt to reject the one in favor of the other.

The presumptuous rejection of eros leads to nothing but pain, and it seems like no coincidence that the play opens with an image of Phaedra’s wasted, writhing body and closes with an image of Hippolytus’s body reduced to bloody tatters. Their rejection of nature—their desperation to live in a state of perfect and impossible lawfulness—destroyed them both; and Theseus, who had no small role to play in the matter, is left to pick up the pieces.

The Battle of Arginusae

by on December 9, 2015

The year is 406 BC. The Peloponnesian War has been raging off and on for almost three decades. The Spartan general, Callicratidas, is roaming the eastern Aegean with a fleet of about 140 triremes. Callicratidas lays siege to the city of Methymna on the island of Lesbos. The general takes the city and has the potential to take the entire island of Lesbos.

The island of Lesbos was strategically important. If Callicratidas can take the island, then he will have clear access to the Hellespont, a narrow strait in northwestern Turkey. The Hellespont was a crucial grain supply route for the Athenians. If Hellespont fell into Spartan hands, the Athenians would loose access to one of their most crucial supply lines.

The Athenians could not allow this.

The Athenian general, Conon, was harbored at the nearby island of Samos with a meager fleet of about 70 triremes. Despite having low morale among his men, Conon is forced to sail to meet Callicratidas and attempt to thwart his efforts.

Conon was older and more experienced than

“The Hellespont was a crucial grain supply route for the Athenians. If Hellespont fell into Spartan hands, the Athenians would loose access to one of their most crucial supply lines.”

Callicratidas. However, experience can only do so much. Conon’s fleet confronted the Spartans off the coast of Lesbos, but faced with overwhelming odds and severe losses by the ensuing skirmish, Conon was forced to flee to the safety of Mytilene, a city on the southeastern side of the island.

The historian, Donald Kagan tells us…

Conon’s situation was extremely perilous. He was cut off from obtaining supplies, and he found himself in a large city containing many people who had revealed themselves to be hostile to Athens in the past….

…Unless a message got through, Mytilene might fall because of treason before help could arrive. The fall of the city would surely cause the loss of the whole island and, no less important, of the rest of the fleet. -Donald Kagan (The Peloponnesian War)

Desperate times, desperate measures…

Conon did manage to get word to the Athenians who quickly responded by building an additional 70 triremes to the 40 that they already had on hand. In order to pay for such an endeavor, the Athenians were forced to melt down a golden statue of the goddess Nike, which had been placed atop the Acropolis, and mint the gold as coins.

In order to rescue Conon, the Athenians built 70 additional warships in the span of a month.

Manning the ships would be another task altogether. Eventually, the Athenians were forced to enroll citizens from all classes. Wealthy aristocrats, farmers who typically served as hoplites (foot soldiers), even slaves; they were all appropriated for use upon the newly formed armada.

Every man of ripe age, whether slave or free, was impressed for this service, so that within thirty days the whole one hundred and ten vessels were fully manned and weighed anchor. –Xenophon (Hellenica)

Such scraping of the barrel had been unheard of before this time. But you know how it is, desperate times, desperate measures.

Let Them Fight!

The newly created ships sailed north to relieve Conon, who was still barricaded in the harbor of Mytilene. Callicratidas got wind of the oncoming vessels and immediately sailed to meet them before they could reinforce Conon’s ships.

Callicratidas, however, was forced to leave behind about 50 ships in order to maintain the blockade. This would have depleted his numbers to about 120. Meanwhile, the ragtag Athenian vessels had acquired a number of allied ships and had bolstered their number of warships to about 155.

The Battle of Arginusae

The two adversaries met off the western coast of the Arginusae islands (there were three of them!). The ensuing battle was the largest and most costly sea battle of the Peloponnesian War and the largest battle ever fought between Greek navies.

The Spartans were slightly outnumbered, yes. However, the Spartans were well- trained, experienced warriors whose morale had been sustained by recent victories. The Athenians vessels, on the other had, had been slapped together in the span of a month. The crew were untrained and undisciplined. Everything was suggesting that the Spartans would win the day.

However, it was the Athenians, miraculously, who were victorious. Using clever tactics devised by their generals, Pericles the younger (illegitimate son of the statesman of the same name) was among the generals. The Athenians also used the Arginusae islands as a barrier to prevent the Spartans from outflanking them.

The losses on the side of the Athenians were twenty-five ships, crews and all, with the exception of the few who contrived to reach dry land. On the Peloponnesian side, nine out of the ten Lacedaemonian ships, and more than sixty belonging to the rest of the allied squadron, were lost. –Xenophon (Hellenica)

What goes good with executions? More executions!

There is an interesting tidbit about the aftermath of the battle.

There were approximately 25 ships that either sunk or were disabled off the coast of the Arginusae islands. The eight Athenians generals who had taken part in the battle took measures to rescue these men, but their efforts were thwarted by a sudden storm. The stranded crew all perished in storm.

The Athenians assembly blamed the generals for the loss of the stranded crew, and six of the generals (two of them had fled) were put on trial for their lives upon returning to Athens.

Coincidentally, our old buddy Socrates was acting as an epistates (an overseer of sorts) and was one of the men who would decide the fate of the generals. Interestingly, Socrates objected to trying the generals en bloc, as it was unconstitutional.

They must have told the old philosopher to keep his big trap shut, because Socrates’ objection was overruled and the generals were tried and executed for letting the stranded sailors drown.

Interestingly, it would appear that the Athenians regretted the decision to execute the generals. The Assembly actually attempted to bring charges against the main instigators of the execution.

Essentially, the Athenians regretted the first round of executions. So what do they do to make it better? More executions!

Many of the accusers fled, so none of the instigators were actually executed. But still, it’s the thought that counts.

The Fall of Jerusalem (Part 1)

by on December 4, 2015

By Ben Potter

It is known as primum populi Romani bellum in Iudaeos to the Romans, ha-Mered Ha-Gadol to the Jews, and The Great Revolt to the romantically inclined. However, this brutal and bloody conflict is best and most easily known to most as the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73AD), and is yet another war on an ever-expanding list that proved Rome was no flash in the pan, boom and bust, Alexander the Great style of empire, but one that was here to conquer, to rule, to dominate and to endure.

Sack of JeruselemDepiction of the Roman Triumph celebrating the Sack of Jerusalem

However, there was something different about this conflict—something that made Rome, for a while at least, look like she may have bitten off more than she could chew; this was no ordinary war, this was a holy war… well, for some at least.

Of course, Rome had come up against plenty of dedicated and devout people during her inexorable conquest of the known world, but these had all been broadly pagan, polytheistic or invested in the veneration of a living mortal. Militant monotheists with a mandate from the Almighty to protect a land that was not merely their home, but a sacrosanct and sanctified space, were a new kettle of fish – and history bludgeoningly tells us, again and again, that people who are willing to fight for a cause greater than themselves are not those that one would wish to meet on the battlefield.

However, like a mohel at a baby-shower, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Yes, THAT King Herod

The complicated origins of this titanic tussle for the Jewish (and burgeoningly Christian) holy land date back a couple of generations prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 66AD. Indeed, the source of this tension can be traced back to a controversial figure who, at the time, was perhaps the most important man in the history of Judea, one whose acts and deeds have often been crassly misinterpreted or blurred into a peculiar religious mythology. We are, of course, talking about the King of the Jews himself… Herod the Great.

Herod The Great

We remember Herod (ruled Judea 37-04 BC) from Sunday school as the infanticidal antagonist of the Nativity story. While there is no reliable evidence for this cull of the innocents, it does fit in rather neatly with what we know about the character of this mega-lo-maniacal client-king of the Romans.

To consolidate his own power, Herod ruthlessly murdered rival claimants to the throne (including family members); a smart idea to keep oneself in power, but not so shrewd when it comes to the long-term stability of a dynasty. This

“…and history bludgeoningly tells us, again and again, that people who are willing to fight for a cause greater than themselves are not those that one would wish to meet on the battlefield.”

bloodthirstiness, as well as his toleration and support for non-Jews, his perceived bias for the Jewish diaspora, high taxes, and the fact that he was a convert, not a born Jew, meant that the Jewish population of Judea began to strongly resent Herod and, at the time of his death, needed little encouragement to turn their discontent into open rebellion.

