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Haters Gonna Hate

by on July 22, 2016

Hate is not something unique to the modern age. The ancients were hating right up there with the best of them.

Hate, it would seem, does not relegate itself to any one culture, race, or time period. It’s an equal opportunity employer, if you will.

I hate women who are chaste in words but secretly engage in ugly escapades.

–Phaedra (Euripides’ Hippolytus)

I have learned to hate traitors.

–Prometheus (Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound)

There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out all through.

–Achilles (Homer’s The Iliad)

To foster the conviction that God supports the murder of innocents requires a tightknit group and a settled hatred of the Other: in these circles, whites hate blacks and Jews; Jews and Christians hate Muslims and vice versa; anti-abortion crusaders hate gynecologists. All of them seem to have it in for homosexuals and most, even the Americans, hate contemporary America.

-Isabel Hilton, “’Terror in the Name of God’: Everybody Hates Somebody Somewhere”, New York Times (quoted from The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks by David Konstan.)

I hate you, I hate you, I don’t even know you and I hate your guts. I hope all the bad things in life happen to you and nobody else but you.

–Dave Chappelle (The Chappelle Show)


Modern Hate



So much hate! But now to the heart of the discussion.

What is hate?

Who do we hate?

And why?

In a modern context, “hate” is often assumed to mean any form of bigotry or prejudice against a class of people because of their race, religion, etc.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, Dave Konstan quotes the author Jack Levin when he writes…

Until recently, the term ‘hate’ referred to any intense dislike or hostility, no matter its object… Beginning in the mid-1980s, the term ‘hate’ became used in a much more restricted sense to characterize an individual’s negative beliefs and feelings about the members of some other group of people because of their race, religious identity, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability status.


In this way, “hate” became, if not synonymous, then closely related to “prejudice”. We are all familiar with “hate crimes” and “hate speech”. As a result of this narrower definition, the kneejerk reaction is to denounce all forms of hate. Modern, supposedly “enlightened” individuals hate hate (try to excuse the paradox implied).

But this wasn’t always the case. Hate, some classical writers contend, can be quite justified.

Classical Hate

Aristotle takes a contrary view to our modern understanding of hate.

The philosopher compares hate to anger. Both are a feeling of enmity. Anger, however, is typically directed at an individual and is a result of some slight committed against us. Angry people wish for the same injury committed against them to be felt by the offending party.


Hate on the other hand, is more detached. Unlike anger, we hate groups of people. If we believe a person to be of a certain type, that is reason enough to hate them. Hate, Aristotle continues, does not require us to wish any particular punishment on a hated group. Rather, we simply wish that the hated peoples cease to exist.

Perhaps most importantly, anger can be erased by time, but hate is incurable.

All sounds plausible so far, but here is where things stop gelling with our modern sensibilities.

Aristotle does not flatly reject hate, nor does he label it as a consistent vice. He does contrast hate with love, saying that they are opposites. But love, to Aristotle, is an examination and acceptance of a person’s virtues. We very often wish good upon those we love because we consider them to be in possession of admirable qualities like moderation, justice, or courage.

Love, then, is a moral judgment. Hate, as its opposite, is also a moral judgment. While we love those we consider virtuous, we hate those whom we consider to possess vice. Aristotelian hate is not the prejudicial hate that we are familiar with, but rather it is a conscious determination of a persons vicious character and a corresponding emotion that crops up when encountering such odious people.

Aristotle gives the example that we often hate thieves or traitors. These people do not possess admirable virtues, but despicable vices, and therefore accrue our hate rather than our love.

Importantly, Aristotle implies this as the only justified type of hate. For instance, he does classify women and non-Greeks as being naturally inferior to Greek men in his The Politics. But these people are capable of virtue in accord with their nature (all people are). Consequently, they are undeserving of hate.

We therefore should not hate those who are different from us, but only those who are of a deficient character.


Defeat hate with more hate!

Aristotle’s definition of hate as a moral judgment of a person’s vices is starkly opposed to our modern interpretation of hate as an unjustified sense of enmity because of a person’s color, creed, or religion.

Could it be then that we need not do away with hate, but rather adjust our understanding of it?

Roman Concrete: A Forgotten Stroke of Genius

by on July 15, 2016

I can hear some of you thinking now: Concrete? Is she really writing about concrete?

