Skip to Content

Category Archives: History

[post_grid id="10050"]

The History of the Jews in the Ancient World

by May 18, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is widely recognized that Jewish culture and thought has had a major impact on the world. The history of Jews in the ancient world is particularly important, especially in regards to religious development — their Monotheism was critical in the history of civilization. 
Biblical sources and archaeology provide us with a good understanding of the evolution of the Jewish people and their religion since the earliest times. 
The Origin Of The Jews

Jews Mourning in a Synagogue, by Sir William Rothenstein, 1906
The Biblical story of the origin of the Jews is well-known, especially the story of Exodus where Moses led god’s chosen people out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. However, many historians now believe that there was no real Exodus. It is most likely that the Hebrews (precursors of the Jews) were pastoralists who lived in a marginal area in the land of Canaan. 
The first possible reference to them is in the Merneptah Stele, which was carved on the orders of Pharoah Merneptah, (c 1200 BC). It is believed that the Hebrews were related to the Canaanites. They became a distinct people and eventually conquered the land of Canaan (modern-day Isreal, Jordan and Lebanon). 
Various Hebrew tribes formed a confederation under leaders known in the Hebrew Bible as Judges. They regularly fought the Philistines and other ethnicities for control of land and resources. 
The Kingdom of Israel and Judah
Ashkenazi Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurice Gottlieb 1878
In about 1030 BC, the twelve tribes united under Saul and the Kingdom of Israel and Judah came into being. Saul was succeeded by King David, who created a powerful kingdom which he left to his son Solomon. 
During the reigns of these kings, a single god was worshipped. This was a crucial step in the history and development of Monotheism. King Solomon built the First Temple, which became the centre of the Hebrew religion. 
It should be noted that many Hebrews continued to worship many gods from the Canaanite pantheon, especially in rural areas. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom splintered. 
Ten northern tribes formed the state of Israel, and the two remaining tribes formed the kingdom of Judah. This was the time in which the Hebrew religion took on many of its later characteristics. It appears that Yahweism, the belief in one god, was rivaled by Canaanite polytheism. 
The powerful Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 720 BC. The ten tribes were deported, and their fate is a great mystery. The King of Judah was able to withstand the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (701 BC), and this may have saved the Jewish people. 
The Babylonian Exile
The Flight of the Prisoners (1896) by James Tissot; The exile of the Jews from Canaan to Babylon
The Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, and the First Temple was destroyed. The elite were deported to Babylon while a small Hebrew population survived in the rural areas. 
During the Babylonian exile, the faith of the Hebrews underwent extraordinary changes. This was a crucial period in the development of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. 
After the conquest of Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus, Jewish exiles were permitted to return to Jerusalem. They rebuilt the city and the Second Temple. Jerusalem and its surrounding areas became a self-governing area within the Persian empire. At first, the people were led by prophets, and then became a theocracy. 
The Jewish people prospered under Persian rule. In 333 BC, Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire and conquered it. The Jews were folded into the Seleucid Empire and continued to prosper. At this time, various schools of thought—such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees—emerged, influencing the development of Rabbinical Judaism. 
Also during this time, many Jews settled in other areas of the Hellenic World. In Alexandria, Jews compiled the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.
The Hasmonean Kingdom (110–63 BCE)
The Maccabean Revolt 
Greek civilization greatly influenced the Jews, and many adopted Hellenic practices and beliefs. This created tensions between traditional and Hellenized Jews. 
When a Seleucid ruler attempted to suppress Jewish religious practices, it led to a rebellion known as the Maccabean Revolt. The rebels drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem and established the Hasmonean Kingdom. This kingdom re-established a traditional form of Judaism, but was riven by civil and religious strife. 
The Roman Era
Roman Triumphal arch panel, copy from Beth Hatefutsoth
By 63 AD, the Hasmonean Kingdom was devastated by civil war. One party invited Pompey the Great, a Roman general, to intervene. This led to the conquest of the kingdom. 
Herod the Great ruled Judea as a client king of the Romans, as did his successors. The monotheistic Jews found it difficult to accommodate the polytheistic Romans, and Judea was very turbulent. About 30 AD, a Jewish rabbi known as Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. His teachings led to the development of a Jewish sect which later became a distinct religion, Christianity. 
Judea became a Roman province, leading to further tensions and in 66 AD, the Jews revolted. Their rebellion was finally put down in 70 AD, when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the future Emperor Titus. 
At this point, there was a significant shift in Judaism as it started to prioritize religious texts over rituals. 
After the First Jewish Revolt, the Jews continued to resist Roman rule. The Kitos Revolt (115-117 AD) and the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-136 AD) were brutally repressed by the Romans, and many Jews fled Judea. This period saw the establishment of Jewish communities around the Mediterranean world and the near East. 
Many Jews found refuge in the Persian empire, where they established flourishing self-governing communities. By the second century, only a small number of Jews lived in their ancient homeland. Despite the rise of Christianity, the majority of Jews continued to maintain their religion and identity. 
Conclusion
The origin of the Jews remains a mystery; it is much more complex than the Biblical narrative. 
What we do know is that various Hebrew tribes formed a powerful kingdom, which eventually fell apart. Their story following its collapse is one of war, siege, exile and triumph over adversity. It was during this turbulent period that Judaism emerged and was to have a decisive influence as one of the great monotheistic faiths. 
The destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent Jewish rebellions created the Jewish diaspora that went on to play a remarkable role in world history. 

The Extraordinary History of Mesopotamia

by May 12, 2021

Written by Michael C. Anderson, PhD, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Greek and Roman cultures are universally recognized as the greatest Western civilizations from the time we consider “ancient.” Their cultural and political influence provided a foundation for modern society and its political frameworks inspired post-Enlightenment governments.
The Greeks were specialists in ideas, pioneering modern philosophy, art, theater, poetry, mathematics, and science. The Romans, a more practical people, contributed engineering, law, and a political system called the Republic.
The accomplishments of Greece and Rome cast a long shadow over their predecessors. Older civilizations were seen as less important. That line of thinking is a serious mistake because Mesopotamia was one of the most important civilizations in all of human history. It was the world’s first true civilization, making it the father of all cultures in the West. Mesopotamia served as the crucible for mankind to develop agricultural, pre-dynastic, and monarchical cultures.
The word Mesopotamia is a collective term for several ancient cultures located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. These societies prospered independently from 5000 BCE to 1800 BCE. 
Their advent was facilitated by the presence of an alluvial plain–a gently sloping land surface formed by sediment left from rising and falling water levels–which inspired them to begin irrigation farming. Planting in an alluvial plain allowed for easier sowing and watering. The softness of the ground allowed seeds to be pressed into the soil by hand without difficulty.
Alluvial plain, Tigris River
The history of the Mesopotamian region is too expansive to describe in a short article because its many separate cultures existed over a span of four millennia. To simplify the story, we will focus our discussion on Sumer, arguably the most important of the Mesopotamian cultures. The term Sumer refers to a specific southern region of Mesopotamia, near the point where the Tigris and Euphrates empty into the Persian Gulf. This is the place that gave rise to one of the world’s great ancient cultures.
The map above shows ancient Sumer and its cities. At the time when Sumer was established (6500BC), the Persian Gulf extended farther north than it does today. Baghdad and Babylon are shown as reference points only. Neither existed during the time of Sumerian domination.
The Ubaidians were the first to exploit the alluvial plain of Sumer and build a civilization between the great rivers.
The cities shown on the map, which would later become the jewels of Sumer, were originally Ubaidian. We know this because their names predate the Sumerian language. The Ubaids developed a civilization of farmers, cattle raisers, and fishermen. Their craftsmen included weavers, leatherworkers, carpenters, smiths, potters, and masons. Excavated remains from the period include hoes, adzes, and knives, along with clay artifacts such as sickles, bricks, loom weights, figurines, and painted pottery. Together, these artifacts provide a record of stunning accomplishments for a people who predated the Greeks by 4,000 years.
As the Ubaid culture matured, outsiders from the Syrian desert region and Arabian Peninsula began to settle in their territory after 4500 BCE. They gradually gained control via assimilation and military conquest. The result was an ethnic fusion that became Sumer. By 3800 BCE, the Sumerian civilization had reached its peak.
Reconstructed ziggurat at Ur
The ziggurat is a Mesopotamian temple and one of the most important symbols of the Sumerian civilization. They were the largest-known structures built by man at the time and represent the power and sophistication of the great Sumerian cities. The Sumerians believed the gods resided in their temples and so they prohibited the public from entering their sanctuaries. The ziggurat also contained separate structures for grain storage, recalling the time when Sumarian cities were theocracies, and the priests served as municipal administrators in addition to their religious duties.
The first phase of the Sumerian Era is known as the Uruk period (4100-2900 BCE), named after the Sumerian city of the same name. Uruk seems to have been the cultural centre of Sumer because it housed the principal monuments of the region and exhibited the most obvious traces of an advanced urban society. By 3500 BCE, the world’s first system of writing had been developed and Uruk exerted influence over the entire Near East. The written form of the Sumerian language, Cuneiform, was developed through the evolution of representative characters (pictograms) into non-representative forms.
Cuneiform
Sumer was the most agriculturally productive region of Mesopotamia, the result of an irrigation system that focused on the cultivation of barley and the pasturing of sheep for wool. Although it lacked mineral resources and its climate was arid, the region had undeniable geographic and environmental advantages, including a vast delta with a flat region transected by waterways. This vast area of cultivable land allowed easy transit by river or land. Sumer became a highly populated and urbanized region by 3500 BCE, with a social hierarchy, an artisan economy, and long-distance commerce.
During Sumer’s Uruk period, trade along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centered cities with populations of over 10,000 people. These cities featured centralized administrations that employed specialized workers. It was during the Uruk period that Sumerian cities began to make use of slave labor, of which there is ample evidence from written texts.
Following Sumer’s Uruk period, an early dynastic period evolved in 2900 BCE. Political systems became centralized and were controlled by small groups of individuals. Multiple city-states developed and solidified during this period, which was associated with a shift from the temple establishment led by a council of elders headed by a priest towards a more secular establishment. 
Legendary leaders such as Dumuzid the Fisherman, as well as Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh, appeared. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas. Local Semitic groups adopted much of Sumerian culture.
The earliest recorded dynastic Sumerian king is Etana, 13th king of the first dynasty of Kish. As the Epic of Gilgamesh shows, this period was associated with increased war. Cities became walled and increased in size, and undefended villages in southern Mesopotamia disappeared. Both Enmerkar and Gilgamesh are credited with having built the walls of Uruk.
Ruins of the ancient city of Harran in Mesopotamia
In the year ~2350 BCE, the Sumerian dynasties were overrun by Sargon, king of the Akkadian Empire. Akkad and its capital Agate were located to the north of Sumer, just beyond Kish. The Akkadian Empire is considered the first empire in human history. Sargon’s rule expanded to include the territory from the Persian Gulf to Cyprus, but his empire proved to be unstable and collapsed after two hundred years.
After the fall of the Akkadians, the Sumerians tried to regain power. The 3rd dynasty of Ur under Ur-Nammu and Shulgi was able to extend its power northward into Akkadian territory, but Ur III only survived for 100 years before being absorbed into the growing Babylonian Empire. By then, the region had become more Semitic than Sumerian, with the resurgence of the Akkadian-speaking Semites in Assyria and elsewhere. The Sumerian language continued as a sacerdotal language taught in schools in Babylonia and Assyria, much as Latin was taught in the Medieval period.
The period of Ur III coincided with a major population shift from south to north. Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of the Sumerian lands had been compromised by rising salinity. Poorly drained irrigated soils, in an arid climate with high levels of evaporation, led to the buildup of dissolved salts in the soil, severely reducing agricultural yields over time. During the Akkadian and Ur III phases, there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, but this change was ineffective. From 2100 BCE to 1700 BCE, it is estimated that the population of Sumer declined by nearly three fifths.
This greatly upset the balance of power within the region, weakening the areas where Sumerian was spoken, and strengthening those areas where Akkadian was the major language. From that point on, Sumerian would survive as a literary and liturgical language.
The story of the Sumerians is only one piece of the extraordinary history of the Mesopotamian region, which changed mankind forever by establishing agriculture and animal husbandry as essential components of human society. These accomplishments place them beside Greece and Rome in the pantheon of the world’s great ancient civilizations.
References:
Climate Change Post. Climate change impacts in the Euphrates–Tigris Basin. March 27,2021.
Arch Eyes: Timeless Architecture. Religious Architecture. Urban Design. Ziggurat Architecture in Mesopotamia, April 18, 2016.

Greece Versus Rome: Polybius Decides

by March 3, 2021

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

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.

What Newly-Found 2,000-Year-Old Celtic Coins Tell Us About Boudica

by January 27, 2021

Written by Tom G. Hamilton, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

As of this writing, news of the largest hoard of early Roman-era Celtic gold coins ever found— unearthed by a bird-watcher in Britain—are making headlines. The coins are reported to be Boudica-era gold “stater” Iceni coins. There is an understandable excitement all across the land, the front-page news making a change from the pandemic. 

There is one symbol on the coins which pertains to Boudica’s story—and even points to her origin, which was not the British Isles.

That symbol—a horse—can help us discover who Boudica really was.

In ancient times, the Western Atlantic was well-established as home to the ancient Celtic peoples. This Atlantic cultural reality divided it from what is now “middle” Europe. The Celtic-from-the-West idea (John Koch/Barry Cunliffe) points us to the Iberian peninsula in the search for ancient Celtic roots. DNA study supports this. There was frequent movement and migration from Iberia to Britain, not just Celtic but also Phoenician. The Phoenicians, who had flourished in the Iberian peninsula since 1000BC, mined in Britain. They were a sea-faring people. They were cod-fishing in British waters before there was any Brexit to complicate fishing rights.

There were no nations, no frontiers, and no governments, just ancient Celtic tribal confederations who lived in lands bordered by rivers and mountain ranges, and within these confederations there were simple tribes or clans who lived for the most part in hillforts. It was one, homogenous, Western Atlantic homeland. Iberia was part of this reality.

Argemela – location of prominent ancient Celtic hillfort and one of the Boudica stones.

The Vettones were one such tribal confederation, living in the Iberian meseta between the Tagus (now Tejo) and Douro rivers.

The Vettones were known for being artistic and musical, but above all for being among the fiercest warrior tribes of Iberia. Also, the women fought alongside the men. West of their lands, spreading towards the Atlantic, lived the Lusitani. 

Valiant Lusitani warriors such as Viriathu led the resistance against Roman occupation thanks to an alliance with their neighbors, the Vettons. It took the Romans 200 years to subdue this westerly, mountainous and hostile terrain.

Finally, tired of endless losses and exhausted by the guerilla-type warfare of the Lusitanian-Vetton alliance (also the embarrassing sight of their captured banners flying on the hilltops), the Romans became more aggressive.

In the end, it was only by trickery and deceit—and atrocities—that they subdued the western Iberian tribes, producing euphoria in the Roman senate in 150 BC. It was believed that at long last, they had finally conquered the Vettones.

This was the pre-history to the Roman invasion of Britain, without which we cannot properly understand it. Iberia provided Rome with everything. There were fertile lands for grain, wine and, especially, olive oil. There were also metals. The Romans set-up mega mining operations in areas previously used by the Phoenicians (whom the Romans persecuted because of Hannibal), taking vast quantities of silver, gold, copper, tin, iron and lead.

Area showing the “conhals” – huge piles of stones left by the Romans during massive gold mining exploration along the Tagus river.

Part of the Roman strategy was the systematic dismantling of the Celtic hillforts. This forced the Celtic clans down into the valleys below, where their spirits could be tamed and their whole mode of existence could be conditioned by the Roman ideals. 

This inevitably meant re-organization, so Iberia was split up into regions. First they created Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior, then they created sub-regions, including their own Lusitania, which essentially amalgamated the Lusitani, Vettones and Celtici peoples. That was clever. Now the most valiant of peoples, the Vettones, would gradually forget their own customs and culture and become like the Roman role model, the Turdetani in the south. These, the Romans boasted, had embraced Roman ideals to the extent that they had even forgotten their own language. It was ethnic cleansing. The populations were decimated around the Tagus. Extensive gold mining used slave labour.

But the Vettones had something which was worth more than its weight in gold – horses. And the Vettones sure knew how to ride them. Even today in the small region of Beira Baixa, just north of the Tagus river, everyone can ride a horse. It’s just in the blood. Archaeologists marvel at the paleolithic horse drawings abundantly distributed in the river valleys of the Erges, Tejo, Ocreza, Coa and Zezere valleys.

The Lusitanian horse was bred (and still is) in the beautiful region just north of the Tagus. The Arabian horse is known for its speed, but the Lusitanian horse is famed for its courage and agility. The Vetton people had learned how to handle the horse over thousands of years, and they became expert and highly-feared warriors, carrying the severed heads of their enemies with them as trophies.

A Lusitanian horse. The horses are famed for their courage and agility. Note the long, curved neck and down-pointing head.

Previously headhunted by the great Hannibal Barca—key to famous victories like Cannae—the Romans weren’t the first to recognize the enormous potential of the Vetton horsemen. The Roman generals, including Julius Caesar, coveted their skills. So it was that the Alae Vettonum Hispanorum  was formed–the Vetton Winged Cavalry. By offering them money, these valiant horsemen were tempted to leave their homeland and ally themselves with Rome in a bid for fame, fortune and adventure.

Diploma showing part of the name of the Vetton cavalry regiment that served in Wales, UK.

The Alae were first stationed in Germania, then Britain. They were among the first regiments to serve Rome in Britain under the Emperor Claudius in 43AD. However, it is possible some had returned with Caesar’s earlier, limited preliminary expedition.

Lusitanian horses are quite distinct and stand apart from their Arab horse cousins. This is true of their character as well as their appearance. However, it is not the short neck of the Arab horse with its sky-pointing tail that we see on the Iceni coins of Boudica’s reign, nor the Dartmoor ponies, but the long, curved neck and downward-pointing, slightly-curved head of the Lusitanian horse. It is unmistakable.

Lusitanian horse

So, what is the Lusitanian horse doing on the Boudica-era coins?

Iceni coins from time of Boudica showing the Lusitanian horse. Photo credit: Appolo Numismatics

According to onomastic academic experts (who study the use of common names, history and etymology), Boudica’s name as written by the Latin writers was exclusive to the small region north of the Tagus river, known as Beira Baixa. This is precisely the place where the Alae Vettonum Hispanorum were formed. Three ancient stones dated to the first century era were found, each with Boudica’s name written on them, as transcribed by the Latin writers.

Map showing where the three first century stones with the name Boudica written on them in Latin text.

Can it be a coincidence, then, that her husband’s name is also linked to the region? For his name was not “Prasutagus”–this was a composite, a sort of nickname given by the Romans, which identified him as being their appointed governor over the Iceni people (Prasu–governor, Tagus–his Iberian name).

Boudica’s name, Tagus, the horses–all three indicate the small region in the interior of what is now Portugal for their origin. If they had been serving in the Roman cavalry, then that explains not only how they got to Britain, but also how they were promoted as governors of the Iceni and amassed wealth.

All was apparently going well until the despot Nero became Rome’s most powerful man. His excessive, riotous, extravagant lifestyle brought Rome to near bankruptcy. Nero introduced the 50% inheritance tax (which Tagus had adhered to, leaving half to Nero and half to his daughters), but then Nero upped it to 100%. 

Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped because—the coin hoard find suggests—the “tax money” had been  purposefully hidden. Humiliated but brought to her senses, Boudica revolted—the Vetton’s trust had been broken. She returned to her roots as a Celtic warrior, mounting her horse and leading a rebellion. At last, she’d seen through the thin facade of lies and deceit that were the promises offered by Rome.

As a special message to each emperor, first to Claudius, she took her army to Camulodunum (now Colchester) and destroyed the temple erected in his honor. Then she went to Londinium, the other main Roman colony, and graphically sent a message to Nero whom she derided as being effeminate and a bad musician.

To her, mother of two children, Nero and Rome had become mother-killers. Nero had killed his own mother in cold blood. So it was, in graphic detail, that Boudica took her famed Iberian sword, the Falcata, and had the breasts of the impaled noble women sewed to their mouths as a message to Nero. Motherhood was sacred to the Vettones, and Rome was bringing about its own downfall. 

Today, Boudica’s statue stands next to the palace of Westminster, the houses of the British parliament. Although she was an Iberian woman, she is a cultural symbol of Britain. Her statue forever reminds us of her inseparable bond with horses.

While she was in revolt, in 60/61AD, Roman commander Suetonius had taken the Roman army to Wales to destroy the Druid stronghold in a radical move to ethnically-cleanse the Celtic memory, as they had done with the Phoenicians. As they were committing this genocidal atrocity, Boudica was coming to her senses, seeing through the false facade and illusion of cultural superiority that was Rome. At the time, Rome was all but an inch from abandoning Britain. That is why she will always be with us.

References:

Western Atlantic Celtic Origins: Celtic from the West Barry Cunliffe, John T. Koch 2010

Turdetani model Roman tribe: Strabo Geography book 3 . 2.140

Exclusivity of Boudica name to Beira Baixa: La onomástica personal prelatina en la antigua Lusitania, Salamanque , 1957 Palomar Lapesa, 1957, p. 63

Cassius Dio, Roman History 62:1–12

Tacitus, Annals 14.33

Hellenistic Greece: When the Greeks Ruled the World

by December 18, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The ancient Greek world reached its apex in the Hellenistic era (323-146 BC). Dating from the death of Alexander to the rise of Rome, the period marked the decline of the city-state, the rise of empires, and great achievements in science, art and philosophy.

The Early Years of the Hellenistic Age

The death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) left his vast empire, which stretched from India to central Europe, in chaos. He left no heir, so the empire was partitioned between his generals and commanders. They were called the Diadochi (successors), and for some fifty years they fought each other for control of the Macedonian Empire. Antigonus nearly succeeded in uniting the empire but was defeated at the battle of Ipsus (301 BC), ending the Diadochi Wars.

Three large states arose out of the Diadochi Wars: in Asia, Seleucus established the Seleucid, in Egypt, Ptolemy ruled, and Macedonia and Greece were ruled by the Antigonids. These states fought each other constantly and were ruled by monarchs. Meanwhile, many Macedonians and Greeks settled in the new areas, populating the cities founded by Alexander.

The Hellenistic World

The Seleucid Empire experienced periods of prosperity and power, especially under Antiochus I and Antiochus III, but was constantly battling rebels and invaders. The Greeks in Bactria broke away from the Seleucids and established a great state in what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Ptolemaic Empire was beset by Egyptian mutinies and court-intrigue. The Ptolemies adopted many Egyptian religious practices but remained a separate caste from that of the native population.

Macedonia was relatively weak, and its hold over much of Greece was never absolute. However, despite wars and instability, the Hellenistic states managed to rule much of Alexander’s empire. Indeed, the Bactrian Greeks even expanded into India and created a powerful empire, something Alexander the Great failed to accomplish.

Greece in the Hellenistic Age

The old city-states of Greece, including great cities such as Athens, began to decline during the Hellenistic period. While Sparta remained independent, it became a political backwater. The city-states simply could not compete militarily with the successor states. However, some Greeks remained independent, forming political and military groups such as the Aetolian League.

A mosaic of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (labeled Ο ΦΑΡΟϹ), Olbia, Libya c. 4th c. AD

The Hellenistic World was very interconnected, and trade flourished.  Hellenistic monarchs such as the Ptolemies supported trade by projects like the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria. This brought great prosperity to Greece in particular.

Technology and Farming in the Hellenistic Age

The exchange between the Greeks and other societies inspired many technological innovations. New architectural and shipbuilding techniques were developed. Scientific instruments such as water-clocks were invented. Heron of Alexandria developed the world’s first steam engine, known as the aeolipile. New agricultural practices were also pioneered, particularly in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Heron of Alexandria’s aeolipile

The Hellenistic world encompassed a vast geographical area, allowing for a diverse exchange of products. For example, at this time the writing parchment papyrus became ubiquitous in the Greek world. Mathematics and science also flourished. Indeed, in Alexandria, scientists argued that the world was round and rotated around the sun, over 1500 years before Copernicus.

Cultural Achievements in the Hellenistic Age

While the Hellenistic world was politically divided, the region was unified culturally and very cosmopolitan. A Greek dialect known as Koine became the lingua franca of much of the known world. Sculpture and painting became more human-focused, a phenomenon that resurfaced later in the Renaissance. The period saw the creation of many artistic masterpieces, such as the famous statue Nike of Samothrace. Such works later greatly influenced Roman art.

The Nike of Samothrace

The era also signaled changes in religion. Mystery religions such as Orphism became popular. There was a great deal of religious syncretism, especially in Ptolemaic Egypt, as many of the Hellenistic monarchs were curious and open-minded. The Greeks in Bactria even became Buddhists, greatly influencing the development of classic Buddhist art.

Perhaps due to the turbulence of the era, many turned inward, focusing more on personal salvation and peace of mind. Some important philosophical schools also arose at this time. The Cynics believed that civilization was a fraud and people should live as close to nature as possible. The Stoics believed in self-control, arguing that a rational life brings peace of mind and is in accordance with divine law. Epicureans held that the meaning of life was to enjoy rational and moderate pleasure.

The Romans were deeply influenced by the Hellenistic culture. Many members of the Roman elite wrote and spoke Greek. Indeed, after 146 BC, a Graeco-Roman culture came to dominate the Mediterranean World.

The End of the Hellenistic Age

The rise of Rome was the death-knell of the Hellenistic era. The Seleucid Empire was in decline due to constant Parthian incursions. While Antiochus II the Great was able to restore the empire to its former glory, he threatened Roman influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the Battle of Magnesia, Antigonus was decisively defeated.

This was the beginning of the end of the Seleucid Empire. Within a few decades, Rome was appointing its kings and much of its territory was annexed by the Parthians. The Romans fought the Macedonians in Three Wars (214-148 BC). In 148 BC, the Romans triumphed and the kingdom of Alexander the Great became a vassal state of Rome. In the fourth and final Macedonian War, the Romans were again victorious. Corinth was sacked and this marked the start of Rome’s domination of Greece. By 146 BC, only the Greeks in Bactria and India retained power.

Conclusion

The Hellenistic Age was decisive. It saw the end of the city-state system and mainland Greece was politically marginalized. Hellenic civilization dominated, influencing peoples from the Western Mediterranean to India. The era saw stunning achievements in the arts, philosophy, and technology. Cosmopolitan societies arose — very reminiscent of the current age.  While Rome ended the Hellenistic Age, they were also its heirs.

References:

Boardman, John The Oxford History of Greece & the Hellenistic World 2nd Edition Oxford University Press, 1988.

 

Archaic Age Greece: Foundation of Classical Civilization

by December 16, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

We are all familiar with the achievements of Classical Greece. The era produced great art, philosophies, and political systems that still influence us to this day.

However, the Classical period was born out of the Archaic period, dating from the 8th century BC until the second Persian invasion (480 BC). This is the era when Greece emerged from the Dark Ages.

It was also a period that transformed Greece, laying the foundations for not only the Classical age but all of Graeco-Roman Civilization.

The End of the Dark Ages

The 8th century BC saw several rapid socio-economic changes in Greece. International trade revived, and many Greek communities began to specialize in products for foreign markets. This, in turn, encouraged the development of a new economy based on money, and this new economy grew. At the same time, more arable land came under cultivation, and the population grew rapidly.

The era also marked important cultural changes, such as the introduction of a new alphabet based on the Phoenician model. This led to the development of written Greek literature based on the oral tradition. It was at this time that the Homeric epics were written down and Hesiod wrote his didactic poem, Works, and Days. Lyric poetry also emerged, with Sappho and Pindar leading the way.

In the 6th century BC, poetry contests in honor of the god of wine led to the first dramatic performances in Athens. It was during the Archaic period that Greek literature began and in which some of its greatest works were produced.

A scene from Euripides’ Bacchae, ancient Roman painting, House of Vettii, Pompeii

Increased international trade led to greater cultural exchange, producing more realistic and naturalistic sculptures. The growing need for vessels to store food spurred advances in pottery, and this became a Greek art form. Decorated earthenware, often portraying mythic scenes, became extremely popular all over the Mediterranean. Also at this time the Greeks revived the Olympic Games, which continued uninterrupted for a millennium.

The Age of Colonization

Due to overpopulation, many Greeks were obliged to look for new lands. Colonists set out to look for new opportunities, and Greek outposts were soon established in the Black Sea area and as far as Spain. These communities maintained their cultural identity, and their settlements soon grew into towns and even cities. The Archaic period saw the expansion of the Greek world. Some colonies, such as Syracuse, went on to play a key role in the development of the Hellenic world.

Greek trireme

Military Reforms

The Archaic period saw changes in the way the Hellenes engaged in conflict. Growing prosperity ensured more soldiers could afford armor. The hoplite, or heavy infantryman, came to dominate the battlefield for centuries. The phalanx was developed. New naval technologies also came into play, producing the first triremes, or warships. These allowed the Hellenes to dominate much of the Mediterranean.

The Growth of Cities

One of the key developments of the Archaic period was urbanization. The Greek polis, literally “city,” came into being. In some places, such as Athens, the polis was the result of several communities coming together. The polis led to the development of the city-state. Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Sparta all developed as cities during the Archaic period.

Increasingly, the inhabitants of the new cities saw themselves as citizens of the polis, instead of identifying with a tribe or clan. This new urban lifestyle produced important cultural and social changes. To govern the new cities, constitutions and laws were developed. The Greeks developed the art of politics and the basic principles of law.

Solon

Portrait of the poet and legislator Solon of Athens (circa 640-c. 588 BC). Painting by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), 1828. Picardie Museum, Amiens, France (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Politics of the Archaic Age

While rural Greece was controlled by elites, in the cities — due to the breakdown of tribes and clans — classes emerged. This doesn’t mean that the rich, who were often members of the old aristocracy, didn’t try to dominate the polis. Many city-states, such as Corinth, were dominated by oligarchies that used their wealth and prestige to maintain power. The poor were oppressed, and some were even enslaved due to debts.

Meanwhile, the rising class of traders wanted a greater say in the government. This led to increasing social and political unrest. In Athens, Solon the lawgiver issued reforms aimed at diffusing tension by addressing inequality.

Not all Greek cities did likewise, opening the door for populists to come to power in many urban centers. Cypselus, for example, seized power in Corinth in 655 BC. These populists became tyrants in many Greek cities, including Athens. However, they were not tyrants in the modern sense — rather, they ruled by illegal and non-traditional means. Indeed, the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus did much to improve the city and was a patron of the arts in the 6th century BC.

However, many became corrupt over time and the population became restive. Those who served as hoplites in the army wanted more power. This led to the growth of democratic ideas in many cities— ideas that would lead to the widespread adoption of democratic ideas in Athens and elsewhere in Greece in the 5th century BC.

Greece in the Archaic Age

Power and Politics in the Archaic Age

The Archaic age saw the rise of the two powers that would dominate the Greek world. Athens became a serious military and naval power. Sparta fought three wars with the Messenian, who inhabited the southwestern Peloponnese, eventually dominating and enslaving them.

In order to maintain control over growing territory, Sparta developed a society based on military principals and became the greatest land power in the region. By 550 BC, it had dominated all of the Peloponnese. The Archaic period thus saw the emergence of these two powerful Greek city-states, whose rivalry and cooperation would determine the politics of the Hellenic world until the rise of Macedonia.

Conclusion

The Archaic period was crucial to the civilization of Greece. It was a time that saw the emergence of Hellenic literature and art. The growth of cities transformed the lives of people and led to the development of politics and the law. The Greek military saw innovation and expansion, and the Greeks colonized many parts of the Mediterranean. What they achieved in the Archaic Age laid the foundations not only for the glories and achievements of Classical Greece, but also that of the modern world.

References:

Grant, Michael (1988). The Rise of the Greeks. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Gargin, Michael (ed.)  (2010) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.