Skip to Content

Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life

by on April 17, 2018

Early philosophy in ancient Greece sought to explain the nature of the universe. For instance, there was Thales of Miletus, who held the rather bold belief that the entire universe is made of water in one form or the other. This dramatic delve into the study of metaphysics was very popular with early philosophers and was inevitably built upon and reproduced in various forms.
Ancient SamosBy the time Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the Aegean island of Samos, popular philosophy was shifting emphasis from metaphysics (determining the nature of the universe) to personal ethics. It was a change that was prompted by Socrates some hundred years beforehand. Socrates, through his teachings and lectures, forced individuals to examine basic human values and ethics.
And because of this, people began asking themselves some very profound and fundamental questions. What does it mean to be moral? What is the true nature of human ethics? How should one live their life?
Epicurus sought to answer these questions. His teachings would gain attention for their dramatic departure from commonly held religious beliefs. He was determined to help others comprehend the true purpose of life and come closer to understanding the nature of death.
Epicurus was taught philosophy as a boy by a disciple of Plato on the island of Samos. As a man, he diligently studied the teachings of the atomist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. Epicurus would eventually adopt the view that the entire universe is composed only of atoms and empty space, which is a line of thought that we are more accustomed to.
Epicurus BustEpicurus believed that the universe was logical and behaved with predictable tendencies. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of finding true knowledge through observable, objectively verifiable phenomenon. In this regard his thinking was very similar to the modern scientific method. His beliefs ran counter to the commonly held idea that knowledge can be found through mythology and religion.
This stance was not one that was accepted by much of ancient Greece. It would appear that Epicurus was denying the existence of the gods in favor for a reliance on scientific thought. And indeed, Epicurus is said to have stated, “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to attain by himself”.
Needless to say, this made him rather unpopular.
Keeping in line with his belief that the gods did not determine the course of one’s life, he was also a strong proponent of the idea of free will. To Epicurus, each human was the captain of his or her own ship. You may choose to be virtuous or you may choose to be evil. It is your decision.
But if we are the author of our own stories, then that might seem to put a lot of pressure on an individual. If I am the sole force determining the course of my life, then how should I best lead my life?! Epicurus had an answer for this as well.
What is the goal of life? To Epicurus the goal of living was to find happiness through friendship, living humbly and avoiding pain and anxiety. He believed very strongly that by living peacefully and avoiding fear and pain, we could live fully. To Epicurus, living a virtuous life and a peaceful life were one in the same. This is seen when he states…
Epicurus qupte“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”
A common, and incorrect, assumption of Epicurus was that he promoted finding happiness through material wealth and superficial excess.
Epicurus preached quite the opposite. He believed that the rich man was not the man who has the most, but rather the man who needs the least. He advised us, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”
According to Epicurus, we should all seek a life of knowledge and temperance, surrounded by friends and free from fear and pain. And to Epicurus, there was one obstacle that plagued the hearts of men; it was this one thing that kept us from living a happy and fulfilled life.
Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every life. Epicurus believed that the one thing that was holding people back from truly accomplishing this feat was the fear of death.
The inhabitants of ancient Greece lived in constant fear of the wrath of the Gods. They viewed their mortal life as a temporary condition. Their sins and wrongdoings would be judged harshly by temperamental, vengeful gods. The expectation of pain and torment for eternity at the hands of Thanatos, the terrifying personification of death, was commonplace in ancient Greece.
Epicurus believed that the main obstacle to a fulfilled life was the irrational fear of incurring the wrath of the gods and suffering for eternity in the lair of Hades. We are so preoccupied with fearing death that we refuse to acknowledge life.
Epicurus sought to remedy this. And he did so by explaining the nature of death.
To Epicurus, the entire world was constructed entirely of atoms and empty space. Epicurus reasoned that the human soul could not be constructed of empty space. The consciousness (the soul) interacted very closely, very dynamically with the body. This would mean that the soul was made of atoms, presumably dispersed throughout the body. However these atoms would be fragile. Epicurus taught that at the time of our death, the soul would evaporate entirely.
Death marks the end of consciousness and sensation. This would mean that we would be unable to feel any emotional or physical pain. If we are no longer capable of feeling fear or pain when we decease, then it is foolish to be preoccupied with the notion of death. Epicurus believed that this fear was an obstacle to true happiness in this lifetime. If we could accept death, not ignore it or mystify it, but truly accept it as the end of being, then we could find happiness in this life.

