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Sanitary Problems in Ancient Rome

by April 10, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
After having arrived home from the supermarket, I was just able to sit and stare blankly at one spot for one hour, wondering where the empathy and consideration have gone. When has it become normal to buy 10 bags of flour, or 40 packs of antibacterial wet wipes when a person behind you is left with none? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past?
Yes, the situation in which the world has found itself these days is scary, and yes, it is serious. However, please be reminded that we live in the 21st century, when it is possible to identify diseases that killed people 2000 years ago, not to mention the modern ones. We live in an age in which we can measure our body temperature in less than five minutes, in which we have the second person cured from HIV!
So, take a deep breath, sit at home with your family, take all the prevention measures expected of you, watch a movie, and be grateful for living in an age in which you can rely on experts doing their job.
People of ancient times did not have the same privilege, though. Let’s forget about our worries for a second and take a look at the struggles that the people in ancient Rome were facing.
Roman sewer

The first Roman sewer system called the Cloaca Maxima was built in the sixth century B.C. It started out as an open channel but was eventually closed and vaulted. The Cloaca Maxima is the oldest sewer system still in use today with some of its original masonry work still existing. (SOURCE)

Romans are still well-known for their advance in hygiene in comparison to the cultures preceding them, along with their sanitary innovations such as the sewage system and public toilets. What is less known, however, are the challenges that those innovations brought with them.
Public baths
As the majority of the Roman population could not afford private baths, they came up with public baths, or thermae. As bathing was an important part of Roman culture, these public baths became the center of socialization for the Romans. Therefore, it was expected to visit them regularly.
Even though bathing sounds like the best method of prevention when it comes to bacteria and disease, in ancient Rome it was quite the opposite at times. The problem with these baths was that the water was rarely changed, hence the dirt in it was kept warm, and as such, was fertile ground for bacteria. Moreover, doctors used to prescribe baths to patients, which led to the sick and healthy often bathing together.
Sewer system and public toilets
The Roman sewer system was considered one of the biggest sanitary achievements of ancient times. However, more recent researches (particularly those of Koloski-Ostrow and Jansen) have shown that Roman toilets were not as common as it had been previously thought, and that they did not offer that many benefits. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Public latrine

Remnants of an Ancient Roman latrine in Ostia Antica

It was discovered that Romans were in some kind of fear of public toilets. This is supported by the smaller number of graffiti on the walls, as well as the high number of shrines to goddess Fortuna, who was believed to protect toilet users from bad things happening there.
One of the biggest problems that Roman toilets had was the lack of protection from flies. This made human waste easily accessible to flies, which then made the spread of the pathogens very easy (not to mention the fact that human waste was (overly) used as a fertilizer). Another threat were rodents that could have easily lurked into toilets and homes, naturally contributing to this spread.
There was no official cleaning service when it came to public toilets, which naturally meant the neglect of proper care. This led to sewage pipes being more than often blocked by the amount of waste, which then led to people throwing waste on the street, and excrement-filled water flowing upwards during flooding.
Roman toilets

Artist’s impression of Roman toilets at Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. It may seem very surprising today that there was no privacy in Roman toilets. People used sponges on sticks instead of toilet paper. (SOURCE)

Last but not least, we should mention the Roman version of toilet paper. It was called xylospongium or tersorium and it consisted of a wooden stick and a sea sponge. They were used by everyone in the public toilet, and washed simply in a bucket of water and salt/vinegar. This wasn’t exactly the greatest hygienic practice that the world has ever seen, so naturally, the bacteria thrived in these sponges as well.
A research on parasitology conducted in 2016, by Piers Mitchell, showed that the presence of the fish tapeworm, an infection caused by a parasite Diphyllobothrium latum, increased significantly in Europe under the Romans. Mitchell suggests that this happened due to the Roman dietary customs.
A popular Roman dish called garum was a type of sauce whose main ingredient was fish. As the presence of the fish tapeworm was found in other areas of the Roman territory, there is a great possibility that garum made in northern Europe contained fish infected with this parasite. With the evidence of manufacture, transport and sale of this food, it is probable that this infected people outside of the area typical for the disease.
Antonine plague

