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The Death of Socrates…and the State that Killed Him

by July 25, 2017

by Anya Leonard

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest of them all. It is usually considered unwise, however, to publicly attack the political class and humiliate their intellect, capability and righteousness. This is particularly true when the government is in a weakened and, therefore, volatile position. Why then would Socrates, nobel pillar of wisdom, stand up to a system that would eventually, inevitably, murder him?

The old philosopher was not the first to provoke the hostilities of the state at the wrong time…nor would he be the last.

One only has to think of the modern day dissenters, the infamous ‘whistleblowers’, to know the powers that be do not like to be exposed. If an individual has the gumption to reveal undesired truths, uncomfortable realities, the state will react…swiftly and with its own brand of “justice.” In the case of our contemporaries, that may mean being indefinitely detained without trial or cooped up in the ecuadorian embassy. For Socrates, it resulted in a sham indictment and a death sentence for a 70 year old man.

Like our modern examples, Socrates committed an error of inconvenient honesty in a declining empire. For this, he would pay the ultimate price.

Socrates portrait

Bust of Socrates

The trial of Socrates took place in the year 399 B.C. – a mere 5 years after the fall of Attica by Spartan spear and pluck. The Golden Age of Athens came to a brutal and disappointing end. Socrates himself had been unpopular for a substantial amount of time already, and yet no one saw him as a legitimate threat until after the Peloponnesian war had done its damage.

In 423 B.C., for instance, Aristophanes authored his famous satirical play, The Clouds. It was produced a full 24 years before the trial of Socrates. Here the playwright unfairly characterized Socrates as a despised Sophist, one charging a fee for his services. He also drew the philosopher as, ironically, a pre-socratic thinker, questioning the earth below him and the sky above. But no one threw Socrates in jail then. The poet, politicians and craftsmen had been humiliated but, critically, the state’s safety was not yet at stake. It is the failing empires, self-conscious at their weakening power, that happily suspend justice to muffle dissenting voices.

Which makes us ask once more, why would Socrates, or anyone, speak against such a crumbling authority?

Bradley Manning, who was accused of releasing damning and dishonorable pictures and videos of his own government, may have furnished a response to a similar question in an online chat:1

“If you had free reign over classified networks…” he is said to have written, “and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, DC … what would you do?

“God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Julian Assange, the controversial figure behind online transparency activist group, Wikileaks, identified a similar goal:

“You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion”. 2

It appears the pursuit of truth, the desire to follow what one believes is good, is nothing new.

We can’t know for sure, of course, but it seems that Socrates was spurred on by similar feelings, at least according to Plato’s description of the final trial. In Plato’s earliest dialogue, The Apology, written shortly after Socrates’ execution, the student rises to his mentor’s defense. He ensured that Socrates’ attackers look petty and capricious, while the philosopher king appears noble, defiant and unwavering.

The piece begins with Socrates pledging to speak clearly, truthfully and without the high flown speech, for which his opposition is famous. Importantly, he does not apologize, though the name of the text would suggest as much. The title actually derives from the Greek word “apologia,” which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. The dialogue concerns Socrates attempt to defend himself and his conduct, not to say sorry.

The philosopher sets himself apart immediately and without compromise. He then proceeds to explain the root of the situation: The Delphic oracle had essentially crowned him the smartest man. In disbelief, Socrates set out to prove this wrong by finding men more intelligent than himself. What he found, however, were pompous busybodies who enjoyed speaking at length on things they did not know. Socrates found that through a series of questions, he could easily reveal their ignorance, something no one’s pride takes easily. Eventually he concluded that yes, he could be the wisest man, simply due to the fact that he knows that he knows nothing.

Socrates then address the charges against him – that he had corrupted the youth and acted impiously. With albeit imperfect logic, he proceeds with the elenchus, or cross-examination, against Meletus, the man primarily responsible for bringing Socrates before the jury. If the youth have been corrupted, then why are his pupils here on his side, along with their relatives? Importantly, he references Plato as one of his pupils.

Socrates then makes the analogy that he is a gadfly and the state is a fat and lazy horse. A bloated thoroughbred that has enjoyed too many comforts and would sleep forever, if the gadfly did not do its duty the keep the horse awake.

At no time does Socrates plead for mercy, ask for forgiveness or beg the judges for leniency. Eventually the ballot is cast and, by a close margin, Socrates is found guilty. After a little deliberation the sentence is set: death.

