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Latin and Greek Bisexual Tendencies

by on August 17, 2015

gay marriageBy Ben Potter

Right… how to put this delicately? Well, if you’ve experienced any recent anger thinking about a certain Supreme Court ruling on civil liberties, or about Facebook’s colourful profile filters, or about J. K. Rowling’s revelation about Dumbledore, or by… listening to Elton John, then this may not be the article for you.

Equally, if you’re fine with all of the abovementioned things, but just don’t like reading about sex, then you too should perhaps sit this one out.

All cleared up? Do we still have one or two readers left? Good… on with the show!

Discussing homosexuality in the ancient world is a slightly trickier topic than it may at first seem for the very simple reason that it didn’t really exist! That’s not to say same sex relations didn’t occur, they did, constantly and copiously.

The point is that ‘homosexuality’ and, by its very acknowledgement, ‘heterosexuality’ are peculiarly modern phenomena that do not translate to the ancient world.

(N.B. ‘Homosexuality’ would not have translated to the greater part of the modern world; the term was only coined in 1869.)

If one wished to apply modern terminology to the ancients then one could say that most, if not all, men were some form of ‘bisexual’ (or at least imminently capable of bisexual acts), though as this implies sexual desire for both men and women, it too is misleading. Despite the ubiquity of such sex, there could be an immense amount of shame and humiliation involved in partaking of certain homosexual acts.

Confused? Well done if not! But bear with me for a moment and perhaps the waters will look a little less murky.

The key point about same-sex relations in the ancient world was not one of gender, but of social status and bodily violation (i.e. being penetrated).

Greek homosexualityThe sexual pursuit of young beautiful boys was considered common practice for Athenian men.

Athens was, as far as we know, the place where homosexual acts were most tolerated, where it was expected that adult, male citizens pursue beautiful, adolescent boys with the aim of being sexually gratified by them.

Even though a boy could be courted from the start of puberty, the age at which downy fluff first appeared on the cheeks was the most desirable – when a boy could develop a full beard or had hair on his buttocks was the point at which he lost his allure and began to enter the realm of men.

To pursue a social inferior, i.e. an adolescent, was perfectly acceptable, though a wooing process was necessary to win the favour of free citizen boys. That such boys were free to accept or reject such advances meant that the relationships they entered were probably a good deal more consensual than those of their sisters who could have been married off at the whim of their fathers.

For a man to have sex with male slaves or prostitutes was barely considered to be worth mentioning in terms of its effect on a man’s social status unless… and here is the crux of the matter… he himself was penetrated.

Being orally or anally penetrated was a source of great shame which could have serious social consequences for a young man. With this restriction in place, the accepted etiquette for bringing a more senior partner to climax could be through masturbation or, more commonly, through intercrural sex i.e. thrusting the penis between the thighs.

It’s difficult for us to comprehend that there was absolutely nothing wrong with a 15 year old boy having a close friendship with a 40 year old man and regularly gratifying him sexually. Even stranger is the idea that, should such a relationship even once boil over into oral or anal sex, then it could bring everlasting shame on the boy and damage his reputation, future career and marriage prospects – though would bring no shame whatsoever upon the penetrator.

A commonly-cited fallacy is that such relationships were not merely sexual, but of a higher order and that the elder man acted as mentor to the younger, improving his education and even, ironically, his morality. Even without examples of purely sexual relationships, and indeed of purely educational relationships without a sexual element, this argument has more than a whiff of ‘I buy Playboy for the articles’ about it.

pederastyIt might be considered naïve to think that intimate (and, presumably in some cases, loving) sexual relationships could strictly adhere to the ‘no penetration’ rule, and indeed this is almost certainly the case. However, the key point was not what actually went on in the bedroom (it was widely assumed that sodomy would have been part of the bill of fare), but what was publically spoken about.

This importance of this early foray into “don’t ask don’t tell” is highlighted by the story of Periander, the tyrant of Ambracia who publically chided a male lover by asking him if he was pregnant yet. The boy, who had presumably been willingly sodomised on a regular basis prior to this, responded by promptly murdering his lover and ruler; the only course available to restore his masculinity.

As seen from the example above, Athens was by no stretch an abnormality in its approach; similar behaviour occurred in most of the rest of Greece, parts of the Near East and certainly in Rome. The key difference for the Romans was that it was thought very bad form to sexually pursue a free-citizen (of either gender). This prohibition could, ironically, have actually increased the amount of sodomy going on, as there would be no qualms about having anal sex with male prostitutes or slaves (indeed, slaves were often purchased solely for this specific purpose).

One aspect of the shame of penetration actually goes with the pleasure of it. It was assumed that women enjoyed being penetrated and were ignoble for this very reason (or possibly vice versa). Thus, any man who derived pleasure in such a manner was a kinaidos, a pathetic feminine creature – there is no English word which transmits the same level of rancid shame.

And thus we come to the kinds of loves and of lovers. Of lovers there were two clear types: the older erastes (lover, pursuer, penetrator) and the younger eromenos (beloved, pursued, penetrated). The ‘love’ the erastes felt for the eromenos was eros (sexual desire), whilst the love of the eromenos for the erastes was philia (non-sexual love) or entirely absent. For an eromenos to feel eros for his erastes would have been wholly inappropriate and abnormal. Indeed, the reason pederastic relationships were not encouraged to continue into adult life was because an adult was driven by eros, therefore one member of an adult male/male relationship must be a kinaidos.

The older erastes would pursue the younger eromenos. That’s not to say such relationships didn’t exist, but would probably have been subject to public ridicule or, much more probably, conducted in a ‘discreet’ manner. Remember, the key point was what your lover said, not what they did. It seems that familiar preface to many homophobic sentences ‘I don’t mind what people get up to behind closed doors…’ was actually true in antiquity – possibly because you were doing exactly the same thing yourself!

As men dominated the public, political and literary arenas, obviously we have much more evidence for male/male sexual activity, but ‘lesbianism’, or more specifically, lesbian acts, are documented.

Plato and Ovid both matter-of-factly talk about women being sexually attracted to one another, while the Spartan poet, Alcman writes of women appreciating one another’s desirability.

