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How important is the health of a ruler?

by on September 23, 2016

The classical age was rife with plague and disease. After all, the ancient world very often chalked up illnesses to the whims of capricious gods; and when you consider that there were open sewer systems, deplorable hygiene practices, not to mention a severe lack of penicillin, getting sick and dying weak and infirmed was par for the course.

Rulers, while able to afford a better quality of living, were not immune from disease.

From the Greek world: the statesmen Pericles was claimed by the Plague of Athens in the late 5th century BC.

It has long been believed that Julius Caesar was epileptic. Caesar’s abilities were greatly deteriorated by his sickness. It is said he collapsed while on campaign in Cordoba, Spain in 46 BC. Enfeebled by his sickness, Caesar also caused a public scandal when he refused to stand when the Senate was honoring him.

N.B. a new hypothesis states that Caesar actually suffered from mini-strokes, not seizures.

However, Rome’s first dictator perpetuo was not the only imperial ruler to succumb to illness.

It has long been suspected that Nero (37-68 AD), the supposed fiddle player, was mentally unfit for to hold the seat of power. It’s been suggested that he suffered from Histrionic personality disorder, a sickness characterized by excessive attention-seeking behavior.

Gratus proclaims Claudius emperor
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Emperor Claudius (10 BC- 54 AD) had remarkably poor health that lead to unsightly behavior and paranoia. Polio has been suggested as a possible diagnosis. The historian Suetonius writes how…

…his laughter was unseemly and his anger still more disgusting, for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose; he stammered besides and his head was very shaky at all times, but especially when he made the least exertion.

-Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars)


And then there’s Caligula.

Worst-Case Scenario


When considering the possible impacts of poor health of a ruler, Caligula certainly takes the cake as a worst-case scenario.

Seneca the Younger claimed Caligula (12-41 AD) possessed “monstrous cruelty”. It is reported that he killed on a whim; detaching heads from bodies of anybody who had ever crossed or disagreed with him.

“How is it that a young emperor, who was initially beloved by all, turned into one of histories most infamous loons?”

During a gladiator games, they ran out of criminals to throw into the arena. So Caligula ordered his guards to haul spectators into the ring to be eaten by lions.

A citizen once insulted Caligula. As punishment, the emperor ordered the man to be beaten with chains every day. The punishment was carried out for three months before the man was eventually beheaded.

In addition to his penchant for needless murder, Caligula is accused of other odd conduct.

It is said he publically had sex with his three sisters at banquets, sometimes on the table while the food was being served. He turned the imperial palace into a brothel. He also appointed his favorite horse, Incitatus, as a priest.

Caligula didn’t just take a page from the crazy book, he might have written the entire corpus.

What was the source of his madness? How is it that a young emperor, who was initially beloved by all, turned into one of histories most infamous loons?

For the first seven months of his reign, all adored him. Then, in 37 AD, the emperor became exceedingly ill. While Caligula made a full recovery, ancient writers report that he was never the same. His dire sickness seems to have either caused, or was at least preceded, by his monstrous killings and bizarre behaviors.

…it was not long before Gaius-who was now looked upon as a saviour and benefactor, and who was expected to shower down some fresh and everlasting springs of benefits upon all Asia and Europe, so as to endow the inhabitants with inalienable happiness and prosperity, both separately to each individual and generally to the whole state-began, as the proverb has it, at home, and changed into a ferocity of disposition.

-Philo of Alexandria (On the Embassy to Gaius)

So…. how important is the health of a ruler?

Well, maybe more than you think.

The (ancient) Building Boom

by on September 16, 2016

We haven’t lived in the city long enough to become nostalgic for the town that it once was.

We can’t mourn for the destruction of the original Astor Hotel (demolished in the early 20th century) or lament the fate of the original Pen Station- a beautiful, classically inspired, architectural jewel that was leveled in the 60s and replaced with a dumpy concourse deep under Madison Square Garden.

pen station
Penn Station main waiting room, 1911
Source: Wikimedia Commons

That being said, we do tend to notice that the city has an uncanny ability to demolish and replace buildings seemingly overnight. After a quick survey, we notice that there are four construction sites within a one-block radius of our apartment.

