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Isocrates: The Essayist

by on April 17, 2015

By Ben Potter

In many ways Isocrates is the forgotten man of Classical Greece.

As a product of Athens’ Golden Age, he was a contemporary of Plato, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aristotle, et al,… just without their fame or everlasting glory.

And it’s not that he didn’t deserve it.

Indeed, a case can be made that no man was more influential in Athenian politics and education in the time between the loss of the Peloponnesian War (404 BC) and the advent of Alexander the Great (336 BC).

Born into great wealth and privilege in 436 BC during the Thirty Years Peace (effectively a cold war between Athens and Sparta), Isocrates had both the world at his feet and a silver spoon in his mouth.

Peloponnesian War

However, Athens’ capitulation in the Peloponnesian War, and the social upheaval that ensued, cost Isocrates his residence on easy street.

Newly impoverished and in danger of his life, he left (probably fled) Athens during the oligarchic tyranny of 404 BC.


However, despite his new digs on desolation row, Isocrates had been rich enough and bright enough for long enough to receive a first rate education at the hands of Socrates, Prodicus, Gorgias and Teisias.

This quadrumvirate of educators is made particularly peculiar by the presence of Socrates.

Those familiar with the trial of Socrates in Plato’s Apology will recall the old man defending himself by claiming not to be one of those who ‘make the weaker argument defeat the stronger’. Prodicus, Gorgias and Teisias were just such men.

These sophists, who were both apparently despised and yet in demand, trained rich Greeks in the rhetoric of politics and in arguing well rather than arguing justly.

It was in their tradition that Isocrates’ professional development occurred, even though the man himself would have recoiled at being referred to as in the same breath as such characters.

Indeed, his first published work was entitled Against the Sophists.

‘Against those Sophists’ may have been a more accurate title, as the thesis of the essay points out why and how his educational methods were different, and superior, to those of his reviled rivals. None of whom, he claimed, possessed the knowledge, moral fibre or pedagogical acumen to properly instruct.

Not that he was a fan of the Socrates/Plato method of education either…

Indeed, the argument propounded by Socrates/Plato in the Meno suggests that we all, innately, have the full knowledge of the universe stored within us and we just need help ‘recollecting’ it. Socrates, you may recall, evidences this by getting an unlettered slave to solve a math problem without giving him any information (though by asking him a succession of extremely leading questions).


Isocrates, on the other hand, believed that a student needed to be naturally intelligent in order to embark on a career of learning. From here he should be become well-read, carefully tutored and be ceaselessly vigilant in practising his art.

The key difference here between him and the aforementioned sophists is that they were quite happy to tutor those who had no aptitude for learning, as long as they had an aptitude for paying their bills.

Not that Isocrates’ was a charitable cause… Indeed, there are suggestions he charged inordinately high fees for those wishing to enter his school of rhetoric (est. 392 BC, five years before Plato’s academy).

However, the fact that he would accept no more than nine students at a time suggests that not only was the school exclusive, but the study intense.

Despite the undoubted fortune Isocrates made, it would appear that his ultimate goal, and indeed what he believed education was for, was the benefit of the state… though these principles were not confined to the classroom.


Indeed, despite shaping the minds of men of no little future import like Timotheus, Speusippus, Theopompus, Hypereides, Ephorus, Lycurgus, Isaeus, and Hypereides, it was his career as an orator for which he became best remembered.

‘Orator’ is perhaps a little bit misleading. If he were around today, we’d call him a speech-writer and essayist.

Due to a poor voice, innate physical weakness and, therefore, a lack of confidence, he was never a public speaker of any renown. Consequently, he could never have had a political career to call his own.

As such, after honing his skills as a speechwriter for those defending themselves in the law courts (there were no lawyers in ancient Athens), he began to write to various kings, princes and ruling bodies, including to the Athenian assembly itself.

These ancient equivalents of open letters to The Times provide important insights into the political machinations from all over the Greek world.


Of the sixty speeches that survived into Roman times (and heavily, heavily influenced Cicero) twenty-one are extant today.

While his style has been described as pompous and verbose, it clearly shows him a master of the craft. Dionysius of Halicarnassus described it as ‘closely woven material’ and ‘a picture in which the lights melt imperceptibly into shadows’.

Likewise was Isocrates’ content inspired. As a child of the Peloponnesian War it was perhaps no surprise that he became increasingly preoccupied with a wider Greek peace.

His Panegyricus of 380 BC is a plea for Athens and Sparta to bring about a united Greece; a drastic and radical proposition for the time.

Philip II

This theme is reinforced in his Philippus. This entreaty calls on King Philip II of Macedonia, as a gentleman and a Hellene, to unite Greece against the common enemy, Persia.

While many other works take a similar tack, others still defend his educational methods, criticize his peers, pay special attention to the kings of Salamis, call on Athens to support her allies, rail against falling standards in the city, and call to end the willful bankruptcy of the polis through seemingly endless wars.

His educational innovations were, in many ways, a precursor to the liberal arts instruction still in existence today.

Meanwhile, his speeches brought into focus the idea that Greek states could no longer be either unduly aggressive militarily or stubbornly isolationist.

