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Female Monsters of the Odyssey

by July 10, 2018

By Julia Huse, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Limited
Of the monsters and mythological creatures Odysseus encounters during his long voyage from Troy to Ithaca, among the fiercest are female. Three of these are Circe, the Sirens and Calypso, who all prove to be difficult and terrifying obstacles to Odysseus’ journey home.
The Witch Circe

The witch Circe poisons Odysseus’ men, Alessandro Allori, 1580

After escaping the island of the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, Odysseus and his crew stumbleupon Aeaea and the home of Circe, who is referred to as both a witch and a nymph. She has a vast knowledge of potions and herbs, which Odysseus and his crew experience first hand. Odysseus and half his crew stay behind with the ships while the others go in search of Aeaea to see what people live there. The search party comes across the home of Circe, which is described as a large house in a clearing in the middle of a thick forest. All around the house are lions and wolves, which at first frighten the crew… until they notice how docile the beasts are. It is later found out that these are the previously drugged victims of Circe and her potions. In her house Circe welcomes Odysseus’ crew as guests, feeding them a meal of cheese and honey which she has drugged, turning the crew into pigs.
All but one crewmember is changed into a pig and he manages to escape to warn Odysseus and the other half of the crew what has happened. Odysseus ventures to Circe’s house to save his men, but is stopped along the way by the god Hermes, who was sent by Athena. Hermes tells Odysseus of an herb called moly that will protect him from the potions of Circe. Immune to her potions, Odysseus acts as if he is going to attack her. Afterwards, she tries to coax Odysseus into bed with her, which he avoids, due to Hermes’ advice. Having done all this, Odysseus convinces Circe to turn his crew back into humans and free them.
The Sirens
The Sirens in the Odyssey

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper

Odysseus also encounters the famous sirens during his wanderings. Typically in Greek depictions, the sirens they are half-woman half-bird creatures that perch on the rocks by the sea and sing beautiful songs that lure men who, refusing to leave, die of starvation.
In the Odyssey, Circe warns Odysseus about the sirens and tells him to plug his and his crew’s ears with beeswax in order to block their sweet songs from entering their ears. Being curious about the songs the Sirens sing, Odysseus only plugs his crew’s ears with beeswax and then has his men tie him to the mast of the ship, instructing them not to untie him… no matter how much he begs for it. Odysseus hears the song and begs and pleads that his crew release him, but his faithful crew only tighten the ropes more, binding him to the mast.
It is then revealed that the reason the songs allure and entice men is because they sing of past and future truths. They sing to Odysseus about his past endeavors, such as the glory and suffering he endured on the battlefields of Troy, and his future actions and what he will achieve… and they falsely promise that their hearers will live to tell these truths to others. Odysseus, of course, achieves this and this is how we are able to get this account from him.
The Nymph Calypso
The Greek monster Calypso

Calypso by Henri Lehmann (1869)

At the end of his wanderings Odysseus washes up alone on the island Ogygia, the omphalos, meaning navel or center, of the sea, and also the home of the nymph Calypso. Homer describes Calypso as the daughter of the Titan Atlas, who holds up the pillars of the sky and the sea. In Homer’s epic, Calypso keeps Odysseus on her island for seven years, accounting for a large part of his journey home. Calypso desires to make Odysseus her immortal husband and enchants him with her singing as she weaves on her loom. Odysseus performs all the duties of a husband for Calypso, including sleeping with her.
Even under Calypso’s spell Odysseus desires a different life. The promise of immortality does not sway him from missing his wife Penelope. Odysseus, a man, does not desire the life of a god; he much prefers the life of a mortal, even with all its hardships that are so clearly lacking on Calypso’s island. Noticing that Odysseus wants to leave the island, Athena asks Zeus to order Odysseus’ release. Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso to release Odysseus because it is not his fate that he should remain on the island forever anyways. Calypso eventually, and stubbornly, agrees to free Odysseus and sends him on his way with wine, bread and materials for a raft.
Beguiling Women of Ancient Greece
Beguiling women in Ancient Greek mythology

Telemachus and the Nymphs of Calypso MET DP169393

These women, although not necessarily terrifying in their looks, are certainly terrifying in their abilities to enchant mortal men. With much help Odysseus is able to resist or break free from these enchantments. Even the seemingly least threatening woman of the three, Calypso, manages to keep Odysseus detained for seven years, proving to be one of the greatest obstacles to his journey.
Clearly the women are seen as enchanters and deceivers of men, distracting them from their intended course or purpose… and this reflects a feeling found in Ancient Greece that women were deceitful creatures who could not control their sexual desires and sought to entrap men. This becomes especially clear when compared to male monsters, such as the Cyclops Polyphemus, who does not have the enchanting and deceiving nature of these woman. Odysseus immediately sees through his deceit and is able to win against Polyphemus with his own trickery. Whereas Odysseus can detect this deception on his own, when it comes to women monsters and goddesses, he needs the help of the gods and others to warn him and help him break free.

