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Why Alexander Invaded

by June 21, 2019

By Cam Rea, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A famous Macedonian drinker

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

Alexander of Macedon, more widely known as Alexander the Great, is one of history’s most famous conquerors. Many historians, poets, and writers have been mesmerized by his conquests. The enthralling images of Alexander’s actions has built an everlasting romantic impression of the man.
But while most talk of his invasions and exploits, you never really hear or read why he invaded the mighty Persian Empire in 335 BCE in the first place.
The Roman historian Arrian tells us that Alexander set out to conquer Persia as an act of revenge for past wrongs. Alexander addresses this in his letter to Darius stating: “Your ancestors came into Macedonia and the rest of Greece and treated us ill, without any previous injury from us. I, having been appointed commander and chief of the Greek, and wishing to take revenge on the Persians, crossed over into Asia, hostilities being begun by you.”
But was it really all about revenge or was there something more to it… is it possible that Alexander just needed money?

Alexander the Great

It’s true that most books discussing Alexander’s invasion of Persia say revenge was the main motivator, payback for the Greco-Persian Wars of the past. All the same, it is rather odd that Alexander would all of the sudden decide to mount his horse and lead his army into the lands of Persia, especially since the war had been over for more than one-hundred years.
However, there is another passage that our Roman historian Arrian provides. Apparently, Alexander gave a speech at Opis in 324 BCE when his men mutinied for a second time, and in it he furnishes us with an interesting statement as to why he declared war on Persia, that being money.
Alex coins

Ancient Greek Coins depicting Alexander the Great

“I inherited from my father a few gold and silver cups, and less than 60 talents in the treasury; Philip had debts amounting to 500 talents, and I raised a loan of a further 800.”
But there is a bit of backstory first. See, Alexander’s father Philip had already set his eyes on Persia and was preparing an invasion force, but was assassinated before he could carry out his objective. With his death, Alexander was left with a semi-professional army, a fighting force paid directly by the king himself.

Portrayal of Alexanders Army

In order for Alexander to afford this army, he had to either disband a portion of it to save money, risking much in doing so, or go on the march to salvage his kingdom. In the end, he choose to save his kingdom at another empire’s expense. Essentially, Alexander needed to pay the bills by conquering and confiscating Persia. It was a risky investment to say the least.
As the early 20th century intellectual Randolph Bourne once stated: “War is the health of the state.” Indeed it was, for Alexander was the state and war was his business. Therefore, revenge was evidently not Alexander’s motivator.

Randolph Bourne

Instead, revenge was just a facade to expand political means in order to fill his coffers. Once Alexander had enough means, and his treasuries overflowed, he could continue the unrelenting, perpetual war until the entire known world was his.

Hippocrates The Father of Medicine

by May 20, 2019

Hippocrates the father of medicine

Engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Hippocrates embodied the perfect doctor: kind, wise, old, knowledgeable, with a long beard and profound wrinkles around perceptive eyes. At least that is what we’d like to think. While his fame was such to warrant a mention from the likes of Plato and Aristotle, not much is actually known about Hippocrates the father of Medicine. Consequently, he has become the projection of what people ideally want in a physician.
What we do know is that Hippocrates was born on the Greek island of Kos around the year 460 BC. He was a strong proponent for medicine, even when it was opposing the infrastructure of Greece. As a result he endured a period of twenty years inside a prison where he authored many famous medical works, such as The Complicated Body.
Beyond these details, however, much of exactly what Hippocrates wrote or said is unknown.
Despite this, Hippocrates is attributed with a great many wonderful deeds and thoughts. He is recognised as the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine, a college that revolutionized the understanding of medicine in Ancient Greece. Many of the invaluable lessons prescribed in that place of learning are assigned to Hippocrates. If that was the case, then it truly was Hippocrates, with his approach to healing and the role of the doctor, that influenced western medicine for thousands of years.
The Hippocratic Oath

HippocraticOath – The Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of around seventy early Greek medical works associated with Hippocrates and his teachings

The most famous of his supposed contributions is the Hippocratic Oath, which bears his name accordingly. It was this document that first proposed an ethical standard among doctors when doing their work. It brings up important concepts we still use today, such as doctor-patient confidentiality.
The document reads: “What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself holding such things shameful to be spoken about.”
This code of honesty was only part of a larger parcel of a subscribed behavior and lifestyle. One of the lasting prescriptions of Hippocrates was a detailed manner of professionalism, discipline and rigorous practice that changed the face of the budding industry.
Doctors should be well-kempt, serious, understanding and honest. They should have a clean room and instruments for their work, and follow through with precise techniques for bandaging and splinting. It even goes so far as to dictate the maintenance of fingernails.
Doctors should be clean

Doctors should be well-kempt, serious, understanding and honest.

Furthermore, the Hippocratic school imbued physicians with the importance of meticulous observations and clinical documentation. Hippocrates himself apparently made considered and careful notes of patients’ symptoms, including pulse, fever, complexion, pains and excretions. He included family history and environment in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the individual’s situation.
It states in “On forecasting diseases” that: “First of all the doctor should look at the patient’s face. If he looks his usual self this is a good sign. If not, however, the following are bad signs – sharp nose, hollow eyes, cold ears, dry skin on the forehead, strange face colour such as green, black, red or lead coloured. If the face is like this at the beginning of the illness, the doctor must ask the patient if he has lost sleep, or had diarrhoea, or not eaten.”
Using the above tactics, Hippocrates, and his followers, were the first to accurately  describe and analyse some medical conditions. This included determining the clubbing of fingers, sometimes referred to as “Hippocratic fingers”, as an important diagnostic sign in chronic suppurative lung disease, lung cancer and cyanotic heart disease.
Hippocratic fingers

Hippocratic fingers – also called “Nail Clubbing”

His methods for treating hemorrhoids, in addition, are still used today, though, thankfully, with more sophisticated instruments.
Finally, parts of his work in pulmonary medicine and surgery have not been improved upon since Ancient Greece. Hippocrates was the first documented chest surgeon and his techniques, while crude, such as the use of lead pipes to drain chest wall abscess, are still valid.
Some essential elements of Hippocrates’ teachings, however, have not continued into our present day.
Hippocrates belonged to a school of thought which emphasized prognosis above diagnosis. This meant doctors predicted outcomes based on statistical data, rather than discovering the exact problem faced by the ill individual.
Hippocrates philosophy also focused more on patient care and the “healing power of nature”. The idea was simple enough: nature, rather than the doctor, does the most healing. It is the job of the physician then, to not get in the way, but rather facilitate the recovery process with proper nutrition, cleanliness and sufficient rest.
“Primum non nocere. (First do no harm)”
This was fairly successful at the time and can be clearly demonstrated with the example of a broken leg. Rather than interfering with the bone’s natural ability to restore itself, the physician should set up a brace or splint to help the patient maintain an immobile position.
The Hippocratic Bench

A drawing of a Hippocratic bench from a Byzantine edition of Galen’s work in the 2nd century AD

This passive treatment was effective for relatively simple ailments, but was the source of serious criticism over the subsequent centuries from more modern doctors. For example, the French physician M. S. Houdart called the Hippocratic treatment a “meditation upon death”.
While the future of medicine went on to follow the opposing system of emphasizing diagnostics, there was another monumental contribution of Hippocrates the father of medicine. He is credited with being the first individual to believe that diseases were a naturally occurring phenomenon, rather than the result of gods or superstition. He argued that people got sick from environmental factors, like diet and lifestyle, rather than a punishment inflicted by the gods.
This separation of medicine from religion made the entire study of disease, and its potential cures, possible. Is this what made Hippocrates the ideal physician? Offering cures over prayers? Or was it his attention to detail and professionalism which he brought to the industry? Or was it his ethical standards and morality when dealing with patients? Either way, the man who founded the Hippocratic school brought a whole new light and level to the field of medicine, saving who knows how many lives along the way.

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian King

by April 10, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Alexander III of Macedon is perhaps one of the most notorious figures to come out of the ancient world, for better or worse. Born in Pella in 356 BCE to the King Philip II, it seemed destined that Alexander the Great follow in the family business of military campaigns and kingdom expansion.
Alexander the Great’s Early Life
A famous Macedonian drinker

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

Because of the status achieved by Alexander and his father, the circumstances of his early life are often mired in legend. His birth was thought to be linked to a bright star over Macedonia. The author Plutarch wrote that he was born on the same night as the destruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and that soothsayers ran about the city saying that something had been brought into the world that one day would lead to the destruction of all of Asia. Alexander himself thought he was the son of Zeus and was related thereupon to Achilles and Herakles.
In his youth, Alexander studied math, philosophy, music, writing, archery, and riding while his father King Philip was at war subduing the rest of Greece. One notable aspect of Alexander’s early life and education is that he was tutored by Aristotle at the request of the king. This tutor-student relationship developed into an earnest friendship, and the two kept up communication with one another throughout Alexander’s later life.
Aristotle Teaching Alexander

Aristotle instructing the younger Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great’s Early Career
It wasn’t long before Alexander began to participate in the family business of battle. At just 18, Alexander helped the Macedonians win at the Battle of Charonea in 338, defeating the opposing Greek city states. Two years later in 336, Alexander was crowned king after Philip II’s assassination. It is at this juncture, with the Greek city states subjugated to Macedonian rule, that Alexander continued east to tackle the Persian Empire. A series of advances into Asia Minor in 334, including the sack of Baalbeck, the liberation of Ephesos, and the successful defeat of Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issos, all allowed Alexander to gain traction, support, and respect amongst his troops and people. By 332, just four years after he became king, Alexander had conquered Syria and then Egypt a year later in 331.
Alexander the Great and the East
Alexander the Great Statue

Statue of Alexander the Great

Alexander’s campaigns pushing east are, by any respect, an incredible feat of military prowess. He followed in his father’s footsteps and wanted to overtake the Persian Empire, which was under the rule of Darius III at the time. Like at the battle of Issos, Alexander dealt a decisive blow to the Persian empire in 331 at the Battle of Guagamela. Darius had again retreated, not able to match the massive army of Macedonians. Soon after, Darius was assassinated and Alexander proclaimed himself king of Asia.
Alexander and his army continued on, taking cities like Susa, Persepolis, Bactria, and Sogdianna. Along his routes, Alexander would rename and establish new eponymous cities. In no small part due to his Aristotlean education, Alexander generally allowed conquered cities to carry on their own customs, but he knew that his image had to be held highest amongst their own. Because of this, he adopted the title ShahanSha, meaning King of Kings, originally used by the first rulers of the Persian Empire.
Political propaganda stretched far and wide, and Alexander was increasingly adopting Persian customs. This led to a growing level of distrust amongst the Macedonian troops, while trust within the higher ranks was splintering. Assassination plots, conspiracies, and treason were no strangers to Alexander’s court.
Empire of Alexander the Great

Map of Alexander the Great’s Empire

Still, Alexander remained in control and eventually reached India, where the king submitted to Alexander’s rule, not wishing to incur his wrath and destruction in an effort of resistance. However, the Aspasioi and Assakenoi tribes were not as easy, and they launched a resistance against the incoming army.
327 and 326 saw several battles, but the eventual victory went to Alexander. His army was still with him and things still looked promising for a crossing of the Ganges river, but then the troops revolted and refused to go any further. Alexander and his troops made their way back to Macedonia, stopping to reassert control on the way in areas that had become restless. By the time they got home, the army had sustained severe losses, moral was null, and trust was severely waning.
Alexander the Great After the Persian Conquest
After the regions in the east had been conquered, Alexander maintained control by placing satraps in charge as local rulers. Upon his return, though, he learned that many of these local rulers had abused their power and so Alexander had them executed. The Macedonian king made it clear that he did not just want to conquer the Persian Empire, but that he wanted to integrate it into the Macedonian network. Intermarriage between the Macedonian royal family and Persian elites, placing Persians in prominent military roles, and the merging of Persian and Macedonian military units all were attempts by Alexander to merge the two very distinct cultures.
Alexander the Great’s Death and Legacy
Bust of Alexander the Great

Bust of Alexander the Great

Alexander died on June 10th or 11th, 323, at the age of just 32, due to fever. Of course speculation persists as to whether it was fever, poison, or a number of other causes. He was to be succeeded either by “the strongest” or by Perdiccas, the friend of Alexander’s closest companion and confidante, Hephaistion. Nonetheless, Perdiccas was assassinated in 321 and the empire was split into four.
Alexander continues to be considered one of the greatest military generals of all time, accomplishing feats of campaign that hadn’t been seen up to that point. He was talented in his command, but often contradictory, choosing to uphold tradition and honor part of the time, and razing cities to the ground the other part. It should not be disregarded that the campaigns of Alexander the Great were brutal and impressive. He left a strong mark on the ancient world, and we still interact with it intimately today- just think of the half a dozen cities named Alexandria throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

Pliny the Elder

by March 12, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Pliny the Elder was an author, philosopher, and commander in the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE. Throughout his life, Pliny the Elder wrote an encyclopedic work, the “Natural History,” that was often referred to even up to the modern period…indeed, it became the editorial model for encyclopedias. He cultivated a friendship with the Roman Emperor Vespasian, reached social prominence throughout Rome, and was remembered by his nephew’s, Pliny the Younger, letters and writings.

Pliny the Elder Portrait

Pliny the Elder’s Early life
He was born to a prosperous family circa 23 CE in Novum Comum, a colony founded in 59 BC by Caesar. Although we don’t know much about his family life, we do know he had a sister (Pliny the Younger’s mother) and that his father possessed enough wealth to be a part of the equestrian class. This relative wealth allowed Pliny to attend school throughout his youth and eventually live in Rome by his 30s. He was possibly educated in lawmaking and certainly took to literature and observation.
Como, Italy

City and Lake of Como, painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1834

Pliny the Elder’s Early Career and Writings
By the age of 23, Pliny began his army career as a junior officer. He was a commander in the campaign against Chauci in 47 CE and aided in the canal construction between the Maas and Rhine rivers. Another campaign was against the Chatti tribe in 50/51, during which he wrote his first treatise, a short piece on spear throwing from horseback, which has unfortunately been lost to history now.
Soon after the spear treatise, Pliny wrote both the Life of Pomponius Secundus and the History of the Germanic Wars (of which is separated into 20 different volumes) while he was still in the Rhine army. Upon his return to Rome, Pliny, now 36, had reached a certain level of respectability, notice, and wealth. A career in public life and politics could have been possible, however the changing political climate (Nero now in his 5th year of rule) discouraged him from pursuing it. Instead, Pliny retired from public life and began in earnest a life of literature.
Pliny the Elder Book

Natural History, by Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder’s Writing Career
As it often goes, a great deal of Pliny the Elder’s works are lost to us now. However, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, detailed several in his own writings: The Scholar, Problems in Grammar, and a Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus.
Of course, the most famed, and final, of Pliny the Elder’s writings was the Natural History. In this encyclopedic work, Pliny aimed to collect personal experiences, prior works, and extracts from other works in order to compile a broad range of knowledge of the time. It was divided into 37 different books and explained his title as in support of “the nature of things, that is, life.” Topics covered were cosmology and astronomy, physical and historical geography of major cities, zoology, biology, botany, horticulture, medicine, and drugs (to name a few).
The book was written in rather a plain style, but with elaborate vocabulary where it suited. Pliny also spent the entirety of Book 1 detailing his sources, which was quite novel for the time.
Death of Pliny the Elder

The Vesuvian eruption

Pliny the Elder’s Death
Having been stationed as a fleet commander in Misenum in August 79, Pliny was victim to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. As was his nature to observe and comment, Pliny had noticed the cloud above the mountain and wanted to explore it more. On his way crossing the Bay of Naples, he received a letter from his friend Rectina asking Pliny to come and rescue her. He left to do so, but never returned.
Most of Pliny the Elder’s life, and his death, comes down to us through his nephew. Pliny the Younger’s account of his uncle’s death and the Vesuvian eruption is a withstanding piece of writing that is quite haunting, though written in simple and plain style.
However, Pliny’s heroic death at the hands of volcanic ash was probably a romanticized fable spread by Pliny the Younger and family. It is more likely, then, that Pliny the Elder died of a heart attack, as recent examination points to the fact that Pliny was likely overweight, of ill health, and not as active in the navy as we’ve been led to think. Nevertheless, his works and contributions to ancient knowledge persevere, especially in the form of the encyclopedia.

Top 11 Most Famous People Who Studied the Classics

by March 11, 2019

For those who say an education in the Classics is worthless and won’t lead anywhere, we here at Classical Wisdom retort that clearly they are lacking in imagination!
Indeed, there are many examples of individuals who studied the words of Homer, Cicero and Plato and more… and yet did not end up living under a bridge, ala Diogenes the Dog. Instead, they have contributed significantly to society, whether through literature, music, politics or psychology. Here is a short top eleven list of the most famous people who studied the classics:

1. Thomas Jefferson
Arguably one of the most famous student of the classics, this founding father and 3rd president of the United States studied Greek at the College of William and Mary. He loved Roman literature and founded the University of Virginia, a school that encourages the classics.

Thomas Jefferson

2. J.R.R. Tolkien
This British writer studied Classics at Exeter College, Oxford before penning his famous series, “Lord of the Rings.”

3. J.K. Rowling
The creative mind behind “Harry Potter”, the Scottish writer received a B.A. in Classics from Exeter University.

J.K. Rowling

4. Boris Johnson
This former Mayor of London famously studied the Classics at Balliol College, Oxford University.

5. Sigmund Freud
This is no surprise to anyone who has read his works and catches the references… but this psychologist studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew at Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium.

6. Chris Martin
It’s evident in the song “Something just like this” when Chris Martin references Achilles and Heracles, that the Lead singer of the band Coldplay studied Latin and Greek from University College London.

Christ Martin

7. James Garfield
The 20th President of the United States graduated in 1856 with a degree in the Classics from Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

8. Jonathan Evans, Baron Evans of Weardale
Former Director General of the British Security Service (MI5) received a degree in Classical Studies from Bristol University.

9. Jane Addams
Known as the “Mother of Social Work”, this activist studied Greek and Latin at Rockford Female Seminary (Rockford College) in Indiana.

Jane Addams

10. Lynn Sherr
An American broadcast journalist and author, best known as a correspondent for the ABC news magazine 20/20, earned a B.A. in Classics from Wellesley College.

11. Chuck Geschke
Founder of Adobe Systems, the graphics and publishing software company, he studied the Classics at Xavier University.

Sources (and lists with more famous people):

Empedocles, the Eccentric Philosopher

by February 12, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Empedocles, born c. 490 BCE in Akragas, Sicily, is perhaps one of the more eccentric pre-Socratic philosophers. He himself claimed other-worldly powers, is credited by Aristotle as the inventor of rhetoric, and is thought to have originated the cosmogonic theory of the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth.
Temple in Akragas

The temple of Hera at Akragas, built when Empedocles was a young man, c. 470 BC.

Empedocles’ Personal Life
While relatively little is known about Empedocles’ personal life, we do know he was born to a wealthy family who was involved in the overthrow of the Akragas tyrant in 470 BC.
Diogenes relates the ambiguity regarding exactly of whom Empedocles was a student. He offered the following options: that he was a student of Pythagoras himself, that he was a student of the Pythagorean school under the instruction of Huppasus and Brontinus, or that he could have originally been under the influence of Xenophanes and later “fell in with the Pythagoreans.” All of this confusion is due to the fact that Empedocles promoted his poetry at the start and the Pythagorean school had a law to admit no Epic poet. Indeed, he is generally considered the last Greek philosopher to have recorded his ideas in verse.
Papyrus fragment

A piece of the Strasbourg Empedocles papyrus in the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire, Strasbourg

Empedocles himself had one pupil mentioned, Gorgias, and his travels to the Peloponnese, Attica, and Thurii were mentioned by authors such as Timaeus and Dicaearchus.
Empedocles’ Philosophy
Empedocles’ philosophy and teachings are taken from the remaining fragments of his epics ‘On Nature’ and ‘Purifications.’ The core of Empedocles’ philosophy relied on the notion that all things are transformed and manipulated between the four worldly elements of fire, air, water, and earth, and that nothing is destroyed and nothing is created new. He believed that everything in the universe was made of these four root elements and was conscious.
Illustration of Empedocles

Empedocles as portrayed in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Combined with this attempt to simplify and organize the world, Empedocles’ doctrine promoted the idea that love was the unseen force holding things together, while strife was the force by which things were pulled apart. Love and Strife, then, were the ways in which the four elements were able to interact and mix together.
Empedocles’ philosophy about the universe was in response to the contemporary Eleatic School which was founded by Parmenides in southern Italy. The Eleatic School promoted the idea that “all is one” in the universe and everything existed in a single entity. Empedocles pushed back a little by saying all is composed of the same four elements. While this concept is similar at the root of the argument, it did differ enough to constitute a separate philosophical school.
Empedocles' philosophy

Empedocles cosmic cycle is based on the conflict between love and strife

Empedocles’ Science
Even though the line between Empedocles’ philosophy and Empedocles’ science is blurred to say the least, he did undertake what we would even recognize today as “scientific testing.”
Empedocles was (unsurprisingly) not very thorough. He did, though, prove that air was not empty space by using a clepsydra, which is a water clock or any timepiece by which time is measured by the regulated flow of liquid into or out from a vessel, and where the amount is then measured. He did this by filling the clepsydra with water while covering the hole at the top. This allowed for his element of air to be an active ‘ingredient’ in comparison with earth, water, and fire – all tangible and manipulative elements.
Water clock

Illustration of a water clock (clepsydra)

Another theory of Empedocles comes down to us through Aristotle in De Sensu. Empedocles thought that the light from the sun passed through intermediary space before being processed by our eyes, moving through space by whatever force. Indeed, Empedocles is credited with the first comprehensive theory of light and vision.
But perhaps one of the more advanced undertakings of Empedocles gives us what is thought to be the earliest extant attempt to discern the origin of species. He introduces zoogony, or generations of animals, in his attempts to explain the origin and development of biological life as a coming together and unfolding of birth. He uses examples of wild animals, humans, and plants as his proofs. This theory is strongly in line with his overarching philosophy of things in strife and things in love. Indeed, we see what Empedocles thought was the practical application of such rules.
Illustration of the Philosopher

Empedocles (of Acagras in Sicily) was a philosopher and poet: one of the most important of the philosophers working before Socrates (the Presocratics)

Empedocles’ Death and Legacy
Empedocles’ death is the stuff of legends, as he was mythologized by ancient writers. One story of which is where he died by throwing himself into Mount Etna, allowing him to turn into an immortal god. Another includes Empedocles being removed from the earth and his exact age at death is disputed anywhere between age 60 and age 109.
Painting of Empedocles' death

The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa (1615 – 1673), depicting the legendary alleged suicide of Empedocles jumping into Mount Etna in Sicily

Further descriptions of Empedocles and his ideas are recorded by Aristotle, Diogenes, Pliny, and Horace’s Ars Poetica. Aristotle called him the father of rhetoric and Lucretius speaks of him with enthusiasm, and evidently viewed him as his model. Much later his death is at the center of a 1826 play by Friedrich Holderlin, ‘Tod des Empedokles,’ and Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem titled ‘Empedocles on Etna.’ While this eccentric philosopher may not be a household name today, he was clearly very influential in the ancient world and thus deserves our attention.