As Epicurus said himself,
Epicurus quote death“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus was viewed as dismissive of religion and therefore disliked by much of Greece. He did however gain a small but very loyal following. He founded a school of philosophy in Athens named “The Garden”, after a garden he enjoyed as a child on the island of Samos.
A stone’s throw from Plato’s Academy, The Garden was one of the first philosophical establishments that welcomed both women and slaves.
Epicureanism, the name for the teachings of Epicurus, would be revisited by contemporary ethical philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The teachings of Epicurus can be heard resounding from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Epicurus lived his life free from a fear of death. He tried to teach others to pursue similar goals. He was a man who knew that he was the master of his own life, the sole captain of his ship. He inspired others to pursue scientific knowledge and to live freely.
True to his teachings, Epicurus described the last day of his life in 270 BCE as ‘a truly happy day.’
“Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life” was written by Van Bryan

The Dangerous Danaids

by on April 13, 2018

By Carly Silver, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Dangerous women

‘Kazen Danaid’ (1785) by Martin Johann Schmidt. Source: Public Domain

The ancient Greeks had no problem painting their mythological women as murderesses. Among the most lethal ladies were the Danaids, the fifty daughters of a king whose crimes condemned them to Sisyphean fates in the Underworld. But what was so bad about them that the Roman poet Horace dubbed these bad girls “Danaus’ seed / Ill-famed”?
The Greek Royals of Myth
The story begins, as most Greek myths do, with genealogy. Danaus and his twin brother, Aegyptus, were part of one of Greek mythology’s most regal families according to Pseudo-Apollodorus. This clan produced the likes of Perseus, Heracles, and Argos the many-eyed guardian.
Everything began when the river-god Inachus had a daughter, Io, who was a priestess of the goddess Hera in Argos; Zeus fell head-over-heels for her, swept her up, and turned her into a cow to protect her from her former divine mistress, Hera. Of course, Io wound up pregnant and, after being chased by a gadfly sent by Hera, she gave birth in Egypt to a son she named Epaphus.

Juno (Hera) discovering Jupiter (Zeus) with Io. (1618) by Pieter Lastman. ( Public Domain )

Eventually, Epaphus became king of Egypt (talk about appropriating other cultures’ mytho-histories to make that culture your own!). He fathered a daughter, Libya, who gave her name to the modern country. By Poseidon, Libya had twin boys, Agenor and Belus. You might know Agenor from his own illustrious descendants; as Pseudo-Apollodorus gushes, “Agenor departed to Phoenicia and reigned there, and there he became the ancestor of the great stock,” which included Europa (mother of King Minos) and Cadmus (founder of Thebes and ancestor of Oedipus). Belus, however, stuck around in Egypt and had twins: Danaus, father of the Danaids, and Aegyptus, whose name Homer and co. bestowed upon modern Egypt.
The Daughters of Danaus
As adults, Danaus and Aegyptus (who had fifty sons) got into a horrible fight. “As they afterwards quarreled concerning the kingdom, Danaus feared the sons of Aeyptus,” Pseudo-Apollodorus says, so Danaus packed up his daughters and fled to Greece, winding up in his ancestral town of Argos.
But Aegyptus’s fifty boys followed him, begging their uncle to forgive them—and to give them their cousins as brides! Danaus wasn’t loving it, but one might imagine that a king new to his throne could use husbands for his fifty girls. Those young men would also help him defend his realm. So he agreed to wed his fifty daughters to his fifty nephews…but with a twist. Danaus assigned each daughter to a nephew, but gave every one of his girls a dagger to use to kill her untrustworthy husband on her wedding night. What would make them do such a thing?
Danaides commit murder

The Danaides kill their husbands. ( Public Domain )

The Crime of the Danaids
In Aeschylus’s play The Suppliants, in which the Chorus is composed of Danaids deemed as Egyptian barbarians, the women excuse their violence by saying they each wished to avoid “a sinful marriage with the sons of Aegyptus.” They cry that they are “scared in soul” of these men and note that their cousins are prideful, lustful, and all-around bad guys.
The Aegyptids aren’t good Greek men, they say, but violent, impious, and rapacious. In the play, the Chorus deems the cousins’ marriage as sinful, but Danaus persuades them to wed their relatives to make alliances – his armed nephews are after him and his girls, and the last thing Danaus wanted was war.
“What followed is known to all alike: the crime the daughters of Danaus committed against their cousins,” recalls ancient travel writer Pausanias. The “crime” was how all but one of the Danaids assassinated their husbands before consummating their relationship.
Woodcut of the Danaids

Woodcut of 49 of the Danaids killing their husbands, while one tells her partner to flee. ( kladcat/CC BY 2.0 )

After killing their partners, forty-nine of the Danaids “buried the heads of their bridegrooms” and “paid funeral honors to their bodies in front of the city,” Pseudo-Apollodorus writes. Luckily for the Danaids, Hermes and Athena, on dad Zeus’ instructions, purified them. But after death, the forty-nine murderesses supposedly suffered a particularly nasty fate in the Underworld.
As Ovid notes in his Metamorphoses, they were engaged in a futile punishment for all eternity, similar to Sisyphus’ task of attempting to roll a boulder up a hill again and again. The Danaids had to draw water from a well (or, depending on the account, wine from craters), but the jugs they used had holes in them, so the liquid would flow away…and then they’d have to start again. Forever.
Danaides pouring water

‘The Danaides’ (1903) by John William Waterhouse. ( Public Domain )

Hypermnestra and Lynceus
So who was the one daughter who avoided this fate and saved her spouse? Her name was Hypermnestra, and she spared her bridegroom, Lynceus, because he respected her choice to remain a virgin for the time being. Furious at her disobedience, Danaus locked her up, but eventually let her return to her husband. He also found husbands for his other girls by offering their hands to winners in athletic contests.
Hypermnestra and Lynceus lived happily ever after. Their son, Abas, reigned over Argos, but he too had a set of troublesome twins – Acrisius and Proteus. Like any set of twins in Greek myth, these two fought—and, in the case of Acrisius, went on to father a dynasty of demigods (he was the grandfather of Perseus, who was in turn ancestor of Heracles).
Plate with Hypermnestra and her husband

Plate with Hypermnestra Watching Lynceus Take Her Father’s Crown (1537) by Francesco Xanto Avelli. ( Public Domain )

A Discovery That Shook the Archaeological World

by on April 10, 2018

By Ryan Stone, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
“A gentleman and a scholar.” There are few such men who fit this description from the “archaeological” community of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were certainly gentlemen and scholars, yet those who understood the rules and propriety of historical investigations and those who studied the histories themselves were not always one and the same.
Enter Sir Arthur John Evans: Oxford graduate, philologist, excavator and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Today he is best known for his contributions to pre-Classical Aegean archaeology through his discovery of the Minoans. Yet how this man came to discover an untouched society, what and who inspired him, and—most importantly—which of his postulations were accurate and which false are as important to the examination of his research as the discovery itself.
Sir Arthur John Evans

Sir Arthur John Evans, archaeologist

The Ancient Cretean Archaeologists
Sir Arthur Evans’ predisposition for classical era research and Homeric literature was furthered by the “revolutionary” efforts of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy in the late 19th century. Though now scholars have determined that Schliemann’s success at Troy damaged more than it salvaged, archaeology was not yet a discipline when Schliemann’s efforts began. It was merely a hobby of the rich and elite—those who could afford trips to far off places, fancy devices for use in investigations, and the paychecks required by mercenary diggers and tour guides. His damages, however, are considered in part why archaeology developed into a proper scholarly practice.
Schliemann’s work at Troy and at Tiryns, where he “discovered” the Mycenaean civilization that he associated with the Trojan War, inspired Evans’ to turn away from his Italian, British and Balkan research, and toward the archaeology of the Aegean. However, Evans’ work is far more respected than Schliemann’s, due to his background—both in academics and political negotiations—and methodology.
Painting of Sir Arthur Evans

Portrait of Sir Arthur Evans by William Richmond, 1907 (Ashmolean Museum)

The Ashmolean Minoan Collector
Evans’ was well versed in art, history and philology, having made a name for himself as the author of many scholarly articles before he was entrusted as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum—a job he would not have been hired for lightly. Under the employ of the Ashmolean Museum, Evans’ Aegean investigations began while attempting to transfer private collections of ancient artifacts (i.e. the Fortnum collection) to the Ashmolean.
It was under Evans’ advisement that the museum as a whole transitioned into one focused on art and archaeology, and began the assemblage of what would become the greatest Minoan collection outside of Crete. The success of this transition and the untimely death of Evans’ wife led to a shift in Evans’ interests, this time away from the museum and towards physical excavation.
In a moment of great insight during a visit to the island, Evans’ purchased the land where he would uncover the palace complex at Knossos. Within three years he had achieved a great deal, exposing Minoan frescoes, writing and numerous rooms within the complex.
Conversely, it was his future attempt at reconstructions of an unknown civilization, with a to-this-day untranslatable language, that is of concern.
Ruins at Knossos

The palace complex ruins at Knossos

Evans’ Blurred Vision for Reconstruction of Knossos
Much like the man himself, the reconstruction Evans directed at Knossos could be described as short-sighted. In reconstructing his belief of what the complex at Knossos looked like in the Bronze Age, Evans inadvertently caused some damage like Schliemann did at Troy, though his intentions were for academic preservation and thus, he did not use dynamite.
At the time of his reconstruction (c. 1922), the name “Minoan” was borrowed from the Greek myth of King Minos and the Minotaur, and the various levels of construction were not accurately defined. (Such was the problem with Schliemann: his dynamite blasted through layers of Trojan culture before discovering that which has been determined as contemporary with Homer’s.)
A simple example of Evans’ miscalculation is his creation of the red, Minoan columns. There is no evidence that dark red columns—themselves constructed out of 20th century materials rather than what would have been used in the Bronze Age—looked as Evans depicted them. These Minoan columns were based on Greek models (despite the fact that the Greeks themselves borrowed the idea from older cultures), mounted on bases with capitals that resemble the Greek Doric style. Yet the Minoans likely had columns made from tree trunks, uprooted from the ground and flipped on their heads so the bottom of the tree held up the roof while the top of the tree served as the base.
Palace of Knossos reconstruction

Often criticized reconstructed red ‘Minoan’ columns at Palace of Knossos

Another concern of scholars is the restoration efforts of Evans and his team on the frescoes in the various “rooms” of the complex: the Throne Room, bathing room, etc. Though the color choices are believed to be relatively accurate based on comparisons with contemporary cultures and the natural ingredients in the area, the exactness of the frescoes is questioned. Scholars argue most fervently that Evans’ likely supplanted a “template” found intact at one wall to others as well, thereby incorrectly restoring the frescoes and injuring whatever symbolism had been intended by the original fresco and its location within the palace. (For example, the Tomb of the Diver in Paestum is believed to depict a diver as a metaphor for the transition from life to death. If the frescoes had a similar meaning in their particular locations at Knossos, that meaning has been covered by Evans’ restorations.)
Ancient Knossos Throne room

Throne room at Knossos with restored/reproduced frescoes

Evans’ Discoveries
Yet we do not wish to discount the strides Evans did contribute to understanding the culture known as the Minoans. One of the best iterations of his successes lies in his theory of bull-worship. This hypothesis was based on the numerous depictions of bull-leaping and prominent displays of the “Horns of Consecration” (also named by Evans).
Both before and during his tenure on Crete, Evans investigated the significance of the bull alongside images of a double-axe, the mystery of each leading him from Oxford to Crete in search of their original cultures in the first place. (In fact it is believed that finding the double-axe on Knossos convinced Evans that the site was worth purchasing and exploring.) Evans continued his investigations throughout his time on Crete, and he is credited with the preliminary understanding of what is believed to be Minoan religion.
Restored building

Restored building and frescoes at Knossos

Furthermore, Evans’ examination of bull-leaping frescoes led to the first somewhat defined chronology of the Minoans. Evans’ research of the frescoes insofar as dating, depictions, etc. led to the breakdown of the Minoan era into smaller periods similar to the Egyptian kingdoms—rather than Old, Middle and New.
The Minoan timeline is broken into Early, Middle and Late, and then further fragmented from there. Recent scholars such as John Younger have determined Evans’ religious assumptions and his chronological estimation of the practice of bull-leaping were both relatively accurate, and it is these initial parameters that allowed research into the Minoan period to propel forward rather than stagger.
Famous Bull leaping fresco

Bull leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Despite the questionability of early archaeological methods—if the practice can be called such under Evans and Schliemann—the discoveries of the early 20th century began investigations of what would become some of the most fascinating ancient mysteries. Though more is still unknown than known of the Minoan culture—including what they might have called themselves—without Evans’ shrewd work at the Ashmolean Museum, and his extensive academic background at Oxford, he might not have discovered the complex at Knossos. He might have been just another rich history fanatic, waving around Homer’s works while placing dynamite in strategically destructive places.
Schliemann was successful in such efforts, but there is no guarantee Evans would have been too. Without Evans’ foresight and determined attempts to understand the pre-Mycenaean civilization, an understanding of the culture—assuming it was still discovered—might have been set back decades.
Chaniotis, Angelos. 1999. From Minoans farmers to Roman traders: sidelights on the economy of ancient Crete . Stuttgart: Steiner.
Davis, Jack L., Vasiliki Florou, and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan . 2015. Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives. ISD LLC.
Evans, Arthur John. 1914. “The ‘Tomb of the Double Axes’ and the Associated Group and the Pillar Rooms and Ritual Vessels of the ‘Little Palace’ at Knossos.” Archaeologia. 65.1. pp.1-94. Accessed July 27, 2017.
Hamilakis, Yannis. (ed.) 2002. Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking ‘Minoan’ Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
MacEnroe, John. 1995. “Sir Arthur Evans and Edwardian Archaeology.” The Classical Bulletin . 71.1. pp. 3-18.
MacGillivray, Joseph Alexander. 2000. Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology f the Minoan Myth. New York: Hill and Wang.
Rubalcaba, Jill and Eric Cline. 2011. Digging for Troy: From Homer to Hisarlik . Charlesworth.
Stokes, Lauren. “Trojan wars and tourism: a lecture by C. Brian Rose”. Swarthmore College Daily Gazette. Accessed July 29, 2017.

The Lovers’ Coin

by on April 7, 2018

by Brittany Marie Garcia

Anthony and Cleopatra on the Nile by Lawrence Alma Tadema

The story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra is a love story of seduction, exotic locations, love-triangles, family, politics, war, and suicide. And, just to make it more interesting, their tumultuous affair is connected to the rise and fall of both the Roman and Egyptian empires. And so, it is easy to see how this relationship has been an intriguing tale for centuries – with examples from Plutarch’s retelling to Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal to the HBO Rome Series.
While there are countless images representing the romantic and tragic lives of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, there is an extraordinary, newly found item that perhaps shines a new light on the infamous couple… and it comes in the shape of money.
A recent archaeological discovery in Tel Bethsaida (Northern coast of the Sea of Galilee) yielded a coin with the images of these notorious lovers.
This curious coin, despite its discovery in Tel Bethsaida, was actually minted in the port of Akko (known today as Acre) in the last half of 35 BCE and/or the first half of 34 BCE. Made of bronze, the coin is only the approximate size of a quarter (21-23 millimeters in diameter).

