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Seven Sevens

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!

Big Names

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.

Memento Mori


St. Jerome Writing, Rome, Galleria Borghese Caravaggio, 17th century

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!”

Bible Manuscripts

Aw yeah, we’re getting into some stuff now! This is one of the most familiar, read, misinterpreted, and debated collections of literature in the world. Everyone thinks they’re an expert, and most think their particular religion is correct. But we’re not here to talk about religion, we’re here to talk about dick jokes. And history. And language. Hence, I’m not discussing a holy book, but a collection of ancient works, written 2000 years ago in Ancient Greek, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, in the Hellenized East, by a bunch of Jews. Needless to say, there are a lot of quirks in the Bible worthy of discussion. This one’s about Bible manuscripts.

Throw a stone or do a Google search and you can find someone talking about Bible manuscripts. Some say it’s the best attested or most accurate text in ancient history. It’s a common line and claim among Christians and apologists. Likewise, it’s commonly dismissed outright, denied, or harshly criticized by non-Christians (including believers in other religions). Bias is rampant, but there are ways through the weeds. As usual, a dispassionate, objective analysis reveals the truth as somewhere in the middle.

Let’s start with the good things to make us stand up erect and proudly bask in the impressive girth of our wisdom. There are some 20,000 manuscripts for the Bible. That is undeniably the largest for an ancient work (or collection of works). The Bible is the biggest. Some, like the Codex Sinaiticus are quite complete, and offer a great resource. Others are merely fragments, little snippets of text sometimes only offering a few words, like P52, the earliest New Testament manuscript. Fortunately, we have a boatload of these, so they are pretty helpful too, once scholars put the jigsaw back together. Unlike some other works, we have the Bible in its complete form, with plenty of pieces to support our readings. By comparison, we’re missing entire books from Tacitus’ works.

Now for the bad news. Most of those 20,000 manuscripts (mss. for short) are crap. It’s not the size of the manuscripts that counts, it’s how you use them. Here’s a handy dandy chart showing the distribution, by century, of all 5,742 Greek manuscripts.



Click to expand


If you look, most are from the middle ages. Almost none are from the century in which the Gospels and other NT books were written, and there are relatively few from the immediate following centuries. Similarly, Bible mss are categorized into 5 rankings, 1 being the best, 5 being the worst, the majority of which are ranked 3-5. This creates an issue for reconstructing the “first edition”. Even worse, those later mss tend to be the ones filled with mistakes. Our manuscripts are impressive in their volume, but there’s a weird odor coming from them. Turns out, copying an error 1000 times doesn’t make the error go away. There’s been a good amount of work in just trying to figure out where the interpolations—unintended additions not written by the author—have snuck into the texts. With volume also comes an additional problem due to the nature of the manuscripts being handwritten; namely, there are some 400,000 textual differences! That’s a number you know is false, because who the fuck is going to count that high? While the actual number is unknown, there are a massive number of differences, making Bible mss one of the worst games of telephone ever. No two manuscripts are exactly the same. Which one’s the “real” one? Which one’s the “correct” one? There are enough problems to make even the most pompous person’s mighty ego shrivel up like a politician being asked about ethics.

Hey, look at that! Another article where I point out how little we know. Sounds like we’re up the creek without even a damn boat, but we’re actually in decent condition on the Bible, so don’t break out the little blue pills and attack me for being a heretic quite yet. Most of those 400K variants—or however many there really are and feel free to count them up yourself if you’ve got a few decades of free time—are things like spelling differences and word order changes (word order in Greek being less about grammar and more about emphasis). There are relatively few critical issues that seriously alter the text, but they do exist. Feel free to look up the ending of Mark, the Comma Johanneum, and the Pericope Adulterae for three examples of Bible oopsies. Even Isaac Newton got in on the action. Scholars will forever argue about which manuscripts are the best, which words (and word order) are most accurate, and which readings are most correct, but for the most part, this is the stuff of high level academics, and not the concern of the common man.

That said, everyone should be aware of what manuscripts are being used as the basis for a given translation. They are not all equal, and some “critical editions” are better than others. So yes, this is sort of a mess. Not only do we have different translations with different focuses and methodologies, but we even have different source material for the basis of those translations. The nice thing is Wikipedia has listed the source material for most of the translations when you search for them (the Bibles themselves should also do the same somewhere).

Research on Bible manuscripts is an ongoing process, as it is with all ancient texts. Scholars have been very effective at correcting the text, but it is not perfect. For the serious student, it is good practice to remember a given passage is only one translation of one version of the text; there may be multiple variations that alter what gets translated, and of course multiple ways to translate. If your study bible has a critical apparatus, it will list all the textual variants for a passage, as well as the manuscript evidence for each difference. So they’re at least trying to make it a little easier for you.

Free Speech

Free Speech. The right to say what you want without fear of arrest or prosecution by the government. Is there any aspect more fundamental to democracy? Ok, voting, but shut up, I’m trying to make a point here. We regard freedom of speech as essential to a free state. The denial of free speech is seen as a move to dictatorship, oppression, and slavery. It’s a big deal. The ancient Athenians thought free speech was a big deal too. Just like how you can’t say “fire” in a crowded theater, the Athenians also had limitations on freedom of speech. In a way these laws—what I like to call anti-asshole initiatives—highlight the importance of freedom of speech in the society. It seems most societies grapple with the lines, and so I can think of no better way to look at this than making it a straight up competition between freedom and limitation of speech.

Socrates was more or less killed for saying the wrong thing. His trial sets one limit on free speech. Technically, Socrates was indicted on two charges; denigrating the city gods (impiety) and introducing new gods (corrupting the youth). Both highlight one area where speech was more regulated, namely, religion. Unlike modernity, Athens was not a secular state. Religion and politics were intricately intertwined, with rituals and temple buildings being functions of the government. The gods were real, intervened in human affairs, and didn’t take kindly to being mocked.

Hence, the health of the state was at least partially believed to be dependent on the favor of the gods. When Socrates was put on trial, Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans. They lost a great deal of pride in themselves, their democracy, and were understandingly worried about their future. Their navy, the source of Athenian power, was utterly destroyed at the Battle of Aegospotami. Things were bleak. Then along came Socrates, praising Sparta, and tempting the fate of Athens by pissing off the gods. In such a context, it is perhaps easier to see why free speech didn’t extend to religious matters. That said, it’s still a restriction, point for the limits.

Before anyone decides the Athenians were a bunch of superstitious backwards nutters, keep in mind we tend to have similar debates. When the Phelps family of Westboro Baptist Church fame started picketing the funerals of deceased soldiers, a similar issue came up. How far do we go to defend First Amendment rights? The issue went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Snyder v. Phelps that public speech on public sidewalks could not be restricted. Perhaps this was such a big deal because it also touched on something almost universal among cultures—the prohibition against speaking ill of the dead.

Athens was little different with regard to the dead. In Athenian thinking, not speaking ill of the dead was one of those fundamental things in life. Plutarch cites Solon as the lawmaker forbidding this act:

“Praise is given also to that law of Solon which forbids speaking ill of the dead. For it is piety to regard the deceased as sacred, justice to spare the absent, and good policy to rob hatred of its perpetuity. He also forbade speaking ill of the living in temples, court-of‑law, public offices, and at festivals; the transgressor must pay three drachmas to the person injured, and two more into the public treasury” (21.1).

There’s a problem though. During the 3rd century BC, Athens and other states had a tendency to attribute various laws to past leaders or mytho-historical figures. The idea is clear enough; the older a law or custom and the more famous its supposed founder, the more weight and credence it appears to have. We tend to do the same thing with our Founding Fathers. It doesn’t always represent truth though. In this case, Solon is one of the legendary figures in Athenian history, and the extent to which he created Athenian democracy, or wrote a law prohibiting bad-mouthing the dead probably cannot be known with any great certainty or accuracy.

Adding to the skepticism are clear cases of Athenians speaking ill of the dead, seemingly with impunity. Aristophanes seems to do it regularly. In the Frogs, performed in 405 BC, the plot follows the god Dionysus in trying to bring the recently deceased Euripides (died in 406 BC) from Hades. Likewise, in Peace (performed 421 BC) Kleon is ruthlessly mocked, despite having died in battle merely months before. Peace won 2nd place at the City Dionysia that year. Either the law didn’t actually exist, it was unenforced by the time of Aristophanes, or the penalty was never updated—and five drachmas for someone like Aristophanes wouldn’t have even counted as a rounding error. So we’ve got a law that doesn’t work, even if it existed (and it probably didn’t). Point for free speech.

Next are several restrictions governing “aporreta (ἀπόρρητα)”, literally things forbidden to be said. Essentially these were slander laws. Interestingly though, these laws seemed to forbid pretty specific accusations rather than general practices—such as calling someone a murderer, a father-beater, a mother-beater, and a shield-thrower. Yeah, that last one is going to need some explanation.

The Athenians, like pretty much all the Greeks, fought in phalanx formations. These were tightly packed shield and spear walls, basically the ancient equivalent of a tank. Ideally, the shields would overlap, and your shield was used to protect the guy next to you, rather than yourself. Everyone see where this is going? Dropping your shield was thus both an act of cowardice and basically treason. It meant you were betraying your friends and countrymen, leaving your fellow soldier exposed, and fleeing from the enemy.

Of course, Aristophanes pushes the limits even on slander. In Birds (287-289), he almost accuses Kleonymos of being a shield-thrower, but changes it to “crest”. Like the sarcastic little bastard he was, Aristophanes was basically told not to push the red button, totally pushes the button using a stick, and then justifies it by saying it wasn’t him, it was the stick that pushed the button.  To be fair, he’s making fun of politicians—some things never change (cough, Jon Stewart, cough). He followed the literal letter of the law, but damn sure not its spirit. Lysias also cites the law in Against Theomnestus—this gives a little more weight to the historicity of it. Point for the limitations.

That brings us to the last piece for discussion, the Decree of Syrakosios. The decree is mentioned in a scholiast’s note (a Medieval commentator) on Aristophanes’ Birds. It supposedly bans satirizing someone by name, although the exact language is a little unclear. It either bans satirizing people by name, or satires that name people. Obviously this would be a major issue for comedians like Aristophanes. There is a matter of debate regarding what this law actually banned, what the punishments were, and whether the damn thing even existed. But no fear, because remember: Historian = Time Detective.

Aristophanes’ first comedy, Babylonians, went after Kleon very hard. It seems then Kleon sued him. We know this because like a typical sarcastic, satirical ass, Aristophanes decided to reference the lawsuit in his next play, Acharnians. The character Dikaiopolis breaks the fourth wall to address the lawsuit as if he were Aristophanes himself:

“And in my own case I know what Cleon did to me because of last year’s comedy. He hauled me before the Council, and slandered me, and tongue-lashed me with lies, and roared like the Cycloborus, and soaked me in abuse, so that I nearly died in a mephitic miasma of misadventure” (48-50).

It seems like it was a real thing, and a big deal for the comedian. So perhaps the decree has some historical teeth, and there were limits on comedians’ free speech after all?

Nah. Keep in mind all these scholiasts are Medieval people—they’re writing notes in the 8-10th centuries or later about events nearly 1000 years old. Doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, but you have to ask where they’re getting their information, before we start using them to get our information.

Secondly, while Kleon probably did sue Aristophanes, it wasn’t for personal slander. The charge was slandering the city in the presence of foreigners. The Babylonians was staged during the City Dionysia, with foreign diplomats from states allied to Athens in attendance. Dikaeopolis (probably representing the playwright) says that this won’t be a problem anymore because there are no foreigners present this time around. The Acharnians was staged during the Lenaia, with pretty much only Athenians in attendance. Once again, the comedian is exploiting a loophole, following the letter but not the spirit of law.

Finally, Aristophanes still wrote and put on plays. We don’t know what happened to this case, but in any event, Aristophanes didn’t stop. He didn’t even seem to hold back any more than usual, and you can read the rest of his plays to see just how harsh and critical he could be.

So that leaves us with a few possibilities: One, the Decree existed, and banned named comedy (in whichever sense). This probably isn’t the case since it’s clear this just didn’t happen. Grass is green, sky is blue, and Aristophanes makes fun of politicians by name. The evidence refutes this theory. Two, the Decree existed, but involved something else. Some scholars have proposed that the Syrakosios decree concerned a scandal with the hermai, others have said it is one and the same with the slander law. Neither alternative really add up though. Finally, the damned thing doesn’t really exist. It’s a mistake on the part of the scholiast; speculation that a law was preventing named comedy. My bet’s on the last one—point for freedom—but as the great philosophers of Monty Python once said, “You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals! You’re all different!”

(….I’m not).

On that note, I think it’s game, set, and match for Freedom of Speech. So the next time you enjoy a good mocking of our politicians, think of Aristophanes.

Further reading:

For those with academic library access, there’s a buttload (technical term) of discussion on free speech in Athens, the various laws supposedly limiting free speech, the comedian’s right to free speech, and the Decree of Syrakosios.

Look at me, giving a bibliography like I’m all professional and shit. . . .


Atkinson, J.E. “Curbing the Comedians: Cleon versus Aristophanes and Syrakosios’ Decree.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 42.1 (1992): 56-64. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/639144&gt;

Halliwell, Stephen. “Ancient Interpretations of ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν in Aristophanes.” The ClassicalQuarterly, New Series Vol. 34.1 (1984): 83-88. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/638337&gt;

Halliwell, Stephen. “Comic Satire and Freedom of Speech in Classical Athens”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 111 (1991). pp. 48-70. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/631887&gt;

Hunter, Virginia. “Gossip and Politics of Reputation in Classical Athens.” Poenix Vol. 44.4 (Winter 1990): 299-325. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1088805&gt;

Koster, W.J.W. Scholia in Aristophanem: Scholia in Vespes; Pacem; Aves et Lysistratam. Bouma’s Boekhuis B.V. Groningen, The Netherlands. 1978.

Koster, W.J.W. Scholia in Aristophanem: In Acharnenses. Bouma’s Boekhuis B.V. Groningen, The Netherlands. 1975.

MacDowell, Douglas M. The Law in Classical Athens. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY. 1978. Pgs 126-129.

MacDowell, Douglas M. “Law-Making at Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 95 (1975). pp. 62-74. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/630870&gt;

Radin, Max. “Freedom of Speech in Ancient Athens.” The American Journal of Philology Vol. 48.3 (1927): 215-230. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/290126&gt;

Sommerstein, Alan H. “The Decree of Syrakosios.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 36.1 (1986):101-108. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/638947&gt;

Sommerstein, Alan H. “Aristophanes and the Events of 411.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 97 (1977): 112-126. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/631026&gt;

Sommerstein, Alan H. “Harassing the Satirist: The Alleged Attempts to Prosecute Aristophanes”. In Free Speech in Classical Antiquity (Edited by Sluiter, Ineke and Rosen, Ralph M.). Brill-Leiden. Boston. 2004. pp. 145-174.

Trevett, Jeremy. “Was There a Decree of Syrakosios?” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 50.2 (2000); pp. 598-600. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1558915&gt;

Wallace, Robert W. “Law, Attic Comedy, and the Regulation of Comic Speech”. In The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law. Cambridge University Press. 2005.

Class Warfare: Roman Style

Rich vs poor. Wealthy elites vs the proletariat. The upper classes vs the lower classes. Class warfare, income inequality, socioeconomic disparity. It’s a major issue in our world right now. Some are arguing against big banks and corporate welfare, others are arguing against business taxes and regulations. On some level, though, the argument is the same; income inequality has risen to unacceptable measures, and we need to fix it so the gap between the rich and the poor, the elite and the common man, is not so great.

Income inequality has always existed. Every society and every country has had to deal with the issues separating the aristocracy from the peasantry. We’re just a naturally shitty species that way. Sometimes the issue of power and wealth will come to a violent conclusion, as when nobles and monarchs are overthrown in revolution. Other times political and economic forces mollify people and prevent violent outcomes.

Rome was no different. Just like we have socio-economic classes (upper, middle, lower, working), Rome had divisions – senatorial, knight, patrician, plebeian. Throughout her early history, the divide between the senatorial class and the commoners was as an issue for politicians and people alike. From the earliest of the early Roman state (the Roman Kingdom) up to the late Republic, the distinctions between patrician and plebeian were important and influential in running the state. Although our information about the Roman Kingdom is scant, we have some idea of how early Rome divided powers and privileges between the two groups. Livy (1.8) tells us that Romulus made 100 people the first senators, and hence they became the first “patricians”. Whether that story is true, or is the ancient equivalent of George Washington’s cherry tree, this essentially shows the start of the Roman aristocracy. From the early days, patricians were the people who owned most of the land and controlled most of the wealth. It’s good to be the king pater.

Under the Early Republic, patricians sought to consolidate their control. Obviously, the plebeians sought to gain some power of their own. Both groups argued and moved against each other for control of the state over a roughly 200 year period historians call the “Struggle of the Orders”. The patricians had political power, money, and land. The plebeians had numbers. Sometimes money wins, but when things get bad enough, or the people get fed up enough, the numbers always win. This is a lesson Jeb Bush probably should have learned before getting his ass kicked by Donald Trump.

According to tradition, only patricians could stand for the highest magistracies like the consulship. Likewise, membership in various priesthoods was closed to the plebeian class. The upper echelon of political and social power was pretty much off limits to the lower classes. With the dissolution of the monarchy and the formation of the Republic, however, the plebs saw an opportunity to gain more powers, specifically a voice and representation in government (the original “no taxation without representation” group). The fledgling years of the new government seemed the best time to give it a shot.

Rome, at the formation of the Republic in 505 BC, was not the Mediterranean superpower we all know and love. Rome was more or less just “Rome”, the singular city on seven hills. And they were to a large extent surrounded by enemies. In their immediate vicinity were the Latins, an early Italic tribe. There were also the Volscians, another nearby tribe. Larger groups included the Etruscans, the Sabines, and other peoples.

People like Pyrrhus or Hannibal, or groups like the Carthaginians and Gauls won’t be on the radar for a while. So in short, Rome is kind of weak sauce. With the last Roman King being expelled and the new Republic in its formative years, Rome is still facing problems internally and externally. In 495 BC, Rome had just won a decisive victory against the Latins at Lake Regillus. It was an important victory for the Romans, both in solidifying the Republic against future attempts to restore the monarchy, and in demonstrating to its neighbors that under a Republic, Rome could still raise an army and kick major ass. Shortly after, Rome sent an army into the Volscian territory, just to reinforce the message.

No sooner than the army returned home did many of its legionaries, and other members of the plebeian order, start to raise complaints about taxes and debt. Wars cost money, and with a civilian army, those who fought in it tended to run the risk of winding up without a farm or home on their return, and subsequently no way to pay for taxes or personal debt. Rome was basically another state that did a terrible job taking care of its veterans. Livy describes the event that really kicked things off:

But a war with the Volscians was imminent, and the State was torn with internal dissensions; the patricians and the plebeians were bitterly hostile to one another, owing mainly to the desperate condition of the debtors. They loudly complained that whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow-citizens at home; their freedom was more secure in war than in peace, safer amongst the enemy than amongst their own people. The discontent, which was becoming of itself continually more embittered, was still further inflamed by the signal misfortunes of one individual. An old man, bearing visible proofs of all the evils he had suffered, suddenly appeared in the Forum. His clothing was covered with filth, his personal appearance was made still more loathsome by a corpse-like pallor and emaciation, his unkempt beard and hair made him look like a savage. In spite of this disfigurement he was recognised by the pitying bystanders; they said that he had been a centurion, and mentioned other military distinctions he possessed. He bared his breast and showed the scars which witnessed to many fights in which he had borne an honourable part. The crowd had now almost grown to the dimensions of an Assembly of the people. He was asked, “Whence came that garb, whence that disfigurement?” He stated that whilst serving in the Sabine war he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt. This debt had been vastly increased through usury and had stripped him first of his father’s and grandfather’s farm, then of his other property, and at last like a pestilence had reached his person. He had been carried off by his creditor, not into slavery only, but into an underground workshop, a living death. Then he showed his back scored with recent marks of the lash. Livy 2.23

Well, as one would expect, the plebs lost their minds, and demanded the Senate (made up of patricians) be convened to address the debt and tax issue. The Senate, as one would expect, paid lip service to the commoners and went back to swimming in pools of their own money, Scrooge McDuck style.

Fortunately for the patricians, there were bigger fish to fry. The Senate decided this fight with the plebs should probably be put on the backburner until the Volscians were pacified. As such, they sent out a levy to raise the appropriate ass-kicking force. The plebs then promptly decided not to enroll in the army. The plebs had the patricians by the balls here—little hard to kick ass when your ass-kicking force decides not to show up for work. One of the consuls, Publius Servilius Priscus Structus, urged the people to take up arms for the common defense, and sweetened the deal by passing an edict that nobody should be prevented from enrolling due to debt, and more importantly, that no active duty legionary should have his property seized or his family imprisoned while on tour. The plan and concession worked, the plebs enrolled, and Servilius led the army on a series of victories against the Volscians, Sabines, and Aurunci. Did I mention the early Romans had a lot of enemies?

Unfortunately, almost immediately on taking out the external problems, the senators/patricians went back on their words, imposing severe penalties for debt. The plebs took some revenge when another threat from the Sabines a year later popped up, prompted a new army levy, and again nobody enrolled. This time though, there was no Servilius to save the day.

With no moderate voices, on either side, shit pretty much hit the fan. The Senate cracked down hard with arrests, and the people formed mobs and got violent. Rome was essentially tearing itself apart, and the Sabines weren’t even doing the damage—but seeing the Romans destroy the city must have been quite funny, because they invited the Aequi and Volsci to join the party. Things were so bad Rome elected a dictator to deal with everything. Manius Valerius Marius was given unlimited power and a six month term to save the Republic, both from the combined Sabines/Aequi/Volsci threat (seriously, the Romans were not well liked), and from itself. He issued a similar decree as Servilius, providing debt relief and protections from creditors. The people accepted, an army was raised, and Rome kicked ass.

In a move anybody with some sense prompts them to ask what the hell is wrong with these people, upon return, the Senate started acting like dicks again. The Senate were such dicks, Valerius the dictator, a person with absolute power, by law, resigned in protest. I can’t even think of a joke to make that funny. Nobody with absolute power just. . .quits, do they? Well, in 493 BC, the Aequi decided to stir up some trouble. Again. Can you guess what happened next? Yup, let’s run history by the book. Once more from the top everybody!

In what is called the “First Secession of the Plebs”, rather than go through the same process that had occurred in the last two years, the plebs decided they were just going to leave the city, literally. A decent sized body of the plebs said, “fuck this noise” and went up to Mons Sacer, about 3 miles outside Rome, and set up camp.


No casual Fridays?! STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!

In what had to feel like a Twilight Zone episode, the patricians woke up to find half the city deserted, and the few remaining plebs none too keen on obeying the patricians, let alone joining the army to fight the Aequi. The patricians collectively crapped their togas.

The Senate negotiated (which is to say totally caved in to plebeian demands), and the First Secession of the Plebs ended peacefully. Livy recounts that part of the conditions were that “the plebeians were to have magistrates of their own, who should be inviolable, and in them should lie the right to aid the people against the consuls, nor should any senator be permitted to take this magistracy”. Thus, the office of Tribune of the Plebs was created. This office gave the plebs much of what they wanted, which at the core of their message was representation in the affairs of state. Now they could bitch about high taxes to one of their own! Taxation with representation! Uh, victory is ours?

The Tribune of the Plebs became an unequivocally important and influential position for almost the entirety of the Roman Republic. The office fell outside the cursus honorum, the typical succession of offices for a Roman political career, but because of their powers, they were never far from the action. The Tribunes were elected by the plebs, and had to be plebs themselves, putting a check on the patricians from controlling the office. Their role was to protect plebeians from the power of the consuls; to this end, Tribunes had the all-important ius intercessionis, “law of intercession”, or more popularly known as veto power.

In Rome, every magistrate had veto power over magistrates in a lower office; hence, an Aedile could overturn a Quaestor, a Praetor an Aedile, and the Consuls could veto a decree from anyone, including each other—where do you think our Founding Fathers got that whole “checks and balances” notion from? Veto for the Tribunes meant any action, by any magistrate, including the consuls, could be overturned. This put Tribunes in a unique position of falling outside the magistracy, yet practically on top of the pyramid.  Even better, the position being “inviolable” (sacrosanctus or more literally “sacrosanct” in the Latin) meant attempting to harm a Tribune, prevent a Tribune from carrying out their duties, or disregarding a Tribune’s veto was punishable by death as an insult to the gods. No more fucking around. The plebs have POWER. So the struggle between the plebs and patricians basically ended with the plebeians winning.

Keen observers will notice that I earlier stated the Struggle of the Orders occurred over a 200 year period and not the three I’ve talked about so far; they might also note I referred to the above episode in Roman history as the First Secession of the Plebs. There is some disagreement over the number, but there are at least three such Secessio Plebis events in the Roman Republic. I will give a quick breakdown of the situation and changes that resulted in the plebs literally leaving the city in protest two more times. History really does repeat, and chances are, you can guess what the results were: The patricians act like jerks, the plebs leave, the patricians cave and more or less give the plebs what they want. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

The second Secessio Plebis occurred in 449 BC. Rome appointed 10 men, “decemvirs”, to overhaul the legal system and compile a code of laws. This would eventually become the Law of the Twelve Tables. In order to facilitate this, they suspended all magistrates and offices, and exempted the decemvirs’ statutes and actions from appeal. It’s still a mystery why they thought this was a good idea. Well, after their term ended and the legal codex was assembled, the decemvirs decided to keep their near unlimited power and acted how one would expect someone with unlimited power to act—like power-hungry bellends. The plebs seceded, the Senate caved, and eventually things went back to normal. The resulting lex Valeria Horatia (named after the two consuls of 449 BC) restored appeal and decreed that laws passed by the Plebeian Council were binding to all Roman citizens. So the plebs gained the right to issue laws that would also affect patricians, and not just themselves. Oh, and they also banned the creation of any new offices not subject to appeal—at least they learned something from this episode.

The Third Secessio Plebis occurred in 287 BC. Quintus Hortensius was appointed dictator after the plebs once again did their thing. While the previous law allowed the Plebeian Council to pass laws binding to both orders, there was still a stipulation that any “plebicites” (laws passed by the Plebeian Council) had to be approved by the Senate—filled, of course, with patricians. Essentially, the Senate was just vetoing all the pleb laws and bypassing having to follow them. Hortensius, a pleb himself, issued a law that made plebicites binding, whether they were Senate approved or not. Pretty easy solution.

There were other fights and laws leading up to the final secession in 287 BC. Sometimes historians will count these as separate secessions. For example, in 445 BC, tribune Gaius Carnuleius led a fight to get a law passed allowing intermarriage between plebs and patricians, and for the consulship to be opened to the plebs.

All in all, it worked out well for the plebeians. The little guys won. Probably because they outnumbered the big guys like 100 to 1. Like I said, when push comes to shove, the side with the numbers always wins. Threatening to move to Canada if Trump wins sounds silly, but the Romans essentially made this sort of threat work. Although there was still a divide between rich and poor, the function of the orders became more or less obsolete. Being a patrician just didn’t matter much after 287 BC. Being a plebeian was no longer a sentence of complete poverty and powerlessness either. Of course, the Roman Republic would unravel in the 1st century BC, and the Empire would rise in the 1st century AD, bringing with it a whole new set of rules, orders, and socioeconomic system.

But that’s an article for another day.

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