Properties that were once home to ramen stands, parking lots, lamp retailers, and student housing, are now becoming condominium towers and luxury hotels.

The city has undergone several building booms over the years. Post war New York saw the destruction of buildings that had been considered first-of-their-kind technical achievements only a few years before. They were swiftly replaced with new skyscrapers boasting modern necessities like air conditioning, elevators, and open-floor office plans.

A new building boom is going on today, but rather than accommodating more office space, the skyscrapers of tomorrow are built almost exclusively to house the ultra rich, the “oligarchs” that our curious friend mentioned.

NPR reports…

“One developer called these apartments safe deposit boxes with views because they’re expected to hold their value. Apartments start around $10 million and go up from there to almost a hundred million. This is pretty much what former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in mind when his administration changed zoning rules to make it easier to build super tall towers.

Original article here.


For our part, we’re indifferent to the whole ordeal. We try maintaining our Stoic demeanor at all times.

But these new revelations have gotten us curious. The ancient world, you see, also had building booms. In many respects, they were similar to the booms of our modern age- they were undertaken to accommodate the expanding economy of a city or city-state.

In other respects… they were different.

If it walks like an empire…and talks like an empire…


Let’s start with different.

In the 5th century BC, classical Athens had acquired herself a sizeable empire. As the de facto leader of the Delian League (the coalition of Greek city-states assembled for the purpose of defending the ancient Greeks from the invading Persian Empire) Athens was in a position of power and influence.

By force or fraud, the Athenians bullied smaller cities into joining their military coalition and paying member dues (which went straight to the treasury located on the Athenian Acropolis).

It is estimated that Athens received, in contemporary terms, hundreds of millions of dollars every year from subject states. With an adult, male population of about 45, 00, this meant unrivaled prosperity.

Athenian Empire in 5th century BC
Source: Wikimedia Commons

By about 465 BC, the Delian League was a coalition only in name. It had transformed into an Athenian Empire. While Athens had evolved into a formidable, imperial power, the city itself did not look the part.

Many of the Athenian temples had been destroyed during the razing of Athens at the hands of King Xerxes of Persia during the Greco-Persian wars several decades previously. Most of the Athenian assembly meetings were still being held out in the open fields of the Athenian agora.

Such a state of affairs would not do for the most powerful city in the classical Greek world. That was the thinking of a new statesman who consolidated power over Athens in 461 BC. He was a man with bold ideas and foresight for the future- Pericles.

And here’s the part you’ve been waiting for… the Athenian building boom.

The (ancient) building boom


Athens, under the rule of Pericles, embarked on an aggressive series of building projects that cost, in contemporary terms, roughly three billion dollars. It is the buildings constructed during this time that are often associated with the “Golden Age” of classical Greece. That includes the Hephaisteion (Temple of Hephaestus) and, of course, the Parthenon.

The building plans were initiated in 447 and were completed within fifteen years. The building projects were popular among the demos as they supplied a steady flow of work for the citizens. Notably, one such citizen was a young Socrates, who likely helped hew and shape the stones that went into the temples.


A photo from your editor’s trip to Greece.
Hephaisteion in the foreground, Parthenon in the background.

The only true opposition to the Periclean building plans came from the wealthy Athenian aristocrats who did not appreciate funds from the treasury being funneled to the working class. Even still, they could not muster enough political power to stop Pericles or his building proposals.

N.B. an interesting note from history is that the funds used in the construction of these building projects came from the Delian League treasury, a fund that was originally intended solely for the defense of the Greek lands against invaders. As a result, some historians point to the building of the Parthenon as one of the first embezzlement scandals in the Western world.

A source of everlasting fame

Perhaps the most interesting element of the ancient Athenian building boom was the motivation of Pericles. The Athenian building projects were not, unlike modern New York, undertaken to accommodate more office space or to create housing for wealthy foreigners.

Pericles’ motivation was to glorify the city, construct monuments that could weather the ravages of time and emblazon the glory days of Athens on the consciousness of Western history.

And in that regard, he succeeded.

All kinds of enterprises should be created which will provide an inspiration for every art, find employment for every hand… we must devote ourselves to acquiring things that will be the source of everlasting fame.