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome; engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay

Don’t Forget Your Humanity
These are only some of the problems that the residents of ancient Rome were facing. We can now read this information with the sigh of relief and gratefulness to our ancestors for overcoming all these challenges.
However, we should not forget one thing – no science and advancement can save us from the lack of humanity. There is not an innovative scientific method that will prevent some people from buying one-year worth stocks of toilet paper, without thinking if someone else will need it. The moral of the story is: trust medicine, be responsible towards yourself and others, and don’t only keep calm, keep consideration and compassion.

The Plague of Athens

by April 1, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Throughout history, civilization has overcome natural and manmade challenges and adversities. Our histories are riddled with accounts of famines, wars, pestilences, and of course, plagues.

One such instance was the Plague of Athens, and now as the Coronavirus sweeps through our cities and countries, it is perhaps timely to remember the lessons of the past and learn from their experiences.


The epidemic, known as the Plague of Athens, swept through the main city of Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, in about 430 BC. It entered the city after decimating an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 inhabitants who lived in the city and near its port of Piraeus; Athens’ only port for food and supplies. Before the plague, it was believed that the Athenians would win the war. The outbreak shattered that belief.

So, what happened? Where did this epidemic come from, and what were the effects? In today’s climate of panic and hysteria surrounding the Coronavirus, it’s interesting to reflect on our predecessors’ experiences when facing an invisible enemy.


The Acropolis of Athens, as seen from Philopappou Hill. A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons

How was the disease able to cause such extreme damage? It’s a case of supply and demand gone wrong. As the war between the Delian League (Athens and supporting city-states) and the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and supporting city-states) raged on, the Delian League’s favorite tactic was to advance and then retreat behind the city walls, using the Athenian navy to harry their opponents.
Conversely, the Peloponnesian League was better suited to land attacks. After repeated skirmishes, more and more inhabitants of the Attica countryside began moving towards Athens and the city walls for protection. It didn’t take long for this shifting populace to start overcrowding the already busy streets of the city.

Whilst under the leadership of Pericles, the Athenians used this method of attack-and-defend. Though it worked for a while, their reliance on the Athenian navy to then bring in food through Piraeus was the weak point in their armor. With the increased numbers within the city, the navy could not supply enough food to meet the demand.

Alongside this, with a burgeoning population, who were now living too close to one another, hygiene was questionable, and this allowed for diseases to develop and spread at an unstoppable speed. The plague was indiscriminate, and the death-toll grew rapidly, claiming even the lives of Pericles, his wife, and their two sons.

Scene from the History of the Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852). Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides, who also contracted but survived the epidemic, wrote that it was so severe and deadly, that no one could remember anything like it. Physicians at the time didn’t understand what caused it, or how it was spreading so quickly, and were unable to treat the symptoms. In fact, they often died quicker than their patients due to multiple exposures to the infected.

The plague is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, where it spread to Egypt, Libya, and into the Greek territories through the Mediterranean Sea. Once the navy was exposed to this epidemic, it was only a matter of time before Athens would become infected; it is thought that an estimated 25% of the population died as a result.

Plague on Society

With the Spartan army watching the funeral pyres burn from a safe distance, and with the plague ravaging the city, it’s no wonder that the city’s inhabitants became quite fatalistic. As a result, society’s morals disappeared, and lawlessness became the new norm.

Thucydides also documented his observations on society’s response to the outbreak. He states that people ceased to fear the law because they already felt that they had a death sentence hanging over them. They believed there was no point in acting with honor, as they wouldn’t live long enough for this to matter. 

MICHAEL SWEERTS Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

As such, people who would normally be money conscious became excessive spenders to the point of bankruptcy, whilst poorer relations suddenly inherited great wealth due to extended family dying.

In fact, this was one reason why the plague swept through the city so easily; people initially acting with compassion for those afflicted then became infected themselves. The greater their exposure, the more likely it became that they would die. As a result, caring for the sick was stopped, and the ill were left to die alone.

Once deceased, the bodies were placed on pyres for burning. At this time, it was not uncommon for a funeral pyre to be appropriated by other users, who wished to burn their dead as soon as possible. Others were dumped in mass graves, one atop the other. One such mass grave was discovered at Kerameikos, outside of Athens, with 240 bodies interred, 10 of which were children—all victims of the plague.

As the disease wore on, those who survived developed an immunity, which allowed for them to care for those who would become ill. There may have been some semblance of gratitude from patient to carer, as many of the city’s inhabitants felt abandoned by their gods.

Sick child

John William Waterhouse – A Sick Child Brought Into the Temple of Aesculapius

The temples had become sites of mass grieving, filled with refugees from the war, or from the plague. These temples would soon become filled with the dead or dying, and the Athenians took this as a sign that the gods favored the Spartans. Thucydides, however, cites this behavior as the city’s residents simply being superstitious.


Whatever the cause, the effect on Athens’ society was irrevocable. With many of the poorer inhabitants inheriting wealth from their deceased family, the power balance between the rich and poor shifted dramatically. 

As mentioned above, survivors who had developed an immunity were better able to care for the infected. Thucydides backs this up, stating that the most sympathetic to the plights of others were those who had contracted and survived the disease themselves. However, a large number of these survivors were eventually discovered to have been “metics” (a foreign resident of Athens who did not have citizen rights in their Greek city-state of residence)—that is, illegal citizens—who did not have rights and protections as a legal Athenian citizen.

Once discovered, many of these metics were reduced to being slaves and stricter laws were passed regarding becoming an Athenian citizen. These laws not only significantly reduced the rights and well-being of the remaining metics, but also resulted in a decreased number of available soldiers for the Athenian military, as well as a decrease in the political power of Athens herself.


Kerameikos Archeological park. Taken at Athens, greece, April 2011 (public domain)

The damage caused by loss of political strength and citizen morale could not be reversed. In time, Athens would be defeated by Sparta, and their place in history, as a major power in Ancient Greece, would become forfeit.


It’s easy to become swept up in the hype and hysteria that surrounds Coronavirus. But, just like the Athenians, if we only focus on that, instead of following good hygiene and keeping a respectful distance of others, we will likely face a similar fate. 

What can we observe from this ancient experience? To be reasoned and compassionate towards others. Not to put ourselves at risk, but also not to deny others assistance if it is safe to offer it. Care for those around us, and when we find ourselves to be survivors, not to turn on each other out of greed or fear.

We can learn much from our ancient forebears, and the best lesson is to be moderate and mild, to temper our intake—both of food and information; to act with reason and to refrain from ill tempers and dishonorable acts. That way, we leave a fine example for history to share with future generations.

Christianity and the Rise of the Hospital in the Ancient World

by March 27, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Most of us are lucky enough to be within driving distance of a major hospital. It is often the case that we take our medical services for granted. In the Classical era, things were very different. Though the Greeks and Romans made many innovations, they failed to provide any public healthcare. The establishment of the first hospitals was a result of Christianity.
Hospitals Before the Coming of Christianity
Before the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, healthcare was left to the individual and the family. There had been some charitable hospitals in existence in Rome in the 1st century BC, and even by the 1st century AD  there were only private hospitals accessible to the rich.
However, there were many temples and sanctuaries to the Greek God of Healing, Asclepius. All over the Roman world there were shrines to the God, called Askleipions. Here sick people went if they needed to find relief from some illness or condition.

View of the Askleipion of Kos, the best preserved instance of a Greek Askleipion.

