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Who is Hesiod?

by on August 29, 2014

By Ben Potter

Regular readers will recall our discussion on the dubious and debated identification of Homer i.e. was he one man or two? Was he a woman? Was he a school of poets and compilers?

Homer’s contemporary, the Boeotian Hesiod, if anything, is even more troublesome in this respect. Like with Homer, two poems are ascribed to Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days.

N.B. A third, Shield of Heracles has been almost universally discredited as his work.

And (as with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) the prevailing point of debate is that a different man was responsible for each poem.

Hesiod and the muse

Interestingly, the main evidence for this is not the extremely different themes and tones, or the inability to date the works, but the fact that they vary significantly in quality.

Propagators of this idea claim the Theogony is laboured, stifled… often tedious in parts. To a lesser extent the same accusations have been levelled again the Iliad, i.e. that gods, catastrophes, sex, intrigue and violence rescue a text lacking in the pace and drive to do full justice to such subjects.

And, with the Theogony, comments about pace do not bemoan the lack of it, but the uniformity of it. In other words, there is too much high drama, too much repetition, too many and too frequent powerful adjectives. With no down time and no juxtaposition, there is no possibility for tension to build; all ebb, no flow.

Also, opportunities for toe-curling tension are wasted. Man’s genesis is ignored and long lists of names trudge along without passion, each as monochrome and forgettable as the last. Moreover, Zeus is so powerful and so perfect that we never fear for his position or safety.

Regarding tension, take this example of Kronos castrating his father Uranus:

“The hidden boy stretched forth his left hand; in his right he took the great long jagged sickle; eagerly he harvested his father’s genitals and threw them off behind”.

Cronus castrating Uranus

Such pungent tragedy is given scant attention; Uranus loses his manhood without even a whimper of resistance, whilst the list of the offspring of Nereus and Doris lasts for 31 dreary lines!

However, these criticisms are asking for a different text; one like the Iliad. If we take at face value that this is a work of religiosity (see the Bible of Ancient Greece) then we can excuse certain dramatic shortcomings, much like the unendurable ‘begat…’ passages of the bible, or the sanitized and colourless canti of Dante’s Paradiso.

Additionally, we mustn’t forget that this is a poem designed to be sung to music. Therefore, there would have been some scope for understating or emphasising supplementary to the mere text.

Likewise, the musical aspect accounts for repetition. In this respect Homer is far more guilty than Hesiod, but understandably so. A repeated or ‘stock’ phrase would allow the performing bard time to gather his faculties before singing the next verse.

It should be stressed that the caveats above do not hope to diminish just how different Works and Days is from Theogony.

The former poem is a treatise on mythology, ethics, sailing, home-spun wisdom, superstition and, above all, farming.

It is a world away from the ethereal Theogony and its laudation of the practical, noble and wholesome unravels in a charming and, often, very amusing manner.

The poem is a long letter from Hesiod to his feckless and reckless brother, Perses.

In Works and Days Hesiod adopts the persona of, or actually really was, a curmudgeonly old son of the soil.

He comes across as…

  • Puritanical and joyless: “your wife should have matured four years before, and marry in the fifth year. She should be a virgin; you must teach her sober ways”.
  • Misogynistic: “Hermes the messenger put in [woman's] breast lies and persuasive words and cunning ways”.
  • Sanctimonious: “Oh foolish Perses, sailing in a ship because he longed for great prosperity”.

He’s also distrustful of city-folk, pleasure-seekers and dishonesty. But above all we recognise his industriousness, simplicity and innocence.

He is naïve, rural and quaint, bordering on twee.

If this really were a letter to an errant sibling, then one could imagine the response consisting of only two words; the second being ‘off’.

Farming olives

That’s not to say the advice is bad. Much of it gives an ignorant city-dweller (like myself) a pretty good rough guide to the mysteries of tilling the soil. Also, some of the more general and axiomatic fragments are heavy with sagacity.

Indeed, one can identify within the poem’s pages the inspiration for Polonius’ famous speech in act I scene III of Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”.

However, the superstitious snippets are often risible: “don’t piss towards the sun” is one such unforgettable piece of counsel.

Despite this, it would take a debater of Ciceronian stature to make a decent case that Theogony were the better poem.

Works and Days has greater and more flexible poetical guile, a more judicious use of vocabulary, and more evocative comparisons and contrasts than Theogony.

That said, there are undeniable crossovers between the works.

The Muses of Mount Helicon are invoked at the beginning of Theogony and again in Works and Days. Even supporters of the ‘two-poets’ argument admit that this is no coincidence. However, the best argument justifying this is that Helicon was some sort of literary pilgrimage site; an artistic Lourdes.

If the Hesiod of the Theogony had been the first such divinely inspired bard then it’s perceivable that a ‘Hesiod school’ could have appeared with countless scribblers using his name.

