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Euripides, The Great Greek Tragedian
By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Euripides’ Early life Born on Salamis Island in 480 BC to mother Cleito
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Hesiod, a Poet of Agriculture and Peace
By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Long before Herodotus fathered History and did his best to chronicle the past
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Plato’s “Apology” And The Wisdom Of Socrates
“The Apology” recounts the speech Socrates delivers to the court of Athens that means to put him to death for
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Caesar and Alexander: The Story of Two Leaders
By Giuseppe Aiello, contributing writer, Classical Wisdom It is the year 69 before Christ. Gaius Julius Caesar, now more than
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The Much Beloved but Little Known Poet: Sappho
By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, and this
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Quintus Servilius Caepio: A Terrible General, but an Amazing Thief
By Richardson Akande, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom The History of the Roman Empire is embedded with war conquests by mighty
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ALL HAIL CAESAR
Just how far did the ruler push his own perceived mortality? By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Julius Caesar
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The Routes of the Roman Emperors
The Republic of Serbia is one of the states that made up the former Yugoslavia, which broke up in the
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Did Constantine Really Convert?
By NATALIA KLIMCZAK Constantine the Great is known in history as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. However,
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Thucydides Vs Herodotus: Which Historian Wins?
By Ben Potter There has been a great deal of focus on the differences between Herodotus and Thucydides. Both men
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Euripides, The Great Greek Tragedian

by November 17, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Euripides’ Early life
Born on Salamis Island in 480 BC to mother Cleito and father Mnesarchus, Euripides’ destiny was foretold in a prophecy given to his father. The Oracle fated that Euripides would one day hold the “crowns of victory”. Mnesarchus did not lose any time insisting that his son take on sports and athleticism, firmly believing that reaching fame in those fields was the boy’s destiny.
In the end, Euripides did crown himself with victories… but far from the track and combat fields.

Bust of Euripides

Euripides’ Career
Euripides led an introverted life and suffered two failed, unfaithful marriages to Melite and Choerine, with the latter bearing him three sons. Eventually he became a recluse and moved to the depths of The Cave of Euripides, a ten-chamber hole in the rock overlooking the Saronic Gulf. He spent most of his days there, collecting books, restless thoughts and writing accounts of his own life, or a perception of it, through his dark heroes and human-like Gods. There he produced notable tragedies such as: Medea, 431 BC, Hippolytus, 428 BC, Electra, c. 420 BC, The Trojan Women, c. 415 BC, and Bacchae, 405 BC.
Euripides was the youngest of the three most famous Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles and himself. Having in mind that they all were pretty much contemporaries, the rivalry, whether direct or perceived as one from the audience, existed then as it does today.
Cave of Euripides

The Cave of Euripides

Critical of Athens
Euripides lived in between two important wars. The first one was where Athens won against Persia at the Battle of Salamis, an important twist in the Greco-Persian wars. The second, which he did not live to see, was the fall of Athens under Sparta, a huge defeat in the Peloponnesian wars.
It is for this reason the works of the three tragedians looked upon Athens so differently. Aeschylus was a hero at the battle of Salamis, Sophocles was old enough to witness it and feel the patriotism as a result of the victory, while Euripides was born on the day of the battle. This timeframe made his views differ widely from his older colleagues.
Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides was a huge critic of Athens’ senseless heists and wars. And because of this, as well as his other views on Athens, Euripides was highly criticized. Ironically, the Spartans who planned the demolition of Athens and the enslavement of its people, grew merciful after being entertained at a banquet by scenes from Euripides’ play Electra. “They felt that it would be a barbarous act to annihilate a city which produced such men”, (Plutarch, Life of Lysander).
Euripides was a contemporary of Socrates, the philosopher sentenced to death for his critical views on Athenian democracy. Euripides was a man whose own perception of Athens was not far from Socrates’ and both of them were viewed as decadent intellectuals. There are some indications that say that Socrates was even one of the co-authors of Euripides’ plays. This explains why Athenians watched Euripides seriously, but never fully accepted his views. Perhaps, it’s no wonder why Euripides exiled himself to Macedonia at the decline of his life.
Painting of the philosopher's death

The death of Socrates

An excerpt from Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Other Plays (translated by David Barret) illustrates this:

“They sit at the feet of Socrates
Till they can’t distinguish the wood from the trees,
And tragedy goes to pot;

They don’t care whether their plays are art
But only whether the words are smart;
They waste our time with quibbles and quarrels,
Destroying our patience as well as our morals,
And making us all talk rot.”