Believe me, reader, the same sort of thoughts passed through my mind when I began to do my research for this article–but let me ask one question (especially to those of you lucky ducks who have gotten to visit Italy): Is there anything more impressive than to turn a corner in Rome and come face to face with an incredibly ancient structure that, somehow, is still standing after thousands of years?


There’s just no doubt: Ancient Roman architecture holds a gold medal for durability. Despite some crumbling here or there, there are so many structures–particularly harbors–that continue to stand soundly unbroken and un-ruined after two thousands years or more. They’ve largely withstood wars and earthquakes and encroaching modernity. But how?

One of the reasons is simply that many of these structures were made entirely or partly out of concrete–but it’s not just the presence of concrete that helped. We know from experience in modern times that concrete is strong but not infallible, and certainly not capable of withstanding two thousand years of wear and tear! No, it wasn’t the presence of concrete necessarily–instead, it was the type of concrete.

Just Add (Salt) Water


For many years, the durability of Roman concrete baffled historians and scientists alike. In particular they were perplexed by the concrete that had been used to construct ancient harbors–even after two thousand or more years of being pummeled by saltwater, the harbors were largely intact.

To put this into perspective, Portland cement, which is the most commonly used concrete blend today, is serviceable for only about fifty years if exposed constantly to saltwater. Not a small difference!

What, then, made Roman concrete so different? The answer wasn’t found until recently, when, a few years ago, researchers began to take an interest in the subject. Research teams led by both Italian and American scientists collected samples of ancient Roman concrete from a breakwater in Pozzuoli Bay, Italy. The concrete was analyzed in state-of-the-art facilities in Italy, United States’ U.C. Berkley, Germany, and even Saudi Arabia, where Advanced Light Source technology allowed researchers to analyze the structure of the concrete at a miniscule scale.

Concrete fragmentSample of Roman concrete

What they found was incredibly exciting: instead of fighting to create a substance that could withstand the eroding force of the sea, ancient Romans had harnessed that force and incorporated it into their concrete making process. They mixed lime and volcanic ash and, after packing the mixture into wooden molds, they submerged it all in seawater. The saltwater then set off a chemical reaction–it hydrated the lime in such a way as to make it react with the ash, which ultimately formed an incredibly sturdy, solid bond.

(For all you chemists out there, this was apparently a C-A-S-H bond, or calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate)

It’s largely for this reason that ancient Roman concrete was so incredibly durable–especially when exposed to saltwater.

A Better Alternative?

One of the most important aspects of this super-strong ancient concrete, besides its durability, is its overall carbon footprint.

Though Portland cement–our modern concrete–has been in use now for nearly two centuries, it can’t really hold a candle to Roman cement when it comes to the issue of environmental impact. The cement industry (cement being a major component of concrete) is, worldwide, a primary producer of carbon dioxide, which is an atmospheric pollutant and greenhouse gas. Apparently, the cement industry alone accounts for approximately five percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, which is a staggering amount for one industry.


Much of this cement is produced specifically for the manufacturing of Portland cement concrete mix. In fact, according to researchers, roughly nineteen billion tons of Portland cement are used every year.

The biggest problem with the production of this cement is really the production methods themselves. To make the cement, a mixture of limestone and clays has to be heated to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit), and it’s this process–which burns up so much fossil fuel and burns it so hot–that produces the majority of the carbon dioxide.

Roman concrete, on the other hand, because of its unique ash mixture, uses far less limestone and only requires that the limestone be baked at 900 degrees Celsius (1,652 degrees Fahrenheit)–which uses only a fraction of the fossil fuels used to make Portland cement and results in fewer carbon dioxide emissions overall–and the finished product is hundreds of times stronger.

Clearly, the carbon footprint of our modern concrete is not so great–at the end of the day, we are causing more environmental damage to produce a concrete that just doesn’t bind nearly as well as Roman concrete.

Can we bring this dead secret back to life?

The question is: has all this new research led us to a grand solution for the issue of carbon emissions in the cement/concrete industry? Could it revolutionize the way we build, and the durability of our structures?

The tentative answer is yes…and no.

The famous Duomo is a solid shell of Roman concrete

According to experts, it’s a complicated issue. While the obvious answer seems to be that Roman concrete is a better, stronger, more environmentally-friendly option, many experts believe that it would be impractical to begin using it again, largely because of the setting time. In the modern world of construction, concrete needs to harden quickly and efficiently–something that seawater concrete can’t do (and we all know how our modern society values convenience and speed).

However, the discovery of this ancient “secret” to concrete production is having some positive benefits. Inspired by the ancient Romans’ use of volcanic ash, scientists have been experimenting with the use of fly ash (a waste product of coal-burning, which is readily available in large quantities in many countries) and even, again, volcanic ash (in those countries where fly ash is not so available) to produce stronger, greener forms of concrete.

According to some experts, a successful outcome to these experiments could lead to concrete mixes that utilize local resources intelligently and replace at least forty percent of the worldwide demand for Portland cement.
It’s just one more way in which our society is learning to look to the past, and learn from our ancestors. Sometimes, modernity doesn’t have all the answers after all–sometimes the answers were discovered and perfected long ago. All we have to do is rediscover them.

Big News from the Ancient World

by on June 30, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen, divers off the coast of Antikythera Island, Greece have discovered….a lead cylinder!

Alright, alright–all joking aside, the recent discovery of this lead cylinder actually marks an extremely interesting bit of news, because as it turns out, this cylinder had a very specific nautical purpose, and if experts are correct in what they’ve called it, this unassuming hunk of lead is currently the only one of its kind.

Bonus points to you, reader, if the name “Antikythera” is sounding familiar as well. Some of you may know that the name is also used to refer to the “Antikythera Wreck”–an ancient shipwreck just off the coast of the island which has yielded invaluable treasures since its discovery (including the lead cylinder which is the star of the show right now)…

A Unbelievable Discovery

The year is 1900. October. Captain Dimitrios Kondos and his team of sponge divers sail right into a brutal storm that brings their return from Africa to a screeching halt. They choose to take shelter on the island of Antikythera and wait out the storm.

As they wait for the storm to pass, the team does what it does best and dives for sponges right off the coast of the island, where diver Elias Stadiatis spots a terrifying sight about 45 meters from the surface. He immediately signals to be pulled back up, and when his gear is taken off him he claims to have seen rotting corpses of men and horses on the seabed.

Captain Kondos’ sponge-diving crew

Kondos, believing that Stadiatis is suffering from what will come to be called “nitrogen narcosis” (a condition in which a diver will become “drunk” or lose consciousness after inhaling gases, such as those in an oxygen tank, that have been altered by the high pressure of deep-sea depths), chooses to investigate himself.

When he signals to be pulled to the surface, he returns from the depths holding an enormous bronze arm.

What the sponge-diving team had discovered that day in 1900 was the sunken wreck of a massive ancient ship, Roman in construction–and on that ship, one of the most impressive and historically important hoards of treasure to have ever been found.

A Slow Process


The discovery of what would come to be known as the Antikythera Wreck immediately spurred a process of recovery. The sponge divers, assisted by the Greek Education Ministry and the Royal Hellenic Navy, began working tirelessly to pull artifacts to the surface. They recovered a vast array of statues, priceless glasswork, coins, utensils, pottery, and other prizes–until the death of a diver and the paralysis of several more (caused by decompression sickness) brought the recovery process to a halt.

The search was resumed years later, in 1976, thanks to the initiative of French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who also recovered armfuls of artifacts and brought them to the surface.

Since then, recovery expeditions have been sporadic but always incredibly fruitful, with each expedition yielding new and exciting discoveries. Even to this day, new items and artifacts are being brought to the surface. It is now suspected that the Roman ship sunk sometime in the second quarter of the 1st Century BCE, as it returned to Italy from Greece (then controlled by Rome). Some experts speculate that the vast treasure on the ship was the loot of Roman General Sulla, while others suggest that the looted Greek treasure was being hauled back to Rome to display in a grand victory parade for Julius Caesar.

Recovered artifacts on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

The recovered treasure–priceless artifacts and artwork that date back to at least the 4th Century BCE–are now housed and displayed to the public at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. This includes one of the most staggering discoveries in history: the world’s first analog computer.

World’s First Computer?

In May of 1902, Spyridon Stais–the former Minister of Education–was in the National Archaeological Museum and was examining the recovered artifacts when he made a mind-boggling discovery: he noticed that a severely corroded lump of bronze was covered with inscriptions and had a small gear embedded in its surface. As he examined it further, he came to realize that he had stumbled across one of the most technologically advanced pieces of craftsmanship from the ancient world.

The largest gear from the Antikythera Mechanism

It turns out that the lump of bronze, which came to be known at the Antikythera Mechanism, had once been a complex system of gears and pointers that functioned as an analog computer and orrery, and was once used to predict the movements, positions, and eclipses of astronomical bodies for astrological and especially calendrical purposes (as well as keep track of Olympiads, or the four-year cycles that the Ancient Greeks used to measure the passage of time).

This incredible machine, believed to have been designed by Greek scientists, was composed of at least thirty bronze gears (the largest with a diameter of about 5.5 inches and 223 teeth) and is truly a marvel. Until its discovery, it was not believed that the ancient world had the means or resources to produce such a complex mechanism, and in fact the Antikythera Mechanism is the only one of its kind in existence–modern scientists have uncovered no other examples of such precise craftsmanship, leading many to believe that the technique for creating such a machine was somehow lost. Mechanical objects of such complexity would not be seen again until the 14th Century, in Europe.

Digital reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism

However, the astounding Antikythera Mechanism does not happen to be the only artifact salvaged from the wreck to mark a historically important discovery. In fact, it’s not even the only artifact from the wreck to be the only one of its kind. And so we are back to our lump of lead.

A Dolphin in the Deep

In 2012, a new comprehensive expedition to the wreck, led by American marine archaeologist Brendan P. Foley, was approved by the Greek government. Thanks to new and sophisticated diving equipment (including robots), Foley’s team and Greek scientists were able to discover and recover even more artifacts from the wreck (which is now at a depth of about 200 meters).

One of these artifacts (the most recently discovered) was our unassuming lump of lead, which the divers first assumed was ceramic until they tried to move it and realized it was massively heavy. The cylinder had a hole through one end and came to a blunt point on the other (like a cone), and for a while no one had any idea what it could be.

In the hopes of finding more clues, Foley began to peruse the ancient literature, and in the writings of Greek historian Thucydides he happened to come across a description of a defensive armament known, in its time, as a “dolphin.”

Scientists examine what they believe to be an ancient weapon called a “dolphin”

According to Thucydides, all the biggest ships of classical antiquity were outfitted with a dolphin, and based on his description of the weapon, modern scholars speculate that the dolphin was used almost like a wrecking ball: when an enemy ship came too close, sailors could hoist the dolphin up and let it fall so that it would swing against the enemy ship and smash a hole in its hull.

If Foley and his team are correct in thinking that the lead cylinder they discovered is, in fact, one of these ancient dolphins, the discovery (unassuming as it seems) is amazing. This would be the only artifact of its kind to be discovered, making it priceless and massively important to maritime history. And, of course, it marks the second time an artifact recovered from the Antikythera Wreck has, in some way, changed history.

But the search continues. Foley and his team–like all good explorers and scientists–know that these discoveries are only the tip of the iceberg. They plan to return to the site in September in the hopes of uncovering new treasures.

And who knows what this ship–so long at the bottom of the ocean and yet so laden with priceless riches–will yield up next?

Three Awesome Women of Ancient Rome

by on June 17, 2016


In Ancient Rome, freeborn women were considered citizens, but they were not given the right to vote or to be involved in politics in any public way. As far as the law was concerned, women were ruled by their fathers or their husbands (and for a time–legally at least–they were essentially considered their husbands’ daughters, in terms of the legal power their husbands had over them).

As Rome evolved, however, women began to receive more and more freedoms, and as far as ancient civilizations go, Rome eventually came to be fairly progressive in this aspect. Eventually laws were passed stating that “power” over a woman was not transferred from father to husband when she married, and since fathers were often far removed or not as involved in their daughters’ lives after they married, women enjoyed a relatively large degree of freedom and autonomy in their daily lives and decisions.

It’s also true that while women were not allowed to publicly take part in politics, they were often heavily involved anyway–as advisors to their husbands. Many if not most politically active men in Ancient Rome were advised in some capacity, big or small, by their wives, and eventually it even became socially acceptable for a man to publicly admit that his actions were based on advice he had taken from his wife. In this way, women had access to politics, and a few notable women became pretty heavily involved.

So, without further ado, let’s meet them.


Fulvia (83-40 BCE) is well known as one of the most politically active women in Ancient Rome. She was born into a highly distinguished plebeian noble family and was eventually married off to a man named Publius Clodius. Clodius was an extremely well-liked populist politician, and Fulvia quickly became his right-hand woman. The two made many public appearances together, walking through the streets and gaining support from the people, and many of Clodius’ followers eventually became as loyal to Fulvia as to Clodius himself.


When Clodius was killed by a political rival, Fulvia felt no shame in grieving publicly, and she even went so far as to drag Clodius’ body through the streets of Rome, eventually inciting a riot among his followers, who carried his body to the senate and cremated him there. She then testified at the trial of Clodius’ murderer and was instrumental in getting the man exiled.

After Clodius’ death, the loyalty of his followers transferred completely to Fulvia, and the gangs Clodius had once controlled happily answered to Fulvia instead. Subsequent husbands (Gaius Scribonius Curio and Marcus Antonius) enjoyed the support of these gangs, especially after they publicly associated themselves with Clodius’ children.

Fulvia’s marriage to Marcus Antonius (or as we know him, Mark Antony) is also famous. After the assassination of Caesar, Antony was essentially the most powerful guy in town, and Fulvia fearlessly involved herself in his political life. She publicly defended Antony against the criticism of Cicero (one source even claims that after Cicero was killed for his opposition, Fulvia stabbed the corpse’s tongue with her hairpins), often took to the streets to rally support for Antony as she had once done for Clodius, and may have even accompanied Antony on his military campaign in Brundisium.


In 42 BCE, when Antony and Octavian left Rome in hot pursuit of Caesar’s assassins, Fulvia stayed behind and essentially held Rome in the palm of her hand. She controlled the politics, using her influence and her eloquence to gain the loyalty of several hundreds of people. In a brief visit to Rome, Octavian denounced Fulvia as power-hungry. Fearing for her little empire (and possibly, some historians claim, wanting to punish Antony for his relationship with Cleopatra), Fulvia actually raised a legion against Octavian and essentially started what is known as the Perusine War.

Eventually Fulvia’s little army surrendered to Octavian’s and she was forced to flee to Greece with her children, but there can be no doubt that Fulvia was about as fearless and ruthless as they come. Despite the status of women in her time, Fulvia was able to gain and keep the loyalty of hundreds of people. She had enough influence to control gangs, raise armies, start wars–and she was even the first (non-mythological) woman to appear on Roman coins. After the Perusine War and her reunion with Antony, she died of an unknown illness.


We don’t have as much information about Hortensia as we do other Roman women. She was the daughter of Quintus Hortensius, who is well known for his rhetoric and especially his rivalry with Cicero. What we do know is that it seems like Hortensia inherited a thing or two from her father, because she is most well known today for a speech she made before the Second Triumvirate.

In 42 BCE, Rome was embroiled in a war against Brutus and Cassius, Caesar’s assassins. Funding the war was ugly enough already, what with the infamous proscriptions (in which the wealthy were killed and their property confiscated), but then the Second Triumvirate announced that they would be placing a heavy tax on 1400 of Rome’s most wealthy women.

Medieval woodcutting of Hortensia leading the women to the forum

Rome’s female population was understandably outraged–they were being taxed for a war over which they had no say, no control, and no legally recognizable opinion. They weren’t even allowed to participate in politics (sound familiar, anyone? “No taxation without representation”…)

The furious women, with Hortensia at the head, marched to the forum, where Hortensia bravely stepped forward and gave an extremely eloquent speech against the tax. A Greek historian named Appian recorded her speech, and though we don’t know if he recorded it verbatim, we know through Appian that Hortensia said something along these lines:

You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, and our brothers, whom you accused of having wronged you; if you take away our property also, you reduce us to a condition unbecoming our birth, our manners, our sex. Why should we pay taxes when we do not share in the offices, honors, military commands, nor in the short, the government for which you fight between yourselves with such harmful results?

The Second Triumvirate, outraged at this display, tried their best to oust the women from the forum, to no avail. They were then forced to reduce the tax, from 1400 women to 400, and make up the rest by borrowing from male citizens.

Hortensia went down in history as a skilled orator and a fearless Roman citizen, unafraid to publicly challenge what she believed was wrong.

Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla (58 BCE – 29 CE) was the first empress of Rome and a direct ancestor of the entire Julio-Claudian line of emperors.

Her story begins when she meets Octavian (soon-to-be Augustus). They were both married to other people at the time, and Livia was even pregnant with her second child by her first husband. The story goes that Octavian fell in love with her instantly, forced or persuaded Livia’s husband to divorce her, divorced his own wife the day she gave birth to their daughter, and essentially cleared all obstacles in the way of his having Livia for himself.