–Pericles (Plutarch’s Life of Pericles)


So what conclusions to draw, dear reader?

Are we the proverbial Athenians, building monuments to commemorate and glorify our achievements as a society?

Two thousand years from now, will tourists roam the ruins Empire State Building and learn how the ancient New Yorkers used to live?

No answers for certain…but it’s fun to imagine.

The 10 Craziest Persons from the Ancient World

by on September 5, 2016

1. Socrates

While the great philosopher is often remembered for his method of questioning and devotion to the laws and justice, he is also a famous example of one who ‘hears voices’. In his trial he admits to having a ‘daemon’, a heavenly voice that occasionally speaks to him and guides him along his path of inquisition and philosophical exploration.

The daemon never explicitly tells Socrates what to do, but it whispers to him and deters him away from certain paths. It was the daemon, Socrates says, that warned him that he should not become a politician.

“You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, which my accuser Melitus ridicules and sets out in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of being a politician”.

It’s at this point that Socrates remarks, humorously, that this was probably a good idea. For if the citizens of Athens want to execute him as a philosopher, how much sooner would they have executed him if he were a politician?

2. Caligula

Normally when folks think of madness in the ancient world, it is Caligula, Rome’s third emperor, that they conjure in their minds. After all, we’re talking about the man who, if ancient scholars are to be believed, was planning to name his beloved horse the highest and most coveted position on the Roman Senate, consul.

Adding to the list of excesses, Caligula elevated himself to godhood, allegedly cut open his wife’s stomach to see the sex of the baby, carried on a love-affair with his own sister, brazenly, in front of her husband, and made the battle-hardened Roman Legion pick up seashells on the coast of the English Channel after attacking the sea.

And one time, when there were no criminals to throw to the beasts at the Colosseum, he had his guard force an entire section of the crowd in instead.

Clearly, Caligula wasn’t all there.

3. Nero

While Nero may look positively levelheaded compared to Caligula, he did enough horrible things to make one question his sanity. Not only rumored to have started an immense fire in Rome in order to clear space for his new palace, he also had his mother and brother in law murdered. His first attempt at his mother’s life involved creating a special boat that could be sunk on command, but she when she survived, he was forced to resort to more standard methods.

But he gets much darker than that… An early persecutor of Christians, Nero famously burned them alive in order to light his garden. He kicked his pregnant wife to death and was so reviled that it’s thought the Book of Revelations’ Antichrist is a veiled reference to his cruel and torturous ways.

4. Oracle of Delphi


As mentioned in the previous newsletter, the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi, was the most prestigious and authoritative oracle among the Greeks, but were thought by many, including Plutarch, to be mad.

One theory is that her oracular powers derived from vapors, hallucinogenic gases, from the Kerna spring waters that flowed under the temple. Another hypothesis is that her prophecies were the result of the poisonous plant, Oleander.

Either way, she wielded great influence through her advice and suggestions over the rich and powerful in the ancient world… even if her words were not always sensical.

5. Caracalla

Caracalla, ruler of Rome from 198 to 217 AD, was a big fan of ordering murder and violence, and the only people who didn’t hate him were the soldiers he paid off.

He also had no problem killing on scale. For instance, cities that displeased him, like Alexandria, suddenly had much smaller populations after he visited, as all the people that came to greet him were killed.

Once around 20,000 were slaughtered in days of looting and violence. Another time, Caracalla tricked an enemy nation into thinking he had accepted a treaty and marriage proposal from them, and then slaughtered the girl and all the guests.

6. Commodus

You may remember him from the Gladiator movie (played by Joaquin Phoenix), but Commodus was essentially bred by his father to be a nasty piece of something or other. He is best known for his love of the coliseum where he would fight and kill gladiators… who were armed with toy swords and usually heavily wounded before they even stepped into the ring. Commodus bragged that he killed 100 bears… all of which were immobile and tied up. And he bankrupted the people of Rome, having charged them an insane “appearance fee” for these acts.

Moreover, he kept a harem of kidnapping victims for orgies and auctioned off state positions and anyone who stood against him was murdered. Eventually he was killed… strangled by a gladiator.

