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Epictetus: Philosophy as a Guide to Life

by December 6, 2019

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Stoicism was one of the most popular and influential schools of philosophy in the Ancient World. Indeed, it is still popular to this day and is studied in Universities. One of the greatest of all Stoic philosophers was Epictetus (55-135 AD), a man who, despite being subjected to slavery, was one of the greatest and penetrating minds of his time.
His Life
Epictetus was born in c. 55 A.D. in Phrygia (what is now Southern Turkey). Epictetus was either born into slavery or was, at some point, enslaved. There are records that show that he was owned by a powerful former slave called Epaphroditos,  who served in the administration of  Nero, and who, despite his lowly social status, would have been a man of considerable influence and power.
According to one story, Epictetus had been crippled by a cruel master, but others claim that he had been lame since birth (this is why he is often depicted as having crutches). Epaphroditos was by all accounts a kind master and even supported Epictetus in his studies. It was not uncommon for masters to arrange that their slaves be freed after their death, and so when his master died, it appears that Epictetus finally gained his freedom.
At this point, Epictetus became a teacher of philosophy. However, in 93 AD, Domitian expelled all the philosophers from the city of Rome. Epictetus was thus forced to go into exile, and it appears that he made his way to Epirus in Greece, where he would go on to establish a school of philosophy. Soon his school became famous throughout the Roman Empire.

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch.

Epictetus was a member of the Stoic school, which had been founded three centuries earlier by Zeno of Citium and which was very popular among members of the elite. The little we know about the life of Epictetus comes from the biography written by his pupil, the historian Arrian. It is claimed that several Emperors visited the former slave-turned-philosopher to listen to his words of wisdom. Despite being praised and admired by the elite, Epictetus himself lived a life of great simplicity and generally lived alone.
Epictetus’ Thought
Epictetus was a Stoic and he held that only through self-mastery could we live in accordance with nature. Self-mastery consists of the use of reason and living virtuously. Above all else, the philosophy of Epictetus was a practical one that sought to help people live a good and meaningful life.
Epictetus believed that philosophy depended on self-knowledge. In his works, the  Discourses and the Enchiridion, he emphasized that there are things that we can control—that which is in our power— and those we cannot—that which is not in our power. Self-knowledge means learning to discern just what those things are.

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”          ~ Epictetus, Enchiridion


Zeno Of Citium 336-264. Engraved By J.W.Cook.

According to Epictetus, we should only concern ourselves with those things that are in our power, and these include our  own thoughts and actions.  The ultimate aim of every man and woman is to live in accordance with the ‘Universal Harmony’ of nature. Epictetus believed that we have all been allotted a role in life, and so we must play our part. We cannot control the role we’re assigned or what is thrust upon us by fate, but we can control how we choose to react.

“You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer.”

He argued that we should submit to our fate and be thankful that we are alive. Being happy depends on how closely we follow the way that the gods have ordained for us. Epictetus argued that human reason is something that makes us akin to the Gods, who are rational. When humans are rational they are not only following the path ordained by the divine, but come as close as humanly possible to emulating the deities themselves.
Reason also plays another important role for Epictetus, namely in being the source of human freedom. We have the ability to make meaningful choices and we are responsible for our actions. Humans have the ability to develop the right opinions and to reject bad ones. This enables them to master their mind and emotions and live a happy and fulfilled life. Indeed, an individual is free only to the extent that they cultivated self-control and live according to reason. Only by mastering our emotions and examining our thoughts can we take control of our lives.
His Legacy
The philosophy of the former slave was enormously influential. Many believe that he formulated the most coherent and rational version of stoicism, one that offers real practical advice on the ethical life. He decisively influenced the great Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Chapter 1, page 1, of the Enchiridion of Epictetus, from the 1683 edition in Greek and Latin by Abrahamus Berkelius (Abraham van Berkel).

The Enchiridion was translated into Latin in the 15th century and became very popular. Many Christian humanists believed that the philosophy of Epictetus was compatible with the teachings of Christ, and both Pascal and Descartes were fascinated by his arguments.
The former slave’s thought played a role in shaping early Christian moral thought, it has been influential amongst those in the military and other armed services (as far back as Marcus Aurelius, whose Stoic reflections gave him peace of mind during moments of adversity), and, more recently, it has gained traction in psychology, with effective approaches to treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy becoming increasingly popular.
A full list of his legacy could go on and on. What stands out most, I think, is the way in which a former slave, freed as he was from his physical chains, sought to teach others that true freedom ultimately belongs to the rational mind, and that to have control over oneself is to be unconquerable.

“But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.”

Cato the Younger (95-46 BC)

by November 25, 2019

Cato the Younger played an important role in the Fall of the Roman Republic. As the leader of the optimate or Republican party, he sought to preserve the Republic and its institutions. While he ultimately failed, Cato was widely revered in the Classical age, and became to many a symbol of traditional Roman values and beliefs.
The early life of Cato the Younger
Cato was called the Younger to distinguish him from his illustrious grandfather, Cato the Elder, who had been the leader of the Conservative party of Senators and the driving force behind the political fall of the Scipios and the Third Punic War.
A bust of Cato the Younger

A bust of Cato the Younger

After the death of his parents, the young Cato was brought up in the home of his uncle Marcus Livius Drusus, a future tribune. Cato received a typical education for a member of the nobility, and from a young age, he studied Stoic Philosophy. His personal and political life was much influenced by Stoicism, a Greek philosophy that stressed reason and self-mastery. Above all, Cato was committed to the Roman Republic.
From an early age, he was noted for is stubbornness and bravery. While only a boy, Cato openly called for the death of the dictator Sulla when he overthrew the Roman Republic.
Cato the Younger served as a soldier in the war against the slaves led by Spartacus in 72 BC. He also served as a military tribune in Macedonia where he became popular with the common soldiers because he led from the front and shared their hardships. While he was a rather austere figure, he travelled widely and was familiar with Greek culture. Cato was also a fine poet and his poetry, most of which is now lost, were rated very highly by ancient critics.
A coin with the portrait of Cato

A coin with the portrait of Cato

Cato the Younger and Politics
Cato’s family was prominent in the senatorial elite, and it wasn’t long before the grandson of Cato the Elder became one of the leaders of the Conservative party. This was mainly because of his oratory skills; his speeches were very influential and were highly praised by Cicero. Moreover, he soon gained a reputation for honesty and for being incorruptible, which was most unusual at a time when Roman politicians were notoriously corrupt.
Rome was very unstable in 62 BC. Cato the Younger was among those who voted for the execution of the leaders of the Catilinarian conspiracy, who had sought to overthrow the Republic. This earned him the undying hatred of Julius Caesar, which was heartily reciprocated. Cato the Younger was an arch-conservative and thus opposed to the populist. He aimed to maintain the continuing domination of the old Senatorial elite and pushed back any attempts at reforms that benefitted the common people.
For instance, Cato the Younger resisted efforts by Caesar to pass legislation that would distribute land to the common people in Italy. He was also bitterly opposed to the plans of Pompey to resettle his veterans in Italy.
A bust of Julius Cesar

A bust of Julius Cesar

In fact, Cato the Younger’s hostility to the policies of the popular party helped to bring about the alliance between Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey, and earned him the role of implacable enemy of the First Triumvirate. In 58 BC, Cato the Younger was sent to Cyprus and successfully turned it into a Roman Province. However, his opposition to Caesar and his powerful allies made him many enemies and he was forced to retire from politics in 51 BC.
Civil War (49-45 BC)
Cato the Younger continued to write and study Stoic philosophy after his dismissal. However, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in defiance of the Senate, he came out of retirement. Cato knew that the Senate could not defeat Caesar and his veteran legions alone; they needed the support of Pompey. Cato was able to forge an alliance between the conservatives and the Pompeiians.
Pompey face

ca. 1st century B.C. — Bust of Pompey

While Cato the Younger was made the commander of the forces in Sicily, he could not hold the island. Later he joined Pompey in the Balkans, and was present at the great Battle of Pharsalus, in Northern Greece, where he witnessed the victory of Caesar. The Pompeiians and the Republicans fled all over the Mediterranean in the wake of this cataclysmic defeat.
Death of Cato the Younger
Cato the Younger fled to North Africa with a small force, where he and other Republicans managed to mobilize an army. However, in 46 BC, Caesar landed in North Africa and defeated the Republicans at the Battle of Thapsus. Cato the Younger, even after his defeat, refused to surrender to Caesar. He seized the city of Utica and defied the calls of the Caesareans to surrender. Despite the fact that it was apparent that further resistance was futile, Cato fought on. Only when the last of his forces had been evacuated to Spain by sea did he submit. Then, in accordance with his Stoic beliefs and Roman traditions, he committed suicide. Cato preferred death to dishonor.
The ruins of Utica

The ruins of Utica

The legend of Cato the Younger

After Cato’s suicide, his ideas lived on and he continued to inspire Republicans, despite Caesar’s victory. In particular, he was a great influence on the assassins of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Indeed, Cato the Younger had been the guardian of Marcus Brutus, perhaps the best known of the assassins.
Cato was in many ways an unattractive figure; he was stubborn, intolerant and grim. However, he was also an honest man who was dedicated to the ideals of Republican Rome. His commitment to Stoicism was exemplary and he did much to popularize this philosophy in the Roman Empire. To many, he became a model of virtue and represented all that was best in Classical Civilization. Later writers, such as Cicero and Lucian, praised him in their work, while Dante celebrated his memory in the Divine Comedy.

Holland, Tom (2005) Rubicon. London: Double Day

Xerxes: King of Kings

by November 22, 2019

By Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

In an age of heroes and gods, when priests in lofty temples decided people’s fates, there ruled a king who challenged the might of both the Egyptian and Greek empires. The grandson of Cyrus the Great, Xerxes became King, son of Queen Atossa and King Darius I, but his rule was not always so noble or successful.

Coming to Power

It is the year 486BC and King Darius I, the great Persian King of Kings, is preparing for another war with Greece. Unfortunately, at the grand age of 64, his health was declining and so from his royal palace in Persepolis, King Darius named Xerxes his heir. King Darius died shortly thereafter, throwing his heir Xerxes and Artobazan, his older brother, into uncertainty.

Artobazan, the first-born son, claimed the crown as his birth right. However, Artobazan was born to Darius by a commoner. The exiled Spartan king Demaratus advised Xerxes that Artobazan’s claim had no foundation; as it was Xerxes who was born to the King and Atossa, the Queen and the daughter of King Cyrus the Great.

This argument proved solid, Xerxes was hence recognised as the only legal heir to the throne of Persia, succeeding his father and being crowned sometime between October and December of 486 BC.


Persian Empire in the Achaemenid era, 6th century BC.

