Politicians lie. The media distorts. People create fake websites masquerading as real news outlets. We live in an era of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and “post-truth”. Naturally, people are a little concerned about how to tell fake news from real journalism. Of course, my answer is simple—get a Classics degree. The Bachelor’s degree in Bullshit forces you to constantly analyze information and test veracity, look for bias, recognize the limits of the available evidence, and draw rational, fact-based conclusions. The more in-depth answer I’ve already written; reread my “History for Dummies” article for a fuller breakdown.
Classics looks at pretty much whatever we can find. Time isn’t very kind to history or historians; most artifacts are gone or still buried. We try to reconstruct societies by looking at ruins. Classics research comes from a basis of incomplete information, which is why it’s so useful for detecting fake news. We can draw reasonable conclusions from the evidence we do have. From day 1 as a Classicist you learn about the limits of your evidence. You learn to take a critical eye to the text and not simply believe everything written. Of course, other fields require critical thinking, but what makes Classics perhaps a bit better for this era of propaganda is we know our information occasionally lies. Information in the sciences cannot lie—scientists might interpret the information incorrectly, but the information itself is always truthful. Chemicals can’t fake a reaction. Classicists work in a field where our main—and almost only—written source for the Persian Wars is written by a man some called the “Father of lies”. Classicists are therefore best positioned to separate fact from fiction. It’s quite literally our job. Enough sales pitch.
Above all else, sheer patience seems to be the easiest trait to learn in fighting fake news. As I mentioned not too long ago, every 1 year spent digging an archaeological site can take up to 10 years to categorize, study, and publish all the findings. Fortunately, we’ve got the time. It is not like the Romans can get any deader. The key that pushes fake news (and separates it from the real) is a quick turnaround time. Every day there is a different source of insanity, and fake news stories have a very short lifespan. That’s intentional. Fake news is designed to give you information and sensory overload, just like a casino. They push enough crap for you to lose the ability to think critically about everything. The task just becomes too big. It doesn’t need to be immediate though. We can take our time and do it correctly. Step 1 is therefore giving all news stories a 24 hour waiting period. Fake news simply doesn’t survive much longer than a day, because further investigation reveals the fakeness, whereas investigation for real things reveals new details. This is why Russia is here to stay, and “Pizzagate” seems like ages ago.
Step 2: Check the basics of the website, article, and author. Basic source and author criticism. Fake news and satire sites will usually have a disclaimer, or painfully obvious blurb about being fake. Likewise, if the author is an amateur writer who usually writes about lizard people, their article on State Department secrets is highly unlikely to be accurate. Finally, check the fucking date of the article. Facebook feeds and other news feed algorithms are pretty terrible; many times an article from as far back as 2011 pop up, and people will still get upset over it.
Step 3: More in depth source criticism. What is a “source”? CNN is not a source. Breitbart, Fox, and any given author are not sources either. They will cite their sources, usually anonymously (there is a valid source protection aspect to reporting). Be skeptical of stories that merely say “a source in the White House”, or “someone close to the incident” without further elaboration. You don’t know if the source is one of the president’s close advisors or the friggin gardener. Source criticism is about testing the integrity and credibility of the source itself, and part of that is finding out what information the source has access to. The White House gardener does not have access to blow open a scandal deep inside the President’s inner circle. Even eyewitnesses are limited in how much information they can access. Likewise, videos and pictures posted are not in themselves “sources”. Be skeptical of what the author or commentator is telling you about where these pictures and videos are from and what they are showing. Double check them yourself. There was a video circulating for a while supposedly showing Muslims rioting and demanding Sharia law—the video actually depicted a protest over an incident of police brutality. It’s easy to fool the masses, because the video itself doesn’t “lie”. A small, “alt” news site that consistently writes polemic pieces, or a mainstream contributor doing the same is to be generally avoided. They’re there for the click-bait, not the journalism.
Step 4: Verify the facts, ignore the opinions. Ignore all the crap telling you what to think or feel. All those articles telling you this will “enrage” or “delight” you, all the subjective opinions, like “massive” or “small”, should set off alarms in your head. Ask yourself what makes one riot “large-scale” and another “small-scale”. That exposes the subjective, biased nature of the reporting. Facts are concrete, and they can be double checked. Whether it is how many Persians were in the invasion force against Greece or Trump’s electoral win, fake news and propaganda will emphasize scale and feeling over concrete, verifiable facts and dispassionate analysis.
Step 5: Read multiple sources. There’s a tendency for independent sources, even sources hostile to each other, to report on the same or similar incidents, while disagreeing on minor details or motivations. Caesar declared he crossed the Rubicon in his own defense against Senate hostility, and the Senate declared Caesar marched on Rome to make himself a king. The two sources are hostile to each other, but both agree that Caesar marched on Rome, which means the event itself can be considered “proved”. Multiple attestation is a really useful tool for checking fake news, because even across multiple outlets, the same facts will be repeated.
Step 6: If all else fails, use scientific consensus or professional fact-checking organizations as guidelines. Snopes it. Fact-checking sites make their money through the reputation they build on being accurate, so it’s in their best interest to be accurate. They aren’t perfect, but in a pinch, they will guide you well. Comedy sites like Cracked.com also have made plenty of money pointing out BS news stories. Again, the comedy only works if the thing being satirized is real and accurate. Jokes don’t work if the premise is wrong. This is why Aristophanes makes such a wonderful historical source. Scientific consensus is another great tool in the box. Contrary to conspiracy theorists, the real money is in overturning that consensus, not maintaining it, so when it’s reported that 97% of scientists accept global warming, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the color of the sky being blue, it’s because 97% of the scientists ran studies that confirmed the phenomenon—despite their best efforts to disprove it. Experts are experts for a reason. You can rely on the positions taken by the majority of them.
And there you have it. A short, sweet little checklist for when you scour Facebook feeds and news articles. Never be afraid to simply admit “I don’t know” if you still can’t tell.
We’re a superstitious lot, aren’t we? Rituals, lucky clothing, taboos, horoscopes, fortunes, and numbers. “Seven” has been a favorite number holding special meaning for basically all of recorded history. Of course, a lot of this is just coincidence, but because our brains are hardwired for finding patterns, we sometimes create meaningful patterns where none exist. Throw salt over your left shoulder, put on your lucky jersey, and walk backwards, here’s seven lists of sevens showing up in the ancient world.
Seven Kings of Rome. Before the Empire, before the dark times Republic, there was the Roman Kingdom. Founded by Romulus, the Romans went through seven legendary kings, before the monarchy was overthrown and the Republic was founded. First was Romulus, who killed his brother. Who doesn’t like a country founded on fratricide? Numa Pompilius was next. In popular Roman mytho-history, Numa was the founder of Roman religion. Third was Tullus Hostilius, and by his name you can tell he was all about the violence. Hostilius defeated Alba Longa and incorporated their people into the Roman citizenry — what will be the usual pattern of “Romanization” throughout the civilization’s history. His successor Ancus Marcius was sort of a mix between the last two. He expanded religion and Rome’s borders, with his magnum opus being the founding of Ostia. Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, or “Tarquin the Elder” was a war guy like his predecessors and built the Circus Maximus and Cloaca Maxima. Servius Tullus was put on the throne by Tanaquil, wife of Tarquin the Elder, after a botched assassination attempt by the sons of Ancus Marcius. Yes, Roman history is a lot like Game of Thrones. Good luck keeping everyone straight. Servius was a commoner rather than aristocracy, but extremely popular among the people and Senate. In addition to the wars that basically were a necessity for every king, he created the “Servian constitution”, which was a series of reforms helping the plebs and defining the rights and responsibilities of being a Roman citizen. According to Livy, he also instituted Rome’s first coinage. The last Roman king was Tarqinius Superbus, “Tarquin the Proud”, or “Arrogant”. After assassinating Servius, he went on a dictatorial crazy spree, and generally just pissed people off. He was the last king for a reason; after being an ass one too many times, the people overthrew him and established the Republic. The Latin “r-word”, rex, became a dirty word throughout the Republic and empire.
Seven Hills of Rome. The Palatine and Capitoline might be the most famous of them. Augustus built his home on the Palatine, and the Capitoline hosted many of the more prominent temples, including the Temple of (Capitoline) Jupiter. The other hills are the Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Quirinal, and Viminal: The Baths of Caracalla are on the Caelian; the Baths of Trajan are on the Esquiline; the Aventine plays a role in a few stories from Roman mythology; the Quirinal is home to the Gardens of Sallust in antiquity and Trevi Fountain in modernity; and the Viminal hill, smallest of the seven, really doesn’t have anything noteworthy about it. Hey, they can’t all be winners.
Seven Sages of Greece. It should be no surprise the culture that birthed democracy and western philosophy had a “seven sages” list. By tradition each has a pithy saying or apopthegm — there’s your word of the day — attached to their names. In no particular order:
Cleobus of Lindor (6th century BC), tyrant of Lindor on the island of Rhodes, “μέτρον ἄριστον”, “moderation is best”.
Periander of Corinth (7th-6th century BC), tyrant of Corinth, “μελέτη τὸ πᾶν”, “take thought to everything” or sometimes interpreted as “practice makes perfect”.
Pittacus of Mytilene (c.640-568), military and civil leader in Mytilene on island of Lesbos, “καιρὸν γνῶθι”, “know your opportunity”.
Bias of Priene (6th century BC), politician and legislator, “οἱ πλεῖστοι κακοί”, “most men are bad”.
Chilon of Sparta (6th century), politician. “ἐγγύα, πάρα δ’ἀτα”, “give a surety and face ruin”.
Solon of Athens (c. 638-558 BC), founder of Athenian democracy, “μηδὲν ἄγαν”, “nothing very much” or “nothing in excess”.
Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC), γνῶθι σαυτὸν”, “know thyself”.
Seven against Thebes. This is actually just one thing, a play by Aeschylus (I cheated, sue me). Produced in 467 BC, it covers the aftermath of Oedipus’ more famous story. His sons, Polyneikes and Eteokles, raised an army to fight him. The play has little action though; it instead focuses on dialogues and Eteokles’ character. The “seven” are the seven captains chosen to lead attacks against each of Thebes’ seven gates. In the end—2500 year old spoiler alert—the brothers end up killing each other. It is a Greek tragedy after all. Despite the play and Homer referring to “seven-gated Thebes”, archaeologists haven’t had terribly great success identifying the gates. Truth be told, they may not exist.
Seven Classical Planets. Also called the Seven Luminaries, these are the seven astronomical bodies visible to the naked eye. They are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun, and the moon. Remember, “planet” is just a Greek word meaning “wanderer”, so it counts (this is the Greeks cheating, not me). While the stars always appear more or less “fixed”, these seven bodies were “non-fixed”, and hence given the name “planet”. Given the fact that they didn’t have the super awesome telescopes we have today, the Greeks did pretty good in astronomy—they created mathematical models, came up with heliocentrism, and figured out the circumference of the Earth. The “Classical” planets are so called because Uranus wasn’t discovered until the late 1700s, and Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930.
Seven Days of the Week. Following right off the seven planets come the seven days in a week—because they were named after the planets (I am KING of segues). In English, it doesn’t quite seem to follow, because we go off the Germanic-Norse gods for the names, but in Romance languages, the relationship is much clearer. In the Latin and Greek, Sunday is “Sol/Helios”, Monday is “Luna/Selene”, Tuesday is “Mars/Ares”, Wednesday is “Mercury/Hermes”, Thursday is “Jupiter/Zeus”, Friday is “Venus/Aphrodite”, and Saturday is for “Saturn/Cronus”. If you know your Norse mythology though, our English name also line up. Sunday for the sun god (Sól or Sunna), Monday for the moon god (Máni) Tuesday for Tyr, who is the Germanic equivalent to Mars, Wednesday for Wodin or Odin, Thursday for Thor, and Friday for Frige or Frig. All Germanic equivalents to their Roman/Greek brethren. On an ancillary note, the modern German for Wednesday is Mittwoch, literally “midweek”, breaking a multiple millennia trend. THANKS A LOT GERMANY!
Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Come on, what else could I end this article on? Pyramids of Giza, Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes, Lighthouse at Alexandria, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Statue of Zeus at Olympia and Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Only the Pyramids still survive, and I won’t say much about the wonders (use the Google, people) except to say that the Coliseum and Athenian Acropolis did not make the list. So feel free to use your imagination on how impressive these structures were—or Google any of the dozens of artist renditions out there. Time is a cruel mistress who does not play favorites, and the other six wonders are lost to us. Eventually, all of us will die, and every remnant of what we built will turn to dust.
….wow, that got dark….
Recently, a bunch of coins were found off the coast of Spain. Also, some guy in the UK unearthed a Roman villa in his garden. While digging out a new metro line, workers in Italy uncovered a Roman barracks. A massive naval base has been found around Athens. A new Indo-Greek city has been excavated in Pakistan. In short, we’re finding new things on a fairly continual basis. Whether they be professionally excavated archaeological digs, advances in technology aiding scholars to review our knowledge more carefully, or “accidental” finds like many of the above, Classics is in constant flux. Some discoveries may overturn longstanding theories while others may be fairly mundane. Either way, despite the longevity of the discipline, there is still a ton of work for Classicists to do. Here’s a brief pass at the state of Classics research.
As one would expect, excavations are the primary way we gather all our material finds. Dig sites show cities, buildings, streets, trade routes, and burials, often containing lots of valuable items like papyri, pottery, tools, weapons, and other artifacts. Oh, and lots of junk, broken pot sherds, and dirt. That stuff tends to not make it into the papers though. Classics is far from just sitting in a holding pattern, and it would be really silly to believe Classics is a dead field.
Classics is pretty much operating on a bare bones system of knowledge, to be blunt about it. Yet another article where I get to write “we don’t know shit”. It has been estimated that of all the surviving authors and texts we have, which is still quite a decent collection, this is a mere fraction of what the ancient world produced. And by fraction I mean 90% plus of all ancient literature is unknown to us. Last I checked, 10% was a failing grade. We turned it into the basis for all Western education. Likewise, when one thinks about how many cities, villas, forts, and sacred sites there were, our excavations are far from complete. There’s a lot out there to discover. The short version is we know somewhere between fuck and all, with more emphasis on the fuck side of it.
On the professional front, most major university Classics departments maintain an archaeology subdiscipline, or have a few on the payroll. Big time money rollers run their own digs, or share custody of a given site. In addition, Greece and Italy run foreign archaeological schools. The American Academy in Rome and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens are two of ours. Also note, Classics isn’t just an American venture. Dozens of countries (mostly European, for obvious reasons) run Classics programs and produce research.
Not only do current digs and projects spearhead new Classics research, but older digs and material get re-examined occasionally, and more information can be gleaned thanks to better technology and methodologies. Multi-decade and “legacy” sites seem to be well represented in the grand scheme of things, but there’s always something new to find in them, or always something that didn’t get done quite right the first time. Plus, opening a brand new dig site isn’t always possible. Politics, law, and funding can be barriers to digging a big hole in someone else’s backyard.
On the unprofessional front, looters and collectors continue to exist. It seems downright Medieval, but there is such a thing as an antiquities black market. It’s right next to the gun runner black market, you know, Bombs-R-Us? Just swing a left, you can’t miss it. There’s big money in owning a rare piece of Roman pottery, or a Greek bronze, or whatever the hell else it is rich people collect. And it’s been going on since about, oh, forever. Occasionally a wealthy collector decides to stop being a tool and donates their collection to a museum or university. At this point, usually the organization accepting the pieces says “thank you” while silently muttering “for destroying the context, dick head” behind the donor’s back. Really, art that has been squirreled away by fat cat idiots like Scrooge McDuck isn’t technically “new” or a “discovery”, but since private collectors tend to not let anybody else enjoy the pieces, it’s a discovery for the rest of us when they return to the public sphere. Yeah, I cheated. My blog, my rules.
Archaeology is inherently a destructive act in any case, and while we’ve come a long way since guys like Heinrich Schliemann used friggin dynamite, it still isn’t a perfect practice. A lot of care goes into a dig nowadays, and that naturally slows things down. Dynamite is quick (and way more fun), but it tends to destroy the material and its archaeological context. The work of excavating a site is somewhat less admirable than Indiana Jones makes out; for starters, there’s roughly 50% fewer Nazis per dig site than as depicted in the movies. About the same amount of drinking and gun slinging though.
Publishing seems be an archaeological hot button issue as well. Boring pot pieces, simple tools, and other finds that tell a lot about a people and place tended to either get discarded or shoved in storage for decades. Scholars are getting better about publishing quicker, but it’s still a tedious process. In the best of times there is a joke that for every one year spent digging, it takes 10 to publish the finds. I worked on stuff that was 50 years old and still isn’t published.
When the digging, collecting, archiving, drinking, and punching Nazis aspect of archaeology ends, the frenzy of studying begins. There is a lot of material we have that simply hasn’t been worked on yet. As an example, Michigan has a very large papyri collection that is estimated to take 100 years to fully study. There’s just too much good liquor that needs drinking first.
Perfectly executed segue that that was, literature is the other main source for information. Occasionally scholars will find a proverbial gold mine, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other times they’ll discover nice additions like the new Sappho fragment. Most times, we discover relatively boring things, like some guy’s IOU to a neighbor, or yet another copy of Homer.
Better tech like modern imaging machines help us read the previously unreadable. Even online dictionaries and databases allow scholars to create better textual analysis. It is way easier using a word search to find and analyze all the meanings of a word nowadays. Back in the old days, you had to have a really good memory and essentially read the entire corpus. Which is what some people did. We called them “Germans”. Now, however, the possibilities of comparing multiple texts right down to specific words and word order is as simple as a few mouse clicks. Laziness wins again!
Philology has its fair share of problems too. As with archaeology, publishing is an issue. Like archaeology, it’s a slow process when it’s done right. The fragility and condition of the papyri can make a lot of them impossible to read—they might simply fall apart if handled improperly, or at all. Even well preserved papyri can be a pain in the ass to try studying. Between the chicken scratch handwriting, errors, and other orthographic issues, it can be difficult to know just what you’re reading. You think it’s annoying when people misspell words on Facebook? Try figuring out ancient Greek misspellings.
Nevertheless, because philologists (and by extension historians) don’t need plane tickets to foreign countries and shovels, our research is cheaper to fund and carries on pretty well. While most research involves very picky things that don’t concern the general population, like the history of the letter sigma or how poo was a function of the social structure for Roman Britain, the occasional “Roman Emperors” primer hits the bookshelves as well. Those primers are usually written by historians, because historians are the best of the best.
Finally, sometimes there are just forces beyond our control that impact Classics discoveries. Politics and notably warfare can not only prevent new discoveries, but also destroy existing knowledge. During the Iraq War, for example, there was an effort to train members of the military in artifact preservation—a simple “don’t bomb the historical sites” wasn’t quite good enough. While it’s unknown how much damage (if not from bombs then from looters) the war caused, it’s noteworthy that an effort was undertaken at all and shows some of the consequences that impact our studies. Perhaps more directly, ISIS has made a thing of destroying ancient sites, such as Palmyra. Perhaps more famously, the Library of Alexandria was possibly damaged or destroyed during Julius Caesar’s civil war. The Parthenon was also damaged by Venetian mortar fire in the 17th century. War is bad, mmmkay? We can’t study certain things because morons in our past blew them up.
On the plus side, government funding and joint research efforts can increase the rate of discovery. National museums, universities, and libraries can house plenty of scholars and artifacts. Even without more tactile benefits like increased tourism, it seems most governments nowadays understand the value of cultural preservation. This isn’t to say governments of the past were always oblivious. One of the more influential places was the House of Wisdom, under the Abbasid Caliphate, which took a great interest in research and preservation. If you ever hear that Greek and Latin texts were saved by Muslims, this is what is meant—and it’s mostly true.
Suffice to say, the study of Classics is far from complete. It’s not a dead field. Earth shattering new discoveries are rare, but do come up every now and then. Occasionally some dude will accidentally discover a cache of ancient artifacts in his basement. Even after new sites, manuscripts, and artifacts are discovered, it takes time and effort to make sense of it all. Classics is far from static.
Which means I can write dick jokes for years to come!
Classics has been around for a while. Technically, it’s been around since Homer. As an academic discipline, it is the benchmark of Western education. Little Jimmy Caesar had to study his Homer and Herodotus too (and not in translation). Greek and Latin formed the base of universities, and right up to the modern day, were seen in some circles as fundamental or core subjects. Needless to say, there have been some heavy hitters over the years; people whose work was integral to understanding Classics, or whose work transformed the field in some way. The standard disclaimer for this type of list applies: It is purely a personal list, and not exhaustive. The fame of these people is open to disagreement, and it is in no way reflective. . . know what? Screw all that. Y’all know I’m a Pythonian and want you to think for yourselves. So here’s my list of big shots in the Classical world.
Edward Gibbon. It should come as no surprise that the author of “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” makes the list; even if you’ve never read it, you’ve probably heard of it. The mammoth six volume work details the track of civilization from Augustus to the “fall date” of the Eastern Empire in 1453. Gibbon put effort into this thing, and even abridged versions are giant ass tomes. If you’re really hungry, Barnes and Nobles has the complete 6 volume set for sale. It’s only $1200. I know, so cheap, right?
Gibbon basically wrote the book of later Roman history. It was extremely thorough, clear, and intellectually dense, which is why it’s still known today. Gibbon gave an answer for when Rome fell, and more importantly, detailed how. He used a fairly objective viewpoint, and whenever possible, relied on primary sources rather than secondary ones—a process most of us take for granted. In using this new methodology, he helped alter the course of historiography, and some have called him the “first modern historian” as a result. Herodotus is the Father of History, Thucydides the Father of Scientific History, and Gibbon the Father of Modern Scientific History.
Theodor Mommsen. Fun fact: Advanced degrees in Classics require the student to learn German and pass a reading test. That’s right, a Ph.D in Greek and Latin requires learning German. We can thank Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen for that. 19th century Germany was a power center for Classics, and chief among them was Teddy Momo. His “History of Rome” (or “Römische Geschichte”, might as well be consistent) covered the origins of Rome through the fall of the Republic with Julius Caesar. Originally a three volume work, Mommsen went on to write two more volumes, one on Rome under the Emperors, which was never completed due to another project he was working on—more on that in a moment—and one on the Roman Provinces. Really, the first three were enough, and in 1902, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, with “History of Rome” as a cited reason.
As if that wasn’t enough, the other work I mentioned earlier was the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, the world’s first major, comprehensive collection of Latin inscriptions. The CIL still exists and is being continually expanded, under the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities. As of present, the CIL boasts 17 volumes and 180,000 Latin inscriptions, which are searchable through their website. Kinda makes you feel inadequate, don’t it? No? Just me? Ok. . . .
George Grote. An English Classicist and political radical, Grote is underappreciated by the common man. Maybe he’s more famous in the U.K? Either way, he is to Greek history what Mommsen and Gibbon are to Roman history. His “History of Greece, From the Earliest Period to the Close of the Generation Contemporary with Alexander the Great”, or just “History of Greece” for short, was a 12 volume look at the origins and originators of democracy. Like a lot of historians then and now, his politics colored his work. He ended this epic with the rise of Alexander, “the close of the history of free Hellas and Hellenism.” Needless to say, he wasn’t a fan of the Hellenistic period. As one of the first serious treatises on the Greek side of Classics, he did it so well and thoroughly, it remained as the best such treatment for a good 50 years. Even today, you’re not a real Hellenist unless you’ve read your Grote.
These three Classicists really set the stage for how Classics today is treated and studied. I could name others, certainly, but I like these three, so someone else can write the next article. The thorough dedication and completeness of their works separate them from other scholars of their day; they didn’t get paid by the word or anything.
Classicists aren’t the only ones who impacted our study in big bad ways. Obviously I could make this article just about famous Classicists, but I’m going to throw some non-Classicists in to spice things up. It’s my blog; I do what I want! So here are three influential non-Classicists to balance the scale.
Michel Foucault. You probably can’t name too many academic subjects the French philosopher didn’t influence. Classics is no different. I have yet to see a single recent work discussing ancient Greco-Roman gender or sexuality that does not cite Foucault’s “History of Sexuality”. In a big way Foucault set up how Classicists approached gender studies, and his thesis of power, language, ethics, and epistemology continue to get argued. His works are so influential to the study of Classical antiquity, studying Foucault’s impact on Classics has itself become a topic within Classics. I rest my case.
Charles Darwin. What does the founder of modern biology and the theory of natural selection have to do with ancient history? Surprisingly, a fair bit. Prior to the whole natural selection paradigm, science was a bit less scientific, and a bit more bullshit. Enter “antiquarianism”. Before modern theories of archaeology, they were basically Indiana Jones; a lot of pillaging. . . . and Nazis. Evolution got tied to everything, including history. So historians and archaeologists adopted a “cultural evolution” view; they thought civilizations followed a pattern of growth. Every society develops basically the same way, and can be categorized in stages. Namely, stages like Bronze Age, Stone Age, Iron Age, etc. Not terribly scientific. Natural selection, Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism, proposes small changes over time, which can result in drastic differences as animals adapt to their environments. This was a big deal, and helped influence the Culture-Historical theory of archaeology. Archaeologists following this theory sought to categorize societies and cultures by their artifacts (their cultural history). Rather than blanket statements and amateurs simply digging to grow private collections, a more professional cadre of scholars using and developing scientific methods began to emerge. We’ve come a long way since Schliemann used dynamite.
J.M. Foley. John Miles Foley is somewhat of a cheat. While he has specialties in Slavic languages, a Ph.D in English literature, and has worked on oral poetry and tradition across a variety of fields, he did do some Classics work, and even held positions in Classics departments. Foley was the result of work started by Milman Parry and Albert Lord on oral tradition—how people shared history and stories orally, rather than through writing. If you’ve taken a class on Homer, you might have heard things like “formula”, “ring composition”, and “type scenes”. People questioned how bards could memorize massive epics like the Homeric poems, and how accurate they could really be. Parry, Lord, and Foley answered those questions.
Primarily doing fieldwork in Yugoslavia on Serbian epic poetry, Parry and Lord came up with a theory of “Oral-Formulaic Composition”. Foley confirmed and expanded that work. He studied Beowulf, Homer, and Serbian epics. But the real genius was he wrote the “how to” books, and created the methodology still used to examine oral traditions. The effects of this are pretty widespread. This not only revolutionized Homeric studies, but also Biblical studies, English literature, and basically created an entire field of oral tradition studies. Hell, he founded the journal for oral tradition, very conveniently called “Oral Tradition”, as well as the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri.
Bonus: Robert Strassler. In my mind, he is the greatest non-Classicist Classicist of the 20th century. He is virtually unknown by name, but his books are highly regarded, and used as standard textbooks on college campuses throughout the country. Where his real impact shines is in what is now being regarded as another branch of Classics, namely “Classical Reception”—the study of how people interact with the field.
His best known work is the Landmark Thucydides. Now all the Classicists are like, “oh, yeah”. Combining maps, notes, an excellent translation, and references galore, the Landmark is so complete, many professors will assign it as the text for studying Thucydides, Greek history, or the Peloponnesian War. What is perhaps most impressive is that Strassler is not a Classicist. Now, his best-selling Landmark series of books are introducing people to the ancient authors.
The story behind the creation of Landmark Thucydides is likewise remarkable. Strassler wanted to create a text that was more accessible to a larger audience. Professors resisted, and didn’t want to help him. So he did it on his own, being a fairly successful businessman, and paid for maps, publishing costs, and the like. Finally, it came out. Then it sold 80,000 copies. Strassler put it best, “These people would rather write about how the letter sigma changed over 200 years. That’s what you get points for. Then they cry in their beer that no one reads the classics anymore”.
After 100,000+ copies sold, numbers professors couldn’t even dream of with their own books, some started to come around on the whole “lay” audience thing. “Popular” books, outreach, blogs, and other projects are increasingly prevalent as more faculty are seeing a value in reaching a larger audience. Strassler is one of the inspirations for this blog, and that’s reason enough to add him to the list.
How does it come to this? A democratic nation is built on principles of citizen voting rights, offices and magistracies that are limited in power, multiple magistracies to dilute control, and checks and balances. Then political and social order is overturned, the democracy replaced by despotism, fascism, monarchy, or other authoritarian governments. The disturbing notion is that the people could do this to themselves. That they could be swayed by a polarizing, populist figure, seeking to undermine democratic institutions. It would seem completely baffling for a people to voluntarily vote themselves out of freedom, or to accept a dictator at their doorsteps, but a cursory glance at the history books shows that in the right conditions, with a citizenry poised to accept a fundamental change, it becomes easy for a populace to do away with their own responsibility to govern, and to put total power in the hands of a few, or a single carrot-colored individual. Let’s look at the time Athens became an oligarchy, and the political situation that caused the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of Augustus. Since fear-based politics is all the rage nowadays, the short version is WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.
It’s the year 411 BC. Athens has been engaged with Sparta in a death struggle for the past two decades. The Peloponnesian War has been devastating. Athens’ allied states have been revolting, Sparta is ravaging Athenian lands and causing a financial crisis. Thousands have been killed. Only 4 years ago, Athens sent a large force to Southern Italy. The “Sicilian Expedition” was an absolute disaster; the Athenian navy, the source of power for the Empire, utterly destroyed, along with thousands of sailors and hoplites. Athens has managed to limp on, but fewer and fewer think the war is winnable under the current leadership.
So people were angry, felt their way of life was dying out, were tired of wasting money on foreign wars, and couldn’t make a middle class living anymore. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? With a notorious Alcibiades helping pull strings and providing financial support from Persia (their version of Russia), the oligarchs decided it was time to Make Athens Great Again and plotted the coup.
In two cities, Athens and Samos, the duly elected leaders revolted against democracy and instituted an oligarchy. While pro-democracy elements at Samos prevented the oligarchs from succeeding, the oligarchs at Athens managed to take over the government. Thus was born The Four Hundred, and they had an excellent plan for keeping their new power. Fear over the size of the coup, its supporters, and the violence caused kept the pro-democracy citizens in check. The Four Hundred ostensibly ruled alone but created a group of 5000 to participate in the government. For the average Athenian, this meant they had no idea who among their neighbors were members of the new oligarchy, and who were freedom loving democrats. By dividing the city and causing suspicion among the citizenry, everyone sort of just went along with it and little resistance came about. This is how, rather anti-climactically, Athens, the birthplace of democracy, became an oligarchy. Democracy died quietly, quickly, passively, and with surprisingly little bloodshed.
Fortunately, the oligarchs had no intention of pivoting to appear more mainstream, and that proved their downfall. The new government was unsure how to proceed – almost like even they didn’t expect to win – and divided between an extremist view wanting a strict oligarchy, and a moderate view allowing more of the citizenry to participate. As they quibbled, democratic forces gathered to take back their city. People finally woke up and overthrew the oligarchs after just over a year.
Let’s switch to Rome. Unlike Athens, Rome was a constitutional republic (just like us), and utilized an indirect, representational form of democracy (just like us). Their “comitia” existed mainly to restrict the power of the popular vote (just like us with the Electoral College). Despite appearances, the wealthy minority elite pulled most of the strings (just like us). And it all fell away (just like. . .FUCK). The late Republic was disturbingly similar to our own situation.
They had a housing crisis with land increasingly becoming expensive, they had a large veteran population that wasn’t being well cared for, foreign wars created an influx of immigrants, large scale latifundia were pushing out small business owners, the rural population was feeling outcast and impoverished by the coastal elites and the politicians who lived in cities and urban centers. Out of this situation arose two main political movements, somewhat similar to our political parties – the Optimates or “best ones”, and the Populares, or “populists”. The Optimates were aristocratic and concerned with protecting the status quo, while the Populares were looking to upend the mainstream political order. The populists wanted to drain the swamp. They were led by people like the Gracchi brothers, Julius Caesar and Augustus, while the Optimates had Cicero and Pompey. You know how this story ends – the populists won, destroyed the Republic, and ruled as the new aristocracy, more or less as promised for those who paid the slightest attention. Sometimes you get exactly what you vote for.
The people went from having term limited representatives through votes to an Emperor with absolute power for life. Democratic institutions, when they weren’t outright disbanded, were merely shells with no real influence over the imperial court. The very people who thought they were fighting against aristocracy, enabled aristocracy to solidify itself under a new political order. They should have been quite pissed, right? They should have held these populists accountable and demanded they fulfill their promises, right? Here’s the scary part – both Caesar and Augustus fought under the banner of “restoring the Republic”, actively destroyed it, and the people loved them for it. That should scare the shit out of every American right now, because that’s how democracy dies – to the sound of thunderous applause (thanks for that line George Lucas!)
The people felt so abused, so divided, and so in need of a savior, the dissolution of democratic control was never looked at as a negative. The Republic in essence collapsed under its own weight. Displaced veterans created a land crisis, while the constant influx of immigrants and slaves pushed poorer Roman farmers and workers out of business. That “cheap foreign labor” thing is nothing new. Wealth became consolidated among fewer and fewer holding more and more, to such an extent that the state became reliant upon (and essentially controlled by) rich generals who could pay their soldiers. The Gracchi, Caesar, and ultimately Augustus were speaking directly to the people, using the most democratic institutions to create policies, and in the end, stripped them of their ability to select such champions in the future. The people let the populists overthrow the Republic. They weren’t benefitting from it anyways. Or so they believed. By the time people realized what had happened, the Republic was gone, voting was obsolete, and there was essentially nothing anybody could do about it.
The big question given our current political clusterfuck: How much at risk are we for turning into Trumplandia and crowning him as our Emperor? Are we in danger of turning towards dictatorship and despotism? Fascism and monarchy? The answer is both yes and no. Our nation continues to be highly divided, and our confidence in the system at an all-time low. The political games being played are of such a nature as to be singularly dangerous for the precedents they set. Our leaders’ inability to react with rationality instead of emotion is also on full display. A single horrific terrorist attack might be enough to push us into authoritarianism, vainly attempting to give up freedom for security. Stacking the white house with billionaires won’t help address issues of income inequality, or the sentiment that the rich rule and the poor suffer. As is, many are questioning the competence of a system where a candidate with 2.5 million votes more than the other somehow loses. Many people feel their votes don’t count, and in essence, they are partially correct; by design, not all votes are equal. We’re ready for something new, and with the people in charge being a different breed, and a notably less democratic breed, something new might be exactly what we get.
We do have some saving graces though (yes, I was eventually going to talk you off the ledge). This is a big one. There is no written constitution for the Romans. With only unwritten codes and precedent deciding the course of governance, it was just a matter of time before the Gracchi or Caesar, or any other divisive figure came along and said “why not try something new”. It’s more difficult for that to happen to us, with a codified separation of powers, term limits, and other protections. That said, there are always loopholes, and it’s very possible we’re in for a bumpy ride to preserve democratic institutions. This is the same document that contained the three-fifths compromise. Despite appearances, we have a long, horrendous history of being a terribly unfree nation, especially among certain demographics.
A second ray of sunshine comes in the buildup to this fundamental change. Roman society broke down along several points, and the civil wars resulted in widespread death and destruction. The Gracchi, Caesar, and Augustus weren’t just talking to the people for economic and political gains, they were talking about saving their lives. The Republic was dysfunctional. By the time Octavian became Augustus, the whole of Roman society was so sick of war that monarchy was preferable to yet another conflict, even if to save the Republic. Augustus’ own lengthy reign, outlasting practically everyone who was alive to remember the Republic, didn’t hurt any. By the time Augustus died and Tiberius was to succeed him there were few people who could even remember what it was like to live under the Republic, and even fewer willing to start a war over it.
Finally, the greatest protection against that orange goober’s ability to usurp power is that same orange goober. It’s often the case that dictators are their own worst enemies. While seen as clemency, Caesar just as often sent incompetent senators and generals back to Pompey as he did jailed or executed them. He knew they were more useful alive and in the enemy’s camp than dead or captured. Late in the war, plans to assassinate Hitler were more or less cancelled; by a certain point, his incompetence was doing us a favor (which is also why it was the Germans themselves who tried to assassinate him). Anybody wonder why it’s places like Russia and China who support Trump, while none of our five living presidents do?
Likewise, the nature of becoming a figure so powerful they can overthrow the entire political order is one that concerns itself in every corner. You have to be perfect, right down to the looks. Image is power, and critical for any leader, let alone one looking to create fundamental change. The Presidency is still an august station, and the president needs to look the part. Speaking of things august, this is the Augustus Prima Porta.
Here is Augustus as Pontifex Maximus.
Here’s a Benevolent Augustus.
Entire books have been written over Augustan imagery and iconography. He was very careful over his representation, as one can see. Note the arms outstretched to the people, the depiction in varied roles. One statue as a military leader, one as a priest and Republican office holder (lending some credence to his claim of restoration), and one wearing a toga as a benevolent caretaker to the masses. The facial features, clothing, arm motion, even the eyes are designed to invoke an image. It was critical that both his friends and enemies see him in the ways he wanted them to. He never styled himself as a monarch; his great manipulation to explain power was “primus inter pares”, first among equals. It’s very likely this deference to old Republic values and styling himself as just another guy saved him the same fate that befell Caesar – whose enemies at the very least heavily implied he was trying to become a king.
By comparison, here is the man we just decided best represents us and the United States of America.
Notice something different? Trump is no Caesar, and certainly no Augustus.
While 60 million Americans might have stupidly decided this guy was good enough, not only did 62.5 million decide against him (seriously, our electoral process is fucked up), but many of his own voters think he’s a dickhead too. The possibility of Trump ushering in a monarchy for himself or his successors is relatively small, even as he seems to be grooming his children for the role. He’s too stupid to accomplish the creation of a dynasty. I’d estimate only a 10% chance our Republic collapses within the next 10 years. See? I can be an optimist!
As a stable form of government, democracy relies on the input and integrity of the people. But people are stupid, fickle, emotional, and ambivalent. That’s part of how the experiment ends and democracy dies. It’s like eating ice cream three times a day. While it might seem fun to do when you first become an adult, you soon realize why most adults don’t do that. Unfortunately, democracy allows us to screw ourselves, and often times, we do. Both Athens and Rome highlight just how precarious the institution really is, and as we come to grips with the fact that we just elected a man who looks and sounds like a cross between Jabba the Hutt and Patrick the Starfish to lead the most powerful military on Earth, it is worth remembering that our representative democratic republic is not invulnerable. It is only as good as we are as a people. Given that depressing realization, I think I’ll be trying out a new eggnog and cyanide recipe this year.
Have a terrifying Christmas everyone!
From James Bond, Jason Bourne, and every other spy with the initials J.B., to real life spies, government agencies, and our own vivid imaginations, we seem to really like spies. There’s even museums for espionage. Between the gadgets, the tactics, the webs of lies and secrets, it is admittedly compelling stuff. Espionage is as old as recorded history. So let’s talk espionage in the ancient world. Quietly, so nobody overhears….
Should I even bother with my usual opening about how little we know? I guess in this case it’s defendable; spies aren’t supposed to leave a paper trail, so not having a lot of evidence just means they were really good at their jobs, right? It is clear espionage in the Greco-Roman world was widespread, but most of our knowledge comes from accounts discussing how to defend against spying, rather than works about spies directly. Aeneas Tactius, a 4th century BC military writer provides the bulk of our literature. His only surviving work, “How to Survive Under Siege”, talks about, well, it’s obvious.
Tactius’ work lays some of the ground rules for Greek espionage and insight into typical clandestine operations. κατάσκοποι (kataskopoi), spies or scouts, offered military leaders both important intelligence, and possible means of sabotage. Tactius’ work covers smuggling, army signals, infiltration, passcodes, and the like.
Of course in the Greek world, one of the most common intelligence sources was the mercenary. Mercenaries were common, recruited from all over, and offered a first-hand assessment and knowledge of local matters. Persian kings would also have Greeks in their courts, and Xenophon’s Anabasis is the story of his experiences as a mercenary for the Persians.
For the Greeks, espionage wasn’t necessarily a simple matter. Issues like guest-friendship, mercenary troops, multi-state alliances, and multi-state armies made it a little more difficult to pick out friend from foe. Xenia (guest-friendship) left both a figurative and literal open door for spies. Greeks made plenty of diplomatic and familial alliances as well. Defense against spies was difficult, to say the least. Short of extreme measures such as ξενηλασία (xenelasia), “driving out strangers”, literally expelling all foreigners from the city—a plan nobody but the Spartans and Donald Trump have ever thought was even remotely a good idea—the fact that there were probably a few spies running around appears to be just something they lived with. Some stories from surviving literature show military leaders purposefully leaking false information, counting on the fact that their cities and armies were full of spies. Tactius at the least gives reasonable advice on how to overcome some of these issues in the event of a siege, such as making sure verbal passwords can’t be equally expressed by another word in another dialect (remember, there were lots of dialects in ancient Greece), or only allowing loyal guards with ties to the city (read; families) as gatekeepers.
On the Roman side of things, our evidence isn’t much better. We have some sources that discuss information gathering, and works like Caesar’s memoires offer first-hand examples. For the most part, espionage was just not a “Roman thing”; rather than a system of scouts, spies, and informants feeding generals information, the Romans preferred just sending an army to fight whoever they found, wherever they were. Can’t really blame them, for the most part it worked.
That said, the Romans didn’t operate completely in the dark. They were ballsy and ran a nearly unstoppable military juggernaut, but they weren’t invulnerable. Intelligence operations were still useful. Within the standard Republic legions were contingents of cavalry, useful for scouting, and specialists called “speculatores”. For Caesar, these seemed to be the go-to people for carrying out basic spying. Caesar also talks a decent amount about Gauls he employs for more reliable information. When he decided to invade Britain, Caesar was basically flying blind; his first trip across the pond was essentially just a recon mission to find out what the hell was on the other side. Coincidentally, the Britons must have had a much better intelligence network than Caesar, because they had an army ready and waiting for Caesar at the landing site!
By the Roman Empire, speculatores, and to a lesser extent exploratores (guess what they did), gave way to other groups. Frumentarii, who were originally logistics officers (word literally means “grain dudes”), made decent intelligence officers for the Empire, since their duties naturally involved travelling to various places and interacting with lots of people. Spying wasn’t just done on foreign nations, of course, and the frumentarii had a third function as a sort of secret police force. So Emperors basically used them like Gestapo agents. Or rather, Gestapo agents acted like frumentarii—the posers. Similarly, reference is made to curiosi, which seems a more general term for “spies”. By the Late Empire, the frumentarii were causing too many complaints among the populace, so Diocletian disbanded them. In their place were agentes in rebus, literally “general agents”. Notarii, whence we get notary publics, were basically bureaucratic secretaries in the Late Empire, and also served intelligence roles. Speculatores wound up serving as imperial bodyguards, mostly doing what we would today call “wet work”. The notable change in all these groups is that by the Late Empire intelligence shifted from the military (speculatores and frumentarii) to civilian control (agentes in rebus and notarii).
Espionage in the ancient world operated much like today. They used disguises, forged papers, recruited “assets”, created ciphers, and came up with other clever ways to carry out spy missions. Not everyone could be a spy, and the use of documents precluded the illiterate from some uses. Slaves also made good recruits for spies, since their status gave them a sort of natural cloak against attention. Obscurity was always an asset, and just like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody really expected the slave. There are some accounts of making special compartments in the soles of sandals to hide messages, which is about as technologically advanced as their gadgets got—the Aston-Martin DB5 wasn’t around yet. What the ancients lacked in fancy spy gadgetry they made up in cleverness though. Herodotus tells the story of Histiaeus, who wanted to return from Susa and the Persian court as tyrant of Miletus. To this end he needed to instigate a revolt, and found only one way to get the message out.
For Histiaeus, when he was anxious to give Aristagoras orders to revolt, could find but one safe way, as the roads were guarded, of making his wishes known; which was by taking the trustiest of his slaves, shaving all the hair from off his head, and then pricking letters upon the skin, and waiting till the hair grew again. Thus accordingly he did; and as soon as ever the hair was grown, he despatched the man to Miletus, giving him no other message than this- “When thou art come to Miletus, bid Aristagoras shave thy head, and look thereon.” Now the marks on the head, as I have already mentioned, were a command to revolt. Herodotus, Histories, Book 5.
Intelligence in the Greco-Roman world wasn’t so dissimilar from modernity then. While there wasn’t as much official activity (as far as we know), both the Greeks and Romans made use of spies. There wasn’t as large a need to break the ancient equivalent of the Enigma machine. Neither the Greeks nor Romans considered espionage an “honored profession”, which helps explain why there is not a lot of material to work with, and why they didn’t create their own versions of the NSA. For the most part, intelligence and espionage were informal systems of information gathering, making use of various existing groups in the military and civilian professions. The collection of alphabet agencies we have today probably would have been overkill for the Greeks and a “wussy” way to fight for the Romans.
Remember, you will die. Well that’s a cheery way to start an article, innit? When Roman generals rode through the city during their triumph, a slave rode on back of the chariot with them. The slave held a wreath over the general’s head, and as they proceeded the general received the cheers and applause of the city. His army marched behind in full arms. The spoils of war, captives, and enemy leaders in chains displayed the military prowess of Rome, and the honor bestowed on the general for such victories was enormous. The Imperator himself wore a purple toga and regalia associated with the ancient Roman kings. The general offered sacrifice at the temple to Jupiter. He was as close to a king or divinity as the Romans allowed under the Republic. And to remind the general of their place, the slave whispered in his ear during the parade, “memento mori”. So goes the legend. The phrase has entered our vernacular, and Christian art and literature from the Middle Ages has made pretty wide use of the concept, usually depicting it with skulls—because Christians back then were a bit more metal. One should also look to Shakespeare for memento mori scenes, because Shakespeare is fucking awesome. Case in point, “Alas poor, Yorik, I knew him well”.
How much of this is reality, and how much is fabricated nonsense? Say it with me now, “we don’t know”. Let’s start at the top; does this sound like something the Romans would do? Actually, yes, for the most part. The Romans had some “modest” virtues, and a bit of humility and moderation were good things. The state itself was set up under the premise that no single individual could hold absolute power—which is why Rome had two Consuls. As mortals, the gods had the power to reverse anyone’s good fortune, and were known to do so. Despite the lavishness of the procession, it ends with a sacrifice, the spoils of war being dedicated to the people, the Senate, and the gods. It would seem natural that as a successful general was hailed, there would be some sort of warning against letting such acclaim go to his head; Romans like Cincinnatus tended to be of the iconic type that discouraged autocracy and monarchy. On the other hand, Romans like Julius Caesar tended to be of the iconic type that got stabbed.
Tertullian is our source for the phrase, discussing why he will not call the Roman Emperor God. His argument is that the Emperor is not God, merely man, and even the ancients—in his case meaning the old Roman Republic—appreciated that fact, “Those who call him ‘god’ deny what he is, ‘emperor’; if he is not a man, he is not an emperor. That he is a man is even brought to mind during a triumph in his lofty chariot. It is suggested to him in the rear: Look behind you! Remember you are man!’” (Apologeticus XXXIII). So that’s it, right? Open and shut case? Nah.
These are the people who dominated the world, and are known for orgies, excess, empire, and decadence. A little humility is understandable, but a slave constantly reminding a general, during his moment of glory, that his shit in fact does stink? That’s just plain gullibility. A closer look into the Tertullian quote is warranted, and remember to apply a few liberal servings of skepticism. Tertullian was a 2nd century AD Christian author writing about a 2nd century BC aspect of pagan Roman society. The availability of research and knowledge about the Republic is reasonably suspect among later authors like Tertullian; they didn’t have Google or Wikipedia after all. No earlier author confirms Tertullian, and he gives no clear source for this information. In short, we shouldn’t accept this just using Tertullian as the evidence.
Despite the Tertullian quote not having a reference, it does seem to be based on some truth of how a Roman triumph went. Livy gives the details of a few Roman triumphs, which shows us the typical procession. Pliny reveals few details too. Between the two of them, we have a decent picture. Pliny (Natural History 33) tells us that the triumph started as an Etruscan tradition, and that the Romans adopted some of their customs. The crown of gold held over the head of the general was one of them. It is also notable that Pliny notes (I really need a thesaurus) a public slave as sharing the chariot with the general. No mention of the slave speaking though, let alone anything as humbling as “memento mori”. Livy (5.49) does mention some talk at the general’s expense, but it is by the soldiers, rather than the slave. He states that during the triumph of Camillus, his troops chanted some “lovely jests” which “soldiers are wont to bandy”. Likewise, Livy says the soldiers similarly shouted some “rude verses” during the ovation of Valerius “with their accustomed license”. It should be noted enregistered (found a thesaurus) an “ovatio” is not the same as a “triumph”; we can think of it as the silver medal, so we shouldn’t get overly excited by Livy, since it’s possible more license was given to mock the silver medal winners as opposed to the gold medalists. This sort of jesting by the soldiers is supported by Suetonius (Jul. 49, 51) and Martial (I.4). So it seems there was plenty of license to poke fun at the general, by the soldiers at any rate.
Given the Republic’s primary claim to fame—that it wasn’t a monarchy—it makes sense that during a military triumph, some license would be given to bring the general back down to earth as a none-too-subtle reminder that he served the state, not the other way around. Given that this jesting came from the general’s own soldiers, the message of mortality might still be there; more than a few later emperors learned the hard way not to piss off their soldiers if they wanted to remain emperor—and alive—for any decent amount of time. The evidence suggests a slave does ride with the general and holds a wreath or crown over the victor’s head. It does not appear, however, that the slave said anything to him. The Tertullian quote might be a bit of an embellishment on his part to make his point, or what became a sort of urban legend among people of the day. Our “memento mori” seems to be a bit of a mix between legend and truth.
To prove the point that things often get misquoted over time and that history acts as one giant game of telephone, I put one misquote right at the start of this article. The Shakespeare line is “Alas poor Yorik, I knew him, Horatio”. Ok, I lied. There’s really two. For those diligent and bored enough to click on all the links, you’ll note that Tertullian actually writes, “Respice te post! Hominem te memento!”