Friday, February 23, 2024

Book Review - The Silk Road Centurion

Review of Silk Road Centurion by Scott Forbes Crawford. Manchester, U.K, Camphor Press, 2023, 432 pages. ISBN 978-1-78869-279-3. 5 Stars

If you're interested in a piece of history embedded in a novel with a heavy dose of drama, suspense, and the pursuit of honor, I highly recommend Scott Forbes Crawford's Silk Road Centurion. This story is an amalgamation of Roman and Chinese cultures fused by threats against the principal characters that force them to fight if they are to survive. The author is a highly skilled storyteller who unveils shocking plot developments as the novel ends, compelling the reader to invest his emotions with every twist and turn.

The author tells the powerful story of the Roman Centurion Manius, who survives the total defeat of his army, only to have his life changed forever as he fights to survive and return home. Manius and some of his fellow soldiers are sold into slavery and transported to the Far East by a barbarian tribe. When his companions are sold, Manius remains behind because he is crippled. A group of Chinese prisoners join him, prompting Manius to befriend them and learn their language. An opportunity for escape presents itself, driving Manius to fight for freedom, and he takes refuge in a Chinese farming village.

The farmers realize that Manius has put them under threat of attack, so they work with him to fortify the village. When the inevitable happens, the town withstands the attack, but Manius' friend, Ox, sees his daughter kidnapped. Manius and Ox set off to pursue the girl, battling the elements and their enemies in a quest for love and honor.

The strengths of this book include strong character development and the personal relationships that tie the characters together. The noncombative farmers add their strength of will to the warrior skills of Manius to become a formidable team. The reader takes a tense ride along as the hero improvises his way toward survival. The cultural fusion is engaging, and the Roman learns much from his colleagues.

A weakness in the book is the vocabulary. The author used his strong vocabulary skills to create elegant word pictures, but I had a problem with the result. Some of the vocabulary is too advanced for a story set in 52 BCE. The spoken words are acceptable, but I would like to see the descriptive words simplified. I stopped noticing the words once I acclimated to the author's style.

The book weaves together a plot that is easy to follow and suspenseful. Anyone reader looking for that next "can't put it down book" should pick this one up.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Thanks for visiting my blog

My blog just saw it's 2 millionth visitor. Thanks for your interest and I look forward to your next visit.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Kings of Rome: What is real?

Most people who read ancient history are familiar with the kings of Rome, but the republic and empire get the lion’s share of the attention and the kings are usually relegated to mere anecdotes. Still, it’s interesting to discuss the kings and their part in founding the republic.

Why did Rome have kings, and why did they lose power in favor of the republic? We’ll discuss these questions later, but only peripherally, because the goal of this article is to talk about the kings and what we really know about them.

The Roman kings are shrouded in myth and invention: myth because Rome wanted to create a mythology like the Greeks; invention because much of the history was embellished to support the image of Rome. Here we will discuss what is known and toss the rest.

Our main source for information about the Roman kings is Livy Book I-V, the History of Rome. Livy’s dates were 59 BCE – 17CE, so he was writing about events up to 700 years before his time.

Livy was the first professional historian in Rome; historians who preceded him were wealthy people who studied history as a recreational activity. Livy read Thucydides and adopted his methods of relating history as stories about people. Those stories were made interesting to hold the attention of the reader. Livy believed Thucydides’ theory that history was a series of repeatable events displaying human behavior. For example, a tyrant in 500 BCE would act the same as a tyrant in 100 BCE. That idea made it easy to transfer current facts into the past. If the current tyrant stole money from the treasury, then the tyrant, from 400 years before, must have stolen money from the treasury.

There were certainly events that made an impression on the Roman people, who wrote them down and carried them through history, so Livy has some true facts to use. One example was the barbarian sack of Rome in 390 BCE. That story was well-known to all Romans. A treaty between Rome and Carthage dated 507 BCE was also verified, as was a solar eclipse in 404 BCE.

We know that Rome was originally settled by two separate groups who tended goat and cattle herds, because of the differences in their pottery. They lived in huts on the top of two of the famous Roman hills: the Palatine and the Esquiline and lived a pastoral life, which continued for a century or more until the Etruscans appeared. More on that later.

Let us review the history of the kings in chronological order. Those stories that are bolded appear to be true.

1. Romulus (753-716), the founder of Rome, did not exist, but he was an important character in Roman mythology. The story of Romulus and Remus, with different names, was a Greek legend. There is no factual evidence about the existence of Romulus and the traditional founding date of the city, 753 BCE, was arbitrary.

2. Numa Pompilius (715-672) established Rome’s religious traditions, built temples, and set down rules for worshiping the gods. All Romans knew him as the king who created the cult of the Vestal Virgins. Numa introduced a legal system that governed some aspects of Roman life, such as marriage and contracts. The story of the Vestal Virgin story is the only plausible one.

3. Tullus Hostilius (672-640), the third king of Rome, was known for his focus on the military, and his expansion of Rome's territory through conquests. Tullus is also credited with the transformation of Rome into a city-state. History records that he built the first Senate House (the curia), naming it Curia Hostilia. The remaining details of his reign have not been verified.

4. Ancus Marcius (640-616). Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, prioritized infrastructure development. He expanded the size of the city, built its first walls, and constructed the first bridge over the Tiber River. There is no verification for this information.

Etruscan influence

The Etruscan civilization arose north and west of Rome in about 900 BCE. It developed into an advanced society and the Etruscans became international traders. They engaged in trade all along the west coast of Italy, using a road that crossed the Tiber near the Roman settlements, because the river was shallow there. They often traveled to the mouth of the Tiber to gather salt for their cities. The Etruscans were on good terms with the Romans until an Etruscan, Tarquinius Priscus, took the Roman kingship by force.

5. Tarquinius Priscus (616-578), the fifth king of Rome, was born in Etruria, and he introduced Etruscan customs and influences to Rome. Around this time, Roman pottery began to change under Etruscan influence and inscriptions exist in Rome that refer to the Tarquin family. We know that the Forum was drained in around 620 BCE, probably by Tarquinius. A new sewer was constructed to keep the Forum dry, and the contractors used Etruscan construction methods. Tarquinius is credited with creating the first Roman assembly (Curate). He may also have constructed the Temple of Vesta and the royal palace. Tarquinius introduced the Etruscan traditions of divination and augury (predicting the future). Lastly, he is credited with creating the three tribes, Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, who later became the patrician class.

6. Servius Tullius (578-535), was the sixth king of Rome, and apparently enjoyed a reputation as a regal and progressive king. Servius married his daughter of Tarquinius Priscus, and following his death, became the guardian of the kingdom before ascending to the throne. Servius Tullius is best known for social and political reforms. He is said to have established the Servian Constitution, which introduced a new system of government and social structure. The Servian Constitution divided the population into classes based on wealth, and assigned them to positions in the republican assembly, by rank. This was the first attempt, by the Senate, to distribute power more equitably and decrease the influence of the aristocracy.

Additionally, Servius implemented several infrastructure projects, including the construction of the Servian Walls, which fortified the city of Rome and marked a significant expansion of its boundaries. We know that during his reign, the Roman army was converted to the Greek model (Hoplite) and started utilizing the Phalanx formation. Servius established the Cult of Diana, presumably to make Rome they head of an alliance with other Latin districts. Servius was assassinated by his daughter, and her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who then assumed the throne. The Servian Constitution story is plausible, the date for the hoplite conversion accurate, and the Cult of Diana story reasonable.

7. Tarquinius Superbus (535-510), also known as Tarquin the Proud, was the seventh king of Rome, and son of Tarquinius Priscus. Tarquinius Superbus is notorious for his despotic rule. He disregarded the rights of the Roman people and governed as a tyrant. Superbus consolidated power by suppressing political dissent and implemented a system of brutal repression. In 510 BCE, a revolt against the tyrant resulted in the overthrow of the king and the entire monarchy, marking the establishment of the Roman Republic.

The republic replaced the king with a new magistrate called the consul. Two consul positions were created, with veto power over each other, so neither could try and take control of the republic. Brutus was named the first consul of the new Republic along with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.

After the republic was in operation, the former king tried to regain the throne, using his ambassadors to put together a conspiracy against the Republic. Two of Brutus’ sons were part of the conspiracy and Brutus had them executed along with other conspirators, to demonstrate his loyalty to the republic. Superbus then sent an army to attack Rome, but he was repulsed at the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BCE. Brutus led the cavalry on the side of the Republic, but was killed in battle. It is likely that Brutus was a real person and likely that the former king fought to regain the throne, but details of these events have not been verified.

After the kings

The Republic was launched in 509 BCE with a new political system, which included the Senate, people’s assembly, and two consuls. This was 250 years after the founding of the city, but few details from this period can be confirmed. We know that in 494 BCE, the Plebeians revolted, forcing the government to create a new magistrate position, the tribune, who would represent the plebeians. Later, in about 450 BCE, the plebeians forced the government to write down the laws of Rome (The Twelve Tables) and display them in the Forum for all to see.

The Romans went to war with the Etruscans in 405 BCE and it took them 10 years to capture the city of Veii. After many wars over many decades, the Romans defeated the Etruscans for the final time in 280 BCE, and absorbed Etruria into the republic.

At the beginning of this article I asked, why Rome had kings and how did they lose power?

Monarchy was the default political system in the ancient world. Greece was an exception to the rule, although Sparta had kings. In Rome, as the society developed, economic classes formed, with the wealthy at the top. Perhaps it was an oligarchy or aristocracy that became established. Then, at some point, a leader emerged and became king. This story was common place in antiquity.

What is surprising, though, is the overthrow of the kings and the establishment of the republic. The Latin people who occupied the geography in and around the city of Rome, were a unique people, who believed in themselves and were dedicated to building a political system that involved the people. Rome was one of few republics in history and probably unique in the ancient world.

Its people were hardworking, with an uncommon engineering sense, that drove them to build bridges, aqueducts, roads, and buildings, unlike any other civilization in ancient times. The Romans were not thinkers like the Greeks. They were doers. Of all the tribes and societies in Italy, or for that matter all of Europe, only the Romans possessed the skills and motivation to organize their world and set an example for all time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

How much do we really know about Minoan culture? How much is creative imagination?

 Guest post by Giota Detsi

Truth be told, we have a lot of unanswered questions about the Minoans (Were they really called that, for instance?). However, the popularity of this civilization has led to the creation of false stereotypes. In our search for the truth from myths (and assumptions!) our assistants will be the usual; archaeological finds, anthropology, genetics, Greek myths, and ancient texts.

Truth be told, we have a lot of unanswered questions about the Minoans (Were they really called that, for instance?). However, the popularity of this civilization has led to the creation of false stereotypes. In our search for the truth from myths (and assumptions!) our assistants will be the usual; archaeological finds, anthropology, genetics, Greek myths, and ancient texts.

 The name-Minoan civilization- is a product of creative imagination. In fact, we don’t know what the Minoans called themselves. From the Egyptian archives, we get the name Keftiu (that reminds us of Crete) but the name of their homeland is still under discussion.

 We definitely know their origin; at least three-quarters of their population came from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean, and most of the remainder from ancient populations like those of the Caucasus and Iran. 

 We know the time period that the Minoan civilization arose, thrived, and declined. It emerged in the 3rd millennium BCE, reached its peak in the 2nd millennium BCE, and vanished in the Bronze Age collapse, around 1150 BCE.

 The Minoans were international merchants and seamen; they were highly involved in metal trading and Minoan artifacts are found around the Mediterranean coast (much of it from Egypt and the Levant, fewer items on the West coast). How far did they travel? We can’t tell for sure although there are indications of Minoan presence as far as Scandinavia. The indirect trade between the Minoans and the British islands and the Baltic region is proven by the Welsh tin and the Baltic amber they used.

Bronze was imported to Scandinavia from the East Mediterranean. At the same time, amber from the Baltic appeared in Minoan graves and petroglyphs of very large sea ships have been found in today’s Sweden. Back in 1700 BCE, only the Minoan ships fit that depiction.

The Minoans were great craftsmen and engineers. This is undisputed as the Minoan ceramics, jewels, artifacts, and constructions unearthed are astonishing.

This little gold pendant from Malia (~1800 BCE), IMO, is the epitome of the Minoan micro-jewelry and is hauntingly beautiful. If you ever visit Crete, go to the Heraklion Museum.

The palatial complex at Knossos. The main Minoan cities were unique as they were built in a form of complexes including the royal residence, shops, workshops, warehouses, residents, and more. The interior facilities had no match for many millennia ahead…

There are strong indications of advanced technology. Otherwise, how could they make items like this 1.3 inches agate seal with microscopic carved details?

The Greek legends about Daedalus and his achievements (the construction of the Labyrinth, the robot Talos, and the flying device/wings) enhance this notion. The Greeks showed great respect for the Minoan technology although they seemed relieved when they got rid of them!

The lack of deciphered scripts (apart from an interesting metric system) doesn’t allow us to make solid conclusions about their scientific knowledge.

Let’s sum it up till now; the Minoans are (for sure) olive skin and dark-haired people, travelers, merchants, craftsmen, and probably primitive scientists. This was the easy part, as all the above facts came directly from excavation findings or lab analysis.

 The discussion of topics such as the Minoan regime, religion, and society are tricky, because the lack of written texts and references can’t be replaced by archaeology.

However, there are two commonly believed assumptions that archaeology has debunked.

Were the Minoans a peaceful people?

Sir Arthur Evans claimed that there weren’t any fortifications on the island and very few weapons were found in the Minoan cemeteries, so, they must be a peaceful society. This is not true. In the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE the Minoans conquered the Cycladic islands, and Greek myths talk about fierce rivalry between them and the Mycenaeans. And there were fortifications on the island, unearthed by Sir Arthur Evans!

Evans was a skilled archaeologist, applied pioneer methods, and did remarkable, monumental work on Crete and was the single most influential person to have shaped modern understanding of the Minoan civilization. Why did he disguise the truth? The explanation has a political origin. The discovery of the warlike Mycenaean world by an amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, launched the prehistoric Aegean to take center stage.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Mediterranean and Balkans were ravaged by conflict between the weakening Ottoman Empire and subject nations struggling to gain independence. Sir Arthur had already experienced first-hand the terrible ethnically- and religiously-driven conflict in the Balkans, and again on Crete, and hoped his excavation at Knossos could reveal the oldest European civilization to be a place of peace and unity.

The impact of Evan’s vision can be seen at its most literal at the site of Knossos as his arbitrary “reconstitutions” are criticized by many scholars but visitors remain enchanted by them.

Were the Minoans a cheerful society?

The truth is that the colorful frescoes and pottery depict scenes of smiling people engaged in everyday activities. But the Minoans had a nightmare, the earthquakes!

This is Crete, a mountainous island of ~8,500 km2 in the middle of the Eastern Mediterranean.

It lies within the uplifted fore-arc section of the Hellenic subduction margin. In simple words, it is exactly where the African oceanic plate runs into and slides beneath the continental Eurasian one. As a result, it is the most seismically active region of Europe, the island is literally trembling, a fact that the Minoans took seriously during construction. Their anti-seismic constructions were ahead of their contemporaries.

When the anti-seismic skills were not enough, the Minoans asked their deities for protection, offering them the ultimate sacrifice, human lives!

Those were the Minoans…bright and dark, victims and killers. More than a hundred years after they entered the world of history, emerging from mythology, they still keep a lot of secrets and surprises from us. This only makes them even more fascinating…. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

My new guest post partner

I want to introduce you to someone who will be contributing guest posts on this site. Giota Detsi lives in Athens and has been writing articles about ancient history for several years. We have worked together on the Ancient History space on Quora since 2019.

 As you can guess, her focus is on Greek and Aegean history. When she isn’t writing about ancient history, Giota is a Physics teacher.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Extraordinary History of Mesopotamia

The Greek and Roman cultures are universally recognized as the greatest Western civilizations from the time we consider “ancient.” Their influence was rooted in culture, which provided a foundation for modern society and its political frameworks, and they would ultimately become models for post-Enlightenment governments. The Greeks, as specialists in ideas, pioneered modern philosophy, art, theater, poetry, mathematics, and science. The Romans, as a more practical people, contributed engineering, law, and a political system called the Republic.

The accomplishments of Greece and Rome cast a shadow over their predecessors, suggesting the older civilizations were less important. That line of thinking is a serious mistake, which we will attempt to reverse here by highlighting the importance of Mesopotamia, one of the most important civilizations in all of human history. Mesopotamia built the world’s first true civilization making it the father of all cultures in the West that would follow it. Mesopotamia served as the crucible for mankind to develop agricultural, pre-dynastic, and monarchical cultures.

The word Mesopotamia is a collective term for several ancient cultures located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. These societies prospered as independently from 5000 BCE to 1800 BCE. Their advent was facilitated by the presence of an alluvial plain, which provided the spark for mankind to begin irrigation farming. An alluvial plain is a gently sloping land surface formed by sediment left from rising and falling water levels.

1 Alluvial Plain Tigris River

Planting in an alluvial plain maid the sowing and watering crops easier because the softness of the soil allowed seeds to be pressed into the ground, by hand, without difficulty.

The history of the Mesopotamian region is too expansive to describe in a short article because its many separate cultures existed over a span of four millennia. To simplify the story, we will focus our discussion on Sumer, arguably the most important of the Mesopotamian cultures. The term Sumer refers to a specific geographical region of Mesopotamia, in the south, near the point where the Tigris and Euphrates empty into the Persian Gulf. That geography would come to support one of the greatest of the world’s ancient cultures.

The map above shows ancient Sumer and its cities.  At the time when the area which would become Sumer was established (6500BC), the Persian Gulf extended farther north than it does today. Baghdad and Babylon are shown as reference points only. Neither existed during the time of Sumerian domination.

The Ubaidians were the first to exploit the alluvial plain of Sumer and build a civilization between the great rivers.

The cities shown on the map, which would later become the jewels of Sumer, were originally Ubaid cities. We know this because their names predate the Sumerian language. The Ubaids developed as a civilization of farmers, cattle raisers, and fishermen. Their craftsmen included weavers, leatherworkers, carpenters, smiths, potters, and masons. Excavated remains from the period include hoes, adzes, and knives, along with clay artifacts such as sickles, bricks, loom weights, figurines, and painted pottery. Together, these artifacts provide a record of stunning accomplishments for a people who predated the Greeks by 4000 years.

As the Ubaid culture matured, outsiders from the Syrian desert region and Arabian Peninsula began to settle in their territory, gradually taking control of the area via assimilation and military conquest. The result was an ethnic fusion that became Sumer. By 3800 BCE, the Sumerian civilization had reached its peak.

The ziggurat is Mesopotamian temple and one of the most important symbols of the Sumerian civilization. These structures were the largest built by man at the time and represent the power and sophistication of the great Sumerian cities. Sumerians believed that the gods resided in their temples and so they prohibited the public from entering their sanctuaries. The ziggurat also contained separate structures for grain storage, recalling the time when the cities operated as theocracies and the priests served as municipal administrators in addition to their religious duties.

The first phase of the Sumerian Era is known as the Uruk period (4100-2900 BCE), after the Sumerian city of that name. Uruk seems to have been the cultural centre of Sumer at the time because it housed the principal monuments of the region and exhibited the most obvious traces of an advanced urban society. By 3500 BCE, the world’s first system of writing, had been developed as Uruk exerted influence over the entire Near East. The written form of the Sumerian language, called Cuneiform, was developed through the evolution of characters from representative (pictograms) to non-representative.

Sumer was the most agriculturally productive region of Mesopotamia, as a result of an irrigation system which was focused on the cultivation of barley and the pasturing of sheep for their wool. Although it lacked mineral resources and its climate was arid, the region had undeniable geographic and environmental advantages; it consisted of a vast delta with a flat region transected by waterways, resulting in a potentially vast area of cultivatable land, over which communications by river or land were easy. Sumer became a highly populated and urbanized region in the 4th millennium BCE, with a social hierarchy, an artisan economy, and long-distance commerce.

During the Uruk period, the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centered cities (with populations of over 10,000 people), where centralized administrations employed specialized workers. It is fairly certain that it was during the Uruk period that Sumerian cities began to make use of slave labor captured from the hill country, and there is ample evidence for captured slaves as workers in the earliest texts.

Following the Uruk period, an early dynastic period evolved in Sumer. Political systems became centralized and were controlled by a small group of individuals. This period saw the emergence of multiple city-states, that developed and solidified over time.

The dynastic period began in 2900 BCE and was associated with a shift from the temple establishment headed by council of elders led by a priest towards a more secular leader such as the legendary patriarchal figures Dumuzid, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh, who reigned shortly before the historical record began. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas, and local Semitic groups adopted much of Sumerian culture for their own.

The earliest dynastic king on the Sumerian king list whose name is known from any other legendary source is Etana, 13th king of the first dynasty of Kish. As the Epic of Gilgamesh shows, this period was associated with increased war. Cities became walled, and increased in size as undefended villages in southern Mesopotamia disappeared. Both Enmerkar and Gilgamesh are credited with having built the walls of Uruk.

In the year ~2350 BCE, the Sumerian dynasties were overrun by Sargon, king of the Akkadian Empire. Akkad and its capital Agate were located to the north of Sumer, just beyond Kish. The Akkadian Empire has been labeled the first empire in human history. Sargon built an empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf to Cyprus, but the empire was always unstable and collapsed after two hundred years.

The last gasp at power by the Sumerians began immediately after the fall of the Akkadians. The 3rd dynasty of Ur under Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, was able to extend its power as far as southern Assyria. Ur III would only survive for 100 years before it was absorbed into the growing Babylonian Empire. By then, the region had become more Semitic than Sumerian, with the resurgence of the Akkadian speaking Semites in Assyria and elsewhere, so the purity of the Sumerian race was compromised. The Sumerian language continued as a sacerdotal language taught in schools in Babylonia and Assyria, much as Latin was used in the Medieval period.

The Ur III period coincides with a major shift in population from southern Mesopotamia toward the north. Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of the Sumerian lands was being compromised as a result of rising salinity. Soil salinity in this region had been long recognized as a major problem. Poorly drained irrigated soils, in an arid climate with high levels of evaporation, led to the buildup of dissolved salts in the soil, eventually reducing agricultural yields severely. During the Akkadian and Ur III phases, there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, but this was insufficient, and during the period from 2100 BCE to 1700 BCE, it is estimated that the population in this area declined by nearly three fifths. This greatly upset the balance of power within the region, weakening the areas where Sumerian was spoken, and comparatively strengthening those where Akkadian was the major language. From that point on, Sumerian would remain, only serving as a literary and liturgical language, similar to the position occupied by Latin in medieval Europe.


1. Climate Change Post. Climate change impacts in the Euphrates–Tigris Basin. March 27,2021.

2. Arch Eyes: Timeless Architecture. Religious Architecture. Urban Design. Ziggurat Architecture in Mesopotamia, April 18, 2016.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Influence of Ancient Politics on Modern Political Systems

Most people believe ancient political systems have had a minimal effect on politics of the modern and postmodern world. The common belief is that the ancient world was largely barbarian with human rights virtually non-existent, so history from that time must be discounted. Is this a correct assumption or is there something can we learn about politics from antiquity?

The earliest Western civilizations were theocratic, but that model became obsolete with the advent of warfare. Winning in battle required military leadership and the power generated by a military leader’s success led to the evolution of kingship as the center of civil power in the state. The next step in the evolution of government was the monarchy, which bolted hereditary authority onto the kingship model. Monarchies were the most common form of government before the Enlightenment. They survived because the authoritarian state could manage the society efficiently and, at the same time, protect its status.

In the midst of the monarchies permeating the ancient world, stood two models that would foreshadow modern politics: the Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic. These governments were true innovations in the application of liberty and human rights.

The mountains of Greece were an opportune setting for democracy. They divided the Greek landscape into small spaces which acted as incubators for the development of rights-based political systems. After the Mycenean civilization ended, the Greek peninsula descended into a dark age period, where political and social advancement came to a halt. Then slowly, small communities, governed by the people, began to develop. These communities blocked attempts by the wealthy to gain power, keeping control in public hands.

The Polis evolved to became the standard form of government across Greece after 700 BC. Each Polis developed its own characteristics, but all featured the institutions of democracy. In time, Athens became the most famous of the Poleis, because of its size and influence over the Greek peninsula. Athens developed its final democratic form after periods of tyrants and a flirtation with republicanism under Solon. Its high point occurred during the so called “Golden Age,” in the fifth century BC, when Pericles was its leader.

The Golden Age was also the beginning of the end for Athens, because she would soon be defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The structure of the Polis had weakened and the advent of the sophists ushered in a new focus on the individual, replacing the cultural unity that had existed previously. It was only 60 years after the Peloponnesian war that Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander) subdued the Greek peninsula and the Polis passed out of existence.

The story of Rome was vastly different. Rome began as a hilltop community founded near a ford in the Tiber River, in a part of Italy known as Latium. The early tribes of Rome were farmers, married to the land. Rome was far from the sea, and its people had no history of sea trade, so land was its most valuable asset. Early Rome was influenced by the nearby Etruscan civilization. Its customs and government structure were readily adopted by the Romans. Two of the early kings of Rome were Etruscans.

Rome could not tolerate a monarchy. It threw off the last of the kings in 509 BC and became a republic. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, or “thing of the people.” This thing of the Roman people was the rights they obtained through the people’s assembly. The republic featured an executive branch consisting of elected magistrates, led by a pair of consuls. The legislative branch consisted of the Senate and the people’s assembly. The assembly could pass laws but not propose them. The Senate could propose laws but not vote on them.

In the early days of the republic, Rome was dominated by the wealthy patrician class. Descendants of the three original Roman tribes, the patricians, controlled money and power in the republic. The Plebeians had no rights in the beginning, but through organized efforts, they won for themselves an expansion of their rights. They fought for executive branch representation, so the college of tribunes was created. They demanded written laws, so the twelve tables were posted in the Forum. They demanded access to all elected offices and this was also granted by the Senate over time. What made the Roman republic work was the willingness of the Senate to extend rights to all citizens. That reality prevented instability and allowed Rome to prosper.

But the republic did not survive. After 400 years, it began to crumble because of mistakes by the Senate, inefficient government, and territorial expansion, which required a large army. Until the end of the second century BC, Rome had a citizen army; farmers put down their implements and went to war.

In 107 BC, Gaius Marius, the leading general in the republic, created a professional army. This caused the soldiers to shift their loyalty from the Senate to their commander. Now any general, with a lust for power, could bend the army to his will and overthrow the government. That fear became a reality when Julius Caesar made himself permanent dictator, leading to the collapse of the republic.

The founding fathers of the United States knew the stories of Athens and Rome. Most could speak Latin and Greek, and they had read the history of antiquity in the original language. When it came time to create the American Constitution, they thought long and hard about the design of their new government. The United States would be the first “new” nation in the last thousand years of Western civilization, but what form should its government take?

The founders looked to the models of Greece and Rome as templates. In a short time, the Greek model was rejected. The polis was small enough so that citizens could attend meetings of the assembly and vote. This was not possible in a territory as large as the thirteen colonies. The new government had to be built on representation; elected officials representing citizens.

The founders had the experience of the colonial governments to draw upon and they understood the British Constitution. They decided that adapting the Roman republic to America would be the most logical approach. During the Constitutional Convention, the design of each branch of government was debated at length. There was early agreement on the Legislature which would contain an upper class of “elders” and a people’s assembly. There was a long negotiation about how the legislature should be constituted and how the representatives should be elected. A balance was reached by having two senators per state and an assembly determined by population distribution. Senators would be elected by the states and representatives directly by the people.

The executive branch was also subject of a lengthy debate. How would the chief magistrate (president) be elected and for how long? In the end, the delegates chose a presidential term of four years with the president elected by the states.

The founders looked at the new government as a republic of state republics. The states would share power with the Federal government with no overlap of jurisdictions. The founders believed that too much democracy was dangerous: that the public could be influenced to vote for a tyrant. Better to have the senior legislative chamber and the president elected by the states. They also battled over the power of the Federal government. Some wanted it to be small, only functioning in areas inappropriate for states, like treaties with foreign governments. Others wanted it to have more power, thinking that professional politicians from the elite class would be the best managers of the country.

America’s founders learned much from the ancient governments of Greece and Rome. They could read about the impact of citizens as direct participants in government. They had the luxury of analyzing systems that failed so they could avoid those same problems.

The debate about the structure of the American government has continued from the time of the Constitution until the present day. During the passage of time, the Federal government has grown exponentially, as the demand for its programs have increased, the courts have accommodated the shifting of the role of the Federal government to one as caretaker for society, and the American social culture has changed enormously. There is no playbook for how to adapt a political system to these types of changes, but we have history to guide for the direction we have to take now.

The Enlightenment made us believe that individual rights were important. That concept allowed democracies to take over the world as the default political system. The ancients taught us about the value of tradition as applied to changing societies. Tradition has to be used as a guide for moving forward, because too much change creates instability. The French Revolution warned us what can happen when all traditions are discarded.

Why is the study of ancient political systems important? The answer lies in the fact that all human societies are experiments in a public morality built by a consensus of the individual moralities of their citizens.

Man did not evolve to live among strangers; he evolved to live among small kinship groups. There are no human socio-psychological mechanisms to cope with living in societies, so each iteration becomes a unique model. The brilliance of the ancients is that their ideas can accommodate the postmodern society. The ancients understood human nature well enough to create models that are timeless and function at any time and place.