Freedom to, freedom from

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Two years ago, near the beginning of my amateurish exploration of the concept of freedom here on The Hannibal Blog, I dabbled a bit in the nuance between

  • negative and
  • positive


As it happens, there is a much, much better treatment of that distinction in this lecture by Hunter Rawlings, a classicist at Cornell (as well as that university’s former president).

We today subscribe largely to the negative concept of freedom. We want to be free from things (intrusion, government, …)

Most of the ancients — such as Pericles, the Athenian statesman who probably summed up classical democracy best in his famous Funeral Oration, pictured above — took nearly the opposite point of view. They wanted to be free to do things (speak in the assembly, sit on juries, fight in the army, co-determine the fate of their polis…)

(One exception in antiquity might be Diogenes, which is perhaps what makes him so interesting to us, or at least to me.)

As Rawlings puts it, neither society, Greek or American, would regard the other as “free”.

The Greco-Romans had a communitarian (and largely tribal) definition of freedom and were concerned about virtue (but hardly at all about property).

Enlightenment thinkers, starting with John Locke, defined freedom in much more individualistic terms and were more concerned about property than virtue.

The mixture of the two strands was at first (in the minds of geniuses such as Madison or Hamilton) tonic. But something has arguably gone wrong in the centuries since then, leading us gradually to stunningly childish and unsophisticated notions about freedom today.

A short excerpt of the lecture is below, but I hope you take time for the full hour, because it is fascinating and touches on all the topics dear to The Hannibal Blog: Greece and Rome, the Founding Fathers, democracy, et cetera.

Incidentally, I discovered the speech through this Greek blog post, which discusses some of my own posts and which Google has only translated for me very imperfectly. Thank you very much!

I’ll leave you with one snippet from Rawlings’ lecture, which is that the ancient Greeks, being so busy with their freedom to participate in the public business, had … no word for boredom! ­čÖé

Now the excerpt:

The vapors of Delphi

Pythia (oracle of Apollo)

When the ancient Greeks and Romans had a question of great import, they traveled to the navel (omphalos) of the world, which they believed to be at Delphi, on the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece (see map below).

They climbed up the Sacred Way, past about 3,000 statues and various temples and shrines, until they reached the Temple of Apollo. (This post is apropos of our discussion about Apollo the other day.)

Mount Parnassus was Apollo’s mountain — the mountain of wisdom and music, the place where Apollo had given Orpheus his lyre and taught him to play it, a place that other artistic places (such as Montparnasse in Paris) still try to evoke today.

Click for credits

Because Apollo could see the future, he would have the answer to any question, here at his temple.

And he gave his answer through a woman, the Pythia (pictured above). She would sit above a chasm in the rock through which the god sent vapors (pneuma) that put the woman in a trance. Thus possessed, the Pythia would babble, and priests were at hand to transcribe her words into beautiful hexameter which they gave to the individual who had asked a question.

The answer was coherent syntactically but not necessarily substantively. You recall that both King Croesus and Socrates, for example, had received answers from the Pythia that were ambiguous at best (disastrously so, in Croesus’ case).

But nobody could dispute the power of the god, or rather of his vapors.

And that remains true even today. The vapors are real, it turns out. Mount Parnassus sits atop several very active faults. The earth below constantly rubs and often quakes, grinding the rock until it emits … vapors.

Which vapors? Methane and ethane, apparently. Even the spring water at the site contains ethylene.

In short, even the scientists who go there today, if they hang out there long enough, if they inhale and ingest, may enter the trance of the Pythia and receive the ambiguous wisdom of Apollo.

And so mythos and logos meet; and ‘Socrates’, Dionysus and Apollo become one.

Somewhere between Apollo & Dionysus


Friedrich Nietzsche not only loved Greek art and culture per se but he was also, as we discussed the other day, always searching for timeless lessons from the Greeks to help us understand modernity and ourselves.

