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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.
Alcibiades

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.
Tissaphernes

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

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.