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Greece Versus Rome: Polybius Decides

by July 17, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is the eternal question for all classics enthusiasts: brawn versus brains, power versus beauty, empire versus empiricism – Rome versus Greece.
Which team do you support?
Picture of Athens

Which is better? Greece or Rome? Illustration of Ancient Athens

Of course the equation is far, far more complex than that. Indeed, most of the choices listed above are somewhere on the spectrum between ridiculously oversimplified or downright wrong; too false to even make a false dichotomy.
From our remote distance of time and space we may feel unable to adequately, or at least authoritatively, answer this question. However, there was one man uniquely placed to give his opinion on the subject – Polybius.
The Greek Roman Historian
Polybius was a Greek historian who had been taken hostage by the Romans in the 160’s BC. From that time on he became an important and prominent member of Roman society and embraced the country and culture that had rent him from his homeland.
Steele of Polybius

The stele of Kleitor depicting Polybius, Hellenistic art, 2nd century BC, Museum of Roman Civilization

Thus, Polybius gives us an intelligent outsider’s view of a budding young empire, one that was already making huge waves in the Mediterranean two centuries before the age of the Caesars.
But how did these waves occur? What tiny ripples set them in motion?
Well, Book VI of Polybius’ The Rise of the Roman Empire is devoted to explaining exactly how Rome became the world beater it was. Not through events (that is tackled elsewhere in his work), but through organization.
According to our historian, the only way for people to prosper in the ancient world was if they had a strong constitution… and Polybius idealized the Roman constitution.
The Robust Roman Constitution
Reconstruction of Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome, built on a strong constitution? Reconstruction of Ancient Rome

He thought it was optimal because it combined the three theoretically sound, but easily corruptible, systems of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Together these became more than the sum of their parts and acted as checks and balances against one another, thus making sure no one body became predominant.
Moreover, each system, Polybius states, inevitably decays and devolves down the social ladder before completing a full cycle (i.e. monarchy becomes aristocracy which becomes democracy which becomes monarchy…). This governmental anacyclosis, or perpetual revolution, according to Polybius, is what made his countrymen inferior to his captors.
So what manifestation did these political pillars take?
Well, first let’s look at the aristocracy – the privileged, out-of-touch members of society who controlled all the wealth of the empire and were nigh on impossible to remove from power.
Yes, of course we’re talking about the heartbeat of Roman politics… the Senate!

Cicero Denounces Catiline in the Roman Senate (1888), by Cesare Maccari

While Polybius propounds the virtue of a balanced system of government, nothing could have been further from the truth, because, in reality, the Senate held all the cards and, by and large, did whatever it wanted to do.
This included the monarchical arm of government, the Consuls, which were appointed by the Senate. Two men were chosen together on one-year terms to be the commanders-in-chief, as well as be responsible for the purse strings of the state. And strictly speaking, one was not eligible for the position of Consul unless he had completed the cursus honorum (path of honor), meaning he had already held every significant office of government.
Meanwhile, the democratic element of Rome’s constitution was the most flimsy and theoretical of the three. Polybius claimed that nothing could be done without first being ratified by the plebeian classes, but in actuality, this was but a tiny obstacle for the Senate to circumvent (or sometimes completely ignore).
Roman Consuls

Roman Drawing – Two Roman Consuls On Their Thrones by Mary Evans Picture Library

Thus, despite technically being a balanced, democratic government with a qualified and responsible head of state, Rome was de facto ruled by a self-interested and pernicious elite.
Such a thing is, of course, unimaginable to us now!
AntiFragile Constitution?
Polybius didn’t merely believe Rome’s constitution to be strong, but felt it was one able to withstand any disaster, one perfectly devised, and therefore eternally fit, for purpose.
And perhaps the Roman constitution was ideal in Polybius’ day. Certainly there was sound reasoning behind his argument; he was no blind acolyte. Rome supremely dominated his known world and it must have been previously unimaginable that Greece/Macedon could ever be knocked off its lofty perch.
After all, the tripartite constitution was borne out of the ashes of the fallible and inferior systems of the old world; Rome had learned the mistakes of its decaying predecessors. And with this knowledge it was ready to be the caput canis for evermore.
However, Polybius could not have predicted Rome’s meteoric rise, its expansion in all directions, its resources and responsibilities, its supreme and unrivaled status.
Statue of Polybius

Statue of Polybius, Vienna Parlimanet Austria.

Had he done so, then he may not have been so dogmatic in his assertion that the state’s current constitution determines its future strength; he may have conceded that, as nations evolve, so must the manner in which they are governed.
With the blessing of hindsight this is easy enough to say. Thankfully with such well-documented events readily available to anyone with the remotest curiosity in constitutional history, we can sleep safely in the knowledge that the present political arbiters will not commit the same folly of the Romans and needlessly shipwreck the state!
‘New’ World Allure
It’s easy to understand why Polybius wrote the way he did.
As an alien from the old world, the splendor and riches of a foreign country so much mightier than his homeland must have dazzled him.
Interior of the Pantheon

Rome’s Glory: The interior of the Pantheon in Rome, a concrete mausoleum with a beautiful dome and rows of columns.

And so, he simultaneously excused Greek inadequacies and explained his host’s dominance by the system of government the Romans employed.
It was the constitution that made Rome successful, he argued, and not fallible individuals, a disparity of natural resources or a more clement climate. And it certainly wasn’t the two most consistently important factors that have benefited states throughout all of history… timing and luck.
Rome Versus Greece
Book VI of Polybius’ history doesn’t merely talk about Rome’s superiority in governmental structure; the Greek armies also come in for plenty of criticism.
Polybius states that they were obsessed with using natural terrain, rather than discipline and tactics, as the default method of triumphing in battle. The reason being the Greeks were simply too lazy to build trenches or camps.
He also claims Greek bureaucrats were untrustworthy and corrupt when compared to their Roman counterparts.
Not that he puts this down to a weakness in the blood, but because Greeks (unlike Romans) were not sufficiently god-fearing.
He goes on to state that religion (literally ‘superstition’) stops the lower classes from behaving in a decadent and lawless manner. Despite his support for all things godly, he also believes that religion would not be necessary if all men were wise!
Ancient Greek Funeral Painting

The lying in state of a body (prothesis) attended by family members, with the women ritually tearing their hair, depicted on a terracotta pinax by the Gela Painter, latter 6th century BC

Concurrent and parallel with the religious theme is one of ancestral devotion and public funerary rites, which was a great honor for a citizen.
During the ceremony a notable member of society read out the achievements of the deceased’s ancestors. This made diligent service to Rome not only a thing of civic and personal pride, but through these public funerals, a source of family pride as well.
For all these reasons, Polybius believed the Romans had achieved superior feats to the Greeks.

The Birth of the Biography

by July 5, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of Thucydides

Painting of Thucydides

What springs to mind when we think about literature of the Ancient World? Maybe it’s Homer’s Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector around Troy or Sophocles’ Oedipus stabbing out his polluted eyes. Perhaps it’s Plato’s Socrates holding forth or Herodotus’ Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. It even might be the dulcet tones of Sappho, the penetrating ones of Catullus, or the scathing superiority of Cicero.
Whilst the above mentioned epic poetry, theatrical drama, philosophical dialogue, historiography, romantic poetry, and private correspondence are all represented as well as appreciated, we give less thought to an area of literature that has never been more prevalent than it is in modern times.
It is the form of writing which is the savior for those wishing to buy lousy, last-minute Christmas presents; the biography.
painting of Aristotle

Aristotle, by Jusepe de Ribera, 1637

The beginnings of this genre are both fragmentary and fractured, as the writers of biography have their smudgy thumbprints all across the literature of antiquity. Consequently, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when ‘biography’ begins.
Fantastical as it may be, a case can be made for Homer’s Odyssey being an early antecedent. A more palatable comparison, however, can be found in early Greek dirges and funeral orations.
Sirens with Odysseus

Odysseus and the Sirens, an 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse

Likewise, the first historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, comprised elements of biography within their works, but these were (as in histories today) used for example, explanation and color. Essentially as a means, not an end.
Thucydides does get mightily close with his almost fanatical devotion to the famous 5th century Athenian statesman, Pericles; likewise with his depictions of Themistocles and Pausanias – two of the leading lights of the Persian Wars.
Statue of the Athenian General

Bust of Pericles

Thucydides’ contemporary Xenophon is sometimes credited with siring the genre. However, his Cyropaedia (life of Cyrus the Great) is more akin to Plato’s Republic or Polybius’ Book VI in that it has an agenda in promoting and justifying a specific form of government or political system.
Not surprisingly, it took the interference of Aristotle to change the way biography was approached.
His views on ethics prompted the rethink that deed was no longer the be-all and end-all of a man’s life, his character was now worth more than a mere footnote.
The reign of Alexander the Great, brief as it was (336-323 BC), was the next great catalyst which brought a spate of biographical works. Notably from Ptolemy I, the founder of the dynasty that would eventually (and incestuously) spawn Antony’s Cleopatra.

Anthony and Cleopatra on the Nile by Lawrence Alma Tadema

Some biographers, such as Onesicritus, dealt with how Alexander was brought up, rather that his personality or accomplishments. Ptolemy, however, focused on Alexander, the man, more than his exploits. Furthermore, Ptolemy contributed to the field of biography beyond his scribblings, he also created an ethos of scholasticism, most notably by establishing the Royal Library of Alexandria.
Then there was the memoir, the most self-indulgent and vainglorious form of biography, which was also in existence (even if not prevalent) in the Greek world.
When Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean both artistically as well as militaristically, the biography became exultant and, very often, ‘auto’.
This is thought to have been due to the importance of family, specifically of the reflected glory of noble lineage – a preoccupation that went far beyond familial pride. A Roman’s self-worth was intrinsically linked to the glory of his forbears, a concept that never failed to irk the novus homo, Cicero.

Cicero Denounces Catiline (1888), by Cesare Maccari

The fact that Romans paraded busts of prominent ancestors at funerals shows how much stock they put in…. well, stock.
Indeed, the death of a family member was a wonderful opportunity to pompously self-promote. It could even be said that the distastefully elaborate and lengthy epitaphs from the time were a form of biography in themselves.
In general, biography became an exercise not only in curiosity or narcissism, but also in duty and career advancement.
For example, Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Civili and Commentarii de Bello Gallico (chronicling his part in the Civil and Gallic wars respectively) best capture the imagination. Not merely because they were particularly subtle and sly in terms of self-glorification, but because they worked in advancing his political position – or at the very least, appear to have done. Well… until he was stabbed anyway!
Caesar Gallic Wars

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, by Lionel Royer

However, the precedent had been set, a tradition had begun. The emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Hadrian and Septimius Severus all wrote similar such books.
Marcus Aurelius, the great philosophical emperor, reached a zenith in this narrow field with his intellectually curious and stoic form of self-promotion. Indeed, it is thought there is nothing comparable to his introspection written by a native Latin.
It’s important to remember that in general, the biography was not merely a vehicle for glory, but for survival of both oneself and one’s state.
As the Republic was dying and the Empire forming, power seemed to be capriciously ebbing out of the hands of all those who briefly held it. With the stakes so unprecedentedly high, biography was used to defend, accuse, counter-accuse… it became the conduit, the desperate measure the desperate times required.
P.S. The Other Biographers
You may be amazed that the above article could have discussed ancient biography without even alluding to the contributions of men like Theopompus, Timaeus, Plutarch, Josephus, Tacitus, Sulla and Sallust.
The truth is that each of these fine exemplars of the art could easily have devoured the author’s weekly word-count without so much as a “how do you do”.
That said, the one glaring omission who deserves special attention (even in the context of why he has been ignored) is Suetonius.

A fictitious representation of Suetonius from the 15th-century Nuremberg Chronicle

Dealing with the lives of the leaders of Rome from Julius Caesar up to Domition, it is a work truly worthy of scrutiny. Indeed, it could be said (though I’m sure not entirely without detractors) that, when it comes to the biography of antiquity, Suetonius is even more essential than he is elegant and enlightening.
Rather than use my own paltry words, I will borrow from the foremost expert in the field, Christopher Pelling of Christ Church College, Oxford. Here he explains the impact and importance that Suetonius had in highlighting the un-oscillating swing that had occurred in the higher echelons of Roman politics:
“The style of the Caesars proved congenial as spectators increasingly saw Roman history in terms of the ruling personality, and biography supplanted historiography as the dominant mode of record”.
And this style, twinned with the introspection and inquisitiveness of Marcus Aurelius, are the ingredients that go into many of the biographies flying off the shelves today.

Mummy Mia: the Fayum Mummy Portraits

by July 3, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A mummy, a vampire, and Frankenstein’s Monster walk into a bar… and order a classic Hollywood horror trope. Throughout the years, mummies have been cinematic vehicles for fear, leading to a widely held belief that Egyptian mummies were inherently spooky themselves. Immediately, we picture stiffly postured, white, tattered linen dressed bodies coming out of coffins. Pop culture has not been kind to the bulk of this ancient Egyptian practice.
Once we remove the veil of modern entertainment, however, we are left with a complex corpus of material.
Mummy 1
The Mummy’s History
Egyptian mummies were first naturally preserved in pit grave burials, due to the desert sand dehydrating the bodies. Intentional mummification started in the 2nd Dynasty (2800 BCE) and continued through the Greek and Roman periods. Bodies were embalmed as a ritual act and dehydrated for preservation, a process that took roughly 40 days in all. After, the mummy was wrapped in linen cloths and placed in a coffin, with a mask or rough sculpture placed over the face.
The tomb of a high-status person would be filled with valuable materials and representations of wealth, which the deceased could take to the afterlife. Coffins and tombs could be very personalized, even bearing the shape of the body itself. Different time periods added various eccentricities, such as specific amulets, tools of embalming, and methods of dehydrating.
Mummy with painting
The Fayum Mummy Portraits
In Roman Egypt, the ‘mask’ element of the mummy was represented through hyper-realistic and beautiful paintings on planks of wood. These portraits were once attached to the mummies for use in the afterlife, representing a physical and spiritual function.
About 900 of these ‘mummy portraits’ are known at present and have been found across Egypt. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are very well preserved; often maintaining their brilliant colors, untouched by time’s cruel hand. Most mummy portraits have been discovered in the necropoleis of Faiyum Basin and the Hadrianic Roman city of Antinoopolis. As such, “Faiyum Portraits” is generally used as a stylistic, rather than a geographic, description.
The portraits date to the Imperial Roman era, from the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD onwards, and stylistically are not in continuity with other Egyptian works. Instead, the mummy paintings appear to follow the northern shores of the Mediterranean, where such material is less likely to have survived, due to climatic conditions there. Evidence from frescoes, mosaics and other media suggests that the mummy portraits broadly fit within the prevailing Graeco-Roman traditions then dominant around the Mediterranean.
Mummy ManMummy Woman
Fayum Mummy Portraits’ Techniques and Materials
The Fayum Mummy Portraits were painted onto flat, hardwood panels and were set into the fabric wrapping of the body.Two types of techniques were used to paint the portraits. The first, wax painting, produced striking colors, large brush-strokes, and sharp contrast. The second technique, tempera paintings, revealed more muted colors with a greater use of tone gradation. Overall, the images produced were incredibly lifelike, with shading, tone, and lighting all used to create realistic (even if idealized) images of human faces.
Fayum Mummy Portraits: People Behind the Masks
Generally, the portraits represent youthful people of considerable wealth or status. C.A.T. scans reveal a correspondence of age and sex between mummy and image, which suggests that the skew of age may be due to the low life expectancy of the time, rather than a custom of depicting a certain age. Portraits include men in military garb, such as a sword belt, and women with gold leaf crowns and intricate hairstyles and jewelry. DNA analysis suggests that the deceased were native Egyptians who had adopted the Roman style of portraiture for their burials, indicating a high level of emulation and integration of Roman culture- a phenomenon more prevalent in the military and upper classes.
Mummy with jewelry Mummy eyes
Fayum Mummy Portraits’ Issues
While the preservation of these portraits is incredible, questions still linger regarding their importance, use, and creation. Things like who painted them, with what materials and from where, and were they painted during the subject’s life or after, all permeate recent scholarship. Some portraits have been traced, based on their likeness and style, to potentially one workshop, possibly executed by the same painter.
Some of the wood used for the planks has been identified as foreign to Egypt, which would have required the consumer to import the materials from Northern Europe. Red pigments have been traced to southern Spain, and the presence of gold leaf demonstrates not only exceptional wealth, but a highly skilled artistic hand. Still, though, there is much more to be learned.
Mummy childMummy
All of this research helps deepen our understanding of life in Egypt under Roman rule. The Fayum Mummy Portraits offer us an invaluable and striking window to the faces of the time. You probably won’t catch them represented in the next installment of ‘The Mummy,” but they really do humanize the 2000 year difference between us and them.

Suicide: A Hero’s way out?

by June 26, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

The debt we owe to the Ancients is almost impossible to measure. They gave the western world maths, theatre, wine, democracy, the Olympics, history, wine, libraries, roads, wine, philosophy, sanitation, universities, pizza and even wine (for a more comprehensive list see Monty Python’s Life of Brian).
We have much to thank our forebears for and a whole lifetime would not be long enough to fully comprehend the bounty they have bestowed upon us.
However, one area in which the teaching of antiquity is best left to the theoretical is the ultimate pro-life/pro-choice one… suicide.
The taking of one’s own life was not exclusively the refuge of the hopeless, the weak or the mentally unstable. Indeed, mors voluntaria (voluntary death) was not automatically laden with any negative connotation in the same way suicidium later came to be.

The Death of Dido, Joshua Reynolds, 1781

In fact, the latter term was not in general use until the 12th century AD, by which time its meaning had become bastardized. So much so, that if you mentioned suicidium to a Roman c.50 AD he would have presumed you were talking about killing pigs!
Etymology aside, the methods, malice or merits of suicide were still quite tricky concepts to clearly understand.
Defeat in battle, loss of (female) chastity, sickness, old-age and selflessness are documented reasons for ancients wishing to take the final, irreversible step.
“When arising from shame and dishonor, suicide was regarded as appropriate; self-sacrifice was admired; impulsive suicide was less esteemed than a calculated, rational act” (Miriam T. Griffin).
Death of Cleopatra

Roman painting from the House of Giuseppe II, Pompeii, early 1st century AD, most likely depicting Cleopatra VII, wearing her royal diadem, consuming poison in an act of suicide, while her son Caesarion, also wearing a royal diadem, stands behind her.

Slavish, plebeian or feminine ways of checking out, like jumping from a height, drowning or hanging, were totally reviled. If one wished to end it all in an heroic, manly fashion then the only way to do it was by using a weapon.
Therefore, the classic image of a disgraced or defeated Roman opening his veins in a hot bath (referenced in Godfather II) was not merely dramatic license on the part of Hollywood.
One downside of suicide (besides the obvious) in most modern, monotheistic societies was seemingly not relevant for the ancients, i.e. prohibited entry into the afterlife.
In Homer’s Odyssey we see the great Achilles standing shoulder to shoulder with Ajax – the wretched King of Salamis who took his own life at Troy.
Ajax suicide Vase

Exekias’s vase depicting the suicide of Ajax

However, his wretchedness was not simply ascribed to his suicide, but the unheroic causes of it. Ajax killed himself in a fit of pique – he didn’t seem to give a second thought to the fact that he was the Greek’s greatest living warrior and his selfish action could have lost them the Trojan War.
Conversely, Leonidas’ kamikaze mission in delaying the Persian army’s advance with only ‘300’ soldiers was seen as a noble and worthy act – a feat truly worth giving one’s life for.
Having said that, in general, the Greeks were not very pro-choice.
Aristotle, who considered the act a social injustice, stated that “taking one’s own life to avoid poverty or desire or pain is unmanly… or rather cowardly”.
Plato was slightly more ambiguous when he said that “what ought a man to suffer if he kills that which is most truly his own… if he takes his own life”? Going on to explain that “crimes against the state are crimes against the gods, and vice versa. When a man kills himself without good reason… he is committing a crime.” Though he does concede “intolerable shame” can justify the act.
Death of Socrates

Was Socrates’ death suicide?
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

A similar caveat is begrudgingly part of Epicurean doctrine – though in their instance, the case for life can be decided using a simple pleasure versus pain equation.
Socrates also had something to say on the topic… as one might expect from a man forced to commit suicide by a jury of his peers. He believed a man should not take his own life “until the god sends some compulsion upon him”.
Therefore, while we can see Leonidas as more of a martyr than a suicide victim, it’s safe to make the generalization that the Greeks distrusted, disliked or disapproved of suicide.
And so it was up to the Romans to give mors voluntaria a whiff of romanticism.
Indeed the mentality of Ajax, a mighty soldier shamed by the actions of inferior warriors, would have been much better understood by the proud and passionate Latins.
The civil war (that of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Brutus, Octavian/Augustus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra i.e. the setting for HBO’s Rome) produced no end of dramatic and heroic suicides.
Brutus killed himself after his eventual defeat to Octavian at Philippi, Cato refused to acknowledge that Caesar had the authority to pardon him and instead opted to disembowel himself, and Antony and Cleopatra famously fell to sword and asp respectively.
Painting of the death of Cato

Death of Cato, painting by Johann Carl Loth

Each of these ends exuded an aura of honorable defiance or heroism. This reflection was accentuated by Nero’s pitiful ‘suicide’ in 68 AD.
Trapped in a villa four miles outside Rome, realizing his end was nigh, the disgraced emperor headed for the most dignified exit left open to him. However, such was his poltroonery that he couldn’t go through with it himself, instead he ordered his secretary to perform the gruesome deed.
As a feeble cop-out, all we can really say is that ancient attitudes towards suicide were ambiguous. In one breath it could be venerated and in the next compared to murder.
Death of Nero. Smirnov V.S.

Death of Nero, By Smirnov V.S.

It took Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century AD for the ancient world to be euthanized of its uncertainty.
Soon it would become clear that the decision to end life was no longer in the hands of man, nor of the gods, but of God.
So, if you wanted to kill yourself in antiquity, it was much better to do it in pagan Rome than in Greece, as the former was more likely to bring you a reputation for valor. However, any type of mors voluntaria in Christian Rome was likely to cause many more problems than it solved.
Perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind the words (rather than the deeds) of the Roman philosopher, Seneca: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”.
In short… don’t kill yourself. And if you do, please don’t cite this article in your suicide note.

The Mysteries of The Orphics

by June 24, 2019

By John Mancini, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Orphism art

Orphic mosaics were found in many late-Roman villas

Of the many belief systems circulating in archaic Greece, Orphism was perhaps the most significant. The state-sanctioned religion of Hellenism may have intermingled with all aspects of daily life, but archaic Greece was also a mixture of superstitious magic and philosophical cults. There were rational beliefs such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, as well as sects with mystical tendencies like Pythagoreanism and later, Orphism, the adherents of which developed the Eleusinian Mystery Festivals, an annual celebration that captivated Athenians for nearly two thousand years.
Unlike the state-sanctioned rituals of Hellenism, of which it was a part, Orphism was guarded by educated elite. Those who followed Orphism were called Orphics, and they held their yearly mystery festival on the Eleusinian plains west of Athens in celebration of Demeter and Persephone – as well as their mysterious consort, Dionysus, who played a key role in this religion.
Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

Votive of the Eleusisian Mysteries

The Orphic religion, as well as their texts, was said to have been associated with the literature from the mythical poet, Orpheus. In the myth of Orpheus, his wife Eurydice suffers a fatal encounter with a snake. By journeying to the Underworld and composing a song that softens the heart of Hades, Orpheus is able to win his wife’s resurrection, but on one condition: he mustn’t turn back to look at her on his way out. Of course, he can’t resist one last look, and he immediately loses his love a second time. From then on, Orpheus can only recall Eurydice’s ghost through song.
There is an unhappy version of the Orpheus myth as told by Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C. Similar to the ending in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Aeschylus’ play describes Orpheus dismemberment by the Bassarai (the Bacchants in Ovid). However, his head goes on singing and makes its way across the sea to Lesbos where it is venerated by Apollo.


Orpheus’ death in this myth as well as in the Metamorphosis can be seen as an allegory for peaceful societies inevitably succumbing to barbarism. Ovid claims that Dionysus punished the Bacchants for killing Orpheus, but in contrast, Aeschylus’ play has Dionysus sending the Bassarai to punish Orpheus for not paying him tribute. This is an interesting distinction that differentiates Orphism from earlier orgiastic cults. The Orphics were enemies of the orgiastic praise of early Dionysian rituals – and the fundamental point of the Orphic poems was the dismemberment of Dionysus at the hands of the Titans.
In the Orphic verses Dionysus is Zagreus, son of Persephone and Hades/Zeus. Hera convinces the Titans to tear him apart, but Zeus is able to save Dionysus’ heart, and he destroys the Titans with a lightning bolt. From their ashes man is born – hence man’s “Titanic” nature.
Egyptian myths exerted a lot of influence on Greek myths, especially during the 6th century when Greek merchants frequently visited the country. The Greeks would have been aware of the Egyptian Cult of the Dead, which influenced the Cult of Adonis and Dionysus, whose dismemberment at the hands of the Titans also mirrors the Egyptian myth of Osiris. In an ancient epic by Alcmaeonis, Dionysus-Zagreus is equated with the night, thunder and the earth. He is the “highest of all gods.” For Dionysus was originally a god of the Underworld. The Egyptians equated him with Pluto. In fact, Heraclitus said that Hades and Dionysus were one and the same.


So while the cult of Dionysus, which originated in Egypt, was incorporated into the Orphic religion, it also lost some of its earlier vitality and impact. The central rite of Orphism was the animal sacrifice, a symbolic dismembering and eating of Dionysus. This rite is interpreted as a crime in the Orphic myths, in which the Titans are similarly demonized. Like mankind, the Bacchants are equated with the Titans, hence with the principle of evil, and their Dionysian frenzy was condemned by the Orphics.
The unhappy ending of the Orpheus myth is one of vengeance for turning the Maenads into criminals. Dionysus was a god of the Underworld, and Orpheus did not acknowledge him, but rather associated with Apollo-Helios, the sun god.
Orphism was built on old ideas, but the Orphics systematized these ideas in a practical way, creating an organized religion that was powerfully influential, especially to Christian Gnosticism with its emphasis on love.
Orphic Tablet

Gold orphic tablet and case found in Petelia, southern Italy (British Museum)

Orphism’s insistence on freeing the soul from physical bondage was also borrowed by Christianity, and in Orphism we can also find an origin of religious guilt and its resolution through purification rituals conducted by an elite few who claimed they could save people’s souls – which probably influenced other similar religious priesthoods that came later.
Plato may have thought the Orphics were swindlers, but they were very influential. The Orphics’ ultimate triumph was the concretizing of heaven and hell – of delineating good and evil and putting the work of preparing the human soul for death into a fantastically detailed religious practice.

The Pompeii Mosaics: A Rare Look into Roman Life

by June 19, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Pompeii Mosaic
The Pompeii Mosaics: The Volcano Erupts
For nearly 2000 years Pompeii and its destruction has captivated the minds of historians, archaeologists, and tourists alike. Although lost beneath rubble until rediscovered in 1748, writings from Pliny the Younger clued us in to a massive volcanic eruption that shook the Bay of Naples. The date of the Mount Vesuvius eruption is generally 79 CE, though recently research has been carried out to refine this date, even down to the exact day.
The volcano erupted and layered the Bay of Naples, especially Pompeii, in a thick layer of ash and debris, acting as a preservation blanket over the people, buildings, and material of the site. Because of the chemical makeup of the volcanic ash and its special properties, what archaeologists have uncovered in the past 250 years is nothing short of a completely intact, Roman city at the height of the Roman Empire. While much ink has been spilled on the impressive preservation and casts of bodies, the mosaics from Pompeii are equally as stunning and deserve an in-depth look of their own.
Painting of Mt Vesuvius

