Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review of the book Leonidas: A Heroic King by Helena Schrader

Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King is the third installment in the trilogy covering the life of the famous Spartan king, written by Helena Schrader. I have not had a chance to read the first two books but jumped at the chance to read this one because I wanted to see how Helena would approach the Battle of Thermopylae.

Helena Schrader graduated with honors in History from the University of Michigan and has earned a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg. She has published several books since 1993, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the former are several historical novels including six on ancient Sparta. She maintains a blog titled Sparta Reconsidered.

I approached A Heroic King as a person knowledgeable on the subject matter but curious about how the author would weave fact and fiction together. Would the story be convincing? Spartan names take some getting used to and I found myself struggling through the first two dozen pages as I tried to get to know the many characters – both historically familiar and unfamiliar. Knowledge of the vocabulary of Sparta was certainly helpful during this early part of the read.

Once the names were locked in, things moved along at a fine rhythm. There were many wonderful scenes -- Leonidas' election, the sacrificial ambassador’s trip to see Xerxes, and Gorgo’s shopping trip in Athens, to name a few. For a historical novel to be successful, you have to feel seamlessly transported back in time by the author. Then you can live the story and absorb the history along the way. Helena has successfully met this requirement by accurately capturing the lives and experiences of the people of Lacedaemon.

The Battle of Thermopylae was riveting – not mere choreography like the movie 300, but real tension created by 300 men trying to survive but also prepared to die. The reader has a first row seat as the realization of no escape transforms Leonidas and his men into determined heroes.

In sum, The Heroic King is a brilliantly written novel that gives life to one of the great cultures of history. Its mixture of drama and adventure can carry the reader forward at whatever pace he or she may desire.

My only concern in recommending the novel is for the reader who knows nothing of Sparta – whether they will have the perseverance to work through the new vocabulary. Like the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, I say “Don’t judge this novel by its first two dozen pages”. Acclimate yourself and move on to a great adventure.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Solon and the Polis

In the previous post, I outlined the life cycle of the Polis and included a chronology showing the significant events it its history. The chronology had one notation that was not mentioned in the post (Solon), so I am going to correct that omission here.

Solon was one of the most important figures of his time and on a short list of the greatest Greek politicians. He was an educated aristocrat, successful businessman, and poet. According to Plutarch, Solon had four character traits seldom found in one man: patriotism, integrity, political genius, and intelligence. And we must not leave out ambition – he wanted the job of saving the Athenian state.

As  previously discussed, the Period of Tyrants dated from ~ 650 B.C. to 510 B.C. when Hippias was expelled from Athens. Solon was active during the middle of this period.

In 632 B.C, the opportunist Cylon tried to establish himself as a tyrant of, but failed. He had achieved victory at the Olympic Games and used his fame to gather supporters and take control of the Acropolis. Lured out of hiding with the promises of a pardon, Cylon and his followers were murdered by members of the aristocratic Alcmeonidae family. Athens was not ready to tolerate a tyrant.

A decade later in 621 B.C. the citizens of Athens asked a legislator named Draco to codify Athenian law for the first time. The results of his work were unduly harsh specifying the death penalty for even minor offences.

…he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones."

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

As Plutarch tells it, “The state was divided into as many factions as there were parts of the country, for the Diakrii, or mountaineers, favored democracy; the Pedioei, oligarchy; while those who dwelt along the seashore, called Parali, preferred a constitution midway between these two forms, and thus prevented either of the other parties from carrying their point. Moreover, the state was on the verge of revolution, because of the excessive poverty of some citizens, and the enormous wealth of others, and it appeared that the only means of putting an end to these disorders was by establishing an absolute despotism.”

Enter Solon.

Again Plutarch sets the stage.

“In this position of affairs, the most sensible men in Athens perceived that Solon was a person who shared the vices of neither faction, as he took no part in the oppressive conduct of the wealthy, and yet had sufficient fortune to save him from the straits to which the poor were reduced. In consequence of this, they begged him to come forward and end their disputes.

But Phanias of Lesbos says that Solon deceived both parties, in order to save the state, promising the poor a redistribution of lands, and the rich a confirmation of their securities. However, Solon himself tells us that it was with reluctance that he interfered, as he was threatened by the avarice of the one party, and the desperation of the other. He was chosen Archon next after Philombrotus (594 B.C.), to act as an arbitrator and lawgiver at once, because the rich had confidence in him as a man of easy fortune, and the poor trusted him as a good man. It is said also that a saying which he had let fall some time before, that "equality does not breed strife," was much circulated at the time, and pleased both parties, because the rich thought it meant that property should be distributed according to merit and desert, while the poor thought it meant according to rule and measure. Both parties were now elate with hope, and their leaders urged Solon to seize the supreme power in the state, of which he was practically possessed, and make himself king.”

Solon consulted the Oracle at Delphi which said,

“Take thou the helm, the vessel guide,
Athens will rally to thy side.”

But he refused the monarchy saying in his own verse,

"Not a clever man was Solon, not a calculating mind,
For he would not take the kingdom, which the gods to him inclined,
In his net he caught the prey, but would not draw it forth to land,
Overpowered by his terrors, feeble both of heart and hand;
For a man of greater spirit would have occupied the throne,
Proud to be the Lord of Athens, though 'twere for a day alone,
Though the next day he and his into oblivion were thrown."

As senior Archon, Solon chose to proceed quietly to administer so as to

            Not disturb or overset the state

Because if he did he would not have sufficient power to re-constitute and organize again. To rule properly, Solon thought it best to “Combine force and justice together”.

So he started changing Laws. What laws? Nearly all of them.

Solon cancelled all debts and obligations in Athens. He repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own. Then he wrote a new constitution. Those born of free Attican parents would become citizens of Athens.

The populace would be divided into four classes based on wealth with the top three classes eligible for the magistracies formerly only available to the aristocrats. The lowest class was barred from magistracies but allowed to serve on juries. Solon also made decisions of the magistrate’s court subject to appeal to a special court (Heliaia) which had no judge.

And on he went. He suppressed dowries, barred men from speaking evil of the dead, allowed wills to give property to a friend if no relative was available, regulated the journeys of women, encouraged trade, barred exports except for oil, and allowed foreigners to become Athenian citizens.

Solon was no democrat, because he believed in the reality of the distribution of wealth. Anticipating the Roman Republic, which was  ninety years in the future, he rejected equality – choosing instead a way of creating a balance between the classes. He believed the creation of a middle class would neutralize the conflict between the upper and lower, precisely the role the Knights would take in Republican Rome.

Solon’s year in power came to an end with passions high, yet there was enough support in each class for his reforms to keep the Polis stable. He ordered the new laws to be in force for one hundred years, and then, to the surprise of many, resigned his post and left Athens for ten years.

The balance of forces did not last. Returning to Athens as an old man in 561, Solon witnessed Peisistratus become a tyrant. He died two years later and his ashes were scattered around the Island of Salamis. When the last tyrant, Hippias, was exiled in 510 B.C, the first act of the Athenian government was to re-institute the laws of Solon.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lifecycle of the Greek Polis

I have written several articles about the Polis -- mainly focused on pieces of its history. It’s hard to put the tell the whole story given the space limits of a blog, but I’ve decided to make the attempt here because the Polis is so important to Western Civilization as the model for modern political systems and Democracy. We’ll conserve space by sticking to the main inflection points in its history – the forces that propelled its development forward.

One more thing. We discuss the Polis generically until the rise of Athens because its evolution occurred across the Greek peninsula. One of the reasons for the success of the Polis was the number of cities and towns that served as laboratories for its development. Eventually Athens would become the standard and take the structure of the Polis to its endpoint.

We start with the chronology shown above. By 1100 B.C, Mycenae had fallen, dragging the Greek world into its own version of the Dark Ages. It took three hundred years to recover. During those three centuries, slowly but surely, a political system was created.

The military leader, or Basileus, was the first step. No royalty survived the Mycenaean collapse, so all that remained were aristocrats who possessed wealth but no legitimacy to rule. The Basileus, were not wealthy, but emerged because they possessed an uncommon skill – military prowess. The wealthy granted them one and only one power – control of the militia, and that power was confined to the local village or town -- not beyond. With the Basileus well established, the Greeks could have gone in either of two directions politically:  strengthening collective action through a complex political organization or moving toward personal leadership. There is evidence that the latter was attempted; that the Basileus became more powerful. But that path was a dead end and they were eventually replaced by an administrator type – similar to the Archons of Athens. The Basileus lacked the historical requirements for personal leadership – wealth, a significant following among the people, and precedent. Ultimately, the people were unwilling to cede power and make them kings. Instead, they kept power for themselves and elected administrators they could control.

Even as a dead end, the Basileus was important to the future development of the Polis because it was the first structural element of an non-hereditary authority – a building block of the future Polis.

In the first half of the Archaic Period, which began in 800 B.C, the threads of the new political system became tighter as a result of two forces: aristocratic power and the unification of the lower class. In the former case, the aristocrats became a power class by banding together based on common interests and employing administrative types to carry out the operations of a rudimentary government. Concurrently, the tactical view of battle evolved and the Phalanx became the Greek’s prime military formation. As I have discussed in previous articles, the Phalanx gave power to the common people because it was a large scale military organization of equals. One they realized what they had, the people began asking for a part in government. The result was power sharing between themselves and the aristocrats.

By 650 B.C. the young Polis was functional but weak -- its structure lacking the power and legitimacy to exercise complete authority over the society. The delicate political balance between the aristocrats and the common people had produced a stalemate. It wasn’t long before that balance was upset by the aristocrats, who became more oppressive, driving popular support away from them and toward anyone who would stand for the people. Ultimately, tyrants stepped in and took power for themselves. The incubator of Democracy had rejected pure aristocratic power as an unworkable political system.

Oddly, the tyrants turned out to be benign rulers for the most part. They did not abuse their power but, instead, found ways to move their society forward. Herodotus wrote,

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

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

Tyrants came to power because the early Polis did not have enough democracy in it to foster the long term stability that would come later. In the end, they corrupted themselves by attempting to prolong control as hereditary models but failed because of uneven governance. Fortunately, the Polis had not retrogressed, so it did not have to regain ground before it could advance again.

So we move on to the period, starting in 510 B.C, where the Polis rises to its zenith, helped along by visionaries who sought to build a structure that would be stable, enduring, and divide power fairly. The strength of the Polis would often be tested over the next eighty years, and it would survive.

The first visionary, Clisthenes, blocked an effort by Isagoras to reverse the rising independence of the lower classes in 508 B.C. Clisthenes intended to permanently break the power of local social units in favor of the state, and to make sure power was permanently placed in the hands of the people. He organized the populace into demes or political units numbering about 140, requiring that each tribe contain demes located in the country, the city, and the coast so that self-interest would be equally distributed.

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

These reforms were tested immediately when Athens was attacked by Boetia and Chalcis in 506 B.C. Both were defeated and the balance between the classes held. The Polis was further strengthened by the wars with Persia. When Athens was attacked and occupied in 480 B.C, unity among the people, created to fight a common enemy, strengthened the bond between them and kept the Athenian political system together.

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

Still, there is a paradox in the label, because the high point of the Polis was also the beginning of the end. The accomplishments of the Athenians made them arrogant and they abused their partners in the Delan League. Hubris had them believing they could defeat the Spartan Army so they launched the Peloponnesean War in 431 B.C, only to see their political system destroyed after twenty seven years of conflict.

With Athens weak, Sparta felt it had to control Greece to protect itself but did not have the skill. She was engaged in a series of adventures during the thirty year period after the Peloponnesian War until Leuctra, when her military might was destroyed for forever. Thebes stepped in and spent nine years (371-62) trying to control northern Greece, but following the Battle of Mantinea its hegemony came to an end. Greece was now vulnerable as a divided people and that division would leave it ripe for the taking by an autocrat.

Philip of Macedonia was the man whose strong will would overcome a fragmented Greece. The Athenians, led by Demosthenes, tried their best to oppose him, but the end for Athens came at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. As victor, Philip convened the League of Corinth, including all the Greek powers except Sparta who refused  to participate. Now the Polis had reached the end of its life, superseded by autocratic rule. The reign of Philip and his son Alexander, the Diodochi, and regional kings occupied Greece until the Macedonian Wars with Rome made her a client state.

The Polis had lasted four hundred years. During that time it evolved into the greatest of the antiquarian political systems. But, like all systems man has created, it would fall. No concept or belief system can remain static because it must adapt to its time. Evolution brings risks and eventually the political structure fails to meet the needs of its people.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Caesar Against Vercingetorix – The Siege of Alesia

In 52 B.C. Julius Caesar, near the end of his war against Gaul, had one great enemy left – the charismatic Arvernian, Vercingetorix. Expelled from Gergovia, for being too rash, Vercingetorix raised an army on his own, and assumed the role of commander. His strategy against Caesar was simple -- use superior cavalry to harass the Romans and drive them away. Caesar, understanding his own weakness, compensated by recruiting Germans to strengthen his own cavalry units. After a series of reversals, Vercingetorix was forced to retreat to the walled city of Alesia with his army of 80,000.

No obstacle would deter Caesar, however. He knew direct attack was impossible because of the hilltop position of the city, so he planned a siege to starve the Gauls into surrender. Caesar had 12 legions with auxiliaries ready to bring to bear on the enemy. It was mid-summer, 52 B.C.