Ancient Bickering: The American Founding Fathers and the Classics

by July 4, 2018

By Spencer Klavan
The American Founding Fathers knew a thing or two, and one of those things was how to read the Classics. By this I don’t mean that their Latin was good (it was), or that their knowledge of ancient history was infallible (it wasn’t).
JeffersonI mean that they didn’t use Classical writing the way modern thinkers often do, as an Ultimate Authority to be unerringly obeyed. Instead, the statesmen who founded America treated those who founded Athens and Rome as equal partners in an ongoing debate. They challenged their ancient forbears like college roommates haggling over a philosophy paper. That dialogue is the one that built America.
Take Thomas Jefferson: he hated Plato. Hated him passionately, almost with relish, the way beleaguered high school readers often hate him. The Republic, Jefferson wrote, was…


“the heaviest task-work I ever went through,” full of “whimsies . . . puerilities, and unintelligible jargon.”

He was shocked “that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense.” I remember a few kids in my 11th grade Civics class expressing similar opinions.
Jefferson preferred Epicurus, whose philosophy survives through the Roman poet Lucretius. Lucretius wrote that only knowledge and science could redeem humanity, which “lay crushed under religion” and irrational superstition. Those words appealed to Jefferson, an amateur scientist who mistrusted the Bible and would eventually re-write it to excise any mention of the supernatural: “I too am an Epicurean,” he enthused. He proved it by arguing forcefully and effectively for a controversial new doctrine — the separation of church and state.

Epicurus
Now, Jefferson’s enduring legacy is the epoch-making Declaration that “all men are created equal.” Of course the man who wrote those words abhorred Plato, who advocated brainwashing the lower classes to believe their souls were made of inferior material, destined to subservience.


This kind of open élitism repulsed the radically populist Jefferson. Epicurus, Jefferson thought, had it right: different souls are just different arrangements of identical atoms, uniform matter recombining in endless structures. No one is born to rule: we’re all made of the same stuff, quite literally “created equal.”

But we might never have heard of those words — might never have broken away from England — if it weren’t for John Adams and Marcus Cicero. From boyhood, Adams treasured a copy of Cicero’s Orations. Rome’s great statesman became Adams’ confidant, his lifelong friend, and most of all his role model. He worked hard to emulate Cicero’s iron-willed integrity and compelling rhetoric.

XXXThat came in handy: when Jefferson’s Declaration came down to a nail-biting vote, it was the powerful oratory Adams learned from Cicero that tipped the scales in favor of independence. In a two-hour speech, with Ciceronian flair, Adams convinced the Continental Congress to vote for revolution. Colleagues called Adams “the man to whom the country is most indebted for . . . independency.”



For the country that was born in Philadelphia that day, we have Adams — and Cicero — to thank.

Later, as Adams advised the writers of the new constitution, he turned to his tried and true mentor for advice. Cicero gave Adams the idea of “a mixed constitution of three branches,” each restrained by a delicate equilibrium of checks and balances. Adams adopted that concept in his Defence of the Constitutions, which guided the framers as they wrote their own founding document — the one America upholds today.
These days, modern thinkers tend to put the Ancients on an untouchable pedestal, hailing them from afar without really engaging. Politicians from Obama to Palin use quotes from Plato and Aristotle as indisputable maxims, truths they can cite to support their agenda.
That leaves listeners with an all-or-nothing choice: either you agree with this lapidary, monolithic authority called The Classics, or you don’t. That choice is an illusion. There’s never been any such authority. There’s only ever been a motley crew of gifted, contentious intellectuals, arguing tirelessly, contradicting one another — and sometimes themselves — with vehemence and urgency. The history of Greco-Roman thought is a history of incessant bickering. That’s what makes it great.
By doing some bickering of their own, the Founding Fathers picked up where the Greeks and Romans left off. Early American thinkers treated Classical writers as interlocutors, as adversaries — most of all, they treated them as old friends.

Old friends don’t tiptoe around each other or pretend to agree unconditionally: they mix it up. They debate. Old friends speak their minds and hash it out. The early Americans kept the ancient conversation alive — they used it to found a nation. The beauty of the Classical canon is that it makes us part of that conversation, puts modern readers face-to-face with discussion partners across thousands of intervening miles and years. It’s not our job to revere them. It’s our privilege to argue with them.


