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Seven Sevens

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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….

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