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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

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.


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.


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.

The History of Thebes

by November 20, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Having been inhabited for roughly 5,000 years, Thebes possesses a wealth of history and culture. Thebes is located in central Greece and garnered military might and political power, not least of which resulted from their leadership in the Boeotian League and the Sacred Band of soldiers in the 4th century.
Map of Thebes

Plan of Thebes

Archaeological excavations have revealed fortified buildings with rock-cut foundations as well as courtyards (stone-paved) and mud brick walls dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Around 2500 BC, we see evidence for food and wool production and trade, thanks to recovered grinding stones and terracotta loom weights and spools.
Jumping ahead to the Mycenaean period, Thebes boasted a Mycenaean palace called Kadmeion, located in the center of the acropolis. It was a large independent structure comprised of corridors, rooms for work and storage, as well as workshops that were vital to the existence of Thebes. Also found were Linear B tablets and seal stones, along with Cretan stirrup jars, that demonstrate that Thebes had widespread contacts in the Aegean. While the trade alone is not surprising for this time period, it does help us understand the role and significance Thebes played early on.
Archeological site in Thebes

The Mycenaean Palace, or Kadmeion, dates from the 13th century BC and is located almost centrally on the acropolis.

Around 1200 BC the Mediterranean was swallowed up in a relatively indecipherable fog… however, Thebes emerged again in the Archaic period with infrastructure and power. Soon, they forged an antagonistic relationship against Athens and Sparta, fighting almost constantly for regional dominance. It didn’t help Thebes’ image throughout Greece either that they sided with Persia and Xerxes in 480 BC during the Persian War.
After the Persian War, there was relative quiet, save for the rising tensions among the Greek powers themselves. Thebes needed to be punished for their alliance with the Persians, and so was stripped of the head seat at the Boeotian league.
Map of the Greco Persian wars

Historical Atlas of the Mediterranean/Persian Wars

However, not soon after, Sparta needed support against Athens in central Greece and enlisted Thebes to take up the position. By 431 BC, there was an all out war (the Archidamian War) between allies Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes against Athens which lasted until 421 BC. After the Archidamian War, there was the Decelean War (415 BC -404 BC) and the Corinthian War (395 BC – 387 BC, Thebes Corinth, Argos, and Athens against Sparta).
Turmoil abounded (with Thebes often highly involved) until the invasion of Philip of Macedonia. In 338 BC, Thebes joined Athens and Corinth, setting aside a rivalry going back hundreds of years in order to stand against the Macedonians. We all know the result; eventually Thebes was destroyed by Alexander the Great and the population was sold into slavery.
The subsequent years saw Roman visits and rebuilding, population depletion, and finally becoming a provincial town in the Roman Empire. The zenith of Thebes had come to an end long before, though its mythology still lives on.
Mythology in Thebes
7 Against Thebes

The Seven Against Thebes

Like most Greek cities, Thebes has a foundation myth that connects its people to the gods. In the case of Thebes, it was founded by Kadmos (or Cadmus), son of Egenor and brother of Europa. While specifics change depending on who is reporting the story, the basics remain that Kadmos was to sow the teeth of a giant serpent (that he had previously slain) into the ground. From this spot a group of warriors sprang from the earth, and they fought and battled to found the city of Kadmea.
Another prominent myth, that again has to do with a psuedo-foundation, is Seven Against Thebes. In this story, Oedipus’ two sons, Polyneikes and Eteokles, embroiled themselves in a war. After Eteokles exiled Polyneikes, he enlisted the help of the Achaeans to take back the city of Thebes. Seven warriors, including Polyneikes, started their assault on the city and began scaling the walls. Even though six out of the seven were killed, the attack was successful and Polyneikes (though dead) took back the city from his brother.
Famous People from Thebes
Bust of Pindar

Pindar, Roman copy of Greek 5th century BC bust (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples)

Perhaps three of the most notorious people from Thebes are Epaminondas, Pelopidas, and Pindar.
Epaminondas (born around 418 BC and died 362 BC) was a military general and student of philosophy. He commanded the Theban forces at pivotal battles such as Leuctra, where the Thebans delivered such a decisive blow to the Spartans that a monument was erected, as well as the Battle of Mantinea where he died in battle.
At the same time as Epaminondas, Pelopidas campaigned in Central and Northern Greece, and died in the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 364 BC. He was successful in the battle though and overthrew the Thessalian troops of Alexander of Pherae.
However, the most recognizable celebrity to come from Thebes may certainly be Pindar, the poet of paeans, songs, and hymns. Though fragmentary, we do have 45 of his lyric odes, or epinicia, to honor notable people. Pindar authored a style that was mirrored by Latin poets, like Horace, and was popular material for Byzantine literature. In 1896, a “Pindaric Ode” was created for the Olympic Games in Athens, similarly copied as recently as 2012.
Contributions from Thebes
Among the literature, mythology, and fodder for excavation that Thebes has provided us, she also left behind a legacy of political contributions. In 378 BC, Thebes remodeled their constitution and established a democracy and the Boeotian federation. This new and somewhat radical type of “democratic Federalism” provided direct federal citizenship to those in her domain.
Another contribution Thebes provided is the so-called Theban “hegemony.” This was the period after the Theban victory at the battle of Leuctra, where for decades Thebes held powerful influence and loyalty in Greece, acquired not by military occupations but by lucrative alliances maintained throughout the region.
An, although mythic, Kadmus is credited with bringing the alphabet to Thebes from the east, a contribution that would have inhibited Theban growth in subsequent years.

The Helots: Slave Warriors of Ancient Sparta

by May 18, 2018

By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta had a social hierarchy that was different from many of its neighbors. The top of the social pyramid was occupied by the two kings, whose powers were checked by a ‘council of elders’. These elders were chosen from the next class, the Spartiates. Below this aristocratic class was a middle class which was called the Perioeci. The lowest class, which was also the largest, in Spartan society was held a group known as the Helots.
According to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the Helots hailed from a city called Helos. This city is said to have been conquered by the Spartans, and its inhabitants became their first slaves. Subsequent peoples enslaved by the Spartans were also called Helots. The Greek historian, Thucydides, however, gives a different account of the origins of the Helots. According to this writer, the Helots were the descendants of the Messenians who were enslaved by the Spartans during the First Messenian War in the 8th century BC. Another account of the origins of the Helots can be found in Strabo’s Geography. According to this writer, the peoples who were subjected to Spartan rule were initially accorded equal rights. During the reign of Agis I, however, these rights were revoked, and the subjects forced to pay a tribute. All complied, except the people of Helus, who revolted. They were crushed in a war and reduced to slavery.

Map of Sparta

Whilst they are considered as slaves, it has been pointed out that they were somewhat different from other slaves in the neighboring Greek city-states. It is claimed that in Athens, for instance, slaves did not have families and communities of their own. The Helots, by contrast, had their own families and communities. Additionally, the Helots were not privately owned, but belonged to the state. According to Strabo, “the Lacedaemonians held the Helots as state-slave in a way, having assigned to them certain settlements to live in and special services to perform.”
As the male citizens of Sparta devoted their lives to athletic and military training, war, politics, and hunting, they could not afford to spend time on agricultural activities. The task of producing food was left to the Helots. Although the Helots were, generally speaking, peasants, they may be employed for other jobs, such as servants or grooms, as well. Additionally, the Helots could be conscripted into military duties at times of war. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus records that each of the 5000 Spartiate at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC was protected by seven light-armed Helots. Thus, there was a total of 35,000 Helots at that battle.
Although the Helots were crucial for the functioning of Spartan society, the other classes had an uneasy relationship with them. Given that the Helots greatly outnumbered their Spartan masters, the possibility of them revolting against their repressive rulers was ever present. The first major Helot revolt took place around 665 BC, and is known as the Second Messenian War (The First Messenian War had ended around 40 years prior to this conflict). The Helots seized on the occasion of Sparta’s defeat by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae to launch a revolt. It took the Spartans nearly 20 years to put down the rebellion.
Painting of Leonidas

“Leonidas at Thermopylae” by Jacques Louis David. All 300 Spartans along with the Helot slave warriors fought to their deaths. Persia won the battle, but lost the war.

Given the precarious state of things, the Spartans took precautions to prevent the Helots from revolting. During the Persian Wars, for instance, the Spartans were not too eager to send their hoplites abroad to fight for the freedom of Greece. This was due to the fear that the Helots would revolt when the Spartan army was fighting away from home. Despite these and other precautions, several revolts by the Helots took place over the centuries. When an earthquake struck the Eurotas Valley in 464 BC, the Helots seized this opportunity to revolt. This was the largest revolt recorded. The Helots fortified Mount Ithome, which was besieged by Sparta. The siege only ended five years later when both sides agreed to a truce. The surviving Helots were taken by Athens and settled on Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf.
Photo of the location of Ancient Sparta

The Site where Ancient Sparta used to Stand. Situated on the banks of the Eurotas River in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese, Greece. Photo by Ronny Siegel, 2013.

Spartan treatment of Helots improved overtime, perhaps as a means of appeasing them. For instance, Helots could hope to be emancipated, and it is known that groups of Helots were sometimes liberated. Nevertheless, the system collapsed in the 4 th century BC. In 371 BC, the Spartans suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. The victorious Thebans then invaded the Peloponnese, and the Helots of Messenia were liberated. The last Helots (the Helots of Laconia) were emancipated at the end of the 3 rd century BC by the reformer kings Cleomenes III and Nabis.

The Dual Monarchy of Sparta

by August 9, 2016

By Julia Huse
When it comes to Ancient Greece I am particularly
spartaSpartan Warrior
fond of Athens. As the birthplace of democracy, the epicenter of Greek tragedy, and the intellectual hub of the classical age, Athens had a lot going for it.
Today, however, we look elsewhere. Classical Athens, after all, wasn’t the only place where new and dramatic changes were taking place.
You might be familiar with Sparta, the intensely militaristic city-state of the Ancient world made famous by the movie 300.
Imagine if the United States Marine Corp founded and governed their own country.
That would be Sparta…
Key players in the Greco-Persian War, we often admire Sparta for its toughness and courage. With a focus on its military, however, we hardly ever hear about its government. This is a real shame because Sparta had its own unique political system with two, count them, two kings sitting on the throne at once.
In his Histories, Herodotus explains to us how this dual kingship came about. A Spartan king named Aristodemus had twin sons. Almost immediately after the two boys were born Aristodemus croaked. The Spartans were then faced with a dilemma; who was going to be Aristodemus’ successor? The Spartans wanted to make the older of the twins the new king, as was custom, but the two boys were so “alike and equal” that they could not determine which of the two was the older twin. The Spartans then turned to the mother of the twins, Argeia, who told the Spartans that she couldn’t even tell them apart. This was a lie. She knew which of the two was older but she wanted both her sons to become king.
Better Ask the Oracle
So the Spartans, not sure what to do, did what any good city-state would do at the time: ask the oracle at Delphi.
When they asked the Pythia (for those who don’t know the Pythia was the priestess at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi who gave the oracle), she told the Spartans to make both the boys king. From that point on the Spartans had two kings, one from the lineage of each twin. As the twins grew up they were in constant competition with each other, which then became an important part of the dual kingship.
Power with Limits
These kings were equal in every sense. Both kings dealt equally in the matters of religion, laws and military. Over the years, however, the say that the two kings had in these matters dwindled. By the 5th century BC most of their judicial duties had been handed over to the ephors, a democratically elected group of law makers, and the gerousia, a group of 28 elders elected for life normally part of royal households. Even though their judicial power had been reduced, the kings still held a decent amount of military power.
Either king could lead armies in to war with the approval of certain councils, but it was not permitted for both the kings to lead an army at the same time. One king always had to remain in Sparta in order to prevent anarchy, or the ever-frequent helot (slave) uprising.
A Modern Revival?
The idea of monarchy in Sparta was clearly very complicated. Not only does the “mono” part of monarchy not really apply to their dual kingship, but also the power of these kings were closely regulated and controlled by other councils in their government. This rather odd form of monarchy was somewhat genius in its own way though. Not only did these kings have two councils to check their power, the competition between the two kings kept them in line as well.
The kings held opposing opinions on issues, thus providing a voice for citizens on either side of the issue. Also, making one king always remain in the city ensured order and calm for the Spartans even in times of war. The nature of the two councils also had added benefits. The relative permanence of the gerousia provided stability in their government while the annually elected ephors allowed the Spartans to have a voice in their government.
This whole system seems very similar to the perfect government described by Cicero in his De Re Publica with its mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Have we been so distracted by democratic Athens that we’ve missed the odd genius of the Spartan political system?
Now, I’m not calling for a modern revival. I’m not saying that the United States, just as an example, should elect two presidents. Put Hillary AND The Donald in office; let them sort it out amongst themselves.
Yeah…that would work.
But for the ancient Spartans, it DID work, for a while at least.
The next time you think of Sparta, put out of your mind the image of behemoth warriors in leather speedos. Instead, perhaps remember the ancient Spartans as innovative, dare we even say revolutionary, political thinkers.