Still, even now, Socrates stays true to his position, defiant in his apologia and sure of his virtue. When asked why he should follow any pursuit that may result in death, Socrates responded:

“You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.” 3

But if one were to imagine that Socrates was unwise by confronting a goliath much larger than him, they would prove to be the foolish one. The truth is that Socrates never wanted to face the political body. That is why he didn’t join the public life. Instead, he always spoke to individuals. Facing the government would only mean death.

“…for you may be quite sure, men of Athens, that if I had undertaken to go into politics, I should have been put to death long ago and should have done no good to you or to myself. And do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state.”4

And so, Socrates chose to address the individual rather than purposefully face the state…until, of course, the state found him. Maybe this is why Socrates reached the ripe old age of 70. As for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, it’s too early to tell.

Socrates did, ultimately, accept the punishment of death. There is no reason to fear what we do not know, he argued. A point that might have comforted him as he marched into the great unknown beyond this life. Perhaps, reflecting on the years he had already lived, Socrates welcomed a memorable end.

Maybe it is the death of socrates that makes his life, his search for truth, so well known…the sort of pursuit that can inspire individuals thousands of years on.

 

1. http://firedoglake.com/merged-manning-lamo-chat-logs/
2. “Julian Assange, monk of the online age who thrives on intellectual battle”. The Guardian. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/aug/01/julian-assange-wikileaks-afghanistan) 2010-08-01. Retrieved on 2010-08-01.
3. 28b, The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
4. 31d – 31e, , The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

The Death of Socrates … and the State that Killed Him was written by Anya Leonard

Emperor Trump?

by November 18, 2016

NEW YORK- “How’s everything with you post election?” our fearless leader, Anya Leonard, wrote to us on Wednesday morning.

We look out the window. Sun still shining.

We glance over our shoulder. Dog still napping on the couch.

We pick up a piece of paper, drop it, and watch it waft slowly to the floor. Laws of physics still behaving normally.

That’s a start…

All of our well-meaning liberal friends predicted utter chaos should Emperor Trump take the throne.

‘What sort of chaos?’ we wondered.

Would the Spartans tear down our city walls?

Would Rome burn anew while Donald tuned his fiddle?

Would the Visigoths storm the city, desecrate our monuments and make off with our women?

Since none of that has happened (yet) we’d like to think we’re getting off okay. You know…all things considered.

#NotMyCaesar

There may be celebration in “fly over America” where The Donald is heralded as an American hero, but the bicoastal citizens view him as tantamount to the devil.

“What the f*** is wrong with you?” bemoaned Silicon Valley investor, Dave McClure during a web summit in Lisbon last Wednesday. There is now a very real effort to have California secede from the American Republic.

Protests erupted across Manhattan following the election announcement. They congregated in Union Square and clogged up much of 5th avenue. We got caught up in the madness and had to find a different way home.

#NotMyPresident was trending as of Wednesday morning. We stop for a minute and wonder how it is that our forefathers every expressed their outrage without the advent of hash tags. How quickly would Caesar been assassinated if #NotMyEmperor had been trending in ancient Rome? How did the American founders possibly revolt without 140 characters and #NoTaxationWithoutRepresentation @BostonHarbor #TeaParty?

I guess we’ll never know…

But dear reader, you don’t pay us to cheer for the winners or howl alongside the losers. In fact, you don’t pay us at all! Which makes our observations on this matter worth at least what you pay for them.

That being said, we always viewed The Donald with guilty fascination; the way you might view a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass or a flaming garbage truck barreling through a retirement home.

He’s a scoundrel; it’s true. We even wondered, despite backlash from readers, if he might just be a tyrant. The man lacks the eloquence of Pericles or the philosophical mind of Marcus Aurelius, but he’s captured the hearts and minds of the everyman. He promises eternal glory to the empire. In that regard, perhaps Trump’s a Cesar-like leader: bold, brash, beloved. Will the Senators stab him to death?

Time will tell.

But back to the abovementioned anger.

The justification for the outrage, or so we glean, is that HRC seems to have won the popular vote. That is to say more of the unwashed voters pulled the Clinton lever. It was the Electoral College, not the popular vote, which delivered Trump his win.

“The man lacks the eloquence of Pericles or the philosophical mind of Marcus Aurelius, but he’s captured the hearts and minds of the everyman. He promises eternal glory to the empire.”

N.B. Our international readers, as well as any American readers who skipped American Gov 101, might want to brush up on the Electoral College. Try here.

“The Electoral College has outlived its usefulness,” reads a very real petition to abolish the whole shebang, “It is part of the constitution, written when communication was by pony express.”

