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Pheidias – The Great Greek Sculptor

by January 16, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Considered one of the greatest sculptors of all time and producing pieces that are considered masterpieces even today, Phidias’ (or Pheidias) work remains to tantalize our imaginations. Due to the fact that we can only reconstruct some of his works, such as the colossal statues Athena Parthenos or Zeus at Olympia, from copies and descriptions, we truly can only imagine the immense impression that his art must have created for the ancient audience. Outlining the life of Phidias proves to be quite entertaining, peppered with a rise to fame, favoritism, scandal, bribery, and even exile. This all paints a vibrant portrait of the sculptor… however we should be wary of these stories since the majority are anecdotal as opposed to biographical.

Illustration of Pheidias

Pheidias’ Early Life
As with most historical figures in antiquity, exact dates are unknown. However, Phidias is expected to have been born around 490 BCE in Athens. He was the son of Charmides and was trained by other Athenian sculptors. Probable teachers in his early life were Hegias of Athens and Ageladas of Argos. Ageldas, or Hageladas, is suspected to be the reason behind the Dorian style exhibited in some of Pheidias’ work.
Pheidias’ Career and Prominence
In contrast to the scarcity of information detailing Pheidias’ life, we know a great deal about his career and his works. Around 449 BCE, Pheidias was placed in charge of a large building program that was initiated by the Athenian statesman Pericles. This was after the Persian Wars had swept through Greece but preceding the Peloponnesian Wars in the later half of the 5th century. As a part of this mega building project in Athens, Pheidias’ was commissioned for three different works on the Parthenon: the Athena Promachos, the Lemnian Athena, and the Athena Parthenos.
Illustration of Athena Promachos

Athena Promachos

Athena Promachos, or Athena who “fights in the front line,” is thought to be one of Pheidias’ earliest works. It was placed on the Acropolis around 456 BC, measuring around 30 feet high. While the statue itself does not remain, we do have a description from Pausanias who tells us that the statue was set up in the open, behind the Propylaea, with her helmet and tip of her spear visible to sailors approaching Athens from around Cape Sounion. The statue itself may have been erected to commemorate the battle of Marathon, in which Athens delivered a surprising blow to the Persian army in 490 BC. Incredibly, we have parts of the base and inscription that Athena Promachos rested on. The statue was destroyed in 1203 AD, but the form has been discovered on a few Attic coins that were minted during the Roman period. For one of Pheidias’ earliest works, it certainly did not lack any amount of sophistication or craftsmanship.
Lemnian Athena

Lemnian Athena

Another statue that was erected on the Acropolis and credited to Pheidias was the Lemnian Athena. Originally worked in bronze, the statue was dedicated and paid for by Lemnos, an Athenian colony, in 451 BC. Again, the original statue has been lost, but we do have a few Roman copies: a head recovered from Bologna and two statues in Dresden. Together, they give us the sense of what the original may have looked like.
However impressive these two preceding statues were sure to have been, little compares to the colossals that Pheidias produced: Athena Parthenos and Zeus at Olympia. Athena Parthenos was completed and dedicated in 438 BC, and was placed inside the Parthenon. She was made of gold and ivory and stood roughly 38 feet tall. And while we still don’t know much about Pheidias’ personal life at the time, we do see him and Pericles represented in the shield that Athena Parthenos holds… a fact that becomes integral to his downfall in the years to come. Again, the original no longer exists, but Roman copies and coinage give us the image of Athena Parthenos that we have today.
Athena Parthenos

Athena Parthenos

The statue of Zeus at Olympia was Pheidias’ final major project and was completed around 430 BC for the temple of Zeus at Olympia. It too was colossal, clothed in gold, and body made of ivory. It was about 42 feet high and took up the entire height of the temple, with some questioning how the statue even got in the temple in the first place, seeing as the statue came second. The statue of Zeus was highly decorated and painted, adding to the jarring, and somewhat gaudy by modern day perceptions, image of the god. Today, the statue of Zeus is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, even though the original no longer survives.
Statue of Zeus

