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The Emperor, The Usurper, and The Stuck Eagle

by on February 25, 2015

By Francesca Leaf, Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly Partner

If we were to visit Rome in late January of 41 CE we would find it in a liminal phase. Caligula, after proving himself a strong candidate for worst-emperor-ever, had been assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. Rome was Heracles statuenow in a unique situation—after nearly a century of Caesars, the Senate could make a bid for power. At first it appeared that this would be the case. Here is Suetonius’ take on the situation:

“The senators were so unanimous in their resolution to assert the liberty of their country, that the consuls assembled them at first not in the usual place of meeting, because it was named after Julius Caesar, but in the Capitol.”

Seems like the Senate wasn’t too fond of the Caesars. So they gathered together and began to debate. Some argued in favor of a monarchy, others a democracy. One thing was clear: none could agree on a suitable candidate for the currently vacant position of leader of Rome. As the arguing continued, the future ruler, Claudius, remained behind the curtains (seriously—he was hiding behind a curtain).

According to the best-known tradition, during the assassination of Caligula, Claudius wisely retired to an apartment. As he was Caligula’s uncle, he feared for his life and thus hid behind the hangings of a door. Despite being a well-educated man, he wasn’t too good at hiding—his feet poked out from the curtain. According to Suetonius, a soldier spotted his protruding feet (if you favor Cassius Dio’s take, it was several soldiers) and yanked him out of hiding. Realizing that it was Claudius, he (or they) hailed him as emperor. Claudius was hesitant to claim the title, but the guards, desiring to protect their very nice jobs, insisted. Claudius eventually relented—after what happened to Caligula, he was probably reluctant to anger them.

The Reluctant Emperor

Needless to say, the Senate was displeased with the Praetorian Guard’s actions. One thing the senators could agree upon was that Claudius just wasn’t the man for the job (as Suetonius wrote, Claudius’ own mother often referred to him as “an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature”). But the soldiers were quite insistent that Claudius be named emperor. And soon enough the Senate realized that they were outnumbered and, seeing that their own soldiers had deserted them, decided that their best option was acquiescence. And this is how the Praetorian Guard appointed the next emperor of Rome.

Claudius painting

Claudius, wiser than most gave him credit for, understood that his claim to power was rather shaky. A man of fifty, he had lived long enough to be aware of the Praetorian Guard’s power. He was also intuitive enough to know that, despite appearances, he didn’t have the Senate’s support. They had conspired to kill one emperor. Why not two? Claudius’ first course of action was to curry favor with both parties. In regards to the Senate, he granted amnesty to those who were suspected to be complicate in the assassination of Caligula. He returned confiscated property, released prisoners, and recalled exiles. Next, he bought the loyalty of the Guard with a large donative. Claudius went the extra mile in making this relationship “official”—he minted coins displaying himself clasping hands with a soldier holding a military standard.

One could argue that Claudius’ rise to power exposed the reality of politics in post-Augustan Rome. An individual’s claim to power rested on the whims of his soldiers. Claudius’ ascension marked the first time this became painfully visible, and throughout his reign he went to great lengths to maintain the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard.

Paranoia Ensues

In spite of his attempts to conciliate the Senate and buy the loyalty of the Guard, Claudius’ worldview was dominated by fear and distrust. And so he made a preemptive strike: he ordered the death of men who were qualified to replace him (or, if we’re going with Cassius Dio’s account, Claudius’ wife, Messalina, was behind this).

ClaudiusRome’s elite became nervous. Among the anxious was Annius Vinicianus. Vinicianus had been a key coordinator in Caligula’s assassination and had been opposed to Claudius taking the throne. Naturally, he was concerned that he was next on Claudius’ (or Messalina’s) list. Although he was well-connected, he lacked military power. But he knew someone who had it—the governor of Dalmatia, Lucius Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus.

Scribonianus had the makings of a leader: an impressive family tree and political connections. Tradition has it that his father had once been held in high-esteem by Tiberius (also a candidate for worst-emperor-ever). Plus, he was in command of not one but two legions and auxiliary forces—that’s around 20,000 heavily armed soldiers. Scribonianus, dissatisfied with Claudius, believed that it was time to restore the Republic. He announced his plan. It proved popular—senators and equestrians flocked to his cause.

Scribonianus, endowed with political and military support, probably felt that he couldn’t fail. Believing that Claudius was a coward, he sent him a letter and instructed his troops to prepare to march. Scribonianus’ letter wasn’t too polite. Suetonius describes it as being “a scurrilous, petulant, and threatening letter, desiring him to resign the government, and betake himself to a life of privacy.”

When Claudius received the letter, he was indeed intimidated. However, Scribonianus had underestimated Claudius (or at least an ensconced emperor). Claudius did not “betake himself to a life of privacy.” So, the letter was a failure. But, he still had his legions and auxiliary forces, right? Well, things just didn’t work out for Scribonianus. Here’s what Suetonius has to say:

“Furius Camillus Scribonianus, his lieutenant in Dalmatia, broke into rebellion, but was reduced in the space of five days; the legions which he had seduced from their oath of fidelity relinquishing their purpose, upon an alarm occasioned by ill omens. For when orders were given them to march, to meet their new emperor, the eagles could not be decorated, nor the standards pulled out of the ground, whether it was by accident, or a divine interposition.”