Has the Electoral College outlived its usefulness?

A lot of our millennial friends seem sure that the answer is ‘yes’.

At Classical Wisdom, we’re never sure or unsure about anything, but always questioning. Like Socrates, we’ve only ever claimed to know nothing, and not once have we failed to live up to that standard.

But since we’re here, let’s get into it.

Tyranny Arises out of Democracy

If you want to see the consequences of a direct democracy, look no further than classical Athens.

marcus aurelius

Athens is heralded as the cradle of democracy. The caveat being that said democracy was very much a work in progress. While democracy was popular with the demos (the people) it was far from perfect. Just for starters- Socrates was executed as a result of a democratic vote. So were numerous generals and treasurers during the Peloponnesian War.

The people of Athens continuously voted for more and more military campaigns against neighboring states following the end of the Greco-Persian Wars in the early 5th century BC.

And why not?

Money was pouring in from plundered states, the citizens had regular work as oarsmen on the military Triremes (warships), and the Generals were being heralded with untold amounts of glory (political capital).

Never mind that such events led to the Peloponnesian War between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan coalition of the Peloponnese. The war would ultimately conclude with the destruction of the Athenian city wall and a brief suspension of democracy itself.

The philosopher Plato so despised democracy that he would later make the bold claim that democracy could lead only to tyranny.

Or, from the man himself…

And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.

The Republic, Book VIII

 

Elected Despotism

The American framers opted to avoid such an outcome by attempting to create, at least on paper, a democratic republic that would restrain both the conniving tendencies of politics and the winner-take-all demands of, as Madison put it in Federalist 10, “an interested and overbearing majority.”

The American founders took a page from the Roman historian, Polybius and crafted a government of “mixed regime.” Much in the way that the Roman Republic attempted to balance power between the Consuls, Senators and the people, so too did the American framers hope to stabilize the country through the checks and balances of federal branches.

And as for the “over bearing majority”, the Electoral College was created to keep them in check and avoid the mob rule of a direct election.

The obvious kicker being, and some of you might already know this, the original Electoral College system is not used today.

Originally, the Constitution allowed citizens do elect “electors” who could then deliberate and discern the wisest candidate and vote in turn on the citizens behalf.

From Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution…

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

 

These electors were supposed to be impartial, free agents who could discern the true qualifications needed for the office of Presidency and vote for a candidate who exemplified such qualities.

But in the early 1800s this plan was effectively scrapped. The electors became “voluntary party lackeys and intellectual nonentities.” The electors bowed down to the wishes of the party and the state, without the bother of impartial deliberation.

N.B. the above quote is from Chief Justice Robert Jackson, Ray v. Blair, dissent, 1952

This trend continued until the original Electoral College was replaced with the general ticket that we know today. It was not, and this is just between us chickens, the original intention of the classically-minded men who were very aware of the ebbs and flows of history; men who would have been educated in the classical ideas of the ancient world’s most prolific thinkers.

Even still, would reverting to this original system indeed give us the wise and just rulers that we so deserve? More likely it would be a replay of the massive outrage seen during the Democratic primaries when people figured out precisely what a Super Delegate actually was.

To paraphrase Churchill, democracy is the worst system of government… except for all the others.

Democracy is an experiment originating in the classical age. It was, at the start, a work in progress.

Maybe it still is.

Ego is Your Enemy

by October 14, 2016

This month we have been occupied with politics- discussing politics, reading The Politics, mourning the state of politics, writing about aforementioned lamentation of politics.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

No answers for certain.

Maybe your editor is a masochist. If you’re a long-time sufferer of our scribblings, then that also makes us a sadist.

This week, we continued the self-flagellation of our soul and listened to the vice presidential debate here in the States.

“So… this won’t be like the last one, right?” our girlfriend inquires with us. “These guys are like…normal people…right?”

We hate to be the one to break it to her, but figure she’s got to learn sooner or later.

“No, honey. They’re not normal people. They’re politicians.”

The Big ‘So What?’

This week, we turn away from politics, cross our fingers, and hope that the demos (people) don’t ruin the polis (State) while our back is turned.

But that isn’t to say that we aren’t talking about important stuff. Far from it!

Before putting any ink to parchment (digital ink on digital parchment, mind you) your editor always considers what we have affectionately dubbed “the big ‘so what?’”

Why should you care? Will reading this week’s newsletter make our subscribers better, smarter, more introspective people?

Or will their eyes glaze over as soon as the edition hits the inbox?

