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The Arc of Deucalion

by on November 27, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

Name this man: when warned that the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed by an enormous flood, he—the only pious man worth saving—and his wife built an ark, in which they both survived the flood. After the waters receded, and once the ark had come aground on the top of a mountain, he and his wife gave thanks for their salvation and proceeded to repopulate the earth.

If you guessed the biblical Noah, then you’re only half wrong. The description above could in fact be perceived as a rough sketch of Noah’s story, found in the first book of the Bible, but in this case I’m not talking about Noah—I’m talking about Deucalion.

the floodDeucalion was surviving divine floods before it was cool

Let’s backtrack a little. Creation myths are, as the name suggests, largely symbolic stories that narrate the creation of the world and the human species. Almost every culture has its own version of an ancient creation myth (some taken more seriously than others). Ancient Greek culture in particular has several creation myths with which we are relatively familiar, thanks to middle-school “Social Studies” lessons about the Greek pantheon (not to mention popular culture, and/or newsletters like this one!).

Deucalion has a major role to play in the creation myths of Ancient Greece, but before we can talk about his contribution, we need to briefly take a look at his father, the much more famous Prometheus.

The Benefactor of Mankind

Prometheus is known in the myths (many of which are preserved in texts such as Hesiod’s Theogeny and Ovid’s Metamorphoses) as the creator of mankind. Though the details vary across sources, it is generally agreed upon that Prometheus, though he was a Titan, was not punished by the Olympian gods (Zeus, etc.) after they seized

If you guessed the biblical Noah, then you’re only half wrong….

power because he (and his brother, Epimetheus) had chosen not to fight in the war between the Titans and Olympians.

Zeus then gave the two brothers the task of populating the Earth. Epimetheus created the animals, happily (and somewhat recklessly) endowing them with gifts like swiftness, hard shells, claws, and more—in fact, by the time Prometheus had finished forming man out of clay, there were no gifts left to give him. Seeing that this was the case, Prometheus decided to fashion man in the image of the gods—he gave man the ability to walk upright, so that he could keep his gaze on the heavens, he gave man the gift of reason, and (this is, of course, the gift for which Prometheus is most famous) gave man the gift of fire, without which mankind could never have survived.

the flood
Prometheus giving the gift of fire

Some sources say that Zeus had already taken fire away from mankind, and that Prometheus stole it back, or that Zeus had never wanted humans to have fire in the first place—either way, Prometheus defied him, and was horrifically punished: he was chained to a rock, where he would be defenseless against the eagle that slowly picked out and ate his liver over the course of the day. At night, his liver would grow back, and in the morning the whole grisly process would start again.

So, thanks to the valiant Prometheus, man was made out of clay and, with the gift of fire, was able to grow and flourish and form civilization—but, so the legend goes, mankind also began to quickly fall into a state of utter depravity. Zeus (never a fan of humankind to begin with) was appalled by their behavior, and by the time Lycaon, the king of Arcadia (in an effort to test whether Zeus was really omniscient) killed his own young son and served the boy’s cooked flesh to the god at a banquet, Zeus’ patience had already worn thin. Enraged by Lycaon’s degenerate actions, Zeus made the decision to destroy all of mankind.

After all, why bother throwing out the bad apples when you can just as easily burn the whole orchard?!

I Never Liked Those Human Anyway…

According to Ovid, Zeus almost destroyed humankind by barraging the Earth with lightning bolts, but stopped when he realized that the resulting fire would probably destroy all of creation. Instead, he chose a punishment that would wipe out the humans, without causing much permanent damage to the earth itself: a flood.
He and Poseidon worked together to create a sudden and massively destructive flood, with Zeus controlling the storm clouds and Poseidon commanding the rivers and oceans to overflow. The entire ordeal lasted about nine days, and by the time the waters receded, all of mankind had drowned.

All, that is, except one married couple: Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha. Some sources say that, because of Deucalion’s piety and loyalty to the gods, he was warned (either by his father or by one of the Olympian gods) about the flood, and told to build a sturdy ark. Other sources (like the Metamorphoses) imply that Deucalion and his wife simply got lucky, managed to find a boat, and were allowed to live because they humbly gave thanks to the gods for their survival.

Their little boat ran aground on the only dry spot on earth: the very top of Mount Parnassus (though the mountain differs from source to source). As the waters receded and the elderly couple abandoned the boat, they were suddenly faced with the daunting realization that it would be their job to repopulate the earth.

Understandably terrified by this prospect, they decided to ask the “goddess of prophecy,” Themis, for advice. They travelled to the site of her oracle and prayed for guidance. Moved by their piety, Themis gave them this divine message:

Leave this sanctuary, cover your heads and ungirdle your garments, then cast the bones of your mighty mother behind your backs. (Ovid, 1.382-383).


After a few moments of confusion (in which Deucalion and Pyrrha were rather shocked at the unholy prospect of disrespecting their mothers’ bones), they realized that Themis meant their common mother, Mother Earth. Deucalion reasoned that the bones of Mother Earth must be the stones on the ground, and so they followed the divine advice and threw stones over their shoulders. All the stones thrown by Deucalion transformed into men, and all the stones thrown by Pyrrha transformed into women; and so, says Ovid,

…our race is a hard one; we work by the sweat of our brow, and bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin (1. 414-415).


In this way, Deucalion and Pyrrah were able to repopulate the earth—and, even in their old age, they were also blessed with their own children, many of which came to be regarded as extremely important in the creation myths of Greece. In fact, one of their children, a boy named Hellen, is considered the mythical ancestor of the entire Greek race, and is the origin of the demonym, “Hellenes,” by which the Greek people are still known.

The Appeal of The Odyssey

by on November 16, 2015

By Ben Potter

Even those of you who have only recently taken an interest in the classical world will have a pretty decent idea about what to expect when picking up a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, his blockbuster sequel to the Trojan War epic, the Iliad.


This familiar tale of the eponymous Odysseus taking ten long years to traverse the breadth of Greece, from the ruins of Troy to his home on Ithaca (having already spent ten years fighting the war itself), can be roughly divided into four distinct sections:

Books I-IV deal with the adventures of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

Books V-VIII show Odysseus being released from the clutches of the nymph Calypso, to whom our hero has been a sex-slave for seven years. He then travels to Scheria, home of the noble Phaeacians.