Jacob More, Mount Vesuvius in Eruption, 1780, National Gallery of Scotland

Mosaics are common installations on floors depicting either geometric or figurative motifs. They are constructed using small pieces of stone, tile, glass, or enamel in very refined and deliberate ways. Originally being simple geometric motifs like meanders, artists were able to refine the craft to depict battle scenes, animals, and distinguishable human faces. Mosaics are found throughout the ancient world, but the Pompeii mosaics are par none.
The Alexander Mosaic
Perhaps the most famous of the Pompeii mosaics is the so-called Alexander Mosaic. Found during excavation at Pompeii in 1831, the mosaic depicts the Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and king Darius III of Persia in 333 BCE, although some argue that it actually shows the Battle of Guagamela in 331, but between the same actors.

The Alexander Mosaic, dating from circa 100 BC, is a Roman floor mosaic originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, that is allegedly an imitation of Apelles’ painting.

The date of the mosaic fluctuates between the 3rd century BC and late 4th century, very soon after the battles would have taken place. The mosaic measures 5.82 by 3.13 meters and is located in the House of the Faun. The mosaic shows two armies in the middle of battle, Alexander and his troops coming from the left side of the installations (and poorly preserved, unfortunately), and Darius and the Persians on the right (incredibly preserved in detail). The spears and shields of the Persian army are raised in attack, while several horses are shown in gallop. A blonde commander rides on a horse on the left side and it is commonly thought to be Alexander himself.

The Plato’s Academy Mosaic

Another near perfectly preserved mosaic is the Plato’s Academy mosaic. Dating to sometime in the 1st century BCE or right before the eruption itself, this mosaic is situated in the villa of T. Siminius Stephanus. In the mosaic there are a group of seven men. It is assumed that Plato is at the helm, although accurately designating one of the figures as Plato is near impossible; there is no distinguishing factor of rank represented. Some scholars such as G.W. Elderkin have suggested that the seven men depicted are not part of a philosophical school, but rather a reference to the Seven Sages of ancient Greece (Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, and Cheilon).
Mosaic of the Philosophers

Plato’s Academy mosaic (from Pompeii)

Athens is shown in the background, as well as a sundial and a gate, which is suggested to be the Dipylon Gate based on the bronze amphora at the top. The border of the mosaic contains repeated patterns of bunched fruits and leaves with 8 different theatrical masks interspersed evenly throughout. The combination of the philosophy-centered focus and the theatrical masks on the border potentially could be the artist attempting to amplify the wisdom and thought that philosophy brings.
The Cave Canem Mosaic
Perhaps one of the more interesting mosaics to a modern audience is the Cave Canem mosaic, or “Beware of the dog.” The finely preserved mosaic was placed at the entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet. A highly realistic dog, shown in active motion like it is preparing to pounce, baring teeth and with a chain and collar around its neck, is superimposed over a backdrop of repetitive diamonds, and bears the words very clearly in Latin “CAVE CANEM.” This is the first thing that visitors would have encountered upon entering the house, and it is not unlike any modern sign hung on a fence or door claiming the same thing. In the remains of Pompeii, there is a dramatic cast of a dog caught in the destruction. While this dog was surely not the one depicted in the mosaic, it too had a collar on and was likely a pet.
Beware the Dog mosaic

Cave Canem Mosaic, House of the Tragic Poet

Dog cast

Dog in chains cast Pompeii Museum Boscoreale.

While these three are not the only mosaics preserved at Pompeii, they are certainly some of the more interesting and stimulating. Mosaic installations were incredibly common forms of decoration, but it is rare that we see this level of near immaculate preservation. Looking at these mosaics allows us to see the artistic interests of the occupants at the time and what themes were important to their daily life. Current excavations at Pompeii are still unearthing architectural elements like balconies and allies, as well as bodies, frescoes, inscriptions and mosaics- shedding more invaluable light onto daily life in the Roman Empire.
Top Image: Mosaic, House of Marcus Lucretius in Via Stabiana, Roman Pompeii, UNESCO World Heritage Site, near Naples, Campania, Italy, Europe