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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.
 

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.

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.

The American Cincinnatus

by January 29, 2019

by Kayla Kane, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
If you want to study George Washington, then you should first know Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus of the early Roman republic. Rendered a cultural icon in his own era and indeed today as well, Cincinnatus achieved fame through unconventional means. Although he provided selfless service to his Republic during times of crisis, the classical hero is most storied for his tendency to surrender his power once the crisis had been eliminated.
Rome became a republic in 509 BC, however, at certain times a dictator was appointed in order to make quick decisions and defend the state at war. Livy reflects on Cincinnatus’ military service in his lengthy history of Rome Ab Urba Conditia. Livy recalls an iconic moment in his country’s history: “They sent for consul Nautius; in whom when there seemed to be insufficient protection, and they were determined that a dictator should be appointed to retrieve their embarrassed affairs, Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus is appointed by universal consent.”
Sculpture of Cincinnatus

The sculpture of Cincinnatus in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Garden

As a retiree, Cincinnatus lived at the bank of the Tiber river and tended to domestic duties on his farm. However, when twice Rome was called to fight against a foreign invasion (in 458 BC and 439 BC), Cincinnatus suspended his retirement to serve his treasured Republic.
The historian Rob Hardy describes the unique situation; “Cincinnatus was living in retirement on his four-acre farm outside of Rome and representatives found him in his field. When he learned of the emergency facing Rome, he left his plow standing in the field, bid farewell to his wife, and led the Romans to victory against the Aequians. Fifteen days after assuming the dictatorship, Cincinnatus resigned and returned to his plow.”
Painting of Cincinnatus

Juan Antonio Ribera’s c. 1806 Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome

While this selfless, self-sacrificing service was worthy of universal recognition, what rendered Cincinnatus a universal legend came after this military service. Having assumed victory over the Aequians, citizens wished to make Cincinnatus their king. Rather than accepting this famed title, Cincinnatus refused, and instead retreated to his farm. In so doing, Cincinnatus maintained Republican values rather than allowing Rome to descend back into a monarchy.
This brings us to our main point: the anti-monarchical leader of America’s infancy, George Washington, was lauded for his leadership tendencies similar to those of Cincinnatus.
Sculpture of Cincinnatus in Ohio

The statue of Cincinnatus at his plough in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The American public has long regarded George Washington as a champion of the common good. As the first American president, Washington became a pioneer in limiting the presidential reign to two terms, allowing the office to evolve with popular opinion.
He, like Cincinnatus, was renowned for his voluntary surrender of power, particularly in three incidences: his retirement from the British Army, the Continental Army, and the Presidency. Washington became a hero in both public service and in his ability to resign when the service had been fulfilled.
Illustration of Washington

Major Washington, 1754, Hadden, James, 1845-1923 – Washington’s expeditions (1753-1754) and Braddock’s expedition (1755) with history of Tom Fausett, the slayer of General Edward Braddock Page 9

With hindsight of the Roman Republic guiding politicians of the revolutionary era, many historians credit Washington’s devout public focus to Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus, his classical counterpart. Having presided over the American Society of the Cincinnati, it is evident that Washington was knowledgeable of Cincinnatus’ history as a retired Roman consul and war hero. Due to this knowledge, Washington not only knew the Greco-Roman classics, but utilized them for the sake of political achievement, the common good, and personal reputation.
Like Cincinnatus, Washington’s most famed quality was not his accomplishments as a statesman, but rather, his refusal to accept further political honors beyond his targeted feats. It is thus fitting that Washington’s retirement became a symbol of his self-sacrificing virtue as a political figure.
1759 marked Washington’s first “retirement,” in which he left his military career from the French-Indian Wars and began his life as a planter in Mount Vernon. After serving as commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces, Washington first “retired” at the ripe age of 26. Seeing that a sustainable career in the British army was not open to him, he decided that he must make his way in private life.
Painting of Washington as a Soldier

“Washington the Soldier” Painting of Lt. Col. Washington on horseback during the Battle of the Monongahela — Reǵnier, 1834

It is critical to observe that Washington’s initial withdrawal from public service was uniquely unlike his penultimate and ultimate retirements. Therefore, it is perhaps logical to separate this young, uncharacteristic resignation from the collective narrative of Washington’s retirement. Washington’s initial retirement lacks the motives of Roman virtue that his other two embody, which brings into question whether historians should consider the end of Washington’s first career a “retirement” at all.
Washington’s second retirement seeks and deserves far more recognition than his first. This iconic resignation followed Washington’s role as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, from which he resigned, accepting no pay, prize, or office. The revolutionary historian W.W. Abbot states that, “this act of retirement was perhaps the single most important action of his career.” Washington’s exit with no reward shocked the American and European consciousness while giving America a symbol, one of unity, with which the nation could define itself.
Painting of Washington as a Colonel

Colonel George Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

Through this retirement, Washington exemplified the quintessential, selfish selflessness of his political career. Washington accepted his role as a symbol, and furthermore sought not to overstep political necessity. As Abbot aptly states, “It made the Cincinnatus of the west a great man: great in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of his countrymen, and, in a very real sense, his own.”
Washington’s selfishness came from his satisfaction with his idealized image, an icon even in “his own” eyes. Despite the public benevolence with which he retired, Washington was playing a typical, self-righteous revolutionary role of classical emulation.
It is impossible to fully comprehend Washington’s final retirement without an understanding of his farewell address. He defines patriotism along the criteria of his own actions. The president stresses, “I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” Like his retirement itself, Washington’s farewell address was a highly-calculated testament to his noble reputation, one which, he hoped, his country would remember past his presidency.
Following his farewell address, Washington’s third retirement was an anxiety-ridden pursuit unlike any other American political undertaking. Although Washington left his eight year presidency to return to Mount Vernon, he remained politically engaged in the background. Ignorant to what the role of ex-president should entail, Washington requested the secretary of war, James McHenry, to notify him of developments in US international relations.
The ex-president, via a letter, pleaded, “Let me pray you have the goodness to communicate to me occasionally, such matters that are interesting, and not contrary to the rules of your official duty to disclose, we get so many details in the Gazettes, and of such different complexions, that it is impossible to know what credence to give any of them.”
Painting of Washington as Commander of the Army

General Washington Commander of the Continental Army

If Washington cared so deeply about America’s foreign policy, why did he retire from public office? The historian John H. Rhodehamel precisely answers, “[Washington] was well aware of the effect that his resignation would have. He was trying to live up to the age’s image of a classical disinterested patriot who devotes his life to his country, and he knew at once that he had acquired fame as a modern Cincinnatus.”
Seeing the positive effect of power withdrawal from Roman history and from his penultimate retirement, Washington set a noble precedent through his resignation. Thus, the two-term tradition was born out of Washington’s desire to become a symbol of American democracy, one in which leaders release the reins of power so that the office might evolve with public interests.
The precedential nature of Washington’s role in the revolutionary period called for a mentor, ancient and renowned, to guide his political decisions. Cincinnatus became just that: a moral compass and an exemplary reputation: a symbol of what Washington could become. Cincinnatus became the archetypal leader that Washington set out to emulate, and drawing on the Roman statesman, Washington took executive actions to benefit the common good.
Although Washington’s benevolent intentions were undoubtedly present, there existed a crucial self-interested nature to these acts. Washington believed that in order to reach a reputation of similar caliber to the classics, one must nearly become a classical figure… And clearly he did.

Caesar and Alexander: The Story of Two Leaders

by September 21, 2018

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

Julius Caesar’s encounter with Alexander the Great

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

Map of Alexander the Great’s Empire

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

Alexander the Great

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

Caesar giving Cleopatra the throne

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

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

by August 21, 2018

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

An orator addressing the Roman People

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

Gaul – Arausio, by Jean Claude Golvin

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

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

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

General Gnaeus Mallius Maximus’ Image

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

The battlefield where over 120,000 Roman soldiers were killed

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