I once had a fellow university student ask me if he could contribute to our weekly mailings. He wanted to submit part of his term paper that focused on the plausibility of the Aristotelian understanding of sense organs.

“Needs more applicability,” we told him.

“Applicability? Never heard of that philosopher.”

You get the point…

The biggest hurdle your editor faces, since our beat is the ancient classics, is contending with the big ‘so what?’ Most people assume that the wisdom of classical antiquity is just that…antiquated.

The classics, most assume, might be right at home in a smoking parlor where Reginald and Irving sew elbow patches on their tweed jackets and pontificate through billowing clouds of pipe smoke.

(Click here to read our previous writings on the fictional Reginald and Irving)

But what of the hearts and minds of those of us here in the real world? The mortgage payer? The soccer mom? The entrepreneur with the scrappy young startup?

Is there room in their lives for the classics?

We think so… and we’re not the only ones.

Ego Is The Enemy

Your editor keeps busy most days, but we put aside some time this week to crack open Ego Is the Enemy, a new book from the New York Time’s bestselling author, and occasional Classical Wisdom contributor, Ryan Holiday.

…ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.

-Ryan Holiday (Ego Is The Enemy)

 

If you caught that classical reference at the end, there’s a reason for it. As Ryan puts it, “Like my other books, this one is deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy and indeed all the great classical thinkers.”

Ryan’s a man after our own heart- a writer who uses the wisdom of antiquity to inspire and cultivate the life of the modern citizen.

Most good ideas are old ideas, and the idea that our ego is the enemy is not just old…it’s ancient!

Hate Those Who Flatter

Ego Is The Enemy opens the first chapter by mentioning the ancient essayist and philosopher, Isocrates.

“Sometime around the year 374 B.C., Isocrates, one of the most well-known teachers and rhetoricians in Athens, wrote a letter to a young man named Demonicus. Isocrates had been a friend of the boy’s recently deceased father and wanted to pass on to him some advice on how to follow his father’s example.”

-Ryan Holiday (Ego Is The Enemy)

 

Thanks, Ryan. We’ll take it from here.

Letter to Demonicus, as the piece is known, is brief by ancient standards. You could read the whole shebang in a few minutes. All the same, the letter is filled with practical advice intended to arm the young man for the years ahead.

Isocrates warns Demonicus to “Hate those who flatter as much as those who deceive, for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.” And that a young man of noble stock should, “Consider that propriety, a sense of shame, justice, and self-control, especially become you; for by all these a young man’s character seems to be adorned.”

Isocrates, in essence, is urging Demonicus to follow the precepts of goodness that would be later propounded by the likes of Socrates and Plato.

Plato believed that the soul was like a chariot, pulled along by two wild horses. The horses represented our desires, both noble and ignoble, and it is only through the skill of a veteran charioteer (wisdom) that we are able to control the direction of the chariot and avoid catastrophe by letting our desires run rampant.

chariot

An ego, left unchecked, has the tendency to lead to disaster and ruin. It is only through the skilled hand of virtue, wisdom, and modesty, that we are able to properly engage our soul in the necessary duties of life.

Ego, as Holiday puts it, is indeed the enemy.

The Internet Has Made You Ignoble

We usually propose that lessons from antiquity are just as important now as they were thousands of years ago. Today’s particular missive is unique in that it’s not just as important, it’s more important now than it’s ever been.

“Isocrates warns Demonicus to ‘Hate those who flatter as much as those who deceive, for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.'”

It has never been easier than it is today to indulge in self-aggrandizement. As Holiday puts it, “Now, more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego.”

We stick out our chest; share our perspective on social media outlets with the assumption that our opinions innately matter. Young people are taught that they, by their mere existence, are special. We are told to follow our dreams and that success is all but guaranteed.

Your editor, anecdotally, has observed old friends sink into depression or mania when the realities of the world come crashing down. They are not rock gods or movie stars by the age of 27 and are therefore cheated out of the future they were promised.

The ego has run amok. The horses have slipped the reins. The charioteer is asleep at the wheel.

If ego is the enemy, then wisdom and modesty are your allies. Our classical forbearers knew this lesson well. Socrates said…

It would be better for me… that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself.

 

Cultivate virtue and wisdom. Learn to, as Isocrates says, “hate flatterers”, and that includes the flatterer within all of us.

How important is the health of a ruler?

by 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.

Claudius
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 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.

empire
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.

temple

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 September 5, 2016

1. Socrates

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

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

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.