In fact, Euripides became the main fodder for comedians. Euripides, unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, didn’t have any other job. He was a true tragedian, a dark comedian and a critic of society. Being fully aware of the consequences, Euripides chose not to comply, but rather, to continue.
However, Comedy and Tragedy live in symbiosis and without that critical, opportunistic complex, without Aristophanes mocking Euripides, we may have not heard of either of them.
Work and Achievements
Euripides introduced twists into drama, something that influenced tragedy, as well as comedy, for ages to come. He did this while exploring his characters’ feelings, their relationships and acts. He did not constrain himself, which allowed him to make breathtaking twists, teaching people to babble, to think, to see, to understand, to love, to contrive, to suspect all and consider things from every angle. Euripides’ sophistry, atheism, and immoral relativism was considered by Aristophanes as a corruption by the Athenians.
A perfect example of this is Euripides’ treatment of Medea. In some versions, the citizens of Corinth murder the children. In others, Medea accidentally kills her children. Euripides, however, decides to take it two steps further by making the mother purposefully murder her young after poisoning Jason’s new bride. Euripides’ invention of Medea’s filicide went on to become the standard.
painting of Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea – as depicted by John William Waterhouse, 1907

Euripides was a fruitful writer, producing more than 92 plays in his life. He was awarded five first prizes in festivals, while Sophocles won 24, and Aeschylus 13. Still, more of Euripides’ works were preserved than the other two writers combined, proving his posthumous influence.
Euripides became one of the cornerstones of ancient literary education in the Hellenistic period, along with Homer, Demosthenes, and Menander. Eventually, “It was Euripides, not Aeschylus or Sophocles, whose tragic muse presided over the rebirth of tragedy in Renaissance Europe.”
Euripides’ Death
Euripides died at the age of 74 (406 BC) in Macedonia after choosing a life of exile from Athens at the court of King Archelaus of Macedonia. This was never fully confirmed, however, and it is possible that he never visited Macedonia at all.
Nevertheless, we are dedicating our time to the master of twists, so we will add here one dark version of Euripides’ death from the mouths of the oldest Macedonian storytellers (Diodor):

“Euripides died in the following manner. There was a town in Macedonia called the village of the Thracians because Thracians had once settled there. At some point, a female Molossian hound belonging to Archelaus had strayed into the village. This dog the Thracians, as is their custom, sacrificed and ate. Accordingly, Archelaus fined them one talent. Since they did not have the money, they asked Euripides to get them released from their debt to the king.

Sometime later, when Euripides was resting by himself in a grove near the city and Archelaus came out to hunt, his dogs were released by their keepers and fell on Euripides. The poet was torn to shreds and eaten.
These dogs were the descendants of the dog that was killed by the Thracians. This is the origin of the Macedonian proverb, “a dog’s justice”.”
Euripides Greek Tragedy

Bust of Euripides

Euripides’ Legacy
Maybe the best way to summarize his Euripides’ legacy will be by using the words of Bernard MacGregor Walker Knox, an English classicist, author, and critic who was the first director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., USA:
“He was a problem to his contemporaries and he is one still; over the course of centuries since his plays were first produced he has been hailed or indicted under a bewildering variety of labels.
He has been described as ‘the poet of the Greek enlightenment’ and also as ‘Euripides the irrationalist’; as a religious skeptic if not an atheist, but on the other hand, as a believer in divine providence and the ultimate justice of divine dispensation.
He has been seen as a profound explorer of human psychology and also a rhetorical poet who subordinated consistency of character to verbal effect; as a misogynist and a feminist; as a realist who brought the tragic action down to the level of everyday life and as a romantic poet who chose unusual myths and exotic settings.
He wrote plays which have been widely understood as patriotic pieces supporting Athens’ war against Sparta and others which many have taken as the work of the anti-war dramatist par excellence, even as attacks on Athenian imperialism.
He has been recognized as the precursor of New Comedy and also what Aristotle called him: ‘the most tragic of poets’. And not one of these descriptions is entirely false.”

Hesiod, a Poet of Agriculture and Peace

by October 26, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Long before Herodotus fathered History and did his best to chronicle the past deeds of humankind, the true recorders of men and Gods were the ancient Greek poets, one of which was Hesiod.
Even though the exact time of his life is unknown, Herodotus’ estimation puts him (as well as Homer) around 400 years before Herodotus’ time, at circa 8th or 7th century BC.
It is hard to know the precise facts of Hesiod’s life, except what we know from his works. As such, we will delve into the poet of Agriculture and Peace through three important figures related to him.
Sculpture of Hesiod

Bust of Hesiod

Hesiod’s Early Life
First one is his father, Dius. A native of Cyme in Aeolis (modern day western Turkey), Dius was a seafaring trader and farmer, and generally a poor man. He was forced to leave his native place and move to continental Greece, settling at Ascra near Thespiae in Boeotia (as explained by Hesiod in his “Works and Days“). Dius had two sons, Hesiod, our poet, and Perses, a loafer and prodigal descendant of a hardworking father. After their father died, his land was divided between the sons, but Perses kept the larger share by bribing the corrupt rulers of Thespiae.
Mosaic of Hesiod

Portrait of the Greek poet Hesiod (ESIODVS) on the Monnus mosaic from Augusta Treverorum (Trier), end of the 3rd century CE.

It will be easy then to understand why Hesiod’s “Works and Days” revolved around not only myths and legends, but also two major moral precepts. Those are that labor is a universal virtue of Man and that he who is willing to work will always get by, both notions highly valued by the ancients. “Works and Days” also underlines advice and wisdom, emphasizing a life of honest labor, attacking laziness, corrupt rulers and the practice of injustice.
Hesiod and the Boeotian School
Works and Days” also lays out the “Five Ages of Man”, the first extant account of the successive ages of mankind. At this point, we start noticing Hesiod’s didactic approach to poetry, chronology, and to an extent, history. The latter of which was, in comparison to Homer’s romanticized versions of past events, respected.
painting depicting the five ages of man

The Five Ages of Man

This method was later classified as the Boeotian School of epic poetry. And it was the reason, according to the historian Herodotus, why Hesiod’s retelling of the old stories in “Theogony” became, in spite of all the various different historical traditions, the definitive and accepted version that linked all Greeks in ancient times.
Ancient Rap Battle: Homer Vs. Hesiod
Homer is the third important figure of Hesiod’s, not life, but heritage. If Homer was Dr. Dre, Hesiod was Ice Cube. Homer was all about his poems. He added drama and huge characters, all while romanticizing ancient Greece to the point that every other poet wanted to do the same, with equal effect and celebrated consequences.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

Hesiod, modest as he was, talked of ordinary life, the morality of human life, just systems and chronological order of events. Even at the moment of winning the tripod at the contest in Chalcis, Euboea, Hesiod only mentions in “Works and Days” that the only time he sailed in a ship was when he went from Aulis to Chalcis to take part in the funeral games for Amphidamas, a noble of Chalcis. Hesiod there was victorious and he dedicated the prize, a bronze tripod, to the Muses at Helicon. There was no mention of Homer.
But to realize how important both of these poets were to ancient Greece, one must look at the Legend of Certamen. It was a contest of wit and wisdom between Homer and Hesiod, where the latter emerged as the greatest. Even though there is no proof they even met each other, let alone confronted each other poetically at a contest, the fact that the legend exists is meaningful. Moreover, it is important to note why Hesiod was victorious at that apocryphal battle; his work on agriculture and peace is pronounced as more valuable than Homer’s tales of war and slaughter. And then and there, even if it was just a legend, the mic, or in this case the tripod, dropped.
Hesiod’s Death
sculpture of the muses

The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon.

The third important figure known to be part of Hesiod’s biography is a woman. She was not the Muses of Helicon, the ones who inspired all of his works. It was also not the Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, priestess of Apollo, who warned warned Hesiod that he would die in Nemea, which caused him to flee to Locris where he was killed at the local temple to Nemean Zeus, and probably buried there. The fourth figure is the woman he fell in love with, seduced, and eventually was murdered by her brothers as a result. His body, cast into the sea was brought to the shore by dolphins and buried at Oenoe.
Here, we will end the story of Hesiod with a description of his final moments, an epigram by Alcaeus of Messene:

“When in the shady Locrian grove Hesiod lay dead,
the Nymphs washed his body with water from their own springs,
and heaped high his grave;
and thereon the goat-herds sprinkled offerings of milk mingled with yellow-honey:
such was the utterance of the nine Muses that he breathed forth,
that old man who had tasted of their pure springs.”

Plato’s “Apology” And The Wisdom Of Socrates

by September 26, 2018

“The Apology” recounts the speech Socrates delivers to the court of Athens that means to put him to death for his odd practices. He is charged with “corrupting the youth and believing in strange gods” a crime that was punishable by death in ancient Athens. Socrates would have had some choice words for the man who had all the answers. Only a fool would truly believe that he had solved, absolutely, the mysteries of life.
So let us examine the wisdom of Socrates. Let us consider the true nature of wisdom. Let us consider what convictions are worth clinging to, even in the face of death. And for once, let us all concede that we do not have all the answers.
As a general disclaimer, before we delve head first into this, we must first recognize that “Apology” was not written by Socrates himself. It was put to paper by his disciple Plato. We must be careful of accepting everything Plato wrote without hesitation. Plato wrote his philosophical essays in the form of dialogues, where Socrates would often be used as a puppet to explain the ideas of Plato. It is difficult to decipher where Socrates ends and Plato begins.
Saying that, “Apology” by Plato, although being rather dramatic, is generally accepted as an accurate representation of Socrates and his ideas on wisdom and the prospect of death.
1. Socrates On Wisdom
At the opening of “Apology”, Socrates stands before a court of Athens as he faces his accusers who wish to see him put to death. His accusers are Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon, all prominent Athenians who were prompted by politicians, poets and craftsmen to pursue the death of Socrates. Socrates addresses the crowd witnessing his trial and assures them that the charges against him are “false” and “slanderous”. He claims that these charges were brought against him because he possessed a wisdom that was “peculiarly human”. What wisdom does Socrates speak of?
Socrates had recently been informed by the oracle at Delphi that he, of all men in Athens, was wisest. Socrates is very skeptical of this claim. How is it that he could be wisest when Athens possesses so many notable politicians, artists and poets? Surely there must be some mistake. So Socrates describes how he first would visit with the politicians of Athens. Surely if he were to converse with these notable men of government, he would find that they possessed great wisdom.
Socrates learned that the politicians, as is common with politicians, believed themselves to be very wise and the people as well thought them to be knowledgeable of all good things. Yet, they were not wise men. Socrates would try to show this to them, to shake them from their undeserved sense of superiority, and they would refuse him. The politicians would become angry at Socrates, and they would denounce him and send him away.
Socrates again spoke with poets and craftsmen of Athens. They all appeared to have some knowledge of things, yet they too believed themselves superior and unduly wise. They would also become angry with Socrates for his insistence that they really knew nothing. Socrates would then come to form his conclusions about true wisdom and the nature of being wise.
Wisdom is humility, accepting that we know very little or nothing at all. Socrates describes this conclusion when he states “I am wiser than that man. Neither of us probably knows anything worthwhile; but he thinks he does when he does not, and I do not and do not think I do”. Socrates is considered the wisest man in Athens by the Oracle, because instead of assuming he possesses wisdom, he accepts that wisdom is often unattainable and that we should instead continuously purse new and truer knowledge.
2. Socrates On Politics
So if Socrates is the wisest man in Athens, why does he not use this wisdom for the benefit of the city? He should enter politics and become influential within Athens, right? Socrates briefly tried his hand at politics. The philosopher, for a time, was the senator representing the tribe Antiochis. He oversaw the trial of several Athenian generals who were accused of failing to collect the bodies of fallen soldiers after a decisive naval battle. The generals were tried together, which was illegal, and they were threatened with death for their mistake. It was then that Socrates discovered a fatal flaw within democracy.
The crowd, as well as the city, overwhelmingly opposed the generals. In response, the other judges of the trial went to great lengths to ensure the deaths of the accused. In this way they would gain great favor with the citizens of Athens. Socrates found this behavior disgraceful. Although these generals had not upheld their duties, justice as well as Athenian law should declare that they were undeserving of death. Socrates cast his vote to save the generals and was met with political backlash. The citizens hated him, threatened his life and demanded his impeachment. Socrates stood firm in his commitment to justice. He declares, “I cared not a straw for death. My only fear was the fear of doing an unrighteous or unholy thing”.
Quote by Socrates/Plato
Despite Socrates’ attempts, the generals would be put to death. Socrates himself would quietly slip away from politics. Shortly after, Athens would encounter a brief political revolution and democracy would be replaced with an oligarchical rule. Socrates considers himself to have been saved by the oligarchical leaders who were not slaves to the desires of the people. From these experiences, Socrates has grown to distrust politics. It is a system that denies justice and virtue, and instead produces evil, greedy men who look to control the throngs of foolish voters. Socrates insists that he is better off lecturing in the streets, showing the citizens the path to wisdom and revealing true virtue in the process.
We must be careful at this point. Plato deeply hated democracy. “Apology” would have been written after the death of Socrates, who very much was killed through a democratic process. It is understandable that Plato would despise democracy for it’s role in killing his mentor and friend. It is possible that the dangers of democracy described here are actually Plato’s ideas filtered through the character of Socrates. We may never know for sure.
3. Socrates On Death And The Immortal Soul
During the course of the trial, Socrates begins to discuss the notion of death. His life very much is on the line, yet he seems to be unrepentant. He insists that if he were acquitted, he would continue his lectures, he would never denounce philosophy. Socrates shall not abandon his integrity and admit to these false crimes. He does not fear death. How can this be?
Death of Socrates

