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The tainted glory of the gladiator

by on January 22, 2015

By Ben Potter

The sun rises high over Rome’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, the mightiest arena in the world. Only the colossal statue of Nero, which one-day will lend the stadium its eternal pseudonym, dwarfs it.

The 50,000 strong crowd of men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are tightly coiled; one giant organism ready to strike, to unleash their wrath or their joy.

Though they are not the only ones with the glint of attack in their eyes.

A flash of light leads to a clash of steel, a spray of sweat, a cloud of dust, and finally, brutally, a cascade of blood which unleashes a frenzied pandemonium in the stands…


Those cognisant of TV shows like Spartacus, films like Gladiator, or indeed, any example from the swords and sandals genre, will be familiar with images of perfectly formed behemoths attempting to heroically empty their comrades of their entrails.

Though, as we shall investigate, Hollywood has not quite given us the full picture. I know, I know… shocking isn’t it!?

To begin with, gladiators were not perfectly formed. Indeed, they would be considered overweight next to modern sportsmen. Additionally, bloodlust was a secondary consideration to poise and finesse, and in fact, most gladiatorial bouts saw the loser escape with his life. Finally, and, crucially, large parts of Roman society considered gladiators to be anything but heroic.

As for the famous quote in the title (“Those who are about to die salute you”), it did genuinely occur in the pages of Suetonius.

However, it was supposedly uttered by a group of condemned men in an attempt to curry favour with the emperor, and not, as Tinseltown would have us believe, by every gladiator who entered the arena.

Indeed, it is highly unlikely that any professional fighter ever said it.

But before we conduct our gladiatorial post-mortem in earnest, perhaps a look at the origins of the sport is in order. (Unpleasant as it seems, it’s hard to deny that it was a sport – complete with match day programmes and scalpers selling tickets!)


As for the beginnings of gladiatorial combat, there is some dispute, though most agree it came out of the Italian peninsula… either from the Etruscans or Campanians.

What seems clear is that the games (ludi) were not intended to be the great public spectacle they later became. Instead, they were munera, a type of honorific spectacular dedicated to the spirit of a deceased ancestor.

What is really astonishing is how fast the event caught on. The first recorded munus was held in 264 BC, and within 200 years, their popularity and importance had become such that the Senate had to limit the size of the proposed munus of none other than Gaius Julius Caesar.

[N.B. Though if we compare how cinema has changed in only 150 years it is perhaps not so astounding.]

Even though the transition from munera to ludi was a gradual one, we can say with some confidence that by the time of Caesar, gladiatorial combat had mostly lost its connotations of filial duty. Instead, it had become a means of self-promotion and popular entertainment… and not just in Rome, but also throughout the rapidly swelling empire.


So what about the fundamentals of the games and, more importantly, the gladiators themselves?

A gladiator (from gladius, short sword) was the king of the sand, a mighty warrior, fiercely trained for one purpose only. He was a man of pride, dignity and above all else, discipline. He knew his life was forfeit and his only desire was to live and die with the stoicism and honour befitting his station.

Despite the fact that gladiators were the celebrities and sex symbols of their day, they were also so deeply despised that the very word ‘gladiator’ was used as an everyday insult. They had no citizenship rights, were buried only with their own kind, and could have their lives expunged at the whim of their lanista (owner/overseer).

Essentially, they were a de facto category of slaves.

The antipathy felt towards these subhuman supermen is partly because of the social make up of the gladiatorial class.

They were slaves of various origins: prisoners of war, citizens who had lost their rights or who couldn’t pay their debts, and various criminals from around the empire. Only if they were lucky, would they find their way into a ludus (gladiator school).


N.B. if they were unlucky they would merely be damnati (condemned to fight in the arena) or noxii (condemned to die a humiliating death in the arena). The difference being that the noxii would probably not be given weapons and their remains would be treated in a manner that would dishonour them for eternity.

All arenarii (people of the arena) were infames i.e. without rights or social status – a standing shared by prostitutes, pimps, actors and dancers. Gladiators, however, were both simultaneously far more lauded and reviled than any of these other controversial professions!

This was all very well for the impoverished, the enslaved and the criminal – indeed, many were happy to enter a ludus. It would mean good food (gladiators followed a high-calorie vegetarian diet), a roof over their head, and a potential to win money, freedom and that most intangible and strangely elusive of all things, fame!

Also, it got them out in the fresh air… which is nice.

The peculiarity, therefore, is not that many of the most desperate ended up in the arena, it’s that some of the more privileged actually volunteered for this ignoble and bloody fate.


Some scholars estimate that as many as half of all gladiators were volunteers (auctorati) by the time the games were at their height (1st century BC – 1st century AD).

