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Not Just Another Column

by April 24, 2022

What’s in a column? To the Ancient Greeks, the standing pillar was more than just a way to hold up the roof. Every section, from capital to base, was integral to the entire structure. It was a piece of art that followed very detailed specifications, an architectural order. In fact, you only need a fragment of molding to recreate a whole building.
The ancients weren’t just constructing a safe place in the rain, they were attempting to achieve perfection in architecture.
This meant nothing was left up to chance. It was never, Kyriakos – the average workman and heavy, choosing to put the pediment a “little the right”. The buildings were carefully designed using principles in harmony and symmetry and all overseen by a respected architect. The man in charge presided over every detail, from materials selected to choosing expert sculptors.
The order of the universe, believed so fervently by the Ancient Greeks, was reflected in the buildings themselves.
In fact, this is no exaggeration. The proportional ideals employed by these mathematical architects was the so-called Golden Mean, a ratio also found in natural spiral forms like Nautilus shells and fern fronds.
Here is the actual formula cherished by those men of yore:
Formula for the Golden Mean
Creating a perfectly proportional building had other desired consequences. It created an optical illusion. The end goal was, after all, how the building looked. They wanted perspective and concave results. Consequently, the major lines in the structure were rarely straight. This is most obviously seen in all the different columns’ profiles, whether they be Doric, Ionic or Corinthian.
But let us quickly review those three, very distinctive, major architectural systems, called orders.
Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders
Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders
The first and most primitive order is termed ‘Doric’. It is the serious, manly system that originated from wooden structures. It follows basic rules of harmony. Each column has to bear the weight of the beam laid across it. All the Triglyphs, or vertically channeled tablets, are arranged regularly. The columns themselves, short and stocky, stood initially without a base, and at a height of about six or seven times the diameter. The capital on the top of the pillar is basic.
The next architectural order is referred to as Ionic, due to its origination in Ionia (present day Turkey) in the mid-6th century BC. The southwestern coastline and islands of Asia Minor had been settled by the Ionic Greeks, who were distinguished from the Doric greeks by their Ionian dialect.
The Ionians’ more effeminate column design, however, proved popular amongst all the Greeks as evidenced by their construction on the mainland in the 5th century BC.
Ionic columns are most often fluted, and usually numbered at 24. This standardization was quite handy as it kept the fluting in a familiar, almost fragile, proportion to the diameter of the column… and at any scale. The system as a whole is characterised by its continuous freezes, and the scroll-like capitals, called volutes.
Corinthian Capital
Corinthian Capital
The third and final architectural order is termed Corinthian, from the ancient city of Corinth. It is the most elaborate and engraved system of architecture, distinguished by the stylized acanthus leaves and stalks found in the Corinthian capitals. These columns appeared much later and were more popular in subsequent periods than its own.
Overall, the disciplined and ordered approach to architecture was clearly effective … as it has been a major influence for the past two millennia. All three major architectural orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian can all still be seen in buildings, both public and private, throughout the world today.
But these systems of architecture did more than just beautified edifices globally. The western world also inherited from those brilliant mathematical architects the idea of a building as more than a space to live or worship. It can have another function: To be beautiful through harmony, balance and proportion.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

by April 22, 2022

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The mention of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon conjures up images of an oasis in the midst of a bustling city; a vibrant Eden of lush trees, shrubs, and vines supported with beautiful pillars and architecture. The gardens are thought to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II sometime in the 6th century BCE. While it is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, its actual existence is quite contested, with three theories prevailing: (1) that the gardens were purely mythical and idealized in the minds of writers and travelers; (2) that they did exist, but were razed in the first century CE; and (3) that the “hanging gardens of Babylon” actually refers to a garden built in Nineveh by the Assyrian King Sennacherib.
Picture of Babylon Gardens
Artist depiction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Like many ancient marvels, our knowledge of the hanging gardens comes down to us via written record and subsequently should be taken with a grain of salt.
Diodorus Siculus wrote that the gardens were square, tiered, and made of 22 feet thick brick walls. He mentions that the terraces themselves resembled a theater, sloping upwards to a height of 20 meters. Strabo writes that the gardens were located by the Euphrates river, running through Babylon, and utilized complex irrigation to draw up water from the river to water the gardens. It is very likely that any classical writer focusing on the hanging gardens would have had to reference earlier works from the 5th and 4th centuries. Unfortunately, the earliest extant writing we have of the gardens comes to us in quotes from the Babylonian priest, Berossus, around 290 BCE.
Archeological site of the Palace
North Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II
Nonetheless, these authors provide us with a baseline of what these gardens may have looked like and where they may have been located. Gardens such as these would have required a great deal of resources to build and maintain, and so it is likely that they were located in or near the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, if they existed at all. Extensive excavations of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II has revealed gates, vaulted rooms, double walls, tablets, large drains, and a possible reservoir. Nothing has been produced though, either in the archaeological record or the written records, that corroborates the Greek description of the gardens of Babylon. Since the written records consist of an exhaustive list of Nebuchadnezzar’s achievements while king, if he built the gardens they would have surely been listed, but they are not.
What do we make of this lack of evidence? Did Greek authors just fall victim to hearsay without ever even seeing the gardens, having never existed at all? Or did they just exist perhaps at a different time and place?
The fact that the gardens are discussed in a wide variety of Greek sources, spanning hundreds of years, and the fact that gardens like the fabled one at Babylon were quite common and not out of the question, it is difficult to outright deny the existence of the gardens altogether.
One possibility is that the gardens were not in fact located in Babylon, but 350 miles north in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Recent scholarship from Stephanie Dalley claims to have found evidence in Nineveh texts of King Sennacherib that describes an “unrivaled palace” and a “wonder for all peoples.” Extensive aqueduct systems as well as water-raising screws have both been found in Nineveh and may have certainly provided the irrigation needs of such prominent gardens.
Rebuilt Gate
Nineveh – Mashki Gate
The confusion may be as simple as ancient geographers and authors attributing the name “Babylon” to several places, or just getting the kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria confused in the first place. Since the Greek and Latin texts we have on the hanging gardens all reference back to one another, using the same base sources, a mistake in one is unsurprisingly carried through them all.
Still, whether real or not, the very idea of the hanging gardens of Babylon was a prevalent one in the minds of the Greeks and Latins. The literary attention that persisted on the subject must have captured the imagination of Hellenistic Greeks and Romans of the empire, much like it does today.

The Mysterious Phaistos Disk

by March 4, 2022

by Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Amongst the impressive architecture and mesmerising frescoes left behind by the Minoans on the island of Crete, there is one particularly puzzling artefact. For over a century, scholars have debated on the origin, function and translation of the Phaistos Disk, which was found by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in 1908. Uncovered from a ruined room of the Palace at Phaistos, the enigmatic artefact has troubled archaeologists and linguists alike, whilst also being the inspiration for a plethora of pseudoscientific writings.
The Phaistos Disk is made of clay and is 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter. Scholars remain unsure if the clay is Cretan in origin or imported, but the artefact is thought to be Minoan-made.
The main mystery, however, is in the imprinted hieroglyphic-esque signs – a total of 241 imprints made from a corpus of 45 individual signs placed over both sides of the disk. It is currently being held by the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which admits that the inscription is contested but suggest the text is potentially a hymn or magical in nature.
Table showing the 45 signs of the Phaistos Disk.
Table showing the 45 signs of the Phaistos Disk.
(Source: Davis, 2018:392)
The city of Phaistos, where the Disk was found, was occupied from the Late Neolithic of Crete (ca. 3600-2800 BCE). Its age and grandeur are comparable to Knossos, a palace on the north of the island that is famed for its painted frescoes.
The Palace of Phaistos is located on one of the dominating hills of the Mesara Plain, 5 km from the coast. It is on the southern side of the isle and faces eastwards. It is thought that Phaistos was named after a grandson of Herakles.
Along with most of the Minoan cities, Phaistos was destroyed in the earthquakes, and possibly tsunamis, that occurred in the aftermath of the Category 7 volcanic eruption of Thera, Santorini (c. 1627-1600 BC). Prior to these cataclysms, the Minoans were a fearsome thalassocracy (sea power) comparable to the mighty cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia: 
‘The Mediterranean Sea itself was one highway of influence and interchange between communities. So too were the great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile.’
(Willett, 1973:34)
Map of Crete showing Phaistos, Knossos and Aiya Triadha.
(Source: Mentesana et al, 2015:490)
Map of Crete showing Phaistos, Knossos and Aiya Triadha.
(Source: Mentesana et al, 2015:490)
Evidence shows Crete was involved in extensive trade networks with their neighbours that operated from a harbour on the south side of the island. From here, they shipped Minoan-made items such as shoes, boxes, weapons adorned with gold and lapis lazuli, and other elaborate trinkets to Anatolia, Mesopotamia, northern Africa and to the Syro-Palestine coast.  
Tablets discovered at Mari, on the banks of the Euphrates, reveal that Crete was known as ‘Kap-ta-ra’ to the Babylonians. On the other hand, the Egyptians and Canaanites referred to the inhabitants of Crete as ‘Keftiu’ and ‘Kaphtor’, respectively.
The Debate
Despite many attempts of interpretation, there is no widespread academic agreement to what the Phaistos Disk says or what it was made for. The fact it was found in a Minoan context does not equate to it being a Minoan-made object due to the extensive trade network of the Bronze Age. Some scholars argue that the Disk was shipped over from Anatolia. However, this stance has been equally refuted; Sterling Dow (1954) claimed the Disk is too fragile to have been shipped in.
Some have argued that the debate is futile, suggesting that the disk is a forgery. According to Jerome Eisenberg, the crafting of the Disk was fuelled by Pernier’s jealousy against Sir Arthur Evans and Federico Halbherr, who were making ground-breaking archaeological discoveries at Knossos and within Minoan inscriptions, respectively. For Eisenberg, there are clear indicators that the disk is a fake, such as the uniqueness, the clean-cut edges, and the purposeful and evenly distributed firing of the clay – although Pernier did not know it at the time, the Minoans did not fire their clay tablets intentionally. Many clay items were fired during accidental infernos during the destruction of the Palace.
Furthermore, Eisenberg believes the irregular placement and strikingly naturalistic style of the stamped signs is evidence of them being made up as they go along. There is also a lot of corrections on the Phaistos Disk, which is not characteristic of known ancient documents. The stamps themselves have been the subject of debate; scholars theorize that the stamps were made of wood, ivory, lead, stone, gold, silver, or bronze – which, doesn’t narrow it down… Despite this deeply contested detail, archaeologists have yet to uncover any stamps.
Generally, the opinion of Eisenberg is not accepted, and the debate continues. Most interpretations estimate the Disk’s age by addressing the context in which the artefact was found. The ruined room contained items that have been carbon-dated to the Middle Minoan period, although the Disk may have slipped from a higher – therefore later – layer. This means that estimates of age range between 2100-1100 BC, with most scholars concurring with Pernier that the Disk dates to c. 1850-1600 BC, which coincides with the transformative Palatial Age of Crete.
Attempts to decipher the Disk have been creative and contested, ranging from administrative document to an adventure myth, an almanac or calendar-diary to a call to arms or a list of soldiers, a funerary record or healing ritual instructions, a hymn or prayer, a judicial court list, a magic inscription, the palace schedule or site plan, a  poetic verse or a political treaty, maybe it is the proof of a geometric theorem or a record of gifts made to a temple, a sacred text or one used to teach reading. Or, maybe, it is a board game or game of chance or musical notes for a stringed instrument.
Benjamin Schwartz wrote a lengthy two-part article on the Disk (1959), that stated the Disk was to be read from its outer coil, anti-clockwise towards the centre. Since this publication, several other scholars have agreed that anti-clockwise, rim to the center, is the correct way to read this text.
Sides A and B of the Phaistos Disk respectively. 
(Source: Eisenberg, 2009:9)
Sides A and B of the Phaistos Disk respectively.
(Source: Eisenberg, 2009:9)
For Schwartz, the disk is Cretan in origin and linguistically connected to the Linear A and B scripts. Furthermore, he thought that the language itself was of Indo-European origin, similar to Mycenaean Greek. With this belief, Schwartz attempted to translate some of the sign-based script. Accordingly, he claimed to have deciphered the Disk, with the signs indicating sacred place names along a pilgrim route.
Cretan hieroglyphics, Linear A and Linear B are the known yet vastly mysterious scripts of Crete. Linear A remains untranslated and is thought to represent a different language to the translated Linear B. Some decipherments link the hieroglyphic-style script of the Disk to Linear A, while others link it to Linear B. Some scholars do not link the scripts at all, seeking other languages to connect to the Disk.
Decipherments have involved a multitude of different languages including archaic Greek, Proto-Ionian, Semitic, Luwian, Hittite, Basque, Coptic, Georgian, Colchian, Kartvelian, proto-Slavic, proto-Finno-Ugaric, proto-Hungarian, Indo-European and finally, Minoan. Some have even interpreted the Disk as having linguistic links to Chinese and Polynesian, although the geographical distance immediately raises doubt with these decipherments.
Computers have aided in some translations. Computer Scientist Peter Revesv (2016) deciphered the disk using ‘established correspondences between Cretan writing symbols and other ancient scripts’ such as Phoenician, South Arabic, Greek and Old Hungarian. He concluded that the Phaistos Disk is an example of Cretan hieroglyphics in the Minoan language, which likely had a common ancestor with Hungarian. According to Revesv, the text conveyed an ancient sun hymn that was connected to the winter solstice ceremony and revealed a mythological explanation of the daily journey of the Sun. Revesv is so confident in his translation that he has started to construct a linguistic database (AIDA) for future scholars of Minoan scripts.
This table reveals plausible comparisons between the scripts of the Phaistos Disk (PD), Linear A (LA) and Linear B (LB). 
(Source: Davis 2018:395)
This table reveals plausible comparisons between the scripts of the Phaistos Disk (PD), Linear A (LA) and Linear B (LB).
(Source: Davis 2018:395)
Approaching from a different perspective, Brent Davis (2018) does not present a possible language for the Disk but identifies striking similarities between the signs of the Disk and those of Linear A and Linear B. However, it is also noted that the signs imprinted on the Disk are slightly more complex and hieroglyphic in form than the Linear scripts.  To conclude Davis argues that the sign-based lexicon represents the same language encoded in the undeciphered Linear A script. This conclusion is quite convincing considering the Disk was found alongside a Linear A tablet.
The most recent of decipherments is that by Gareth Owens, a linguist and archaeologist. He has spent 30 years working on his interpretation, using the goddess Astarte as his key to the code. He revealed his idea at a collaborative talk hosted by the National Hellenic Research Foundation (NHRF) and the Technological Educational Institute (TEI) of Crete in 2016.
For Owens, this is a religious text honouring the Minoan goddess of love, who is connected to the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/Ishtar that later become known to the Classical Greeks as Aphrodite. Despite his enthusiastic claim that the Disk is now 99% decipherable, no subsequent works have yet been published in an academic setting and Owens has since gone silent on the topic.
The Goddess Astarte seems to be an amalgamation of Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences on the Minoan idea of the goddess of love.
(Source: World History Encyclopedia 2017)
The Goddess Astarte seems to be an amalgamation of Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences on the Minoan idea of the goddess of love.
(Source: World History Encyclopedia 2017)
The Phaistos Disk is considered unique, but some artefacts have been deemed comparable. Eisenberg compares the Disk to the Vladikavkaz Disk, found in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia-Alania.  It is undeniable that the signs are almost indistinguishable from those on the Phaistos Disk, albeit inscribed rather than stamped Unfortunately, the Russian disk has been discredited as a forgery and has subsequently vanished.
The Vladikavkaz Disk has symbols that are almost indistinguishable from those on the Phaistos Disk, but unfortunately, this missing artefact is thought to be a forgery.
(Source: Eisenberg 2008:14)
The Vladikavkaz Disk has symbols that are almost indistinguishable from those on the Phaistos Disk, but unfortunately, this missing artefact is thought to be a forgery.
(Source: Eisenberg 2008:14)
Other comparable artefacts have been found on Crete. In Malia, Cretan hieroglyphics bearing similarities to the signs on the Disk were found on an altar. During the 1926 excavations at Marvo Spillo, Sir Arthur Evans uncovered a gold and silver ring with inscribed signs that are too small to be worn. Unfortunately, the authenticity of this artefact has also been questioned.
Finally, excavations of a cave in central-eastern Crete revealed a plethora of weapons and votive double-headed axes. Unfortunately, the cave was plundered a few years later by locals after children found a golden axe. During 1934, archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos herded up the looted goods, and it was found that some of the more ornate items featured Linear A script. Some even had unique hieroglyphics, but the golden axe was never returned.
Perhaps with a little more digging on Crete, a similar artefact will be located and will enable academics to accurately translate this enigmatic artefact. For now, academics imaginations run amok with inventive ideas and innovative solutions to this millennia-old puzzle.

Theriac: the Ancient World’s Miracle Drug

by February 1, 2022

by Kevin Blood
I remember lining up with my younger brothers on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, ready to receive a spoonful of foul-tasting cod-liver oil and another of some vile milky tonic, whose name escapes me. Both made me retch from my boots. I thought my mother was trying to poison me! These vomit-inducing preparations were thought by her to be good for whatever might ail us. Great preventatives and cure-alls! She has been active in her search for cure-alls over the years, a search that occupies many mothers conscious of the well-being of little children.
Particularly valued by her are concoctions that protect and promote overall health and vitality, purify toxins in the body, grant a sense of tranquillity and provide relief from pain and discomfort. From ancient to medieval times a prized cure-all, named theriac, was thought to be effective in eliminating harmful toxins, in the form of venom or poison. It was said to heal a wide range of maladies. While researching its history, how it was tested and the ingredients it contained, I am relieved my mother did not know about this ancient wonder drug.
Theriac finds its roots in the story of the wily King Mithridates Eupator VI (120-63 BC), King of Pontus, in Asia Minor. Mithridates, described by Velleius Paterculus as ‘ever eager for war, of exceptional bravery, always great in spirit and sometimes in achievement, in strategy a general, in bodily prowess a soldier, in hatred to the Romans, a Hannibal’. He was a thorn in the side of the early Roman republic, an adversary of Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey. Ambitious, he rose to power by murdering his brother and imprisoning his mother. His ambition and courtly intrigues meant he feared assassination by poisoning.
Fascinated by the idea, he tested poisons on slaves and criminals to observe their effects. As a protective measure, he consumed small doses of poisons and venoms, as well as their antidotes. Mithradates tasked his physician, Crateuas, to create a wonder treatment effective against poisoning. Crateuas worked with Persian magi, Scythian shamans, and other physicians, to create Mithridatum, an electuary; a mixture of powders in paste form, combined with honey as a binding agent to create a pill. The pill, a mixture of approximately 40 ingredients, was taken daily by Mithridates. It was claimed to be effective against arsenic, and the toxins created by vipers, sea slugs, and scorpions, including a variety of other toxins.
Coin feauring Mithridates
Coin feauring Mithridates
It may have been effective: the sources assert Mithridates lived in good health until his seventies. While waging war against Pompey, he was betrayed by his son. Rather than face capture, he committed suicide. Having built resilience against poisons, he ordered a slave to stab him to death. Pompey took his papers, including the recipe for Mithridatum, back to Rome and translated them into Latin. Thus, the medicine named after him was adapted and became known as theriac. The name theriac means ‘to do with wild beasts’. This medical preparation remained popular right into the mid-eighteenth century.
During the Renaissance, Venice came to produce the best quality theriac, known as Venice (or Venetian) treacle. It carried the official seal of the republic, a guarantee of quality. Amongst the European medical community of the time, there was much debate over the quality and efficacy of the theriacs. The question being, were the modern preparations as good as those of the classical era? Some thought difficulties in procuring many of the ingredients available in ancient times meant contemporary theriacs were ineffective, others that ignorant or negligent physicians were to blame for poor-quality production. Such was the concern that in some European cities, the manufacturing of theriac was done in public, under the supervision of a recognised physician. This was conducted under strict controls and standards, essentially an early medical regulatory framework. Renaissance physicians sought out genuine classical descriptions for the ancient ingredients and production methods of theriac.
Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Ancient theriac first played a role as an antidote. Later, it became a panacea for a variety of illnesses. Given the nature of ancient pharmacology, more than one formula existed. One of the oldest, described by the naturalist Pliny the Elder and later by Galen of Pergamum, physician to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, originates from inscriptions found at the temple of Asklepios at Kos, a major centre of the healing cult. Its ingredients contained oppnax (sweet myrrh) thyme, fennel, parsley, and aniseed. One ingredient in many ancient preparations of theriac was opium, the juice of the poppy plant.
An ancient standard for the formulation of theriac was that of Andromachus, AD first-century botanist and court physician to the emperor Nero. Andromachus claimed his theriac superior to Mithridatum because it contained some sixty-four ingredients and was enhanced by the flesh of a viper and a much higher quantity of opium. For Andromachus, his ‘tranquillity’ theriac, unlike Mithridatum, was effective against poisons and venoms, and good for treating colic, dropsy, animal bites, plague, and inflammation.
Galen describes the basic formula for his theriac, based on Andromachus’, in De Antidotis I, De Antidotis II, and De Theriaca ad Pisonem. It contained vipers’ flesh, cinnamon, wine, honey, opium and more than seventy other ingredients. It matured for years and was administered in plaster form or orally. Galen, not one shy of self-promotion, claimed his formula was superior to all others.
Galen of Pergamum, physician to Marcus Aurelius
Galen of Pergamum, physician to Marcus Aurelius
What Andromachus’ and Galen’s versions of theriac have in common is the complexity of preparation, the wide variety of ingredients, and the rarity and great expense of some of its elements. It is reasonable to assume the version found at Kos was more affordable for the average pilgrim.
We can guess at how expensive some versions of Andromachus’ theriac were to produce from Galen’s treatise Peri alupias (Avoiding Distress), a text lost to us until as recently as 2005. It describes how he remained calm after a fire in Rome, AD 192, caused the loss of many of his prized possessions. The fire destroyed the library on the Palatine Hill, and some of the imperial archives and expensive real estate and storehouses on the Via Sacra. Galen lost precious metals, credit notes, medical instruments, medicines, and ingredients for producing more of these and 80 Roman pounds of his theriac.
Galen prescribed daily doses of his theriac for Marcus Aurelius; the ancient sources, including Aurelius himself, describe the emperor suffering for much of his adult life from ill-health. He had ulcers and impaired breathing. In the composition of Aurelius’ Meditations, it is interesting to speculate how daily quantities of opium may have contributed to the sense of Stoic detachment from perturbation, and the dream-like quality of his cosmic speculations about the nature of the universe.
Perhaps the book should have been called Medications, after all!
Houston, G.W. (2003) ‘Galen, his books, and the Horrea Piperataria at Rome’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 48, pp. 45–51 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 26 January 2022).
Karaberopoulos, D. Karamanou, M. and Androtsos, G. (2012) ‘The theriac in antiquity’, The Lancet. Science Direct, Elsevier Ltd. Available at: The theriac in antiquity – The Lancet (accessed 26 January 2022).
 Karamanou, M. and Androutsos, G. (2019) Chapter 12 – Theriaca Magna: The Glorious Cure-All Remedy, Editor(s): Philip Wexler, In History of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Toxicology in Antiquity (Second Edition), Academic Press, pp. 175-184. Available at: Theriac – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics (accessed 26 January 2022).
Mayor, A. (2019) Chapter 11 – Mithridates of Pontus and His Universal Antidote, Editor(s): Philip Wexler, In History of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Toxicology in Antiquity (Second Edition), Academic Press, pp. 161-174, ISBN 9780128153390. Available at: Theriac – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics (accessed 26 January 2022).
Nutton, V. (2012) ‘Galen and Roman medicine: or can a Greek become a Latin?’, European Review, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 534–42 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 26 January 2022).
Nutton, V. (2014a) ‘Avoiding Distress: translation’ in Singer, P.N. (ed.) Galen: Psychological Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 77–99.
Nutton, V. (2014b) ‘Avoiding Distress: introduction’ in Singer, P.N. (ed.) Galen: Psychological Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 45–76.

A Visit To The Apollo Temple at Didyma, Hidden Gem of the Aegean

by June 30, 2021

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In ancient times, Turkey’s Didyma was not a city of trade or agriculture but a place of worship. Located on the country’s western coast, Didim — as it is now called — is home to the magnificent and ancient Apollo Temple. 
An artist’s imagining of the Apollo Temple Didyma during its construction. Credit: unknown German Artist, 1912
While it is considered a lesser-known temple today, the Apollo Temple at Didyma was incredibly significant in its time. It was important not just for the Greeks, but the Romans and the rest of the Mediterranean world as well.
Second only to the Apollo at Delphi, this temple was wider than the Parthenon in Athens and the fourth-largest temple in the ancient Greek world. Many famous (and infamous) western emperors visited the temple at Didyma. Many even vied to become its patron due to the great social, cultural, and political influence the Didymaion oracle had over Anatolia and other Greek and Mediterranean provinces.
Caesar, Julian, and even Alexander the Great passed through the city of Miletus and headed straight to Didyma to consult with the Didymain Oracle. It was here, in 303 BCE, that Emperor Diocletian traveled to consult the oracle. He heeded its advice — which was to persecute the growing Christian population.
But it wasn’t just its famous visitors that made the Apollo Temple great. The building itself stands testament to the true genius of Greek engineering and architectural design. The structure has several features that set it apart from other Hellenistic temples. Firstly, the exterior of the building is typical of large Ionic temples of its time, with a double colonnade surrounding the interior walls and a vestibule at the front, which is enclosed by a portico and projecting sidewalls. But these are the only features the Apollo at Didyma has in common with its contemporaries. 
Here is how it differed: First, the interior of the building has the most unusual design. The great stairway that leads up to the temple is large, wide enough to receive the large festival processions that traveled in from the town of Miletus via the Sacred Way. But upon ascending the steps, the worshippers were met by a huge blank wall instead of a traditional central doorway. The sacred inner sanctuary was accessed instead by two arched doorways sloping downwards on either side, leading to an open-air courtyard. These entrances were extremely narrow, only allowing for single-file access — which suggests that entrance to the inner sanctum was somewhat exclusive. 
Image of the Inner sanctuary from atop the inner staircase. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The open-air courtyard itself is said to have been lined with bay trees. The sacred spring (naiskos), believed to be the source of the power of the oracle, was enshrined in the center of the sanctuary, along with an impressive statue of the god Apollo. The foundations of the inner sanctuary stood in the middle of the courtyard can still be seen, along with the remains of various altars.
Processional view of the Temple on approach. The now crumbled wall would have blocked worshippers from viewing the sacred inner sanctuary. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The sanctuary was built to rival the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which was the largest temple until Apollo. The temple access was built to deliberately prevent a direct approach. Visitors of lesser importance were thus prevented from seeing the inner ‘secrets’ of the temple. Instead, a second inner courtyard lay atop of the wall, which was accessed by 22 steps over 15 meters wide that lead up from the inner courtyard below. It is believed that the purpose of this unusual layout was to allow some worshippers a tantalizing glimpse of the inner sanctum, the priests, and the prestigious visitors that graced its halls.
Unfortunately, there are no surviving accounts of the ritual or ceremony involved in consulting the oracle from the perspective of the enquirer. Instead, we are left with historical and procedural inference from other sources to explain the unusual design layout of the temple. 
Indeed, the history of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma itself contains mysteries. The site was razed and rebuilt many times. In fact, a humble structure of worship stood there even before the Ionic colonization of the Aegean coast. A second much larger structure was built by the people of Miletus and was destroyed in 494 BCE by the Persians. The site was left in ruin until Alexander the Great conquered the region and reconstructed it in 331 BCE. The temple flourished once more under Roman control, with Emperor Caligula allegedly trying to complete the project. In 101 AD, the Sacred Way was restored by Emperor Trajan. The Apollo reconstruction continued until the closing of pagan temples under Theodosius I. Didyma later became a bishop’s seat under the rule of Justinian I. The site was eventually abandoned and left to ruin after the Ottoman conquest of Iona in 1300, and an earthquake in 1493 finally destroyed the temple almost completely.
The ‘end’ point of The Sacred Way a 16.5km processional road that connected the Sacred gate of Miletus to the steps of the Apollon Temple at Didyma. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
Yet the Apollo stands to this day, its size is still hugely impressive, with 25-meter high walls. The temple platform area covers some 5,500 square meters and contains 122 columns over two meters in diameter and some 28 meters in height. Such feats of engineering have puzzled archaeologists for over 200 years. Temple construction could take hundreds of years to complete, so ancient Greek architects and engineers would engrave project plans within the stones of the temple itself, and polish them away once the project was complete. Since the last reconstruction was never completed, the site is awash with inscriptions, diagrams and floor plans from the original builders. Many tourists visit this site daily, unaware that ancient knowledge lies preserved underfoot and for all to see.
Etchings made by ancient builders visible at the base of the External temple Columns. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
In 1979, a team of archaeologists visited the site and were astonished at the preservation of these plans. They report finding finely etched lines on the Temple walls that trace out the intended design of various structures, some of which were never completed. These ancient ‘blue prints’ cover a huge area, and have shed light on the building methods and  mathematical precision employed at the time.
Examples of etchings, initials, insignias, and quotations found along the exterior steps running along all four walls of the temple. Including various etchings, shapes and designs found on the temple floor. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
Inscribed on the floors of the outer sanctuary are plans for the construction and decorating of the columns. Using micro-imaging techniques, horizontal lines were discovered on the unfinished walls of the inner sanctuary that show plans for building column shafts and their plinths. 
Doodles, names, and dates of the construction workers can also be found littered across the site — there are even a few quotations from the oracle.
A possible etching of the sun god Apollo. Apollo was often depicted with a shield and spear. A bird or raven appears on his left side. Raven was commonly associated with the god. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is a magnificent structure and testament to the ingenuity of those who designed, built, and inscribed it. The site played an important role in the history of the Greek conquest of Anatolia and the politico-cultural reach of the Anatolian Greeks and their later Roman counterparts. 
The site is still cherished by those who live and visit the modern town of Didim. In some ways, the site remains faithful to its original purpose: bringing people together. The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is still a favored location for cultural festivals, community workshops, and a place for local artists, farmers, traders, and visitors to commune. Adjacent to the ruined temple is a modern mosque, demonstrating that despite the modernization of the immediate area, the modern Apollo Temple site remains part of an unbroken tradition of worship and community that stretches back over 2,000 years.
Haselberger, L. (1985). The Construction Plans for the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Scientific American, 253(6), 126-133. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from
Parke, H. (1986). The Temple of Apollo at Didyma: The Building and Its Function. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 106, 121-131. doi:10.2307/629647

Technological ‘Miracles’ Of Ancient Greece

by March 25, 2021

Written by Arslan Hassan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Ancient Greece was filled with inventors and engineers whose machines, instruments, and appliances used are still in use today.

Technology and Entertainment

The Greeks made massive contributions in the fields of theater, music, sports, and stage performances. The theater itself is Greece’s most valuable contribution to the world of entertainment, bringing us comedy, tragedy, and satire.

Moreover, the Greek’s invented animated characters, programmed shows, stage machinery and the mechanical automation required to move them. They also studied various physical laws related to music and its harmony. 

Pythagoras studied the properties of vibrating string, while Aristotle researched sound waves and their relation with motion. Similarly, Vitruvius studied the detailed mechanism of sound transmission. Their research led to the invention of  acoustic musical instruments, modern theaters, and even modern sound equipment.

The Greeks paid attention to both the architectural and functional values of their theaters. They developed technology that changed the entire look of the theater, bringing in moving carts, automatic scenery changes, and stage rotations, to cite a few examples.

 In sports, they invented a technology  the Hysplex that is useful in making fair racing decisions. 

Automata, Robots and Wonders

The Automate Therapaenis, Greece, 3rd c. BC

We also find numerous examples of automata or automated machines developed by the Greeks. One such example is the automatic door system. The concept was first used in a temple where the door opened on its own.

Additionally, they also developed a burglar alarm. This alarm sounded whenever the door was opened, much like the bell that rings in our shops. Other examples of Greek automates include:

  • The first vending machine
  • A robot-servant machine for pouring wine and water
  • A steam turbine, and much more.

Musical Instruments, Games and Toys

Ancient Greek musical instruments

The Greeks loved music; it was their major recreational pursuit. As in other domains, they made commendable contributions in this field. Some major technological developments for music include the panpipes, flute and Greek lyre.

Many of these instruments were developed through scientific study. Ptolemy and Pythagoras were the key drivers. By understanding the relation of the pitch to sound and musical harmony, new ways of creating sound emerged.

The ancient Greeks also developed mind games for kids (and adults). For example, the game Pollis is similar to chess. They also developed puzzles and rolling games.

Sports Technology in Ancient Greece

Reconstruction of a fourth-century Greek Hysplex based off an illustration on the Panathenean amphora dated 344/343 BC, Thessaloniki Technology Museum

When it comes to the sports of ancient Greece, the Isthmian games as well as the Delphic, Olympic, and Nemean may come to mind. The Greeks also developed a racing system for chariot and horse races that gave an equal chance of winning to every participant. Similarly, a hysplex was used to line up all the runners. This was done to make sure that every participant was following the rules.

Technology in Everyday Life

Illustration of an ancient Greek crane

From pulleys and cranes to tackle systems, blocks, and capstan hoists, the Greeks invented a variety of technology for everyday use. They used this technology for building monuments, as it enabled easy lifting of even the heaviest objects with a single hand. Archimedes also used a gearbox for designing a winch.

The Greeks also built a crane on a mobile platform which used Capstan winches to lift, load, tilt and move backward or forward. The crane lifted the stone from one end and dropped it off on the other. Parallel wall building was also made possible by the crane when two of them were used in the line.

Hydraulic Technology

Ancient Greek water mill

To better harness the energy of small rivers, the Greeks used horizontal turbines as well as watermills. They also resolved several irrigation needs and domestic water requirements with multiple pumping systems. The piston pumps and advanced water wheel system also gained huge popularity. In addition, the crew pump was invented by Archimedes.

Machines and Tools

3D rendering of a pantograph

The Greeks developed various machines by using ordinary, everyday components. Some of these basic components include screws, cylinders, nuts, gears, etc. They also invented various advanced tools used for the development of advanced machinery.

One excellent example of the drawing device is the pantograph developed by Hero of Alexanderia. The device was used to duplicate his drawings with ease. Hero is also credited with inventing the first automatic door, the first coin-operated wine dispenser, and the steam engine.

Weapons, Telecommunications and Shipbuilding

Greek trireme

The Greeks gave prime importance to weapons. They knew that having well-trained soldiers was not enough. They must have technology: engines that can combat the enemies, and ships that are faster than ever. Thus, they developed various siege engines as well as a polybolos machine. Archimedes came up with a steam cannon and multiple devices for destroying walls.

For effective and safe communication, the Greeks used encrypted messages. They also invented a hydraulic telegraph system. As far as shipbuilding is concerned, Greeks won the battle of Salamis due to their invention of a powerful galley ship known as the trireme.

Textile, Agricultural Machinery and Medical Devices

Attic lekythoi showing two women at a standing loom, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since everything was handcrafted during the time of Greeks, they used swing plows, draft animal pills, dual-sided looms, and screw presses for the production of olive oil. In the field of medicine, they invented various kinds of syringes, scalpels, and pliers.

Final Thoughts

In short, the ancient Greeks have made marvelous technological inventions. From medicine to telecommunication, sports, and the arts, their inventiveness is inspiring. Their stage machinery gave rise to the theater. Sports technology like racing systems resulted in fair results. Similarly, hydraulic technology bought advancement in the agricultural sector.

No matter how advanced do we get today, we will always be thankful to the Greeks for providing a base for the latest technology.

About the author:
Arslan Hassan is an electrical engineer with a passion for writing, designing, and anything tech-related. His educational background in the technical field has given him the edge to write on many topics. He occasionally writes blog articles for Carpet Cleaning London.