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The Lost City of Thebes

by on July 19, 2021

By Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
I’m sure like many of you, I’m a huge fan of Greek tragedy. For many people Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex can be their first exposure to the world of Ancient Greek literature, and the Classical world in general. More than two and a half millennia since its first performance, the play itself and its reputation endure undiminished. More than a masterpiece, the play can be an entry point into one of the most compelling branches of Greek myth: the Theban cycle. 
These stories tell the tale of Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx, his warring sons locked in bloody civil war and, of course, his headstrong, rebellious daughter (and half-sister!) Antigone. All these myths center around the ancient city of Thebes, one of the most prominent and important in Greek myth. The city itself was a real place. One of power and might too: the city defeated Sparta, founded cities, and was a key player in ancient politics. 
Yet, the city vanished. What happened? How can a city so important simply disappear? Like the Riddle of the Sphinx, perhaps we can untie this mystery… 

In Search of Cleopatra: The Early Years

by on July 16, 2021

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Before apocryphally rolling out of the carpet and into legend, Cleopatra (69 BCE-30 BCE) already had a storied past. The twenty-one-year old and her thirteen-year old brother-husband Ptolemy XIII (62 BCE-47 BCE) ruled together for close to two years before said brother—under the influence of his overly ambitious advisors—successfully banished Cleopatra from Alexandria. Prudently using her mastery of the Egyptian language—the first Ptolemy to do so in the nearly three-hundred-year-old dynasty—Cleopatra mounted an army to defeat Ptolemy. It was only shortly thereafter that she had the legendary encounter with Caesar. Yet most of what has been penned about Cleopatra was drawn after her stars became aligned with those of ancient Rome; written from the decidedly biased perspective of the Romans. Time and again we know Cleopatra as the subversive siren from the corrupted East who seduced two of ancient Rome’s greatest generals.
What could account for so much ire against the Egyptian queen? The truth is that in order to justify an unpopular civil war against his rival Mark Antony (83 BCE-30 BCE), Gaius Octavius “Octavian” (later Augustus—63 BCE-14 CE) launched first a propaganda campaign then a full-scale war against Egypt by painting Cleopatra as an Eastern harlot who seduced Antony with her blend of depraved sorcery.  Octavian’s crusade against her soon took hold in the rank imaginations of the xenophobic and misogynist Romans. In his Odes, Horace calls her a “fatal monster,” Sextus Propertius refers to her as the “whore queen” in Elegies and in Lucan’s Poems she is termed “Egypt’s shame.” Yet what is never mentioned about the Egyptian queen is that she didn’t have a drop of Egyptian blood. In fact, her lineage derived from a Macedonian Greek, celebrated as a hero in ancient Rome, whose military accomplishments were the ambition of every Roman leader.
It is an irony that forasmuch as the Romans glorified Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE), they heaped an equivalent amount of scorn and disdain on Cleopatra who was not only Alexander’s political heir but may very well have been his biological heir as well. Founding member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I Soter (367 BCE-83 CE) was one of Alexander’s three most trusted Macedonian generals and by some accounts, his half-brother as well. Although vilified within Greek city states, polygamy was practiced in the Greek kingdom of Macedonia, especially amongst the ruling class. Phillip II (386-336 BCE), Alexander’s father, had several wives and many children; Ptolemy was the son of one of his multiple wives. Alexander even had a sister named Kleopatra, which in Greek means “glory of the father.” Truth told, Cleopatra was a common name amongst queens in Ptolemaic Egypt; Cleopatra, its final queen, was number seven. Alas, Cleopatra’s link to Alexander continued after her demise; the Hellenistic period begins and ends with the deaths of Alexander and Cleopatra.

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

by on 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 on 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.

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or in the work of art?

by on July 12, 2021

I’ll be brief today dear reader. You see, I’ve taken my small family up north to the windy second city to enjoy a bit of culture, food and friends. We’ve been very successful in the latter categories and now it’s time to catch up on the former.
Indeed, today is the day I finally get to see one of my favorite paintings of all time at the Art Institute of Chicago.  
You see, I love going to art museums. I love being surrounded by beautiful, thought provoking or emotive works. I love the scene of calm, the feeling of the sacred. I’m invigorated by being close to the actual art itself, knowing the artist once touched that very same canvas. 
It’s like a portal into the past, into another mind, and into the serene. 

Women’s Voices can be heard in Stoicism (We just need to listen to them!)

by on July 9, 2021

By Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, Co-Authors of ‘Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in
Professor Nancy Sherman recently stated that contemporary forms of Stoicism have become an industry. And a mega-industry at that. While many of these forms have little to do with Stoic philosophy, she is right. It is also clear that most modern-day popularizers and academics linked to Stoicism happen to be men (in fact, we are two men). In extreme cases, fans of popularized Stoicism even champion the misogynist idea that only men can be virtuous (within the Stoic community we call this group the “Broics”). Yet the ancient Stoic philosophers themselves, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca the Younger make it clear that the ability to act virtuously is not contingent on one’s sex or gender identity.
Musonius, in particular, advocated for women to be taught philosophy so that, like men, they too could progress towards a life well-lived. He did so because he believed that women had received the same cognitive abilities and natural inclinations towards virtue as their male counterparts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Musonius’ views, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was influenced by Stoicism. She likewise emphasized the overarching goal of, and human capacity for, a flourishing life. Like Musonius, she believed that all humans could learn to act rationally and morally.
The Roman historian Plutarch and the biographer Diogenes Laërtius also highlight that the quest for virtue doesn’t only concern men. Plutarch documents the stories of the powerful Spartan queens Agiatis, Archidamia, and Agesistrata[i]. His point was to illustrate the fact that these women led by example when attempting to bring about much needed socioeconomic and land reforms in Hellenistic Sparta.