But let’s delve into the details of this fascinating currency.
On Cleopatra’s side of the coin, one can see the Greek word: ΠΤΟΛΕΜΙδΣ. This word is in the genitive form of the noun ‘Ptolemais’, which means: “of the people of Ptolemais.” Just to bring it full circle, ‘Ptolemais’ is the name for ancient Akko, which you may remember is the location of where the coin was originally minted.
So why would the city of Akko coin metal representatives of Cleopatra and Marc Antony?
Dr. Ariel, head of Israel Antiquities Authority Coin Department, has an answer for this: “The cities of the ancient Middle East had a habit of minting coins bearing the portraits of whoever was in power”. In the time of 35 BCE Antony had had a recent victory over the Parthians (peoples from Northeast Iran and Armenia) as well as had bestowed Armenia to Cleopatra’s sons and Cyprus to her daughter. These events may indicate why the ancient Middle East considered him powerful.
This would lead us to think that there would be a lot of coins with Cleopatra and Antony. However, this is not the case.
Dr. Ariel continued, “Coins with the portraits of Antony and Cleopatra are extremely rare. Only six have been found anywhere in the world.” According to the ancient numismatic reference site though, there have been more than six discoveries of Antony and Cleopatra coins. It would stand, however, that only six of the eight coins found are in good condition. The coin recently discovered in Tel Bethsaida would make the seventh.
It has to be asked again then, if the ancient Middle East considered Antony and Cleopatra powerful in 35 BCE (and perhaps other years as well) then why are there not more of these “lovers’ coins?”
Of course we cannot be completely certain of the reason, but it is not difficult to hypothesize that Augustus Caesar may have had them collected and destroyed after his victory at Actium. After all, Augustus did destroy Antony’s portraits after his death. For some reason, however, Augustus allowed Cleopatra’s statues to remain in Caesar’s Temple to Venus Genetrix. Perhaps Augustus admired Cleopatra. Even as a ‘foreigner’, her ambition, cunning, and wit made admiration understandable.
On the other hand, his unforgiving attitude towards Antony may have had to do with Octavia. Antony’s affair with Cleopatra was at the expense of Augustus’ sister and Antony’s wife, Octavia, as well as their children. Because Cleopatra was a foreigner it was understandable, even expected, that she was a less respectable being, but as a Roman male citizen, Antony’s actions were inexcusable.
This could have prompted Augustus to destroy any coin that represented the man who had broken such strong societal conventions. The result is only a few stray pieces that escaped the victor’s retribution.
Therefore it is these rare coins that provide us with a look into Antony and Cleopatra’s policy on their representation, including the portrayal, features, and idealized form. It is uncertain whether they wished to emulate a certain presence, as is suggested by the British Museum, “Antony was said to remind people of the Greek hero Herakles in paintings and sculptures, with ‘… a very good and noble appearance; his beard was not unsightly, his forehead broad, and his nose aquiline’” (Plutarch, Life of Antony, 4).
However, his portrait in the coin seems to have picked up Ptolemaic features, specifically the strong projecting chin of Ptolemy I, the founder of Cleopatra’s dynasty, and the hooked noses of Cleopatra and her father Ptolemy XII.
Maybe this was a reason for the coins to be destroyed? Does it reveal something new about Marc Antony or does it show the bias of the minter in the city of Akko, which was founded by Ptomlemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BCE?
We’ll never completely know, but what is certain is that this infamous couple continues to engage, fill, and plague our minds. Though they are long dead and their story known by most, they do not cease to be the topic of much discussion, debate, and obsession.

After 300: The Posthumous Vengeance of King Leonidas of Sparta

by on April 3, 2018

By Riley Winters, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Mythologically descended from the hero Herakles, the Agiad dynasty of ancient Sparta reigned alongside the Eurypontids almost since the beginning of the city-state.
When war was on the borders of their land, and that of their neighboring city-states, it was to the current Heraklean descendent that those city-states turned. Even the Athenians, who were long-time rivals of the Spartan warriors, looked to the current Agiad king for guidance in the darkest time of the war.
That king, unsurprisingly, was King Leonidas I.
A King Amongst Kings
The better remembered of the two warrior-kings of the ancient Greek city-state Sparta, King Leonidas I lived and ruled between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. His time on the throne was short-lived, but his legacy has lasted lifetimes.
Leonidas is the king who many other kings aspire to emulate; King Leonidas gave everything to defend and protect his homeland. Called upon to lead the allied forces of the Greek city-states based on his military record alone, it is said that King Leonidas tried to protect his soldiers, ordering them to leave the battlefield to fight another day.
They did not, as one might guess, as they were Spartans; one way or another, Spartans return from battle—either with their sheilds, or on them, as the saying goes. Leonidas’ words of protection at the battle of Thermopylae fell on deaf ears, and the Greeks were slaughtered that fateful day in 480 BC.
Leonidas at Thermopylae

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David (Public Domain)

What happened after the massacre, however? What happened after the death of the one of the greatest military leaders? Without Leonidas, Sparta was down one king; it had been tradition for two kings to rule the city-state, one from each of the two primary families, the Agiads and the Eurypontids. With his death at the hands of the army of Xerxes, king of Persia, and his head paraded around on a spike, Sparta was left short-handed. What was the next step?
Image of Leonidas

Leonidas I of Sparta (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wrath of the Gods
If one believes in the ancient Greek gods—as the city-states clearly did—it is impossible not to see the vengeance those gods encouraged through their mortal soldiers following the death of Herakles’ descendent. With the death of King Leonidas and the insult to his person, the Persians had essentially painted a bright red, divinely taunting target on their backs.
Over the next year, the Persians and Greeks engaged in their final land and sea battles, of which the Persians suffered as often as not. Salamis and Plataea, two of the most decisive Greek victories, officially turned the tide in favor of the Greeks.
In fact, a better vengeance could not have been written for King Leonidas. The Greeks, who had not forgotten the slaughter of Thermopylae, returned the favor in spades at the Battle of Plataea.
The Battle of Salamis painting

A romantic version painting of the Battle of Salamis by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach. (Public Domain)

The ancient historian Herodotus (5th century BC) is one of the primary sources of this battle. Following a stalemate around the Persian camp constructed in Plataea, the Persians were unintentionally (though it was lucky for the Greeks) lulled into a sense of victory.
Having cut off the Greeks from their supply lines, the Persians believed the few Greeks who retreated to regain those connections represented the whole army; the subsequent Persian attack quickly proved them wrong. The Greek allies literally had the high ground, and a defeat of those Persian forces, led by Mardonius, was relatively swift. The Greek forces then, loosely interpreted from ancient texts, exacted their revenge for the slaughter of Leonidas and his men by massacring the Persian camp at Plataea. Later that afternoon, the Greeks finished the job at the final battle of Mycale.
Exacting Revenge
One could attribute this “retribution” as constructed by King Leonidas’ son Pleistarchus, intended to take the throne upon Leonidas’ death. Yet in an interesting turn of events, Pleistarchus was too young to rule at his father’s death, and the boy’s guardian Pausanias, was actually on the second Spartan throne.
Thus the decisive, somewhat brutal, actions against the Persians at Plataea and Mycale may or may not have been an act of vengeance in the name of the father Leonidas, but were almost certainly for the Herculean general who sacrificed everything for his home, and the homes of those allied with him.
(One should remember that Sparta and Athens were only on good terms when they were teamed up against Persia. They placed their animosities aside during the Persian War, Athenians willingly following Spartans, and Spartans trusting to delegate to Athenians. This alliance would crumble soon after the war, but Leonidas’ actions are even more inspiring for the prejudices put aside.)
Warriors on a shield

Greek and Persian warriors depicted fighting on an ancient kylix. 5th century BC. (Public Domain)

United States of Leonidas
King Leonidas’ sacrifice might not have resulted in the battle to end all Persian-Greek battles, however it did inspire a great deal of “nationality”, a concept not yet fully formed in the ancient world. Yet the Greek city-states saw a common enemy, and shared a common goal, and for a brief period of time, respected and valued the same man—homeland and culture aside.
The increased sense of unity Leonidas inadvertently forged between the Spartans, Thebans, Athenians, etc. led to an increased determination; the Greeks left no man standing at Plataea and Mycale if they could find one. The victory of the Greeks over the Persians resonated for centuries, and Leonidas’ name is remembered far better than those of the men who returned home with their shields rather than on them.
Because of this (and the later cockiness of the Athenians), the Spartans and their allies successfully defeated the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War, the next great battle on their horizon.

Jason: Sniveling Worm or Unfortunate Bloke?

by on March 30, 2018

By Ben Potter and Anya Leonard
myth of jason and the argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts

It’s a myth famed in the ancient greek world, filled with monsters, superheroes and of course femme fatales. The main plot centers around Jason, who with his band of badass super heros (including the likes of Heracles), adventures in his quest to regain his rightful throne. And he is usually depicted as a great and resourceful hero.
However, there is a dark and disturbing chapter involving the magical priestess Medea. At the bequest of the gods, this woman falls madly in love with Jason and aids him significantly in accomplishing his tasks, even when it means betraying her own people. This would be fine enough if it stopped there, but unfortunately once Jason didn’t need her, he cast her away for another woman.
It is here that Euripides’ play, Medea, which was first performed in 431 BC, begins. It charts the final stages of Medea’s life in Cornith as an exile from Iolchos and tells the story of her revenge. Essentially, she retaliates by killing Jason’s new wife, the wife’s father and Medea and Jason’s own sons. She then flees into exile.
Hell really, really hath no fury like a woman scorned.
So knowing all this, Euripides presents Jason as such a despicable character that it is impossible to sympathize with his fate at the hands of Medea… but the question is, is this fair?
For starters, Euripides seems to portray all his male characters as very weak and gullible men, and Jason is no exception from this rule. He is even convinced at one point that Medea has given up on her crazy and murderous antics and has additionally decided that she could not be happier for Glauce and Jason in their new life. Clearly he was wrong, but just because Jason is a poor and stupid fool does that mean that no sympathy can be found for him?
Jason really has done nothing outrageously wrong. Initially he was sent on a certain death mission to the land of Colchis, (modern Black Sea coast of Georgia) where he meets up with some crazy witch who falls passionately in love with him. The only way it seems that Jason can fulfill his task is with the help of this rather troubled young lady.

