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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

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

Apollonius of Tyana: The Pagan Jesus Christ?

by August 7, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Apollonius of Tyana was a remarkable and complex person. In the Ancient World he was called a magician, a fraud, a scientist and many even believed that he was a divine figure who could save humanity. Many saw him as a pagan messiah and indeed, he was more popular than Jesus for a time in the Roman Empire.
We know quite a lot about this fascinating man, but much of it is unfortunately unreliable. It appears that he lived in the first century A.D, though some believe that he lived much later. He was almost certainly a Greek born in Tyana, Roman Cappadocia, which is now in the modern nation of Turkey. Apollonius was educated in a local temple and became a religious teacher. He later became a follower of the religious teacher and mathematician Pythagoras and was heavily influenced by his philosophies.
Apollonius of Tyana

A probable statue of Apollonius of Tyana

Apollonius advocated that people should live a simple and ascetic life, and did so himself. He lived a very Spartan existence and once did not speak for five years. He also preached chastity and condemned the drinking of alcohol.
Interestingly, Apollonius believed in one supreme God, but that prayers, rituals, and sacrifices were not required by this God. Instead, he argued that with meditation we could achieve a mystical union with the Supreme being. He also believed that reason could be used to achieve unity with God. It’s clear that Apollonius’ religious ideas were as revolutionary as anything taught by Jesus and St Paul.
Remarkably, Apollonius was interested in science and was a supporter of the view that the earth rotated around the sun. He was both a mystic and a scientist.
A mosaic with Apollonius

A mosaic with Apollonius

It seems that he traveled throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and even reached Ethiopia. Apollonius of Tyana, along with his first disciple, Damis, may have also journeyed to India. Many believe that his teachings were influenced by Indian religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It appears that unlike other Greeks at the time, he was interested in other cultures and discussed religion and philosophy with Persian priests and others.
Among the miracles that were attributed to the Greek, was saving the city of Ephesus from a plague. It is also claimed that he brought the daughter of a Roman Senator or Consul back to life. In one case he stopped a follower from marrying a woman who turned out to be a vampire, and in doing so saved his life. However, a later biographer argued that these were not a result of any miraculous powers but of his scientific knowledge.
The Vampire

The Vampire (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones

There are several accounts of the death of Apollonius. In one, he was arrested by Septimius Severus but disappeared from his cell and was never seen again. In another version, he rose into heaven from a temple in Asia Minor. In most stories, it is claimed that he disappeared about the age of 100 and was still youthful.
Damis, his earliest disciple, collected a series of notes on the life of his teacher. These were used by the 2nd century AD Athenian Sophist Philostratus to compose his biography of the Greek. Unfortunately, this biography is not considered to be very reliable. Many researchers believe that it was written on the instructions of the Empress Julia Domna, the wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus and the mother of the bloody tyrant Caracalla.
Empress Julia Domna

Empress Julia Domna

Some historians believe that the Empress commissioned the biography by Philostratus in order to counteract the popularity of Christianity. She wanted to strengthen paganism in the Empire and was worried about the threat from the Christians.
This means that the real figure of Apollonius may have been lost. Philostratus may have misrepresented him in order to turn him into a pagan alternative to Jesus Christ. This appears to have been successful and Apollonius was honored by many, including the Emperors Julian and Aurelian and his image was worshipped in many temples for centuries after his disappearance.
Philostratus biography

Cover of Philostratus biography of Apollonius of Tyna Source: https://archive.org/services/img/life_apollonius_tyana_1101_librivox

This was not enough to stop the growth in the Christian Church. The worship of Apollonius declined after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.
Philostratus’ biography may have distorted Apollonius, so today we do not know who he actually was. Was he a fraud, a religious prophet or a serious religious philosopher? We will never be sure. What can be said with certainty is that Apollonius of Tyana was an extraordinary figure in the ancient world.

The Mysterious Mr. Homer

by July 29, 2019

No one knows exactly when the Greek poet Homer lived. Herodotus, the father of history, guessed around 850 BC. Other ancient sources proposed that he was conjuring up transcendent imagery as early as the 12th century BC. Modern researchers, however, appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.
The dates, as you can see, vary wildly. All we do know is that his compositions are considered the oldest works of western literature and have had an enormous and incalculable influence throughout the history of the written word.
Bust of Homer

Homer as imagined in the Hellenistic period

But the “Homeric Question” goes deeper than just dates… Historians aren’t even sure he existed at all. His works may be the culmination of generations of storytelling, all grouped under a fictitious name and nothing else. Could one man have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey?
At the same time, the stylistic similarities between the two mammoth stories are overwhelming, suggesting that, yes, it was the result of single author. But to throw another wrench into the mix, most scholars agree that the books underwent a process of standardization and refinement in the beginning of the 8th century BC. Any wonder then that the styles were so similar…
We also can’t be certain that Homer was even a man, presuming he or she once lived. Samuel Butler, an important 19th century translator, argued that based on literary observations, it was a young Sicilian woman who wrote The Odyssey… but interestingly enough, not The Iliad.
painting of homer

Who was Homer??? Was he even a he?

So what do we know about Homer? How are we to learn anything about this ancient poet, if he or she did indeed walk this earth? Where do the clues lie to this ancient puzzle?
The answer may be obvious: We have to look at the poetry itself and piece together what we can. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time, nor the ancient greek skills to delve into the mystery ourselves…
For this reason, Classical Wisdom Weekly spoke with Ancient Greek expert A.P. David for insights into who Homer was and how we can better understand the monumental works of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A scholar and a gentleman, A.P. David also presents some alternative views on the subject… ones that might make you question everything you thought you knew about the epic poet and his (or her) writings.

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.