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Plato’s “Apology” And The Wisdom Of Socrates

by September 26, 2018

“The Apology” recounts the speech Socrates delivers to the court of Athens that means to put him to death for his odd practices. He is charged with “corrupting the youth and believing in strange gods” a crime that was punishable by death in ancient Athens. Socrates would have had some choice words for the man who had all the answers. Only a fool would truly believe that he had solved, absolutely, the mysteries of life.
So let us examine the wisdom of Socrates. Let us consider the true nature of wisdom. Let us consider what convictions are worth clinging to, even in the face of death. And for once, let us all concede that we do not have all the answers.
As a general disclaimer, before we delve head first into this, we must first recognize that “Apology” was not written by Socrates himself. It was put to paper by his disciple Plato. We must be careful of accepting everything Plato wrote without hesitation. Plato wrote his philosophical essays in the form of dialogues, where Socrates would often be used as a puppet to explain the ideas of Plato. It is difficult to decipher where Socrates ends and Plato begins.
Saying that, “Apology” by Plato, although being rather dramatic, is generally accepted as an accurate representation of Socrates and his ideas on wisdom and the prospect of death.
1. Socrates On Wisdom
At the opening of “Apology”, Socrates stands before a court of Athens as he faces his accusers who wish to see him put to death. His accusers are Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon, all prominent Athenians who were prompted by politicians, poets and craftsmen to pursue the death of Socrates. Socrates addresses the crowd witnessing his trial and assures them that the charges against him are “false” and “slanderous”. He claims that these charges were brought against him because he possessed a wisdom that was “peculiarly human”. What wisdom does Socrates speak of?
Socrates had recently been informed by the oracle at Delphi that he, of all men in Athens, was wisest. Socrates is very skeptical of this claim. How is it that he could be wisest when Athens possesses so many notable politicians, artists and poets? Surely there must be some mistake. So Socrates describes how he first would visit with the politicians of Athens. Surely if he were to converse with these notable men of government, he would find that they possessed great wisdom.
Socrates learned that the politicians, as is common with politicians, believed themselves to be very wise and the people as well thought them to be knowledgeable of all good things. Yet, they were not wise men. Socrates would try to show this to them, to shake them from their undeserved sense of superiority, and they would refuse him. The politicians would become angry at Socrates, and they would denounce him and send him away.
Socrates again spoke with poets and craftsmen of Athens. They all appeared to have some knowledge of things, yet they too believed themselves superior and unduly wise. They would also become angry with Socrates for his insistence that they really knew nothing. Socrates would then come to form his conclusions about true wisdom and the nature of being wise.
Wisdom is humility, accepting that we know very little or nothing at all. Socrates describes this conclusion when he states “I am wiser than that man. Neither of us probably knows anything worthwhile; but he thinks he does when he does not, and I do not and do not think I do”. Socrates is considered the wisest man in Athens by the Oracle, because instead of assuming he possesses wisdom, he accepts that wisdom is often unattainable and that we should instead continuously purse new and truer knowledge.
2. Socrates On Politics
So if Socrates is the wisest man in Athens, why does he not use this wisdom for the benefit of the city? He should enter politics and become influential within Athens, right? Socrates briefly tried his hand at politics. The philosopher, for a time, was the senator representing the tribe Antiochis. He oversaw the trial of several Athenian generals who were accused of failing to collect the bodies of fallen soldiers after a decisive naval battle. The generals were tried together, which was illegal, and they were threatened with death for their mistake. It was then that Socrates discovered a fatal flaw within democracy.
The crowd, as well as the city, overwhelmingly opposed the generals. In response, the other judges of the trial went to great lengths to ensure the deaths of the accused. In this way they would gain great favor with the citizens of Athens. Socrates found this behavior disgraceful. Although these generals had not upheld their duties, justice as well as Athenian law should declare that they were undeserving of death. Socrates cast his vote to save the generals and was met with political backlash. The citizens hated him, threatened his life and demanded his impeachment. Socrates stood firm in his commitment to justice. He declares, “I cared not a straw for death. My only fear was the fear of doing an unrighteous or unholy thing”.
Quote by Socrates/Plato
Despite Socrates’ attempts, the generals would be put to death. Socrates himself would quietly slip away from politics. Shortly after, Athens would encounter a brief political revolution and democracy would be replaced with an oligarchical rule. Socrates considers himself to have been saved by the oligarchical leaders who were not slaves to the desires of the people. From these experiences, Socrates has grown to distrust politics. It is a system that denies justice and virtue, and instead produces evil, greedy men who look to control the throngs of foolish voters. Socrates insists that he is better off lecturing in the streets, showing the citizens the path to wisdom and revealing true virtue in the process.
We must be careful at this point. Plato deeply hated democracy. “Apology” would have been written after the death of Socrates, who very much was killed through a democratic process. It is understandable that Plato would despise democracy for it’s role in killing his mentor and friend. It is possible that the dangers of democracy described here are actually Plato’s ideas filtered through the character of Socrates. We may never know for sure.
3. Socrates On Death And The Immortal Soul
During the course of the trial, Socrates begins to discuss the notion of death. His life very much is on the line, yet he seems to be unrepentant. He insists that if he were acquitted, he would continue his lectures, he would never denounce philosophy. Socrates shall not abandon his integrity and admit to these false crimes. He does not fear death. How can this be?
Death of Socrates

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

Socrates concludes that death is either a state of permanent unconsciousness, like a dreamless sleep, or death is a moving on of the spirit to another realm. Either would be taken as a blessing. If death is like a dreamless sleep, then it would be a great gain according to Socrates. Peace for the man and the soul, eternally and without interruption, would be something that even a king could not denounce.
And if death is a pilgrimage of the soul, then Socrates would gladly make that journey. He would look forward to meeting with the deceased who have gained fame for their great deeds. Would it not be magnificent to converse with the likes of Homer or Odysseus? Socrates could spend his time conversing with Agamemnon and Ajax from the Trojan war. In this new immortal realm, Socrates could continue his pursuit of wisdom and true knowledge. He could interview the ancient heroes and learn which of them are wise and which are fools. Death, perhaps, would be a welcome reprieve from life.
4. Socrates On The Purpose Of His Life
Socrates, by now, has been sentenced to die by a narrow majority. Instead of begging for his life, he recounts the purpose of his existence, standing beside his convictions until the very end.
Socrates tells us that it was not through chance that he lived the way he did. He was chosen by the Gods to stir Athens from it’s laziness and self assured contentment. Like a gadfly might urge a lazy horse, Socrates attempted to shake Athenians from their slumber. He has been divinely guided to pursue knowledge and to help others find true wisdom. All through his trial he has been given no sign from God to repent, to beg for his life. So he now concludes that it is a far better thing for him to be relieved from this mortal world. Socrates tells us that death is a noble and inevitable end for all men; living unrighteous lives, however, is a sin that will truly haunt the soul.
Quote by Plato
Socrates speaks to the audience and claims that “they will not easily find another like me”. And that Athens, for all it’s supposed wisdom, will ironically be remembered as the city that killed the wisest man of all. He remarks that even if he were given the chance to live, on the condition that he denounces his lectures and philosophy, he would still rather die. For the greatest life is the life that continuously discusses virtue, and explores the bounds of true wisdom. And the life that is unexamined, is not worth living. Socrates says his goodbyes to the crowd. He tells them that they must now depart. He must go to die, they must go to live. And only God will know which course is better.
As “Apology” comes to a close, I can not help but feel a sense of loss for a man I never met who lived in a time that I will never know. The first intellectual martyr of Western civilization, Socrates’ legacy would be long remembered and deeply loved. As I imagine Socrates saying goodbye to his friends in Athens, turning to face his death, I am reminded of the words of Charles Dickens from his classic novel “A Tale Of Two Cities”.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done
It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known

