Sunday, 15 March 2009

Aristotle on happiness and relaxation


In book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tackles the concept of happiness.  Happiness, he says, is not a state because if it were then everyone would possess it, even someone who is asleep throughout his life (we might say someone who is in a coma).  Happiness ought therefore to be referred to an activity, one which is chosen for itself and not for the sake of anything else as it does not require anything else, it is self-sufficient.  

According to Aristotle we choose almost everything in our lives for the sake of having something else.  This is not the same though with happiness because happiness is the goal.  He quotes Anacharsis, a Scythian philosopher who visited Greece in the early 6th c. B.C. "Play to work harder" to emphasize his view that amusement is not happiness but a mere form of relaxation as we nobody can work non-stop and needs to relax.  Because relaxation is taken for the sake of continuing with another activity (i.e. work) it is not an end in itself.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Solon on The Ten Ages of Man


Solon, an ancient Athenian statesman and legislator credited for sowing the seeds of Athenian democracy, liked to write poetry in his spare time. In the below he describes what he sees as the the stages in the life of a man, each stage constisting of seven years.
The youthfull boy loses the first row of teeth
He grew while a baby in seven years;
When god has completed the next seven years for him
He shows the signs that yourthful prime is on its way;
In the third seven, while his limbs are still growing
His chin grows downy with the bloom of changing skin
In the fourth seven every man is at his best
In strength, when men give proof of valour.
In the fifth it is time for a man to think of marriage,
And seek a family of children to come after him.
In the sixth a man's mind is now disciplined in everything,
And he no longer wishes to do reckles deeds.
In the seventh he is now at his best in mind and tongue,
And in the eighth, that is fourteen years in total.
In the ninth he is still able, but less powerful than before
In both his speech and wisdom in matters of great prowess.
And if anyone comes to complete the tenth in full measure,
He will not meet the fate of death unreasonably.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Run for your life, the Spartans are coming!


The image of the long-haired, armed and cloaked Spartan warrior was meant to evoke a sense of terror and induce severe abdominal cramping in all enemies of Sparta, the harshest and most fearsome city state in the ancient Greek world.  Yet, despite this bloodcurdling reputation Herodotus tells us that when the Persian king Cyrus was visited by a delegation of rough-looking, long-haired, sun-baked men clad in red cloaks and with no desire for small-talk, and was duly warned to leave the Ionian cities alone or he would have to deal with them, the Spartans, the king allegedly turned to one of his advisors and asked "Who are the Spartans?"  Suffice to say no Greek would have asked this question.

Based in the fertile plain of Laconia, with the banks of the river Eurotas on the east, in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece, Sparta was well positioned for further development and expansion.  In the latter 8th century BC neighboring Messinia was annexed and its entire population enslaved (the Helots, i.e. slaves of Sparta).  This action transformed Sparta into a major Greek city state.  In the following centuries Sparta further consolidated its power in the Peloponnese while simultaneously developing what we would nowadays call an oppressive and heavily militaristic social system.  This served the state well.  Only a few thousand men were allowed to have citizenship.  These citizens (also the state's landowners), barred from engaging in the 'joys' of agricultural labour and any form of business activity, would serve full time as hoplites (heavy infantry) in the army.  While citizens dedicated their lives to the military helots, would toil away on the estates of citizens in order for food and other such necessities to be produced.  The government constisted of two kings, the ephors (5 civil magistrates elected annually by the citizens for a one-year term of office) who to a certain level were able to influence and/or control the activities of the two kings, and the gerousia a formidable council of elders.  Every Spartan male, (except for the two kings and their immediate heirs) from the age of 7 to 29 was subjected to a regime of public upbringing called agoge, which was basicaly military training combined with an extremely austere lifestyle, which entailed perpetual physical and psychological hardships of all kinds and demanded absolute obedience  (thus today we use the phrase 'a spartan lifestyle').  At age 12 the budding citizen could expect to be paired off with a young adult who would act as their patron and guide.  The relationship was also sexual on many occasions and this was seen as the done thing.  (The ancient world did not really classify people and especially men as being either heterosexual or homosexual, but adopted more of a bisexual view, ie. that sexual urges and needs were to be satisfied with both sexes).  During their years of training the young men would be routinely striped and paraded in front of young Spartan girls who would either praise them for their physical attributes of mock them as it was said a Spartan had nothing to hide (we do not know if penile size was on the agenda or not but we can assume physical fitness was a focal point).  Aged 29 the young man would graduate the agoge and if he was one of the most promising students was promptly sent off into the mountains with other such young men thus forming a group called the Crypteia.  The chosen graduates, dressed in a light tunic and armed only with a small dagger each, had one instruction to obey:  kill a hated helot in Messenia and prove themselves as killers.  These were the future leaders of Sparta and it was felt that no man was fit to lead unless able to kill on command.  