Statue of Zeus

Pheidias’ Death and Legacy
After the statue of Zeus at Olympia, Pheidias seems to have quickly left the public eye as a result of scandal and enemies. Likely due to his close association with Pericles, the Athenian statesman who certainly had his fair share of enemies, Pheidias was a target for plots seeking to get rid of him. One of the reported attacks on Pheidias came in 432 BC when he was accused by Pericles’ enemies of stealing gold from Athena Parthenos during construction for his own wealth. Somehow he was able to defend his way out of this accusation though and nothing much came of it. A few years later, Pheidias was accused of impiety, on the basis of his personal representation (along with Pericles’) on the shield of Athena. For this charge, he was thrown in prison and then likely exiled to Elis. His actual place of death is disputed, with Plutarch writing he died in prison in Athens, while Aristophanes quotes Philochorus saying he died at the hands of the Eleans after he finished the statue of Zeus.
Although we know so little about Pheidias’ life and most of his original work has been lost, he is still considered one of the greatest sculptors of all time. He produced monumental works that took up prominent places, so his exposure seemed to be far above his contemporaries. Pheidias is thought to have ushered in a true change in sculpture style into the classical from any leftover Archaic style. He represents a time of wealth and prosperity in Athens, but also serves as a reminder of the rampant political tensions, ultimately leading to his death.

Xenia for a Better World

by January 8, 2019

Today’s Classics Challenge delves into the importance of Xenia… and how resurfacing this concept can make for both better individuals and society as a whole.
But first… What is Xenia? Watch the video below to learn of this critical part of Ancient Greek (and indeed modern Greek) culture:
Xenia Video
While this was an essential part of Ancient Greece, perhaps tragically it has become less pervasive today, a loss to our communities and cultures. Indeed, the reverse “Xenophobia” is something encountered more and more instead.
But how can understanding the concepts of Xenia help you?
First we must realize that being both a welcoming host and a respectful guest is an ancient and sacred ritual… and thus we should take those roles in our day to day life with the appropriate seriousness. Listen to each other. Consider the other’s position. Bring a gift. This will no doubt help with your next dinner party or family stay.
Second, we should see these positions as host and guest with regards to our society as a whole. How we communicate with other peoples and cultures and, equally important, represent our own. Welcoming foreigners can bring exciting collaborations, important lessons and ideas… likewise, we learn tremendously by being good guests when we travel and treat our hosts with respect and compassion.
As a permanent traveler, I have been the beneficiary of wonderful hosts throughout the world, whether it was in Taiwan, Argentina, Mexico or… perhaps not surprisingly, Greece. I have also, tragically, witnessed real xenophobia, and it is a situation where everyone loses out.
We as individuals, and as a community as a whole, can make the decision to choose Xenia… and keep this beautiful ancient Greek idea alive.

Heraclitus Quotes

by January 2, 2019

About Heraclitus:
Heraclitus (535 – 475 BC) was a Greek Pre Socratic Philosopher who believed that the universe was governed by a divine logos or reason. This fundamental law of the universe held all things in perfect balance.
Heraclitus Quotes:

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
As quoted by Plato in Cratylus, 402a

“It is harder to fight against pleasure than against anger.”
As quoted by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, Book II (1105a)

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.”
As quoted in Fragments (2001) translated by Brooks Haxton

“War is the father and king of all, and has produced some as gods and some as men, and has made some slaves and some free.”
Hippolytus, Ref. haer. ix. 9 (Fragment 53). G. T. W. Patrick, 1889

“Though wisdom is common, yet the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.”
Fragment 2, as quoted in Against the Mathematicians by Sextus Empiricus

“Much learning does not teach understanding.”
Fragment 40

“The road up and the road down is one and the same.”
Fragment 60

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers.”
Fragment 91. Plutarch, On the EI at Delphi

“Dogs, also, bark at what they do not know.”
Fragment 97

“It is better to conceal ignorance than to expose it.”
Fragment 109

“Character is destiny.”
Fragment 119

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December?