And while Philip II didn’t quite manage to take up the mantel of unifier of Greece and scourge of Persia, he did lay the foundations for his son, Alexander the Great, to do just that.

Tragically, Isocrates was not around to see him dream fulfilled.

In 338 BC, two years shy of Alexander’s coronation and his own 100th birthday, Isocrates starved himself to death after yet another appeal to Philip fell on deaf ears.

Dionysus the Mild: Eater of Flesh

by on April 9, 2015

By Ben Potter

As a figure of myth and superstition even in his own time, Dionysus could well have been dismissed by the cynical as being an unworthy interpolation into the field of true religion.

However, although “he represents an enchanted world and an extraordinary experience” (Albert Henrichs), the scope of his temporal power is hard to overstate.

The twice-born Dionysus is technically, like Heracles, a demigod, though unlike the twelve-time labourer, his godliness is dominant over his humanity.


Dionysus’ bizarre incubation started when Zeus impregnated Semele, the daughter of the Cadmus, king of Thebes.

Subsequently, Zeus’ (understandably) jealous wife, Hera, concocted a plan for revenge. She convinced Semele to request that she see Zeus in all his divine glory, knowing that the sight of the god would overload Semele’s frail, human form, causing instant incineration.

From these ashes, Zeus recovered Dionysus, sewing the charred and blackened foetus up in his thigh.

Thus the King of the Gods gave birth to Dionysus (a bizarre, but not unique feat – Athena was also born from Zeus’ fractured skull). The babe was then given to his human aunt, Ino, for safekeeping.

However, Hera, her spleen not yet fully vented, sent Ino and her family into a frenzy of madness and suicide. Thus, Dionysus was passed along to the nymphs of Mount Nysa (from where he gets his name) and there his induction into all things sublime, sensational, sexual, salacious and sinister started.


He self-proselytised across Greece, Asia and India, bringing madness and death upon those who denied him. The chief example of this was the poker-faced wrath he brought upon his cousin, Pentheus, King of Thebes, made famous to us through Euripides’ The Bacchae.

Though not all tales on Dionysus are dark or depraved.

A particularly charming story about him comes from the seventh Homeric hymn which recounts his capture by pirates. The unsuspecting brigands got more than they bargained for when the god’s bonds dropped off and he turned into a lion, all while a great vine grew around the ship’s mast.

Quite understandably, the pirates all jumped overboard, only to be turned into dolphins upon hitting the water.

For this and other tales, Dionysus is “perceived as both man and animal, male and effeminate, young and old, he is the most versatile and elusive of all Greek gods”. (Albert Henrichs).

Hermes and Infant Dionysus

Of course it is the vine motif that flashes first into our minds when we think about Dionysus.

Indeed, this aspect of his personality is represented in some of the most famous artwork of which he is the subject. For example, the seminal ‘Hermes and the infant Dionysus’ shows the older god dangling grapes over the head of the younger.

Likewise, this facet of the god was a regular feature in literature.

Among the earliest poets, it can be seen that the wine-giver holds a particular place of affection in the hearts of the poetical:

“Cut off all the grape clusters…show them to the sun for ten days…cover them for five, and on the sixth day draw off into vessels the gifts of joyful Dionysus.” (Hesiod, Works and Days).

Elsewhere, Hesiod refers to the god as ‘he of many delights’ and Homer, in the Iliad, calls him the ‘comforter of mankind’.

The following twist on that theme, from Euripides’ The Bacchae, will be of particular interest to those of us for whom Sunday is more than merely a day to watch football and mow the lawn:

“When mortals drink their fill of wine, the sufferings of our unhappy race are banished, each day’s troubles are forgotten in sleep. There is no other cure for sorrow. Dionysus, himself a god, is thus poured out in offering to the gods, so that through him come blessings on mankind”.

Though unlike Mr J.C. of Nazareth, Dionysus may well have been, quite astonishingly, a teetotaler.

Baby Dionysus

Although there are some Renaissance depictions of him imbibing his own gift, in antiquity this is not the case.

That said, he is almost invariably depicted close to wine, grapes, or drunkards; his entourage of satyrs are forever indulging in inebriated dancing, fornicating and revelling in general.

And if the satyrs represent all the naughty fun and frolics that go hand in hand with overindulgence, it is the maenads (or bacchae), female followers of the god, who lend things a dark and sinister air.

Maenads, on their annual pilgrimage to the mountains, would pay homage to the god by inducing in each other a ritualised frenzy, often described (by others) as a madness. Though commentators have often used drink or drugs to explain this away, contemporary accounts put it down to an infusion of the god into the body; perhaps a form of intense, liberating meditation.

Both in art and literature this mania culminates in the bare-handed rending of a live animal (sparagmos) and the raw consumption of its flesh (omophagia).


The once-popular idea that this carcass was a ritualised ingestion of the god himself is no longer in vogue (though remains to be convincingly refuted). The fact that Euripides interpolates King Pentheus into the role of sacrificial animal implies that cannibalism, though ghastly, does not seem to be wholly inappropriate.

Ignoring the god/man-eating aspect, the fact that the sacrificial meat was uncooked is a perverse act in and of itself and an example of how Dionysus revels in his role as disrupter of the social order.