He found one such lesson in an apparent duality that ran through all of Greek art: the tension between two gods who were also two archetypes and half-brothers: Apollo and Dionysus.

Think of them as a Greek Yin and Yang.

Apollo, the god of the sun and wisdom, as well as poetry and music, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yang (ie, the bright, masculine sun).

Dionysus, the god of wine, intoxication, ecstasy, passion and instinct, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yin (ie, the dark, feminine moon).

Obviously, I am stretching that analogy, so don’t get too wound up about it. If you prefer, you can think of them in our contemporary pop-psychology terms of left brain (Apollo) and right brain (Dionysus).


So why should this duality be so interesting, for the Greeks or for us?

From Homer to John Wayne: The Apollonian

Nietzsche saw in these two archetypes two approaches to art, and indeed life.

Homer, for example, followed his Apollonian instinct in writing the Iliad and Odyssey in the 8th century BCE. How so? Because he glorified the war against Troy and the subsequent nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus. He made these stories beautiful, as Apollo was. He gave the Greeks and us role models.

He made the Greeks proud to be Greeks, proud to descend from whichever hero in the long catalogue of ships they traced their lineage to. He made them aware of their individuality, of the structures of society, of its fundamental order to which, after intervening episodes of wrath (see: Achilles), everything must return.

Julian Young in his biography of Nietzsche compares this to, for example, our Westerns (the ones with John Wayne more than those with Clint Eastwood). There, too, you see people dying, but they die in a stylized, Homeric way: The bullet hits and they tumble from their horses, looking good as they do so. They are our heroes, beyond the sordidness of reality.

Young gives another modern example: women’s magazines. Those are full of celebrities (our goddesses?) with their tales of disease, divorce, death and drugs. The subtext is ugly, and yet it is presented to us as glamour.

Nietzsche calls this being “superficial out of profundity.” Apollonian art does not censor facts (such as death) but perspectives. It involves a certain amount of self-deception, but it is uplifting. It┬ádeifies everything human, whether good or bad. And so it is, yes, religion.

From Sophocles to the rock concert: The Dionysian

By contrast, Aeschylus and Sophocles (but not Euripides, see below) followed their Dionysian instincts in the tragedies they created the fifth century BCE. This might have been expected: Those tragedies were, after all, performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus.

Dionysian art is about the abandonment of order, or ecstasy (ex-stasis = standing out of everyday consciousness). It transcends words or concepts. This is why it tends to involve visuals and music.

Music was in fact an important part of Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ tragedies (we just don’t know how it sounded, what a pity!). Apparently, the audience sang along with the chorus and became one with it.

The individuals there would have become hypnotized by the sound (rather as yogis feel a certain ‘vibe’ when chanting Om with others). In fact, they would have, as one says, lost themselves in the crowd. They would have stopped feeling separate and individual, Athenian or Greek. They would have had (Freud’s) oceanic feeling.

Credit: Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Young compares this to our rock concerts or raves, to our football and soccer stadiums. Dionysian art is a trance and a trip, usually good, sometimes bad.

It is, in contrast to some Apollonian art, apolitical and devoid of any message. The Athenians participating in Sophocles’ tragedies stopped caring about worldly affairs. They became almost apathetic.

This was the only way they could bear to see their heroes — those same Apollonian heroes — torn down and devastated, knowing that they themselves might meet the same fate, understanding that reality was sordid, that it was primal and dark, and that it demanded to be accepted in that way. And they found a beauty in that feeling, too. So it, too, was a form of religion.

From Socrates to Princess Diana: What Nietzsche decried

Nietzsche loved both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, understanding that, like yin and yang, neither can ever be denied.

What he did not like, however, might surprise you: Socrates.

Why? Because Socrates represented, to Nietzsche, the religion of reason — not Apollonian wisdom but cold, methodical logic. In that sense, Nietzsche believed that Socrates “killed” Attic tragedy and Homeric poetry, and the playwright who represented that trend (to Nietzsche) was Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians.

