Category Archives: Culture[post_grid id="10031"]
Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Time. It’s an abstract concept, but it frames our life possibly more than anything else. We cannot touch time, we cannot feel it or see it, but we know for sure that, as the years pass, we will have (more) grey hair and a lot more stories to tell as a result of it.
Nowadays when we read articles and blogs about the importance of time, they are mostly related to the significance of time management and living every moment as if it was our last (Memento mori!). Of course, all of this is very important as we should be aware of the preciousness and uniqueness of every moment. However, we should not forget that time is important in a much more practical sense as well.
Imagine spending a day without being able to tell the time. Even just the thought of it gives you a certain amount of discomfort, doesn’t it? We are all completely dependent on a system of time measurement that is precise enough to prevent us from being late for an important meeting, that accurately counts the period between contractions, or that allows us to perfectly boil an egg.
However, we should be reminded that it has not always been like this. There are generations of people that we are indebted to for being able to do all these things without worrying.
Inventing the modern calendar
The greatest contribution to the Roman calendar was made by Julius Caesar. We are all more or less familiar with the term Julian calendar, but what does it mean?
To understand the enormous significance of Caesar’s reform, we should first understand the issues that he was facing. As the early Romans primarily lived off of agriculture, the nature of the Roman calendar was agricultural as well. This meant that the earliest Roman years had 10 months, because January and February were unproductive months, and therefore considered nonexistent. This explains the names of the months that have remained in use to this today (e.g. November has the number 9 in its stem, novem because it was originally the 9th month).
January became the first month in 153. B.C., but there was still quite a large gap between the lunar cycle and the solar cycle. By the time of Caesar, the lunar year was months ahead of the solar year in use. The people responsible for the calendar were the pontiffs (priests), so when Caesar became pontifex Maximus in 63. B.C., he employed Sosigenes of Alexandria to help him with this change.
They stretched the year 46 B.C.—now known as the longest year in history—to 445 days long to remove this discrepancy, and introduced the leap year, which meant adding one day in February every four years. However, pontiffs wrongly added this day every three years. Fortunately, the error was corrected by Augustus who discarded this intercalation for 16 years. He rewarded himself with naming the 8th month Augustus and took one day from February to make his month equal to that of July (named after Julius Caesar).
When it comes to days and weeks, they were also initially influenced by agriculture and the Roman lifestyle. The Roman week lasted for eight days because this was the length of the period between the market days, called Nundinae. Under the influence of astrology (it was believed that there were seven planets) and Judaism, the week came to have 7 days somewhere between 19. B.C. and 14. A.D.
What day is it?
Romans had a very peculiar way of expressing dates. The days were numbered concerning three specifically named days, by counting them retrospectively. Those days were: Kalends or Kalendae (1st day of the month), Nones or Nonae (5th or 7th day) and Ides or Idus (13th or 15th day). Therefore, if you wanted to mark May 13th you would have to say: ”two days before the Ides of May!” If it was one day before one of these dates they would use the expression pridie which expressed one day before a certain date.
Clocks and hours
As for the instruments for telling time, they are very difficult to trace but we do know that Roman horologia (clocks) were mostly solaria (Sundials) and clepsydrae, i.e. water clocks. Even though Herodotus writes about the hours as short time units, perceived as such firstly by Egyptians, and later borrowed by the Greeks, there is no account of it in Rome until the arrival of the sundial. The most well-known one is the famous Solarium Augusti on Campus Martius for which an Egyptian obelisk was used.
However, despite this great improvement, Romans had a long way to go to arrive at even a relatively accurate division of hours. It is believed that the first sundial to offer a more or less precise account was set up in 146. B.C. The advent of the sundial resulted in the division of daytime by twelve hours, but this type of clock still had many disadvantages, which resulted in one hour varying between 45 and 75 minutes. The indication of time was given by numbering hours, e.g. hora prima, hora secunda, etc. As for the night, it was divided into four watches called prima vigilia, secunda vigilia, etc.
Now, this is all very complicated, at least when compared to how easy it is for us to tell time on our smartphones and digital watches.
Yet, if I have managed to give you a glimpse of how complicated it was for our ancestors to come up with an accurate system of time measurement, I hope it leads to a greater appreciation for the comfort and convenience we now enjoy due to the hard work of ancient peoples thousands of years removed from us.
Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Etruscan civilization was a crucial influence on the development of the Romans. For example, they influenced their social practices such as the Triumph and Gladiators and even their religion. The Etruscan language was also an influence on the development of Latin. However, we are still not able to properly decipher the language, and this means that the contribution of the Etruscans to Classical Civilization has been little understood.
Who were the Etruscans?
The Etruscans were a mysterious people who dominated most of Northern Italy and Corsica from the 10th to the 4th century BC. They were not politically united and were a loose federation of city-states. They had a common culture and religion. Etruscan kings once ruled Rome, and some argue that the city was founded by Etruscans and not Latins. Etruria was later conquered and absorbed by the Romans. The Etruscans thus lost their cultural identity.
The language of the Etruscans
Archaeologists have uncovered almost 13,000 inscriptions from monuments and graves all over the Mediterranean, with examples of Etruscan language. Experts have been able to establish that it is not an Indo-European language. Many believed that it was a language isolate—a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or “genetic”) relationship with other languages—since it is not related to any other contemporary language such as Latin. However, it has many similarities with extinct languages such as Rhaetian. It seems likely that Etruscan was related to a very early language, that dated back millennia, possibly to the Neolithic period.
The city-states of Etruria were much influenced by the Greeks and the Phoenicians, with whom they traded and occasionally fought. It appears that the Etruscans based their alphabet on the Greek system for writing, but others suggest that it was the Phoenician. The Etruscan alphabet had 26 letters.
It appears that many men and women were literate in the city-states judging by the inscriptions that have survived. This was unique for the period. Experts have not fully deciphered the complex language and as a result, our knowledge of the history, religion, and literature of these fascinating people is limited. This is despite over a hundred years of study and research and the discovery of large passages of texts. One of the unique features of the alphabet was that it was read alternatively from left to right and right to left. Based on a study of the alphabet, it appears that Etruscan would have sounded very strange to our modern ears.
The influence of the Etruscan Language
The Etruscans were an important cultural influence on the early Romans. The Latin alphabet was based on the writing system used in Etruria. Moreover, the Latins also borrowed many words from their neighbors. Many of the words that are not of Indo-European origin used in Latin are loan-words from the Etruscans. These include many words used in connection with the military. Some of these loan-words were handed down to modern Western European languages. Several English words are ultimately derived from the ancient language spoken in Northern Italy. They include arena, autumn, military, mundane, and many more. The Etruscan alphabet was also adopted by neighboring groups such as the Umbrians. Some scholars assert that their alphabet inspired the development of the Germanic Runic alphabet.
The Decline of the Etruscan Language
The zenith of the Etruscan culture and political power was in the 5th century AD. The city-states had become very wealthy from trade and many of the elite enjoyed sophisticated lifestyles. However, Rome, after the conquest of Veii, began to slowly annex the city of the Etruscan League. However, Etruscan continued to be spoken and remained the dominant language of much of Northern Italy and we know that tragedies were written in the language.
However, many of its speakers were becoming assimilated into Latin Culture. After the Social War, this process sped up and the last Etruscan language inscription dates from the first century BC. It is believed that the language was still spoken by a few priests who used it during their rituals and especially by soothsayers known as haruspex. It is claimed that the Emperor Julian the Apostate took Etruscan diviners with him during his invasion of Persian in the 4th century AD. It may even be possible that Etruscan speaking soothsayers were consulted during the fall of Rome in 410 AD.
Emperor Claudius and the Etruscan Language
Claudius I was a very important Emperor, who greatly expanded the territories of Rome. He was also fascinated with the Etruscans and it is believed that he was descended from a noble family, from Etruria. He composed a history of them in 21 volumes and a dictionary of their language. Sadly, his works have all been lost and this means that the Ancient people of Northern Italy remain somewhat mysterious.
The Etruscan language has been extinct for possibly 2000 years. However, it was very important in the development of Latin and we still use many of its words. One day, when it is fully deciphered, we will learn so much more about this very important civilization which was so influential and important.
