Saturday, August 28, 2010

Heading for Antiquity

Ruins of the Roman ForumImage via Wikipedia

I'm off today for a two week vacation to Italy and Greece.

The plan is to post along the way and take photos which will be posted when I get back. I expect to visit the following:

Roman Forum and Colosseum
Mount Olympus

Can't wait to get there.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thermopylae Views

The link below will connect you to two views of the Thermopylae battlefield.

Thermopylae Views

I have taken current Google Earth views in three dimensions (east and west) and modified them.  Labels identify the location of Leonidas statute, Kolonos Hill (where the last Spartans were killed by arrows), the Middle Hot Gate, and Mt Anopaea, which is where the Persians did their end around to trap the Spartans.

The position of the Marian Gulf has been modified to show its ancient shoreline near the current highway.  Twenty centuries of silt have pushed to shoreline some four kilometers northward.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Domesticated Man – not as clever has his ancestors

I just finished reading an article discussing human brain size and its relationship to behavior and intelligence. It seems that over the past 20,000 years man’s brain has decreased in size from 1500 to 1350ccs (10%). Women’s brains are lighter in the same proportion.

What does this mean? We’re obviously smarter, so how can our brains be smaller? Throughout recent history our brain to body size ratio (EQ) has remained relatively constant, so the decrease in our brain size has been accompanied by a decrease in body size. There are theories that attempt to explain this phenomena, but no consensus has been reached in the scientific community.

One theory, which I label the Climate Theory, suggests that the warming of the earth has decreased the need for large bodies to protect against the cold. Twenty thousand years ago the earth was in the last stages of an ice age, and the earth has warmed steadily since that time. Natural selection, operating during this period, favored smaller bodies which use less energy, so humans began to shrink – body and brain.

There is a second much more interesting theory about the decrease in size of human beings; the notion that we small-brained moderns are “dumber” than our predecessors. The story goes like this. Among the thirty or so domesticated animals, the wild ancestors had bigger brains than their more docile descendants AND were more clever at surviving. For example, a wild dog is more resourceful than a domesticated dog. Of course, the domesticated dog has his master to help him get thorough life so he can give up whatever brain function the wild dog needed for survival.

What does this data mean when applied to human beings? Scientists have looked at brain size in people as a function of population density and have found that people living in larger groups have smaller brains. That is those living in densely populated areas had smaller brains than nomadic types. Of course, agriculture and the domestication of animals helped drive this because they set the stage for people to live closer together and created a differentiation of roles in those cultures. Over time, strength and the ability to fight became specialized so the majority of men could live their lives without having to be physically aggressive.

If we buy the analog with domesticated animals, then we too, like them, have become less clever – at least as it relates to the ability to survive. We have essentially domesticated ourselves, and, in doing so, taken advantage of our newly acquired free time to intellectualize.

But one question still remains. What would have happened if our big brained, clever ancestors would have had time to think? Would they have acquired knowledge faster than we have because they were more clever or is it a zero sum game?
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hannibal’s March over the Alps Revisited

This is an updated post on Hannibal’s march over the Alps, amending my previous post from February 23, 2009. I recently noticed that Google Earth had updated images of the region and the result was a clearer more consistent view, so I decided to re-visit the story. I also reviewed research on the route itself, since the previous post was more concerned with Hannibal’s objective and not his journey.

The chronology below combines information from the two best sources we have on the subject -- Polybius and Livy. Their accounts are similar but do not contain many place names that can be used as landmarks. The place names have been added by modern researchers based on geographical analysis -- taking the descriptions of the terrain and fitting them to the geography.

Day 1 March along the Drôme to the foothills; first encounters, near Die
Night Camp on fairly level ground; near Die

Day 2 March towards blocked Col de Cabre
Night Attack on abandoned blockade at Col de Cabre

Day 3 Enemy attack on baggage train; capture of a fort at Saint-Mens
Night Camp in Gap

Day 4 Easy march towards Durance and Col du Montgenèvre
Night Camp near Prunières?

Day 5 Easy march along the Durance towards Col du Montgenèvre
Night Camp near Embrun?

Day 6 Easy march along the Durance towards Col du Montgenèvre
Night Camp near Mont Dauphin?

Day 7 Envoys from tribe near Briançon; ambush 10 km before Briançon
Night Hannibal's infantry separated from cavalry and baggage train

Day 8 Hannibal's army united near Briançon; march towards Col du Mont Genèvre
Night Camp at La Vachette, near the sources of the Durance?

Day 9 Hannibal's army reaches the Col du Montgenèvre
Night On the summit of Col du Montgenèvre

Col de Montgenèvre - Hautes-Alpes - FranceImage via Wikipedia

Day 10 Halt on the summit of Col du Montgenèvre
Night On the summit of Col du Montgenèvre

Day 11 Halt on the summit of Col du Montgenèvre; it begins to snow
Night On the summit of Col du Montgenèvre

Day 12 Precipitous and dangerous descent for about 9 km (1854 to 1354 meters)
Night Camp near Cesana Torinese

Day 13 Repairing the road; infantry starts to descend
Night Elephant camp near Cesana; infantry camp near Mollières

Day 14 Building a road for the elephants; infantry descends
Night Elephant camp near Cesana; infantry camp near Oulx

Day 15 Building a road for the elephants; infantry descends to Susa
Night Elephant camp near Cesana; infantry camp near Susa

Day 16 Infantry stays at Susa; first of three days' rest to recover from the fatigue

It turns out that there are three proposed routes – north, south, and south/central. The evidence favors the southern route, shown here.

The chronology used here comes from and Peter Connolly's book Hannibal and the Enemies of Rome (1978 London).
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, August 16, 2010

Two Kings Better than One?

If you google “dual monarchy”, you get references to the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted from 1867-1918. This made me laugh because of the insignificance of the Austria example next to that of the Spartans. Was this just another case where antiquity is ignored? Still experimenting, I tried using the words “dual kingship” and Sparta appeared, filling up the first page. Accompanying the Spartans was the Quarlug Confederation, The Khazars, and Havelok the Dane.

For this post, we’ll leave the obscure to their rightful place and focus on the Lacedaemonians, whose dual kingship was one aspect of their unique political system, one that lasted about 900 years longer than any other example. No one knows how the dual kingship started in Sparta. Herodotus gives an explanation but that is more folklore than anything else. He said the kings came from two dynasties: The Agiad and the Eurypontid, named after Agis and Eurypon, the first of each line. There were two kings because a mix-up of twins and the resulting confusion over who was supposed to rule. The genealogies for these two lines that have come down to us today are based on information from no less than eight historians, including the heavy hitters Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, and Livy. Still, much of the information is incomplete or questionable.

Starting around 550 B.C, the names become more familiar and there is some history about most of them. The famous Leonidas was of the Agiad line and, after he was killed at Thermopylae, his brother Cleombrotus served as regent for a year until his own son Pausanias was named the new Agiad king.

The Spartan kings had several major responsibilities, including acting as high priests for Spartan people and leading the army into battle. War was declared by the Assembly and the levy proclaimed by the Ephors, but the kings were the commanders. They also served on the Gerusia (council of elders) where their votes counted for two out of the thirty.  Aristotle called the Spartan kingship a hereditary generalship but he was only half right. As hereditary leaders, the kings could wield great power over their peers who had to be elected.

Bronze Spartan shield conquered, as the inscri...Image via WikipediaAt home the kings had special privileges. They took the first seats at dinner and were served a double portion. They had front row seats for all the games. They choose the Pythii (envoys to the Oracle at Delphi) and give them money for the Oracle. When a king died, the Spartiates mourned for ten days -- women wailing and beating their brows.

What, then, was the significance of the dual kingship as it related to the Spartan political system and the history of governments? For the former, it was a balancing force which helped perpetuate a 1000 year civilization. For the latter, very little. The Spartan way of life succeeded because the helot system allowed the Spartans to train and be the best warriors of all time. Without that one aspect, the Spartan soldiers would have been part timers like everyone else.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of How to Mellify a Corpse by Vicki Leon

I just finished an enjoyable journey with Vicki Leon’s latest, How to Mellify a Corpse. Out last month from Walker & Company, Mellify is a lighthearted journey into obscure antiquity where we uncover all kinds of fantastic detail from the lives of the Mediterranean people (not just Greeks and Romans). Don’t confuse lighthearted with weak content, however, because the author is well-schooled in everything ancient – scholarly stuff in the right context and accurate too.

Who would have known that the Goddess Hera’s breast was responsible for the Milky Way? Or that the Greeks combined magic with practical techniques to insure the birth of boy babies instead of girls. I couldn’t have imaged that the Egyptians build a ship so large it required 4000 rowers and measured 420 feet in length. They barely got it out of its cradle and only sailed once to show it could.

And then there’s the channeling of Epicurus, the story of Titus Lucretius Carus, who re-introduced the work of a philosopher dead for 250 years. He not only provided the world with a faithful rendering of the Epicurean system, but also gave us a great deal of information regarding the scientific thought of the time. Then, when the works of Epicurus were destroyed, Carus became our only link to the great lover of pleasure.

One of my particular favorites, called Girly men and contact highs, relates a tale from the Histories of Herodotus that occurred during a visit he made to the Scythians.
Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an e...Image via Wikipedia

An uncouth lot, they drank their defeated enemy’s blood out of cups made from their skulls. But the Scythians had a softer side too. They would lie in tents around a charcoal fire of burning marijuana “howling, awed, and elated by the vapor”. Unfortunately, they never took baths. The Scythian women had another approach, though. They covered their faces with a thick plaster made of cypress, cedar, and frankincense, which was left on overnight. The next day, they knocked off the mud and emerged sparkling clean.

Reading Ms. Leon’s book brought to mind Will Cuppy’s great The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, which I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years. Cuppy’s ferocious cynicism was both lethal and funny – entertainment at the expense of famous people. Ms. Leon’s approach is not as irreverent, but still presents a relaxed view of history – something academics could use to kick back every once in a while.

Mellify is divided into sections, each covering a different geographical area. We start with Athens and Attica and travel through the Greek Islands on the way to North Africa and Mesopotamia. The sections contain a series of articles (stories) about people from those geographies. Target audience for this book is those readers who are interested in the details of history but would like to avoid a heavy academic overtone. You can also read it for fun if you have a little time. It’s easy to pick out topics by scanning the table of contents. Read a title and if you like it, go to it.

Although she calls California home, the author a restless rolling stone, having spent years in the Mediterranean cultures she loves to research and write about. Over 30 nonfiction books later, she is still making discoveries about the lives that long-ago men and women led—and letting audiences in on their secrets. Ms. Leon sees her research as even more fun than a whodunit. That’s why she considers herself a historical detective.

Ms. Leon is best known for her “Uppity Women” series including Uppity Women of Ancient Times and Uppity Women of Medieval Times.

You can find Vicki Leon at: or Her blog: Vicki Leon/historical detective,
found on her website

Email Vicki at: or go chat on her facebook page
Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Travels of Lysander

The conventional wisdom at the beginning of the Peloponnesean War said that neither side could win it. The Spartan Army was too strong to be defeated, but their strength was offset by the Athenian Navy which had control of the seas. To win the war, one side had to figure out how to win on land and sea.

It took twenty-seven years for this obstacle to begin to resolve itself and the man that turned the tide was one of the greatest of the Spartans – Lysander, the man who defeated the Athenian Navy. Humbled by poverty in his youth, Lysander had to get a sponsor to support his entrance into the Agoge, but later rose through the ranks to a position of leadership.

Positioned perfectly in 407 B.C, he was named admiral (Navarch) of the Spartan Navy. Lysander proceeded to build a fleet at Ephesus where he met Cyrus the Younger, son of Darius II of Persia, who would become his friend and benefactor. When the new fleet was threatened by Alcibiades and the Athenians, Lysander waited until the Athenian commander was away and attacked while they were under the command of a subordinate. This victory at Notium meant the end of Alcibiades command and a setback for the Athenians. Lysander was relieved of command following the Spartan custom of rotation of leadership, returned to Sparta, and the navy was put under the command of Callicratidas. Later that year, the Spartans were defeated by the Athenians at Arginusae and Callicratidas was killed.

Lysander travel map (click on it)

New calls to reinstate Lysander as admiral were ignored and he was relegated to second in command under Aracus. All, including the new commander, knew who the sailors would obey in battle. Once the fleet was rebuilt, Lysander met with Cyrus at Sardis and then sailed on to the Hellespont, with the Athenians in pursuit. Then, after several days of maneuvering, Lysander caught them unprepared and won a decisive victory at Aegospotami. With Athens starving and their fleet destroyed, the men of Athens had no choice but to negotiate a peace. Lysander was recalled to Piraeus to represent Sparta after he had stopped off and taken Lesbos.

The following years were not kind to Lysander. He was pulled off command over Athens when the Spartan King Pausanius thought he was gaining too much power. Then he became involved with the Spartan succession in 401 B.C. when he convinced the Ephors to elect Agesilaus II Spartan King after the death of Agis II.

That same year, Lysander convinced the Spartans to take the side of Cyrus in attacking the Persian King Artaxerxes II. With a Spartan army fighting becide him, Cyrus was killed in the attack and his army defeated. Lysander then had Agesilaus named commander a war against the Persians hoping to find glory for himself, but the plan backfired when Agesilaus refused to let him participate. Agesilaus was about to attack the Persians when he was recalled to help in a new war against Thebes, caused by Lysander who had challenged split of spoils from Thebes victory over Phocis.

The Spartans planned to attack Thebes with two armies – one under command of Lysander and the other under the second Spartan King, Pausanius. Unfortunately, Lysander came under attack at Haliartus before the king arrived and was killed. Pausanius had him buried on the road between Delphi and Chaeronea.

To this day, Lysander remains a enigmatic figure in Spartan History. Distaining wealth but coveting power, he carried the Spartan code of honor to the extreme. He was honored, even deified, by his fellow Greeks for accomplishments in battle, but also ridiculed for abusing power for selfish gain.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Information about Sparta

Information about Sparta

Click on the link above to see a slide show about Sparta.

This is an experiment. I am looking for a way to display images in a post that are full size. Using Picasa albums looks like a good solution.