Monday, May 16, 2022

Guest Post: Summary of a Recently Published Book about the Fall of the Roman Empire.


 Dr. Michael Arnheim Sometime Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge

                                        Barrister at Law

My latest published book, number 23 to be precise, offers a completely new take on Roman history, and indeed on history as a whole:  Why Rome Fell: Decline and Fall, or Drift and Change?  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2022.)

The book focuses on three vital social measures, which are largely ignored by most other historians, namely power structure, social ethos, and religious toleration. The power structure is the gauge of who has the whip-hand in a society, which correlates to some extent with social mobility, liberty and equality.  The evidence of societies over three millennia reveals that there have only ever been two pure forms of government: monarchy and oligarchy (the latter, if hereditary, morphing into aristocracy.)  This is based on my own original analysis of the power structure of a number of different societies, a concept completely unknown to practically all other historians. It is explained in Chapter 6 of the book, complete with case studies of societies ranging from Classical Greece to Modern France.  This is completely different from and independent of all previous classifications, including those of Plato, Aristotle and Polybius, and all modern classifications, including the one-note “oligarchy” theories of Mosca, Pareto, Michels and (surprisingly) Sir Ronald Syme.  (The only analysis that is at all similar to mine is Machiavelli’s.  See pages 292ff of my book).  The long sweep of Roman history constitutes a valuable resource for analysis, combining as it does both forms of government.  It is a fallacy to think, for example, that the Roman Republic (509-44 BCE) was ever anything other than an oligarchy, or that democracy has ever existed in reality at any time or in any place.   However, as far as social ethos is concerned (another concept alien to most historians), this was aristocratic throughout, regardless of the form of government. 

The picture that emerges is very different from the conventional one, and even more different from that purveyed by the currently fashionable “Late Antiquity” tendency.  According to my analysis, the most crucial turning point was not 476, when the last Western emperor was deposed, nor 395, when the Empire finally split into two, nor even Diocletian’s accession in 284, but the Edict of Thessalonica of 380 making Nicene Christianity the sole exclusive religion of the Roman world, which ended over 800 years of religious toleration and ushered in more than 1500 years of religious intolerance and persecution.

Mary Tudor

Power structure

While touring his Eastern provinces, we are told, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) curtly brushed aside an insistent suppliant with the excuse that he had no time to hear her petition. But the woman concerned was not to be quite so easily deterred.  “Then don’t be king!” came her retort.  Stung by this rebuke, Hadrian relented.  (Cassius Dio 69.6)   Similar anecdotes are related of other rulers, including Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, and Demetrius, a later king of Macedon.  And Hadrian’s predecessor and adoptive father, Trajan (r. 98-117), is said to have interrupted his journey to war in order to comfort a widow whose son had been killed in battle.  It was on the basis of this considerate act that Dante admitted Trajan into Paradise---the first pagan to be accorded this honor. (Dante, Paradiso XX 43-48, 106-117.)

Is there any truth in any of these anecdotes?  Quite likely.  They all reflect a view of monarchy as creating a bond between the ruler and his subjects---and especially his humblest subjects.  Hence the rebuffed petitioner’s cry, “Then don’t be king!” ---implying that it is the duty of a true king or emperor to be responsive to the needs of the lowliest of his subjects. 

This is a model of government that may be labelled popular monarchy or even populist monarchy, where there is a bond between the ruler and the masses against the aristocracy.  The flip side of this model is oligarchy or aristocracy, where power is in the hands of an elite minority, who tend to be viscerally afraid of the rise to monarchy of a strong popular leader as a possible threat to their monopoly of power.

The Roman Republic (509-44 BCE) is a prime example of oligarchic government. The whole Republican constitution was geared to preventing any one individual from becoming too prominent. Hence the two consuls as joint and equal heads of state holding office for only one year. Hence the shared office-holding of the lower magistracies as well.  And hence too the annual elections to these offices. The appointment of a dictator was the one exception to this pattern, but it was resorted to only at times of extreme national crisis, and restricted to a tenure of six months---that is, until it became the avenue for ambitious generals to subvert the oligarchy.

In accepting the title dictator perpetuo, (“dictator in perpetuity”) in 44 BCE, Julius Caesar effectively brought the Republic to an end by unabashedly replacing the oligarchy with himself as sole ruler for life. In so doing he also unintentionally spurred an aristocratic conspiracy to cut short his life tenure on the Ides of March just a few weeks later.

Julius Caesar

The lesson was not lost on Caesar’s heir, Augustus, who emerged victorious after two civil wars. He established a lasting monarchy based on popular support inherited from Caesar while placating the eclipsed aristocracy with a show of participation in his administration.  Gibbon remarked on: “The indissoluble union and easy obedience that pervaded the government of Augustus and the Antonines.” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776, Ch 51) This exemplar of strong popular monarchy lasted, with a few hiccups, for well nigh three centuries.

With the accession of Diocletian in 284 the careful finesse of the Augustan “Principate” was cast aside in favor of a crude military regime dubbed by modern historians the “Dominate,” which successfully tackled the crisis that had beset the empire, complete with a ham-fisted draconian price edict. which (among about a thousand products) set the maximum price for a lion (not exactly a household commodity) at 150,000 denarii.

Between 306 and 324 Constantine’s dominion was purely in the West, the stronghold of the senatorial aristocracy, who had been ousted by Diocletian from the carefully modulated role that they had played as provincial governors for three hundred years.  To win their support, Constantine brought this highly influential and extremely wealthy class back into government in the West, where their importance grew until the dissolution of the Western Empire.  And aristocratic influence actually continued well into the Middle Ages, especially in what is now France.

From 324, when Constantine added the East to his dominions, his attention shifted to his new capital, Constantinople.  In the Eastern half of the empire, which split from the West in 395, as what is now known as the Byzantine Empire, the “Dominate” supposedly continued in force for another thousand years, until what was left of it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.  Lacking the popular support of the Augustan Principate and the counterweight of aristocratic ballast, the apparently all-powerful Byzantine emperors in practice shared their power with overweening eunuch chamberlains and a potent Church. 

Social mobility

Under the Augustan settlement more and more conquered provincials were granted the highly prized Roman citizenship, until in 212 the emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free adult men in the Empire. As Romanization spread, so did access to high office, notably senatorial rank.  And, from Trajan (r. 98-117) onward practically every emperor was of provincial stock.  In sociological terms, during the Principate the elites were well and truly open.  The Later Roman Empire saw an inflation of titles, which is often mistaken for class “fusion” and social mobility, but in their western bastion the senatorial aristocracy kept themselves separate and aloof from the lesser breeds with whom they sometimes shared titulature.   

Social Ethos

While the Roman Empire was a monarchy of one kind or another from its inception under Augustus, its social ethos remained unremittingly aristocratic, based on a fundamental belief in the inequality of human beings. This persists to this day, even while purportedly eclipsed by the egalitarian ideals of the eighteenth century “Enlightenment.”.  Even the French Revolution drew a distinction between “active citizens” and “passive citizens”, granting the right to vote to only about 4.3 million adult male Frenchmen out of a total p0pulation of around 29 million.

Religious Toleration

While power structure and social ethos are ignored by most other historians, religious toleration is now generally recognized as a desirable goal---but is completely misunderstood as far as ancient history is concerned by adherents of the currently fashionable “Late Antiquity” tendency. "Correct religion was the glory of the Empire,” opines Peter Brown, the founder of this “school”: “It had to be imposed in a manner that reflected the overwhelming dignity of the imperial power." (Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. XIII, 1997, p. 644.) This bald assertion combines four disquieting assumptions: (i) That there is such a thing as one single "correct religion." (ii) The identification of Nicene Christianity as that "correct religion." (iii) That the dominance of this "correct religion" glorified or exalted the Later Roman Empire in some way. And (iv) That this "correct religion" not only could be forced upon the citizenry but "had to be imposed."    

The rose-colored spectacles through which the persecutions of the state-imposed dominant Christian Church are here viewed at the same time distort the picture of what went before: over 800 years of religious toleration, and even freedom of religion. While the Roman state religion was polytheistic “paganism,” innumerable foreign cults and religions flourished largely without let or hindrance. These included Christianity, whose claims to have suffered persecution before winning imperial favor have lately been proved essentially baseless. (See Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, New York: HarperCollins, 2013.)

Why was dominant Christianity intolerant not only of other religions but also of all “heretical” deviations from the one “correct” orthodoxy, while pagan Rome was a haven of religious freedom?  It is because, while Christianity was (and is) a creed religion, Roman “paganism” was a communal religion.  

By its very nature, a creed religion stands or falls by the “truth” of a creed, or set of beliefs, which are held out as the unique key to “salvation.”  Rejection of this creed, or the slightest deviation from it, results in persecution, or worse. 

Christianity was really the earliest creed religion.  In the ancient world communal religions were the norm.  Your membership of a particular nation, state or society carried with it automatic membership of that society's religion. The Roman "pagan" religion was of this type. There was no separate religious identity. Beliefs did not play a big part in communal religions.  It was assumed and accepted that every society had its own religion, and, as a result, conversion was practically unknown.  Religious toleration was therefore the norm. And in a cosmopolitan melting-pot like Rome, adherence to several different religions or cults was not uncommon.

Antinous of Delphi

In view of the sensitivity of religion as a subject of discussion, it may be worthwhile to summarize some of the most important points about Christianity to be found in the book:

(a)    Christianity is a creed religion, meaning that it stands or falls on the basis of the truth of a creed, or set of beliefs.

(b)    Every Christian denomination, sect or grouping has its own creed, the slightest deviation from which is regarded as “heresy”.

(c)      Groups like the Donatists in Africa and Monophysites in Egypt, branded as “heretics” and persecuted by the established Church and the imperial government had no reason to be loyal to the Roman or Byzantine state, and actually supported enemies of the state. (See pages 5-6, 265, 341).

(d)     Christianity was a divisive factor, and to that extent contributed to the fall of the Western Empire.   

(e)    However, and even more importantly, the dominance of Christianity was a factor of continuity from the Later Roman Empire to the present day. By contrast with the 800 years of religious toleration and indeed of freedom of worship prior to Christian dominance, the intolerance and persecution of non-Christian religions and “heresy” initiated by Christian dominance (formalized in 380) continued in the Christian world for more than 1500 years. (See Chapters 4 and 5 of the book).

Christianity's rise to dominance through imperial favor in the fourth century ushered in over 1500 years of religious persecution, religious wars, and burnings at the stake. If Christian countries are more tolerant today than they were even a century ago, it is not because Christianity itself has changed, but because of the secularisation of western society.


The Roman Republic, a textbook example of oligarchy lasting almost 500 years (509 -44 BCE), was succeeded by the Augustan Principate, three centuries of true monarchy with popular support and an acquiescent aristocracy (27 BCE-284 CE). 

Diocletian’s ostentatiously autocratic “Dominate,” which, though, after a short spell in the West (284-305), lasted a thousand years in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire (324-1453), was inherently unstable, lacking both popular and aristocratic backing and, as the “Byzantine Empire” after 395, fell ignominiously under the control of eunuchs and patriarchs.  

Meanwhile, in the West, thanks to Constantine, the senatorial aristocracy recouped the position in the state that they had lost in 284, and indeed built upon it by combining their wealth and local landholding in the same areas that they governed as imperial appointees.  Local aristocratic power in the western provinces was something of a centrifugal force, which goes some way to explaining why there was so little resistance to the “barbarian” incursions. Coupled with the feverish climate of religious persecution orchestrated by the imperial government, this resulted in a fractured society of divided loyalties, and ultimately to fragmentation of the Western empire into a patchwork of “barbarian” kingdoms---yet with an aristocratic ethos surviving intact. 


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.

Monday, October 12, 2020

A Unique Classical Event

Only the most highly respected members of society were invited to these parties, called Symposiums, where the best minds met to discuss all manner of things, from the nature of love to the origins of the universe… and some ideas too dangerous to share in the streets!

Scenes like this were common in Ancient Greece, when philosophy, learning, and good conversation were highly respected, and folks were expected to understand and participate fully in their democracy. 

But the tradition has faded away — modern “symposiums” are usually nothing more than glorified trade conferences, with none of the philosophy and mental investigation of a true Symposium. Classical Wisdom aims to bring back this storied ancient tradition!

To do this in our modern world, we have created a two-day online event, consisting of exciting presentations, a wine tasting, followed by a panel discussion. Attendees can join in whenever they like and ask questions. They will also receive full recordings of the event afterwards; in case they miss something or want to re-watch. 

This is a Classics event like no other! While the wine box option will only be available until October 14th, we will be offering a wine tasting with recommendations for those who are interested. But the best thing of all is that we’ve managed to gather some of the greatest thinkers on the classical world for one fantastic weekend. Attendees can listen to them speak Live as well as directly ask questions.

We’d like to think of it as an antidote to 2020 - an opportunity to get perspective and historical viewpoints on current events as well as philosophical insights to thrive in even the most challenging of circumstances.

Choose your ticket (one day or two-day pass) here: 

You can use this Promo code and get 40% OFF: CWW2020


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

What Happens to Democracy?

One of the more intriguing questions about politics today is “What happens after democracy?” Some ask this question out of curiosity; some out of fear. The fearful are concerned that democratic governments have become unstable.

In our 21st Century world, democracies predominate. This is explained by the fact that democracies, and their partner capitalism, have been more efficient at delivering goods and services than other government forms, making them the preferred model in the modern and postmodern world.

Lately, democracy is showing its age, and its governments are less able to “govern.” Tribalism, generated by ideological polarization prevents legislatures from acting for the good of the people. Candidates are selected by the elite class to perpetuate elite control. Lobbyists, under control of the elites, replace the will of the people. The people are less engaged and easily influenced by elite messaging.

How to we fit the current situation into the history of politics? A logical place to start is the work of Polybius.

Polybius was a Greek historian, who lived from 200 BC to 118 BC. He was taken as a hostage by the Romans in 167 BC and was held in Rome for 17 years. Polybius later become an associate of Scipio Aemilius, the Roman general who defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. As an observer of Rome and Greece, Polybius wrote about political systems: their origin, structure, and stability. He created a cycle of governments to describe the forces that change societies from one form to another.

The cycle is Monarchy – Kingship – Tyranny – Aristocracy – Oligarchy – Democracy.

Monarchies appear by the natural and unaided rise in power of individuals who impress their people with leadership skills. As long as man has lived in groups, they have been led by those who, by intelligence or charisma, rise to the top. Monarchies first appeared after the beginning of agriculture in 3000 BC, because a hierarchical structure was needed to govern large groups of human beings. Monarchies were the government of choice for 4500 years until the Enlightenment. Some monarchies become kingships; a transition that occurred when leaders began to govern by fear rather than the approval of their people.

When kings became tyrants, they fell and were replaced by an aristocracy made up of wealthy and powerful elites, who exerted control to preserve their status. In time, the aristocracy saw its power concentrated in few leaders, and transitioned to an oligarchy (rule of few). The oligarchy fell when the people became tired of unjust rule. To replace the oligarchies, people demanded democracies. Democracies prosper as long as traditions, and commitment to justice, remain strong. When those characteristics die away, the cycle moves back to a monarchy. The people replace an unworkable system with one person they can trust.

If you think these concepts are fanciful and unrealistic, consider the following examples.

In Ancient Greece, the Mycenaean kings were replaced by an aristocracy, which became an oligarchy before it was a democracy. Tyrants popped up a from time to time, during the period of aristocracies, when the aristocracies failed to govern.

Ancient Rome was first ruled by monarchs, who became kings and then tyrants. They were replaced by an aristocracy (the patricians), who transitioned to an oligarchy. Rome never achieved a transition to democracy because dictators took control and created an empire.

The United States, as a child of the Enlightenment, did not have to endure a monarchy. It started as an aristocracy, transitioned to an oligarchy, during the time of the Federalists, and then became a democracy.

Polybius created his theory before the concept of collectivism/socialism developed, so there is no socialist model in the cycle. The most important socialist systems, Russia and China, developed from feudal systems so they don’t fit conveniently there.

Cuba serves as an interesting example. Castro overthrew a dictator (tyrant) to gain power. The step to aristocracy was interrupted by his revolution. At the time, Cuba was weak economically, so one might consider it a feudal state. Castro was propped up by money from the Soviet Union for decades. Without that help, he would not have been able to implement his Communist model.

If we trust Polybius and imagine what would happen if some democracies fail over the next decades, their replacement will feature concentrated power, because concentrated power can govern more efficiently than a democracy. The replacements will authoritarian leaders or dictators.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Ancient History Hall of Fame

Its fun and interesting to speculate about who would be in the Ancient History Hall of Fame if there were such a place, and I admit that building a list like this is subjective. Fame plays a significant role here, making it difficult to include those who are generally unknown to the public. My sense of antiquity is that individuals whose fame has endured over the millennia were the most important. My list omits the infamous whose misdeeds are their claim to fame.

To invoke a baseball analogy, there are a group of ancients that I will label first ballot hall of famers. That is individuals who would be on everyone’s list and would never have their selection questioned. That list includes,

Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Caesar Augustus, Cleopatra, Confucius, Constantine the Great, Hannibal, Herodotus, Homer, Jesus, Julius Caesar, Moses, Saul (Paul) of Tarsus, Pericles, Plato, Siddhartha Gautama, Socrates, Solon, and Thucydides. That’s nineteen.

In the second tier I would place Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Attila the Hun, St. Augustine, Demosthenes, Euclid, Euripides, Hammurabi, Hippocrates, Nebuchadnezzar II, Pindar, Sappho, Scipio Africanus, Sophocles, Thales, Virgil, Xerxes, and Zoroaster. Another eighteen.

My third tier would contain Archimedes, Cato, Empedocles, Galen, Justinian I Mithridates VI, Ovid, Plutarch, Ramses II, and Spartacus, making the list total 47.

Do we add more and, if so, by what criteria? A structured approach would dictate selection by category of accomplishment. For example, the Greeks made significant contributions in philosophy, science, drama, and poetry, so we should choose one or more from each of these. Right? But, trying to build a list like this, and limiting its size, gets one into trouble quickly.

It is generally thought that the four greatest dramatists of all time were Shakespeare, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and Euripides. If all three Greeks are in a class with the Bard, shouldn’t that make them hall of famers?

Philosophy is tougher still. You start with Plato and Aristotle and then it makes sense to add Socrates and Thales. Who else? There are so many candidates – Zeno, Epicurus, Anaximander, Heraclitus, etc.

There are two groups I have not selected from: those too obscure to be eligible and those who didn’t quite make the grade for a short list. In the first group I include Ashkoka (Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty), Hashesput (fifth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt), Inhotep (a Polymath circa 2650 B.C.), and Sargon the Great (Akkadian king of 2300 B.C.).

The second group contains Agrippa (important as Augustus right hand man) but not quite good enough, Thermistocles (admiral of the Athenian Navy), Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Tacitus.

Now let’s move on to a few more who are worthy. There are seven in this group: Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Livy, Leonidas, Lysander, Isocrates, and Cicero. The Golden Age of the empire is an important period and Trajan and Marcus are its bookends. Trajan reigned from 98-117 A.D, stabilizing the empire and initiating a period of calm lasting 82 years. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the dynasty and is important for his reflective personality and stoic philosophy. It was a sad irony that Marcus hated wars and yet was fated to fight in them for almost his entire reign.

If you have Herodotus and Thucydides on the list you have to have Livy -- Rome’s greatest historian. We are all the poorer because so many of his books were lost.

In my view, you can’t construct an Ancient’s Hall of Fame without Spartans, so I have included two: Leonidas and Lysander. Leonidas is famous for one single event, his defense at Thermopylae. That story has resonated around the world ever since as an example of courage, honor, and devotion to the cause. Leonidas has a unique place on the list because his contribution occurred during a single event that cost him his life, rather than contributions over a lifetime. Lysander was Sparta’s greatest admiral, largely responsible for ending the Peloponnesean War in Sparta’s favor.

I thought of including Lycurgus, architect of the Spartan political system, but we’re not sure a single person with that name existed.