Written By Walter Borden, M.D., Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Aeschylus speaks to me. Born in Eleusis, a village just north of Athens and the haunting grounds of the goddess Demeter, said to be the goddess of fertility and the harvest. To Aeschylus that was just a myth that masked her true identity—the goddess of grief. When he was a little boy crying at the grave of his grandfather, she’d whispered to him that his sadness and tears would make the soil rich, would bring new life to sprout.
Only the citizens of Eleusis were aware of Demeter’s real meaning—and mission. She’d lost her daughter, Persephone, to a plague, but Demeter felt it as a robbery—her baby stolen by a death she called Hades, god of the underworld. He was the evil of ancient times. She vowed to find her daughter, bring her back, to her arms, to life.
The citizens of Eleusis were sworn to secrecy, never to reveal her grief—it was too agonizing. Their oath of secrecy became the cult of the “Eleusinian Mysteries.”
As a citizen of Eleusis, Aeschylus knew all that, but he revealed the secret of the mysteries in one of his early poems. For breaking the oath of secrecy he was prosecuted for heresy in an Athenian court under a system of public democratic justice, established by Solon some hundred years prior. Aeschylus was found not guilty. The jury decided that grief outweighed guilt. After experiencing Athenian justice personally, he became its powerful spokesperson.
Aeschylus later gave Persephone’s mysterious death his creative twist. Plague and death were thought to be a calamity wrought by the gods. The popular explanation was that Hades, the god of the underworld, abducted Persephone. Aeschylus thought this was the storybook way of saying the girl’s dying must have a sinister, but purposeful source. Indeed, even today, do we not explain senseless tragedy by attributing it to evil? Aeschylus said that people blamed the gods when something inexplainable happened. Did it simply mean that to lose someone really close was bad, and could make you feel bad?
In his metaphorical dramatic interpretation, Demeter and Persephone couldn’t accept losing each other. Their bond was so strong; grief endured and lashed them together. They pined, persisted, persevered, and then—a miracle. Their grief-bond seemed to ferment and come alive in a new form. New life sprouted. They called it Spring, the time of fertility. Followed by a time of growth, Summer, and then harvest, Autumn. Cold set in, snow. Winter, the earth rested waiting for the return of Spring. The seasons came to be, cycles of life and death. The “Mystery?” It’s about fertile grief, how grief can bring new life.
Aeschylus’ best writing germinated in his personal tragedy on the plains of Marathon fighting the Persians. He saw his beloved brother, Koryenous, hacked to death by the Persians. He suffered grief which fermented—metabolized—blossomed (sprouted if you will) in his drama.In 510 BCE, when Aeschylus was fifteen, the tyrant Pisistratus fell and Cleisthenes came to power, instituting a constitution that was the culmination of the movement toward democracy that had begun with Solon a hundred years earlier. Greece and Aeschylus were both in their adolescence, filled with idealism, energy, and enthusiasm. It was a time of hope. Then came attacks by Persia, and the beginning of Aeschylus’s personal suffering. His prime work was conceived after his brother’s death in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. From the bitter sweet victory mixed with his brother’s blood came a passion to find non-violent ways to solve conflict. He knew the need for a system of justice to replace vengeful violence which then became a major theme in his work.
Of his ninety plays, only seven survived. They are all we have of his work, and there is controversy as to when each was written, except the first and the last. The Oresteia was produced in 458 BCE, two years before his death. The first was probably The Persians, the only non-mythological play, written shortly after the Battle of Salamis, in 480 BCE.
Aeschylus’s profound insight was the importance of freedom to speak one’s mind, as a generality, but especially in expressing the pain of loss, that unspoken grief is unresolved grief that can become madness and murderous retaliatory rage, breeding more violence. He is said to have observed that words are like a physician to the mind gone mad. From his own life and personal pain, in the Oresteia, he created a tragic drama that touched the deep need for psychological healing in a people that had experienced overwhelming losses from terrible wars, plagues, cycles of retaliatory violence, and the impact of social changes as the Bronze Age gave way to early modern civilization.
Aeschylus was the first tragedian, but also soldier, democrat, social critic, psychologist, and philosopher. Called the religious or moral tragic dramatist because of his focus on crime and punishment and on personal responsibility for destructive behavior, he could more accurately be described as a psychologist of conscience.
