Skip to Content

Category Archives: Culture

[post_grid id="10031"]

A Toast To The Ancients

by August 30, 2019

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Wining and dining — and philosophizing — is the way the Ancients celebrated life. In fact, wine was a cultural staple for the ancient Greeks. Considering that their civilization is the foundation for much of western civilization, wine becomes an important part of our collective heritage.
Archaeological digs that have unearthed extravagant, presumably once wine-toting goblets dating as far back as the Mycenaean era of Greece. Such artifacts included gold and silver goblets that demonstrated that the people of the Mycenaean era were not only fierce warriors, but also people of sophistication who were aware of wine and respected it greatly.
Vase illustration of Greek drinking

Ancient Greek Symposium

One artifact of particular interest is the Cup of Nestor. This Golden goblet was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 in the ancient civilization of Mycenae. It is believed to have belonged to the ancient king Nestor of Pylos, who was a prominent character in The Iliad.
Homer describes the goblet of Nestor as follows:
“There were four handles on it, around each one a pair of golden doves was feeding. Below were two supports. When that cup was full, another man could hardly lift it from the table, but, old as he was, Nestor picked it up with ease.” — The Iliad
Nestor's Cup

The Cup of Nestor or dove cup is a gold goblet discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann in Shaft IV of Grave Circle A, Mycenae.

It is commonly held that large scale production, distribution, and consumption of wine began on the prominent island of Crete. Depictions of primitive wine presses can be seen on the walls of Minoan tombs dating as far back to 3000 BCE. Clay goblets and carafes have been uncovered across the island, including in the ancient palace of King Minos in the city of Knossos.
It is believed the craft of wine making began on this island and slowly made the transfer to the mainland of Greece. The ancient Greeks traded wine as a commercial product for centuries across their regions.
Indeed, Greek wine was traded throughout the entire known ancient world. Wines from islands such as Crete, Rhodes, and Lesvos were especially popular. Homer himself writes about the wonderful supply of wine found in cellars outside the city of Troy. The Aegean was so saturated with wine trading ships that Homer would refer to it as “the wine-dark sea”.
Wine dark sea

Were the wine-dark seas from wine?

In order to accommodate high demand, the ancients developed new wine storage techniques that enabled it to be transported long distances without spoiling. Before the time of air-tight glass bottles, wine left in a regular barrel would be exposed to oxygen and spoil quickly.
The ancient Greeks began the practice of sealing these wine barrels with pine resin to prevent it from spoiling. The resin helped make the barrels air-tight while simultaneously adding a distinct pine aroma to the drink.
This distinctive taste is still alive today in the form of “Restina”, a modern white wine that emulates the flavor of ancient times.

Restina… not everyone’s cup of wine…

An interesting anecdote claims the use of pine resin was for a very different reason. According to this theory, Roman soldiers would regularly plunder the cities of Greece and make off with their stores of wine. The Greek citizens became so angry that they began using pine resin to add a bitter aroma to their wine. The Roman invaders would try one sip of this distinctive wine, taste the bitterness and assume it was spoiled.
In this way the Greeks would keep their wines and the invaders would be none the wiser. This idea would seem to lead to the thought that the Greeks would take measures to protect their wines while the invaders would make off with their women and treasures. At least they had their priorities straight…??
Wine in ancient Greece was of enormous cultural significance. The ancients drank wine to praise the gods and expand their minds. They studied it intently to decipher it’s presumed health benefits and risks.
It was a nutritional staple, a religious experience: indeed, the production, distribution, and consumption of wine is so deeply ingrained with the culture of ancient Greece, that you simply can not have one without the other.

Aristophanes’ The Frogs: A Way to Stop a War?

by August 21, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Frogs, an ‘old’ comedy play by Aristophanes, was performed in 405 BCE at the Lenaia festival of Dionysus. With the Peloponnesian War raging on, plays of the time had a tendency to deal with saving the state, matters of right and wrong, and background events of the war itself. Writers focused on political themes, pushing the idea that a poet has the ability to save the state from war.
Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

The Plot of Aristophanes’ The Frogs
Originally disguised as Heracles, the god Dionysus ventures down to the underworld to seek out Euripides, the tragic poet who had died in the previous year. Against the backdrop of war, Dionysus thinks that Euripides is the only one who can safe Athens from itself. Dionysus crosses the lake with Charon while debating with a chorus of frogs along the way.

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

Soon, the issue of Dionysus’ disguise as Heracles presents itself when he realizes Heracles made a few enemies in the underworld. Accompanied by his slave, Xanthius, Dionysus makes him wear the costume instead. Then Xanthius, dressed as Heracles, gets invited to a banquet of feasting and dancing. Dionysus, not surprisingly, wants to be the one at the banquet so they swap clothes yet again. However, at the banquet Dionysus dressed as Heracles makes even more people mad, so they switch again. This whole first half of the play is mostly Dionysus’ fumbling with choices, making Xanthius cover for him and improvising to right his wrongs.
Vase of Xanthias

Red-figure vase painting showing an actor dressed as Xanthias in The Frogs, standing next to a statuette of Heracles

As the play progresses, Dionysus finds himself in the palace of Pluto where Aeschylus and Euripides are competing for the best tragic poet. Dionysus acts as the judge while Aeschylus and Euripides quote snippets of their verse, critique, and respond to one another. In the final judgment of the debate, a scale is brought in and whichever poets’ words have the most weight to them will cause the scale to tip in their favor.
Ultimately, this measuring device proves ineffective and Dionysus asks the battling poets to provide advice for how to save the city. In the end, Aeschylus proves to be more practical and suited for the job, so Dionysus chooses to take him back to earth.
Portrait of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

Key Themes in Aristophanes’ The Frogs
In this play in particular, Aristophanes unequivocally posits that it is the poet’s duty to save the city. However, this is fully dependent on defining who is the right poet, who has the right ideas, and who makes the right decisions. This is expressed through a series of choices, disguises, and deceptions throughout the play. Dionysus is the butt of the jokes in the first half of the play, constantly going back and forth with Xanthius and constantly making the wrong choice.
Aristophanes - bust

Bust of Aristophanes

In the second half of the play, Dionysus transitions into a stoic, perceptive judge of others. His final choice of Aeschylus is left up to the audience to decide whether or not it was the right decision. Aristophanes also leaves the success or failure of Aeschylus to save the city open-ended. Aristophanes is intentionally ambiguous and subtle, which the audience no doubt would have picked up as a larger comment on the present day backdrop of war. Aristophanes manipulates the reality that his plays are set against, providing audiences a transcendent view of truth.
The Reception of Aristophanes’ The Frogs

The Frogs performed by The Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group

Having won the contest in 405 BCE, the Frogs was a comedic hit from the beginning. Some sources even suggest that Athens commissioned in the same year for the play to be put on again. The Frogs is also commonly performed in modern day theaters, being adapted into musical form as well. The onomatopoeia of the frog croak, witnessed in the choral ode of the play, has been used in Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and was referenced in Jesting Pilate by Aldous Huxley.
It is clear that Aristophanes’ The Frogs was a great success. The fact that the raging Peloponnesian War ended the year after, however, probably didn’t have much to do with it, despite the Poet’s attempts.

A Tale of Two Theaters: Greek and Roman Theaters

by July 31, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Greek and Roman theaters regularly rank among the most popular archaeological sites to visit. Their sheer size and state of preservation make it easy for visitors to gauge the scale of events in antiquity and to feel as if they can travel back in time; an experience that doesn’t always occur when trekking crumbling ruins. But while Greek and Roman theaters are often lumped together in common vernacular, there are actually meaningful differences that distinguish their origins and cultures.
Roman Theater Plan

Roman Theater Plan

The Evolution of the Greek Theater Structure
The most basic elements of both Greek and Roman theaters are shared: semicircular, raised seating, a chorus, and incredible acoustics. The early Greek theaters were made of wood, built into the hillside, and had a beaten earth stage as the focal point. The oldest example of an ancient Greek theater is the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus, located on the South Slope of the Acropolis in Athens and dating to the 6th century BCE. The seats were built into the natural slope of the hill, taking advantage of the elevated viewing opportunity.
Ancient Greek theater

Ancient Greek theater, 450-400 BC, Classical period. Neapolis Archaeological Park of Syracuse.

Originally made all out of wood, the 5th century renovations saw a rectangular stage with corresponding wings added and stone seats in the front row only.
By the 4th century BCE, all the seats were transformed from wooden planks into stone benches and acquired a backdrop of stone and semi-columns. The evolution of the Theater of Dionysus exemplifies the transformations of other Greek theaters in antiquity, representing the typical architectural form embodied throughout. The theaters of Epidaurus, Delphi, and Pergamon all remain in great condition and demonstrate the social demand for these monumental arenas.
Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus

Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus

Roman Theater Structure Refined
Centuries later, Roman theaters took the architectural form of Greek theaters and tweaked it, refined it, and altered it just enough to fit their own socio-political tastes. Perhaps the biggest visual difference is that Roman theaters were usually freestanding, which means that they were not constructed into a hillside. Roman theaters also built the backdrop (or the scaenae frons) to at least two stories and joined it with the seating. They installed awnings that could be extended, enclosing the whole theater in a style of which we are familiar with today.
Other modifications included the complete paving and/or marbling of the performance area, the orchestra, and the seats. They added monumental statues, columns, and reliefs to the stage to make it even more impressive to the viewers.
Theater of Hierapolis

Theater of Hierapolis

Greek and Roman Theater Performances
As to be expected, the type of performances held in both Greek and Roman theaters were quite similar. Comedy and tragedy dominated, and theaters housed drama competitions and festivals to be carried out throughout the year. Masks, costumes, props, songs, and music all made up the show, with actors communicating with the audience directly or indirectly.
Scholarship since the 1960’s has worked hard to reconstruct dramatic performances, prompting questions about the function of the built in backdrop, stage decor, and what exactly was left up to the viewers to imagine themselves.
Theater at Epidaurus

Theater at Epidaurus being used for a summer festival in 2018

With few exceptions, Greek tragedies and comedies were performed by up to three actors, with some doubling up characters when need be. They used masks, which have been interpreted as “semiotic agents,” taking on a life of their own and possessing the typified personality, character, and attributes. As such, stock characters were immediately recognizable, but it was up to the play and performance to dictate the acute personality of the character.
Apart from the actors, Greek dramas made ample use of the chorus, much to the confusion of modern scholars. The chorus is distinct from the stage action spatially, as they stand on the circular orchestra in front of the rectangular stage. They sing directly to the audience or other characters, but often as a removed viewer of the activity.
Examples of theatrical masks

Examples of theatrical masks

Roman dramas, while originally taking themes from Greek topics and myths, eventually began to adopt their own themes with Etruscan and Latin origins. Choruses in Roman tragedies were incorporated into on-stage action, an aspect that differed from Roman comedy. Roman comedy were either Greek adaptations or entirely Roman in a Roman setting. Male actors would have likely performed all roles in Roman theater, like in Greek theater, but there is some evidence that women may have been minimally involved.
Late Roman Theater

Late Roman Theater

More Please!
Overall, the comparison between Greek and Roman theater speak to the desire for ‘more’ evolving in the respective societies: more genres, more topics, more characters, and more elaborate furnishings. The Greek theaters that were once comparatively humble evolved into Roman theaters seating some 20,000 patrons viewing drama festivals and competitions with playwrights from around the Roman Empire.

The Passion of Christ-ian Poetry

by July 26, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is difficult to know definitively when the ‘Ancient World’ came to an end. In all likelihood, the demise of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages was far more a transition than any single event. But even if we’re on flimsy ground regarding the moment of metamorphosis, we can certainly say that the soundtrack to the transition was provided by one of the most neglected groups of ancient artists; Latin, Christian poets.
They were revered in the middle-ages, but since then the Christian poets who wrote from 4th – 6th centuries have been maligned as shallow imitations of their pagan predecessors, concerned more with proselytism than prosody.
Early Christian Poet

Illuminated miniature of St Luke beneath the inscription Iura sacerdotii Lucas tenet ore iuuenci from Sedulius’ Carmen paschale. St Augustine Gospels, Parker Library MS 286, late 6th century

And perhaps there is an undeniable truth in this statement. Latin, Christian poetry is passionate, often bordering on the fanatical, but there are, as Carolinne White states in her wonderfully approachable work on the topic, Early Christian Latin Poets, “further delights and complexities of this unjustly neglected corpus”.
However, before we sup the flesh and blood of the works of the holy scribblers, one glaring and vital question must be asked: ‘What about the Latin, Christian poetry before the 4th century’?
Quite simply, there are no extant Latin, Christian poems from the first three centuries.
The knee-jerk reasoning is to cite the Roman persecutions of the Christians, but this doesn’t quite cut it. Severity of persecution oscillated enough to allow some work to blossom, and the holy texts themselves obviously pre-dated the poetry they inspired.
The persecution of Christians

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero used Christians as human torches

So has this work been lost? Well… possibly, but the crux of the issue lies in the fact that the early church was more influenced by Greek and Hebrew. Not surprisingly then, most early hymns were composed in either Greek or Syriac (a western dialect of Aramaic).
The early Christians considered Latin too pagan or, if you prefer, not Christian enough – a delicious irony as fanatics like Mel Gibson and his ilk consider the dropping of the Latin mass to be the zenith of impiety.
So the dearth of early, Christian, Latin poetry is no mystery.
The 4th-6th centuries, then, was a time of biblical re-education. Many religious texts were translated into Latin, and biblical and apostolic study became as much a part of the assumed curriculum for literate men as Virgil or Homer had been for their forefathers.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

Paradoxically, detractors have accused the early Christian poets of being both too similar to, and not distinct enough from, their pagan forebears.
Here it appears we have some muddled thinking. Nobody could make a convincing argument that the style and meter of the Christians were not either heavily influenced by, or directly copied from the likes of Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Propertius. What makes them distinct, therefore, is the tone and content of their work:
“The abundance of sins tends to throw Christians into confusion. As a result of this our Lord wanted to give us a warning, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a net cast into the sea which catches up many fishes of every kind from different places. When they have been pulled to the shore, the fishermen separate them, placing the good ones in barrels, the bad they put back in the sea”. – Augustine
Painting of Augustine

Gerard Seghers (attr) – The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

This is even more true for non-Latinists as poetical rhythm is often, inevitably, lost in translation. So we are left with content – and in this respect there was a tectonic, or perhaps divine, shift from the time of the pagan writers.
Overnight poetry became more serious, cerebral and spiritual. What was once a distracting folly for the educated elite became an exercise of the utmost reverence and piety.
Though despite these lofty intentions, the actual language used is often derived from Vulgar Latin – the language of the gutter, the downtrodden and the oppressed.
St. Paulinus of Nola

Linz Cathedral ( Upper Austria ). Gothic revival stained glass window showing Saint Paulinus of Nola.

A possible explanation for this is the vulgarity of the original scriptures themselves which, if Paulinus of Nola is to be believed, could not be further from the rarefied eloquence of the King James’ Bible:

“Let not the simplicity of scripture nor the poverty of its vocabulary offend you, for these are due either to the faults of translators or else to a deliberate purpose, for in its way it is better fitted for the instruction of the unlettered congregation as the educated person can take one meaning and the uneducated another from one and the same sentence.”

Though whatever the lexical shortcomings, this was made up for in spades by the fervent belief that these were not pagan word-games, but Christian truths. The problem with writing about the truth, however, was that there was often some meddlesome schismatic throwing spanners into the works.
Thus, a good deal of the time and energy spent by the early Christian poets went not into proselytizing, exalting, or composing perfect verse, but into denouncing other heretical sects. This seemed especially true of Augustine, who was determined to ensure a singularity of exegesis in a time when there were many dogmatic pretenders, all jostling for supremacy.
Several poets made pains to condemn the apostate tendencies of the Pelagians, Arians, Donatists, Priscillians and Manichees. Between them, they believed wild and dangerous things such as: We don’t inherit sin from Adam and Eve, God is superior to Jesus, Jesus is not eternal (though was created before time began) and other such insidious heresy.
St. Augustine

The Saint Augustine Taken to School by Saint Monica. by Niccolò di Pietro 1413–15

This gives us another clear and unambiguous way in which the Christian and pagan poets differed; the polytheists were far more laissez-faire and ad hoc when it came to the malleable details of their gods’ lives, attributes and even morality.
So it is not just because the subject matter is more familiar to us that the words of the Christian poets resonate with such vigor. It seems the pride and passion they put into their work was done so without affect:
“From the wound of Christ flowed the sacraments of the Church” – Augustine
The fire and brimstone were as burning and acrid on the page as off it. And so, even if one can make a solid case to state that the likes of Ovid and Horace were finer practitioners of their art, whatever Christian poetry lacked in style or objective beauty, it more than made up for in pride, passion, piety and, of course being Christian, a heavy dose of pathos:
“The holy one went out after being handed over for punishment…his magnificent head was encircled with a crown woven of thorns, because in his mercy he took upon himself all the thorns of our misfortunes…he was hung high on the spreading cross, transforming the anger of the crisis by means of loving devotion…suddenly a horrendous darkness fell, taking possession of the whole sky, covering the shadowy daylight with gloomy mourning; the sun buried…just as for three hours the darkened stars hid…so for three days the Lord endured imprisonment in the cave that was his tomb” – Sedulius

The Brutality of Citizen Wives

by July 24, 2019

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
Thesmophoria, the feminine fertility festival, dedicated to the Goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, was literally for women only. Citizen males of ancient Greece were unconditionally restricted from attending any portion of the three-day long event, though they were responsible for its expenses. Further, men who spied on, or interrupted, the Thesmophoria were subject to life threatening and disfiguring acts of violence perpetrated by the Thesmophorians themselves.
Ancient Greek women illustration

Various Ancient Greek costumes; right to left – One female flute player and the rest are women’s everyday costumes. Date: circa 500 BC

There are some noteworthy examples demonstrating this extensive retribution, straight from ancient sources.
First there is the lore that the hapless King Battos of Cyrene—famed for founding Cyrene—was cruelly castrated by the furious disciples for surreptitiously observing their sacred and secret rites.
Then there is the tale related by Pausanias (110 CE- 180 CE) of the legendary Messenian hero Aristomenes, who was celebrated for his victories with the Spartans. He unfortunately captured the female disciples in the midst of their clandestine celebration, only to be “knocked senseless” by their sacrificial knives and spits.
Painting of Aristomenes

A girl saves Aristomenes by Franc Kavčič

Next, there is the legend of unlucky Militiades, who, while in battle to secure the island of Paros, leapt over the wall leading to the Thesmophorian shrine. Once there, he was so overcome with terror that in jumping back over the wall he sprained his thigh, from which he developed gangrene and later died. Herodotus (484 BCE- 425 BCE) recounts this as an admonishment, and warms that this mournful outcome was due to his breaching the sacred sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros.
Then we have Plutarch’s (46 CE- 120 CE) narrative of Pesistratus (562 BCE -527 BCE), the tyrant of Athens, and the Athenian statesman Solon (638 BCE-558 BCE). They pulled a trick on the Thesmophorians celebrating in Megara by enlisting two beardless men to impersonate the disciples.
Illustration of Athenian tyrant

Illustration from 1838 by M. A. Barth depicting the return of Peisistratos to Athens, accompanied by a woman disguised as Athena, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus

Once discovered, the Thesmophorians brutally attacked the wretched mimics.
Finally there is Aristophanes’ comedic satire Thesmophoriazusae or “Women of the Thesmophoria.” In it Aristophanes casts his colleague Euripides as the character for whom the Thesmophorians want revenge.
“Today at the Thesmophoria the women are going to liquidate me, because I slander them,” cries Euripides.
The premise is that the rebellious disciples seek to kill Euripides for characterizing women in his plays as villainous. While the women are mocked in terms of their democratic assembly and their ritual, Aristophanes’ depiction of the Thesmophorians as uncontrollable and violent is in keeping with the androcentric mindset towards the festival.
vase painting of play

Apulian krater with scene from Thesmophoriazusae, c. 370 BC

The brutality of these stories demonstrates that men’s profound uneasiness with the Thesmophoria was in direct proportion to their wary respect for it. Though suspicious, pious citizen males could not obstruct it, as it was deemed both holy and integral to the health and well being of the polis. Indeed, the citizen males considered the Thesmophoria to be at once both threatening and reverential. Why else, but for the power to increase fertility, would the males in patriarchal ancient Greece comply with the wishes of the obviously inferior sex? In a society where men set the rules, the Thesmophoria turned the dominant paradigm on its head.
Kept from all activities in the public sphere, citizen wives were only granted a watered down citizenship, which simply allowed them to bear citizen males.
Disenfranchised from participating in the political life of the polis, women were similarly as powerless in any acts of societal sacrificial violence. For example, women usually had no access to instruments of sacrifice such as the all-important knife, kettle or the spit. However, archaeological and literary evidence suggests that full-grown sows, killed in a sacrificial manner employing a knife, were discovered at various Demeter sanctuaries throughout Attica.
Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone

Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone

Indeed, most scholars now concur that the Thesmophoria was unique in being one of the only feminine festivals where sacrifices were performed, meaning that the women of the Thesmophoria had rare access to the violent instruments of death.
Meeting outside the androcentric social constructs of family; the disciples were at liberty to become autonomous individuals without concerns for their family, as they once were in pre-patriarchal times. It also empowered a united feminine community without male restrictions—a possibly dangerous and subversive combination for the dominant male culture of ancient Greece. Indeed, enfranchised men were afraid of the anger of the subjugated female. And they should have been – for the women at the Thesmophoria, independent and armed at their secret cult festival, were a force to be reckoned with.

Greece Versus Rome: Polybius Decides

by July 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statue of Polybius, Vienna Parlimanet Austria.

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

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

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

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

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