The image above shows the Gallic camp, town of Alesia, and the Roman fortifications.

This image is a view from the west showing the geography.

For this post we focus on the engineering aspects of the battle, as we did with the Masada and Rhine bridge posts. Here again the tenacity of the Roman people and the skill of their engineers would provide the margin of victory.

Let’s start with The Conquest of Gaul Book 7 chapter LXIX to set the scene.

“The town itself was situated on the top of a hill, in a very lofty position, so that it did not appear likely to be taken, except by a regular siege. Two rivers, on two different sides, washed the foot of the hill. Before the town lay a plain of about three miles in length; on every other side hills at a moderate distance, and of an equal degree of height, surrounded the town. The army of the Gauls had filled all the space under the wall, comprising the part of the hill which looked to the rising sun, and had drawn in front a trench and a stone wall six feet high. The circuit of that fortification, which was commenced by the Romans, comprised eleven miles. The camp was pitched in a strong position, and twenty-three redoubts were raised in it, in which sentinels were placed by day, lest any sally should be made suddenly; and by night the same were occupied by watches and strong guards.”

Before the circumvallation could be completed, however, Vercingetorix sent a party of tribal leaders through the breech on a mission to recruit allies and bring them back as reinforcements. We move on to chapter LXXII.

“Caesar, on learning these proceedings from the deserters and captives, adopted the following system of fortification; he dug a trench twenty feet deep, with perpendicular sides, in such a manner that the base of this trench should extend so far as the edges were apart at the top. He raised all his other works at a distance of four hundred feet from that ditch; [he did] that with this intention, lest (since he necessarily embraced so extensive an area, and the whole works could not be easily surrounded by a line of soldiers) a large number of the enemy should suddenly, or by night, sally against the fortifications; or lest they should by day cast weapons against our men while occupied with the works. Having left this interval, he drew two trenches fifteen feet broad, and of the same depth; the innermost of them, being in low and level ground, he filled with water conveyed from the river. Behind these he raised a rampart and wall twelve feet high: to this he added a parapet and battlements, with large stakes cut like stags' horns, projecting from the junction of the parapet and battlements, to prevent the enemy from scaling it, and surrounded the entire work with turrets, which were eighty feet distant from one another.”

Then the Romans began to construct the countervallation.

This photo shows the hills of Alesia from the Roman line.

Above is a portion of the reconstructed Roman fortifications.

“It was necessary, at one and the same time, to procure timber [for the rampart], lay in supplies of corn, and raise also extensive fortifications, and the available troops were in consequence of this reduced in number, since they used to advance to some distance from the camp, and sometimes the Gauls endeavored to attack our works, and to make a sally from the town by several gates and in great force. On which Caesar thought that further additions should be made to these works, in order that the fortifications might be defensible by a small number of soldiers. Having, therefore, cut down the trunks of trees or very thick branches, and having stripped their tops of the bark, and sharpened them into a point, he drew a continued trench everywhere five feet deep. These stakes being sunk into this trench, and fastened firmly at the bottom, to prevent the possibility of their being torn up, had their branches only projecting from the ground. There were five rows in connection with, and intersecting each other; and whoever entered within them were likely to impale themselves on very sharp stakes. The soldiers called these "cippi." Before these, which were arranged in oblique rows in the form of a quincunx, pits three feet deep were dug, which gradually diminished in depth to the bottom. In these pits tapering stakes, of the thickness of a man's thigh, sharpened at the top and hardened in the fire, were sunk in such a manner as to project from the ground not more than four inches; at the same time for the purpose of giving them strength and stability, they were each filled with trampled clay to the height of one foot from the bottom: the rest of the pit was covered over with osiers and twigs, to conceal the deceit. Eight rows of this kind were dug, and were three feet distant from each other. They called this a lily from its resemblance to that flower. Stakes a foot long, with iron hooks attached to them, were entirely sunk in the ground before these, and were planted in every place at small intervals; these they called spurs.

After completing these works, having selected as level ground as he could, considering the nature of the country, and having enclosed an area of fourteen miles, he constructed, against an external enemy, fortifications of the same kind in every respect, and separate from these, so that the guards of the fortifications could not be surrounded even by immense numbers, if such a circumstance should take place owing to the departure of the enemy's cavalry; and in order that the Roman soldiers might not be compelled to go out of the camp with great risk, he orders all to provide forage and corn for thirty days.”

In late September, a relief force of eighty thousand Gauls arrived and both Gallic forces attacked the Romans – one from the inside and one from the outside. Caesar sent his cavalry against the relief force while his army fought off an attack from those trying to breakout from the city. Neither Gallic army was able to penetrate the fortifications. The next day Vercingetorix concentrated a new attack force against a weak spot in the inner fortifications. His army successfully broke through but were attacked from behind by Roman cavalry that had ridden around the outer ring to their rear. Caesar, himself, appeared with the troops trying to close the gap and the Romans were ultimately successful.

With their reinforcements routed, and no further hope to break the siege, Silesia surrendered and handed over Vercingetorix to Caesar, who imprisoned him for six years and then paraded him through Rome before his execution.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sparta -- Ancient Map and Clans

On June 14, 2009 I published the following map of ancient Sparta showing the location of the villages/clans.

Unfortunately, the map has the tribes incorrectly located. This post ranks fourth in popularity and the thought of readers being exposed to incorrect information is unacceptable to me, so we must rebuild the map.

Searching the web (or looking in the literature) for maps of Sparta is difficult. The few examples one can find are eighteenth century posters, most notably the one by the Frenchman Bocage which first appeared in 1783. It appears that I used this to mark up my own map. I have recently read that Bocage’s map contained misinterpretations from ancient writings. Of course, he did not have the benefit of modern archeology which would have been helpful.

Now examine my rework of the map.

And I quote Toynbee’s description of the villages and clans:

“Thus, about 700 B.C., there were at Sparta, over and above the three privileged clan groups, five locally organized communities, embracing both the clansmen and a large unprivileged population besides. These five were: Pitane, the seat of the Agiadai-clan and their clients (containing the burial place of the Agiad phratria: N.W. of the agora: Limnai, the seat of the Eurypontidai clan and their clients (tombs of the Eurypontid phratria, on the street which seems to have branched N.E. from the agora) on the low lands bordering the Eurotas-bed: Kynosoura, the long ridge S. of Limnai, occupied by the community from Lakedaimon: and Mesoa, between these three, and S. of the agora, occupied by the Minyai from Therai and their clients. Lastly, Amyklai, two miles S. of the Tiasa (Magoula) river, left in possession of its old inhabitants.”

Of course, Leonidas was of the Agiad line. Menelaos (husband of Helen and brother of Agamemnon) was Kynosouran. Forklore has it that Menelaos migrated from Therapne (old Lakedaimon) to the west bank of the Eurotos and later the Spartan people became Lakedaimons. There is a shrine to Menelaos at Therapne.

And there's that fifth village that was part of Sparta -- Amyklai. The map below shows it separation from the others.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pyrrhus – The Underrated Military Mind of Antiquity

King Pyrrhus of Epirus is best known to us for his “Pyrrhic” victory over the Romans at the Battle of Asculum, but that single event does not begin to characterize the life and the skill of this great military mind of antiquity. Scipio Africanus described a conversation he had with Hannibal where he asked the Carthaginian general who he thought was the greatest commander of all time. Hannibal immediately named Alexander as the greatest. Then, when Scipio pressed him for his opinion on the second best, expecting Hannibal to name himself or Scipio, Hannibal replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus”. Antigonus, when asked who he believed to be the greatest general said, “Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old.” Pyrrhus was good enough to rate a spot in Plutarch’s lives, paired with no less a figure than Gaius Marius. Sadly, the comparison document, which would have paralleled their lives, was lost.

Pyrrhus was born in 319 B.C, the son of Aeacides, King of Epirus, and Phthia, second cousin to Alexander the Great. Aeacides was deposed in 317 B.C. and his family took refuge with Glaukias, King of the Taurantians. Aeacides died in 313 B.C. so Pyrrhus, as heir, was placed his father’s throne by Glaukias in 306 at the age of 13. Deposed again in 302 B.C, Pyrrhus went on to serve under his brother-in-law Demetrius Poliorcetes, son of Antigonus, satrap of Alexander. In 298 B.C. he was sent to Egypt as a hostage after a treaty was concluded between Ptolemy and Demetrius. While there, Pyrrhus married Ptolemy’s step daughter Antigone and used the Egyptian King’s financing and military aid to regain his throne in 297 B.C. Pyrrhus then moved the Epirian capital to Ambrakia and began to wage war on Demetrius. At one point during the war, Pyrrhus was challenged to one on one combat against Pantaucus, one of Demetrius’ senior officers, and defeated him. He took Macedonia and was declared king, but the conquest could not be held and Pyrrhus was pushed out by Lysimachus in 285 B.C.

Plutarch tells us what happened next. "At this  time, then, when Pyrrhus had been driven back to Epirus and had given up Macedonia, fortune put it into his power to enjoy what he had without molestation, to live in peace, and to reign over his own people. But he thought it tedious to the point of nausea if he were not inflicting mischief on others or suffering it at other's hands and, like Achilles, could not endure idleness."

He looked westward.

In 282 the Thurii tribe, located in the heel of Italy, asked Rome for help against the city of Tarentum, so Rome sent a small fleet to the Gulf of Tarentum to assess the situation. More than likely the Romans were exercising a show of support for the aristocrats of Tarentum who were trying to regain power from the democratic faction running the city. Whatever the reason, the convoy was attacked by the Tarentines, and four of the Roman ships were sunk. Rome dispatched an envoy carrying a protest and he was purposely insulted. The Tarentines clearly wanted a war and they appealed to Pyrrhus for support. The following year, the consul L. Aemilianus Barbula was sent with an army and an ultimatum for Tarantum to compensate for the attack on the convoy or face the consequences. The Tarentines were at the point of capitulation when the envoy from Pyrrhus arrived with a message saying the king would lend them a hand.

Pyrrhus, always the adventurer, was ready to move away from the frustrations of Greek politics and pursue something more interesting. As the son-in-law of Agathocles King of Syracuse and a relative of Alexander the Great, he had a legacy to apply to empire building in the west. Courageous, ambitious, and skillful, Pyrrhus would present a challenge to the Roman citizen army.

He arrived in Tarentum in 280 B.C. with 25,000 professional soldiers and 20 elephants.

“When he learned that the Romans were near and lay encamped on the further side of the river Siris, he rode up to the river to get a view of them; and when he had observed their discipline, the appointment of their watches, their order, and the general arrangement of their camp, he was amazed and said to the friend that was nearest him: ‘The discipline of these Barbarians is not barbarous; but the result will show us what it amounts to.’”

That summer he met the consul Valerius Laevinus in the Battle of Heraclea. The Romans had never fought the Greek Phalanx before and the horses of their cavalry were frightened by the elephants. Pyrrhus won the battle, leaving 4,000 men on the field versus Rome’s 7,000, but his victory was dubious because in a foreign land he could not afford significant losses with no way to obtain new recruits. After the battle, Pyrrhus, anticipating Hannibal, raced for Rome hoping to turn the Roman allies to his side, but his efforts to treat with Rome were unsuccessful, so he headed back to Tarentum. In the spring of 279, he fought the Romans again at Asculum, winning a second dubious victory. After that battle he quipped, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined." 

But now Pyrrhus had become bored with Italy and looked to move on once again. As Plutarch tells it, “there came to him from Sicily men who offered to put into his hands the cities of Agrigentum, Syracuse, and Leontini, and begged him to help them to drive out the Carthaginians and rid the island of its tyrants; and from Greece, men with tidings that Ptolemy Ceraunus with his army had perished at the hands of the Gauls, and that now was the time of all times for him to be in Macedonia, where they wanted a king.”

Pyrrhus decided Sicily would be more interesting because it could serve as a gateway to Africa, so he proceeded there.

Named king, he sought to rid the island of Carthaginians, but his popularity quickly declined after he began to act like a tyrant. The Sicilians sought aid to expel him, but before they took action, Pyrrhus sailed back to Tarentum. The Romans used two consular armies to push him out of Italy in 275 B.C. and he was finished with Rome for good. Returning to Epirus, Pyrrhus sought war with Antigonus over Macedonia. After a few victories, he became restless once again.

Cleonymus, pretender to the Spartan throne asked Pyrrhus to back his claim with an army so he headed south to Sparta in 272 B.C. He was hesitant to destroy the city with no walls and delays caused by indecision allowed the Spartans to prepare a defense. The attack was unsuccessful.

Plutarch tells us what happened next. “He could accomplish nothing, and met with fresh losses, he went away, and fell to ravaging the country, purposing to spend the winter there. But Fate was not to be escaped. For at Argos there was a feud between Aristeas and Aristippus; and since Aristippus was thought to enjoy the friendship of Antigonus, Aristeas hastened to invite Pyrrhus into Argos. Pyrrhus was away entertaining one hope after another, and since he made one success but the starting point for a new one, while he was determined to make good each disaster by a fresh undertaking, he suffered neither defeat nor victory to put a limit to his troubling himself and troubling others.”

Pyrrhus took his army to Argos and fought a difficult battle within the city walls. His army took the market place but the fighting was treacherous because the streets were too narrow for elephants and he did not know the city. During a street battle, Pyrrhus was injured by a roof tile thrown down on him by an old woman and, before he could regain his senses, was beheaded by an adversary. The head was sent to Antigonus who wept at the death of such a renowned family member.

So the world lost an enigma – a man of many talents as a strategist and military leader, an aristocrat who was comfortable as king, but also a man who bored easily and gave up what he had won more often than not. When politics made his conquests stale, Pyrrhus invariably moved on to the next battle hoping for a better outcome.

Plutarch states “…Pyrrhus would seem to have been always and continually studying and meditating upon this one subject (warfare), regarding it as the most kingly branch of learning; the rest he regarded as mere accomplishments and held them in no esteem. For instance, we are told that when he was asked at a drinking-party whether he thought Python or Caphisias the better flute-player, he replied that Polysperchon was a good general, implying that it became a king to investigate and understand such matters only.

Men believed that in military experience, personal prowess, and daring, he was by far the first of the kings of his time, but that what he won by his exploits he lost by indulging in vain hopes, since through passionate desire for what he had not, he always failed to establish securely what he had. For this reason Antigonus used to liken him to a player with dice who makes many fine throws but does not understand how to use them when they are made.”

Pyrrhic Victory was coined from a single battle, but Pyrrhic behavior (half winning) was a self-inflicted disease that would haunt the man his entire life.

This post was originally published 3/10/2009.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Greek Phalanx and Its Influence Over Politics in Archaic Greece

The word Phalanx conjures up images of the formidable Greek battle formation and its impact on warfare over half a millennium. Designed to be impregnable through its reliance on a structure of unit strength made up of equal parts, the Phalanx anticipated every power formation in the future of battle including the modern tank.

Lost in the military view of the Phalanx, however,  is the impact it had on the development of the Greek political system. Indeed, it was also the social leveling force in Greek society that helped push the Polis into being and sowed the seeds of modern government.

Our story begins in the Greek Archaic period (800 to 500 B.C.) which saw the development of the Polis as a stable political institution. But to get to a Polis, we must first weave together the threads of government and war.

The phalanx was not invented by the Greeks. The earliest example of the formation was depicted in a Sumerian stone carving from 2,500 B.C. The word phalanx was first used by Homer to describe combat in an organized battle line as distinguished from combat between individuals. Trouble is we don’t know what kind of formation Homer was describing, so we can’t know if our concept of the Phalanx dates from his time.

In the time before the Phalanx, Greek battles were disorganized affairs consisting of two opposing armies running at each other in a line. Once the Greeks perfected it, the Phalanx became the default battle formation ancient armies, until the Romans developed the maniple.

Its political importance is based on the following scenario. At the time the Phalanx came into being, Greek cities contained a mixture of wealthy, poor, and those rising in economic status -- an emerging middle class. Ruling kings realized that they could build an army around larger military formations because more men could now afford to buy the necessary equipment. We can only speculate about the chicken and egg here. Did the kings coerce at first and then later the hoplites figured out how to leverage political power, or did the hoplites refuse to fight unless they were given political rights? I suppose we can imagine a case where the initial formations were small coerced units which grew in size when more independent men decided to participate.

Accurate data pinpointing the advent of the Phalanx is elusive. Written evidence is non-existent so we have to rely of archeology to guide us. The following image, referred to as the Chigi vase, dates from around 650 B.C.

We might ask how long the phalanx existed before it was painted on vases, but any answer is only a guess. Certainly the artists had to be interested in the subject and capable of representing it before it was first rendered. Unfortunately, the many attempts to validate the dating by translating the two dimensional formations on pottery into a three dimensional representation of the Phalanx have not met with much success.

The design of the Phalanx required that all hoplites operate as a single unit, meaning that each soldier had an equal, and important role, in the army’s success. Since everyone was an equal, each had the right to demand political authority when the war was over, because he had made an equal contribution to victory. This demand for political authority eventually manifested itself in the strengthening of the legal code, which protected the rights of the lower classes, and increased their participation in the apparatus of government.

With the advent of the phalanx, arms buried with the dead went out of favor because they lost their value as a status symbol. The new middle class could afford the weapons that would make them equals.

This article was originally posted 8/21/09.

Revisiting Old Posts

My subject matter derives from a combination of influences, including efforts to broadly cover the subject matter, finding the truth (and excitement) in history, and reflecting on topics that stimulate me. But my readers matter too, because a major goal of this blog is to stimulate interest in ancient history, so if the posts are not relevant and interesting, I will have failed.

Looking at the 279 posts, I see about ¼ which have been read in high volume, ½ in moderate volume, and ¼ largely ignored. In some cases the former and the latter make me scratch my head at the number of reads, but I won’t question why people read a particular post in high volume. I'm very interested, however, in determining why good posts have not been read.

Some may have poorly chosen titles that cannot be identified by a search. Key words are absolutely critical, especially if the post is not recent. Many of the early posts are not as comprehensive or complete as recent ones. Often a page or less, they were snippets of history rather than stories from history. Old posts that are hard to find and lack completeness are justly ignored.

Still, there are some good topics there, so I’m going to resurrect them and freshen them up to re-connect them to my readers. The articles will be re-posted with additional content so they provide the complete picture my readers have come to expect from this blog.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Caesar’s Brilliance on Display Against Pompey Post Dyrrhachium

For this post, we abandon Michael Grant, who has been the source of our history of Caesar’s last years, and move on to the general himself writing in The Civil War, or more specifically Commentarii de Bello Civili. The work has three parts: The Struggle Begins, Securing the West, and the Great Confrontation -- the latter being our focus here. Cicero, never a man to avoid hyperbole, praised the books, saying the sections were “like nude figures, upright and beautiful, stripped of all ornament of style, as if they had removed a garment.”

The starting point for the Great Confrontation is the run up to Dyrrhachium, which we have discussed previously, so we’ll begin with Caesar’s retreat from that inconclusive battle.

Caesar headed south to Apollonia and the Oricum, where he cared for his wounded, paid the troops, and accumulated grain. Suspecting Pompey might follow, Caesar sent the baggage train out each sunset, following at daybreak with his troops unencumbered in case of attack. Pompey attempted pursuit but abandoned the effort after four days in favor of a different tactic.

You can examine the following map to see the movements of Caesar and Pompey as they danced before the final battle.

Caesar’s plan was to hurry to Domitius who was shadowing Scipio in Thessaly. Pompey read Caesar’s mind and began a march to Scipio. Domitius foraging west ran into advance scouts of Pompey who bragged Pompey’s plan to him. Sensing danger to himself, Domitius diverted south to join Caesar at Aeginium.

Pompey had spread the lie of a total victory at Dyrrhachium, endangering Caesar’s march east, because cities would not open their gates to him. Gomphi resisted  and sent word to Scipio saying they were strong enough to hold out until his rescue, but Caesar took the city in a 24 hour siege and plundered it as an example. The next town, Metropolis wisely embraced Caesar as a friend and opened its doors to him.

Meanwhile, Scipio diverted to Larissa and requested that Pompey join him there.
Pompey’s speeches to his troops were so full of confidence his commanders got into arguments about the offices and villas they would commandeer after returning to Rome, following the defeat of Caesar.

Caesar evolved a plan to entice Pompey to battle, not knowing that Pompey’s lieutenants had already pushed him to engage. With Pompey settled in Pharsalus, Caesar employed a moveable camp strategy designed to wear down Pompey if he pursued, but Pompey declined. Then, one day, Caesar noticed Pompey’s lines farther down from the mountain and decided to offer battle.

Success for both armies hinged on the cavalry deployed on Caesar’s right (Pompey’s left). Pompey had a huge advantage in cavalry with some 7,000 available to him, including archers, but Caesar recognized this as a key vulnerability and pulled a cohort from each legion to create a “fourth line” of infantry behind the cavalry.

Caesar, aware of the importance of timing, told his commanders to watch him and expect signals from the waving of his flag. Pompey, acting on the advice of one of his commanders, decided to have his lines hold position rather than move forward, expecting Caesar’s troops to charge the whole distance and tire themselves out. The latter, consisting of the first two lines, closed half the distance and, observing Pompey’s forces in their initial position, stopped to conserve their strength. Then, after recovery, they renewed their charge until the lines were engaged. Pompey’s cavalry moved forward, forcing Caesar’s troops to give ground. Before they could attack the right flank of his infantry, however, Caesar signaled the fourth line to enter the fray. They fought with such vigor, Pompey’s cavalry took to the hills leaving the archers exposed and they were defeated. At that point, Caesar signaled the third line of infantry forward to relieve the weary first and second lines. This created an opening for the fourth line to encircle the left side of Pompey’s infantry and begin the rout. Pompey, now anticipating defeat, returned to camp and tent to await the outcome.

With victory on the battlefield complete, Caesar decided to press his advantage and storm the enemy camp. The camp was taken, but Pompey had escaped by horse to Larissa. His troops attempted to follow but they were intercepted by Caesar and forced to surrender. The Pompeian army of 45,00 yielded 15,000 killed and 24,000 prisoners.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Caesar after Dyrrhachium

History books don’t usually run through the details of Caesar’s life. They only lay out the big stories -- conquest of Gaul, crossing the Rubicon, Cleopatra, and the assassination. Here we have recently discussed the Battle of Dyrrhachium, an under-reported event, so I’m going to carry on a detailed chronology from there.

Here is a map of Caesar's travels from 48-44 B.C.

Caesar was busy the last three years of his life, yet there is mystery embedded in his activities. What was he trying to accomplish? Did he have a plan? How did he intend to solve the problems of the Republic? We don’t have the answers, but it’s interesting to look at the hints he gives us.

Caesar believed he could win the civil war by defeating his friend Pompey. Dyrrhachium had been a draw, but a month later when Caesar prevailed at Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt. The latter was murdered upon his arrival based on the Egyptian’s mistaken notion it would benefit them to demonstrate allegiance to Caesar. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria four days later, following a month of tribute collecting in Anatolia, he was shown Pompey’s head and was not pleased. The Egyptians had ruined his opportunity to humiliate a defeated enemy by taking him back to Rome and, more importantly, crossed the line by murdering a senior Roman leader.

But Caesar still needed money and assumed the role of arbiter over the dispute between Cleopatra and her brother to gain position in the battle for control of the Egyptian treasury. Once Cleopatra became his mistress, Ptolemy and his minions rebelled, were defeated, and the king was killed. The end result was an alliance with Egypt, rather than annexation, because Caesar knew he could not trust any governor to manage an Egyptian province.

Ignoring the unrest in Rome, Caesar decided to seek additional tribute in the east, so he headed north with the goal of reducing Pontus as punishment for the murder of Crassus. Then, after its defeat on August 1, 47 B.C, he headed home via Athens and Tarentum, where he met with Cicero.

By early fall, Caesar realized that a revolt of Pompey loyalists in Africa was underway so he began to plan an invasion of Tunis. Departing on December 25th from Marsala, Sicily, Caesar’s army traveled to Africa. A combination of food shortage and reluctance on the part of the Pompeians to fight delayed the climactic battle until early April of 46 B.C.

By July Caesar had returned to Rome and initiated forty days of triumphs to celebrate the end of the civil war. Included in this extravaganza was the strangulation of Vercingetorix, his old enemy from Gaul, who had been kept in prison for six years waiting for the right moment.

But now Pompey loyalists in Spain began to revolt and something had to be done about them. On November 1, 46 B.C, Caesar left for Spain with his army, for what would become his final campaign. Again, as in Africa, the enemy was elusive and it took until March 17th of 45 B.C. before they were defeated.

In the single year that remained of Caesar’s life, we note three primary activities: attempts at colonization and resettlement of veterans, the making of his will, and the extension of his powers. With regard to the settlements, the Roman army at the end of the civil war consisted of no less than 35 legions, far more than needed and a dangerous risk to the stability of the Republic. The dictator initially proposed resettlement lands for the veterans but there was not enough free land available in Italy so the settlements were moved to occupied lands. Not east, because the Hellenistic world refused to be Romanized, but west to Spain and other parts.

In September Caesar returned to his villa at Lavicum to prepare his will. It left three quarters of the estate to Octavius, grandson of one of his sisters. The boy would also become his adopted son. Here Caesar chose family over colleagues because he had a good candidate. Octavian’s intellect and ruthlessness had impressed his uncle and overcome any concerns about his frail constitution.

What did Caesar intend to do about the Republic? Fix it later or let it be? We don’t know. Perhaps the answer lies in the plans he made in early 44 B.C. to invade Parthia. Battle was certainly something he loved and going to war put off having to deal with political problems he had no answer for.

In February of 44, Caesar had his dictatorship converted into a lifelong office, only a year after he had extended it to ten years. This new definition of dictator was deeply offensive to Roman traditionalists who saw it as an emergency office only. In a weak attempt to show modesty, Caesar refused to be named king when the crown was offered to him by Anthony on February 15, 44 B.C. Somehow he believed that the title was more dangerous than the authority, a frighteningly delusional position.

Once his enemies found out about the Parthian campaign, they decided they couldn’t live with the idea of an absent dictator operating by remote control. The assassination plan came together quickly and Caesar was killed. Unfortunately, those Republicans among the conspirators were as delusional as their victim and leaderless. Brutus decided that Anthony should be spared, so the public could see that the assassination was not a power grab. This foolish idealism would be their undoing. The conspirators had no plan for restoring the Republic or even taking control of the situation. They allowed Anthony to use Caesar’s funeral oration to build hatred for the conspirators, driving them from Rome while elevating himself.

How many times has this story been told in history? Idealists strike at the tyrant as an attempt to turn the clock back, but they fail because they aren't ruthless enough and don’t understand how to take power.

The brilliant fallout of the death of Caesar was the sham perpetrated on the Roman people by Octavian once he had defeated Anthony at Actium. He made the principate look like the Republic and everyone fell for the ruse.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Ancients Hall of Fame

I recently came upon an article in about.com by N.S. Gill, their feature writer on ancient history. Its title is 69 Ancient People You Should Know, and it got me thinking about the most important people of antiquity – those who would be voted into an Ancients Hall of Fame.

For the purposes of exploring this subject I’m going to start with Gill’s list, which is as good a place as any. I don’t agree with many of her selections but I also admit that building a list like this is subjective. I don’t know if “people you should know” is equivalent to “most important’ but the latter is the direction I’m taking. I believe fame plays a significant role here, making it difficult to include those who are generally unknown to the public in general and me in particular. My sense of antiquity is that individuals whose fame has endured over the millennia were the most important. The only qualifier I put on that is that I’m avoiding the infamous whose misdeeds are their claim to fame.

To return again to the 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 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, when you build a list like this and make any attempt to limit its size, you get 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, aren’t they all 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 three groups from Gill I have not added: those too obscure to be eligible, those who didn’t quite make the grade, and those who are unworthy. 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. The unworthy contingent includes Nero, Domitian, and Caligula. Not sure why they were chosen.

Now let’s move on to the people who are missing from Gill’s list and 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 interest created in the writings of antiquity. Cicero’s humanist philosophy influenced the renaissance, while his republicanism influenced the founders of the United States.

Now we have a complete list of 53 – an odd number and no more than an arbitrary stopping point based on subjective criteria. Still it’s fun to debate the greatest of antiquity. Wish we had a few like them today but unfortunately, in this modern age, image and money have subverted wisdom and knowledge.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Review of The Jericho River by David Carthage

I occasionally do book reviews, but its unusual for me to comment on a novel. The Jericho River is an exception because of its unique approach, which has us learning ancient ancient history while we enjoy the story. To me, any method of proliferating our subject matter is good and this is more fun than most.

The Jericho River chronicles the dream journey of Jason Gallo, a young man sent to the Land of Fore to rescue his father, William, who is trapped there. The father, a history scholar, has become unconscious and doctors are unable to revive him. One of them, the odd Dr. Valencia, convinces Jason that his father is stuck in a dream world and the only way to save him is to go there and bring him back. Jason agrees, not knowing what’s in store for him, and after falling asleep finds himself transported to ancient Mesopotamia where he has to learn to survive and begin the search for his father. Immediately captured by bandits, Jason is saved by a lumin in the form of a lion with a man’s head. Zidu quickly becomes his companion and friend for a journey down Jericho River – the dream world’s path through history. After Sumer, they travel to Egypt where they are joined by the exotic priestess Tia -- ordered to go with them by her guardian, who wants the girl to experience the world. Tia is strong willed and temperamental but honorable and passionate in stark contrast to Jason’s irreverent impatience.

The trio journeys to Crete, Babylon, Israel, and Persia guided by the tiniest threads of information about Jason’s father, while enduring the attacks of Barbarians and pirates who seek to enslave them. Along the way, Jason learns how to communicate to other lumins using his thoughts, and becomes intensely aware of the spiritual world.

At every step of the journey he hears rumors of a mysterious man, called the Rector, who is after him for reasons unknown.

Down the river our heroes travel to Athens, northern Europe during the barbarian period after the fall of the Roman Empire, and finally the medieval world. They are shocked when they meet a group of fairies living in a secluded wood – angry fairies who have lost the power to help mankind because they have been replaced by science. Jason learns this is the work of the Rector and his International Empirical Society -- men dedicated to destroying lumins and fairies as enemies of progressive thought. He sees the cruelty in this right away, perpetuated by those who would raise science to the status of gods.

At the climax of the book, Jason’s dream becomes a nightmare when he comes face to face with the rector and is forced to stand up for what he has come to believe. He is now a man and must survive on what he learned from his dreams.

The Jericho River is more than it seems on the surface and is not just one more adventure story. Advertised to be a subtle teaching of history in an action adventure wrapper, it is certainly that. You experience the history first hand from the characters that are living it and that experience is more real than dates and names in a history book. And while it may be geared to the adolescent reader, it fits the adult fun equation as well.

If you want to look beneath the fun and get philosophical, you can do that too by contemplating one of the great moral themes in the history of man -- the role of science and its impact on human spirituality. Man has embarked on a 2000 year journey to explain the world and, as he has done so, gradually replaced fear of the unknown with science. Where does this process end and what do we have when all is known?

I, personally, don’t want to live in a world of equations where everything is explained. Give me a fairy or two and let me dream.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Battle of Dyrrhachium – Caesar’s Greatest Risk

I’ve been waiting for five months to write this article.

Back in March, while writing the post on the Visigoth sack of Rome, I came upon an interesting story about a siege the Goths conducted during the time period of the sack of Rome. The author said “this siege was the largest in history next to Dyrrhachium.” Huh? I had never heard of Dyrrhachium. After going back to retrieve the reference I couldn’t find it. Thought it was in Gibbon, but no.

The reference mentioned Pompey against Caesar and I realized that this battle was alluded to but unnamed in the HBO Rome series. Pompey and Cicero took refuge in Greece where Caesar eventually attacked them. He won with an inferior force for reasons I never understood.

After Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C, Pompey retreated from the city, crossed the Adriatic, and set up camp in Greece. Caesar, not in a hurry to chase him, decided to stabilize Spain first. He also lacked ships to transport his troops so he had to wait for them to be constructed. By the end of the year 49 B.C, a now impatient Caesar was anxious to attack his old triumvir friend. There were only enough ships for half the fleet but Caesar decided to proceed immediately even though the January storms would make passage difficult.

The following map shows the movements of the two armies.

Unknown to Caesar was the blockade set up by Pompey using his fleet under the command of Bibulus. Caesar was very fortunate in that he caught Bibulus off guard with a winter crossing and was able to reach the coast of Epirus (1). When Caesar sent the fleet back to retrieve the rest of the army, it was intercepted, blocked, and many ships were lost (2). Caesar now faced the prospect of fighting Pompey’s army of 45,000 with an army of 15,000. He attempted to treat with Pompey several times but was rebuffed. Resigned to doing battle, Caesar instructed the newly arrived Anthony to break the blockade and head north to meet him at Dyrrhachium (3,4). Pompey, hearing of Caesar’s movements, marched from Macedonia to try and get between Caesar and Anthony (5). Unsuccessful, he set up camp along the coastline south of Dyrrhachium.

Caesar, using his classic playbook, decided to build a circumvallation around the army of Pompey. The latter responded by constructing his own fortifications opposite Caesar. By the end of spring Pompey’s army was suffering from lack of fodder and needed to break out. Some Gallic horsemen defected to Pompey, telling him of a hole in Caesar’s line to the south. Pompey attacked there, forcing Caesar to retreat in order to save his remaining troops (6).

Caesar then took Gomphi by siege and then defeated Pompey for the final time at Pharsalus. Pompey escaped to Alexandria but was murdered by Ptolemy.

The map below shows the fortification detail.

Caesar's circumvallation was about 13 miles long.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Leonidas Trilogy

I wanted to introduce you to the Leonidas Trilogy, a series of three historical novels by my friend Helena Schrader. The trilogy divides Leonidas life into three parts: Boy of the Agoge, A Peerless Peer, and A Heroic King. I placed a youtube introduction to the series in the left hand column for you to see, so have a look.

Helena also writes her own blog, Sparta Reconsidered, which you can access through a link on the blog list below.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

New Directions for This Blog

The most important component of any blog is the content, which attempts to communicate information to the reader specific to the subject orientation of the site, but no blog can be successful unless the author finds ways to stimulate his readers and get them to return to the site.

There is a great deal of information that comes along with the words, such as images, maps, and charts that help frame the content of the postings and behind the article content sits the publications which act as source materials for the content.

I have recently been working to expand access to my background materials as a way to provide readers a pathway to more information, when  they want to go deeper into the subject matter. The tools for this new effort are Goodreads and Facebook.

For those of you not familiar with Goodreads -- you should be. This site collects lists of books by subject and includes member reviews of those books. You can put your own library up there as a contribution or just read what others have to say about books you’re interested in. Another feature allows you to search for booksellers who have the book and buy it right in Goodreads. You can also join any one of a variety of forums on different topics where members openly discuss issues that matter to them.

I have 136 of the books in my Goodreads booklist including about 80 books on the ancient world. Every book I use for my postings gets added to my booklist there.

To make supplementary materials available, I have created a Facebook page for the blog which you can see at:

Here I will be adding all of the image materials from the articles I post, including charts, artifacts, and maps of the ancient world -- located in the photo section organized by category. Not all of the materials are up there yet but I’m working on it. Take a look and see what you think.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Stoic-Christian Connection

We have been discussing the development of Stoicism as the leading Hellenistic philosophy so that we might look at its relationship to Christianity -- the theory being that Christianity has some Stoic ideas in it.

Think of the way early Christian leaders (circa 100 A.D. and beyond) viewed their situation. They believed in Jesus as the Messiah, based on the Gospels and the teaching of Paul, but those beliefs were missing a substantive philosophical framework, or more correctly a theology, that could be taught and defended. The only way to overcome this lack of structure was to create it.

But there is a problem with creating this framework -- objectivity. How do men living in a Hellenistic world permeated by Stoicism develop a Christian theology without being influenced by Stoicism? Only with difficulty it turns out. As discussed in a previous post, the Christian apologists had two adversaries: splinter religious groups like the Arians and Gnostics and more seriously the classic Greek philosophers who enjoyed centuries of wide acceptance. The reputation of the Greeks was too strong to dismiss out of hand, so many Christian thinkers made peace with the Greeks, either my attributing Christian beliefs to them or finding Christianity in their philosophy.

My source book for this discussion is The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan. Professor Pelikan was an eminent scholar in the history of the Catholic Church and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale from 1972-1996. He wrote a five volume set on the Catholic tradition including the work cited above which serves as volume one.

Pelikan cites the closing of the Greek philosophical school by Justinian in 529 A.D. as the triumph of the church over pagan philosophy. Or as Gibbon put it,

“this was a time when Christian theologians superseded the exercise of reason, resolved every question by an article of faith, and condemned the infidel or skeptic to eternal flames.”

We start by highlighting the most famous work of Boethius (executed 522 A.D.) called Consolidation of Philosophy. This paradoxical work attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. The paradox derives from the fact that the book reads like its writer is a secular philosopher and not a devout Christian. Pelikan accuses Boethius of pressing reason to the boundaries of faith.

Pelikan also suggests that the triumph of Christianity over Greek philosophy was “Pyrrhic” because the victory by the former included the absorption of some of the tenets of the latter.

Let’s look at the example of transubstantiation. The fourth Lateran council of 1215 A.D. decreed that the sacrament of the altar .. the bread is substantiated into the body of Christ. Substance in this case is no more than the metaphysics of Aristotle as laid out in his fifth book on that subject. As Aristotle says, “A substance is not predicated of a subject but everything else is predicated of it. That which, being present in all such things as are not predicated of a subject, is the cause of its being, as the soul is of the being of an animal.” It follows then that if you are using Aristotle’s definitions, then you are embracing Aristotle. It’s not surprising that this issue has been cited as an example of the problem of “Hellenization of Christianity.”

Indeed, Christian doctrine still bears the marks of pagan philosophy which is the price paid for the triumph over it. How high a price? We need to look no farther than the apologists to answer that question.

Extremists labeled many of the theologians of the early church hellenizers, a purposeful derogatory sobriquet. They said of Origen, “While his manner of life was a Christian, contrary to law he played a Greek, and introduced Greek ideas.” They were critical of his kinship with the Greek philosophers regarding the immortality of the soul.

The same can be said of Tertullian. Unsure of the characterization of the soul in the scriptures, he called upon the Stoics to help him explain it as a spiritual essence.

And Clement of Alexandria describes virtue as “a will in conformity to God and Christ in life, rightly adjusted to life everlasting.” This is basic Stoic metaphysics.

Now we can see how the Greek philosophers in general (Plato and Aristotle) and the Stoics in particular were able to influence Christian theology. This influence was undoubtedly caused by:

1. The longstanding assimilation of Stoicism into Hellenistic thought and its subliminal influence over those living at that time.

2. The lack of a philosophical foundation in the Christian religion which was originally built solely on the facts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

3. The thought processes of early Christian theologians whose intellects required examining all fundamental ideas, even those originating from the pagan enemy.

At the end of the day, our discussion becomes esoteric because the "Pyrrhic" character of the Christian victory over pagan philosophy was forgotten long ago. Those elements formerly Greek stand today as Christian dogma.