SapphoSappho, depicted in a fresco painting in Pompeii

The geographically-eponymous Lesbian was, of course, Sappho, the 7/6th century BC poet from the island of Lesbos. Like with her male counterparts the only modern term appropriate for Sappho is ‘bisexual’, as she was not only married, but wrote passionate love poetry about both sexes.

It would be easy to assume, though impossible to confirm, that Sappho’s sexuality was nothing out of the ordinary as, despite her fame, nobody raised an eyebrow of objection about her writing until the ultra-conservative Augustan writers of the first century AD. That said, women who actually preferred women, rather than made love to them out of curiosity or necessity, were treated with suspicion.

(N.B. A delicious irony is that in antiquity ‘lesbian sex’ was actually slang for fellatio – a filthy and demeaning act.)

Cunnilingus as a sexual act was relatively benign or even irrelevant as, without penetration or the possibility of penetration, the struggle for sexual power lost its significance. However, tribads, women who penetrated other women (or even men) with a dildo or distended clitoris were grotesquely unnatural – it is conceivable that the toxic term kinaidos would be insufficient for a man who partook in such a reversal of natural, penetrative dominance.

It would be inaccurate to say that men and women in the ancient world were either gay, straight, bisexual or homophobic – none of the terms adequately reflect the sexual machinations of the time. Whether pederasty was a hangover from an ancient initiation rite, grew from a desire to make love to somebody educated (educational circumstances meant that most women would have been unable to make intellectual lovers), or was simply a matter of taste we cannot know.

What we are more sure of is that ‘homosexuality’ in the ancient world retained its character from the time of the Minoans (27th century BC) right up until the fall of the Western Roman Empire (5th century AD). So, although it would be very difficult to defend many aspects of homosexual (or indeed heterosexual) conduct in the ancient world, the fact that such behaviour has over 3000 years of tradition and longevity on its side might mean that, perhaps, it’s worth thinking twice before defending something purely because it can be said to represent ‘traditional values’.

Cato vs Caesar

by on August 11, 2015

I’ve always held the belief that ancient history, in this case the history of the final years of the Roman Republic, are of such interest to readers because the subject matter can often be downright dramatic. Betrayal, bloodshed, assassinations- these were commonplace in the

Cato statueStatue of Cato the Younger in the Louvre Museum

days of ancient Rome. A political squabble, very literally, could often become a matter of life and death.

The tumultuous era of Roman history when the republic fell, and the empire rose, is a wonderful example of some juicy historical details. And while Caesar did usher in the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic when he crossed the Rubicon and, in his own words, “cast the die”, we should remember that the Republic did not go down without a fight.

That’s right dear reader! Today we are talking about the man who (almost) stopped Caesar. Along with none other than Cicero, he is often considered to have been one of the staunchest opponents of Julius Caesar’s and a great advocate for the Roman Republic. He is Cato the younger.

Much has been made of the struggle between Cato the younger (from here on referred to simply as “Cato”) and the soon to be dictator perpetuo. Was it a struggle between tyranny and liberty, good and evil? There are certainly some in history who think so. George Washington actually coordinated a showing of the 1713 play Cato, which dramatizes the final days of Cato, for his troops at Valley Forge as a means to inspire their vigor for liberty.

But first things first. Who was this defender of republican ideals? Who is Cato?

Much of what we know about this man comes from the Roman author Plutarch and his aptly titled Life of Cato. Plutarch tells us that as a young man, Cato was exceptionally bright, mature beyond his years and, even at a young age, steadfast and immovable in his convictions.

Plutarch tells us that as a young boy at a social event, Cato took part in a mock trial with other children. The children, playing as judge, jury, prosecution and defendant, supposedly found a good-natured boy guilty of some crime and locked him away in a chamber. The boy cried out to Cato for help and the young Cato responded by pushing the other children aside and freeing the prisoner.

It is fortunate that we so recently discussed Stoicism, dear reader, because it was said that, as a young man, Cato devoted himself to studying the Stoic philosophy and went about cultivating himself to become a great Stoic citizen. This was not unique to Cato the younger. His great-grandfather, Cato the Elder, had famously done the same thing only a few decades before.

As a result of his study of Stoicism, Cato lived in a very modest way. It was said he wore only the plainest clothing and ate only when necessary. He often subjected himself to the rain and cold in order to create a tolerance for discomfort. This adherence to the Stoic lifestyle is made all the more remarkable when we consider that Cato came from a rather wealthy family. He could have easily lived in luxury and decadence for the rest of his life if he so chose.

Perhaps because of his insistence to cultivate virtue through philosophical means, Cato gained a reputation for being exceedingly honest and for possessing an unshakeable resolve.

I know what you are probably thinking at this point. ‘Sure, that seems all well and good, but didn’t you mentioned something about Cato going toe to toe with none other than Julius Caesar?’

Indeed I did, dear reader! While we could easily spend days discussing the various stories surrounding Cato the younger, and spill untold amount of editorial ink in the process, let’s try to be a little more succinct and hit the highlights.

Shall we?

It was probably unavoidable that Cato would end up on a collision course with Caesar. After all, it was said that at the age of 14 Cato offered to kill the Roman Dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, with the words…

“Give me a sword, that I might free my country from slavery.”-Cato (Plutarch’s Life of Cato)

Cato first locked horns with Caesar in 59 BC when

Julius CaesarCato was a vocal opponent of Julius Caesar, attempting to block his attempts at power for years.

Cato, now a member of the Roman Senate, attempted to block Caesar’s bid for consulship of Rome (the highest elected political office of the Republic).

Plutarch tells us that Caesar, returning from his military expeditions in Spain, wished to hold a triumph (a public spectacle celebrating Roman, military victories) while also running for the consulship in absentia.

The Senate was at first willing to grant such a request, but Cato vehemently opposed such a proposition. To prevent the Senate from voting on the matter, Cato filibustered on the Senate floor until nightfall. As a result, Caesar was forced to choose between a triumph and running for the consulship. He opted to abandon the triumph and ran for, and one, consulship of Rome in 59 BC.