7. Elagabalus

Emperor from 218 to 222, Elagabalus was obviously deeply mentally disturbed. Having ascended the throne at a young age, he replaced the pantheon with a new Sun god… and then proclaimed himself its avatar.

He scandalized even the sexual libertines, due to his multiple marriages and affairs, especially when he married and deflowered a vestal virgin, causing her to break her sacred vow and be buried alive.

He also supposedly dressed as woman and prostituted himself out on palace grounds. Desperately wanting female genitalia, Elagabalus suggested giving himself a vagina by slicing open his stomach. He had a favorite slave who he called husband and who called him wife. Rumours include having his men hunt for well-hung men around the country, and forcing them to be castrated, and encouraging his “husband” to beat him for straying.

His was assassinated after only four years as emperor.

8. King Herod


King of Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC, Herod was famous for wanting to kill Jesus and for the “Massacre of the Innocents”, where he ordered every boy at the age of 2 or younger in Bethlehem to be killed. Responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, Herod killed the high priest, his rivals, grandfather-in law, mother-in law, brother-in law, uncle, wife, 3 sons (one of which was murdered only a few days before Herod’s death)… and just about anyone else who he distrusted and thought was a threat to him.

9. Pythagoras

A more loveable ‘crazy’, Pythagoras is best known for his mathematical genius and eponymous theorem we all learned in school. However, he had a few strange quirks, including a strange religion he created.

The main tenets of his cult were that souls are reincarnated… and beans are evil. No, not figuratively… actual beans.

Commandments include oddities such as: Do not eat beans (obviously), do not step over a crossbar, sit on a quart or walk on highways. Do not leave the pot’s impression in the ashes after removing it from the fire, or stir a fire without iron, or let swallows nest under the roof.

His sect had a few more ‘sane’ rules like vegetarianism and pacifism, but he broke those when he slaughtered an ox. He ironically died in a fight.

10. Empedocles

A Greek Scientist & Philosopher, 490-430 B.C., Empedocles is equal measures genius and insane. While he discovered that light travels at a speed, the Earth is a sphere, centrifugal force, and an very crude theory of evolution…. He also thought he was a God, with a capital G.

To prove his immortality, Empedocles announced that he would jump into a volcano–Mt Etna–and come back out unscathed. He didn’t.

Do dogs have souls?

by on August 29, 2016

There are a few possible sources we could peruse for the purposes of uncovering the nature of canine souls. We have chosen to look at Aristotle and his treatment of the soul within De Anima.

Artie defines a soul as…

… the first actuality of an organic body that is potentially alive


Let that swirl around your mind for a bit; taste it as if it were a fine wine. Once you’ve done that, feel free to say to yourself…

‘um… what?’

What does Aristotle even mean by that? Perhaps what we should go over first is what he doesn’t mean.

Aristotle, although undeniably influenced by his mentor, departs rather dramatically from Plato’s conception of the soul. Plato believed that the soul was an object of sorts, trapped within the body. It is a very real thing that resides within in us, until the day of our death when the soul escapes back into the world of the forms where it regains infinite knowledge and wisdom.

Aristotle believed that such a notion was unnecessary. Despite how difficult it may sound, the soul can be explained through logical, empirical means.

Matter and Form

Aristotle believed that any object insofar as it is an object can be explained by two criterion.

  1. Matter: the material the thing is made of
  2. Form: the meaningful arrangement of said matter

If we were to examine a bronze statue of an ancient hero, we would very simply say that its substance, the stuff it is made out of, is bronze. The form of the statue is the meaningful arrangements of its parts. The statue has purposeful shape and structure. This shape and structure happens to resemble a Greek hero. If you were to combine these two (matter and form) then you would have a complete picture of the object in question.

Aristotle believed that substance was potentiality. Bronze insofar as it is bronze, has the potential to be a statue of a hero. It is only when the substance takes on a meaningful form (a Greek hero) that the object is actualized. Simply put…

Matter is potentiality, and form is actuality…” -Aristotle (De Anima)


Similarly the human body is composed of matter. In this way it has potentiality. It would follow then that the soul is the actuality of the body. The soul gives meaningful purpose and shape to life. the combination of matter and form create a recognizable human life. And so we see that the soul is the first actuality of a body that is potentially alive.

All make sense so far?

Don’t bother answering that, we’ve still got much to cover.

The three types of souls

It is important to keep in mind that the soul according to Aristotle is not an object in the way that Plato imagined. Rather, it is a grounding principle of sorts. It is the realization of life. The soul is the one thing that enables a body to engage in the necessary activities of life. And interestingly enough, there are several parts of the soul. They are the nutritive soul, the sensible soul, and the rational soul.

1. The Nutritive Soul

The soul is that by virtue of which things have life. The first part of the soul is known as the nutritive part. This is the first and most widely shared among all living things. For it can be said that anything that takes in nutrition, grows from this nutrition, and eventually decays over time has a soul.


This part of the soul can be found in humans, animals, and plants. It was believed by Aristotle that the nutritive part of the soul aims at the continuation of life. It is impossible for any one thing to exist eternally and without decay.

However, it is possible for life, through virtue of the nutritive soul, to regenerate in the form of offspring. The continuation of life is the final aim for nature. Any creature with a nutritive soul will therefore be inclined to strive towards this end.

It is interesting to note that plants have only the nutritive soul. Plants have no higher aim other than the continuation of life. The nutritive soul allows plants to take in nourishment, grow, and spread life. However, their role in nature stops there.

2. The Sensible Soul

The sensible soul, or the soul of perception, is the part of the soul that by virtue of which we are able to perceive. In addition to sensation, the sensible soul endows us with the ability to retain memories, perceive pain and pleasure, and have appetites and desires.

While plants do not possess the sensible soul, animals and humans most certainly do. Aristotle makes a point to clarify that not all animals have the same abilities of perception. While some creatures have all five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste touch,) some creatures are only endowed with the sense of touch. Animals that do not possess the proper sense organs (some insects for instance) will not have the proper potentiality for perception and therefore can not be actualized by the sensible soul.

Ancient mosaic of a classical dog

All animals have touch. Aristotle classifies this as a default of sorts. Any animals insofar as it is an animal will be able to have the sensation of touch and therefore can be said to possess the sensible soul.

Aristotle also takes the time to mention that any animal that possesses the sensible soul must also possess the capacity for pleasure and pain. The implication to this is that any creature with the sensible soul will therefor also have desires or appetites. Appetite can be said to be the the desire for that which is pleasurable to our senses while simultaneously avoiding that which is painful. It can be said then that animals have passions. They are subsequently driven by these passions toward an end.

Hunger and thirst are forms of desire, hunger a desire for what is dry and hot, thirst a desire for what is cold and moist; flavour is a sort of seasoning added to both. We must later clear up these points, but at present it may be enough to say that all animals that possess the sense of touch have also appetition.

-Aristotle (De Anima)


Aristotle believed that animals and humans both possess the sensible soul. However, he asks the question if animals have the capacity for belief. Belief would seem to imply conviction. Conviction would seem to imply that a creature was persuaded, because one can not be convinced of something without being persuaded in some way. Finally, persuasion would seem to imply a rational function of measuring possibilities and drawing conclusions, a function that Aristotle believed animals did not possess.

3. The Rational Soul

While it can be said that plants possess the nutritive soul and that animals possess the nutritive and the sensible soul, the rational soul belongs to man alone. The rational soul is that by virtue of which we possess the capacity for rational thought. A rather daunting notion, Aristotle divides rational thought into two groups.

The first is known as the passive intellect. It is the part of our mind that collects information and stores it for later use. This is almost an extension of the sensible soul in that it allows us to take Aristotle philosopherin that which we perceive, create a belief towards it, and store it for later use.

The active intellect is the part that allows us to engage in the actual process of thinking. We manage to call forth knowledge stored in our passive intellect and shape it into meaningful ideas using the reasoning power of our active intellect. Aristotle also believed that the active intellect was responsible for our ability to consider abstract concepts that we have never perceived. Intellectual abstracts become manageable with the power of our active intellect, philosophy becomes possible.

Actual knowledge is the same as its object; potential knowledge is temporally prior in an individual, but in general it is not even temporally prior. But active intellect does not understand at one time and not at another. Only when it has been separated is it precisely what it is, all by itself. This alone is immortal and everlasting.

I know what you are probably thinking at this point.

