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Category Archives: Places

The History of Pompeii and its Volcanic Eruption

by December 10, 2019

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.
Pompeii Volcanic Eruption

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

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

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

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.
A villa unearthed in Pompeii

A villa unearthed in Pompeii

References

The Phoenicians: More than Just Pirates

by November 19, 2019

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.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenicia

Map of Phoenicia and trade network

Phoenicia timeline
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)

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.
Phoenician Economy

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.

Warship

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.
Phoenician Culture
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.
The Phoenician God Ba’al

The Phoenician God Ba’al

The Phoenicians were famous artists. They created new art forms by adopting the traditions and designs of the Egyptians and others and forming a new synthesis. Their artistic productions were exported all over the Mediterranean and they inspired other artists. Homer praises the arts and crafts of the Phoenicians.
The Phoenician Alphabet
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

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)

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.

References
Moscati, Sabatino (1995). The World of the Phoenicians. New York, NY: Frederick A. Praeger.

Pithecusae: Island of Firsts

by September 3, 2019

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Home to thermal springs and verdant landscapes, the idyllic island of Ischia also houses the first Greek settlement in all of Europe. Enterprising pioneers from the Greek island of Euboea, founded the colony in the mid-eighth century BCE, naming it Pithecusae from the Greek word pithekos meaning “ape” or “monkey.” But was the island truly named for monkeys?
Situated in the Bay of Naples, Pithecusae was never inhabited by apes or monkeys, leading some scholars to speculate that its name may come instead from the Greek word pithekizo which meant “to monkey around.” Another thought is that this term was used derisively by mainlanders to refer to the speculative and profiteering islanders who originally hailed from the Athens environs, over seven hundred miles away.
Modern day Ischia

Modern day Ischia

Which begs the question, why on earth would settlers from Euboea, a sea-faring island to the east of Athens, be interested in colonizing what was then the westernmost boundary of the Mediterranean?
The Metal of Choice
In order to answer this question definitively, it is important to understand what was occurring in ancient Greece at the time. Never known for its arable land, the farmland shortage became pronounced during the population explosion of the Archaic Age. It was from the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE that colonizing other lands became fashionable to the intrepid ancient Greeks.
Although the rich fertility of Pithecusae’s volcanic soil was desirable to the Euboean settlers, more alluring to the Iron Age colonists were its ample iron ore reserves. In the eighth century BCE, iron was the new bronze and the adventurous settlers were willing to travel far and wide for their current metal of choice.
Because of its protected, well-positioned harbor along with its vast resources, trade networks were bountiful in Pithecusae. The island traded heavily not only with their mainland neighbors of Campania, Apulia, Etruria and Latium but also with the Near East and Carthage, amongst others. Throughout Greek settlements, Pithecusae was recognized as having the widest-range of objects from the farthest reaches of the Iron Age Mediterranean.
The Cup of Nestor?
Today, chief among Pithecusaean objects of interest is a seven-inch cup, originally made on the island of Rhodes and dated to around 750 BCE. Battered and diminutive, at first glance this artifact is unimpressive, but upon closer inspection an engraving can be found that has sparked no small amount of interest in the academic community.
the "cup of Nestor"

The “Cup of Nestor”

The etching, believed to have been scribbled in Pithecusae around 725 BCE, is not only the earliest example we have of Greek writing, more compelling still is that this is the first example we have of Greek poetry! Two of the three lines of text are in Homeric hexameter and refer to Nestor, a character from Homer’s Iliad:
“I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.”
Ironically, the earliest recorded evidence we have of Homer’s epic hymn is in the form of a joke. Both as a pun demonstrated by its modest size as in The Iliad Nestor’s cup was notorious for being too heavy to lift; and as a bawdy quip as the reference to Aphrodite bespeaks. That eighth century Greeks living on the edge of Magna Graecia could jest about the Homeric legends testifies to how deeply ingrained, even prosaic, Homer’s narratives must have been. Undeniably, The Iliad was originally composed as an oral hymn, to be sung or recited, possibly as early as 1200 BCE with its written format believed to have been penned anywhere from 725 BCE to 634 BCE.
As a result of the discovery of the etching on this obscure cup in the backwaters of ancient Greece, some scholars now argue that the date of Homer’s poem must be pushed back for knowledge of his verses to be as common as this cup attests.
Homer recites poem