Jason and Medea – as depicted by John William Waterhouse, 1907

It must be noted that Jason witnesses Medea betray her family and even brutally murder her brother in order to aid him in his quest. At this point Jason must surely have thought to hide the pets and the pressure cooker.
In the play itself we see that Jason doesn’t seem evil in his actions, but merely angry that Medea has been so foolhardy in getting herself exiled. Jason acts with great grace, saying to Medea ‘Hate me: but I could never bear ill-will to you’.
There would have been little to stop Jason having Medea executed, ensuring that his new life would be a happy and prosperous one. Instead he offers Medea food and money to aid her in her exile. Jason’s biggest crime seems to be marrying for the status that Medea had lost him in tricking Pelias’ daughters in Iolchos.
On the other hand, we could argue that Jason would be nothing without the help she had given him and thus she is entitled to a little more respect than being traded in for a younger model. The fact that Medea loved Jason so strongly as to perform the acts she did, most noticeably the dicing of her own brother, would serve to say that Jason should have known not to toy with her emotions. Even in the prologos, or the prologue to the story, we learn that Medea was a reasonably happy lady living as a princess and priestess in Colchis and that she experienced nothing but ill fortune since the arrival of Jason.
Indeed the brutality of Jason’s punishment in not only having his wife killed, but also his twin sons, shows the anguish that Medea must have been experiencing and the drastic retaliation she took. When seeking revenge, we wish to try and cause pain to the other equal to the pain they have caused us. If this is true for Medea than Jason must have hurt her more than any physical pain could come close to. No woman could have taken such a revenge without first being subjected to great emotional brutality.

Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862)

Medea isn’t like normal women, either contemporary to the play or indeed today. To be quite frank, Medea is a loony. This is a woman who is so amazingly emotionally unstable that when a vaguely handsome man appears on her doorstep she betrays her father, kills her brother and gets a king boiled. These all happened when the wedlock between Jason and Medea was still in the happy honeymoon phase. We see that at the start of the play, Medea is actually mourning for her brother, a quite ridiculous action seeing as she was the murderer. The insight into Medea’s twisted mind is clear here when she complains of not having the brother she murdered to turn to… Surely, this is as ludicrous as men who cry whilst cheating on their wife with a prostitute and are in need of just as much therapy.
The love that a mother has for a child is hard to explain and impossible to equal. Maternal instincts are some of the strongest in life. Even a vixen will willingly die fighting to protect her cubs and yet Medea actually plans to kill her children. This sickest and most heinous of crimes cannot be justified by any lust revenge, no matter how burning. It would be conceivable that Medea will kill the man that spurned her, as this would make her only partially deranged. But sticking a knife in her boys seems the darkest and most vile action that could be imagined.
Seeing that Jason is depicted as evil by Euripides makes us assume that the ancient Greek playwright seems to have some sort of problem with male characters. His need to portray them as weak, feeble and easily controlled by a strong woman may lead us to believe that he has some sort of inferiority complex that is played out in these pathetic males. Maybe indeed he has issues with his mother to Woody Allen proportions in the sense that Medea is all powerful, cunning, ruthless and ultimately unloving, especially to her innocent sons.
So although Jason is presented quite undoubtedly as a snivelling worm of a man with less balls than a eunuch, he doesn’t come across as evil and most certainly doesn’t deserve the immeasurable suffering that Medea bestows upon him. Jason doesn’t get much sympathy from the audience either, but not because he is despicable in any way, but because he is such a fundamentally unlikeable character whom we have no desire to see or hear from again.
Read Euripides’ Medea for yourself for free here:

We use cookies on this site to enhance your user experience.

Cookies are used for our site's proper functioning, insight into how the site is being used, and advertising.

If you continue without changing your settings, you are consenting to the use of cookies on our site.