Perhaps this straw-clutching explanation isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. After all, it’s widely assumed some of Aristotle’s work was written by his pupils and colleagues. The same goes for the works of many Renaissance painters.

It’s also been hypothesised that ‘Hesiod’ was an honorific given to the most able poet among his contemporaries. However, given by whom and how are questions uncomfortably sidestepped.

Suffice to say this ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ idea holds about as much water as Tantalus drinks in a month.

Certainly such thinking, had it even been contemplated, would have been dismissed out of hand by the ancients. They didn’t merely think, but assumed both texts were the work of one man.

And though a majority of modern scholars argue for two poets, their numbers are partly outweighed by the leading cheerleader for a unified author; the exceptional American scholar, Richmond Lattimore.


Much like with the corresponding Homeric one, this is a debate which classicists love as there is hardly any evidence with which to make a refutation. What is more there’s nothing new likely to come to light and, providing there is always one dissenting voice, no chance of a resolution.

Something which does strike a note of concord is the assertion that Works and Days is a superb poem and Theogony is, at the very least, an extremely interesting one.

It may strike you that repudiating a two-and-a-half millennia old assertion that Hesiod wrote two poems simply because one is a better read than the other is a rather flimsy and extreme position to take. In such a respect you only have to think of your favourite author and compare their best to their worst book.

Luckily there is one way in which to reach a really satisfactory conclusion on the matter… but I’ll have to let you get on with that one yourself.

The Top 5 Dragon Slayers from Greek Mythology

by on August 22, 2014

By John Mancini

The original sword-wielding dragon slayer of legend was not the knightly Orlando saving Angelica, nor was it Sigurd killing Fafnir… And it wasn’t even the Archangel Michael or St. George.

It goes much further back than all of those… straight to the Ancient world.

In fact, the ancients had a fairly well-documented obsession with snakes, especially the large fire-breathing winged variety. From India to Egypt to Peru, a plethora of cultures around the world had some version of a snake-myth.

It was in Classical Greece, however, that the story elements were arguably perfected (at least in our opinion). There, the dragon-serpent antagonist was none other than the primeval water god, Poseidon, a close relative of Gaia, the earth goddess. He was, you could say, from the beginning of their time.

But what good is a story with the ideal ‘bad guy’ without the perfect hero?

Not much according to Ancient Greek mythology, which supplied some fantastic examples of monster vanquishing champions for us to cheer on.

So, without further adieu, let us look at the five original weapon-wielding dragon slayers ​from Greek mythology…

1. Apollo

Our first hero was more than just a man, but a god all together. Where better to start really, than with one of the most famous and favored of the Olympians, Apollo, the god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry, etc, etc.


His story begins with his house of worship: the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Appearing on coinage for centuries and supremely important to every culture that knew it, the temple was rebuilt five times in its several thousand year history.

In fact, the earliest version of the temple predated Homeric poetry and was likely devoted to an earth deity, not so dissimilar to our antagonist Poseidon, who was thought to be the most ancient possessor of the oracle.

Funnily enough, it was also supposedly the “earthshaker” Poseidon who was responsible for the earthquakes that destroyed the temple time and time again.

According to the mythology, a spring nearby the location of the temple was guarded by the large Python or she-dragon, which Apollo slayed upon arrival, thus freeing the people from their fear of the earth and its power.


After Apollo’s triumph at Delphi, the traditional omphalos (a rounded stone artifact and early focal point of the temple) came to feature a snake wrapped around it.

This marked it as a symbol of Apollo, the dragon slayer, god of wisdom and healing. The last trait he passed on to his son, Asclepius, who, according to Ovid, transformed into a snake and founded Rome.

2. Cadmus

The second dragon slayer on our list is Cadmus, a Phoenician prince who introduced the alphabet to Greece around 2000 B.C. On a quest to find his sister, Europa, he stopped at the Delphic temple to consult Apollo’s oracle, which led him to found the city of Thebes.

While building the Theban temple, Cadmus’ assistants were slain by a dragon as they attempted to collect water from a nearby spring. (Apparently dragons like hanging around springs.) Athena instructed Cadmus to slay the dragon and then sow its teeth into the ground like seeds. These seeds then grew into a fierce army.

Following Athena’s orders yet again, Cadmus threw a stone into the center of the advancing warriors, causing them to attack each other until only five remained. With these men, or Spartoi, he was able to complete the citadel.


Unfortunately for Cadmus, this wasn’t just any dragon; it had been sacred to the god Ares.

After its death, Cadmus had to do eight years penance, but was plagued nonetheless by the slaying. Cadmus’ family, as well as the city of Thebes, was cursed with innumerable tragedies, including the death of his four daughters and the fate of his grandson, Oedipus.