As a dramatist of crime and punishment, he was the first to stage a courtroom scene, and he knew personally what it meant to be wrongly accused, since he had been charged with heresy for revealing the secrets of the mystical Eleusis, later vindicated in a law court. His genius combined psychology and sociology in the context of historical development, reinforcing his message with the arts of dramaturgy, staging, poetry, music, and choreography. He marketed justice with appeal to the senses as well as the mind.
There is very little known of a biographical nature except that his father, Euphorion, came from an old aristocratic family in Eleusis, near Athens. Of his two sons one became a dramatist. His sister was the matriarch of a dynasty of tragic dramatists. The lineage raises interesting questions about this family who wrote with so much insight about the importance of relationships and family issues.
Although the women were invisible, Aeschylus’s sister could not have been an inconsequential person, and her brother’s work portrays some very strong female characters. Athena, who speaks for Aeschylus in the Oresteia, is the play’s most powerful figure, overshadowing Zeus and Apollo. The injustice to women in Greek society and its destructive impact on them and the community is the theme of his Suppliants and a subtheme in the Oresteia.
As an adolescent, he lived through the overthrow of Pisistratus, the murder of the latter’s son Hipparchus, and the establishment of the democratic constitution of Cleisthenes. It was a turbulent time: Persia was mobilizing to attack Attica, the Athenian heartland. Aeschylus became a soldier and fought in the infantry at Marathon and Salamis. The Persians was produced ten years after Marathon and immediately after the victory at Salamis. The Oresteia and Seven Against Thebes are strongly antiwar, and the themes of war’s waste of innocent lives and unresolved grief resonate throughout. In The Persians, he dramatizes the Greek victory as a mastering of a savage hubris latent within the victors. He also attacked the glorification of war in the Athenian celebration of the victory over Persia.
Until Aeschylus, drama was two-dimensional. In the ancient epic/lyric form, there is one actor, the hero, and the chorus, which represents some facet of the voice of humanity. The hero is defined, and engulfed, by external forces that grow stronger as he struggles against them. The character of the hero is almost irrelevant; he is pushed and pulled by destiny’s demons. The chorus, a communal voice with a character of its own, is the protagonist and defines the issues—usually grand communal themes, such as the polis, the defeated and/or the victimized—by focusing them on the single actor through a prism of moral force. Chorus and actor are in reciprocal relation.
As the crisis develops and tension builds, the focus shifts. The actor becomes protagonist, the center of the moral struggle, which ends with the hero facing the crisis and making his decision. In the lyric epic, the initial situation never changes. The plot remains the same as in the first ode, when the actor enters and reveals the general situation. There is no moving plot. The only action is the increasing tension within the hero. There is no way to change perspective.
In a creative leap, Aeschylus adds a second actor, which brings movement to the plot and shifts the focus onto character. The second actor introduces new information, such as relevant events that would be impossible for the hero to know, events that may drastically change his circumstances. An old family employee can come onstage with news that the hero’s wife is really his mother, or a messenger arrives to tell him that the presumed dead son is alive and has returned with murder in his heart, or that the opponent he is going to fight to the death is really his brother. The plot moves and thickens. Moreover, interactions between characters add definition and dimension to their development.
In another creative leap, he modified the structure of the trilogy, linking three plays in a series with a unified theme. The concept of linked acts—action over time with continuity of motif—enables evolution of plot and issues associated with the generation of inner drama in the hero. Trilogy, as used by Aeschylus, can best be understood as the ancestor of the three-act play.
Using this structure, he was able to portray the transfer of influences from person to person, generation to generation, within a family and within a people. Change, growth, and decline was brought to life on the stage. He could dramatize the legacy of emotions—a sense of obligation, a sense of guilt—that passed from fathers to sons and daughters and on to future generations. He could depict the harbingers of madness and the long-term effects of grief, abuse, conflict, and violence—thus showing that retaliatory violence, even in the name of justice, only breeds more violence, that oppression of women and children makes them violent in turn, that brutality is destructive to society. He was able to show that unspoken grief results in an inability to come to terms with the past and leads to the reenactment and perpetuation of old conflict and pain. His dramas are the first psychiatric studies.
Aeschylus helped lay the foundation of psychodynamic psychology. He was also a consummate advocate for the incorporation of psychological understanding in democratic justice. He dealt with the issue of criminal responsibility when madness is an element of criminal behavior. Guilt had deep roots in Hellenic culture, stemming from the primitive conviction that the gods—Zeus in particular—would take revenge on any mortal who offended them. In Homer’s time, guilt was associated with the anger of the gods; extenuating circumstances and motivation were irrelevant; psychological issues were irrelevant. Only the act counted, and punishment was absolute. The Furies were the gods of vengeful punishment and could drive the offending mortal to ate, guilt-ridden madness.
As psychological understanding evolved, ate was seen as arising within the human mind rather than having been put there by the gods. Furthermore, guilt—and by extension, depression—was seen as impairing thinking and judgment. The orator and legislator Lycurgus (390-324 B.C.), in Against Leocrates, quotes an unnamed poet:
“When the anger of the demons is injuring a man, the first thing is that it takes the good understanding out of his mind and turns him to the worse judgment, so that he may not be aware of his own errors.”
Aeschylus refined this notion into the theory that the guilty could unknowingly seek punishment. Guilt and despair were not seen as visitations from the gods but as an internalized sense of wrongdoing that could rise to the level of ate─that is, reach such intensity that it became insanity.
There are crimes that arise from a sense of guilt, and some criminal behavior is a seeking of punishment. While Solon planted the seeds of psychology in justice; Aeschylus cultivated and helped shape the growth, giving clear and dramatic power to a basic element buried in Solon’s legal code: that the substance of justice includes humanism—that is, compassion, mercy, respect for the person, for the rights of the weak, and at the same time dispassionate psychological understanding.
The transformation of the passion for retaliatory violence into a higher order, a system of rational justice, began in the seventh century BCE and was institutionalized by Solon in the sixth century. Aeschylus dramatized this transformation in the fifth century, distilling and refining the psychological elements of Solon’s justice, giving them a powerful voice. Solon separated theology from the administration of justice for the first time in human history, and took the gods out of the law.
Aeschylus used the gods as symbols; his religion is secular, reflecting the evolution of the theology founded on Zeus’s law, “to the doer be done”—the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “eye for an eye”—into a new institution of justice and a moral code based on human psychology. In the Oresteia, Zeus, Furies, and Apollo are symbols of the old order; Athena is the new; they are clearly dramatic symbols, not to be seen as real deities. As Solon had done with his legal code, Aeschylus dramatically brought the laws of Olympus down to Earth so that they could be seen inside men and women, understood, and elaborated in a system of public justice.
He dramatized the development of mature conscience and its relationship with law. The gods do not direct human actions; the direction comes from within. The individual, not the gods, bears all responsibility, but responsibility is not absolute, as under Zeus’s law, nor should punishment be absolute. The mature sense of responsibility, conscience, is rational—meaning actions directed toward others are determined by reason and empathy tempered by values.
Aeschylus dramatically portrayed the transition of values from gods to parents and the identification with those values within the family. Empathy and parental identification are at the core of a rational sense of right and wrong and the ability to anticipate causing harm. Rationality also means that all relevant circumstances have to be considered, and that there are degrees of responsibility. Circumstances, such as chance, accident, motivations, intent, harm done, and psychological understanding are factored into the equation that the mature rational mind uses in assessing guilt. There are degrees of guilt, and punishment should be proportional. These conditions are integrated in the rational sense of responsibility called conscience. While for the most part conscience and law coincide, they may differ, and even conflict. That is the stuff of tragedy, too, and Aeschylus is its master.
Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The COVID 19 or coronavirus pandemic overturned all aspects of our daily life and many have sought comfort in religion. A nearly forgotten Christian saint has suddenly become popular again. This is St. Corona, and once again her story is inspiring many and giving hope to the faithful. Though the pandemic is not named after her, it has thrown the spotlight back on this forgotten saint.
Christian Saints in the Roman Empire
Christianity became slowly popular in Rome and throughout the provinces in the first century AD. It was widely suspected that it was an evil cult and that its teachings were opposed to Roman values and traditional religion. Many Christians were forced to practice their faith in secret.
The first Christian martyr was St Stephen. There were often persecutions of the followers of Jesus throughout the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd century AD. One of the best known of these was the persecution of the early Christians by Nero, who had them killed in the Coliseum.
Many of the followers of Jesus were cruelly killed in horrific ways throughout the Empire until Constantine granted the Church toleration in the early 4th century AD.
The Story of St. Corona
Little is known for certain about St Corona. It appears that she lived in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, somewhere in the Roman Empire. She may have been born in Italy, France, Spain, or Syria. The only thing that we know for certain is that monks began to venerate her during the 6th and 7th century.
It is not known why this happened. However, saints were important in converting the many pagans in Europe even as late as the 7th century AD. It seems likely that the saint was used to deepen the faith of believers and to encourage the still half-pagan rural folk to become fully Christianized. There are many stories about her but most of them are only fables, written to encourage people to be more devout.
Corona likely came from a good family and married young. It is claimed that she married the future St. Victor, a soldier who had been converted or an unidentified soldier. Other accounts claim that she was never married. It appears that she was converted at an early age to Christianity, possibly by a servant, which was common at the time.
The Martyrdom of St. Corona
There is scholarly agreement that St Corona was martyred. However, according to some sources, she was martyred in the 2nd century and in others, the 3rd century AD. It is generally agreed that her death was in some way related to that of St. Victor. By converting to Christianity, he had committed a crime akin to treason. He was sentenced to hideous tortures and eventually beheaded.
St. Corona was present at the execution and she was so moved by the suffering of Victor that she ran to comfort him. This was against the law and she was arrested. St Corona then defiantly admitted that she was a Christian and was swiftly sentenced to death.
Her end was gruesome and, according to the sources, she was tied to two palm trees that had been tied to the ground. The two trees were then untied, and they snapped back into their original standing position. This tore the young woman’s body in two.
Later she came to be regarded as a saint by the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.
The Cult of St. Corona
Corona became immensely popular in the early Middle Ages, especially in the German territories. There are many churches and religious houses dedicated to her memory in Bavaria and Austria. There is even a town named after the saint in Austria— Sankt Corona am Wechsel.
There are a number of relics associated with the saint. These were highly prized, and the German Emperor took some to Aachen in the 10th century. Her remains are now in a shrine in the Aachen Cathedral. There is growing interest in Corona, and many, because she has the same name as the virus, believe that she can protect them.
The Saint of Treasure Hunters
The name Corona means ‘crown’ in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire and later the Christian Church. The young martyr was called Corona because she has worn the crown of martyrdom and had been granted eternal salvation.
Later, people came to believe that she could help them secure wealth and treasures. This was because coins were often known as ‘crowns’. They assumed that St. Corona was somehow related to wealth and money. As a result, she is often held to be the patron saint of treasure hunters.
Many people have prayed to her during economic crises. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, many believers prayed to her for help. Today, as the world struggles with the economic consequences of the virus, many more people could do with the saint’s help.
St. Corona is a mysterious figure. However, she is proof of the continuing power of saints and martyrs from the Roman Empire. It also shows us that, even in these more secular times, people seek solace from religion during a crisis.
Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
You recall our mandate.
At Classical Wisdom, we believe classical wisdom can ring true for modern minds.
No calamity has been so calamitous… no disaster so disastrous… and no idea so idiotic that it hasn’t happened at least once over the millennia.
The ancients have a lot to teach us. We need only show up to class.
Today’s vision of our next calamity comes courtesy of that famed Greek historian, Thucydides.
Thucydides has garnered the title “the father of scientific history.” Depending on your opinion of his predecessor, Herodotus, he has also been dubbed “the true father of history.”
His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the fifth-century war between the states of Sparta and the Athenian Empire.
It is in Book II where our attention turns today. There, the old master describes the plague of Athens…
[The plague] is said to have broken out previously in many other places, in the region of Lemnos and elsewhere, but there was no previous record of so great a pestilence and destruction of human life.
Having contracted the plague himself, Thucydides describes the symptoms…
The first internal symptoms were that the throat and tongue became bloody and the breath unnatural and malodorous. This was followed by sneezing and hoarseness, and in a short time the affliction descended to the chest, producing violent coughing.When it became established in the heart, it convulsed that and produced every kind of evacuation of bile known to the doctors, accompanied by great discomfort.
To make matters worse, the classical Athenians seemed to have no conception of “social distancing.” Rather than flee the confines of the city, the statesman Pericles had ordered Athens to withdraw behind the newly erected city walls.
An ancient petri dish…
In the ensuing years, as many as 100,000 souls—25% of the population—were shuffled off to Hades.
We pause only briefly to imagine the scene.
The piles of wretched bodies, some screaming for water, littering the streets of Athena’s city. The dead were left to rot, burned en masse on funeral pyres, or shoved into collective graves.
In 1995, a mass burial of roughly 1,000 tombs was excavated near Athens’ Kerameikos cemetery. The skeletons of some 150 ancients were discovered there. A postcard from the past.
But, dear reader, let’s not dwell on the grisly details…
It is not the plague itself that concerns us today. It is the pestilence of Athens’ soul that we are troubled by.
And it is here that we fear our future lies…
No Fear of the Gods
Thucydides recognized that the plague infected more than the body. It infected the moral character of the city’s occupants. And it poisoned the societal fabric of glorious Athens.
No one was willing to persevere in struggling for what was considered an honorable result, since he could not be sure that he would not perish before he achieved it. What was pleasant in the short term, and what was in any way conducive to that, came to be accepted as honorable and useful. No fear of the gods or law of men had any restraining power, since it was judged to make no difference whether one was pious or not as all alike could be seen dying.
Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, had called Athens “the school of Hellas.” And the average Athenian had “the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace.”
But under the duress of plague, that myth was dispelled.
Athenians abandoned the gods… tradition… and honor. They fell instead to fear and ignoble behavior.
And as the morality of the people weakened, the city itself died.
Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC. Its walls were torn down. Its fledgling empire—born from the Delian League—was dismantled.
Democracy, that uniquely Athenian custom, was the final casualty. It was disbanded. In its place, the “thirty tyrants” ruled over the city.
Democracy would eventually be restored—just in time to execute Socrates by popular vote!
But Athens would never regain her former glory.
The school of Hellas was no more.
Prevented from Doing Wrong
Yes, dear reader. It was not the plague that doomed the Golden Age of Athens. It was the spiritual sickness that closed the crypt.
In his Funeral Oration, Pericles tells the Athenians…
[We] are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities.
But stricken with plague, Athens could no longer claim a “spirit of reverence.”
This was not an observation unique to Thucydides, either.
Writes to Stoic Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius in book IX of his Meditations…
An infected mind is a far more dangerous pestilence than any plague. One only threatens your life. The other destroys your character.
And at the risk of piling on, we cite the existentialist Albert Camus. Writing of a fictional plague that swept the coastal French Algerian city of Oran, Camus writes…
For the moment, he wished to behave like all the others around him who believed, or made believe, that plague can come and go without changing anything in men’s hearts.
Yes, of course, the invisible enemy is a very real virus. And to the weak and infirm especially—as in Athens—it presents a potential offramp to the underworld.
But we wonder in what form our own moral decay will come…
Today, citizens are rewarded for “snitching” on each other. We look with distrust at our fellow man if he (gasp!) goes un-masked in a public park. The respect for authorities—already frayed—is wilting with every week in lockdown.
We fear not the gods nor the laws of man, dear reader. Our own spirit of reverence is shirking.
How and when will our own empire fall?
We don’t know.
But what’s this we hear?
The distant footsteps of soldiers marching in cadence. The sound of bronze shields clashing echoes in the distance. The Spartans will soon be upon us.
Our own “school of Hellas” stands mighty for now.
Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Athens is traditionally seen as the birthplace of democracy. However, as we know, democracies are vulnerable to anti-democratic forces, such as populism and authoritarian movements. This was also the case with Athens. For some eight months (404-403 BC) the city was controlled by a pro-Spartan oligarchy known as the ‘Thirty Tyrants’. These autocrats unleashed a wave of terror, and Athens was steeped in blood during their time in government.
The Peloponnesian War
After the defeat of the Persians, the Greek world was dominated by the Spartans and their allies and the Athenians. However, in 431 BC, the Second Peloponnesian War broke out between the two most powerful city-states. This was a long and brutal conflict.
After the disastrous Athenian defeat in Sicily, the democratic government was briefly overthrown and replaced by an oligarchy. The Athenians were defeated in the sea-battle of Aegospotami (405 BC) and this effectively guaranteed Sparta’s victory in the war. The oligarchy that had been in power in Athens were discredited and they were soon removed from the government.
The Spartan Peace
The Spartans surrounded Athens and demanded that its ‘long walls’ or defensive ramparts be torn down around the city and its harbor, Piraeus. King Lysander dictated the peace terms to the Athenians who were almost totally defenseless. The Spartans did not want a return of the democracy which they despised. They supported Athenians who were sympathetic to Sparta and who believed in government by an elite. With the support of the Spartans, they controlled the city.
The so-called Thirty Tyrants’ most prominent leaders were Theramenes and Critias and they were pro-Spartan and hated democracy and democrats. They immediately stripped the ordinary citizens of political rights and ruled with a handpicked assembly of supporters.
From the Pnyx in Athens, a platform traditionally used by orators, the tyrants announced a series of measures that ended democracy in the city. They ruled with the help of a Spartan garrison and they forced all the citizens to hand over their arms. Only 3000 supporters of the tyrants had the right to bear arms.
Reign of Terror
The tyrants or the ‘overseers’, as they liked to be known, feared their fellow citizens, many of whom regarded them as traitors. Anyone who was deemed to be a democrat or could potentially oppose their government was executed after a show trial. Countless innocent Athenian men were executed often by being forced to drink the poison hemlock.
The Thirty Tyrants also had to provide pay and food to the Spartan garrison. This was at a time when Athens was on the brink of famine and resulted in great suffering. The oligarchs, to win popular support, tried to implicate ordinary citizens in their crimes. For example, Socrates was asked with others to bring an innocent man for execution. The philosopher bravely refused and just about escaped with his life.
Athens was bankrupt because of the war and the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ needed money to stay in power and to meet the Spartan demands. Critias, who was the cruelest of all the tyrants, decided to kill wealthy Athenians and foreign residents and seize their valuables and property. This was resisted by Thermanes, but Critias had him executed. He was a very complex man, a poet and cultured man who is a character in the Platonic dialogue named after him. He was also very cruel and seemed to enjoy bloodshed.
By this time, no-one was safe in Athens. It is estimated that thousands of people were killed and many more exiled and imprisoned during the rule of the oligarchs. The reign of the Thirty Tyrants can be likened to the ‘Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, or the Purges of Stalin in the 1930s.
The End of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’
The brutality and corruption of the tyrants was so great, that all the city came to hate them and they had almost no supporters left. Many other Greek states did not want Athens controlled by a pro-Spartan group and they feared the growing power of Sparta. Thebes and others gave support to the many Athenian exiles and they formed military units to overthrow the tyrants and restore democracy.
In 404 BC the former general Thrasybulus gathered together a group of Athenians and in a surprise attack seized the Piraeus, the harbor of the city. Then he fortified a hill overlooking the port so that when the Thirty Tyrants came with their force to retake it, they were defeated. This was a remarkable victory, especially considering that the democrats were outnumbered five to one.
In this battle, Critias was killed and the oligarchs were effectively leaderless. The Spartans intervened and inflicted a defeat on Thrasybulus, but at a high cost. They eventually negotiated a peace agreement between the democrats and the Thirty Tyrants. The oligarchs had to leave the city and in return were given the right to govern the nearby town of Eleusis.
In 403 BC, Thrasybulus restored democracy in Athens and the surviving tyrants were killed one by one in the following years.
The Aftermath of the Thirty Tyrants
The democrats eventually gained control of all Athenian territory and ended the influence of Sparta. The restored democracy was much more moderate than the one established by Pericles in the 5th century BC. Socrates’s reputation suffered greatly because, despite his principled stand against the tyrants, he had been the teacher of many of them, including Critias. Many believe that this ultimately led to his trial and execution.
The Thirty Tyrants shows how fragile democracy can be. Any crisis can be taken advantage of by anti-democratic forces and this can lead to dictatorship and a reign of terror. The example of the Tyrants shows that democracy is also at risk and should not be taken for granted.