This manifested itself in the form of an uprising led by the (capital ‘z’) Zealot, Judas of Galilee, in 6AD. This was in direct response to another bible class staple, the Census of Quirinius – itself a result of the fact that Rome had assimilated Judea into its empire in the same year, ending the small amount of autonomy it had as a vassal.

As the decades progressed, it became clear that the fragility of the empire’s newfound multiculturalism was in danger of being exposed. This was true across the Eastern Mediterranean as several provinces, particularly Egypt, struggled with the conflicting realities of being under Roman law, enjoying Greek culture and juggling elements of the pagan and Jewish faiths as well as the quasi-divine worship of the emperor.

That religious sensitivities could easily boil over into open violence was recognised even by the mad, bad, and dangerous Emperor Caligula (ruled 37-41AD) who, unhappy he wasn’t receiving due veneration from his Hebrew subjects, wanted to erect a huge statue of himself inside the Temple of Jerusalem, but was finally convinced to shelve this particular piece of blasphemous and incendiary narcissism.

Various small riots and scuffles marked the decades preceding the conflict, to find out what finally set the tinder-box ablaze, we have to turn to the pages of Josephus.

The Spark For War…

Josephus, a Jewish solider turned scribe, is one of our best sources for goings on in the region


in the first century AD and, as such, is a key figure in corroborating the life and crucifixion of Jesus (as well as the stoning of Jesus’ brother, James). Much like Polybius centuries before, Josephus, though taken prisoner by the Romans, quickly showed the worth of his intellect and connections and was soon granted his freedom and used by the Romans as a tactical ally and go-between during the war.

That he was taken prisoner at all is either a stroke of fate or a mark of the scholar’s cunning as, being trapped in a cave with forty of his comrades, they opted to assist each other in suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. They did this by stabbing every third man in a circle – some scholars suggest that Josephus may have made a swift and brilliant mental calculation in order to avoid his own death.

Now, back to the aforementioned spark. Josephus tells us that it started when some Greeks deliberately antagonized Jews by making sacrifices outside a synagogue, thus shrouding it in ritual pollution. The historian states that, although there were Jewish factions baying for blood,

the citizens of Jerusalem, although they took this matter very ill, yet did they restrain their passion; but Florus (the Roman procurator of Judea)… blew up the war into a flame and sent some to take seventeen talents (from the Temple’s treasury)


The unrest escalated with the Jews feeling increasingly unhappy about their tax burden as well as their duty to make prayers and sacrifices to the Emperor. Therefore it couldn’t have come as a surprise that some Roman citizens were assaulted and Florus was openly disrespected. Though some reaction would have been expected, the procurator’s drastic response was a shock to many:

Florus ventured to do what no one had done before, that is, to have men of the equestrian order whipped and nailed to the cross before his tribunal; who, although they were by birth Jews, yet were they of Roman dignity


However, this extremist barbarity only galvanised the Jews, who had, until then, been deeply divided as to how to deal with the Romans. First Jerusalem, then wider Judea as a whole, broke out in open revolt against their occupiers and oppressors.

The war had begun.

The Arc of Deucalion

by on November 27, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

Name this man: when warned that the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed by an enormous flood, he—the only pious man worth saving—and his wife built an ark, in which they both survived the flood. After the waters receded, and once the ark had come aground on the top of a mountain, he and his wife gave thanks for their salvation and proceeded to repopulate the earth.

If you guessed the biblical Noah, then you’re only half wrong. The description above could in fact be perceived as a rough sketch of Noah’s story, found in the first book of the Bible, but in this case I’m not talking about Noah—I’m talking about Deucalion.

the floodDeucalion was surviving divine floods before it was cool

Let’s backtrack a little. Creation myths are, as the name suggests, largely symbolic stories that narrate the creation of the world and the human species. Almost every culture has its own version of an ancient creation myth (some taken more seriously than others). Ancient Greek culture in particular has several creation myths with which we are relatively familiar, thanks to middle-school “Social Studies” lessons about the Greek pantheon (not to mention popular culture, and/or newsletters like this one!).

Deucalion has a major role to play in the creation myths of Ancient Greece, but before we can talk about his contribution, we need to briefly take a look at his father, the much more famous Prometheus.

