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The Battle of Mount Gindarus

by on July 30, 2014

By Cam Rea

See Part 1 here: http://classicalwisdom.com/forgotten-roman-general/

With the Amanus Pass secured, Ventidius, head of the Roman forces, pushed south into Syria. Pacorus, the Parthian prince and co-leader of the Roman-Parthian army, was done fighting… at least for now.

He abandoned the province to the Romans in late 39 BCE. With the Parthians out of the way, Ventidius led his forces to the province of Judea.

Ventidius’ mission in Judea was simple and lucrative; it was to rid the province of any remaining Parthians. He was also there to remove the anti-Roman King, Antigonus, and to restore Herod to the throne.

But Ventidius did neither.

King Herod

Instead, he bypassed Herod’s royal family, who were besieged by the troops of Antigonus on the top of Masada, and went straight for Jerusalem. Ventidius was playing psychological warfare with Antigonus, by making him think that he was going to take Jerusalem.

This, however, was just another ruse.

Ventidius promised not to attack Jerusalem… that is, unless he received vast amounts of wealth from the king. Antigonus had, in his mind, no choice but to capitulate to Ventidius’ demands.

Make no mistake, Ventidius was still going to support Herod and place him on the throne. But while Herod was still far away, and his brother besieged, Ventidius thought he might as well make some money while they wait.

After Ventidius’ coffers were filled, he took the bulk of his forces and headed back for Syria, leaving his second, officer Pompaedius Silo, in charge to deal with the ‘Jewish problem’.

The Ruse

However, King Antigonus would come up with a ploy of his own; he bribed Silo multiple times. Antigonus hoped to buy time so that the Parthians could come to his assistance, while he kept the Romans at bay.

Unfortunately for King Antigonus, this would not happen.

Pacorus

When Ventidius returned to Syria, he sent the bulk of his forces beyond the Taurus Mountains to Cappadocia for winter quarters. It was during this time that the Parthian Prince, Pacorus, planned another invasion of Syria and began to mobilize a substantial number of cavalry from the nearby provinces.

Word of Pacorus’ intentions soon spread, reaching the ears of loyal Roman informants, who then relayed the information to Ventidius. Not only was this information crucial for preparation, it also informed Ventidius that a Syrian noble by the name of Channaeus (also called Pharnaeus), who pretended to be a Roman ally, was, in fact, a spy and Parthian loyalist.

Ventidius likely invited Channaeus over for dinner and during their meeting, Ventidius made it clear that he feared the Parthian would abandon their normal route, “where they customarily crossed the Euphrates near the city of Zeugma.”

Ventidius acted concerned over the issue, making it clear that if Pacorus were to invade Syria much further to the south, he would have the advantage over the Romans for it, “was a plain and convenient for the enemy.”

Like the good spy he was, Channaeus returned to his home after the meeting and quickly sent messengers to inform Pacorus of Ventidius’ fears.

Come early spring 38 BCE, Pacorus, unwilling to let go of Syria, led his forces south along the Euphrates River based on Ventidius’ supposed fears of engaging the enemy on a plain.

Once they came to the point of crossing, Pacorus realized that they needed to construct a bridge, due to the banks being widely separated. It took many men and materials, and the bridge was completed only after forty days.

This is exactly what Ventidius wanted. Ventidius’ disinformation bought him much needed time, allowing his legions to assemble.

Once the Parthian forces were in Syrian territory, Pacorus likely expected an immediate attack during the bridge construction or during the crossing, but neither materialized. With no sign of the enemy, Pacorus became overconfident and began to believe that the Romans were weak and cowardly. Eventually however, Pacorus found Ventidius at the acropolis of the city of Gindarus, in the province of Cyrrhestica.

Ventidius had been at Gindarus for three days preparing his defenses when Pacorus showed up.

Repeated Mistakes

One would have thought that perhaps Pacorus carefully prepared a plan of action in such a situation…. but no. Instead, Pacorus and his officers tossed out the combined arms strategy of utilizing both heavy cavalry and horse archers in unison. This had worked many times, so they thought they could take the high ground with little trouble.

Battle

Moreover, the arrogant and overconfident Pacorus, and his nobles, did not want the commoners and horse archers to steal the show, as they did at Carrhae. So they decided to sally up the slope, as they did at the battle of the Cilician Gates.

Once the cataphracts were within five hundred paces of the Romans, Ventidius took advantage of their elitism and rushed his soldiers to the brim and over, until both armies met at close quarters on the slope.

Ventidius’ strategy here was simple, by engaging the elite Parthian cavalry, he had cover from the infamous Parthian horse archers.

You would think the Parthians would have learned from previous experiences what not to do. The result of their knee jerk reaction was devastating. As the Parthian cataphract advanced up the slope, they were quickly repelled back… straight into those still coming up, inflicting great suffering to rider and mount.

This is not to mention those who did make it to the brim were met and repulsed by heavy infantry. And if the heavy infantry did not get them, the slingers would.

These slingers were likely on the left and right side of the Roman infantry, giving them a deadly arc of crossfire. This very well could be the reason as to why we do not hear of the Parthian horse archers partaking in the engagement, since any attempt to rush towards the front would put them in grave danger.

Battle

Even though the Parthian cataphracts put up a stiff fight at the foot of the hill, it was not enough.

The Roman infantry likely swarmed the cataphracts forcing them into hand-to-hand combat. With the famous Parthian horse archers neutralized from the fight due to the slingers, there was nothing that could be done to rescue the situation.

In the ensuing chaos, Pacorus likely tried to make one last push. He, along with some of his men, attempted to take Ventidius’ defenseless camp, only to be met by Roman reserves, in which he inevitably lost his life during the melee.

As news spread that Prince Pacorus lay dead, a scramble to recover his body was attempted. While those trying to retrieve his corpse met his same fate, the vast majority of Pacorus’ army quickly retreated. Some attempted to re-cross the bridge that was constructed over the Euphrates, but were caught by the Romans and put to death. Meanwhile, others fled to King Antiochus of Commagene for safety.

Victorious Aftermath

This victory shocked Syria. To make sure the Syrians would never rebel against Rome, Ventidius took Pacorus’ corpse, severed the head and ordered that it be sent throughout all the different cities of Syria.

It was a gruesome sight to behold, but the effect it had on the natives was anything other than negative. Instead, “they felt unusual affection for Pacorus on account of his justice and mildness, an affection as great as they had felt for the best kings that had ever ruled them.”

As for the Parthians who sought refuge in Commagene, Ventidius came after them.

Truth be told, Ventidius could care less about the Parthian refugees. Instead, he was much more concerned with how much money he could confiscate from King Antiochus by besieging Samosata, the capital of Commagene, in the summer of 38 BCE.

Mark Antony

Antiochus offered Ventidius a thousand talents if he would just get up and go, but Ventidius refused the offer and proposed that Antiochus send his offer to Antony.

Once Antony got word of the situation, he quickly made his way to the scene of the action.

Ventidius was just about to make peace and take the lucrative offer when Antony barred him from making such a deal. Instead, Antony removed him from his command and took over the operations from there.

Why? Well, Antony was jealous of Ventidius and wanted in on the glory.

But instead of the desired fame, Antony inherited a protracted siege that went nowhere, and indeed hurt him in the end. When Antiochus offered peace again, Antony had little choice but to accept the now lowered offer of three hundred talents.

After the extortion of Commagene, Antony ventured into Syria to take care of some domestic issues before returning to Athens.

As for Ventidius, he went back to Rome where he received honors and a triumph, for “he was the first of the Romans to celebrate a triumph over the Parthians.”

The Next Generation

As Ventidius celebrated his triumph in Rome, Antony seethed in Athens.

Meanwhile, across the Euphrates in Parthia, King Orodes was in grief over the loss of his son and army. Orodes lost the will to speak and eat, and after several days, began to talk to Pacorus as if he was alive.

It was also during this time that the many wives of Orodes began to make bids as to why Orodes should choose their son for next in line to the throne. Each mother understood that there was this nasty habit in Parthia… once a new king was elected he would go out of his way to murder his brothers to secure the safety of his reign.

King Orodes

Orodes eventually made his choice and settled on his son Phraates to succeed him. Soon after Phraates was chosen heir to the throne, he began plotting against his father Orodes.

Phraates’ first attempt in murdering his father was with a poison called aconite. This failed due to Orodes suffering from a disease called dropsy (edema), which absorbed the poison and had little effect. Therefore, Phraates took a much easier route and strangled his father to death. To make sure his throne was safe, he murdered his thirty brothers and any of the nobility that detested him or questioned his motives for his acts of cruelty. Phraates was here to stay.

But while Phraates went on a vicious campaign to secure his throne, Mark Antony, jealous of the success that Ventidius had against Parthia, was prepping and planning an invasion of his own.

It was now Antony’s turn to avenge Crassus to fulfill Caesar’s dream.

Archimedes The Super Villain

by on July 28, 2014

An ancient mathematician from the coastal city of Syracuse, Archimedes is largely considered one of the most prolific and most brilliant scientific minds of antiquity.
ArchimedesHis work focused on, but was not limited to, applying the concept of infinitesimals and the method of exhaustion to prove a number of geometrical theorems.

Notably, he was able to find the area of a circle, the surface area of a sphere, the area under a parabola, he accurately approximated the value of pi, and anticipated the creation of the study of calculus. He was, undoubtedly, a genius.


He might have also been a super villain. I don’t know. Maybe. I’m just saying.

That’s right dear reader. While Archimedes is largely remembered as a mathematician and a scientist, he was also a very crafty inventor. And it was reported that he amassed an array of some of the most unique and terrifying weapons of the ancient world. The Roman army might have had a superior army and an impressive navy, but the city of Syracuse had a “death ray” for crying out loud.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself. What were some of these ancient weapons of mass destruction? What exactly did Archimedes invent that would have put any Bond villain to shame?

Well, for starters, there were…


1. Long Range Catapults

All of the weapons that are mentioned in this article were said to have found use during the siege of General MarcellusSyracuse in 214 BCE.
It was the height of the Second Punic War and it was feared by the Roman Republic that the Kingdom of Syracuse might ally with their enemy, the Carthaginian Empire.

To prevent such a disaster, the Roman General Marcus Claudius Marcellus was ordered to lay siege to the city of Syracuse, breach its walls, and place the civilization firmly under Roman control. It was a task that might have been significantly easier if it were not for the deadly weapons of Archimedes.

When the Roman offensive was underway many of the invading ships fell victim to the city’s artillery. Archimedes had developed new and improved catapults with longer range and a heaver payload. The catapults were so effective that they were said to have caused massive Roman casualties even while the ships were still at a great distance from the city walls.


“But Archimedes had constructed artillery which could cover a whole variety of ranges, so that while the attacking ships were still at a distance he scored so many hits with his catapults and stone-throwers that he was able to cause them severe damage and harass their approach.” -Polybius (Universal Histories)

As if that were not bad enough, Archimedes also had prepared…

2. The Scorpions

For the ships who managed to somehow avoid the deadly artillery, there was now the task of scaling the city walls, which were “by no means easy to climb”. For those soldiers who did attempt to scale the battlements, they would be forced to contend with Archimedes’ next array of death machines; a series of projectile weapons known as “the scorpions”.

Scorpion
It was said that across the city wall, there were a series of holes that had been drilled through. These loopholes within the walls were said to have the breadth of a palms width. Behind these peepholes and within the city walls were stationed a number of archers with rows of the so-called “scorpions”.

A smaller catapult, or possibly a very large crossbow, the weapon discharged iron darts at the invading mariners. Deadly and impossible to counterattack, the projectile weapon would be the woe of General Marcellus. In the words of Polybius, the scorpion “put many mariners out of action”.
And if the ships still managed to out maneuver the long range artillery and the deadly “scorpions”, they still had to contend with…

3. The Claw of Archimedes

Sometimes referred to as “The Iron Hand” or “The Sinker of Ships”, this weapon was said to have been a massive grappling hook. It was said to have been dropped from the top of the city fortifications onto an enemy ship. From there, the claw would be lifted back up, bringing the vessel and the entire crew with it. The ship would be dashed against the rocks or Archimedes' Clawsimply capsized. The crew, weighted down by heavy armor, might have sunk beneath the waves and drowned.

The destruction that was unleaded by Archimedes claw was described by Plutarch when he writes…


“A ship was frequently lifted up to a great height in the air (a dreadful thing to behold), and was rolled to and fro, and kept swinging, until the mariners were all thrown out, when at length it was dashed against the rocks, or let fall.” -Plutarch (Parallel Lives:Marcellus)

I know what you are thinking. There is no way, right? Well, as it just so happens there is so a way. While this seems like a weapon that would have been impossible for ancient engineers to construct, the plausibility of the weapon was tested in 2005 by The Discovery Chanel in their special Super Weapons of the Ancient World.

Long story short, it is very plausible that such a weapon could have been constructed and then effectively used in wartime, especially when the designer was the brilliant Archimedes. Historians believe that the claw might have operated something like this.

Okay, so even if a ship could get past the artillery, dodge the deadly scorpions, and then not fall victim to the claw of Archimedes, they would still have to contend with an even deadlier weapon.

4. Archimedes’ Death Ray

Okay, truth be told, it probably wasn’t called a “death ray” in 218 BCE. However, it amounts to the same thing.

It is reported that by using a number of highly polished bronze or copper shields, the soldiers of Syracuse were able to redirect and focus the light of the sun onto enemy ships. Supposedly, the ships would burst into flames in a matter of seconds.


heat ray
“At last in an incredible manner he burned up the whole Roman fleet. For by tilting a kind of mirror toward the sun he concentrated the sun’s beam upon it; and owing to the thickness and smoothness of the mirror he ignited the air from this beam and kindled a great flame, the whole of which he directed upon the ships that lay at anchor in the path of the fire, until he consumed them all.” -Dio Cassius (Roman History)

Okay, you may have put your doubts aside to accept the claw of Archimedes, but surely the creation of a deadly heat ray in 200 BCE is pure myth, right?
The existence of such a weapon has been a matter of some debate over the centuries. Several scientists have attempted to recreate the machine with varying success.

In 1973 a Greek scientist by the name of Ioannis Sakkas carried out his own experiment in Skaramagas naval base outside of Athens. By using seventy copper coated mirrors, Sakkas redirected the suns rays toward a mock plywood ship some 200 feet away. After only a few seconds, the model boat burst into flames, proving that such a heat ray was, in fact, plausible. It might have looked something like this.

These weapons were said to have been so effective that the Roman army was eventually forced to call of their general offensive of the city. Having no real way to contend with the weapons of Archimedes, General Marcellus decided to take the city by means of siege.

By cutting off all trade routes in and out of the city, the Romans forced the city of Syracuse to consume all of their resources until they were eventually defeated by starvation.

The invading army stormed the city and took it with ease. It was said that General Marcellus had ordered that Archimedes be spared. However, such an order would not be followed.

Archimedes painting
The story goes that a Roman soldier came upon Archimedes in his home where the scientist was busying himself with his work. Flustered that somebody had interrupted him, Archimedes ordered the soldier to leave. The Roman either did not recognize Archimedes or realized that he was the man responsible for hundreds of Roman deaths. Either way, the story ends the same. Archimedes, now in his late eighties, was slain in his workshop by the invaders.

While all of Archimedes’ weapons are impressive, it is the heat ray more than any other that captures the imagination and makes one wonder whether Archimedes might have spent his evenings sitting in a war room somewhere, stroking a cat and secretly plotting world domination.

And if you think I am going too far with this whole Archimedes-could-have-been-a-Bond-villain thing, then I’m just going to point out that the James Bond franchise liked the idea of a heat ray so much that they actually created a movie where the main antagonist had, you guessed it, a heat ray. The film was “Die Another Day”. Go watch it and tell me that I’m wrong.

Despite my very humorous observations, there is absolutely no evidence that Archimedes ever had any intention to use his weapons for any other means than to protect his home of Syracuse. An inventor, a mathematician, a brilliant scientist, Archimedes is many things. However, I suppose we will have to conclude that he probably was not a super villain.

Probably…

The Forgotten Roman General

by on July 24, 2014

By Cam Rea

General Publius Ventidius is probably one of the most overlooked, if not completely forgotten, generals in military history. Maybe it is because Ventidius grew up poor like most Romans… Or perhaps it was due to the reports that he sold mules and wagons before joining the Roman army.

Despite this, Ventidius would go on to have a distinguished military career, accompanying Julius Caesar during his campaign against Gaul and partaking in the Roman Civil War. Then in 45 BCE, Ventidius took up Caesar’s offer and accepted the post of plebeian tribune when the senate was reorganized and expanded.

Finally, on top of everything else, it may have been this forgotten general, with whom we concern ourselves today, that was responsible for reversing the Parthian tide, for changing the course of Roman History.

We will look at the series of battles now, in an effort to amend the marginal position in the history books that has been designated to poor Ventidus.

Mark Antony

It was in 39 BCE that Mark Antony assigned Ventidius Bassus the mission to retake Asia-Minor. Reports had reached Antony while he was in Greece that the Parthians were finished with their campaign in Asia-Minor for the year. These intelligence reports most likely came from the province of Asia, which was, at the time, loyal to Rome. From this news, Antony was able to draw up his plans.

He probably was aware that the majority of the Parthian army would retire for the winter and return home to their respected nobles. This would mean that those who remained were local militias, with questionable loyalty to garrison the cities throughout Asia-Minor. In addition, Antony understood the need to attack now to inhibit any further Parthian progress coming next spring.

Antony saw this as a perfect opportunity to surprise the enemy.

And so, once the coast was clear, Antony took a chance and placed a few legions under the command of our dear Ventidius, who subsequently set sail for the province of Asia. Vantidius’ mission was simple; establish a beachhead at the province of Asia and push inland.

Battle of the Cilician Gates

Ventidius’ landing was unexpected. This only goes to show the lack of intelligence gathering on the part of Labienus, head of the Roman-Parthian army. Once the Roman forces were accounted for, Ventidius quickly began to push eastward in a ‘search and destroy’ mission.

Word spread rapidly that the Romans had arrived. When the message reached Labienus, he was startled and terrified for he “was without his Parthians.” The only troops available to him were the neighborhood militia.

Labienus quickly fled the province of Asia and headed east, seeking military support from his co-ruler, Pacorus, a Parthian prince and son of king Orodes II.

Meanwhile, Mark Antony’s man, Ventidius, took a chance of his own and abandoned his heavy troops. He pursued Labienus with his lightest forces.

Warrior

Eventually, Ventidius caught up with Labienus and cornered him near the Taurus range. He chose the high ground, so he could look down upon Labienus’ encampment. But there was another, more important, reason why Ventidius took the high ground; he feared the Parthian archers.

It was a standoff as both generals encamped for several days, waiting for the arrival of their main forces. As the bulk of the armies finally arrived, the Romans and the Parthians hunkered down for the night.

Cataphract

At daybreak, the Parthians, over-confident with their numbers and past victories, decided to start the battle before joining forces with Labienus. Unfortunately these were not the famous and deadly Parthian horse archers… but the heavy cavalry, or cataphract. Once they were at the length of the slope, the Romans charged down on top of them and repelled the enemy with ease, for the Romans had the momentum.

While the Romans were able to kill and maim many of the cataphract, the cataphract were, in fact, doing a better job at killing and maiming themselves.

See, the cataphract were at the top of slope, where all the fighting took place, but when they retreated, they ran into their own men coming up the hill. Instead of descending in order to rally around Labienus, they bypassed their general and headed straight for Cilicia. It was absolute chaos.

Ventidius, seeing that the Parthians were scattering all about and fleeing, decided to bring his men down from the hill and march on Labienus’ camp.

Both armies were now face to face… But Ventidius decided to stay put.

Why would Ventidius do this? Well, he was informed from deserters that Labienus was going to flee the camp, come nightfall. Therefore, Ventidius decided that it was better to set up ambushes rather than have an all-out pitch battle, which would result in losing many men and resources during the process.

Once nightfall came, the ambushes set in place worked as planned, killing and capturing many… that is, except for Labienus. Labienus was able to escape by changing clothes… His destination was Cilicia.

However, Labienus was not able to hide for long. Demetrius, a former slave, then “freedman” turned bounty hunter, arrested him. After Demetrius turned Labienus over to the Roman authorities, he was quickly executed.

Battle of Amanus Pass

With Labienus dead, Ventidius was able to secure the province of Cilicia. This did not mean they won; in fact, the mission was far from finished. To complete it, Ventidius devised a plan to trick the Parthians.

Ventidius sent a cavalry, headed by the officer Pompaedius Silo, to scout out the Amanus Pass, a strategic mountain path connecting the province of Cilicia and Syria. Not far behind Silo would be Ventidius, along with a small contingent of troops to aid in the fight.

Horseman

Meanwhile on the Parthian side, Pacorus understood that if the same Amanus pass were not secured, the Romans would march through and invade Syria. Therefore, he felt, the best method was to station a garrison there to bottle up the small mountain road.

So Pacorus stationed Pharnapates, a Parthian lieutenant considered the most capable general of Orodes, to wait for the Romans to come. Once Silo reached the pass, the two sides engaged in battle immediately.

But don’t forget – this was, in fact, an elaborate trick. Silo’s real mission was to lure the Parthians away from their strongest defensive position. In doing so, Ventidius would either attack at the flank or from the rear.

Arrows

In a sense, the Romans were giving the Parthians a taste of their own medicine by using the same tactic that worked so well against them at the Battle of Carrhae. With many of Pharnapates’ cataphract lured away, Ventidius fell upon the Parthians unexpectedly. Pharnapates, along with many of his men, perished during the engagement.

With the Amanus Pass now clear, the invasion of Syria was imminent.

Read Part 2 here: http://classicalwisdom.com/battle-mount-gindarus/

The Cult Of Pythagoras

by on July 21, 2014

Not much is really know about the Pythagoreans or their rather mysterious founder, PythagorasPythagoras. Several different accounts of the Pythagoreans have come down to us from antiquity. Plato and Aristotle both reference the Pythagoreans throughout their philosophical writings. Even still, the true nature of the “cult of Pythagoras” is often shrouded in mystery.

The questions abound: Who were they? Where did they come from? What did they believe? And most importantly, were they a cult?

A rather interesting question, don’t you think? Well, I certainly think so. I’ll just assume you do as well.

That sort of question is not only interesting, it is terribly complicated. In the context of our modern world, we might consider a group of individuals who worship mathematical harmonies as not only being a cult, but also prime candidates for a straight jacket.

However, in the context of ancient Greece it was not uncommon to attribute great importance, even divine importance, to profound philosophical formulations.

Thales of Miletus, for example, attributed great importance to water;
he claimed that it was the foundation for all of the universe. Socrates, during the course of his philosophical investigations, eventually came to believe that there was a heavenly voice in his head (a daimon)
that compelled him to pursue true knowledge no matter the cost.

Pythagoras
These examples, however, do not grant the Pythagoreans a free pass. While Socrates, Thales, and others did attribute great importance to their discoveries, the Pythagoreans outright worshipped their philosophical beliefs, going so far as to sacrifice an ox after discovering the 47th Proposition of Euclid.

It was said that Pythagoras and his followers settled in Crotona in South Italy around 530 BCE and went about making a society for themselves that reflected their, let’s just call it, unique ideals for life.

A central tenant of the Pythagorean belief system was the transmigration of the soul. This included the transmigration of human souls into the bodies of animals. It is perhaps for this reason that Pythagoras strictly forbid the consumption of meat, resulting in his followers becoming some of the earliest known vegetarians.

A strange side note of the Pythagorean diet is that they were forbidden to eat beans. The reason behind this is not entirely known. A funny anecdote tells us that Pythagoras believed that a human being lost a part of his or her soul whenever passing gas.

They wore a specific garb that was common only amongst their followers. Abstinence of the flesh was insisted upon. However, this seems to have been a later addition. We do know that Pythagoras himself did not die a virgin.

When it came to their philosophical beliefs, the Pythagoreans were extremely superstitious and mystical. They believed that the human soul was trapped in a continuous cycle of death and reincarnation. It was taught that the only way to free ourselves from this cycle was to obtain a higher understanding of the universe through introspective thought and philosophical study.

Pythagoreans

And so when examining the nature of the universe, a rather difficult brand of philosophy known as metaphysics, the Pythagoreans concluded the objects within reality could be differentiated by the qualities that they have. Certain things are different shapes, colors, or sizes.

These qualities range dramatically and they are by no means universal. A leaf, for instance, might be green. However, not all things are green, some things in this universe do not even possess a perceivable color. The same can be said for smell, size, or shape.

The Pythagoreans concluded that the one universal quality of all things in the universe, the one thing that everything had in common, was that it was numerable and could be counted. We could perhaps imagine a universe without smell or taste. However, the idea of creating a hypothetical universe without numbers is very much impossible.

PythagorasAnd here we see the basis of the Pythagorean philosophy. They believed that numbers were the underlying substance of reality much in the way that Thales believe water to be origin of being in the universe.

However, not all numbers were treated equally. Some were considered more holy than others. For instance, the Pythagoreans attributed great importance to the number one.

This is probably due to their ideas on the formation of the universe. It was proposed that there once existed chaos and disorder within an unstructured, infinite universe. Then, limitations were set upon the universe and the world as we know it fell into order; objects became numerable, the cosmos became perceivable. In this way the universe came from a sort of chaos and took on a oneness that was previously unknown. This idea of a harmonious, single universe would be echoed by the likes of Parmenides and Zeno of Elea.

The Pythagoreans paid close attention to the idea of harmonies. They concluded that harmony was a balancing of opposites. The most important of these opposites were the ideas of the limited and the unlimited, which was represented by odd and even numbers respectively.

Pythagoras
How they arrived at such a conclusion is uncertain. It is believed that since even numbers can be divided by two again and again before inevitably reaching one, they were representative of the idea of unlimitedness.

On the other hand, odd numbers cannot be divided by two, and therefore sets a limit to bipartition. In this way they were said to represent the idea of limit.

Other opposites included masculine and feminine, right and left, rest and motion, light and dark, good and evil, square and oblong.

The Pythagorean philosophy begins to grow drastically arbitrary the more you examine it. They believed that the number eight was meant to represent justice while the number seven represented wisdom. This sort of thinking does not appear to be based on any real philosophical principle and as a result becomes distasteful.

All in all, they were a mystical society that placed great importance on the mathematical relations of the universe. There is no denying that they contributed greatly to the area of mathematics and philosophy. One needs only to reflect on the Pythagorean theorem, a mathematical principle said to have been discovered by Pythagoras himself, to appreciate the profound impact they had on the development of scientific thought.

Were they a cult? Perhaps. They certainly had all the usual symptoms of being a cult. After living according to their ways for some time, it is believed that the Pythagoreans attempted to pressure the ordinary citizens of Crotona into adopting their unique lifestyle. This, rather unfortunately, did not end well for the Pythagoreans. When the plain citizens were told that they must not eat beans and that they must, at all costs, abstain from eating meat, it was too much to bear.

A general persecution of the Pythagoreans occurred. Many of the followers were killed or driven away. The Pythagorean meeting place was burned to the ground and Pythagoras was forced to flee with his followers around 480 BCE.

It is believed that the society regrouped and continued their activities, but not much was heard from them after this time. It is possible that they simply faded away, leaving behind their rather perplexing legacy of mathematical genius tempered with mysticism and superstition.

Pursuing the Gorgon Medusa

by on July 16, 2014

By John Mancini

The Gorgon Medusa, with her serpentine hair, lolling tongue and deadly gaze, is one of the most recognizable icons in mythology. Her popularity not only predates Classical Greece, but also extends through The Middle Ages, and can still be felt today. A mythical motif for centuries of artists, the Gorgon image appears in countless sculptures and paintings, especially in the Mediterranean – adorning everything from doorways of temples to sarcophagi of kings…

But was she seen as a Sea Monster or a Mother Goddess?

Athena

In the Greco-Roman world, the Gorgoneion-bearing aegis was a protective amulet, similar to the “evil eye” of witchcraft, appearing on the shields of Athena and Zeus. Its power could be transferred to whoever possessed it, an attractive feature to both gods and men. Apollo, for instance, harnessed the power of the Gorgoneion and used it to fight the Achaeans, while the mythical Perseus famously used the entrancing magic of the Gorgoneion gaze as a weapon, turning his enemy Polydectes to stone.

Real men, too, desired the deadly effects or protection of the Gorgon. Indeed, some of the earliest depictions of the Gorgoneion in Greece appear on the shields of warriors in the mid-fifth century B.C. where she is represented as a goat-bearded monster with tusks rather than a female demon.

Most contemporary readers, however, know the Gorgon as the snake-haired goddess from the myth of Perseus-Medusa in which she is one of three sisters, a trio of sea nymphs who occupy an island at the far edge of the ocean.

According to the poet Hesiod, after her defeat at the hands of the hero Perseus, Medusa’s blood spilled from her severed head and created the coral reef of the Red Sea, which tormented ancient mariners.

Coin

While the “Gorgoneion” was a popular motif in ancient art long before the Greek story of Perseus-Medusa, it only caught on rapidly in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. This is when the full-bodied Gorgon began to appear on temples to Athena and Artemis, as well as on coins, where she has been pictured opposite the owl of Athena or sun god Apollo.

Around 415 BC in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the Gorgon is portrayed as three swanlike snake-haired sisters who share one eye and loathe mankind. By contrast, Pindar claimed that Medusa was in fact “fair-cheeked” and Ovid later confirmed that she was irresistible to whomever encountered her.

So… was she hideous or beautiful?

Like Hermes advised Heracles when he pursued the Gorgon in the Underworld – it depends very much on how you look at her. Clearly, her description has changed over time and from poet to poet… but what was the first depiction? From where did this mysterious creature originate?

Well, the Gorgon Medusa is thought to have been a sea goddess born of Cetus and brought to Greece by way of seafaring tribes from Babylonia. In these early myths, she was a female deity who shared lineage with Artemis, Demeter, Cybele and Rhea.

Shield

The Gorgons represented a fear of and reverence for the awe-inspiring wildness of nature and animals. To the Greeks, the Gorgon’s challenging grimace was the very personification of Fear itself: Phobos. And in tracing the origin of the Gorgon, archeologists have linked her to just about every natural phenomenon imaginable, including the roar of the ocean, the eruption of volcanoes, the crack of thunder-clouds – as well as beasts such as boars, lions, cephalopods and of course, owls.

Although Greek depictions of the Gorgon monster did not properly appear until after the Geometric Period, the sisterhood of demonic winged snake-goddesses extends to ancient Phrygia, Phoenicia, Babylonia and Persia. This includes not only the great nature goddesses of Asia Minor, like Artemis, but also those from farther east, such as the multi-armed Hindu Goddess Bhavani, the wrathful counterpart of Parvati.

Perhaps most direct influence to the Greeks was the Babylonian Humbaba, a demonic grinning monster that guarded the mythic cedar forest and was slain by the hero Gilgamesh.

The Gilgamesh-Humbaba legend provided the model for the Perseus-Medusa myth, while visual elements from other Babylonian deities, like Abzu and Ishtar, which were also incorporated and re-interpreted by the Greeks. The fact that “sacred prostitution” was an ancient custom in Babylonian temples devoted to Ishtar may shed additional light on how the story evolved in Greece – in particular, the detail of Medusa’s rape by Poseidon in Athena’s temple.

Medusa’s appearances in Greek art during the 7th century B.C. in early Corinthian pottery were influenced by Assyrian art.

In these examples, the Gorgon is often pictured with a snout and tusks of a boar, as well as horns or wings, in addition to the snakes that traditionally crown her head.

One only has to look at the Mesopotamian terracotta plaque from 1750 B.C. known as the Burney Relief, which depicts Ishtar as a vampire-like goddess with wings, clawed feet and a serpentine halo of hair, to see an obvious resemblance to the Medusa of Archaic Greek art.

Although Medusa’s character may have become more distinct in the Greek myths, she still retained the features of the original nature goddess. As mentioned, she was related to Artemis, the patroness of wild animals, whose encounter with Actaeon was extremely bloody. Actaeon caught Artemis and her nymphs bathing in a wooded spring, which resulted in his transformation into a stag and subsequent demise at the jaws of his own hounds.

However, Actaeon only transformed once, while the Gorgon went through many alterations over the centuries. In The Middle Ages, the Gnostics christianized Medusa by surrounding her head with a halo of biblical scripture. In folktales she became the mermaid Melusine who transforms into a fierce sea creature after she is caught bathing – for to gaze on the naked goddess uninitiated has always been considered a profanation of the mystery of nature, one worthy of ultimate punishment.

Starbucks

In the late 20th century, the mermaid Melusine experienced worldwide resurgence in popularity when Starbucks chose her as its company mascot, and the Versace clothing company also adopted the Roman Gorgoneion as its logo.

It is Sicily, however, that still has the longest running claim to the Gorgon Medusa. Since 300 B.C. that Western Island basking in the Mediterranean sun has consistently incorporated the Gorgoneion into coinage and door handles, temples and sarcophagi. Sicily has even used the Gorgon on its flag since the 13th century. It can still be seen there today, surrounded by the triskelion, the three running legs of the Gorgon, as well as three shafts of wheat.

Corfu

But perhaps one of the most compelling depictions of Medusa is an earlier one from the Temple of Artemis at Corfu, an island on the western coast of Greece. Dating back to 580 B.C., the temple was one of the largest of its kind. There, the winged Medusa resides prominently on the western pediment, flanked by two lions, as well as her offspring, the flying horse Pegasus and Chrysaor the warrior. Larger than Zeus, who hurls a lightning bolt over at the far end, her authority is unmistakable, and the power of her dual nature can be more clearly understood.

She is the Earth Mother, guardian of the natural world – both demon of the oceanic unconscious and mistress of wild beasts. To a soul worthy of her gaze, one need not worry about having the mirrored Athenian shield… as long as one approaches her with equal amounts of courage and respect.

In Search of Asherah: The Lost Hebrew Goddess

by on July 12, 2014

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.

Did God have a wife? Was a female deity revered alongside the monotheistic Hebrew god, the one most of us in the West know from the Old Testament? It may sound like an outlandish notion, but perhaps there was a lost Hebrew Goddess that, at times, reigned supreme in the ancient Mediterranean cultures.

Goddess Asherah

Asherah, called Athirat in Ugarit, figures prominently as the wife of El, the supreme god, in cuneiform alphabetic texts, dating back to the fourteenth century BCE. Before Abraham (ca 2200-1700 BCE) migrated to what would become known as Israel, Asherah was revered as Athirat, Earth Mother and Fertility Goddess. Upon entering the region, the ancient Israelites adopted her and gave her the Hebrew equivalent name of Asherah. The Ugarit excavation, a second millennium “Canaanite” port city (in today’s northern Syria), put Asherah the goddess, on the map again after having lost her place for thousands of years.

Of course the presence of a Hebrew goddess immediately begs the question: how monotheistic were the pre-exilic Israelites and Judeans? Certainly, the very notion of polytheism is inherent in the quest for Asherah.

Additionally, the many artifacts representing Asherah, and her cult from the region, belies the biblical prohibition against the creation of idols.

At this juncture it is important to make a distinction between the book religion of the ruling classes in the metropolis and folk or popular religion as it was practiced in rural communities, for which most Israelites were a part.

Moreover, it should be remembered that in rural communities of the ancient world, literacy was close to non-existent. Indeed, even rudimentary writing did not become widespread until the eighth century BCE, at which time some were able to write their names, numbers and a few commodities for trade… This was certainly a long way from being able to read or write the literary achievement that we find in the Hebrew Bible!

Goddess

Thus, the book religion practiced in the cities would likely have had little meaning in the lives of those inhabiting the outlying areas. Instead, the rural communities had their own religious beliefs and practiced their faith locally, even at home using statuary and other artifacts. It was very likely that some form of folk religion had been passed down through the generations, making homespun beliefs an integral part of their everyday lives. Indeed, one scholar defined folk religion as everything that those who wrote the Bible condemned.

By way of contrast, an affinity between the intellectual community and the aristocracy produced a masterful text, which was written entirely from the perspective of the upper or ruling classes.

So if the Bible was authored by and large for the ruling class, then how do we know the way common people worshipped? As mentioned above, there are artifacts from the region to help piece the puzzle into place, but it is also ironically in the Bible itself that we can also find many of the rituals practiced by the rural communities. Indeed, Asherah is mentioned in the early Hebrew Bible some forty separate times, although most often as an object of derision.

For the most part, the biblical writers were unhappy that Asherah, or the “Queen of Heaven”, shared the same platform with their male deity, Yahweh, and repeatedly tried to dissuade their union.

Forasmuch as the ruling elite tried to inhibit Asherah and Yahweh’s “marriage,” their union appears solidified in an ancient blessing seen with some regularity at a number of archeological sites in the region. This is particularly apparent in Kuntillet Ajrud, a 9th-8th century BCE Israelite caravanserai with an attached shrine, which was excavated in 1975-76 near the river of Egypt in northeast Sinai (by Judah’s south border).

Drawings

The text and drawing of the two deities found there sparked a lively debate within the academic community. The inscription reads: “I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.” The same text was found a number of times in other locations, such as Samaria, Jerusalem and Teman, where there were known sanctuaries to Yahweh.

More evidence is found in Khirbet el-Qom, an ancient burial site dated to ca 750 BCE, excavated in 1968. The following inscription was found on the tombstone of a wealthy man: “Blessed by Uriah by Yahweh, Yea from his enemies by his Asherah he has saved him, By Onah, By his Asherah and by his Asherah.”

Indeed, the phrase “Yahweh….and his Asherah” must have been a fairly common expression in the region, as sixty miles separates Khirbet el-Qom from Kuntillet Ajrud, not an easy jaunt considering the limited transportation options available at the time.

Moreover, the notable phrase “Yahweh and his Asherah” is in an obscure blessing in the Hebrew Bible itself. The cryptic blessing is in Deuteronomy 33.2-3, in an earlier rendition when Asherah’s influence had not yet been fully subordinated.

The full hymn reads:

“YHWH came from Sinai and shone forth from his own Seir, He showed himself from Mount Paran. Yes he came among the myriads of Qudhsu, at his right hand his own Asherah, Indeed, he loves the clans and all his holy ones on his left.”

However, as the book religion solidified, Asherah became increasingly marginalized in the scriptures… to the point of being reduced to her cult object—the stylized tree or wooden pole which became known as asherah or asherim. Trees were revered as symbols of life and nourishment in arid regions, and so became associated with Asherah and her cult.

Interestingly, many scholars believe that Asherah’s tree functioned in the Garden of Eden parable. Because Asherah’s name was increasingly tied to Yahweh’s in the folk religion of the area, the patriarchal elite may have found it necessary to propagandize against goddess worship by integrating the story of the fall of mankind to the tree which was clearly associated with Asherah.

Asherah’s influence may not have been immense, or even positive, in the official or book religion, but her presence clearly loomed large in the rural communities.

Although we have no text or sacred scriptures from the folk religion of this considerable group of people, we do have much in the way of figurines from the region. To be sure, aniconism was, and still is, inherent in the Hebrew Bible, but ample archaeological evidence suggests that those who lived outside the metropolis—and indeed sometimes right inside it—idolized statuary and cult objects as part of their popular or folk religion.

Figurine

Anthropomorphically, Asherah is represented many times in various forms scattered throughout the region; the most prolific of these is the pillar figurines. These figurines first started appearing in the late tenth to ninth century BCE and had become common from the eight through seventh centuries. The term “Images of Asherah” is used often in the Hebrew Bible, and it is believed that the pillar figurines are what the writers of the bible had in mind.

But what were these figurines meant to convey? Symbolizing the nurturing aspect of the mother goddess, the breasts are exaggerated with the hands more or less supporting them. The pillar figurines were predominantly found in private houses, suggesting their domesticity, and many scholars contend that the figurines represented fertility to women in a region beset by hardship and drought. Sadly lactation and fertility concerns are indicative of some type of famine for which the region was prone. Considering survival was the ultimate burden for the average Israelite/Judean, apprehension about fertility in general was likely widespread.

Was their concern for fecundity what attracted the rural Israelites and Judeans to the goddess Asherah? Reasonably, in a land prone to famine and drought, Asherah may have been linked to the almighty Yahweh because of her association with abundance.

Fascinating as it is, examining a topic that dates back three millennia has its distinct disadvantages. While there are voluminous artifacts and articles associated with Asherah from the region, there are still a number of pieces missing in the puzzle. This, of course, doesn’t prohibit us from attempting to bring the discussion into greater focus, with the distinct hope for further scrutiny and more scholarship to come.