by December 26, 2018

By April Holloway, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? The popular answer is that it is Jesus’ birthday. However, it is necessary to reconsider that belief, No records exist in the Bible, or elsewhere, suggesting Jesus was born on that date. If it was not the birth of Christ which set Christmas Day apart from others in the calendar, what was it? To find out, you need to take look at ancient Persian and pagan traditions.
Christmas Was Probably Not the Day Christ was Born
First, let’s take a quick look at why Christmas probably wasn’t Jesus’ day of birth. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia states “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth” (Catholic Encyclopaedia). That being said, there are several reasons supporting the idea that Jesus wasn’t born in December. Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus’ birth “there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.” Scholars tend to agree that it is highly unlikely that shepherds were out with their flocks in the cold winter month.
Mosaic of the Good shephard

“The Good Shepherd” mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia. UNESCO World heritage site. Ravenna, Italy. 5th century AD. ( CC BY SA ) Few scholars believe shepherds were watching their flocks overnight in December – it’s more probable they would have kept them under cover.

Luke 2:1-4 also claims that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census when Jesus was born. These censuses were not known to have occurred in winter – also making it improbable to link Jesus’ birthday with the day now called Christmas.
Pagan Festivals
Okay, so Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th. Yet other important events did fall at that time of year for ancient pagans. The most well-known of these celebrations were Saturnalia and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra.
Originally, Saturnalia was held on December 17th, though the festival eventually was extended until December 25. This celebration honored Saturn, the God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was linked to the rise of a new year and the return of light. Ancient Romans would celebrate this date with a public banquet, giving gifts, partying, and holding a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn.

Roman fresco of dice players from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii. ( Public Domain ) Saturnalia was a “time-off” for slaves when they were allowed to wear nice clothes, sit at the head of the table, and gamble.

Mithra’s Birthday?
Roman Pagans who worshipped Mithras believed he was born on December 25th – the most holy day of the year for many ancient believers. This was a well-known cult for the Roman military in the 1st to 4th centuries AD. But Mithras is a god who has his origins in Persia beginning around the 6th century BC. The proto-Indo-Iranian language calls him ‘Mitra’, but that name was later adapted into Greek as ‘Mithras’. Many scholars believe that Roman soldiers discovered this god while completing military campaigns in Persia.
The Mithraic New Year and Mithras’ birthday were celebrated on 25 December. The date was part of the Roman Natalis Invicti festival – a celebration linked to worshipping the sun in general.
Persian Sun God

Mithra divinity statue in Vatican library, old illustration. By unidentified author, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840. (BigStockPhoto)

Uniting Pagan and Christian Beliefs
When Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, he may not have imagined how difficult it would be to convert pagans into Christians. To ease the transition, the birth of Jesus became associated with pagan holidays which fell in December. As the Pagan holidays gained Christian significance, it was decided that the birthday of the Sun God should also be the birthday of the Son of God. The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes an early Christian stating, “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…. Christ should be born”.

Ancient Worship in Modern Times?

by November 24, 2018

By Caleb Strom, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Roman Temple ceremony

A ceremony taking place at the new Roman temple. (Image courtesy of TEMPLVM.org)

Worship of the ancient pagan gods is on the rise in many parts of Europe. Norse Neopaganism is becoming popular in Scandinavia, Germany, and elsewhere. Hellenic Neopaganism or simply “Hellenism,” is gaining popularity in Greece and the area around the Aegean. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Italy, but also in Eastern Europe and the United States, the ancient Roman state religion is making a comeback. As of 2017, these modern Romans even have an active, public temple to Jupiter, the Iuppiter-Perunus temple.
Building the Iuppiter Perunus Temple
The story of the Temple to Iuppiter Perunus begins in 2009 when a group of Romans, or Roman Neopagans, bought land near Poltava, Ukraine. This was in response to the conviction that, if they were to truly revive Classical Rome as a living spiritual, cultural, and national entity, they needed a sacred space to worship and honor the gods that were and are at the heart of all that is authentically Roman in the pre-Christian sense.
Roman Temple

Initial development of the new Iuppiter Perunus temple. Source: TEMPLVM

In 2009, a 3 by 3-meter (9.84 by 9.84 foot) plot of land was purchased. By 2017, it had grown in size and was close enough to being complete that a ceremony was performed at the temple. The Iuppiter Perunus temple complex’s website claims that it is the first time certain Roman religious rites have been practiced in about 1600 years.
Three Roman weddings and many minor rites have also taken place since construction of the temple began. In addition to completing the current temple to Jupiter, these New Romans also intend to construct temples to Minerva, Juno, and to Mars, among other prominent deities in the old Roman state religion.
Development of the Roman Temple