Caesar and Alexander: The Story of Two Leaders

by September 21, 2018

By Giuseppe Aiello, contributing writer, Classical Wisdom
It is the year 69 before Christ. Gaius Julius Caesar, now more than thirty, is located in Cadiz, the ancient Gades of Punic origin.
Here, one step away from the famous Gates, where the Mediterranean flows into the ocean, the Roman wanders around the temple dedicated to Hercules, the mythical Greek hero that had advanced far and beyond.
Suddenly, Caesar stops in front of the statue of another half-god, Alexander the Great, who died at the age of not yet thirty-three, in June 323 BC.
Plutarch, in his “Parallel Lives“, and Suetonius in the “Lives of the Caesars” tell us the incident. To those who asked for the reason for his subdued weeping before the effigy of Macedonus, Caesar replied that he could not suffocate his pain. On the one hand, he saw how at 32, the same age as himself, Alexander had left, dying, a boundless empire that he had created. On the other hand, Caesar felt he had not yet completed a noteworthy undertaking.
Caesar with the statue of Alexander

Julius Caesar’s encounter with Alexander the Great

The stroke of the thirty-second year for the two great Ancients, Alexander and Caesar, admirable icons of that historical era, was the end of existence for the first, and the beginning of an exceptional vital path for the second.
When the son of Philip II died, he left in the greedy hands of his successors a kingdom in which the sun rose on the Indus delta and set down diving into the Adriatic. Like hungry lions in contention with a great shred of fresh meat, Perdiccas, Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleucus, and the other Macedonian generals, divided the immense empire of Alexander among themselves.
Death took the Great when all that could be conquered had been subdued: Greeks, Macedonians, Phoenicians, Syropalestinians, Egyptians, Armenians, Persians, Indians … Myriads of men and women of different races and lineages lived in relative serenity, in the shadow of the royal mantle of the Casa di Pella.
The Greekization of distant worlds (worlds that the Hellenic themselves called “barbarians”) found its main vehicle in the Alexandrian army. Thanks to the eternal exploits of the Macedonians, the overflow of the Hellenic language, customs and intellectual systems mixed with lands, also rich in history, spontaneously producing that epochal phenomenon that we call “Hellenism”.
Empire map of Alexander

Map of Alexander the Great’s Empire

It was not a forced imposition, where the people were compelled to assume the characteristics of the dominator (thus repudiating their own). Instead, it created by an extraordinary osmotic process of mutual assimilation, in which the habits, laws, and costumes of the winners and vanquished mixed together. Producing a new reality, this development gave way to the flourishing of the Hellenistic age.
When, at the age of 32, Alexander left earthly life in Babylon and entered the universal myth, he had already given a full display of his military genius. The battles of Granico (334 BC), Isso (333 BC) and Guagamela (331 BC) have exceptional importance within the history of mankind.
Thanks to them, and the success of Macedonian weapons, the great Persian King Darius III Codomannus, enemy par excellence of the Hellenic world, was yoked to Alexander’s cart. The glorious lineage of the Achaemenids was extinguished.
Alexander, the son of Olympias and the sublime student of Aristotle, had led the Macedonian phalanxes to victory counting an age between 22 and 25 years: a prodigy of precociousness.
No human being, as Alexander, has given the impression, in the course of his existence, of belonging more to the genus of the gods than to that of mortals… and so he was recognized as divine.
Bust of Alexander

Alexander the Great

The crippled Caesar of Cadiz, in contrast, seemed at that moment to be fatally delayed on the road to imperishable glory. He was already a decade older than that young man who, at a little over twenty, had created a new world triumphing the bare and sandy plains of Asia. But at 32 years of age, Caesar was far from leading his legions into one of the great battles that would make his fame immortal. It wasn’t by forty years that he made the sword sing long and wide for the ecumene.
The Roman had not yet had the opportunity to show off his political and warlike genius. However, Fate and Fortuna would keep great things in store for him.
And so, where Alexander finished, Caesar began. Before the Roman, destiny possessed a further five decades of life, a period of time that he was able to fully exploit with a vigor, skill and mental lucidity that few other men have been able to show in the course of history.
The Triumvirate, the campaigns of Gallia and those against the Pompeians, the vicissitudes of Egypt alongside Cleopatra… the last decades of his star were certainly full of epochal events.
Painting of Caesar and Cleopatra

Caesar giving Cleopatra the throne

The time that Caesar enjoyed was relatively large: fifty-six years, of which the second half was vibrant and lived at large, all in an era in which the average expectation of a human being barely touched forty-five springs.
It was enough years for him to accomplish much of his purpose. It seems to us a pure dialectical exercise to hypothesize what else Caesar could have designed (and put into practice) if he had more time available, before the blades of the conspirators dramatically lowered the curtain on his life.
The works he performed were certainly extraordinary, and unworkable by any of his other contemporaries. Here is his imperishable greatness…and yet his work was profoundly human, linked to rational intentions and thoughts.
Alexander, on the other hand, reflects in himself the idea of the divine, and appears to us as a historical and temporal incarnation shaped by celestial forces. He is almost an unconscious executor of superior wills, indecipherable in the eyes of ordinary mortals. Pella’s young man dragged his earthly mission, driven by inexplicable motivation, unshakable dreams and boundless goals…all within a mere 32 years.

The rise and fall of the Delian League

by September 19, 2018

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Delian League, or Confederacy of Delos, was the name used for the confederation of Greek states under the ‘leadership’ of Athens. According to some records, it lasted from the end of the Persian War, circa 478 BC, until the end of the Peloponnesian War in the year 404 BC.
As described in the statutes, power was originally distributed equally. Indeed, according to Thucydides, each state in the league had an equal vote . However from the beginning, the ‘unofficial’ leader of the Delian League was Athens.
Decree of tribute

Fragment of the Athenian Decree concerning the issue of tribute

The original headquarters were at Delos, but they were later moved to Athens…a transition that meant more than just a change of location.
Purpose and splendor
The Delian League started as a military alliance against Persia. Around 200 city-states, including Eretria, Mykonos, Athos and Byzantium, joined the alliance by the mid-fifth century BC for the same reason. They wanted protection by the Athenians, who controlled the naval yards, thus turning them into the only ones who could fight against Persia.
Some say that the Athenian politician and military man, Themistocles, is the real father of the Delian League, because it was under his reign that the development of the Athenian navy made the League possible.


Historians such as the aforementioned Thucydides kept record of the actions taken by the Delian League; some of them are expressed in their constitution:

• It was decided which cities were to provide money and which were to provide ships
• The first payment (tribute) was 460 talents (today 57 lb.)
• Delos was to serve as treasury
• The assembly of the League met in the Temple at Delos

Over time some of these constitutional provisions changed and, perhaps not surprisingly, this led to other problems.
For instance, the League survived financially by tributes or taxes… and yet not all of this money stayed within the League. A considerable amount of the taxes paid by the members eventually flowed to Athens alone. Indeed, this ‘income’ allowed Pericles, a Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens, to start building the Parthenon on the Acropolis… and other major ‘public’ works.
It is at this time that we can see that the League was turning from an alliance to an empire.

Famous ancient Greek structure, the Parthenon at night. Andreas Kontokanis/ Flickr

Internal wars
Unlike the Peloponnesian League, within the Delian League, wars between members were prohibited. In fact, the Athenians later kicked out some of their allies on the pretext that they carried on wars against each other.
Naxos, the first member who tried to leave the League, stopped paying tribute so they were considered as enemies to Athens and the alliance. They were subsequently attacked by Athens and forced to remain as members.

Map of Athenian Empire

To turn away from the Delian League meant to turn towards the side of the Persians. Nethertheless, some city-states allied with the Persians in the early fifth century BC, during the Persian Invasion.
The way Athens handled the revolts led to the independence of city-states who stopped sending their men, money and ships to Athens.
The beginning of the end
After 30 years of reign, the main accomplishment of the Delian League was the Peace of Callias, named after Callias II, an ancient Greek politician. It was a treaty established around 449 BC between the Delian League and Persia that ended the Greco-Persian Wars.
After this, one may be forgiven in thinking that the League should disolve… however, this did not happen. Instead, the Athenian Empire (454-404 BC) started its reign by moving the treasury of the Delian League from Delos to Athens.
For the Second Athenian Confederacy (378-7 BC), a revival of the Delian League, the enemy was Sparta. It was created as a protection against Spartan aggression. It was a maritime self-defense league led by Athens. The Delian League was finally broken up by the capture of Athens by Sparta in 404 BC.
Even today for some historians, it is not clear if becoming an empire was the original intention of Athens, or if it was an idea that developed as they gained the power and confidence of their allies. However, there’s no doubt that this empire led to many conquests for the occidental world.

The Much Beloved but Little Known Poet: Sappho

by September 14, 2018

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of Poets Sappho and Alcaeus

Sappho and Alcaeus, By Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, and this date is often disputed, surprisingly little is known about the life of this beloved poet. The only reliable source of biographical information about Sappho comes from her own poetry. However it is often disputed if her writings were actually autobiographical in nature, or, as they performed in festivals and for large audiences, they were retelling stories and myths.
Additionally much of her writing has been lost to the ages. Indeed she was prolific in her time and wrote around 10,000 lines (about 2,000 less than the Odyssey), but today only about 650 lines survive.
This leaves us with little to no verifiable evidence about who this woman was.
Painting of Sappho in Pompeii

Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”)

Still her name has survived and her reputation as a gifted lyrical poet with it. She wrote extensively about love and passion for all peoples and for both sexes. She describes extensively emotional love between women and occasionally would write about sexual acts between women.
These discoveries have lead to the assumption that Sappho was a lesbian. The term “lesbian” derives from the name of her homeland “Lesbos” and the term “sapphic love” is derived from the poets own name. We may never know for sure if Sappho loved women, the love for women described in her poetry may have been entirely fictional. Sappho would write about other aspects of her life in the stanzas of her poetry, which led many to believe that she was in fact a lesbian.
Painting of Sappho with a woman

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, Solomon

However, in her own time period, she was not considered gay. Quite the opposite. In classical Athenian comedy (from the Old Comedy of the fifth century to Menander in the late fourth and early third centuries BC), Sappho was caricatured as a promiscuous heterosexual woman. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Hellenistic period (about three centuries after her death), that she was described as a homosexual.
Midway through the first century A.D., the Roman philosopher Seneca, tutor to Nero, was complaining about a Greek scholar who had devoted an entire treatise to the question of whether Sappho was a prostitute. Some ancient writers assumed that there had to have been two Sapphos: one the great poet, the other a very promiscuous woman. There is an entry for each in the Suda, the large 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world.
The truth is we can only draw conclusions from various scraps of poetry that have been attributed to Sappho. And they really are ‘scraps’. All of the surviving works by Sappho are partially destroyed, save for Hymn for Aphrodite. More than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments and the rest of the extant fragments of Sappho contain only a single word. Her poems are actually categorized as fragment 1- fragment 213. These fragments have been attributed to several books that the poet is believed to have authored during her literary career.
Vase of Sappho

Alcaeus and Sappho. Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily).

Recently, there have been major discoveries of more of Sappho’s poetry. In 2004, the Tithonus Poem and a new, previously unknown fragment was discovered, and in 2014, fragments of nine poems: five already known but with new readings, including the Brothers Poem, were found in an ancient Egyptian vase.
Even though very little of her work has survived, from what remains we can determine that Sappho was extraordinarily talented. She possessed a clarity of language and simplicity of thought that creates images that are sharply defined and beautifully constructed.
She wrote and sung in an Aeolian dialect, a type of Ancient Greek that was a pitch-accented language, a bit like Chinese is today. She used a rhythmic scheme that Sappho is said to have invented called the “Sapphic Stanza”. Each four-line stanza consists of three metrically identical lines, eleven syllables in length, followed by a shorter fourth line of five syllables.
Bust of Sappho

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original.

She was admired by other poets of her time. One Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.”
Solon, the poet, statesman and all around wiseman, asked to be taught one of her songs “so that I may learn it and then die”
The philosopher Plato wrote of her in the Anthologia Graeca, a collection of ancient poems by esteemed writers, when he states:
“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”
While much of her work has been lost, we still maintain enough poetry from Sappho to appreciate her skill as a poet and her importance as an ancient writer.

The Luck of the Athenians

by September 12, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When we think of Athens, we typically think “powerhouse.” The bustling Agora, the high functioning politics, the exhaustive building programs – all point to a city that exists not just high up on the social scale, but one of military power. And while Athens did become a militarized state, she was certainly not one originally.
Before the Persian War, Athens had already incurred displeasure by Persia. Athens had sided with the Ionians in the Ionian Revolt and sent help to Asiatic Greeks seeking to free themselves from Persian control. While they were not the strongest military power in Greece, they certainly were not shy about defending Greece from attack. They were indeed a player on the Mediterranean and exercised their influence and support when needed.
However, at the outbreak of the Persian War, Sparta still dominated in military power. And while Athens was beginning to validate herself, in the minds of enemies, she was not much of a rival.
Until Marathon, that is.
Artists depiction of the Battle of Marathon

Battle of Marathon

In 491 BC, Darius I, king of Persia, invaded Greece and sent envoys to ascertain the Greeks’ submission. When the envoys arrived, Athens and Sparta formed an alliance against the threat, vowing to protect Greece from the imminent invasion. What resulted was a decades long conflict between powers of Greece and Persia.
The Battle of Marathon was the first major battle of the Persian War and served many purposes. The Greek success in the battle delayed the Persians another 10 years, giving Greece time to amp up her army and navy – things that needed to be brought up to speed if they were expected to face mighty Persia.
The Battle of Marathon also served as a defining moment in the history of Athens. After her success at Marathon, Athens became more of a revered military power and eventually entered into a golden age. But was the Athenian success at Marathon sheer luck, or was it fine-tuned skill?
Turns out, a little bit of both.
King of Persia

Darius 1

The first stroke of luck that the Athenians had at Marathon was the very location of the battle. The Persians set up camp and docked their fleets at a sandy plain surrounded by mountains and valleys, surely with the intention of invading Athens itself soon (only a short ~25 miles from the city).
This gave the Athenians two major advantages: where they positioned themselves for battle, and their line of supplies. Since the Persian camp was so close to Athens, the Athenians who went to meet them were able to stay well supplied and equipped, even during an 8-day stalemate. Things like water and food were available to the Athenian troops, a luxury which the Persians did not enjoy. Camping with somewhere between 15,000 and 90,000 men, the Persians struggled to keep mouths fed and water available. They were cut off from the Greek mainland and could not receive any reinforcements.
The low-lying plain that the Persians set up camp on was fine as a temporary base, but when battle was imminent, the location proved perilous to their troops. Athenians were able to march quickly to Marathon and set up camp and stations on the plain’s flanks, surrounding the Persians below. The only escape they had was by sea, which would have been time-consuming and slow going with so many men.
Map of the battle

Battle of Marathon map

The second piece of luck the Athenians enjoyed was word that the Persian cavalry was away from camp. The Athenian commanders knew that they would not stand a chance against the highly feared and trained cavalry forces of the Persians, even if the Greeks had them surrounded. The horses and their warriors were fast, precise, and soldiers on foot would have been easily out maneuvered. After 8 days of holding off the Persians’ attack in hopes that the Spartans would arrive in time for battle, news of the horse-less camp proved too good an opportunity to pass up. The Athenians attacked the plain, knowing full well that if the cavalry forces were there, the day would have turned out very different.
The third prong to this lucky battle some may view as a disadvantage, but when discussing the success of the Athenians and their resulting power, it certainly ends up being a lucky advantage.
This would be the fact that the Spartans never showed up to battle. The Athenians and her few allies tackled the Persians alone. The Spartan troops had been sent for and they agreed to come, but only after their festival concluded. The Athenians were then able to prove their military prowess and potential without it being shaded by the Spartan showmanship. The Spartan absence made the narrative of the Athenian underdog possible, catapulting the Battle of Marathon to near epic standards. Had the Spartans arrived in time for battle, we can assume that the Athenians would not have received the confidence boost and military trust they did when they fought it alone.
Of course, the Athenian success at Marathon was not just luck, but skill. The Athenians simply outmaneuvered the Persians and their tactics decisively won them the day.
Thanks to the low-lying plain and the vantage points the Athenians took surrounding the Persian camp, when it came time for battle, the Athenians attacked from the flanks, with weaker concentration in the center. This allowed the Athenians to constantly push the Persians back on all sides, their only avenue for retreat being the sea. So, even though the Persians greatly outnumbered the Athenians, it didn’t matter thanks to the limiting geography of the battlefield and the superior tactics employed by the Athenian army.
Either way you look at it, be it luck or skill, the Battle of Marathon truly transformed the Athenian psyche and perception in the Mediterranean. They became a military power and there was no doubt about it.

Was Ancient Greek Theater Only for Men?

by September 5, 2018

by Ben Potter
A quick search of our homepage will reveal that a copious amount of ink has already been spilt discussing the life and works of the great practitioners of Athenian theatre: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes.
However, leaving aside these individuals for the moment, brilliant as they may have been, what of the vehicle of delivery itself? No, not the actors, nor even the venue, but the festivals in which seminal works such as Oedipus Rex, Electra, Ajax, Orestes, Prometheus Bound, The Wasps, The Knights, and Philoctetes were showcased?
The City Dionysia

The City Dionysia Theater

The two major Athenian theatrical festivals, The Lenaia and The City Dionysia were held in honor of the god Dionysus. Calling them theatrical, whilst not misleading, isn’t wholly illuminating as they were merely primarily, not exclusively concerned with theatre.
The Lenaia lasted for four days during January/February and, because of the time of year, was almost exclusively attended by Athenian residents, due to little winter shipping in the Mediterranean.
The Lenaia was originally a festival of comedy (although tragedy was introduced in 488 BC), probably because there was more scope for political and social ‘in-jokes’, as the audience would have consisted of few non-citizens.
Alternatively, the City (or Great) Dionysia lasted six days and took place in the spring (March/April). Consequently it could have been attended by citizens from Athenian colonies (in addition to friendly travelers) because shipping would have resumed by this point.
Two things are noteworthy about the City Dionysia. Firstly, it was solely a festival of tragedy until 432 BC, and it was the main event, the big deal, the Oscars to the Golden Globes of the Lenaia. Secondly, it seems the Dionysia was ‘more religious’ or, perhaps, more preoccupied with traditional religious practice than the Lenaia.
Pan or Dioynsius festival

Before a statue of Pan
by Nicolas Poussin

Supporting evidence comes from Oswyn Murray in his comprehensive Early Greece: ‘the festival involved an annual procession of the ancient statue of Dionysus from Elutherai (a mountain settlement on the northern borders with Boeotia) to Athens’.
This shows us that if one wished to take in a show then, at the very least, one would have to feign interest in a religious procession.
Classics professors looking to justify their tenure have made a lot of the ins and outs of these two festivals. However, something really interesting, and still now ambiguous, is the role women who were allowed or obliged to play in them.
Women would certainly have had a role to play in the holy procession and been given a share of the rare and delicious animal sacrifice. Additionally, women were generally a vitally important part of most Dionysian rituals in their official status as his Maenads/Bacchae (specific female acolytes).
Beyond this, things get a little sketchy, as reliable evidence for Athenian women (their lives being private, domestic and illiterate) is scarce. However, we do have reason to believe women were allowed to attend dramatic festivals even if, like in Shakespearean London, they were not permitted to act in them.
We look to the comic masterpiece of Aristophanes, The Frogs to confirm this: ‘Every decent woman or decent man’s wife was so shocked by plays like Euripides’ Bellerophon that she went straight off and took poison’.
There is a school of thought that says women were perhaps allowed to attend tragedies, but not comedies.
The main argument for women being excluded from comic shows is that comedies would have been a ‘bad influence’ on the ‘easily susceptible’ (i.e. women), whilst tragedies had an important moral message to teach. This, however, does not hold up to closer scrutiny. In Aristophanes’ comedies the women behave no worse (and usually better) than the men, whilst in tragedies such as Medea we see a woman kill her babies. Additionally, in Agamemnon we see a woman kill her husband, and in Electra we see a woman kill her mother and display incestuous feelings towards her father.
Death of Agamemnon

Death of Agamemnon

Thus it’s hard to imagine that the corrupting influence of bawdy jokes and toilet-humour would have been more damaging on the delicate sensibilities of Athenian lady-folk than tales of incest, murder, suicide, treachery and blasphemy.

Furthermore, if women could attend one branch of theatre, but not the other, then we may expect to be told somewhere why this was (or at least have it joked about by the waggish Aristophanes).
So were women supposed to learn important lessons at the theatre?

Most Athenian women (even of the upper classes) would have received little or no formal education whatsoever, so these infrequent visits to the theatre would have been probably the only opportunity for mass enlightenment.
We can see in plays such as Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen (396 BC) that an attempt is made to communicate ideas women may never have had the liberty to contemplate. The brief plot of this comedy is that the women of Athens obtain power of the city through an elaborate scheme in which they descend on The Assembly dressed in drag.
This play could be Aristophanes’ attempt to champion the rights of Athenian women by implying that not only are they capable of creative/devious thinking, but also that they may be suitable to play a political role.

Cast of Lysistrata, 1928

Likewise in Lysistrata (411 BC), in which the Athenian women go on a sex strike, Aristophanes could be challenging the existing system of the husband being kurios (master) over his wife. Such plot lines may have been seen as subversive, however if they were, would any serious message have had less of an impact when veiled in comedy? Perhaps so.
The argument that Aristophanes had no interest in transmitting a political or social message is groundless. Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge pointed out that the controversial and powerful demagogue ‘Cleon thought Aristophanes was worth taking legal issue with’ and Aristophanes actually rewrote his satirical Clouds to make it more strongly political.
Euripides was another major playwright who conveyed a strong message to his female audience; a very different and possibly more effective message than Aristophanes.
Euripides has been called everything from a misogynist to a feminist and was blatant in his attempts to suggest that ‘clever’ women should not be trusted. Most obviously in Medea (431 BC) where the title character is a woman who has given up her citizenship and then murders her children following her husband’s affair.
This powerful and emotive play could have been Euripides’ attempt to persuade women of Athens to stay loyal to the state, not be overly concerned or jealous about their husband’s extra-marital misdemeanors, and generally to be wary of concerning themselves in ‘male’ matters.
However, it could have been just the opposite. A message to women that they don’t need to put up with this sort of thing and a warning to men that, despite their great power and social status, despite the world being run by them, for them, they could lose everything they cared about in the blink of furious, female eye.
However, moving away from the speculative, we must address the very real possibility that women had little significance at all in the two festivals.
Apart from the actual opening procession itself, women may have had not much to do. Even assuming women were allowed to attend all the theatrical productions, perhaps none of the performances were geared towards them.
Women in a procession

Ancient Greek women

In Assemblywomen the underlying message of the play is that the current politicians in Athens were so poor that even a woman would make a better leader! And the fact that rule by women is considered a suitable topic for a comedy indicates that the message of the play is not towards women but a scathing attack on low-caliber politicians.

Likewise in Lysistrata it seems that the theme is more the obtainment of peace than sexual equality.
Euripides’ negative (or at least extreme) portrayal of women could easily be a reminder to Athenian men to keep close watch on their wives and perhaps not allow them too much freedom.

It seems that the main and key advantageous role women had at these festivals was to receive a preciously rare moment of education at the theatre. This, however, was no official or even planned act, but more the accidental vehicle by which individual playwrights could spread their influence further.
The fact that Athenian women would have had so little access to creative thinking and ideas would have meant that, for the individual women, this day would have been of great significance, even if their formal role in the festivals would have been rather limited.
Thus, we cannot really conclude on a truly positive note that theatre was a vehicle of emancipation that changed female Athenian society. What it was, however, was a pinprick of light in a life of repetition and banality, a highpoint of refinement, art, culture and beauty to liberate and elevate a class of society, which had less potential for social progression than the bevy of slaves who kept Athens ticking.
Even if only for a moment.