Pick your Poison

by June 29, 2018

The AK-47 of the Ancient Near East
By Cam Rea
The Scythian bow was the AK-47 of the Ancient Near East and the weapon of choice to dominate the battlefield. Even though the bow was uniquely designed to deliver the utmost damage, the arrow itself was even nastier! Scythians created their arrowheads for maximum penetration of the opponent’s armor. Beyond that, Scythian arrowheads were extremely poisonous.
But before we pick our poison, we must pick our point.
a selection of arrowheads

The Scythian arrowhead

The Scythian arrowhead, also known as a “Scythian point,” was a trilobate shape, designed like a rocket or bullet with three blades extending from the body. Some of the arrowheads had protruding barbs, while others lacked this painful extra. The trilobate was usually made of bronze, while the shaft used to deliver the arrowhead was made of reed or wood and was roughly 30 inches long. The design and craftsmanship employed was brilliant, for its aerodynamic body made it extremely practical to use against the finest and toughest of armor.
The Scythian point originated around the 7th century BCE, suggesting that Scythians developed the weapon in order to pierce Assyrian armor, as Scythians and Cimmerians were indeed at war with Assyria on and off during that time period. Now, this was not the only arrowhead style or material used by the Scythians, for some arrowheads were made of bone, stone, iron, or bronze. As for shape, some looked like small spearheads, while others were leaf-shaped, which may have been used for hunting. The discussed trilobite shape, however, was most likely used for combat purposes.
Besides the lethal design of the Scythian trilobite point, another nasty feature was the poison. Not only were these ancient fighters experts at archery, but also in biological warfare. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you see it, the Scythians had a wide variety of deadly poisons to choose from. The not so friendly reptiles inhabiting the area included the steppe viper, Caucasus viper, European adder, and the long-nose/sand viper.
Map of Scythia

Map of Scythia and the Persian Empire

Truly, the Scythians had a vast arsenal of snake venoms of all degrees at their disposal. The book titled, “On Marvelous Things Heard,” by Pseudo-Aristotle, which was a work written by his followers, if not written in part by Aristotle himself, mentions the Scythian handling of snakes and how to extract their poison:
“They say that the Scythian poison, in which that people dips its arrows, is procured from the viper. The Scythians, it would appear, watch those that are just bringing forth young, and take them, and allow them to putrefy for some days.”
After several days passed, the Scythian shaman would then take the venom and mix it with other ingredients. One of these concoctions required human blood:
“But when the whole mass appears to them to have become sufficiently rotten, they pour human blood into a little pot, and, after covering it with a lid, bury it in a dung-hill. And when this likewise has putrefied, they mix that which settles on the top, which is of a watery nature, with the corrupted blood of the viper, and thus make it a deadly poison.”
The Roman author Aelian also mentions this process, saying, “The Scythians are even said to mix serum from the human body with the poison that they smear upon their arrows.” Both accounts show that the Scythians were able to excite the blood in order to separate it from the yellow watery plasma. Once the mixture of blood and dung had putrefied, the shaman would take the serum and excrement and mix it in with the next ingredient, venom, along with the decomposed viper. Once the process was complete, the Scythians would place their arrowheads into this deadly mixture ready for use.
The historian Strabo mentions a second use of this deadly poison:
“The Soanes use poison of an extraordinary kind for the points of their weapons; even the odour of this poison is a cause of suffering to those who are wounded by arrows thus prepared.”
So the arrowhead was poisonous, but why stop there? Sometimes they ensured that the barbs on the arrowhead were also coated with the deadly concoction. The Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the Black Sea, got a good look at these poisonous plus arrows and reported them as “native arrow-points have their steel barbs smeared with poison, carry a double hazard of death.” He also described the poisonous ingredient as “yellow with vipers gall.”
To get a better understanding of this “double death,” Renate Rolle elaborates further on the barbed arrowheads: “These arrowheads, fitted with hooks and soaked in poison, were particularly feared, since they were very difficult to remove from the wound and caused the victim great pain during the process.” A very grim picture, without question. To be struck by an arrowhead with barbs or hooks, poisoned with putrefied remains, would indeed be horrific.
Sythian Warriors

Scythian–ancient nomadic Iranian–warriors on the steppe

With all these different poisons used by the Scythians, they had to know how to tell what was what in their gorytus, or case for holding the bow and quiver of arrows. The length of the gorytas was relatively shorter than the bow itself, leaving the weapon partially exposed. It also had a metal covering for the arrows, most likely to protect the archer from scraping his skin across the poisonous arrowheads.
The Scythians would paint their arrow shafts in the color of red or black, while others had zigzag and diamond patterns decorating them. Not so coincidentally, these various patterns painted upon the arrow shafts were the same patterns found upon the various vipers used by the Scythians as their agents of death. Vipers with a zigzag or diamond pattern upon their backs were the most poisonous of all.
Clearly, the painted design was a way for the archer to tell which poison he was using. Additionally, the decorated arrow shafts, when fired at the enemy, likely had a psychological effect, for they must have looked like snakes flying through the air, while the barbs protruding from the point appeared like fangs to the enemy.
So now that the Scythians had their gorytus, stacked with a fierce weapon and deadly arrows, it was just a matter of choosing which chemical killer to use on the enemy.

The tainted glory of the gladiator

by June 27, 2018

By Ben Potter
The sun rises high over Rome’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, the mightiest arena in the world. Only the colossal statue of Nero, which one-day will lend the stadium its eternal pseudonym, dwarfs it.
The 50,000 strong crowd of men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are tightly coiled; one giant organism ready to strike, to unleash their wrath or their joy.
Though they are not the only ones with the glint of attack in their eyes.
A flash of light leads to a clash of steel, a spray of sweat, a cloud of dust, and finally, brutally, a cascade of blood which unleashes a frenzied pandemonium in the stands…
Gladiator
Those cognisant of TV shows like Spartacus, films like Gladiator, or indeed, any example from the swords and sandals genre, will be familiar with images of perfectly formed behemoths attempting to heroically empty their comrades of their entrails.
Though, as we shall investigate, Hollywood has not quite given us the full picture. I know, I know… shocking isn’t it!?
To begin with, gladiators were not perfectly formed. Indeed, they would be considered overweight next to modern sportsmen. Additionally, bloodlust was a secondary consideration to poise and finesse, and in fact, most gladiatorial bouts saw the loser escape with his life. Finally, and, crucially, large parts of Roman society considered gladiators to be anything but heroic.
As for the famous quote in the title (“Those who are about to die salute you”), it did genuinely occur in the pages of Suetonius.
However, it was supposedly uttered by a group of condemned men in an attempt to curry favour with the emperor, and not, as Tinseltown would have us believe, by every gladiator who entered the arena.

Indeed, it is highly unlikely that any professional fighter ever said it.

But before we conduct our gladiatorial post-mortem in earnest, perhaps a look at the origins of the sport is in order. (Unpleasant as it seems, it’s hard to deny that it was a sport – complete with match day programmes and scalpers selling tickets!)
Fighting
As for the beginnings of gladiatorial combat, there is some dispute, though most agree it came out of the Italian peninsula… either from the Etruscans or Campanians.
What seems clear is that the games (ludi) were not intended to be the great public spectacle they later became. Instead, they were munera, a type of honorific spectacular dedicated to the spirit of a deceased ancestor.
What is really astonishing is how fast the event caught on. The first recorded munus was held in 264 BC, and within 200 years, their popularity and importance had become such that the Senate had to limit the size of the proposed munus of none other than Gaius Julius Caesar.
[N.B. Though if we compare how cinema has changed in only 150 years it is perhaps not so astounding.]
Even though the transition from munera to ludi was a gradual one, we can say with some confidence that by the time of Caesar, gladiatorial combat had mostly lost its connotations of filial duty. Instead, it had become a means of self-promotion and popular entertainment… and not just in Rome, but also throughout the rapidly swelling empire.
Gladiators
So what about the fundamentals of the games and, more importantly, the gladiators themselves?
A gladiator (from gladius, short sword) was the king of the sand, a mighty warrior, fiercely trained for one purpose only. He was a man of pride, dignity and above all else, discipline. He knew his life was forfeit and his only desire was to live and die with the stoicism and honour befitting his station.
Despite the fact that gladiators were the celebrities and sex symbols of their day, they were also so deeply despised that the very word ‘gladiator’ was used as an everyday insult. They had no citizenship rights, were buried only with their own kind, and could have their lives expunged at the whim of their lanista (owner/overseer).

Essentially, they were a de facto category of slaves.

The antipathy felt towards these subhuman supermen is partly because of the social make up of the gladiatorial class.
They were slaves of various origins: prisoners of war, citizens who had lost their rights or who couldn’t pay their debts, and various criminals from around the empire. Only if they were lucky, would they find their way into a ludus (gladiator school).
slaves
N.B. if they were unlucky they would merely be damnati (condemned to fight in the arena) or noxii (condemned to die a humiliating death in the arena). The difference being that the noxii would probably not be given weapons and their remains would be treated in a manner that would dishonour them for eternity.
All arenarii (people of the arena) were infames i.e. without rights or social status – a standing shared by prostitutes, pimps, actors and dancers. Gladiators, however, were both simultaneously far more lauded and reviled than any of these other controversial professions!
This was all very well for the impoverished, the enslaved and the criminal – indeed, many were happy to enter a ludus. It would mean good food (gladiators followed a high-calorie vegetarian diet), a roof over their head, and a potential to win money, freedom and that most intangible and strangely elusive of all things, fame!
Also, it got them out in the fresh air… which is nice.

The peculiarity, therefore, is not that many of the most desperate ended up in the arena, it’s that some of the more privileged actually volunteered for this ignoble and bloody fate.

Gladiators
Some scholars estimate that as many as half of all gladiators were volunteers (auctorati) by the time the games were at their height (1st century BC – 1st century AD).
But what really boggles the mind is that the lure of the games was so great that they even managed to entice aristocrats!
Indeed, it seems there was a significant minority of the noblesse who disgraced their family name, gave up promising political careers and disinherited themselves from great wealth. In fact, it was beholden upon Augustus, the moral champion of the 1st century AD, to make it illegal for the senatorial and equestrian classes to fight.
Despite the emperor’s absolute power, the prohibition seems to have had only limited success.
In addition, several emperors themselves are known to have stepped onto the sand. This created a bizarre paradox of a man at the top of the social ladder publically engaging in the most degraded and base activity possible within his own society.

Caligula

Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Caracalla, Geta and Didius Julianus were all said to have crossed that stark line of dignity during their respective reigns. This was particularly amazing for Didius Julianus, as he was only emperor for nine weeks!
It is almost certain that none of the above competed with any seriousness and were merely making a populist parade of themselves or indulging a boyhood fantasy. (Though it’s hard to blame them; if I had unlimited power I would certainly insist on playing ten minutes of professional football).
However, the most enthusiastic, and therefore most shameful, participant in ludi was Commodus, the emperor who you may remember from that film with Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe… the name of which escapes me.
Commodus
Commodus was capricious, cruel and conceited (even by the standards of emperors). He was said to have killed 100 lions in a day and must, therefore, have had some physical and technical proficiency to avoid looking wholly ridiculous in front of the crowd; especially as he styled himself as the reincarnation of Hercules!
Indeed, the masses would have let him know if he had been entirely ludicrous. The games were one of the few conduits for egalitarian outpouring.
It was commonplace for the public to heckle, not just the participants of the ludi, but the on-watching ruling classes. In fact, it seems the games presented the ideal (perhaps unique) opportunity to present a petition to a politician in front of witnesses.
Though the games were unquestionably popular, (relatively) cheap to stage and helped school both combatants and spectators alike in the arts of war, they eventually fell foul in the later empire as a result of Christianity.
As early as the third century AD, the Christian scholar Tertullian denounced the games as murder, as pagan and as human sacrifice.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the first emperor to prohibit the spectacle was Constantine in the 320’s AD.

Though this was with little success; it was necessary to again curtail or prohibit the games in 384, 393, 399, 404, and 438 AD. By this latter date the Western Empire was dissolving into various warring factions and tastes in the Eastern Empire seemed more focused on theatre and chariot racing.
One of the hardest things for a classical historian to understand is the mentality of both the spectators and participants of a gladiatorial combat.
Though it obviously plays up to our baser instincts and, like so much sport, creates a tribal mentality, it goes so far beyond the most violent spectacles available to us today.
Thumbs down
Regardless, there could have been nothing quite so dramatic, nothing that sent the heart aflutter and the limbs aquiver as the moment when a stricken gladiator raised a finger in submission, presented his neck to an opponent and all eyes turned to the editor (producer/sponsor) in whose hands the brilliant wretch’s life lay.
More than anything else, contemplating the bravery, daring and discipline of these ancient athletes only serves to highlight the egos, eccentricities and anti-social behaviour of their modern counterparts.
Despite doping, deflated pigskins, greasy palms and feigned injury, the worship, adulation and monetary rewards we bestow upon our physical elite shows no signs of abating.
Perhaps the Roman way is better, perhaps it’s a healthier approach: to marvel, to cheer, to applaud and goggle, but still, when the dust has settled and the blood has dried to remember that they are only mortal.
And much, much worse than that, that they are…yuck…entertainers!

Ten Things the Ancients Did Better than Us

by June 20, 2018

Just a couple of decades ago, the people of ancient civilizations were viewed as simple, primitive people. However, numerous discoveries since then have revealed a number of surprising facts about ancient cultures, namely that many of them possessed advanced knowledge of metallurgy, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and more. With this knowledge they forged steel stronger than anything else seen until the Industrial Revolution, created a recipe for concrete so durable that their buildings would endure for millennia longer than the constructions of today, cut stones and assembled walls so precisely that attempts at modern-day replications have failed. Scientists are still scratching their heads over some of the amazing accomplishments of ancient civilizations. Here we feature ten of them.
1. Aqueducts and hydro technology

Old Canals

Who would have thought that 21 st century governments would be looking to 1,500-year-old technology for guidance on how to solve water access problems? But that is exactly what is happening in Lima, Peru.
Peru has been facing a severe water crisis as chronic problems, such as polluted water supplies, and environmental change combine to undermine the water security of the entire country. However, a new plan has been put forward by Lima’s water utility company, Sedapal, to revive an ancient network of stone canals that were built by the Wari culture as early as 500 AD, in order to supply the population with clean, unpolluted water.
The Wari built an advanced water conservation system that captured mountain water during the rainy season via canals. The canals transported the water to places where it could feed into springs further down the mountain, in order to maintain the flow of the rivers during the dry season.
Many ancient civilizations are known for their advanced construction of cisterns, canals, aqueducts, and water channelling technology, including the Persians, Nabataeans, Romans, Greeks, Harrapans, and many more.
2. Steel
Over 2,000 years ago, ancient people in the Levant were forging swords made of steel so advanced that blacksmiths would not come close to creating anything of equal quality until modern times. The metal was so strong that the swords could slice straight through objects made of other metals.
The steel, known as Damascus steel, was produced out of a raw material, known as Wootz steel, from Asia. Other materials were added during the steel’s production to create chemical reactions at the quantum level. It was first used around 300 BC, but was produced en masse in the Middle East between 1100 and 1700 AD.
The secret of making the Middle East’s Damascus Steel only re-emerged under the inspection of scanning electron microscopes in modern laboratories.
3. Concrete

Roman Concrete

Today’s concrete structures are typically designed to last between 100 and 120 years. However, the Romans built structures from concrete 2,000 years ago that have maintained their structural integrity to this day. So what was their secret?
The Romans made concrete by mixing lime, volcanic rock, and seawater. The combination of the three instantly triggered a chemical reaction in which the lime incorporated molecules into its structure and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together. The ancient seawater concrete contains the ideal crystalline structure of Tobermorite, which has a greater strength and durability than the modern equivalent.
As well as being more durable, Roman concrete was also more environmentally-friendly compared to today’s concrete. Conventional modern cement requires heating a mix of limestone and clay to 1,450 degrees Celsius which releases significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In contrast, Roman cement used much less lime and made it from baking limestone at 900 degrees Celsius, requiring much less fuel.
4. Road-building

Ancient Road

These days, we’d be lucky to get a decent highway built within a year. But it was not always this way. Ancient people recognized the importance of roads and networks linking together cities and settlements across regions and countries… and they built them fast!
Qhapaq Nan, otherwise known as the Main Andean Road, is a huge network of roads once used by the mighty Inca Empire that extends over more than 30,000 kilometres. It was the backbone of the Inca Empire’s political and economic power, connecting production, administrative, and ceremonial centres of pre-Inca Andean culture. The Incas of Cuzco achieved this unique infrastructure on a grand scale in less than a century, extending their vast network across what is now Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
The Romans too are known as expert road builders. About 1.7 million square miles of territory was covered by the Roman roads, which were made with gravel, dirt, and bricks made from granite and hard lava. Many ancient roads are still used today.
5. Stone Cutting

Stone Cutting Marvels

Around the world, we can find numerous examples of ancient stone-cutting so precise that they rival creations of the modern day produced with advanced machinery. One prime example can be found at Puma Punku, an ancient archaeological site in Bolivia – dated by some historians to 15,000-years-old – that contains such incredible stonework that it looks as if the stones were cut using a diamond tool. Enormous blocks weighing up to 800 tons, consist of perfectly straight edges that lock perfectly into each other and contain no chisel marks. Attempts to replicate the precision of the stonework have failed.
6. Agriculture

Floating Gardens

Human sacrifice is typically the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think about the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures. However, there is much more to these civilizations than this practice. One of their innovations was the chinampa agricultural system, the so-called ‘floating gardens’ which can be found on the shallow lake beds in the Valley of Mexico.
A chinampa plot was constructed by staking out a rectangular enclosure into the marshy lakebed. The enclosure would then be fenced in by joining the stakes with wattle. After that, the fenced in area would be filled with mud and decaying vegetation. In order to prevent the roots from becoming water-logged, it was important that the fill brought the chinampa plot above the lake level. Canals surrounding the chinampa plots formed an illusion that these agricultural lands were floating on water, hence its misattribution as ‘floating gardens’. To further stabilise these plots of land, willows were planted around the perimeter. This is due to the dense root system which, over time, anchored the retaining walls of the structure and reduced the effects of erosion. In order to ensure that the chinampas produced good harvests throughout the year, it was vital that the supply of water was well managed. During the rainy season, flooding would have been a problem. Hence, a sophisticated drainage system, which included dams, sluice gates and canals, were put in place to counter this problem. By using human excrement to fertilise the crops, the Aztecs were also able to create a healthier living environment as the city’s wastewater would have also been treated.
The system of agriculture and waste water treatment seen in the floating gardens of Mexico, was so advanced that there have been attempts (unsuccessfully) to implement it in modern times.
7. Walls