Digital plan for the development of the Iuppiter Perunus temple. (Image courtesy of TEMPLVM.org)

A New Rome?
Reviving any aspect of Roman culture or civilization has been a subject of fascination ever since the fall of the western Roman Empire, the last political and cultural entity that could indisputably be considered a continuation of classical Rome. The Byzantines believed themselves to be the direct successors to Rome. This is because they were the rulers of what had been the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini are other famous polities that believed themselves to be, in some way, successors to Rome.
Emperor Mosaic

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. (Petar Milošević/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

An important difference between these earlier claimants and the modern reconstructionist movement, such as those building the temple, is that these polities merely desired to be political and perhaps cultural successors to Rome. None of them showed interest in reviving the ancient religion and spirituality of pagan Rome. All these empires that claimed to succeed Rome were Christian, Islamic, or secular.
Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proponents of romanticism gained an interest in reviving the religions of ancient pre-Christian Europe. By the 1920s, religious movements in Italy began to investigate and revive the ancient Roman religion. By the 1980s, numerous religious organizations which intended to revive the ancient Roman religion began to appear, mostly in Italy. Two well-known current examples are the U.S. based Nova Roma and the Roman Republic: Res Publica.
Modern Sacrifice

Members of Nova Roma conduct a Roman sacrifice to the goddess Concordia between the ruins of Aquincum, the modern city of Budapest, Hungary, during the Roman festival of Floralia, organized by the Aquincumi Múzeum. ( Public Domain )

These entities are non-profit organizations which consider themselves to be the front of a spiritual and cultural, but not necessarily political nation, united by common Roman values and religious practices and beliefs. They do not necessarily plan to create a political Roman state, but they do want to revive many of the social, religious, and spiritual aspects of the ancient Roman republic.
Roman Old Time Religion
Although there are many social and cultural aspects of the Roman way of life that do not appear religious, the spiritual center of a revived classical Rome is the revival of the ancient Roman religion and its focus on the ancient gods.
Ancient Roman Gods

Capitoline Triad of Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva. (Sailko/ CC BY 3.0 )

The ancient Romans, like the ancient Greeks and most ancient Mediterranean cultures, believed that nature was full of gods. The ancient Romans believed that gods might adopt humans as clients and become their patrons. In the patron-client system in Rome, a wealthier Roman, usually a patrician, would become a benefactor of a poorer Roman as his patron, providing for his physical needs and those of his family.
In response, the client was to honor the relationship with his patron through acts of service. The ancient Romans naturally saw their relationship with their gods in the same way. The gods might decide out of generosity to become patrons of individual mortals, a family, or the entire Roman state, as was the case with gods like Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva. In return, humans were to honor their immortal patrons through acts of piety including sacrifices and offerings.
Roman temple offering

An offering to the Gods conducted at the Iuppiter Perunus temple. (Image courtesy of TEMPLVM.org)

The Romans did not believe that their gods required humans to behave morally or that they punished immoral behavior usually, but they did believe that the gods had virtue. Unlike humans, the gods were believed to be free from vice and were not held back by what usually caused the downfall of humans, such as cowardice or excess. Another large aspect of Roman Neopaganism is reviving the ancient system of Roman virtues, which they believe to be the foundation of Western civilization.
Illustration of Roman Temple


