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The Top 8 Greatest Inventions of the Mycenaeans

by August 3, 2021

By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
This month’s Classical Wisdom Litterae Issue is dedicated to the Mycenaeans! Get a subscription and learn more about these fascinating Bronze Age people HERE.
Who were they?
The Mycenaeans are often regarded as the first Greeks. They were the descendants of the first Neolithic farmers who settled in what is now Greece, and they were influenced by the Minoans. They developed cities and kingdoms, and in the late Bronze Age, these developed into a spectacular and sophisticated culture and civilization (1700-1100 BC). Their states were based on vast palaces and ruled by kings known as wanax. The Mycenaeans controlled the Peloponnese in Greece and eventually occupied Crete and the many Aegean Islands. Their influence was felt as far away as Cyprus and Asia Minor. The Iliad and the Odyssey, two of the most celebrated works on ancient literature, depict the Mycenaeans and their wars. Yet in about 1100 BC the Mycenaean culture had collapsed, for reasons that remain unclear. It was possibly due to natural disasters, foreign invasion, or civil wars. Here are some of their greatest achievements…
1. Mycenaean Architecture
The Mycenaeans were great builders and they engaged in some of the largest construction projects in Europe before the Roman Empire. These Bronze Age Greeks profoundly influenced the development of Archaic and Classical Greek architecture. The Mycenaean megaron, or palace complex, were monumental royal residencies that were enclosed by massive walls. These massive structures had porches, a vestibule, halls and arched corbel galleries. These were all elements that were extensively used by later Greeks. The Mycenaean Palace greatly influenced the evolution of the Classical temples and public buildings, which have significantly influenced the development of Western architecture.
'The Mask of Agamemnon'
‘The Mask of Agamemnon’
2. Mycenaean Engineering
The Mycenaeans were also great builders. Archaeologists have found that they were among the first to build stone bridges in Europe. They were also the first European civilizations that developed flood defences and even terraced agriculture. Sadly, however, much of their engineering knowledge was lost during the so-called Greek Dark Ages.
3. Mycenaeans factories
The Mycenaeans were also the first European Bronze Society who developed large scale manufacturing. These were much more advanced than other Bronze Age European cultures. They had large scale enterprises that made textiles, pottery and metalwork that were exported all over the Mediterranean World.
4. Mycenaean Writing
The Mycenaeans developed the first form of written Greek. This script is known as Linear B, and it was influenced by the mysterious Minoan script known as Linear A. Archaeologists have found many clay tablets with Linear B. The script was mainly used for record-keeping and administrative purposes. However, the Archaic Greeks alphabet was not based on Linear B, but was based on the phonetic Phoenician alphabet. Yet phrases and words from Linear B do appear in the works of Hesiod and Homer.
Linear- B script on a baked clay tablet
Linear- B script on a baked clay tablet
5. Mycenaean Cultural Achievements
The Mycenaeans had many cultural achievements. Their religion played a crucial role in the development of later Greek mythology and beliefs. They worshipped the first known representations of Zeus and Poseidon. The origin of many Archaic and Classical Greeks religious practices originated in the Late Bronze Age culture. Mycenaean stories played a key role in the evolution of Greek mythology. The Iliad and the Odyssey are both probably based on Mycenaean stories that may have been once recited in the great palaces to entertain the wanax and his court.
6. Mycenaean Military armor
The Mycenaeans were a society of warriors, which is very well shown in the Homeric epics. The Mycenaeans developed a new type of helmet made out of boars’ tusks. They used their considerable metalworking skills to develop new types of armor which were very advanced for the time. The best-known, example of this is the Dendra Panolopy (1450 BC) which is a full-body suit of armor.
Mycenaean soldiers from a fresco c 1300 BC

Mycenaean soldiers from a fresco c 1300 BC
7. Mycenaean Military Revolution
Homer describes the Mycenaean armies fighting outside the walls of Troy. The aristocratic elite fought in chariots but the Mycenaean army was composed of heavy infantry, typically armored. They used long spears and round shields. The Mycenaean military equipment and tactics were very effective and probably influenced the development of the hoplite style warfare, which was used by the Spartans and Athenians to defeat the Persians in the 5th century BC.
8. Advanced shipbuilding.
The Mycenaeans were not only great warriors they were also great mariners. We can get a glimpse of this in the adventures of Odysseus. It appears that the Mycenaeans developed trade networks over the Mediterranean. They develop new galleys that were probably based on Minoan models. The Mycenaean ships had seats with rowers and sails AND were steered by triangle rudders. Their ships, which were very large for the time, decisively influenced Archaic age vessels.
Conclusions
The Mycenaeans had many remarkable achievements in architecture, engineering, military tactics and shipping. These Bronze Age Greeks also helped to shape the evolution of later Greek culture, which has profoundly influenced the modern world. Sadly, some of their achievements have been lost to us. Yet nevertheless, it can still be confidently said that Mycenaean Greece was one of the cradles of civilization.
References
Kelder, Jorrit (2005). “Greece During the Late Bronze Age”. Journal of the Ancient Near East Society: Ex Oriente Lux. 39: 131–179.
Chadwick, J., 1976. The Mycenaean World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Rise and Fall of the Mycenaeans, Classical Wisdom Litterae
If you want to learn more about the Mycenaeans, check out our latest, new-look edition of our magazine, Classical Wisdom Litterae. Get a subscription and learn more about these fascinating Bronze Age people HERE.

Can drinking ever be a virtue?

by July 22, 2021

We, here, at Classical Wisdom like to address the important stuff. We strive to tackle big issues, philosophical inquiries and historical investigations.
We also like to have a good time.
That’s why wine exists (in moderation, of course).
But it’s not just something to do… or consume… it’s been literally interwoven into innumerable cultures and histories… for thousands of years!
In fact, the earliest evidence of wine is from ancient China (7000 BC), Georgia (6000 BC), Iran (5000 BC)… and Sicily (4000 BC).

Pottery showing Dionysus drinking Wine

So it’s not like we are the first -or last- ones to enjoy a wee tipple… but as always, just because we have done something for a long time doesn’t mean we should continue to do so. Indeed, we should question the whys, wheres and hows of every major ritual. 
Which brings us to our philosophical inquiry of the day:
Is there an art to drinking alcohol? Can drinking ever be a virtue?
In turns out, the Renaissance humanist and neoclassical poet Vincent Obsopoeus (ca. 1498–1539) thought so.
Let me explain… In the winelands of sixteenth-century Germany, he witnessed the birth of a poisonous new culture of bingeing, hazing, peer pressure, and competitive drinking (actions that would make a frat boy blush!)
Alarmed, and inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love, he wrote The Art of Drinking (De Arte Bibendi) (1536), a how-to manual for drinking with pleasure and discrimination.
It’s a fantastic read – one that illuminates both the history of drinking as well as an important way to think about your favorite go-to drink. 
But don’t worry, you don’t have to find a rare book store or brush up on your Latin to enjoy this gem.
Fortunately for you, Michael Fontaine, Professor of Classics at Cornell University and one our Symposium’s Keynote speakers, has done all the hard work.
In How to Drink, Michael Fontaine offers the first proper English translation of Obsopoeus’s text, rendering his poetry into spirited, contemporary prose and uncorking a forgotten classic that will appeal to drinkers of all kinds and (legal) ages.
Arguing that moderation, not abstinence, is the key to lasting sobriety, and that drinking can be a virtue if it is done with rules and limits, Obsopoeus teaches us how to manage our drinking, how to win friends at social gatherings, and how to give a proper toast.
But he also says that drinking to excess on occasion is okay―and he even tells us how to win drinking games, citing extensive personal experience.
But wait! There’s More!
All Classical Wisdom Symposium Attendees will get an additional 30% OFF “How to Drink” as well as free shipping!

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