Modern science has disproven much of Aristotle’s ideas on the soul. There is no nutritive, sensible, or rational soul. All three levels of the Aristotelian soul can be explained by nutritive and perception organs. And the rational soul is merely the rapid firing of neurons in our brain.


Perhaps not…

Old Artie didn’t have the modern conveniences that we enjoy today. He did not have thousands of years of medical scientific progress to explain the various functions of life. He was, in a very real way, the guy who was kicking off said medical scientific progress.

The fact that he relied on observable, empirical phenomenon was an enormous step forward. No longer were thinkers restrained to believing in ethereal forms or mysticism to account for the inexplicable occurrence of life.

So…do dogs have souls?

No answers for certain, but we like to think so.

We’re building a wall…and Sparta’s going to pay for it!

by on August 26, 2016

We’ve discussed The Donald in these pages before. Almost every time we’ve come back from the ordeal beaten and bloodied after perusing our reader responses.

Is Trump the “democratic tyrant” that Plato warns us about in his The Republic?

We pondered that question some months ago. Seemed plausible at the time, but maybe we had the guy wrong. Perhaps Big Don isn’t a fear monger at all. He might just be a classical reader!

Sure, he’s the kinda guy that wants to build a wall because those damn foreigners are coming to kill us.

But he’s not the first…

A great, big, beautiful wall


That brings us to our bit of history for today.

Building walls was not an unusual occurrence in the ancient world. Off the top of your head, you could probably name the Great Wall of China, the Walls of Benin, or perhaps even Hadrian’s Wall.

Defensive walls were an integral part of the ancient world. During the infancy of human civilization, marauding pirates, encroaching foreign armies, and addled emperors with a penchant for putting entire cities to the flame were vey real concerns.

Today we look at one particular set of walls. They are the Long Walls of ancient Athens described by Thucydides in his The History of the Peloponnesian War.

The walls of the ancient Athenian city began construction during the lead up to the Peloponnesian War in the mid 5th century BC.

N.B. The Persian armies of King Xerxes had previously destroyed the Athenian walls during the Greco-Persian wars several decades earlier.

An interesting piece of engineering, defensive walls were erected around the city proper, but construction also began on a series of 6km “Long Walls” that would connect the city of Athens to its ports at Piraeus.

The Athenian Long Walls

The Long Walls created a protected corridor that could provide a valuable link to the sea, even during times of siege.

More interesting than the walls themselves was the story behind how they were built.

The Missing Envoys


The historian Thucydides tells us that after the successful expulsion of the Persian armies, the Spartan Greeks looked upon Athens with fear and mistrust. In the course of “defending” smaller cities from the Persians, Athens had acquired herself a sizeable empire. The Athenians coerced or otherwise intimidated smaller cities to join their military coalition or otherwise face destruction.

Fearing the strength of a fortified Athenian city, the Spartans pleaded with Athens to not reconstruct the defensive walls.

They would have themselves preferred to see neither her nor any other city in possession of a wall; though here they acted principally at the instigation of their allies, who were alarmed at the strength of her newly acquired navy and the valour which she had displayed in the war with the Medes.

-Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I, Chapter IV)


Themistocles, the man largely credited with orchestrating the Greek victory over the Persians, informed the Spartans that he would sit with them and discuss the proposition.

You know-hash it out.

Themistocles proceeded at once to Sparta but informed his countrymen to delay the departure of themistoclesthe other emissaries. Upon his arrival, the general stalled for time and made excuses. His colleagues had yet to arrive, you see, so he couldn’t possibly go before the Spartan assembly to discuss the prospect of an Athenian wall.

The Spartans trusted Themistocles, a man who was for years their ally. However, unbeknownst to them, the construction of the Athenian wall had already begun.

The Spartans heard rumors of the wall and deployed emissaries to confirm the reports. Themistocles secretly sent word to the Athenians to capture the emissaries and detain them indefinitely.

By this time, construction of the Athenian walls was far enough along that Themistocles felt it safe to drop his ruse. He announced openly that the Athenian wall, to the great consternation of the Spartans, had already been constructed.

In essence, saying: Whaddya gonna do about it?

Taking a page from Thucydides


By this time our mind drifts back to the modern age.

Is it fair to The Donald to compare him to ancient demagogues? While we’re at it, is it fair to the demagogues to compare them to Trump?

No answers for certain…but we sure would love to hear what you have to say, dear reader.

For now though, let’s be content with our examination of this unique bit of history. We don’t know precisely how Themistocles made his case to the Athenian people, what stirring rhetoric he must have employed.

But we like to imagine…

Hey guys, I got great news. We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall…

And Sparta’s going to pay for it!

The Dual Monarchy of Sparta

by on August 9, 2016

By Julia Huse

When it comes to Ancient Greece I am particularly

spartaSpartan Warrior

fond of Athens. As the birthplace of democracy, the epicenter of Greek tragedy, and the intellectual hub of the classical age, Athens had a lot going for it.

Today, however, we look elsewhere. Classical Athens, after all, wasn’t the only place where new and dramatic changes were taking place.

You might be familiar with Sparta, the intensely militaristic city-state of the Ancient world made famous by the movie 300.

Imagine if the United States Marine Corp founded and governed their own country.

That would be Sparta…

Key players in the Greco-Persian War, we often admire Sparta for its toughness and courage. With a focus on its military, however, we hardly ever hear about its government. This is a real shame because Sparta had its own unique political system with two, count them, two kings sitting on the throne at once.

In his Histories, Herodotus explains to us how this dual kingship came about. A Spartan king named Aristodemus had twin sons. Almost immediately after the two boys were born Aristodemus croaked. The Spartans were then faced with a dilemma; who was going to be Aristodemus’ successor? The Spartans wanted to make the older of the twins the new king, as was custom, but the two boys were so “alike and equal” that they could not determine which of the two was the older twin. The Spartans then turned to the mother of the twins, Argeia, who told the Spartans that she couldn’t even tell them apart. This was a lie. She knew which of the two was older but she wanted both her sons to become king.

Better Ask the Oracle

So the Spartans, not sure what to do, did what any good city-state would do at the time: ask the oracle at Delphi.

When they asked the Pythia (for those who don’t know the Pythia was the priestess at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi who gave the oracle), she told the Spartans to make both the boys king. From that point on the Spartans had two kings, one from the lineage of each twin. As the twins grew up they were in constant competition with each other, which then became an important part of the dual kingship.

Power with Limits

These kings were equal in every sense. Both kings dealt equally in the matters of religion, laws and military. Over the years, however, the say that the two kings had in these matters dwindled. By the 5th century BC most of their judicial duties had been handed over to the ephors, a democratically elected group of law makers, and the gerousia, a group of 28 elders elected for life normally part of royal households. Even though their judicial power had been reduced, the kings still held a decent amount of military power.

Either king could lead armies in to war with the approval of certain councils, but it was not permitted for both the kings to lead an army at the same time. One king always had to remain in Sparta in order to prevent anarchy, or the ever-frequent helot (slave) uprising.

A Modern Revival?

The idea of monarchy in Sparta was clearly very complicated. Not only does the “mono” part of monarchy not really apply to their dual kingship, but also the power of these kings were closely regulated and controlled by other councils in their government. This rather odd form of monarchy was somewhat genius in its own way though. Not only did these kings have two councils to check their power, the competition between the two kings kept them in line as well.

The kings held opposing opinions on issues, thus providing a voice for citizens on either side of the issue. Also, making one king always remain in the city ensured order and calm for the Spartans even in times of war. The nature of the two councils also had added benefits. The relative permanence of the gerousia provided stability in their government while the annually elected ephors allowed the Spartans to have a voice in their government.

This whole system seems very similar to the perfect government described by Cicero in his De Re Publica with its mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Have we been so distracted by democratic Athens that we’ve missed the odd genius of the Spartan political system?

Now, I’m not calling for a modern revival. I’m not saying that the United States, just as an example, should elect two presidents. Put Hillary AND The Donald in office; let them sort it out amongst themselves.

Yeah…that would work.

But for the ancient Spartans, it DID work, for a while at least.

The next time you think of Sparta, put out of your mind the image of behemoth warriors in leather speedos. Instead, perhaps remember the ancient Spartans as innovative, dare we even say revolutionary, political thinkers.