But what really boggles the mind is that the lure of the games was so great that they even managed to entice aristocrats!

Indeed, it seems there was a significant minority of the noblesse who disgraced their family name, gave up promising political careers and disinherited themselves from great wealth. In fact, it was beholden upon Augustus, the moral champion of the 1st century AD, to make it illegal for the senatorial and equestrian classes to fight.

Despite the emperor’s absolute power, the prohibition seems to have had only limited success.

In addition, several emperors themselves are known to have stepped onto the sand. This created a bizarre paradox of a man at the top of the social ladder publically engaging in the most degraded and base activity possible within his own society.


Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Caracalla, Geta and Didius Julianus were all said to have crossed that stark line of dignity during their respective reigns. This was particularly amazing for Didius Julianus, as he was only emperor for nine weeks!

It is almost certain that none of the above competed with any seriousness and were merely making a populist parade of themselves or indulging a boyhood fantasy. (Though it’s hard to blame them; if I had unlimited power I would certainly insist on playing ten minutes of professional football).

However, the most enthusiastic, and therefore most shameful, participant in ludi was Commodus, the emperor who you may remember from that film with Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe… the name of which escapes me.


Commodus was capricious, cruel and conceited (even by the standards of emperors). He was said to have killed 100 lions in a day and must, therefore, have had some physical and technical proficiency to avoid looking wholly ridiculous in front of the crowd; especially as he styled himself as the reincarnation of Hercules!

Indeed, the masses would have let him know if he had been entirely ludicrous. The games were one of the few conduits for egalitarian outpouring.

It was commonplace for the public to heckle, not just the participants of the ludi, but the on-watching ruling classes. In fact, it seems the games presented the ideal (perhaps unique) opportunity to present a petition to a politician in front of witnesses.

Though the games were unquestionably popular, (relatively) cheap to stage and helped school both combatants and spectators alike in the arts of war, they eventually fell foul in the later empire as a result of Christianity.

As early as the third century AD, the Christian scholar Tertullian denounced the games as murder, as pagan and as human sacrifice.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the first emperor to prohibit the spectacle was Constantine in the 320’s AD.

Though this was with little success; it was necessary to again curtail or prohibit the games in 384, 393, 399, 404, and 438 AD. By this latter date the Western Empire was dissolving into various warring factions and tastes in the Eastern Empire seemed more focused on theatre and chariot racing.

One of the hardest things for a classical historian to understand is the mentality of both the spectators and participants of a gladiatorial combat.

Though it obviously plays up to our baser instincts and, like so much sport, creates a tribal mentality, it goes so far beyond the most violent spectacles available to us today.

Thumbs down

Regardless, there could have been nothing quite so dramatic, nothing that sent the heart aflutter and the limbs aquiver as the moment when a stricken gladiator raised a finger in submission, presented his neck to an opponent and all eyes turned to the editor (producer/sponsor) in whose hands the brilliant wretch’s life lay.

More than anything else, contemplating the bravery, daring and discipline of these ancient athletes only serves to highlight the egos, eccentricities and anti-social behaviour of their modern counterparts.

Despite doping, deflated pigskins, greasy palms and feigned injury, the worship, adulation and monetary rewards we bestow upon our physical elite shows no signs of abating.

Perhaps the Roman way is better, perhaps it’s a healthier approach: to marvel, to cheer, to applaud and goggle, but still, when the dust has settled and the blood has dried to remember that they are only mortal.

And much, much worse than that, that they are…yuck…entertainers!

Deterministically Indeterminate (part 2)

by on January 19, 2015

You might remember that last week we had something of a discussion regarding determinism, indeterminism, the predictions of Karl Marx, as well as the rather troubling question, ‘do I have free will?’

XXXWell, today we continue on that same line of inquiry. Some of you might be a bit nervous. After all, your understanding of yourself as a conscious being hangs in the balance. Are we really free? Is everything predetermined? Will we ever have the answers!?

To those of you mulling over such thoughts, I would like to answer your fears with a resounding “eh…maybe”.

That’s the problem, or perhaps the wonderful thing, with philosophy. The more you seek to know, the less you inevitably do know. But think about it; would you really want to live in a world where you know everything? Socrates certainly wouldn’t. At the very least, it would be incredibly boring.

So let’s not distress too much if we haven’t exactly unlocked the truth, or fallacy, of human free will. Our last two philosophers gave it a pretty good shot.

In the end, however, Aristotle does not give us a concise answer, partially because the question we are considering was not known during his time.

Epicurus did come face to face with the question of determinism and indeterminism. However, his solution involves the proposition that atoms often swerve and redirect themselves whilst falling through the void of space. As a result of this chaos, we are given different causal chains and the determinism of the universe is broken.

Now, if you are dubiously scratching your head over that last one, then don’t worry. You’re not the only one.

In her book Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind, Julia Annas writes…

“..since swerves are random, it is hard to see how they help to explain free action. We can scarcely expect there to be a random swerve before every free action. Free actions are frequent, and (fairly) reliable. Random swerves cannot account for either of these features.”

Okay, so that seems to be out. What’s a philosopher to do? Perhaps we ought to just give up, bow to the will of the universe and just go along for the ride.

Zeno of Citium certainly thought so. Credited as being the founding father of the Stoic school of philosophy, Zeno, along with the early Stoics, held a very strict view of determinism.

While Epicurus attributed very little significance to the universe, everything is just atoms and void after all; Zeno and the early Stoics believed that the universe was just about the greatest thing ever.

The Stoics believed that the universe was expertly designed and operated in a way that was perfectly logical. Taking a page from the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, the Stoics believed that a divine logical force that touched all things and admitted no exceptions governed all of existence.

Basically, just don’t worry. The universe has a plan for you, and, whether you believe it or not, it’s a really good plan. Nothing happens without cause, and nothing occurs without meaning.

The early Stoics believed in what we might call “strict causal determinism”. That is to say that they believed that all events were a result of antecedent causes.

We might take this to mean that early Stoics were fatalists, or that they believed that future events were predetermined and unavoidable. However, this is not clear to us.

The idea that events cause other events does not necessarily rule out human will as a driving force for events. However, given that the early Stoics attributed great importance to the grand design within nature and that they believed all events were merely an effect of this master plan, we might hesitantly conclude that Zeno was what we would call a determinist, or perhaps a theological determinist.

XXXThe bottom line is that the universe is ordered in a deterministic way, and since we are part of the universe, we are also ordered in a deterministic way.

A problem arises from this. You might have already picked up on it yourself.

If all of our actions are predetermined, how can we attribute praise and blame to human events? The virtuous man is not virtuous by choice; his virtue is a result of forces outside of his control. Similarly, the wicked man is not wicked by choice. He is merely a slave to the divine logos.

Since Stoicism is, largely, a philosophy of ethical rigor, the Stoics must find a way to leave us accountable for our actions without being inconsistent with the deterministic nature of the universe.

That’s no easy task, as I’m sure you can tell. Chrysippus, however, might be up to the challenge.

Chrysippus, a Stoic philosopher who practiced one generation after Zeno, claimed to have found a way to reconcile the deterministic nature of the universe with the need for human beings to be accountable for their actions.

Chrysippus argues that while the universe might have a predetermined course, we still possess the means to assent to this path. This is perhaps best described by the following allegory:

Imagine a dog that is tied to a cart with a rope. When the master gets in the cart and rides to the marketplace, the dog, being the loyal sort of creature that he is, will obediently follow. If the dog had chosen to not follow, he would have been prompted to by the tug of the rope.

However, the dog, given its undying eagerness, will always follow the cart. If we were to dogimagine the dog without the rope, the creature would still always assent to follow his master.

In this little parable, you are the dog, the universe is the cart, and determinism is the rope. You might not have any say in whether or not you follow the cart, but should that matter if you have already willingly assented to do so?

I will give one more example.

Let us assume that I am faced with the decision to either go to the movie theater or stay in my apartment and write philosophy articles. As luck would have it, I decide to stay put and write.

However, unbeknownst to me, someone has put chains on the outside of my door, effectively barring me from leaving and going to the movies. It would seem that leaving was never really an option, but should that matter if I never wanted to in the first place?

The question then becomes, is it still free will if our choices and the direction of a predetermined universe coincide?

Some say no. Without the possibility of an alternative outcome, there can exist no free will. We do not possess freedom, merely the illusion of freedom.

And so the questions continue to plague us. Are we free? Or are we slaves to necessity, just one more pawn in the design of the universe?

Well, if you were looking for a definitive answer, then I would refer you to my previous assertion.

I don’t know, and I probably never will.

Cato: The Roman Ron Paul?

by on January 15, 2015

By Ben Potter

During his own era Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC) was known as ‘Cato the Censor’, for his role in maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the government’s finances. In times after, however, he was commonly referred to as ‘Cato the Elder’, in order to distinguish him from his great-grandson, the bane of Julius Caesar, ‘Cato the Younger’.

Whatever name he was called, Cato the Elder was an influential man, especially with regards to his writing.

Cato Bust

As Cato was a politician far more than an author, his reputation as the de facto creator of Latin prose literature may not only have been a mere addendum to his true calling, but could also have been an unintended one.

It is not even clear if his Ad filium (to his son), De re militari (on military matters) and Carmen de moribus (hymn on morality) were intended for publication at all… though they enjoyed great fame after his death.

However, it is likely that he assumed his speeches would survive, though it’s unclear if he considered himself the father of oratory as a written discipline.

His only complete extant work seems to have been an extremely popular and influential one.

De agri cultura (on agriculture) deals with the practical and profitable management of an estate, rather than the nitty-gritty of seeds and soil. Additionally, he threw in a recipe or two, and seems to have had an almost unhealthy obsession with cabbage!

What is perhaps surprising is the clumsiness and disorganization of the work. This could be, however, a bi-product of writing during Latin’s literary infancy.


This leads us to mull over exactly why Cato wrote in Latin, as Greek, that ancient, sophisticated tongue, had been the accepted mode of prose for the Roman aristocracy for centuries.

One theory for this is that Cato was not really such a good student of Greek as a Roman aristocrat should be. However, it’s undeniable that he must have at least read Greek and been familiar with the great works of Athenian culture.

Another theory is that Cato was a novus homo, and, unlike the self-conscious and slightly sycophantic Cicero, he was openly proud of the fact. Thus, the use of Latin over Greek could have been seen as a poke in the eye to all the pomposity and pretentiousness of the senatorial classes.

The most likely reason, however, is that Cato’s private hatred of all things Greek spilled over into his literary life.

Cato believed that the Greeks were decadent, immoral, and generally inferior to what a good man should be, i.e. a Roman. Indeed, he considered most of the moral decay going on ‘these days’ a direct result of increased Hellenization.

John Briscoe elaborates:

‘In the Ad filium he called the Greeks a vile and unteachable race; in 155 BC, worried by the effect their lectures were having on Roman youth, he was anxious that an embassy of Athenian philosophers should leave Rome rapidly’.

Not that Cato’s spleen was uniquely vented Greek-wards; he had a similar contempt for, or at least fear of, the Carthaginians.

Here at least Cato’s xenophobia (a detestable Greek word!) was not quite so blind.

Carthage had been one of the biggest threats to Rome during the statesman’s time – with the brilliant general Hannibal very nearly changing irrevocably the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

Carthage decline

It was, probably, for this reason that, late in life, Cato continuously petitioned the Senate to have the state of Carthage obliterated from the face of the Earth.

Champions of Cato have defended this catastrophic lobbying as the senile ramblings of an old man. Nevertheless, his words carried weight and, in 146 BC, three years after the old man’s death, Carthage was razed to the ground.

The counterweight to this, and indeed the reason why many still look on Cato with great fondness, is that such brutality, cruelty and inhumanity are at odds with his character in general.

Spain map

His detractors’ false accusations of ‘racism’ (a term which would have been meaningless in ancient Rome) fail to hold water. Indeed, possibly the most impressive accolade he received was from the people of Spain in 171 BC when they requested that he air their grievances to the Senate.

Despite his ruthless professionalism when in the province – he violently suppressed a revolt and sent a steady supply of gold and silver back to Rome – Cato had obviously impressed the locals with his integrity and diligence.

It was here that he had become famous for mucking in with the troops, personally overseeing menial tasks, sharing rations and generally leading by example.

Though this pandering to the common man would have done little to endear him to the pompous, ancient families of the Senate, they could not stand in the way of his Triumph – a military parade celebrating his achievements.

But much more than his vulgar sympathy for the great unwashed, what helped Cato make enemies were his morals and his mouth.

He was firmly against the repeal of the lex Oppia, emergency austerity measures that were obsolete in the wake of the booty accrued in the victory over Carthage.

In addition, he supported high levels of taxation on anything deemed to be a ‘luxury’.

He constantly chided the people’s darlings, the Scipios, for their lax military discipline and general ‘Hellenistic’ excesses.

Though despite all of this busy-bodying, it seems that Cato’s greatest problem was that he didn’t know when to keep his opinions to himself.


His curt and brusque nature offended and alienated many, not least the powerful and popular Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, the man who stole away Cato’s literary protégé, the poet Ennius. He also kicked Lucius Flamininus out of the Senate.

As a general rule of thumb, if you can think of a famous name from the first half of the second century BC, Cato the Elder probably pissed him off.

Despite this, it was never in doubt that he was a man of conscience and true to his word. He initiated (or upheld) the lex Porcia, which allowed a condemned man to appeal directly to the people for justice.

Also, perhaps as a consequence of the high taxes on luxuries, he initiated a public building program which saw crumbling infrastructure renovated and the sewer system vastly improved.

He also seems to have been, with the glaring exception of Carthage, a broad-church isolationist.

Rome’s military interest in Rhodes and Macedonia were particularly distasteful to him for the simple and indubitable fact that such countries’ interests were none of Rome’s business.

Cato the Elder sketch

Cato the Elder was in equal parts uncompromising, principled, obnoxious, arrogant, conscientious, frugal, tenacious, unwavering, loved, loathed and, above all else, patriotic.

Perhaps for these polarizing reasons commentators often don’t know where to place him in the pantheon of the great figures of antiquity – he has, with justification, been compared to as diverse figures as Jesus Christ, Ebenezer Scrooge and Ron Paul!

Indeed, Cato the Elder is one of those wonderful characters from the annals of the past who not only vividly come to life, but generate an emotional response.

And clearly there is plenty of ammunition for both his supporters and detractors to argue their respective corners. But on reflection, people in both camps tend come away with a similar feeling about this cantankerous and constant old git who said what he liked and liked what he said…

Deterministically Indeterminate

by on January 13, 2015

“Marx was right!”, declares Bill Bonner’s Diary of a Rogue Economist.

Marx“Oh yeah?”, I wonder to myself. You certainly know how to write a good hook there, Mr. Bonner. Please, go on. What was Marx right about?

Strangely, the first thing that comes to mind is a quote that I either read, heard, or made up. Supposedly, Marx once said that we out to “be careful when trusting a person who does not like wine”.

I’ve always been dubious about the authenticity of that quote. Authentic or not, that’s some solid advice if you ask me. If you don’t like wine, then you have either never had any or you have never drank enough of the stuff.

But now I’m just getting away from the subject at hand. What was it that Marx was right about?

“Karl Marx had plenty of bad ideas. But he had at least one good one: historical determinism.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.

Or as Marx put it:

‘At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto.

From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.’” -Bill Bonner (Diary of a Rogue Economist)

Determinism? Consciousness? Plenty of bad ideas?! Great Scott! We are talking about philosophy here!

The newsletter continues, detailing how economic forces are, largely, determined by the events of preceding years. I’m certain my modest stock portfolio could benefit from this type of advice, but I was already too deep in thought.

Historical determinism you say? Marx might have been waving that banner for some time, but it was the ideas of the ancients that made the banner in the first place.

And if you think the question of determinism within society, economics, or the consciousness of human beings is interesting, then certainly the notion of determinism within the scope of all of existence would be even better!

This brings us back to that age old question- Do I do what I want to do? Or do I do what I must do? We are talking about determinism and indeterminism, obviously. And it is something of an ongoing debate that will either fascinate you or throw you into a fit of existential depression.

It could go either way to be honest.

I won’t go into too much depth at this point, but what you basically need to know is the following: Determinism tells us that all events, even human events, are caused by forces other than our own will. That is to say that we are not in charge of what we do, but are merely just one more domino falling in a sequence that started with the beginning of existence. Assuming, of course, that there even was a beginning.

Indeterminism, on the other hand, tells us that we are, at least to some degree, in control of our own actions. We aren’t just passengers in our lives. We are, partially, the authors of our stories.

It basically comes down to free will. Do you have it or don’t you?

In his Physics, and later in Metaphysics, Aristotle makes a case for a continuous sequence of motion. Basically, it comes down to the assertion that for every motion there is a mover. Simple enough, right?

The rock is moved by the agency of the stick. The stick is moved by the agency of the hand. The hand is moved by the agency of the man- so on an so forth.

The question becomes ‘where did it all start?’ We could have, conceivably, continued that regression ad infinitum (which is just a fancy way of saying “forever and ever and ever”).

Aristotle then concludes that there must have been some first mover that kicked off all of this motion in the first place. There must have been some thing that was unmoved itself, but was able to initiate motion. This is what is known as ‘the unmoved mover’.

“Since motion must be everlasting and must never fail, there must be some everlasting first mover, one or more than one.” -Aristotle’s Physics

metaphysicsAt first glance, we might think that this idea espouses the notion that everything we do is predetermined. We are all just falling in line behind the unmoved mover. However, we must remember that Aristotle also was a big fan of the idea of potentiality and actuality. He even centered most of his ethical philosophy around the idea.

The sequence of events that was set in motion by the unmoved mover does not dictate what we do. Rather, the unmoved mover allows for the potentiality of all things. We are still, at least partially, in charge of our lives.

Now that was just a roundabout way of saying that events are partially determined by previous events and partially determined by our choices. And if that seems unsatisfying, then that’s because it is.

The question of “determinism or indeterminism” was not properly addressed by Aristotle because it was not a question that was consciously known by philosophy at the time. Epicurus, however, is another story. Perhaps it is with him that we might find a suitable answer.

Epicurus, who studied philosophy one generation after Aristotle, subscribed to the atomic model of Democritus and Leucippus, two pre-socratic philosophers whose theory tells us that all of our world is composed of atoms and void.

Atoms move through void and often smash into one another. These collisions create causal chains and result in all the events within our universe. This gave rise to the idea of causal determinism, or the idea that all things occur out of physical necessity. Within the fragments of Leucippus’ writing he tells us that…

“Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.”

Epicurus attempted to combat this deterministic position by suggesting that atoms do not always follow predictable paths. They can swerve, change course, and collide with other atoms. These random collisions give rise to new causal chains.

Epicurus argued that these new causal chains gave us more control over our actions, which would mean that ideas like praise or blame are appropriate when looking at human behavior. We are, in short, not slave to necessity.

“Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.” -Epicurus (Letter to Menoeceus)

Some of you might be scratching your heads over this one. Epicurus seems to tell us that there are gaps in the causal chains which occur right before a human decision. This gives rise to the possibility of spontaneity and free will.

But wait a minute there, Epicurus! How is it that we can assume that these causal gaps occur with any regularity during the exact moments of human decision? Moreover, you seem to be suggesting that indeterministic actions are dependent upon these causal gaps. How can it truly be free will if it is dependent upon some previous event, or lack thereof?

The clever and astute reader that you are, you may be asking yourself these questions. To this, Epicurus would tell us absolutely nothing because he is an ancient philosopher who died thousands of years ago.

There really aren’t any fulfilling answers to these sorts of questions. Epicurus believed that the random motion of atoms allowed for the potentiality of human decision. However, the relation between the causal gaps and human free will is murky. Moreover, the fact that free will is dependent upon these causal gaps means that we really only possess some sort of quasi-free will.

In other words, we are deterministically indeterminate.

If Epicurus and his deterministic indeterminism seems just way too wonky for you right now, then you could always just subscribe to the ideas of the early stoics. It’s like that old expression says…

Those who can’t reconcile their own free will against the causal forces of the universe ought to just concede to the divine logos within all existence.

People say that, right?

That, however, is a discussion we will leave for next week. Speak soon.

The Epic Ennius

by on January 9, 2015

By Ben Potter

Today we shall get to grips with a character of epic proportions, one of the originators of Latin literature… the one and only, Ennius.

Of course Ennius can make no boast to being the father, or even a close relation, of epic poetry. Homer and Hesiod’s hands and harps were blotched and notched some 500 years before Ennius was a twinkle in the eye of a wealthy Calabrian.

Indeed, he was not even the first epic poet to write in Latin.

In the third century BC, Livius Andronicus and Naevius both composed weighty blockbusters in verse, the former translating Homer’s Odyssey and the latter giving his own account of the First Punic War.

Thus it was not the what, but the how, that gave Ennius his reputation as a noteworthy figure of literary history… upon whose gigantic shoulders men like Virgil would one day stand.

But alas, dear reader, we are, in terms of both chronology and narrative, getting ahead of ourselves…

Just who was this Ennius fellow?


As alluded to above, Quintus Ennius (c.239-169 BC) was born into a wealthy family in Calabria, the ancient ‘heel’ of the Italian boot, in the town of Rudiae, modern day Lecce.

N.B. Rather confusingly, the modern ‘toe’ of the Italian boot is now called Calabria and the ‘heel’, Apulia.

If any budding young wordsmith of ancient times could have chosen a town in which to be born, he could not have done better than Rudiae.

This coastal settlement was open to Italy, Greece and the wider Mediterranean. Having been founded by the Messapians, a people of Illyrian (roughly Albanian) extraction, it was also multi-cultural enough that Latin, Greek and Oscan made up a trilingual society.

It is for this reason that Ennius was said (by Aulus Gellius) to have had ‘three hearts’.

He certainly had a superior grasp of languages and literature and his talents were recognized by none other than that great old moralizer, Cato the Elder.

Cato, a novus homo (a new man i.e. not of an ancient, aristocratic family) himself, plucked Ennius out of the obscurity of his military service on Sardinia. Cato then introduced him into Roman society where he gave lectures on poetry.

In his own modest way, Ennius thrived in such surroundings and carved out a niche for himself as a tutor of Greek and Latin to the rich progeny of well-to-do Roman families.

It was in such surroundings that he obtained the favor of the powerful Fulvius Nobilior family. They invited him on a military campaign and, in 184 BC, granted him citizenship, a great boon for any Italian.

N.B. At this time Rome and Italy, although they enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, were very much separate entities. Roman citizenship was highly desirable.


After replacing the sword for the pen, Ennius went on to display not only a prolific output, writing plays for public festivals up until his death, but, more unusually, an outstanding versatility.

A fecund mind, further fertilized by a constant supply of alcohol (he was said to have died of gout), Ennius produced fabulae palliatae, praetextae fabulae (tragedies dealing with historical and mythological Roman figures), as well as traditional Greek tragedies, many of which were translated from Euripides.

Indeed, he treated the texts of Euripides in much the same manner as Plautus had the works of Menander; copying, editing and annotating with a completely free hand and no assumption of wrongdoing whatsoever.

However, it is his epic Annals for which he fame resounds.

It was mentioned earlier that he was not the first, nor the first Latin to attempt the genre, so what makes Ennius quite so important vis-à-vis epic?

Well, it wasn’t the content either.


Though it would have certainly gone down well, the history of Rome from the sacking of Troy to the present day (including up to the minute events) was not the factor of greatest importance.

In fact, what cemented Ennius in the canon of legendary Latins was his revolutionary use of… metre.

“Ennius’ most important contribution was perhaps the hexameter itself, the traditional metre of Greek epic” (P.G. McC. Brown).

The previous epics, those of Livius Andronicus and Naevius, employed the Saturnian metre. While more instinctively and traditionally used by Latin poets at the time, the Saturnian metre rendered clumsy, stertorous and generally unsatisfactory verse.

The new direction in which Ennius took prosody was no accident or result of a stylistic whim. He consciously unfettered himself from the mode of his predecessors.

“To go with his new metre [Ennius] moulded a poetic diction which served as the basis for the style of his successors” (P.G. McC. Brown).

And, though materially humble – he was said to have tutored from a small house on the Aventine – he was proud and pompous when it came to his work.


Not only does he use book seven of the Annals to mock the rough and ready style of his forebears, but at the beginning of the epic he actually claims to be the reincarnation of Homer!

Despite having a strong case of artistic temperament, Ennius’ seminal innovations should not be dismissed or belittled.

While only 600 of perhaps 20,000 lines of the Annals remains extant, the quality of the work is such that it is obvious a colossus of ancient literature has slipped through the cracks of time.

Indeed, he is perhaps the single greatest loss to the ancient oeuvre that we are currently aware of.

Though we are sure there are works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Plautus that are lost to us forever, we are still privileged enough to enjoy their scripts which have survived the passage of time intact.

With Ennius, we only have ideas, quotes, tributes, fragments, and dreams of what might have been.

On this front we can be consoled by the fact that his style remained in vogue right until BC changed to AD. Consequently Ennius’ guile and gusto influenced the likes of Lucretius, Ovid, Cicero, Catullus, Lucan and, particularly, Virgil.

And so we shall leave you with a taste of what the metrical maverick was capable of. Despite being a ktistic (foundation) story and generally glorifying the expansion of the Roman Republic, this extract from his great Annals takes a more sombre tone to reflect on the cruel, unruly nature of war:

Wisdom is driven out: violence holds sway.
Sound speakers scorned, rough soldiers have their day.
No longer with abuse or skillful speech
Do men express their hatred, each to each.
But now with weapons, not with writs, they fight;
They strive to rule, press on with massive might.

The Pitiable Tyrant

by on January 6, 2015

Do you remember a few weeks ago when we had a bit of a discussion on the Platonic dialogue, Gorgias? I sure do. Those were good times, simpler times.

Most of you are dedicated readers so I won’t have socratesto remind you that we discussed the nature of rhetoric, the morality of rhetoric, and Socrates’ assertion that, without philosophy, rhetoric is merely a form of flattery, a way to entice people to accept a position that is often unjust.

Then again, a lot of you are reading this newsletter for the first time. So for those of you who are just joining the party, I would like to invite you to come on in, man, shut the door, the bar is in the back.

And, of course, you can always read last weeks article if you want to catch up. You know… if you are in to that sort of the thing.

Okay! Let’s get to it.

So we were talking about Gorgias, right? Well, as it turns out, we stopped right before we got to some serious philosophical musings. It is the sort of ancient philosophy that most people take for granted but can, in fact, shed some light on the way we perceive our world today.

Basically, it’s my bread and butter.

Anyway, when we last left Socrates he had just finished up a discussion with the dialogue’s namesake, Gorgias, and had made the assertion that rhetoric, without philosophy, was something of a vice.

The implication of this is that speechmakers like Gorgias, not to mention politicians and sophists, have the tendency to become good-for-nothing dogs who couldn’t care less for true understanding or justice.

Well, this struck a nerve with Polus, another participant in the dialogue, and he begins something of a crusade against the Father of Western Philosophy.

“And do even you, Socrates, seriously believe what you are now saying about rhetoric? What! because Gorgias was ashamed to deny that the rhetorician knew the just and the honourable and the good, and admitted that to any one who came to him ignorant of them he could teach them, and then out of this admission there arose a contradiction-the thing which you dearly love, and to which not he, but you, brought the argument by your captious questions. Do you seriously believe that there is any truth in all this?” -Polus (Gorgias)

Polus argues that rhetoricians possess great power within a city. A good rhetorician might persuade a court to confiscate the property of a man or to exile a criminal from a state. In this way it would seem they are like tyrants and possess great power.

