Kai ta. . . et cetera

Home » Iotas

Category Archives: Iotas


Spoiler alert, walls and nationalism have never worked. How’s that for an opening?

The short story on the history of walls is the story of their relative uselessness. Our Lord Commander Marmalade should read a few history books and watch less television. Whether we’re talking about the Great Wall of China, the Athenian Long Walls, Hadrian’s Wall, or the great walls of Troy, these things are only of limited use by themselves.

Many cities had perimeter defensive walls—one notable exception being Sparta. From Mycenae and Troy in pre-historic Greece to the Long Walls of Athens, to Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain, the ancients were not opposed to wall building. All Roman forts had defensive walls as well. Caesar and Pompey, two of the greatest military leaders of all time, were masters of fortifications, and walls were no exception in their strategies.

But walls have their limit, and are only useful in a narrow sense. The great walled city of Troy was famously beaten by a wooden horse. And Mexico has been paying attention.

World Record Pinata

The Long Walls of Athens stretched from the city to the port of Piraeus. Defending the port and their navy were crucial for the Athenian Empire to survive so a wall makes sense. The Spartans never sacked Athens or Piraeus during the Peloponnesian War. They didn’t have to. Sparta ravaged the farmland of Attica, and refugees hiding within Athens’ walls caused a plague which killed nearly 1/3 of the population, including Pericles. Sparta attacked Athenian allies, and Athens made several strategic blunders throughout the conflict. The Long Walls proved inconsequential for the war.

If we head to the Roman side we see a similar story. In the early 2nd century AD, the Emperor Hadrian built a wall across northern Britain, separating Roman Britain from the Scottish lowlands. It was over 100 miles long, and was built with forts every 5 miles. Parts of the wall still exist, and it was a marvel of Roman invention. Many movies have featured crossing the wall. Scholars today still debate the point.

See, the damn thing just didn’t serve any reasonable purpose. The wall did not do a particularly good job of keeping out migrants or invaders—and it’s debatable whether there was any danger of invasion. About the only real purpose it served was as a show of Roman power—Hadrian built it just because he could. In the end, the Romans simply abandoned the wall, along with the rest of Britain.

So we have examples of walls being big, expensive wastes of time and resources, which ultimately serve little purpose. Well, what does work? Immigration reform. Yep. It’s just that simple. The best way to defend your country from immigrants and invaders is to turn them into friends and fellow countrymen. The Romans perfected this. Every place conquered was not simply ruled or enslaved. Many were put on a path to citizenship.

The greatest defensive tool in the roman arsenal was the ability to turn a potential invading force into citizens and friends. The history of Roman citizenship and “Romanization” shows an expanding use. First, citizenship was just for Romans. Then all Italians were granted citizenship. Eventually, in 212 AD, the Edict of Caracalla made all free men in the empire Roman citizens, and all free women equal to Roman women. Doing this meant Rome always had resources and manpower to continue expansion and defense. The Empire began to suffer and shrink after it began dividing itself into different sects and statuses—by the Late Empire, Christianity being the primary divider. Theological divisions and accusations of heresy fractured the power and unity of the populace, with the greatest and most destructive being the divide between West and East, Rome and Constantinople. This is how the empire declined and fell—internal division.

So let’s recap. Walls are crap for national defense. There are four ways to defeat walls; over, around, through, and under. Whether we talk about the Greek side or the Roman side of history, walls were only a small part of defense, and were not particularly effective on their own. Rather than keeping enemies out, walls keep good guys inside. They stunt growth. Walls can be breached, and always have been. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Sad!


Nobody goes it alone. Alliances continue to be an important part of diplomatic and military strategies. Before Adolf Twitler fucks up NATO for us, let’s look at the history of political, economic, and military alliances.

We start with Greece. Ancient Greece was made up of city-states, or poleis. For comparison, the modern world is made up of nation-states. One city among hundreds makes you think hard about going it alone, and alliances in the Greek world were numerous. The two most famous were the Delian League and Peloponnesian League. The Delian League was formed against Persia after the Persian Wars, and eventually became the de facto Athenian Empire. The Peloponnesian League was formed by Sparta to check against Athens. The “Peloponnesian War” between Athens and Sparta was really a conflict between these two alliances – think of the axis and allies during WWII if you want a quick, dirty comparison.

There were other alliances over the course of Hellenic history. Shortly after the end of the Peloponnesian War a Boeotian League popped up, led by Thebes. Since the Spartans, while very skilled in other areas, were not always the most diplomatic (to put it mildly), they decided to turn their league into an empire, just like Athens did. The results were essentially the same too. A series of wars between the Boeotian League and Peloponnesian League eventually went south for the Spartans.

After Philip II and Alexander the Great conquered Greece they played on both the Greek animosity against Persia and their love of strong alliances by forming the League of Corinth (or Corinthian League), which was one of the few times Greek city-states were almost wholly united under a single banner. The Corinthian League was more a show than anything though, with loyalty pledged to Macedon. Finally, there’s the Achaean League, which pushed back against the Macedonians after Alexander’s death, and the empire fractured. They won some control, and feeling strappy, decided to try their luck against the Roman Republic. In 146 BC, The Achaean League was defeated, the city of Corinth was razed, the Roman province of Macedonia was created for direct Roman administration of Greece, and we pretty much start talking about Roman Greece. In practical terms, the Achaean League did a whoopsy in their pants.

Each league governed itself slightly differently, and members had various levels of influence. The Delian League originally had a treasury on Delos (hence the name), with all member states contributing funds. Athens was put in charge of general operations, and when they felt bold enough, they transferred the treasury to Athens, making it the basis for their empire. The Boeotian League operated along the lines of a federation, with a central government exercising some powers, but measures passed were required to be ratified by the councils in each individual member city-state. Sparta effectively controlled the Peloponnesian League, with minimal control given to other member states.

With Alexander and Rome, Mediterranean history shifts from lots of little independent city-states and alliances to kingdoms and empires. Rome also had a great affinity for alliances. They figured out it was less work to create alliances than to have to deal with the process of conquest, destruction, and rebuilding. Autonomous city-states under the Roman system were called “socii”, which conveniently translates to “allies”. It’s also from where we get words like social and society. For most of the Republic, when Rome defeated a group, they incorporated them into the “society”. The status of socii was granted, giving some rights (such as the so-called “Latin Rights”) in exchange for military support. Roman armies marched with roughly an equal number of legions made up of Roman citizens and legions made up of allies—so each legion assembled among Roman citizens had a counterpart assembled among non-Romans. While cities lost most of their independence to Rome, they were afforded the benefit of not being annihilated, and inherited Roman protection from outside threats. Since Roman military strength was so reliant on these allies, they took their role as protectors seriously. It was kinda like the mob.

Romans making defeated enemies an offer they can’t refuse worked pretty well, with a little blip during the Carthaginian Wars. Hannibal understood the alliance between Rome and these independent cities was the true source of Roman power, and he was effective in part because he exploited this. Modeling himself as a liberator for these Roman allies, he marched through Italy and persuaded several cities to defect. Each battle he won was another city he could strip from Roman influence. Romans crapped their togas in fear.

Before Scipio delivered Rome’s salvation, a man named Fabius Maximus “Cunctator” was on the case. His nickname, “delayer”, derived from his strategy of beating Hannibal by not fighting him at all. Avoiding large scale battles (that up until then Rome had definitively lost) and harassing Hannibal’s supply lines forced Hannibal to raid the cities he was trying to liberate, undercutting his strategy. Cities turned from seeing Hannibal as a liberator from Rome to an invader. Even after Cannae, where Rome lost an unprecedented 80,000 men, cities were reluctant to defect. We all know how this ended up; Rome beat Carthage.

Unfortunately for Rome, that taste of independence and distaste at being Rome’s puppets among the allied states didn’t go away after Hannibal. They revolted in 91 BC, demanding more of a share in the affairs of state (yet another “no taxation without representation” rebellion). This started the Social War (91-88 BC). Militarily, Rome was the victor, although strategically, the allies won. Rome more or less conceded their most prominent points. In 90 BC, in order to stem the number of cities revolting, Julius Caesar introduced a law (Lex Iulia de Civitate Latinis et Socii Danda) which granted Roman citizenship to all the cities and citizens that had not revolted. In 89, they passed the Lex Plantia Papiria, which granted Roman citizenship to all the cities that did revolt. So basically, almost all the Italian allied cities became full-fledged Roman citizens, which was more or less what they wanted in the first place. Rome figured out the socii system was just not working well anymore, but expansion of citizenship was a phenomenal tool for control. This granting of citizenship to individuals or cities went on until 212 AD, when the Edict of Caracalla granted full Roman citizenship to all free males living in the Empire, and the full rights enjoyed by Roman women to all free women in the Empire.

While the socii system folded in the Late Republic, Rome still participated in various alliances with other states. They used their client-patron system in these, and hence came about the “client-states”. Whenever Rome wanted some control, but not the burden of direct administration, they set up a patronage with the city. This was especially the case on the borders, where the client-state acted as a buffer against enemies. The Romans had several in Britain. The Bosporan Kingdom was another long-lasting client-state for Rome, and was instrumental in keeping groups like the Scythians in check. Just as proof that some people thought Roman rule was the best option, Attalus III of Pergamom gifted his kingdom to Rome in his will. Talk about one hell of a trust fund, right? Perhaps the most well-known client kingdom was the Kingdom of Judaea under Herod the Great. After his death, the Romans divvied up the kingdom, and created the province of Judea to establish direct rule in that sector (also because they thought Herod Archaelaus was a complete tool). Herod Antipater controlled most of the remaining bits of the old Kingdom of Judaea.

As Roman power waned in the following centuries, she became overly reliant on these client-states. By the late Empire, tribes were being established within Roman borders to act as buffers against invading Germans. Unfortunately for Rome, many of these tribes weren’t terribly keen on being cannon fodder, or you know, whatever the equivalent is for a world before cannons. Late Roman history starts reading like Game of Thrones as the division between East and West, and the division among some of these tribes, resulted in conflicts. When you have one Germanic group fighting another Germanic group, both under orders from different Roman Emperors, you have a problem.

For somewhat arbitrary reasons, we credit one of these groups, the Ostrogoths, with the downfall of the Roman Empire. In 476 AD, the “barbarian” Ostrogoths under Odoacer deposed Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, and thus was destroyed one of the greatest empires in the history of humanity. That’s the story everyone learned in school. It’s a little loose on the details, and the full story is much more complex.

The end of Rome (or at least the Western half) marks the end of this article. “What about the Eastern Empire, the Byzantines” you ask? I’m lazy, so fuck it. Needless to say, current political pushback against globalization will be as short-lived as our confidence in Samsung’s new exploding tablets. No nation survives in a vacuum, and even if NATO, the EU, NAFTA, and other alliances are dissolved, new ones will take their place. Both the Greeks and Romans made prolific use of alliances, with various methods of administration and prevalence. They’re just plain necessary when you want to survive in the larger world. Viewing Rome, Athens, Sparta, or even the Macedonians as powerful monoliths exercising complete control over all subjects is not the right attitude. In most cases, the strength of these civilizations rested in their ability to live peacefully with their neighbors, communicate effectively with foreign nations, and demonstrate some influence beyond their borders through alliances rather than conquest.

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.

%d bloggers like this: