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International Trade in the Ancient World

by January 14, 2020

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

A collection amphorae retrieved from a shipwreck

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

Roman coins found in India

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

A Silk Road trader on a camel

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

Greek merchants from an amphorae

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

The Bacchae: the Morals of Murderous Women

by January 5, 2020

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

Death of Pentheus

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

Bust of Euripides

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

Prophet Teiresias

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

Fitness Tips from Ancient Greece

by January 3, 2020

Written by M. Reed Myers, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
If you are like most people, you probably wonder what life would be like if you had the body of a Greek god.  You wonder what doors would open for you if you had the kind of physique that only a Praxiteles would be fit to sculpt.
Wonder no more, dear reader.  This article presents fitness concepts derived from the best of classical Greek sculpture, pottery, and literature, adapted for us all-too-human moderns.
Read on: adventure and heroic stature await you.

Sing. O muse, and bid your listeners consult with Asclepius before beginning any of these programs.

Think and Thrive
The gymnasia were at the center of ancient Greek physical education.  Based on the word-root gymno, meaning “naked,” physical exercise at the gymnasium was done mostly in the nude, under the gaze of gymnastes, or coaches.  Because the student’s body was completely observable, the coach could accurately diagnose physical limitations and develop an individualized training plan.
Archaeologists have excavated gymnasia in such sites as Athens, Delphi, Epidarus, Eretria, Olympia, and even Priene in the Greek islands.  By the 5th century BC, the gymnasia offered more than just physical training.  Students also received basic physical therapy, listened to lectures, watched dramatic presentations, and listened to poetic recitations. All these elements reinforced the overarching Greek culture, with a heavy emphasis on honoring the Olympian gods and semi-divine heroes.
A major problem with this system, of course, was its exclusion of women.  Although Spartan women were somewhat freer, no woman in ancient Greece could exercise the same rights and freedoms as their male peers.  This is not the case with these exercises.  They are designed to exercise the major muscle groups and can be of benefit to either gender.
A common motif in Greek black-figure pottery was the depiction of male figures performing various exercises common to the gymnasium.  Think and Thrive is a workout that builds on these art motifs to create a balanced, healthy physique with lower body, core, and upper body elements.  As you progress from one exercise to the next, maintain a steady pace.  Regarding exercise intensity, you should be able to speak in short sentences, but not dramatic monologues.

Pompeii gymnasium, from the top of the stadium wall. Author: Haiduc CC BY-SA 3.0

You will need a large open field, preferably with an oval or circular track at the perimeter, a frisbee or other throwing disk, and a weighted object you can grasp with both hands (like a kettle bell).  At one side of the field, place your throwing disk, on the other side of the field place your kettle bell or other weight.
Strophe: if you are exercising by yourself and have access to audiobooks, listen to a major section of any of the following: the Iliad, Works and Days, or any of the myths of Theseus or Heracles.  While listening, jog at a moderate pace around the perimeter of the field and ponder the crucial lessons you are hearing.  If you do not have access to audiobooks, ask an exercise partner to chant the section aloud to you, while you jog in a smaller circle around your partner.
Antistrophe: Six sets of the following exercises.
Hurl like Hektor: Hold your flying disk in both hands, with arms extended.  With your feet shoulder-width apart, and your weight balanced on both feet, slowly rotate your upper body from right to left, until you reach 100.  Throughout, tighten your core and abdomen (as though you were bracing to receive a punch). When you reach 100 rotations, throw your flying disc across the field toward your kettle bell or other weight.
Run like Atalanta: While your flying disc is in the air, sprint as quickly as you can after it.  Pick it up on the run and sprint with it back to your starting point.  Bonus points if you are able to catch it on the fly!
foot race

