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Category Archives: Traditions

Demeter’s Daughters: Women of the Thesmophoria
By Mary E. Naples, M.A. In the indigo light of the early morning, wearing white robes and carrying torches, the
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Alcoholism in the Greco-Roman World
By Dale Vernor, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Binge drinking is nothing new. Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic Mesopotamian king who lived around
Read more.
The tainted glory of the gladiator
By Ben Potter The sun rises high over Rome’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, the mightiest arena in the world. Only the colossal
Read more.
Enhance Your Memory with this Ancient Greek Memorization Technique
By Wu Mingren, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the personification of memory. In ancient Greece, prior
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Kleos: Death and Glory
By Van Bryan Today we are traveling thousands of years into the past, to a time when the lives of
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Latin and Greek Bisexual Tendencies
By Ben Potter Right… how to put this delicately? Well, if you’ve experienced any recent anger thinking about a certain
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The Cave of Nightmares
By Francesca Leaf, Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly Partner – Learn more about Noet Here! In ancient Greece,
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The Symposium: All you need is love… and wine
By Ben Potter The next time you attend a symposium at your local learning annex, take with you a bottle
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Ancient Drunks and Winos
By Ben Potter “Quick, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something
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Saturnalia: The Party don’t Stop
by Anya Leonard Catullus (XIV) describes it as “the best of days.” Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let
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Demeter’s Daughters: Women of the Thesmophoria

by November 6, 2018

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
In the indigo light of the early morning, wearing white robes and carrying torches, the pious women ascended the hill to the Thesmophorion (sanctuary to Demeter) in observance of their three day long annual festival honoring Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone.
Were they chanting? Were they singing? We can only guess. They must have numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands—a procession—exalting to behold.
Considered the oldest and most widespread of all religious festivals in ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was a feminine-only fertility cult whose celebrations spanned from Sicily in the west to Asia Minor (present day Turkey) in the east and everywhere in between. Most scholars maintain that its ubiquity in the Greek world was testament to its primeval origins.
Painting of the Ancient Greek festival

The Thesmophoria (Ancient Greek: Θεσμοφόρια) was an ancient Greek religious festival, held in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Established, organized and engaged in by women, membership in the Thesmophoria was restricted to citizen wives in good standing; no maidens or female slaves were allowed.
Though strictly prohibited from attending the event—sometimes to the point of death—men, that is to say male citizens, were still responsible for the expenses related to its celebration.
Because of its deep cultural significance, on the second day of the Thesmophoria, all law courts and council meetings in the polis were suspended. Additionally all prisoners were released from jail. Women then celebrated the Thesmophoria away from their homes and families for a minimum of three days and nights. Ironically, although women’s place was on the margins of hyper-patriarchal ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was given prominence in greater society.
Thesmophoria Vase

Thesmophoria Vase

In order to understand the importance the Thesmophoria may have had in women’s lives, it is vital to discuss the role Demeter and her daughter Persephone play in the myth as their narrative has relevance in the feminine festival.
The story begins with an arrangement between Zeus—lord of the gods and his brother Hades—lord of the underworld, to kidnap Persephone and make her queen of Hades’ dark domain. Ignorant of their unholy alliance and in an effort to win her daughter back from the land of the dead, Demeter stops the seasons turning the earth into a barren wasteland.
Although Zeus pleads with her to make the earth abundant once again, Demeter refuses to relent until Persephone is restored to the light of her earthly domain. Ultimately, Zeus acquiesces to Demeter’s demands and orders Hades to release Persephone. But before Hades adheres, he lures Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed.
Painting of Persephone

Persephone and the pomegranate

The mere act of eating in the underworld, keeps Persephone as his wife in his domain for a few months each year.
At its most fundamental level, the Thesmophoria celebrated Persephone’s journey from her descent into the underworld to her resurrection and life on earth. At a symbolic level relating to agriculture, Persephone is a metaphor for the seed, which in the Mediterranean region goes underground or lies dormant in the summer months only to be released again for planting in autumn.
While we may never know how the citizen wives practiced their secret ritual, literary and archaeological evidence suggests that in one of their integral rites, citizen wives handled death in order to bring forth life.
How did the women embark on this critical undertaking? Previous to the festival, the members had elected two prominent women called bailers or anteltriai who were tasked with descending the deep hollow of the cavern or megara to remove its “sacred objects.” Because it was understood to represent the womb of Demeter, the cavern was a common chamber within the Thesmophorion.
Statue of Demeter

Statue of Demeter

The “sacred objects” were comprised of rotted piglets along with other objects believed to increase fertility such as dough cakes in the shape of male and female genitalia as well as fir cones.
Because of its fecundity, the pig was associated with Demeter. Likewise fir cones were used because pine trees were known to be prolific.
This newly born humus the bailers scoop up is symbolic of the power the citizen wives possess. Through Demeter, they are able to generate life in an exclusively feminine cycle. The “sacred objects” were then placed on the altars of the two goddesses and mixed with seed constituting what may be one of the first examples of composting. Plentiful humus was a favorable portent, indicating the goddess’ delight at the festival and insuring the strength of the seeds in the forthcoming sowing season.
While we envision ancient Greece as being the seat of Western civilization, for all its sophistication, it was still chiefly an agrarian society where most of its residents worked the land. But because the land tended to be non-arable, the Greeks found it necessary to have several fertility festivals throughout the year as a means of appeasing the gods and garnering control in order to encourage fertility.
And due to their ever-expanding empire, they needed an ample supply of men to maintain their military commitments, as well as women to produce the much-coveted male citizens.
As such, Demeter was the chief fertility deity who was honored for her role in both crop and human fertility, aiding the Ancient Greeks in increasing the wealth in their world.
Ultimately, the work of the citizen wives was done. Filing out processionally, the pious women descended from the Thesmophorion. Spectators lined the streets in order to watch them make their descent from the sanctuary. After all, they played a critical role as the health and prosperity of the polis rested on their shoulders.

Alcoholism in the Greco-Roman World

by October 17, 2018

By Dale Vernor, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient drinking
Binge drinking is nothing new. Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic Mesopotamian king who lived around 2,800 BC, is reported to have promised his workers “(a river of) ale, beer, and wine”,… which doesn’t exactly suggest moderation.
Indeed, most practices, beliefs, and attitudes linked to alcohol use date back to the earlier cultures… but that doesn’t mean its consumption didn’t change over time and between cultures.
Painting of Ancient Roman drinking

A Roman Feast; Roberto Bompiani (Italian (Roman), 1821 – 1908)

In both the ancient Greek and Roman world, alcohol was an important element often taken for pleasure, for social reasons, and for medicinal purposes. However, as the Roman Empire grew, drinking began to change. The Romans’ traditional values that were modeled on those of the Greeks—such as frugality, temperance, and simplicity—were slowly replaced by heavy drinking and other vices, including degeneracy, blind ambition, and corruption.
Drinking for Pleasure and at Social Settings
The manner in which alcohol, mainly wine, was consumed played a part in preventing or minimizing alcoholism in these cultures.
The consumption of wine was famously a part of the Greek Symposium, an important Hellenic social institution during which young men were introduced into aristocratic society. Men of respected families engaged in discussions and debates while wine was served.
Vase illustration of Greek drinking

Ancient Greek Symposium

The overseer of the Symposium, the Symposiarch, would decide how the strong the wine should be depending on the kind of discussions to take place. If the event was a sensual indulgence, it would be stronger; for serious discussions, it would be light. Both Romans and Greeks mixed wine with water because drinking pure wine was seen as a habit associated with uncivilized people.
At a Greek Symposium, women weren’t allowed and wine was taken after dinner. At the similar Roman Convivium, wine was served before, during, and after a meal, and women were allowed at the gathering.
When Drinking Got Out of Hand
While foreign visitors occasionally reported of “mass drunkenness”, overall the ancient Greeks were generally considered very temperate among ancient people. Perhaps this was because of their rules and literature that stressed moderate drinking, recommended diluting wine with water, and praised temperance. For instance, Xenophon and Plato spoke highly of moderate wine consumption because it was good for health and promoting happiness, but they were also critical of the habit of drunkenness.
painting of Greek drinking wine

Greek Wine, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

Nonetheless, there were exceptions, folks who believed in drinking to excess.
Take the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Followers of Dionysus believed that becoming intoxicated brought them closer to their deity.
The Macedonians also, among Greeks, perceived intemperance as a sign of masculinity, so men could drink to intoxicate themselves. Alexander the Great is a famous example, and may have died as a result of his habit.
A famous Macedonian drinker

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

Given these and other cases of excessive consumption, it is not surprising that the ancient Greeks had hangover remedies, such as taking boiled cabbage.
In contrast to the Greek ideal, the Romans had drinking habits that encouraged excessive consumption of wine, such as:
  • They began drinking before meals on empty stomachs.
  • They consumed excessive quantities of wine and food, and then vomited so that they had room for more.
  • They played drinking games, including one where somebody would drink as many cups of wine as a throw of a dice indicated.
Clearly, in the first and second centuries BC, it was not uncommon to encounter intoxication among Greeks and Romans. However, initially it was not a universal vice and famous people like Cato the Elder and Julius Caesar only took wine in moderation. As moral values associated with drinking continued to decay, the habit of excessive drinking became more widespread.
Alcoholism isn’t just a modern phenomenon; it was present during ancient times, too. Perhaps today’s alcohol use and abuse is a reflection and an extension of what happened in times before. It was and will be with us always…all that changes is how we deal with it.
Watered Wine anyone?

The tainted glory of the gladiator

by June 27, 2018

By Ben Potter
The sun rises high over Rome’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, the mightiest arena in the world. Only the colossal statue of Nero, which one-day will lend the stadium its eternal pseudonym, dwarfs it.
The 50,000 strong crowd of men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are tightly coiled; one giant organism ready to strike, to unleash their wrath or their joy.
Though they are not the only ones with the glint of attack in their eyes.
A flash of light leads to a clash of steel, a spray of sweat, a cloud of dust, and finally, brutally, a cascade of blood which unleashes a frenzied pandemonium in the stands…
Gladiator
Those cognisant of TV shows like Spartacus, films like Gladiator, or indeed, any example from the swords and sandals genre, will be familiar with images of perfectly formed behemoths attempting to heroically empty their comrades of their entrails.
Though, as we shall investigate, Hollywood has not quite given us the full picture. I know, I know… shocking isn’t it!?
To begin with, gladiators were not perfectly formed. Indeed, they would be considered overweight next to modern sportsmen. Additionally, bloodlust was a secondary consideration to poise and finesse, and in fact, most gladiatorial bouts saw the loser escape with his life. Finally, and, crucially, large parts of Roman society considered gladiators to be anything but heroic.
As for the famous quote in the title (“Those who are about to die salute you”), it did genuinely occur in the pages of Suetonius.
However, it was supposedly uttered by a group of condemned men in an attempt to curry favour with the emperor, and not, as Tinseltown would have us believe, by every gladiator who entered the arena.

Indeed, it is highly unlikely that any professional fighter ever said it.

But before we conduct our gladiatorial post-mortem in earnest, perhaps a look at the origins of the sport is in order. (Unpleasant as it seems, it’s hard to deny that it was a sport – complete with match day programmes and scalpers selling tickets!)
Fighting
As for the beginnings of gladiatorial combat, there is some dispute, though most agree it came out of the Italian peninsula… either from the Etruscans or Campanians.
What seems clear is that the games (ludi) were not intended to be the great public spectacle they later became. Instead, they were munera, a type of honorific spectacular dedicated to the spirit of a deceased ancestor.
What is really astonishing is how fast the event caught on. The first recorded munus was held in 264 BC, and within 200 years, their popularity and importance had become such that the Senate had to limit the size of the proposed munus of none other than Gaius Julius Caesar.
[N.B. Though if we compare how cinema has changed in only 150 years it is perhaps not so astounding.]
Even though the transition from munera to ludi was a gradual one, we can say with some confidence that by the time of Caesar, gladiatorial combat had mostly lost its connotations of filial duty. Instead, it had become a means of self-promotion and popular entertainment… and not just in Rome, but also throughout the rapidly swelling empire.
Gladiators
So what about the fundamentals of the games and, more importantly, the gladiators themselves?
A gladiator (from gladius, short sword) was the king of the sand, a mighty warrior, fiercely trained for one purpose only. He was a man of pride, dignity and above all else, discipline. He knew his life was forfeit and his only desire was to live and die with the stoicism and honour befitting his station.
Despite the fact that gladiators were the celebrities and sex symbols of their day, they were also so deeply despised that the very word ‘gladiator’ was used as an everyday insult. They had no citizenship rights, were buried only with their own kind, and could have their lives expunged at the whim of their lanista (owner/overseer).

Essentially, they were a de facto category of slaves.

The antipathy felt towards these subhuman supermen is partly because of the social make up of the gladiatorial class.
They were slaves of various origins: prisoners of war, citizens who had lost their rights or who couldn’t pay their debts, and various criminals from around the empire. Only if they were lucky, would they find their way into a ludus (gladiator school).
slaves
N.B. if they were unlucky they would merely be damnati (condemned to fight in the arena) or noxii (condemned to die a humiliating death in the arena). The difference being that the noxii would probably not be given weapons and their remains would be treated in a manner that would dishonour them for eternity.
All arenarii (people of the arena) were infames i.e. without rights or social status – a standing shared by prostitutes, pimps, actors and dancers. Gladiators, however, were both simultaneously far more lauded and reviled than any of these other controversial professions!
This was all very well for the impoverished, the enslaved and the criminal – indeed, many were happy to enter a ludus. It would mean good food (gladiators followed a high-calorie vegetarian diet), a roof over their head, and a potential to win money, freedom and that most intangible and strangely elusive of all things, fame!
Also, it got them out in the fresh air… which is nice.

The peculiarity, therefore, is not that many of the most desperate ended up in the arena, it’s that some of the more privileged actually volunteered for this ignoble and bloody fate.

Gladiators
Some scholars estimate that as many as half of all gladiators were volunteers (auctorati) by the time the games were at their height (1st century BC – 1st century AD).
But what really boggles the mind is that the lure of the games was so great that they even managed to entice aristocrats!
Indeed, it seems there was a significant minority of the noblesse who disgraced their family name, gave up promising political careers and disinherited themselves from great wealth. In fact, it was beholden upon Augustus, the moral champion of the 1st century AD, to make it illegal for the senatorial and equestrian classes to fight.
Despite the emperor’s absolute power, the prohibition seems to have had only limited success.
In addition, several emperors themselves are known to have stepped onto the sand. This created a bizarre paradox of a man at the top of the social ladder publically engaging in the most degraded and base activity possible within his own society.

Caligula

Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Caracalla, Geta and Didius Julianus were all said to have crossed that stark line of dignity during their respective reigns. This was particularly amazing for Didius Julianus, as he was only emperor for nine weeks!
It is almost certain that none of the above competed with any seriousness and were merely making a populist parade of themselves or indulging a boyhood fantasy. (Though it’s hard to blame them; if I had unlimited power I would certainly insist on playing ten minutes of professional football).
However, the most enthusiastic, and therefore most shameful, participant in ludi was Commodus, the emperor who you may remember from that film with Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe… the name of which escapes me.
Commodus
Commodus was capricious, cruel and conceited (even by the standards of emperors). He was said to have killed 100 lions in a day and must, therefore, have had some physical and technical proficiency to avoid looking wholly ridiculous in front of the crowd; especially as he styled himself as the reincarnation of Hercules!
Indeed, the masses would have let him know if he had been entirely ludicrous. The games were one of the few conduits for egalitarian outpouring.
It was commonplace for the public to heckle, not just the participants of the ludi, but the on-watching ruling classes. In fact, it seems the games presented the ideal (perhaps unique) opportunity to present a petition to a politician in front of witnesses.
Though the games were unquestionably popular, (relatively) cheap to stage and helped school both combatants and spectators alike in the arts of war, they eventually fell foul in the later empire as a result of Christianity.
As early as the third century AD, the Christian scholar Tertullian denounced the games as murder, as pagan and as human sacrifice.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the first emperor to prohibit the spectacle was Constantine in the 320’s AD.

Though this was with little success; it was necessary to again curtail or prohibit the games in 384, 393, 399, 404, and 438 AD. By this latter date the Western Empire was dissolving into various warring factions and tastes in the Eastern Empire seemed more focused on theatre and chariot racing.
One of the hardest things for a classical historian to understand is the mentality of both the spectators and participants of a gladiatorial combat.
Though it obviously plays up to our baser instincts and, like so much sport, creates a tribal mentality, it goes so far beyond the most violent spectacles available to us today.
Thumbs down
Regardless, there could have been nothing quite so dramatic, nothing that sent the heart aflutter and the limbs aquiver as the moment when a stricken gladiator raised a finger in submission, presented his neck to an opponent and all eyes turned to the editor (producer/sponsor) in whose hands the brilliant wretch’s life lay.
More than anything else, contemplating the bravery, daring and discipline of these ancient athletes only serves to highlight the egos, eccentricities and anti-social behaviour of their modern counterparts.
Despite doping, deflated pigskins, greasy palms and feigned injury, the worship, adulation and monetary rewards we bestow upon our physical elite shows no signs of abating.
Perhaps the Roman way is better, perhaps it’s a healthier approach: to marvel, to cheer, to applaud and goggle, but still, when the dust has settled and the blood has dried to remember that they are only mortal.
And much, much worse than that, that they are…yuck…entertainers!

Enhance Your Memory with this Ancient Greek Memorization Technique

by May 29, 2018

By Wu Mingren, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the personification of memory. In ancient Greece, prior to being written down, stories were recounted orally. Due to that, memory played an important part in the life of an ancient Greek storyteller. Thus, it is not too surprising that the concept of memory was given the form of the goddess Mnemosyne. In addition, the Greeks also invented ways to improve their memories. One of these was the Method of Loci, which was used for a long time in the Western world.
Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory
Mnemosyne was a Titaness / Titanide, who was one of the 12 children of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). Her siblings include Cronus and his wife, Rhea, Oceanus and his wife, Tethys, Iapetus, and Themis. Mnemosyne was also believed to be the mother of the Muses.
Mnemosyne

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of Mnemosyne. ( Public Domain )

According to Greek mythology, Zeus (who was Mnemosyne’s nephew) slept with Mnemosyne for nine consecutive days. As a result of this union, the Muses were born. These were the nine goddesses responsible for providing inspiration to those involve in literature, science, and the arts. The nine Muses and their respective domains are as follows: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (music), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (hymns), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy) and Urania (astronomy).
The Muses

Sarcophagus known as the “Muses Sarcophagus”, representing the nine Muses and their attributes. Marble, first half of the 2nd century AD, found by the Via Ostiense. ( Public Domain ) The Muses were the daughters of the memory goddess Mnemosyne.

A River and Palace for Memories
Additionally, Mnemosyne was the name given to a river in the Underworld. The ancient Greeks believes that before the souls of the dead are reincarnated, they would be required to drink water from an Underworld river known as Lethe. The name of this river means ‘forgetfulness’, and drinking from it would cause a soul to forget about their past lives. Conversely, the river Mnemosyne, which flowed parallel to Lethe, caused one to remember. According to the writer Pausanias, drinking from two fountains of water, one named Lethe, and the other Mnemosyne, was part of the rituals at the “oracle of Trophonios (Trophonius) at Lebadeia in Boiotia (Boeotia)”.
One of the methods invented by the ancient Greeks to improve their memories was the Method of Loci. This technique is known alternatively as the Memory Journey, the Memory Palace, or the Mind Palace Technique. According to the Roman orator Cicero, this technique was discovered by a Greek lyric poet by the name of Simonides of Ceos. Cicero goes on to relate a story in which the sophist was invited to present a lyric poem at a banquet in Thessaly. Shortly after he presented the poem, Simonides was called outside, during which the roof of the banqueting hall suddenly collapsed. The other guests were crushed to death, many of their bodies mangled beyond recognition.
Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen. ( Public Domain ) Cicero wrote the method of loci memory technique was was discovered by a Greek lyric poet by the name of Simonides of Ceos.

This made it difficult for the identification of the dead, which was required for their proper burial. By consulting his visual memory of where the guests had been seated around the banquet table, Simonides was able to identify the dead. It was from this experience that Simonides realized that it would be possible to remember anything by associating it with a mental image of a location, thereby developing the Method of Loci.
Visualization to Enhance Memorization
The Method of Loci relies on mentally visualizing the things that one intends to remember. These objects are placed in a particular order in various locations along a familiar route through a place, e.g. a city, house, workplace, etc. A mental journey with a starting and an ending point is made. Therefore, when you wish to remember, for example, a shopping list, or the points of a speech, you only need to go on this mental journey in order to remember each element. This memorization technique may be further enhanced by making the images more vivid. For instance, the mental images may be accompanied by mental smells and sounds.
The Method of Loci memorization technique was popular in the ancient world and was used up until the middle of the 17th century. It was eventually superseded by phonetic and peg systems. However, recent research has shown that the memory palace technique can be very effective.
As the Guardian reported:
“After spending six weeks cultivating an internal “memory palace”, people more than doubled the number of words they could retain in a short time period and their performance remained impressive four months later […] after just 40 days of training, people’s brain activity shifted to more closely resemble that seen in some of the world’s highest ranked memory champions, suggesting that memory training can alter the brain’s wiring in subtle but powerful ways.”
So, it may be worthwhile to create your own memory palace after all.

Kleos: Death and Glory

by September 22, 2015

By Van Bryan
Today we are traveling thousands of years into the past, to a time when the lives of gods
AchillesStatue of Achilles in Hyde Park, London
and men became hopelessly intertwined, when ten-year wars were waged for honor, and when the heroes of the age fought tooth and nail to achieve their kleos aphthiton (eternal glory).
That’s right, today we are talking about heroes. More specifically, we are talking about Greek heroes or tragic heroes; some of you may already know that those two things are one in the same.
To understand the Greek hero and, more importantly, kleos, we must first understand the Greek song culture and the role that lyrical poetry, specifically Homeric poetry, played in the lives of classical men and women.
Hero worship in ancient Greece was a cultural staple, and lyrical poetry was the medium through which stories of heroic myths were passed down through generations. The ancient Greeks would have understood the tales of Achilles, hero of The Iliad, or Odysseus, the namesake of The Odyssey, in the same way that the stories of Jesus Christ are known by much of Western civilization.
N.B. I’m not comparing Achilles and Odysseus to J.C. I’m merely stating that the overarching mythos of the Homeric characters would have been familiar to anybody from that age and culture in a way that the story of Jesus Christ is familiar to Western civilization and beyond.
Moving on…
So epic poetry was told, retold, and passed through the generations in the days of ancient Greece. It became something of a common thread within the ancient Hellenic society. For while Greece shared a common land mass, language, and religion, it was not one country.
The tradition of reciting the Homeric epics and retelling the tales of Achilles, Agamemnon and Odysseus would have been a shared cultural tradition through all of Greece-from Athens to Sparta, Crete to Corinth.
What Is Kleos?
Okay, okay. That sounds all well and good. The poor ancients didn’t have television or Xbox so they passed their time reciting Homeric verse. There are certainly worse ways spend an evening.
But let’s get to the question at hand. Remember, we were talking about the tragic hero and his, or her, pursuit of kleos. So, first things first. What is kleos?
The first thing we should recognize is that there is not an exact translation for kleos. It most closely translates to “glory” or, more specifically, “what people say about you”.
XXXTriumph of Achilles, by Franz Matsch
When it comes to heroic glory, kleos is actually the medium AND the message. Kleos was the glory that was achieved by Homeric heroes who died violent, dramatic deaths on the field of battle. However, kleos also referred to the poem or song that conveys this heroic glory.
The Iliad, therefore, is a type of kleos. It is the song of Achilles, the main hero of the epic who achieved eternal glory on the battlefields of Troy. Another name for the city of Troy was Ilium. This is where we get the name “Iliad”.
However, kleos is not just something that is handed to you. You have to pursue it, often at great personal sacrifice. Achilles is quoted as saying…
“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever (kleos): whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” –Achilles (The Iliad)
Here we get to a major crux of the Homeric epic. It is that all-important question for classical heroes. Do they die young and gloriously, and have their names live on forever? Or do they live long, humble lives, but die as anonymous old men?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at another Homeric hero, one that I’m certain you have never heard of.
In book XI, Homer takes something of a detour to tell us about the little known hero, Iphidamas. Here is a man who is an ally to King Priam and the Trojans; he was one of the first warriors to take up arms against the Acheans (the Greeks) when they set sail for Troy. He is also the first warrior to face King Agamemnon in battle.

“Tell me now ye Muses that dwell in the mansions of Olympus, who, whether
of the Trojans or of their allies, was first to face Agamemnon? It
was Iphidamas son of Antenor…”- Homer (The Iliad, Book XI)

Iphidamas’ part within The Iliad is short-lived. Agamemnon kills him and strips his armor from his body.

“…he (Agamemnon) then drew his sword, and killed Iphidamas by striking him on the neck. So there the poor fellow lay and slept the sleep of bronze, killed
in the defence of his fellow-citizens, far from his wedded wife.” –Homer (The Iliad, Book XI)

So, what’s the big deal? Iphidamas is just one more dead soldier in a great war? Why do I bother to bring him up?
The part you don’t know is that Iphidamas had been wed to a beautiful woman around the same time that the Acheans set sail for Troy. Given the choice to stay and live in newlywed bliss or go and fight the Greeks, Iphidamas does not hesitate to abandon his newlywed wife to fight and die in battle.
Why does he do it?
You guessed it, for kleos.
Achilles makes a similar choice. Prompted by the death of his comrade, and lover, Patroclus, Achilles sets off in a fit of rage to slay Patroclus’ killer, prince Hector of Troy.
He does this knowing full well that with the death of Hector will signal the coming of his own untimely demise. He presses on nonetheless. Achilles will not be denied his glory.
Why Do Heroes Need Kleos?
Some of you might be wondering what exactly is wrong with these ancient warriors. Achilles storms off towards his certain death when he could just as easily live a long life back home. Iphidamas leaves his loving wife, opting instead to die on the battlefield.
They did it for kleos, for glory. But why? Why was glory so important that these men would forfeit their lives to achieve it?
Now that really is the question.
The answer has to do with the immortalizing power of kleos. Achilles chooses his eternal glory, which would live through the centuries in Homeric verse, over his natural life, which is destined to end in death.
From the perspective of our modern culture, we might assume that stories of heroism are not as “real” as our own lives. The idea that we might live on forever in the hearts and minds of our countrymen does not have as much credence today as it did in the Homeric world.
After all, it was the great philosopher, Woody Allen, who said…
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
However, we must remember that ancient Greece was a song culture. The Homeric epics were not merely fiction. They were considered to be real. More importantly, they were thought to convey the ultimate truth-values of the ancient Greek culture.
XXX
To a Homeric hero, a glorious death was more important than a long life.
Achilles would have viewed his kleos, his eternal place in history, as being just as “real”, perhaps more so, than his actual life.
Also, the ancient heroes, more than anything else, strived to be god-like. The defining trait of gods is their immortality. Achilles, although he was born to immortal Thetis, a water nymph, is a mortal.
By achieving kleos, the hero, in a sense, achieves immortality. He is godlike, eternally glorious. His name will forever be remembered and recorded in the catalogues of human history. So now we come to understand the paradoxical idea that, in order to live forever, a hero must first die gloriously.

Latin and Greek Bisexual Tendencies

by August 17, 2015

gay marriageBy Ben Potter
Right… how to put this delicately? Well, if you’ve experienced any recent anger thinking about a certain Supreme Court ruling on civil liberties, or about Facebook’s colourful profile filters, or about J. K. Rowling’s revelation about Dumbledore, or by… listening to Elton John, then this may not be the article for you.
Equally, if you’re fine with all of the abovementioned things, but just don’t like reading about sex, then you too should perhaps sit this one out.
All cleared up? Do we still have one or two readers left? Good… on with the show!
Discussing homosexuality in the ancient world is a slightly trickier topic than it may at first seem for the very simple reason that it didn’t really exist! That’s not to say same sex relations didn’t occur, they did, constantly and copiously.
The point is that ‘homosexuality’ and, by its very acknowledgement, ‘heterosexuality’ are peculiarly modern phenomena that do not translate to the ancient world.
(N.B. ‘Homosexuality’ would not have translated to the greater part of the modern world; the term was only coined in 1869.)
If one wished to apply modern terminology to the ancients then one could say that most, if not all, men were some form of ‘bisexual’ (or at least imminently capable of bisexual acts), though as this implies sexual desire for both men and women, it too is misleading. Despite the ubiquity of such sex, there could be an immense amount of shame and humiliation involved in partaking of certain homosexual acts.
Confused? Well done if not! But bear with me for a moment and perhaps the waters will look a little less murky.
The key point about same-sex relations in the ancient world was not one of gender, but of social status and bodily violation (i.e. being penetrated).
Greek homosexualityThe sexual pursuit of young beautiful boys was considered common practice for Athenian men.
Athens was, as far as we know, the place where homosexual acts were most tolerated, where it was expected that adult, male citizens pursue beautiful, adolescent boys with the aim of being sexually gratified by them.
Even though a boy could be courted from the start of puberty, the age at which downy fluff first appeared on the cheeks was the most desirable – when a boy could develop a full beard or had hair on his buttocks was the point at which he lost his allure and began to enter the realm of men.
To pursue a social inferior, i.e. an adolescent, was perfectly acceptable, though a wooing process was necessary to win the favour of free citizen boys. That such boys were free to accept or reject such advances meant that the relationships they entered were probably a good deal more consensual than those of their sisters who could have been married off at the whim of their fathers.
For a man to have sex with male slaves or prostitutes was barely considered to be worth mentioning in terms of its effect on a man’s social status unless… and here is the crux of the matter… he himself was penetrated.
Being orally or anally penetrated was a source of great shame which could have serious social consequences for a young man. With this restriction in place, the accepted etiquette for bringing a more senior partner to climax could be through masturbation or, more commonly, through intercrural sex i.e. thrusting the penis between the thighs.
It’s difficult for us to comprehend that there was absolutely nothing wrong with a 15 year old boy having a close friendship with a 40 year old man and regularly gratifying him sexually. Even stranger is the idea that, should such a relationship even once boil over into oral or anal sex, then it could bring everlasting shame on the boy and damage his reputation, future career and marriage prospects – though would bring no shame whatsoever upon the penetrator.
A commonly-cited fallacy is that such relationships were not merely sexual, but of a higher order and that the elder man acted as mentor to the younger, improving his education and even, ironically, his morality. Even without examples of purely sexual relationships, and indeed of purely educational relationships without a sexual element, this argument has more than a whiff of ‘I buy Playboy for the articles’ about it.
pederastyIt might be considered naïve to think that intimate (and, presumably in some cases, loving) sexual relationships could strictly adhere to the ‘no penetration’ rule, and indeed this is almost certainly the case. However, the key point was not what actually went on in the bedroom (it was widely assumed that sodomy would have been part of the bill of fare), but what was publically spoken about.
This importance of this early foray into “don’t ask don’t tell” is highlighted by the story of Periander, the tyrant of Ambracia who publically chided a male lover by asking him if he was pregnant yet. The boy, who had presumably been willingly sodomised on a regular basis prior to this, responded by promptly murdering his lover and ruler; the only course available to restore his masculinity.
As seen from the example above, Athens was by no stretch an abnormality in its approach; similar behaviour occurred in most of the rest of Greece, parts of the Near East and certainly in Rome. The key difference for the Romans was that it was thought very bad form to sexually pursue a free-citizen (of either gender). This prohibition could, ironically, have actually increased the amount of sodomy going on, as there would be no qualms about having anal sex with male prostitutes or slaves (indeed, slaves were often purchased solely for this specific purpose).
One aspect of the shame of penetration actually goes with the pleasure of it. It was assumed that women enjoyed being penetrated and were ignoble for this very reason (or possibly vice versa). Thus, any man who derived pleasure in such a manner was a kinaidos, a pathetic feminine creature – there is no English word which transmits the same level of rancid shame.
And thus we come to the kinds of loves and of lovers. Of lovers there were two clear types: the older erastes (lover, pursuer, penetrator) and the younger eromenos (beloved, pursued, penetrated). The ‘love’ the erastes felt for the eromenos was eros (sexual desire), whilst the love of the eromenos for the erastes was philia (non-sexual love) or entirely absent. For an eromenos to feel eros for his erastes would have been wholly inappropriate and abnormal. Indeed, the reason pederastic relationships were not encouraged to continue into adult life was because an adult was driven by eros, therefore one member of an adult male/male relationship must be a kinaidos.
The older erastes would pursue the younger eromenos. That’s not to say such relationships didn’t exist, but would probably have been subject to public ridicule or, much more probably, conducted in a ‘discreet’ manner. Remember, the key point was what your lover said, not what they did. It seems that familiar preface to many homophobic sentences ‘I don’t mind what people get up to behind closed doors…’ was actually true in antiquity – possibly because you were doing exactly the same thing yourself!
As men dominated the public, political and literary arenas, obviously we have much more evidence for male/male sexual activity, but ‘lesbianism’, or more specifically, lesbian acts, are documented.
Plato and Ovid both matter-of-factly talk about women being sexually attracted to one another, while the Spartan poet, Alcman writes of women appreciating one another’s desirability.
SapphoSappho, depicted in a fresco painting in Pompeii
The geographically-eponymous Lesbian was, of course, Sappho, the 7/6th century BC poet from the island of Lesbos. Like with her male counterparts the only modern term appropriate for Sappho is ‘bisexual’, as she was not only married, but wrote passionate love poetry about both sexes.
It would be easy to assume, though impossible to confirm, that Sappho’s sexuality was nothing out of the ordinary as, despite her fame, nobody raised an eyebrow of objection about her writing until the ultra-conservative Augustan writers of the first century AD. That said, women who actually preferred women, rather than made love to them out of curiosity or necessity, were treated with suspicion.
(N.B. A delicious irony is that in antiquity ‘lesbian sex’ was actually slang for fellatio – a filthy and demeaning act.)
Cunnilingus as a sexual act was relatively benign or even irrelevant as, without penetration or the possibility of penetration, the struggle for sexual power lost its significance. However, tribads, women who penetrated other women (or even men) with a dildo or distended clitoris were grotesquely unnatural – it is conceivable that the toxic term kinaidos would be insufficient for a man who partook in such a reversal of natural, penetrative dominance.
It would be inaccurate to say that men and women in the ancient world were either gay, straight, bisexual or homophobic – none of the terms adequately reflect the sexual machinations of the time. Whether pederasty was a hangover from an ancient initiation rite, grew from a desire to make love to somebody educated (educational circumstances meant that most women would have been unable to make intellectual lovers), or was simply a matter of taste we cannot know.
What we are more sure of is that ‘homosexuality’ in the ancient world retained its character from the time of the Minoans (27th century BC) right up until the fall of the Western Roman Empire (5th century AD). So, although it would be very difficult to defend many aspects of homosexual (or indeed heterosexual) conduct in the ancient world, the fact that such behaviour has over 3000 years of tradition and longevity on its side might mean that, perhaps, it’s worth thinking twice before defending something purely because it can be said to represent ‘traditional values’.