Homer recites a poem

Sadly, in contrast to its amusing engraving this cup has a more sobering epilogue; it was discovered in the grave of a ten-year old boy offered by his father in a funeral pyre. Doubly tragic is that the young lad, who was in death its final recipient, would never know the adult delight the cup’s inscription signified. The somber conclusion of this cup’s destiny is a reminder that in the Greek world omnipresent death was humor’s dark companion.
Which brings us to the fate of Pithecusae; in a land of firsts with a population boasting ten thousand at its zenith in 700 BCE, why was this plucky Greek settlement not better known? While it was the rich volcanic soil that initially lured the Greeks to settle the island of Pithecusae, the reason for its demise lies also in the soil’s combustible origins.
According to geographer and historian Strabo (64 BCE to 24 CE), severe volcanic and earthquake activity impacted Pithecusae’s acclaim leading one classical scholar to term it “the lid of a cauldron.” Indeed, due to its geological volatility, an exodus ensued and Pithecusae’s bustling trade was eventually transferred to the nearby Greek settlement of Cumae on the southern Italian mainland. Most historians agree that by 500 BCE the settlement of Pithecusae was all but destroyed by a volcanic eruption of Mount Epomeo, the island’s largest volcano.
Perhaps in a fitting Homeric denouement, the fiery fate of Nestor’s Cup foreshadowed the incendiary collapse of the once burgeoning land from which it sprung.

Athens

by July 19, 2019

Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze.

Athens and Sparta were two of the most influential city-states in the ancient world. They both held sway over the history of ancient Greece and to this day have spawned much comparison and analysis. And as we wrote in a previous article, Sparta was known for their militaristic civilization and for their affinity for war.
Conversely, Athens would be remembered for it’s remarkable progress in the fields of philosophy, politics and literature. And for all of it’s beauty and devotion to intellectual progress, it was a city-state that was often harrowed with tragedy. In the words of the medieval, christian scholar Alcuin of York:

“At Athens, wise men propose, and fools dispose.”

Democracy athens

Democracy in Athens
painting by. Philipp Foltz

Athens

It was said in the early years of Athens, the city-state was governed by a series of kings. In mythology it is said that the hero Theseus was one of the early kings of Athens and began his reign shortly after slaying the ferocious Minotaur. Athenian politics would evolve into a early form of democracy in 550 BCE. The Athenian system of democracy was set up as a direct democratic process in which the population was able to vote directly on legislation. However, only men who had completed their military service were actually allowed to vote or participate, which would constitute about 20% of the total population. Despite restrictions such as these, Athenian democracy was remarkable y successful and well maintained. It is for this reason that Athens is often considered “The Birthplace of Democracy”.

In addition to being the birthplace of democracy, Athens is also considered the cradle of western civilization. This is due to their progress in the fields of philosophy, literature and even architecture. Athens was the heart of ancient philosophy. It was the location of Plato’s Academy as well as Aristotle’s  Lyceum. Athens was also the home of the famous Socrates as well as other influential philosophers such as Diogenes and Epicurus. Philosophy took great strides in Athens.

schoolxl

School of Athens
by. Raphael

Whether it was Socrates’s dramatic lectures on ethics, Plato’s abstract theory of forms, or even Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern because he was ‘looking for an honest man’; there was always something going on. In addition to philosophical progress, Athens was home to some of the most beautiful structures of ancient times. The Acropolis and the famous temple known as The Parthenon are brilliant examples of ancient structures that exemplified the skill and precision of Athenian architecture. In addition to the temple of Athena, the Acropolis was also home to the theater of Dionysus where famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus regularly presented some of their most notable tragedies.

Atheniannavy

Athens possessed a powerful navy

While Athens is often remembered for their advances in the realm of philosophy and literature, they were by no means unable to participate in warfare. While the city-state of Sparta was known for their ability to wage war on the ground, it was the superior navy of Athens that would contribute to several key victories in during the fist and second Persian invasion as well as the bloody  Peloponnesian war. Perhaps the most important victory by the Athenian navy was the battle of Salamis; where  the Athenian commander  Themistocles defeated the Persian naval fleet, effectively ending the second Persian invasion.

The culture of ancient Athens was almost a mirror opposite of the Spartan civilization. They found themselves content enough to enjoy life and discuss the intellectual benefits of philosophy and politics. And while the Spartans insisted on perfecting the art of war, the Athenians exerted their energy on developing a foundation for what would become known as western culture. However that is not to say that Athenian civilization was perfect.
Women in a procession

Ancient Greek women

When compared to the treatment of their citizens, it could be argued that Athens loses out to Sparta. While Spartan women were allowed to walk the city freely and participate in sports, the sisters and daughters of Athens had severe restrictions on their rights. Athenian women were often confined to their homes and not allowed to leave without permission. The women of Athens were often segregated from much of the population and young girls were only allowed to eat certain foods.
And while Athens is remembered for their development of democracy, it was far from perfect. Only about 20% of the population was allowed to vote or participate in politics. Individuals who had property close to the walls of Athens were excluded from war legislation, because invaders would certainly destroy their property first and the owners would therefore have a conflict of interest. Another criticism of the Athenian civilization was that they had an affinity for carelessly executing people.
death of socrates

The Death of Socrates
by. Jacques-Louis David

During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after the other until only one remained. It was only after nine men had been executed that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.
After the naval victory at Arginusae, several Athenian commanders were accused of failing to collect survivors after the battle. Six commanders were executed for failing to perform their duties. The city would later repent for the executions and attempted to make up for it. However they made up for it by executing the original men who accused the generals.
The city of Athens even went so far as to execute the famous philosopher Socrates for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. Socrates would later willingly drink poison, even when he was prompted with a chance to escape. In The Gorgias, written by Plato years later, the trial of Socrates is compared a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef and judged by a jury of children.
 
 

Ancient Alexandria, Egypt

by March 5, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Egyptian city of Alexandria was established in 331 BCE by its Eponymous founder, Alexander the Great. Despite its humble beginnings as a port city, Alexandria developed into one of the most prosperous metropolitan areas in the ancient world. It grew to boast such wonders like the library of Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis, and the Pharos of Alexandria (the lighthouse).
Map of Ancient Alexandria, Egypt

City Plan of Ancient Alexandria, Egypt

Foundation of Ancient Alexandria
In his “Life of Alexander,” Plutarch describes the foundation of the city Alexandria. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, which was part of his campaigns all over the eastern Mediterranean, he planned to settle a large Greek city, “which would bear his name.” Alexander had imagined a city that would be home to men of all nations, and one that would abound in resources. Cleomenes, Alexander’s commander, was left in charge of the construction and expansion of the city. Following in Cleomenes’ footsteps, Ptolemy further built up the city and subsequently his own familial dynasty ruled Egypt from 332-30 BCE.
Pharos of Alexandria

Illustration of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria’s Rise to Prominence

Since Alexandria came to replace the previous Egyptian capital of Memphis, and Tyre, a significant port city, was destroyed by Alexander, the new capital filled a vacuum of both political and commercial means. Alexandria became a lucrative node in the trade network of the Mediterranean, and attracted commerce from the east, north, and west.
This allowed for the local economy to prosper, which in turn led to investments in institutions like the Library of Alexandria. The city was known for attracting scientists, philosophers, artists, and mathematicians (like Euclid!)

Illustration of the library of Alexandria

Library of Alexandria, Egypt

Institutions of Alexandria
Of course, one of the most famous products of Alexandria is the library. It was one of the most ambitious projects not only of the ancient world, but even by today’s standards. The Library of Alexandria aimed to collect all the knowledge of the world and house it in a single place. Ptolemy I began work on the library and located it in the royal district of the city. No doubt modeled in grand fashion, we have no surviving accounts of the architecture and can only speculate as to its appearance. With the intent of the library being to collect a copy of every book in the world, it is no surprise that Ptolemy II instituted a practice that required every ship docking at the port to hand over any books on board to be copied out for the collection.
Unfortunately, this gold mine of science, history, math, and literature was destroyed. As the city of Alexandria changes rule several times throughout its history, the new governing body viewed the Library of Alexandria as a threat to their control rather than a fountain of information. The use of the library waned over the years and its reported that several periods of fire took place, destroying scrolls and manuscripts.
Another prominent installation of Alexandria at her height of power was the Serapeum. The temple, which was constructed under Ptolemy III in the 3rd century BCE, was dedicated to the protector of Alexandria, Serapis. Strabo tells us that the temple was housed in the western portion of the city. Like the Library of Alexandria, the Serapeum does not survive and we can only assume what it looked like.
Alexandria Lighthouse Coin

Coin depicting the Lighthouse of Alexandria

However, an article discussing Alexandria would be remiss if it did not include a discussion of the lighthouse of Alexandria. Considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it became the model of lighthouses then and now. The lighthouse, or Pharos, served as a practical component of Alexandria, helping guide ships into her harbors; but it also was a feat of technology, reaching a staggering height and becoming a symbol of the city, as we can see on coin depictions.
Illustration of Roman Alexandria

