Category Archives: Culture[post_grid id="10031"]
by Kevin Blood
In the Roman citizenry there existed two distinct social classes or orders. The patricians (patres – fathers) and the plebeians (plebs – multitude). To understand the political, social, economic and military developments that happened in the Roman Republic, it is important to understand how early republican society functioned and was organised according to this class system.
The patricians were a select few who owned large amounts of land and they were of noble birth. This gave them a privileged status within the state. To be a patrician you had to be able to trace your ancestry back to the original clans who settled the Seven Hills of Rome. The patricians totally controlled the state by monopolizing authority. They monopolized the senate and the position of consul, and they controlled the assembly. Patricians also controlled the state’s religious bodies through domination of the two major colleges of priests – the Augurs and the Pontifices. Religion and politics were not separate, and religion played a central role in the political decision making process.
Furthermore, patricians controlled the courts – all criminal and civil law was their jurisdiction. The fact that the legal code was unwritten and only patricians could administer and interpret it meant they could bend the law to suit themselves, which they did. They could make it up as they went along. In order to maintain the strict separation of the two social classes, patricians could not intermarry with plebeians. Patricians in this era had a special form of marriage, the only one of three at the time thought to be recognized by the gods. They were married by confarreatio, by the pontifex maximus and the flamen Dialis (priest of Jupiter). In this form of marriage the bride was entitled to a share of possessions and of the religious duties of the household.
Patricians owned significant amounts of land and they could afford to lease big tracts of public land (ager publicus) from the state. This aristocratic class did not sully their hands with industry or trade, these aspects of the Roman economy were left to plebeians and foreigners, e.g. Greeks.
Patricians also dominated the highest officer ranks of the army, and especially the cavalry. Entrance into the military was based on property qualifications, because a soldier was responsible for providing his own kit. While away on campaign it was easy for a patrician to keep his properties productive, as they could afford the associated expenses.
The plebeians were the mass of the Roman citizenry, those not part of the patrician order. They were small farmers, those who worked in in the crafts, labourers and traders. They were excluded from legal, political, economic and religious rights. The Plebeians were subject to the power and authority of the consuls. The consuls had power over the lives of the citizens, against their authority there existed no right of appeal. Plebeians were excluded from public office and the aristocratic senate. In the assembly, plebeians who were not clients (tenants or dependents) of patricians could be outvoted by those who were. Plebeians were also kept out of the administration of the state’s religious institutions and major priesthoods.
Subject to a legal system dominated by patricians, the plebians often found themselves suffering cruelty and injustice. They did not have knowledge of the laws, nor could they administer any aspect of the legal system. When a decision was handed down to them, no matter how unjust, they had no right of appeal. Any notion for plebeians and their descendants of climbing the social ladder by marrying a patrician was quashed by the fact that they were not legally allowed to marry a patrician, but if they did marry any children from the marriage would automatically be classed as plebeian. Marriage for plebians took two forms – marriage by coemptio (fictitious purchase of the bride to be from her father), or by usus (co-habitation).
Plebeians who were clients of a patrician were granted land by them in return for political and economic support. The prospect of dire poverty among the plebeian order was very real, and they often had to be absent from working their land because of a duty to do military service. This often led them to fall into debt, the debt law (unwritten) was very harsh. Also, during wartime they had to pay a military tax (tributum). No share of public lands was granted to them and they could not graze their livestock on them. Trade was one way plebeians could make a lot of money, and some become wealthier than patricians. With the power and influence money brought them they felt that they should have political rights, and they resented the fact that they did not.
Plebeians could serve in the army, but while they did they had to leave their lands unattended. It was during military crisis that membership of the Roman army could benefit the plebeian order, it allowed them to exert pressure on the patricians to make reforms. A rich plebeian who could afford cavalry equipment could,within the ranks of the army, achieve a kind of equality with the patricians.
At a glance the casual observer can see that the Roman system of the early republic was deeply skewed in favour of the patricians. The grievances of the plebeians, and their striving for equality lasted in Rome’s internal history for over 200 years of the early republic. The unwillingness of the patrician order to share power would be the source of great conflict and social upheaval during this period of Rome’s history. An understanding of the importance of social relationships between Roman citizens, the different degrees of political responsibility each held, the importance of religion in both private and public life and the military obligations of each social class is a vital part of understanding the subsequent changes that occurred in the lives of Romans during the middle and late republican periods, and beyond.
by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
She’s probably the single most famous woman from all of Greek mythology.
We think we know the tale – the most beautiful woman in the world, and the enormous war that was fought over her.
Yet her story is much more complex than many may imagine. Was she really the face that launched a thousand ships?
The most well-known version of the Helen of Troy myth is what we get from the Epic Cycle, particularly Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. After visiting Menelaus, King of Sparta, the young Trojan prince Paris absconded with the Spartan king’s wife, Helen, and took her to Troy. In retribution, and in outrage at the insult to xenia, Menelaus and his brother King Agamemnon launched a vast expedition against the city of Troy, leading to a siege which lasted for ten years. Following the fall of Troy, Menelaus and Helen returned to Sparta, where they lived as king and queen once more.
That’s the most commonly known version of the myth. Yet there is another, very different version of this story.
The Greek lyric poet Stesichorus, one of the Nine Lyric Poets of Ancient Greece, is attributed with creating an alternative view of the Trojan war. While much of his poetry is lost, a key segment survives in quotation, regarding Helen of Troy:
‘It is not true, the tale. You did not go in the well-benched ships; you did not come to Pergama of Troy.’
In Stesichorus’ version of the myth, it was not really Helen that was taken to Troy by Paris. Rather, Helen was replaced by an eidolon – a sort of Ancient Greek version of a phantom. The eidolon is a completely convincing doppelgänger of the Spartan queen, fooling all who see it, but it is not really her. The real Helen was spirited away by the gods to Egypt, where she lived for the whole duration of the Trojan War. Here she lived under the protection of the Egyptian King Proteus, while the eidolon resided in Troy. None of the Trojans nor the Achaeans knew the truth, and the war was fought, essentially over nothing.
This is the version of the myth that Euripides – the most experimental and daring of the three surviving Greek tragedians – used as the basis of his play Helen. Euripides was also influenced by the Encomium of Helen by the Greek Sophist Gorgias, which expressed similar ideas. When we meet Euripides’ Helen, she is a painfully isolated figure, all too aware of the events of the Trojan war, and moreso, of the blame wrongly attributed to her. She cries:
O Troy, city of sorrow, for deeds never committed you have perished and suffered a piteous end!
The play focuses on the distinction between nomos – the name of thing, and physis – the reality of a thing. It’s an exploration of how what people say about us can conjure up an image that is completely removed from the reality of who we are, and yet remain a potent force. Helen knows that the Greeks consider her to be an adultress, when in reality, she has been completely faithful to her husband. She knows she is blamed for the vast number of deaths in the Trojan War, when she truly had nothing to do with it.
The play also follows Menelaus on his homecoming – or nostos – following the Trojan War. Newly shipwrecked in Egypt, Menelaus is now a man who looks like a beggar, claiming to be a king, and unaware of how close he is to finding his real wife. Greek drama is famous for its recognition scenes, and this play features a moving one, when both members of the married couple are baffled and overwhelmed to be in each other’s presence again.
Despite the tenderness of their reunion, all is not well. Helen’s protector, King Proteus has died, and his son Theoclymenus plans to swiftly make her his bride, believing reports that Menelaus died in the shipwreck. This Euripides play belongs alongside his other ‘escape tragedies’ like Iphigeneia Among the Taurians, or his lost play on the Andromeda myth. These are somewhat removed from what we typically think of as ‘tragedies’. While they were performed on the same stages as the famous tales of Oedipus or the House of Atreus, they are perhaps closer to a medieval romance: tales of adventure and love, set in faraway lands, with a villainous tyrant lurking.
The play ends with the appearance of Castor and Pollux – the Dioscuri. They act as a deus ex machina in the play, resolving the conflict, and ensuring that Helen and Menelaus freely escape. In a play so concerned with how misleading a name can be, it is ironic that these characters have a much more famous name. Elsewhere in myth, they are turned into stars and become a costellation, twins known as the Gemini to the Romans. While they are Helen’s brothers, perhaps the more relevant detail is the fact that they are twin brothers. It is perhaps a fitting image for the drama to end on – two who are alike, and yet not alike.
By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Roman literature has been enormously influential in the history of Western culture. The Pharsalia, an Epic poem by Lucan, was once widely read, and inspired many great Renaissance writers, such as Christopher Marlowe and Dante. This work tells the story of the great Roman Civil War between Julius Caesar and his legions on one side, and Pompey and his supporters in the Senate on the other. The Epic is one of the masterpieces of the Silver Age of Roman literature, and it is not only a remarkable work of art, but it also offers many insights into the history of Rome.
The Poet and his Epic
The author of the Pharsalia was Lucan (39 AD – 65 AD) who was born in what is now southern Spain. He was the grandson of Seneca the Elder, and the nephew of the Stoic philosopher and statesman, Seneca the Younger. He became a close friend of Nero, who helped Lucan to secure the post of Quaestor. Lucan managed to write the Epic which consists of ten books in a remarkably short period of time. In this he was assisted by his loyal wife. At some point, Lucan and Nero had a falling out. Some sources suggest that Lucan dared to criticise the work of Nero. In 65 AD, Lucan became involved in a conspiracy led by Piso. This plot was discovered, and Lucan was implicated. Ancient sources alleged that the poet revealed information about the other conspirators, including his family members, in a bid to save his life. This failed and he was forced to commit suicide by opening his veins by Nero.
The Epic is also known in Latin as the De Bello Civili (Concerning the Civil War). The work narrates in dramatic detail the events of the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey (49-45 BC), which led to the downfall of the Roman Republic. The work opens with a dedication to Nero and a denunciation of civil war. In Book One it relates how Caesar defied the Senate and marched on Rome. It then narrates how the Senate and Pompey were forced to leave Italy. The poem tells how Caesar campaigned against forces loyal to the Senate in Spain. The poem concentrates on the events surrounding the battle of Pharsalus, which took place in Thessaly in Greece. This was the crucial battle of the Civil War and it forms the centrepiece of the Epic. The poem became known as the Pharsalia by later Roman commentators, naming it after the battle.
Lucan relates how Caesar was able to defeat Pompey, and how the latter was forced to flee. The last Books are concerned with the wanderings of the defeated general, and finally his assassination in Egypt. The Epic concludes with the Julius Caesar in Egypt fighting for his life after he became involved in the Egyptian Civil War, and his infatuation with Cleopatra. Scholars believe that if Lucan had lived, the poet would have continued his Epic until the assassination of Caesar, or even the rise of Augustus. The Epic is not an accurate historical document and there are many sections of the work such as Pompey consulting with a witch that are inventions.
The Style of the Epic
The poem shows the influence of Virgil and Ovid, the key figures in the Golden Age of Roman literature. The influence of oratory on the poet is evident as well, and there are many sententious phrases in the Epic. It is structured in a series of discrete episodes and eschews a linear narrative. Lucan does not respect the Epic convention of portraying divine intervention in human affairs. The Epic minimizes the role of the Gods and even seems to deny that they exist. On the other hand, it focuses a great deal on the supernatural, such as witches and oracles. The work of Lucan is a good example of the type of literature that was favored by Nero and his court. The style of the work has made it difficult to read for many modern readers.
The Themes of Pharsalia
The Epic is often interpreted as being anti-imperialistic. It is clearly sympathetic to the cause of Pompey and the Senate. Many have argued that the poet shows his sympathies to the Republican system of government. The sentiments in the work could also be interpreted as being critical of Nero. There are some academics who believe that this is not the case. They argue that the occasions when Julius Caesar is portrayed negatively were warnings to Nero. An important theme in the book is the importance of character and how it can influence events. The Epic can be seen as being anti-war, and the poet graphically describes the tragedy caused when Romans fought Romans, which is rare in Latin literature.
Some have seen Lucan as part of a Neronian Renaissance in Roman literature, along with writers such as his relative Seneca the Younger and Petronius. The Pharsalia influenced literature during the Renaissance but subsequently fell out of favor. While it is not comparable to the work of Virgil and Ovid, it still an important literary work. Today, scholars have revived the study of the Epic poem because it provides insights into the culture of First Century Rome.
Leigh, M. (1997), Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement. Oxford.
by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
She’s one of the most famous and prominent of the Greek deities. Her symbol – the owl – still stands proudly, millennia later, as an emblem of wisdom.
Yet what do the ancient texts actually say about her? Who is she, and what does she do?
What do we know about the Goddess of Wisdom?
Athena in Homer
The Iliad and the Odyssey were both of central importance to Ancient Greek society. Even today, it is many people’s first exposure to the world of the Classics. Athena’s role in both, while comparatively small in terms of ‘screentime’, is key to the action of the story.
Of the two Homeric poems, Athena plays a much larger role in the Odyssey. She essentially acts as the protector of Odysseus. At various points across Odysseus’ journey, it is Athena’s help and guidance that allow the cunning hero to escape to safety. Moreover, it is Athena’s request to Zeus that allows Odysseus to leave the island of Circe.
Some have taken this to diminish the role of Odysseus himself. The interaction between the human and the divine in Greek literature, however, is more complex than that. Odysseus own qualities of cunning and guile are what win him the approval of the goddess. It is his own resourcefulness that makes him worthy of having a god intervene on his behalf. Odysseus own personality is so defined by the traits of cleverness and using his wits. That these are traits similar to those possessed by the goddess herself is significant.
A direct parallel is drawn between Odysseus and Athena in two incidents that bookend the epic. Early on in the Odyssey, Athena appears to Odysseus’ son Telemachus in disguise. Towards the end of the epic, it is Athena that allows Odysseus to take on the form of a beggar, which allows him to re-enter Ithaca disguised.
Athena’s presence in the Iliad is notably less prominent. Nevertheless, she also acts as something of a guide to Achilles at key moments throughout. For instance, she is present at the infamous quarrel of Agamemnon and Achille over Breseis which opens the epic. She helps stay the anger of Achilles, preventing him from killing Agamemnon outright!
Athena in Greek Tragedy
Athena was, naturally enough, the patron of her namesake city, Athens. The Festival Dionysia, where Greek tragedies were staged, actually took place in Athens. So, the audience for Greek tragedies consisted primarily of Athenians. The characterisation of Athena in Greek tragedies is, unsurprisingly, consistently positive.
Perhaps Athena’s most important role in Greek Tragedy is in the Eumenides by Aeschylus. Athena appears in the third and final play of the Oresteia trilogy, where she effectively acts as a judge in the world’s first courtroom drama.
The deciding vote as to whether or not Orestes should be considered guilty of his crimes is granted to Athena. The ruling frees Orestes from punishment by the Furies, while also granting the Furies a place of honour in a new system of justice.
This ruling is seen as representing in dramatic form perhaps the greatest Athenian invention – democracy.
Athena also appears in a number of Euripides‘ plays, such as Iphigeneia Among the Taurians, The Suppliants and Ion. In each of these plays, she acts in the role of deus ex machina, a term that literally means ‘god from the machine’.
Although that term might conjure up the sort of imagery you’d see in a Marvel or Matrix movie, it’s real meaning is much more straightforward than it might sound.
The ‘machine’ is in fact the mechane, a sort of crane that formed part of the Ancient Greek stage. It was a heightened platform, placed physically above the action of the rest of the scene, to signify to the audience that the actor was playing a god.
Whenever the drama has reached a point near the climax of the story, and all the play’s problems seem unsolvable, a god appeared on this stage. They then go on to very effectively resolve the conflict of the play, by telling each of the characters what they must do. It’s not always been a popular technique in tragedy – Aristotle was critical of the convention of the deus ex machina in his treatise on tragedy, the Poetics. Today, many would still agree with him. Yet it is a fitting role for Athena to fulfil. It’s consistent with how Athena is characterised throughout ancient literature, while also wrapping up the stories of the tragedies
There is, of course, an even more vast body of myths that surround Athena. Many of these belonged to the lost poems of the Epic Cycle. We still know many of these stories – for instance, that she was one of the three goddesses Paris had to choose between in the “Apple of Discord” story. Yet so much is also lost. Perhaps the real wisdom is found in the words of Socrates – “I know that I know nothing.”
By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“Whatever words are here, read on to the end.
How could reading this letter hurt you?
Indeed, my words might even give you pleasure.
These letters carry my secret thoughts over land and sea,”
So writes Ovid in the Letter from Phaedra to Hippolytus from his magnificent work, the Heroides. Here, Ovid explores some of the greatest (and some of the most tempestuous) romances of Greek mythology: Odysseus and Penelope, Dido and Aeneas, and Theseus and Ariadne, amongst others. Despite its obvious appeal, however, the Heroides has been unjustifiably neglected and overlooked.
This work is a collection of 21 fictional letters. The first fifteen letters are presented as being written by women (all mythical except for the final letter, which is by a fictional version of the Greek poetess Sappho). They are each addressed to their current or former lovers from whom they have been separated. Letters 16-21 are known as the Double Heroides, as they contain three letters from mythical heroes, all followed by a response from their respective female lovers.
These letters are all written in elegiac couplets: a pair of sequential lines in poetry in which the first line is written in dactylic hexameter (typical for epic poetry) and the second line in dactylic pentameter. The authenticity of some of these letters, however, particularly the Double Heroides, has been questioned. Yet most critics accept that 1-14 were written by Ovid.
This work is innovative in many aspects. Ovid made a significant change in shifting the perspective of an elegiac poem to a female one. Elegy was all about personal experiences and desires, and an individual’s feelings, but usually from a perspective of a male lover. Instead, Ovid lets women speak up and offer their own perspective. Yet we must be a more careful than to assume that Ovid was some kind of an initiator of the fight for the female voice, however significant this change might be.
Speaking of innovation, Ovid did something else that was not common for this type of poetry. He took mythical material, most common in epic and tragedy, and retold it in the elegiac manner, putting love at the center of attention.
The reception of the Heroides has varied greatly (and it continues to vary to this day). It achieved great popularity in the Middle Ages. Yet tastes and expectations change over time, and starting with the 19th century, these fictional letters began to receive a lot of criticism.
One of the greatest objections to Heroides is its artificiality. What this criticism fails to acknowledge, however, is that these letters are not written in an attempt to sound like genuine letters. They are the product of a poet with well-rounded rhetorical knowledge, and a great sense for innovation. Ovid uses the epistolary form as a literary device, placing particular aspects of the mythical narrative in the center. This allows us to hear from the perspective of some of the more marginalized characters and figures from Greek mythology.
Many critics have found these letters too monotonous, as they have similar narratives with too much repetition across them. We cannot deny that there is repetition in Heroides. However, this is not accidental. Although Ovid’s heroines are saying the same things, they are doing it in slightly different ways. Moreover, the authors of different letters are alluding to each other and referring to the words of their respective comrades in suffering. This kind of intertextuality shows that Ovid’s repetition was not accidental, but rather a deliberate literary technique.
Even though the main themes of these letters are almost the same, and despite the fact that the characters are saying similar things, the tone of these letters is not the same. One would expect all of them to be sad and demonstrate the typical tragic pathos. However, some of these letters are tragicomic, and some are incredibly witty and humorous, while still preserving the tone of suffering and evoking compassion among the readers.
So whether you want to experience cathartic emotions or laughter, or even better, a roller-coaster of both, read Ovid’s Heroides. In any case, you will not regret it!
Ovid, Heroides, The Latin Library
P. Murgatroyd, B. Reeves, and S. Parker (2017) Ovid’s Heroides: A New Translation and Critical Essays, Routledge
L. Fulkerson (2005) The Ovidian Heroine as Author; Reading, Writing, and Community in the Heroides; Cambridge University Press
If you want to read more about Ovid, this month’s edition of our magazine, Classical Wisdom Litterae, focuses on the famed poet. Get your subscription NOW!
by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There is no doubt that the Romans drew a lot from the Greeks. This included their love of theatre.
Roman theatre took a while to take hold, but once it did, it was popularised across the Empire and evolved over the centuries. The Romans adopted many of the Greek gods, so the mythological plays of Attica were a natural choice for the Roman Theatre. However, the Romans had a bloodthirst that was unrivaled by the Greeks, and overall they preferred a violent comedy to the slower and more philosophical tragedies.
That was not to say that Roman theatre was void of popular tragedies. The earliest surviving tragedies by Ennius (239 – 169 BC) and Pacuvius (220 – 130BC) were widely circulated and therefore, preserved for later audiences.
It was the Greco-Roman poet and former slave Lucius Accius (284 – 205 BC) that popularised theatrical Tragedy and introduced Greek Tragedy for Roman audiences. The Romans liked the adaptations so much that they used Lucius’ translations of Homer’s Odyssey as an educational book for over 200 years.
The physical structure of the theatres is the first tell-tale sign of how the Greek plays were adapted for a Roman audience.
Greek theatres were traditionally carved out of hillsides, whereas Roman theatres were built brick by brick from the ground up.
This was not because the Greeks were incapable of building magnificent theatres; history has left us with some astounding examples of ancient Greek architecture. The Greeks preferred hillsides because they did not use backdrops or props. Hillsides overlooked the city, and most of the Greek plays were set in Athens.
Of course, the Romans were not in Athens and therefore incorporated the use of backdrops and stage props to propel audiences back to ancient Greece. This also allowed to make the play more of a spectacle (in fact, the word spectacle derives, from the Latin Spectaclum meaning Public Show).
The Romans copied much of the Greek when it came to storytelling and performance. There were some differences but the basic concepts remained the same, and many of the Greek plays were translated for Roman audiences.
When the Roman translation of Homer’s Odyssey first hit the Roman Theatre scene, it was quickly followed by Achilles, Ajax, the Trojan Horse, and later popular comedies such as Virgo and Gladiolus.
The Romans were not without original imagination when it came to playwriting, but most of the early plays were modelled after 5th-century Greek tragedies. Later comedies favor the newer style of comedy popularised under Alexander the Great that focused not on the epic tales of the gods but on the deeds of everyday citizens.
The Seneca Plays
Seneca was a known Stoic, and a great admirer and scholar of Greek philosophy. So how much Greek culture did Seneca consciously or unconsciously absorb into his plays?
Only eight of Seneca’s plays have survived to this day, Furens, Hercules, Medea, Phaedra, Troades, Oedipus, Thyestes, and Agamemnon. Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia are regularly accredited to Seneca, but are likely not his original work.
While it is probable that Seneca’s plays were performed within his lifetime, historians are not certain of this. What is certain is that the plays had a profound impact on theatrical history. Seneca exclusively wrote tragedies based on Greek myths.
The Romans got from Seneca’s plays what they could not get anywhere else, the opportunity to be both entertained and to learn from the philosophical master.
Seneca’s plays struck a chord with the masses and are still enacted to this day. They remained popular across medieval Europe and throughout the Classical renaissance.
His plays differ from the original Attica (Greek Athenian) plays in that they follow a five-act form instead of the traditional three, and they incorporated rhetoric structures that argued for a particular point of view or philosophical stance.
Seneca entrenched his plays in turmoil and personal conflict, and he focused on social and political issues that were relevant at the time and remain relevant to modern audiences. Known as fabulae crepidatae (Latin Tragedy with Greek subjects) Seneca’s characters were the mythological Greek characters of old, but each story was presented as a reflection of the audience’s mental state and condition of the soul.
Unlike the Attica plays, Seneca’s stage rarely gave way to the gods. Instead, inspired by the plays of Euripides and Sophocles, Seneca’s plays were bound with witches and spirits, and all manner of mystical and esoteric symbolism that resonated with this audience.
Seneca wrote his works primarily to be spoken, not enacted. However, later Roman taste preferred colorful plays to long-drawn-out auditory pieces, so actors were introduced along with costumes, props, and choruses.
As time passed and the Roman theatres grew larger and more grand, the spoken word became increasingly more difficult to hear, so the plays eventually incorporated the choir and orchestra to guide the audience’s feelings and emotions, rather than solely relying on Seneca’s rhetoric alone.
Seneca’s plays were written to affect the human psyche, and explore the moral and philosophical territory.
Like Shakespeare, Seneca did not write for a specific place or time, but through dialogues and soliloquies, his plays could be re-enacted at any point throughout history, which is a testament to their popularity and longevity.