Historically, Roman soldiers viewed their military standards (a pike topped with an eagle) as being imbued with sacred power. While camped, they were even kept in shrines. At the beginning of a campaign, the soldiers would pull the eagles from the ground and carry them with them as they marched. Unfortunately for Scribonianus, the soldiers were unable to unearth the eagles. To the soldiers, this was a bad omen and could only mean one thing—the gods wanted them to remain in Dalmatia. Perhaps the eagle was stuck due to sabotage or tough luck or by the will of Jupiter. Or maybe the soldiers just wanted to avoid the strife of war (Dalmatia was a pretty great place to be stationed). Regardless, the legions turned on Scribonianus. Clearly, he had failed to earn or maintain their loyalty.

And here is how our story ends: Scribonianus, the would-be-usurper, fled to the island of Issa where a) he committed suicide or b) was killed (depending on if you prefer Cassius Dio or Pliny the Younger’s take). Claudius ruled until 54 CE when he was murdered by poison (popular belief is that his final wife, Agrippina, was behind this), allowing Nero to take the throne resulting in a third, but not final, candidate for worst-emperor-ever.

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The Battle of Carrhae

by on February 23, 2015

The year was 53 BC. It was the first of the battles between the Roman and Persian empires, and one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.

Bust of Marcus CrassusLeading the Romans was Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was a member of the First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome (in fact one of the richest men of all time). He, like many before him, had been enticed by the prospect of riches and military glory and so decided to invade Parthia, or modern day north-eastern Iran, despite being sixty years old and hearing impaired.

Additionally, Crassus did not feel obliged to have the official consent of the Senate … and so took his army and marched directly through the deserts of Mesopotamia. It was Carrhae, a small town in modern-day Turkey, where his army clashed with the Parthian opposition, led by Surena. This would be where the famous battle of Carrhae would take place.

Read below to learn about the dramatic and tragic moment in history…

We also have an Aesop’s fable on foolish asses, as well as the next chapter in the Jason and the Argonauts’ myth. He finally retrieves the golden fleece, but how and what agreements does he dangerously make in order for it to happen? Find out below…


The Battle of Carrhae

By Cam Rea

What made matters worse during the march was that Crassus was not wearing the purple robe that Roman generals normally wear. Instead, he wore a black robe, as if he was leading a funeral procession. He quickly changed after he realized the mishap, however, black may have been more appropriate. As Crassus pressed on, pushing his men harder, the cavalry scouts that were sent ahead came back in fewer numbers. Surena, the Parthian general, had set up an ambush killing many of these scouts. This was Surena’s calling card – the land the Romans were advancing would be the preferred battleground.

But this action tells us something else… Surena was able to spread disinformation via Ariamnes, governor of the province Cappadocia. It was Ariamnes who previously told the Roman general Crassus that it was best to avoid Seleucia, a city on the west bank of the Tigris River, but instead head straight into Parthia. The Parthians have not fully mobilized, Ariamnes said, take advantage quickly because only an advanced guard waits and has been placed solely to check your movements under the command of Surena.

However, that was not the case. As the Roman scouts ventured further ahead of the main body, they soon found themselves in a trap. Those who made it back reported that the enemy was great in number and full of confidence.

Ariamnes’ lie seemed to have gone unnoticed by Crassus, who was excited, impatient, and was making inconsistent decisions. Crassus was obviously overwhelmed by the situation until Cassius, a Roman senator and coincidentally a leading instigator of the plot to kill Julius Caesar, gave him some advice. Cassius suggested that they should form the men into one, shallow long line and that the cavalry should be divided between the two wings. Cassius’ plan seemed like the right strategy to choose.

Roman Battle Formations

However, Crassus disagreed. He decided that it would be best to form the men into one huge hollow square with 12 cohorts on each side and a cavalry detachment next to each cohort. By choosing the hollow square strategy, Crassus felt that it would ensure equal balance along with equal protection. Cassius would take command of one of the wings and Publius, Crassus’ son, would command the other wing. Crassus, himself, would command from the middle of the square. They moved forward in this formation until they came to the Balissus stream.

The men were hot, hungry, thirsty, weak and weary and looked upon the stream as a blessing. The officers advised Crassus it was best to stay next to the stream, set up camp, and allow the men to rest, while a new scouting party could be formed and sent out to gather intelligence on the Parthian order of battle.

Unfortunately for the men, Crassus could not make a sound decision. He agreed that the men should eat and drink, but standing up and staying in formation. Then Crassus changed his mind – yes, the men can eat and drink, so long as they march. However, that was about to change as Crassus, yet again, gave a new order – moveout.

Many of the men likely ate and drank on the move, but equally many could not, because Crassus forced them at a quick pace to keep up with the cavalry.

As Crassus pushed on, the enemy slowly came into sight. Crassus commanded his army to halt and to their surprised eyes the enemy were, “neither so numerous nor so splendidly armed as they had expected.”

Bust of SurenaHowever, looks can be deceiving. What Crassus and his army saw was the front rank of just 1,000 cavalry who were covered in skins and coats. Surena’s main (read: real) force was hidden behind the front ranks.

While the Romans watched in curiosity, Surena gave the order and a thundering sound proceeded forth from the Parthian cavalry. Many unseen drums covered in stretched animal hide with brass bells roared across the field, vibrating Roman armor as well as their hearts. The use of sound as a psychological weapon before battle manipulated human behavior in both the Romans and Parthians, affecting all senses. In other words, the home team is pumped up while the away team is losing confidence quickly.

Plutarch mentions that, “before the Romans had recovered from their consternation at this din, the enemy suddenly dropped the coverings of their armour.” Essentially once the drums roared no more, the Roman army, already physically weak and now discombobulated by the intense sound, were in for another surprise. The Parthian heavy cavalry, otherwise known as a cataphract, were charging towards them, with Surena leading the way.

And as the cataphract thundered across the plain, their coverings dropped from their armor revealing, “helmets and breastplates blazing like fire, their Margianian steel glittering keen and bright, their horses armored with plates of bronze and steel.”

Map of MargianaInterestingly, the Margianian steel came from a Parthian province known as Margiana, located in what is today the country of Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan. It was in Margiana, rich in metal resources, where the iron ore was mined, and possibly refined, for metal goods, like weapons and armor. Additionally, the Parthian heavy cavalry was armored in bronze plates, most likely refined from the local Margianian tin and copper.

As the awe-inspiring cataphract closed in, the legionaries locked shields to create a continuous wall. Surena quickly noticed that the Roman line was steady and firm… they were not going to budge. Surena promptly broke off the charge, giving the impression that they lacked confidence in engaging the Romans in a full frontal assault.

However, this was just another ruse.

Margianian steelUnseen to the Romans was the 10,000 Parthian horse archers, behind the ‘retreating’ cataphract charge. These archers immediately enveloped the Romans, firing on them from all sides. Crassus was most likely stunned, but he quickly assessed the situation. His forces were bogged down by unarmored petty horse archers, who were vulnerable to missile attack. Crassus ordered his light infantry to engage them.

But as the light infantry left the safety of the hollow square to engage the enemy, they were quickly showered with arrows. Meanwhile the Parthian horse archers galloped away, causing the light infantry to quickly pull back and crash into the Roman lines seeking safety. The sight, speed, and agility of the Parthian horse archers spooked the Romans, but what really terrified the Romans was the Parthians’ primary weapon, the composite bow…

Stay ‘tuned for the continuation of the Battle of Carrhae next week…

[You can now read part two here: ]

The Symposium: All you need is love… and wine

by on February 23, 2015

By Ben Potter

The next time you attend a symposium at your local learning annex, take with you a bottle of wine or a pitcher of cocktails. If security try to turf you out on the grounds that drinking isn’t appropriate for such an occasion, then scoff.

Scoff like you’ve never scoffed before!

To be told drinking isn’t appropriate at a symposium is like being told punching an Englishman isn’t appropriate on the 4th of July.

[Disclaimer: most Englishmen are actually very nice, you shouldn’t punch them. But if you must punch, punch Piers Morgan.]

For the Athenians, a symposium was a ritualised drinking-party, a holy, night-long, god-venerating blow-out. Although food would have been consumed, this would have happened before the serious business of getting very, very drunk got under way.

A symposium would have had all-male guest-lists where men reclined on couches (shared one between two) spaced around the perimeter of a room. This facilitated the free turn-taking not only of speech, but also drink. Indeed, it seems drinking by turn from a bowl, rather than from individual cups, may have been the norm.

The Symposium of Plato, whilst philosophically stimulating, is also the most literarily intriguing of all of his works. Not only this, but it also, “offers us special insight into two central features of social life in Classical Greece: the formal drinking-party and homosexuality” (Christopher Gill).

Plato's Symposium

However, putting aside for one second the ‘homosexual’ nature of The Symposium, it primarily deals with a subject with which we are all well-acquainted, be it through experience or ignorance, love.

Indeed a synopsis of the plot makes it sound like a bad, bawdy joke: an aristocrat, a lawyer, a doctor, a comedian, a dramatist, and a philosopher lie around getting drunk and talking about love. Their party is hijacked by a man who is at once both the city’s most notorious pervert and brilliant military commander.

Each man (Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades respectively) is encouraged to make a speech of praise (encomium) about eros.

This use of real historical figures in a creative setting blurs fact and fiction (Norman Mailer called it ‘faction’). Plato distances himself from any culpability or inaccuracy by having the whole story recounted about 15 years after the party took place and third, forth, or sometimes fifth hand.

The translation of eros is a little shaky, but partly because the ancient definition of it was too. In this context it is considered to be either desire, passionate sexual desire, or the god Eros. Understandably with such subtlety and ambiguity, the translation usually winds up simply as ‘love’.

Phaedrus begins with a speech extolling the benefits of going into battle side-by-side with soldiers for whom you feel love. He cites Achilles knowingly and willingly dying for his love of Patroclus as evidence that this ‘do ask, do tell’ policy will heighten the performance of fighting men.

Incidentally, this passage is used as evidence that the Greeks assumed Achilles and Patroclus had a homosexual relationship.

Here we should briefly stop and address sexuality and homosexuality in Athens. The permeations and details are too many and too subtle to fully do justice here. However, as a rule of thumb we can say (using our modern language) that most men were, by default, bisexual and promiscuous.

There was no shame or stigma attached to the use of prostitutes; indeed upper-class prostitutes (hetairai) were probably the best educated and most sophisticated women in society.

As a consequence, or cause, sexual jealously as we know it, seems a small factor. Though the righteous wrath of the cuckold appears to be timeless.

James Davidson makes the excellent point that in Classical Athens, most evidence indicates a predominantly heterosexual society, wherein sexual activity was largely centred on wives and (female) prostitutes.

The truly ‘homosexual’ aspect is difficult to explain, or at least difficult to correlate to our modern definitions. Loosely speaking, straight/gay is post-Freudian concept and doesn’t quite cut it here.

There certainly isn’t Christian culture’s idea that homosexuality is unacceptable, though in “Ionia and elsewhere in the Persian Empire the rule is that [gay] love-affairs are wrong”(182b).

The presence of long-term, monogamous, adult, homosexual relationships are rare, but documented. Indeed, in The Symposium, Agathon and Pausanias are in this very type of relationship.

The problem encountered by these two (and others) is the idea of money for sex. Two adult, free-citizens having a reciprocal sexual relationship was fine, but when one benefited financially (even from a loan or gift), the result could be a charge of prostitution and therefore loss of citizenship-rights.

This goes to show that, whilst Athens is often thought of as being both the cradle of democracy and (ludicrously) the birthplace of homosexuality, it was actually very difficult to conduct a modern, gay relationship there.

Pausanias, in his speech, talks about common love, which is merely sex (with a woman or a boy) and heavenly love, which honors and respects the other and wishes an exchange of intelligence and wisdom…. And sex.

The arrogant and obnoxious Eryximachus comes across as an absolute crushing bore. He says love is in all things and also believes it is medicinal. The motivation of his speech seems purely for self-aggrandizement and he is immediately mocked by the next speaker, Aristophanes.

Aristophanes symposium

In stark contrast to Eryximachus, Aristophanes tells a fanciful and amusing, mock-creation story of how we used to be fused in two i.e. with 4 legs, 2 faces etc. There were men-men, women-women, and androgynous women-men, but we overstepped our boundaries and were rent in twain by an angry Zeus. Thus, whomever you have sexual desire for indicates to whom you had originally been attached.

This account is one that remained very popular throughout history as, in far from monogamous times, Aristophanes was propounding the virtues of soul-mates.

Agathon gives a poorly argued and disjointed speech. He seems flawed, facile, shallow and simple.

This particular symposium is supposedly in honor of Agathon’s victory at the dramatic festival ‘The Lenaia’. Is Plato‘s representation of him an implication that he doesn’t think much of his dramatic quality?

Clearly, Agathon’s speech is deliberately simple and weak. Thus Socrates has a chance to pick it to pieces, as is typical of most of Plato‘s dialogues.

The ‘Socratic method’ – to us more like modern teaching techniques – is to educate someone through a series of leading questions. The Meno is Plato‘s best example of this where he gets an ignorant slave to solve a mathematical problem simply by asking him leading questions, not actually giving him any information.

Having finished with Agathon, Socrates tells a theory of love he has heard from Diotima of Mantinea.

The speech illustrates the force of eros, but paradoxically without desire.

This may have seemed more contradictory and confusing for the Athenians than it is for us. We bound about the word ‘love’ with extraordinary abandon. To the extent that people talk of ‘loving’ their new car or, even more perversely and disturbingly, ‘loving’ Piers Morgan.

The love that Diotima, through Socrates, is talking about, is one that pursues true wisdom, immortality and the possession of ‘the good’.

The ideas of Pausanias, that of an older lover tutoring a younger, are supported, but without the necessary climax of sexual gratification.

This is from where (and for why) the concept of ‘Platonic love’ was developed. It could just as easily have been called Socratic love, but the distinction between the two voices is extremely murky.

Socrates goes on to talk of how we can see physical beauty, and in turn, we can more easily recognise mental beauty. From here we can begin to search for Beauty in itself.

Plato is coming back to his popular recurring theme of Forms, i.e. that there is a perfect, ethereal Form of everything for which we must be continually searching.

Socrates and Alcibiades

At this point Alcibiades barges in, totally drunk and with a prostitute on his arm.

He complains everyone is too sober, exalts Socrates’ philosophical virtues and attempts to seduce him. Even though Socrates flirts back, he doesn’t give in: “he completely triumphed over my good looks – and despised, scorned and insulted them”(219c).

This, semi-comic interlude (along with that of Aristophanes earlier) shows thatPlato is flexing his literary muscles as much as his philosophical ones. Most of the speeches have, unusually for him, been left without judgement. This leaves the reader with the feeling that he is less confidant in (or less concerned with) his philosophical assertions than in other dialogues.

Socrates lends fuel to this fire when he states that: “anyone who is an expert in writing tragedy must also be an expert in writing comedy”(223d). This is a fine reflection on TheSymposium as the most well-rounded and readable of all Plato‘s dialogues.

The text, fittingly and beautifully, peters out with maudlin undertones, much like a jolly night drinking with friends that winds down as the sun rises. The overload of joy at good company and too much alcohol, combined with the fatigue brought on by being unwilling to end such beautiful, and seemingly essential, discourse.

Read The Symposium yourself for free here:

The Passion of Dido

by on February 23, 2015

By Mary E. Naples


Commissioned by none other than Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus after his decisive victory at Actium over Antony and Cleopatra, Virgil’s Aeneid is a patrilineal tale tracing the pedigree of the Italic people from the mythical, stalwart Trojan heroes. A glory to the Trojans and the Romans alike.

Indeed, both the Trojan Aeneas and the emperor Augustus were leaders who were thought to have ushered in a new “golden age,” a Pax Romana, by waging war to end all wars, and as such, were hailed for their imperial accomplishments.

Forasmuch as the mythical Trojan hero Aeneas may have represented Augustus, most scholars agree that Dido, Queen of Carthage (modern day Tunisia), was modeled on the jezebel and much-admonished Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra.

But who was Dido? And how was her fate implausibly linked to that of the Roman Empire?

Upon discovering that her brother had a hand in the murder of her beloved husband Sychaeus, Dido, the daughter of the King of Tyre (present day Lebanon), fled her home to the coast of North Africa. Upon arriving, she asked the locals for a small bit of land, no more than the size of an ox-hide. Resourcefully, she cut the hide into thin strips marking an area around a hillside as her new domain.

Dido and Aeneas

And thus, Carthage was born. The colony grew quickly and became prosperous. It is at this point in her story that Aeneas enters the scene.

But he doesn’t come alone. Imbuing its will on the mortals of the story, there is a divine force running throughout The Aeneid. Unbeknownst to Dido, the gods are covertly involved both in Aeneas becoming shipwrecked on Carthage and in Dido falling head over heels in love with him.

The latter is due to Aeneas’ mother, Venus—goddess of love, playing a capricious role in the events. Concerned that Dido would be inhospitable to Aeneas when he washed up on her shore, Venus schemes to have Dido fall in love with him. And as the gods ordained,Dido soon becomes infatuated with Aeneas. But even at the mercy of the deities, Didoinitially remains steadfast against acquiescing to his charms due to a sacred vow she had taken on the ashes of her late husband.

It is on account of this equivocation that both Venus and Juno—goddess of marriage, intervene. They contrive a thunderstorm from which the lovers must take refuge in a cavern. Eager to spur the affair along, the goddesses then stage a wedding for the two mortals in the cave. The marriage scene is ambiguous; while Dido considers it legitimate, Aeneas disavows its authenticity.

Aeneas Flight

Inasmuch as the gods were culpable for Dido’s love of Aeneas, they were still hell-bent on keeping Aeneas faithful to his imperial mission. Indeed, Dido’s fate is in direct opposition to Aeneas’ as she ultimately becomes abandoned for his patriarchal duty of founding an empire. In fact, the word pietas(pius; sense of duty) is used frequently in reference to Aeneas.

But while he exhibits pietas in his love for country, the term does not apply to the women in his life.

When Troy was on fire, he carried his father on his back and held the hand of his son but forgot about his wife Creusa, whom he left to die in the burning city.

Likewise with Dido, no sooner is he called away on his mission than he heartlessly leaves her with nothing resembling pietas.

Before embarking on his sovereign adventure, however, Aeneas is Dido’s constant companion, playing an indispensable role in buttressing the fortifications of her beloved Carthage. It is at this point in the story that Jupiter—king of all gods, expresses his impatience at Aeneas for putting off his hegemonic exploits. The lord of the gods dispatches his messenger Mercury to scold the Trojan hero into fulfilling his true destiny. Being admonished at the behest of Jupiter is all Aeneas needs to do an about-face as he subverts the love of Dido for his duty of empire.


In Aeneas, Virgil created a man who is a prototypical Roman male, both in his stoicism and call to duty. For Roman heroes, personal and political choices cannot co-exist; one must be renounced for the other. Aeneas has no problem shirking his responsibility to Dido for what he considers the greater good of mission.

In this way Virgil’s hero is an antithesis of the flesh and blood Antony, who was perceived as squandering an empire on account of the wiles of a woman.

Just as cavalierly as Aeneas took up withDido, he, as coolly, tosses her aside as he plans to set sail for the land which would become known as Italy…. And all the while keeping his mission hidden from her.

Queen through and through, Dido senses the perfidious plot. Upon discovering his treachery she laments: “So you traitor, you really believed you’d keep this a secret, this great outrage?”

Disgraced, humiliated and degraded, Dido is cruelly used by the gods and their golden boy Aeneas. Although her love for Aeneas was fated and beyond her control, she takes full responsibility for it and does the only noble thing a queen can do in her debilitated position: She decides she must end her life.

Dido's Death

In the last quarter of Book IV aptly titled “The Passion of the Queen,” Dido is frenetic. On account of her lover’s hasty retreat, she is overcome with a rage she can neither control nor contain.

After plunging the Dardan sword—a gift to Aeneas, into her chest, she climbs atop a funeral pyre made up of the vestiges from their life together, cursing the “cold Trojan” at the last.

Dido is driven to this state of mania at the mercy of a fate that was divinely ordained for the good of the empire.

As this tragic sequence of events ends Book IV, Book V takes us a world away and the great divide between Virgil’s star-crossed lovers becomes apparent. Aeneas, sailing west on his venerable task, is a man detached and completely removed from the horror ofDido’s untimely passing. In direct opposition to Dido’s calamitous suicidal frenzy, Aeneas is portrayed as being calmly in charge and fully present in mission. In Virgil’s depiction of imperialist agenda, Aeneas’ destiny is acknowledged to be both noble and righteous, regardless of those he leaves in his wake.

Although Virgil’s Dido was fashioned on the much-reviled Cleopatra, she comes across as extremely sympathetic. Ironically for most contemporary readers, the story of Didoovershadows that of Aeneas’ quest for empire.

Traveling to the underworld in Book VI, Aeneas encounters the shade of Dido, who is as stoic to him as he was to her on his abrupt departure from Carthage. The last glimpse ofDido has her returning successfully to her former husband, Sychaeus, the man for whose death she took a vow of chastity.

Finally in The Aeneid, there is a genuine feeling of love between two people with no magic involved. Only in Virgil’s underworld, there is redemption for Dido, as is befitting a queen.

Assyria: Land of Demons

by on February 19, 2015

By Benjamin Welton


There is a story (most likely untrue) that begins with a team of European archaeologists overseeing a dig in northern Iraq. They are somewhere near Mosul, the current stronghold of the Sunni extremist group ISIS in Iraq. They have come to this part of the world in order to excavate relics from the bygone empire of Assyria – a brutal, but effective state composed of warrior kings and their dreaded armies.

For the archaeologists themselves, the importance of Assyria is twofold: first, the Assyrian state ruled for a time the world’s largest and most powerful empire. They reigned by the point of the sword, and tales of their shocking inhumanity on their vanquished foes still have the ability to terrify even the sternest of imaginations.

Secondly, the Assyrians, and the empire they created, were one of the great foes of both the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. As such, Assyrian villains are sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Indeed, the Book of Nahum details the fall of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the most reviled fortress city in the ancient Near East. For the Jews, the early prophecy that Nineveh, the:

“city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder” (Nahum 3:1), would fall must have seemed like a divine gift of salvation.

Besides this biblical prophecy, our European archaeologists would have undoubtedly been aware of the fact that Jesus Christ spoke the Aramaic language, the lingua franca of the Near East. This was a tongue which had been used by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, along with the older Akkadian language, as a tool for imperial unification in the realms of trade and government.

While the European archaeologists rock themselves to sleep with ideas of discovering some proof of the historical Jesus, or maybe uncovering something that had been lost to recorded history for thousands of years, their local workers, most of whom are pious Muslims, pray for the expedition to not find anything. After all, it would not be wise to upset the old gods, which to them represent powerful demons.

But in the morning, underneath the hot, arid sun of old Assyria, the workers stumble upon something large.

After frantically removing the earth, they recognize a face. The face has a long, square beard, braided with three rows of curls. Above his hair is a crown of sorts.

More digging reveals wings.

My God, they’ve uncovered a statue of Lamassu, a protective deity. They have awakened the old gods. They flee in terror.

Or so the story goes…

But you see, the old gods of Mesopotamia are not to be taken lightly. According to the famous British Egyptologist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge’s book Amulets and Superstitions, the:

“literature of the Sumerian and Babylonians…proves that the people who occupied Mesopotamia from about 3000 BC downwards attached very great importance to magic in all its branches, and that they availed themselves of the services of the magician on every possible occasion.”


A large part of this ancient magic involved protection against the many demons who plagued them, from the spirits of the angry dead to the archfiend Lamashtu, the female demon who lived in the mountains and cane brakes and preyed upon pregnant women and children.

Again, Budge was succinct when he stated that from the earliest moments of recorded time, the people of Mesopotamia, “were in perpetual fear of the attacks of hosts of hostile and evil spirits which lost no opportunity of attempting to do them harm.”

In order to understand Assyrian demonology, one must appreciate the peoples who came before, for the Assyrian religion, and even the Assyrian way of war, was inherited (although the Assyrians did add excessive cruelty, so they can be credited with at least one innovation).

It started in Sumer, the first great civilization in Mesopotamia (modern day southern Iraq). They created not only writing, but also a whole pantheon that would serve their successors up until the coming of Alexander the Great. The Sumerian gods included: Enlil, the Lord of the Storm and the heroic head of the pantheon, the air goddess Ninlil, and Inanna, the female god of fertility, war, and wisdom.

The Sumerians built impressive ziggurats, or stepped temples, for the purposes of worshipping these gods. Cities such as Uruk, Nippur, and Eridu (which the Sumerians considered ancient – thus making it arguably the world’s oldest city) served as commercial and religious centers.

There were city-specific deities, but also monsters, such as Tiamat, the primordial chaos demon of the ocean who serves as the primary antagonist in the Babylonian creation myth, The Enûma Eliš.

[Side Note: This text, along with the Neo-Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, were both re-discovered in 1849 by the British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard at the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal was the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.]

Likewise, dark, malevolent gods were present in their cosmology… and none was more vile that Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld, or Irkalla. Along with Nergal, the plague god, Ereshkigal acted as the tyrant of Irkalla and was the chief judge of the dead.

The story of Inanna’s descent into the underworld provides a glimpse into Ereshkigal’s wickedness:

Naked and bowed low, Inanna entered the throne room.
Ereshkigal rose from her throne..
Inanna started toward the throne..
The Annuna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded her..
They passed judgment against her..
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death..
She spoke against her the word of wrath..
She uttered against her the cry of guilt..
She struck her..
Inanna was turned into a corpse,.
A piece of rotting meat,.
And was hung from a hook on the wall… .

Inanna, who is more commonly known by her Akkadian name of Ishtar, manages to defeat the machinations of Ereshkigal and returns to the world of the living. For her pain, Ereshkigal threatens Inanna with a show of her power, to send her army of the dead above ground as a moving pestilence bent upon destruction.

Empire Map

To their enemies, the Assyrian hordes must have seemed like Ereshkigal’s army of the ravenous dead; they were a nation of fearsome warriors. And although their rise was slow and their fall spectacular, the Assyrians left an indelible mark on the regions that they conquered… More than anything else, they spread fear.

Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the early Jews turned the Assyrian gods into demons. Astarte, the Assyrian version of Ishtar, became Astaroth, the Crowned Prince of Hell. Similarly, the Assyrian Bel, who would be called Baal by the Canaanites, would become Beelzebub, the demonic “Lord of the Flies.”

Although these later Judeo-Christian interpretations form the Western world’s view of the Mesopotamian religion as being thoroughly evil, the Assyrians themselves weren’t without their own demons.

(Again, most Assyrian demons were present beforehand, in the mythos of earlier Mesopotamian societies. These include the Sumerian ekimmu, a type of vampiric ghost, or the Akkadian lilu and lili, who were male and female demons that more than likely served as the inspiration behind Lilith in the Old Testament. Demons that were specific to the Assyrians – or at least more often used by them – include Ilu Limnu, the “evil god” who is never given definite characteristics, and the gallu, or bull demon.)

In The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, the Assyriologist Reginald Campbell Thompson details the various “demons, ghouls, vampires, hobgoblins, ghosts” that cursed the regions around the Tigris and Euphrates… as well as the Babylonian and Assyrian incantations that were used against them.

According to Thompson, the Assyrians held a great fear of sorcerers, whom they called the “Raiser of the Departed”.

However, they feared the ekimmu and wind spirits above all else.


The most famous Assyrian wind spirit known widely today is Pazuzu, the son of the god Hanbi and the demon of the southwestern wind. With the body of a lion or dog, a scorpion’s tail, wings, talons, and a serpentine phallus, Pazuzu brought famine and locusts during the dry seasons. In an odd twist, Pazuzu was the rival of Lamashtu (the goddess who preyed on pregnant women and children), and as such, his image was often used to combat other demons.

Of course, Pazuzu’s notoriety is the result of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Although the film is more obvious than the book in depicting the spirit of Pazuzu as a monstrosity haunting young Regan MacNeil (neither, however, directly state that the demon is indeed Pazuzu), the message is still clear. Blatty’s decision to make the chief evil in The Exorcist a pre-Christian, Assyrian demon is in keeping with the Western tradition of seeing all things Mesopotamian as depraved.

Furthermore, by beginning his novel, and thus the film, in northern Iraq, Blatty made the conscious decision to play upon his audience’s preconceived notions…

Namely, that the land of the old Assyrians is indeed a land of demons.

3 Historians Who Changed the World

by on February 13, 2015

By Francesca Leaf

Over the centuries, civilizations have endeavored to preserve a record of their existence for future generations. This effort has taken the form of compiling chronologies, building monuments, and creating art.

The ancient Greeks took it a step further.

They invented an entirely new literary genre, solely dedicated to recounting important events in narrative form for the benefit of posterity—history. Among the ancient Greek historians who created and defined the genre are Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.


“I am bound to tell what I am told, but not in every case to believe it.”—Herodotus, The Histories

Dubbed “The Father of History” by Cicero, Herodotus is arguably the first writer to narrate a series of events of global importance and recount them in relations of cause and effect. In The Histories, Herodotus examines the Greco-Persian Wars, the rise and rule of the Persian Empire, and the history and cultural background of Scythia and Egypt.

Before he was the father of history, Herodotus was a globe trotter. He traveled throughout the Persian Empire, which at the time extended into Egypt. Herodotus was profoundly interested in the people he met; their customs, worldviews, and achievements. He listened to their stories, heard their myths, and collected their narratives.

Herodotus bust

In between trips, Herodotus returned to Athens, where at gatherings, large and small, he recounted his travels. The combination of his novel tales and delightful storytelling made him wildly popular.

Herodotus later wove his stories and knowledge together, creating his masterpiece: The Histories. An engaging read, the series of events is interspersed with interventions from the gods, fables, and small stories often reminiscent of tall tales. To Herodotus, legends and cultural memory held just as a significant place in history as wars and politics.

Overall, Herodotus has opened a window into the values and worldviews of ancient Greece. I think that Reginald Macan put it best, stating:

“There is, indeed, no ancient historian, whether upon his own ground or on general grounds, with whom Herodotus need fear comparison. . . . in the larger view of history, which embraces every experience of humanity [and] treats no aspect of human life as common or unclean . . . Herodotus keeps his rank as the premier historian of antiquity.”


“I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”—Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides bust

Best known for his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides is recognized by many as the father of scientific history. Written at the time of the conflict, Thucydides based this work on eyewitness accounts, interviews, and records.

Unlike Herodotus, however, he generally interpreted significant events as having human, not divine, causes. Thucydides’ concise prose, adherence to chronology, and exploration of timeless themes such as ethics, leadership, and nationalism, has won him admirers across the centuries.

It is believed that the father of scientific history was born in the Athenian suburb of Halimos, c. 460 BCE. During Thucydides’ time, democratic Athens was a prominent sea power, but to the south, one would find the Peloponnese, home to militaristic Sparta and its mighty land force. Thucydides would later argue that fear of Athens’ ever-growing influence motivated Sparta’s attack.

During the war, Thucydides’ defining moment came in 424 BCE when he was blamed for losing the city of Amphipolis to Sparta. Believing he would be condemned to death, he fled to his Thracian estate.

While in exile, Thucydides found himself in a unique situation. He was privy to accounts of the war from both sides.

Later he would write, “It was . . . my fate to be an exile from my country for 20 years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.”

And thus he began to write The History of the Peloponnesian War. In total, he chronicled nearly 30 years of conflict.

While there is no record of Thucydides’ contemporaries admiring his work, over the centuries he became regarded as a great historian. Several copies of his History were made, securing its survival through the ages. His keen analysis of the human condition has influenced notable philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon, and Friedrich Nietzsche.


“There is small risk a general will be regarded with contempt by those he leads, if, whatever he may have to preach, he shows himself best able to perform.”—Xenophon, The Cavalry General

A man of many talents, Xenophon distinguished himself as a soldier, historian, and memoirist. He wrote beautifully on a multitude of topics, his prose earning him the nickname of “Attic Muse.”

Xenophon bust
Xenophon was born during the tumult of the Peloponnesian War, in Erchia—just an hour’s journey from Athens. A member of the equestrian class, Xenophon received a solid education and military training.

Xenophon put his military training to use in 401 BCE when he and his friend volunteered to serve as mercenary soldiers. They believed that they would be lending their skills to a Persian governor whose territory was under threat… but this was not the case. Instead, they found themselves involved in a veritable game of thrones, aiding Cyrus the Younger in an assault on the Persian king, Artaxerxes II.

However, early on Cyrus the Younger was killed and his generals were subsequently executed.

Xenophon and the other soldiers found themselves stranded in hostile territory, haunted by dark thoughts and filled with despair. The situation was dire.

Fortunately for those involved, Xenophon displayed great courage and was elected leader of the 10,000-man army. He successfully led them to safety, enduring nearly ceaseless battle, dwindling supplies, and snowstorms along the way. Xenophon later recorded his harrowing tale in Anabasis, which has inspired countless similar works throughout the centuries.


For ancient Greek historians, writing history entailed both recording events of note and creating works of literary merit. Engaging with their works is an opportunity to learn about the past, gain insight into ancient Greek culture, and read masterful prose… and hopefully not repeat any of their mistakes.

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