This too is reflected in his public festivals, of which there were at least seven annually in Athens alone. Characteristics of these celebrations were excessive and open drunkenness, obscenity, lubriciousness and transvestitism; all amidst huge, decorative phalli that lend a je ne sais quoi to any event.

Along with wine, intoxication and ritual madness, Dionysus was also a god of theatre – comedy and tragedy reflecting perfectly the dichotomy within his soul – as well as masks, impersonation and, almost paradoxically, the afterlife.

Indeed, this aspect should not be belittled as he constantly crops up in funeral art. The pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, went as far as to say: “Dionysus, in whose honour they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same”.

So how are we supposed to view this internally incongruous, but undoubtedly important god?


Well, Dionysus is certainly a joke, but a joke borne of lust and power, of wine and spite, of ecstasy and shame.

His beauty and brutality are so pervasive that at times he is almost the embodiment of a last request; one final moment of frenzied delight before the trapdoor opens and the noose tightens.

He is death, blood, beauty, pain, art, ecstasy, elation, and envy; a man for whom one would gladly hold a feast day, perhaps without acknowledging the dreadful truth of what could potentially be on the menu.

Euripides certainly portrays him as a creature of horror and violence; one desirous of carrying out torture and humiliation.

Perhaps as one so cruel and beautiful, powerful and appetitive, he is not merely versatile, but strikes to the heart of our own divine empathy.

After all, there is barely a man who ever existed who doesn’t have something in common with Dionysus. And it may be this, more than anything else, that fascinates and repels in almost equal measure.

The Rise and Fall of the Athenian Empire (Part 2)

by on April 7, 2015

You might remember two weeks ago we had something of a chat about a rather interesting bit of history. How is it that an alliance of cities with the unobjectionable goal of protecting their homeland from foreign invaders eventually turned into one of the first Periclesempires of the ancient world?

Well, it’s kind of a funny story, albeit not a very original one. Anybody with a basic understanding of history, or human nature, will recognize the cycle. A government comes to power and a country, often through conquest, rises to prominence. Once they have gotten a taste of the good life, so to speak, they are rather reluctant to go back to the way things used to be.

And so by force or by fraud, the government takes it upon itself to maintain the status quo, to preserve their prosperity.

It seems as if Bill Bonner, over at Diary of a Rogue Economist, was thinking the same thing this week when he wrote…

“Governments were set up to take control. Ruling elites – by force of arms – established laws, protocols and armies to try to prevent anyone from taking their place. Their wealth, power and status were to be preserved at all costs.” –Bill Bonner’s Diary of a Rouge Economist (April 1st, 2015)

I really could not have said it better myself. The article continues by detailing how ruling elites throughout history maintained their status by force right up until the advent of the firearm. After all, every farmer in the American colonies had a rifle. As a result, a ragtag group of insurgents (with the assistance of the French Navy) were able to defeat the greatest army in the world.

So, the newsletter continues, the powers that be had to find another way to keep the commoners in their place. They turned to fraud.

Now that is all very interesting. But keep in mind that our topic of interest took place over two thousand years ago; back in the good old days when whoever had the most guys with pointy sticks was inevitably the top dog. And as we discussed last week, Athens, after a few decades in the Delian League, had an abundance of pointy sticks, warships, and men willing to go to war for glory and loot.

If you are not an avid Classical Wisdom Weekly reader, then you can catch part one of this article by clicking here. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back already? Wonderful! Let’s recap.

The year is 479 BC and the Greek alliance has just expelled the Persian Empire from the Hellenic mainland. The entire Greek force is basking in PanHellenic pride. The following year, a congress of about 150 city-states makes an alliance on the island of Delos. The purpose of this “Delian League” was to continue to battle the Persian forces in Northern Greece, Asia Minor, and the Aegean islands.


The de-facto leader of this alliance is Athens. With the dues paid by the other allied cities, the Athenian government builds up their already impressive navy and begins a series of successful military engagements against the Persian armies.

Athens collects the looted treasures of the cities they conquer while continuing to receive dues from member states. It is estimated that the league was collecting hundereds of millions of dollars in contemporary terms every year. With an adult male population of about 45,000 in Athens, this meant unrivaled prosperity for the Athenians.

Additionally, the continued success of the Delian League armies brought more glory for the Athenian elite. Men like Cimon, an Athenian general who was the son of the hero of the Battle of Marathon, continued to cement his place within his cities most privileged faction with each victory over the Persian forces.

The Athenian commoners, perhaps surprisingly, also benefited from the continued existence of the Delian League and the military campaigns. Unskilled laborers could be hired as rowers on Athenian triremes. It is estimated that a rower could make as much in a month as a farmer could make in a year.

Put very simply, the Delian League had propelled Athens to a level of prosperity that had been unheard of during this time. Athens had every reason to maintain the alliance, and they would do anything to prevent a loss of power.


Athens’ determination to maintain the hegemony can be seen in 465 BC when they lay siege to the island of Thasos after the island’s government had unilaterally voted to withdraw from the league. Athens conquered the city-state, tore down its walls, confiscated its navy, and forced the island to continue to pay tribute.

Naxos and the city of Erythrai in Asia Minor were similarly put down and subjected to Athenian rule after they had attempted to withdraw from the alliance. The Delian League was a union now only in name. There were no allied uprisings during this time that were not swiftly squashed by the Athenian military.

“The subject states of Athens were especially eager to revolt, even though it was beyond their capability.”
(Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VIII)

After these allied revolts, and the subsequent force enacted by Athens to maintain control, a new type of member emerged within the Delian alliance: a subject state. These members, members like Naxos and Thasos, were ruled over by Athenian garrisons and acted as Athens’ puppets within the leagues assembly.

Combining these members with the smaller city-states who were either intimidated by Athens or relied upon her for protection, the outcome of assembly votes was never in question. Whatever Athens wanted would always be done. The assembly would not even bother considering military action if it did not clearly benefit the Athenian interests.

The assembly would eventually become irrelevant and was disbanded around 435 BC. Athens continued to rule by decree alone. Their empire was well and truly established.

“After the Athenians had gained their empire, they treated their allies rather dictatorially, except for Chios, Lesbos and Samos. These they regarded as guardians of the empire, allowing them to keep their own constitution and rule over any subjects they happened to have.”- Aristotle
(Consitution of Athens)

What is interesting is that this rapid Athenian expansion did not take place under the rule of an oppressive tyrant, nor was it a series of oligarchs that made designs to craft an empire. Athens’ policies of extreme imperialism came about during a time of what some refer to as “radical” democracy.

It was during this time that significant reforms were set in place. Athenian citizens could participate on juries, for the first time in the city’s history. Juries often determined the guilt of a defendant after only one round of voting and there could be no appeals.

Additionally, the office of general (strategos) was voted upon directly by the citizenry of Athens. It is for this reason that the Athenian generals, wishing to maintain the support of the populace, were so bold, and occasionally over eager, to participate in further military expeditions.


It is ironic that this type of Athenian democracy, which aimed at achieving absolute egalitarianism for the Athenian citizens, was never allowed for the other member states within the alliance. Any states attempting to achieve any semblance of independence from Athens were struck down by force.

Athenian expansionism would continue into the 450’s when a wealthy aristocrat named Pericles came to the fore. Smart, affluent, and wildly popular with the commoners, Pericles would be the dominant politician in Athens for the next two decades.

While Athens had indeed established itself as an imperial force, the Athenian city looked anything but. Much of the damage inflicted by Xerxes’ army several decades earlier had never fully been repaired. Many of the Athenian assembly meetings consisted of men lounging on a hill in the ancient Agora. Athens needed a lesson in playing the part of a magnificent empire, and Pericles was here to show them how.

In 454 BC Pericles moved the Delian league’s treasury from the neutral island of Delos and stored it within the Athenian acropolis. The official reason for the transfer was so that the treasury could be protected from Persian invaders or marauding pirates. Plutarch, however, suggests that there might have been an ulterior motive.

“…the demagogues enlarged it (the treasury) little by little, and at last brought the sum total up to thirteen hundred talents, not so much because the war, by reason of its length and vicissitudes, became extravagantly expensive, as because they themselves led the people off into the distribution of public moneys for spectacular entertainments, and for the erection of images and sanctuaries.” –Plutarch (Life of Aristides)

Pericles had initiated public building projects in 454 BC. As a result, many of the most iconic structures of the ancient world were erected during this time; chief among them is the Parthenon. And while the building projects were funded primarily through Athenian taxation and donations from Athens’ wealthiest, Plutarch seems to suggest that the building of the Parthenon, at least partially, was funded by the tributes paid by the league.


If this is correct, then it would mean that funds intended to be used for the protection of all of Greece had been spent by the Athenians to create their magnificent temples. This is often pointed to as being one of the first embezzlement scandals of the Western world.

In addition to his expansive building projects, Pericles established colonies on confiscated lands as a means to discourage revolts from Athenian subjects.

“Pericles sent out one thousand settlers to the Khersonese, five hundred to Naxos, 250 to Andros, one thousand to Thrace to make their homes with the Bisaltai … and, by setting up garrisons among the allies, to implant a fear of rebellion.”
(Plutarch, Life of Pericles)

Athens’ rapid rise to power and their tendency to bully their neighbors into getting what they wanted had not gone unnoticed. Sparta had watched the rise of the Athenian empire with a weary eye. And here we come to the crux of our story.

In the words of Thucydides…

“The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.” –Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I)

Athens had managed to broker a peace with Sparta in 445 BC. However, Athens’ continued support of Spartan enemies would increase tensions over the next fifteen years. In 431 BC, there could be no more truce. Fighting broke out, and the Peloponnesian War had officially begun.

ThucydidesThe fighting would last for thirty years. During that time Athens saw the death of Pericles, the introduction of a terrible plague, and the defection of one of their greatest generals, Alcibiades.

In 404 BC, faced with starvation, disease, and a Spartan army laying siege to their city, the Athenians surrendered. They were stripped of their walls as well as all their overseas possessions. Athens’ system of democracy was disbanded. The Athenian Empire had fallen.

The Athenians ought to have counted themselves lucky that the Spartans did not destroy their city and scatter the populace. After their victory, the Spartan government allowed Athens, a city that had done so much for the Greek people, to limp on.

So what can we learn from all this? Well, we can see that the intentions of the Athenians at the birth of the Delian League had been largely honorable. They wished to protect their homeland and maintain an alliance amongst their neighbors.

