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Category Archives: Culture

The Statue of Zeus
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom What do we really know? It sounds like something straight out of the
Read more.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration
It is the close of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Athens, no stranger to war, finds itself mourning
Read more.
Demeter’s Daughters: Women of the Thesmophoria
By Mary E. Naples, M.A. In the indigo light of the early morning, wearing white robes and carrying torches, the
Read more.
Troy: Fall of a City or Fall of Accuracy?
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Once upon a time there was an epic 10-year war between austere and
Read more.
Alcoholism in the Greco-Roman World
By Dale Vernor, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Binge drinking is nothing new. Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic Mesopotamian king who lived around
Read more.
When in Rome, Be Greek
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Rome: a Mediterranean giant, known far and wide for its conquering and warfare…
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The Bloodless – but perhaps Most Clever – Greek Tragedy Ever Written
By Ben Potter and Anya Leonard Sophocles’ Philoctetes, first performed in 409 BC, isn’t a typical tragedy, certainly not in
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Was Ancient Greek Theater Only for Men?
by Ben Potter A quick search of our homepage will reveal that a copious amount of ink has already been
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Etruscan Art: Not Just a Transition
By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Many folks see the Etruscan civilization as merely a segue, a follow up
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The tainted glory of the gladiator
By Ben Potter The sun rises high over Rome’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, the mightiest arena in the world. Only the colossal
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The Statue of Zeus

by November 13, 2018

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

Statue of Zeus

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

East Pediment

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

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

by November 10, 2018

It is the close of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Athens, no stranger to war, finds itself mourning those who had fallen on the field of battle, the sons and fathers lost. As was customary in Athens the bodies of the deceased had been collected and displayed under a tent for three days. During this time, various citizens paid tribute and the families were allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones. After the tree days, a funeral procession would be held where an esteemed citizen would make some small speech on behalf of the lost. And so it was around the year 430 BCE that Pericles would be selected to address Athens.
Statue of the Athenian General

Bust of Pericles

While Pericles’ funeral oration undoubtedly reflects the sentiments of the statesmen, we must remember that the text was not transcribed verbatim. Thucydides would have written the funeral oration some time after the actual speech, giving him ample time to reword and edit anything he pleased. However we can still be reasonably sure that the text by Thucydides is a faithful representation of the actual funeral oration.
As Pericles takes the stage, he makes clear his concerns about such a speech. While the funeral procession is surely a noble tribute for such courageous souls, Pericles believes that the words of any many will often fall short of accurately describing the deeds of the dead. Pericles believes he runs the difficult task of balancing a speech so as not to undercut the valor of the warriors while simultaneously not appearing to exaggerate. These concerns noted, he declares that it is tradition for words to be spoken on such an occasion, so he hesitantly obliges.
Painting of Pericles

Pericles Addressing the Crowd

“When men’s deeds have been brave, they should be honored in deed only, and with such an honor as this oration public funeral, which you are now witnessing.” – Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
The speech that Pericles delivers is such a dramatic departure from the customary oration that it is often considered a eulogy of Athens itself. Pericles begins by mentioning the struggles of the Athenian ancestors whom “…after many a struggle transmitted to us their sons this great empire.” And what an empire it might appear to be. Pericles goes to great lengths to detail the glory and the esteem of the Athenian empire.
With a government that pursues liberty and gives power to the many and not the few, Athenian democracy has become a model for success for all the Greek city-states. A system of government where the weak are empowered and public office is achieved through merit and not a matter of privilege. Pericles describes that in Athens any man, no matter his station in life, can find a way to strive within society. Pericles explains…
“Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.” –Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Peloponnesian War Depiction

Illustration of War

Pericles continues by recounting the several military conquests and how their army is considered to be far superior than any other the ancient world can produce. Even the Spartans who come upon their land often find themselves retreating from Athenian spears. And the brave Athenian soldiers, even when fighting on foreign soil, have little trouble overcoming their adversaries. Pericles continues by declaring that Athens also excels in times of peace, holding several games and sacrifices throughout the year. It would appear that the empire of Athens has found prosperity in all measures of life. Pericles says himself…
“To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state.” -Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
So why would Pericles go to such great lengths to paint his city as a thriving metropolis? Remember that this is not a political rally, but rather a funeral procession. It is likely the Pericles would have been thoughtful of Athenian moral at this time. On the precipice of a great war, Pericles would have done well to bolster the spirits of the living while commemorating the sacrifices of the departed. Pericles gives another explanation by explaining that the merits of the great city reflect the merits of the lost. And the greatness of Athens is only possible through bloody sacrifice and steeled determination.
Picture of Athens

Illustration of Ancient Athens

“I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it.” -Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
When faced with war, these soldiers chose death over dishonor, glory over cowardice. Pericles considers this bravery to be the truest form of a mans worth. He spends ample time detailing the fear that must have raced through their minds, and how they swiftly abandoned that fear for courage and valor. A rather eloquent and concise summary of a warriors sacrifice, Pericles subtly mourns the lost men while taking note of their willingness to lay down their lives for the homeland.
This message has been repeated through the ages. ‘We mourn them yes, but their sacrifice is not in vain…’ is a timeless message reappearing throughout thousands of years of human history. Pericles’ funeral oration is often compared to the Gettysburg address, where in 1863 former US president Abraham Lincoln reflected on the greatness of a nation that owed much to the sacrifices of dead men.
Despite the words of Pericles, Athens would suffer greatly in the coming years. The Peloponnesian war would continue for several years. Untold numbers would die and Athens itself would suffer a great plague and an eventual defeat at the hands of the Spartans. It is fortunate however that the great city would allowed to live and eventually recover.
Pericles’ funeral oration remains a poignant reminder that all things come at a cost. And while we might enjoy several luxuries within our own lifetime, there are often those who suffer selflessly on our behalf; falling again and again under the blows of outrageous fortunes so that we might live contently, peacefully. And if nothing else, we would do well to remember them…
“And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.”- Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration

Demeter’s Daughters: Women of the Thesmophoria

by November 6, 2018

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
In the indigo light of the early morning, wearing white robes and carrying torches, the pious women ascended the hill to the Thesmophorion (sanctuary to Demeter) in observance of their three day long annual festival honoring Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone.
Were they chanting? Were they singing? We can only guess. They must have numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands—a procession—exalting to behold.
Considered the oldest and most widespread of all religious festivals in ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was a feminine-only fertility cult whose celebrations spanned from Sicily in the west to Asia Minor (present day Turkey) in the east and everywhere in between. Most scholars maintain that its ubiquity in the Greek world was testament to its primeval origins.
Painting of the Ancient Greek festival

The Thesmophoria (Ancient Greek: Θεσμοφόρια) was an ancient Greek religious festival, held in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Established, organized and engaged in by women, membership in the Thesmophoria was restricted to citizen wives in good standing; no maidens or female slaves were allowed.
Though strictly prohibited from attending the event—sometimes to the point of death—men, that is to say male citizens, were still responsible for the expenses related to its celebration.
Because of its deep cultural significance, on the second day of the Thesmophoria, all law courts and council meetings in the polis were suspended. Additionally all prisoners were released from jail. Women then celebrated the Thesmophoria away from their homes and families for a minimum of three days and nights. Ironically, although women’s place was on the margins of hyper-patriarchal ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was given prominence in greater society.
Thesmophoria Vase

Thesmophoria Vase

In order to understand the importance the Thesmophoria may have had in women’s lives, it is vital to discuss the role Demeter and her daughter Persephone play in the myth as their narrative has relevance in the feminine festival.
The story begins with an arrangement between Zeus—lord of the gods and his brother Hades—lord of the underworld, to kidnap Persephone and make her queen of Hades’ dark domain. Ignorant of their unholy alliance and in an effort to win her daughter back from the land of the dead, Demeter stops the seasons turning the earth into a barren wasteland.
Although Zeus pleads with her to make the earth abundant once again, Demeter refuses to relent until Persephone is restored to the light of her earthly domain. Ultimately, Zeus acquiesces to Demeter’s demands and orders Hades to release Persephone. But before Hades adheres, he lures Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed.
Painting of Persephone

Persephone and the pomegranate

The mere act of eating in the underworld, keeps Persephone as his wife in his domain for a few months each year.
At its most fundamental level, the Thesmophoria celebrated Persephone’s journey from her descent into the underworld to her resurrection and life on earth. At a symbolic level relating to agriculture, Persephone is a metaphor for the seed, which in the Mediterranean region goes underground or lies dormant in the summer months only to be released again for planting in autumn.
While we may never know how the citizen wives practiced their secret ritual, literary and archaeological evidence suggests that in one of their integral rites, citizen wives handled death in order to bring forth life.
How did the women embark on this critical undertaking? Previous to the festival, the members had elected two prominent women called bailers or anteltriai who were tasked with descending the deep hollow of the cavern or megara to remove its “sacred objects.” Because it was understood to represent the womb of Demeter, the cavern was a common chamber within the Thesmophorion.
Statue of Demeter

Statue of Demeter

The “sacred objects” were comprised of rotted piglets along with other objects believed to increase fertility such as dough cakes in the shape of male and female genitalia as well as fir cones.
Because of its fecundity, the pig was associated with Demeter. Likewise fir cones were used because pine trees were known to be prolific.
This newly born humus the bailers scoop up is symbolic of the power the citizen wives possess. Through Demeter, they are able to generate life in an exclusively feminine cycle. The “sacred objects” were then placed on the altars of the two goddesses and mixed with seed constituting what may be one of the first examples of composting. Plentiful humus was a favorable portent, indicating the goddess’ delight at the festival and insuring the strength of the seeds in the forthcoming sowing season.
While we envision ancient Greece as being the seat of Western civilization, for all its sophistication, it was still chiefly an agrarian society where most of its residents worked the land. But because the land tended to be non-arable, the Greeks found it necessary to have several fertility festivals throughout the year as a means of appeasing the gods and garnering control in order to encourage fertility.
And due to their ever-expanding empire, they needed an ample supply of men to maintain their military commitments, as well as women to produce the much-coveted male citizens.
As such, Demeter was the chief fertility deity who was honored for her role in both crop and human fertility, aiding the Ancient Greeks in increasing the wealth in their world.
Ultimately, the work of the citizen wives was done. Filing out processionally, the pious women descended from the Thesmophorion. Spectators lined the streets in order to watch them make their descent from the sanctuary. After all, they played a critical role as the health and prosperity of the polis rested on their shoulders.

Troy: Fall of a City or Fall of Accuracy?

by October 31, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Once upon a time there was an epic 10-year war between austere and grandiose powers of the Mediterranean. There’s the wrath and favor of gods and goddesses, love and heartbreak, hope and despair, victors and losers, and, of course, the horse.
Trojan Horse Painting

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid

We can only be talking about one story – The Trojan War. Traversing languages and lands, the author (or more likely, authors and groups of creators over generations) that created the Iliad and the Odyssey wove a tale that spoke so loudly to the psyche that it is still pervasive in many aspects of today’s popular culture.
Once an epic spoken to the tune of music and recited from memory by bards, the Iliad and the Odyssey were committed to writing sometime between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. In the ancient Greek world, scenes of the Trojan War were already a popular subject among artists. Vase paintings, wall decorations, and other works of literature that stemmed from the premise of Homer abounded. Scenes of the war appeared on clay kraters, a type of vase that was intended for use at a symposium. Here, the men in attendance would lounge around, look at the scenes on the krater, and it would spark discussions on topics such as bravery, war, religion, and whatever else is alluded to on the vase.
Krater with Troy scene

Mixing bowl with scenes from the fall of Troy. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But let’s fast-forward a few millennia. We know that the Iliad and the Odyssey have been incredibly popular topics throughout time, or else our fascination with them today might not be as deep. Permeating the crust of our own day and age, we have the Trojan War represented very clearly in films titled (unambiguously) Troy (2004), Helen of Troy (1956), and The Trojan Women (1971), to name a few. We see representations of the epic in video games and comics, the most recent sweeping the United States being the Assasin’s Creed: Odyssey.
And, of course, in our era of television studios churning out material like the medium will die tomorrow, we have many adaptations visible on TV, from the Disney Channel cartoon, Phineas and Ferb to dramatic retellings like Netflix and BBC’s Troy: Fall of a City.
Promo image of the show

Troy: Fall of a city

So, we know that the Homeric epics are popular springboards for creative fodder, but how have the representations outside the texts transformed and altered our common understanding of the Trojan War itself?
I am by no means a “classical purist,” and my bias may show in that I enjoy a good adaptation and creative twist to a classic – something also seen in antiquity several times over. While some in our field may look at representations like Troy: Fall of a City as preposterous misconstructions of the beloved Homer, I choose to appreciate them for the medium they are created in, knowing full well that a direct adaption is a ridiculous notion and that the epics themselves faced “personal spins” in antiquity, depending on the audience.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

For those that are well acquainted with Homer, they may be quick to jump on the inaccuracies of pop culture adaptations. In Troy: Fall of a City, for example, there are many.
For starters, the level of interference played by the gods illustrates a strong difference between the film and the text. From central and imperative to all but dismissed, Troy: Fall of a City begins well enough with the divine characters, but soon loses track of them amongst the hubbub of other plots.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to the involvement we read in the texts themselves, where the gods are central and meddle, even when instructed not to be involved. While we certainly might have wished to see more of the gods throughout the series, they did seem to fade away naturally in favor of mortal plot lines. It was a decision that seems to align with viewers’ desires, to identify and see the people of the story, to make the heroic epic seem more like a historical event rather than, well, an epic.
Painting of the Gods in the Iliad

Athena counseling Achilles in “Achilles’ Wrath” by Michel Martin Drolling

Another common discrepancy we see, and as many reviewers have pointed out, is the scene where Achilles stands outside the Trojan walls and screams for Hector, who is inside. Very much a focal point in Troy: Fall of a City (and a bit of a tearjerker, if I do say so myself), this soul filled wail is not what was written in our source material.
Instead, Homer writes that Hector was the only soldier of Troy to remain outside, with old King Priam begging him to come inside the safety of the walls. Hector, however, remained and met Achilles face-to-face. So, while the screaming for Hector is an aspect of our adaptations we see repeatedly, and for good cinematic reason and reception, it is not one based in Homeric truth, whatever that may be in the first place.
Vase painting of the war

Achilles and Hector

This brings us to the classic icon of the Trojan War, one you probably learned about in the 4th grade with quaint cartoons mapping it out: the infamous Trojan Horse.
We have come to know the Trojan Horse as a symbol of trickery, deceit, war, and both victory and crushing defeat. Pop culture representations of the horse’s entry may vary from work to work, but, at least here, the pretense remains the same; the Trojans are taken off guard by the Greeks hiding inside the horse, who are able to deliver a deafening end to the war once they are secretly brought inside the gates. This symbol of the war stands out far above the rest, with the term “Trojan horse” coming to mean things in our modern world of technology, coding, war, and general social commentary. The attack represented a myriad of things then, as it does now.
Replica of the Trojan Horse

Replica of Trojan Horse – Canakkale Waterfront – Dardanelles – Turkey

It is easy to look at a piece of pop culture and be overtly critical of its blind eye to what we may consider glaring inaccuracies. The Trojan War is ubiquitous with antiquity, war, and the Greek world. The literature, archaeology, and history have been mused over since before it was even committed to writing. Because of this prolonged obsession, modern culture is filled with examples of the Trojan War, including the glowing successes and of course, inevitable missteps. Nonetheless, the Trojan War and its accompanying themes of bravery, struggle, love, and fate all persist today, in just about any adaptation you pick up. I think Homer (whoever he or they were) would tilt a symposium glass to that indeed.

Alcoholism in the Greco-Roman World

by October 17, 2018

By Dale Vernor, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient drinking
Binge drinking is nothing new. Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic Mesopotamian king who lived around 2,800 BC, is reported to have promised his workers “(a river of) ale, beer, and wine”,… which doesn’t exactly suggest moderation.
Indeed, most practices, beliefs, and attitudes linked to alcohol use date back to the earlier cultures… but that doesn’t mean its consumption didn’t change over time and between cultures.
Painting of Ancient Roman drinking

A Roman Feast; Roberto Bompiani (Italian (Roman), 1821 – 1908)

In both the ancient Greek and Roman world, alcohol was an important element often taken for pleasure, for social reasons, and for medicinal purposes. However, as the Roman Empire grew, drinking began to change. The Romans’ traditional values that were modeled on those of the Greeks—such as frugality, temperance, and simplicity—were slowly replaced by heavy drinking and other vices, including degeneracy, blind ambition, and corruption.
Drinking for Pleasure and at Social Settings
The manner in which alcohol, mainly wine, was consumed played a part in preventing or minimizing alcoholism in these cultures.
The consumption of wine was famously a part of the Greek Symposium, an important Hellenic social institution during which young men were introduced into aristocratic society. Men of respected families engaged in discussions and debates while wine was served.
Vase illustration of Greek drinking

Ancient Greek Symposium

The overseer of the Symposium, the Symposiarch, would decide how the strong the wine should be depending on the kind of discussions to take place. If the event was a sensual indulgence, it would be stronger; for serious discussions, it would be light. Both Romans and Greeks mixed wine with water because drinking pure wine was seen as a habit associated with uncivilized people.
At a Greek Symposium, women weren’t allowed and wine was taken after dinner. At the similar Roman Convivium, wine was served before, during, and after a meal, and women were allowed at the gathering.
When Drinking Got Out of Hand
While foreign visitors occasionally reported of “mass drunkenness”, overall the ancient Greeks were generally considered very temperate among ancient people. Perhaps this was because of their rules and literature that stressed moderate drinking, recommended diluting wine with water, and praised temperance. For instance, Xenophon and Plato spoke highly of moderate wine consumption because it was good for health and promoting happiness, but they were also critical of the habit of drunkenness.
painting of Greek drinking wine

Greek Wine, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

Nonetheless, there were exceptions, folks who believed in drinking to excess.
Take the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Followers of Dionysus believed that becoming intoxicated brought them closer to their deity.
The Macedonians also, among Greeks, perceived intemperance as a sign of masculinity, so men could drink to intoxicate themselves. Alexander the Great is a famous example, and may have died as a result of his habit.
A famous Macedonian drinker

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

Given these and other cases of excessive consumption, it is not surprising that the ancient Greeks had hangover remedies, such as taking boiled cabbage.
In contrast to the Greek ideal, the Romans had drinking habits that encouraged excessive consumption of wine, such as:
  • They began drinking before meals on empty stomachs.
  • They consumed excessive quantities of wine and food, and then vomited so that they had room for more.
  • They played drinking games, including one where somebody would drink as many cups of wine as a throw of a dice indicated.
Clearly, in the first and second centuries BC, it was not uncommon to encounter intoxication among Greeks and Romans. However, initially it was not a universal vice and famous people like Cato the Elder and Julius Caesar only took wine in moderation. As moral values associated with drinking continued to decay, the habit of excessive drinking became more widespread.
Alcoholism isn’t just a modern phenomenon; it was present during ancient times, too. Perhaps today’s alcohol use and abuse is a reflection and an extension of what happened in times before. It was and will be with us always…all that changes is how we deal with it.
Watered Wine anyone?

When in Rome, Be Greek

by October 10, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Roman Versus Greek Art

The Discobolus Lancellotti and a fragmentary statue of the Lancellotti type, Roman copies

Rome: a Mediterranean giant, known far and wide for its conquering and warfare… and its strong penchant for proudly displaying spoils all around the city. For hundreds of years Rome’s military prowess led to Triumphs, civil ceremonies and religious rites paraded through her famous streets. Rome was powerful…and she wanted to make sure her control extended not just to the military, but to the artistic endeavors of the empire as well.
After the Roman Empire conquered Greece and found (relative) stability in their position in the Mediterranean, a certain movement swept through the upper level Romans. Philhellenes – literally friends of Greece- were adamant admirers of Greek culture and everything that went with it. This movement, finding its roots in the literate upper class as early as the 3rd century BCE, led to centuries of cultivating Greek art for Roman consumption.
Roman Empire Map

Map of the Roman Empire

And the Romans absolutely loved it. The sculptures of Greek athletes, the strong and toned depictions of gods and goddesses, the busts of famous philosophers – it all showed beauty and power of a great civilization that was now under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Romans knew that at the height of Greek power architecture, art, theater and philosophy as well as war, politics, and money were valued greatly. They saw the Greek civilization not as defeated or crumpled, but as a narrative of the not so distant past and the potential greatness that they too could achieve.
The Romans respected the Greeks… and that is important to remember.
By the 2nd century CE, the market for Roman copies of Greek sculpture and art was enormous. Casts were made in workshops to “mass produce” pieces of particular interest. Roman artists would morph the two cultures by taking Roman heroes and marrying them with the distinguishable Greek style of athletic sculpture. In the end, wealthy Romans displayed their copies prominently in their homes and decorated their villas, using Greek sculptures as functional and integrated design features of their homes.
Heroic Roman Sculpture

This marble made statue is a representation of Octavius, a Heroic Roman General

Again, the Romans absolutely loved it. The copies insinuated education, class, and privilege, and the Romans capitalized on this prestige.
Of course, this wave of philhellenism is very much in line with the Roman style of expansion. As their grip on the Mediterranean oppressively tightened, as far as art, language, and religion were concerned, conquered territories were allowed to continue practicing whatever it was they wanted… as long as they paid taxes, sent men for war, and made sacrifices to the Roman gods. This was how the Romans maintained control on such a massive scale.
Roman Sculpture

Statue of Mars, the Roman God of War

When the Romans spread east over Greece, they recognized and remembered the importance and power of the Greek civilization. Whereas the rest of the empire was expected to learn and speak Latin as a mark of education, the Roman empire allowed Greek to remain the language of distinction in Hellas. The result was: if you were an educated and sophisticated Roman, you knew Greek too.
So, knowing how impressive and respected the Greek civilization was, the fact that the Romans fell absolutely head over heels in love with their art is no surprise. The Roman government effectively used Greek art as political propaganda. They constructed buildings specifically to display imported art and held the Greek spoils a head above the rest. While Rome became a conglomeration of artistic spoils of lands plundered throughout their region, there was just something about Greece that made her stand out. And Rome welcomed it with open arms.