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The root of the root of all evil?

by on October 24, 2014

By Ben Potter

When we talk about money in the ancient world, we are talking about coins… or at the very least, metal.

Now, not surprisingly, the Greek philosophers of the day had plenty to say on this topic… but before we recount at what the likes of Aristotle and Plato thought about coinage, let’s take a look at the precious little discs themselves.

Ancient Coins

The ancient Greek drachma enjoyed ten centuries of popular usage from the Archaic period right up until Roman times. As such, it was not only one of the earliest unified and accepted world currencies, it was also one of the world’s longest serving monetary units.

N.B. The modern Greek drachma (1832 – 2001) can only be thought of as the ‘same’ currency by the most romantic of Hellenophiles.

Greek coinage seems to have originated around 600 BC and was originally made of electrum, a naturally occurring gold/silver alloy… though over time silver became the metal of choice.

A drachma was worth six obols which, though later coins themselves, were originally large metal sticks. An average man could carry six of these valuable stakes in one hand, thus giving etymological rise to the drachma (literally, a fistful).

The increasing commercial and political power of the Greek states meant that the coins were in use all over the Mediterranean basin – from Persia to Carthage to Italy. They even reached as far as the western dwelling Celts.

Despite their ubiquity, drachmae were not universally assumed to have the same value, but instead depended on the reputation of the city in which they were minted.

Charon and Psyche

Nonetheless, these handy coins were undoubtedly an essential part of everyday life. Indeed, they were also needed in the hereafter! It was standard practice to place a coin in the mouth of the deceased, thus enabling them to pay the ferryman, Charon, to convey them into Hades.

However, you may be of the opinion that all of this is just nickel-and-dime stuff. Much more important is: what did the great minds of the age have to say about coinage?

Well, the great student/master double-act, Aristotle and Plato, had clear and distinct thoughts about what a currency should be.

Plato’s ideas about money were like many of his on other topics i.e. largely theoretical, rhetorical and meant to generate intelligent discussion rather than provide a binding dogma for the state to follow.

Well that, and rooted in what critics would describe as socialist principles and what supporters would describe as…. well, socialist principles.


Plato spurned the idea of common money having any value and was therefore against using gold or silver coinage. Instead he preferred some officially recognised, accepted, but intrinsically worthless ‘tokens’ – much like the tickets you win at the fairground, but exchangeable for more than merely huge, stuffed Garfields.

That said, he did think that a standardized Greek currency of actual value could be useful for transactions between governments or traveling citizens… but not compatriots within the same city.

As for Aristotle, he often took a capriciously contrary view to his mentor and this instance was no exception. Though it is commonly accepted, with historical hindsight, that he ‘won’ the day with his ideas about money.

He didn’t do much to justify the necessity of it, but took the more practical approach; i.e. he considered its necessity to be self-evident:

“When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use”.

Sometimes even slightly patronisingly so:

“The various necessaries of life are not easily carried about”!

Nonetheless, Aristotle was clear in his distinction between money and wealth:

“How can that be wealth of which a man may have a great abundance and yet perish with hunger, like Midas in the fable, whose insatiable prayer turned everything that was set before him into gold”?


He also considered the key problem therein to be that, whilst a man could have evidently adequate wealth, there seemed to be no limit in the amount of coinage citizens wished to accrue:

“There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another”.

However, Aristotle reserved his true contempt for the money-lenders:

“The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself”.

In addition to all of the above, and unlike Plato, Aristotle was dogmatic about what a currency should be.

He considered that coinage must be:

  1. Durable – it must survive the trials and tribulations of daily life, i.e. of being carried around in people’s pockets, purses, or in the case of obols, in people’s mouths (this was in everyday life, not only for funerals)!
  2. Portable – a small item should be of a high value.
  3. Divisible – breaking a coin, either figuratively or literally, should not affect its relative value.
  4. Fungible – mutually exchangeable i.e. it doesn’t matter which particular coin you have as long as you have one.
  5. Intrinsically valuable – the coin’s material should be a worthwhile commodity.

Whilst largely in concord, it was in the practicalities of this last criterion that Xenophon, a student of Socrates, disagreed with Aristotle.

He considered that the value of silver should be fixed regardless of how much could be procured. Aristotle conceded that it needed to be controlled and not allowed to spiral freely, but must still must be treated as a commodity rather than simply a currency.

Aristotle’s ideas have been used throughout the ages in order to justify or denigrate various economic policies and innovations; from fiat printing to the most recent phenomenon of crypto-currencies.

Fall of Roman Empire

Indeed, ignoring this fifth tenet of Aristotle’s is what some believe helped bring about the hyper-inflation in the latter days of the Roman Empire – a potential source of its inevitable fall.