Eventually, overcome with his misfortune, he exclaimed that if the gods loved snakes so much, then he wished to become one. Ovid claimed that Cadmus and his wife Harmonia then turned into the reptiles and slithered away into the forest together. Other versions of the myth, however, say that the gods transformed them into snakes as punishment.

3. Jason

Our next dragon slayer is just like a comic book hero. His team, the Argonauts, were a seafaring crew that included Heracles, Asclepius, Orpheus, and Atalanta, among dozens of others. These larger than life lads accompanied Jason in his heroic quest for the Golden Fleece, which was, of course, guarded by a dragon.


Jason was sent by Poseidon’s son, Pelias, to fetch the Golden Fleece. Along the way, he acquired additional tasks: to plow a field with fire-breathing oxen, to steal a tooth from a dragon, and to slay the dragon that guarded the fleece.

Luckily for Jason, his lover Medea was trained in Hecate’s dark arts and gave him an ointment that would keep him from being burned by the oxen, in addition to a herbal potion with which he could put the dragon to sleep.

He did as advised and stole the tooth from the sleeping monster. Then, like Cadmus, he sowed the dragon tooth into the field, which grew into an army… and, again like Cadmus, he threw a rock into the middle of the crowd. Not knowing where the blow had come from, the army once more turned on each other and self-destructed.

In one version of this myth (and there are many), Jason is swallowed and then regurgitated by the dragon, thus reborn a bonafide hero.

4. Perseus

Next up is Perseus, the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty of Danaans. In fact, Perseus’ deeds were so grand that they went on to provide the founding myths of the Twelve Olympians, a first of the heroes of Greek mythology.

Of his conquests, one of the most memorable is the beheading of Medusa, the snake haired gorgon, with the aid of Athena’s polished shield. Afterwards, Perseus went on to slay another monster, the sea serpent Cetus sent by Poseidon.

This time it was to save Andromeda, his prize for slaying both dragons.

It is interesting to note that Cetus is essentially another aspect of Poseidon (being sent by him) and Medusa is often thought to be representative of nature’s wrath, something for which the sea God is notorious.

5. Heracles

The most accomplished of the Greek dragon slayers, Heracles, strangled his first snake when he was still just a baby in the cradle. Exhibiting strength, courage and ingenuity, he is considered the greatest of the Greek heroes, especially by the many Roman emperors who came to identify with him.


Heracles, in Greek, is another name for the sun. He is the ruler of the zodiac who rings in the new season by continuously slaying the old. Throughout his twelve labors he conquered two multi-headed snakes, including the Hydra and the Ladon.

In an interesting relationship to Jason’s and Perseus’ story, Heracles was instructed for his tenth labor to capture the “golden haired” cattle of the triple-headed Geryon (the son of Chryasaor, who, like his grandmother Medusa, lived on an island at the far edge of the western sea).

Besides mirroring Perseus’ earlier victory over Medusa, Heracles’ slaying of the Geryon follows as all his labors do… the archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey to slay the metaphorical dragon.

This, of course, begs the question: what does dragon slaying represent?

Of course we can never be certain, but it could be seen as a symbolic act of taming the wild, the natural, the demonic. Living in water but breathing fire, with the ability to swim as well as fly, the dragon embodies all the natural forces the ancients would have feared. Slaying them, meant slaying fear itself.

In Defense Of Aristotelian Ethics

by on August 18, 2014

By Van Bryan

Bertrand Russell once said that one quality that made Socrates a great philosopher was his ability to not become angered or annoyed even when his philosophical sparring partner was outright mocking him. And if we are judging good philosophers by that standard, then I am a terrible philosopher.

XXX If you ever want to see me get slightly annoyed, discuss ethical philosophy with me and make a case for absolute ethical relativism. If you want to see me get outright angry and attempt to strangle you, justify your position with the statement “Well, that’s just my opinion”.

Such an incident actually did occur while I was studying at my university some years ago. A friend of mine put it to me that there was no truth behind the idea of Justice (with a capital “J”), there was no Wisdom (with a capital “W”), and that there was no such thing as Goodness (with a capital “G”).

When I asked him to support his position, he responded by saying “Well… that’s just what I believe.” And it was all I could do to not scream at hime for committing such a terrible sin against philosophy.

The problem with being a philosopher, you and me are philosophers by the way, is that we are not entitled to our opinions. We are only entitled to what we can argue for. And we must, no matter how difficult it may be, acknowledge when a position has become indefensible and abandon the belief altogether.

Oh sure, you can have your own opinion about what type of ice cream flavor is best or which New York bar has the best happy hour drinks (It’s Barbounia on 20th and Park). However, when it comes to discovering answers to rather important questions, like how to live the best life in our case, not all opinions are created equal.

That might be difficult for some of us to swallow, but there it is. Some beliefs are better than others.