Immediately following the election, Caesar allied himself with another influential Roman political player, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known commonly as “Pompey”.

Plutarch tells us that together, Caesar and Pompey enacted laws that distributed land and grain to the poor. In doing so, Caesar was currying favor with the common people and, in the words of Plutarch, “stirring up and attaching to himself the numerous diseased and corrupted elements in the commonwealth. “

Cato regarded such legislation as politically motivated. While the poor benefited from the subsidized land and food, it was Caesar who really won out by boosting his reputation and allure among the common people. Cato viewed Caesar with a wary eye and believed him to be a mortal threat to the Republic.

For the next several years, Cato would make every attempt to block Caesar and deter his every ambition. When Caesar proposed another piece of legislation that would divide almost all of Campania, a region in southeast Italy, amongst the poor and needy, Cato again opposed this bill with his trademark stubbornness.

Plutarch tells us that Cato was so obstinate, in fact, that Caesar ordered the Roman guards to drag Cato from the Senate and place him in prison. Cato was lead from the room, speaking out against Caesar all the while.

The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, tells us that one Senator was so appalled by this use of force that he declared…

“I prefer to be with Cato in prison rather than here with you (Caesar)!”-Cassius Dio (Roman History)

Cato was by no means the only opponent of Caesar’s. However, he was undoubtedly the most vocal and most unyielding. He was, in many ways, the common thread between every opposition that stood in the way of Caesar’s aspiration for power during the 1st century BC.

Despite his efforts, Cato was unable to prevent Caesar from attaining governorship of Illyria and the Gaul, a region in Northern Italy, as well as an army of four legions at his command. In the words of Plutarch, “Cato warned the people that they themselves by their own votes were establishing a tyrant in their citadel.”

It would seem Cato’s predictions would come to pass in 49 BC when Caesar, accompanied by the 13th Roman Legion, crossed the Rubicon intent on taking power from the Senate and abolishing the Republic.

It was now that all eyes were on Cato, the man who had warned of such an attack for years.

“Caesar was reported to be marching against the city with an army, then all eyes were turned upon Cato, both those of the common people and those of Pompey as well; they realised that he alone had from the outset foreseen, and first openly foretold, the designs of Caesar. 2 Cato therefore said: ‘Nay, men, if any of you had heeded what I was ever foretelling and advising, ye would now neither be fearing a single man nor putting your hopes in a single man.’”-Plutarch (Life of Cato)

What followed was the Roman Civil War, sometimes referred to as “Caesar’s Civil War”. While Cato and the Roman Senate, bolstered by the armies of Pompey, would struggle against Caesar, the were ultimately defeated. Caesar’s victory would effectively end the Roman Republic and usher in the age of the Roman Empire.

What of Cato?

In 46 BC Cato found himself in Utica in Northern Africa. His armies defeated and his men slaughtered by Caesar, Cato had been backed into a corner. Caesar, now dictator perpetuo, offered to pardon Cato.

Death of Cato
The Death of Cato, by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière

Cato however, refused to accept such a pardon. Doing so would be a tacit admission of Caesar’s legitimacy as a dictator, something that Cato would simply not allow. He committed suicide by impaling himself with a dagger, one final act of rebellion against the man who had ushered in the death of his beloved Republic.

The Worship of Guilt: The Furies and Justice

by on August 6, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

If you think the Sirens are the only mythological beings capable of making music deadly, think again. Mythology gives us another, much older trio of ladies whose song was meant to torture and kill their victims. They go by many names, but at least one is eminently recognizable: they are often called the Furies.

furies pursuit

Orestes pursued by the Furies

According to most mythological accounts, the three Furies—named Alecto (the unceasing), Megaera (the jealous), and Tisiphone (the avenger)—were literally born of blood. They sprang into being after the Titan, Kronos, castrated his father, Uranus. The blood from Uranus’ wound fell to the earth (Gaia) and produced the Giants, the Furies (or Erinyes), and the Meliae (a kind of nymph).
This bloody backstory is particularly important to the Furies for two reasons.

First, it establishes their age and lineage—they are older even than the Olympians, and are the direct result of a co-mingling of two primeval forces (Uranus, the heavens, and Gaia, the earth). Second, they are also the result of a crime committed by a son against his father. Fittingly, then, for many years the Furies were considered avengers of violations to the natural order—if a man killed his parents, for example, he could expect to answer to the Furies.

By all accounts, the Furies were visually terrifying. They had the bodies and faces of twisted old women, with writhing snakes

The FuriesThe Furies

for hair, runny eyes, and tattered black clothing. They punished their victims with a wild paralytic song that aroused intense feelings of guilt and remorse—essentially, the Furies drove criminals mad by exposing them to their own guilt and fear.

The Furies were, for all intents and purposes, monsters. They may have been monsters seeking justice, but they were terrifying monsters nonetheless.

And yet, believe it or not, they were worshipped in Athens. They had their own sanctuary and sacred grotto, and were called the “Eumenides,” meaning “the kindly ones.”

Okay—what gives?

One of the best sources to look to when trying to understand Athens’ worship of the Eumenides is actually a trilogy of plays called The Oresteia, by an Ancient Greek tragedian named Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE). In these plays he not only tells the tragic story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, but also essentially gives us an origin story for Athens’ famous trial-by-jury system of justice.

It’s in the last play of this trilogy, called The Eumenides, that we can see a distinct shift in the function and identity of the Furies. But before we can understand how they went from being the Erinyes (“the angry ones”) to being the Eumenides (“the kindly ones”), we have to understand why they make an appearance in the trilogy in the first place.

According to legend, Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army in the Trojan War, was brother to Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, was taken by Paris (a crime against hospitality that started the war to begin with). Before the Greek army can set sail for Troy, Agamemnon and Menelaus are told that they must sacrifice Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis—otherwise they will be unable to sail.

ClytemnestraClytemnestra after the murder, by John Collier

To make a long story very, very short, Agamemnon ritually kills Iphigenia, devastating his wife, Clytemnestra, who, upon Agamemnon’s return from the long war, murders him in his bath. Orestes, their son, who was away from home at the time of his father’s murder, eventually returns home and avenges his father’s death by murdering Clytemnestra and her lover.

This, clearly, is where the Furies come in. Their purpose is to punish violations of the natural order, such as Orestes’ killing of his own mother, and they get to work almost immediately. Circumstances matter very little to them—it doesn’t matter that Clytemnestra killed her husband first, Orestes must still be punished for killing his mother (a much stronger blood tie than husband and wife). By the end of the play in which Clytemnestra’s murder takes place, The Libation Bearers, Orestes is tormented by “ghastly women, like Gorgons,/ with dark raiment and thick-clustered snakes/ for tresses” (1048-49). He runs offstage, screaming about their terrifying appearances.

Apollo (who encouraged Orestes to commit the murder in the first place, but the Furies care little about this detail) tells Orestes to travel to the sanctuary of Athena, where he must embrace her idol and beg for assistance.

Once Athena responds to Orestes’ plea and enters the action, she pulls together Athens’ first jury trial in order to decide once and for all whether Orestes deserves punishment for his actions, or whether he acted in the right.

This is a fascinating section of the play which normally deserves a great deal of attention, but for now we are focusing on the Furies. So, to make a long story short (again), the jury of Athenian men finds Orestes “innocent” in the sense that his actions were justified. The Furies are, of course, extremely unhappy with this answer, and Athena has to do some damage control. She asks the Furies to stay in Athens—and she asks them no fewer than four times (sweetening the deal each time) before the terrifying trio decides to stay.

If the Furies represent such a pernicious form of torment, why is Athena so desperate to have them stay in Athens? On the one hand, she must protect her city from the threat of the Furies, who specifically proclaim that if Orestes is freed, they will spread venom throughout the land: “a canker, blasting leaves and children…speeding over the ground/ shall cast upon the land infections that destroy its people” (785-787).

Although it seems that banishing the Furies before they have a chance to curse the land is the obvious solution, the text actually implies that the Furies’ curse would come about as a result of their permanently leaving the land.

The Erinyes, after all, are in many ways a personification of righteous guilt. If guilt were to leave Athens forever, the city would be destroyed. This is why the Furies mention children in their threat—human beings who feel no guilt or shame could do any number of horrible things to each other without having to fear the internal torment of remorse. In a world like that, it would be difficult to trust anyone, and without absolute trust there can be no love or marriage, without which there would be no children. The Furies, by abandoning Athens, would devastate the family, and without family there can be no Polis. Athena cannot let this happen to her city.

After all, she recognizes that guilt and fear are absolutely essential to the health of civilization. Even if a lack of guilt didn’t pose a serious threat to families, it could still destroy civilized society from the inside out, resulting in absolute anarchy. How could Athena’s newly implemented trial-by-jury legal system be sustained in such a place? “And what city,” say the Furies, “or what man/ that in the light of the heart/ fostered no dread could have the same/ reverence for Justice?” (522-525). Fear and guilt are absolutely essential to the formation of the Athenian legal system, and this is why Athena tells her people that “they shall not cast out altogether from the city what is to be feared/ For who among mortals that fears nothing is just?” (698-699).

There is simply no Justice without the Furies.

But of course, the Furies are not exactly happy with Athena—convincing them to stay is not going to be easy—and in order to make them forget their anger, Athena must “sweeten the pot” pretty heavily; but to do this, interestingly enough, she has to fundamentally change the Furies’ role in society.

XXXOrestes pursued by the Furies, by Louis Lafitte

To please the Furies, Athena offers them a legally recognized home in Athens, tells them that they will be worshipped after every marriage and childbirth, and that they will also have the power to bring fortune to Athens by controlling the earth, sea, and sky (essentially they will have power over the weather).

These tasks are clearly not what the Furies are used to—and, after all, they are very passionate about bringing evildoers to Justice—why should they accept a new set of duties? Because, in essence, their new roles would still make them fundamentally important to the carrying out of Justice.

As representations of unrelenting guilt, the Furies could never have taken part in Athens’ legal system. The constant presence of unrelenting, overwhelming guilt would paralyze a jury, making it impossible for them to make a decision (for fear of making the wrong one). When Athena gives the Furies power over the weather and over childbirth—things that are fundamentally natural—she instead makes them representations of everything that humans and politics cannot control. By constantly pointing to the forces of nature, the Furies would remind humans that they are limited and imperfect.

This is absolutely crucial to an effective legal system. As a reminder of human limitation and imperfection, the Furies can act as a release from the paralyzing guilt that might make a jury incapable of functioning. A juror who recognizes that he is only human and that he might make a mistake is not overwhelmed by that possibility and is thus able to make a decision. It is a principle that emphasizes the necessity of a decision—of a legal system—over the repercussions of occasionally “getting it wrong.” The Furies are thus transformed into the Eumenides–from fury to “good anger,” from forces of vengeance to forces absolutely necessary to the carrying out of justice.

According to Aeschylus, it’s for this reason that the Furies received their new name and were subsequently worshipped in Athens with an extreme amount of reverence (and more than a little righteous fear). Thanks to Athena’s clever thinking, a trio of horrifying monsters whose only purpose was to torture their victims became a trio of worshipped goddesses who worked together with the Polis to ensure the health of a groundbreaking legal system—a legal system that still lives on in many forms today.

Clearly, the Eumenides have been doing a good job.

A Political Woman

by on July 27, 2015

By Van Bryan

Yes, that’s right dear reader. It most certainly wasn’t easy being a woman during the ancient times. The classical age certainly had a lot going for it. After all, it’s been argued that the ancient thinkers laid the foundation for over two thousand years of progress in fields like philosophy, literature, historiography, and theatre.

AspasiaAspasia of Miletus by Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans

However, progressive rights for women would not be listed among these accomplishments. Even in Athens, which was the intellectual and cultural hub of the classical age, women were often relegated to the home. Not allowed an education, the right to vote, or to participate in public discourses, the highest aspiration a woman could reasonably hope to achieve was to become a wife and bear children.

To an extent, we just have to accept that. It is rather easy for us now, blessed with thousands of years of societal evolution, to look back on the classical civilizations and think ourselves above them.

However, it takes a more nuanced mind to recognize that whatever advancements we have made as a species was only made possible because there were brave individuals, sometimes thousands of years in the past, who took the first meager steps toward progress.

Even with all that in consideration, we must realize a woman’s lack of rights in ancient times means that there are very few notable women who pop up on the classical timeline. After all, it’s hard to shape the direction of Western society when you are viewed as little more than property.

The ones who do catch the attention of history, therefore, are made all the more remarkable. Aspasia of Miletus was one such woman.

She is perhaps best described as a political woman who possessed a knack for rhetoric, a taste for philosophy, and the ear and heart of the most powerful statesman of classical Athens.

Aspasia was venerated and denigrated by the ancient writers. Viewed by some as a shrewd political player, by others as nothing more than a harlot, it was said that she was the lover of Pericles, the great aunt of Alcibiades, the supposed author of Pericles’ famous “funeral oration”, she was even reported to have taught Socrates a few lessons in philosophical argumentation!

Aspasia paintingAspasia by Henry Holiday

Even though all of our sources on this mysterious woman are less than reliable, perhaps even down right fallacious, the fact that such controversy surrounds her makes her a prime candidate for our inspection, and perhaps even admiration.

It was said that Aspasia was born to the historically important island of Miletus off the coast of Asia Minor sometime in the early fifth century BC. She must have been born to a wealthy family, for it is reported that she received a first-rate education, a rare thing for a woman in ancient times. It is important to note that these two statements are the only two pieces of universal concord surrounding Aspasia. That isn’t to say that everything else is hearsay, but it sure isn’t historical fact. We are just going to have to take a leap of faith on this one.

Anyway…where was I? Oh, yes!

We can be rather certain that Aspasia traveled to Athens sometime around 440 BC. One hypothesis suggests that she made the journey while in the company of her sister and new brother-in-law, Alcibiades II (grandfather to the famous general of the same name). If this hypothesis were true, it would explain how Aspasia came to know Pericles, a man who had close ties to the Alcibiades family.

Once in Athens, it is believed that Aspasia became a hetaerae (ἑεταίρα) and probably ran a brothel. Hetairai (plural form of hetaerae) were not common prostitutes. Rather, they were highly educated, highly sophisticated courtesans who would have been skilled at dance, song, conversation, and would have likely been present in the inner circles of powerful, affluent men.

Hetairai were probably the closest thing to liberated women during this time. They were allowed to pursue education, engage in civic debate, they even paid taxes! Additionally, Aspasia had the advantage of being a foreigner. This meant she was forbidden to marry an Athenian citizen. A consequence of this was that Aspasia would not have been bogged down by the restrictions placed upon married women.

She was free, therefore, to explore the societal landscape of the Athenian elite, and explore she most certainly did.

Aspasia is perhaps best remembered as the lover of Pericles. After the famed Athenian general divorced his first wife, he came to live with Aspasia. And while it is assumed that the two were never married, we do know that Aspasia gave Pericles a son who was bestowed with his father’s name.

PericlesPericles was the dominant statesman of the age and was said to have loved Aspasia

While we might assume that the statesman was attracted to Aspasia for her physical beauty, Plutarch tells us that he truly loved the woman and devoted himself entirely to her.

“…he (Pericles) took Aspasia, and loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the market-place, he saluted and kissed her.” –Plutarch (Life of Pericles)

It is suggested, however, that Pericles might have been too devoted to Aspasia. It is likely that she advised, or otherwise persuaded, Pericles to take specific actions within his role as Stratego (general). Plutarch seems to believe that Pericles might have been motivated to declare war on the island of Samos simply because they were attacking Aspasia’s hometown of Miletus.

“Pericles, however, was particularly charged with having proposed to the assembly the war against the Samians, from favour to the Milesians, upon the entreaty of Aspasia.” –Plutarch (Life of Pericles)

While in the company of Pericles, it was said that Aspasia’s home became something of a hub for prominent Athenian figures. Generals, poets, even the philosopher Socrates was said to have visited Aspasia and Pericles’ home on a number of occasions.

Aspasia’s connection to Socrates is significant, because there is evidence to suggest that she might have been one of the philosophers first, and best, teachers in the art of rhetoric. Plato says as much within his dialogue, Menexenus.

“That I should be able to speak is no great wonder, Menexenus, considering that I have an excellent mistress in the art of rhetoric,—she who has made so many good speakers, and one who was the best among all the Hellenes.” –Socrates (Plato’s Menexenus)

It is even suggested within this dialogue that Aspasia, not Pericles, was the true author of the now famous “funeral oration”, found within the pages of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

“I heard Aspasia composing a funeral oration about these very dead. For she had been told, as you were saying, that the Athenians were going to choose a speaker, and she repeated to me the sort of speech which he should deliver, partly improvising and partly from previous thought, putting together fragments of the funeral oration which Pericles spoke, but which, as I believe, she composed.” –Socrates (Plato’s Menexenus)

We must consider the possibility that Plato’s use of Aspasia in this dialogue was intended as a humorous device. The idea of a woman teaching rhetoric to a man? Ha! How fanciful!

Aspasia paintingAspasia and philosophers by Michel II Corneille

Still, the fact that Plato felt Aspasia’s name was worthy of mentioning at all speaks volumes for the type of reputation she must have had as a rhetorician.

Additionally, there are other sources that claim Aspasia was well versed in what would become known as Socratic dialogue, and may even have taught Socrates a thing or two about winning an argument.

Cicero tells us that Aspasia might have been the one to teach Socrates the rhetorical tool Inductio, or getting people to agree to a statement by having them agree previously to similar statements.

Cicero writes of a supposed conversation between Aspasia, a man named Xenophon (not the historian), and Xenophon’s wife.

“Please tell me, wife of Xenophon, if your neighbour had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?”
“That one, ” she replied.

“Now, if she had dresses and other feminine finery more expensive than you have, would you prefer yours or hers?”

“Hers, of course,” she replied.