Artist’s reconstruction of life in a Roman cardo of Jerusalem during the Aelia Capitolina period . (Carole Raddato/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Did Roman Culture Really Ever Go Away in the First Place?
The construction of the Iuppiter-Perunus temple and the emergence of Roman Neopaganism is unusual in that it includes a reconstruction of the ancient Roman religion, but it is not new in being a Western attempt to revive the glories of ancient Rome. The numerous attempts by the West to revive Rome also indicate that, in some sense, ancient Rome lives on in the modern Western way of life and thought.
Some historians even go as far as to suggest that Rome, as a civilization, never actually fell. In their opinion, it simply went through a dramatic transformation during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and that, to some degree, ancient Rome lives to this day in the form of the modern West. Latin is still used in science and in religious settings such as the Catholic Church. Many Roman legal terms are still in use today, though they tend to have different meanings, and many Western virtues are, essentially, copies of old Roman virtues. For most of modern history, until the last century and a half, standard Western education was not far removed from ancient Roman education.
It could be that one does not have to reconstruct classical Rome to be Roman. In a sense, all Westerners are Romans, since the West has inherited so much of Roman culture and values. Rome may not be eternal, but it is long-lived, long-lived enough for the king of the Roman gods to still have an active temple today.

The Statue of Zeus

by November 13, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
What do we really know?
It sounds like something straight out of the Hollywood machine that produced movies like Cleopatra and 300– and in all honesty, it kind of looks like a Hollywood prop piece too. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia has been deemed (rightly so) one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It stood almost 40 feet high and was outfitted with gold, ivory, precious stones, and sat on a cedar wood throne. In one hand, the statue holds a scepter with an eagle perched on top; the other hand, a statue of Nike. It was placed inside the preexisting Temple of Zeus, which has quite the foundation myth itself. Conjured up in our minds is a statue with the force of nature behind it, inspiring awe and fear simultaneously.
Thousands of years later, we have fragments of the temple, including the pediments, the base of the steps and some columns, but the overall superstructure was ravaged by fire and earthquakes, leaving us with less than ideal remains. Unfortunately, the statue no longer exists entirely, as it was likely destroyed in Constantinople sometime after 426 AD, leaving us with a major gap in the material record that we would love to have filled. Who wouldn’t want to find a gigantic Greek god in all his glory poking out of the ground somewhere? However, this is not more than unlikely, it’s quite impossible.
Temple of Zeus

Statue of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia
When talking about the imposing Statue of Zeus at Olympia, you can’t do so without talking about the temple within which it was placed. After all, context is the key to understanding, right? The temple of Zeus was built around 470-456 BCE and was one of the largest on mainland Greece. It was built primarily of local limestone, but Parian marble decorations adorned the facade in Severe and Early Classical style. Later, when restoration and renovation was needed, Pentelic marble was used. The temple provides us with sculptures on the metopes and the West and East Pediments that are truly amazing. The metopes boast the 12 labors of Heracles, while the West Pediment shows the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs at the wedding of Peirithos. The East Pediment illustrates preparations for the chariot race between Oinomaos of Pisa and Pelops for the hand of Hippodamia in marriage.
The overall impression we get of these depictions is that this is a temple honoring no small feats of strength, power, and man. No, this temple of Zeus reached for the highest caliber of laurels. Fittingly, the statue of Zeus that was commissioned to be placed inside the already existing temple was not to be any ordinary shrine. The statue of Zeus had to be more monumental than the accomplishments and stories of the heroes shown on the outside, making it clear the Zeus was trumping it all.
Sculpture of pediments

East Pediments

Writings about the Statue of Zeus

So how do we know about the statue in the first place? For this, we look to the many authors of Greece and Rome who committed the statue to writing. Strabo said that if the statue stood up, it would have lifted the roof of the temple. Pausanius also provides us with a detailed account of the statue and temple, describing Zeus to be ornamented with olive sprays, robes, intricate carvings, gold and ivory. Perhaps one of the more moving descriptions of the statue comes from Dio, who wrote that “a single glimpse of the statue would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.” It is safe to say that while this statue surpasses our idea of monumental and maybe even toes the line of ostentatious. Clearly, it impacted the very psyche of the visitors and patrons of the temple.
The statue took upwards of eight years to complete, and a workshop was built specifically for Pheidias to build it. Interestingly, we still have remains of what we think is Pheidias’ workshop. Thanks to the extensive literary descriptions we have of the statue, many reconstructions exist. While we can’t ever be sure that they are 100% accurate, it is certainly a great way to get an idea of just how massive and incredible this statue was. Take a look for yourself below and maybe you’ll be inspired to train for the Olympics in honor of this massive god: