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Stoic Essay Competition: Winner!

by December 27, 2021

Earlier this year we launched our inaugural Stoic Essay competition… and today I’m excited to announce the winner! 
We asked how Stoicism can help in our modern lives and were fortunate to have Donald Robertson, renowned Stoic and author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, judge our submissions. 
I’d like to officially congratulate Lia Pas on her winning essay on Stoicism and chronic Illness… Lia has worked hard to turn her illness into inspiration with the aid of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. You can learn a bit more about Lia and the stoic influences in her life in the very short clip below. 
As winner of the Stoic Essay Competition, Lia has won $500 as well as the feature article in this month’s Classical Wisdom Litterae Magazine, coming out this week. 
If you aren’t already a Classical Wisdom Member or magazine subscriber, you can get the magazine here.
To follow Lia’s artwork, please go to:

Who Were the Etruscans?

by October 26, 2021

by Kevin Blood
We tend to think of the Greeks and Romans as foundational civilizations who bequeathed to us an immense legacy. While their achievements are enormous, they too had their own forebears. The Etruscans, for instance, were a powerful civilization that had a significant influence on the development of Roman culture. For the ancient Rome we think of today – the Republic and the Empire, the vast conquests and battles, and the various, captivating personalities of the emperors – was shaped in various, vital ways by the Etruscans.
They were a maritime, trading and agricultural people, and they possessed an advanced culture. They were exponents of an impressive standard of technical expertise, particularly in metalwork. The rich mineral resources of Eturia and the nearby island of Elba may have proven significant draws for Etruscan settlement.
Rome, which had been a loose group of agricultural villages, was transformed by the Etruscans into a powerful city (urbs).  Roma (Ruma) was Etruscan – the growth of the city adhered to the Etruscan pattern, including, even, the religious boundary-line of the pomerium. Much survived of the Etruscan system in the form of the Roman state religion and in Rome’s symbols of political authority. The Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, were linked to the Etruscan triad of gods; the temple on the Capitoline Hill was actually constructed by the Etruscans. Acts of divination, such as the studying of the organs and entrails of sacrificial animals, or the interpretation of the flights of birds, remained central to Roman religious ritual. In the period of the Roman republic, no public action or event could happen without the chief magistrates taking the auspices.
Many Roman symbols of power and authority came from the Etruscans. The color purple, for instance, which had been used for the robe of the Etruscan king, would be used by the Romans for the robe of a triumphant general, and in the stripe that bordered the toga of a high magistrate.
In contrast to Greek colonies, which were situated on the coastline, Etruscan towns and cities were more widespread. It was not unusual for them to situate towns and cities inland, far from the coast. They often built such settlements on fortified plateaus away from the coast, but with access to the sea. A good example of this was the settlement of Caere (Cerveteri), it was built upon a tufa plateau 5 kilometers from the sea, however, access to the sea was important, so, the settlement was built with access to three major ports in mind.
Urban planning and civil engineering were part of the Etruscan skill set. Towns were planned and laid out in a grid pattern, with paved streets intersecting at right angles. Around each town was a ploughed furrow, marking the spiritual boundary of the town (the pomerium). Evidence of Etruscan engineering skills can be found in the remains of stone walls (many with monumental gateways), underground drains and cisterns, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels and temples; extensive use of the arch, which the Etruscans introduced to Italy, is to be found in all these buildings.
Etruscan houses were constructed from perishable materials, meaning none have survived. Yet, a clear picture of how they looked can be gained through a study of the interior of design of their tombs, which were similar in design to their houses. The ancestor of the Roman house, the Etruscan house contained an atrium (open court) off which were two rooms, most likely for slaves, at the opposite end was a door leading to the triclinium (banqueting hall); three doors off the triclinium led to the sleeping quarters. 
Etruscan house
An Etruscan house
Between their cities, the Etruscans created a substantial network of roads, which the Romans later adopted and improved upon. A number of these remain in use to this day.
Political organisation
Etruscan towns did not unite under the banner of a formidable league. Instead, they unified in a kind of loose federation, most likely for religious purposes. Those conquered by the Etruscans were not wholly assimilated: they were more like serfs, used on the land for purposes of cultivation. They were also likely conscripts in the lower ranks of the armies. The Etruscans formed an elite class, with sole rights to positions of power and authority, and to membership of the state’s religious institutions and to its legislative bodies.
Agricultural and industrial development
The Etruscans deforested large tracts of land for agriculture, and for the same purposes, they drained marshes, developed irrigation systems, dammed rivers and planted vines and extensive olive groves.
The city of Fufluna (Populonia) attests to significant Etruscan industrial development. This port-city had forges, foundries, iron furnaces, merchant vessels for the export of iron-ore, and a naval arsenal.  Crude iron was piled along the docks, alongside finished products ready for export.  Such was the size of iron production that during World War I, the Italians mined the slag heaps (waste products from furnaces) for the metals within.
Smaller industries were responsible for the manufacture of silver, ivory, gold, alabaster, and bronze products.
The Greeks inspired the Etruscans to create pottery in the contemporary Greek style, yet the finished product had not the same precision and accuracy of the Greeks.  It did, however, have an uniquely Etruscan flavour in its depictions of fantasy in the decoration.
Herakles and the Hydra Water Jar (Etruscan, c. 525 BC)
Herakles and the Hydra Water Jar (Etruscan, c. 525 BC)
The Etruscans developed a significant trade network, trading with Carthage, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks of southern Italy and Sicily. Etruscan products have been found in Germany, France, Britain and Scandinavia. They traded copper, iron, and fine metalwork for vases and art products from Greeks in the west and the east, and for silver, gold and tin from Carthage.
The predominant maritime city of Caere, in southern Etruria, possessed its own fleet, which it used to protect it commercial sphere of influence. Despite the strong cultural ties between Greeks and Etruscans, it forced the Greeks out of Corsica.
Expansion and decline
The Etruscans expanded their power and territory in the seventh century BCE , by crossing the river Tiber and conquering a large part of Latium, occupying the fertile plains of Campania, while also founding towns at strategic points, with Campania, Capua, Nola and Pompeii being amongst the most important of them.
The subsequent century saw their expansion north into the Po valley, pushing as far as the Alps. They continued to found towns, and some of these remain important urban centres in modern Italy, such as Milan, Bologna, Parma and Ravenna. Southward conquests increased their contact with the Greeks, who controlled significant assets in the from of Greek colonies along the north shore of the Mediterranean. This led the Etruscans to formerly ally themselves with the Carthaginians.
At the end of the sixth century, it is fair to say, the Etruscans were a major, if not the most powerful group in Italy. Yet, their dominion was brief. 509 and 507 saw the Latins and Romans throw off the yoke of Etruscan dominance, and this was followed in 474 by a crushing defeat by the Greeks. Etruscan power was further limited by the Samnites who overran central Italy and seized Capua in 424; and when the Gauls defeated the cities of the Po valley, Etruscan military and political power over their previous conquests was completely broken. Their power base was now confined to Etruria proper.
This failure to maintain their political and military dominance was the result of a lack of co-operation and unity between Etruscan cities, which made it difficult to keep control of hostile subjects. Yet, their decline in power in the sixth century was not the end of the Etruscan culture which continued to influence Italy.
For instance, many popular Roman entertainments, like chariot racing and gladiatorial combat, had Etruscan origins. It was in practical matters that the Etruscans main legacy to Rome was to be found in the form of planned towns, sewers, paved streets, drainage systems, aqueducts and bridges, all of which employed the vault and arch. Even Roman military camps were erected on the plan used for Etruscan towns. Yet, Rome, though it gained much from the influence of the Etruscans, maintained its Latin identity.

The Lost Psychedelic Cult of Ancient Greece

by September 1, 2021

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
What does LSD have to do with the ancient Greeks? Although they may seem worlds apart, the drug may have played a key role in one of the ancient Greek’s most mysterious religious rituals. But first, a little background…
In 1938 Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann successfully synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide from a naturally occurring fungus known as Ergot.
Ergot is a fungus that grows on barley, rye, and similar crops. It produces alkaloids, a compound responsible for the condition known as ergotism, that causes convulsions, spasms, vomiting, mania, and psychosis if the Ergot is consumed in its raw form.
When Hofmann was experimenting with this dangerous parasitic fungus, he was looking to isolate an effective chemical compound that would stimulate circulatory and respiratory systems, but what he found instead was a highly effective psychedelic drug, known today as LSD. So, what does LSD and Hofmann’s lab have to do with the ancient Greeks?
Recent archaeological evidence has unearthed fragments of Ergot in an ancient Greek ceremonial cup, found at a Mas Castellar des Pontos, in Girona Spain dating back to 300 BC. Remnants of Ergot were also found in the dental calculus of a 25-year-old male, providing evidence that an Ergot-infused drink was consumed at the site at that time.
Mas Castellar is a significant ancient temple. It was dedicated to the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, the chief goddesses associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, well as Kykeon, the mysterious potion consumed at the famous ritual at Eleusis.

The Kykeon and Eleusis

The Eleusinian Mysteries have puzzled scholars for nearly two millennia. The mysteries of Demeter and her daughter Persephone were an ancient ritual that was observed yearly between 1600 BCE and 392 CE. It was a festival of magnitude that required over a year’s worth of preparation.
The initiates, which could number thousands at a time, would embark on a 10-day parade down the scared way to the famous temple, where they would break their 3-day fast with a sip of the sacred Kykeon, which gave way to a night of dancing and a re-enactment of the famous central myth of The Mysteries, Demeter’s quest to save her daughter from the grips of the underworld.
The festival attracted millions around the Greek and Roman empire, with the promise of unveiling the secrets of the afterlife for the initiated. Those who were initiated into the inner sanctum to witness the Greater Mysteries were forbidden to discuss what happened there under pain of death – a harsh penalty that is not precedented in any other Greek festival.
Red-figured Kalix Krater, National Archeological Museum Ferrara, Italy
More so, the ingredients of the mysterious Kykeon were shrouded in such secrecy that despite thousands of initiates having experienced the concoction, we are left only with scattered and vague references to what the potion contained.
Besides the mysteries themselves, the Kykeon is perhaps Eleusis’ best-kept secret. The ancient potion is said to be the source of the mysteries and is referenced in literature across the ancient Greek-speaking world.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe mixes the Kykeon with honey and uses it to turn Odysseus’ men into swine, and in the Iliad it is said to be a mixture made from goats’ cheese, water, and barley.
No one really knows what the Kykeon was and how it was made. The initiates of the inner mysteries were forbidden to share its secrets outside of Eleusis. Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, Cicero, Plutarch, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were all initiates of the Greater Mysteries.
But did the greatest men in western history, the men behind reason, logic, democracy, and science really travel all the way to Eleusis to find themselves mesmerized by a simple honey drink and a good play?

The Psychedelic Enlightenment Hypothesis

Even before the unearthing of the Ergot tainted cup at Mas Castellar, some modern scholars had suspected that the drink contained a psychoactive element due to the detailed accounts from eye-witnesses that had attended the ceremony.
Phryne on the Poseidon’s celebration in Eleusis, Henryk Siemiradzki, 1889
Barley is considered the chief ingredient of the Kykeon, along with other non-psychoactive ingredients. Ergot is a parasitic fungus that thrives on barley, and it was the scourge of the ancient and medieval worlds.
Barley was a highly precious commodity, and to have the harvest infected with Ergot could be society’s ruin. However, had the ancients found a way to use unwanted Ergot growing on their barley corn? Could they have found a method of isolating the psychoactive element of the fungus, just as Dr Hofmann did in 1938?

Comparative Accounts: Ancient Eleusis and Contemporary Psychedelic Studies

To avoid the death penalty, Plato described his experience at Eleusis in cryptic terms. He spoke of Eleusis as ‘the holiest of Mysteries’ where he experienced ‘a state of perfection’ and ‘blessed sight and vision’.
During the climax of the evening, upon the completion of the initiation ceremony, attendees were given the title epoptes which roughly translates as ‘The one who has seen it all’. Initiates claimed that life continued after death, and there was a light waiting for us at the end of the tunnel.
After his initiation, Sophocles claimed that ‘’trice blessed are those among men who, after beholding these rites, go down to Hades. Only for them is their life [after death]; all the rest will suffer an evil lot’’
To put this into context, the ancient Greeks usually approached death with reluctance and gloom. It was generally believed that when one dies, his or her spirit is damned to roam the underworld (Hades) for all eternity. It appears that those who emerged from the ritual at Eleusis left with an alternative attitude towards death and dying. These accounts suggest that what was happening at Eleusis was different from the other religious ceremonies in ancient Greece.
In The Road to Eleusis published in 1978, Albert Hofmann, along with the Classicist Carl Ruck and Mycologist Gordon Wassan, first put forth the hypothesis that the Kykeon contained a psychoactive entheogen by comparing accounts of Eleusis with spiritual ceremonies found in other cultures that used natural psychedelic compounds.
The White Road to Eleusis, Destination Athens, 2018
The book received much criticism upon its publication, however, in recent years their work has become more accepted, especially in light of archaeological evidence, like that at Mas Castellar.
The amount of evidence that is slowly emerging has opened doors for further research into the therapeutic uses of psychedelics. The mental health industry is particularly interested in psychedelics as a treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction, and is proving to be especially effective for end-of-life therapy for patients with terminal illnesses.
Dr. Roland R Griffiths of John Hopkins University has conducted several psychedelic studies and surveys on the effect of mind-altering drugs and their relationship with consciousness and perceived reality.
In a 2019 study, Griffiths and his team recorded and compared the experience of psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and ayahuasca users who described their experience as an ‘ultimate reality’.
Griffiths reports that the participants could recall vivid memories that frequently involved direct communication with conscious entities that were “benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal and all-knowing” and that approximately half of the participants described their experience as ‘mystical’.
It has not gone unnoticed that these accounts are not dissimilar from those who participated in the ancient Mysteries at Eleusis.
In The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Cult with No Name (pub. 2020) linguist Brian C. Muraresku details his 20-year deep dive into ancient psychedelic research and the role of Ergot and other possible psychedelic substances in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The linguist who has never taken a psychedelic drug in his life, argues the possibility that humans have used psychedelic drugs as far back and the stone age, and the Kykeon is a possible precursor for the Christian Eucharist.
However, despite emerging evidence, the jury is still out on whether or not psychedelics played a role in ancient Greek enlightenment.
There is evidence that other cultures, like the Egyptians, grew psychedelics plants but evidence on how they used the plants is still up for debate.
Traditional scholars agree that the states of euphoria felt at Eleusis was more likely caused by the participants arriving in a famished state after a 3-day fast and dancing for several hours – a combination that can stimulate the nervous system and result in self-induced visions and hypnotic trances.
While the traditional explanation of the euphoric effect of The Mysteries is certainly possible and generally accepted, psychedelic researchers and classical linguists cannot ignore the comparative similarity of the accounts given by modern-day psychedelic drug users and initiates of the ancient temples.
Whether or not the ancient Greeks used psychedelics for spiritual purposes, and if they happened upon them on purpose, by accident, or at all, is still unknown. Further research is required, and new technology is helping researchers gain more insight into how ancient societies used medicinal plants and the relationship between consciousness, reality, and nature.
Griffiths RR, Hurwitz ES, Davis AK, Johnson MW, Jesse R (2019) Survey of subjective “God encounter experiences”: Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT. PLoS ONE 14(4): e0214377. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377
 Brian C. Muraresku (2020) The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name
Georgio Samorini, The Oldest Archaeological Data Evidencing the Relationship of Homo Sapiens with Psychoactive Plants: A Worldwide Overview, Journal of Psychedelic Studies, volume 3, issue 2
R.Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck (1978) The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California

‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Ozymandias and Us

by July 14, 2021

You probably know that quote, don’t you? Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias featured prominently in both promotion for the ultra-popular TV show Breaking Bad, and also in the acclaimed comic series Watchmen. Did you know it was written in response to the Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus? His account of an inscription he read beneath a colossal statue group in an Egyptian temple directly inspired Shelley, who in turn has inspired countless others, leading to his poem popping up in all sorts of unexpected places.

It is a great contemporary example of how the Classical world comes down to us today. The perception can be that the Classics are sequestered away at elite universities, inaccessible to the world at large. Yet that’s not the truth; the Classics surround us, all the time, often in ways we don’t even realise.

Edith Hall, one of the UK’s foremost Classicists, details this in her new book with Henry Stead, A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939. Her book focuses on the ways that the Classics have intersected with the daily lives of ordinary, working class people through the centuries. Although the title indicates a focus on Britain and Ireland, Hall’s real subject is Class, and how average, working class life has always been bound up with the Classics.
Buy ‘A People’s History of Classics’ HERE
If that piques your interest, Edith Hall will also be speaking live at our online Symposium this August. A major voice for the importance and relevance of the Classics, Edith will be giving her lecture ‘Ozymandias Since the Cold War’, as part of our theme, End of Empires and Fall of Nations. Edith is joined by a legitimate all-star line up of some of the world’s most celebrated Classicists. In keeping with the theme of Edith’s book, this talk is accessible to EVERYONE. The ticket price is entirely your choice! Find out more below…
We hope to see you in August!