Many regard these as among the first hospitals because priests would often tend to the sick and comfort them in their illness. There were many facilities for the sick and many of the priests of Asclepius were renowned as healers.  Yet, only believers were allowed to enter these early medical facilities.
There was also the series of military hospitals set up by various Emperors. These were only designed for wounded and ill soldiers and did not provide treatment for the general population.
Christianity and Medicine
The Christian faith was very concerned with religious philanthropy.  That is, it was a creed that encouraged its followers to help those who were unfortunate and needy. It was part of a Christian’s duty to alleviate the sufferings of others. Jesus himself performs several miracles that involve healing, and St. Luke is reported as having been a physician in Antioch.
“Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and practice hospitality.” Romans 12:13

Quadrangle from the Monastery of Great Lavra. Luke the Evangelist. 15th century

In the first centuries of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus were occasionally driven underground and persecuted. The community came to depend on each other. Christians who were physicians would help their fellow believers in times of need. As churches were established some of them were used as informal hospitals. The Christians would often help others during epidemics such as the Antonine Plague.
“Each of us must consider his neighbour and think what is for his good and will build up the common life.” Romans 15:2
The Birth of the Hospital
After the Battle of the Milveian bridge, Christianity gradually became the state religion. This not only brought religious toleration for Christians but also a special status. Soon churches and cathedrals were springing up all over the Empire. They became the centre of communities and the sick often received treatment there.
The first hospitals were built in association with Christian basilicas. They were part of the Churches efforts to help the poor, which was a religious obligation. Local bishops were the driving forces behind these institutions.
Hotel-Dieu de Paris

Hôtel-Dieu de Paris c. 1500. The comparatively well patients (on the right) were separated from the very ill (on the left).

There is no agreement on who built the first hospital, but it is claimed that Leontius of Antioch built one between the years 344 to 358. At around the same time, possibly with the support of the Emperor, a deacon was placed in charge of the hospitals in Constantinople. This would suggest that hospitals run by Christians had been established even earlier than the mid-4th century AD.
These hospitals proved to be very popular with many, especially in urban areas. By the end of the 4th century there were a vast number of hospitals run by Christians throughout the Empire, but primarily in the Eastern provinces (a reflection of the fact that these provinces were more Christianised and also wealthier). Saints such as Saint Sampson and Basil of Caesarea (Saint Basil the Great), both built hospitals in what is now modern Turkey.
What were these hospitals like?
The majority of these hospitals were staffed by clerics or Christian laypeople, who cared for the sick. Doctors were far and few between, but many were chief physicians. They were deeply influenced by Greek ideas on medicine and by medical thinkers such as Galen and Hippocrates. By modern standards these hospitals were basic and unsanitary.
These early Christian hospitals were mostly reserved for the poor and outsiders such as immigrants, and were concerned with helping the poor die with respect and dignity.  These facilities only offered basic care and succour because of the limited state of medicinal knowledge. Some were bigger, such as the one founded by St Basil of Caesarea. His foundation had an aged isolation unit, wards for sick travelers, and a leprosy house.

Public Domain

Hospitals after the Fall of Rome
After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the evolution of the hospital continued. In the West, monasteries provided basic health care to the poor and dying. However, in the Byzantine Empire, the successor state of the Roman Empire in the East, there was a large increase in the number of hospitals.
The Byzantine Emperors bestowed lavish sums on the Church, and this meant that extensive hospitals were built that offered in-patient care and had even departments for those with different afflictions and diseases. These Early Byzantine hospitals would go on to greatly influence the development of medical facilities in the Muslim world.
The word “hospital” has the ability to conjure up different feelings in different people, based on the experiences we’ve had. Yet, I think everyone can and should appreciate the long development of our idea of hospitals as a place where all people can go for care and to be healed.

Automation in the Ancient World: The Robots of Greece and Rome

by January 31, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A common topic of discussion these days is the growing automation of the world. Basically, automation means any machinery or self-operating machinery. They are designed to act in a predetermined way and according to instructions, the best example of this is perhaps a robot.
We think that automation and automatons are modern inventions. In fact, like so much else, we owe a debt to the Romans and Greeks, who were pioneers in automation.
Early automation
The word automation or automaton comes from the Greek. Homer was the first to use this term. In Greek mythology, there are many references to self-moving machines. The poet described tables in Olympus that could be automated.
Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, created automatons, or robots, to work in his workshops. This deity also created a killer-robot, Talos, who would throw rocks at the enemy.
Talos 2

A Cretan coin depicting the giant automaton Talos.