“Well now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?”

At this the woman blushed. But Aspasia then began to speak to Xenophon. “I wish you would tell me, Xenophon,” she said, “if your neighbour had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?”

“His” was his answer.

“And if he had a better farm than you have, which farm would your prefer to have?”

“The better farm, naturally,” he said.

“Now if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?”

And at this Xenophon, too, himself was silent.
Then Aspasia: “Since both of you have failed to tell me the only thing I wished to hear, I myself will tell you what you both are thinking. That is, you, madam, wish to have the best husband, and you, Xenophon, desire above all things to have the finest wife. Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men.” –Cicero (De Inventione)

 

By having her listeners assent to questions with similar circumstances, she entraps her opponent into conceding a later, sometimes embarrassing, admission that proves her point. This was a technique that Socrates would make famous several years later.

Aspasia paintingAspasia and Socrates by Nicolas André Monsiau

It is perhaps unsurprising that Aspasia, with her keen political mind and ability to outmaneuver men during conversation, would garner some personal attacks.

Plutarch tells us in Life of Pericles that the Athenian comic playwright Cratinus referred to Aspasia as “a harlot” in one of his plays. Additionally, she was put on trial by the comedian Hermippus. She was accused of impiety and of corrupting the women of Athens with her strange and unhealthy life style.

Interestingly, these charges were remarkably similar to the ones lodged against Socrates in 399 BC. Unlike Socrates, Aspasia was saved from execution by a rare emotional outburst from Pericles.

Other ancient critics, Plutarch only refers to them as “some of the Megarians”, believed that many of Pericles’ military blunders were actually the fault of Aspasia. A woman, after all, ought to have no place in military affairs!

It is suggested, however, by the author and modern historian Madeline Henry that Aspasia’s critics would have had their own personal reasons for attacking the outspoken woman. After all, a political woman in the age of classical Athens was a subject of great frustration for many powerful men.

Even with her critics, Aspasia enjoys a sterling reputation in our modern age. She was arguably one of the most important intellectual figures during the height of Athenian power, and she was undoubtedly the most remarkable woman to have ever lived during that age.

She is perhaps best described by Lucian in his a Portrait Study

“We could choose no better model of wisdom than Milesian Aspasia, the admired of the admirable ‘Olympian'; her political knowledge and insight, her shrewdness and penetration, shall all be transferred to our canvas in their perfect measure.

 

Caligula’s Contribution

by on July 27, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—not many people are familiar with the name, but very, very many are familiar with the man. We know him by his nickname, his debauchery, and his thirst for blood: Rome’s third emperor, Caligula.

CaligulaThe tales of Caligula’s excesses are well known and have led many scholars to believe that the young emperor was severely deranged—some even call him insane. After all, we’re talking about the man who, if ancient scholars are to be believed, was planning to name his beloved horse consul (the highest and most coveted position on the Roman Senate). We’re talking about the man who allegedly carried on a love-affair with his own youngest sister, brazenly, in front of her husband. We’re talking about the man who made senators trot alongside his litter, made the battle-hardened Roman Legion pick up seashells on the coast of the English Channel, and generally spilled rivers of blood arbitrarily, wherever he went.

Clearly, Caligula wasn’t all there.

If he wasn’t insane, then at the very least we can say that the power of his station—which he took at the young age of twenty-five—severely went to his head.

However, it may be surprisingly difficult to argue that Caligula’s excess was all bad for Rome.

His constant pursuit of luxury, his need to display absolute power and superiority, and his complete lack of compunctions when it came to spending taxpayer money, actually led to incredible advancements in Roman invention and engineering. It wasn’t until the evidence of these advancements was found—buried in silt at the bottom of a mile-wide lake—that modern archeologists and scholars understood the true capabilities of Roman thinkers (thinkers under pressure, I might add—you could be killed for mentioning a goat in Caligula’s presence, let alone trying to tell him that his demands were impossible).

What they found at the bottom of that lake left modern archeologists speechless—and essentially rewrote history.

And nearly all of it existed—was created and expertly fashioned—because Caligula wanted a yacht.

LiburnianArtist’s depiction of a Roman Liburnian

History tells us that Caligula had a great love of anything having to do with ships and the sea. It’s through the writings of Caligula’s biographer, Suetonius, that we learn of Caligula’s frequent spending on custom-made ships, though he starts small—according to Suetonius, Caligula ordered the construction of an extravagant Liburnian, a light and fast galley that was part pirate-ship and part sailboat, in which he enjoyed lazy mornings on the water between Rome and the Bay of Naples.

But, as with most things Caligula loved, he needed more. He wanted a much bigger boat, a lavish, palatial pleasure ship that would not only rival, but far surpass the enormous royal barges of the Hellenistic world, particularly those of the Ptolemaic kings in Egypt.

With this goal in mind, he summoned engineers from the Roman naval headquarters and with their help designed two enormous, unusual ships, both of which were to be constructed near and eventually released upon Lake Nemi.

NemiCaligula already had a great deal of attachment to this tiny, secluded volcanic lake. Nearly nineteen miles south of Rome, Lake Nemi was an ideally quiet, relaxing spot which Caligula could visit to escape the oppressive heat of a Roman summer. The lake, known in Caligula’s time as “Diana’s mirror,” was also considered a sacred site to the goddess Diana, with whom Caligula was relatively infatuated. Her mysterious cult, which practiced ritual sex and allegedly performed human sacrifices, was the perfect mixture of sexy and bloody for Rome’s perverse young emperor. Well before he ordered the construction of his Nemi ships, Caligula had already built himself a luxurious villa at the edge of the lake, very close to the sanctuary of Diana on its shore. For Caligula, the construction of enormous, extravagant vessels on which he could relax in the middle of his favorite lake, instead of just on its shores, was the logical next step.

nemi shipsElectronic recreation of the Nemi ships

Why two ships? In keeping with his devotion to the goddess Diana, Caligula designed the first ship to be a floating temple dedicated to her worship. The second was a little more casual—it was meant to be used for pure luxury and relaxation, a floating villa on which Caligula could entertain his friends and perform any other sort of debauchery. Each ship, when completed, was about the size of a football field—so that, just as Caligula planned, the two barges together dominated the small lake.

bronze fittingsBronze fittings recovered from the ships

According to Suetonius, Caligula spared no expense for his floating palaces. The barges were made of expensive cedar wood with elegantly fashioned bronze fittings, cast in the detailed shapes of animals, satyrs, and fauns. The sails were made of purple silk, the floors were covered in priceless mosaics and had a heating system resembling those present in the Roman Baths, and the decorations were made of gold, silver, and alabaster. There was even running water—hot and cold.

