Monday, December 28, 2009

War, Peace and Morality

One of the most valuable tools to anthropologists is the study of micro-cultures (my term). I am referring to isolated cultures whose development helps us understand the way human beings behave in groups. Examples of these analogs are the Cherokee Indians, Zulus, Peruvians, etc. These cultures contribute to our understanding of the people of European antiquity when knowledge about them is lost or incomplete.

I ran across a discussion of the Cherokee Indians society which posits an interesting idea about primitive society. The Cherokee were divided into a warrior group separate from the rest of the tribe and its religious leader. It is thought that this was a necessary division because the warriors needed to know how to fight and not make peace. Similarly, the religious leader was responsible for the anti-war point of view – that is the pursuit of peace and negotiation with outside groups. In this case, war and peace created a separation of powers because it was impractical (and possibly dangerous) to put both in the hands of one individual.

A Cherokee-like division of power is not as well differentiated in ancient Greece and Rome, although one would not expect it to be in a complex society. The Athenians elected ten Archons, and of them, one was the overall leader, one was the military leader, and one was the religious leader. But the Archons as a group made decisions on peace and war. In Rome, after the time of the kings, the religious function was separated from the administrative function, and the Pontifex Maximus was given the sole purpose to maintain the religious apparatus of the Republic. He had no say in any decision on war, which was the prerogative of the Senate, although some Pontifices were also Senators.

Protection from attack has been a unifying aspect of human society since the first time people came together in groups. In the primitive world as the Cherokee world, there was no concept of morality of war. If you were attacked, you fought back. In the more advanced political systems (Polis, Republic) that came later, the unified fear of an enemy was not enough, in itself, to bring on war. The government was structured to force rigorous debate before moving ahead.

Does religion have a place in this? Not in Greece and Rome. There were war gods and peace gods and warfare was considered part of life. Religion was a state activity, managed by officials of the state, so individuals played no part in the decisions regarding war and its morality.

Fundamental to Christianity is the concept of morality in life and in war, so in the United States, were religion is separate from government, the morality of war becomes a sharp debate when our justifications are weak. The historical notion of attacks on our culture have been replaced with an abstraction. Attacking Viet Nam was designed to block the designs of China – a step the government felt necessary to assert superiority in the cold war. Now we have a terrorist enemy who has no borders, and we don’t know how to attack him.

This means that a unifying perception of an outside threat to our culture is missing! We’re not threatened as Americans; we’re threatened as individuals – whoever happens to be close by when the explosion occurs, suffers. In other words, a physical threat has been replaced with a psychological threat, something that is less direct and harder to deal with from a moral standpoint.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thanks for Visiting

I want to end 2009 by thanking all the people who visited this blog in 2009. I have made some new friends and collected many great comments relating to the 120 articles posted this year. There have been over 10,000 unique visitors to the site and over 1,500 good friends who have come here least 10 times. I feel strongly motivated by my readers and I’m impressed with the number of people out there with an interest in ancient history.

The stories of antiquity are important because they tell us about human behavior – how human beings act in groups and how they build cultures. I believe that human motivations and human behavior are essentially the same today as they were in antiquity, so it is our responsibility to figure out how to use history to learn about ourselves. If more people saw history as a tool to look at their own culture, perhaps they would demand that their governments pursue that which is positive and practical rather than negative or idealistic.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Conflict and Change in Political Systems

I continue to admire the work of Elman Service and his efforts to lay out the anthropological aspects of human society and political systems. In Origins of the State and Political Systems, Service spends a chapter on theories of government – surveying writings on the subject back to the original authors. These early political theorists included Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) of Tunis, Machiavelli, and Jean Bodin (1530-96), who influenced Montesquieu.

Khaldun’s fundamental belief was that conflict drives governmental change in a positive rather than negative way. In other words, conflict purifies political development in the way natural selection purifies species. If two political philosophies are in conflict within a state, the stronger will win, push the state forward, and make it better.

Bodin is like-minded on the importance of conflict in government, but had a more developed approach. He believed that statis (stability) in a culture is unattainable because of the character of man, so good political systems must be able to adapt and change.

I wonder whether the United States is too stable and unable to make itself better. The founding fathers felt (and stated), at the end of the Constitutional Convention, that the resulting document was imperfect, so they built in the amendment process to improve the system to correct any errors or omissions that revealed themselves later. Washington was quoted as saying he would be happy if the document survived for twenty-five years.

How has this theoretical flexibility served us? Take a look at a list of the amendments added since the Bill of Rights.

11th Immunity of states from suits from out-of-state citizens and foreigners not living within the state borders. Lays the foundation for sovereign immunity, 1794

12th Revises Presidential election procedures, 1803

13th Abolishes slavery and Involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime,1865

14th Defines Citizenship and deals with post-Civil War issues, 1866

15th Prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, 1869

16th Allows federal income tax, 1909

17th Direct election of Senators, 1912

18th Prohibition of Alcohol (Repealed by 21st amendment), 1917

19th Federal recognition of women's suffrage, 1919

20th Term Commencement for Congress (January 3) and the President (January 20). This amendment is also known as the "lame duck amendment", 1932

21st Repeals the Eighteenth Amendment; state and local prohibition no longer required by law, 1933

22nd Limits the president to two term, 1947

23rd Representation of Washington, D.C. in the Electoral College, 1960

24th Prohibition of the restriction of voting rights due to the non-payment of poll taxes, 1962

25th Presidential succession, 1965

26th Voting age nationally established at age 18 (see suffrage), 1971

27th Variance of congressional compensation, 1992

This is a pretty sorry list, because it contains zero structural changes in our government for two hundred years. Seven of the amendments extend rights or freedoms making us more democratic. The rest are procedural.

Lately, we have been discussing the Polis which as we have seen was an dynamic and adaptive political system over 350 years. The Roman Republic experienced a conflict of the classes from 509 B.C. to 287 when Lex Hortensia was adopted. The Republic continued on for another 200 years before it collapsed. Changes in the Republican government were dramatic: whole new legislative bodies were added, new magistracies created, and rights to govern extended to the Plebian Class.

At the present time, conflict in the United States is ideological, operating below the level of government, and unable affect change in the political system. The conflict Bodin requires is not possible because our political system is inert. The theoretical solution to this problem is the amendment process but amendments are too difficult to pass, so real change is impossible.

I dismiss quotations that venerate the Constitution as the perfect document because even the founders didn’t believe that. I also dismiss quotations that rave about how stable our political system is, because too stable is not a good thing. The fundamental problem is that no one represents all the people. When elected officials represent all the people, the whole country moves forward. When they represent only special interests, progress is diluted or not achieved at all.

There are only two forces that can change things: a push for changes in governmental structure so that the interests of all the people are represented, or some external factor that would unify the country. When the country is unified, the people as a whole force their elected officials to take action.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why Civilizations Fail

The current world turmoil, economic, political, and religious, is unsettling to anyone with a sense of history and its lessons regarding the human tendency to ruin that which is good. We find ourselves, at the same time, wavering between a sense of pessimism and the “head in the sand” notion that everything is all right. Of course it’s tempting to become a doomsday predictor and turn the sum of what’s wrong into catastrophe – to throw our hands up and join the pessimists.

But this kind of emotional pessimism is a mistake because we have to be rationalists, put reason behind our thoughts, and dispense with the emotion. Let the emoters cry wolf at every turn like they always do.

I have recently become acquainted with the work of Elman Service, one of our great cultural anthropologists. In his book Origins of the State and Civilization, Service speculates about the subject of this post. He presents six civilizations, including China, Egypt, Peru, and Mesoamerica, delving into the reasons for their collapse.

All came to and end due to a failure of bureaucratic governance. That is all failed in their reason for being – protection of the society from external and internal threats to its integrity. Throughout generations of historical analysis, many theories have emerged to explain the collapse of civilizations including failures of leaders due to arrogance or complacency, a natural cycle of things (rise/fall, growth/decay), and growth beyond the capability to control. Service sees all these as partial explanations, not fully describing the real world.

He believes collapse is the result of expansion and a resulting conservatism that makes a civilization less flexible. When a civilization expands, it encounters its neighbors and adapts to that new interface. Success in adaptation eventually breeds conservatism and makes the dominant power less flexible. Meanwhile the dominated cultures seek to overcome domination through their greater flexibility for innovation and experimentation. As Trotsky said, “the dominated suffer from the privilege of backwardness.” In this condition, they can borrow the latest techniques from advanced civilizations AND skip developmental steps that take time, resulting in the ability to create in themselves an enormous revolutionary potential. That power eventually becomes competitive with the dominant civilization allowing them to free themselves or become dominant over their complacent neighbor.

How does this model relate to the United States? In our world today the expanding boundaries interface is economic rather than military. Our dominance in business is under attack by the rest of the world who seek to break off shares of our success.

Smaller countries or groups of countries can be more agile than us, particularly where low cost labor and natural resources give them an advantage. It remains for us to regain the agility required to protect our position.

It also feels to me that in this post-modern world we have started to decay internally from a culture of relativism. Perhaps this derives from the fact that the major influence on government action is lobbying. Since lobbyists represent groups, you have to be in group to be represented. You just can’t be an American. African-Americans, Hispanics, union workers, feminists, and teachers all have specific agendas which they bring forward, so government never acts on the whole body of Americans, only the sub-groups.

Take our current health care bill for example. It attempts to satisfy all constituencies but in the end satisfies none. The reason a majority of Americans oppose the bill is because they are happy with their health care and oppose a change to the unknown. But the whole has no lobbyists – only the parts do.

If our government fails the whole, it abdicates its reason for being – protecting its people from internal threats to its integrity. When a civilization is not integrated, it disintegrates.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Democracy and Republic in America

We all know the terms Democracy and Republic, but may not know their history and the context of their definitions. Let’s take a look at them in more detail -- you may be surprised by what we discover.

The original usage as defined by the Romans and Greeks are not the same as those in use today, so it is instructive to follow the history. Once we understand the words, we’ll relate them to the political system of the United States which isn’t a Democracy or a Republic.

Democracy comes from the Greek (dēmokratía) or “the power to the people”. It began to be used after Clisthenes re-organized the Athenian tribes into Demes in 508 B.C. The original definition of democracy, then, is the political system of Athens in the late six and fifth centuries B.C. Beyond this practical definition, we have the theoretical, which defines the characteristics of a democracy as a political system which provides equality and freedom. Furthermore, in a typical democracy, an individual’s rights are protected by a constitution which lays out the governmental structure to support the its laws. Citizens participate in elections where they cast ballots and choose magistrates who will govern. In the case of Athens, the Constitution had been written by Solon and the laws and balance between the branches of government was fine-tuned up to the time of Pericles.

A long time passed between the Athenian Polis and the the rise of modern democracies. Those few examples in between are hardly more than anecdotes. In the western world, monarchies dominated from the fall of Rome until the time of the American Revolution.

The word Republic comes from the Latin res publica or “thing of the people”, implying the participation of the people in their political system. In antiquity, a Republic was defined simply as a political system with no monarch -- the Roman Republic being the most well known example. In Rome, there were three branches of government: Consuls (chief executive magistrate), Senate (wise experienced leaders), and the Assemblies (the people). The Roman Republic was in actuality an oligarchy, because Senators had the power and wealth to influence the way the Republic was administered. The Senate made foreign policy and introduced new laws to be voted on by the assembly. Citizens could only vote if they were landowners: woman, slaves, and the landless were out of luck.

Republics live in fear of tyranny so they create a structure to lower the risk of revolution. In Rome, two consuls were elected for one year terms and had veto control over each other. Other magistrates, such as tribunes, were also elected for a single year. Proconsuls were administrators of foreign territories and as military leaders were not allowed to bring their army onto the Italian peninsula – a rule broken by Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon.

Republics were only marginally more successful than Democracies in the period between antiquity and the modern age. One could cite Switzerland in the middle ages and Florence during the renaissance as examples. Again, innovative political models with equality and freedom were stifled by the medieval monarchical view.

So now we come to colonial America and its path to independence. The colonies, in the pre-revolution days, were Republics just like Rome. Each legislature had an aristocratic upper chamber and a lower chamber of ordinary citizens. The one difference was the governor who was either a toady to the British government or a company chartered by the British government.

As we all know, the American Revolution was an emotional event inspired by the oppressive laws the British government created to exploit the colonies. The colonies had not given much thought to the kind of political system they would need after independence was achieved, so there was a period of weak governance in the period before the Constitutional Convention. The Articles of Confederation had created a loose governmental model but it had too many flaws (no executive) to be effective. That’s why a convention was called in 1787 to amend the articles. Fifty-five men attended the convention as representatives of the colonies, and endured a hot summer in Philadelphia with the windows closed so no one could overhear their debate.

Political philosophies ran the gamut from those who felt no central government was necessary to those who wanted to eliminate the states. Many who liked the Articles of Confederation felt they had been tricked when the discussion of a new political system commenced. Most delegates were literate in Latin and well versed in the Roman and Greek political systems. They looked to antiquity to guide them past the monarchical model that had dominated the western world.

Many feared Democracy as “mob rule” citing the need to have controls against the lower classes, a problem faced by both the Romans and Greeks. The resulting Constitution created a Federation of states with a central government that was essentially an oligarchy. The president was to be selected by state legislatures (electors), the Senate by state legislatures, and only the representatives were to be directly elected by the people. The initial group of Senators included some of the richest men in the colonies, who were able to exert their individual influence over the business of the nation.

Washington was essentially a figurehead. The battle over the philosophy of the new government was waged between Hamilton and Jefferson, the former wanting a centralized government and the latter embracing the principles of Democracy. This was the Romans versus the Greeks redux. Jefferson eventually won the battle when he was able to build his Republican (his term for the opposite of Federalist) party through grass roots efforts in the states. The Federalists never won an election after 1796 and the government became more Democratic. Still, the vestiges of the Oligarchic Republic remained for a long time. The property ownership requirement for voting lasted until 1850 and Senators continued to be selected by the states until 1910.

Today, the American model sits somewhere between the Greek and Roman – maybe more on the side of Rome. Nowhere in America are officials nominated or elected by lot as the Greeks did. Broad public participation in government has been replaced by lobbyists who influence legislation by acting for large corporations or groups - the new oligarchy. The people have been removed from the process and even though Americans take pride in the voting franchise, they have less and less ability to control the way government operates.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Three Political Systems Compared

I thought it would be interesting to create a timeline to show the evolution of three great political systems: Greek, Roman, and British.

Between them we cover the two great civilizations of antiquity and their political systems – Democracy and Republic. Britain is, perhaps, the father of the great modern political systems.

The Greeks were at it early as they were influenced by the empires of the Eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, Persia, Crete, and Mesopotamia. They had a mature Polis when Rome was just starting its Republic. Neither Greece nor Britain could move forward to the Middles Ages until Rome collapsed.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Lessons of History

We all know that history is underappreciated. It is variously described as boring, a waste of time, and irrelevant to everyday life. Part of the cause of this misconception is the way it’s taught – too many names and dates rather than good stories. But there is also a lack of respect for those that came before us – no sense among us that we’re part of a great line.

The quote, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” rings true, because when we ignore history, it costs us human talent and treasure. So why do we do we ignore history? Because truth dies when it flies in the face of the political winds.

Let’s look at a contemporary example. The United States is mired in a guerrilla war in Afghanistan which began as a response to 9/11. We went in there to get al-Qaeda, which took about a year, but then our mission lost its definition. No plan for staying, no plan for leaving.

To stay as long as we have, is to ignore geography and history. This geography is uncontrollable and of little value. Afghanistan is covered with mountains and only 12% of its land is arable. It's also landlocked and for centuries has been overrun by hordes passing back and forth through Asia. The current social structure is tribal because the geography cannot support a higher socio-economic system. In the classical anthropological model, clans become tribes which become agrarian societies and then industrial states. It can’t happen everywhere because of geography and other factors, but Afghanistan was never in the model – it’s stuck in the Neolithic Age.

We ignored history there too. The English fought two Afghanistan Wars in the nineteenth century and lost an entire army in the first. The Russians fought the Afghans from 1979-92 and gave up. We should know that the same can happen to us if we continue to ingore the history.

Let’s bring Greece into the discussion for a minute. After all this is an ancient history blog, so we need a connection. Greece is mountainous like Afghanistan, and 25% arable. Not much better, right? Oh, but what a difference being landlocked makes. Greece has the Aegean which has always facilitated communication to other cultures and the economic benefits of trade.

Greece could never be an industrial society, but its geography supported the agrarian model. It could incubate an advanced political/legal model because its mountains divided the people into small groups. Those groups, in isolation, were free to develop their own political systems, so there were hundreds of Poleis that influenced each other and pushed the model forward. In the end, two rose to the top – Sparta and Athens. Sparta developed a military society because it was landlocked. Athens developed a seafaring society because it was close to the Aegean.

Greece went on to be the foundation of western civilization. Afghanistan remains a black hole for those who forget history.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reflections on Pericles and Democracy

Let’s take an objective look at Pericles defense of democracy and separate political rhetoric and the occasion of a funeral from the reality of the Athenian Polis in 431 B.C. It was a stirring speech, designed to honor the dead and motivate the living in a time of war – a war that would last another twenty-seven years.


When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law: when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.

The Athenian Polis was a balance between branches of a government -- Archons, Council of 500 and Assembly. The Archons were the “wise men” elected from the aristocratic class for one year. The Council of 500 were chosen by lot from nominees of the people and also served for one year. The Assembly was made up of all male citizens. The council introduced new laws which were voted on by the assembly, while the archons acted as government administrators. This system was designed to allow broad participation and prevent the accumulation of power.

The court system was made up of non-professionals organized to facilitate fair trials of accused citizens. Common citizens served as jurors and members of the appeals court.

Did Pericles correctly describe Athenian society? Yes, if we’re speaking of the rights of citizens. I would say its as accurate as labeling the United States as a democracy. Not all citizens and classes are satisfied with their political system at any one time, but when the many classes can be balanced in a way that creates stability, it becomes successful.

I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. And to show that this is no empty boasting for the present occasion, but real tangible fact, you have only to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by those very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her. In her case, and in her case alone, no invading enemy is ashamed at being defeated, and no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities. Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. We do not need the praises of a Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but whose estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true. For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.

Pericles is right to say that Athens exceeded what was expected of her, because they knew they had gone where no political system had gone before. They had created a complex agrarian society with citizen participation in government and laws to protect the people.

Two caveats apply here, however. Pericles ignores the might of Sparta during a time when the two Poleis were at war. He derides the unique Spartan oligarchy which, in fact, was successful as a rival political system. Secondly, he hides Athenian imperialism under the cloak of “adventurous spirit.” Imperialism was a direct cause of the Peloponnesian War which Athens would lose.

What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she realty is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to live below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. They gave her their lives, to her and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old.

These statements reflect the confidence and pride of Athens. That pride supported free thinkers who moved the culture forward and the soldiers that defended her.

I couldn’t help thinking of the colonial spirit used to describe the early United States. People came to North America because of their adventurous spirit. The west was settled by the same motivation. Sadly, much of this spirit has been compromised in the post-modern world as we dumb it down for the sake of socialist ideals. The Athenians would point out that we are tearing down, block by block, that which made us great – liberty.

For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial: it is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark diem out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people's hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

Pericles made the point that wars are a part of life and having the courage to fight and win is the only guarantee of freedom. This is another way of stating that which made Athens excel – it was a society that provided the freedom and encouragement to be seek happiness through pursuing one’s interests. A philosopher could be a philosopher, and was encouraged in the effort, rather than being a goods producer. When people are allowed to uses the tools they are born with, rather than being stifled by economics, they contribute more to the advancement of their culture.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pericles and the Defense of Democracy

In 431 B.C, at a funeral for dead soldiers from the first year of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles gave a speech in defense of Democracy. Much of the text survives because it was recorded by Thucydides and it gives us insight into a great Athenian’s view of his political system. I have included the highlights below.

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law: when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.

Just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people's feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.

We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

And here is another point. When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits. There are various kinds of contests and sacrifices regularly throughout the year; in our own homes we find a beauty and a good taste which delight us every day and which drive away our cares. Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products.

Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance: our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics -- this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions: for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated.

I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. And to show that this is no empty boasting for the present occasion, but real tangible fact, you have only to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by those very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her. In her case, and in her case alone, no invading enemy is ashamed at being defeated, and no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities. Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. We do not need the praises of a Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but whose estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true. For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.

This, then, is the kind of city for which these men, who could not bear the thought of losing her, nobly fought and nobly died. It is only natural that every one of us who survive them should be willing to undergo hardships in her service. And it was for this reason that I have spoken at such length about our city, because I wanted to make it clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages; also I wanted my words of praise for the dead to be set in the bright light of evidence. And now the most important of these words has been spoken. I have sung the praises of our city; but it was the courage and gallantry of these men, and of people like them, which made her splendid. Nor would you find it true in the case of many of the Greeks, as it is true of them, that no words can do more than justice to their deeds.

What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she realty is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to live below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. They gave her their lives, to her and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchers -- not the sepulcher in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men's minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or to action. For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial: it is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark diem out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people's hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Athenian Polis – Golden Age Decay

As I mentioned in the last post, the Athenian Polis reached its zenith during the Age of Pericles and also started its decline. Can Pericles be blamed for this? Not entirely, because he was merely a product of his time. Much of the decay of the Athenian Polis came from its own success as we shall see in a moment.

After the Persians were beaten in 479 B.C, the Athenians felt the need to protect themselves from another invasion. They also wanted to protect their economic interests in the region. Moreover, victory had made the them confident (arrogant?). The hubris they labeled as a crime against society was now their public identity.

Athens kept control over the Delian League even after the threat from Persia had abated. Members saw less need for a league with Persia out of the way, but Athens wanted to use it as a powerful coalition to exert suzerainty over the region. Some cities began to rebel, but they were kept in the league by force. Naxos, for example, rebelled in 471 B.C, and according to Thucydides, “was enslaved contrary to law”. In 454 B.C, the league’s treasury was moved from Delos to Athens and the members charged a “storage fee.”

The Athenian relationship with Sparta was ruined when the Spartans asked Athens not to re-build its walls and they were ignored. Sparta reasoned that Athens would be less willing to fight if it felt protected. Then, the Spartan earthquake of 464 B.C. led to the Messenian revolt which threatened the entire Spartan culture. Athens sent an army under Cimon, but the Spartans became suspicious of Athenian motives and sent the hoplites home. Next, Athens attempted to expand its empire by land, but failed when the territory became greater than the Athenian army could manage. When Athens was defeated in a land battle with Boetia in 447 B.C, it gave up imperialism by land and signed a thirty year treaty with Sparta.

New pressure was put on the members of the Delian League. Member fees were raised and members forced to use Athenian coinage. Athens further ignored the autonomy of the members by influencing their political systems. When the opportunity arose, democracies were pushed. Pericles took 5,000 talents from the Delian League treasury and earmarked it for the beautification of Athens. Another 200 talents per year were allocated to Athens for its management of the treasury and league members were forced to subsidize payment for the 10,000 Athenian rowers who were part of their navy.

On the whole, the lower classes supported this imperialistic philosophy. Many of the members of the 500 were merchants and saw their own interests advanced with the expanding Athenian influence. But there were protests also. In 443 B.C, Pericles almost lost his power when a vote was taken to ostracize him. He survived the vote and continued to advance his own program. Protests against government policies eventually died out but there remained an undercurrent of complaints against the immoral imperialism.

By the time of the Peloponnesian War, Athens had ceded the moral high ground to Sparta. She had violated the notion of the Polis as a self-contained unit when she adopted an imperialist philosophy. Her hands were full keeping the empire in order when she needed to spend all her energy fighting the Spartans.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Polis – Last Steps to the Golden Age

So, we have traced the Polis to 510 B.C, which marked the end of the time of tyrants in Athens. All that remains between here and the Golden Age is the war with Persia. Not so fast! We started this series by talking about the development of the Polis and the various forces influencing its progress, but we can’t offer a complete picture without mentioning some additional factors.

Take a look at the following timeline:

I want to highlight factors that, when considered with those previously discussed, helped cement the Athenian Polis as a strong democracy -- one that would lead the world’s intellectual advancement and endure until the time of Alexander.

The first factor is the non-destructive behavior of the tyrants who ruled from 561 B.C. to 510. Despite the cruel reign of Hippias (514 B.C.-510), the tyrants did not slow down democratization. They did not make significant changes to the governmental structure and ruled in a way that was satisfying to the Athenian people. Herodotus remarked,

“Not having disturbed the existing magistrates nor changed the ancient laws… they administered the State under that constitution of things which was already established, ordering it fairly and well”

Aristotle wrote, of Peisistratus, that “his administration was temperate…and more like constitutional government than a tyranny.”

The Athenian Polis did not go backward under the tyrants, so it did not have to regain ground before it could advance.

The second factor was the political reforms of Clisthenes in 508 B.C. After the fall of the tyrants, Isagoras, a noble, tried to reverse the rising independence of the lower classes. This effort was blocked in 508 by Clisthenes, a member of the Alcmeonid family, who assumed the leadership position. Clisthenes intended to permanently break the power of local social units in favor of the state, and to make sure power was permanently placed in the hands of the people. He organized the populace into demes or political units numbering about 170. Clisthenes required that each tribe contain demes located in the country, the city, and the coast so that self-interest was equally distributed.

He also established a council of 500, consisting of 50 men from each tribe. The 500 were chosen by lot to make sure the elected asemblymen were independent. The council had responsibility for preparing bills for the assembly and supervising public business.

These reforms were tested immediately when Athens was attacked by Boetia and Chalcis in 506 B.C. Both were defeated and balance between the classes held.

The third factor strengthening the polis was the war with Persia. Even though Athens was attacked and occupied in 480 B.C, the unity created to fight a common enemy strengthened the bond between all the Athenian people.

The fourth and final factor was the reforms of Pericles after 461 B.C. Pericles, an aristocrat, had the gifts of intelligence and leadership. He became the leader of the council of ten generals and served as the de facto leader of Athens until his death in 429 B.C. During his tenure, he passed laws allowing poor citizens to attend plays for free, and began a system of compensation for magistrates and jurors. This allowed a broader spectrum of the populace to participate in their government. He also lowered the property qualification for the archonship to help breakup the monopoly of the aristocratic class. The time of Pericles has been labeled the Golden Age of Athens because the stable, open democracy provided the fuel for Athenian intellectual devlopment.

Two qualifications need to be put on that label, however. In the first place, the intellectual advancement of Athens did not start with Pericles, but was in full bloom one hundred years before him. This suggests that a sense of freedom and the support of free thought were in place during the time of the tyrants.

Secondly, the reign of Pericles signals the beginning of the end for Athens. After the Persian War, it became more imperialistic and sought to extend its power around the Aegean. That eventually caused a confrontation with Sparta setting up the Peloponnesian War and the defeat of the Athenians. Sadly, the “Golden Age” was both the pinnacle and the beginning of the end for Athens. Greed and the desire for power had corrupted once again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pottery at the Symposium

Symposium was an ancient Greek drinking party (sympotein means "to drink together”) typically held by men of means to celebrate special occasions, such as the coming of age of their sons. They also served an important social function in the Polis because they brought groups of men together for debate, argument, and political strategizing.

Symposia were held in the part of a Greek house that was for men only. Guests would enter, recline on couches, and talk while they were served food and wine. After the meal was finished, wine continued to be served as the participants were entertained by singers, musicians, slaves, or hired performers.

One person, designated as the Symposiarch, was responsible for keeping the revelry under control. He managed the servants and the dilution of the wine. Greeks never drank wine full strength because they thought only drunkards and people of low quality would do so. The typical dilution was 1:3 wine to water.

Three types of pottery were used at these events:

The Kylix was a drinking vessel used to drink water or wine. When the Greeks copied drinking vessels from the orient, they added handles and a base. The handles were held when drinking, the base when toasting. The Kylix had an image painted in the bottom (often erotic) so as the drinker empted the vessel, the image would be revealed. It was also used in a game called kottabos where the wine residue was tossed from it to a target.

The Psykter was used to hold wine during the festivities. It was placed inside a Krater filled with ice or snow to keep the wine cool. Servants would ladle wine out of the Psykter and pour it into a Kylix.

The Greek playwright Euboulos listed Dionysus’ rules for proper drinking at a Symposium:

For sensible men I prepare three Kraters: one for health, one for love
and pleasure, and the third for sleep.

After the third one is drained, wise men go home.

The fourth Krater is not mine because it belongs to bad behavior.

The fifth is for shouting, the sixth for rudeness and insults, the seventh
for fights,

The eighth is for breaking the furniture, the ninth for depression,

And the tenth for madness and unconsciousness.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review of the novel The Lost Throne

I was given a copy of The Lost Throne by Chris Kuzneski and asked to review it by the publisher. I don’t usually take time to read fiction (reality is more interesting), but I thought I’d give it a try. Turns out the book is a real page turner even at 500 pages and 70 chapters.

In the beginning of the book two pal ex-special forces guys get a mysterious phone call from St. Petersburg, Russia. A strange man asks for help but before they can respond, he is killed. They find out the dead man was accompanied by a young woman who is trapped in Russia and in fear of her life. They know immediately they will have to go get her.

Meanwhile, a senior Interpol agent is sent to Meteora Greece to investigate the murder of seven monks at one of its rock-top monasteries. He arrives at the scene and tries to unravel the evidence. Seven bodies are found: all headless. Where are the heads and why were the monks killed in this way?

The two plots alternated with each new chapter as I wondered when they would intersect. Greece is at the center of it as we spend time in Meteora, Mt. Athos (the holy site of 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries), and Sparta. With regard to the latter, we discover in the mountains above the modern city an ancient sect of Spartans who are still trained by the agoge and wear the Spartan armor.

The two sub-plots finally came together in an exciting climax which made the read thoroughly enjoyable. A little spy stuff, some intrigue, murder, and a lot of history make for an interesting stew.

My only criticism of the novel is the number of cliff-hanger chapter endings. I felt frustrated by having the story line cut off as the author did his tease. A few times I wanted to skip ahead and find out how the chapter ending was resolved but held myself back. The chapters aren’t long enough to make the wait intolerable.

Solon the Reformer and his Republic

In 632 B.C, the opportunist Cylon tried to establish himself as tyrant of Athens, and failed.

By 600, Athens was in disarray. The last decades had seen the Athenian pottery trade fall behind their Corinthian competition, and its aristocratic class become more ruthless. Poor farmers were becoming serfs of the rich when they could not pay their debts, and the landless were enslaved and sold abroad. Territorial groups could not be controlled by the weak central government so the Polis split into factions.

The time was right, once again, for a tyrant to emerge. A man was put forward by his followers in their quest for a tyrant leader, but he defied them instead. That man took it upon himself to try to fix the polis single-handed -- to create a republic instead of a democracy. That man was Solon.

He was an educated and a successful businessman: an aristocrat who wrote poetry. According to Plutarch, Solon had four character traits seldom found in one man: patriotism, integrity, political genius, and intelligence. And we must not leave out ambition – he wanted the job of saving the Athenian state.

Solon was elected first Archon in 594 B.C. and immediately set to work remaking the Athenian government. His fellow aristocrats were confident he would serve their interests until be began canceling the debts of the poor farmers. He devalued the mina giving relief to the landless poor, and received from the stunned power brokers supreme authority over all offices of the government for the remainder of the year. The government of Athens was now in the hands of a single individual.

Solon repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own. Then he wrote a new constitution. Those born of free Attican parents would be citizens of Athens. The populace would be divided into four classes based on wealth with the top three classes eligible for the magistracies formerly only available to the aristocrats. The lowest class was barred from magistracies but allowed to serve on juries. Solon also made decisions of the magistrate’s court subject to appeal to a special court (Heliaia) which had no judge.

He was no democrat, but a republican through and through. Solon had no sympathy for equality – only for creating a balance between the classes. The vehicle for that balance was the creation of a middle class.

Solon’s year came to an end with passions high, yet there was enough support for the reforms in each class to keep the Polis stable. To the surprise of many, Solon resigned his post and left Athens for ten years.

But the balance of forces could not last. When he returned to Athens as an old man in 561, Solon witnessed the fake assassination of Peisistratus and insisted the young man didn’t need a bodyguard. Solon was ignored and Peisistratus became tyrant of Athens.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Then Came the Tyrants

In the past few posts, we have painted this rosy picture of the evolution of the Polis, making it look like the Greeks awakened from their barbarism to quickly become enlightened and philosophical. The actual path leading to the golden age was not that smooth, however, and had many bumps in the road.

The Age of Tyrants is one of the more interesting detours, lasting through the second half of the Archaic Period from the time of Cypselus in 650 B.C. to the end of the reign of Hippias in 510. Tyrants sprang up around the Aegean including Athens, Corinth, Megara, Samos, Naxos, Miletus, and Sicyon. This post will look at three of them from Greece proper: Corinth, Sicyon, and Athens.

Corinth was one of the leading commercial cities in Greece when the unpopular and cruel Bacchiadae aristocracy was overthrown by the tyrant Cypselus in 650 B.C. This was the purest form of liberation, and Cypselus had such a high level of support from the people, that he never needed a bodyguard. He ruled Corinth in a benevolent way for thirty years, and was succeeded by his son Periander, who ruled ruthlessley until 582 B.C. when he was over thrown and an aristocratic Polis restored.

Sicyon was located near the northern coast of the Peloponnese between Corinth and Achaea. After the Dorian invasion, it was divided into three Dorian tribes and one Ionian tribe, which remained subject to Argos for some centuries. In 600 B.C, a tyrant named Cleisthenes rose to power and instituted an anti-Dorian policy. he ruled for forty years. His successor, Aeschines, was expelled by the Spartans in 556 who made Sicyon part of the Peloponnesian League.

Finally, there is the case of Athens and Peisistratos. As army commander in the Megaran conflict of 567 B.C, Peisistratus gained popularity in Athens, but did not have the political support to seize power so he staged an attempt on his own life, and in the chaos that followed, persuaded the Athenian Assembly to issue him bodyguards. Peisistratus, like his predecessor, Cylon of Athens, used his bodyguard to capture and hold the Acropolis.

Peisistratus was ousted from political office and exiled twice during his reign. The first occurrence happened circa 555 B.C. after two political factions, normally at odds with each other, joined forces and removed him from power. He was exiled for several years, returned to power for a time, and then was exiled again. After ten years he returned in force, regained his tyranny, and held his power until his death in 527 B.C. Hippias succeeded his father in 527 BC, and with his brother Hipparchus, ruled jointly until the latter was murdered by Harmodius and Aristogeiton (the Tyrannicides) in 514 BC. Hippias executed the Tyrannicides and became a bitter and cruel ruler.

The exiled Alcmaeonid family helped to depose the Athenian tyranny for good by bribing the Delphic oracle to tell the Spartans to liberate Athens, which they did in 510 BC.

Why did these tyrants appear? As we have discussed before, the early Poleis were generally controlled by an aristocracy in a delicate political balance with the common people. As people will do, the aristocracies tended to become more oppressive, leading to popular support for someone who could take power on their behalf. These tyrannies attempted to continue as hereditary models but failed because of uneven governance. The failure of class balance is evidence that the early Poleis did not have enough democracy in them to create long term stability, which would come later.

These cases demand an alternate definition of the word “tyrant” which generally carries a negative connotation. The Greek examples often involved benevolent leaders who improved the conditions in their Polis and/or championed the rights of the lower class rather than being power hungry and destructive.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part III

We now turn out attention to describing the city-state physically.

The polis was a defined geographical unit, the boundaries of which were known to its citizens, located in an Asty or concentration of urban dwellings. Prior to the Polis, tribes defined separate rallying points for military, religious, or political purposes. With the emergence of the city-state, however, these functions became concentrated in one place. Courts became centrally located and geographically separated religious functions were brought together in the temple of the state gods.

The most important Poleis became economic centers when they attracted potters and other artisans to re-locate there, but it’s important to point out that the initial growth was not a result of commercial activity, but rather, was the complex organization of an agrarian society. Athens, in the beginning, was a group of villages located around the fortress acropolis -- the connection between government and people being a loose one. There were no walls until hundreds of years later when the people had money to build them. Anyway, its was the people and not the structures that mattered as Alcaeus said – “neither houses finely roofed or canals and dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity.”

The aristocrats gained the most from the emerging political system by consolidating their power. They became the officers of the state and imposed their moral and artistic preferences on the people. But that is not to say class power was out of balance, because the Polis was fundamentally a reaction of its citizenry as a whole to the problems of the age. All classes were convinced they must work together to make sure the changing world did not produce chaos.

One can see, in the restriction of individual freedom, a brake applied to the aristocratic class, and whether or not they agreed to it easily, the result was a balance between the classes that would last for hundreds of years. The people of the Polis became patriotic, not by class, but as a people sharing a newly forged independence.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part II

In the last post we established background for the growth of the Polis. The key ingredients for this included the establishment of an aristocratic class that was wealthy and powerful, the strengthening of a lower class of small farmers through numbers, and a setting of isolation which allowed the Polis to incubate undisturbed. With the foundation laid, we now move on to the process.

We start with the most fundamental element – the decline of personal leadership. In many evolving societies, the same situation would have seen the central leader become dominant, the early Roman Republic and its Etruscan kings serving as a good example. In other sitiations, personal leadership succeeded because it was supported from the outside and gained power artificially.

But personal leadership did not survive in Archaic Greece.

The authoritarian model left after the Dorian invasion was the Basileus, a tribal chieftain who served as a military leader and not a king. The Basileis (plural) ultimately disappeared because they could not accumulate enough power to become kings. The factors blocking the accumulation of power follow:

• Their only wealth was derived from personal holdings and they never were able to control the wealth of others (taxation).

• They were never able to establish an inherited position.

• The aristocracy viewed itself as equal to the Basileus and would not cede power to a single individual.

• The masses derived power from numbers and their participation in the military (phalanx). Greater and lesser land owners stood together in battle and against personal leadership.

• Kingship was not needed when foreign threats were minor.

When did the Polis come into being? No one knows exactly, but the following diagram is an approximation.

We know that the words of Hesiod are pre-Polis because they describe an age of kings. We also know that there was an increase in the tempo of artistic activity around 700 B.C, which may have been linked to the new freedoms of the Polis. Lastly, we know that the creation of the Phalanx (circa 700 B.C.) roughly coincided with the beginning of the Polis. Perhaps the Phalanx was the final key to creating balance between the classes -- a balance which faciliated the building of a cooperative political system.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Polis as the Engine of the Intellect – Part I

The Polis was one of the two great outcomes of the Greek Archaic Age, along with colonization. While the former was an expression of the Greek desire to expand trade and reach the outside world, building of the city-state was far more important to the Greeks and western man as a whole because:

The Polis was the first governmental structure that supported the free expression of the human mind to pursue an intellectual foundation for his existence.

We will take the next couple of posts to describe how this happened.

We start in the Archaic Period – the Revolutionary Portion where the Greek people were in a struggle to create a cultural model which would remove the individual from the tribe and overcome the clan-based existence which had constrained man’s ability to reason since he came into being.

An aristocratic class came to power in about 750 B.C, as the most powerful and aggressive segment of Greek society. As they acquired wealth, the aristocrats were able to assert their independence as individuals. They began to create social distinctions to separate themselves from the rest of the people, and adopt a more refined and cultured way of life. This, in turn, fostered a more conscious analysis of man’s nature and place. Oriental influence was pervasive and the aristocrats did not limit themselves in any way, demanding new models for artistic expression.

Early on the upper class realized the value of passing on their cultural model, so fathers began to set standards for their children’s education by engaging tutors and philosophers to teach them. As the children grew, they were subject to peer pressure to conform to the model of their class, which resulted in a tightening of the model.

So the aristocracy grew – but not unchecked – because it had two significant constraints: its character and pressure from the outside. The aristocratic class had not existed long enough to forget its roots and it continued to retain a kinship to the rest of the society. Pressure from the outside was exerted by the masses, who, lacked power, but had unity and the capability to meet the needs of the aristocracy in the economic and military spheres.

The word aristocratic is often used in a negative connotation; implying arrogance, abuse of wealth, etc., but I use the word in a more fundamental sense here. I believe an aristocratic class develops as a logical step in the process of building human society. You always here me talking about people and their segmentation in society – a natural process we cannot alter. In the same way, the aristocratic class is the first to develop out of tribal society because it is made up of individuals who are able to use intelligence and guile to accumulate wealth and power – both used to exert control over the lower classes.

In Greece, that control was tempered by the small farmers who were able to act as a counterweight to aristocratic power through numbers. They experienced significant growth to the point of a surplus of people, and those numbers drove migration and mobility of the class and a freedom to choose how they wanted to live.

In the end, the delicate balance between the classes was protected by geographical isolation. Greece was free to incubate its city-state in a pure form without interference from forces on the outside that would upset that balance.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

One More example of Oriental influence on the Protocorinthians

The following image is the best example I could find of a frieze (in this case Achaemenid) showing its influence on Protocorinthian pottery. I intended it to be part of the previous post on that subject, but didn’t have permission to use it in time.

Thanks to Karin Welss for letting me use the image and Charles Jones for pointing out my mistake on its origin.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Greek Feudalism Links to Europe 500-1500 A.D.

I continue to be fascinated by the similarity between the Greek Dark Ages and the more recent European Dark Ages to the point of thinking and writing more about them. I want to test the hypothesis that both periods featured similar human behavior.

How this for an idea? What If the human experience during the Greek Dark Ages shows us the model of evolving human behavior in societies – a model that is repeated under similar circumstances? Then the Europeans, with knowledge of the Greek experience, would have known what lay ahead of them. They could have, in fact, predicted their future.

Of course, they never had a chance to acquire that knowledge because access to it was cut off by the suppression of pagan thought and culture that came with the early Catholic Church’s efforts to establish dogma. The Europeans were left in the dark regarding Greek history (no pun intended).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because we have to create a context for our comparison by more thoroughly reviewing the Greek experience. Take a look at the following diagram, which shows the Dark Ages and the Archaic Period with key dates in the latter identified. The Archaic Period was dominated by the Age of Revolution which included the most significant changes in Greek culture and world view in its history. We can see how Protocorinthian pottery sits at the beginning of the Revolutionary Period as its documenter.

There was plenty going on – colonization, development of the Polis, and changes in Greek religious philosophy. As far as religion goes, it was a period where power of the human mind replaced fear of the gods (think enlightenment). One can imagine the timid man struggling to trade in the animal barbarian view for brain dominance – the winning out of the intellect.

The Greeks evolved their religion in response to the upheaval of the Revolutionary Age in three fundamental ways: continuous expression of fear, reinvention of the personalities of their gods, and the creation of cults. Continuous expression refers to the use of monsters in art. By displaying objects of fear, over time they became less fearsome. Early pottery featured lions fighting, while later images make the animals look tame enough to be stuffed. They had become abstract images.

The gods were re-invented to show their human side (e.g. Heracles) which included their being re-casted as seekers of justice. This validated the sense of justice and morality emerging in the new Greek society, and made the gods the standard for right and wrong.

Lastly, cults appeared as an emotional safety valve. Orphism, mystics, seers, and mysteries helped to put the unknown answers to life in a box. Three major cults emerged – those of Dionysus, Apollo, and Heracles, with the former dominant. Cult worship evolved as a way to purge away fears and reassure the individual he could survive.

We see these significant adaptations in Greek religion and wonder about them. Surely religion was serving as a emotional guide, allowing man to think in new ways. But man has always adapted his religion to his situation. Just look at the MTV churches we have today.

We also see similarities between Greece and the European Middle Ages. In Europe, it took the reawakening of man’s spirit and confidence in himself to overcome a corrupted fear-based dogma which suppressed his desire to learn. The Europeans only had to rediscover their humanness. The Greeks had it tougher, because there was no past to use as a guide.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Three Ages of Man – Repression, Freedom, and the End of Responsibility

One of my core beliefs is that human beings in society differentiate themselves by aptitude and intelligence. People have a strong desire to become self-actualized -- to control their lives and have the freedom to pursue whatever interests them. Man knows (or senses) that when he lives alone he cannot become self-actualized because he must spend all his time trying to survive, so he decides to live with others. But society can be repressive so man has fought for freedom throughout history – to get out from under repressive elements limiting his opportunities. Modern man, for the most part, has achieved that goal, although he must except the fact that freedom has its price and that price is responsibility. When a man has control over his life he must be responsible to himself and his family.

Since mankind appeared on the earth, he has separated himself from the other animals through the use of his highly developed brain. At first he had to compete with other hominids for supremacy, but by the end of the Paleolithic Era the competition was eliminated and Homo Sapiens stood as the sole surviving Human species.

During the Neolithic Period, man became a farmer and gave up the life of a nomad. He developed tools and lived in tribes of 150-2000. There was no real social or economic stratification in those primitive clans, although the accumulation of herds led to differences in wealth. At the dawn of the Bronze Age, man began to live in larger groups. Villages were formed and social stratification began. With stratification came repression. The wealthy used their power to control the poor. The poor had no rights, so those at the bottom of the economic scale became dependent on the wealthy. The average man was repressed socio-economically but remained responsible for his own life and the lives of his family.

We move on through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and the advent of complex societies and governments where both Athens and Rome provide us with examples of attempts to overcome inequality and repression through the creation of legal systems which would extend basic rights to all people. Still the people were repressed and governments continued to be controlled by wealthy aristocracies. When these classical governments failed, mankind endured a long winter of the Dark Ages lasting a thousand years. I characterize human society from the late Stone Age through the Renaissance as a repression society where the weak are controlled by the strong while individuals retained responsible for their own lives.

The renaissance caused a reawakening of the human spirit and a sense of the value of the individual in society. This new found power of the people led to the American and French Revolutions ushering in a new political age with legitimate rights held by the people and a real opportunity to control their government. I characterize this period in human society as the end of repression and the dawn of freedom. During this time people continued to maintain responsibility for their own lives.

Now we come to the third age of man in society: the end of personal responsibility. This is a time when freedom prevails but personal responsibility is dead. Beginning circa 1970 with the political indoctrination of projected responsibility, there followed a movement of human behavior toward this projection. I not sure of the origin of the former – possibly it was the creation of liberal academics, who were idealistic in believing that all those who needed help could be saved and that government was the savior. I label this projection because the indoctrinators were unconsciously denying the legitimacy of human responsibility.

What evidence do we have of this new age in action?

1. Murderers who were abused as children are now sympathetic figures.

2. The responsibility for human stupidity and negligence has been transferred to corporations. If I drive an ATV down a hill and break my neck, it’s the vehicle’s fault. If I stick my hand in the spinning blade of a lawnmower and get hurt it’s the manufacturer’s fault. If I eat packing materials and get sick it’s the fault of the shipper.

In the United States, the legal profession has become a major contributor to the death of responsibility. There is a daily drumbeat of commercials featuring attorneys looking for new clients to add to their victims list. There are so many lawyers they have to invent new ways to make money – sue McDonalds because its customers get fat, perhaps? Since we keep electing lawyers to Congress, we keep extending the umbrella they provide over the trial lawyers association, protecting its sources of income. So more lawyers means more law suits and more transfer of responsibility.

3. Politicians who break the law should be given a second chance, as long as their publicist is able to build a nice contrition story. They’re human and made a mistake, so we have to forgive.

4. Corporations are evil. They try to enslave their workers, and rob their customers.

5. If a person does not have money or a job, its not their fault -- they have been disadvantaged by the evil in society. Government must make up for this inequality.

Politicians no longer feel responsible to the American people. Their re-election rate is so high because groups that benefit from the legislator’s efforts provide the money and propaganda that produces more votes than the opposition.

The lack of responsibility has also reached the educational system where teachers have given up responsibility to accurately grade students. Now everyone gets good grades, because no one wants to limit a student’s opportunities by giving him/her a low grade. Why are colleges so focused on standardized test scores? Because grades are no longer a measure of a student’s capability.

The list goes on and on.

Now that I’ve painted an ugly picture, you may wonder when third age ends and the fourth age begins.

The end of responsibility is directly related to the distance man has removed himself from REAL living. Remember the guy at the beginning who lives alone in the woods? That’s REAL living. What we have now is something else.

Although we can observe the imbalance of human responsibility, does anyone care? Is this even a bad thing, or just some higher form of human existence? During the Paleolithic Period, people who had bad eyes died. That was natural selection. Now people get glasses and live a normal life. Is the end of responsibility a similar progression?

To me the logical endpoint of the denial of responsibility is “1984” in reality – a time where the government, and their investors (corporations) take care of all of us. Where all jobs are government jobs or we work for a government contractor.

What could prevent this unhappy reality? We'd need a catastrophic event – war, famine, climate change. Something that would force man to be responsible again. Responsible for his survival and the survival of those that matter to him.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review of the book Cleopatra and Anthony by Diana Preston

I was asked by the publisher to review Diana Preston’s book Cleopatra and Anthony and express my opinion on this non-fiction story of Rome and Egypt. Most everyone knows the tale of Octavian’s rival and his love affair with the Queen of Egypt, which followed her earlier affair with Julius Caesar, but there is much detail beneath the legend and the story told by Shakespeare.

Anthony, along with Lepidus and Octavian, became second triumvirs of Rome during the period between the fall of the Republic and the rise of Octavian as Caesar Augustus. After disposing of Lepidus, Octavian was ready to take on Anthony directly in a fight for control of Rome, and defeated him at the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C. Anthony, his spirit broken, committed suicide when he thought Cleopatra was dead. The Queen of the Nile, shrewd in her own right, had successfully used her personality and her body to help maintain the autonomy of Egypt and protect her family against the growing power of Rome. It was only when she realized that she would have no power over Octavian and would become a spectacle of ridicule that she decided to end her own life.

Diana Preston reverses the title and the roles of the Roman general and the Queen of Egypt – making her the strong, politically savvy ruler while Anthony plays the role as the frustrated, decadent general. This is certainly a twist on the old story, but probably appropriate because Cleopatra was more than a just a temptress and symbol of Egyptian excess. For most of history she has received credit only for seducing two famous Romans and not for her accomplishments as a politician. The book is successful in highlighting the activities of Cleopatra as she tries to hold her world together, much of the time abandoned by Anthony while he was married Octavian’s sister in an attempt to keep his relationship with Octavian intact.

What I don’t like about the book is the style. The writing has this staccato-like rhythm that rolls out fact after fact like a machine gun. We’re about to have the Battle of Actium so let’s talk about Roman ships and how their made. The calendar is mentioned and we launch into the Julian modifications. Events become the launching pad to digress into cultural detail that sits below the surface action. I was also put off by the number of references to the primary sources used by the author – too many “according to Appian” and “Plutarch states that”. It’s as if the author is concerned we won’t trust her facts so she feels the need to include copious references in the middle of the narrative.

My third complaint is about the use of vocabulary which includes modern words and colloquialisms rather than traditional wording. Here are a some examples.

“Too late, the sweating Romans realized they were under attack, dropped their spades, and grabbed their swords.”

“Cicero would sneeringly deride him as resembling a prizefighter.”

“Convinced that Anthony had not been a safe pair of hands, Caesar, for the moment at least, dropped him.”

This kind of narrative is jarring to me and seems out of place. Perhaps this style reflects a new kind of writing which combines historical narrative, techniques of the novel, and popular culture. If others like the style that’s fine. I guess I’m just old fashioned.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Protocorinthian Pottery in the Revolutionary Age

One of the great periods in the history of Greek pottery, the Protocorinthian, is defined by the years 720-640 B.C. The Protocorinthian Period is commonly associated with the term “orientalizing” referring to the influence the cultures of Asia Minor exerted on the Greek styles during Archaic Period. The influx of artistic ideas from the Near East had a profound effect on the course of Greek art, but the Greeks did not simply copy outside ideas. What is special about the Protocorinthian Period is that Greek artists took Near Eastern art themes and adapted and modified them for their own purposes. The degree of oriental influence has been debated among scholars to the point of general agreement that the orient was influential but did not determine the course of Greek art. The Greeks may have originally used eastern motifs as a starting point, but what they ended up with was an art form wholly Greek.

Prior to the beginning of this new period, Corinthian potters were producing the finest of the geometric style, while Attic version was seen as stiff, rigid, and over elaborate in comparison. The Corinthian potters became restless with their technique and began a period of experimentation where they expressed themselves in new and daring ways. This restlessness was found in all aspects of Greek culture at the time, for the Greeks were in the process of emerging from the 'Dark Age' and renewing themselves culturally. The first tentative steps were geometric variations (zigzag or wavy lines), but then the lines changed in character and the vessels in shape. Before long animal and human figures were featured on the pottery. The commercial success of these new styles throughout the Greek world encouraged the Corinthian potters to continue their stylistic development.

How does an orientalizing influence fit in here? Trade and expanding Greek settlements created more interaction with the oriental people, particularly the Assyrians and the Phoenicians. The cultures of the Near East were highly developed compared to Greece at the time and the Greeks naturally looked to these cultures with admiration. The most visible aspect of a culture is its art, and here the Greeks found many examples from which to emulate. The life subjects painted on the Greek pottery were adapted from similar themes found in eastern non-ceramic media such as metal and sculpture. One need only look at Assyrian reliefs and similar Phoenician art forms to see the connection. Many motifs common to Protocorinthian and later Greek art have their origins in Near Eastern art, such as the palmette, lotus, sphinx as well as artistic techniques such as

The following collage shows the boldness of the new Corinthian style.

Compare the first piece of pottery with the last three, taking into account the Assyrian friezes. Number one is almost completely geometric, while the others express a new creativity which takes the frieze concept and places it on the pottery. This innovation took place over a 30-40 year span.

It is interesting that as this orientalizing style was achieving enormous success throughout the Greek world, certain sub-geometric styles continued in Corinth. It’s as if the Corinthians were willing to be daring in the commercial markets but conservative in their own style. Both styles continued down to the year 600 B.C. when the sub-geometric finally disappeared.

The Proto-Attic (Athenian) Period nearly parallels that of the Protocorinthians, but the Athenians were not able to create a style that was as popular during this time. Later, the Athenians would become more innovative and overtake the Corinthians who had compromised style for production.

This post was co-authored with Matthew Rogan.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where am I?

For this post we take you on a factory tour.

As we enter the building we notice stacks of raw materials, rows of partially completed product, and near what looks like the shipping department, lines of finished goods.

It’s a busy place as I am able to count a hundred workers in the building. Its obvious that a division of labor and mass production techniques are being utilized. We notice several stations where raw materials are used to manufacture an assembly that will eventually become the final product. Additional parts are in piles next to workstations down the line where employees attach them to the assembly. Completed products are then taken away for finishing.

At the beginning of the finish process, a worker stamps the company logo and the name of the shipper on the product. This latter step saves time when the finished goods have to be loaded.

The finishing step includes applying paint and putting the product through a drying process to make the paint adheres to its surface. There’s a team of painters doing their best to keep up with the units ready for them.

One of the shippers comes to the back door and wants to speak with the owner. He wants to know whether his shipment is ready. The owner tells him it is, and the shipper calls to some men to come and start loading The shipper complains that business is down because there are too many people getting into the same business. Most of his contracts involve hauling goods overland to the nearest port for shipment overseas and these newcomers are undercutting his rates. He may have to lay off some of his crew.

After he is done talking to the shipper, the owner has a conversation with one of his supervisors. They discuss how to dispose of defective product. The customer’s inspectors at the port will certainly reject any product with marks or dents. To avoid having a whole shipment rejected because of a few defects, the owner has located a customer who re-sells damaged goods. The owner is pleased that this customer is willing to pay 40% of the wholesale price of each unit. That’s certainly better than throwing them away.

When the daily shift comes to a close, the workers wash up and head for home. The owner and his supervisors do an inventory to determine how many shipments will be complete for the week. Even though production is good the owner is worried. It won’t be long before his outgrows the factory and will have to look for a new place. That means more loans and dealing with a fluctuating interest rate, but this is the life of a business owner.

Where am I?

The main pottery production facility in central Athens, summer 451 B.C.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Greek Expression of Humanness

In the last post I described the similarity between the Greek Dark Ages and the European Dark Ages in the centuries before the modern Renaissance. The analogy also works when you drop beneath the surface and examine each period in more detail. For example, there was en enlightenment period in ancient Greece like the enlightenment period that began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries A.D.

I was thinking about this similarity and wondered whether the fact that the human race (western anyway) became actualized twice signals an innate human behavior pattern? I think it does.

We look at the amazing accomplishments of the Greeks and seek to explain them. How could a people twenty-five hundred years ago explode mankind out of a world of spirits and fear of nature to one of modern analytical thought?

Then I started thinking about Maslow’s triangle: the great psychologist’s method of describing a hierarchy of human needs.
Maslow’s categorizes human needs starting from the most basic animal functions at the bottom and moving upward through other needs toward self-actualization.

I mentioned in the previous post that man living alone he doesn’t have time to contemplate metaphysics, he has to spend his time surviving. He’s stuck at Maslow’s lowest level. If he joins a community, however, the group will help him move up the scale of needs toward self-actualization. In human society, his safety needs can be satisfied with the help of others and he can also develop friendships and intimacy.

The Greek intellectual accomplishments of the Golden Age resulted directly from an environment seen rarely in history where a culture of self-actualization was possible and encouraged. The Greeks couldn’t be thinkers until they had time to think and when the notion of philosophical thinking was tolerated.

The issue of human self-actualization is larger than Greece. I believe the development of any society and its institutions are a human driven process toward self-actualization, the twenty-first century being its greatest opportunity. What now? Do we keep moving forward or do we corrupt ourselves?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feudalism Do Over

Ask anyone what they know about Feudalism and they immediately bring up the Dark Ages/Middle Ages in Europe – those glorious days of kings, vassals, and serfs when men were men. The term Feudalism is problematic, however, because it tries to define a general political condition in Europe when, in fact, the European experience was not uniform. Italy, for example, had no “Feudal” experience.

The term Feudal was first used in 1610 by French lawyers to describe traditional obligations between members of a warrior aristocracy and then co-opted later by Montesquieu and others to represent the medieval period in Europe. Since Feudal was not used during the period it describes, there has never been a clear definition of the term and more than one historian refuses to use it.

The word Feudalism has a separate purpose in this post, however, where I will use it to describe stage two of the three stages of development of human society. In my view, this process includes tribal, feudal, and political stages: the latter referring to a society of laws and complex government (democracy, republic).

The stage I’m calling Feudalism is a required step before tribesmen can become citizens. In a tribal society there was a leader who exerted control over the people. Over time, this leader accumulated wealth and then named himself king. The kingship gave him power over an enormous amount of land and a distributed mass of humanity. At some point the king needed to use his wealth to bargain for power. He traded land for loyalty and a feudal society was born. Then, over time, as wealth became more broadly distributed, those with money began to demand rights. At this point we enter stage three with the advent of a legal system and complex government.

In the history of Europe this process had occurred twice: during the time leading up to the classical age and once again after its fall. This twice exercised process is represented in the following chart.

In 476 A.D, when the Roman Empire collapsed, Europe regressed into a tribal society which served as the foundation for re-building the modern age. What if those thousand years had not have been lost? Where would western society be today?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pottery Tours Along with the Greeks

I mentioned in a previous post how Greek pottery acts as a timestamp because of its constantly changing styles. Pottery shards at a site can narrow the site date down to a decade or so. Greek pottery on tour has equal value because, when the Greeks left home, they took with them (or had sent to them) pottery which was required for daily living so its debris at a settlement site can point to its origin.

Let's see why pottery followed the traveling Greeks.

Alien Greeks who did not have access to their own kilns would require pottery from back home. Sometimes local pottery was available but of inferior quality, again requiring imports. Of the various types of containers we have pottery for transport (e.g. amphorae for olive oil), large and small containers and utensils for the home, and objets d’art. The first and last of these types may or may not be reliable in pointing to the link between a Greek settlement and its point of origin. The middle category, however, is superior because, as a personal container, it would not be sold or traded.

Transport vessels were undecorated during the early archaic period and only began to show distinguishing marks in the seventh century. The finest of Protocorinthian painting appears on perfume flasks that were undoubtedly shipped by Corinth, but these containers also went to non-Corinthian settlements. This tells us specifically about what the Corinthians were up to but no one else.

With respect to objets d’art, the story is more interesting. In the mid-seventh century, the Corinthians were turning out so much beautifully decorated pottery the pieces began to be used in homes for decoration. Greek settlements in the west could not get enough of the stuff so they demanded more. The Corinthians, being good capitalists and responding to a supply demand imbalance, increased production and lowered the quality. Then, in the first quarter of the sixth century, Athens seized on an opportunity to win on quality, and began to market the first of their Black Figure vases. Trying to regain their position, the Corinthians countered with a line of beautiful mixing bowls, but they were unsuccessful. In all these cases, Objets d’art were not localized enough to build a link between Greek settlements and their mother city.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Greeks: Touring During the Archaic Period

The Greek Archaic Period can be characterized by two currents: the development of the Polis and the emigration of Greeks from their homeland. It is the latter we will discuss in this post.

The map below shows the area of the Mediterranean and labels many of the colonies founded by the Greeks during the period of 800-600 B.C. (click to enlarge).

Colonies in the sense used here are not the same kind of colonies as those of the early United States. The Greek word for these new settlements, “apoikia”, does not imply a dependence between the settlement and its “mother” city. And there were many mother cities: Sparta founded Tarentum; Euboea, Al Mina and Cumae; Corinth, Syracuse; the Phocaeans, Tartessos. The mother cities gave support to the new settlements more because of common culture than political association.

Trading posts were developed to support the shipment of goods back to Greece. Tartessos and Masallia, for example, were vitally important in the tin trade, serving as ports for tin shipments sent over land from the mines. Tin was the metal used in bronze, and always existed in shorter supply than its partner copper.

The reasons for emigration were as varied as the destinations. Some were created by those who wanted to start a new life, some because of famine or drought at home, and some were created through forced emigration (Cyrenaica).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Stoic Philosophy of the Greeks

Stoic philosophy, as introduced by Zeno in 300 B.C, was an important philosophical school through the time of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who died in 180 A.D. Quiet during the Middle Ages, it rose again as an intellectual force in the modern age. In spite its position as secular philosophy, Stoicism has a connection to Christian philosophy, particularly as it relates to the inner kinship man has with God and the inherent evil of mankind.

The name Stoic comes from the Greek “Stoa” which is a covered colonnade. Zeno and his friends would hold their meetings at the Stoa adjacent to the market in the center of Athens, and the name of the group became associated with it. Zeno, himself, was born in Citium, a large Hellenized city in Cyprus. Drawn to the teachings of Socrates, he traveled to Athens at age twenty two and began to study with the prominent Greek philosophers of the day. He came under the influence of the cynic Crates, Polemo head of Plato’s Academy, and Stilpo.

These men served as the wellspring for Zeno’s ethics.

The centerpiece of his ethics is moral advancement based on conformity with nature. That is health and wealth are not goods but instead natural objects of pursuit. We should seek to obtain them not because they make our lives better, but because they help us live in agreement with nature. This leads to rationality, happiness, and a good life. This Stoic belief system is eerily similar to the Christian “be sinless and be happy”, creating a link between harmony with nature and loving God.

In order to achieve harmony, man must exercise self-control by using reason to control the passions – treat good and bad as equal and react equally to both. Resist the passions because they pull the individual away from harmony.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Iron Age in Greece

It is believed that iron production originated in the Caucasus or Anatolia (Western Turkey) around 1300 and then spread westward until it reached Europe in 800.

Greece was processing iron around the year 1100 B.C, based on excavations from that period iron debris along with bronze. The Greeks. like other civilizations in the ancient world, used bronze as the hard metal of choice after 3000 B.C. Manufactured by making an alloy of 90% copper and 10% tin and heating it to 1000 degrees, bronze was in high demand throughout the western world after it replaced the much softer copper.

Iron, more plentiful than copper, would not replace bronze until ancient blacksmiths learned how to make fires hotter than the 1400 degrees required to melt iron. Heating iron ore to its melting point in the presence of carbon (coal) draws oxygen out of the ore leaving wrought iron which can be hammered into a desired shape.

The supply demand economics of bronze and iron provide an interesting part of the story, as we observe capitalism in the ancient Aegean. There were enormous quantities of copper in Cyprus, but the amount of tin available to the smelters varied from time to time. Shortages of tin and its impact on the manufacture of bronze prompted gangs of bronze pirates to steal the metal for re-sale. The variation in prices and supply help drive efforts to make the production of iron more practical.

Once the techniques of producing iron were perfected, the metal began to move toward dominance. The adoption of iron for a wide variety of applications took place over centuries, so one should not view these “Age” transitions as immediate. Iron was used for weapons initially before other applications were brought into use. Bronze has some characteristics that are superior to iron (strength, resistance to rust) which allowed it to continue as an important alloy. Even today, bronze is superior to all other alloys for certain applications.