Our own age, Nietzsche might say, is “Socratic” in the sense of scientific and myth-less, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. Because we can’t act out these two instincts, we instead cobble together what Young calls “myth fragments”. We don’t release urges, as the Greeks did, but instead look for thrills, for sex and drugs and trips. We sky- and scuba-dive, we get a new app.

We worship neither Dionysus or Apollo but idols like Princess Diana. How appropriate, since Diana was the Roman Artemis, sister of Apollo.

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In praise of sublime Greek violence

Nietzsche turned 26 as the Franco-Prussian war was raging (above). He saw this bloodshed as a failure of culture. So he started thinking more deeply about culture and its most fundamental mandate: dealing with human violence. And he arrived at some very interesting insights.

He did this by weaving together two strands of his thinking:

  1. the nature of violence in humans, and
  2. the nature of ancient Greek civilization

This is a great example of the benefits of cross-fertilization between areas of expertise. That’s because Nietzsche was not yet what we would call a philosopher. Instead he was, by training and profession, a philologist, which at that time in Europe basically meant a┬áclassicist — somebody who studies antiquity, which in turn mainly┬ámeant studying the Greeks.

Nietzsche absolutely adored the Greeks of the classical era (as we do here on The Hannibal Blog). He believed that they were the first to elevate humanity by transcending violence. Here is how.

(This is based on pages 139-141 of Julian Young’s excellent philosophical biography of Nietzsche, which I am currently reading.)

I) Violence

First, according to Nietzsche, the Greeks were honest about the human instinct to violence, and that’s a great start.

The Greeks knew that they were just as capable of violence as the barbarians. (Just read Homer’s account of Achilles’ wrath, or Thucydides’s account of the rape of Melos.) So they accepted that violence was simply part of human nature. The question was what to do about that knowledge.

Pause here for a moment:

a) 19th-century context

In Nietzsche’s own time, this was already a radical interpretation. First, European academe (of which he was part) basically viewed the Greeks as serene and enlightened ├╝ber-thinkers, as beyond violence. And second, European society (of which he was also part, at least at the outset)┬áhad adopted a Christian morality (which Nietzsche would later in his life set out to debunk) that considered violence sinful and tried to eliminate or even deny it. So Nietzsche was already being politically incorrect.

b) Our contemporary context

While no longer politically incorrect, this view is still controversial today.  Which is to say that we are still arguing about whether we are at heart peaceful, like our cousins the bonobos, or violent, like our other cousins the chimps. (Video via Dan.)

In any case, the Greeks recognized the chimps in us humans, but then went a crucial step further.

II) Agon

That step was to redirect and sublimate whatever violent energy there is in humans.

Rather than denying or suppressing human aggression (what Nietzsche would later call the “will to power”), the Greeks purified it through the filter of┬áculture.

The result was agon — strife or, better, competition.┬áThat’s agon as in agonize, agony, protagonist and antagonist, et cetera.

Classical Greece was perhaps the most agonistic — meaning competitive — civilization in world history, surpassing even modern America. Everything was a competition:

  • poets such as Homer and Hesiod competed with words,
  • playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides competed with their tragedies — literally for an award given out during the Dionysian festivals at which their plays were performed,
  • Socrates and Plato competed with the Sophists, and the Sophists with one another,
  • orators like Demosthenes and Aeschines competed with their rhetoric, and
  • athletes competed at the Olympic Games.

The result was beauty such as this discus thrower, sculpted by a competitive artist of a competitive athlete:

Agon pervaded every single aspect of Greek culture. It was the nasty goddess of strife, Eris, reincarnated as “good Eris”. Bad Eris had started the Trojan War. But Good Eris, according to Hesiod,

drives even the unskilled man to work: and if someone who lacks property sees someone else who is rich, he likewise hurries off to sow and plant… Even potters harbor grudges against potters, carpenters against carpenters, beggars envy beggars and minstrels envy minstrels.

You can choose to see infinite parallels in our own time and lives. For example, culture succeeds when Good Eris enters a courtroom in an adversarial justice system such as America’s. Culture fails when Bad Eris takes her place.

In the name of peace, may humanity study the Greeks and learn to ‘agonize.’

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The Greeks: plus ├ža change…

Cheri speaks as though from my own heart in lamenting the Greeks. How, oh how, to reconcile their ancient grandeur with their Euro-busting, book-cooking financial profligacy of today?

And then I remembered that passage by Polybius, that great Greek sage, which I reproduce here to cause a smirk rather than offense.

In The Rise of the Roman Empire (VI, 56), he tells us that

among the Greeks… men who hold public office cannot be trusted with the safe-keeping of so much as a single talent, even if they have ten accountants and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, whereas among the Romans their magistrates handle large sums of money and scrupulously perform their duty because they have given their word on oath.

Now, clearly one part of his observation seems, ahem, dated and the other rather au courant. ­čśë

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Brute and primal hero: Hercules

Heracles, or more commonly Hercules (the Roman version), is the quintessential and archetypal hero, the one the Greeks considered their greatest and, more importantly, the one my four-year-old daughter names when I ask her who her favorite hero is.

So Hercules must, of necessity, open this thread on heroes and any investigation of heroism.

Which is interesting because I put it to you that the myth of Hercules is one of the worst stories of antiquity when you consider the storytelling per se. We today would consider Hercules a brute, a meathead, a boor. He is one-dimensional as opposed to complex. His story is in essence a repetitive list of triumphs that leaves no room for suspense, surprise or sympathy. (I meant empathy, really, but why not alliterate?).

And yet, Hercules is the one my daughter picks. So there must be something primal there. And that’s what this post wants to establish.

The man and his dilemma

Hera (Juno)

Hercules was, like many other Greco-Roman heroes, half god, half human. His father was Zeus, which┬ámeant that Hera, Zeus’s sister and wife, was jealous and would forever hate Hercules (some say that she is the Hera in Hera-cles) and make his life difficult. If there is tension in the story at all, it is this fight among the gods (some goddesses, such as Athena, helped Hercules) and between a goddess and a mortal. We’ll encounter this theme all throughout ancient mythology (Hera also fought against Aeneas, for instance).

Hera is thus how the Greeks, in this story, personified adversity and even what we would call our dark side. If things go wrong, even if Hercules himself does wrong, we will blame Hera. She is the Ur-bitch, you might say.

Just so this is clear, the story starts when Hera sends two venomous snakes into the crib of baby Hercules to kill him off. Poor snakes. Baby Hercules strangles them, one in each cute fist.

And thus you have the only other piece of information you need about Hercules, the thing that he is known for, the only thing we can really say about him: He is …. strong.

Strength is probably the first trait of a hero, as Jens has already pointed out. But strength against or for what?

Combine the malign influence of Hera and this awe-inspiring strength and you get a combustible cocktail.

Indeed, we need an explosion to get started: Hera causes Hercules to go temporarily mad. He rages with blood lust, destroying and killing not just anybody but … his own children! (Ask yourself: Could Hercules be a modern hero? Do heroes have to be “good”?)

This sets up a rather complicated and unconvincing double rationale for what must come next–ie, the ostensible “story”. Hercules has sinned and must atone, by doing certain labors of penance.

But penance did not work for the Greeks as a story line, so there is another, simpler layer: a good old power struggle. Hercules was supposed to have been a prince, but Hera (who else?) had played with Zeus’ mind and given the throne to Hercules’ cousin Eurystheus, a caricature of mediocrity. The deal is that Hercules can get his throne back if he completes the tasks that Eurystheus gives him. (Ask yourself how plausible that is. Why wouldn’t Hercules just bash his cousin’s head in?)

I’ve been dwelling on all this only to show you what a “bad” story this is. It should be entirely clear by now that the ancients were not the least bit interested in the why of Hercules’ labors, and arguably only modestly interested in the how. They were interested in the that. Namely, Hercules accomplished twelve amazing feats because … he could.

The labors

I won’t, as it were, belabor the labors, even though they are the myth, because you know them and, frankly, I consider them rather predictable and thus dull. (Compare any one of them to the fiendish complexity and uncertainty of, say, Jason having to get that fleece.) To jog your memory, here is the list:

  1. Hercules kills a monstrous lion and henceforth wears its skull and fur as hat and cape, which is how we picture him.
  2. He kills the Hydra, a monster with many heads. Every time he cuts off a head, two more grow in its place. (Compare this with the monster that Siegfried confronts in Norse myth).
  3. He captures a golden-horned deer that is the favorite of the goddess Artemis. (I think this task was included to show that Hercules also had Fingerspitzengef├╝hl, finesse. He could not kill the doe, lest he piss off yet another goddess, so he aimed an arrow so carefully that it immobilized the doe without killing her. But ask yourself: Why did he have to use an arrow at all?)
  4. Next: a boar. Hercules runs it down in the snow, where the boar can’t run fast.
  5. He cleans the famous Augean stables. The cattle of King Augeas had been pooping uninterrupted for eternity and the entire Peloponnesus was reeking. Instead of shoveling shit, Hercules diverts two rivers to flush out the mess. (An import from the river cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt? Meant to show that Hercules could not be humiliated?)
  6. Next, Hercules kills some terrifying birds who shot brass feathers into people.
  7. Next, Hercules carries the Cretan bull to the mainland. (This is the bull that would father, with King Minos’ wife, the Minotaur that Theseus will later deal with, which theoretically locates Hercules in time as slightly older than Theseus. Probably included to establish a link between the two heroes, the greatest, respectively, of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. Updated and corrected thanks to Bill Frank.)
  8. Next, Hercules deals with the mares of Diomedes, horses that tear apart and devour any guest of their king. Hercules somehow turns the tables and feeds Diomedes himself to his mares, and they lose their appetite.
  9. Next, the belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. We need some sex in the story and this is it. Hippolyte falls in love with Hercules and wants to give him her belt, but Hera interferes again, making the other Amazons think that Hercules is about to kill their queen, and causing a battle in which Hercules and his men kill the Amazons. (Every time he kills children or women, you see, it’s really Hera’s fault.)
  10. Next, Hercules has to steal some cattle from a three-headed monster named Geryon. What’s interesting here is the location: Geryon is in Spain, and Hercules travels back to Greece via Italy (thus allowing the Romans to link him with their locales). Also, he has to cross the Alps along the way, and this was, in the Roman mind, not done again “at scale” until … Hannibal did it. I digress.
  11. Next, Hercules has to get the apples of the Hesperides, in today’s Morocco. He persuades Atlas, a Titan who is holding up the sky on his shoulders, to fetch the Apples for him, holding the sky (strength!) while Atlas obliges. When Atlas returns, he doesn’t want to take the burden of the sky back. Hercules says “Fine, I’ll keep carrying it, just take it for one second so that I can put a pillow on my shoulders.” As Atlas helps him out, Hercules makes off with the apples. (I think this is included to show that Hercules also had wit, besides strength. But that qualifies?)
  12. Last, Hercules must fetch Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld of the dead. This is de rigueur for heroes: Odysseus and Aeneas will also visit Hades and return. I think it is meant to symbolize a brush with death, a transcendence of mortality.

Death and meaning

And that’s it, a smooth ride from one triumph to the next. If there is a twist, it is only in Hercules’ death.

Hercules and his wife crossed a river once and Hercules let a centaur, half man and half horse, carry his wife across (why did Hercules himself not carry her?). The centaur tried to elope with her, so Hercules shot him. As the centaur lay dying, the beast whispered to Hercules’ wife that she should keep his blood and soak Hercules’ clothes in it, which would prevent him from straying with other women. She did as told, but the blood was really venom. And thus she inadvertently killed her husband.

And yet, Hercules, alone among heroes, did not totally die. Zeus, his father, made him immortal and brought him to Mount Olymp. Another indication that Hercules was special.

So what is Hercules to us?

He represents the idea, once universal and now arguably fading, that heroes are somehow beyond morality and the law, beyond ordinary standards, “beyond good and evil”. That happens to be the title of a book ┬áby Nietzsche, and I think Hercules might have fit Nietzsche’s idea of an ├ťbermensch. It is what Dostoyevsky examined in Crime and Punishment: Can the hero be beyond morality? The ancients believed Yes. We have opted for No. Today, we would lock Hercules up or, if he happened to be president, appoint a special prosecutor.

But back to the point: Hercules may have got rid of some nuisances for his fellow men–a boar here, a monster there–but that was not why he did his labors.

Hercules was simply a strong man at a time when nature was ever-threatening and as arbitrary as a jealous woman (Hera), when our frightened ancestors yearned for one among them, whatever else his flaws, to stand by at the gate with a bludgeon and brawn.

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It was all Greek to them. No, literally.


I left off in my thread on the general historical backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book with a nod to Hellenism. That is because my main characters, Hannibal (Carthage) and Scipio (Rome), clashed, with consequences for us today, during the third century BCE, the height of the so-called Hellenistic era.

This may sound weird. Hellenism is named after Hellas, Greece, but what we know about this epic clash is that it happened between the two superpowers of the day, Rome and Carthage. What does Greece have to do with this?

This is what I want to explain, briefly and simply, in this post.

“Greece” was never, in antiquity, a country. Even Homer, writing about the Trojan War that was the mythological foundation for all Greeks, never once used the word Greeks! (Instead, he called the Greeks Argives, Achaeans, Aetolians, and so on.) During the Classical era, the Greeks had independent city states (Athens, Sparta, Thebes etc) that constantly fought against, or allied with, one another.

But although they never thought of themselves as a country, they always thought of themselves as a civilization. The definition of Greekness was simple: if you were allowed to send competitors to the Olmpic Games, you were Greek. And who was allowed? Broadly, those who spoke Greek. All other languages sounded to the Greeks like “bar bar bar bar”, hence barbarian.

Then, in the fourth century BCE, something big happened: While the Greek cities kept fighting each other about rather petty things, as usual, a new power rose to the north. This was Macedonia. Whether the Macedonians were Greek was at first controversial, but might made right, and Philip, then his son Alexander, became not only Macedonian but also Greek.

Alexander, completing the dream his father had dreamt when he was murdered, then swept ferociously across the Hellespont to the east, reversing the direction of the earlier Persian invasions, and conquering most of the known world. In the process he brought Greek language, culture, philsophy, theater, art and architecture to the entire “Middle East”. His name lives on in many garbled city names, such as Kandahar.

Then Alexander died, prematurely. His generals carved up his huge empire and for the next couple of centuries, huge and powerful kingdoms with Greek aristocracies ruled the area. The two biggest were the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empires. The last Greco-Macedonian queen was, of course, Cleopatra (who happens to be another of the characters in my book.)

What did this mean? It meant that in the whole Mediterranean and “Middle East”, there was one cosmopolitan, urban culture, which was Greek–ie, Hellenistic. There were lots and lots of other peoples–Phoenicians, Romans, Gauls, Numidians, Illyrians etc–who abutted on this Greek pond from all sides, and they each had their own culture and language. But the haute couture, the lingua franca, the aesthetic style, the entire outlook and sensibility of the era–all this was Greek.

There are no perfect parallels in history for this astonishing cultural dominance. The reach of Han Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty and “Anglo-Saxon” culture today (from English-as-a-second-language to Hollywood films) are the two that seem to come closest.

So there. Hannibal spoke Punic, Scipio spoke Latin, but both of course also spoke Greek. Scipio, in fact, loved Greek culture so much that his political enemy, Cato the Elder, a sort of Roman Joe McCarthy, even tried to spin a scandal out of it.

It was a culturally refined and complex era. A fascinating era.

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Backdrop to the story: Hellenism


I’ve always been a fan of Hellenistic art, such as this sculpture of a Dying Gaul (a Roman copy of the original Greek sculpture, made during Hannibal’s lifetime). Compare the Gaul above to the sculpture below, which shows either Poseidon or Zeus and was made about two centuries earlier, during the Classical era.


Huge difference, wouldn’t you say?

In the Classical era, art (which, as we all know, imitates life) was about depicting heroism in a stylized, idealized and static way. Even if the god is about to throw a thunderbolt, he seems frozen in time. He does not look like an individual but like a type.

In the Hellenistic era, by contrast, art is about individualized, internal, psychological and much more complex depictions of heroism. The Gaul looks ethnically like a Celt; he is struggling against death with as much turmoil on the inside as on the outside; he looks like he is actually moving on his shield. This is one man, unique, during the moment of his life’s ultimate drama.

Why am I talking about this?

Because the Dying Gaul is a great visual clue about the historical era in which the plot of the main characters in my forthcoming book unfolds. (As always, please remember that the plot and the characters are just the frame for a story that is about us today, about success and failure in our lives!) Hannibal and Scipio encountered each other during this, the Hellenistic, era.

In a coming post, let me try to begin to unravel the mystery I set up in recent posts: namely, how was it possible that Rome, an obscure Italian town that most people had never heard of, came to replace (and erase) Carthage, the Mediterranean superpower, making our own world forever Roman? Understanding these events starts, ironically, with understanding Hellenism, ie the Greeks.

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“East” vs “West”: Where it started

Every now and then I amuse myself by taking some notion that seems so familiar that we take it for granted, and tracing it to its origin. Where did it start?

So, in today’s episode, let’s look at the notion of East versus West.

This gives me a great excuse for a┬á map. I love playing with maps, in case you haven’t noticed. So let’s look at today’s answer (click to enlarge):


This is a map of the Persian invasions of Greece, ending with the Persians’ utter defeat and expulsion in 479 BC. And this is when it started. Long, long before Kublai Khan and Marco Polo and all that.

Until 500 BC, nobody, as far as I am aware, made any cultural or civilizational distinction between East and West. There had been Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia and so forth. But those thought of themselves as in the middle (as did, independently, China, the “middle kingdom”).

The first “Greek” civilization in Crete was mostly a Middle-Eastern culture. Then, when the Greeks came out of their weird and unexplained dark ages between about 1150 BC and 800 BC (Trojan war to the rise of city states), they did not yet think of themselves as “a West”.

But then the Persians started coming. They were mighty, despotic, decadent, effete and rich. We were ascetic, virile, democratic and free. And we kicked their proverbial.

At least that’s how the Greeks saw the matter. Herodotus, the world’s first historian, kicked the tradition off, Aeschylus ingrained it on the stage, and off we ran with it. The idea was born. Now it would develop.

The “West”, over the coming centuries moved further west, then north. To the Romans, the Franks, the Saxons and Normans, the Americans and then the Texans (just kidding). It became a complex mixture of all its ancestors.

The “East” kept moving further east, to Huns, Tartars, Mongols and Chinese.

And thus a “Middle East” opened up.

But the place where the “East” starts is still the same as it was in 479 BCE: the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles.


First off in this series of posts about the bibliography for my book–in the category of ancient sources–is, of course, Polybius. His life is one of the most fascinating ever lived, and his importance to us–especially to us Americans, as I will explain in the follow-up post–is enormous.

Let me lead up to Polybius in three short steps:



1) The first “historian” in history was a Greek writer named Herodotus. He lived during the fifth century BCE, the golden age of classical Greece, and wrote what he called “enquiries”, or histories in Greek. So that’s where we got the word! The main matter he was “enquiring” into was the glorious victory of the Greeks over the Persians, which forever changed world history.

In style, Herodotus was a genius story-teller, and I love him for that. But he was, shall we say, liberal with the facts and the truth. He tells us that Ethiopians have black semen, and so forth. He did not lie, but he embellished. But what the heck! He was the first.



2) Next up, one generation after Herodotus, was another Greek (it’s pretty much all Greeks from here on for a few centuries), named Thucydides. He was critical of Herodotus’ methods and wanted to bring a more factual, rigorous and scholarly style to history-writing. And I love him for that just as much as I love Herodotus! Together, Herodotus and Thucydides gave us history, my passion, just as Plato and Aristotle, another pair of Greeks one generation apart, gave us philosophy.

Thucydides had another war as his subject, as important to world history as the Greco-Persian wars. He wrote about the Peloponnesian war between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies. As the the Greek victories over the Persians had made the Greeks (even though there was no country called Greece) preeminent in the known world, the fratricidal war among the Greeks prepared their political decline. It was a tragedy.

In the process of describing this tragedy, Thucydides brought an analysis to bear that is also considered the foundation of all International Relations, and in particular of Realism in world politics (think Kissinger). That was my subject in graduate school, in case you care.

3) Next up were several other Greeks, including Xenophon, who would be giants in their own right were they not wedged between Thucydides and our guy, Polybius. So, because this is along post already, we will skip over them.

4) And now: Polybius.

He was a Greek. No surprise. In style he took clearly after Thucydides rather than Herodotus, which is to say that he believed in facts, research, cross-examination of eye witnesses, and above all in travel. Polybius  personally traced the route of Hannibal in order to write about his war.

Polybius was born about two centuries after Thucydides died, so the Mediterranean had changed completely. The Greek city states had declined in power after the tragedy that Thucydides described and then been swallowed up by Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Then Alexander died and his generals carved up the eastern Mediterranean into huge monarchies. In the western Mediterranean, Carthage was still the superpower.

But–and this is the phenomenon that Polybius tried to explain in his Histories–all that changed during his life time. Rome survived its war against Hannibal and Carthage by a hair. Then it turned east toward the Greek world until it dominated the whole Mediterranean. Polybius wanted to explain how and why Rome was able to do all that.

The circumstances in which he did his research would make a thriller all by themselves. He was a Greek aristocrat and when the Romans got around to his part of Greece they decided to send 1,000 hostages back to Rome just to keep the Greeks well-behaved. Polybius was one of them. He went to Rome as a prisoner for sixteen years!

But the Romans had a very nuanced and complex relationship towards Greeks. They dominated them politically and militarily but they admired and envied them culturally. A big historical thesis is that Rome was both captor (militarily) and captive (culturally).

Polybius’ fate shows that. He wasn’t thrown into a dungeon in Rome but became the guest and teacher in the household of the great Scipiones. Yes, that’s the family of great Scipio, Hannibal’s nemesis. So he had access to all the family archives. He and the younger Scipiones became very close, and some scholars say that this may have biased him towards their role in the Hannibalic war. Personally, I don’t care.

Polybius also stood next to a Scipio (the adopted grandson of Scipio the Great) when the Romans finally burnt and razed Carthage to the ground.

As a practical matter, Polybius then had to tell the story of all three wars between Rome and Carthage leading up to this moment. And for that, he talked to people who had known Hannibal, to veterans on both sides, crossed the Alps and so forth. This is why he is my, and everybody’s, first and best source.

Now, there is only one huge problem with Polybius. It is this: Most of his writing was lost. You may have other things to worry about in life, but I actually cringe when I think of what that means.

In practical terms, it means that we need a few other sources. Next, After the follow-up: Livy.

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