The Benefactor of Mankind

Prometheus is known in the myths (many of which are preserved in texts such as Hesiod’s Theogeny and Ovid’s Metamorphoses) as the creator of mankind. Though the details vary across sources, it is generally agreed upon that Prometheus, though he was a Titan, was not punished by the Olympian gods (Zeus, etc.) after they seized

If you guessed the biblical Noah, then you’re only half wrong….

power because he (and his brother, Epimetheus) had chosen not to fight in the war between the Titans and Olympians.

Zeus then gave the two brothers the task of populating the Earth. Epimetheus created the animals, happily (and somewhat recklessly) endowing them with gifts like swiftness, hard shells, claws, and more—in fact, by the time Prometheus had finished forming man out of clay, there were no gifts left to give him. Seeing that this was the case, Prometheus decided to fashion man in the image of the gods—he gave man the ability to walk upright, so that he could keep his gaze on the heavens, he gave man the gift of reason, and (this is, of course, the gift for which Prometheus is most famous) gave man the gift of fire, without which mankind could never have survived.

the flood
Prometheus giving the gift of fire

Some sources say that Zeus had already taken fire away from mankind, and that Prometheus stole it back, or that Zeus had never wanted humans to have fire in the first place—either way, Prometheus defied him, and was horrifically punished: he was chained to a rock, where he would be defenseless against the eagle that slowly picked out and ate his liver over the course of the day. At night, his liver would grow back, and in the morning the whole grisly process would start again.

So, thanks to the valiant Prometheus, man was made out of clay and, with the gift of fire, was able to grow and flourish and form civilization—but, so the legend goes, mankind also began to quickly fall into a state of utter depravity. Zeus (never a fan of humankind to begin with) was appalled by their behavior, and by the time Lycaon, the king of Arcadia (in an effort to test whether Zeus was really omniscient) killed his own young son and served the boy’s cooked flesh to the god at a banquet, Zeus’ patience had already worn thin. Enraged by Lycaon’s degenerate actions, Zeus made the decision to destroy all of mankind.

After all, why bother throwing out the bad apples when you can just as easily burn the whole orchard?!

I Never Liked Those Human Anyway…

According to Ovid, Zeus almost destroyed humankind by barraging the Earth with lightning bolts, but stopped when he realized that the resulting fire would probably destroy all of creation. Instead, he chose a punishment that would wipe out the humans, without causing much permanent damage to the earth itself: a flood.
He and Poseidon worked together to create a sudden and massively destructive flood, with Zeus controlling the storm clouds and Poseidon commanding the rivers and oceans to overflow. The entire ordeal lasted about nine days, and by the time the waters receded, all of mankind had drowned.

All, that is, except one married couple: Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha. Some sources say that, because of Deucalion’s piety and loyalty to the gods, he was warned (either by his father or by one of the Olympian gods) about the flood, and told to build a sturdy ark. Other sources (like the Metamorphoses) imply that Deucalion and his wife simply got lucky, managed to find a boat, and were allowed to live because they humbly gave thanks to the gods for their survival.

Their little boat ran aground on the only dry spot on earth: the very top of Mount Parnassus (though the mountain differs from source to source). As the waters receded and the elderly couple abandoned the boat, they were suddenly faced with the daunting realization that it would be their job to repopulate the earth.

Understandably terrified by this prospect, they decided to ask the “goddess of prophecy,” Themis, for advice. They travelled to the site of her oracle and prayed for guidance. Moved by their piety, Themis gave them this divine message:

Leave this sanctuary, cover your heads and ungirdle your garments, then cast the bones of your mighty mother behind your backs. (Ovid, 1.382-383).


After a few moments of confusion (in which Deucalion and Pyrrha were rather shocked at the unholy prospect of disrespecting their mothers’ bones), they realized that Themis meant their common mother, Mother Earth. Deucalion reasoned that the bones of Mother Earth must be the stones on the ground, and so they followed the divine advice and threw stones over their shoulders. All the stones thrown by Deucalion transformed into men, and all the stones thrown by Pyrrha transformed into women; and so, says Ovid,

…our race is a hard one; we work by the sweat of our brow, and bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin (1. 414-415).


In this way, Deucalion and Pyrrah were able to repopulate the earth—and, even in their old age, they were also blessed with their own children, many of which came to be regarded as extremely important in the creation myths of Greece. In fact, one of their children, a boy named Hellen, is considered the mythical ancestor of the entire Greek race, and is the origin of the demonym, “Hellenes,” by which the Greek people are still known.

The Appeal of The Odyssey

by on November 16, 2015

By Ben Potter

Even those of you who have only recently taken an interest in the classical world will have a pretty decent idea about what to expect when picking up a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, his blockbuster sequel to the Trojan War epic, the Iliad.


This familiar tale of the eponymous Odysseus taking ten long years to traverse the breadth of Greece, from the ruins of Troy to his home on Ithaca (having already spent ten years fighting the war itself), can be roughly divided into four distinct sections:

Books I-IV deal with the adventures of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

Books V-VIII show Odysseus being released from the clutches of the nymph Calypso, to whom our hero has been a sex-slave for seven years. He then travels to Scheria, home of the noble Phaeacians.

Books IX-XII contain stories told by Odysseus to the Phaeacian king and queen about why it has taken him so long to get home. Here are recounted the most famous stories of Odysseus e.g. Circe turning his men to pigs, the descent into the underworld, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis.

Books XIII-XXIV show Odysseus back on Ithaca going about his heroic business of vanquishing a group of Suitors – uncouth local nobles who have taken up at his court, who are attempting to kill his son and marry his wife, Penelope (and with her take the throne of Ithaca).

So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring? Why does it unquestioningly rank as one of the greatest of all great works and retain a special place in the heart of academics and laymen alike?

Well, there’re plenty of obvious reasons – the very most obvious of which is that it is, of course, a very high quality piece of literature. That aside, there’s also the hugely important historical and cultural significance of the

So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring?

piece. Perhaps no other secular (i.e. non-holy) work has had a greater impact on the world than that of Homer.

Not only do the Homeric texts underpin so much of ancient Greek culture, but they, by proxy, have a similar such influence on Roman, European, and (if somewhat obliquely) New World cultures.

On top of this, the Odyssey can boast a great richness of language and would have been rhythmically (i.e. poetically) pleasing – even if this last aspect is somewhat lost on us today.

So, there’s plenty to shout about in terms of style and significance, but what about substance? What details of plot and character have managed to excite and amaze for the better part of three millennia?

Odysseus and the Cyclops

There are, of course, plenty of (what we would now call) dramatic staples, certainly enough to write a pulse-quickening blurb on the back of the dust-jacket: a sea-tossed hero, a family in danger, seductive femme-fatales, constant peril, fights, races, monsters, romance, sex, blood, noble peasants, evil aristocrats, a flawed hero, a long suffering wife, capricious gods… you can almost picture the cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul tripping over himself in a rush to buy the exclusive rights (despite complaining: “but the name’s no darn good. Odysseus!? Let’s call him… Buster MacNally”).

All this is well and good and certainly lends human interest and spectacular grandeur to the work, but one of the most intriguing things about the epic, one of the things that make its analysis and rereading so rewarding, is much more psychological and cerebral. In the words of eminent Homeric scholar P.V. Jones: “the rich interaction of past and present is one of the great glories of the Odyssey”.

Odysseus in the Underworld

Obviously, being a sequel, the Odyssey harks back to the Iliad and the entire mythology (more like a heroic history to the Greeks) surrounding the Trojan War. In particular, Book XI – the Nekyia (the book of the dead) – gives us a chance to indulge in a veritable smorgasbord of Trojan War heroes who spellbind the audience with their ghoulish cameos.

This retrospective, however, may not tickle everyone’s fancy; indeed it may only pique the interest of Iliad lovers or Greek mythology nerds. Moreover, the fact that Homer’s depictions have become canonised means that the revelations from the lips of the deceased, though of interest, do not create the same wide-eyed wonder in a modern audience as they would have done in antiquity.

However, this orgy of nostalgia may only have been part of what Jones was referring to. A much more interesting notion (and here we pick up on the cerebral and psychological aspect) is that books IX-XII are a complete fantasy.

The Plot Twist of The Odyssey

These four books contain the tales told by Odysseus to his regal hosts on the island of Scheria/Phaeacia. However, unlike the other stories in the epic which are told to us by the poet, these tales are directly narrated by Odysseus himself; what is more, all of the characters who shared in these adventures with him (i.e. his crew) have died. Thus, so the theory goes, the Odyssey isn’t merely one of the earliest examples of folklore and epic poetry we have, but may also have given birth to a ‘Kaiser Soze’ style plot-twist.

This idea is given credence as more than merely a literary conspiracy-theory by the nature of the main character, a nature that is defined by the epithets Homer gives him: ‘master of stratagems’, ‘cunning’ and ‘nimble-witted’. Let’s not forget that Odysseus was the man to come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse in the first place; duplicity and lies are part of his make-up… and a noble and heroic part at that.

OdysseusOdysseus and the Sirens

Okay, so maybe we’re happy to accept that our hero could do this, but why would he? Well, the two popular theories are as follows: the first is that he is doing it to enhance his kleos, the ultimate goal for every Homeric hero. Kleos is often loosely translated as ‘reputation’, but more accurately means ‘what people hear about you’. The key point is that it is not necessary for the things heard to be true, only that they are recounted through the ages. Thus, Odysseus has ten unaccounted-for years to fill up with fantastical stories that glorify his name.

N.B. An interesting, if slightly paradoxical, point is that it would not really matter if it became known that Odysseus had lied about his journey between Tory and Scheria, provided that he had managed to trick people into believing what he’d said was true. Either the actions themselves (i.e. defeating the Cyclops, etc.) or the brilliant lies about them are enough to elevate him to legendary hero status.

The other explanation is that the twenty years of war and storm-tossed seas (and whatever else he got up to if the stories he tells King Alcinous were falsified) have left our protagonist with a psychology that’s either inherently mistrustful, or perversely deranged. In other words, either he’s gotten so used to lying to protect himself that doing so has become an instinct, or maybe even a compulsion, or alternately he is suffering from some sort of trauma – perhaps PTSD – and fantastical deceit is one of its manifestations.

N.B. Obviously there was no such label as PTSD in ancient Greece, but, given Homer’s knowledge of war, we can assume he was either a fighter himself, or was in contact with soldiers. Thus, he would have observed the psychological effects of war, even if they had been dismissed as something more basic e.g. mischief from the gods or cowardice.

OdysseusOdysseus fights Penelope’s suitors

This idea of compulsive behavior has its best evidence at the end of the epic after Odysseus has been re-established as king of Ithaca and his identity is commonly known. Known to all, that is, except his ancient father, Laertes, who is pining for his lost, possibly dead, son. Instead of revealing his identity and embracing Laertes, Odysseus claims to be called Eperitos, son of Apheidas, from Alybas. He only actually reveals who he is after his elderly father has some sort of panic attack.

If our hero cannot bring himself to be honest with his own frail father and feels the need to instantly concoct a rather pointless and hurtful falsehood, then surely we must question the authority of everything he says that Homer, as narrator, doesn’t corroborate?

Interestingly, if we do dismiss what Odysseus says to the Phaeacians as a pack of lies, then there is nothing overtly supernatural or otherworldly in the epic. Though gods do appear, speak and act in the present (as opposed to the past) passages of the book, their actions are only an extrapolation or interpretation of physically accountable things i.e. giving somebody strength, making someone more beautiful, planting an idea in someone’s head etc.

So did Homer want us to ask questions about the mental capacity or moral fibre of his hero? Well… possibly, possibly not. However, it does seem likely that the rich texture of the work and psychology of the characters is not something that happened by accident, but was devised by an author who was either instinctively in tune with the nuances of human nature, or the world’s first student of psychology!

It is up to us to put our faith in whatever Odysseus we prefer. If we decide to believe in the one who fabricated all of the weirdest and most wondrous tales from perhaps the most famous story ever told, then we can. If we prefer to take him on face value, then our hero is simply extraordinarily strong, courageous and intelligent. Indeed, he is these three things whichever view we take. However, if we take the former, more psychological, view—then a new and intriguing question comes to the fore, one that could barely be answered in all the pages of all the Odysseys that have ever been published: what exactly was Odysseus up to for those ten, lost years?

Conspiracy theories on a postcard to the usual address!