Thrust into War

With the crown placed on his head, Xerxes was immediately besieged with thoughts of war; of his father’s war with Greece, and with an uprising and revolts in Egypt and Babylon as a result of his father’s building efforts of the royal palaces in Susa and Persepolis.

The revolts were quashed swiftly by the might of the Persian forces, and this led Xerxes to appoint his brother, Achaemenes, as satrap over Egypt. But no sooner had the dust settled than Xerxes was thrust back into turmoil when he outraged his Babylonian subjects.

As King, he was required to grasp the outstretched hands of the golden statue of Marduk on New Year’s Day. Xerxes, however, had violently confiscated and melted this idol, which incited the Babylonians to revolt not once, but twice, in 484 BC and again in 482 BC.

With Egypt and Babylon back under control, Xerxes then returned his attention to his father’s invasion and punishment of the Greek mainland. This punishment was the result of interference during the Ionian Revolt of 499 BC to 493 BC.

greek vs persian

Persian soldier (left) and Greek hoplite (right) depicted fighting, on an ancient kylix, 5th century BC

In 483 BC Xerxes began preparing for his campaign. The Xerxes Canal was constructed, allowing them to store provisions through Thrace as it cut through the isthmus of Mount Athos. With two pontoon bridges across the Hellespont (today known as Dardanelles),

Xerxes was ready for war with his pan-Mediterranean army, with soldiers from Phoenicia, Assyria, Egypt, Thrace, Macedon, and many other Grecian states. Xerxes army was a force to be reckoned with; he was poised for victory.

A Twist of Fate

Yet, Xerxes’ mighty victory never came. Instead, according to Herodotus, his initial attempt was thwarted, not by an army, but by nature. A terrible storm swept through the isthmus and tore apart the pontoon bridges, demolishing the papyrus and flax cables that held the bridges together.

Xerxes, enraged, then ordered the Hellespont to be whipped 300 hundred times and commanded that fetters be thrown into the water. How this was going to punish the unruly weather is anyone’s guess, but it apparently worked, as his second attempt to cross was successful.

The Hellespont

A map of the ancient Hellespont, including ancient Troy (Ilium on the map) of Homer and Virgil.

This assault would come to be known as the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily, and its effect was to prevent any support from Agrigentum and Syracuse and forced Thessaly, Thebes and Argos to join the Persian side. It was a resounding success.

From here, in Sardis in 480 BC, that Xerxes would set out with the greatest the world had ever seen. Herodotus estimated the army to about one million in number, with the elite force known as the Immortals, so named, as their number was not permitted to drop below 10,000 men. The size of the Persian army has been given a serious review in modern times, with the estimated size being suggested at closer to 60,000 fighters. 

The Zenith of Xerxes

The battle at Thermopylae is well known by all historians and movie fans alike; the heroic tale of King Leonidas leading his 300 Spartan warriors. There in stony crags, they held back the onslaught of the Persian army but were ultimately defeated due to betrayal by a fellow Greek by the name of Ephialtes.

Xerxes assault on Thermopylae is the stuff of legends, so too was its lesson: when you hit a wall, if you can’t go through it look for a way around, under, or over it. Which is what he did by taking the secret pass through the mountains. Once through the mountains, the Persian army continued their attack and were aided by a storm that wrecked the Greek ships at Artemisium. Faced with this defeat, the Greek armies retreated.


David, Jacques-Louis: Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1814; in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Xerxes refused to slow his progress. His eyes were set on fulfilling his father’s punishment of the Athenians. The city, having been abandoned by its inhabitants for the island of Salamis, gave little defence.

With Athens in his grasp, he ordered its destruction; in 480 BC the city was burnt. The fires raged to such a degree that it left an indelible mark; a mark know by us today through an archaeological attested destruction layer, known as Perserschutt. Xerxes now controlled all of mainland Greece north of the Isthmus of Corinth.

The Turning Tides

Whether his pride took over, or he became so arrogant he would not listen to his advisors, Xerxes fell for a trap. The Greeks, under the Athenian general Themistocles, tempted the invaders into a naval skirmish in the Saronic Gulf by subterfuge. The plan was to block the narrow Straits of Salamis and cut off the Greek navy. 

Here, Xerxes’s navy was unprepared for the unfavourable weather conditions, and within hours the alliance of Greek city-states was able to outmaneuver and defeat the invading army. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greeks managed to overcome the Persians, as their ships were smaller and more agile in the tempestuous waters.


Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis [English: Battle of Salamis], Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868.

With his navy relegated to the bottom of the seafloor, Xerxes retreated to Asia with a large contingent of his army. He left Mardonis, a leading commander in his army, to complete the assault. 

However, this would not be so. The following year the remnants of the Persian army launched an attack at Plataea while the Persian navy attacked Mycale. Both of these battles were disastrous, with the Greeks scoring decisive victories. 

Rebuilding His Image

After the resounding defeat in Greece, Xerxes returned to Persia and focused instead upon completing the royal palaces at Susa and Persepolis, along with many smaller but highly detailed building projects within these complexes.

These achievements include the Gate of All Nations, the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, the Apadana, the Tachara, the Treasury, along with maintaining the Royal Road and completing the Susa Gate. 

While his military achievements were a mixed bag, his architectural endeavours were all successes, with some still in existence to this day.

Gate of Xerxes

The Gate of All Nations (Old Persian : duvarthim visadahyum) also known as the Gate of Xerxes, located in the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis, Iran.

Betrayal and Murder

The summer of 465 BC saw the king cut down, assassinated by the royal bodyguard Artabanus and a eunuch Aspamitres. The political figure, Artabanus, was the protector of the king but had been scheming for some time to dethrone the Achaemenids. He had placed his sons in positions of power and waited for the time to strike.

Xerxes murder was only part of the plan. Artabanus’ plot also involved murdering the heir, Crown Prince Darius. There are some contradicting accounts of exactly who was killed first, but the plot was successful. Both king and heir were dead.

Artabanus’ plan backfired though, and when prince Artaxerxes uncovered the plot, no doubt with the help of Megabyzuz who had switched sides, retribution was sought. Artaxerxes came after Artabanus and all of his sons. This decisive action, along with the defection of Megabyzus, is attributed with having saved the line of the Achaemenids.

Xerxes’ Impact

Xerxes and his achievements have been depicted for thousands of years. As early as Aeschylus and his play ‘The Persians’, Xerxes was being immortalised. George Frideric Handel’s protagonist Serse is based on the Persian king, and the Italian Poet Metastasio romanticised the story of the murder of Xerxes, Crown Prince Darius, and the ascension of Artaxerxes in the libretto of his Artaserse.

Denouncing Haman

Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahaseurus (1888), Ernest Normand (1857-1923)

Xerxes even appears in the Bible, where he was identified as King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, inspiring the painting Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahaseurus by Ernest Normand. He has also been portrayed in films (perhaps unflatteringly) such as The 300 Spartans (1962) and 300 (2006). 

Whilst his departure from the world was as abrupt as his ascension, Xerxes’ impact is undeniable. Without him, we would not have the incredible story of the courage of the Spartans under Leonidas, nor the Perschutt of Athens. We would be without the Gate of All Nations, or the Royal Road that would prove its value for generations to come. Xerxes’ life and reign was short by today’s standards, but his legacy has lasted, and will last, for millennia.

A Lion and a Fox

by November 8, 2019

Written by Brendan Heard, Author of the Decline and Fall of Western Art
When I was about twenty five years of age, I read Plutarch’s Lives. I did so because I came across it in a used book shop, and it had a nice leather bound cover, and because it seemed to be a history of the lives of some very interesting classical characters.
I enjoyed this tome immensely, reading all of the biographies therein.
Plutarch's Lives

Third Volume of a 1727 edition of Plutarch’s Lives, printed by Jacob Tonson

Yet, it was in the account of Alcibiades that I was particularly struck. Struck so intensely that I put down the book and was changed forever.
My thoughts for several days returned again and again to the events I had read, and I felt as though new perceptions of reality were breaking through the gloom of modernity, like light through a dense canopy of forest.
This is, I believe, something which happens to everyone who reads the classics.
You may do so out of some frivolous notion of adding to your retinue of knowledge. Perhaps you are obliging a quirky activity which might arm you with interesting talking points or insights on other world views. Often it is even just to be able to say that you read Aristotle or Virgil because it sounds romantic.
What you don’t expect when you undertake that adventure is the arresting, brain-altering impact of being exposed to the thoughts of classical authors.
You picked up Marcus Aurelius on a whimsy, and five pages in you become catatonically quiet—stupefied with admiration.
The clarity of their ideas, the romantic and primordial fire of their unrestricted opinions, forged in the furnace of the early ages of recorded history. This hits you between the eyes like a diamond bullet.
And this was the effect Plutarch had on me, at that specific time in my life.
I was deeply affected by his all-too-human portrayal of Alcibiades. The realization of a man’s ego struggling against the pitfalls of events thrown at him by destiny.

A Roman copy of a 4th century BC Greek bust of Alcibiades, in the Hall of the Triumphs, Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Resilience comes to mind. Resourcefulness. His life seemed a highly dramatic hamster-wheel of egotistically swaggering into outrageous scenarios, winning the day, then being run out of town for reasons related to that same ego.
You might say he was something of a freebooter. He was changeable as a survival trait. He showed tremendous courage and strategic ability, and died defending his home, a dagger in his hand.
A figure who shaped history—who is history—outrageous both in his exemplary traits as well as his character flaws.
Alcibiades was, even in youth, known to be very arrogant and held a high opinion of himself. He was famously handsome. He was well known for oratory and for an ability to win people over, a skill he employed throughout his life.
He also proved himself repeatedly as a shrewd and capable military commander. He was a pupil of the great Socrates, no less, who had also saved him in war. He was brought up during the trial of Socrates as an endemically corrupt character whom even Socrates could not teach morality.
Alcibiades vs. Pleasure

Jean-Baptiste Regnault: Socrates dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791)

His initial rise to prominence came from his aggressive manipulation in Athens to arouse conflict with Sparta. He did this through creative, conniving, influential oration, and outrageous double dealing.
Quite deviously he would meet with Spartan emissaries in private before their presentation to the Athenian assembly, convincing them with his charm to say something they didn’t intend at the assembly, so that he could then accuse them of capriciousness and foment ill will towards Sparta.
When he later rose to the status of a general in Athens, he was accused of blasphemy in the vandalizing of plinths dedicated to Hermes.
Whether he was actually guilty or not, history fails to relate.
What we do know is that these accusations were made just as he embarked on a Sicilian expedition as general and, being away, was unable to defend himself against public opinion regarding this blasphemy. Combined with his notoriety for questionable morals, the accusation grew into a fervor.
And so, while away defending his nation in war, he was condemned to death and his property was confiscated.
Many historians find it unlikely that he would have committed the vandalism attributed to him. It was most likely a case of rankling the feathers of various elites, a difficulty which plagued his life and career many times over.
Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior, but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made. And we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining but must scheme to extend it, for, if we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves. Nor can you look at inaction from the same point of view as others, unless you are prepared to change your habits and make them like theirs.
– Alcibiades’ Oration before the Sicilian expedition
rescued Alcibiades

Socrates Rescues Alcibiades at the Battle of Potidaea, 1797, Antonio Canova.

But those that sought his demise would not have to wait long to regret it, as clever Alcibiades employed strategy to the chess board of his life in all aspects, and all conditions.
While on campaign in Sicily (which, as usual, was going well for him) he got word that he was condemned to death at home. Without so much as batting an eye he switched allegiance and gave strategic information to the Sicilians, turning the tide of that conflict against the Athenians.
Here we find actions typical of Alcibiades.
You might say it was traitorous. But had they not unjustly deigned to kill him?
You might say it was extreme. But what else could he do that would both ensure his survival and enact revenge?
The unstoppable nature of this man’s survival instinct, where unblinking retribution is delivered with aplomb, against unjust antagonizations, itself due to the extremes of his character to begin with. The daring. The ridiculous gall. The power of personal will against dramatic twists of fate.
Whatever you think of his switching of allegiance, you have to admit the man was just quick on his feet when it came to saving his own skin!
After this turn of events, Alcibiades disappeared at Thurii. Then, unrelenting in his strategizing, he contacted those Spartans who he had spent his early career prejudicially scheming against. He did this, as Plutarch tells us, by “promising to render them aid and service greater than all the harm he had previously done them as an enemy”. This he offered in exchange for sanctuary.
The Spartans, desiring victory, welcomed this former enemy.
In this duplicitous scheme we see Alcibiades exhibit his ability to not only make grandiose propositions, but actually succeed at carrying them out. Wily enough to survive upon the eddies and currents of fate, a river in which we are all cast adrift. The spinning of the yarn of Necessitas, who sits above all divinity as unshakable destiny. And so, Alcibiades became then as a Spartan, living frugally, drinking the black broth in the communal dining halls.
And there too he excelled as a general and military commander. Somewhat typically, he favored unconventional tactics, frequently winning cities over by treachery or negotiation rather than by siege. As promised, he became a worse enemy to Athens than any other Spartan general.
Alcibiades: Can’t live with him, can’t live without him!
Our party was that of the whole people, our creed being to do our part in preserving the form of government under which the city enjoyed the utmost greatness and freedom, and which we had found existing. As for democracy, the men of sense among us knew what it was, and I perhaps as well as any, as I have the more cause to complain of it; but there is nothing new to be said of a patent absurdity—meanwhile we did not think it safe to alter it under the pressure of your hostility.
– Alcibiades’ Speech to the Spartans, as recorded by Thucydides (VI, 89); Thucydides disclaims verbal accuracy
But, as usual, this favorable situation was not to last for poor Alcibiades. In spite of his invaluable martial contributions to the Spartan cause, Alcibiades fell out of favor with the 18th Eurypontid king of Sparta, Agis II, who hosted him in exile on account of Alcibiades having seduced the kings wife, and possibly fathering a child with her.
Yes… you read that right.
A Spartan admiral was sent to Alcibiades on orders to murder him, but Alcibiades got wind of this and, in typical fashion, immediately defected to a new camp: The Persians.
Silver-tongued Alcibiades won the trust of the Persian satrap Tissaphernes and was well received.

Coinage of Achaemenid Satrap Tissaphernes, who received Alcibiades as an advisor. Astyra, Mysia. Circa 400-395 BC

He immediately did as before, and became a scourge to his former ally and host, enacting his revenge on the Spartans by using his knowledge of their cause to inflict immeasurable injury.
But among all this changing of allegiances the clever general became homesick.
His notoriety both in courtly influences and military strategy made him an asset to any welcoming kingdom. He knew democratic Athens would never agree to his recall after the charge of blasphemy.
So this man, this outrageous fellow, proposed to Athenian leaders that they not only allow his return to his homeland (which he had successfully warred against) and reinstate him, but that they also change their system of government and install an oligarchy to facilitate this. In return he would bring with him Persian money, triremes, and his personal influence with Tissaphernes.
Of course, this amazing proposal was agreed to. Such was his power, and the legend of his abilities, and his self-confidence. So Athens changed their system of government at his behest, and welcomed him back as a great general.
This was Alcibiades. What can you say of him? What can you make of this story?
However, during the war with Sparta, it became obvious that in fact he had no influence with the Persians whatsoever.
And so from that point on his authority in Athens depended on what he actually could accomplish rather than on what he had promised to do.
Fortunately, he did go on to have significant military success. But despite that, having misunderstood his standing with Tissaphernes, Alcibiades went to meet with the satrap only to be arrested upon arrival. Yet, typical of our swashbuckler, he was captured for only a month before escaping, and resumed his command in Athens, and went on to command many more defeats against Sparta and Persia, both his former accomplices in war.
Then Cyrus the Younger (son of Darius II of Persia) became the new ruler of Persia and began to financially support the Spartans. This turn of events finally led to Alcibiades’ defeat in a major battle and, combined with further false accusations brought against him by his enemies, his dethronement from a position of popular glory and exile once more.
He never again returned to Athens, but his removal and that of his allies (who happened to also be the most capable commanders in Greece) led to Athenian surrender only two years later, after their complete defeat at Aegospotami.
According to Plutarch, Alcibiades lived out the remainder of his days in Phrygia with his mistress Timandra, where he would later be killed on commands from the Spartan admiral Lysander.
Alcibiades died defending his home, which assassins had set on fire, rushing to meet his enemies with a dagger in his hand, where he was shot down by their arrows.
Alcibiades Death

La mort d’Alcibiade. Philippe Chéry, 1791. Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Rochelle.

He died as passionately as he lived, refusing to go down without a fight.
So, how can we sum up the dynamic character of Alcibiades, as related to us by Plutarch?
Certainly morally questionable (for a Greek) but indomitable, never failing to live fully, like a strong vine reaching for the warm sun. Full of life.
He was dismissive of safety and complacence where the opportunity for glory arose. His glory, or name, however, was secondary to his material survival. At no point did he appear to suffer from self-doubt or the pressures of custom, meeting both success and failure with a clever counter, always one-upping his enemies.
Alcibiades’ military and political talents frequently proved valuable but his propensity for making powerful enemies ensured that he never remained in one place for long. Whenever he fell out of favour it was partly due to his roguery and arrogance, and partly due to circumstance. It was hardly for reasons you might consider evil.
The actual lessons to learn from the life of Alcibiades rest not solely in unrelenting ferocity or personal courage. It is not just his flexibility in the face of unexpected troubles.
Rather, it is the root understanding of reality that we admire in classical thought and in much of classical philosophy.
It is the acceptance of the limits of nature, of her unquestionable authority. Acceptance that is tempered by an idealized exploitation of the possible, within nature’s guidelines.
This is the test of the limits of man’s abilities. The supremely creative, the cunning, and the courageous react as needed to not only survive but thrive within a labyrinth of unexpected obstacles, twists of fate, and traps.
We might summarize the lesson of his life as this: unrelenting artfulness, unshakable self-belief, and acceptance and tenacity in the face of nature’s never-ending struggle.
All of us need, from time to time, to make life changes. I was at a certain point in my life when I picked that book up, and at another when I put it down.
In the life of Alcibiades I gleaned the wisdom that nothing was going to happen in life unless I took action myself—unless I discarded that which was contrary to my nature, even at great social or personal difficulty, in order to enact what is vital to my nature.
Alcibiades being taught

Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates (1776), by François-André Vincent.

I promptly closed that book, and began discarding things that were impeding me from meeting uninfluenced instinctual goals. Goals not necessarily unusual, but nevertheless relatable only to me.
If you have a goal, and see unstoppable forces standing in your way, particularly social ones, they can be overcome.
It may come at a cost, all things do.
You will always have enemies, and you will always discover new ones where you least expected. But don’t surrender these primal goals in the face of either danger, disapproval, or short term loss.
When you go outside, and feel the deepness of the earth, and the cold pinpricks of rain and the sound of wind in the trees, the illusions of modernity are dispelled. The same can happen when reading classic literature.

5 Women Who Changed Antiquity

by October 2, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It’s no secret that women are vastly underrepresented in the historical record. Biographical information, even about some of the most prominent women like Cleopatra, is often gleamed from tangential accounts focused on male counterparts. Of course this doesn’t mean that women did not making massive contributions to arts, sciences, and way of life, it just means we have to dig a little more for a complete or even semi-complete image. While there are so many impressive and transformative women from antiquity to choose from, both for good reasons and bad, below are five women whose contributions sent shock waves through time.
1. Cleopatra

No list of influential women from antiquity would be complete without the mention of Cleopatra. Love her or hate her, her impact on the Egyptian and Roman worlds, as well as our own, cannot be ignored.
Cleopatra was born in 69 BCE and famously died on August 30, 30 BCE, a year after her and Marc Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE; Cleopatra’s failed attempts to maintain power. Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of Egypt and also the last of the Ptolemeic rulers. Growing up, she studied medicine, philosophy, rhetoric, and oration and spoke many languages including Greek, Latin, and Egyptian.

Cleopatra ascended to rule in March of 51 BCE alongside her brother and husband, Ptolemy XIII. After about two years, Ptolemy XIII was in a more powerful position than Cleopatra, with Pompey of Rome naming him the sole ruler of Egypt. The two rose armies against one another. Pompey was assassinated by Ptolemy’s camp, and Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt hoping to get the armies and Egyptian rulers to come to some sort of reconciliation. What resulted was the death of Ptolemy XIII in battle and the political and romantic alliance between Cleopatra and Caesar. Despite the fact that he was already married, Caesar and Cleopatra had a child together. While Caesar never officially claimed paternity, the name Ptolemy Caesarion left little room for question.
Caesar brought Cleopatra to Rome in the midst of rising political tensions. This, in conjunction with the way Caesar had been constantly and blatantly pushing the boundaries with regards to what was acceptable for a politician to do, led to his assassination in 44 BCE. Cleopatra returned to Egypt afterwards.

Anthony and Cleopatra on the Nile by Lawrence Alma Tadema

Once Marc Antony rose to power, he called for the rulers of regions under Roman control in 41 BCE, including Cleopatra. There, she plead her innocence and struck up a relationship with Antony, which produced three children. This was in spite of the fact that Marc Antony was already married to Octavia, sister of Octavian who eventually became the Emperor Augustus. The rivalry between Marc Antony and Octavian festered and eventually led to civil war, resulting in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE where Cleopatra and Antony faced Octavian and were defeated. Following the defeat, Cleopatra was going to be taken back to Rome as Octavian’s captive and no doubt paraded through Rome as a triumph. However, she asked for time to prepare herself and committed suicide via poison.
Cleopatra’s legacy is one that lives on in plays like Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Hollywood’s Cleopatra, and has captured the interest of the public for thousands of years. Her contributions to women’s rule, her ability to participate actively on the world political and military stage, and her sheer involvement in Roman and Egyptian politics on such an intricate level cements her as one of the most notorious women of the ancient world.
2. Livia (58 BCE – 29 CE)
Living in the same era as Cleopatra, Livia Drusilla was wife to Emperor Augustus and heavily impacted the process and succession of the Roman Empire during Augustus’ rule and immediately after his death.
Livia was married to Tiberius Claudius Nero before Augustus, to whom she bore two sons, Tiberius and Nero Claudius Drusus. In 38 BCE, (then) Octavian arranged for her divorce and then marriage to himself, which resulted in no children. Throughout Augustus’ reign as emperor, Livia worked behind the scenes, learning the ins and outs of the new government, and becoming increasingly aware that she wanted her sons to ascend to rulership upon Augustus’ death, even though they were not blood-heirs.
Interestingly, unfortunately, or coincidently- however you choose to see it- all of the legitimate heirs and close relatives of Augustus had either died or been exiled before his death, leaving just Livia’s sons as potential successors. Tiberius ascended to the position of emperor, and Livia continued to work on politics and state affairs until her death in 29. Additionally, Livia was a big proponent of the cult of Augustus after his death, and was instrumental in his deification. Tiberius resented his mother’s ambition, apparently, and drastically limited and reduced her influence and power, even in her will. Her grandson, Claudius, however, deified her in 42.
Livia’s legacy lives on as the first lady to the Roman Empire. She is often portrayed as cold and calculating, with some even going so far (in antiquity and in modern times) to suggest that she was the one who orchestrated the demise of all potential heirs except her own sons. However, this is nearly impossible to discern the truth. What we are unequivocally left with is an image of an intelligent, persuasive, and powerful woman who was able to stand alongside, but not in the shadow of, her male partner.
3. Agrippina the Younger
A few generations after Livia, her great- granddaughter Agrippina the Younger was carrying out dealings similar to that of Livia herself. She originally married in 28 AD a man named Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and together they had a son, the eventual emperor Nero. Ahenobarbus died in 40, and in 41 she was remarried to her uncle, the emperor Claudius. Emperor Claudius already had a son, Britannicus, but Agrippina convinced Claudius to officially adopt her son Nero, making it possible for him to be a legitimate heir. Claudius died, from what some early historians suspected was poisoning at the hand of Agrippina herself, and Nero did assume power at 16/17 years old.
Agrippina acted as the regent to Nero, but not for long. Nero grew annoyed with her domineering actions and exiled her. Agrippina and Nero grew into a bitter dissolution of their relationship, with Agrippina going so far as to say that Nero was not the rightful heir to the throne, but Brittanicus, Claudius’ legitimate son, was. Nero plotted his mother’s assassination, with one attempt sinking a boat that Agrippina evaded by swimming back to shore. Eventually, she was assassinated in her home.

Agrippina and Nero

Agrippina was perhaps the ultimate helicopter parent of the time. She so desperately wanted her own power, and saw her son as the perfect vehicle to attain it. She was strong willed, confident, and talented in the art of politics and persuasion. While she did prop up one of Rome’s most fatal emperors in Nero, her impact on the line of succession and the actions of Nero make her a notorious figure in the ancient past.
4. Hatshepshut
Traveling much further back in time than the Roman Empire, Hatshepsut of Egypt became pharaoh with full powers in 1473 BCE. She was the daughter of King Thutmose I and married her half brother, Thutmose II, when she was 12 years old. She acted as regent for Thutmose III, her stepson, upon Thutmose II’s death.
After 7 years, though, Hatshepsut took on the full powers and responsibilities of a pharaoh. This was unprecedented and many thought it was due to her own ambition to grasp at power. However, this could have been a political move to defend the throne and safeguard its stability against internal and external threats.
In some imagery, she was portrayed as male with a beard and musculature that would have worked as a piece of propaganda to try and legitimize her position. Hatshepsut took on extensive building projects in Thebes, engaged Egypt in lucrative trading ventures, and increased the wealth of the kingdom. She likely died in her mid-40s and was buried in the Valley of the Kings. Her stepson, Thutmose III continued his rule but eventually had all the evidence of Hatshepsut’s rule scrubbed from temples and monuments.
Until the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1822, this female Pharaoh was lost to history. Now, she exists as only one of three females in ancient Egypt who had received or taken full Pharonic powers.
5. Hypatia of Alexandria
So far, all these women have been politicians. This trend is mostly due to the fact that exerting influence to their husband or son politicians was easier than being allowed to learn and hone a skill or art. However, in the case of Hypatia of Alexandria, we have a great example of an ancient female mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher.
Hypatia was born around 355 CE and died March of 415 in Alexandria. Her father, Theon of Alexandria, was also a prominent mathematician and upon his death Hypatia aimed to keep up with his work. She produced major contributions to geometry, number theory, and astronomy.
Hypatia Illustration

Illustration of Hypatia of Alexandria

During her life, the city of Alexandria itself was in utter turmoil. Conflict between Christians, Jews, and Pagans plagued the city, and Hypatia’s perceived paganism and intellect ultimately proved to be the cause of her death. Peter the Lector, the leader of a Christian mob, attacked her carriage and dragged Hypatia into a church where they stripped her and beat her to death with tiles, upon which she was incinerated. Her legacy was eventually reclaimed by feminists, philosophers,and scientists alike. She has been held up as one of the last truly great ‘thinkers’ of the ancient world.

Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero

by September 19, 2019

Euripides Greek TragedyA lone figure, swaddled in rags sits secluded in a dank cave bent over his papyrus. The whittled reed in his hand dips rhythmically into the pot of octopus ink before adding a couple of urgent scratches to the thick page. His bushy, white beard is stained off-centre at the lower-lip, evidence of his habitual pen-chewing; but it is his mind, his mind that is stained far more indelibly. There are images of gods, war, warriors, adultery, incest, exile, blasphemy, damnation, infanticide, patricide, matricide, human-sacrifice, and worst of all, foreigners. These are the ideas, the dark and evil components of Greek tragedy, that this man, this Euripides believes are too… too… stock, too trite, too bedtime-story for the citizens of Athens. He knows that beauty is terror. “Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” (Donna Tartt)
Well… No. I’m afraid not. At least, we’ve no reason to believe that the man who produced, directed and wrote The Bacchae, Hippolytus, Medea, and Electra really was the tortured recluse, the artistic oddball, the Salinger or Kubrick of his day. We like to think this because, instead of merely putting a new spin on traditional Greek myths, he always managed to find an even more shocking way to deliver a tried and trusted tale. He could make heroes devils and devils heroes and all without forcing the audience to break their mental stride.

Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by
Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Yes, he may well have lived in a cave on the island of Salamis, but what better place for a writer to escape the distracting hustle and bustle of Athenian city existence?
Likewise, late in life, Euripides left Athens for Macedon in self-imposed exile. Was he frustrated at a theatre-going public who didn’t appreciate him? Or was it, more likely, a lucrative retirement where his talents were rewarded not only with money, but also with praise and status?
Painting of Hippolytus' death

The Death of Hippolytus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912).

After all it was these, praise and status, that seem to have alluded Euripides during his lifetime. Despite being considered by many today as the finest of the three great Athenian playwrights (besting Aeschylus for style and Sophocles for substance), he only won the first prize at the city’s premier dramatic contest, the Great Dionysia, four times during his lifetime and once posthumously.
You may be thinking ‘that’s not so bad – nobody ever won more than four Academy Awards for best director’, but if you compare his record to that of Aeschylus (13 wins) and Sophocles (20+), it seems a paltry return for a man of such insight, intensity and timeless genius.
Aristophanes - bust

Bust of Aristophanes

Don’t think however, that this modest return of gongs equated to a shortage of fame. A contemporary playwright, the comedian Aristophanes, made sure everyone in Athens, even those uninterested in tragedy, knew all about Euripides.
Aristophanes, along with other exponents of Old Comedy, used rumours about Euripides as material to create a comic alter-ego who was not merely joked about, but lampooned directly whilst appearing as a character in several plays.
Common jokes were:
  • That Euripides’ wife was having an affair with his lodger, who also happened to collaborate with Euripides in writing some of his plays.
  • That this cuckolding created in him such bitterness that many of his plays ended up propounding a theme of misogyny.
  • That he was an atheist and blasphemous towards the Greek gods.
  • That he was responsible for making tragedy less lofty e.g. whilst Aeschylus uses kings, gods and heroes as characters, Euripides uses beggars, cripples and the working-classes. And even when portraying kings they are clad in rags and slovenly.
  • That his mother sold cabbages in the agora – an early example of a “yo momma” joke i.e. “yo momma so poor, she sells cabbages in the agora”.
  • That he, like his contemporary Socrates, subverted the moral order of the day.
It is worth remembering that Aristophanes, like all comedians, was more concerned with laughs than with truth. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine that Euripides was from anything other than a high-class family and enjoyed a fine education.
Whether or not his wife was playing away, we do not know for sure, but anybody who closely studies his plays would find it hard to conclude he was a misogynist. In fact, even more than his great rivals, Euripides treats his female characters with great sensitivity and sympathy, as well as portraying them as independent and intelligent.
painting of Jason and Medea

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

Moreover, it is quite likely that Euripides would have actually been in the audience when some of these zingers landed, making the impact of the joke two-fold. First, as the audience appreciated what the actor said, then second, as the audience turned as one to the embarrassed, angry, or perhaps, laughing Euripides – much like President Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the Whitehouse in 2011.
One area where Aristophanes did not poke fun at Euripides was that of peace and war. The 5th century BC was a time of relentless fighting for Athens and both men used their art as a medium to criticise either politicians or the very nature of war itself. Indeed, it’s possible one reason Euripides was not a man appreciated in his own time was because of his unwillingness to slap a ‘support our troops’ sticker on the front of his programmes.
Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

Whilst accusations he was a pacifist were perhaps a little wide of the mark, both he, and Aristophanes, stood out as men who used their talents to campaign against the involvement of Athens in expensive, devastating and pointless military campaigns.
Much as Euripides’ attempts to win favour with the public were to no avail, his efforts to influence popular opinion on foreign policy matters were equally fruitless. Two years after his death, Athens fell to the Spartans.
The cradle of democracy never recovered its status as the leading light of Western civilization.
Euripides’ legacy is a theatrical, not a political one. He changed theatre from a vehicle for education and moralizing to one of doubt and introspection. Whilst it is his complexities, his ambiguities and his lack of conformity that brought him up against such resistance in his own time, it is perhaps those same qualities that keep him relevant and endear him to so many today.
“Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero” was written by Ben Potter