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Thursday, August 11, 2011 @ 06:08 AM
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CARROLL & GRAF                       2007



Chapter 9: The Rise and Fall of Rome

Alexander the Great’s conquests spread Greek influence around the Eastern Mediterranean and South-west and Central Asia, as far as northern India, where his soldiers finally forced him to turn back. He died in Babylon, on his way home. After his death, his short-lived empire split into a number of large fragments, governed by his generals. Four hundred years later, these fragments were reunited in an even greater empire, based on Rome.

In the 8th century BC, around the time when the Homeric epics were first written down and the Olympic Games were first held, Rome was just a little market town at the lowest crossing point on the River Tiber, 15 miles from the sea. By 500 BC, it had grown into a prosperous city-state of some 50,000 people, with a republican form of government.

Somewhere around 380 BC, the city suffered a severe setback when it was subjected to a seven-month siege by an invading army of Gauls from northern Italy. At one stage only the Capitoline Hill remained in Roman hands. The Gauls were eventually bought off, but only after they had reduced to entire city to ruins. When the attackers had dispersed, the Romans rebuilt their city behind new defensive walls.

  • Between 380 BC and 300 BC, the Romans were involved in a series of bloody wars with neighboring states that resulted in their gaining control of the whole of Italy.
  • This led to a confrontation with Carthage, the great Phoenician city on the north coast of Africa, starting in 264 BC.
  • The matter was settled in 146 BC, when a Roman army captured Carthage, slaughtered 200,000 of its inhabitants and sold the remaining 50,000 into slavery.
  • With Carthage out of the way, Rome was the undisputed ruler of Italy, Spain and North Africa.
  • War was by now a habit, and each conquest fed the appetite for more. By the end of the first century AD, the empire extended from southern Scotland to the Persian Gulf.

This was an empire built on war. But while wars continued to push its frontiers outwards, within those frontiers war became a thing of the past. The Pax Romana – the ‘Roman peace’ – provided an environment in which trade flourished and city life prospered. Thousands of miles of magnificent roads provided fast and safe movement between cities. Aqueducts brought water from the mountains, and household water meters recorded the quantity consumed. Splendid public buildings lined the city streets. Artificial harbours and lighthouses were built in great ports such as Ostia and Alexandria, where ships up to a thousand tons in weight could be built and repaired.

  • As far as civil engineering was concerned, it was the most inventive and creative civilization the world had seen. But in science it was one of the most sterile. A half a dozen centuries hardly added anything of note to the world’s stock of mathematical or scientific knowledge.
  • On the other side of the world, the Chinese were making breakthrough after breakthrough.
  • Up to the time of the Carthaginian Wars, Rome had been a fairly equal society. But long years of conscript war service, during which they were unable to care for their farms, left their families burdened with debt.

When they returned to civilian life, they discovered that they were the new poor, and that their city was run by, and for, a class of wealthy aristocrats who owned great estates worked by slave labour. During the course of the next two centuries, the resentment of this ground-down peasantry resulted in a series of unsuccessful uprisings, all of which were brutally put down.

In 73 BC, it was the turn of slaves to rise up against their masters. A former soldier named Spartacus, who had been sold into slavery, escaped with 70 other slaves and went into hiding. This was the beginning of a great revolt that ultimately involved 90,000 slaves, who fought a two-year campaign. When they were finally defeated, 6000 were crucified along the roads leading to Rome.

  • Between AD 100 and AD 200, the Roman empire reached a pinnacle of wealth and power.
  • Rome with more than half a million inhabitants, was the most populous city in the world.

But the empire was living on borrowed time. As well-to-do Romans reclined on their couches in their Chinese silks and their Arabian perfumes, playing with their pet monkeys while their slaves cooled them with fans made from the feathers of ostriches, a rising tide was lapping their walls. All along their northern frontiers, the barbarians they so despised – the Franks, the Goths and the rest – were increasing in numbers. Attracted by the wealth of the empire, but also driven by pressures generated by other tribes behind them in eastern Europe and Central Asia, they were demanding to be allowed to settle  within the empire’s margins.

  • While the empire was struggling to repel these attacks from outside, it was beginning to disintegrate within, undermined by civil wars and rampant inflation.
  • At the same time, a split had begun to open up between the empire’s Greek-speaking eastern half and the Latin-speaking west.
  • The leading city of the eastern empire was the ancient Greek city of Byzantium in Asia Minor (modern Istanbul), which had grown in wealth and population until it rivaled Rome itself.
  • In 324, the Emperor Constantine I (Constantine the Great) made it his capital, calling it a ‘New Rome’ and renaming it Constantinople.
  • Being superstitious, like most Romans of his day, he attributed his success to divine intervention by the God of the Christian religion to which he had converted (although he was careful to mention the part played by his own genius).

At the time Constantine converted, Christianity was already more than two and a half centuries old. It had originated in the Roman province of Judea, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It was rooted in the teachings of a wandering Jewish preacher named Jesus, who was born around 4-6 BC. Most of what we know about him is contained in records compiled at least 40 years after his death. In his early thirties, he spent two or three years preaching. Around the year 30, when he would have been in his mid-thirties, he incurred the wrath of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who had him charged with blasphemy, in a trail that resulted in his crucifixion.

Jesus’s disciples, and a group of later converts of whom the most notable was a Hellenized Jew from Tarsus, in south-central Turkey, who was later canonized as St Paul, succeeded in perpetuating his memory beyond any reasonable expectation. Although Jesus was an orthodox Jew, his teaching – of personal salvation in an afterlife, as the reward of faith – was cast by his followers in inclusive terms that made it attractive to the hopeless and downtrodden of all beliefs and none. His message of universal love and disregard for the vanity of worldly goods and worldly power operated across class boundaries, to Jew and non-Jew alike. By the time Constantine himself became a convert, there were already hundreds of Christian congregations scattered throughout the empire.

  • The early Christians took from Judaism two fundamental ideas. The first was a  belief in a single, all-powerful God. Jesus’s followers – Jew and non-Jew alike – adhered to this belief, and were quite clear in their minds that they were worshipping the Jewish Jehovah.

Where Christianity parted company with the religion from which it had sprung was in its second fundamental proposition, which, ironically, also ultimately derived from Judasim. Through centuries of exile and persecution, the Jews had clung to the belief that they were God’s chosen people, and that one day God would send them a redeemer – a messiah (‘anointed one’) – who would rescue His people from bondage. The early Christians persuaded themselves that this promise had been fulfilled, and that Jesus was the messiah. The word ‘Christian’ was derived from christos, the Greek form of messiah.

  • This more systematic expression of belief contained three major elements: that Jesus was not a mere mortal, but the ‘Son of God’; that he had risen from the dead, three days after his crucifixion, and now ‘reigned’ for ever in heaven; and the third – Paul’s own master-stroke – was, that by his death on the cross, Jesus had obtained forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life in heaven for all who believed in him.
  • It was a package of which any salesman would have been proud. Once it had been put together, Rome’s traditional gods were never in with a chance.
  • By the first century, there were some 7 million Jews within the empire’s boundaries, the vast majority of whom lived outside Palestine.
  • During the 2nd century, the Jewish element in the Christian community was diluted into insignificance, as more and more non-Jews responded to missionary activity.
  • This was in spite of continuing persecution, which at times saw the feeding of Christians to lions, to provide holiday entertainment in the sports stadiums of the empire.
  • This fast growing religion was given a boost in 313, when Constantine issued a decree – the Edict of Milan – that granted toleration to all religions but made Christianity a favored state religion.
  • By his example, he turned Christianity into a fashion statement for the ruling class.
  • One thing that neither Constantine nor his successors could hope to turn was the tide lapping at the empire’s borders.
  • In 376, the Goths crossed the Danube. In December 406, the vandals and the Suevi crossed the frozen Rhine, overwhelming much of Gaul. In 410, the Visigoths penetrated to the heart of the empire, and sacked Rome itself.
  • Constantine’s Eastern empire lasted until its conquest by the Turks in 1453. but the bringing down of the curtain on the Western empire in 476 makes a convenient marker for the boundary between the classical age of Greece and Rome and the world of medieval Europe.

Chapter 10: The Birth of India

Saturday, August 6, 2011 @ 03:08 PM
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Pluto Press in association with Third World First

Second edition 1990



Chapter 2: Extremes of Poverty and Wealth

There is no lack of information on the extreme forms of deprivation which the majority of people in this world now suffer. Most but not all of these people live in Asia, Africa and Latin America. There are, in addition, glaring inequalities in wealth between different parts of the world and also within individual countries. The ‘widening gap’ between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries has become a cliché. There are also a good many indications, less well documented perhaps, that the situation of the very poor, especially in rural areas in underdeveloped countries, is becoming worse in absolute as well as in relative terms, mainly because distribution within countries is becoming more unequal.

According to the World Bank’s 1980 World Development Report, the average annual income per head of 18 industrialised countries in 1950 was $3,841; that of the 38 countries with lowest incomes was $164, or about one twenty-third. In 1980 the estimated average income of the former was $9,684; the income per head of the latter was $245, or barely one fortieth. The 18 industrialised countries include the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan as well as Western Europe. From statistics elsewhere in the World Bank’s Report, it is possible to calculate that in 1979 these countries, with about 16% of the population of the world, received about 63% of its income. The others, which include the ‘low income’ countries and also some ‘middle income’ countries, the oil exporting countries, and what the World Bank calls the ‘centrally planned economies’, thus have 84% of the population and only 37% of the income.  

  • The simple fact is that most people in underdeveloped countries do not have enough to eat.
  • People in the so-called developed countries commonly eat too much; and some live in extreme luxury.
  • The yachts and palaces are not confined to the inhabitants of the First World. Some people in underdeveloped countries are extremely rich.
  • The distribution of income in underdeveloped countries is probably on the whole more unequal than that in the industrialized countries, in which considerable deprivation nevertheless exists, in spite of their overall wealth.
  • The 1980 World Development Report gives some tentative figures on income distribution within countries. In Brazil the poorest fifth of the population apparently get 2% of the income, and the richest fifth get 67%; for Malaysia the corresponding figures were 3% and 57%; for India 7% and 49%; and for Britain 65% and 39%.
  • The average adult literacy rate in 1975 in the 18 most industrialized countries was 99%; in the 38 ‘low income’ countries it was estimated to be 38%.
  • Average life expectancy in 1978 was 74 years in the former group and 50 years in the latter.
  • About 800 million people, or almost 40% of the population of the so-called developing countries, who live in ‘absolute poverty’: ‘a condition of life so characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.’
  • In some countries one child in four dies before the age of five.


Chapter 3: Conventional Explanations for Poverty

  • Elaboration of these facts can be found in most textbooks on underdevelopment. But they usually remain unexplained; or the explanations, if given at all, are inadequate.
  • Explanations are attempted to show why the peoples of underdeveloped countries are ‘poor’, but the existence of their poverty is not related to the wealth accumulated elsewhere.
  • Attempts to provide historical explanations are dismissed as irrelevant: ‘focusing on questions of historical guilt will not provide answers to the crucial problem of self-responsibility’, says the Brandt Report.

The explanations such as they are, tend to be based on what might tactfully be called a Eurocentric view of the world, which is itself a product of historical circumstances, and of colonial mythology in particular. Europeans, who began by being impressed and indeed overawed by what they found in civilizations sometimes more sophisticated than their own, gradually built up theories of racial superiority. Especially from the 19th century onwards, they felt the need to justify to themselves their domination of colonial peoples, and in particular the institution of slavery. The ‘natives’, they maintained, were lazy, stupid, barely human. An Englishman in 1820 found the cause of Indian poverty ‘in a natural debility of mind, and in an entire aversion to labour’. By the 19th century, says V.G. Kierman in The Lords of Human Kind, ‘the whiteman had worked himself into a high state of self conceit. White men were willing to justify everything to themselves in the cause of bringing ‘civilisation’ to the natives.

  • The British Opium War to force the Chinese authorities to allow the importation of opium was justified by John Quincy Adams, in a public lecture in 1842.
  • Europeans thought that it must be a blessing for African slaves to be provided with masters and regular work and consoled themselves with the idea that ‘Negroes have far duller nerves and are less susceptible to pain than Europeans.’
  • Europeans convinced themselves that they were the bearers of order, civilization and Christian principles to the benighted natives.

‘I contend,’ said Cecil Rhodes, one of the biggest empire-builders, ‘that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. If there be a God, I think what he would like me to do is to paint as much of the map of Africa British red as possible.’

  • Such ideas survive and permeate our consciousness today.

Europeans are still, of course, convinced that they know best. ‘Aid’ agencies are eager, if not arrogant, with their advice to poor countries on how to ‘catch up’ and how to overcome ‘backwardness’, and the development expert business has developed into a massive gravy train for the experts. Multinational companies sell themselves as the purveyors of technology and efficiency; ‘even if local governments were strong and assistance to them plentiful,’ says Herbert C. Cornuelle in the 1968 Annual Report of the United Fruit Company, ‘the fact is that the enormous complexities of the development process require abilities and attributes which are as natural to the multinational corporation as they are unnatural to government.’

  • Failure to develop is put down to ‘lack of entrepreneurs’. Writers on the economics of underdeveloped, or ‘backward’, countries still argue seriously that people in these countries are poor because they live in hot climates and imply that this makes them lazy and, therefore, lacking in enterprise.
  • Another ‘explanation’ for the extreme poverty of underdeveloped countries is ‘lack of capital’. This, like the ‘low level equilibrium trap’ of neo-classical economics jargon, amounts to saying that they are poor because they are poor.
  • But this begs the question of what constitutes capital. It also fails to answer the question why developed countries have the ‘capital’ or indeed whether, in any but the narrow sense of having access to it and control over it, they have it at all.
  • Foreign businesses commonly raise around 80% of their capital in underdeveloped countries while at the same time remitting their profits abroad.
  • Because the distribution of income in underdeveloped countries is so unequal, much of the capital which could otherwise be available for investment is squandered in extravagant living, property speculation and Swiss bank accounts.
  • The British colonies were forced to accumulate, between 1945 and 1961, sterling balances of 1 billion pounds, which constituted a direct export of capital to support the British standard of living, the value of the pound and Britain’s ability to repay its war debts.

Then there is the population theory. People in underdeveloped countries are said to be poor because their populations have been increasing too fast. This, in turn, is said to be the result of superior medical techniques introduced by Europeans. These have, of course, produced undeniable benefits. They have been relatively recent. The first irruption of Europeans particularly into North and South America, decimated many local populations, partly through exhaustion in mines and plantations, partly by introducing European disease, and partly by outright massacre. As late as the 19th century, the British exterminated the population of Tasmania. And during the period of the European slave trade the population of Africa declined substantially, so much so that some writers ascribe the lack of development in Africa during this period to the decline of its population and the shortage, in particular, of able-bodied men and women. Since then, the population of the world has been increasing dramatically. It is now about 4.3 billion; over the next two decades it is likely to increase by nearly two billion, which is more than the total population at the beginning of the 20th century.

  • The current alarms about populations are filled with Malthusian over-tones. It is too easy to ascribe poverty to natural, unchangeable causes and then to say that nothing can be done about it.

It is not clear how much rapid increases in population do, in fact, add to the difficulties in providing reasonable standards of living. In the early stages of the industrial revolution in Europe, population was increasing quite rapidly. Some highly industrialized countries have population densities much greater than those in most countries where there are extremes of poverty. Many calculations show that food supplies in the world as a whole are more than adequate, actually and potentially, to feed a population much larger than the existing population, although as Susan George in her book How the Other Half Dies puts it, it would obviously ‘not be ecologically desirable to decimate the last natural forest in order to provide arable land and food for tens of billions of people.’

  • It is the case that in many countries with the greatest problems of malnutrition overall food supplies have been increasing faster than the increase in population.
  • A study by Keith Griffin and Ajit Kumar Ghose suggests that the most likely explanation for probably increasing impoverishment in rural areas is not to be found in population increases, but rather in an increasingly unequal distribution of income.
  • Historically birth rates have tended to decline with improvements in living standards, as they have in Europe and North America.
  • It is perhaps the populations of developed countries that might need controlling since, according to some estimates, they and their animals consume over half of the available world supply of food grains.
  • Feeding grain to animals is a wasteful way of producing proteins for humans to eat.

A quotation from Rene Dumont is one possible epitaph on the population argument:

“The rich white man, with his overconsumption of meat and his lack of generosity for poor people, behaves like a veritable cannibal – an indirect cannibal. By consuming meat, which wastes the grain that could have saved them, last year we ate the children of the Sahel, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. And we continue to eat them this year with undiminished appetite.”

But this is part of a wider argument, which has to do with the question whether, rather than saying that the poor should be blamed for their poverty, it might be truer to say that the problems lie with the rich, those who expropriate the fruits of the labour of the poor.

Chapter 4: The Past is not Irrelevant

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 @ 04:07 AM
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I was engaged by Bruce Lansdale in 1978 to be his Associate Director for Administration and worked with him till he retired in 1990. Christine and I were married in 1988 and becoming a family member gave me additional insights into a man who has had a very deep impact on my life. Bruce died 2½ years ago but his spirit is still felt here at Metamorphosis, at the Farm School, among the graduates, retired staff and long-term supporters of the school.

Last year we celebrated Greek Summer’s 40th anniversary in New York when the honor and appreciation given to Tad showed that Bruce’s spirit is still felt by participants of Greek Summer.

Because Bruce has become my role model for a ‘life well lived’ or ‘a successful life’ I welcome this opportunity to say a few words about why he had such an impact on so many people and what he had in mind when he started the Greek summer program.

Giving: The importance of role models

Bruce learned early on that you get most out of life by giving because he had two very fine role models. His father, Herbert Lansdale, had been sent by the YMCA of America to establish the YMCA in Thessaloniki. The ethos of the YMCA has always been community service, service to your fellow man, and treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated yourself.

As a child Bruce made visits to the American Farm School because his father was good friends with Charlie House, the second director of the American Farm School. After his retirement as a missionary, John Henry House, Charlie’s father, founded the Farm School in 1904 when northern Greece was Turkish territory. Charlie House was an engineer just like Bruce but endowed with a missionary spirit. Bruce took over as head of the school while still in his twenties and Charlie House became Bruce’s second role model.

The American Farm School: Mission, Service, Leadership

This passage is taken from Tad’s book My Metamorphosis:

‘One evening soon after we arrived in 1949, we sat before a blazing fire in the Houses’ living room. Charlie wanted to tell us something of his father, something of his courage and of his leadership. “He didn’t just preach an ideology,” Charlie said, “he lived it. And, he expected everyone else to. This is what the American Farm School was and is all about. Mission. Service. Leadership. When a fellow missionary, Miss Ellen Stone, along with her companion, Mrs. Eleni Tsilka, were kidnapped in 1901 by Bulgarian brigands, it fell to father, as leader of their small Protestant community, to mediate for their ransom in a situation garnering international attention. The kidnappers demanded $65,000 in gold bullion for the return of Miss Stone, an amount equal to her weight in gold. Even President Roosevelt became involved as a widespread campaign to raise money spread across America. It was an enormous amount of money in those days.’


Expressed in every day terms Mission, Service and Leadership is working continually to improve the civilization around you. Each day, though your actions may seem as just a grain of sand on the sea shore, you attract like-minded people to the cause and a great institution like the Farm School results. Bruce wrote the book Cultivating Inspired Leaders: Making Participatory Management Work in which he described inspired and inspiring leader-managers in these words:

‘Those who have themselves been inspired by others in their lives. Inspired leader-managers have a sense of dedication to their organization, to their associates, and a commitment to a spirit within themselves. These individuals may, however, lack the self-confidence or the ability to inspire others. It is the inspiring leader-managers who are eager to share their inspiration with associates and customers of their organization.’

Mission at the American Farm School

John Henry House clearly stated his goals in the school’s Charter of Incorporation:

‘providing agricultural and industrial training under Christian supervision for youth in order that they may be trained to appreciate the dignity of manual labor and be helped to lives of self-respect, thrift and industry.”

The results of that mission

After just 23 years John Henry House was able to say:

‘The land we had purchased was a desert-looking waste with no water upon it and a doubtful possibility of finding any. A school like this in a land where work with the hands was considered degrading by the educated, might well have been considered a desperate experiment even under the most favourable conditions, when there was well-watered and fertile land, with a kindly climate, but under the desert conditions in which we were placed, some of our friends felt sure we were doomed to failure. But we were working with faith in a great Master who had said, “All things are possible to him that believeth.” It was indeed a small beginning but it was a work of faith and love. A little over twenty three years have passed, and that barren spot is now a beautiful village, with orchards and vineyards, vegetable and flower gardens, and grainfields, barns, workshops, electric and water plant, with pure blooded cattle, pigs and fowl. There are dormitories, residences with equipped infirmary, a fine hall with library, natural history museum, and laboratory.”

Service at the American Farm School

A life of service is out of fashion today when success is measured by the size of your greed and how well you manipulate the financial system to your personal benefit. From the beginning the Farm School was based on service. When John Henry House founded the school in 1904, Thessaloniki was under Turkish rule, but after years of bloodshed the Greeks were in charge in 1912. The first students were orphans and the first teachers worked without pay in exchange for learning English. Then in 1922 northern Greece was flooded with 1.5 million refugees due to the exchange of populations with Turkey and once again the school was serving orphans and families with no possessions.

Service in the Farm School’s early days was providing the poorest of the poor with an education to feed themselves and the wider community and the skills such as plumbing and carpentry required to create a model village. These were the first steps to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger in northern Greece. It was a philosophy of educating the head, the heart and the hands. It was a philosophy of Mission, Service, Leadership.

Greek Summer: Mission, service, leadership

Bruce created Greek Summer, nursed it through its challenging early years and believed that it was a good way to introduce American youth to the Farm School’s philosophy of Mission, Service, and Leadership. You will serve by working on a village improvement project. You will be working within a culture that is strange to you. You might not be used to work that requires hard physical labor under the Greek sun. It is during these times when the going is tough that you will have opportunities to develop your leadership skills.

Bruce also wanted you to be exposed to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks about whom you will learn much on your tour of the ancient sites. In our society that has lost its way, more and more people are realizing that the ancient Greeks organized themselves much better than we have organized our present-day society.

Bruce also wanted you to get a feel for what he referred to as generosity of spirit, through the overwhelming hospitality of the Greek villagers that you will experience during your village stay.

Bruce also wanted you to have fun, and as you will find, the Greeks are wonderful fun-loving people, even in these days of financial crisis.

But perhaps most of all he wanted you to be challenged and stretched beyond the limits of what you previously thought possible. He was fond of quoting Nikos Kazantzakis expressed in the opening lines of his Report to Greco:

I am a bow in your hands, Lord,

Stretch me lest I rot.

Don’t stretch me too hard, Lord,

Lest I break.

Go ahead and stretch me, Lord,

Even if I break.

May your Greek Summer be enriching, enjoyable and life-transforming.

Friday, May 27, 2011 @ 10:05 PM
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MACDONALD FUTURA PUBLISHERS                        1973



Chapter 5: The Music of the Spheres

  • Even very primitive peoples have a number system.
  • Born on Samos, about 580 BC, the first genius and founder of Greek mathematics, was Pythagoras. He said there is a harmony in nature, a unity in her variety, and it has a language: numbers are the language of nature.
  • Pythagoras found a basic relation between musical harmony and mathematics, finding that the chords which sound pleasing to the western ear correspond to exact divisions of the string by whole numbers.
  • To the Pythagoreans that discovery had a mystic force. The agreement between nature and number was so cogent that it persuaded them that not only the sounds of nature, but all her characteristic dimensions, must be simple numbers that express harmonies.
  • They felt that all the regularities in nature are musical; the movements of the heavens were, for them, the music of the spheres.
  • These ideas gave Pythagoras the status of a seer in philosophy, almost a religious leader, whose followers formed a secret and perhaps revolutionary sect. Pythagoras was a pioneer in linking geometry with numbers, and since it is also my choice among the branches of mathematics, it is fitting to watch what he did.
  • Having proved that the world of sound is governed by numbers, Pythagoras  went on to prove that the same thing is true of the world of vision.
  • Here I am, in this marvelous, coloured landscape of Greece, among the wild natural forms, the Orphic dells, the sea. Where under this beautiful chaos can there lie a simple, numerical structure?
  • The question forces us back to the most primitive constants in our perception of natural laws. To answer well, it is clear that we must begin from universals of experience.
  • There are two experiences on which our visual world is based: that gravity is vertical, and that the horizon stands at right angles to it.
  • And it is that conjunction, those cross wires in the visual field, which fixes the nature of the right angle.
  • Here I am looking across the straits from Samos to Asia Minor, due south. I take a triangular tile as a pointer and I set it pointing there, south. (I have made the pointer in the shape of a right-angled triangle, because I shall want to put its four rotations side by side.)
  • If I turn that triangular tile through a right angle, it points due west. If I now turn it through a second right angle, it points due north.
  • And if I now turn it through a third right angle, it points due east. Finally, the fourth and last turn will take it due south again, pointing to Asia Minor, in the direction in which it began.
  • Not only the natural world as we experience it, but the world as we construct it is built on that relation. It has been so since the time that the Babylonians built the Hanging Gardens, and earlier, since the time that the Egyptians built the pyramids.
  • The Babylonians knew many, perhaps hundreds of formulae for this by 2000 BC. The Indians and the Egyptians knew some.
  • It was not until 550 BC or thereabouts that Pythagoras raised this knowledge out of the world of empirical fact into the world of what we should now call proof.
  • That is, he asked the question, ‘How do such numbers that make up these builder’s triangles flow from the fact that a right angle is what you turn four times to point the same way?
  • His proof, we think, ran something like this ….
  • Pythagoras had thus proved a general theorem: not just for the 3:4:5 triangle of Egypt, or any Babylonian triangle, but for every triangle that contains a right angle.
  • And the same is true of the sides of triangles found by the Babylonians, whether simple 8:15:17, or forbidding as 3367: 3456: 4827, which leave no doubt that they were good at arithmetic.
  • To this day, the theorem of Pythagoras remains the most important single theorem in the whole of mathematics. The exact fit of the numbers describes the exact laws that bind the universe.
  • In fact, the numbers that compose right-angled triangles have been proposed as messages which we might send out to planets in other star systems as a test for the existence of rational life there.
  • Pythagoras was a philosopher, and something of a religious figure to his followers as well. We tend to think of Greece as part of the west; but Samos, the edge of classical Greece, stands one mile from the coast of Asia Minor. From there much of the thought that inspired Greece first flowed; and, unexpectedly, it flowed back to Asia in the centuries after, before ever it reached Western Europe.
  • Knowledge makes prodigious journeys, and what seems to us a leap in time often turns out to be a long progression from place to place. The caravans carry with their merchandise the methods of trade of their countries – the weights and measures, the methods of reckoning – and techniques and ideas went where they went, through Asia and North Africa.
  • The mathematics of Pythagoras has not come to us directly. It fired the imagination of the Greeks, but the place where it was formed into an orderly system was the Nile city, Alexandria.
  • The man who made the system, and made it famous, was Euclid, who probably took it to Alexandria around 300 BC.
  • The impact of Euclid as a model of mathematical reasoning was immense and lasting. His Elements of Geometry was translated and copied more than any other book except the Bible right into modern times.
  • The other science practiced in Alexandria in the centuries around the birth of Christ was astronomy. The secret of the heavens that wise men looked for in antiquity was read by a Greek called Claudius Ptolemy, working in Alexandria about AD 150.
  • The model of the heavens that Ptolemy constructed is wonderfully complex, but begins with a simple analogy: the moon revolves round the earth ….
  • The pre-eminence of astronomy rests on the peculiarity that it can be treated mathematically; and the progress of physics, and most recently of biology, has hinged equally on finding formulations of their laws that can be displayed as mathematical models.
  • Every so often, the spread of ideas demands a new impulse. The coming of Islam 600 years after Christ was the new, powerful impulse. By AD 730 the Moslem empire reached from Spain and Southern France to the borders of China and India: an empire of spectacular strength and grace, while Europe lapsed in the Dark Ages.
  • In this proselytizing religion, the science of the conquered nations was gathered with a kleptomaniac zest and there was a liberation of simple, local skills that had been despised.
  • Mahomet had been firm that Islam was not to be a religion of miracles; it became in intellectual content a pattern of contemplation and analysis.
  • One of the Greek inventions that Islam elaborated and spread was the astrolabe, which for a long time was the pocket watch and the slide rule of the world.
  • Moorish scholars loved problems, enjoyed finding ingenious methods to solve them, and sometimes turned their methods into mechanical devices.
  • A more elaborate ready-reckoner than the astrolabe is the astrological or astronomical computer, something like an automatic calendar, made in the Caliphate of Baghdad in the 13th century.
  • The most important single innovation that the eager, inquisitive, and tolerant Arab scholars brought from afar was in writing numbers.
  • The European notation for writing numbers was still the clumsy Roman style. Islam replaced that by the modern decimal notation that we still call ‘Arabic’. The Arabic notation requires the invention of a zero.
  • The symbol for zero occurs twice on this page, and several times more on the next, looking just like our own.
  • The words zero and cipher are Arab words; so are algebra, almanac, zenith, and a dozen others in mathematics and astronomy.
  • The Arabs brought the decimal system from India about AD 750, but it did not take hold in Europe for another 500 years after that.
  • It may be the size of the Moorish Empire that made it a kind of bazaar of knowledge, whose scholars included heretic Nestorian Christians in the east and infidel Jews in the west.
  • It may be a quality in Islam as a religion, which, though it strove to convert people, did not despise their knowledge. In the east the Persian city of Isfahan is its monument. In the west there survives an equally remarkable outpost, the Alhambra in southern Spain.
  • The Alhambra is most nearly the description of Paradise from the Koran.


Blessed is the reward of those who labour patiently and put their trust in Allah. Those that embrace the true faith and do good works shall be forever lodged in the mansions of paradise, where rivers will roll at their feet …. And honoured shall they be in the gardens of delight, upon couches face to face. A cup shall be borne round among them from a fountain, limpid, delicious to those who drink … Their spouses on soft green cushions and on beautiful carpets shall recline.

  • The Alhambra is the last and most exquisite monument of Arab civilization in Europe.
  • In asking what operations will turn a pattern into itself, we are discovering the invisible laws that govern our space. There are only cerain kind of symmetries which our space can support, not only in man-made patterns, but in the regularities which nature herself imposes on her fundamental, atomic structures.
  • Thinking about these forms of pattern was the great achievement of Aab mathematics.
  • There is nothing new in mathematics, because there is nothing new in human thought, until the ascent of man moved forward to a different dynamic.
  • Christianity began to surge back in northern Spain about AD 1000. Here Moors, Christians and Jews mingled and made extraordinary culture of different faiths.
  • In 1085 the center of this mixed culture was fixed for a time in the city of Toledo, the intellectual port of entry into Christian Europe of all the classics that the Arabs had brought together from Greece, from the Middle East, from Asia.
  • We think f Italy as the birthplace of the Renaissance. But the conception was in Spain in the 12th century, and it is symbolized and expressed by the famous school of translators at Toledo, where ancient texts were turned from Greek (which Europe had forgotten) through Arabic and Hebrew and Latin.
  • In Toledo, amid other intellectual advances, an early set of astronomical tables was drawn up, as an encyclopedia of start positions.
  • The Greeks had thought that light goes from the eyes to the object. Alhazen first recognized that we see an object because each point of it directs and reflects a ray into the eye.
  • In Alhazen’s account it is clear that the cone of rays that comes from the outline and shape of my hand grows narrower as I move my hand away from you. As I move it towards you, the cone of rays that enters your eye becomes larger and subtends a larger angle.
  • That, and only that, accounts for the difference in size. The concept of the cone of rays from object to the eye becomes the foundation of perspective. And perspective is the new idea which now revivifies mathematics.
  • The excitement of perspective passed into art in north Italy, in Florence and Venice, in the 15th century. It was a school of thought, for its aim was not simply to make the figures lifelike, but to create the sense of their movement in space.
  • Analyzing the changing movement of an object, as I can do on the computer, was quite foreign to Greek and Islamic minds. The Ptolemaic system was built up of circles, along which time ran uniformly and imperturbably.
  • But movements in the real world are not uniform. They change direction and speed at every instant, and they cannot be analysed until a mathematics is invented in which time is a variable.
  • That is a theoretical problem in the heavens, but it is practical and immediate on earth – in the flight of a projectile, in the spurting growth of a plant, in the single splash of a drop of liquid that goes through abrupt changes of shape and direction.
  • The Renaissance did not have the technical equipment to stop the picture frame instant by instant. But the Renaissance had the intellectual equipment: the inner eye of the painter, and the logic of the mathematician.
  • In this way Johannes Kepler after the year 1600 became convinced that the motion of a planet is not circular and not uniform. It is an ellipse along which the planet runs at varying speeds.
  • That means that the old mathematics of static patterns will no longer suffice, nor the mathematics of uniform motion. You need a new mathematics to define and operate with instantaneous motion.
  • The mathematics of instantaneous motion was invented by two superb minds of the late 17th century – Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It was they who brought in the idea of a tangent, the idea of acceleration, the idea of slope, the idea of infinitesimal and differential.
  • To think of it merely as a more advanced technique is to miss its real content. In it, mathematics becomes a dynamic mode of thought, and that is a major mental step in the ascent of man.
  • The laws of nature had always been made of numbers since Pythagoras said that was the language of nature. But now the language of nature had to include numbers which described time. The laws of nature become laws of motion and nature herself becomes not a series of static frames but a moving process.


Chapter 6: The Starry messenger

Monday, May 16, 2011 @ 04:05 AM
posted by admin





On February 1, 1990 Bruce Lansdale was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Agriculture by the Faculty of Agriculture of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. This is the second part of





Bruce M. Lansdale



Two terms in the title of this talk, “power of myth” and “rural development,” need clarification. The two are equally difficult to define in the present context, where the dictionary definition would not appear to apply.

As a child growing up in Greece I remember my mother reading me a new myth almost nightly, with the favorite ones repeated time and again. They were interspersed, however, with Grimm’s fairy Tales and Aesop’s Fables as if all three groups might fit into the same category. It was only as I grew older that I began to understand the power of these myths in the eyes of the ancient Greeks, the respect the people had for them, their influence on their daily lives. Demeter, Persephone, Dionysos, Artemis, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, Zeus and Hera were very real gods to me in my youth, every bit as powerful as the Greek Orthodox saints, even though as a Christian I was expected to think of these tales only as fairy stories.

Theseus, Daedalos and Ikaros, Jason (after whom our grandson is named), Heracles and Atalante, became my friends. We were almost afraid to doubt them and were certainly convinced that they were genuine forces in the lives of the ancient Greeks.

It was only this past summer that I became more aware of another dimension in the modern day interpretation of a myth as analysed by the late anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, who worked  with Bill Moyers on a series of television programs and accompanying book with the title, The Power of Myth. Growing out of the Campbell-Moyers book I came away with a sense that a specific definition is almost impossible – the whole book is a definition – but that there are certain basic underlying elements:

A myth is a story which is approximately 50% true.

A myth is a guide to behaviour.

A myth is an expression of the wisdom of the ages.

A myth is a public belief.

A myth is a metaphor created by an elite,

a shaman, an artist who took the journey into

“the unknown” and came back to relate  the image which is the myth.

A myth is maintained by the “priests”

In a society to carry out the ritual.

Why is a myth different from a dream? “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. A dream is a personal experience of that deep dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream.”1 The dream is an inexhaustible source of spiritual information about yourself just as the myth is an equally vital source of information about a society.

The poet George Seferis said it well,

“You were coming into the dream

As I was coming out of the dream

And so our lives became one

And it will be difficult

For them to separate again.”

When a whole group of individuals in a community or society come in and out of the same dream, it turns into a myth.


If there is one word which best describes the goal of rural development, it would no doubt be prosperity. But how do you define prosperity as an element of rural development? Some might use a simple indicator of per capita income in the rural areas. Sociologists often set up a complex series of statistical factors or try to identify what determines prosperity in the minds of the rural population itself, designing a questionnaire to measure it.

Over the years in Greece, both in working with Farm School graduates through a Graduate Follow-up Program, and in organizing a Community Development Program in 165 villages in the prefecture of Thessaloniki, we have developed a sense that there is another dimension of prosperity in rural development which simply cannot be measured statistically. Maybe this immeasurable factor is best described by the following tale of Nasrudin Hodja.

One day a beggar smelled the appetizing odors of a goat being cooked on the spit outside a rich miser’s house. He sat down on a nearby stone and started eating his crust of bread, dreaming that he too was eating a roast, as he sniffed the goat. Just as the beggar was finishing, the rich man spied him and demanded payment for the small of the goat. Following a lengthy argument the two were brought before Hodja, the judge. When he heard the story Hodja asked the beggar if he had any money. Protesting, the poor man finally pulled out two coins to hand over. At that moment Hodja withdrew his hand and allowed the coins to drop on the floor. He then asked the rich man if he had heard the coins dropping on the stone floor. When the miser said he had, Hodja paused for a moment and replied, “May the sound of the coins be payment for the smell of the goat.”

Clearly prosperity is measured by the sound of the coin and by the smell of the goat. This reflects the paradox of values expressed both by village folk and by those of us who are eager to help them. We urge them to progress and at the same time want them to be changeless. We cherish our leisure moments with them but encourage them to be more active and organized. We enjoy the primitiveness of their village, but are forever telling them to build better houses and dairy barns and keep their cows cleaner. We want to sing and dance with them, yet insist that they should make better use of their time.

Two Greek words, which have no real equivalents in English, kakomiris and nikokiris, can be used to define the goal of rural development. The kakomiris (literally translated as “the ill-fated one”) is the peasant whose luck is down or who has suffered some natural misfortune.

Discussion with many villagers confirms that the kakomiris almost always brings the bad luck on himself through lack of adequate planning, even though he is inclined to blame others for all his setbacks. In direct contrast to the kakomiris is the nikokiris (literally translated as “the master of the house”). He initiates action, plans and organizes his work effectively, employs other peasants, and takes advantage of every opportunity to increase his income and the size of his holdings. The nikokiris (the term nikokira applies equally to his female counterpart) is a leader in the village, respected by others for his judgment. Villagers turn to him for support in times of crisis.

There are only rare individuals who are complete kakomiris or fully nikokiris. There is a modal curve with a small group of kakomiris at the lower end of the scale and a similar sized group of nikokiris at the upper end, with the majority bunched at the center.

The goal of rural development, or at least as concerns the “sound of the coin” might best be defined as helping individuals to eliminate their kakomiris qualities while cultivating nikokiris attitudes, values and management skills. It is important, however, that this not be accomplished at the expense of the “smell of the goat” so vital to bringing joy to rural living.

Rural development programs do not operate in a vacuum. They relate closely to the value systems of the people, to their aspirations and dreams, and how they look at themselves. If they think of themselves as kakomiris either relative to other farmers or to their city cousins, and particularly if they believe that there is nothing they can do to change their circumstances, then surely they are condemning themselves to a life of being a kakomiris.  If this attitude is a personal dream, it condemns the individual to an “ill-fated” life. If it is shared by a majority of a community, then it acquires the “power of myth” and condemns the whole community or society to a kakomiris existence.

Rural development programs cannot ignore the power of such myths. Nor can they succeed in introducing new attitudes, ideas, or approaches without understanding the underlying dreams and myths. Using Campell’s terminology, schools must cultivate a new myth among their students, and if it is to survive, within the total environment  — administration, teachers, instructors and students, of the school.

Essential to rural development programs, therefore, is the cultivation of new myths which promote the prosperity which a society is seeking to attain for itself.

Some of these myths encourage progress among individuals. Others affect families. Many have an impact on communities as a whole, while others may affect a whole segment of a society or even have implications for our planet. This discussion attempts to identify myths at all five of these levels which tended during the first half of this century to hinder development in the rural areas of Greece. Many of these same myths provide major stumbling blocks to development in developing countries today.

Based on this analysis, it is useful to describe some of the activities of development programs, and particularly of the American Farm School on the outskirts of Thessaloniki which may have been helpful in influencing attitudes to a degree that the myths have changed.

Finally, an effort will be made in each case to identify new myths more prevalent today in Greece which have contributed significantly to rural development during the latter part of the twentieth century.


Saturday, April 2, 2011 @ 04:04 AM
posted by admin




ELLINIKA GRAMMATA                         ATHENS 2004



Athens, the first democracy

  • One of the most influential concepts of Ancient Greece has been that of democracy (Demos + Kratos = The power of the people).
  • In the 6th century BC, Solon made the important legislative changes that for the first time gave people the right of appeal before a court and allowed everyone to sit as a juror in these courts.
  • In the 5th century BC Kleisthenes created ten new tribes from all over Attica and broke the political hold of the aristocratic families.
  • Later, by organizing a much larger naval force, Themistocles created a class comprised of thousands of rowers who wanted a greater share of political power.
  • In turn Pericles introduced payment for those who help political positions so every poor citizen could afford to participate in the public life of the city.
  • According to Aristotle, the main difference between men and animals was that men lived in cities. The word “city” in Greek is polis, which can also be translated as “city-state” and it is the origin of the words “politics” and “political.”
  • The city-state was independent, defended itself against other city-states (e.g. Sparta) and had its own “identity.”


The wars against the Persians

Marathon (490 BC): A turning point in Western history

  • In 499 BC, the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule and asked mainland Greece for help. Only two cities responded by sending ships: Eretria in Euboea and Athens.
  • The Persians sought revenge for this defiance so in 490 BC King Darius sent a large fleet to Eretria, which capitulated very quickly.
  • By contrast, the Athenians, with a much smaller force, defeated the vast Persian army. The Greeks lost 192 soldiers while the Persians lost 6,700 on the plains of Marathon.


The Battle of Thermopylae: An extraordinary act of heroism

  • In 480 BC, Darius’ son, Xerxes, returned to fight against the Greeks with an even larger army. During the invasion, the Persian army reached a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea – Thermopylae.
  • There the Spartan king, Leonidas, and several thousand men blocked the pass. The Spartans were famous as warriors and their state was organized to guarantee military superiority.
  • Soon, only Leonidas remained with 300 men, greatly outnumbered by the Persians. They heroically defended the pass for several days until they were all killed.
  • Their self-sacrifice bought precious time for the rest of the Greeks to prepare their army and eventually to defeat Darius.


The Battle of Salamis

  • In 480 BC, during a sea battle fought in the narrow stretch of water between Athens and the island of Salamis (Salamina), the Athenians destroyed the Persian fleet. Herodotus credits Themistocles with formulating the strategy Athens used to win this important battle.


The Peloponnesian War: The clash between Athens and Sparta

  • The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was a defining period in Athenian history as it culminated in the destruction of Athens.
  • The underlying cause of the war was the growth of Athenian power after the Persian Wars.
  • Athens and Sparta adopted very different strategies. Pericles and the ten generals who led the Athenian side sought to barricade the population within the city’s walls, relying on the fleet to keep supply lines open and fend off the enemy. Sparta used its superior land army to devastate Attica.
  • In 429, the overcrowded conditions in Athens caused the outbreak of a plague, which killed thousands of people, among them Pericles.
  • In 404, the Spartan admiral Lysander succeeded in destroying the Athenian fleet at a battle in the Hellespont.



  • At the end of the first year of war against the Spartans, the Athenians held a funeral for those killed in the war. The funeral oration was delivered by Pericles (495-429 BC) who, according to Thucydides, was Athen’s greatest statesman.
  • Pericles said that he who takes no part in public affairs is not considered unambitious but on the contrary he is considered useless – an idiot.
  • The word in Greek means “one who exhibits antisocial behavior” and this behavior is something that the Greeks consider a denial of one’s humanity.
  • We throw open our city to the world and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing.
  • Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. The freedom that we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.


The Acropolis and Parthenon

  • In 448 BC Athens was an imperial power. Pericles decided to build the Acropolis and in 447 the project was begun with the cooperation of the renowned architects Ictinus and Callicrates and the famous sculptor Phidias.
  • Pericles had a grandiose plan to honor the city’s patron and protectress, Athena Polias. He thus decided to build a temple, the Parthenon, dedicated to the virgin-goddess (parthenos = virgin).
  • The Acropolis dominated the skyline of Athens and was the center of the city’s religious life.


Hippocrates: History’s most famous doctor

  • Hippocrates (c460-375 BC) laid the foundations of Western medicine by rejecting superstition in favor of scientific observation, classifying diseases, and creating a set of moral and professional standards for physicians.


The Hippocratic Oath

  • The Hippocratic Oath, a code of ethics for doctors that is still taken by medical school graduates, is named in his honor.

I swear by Apollo the Physician and Asklepios, and by Health and Panakeia (all-healing) and by all gods and goddesses that I will keep this oath according to my power and my judgment …

I will use regimens for the benefit of the ill according to my ability and judgment and abstain from whatever is wrong for them. I will not give poison to anyone, though I be asked …

And about whatever I may see or hear in treatment, I will remain silent, holding such things to be sacred …

Isocrates (436-338 BC): Athenian orator, rhetorician and educationalist

  • Athens has so far surpassed the rest of mankind in thought and speech that her followers are the masters of the rest, and it is because of Athens that the word ‘Greek’ is not so much a term of birth as of mentality, and is applied to a common culture rather than a common descent.


Herodotus: The ‘father’ of history

Herodotus of Halikarnassos

His histories

Here set down

That the deeds of men may not be forgotten in time

And that the great and notable achievements

Of both Greeks and Barbarians

May not be unrenowned

And more especially the causes of the war between them.

  • Herodotus (484-420 BC) is credited with giving the word “histories” its current meaning of a record of the past. His history of the Persian Wars describes the cultural differences between the Greeks and their neighbors, though not of all his work meets the standard of modern scholarship.


Theater: A Greek invention, a school for the citizens

Aeschylus: The birth of tragedy, and of soap opera

  • Considered the first great Athenian tragic poet, Aeschylus (525-456 BC) came from a noble family. He fought at the Battle of Marathon and later in the naval battle of Salamis.
  • In 484 he won his first victory in the dramatic competition at the Festival of Dionysus. In 467 he composed the first important trilogy about Oedipus, but the only one of these plays that has survived is Seven Against Thebes.
  • His only surviving trilogy is the Oresteia, which dramatizes the fall of the house of Atreus.
  • In these plays, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek expedition against Troy, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order to help the Greek army begin their campaign.
  • Clytemnestra, his wife, never forgives him for his action and with her lover Aegistheus murders Agamemnon in his bath shortly after his return from the Trojan War.
  • Their son Orestes murders his mother to avenge the death of his father.
  • He is pursued by the Furies and is brought before the Aeropagite Council, where he stands trial by jury.
  • Only seven of the many plays Aeschylus is said to have written have survived: The Persians, The Choephoroi, The Eumenides, Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants and The Seven Against Thebes.
  • Wisdom alone comes through suffering.


Sophocles: Actor turned playwright who deals with love and ethical dilemmas

  • Born in the Athenian district of Colonus, Sophocles (496-406 BC) came from a noble family and received an excellent education that enabled him to compose music for the choruses of his tragedies. He was known for his handsome looks and grace.
  • Of his 100 or so works, only seven tragedies and one unfinished satiric drama have survived: Ajax, Antigone, The Trachiniae, Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), Electra, Philicretes, Oedipus at Colonus.


Euripides: An ‘anarchist,’ innovator, and feminist

  • The youngest of the three most important tragic poets, Euripides (485-406 BC) goes furthest in challenging the conventions of tragedy.
  • He questioned the traditional views of what constitutes a hero, what god is, and what the position of women should be. He was an innovator, a restless spirit.
  • Of his 90 plays, 17 have survived: Alcestis, Medea, The Heracleidae, Hippolytus, Andromache, Hecuba, The Suppliants, The Madness of Hercules, Ion, The Trojan Women, Electra, Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen, The Phoenician Women, Orestes, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Bacchae.


Aristophanes: Sexual innuendo and slapstick comedy

  • Considered to be the greatest comic poet of antiquity, Aristophanes (457-385 BC) was a sharp observer of the social and political life of Athens. In his plays he satirized society and shocked audiences.
  • 11 of his 44 comedies have survived: Acharnians, Knights, Clouds, Wasps, Peace, Birds, Thesmophoriazusae, Lysistrata, Frogs, Ecclesiazusae, Plutus.


A Golden legacy


was the teacher of


who founded the Academy and was the teacher of


Who founded the Lyceum and was the teacher of

Alexander the Great


I know only one thing,

That I know nothing …

  • Socrates (469-399 BC), the most famous and influential of philosophers, actually wrote nothing at all. Most of our knowledge about him comes from the works of Plato.
  • He invented the dialectic method, a system of dialogue whose goal was to find an unambiguous definition of terms such as piety, justice, or truth, but his dialogues ended inconclusively.
  • Nonetheless he persisted in these discussions because he believed that “virtue is knowledge” and anyone who could distinguish “good” could do no wrong.
  • In 399 BC Socrates was charged with “introducing new gods and corrupting the young.” Socrates response at his trial is Plato’s dialogue, Apology.
  • Socrates was sentenced to death but refused to flee on the grounds that it was against the law; thus he ended his life by drinking poison.
  • The unexamined life is not worth living.


Plato: Socrates’s most illustrious student

  • Plato (427-348 BC) founded the Academy (named after the hero Academos) in Athens in 387 BC – the first known university.
  • His writings often take the form of dialogues, primarily with Socrates as the main character.
  • In The Republic, Plato lays out his ideas for the perfect state, “…until philosophers are kings, or the kings of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political power and wisdom meet in one … cities will never have a rest from their evils.”
  • The worst of all deception is self-deception.

Aristotle: The first systematic philosopher

  • Considered one of Plato’s best students, Aristotle (384-322 BC) left the Academy when Plato died and founded the Lyceum.
  • One of the greatest systematic philosophers of antiquity, Aristotle had an impressive knowledge of medicine, physics, anthropology, politics, and literature.
  • His influence can be seen in both medieval Christian and Islamic thought.
  • His concepts were the foundation of Western culture until the 17th century and remain embedded in contemporary thinking.
  • The state is a creation of nature and man is by nature a political animal.
  • Habit becomes second nature.
  • He who prefers solitude is either a wild beast or a god.


Thursday, March 31, 2011 @ 04:03 AM
posted by admin




ELLINIKA GRAMMATA                         ATHENS 2004



Preface by Maria Belivani, April 2004

Is there a way to live in harmony with ourselves and the environment? The aim of this book is to suggest some answers to this question. Our guides will be the glorious Greeks (those of the Golden Era of the 5th BC to the modern Nobel-laureate poets), who can show us a path to a better life. That path has been called “the Golden Mean,” the only philosophy for living that places humankind (rather than some other creator) at its center.

The classicist Bruno Snell wrote that “European thinking begins with the Greeks. They have made it what it is: our only way of thinking; its authority, in the Western world, is undisputed … They discovered the human mind.

Yet the Greek way has never been to regard itself as exclusively European or Western, but as one open – like the Olympic Games that were born of this broadminded ideal – to the whole world. In the fifth century BC, Isocrates wrote that “the word Greek is not so much a term of birth as of mentality, and its is applied to a common culture rather than a common descent.” Or as Alexander the Great said: “The origin of citizens or the race into which they were born is of no concern to me. I have only one criterion by which to distinguish – virtue. For me any good foreigner is a Greek and any bad Greek is worse than a barbarian.”

I decided to write this book in English because this language is very dear to my heart and will help these ideas travel around the world.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to James Owen, the historian, writer, and journalist; Kathleen Hart, editor and professor of English Literature; Bob Chatel, professor of Philosophy and Humanities; the writer Vassilis Vassilikos, permanent Representative of Greece to Unesco; and Christos Memis, managing editor of the Athens daily To Vima. A very special thanks to my parents Yiannis and Roula, my sister Nicole, and my husband Dimitris Katsantonis.

I would like to dedicate this book to my son Jason and hope that in the future he may find some answers here.

I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.


Greek philosopher (469-399 BC)

THE BRONZE AGE (3000 BC – 1200 BC)

The Greeks have always believed that their culture had its origins in the Bronze Age, the era of the Cycladic, Cretan, and Mycenaean civilizations. This period has been immortalized in the epic poems of Homer (which were written much later), the great ancient tragedies, the tales of Greek heroes like Jason, Hercules, Achilles, and the myth of Atlantis.

The astonishing archeological discoveries in Crete, Mycenae, and Troy in the last 150 years have largely confirmed the factual basis for these legends and brought the myths closer to reality.

Cycladic Civilization: Europe’s earliest culture

  • The earliest evidence of civilization in Europe has been found in the Cycladic islands. The best-known relics of the pre-historic cultures that flourished in this region are small figurines of nude women with their arms folded across their chests.


Minoan Crete

  • Even today, the grand palace of Knossos impresses visitors with its size and the complexity of its facilities: four storys of luxurious royal apartments, elaborate shafts for lighting, toilets that flushed, and a plumbing system that provided a standard of cleanliness perhaps not reached by the rest of the world until the end of the 19th century.


Santorini or perhaps Atlantis?

  • In 1500 BC a volcanic explosion rocked the island of Santorini, covering half of it with ash and pumice.
  • The other half slid beneath the waves and may have thus inspired the legend of the lost civilization of Atlantis.
  • In 1967 excavations at Akrotiri revealed one of the most important prehistoric sites of the Aegean, with the remarkably well-preserved remains of a pre-historic town buried under thick layers of ash and pumice.


Greece during the late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC)

Mycenae: Resting place of King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War?

  • According to Homer, when King Agamemnon returned to his magnificent palace at Mycenae at the end of the Trojan War, he was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover.
  • In 1874 excavations conducted by Heinrich Schliemann, who also discovered Troy, revealed royal burial sites of extraordinary grandeur.
  • When Schliemann found a gold death mask, he sent a telegram to the King of Greece saying, “Today I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon.”
  • These finds have now been dated to the 16th century BC, some three centuries before the Trojan War is believed to have taken place.


Greek migrations

  • Cretan civilization appears to have been influenced by the Cycladic cultures, spread by these seafaring folk. The Cretans, in turn, influenced Mycenean culture.
  • The eruption of the volcano on Santorini had a tremendous impact on the entire Aegean. The Minoan palaces on Crete were destroyed; new ones were built, only to be destroyed again some years later by another natural disaster.
  • Mycenean civilization flourished until 1200 BC and was followed by a “dark age.”
  • Many Greeks migrated from the mainland and settled along the western coast of Asia Minor and on the larger islands off its coast, founding twelve cities and creating Ionia.
  • Over the next few centuries, this area flourished and made a significant contribution to Greek culture, beginning with Homer, who came from the region.



  • It is said that the Greek myths herald the dawn of Western Civilization. Homer is often recognized as the author of the first work of literature that Europe may truly count as its own.
  • A great deal of what we know as “Western” culture – sculpture, music, painting and literature – have found their source of inspiration in Greek mythology.
  • In the eighth century BC, Homer is believed to have composed the two most widely known epic poems of the ancient Greek world: The Iliad and The Odyssey.



  • Mount Olympus in Thessaly is the highest point in Greece. The ancient Greeks believed its cloud-shrouded peak was the seat of the pantheon, derived from pan (all) + theos (god).
  • The pantheon was the assembly of the twelve gods of Mount Olympus and was dominated by Zeus who was thus given the epithet “Olympian.”



  • The Olympic Games were the most important sporting event of the ancient world. They took place at the stadium at Olympia every four years, in the middle of the summer, and were dedicated to Olympian Zeus, the king of gods and mortals.
  • The Olympic Games were a religious and political event that survived for 1,169 years and were revived at the end of the 19th century.


The sacred truce

  • The spirit of the Olympic games is best described through the idea of the Olympic Truce or ekecheria (holding of hands).
  • The Olympic Truce was observed for twelve centuries, thus making it the longest-lasting peace accord in history.
  • All hostilities between Greek cities ceased in order to ensure the safety of thousands of spectators, athletes, and artists traveling to Olympia and back.
  • The truce lasted approximately three months, as the Greek world at that time was much larger than modern Greece and included many colonies in places like Sicily, Marseilles, Alexandria, and Constantinople.
  • The significance of the Olympic Truce was that it showed that sports could help people live together in peace and thus discover that they had more things in common than they had originally believed.


The role of sports in Ancient Greece

  • In ancient Greece sport was not perceived merely as a healthy pastime but was considered to be an integral part of a complete education.
  • Greeks believed hat a healthy mind could only exist in a healthy body and thus education could not be divided into physical and intellectual.
  • The aim of education was to create a man who was kalos (beautiful) and agathos (virtuous), a man who lived in harmony with his mind and body.
  • Armonia (harmony) was very important in ancient Greece: from a very young age pupils had to learn how to dance, sing, and play music as well as to read and write.
  • Physical education included training in rhythm and music, all of which sought to create a well-balanced personality and a citizen who, according to Pericle’s famous funeral oration would, “love beauty without excess and love wisdom without being weak.”
  • An ideal citizen should live a life of responsibility and maintain an open mind. In order to be able to do so, one had to feel secure about both one’s intellectual and physical abilities.


The prizes

  • At the close of the Games, the victors gathered at the temple of Zeus. A herald called out their name, their father’s name, and the names of their cities while the crowd cheered.
  • A crown of wild olive wood (kotinos) was their only prize, but the fame and respect they gained were invaluable.
  • For the rest of their lives they would be remembered as victors and their names recorded in the archives; sometimes their statues would also be erected at Olympia.
  • When the victors returned home, their fellow citizens would demolish part of the city walls for them to enter through; having such a hero meant that the city did not need any other protection.


PHILOSOPHY: Words of wisdom

  • In the history of Western philosophy, the Nobel-Laureate Bertrand Russell wrote that not only philosophy but the principles of history, theatre, medicine, science, and many types of Western literature originated in the ancient Greek world.
  • He notes that the words of the ancients seem as fresh today as when they were uttered 2,500 years ago.
  • While acknowledging the contributions of Egypt and Mesopotamia to civilization, he claims that “certain elements had been lacking until the Greeks supplied them. What they achieved in art and literature is familiar to everybody, but what they did in the purely intellectual realm is even more exceptional.”


Philosophy before Socrates: The origins of Western philosophy and science (philos + sophia = the friends of wisdom)

  • Pre-Socratic philosophy was born in the Greek cities of Ionia at the end of the seventh century BC. The first philosophers of that time explored the origins of the creation of the world and sought to explain the forces that existed in nature.
  • The spirit of enquiry was unshackled from religion and moved towards what we now call science.


The Seven Sages of Antiquity

Bias of Priene: Most men are bad

Chilo of Sparta: Consider the end

Cleolobus of Lindos: The Golden Mean

Periander of Corinth: Nothing is impossible to industry

Pittacus of Mytilene: Seize time by the forelock

Solon of Athens: Know thyself

Thales of Miletus: Who hateth suretyship is sure

Solon of Athens: the first democrat

  • Solon (640-558 BC) was one of the Seven Sages of Antiquity. His laws and radical social policies helped bridge the gap between rich and poor.
  • His most important law was one that did not allow citizens to be indifferent to public affairs.
  • Injury done to the least of its citizens is injury done to all.
  • A I grow older I never cease to learn something new.
  • Call no man happy until he dies.


Thales of Miletus (624-549 BC)

  • The first scientist-philosopher was Thales of Miletus, who rejected the religious and mythological explanations of the world and declared that the universe was a single entity and water was the most fundamental substance.
  • He predicted the eclipse of the sun for the year 585 BC and measured the height of the pyramids by their shadow.
  • He is said to have been the one who divided the year into 365 days.
  • Time is wise because it brings everything to light.
  • What is difficult? To know yourself.
  • What is easy? To give advice.


Anaximander (610-547 BC)

  • Anaximander published a geographical map of the known world. He created solar clocks and pondered whether humans had been like fish at some time in the past.
  • Everything is indefinite and infinite.
  • Motion is eternal.
  • Innumerable worlds are being born, dissolved, and born again according to the age to which they can survive.


Heraclitus of Ephesus (6th century BC)

  • Heraclitus’s doctrine of the unity of opposites influenced modern philosophers like Hegel and Marx. He believed that the principle of the universe is “becoming,” which implies that everything is and, at the same time, is not, so far as the same relation is concerned.
  • He also believed that stability is an illusion, and that only change and the law of change are real.
  • You cannot swim twice in the same river, for the waters constantly change.
  • Much learning does not teach understanding.
  • War is the father and king of all things.
  • The road up and the road down are one and the same.


Pythagoras of Samos (570-500 BC)

  • Pythagoras contributed greatly to the progress of mathematics and geometry, notably with his celebrated theorem. But he was also a philosopher and mystic.
  • A vegetarian, he was famous for his musical teachings and his belief in reincarnation; he used to say he could remember all his past lives.
  • Pythagoras was the first to use the term “cosmos” to suggest that the entire universe has an order that can be understood through mathematics.
  • The Pythagoreans, having discovered the mathematical laws of musical pitch, believed that planetary motions produce a “music of the spheres.”


The Sophists: The people who professed to teach wisdom

  • This group of traveling teachers would accept payment for their lessons in rhetoric. As the Greek economy expanded, a class emerged of newly-rich merchants who needed instruction in public speaking, debate, and general culture. They called on the services of the Sophists to satisfy these needs.
  • Protagoras (490-420BC) did not believe that there was an absolute truth.
  • Man is the measure of things. Of God I cannot say either that they exist or that they do not; it is a very difficult subject and life is not long enough.
  • Gorgias (483-376 BC) was the first sceptic. He believed that nothing exists, that if anything did exist then it could not be known, and that if anything did exist and could be known, then it could not be communicated.


Democritus (470-360 BC)

  • The pre-Socratic period ends with Democritus. Thale’s initial question about the true nature of matter culminated a century later in the concept of atoms, a concept that brought humankind closer to the truth than any other theories in the ensuing two millennia.
  • Democritus was the father of atomic theory. He believed that the nature of things consists of an infinite number of extremely small particles, which he called atoms. These atoms are surrounded by a void. He recognized that there are many different kinds of atoms and that they all move in space.
  • Even the most pleasant becomes unpleasant in excess.
  • All the world is a stage; life is a passage: you come, you see, you leave.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011 @ 07:03 AM
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THE OVERLOOK PRESS             2006

The inside cover

In 480 BC, a huge Persian army, led by the fabled King Xerxes, entered the mountain pass of Thermopylae as they marched on Greece, intending to conquer the land with little difficulty. But the Greeks – led by King Leonidas and a small army of Spartans – took the battle to the Persians at Thermopylae, and halted their advance – almost.

It is one of history’s most celebrated battles, one of civilization’s greatest last stands. And in Thermopylae, renowned classical historian Paul Cartledge newly examines this history-altering moment and, most impressively, shows how its repercussions have a bearing on us even today. The invasion of Europe by Xerxes and his army redefined culture, a kingdom, and class. The valiant efforts of a few thousand Greek warriors, facing a huge onrushing Persian army at the narrow pass at Thermopylae, changed the way generations would think about combat, courage and death.

The battle of Thermopylae was at its broadest a clash of civilizations, one that momentously helped to shape the identity of classical Greece and hence the nature of our own cultural heritage.


This is the setting forth of the research of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, done so that the achievements of men may not be lost to memory over time, and that the great and wondrous deeds of both Greeks and barbarians (non-Greeks) may not lack their due glory; and especially to show what was the cause why the two peoples fought against one another.

Heroditus Histories 1.1

Shortly after finishing my last book – on Alexander III ‘the Great’ King of Macedon (and a great deal more besides) between 336 and 323 BC(E) – I paid a visit to Thermopylae in preparation for writing this one. From plotting the world-changing course of Alexander the Great over most of the known world to charting the history-changing defence of a narrow pass by a Few. The task was similar in many ways – the weighing of evidence, the estimation of consequence and implication, the judgement of value – but here the subject, though comparably massive, is concerned in one act carried out in a little space: a suicidally defining stand for ‘freedom’.

The ‘Hot Gates’ – that is what ‘Thermopylae’ means in ancient Greek – are a narrow pass in north-central mainland Greece. The ‘gates’ bit referred to the fact that this was the natural and obvious route for any invading army coming from the north to defeat the forces of central or southern Greece. They were called ‘hot’ because of the presence nearby of natural healing sulphur springs still there today. Here it was that in August 480 BCE an ancient Greek ‘Few’, representing a small and wavering grouping of Greek cities, made their heroic stand against the oncoming might of a massive Persian invasionary force. They were headed by an elite force from Sparta, the single most powerful Greek polis, or citizen-state.

  • The modern memorials to Leonidas and the other Greeks killed here in desperate battle in 480 BCE were first erected beside the National Road in the mid-1950s by he Greek government with the aid of American money. This was not all that long after a devastating civil war (1946-9) had left at least half a million Greeks dead.
  • This intestine conflict in its turn had followed on a period of deeply unpleasant foreign occupation by the Axis powers of first Italy and then Nazi Germany (1941-4), notwithstanding the heroic Greek resistance in late 1940 that prompted comparison precisely with their ancestors’ derring-do of 480 BCE.
  • If you cross to the other side of the National Road, the rewards for the student of 480 BCE are even greater. Close by is what has been identified – almost certainly correctly – as the low hill on which the Spartan King Leonidas and his few Spartans mounted their heroic ‘last stand’ against Great King Xerxes’s Persians.
  • If you search among the scrub that overlies the site, you will come upon another modern memorial. This reads, in its most usual English translation:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

  • Obedience and freedom, self-sacrificing suicide … Thermopylae is a place of witness, redolent of the Spartan’s paradoxical cultural values that need explaining now as much as at the time, when Persian Great King Xerxes uncomprehendingly wondered at the report of these fearsome warriors combing their hair in preparation (though he did not know it) for a beautiful death.
  • This clash between the Spartans and other Greeks, on one side, and the Persian horde (including Greeks), on the other, was a clash between Freedom and Slavery. In fact, the conflict has been plausibly described as the very axis of world history.
  • ‘The interest of the whole world’s history hung trembling in the balance’, Hegel powerfully put it.
  • At stake were nothing less than early forms of monotheism, the notion of a global state, democracy and totalitarianism.
  • The Battle of Thermopylae, in short, was a turning-point not only in the history of Classical Greece, but in all the world’s history, eastern as well as western.
  • So we are dealing here with the earlier of the two gigantic clashes of cultures and civilizations that helped to define both the identity of Classical Greece and, as a consequence, the nature of our own cultural heritage.
  • We professional historians are all agreed that Greece – Classical Greece – is one of the major taproots of our own Western civilization in the sense that there has been a series of conscious choices made – in the Byzantine era, in the mainly Italian Renaissance, in the age of Enlightenment and in the 19th century age of imperialism – to adopt the Classical Greeks as our ‘ancestors’ in key cultural respects.
  • This book will concentrate most extensively on the decisive contributions made by the Spartans, on whose extraordinary society and civilization there has recently been a quite remarkable focus of academic and popular interest.
  • What can there possibly be still to talk about that merits focusing all this media and other attention on ancient Sparta? This book will seek to provide a resounding answer or set of answers to this question, paying attention not least to the theme of Sparta’s promotion (or otherwise) of freedom, both at home and abroad.
  • There is all to play for – and a great deal at stake – in any history of ‘Thermopylae’.
  • The events of ‘9/11’ in New York City and now ‘7/7’ in London have given this project a renewed urgency and importance within the wider framework of East-West cultural encounter.



All dates are BCE unless otherwise stated. (shortened version)

700            Homer; settlement of New Tro (illium)

550      Cyrus II the Great founds Achaemenid Persian Empire

508            Democracy instituted at Athens

493            Birth of Pericles

490            Battle of Marathon; accession of Leonidas

484            Birth of Herodotus

480            Invasion of Xerxes

469            Birth of Socrates

460-445 First Peloponnesian War

460            Birth of Thucydides

447-432 Building of the Parthenon

425            Publication of Herodotus’s Histories

359            Philip II becomes de facto King of Macedon

      336  Philip assassinated, succeeded by son (by Greek wife Olympias)              Alexander, Alexander III, later ‘the Great”

323              Death of Alexander at Babylon

Prologue – Setting the Awful Scene

Edward Gibbon described the process he chronicled in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) as an ‘awful revolution’. He meant by that a radical process that changed the course of human history in such a way and to so great a degree as to inspire awe. The Graeco-Persian Wars of 480-479 BCE, preceded by the Battle of Marathon in 490, occupied a much shorter timespan. Yet with the historian’s inestimable benefit of hindsight they can be seen to constitute precisely such a shock- and awe-inspiring juncture in the affairs of mankind.

The Battle of Thermopylae was a cardinal component of those Graeco-Persian wars. In late August 480 BCE a smallish Greek force of some 7,000 or so commanded by King Leonidas of Sparta and headed by an elite force of specially picked Spartan champions stood up to a vast imperial Persian army of invasion under the supreme and personal command of Xerxes, Great King of Persia. The manner of the Greeks’ and especially the Spartans’ (de)feat was absolutely crucial at the time, in that it provided the relatively very few ‘loyalist’ Greeks (as I shall call them) with the will and the example to continue to resist, and to go on, eventually, to throw the invaders back and out of Greece and the Aegean islands. Since then, Thermopylae has been a key ingredient in the Spartan myth, or legend. It has resonated indeed throughout the entire Western cultural tradition as a deed emblematic of the peculiar Greek and Spartan qualities of reasoned devotion to, and self-sacrifice in the name of, a higher collective cause, Freedom – or rather, a variety of definitions of Freedom.

  • War was and is the ultimately awful negative experience, humans killing other humans, often for the least altruistically admirable reasons and with the most atrocious brutality.
  • The Greeks practiced it with single-mindedness and gusto, to such an extent that it became the defining quality of their culture as a whole.
  • On the other hand, war also is or can be uniquely ennobling – giving expression to patriotic and comradely solidarity, including selfless self-sacrifice in such obviously ‘good’ causes as freedom, democracy and other lofty ideals.
  • The Greeks were second to none in embracing that contradictory combination of the ghastly and the ennobling, which takes us straight back to the fount and origin of Western culture and ‘civilization’ – to Homer’s Iliad, the first masterpiece of all Western literature; to Aeschylus’s Persians, the first surviving masterpiece of Western drama; to the coruscating war epigrams of Simonides and, last but most relevantly of all, to Herodotus’s Histories, the first masterpiece of Western historiography.
  • One of the most appalling of human creations, war has given rise to some of humanity’s most sublime and influential literary creations and soaring visual monuments.
  • Go to Delphi today and you will gain enough of an idea of the once astonishing superabundance of war memorial building and sculptures.
  • Truly, as Sophocles’s Chorus put it in his tragic drama Antigone, ‘awesome are the works of man’ – for both good and evil. Or as Pindar sagely put it, ‘War is sweet to those who have no experience of it. But the experienced man trembles exceedingly in his heart at its approach.’

We in the Western world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the centuries of total war, of the Flanders killing fields, of Stalingrad and Hiroshima, are surely well placed to appreciate this cardinal feature of ancient Greek culture, and in particular of fifth-century Spartan culture. Yet in another sense most of us are not in fact well placed at all. The summer of 2005, as I write, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, but that intervening period of three score years is one characterized by the total absence of a major international military conflict in either Europe or North America. Of course, there have been any number of serious wars: the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Gulf War, the Iraq war, and the vicious civil wars in Bosnia and in Chechnya and in Rwanda, not to mention paramilitary terrorist atrocities in New York, Madrid, London, Omagh and elsewhere. But Americans and Western Europeans born in the years immediately after the Second World War have never – thank heavens – actually had to take up arms against a sea of foreign enemies and kill a fellow human being in the name of some patriotic or ideological cause. The President of the USA is also Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces, but William Jefferson Clinton, notoriously, had not even undergone national service, let alone fought in the front line. It is said that during the US ‘peacekeeping’ operation in Somalia he was particularly shocked by the sight of the corpse of a US Ranger sergeant being dragged through the streets by a chanting mob. Listeners to Homer’s Iliad in fifth-century BCE Sparta or Athens would presumably have felt quite differently, inured as they were to (all too) many similar sights, in ways that we just cannot begin to imagine, let alone empathize with.

  • The Greeks in some sense valued and earnestly desired peace. Yet, despite these utopian yearnings, the harsh reality was that war was absolutely central to the Greeks’ lifestyle and world view.
  • The sacred ‘Olympic truce’, which was declared every four years, was technically an ‘armistice’, in other words a severely practical necessity in order to enable competitors and spectators to attend the Olympic Games in safety.

The other major background factor is the mighty Achaemenid Persian Empire, the fastest-growing oriental empire before Genghis Khan’s Mongol juggernaut. In the space of a generation, from its foundation about 550 BCE by Cyrus II the Great, it spread out from its Iranian heartland as far west as the Aegean and east Mediterranean seaboard (including Egypt, conquered by Cyrus’s son, Cambyses) and as far east as Afghanistan, Pakistan and part of central Asia (where Cyrus himself died, still campaigning, in 529). A rash of revolts occurred on the death of Cambyses (522-521), but these were quelled by a distant relative who ascended the throne as Darius I. Darius had to cope with a further bout of revolt (499-494), this time actually led by his Greek subjects in western Asia, but he eventually effected a smooth repression. However, his attempt at reprisal and reparation on the other side of the Aegean came to grief at the Battle of Marathon in the territory of Athens in 490. This stinging defeat set the stage far an attempted conquest on a far grander scale undertaken, in the event of Darius’s death (486), by his son and successor Xerxes (480-479).

  • In Thessalian territory lay the first conceivable line of anti-Persian defence, the Vale of Tempe between Mt Ossa and Mt Olympus. Once that had been abandoned by the coalition, the next and only feasible line of defence for the Greek loyalists was the pass of Thermopylae.
  • After Thermopylae (a defeat) and its linked naval battle at Artemisium (a draw) the next major encounter was the naval Battle of Salamis in late September 480, in which the Greek loyalists, led – brilliantly – by the maverick Athenian politician and general Themistocles – won a smashing victory.
  • Some modern as well as ancient critics, including Heroditus, have judged this to be the decisive battle of the Wars.
  • That, then, is the background of war and empire against which I am going to look again in detail at the role in 480 BCE of the Spartans, as acknowledged leaders of the ‘the Greeks’ in resistance to the Persian invasion under Xerxes.
  • There is no question but that had the Persians won, Greek civilization of the ensuing Classical era would have been immeasurably different from what did in fact evolve in the fifth and fourth centuries under the impulse of self-liberation against seemingly overwhelmingly military odds.


Chapter One – The Ancient World in 500 BCE: From India to the Aegean.

Chapter Two: The Dynamics of Empire: Persia of the Achaemenids, 485.

Chapter Three: Hellas: The Hellenic World in 485.

Chapter Four: Sparta 485: A Unique Culture and Society.

Chapter Five: Thermopylae I: Mobilization.

Chapter Six: Thermopylae II: Preparations for Battle.

Chapter Seven: Thermopylae III: The Battle.

Chapter Eight: The Thermopylae Legend I: Antiquity.

Chapter Nine: The Thermopylae Legend II: From Antiquity to Modernity.

Epilogue: Thermopylae: Turning-Point in World History.

Appendix 1. The Invention of History: Herodotus and Other Ancient Sources. Appendix 2. Herodotus’ Persian Muster-Lists: A Translation.

Appendix 3. Heroditus – Antidote to Fundamentalism.

Glossary. Bibliography. References. Index.

Sunday, March 27, 2011 @ 06:03 AM
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This guide to the exhibition ALEXANDER AND THE EAST was printed in 3,000 copies in December 1997 under the auspices of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki on behalf of “Thessaloniki Cultural Capital of Europe 1997”



For two months Thessaloniki is hosting the archeological exhibition Alexander and the East as part of the programme arranged by the Organization of the Cultural Capital of Europe, Thessaloniki 1997.

Splendid works from the East have been brought for the first time to stand beside archeological finds from Macedonia and give a picture of the fascinating world of the advanced civilizations of Asia and Egypt encountered by Alexander in his Panhellenic campaign. It is the world that cast a spell on the young king but also the one which, as far away as distant Baktria, embraced Greek civilization.

Alexander and the East

In 359 BC Philip, father of Alexander the Great, ascended the Macedonian throne. It took more than ten years to tame the wild Illyrians who were a permanent threat to the north-western provinces of his kingdom and to push the bellicose Thracians in the East back beyond the boundary of the river Strymon. The next goal of his foreign policy was to occupy the Straits of the Hellespont and claim hegemony over the southern Greek cities. In the winter of 338/7 BC he succeeded in convening the Council of the Greek League at Corinth, attended by delegates from all the city-states, except the Lakedaimonians. Peace among Greeks was pledged and war declared on the Persians. Although a century and a half had passed since the Persian wars, public opinion considered the matter of satisfaction for the destruction of the great sanctuaries still unsettled. Philip assumed the leadership as “general with absolute powers”. On the eve of the campaign, however, he was assassinated and Alexander III became king of Macedonia. Along with his kingdom, he also inherited the leadership of the Greeks in the war against the Persians.

The Persian state was founded in 559 BC by the Great King Cyrus, a member of the Achaemenid family, and grew into a huge empire stretching from the Hellespont to India and including most of the peoples of the East: Medes, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, Lydians, Baktrians, Sogdians, Arabs, Nubians and Egyptians. The Persian empire, however, never acquired homogeneity and the Persians themselves adopted the cuneiform writing and monumental architecture of their subjects. The mountain regions of their dominions had a primitive rural economy whereas along the river valleys and coastal strips commerce was well-developed and industry organized. Persian tradition required the Great King to be ruler of the whole World. This was why Darius I undertook the great campaign to the western borders of the empire in order to subjugate the Greeks and found a new outlying satrapy. However, neither he nor his successor, Xerxes, managed to conquer the Greeks. After the battle of Plataea in 479 BC, the Persians withdrew but did not stop interfering in Greek affairs. When Alexander set out on his great Campaign in the spring of 334 BC, Darius was on the throne at Persepolis. He considered that the power of his satraps was sufficient to ward off the united Greeks under Alexander.

The battle of Granikos (May, 334 BC)

The crossing from Europe to Asia was marked by symbolic acts. In the middle of the straits of the Hellespont Alexander sacrificed a bull to Poseidon and made a libation from a gold dish. When he reached the opposite shore he set up altars and sacrificed to Zeus and Herakles. A little before this he had thrown his spear from the ship to the shore, thus implying that he was conquering Asian territory. At Troy he left a wreath on Achilles’ grave and took the hero’s armour from the temple of Athena, where it was said to have lain since the Trojan War. The first clash with Darius’ satraps occurred at the river Granikos. The Persians took advantage of the steep river bank, and lined up there to hinder Alexander’s landing. He, however, misled the Persians by giving the impression that he would attack with his left flank but suddenly changed course and turned towards their center. In spite of fierce resistance, he won his first victory and this opened the way for the liberation of the cities of Asia Minor from the Persians.

The visit to Priene

The next battle after Granikos took place in the Ionian metropolis of Miletos. When the Persian commander refused to surrender the city, Alexander laid siege to it, captured it and gave it its freedom. Then, at the beginning of the autumn of 334 BC, he visited Priene, an old Greek city which had been inundated by the river Maeander and so had been rebuilt on a steep slope of Mount Mykale. The temple of Athena atop the most visible height was evidence of the king’s generosity, as the dedicatory inscription describes: King Alexander dedicated the temple to Athena Polias. A building in the town was named the Alexandreion in honour of the Macedonian king and consecrated to his worship. Excavations at Priene uncovered a bust of Alexander in one of the first buildings after the western gate. At the entrance a carved inscription says that before a person can enter the sanctuary, he must have been purified and be wearing a white robe.

Alexander in Egypt

The arrival of Alexander in Memphis, the capital of Lower Egypt, was greeted with enthusiasm. Priests and people alike saw him as the liberator from the Persian yoke. The king made a symbolic sacrifice to Apis, the sacred bull of Egypt after which the priests crowned him Pharoah with splendid ceremonial. Alexander, for his part, honoured Zeus with sacrifices and athletic and musical contests, as was the custom in his homeland. Accompanied by an elite guard, Alexander journeyed along the westernmost branch of the Nile until he came to the shore opposite the little island of Pharos, where, according to Homer, Odysseus had stayed with his companions for all of twenty days. Apart from its mythological connections to the earliest age of the Greeks, this place, with its canals, must have reminded him of the seaside lakes and the beloved marshy landscape of Pella, his home.

He decided to build his first Alexandria on a narrow strip of land between the sea and Lake Mareotis. The little offshore island protected the coast from the waves of the open sea while the waters of the lake rose in the summer with the flooding of the Nile, moderating the uncomfortable heat. On 20th January 331 BC Alexander performed the ceremony marking the founding of the city.

Alexandria was designed by Alexander as an autonomous Greek city, which from its foundation allowed Greeks and Egyptians to live together on equal terms. Alexander must have been deeply influenced by his teacher, Aristotle, who believed that the Greek race was graced with courage and intelligence and that if it could ever unite, it would be able to rule the whole world. This dream of a Greek world was what Alexander was beginning to make a reality with the founding of his first eponymous city. After this, the young king got ready for the third stage of his visit to Egypt, a visit to the oracle of Ammon, the chief god of the Egyptians, which lay three hundred kilometers from the Mediterranean coast. With his appearance at the shrine of Ammon, Alexander completed a remarkably well-planned cycle of political acts. In Memphis he was named Pharoah, in the Nile delta he built a city to bind East and West and at the oracle of Ammon he was named son of Zeus.

Alexander’s two battles with the Great King

In November 333 BC on the banks of the river Pinaros, which empties into the Gulf of Alexandretta, the rivals deployed their armies: the Great King to the north, Alexander to the south. While the former remained stationary, the young king was continually altering his position, until he judged it the right moment to attack. Alexander himself galloped headlong towards the Great King’s chariot and he, taken completely by surprise, turned and fled.

Two years later, in October 331 BC, the battle of Gaugamela took place, near the old Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Alexander knew full well the significance of this battle and the numerical superiority of the enemy. His decisive tactics were to mislead the enemy, take them by surprise and attack without hesitation. This time Darius abandoned the fight even before the outcome had been decided. From now on Alexander would be called king of Asia.

Alexander in Babylon

After his victory at Gaugamela, Alexander turned towards Babylon, metropolis of the East. The local satrap opened the gates of its magnificent walls and welcomed the new Great King. The roads had been decorated with flowers, incense was being burnt on the altars and Alexander was flanked by Babylonian wise men as he progressed into the miraculous city along the processional route with its lions carved in bas-relief. He stopped at Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and then made his way to the sanctuary of the God Belos, where he made a sacrifice. His first royal decree was that the sacred buildings that had been destroyed a hundred and fifty years earlier by Xerxes be rebuilt, thus symbolically putting an end to the Persian occupation. In the old Babylonian palace he was to spend the last days of his life in the summer of 323 BC.

Alexander at Susa and Persopolis

At Susa, the administrative capital of the Persian state, Alexander took possession of a large part of the royal treasure. There he found the bronze statues of Armodios and Aristogeiton, symbols of Athenian democracy which had been seized by Xerxes.

At the end of 331 BC he fought fierce battles to pass the narrow mountain pass of the so-called Persian Gates and arrived, without further difficulty, at Persepolis, the official capital with the splendid palaces of Darius and Xerxes, who had planned and attempted the subjugation of Greece. When these palaces were engulfed in flames the punishment for the destruction of the Acropolis was symbolically accomplished. What is more, the Macedonian king’s mission, entrusted to him by the Council of the Greek league at Corinth, had now been carried out.

Alexander in India

In the spring of 326 BC Alexander crossed the inhospitable mountain range of the Hindukush, (Paropamisos or Indian Caucasus to the Greeks) and headed south to where the plain of the river Indus opens out. Today this region belongs to Pakistan. At its northernmost edge, where the valley of the Chitral forms a wedge, the ancient city of Nysa was built on a hill. According to local tradition it had been built by Dionysos who, in mythological times, had mounted a great campaign and subjugated the Indians. Ivy, the beloved plant of Dionysos, grew wild there. When they saw it, the Greeks were enthusiastic. They made wreaths and held celebrations with sacrifices to the God. Today, on the rugged slopes of the Hindukush live the Kalash, people much paler than the Indians and with their own, entirely different, way of life. Their neighbours call them mountain magicians and they themselves insist that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers.

The entry into India was triumphant and the local king, Taxiles, welcomed Alexander with friendship. The Macedonian king sacrificed to the Gods at the capital, Taxila, organized games and set up a garrison. Taxila (Bhir Mound) has been uncovered during excavations near Islamabad with ruins dating back to the 6th century BC. In the city as well as in the Buddhist monasteries and temples the influence of Greek architecture is evident: small temples, pediments, columns, Corinthian square pillars, epistyles and cornices are certainly borrowings from the Greek architecture. The human figure of Buddha, which later spread as far as China and Japan, was created for the first time in the spirit of Greek sculpture. The statues of the God are clothed in the many-pleated Greek himation and represent the great ascetic with a sweet and gentle expression.

This Indo-Greek style was named the Art of Gandhara after an age-old kingdom. The inhabitants of the region, conquered in 518 BC by Darius I, the king who marched against the Greeks, later remembered Alexander with gratitude as providing the opportunity for linking Buddhism with Greek civilization.

Alexander in Baktria

Baktria was the vast satrapy of the Persians between the river Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Hindukush. However, the country made its first appearance on the stage of history with Alexander’s campaign. From the Bronze Age, the waters of the great river had been making the region fertile through a system of irrigation channels. The Greeks introduced organization into the cities and the urban way of life. During Hellenistic times Baktria was called the country of the thousand cities and in the middle of the 3rd century BC a Helleno-Baktrian kingdom was founded which lasted until 130 BC, when tribes of northern nomads crossed the borders and conquered it. Recent excavations have brought to light a splendid Hellenistic city built on the river, most probably Oxian Alexandria. The city was well fortified and had a large palace and treasury, a gymnasium, a theatre, temples and a monument to fallen heroes. In the entrance hall, (Pronaos) of this last edifice was found an inscription of one of the sayings of the Greek philosophers which was written in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi:

As a child be respectful

As an adolescent be self-controlled

In maturity be just

 As an old man be compliant

 Dying, do not feel sorry

The original text had been copied for the city by the peripatetic philosopher, Klearchos, who had brought it to Baktria in order to strengthen “Greek education and the Greek way of life”, in this remote corner of the Ancient World.

Helleno-Baktrian and Indo-Hellenic coins

The chance discovery of 500,000 ancient coins in Afghanistan in 1992 brought the history of this reign during the time of the diadochi of Alexander the Great back into the news. Part of the coins come from Baktria and another part from the area of ancient India immediately south of the Hindukush mountains. A total of forty kings and two queens are portrayed on the coin obverses. Most of them are only known from their coins.

In the middle of the 3rd century BC, Baktria and India, far from the great Seleukid centers, were isolated when the Parthian kingdom was thrust between them and the Seleukid kingdom. In 250 BC Diodotos was proclaimed king of Baktria. In 230 BC he was overthrown and succeeded by Euthydemos, who is shown on the obverse of his coins, with Herakles on the reverse. The next king was Demetrios, characterized by the historian Polybios as the great conqueror of India after Alexander. For this reason he, too, is shown on his coins wearing the scalp of an Indian elephant. Kings Agathokles (185-175 BC) and Pantaleon (185-180 BC) were the first to strike square drachmas of the Indian type with bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Kharosthi (an Indian dialect). On these coins Hindu deities are depicted for the first time.

Eukratides (171-145 BC) was one of the most powerful kings of Baktria. The Dioskouroi on horseback of his coins recall the successes of his cavalry in fighting the nomads from the north. On some of the coins Eukratides is named “Great King”.

Heliokles (145-130 BC) was the last Greek king of Baktria. South of the Hindukush, however, Greek kings survived for over a century more. Greatest of the Greek kings of India was Menander (155-130 BC) who in Indian sources is known as Milinda. His famous questions to Nagasena are set down in the sacred books, starting with Plato’s utopian Republic and Buddhist teachings. This was the first time that Greek philosophy had been so directly and deeply linked to the preachings of Buddhism. His coins, struck to the Indian standard weight system, show the Alkidemos of Athena of Pella on the reverse to underline the king’s origins in distant Macedonia.

The last Indo-Hellenic coins belong to Straton III (25 BC – 10 AD). Much earlier than this, however, the Scythians who had settled in the area, struck their own coins with Greek inscriptions and types. This tradition continued until the time of Kanishka (232-260 AD), the greatest king of Kushan, when the Greek language was abandoned, although the Greek alphabet was retained.

Illustrated manuscripts

Alexander’s achievements did not delight only Antiquity, but also the Middle Ages in east and west. Artists in every age and location continued to represent the life of Alexander, each in his own way. From the rich fund of miniatures, those of Code 5 of the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and post-Byzantine studies in Venice stand out. The manuscript contains 250 miniatures decorated with gold, accompanied by a short explanatory text written in red ink.

The text is based on an ancient romance about Alexander by Pseudokallisthenes. Here myth and reality intermingle to increase the magic of the narrative. Alexander’s divine “origin” is given practical explanation that his real father was the last Pharoah of Egypt to embody the god, Ammon. Alexander takes part in the Olympic Games and in horse races in Rome. He does not use only his bravery to defeat the Persians but many incredible artifices. He tames creatures with six hands and six feet, conquers wild, hairy women, corresponds with the Amazons and earns the love of Queen Kondake. Finally, having conquered the wild kings of the north, he returns to Babylon and dies wretchedly after drinking poisoned wine.

This manuscript was commissioned by “the faithful king in Christ the Lord of all the East and Perateia”, pictured on the title page, most probably Alexios III Comnenos, emperor of Trebizond (1348-1390 AD), admirer and imitator of Alexander. Later the manuscript passed into Turkish hands and for this reason the captions have been paraphrased in Turkish and added in black ink in the margins.

The same ancient tale by Pseudokallisthenes formed the basis for the narrative version of the life of Alexander in Persian (6th century AD). This in turn produced a Syrian edition, followed by an Arabian and finally, in the 15th century, an Ethiopian one. Around 1000 AD Firdusi wrote his great Persian epic which includes the story of Alexander with an abundance of new material that has no relation to the ancient work. Two centuries later the Persian poet, Nezami, reworked Firdusi’s poem in his Genealogy (Khamse), resorting to the original Persian text but also to the Greek and the Arabic. Alexander now appears as a glorious military leader and as a wise king. He it was who freed Egypt, who defeated Darius, who conquered Arabia, who went to Mecca. But it was also he who answered the questions of the seven wise men about the cosmos, heaven, earth, water and their creator.

Friday, March 25, 2011 @ 04:03 AM
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In April 404 B.C. the Spartan admiral Lysander finally led his vast armada of ships, crammed with some 30,000 jubilant seamen, into the hated port of Athens at the Piraeus to finish the Peloponnesian War. After the destruction of its imperial fleet at the battle of Aegospotami (Goat Rivers) in the waters off Asia Minor the prior September, the once splendid city of Athens was now utterly defenseless. Worse still was to come. It was soon surrounded, broke, jammed with refugees, starving, and near revolution. Such an end would have been utterly inconceivable just three decades earlier when a defiant Pericles promised his democracy victory. But then neither had 80,000 Athenians fallen to plague nor 500 ships been sunk at Sicily and on the Aegean.

Two Spartan kings, Agis and Pausanias, had encamped outside the walls of the city in command of thousands of tough infantrymen of the Peloponnese, the large peninsular south of the Isthmus at Corinth that makes up the southern part of Greece. The people of Athens were still safe behind massive walls, but tens of thousands of refugees inside were cut off from both homegrown and imported food – and waiting for the end. Gone was the old lifeline of imperial tribute by land and sea. To end this growing general famine, Athens finally gave up, agreeing to dismantle most of what little was left of its once renowned fleet, famed fortifications, and vaunted democracy. Thousands of citizens were thus entirely at the mercy of Spartan clemency; perhaps 100,000 residents congregated in the streets, terrified that they might suffer the same fate they had once meted out to so many other Greeks throughout the Aegean.

The conquering Lysander wasted little time in carrying out the terms of the capitulation, most poignantly destroying most of the Long Walls – two parallel fortified lines extending over four miles from Athens to its port at the Piraeus, and symbolizing Athenian democracy’s commitment to seapower and a maritime empire: “The Peloponnesians with great zeal pulled down the Long Walls to the music of flute-girls, thinking that this day was the beginning of freedom for the Greeks.” Liberation was what the Spartans had once promised the Greeks, when so long ago at the outbreak of war they had warned the Athenians, as Thucydides put it, “to give the Greeks their autonomy.” And now these parochial warriors seemed to have proved good on their word. The Spartan occupation thus ended over twenty-seven years of conflict with the utter defeat and humiliation of Periclean Athens. How did such an unbelievable thing come to pass?

This book does not answer that question through a strategic account of the conflict’s various campaigns. Much less is it a political study of the reasons that caused the Spartans to fight against Athens. Fine narratives in English by George Grote, George Grundy, B.W. Henderson, Donald Kagan, John Lazenby, Anton Powell, Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, and others cover those topics. So there is no need for another traditional history of the Peloponnesian War.

Instead, how did the Athenians battle the Spartans on land, in the cities, at sea, and out in the Greek countryside? What was it like for those who killed and died in this horrific war, this nightmare about which there has been little written of how many Greeks fought, how many perished, or even how all of it was conducted? My aim, therefore, after a brief introduction to the general events of the Peloponnesian War, is to flesh out this three-decade fight of some twenty-four hundred years past as something very human and thus to allow the war to become more that a far-off struggle of a distant age.

  • Their twenty-seven year strife, in terms of the percentages of the population who fought and died, was one of the most horrific civil wars in early recorded history – conventional battles, terrorism, revolutions, assassinations, and mass murder all unfolding at once among a baffling array of shifting allies and enemies.
  • As Thucydides puts it, sieges, ethnic cleansing, mass killing, battles, droughts, famines, and plague “all fell upon the people simultaneously with this war.”
  • This book’s chapters are for the most part organized not by annual events but by the experience of battle: ‘fire’ (the ravaging of the land), ‘disease’ (plague), ‘terror’ (coups and irregular fighting), ‘armor’ (hoplite warfare), ‘walls’ (sieges), ‘horses’ (the Sicilian expedition), and ‘ships’ (trireme fighting).
  • These chapter themes are interwoven with a loose ongoing narrative of the war, again with the understanding that each chapter draws on illustrations taken from the entire twenty-seven year conflict.
  • No other struggle can provide such military lessons for the present as the Peloponnesian War. Former secretary of state George Marshall, critics of Vietnam, and contemporary opponents and supporters alike of the so-called war on terror have all looked back to find their own Thucydides and learn from the people who fought that most awful war so long ago.


Chapter 1: Fear: Why Sparta Fought Athens (480-431)

  • The Peloponnesian War is now 2,436 years in the past. Yet Athens and Sparta are still on our minds and will not go away.
  • During the weeks after September 11, 2001, Americans suddenly worried about the wartime outbreak of disease in their cities.
  • In October and November 2001, five died and some twenty-four others were infected from the apparently deliberate introduction of anthrax spores by unknown terrorists.
  • During the spring of 2003, a mysterious infectious respiratory ailment in China threatened to spread world-wide, evoking ancient wartime plagues, such as the mysterious scourge that wiped out thousands at Athens between 430 and 426.
  • Sicily, Melos and Mycalessus saw democracy imposed by force, and school children killed by terrorist bands.


Chapter 2: Fire: The War Against the Land (431-425)

Chapter 3: Disease: The Ravages of the Plague at Athens (430-426)

Anatomy of an epidemic

  • By the second season of the war, the struggle was not to be decided between spearmen or even ravagers and horsemen. It now seemed to hinge on how well, psychologically as well a materially, refugees could ride out a few weeks of enemy occupation.
  • Thanks to Pericles’ strategy, for a second spring much of the population – perhaps well over 200,000 – was crammed inside Athens for more than a month. The city of the Parthenon and theater of Dionysus was again to be a fetid refugee camp.
  • The prior inaugural year of fighting had proved that such massive evacuation and relocation were practicable. Yet in this second season the city’s luck quite literally ran out.
  • The combination of Mediterranean heat, overcrowding, lack of plentiful clean water, shelter, and proper sanitation, and the stress of war and invasion provided a suitable landscape for a mysterious and terribly destructive disease.
  • When the epidemic passed, Thucydides would make an astounding summation of conditions in Greece as a whole during the three decades of the war: “What caused the greatest suffering and killed a considerable part of the population was the terrible plague.”
  • Modern militaries have concocted devilish brews of supergerms as would-be weapons of mass destruction against enemies because they are lethal, cheap, of small weight and size, and can nullify the effect of conventional weaponry or superior manpower.
  • Diseases also instill terror beyond their proven ability to kill, inasmuch as the agents of death are far more indiscriminate, invisible, and, as the poet Hesiod says, silent.
  • Disaster was not supposed to strike Athens, at least at the moment. This was a city, after all, that had trumped adversity repeatedly.
  • For twenty years Pericles had mobilized 20,000 laborers to create his architectural masterpieces on the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the Propylaea, as well as massive public buildings and fortifications in the agora and the Piraeus.
  • Despite all the worries about the supposedly terrible grand army of the Peloponnese, Athens had ridden out the first invasion of 431 well enough, and had watched the enemy trudge back home without a sense of accomplishment.
  • The contrast of previous Periclean grandness with the human depravity induced by the plague drew Thucydides’ interest in the disease and prompted his riveting account of the effects of the contagion in the second book of his history:

Some perished in neglect, others despite plentiful attention. No particular treatment was discovered that worked, for what brought improvements in one case, made things worse in another. Both strong and weak constitutions alike proved unable to resist, all alike being taken away, although they were careful to seek treatment with strict attention. By far the worst part of the epidemic was the depression that followed when a victim realized that he was sick. The despair that came with the illness right away destroyed the power of resistance, and it left the sick even more likely to succumb. In addition, there was a terrible scene of citizens dying like sheep after they become ill from trying to help one another. This resulted in the greatest morbidity.

  • Himself a survivor of the infection, Thucydides juxtaposed a graphic narrative of the outbreak with Pericles’ solemn funeral oration over the first year’s dead soldiers, an encomium that had reminded Athenians of their city’s eminence.
  • After reading Thucydides’ macabre account of the social consequences of the plague, it is unclear, as the historian perhaps intended, whether the Athenians remained the Renaissance men just praised by Pericles in his famous funeral oration or were utter savages who fought with one another over pyres to burn their dead.
  • Clearly the few hundred men who fell during the first year of the war in patrolling the countryside and during sea duty off the Peloponnese earned praise and public funerals, while the next year thousands of men, women, and children died miserably in anonymous droves in the street, often rotting without burial or cremation.
  • Athens, like Los Angeles, lies in a basin surrounded by three large mountain ranges. The sea lies almost five miles away, and there are only small rivers that flow near the metropolitan area – all of these conditions making it difficult to dump sewage in any nearby moving body of water that could wash effluent out to sea.
  • Shanties offered no real relief from the summer heat and stood in stark contrast to the abandoned spacious country homes of the more affluent refugees.
  • Much of the turmoil resulted from this radical change in fortune: the wealthy were now on the bottom rail and veritable visitors in their own city – guests of the radical poor, who wanted the war, were losing little in it, and might see profit accrue from nonstop naval service.
  • The outbreak of the mystifying disease occurred sometime in late May 430. Athenians started to die mysteriously in droves during the forty days the Spartans ravaged, the longest of all the Peloponnesian invasions, which might have put an even greater stress on the cramped refugees in the city.
  • The sojourn of tens of thousands of rural folk inside the city indirectly helped to spread the disease, which in turn had the paradoxical effect of cutting short what must have been planned as the most devastating and comprehensive ravaging campaign of the Archidamian War.
  • Less than a month after the disease first touched Athens, it had reached epidemic proportions. Plagues of such virulence were almost unknown in classical Greece, which prompted Athenians to consider almost any explanation to account for such a terrible and rare occurrence.
  • In a hot Mediterranean climate, where water was always scarce, enemy pollution of fountains, cisterns, and rivers was a nearly constant threat during times of war. Military handbooks would later recommend such contamination of water supplies as an effective way of stymieing hostile forces by bringing on either illness or thirst.


The limitations of medicine

  • Today the generic word “plague” conjures up bubonic plague, especially the terrifying epidemics of the Black Death in Medieval Europe and Renaissance Italy, and the images of fleas, rats, and horrific pustules.
  • Although Thucydides provides detailed descriptions of an array of terrible symptoms – fever, inflammation, eye problems, sore and bloody throat, sneezing, hoarseness, chest pain, cough, intestinal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, skin eruptions, and ulcers, thirst and dehydration, general weakness and fatigue, gangrene in the extremities, permanent brain damage – it is not easy for modern medical sleuths to connect the precise meaning of his Greek vocabulary with either a formal ancient or contemporary medical lexicon.
  • Most diseases in Greek and Roman times arose in the south and usually broke out during the summer, presumably when microbial life best survived outdoors amid stagnant water, foul sewage, active insects, and rotting food.


The infected

  • Typically, the dreaded signs started with a violent heat in the head, the eyes quickly burning and turning red. Both the throat and tongue appeared bloody and became malodorous. Once the stomach was affected, the sick began vomiting bile of all sorts. At the same time they experienced dry heaves and violent spasms.
  • In an age when vaccination has rid us of the worst infectious diseases of our past, it is hard to imagine a worse sort of malady, as if a modern patient experienced the flu, dysentery, measles, and pneumonia all at once.
  • The victims were restless and suffered constant insomnia. Yet even at the apex of the affliction, most sufferers did not immediately perish; many endured until the 7th to 9th day, when they succumbed to fever and exhaustion.
  • For the remainder who held out even after the intestinal attacks, the infection descended into the extremities. Thucydides suggests that the deformed and maimed limped around Athens for decades after the initial outbreak of 430.
  • Medicine, clean water, toilets, bedding – all the appurtenances of modern convalescent care – were not available to ailing Athenians. To the terror of enemy soldiers, add the daily trauma from the deaths of children, siblings, and spouses, attributable to a disease of unknown cause, duration, cure, or prophylaxis.
  • Amid such calamity, someone must provide food, tend the ill, take away the bodies, and keep the ramparts manned and the sorties sent out.
  • How could a city under siege dispose of thousands of corpses within its walls? Recent excavations of a proposed Athenian subway station near the ancient Kerameikos cemetery revealed one such mass grave and over a thousand tombs quite near the surface.
  • In some cases dozens of skeletons were found thrown helter-skelter into large shafts, apparently without the normal care and usual offerings accorded the dead.
  • The evidence of the hasty group internment suggested to the excavators that the subway engineers had stumbled upon one of the many mass burials necessitated by the epidemic of 430, something apparently not repeated in the subsequent 2,500-year history of the city.
  • A similar nightmare of mass burials on a far larger scale in the ancient world occurred during the bubonic plague at Constantinople a millennium later, during the reign of Justinian, in the 6th century AD.
  • There the cemeteries soon filled, causing rotting bodies to pile up in the streets and along the seashore. Even huge pits that were dug with the intention of holding 70,000 corpses soon overflowed, causing the dead to be thrown into towers on the walls.


Culture and mass death

  • Why did Thucydides devote such a prominent place in a supposedly military history to discussion of the disease, careful to chart in detail the descent into barbarism on the part of the Athenians?
  • First as a product of the Athenian enlightenment of the mid-5th century that sought to explain natural phenomena through scientific rather than religious or folk exegesis, Thucydides wanted to demonstrate to his readers his own faith in the rationalist method of identifying symptoms.
  • Thucydides often takes special pains to dismiss false knowledge. He also rejects a supernatural cause for the epidemic. Human activity, not divine dispensation, was the culprit.
  • The Thucydidean discourse on the plague becomes a reminder of how close humans always are to savagery – and how precious is their salvation won through law, religion, science, and custom.
  • This thin veneer of civilization is a universal constant, one immune to the arrogance of modernism that professes that technology has at last nullified the age-old pathologies of human nature.

The plague infected Athens with utter lawlessness, with what Thucydides called anomia. Men, convinced that the end was near anyway, “showed a more careless daring.” When death hovered over all, most lost the old self-control and instead “turned themselves over to the pleasures of the moment.” They forgot fear of both law and gods, Thucydides adds, because no one could determine whether righteous conduct provideda defense against the disease. But since a horrible death came indiscriminately and without warning, people lived for the day and thus often acted criminally in order to obtain some “pleasure” from life.

  • The pandemonium that followed from the plague reminds us that civilization can be lost anywhere and at any time.
  • Because the outbreak occurred in the second year of the 27-year-long war, a threshold had been crossed: once the Athenians had been reduced to such straits, it was nearly impossible to recover their moral bearings in subsequent years.
  • Criminality and savagery become accustomed, or rather institutionalized, behaviors.
  • The death of Pericles during the epidemic is emblematic of the Athenian descent, the perishing of the last singular statesman who might have had the intellect and moral authority to steady the Athenians amid the savagery.
  • In a key passage Thucydides says the plague “first” introduced into the city a greater lawlessness. The disease also had a profound effect on the tactics and methods by which Athens conducted the Peloponnesian War.


The most deadly enemy

  • After another, though less virulent, return of the disease in 427-426, the historian flat out concluded, “Nothing did more damage to Athenian power than the plague”. In relative terms, the plague turned out to be to the Athenians’ ancient equivalent of a Somme or Stalingrad.


Chapter 4: Terror: War in the Shadows (431-421)

Chapter 5: Hoplite Pitched Battles (424-418)

Chapter 6: Walls: Sieges (431-415)

Chapter 7: Horses: The Disaster at Sicily (415-413)

Chapter 8: Ships: The War at Sea ((431-404)

Chapter 9: Climax: Trireme Fighting in the Aegean (411-405)

Chapter 10: Ruin? Winners and Losers (404-403)

Appendix I: Glossary of Terms and Places

Appendix II: Key People

Notes. Works Cited. Index