At the age of 30 the Spartan citizen was finally considered a man and able to control his own finances and stand for office.  Still, as a hoplite he was obliged to live in the army barracks and not with his family (he would visit wife during the pre-scheduled conjugal meetings whose primary purpose was the production of more Spartans).

Spartan women were also very tough and brought up to serve the state by keeping fit and healthy so as to give birth to the next generation of Spartan warriors and mothers.  They were in every sense of the word, baby factories.  However, the Spartan woman was also raised to be domineering, assertive and non-emotional while serving the state.  To the amusement of other Greeks who felt women ought to be modest, shut away in the back of the house, not seen and not heard, the Spartan women were infused with fanatic patriotic pride, taught to read and write and speak their mind with characteristic bluntness.  They also exercised in public, taking part in various sports, even wrestling.  They would do this dressed in a short tunic with a slit up the thighs or even naked.  All this was done so that as future mothers they could instruct their offspring on what it means to be a Spartan.  The famous phrase Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (I tan i epi tas = Either with your shield or on it) was the command Spartan mothers were said to give to their sons as they departed for battle.  Her son in other words was to either come back from battle as a hero with his shield or die and be carried back home on his shield (a hoplite could not escape the battlefield unless he let go of his heavy, cumbersome shield, thus losing one's shield meant desertion).  The Spartan bride had a shaven head and a no-nonsense attitude to go with it.  If she produced three sons for the state, as a bonus her husband would be excused from garrison duty.  Alternatively, if she died in childbirth she could look forward to being celebrated as having died for the state as her name would be specially carved on a tombstone for all to see and she would be remembered for eternity.  

King Cyrus must have been indeed surprised and even intrigued or shocked when he was given his briefing on who the Spartans were....

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Clodius of the People: The Patrician Leader of the Plebs




Publius Clodius Pulcher, born 92BC, was the youngest of six children, son of Appius Claudius Pulcher, brother of the notoriously unprincipled Appius Claudius Pulcher and member of Rome's most influential and powerful patrician (aristocratic) family, the Claudii, renowned for their arrogance and outrageous behavior.  He is chiefly remembered for trespassing during the Bona Dea festival, disguised as a woman (a women's only event) in Julius Caesar's house (allegedly to have a fling with Pompeia, Caesar's wife at the time) and vilified by most historians who characterize him as a mobster, demagogue and violent opportunist.  To add insult to injury, he was pursued throughout his life by rumours of of incest with his sister Clodia, a lively and intelligent woman who enjoyed courting controversy and entertaining Rome's demimonde.  

In 59BC, at the age of 32 and in the midst of a most promising political career, he chose to give up his patrician rank and join the plebs via adoption into a plebeian family.  This would mean giving up all privileges of the patrician class and become one of the "common" citizens of Rome.  His request was granted by Julius Caesar and the following year Clodius (who had changed the aristocratic spelling of his family name 'Claudius' to the plebeian spelling) was elected tribune of the plebs by an overwhelming majority.  Once in office, Clodius immediately set on implementing a number of reforms for the benefit of the people, the most well known of which are the free corn dole, the restoration of the collegia (Roman clubs:  something between a guild and the modern trade union) which both free citizens and slaves could join and whose members became heavily involved in elections and political issues at the time , (the collegia had been banned by the Senate six years previously).  Clodius also intoduced a bill making it illegal to condem a Roman citizen  to death without a trial and also attempted to introduce voting rights for poor men and slaves.  We can imagine how unpopular these measures would have been to the Roman senatorial elite who were prepared to viciously defend their status and way of life.