The famous inventor Daedalus reputedly created a moving statue that could speak rather like a robot. In another myth, Alkinous, the King of Phaecia, had mechanical watchdogs that guarded his palace. These fables had some basis in fact, as the Greeks were capable engineers.
Robots and automata of the Greeks
The Greeks were able to design and build self-directed machines. There is evidence that they built a bronze automaton of an eagle and a dolphin that were on display at the Olympic Games. Many of the automatons developed were only toys, such as the birds invented by Archytas (c. 428 – 347 BC). However, one inventor known as Philon of Byzantium (c. 280 BC – 220 BC), invented a repeating crossbow.
It seems that in the Hellenistic period, developments in automation really advanced. In this period inventors used a complex system of levers, pulleys and wheels to build self-directed machinery. Rhodes became well known for its machine and there were two automatons in one of its main squares, to impress visitors.
A book on automation, On Automaton-Making, was written by the mathematician-engineer, Hero of Alexandria, and in it he described many of his automatons and self-operating machines. These included hydraulic systems, fire engines, wind-operated machines, and even a self-propelled cart. He also invented a number of war machines. It appears that in Alexandria there was a theatre that consisted only of automatons, who performed dramas for audiences.

Hero’s sketch of Opening Temple-Doors by Steam, b. c. 200, from A History
of the Growth of the Steam-Engine, by Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E.

Religious automatons and automation
Religion was a very important part of ancient life. Many of the inventions that were developed came to be used in religious processions and temples. From the sources, we know that the Greeks used self-operated machines for religious purposes.
In religious and civic processions, which were a feature of life in cities such as Athens, automatons played a major role. In civic festivals, these machines were a type of entertainment technology. The god Nysa was part of a religious procession in Alexandria, and a figure of the god was carried in a cart and it would stand up and pour libations, which greatly impressed the crowds.
The automated snail of Demetrius of Phalerum is one of the earliest and most intriguing references to a processional automaton from the ancient world. Demetris was a tyrant and used the automaton to impress the population and make them accept his rule.
As for shrines and temples, it seems automatons were used to impress the faithful. There are many references to these technologies. They include references to figurines that could pour libations and also appeared to dance. Some accounts indicate that there was a shrine to Dionysus that had a number of automated figures. Several temples had trumpets that would sound when a door was opened and many shrines had automated water dispensers.

Hero’s Steam Fountain, b. c. 200, from A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine, by Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E.

Antikythera mechanism
The majority of technology developed by the Greeks seems to have only been for entertainment, spectacle, and toys, However, the Antikythera mechanism (1st century BC), recovered from a sunken ship in the Aegean Sea, appears to be the first analog computer, and it was designed to make astronomical calculations possible in order to determine the timing of the Olympics.
Roman robots
There is little record of the Romans developing automatons, however, they were great engineers. It seems that, like the Greeks, they used automatons as toys, entertainment and public spectacles.
Mark Anthony had an automaton of Julius Caesar, made of wax, depicting Caesar rising from his deathbed and turning, slowly, to display his twenty-three bleeding wounds to the crowd. This started a riot and led to Brutus and the other killers of Caesar fleeing the city.
There are also reports that Roman temples used mechanical birds and figurines in a similar manner to the Greeks.

Illustration from Roman Watermills: From the 1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., by Wilson of High Wray

The end of automation in the ancient world
The collapse of the Roman Empire meant that much of the knowledge of self-operating machines was lost. However, much still survived and the Byzantines, and later the Arabs, built machines based on Greek and Roman models.
It is common for us today to theorize, and even worry, about the future of technology—the possibilities and the dangers that await us from automation and AI. The automatons of today and the future are and will be, of course, more advanced than those of our Greek and Roman ancestors. Nonetheless, they still inspire us to this day.