Even more impressive is the number of technological marvels on the ship—mini machines and inventions that made Caligula’s demands possible, and could have changed the course of history. That is, until the barges sank to the murky bottom of the lake—by orders of the Roman Senate.

After Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D. after just four years of rule (what some historians call his “Reign of Terror”), the brow-beaten Senate began a process which scholars call a de facto damnatio memoriae, or a damnatio memoirae–a “damnation of memory,” in the sense that all evidence of a person ever having existed will be destroyed—that takes place somewhat erratically, without an official declaration of intent. Clearly Caligula was not systematically erased from history, but the Senate did order the destruction of the most flamboyant examples of his extravagance, including the beautiful Nemi ships.

nemi shipsOne of the ships after it was recovered from the lake

For hundreds of years the Nemi ships lay forgotten at the bottom of lake, almost completely buried in silt. It wasn’t until 1932 that the ships were finally recovered, under orders from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini—whose government undertook the project as part of a push to connect Mussolini’s regime with the glory of imperial Rome. It took about five years in total to recover the ships (and basically required the partial and temporary draining of Lake Nemi), but what archeologists saw when they finally got to examine the barges made their jaws drop.

NemiThey found, among other things, a wooden anchor in the Admiralty Pattern style (the shape with which most people are familiar today), which was thought to have been invented in the 18th Century until the anchor at Nemi was discovered. They found expertly fashioned bronze water taps which were used to control the flow of water into the ships’ storage tanks and which appeared so modern in design that archeologists actually had the taps tested to prove that they came from the same time period as the ships. The taps were so well made that even after hundreds of years buried at the bottom of the lake, they nonetheless produced a water-tight seal—in fact, similar designs are still in use by modern companies today.

The remains of hand operated pumps that used air pressure to move water were extremely technically advanced, as were the chain-and-bucket “waterwheels” that were used to remove excess water from the bilges (the bilge being the lowest part of the ship where the two sides meet below the waterline).

Nemi bearingsA seemingly insignificant find that proved to be astonishing was that of a circular platform with embedded lead ball bearings. Ball bearings were thought to have been invented by Leonardo Da Vinci during the Renaissance, but the ball bearings found at the bottom of Lake Nemi predated Da Vinci by a full fourteen-hundred years. Most scholars believe that they were created by Caligula’s engineers in order to satisfy the emperor’s demand for a rotating statue of Diana—the life-sized statue would sit on the wooden platform, which would rotate slowly thanks to a mechanism below-deck and the ball bearings, producing the desired “wow effect” among Caligula’s guests.

These are just a few of the technological marvels found onboard Caligula’s Nemi ships—marvels that made us reexamine what we thought about history and Roman naval engineering. Many historians believe that it was a mistake to sink the Nemi ships in the first place, no matter how angry the Senate was at Caligula. The desire to forget the despotic and sadistic emperor also led to the forgetting of impressive technologies that, for all intents and purposes, had to be “reinvented” centuries later.

museumOne of the ships inside the Nemi Museum

A large museum was built on the shores of Lake Nemi to house the incredibly well-preserved ships; but, sadly, visitors and archeologists only got fifteen years to enjoy the ships and examine their secrets. During World War II, the ships were burned to cinders, either by American artillery fire or retreating German troops. Only a few pieces of wood, bronze, and miraculously, the original anchor, survive.

The museum, however, still stands, with its hangar-like rooms serving as a testament to the massive size of the original ships. Sketches, photographs, recreations of certain machines, and one-fifth scale models of the ships are still on display for the public. The town of Nemi and the museum are also working together to slowly fund and build a life-size recreation of one of the ships, which is being assembled right outside the museum.

Caligula may have been crazy, then—or at least wildly immature—but his constant need to display his wealth and power resulted in technological marvels that, had they not been erased from history, may have completely changed the path (and our modern perception) of Roman naval engineering. And, if the ships had not been destroyed so soon after being pulled from the depths of Lake Nemi, who knows what we might have learned about Rome and Caligula?

If anything, the Nemi ships—their construction and destruction twice-over—teach us that we still have much more to learn.

The Mausoleum of Augustus: Propaganda, Deification and Dynasty

by on July 16, 2015

By Ben Potter

The story of Augustus (née Octavian) is one of those tales from the classical world familiar even to those whom do not routinely ‘leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime’.

Though we’re all well aware of the impressive résumé of the protagonist of HBO’s Rome, let’s quickly recap a few of his highlights:

- Claims descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas and the goddess Venus

– Adopted son and heir of the murdered then deified Julius Caesar

– Avenged said father with the help of swaggering ladies’ man Marc Antony

– Defeated said philanderer and his Egyptian girlfriend, Cleopatra, for control of The Greatest Empire the World has Ever Known (TM)

Augustus
Pretty impressive stuff. But what then? Prosperity, expansion, peace, stability, wealth, high morality, art, literature, incredible public services and, perhaps most importantly, a constant supply of food are but some of the boasts the princeps could make from his tenure as emperor.

But this is small fry… it seems clear that Augustus had big plans for himself, and indeed for Rome’s future. Plans that would only truly take seed on 19th August 14AD – the date on which Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus’ long and illustrious life finally came to an end.

What came next was Augustus’ crowning glory; deification and a hand-picked succession.

In the first part, deification cemented the emperor’s position as not merely one of the greatest men to have ever lived, but as something more: something eternal, ethereal, indissoluble and, literally, supernatural.

The second part gave Augustus what had been denied to that Macedonian meteorite, Alexander the Great: a dynasty! A dynasty not only in the sense of emperors, rather than senators, ruling Rome (the very hubris for which Julius Caesar had been assassinated), but also in that those emperors were of Julio-Claudian bloodline.

Though there were obviously many facets that went into securing this improbable and impressive duel feat, one of the finest examples of Augustus’ devotion to securing both his terrestrial and celestial legacies is his impressive Mausoleum.

The gargantuan structure (87 metres in diameter and 40 metres high) was built on the Campus Martius (field of Mars), and would have dominated the landscape of Rome from the Tiber to the Via Flaminia.

MausoleumWhat the Mausoleum would have looked like in its time

Almost everything about this impressive monument seemed designed to fulfill the two above goals – as well as reinforce the two invariable and continuous aims of the regime, i.e. to legitimize and glorify itself.

The location of the Mausoleum was no coincidence, but carefully planned to gain maximum effect. The Campus Martius was not merely an ancient and sacred area of the city, but was especially reserved as the final resting place of exceptional citizens.

In hindsight this seems the most natural place in the world for the first, and possibly greatest, Roman emperor to be buried, but ground was broken on the Mausoleum as early as 28BC, only three years after the battle of Actium (in which Antony was defeated) and, crucially, a year before Augustus became emperor – while he was still only Mr. Octavian, consul of Rome.

This bold move, a move that had unequivocal echoes of the thing Romans hated most of all, Hellenistic-style kingship, would have caused a bedewing of the armpits on even the most lightly-knit senatorial togas.

That such an abode was a fitting resting place for a god may well have been an instinctive reaction upon seeing it. However, the link to dynasty was a shade subtler as, though invariably referred to as the Mausoleum of Augustus, the tomb was in fact designed to house the entire imperial family. The significance of this is that anyone related to the emperor (by blood or adoption) would be automatically given a burial on a site previously reserved only for those who had made an outstanding contribution to the state.

MausoleumA diagram of the Mausoleum, viewed from above

The design of the building was also significant; not only in its regal and hubristic scale which would surely have delivered the message ‘I have conquered’ to the average awe-struck plebeian (and, indeed, senator), but also because it was, extremely unusually for the time, circular.

Though it’s possible the tomb’s style was a mere coincidence, a personal preference or a passing whim, it’s hard to imagine that a politician as adept as Augustus would have neglected the connotations such a building brings up.

It’s thought that the Mausoleum was round either to evoke Etruscan architecture and therefore possibly (and rather riskily) make an association to the old kings of Rome, or otherwise to reinforce the idea that Augustus was of Trojan lineage; an oblique nod to Homer’s Iliad in which such structures are mentioned.

MausoleumAll that is left of the Mausoleum today is its core

If it seems improbable that the Roman public could have swallowed such a flagrant piece of regal self-aggrandizement, it’s worth considering that they may have been placated by the notion that a king, if a Roman king, is still better than an Egyptian one.

Augustus’ daring decision to build a gigantic tomb for himself and his family while only in his thirties was a stark message that he not only intended to serve Rome during his life, but also to remain truly Roman after his death. This message of posthumous permanence and loyalty was in stark contrast to that of Marc Antony who stated in his will (illegally acquired and published by Augustus) that he wished to be buried alongside Cleopatra in Egypt.

Thus the tomb was not merely a symbol of loyalty, but also a contrast to the burial chamber of a vanquished and ‘foreign’ foe. It would have taken a very, very brave senator, especially if he’d previously been sympathetic to Antony, to raise his voice against this patriotic exhibition.

The question of loyalty would have been further forced home by the pair of pillars outside the entrance of the Mausoleum upon which were inscribed a copy of the Res Gestae. This was a self-penned manuscript Augustus wrote outlining his achievements (i.e. what he had done for Rome) as well as reminding everyone that technically he did not have any supreme power, but merely ‘surpassed others in influence’.

However, the icing on the cake was the Solarium, a gigantic sundial built next to the Mausoleum, the needle of which was an Egyptian obelisk – a blatant message to the people of Rome to remember upon which side their bread was buttered.

N.B. Another great work of Augustan propaganda, the Ara Pacis, would later complete this tripartite of imperial glorification. Unfortunately the eminently believable and utterly charming hypothesis that the dial cast a shadow on the Ara Pacis on Augustus’ birthday is unverifiable.

Though Augustus obviously wasn’t there to witness his own interment he probably had a pretty good idea of what went on, as he’d left three sealed scrolls with the Vestal Virgins (the same lovely girls from whom he’d purloined Antony’s will) giving instructions for the order of the day.

Though we’ve no idea if what occurred was in line with Augustus’ wishes, it seems more than likely that it was.

AugustusAlong with plenty of ivory, purple (the most precious thing in the ancient world) and gold, including a golden likeness of Augustus, almost everything at the funeral was contrived to ensure the deceased was seen as someone in mid-apotheosis – an eagle was even released from the burning pyre – and that his heir, Tiberius, would be next in line to the throne of Rome.

According to Tacitus, Tiberius himself was the one to ‘provide for the last honors of his father, whose body he could not leave’; an excellent image of power smoothly changing hands. Moreover, the fact that the two eulogies were read by Tiberius and his own heir, Drusus, shows a distinct hierarchy was already in place.

The Mausoleum was a monument of subtle balance, not necessarily architecturally, but in terms of the relationship between hated kingship – that which Antony had sought – and loyal and traditional Roman values – to which Augustus ‘aspired’.

The great success of the Mausoleum was that, for all of its regal evocation, it technically did not overstep that deplorable line. In contrast the towering Egyptian obelisk would have left no doubt as to Antony’s kingly intentions.

That such a vast and splendid structure could contain an iota of subtlety is testimony to the shrewd and fertile mind of Augustus, a man whose great intellect foresaw that ‘the hand that wields the knife shall never wear the crown’.

However, Augustus had no desire for the crown, only for the powers that went with it, the knowledge that they would be passed on to his chosen successor, and (because why stop when you’re on a roll?) that he would be able to oversee Tiberius from his lofty perch alongside the other gods of the Roman pantheon.