Sparta and… Scotland? Laconic wit through the centuries

by July 13, 2021

By Andrew Rattray
When you think of Sparta, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing immoveable, impenetrable warriors, the infamous black broth, or perhaps the often-brutal agoge. These things are certainly what first come to mind for me. After all, modern day depictions of Spartan culture portray a hard people who pride martial prowess above all else. Just look to the impossibly chiselled abs in the heavily stylised cinematic retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, ‘300’.
This isn’t just a modern view either. Even at the height of their power the Spartans were seen more as miserable brutes than philosophical thinkers. However, while this reputation isn’t totally unearned, I’m not so sure it’s perfectly accurate. I think the Spartans were less grim realists, and more sarcastic humourists. I should know, I’m Scottish. Let me explain.
We in Scotland have for a long time suffered under a similar reputation of being grumpy, miserable, hard-heads, much like the Spartans. I think this is, in part, due to each nation sharing a neighbour typified by a more refined and well-to-do reputation. Scotland has England, Sparta had Athens. The contrast, and the cultural exports of our neighbours, has painted both Scotland and Sparta with a mischaracterisation that doesn’t necessarily represent our true nature.
The two most powerful city states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, were often at odds with one another
If you’ll indulge me, I will recount two quotes on the Spartans and the Scots that demonstrate this similarity even further.  Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, describes the hidden cunning of the Spartans: “…they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle…This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
Now consider this extract from Chapter One of André Mourois’ biography; The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming: Discoverer of Penicillin. “The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman’s head…This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face.”
These two extracts, from two authors over two thousand years distant, perfectly encapsulate the hidden wit of these two cultures which were (and are) so often painted as boorish and ignorant. I consider the Spartans great humourists because I recognise in Spartan discourse this same sense of humour that pervades Scottish culture.
You see, the Spartans were known for what we now call ‘Laconic wit’, a manner of conveying ideas characterised by short, sharp, pithy aphorisms that deliver truth in a satisfyingly minimalistic way. Those of you familiar with the regions of ancient Greece will be one step ahead of me. Laconic wit is named for Laconia, the home of the Spartans. They didn’t just adopt the idea, they pioneered it.
The lambda on the Spartan shields stood for Lacedaemon, from which we also get the word ‘laconic’
However, where most consider the terseness of the Spartans an extension of their hard, hand-to-mouth style existence, I believe it displays a silly, care free sense of humour. After all, Shakespeare teaches us that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’.
One of the most famous examples of this Laconic wit is found in the Spartan response to Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). Philip, after invading Southern Greece and forcing the submission of some of the other prominent City States, wrote to the Spartans asking whether he should come to them as friend or foe. The Spartans reply? “Neither”. This incensed Philip who then wrote, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”. Again, the Spartans reply with one word. “If”. In the end, Philip never did conquer the Spartans.
Spartan history is dotted with examples of this sort of sharp, direct, retort but I feel these come across more as ironic, self-aware jibes than true, grim, arrogance. When I think of the Spartan exchange with Philip the first thing that comes to mind is the Scots phrase “Did ye, aye?” an extremely sarcastic way of saying you don’t believe someone, but easy for non-Scots to miss. In the same way, I think the humour of the Spartans has been missed here.
In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus recounts another quintessential example of Laconic wit at play. Herodotus describes how a group of Samians, unseated from their homes, petitioned the Spartans for their aid. The Samians, in audience of the Spartans, spoke at length of their troubles to ensure that the greatness of their need was well understood. To this the Spartans replied that the speech had been so long that they had forgotten the beginning and thus could make no sense of the end! The next day the Samians returned to the audience of the Spartans once more with nothing but an empty sack. Holding it out before them the Samians said simply; “The sack wants flour.”. The Spartan response? “You didn’t have to say ‘the sack’”. I find it impossible to picture that final line without imagining its speaker with a well-deserved smirk. This isn’t hard headedness, it’s tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s almost silly.
Let’s compare with a Scottish example. Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, and figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ of the 18th century, was once at the Greenock quay when a wealthy merchant fell into the harbour. The merchant couldn’t swim and floundered in the water as a crowd gathered. Before long, a sailor dove in, risking his own life, to pull the merchant out and save him from drowning. By way of thanks, the merchant reached into his pocket and produced a single shilling (a meagre sum) much to the dismay of the crowd who found such a small reward to be contemptible. Burns stepped forward to calm the tensions and with a broad smile shouted over the clamour “Please, the gentleman is of course the best judge of the value of his own life!”.
The poet Robert Burns
This is what I mean when I say I recognise this same humour in these Spartan stories. Burns’ response couches truth in humour in a way that cuts to the core of the issue. The sarcastic humour of the Scots might be a little more direct, a little more obvious, but to an accustomed ear, one can find the same elements with the Spartans.
So far, history has been kinder to the wit and humour of the Scots than of the Spartans, but in our modern age, full of resurgence of interest in the ancient world, now is the perfect time to deepen our appreciation of Spartan culture for more than just their warrior mentality and stoic resolve. When an Argonian visitor remarked to the Spartan King Eudamidas I that foreign travel risked corrupting Spartan citizens, Eudamidas replied simply; But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.
Perhaps we all can become better if we were to open our mind to new perspectives a little more often.