Martha Nussbaum uses the example of thunder in her paper “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach”. When examining thunder, we might wonder what it is that exactly causes it. One man might come forward and say that thunder is the result of the rapid expansion of XXX
air that occurs when lighting strikes. Another man might come forward and say that Zeus and his friends are up on Mount Olympus doing some bowling.

Now, while both explanations could account for observable phenomenon of thunder, one of them certainly seems more plausible. The second explanation, as cool as it sounds, is ultimately indefensible and must be discarded.

Another example is that if I were to have a toothache, I would probably go see a dentist. I would not, however, go to my favorite hot dog vendor and ask if he was interested in giving complex dental work a shot. You know, give it the old college try.

However, I digress. We are not talking about Zeus’ bowling habits or dental work or even hot dog vendors today. We are talking about the Aristotelean idea of non-relative virtues and the counter position which is referred to, by and large, as ethical relativism.

You see, my friend, the one whom I wanted to strangle, is what you might call an absolute ethical relativist. He holds the belief, despite my objections, that anybody’s idea of virtue is just as good as the next one. This means that the Aristotelean subject of non-relative virtues, the idea that there is an objective standard for good human behavior, is absolute nonsense.

It is worth noting that very few people are absolute ethical relativists. Many people are what we might call “cultural relativists”. This simply means that they believe every society holds different ideas of virtuous actions, and each of these ideas should be considered equal within the realm of ethical philosophy.

And this is where we often get into a bit of trouble. Ethical philosophers are often considered insensitive if they criticize a society’s practices, historical or otherwise. They are labeled as being ethnocentric, or culturally insensitive and, as a result, many people would prefer not to discuss the topic at all.

However, we must remember that even Aristotle, in his Politics, criticized his own culture and made notice of the ethical progress that the Greeks have undertaken over the centuries.

Politics “The customs of former times might be said to be too simple and barbaric. For Greeks used to go around armed with swords; and they used to buy wives from one another; and there are surely other ancient customs that are extremely stupid.” -Aristotle (Politics)

And so we must not be afraid to recognize that ethical progress exists and that we as rational beings ought to, in Aristotle’s words,

“…not seek the way of our ancestors, but the way of the Good.” -Aristotle (Politics)

If we are to make a defense for non-relative virtue, as well as the broader Aristotelian ethical philosophy, against the more contemporary ideas of ethical relativism, we must find a way to establish a universality between all cultures when it comes to the subject of virtuous behavior and a good life. This is a task that Aristotle is more than willing to undertake.

It is within The Nicomachean Ethics that Aristotle lays out very plainly the various realms of human life that ALL people will inevitably have to deal with. Within these spheres we are given a choice, to act virtuously or basely. Aristotle lists the corresponding virtues that ought to be followed.


Sphere Virtue
1. Fear of danger, especially death Courage
2. Bodily appetites and their pleasures Moderation
3. Distribution of limited resources Justice
4. Attitudes and actions regarding one’s self worth Greatness of Soul
5. The planning of one’s life and conduct Practical Wisdom


It is undeniable that every society, historical or otherwise, has had to deal with these various spheres of life and others. Every human being has or will have to face the prospect of death. Every person has an attitude towards the consumption of food and the experience of bodily pleasures. And it is undoubtedly true that every society has had to confront the reality of limited resources and respond accordingly.

“The point is that everyone makes some choices and acts somehow or other in these spheres: if not properly, then improperly.” -Martha Nussbaum (Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach)

Aristotle painting
Undoubtedly, people will disagree on exactly which actions within these various spheres makes a person virtuous or base. However, the Aristotelian has scored a small victory here. For if the relativist is arguing between which actions are best within these spheres, then they are no longer arguing for the nonexistence of objective virtue. Instead, we are grappling for a proper definition.

Just as we have progressed in the realm of scientific understanding, Aristotle tells us that we have similarly progressed in our understanding of ethical perfection. There was once a time in Greece when women were bought and sold as cattle. Aristotle points to this as a custom that was clearly stupid and base.

And so just as we prefer the heliocentric model of the solar system rather than believing that the earth is still flat as a means of conceptualizing the structure of the cosmos, so to must we recognize that the buying and selling of women is not a plausible action to arrive at human flourishing and ethical perfection.

From this we see that cultural traditions are not all viable options; that is to say that not all societal customs are equally plausible within the realm of ethical philosophy. Instead, we must recognize them as competing answers to the same question, the question of virtue.

And so we can conclude two things. The first is that not all behaviors within the spheres of life are equal, some are better than others. The second is that there most certainly is an absolute virtue that corresponds to the various spheres. We may not know precisely what it is, but we never stop trying to find it.