Well, it’s funny you should mention tyrants, says Socrates, because those bums are just as bad as the rhetoricians. In fact, tyrants and rhetoricians possess no real power at all and are really the most pitiful people in all of society.

“And I tell you, Polus, that rhetoricians and tyrants have the least possible power in states, as I was just now saying; for they do literally nothing which they will, but only what they think best.” -Socrates (Gorgias)

What?! Socrates must have been to too many symposiums because he is talking absolute nonsense. Polus certainly thinks this is the case. At one point he even laughs a Socrates for proposing such a foolish idea.

Polus gives the example of a real-life king who unjustly murders his brother and seizes his throne. This man will, presumably, live the rest of his life in luxury, endowed with the ability to take anything he pleases.

Certainly, Polus argues, this king is truly happy and should be envied. However, Socrates is sticking to his guns on this one. This man should not be envied. He is actually miserable and deserves only our pity.

In order for Socrates’ argument to stand any sort of chance, he will have to prove that tyrants, the men who kill and exile and condemn, only do what they think is best and not what is truly best. To do this, Socrates makes the second claim that it is a far better thing to suffer injustice than to commit injustice.

“Then I said truly, Polus that neither you, nor I, nor any man, would rather, do than suffer injustice; for to do injustice is the greater evil of the two.” -Socrates (Gorgias)

Socrates asks Polus to tell him if it is worse to suffer injustice or to commit injustice. Polus claims that it is worse to suffer injustice.

Socrates then asks which is more disgraceful. Polus concedes that committing injustice is more disgraceful.

The philosopher pushes on and claims that when comparing the goodness of a thing, we ought to consider it’s utility and pleasure.

“Let me ask a question of you: When you speak of beautiful things,such as bodies, colours, figures, sounds, institutions, do you not call them beautiful in reference to some standard: bodies, for example, are beautiful in proportion as they are useful, or as the sight of them gives pleasure to the spectators; can you give any other account of personal beauty?” -Socrates (Gorgias)

Conversely, we should consider if things are evil by examining the amount of pain and disgrace within an activity.


When considering committing injustice or suffering injustice, Polus concedes that committing injustice can be painful, but suffering is far more painful. However, when it comes to disgrace, committing injustice is truly disgraceful while suffering injustice is not disgraceful at all.

And so we must conclude that committing injustice is painful and disgraceful while suffering injustice is merely painful. Therefore, committing injustice is the greater evil. And would any reasonable man ever wish to pursue that which is most evil and bad?

Certainly not.

This is where we come back to the claim that tyrants do only what they think is best and not what is truly best. Therefore, they should be pitied.

Now, some of you might be scratching your head over this one. It would seem like Socrates won his point because of a technicality. When comparing an unjust king to and just prisoner who is, oh let’s just say, having his skin peeled from his bones, we might be hesitant to say that the latter is happier than the former.

Polus actually raises such an objection.

“If a man is detected in an unjust attempt to make himself a tyrant, and when detected is racked, mutilated, has his eyes burned out, and after having had all sorts of great injuries inflicted on him, and having seen his wife and children suffer the like, is at last impaled or tarred and burned alive, will he be happier than if he escape and become a tyrant, and continue all through life doing what he likes and holding the reins of government, the envy and admiration both of citizens and strangers?”-Polus (Gorgias)

Well, when you put it like that…

Socrates’ argument that tyrants are pitiable certainly might come under fire. It might seem absurd to suggest that we would truly be happier suffering injustice rather than reaping the spoils of committing injustice.

We must remember that at the heart of this argument there is the Platonic idea that there exists the form of Goodness (with a capitol G). We can only live a happy, fulfilled life by actively pursuing and understanding the Good.

By behaving unjustly as if we were tyrants, we are actually damaging our true self, our inner self. Tyrants are pitiable because they possess a tarnished soul, an incomplete existence.

The bottom line is that it is a far better thing to suffer whilst in pursuit of truth than to live ignobly in the shade of ignorance and injustice. And if there ever was a purely Socratic idea, it is this sentiment exactly.

Nowadays we don’t have tyrants, per say, but we still have politicians. Plato had a few things to say about them as well, namely that democratic government tends to create a bunch of corrupt, self-interested tyrants who care nothing for the people, but we will get to that another day.

If we do choose to accept Socrates’ argument for the pitiable tyrant, then we might view our modern-day tyrants in a new light. The next time you read about a massive corruption scandal in the newspaper or see an elected representative lying through their teeth on the television, you simply need to shake your head and say…

Those poor, miserable bastards.