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Category Archives: Leaders

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Cato the Younger (95-46 BC)

by November 25, 2019

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

A bust of Cato the Younger

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

A coin with the portrait of Cato

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

A bust of Julius Cesar

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

ca. 1st century B.C. — Bust of Pompey

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

The ruins of Utica

The legend of Cato the Younger

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

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

Xerxes: King of Kings

by November 22, 2019

By Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

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

Coming to Power

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

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

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


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

Thrust into War

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

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

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

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

greek vs persian

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

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

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

A Twist of Fate

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

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

The Hellespont

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

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

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

The Zenith of Xerxes

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

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


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

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

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

The Turning Tides

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

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


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

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

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

Rebuilding His Image

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

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

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

Gate of Xerxes

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

Betrayal and Murder

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

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

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

Xerxes’ Impact

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

Denouncing Haman

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

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

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

Alcibiades: A Lion and a Fox

by November 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.