While poetical sound-bites, like this one from Aristotle’s dramatic predecessor, Sophocles, pleasantly roll off the tongue to make neat, glib maxims:

“Money: There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money”.

…and are well backed up by the homespun idealism of Socrates:

“I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private”.

…Aristotle was far more practical and prescient. Not only did he outline what a currency should be, but also what a society could become given its absence.

From the lofty ideals embedded in his lengthy prose, Aristotle allows us to infer that he would have rejected any ‘the root of all evil’ tub-thumping out of hand. Indeed he would have considered the exact opposite to be true… that money could help elevate man out of the mire and that the true evil was not the coin itself, but its absence.

He most succinctly and sagely put it thus: “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime”.

And it is with such pragmatic principles that his ideas have outlasted even the drachma itself.

God and Philosophy

by on October 23, 2014

I wouldn’t say that I have a lot of free time during the week, I have a white board above my desk that’s filled top to bottom with “to-do’s”, but I did manage to carve out some time this week to sit down in Madison Square park and catch up on some light reading.

XXXMy book of choice was Early Greek Philosophy by Emeritus Professor John Burnet of the University of St. Andrews. A rather thick, dusty hardback, I found this little gem nestled inconspicuously high up on a forgotten shelf in the philosophy section of Strands Bookstore.

I curiously flipped to the second chapter entitled “science and religion” and quickly devoted the next hour of my time to reading about the relationship between early greek philosophy and the religion of the ancient world. Like I said, just some light reading.

The chapter raised some interesting questions.

What is the relationship between ancient philosophy and religion? Are they good buddies that hang out on the weekends to shoot darts and play pool? Or are they temperamental roommates who begrudgingly accept the others existence but never wash the dishes?

Well, if a distinguished professor of ancient philosophy can tackle the subject, then certainly I could do the same, albeit in a much less thorough and distinguished way. Then again, what I lack in prestigious degrees, I make up for in terrible philosophy jokes.

How many existential philosophers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Two- one to bemoan the darkness until the other redefines something else as light.


This article is not so much an examination of theology or the philosophy of religion. Instead, I hope we can take a look back through the centuries of ancient philosophy and see what impact spirituality has had on the development of ancient thought and what type of relationship religion had with the study of philosophy. I think we might find, perhaps to the chagrin of some, that many tenants central to modern religions were argued for over thousands of years ago by the first philosophers of the ancient world.

To do this, I suppose we ought to start with Thales of Miletus and all the other Milesian philosophers. After all, it was Bertrand Russell who told us that “Western philosophy begins with Thales.”

1. The Milesian school and the Arche

Thales and the presocratic thinkers who would XXXlive and study along the Ionian coast of Asia Minor would become collectively known as “the Milesian school”. They were primarily interested in the study of metaphysics.

What is metaphysics? Put plainly, it is the study of the underlying substance of reality. As suggested by its name, metaphysics is the thing we must understand before we can understand physics.

The Milesian philosophers looked around at the world they lived in and asked the profound question- what is all this stuff?

At the heart of their inquiries was the idea that the universe as we know it could be broken down into one primordial substance that acts as the foundation for all of reality. This substance, known as arche, would be the first substance, the common denominator for our universe.

The Milesians put forth numerous possible answers. Thales proposed that the first substance was water and that all things, in some way, come from water.

Anaximander came up with a slightly more abstract solution when he proposed that all of existence sprang from a boundless, unknowable substance which is referred to as apeiron. This name is translated as “the boundless” or sometimes as “the indefinite”.

Anaximenes, another Milesian philosopher, proposed that the primary substance was air and that all of matter came to be from air. He speaks of the soul as being composed of air (the breath of life) and even claimed that the earth floated upon a cloud of air.

Now what is interesting about all of this is that while attempting to uncover this first substance, the philosophers would often attribute divine importance to the arche. It was said that Anaximenes believed that there was a God within the air. Anaximander, likewise, believed that the apeiron was of almost divine importance.

The Milesian’s use of the word “God” was not the same as our modern understanding of the word. At the time, their use for the word was entirely secular and used as a way to contemplate metaphysical considerations.

Still, from the Milesian school we see that there is the idea of some underlying force within the universe. Whether this force is of a divine, spiritual nature is not keenly known.

2. Pythagoras and the circle of rebirth

Fast forward one generation and we see a dramatic shift in philosophy’s perspective of spirituality through the teachings of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans.

Unlike the Milesians, Pythagoras is believed to have traveled many of the Aegean islands as well as the Attica mainland before finally creating his religious sect in modern-day Crotone, Italy.

A central tenant of the Pythagorean philosophy was the idea of a wheel of rebirth where the souls of the departed often come to life once more in the form of animals or even plants. It was said that Pythagoras once heard a dog howl and begged it’s master not to beat it, for within the dogs cry he had heard the voice of a lost friend.