I include Isocrates, at risk, because some would call him obscure. He labored under the shadow of Plato but his contribution to the development of educational systems that followed him is unequalled. He was Athens’ greatest orator and had a great influence over the politics of is day.

So now we reach the end with Cicero, who as a philosopher, orator, statesman, lawyer, and political theorist had a significant impact on late Republican Rome. Cicero’s Latin prose was unequalled as he built a Latin philosophical vocabulary by translating the Greek. His letters, when discovered during the 14th century, helped launch the renaissance, through an emerging interest in the writings of antiquity. Cicero’s humanist philosophy influenced the renaissance, while his republicanism influenced the founders of the United States.

We could add more women and make the list longer. Perhaps someone will want to provide some names. We have Cleopatra and Sappho on the list. Others, including Augustus’ wife Luvilla And Leonidas’ wife Gorgo come to mind. Unfortunately, women didn’t receive the publicity in the ancient world that men did and their lack of access to power and status made it much harder for them to become famous.

Now we have a complete list of 54 – an odd number and no more than an arbitrary stopping point based on subjective criteria. It’s too bad we have so few Hall of Famers like them today. In this modern age, power and money have subverted wisdom and knowledge.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Crossing the Rubicon

Crossing the Rubicon is a piece of history that made its way into American popular culture --the saying describing a situation where there is no turning back.

The historical event that created the saying occurred on January 10th, 49 BC, when Julius Caesar led a single Roman legion across the Rubicon River in Northern Italy.

The Rubicon River in Eastern Italy and the Arno River in Western Italy formed the northern boundary of Republican Italy in the 1st Century BC, separating it from Cisalpine Gaul. Roman law required that that only city magistrates from Rome lead an army south of the two rivers and Pro-consuls who had military control of the provinces were not allowed to enter with an army. Violation of this law, meant the loss of Imperium to command troops and was an act of treason.

Caesar, through his agents in the Senate, which included the Tribune Antony, tried to negotiate an accommodation with Pompey and the Senate. Caesar requested a new provincial assignment in order to retain Imperium and avoid prosecution for bribery and theft in office. The Senate was unwilling to meet his demand and circumstances began to move toward a confrontation.

A resolution was introduced on the Senate requiring that both Caesar and Pompey give up their commands as an attempt to satisfy both factions. Caesar was in favor, but a small group of Senators vetoed the resolution because they suspected a trap. The Senate then introduced a resolution proposing that two of Caesar’s legions be sent to Syria. Pompey favored this attempt to declaw Caesar and Caesar complied.

In December 50 BC a second resignation resolution was proposed in the Senate, requiring Caesar to give up his command without requiring Pompey to do so. This was later amended, requiring both men to give up their posts simultaneously. The vote was 370 for and 22 against.

This action by the Senate was immediately rendered useless when a panic followed. Rumors started that Caesar was already matching on Rome, so the Senate granted Pompey command for the defense of the city. A resolution was introduced placing a fixed date on Caesar’s resignation, but this was vetoed by Antony. Then, on January 7th 49 BC, an emergency decree was passed, legalizing Pompey’s authority and requested that all major officials move to protect the state. Antony was forced to flee Rome or suffer penalties under this martial law. The Senate’s final act in this drama was to assign new governors for Gaul, replacing Caesar.

The Senate’s behavior convinced Caesar that diplomatic efforts were no longer possible and a show of force was necessary, so he crossed the Rubicon on January 10th. He divided his legion into two columns: one headed for Arretium and the other Ariminum.

The speed with which Caesar advanced astonished the Senate and Pompey, who were not convinced he would try to press an attack with one legion. By day three, Arretium had already fallen. Rather than resisting Caesar, the locals along his route opened their doors to him and even expelled Pompey’s garrisons from their territory. Surprised at this, Pompey retreated south to Capua, leaving Rome unprotected and forcing his allies in the Senate to abandon the city and join him.

Caesar arrived in Rome the first week of March with six legions. He had accumulated additional troops on his way south based on loyalty to his cause. There was some resistance, on the way, but little bloodshed because his enemies had melted away. Caesar impressed all with his leniency toward those who opposed him by setting them free.