The two married quickly, waiving the typical waiting period after a divorce, and Livia’s ex-husband even gave her away “like a father” at the ceremony!


Octavian and Livia then remained together for the rest of their lives, and Livia quickly became the absolute model of a Roman wife and mother (especially after Octavian became emperor and took the title Augustus).

Though Livia was famous for her modesty, chastity, and tender care of her family, she was also a veritable lioness at Augustus’ side. Augustus trusted her greatly as a counselor and often took her political advice, and he also showered her unprecedented honors, like the ability to control her own finances. And Augustus wasn’t the only person who trusted her–she had her own little following of proteges whose political lives got started largely because of her encouragement and influence.

She also had no qualms about pushing her own sons into power, since her marriage with Augustus produced no children and he himself had only a daughter from his previous marriage. There are even rumors that Livia arranged the deaths of any other possible heirs so that Augustus would have no choice but to name her son, Tiberius, his successor.

(In fact, there are even rumors that she herself killed Augustus with poisoned figs).

None of these murders have been confirmed, but it is true that she worked hard to make sure Tiberius would sit in the emperor’s seat, and that she enjoyed as much if not more political power and control through her son as through her husband (much to Tiberius’ consternation).

Tiberius’ relationship with his mother heavily devolved during his time as emperor, and when she died he refused to give her funeral oration. He also vetoed all honors the Senate gave her after her death and even prevented the fulfilment of her will. It wasn’t until the reign of her grandson, Claudius, that all her honors were restored. She was named Diva Augusta or Divine Augusta, her image was carried by an elephant-drawn chariot to all public games (and many races were held in her honor), a statue of her was placed in the Temple of Augustus, and women even invoked her name when making sacred oaths.

Livia essentially captured the hearts of the public, both through her image as a modest wife and mother, but also through her political involvement in the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. She was, in effect, the Mater Patriae–the Mother of Rome.

Count no man happy until the end is known

by on May 16, 2016

Why aren’t we happy?

It’s a question that we have undoubtedly asked ourselves at one point or another. Perhaps you have done it while staring up at the ceiling fan late at night, or perhaps while doodling on a cocktail napkin at some out-of-the-way dive bar.

The prevailing notion in the modern Western world is that happiness is a subjective feeling we experience from day to day. Like the stock market, happiness goes up, then down, and nobody really knows where it will land next. We view happiness as something that can be augmented by a pill or a bottle or a romp around in the hay.

But if after sobering up, and shaking all the hay out of your hair, you’re still feeling blue; there might be a reason for that. Today we consider the nature of happiness, and how we, as a culture, might be getting it all wrong.

As always, I’m a firm advocate that an understanding and appreciation for the history and ideas from the classical age (the foundations of much of our intellectual traditions) can provide some much-needed insight. The classics, in this sense, are like spectacles placed upon a perpetually near-sighted man for the first time.

Hallelujah! I can see!

So, where to start?

So Solon walks into a palace…

As Herodotus tells it (in Book I of his The Histories) the Athenian lawgiver, Solon traveled to the ancient kingdom of Lydia and visited with the ruling king, Croesus of Sardis. The king was delighted to have such a renowned philosopher and statesman in his presence.

N.B. Solon is remembered as a lawmaker from the Archaic age of Athens. His laws are often credited with laying the foundation for early Athenian democracy about a century later.

For several days, the king instructed his servants to tour Solon around his palace to demonstrate his enormous power and wealth. Once he felt that his riches had adequately awed Solon, the king asks the Athenain:

Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of thy wisdom and of thy travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of thee, whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?

Croesus already assumes himself to be the happiest man in the world, but wishes to hear his name parroted back to him by such a renowned sage. Rather than name the king as the happiest man, Solon claims that Tellus of Athens is the happiest of all men.

Solon and Croesus, by Gerard van Honthorst

Croesus is shocked, what makes this Tellus guy so special? Why is he the happiest?

Solon replies…

..his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious.

In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honours.


Croesus was perplexed by such an answer, but he pushes on regardless. If he weren’t THE happiest man, certainly Solon would name him the second happiest, right?


Solon says that the second happiest of mortals were a pair of strapping young Argives, Cleobis and Bito. These lads were renowed for their strength and athleticism. One day, their mother wished to travel to the temple of Hera to attend a festival, but there were no oxen to pull the cart. The two brothers, who clearly loved their dear old mom, slung the yoke over their own necks and dragged the cart six miles.

They were, in essence, the ideal “good sons” who drove their mother to church on Sundays.

When the brother arrived at the temple, the other citizens witnessed their feat and extolled the boys for their strength and dedication. Later, the mother prayed to the goddess to grant her sons the greatest of gifts a mortal could receive. After the festival, the youths fell asleep in the temple and never awoke. They passed from this earth and were forever remembered by their people as the best of men.

At this point, Croesus is livid with Solon. These dead men are happier than he, a king? Surely, the old codger must have lost his marbles.

Solon explains that while Croesus is very wealthy, the wealthy have only two advantages over the poor- “the means to bear calamity and satisfy their appetites”. However, the rich have no monopoly on the things that the classical Greeks thought constituted a good life: civic

“Plus, riches do tend to create more issues for their possessors. After all, mo money mo problems.”

service, raising a healthy family, being of sound mind and body, and honoring the gods. Plus, riches do tend to create more issues for their possessors. After all, mo money mo problems.

The wealthy can be said to be “fortunate”, but “happiness” must be reserved for those of us who have already shuffled off this mortal coil. How do we meet our end? Does our good fortune last until our dying breaths?

Solon concludes that he cannot tell Croesus if he is happy or not until he knows the manner of his death. Count no man happy until the end is known.

Croesus sends Solon away with much indifference, but he might have done well to listen to him. Soon after, the king’s son is killed in a hunting accident and the king himself is struck blind by the gods for his hubris. Finally, after an ill-advised invasion of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great of Persia crushes Croesus’ kingdom, and Croesus finds himself on the business end of a funeral pyre while he is still breathing.

As the flames licked at his feet, Croesus cries out…

Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Count no man happy until the end is known!



Count no man happy until the end is known

So what to make of all this?

Is it true that a fulfilled life can only be measured once everything is said and done? Many of the classical thinkers certainly thought so. Solon was not arguing that men like Tellus and Biton were happier in death than in life. He was not referring to the great hereafter.

Solon was arguing that a full accounting of happiness can only be known once the life of a citizen is laid out start to finish. Only then can we see if somebody has achieved virtue, self-sufficiency, and all other good things that the ancients believed to be paramount to a “good life”.

So what do you think, dear reader? Can we only be counted happy once the end is known? Or is this a lesson from the ancient world that we might do well to forget?

The Ancient City of Palmyra

by on May 16, 2016

“When are you going to write about Palmyra?” a reader asks me the other day. “If you’re willing to address the Elgin Marbles and political correctness, why not Palmyra?”

Why not, indeed?

First, we would like to thank you readers who send us all manner of encouragements, questions, and, sometimes, angry tirades.

Your editor reads them all, but we can’t respond to every one. Still, we get plenty of ideas, new topics of conversation spring to mind.

Our job here at Classical Wisdom Weekly is to connect the dots between the ancient and modern world, to give context to the curious subject of human history. In short, we try to facilitate the “Great Conversation”.

Today, we are going to try to do just that.

But some of you might still be scratching your heads. ‘What in the heck is a Palmyra? Is it a palm tree?’ I hear you say. If this sounds like you, then allow me refresh your memory.

The name sounds familiar because you undoubtedly heard it late last year on the 24-hour news cycle. Palmyra is an ancient city in the Syrian dessert, about 100 miles north of Damascus, which was snatched up by ISIS in late 2015. The group then destroyed culturally significant temples dating back to the age of the Roman Empire. The ancient amphitheater at Palmyra subsequently became the setting for a number of public beheadings.

It was just about the most horrible story your could have heard on the news, but we won’t spend too much undue time on that insanity. Rather, today we will look at the history of Palmyra; perhaps give you some context on that historically significant city that was defiled.

So…What’s a Palmyra?

An island out of the sandy ocean

Palmyra was, in the words of the historian Edward Gibbon, “… a cultivated spot in the barren desert of Arabia that rose like an island out of the sandy ocean.”

The city’s history goes back as far as 3000 BC, but it remained a minor way station in the desert until about the 1st century AD when the Roman emperor Trajan rerouted part of the Silk Road through Palmyra. The caravan traffic proved a boon to the city and it became a major destination that straddled the empire of Rome and the decaying Parthian Empire.

Ruins of Palmyra

Palmyra enjoyed political autonomy after a visit from Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. It was a Roman colony, but still maintained its neutrality. For about 150 years the city grew and thrived by taxing the caravans along the Silk Road. This was the time period when most of the classically inspired temples were constructed, the very ones that were destroyed by ISIS last year.

However, while Palmyra enjoyed rapid growth, the Roman Empire was thrown into a state of disarray during the 3rd century AD. Numerous barbarian invasions had created instability within the political epicenter of the Roman Empire. Constant civil wars and chaos ensued. Between 235 and 253, 11 different men sat on the throne of the Empire.

Palmyra was left unattended in the East to confront a new threat. Out of the decaying Parthian empire their had come the Sasanian Empire, which invaded the Roman East in 253 AD.

Palmyra likely viewed autonomy under Rome as being preferable to subjugation to the Sassanians. The Palmyrene leader, Odenathus, assembled a defense force and successfully defeated the Sassanians, ending their invasion.

The Romans so admired Odenathus, that they effectively named him ruler of the East.

With the general applause of the Romans, and the consent of Gallienus, the senate conferred the title of Augustus on the brave Palmyrenian (Odenathus); and seemed to intrust him with the government of the East

-Edward Gibbon (History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire)


The Palmyrenian Empire

While Odenathus managed to hold off the Sassanians for several years after, he was killed by a disgruntled relative in about 268 AD. His wife, Queen Zenobia, took the reigns of the Palmyrenian army. Zenobia had grander ambitions for her city.

Zenobia is perhaps the only female whose superior genius broke through the servile indolence imposed on her sex by the climate and manners of Asia. She claimed her descent from the Macedonian king of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour.

-Edward Gibbon (History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire)


Ancient sources tell us that Zenobia began creating a Palmyrenian backed political coalition that extended far into Asia-Minor. She garnered the support of many important cities in the Eastern Roman provinces. While the queen was always careful to acknowledge fealty to Rome, it became clear that she was intent on establishing her own empire situated between the Greek and Persian lands.

Queen Zenobia, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

In 270, Zenobia made her boldest move yet. She ordered her armies to occupy Egypt. The Roman legionaries were still preoccupied with barbarian invaders. The idea was that Rome would not have the resources to rebuke such an effort.

Unfortunately for the queen, she made her move right as Aurelian, one of the most formidable Roman Emperors of the 3rd century, took his seat at the head of the Roman table.

Aurelian marched east, hoping to put an end to the budding Palmyrenian Empire. By the time he reached modern-day Syria, Queen Zenobia had been forced to retreat to her hometown. She barricaded herself within Palmyra. Zenobia attempted to escape to the Sasanian Empire, the very nation that her husband had fought against. However, she was captured by Roman cavalry and brought to Emperor Aurelian.

What became of Zenobia is a matter of some debate. The Byzantine chronicler, John Zonaras claims that Zenobia returned to Rome where she was paraded through the streets in gold chains. It is said that she was then permitted to live out the rest of her days in Rome in luxury and leisure.

The Empire of Palmyra lasted from 270 to 273 AD
(Wikimedia Commons)

What we do know is that the city of Palmyra was not so fortunate. After the defeat of their Queen, the leaders of Palmyra attempted to incite a second revolt. Emperor Aurelian caught wind of the plan and returned to Palmyra with haste. He crushed the insurrection.

As punishment, Aurelian ordered the city to be razed. He left only the temples, and a handful of other buildings undamaged. Interestingly, this is the reason why there remain only temples at Palmyra for ISIS to destroy.

Rome diverted trade away from Palmyra in the ensuing years and the city, once again, drifted into obscurity.

No happy endings in history

So there you have it dear reader, an, admittedly brief, story of the history of Palmyra. Perhaps with this historical context fresh in your mind, the atrocities committed at this ancient site have become all the more unbearable.

History rarely has “happy endings”, but this one certainly has had a notable uptick in recent weeks. Palmyra is once again in the news, but this time its not because it is the victim of senseless destruction. Syrian and Russian forces took back the city recently. Last Thursday, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev conducted a concert in the ruins of Palmyra.

You can read more about that here.

Now, we won’t get into the politics of all that. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions. For now, let’s part on happy terms. Enjoy your weekend, and we will speak again soon.