Unlike the Milesians, Pythagoras not only embraced spirituality, he actually demanded it. His followers were required to adhere to a strict set of religious traditions if they wished to remain within the sect. These traditions included abstaining from eating meat as well as abstinence from sex.

3. Xenophanes the monotheist?

Now, while Pythagoras fully embraced spirituality alongside philosophy, Xenophanes, another presocratic philosopher, is best remembered for his critique of religion of the day.

XXXXenophanes argued that humans have an unhealthy tendency to anthropomorphize the holy and the divine. Perhaps prompted by the texts of Homer which describe the gods as very fallible, human-like creatures, the prevailing religion of the day painted the gods as scoundrels who were often victim to human-like desire.

Surely, if there are holy deities, they would not be subject to the whims and shortcomings that humans are, Xenophanes argues.


“But mortals suppose that gods are born,
wear their own clothes and have a voice and body. (frag. 14)

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black;
Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired. (frag. 16)

But if horses or oxen or lions had hands
or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men,
horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen,
and they would make the bodies
of the sort which each of them had. (frag. 15)”-Xenophanes

The conclusion that Xenophanes draws is that God, if indeed there is a God, would be wholly unlike the humans of this world. God would not be fallible, corporeal, or even intelligible. In short, God would be beyond our comprehension.

For his assertions, Xenophanes is often considered to be the first monotheist intellectual of the western world, an idea which was highly controversial at the time.

4. Plato and the eternal soul

If we are going to have a discussion about spirituality and philosophy, we most certainly cannot avoid Plato. Ah, good old Plato.

Plato, you see, melded philosophy with spirituality. So if we were to stick with my metaphor from the opening of this essay, then we would say that philosophy and spirituality are not roommates at all. They are, in fact, the exact same person.

Within The Meno, Plato, through the voice of Socrates, lays out an argument for the existence of an eternal, all-knowing soul that resides within each human body.

It is in his other dialogue, The Phaedo, that Plato argues again that this soul does not die with the body. Instead, it departs from the body and travels to another realm of existence, the world of the forms.

For those of you knowledgeable of Plato, you will know that the world of the forms is a cerebral, perfect realm of existence where the essence of all things reside. It is to the world of the forms that the soul returns to upon death and resides in a state of absolute knowledge and perfection.

Now this may sound familiar. That’s because it is rather similar to the Christian conception of heaven. It is no wonder then that Plato’s philosophy would be later heralded and treasured by the Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

It is important to keep in mind that Plato’s idea of the transmigration of the soul and the world of the forms was not a religious one. To Plato, it was the basis of his metaphysical and epistemological philosophy.

So what have we learned from all this?

While science and religion appear to be very much at odds today, there once was a time when they were considered to overlap. The ancient philosophers went in pursuit of answers and often came up with answers that are strikingly similar to modern-day religious beliefs.

The Milesians believed that there was a unifying substance that connected all of existence. Although sometimes describing this substance as “God”, there pursuits were purely secular.

Pythagoras proposed the idea of reincarnation, of a circle of rebirth. Again, this was more of a metaphysical conclusion rather than a strictly religious one. Additionally, the idea of reincarnation had been established long before in the areas of India at this time.

Xenophanes is often credited as being the first monotheist in the western world, even though Xenophanes would have hardly considered himself a theologian.

And finally, Plato describes to us the transmigration of the soul into a realm of bliss, wisdom, and perfection. This idea was, once again, a philosophical summation, not a religious one.

So I suppose we could consider ancient philosophy and spirituality to be good-natured rivals. They get along in some respects; they disagree at other times. Occasionally they will come to the same conclusion. The manner in which they reach these conclusion, however, is vastly different.

Constantine: Convert or Con-artist?

by on October 17, 2014

By Amy Zahn

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

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

Constantine Bust

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

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

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

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

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

Tetrarchy Map

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

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

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

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

Maximian Bust

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

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

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

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

Constantine Statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle at Milvian Bridge

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

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

Arch of Constantine detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is, he wouldn’t.

Edict of Milan

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

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

Ancient Bickering: The American Founding Fathers and the Classics

by on October 13, 2014

By Spencer Klavan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Assyrian War

by on October 3, 2014

By Cam Rea

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

Assyrian Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assur God

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Iron weapons

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

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

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

Zagros Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

Assryian War

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

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

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

Tiglath-Pilser II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quietest, Coolest, Most Pleasant Place in the World

by on September 25, 2014

By Anya Leonard

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

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

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

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

Aeneas trip

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

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

At least that’s how Virgil describes it…

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

View from the castle

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


The Makings of a Myth…

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

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

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

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

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

Pyrrhus of Epirus

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

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

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

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

View from walls

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

He writes:

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

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