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Thucydides and 2000 Years of Political Realism

by on September 22, 2014

While I tend to enjoy my time reading obscure philosophy texts and various translations of Homeric epics, I simply can’t contain my literary habits to one genre. The ancient classics are like ice cream. I love ice cream, but one can’t live off of frozen desserts alone.

One of my favorite newsletters to get into, when I’m not writing my own, is The Daily Reckoning.
XXXAnything from international affairs to the tenuous state of the global market, they got it all in healthy doses.

The following excerpt is from their September 18th edition, and it got me thinking on a few things:

“And so, Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko bellyached to Congress…

“With just one move,” he told in his scariest voice, “the world has been thrown back in time — to a reality of territrial claims, zones of influence, criminal aggression and annexations,”

One fist was pounding the podium. The other, extended in the hopes of getting military assistance. Apparently, fighting the Russians is trying… even after the U.S. has given $219 million in aid.

“The post-war international system” Poroshenko pleaded, “of checks and balances [is] effectively ruined.” -Peter Coyne (The Daily Reckoning)

That last little bit about how the international system of checks and balances being destroyed got me particularly riled up. Are you saying that the balance of power has been upset upon the international stage? Athens and Sparta will surely be at war!

Isn’t that what you were thinking? No? Well, maybe it should be.

Hostile annexations? Growing foreign powers? Unstable system of checks and balances upon the world stage? Those certainly are all charges that have been laid before us today, especially when considering the uneasy situation in Eastern Ukraine. Then again, it’s not the first time we have heard of such things.

That’s right everybody, we got all the proper ingredients to have ourselves a full-blown Peloponnesian War here. For it was the rising power of Athens, the continued expansion of the Athenian empire, and the subsequent fear it inspired in Sparta, more than anything else that lead to the bloody Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.


For almost three decades, the Athenians and the Spartans would butt heads in one of the most costly and most violent wars of the ancient world. And there all the while, eager to report on the occurrences and the causes of such a fiasco, was Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War.

I know what you are probably thinking. All that happened over two thousand years ago! Surely things have changed since then. And I suppose I would have to agree with you on that point, but I wouldn’t necessarily say things have changed for the better.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein explained this rather simply within their book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… when they write…

“Social and political philosophy examines issues of justice in society. Why do we need government? how should goods be distributed? How can we establish a fair social system? These questions used to be settled by the stronger guy hitting the weaker guy over the head with a bone, but after centuries of social and political philosophy, society has come to the conclusion that missiles are much more effective.”

- Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar)

Now that might get a laugh (try using it at cocktail parties) but the humor is also rather dark. For while we might think we have grown up over the millennia, evolved and become more civilized, the truth is that we are still killing each other for the same reasons that we were killing each other for back in 400 BCE. We’ve just become more efficient about the whole business.

Perhaps to explain this, we ought to take a quick peak at what is known as “political realism”, a school of philosophical thought that Thucydides is sometimes credited with founding (that is to say he was writing on it before Thomas Hobbes or Nicolai Machiavelli ever got the chance to.)

At the heart of political realism is the assumption that humans, deep down, are selfish, fearful, ambitious, and self-interested. This brutish nature of humanity is something of a dirty little secret. However, if we are to understand the causes for war, we must accept people for what they are, not what we would like them to be.

Fear, honor, and advantage are all factors that contribute to “normal human interactions” and by extension, they also contribute to actions between countries.

Political realism takes a rather pessimistic view of world affairs. The world stage is something of an amoral, value-free environment in which each and every country finds itself in constant conflict with every other player on the board.

Lacking some over-arching world government, each state is under constant fear of invasion or betrayal from its neighbor. States react to threats in the same manner that an individual human might react. We look upon weaker neighbors with ambitious thoughts of subjection and gaze at our growing enemies with dread.

“I will first write down an account of the disputes that explain their breaking the Peace, so that no one will ever wonder from what ground so great a war could arise among the Greeks. I believe that the truest reason for the quarrel, though least evident in what was said at the time, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so compelled them into war.” -Thucydides (The History of the Peloponnesian War)

In the case of Thucydides, it was the Athenian empire that grew so rapidly and with such determination, that it would be inevitable that they would one day clash swords with the only remaining super power in the region, Sparta. That is perhaps one of the truest lessons we can learn from Thucydides. Any state growing too powerful, too fast will garner the disdain of its neighbors, and violence is often an inevitable conclusion.

XXXThe world view of political realists like Thucydides casts a rather bleak picture of human nature and the patterns of world affairs. The Greeks were cast into war much the same way the Romans were time and time again as their empire expanded. The American government of the 50’s and 60’s watched the rise of communism and the expansion of the Soviet Union with dread and concern. And again, we were cast into war.

Now, this is all very easy for me to say. Here I am sitting comfortably at my desk, reading philosophy while the tea kettle warms. The ins and outs of any armed conflict can never be explained as easily as this. Even the Peloponnesian war of Thucydides consisted of innumerable variables that lead to the bloody confrontation.

I will never be the first to say that I am intimately informed with the goings-on of the international community. I would perhaps say that I am slightly more informed than the average citizen (most of my friends watch too much reality television), but that does not give me the right to look down and judge an entire region.

I am, however, acquainted with political philosophy, and I am familiar with ancient history. Several months ago Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. This prompted a military engagement and the Ukrainian government is now asking for the support of the United States.

Two thousand years ago, the city of Corinth was annexed by the Athenian empire. What ensued was a military engagement where the Corinthians, you guessed it, turned to their neighbor, Sparta, for aid.

Are they exactly the same? No. Are there some similarities? Oh yes. And that, my friends, I find rather curious.

Thucydides gave us a dark picture of the world. Whether or not it was entirely accurate is a topic of some discussion. However, the same problems between nations do tend to repeat themselves, whether it is in the Mediterranean region in 400 BCE or Eastern Europe, circa 2014. I suppose the bottom line is that when it comes to war, war never changes.

Magna Graecia – or Greater Greece

by on September 19, 2014

by John Mancini

The ebb and flow of empires, societies and cultures… these are the elements that make western culture what it is today. More specifically, the spreading of ideas, agriculture and religion across different, often disparate cultures accounts for the rich diversity that makes up our combined heritage.

This “cultural diffusion”, as it is often called, also usually involves centuries of imperialism and violent upheaval.

For instance, the advance of culture in the Mediterranean, especially from the Middle East, devastated Ancient Greece and ended the Bronze Age there – but the collision between Phoenician traders and Greek citizens also helped lay the foundation for the Classical Period in Greece. This, in turn, spread across the Adriatic into Southern Italy, influencing the Romans and setting the stage for what would later become the Renaissance in Italy.

But let’s start from the beginning… with the Phoenicians.

They came from the Fertile Crescent, or Eastern Mediterranean (today’s Syria and Lebanon). They were a Canaanite culture that spread from 1550-300 B.C., and were unique in their advancements, especially when it came to shipbuilding and governing. In fact, their alphabet provided the basis for all later “phonetic” alphabets.


These merchants and magi were both revered and feared by the Greeks, who referred to them as the “traders in purple” (due to the rare Murex sea-snail that produced the dye they used in their clothing). They were a fierce seafaring people who carted objects from Egypt and Assyria, told tales of distant lands, friendly or hostile natives, and exposed their hosts to rare materials they had never seen before.

The Invasion of the Sea Peoples, as it is sometimes called, had both positive and negative effects on Greek culture. Initially, contact with the more advanced culture of the Phoenician raiders decimated Greek rule, destroyed their cities and plunged them into a Dark Ages for nearly five hundred years.

The Mycenaean Age was abandoned, its palatial cities burned, and its literacy lost. Greece experienced a massive population shift and a decline in arts and craft. But despite their political defeat, much of Hellenic culture persisted.

Greece actually emerged from this tumultuous period a more advanced civilization – in fact, they enjoyed the most rapid advancement of any civilization in history, accelerating their developments in arts, sciences, language and maritime rule. The “cultural diffusion” experienced at the end of the Mycenaean Age actually helped Greece transition from the Archaic to the Classical period, when they emerged as a polycentric seafaring civilization – one with a rich Pan-Hellenic religion that included Egyptian, Semitic, Iranian and Indian influences.

It was then time for the Greeks themselves to extend into other territories…

Magna Graecia

“Magna Graecia” is what the Greeks called their colonies in Southern Italy. Between the 8th and 5th century B.C., Greek rule expanded to include coastal cities from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. “Great Greece” would eventually be comprised of coastal city-states from the Iberian Peninsula all the way to Asia Minor.

As Plato said, “We Greeks sit around the sea like frogs around a pond.”

Meanwhile, the ancient Italians, especially Southern Italians, trailed behind the Greeks in material progress for centuries (much like Greece lagged behind their eastern neighbors). Metallurgy in Italy developed around 1800 B.C. as opposed to 2800 B.C. in Greece, and the Iron Age didn’t begin in Italy until 900 B.C. (about 400 years after it did so in Greece). Sicily, with its lucrative copper and iron mines, became one of the first Greek overseas efforts, which took place in 800 B.C. – thus beginning a campaign of Greek colonization in Southern Italy that lasted about 250 years.


Ancient Greek civilization at the beginning of the Iron Age was eclectic to say the least, and not nearly as uniform as Etruscan civilization. They promoted productive competition among their various city-states, and they were tolerant of many beliefs besides their state sanctioned religion, Hellenism.

Egyptian tribes that developed along the southern coast of Sicily, for instance, were allowed to erect their own temples, and eventually their gods were incorporated into the Greek pantheon as well. (Dionysus, among others, was thought to have come from Egypt.)

But these ancient Greek city-states, which dotted the coasts of Italy, Western Turkey and Greece still corresponded with Phoenician trade routes, and contact with the Persians continued for hundreds of years.

Indeed, it was the Persian invasions in the 5th century B.C. that helped unite Ancient Greece, especially following the decisive Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.