Books IX-XII contain stories told by Odysseus to the Phaeacian king and queen about why it has taken him so long to get home. Here are recounted the most famous stories of Odysseus e.g. Circe turning his men to pigs, the descent into the underworld, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis.

Books XIII-XXIV show Odysseus back on Ithaca going about his heroic business of vanquishing a group of Suitors – uncouth local nobles who have taken up at his court, who are attempting to kill his son and marry his wife, Penelope (and with her take the throne of Ithaca).

So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring? Why does it unquestioningly rank as one of the greatest of all great works and retain a special place in the heart of academics and laymen alike?

Well, there’re plenty of obvious reasons – the very most obvious of which is that it is, of course, a very high quality piece of literature. That aside, there’s also the hugely important historical and cultural significance of the

So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring?

piece. Perhaps no other secular (i.e. non-holy) work has had a greater impact on the world than that of Homer.

Not only do the Homeric texts underpin so much of ancient Greek culture, but they, by proxy, have a similar such influence on Roman, European, and (if somewhat obliquely) New World cultures.

On top of this, the Odyssey can boast a great richness of language and would have been rhythmically (i.e. poetically) pleasing – even if this last aspect is somewhat lost on us today.

So, there’s plenty to shout about in terms of style and significance, but what about substance? What details of plot and character have managed to excite and amaze for the better part of three millennia?

Odysseus and the Cyclops

There are, of course, plenty of (what we would now call) dramatic staples, certainly enough to write a pulse-quickening blurb on the back of the dust-jacket: a sea-tossed hero, a family in danger, seductive femme-fatales, constant peril, fights, races, monsters, romance, sex, blood, noble peasants, evil aristocrats, a flawed hero, a long suffering wife, capricious gods… you can almost picture the cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul tripping over himself in a rush to buy the exclusive rights (despite complaining: “but the name’s no darn good. Odysseus!? Let’s call him… Buster MacNally”).

All this is well and good and certainly lends human interest and spectacular grandeur to the work, but one of the most intriguing things about the epic, one of the things that make its analysis and rereading so rewarding, is much more psychological and cerebral. In the words of eminent Homeric scholar P.V. Jones: “the rich interaction of past and present is one of the great glories of the Odyssey”.

Odysseus in the Underworld

Obviously, being a sequel, the Odyssey harks back to the Iliad and the entire mythology (more like a heroic history to the Greeks) surrounding the Trojan War. In particular, Book XI – the Nekyia (the book of the dead) – gives us a chance to indulge in a veritable smorgasbord of Trojan War heroes who spellbind the audience with their ghoulish cameos.

This retrospective, however, may not tickle everyone’s fancy; indeed it may only pique the interest of Iliad lovers or Greek mythology nerds. Moreover, the fact that Homer’s depictions have become canonised means that the revelations from the lips of the deceased, though of interest, do not create the same wide-eyed wonder in a modern audience as they would have done in antiquity.

However, this orgy of nostalgia may only have been part of what Jones was referring to. A much more interesting notion (and here we pick up on the cerebral and psychological aspect) is that books IX-XII are a complete fantasy.

The Plot Twist of The Odyssey

These four books contain the tales told by Odysseus to his regal hosts on the island of Scheria/Phaeacia. However, unlike the other stories in the epic which are told to us by the poet, these tales are directly narrated by Odysseus himself; what is more, all of the characters who shared in these adventures with him (i.e. his crew) have died. Thus, so the theory goes, the Odyssey isn’t merely one of the earliest examples of folklore and epic poetry we have, but may also have given birth to a ‘Kaiser Soze’ style plot-twist.

This idea is given credence as more than merely a literary conspiracy-theory by the nature of the main character, a nature that is defined by the epithets Homer gives him: ‘master of stratagems’, ‘cunning’ and ‘nimble-witted’. Let’s not forget that Odysseus was the man to come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse in the first place; duplicity and lies are part of his make-up… and a noble and heroic part at that.

OdysseusOdysseus and the Sirens

Okay, so maybe we’re happy to accept that our hero could do this, but why would he? Well, the two popular theories are as follows: the first is that he is doing it to enhance his kleos, the ultimate goal for every Homeric hero. Kleos is often loosely translated as ‘reputation’, but more accurately means ‘what people hear about you’. The key point is that it is not necessary for the things heard to be true, only that they are recounted through the ages. Thus, Odysseus has ten unaccounted-for years to fill up with fantastical stories that glorify his name.

N.B. An interesting, if slightly paradoxical, point is that it would not really matter if it became known that Odysseus had lied about his journey between Tory and Scheria, provided that he had managed to trick people into believing what he’d said was true. Either the actions themselves (i.e. defeating the Cyclops, etc.) or the brilliant lies about them are enough to elevate him to legendary hero status.

The other explanation is that the twenty years of war and storm-tossed seas (and whatever else he got up to if the stories he tells King Alcinous were falsified) have left our protagonist with a psychology that’s either inherently mistrustful, or perversely deranged. In other words, either he’s gotten so used to lying to protect himself that doing so has become an instinct, or maybe even a compulsion, or alternately he is suffering from some sort of trauma – perhaps PTSD – and fantastical deceit is one of its manifestations.

N.B. Obviously there was no such label as PTSD in ancient Greece, but, given Homer’s knowledge of war, we can assume he was either a fighter himself, or was in contact with soldiers. Thus, he would have observed the psychological effects of war, even if they had been dismissed as something more basic e.g. mischief from the gods or cowardice.

OdysseusOdysseus fights Penelope’s suitors

This idea of compulsive behavior has its best evidence at the end of the epic after Odysseus has been re-established as king of Ithaca and his identity is commonly known. Known to all, that is, except his ancient father, Laertes, who is pining for his lost, possibly dead, son. Instead of revealing his identity and embracing Laertes, Odysseus claims to be called Eperitos, son of Apheidas, from Alybas. He only actually reveals who he is after his elderly father has some sort of panic attack.

