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Four Common(ly misunderstood) Latin Proverbs

by October 25, 2019

The other day a student told me that, during her studies as an art student, she had to sculpt a small statue as an assignment for one of her courses. She did so without having put much thought into it. The professor approached her and started praising her work, giving it much more and much different meaning than the one she originally wanted to convey by making the statue.
My student did not say anything, as the situation was favorable to her, but there sure are situations in which misinterpreting a product of art can lead to misunderstanding and forming a wrong image of the author and the message he/she originally wanted to get across.
This is often the case with quotes from literature, especially the ancient ones that we regularly use for our own purposes—whether it is to express an attitude, to defend an opinion, show our feelings, or even just to sound smart.

Roman portraiture fresco of a young man with a papyrus scroll, from Herculaneum, 1st century AD

We write a sentence, wrap it into quotation marks and undersign an author to it as if it was his/her personal opinion. However, do we ever stop to wonder where these thoughts come from, and what the sentiment of the author originally was?
What if even half of those phrases were just opinions expressed by the characters in the work, and not those of the author? For those of you that still haven’t watched Fight Club: what if I told you that Helena Bonham Carter was not the one saying, “And suddenly I felt nothing”, and that all those screenshots with that quote under her face were misleading?
Unfortunately, this misattribution happens just as much with the sayings and maxims of the ancient world.
Here are a couple of Latin proverbs that are common but which are often used without much knowledge of their context or background:

1. Omnia vincit amor (Love conquers all)


Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aenid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). The mosaic dates from the 3rd Century AD. Credit: Bardo National Museum.

This famous line belongs to one of Virgil’s bucolic (pastoral) poems. The world of bucolic poetry (as it was known to Virgil) used to be idyllic and distant from the noise and crowd of the city. It was a world where shepherds could sing (often competitive singing) about their love and passion, celebrate nature or play syrinx and Pan’s flute.
Virgil used the same scenery, but wrote about real people, his contemporaries, represented as shepherds. The main character of this bucolic poem is the elegiac poet Gallus, represented as a shepherd in the lands of Arcadia (where the idyllic scenario is placed for ages of art to come thanks to this particular poem).
This phrase is usually quoted in the defense and celebration of love, and its power to overcome all obstacles. In the poem, Gallus is madly in love and is suffering. We read about the deities coming to rescue him and talk him out of love, but it is all in vain.
Finally, love wins, but not quite as we would have expected. Despite all the efforts of the gods, love leads to Gallus’ death, and that is the victory Virgil is referring to in the famous phrase. The main message of this phrase is rather related to the devastating power that love has rather than its ideal victory that leaves the meant-to-be couple satisfied.

2. Mens sana in corpore sano (A healthy mind in a healthy body)

Fictitious Portrait

Juvenal’s fictitious portrait, 19th century (S. H. Gimber)

The most famous slogan of many fitness companies has its origin in the writings of an ancient Roman satirist Juvenal, who was active in the 1st century AD (the original thought goes further back in history, as early as 7th century BC, to Thales). His most famous work, Satires (Saturae), is best known for its criticism of Roman society under the rule of the notorious Domitian and his successor Nerva, along with its criticism of mankind as a whole.
The sentence Mens sana in corpore sano belongs to Satire X, one of his most influential poems. The poem is dealing with the earthly ambitions of mankind, and its goal is to show that they all lead to disappointment. What we should pray for, are “a healthy mind in a healthy body, and a strong spirit”. The actual message of the author is that we should nourish our mind and body equally, not that a healthy body automatically means a healthy mind, as has been believed.

3. Homo sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto (I am a man, I consider nothing human alien to me)

Terence frontispiece

The frontispiece of the famous Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, with an image of Publius Terentius Afer.

Taken out of context, this line has been interpreted in various ways. However, its context gives it a surprising turn. This line was written by the famous playwright Terence, in his comedy Self-Tormentor.
The plot revolves around a wealthy old man, Menedemus, who is angry with his son, Clinia, for having a relationship with a penniless girl. He scolds him, holding up his own career as a soldier, which Clinia takes literally and goes to East to live as a soldier.
The play begins with Menedemus working in the field (as a form of self-punishment), and his neighbor asking him why he is working in the field when he has so many servants that can do that for him. When Menedemus tells him to mind his own business, the neighbor answers Homo sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto. Who would have thought that this influential sentence was originally just a justification of poking the nose into other people’s lives!?

4. Tanta stultitia mortalium est! (What fools these mortals be!)


The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.

It is well known that Horace’s famous Carpe diem is about making the best out of every moment and not wasting time on pointless things. However, not many people know the stultitia (stupidity) that Seneca refers to in the phrase above is related to the same concept. It is from one of his Moral Letters, titled On saving time—which does a good job summing up Seneca’s general attitude towards wasting time (which he himself didn’t respect too much, but that’s a subject for another article). Here is the full thought:
“What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, -time!”
Therefore, next time you cannot make yourself productive, instead of Carpe diem, try motivating yourself with Seneca’s line – you’ll be surprised by the effect!
In some of these cases, the proverb did not mean what it was commonly thought to have meant. In others, it turned out to mean much more. Perhaps after reading this you feel as though you’ve lost a proverb you loved to live by. Don’t be discouraged! The ancient world is filled with wisdom and advice for us. Where one saying, maxim, or proverb turns out to lose the meaning you thought it had, there surely is another waiting to be found.

The Marvelous Avengers: Part Two

by October 24, 2019

By Stella Samaras, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Orientalizing – Corinth (c. 720-535 BCE)
When the Dorians settled in the Attic Peninsula and the Peloponnese, many of the natives moved into the Aegean and across to Asia Minor. When they returned they brought back Eastern influences. Geometric pottery which incorporated simple human figures now began incorporating animals and mythical creatures in less symbolic and more realistic presentations e.g., chimeras and sphinxes.
This style was nurtured in Corinth from about 700 BCE, with the peculiarity that the Corinthians didn’t incorporate any human figures. Corinth with its established colonies in Corfu and Sicily and being a major trade centre, situated on the isthmus connecting the Aegean with the Adriatic Seas, was integral in spreading this style.
Animals and mythical creatures were painted onto a neutral base in dark slip clay which became black when fired; outlines were incised into the glaze, copying the technique of chasing a design into metal; and red and white were added to the drafting. The style showcased realistic rendering that harked back to Mycenaean vase painting, but was easier to apply to smaller vessels that are particular to Corinth i.e., the aryballos (a vessel for perfume).

A pouring jug, Oinochoe, Corinthian “animal frieze” style, ca. 580 BC.

Proto-Attic (c. 700-600 BCE)
Then the Athenians added the human figure to the orientalizing influence. This, along with a mish-mash of Corinthian influence and the emerging Black-figured Pottery and the Proto-Attic style came into being. The drawings became bigger; Corinthian monsters were added as were black figures in the Corinthian style, all while the geometric patterning was retained. There was a preference for bigger vases, large kraters and amphoras, as the Athenians experimented. Figures remained two dimensional and painted in profile.
As vase painting evolved it came to reflect the central place of the Trojan War and cycles of myths around Herakles (Hercules), Oedipus, Theseus etc., in the psyche of the Ancient Greeks. The stories were so beloved, they needed only the names of the figures to be understood. Often there are no identifying names, sometimes the names of the figures are written backwards and other times nonsensical strings of Greek characters are strung together to imitate names – it seems not all painters in Ancient Greece were literate.

Loutrophore. – A water carrier, Old Protoattic, (690 BCE). Athens, terracotta painted in black, attributed to the Painter of Analatos

Athenian Black Figure (c.600-500BCE)
By the mid-6th Century, Athens overtook Corinth in the production of black figured pottery and began to innovate shapes of vases and refine their illustration. Shallow depth was added with the overlapping of figures and there arose an emphasis on greater detail. In this style clothing came to be depicted with a purple red pigment and women with white skin.
It is also a period for which individual potter/painter workshops are better understood and particular artists are remembered for their skill. For instance, Lydus is known for his details and rendering of animals, Amasis for his drapery, weapons and Dionysian themes. Exekias was renowned for his innovations including painting imitation eyes on the shallow outside of Kylix goblets so when they were raised to drink they stood in place of the drinker’s eyes.
6th C BCE Hydria Black figure from Athens

6th C BCE Hydria Black figure from Athens

A black figure kylix which would have been drunk from at a Symposium. The eyes are painted over the design next to the handles c. 530BCE

Red and white pigments were added to the rendering of the figures that are drawn in black against the terracotta clay background. The black slip and the contrasting earthy red of the vase were deepened in hue by a process that involved firing the vase three times. The Athenians would become proficient at achieving tonal variations by glazing and firing their work in a strict process which they used in the concurrent style emerging, the red figure style.
The illustrations continued to be grounded on a base line but could now be read from left to right in a narrative. Scenes from everyday life begin to creep in with the black figure style. The Panathenian Amphora (produced from 530 – c 300BCE) were commissioned for the Panathenean Games and given as prizes. On one side appeared the Goddess Athena, on the other the sport for which it was awarded.

Psykter Amphora depicting scenes from the Trojan War in a variety of earthy tones, c.540BCE

One side of a terracotta Panathenaic prize Amphora c.530BCE, created by the Euphiletos

Athenian Red Figure (c 500-300 BCE)
By far the most popular of the styles today, the red figures take their colour from the iron rich clay of Athens. The warmth of the clay against the black background is iconic. Vase painters became highly specialised and would paint specific vase types. Drawing of figures finally broke away from two dimensional profile views with the occasional frontal view, to incorporating more natural three quarter views and naturalistic poses. Pliny attributes this to Cimon of Kleonai.
The incised lines of the black figure style gave way to raised painted outlines that could highlight specific details, such as muscles, and achieve the twisted “contraposto” stances the Greeks loved. Terracotta tones were added by adjusting the thickness of the glaze and also their firing technique, by Zeuxis. White, red and black were also used. Innovations in rendering were also achieved with painters employing foreshortening, twisted poses and aiming for greater naturalism.

Euphronios krater depicting Hypnos (left) and Thanatos (right) carrying dead Sarpedon, with Hermes in the middle. Attic red-figured calyx-krater, 515 BC.

Finally, with thanks to mural painter Polygnotos of Thasos, the baseline and adherence to painting in rectangular zones gave way to the placement of figures seemingly in the air as well as the base line. Always innovating, painters seem to be attempting to create a field of depth perspective by the new placement of figures. The clear run of a narrative was sacrificed for a resulting crowded in look.
This overlapped the black figure style and there are vases that employ both techniques. These vases are referred to as being bilingual.

During this period new vase shapes were added e.g, the lagynos, and existing shapes were adjusted. The kylix drinking cup became shallower while the water carrying hydria, became rounder.
Innovation was stymied with the war with Sparta (431-404 BCE).

Athenian White Ground

Hypnos and Thanatos carrying the body of Sarpedon from the battlefield of Troy. Detail from an Attic white-ground lekythos, ca. 440 BC.

Late in the 5th Century the white ground lekythos became popular as a funerary urn in Athens. A white clay slip was applied over the terracotta clay, on which a scenes, such as a central tomb being approached by women carrying garlands of flowers, were painted. Various colours were added in the decorations as a wash. It’s thought to be an imitation of a mural painting technique that hasn’t survived.
Ceramic Head Vases and Plastic Figure Vase
Finally, the ancient Greek novelty mug! It was shaped like a human head and was most likely used in Dionysian rituals and at Symposiums. In fact, there were aryballoi (perfume bottles), Kantharoi (mugs with vertical handles) and oinochoe (pouring jugs) shaped as heads.

Kantharos mug of a Satyr with vase painting c.460BCE, the Carlsruhe Painter

Sometimes referred to as being plastic, they weren’t plastic but sculptural in their formation. They first appear as Corinthian aryballoi in the 6th Century BCE, when they were shaped like deer, hares, women or helmeted warriors.
These creations were traded far and wide and it has been disputed whether they began in Greece. In Athens they never depicted Athenian males. Instead, they illustrated mostly women, but also satyrs, Dionysus, Herakles as well as Ethiopian males and females. They could have one head or two heads connected at the back in a Janis form.

Janis-form Aryballos vase 520-510 BCE

So, did the Ancient Greeks read comic books?
Hmm…if the storytelling on the black and red figure vases can be thought of as comic books, then dressing up (or right down) for the Elysian Mysteries or Dionysian Rites could be likened to attending Comicon. Bringing home kitschy mugs sculpted with a face or two of their favorite hero suggests that the Ancients Greeks were definitely comic book fans. Had they invented time travel, I know where I’d be searching for them today.

The Marvelous Avengers, Ancient Greek Style: Part One

by October 23, 2019

By Stella Samaras, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

And the 64 million drachma question is, “Did the Ancient Greeks read comic books?”
Er, I meant comic scrolls, er tablets, er…um…you know what I mean: did they read graphic novels about scantily clad heroes, whose pecs and six-packs were made for lycra; whose superhuman feats reached mythical heights; whose tales were told in rectangular registers that were read from left to right; where a limited color scheme and sharp lines defined their form; and the odd word here or there gave clarity to the story unfolding?

Well, yes, they did. But…they weren’t reading books or scrolls or tablets – they were reading vases, jugs, urns and goblets.

Black figure jug with ibex, lion and other animals. Probably Corinthian, c. 600 BC. Archaeological Museum of Syracuse.

Ancient Greek Pottery is a wonderful source of information about the periods from the 16th Century down to the 4th Century BCE. It speaks to us through the shape each complete vase takes and how that shape changed over the centuries due to numerous factors. For instance, the rise in technology allowed the invention of a faster wheel, which enabled more slender designs. Foreign influence on vases made for foreign markets affected the vase’s style as well as changing cultural needs and tastes, e.g. making a transport vase easier to carry.
It also speaks of shifts in community consciousness through evolving decorative painting. From geometric patterns to the appearances of symbolic figures in public funeral processions to the retelling of myths to depictions of everyday life, the vases depicted it all. Yup, there was even pornography. The one constant over the centuries was that each vase was made to be used in a practical way – they all held liquid or grains – or were used as bowls to mix things in e.g., wine and water.

Mycenaean pottery krater decorated with a bull and egret, 1300–1200 BC
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Not all vases were illustrated: some were glazed black while others retained their natural clay coloring, as can been seen in the large transport amphoras with their pointed bases. Illustrated vases were created presumably for those who could afford them, but also as prizes. What each vase held and its specific use isn’t always clear. We rely on vase painting of vases to learn what each shape was used for. Many have been found as grave markers and others in burials… however why the deceased was buried with a vase isn’t clear. Was it ritual or a possession the deceased held dear?
These beautifully painted vases were designed to be used in ritual as well as to beautify and instruct. For the most part, they were designed and painted for men and their subject matter depicted the heroic feats of males. Women were depicted going about their daily chores, such as spinning wool, but more often seen as goddesses or gorgons or other figures from mythology.

One side of a terracotta Panathenaic prize Amphora c.530BCE, created by the Euphiletos Painter

Lastly, from the Ancient Greek Dark Ages they showcased a gradually increasing awareness of creating art, as opposed to a purely religious pictorial statement that serviced a religious rite. Compare the plethora of Geometric vases depicting anonymous figures in their funerary processions with the illustration of red figure vases, which not only name their subject matter but may include the prideful claims to superiority of the vase painter over his rival. Specific artists and workshops were praised in the literature of the day and are still celebrated today for their innovation in drawing, design or preferred choices of subject matter.
So much is known about the emerging styles, workshops and artists that vases can be dated to within 20 years of their manufacture. Styles evolved, looked to the past, trading partners and other cultures around them. This is an overview of the beautiful, sometimes quirky, other times symbolic forms of Ancient Greek pottery.
Mycenaean (c.1600-1100BCE)

This Mycenaean Krater was found in Cyprus in an Enkomi tomb and is illustrated with two griffins on one side and two sphinxes on the other, 13th-12th C BCE
Found in Tomb 43, Enkomi, Cyprus. Now held by the British Museum, GR 1897.4-1.927. BM Cat Vases C397.

There are about 30 general vase shapes that were established on mainland Greece by the Mycenaeans (c. 1600-1100 BCE.) e.g., the amphora, krater, oinochoe. These vases were well rounded and believed to have been thrown on a potter’s wheel and fired in a kiln. They can be recognized in their white backgrounds and bold decoration in earthy red tones that often depicted sea life with fluid lines and clear details. The style was highly influenced by the Minoans with whom they had close ties. These vases disappear with the onset of the Ancient Greek Dark Ages.
Geometric (1100 – 800BCE)
Pottery provides the main source of evidence for the Greek Dark Ages, that period of time when severe climate change coupled with the Dorian invasion silenced Greek written record. Mycenaean palaces were abandoned and city states slowly emerged. This time period is characterized by the Proto-Geometric Period which arose in Thessaly and spread southward (c.1100-800 BCE). These vases were decorated with geometric lines and shapes – triangles, dots, chevrons, battlements, swastikas and straight-lined meanders. In Athens around the 9th Century the vases became taller, slimmer and had less of a belly. This was perhaps due to the invention of a faster potting wheel.
When simple, almost symbolic figures began appearing they were painted in a rectangular register, referred to as a zone, which spanned the curvature of the vase between the handles. Presumably because this is where the eye must fall when picking up the vase. As time went on rectangular zones on the belly of the vase would also be filled with human figures that were two dimensional and symbolic.
The Geometric style was monochromatic with the black design painted on a neutral coloured clay background.,_geometric_style,_Greek-Attic,_c._770-760_BC,_terracotta_-_Blanton_Museum_of_Art_-_Austin,_Texas_-_DSC07649.jpg

Amphora, geometric style, Greek-Attic, c. 770-760 BC, terracotta – Blanton Museum of Art – Austin, Texas – DSC07649.jpg In Public Domain

Part TWO coming tomorrow…

Timeline of Ancient Greek history

by October 15, 2019

3000 BCE First Settlers: Hunter-gathers begin to settle in what is Greece. A bronze age culture and civilization begins on the island of Crete.
1600 BCE Mycenaean Greece: Bronze age kingdoms in mainland Greece. Powerful kings who ruled centralized states and who built great palaces such as Mycenae.
1194 BCE Trojan War: This was a war between the Mycenaean kings and Troy, a city on the coast of modern Turkey.
1184 BCE Trojan War: The destruction of Troy after the Greeks captured the city by using a Wooden Horse.
Trojan Horse Painting

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

1100 BCE Dorian Invasion: Dorian tribesmen from the north invade and destroy the Mycenaean kingdoms. The Dorians brought iron to Greece. However, their invasion also led to a ‘Dark Ages’ in Greece when civilization largely collapsed.
900- 800 BCE Alphabet: The Greeks develop their own alphabet that was modeled on the Phoenician alphabet.
c. 800 BCE Homeric Poems: The legendary poet Homer is reputed to have composed the two great Greek epics. They were the Iliad, a poem on the Trojan War and the Odyssey, which celebrates the adventures of Odysseus as he tries to return home to Ithaca.
750 BCE Age of Colonization: As the Greeks emerged from the Dark Ages, they began to colonize coastal areas and islands all over the Mediterranean. Many colonies in Italy become rich, and cultural centers such as Tarentum and known as Magna Graecia.
776 BCE First Olympic Games: The first Olympic Games are held at Olympia. The event was staged in honor of the Gods.
Ancient Olympics

Illustration of the Ancient Olympic Games

743-724 BCE First Messenian War: This was a war between the Messenians and the Spartans. The Spartans emerged triumphantly and enslaved the Messenians. This was critical in the development of the unique Spartan constitution and way of life.
650 BCE The Age of the Tyrants: Social and political tensions lead to the overthrow of noble governments in cities such as Athens. These tyrants are often credited with introducing much-needed reforms.
621 BCE Draco’s Code of Law: Draco writes down Athens’ laws for the first time and they become notoriously harsh.
580 BCE Solon’s reforms: Solon introduces a series of laws and reforms in Athens. They failed in the short-term, but they are credited with laying the foundation for Athenian democracy.

Solon before Croesus, By Nikolaus Knüpfer

508/9 BCE Democracy in Athens: Cleisthenes reforms the Athenian Constitution and makes it more democratic. Ordinary citizens have political power for the first time.
499-493 BCE Ionian Revolt: The Greek city-states in Ionia (Turkey) revolt against the Persian Empire but are crushed. Many Ionian Philosophers flee and spread their ideas in Greece.
490 BCE First Persian War: The Persians send an invasion fleet to Greece in order to punish those who supported the Ionian Revolt.
490 BCE Battle of Marathon: The Athenian hoplites under the command of Miltiades defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.
Map of the battle

Battle of Marathon map

480 BCE Second Persian War: King Xerxes led an invasion force into Greece. He is delayed by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Later in the year, a Greek coalition defeated the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis. At the Battle of Platea, the Greeks finally drive the Persians from Greece.
480–404 BCE Athenian Golden Age: After the defeat of the Persian, Athens experienced a golden age of culture. Great building such as the Parthenon was built, the theatre, philosophy, and the arts flourished.
454 BCE Athenian Empire: Athens turned the anti-Persian Delian League into an Empire. It used its mighty fleet to dominate other city-states.
458 BCE Aeschylus: Aeschylus trilogy of plays the Orestia is staged, which is a landmark in the development of Greek tragedy.
Portrait of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

431 BCE Peloponnesian Wars Begins: The Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta and their allies. The war rages on land and sea.
404 BCE Peloponnesian Wars Ends: Athens loses the Peloponnesian Wars after the destruction of her navy. Sparta becomes the dominant Greek power. It imposed the anti-democratic 30 tyrants on Athens.
403 BCE Democracy: Democracy was restored to Athens, by the general and politician Thrasybulus.
399 BCE Trial of Socrates: The philosopher Socrates was charged with impiety in Athens. He was found guilty of the charge and executed.
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

380 BCE Plato’s Academy: The philosopher Plato establishes the Academy in Athens. This is widely seen as the world’s first university.
371 BCE Battle of Leuctra: The Thebans defeat the Spartans. This is the end of Spartan supremacy in Greece.
359 BCE Philip IIs coronation: Philip II became King of Macedon and turns it into a major Greek power.

347 BCE Plato’s death: Plato, often seen as the world’s greatest philosopher dies
338 BCE Battle of Chaeronea: Philip II, King of Macedon defeats the Greek of city-states. He establishes the League of Corinth. Macedonian kings largely dominate the city-states.

336 BCE Coronation of Alexander the Great: Alexander the Great becomes king after the assassination of his father Philip II.
The founding of Alexandria

Alexander the Great founding Alexandria, Placido Costanzi (Italy, 1702-1759)

335 BCE The Lyceum: Aristotle founds a school known as the Lyceum.
333 BCE Battle of Issus: Alexander the Great defeats the Persians at the Battle of Issus. The Macedonian King declares himself king of Asia, after the death of the Persian king.
331 BCE Conquest of Egypt: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt.
326 BCE Alexander invades India: The great general invades India but is forced to return after his troops mutiny as Opis.
323 BCE Alexander the Great dies: The great conqueror dies in Babylon without a heir.
322-275 BCE Wars of the Diadochi: There are a series of civil wars between Alexander’s generals. It ends with the Battle of Ipsus and the final partition of the Macedonian Empire into Ptolemaic Egypt, the Seleucid Empire, and the Macedonian Kingdom.
322 BCE Aristotle death: Aristotle one of the world’s greatest philosophers dies.
Painting of Aristotle

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

212 BCE Romans take Syracuse: Romans capture Syracuse, in Sicily, end of Greek independent city-states in Magna Graecia. Archimedes the mathematician and engineer, are killed.
168 BCE Battle of Pydna: Macedonians defeated by Rome.
146 BCE Battle of Corinth: The Romans defeat an alliance of Greeks at the Battle of Corinth and Greece became part of the Roman Empire.
30 BCE Death of Cleopatra: Suicide of Cleopatra after Battle of Actium. She was the last independent Greek ruler in the Mediterranean.

The Darkest Depths of Human Nature: Three Examples From the Peloponnesian War

by October 4, 2019

Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian and general, is most famous for his narrative of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). The war was a struggle between Athens and Sparta and led to all-out war between the Greek city states as they sided with one or the other.
Thucydides documented not only the military and political decisions that were decisive during the war, but in so doing captured the darkest depths of human nature itself. He closes his preface to The History of the Peloponnesian War with the following remark:
 This history may not be the most delightful to hear, since there is no mythology in it. But those who want to look into the truth of what was done in the past—which, given the human condition, will recur in the future, either in the same fashion or nearly so—those readers will find this History valuable enough, as this was composed to be a lasting possession and not to be heard for a prize at the moment of a contest.

Bust of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian and general.

Indeed, it is not the most delightful history to hear, not simply because there is no mythology in it, but because the violence carried out upon Greeks by fellow Greeks is so vicious and reflects all too well the violence held just beneath the surface within us today.
Yet, if such violence is part of our condition, part of our very nature, then we would do well to listen closely to the stories Thucydides passes onto us, so that we might avoid their recurrence.
Through the course of his narrative of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides shows again and again that human beings are motivated primarily by fear, ambition, self-advantage, and a desire to rule over others. He sees these motives at play throughout the war between Athens and Lacedaemon (area of ancient Greece that comprised the city-state of Sparta), leading to some of the worst mistakes and injustices carried out on both sides.

Origins of the War

The origin of the war, according to Thucydides, was rooted in fear. Though the Lacedaemonians gave other reasons, Thucydides claims that fear was the underlying motive. As he put it, “the growth of Athenian power… put fear into the Lacedaemonians and so compelled them into war.” This was also one of the reasons that other cities joined Sparta, “some out of the desire to be set free from their empire, and others for fear of falling under it.”
The Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (1846)

A similar analysis is made concerning the Athenian empire. The Athenian ambassadors at Sparta, after hearing the complaints against them by representatives from Corinth, Aegina, and Megara, make a speech of their own.
In this speech they claimed that, after taking the lead and finishing the war against the Persians (Greco-Persian Wars, 492-449 BCE), “we were compelled to develop our empire to its present strength by fear first of all, but also by ambition, and lastly for our own advantage.” They went on to say that, “If we have been overcome by three of the strongest motives—ambition, fear, and our own advantage—we have not been the first to do this. It has always been established that the weaker are held down by the stronger.”
The Athenians, despite the fear and anger aroused against them (as Master Yoda once put it, “Fear leads to anger”), claimed that they could not be accused of anything more than acting in accordance with the nature of things.

The Plague

In the second year of the war a plague struck Athens, one so terrible Thucydides describes it as “too sever for human nature.” With the spread of disease and desperation came lawlessness. The quick reversals of fortune, Thucydides claims, led men to dare “to do freely things they would have hidden before—things they never would have admitted they did for pleasure.” He continues, writing:

And so, because they thought their lives and their property were equally ephemeral, they justified seeking quick satisfaction in easy pleasures. As for doing what had been considered noble, no one was eager to take any further pains for this, because they thought it uncertain whether they should die or not before they achieved it. But the pleasure of the moment, and whatever contributed to that, were set up as standards of nobility and usefulness. No one was held back in awe, either by fear of the gods or by the laws of men: not by the gods, because men concluded it was all the same whether they worshipped or not, seeing that they all perished alike; and not by the law, because no one expected to live till he was tried and punished for his crimes. But they thought that a far greater sentence hung over their heads now, and that before this fell they had a reason to get some pleasure in life.

The Plague

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

This is what Thucydides meant when he said the plague was too severe for human nature. The devastation wrought by the plague brought forth their true tendencies that, before then, had remained dormant, held down by fear of the gods and the laws of men.
These two checks on our true nature had been rendered powerless… what became feared most was death by plague. And this fear, along with our tendency to pursue our own advantage, led people to seek immediate satisfaction in base pleasures. The very things that had once been considered noble, Thucydides tells us, were abandoned for such base pleasures.
During the plague even the great citizens of Athens succumbed to these inner tendencies—tendencies that, in better times, lurk only beneath surface.

The Corcyrean Civil War

The civil war that took place on Corcyra is another example of our inner tendencies being brought to the surface. This civil war was between Corcyrean democrats and oligarchs, the former sympathetic to Athens and the latter sympathetic to the Lacedaemonians.
Once again, all became permissible. As Thucydides tells us, “there was nothing people would not do, and more: fathers killed their sons; men were dragged out of the temples and then killed hard by; and some who were walled up in the temple of Dionysus died inside it.” In the same way that what was considered noble was flipped on its head during the plague, the valuations of actions and traits were reversed:

Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature…In brief, a man was praised if he could commit some evil action before anyone else did, or if he could cheer on another person who had never meant to do such a thing. 

How many of us have seen, in these divisive times, individuals praising what they once condemned? Defending actions they would otherwise find abhorrent? In our more reflective moments, have we not seen this within ourselves?
Athenian defeat

This copper engraving by Matthaus Merian depicts the Athenian naval victory near Corinth over the Corinthian and Spartan fleet around 430 B.C.E. Photograph by akg-images/Newscom

Thucydides goes on to tell us that family ties were trumped by party loyalty, piety was all but forgotten, and that those who tried to remain neutral were attacked from both sides. How could this happen? Thucydides explains:
The cause of all this was the desire to rule out of avarice and ambition, and the zeal for winning that proceeds from those two… And though [each party] pretended to serve the public in their speeches, they actually treated it as the prize for their competition; and striving by whatever means to win, both sides ventured on most horrible outrages and exacted even greater revenge, without any regard for justice or the public good.
Does this state of affairs sound at all familiar?

The War Within

The cause of the evils of war, according to Thucydides, is not war itself, but us. If we were other creatures with a different nature, perhaps war would not be so terrible, or not occur at all.
When he describes fear, ambition, self-advantage, and our desire to rule over others, as our natural tendencies, he is not saying that we always act from these motives. For him, these always lie within us but are brought to the surface by disastrous events or great periods of hardship:
In peace and prosperity, cities and private individuals alike are better minded because they are not plunged into the necessity of doing anything against their will; but war is a violent teacher: it gives most people impulses that are as bad as their situation when it takes away the easy supply of what they need for daily life. 
Funeral Oration

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

William Tecumseh Sherman, that great general of the Union Army, made famous the phrase that “War is hell.” Albert Camus, in his Notebooks, jotted down the following: “We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives… inside ourselves.”
Thucydides would nod in agreement with both. What makes war hell is that it emanates from the hell within us, always waiting for the right to circumstances to unleash its fury. Or, as the Joker puts it in the Dark Knight,
You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.
Human nature is laid bare in the events Thucydides describes because they reveal to us our innermost tendencies, what lurks beneath the surface at all times. In the right conditions these tendencies stay beneath the surface but, when put under stress or hardship, they all too readily are unleashed and wreak the type of havoc witnessed during the Peloponnesian War. And, importantly for Thucydides, such events will always have these effects, to greater or lesser degrees, so long as human nature remains the same.

The Eternal City

by September 27, 2019

Written by Brendan Heard, Author of the Decline and Fall of Western Art
The Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt is a unique reference point in classical history. Most notably, our very notion of classical wisdom itself largely depends on this period, insofar as it played a role in  the documentation, preservation, and accumulation of the wisdom of the Greek world. It was a singular cultural epoch that sprang up into its own golden age, flourishing for a time, followed by rapid decline and acquiescence to Rome. Egypt was ruled for roughly three hundred years under Ptolemies (from 323 BC to 30 BC), ending with the death of Cleopatra.
Ptolemy to Cleopatra

The succession of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, from Ptolemy to Cleopatra.

As a civilization it was a relatively rare example of a largely tranquil symbiosis; where the philosophical ideas of a Greek ruling class took fertile root in an Egyptian culture—a culture already at that time considered impossibly ancient. The particular Ptolemaic world view which rooted and ripened in that immortal Nile valley soil gave classical history three hundred years of highly innovative, self-actuated, archaic-romantic civilization. The Greek rulers were as much influenced and altered by that eldritch land of ancient gods as the land was by them.
Most notably, this vibrant community led to the creation of the most important place of learning and wisdom in the ancient world. Perhaps ever. The much celebrated and lamented Library of Alexandria.
Its history began with the god-like Macedonian conqueror Alexander The Great, who overtook Egypt in 332 BC. He was regarded there as a liberator from the Persian oppression of the Achaemenid Empire (Artaxerxes III). Alexander was afterward crowned Pharaoh. To the Egyptians, pharaohs were the divine link between gods and men, who ascended to godhood in death. The Great Alexander, in turn, secured his own Egyptian godhood by consulting the Oracle of Siwa Oasis, who declared him a son of the god Ammon. From that point on, Alexander considered and referred to himself the son of Zeus-Ammon.
It is reported that Alexander, while dreaming, asked Ammon what he was to do. The god responded to him saying that his destiny in Egypt was to found an illustrious city at the site of the island of Pharos. This the great conqueror set forth to do, and this was henceforth to be named after him: the city of Alexandria.
The founding of Alexandria

Alexander the Great founding Alexandria, Placido Costanzi (Italy, 1702-1759)

But Alexander left Egypt before the city was built and never had a chance to return, dying soon after in 323 BC.
After his death, one of Alexander’s somatophylakes, the historian Ptolemy, was appointed satrap of Egypt. Soon after he declared himself pharaoh Ptolemy Soter I (soter meaning saviour). Ptolemy and his descendants adopted Egyptian customs, including religion, and had themselves portrayed sculpturally in Egyptian style. They built magnificent new temples in honor of ancient Egyptian deities and adopted the monarchic system of dynastic pharaohs. This was not unusual, as the Greeks from the onset had revered Egypt and its magnificent longevity, and within a hundred years they had developed a new Greco-Egyptian educated middle class.
Ptolemy I Soter also went so far as to create new gods in order to unite his plural populace. Serapis was one such God, a combination of two Egyptian gods: Apis and Osiris. Additionally, Serapis combined elements of the main Greek gods: Zeus, Hades, Asklepios, Dionysos, and Helios, as well as influence from many other cults. Serapis had powers over fertility, the sun, funerary rites, and medicine, and included the worship of the new Ptolemaic line of pharaohs. To him they built the enormous Serapeum of Alexandria. Ptolemy I also promoted the cult of the deified Alexander, who became the state god of the Ptolemaic kingdom. This was a time when mortal men of sufficient influence really could become gods. Also in homage to the aims of Alexander, Ptolemy soon proclaimed the port city of Alexandria as the new capital of Egypt.

A map of Alexandria at the end of Cleopatra’s reign.

Fortunately, Ptolemy’s desire was to continue the work of his former master, which was to spread Hellenistic culture and Greek wisdom concepts throughout the known world. Where the Greeks had conquered, gymnasiums and libraries were erected. And libraries in particular enhanced a city’s reputation, attracted scholars, and augmented the available intellectual assets of a kingdom.
Any kingdom or nation faces threats to its existence. For Ptolemy the primary hazard came from his former comrades, the somatophylakes of Alexander who themselves had been granted rulers of surrounding satrapies. Each new kingdom which sprung up in the wake of one of the world’s greatest conquerors were thus set in competition against one other.

Coin of Balacrus, somatophylakes of Alexander, as Satrap of Cilicia, with letter “B” next to the shield, standing for B[AΛAKPOI].

Luckily for us, this rivalry often manifested itself in competitive feats of wealth and grandeur, of which exhibition of genuine culture was a token of magnificence. A kind of cold-war high-culture-race was underway: to have the largest or most impressive edifice, the most athletic and intellectual populace, to produce the greatest genius, artist, or astronomer, the most ground breaking scientific theory or understanding of archaic mystic philosophy. These were the conditions under which the Greek Pharaoh Ptolemy sought to make Alexandria an unrivaled center of knowledge and learning, and began plans (actual construction was likely begun under Ptolemy II) of the great Library. The construction of which was possibly managed by Demetrius of Phalerum, a student of Aristotle. Ptolemy sought nothing less than a repository of all knowledge, and his library would prove to be unprecedented in scope and scale, one that has gone unrivaled over the ages.
The library was not merely the largest collection of books (scrolls) in antiquity, but was also a kind of think tank, a research institution lavishly funded by the pharaoh. The actual library was housed within a larger building, known as the Mouseion (origin of our word museum), dedicated to the nine Greek goddesses of the arts, the Muses. Written research was officially conducted in both Egyptian and Greek. Scholars from across the Greek world and beyond were sought after and invited to live at the library, to practice their science, to teach, and to learn from each other, without domestic distractions. The first-century BC Greek geographer Strabo wrote that scholars were provided with a large salary, free food, lodging, and exemption from taxes.
It was a state-funded elite study group, only with the added advantage of not being invested in consolidating state power. The Greek scholars made no contribution to the economy. The aim of the library was nothing less than the virtuous pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. A place where scholars could come together and exchange ideas. Isolationist Egyptian temples had historically contained libraries but the books were kept largely secret from the public. Yet the combination of the Greek attitude toward philosophy and the impossibly ancient and staid nature of Egypt, served to abet the pursuit of new knowledge.
Scholars in the Library

Artistic Rendering of the Library of Alexandria, based on some archaeological evidence.

In characteristically Greek fashion, the collecting of scrolls itself became an idealized vocation, a paramount obsession. Visitors to Alexandria arrived with their versions of famous literary texts, while agents were sent abroad collecting everything they could find. Books became a kind of currency, and in terms of this wealth, the library of Alexandria became the largest collection in antiquity. Some estimates suggest the number was as high as 700,000 scrolls, which were not just stored but used for reference and research by the active scholars. These scholars then spent time copying and spreading this accumulated knowledge further across the Greek world and beyond, and it is to this effect that we can thank our own surviving awareness of Classical wisdom. Because of this, Alexandria became the symbolic brain of a scattered and oppositional ancient world.
The feats of scholarship soon began to gain notoriety and, as visitors increased, so did reputation.  There may have been up to fifty learned men in the community, teaching and interacting at one time. Completely free from daily material burdens to indulge their intellectual pursuits. There were lecture halls, dormitories, and cafeterias, all enmeshed and linked in a manner to encourage the various experts of different disciplines to interact. There was a large communal dining hall, meeting rooms, reading rooms, gardens, lecture halls, and a great hall for the scrolls known as bibliothekai. It is speculated that the Mouseion may have also had a zoo for exotic animals. There was certainly a medical school where animals were used in the research of human anatomy (using human bodies was forbidden in the wider Greek world). Later, the library scholar Herophalus performed medical exams on dead human bodies, elevating the science of anatomy. Herophalus’ sacrilege was tolerated because the Egyptian embalming tradition gradually influenced Ptolemaic Greeks towards a more relaxed view regarding human dissection. Again, we note the creative virility of the symbiotic relationship of two quite different cultures, existing stably, mutually influencing one another.
Of the many poets who resided at the library, there were three of great fame for masters of Hellenistic verse: Callimachus, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Theocritus. Of astronomers there is Hipparchus, who figured out the path of stars, and length of solar years while in Alexandria. Eratosthanes figured out the circumference of the earth while studying there, by examining the length of cast shadows at certain times of day about sun-drenched Alexandria. He calculated this to an accuracy within 200 miles. The astronomer Aristarchus devised the first heliocentric model of the solar system (the known universe). Later, the Mouseion-educated mathematician and astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy (no relation), wrote his three influential treatises on astronomy, geography and astrology. Developing what we famously know today as the Ptolemaic system of astronomy.

An illustration of Ptolemy holding a cross-staff, published in Les vrais portraits et vies des hommes illustres (1584). Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Overall, Alexandrian research was strongly centered towards mathematics. Among mathematicians under Ptolemaic patronage the most famous was the inventor Archimedes (inventor of the Archimedes screw), the polymath Eratosthenes, and the greatest geometer of all time, Euclid. After studying at the library of Alexandria, Euclid published his great text, The Elements, that immediately surpassed all previous geometric literature to that date and remains the foundation of that science today. It was Euclid’s access to the bibliothekai that allowed him to codify the collected results of basic theorems postulated by others through the centuries. Legend has it that when Euclid showed his work to the pharaoh, he was asked if there was any shortcut to understanding his work, to which Euclid replied, “there is no royal road to geometry.”
Along with poetry and mathematics, matters of philosophy and religion were treated with equal reverence, study, and proselytism. Many ancient texts became at this point translated into Greek, including the Septuagint translation of the bible, which made the story accessible to others. This is the primary Greek translation of the Old Testament, also known as the Greek Old Testament. Again, this work was done purely out of intellectual interest…to catalogue, examine, and learn from all available ancient sources.
In this sense the pagan world view had its advantages, in its ability to honestly assess other religions without offending its own dogmas, in a way that monotheism historically has not. These combined efforts to know all things in a spiritual context of understanding, united disciplines such as poetic literature and mathematics in common purpose, which we today might find unusual. They did not seem to share our quandary over the division of physical and metaphysical, or materialistic and spiritual. Astronomy and astrology were equally venerated, even if the latter was more open to interpretation, or understood to be spiritually speculative. Very seldom, if at all, in the ancient world do we see overt supplications to atheism or hard materialism. And that is despite it being a world where the gods changed with the generations, and the good ones became evil, and vice versa, and new kings invented new gods altogether.
All the studied disciplines at Alexandria, from anatomy to Platonism to topography, were interwoven in a tapestry of mutually educative striving, beneath the hierarchy of the Pharaonic society. The monarchic system itself, quite alien to us now, was also woven into this mesh as the unquestionable order, the foundational bedrock supporting the pursuit of high culture. We are reminded of these more esoteric and archaic foundations in the name Alexandria itself. For let us not forget, the city was named after the great godking Alexander, who created it, and all that followed, upon the basis of a dream-vision.
Ancient Alexandria

Artist’s Impression of Ancient Alexandria.

Concerning philosophy and mysticism more specifically, Alexandria nourished Neo-Pythagoreanism, Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, Theurgy, and Gnosticism, which all flourished and were studied and transcribed by busy scholars under patronage of the Ptolemies over the centuries. In the name of these mystic and rational philosophies, and to the copying of scribes, and to the boundless ideas therein represented, we may also pay our respects to the memory of this golden classical city.
Abstractly speaking, the library, acting as a storehouse of philosophy, religions, history, and science, secured beyond its finite physical existence its sacred purpose: the dissemination and preservation of knowledge across distance and time. Many manuscripts that were ancient in Ptolemy’s day survive down to us thanks to the care of the various scholars that visited and lived in Alexandria. In this way the historic reverberations of the library issue about recorded history like ripples upon the surface of water—reaching ever outward.
The decline and fall of this institution was synonymous with that of the Ptolemies themselves. The precise cause of destruction is lost to time amid conflicting reports, and is often a controversial subject, beginning with the rise of Rome in that region.
Roman interest in Egypt was typically due to the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To this end the Roman administration made no essential change to the Ptolemaic system of government, however they were in all but name subjugated before the powerful new empire. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced. The great library was at least in part burned accidentally by Julius Caesar in 48 BC. But there are accounts of its existence by notable visitors who accessed its resources around 20 BC. However, overall, it dwindled during the roman period, and suffered from a lack of funding after the Ptolemaic dynasty ended with the death of Cleopatra.
Cleopatra's Death

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. (Public Domain).

Around 270 AD the library may have been destroyed further in a rebellion. By 400 AD paganism was outlawed and the Serapeum was demolished by Christians under orders from pope Theophilus of Alexandria. However, it may not have housed many books at that time, and was primarily a meeting place for Neo-Platonist philosophers following Iamblichus. In 616 AD the Persians conquered, and this was followed in the same century by Arab conquest, and whatever remained then of the library was finally destroyed for good in their sacking of the city by the order of Caliph Omar.
Whatever had remained of the collection at that point was no doubt finally lost. But as all things have a finite material existence, so do they also contain within them a portion which belongs to the infinite.
That virtuous intellectual Platonic Form, which the library of Alexandria was in imitation of, lives on eternally.
Which is the true posterity of the Ptolemaic project: namely the accumulation of ancient texts, the widespread theorizing and practice of new knowledge based on them, and the respectful patronage for thinking as a vocation. These virtuous ideas did not die out, but seeded future incarnations.
The Eternal City was Written by Brendan Heard, Author of the Decline and Fall of Western Art