But back in Southern Italy, Greek colonization wasn’t over…


From 500 to 400 B.C. many Greeks, like the famous statesman and general Pericles, were still pressing for an Athenian city to be instituted in Italy. Empedocles, a Greek pre-socratic philosopher, also signed up to be a part of this “new city,” one that was to be founded on the most rational principles of the day.

Although Athens was a strong naval power, there was so much fighting in the Pan-Hellenic colonies at this time that it was impossible for the Greeks to maintain order within their dwindling population. Italians were too busy fighting the Persians, and eventually there just weren’t enough Greeks to populate a distant colony.

Although the new city, Thurii, did eventually gain approval from the Delphic Oracle, it was to be one of the last colonies of Magna Graecia, only lasting about five years before succumbing to neighboring invasions. Thurii’s allegiance with Rome led to the Pyrrhic War from 280-275 B.C.


Greece suffered a lot during this period, including not only attacks from Persia, but also Italy as well as Carthage – most notably the second Punic War, during which Hannibal demolished the Greek colonies.

Meanwhile, Rome, which had become a new power by 300 B.C., was busy forging alliances among the coastal city-states of Magna Graecia. The old independent Greek colonies along the coast of Southern Italy soon lost their independence and became supporters of the Pax Romana. Once Central Italy and Carthage had formally established themselves, it pretty much spelled the end of Greek maritime rule, and Greece lost hold of their Italian colonies. They were too busy defending themselves from being cleaned out by invaders on all sides.

The Romans finally conquered Greece in 146 B.C. at the Battle of Corinth.


Although the independent Greek spirit was officially subdued in Southern Italy, it had forever transformed the country. The cultivation of the vine and olives, which the first Greek settlers had brought with them, survived – along with many of their gods, such as Apollo and Heracles, who soon became Italian characters.

In the Middle Ages, Constantinople took control Eastern Italy, and there was a sharp divide among Italians. Western non-Greek Italy, for instance, did not share the language of eastern Italians, and remained separated.

But in the 14th century, the poet Boccaccio would be the first among Italian humanists to acquire what remained of Greek culture – even before the Byzantines began to reintroduce classical ideas from east of the Adriatic.

These findings provided the seeds of one of the most important cultural movements in Western civilization. Boccaccio’s discoveries also coincided with the end of the Dark Ages, when royal power was finally replaced with secular societies, and the Greek spirit officially returned to Rome in the “re-birth” of classical culture that we know as the Renaissance.​

Magna Grecia, in a way, lived on in her successors, much to our everlasting benefit.

Living Stress-Free And Stoically

by on September 15, 2014

Feeling stressed? Well, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Last year the American Psychological Association conducted a survey of levels of self-reported stress amongst adults in the United States. The results were, unsurprisingly, not so great.

XXXSeventy eight percent of adults surveyed reported that their levels of stress have either increased or remained about the same over the past five years. Sixty one percent of adults say that managing stress is very important, however only 35 percent say they are doing a good job of managing stress. The top reasons people feel stressed were concerns over money, work, and the economy.

If you are looking for advice on the economy, money, bulls, bears, and the global market, then you came to the wrong place. You really ought to go talk to our friends over at The Diary of a Rogue Economist for that sort of thing.
Our business is classical literature and finding ways to live better through an understanding of ancient wisdom.

Let’s move on. Shall we?

Okay, okay, so people are stressed, what’s a philosopher to do? Drink another Red Bull and just power through? Well, you could do that, but let’s find a method that won’t cause inevitable heart failure.

Stoicism! Now that’s the ticket.

What is Stoicism? How did it come about? What are the ins and outs of this complex philosophy? Where did I put my cup of coffee? These are the types of questions that I often ask myself whenever I sit down to write on a topic of philosophy.

And while we could spend hours and hours going over the specifics of Stoicism, I think too much information at once can often lead to an undue amount of stress. That would, obviously, defeat the purpose of our whole investigation.

So let’s settle for an abridged definition of Stoicism and then we will go right into a few stoic lessons that you can apply to your every day life to become just a little less anxious.

What Is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a brand of philosophy that focuses almost exclusively on the areas of ethics, virtues, and the very difficult task of living a good life. Stoicism as a way of life would originate in Greece, as most philosophy does, in the later years of the Hellenistic age and would gain momentum right up to the height of the Roman Empire.

The founder was Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher who began his lecturing days not long after the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE. While Zeno was the founder of the Stoicism, he is often eclipsed by some of the more prolific stoic authors of the Roman empire. Among these are Epictetus, Seneca the younger, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism taught, above all else, that we ought to live according to nature. They believed that there was a great design to the universe and that nature was the highest form of perfection. Nothing inconsequential happens within the world, everything is, in one way or another, part of some perfectly constructed plan.

Additionally, living according to nature means that we ought to live according to our human nature. What is our human nature? Well, it is our ability to think rationally and our need to pursue wisdom and understanding. We will be supremely happy when we are living according to our human nature. All other things we might find, wealth and money for instance, will never truly make us live a good life.

Sound good so far? Of course it does. So if you want to live stress free and stoically, you might want to follow these simple rules.

Rule #1 Recognize that which you have control over

Do you want to know who is very good at living a stoic life? Recovering alcoholics have this down pat. If you have ever spent time around recovering alcoholics or, like me, ever worked in a facility for addiction treatment, then you have probably heard the following phrase:

God grand me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

What is interesting about that expression, is that it almost perfectly summarizes our first rule of living a stress free, stoic life. The first thing we have to do is recognize what we have control over and what we do not.

Let’s say you are stuck in traffic, the cars are stacked one on top of the other for miles. Now, you could very easily become disheartened by such a situation. Perhaps the stress could get to you and you could start tearing out your hair. But now let’s ask another question.

XXXDo you really have any control over the traffic?

Of course you do not. There is nothing in your power that you can do. You cannot split the traffic as if you were Moses splitting the Red Sea. You cannot fly out your window and escape I 95. We must recognize that the situation is out of our hands, there is nothing to be done.

We can apply this principle to all sorts of things. Whenever you are in a stressful situation, we must ask if we have any meaningful control. The answer, very often, is no.

We, as individuals, can no more meaningfully effect the economy or world affairs any more than we can effect the rotation of the earth. Believe me, I have friends who are brokers in New York City. They tell me the same thing.

The stoic philosopher, Epictetus said as much as this within his Discourses. The philosopher suggests that much of our anxiety stems from our desire to have things that are not within our power to give.

“A lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power.” -Epictetus (Discourses)

So we are often wracked by anxiety when encountering situations whose outcome we cannot control. Will we ever escape the gridlock heading north out of Miami? Will the lute player receive an applause after playing the lute?

We don’t know. More importantly, we can’t know. All we can do is manage our reactions and maintain our stoic demeanor. Oh, and we could just try to play the lute as best we can. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen.


Rule #2 Recognize real problems from imaginary problems.

Taking another tip from Epictetus, we know that…

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems” -Epictetus

“But what if…” is a rather popular statement for the more anxious among us. “But what if…” give us an excuse to worry over problems that have not arisen yet. It gives us an excuse to stress.

When we consider problems that are very real, that are happening here and now, what do we really have? Perhaps there are actual concerns, but more often than not they are simply concerns of what MIGHT happen rather than what IS happening.

Recovering alcoholics, once again, learn this lesson one way or the other. What is truly a problem for us right now? We might be homeless tomorrow, but we aren’t today. We might not have a penny to our name next week, but for now we are doing alright. All we really have is right now, and right now we are doing okay.

A man in recovery once told me…

I realized eventually that I was just creating problems to get drunk off of. I don’t know where my children are. That will be a problem one day, but it isn’t right now. Even if I could find my children, I wouldn’t know what to say. I would run.

I don’t have any money. But that isn’t a problem right now because I have a roof over my head, a meal on my plate, and I can always get cigarettes. I might be lost and alone tomorrow, but I’m not today.”

So if you want to live stoically, and apparently you do, then you really ought to consider which of your problems are real and which are inventions of an overly anxious mind.


Rule #3 Learn what you can live without

What do you really need? Have you ever thought about that? Insofar as you are a human being, what do you need? Are you more successful as a rational individual if you have a flat screen television? Are you more noble or glorious as a person if there is a Mercedes Benz in your drive way?

In the course of Discourses, Epictetus comments on how he finds it strange that we continue to attach ourselves to more and more things, even when these things very often bring us misery.

“But now when it is in our power to look after one thing [our minds/ rational soul], and to attach ourselves to it, we prefer to look after many things, and to be bound to many things, to the body and to property, and to brother and to friend, and to child and to slave. Since, then, we are bound to many things, we are depressed by them and dragged down.” -Epictetus

Living stoically is not easy. It asks us to surrender many of our desires; chief among these are our desires for luxury and wealth. While we may want these things, our desire for them very often lead to disappointment and sadness. We continuously look toward what we want and refuse to recognize that which we already have.

A philosophy professor explained this idea to me in the following way…

“If you are the type of person who just won’t be happy until you are a millionaire and spend every night partying at Playboy mansion, then you are bound to be disappointed. The Stoics would tell you to wake up! Recognize the good things you already have and set some reasonable goals for yourself.”

Put more succinctly by Marcus Aurelius…

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” -Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)


Rule #4 Cultivate your inner self

Okay, so this has been a rather difficult process for some of us. All we have done so far is talk about things that we should stop doing. Stop worrying about things that are beyond our control. Stop creating problems that may happen in the future. Stop creating unnecessary desires that you think will make you happy.

So what can we actually do?

XXXWell, the Stoics would tell you that you ought to cultivate the one thing that you actually do have control over, your inner self. When it comes right down to it you are not in control over the economy, the world, or even your body. You are, however, in control of the state of your mind and your soul.

If we are most human when we are actively pursuing knowledge or understanding, then we will also be happiest while performing these tasks. Who you are, the only part of you that is of any real consequence, is your inner self. It is the part of you that comes to understand virtue through doing virtuous acts, wisdom through pursing true understanding.

The Stoics believed that a peasant could be happy so long as he was a sage, but a king would be miserable unless he was also a sage. And while the king might have more markers in the game of life, more cards up his sleeve, what is of real importance is how you play, not if you win or not.

And I know that some of these rules are rather difficult for us. It is not an easy thing to let go all of our desires, our woes, our fears just because some philosophers thousands of years ago said that the universe had a plan for us.

Believe me, I know.

Still, if you could follow even one of these rules within your daily life, I think you might find that you become just a little less anxious. And you might soon be on your way to living a stress-free, stoic existence.


Athenian Democracy

by on September 11, 2014

By Ben Potter

Athens, July 514 BC. Two of Athens’ most disgruntled sons, Harmodius and Aristogeiton become forever known as ‘The Tyrannicides’. With their swords plunged into the Tyrant Hipparchus, these two soon-to-be martyrs become the symbol of Athenian democracy.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton

This is because these brave men’s actions paved the way for Athens to unfetter herself from oppression and tyranny. Her screaming infancy was at an end; it was finally time for the demos (people) to unleash their kratos (power).

So harmony and joy ensued in what was now the cradle of democracy?


Not at all.

Not even slightly.

Two issues rise starkly out of the noble intentions of our forefathers; the system… and the results.

But let’s deal with the latter first; to see if any means can justify such ends!

Athenian democracy, despite a couple of interruptions and renaissances, is generally agreed to have reigned supreme from 508-322 BC.

Those who know their important dates will see an instant red flag; didn’t KING Alexander the Great die in 323 BC? How could Athens remain an independent, democratic state while under the yoke of Macedonian imperialism? A very intelligent question; you should congratulate yourself for asking it.

Whilst Athens remained a functioning democracy during the reign of Alexander the Great, it could not in all earnest be called independent. In other words, it was a democratic client kingdom that could have easily had its powers removed should they have been used ‘irresponsibly’ (c.f. American involvement in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and even Greece itself).

Despite this technical independence, Athenian democracy did little to cover itself in glory… even when its self-determinism was tangible rather than merely theoretical.

Peloponnesian War

For instance, the bloodthirsty rule of the people forced Athens to hubristically overstep her reach during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which resulted in the temporary suspension of the democratic experiment. Importantly, it also seemed suspicious of, and hostile towards, some of the greatest minds of that time.

Indeed, such was the poor judgement of the demos that it drove the city’s greatest commander (and lover), the legendary Alcibiades, to flee during the Peloponnesian War and take up residence with their antagonists, the Spartans.

It has been often speculated, and with much justification, that Alcibiades’ defection was the tipping point in the war.

However, national security was only one sphere in which the people strove to raise their own standing simply by reducing the mean quality of the demos as a whole. Art and philosophy were the chief victims of a short-sighted and covetous populace.

It’s thought that popular pressure and threat of persecution forced the tragedian Euripides to quit the city for a ‘retirement’ in Macedonia. Though some now dispute the veracity of such a story, the mere fact that it was popularly believed tells a tale in itself.

Death of Socrates

Aristotle, likewise, opted to jump before he was pushed into the next world. He was particularly concerned that the demos would condemn him to the same fate it bestowed upon Socrates.

Unlike the other three men mentioned above, Socrates was not merely chased out of town, but actually executed by a jury of 501 of his peers (greatly multiplying Herbert Spencer’s maxim that “A jury is composed of twelve men of average ignorance”).

It is this state-sanctioned murder of one of the first great minds of our culture that forever leaves Athenian democracy with an indelible stain.

But can the means do much to exonerate such rancorous ends? Well… you be the judge.


The Nuts and Bolts

Athenian democracy evolved as any ‘work in progress’ democracy should and as such the citizens contributing to the various bodies of state had sometimes more and sometimes less involvement/power at different times.

However, the really poignant thing about political participation is that it was a) assumed and b) direct.

It was taken for granted that men must not merely take an interest in or talk about politics, but perform actively within the political arena. Indeed, men who deliberately spurned politics were known as idiōtēs. While the world literally meant ‘one who minded his own business’, it was a term of the utmost disdain.


The idea that democracy was ‘direct’ meant that the votes in the Assembly (ekklêsia) were de facto referenda. Though minor votes seemed to be able to get through without much difficulty, major votes could only be passed if 6000 men were in attendance. Motions carried with a simple majority.

All free men over 18 could vote, but due to the two years of compulsory military service, political activity usually started at the age of 20. Women had to wait a bit longer… until 1952 in fact. However, this imbalance was slightly redressed by the fact that men had to be 30 in order to hold political office, sit on a jury or even table a motion!

The Boule

Despite its selectively egalitarian nature, the referendum-style Assembly was by no means a political free-for-all. The business of the day was dictated by the Council (boule). This 500 strong body was the nearest thing that Athens had to an executive or cabinet.

Even if there was no guarantee that the Council would be selected judiciously, it was at least selected randomly. 50 members of each of the 10 Athenian tribes (demes) were appointed by lot to serve for a year with members from alternating tribes taking turns to lead the Council day-by-day.

The boule also had to maintain the fleet, liaise with the generals, entertain dignitaries, assess the competence of magistrates and handle the city purse. These last two responsibilities did, for a time at least, fall in part under the remit of other organs of state.

The Courts

One of which was the courts. 6,000 judges were appointed a year and they would congregate in the agora to be assigned trials for the day.


Private cases were overseen by either 201 or 401 judges and public cases by 501. Trials were supposed to be concluded by sunset, making jury tampering and corruption not only extremely costly, but logistically impossible.

The most serious public cases seem to have been political in nature and were brought against those charged with treason, corruption, or those who proposed unconstitutional legislation in the Assembly.

N.B. it didn’t matter if the legislation had passed the vote, the individual could still be tried, condemned and even executed for misleading the demos. The demos was always immune from any form of accountability, if it acted incorrectly it was always because it had been ‘misled’.

The Archai

The day-to-day running of the mundane affairs of state was in the hands of the 1,200 archai. 1,100 of these former-day civil servants were chosen by lot with a further 100 being voted for by the Assembly. Only those voted in could hold the same office twice (with the exception, by numerical necessity, of those who went into the boule).

The Strategoi

The only offices not attainable by lot were the 10 associated with the armed forces. Consequently, these generals (strategoi) were the only people who could hope to carve out a political niche for themselves.

However, such an appointment was fraught with peril, as the demos was notoriously unforgiving of failure. The case in point being the 406 BC defeat at the battle of Arginusae. Six of the eight generals involved in this débâcle were tried en masse and executed, despite such a process being illegal.

The leader in charge of proceedings for the day of the vote was, amazingly (as it was random which citizen it could have been), Socrates. Despite refusing to allow an illegal vote to take place, the demos went ahead and committed collective treason against itself.

Some speculate that the enemies Socrates made on that day may have come back to haunt in him in 399 BC.


The Demokratia

The democrats of Athens believed that demokratia was intrinsically bound to liberty and equality; they defined the terms thus:

Liberty = the ability to live as one pleased and the freedom to participate in politics.

Equality = the right to speak in the Assembly and the right to a fair trial.

There was not even a suggestion of attempting to provide men with an equal social or financial status; democratic Athens was actually extremely snobbish and elitist.

Free-speech (parrhesia) was thought to underpin both of these. Though many critics have pointed out exercising this was precisely what cost Socrates his life.


Critics have also claimed that, in order to financially sustain such a democracy, it was necessary for Athens to extend (and then overextend) her imperial reach. This included having a slave class whose ranks were swollen far beyond those of any of her close neighbours.

Additionally, as the demos could act with impunity, when mistakes were made – scapegoats needed to be found (e.g. the 6 generals or Socrates).

That said, this was a political system without entrenched parties. Indeed, it was with few factions of any sort, with minimal corruption and, most importantly, without any concept of lobbyists!

And we cannot deny that the democratic period gave us some of the most amazing tragedians, comedians, philosophers, architects, visionaries, historians and characters the ancient world ever produced.


Would we have had the Parthenon if not for Pericles and his building plan? Or Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes if theatrical festivals, competitions and prizes were not organised by the demos?

Also, perhaps that inevitable product of democracy, bureaucracy, is why this period of history is one with such relatively fine records. The importance of posterity was such that even the ignominy survives. Would a king or an oligarchy have been so transparent?

Ultimately the question must be one of self-determinism; were the ancient Athenians content to preside over the first functioning democracy the world has ever known?

Well, the fact that they made Democracy a goddess in the 4th century BC certainly suggests they had strong feelings towards its retention. As does the fact that they relinquished it so very reluctantly.

One can imagine that, when the Macedonians wrenched democracy away from the clawing grasp of the demos, tear-drops, much like the blood from the Tyrannicides’ blades would have salted and stained the terrain at the foot of the Acropolis.

Holding Out For A Hero: Classical Myths to Comic Books

by on September 8, 2014

By Spencer Klavan

Quick! Name this fictional character: the long-lost son of super-parents in the sky, fostered by an ordinary human couple to save the earth with his unmatchable strength.

superman herculesIf you guessed Superman, you’re correct. If you guessed the Ancient Greek hero, Herakles, bingo: right again. DC Comics’ Man of Steel is right out of Classical myth, and he’s not the only one. There’s Batman, an ordinary kid turned extraordinary crime fighter, defying the justice system to avenge his murdered father — just like Orestes. There’s Phoenix from X-men and Achilles from the Iliad, two unstoppable renegade live-wires who throw devastating temper tantrums before saving the day in a doomed blaze of glory.

In comic books, Modern America tells the stories Ancient Greece told in hero myths. From Mount Olympus to the DC/Marvel Universe, these stories have endured because we need them. They’re our only way to capture what it means to fight for justice.

Just like the Ancient Greeks, we have canonical, “official” versions of our hero stories with uncontested cultural authority — Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Schuster’s Action Comics #1 is to Superman what Homer’s Odyssey is to Odysseus. And just like us, the Greeks had fan fiction, alternate universes that tweaked the traditional storylines.

Herakles, for example, had his slightly more commercial Roman spinoff, “Hercules.” Apollonius wrote the definitive iteration of Jason’s adventures, but there was also Euripides’ tragedy (the equivalent of a movie adaptation) and a later epic (something like a remake) by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, each putting a slightly different spin on the original.

The same thing happens to superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, whose stories have been filmed, remade, and rebooted almost beyond recognition. There are reams of fan fiction in which Superman impregnates his girlfriend, takes a gay lover, or even dies. Ancient Greek fanboys, too, cooked up innumerable local legends, retellings, and even cults.

Whether in modernity or antiquity, truly iconic heroes tend to develop passionately invested fan bases who participate in their stories, turning them into hands-on public property. When we really love a hero, we get our hands dirty with him. We make him our own.

So, as enamored as we are of these myths, it’s not because they tell the truth — not literally, at least. We’re not interested in what “actually” happened. Clearly we’re happy to play fast and loose with those details, and anyway it’s all make-believe to begin with: there’s no truly “real” version. What hero myths communicate to us, what we’re so thirsty for, is the reality of a certain experience, the exhilarating and righteous feeling of fighting for what’s right.

The historian Herodotus wrote that he wanted to preserve humanity’s “mighty and marvelous deeds” so they wouldn’t “become faded with time”. Herodotus fudged factual details so he could encapsulate emotional truths, conveying what it felt like to be there. Hero myths do that, too.

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.” -Herodotus (The Histories)

Of course no one has ever actually flown on a horse, or run through walls, or gutted a hundred-headed dragon: the Greeks knew that as well as we do. But soldiers and freedom fighters like the Spartan general Leonidas are capable of towering acts of valor whose significance we can only convey in metaphors and tall tales. To memorialize that kind of real-life heroism, we have to tell inaccurate but viscerally true stories, to depict Leonidas standing up to an army of millions with three hundred men. We have to tell hero myths.

Aquaman Poseidon

That’s why the perennial impulse to debunk heroes is so misguided. These days, filmmakers in particular love to offer “the real scoop,” smugly invalidating the credentials of famous heroes by showing how it was all a hoax the whole time, how Hercules was just a muscleman with a club. Take Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy or Brett Ratner’s Hercules, realist retellings that erase the gods and giants out of their source material.

This isn’t new either — Euhemerus of Messene made a living tracing myths to their pedestrian origins. It was just as silly then as it is now.

Turning heroes into average joes misses the point. Aquaman and Achilles, the Avengers and the Odyssey — these aren’t stories about what really happened. They were never meant to be. Stripping away their supernatural embellishments to get at some nonexistent “real version” doesn’t reveal the true core of hero myth; in fact, it erases that core entirely. We need myths to help us feel, in our guts, the soaring power of human courage. We don’t need them for their biographical value. Take away Achilles’ godlike strength, and you get a thug with a spear. But give Wolverine back his adamantine claws, and you get a hero: an embodied allegory of the nobility of self-sacrifice. Ancient or modern, that’s something worth preserving.

Flawless Beauty or the Beauty of Flaws

by on September 5, 2014

By Anya Leonard

“CRACK! Smash!” The sound of your favorite vase hitting the floor.

You search around for the culprit – a child, a dog, or a clumsy spouse, any of which is about to incur your wrath. Perhaps it was an earthquake, and Poseidon is to blame…

But what if, instead of looking at the broken vase as a damaged, now defunct object, you saw it as an opportunity to show its past? To display its cracks as something inherently beautiful?

Indeed, if you were a fan of the Japanese art Kintsugi, you may have even wished for the china to not so gently touch the ground. For this would give you the chance to make it even more enchanting.

Also known as Kintsukuroi (Gold repair), Kintsugi is the ancient art of fixing broken pottery with the use of gold, silver or platinum in order to highlight the fractures that are now part of the object’s history… rather than disguise it.

The results, shimmering fault lines through the earthen pot, are truly spectacular.

But appreciating mistakes and making flaws beautiful aren’t usually the first step in the history of art. More often than not, the principle aim is to create the ideal, the perfect.

This is, at least, how Ancient Greek art began.

The Archaic Period

Let’s start, for simplicity’s sake, with the archaic period, usually described as between 800 BC and 480 BC. This was the era in which the city-states, or polis, were cemented, colonies were created, and philosophy, as well as her entertaining sister, theatre, were planting their potent seeds.

Art, also, was progressing. Characteristics for which Greek Art would famously be known were already starting to shine through. This was particularly true with regards to the free standing nude statue.

Originally borrowing heavily from the Egyptian statues in pose and proportions, large scale sculptures at this time usually fell into two categories: the male Kouros, or standing youth, and the female Kore, or standing draped maiden.

These statues had the trademark ‘left-foot forward’ and ‘helmet hair’, a very stylized pattern for their tresses. They also possessed the coined ‘Archaic smile’, a somewhat condescending, if not sublime smirk, that has no correlation with the personality or situation depicted, but which, nonetheless, can be found on the majority of the statues from this time period.


A perfect example of the Kouroi of the archaic period, c. 580 BC, is Kleobis and Biton, held at the Delphi Archaeological Museum. These colossal monuments are imposing in their weight and presence, reminding viewers of the Pyramids more than the Parthenon.

While it was throughout the 6th century BC that the human representations in sculpture advanced in many ways, the desired outcome was almost always the same: to create the best, most stylized, ideal person.

Perhaps this is not so surprising when considering the purpose of their art. Archaic sculpture most often served as dedications to the gods or as grave markers. Solemn affairs, in other words. Artistic expression was less a motivation than following proper ritual and tradition.

Who knew how the Gods would have taken a dedicated statue that was frowning?

While sculpting the ideal body was attempted before the Persian war, it was arguably only perfected after the ousting of Xerxes. Of course Xerxes had nothing to do with it, he’s just the handy marker that separates what Art historians like to deem the archaic period from the Classical Period.

The Classical Period

Covering approximately 157 years, the Classical period includes the height and fall of Athens, starting with Persians and ending with the Peloponnesian war. In between these dramatic conflicts, however, Athens ruled supreme in regards to economics, politics, and importantly for this article, culture.


In fact, Athens’s indisputable position allowed for some of the most famous, influential art works ever created. See, Athens became all-powerful through her role in the so-called Delian League, which was originally a voluntary collection of Greek city-states. Athens, however, assumed the leadership spot, took over the treasury and with this newfound confiscated wealth, built the everlasting wonder that is the Acropolis.

The popular statesman Pericles simply took the Delian League’s collection to fund the greatest artists of the day and celebrate both Athens and her patron goddess, Athena. Now, with this goal at hand, you can imagine that the craftsmen, painters and sculptors depicted the perfection and power of men and gods… not their inherent flaws.

This was fifth century Athens, after all!

Nothing exemplifies this dedication to the ideal and calculated beauty than Polykleitos of Argos, who formulated a system of proportions that achieved the artistic effect of permanence, clarity, and harmony.


His bronze male nude, known as the Doryphoros (“Spear-carrier”), illustrates these ideals, all while casually exhibiting his famous trademark of Contrapposto, a posture in which the weight was placed on one leg.

But our Spear-carrier also reveals another interesting change in Ancient Greek Art. The persons depicted were not just the religious or the divine, but also normal folks, like charioteers or Discus-bearers. This meant a softening in positions, stances and more natural situations.

In other words, the figures were to be ideal, but also human.

And then they went a step farther. From 500 BC, Greek artists started to carve, paint and mold real, actual humans! The statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, set up in Athens to mark the overthrow of the tyranny, were said to be the first such public monuments.

This move is crucial in the shift from the perfect ideal to the wonder of flaws… because it is in the flaws that we are able to recognize the individual.

Anyone who has casually drawn a portrait of a friend will empathize with this predicament: Make it too realistic and you might offend your sitter. Make it too idealized and your obliging model won’t be recognized. We can’t imagine how portrait artists of kings and queens handled the situation!

One court sculptor, however, seems to have accomplished this task quite satisfactorily. It was Lysippos who was commissioned by none other than Alexander the Great, another great patron of the arts. Moreover, Lysippos’ busts and his creation of the ‘Heroic ruler pose’ highlight the transition between the Classical Period and the Hellenistic Period of Greek Art.

Hellenistic Period

This final era of Ancient Greek Art is usually marked by the death of that Macedonian prince, Alexander the Great. His grand empire had meant previously isolated cultures came into contact with each other, influencing styles and subjects.


Art within the region became more diverse and took contributions from the newly enveloped orbits and colonies of the empire; Greco-Buddhist art illustrates the widespread impact of this collaboration perfectly.

Meanwhile, sculpture evolved to be more and more naturalistic, both in stance and subject. Commoners were now depicted, along with women, children and animals. Wealthy families commissioned domestic scenes and everyday events for their abodes. Sculptors no longer stuck to the ideas of physical perfection, instead opting for models of all ages.

We have finally come to the beauty of flaws in Greek art.

Statues dropped their smug archaic smiles for raw emotions, exhibiting everything from love to pain and death. Solid stances were replaced with full-bodied twists and turns. Heavy folds melted to sheer fabrics revealing detailed, human forms.


The art has left the realm of the perfect deity and reached the world of human individuality. One only has to think of the Dying Gaul or Laocoön and His Sons to see pain and suffering of mere mortals. These aren’t gods. They aren’t even ideal athletes. They are statues of a barbarian and an elderly man with his children, respectfully.

It is their turn to achieve a form of immortality as humans and show their (and our) history… flaws and all.