If our hero cannot bring himself to be honest with his own frail father and feels the need to instantly concoct a rather pointless and hurtful falsehood, then surely we must question the authority of everything he says that Homer, as narrator, doesn’t corroborate?

Interestingly, if we do dismiss what Odysseus says to the Phaeacians as a pack of lies, then there is nothing overtly supernatural or otherworldly in the epic. Though gods do appear, speak and act in the present (as opposed to the past) passages of the book, their actions are only an extrapolation or interpretation of physically accountable things i.e. giving somebody strength, making someone more beautiful, planting an idea in someone’s head etc.

So did Homer want us to ask questions about the mental capacity or moral fibre of his hero? Well… possibly, possibly not. However, it does seem likely that the rich texture of the work and psychology of the characters is not something that happened by accident, but was devised by an author who was either instinctively in tune with the nuances of human nature, or the world’s first student of psychology!

It is up to us to put our faith in whatever Odysseus we prefer. If we decide to believe in the one who fabricated all of the weirdest and most wondrous tales from perhaps the most famous story ever told, then we can. If we prefer to take him on face value, then our hero is simply extraordinarily strong, courageous and intelligent. Indeed, he is these three things whichever view we take. However, if we take the former, more psychological, view—then a new and intriguing question comes to the fore, one that could barely be answered in all the pages of all the Odysseys that have ever been published: what exactly was Odysseus up to for those ten, lost years?

Conspiracy theories on a postcard to the usual address!

Hades and the Kingdom of the Dead

by on October 29, 2015

HadesBy Nicole Saldarriaga

There were many things an Ancient Greek could fear. After all, there were capricious and vengeful gods to appease, and no small list of monsters and mythical creatures to haunt their nightmares. However, there is one being that many Ancient Greeks feared most of all—in fact, most people wouldn’t even dare to speak his name or the name of his horrifying realm—Hades and his underground Kingdom of the Dead.

This seems like a no-brainer, right? If there’s anything that human beings seem to fear (whether they do so consciously or not), it’s death. It’s no surprise that Hades, as the god of death, would not only be feared but also avoided as much as possible. Other than a few noteworthy exceptions, Hades—unlike his divine brothers and sisters—was not depicted much in ancient artwork, did not have many temples constructed in his name, and was generally not worshipped as regularly or by as many people. I mean, if you find it terrifying even to say a god’s name, it may understandably be difficult to hold feast days in his honor.

Hades brothersZeus, Poseidon, and Hades

All told, this may seem like just another example of Hades drawing the short stick—and in this case that’s not an idiom. After Zeus forced his father, Cronos, to disgorge Zeus’ brothers and sisters (whom he had swallowed in order to circumvent any threats to his power), and after Cronos’ children overthrew his rule as supreme god, Zeus and his two brothers—Poseidon and Hades—drew lots to decide which realms they would rule. Normally, according to Greek law, the eldest brother (which in this case was Hades) would have been granted the biggest and best kingdom; but Hades was cheated out of his rightful place and title as king of the gods by the drawing of lots (though it seems like an arbitrary system, it was a customary solution to difficult decision-making issues). He drew the shortest stick, and therefore had to accept the twisted, dark, Underworld as his realm while his youngest brother became king of the gods and erected his kingdom in the sky. Top that off with the fact that most people were too afraid of him to worship him, and it seems like the eldest of the Olympians got a pretty rough deal.

CerberusCerberus, Hades’ guard-dog

On some level it’s easy to understand why Hades wasn’t very well liked as a god, or at least why the Ancient Greeks would have wanted to keep him at a distance. As ruler of the Underworld, he was heavily associated with death (though he is not Death incarnate—there was another god for that, named Thanatos), and your average mortal human isn’t usually comfortable thinking about death too seriously. The Ancient Greeks in particular had a lot to fear from death. The Underworld was a notoriously harsh place full of terrifying creatures like Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed guard dog, the grotesque Furies, and the Hekatonkheirs (giants which had one hundred hands and fifty heads), just to name a few; and while the Underworld did include a paradise called the Elysian fields, that balmy and beautiful place was reserved for only the most heroic of figures. Everyone else ended up in the Fields of Asphodel—a grey and uninteresting limbo where the shades of the average Joes and Janes wandered aimlessly for all eternity—or in Tartarus, where the evil were punished for their behavior in life by some truly creative methods of torture.

Even more terrifying to the average Ancient Greek was the way in which death could affect the world of the living. Not only was the death of a loved one associated with the pain of loss and loneliness, but it was also riddled with anxiety. Customary burial rites were very specific and important—it was believed that performing them incorrectly could lead to disaster for both the spirit of the deceased and for those left behind.

CharonA popular example of this is that of the coin placed under the deceased’s tongue or on their eyelids. This coin was payment for Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld who took the shades of the newly dead across the River Styx and into the Underworld proper. If a shade had no coin with which to pay Charon, he would not be allowed to cross the Styx, and would never make it into Hades’ kingdom—instead he or she would be forced to wander the earth restlessly and might even haunt those who failed to perform the proper burial rites. This was a terrifying prospect for the Ancient Greeks, who not only wanted to avoid being haunted, but who also believed that the continual presence of shades on earth could actually drain life out of the living.

Clearly, there was a lot to fear in death; and Hades, as the King of Death, was not the most beloved figure in ancient mythology. However, with fear comes a certain amount of respect, and in many ways the dark and gloomy Hades got a lot of it.

EleusisArcheologists have found the ruins, located in the Greek town of Eleusis, of at least one temple that may have been dedicated to Hades and his queen, Persephone. Historical records indicate that though it did not happen as often as it did for other gods, Hades was, on occasion, ritually worshipped, and with a great deal of servile deference. Those who prayed to Hades would bang their hands or even their heads against the ground in order to get his attention, worshippers would avert their eyes or turn their whole heads away from statues and altars while making sacrifices of beautiful black animals, and special pits were dug in which the sacrificial blood was poured so that it would reach Hades more easily. After a while, because his proper name would not be spoken, Hades was referred to as Plouton, closely related to the Greek for “giver of wealth,” because he was thought to be responsible for the precious minerals found in the ground—he was thus venerated for a time as a god of wealth as well as a god of the Underworld.

It would seem, then, that despite Hades’ slightly unpopular reputation, he was never completely forgotten or ignored. The Ancient Greeks may have feared death and the Realm of the Dead in the extreme, but that also means that when they did have to address death, they were incredibly respectful of its power. It was, no doubt (and perhaps still is), an intensely complicated relationship with our own mortality. So maybe Hades didn’t get the rawest deal after all—he was the god of that thing that all of us fear (even if only slightly), that thing that keeps us up at night, that thing that has inspired countless philosophies which are supposed to release us from the fear of its grip. To some extent, humans never stop talking about death or the afterlife.

Maybe the eldest Olympian got the biggest kingdom after all.

Beware The Minotaur

by on October 20, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath, and imagine that on the inhale, your nose and mouth are flooded with the smell of mold, dank water, and even worse, what is unmistakably the smell of blood—a lot of it. You are in The Labyrinth. The light in its dizzying corridors is murky, almost non-existent, and the combination of fear and darkness makes it difficult for you to move—but you stumble along anyway, quickly as you can, your breath sharp and painful in your throat, because somewhere in the darkness behind you, there are footsteps…heavy ones. You are being hunted.

What you just imagined comes straight out of an Ancient Greek myth—one with which many people are familiar: the myth of the Minotaur.

MinotaurThe Minotaur, according to legend, was the very definition of grotesque. He had the body of an enormous, powerful man, but instead of a human face, he had the head of a twisted and deformed bull. Though the Minotaur sounds like a Frankensteinian experiment gone wrong, he is actually the biological offspring of a woman and a bull.

The story goes something like this: Minos, the powerful king of Crete, prayed to Poseidon, requesting that the sea-god send him a white bull from the sea. The creature was meant to be a sign of Poseidon’s support and approval of Minos’s rule, and it was Minos’s duty to sacrifice the animal in Poseidon’s name in order to show his gratitude for the divine endorsement. The bull, however, was incredibly beautiful—so beautiful that Minos decided to keep it. He sacrificed a different bull instead, hoping that Poseidon wouldn’t notice the difference.

Of course, the god could not be so easily fooled; and he chose to punish Minos in a very interesting way. Poseidon caused Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the bull. Overcome with lust for the animal, she had Daedalus—a master inventor—construct a kind of hollow wooden cow in which she could hide. Pasiphae had this false cow placed in the pasture where the bull would graze, and the animal, fooled by the disguise, mounted the wooden contraption—with Pasiphae inside it. Some months later, she gave birth to the Minotaur. Pasiphae

So—what do you do with a half-human, half-bull child—and one whose only source of nourishment seems to be human flesh? Minos, enraged and more than a little ashamed by the whole situation, decided to imprison his half-son forever. He had Daedalus build a labyrinth—one so vast and confusing that it was virtually impossible to escape—and he abandoned the Minotaur in its depths.

Fast forward a few years, and Minos wages war on Athens. According to the myth, the war was a direct result of the murder of Androgeus, Minos’ legitimate (and human) son. Some say Androgeus was killed by the young men of Athens, who were jealous of his brilliant performance at the Panathenaic Festival (a kind of pre-cursor to the Olympic games), and other sources claim that he was killed by a bull on the direct orders of Aegeus, king of Athens.

Whatever the reason, Crete and Athens went to war, and Crete emerged the victor (keep in mind that the myth is set during a period of history when Athens was still a disorganized little conglomerate of cities, and Crete—largely thanks to its impressive navy—was easily more powerful than Athens and most of the other surrounding communities).Victorious but not yet satisfied, Minos then forced Athens to send him a tribute (some sources say yearly, while others say every nine years) of seven young virgin men and seven young virgin women—all of whom would be sacrificed to the Minotaur. This continued until the legendary Theseus, son of Aegeus, conquered the Labyrinth with a simple ball of twine and battled the Minotaur, finally killing the beast.

Theseus So goes the myth; and it certainly would not be incorrect to call it a crowd favorite. The labyrinth, in particular, remains a popular motif in horror stories and psychological thrillers. There is something about the idea of being trapped in a maze, all sense of direction lost, which triggers an instinctual fear in us. Throw in a blood-thirsty monster, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a nightmare.

But what happens when you deconstruct the myth? Tracing the legend back to its possible origins may not make it any less deliciously chilling, but it’s certainly worth doing, if only so that we get a better glimpse of the cultural climate at the time.

The first important thing to keep in mind is that the myth of the Minotaur is an entirely Athenian one. On some level, then, the myth may have been a way for Athenian citizens to process their feelings toward the Minoans on Crete (think of it as a “well, they may have been more powerful than us but their queen slept with a bull and they did awful things like feed people to a monster” kind of thing). This is supported by the fact that King Minos, in other myths and sources, is famous for wisdom, shrewd judgement, and a rule which led to a flourishing of culture on Crete. That is quite a contrast to the Athenian myths, which painted Minos as a terrifying dictator while singing the praises of Athenian heroes (like Theseus).

The Athenians could have come up with any crazy rumor to defame the Minoans, however. Why did they land on a man-eating bull-monster in a labyrinth, specifically?

KnossosRuins of the palace at Knossos

Some possible answers to that question were uncovered about a century before our time. In 1900 CE, an archeologist named Sir Arthur Evans began to dig on Crete in what his colleagues considered a demented and ridiculous search for the city of Knossos—a city that was considered the possible home of King Minos and largely legendary. Surprisingly, Evans found it. As he dug, he uncovered the ruins of an elaborate palace that, all-told, would have had something like five stories and a thousand rooms laid out in a winding, seemingly random order. Strangest of all, the palace had no hallways—each room was connected to the next by small passageways, which resulted in a rather dark, labyrinthine structure (see where I’m going with this?). To mainland Greeks (such as the Athenians), this style of architecture would have seemed more than bizarre—it probably would have seemed threatening. It’s not difficult to believe that this could have inspired the myth of a dark, dungeon-like labyrinth on Crete.

Knossos bullSo why the bull? Traditionally, in ancient societies the bull was often seen as a sacred symbol of power, strength, and male virility. Accordingly, bull worship seems to have been a central aspect of religious life in Knossos. Numbered among the artifacts found during excavations of the site are several bulls, bull horns, and frescoes depicting bulls. It’s also possible that the Minoans engaged in a dangerous sport called taurokathapsia, often referred to in English as “bull leaping.” In theory, young men brave (or stupid) enough to participate in this sport would take a running jump at a charging bull, grab its horns, and use the bull’s instinctual head-snapping motion to propel themselves into an acrobatic leap over the bull’s back.

Bull leapingThe famous “Bull-leaping fresco”

A famous fresco on the wall of the palace at Knossos seems to support this theory, but it could also represent a variety of different things, and there just isn’t enough evidence to prove that the sport was performed in that way or even really existed. What is clear is that bulls were important to the Minoans, and that Minoan civilization had an interesting, sacred, and almost personal relationship with the animal. This love of bulls could have been carried over into Athenian rumor, and could be considered a source for the idea of Pasiphae’s unusual lust and the idea of the Minotaur itself.

The notion that young men and women were sacrificed to the Minotaur could also have arisen from a factual cultural practice on Crete. Excavations in the 1980s in villages right outside of Knossos led to the discovery of mass gravesites filled with bones—the bones, in fact, of children. Marks on the bones indicate not only that the children suffered a violent death, but also that they were butchered in much the same way one would butcher a lamb. All evidence seems to point toward ritual human sacrifice.

Considering all these aspects of life on Knossos, it isn’t difficult to believe that the Athenians, who had once been firmly under Crete’s thumb, would have taken the little bit of information they had, mixed it with rumor, and inflated it until, in their storytelling tradition, Crete had become a place of irreverence for the gods, bestiality, human sacrifice, horrifying labyrinths, and monsters.

To the Athenians, who valued reason above almost anything else, it was a way of proving to themselves that, despite their humble beginnings, their reason and civility could do nothing but triumph over Crete’s perceived animalism and crudeness. Reason is always the most powerful weapon. The myth itself gives us clues that lead to this conclusion. While the Minotaur is the beast, the animal instinct and passion that live deep inside the labyrinth of every person’s mind, Theseus is reason, powerful enough to subdue those lingering bestial qualities. The ball of twine he uses to conquer the labyrinth (by tying it to the door and later following the twine to get out again) represents a beautifully simple answer to a seemingly insurmountable problem.

Reason, then, will always win out. It is (if you agree with the Athenians) the most powerful weapon we have against the monster that is buried somewhere deep inside us all.

So—close your eyes again. You are in the labyrinth. You are being hunted.

Are you ready?

The Humbling of Hannibal

by on October 20, 2015

By Ben Potter

It is one of the most enduring and dramatic images from antiquity, one that widens the eyes, dilates the pupils, quickens the pulse and ignites the imagination – especially when we hear about it in childhood.

Once heard, the moment is forever emblazoned on the mind’s eye: the African general, Hannibal, perilously crosses the craggy and frozen Alps, leads a daring raid on the Northern Italian plains, and takes the fight to the most organised and efficient war machine the world has ever seen… and all of this done astride the back of an elephant!

HannibalBattle of Zama, by Giulio Romano

Glossing over, for one second, that large dollop of artistic license that would have made even Livy blush, what else can we say about the self-proclaimed third greatest general who ever lived (behind Alexander the Great and Pyrrhos of Epeiros, if you’re interested)?

Well if, unlike mine, your mind wasn’t stuck on repeat going ‘elephants…elephants…elephants’ when you first heard the story, you might remember Hannibal’s and Carthage’s demise at the battle of Zama in 202BC; a battle that gave rise to one of Republican Rome’s greatest ever heroes, Scipio Africanus.

N.B. Scipio’s is obviously still held in pretty high regard, as he is evoked in the third line of the Italian national anthem.

So, what happened to change the fortunes of the man who humiliated the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216BC (at which as many as 70000 Roman soldiers are reported to have died), then pushed his army on to the gates of The Eternal City itself in 211BC?

In short, the question we’re asking is… (elephants…elephants…stop it!)… why was Hannibal defeated?

Many believe the root of the entire Hannibal versus Rome conflict was a family affair; the unfinished business of his father, Hamilcar Barca.

Hamilcar was an outstanding general who led guerrilla raids against the Romans between 247 and 242BC – tactics that he thought would bring about the eventual demise of the empire. Thus, in an ancient parallel of the epiphany Hitler received in his hospital bed at the end of WWI, when Carthage surrendered to Rome in 241BC, the betrayal led to a wrath which led to an obsession – Hamilcar wanted to see Rome on her knees.

This bloodlust intensified when Rome took advantage of Carthage’s dispute with her unpaid mercenaries, broke the terms of the peace treaty, and annexed Sardinia and Corsica.

N.B. The particular irony here is that the Roman stereotype of a Carthaginian was one who was both devious and cunning.

Despite the red mist, Hamilcar was still an astute tactician, he knew an all out attack on

The African general, Hannibal, perilously crosses the craggy and frozen Alps, leads a daring raid on the Northern Italian plains, and takes the fight to the most organised and efficient war machine the world has ever seen… and all of this done astride the back of an elephant!

Rome, with her citizen militia, would be doomed to failure; a more circuitous and patient approach was needed.

Luckily, as the Carthaginian relationship between the government and the military was much looser than in Rome, Hamilcar didn’t need to wait for permission to go about his business; he fled to Spain and began carving out his own fiefdom.

Whilst, officially, this was part of the Carthaginian Empire, Hamilcar was very much autonomous and acted accordingly; he married his sons to Iberian women, made the indigenous people swear loyalty to him personally (rather than to Carthage), and even issued his own currency.

This strong command, personal loyalty and not inconsiderable wealth was the bedrock upon which Hannibal could begin to amass a force to even consider an assault on Rome.

Hand in hand with this is the myth of the sacred oath that Hamilcar Barca made Hannibal swear en route to Spain in 237BC: ‘never to show goodwill to the Romans’. This is often interpreted as a lifelong, inherited and unbreakable vendetta.

So, Hannibal spent his upbringing by his father’s side learning the arts of politics and warfare, and, just as importantly, learning how to hate the Romans. Indeed, perhaps our best source on the Hannibalic Wars, Polybius, believed that Hamilcar’s wrath was the driving force for Hannibal’s Roman expedition.

Just as Philip II of Macedon laid the foundations for his, more famous, son, Alexander the Great, so Hamilcar Barca’s drive, ability and success

Hamilcar BarcaHamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal

were what allowed Hannibal to be in the position to make such a name for himself in a manner that eclipsed his father’s considerable achievements.

However, Hannibal’s single-mindedness may have been what brought about his downfall.

Had Hannibal returned to Spain after his historic victory at Cannae then he may have been able to wage war against the Romans on ‘home’ turf (and perhaps even destroy Scipio to-be-Africanus).

Indeed, though it was his most famous moment, that moment of irrepressible glamour, the very fact that he crossed the Alps in the late autumn of 218BC is considered, by some, to be tactical blunder in itself as many of his precious war elephants and troops died in the process.

That Hannibal had learnt to loathe the Romans was, in a way, a millstone around his neck. Had he merely wanted to obliterate Rome, then his task may have been simpler, but he wanted to humiliate her, to see her reduced to a humble and insignificant city-state and force a war-indemnity upon her.

Such a grand mandate required a grand ego, an ego that Hannibal, the self-proclaimed third greatest general, may not quite have possessed. Without the unequalled arrogance of an Alexander figure, Hannibal never quite convinced anyone that he was the man to rent Rome asunder. Indeed, even though he parked his troops outside the gates of Rome in order to draw Roman troops away from the besieged rebel town of Capua, the act was barely met with a raise-eyebrow of Roman acknowledgment.

The siege of Capua proved too much for the city to withstand. The Romans, swift and merciless to the traitors, completely obliterated it. To rub salt into the wound, and demonstrate a fantastic ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude, the land on which Hannibal was camping was sold at auction for its full price.

This was a bitter blow as Capua was supposed to be one of the success stories of the invasion, although, generally, Hannibal had little success in recruiting Italian towns to his cause. Although many were dissatisfied with rule from Rome, there was a strong case of ‘better the devil you know’ for many settlements. Not only was Hannibal a foreign barbarian, but he used Gaulish mercenaries. It is difficult to fully communicate the disdain the Italian towns felt for their neighbours from Gaul – they were the Roman bogeyman, even the bravest amongst whom were considered as nothing more than a ‘noble savage’.

XXXThe General Hannibal

When it came to confidant leadership, Hannibal had nothing on the Roman Senate. They never allowed themselves to contemplate that Carthage was anything other than an inconvenience to be dealt with in due course.

In stark contrast to the Carthaginians, who crucified their unsuccessful generals, if a Roman consul suffered a military defeat… what of it? He’d be replaced in a couple of years and the next would-be hero would have his chance at immortality. Money? No problem. That was pouring in from the east. Men? There was always more arrow fodder that could be drafted into the ranks (Rome itself had two legions stationed within her walls).

If it were only this, Roman arrogance, a frenzied father’s bitter bile, and obstinate Italian towns which Hannibal had to contend with, to rail against, or to shatter at source, then he may have had a chance. Unfortunately for him, this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Different political systems and degrees of political competency in Rome and Carthage were hugely important to the eventual defeat of Hannibal in the Second Punic War (218-201BC).

Not once during the conflict did the Romans entertain the idea that defeat was an impending possibility, not even after suffering the worst military reverse in their history at the Battle of Cannae (216BC).

This stiff-upper-lip attitude was even more impressive when we consider that Cannae was preceded by the disaster at Lake Trasimene (217BC), where fog conspired with a Carthaginian trap to allow them to successfully decimate some 30,000 Roman soldiers, and the Battle of the Trebia (218BC), where Hannibal tricked the slow-witted Romans, under the command of Tiberius Sempronius Longus, into wading into the freezing December waters before ambushing them to the tune of another 30,000 casualties.

But these were all blunders of tactics and warfare on the ground. Such poor leadership was sharply contrasted with sound, sensible and resolute decision-making in the Senate. Indeed, the very moment Hannibal set foot in Northern Italy the Senate dispatched a force (led by Publius Cornelius Scipio – father of Africanus) to the Spanish mainland to attempt to cut supply lines there, a policy they mirrored in the Aegean where Philip V of Macedon threatened to offer aid to Carthage.

Also, at home, the Senate showed a merciless, efficient approach. They urged Latin towns to scorch their earth rather than allow Hannibal’s troops to live on it and dealt severely with any town in Italy which showed sympathy towards the Carthaginian cause; the pitiless annihilation of Capua being the best example.

In contrast, Carthage kept politics and the military rather more separate. There did not seem to have been any clear, centralised military plan – certainly not one where the head of the army and the centre of government were singing in harmony from the same hymn sheet. Additionally, Carthage sent only 5% of its possible reinforcements to Hannibal throughout the war. What is more, unlike the Romans, Carthage treated her African colonies with contempt, cruelty and disdain; they didn’t even bother to leave them with adequate fortifications. Thus, when Rome finally swept into the continent, they were greeted with little military or civic resistance.

ScipioScipio Africanus

But it was affairs in Hispania, not Italy or Carthage, which determined the course of the war. Spain proved an excellent stomping ground for the Romans, not only in regard to restricting supplies to Hannibal, but also as an arena in which the talents of the young Scipio Africanus could blossom.

The decision of the Senate to appoint Scipio to Spain with proconsular powers in 211BC was for a very simple reason… he was the only viable candidate. Following a number of high-profile Roman deaths at the hands of Carthage, Scipio, despite his tender years, was the natural choice for the position.

Doubts amongst some factions of the Senate to entrust someone so young with such an important task may have been quelled by Scipio’s legendary arrogance (he compared himself to Jupiter) and infectious personality. Indeed, according to renowned historian G.P. Baker, the Senate ‘liked his youth, his courage, his family… and admired his impudence;’ but even still, ‘never before in all the history of Rome had an authority so great been vested in a man so young and inexperienced’.

HasdrubalA coin with an image of Hasdrubal Barca

The Senate’s faith paid off – Scipio set about conquering Spain in an almost Hannibalic manner. After brilliantly taking New Carthage and securing their prized silver mines, Scipio, on the order of the Senate, went to prevent Hasdrubal Barca from crossing into Italy and meeting up with his brother. However, Hasdrubal showed himself worthy of the family name – he sent a decoy force to engage Scipio and slipped over the Alps in with little fuss (having learnt from the mistakes of his brother no doubt).

Despite some resistance in the Senate, Scipio was allowed to go to Africa to end the war once and for all. Just before the decisive battle of Zama, he and Hannibal met face to face and are were said to have been impressed with each other; a factor that may explain why Scipio was reluctant for Rome to pursue the defeated general after Carthage fell. Hannibal

Indeed, at Zama (202BC), Scipio paid Hannibal the ultimate, if rather backhanded, compliment of using Hannibal’s own tactics from the battle of Cannae against him.

Although Zama is universally viewed as the effective end of Carthaginian resistance, by that time the war was already lost and victory for Rome merely a matter of time.

Interestingly, the single most important battle that led to the defeat of Hannibal was one at which he was not even present. The battle of Metaurus (207 BC) not only prevented Hannibal from gaining reinforcements, one of which was his brilliant brother Hasdrubal, it was also the battle that changed public opinion in Rome. Before, defeat had been unimaginable, but victory also looked a long way off. For the first time since the conflict began, the Romans believed that victory was not only obtainable, but likely; they believed that they could not expel Hannibal from Italy, but also push on and conquer Carthage itself.

ZamaThe Battle of Zama

Though the Second Punic War is often boiled down to Hannibal versus Scipio, there were two unsung, and still relatively unknown, generals who turned the table for Rome at Metaurus.

The peculiar and cantankerous Livius and the fearless and obdurate Nero were the men who confronted Hasdrubal on the plateau of St. Angelo (in central Italy), forcing him into a long and stamina-sapping battle, made all the more difficult for Hasdrubal by the roaringly drunk status of his Gaulish mercenaries.

Hasdrubal, a gallant solider to the last, saw his troops were faltering and made one last, forlorn effort by charging directly into the Roman ranks where he was promptly slain.

In one gruelling moment Hannibal had lost his brother, his greatest general, 60,000 troops and the initiative in the war. Cannae had been avenged. The Senate, recognising the importance of the moment, voted three days of thanksgiving for the magnificent triumph.

Hannibal came face to face with the reality of his situation when Nero tossed Hasdrubal’s head into the Carthaginian ranks at Canusium; a triumphant and mocking gesture from an army who had been on the back foot for so long.

Hannibal, like so many others, had failed to bring Rome to her knees. Though it’s interesting to note the myriad of factors that may have counted against him—the blind anti-Roman wrath he inherited from his father, the poor planning of, and lack of reinforcements from, the Carthaginian government, the resolution of Rome and the skill of Africanus—the truth is that he never really stood a chance. Rome’s supplies of troops were inexhaustible when compared to Hannibal’s. Even at Canane there were 5,700 Carthaginian casualties, and considering that he only entered Italy with 26,000, even his great victories were bringing about his eventual demise.

As a personal footnote to the end of the war, Hannibal actually continued to be a thorn in Rome’s side for nearly twenty years after Zama. As a man on the run he became Rome’s public enemy no.1 – some historians have compared Rome’s obsession with catching and killing him to America’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden post 9/11 – and found himself being entertained at the courts of some of the most exalted leaders in the Mediterranean world. Indeed, Rome’s foreign policy in the post-war period was heavily dictated by other states’ willingness to help them in their pursuit of Hannibal.

Eventually, as the Roman juggernaut continued its inexorable expansion, Hannibal’s friends became fewer and fewer. One of military history’s most colourful characters finally met his end when he poisoned himself in 183BC rather than fall into Roman hands. He (supposedly) left behind these wonderful words, which may well have just, one final time, ruffled a few Roman feathers and, of course, made his father proud:

“Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death”.

Four Important Lessons from Aristotle’s “The Politics”

by on October 2, 2015

Viewed as a whole, Politics is a rather intimidating piece of work. No mere political treatise, it is an examination of the origin of society, the meaning of political justice, the fundamental elements of the state, and the responsibilities of the ruling class to the citizens and vice versa.

Politics, when you get right down to it, aims at uncovering “the ideal state”. The more astute of you may already have realized that this was also, more or less, the goal of Plato’s magnum opus, The Republic.

However, while Plato devoted much of his time in Republic to establishing the credibility of an unseen realm of forms, Aristotle instead focuses on that which is empirical, observable, and makes use of the numerous forms of political systems that were practiced during the age, discussing their strengths while uncovering their blunders.

Aristotle and Plato both attempted to define the “ideal republic”. However, they each came to dramatically different conclusions.

The result is a piece of philosophical literature that does occasionally focus on the theoretical and the hypothetical, but also gives us practical and applicable advice when it comes to living in a political society.

As it turns out, there are a number of lessons found within Politics that we might do well to listen to. For instance, did you know that…

The Importance of Private Property and Self-interestedness

The first lesson comes to us when Aristotle actually critiques the ideas that his mentor laid out in Republic. For in Plato’s work, the philosopher argues that the state should be happiest if the citizens are as unified as possible.

Plato makes the claim, somewhat capriciously, that all the wives of the rulers ought to be shared. Additionally, fathers ought not to think of a child as being their own son or daughter. Rather, the citizens should view all children of the state as being their own.

Taken literally, and Aristotle sees no other way to take it, this sort of thinking would effectively eliminate private property and would revert all things in the state, including women and children, to shared ownership.

But shared ownership simply is not the way to go, Aristotle tells us. The sharing of property and children will make the friendship in the city “watery”. It is human nature that when responsibility (the responsibility of raising child for instance) is divided among many (the entire state) the result is that nobody truly pays any attention to the responsibilities at hand.

Aristotle insists that private property is essential to the wellbeing of the state.

Everybody simply assumes that somebody else will care for these matters and the people become lax, uninterested in managing any affairs. Aristotle compares this to a dinner party that runs more smoothly when there are a few servants attending to their own affairs rather than numerous servants attempting to tend to the entirety of the responsibilities.

The benefits of having private property are similar. For people are most interested in tending to and facilitating that which belongs to them or that which might benefit them. If all property is shared, there is no incentive for the citizens to maintain or develop the lands and properties of the society.

Self-interest, Aristotle tells us, is human nature. The philosopher writes as much in Nicomachean Ethics when he declares that the goal of a human life is to achieve our individual happiness through an understanding and application of virtue.

And so we see that the ownership of private property, as well as the self-interestedness of the citizens, is actually beneficial to the state as a whole.

“Evidently, then, it is better if we own possesions privately but make them common by our use of them…Further, it is unbelievably more pleasant to regard something as one’s own. For each persons love of himself is not pointless, but a natural tendency.” –Aristotle (Politics, Book II)


Aristotle and the Middle Class

It is not uncommon for Aristotle to apply the lessons of virtue pertaining to the individual to the lessons of virtue within civic life. It is not coincidence that Politics follows Nicomachean Ethics. Once Aristotle has established happiness, virtue, pleasure, etc. for the individual, it is only natural that these same lessons be applied to the polis as a whole.

Aristotle describes virtue as being a mean, a balance, between two extreme characteristics. Courage, for instance, is a balance between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Generosity, similarly, is a balance between the extremes of miserliness and over-generousness (giving away all of your money and possessions).

The philosopher tells us that it is unavoidable to have within a society those who are overly prosperous and those who are overly disadvantaged. It is unfavorable for the state to allow either of these parties to rule. The prosperous, because of their good fortune and lavish upbringing, are not willing to be ruled. The needy, being overly abased, do not know how to rule or do not posses the resources to enable themselves to learn to rule.

Aristotle claims that these two factions, if allowed to rule, would destroy the justice of the polis. The prosperous, having no empathy for the poor, would rule over the citizens as a master

Essentially, Aristotle becomes one of the oldest advocates for a strong middle class.

might rule over a slave. This would appear common in an oligarchy. The poor, despising the rich, would enact laws to seize the property of the prosperous and in doing so, commit a grave injustice and damage the friendship within the state. This, it would seem, is common among “majority rule” democracies.

The compromise is that there must be an “intermediate class of people”. These intermediate people, embodying a balance between two extremes, would be able to appreciate the value of hard work, of earning a wage, while still having enough resources to educate themselves and learn the ways of virtue so that they might one day be just rulers.

Essentially, Aristotle becomes one of the oldest advocates for a strong middle class.

This middle class, ideally, should outnumber the combined numbers of both the prosperous and the needy. This strong middle class is the backbone of the society, providing just and compassionate rulers while counteracting the polarizing effects of the needy and the overly prosperous.

“Clearly, then, the political community that is in the hands of the intermediate people is best and the cities capable of having a good system are those in which the intermediate part is numerous and superior…” –Aristotle (Politics, Book IV)

We Must Avoid Political Extremes

In keeping with the idea of finding an intermediate between two extremes, Aristotle warns us of the dangers posed by political extremes. We mentioned previously that self-interestedness was beneficial to a society. An excess of self-interest, however, leads to selfishness and propagates ideas that are harmful to the citizens and the polis as a whole.

The partisan citizens within a society must not be allowed to achieve political relevance. For they assume that that which is of interest to them is the only interest, and therefore demand it in excess.

The consequence is that laws that are overly democratic or overly oligarchic will be enacted. Aristotle gives, again, the example of equality of property that is often enacted when the needy citizens gain too much influence within a state.

The overly prosperous, if allowed to rule, will enact laws that degrade the poor, laws that do not allow the needy to improve their station in life.

While both parties believe that these policies are just, for they are indeed in their best interest, such laws breed discontent and hatred among the citizens, damaging the concord of a society.

Aristotle compares the degradation of the state at the hands of the political extremists to the deformation found on a body part. A nose, Aristotle tells us, might have certain imperfections. It might be hooked or snubbed, but it is, unmistakably, still a nose. However, when the nose deviates further it will first lose its proper proportion. If it continues to deviate, the nose, or any body part, will be unrecognizable.

Similarly, political systems are never perfect. However, if we allow them to be held hostage by political radicals, the political system will diverge so far that it will become something unnatural.

“…an oligarchy or a democracy may be in good enough condition even though it has lapsed form its best order; but if someone takes either system to further extremes, he will make the political system worse and finally make it cease to be a political system at all.” –Aristotle (Politics, Book V)

Education Must Support the Political System

This final tidbit from Aristotle can be found in Book V of Politics. Even though it is only a few paragraphs long, I have always believed that this passage was of supreme importance.


Because most people believe that philosophy and “the real world” never overlap. They are mutually exclusive. Philosophy goes one way and reality goes the other, and never the twain shall meet!

Aristotle quoteThe philosopher claims that, in order for the political system to survive, we must educate ourselves and our children in the aims and ideals of the political system.

But Aristotle gives clear evidence that such thinking is incorrect. The philosopher claims that, in order for the political system to survive, we must educate ourselves and our children in the aims and ideals of the political system. A government cannot long stand if the citizens are ignorant of the principles of a society.

What, for instance, are the aims and ideals of a democracy? Is it a system that aims at egalitarianism? Personal freedom? Majority rule? We must answer these questions adequately if we wish for our society to long endure.

Aristotle states that two features, at least during the age of classical Greece, define a democracy: control by the majority and freedom.

But what do we mean by “freedom”? Does possessing democratic freedom mean that we are able to do whatever we please, to live however we wish? Is this the goal of a democratic society?

Aristotle rejects this. Such a society would never survive.

A political system should aim at fulfilling the needs of the many while still protecting the individual and creating an environment that facilitates the growth of virtue. Remember, an active expression of virtue is the highest good for a human life. And the state must be the medium through which this virtue is established.

Education then must fit the ideals of the political system. This is not only suggested, it is necessary for the continued survival of the state.

“…we ought to think that living in the way that fits the political system is not slavery, but preservation.” –Aristotle (Politics Book V)