However, the continued success of the league brought Athens unrivaled prosperity and power. Once they had a taste of true supremacy, they could not give it up. Athens would attempt to maintain their dominance by force, subjugating long-time allies and creating resentment among their neighbors. There could be only one outcome for the Athenian empire: violence, war, and eventual collapse.

The rashness of the Athenian assembly was partially due to its democratic nature. While oligarchs might have been more reserved when it came to continued expansion, the Athenian generals were consistently pushed to adventurism again and again because of the potential reward it held for the people as well as for their political clout.

For this reason, the story of the Athenian Empire is often looked at as more than just an interesting historical anecdote. It is an endearing testament to the true nature of man and the potential danger of democracy. Put in the same position, any of us would have done the same. Thucydides put it best when he wrote…

“We have done nothing surprising, nothing contrary to human nature, if we accepted leadership when it was offered and are now unwilling to give it up.” –Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I)

Of Ancient Bondage

by on April 3, 2015

By Ben Potter

“Jove takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him”.

Homer was quick to recognize the terror and inhumanity of slavery. And he used it as a powerful tool to stoke the drama of his epic:

“tears will break forth anew for he who would have put away the day of captivity from you. May I lie dead under the barrow that is heaped over my body ere I hear your cry as they carry you into bondage”.

These words were spoken by the Trojan prince, Hector, to his fearful wife Andromache. It is here, perhaps, that we have the crux of the matter. Slavery was bad. Abhorrent. Unjust. An insult to any Greek… but Hector and Andromache were not Greeks.

Slaves were the spoils of war, a reinforcement of one nation’s hegemony over another.

Though it is hard to say when and exactly how the notion developed, it became accepted amongst the differing Greek states that enslaving fellow Greeks, if not entirely illegal or evil, was at the very least ‘bad form’.

For non-Greeks, however, it was an entirely different matter.

Aristotle, in his Politics, has some rather unsavory things to say on the issue:

“That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule… the use of slaves and the use of animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life”.

Even though one could argue that this is an extension of some of Plato’s radical, but thought-provoking ideas regarding the roles of each man in society, they still make very uncomfortable reading for anyone who has admired Aristotle.

Slavery in Ancient Greece

Despite their lack of ‘personhood’, there were differing categories of slave in ancient Athens. This is because many were both prisoners of war and living booty plundered from raids on other states, and therefore, could be almost any type of person from any walk of life.

Hence a slave, if he were ‘lucky’ (and educated) could find himself working directly for the state as a clerk of the jury courts or as a coin-tester, or perhaps even as a policeman.

Not only was such work less backbreaking and dangerous than some (the slaves who worked down the silver mines could easily die of exhaustion having not seen the sun for years), but, being state owned rather than private property, these slaves would have had some security (if, of course, no freedom).

That said, it may not have been in the best interests of a slave policeman to give evidence in court as, in both Greece and Rome, the evidence of a slave was only valid if it had been extracted under torture. Meanwhile, skilled artisan slaves could be given their own workshops and simply pay their masters a cut of their profits each week.

Slavery Rome

It is likely the instance of debt-bondsmanship (a temporary slavery which could, in reality, affect generations) reduced drastically after Solon’s reforms (circa 600 BC) made Athenian citizens exempt from this punishment. Indeed, the practice seemed more prevalent in Sparta where Athenian style chattel slavery was less popular.

But if, in Athens, slavery was merely of sea of blood on which to sail the ship of the state, it was in Rome that it spiraled out of control.
There it became not merely a practical means by which to exploit free labour and swell the ranks of the army, but actually a symbol of status.

Indeed, Pliny claimed a freedman (i.e. former slave) by the name of Gaius Caecilius Isidorus personally owned 4116 slaves at the time of his death.

The lot of the Roman slave was paradoxically better and worse than that of the Greek.

One the one hand, an additional feature of Roman slavery seemed to be the extent to which they were in the sexual thrall of their masters, either for the master’s own personal or professional use.

Likewise, there were more examples of capricious cruelty and offhand executions. A likely explanation for this was the sheer volume of slaves, which were provided by professional brigandage, piracy, as well as being the natural spoils of war.

Roman slaves in chains

That said, a flooded marketplace had some advantages; there was strength in numbers.

The classic example that springs to everyone’s mind is the Spartacus revolt in the 70’s BC. However, it should be stressed that the result of this fight was 6000 crucified slaves.

More common (and, probably, more sensible) methods of revolt were fleeing, stealing, sabotaging, working slowly and other forms of non-violent protest.

However, the Romans (or at least, the smart Romans) realized that they could incentivize their slaves with time-off, increased rations, new clothes, limited freedoms, etcetera, just as effectively as a cursory flogging.

Indeed the ultimate incentive was the granting of freedom.

This occurred relatively often: sometimes in wills, sometimes slaves could save up and buy their freedom and, at other times, it was a reward for particularly good service. At certain points in her history, Rome even allowed freedmen to become citizens.

Female slaves

However, there seems little evidence that freedmen made better slavers themselves. Indeed, if we can take the example of Petronius’ grotesque (albeit fictional) character of Trimalchio in the Satyricon we can see a crass and vulgar slaver who only emancipated his slaves in order to emphasize his wealth.

Interestingly, Romans, like Greeks, were reluctant to enslave their own and although vast numbers of Syrians and Jews found themselves under the yoke, there was no racial aspect to this. The key point was that they were not Roman citizens; religion and skin color were not factors.

Even the advent of Christianity did little to improve the lot of those in bondage. St Augustine believed that those in thrall were there because they deserved to be:

“The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow…the judgement of God…knows how to award fit punishment to every variety of offence”.

Indeed, the only real, concerted objection to slavery came from the Stoical philosophers. Even then, there was nothing humanitarian about their protests, instead they stressed that keeping slaves was bad for the soul of the slaver.

So what do we do with this information? How do we square the circle of these broad, brilliant and fascinating societies that did not merely use slaves, but whose very fabric was underpinned by slave labour?

The only obvious answer is that we must take the rough with the smooth, much as we must with the Founding Fathers.

Not that this is an isolated case. Lovers of Wagner or Ezra Pound must face the fact that both men were fervent anti-Semites.

Likewise, can we trust Isaac Newton when he was a confirmed alchemist and spiritualist? And what about Winston Churchill’s murderous tactics with striking Welsh miners?

Even Gandhi and Mother Teresa have their critics, in the former case for his chuminess with Hitler and Mussolini and in the latter with her love of suffering and links to Duvalier in Haiti.

Even through the spectrum of history, by which one should analyze a society on its own terms and not superimpose, it is very difficult to argue one’s way round to justifying classical slavery.

That said, to dismiss the thoughts, works and deeds of people who clearly had so much to offer subsequent generations would be an act of stubbornness and futility, like setting fire to an ivory piano.

In short, history is there to be learned from, for both good and ill and it would be folly to talk about the beauty and brilliance of Roman baths without realizing that there were poor, disenfranchised wretches stoking the furnaces that heated them.

The Sibyl of Cumae

by on March 30, 2015

By Ben Amundgaard, Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly PartnerLearn more about Noet Here!

In the ancient world, sibyls were prophetesses associated with a particular location. Many of their prophecies played key roles in determining the direction of important events. Though there were variations based on Sibyl of Cumaeplace and time, the sibyls all seem to share some characteristics. They were always older women. They gave their prophecies in an ecstatic state, under the power of a particular deity (often Apollo), and they were usually associated with a specific ancient oracle or a temple.

Though early sources refer to only one sibyl, the number eventually grew to 10: the Babylonian Sibyl, the Libyan Sybil, the Delphic Sibyl (though here it appears there was an elder and a younger sibyl), the Cimmerian Sibyl, the Erythrean Sibyl (again, an elder and younger), the Samian Sibyl, the Hellespontian/Trojan Sibyl, the Phrygian Sibyl, the Tiburtine Sibyl and, finally, the Cumaean Sibyl (OK, so there were 12?).

The Cumaean Sibyl is probably the best known of 10 (12) sibyls. Her cave was located near the town of Cumae on the western coast of Italy, in the same location as a temple of Apollo. While most often known as the Cumaean Sibyl or the Sibyl of Cumae, she is also variously referred to as: Herophile, Demo, Phemonë, Deiphobe, Demophile, and Amalthea.

The Cumaean Sibyl plays a crucial role in two events associated with the foundation, rise, and continued success of Rome. First, according to tradition she was the woman who sold the Sibylline books to the last king of Rome. Second, she prophesies to Aeneas about his future in Italy and takes him into the underworld to see his father (who tells him that his descendants will found Rome).

The Old Woman, the last King and the Sibylline Books

In the Roman Antiquities, Dionysius of Halicarnassus recounts the story of an old woman who came to visit Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (or Tarquin the Proud), the last king of Rome. She brings with her nine books that she claims contain sibylline prophecies. She offers to sell the books for what seems like an unreasonable amount of money. The king laughs at her ridiculous price. In response, the woman burns three of the books (boy … that escalated quickly).

A while later, the woman returns with the remaining six books and offers to sell them at the same price as the original nine. Again, the king laughs at her, assuming she has lost her mind. Again, the woman leaves and burns three more of the books (this is getting out of hand … fast).

Undeterred by the king’s obstinacy, the woman returns with the remaining three books. She offers to sell the king the three books for the same price as the original nine. This time the king does not laugh.

“Tarquinius, wondering at the woman’s purpose, sent for the augurs and acquainting them with the matter, asked them what he should do. These, knowing by certain signs that he had rejected a god-sent blessing, and declaring it to be a great misfortune that he had not purchased all the books, directed him to pay the woman all the money she asked and to get the oracles that were left.” -Dionysus of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities)

Aulus Gellius records a similar story in Attic Nights. In his story, however, the old woman burns the books in front of the king. In both accounts the old woman disappears after she sells the books.

Sibyl of Cumae painting

The Sibyl of Cumae by Elihu Vedder

The Sibylline Books (sometimes called the Cumaean Books) became crucial in the ongoing decisions of Rome. The lecti viri—a group of two (duumviri) men that grew to 10 (decemviri) and eventually 15 (quindecimviri)—guarded the books. When the senate’s seers couldn’t divine the meaning of extraordinary events or when Rome needed direction in times of crisis, they would order these men to consult the Sibylline Books.

The books often clarified the meaning of certain divine events or ordered particular sacrifices and oblations to avoid a disaster. Livy reports that, while strategizing for war,

“The state was at this time suddenly occupied with a question of a religious nature, in consequence of the discovery of a prediction in the Sibylline books, which had been inspected on account of there having been so many showers of stones this year. It ran thus: Whensoever a foreign enemy should bring war into the land of Italy, he may be driven out of Italy and conquered, if the Idaean Mother should be brought from Pessinus to Rome.” -Livy

The Romans take this prophecy very seriously and immediately work to bring the Idaean Mother to Rome.

The Romans took these books so seriously that, according to Dionysius, dereliction of one’s duty to care for the books could have disastrous results. When someone reported that one of the guardians of the books had allowed someone else to borrow one of them, King Tarquinius “ordered him to be sewed up in a leather bag and thrown into the sea….” Harsh, but perhaps not too harsh, given the role they played in the fate of Rome.

Virgil and the Cumaean Sibyl

In book 3 of the Aeneid, Aeneas visits a priest/prophet who tells him to visit the Cumaean Sibyl.

“And when, thither borne, thou drawest near to the town of Cumae, the haunted lakes, and Avernus with its rustling woods, thou shalt look on an inspired prophetess, who deep in a rocky cave sings the Fates and entrusts to leaves signs and symbols.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

The sibyl has important news for Aeneas:

“The nations of Italy, the wars to come, the mode whereby thou art to flee or face each toil, she will unfold to thee; and, reverently besought, she will grant thee a prosperous voyage.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

In other words, the fate of the founding of Rome rests on the prophecy she gives Aeneas.
In book 6, Aeneas finally visits Cumae and finds the sibyl. She tells him that though he has survived the troubles of Troy and the dangers of his sea voyage, he has further troubles ahead.

“O thou that at last hast fulfilled the great perils of the sea—yet by land more grievous woes await thee…. Wars, grim wars I see, and Tiber foaming with streams of blood…. Even now another Achilles is raised up in Latium, he, too, goddess-born; nor shall Juno anywhere fail to dog the Trojans, whilst thou, a suppliant in thy need, what races, what cities of Italy shalt thou not implore! The cause of all this Trojan woe is again an alien bride, again a foreign marriage!”-Virgil (The Aeneid)

She says, however, that Aeneas should not fear this fate, that he has the ability to rise above it.

Conveniently there happened to be a portal to the underworld nearby. As he wanted to go there anyway, Aeneas asks the sibyl if she will take him there to see his dead father. She says that he must first find a golden bough in the forest. On that bough will be a fruit. If he is able to pick the fruit, he will be worthy to visit the underworld.

Aeneas painting

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, Federico Barocci

Having completed the task (and burying one of his crew who had challenged the gods to a trumpet-blowing contest and been killed by Triton), Aeneas returns to the sibyl, who escorts him into the underworld. There, Aeneas meets his father, Anchises. After discussing some of the particulars of the underworld, Anchises shows Aeneas his future and the future of his descendants.

“Come now, what glory shall hereafter attend the Dardan line, what children of Italian stock await thee, souls illustrious and heirs of our name—this will I set forth, and teach thee thy destiny.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

Anchises recounts the destiny of all of Aeneas’ descendants. As grandparents are often wont to do, he extols their greatness and victory.

Anchises tells Aeneas that among his descendants are Romulus, founder of Rome and Caesar Augustus (the first Roman Emperor and, perhaps not surprisingly, patron of Virgil). According to Anchises, Augustus will

“… again set up the Golden Age amid the fields where Saturn once reigned, and shall spread his empire past Garamant and Indian, to a land that lies beyond the stars, beyond the paths of the year and the sun, where heaven-bearing Atlas turns on his shoulders the sphere, inset with gleaming stars.” -Virgil (The Aeneid)

Aeneas is struck by the importance of his journey and is eager to get on his way. Once his father’s prophecy is over, the sibyl accompanies him back to the land of the living and, eager to continue his epic journey, Aeneas sets sail.

A Significant Sibyl

Clearly, the Cumaean Sibyl plays a crucial role in the founding and ongoing fortune of Rome. If it weren’t for her, the Romans would not have had the guidance of the Sibylline Books. If it weren’t for her prophecy, Aeneas would not have been prepared to rise above his fate in his journey towards Italy. If it were not for her guidance, Aeneas would not have met his father and not have known the import of his continued journey.

Learn more about the role of the Cumaean Sibyl and Aeneas’ epic journey in English and Latin with Noet’s Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid. Classical Wisdom Weekly readers save 15% with the coupon code NOETCLASSICS.

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The Times of Tyranny

by on March 27, 2015

By Ben Potter

The lead-up to the Second World War was often referred to (in its own time) as the Age of the Great Dictators.

The idea being that, even though the fledgling American experiment was going rather well, not all democracies were pulling their weight in the war of ideologies.

Emerging dictatorial talents in Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia were getting their respective nations back on track as Europe strived to recover from its self-destructive, turn of the century warmongering.

The fact that these were dictators, men of the people, for the people, instead of privileged, hereditary monarchs in charge of the ship of state seemed like a natural and sensible step in the right direction.

Though I hear the cry going up from all corners of cyberspace: “Quit stalling. What’s this got to do with the Classics?”

Prey beat still, impatient hearts.

The point is that, as hard as it is for us to imagine now, dictatorships haven’t always been seen as ‘bad’. It was only after the fact that it was considered to be an undesirable form of government, regardless of the personnel involved, and universally reviled throughout civilised parts of the world.

And indeed this was true also in the Ancient World.

Though it should be stressed that between then and now someone left a red sock in with the ‘dictatorship’ wash and what came out in the end wasn’t exactly what went in.

For Romans, a dictator (‘one who leads’) was a politician/general, a magistratus extraordinarius, who was given temporary, and not quite absolute, power to perform a specific task, e.g. putting down a rebellion.

But such a power was considered too dangerous to grant for any conflict outside Italy, as a dictator would then be able to do as they pleased away from the beady eye of the Senate.

Thus, as Rome expanded her empire and the Italian peninsula became a land under no imminent threat, dictatorship fell by the wayside.

Though in 83 BC, after a 120-year hiatus, the victorious general Sulla revived the power for a single year before retiring from public life. The purpose of this was to re-codify the constitution following a series of civil wars.

Death of Caesar

This move was roundly mocked by the next man who took up the dictatorial gauntlet… Gaius Julius Caesar.

As it became increasingly obvious that Caesar was not only the dominant figure following the civil war of the 40s BC, but a cunning and ruthless politician as well as a fine military strategist, the Senate deemed it expedient to appoint him dictator… and dictator again… and then dictator for ten years… and finally, dictator for life.

However, life didn’t last very long, only until 15th March 44 BC, or the Ides of March.

Despite going on to take many further powers and titles, Octavian Augustus, the first truly absolute ruler of this new Rome, did not dare to call himself ‘dictator’; the word had by then become poisonous.

And while the Romans had a long history of viewing tyranny as an unpleasant form of government (hence the Republic), it wasn’t that way in pre-Classical Greek thought… and the memory of past Tyrants is illustrative of this.


For example, Cypselus, a tyrant of Corinth who came to power in 657 BC after ousting an aristocratic family, was a popular and dynamic leader who consolidated Corinthian interests abroad and made Corinthian pottery dominant in the Greek marketplace.

Cleisthenes ruled Sicyon from c.600-560 BC and is remembered best for his enduring tribal reforms rather than anything insidious.

Polycrates of Samos (ruled c.538-522 BC) was a popular and enlightened tyrant about whom Herodotus speaks well. His public building works included aqueducts and temples which reflected both his benevolence and piety.

Herodotus also suggests he may have been pretty humble (well, for a tyrant anyway). Supposedly he threw his prized possession, a bejewelled ring, into the sea in the hope of avoiding the hubris of the overly successful. However, ill-omen struck when a fish turned up in his kitchens with the ring inside it.

Maybe not surprisingly, it was in Athens, the bastion of enduring Greek thought, that tyranny finally developed the stigma it has today.

Though, again, this was not initially the case.

Peisistratus, a relative of the much-lauded lawgiver Solon, initially managed to install himself as tyrant in 561 BC, but was only able to make the title stick in 546 BC.

From that point on a string of populist and cultural policies helped to underpin his power.


He initiated a public building programme, extended or created festivals (including the dramatic festival, the Dionysia and an Athenian ‘Olympics’, the Panathenaic Games), codified the works of Homer and championed the causes of peasants and landowners.

Indeed, Peisistratus was considered a model tyrant with almost no connotations of the violent oppression the word conjures up.

Aristotle said of him: “his administration was temperate… and more like constitutional government than a tyranny”.

This is high and significant praise indeed, as Aristotle and Plato helped to popularise the idea that tyranny was a base and unsatisfactory form of government in and of itself.

Moreover, Peisistratus had that luxury so few tyrants enjoy, to die a peaceful death. Though the same cannot be said of his son and joint-heir, Hipparchus.


He, along with his brother Hippias, continued their father’s work, but were met with strong opposition in the form of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the original Tyrannicides.

These men succeeded in killing Hipparchus in 514 BC, but Hippias escaped the assassin’s blade.

Hippias’ sole reign was, perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, violent and oppressive and many believe he became the source of all our negative connotations associated to the word ‘tyrant’.

For the Athenians this was certainly true.

Fortunately Hippias was removed from power in 510 BC, allowing the noble Cleisthenes to initiate the reforms that gave birth to Athenian democracy.

Tyranny never recovered. From this point on merely accusing someone of being tyrannical was enough to slur them, it was no longer necessary to state why that was the wrong way to be.

Thus a few final words on the pitfalls of such a form of government shall be given to the two men who, perhaps, did more than any other to show that tyranny’s dark underbelly was more than merely suspicious, but destructive and pernicious.

And here I’ve saved the best, or at least most alarming, quote for last:

“The tyrant must be always getting up a war… in order that the people may require a leader.” – Plato

“Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only.” – Aristotle

“A tyrant, as has often been repeated, has no regard to any public interest, except as conducive to his private ends; his aim is pleasure.” – Aristotle

“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty” – Plato