Ancient Incan Walls

The Inca civilization is well-known for its advanced masonry work, much of which can still be seen today in Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuaman in Peru. Their large dry stone walls display huge blocks that had been carefully cut to fit together tightly without mortar and with levels of precision unmatched anywhere else in the Americas. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between many of the stones. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward (to prevent damage in the event of an earthquake) have puzzled scientists for decades. The method used to match precisely the shape of a stone with the adjacent stones is still unknown and attempts to recreate the technique have all failed.
8. City planning
In the last century, numerous ancient cities have been unearthed that have astounded scientists and urban planners alike.
When archaeologists discovered the 5,000-year-old site of Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan, what they found was unprecedented in the region – the city demonstrated an exceptional level of civic planning and amenities. The houses were furnished with brick-built bathrooms and many had toilets. Wastewater from these was led into well-built brick sewers that ran along the centre of the streets, covered with bricks or stone slabs. Cisterns and wells finely constructed of wedge-shaped bricks held public supplies of drinking water. Back in its day, the city would have been home to around 40,000 inhabitants.
In the same era, but on another continent, another great city was being constructed – Caral. Located in the Supe Valley in Peru, Caral is a 5,000-year-old city that consisted of huge monuments, including pyramids, plazas, amphitheatres, temples, and residential areas. They had extensive agriculture, ate a varied diet, developed the use of textiles, used a complex system for calculating and recording, built water supply, and developed an intricate irrigation system.
Architects are currently looking to Caral for inspiration in city planning. Japanese architects intend to incorporate building designs that they implemented to protect their people from earthquakes. The people of Caral suspended their houses in baskets filled with stones that dissipated earth movement and prevented collapse.
9. Astronomy
From star constellations painted on ancient Greek ceramics to Native American rock art depicting solstices , star charts in ancient Japanese tombs , Australian Aboriginal dreamtime stories reflecting known astronomical events , and a 10,000-year-old megalithic calendar in Scotland, there is no doubt that ancient civilizations around the world possessed an extraordinary understanding of the cosmos and its movements. But just how they were able to so precisely and accurately record cosmological events without the technology we possess today still eludes scientists in many cases.
What is certain is that recent discoveries have revealed just how advanced ancient cultures were when it came to astronomical knowledge, and that they were far from the primitive people they were once thought to be.
10. Weapons
While there is no doubt that modern-day weapons are far more superior to their ancient counterparts in their ability to unleash mass death and destruction, there exist a number of powerful ancient weapons that still elude scientists as to their construction and capabilities.
Greek mathematician, engineer, inventor, and astronomer, Archimedes (287 – 212 BC) is reported to have created a heat ray weapon (sometimes called the ‘death ray’) to defend against ships attacking Syracuse, an historic city in Sicily. According to 2nd century AD author Lucian and centuries later, Anthemius of Tralles, the weapon was made of large reflectors (possibly made from polished bronze or copper), which were used to focus sunlight onto approaching ships, causing them to catch fire.
Although its existence has been hotly debated among historians, a number of tests have accurately proven that such a weapon is possible. In 1973, the Greek scientists Ioannis Sakkas set up 70 mirrors with a copper coating, which were pointed at a plywood model of a Roman warship at a distance of 50 meters. When the mirrors were focused accurately, the ship burst into flames within seconds.
By April Holloway, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins

The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece

by June 5, 2018

he Lemnians by William Russell Flint. Abandoned by their husbands in favor of slave girls captured in nearby Thrace, the women of Lemnos responded by slaughtering first their husbands then all the men on the island. ( CC BY NC-ND 2.0 )

We all know Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, made sure that she was worshipped by punishing those who ignored her altars. One brief appearance of this wrath in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts turned into a particularly fragrant episode.
The Ladies of Lemnos
Jason and company were sailing on the Argo when they washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Lemnos at a time when that isle was in the grip of a harrowing problem. Aphrodite had decided to curse the women of Lemnos for neglecting her shrines. In punishment, the ladies were made to smell particularly foul. As a result, the men of Lemnos decided to repudiate their wives in favor of pretty and relatively odor-free slave-girls imported from Thrace. In revenge, the Lemnian women wrought havoc, killing every man they could get their hands on—not only those who’d broken their vows, but any and every male, presumably children too.

Portrait of Hypsipylé, first wife of Jason, from Octavien de Saint-Gelais ( Public Domain )

he only woman to flout this convention was the queen of Lemnos, Hypsipyle, who felt bad for her old father, King Thoas. She entombed him in a hollow chest and set him out to sea, sort of like a reverse Moses, so he could hopefully wash up to safety somewhere else. In the meantime, the Lemnian women became farmers and warriors, assuming men’s traditional roles, but cast a wary eye on the sea in case the people of Thrace sailed over to avenge their captured women.
Hypsiplye saves her father

Hypsipyle saves her father Thoas by Français ( Public Domain )

The Heroes Arrive
Instead of the feared Thracians’ arrival, the Argo docked, and Hypsipyle met the Greek heroes on the beach. To make sure the newcomers didn’t suddenly decide to attack, she proposed inviting them to a feast. At one point, Hypsipyle’s wise old nanny advised that the Lemnian women, in case the Thracians did eventually decide to pursue vengeance, get themselves some new warriors on the island—the Argonauts! These proven soldiers could father their future children and keep the people of Lemnos safe.
When Hypsipyle had to explain why every lady on Lemnos was single, she lied that the Lemnian women forced their guys out once they took up with the Thracians. Jason was quite taken with Hypsipyle, and Aphrodite made him fall for her pretty hard; soon, they were shacking up together. Within time, every man on the Argo but Heracles had found a lady love on Lemnos, and their journey—to recover the Golden Fleece—was ever-more delayed. They kept finding reasons to avoid sailing on and leaving their new paramours behind…
Jason and the Argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts by Lorenzo Costa ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

More Divine Intervention
That is, until finally Heracles got up the courage to yell at them. He was the only Argonaut who had not got caught up in the lovefest on Lemnos, as he had remained on the Argo lamenting the loss of his adopted son, Hylas. Heracles exclaimed scornfully that they wouldn’t win glory by bedding strange women and the gods wouldn’t drop the fleece, object of their quests, in their laps. Jason and his cohort were thus shamed into leaving. Hypsipyle started crying, but said Jason could come back to her once he got the Golden Fleece if he so desired. If he never returned and she discovered she was pregnant in the meantime, she requested that he tell her what to do with the baby. Jason replied that, if she was pregnant and the baby was a boy, to send the child to his hometown of Iolcus, so that the offspring could care for Jason’s parents, if they were still alive.
Ovid’s Letters
In Ovid’s Heroides—reconstructed love letters from the women of mythology to the men who’d done them wrong—Hypsipyle remonstrated with Jason for never returning to her. Why, she asked, did she have to hear of his exploits through the grapevine rather than from Jason himself? And Jason had slept with Medea, a “barbarian poisoner,” rather than marry Hypsipyle, a good Greek girl? Hypsipyle cried, “Alas! where is the faith that was promised me? Where the bonds of wedlock, and the marriage torch, more fit to set ablaze my funeral pile?” She declared herself better than Medea, who had abandoned her family; in fact, Hypsipyle had saved her own dad. After all, Jason had stayed with her for two whole summers; she had welcomed him into her home and into her heart and bed; and that was all she got? He told her he’d come back eventually…but he never delivered.
Medea with Jason

Jason and Medea by Charles-Andre van Loo. Medea by some reports killed two of the children born with Jason when he left her for another ( Public Domain )

Jason’s Lemnos Legacy
The only good thing that came from sleeping with treacherous Jason was somewhat of a surprise. Hysipyle gave birth to twins; as Hypsipyle sniped, “The ways of deceit they know not; for the rest, they are like their father.” She cursed Medea and Jason—and that turned out great for those two, right? The resultant twins were Euneus and his brother, whose name is variously given as Nebrophonus or Deiphilus or Thoas. Euneus became king of Lemnos and popped up in Homer’s Iliad as the generous ruler of Lemnos who gave the Greeks some fine wine. He also ransomed one of Priam’s sons from Achilles with a mixing bowl for wine.
Queen Hypsipyle’s Fall
Hypsipyle was eventually sold into slavery after the Lemnian women discovered she’d spared her own father’s life. She became a nurse to the baby son of Lycus, king of Nemea. An oracle had stated that the child (alternately named Opheltes or Archemorus) should never be put down on the ground until he could toddle. But seven heroes—the guys who eventually attacked Thebes—approached and needed water when Hypsipyle and the infant prince were outside; afraid to inadvertently fulfill the prophecy, Hypsipyle put the baby in a bed of parsley (technically not the ground) near a spring. But a dragon or snake popped its head out of the water and gulped the baby down. The heroes saved Hypsipyle from being killed in punishment by Lycus.
By Carly Silver, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins