Written by David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Tragic Road to Tyranny
Imagine your leader is a brilliant and bold military genius who, through multiple conquests, has expanded the borders of your country by orders of magnitude. He does it because he and some of your leaders have ambitions of empire, need of new wealth, and access to more slaves (to keep building the domestic economy and staffing the army). His campaigns are tremendously successful as a result of a crack military.
Your leader also gets his way at home, manipulates the politicians, is a serial adulterer who sleeps with some of the wives of prominent men of your country, and is generally feared. Having shared power earlier in his career with two other leaders (as a “Triumvirate”), his military successes as Imperator (supreme military commander) fuel his ambition to consolidate his power and rule the country by himself.
Julius Caesar, bronze sculpture in Rome.
With the Triumvirate no more (one has died, the other was defeated by your dear leader in battle and subsequently killed in another country), he is free to assert his will to power and assume sole possession of rulership. He initiates several domestic “works” programs – land reforms, calendar reform, support for his military veterans, and construction projects, which increase his popularity with the public. They now revere him as the classic, beneficent “strong man” leader.
All of this angers many of the elites of his country, since it has heretofore enjoyed a republican form of government for quite some time. After unconstitutionally declaring himself “dictator for life” (dictator perpetuo), he is finally murdered by stabbing (23 times!) in a conspiratorial plot by several influential senators. One may even have been his illegitimate son by one of his several lovers.
The Course of Empire (Series of paintings by Thomas Cole): Destruction (1836).
Octavian, the adopted heir of Julius, eventually defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In 27 BC, after vanquishing his remaining rivals to power, Octavian is granted the title of “Augustus” (“the Venerable”).
Though pretending to “restore” the Republic, Augustus himself retained all real power as the Princeps (“first citizen”) of Rome. He had eventually become the autocrat that Julius had aspired to be. He was ruling over an Empire now.
I support the left, though I’m leaning to the right,
I support the left, though I’m leanin’ leanin’ to the right, yeah
But I’m just not there when, when it’s coming to a fight.
“Politician” – Eric Clapton & Cream
Let’s face it: the business of politics can be nasty in the extreme, and some politicians are highly skilled in being greedy, equivocating, disingenuous scumbags (as alluded to in the lyrics above from the classic Cream song).
Many countries have experienced the assassination of a significant leader at a critical historical time, such as Julius Caesar in ancient Rome. Think Abraham Lincoln in America (the actor John Wilkes Booth cried sic semper tyrannis – “thus ever to tyrants” – after doing the dirty deed), John F. Kennedy, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary (precipitating the First World War), Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi of India, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, to name a few in just the last two centuries.
Assassination of Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888, Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
All of these leaders had significant popularity and followings, but there was just enough bitter dissent that bad actors hastened their demise in evil fashion. Just as in the case of Julius Caesar, these assassinations often precipitated times of social and cultural upheaval following the event.
Politics in America
As I write this, we’ve just begun the nomination process for Democratic candidates for President in 2020 here in the USA, and the name-calling and mudslinging have begun in earnest. This promises to be a very bitter, partisan, and divisive year in the US politically, as half the electorate supports the Populist incumbent Donald Trump, and the other half of the electorate will support whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic Convention in July.
There are many in America who wish there would be a viable alternative to the two major political parties (such as the Libertarian party), both of which have abandoned their traditional mandates and principles, for the most part, in order to pander for votes. The labels “Republican” and “Democrat” have little meaning today.
Donald Trump, hugely popular in his base, is a billionaire real estate developer and television show entertainer who basically usurped the Republic party and moniker through his very popular debate performances back in 2015 and 2016, against a very deep team of professional “Republican” political candidates.
Cicero in the Roman senate. Photograph: Baldwin H Ward/Kathryn C Ward
I refer to him as a Populist because, according to his rhetoric, that is what he actually is. This year promises to be highly entertaining for people watching the Democrat side, as we see several people coming from all different political and financial angles jockeying for their party’s nomination. (“Let’s get ready to rumble!” as big time boxing announcer Michael Buffer would say.)
Many people would rather avoid the topic of politics, with its inherent divisiveness and messiness, but I’m afraid we need to take a more practical view. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a larger political community, and we all need to (somehow) live together in relative peace and order, and we all need political representatives to take care of the business of our various nations.
The Political Animal
We are indeed a “political animal” (to use Aristotle’s phrase), whether we care to be or not. What kinds of government are the best? What kinds of leaders are the best and most efficacious at governing and taking care of the people’s business? Should power be autocratic or shared? Furthermore, are these leaders and political representatives ruling truly for their people, or are they just interested in serving themselves and lining their own pockets?!
Cicero attacks Catilina at the Roman Senate, from a 19th-century fresco
These are questions human beings have struggled with for millennia, ever since we stepped out of Africa in small groups of hunter-gatherers. Even small groups need a leader of some sort, a decision maker of last resort – one with experience and wisdom to enhance the outcome of the struggles of the group.
Eventually, humans migrated all over the planet, discovered agriculture, domesticated animals, bred like rabbits, and settled down with larger groups of other humans in villages and eventually cities (hence, the polis) to live. The growth of survival skills and entrepreneurship enabled the division of labor (specialization of trades and professions), which allowed the city to work more efficiently.
Large groups of humans need ever larger and more knowledgeable groups of leaders, so it was inevitable that more complex forms of government (some with written charters, or laws) evolved, involving larger groups of local “politicians” – magistrates, judges, priests, and some kind of supreme leader (a king, or tribal chieftain, or religious figure) to head up the organization and lead the city. The city-state was born.
The Forms of Government
What does Classical Wisdom have to say on the evolution of government? Our wise readers know the answer: a lot.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)
As you might imagine, over centuries, governments have oscillated back and forth from various types of despots and autocrats, such as kings, dictators, and tyrants, and on to the other extreme of pure Democracy (as sometimes in ancient Greece), where all the citizens of a polis (or city-state, like Athens) traded places in the work of governing and tending to the people’s business.
Sometimes the various cities in Greece were ruled by oligarchs (rule by the few), plutocrats (rule by the very wealthy), military generals (“strong men”), and enlightened Democrats (think Pericles in Athens) coordinating policy with other representatives of the people.
The Greek historian Polybius (ca. 208-125 BC) wrote a terrific book entitled “The Histories,” which covers the period from 264-146 BC. This work is especially enlightening for us moderns, as we tend to think that our governments must be more evolved and enlightened than any from the distant past.
A more accurate description of political history is one characterized by an ongoing oscillation back and forth between autocracies and republicanism (with written constitutions guaranteeing certain rights to all, with at least some elected representatives and an elected Executive, or President). And all points in between.
Many ancient kingdoms and nations had a supreme religious leader and government was looked upon as the means by which their divine mandates and holy scriptures were adhered to (a theocracy). There was no “separation of church and state.” This idea is still very much alive and well today.
The modern tripartite form of government (with executive, legislative, and judicial branches) may be said to draw a great deal from the writings of Polybius. (With assistance from Baron de Montesquieu and John Locke, both of whom wrote extensively on the separation of power via checks and balances in the tripartite system, as argued for in the Federalist Papers in the case of the newly-born American Republic.)
In parsing the various forms of government popular in Polybius’ days – kingship (monarchy), aristocracy (government by “the best”, or the highly accomplished and well-placed), and democracy, he explains that the “best constitution is that which partakes of all these three elements.” As he wrote,
“And this is no mere assertion, but has been proved by the example of Lycurgus, who was the first to construct a constitution – that of Sparta – on this principle. Nor can we admit that these are the only forms: for we have had before now examples of absolute and tyrannical forms of government, which, while differing as widely as possible from kingship, yet appear to have some points of resemblance to it; on which account all absolute rulers falsely assume and use, as far as they can, the title of king. Again there have been many instances of oligarchical governments having in appearance some analogies to aristocracies, which are, if I may say so, as different from them as it is possible to be. The same also holds good about democracy.” – Polybius, TheHistories
Polybius goes on the explain that these three forms of government can all, under the right cirumstances socially, deteriorate into three associated forms; namely, “despotism” (tyranny), “oligarchy” (rule by the few), and “mob rule” (perverted democracy, where non-virtuous citizens use the power of government to illegally allocate resources to themselves and selfishly pervert justice – the “tyranny of the majority”).
It’s often surprising for moderns to read of severe criticism of democracy coming from ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Polybius, but they knew by first hand experience how direct democracies could get out of hand.
Of course, Greece had experience with democracy in small city-states where direct participatory democracy could be practiced by all citizens. What we have today (in the USA, for instance) is a democratic republic, whereby eligible citizens who have registered to vote participate in elections that elect representatives from their various districts (for the House of Representatives) and states (Senators), and a President.
Republics (from the Latin res publica – “public thing”) have written constitutions, which have naturally evolved over the centuries. This form of government is very well suited to western countries comprising large geographic areas.
The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, now in the British Library (Papyrus 131)
Personally, I believe that government should be malleable. In other words, there isn’t one form of government entirely suitable to all countries. Democracy (specifically republicanism) is suited better for western countries who have evolved from the Greco-Roman civilization. Other countries, depending on their religious make-up, the temperament of their people, and the histories of their countries and peoples might be more amenable to another sort.
I know many in the west think that “democracy” (sometime ill-defined) is the “be all” and “end all” of governmental forms and should be foisted on all the other countries of the world, whether they like it or not! I beg to differ. Many of the wars in my lifetime have been waged with this premise, and it has often led to disaster; enormously wasteful of human life and taxpayer (usually American) money.
The Vietnam conflict is a case in point, from the involvement of the French in the 1940s and 1950s on up to the involvement of the USA in the early 1960s up until 1975 . Having visited that wonderful country many times in my travels, I can guarantee to anyone that the Vietnamese people, very resourceful and hard-working, all want a better life for themselves and their families. They want better jobs, more money, more “good life,” just as most people of the world do.
The Acropolis at Athens, Leo von Klenze (1846).
Capitalism has won out there (especially in the South), as Vietnam is today a highly productive and prospering place, as I figured it would be. It’s up to government to follow along and do what’s best for their people. Perhaps democratic republicanism will win out there over time, as well. Only time will tell.
Lessons from Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin’s fantastic series “Game of Thrones” wrapped up last year, and I will miss it terribly. I loved the series, all its characters (with superb actors and chemistry among the cast), the story lines, the music, etc.
Like thousands of other men all over this planet, I’m sure, I fell in love with the young, beautiful, platinum blonde Queen Daenarys Targaryen (played so well by the British actress Emilia Clarke). I really enjoyed watching her story line unfold throughout the series, having no idea how the show would end. Being a romantic, I was always hoping for a “happily ever after” ending between her and her paramour and defender, Jon Snow, of Winterfell (the North Country).
The ending of the final episode was massively disappointing to me. Not at all because of the actors, or technical production, etc. all of which were at the highest level throughout the show’s run. The story line took a twist that I only slowly caught on to, and it is very germane to my article here on politics.
Having been on a series-long quest to reunite the land of Westeros and eventually reclaim Targeryan dominion over the Iron Throne, Queen Dany slowly builds allies and a formidable army along the way to reach her goal. She also manifests very clever political skill during her journey.
In the final episode, the series comes to its denouement with the expected final battle between the über-females of the series, Queen Dany and her final nemesis, evil Queen Cersei Lannister, who holds the Iron Throne at King’s Landing. Extremely angered by the killing of one of her beloved dragons, which begins the final battle (and the murder of her close friend and female attendant at the command of Cersei), Queen Dany, totally consumed by a thirst for vengeance, goes on an absolutely murderous rampage!
Daenerys Targaryen in the series finale of Game of Thrones. Courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO
It isn’t pretty… Riding atop her one remaining dragon, Queen Daenerys unleashes an incredibly brutal wave of death onto the inhabitants of King’s Landing, with no discrimination between innocent women and children and the actual soldiers still waging battle for Queen Cersei. With the aid of Jon Snow’s Northmen, and the “Unsullied” (her army of liberated slaves), Queen Dany prevails.
But the aftermath is astonishing: death and destruction lies all over, with few of the inhabitants of King’s Landing left alive. Her nemesis Queen Cersei dies a terrible death while trying to escape the castle, as she is crushed by the collapsing building.
Following the carnage, Queen Dany gives a chilling speech to her victorious army, laced with fascistic, triumphal overtones of her autocratic (tyrannical?) rule tocome over all of Westeros, “freeing” all peoples remaining under other leadership (whether they want it or not).
War, bitterness, and personal vengeance have changed her soul dramatically. (Was she this way all along?) She has succumbed to the allure of power – “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said the British 19th Century Lord Acton so aptly. Queen Dany was, sadly, so corrupted.
Jon Snow, with the battle being long over (those still alive had long been ready to surrender), is incredulous (as I was) that his beautiful Queen Daenerys remained airborne on her dragon raining death indiscriminately on all who remained alive. Overkill, indeed.
Finally, the carnage ends, and after listening to Dany’s chilling speech, Jon meets the Queen in the Iron Throne room. Sadly, after a tender moment he puts a knife into her and she dies in a pool of her own blood.
I have to say he did the right thing, especially since Jon knows that Dany would’ve eventually killed his sister, Sansa Stark (Queen in the North), for not submitting to her rule. A tragic end to a great series. And so politics – and the endless quest for ultimate power – sometimes goes…
Of, By, and For the People
Politics is full of tragedy, yet also has been the vehicle of great human progress and advancement. Governments, properly instituted, can empower the creativity, ingenuity, and drive of their people, all of whom just want better lives and various degrees of freedom.
“That government governs best which governs least,” said the Classicist President Thomas Jefferson. I believe he was quite correct. We definitely do need laws and government enough to enforce those laws and protect the people and their rights, and checks and balances in our governmental systems to ensure that no murderous autocrat, corrupted by lust for power, does something either amazingly stupid or evil (Hitler, for example).
And, as Aristotle reminds us in his Nichomachean Ethics, a people of sufficient virtue is needed to keep the system running optimally. The American Founding Fathers knew this. They are like demigods to me when compared to what we have now!
As the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was wrapping up in Colonial America, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the newly-independent America would have. He replied: “A Republic – IF you can keep it.”
Benjamin Franklin c. 1785 by Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1725-1802). (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Franklin knew very well that a people of virtue were required to make this form of government work. A people who were moral, educated, civic-minded, hard working, and involved in government as a free people.
I would remind anyone, wherever they happen to live, to get involved in your governmental process however you can contribute. Any freedoms you now enjoy can easily be taken away if people are too lazy, indifferent, and apathetic to get involved in the process. By all means, should you enjoy the privilege of voting, VOTE! Let your voice be heard, no matter how “small” it seems. Ultimately, it does make a difference.
By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Delphi was an important religious, social and cultural center in Ancient Greece. It was one of the few places where the Greeks came together; indeed, Delphi was crucial in their collective identity. This religious site played a critical role in Greek politics, which meant that a number of wars were fought over its control.
The History of Delphi
In Greek myth, it was believed that Delphi was the center of the world, known as the navel of the earth, ‘omphalos’. From the Late Bronze Age the location was a religious sanctuary, the site of an oracle, and archaeological evidence suggests that the Mycenaeans had a temple dedicated to the Mother Earth goddess here.
Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy
Delphi was the location of one of the four Panhellenic Games, which included both athletic and non-athletic events in honor of the god Apollo. There was track, chariot racing, horse racing, wrestling, boxing and even musical contests. Greeks from all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea would attend these Delphic or Pythian games, and in fact, the various City-States entered into a truce so that their athletes could participate.
This starting line at the Delphi stadium used for the Pythian Games at Delphi, Greece, has a design representative of that of many ancient Greek stadiums: stones with two lines in which the athletes nudged their toes, and round holes in which posts could be erected to support the start signalling mechanism.
History of Delphi
There is little of the history of Delphi before the 6th century BC. It was originally inhabited by non-Greeks but around the 6th century BC, the Phocians conquered the area and took control of the shrine. This site was very important, not only for its religious and cultural prestige, but also because of its vast wealth. The treasury of Delphi was overflowing with gold and silver, donated by pious pilgrims.
Map showing location of ancient Phocis
Delphi was reclaimed by the Athenians during the First Sacred War (597–585 BC). They established the Amphictyonic League, a political alliance designed to protect Delphi, but it later came under the control of some Athenian exiles. During the Second Sacred War (449–448 BC), which was part of the 1st Peloponnesian War, the Phocians were able to regain control of Delphi.
The Phocians gradually lost control of the sanctuary and this led one of their leaders to act out and seize its treasury. This led to the Third Sacred War (356–346 BC) between a coalition led by Phillip of Macedon and the Phocians, resulting in the destruction of the Phoceans and the rise of Macedon, who effectively came to dominate Delphi.
In the first century BC, the Thracians raided and sacked Delphi, stealing the temple’s sacred fire. The location was also badly damaged later by an earthquake. These events, as well as inaccurate prophecies, led to a decline in Delphi.
Ruins of the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi, overlooking the valley of Phocis.
The sanctuary was once more revived in the 2nd century AD, under the patronage of Emperor Hadrian. The oracle continued to flourish even after Constantine the Great made Christianity the new religion of the Roman Empire. The Pythian Games continued to be held and remained popular. Eventually as Christianity became more prominent, the sanctuary declined. It was possibly closed by the command of Emperor Theodosius the Great.
Ironically, Delphi, the center of classical Greek religion, later became a major Christian center. It is believed to have flourished until the Avar and Slav invasions of Greece in the 8th century AD. Delphi was probably fully abandoned by 900 AD.
The Architecture of Delphi
Theatre at Delphi
In its heyday, Delphi was a complex of buildings and facilities, most of which were built by Greek City-States. There are many remarkable architectural remains still to be seen at Delphi. One of the most astonishing is the Temple of Apollo, which dates from the 4th century BC. It was built in the Doric style and is believed to have been the 6th temple built on this site. All that remains is an outline of the walls and rooms and a colonnade of broken columns. There was once a large number of votive statues at the shrines in Delphi and some of these can still be seen.
Delphi was once enclosed by walls. Upon entering the sanctuary, there were a number of treasuries, and one of these, the so-called Athenian treasury, has been fully restored by modern archaeologists. The stoa of the Athenians consisted of an open public space that was a covered walkway or portico, constructed by donations made by Athens. Many of the columns of the stoa, as well as its paved floor, can still be seen.
Speculative illustration of ancient Delphi by French architect Albert Tournaire.
There was a theatre set into the hill at Delphi, built in the traditional Greek style, and it is very well preserved. The Tholos of Delphi was a circular temple and much of this remarkable building, which comprises of a number of Greek styles, has been restored. There are also a number of remains that were associated with the Pythian Games and they include the stadium and the hippodrome.
By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Roman city of Pompeii was famously destroyed in 79 A.D by an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, which buried it beneath feet of ash and pumice. However, while the volcano ruined Pompeii, it also, perhaps ironically, preserved it for posterity. Today the city is arguably one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ruins of Pompeii with Vesuvius in the distance
The early history of Pompeii
Pompeii was founded after a number of small Oscan villages were united to form the town in about the 8th century BC. It slowly grew until it came under the influence of Greek colonists and within the orbit of the Etruscan League of city-states. At this point, it was ringed by a double ring of tufa walls.
It appears that after the Greeks from Syracuse and Cumae defeated the Etruscans, Pompeii went into a period of decline. The Samnites later occupied the area and Pompeii once again flourished and become an important trading center.
After the Samnite Wars, Rome became the dominant power in the area and Pompeii became its ally (socii). It was to remain faithful to Rome even during the Second Punic War when Hannibal threatened the very existence of the Republic. In the years following the Carthaginians defeat the town prospered, due mainly to its rich agricultural land and its exports of wine.
City walls south of the Nocera gate
During the Social War (91-88 BC), the Pompeii revolted against Rome and joined with an alliance of Italian tribes and cities that sought Roman citizenship rights. While the Roman general Sulla besieged Pompeii, he failed to take it after fierce resistance. Eventually, however, Pompeii surrendered, following the defeat of the Italians. After the Roman victory, Sulla settled many of his veterans in the area and this eventually led to the Romanization of Pompeii. By the 1st century AD, Latin had become the language of the city and its culture was Roman. In 62 AD the city was badly damaged by an earthquake.
The Eruption of 79 AD
By 79 A.D, Pompeii was a town or small city of 15 to 20,000 inhabitants and the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius, had been dormant for many years. However, one day in either August or November 79 AD, the volcano erupted and send lava and hot ash down upon the city. Volcanic ash and molten rock were shot miles up into the atmosphere. A pyroclastic surge, which consisted of hot mud and molten rock, flowed down the slopes of Vesuvius. It engulfed the settlement and buried it beneath several feet of mud and rock. Many Pompeiians were suffocated by the hot ash or were trapped and buried beneath the hot mud and molten lava. A great many victims were preserved, in their death throes, by the mud that killed them and they can still be seen to this day.
Plaster casts of the victims of the volcano
Pliny the Younger, who was an eyewitness, gives a graphic description of the terror of the people. They had the choice to stay in buildings that were collapsing or to go onto the street where red-hot pumice was falling down. Many tried to protect themselves from the volcanic debris by placing rags and pillows on their heads, but nothing could save them. Most of the buildings were destroyed but many were also buried, and largely left intact. Those who survived the eruption were evacuated by ships, but thousands never made it out. The poor, old and slaves found it hard to secure passage, unlike the wealthy.
The day after the disaster the cone of the volcano collapsed, causing a tsunami that engulfed what remained of the once flourishing city. Most of the city was buried under 9 feet (3 m) of ash and pumice. Pompeii was never rebuilt after the disaster and its name was forgotten to history.
The buried city of Pompeii
Fresco from a villa from Pompeii
The town was re-discovered in the 16th century but little thought was given to it. Only in the late 18th century was the town excavated by one of the pioneers of archaeology, the Swiss Karl Weber. Since then the site has been excavated and it is still being investigated by archaeologists. Today Pompeii is an archaeology park and it is open to visitors and is very popular with tourists from all over the world.
Insight into Roman life
There have been a large number of remarkable archaeological finds in the Roman city. A great deal of graffiti has been found and these writings have offered researchers an insight into the preoccupations of ordinary people. There have been many amazing villas discovered, such as the Villa of the Mysteries. Some of the most important finds have been made at these palatial residences; great murals have been uncovered here, masterpieces of Roman art, as well as many beautiful mosaics. Among the buildings that have been found are a launderette, brothel, and baths. Numerous artifacts and organic remains have also been unearthed, providing a great deal of information about life in Ancient Rome.
By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Phoenicians are among the most important people in the Ancient world. According to Homer the Phoenicians were also feared as pirates, but it’s clear they were much more than that. In fact, they decisively shaped the culture and the economy of the Levant and greatly influenced the Ancient Greeks and the Carthaginians.