Panathenaic amphora, a victory prize from ca. 530 BC depicting a foot race, attributed 
to the painter Euphiletos. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Row like Jason: Before you regain your breath after your sprint, drop your flying disk and lift your kettlebell or other weight.  Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart and the weight resting across your thighs.  Tighten your abdomen again, pull your shoulders back, lift your chest and keep your lower back in its natural curve.  Keeping the weight close to your body, pull upwards while extending your elbows.  Lift the weight until it is just under your chin.  Slowly lower the weight back to full extension.  Breathe in and out throughout the exercise.  For the basic exercise, do one repetition for each of the 12 labors of Heracles.  For advanced exercise do one repetition in honor of each of the argonauts.
Epode: listen to your selection once again while jogging around the perimeter.  Think about the implications of the lesson for your community and for all the Greeks.  This workout can be done 3 – 4 times per week, with rest days interspersed.  Alternate upper body exercises could include shoulder shrugs rather than upright rows or bicep curl to shoulder press.
The Heraean Games
Greek physical fitness was initially based on the principle that civic survival depended on having physically strong, resilient citizen soldiers.  The epitome of this perspective was Sparta.
As the readers of Classical Wisdom know, Sparta’s political relevance in Greece depended on its ability to produce highly disciplined warriors who could simultaneously subdue its helot slaves and intimidate its political rivals.
It is said that when Philip II of Macedon was expanding his control over Greece in 346 BC, he sent an imperious demand to the Spartans, demanding their submission: “If I bring my forces into your land, I will ravage your homesteads, massacre your people, and destroy your city.”. The Spartans are said to have warned him off with one word: “If.”
It is worth remembering that this apocryphal encounter would have taken place about a generation after Sparta’s forces were soundly defeated by Thebes in the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC).  Sparta’s diminished reputation alone was still strong enough to unnerve Philip.
One of the surprises in Spartan society was the unique status of elite women.  Physical health was considered absolutely vital for the growing girl, because her health affected her ability to bear children for the Spartan state.  Towards this end, girls were well fed, were encouraged to exercise, play sports, and to stay physically active throughout life.  While Spartan married women did not take part in foot races, they were encouraged to dance and stay physically active.
spartan woman

A bronze statue, likely of a Spartan woman. c. 500 BCE. (British Museum, London)

For this workout, you will need an oval track and sandbag or other weighted sack with handles.  Fill it with a weight that challenges you to complete the exercises.  This work out is named in honor of the Heraean races, a pan-hellenic race for unmarried Greek women.  Although the Heraean games were specifically for females, this work out can be used by either gender.
Strophe: Place your sandbag at the starting point on the track.  Then, slowly jog one lap around the open field for each of the kings of Sparta.  Then, proceed to forward lunges, to emulate the Spartan running girl statue: hold for 30 seconds per leg.  One set for each king.  Then, split stretch, as low as you can go; lean forward and hold for 30 seconds.  Then, a forward bend stretch for 30 seconds to look down upon the helots.
Antistrophe: for helots, 3 sets; for maidens, 4 sets; for matrons, 5 sets.
Run 1 lap around the track.
Carrying your shield or on it: Placing your feet approximately shoulder width apart, bend forward and hold your sandbag with your arms fully extended and knees slightly bent. Keep your back in its natural curve. As you tighten your core, lift the sandbag with both arms until it almost touches your chest, then slowly lower it. Repeat the lift 8 times. That’s one set.
Run another lap around the field.
At your command: Lift the sandbag across your shoulders, feet shoulder width apart. Hold the sandbag tight against your upper shoulders but not pressing on your neck. Bend forward until your upper body is parallel to the ground. Do this eight times. That’s one set.
Roman Versus Greek Art

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

No further laps, Sparta has only 2 kings
Uplifting the Spartan warriors: keeping the sandbag on your shoulders, drop into a basic squat, your thighs parallel to the ground. Rise to standing. Do this eight times. That’s one set.
Epode: To cool down, jog around the track twice more. Reflect on the fact that there are eight helots for every one Spartan. This workout can be done 2-3 times per week.
The Himantes of Heaven
No discussion of ancient Greek fitness is complete without mentioning the great sporting/religious festivals of the Classical era.  These included the Olympic games, Pythian games, Nemean games, and Isthmian games.  Of these, the premier event was the Olympics.
The first Olympics were held around 776 BC and initially consisted of religious festivities to honor Zeus.  As Pausanias notes, the games gradually expanded over time to include foot races, horse races, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a type of mixed martial art), chariot races, and the ancient pentathlon (running, jumping, wrestling, and throwing the javelin and discus).  Eventually boys were allowed to compete for junior championships in several of the sports.
Among the combat sports, boxing (pygmachia) was perhaps the most celebrated.  Major Greek heroes like Theseus, Heracles, and Achilles either boxed or encouraged boxing matches.  Even gods got into the sport.
In the Imagenes, Philostratus the Elder recounts the tale of Phorbas, a barbarian king, who controlled a river crossing along the sacred way to Delphi.  He challenged all travelers to athletic events and, being a superb athlete, bested them.  While they were exhausted, he would kill them and display their heads to terrify other travelers.   Apollo, in disguise, came upon Phorbas and in the ensuing boxing match, knocked the wicked bandit out with a single punch, like a bolt of fire from the heavens.

Leonard Gaulthier (1561-1641) , Apollo defeats Phorbas in a boxing match, 1615

For this work out, you will need no special equipment at the basic level.  If you have them, you can incorporate weighted wristbands or light hand weights.  Properly thrown, punching provides exercise for the muscles of the legs, hips, sides, back, chest, shoulders and arms.  If you breathe out when you punch and reflexively tighten your core, you also strengthen your abdominals and obliques.
Position your body in a fighting stance, that is: turned slightly away from your opponent, the wicked Phorbas. Keep your body weight evenly divided between your front and back leg, and lift onto the balls of your feet.  Keep your elbows close to your body.
During the entire strophe, keep your fists up, protecting your face.  The boxing gloves so frequently represented in Greek art and literature were the himantes.  These were strips of ox hide wrapped around the wrists and knuckles of the boxer. They protected the wrist and knuckles, but also gashed and lacerated the opponent.  Apollo’s himantes are more beautiful than garlands, says Philostratus, but when he struck Phorbas’s head, a fountain of blood gushed forth.  So, keep your fists up.
Bounce gently on the balls of your feet and at random, quickly take a shuffle step in any direction while keeping your fighting stance.  You can throw gentle punches if desired, but your focus is on moving quickly and frequently.  Try to move forwards, backwards, right and left randomly.  If you have an exercise partner, you can ask him or her to randomly call out directions.  Bounce and move for 1 minute for each year between Olympics.

Boxers represented on a Panathenaic amphora. Currently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During this section of the workout, you will continue to rapidly move while in fighting stance, but you will also throw punches.  If you have not done a boxing workout before, you may want to consult with a gymnastes for coaching.
Assume the fighting stance, and bounce on the balls of your feet.  Throw 10 quick, light punches with your nondominant fist.  Keep gently bouncing on the balls of your feet.  You may find yourself rising slightly and leaning forward as you throw your punches.  If so, move quickly back into balanced stance.  After these 10 jabs, bounce and bounce and reverse your stance (so now your dominant hand is forward), throw 10 jabs with your dominant hand.
Bounce back into your original stance (with nondominant hand forward), now throw punch combinations: a fast, light punch with your front first; then, engaging your body, throw a punch with your dominant hand.  Do 20 of this combination.
For the next set, now throw 30 quick jabs with your nondominant fist, then bounce and reverse your stance and throw 30 jabs with your dominant hand.
For the final set, bounce back into your original fighting stance (with nondominant hand forward).  Throw 40 punch combinations:  a jab with your forward fist, followed by a dominant hand punch that engages the entire body.
Epode:  As with all the other workouts in this article, cool down with a slow jog.  Jog for at least one minute for each of the four ancient Greek games.
at rest

Boxer resting after contest (bronze sculpture, 300–200 BCE).

The ancient Greeks well understood the importance of maintaining a healthy mind and a healthy body.  And in part, exercises like these were part of the process.
Also importantly, those who lived in the classical world were more physically active than most of us today.  Just a simple consideration of how we travel on land from point A to point B confirms it: getting anywhere for most Greeks meant walking; for too many of us today, it means either taking a car or a bus.
To fully incorporate classical fitness into your modern life, look for everyday opportunities to develop muscle power.  Look for boulders lying about that you can roll up hill. If you happen to have a young calf at home, lift it every day.  As it grows, you too will develop legendary strength.
With these and other workouts based on classical Greece, you too will be the envy of Narcissus or Helen, without their nemeses.  And after a hard workout, pour yourself a tall krater of room temperature wine.  You earned it.

Christmas: Its Origins in Ancient Greece and Rome

by December 24, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The modern world owes so much to the Greeks and the Romans, they influenced how we live and our society in so many ways. For instance, now we think that Christmas is a very Christian festival, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but in fact, the holiday was greatly influenced by the pagan Greeks and Romans… in more ways than one.
A Greek icon of the Nativity

A Greek icon of the Nativity

Ancient Greece and Christmas
Every society has religious festivals that are accompanied by feasting and celebrations. The Greeks were no different. The ancient Greeks regularly celebrated festivals in honor of the Olympian deities they worshipped. One of the most popular religious festivals was held for the god Dionysus, the Olympian god of wine, fertility, pleasure, festivity, delirium and frenzy. This god was something of a shapeshifter and he was often portrayed as either an old man or an effeminate youth. This ability meant that he was also the god of drama and the theatre. He was a very popular god with the ordinary people and so every year they held a celebration in honor of the god of wine on December 25th or the 30th.
Like Jesus, Dionysus was born to a Virgin, regarded as a redeemer god by many, and the festival in his honor was related to the birth of the winter sun. His birthday was marked with feasting and possible present giving. There were many hymns to Dionysus sung at this time, mainly by choirs of children, which is rather similar to modern Christmas carols.

the Self-Portrait as Bacchus, is an early self-portrait by the Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, dated between 1593 and 1594.

While the birthday of Dionysus has very many similarities with the celebrations around the birth of Jesus Christ, some scholars believe that The Kronia, an Athenian festival held in honor of Kronos and was noted for its feasting, was also one of the inspirations for the Christian festival.
Ancient Rome and Christmas
Christianity started as a sect within Judaism, but changed radically over the centuries. Despite persecution, it was able to flourish within the Roman Empire. The Christians were often loud in their condemnations of the Romans as sinful, but in fact, they were also greatly influenced by them. It is widely agreed that the Roman festival of the Saturnalia was highly influential in the development of the Christian holiday of Christmas.

Early Christians

Saturnalia was held in honor of the god Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth and plenty, and this celebration ran from the 17th of December through to 23 December, as corresponds to the modern calendar. This festival was marked by sacrifices to the god and a lavish public party. It is possible that at one time there were human sacrifices to the Saturn, but these were later replaced by effigies of human figures. There was also a lot of gift-giving between neighbors and family members.
Partying and public drunkenness during the festival was common and everyday social norms were overturned. Indeed, the traditional hierarchy itself was subverted. Slaves were served by their masters and the ordinary people took great liberties. There was a great deal of promiscuity and it is alleged that women could sleep with whomever they wish. Moreover, many things that were illegal during the rest of the year were tolerated during the Saturnalia, such as gambling. Once the festival was over, however, Roman society returned to the traditional social norms.

A painting of the Saturnalia from the 19th century

Christianity and the Saturnalia
The Christians naturally hated the festival that was held in honor of the Roman Pantheon’s King of the Gods because they viewed them as promoting immorality and sin. The festival was denounced by many Christian apologists and saints, but nevertheless, Saturnalia was very popular, not only in Rome but throughout the Roman Empire. Over time Christians decided to adopt Saturnalia because they knew that it was so popular with the people that they could not simply ban it.
Meanwhile, the exact birth of Jesus Christ is not known and it is not mentioned in the Bible. December the 25th was selected by the Early Church in order to associate the birth of the Christian redeemer with Saturnalia. It was the Christian leadership’s attempt to Christianized Saturnalia and her Roman celebrants and to a large extent, they were successful. However, people continued to celebrate Saturnalia and the birthday of Jesus at the same time for many years.

Roman gamblers from a mosaic

Over time the Christian Church was able to completely Christianize the pagan festival. However, elements of Saturnalia remained, as seen by the tradition of the Lord of Misrule in many European countries. This was a time when the social norms were suspended and outrageous behavior was acceptable, just as in the time of Saturnalia.
Whether it was to honor Dionysus, Kronos or Saturn, the Greek and Roman traditions live on in our modern Christmas celebrations, and that’s something to remember at your next Christmas party…

The Murder of Agamemnon: Birth of Modern Justice

by December 13, 2019

Written by Stella Samaras, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Weekly

“The poet’s grace, the singer’s fire,

Grow with his years; and I can still speak truth

With the clear ring the God’s inspire…” 

Aeschylus, Chorus from Agamemnon

In 458 BCE, the aging Aeschylus was a contender at the Dionysia. Athens, although enjoying peace between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, was undergoing political change.  Aeschylus had a word or two to sing about it. With the Dionysia on his radar he knew he had a wonderful outlet to be heard and an opportunity to persuade the masses toward empathy and reason. He also had his eye on the annual prize.  He was in it to win.
The Context: Areiopagus vs Heliaia
To achieve both ends he needed to employ a thinly veiled allegory in the guise of a story from antiquity. You see, his thoughts touched upon the stripping of power from the old and well-established council of nobles, the Areiopagus, and its replacement by the more populist court of citizens, the Heliaia. The reform reduced the Areiopagus from a legislative power to just bringing down rulings on murder.
It was a touchy subject, the transference of power, the loss of honour. How to approach it? Which myth would serve his purpose? Something set during the war of the Titans, the time when the patron goddesses of the Areiopagus, the Erinyes (Furies), were born? Hmm…maybe not.

Northern Elevation of the Acropolis seen past the Areiopagus Hill before it centre left, 1888 photograph by Adolf Bötticher [Public domain]

Aeschylus, a veteran of the Persian Wars, saw the good the Areiopagos had done for Athens and wanted to remind its citizens of the virtues of this council, while reassuring the polis of its own empowered ability to mete out justice under the auspices of the goddess Athena. He wasn’t out to ruffle feathers, rather to soothe them.

Perhaps he could pitch his views in the mythical battle between Poseidon and his niece Athena? The battle was cross-generational and pertained to Athens but the scope for pathos was limited. No, the Festival called for something with more oomph.
Justice and Vengeance
Straight social commentary and pandering wouldn’t win him the prize at the Dionysia. The winning triad of plays had to provide something more, perhaps a discussion of a higher principle, one that was at the core of what the Areiopagos and Heliaia were about: an eternal principle—justice.
Should the law circumscribe behaviour by meting out justice retrospectively in acts of revenge and risk perpetuating vendetta? This was the old way, the way of the Furies whose curses and mad retribution scared Athenians into behaving. Or should justice be meted out in an Athenian court where revenge had no place and couldn’t self-perpetuate?
The Areiopagos

The Areiopagos Hill in Athens by Polychronis Lembesis [Public domain]

Aeschylus would write a cycle of three plays for the festival to hammer his point home. His story had to capture Athens’ attention: it had to establish the roots of a crime, grapple with the ethics involved, see its consequences play out, and then provide a denouement that would satisfy, cleanse, and teach. The first play would have to be tantalising, capturing their imagination and holding it through to the end of the third.

Hmm…which myth? Troy?
A Cursed House
With the Areiopagus in mind, the story had to deal with murder, but not just any murder. It had to be an act of retribution and to the minds of some, a justifiable act. Could the death of Agamemnon fit the bill? He lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, to enable him to entice her to bring their daughter Iphigenia to Aulis where the restive Greek army awaited the winds to rise. She was to be a bride for Achilles, he said.
Instead, father sacrificed daughter at the altar so his army could set sail for Troy. Ten years passed and Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin, were well prepped to avenge the murder. Once the deed was done, Orestes and Electra were compelled to avenge the death of their father with the death of his murderers.
Of course, the house of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) was already cursed when Atreus served his brother, Thyestes, the bodies of his children in a meal. The crime was atrocious. Until Aeschylus’ treatment of the myth, Aegisthus, the eaten boys’ younger brother, avenged them by being the one to physically plunge the sword into Agamemnon.
Sleeping Furies

Clytemnestra wakes the sleeping Erinyes (Furies), Louvre Museum [Public domain]

However, Orestes avenging his father by killing a figure of such low esteem as Aegisthus would not elicit the pathos needed for a powerhouse production. Aegisthus was a coward, who took no part in the war but stayed at home and courted his soldier/cousin’s wife.

The Mannish-Woman and the Womanish-Man
In a stroke of genius, Aeschylus flipped the perpetrator from being a craven man to a strong woman and mother of the avenger. By placing the net and sword in Clytemnestra’s hands he heightened the dramatic tension, the pathos of the play, and highlighted the issue with calling on the Furies to provide justice.
When father killed daughter the family was cursed anew. His wife avenged their daughter as justice had to be served. The next course of justice was son killing mother. Without the intervention of the Athenian council the chain of killings would not be broken, for the justice of the Furies must needs be served regardless of the will of s/he who is called to serve it.

“If pity lights a human eye

Pity by Justice’ law must share

The sinner’s guilt, and with the sinner die.”


Having killed his mother, Orestes is Pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

By making Clytemnestra the instrument of justice, Aeschylus faced another challenge: the audience accepting her as an equal to a man. When he refers to her in terms such as, “…Clytemnestra, in whose woman’s heart a man’s will nurses hope,” he is not making a feminist stand. Had he intended to make such a political point he would not describe Aegisthus, who he clearly has an aversion to, as:

“You woman! While he (Agamemnon) went to fight, you stayed at home;

Seduced his wife meanwhile; and then against a man

Who led an army, you could scheme this murder!”

Aeschylus, in trying to maintain a strong argument against vengeance as a form of justice, had to accord as much honour to each victim/perpetrator. He could only do this by elevating the status of Clytemnestra to be equal to a man. The choice may have perturbed some.
 Fate, the Sanctity of the Guest-Host relationship and a Middling Course
Having conceived a vital plot line, Aeschylus had recourse to tragic tropes to strengthen his play. By repeating the story of Atreus and the death of Iphigenia he reinforces the role that indelible fate plays in driving the inevitable.
Agamemnon death

The Murder of Agamemnon [Public domain]

From the outset, Aeschylus pummeled his audience with foreboding, remembering past wrongs of the family but also connecting the family curse of Atreus with Paris’ transgression, stealing away with Menelaus’ wife, Helen. Menelaus was a son of Atreus too. By reliving his grief and the consequences of the ten-year war, Aeschylus built on a sense of ill will and disharmony.

Compounding the sense of impending doom is the act of hubris Clytemnestra easily convinced Agamemnon to do – by treading on the costly tapestries she had strewn before him, he overreached his measure as a man and a king. He put the gods offside. By the time the audience is presented with his prostrate corpse, the suspense of having to wait for the inevitable has reached fever pitch.
Would all this be enough to put Aeschylus’ play on a winning path? Well, he did have more to offer.
Aeschylus’ imagery reached out and touched his fellow citizens and even reaches forward to us today. Whether he is describing the conditions of a campaigning soldier, the heartbreak of an abandoned spouse, or the plight of old age, his imagery is poignantly relatable.
Did he do enough to win that year? Yes. Did he get his point across with logos, pathos, and ethos? Did his audience leave the theatre renewed by a cathartic experience? That would depend on the veracity of his actors and his music. For a victorious playwright, I’d like to imagine that they did.

What We REALLY Learn from Ancient Graffiti: The surprising insights from public scribbles

by December 4, 2019

By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
How antiquity is perceived and received has always depended on the era. Sometimes it was due to the prevalence of a certain political program (the promotion of Roman Empire under the rule of Napoleon and the advantage given to the Roman Republic during French revolution, for example). Most of the time, however, it’s because we observe antiquity through “modern eyes”.
When learning something new, we usually make either conscious or subconscious assumptions that are based on our own experience… and this is a natural process. However, it can lead us to wrong conclusions, and make us oversee some points that are crucial for understanding (or, more likely, trying to understand) the ancient world.
The most convenient example may be ancient Greek comedy. The word “comedy” triggers a completely different image in the mind of a modern reader from the one in the mind of a man born in classical Greece. In other words, if a reader of modern comedy (presumably the one without the knowledge of ancient Greek drama) approaches Aristophanes’ work in anticipation of an easy-to-understand humor that will make them break out in laughter, they may end up disappointed.

It does take a little work to find Aristophanes funny, but it’s well worth it…

This is by no means impossible to achieve, but does require some amount of time spent inquiring about 5th century Athens and its social customs (a good and extensive commentary can help, too). Reading the comedy after that can, besides laughter, gives us valuable insights into many details of the ancient world.
For these reasons comedy enjoyed the deserved attention of many scholars and many of its aspects have been thoroughly studied. For graffiti, on the other hand, we cannot say the same. Difficult to define, difficult to trace, and difficult to interpret, graffiti*** has always been on the margin of research, at least in comparison to other types of inscriptions.
Graffiti in Pompeii of Popular Gladiators

Graffiti in Pompeii of Popular Gladiators

Due to a wide variety of graffiti preserved in the ancient city of Pompeii, some attention, however, was given to the rich world of ancient graffiti… and things they can teach us about those times.
Here are some indications we can attest in the practice of graffiti that either challenge our view of antiquity, or show us once again how strongly conditioned we are by the world we live in and its notions:
The Social Significance of Graffiti
Nowadays we can see many types of inscriptions wherever we go, from public announcements to laundry commercials. And yet, there is something rude, even violent, when we see someone’s love confession on a wall of a public building. The reason? The love confession is completely private, and as such, it violates the public space. Moreover, there is no form of authority behind love scribbles!
This is one of the reasons that ancient graffiti is often disregarded as a viable source for studying antiquity. However, their presence in central and visible spaces (public spaces, inside houses, and around workspaces), suggests that ancient people did not share our views.
Roman Grafiti

Fragments of Roman graffiti. Image via

For ancient Romans, leaving a personal mark was commonplace in many writing practices – the names of people who paid for a monument to (oddly enough) ads for house rent. Therefore, we can conclude that such a strong division between public and private is, well, a modern phenomenon.
(In)formality and social classes as seen in Graffiti
Graffiti has always been represented as an informal way of self-expression, which led to thinking that in ancient times, graffiti was produced exclusively by lower social classes. However, there is a decent amount of graffiti in Pompeii that expresses political opinion as well as ones that can be even associated with military personnel. This teaches us that being a member of high society in ancient Rome did not necessarily mean being exclusively formal. Even though it is difficult for us to imagine a serious member of Roman high class writing nasty things about their political rivals, it sure is fun and casts a different light on our image of ancient people.
Roman Graffiti

Roman Graffiti could be a respected – even interactive – form of writing

Literacy and Graffiti
When we think about modern graffiti, it is highly improbable that the first image that comes to us will be a quote from Shakespeare. And keep in mind: we live in an age where the lack of literacy is shocking. For ancient Romans, however, it was quite common. We don’t know the exact percentage of people that were (fully) literate, but the numbers are definitely not promising.
However, the peculiarly high amount of quotations present in ancient graffiti, along with brief poems and even wordplays, show that our image of ancient literacy is maybe different from the reality. This still does not mean that a significant number of Roman people were literate in the real sense of the word, but, as some scholars have suggested, there is a possibility of different kinds of literacies that existed throughout the empire.
Aeneid Graffiti

Three inscriptions referring to the opening line of the Aeneid

For example, some quotes from Roman literature might have received the status of idioms, so people used them without actually understanding the original text. The question of literacy in ancient Rome is quite complex, but the abundance of materials found in graffiti certainly has the potential of casting some light on it.
Although it is fun to read silly and obscene graffiti that reminds us that ancient humans were more similar to us than we would have expected, we should not fail to recognize their value in the research on the cultural and quotidian aspects of life in ancient Rome.
***Editor’s Note: Depending on where you read about Graffiti, you may be surprised by this sentence. That is because often in formal writing settings, the word ‘Graffiti’ is the plural version of ‘Graffito’. However, while speaking, Graffiti is always used as a ‘mass noun’, requiring a singular verb. Ah! What’s an editor to do? While on the one hand, we feel it’s important to acknowledge the correct rules of grammar and a word’s true etymological roots, on the other hand, we want the reading experience to be enjoyable and easily understood. As we are dedicated to making the classics as accessible as possible, we purposefully choose the latter and made ‘Graffiti’ a mass noun, as most speak it.