Carthage: Always the bridesmaid

by January 2, 2015

By Ben Potter
What do Spain, Portugal, Malta, Gibraltar, Libya, Morocco, Italy and France have in common?
Weather… perhaps. Food… some. Sea? Ah! Now we’re warming up!

What if we throw into the mix the names Bomilcar, Hasdrabul, Hamilcar and Terrence?

If you’ve got the answer, well done!

If you haven’t, then it’s probably because I’ve been tricky, having omitted the key place, person and animal associated with this land; they are Tunisia, Hannibal and the elephant, respectively.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, today we will be looking at that erstwhile champion of the Mediterranean, the forgotten superpower of the ancient world, Carthage!
The inhabitants of this land, originally a large peninsula which washed into the gulf of Tunis, often have to play second, or indeed third fiddle, in the annals of history to their Greek and Roman neighbours.
It is perhaps a quirk of geography that casts Carthage in shadow. While the Hellenes and the Latins understandably dominate proceedings, ancient-lovers’ who are drawn towards Africa are normally met with pyramids, sphinxes, and the hypnotic eye of Ra.
This rings more true when combined with the fact that this impressive society never quite managed to become truly imperious… though they often came close.

One could say that geographically and historically Carthage has been always the bridesmaid…but never the bride.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves; let us begin at the beginning.

Legend has it that Carthage was founded out of the Phoenician stronghold of Tyre (in Lebanon) in the latter part of the ninth century BC.
Phoenician ship
Archaeological verification is yet to be made within a century of the date, but the influence of those great Semitic traders and seamen, the Phoenicians, is certain.
Less so is the idea that Carthage’s first ruler was the mythical and tragic queen Dido.
Whatever her origins, Carthage became an essential port, first rivalling, and then outstripping, its motherland. This was due to its fine farmland, two excellent harbours, important strategic position and judicious buying and selling of commodities from as far afield as Britain and the Canary Islands.
Its trade of precious Iberian metals, and especially its monopoly of tin ore, meant that…ahem…unalloyed wealth streamed into the colony. Indeed, without this booming industry the Bronze Age might have existed in only a nominal sense.

Though practical metals were far from the be-all-and-end-all of Carthaginian trade.

Their immense fleets (both trade and naval) saw them wheel and deal in lead, stones, garum (a salty fish sauce used as a condiment), fish, skins, hides, ivory, salt, exotic animals, timber, textiles, glass, pottery, wine, gold and the pound-for-pound most valuable commodity of the ancient world, purple dye.

Carthage Reconstruction
Thus Carthage was not merely the marketplace of the Mediterranean, it was the very conduit from which other cities were able to become cosmopolitan.
Though loyalists might baulk at the suggestion that, without trade, Carthage would have been nothing, we can confidently state that no other ancient civilization (and perhaps no modern – discuss!) was so dependent on foreign commerce as was this one.
But just how, as they were initially in the thrall of Tyre, did Carthage manage to manoeuvre itself into a position to be a major Mediterranean player?

Well, first it gained its independence from the Phoenicians around 650 BC.

Though the fledgling state seems to initially have been governed along monarchical lines, there is evidence for an advanced and sophisticated political system via the adoption of an oligarchic constitution by the sixth century BC.

However, the break from their Phoenician forefathers (who were being overrun by the Persians) was not merely a functional or symbolic one; this was not a simple taxation vs. representation equation.
What occurred would have been the equivalent of the 1776 United States of America becoming lord and master of parts of India, Canada, South America and Africa!
Map of Carthage Empire
Yes, with an unfettered vim, Carthage went about exerting hegemony over the key Tyrian trading posts and colonies of the Mediterranean basin. The effect of which was not merely the establishment of a trading realm, but of a full-blown (and capital-lettered) Empire!
Indeed, by 509 BC Carthage’s rampages forced Rome to sign a treaty recognising that these seafaring swashbucklers had control over both Sardinia and Sicily.
With regards to the inland areas of Africa, the Carthaginians (generally) made peaceful treaties with the indigenous peoples therein. It is quite likely such pacts were eagerly signed as Carthage had enough coin to hire half the mercenaries of Europe and decimate the African hinterland… should she have wished to do so.

But it was the fascination with Sicily that set Carthage on an inevitable crash course with the Greeks, themselves keen to expand their sphere of influence into what became known as Magna Graecia.

This now quintessentially Italian isle was anything but in the ancient world and for 200 years (from the fifth century BC onwards) it set the stage for a tit-for-tat war between the Greeks and Carthaginians.

Carthage was peerless in naval terms, but its small native population necessitated an overreliance on mercenaries. For whatever reason, these swords-for-hire never quite managed to overwhelm or intimidate the Greeks into submission.
Susceptibility to plague and a formidable opposition meant that Carthage, though never losing its foothold in the West of the island, by equal measures, never managed to drive the Greeks into the sea.
This centuries-long stalemate not only cost both sides time, men and money, but it had another effect. It allowed the Roman Republic to slowly blossom into a major player while their two most likely rivals slugged it out down south.

Indeed, Greek mistakes were often at the heart of Roman expansion.

Pyrrhus of Epirus
The most famous example is Pyrrhus, king of Epirus and Macedon (remembered today though the expression ‘a pyrrhic victory’), who looked to expand his empire.
He assaulted Rome and Sicilian Carthage, which briefly made the two states allies to counter his machinations (to the Carthaginians eventual downfall). His failure gave Rome the casus bellum to assimilate the Greek portion of the Italian peninsula.
This meant that when Carthaginian ships were stationed in the stretto di Messina (between Italy and Sicily), Rome’s newly swollen boundaries were suddenly under threat.

What happened next is well known: The Punic Wars, Hannibal and his elephants, initial success, and ultimate failure.

Battle of Zama
The battle of Zama (202 BC) between Hannibal and Scipio Africanus was a catastrophic defeat for the Carthaginians. Rome was on the path to greatness, while Carthage, a forlorn and broken foe, was left to muse over that saddest of sad reflections: ‘it might have been’.
146 BC saw the annihilation of Carthage, its earth salted, and its population enslaved or massacred. Crucially for the fate of world history, this meant that Rome was now the dominant force in the region, with a greatly expanded empire and without any serious military rivals.
Though it is never expedient to play ‘what if…’ in such situations, it is a simultaneously sobering and humbling thought to think that Western civilization may have hinged on the outcome of this moment.

Rarely does history roll over the points in such a clear and stark fashion, but this is one moment we can pinpoint and say from here on in… Europe had Africa in its thrall.

Decline of Carthage
Though that’s not to say this was quite the end of Carthage; it’s difficult to keep a good people down after all. Like the proverbial phoenix, Carthage rose again, albeit under the auspices of Rome.
The age of emperors saw a renaissance in the colony with Augustus (understandably shy of tempting fate in Egypt) making it the base for his proconsul to Africa.
As Africa was swelling the Empire’s breadbasket, providing it with a vital corn supply, Carthage became more and more important. Within 200 years, it was second only to Rome itself in the western Mediterranean.
In addition, the great city became a bastion of both education, producing or polishing great orators and lawyers, and of Christianity. The bishop of Carthage was Rome’s number two (at least according to the man himself).

Overlooked, undervalued, and a postscript to the main attraction… even so, Carthage somehow survived the sword and salt of Rome.

True, it may have had little in the way of original and distinctive art as well as a pagan pantheon that was derided by contemporaries (for its practice of child sacrifice). Nonetheless, it is well worth more than a mere fleeting thought.

Through us, Carthage lives on… and will continue to do so as long as men and women through the ages occasionally rise a glass and a smile to the bridesmaid who never quite got the breaks to become a bride, but without whom the wedding would hardly have been worth attending.