Ancient Roman Alexandria, Egypt

Roman Alexandria
With the Roman victories in the Punic Wars, Rome reigned supreme in the Mediterranean and Alexandria came under her rule. For roughly two centuries, this didn’t impact the prosperity of Alexandria too terribly much. She still continued to be a prominent port city with a bustling social sphere. It was during the breakdown of the First Triumvirate, though, that we see direct negative sanctions being placed on Alexandria. Pompey’s loss to Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus led to his flight to Alexandria, seeking sanctuary. However, he was killed by Ptolemy XIII and Caesar arrived, declaring martial law of the land. In the following years of civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy, the city of Alexandria suffered destruction and fires.
After the death of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, and the consolidation of power by Augustus, Alexandria became a province of the Roman Empire, lacking any real political autonomy. The city was rebuilt after the fires and recovered from the internal turmoil of the 1st century BCE, but never quite to the level of pre-Roman occupation.
Illustration of Alexandria Fire

Fire at the library of Alexandria

Decline of Alexandria
Having been such a hot bed for knowledge, learning, and advancements for centuries, Alexandria’s involvement in the Christianity vs. paganism schism does not come as a surprise. Still under Roman rule, Theodosius I outlawed paganism, promoting instead the conversion to Christianity. As Alexandria had been a prosperous and robust city for centuries, temples, sanctuaries, and monuments reflecting the newly outlawed religion abounded. Christians of the city clashed with pagans in Alexandria and the city plunged into religious and ideological distress. Scholars that had once felt safe, encouraged, and supported now fled the city in search of calmer surroundings. The draw of Alexandria as a cultural, political, and commercial center no longer persisted due to the constant religious tension and the city fell by the wayside.
The city of Alexandria certainly had an active history, serving as the stage for political rivalries, scholastic breakthroughs, and religious wars. The longevity of the city’s occupation allowed her to be involved in several events of the wider Mediterranean. Of course, we all dream about what could have been if only the Library of Alexandria were still around today.

Sparta Vs. Athens

by February 19, 2019

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
SPARTA

Emblem of Sparta

Sparta, also known by its ancient name Lacedaemon in honor of their legendary founder, is often considered to have been the most dominant military presence in ancient Greece. Their infantry soldiers were said to have been among the most skilled and fearsome warriors of the ancient world. Dedicating the majority of their lives to perfecting the art of warfare, the ferocity of the Spartan hoplite would grant the city-state several military victories and lead to the defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
This obsession with fighting was supported by their culture. The Spartan lifestyle, especially that of the Spartan men, was dedicated to learning the art of fighting and the craft of war. At birth, Spartan babies were examined for weaknesses. If they were deemed frail or deformed, they were tossed into a chasm on Mount Taygetos. At a young age the boys would be taken away from their homes and participate in an education system known as Agoge. In this state mandated training curriculum, young male citizens would be taught how to be a warrior. They were educated in the ways of warfare, fighting as well as reading and writing. They would endure physical hardships and often be submitted to harsh, violent punishments.

Statue of a Spartan

This militaristic state was only possible because of the complex societal structure of Sparta. While native born Spartans enjoyed full rights and freedoms, there were others who were not so fortunate. The Perioikoi were a secondary type of Spartan citizen who, although not full citizens and therefore unable to participate in the Agoge training, still enjoyed freedom in the Spartan community. They acted as skilled craftsmen and reserve warriors when needed.
The Helots were state owned serfs who bordered narrowly on being classified as slaves. The Helots were lower class citizens who were responsible for the agricultural stability of Sparta. It was only through the farming work of the Helots that the other Spartans were able to free up their time to participate fully in military training. Even though the Helots were essential to Spartan society, they were also prone to uprisings and would be a constant source of trouble for the Spartan city.
An interesting note about Spartan society was that women enjoyed a level of freedom that was unheard of in the ancient world. Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers, and they were not restricted to their homes as was common in Athens. The daughters and sisters of Sparta were allowed to play outdoors and even compete in sports. While it was common in other city-states to marry off girls at the age of 12 or 13, Spartan women tied the knot in their late teens or early twenties. This was done as an effort to spare women the health dangers of pregnancies in adolescents. As a result of their superior diet and bountiful exercise, Spartan women often lived into old age more frequently than in any other part of the ancient world.

Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae

The military contributions of Sparta can not be overemphasized. During the Classical age of Greece, they were unmatched as a land military force, playing decisive roles in several battles during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. Sparta is perhaps best remembered for it’s heroic stand at the battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (along with roughly 6000 other Greek hoplites) fended off the massive Persian army before being outflanked and eventually massacred on the third day of battle. Thermopylae remains one of the most famous last stands of military history and continues to be a topic of fascination for modern classical enthusiasts.

ATHENS

Emblem of Athens

It was said in the early years of Athens, the city-state was governed by a series of kings. In mythology it is said that the hero Theseus was one of the early kings of Athens and began his reign shortly after slaying the ferocious Minotaur. Athenian politics would evolve into a early form of democracy in 550 BCE. The Athenian system of democracy was set up as a direct democratic process in which the population was able to vote directly on legislation. However, only men who had completed their military service were actually allowed to vote or participate, which would constitute about 20% of the total population. Despite restrictions such as these, Athenian democracy was remarkable y successful and well maintained. It is for this reason that Athens is often considered the birthplace of democracy.
Athens is also considered the cradle of western civilization; this is due to their progress in the fields of philosophy, literature and even architecture. Athens was the heart of ancient philosophy. It was the location of Plato’s Academy as well as Aristotle’s Lyceum. Athens was also the home of the famous Socrates as well as other influential philosophers such as Diogenes and Epicurus. Philosophy took great strides in Athens.

Plato

Whether it was Socrates’s dramatic lectures on the examined life, Plato’s abstract theory of forms, or even Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern because he was looking for an honest man; there was always something going on. In addition to philosophical progress, Athens was home to some of the most beautiful structures of ancient times. The Acropolis and the famous temple known as The Parthenon are brilliant examples of ancient structures that exemplified the skill and precision of Athenian architecture. In addition to the temple of Athena, the Acropolis was also home to the theater of Dionysus where famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Aeschylus regularly presented some of their most notable tragedies.
While Athens is often remembered for their advances in the realm of philosophy and literature, they were by no means unable to participate in warfare. While the city-state of Sparta was known for their ability to wage war on the ground, it was the superior navy of Athens that would contribute to several key victories during the fist and second Persian invasion as well as the bloody Peloponnesian war. Perhaps the most important victory by the Athenian navy was the battle of Salamis where the Athenian commander Themistocles defeated the Persian naval fleet, turning the tides of war in the Greeks favor.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

The culture of ancient Athens was almost a mirror opposite of the Spartan civilization. They found themselves content enough to enjoy life and discuss the intellectual benefits of philosophy and politics. And while the Spartans insisted on perfecting the art of war, the Athenians exerted their energy on developing a foundation for what would become known as western culture. However, that is not to say that Athenian civilization was perfect.
When compared to the treatment of their citizens, it could be argued that Athens loses out to Sparta. While Spartan women were allowed to walk the city freely and participate in sports, the sisters and daughters of Athens had severe restrictions on their rights. Athenian women were often confined to their homes and not allowed to leave without permission. The women of Athens were often segregated from much of the population and young girls were only allowed to eat certain foods.
And while Athens is remembered for their development of democracy, it was far from perfect. Only about 20% of the population was allowed to vote or participate in politics. Individuals who had property close to the walls of Athens were excluded from war legislation, because invaders would certainly destroy their property first and the owners would therefore have a conflict of interest. Another criticism of the Athenian civilization was that they had an affinity for carelessly executing people.
During the Peloponnesian war, the ten treasurers of the Delian League were accused of embezzling funds from the Athenian treasury. These men were tried and executed one after the other until only one remained. It was only after nine men had been executed that a simple accounting error was discovered and the remaining treasurer was released.
After the naval victory at Arginusae, several Athenian commanders were accused of failing to collect survivors after the battle. Six commanders were executed for failing to perform their duties. The city would later repent for the executions and attempted to make up for it. However they made up for it by executing the original men who accused the generals.
Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

The city of Athens even went so far as to execute the famous philosopher Socrates for ‘corrupting the young and believing in strange gods’. Socrates would later willingly drink poison, even when he was prompted with a chance to escape. In The Gorgias, written by Plato years later, the trial of Socrates is compared a doctor being prosecuted by a pastry chef and judged by a jury of children.
Whoever you side with there is no doubt that both Athens and Sparta were flourishing civilizations in their own rights. It could be argued that these two city-states were two of the most dominant super powers of the ancient world. We may consider ourselves lucky that their history and rich legacy has survived thousands of years; so that we might peer through the looking glass and witness the glory of our ancestors from a time long past.