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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.

Timeline of Ancient Greek history

by October 15, 2019

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

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

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

Illustration of the Ancient Olympic Games

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

Solon before Croesus, By Nikolaus Knüpfer

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

Battle of Marathon map

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

Bust of Aeschylus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

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

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

by October 4, 2019

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

Bust of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian and general.

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

Origins of the War

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

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (1846)

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

The Plague

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

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

The Plague

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

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

The Corcyrean Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

The War Within

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

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

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

The Eternal City

by September 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artist’s Impression of Ancient Alexandria.

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

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

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

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.

The Birth of the Biography

by July 5, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of Thucydides

Painting of Thucydides

What springs to mind when we think about literature of the Ancient World? Maybe it’s Homer’s Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector around Troy or Sophocles’ Oedipus stabbing out his polluted eyes. Perhaps it’s Plato’s Socrates holding forth or Herodotus’ Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. It even might be the dulcet tones of Sappho, the penetrating ones of Catullus, or the scathing superiority of Cicero.
Whilst the above mentioned epic poetry, theatrical drama, philosophical dialogue, historiography, romantic poetry, and private correspondence are all represented as well as appreciated, we give less thought to an area of literature that has never been more prevalent than it is in modern times.
It is the form of writing which is the savior for those wishing to buy lousy, last-minute Christmas presents; the biography.
painting of Aristotle

Aristotle, by Jusepe de Ribera, 1637

The beginnings of this genre are both fragmentary and fractured, as the writers of biography have their smudgy thumbprints all across the literature of antiquity. Consequently, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when ‘biography’ begins.
Fantastical as it may be, a case can be made for Homer’s Odyssey being an early antecedent. A more palatable comparison, however, can be found in early Greek dirges and funeral orations.
Sirens with Odysseus

Odysseus and the Sirens, an 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse

Likewise, the first historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, comprised elements of biography within their works, but these were (as in histories today) used for example, explanation and color. Essentially as a means, not an end.
Thucydides does get mightily close with his almost fanatical devotion to the famous 5th century Athenian statesman, Pericles; likewise with his depictions of Themistocles and Pausanias – two of the leading lights of the Persian Wars.
Statue of the Athenian General

Bust of Pericles

Thucydides’ contemporary Xenophon is sometimes credited with siring the genre. However, his Cyropaedia (life of Cyrus the Great) is more akin to Plato’s Republic or Polybius’ Book VI in that it has an agenda in promoting and justifying a specific form of government or political system.
Not surprisingly, it took the interference of Aristotle to change the way biography was approached.
His views on ethics prompted the rethink that deed was no longer the be-all and end-all of a man’s life, his character was now worth more than a mere footnote.
The reign of Alexander the Great, brief as it was (336-323 BC), was the next great catalyst which brought a spate of biographical works. Notably from Ptolemy I, the founder of the dynasty that would eventually (and incestuously) spawn Antony’s Cleopatra.

Anthony and Cleopatra on the Nile by Lawrence Alma Tadema

Some biographers, such as Onesicritus, dealt with how Alexander was brought up, rather that his personality or accomplishments. Ptolemy, however, focused on Alexander, the man, more than his exploits. Furthermore, Ptolemy contributed to the field of biography beyond his scribblings, he also created an ethos of scholasticism, most notably by establishing the Royal Library of Alexandria.
Then there was the memoir, the most self-indulgent and vainglorious form of biography, which was also in existence (even if not prevalent) in the Greek world.
When Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean both artistically as well as militaristically, the biography became exultant and, very often, ‘auto’.
This is thought to have been due to the importance of family, specifically of the reflected glory of noble lineage – a preoccupation that went far beyond familial pride. A Roman’s self-worth was intrinsically linked to the glory of his forbears, a concept that never failed to irk the novus homo, Cicero.

Cicero Denounces Catiline (1888), by Cesare Maccari

The fact that Romans paraded busts of prominent ancestors at funerals shows how much stock they put in…. well, stock.
Indeed, the death of a family member was a wonderful opportunity to pompously self-promote. It could even be said that the distastefully elaborate and lengthy epitaphs from the time were a form of biography in themselves.
In general, biography became an exercise not only in curiosity or narcissism, but also in duty and career advancement.
For example, Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Civili and Commentarii de Bello Gallico (chronicling his part in the Civil and Gallic wars respectively) best capture the imagination. Not merely because they were particularly subtle and sly in terms of self-glorification, but because they worked in advancing his political position – or at the very least, appear to have done. Well… until he was stabbed anyway!
Caesar Gallic Wars

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, by Lionel Royer

However, the precedent had been set, a tradition had begun. The emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Hadrian and Septimius Severus all wrote similar such books.
Marcus Aurelius, the great philosophical emperor, reached a zenith in this narrow field with his intellectually curious and stoic form of self-promotion. Indeed, it is thought there is nothing comparable to his introspection written by a native Latin.
It’s important to remember that in general, the biography was not merely a vehicle for glory, but for survival of both oneself and one’s state.
As the Republic was dying and the Empire forming, power seemed to be capriciously ebbing out of the hands of all those who briefly held it. With the stakes so unprecedentedly high, biography was used to defend, accuse, counter-accuse… it became the conduit, the desperate measure the desperate times required.
P.S. The Other Biographers
You may be amazed that the above article could have discussed ancient biography without even alluding to the contributions of men like Theopompus, Timaeus, Plutarch, Josephus, Tacitus, Sulla and Sallust.
The truth is that each of these fine exemplars of the art could easily have devoured the author’s weekly word-count without so much as a “how do you do”.
That said, the one glaring omission who deserves special attention (even in the context of why he has been ignored) is Suetonius.

A fictitious representation of Suetonius from the 15th-century Nuremberg Chronicle

Dealing with the lives of the leaders of Rome from Julius Caesar up to Domition, it is a work truly worthy of scrutiny. Indeed, it could be said (though I’m sure not entirely without detractors) that, when it comes to the biography of antiquity, Suetonius is even more essential than he is elegant and enlightening.
Rather than use my own paltry words, I will borrow from the foremost expert in the field, Christopher Pelling of Christ Church College, Oxford. Here he explains the impact and importance that Suetonius had in highlighting the un-oscillating swing that had occurred in the higher echelons of Roman politics:
“The style of the Caesars proved congenial as spectators increasingly saw Roman history in terms of the ruling personality, and biography supplanted historiography as the dominant mode of record”.
And this style, twinned with the introspection and inquisitiveness of Marcus Aurelius, are the ingredients that go into many of the biographies flying off the shelves today.