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

Socrates concludes that death is either a state of permanent unconsciousness, like a dreamless sleep, or death is a moving on of the spirit to another realm. Either would be taken as a blessing. If death is like a dreamless sleep, then it would be a great gain according to Socrates. Peace for the man and the soul, eternally and without interruption, would be something that even a king could not denounce.
And if death is a pilgrimage of the soul, then Socrates would gladly make that journey. He would look forward to meeting with the deceased who have gained fame for their great deeds. Would it not be magnificent to converse with the likes of Homer or Odysseus? Socrates could spend his time conversing with Agamemnon and Ajax from the Trojan war. In this new immortal realm, Socrates could continue his pursuit of wisdom and true knowledge. He could interview the ancient heroes and learn which of them are wise and which are fools. Death, perhaps, would be a welcome reprieve from life.
4. Socrates On The Purpose Of His Life
Socrates, by now, has been sentenced to die by a narrow majority. Instead of begging for his life, he recounts the purpose of his existence, standing beside his convictions until the very end.
Socrates tells us that it was not through chance that he lived the way he did. He was chosen by the Gods to stir Athens from it’s laziness and self assured contentment. Like a gadfly might urge a lazy horse, Socrates attempted to shake Athenians from their slumber. He has been divinely guided to pursue knowledge and to help others find true wisdom. All through his trial he has been given no sign from God to repent, to beg for his life. So he now concludes that it is a far better thing for him to be relieved from this mortal world. Socrates tells us that death is a noble and inevitable end for all men; living unrighteous lives, however, is a sin that will truly haunt the soul.
Quote by Plato
Socrates speaks to the audience and claims that “they will not easily find another like me”. And that Athens, for all it’s supposed wisdom, will ironically be remembered as the city that killed the wisest man of all. He remarks that even if he were given the chance to live, on the condition that he denounces his lectures and philosophy, he would still rather die. For the greatest life is the life that continuously discusses virtue, and explores the bounds of true wisdom. And the life that is unexamined, is not worth living. Socrates says his goodbyes to the crowd. He tells them that they must now depart. He must go to die, they must go to live. And only God will know which course is better.
As “Apology” comes to a close, I can not help but feel a sense of loss for a man I never met who lived in a time that I will never know. The first intellectual martyr of Western civilization, Socrates’ legacy would be long remembered and deeply loved. As I imagine Socrates saying goodbye to his friends in Athens, turning to face his death, I am reminded of the words of Charles Dickens from his classic novel “A Tale Of Two Cities”.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done
It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known

Caesar and Alexander: The Story of Two Leaders

by September 21, 2018

By Giuseppe Aiello, contributing writer, Classical Wisdom
It is the year 69 before Christ. Gaius Julius Caesar, now more than thirty, is located in Cadiz, the ancient Gades of Punic origin.
Here, one step away from the famous Gates, where the Mediterranean flows into the ocean, the Roman wanders around the temple dedicated to Hercules, the mythical Greek hero that had advanced far and beyond.
Suddenly, Caesar stops in front of the statue of another half-god, Alexander the Great, who died at the age of not yet thirty-three, in June 323 BC.
Plutarch, in his “Parallel Lives“, and Suetonius in the “Lives of the Caesars” tell us the incident. To those who asked for the reason for his subdued weeping before the effigy of Macedonus, Caesar replied that he could not suffocate his pain. On the one hand, he saw how at 32, the same age as himself, Alexander had left, dying, a boundless empire that he had created. On the other hand, Caesar felt he had not yet completed a noteworthy undertaking.
Caesar with the statue of Alexander

Julius Caesar’s encounter with Alexander the Great

The stroke of the thirty-second year for the two great Ancients, Alexander and Caesar, admirable icons of that historical era, was the end of existence for the first, and the beginning of an exceptional vital path for the second.
When the son of Philip II died, he left in the greedy hands of his successors a kingdom in which the sun rose on the Indus delta and set down diving into the Adriatic. Like hungry lions in contention with a great shred of fresh meat, Perdiccas, Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleucus, and the other Macedonian generals, divided the immense empire of Alexander among themselves.
Death took the Great when all that could be conquered had been subdued: Greeks, Macedonians, Phoenicians, Syropalestinians, Egyptians, Armenians, Persians, Indians … Myriads of men and women of different races and lineages lived in relative serenity, in the shadow of the royal mantle of the Casa di Pella.
The Greekization of distant worlds (worlds that the Hellenic themselves called “barbarians”) found its main vehicle in the Alexandrian army. Thanks to the eternal exploits of the Macedonians, the overflow of the Hellenic language, customs and intellectual systems mixed with lands, also rich in history, spontaneously producing that epochal phenomenon that we call “Hellenism”.
Empire map of Alexander

Map of Alexander the Great’s Empire

It was not a forced imposition, where the people were compelled to assume the characteristics of the dominator (thus repudiating their own). Instead, it created by an extraordinary osmotic process of mutual assimilation, in which the habits, laws, and costumes of the winners and vanquished mixed together. Producing a new reality, this development gave way to the flourishing of the Hellenistic age.
When, at the age of 32, Alexander left earthly life in Babylon and entered the universal myth, he had already given a full display of his military genius. The battles of Granico (334 BC), Isso (333 BC) and Guagamela (331 BC) have exceptional importance within the history of mankind.
Thanks to them, and the success of Macedonian weapons, the great Persian King Darius III Codomannus, enemy par excellence of the Hellenic world, was yoked to Alexander’s cart. The glorious lineage of the Achaemenids was extinguished.
Alexander, the son of Olympias and the sublime student of Aristotle, had led the Macedonian phalanxes to victory counting an age between 22 and 25 years: a prodigy of precociousness.
No human being, as Alexander, has given the impression, in the course of his existence, of belonging more to the genus of the gods than to that of mortals… and so he was recognized as divine.
Bust of Alexander

Alexander the Great

The crippled Caesar of Cadiz, in contrast, seemed at that moment to be fatally delayed on the road to imperishable glory. He was already a decade older than that young man who, at a little over twenty, had created a new world triumphing the bare and sandy plains of Asia. But at 32 years of age, Caesar was far from leading his legions into one of the great battles that would make his fame immortal. It wasn’t by forty years that he made the sword sing long and wide for the ecumene.
The Roman had not yet had the opportunity to show off his political and warlike genius. However, Fate and Fortuna would keep great things in store for him.
And so, where Alexander finished, Caesar began. Before the Roman, destiny possessed a further five decades of life, a period of time that he was able to fully exploit with a vigor, skill and mental lucidity that few other men have been able to show in the course of history.
The Triumvirate, the campaigns of Gallia and those against the Pompeians, the vicissitudes of Egypt alongside Cleopatra… the last decades of his star were certainly full of epochal events.
Painting of Caesar and Cleopatra

Caesar giving Cleopatra the throne

The time that Caesar enjoyed was relatively large: fifty-six years, of which the second half was vibrant and lived at large, all in an era in which the average expectation of a human being barely touched forty-five springs.
It was enough years for him to accomplish much of his purpose. It seems to us a pure dialectical exercise to hypothesize what else Caesar could have designed (and put into practice) if he had more time available, before the blades of the conspirators dramatically lowered the curtain on his life.
The works he performed were certainly extraordinary, and unworkable by any of his other contemporaries. Here is his imperishable greatness…and yet his work was profoundly human, linked to rational intentions and thoughts.
Alexander, on the other hand, reflects in himself the idea of the divine, and appears to us as a historical and temporal incarnation shaped by celestial forces. He is almost an unconscious executor of superior wills, indecipherable in the eyes of ordinary mortals. Pella’s young man dragged his earthly mission, driven by inexplicable motivation, unshakable dreams and boundless goals…all within a mere 32 years.

The Much Beloved but Little Known Poet: Sappho

by September 14, 2018

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of Poets Sappho and Alcaeus

Sappho and Alcaeus, By Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, and this date is often disputed, surprisingly little is known about the life of this beloved poet. The only reliable source of biographical information about Sappho comes from her own poetry. However it is often disputed if her writings were actually autobiographical in nature, or, as they performed in festivals and for large audiences, they were retelling stories and myths.
Additionally much of her writing has been lost to the ages. Indeed she was prolific in her time and wrote around 10,000 lines (about 2,000 less than the Odyssey), but today only about 650 lines survive.
This leaves us with little to no verifiable evidence about who this woman was.
Painting of Sappho in Pompeii

Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”)

Still her name has survived and her reputation as a gifted lyrical poet with it. She wrote extensively about love and passion for all peoples and for both sexes. She describes extensively emotional love between women and occasionally would write about sexual acts between women.
These discoveries have lead to the assumption that Sappho was a lesbian. The term “lesbian” derives from the name of her homeland “Lesbos” and the term “sapphic love” is derived from the poets own name. We may never know for sure if Sappho loved women, the love for women described in her poetry may have been entirely fictional. Sappho would write about other aspects of her life in the stanzas of her poetry, which led many to believe that she was in fact a lesbian.
Painting of Sappho with a woman

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, Solomon

However, in her own time period, she was not considered gay. Quite the opposite. In classical Athenian comedy (from the Old Comedy of the fifth century to Menander in the late fourth and early third centuries BC), Sappho was caricatured as a promiscuous heterosexual woman. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Hellenistic period (about three centuries after her death), that she was described as a homosexual.
Midway through the first century A.D., the Roman philosopher Seneca, tutor to Nero, was complaining about a Greek scholar who had devoted an entire treatise to the question of whether Sappho was a prostitute. Some ancient writers assumed that there had to have been two Sapphos: one the great poet, the other a very promiscuous woman. There is an entry for each in the Suda, the large 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world.
The truth is we can only draw conclusions from various scraps of poetry that have been attributed to Sappho. And they really are ‘scraps’. All of the surviving works by Sappho are partially destroyed, save for Hymn for Aphrodite. More than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments and the rest of the extant fragments of Sappho contain only a single word. Her poems are actually categorized as fragment 1- fragment 213. These fragments have been attributed to several books that the poet is believed to have authored during her literary career.
Vase of Sappho

Alcaeus and Sappho. Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily).

Recently, there have been major discoveries of more of Sappho’s poetry. In 2004, the Tithonus Poem and a new, previously unknown fragment was discovered, and in 2014, fragments of nine poems: five already known but with new readings, including the Brothers Poem, were found in an ancient Egyptian vase.
Even though very little of her work has survived, from what remains we can determine that Sappho was extraordinarily talented. She possessed a clarity of language and simplicity of thought that creates images that are sharply defined and beautifully constructed.
She wrote and sung in an Aeolian dialect, a type of Ancient Greek that was a pitch-accented language, a bit like Chinese is today. She used a rhythmic scheme that Sappho is said to have invented called the “Sapphic Stanza”. Each four-line stanza consists of three metrically identical lines, eleven syllables in length, followed by a shorter fourth line of five syllables.
Bust of Sappho

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original.

She was admired by other poets of her time. One Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.”
Solon, the poet, statesman and all around wiseman, asked to be taught one of her songs “so that I may learn it and then die”
The philosopher Plato wrote of her in the Anthologia Graeca, a collection of ancient poems by esteemed writers, when he states:
“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”
While much of her work has been lost, we still maintain enough poetry from Sappho to appreciate her skill as a poet and her importance as an ancient writer.

Quintus Servilius Caepio: A Terrible General, but an Amazing Thief

by August 21, 2018

By Richardson Akande, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The History of the Roman Empire is embedded with war conquests by mighty generals who were exceptional in the art of war. From the beginning of the Republic around 509 BCE to the peak around 117 CE, to the fall of Rome and the adoption of Constantinople as the new capital in 330 CE, war was an integral part of the Empire. Many of its generals were considered the best swordsmen that ever led the red legions.
However, not all generals were in the class of finest warriors in the Empire. In fact, many won reputations as horrible generals, but one man stands out as arguably the worst the Empire produced and he still stands as one of the most corrupt officers in the history of the Empire.
Quintus Servilius Caepio the Elder was a General and a Roman statesman. He was born in Rome to a noble family; he was the grandfather of Servilia and the father of Quintus Servilius Caepio the Younger.
Caepio promulgated a Controversial law
Illustration of an orator

An orator addressing the Roman People

He was consul in 106 BCE and during this time he enacted a controversial law. He was able to do so with the assistance of Lucius Licinius Crassus, a wonderful orator who convinced his fellow Romans with his linguistic skills. The law mandated the jurymen to be chosen among Senators, canceling the old order where jurymen were from the Equites, which were the property-based classes of ancient Rome, ranking below the senatorial class. Fortunately, the controversial law was suspended around 104 to 101 BCE, by Gaius Servilius Glaucia, who was a wonderful Roman and returned normalcy to the system.
Plundering of the Cursed gold of Tolosa
Apart from the law, controversies were a Siamese sibling of Quintus Servilius Caepio. Several occurred while he was on his way to Arausio (modern day France) with his legions in order to fight the Cimbri, a Germanic tribe of brave warriors.

Gaul – Arausio, by Jean Claude Golvin

First, Caepio decided to plunder the sacred temples of Tolosa, which is in the city of Toulouse. The myth at the time told of a semi-legendary sacred treasure, the famous aurum Tolosanum, which was assumed to be cursed gold taken from the Balkans during the time of the Gallic invasion.
It is on record that Caepio, in all his wisdom, stole 50,000 fifteen-pound gold bars and no less than 10,000 fifteen-pound silver bars.
Lake with gold

Boums Lake located in Haute-Garonne, one of the places suspected to house the cursed gold

The wealth of Tolosa was supposed to be shipped to Rome, but the General had a better idea: only the silver made the journey. The gold was stolen by a band of marauders, who were believed to have been hired by Caepio himself.
Then, while still on his way to the battle of Arausio, Caepio refused to share camp with General Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, a member of Novus homo, or ‘new man’ – a class that didn’t belong to the Roman elite.
Caepio, however, was born into a family of elite Romans and therefore felt Maximus was inferior to him.
Despite Caepio’ feelings, Maximus was a smart officer who knew when to strike his enemies dead or embark on negotiations. With the Cimbri, Maximus decided on the latter.
General Maximus

General Gnaeus Mallius Maximus’ Image

When Caepio learned that Maximus was at an advanced stage of negotiations and truce was about to be agreed upon, he moved his legions on the Germanic camp – feeling that no doubt his ‘inferior’ was going about it all wrong and that attack was better than truce. It was a terrible military decision.
He attacked the Cimbri forces on 6th of October, 105 BCE, and the Cimbri army brutally destroyed legions of Caepio’s army. With this decisive victory, the Germanic army felt confident enough to march on Maximus’ camp. Although Maximus tried to ready his soldiers, it was not enough to repeal the fierce Cimbri army.
The outcome was a devastating experience and the casualties were staggering, over 80,000 infantry lost their lives as well as more than 40,000 auxiliaries and calvary. The figures dwarf the tragic defeat at Cannae. Indeed, the Battle of Arausio ranks among one of the worse defeats that early Roman Empire suffered.
Roman defeat

The battlefield where over 120,000 Roman soldiers were killed

Caepio managed to escape unharmed, but on getting to Rome, he was tried for the excessive losses of his troops by the Tribune of the Plebs. His old accomplice Lucius Licinius Crassus defended him with his oratory skills, but in the end Caepio was handed the worse punishment in the empire…
He was stripped of Roman citizenship, denied fire and water within 800 miles of Rome, and was barred from speaking to his family and friends until exile. Finally, he was fined a whopping 15,000 talents of gold, more than the value missing under his watch.
He somehow managed not to pay the fine, and instead lived the rest of his life in exile at Smyrna, located in Asia minor, living in affluence and enjoying the loot from the missing gold of Tolosa. He even passed the wealth to his children…
Caepio might not have been a good General, he didn’t add any new territories to the Roman Empire, but he managed to write his name in history as an amazing thief.