Cicero and Cato, well-known optimates (conservatives) were of course great enemies of his and there was a bitter feud between the former and Clodius.  It is not surprising therefore that one of the first things Clodius did  when he rose to power was to send Cicero into exile and arrange for the demolition of Cicero's luxurious mansion on the Palatine hill.  The ultra-reactionary Cato was promptly sent off to annex Cyprus, where the local king Ptolemy of Cuprus committed suicide (upon news of Cato's arrival?).  Clodius was prepared to fight the conservatives and therefore organised the plebs into groups (what has been called street gangs by most historians), ready to defend their newly-acquired rights.  In 53BC, prior to another election where Clodius was running for Praetor and his enemy Milo for Consul, Milo's supporters organized armed gangs to fight Clodius's suporters.  A vicious steet fight ensued during which Clodius was wounded, and despite attempts of his people to save him, was sought out by Milo's men and hacked to death in the street.  

The end of Clodius was very much in accordance with his dramatic and stormy life.  His body was taken by his outraged and grief-stricken supporters to the Senate house, inside which a funeral pyre was built for him.  As the fire consumed the body of Clodius, it also laid waste to the ultimate symbol of patrician power - the Senate House, which been built by one of Cato's ancestors, was burned by revolting plebs.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Cicero's Advice on Friendships and False Friends...


"...in the first place, pains must be taken that, if possible, so no discord should arise between friends, but in case it does then our care should be that the friendships appear to have burned out rather than to have been stamped out.  And you must indeed be on your guard lest friendships change into serious enmities, which are the source of disputes, abuse and invective.  Yet, even these, if endurable are to be borne and such respect is to be paid to the old-time friendship that he may be in the wrong who committed the offense and not he who suffered it.  
In short:  there is but one security and one provision against these ills and annoyances and that is neither to enlist your love too quickly nor to fix it on unworthy men.  Now they are worthy of friendship who have within their souls the reason for being loved.  A rare class indeed!  And really everything splendid is rare and nothing is harder to find than something which in all respects is a perfect specimen of its kind.  But the majority of men recognize nothing whatever in human experience as good, unless it brings them some profit and they regard friends as they do their cattle, valuing most highly those which give hope of the largest gain.  Thus do they fail to attain that loveliest, most spontaneous friendship, which is desirable in and for itself; and they do not learn from their own experience what the power of such a friendship is and are ignorant of its nature and extent.  

But most men unreasonably, not to say shamelessly, want a friend to be such as they cannot be themselves and require from friends what they themselves do not bestow.  But the fair things is, first of all, to be a good man yourself and then to seek another like yourself.  It is among such people that this stability of friendship may be made secure.

A troublesome thing is truth if it is indeed the source of hate which poisons friendship; but much more troublesome is complaisance...Obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit [complaisance, the desire to oblige  and or fall in with another's taste or flatter another, gets us friends while speaking the truth gets us enemies]."

For more from or about Cicero please see my earlier posts below:
http://fascinatinghistory.blogspot.com/2008/07/friendship-roman-style-what-romans.html
http://fascinatinghistory.blogspot.com/2008/04/cicero-on-father-of-emperor-tiberius.html

Saturday, 2 August 2008

What Julius Caesar looked like


According to Suetonius in his Life of the Deified Julius (45.1-3):

"Caesar is said to have been tall, with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a rather full face and keen black eyes and to have had sound health, except that towards the end of his life he was subject to sudden fainting fits as well as nightmares.  He also had two attacks of epilepsy while on campaign.  
He was fastidious in the care of his person and so not only kept his hair carefully trimmed and shaved, but even had his body hair plucked.  He was extremely vexed by the disfiguring effects of his baldness since he found it exposed him to the ridicule of his opponents.  As a result he used to comb his receding hair forward from the crown of his head and of all the honours voted him by the senate and people, there was none that pleased him more or that he made use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath on all occasions.  
They say too that his dress was unusual; his purple-striped tunic had fringe sleeves down to the wrist and he always wore a belt over it, although it was loosely fastened.  This it is said was the reason for Sulla's frequent warning to the optimates to beware of the 'loose-belted boy'."

Sunday, 20 July 2008

'Friendship' Roman style: What the Romans would have thought of Facebook


Today we have various social and/or professional networking sites (i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, etc.).  The Romans would have liked this but they would have wanted to ensure that 'friends' and 'connections' would be of use to each other.

On meeting a stranger a Roman would express intense interest in where he comes from and what they do.  (How this Roman would react on any potential second meeting would very much depend on how convinced he was after that first one, that the amicitia (friendship) of the new acquaintance would be worth having.)  Amicitia, which is often translated as 'friendship' was best described by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca as "mutual serviceability".  Therefore, amicitia would mean trading gifts and favours with an amicus (meaning something between 'friend' and useful contact').  Roman society relied on interlocking networks of such 'friendships' and the favours Romans did for one another (beneficia) were the social currency of ancient Rome.  As Cicero put it:  "We do not hesitate to dutifully perform services for those whom we hope will assist us in the future" [Cicero, On Duties, 47]

Favours between friends could get quite complicated.  For instance, if a friend asked someone to do a favour for another of his friends, delicate negotiations would ensue to establish just how much this favour had obliged the friend asking for the favour and to what extent the friend of the friend.  Also, a friend who accepted beneficia (favours) without returning the favours would eventually be viewed as a client and not an amicus.  (Clients were not supposed to return their patron's benefits in kind, but they had different obligations, like perhaps to offer loans to the patron when required.)

Picture:  Bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero, (3 Jan 106 BC - 7 Dec 43 BC), Roman statesman, lawyer, political theorist and philosopher, one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Misogyny in Ancient Rome a.k.a. The plight of being a clever woman in Rome




A Roman woman was expected to be educated just enough in order to understand her husband's opinions and work.  Anything more than this was frowned upon and considered off-putting and  therefore an intelligent woman would have to be particularly careful not to exhibit this (in fact she would have to go to great pains to mask her cleverness) as this might show her as being more clever and / or educated than the men around her which was definitely not on for Roman men.  (Any of this sound familiar?  Hm.  It seems some things never change!  Anyway, getting back to the Romans....)  
The Roman poet Juvenal even went so far as to write a caustic attack on women, thus revealing to us the precise forms of behaviors which vexed Roman men.  For instance, the men would be greatly embarrassed by and indeed dislike women who were more learned or clever than they were.  Juvenal writes the below particularly misogynist foul passage, which openly conveys the fierce contempt and loathing with which intelligent women were met:

'Really annoying is the woman who, as soon as she takes her place on the dining couch, praises Virgil [Rome's greatest epic poet] excuses Dido's suicide, compares and ranks in critical order the various poets and weighs Virgil and Homer [the greatest Greek epic poet] on a pair of scales.  Grammar teachers surrender, professors of rhetoric are defeated, the entire group of guests is silent; neither a lawyer nor an auctioneer nor even another woman will get a word in.  So loud and shrill are her words that you might think pots were being banged together and bells were being rung...Like a philosopher she defines ethics.  If she wants to appear so learned and eloquent, she should shorten her tunic to mid-calf! [Juvenal is here emphasizing that this is male behavior by suggesting that this woman dress as a man - his suggestion is clearly demeaning and derogatory and not meant to be taken literally, but rather as a way of implying there is something unnatural and unwomanly in such behavior].  Don't marry a woman who speaks like an orator or knows every history book.  There should be some things in books which she doesn't understand.  I hate a woman who reads and re-reads Palaemon's treatise on grammar, who always obeys all the laws and rules of correct speech, who quotes verses I've never even heard of, moldy old stuff that a man shouldn't worry about anyway.  Let her correct the grammar of her stupid girlfriend!  A husband should be allowed an occasional "I ain't"! ' [Juvenal, Satires 6.434-456]

In short, the average Roman male liked his woman to be pretty and ignorant (hopefully even more ignorant than himself!).

Today we might recognize this in the attitude of successful men who wish to surround themselves with and or marry women whose behavior and level of intelligence Juvenal would very much approve of.  The so-called trophy girlfriends and wives, who perhaps (one hopes!) are not so ignorant as people may think but have cottoned-on to this expectation certain men have of them, thus adapting their outward behavior and attitude accordingly to please their self-satisfied male partners.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Wisdom of Ancient Men: Pearls of wisdom from Marcus Aurelius


On the importance of utilizing the present time in life:

"Though thou shouldst be going to live three thousand years, and as many times ten thousand years, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses. The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same. For the present is the same to all, though that which perishes is not thesame; and so that which is lost appears to be a mere moment. For a man cannot lose either the past or the future: for what a man has not, how can any one take this from him? These two things then thou must bear in mind; the one, that all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, and that it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time; and the second, that the longest liver and he who will die soonest lose just the same. For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose a thing if he has it not." (Meditations, Book Two, 167 AD)

On change:
"It is no evil for things to undergo change, and no good for things to subsist in consequence of change."

On time and things that happen in life:
"Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a 
violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too." 

"Everything which happens is as familiar and well known as the rose 
in spring and the fruit in summer; for such is disease, and death, and calumny, and treachery, and whatever else delights fools or vexes them."
(Meditations, Book Four, 167 AD)

On pondering on what one has...
"Think not so much of what thou hast not as of what thou hast: but of the things which thou hast select the best, and then reflect how eagerly they would have been sought, if thou hadst them not. At the same time however take care that thou dost not through being so pleased with them accustom thyself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if ever thou shouldst not have them. " (Meditations, Book Six)

Each to his/her own:
"Different things delight different people." (Meditations, Book Eight)

Consider the person's character:
"Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? "  (Meditations, Book Eight)

"If any man has done wrong, the harm is his own. But perhaps he has not done wrong." (Meditations, Book Nine)

A little less conversation, more action please...
"No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such. " (Meditations, Book Ten)

On false friends:
"How unsound and insincere is he who says, I have determined to deal with thee in a fair way.- What art thou doing, man? There is no occasion to give this notice. It will soon show itself by acts. The voice ought to be plainly written on the forehead. Such as a man's character is, he immediately shows it in his eyes, just as he who is beloved forthwith readseverything in the eyes of lovers. The man who is honest and good ought to be exactly like a man who smells strong, so that the bystander as soon as he comes near him must smell whether he choose or not. But the affectation of simplicity is like a crooked stick. Nothing is more disgraceful than a wolfish friendship (false friendship). Avoid this most of all. The good and simple and benevolent show all these things in the eyes, and there is no mistaking."  (Meditations, Book Eleven)

(Picture:  Bronze gilded statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, Capitoline Museum, Rome)


Friday, 20 June 2008

The Acropolis of Athens


View of the Acropolis from the Agora.

View of the Acropolis.

The Acropolis, the citadel of Athens, was primarily used as a sanctuary and refuge in ancient times. Built on hard limestone which rises from the Athenian landscape at around 150 metres above sea level, the sun-baked rock has gone through numerous constructions and demolitions from the Bronze Age to the 19th century.

During the 5th century B.C. the Acropolis became a key part of the Golden Age of Pericles, a time when democracy was born and exercised as well as a time of great architectural and artistic accomplishments.  The acropolis became indeed the focus of Pericles' rebuilding of the city and under the direction of the great Pheidias, the Propylea, the Parthenon and the Erehthion were copmpleted in the second half of the 5th century B.C. which can still be seen today, albeit in ruins and in the process of being meticulously restored by the Greek government.  Nowadays it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For more information on the Acropolis please visit:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acropolis_of_Athens
http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2384
http://asclepieion.mpl.uoa.gr/Parko/slides/images/Acropolis%20and%20Asklepieion%20artist%20reconstruction%20.gif
http://www.athensguide.com/acropolis.html
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/404
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenon















View of the Acropolis walls while ascending.
















The Propylea, the entrance to the Acropolis.
















The Parthenon.