International Trade in the Ancient World

by January 14, 2020

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisodm
We are all aware of the great achievements of the Greeks and the Romans. However, they were also great traders and they helped to establish an international trade network that changed the world.
The Early International Trade Network
After the Bronze Age collapse caused by the invasions of the Sea Peoples, the international trade system was in disarray. It was the Phoenicians, based in what is now Lebanon, that revived trade. They bought metals from as far as Spain and also traded luxury goods. Their colony of Carthage helped to create a pan-Mediterranean trade network.
The Greeks competed with the Phoenicians, especially after they established many colonies in the 8th century BC. In particular, they controlled the trade with the Black Sea. City-states such as Athens grew wealthy from this trade and they exported manufactured goods, such as vases, far and wide.
By the 4th century BC, many parts of the Mediterranean traded with each other. They exchanged mainly luxury goods, such as wine, but also metals and grains. Olive oil and wine was also traded over vast distances and they were stored in amphorae. Most international trade was undertaken by oared galleys because land travel was too slow and dangerous.

A collection amphorae retrieved from a shipwreck

The Hellenistic Age
The conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great unsurprisingly had a huge impact on the known world. It also transformed international trade. Asia was opened up to Greek traders and they collaborated with local merchants, creating a vast international economy. Macedonian colonists in Egypt and Asia maintained their traditional way of life, demanding goods from the Greek mainland, and this stimulated commerce across borders.
Alexander founded many cities on trade routes, as was particularly the case in Bactria and Syria. These cities helped to greatly expanded commerce and as a result grew fabulously rich.
Meanwhile, the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies helped to link the Indian subcontinent with the Mediterranean. The Seleucids traded with the Mauryan Indian kingdom and the Ptolemies also traded with India, using an Indian Ocean sea route. Moreover, the Ptolemies established stations on the east coast of Africa in order to obtain war elephants and they gradually became trading posts as well.
The Roman Empire and International Trade
From an early date Rome was an important trading center, especially in salt. As Rome conquered Italy over the centuries, it built roads and fostered trade, and when the Roman Republic acquired territories outside Italy, it established colonies of merchants. After the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War, it dominated long-distance trade.

Roman coins found in India

The first two centuries of the Roman Republic were times of peace and prosperity, and the various provinces of the Empire traded with each other. The Romans were very interested in international trade; they received much of its grain from North Africa and exported luxury items, such as wine, to provinces such as Britain. After Augustus annexed Egypt he promoted policies that greatly benefitted local merchants, such as building a port on the Red Sea coast.
Soon there were many more ships traveling to India during the Monsoon season when the winds were favorable. The Romans traded extensively with the Indo-Scythians and later the Kushan Empire, typically buying rare Indian goods, such as spices with coins.
During these voyages, the ships would visit Arabia and soon the Romans traded with ports in the area as well. Indeed, Augustus considered invading Arabia Felix (modern Yemen) which was fabulously rich from its trade in Frankincense.
The Romans also traded on the east coast of Africa. Again, they followed the precedent of the Ptolemies, trading with African communities on the Indian Ocean coast. The Romans received slaves, ivory and tortoise shells from the kingdom of Aksum (Eretria and Ethiopia). It is believed that Roman ships traveling from ports in Egypt reached as far south as modern Tanzania.
Roman merchants also traded with the Germanic tribes, but only during periods of peace.
on a camel

A Silk Road trader on a camel

The Silk Road
By the 1st century BC, the Han Chinese Empire had expanded into Central Asia, allowing them to trade with the Kushan and the Parthian Empire. The Silk Road was a network of mainland routes that connected China and South-East Asia with West Asia. As the Silk Road grew, Rome was able to trade indirectly with China, through intermediaries. The goods were mainly moved on the back of camels that made the long and dangerous journey. However, a maritime route was later established from a Chinese controlled port in Vietnam to Roman Egypt.
An especially popular import from the far East was Chinese silks. In fact, the Senate tried to ban the wearing of silk because it was deemed immoral. Nonetheless, many Roman ladies wore skimpy silk dresses to the horror of the Senators.
Greek and Roman Merchant Class
In ancient Greece, international trade was in the hands of merchants known as emporoi who often worked in large associations, and were also often ship owners. There is some evidence that there were Roman merchant guilds as in Medieval Europe and they engaged in international trade. Negotiatores were wealthy merchants who bought goods in bulk and sold them to small traders. They often became very rich and could also act as bankers; only they could finance trade missions to India and elsewhere.
Much of the international trade was dominated by plebeians or former slaves, as members of the elite could not engage in trade by law. However, they were probably investors in commercial ventures. The growth of transnational commercial networks resulted in the development of new financial techniques, and even basic accounting, in the Classical era.

Greek merchants from an amphorae

The Decline of International Trade
The Roman Empire had a massive trade deficit because of its insatiable hunger for luxury goods. This led to a shortage of coinage in the 3rd century AD, and this is often seen as one of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. At the same time, China had fragmented into a number of kingdoms, losing control over Central Asia. The Silk Road became less secure and trade declined. Rome’s economy almost collapsed in the 5th century and trade with India was also much reduced. When the Germanic invasions led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, international trade collapsed. However, the Eastern Roman Empire continued to trade with its neighbors, including China via the Silk Road, after the fall of Rome.

The Bacchae: the Morals of Murderous Women

by January 5, 2020

If I invited you to a bacchanalia what would you expect? Wine? Dancing? Sex? Of course you would. How about harmonizing with nature? Mass hallucination? Violence? Carpaccio? You’re beginning to think you should call and cancel, aren’t you?
Well don’t worry, it might not be as wild as you think. Then again, it might be much worse. The ancient Athenians, like you and I, did not seem to have a crystal clear idea of what constituted a bacchanalia.
This reason for this is simple – it was a secret. Well, a mystery to be precise.
The shroud of secrecy that hung over these proceedings is appropriately reflected in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Appropriate because, despite a straightforward plot, The Bacchae is probably the least easy of Euripides‘ extant plays to analyse. Written in Macedon and performed posthumously in Athens, the story is simple:
The Women in the bacchae
Pentheus, the king of Thebes, had banned all worship of his cousin Dionysus. Dionysus decided to wreak revenge. He sent the women of the city mad with devotion and forced them out into the glens of Mount Cithaeron. These women were his ‘Bacchae’. Pentheus wanted to arrest all the Bacchae and execute the ‘effeminate foreigner’ (Dionysus in disguise) who was exciting them. Dionysus was arrested, he escaped, and then escorted a brainwashed (and transvestitized) Pentheus into the countryside to watch the sexual exploits of the Bacchae.
Far from getting his free peep show, Pentheus was torn limb from limb by the revellers led by his crazed mother, Agave. Agave brought the head of Pentheus back to the city and everyone agreed that it had been a mistake to disrespect Dionysus.
So where lies the problem? Well, it lies in the message. Quite simply, there isn’t a great deal of consensus as to what it was.
A lot has been made of the conspicuous absence of sex in the behavior and dialogue of Dionysus. It is Pentheus who seems obsessed with this element of the dionysiac experience. And indeed, it is this obsession that leads to his death. Before the opportunity to spy on the worshippers arises, Pentheus, though in the wrong, is strong and steadfast in his opposition to Dionysus.

Death of Pentheus

However, Pentheus is actually dionysiac by nature – as, of course, his blood would dictate. Failure to repress, or fully submit to this leads first to the loss of his authority and, ultimately, to the loss of his life.
What this treatment of the sexual element means is unclear. Was Euripides trying to convey that the worship of Dionysus was more than merely about sex? Was he pointing out that the reputation of the mystery cult in Macedon was different to that in Athens?
Another theory is that the play is a deathbed repentance of a man recanting all his years of blasphemy.
However, this is hard to believe as Dionysus is portrayed as a creature of horror, violence and cruelty. Not content with justice, but desirous to carry out torture and humiliation.
We witness this when the citizens of Thebes see their addled king being marched through the streets, emasculated in women’s garb. On his return both the clothes, and the body they covered, have gone. All that is left is a severed head clutched in the hands of his frenzied mother.
Whilst there is a call for piety, it feels more borne of pragmatism rather than of true belief. Cadmus, grandfather of Pentheus and Dionysus, states: “Mortals must not make light of gods – I would never do so”.
His words are given extra weight as he, along with Teiresias, are the only noble and wise characters in the play. He continues with a criticism: “Dionysus, god of joy, has been just, but too cruel”. Whilst the Chorus chime in with: “Cadmus I grieve for you. Your grandson suffered justly, but you most cruelly”.
The emphasis is not on hubris or blasphemy, but on the folly of upsetting a powerful enemy. This is tantamount to the willful abandonment of wisdom, something which many believed was at the root of key social and political problems in Athens.
Dionysus himself explicitly states: “If you all had chosen wisdom, when you would not, you would have found the son of Zeus your friend”. This is perhaps the most convincing of the possible messages. Not least because it is consistent with the lifelong views of Euripides.
This play was written far away from the war-obsessed, bereaved, bankrupt and exhausted world of Athens, at a time when the Peloponnesian War was in the process of being lost.
Whether Euripides was a bitter exile or a content expatriate we cannot know, but his distance, together with his advanced age, may have given him greater urgency and freedom.
So, was the play a warning to the city?
A warning to be pious seems disingenuous, but perhaps that is what it was. Regardless of his religious beliefs, Euripides knew most Athenians exhibited signs of true belief. Is he, therefore, using religion to manipulate the believers? In doing so, trying to highlight the folly of war, trying to bring an end to the carnage?

Bust of Euripides

It is unusual to have a god, a true god – not a Heracles figure, dominate the action. Tragedy is filled with gods, but they are usually behind the scenes, pulling the strings, causing or resolving problems out of mortal control.
Religion and violence are clearly important aspects of The Bacchae. However, it is difficult to understand if the former is being used to explain, excuse, or warn against the latter. We certainly see extreme and brutal violence in Pentheus’ punishment. Also, he says he wants to ‘hunt’ the Maenads (the female followers of Dionysus) and has desires to execute the effeminate foreigner by stoning, hanging or beheading.
As Teiresias puts it: “Come Pentheus, listen to me. You rely on force; but it is not force that governs human affairs”.
Is Euripides emphasizing peace, piety or wisdom? Some traditional commentators consider the three interchangeable, each impossible to achieve without the others.
Something we must bear in mind is that Euripides knows he won’t be around much longer. He’ll no longer be there to tell people how to think, to point out the error of their ways. If he can persuade his estranged countrymen to think for themselves, to think logically, calmly and peacefully, then perhaps he can die with some hope for Athens.

Prophet Teiresias

More superficially, there is the idea that Euripides thinks Athenians are simply taking life too seriously. The fifth century is a time of serious thought, of democracy, logic, laws, expansion and building. Perhaps Euripides, reflecting from his position of remote tranquillity, thinks everyone should be a bit more dionysiac, should do what feels good.
We again turn to Teiresias for support: “Men have but to take their fill of wine and the sufferings of an unhappy race are banished…This is our only cure for the weariness of life”.
Or simply, sadly and quite subtly, the play might be an introspective look at the life of a lonely exile, a man who misses the acropolis and agora of Athens. Cadmus could easily have been our playwright in disguise: “What utter misery and horror has overtaken us all…in my old age I must leave my home and travel to strange lands”.
You may see this play as a belated adoption of religion, a drive for peace, the plea of an educated man desperate for his fellow citizens to think, the lament of a heartbroken exile who misses his homeland, or simply an encouragement for us too to dance, drink and be merry. Whichever way, hopefully the overriding conclusion drawn from The Bacchae is that this is a truly fascinating piece of theatre from the mind of an undeniably extraordinary individual.
Interested in reading the twisted tale of The Bacchae by Euripides? You can access it here for Free:
The Bacchae: the Morals of Murderous Women” was written by Ben Potter