Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Ancients Hall of Fame

I recently came upon an article in 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.