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The BA in BS: How to Spot Fake News

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.

How Democracy Dies

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!

How Professors and Other Scholars are Screwing Their Own Field

Death of Classics? Self-inflicted Wounds.

Let’s get one thing straight; professors are necessary for preserving and improving our knowledge of the ancient world. Let’s get another thing straight; they are pretty much useless for anything else. Tenure is evaporating at an alarming pace, and the rise (and fall) of for-profit colleges is hitting headlines. Tuition is increasingly prohibitive, and student loans are becoming an unwelcome reality and worry for potential students. All of this means decreasing funds and interest for studying Latin and Greek, fewer Classics professors, and fewer Classics majors. While I don’t buy the doom and gloom scenario that Classics is going the way of the Dodo and Egyptology, like many other Liberal Arts programs Classics is facing real problems as we move through 21st century higher education.

Throughout the middle Ages and most of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, knowledge of Greek and Latin was considered the hallmark of Western education. If you wanted to be considered “educated” or “intellectual”, you had better know your Cicero. Even up to the first half of the 20th century, Classics still had the reputation as the gold standard of education, with Latin being considered a core component for elementary and high school curriculums. Ask your grandparents.

We developed more up to date curricula and offered a wider range of courses in the 21st century, when our resources were much better, our universities grew, and our education system improved, moving past the 17th century standards and perceptions of what it means to be “educated”. When someone says they studied “Classics” it used to be an impressive claim. Now, the most common response is “what the hell is Classics?” It’s become something of an unknown field of study. Classicists themselves have become so disconnected from their larger societies that they’ve partly caused the disinterest and confusion.

Many Classics professors are the quintessential, stereotypical, aloof, out-of-touch-with-reality, higher education professors. They practically invented the term “Ivory Tower Academic”. Classics is mostly an isolated subject to work on. Outside of classes and conferences all the work is done solo, usually locked in a library or your apartment for endless hours. You learn Latin and Greek on your own; they aren’t spoken so no need for a partner or conversation practice. You also read everything on your own, and write papers and books on your own. Classics does not translate into an industry, there really is not any lab component or group research. As a result, Classics professors, perhaps ironically, do not make great ambassadors to sell the field. They talk almost in a different language than the rest of us.

This is partially the fault of academia, and partially the fault of the professors themselves. Classicists spend ridiculous sums of time studying multiple subjects to get their degrees. At a minimum, Classicists become proficient in Latin and Greek, as well as two modern foreign languages (usually French or Italian, and German). On top of this, they get experience in philology, history, and archaeology, regardless of their specific subdiscipline and research interests. On top of that they pick up whatever skills and knowledge is required for their research; whether that’s additional languages like Coptic or Spanish, or different fields like philosophy, sociology, or botany. This is why it takes 5-15 years to get a Ph.D., and why the people who do seem a little “disconnected”; it’s hard to experience the rest of life with learning an entire language on your to-do list.

Unfortunately this drive continues well into their careers. Classicists make terrible conversationalists, because they can’t seem to talk about anything but Classics. They cannot turn off “work mode”. This is their own fault. The path to professorship naturally attracts a certain type of person, namely the kind who have never left school and still view “Classics Ph.D.” in the 17th century mindset as a badge of honor and prestige—incidentally, the professors who went straight through undergrad to tenure were always the worst, where professors with previous outside jobs and careers were more stable and fun. While fine in itself, it can lead to an arrogant attitude, to the extent that even Ph.Ds. in other fields are looked down as “inferior”. Obviously this does not help endear Classics to other departments, let alone the general public.

A second problem is approach. With rising tuition in an unsecure economy, people are more cautious in their choice of degrees and majors. Books and classes are an expensive way to learn about the ancient world. So, screw it, let’s just become autodidacts and learn on our own time. Ok, now where do we start? What do we read? Where do we go for good information? From…the books and classes. Crap! A specialized language separates the professor’s knowledge from the enthusiast’s ability to learn, as well as the size of one’s wallet. Unfortunately, with many positions being filled by people with yesteryear attitudes, it still occurs that many professors do not want open or easier access. If they view other scholars as inferior, the general population certainly has not “earned” the access to information, at least not without paying for the privilege and putting in the time.

While there has been a remarkable improvement in access, there is still a long way to go. Like a lot of academics, technology in Classics is a source only now becoming better utilized, but it is not widespread. Many Classicists do not want wider access for a myriad of reasons I won’t get into now, although see the above paragraphs for a few of them. Unfortunately for the status quo, decline in interest is in no small part due to the difficulty of accessing the information; if it’s pulling teeth trying to get good information on Roman religious practices, people are more apt to give up than pay for a bunch of classes or ridiculously expensive academic books.

More damning is the lack of diversity in the field. Diversity gets a bad reputation and is a politically charged word, but it is an absolutely essential aspect in any venture requiring thought for one simple reason; people from different demographics think differently. Diversity of thought is crucial for solving problems. Take the case of microbiology. In 2011, researchers presented a 13 year old problem to the gaming community, which they solved in 3 weeks. Far from rotting brains, gamers are solving issues that have stumped professionals. All because stumped scientists took the problem outside their box.

So how does Classics fare on the diversity front? Appallingly. Classicists in the old days were masters of the world, and in a lot of disturbing ways, that attitude hasn’t changed. Old world sexist attitudes are still an issue. Attitudes of Imperialism and racism, prominent in the early days when countries like the UK, Germany, and France had actual empires, is disgustingly a common issue. By their own numbers, minorities make up 2% of tenured faculty, which I’m fairly certain is a stat that would even make the KKK jealous. As the APA put it, “Minorities remain scandalously underrepresented in the field”. The field is literally as white as our milk. The downside—I mean, the additional downside—is that problem which could be solved is not, simply because the homogeneity of the field is preventing out-of-the-box thinking. This unintended groupthink is really bad for an academic discipline because duh. The perception of Classics as elitist is harmful enough without adding sexist and racist to the mix.

To sum up, professors are doing a really good job screwing their own field over. As I said at the start though, I don’t buy the doom and gloom scenario. There’s a silver lining in all this. Younger professors bring fresh attitudes and perspectives, and the economic downturn has significantly “humbled” the field. A change in attitude is forming by the necessity of low enrollment.

Professors are now becoming more aware of their attitudes and seeking out students and interested parties. Teachers need students or there’s no class to teach, after all. Some Classics departments have outreach programs or events to extend the field to local high schools and other groups. Likewise, individual professors are taking on more “popular” approaches to their works, recognizing the larger market for their research.

Robert Strassler is a perfect example of how the popular approach can win. He wanted to make an easy to read, but informative, edition of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. The academics found the idea stupid and didn’t want to help. So Bob did it on his own and sold some 70,000 copies, where the average print run for those profs’ books is between 300-600. He even talked about how silly the arrogance of the academics was. Some scholars are taking note, making websites, podcasts, and popular books accessible to a “lay” audience, and other materials to help drum up business and interest.

The rise of adjuncting and the decline of tenure is also a good thing for Classicists—and yes, I can hear the sphincters of all the academics reading that tightening. I’m not saying tenure is bad and should be abolished, or that professors shouldn’t have decent salaries, but there is an upside to scholars moving from Visiting Assistant Professor and post-doc positions on to a more or less annual basis. It forces professors to engage more with life and society. Each new job takes them to a new city, a new university, and a new demographic, and a new set of students. Basically, forced life experience, at least on the part of the scholar. Normally, professors get tenure and never leave the university or town where they landed, which means they don’t get much idea of how the job market functions, how other universities function, how other departments operate, or even how the rest of the world views the field of Classics. Working with the same set of people for 40 years is nice stability, but not great for encouraging “out-of-box” thinking. If nothing else, a few years on the adjunct circuit will give them a better appreciation for people with real jobs, or more appreciation for tenure once they do get it. On the other hand, adjuncts are paid terribly, and cannot accomplish much more than simply surviving. After a while, the hiring system, which is all sorts of crazy, starts viewing the person in adjunct positions as “damaged goods”, preventing them from advancing in their careers.

Likewise, the digital revolution is changing how scholarship is done and presented. Nobody can afford the books anymore, let alone the classes. Fortunately, the internet is creating new avenues. There has been an increase of journal and book access, free online courses, and tons of databases dedicated to bringing the Ivory Tower back down to Earth. Between resources like the Latin Library, the Internet Classics Archive, Project Gutenberg, and Perseus, almost the entire corpus of ancient literature is available for anyone to read. There are other sites for subdisciplines and specialties, like Diotima, a resource for studying women in the ancient world. Many journals are moving from print to digital to reduce costs. The old way was to buy an Oxford Classical Dictionary for around $150, not including any other academic press works you might want. Many academics are very uncomfortable around technology and aren’t quite sure how it can really be used for research. At best, they tend to use tech as nothing more than databases, the digital equivalent to the libraries they’re already using. But GPS, digital mapping, scanning, and translation programs are being made to revolutionize research methods, and how the field can be studied. Digital humanities is a hot item for funding and continued relevance, and younger Classicists are better prepared to link technology to research. Sites like Perseus are making an attempt, but there are still numerous issues, as any regular visitor will tell you. The closest we have to a decent Classics computer program right now is Whittaker’s Words, which runs in MS-DOS. The next generation will move the field into the 21st century, hopefully.

Finally, on the diversity front improvements are already happening. Women have made great strides in breaking up the boys club and minority scholars will likely do the same in the years to come. Arrogance among the older generation of professors is high, but they’re on their way out. Racism, sexism, and elitism just aren’t very attractive anymore.

All in all, the younger scholars have an uphill battle, but I have confidence Classics departments will still be a thing in the years to come. We just need to tell the old farts to hurry up and retire. And hopefully universities won’t cancel their positions as they leave.


One might object to me using older data regarding women and minorities in Classics faculties. The latest report is from 2007, and minorities have improved to 4%. At the very least, the APA is aware of how stunningly racist that looks, which I guess is some sort of improvement?

Roman Legion: Modern Army

I have a lot of respect for today’s service members. A lot of the time they spend training for one job, only to be given a completely different assignment, and are forced to adapt. They are a highly professional, well-trained, and well-equipped fighting force. The modern professional military we take for granted did not spring up from the ground though. As the Doctor once put it, the Roman military is “The greatest military machine in the history of the universe”. The Doctor wasn’t far off either; the Roman military single handedly changed the nature of warfare and gave rise to the concept of a professional army.

To understand how drastically the Romans changed things requires some understanding of how militaries existed previously. In the Western World, the Greeks and Persians commanded the best militaries of their day. The Persian military was made up of conscripts from its conquered territories, experienced and well regulated troops that enabled their large empire to survive. What they did better than anyone was logistics though. The Persians could gather large armies and march them quickly, thanks to an impressive road system and satrapy system of governance. Herodotus gives some idea of how impressive this Persian fighting force actually was; he tells of the army drinking entire rivers dry.

But as 300 and Herodotus taught us, the Greeks beat the Persians, and under Alexander the Great, conquered and ended the Persian Empire. While there was some uniformity throughout the Greek world, each city-state had a military unique for their individual societies. The Spartan military was one of the best among the Greeks, but unique to their society. Spartan men were trained as hoplites since age 7, and this was their only real profession in life. This only worked because they had a large population of slaves (helots) to do the rest of the work, however, which left the citizenry to dedicate themselves to military matters.

Other Greek city-states, like Athens, had somewhat different militaries. In Athens, the army was assembled on a yearly basis. Only citizens in the “hoplite” property class served as hoplites, however. This is because hoplites, knights (hippeis) and even the lower classes—who served as slingers, javeliniers, or other “light infantry”—all provided their own equipment. Hoplites, the heavy infantry, wore a lot of equipment (which is what the word “hoplite” means), and this was not cheap. Only those wealthy enough to afford their own horses—the knights property class—could serve as cavalrymen. Athenians would train with their parents or siblings, inheriting or buying their own equipment; there were no military academies or standing bases for year-round training and uniformity. Usually an army disbanded during winter as well; there were few times when it was necessary for an army to stay mobilized during winter, and it was cheaper and easier to re-mobilize in the spring. They also tended to coordinate campaigns around harvest seasons, in order to disrupt an enemy’s grain supply.

Despite the lack of organized training, demobilization, and the need for citizens to provide their own equipment, the Greeks were almost incessantly at war, and this aided the Greeks in expanding and eventually defeating the Persians. War was the natural state of diplomacy in the Greek world, which meant they were receiving yearly experience and drilling. This offset the lack of standing armies and training camps. The Persians were not as militaristic, at least not on the same scale, which meant fairly green Persians were facing off against veteran Greeks during the Persian Wars. Similarly, they faced veteran troops under Alexander the Great.

The other great asset for the Greeks was the heavy hoplite and the phalanx formation. The main force of Persian armies were light infantry; lightly armored troops with wicker shields, swords, and spears. In the deserts of the Middle East this type of army proved very effective. The light armor allowed quicker movement, independent combat, and prevented the troops from overheating. The Greeks fought as hoplites, with heavy chest plates, helmets, greaves, and of course, the large round shield (hoplon). They fought in the tightly coordinated phalanx, creating a wall of spears and shields. Up against the Persians, the hoplite phalanx was able to break the Persian lines, like battle tanks of the modern age.

In the early days of Rome, they fought much like the Greeks. They had a hoplite system and conscription. After a few setbacks with neighbors, the downside of phalanx army became apparent. Like a tank, the phalanx was powerful and deadly, especially from the front. But it was terribly slow, fairly immobile, and weak from the flanks. So, more like the WWI early tanks. In the hills of the Italian countryside, the Romans found themselves struggling more than they cared to. As a result, they switched to the “maniple” system.

If you’ve played Rome: Total War, you have an idea of how the maniple worked. The army was divided into centuries of 80 men, maniples of 160, cohorts of about 480. Troops were separated by similar property classes; hastati, principes, and triarii, with velites as light infantry and javeliniers. Although Greeks and Romans had units, battles were pretty much just two giant mobs of infantry going at each other. The maniples allowed individual units to function rather than massed infantry. When you look at armies since and modern armies today, you see this type of division and unit control. Individual centuries and cohorts could operate cohesively, and therefore provided the flexibility the Romans needed.—similar to the division level, the company level, and the platoon level in modern militaries. The Romans operated in maniples through their conquest of Italy, the Punic Wars, and much of the history of the Roman Republic. The next evolution of the Roman army was the infamous Roman Legion.

Gaius Marius was a Roman general in the late 2nd century BC, and helped create the first professional army. Like the Greeks, Roman war was not a poor man’s endeavor. Romans paid and provided for their own equipment. The most significant change Marius instituted was to standardize equipment and service with the general and state providing for the legionaries. Every legionary had the same equipment, paid partially by their general. This change was monumentally important for modernizing the military. The property classifications that served as the basis of the armies of the Greeks and Romans became obsolete; everyone was a standard legionary regardless of personal income, everyone received the same equipment.

Another change was in structure. Centuries and cohorts were kept, but the maniple was mostly discontinued as a separate unit. The cohort became the main unit of a Roman army, with 10 cohorts comprising a single legion. This made it easy to mobilize, move, and fight, and as pretty much the system until Late Empire changes and the fall of Rome. Caesar’s Gallic Wars demonstrate the effectiveness of cohorts, with commanders leading single or several cohorts detached from the main force. The Roman legion was so effective, the Empire only started to struggle militarily when its enemies began copying it.

The other fundamental change Marius initiated was in strategy. Pop quiz: what is the single most important piece of equipment for a Roman legionary? For Marius, it was this.

Starting with Marius, Roman armies became experts at earthen works and engineering. Wherever they went, the first task for Marius’ troops was to dig in, or build a fort. In addition, to keep baggage trains at a minimum and legions capable of operating independently for several weeks, Marius’ troops were required to carry packs of their own equipment. Because of the constant digging combined with the equipment each legionary handled, the legionaries were given the nickname of “Marius’ Mules”. So if you are a former serviceman and wondered why you had to carry a 75lb pack and dig trenches everywhere you went, you get to blame Gaius Marius. The Romans were thus able to fortify themselves and defeat larger armies by constantly building forts, palisades, trenches, and towers, as well as keeping supplies handy. Although Roman forts were designed to be temporary, by the early Empire Roman they had largely pacified their territory. Cities that still exist today built up around legionary forts.

Unfortunately for the Romans, they were as good at fighting foreigners as they were themselves. Because funds for equipment, salary bonuses, and retirement land grants came from the generals rather than the state, very rich generals could in essence obtain private armies loyal to themselves rather than Rome. This led to the civil wars of the 1st centuries BC and AD, and the fall of the Roman Republic. Caesar and Pompey fought using the Marian model, and the emphasis on siege works and earthen works is littered throughout Caesar’s commentaries.

When the dust settled from the civil wars and Augustus became the first Roman Emperor, he reformed the legions further, mostly to prevent future civil wars. Augustus created a more fully state-backed military, helping ensure loyalty always went to the Emperor instead of the generals. In this he created a permanent, standing army of 28 legions. This switch from a citizen army to a fully professional one revolutionized the military in the West; in essence, it was the first modern army.

In order to achieve this, several changes to the form and makeup of the military were made. The first change altered the length of service for legionaries. Legions were previously mobilized yearly through levies and conscription, with legionaries serving for 6 years. Under Augustus, the army could be a full-time profession, and service was extended to 20 years. Legionaries could move up the ranks and make a career out of military service. Because of their service length, it meant Rome had a standing army of professional soldiers and veterans, as opposed to other states or the earlier Roman period of citizen armies. A more complex rank system based on experience was also now possible, and serves as the basis for a lot of modern military rank and promotion systems.

Further incentives, like a nice retirement package, citizenship for foreign legionaries, and a steady career meant Augustus could also draw largely from volunteers. These incentives helped create a new ability for upward social mobility through military service. Soldiering was a full time job.

Between Marius and Augustus, the concept of a standing, professional military force was born. Armies were previously annually conscripted forces of citizens who provided their own equipment, organized according to their socio-economic class. From the early Roman Empire on, the Roman legion was a permanent force of volunteers from throughout society, with standard government issued equipment and pay.

By today’s standards, things like standard equipment, professional training, and standing armies are par for the course. But these features of our modern militaries were features of Rome first, and gave rise to the concept of a professional fighting force.

History for Dummies: What Classicists “do”

Ancient history and Classics are two of those humanities disciplines where it appears nobody really knows what we do. Well, as someone who got a BA, a post-bac, and attended grad school, I’m here to say we don’t really know either. That said, history isn’t all imagination and alcohol. There are things like the historical method, but they’re more guidelines than hard and fast rules—like pirate codes. There are standards though, and despite popular opinion doing history well takes brains and effort. This is a quick look at how historians get down to business, and some of the many steps involved in putting things in the history books.

First, a quick word about what Classicists and ancient historians do– besides drink, that is. The short and skinny is that we write books and papers to try to make sense of the past. Kind of like crime scene detectives with slightly less use for blood spatter analysis. For the most part, our weapon is narrative. As best as possible, we’re telling the story of the past. Obviously, given the crappy form that academic books and papers take, there is not a lot of room for a good yarn. Professors do not make good novelists. Other media and genres have been tried, but nobody’s really improved on the historical narrative for information and factual accuracy. The closest we get are History Channel specials, and those sometimes aren’t very accurate or end up being extremely boring (and sometimes involve aliens). There is also a new game out that uses ancient pottery. Rome: Total War isn’t bad either. Technology is definitely opening possibilities for new media for historians, but old habits die hard and this habit is 2500 years old, the “historical narrative” stretches back to Herodotus.

Now comes the fun (and hard) part; writing a professional and accurate historical narrative. The first step is defining the scope of the project, most commonly done through examining a historical “problem”. The reason a lot of historians adapt a “problem” approach is because it helps frame the mindset in terms of something to “solve”; a lot of the so-called history books you can buy at Barnes and Noble or off Amazon have good information but are littered with the researcher’s personal politics and opinions. They are not typically peer-reviewed, even if the book was written by a Ph.D. Thinking about problems and solutions helps eliminate subjective thinking; if there is no “problem”, there’s only personal opinion and therefore no reason to write a historical narrative.

The next step is, obviously, defining the historical problem. When did Rome fall? What was Roman slavery like? How did Alexander the Great approach building his legacy? Each could be a problem worth asking. This process can be harder than it seems. For example when Rome fell could be a simple thing; just look it up online, find it’s 476, and call it a day. Here’s a term historians love to use, “unpack”. We need to unpack our question to answer it like pros.

In the case of the fall of Rome, the traditional 476 date signifies when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer, king of the Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe. That’s the textbook high school answer. The textbook college answer adds that this is only for the Western half of the Empire, the Eastern Empire survived until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. The post-grad, Masters and Ph.D. answer is it depends on what you mean by “Rome” and “fall”. Rome itself ceased being the capital in the third century, replaced by Mediolanum (modern Milan) in 286, and the more defensible Ravenna in 402. Romulus Augustulus was also only the de fact emperor—he was actually a usurper—the de jure emperor was Julius Nepos, who lasted until 480. Even then, the emperor wasn’t even “Roman” after Vespasian, and times had fallen hard enough that Odoacer’s invasion wasn’t a big deal; the Sack of Rome in 410 was much more shocking.  Beyond that, Odoacer wasn’t even an invader; he was a Roman general (and a Christian) and had been ordered by Emperor Zeno in the east to depose the false Romulus Augustulus. For the second half, what do we mean by “fall”? Do we mean legal and political fall, do we mean destruction of the city, or collapse of Roman influence and power? Did Rome fall? The city still stood and the people didn’t stop calling themselves “Romans”. The Eastern Empire was still up and running, and even then, what do we do with the Holy Roman Empire? Charlemagne was made Emperor and Augustus, and even minted coins as “Imperator Augustus”, like all the other Roman Emperors. This is how the historian approaches the problem of Rome’s fall; each and every issue needs to be carefully considered before a solution can be found.

Now to select our evidence. This is a good skill everyone should know how to do; think about the anti-vax or crazy Ken Ham type people as those who don’t have this skill. This can also be a hard one. For instance, above I mentioned the coins of Charlemagne. Are those valid for the question of Rome’s fall? Why or why not? How about letters or official documents, if we have them? Is there archaeology that could be used? The decline of Roman artifacts and the use of German wares could be used to show Rome’s decline, couldn’t it? How about Roman temples falling into disuse and German temples being built? How about the shift of language? There is no magic box of “evidence” we pull from, and what we use can be determined by the problem we’re addressing and how we’re trying to solve it. Sometimes we use literature and inscriptions, sometimes we use pots and coins, and sometimes we use both.

Next step, after we have gathered all the evidence we want to use, is to examine it. Caesar was known to exaggerate a bit, so you can’t always trust what he says. When’s the last time a politician ever told the whole truth? Now take a look at the number of works from ancient politicians. We have to classify our evidence and decide what holds the most weight, and why.  Finding evidence is like looking for needles in a haystack. Analyzing the evidence is like examining the quality of each individual needle. What’s more important, Zeno’s official order or Charlemagne’s coin? Who’s the better captain, Kirk or Picard?  We’ve got to separate out the good needles from the cheap Chinese knockoffs.

We’ve gone through 4 steps and haven’t really written anything yet. But here’s the fun part where we get to put our stamp and spin on things. Based on the evidence selected, based on the “problem” being addressed, the “fall” of “Rome” means that point when Roman culture and standards ceased having the impact it used to in earlier centuries. Let’s go with the “culture” choice for sake of example. So maybe we’re looking for a range rather than specific single date or event. Using one example, let’s say we’re setting the “fall” around the 4th-5th centuries. Our evidence includes things like foreign-born emperors and Roman armies, the shift from Rome to Constantinople, the conversion from Paganism to Christianity, and the sack of Rome in 410, all of which highlight the decline in Roman influence. There’s our problem, our evidence, our analysis, and our solution. We did it, we wrote a history book! A feat on par with building the Death Star, with only slightly fewer Force choke related fatalities.

Now we’ve got to double check all our work. We have to defend the thesis. One of the ways of doing this is to nip all the possible complaints in the bud. Why did we pick cultural importance over legal, titular, or political authority? Why did we use Charlemagne’s coins instead of 4th and 5th century coins? Everything we did has to not just be valid in its own right, we have to demonstrate our methods and conclusions are the best possible. All the other possibilities and counter-arguments need to be considered and refuted. This is the “eliminating other variables” step like in science, although historians for the most part cannot really dismiss another option entirely. Some authors devote separate sections to the literature review or discussing possible counterpoints, others put them in as they go. For instance, one might talk about what evidence should and should not be used in more or less the same place. It is also a good idea at this point to fact-check our book, before we start advertising a bunch of factual errors as an accomplishment. Had best make sure we didn’t do anything stupid like leave a 2 meter wide exhaust port where a well-placed proton torpedo can destroy the whole base. That would be really stupid.

Now we’ve got a book finished, fine-tuned, double checked, and published; time to reap the money, fame, and power. Nope. Peer review is an ongoing and grueling process.  We might be published scholars, but there are other scholars looking to make their own name, and they will happily look for any weakness, fire that proton torpedo, and blow up our work (Ok, I’ll finally stop pounding this reference, this is not the droid you’re looking for). If there’s a problem with our scholarship and research, we will hear it in short order. Getting past the peer-review process to be published is only the first step. It is a never-ending process to win the approval of the five or six colleagues who bothered to read the book.

That’s a basic list of the processes of “doing” history. The steps listed here are not meant to necessarily be done in order, or one at a time. You can combine searching for usable evidence and fine-tuning the scope of the project simultaneously. You can re-examine the evidence while refuting competing theories. If this article should demonstrate anything, it is that history is a process. A long, difficult process that does not get much credit in the world today. It ain’t perfect, but it is also not as easy as many believe, and the historical method deserves a modicum of appreciation.

Published scholars, locked in an eternal argument with our peers over minor details nobody really cares about. But the difference between the professionals and the Ancient Aliens guy—besides the hair—is this constant debate, study, and refinement of theories. You don’t have to be a Ph.D to write a history book, you just need to know the process and be willing to put in the time and effort. So if you want to write a history book, now you have a basic how-to guide. Good luck.

May the Force be with you.

Further resources:

Classicists are pretty picky. But rather than go through an M.A. or Ph.D to learn all the research methodology, some places have freely advertised the pain in the butt process that is writing history research. Here’s a bunch of other how-to guides on writing a history paper (or book), so you can start your own blogs or whatever.





And just because, I’ll add in the APA’s (I refuse to call it the SCS, and judging by the url, so do they) statement on publishing and research.



Democracy: The Kind of Good Old Days

Just around the corner is the 2016 election, where we will, as Lewis Black once put it, decide between two bowls of shit. That is of course if we even bother to vote, which as Americans is sometimes not the case. If you are interested in the Classical roots for democracy and voting, or are wondering if the Greeks and Romans had to put up with the same crap we do, then this article is for you. If you’re not interested in this stuff, read something else I guess….

Let’s start with Athens, that beacon of freedom, the inventor of democracy. According to the mytho-history of the city, Athens started, like pretty much everyone else, as a monarchy ruled by kings. By the 7th century BC, unrest became rampant enough to justify a new form of government. Draco, the legendary lawmaker, instituted Athens’ first written constitution, replacing kings with 9 archons to head the government. Draco’s laws were, well, draconian, and by 594 BC Solon was appointed to reform the system.

So monarchy was a bust, and oligarchy was pissing people off too. Solon, with pretty much no other options, said “screw it, govern yourselves”, invented Democracy, and promptly left the city for 10 years on a self-imposed exile. Apparently Solon’s complete lack of faith in his own system was merited, as it wasn’t long before further turmoil led to Peisistratus taking over as tyrant of Athens.

Solon laid some of the foundation for Classical Athens’ Democracy, including the creation of the Ecclesia (Assembly). He also allowed all citizens voting rights, regardless of property classes, something previously restricted. By 514, Peisistratus’ successors, Hippias and Hipparchus, fell out of favor—the Athenians are picky regarding their overlords—leading to the latter’s assassination and the former’s attempt to run a true dictatorship complete with the usual killings, lavish lifestyle and abuses of power. By 510, Hippias was overthrown and Cleisthenes was put in charge of establishing a new form of government. Presumably not wanting to go on his own self-exile, Cleisthenes picked the best bits of all the previous systems, which is to say all the bits where the average Athenian could tell any other Athenian to piss off without worrying about royalty, titles, or finding out the other guy was in charge of public works (guess whose house is now the new city sewer). More or less, Cleisthenes’ democracy was the Athenian system until 338BC, when Philip II of Macedon (Alex the Great’s father) defeated Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea, effectively ending Athenian autonomy and democracy.

That is pretty much the short version, and when we talk about Athenian democracy, we are generally talking about the stable, Cleisthenic version that operated throughout what we call the period of “Classical Athens”.

Let’s start with the basic similarities and differences. We have “representative” democracy; we elect people to Congress to vote the stupid laws turning pizza into a vegetable, or whatever it is they do when they’re not creating sex scandals. Athens, by comparison, was a “direct” democracy; citizens voted on the laws themselves—and they had their own sex scandals too. The second big difference is that not all offices were based on elections or appointments, but rather were assigned “by lot”. Literally, a lottery decided who would hold office for a particular term. This is probably the most foreign and bizarre difference, since it seems absurd to us that one could become a public office  holder simply by drawing a name from a hat—though a lot of the time one wonders how much worse we would be. Not all offices were filled this way, especially not the critically important ones; they weren’t stupid and didn’t put some drunk baker in charge of the army or anything. Still, it is a little crazy to think that the founders of democracy used a method more random than Hogwart’s Sorting Hat to run the government. What’s even more insane is that it worked.

These are the big differences, but just like the DMV and Medieval torture chambers, we are more alike than we are different.

The first similarity is limits on individual power. We often take for granted things like relatively short terms and checks and balances, but in an age and region where the most common form of government was some sort of absolute monarchy, the ability to boot someone out of office after a term offered a way to change rulers without waiting for someone’s death. Terms for many of the chief magistracies were one year, from June to July, including the nine archons. The best example of this is the Eponymous Archon, the one year elected  official  who gave their name to the year, making a fairly effective dating system. Further, some offices required a certain time frame between reelection, for instance members of the Boule were restricted to two non-consecutive terms, a decade apart. To top off their revulsion to one person hoarding too much power, the Athenian state had its famous “ostracism”. If a citizen was deemed to be winning too many elections or a potential tyrant—or if the people just really, really hated a dude—they could vote to boot him out of the entire damned city. Ostracism allowed the state to exile a fellow citizen for 10 years, just to make sure someone did not become too powerful. Just imagine the joy we’d have here if we could kick our politicians not just out of office, but out of the country for an entire decade.

Finally, just to keep this entry relatively short, much like us, the “freedom” of voting was fairly restricted. Male citizens were allowed to vote, which isn’t so surprising. Much like early US history, women were barred from voting. Also like early US history, there were property restrictions on voting. Remember above when I mentioned one of Solon’s reforms and property classes? They were used to separate eligible voters and office holders. Before Solon, only the rich could vote. The poorest 2 classes, the zeugitaes and the thetes, were restricted in what offices they could hold. The archonships, for example, were not originally open to these two classes. In a weird way, this made the Athenian system a bit more progressive than our own. While the property classes restricted the poor from holding office, they could still vote. Up until the 19th century, many states had property restrictions, greatly diminishing the ranks of potential voters. Coupled with women and blacks, suffrage wasn’t always the great democratic right we might think it is today. The fact that it took up to 1965’s Voting Rights Act to move towards universal suffrage shows the scale at which our own democracy has grown. Just what would the Athenians think of what we have done to their invention? I’ll let Aristotle speak on that.

“It is thought to be democratic for the offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic”

~Politics 4.1294b

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