For this reason, Aristotle tells us that we ought to make it possible for laws to be changed when it is agreed upon by the people that a law is no longer corresponding with the idea of Goodness. However, the laws should not be so easily changed lest our legislation fall prey to impulsive opinions and prejudices of the populace.

Aristotle school of AthensThe ethical relativist is correct, however, on one small point. There exists many customs across many different cultures. And while they vary greatly, there is no doubting that these customs all partake of the same virtues, whether it be bravery, justice, or hospitality.

If you were to visit a friend in London, you might be greeted with a pot of tea and biscuits. However, if you were to travel to ancient Athens and sit with friends, you would fall under the ancient cultural practice of Xenia, a ritualized system of hospitality between guest and host. You might be served wine and olives. Perhaps you would even be offered a bath and receive a gift.

Even though the two customs would appear to differ greatly, and the practice of them are separated by thousands of years, there is still an idea of hospitality that is adhered to. There is the idea of well wishing, of mutual respect and friendship. In short, both customs partake of the same virtue, a virtue that is universally understood.

I never was able to convince my old friend of the existence of non-relative virtue. It is possible that he is still out there somewhere, viewing mass murder and charitable donations as being equally acceptable actions.

I have never been able to condone, or even understand, such thinking. It may seem compassionate of us to allow everybody their own opinion of virtue, of ethical soundness. However, in doing so we deny them the chance to arrive closer to true morality, to true goodness. I believe Aristotle would agree.

Further Reading

You can read “Non-Relative Virtue: An Aristotelian Approach” by clicking here.

A Bitter Pill to Swallow

by on August 14, 2014

By Ben Potter

This week we’re looking at a very controversial, and not-oft addressed topic in Ancient Greek and Roman history… one that might make a few of our readers a bit squeamish. That’s right, this column is all about archaic views towards birth, birth control, abortion and all things gynecological.

Consider yourself forewarned!

It should be highlighted that, as far as the Ancients were concerned, the term ‘birth control’ wasn’t a politically correct alternative to ‘contraception’. Much, perhaps most, of the relevant ointments, unguents, medicines and procedures were aimed at helping to induce, not prevent conception.


Such tests and therapies are outlined in the works of the father of medicine, Hippocrates. Notably Diseases of Women, On the Nature of the Woman, and On Sterile Women provide interesting insights into these attitudes and practices. We would go into further detail, but many of the prescribed treatments are a tad-bit too grotesque for these pages, especially those that include invasive surgeries and less than hygienic ‘fumigations’.

Suffice to say, Hippocrates may not have been on the firmest ground when writing about gynecology, at least less so than he was with most of his medical treatises. Mostly his writings on the topic include only passages (no pun intended) containing long lists of pharmacological remedies, the ingredients for which included the likes of: Sulfur, asphalt, laurel, lilies and animal excrement.

Though we might be inclined to disapprove (and more so if his exact procedures were disclosed above), it should be pointed out that he was not alone in being befuddled by the fairer sex.

The debate raged through antiquity whether to medically treat women exactly as men (but with different genitalia) or as a clear and distinct medical field, such as pediatrics and geriatrics… or even as an entirely different ‘race’ of people altogether!

Such confusion may have been why one explanation for menstruation was that women absorbed more liquid from their food because their skin was wet, spongy and, bizarrely, woolen! Thus, obviously, menses were necessary to rid the body of this excess moisture.


Hippocrates, perhaps because of accuracies in other areas, was never wholly discredited, but the 2nd century AD physician Soranus wrote Gynecology , a compendium for dealing with female patients and their problems.

This, most likely, had its biggest influence with regards to childbirth.

Soranus suggested women should give birth in a special birthing chair, or lie on a hard slab if they were particularly weak. He endorsed Aristotle’s centuries-old claim that controlled breathing is of great assistance, and stressed the need for midwives to be a supportive and calming influence to the mother-to-be.

He derided the use of drugs, shaking and induced sneezing as being efficacious in delivery. He also recommended that to relieve pain, the patient should have a warm towel placed on the midriff and be given sharply scented objects to sniff.

To avoid this blissful state entirely, necessary steps had to be taken. And there were several suggested means by which one could, if so desired, produce no end.

It is widely assumed, though nowhere proved, that the rhythm method was employed throughout antiquity. This calendar method, however, would certainly have resulted in countless unwanted pregnancies, as the time of highest ‘danger’ was incorrectly thought to be immediately before and after menstruation.


Alternate measures were taken though. An Egyptian papyrus indicates that, as early as the 16th century BC acacia, dates, and honey were mixed onto wool and used as a pessary for this purpose.

Though whether this acted as a spermicide or just had the effect of killing the mood isn’t quite clear!

The use of misy (possibly copper ore or an iron sulphate) was thought to effectively stave off pregnancy for up to a year.

Surprisingly, the efficacy of some ancient methods has been lent some credence. For instance, vinegar, oil or cedar resin was applied either directly or via a sponge and may all have been effective spermicides.

Other preventatives “could either be taken orally or used as pessaries, and included pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, willow, and the squirting cucumber” (Helen King).

It’s not easy to make a quantitative study as to how successful each of these particular practices was, as a belt and braces approach was employed to minimize any unwanted results. This meant that these precautionary measures were combined with post-coital cleansing, pessimal positions, and the use of amulets and other such superstitions.

It’s interesting to note that life for our Mediterranean forbears did not begin at conception… or more precisely they believed conception to be a process. This meant the distinction between an early abortion and contraception was either minimal or non-existent.

Indeed, many of the treatments and tinctures already mentioned are just as much contraceptives as they are abortifacients.

Hippocratic Oath

These blurred lines are even less clear when we consider that part of the Hippocratic Oath swears against the use of abortifacients. This becomes murkier still as (unlike its modern-day ubiquity) relatively few doctors would have sworn the oath… and even those that had may not have extended the prohibition to prostitutes.

What we do know of abortion is that, in Athens, it was (probably only) a crime against a deceased husband, as the unborn foetus would become the dead man’s heir.

The Greeks also believed that it caused a ritual pollution that took 40 days to heal. Interestingly enough, this is a similar amount of time modern doctors advise for patients to fully recover from a termination.

This ‘pollution’ may not be quite as dramatic as it sounds because, in early Greek culture, any blood-letting (even childbirth) resulted in ritual pollution.


The Romans, however, seem to have had no criminal law against the procedure and it was common right up to the early empire. It was only in the early 3rd century AD that it was banned by the emperors Severus and Caracalla.

All right, the squeamish may return. We’ll leave the controversial subject there and finish with this thought; despite their terrible misunderstanding of female anatomy and their willingness to subject women to unimaginable horrors, the Greeks and Romans were surprisingly curious and practical when it came to the principles of gynecological matters.

While we’re glad that they began such investigations, we’re also happy that others have continued… and vastly improved on their work.

Spartan Training: Crafting Warriors Of Legend

by on August 11, 2014

While the Spartans may not have been running laps around the Flatiron building with a kettlebell slung over their shoulder, they certainly did undergo some of the most intensive and brutal training of any civilization in ancient history.

SpartaThe Spartans, for whatever reason, wrote next to nothing of their culture, or if they did it has been lost. Almost all of what we know of the Spartan society comes from outside observers. And while many ancient authors make mention of the militaristic Lacedaemonians, it is Xenophon, a pupil of the philosopher Socrates, who associated most with the Spartans and, as a consequence, wrote extensively of the Spartan culture in his essay “The Polity of the Lacedaemonians”.

“The Polity of the Lacedaemonians”, sometimes referred to as “The Constitution of Sparta”, is most certainly an examination of Spartan culture at the height of supremacy. However, one might also mistake it as being a slight against other hellenic city states, including his own home-town, Athens.

He never comes right and shakes your shoulders, screaming “this is how it ought to be done!”. However, his admiration for Spartan society is so pronounced that one might find it difficult to keep in mind that Xenophon’s own birthplace, Athens, was undoubtedly Sparta’s bitterest rival.

Then again, it is possible that Xenophon’s bias might come from the fact that the Spartans took him in and granted him land after he had been exiled from Athens for associating with the Persian Empire and his support of the recently executed Socrates.

Whatever the reason for Xenophon’s admiration, there is no denying that “The Polity of the Lacedaemonians” is one of the most detailed descriptions of Spartan life. It lists the treatment of citizens, the education of children, and the duties of a warrior. And, at least according to Xenophon, the results seem to speak for themselves.

“I recall the astonishment with which I first noted the unique position[2] of Sparta amongst the states of Hellas, the relatively sparse population,[3] and at the same time the extraordinary power and prestige of the community. I was puzzled to account for the fact. It was only when I came to consider the peculiar institutions of the Spartans that my wonderment ceased.”-Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)

Xenophon begins his examination with the topic of child bearing in the Spartan society. It was the aim of Sparta that all children be born healthy, strong, and grow up to be warriors.

With this in mind, the Spartan women were treated with a level of equality that was unheard of in the days of ancient Greece. Rather than being confined to the household, Spartan women regularly competed in athletic competitions and trained, just as the men would, in a gymnasium. The idea behind such treatment is that in order to produce the best children, both the father and the mother must be healthy, fit, and strong.

When it came to the training of the children, Xenophon makes a point to mention that within most Greek city states it is common for individual children to be educated by a tutor, normally a slave owned by the father. For the Lacedaemonians, such a practice would be unthinkable.

Instead, the Spartan boys are taken en masse and assigned to a group of guardians and mentors known as Paidonomos, or “pastors”. The Paidonomos were selected from the most revered of the magistracies and were assigned by the Legislature of the city. They were given complete authority over the children of Sparta, often punishing them with lashings.

While we might frown on such a practice, the result, in the words of Xenophon, was that…


“…in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either.” -Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)

XXXThe actual training of the Spartan youth was brutal, focusing on cultivating skills such as fighting, stealth, pain tolerance, as well as dancing, singing, and developing loyalty to the Spartan state. With the exception of the first born sons of the ruling houses, the young boys of Sparta entered into this training curriculum, known as Agoge, starting at the age of seven. They would train in the art of fighting for decades, eventually becoming reserve infantry at the age of eighteen, regular foot soldiers at the age of twenty, and eventually full Spartan citizens, with the rights to vote and hold office, at the age of thirty.
The specifics of the Agoge training are not clear. Xenophon does describe in some detail that young boys were not only allowed to fight, but were regularly encouraged to challenge each other to regular bouts.


“Necessity, moreover, is laid upon them to study a good habit of the body, coming as they do to blows with their fists for very strife’s sake whenever they meet.”-Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)

To develop a tolerance for pain, the Spartan youth were deprived of certain luxuries. For instance, during the Agoge, Spartan boys were never given shoes. In time, their feet would grow hardy and strong. It is reported by Xenophon that a barefooted Spartan soldier could outrun and out climb any other Greek citizen clad with shoes.

StatueAdditionally, the boys were given only one garment of clothing. They were regularly subjected to extreme cold, all while only wearing a single cloak. In this way the young soldiers would gain a tolerance to the elements.

They were given minimal food, not so little that they would ever suffer from the sharp pangs of hunger, but never enough that their body would be completely satisfied. This was, again, a way to condition the boys for the pains of hunger and allow them to fight all the more ferociously on an empty stomach.

If the boys wished to find meals outside of their mess halls, it was encouraged that they should steal food. This might seem strange. While the boys were encouraged to steal, they were also severely beaten if they were ever caught in the act. Xenophon rationalizes such a practice by saying that in this way those who lack proper stealth will be punished and learn to acquire their quarry more effectively.


“So they, the Lacedaemonians, visit penalties on the boy who is detected thieving as being but a sorry bungler in the art. So to steal as many cheeses as possible [off the shrine of Orthia[17]] was a feat to be encouraged; but, at the same moment, others were enjoined to scourge the thief, which would point a moral not obscurely, that by pain endured for a brief season a man may earn the joyous reward of lasting glory.” -Xenophon (Polity of The Lacedaemonians)

And so the young Spartans were crafted and honed into some of the greatest warriors of the ancient world. They knew no other life than that of protecting the Spartan homeland and they sought no higher goal than an honorable death in service of Sparta.

It would have been unthinkable for a Spartan warrior to retreat while on the battlefield. As regular infantry, the soldiers would rather die in battle rather than face the shame of retreat in Sparta.

This tradition of bravery and ferocity in battle has recently been dramatized in popular media and has captured the imagination of modern society. For whatever reason, the ancient Spartans remain a topic of intense fascination. They lived according to a code of war. And whenever they entered battle, they knew that they would either return home carrying their shields, or else carried upon it.

Caesar’s Gaul

by on August 8, 2014

By Benjamin Welton

When it comes to Julius Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic wars, it’s clear to see that propaganda was his chief concern. Of course, he claims to have recorded his conquest for the purposes of posterity, namely that his notes would be the source material for a later, more qualified Roman historian. But despite his main motivations, his accounts have, in fact, become one of our most important resources regarding a mysterious peoples.

Dying Gaul

(The Dying Gaul, or the Dying Galatian, an ancient Roman depiction of a defeated Celtic warrior)

Covering modern-day France, Belgium, and parts of Switzerland and Germany, the Gallic Wars (58-50 B.C.) saw Caesar conquer most of the Celtic world on the Continent.

Not only that, but it also included two Roman invasions of Britain, neither of which netted the distant island for the empire. (That, of course, came later in 43 AD under the leadership of the emperor Claudius.) Ultimately, after many years of campaigning and putting down several Gallic rebellions, Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. on his way to winning the civil war for the Populares, or the Roman aristocratic leaders who relied on the people’s assemblies and tribunate for power.

After victory in 45 B.C., Caesar was crowned Dictator Perpetuo and thus the 500-year reign of the Roman Republic imploded, due to the insidious cancers of autocracy and the cult of personality.

In the wider scope of Roman history, Caesar’s political victory was the result of his military accomplishments, especially his success in Gaul. Among his men, Caesar commanded complete authority and trust, and because of this, Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico – his third-person account of the wars – is replete with examples of Roman courage and prowess in battle.

While these passages are intended to show the brilliance of Caesar’s command, they also serve to highlight something starker – the inferiority of the Gauls (according to Caesar) and the Gallic way of war.

Much like the later Germania by Tacitus, which primarily concerns itself with an ethnographic view of the Germanic tribesmen, who would eventually bring down the Western Roman Empire, Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul offers up a sociological analysis of a “barbarian” people from the point-of-view of their conquerors.

Sadly, history has only left behind fragments of the Gaulish language, and few, if any, of these documents pertain to the Gallic Wars. In this sense, Caesar’s account of the Gauls is still the best resource for scholars interested in France’s Celtic past.

Gallic Warriors

(Modern interpretation of ancient Gallic warriors)

In Caesar’s account, the Gauls are described as somewhat lazy, fiercely independent, and prone to violence, although not as warlike as their Germanic neighbors. In Book VI, Caesar writes:

In Gaul, not only every tribe, canton, and subdivision of a canton, but almost every family, is divided into rival factions. At the head of these factions are men who are regarded by their followers as having particularly great prestige, and these have the final say on all questions that come up for judgement and in all discussions of policy.

Unlike the Germans and the Belgic tribes who were ruled by kings, the Gallic tribes were predominantly ruled by oligarchies composed of warrior noblemen, who are called “knights” in most English translations of Caesar’s text. These Gallic knights acted as magistrates, military leaders as well as serf-holding landowners. In this, they eerily presaged the later feudal system of the medieval period – a system that saw its greatest heights in France, no less.

According to Caesar, the development of the Gallic oligarchies was brought about in order that “all the common people should have protection against the strong.”

Caesar, who came from a family with a history of supporting people’s assemblies and other populist causes, more than likely found this praiseworthy. Throughout his notes he is keen on showing how the Gauls, who had by this time become acquainted with Roman and Mediterranean customs due to trade, differ from the more “uncivilized” Germans.

Caesar’s notes from the Gallic Wars also include some of the earliest descriptions of Gallic religious traditions, especially in regards to the Druids. Long the favorites of horror and suspense writers, the mysterious Druids were the priestly class among the Celts, and as such, Caesar spends some time in describing their manner:

The Druids officiate the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions. Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction, and they are held in great honour by the people. They act as judges in practically all disputes, whether between tribes or between individuals; when any crime is committed, or a murder takes place, or a dispute arises about an inheritance or a boundary, it is they who adjudicate the matter and appoint the compensation to be paid and received by the parties concerned.

Two Druids

(A 19th-century engraving of two Druids)

Caesar’s descriptions do not stop there either, for he also claims that the Druids, unlike the common people, were ruled by a single and supreme priest, who either earned the office owing to his merits or was elected to it by his peers. Furthermore, the Druids of Continental Europe looked to Britain as the origin and seat of all Druidic doctrine.

Of all the claims that Caesar’s notes make about Gallic customs, none is more sensational than a single line entry concerning human sacrifices:

As a nation the Gauls are extremely superstitious; and so persons suffering from serious diseases, as well as those who are exposed to the perils of battle, offer, or vow to offer, human sacrifices, for the performance of which they employ Druids. They believe that the only way of saving a man’s life is to propitiate the god’s wrath by rendering another life in its place, and they have regular state sacrifices of the same kind. Some tribes have colossal images made of wickerwork, the limbs of which they fill with living men; they are then set on fire, and the victims burnt to death (emphasis mine).

This horrendous image of a colossal wicker man filled with living humans bound for a fiery death is arguably the most culturally important image in The Conquest of Gaul. Specifically, Caesar’s brief description of a certain type of human sacrifice practiced by the Gallic tribes inspired not only a 1967 British horror novel by David Pinner, but also a whole genre of cinematic horror – Mark Gatiss’ “folk horror.”

Chief among these films is Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man. A strange, disturbing film about an isolated pagan outpost in the Scottish Hebrides, it has helped like none other to popularize Caesar’s text, which before had been mostly known for its exemplary use of unadorned, straightforward Latin.

Wicker Man

(The Wicker Man awaits)

Some historians and classicists may cringe at the idea that Caesar’s account of his campaigns in Gaul has primarily inspired horror movies as well as Astérix, René Goscinny’s beloved comic series about a village full of lovable Gauls.

However, it remains that his writings and descriptions allow for such inferences, because despite the many discussions concerning military tactics and battlefield politics, The Conquest of Gaul is a stylized portrait of a peculiar people. Moreover, because the Gauls, along with their Celtic brethren on the Continent, still remain enigmatic, the opportunities for speculative interpretations are many.

This mixture of fact and fiction is at the core of Caesar’s account and since few popular representations of Gallic and/or Celtic paganism can escape Caesar’s text, it still remains that The Conquest of Gaul is the seminal, yet biased authority on all matters Celtic. So perhaps in spite of Caesar’s best propaganda efforts, he still left an important historical reference.