The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who inhabited the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly in what is now Lebanon. It is now believed that they were related to the ancient Canaanites. They were an urban people and their major cities were Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos. They were not unified and each city had its own king or later ruling oligarchy. The cities were often rivals, but often cooperated on maritime and trading matters. The Phoenicians were great sailors and they dominated the Mediterranean with their oared galleys.
We do not know what the Phoenicians called themselves and the name that we know them as is actually a Greek name for the people.
Map of Phoenicia and trade network
The Phoenicians emerged as a distinct people in about 1500 BC, during the Bronze Age. They soon developed large urban centers and the cities became major trading hubs. The Phoenicians occupied a narrow strip of land and they were hemmed in by larger kingdoms, so they had no choice but to become sea traders and merchants. The wealth of the cities attracted the attention of other regional powers. The Phoenicians were dominated by the Egyptians until about 1200 BC. The invasions of the Sea-peoples led to the collapse of the Egyptian Empire. This led to the economic and cultural flourishing of the Phoenicians. Based on the archaeological evidence, it seems that there was a great deal of continuity in Phoenician society and culture.
Phoenicians and the Mediterranean
The city population in Phoenicia exploded in the 9th and 8th century BC. They had already established a number of trading posts from Spain to the Levant, which they then expanded into colonies. In 814 BC, colonists from Tyre and Sidon settled in what became Carthage.
Punic ruins in Bysra (Tunisia)
The Phoenicians were great explorers. The city-states had large fleets and they pioneered the development of the multi-tiered galley. They used their great nautical skills to discover new areas for metals and trading opportunities. In fact, a great Phoenician explorer by the name of Hannon attempted to circumnavigate the continent of Africa in the 7th century BC, and there is even some documentary evidence that the Phoenicians reached the British Isles.
They were renowned as traders and merchants and were heavily involved in the metal trade.
Phoenicia was also known for the production of its purple dyes, which were very popular in the Ancient Mediterranean kingdoms, as well as their textile and craftsmanship.
Assyrian warship (probably built by Phoenicians) with two rows of oars, relief from Nineveh, c. 700 BC.
The main natural resources of the Phoenicians were the cedar trees that grew in what is now Lebanon. In the Bible, King Solomon imported Phoenician craftsmen to help to build the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Phoenicians were a very religious people and worshipped a pantheon of gods that were similar to the ancient Canaanite deities. The chief god of the Phoenicians was El. While it has been claimed that the Phoenicians practiced human sacrifices and there is some evidence that they sacrificed children to their gods at a Tophet, this is still controversial and is refuted by many.
Perhaps the most important cultural innovation of the Phoenicians was the development of the alphabet around 1000 BC. Adapted from previous versions, the Phoenician alphabet was based on consonants and vowels and was very flexible; it could be used to create complex communications.
The Phoenician traders spread their new alphabet throughout the Mediterranean. It was later adopted by the Greeks as they emerged from their Dark Ages. Today, the Phoenician alphabet is the basis of most of the world alphabets.
The Phoenician Alphabet
Some have claimed that they also influenced the development of democratic institutions in both Rome and Athens, but this is less verified. Either way, it is clear that the Phoenicians were a very cultured people and some of their ideas may have influenced Greek philosophy, especially the development of Stoicism. Sadly, much of their writings have been lost.
Decline and fall of the Phoenicians
From about the 9th century BC, the Phoenicians came under foreign domination. They were first conquered by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. In the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire and Phoenicia. The Phoenicians were able to maintain their identity and much of their autonomy under these Empires. In fact, they were able to prosper.
Then in the 330s BC, the armies of Alexander the Great invaded Phoenicia. Tyre and other cities refused to submit to the Macedonians, and after a long siege, Alexander captured the city of Tyre with much bloodshed and destruction.
Drawing of the siege of Tyre (323 BC)
The Phoenicians became part of the Empire of Alexander and later that of the Seleucids. During these centuries of Greek rule, they become Hellenized and lost their ancient culture and identity.
However, the Phoenician culture and identity continued to flourish in the colony of Carthage. It established a large Empire and spread the Phoenician culture, an in fact, a neo-Phoenician tradition survived in North Africa, long after the destruction of Carthage. Clearly their impact has far surpassed their reputation as pirates.
By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Messenian Wars, which took place between Sparta and Messenia in the 8th century BC, were very crucial in the rise of Spartan society. Victory in the Messenian Wars was important in the history of Sparta, and by extension, in the history of Ancient Greece as a whole.
Background to the Messinian Wars
The Spartans were a Dorian tribe who invaded Greece from the southern Balkans. They conquered much of the Peloponnesian from the native Achaeans (1100 BC), and some Dorians settled in what became Messenia. There, they created a small kingdom and later adopted the culture of the native Achaeans. Over time, tensions developed between the Spartans and the Messenians; this was born out of a rivalry for resources as well as cultural differences. While the Spartans in Laconia may have resented the Messenian elite, who they believed betrayed their Dorian origins, many historians suggest that the actual cause of the war was the Spartans’ desperate need for more fertile land.
The Outbreak of Messenian War
The immediate casus belli was the theft of some cattle by a Messenian Olympic champion. This led to reprisal raids by the Spartans, during which several Laconians were killed, sparking an all-out war. The dating of the war is not known for certain, but it is thought to have begun in 743/742 BC and lasted until roughly 722 BC.
The Spartan King Alcmenes led an army of heavy infantry into Messenian territory in order to launch a surprise attack on Ampheia, an important Messenian city. Alcemes ordered his men to march by night on the city and they caught the defenders completely by surprise. The Spartans massacred the men and enslaved the children and the women.
Spartan Hoplites from a vase-painting
Euphaes, the king of Messenia, placed all able-bodied men under arms. He was aware that the Spartans were superior infantrymen, so he decided to rely on a strategy of field defenses. The war largely consisted of raids and counter raids during the campaign season. In 739 BC the two armies fought an inconclusive battle in a ravine not far from the capital of Euphaes.
The following campaigning season saw another pitched battle; this time the Spartans and the Messenians clashed near the destroyed city of Ampheia. The two armies were led by their respective kings, consisted mostly of heavy infantry, and also had some light skirmishers and archers. There is some controversy as to whether or not the Laconians adopted the phalanx tactics. If so, it was possibly that this was the first time that a Greek army had adopted the strategy.
Whatever the case, the fight was brutal and bloody and it lasted all day long. There was no quarter shown by either side. By evening the Spartans emerged victorious and the Messenians were in full retreat. Their king decided to return to his strategy of fixed defense and he ordered a stronghold to be built on Mount Ithome, which is over 2,400 feet high (800 meters) and located just above the capital of Messenia. It appears that King Eupales died soon after, as did his archenemy, Alchemnes.
The ruins of Messene
War of Attrition
The Messenians were able to resist the Spartans and maintain their independence. However, they were hard pressed and every summer the Laconians would raid their land, which must have caused economic collapse and food shortages.
The Messenians sent an embassy to obtain advice from the Oracle at the Delphi, and they were ordered to sacrifice a virgin to the gods to secure their favor. According to some accounts, the Messenian sacrificed the daughter of a noble, Aristodemus. After this the fortunes of the Messenians improved, and they had a number of minor successes against the Spartans. It seems Aristodemus, the father of the girl sacrificed, was made the new Messenian king; he went on the attack, driving the Spartans completely out of his kingdom. The Messenians engaged the Spartans in a set-piece battle for the first time since their defeat at Ampheia.
Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy
The Last Phase of the Messenian War
The Messenian War had by now entered its second decade. Sparta was exhausted and was not sure of how it should proceed. It was not in their nature to give up. They emulated the Messenians and sent a delegation to the Oracle of Delphi. The delegation from Laconia was given advice by the oracle, which they followed, however what exactly they were told has not been passed down to us. Sparta possibly adopted a new tactic; they appear to have besieged the Messenian stronghold on Mount Ithome. This led to the collapse of the Messenians and their king took his own life.
Aftermath of the Messenian War
Many of the Messenians were killed, enslaved or went into exile when Sparta annexed nearly all of Messenia. The Laconians reduced the remaining Messenians to the status of helots, a form of slave. They worked the land of their Spartan masters, who had absolute power over them. The conquest of Messenia meant that Sparta grew richer and stronger, and it allowed the Spartan elite to become a class of professional warriors. The capture of Messenia allowed the Laconians to develop their unique constitution and peculiar institutions, such as the agoge, where boys trained to be warriors.
Marble statue of a Spartan king
However, the Messenians continued to resist, and they rose in a revolt known as the 2nd Messinian War, which was suppressed. Nonetheless, unrest continued. The constant threat of rebellion and the need to repress the helots meant that Sparta became a very militarized society. Sparta would not have developed as it had, if they had not been victorious in the Messenian War.
The Messenians were eventually to regain their freedom and independence in the 3rd Messenian War in the 4th century BC.
By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The battle of Actium was one of the most important naval battles in all of history. The victory resulted in the fall of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and the elevation of Augustus to the position of absolute ruler of the Roman Empire. Indeed, this battle determined the direction and the fate of the Roman Empire for over five centuries.
The Background to the Battle of Actium
Rome was engulfed by civil war for decades and was fought over by a series of generals, such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. Following the assassination of Caesar (49 BC), a political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate brought a measure of stability between his heir Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Lepidus. The Roman world and spheres of influence were divided between Octavian and Mark Anthony. The heir of Caesar controlled the Roman West and Anthony the East. Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, became the lover of Mark Anthony and so the two effectively ruled the Eastern Mediterranean.
‘The Battle of Actium, 2 September 31 BC’ (1672) By Laureys a Castro
A war between Octavian and Mark Anthony became inevitable when Caesar’s adopted son side-lined Lepidus, contrary to an earlier agreement. Many in Rome suspected that Mark Anthony wanted to rule the East as a separate state but nonetheless a significant party in Rome supported Anthony, as they were anxious about the ambitions of Octavian. The spark that caused the final war of the Roman Republic was Mark Anthony’s divorce of Octavia, the sister of Octavian.
Prelude to Battle of Actium
Mark Anthony moved quickly; he assembled a huge navy at Ephesus (modern Turkey) and also moved a large army into the Balkans. Many of these ships were sent by Cleopatra who later joined her partner. Anthony knew that speed was essential. He sailed his armada to the Ionian Sea and his ships found harbor in Actium, a rocky promontory. With his fleet sheltered in the bay and a large land army also assembled at Actium (now Preveza, Greece), Mark Anthony was preparing to invade Italy and to march on Rome.
Coin of Anthony and Cleopatra
Meanwhile, Octavian skillfully won support in Rome by portraying Anthony as the pawn of Cleopatra. Octavian appointed his friend Agrippa to the position of admiral to his fleet. He was a brilliant strategist and had gathered his ships in the Ionian Sea. He then attempted to blockade Cleopatra and Octavia at Actium, which made Cleopatra and her Egyptian contingent nervous; they wanted to sail back to Alexandria. Octavian learned of this and was going to let Mark Anthony and his Egyptian Queen escape, however, Agrippa urged him to attack. This forced Mark Anthony to give battle.
The Sea Battle of Actium
The two fleets met outside the Gulf of Actium on a still and beautiful morning on the 2nd of September, 31 BC. Cleopatra and her partner had over 300 ships, many of which were massive galleys complete with towers, full of archers and marines. Octavian, on the other hand, had about 250 warships, which were often smaller. Many were galleys, known as Liburnians, that had long been used by Illyrian pirates and were well suited to the waters of the Ionian Sea. Anthony’s ships had more men and were larger, but they were slow and cumbersome. One of Anthony’s general defected to the enemy and told Octavian of his battle plans. Moreover, there was a disagreement between Anthony’s and Cleopatra’s contingents.
A Liburnian galley- from the 1st century AD
When the battle commenced Agrippa cleverly used the ballista and other missile weapons on his ships. He would launch hit and run attacks against the smaller vessels. Eventually, Anthony was forced to leave the protection of Actium Bay and sought to engage with Octavian’s fleet. This led to an all-day battle. During the fighting, the ships were used rather like platforms from which archers and marines fought each other. They would often board the enemy ships and engage in brutal hand to hand combat.
Sometimes ballistae would sink a ship, but this was not common. Many more were set on fire during the fighting by flaming projectiles. Most of the larger galleys were equipped with rams (rostra) and ships would ram into other vessels to damage or sink them. Agrippa had invented a grappling hook that was fired from a ballista, which allowed ships to be boarded more effectively and gave Octavian’s fleet a real advantage. Thousands were killed or drowned as the battle raged.
There are two main theories as to how the Battle of Actium developed. Many argue that Anthony was winning the battle at this stage, however, the Egyptian contingent, apparently under orders, decided to sail for Alexandria. It had not really taken part in the battle. When the Egyptians began to sail away, it caused Anthony to panic and this led to the loss of many ships. There are others who argue that Anthony was defeated in the sea battle and he fought a rear-guard action to allow his beloved Cleopatra to escape to her kingdom.
Whatever the reason, by the evening of the 2nd of September, Mark Antony’s navy was in full retreat. Octavian did not follow him as he was saving sailors and soldiers from sinking ships and the sea. The following day the heir of Julius Caesar seized the camp of Anthony and the majority of his enemy’s army surrendered to him without a fight.
The Aftermath of the Battle of Actium
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. (Public Domain).
Mark Anthony and Cleopatra made it safely back to Egypt. Cleopatra tried to sign a separate peace with Octavian, but he refused; he wanted to parade her in his Triumph. Anthony and Cleopatra’s allies began to abandon them and soon they realized that their position was hopeless. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra both committed suicide rather than be taken alive.
Octavian became the first Roman Emperor. His victory at Actium was the death-knell of the Roman Republic.