The Economist’s coequal humo(u)r

From time to time, I like to regale you with tiny anecdotes from our daily routine at The Economist, especially when they display our quirky side.

For instance, an editor might remark, as she anglicizes an acronym I use, that a word “either has to look odd to us [Brits] or odd to them [Yanks], and we opt for them.”

Well, this week I woke up on Monday to get a message from our editor-in-chief that he would quite like a three-page (3,000-word) Briefing on California’s water wars, since the piece that was meant for that slot was not ready to run this week. Due to the inhumanely inconvenient times zone I am in (ie, California, when my bosses are in London), this meant I had to deliver the piece the following day (Tuesday) for London to be able to wake up to it on Wednesday and publish it on Thursday, ie today. This is the piece.

So I wrote the piece in quite a hurry and sent it. Then, on Wednesday, I worked with the fact-checker and map guy, Phil Kenny. He came up with a great map, the clearest depiction of California’s water infrastructure I have yet seen:

CA Water map

The editors are then supposed to send me the “subbed” (jargon for edited) “copy” (jargon for text) and, this being The Economist, forgot to do so. So I went to a yoga class. By the time I came back, it was late at night in London.

In our process, a correspondent sends his article to a section editor, who subs the piece and then sends it on to the editor-in-chief or a deputy, who then sends it through to a “night editor“.

I had heard that our night editor last night was Johnny Grimmond, the author of our style guide. Johnny guards our quaint British usage as Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld, watches over Hades. You can call him, as you can call me, a pedant, and we would be proud of it.

I immediately knew that Johnny would pounce on one particular phrase of linguistic interest. The water legislation currently being negotiated in California contains a very important phrase that is also ugly and stupid in a characteristically American way. Which is to say that, in the same way that Americans gave the Anglophone world the word proactive (why not active?), the legislators in Sacramento now want to impose on the state’s environmentalists, farmers and urban water users

co-equal goals.

While doing my interviews for this story, I had kept a straight face every time the phrase came up, because I am keen not to appear, you know, loony or snippy. In my article I refrained from any overt pedantry. But I knew that Johnny, in the safety of his London office in the wee hours, would not. His cursor, I was sure, would find the pompous American redundancy faster than you can swat a greasy Hamburger with a cricket bat.

And so I asked a colleague with access to the system to send me the copy. My eyes skipped over the paragraphs until they alit on the one in question. I started grinning even before I read the new sentence:

The details of the legislation negotiated so far are complex, but its main feature is a phrase, “coequal goals”—though how coequal goals differ from equal ones is not clear.

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The rape of Melos: Thucydides as great thinker


One of the most important dialogues in all of literature, all of history is the so-called “Melian dialogue.” Its subject is power.

Its author was Thucydides, whom I’ve introduced before. He was a contemporary of Socrates, a general in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and of course the preeminent historian of that war. He is also considered the world’s first Realist.

I’m using that word in the context of International Relations and Political Science, as distinct from Idealism. All later Realists, from Thomas Hobbes to Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger, owe an intellectual debt to Thucydides.

1) Background

The dialogue is supposed to have taken place in 416 BCE, roughly in the middle of the long war between Athens and its allies (mostly the islands and ports around the Aegean) and Sparta and its allies (mostly the land-locked cities of the Peloponnese).

One life time earlier, the Athenians, Spartans and other Greeks together had kicked out several huge Persian invasion armies. This was the beginning of Athens as a superpower. Democratic and idealistic at first, Athens quickly became nakedly self-interested and arrogant and dominated its allies as though they were vassals. That alliance was called the Delian League, but it was really an Athenian Empire. Here is a map of it, before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War:

Athenian Empire.svg

If you click through to enlarge the map, you will see the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean, just outside the line demarcating the Athenian Empire. Melos was a Spartan colony but otherwise neutral. It was sort of a tiny Switzerland. It wanted to stay out of the troubles.

The premise of the dialogue is simple: The Athenians send a fleet to Melos and flatly demand that Melos bow to Athenian power and become a vassal or else be ethnically cleansed.

The Melians appeal to higher ideals (hence Idealism) such as justice.

In the course of the dialogue, excerpts of which I am about to give you, the Athenians and Melians use all the arguments that Realists and Idealists have been using ever since.

And then, Thucydides ends with one of the most abrupt–but, I believe, intentional and genius–codas in literature. But let’s wait till we get to that.

2) The dialogue


  • You can read the full version here, but I have cut it for ease of use
  • Glossary: Lacedaemon = Sparta. (Laconia is the area around Sparta, whence “laconic”, since the Spartans didn’t apparently say more than necessary.)

Athenians: … we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying … that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians: … you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….

Athenians: … We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.

Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

Athenians: Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.

Melians: So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.

Athenians: No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.

Melians: Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?

Athenians: As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection…

Melians: … if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? …

Athenians: … it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.

Melians: … it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.

Athenians: Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.

Melians: … to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope

Athenians: Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources … [But] you, who are weak … hang on a single turn of the scale…

Melians: You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust…

Athenians: When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do

Melians: … we now trust to [the Lacedaemonians’] respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.

Athenians: Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.

Melians: But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake … as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.

Athenians: Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. … now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?

Melians: But they would have others to send…

Athenians: … we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. … Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.

With that the Athenians left the Melians to make their decision. Let’s just summarize the dialogue briefly:

  1. A: Cut through the crap: might makes right. Don’t waste our time. M: We have a right to invoke justice!
  2. A: We would prefer to let you live, so submit! M: How exactly would submitting be in our interest?
  3. A: Were you not listening? Because you would live! M: Why can’t we be neutral? We would not bother you.
  4. A: Somebody somewhere might think we are weak. M: If you exterminate us, all other neutrals will hate you.
  5. A: Let us worry about that. M: We are not cowards and we want to stay free.
  6. A: For you it’s not about freedom but survival. M: We still have hope.
  7. A: Hope is for the powerful. And you are not. M: The gods are on our side because our cause is just.
  8. A: The gods are just like you and us: They do what power lets them. M: The Spartans will come to our aid.
  9. A: No, they won’t. They know they would lose at sea. M: We think they would send somebody.
  10. A: Enough of this silly nonsense. You make up your mind. Submit or die.

The Melians decided not to submit and to fight. Thucydides then describes at some length the Athenian siege. Eventually, the Athenians overpower the Melians.

And then, in perhaps the most abrupt final sentence in literature, Thucydides simply informs us that the Athenians

put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.

3) Analysis

  • Style: Thucydides writes the dialogue (admittedly, with my cutting I have accentuated this) a bit as Hemingway does: This is a staccato back-and-forth, not a treatise. We are not teasing out a subtlety of argumentation here. We simply have two sides who are talking past each other, and one side has power whereas the other does not.
  • Style: Any modern editor would have forced Thucydides to provide more “color” at the end, to make the true horror of the extermination more vivid. Thucydides has none of that. He wants the atrocity to be a mere afterthought. This is the way the world is, he is saying.
  • Content: Does Thucydides approve of the Athenians? We have no idea. Probably not. Who cares?, he is saying. This is reality.

Frenemies: Freedom and equality


Marianne, above, did not flash her boobs to all those corpses for nothing. She did it for the trinity (as in the tricolore she carries) of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Let’s leave fraternity, which is a rather mushy notion, to one side. That leaves liberty and equality. Do those two belong together?

I knew I would have to address this issue sooner or later in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. But the fascinating debate in the comments below this post brought it to the fore. Fortunately, that comment thread neatly summarizes the entire spectrum, across the world and history, of views on the subject. As I see it, the three options are:

  • You can’t have freedom without equality.
  • You can’t have freedom with equality.
  • It’s complicated.

The Classical Liberal view

Broadly, classical liberals (as properly defined) are passionately in favor of equal opportunity and just as passionately against enforced equal outcomes, exactly as “Hizzoner” paraphrased Friedrich von Hayek here.

Which is to say: If you (ie, the government) predetermine that everybody will be the same (think the same, dress the same, drive the same car, live in the same house…) then nobody in your society can be free, if ‘free’ means being able to be yourself, ie different than others. Why create, why achieve, why risk, if the fruits of your effort and ingenuity will be confiscated (“redistributed”) in the name of equality?

I personally glimpsed the extreme form of just such a dystopia when I peaked into East Germany months before it crumbled (although I didn’t know that it would crumble, of course). They were all driving, or on the waiting list for, the same damn Trabi. And while I was ogling their Trabis, many East Germans were already flooding into the West German embassy in Hungary, trying to escape and eventually forcing their leaders to let the Berlin Wall crumble.

That same example, East Germany, also showed what Hayek correctly predicted would happen in reality in an ‘egalitarian’ society. As Orwell might put it: Some were more equal than others. The difference was that the ‘more equal’ ones didn’t use wealth to assert their supremacy but more nefarious means–party connections, or what the Chinese call guanxi. The resulting horror was captured intimately on screen here.

And so, to those of us, like me, who were devotees of Ayn Rand, the answer was clear. Equality is the enemy of individualism, and thus of freedom.

How it got complicated for Liberals

Even at the time, however, there were some contradictions that gnawed at me. Even in the ‘free world’, we were often invoking equality. For instance, democracy, which we (perhaps wrongly) associated with freedom seemed to be based on the equality of one citizen = one vote, even as capitalism seemed to be based on the opposite, ie unequal outcomes.

Then there was the bit about equal opportunity, which we were all supposed to be for. Well, this was messy, because, inconveniently, we were biological organisms and as such insisted on looking after our offspring. Anybody who ‘makes it’ devotes his entire life, and all his resources, to ensuring that his offspring get a head start. And who can blame him?

So if ‘we’ (the government) really wanted to preserve equal opportunity, we would have to get heavy-handed and stop ‘him’ from looking after his kids. We would have to stop him not just from sending his kids to better schools and doctors, but from reading his kids all those bedtime stories, paying for all those piano lessons and SAT prep courses, building all those Lego houses with them–ie, from doing all those things that give kids ‘unequal’ opportunity. In short, we would have to take his freedom away! Obviously, a non-starter.

The triumph of biology

And then I saw a documentary. I tuned in somewhere during the middle and never saw the title, so I can’t be sure it is this one, but it might be. It was based at least in part on Sir Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Study from Britain. Here is how I remember it:

Stress: It is not the same as pressure, which we all feel from time to time. Instead, it comes from ranking low in a hierarchy and lacking power over your own time, your own self (=not being free). You who are at the bottom are at the whim of others. You suffer. And not ‘just’ psychologically, but biologically. You tend to get fat in your mid-section, and your heart, blood vessels and brain change visibly, with entire neurological circuits shriveling up. Meanwhile, the brains and hearts of top dogs expand and thrive.

The most poignant moment came when they cut from our species, Homo sapiens, to monkeys. The researchers observed packs of primates, and sure enough: a monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy got fat in his mid section, had hardened arteries and heart walls and a a shriveled brain.

Equally poignant: One group of monkeys, led by particularly aggressive alpha males, played in a trash dump and was decimated by an epidemic. Another group, more female and egalitarian, moved in and absorbed the survivors of the first group. The egalitarian culture prevailed. And voilà, the health of the surviving monkeys from the first group recovered and improved! They were slim, their hearts and arteries pumped, their brains fired on all neurons.

Let’s take this one more step toward generalization: You recall that I criticized Ayn Rand for getting individualism wrong (which took me many years to figure out). Well, I now know how she got it wrong. She did not allow or understand how inviduals, when forming groups, pick up signals from one another that change who and what they are.

Watch this amazing TED talk by Bonnie Bassler as a mind-blowing illustration of what I mean. It is not about humans per se, but about bacteria. That’s right. Stupid, single-cellular strings of DNA and surrounding gunk. The trick to understanding bacteria (→all biological critters?) is to grasp how they chemically detect the presence of other bacteria, and then suddenly change their own chemistry. Upshot: No bacterium is an island.

The case of America

Let’s now look at America. Without getting into the academic weeds, there is a proxy for social equality called the Gini Coefficient. If the coefficient is 0, everybody has exactly the same; if it is 1, one person has everything, and everybody else has nothing. So countries fall somewhere in the middle between 0 and 1. Now look at this world map:


The first thing you will notice is that the darkest blues and purples–ie, the greatest inequality–tend to be in poor countries, even in nominally “Communist” ones such as China. That’s because poor countries tend to be corrupt and feudal, with a few lords and many serfs. It is hard to consider these countries “free”.

But the second thing is more interesting. If you look at just the “developed” countries (let’s say those belonging to the OECD), you notice that one country stands out.

All the rich countries are in shades of yellow or green, meaning that they are fairly egalitarian societies. Only America is blue. America, in short, is the least egalitarian of all the developed countries.

And so? I’m not sure. The old Hayekian in me would chalk this up as a possible sign of more freedom in America than elsewhere. The new bacteriologist and epidemiologist in me wants to ring the alarm bell. This is not healthy! Sure, the Americans on top of the pecking order might show up at Party Conventions every four years and proclaim that ours is the freest country in the world. But many other Americans are simultaneously dying from their serfdom, whether they are aware of it or not.

For the time being, let’s consider freedom and equality neither friends nor enemies, but frenemies.

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Oops, we started a world war


Life, or history, is a tragicomedy. A lot of it is is just plain absurd. Hilarious, if it were not also terrible. The epic is bound up in the banal, the heroic in the vulgar. Wars are started out of folly or oversight, or somebody’s vanity, or pure mistake.

Let me give you an example from the era that forms the backdrop for the main characters in my forthcoming book. This is the giant cock-up that led to the Punic Wars, stretching over 118 years, robbing the ancient Mediterranean world of entire generations of its young as the the World Wars of the 20th century once would, and ending in the complete annihilation of Carthage.

To recap: Last time in this series we left off with Pyrrhus, the studly Hellenistic king who fought the Romans, usually winning (but hey, those Pyrrhic victories) but finally acknowledging that those Romans, so obscure and backward until now, were quite something. He went home and left Italy to them. For the first time, the Romans were now all the way down in the Italian “boot”, looking over at Sicily (see map).

Sicily, remember, was a mostly Greek island whose western parts Carthage, the maritime superpower of the day, considered to be in its sphere of influence.

We have already reviewed how Carthage and Rome were twins in some ways, friends in others. But now suddenly, they found themselves staring across the narrow straits of Messina, then called Messana. What would happen next? Did anything at all have to happen next?

No, nothing had to happen. That’s just what historians pretend 2,000 years later when they need to get tenure. Instead, here is what did happen:

Meet the Mamertines

There was this band of hoodlums–hooligans, gangsters, goons, whatever you want to call them. They were from southern Italy but went to Sicily at some point to look for work. Sort of like the Okies during the Depression. They found jobs in the great Greek city of Syracuse for a few years, but then got fired. So they wandered off again.

But on they way back to Italy they stopped at Messana, also a Greek town. The town’s elders, always good hosts in the Hellenistic way, gave them lodging. The hoodlums said Thank You, waited till everybody was asleep, got up and cut their hosts’ throats. Then they took their women. Then they declared that Messana was now theirs.

For good measure, they called themselves Mamertines, or “sons of Mars”. Looks better in the history books.

They kept being hoodlums, ransacking the towns in their neigborhood, until the Syracusans heard about this and sent an army. Yikes, the Mamertines thought. We better call for help.

So they contacted the Carthaginians in the west of Sicily and invited them over, just to show some force and scare the Syracusans off. The Carthaginians came, and the Syracusans thought it better not to risk a war over, well, hoodlums. (They knew whom they had recently fired, after all.)

Except now the Mamertines thought ‘Yikes, those Carthaginians are a bit scary too, aren’t they?’

So–and I think you see where this is going–they contacted the (wait for it) Romans, who were, after all, just a stone’s throw across the straits, in Rhegium (also Greek), today’s Reggio.

Sure, the Romans said. Why don’t we hop over and strut around a bit. We kicked out Pyrrhus, after all.

The Carthaginian commander thought it best not to risk a full-fledged war over, well, hoodlums, and left. But this was picked up by the Carthaginian equivalent of Fox News and the superpower decided that it had been humiliated. It crucified the general. (Literally, by the way.) Then Carthage sent a force to drive the Romans back across the straits.

And this, in 264 BCE, is how it started! The First Punic War would last 23 years. It would see some of the greatest sea battles of all time, including our own. It would be followed by the Second Punic War–Hannibal’s war–which was even bloodier. And then by the Third Punic War, which was genocide.

And the Mamertines, you ask?

Good question. Somehow they vanished from history the moment they entered it. We have no idea where they went or what became of them. The Romans, the Carthaginians, the Sicilians–nobody heard about them again or cared to inquire. After all, they had just been a bunch of hoodlums, passing through.

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Pyrrhus meets Rome; the world takes note

Let me now start to unravel some of the mysteries I have been setting up in my recent thread about Carthage, Rome and Hellenism–the historical backdrop for the main plot in my coming book.

The first mystery, in brief, is this: Why did two powers, which had been very alike and on friendly terms for centuries, start fighting some of the most brutal wars in all of history, ending in one of them (Rome) completely erasing the other (Carthage)?

In this post, let’s first look at how Rome even came to the attention of the Mediterranean world as a whole. Recall that Rome had been an obscure and small land power in central Italy of which Alexander had apparently never even heard!

Well, that’s because the Romans had been busy for several centuries fighting their immediate neighbors in Italy. As they subdued them piecemeal, these tribes–such as the Samnites and Etruscans–essentially disappeared from history. But with each victory, the Romans got closer to the tip, or “boot”, of southern Italy. And, this being the Hellenistic era, this brought the Romans into contact at last with the Greek world. The first great city of the Greeks in Italy to take offense was Tarentum (modern Taranto).


As it happened, there was at this time a very colorful and strapping young king just across the Adriatic in today’s Albania, which at that time was a Hellenistic kingdom called Epirus. His name was Pyrrhus. He is one of my favorite characters in ancient history (as I told you when I talked about Pyrrhic victories).

Pyrrhus had a bit of a complex. The Epirotes, like the Macedonians next door, were sort of, just barely, Greek. Which is to say that the “real” Greeks couldn’t quite make up their minds whether the Epirotes were really barbarians masquerading as Greeks. So Pyrrhus was forever overcompensating.

He claimed that he descended from Achilles, the greatest Greek hero ever. And he wanted to be as grand as Alexander, the Macedonian who had made himself the lord of all Greeks and conquered their old enemies. So Pyrrhus was constantly getting into wars here and there to prove his mettle.

His big break, or so he thought, came in 281 BCE, as Tarentum invited him to come over to help fight off some barbarians (the Romans). Pyrrhus, the defender of the Greeks! Pyrrhus, the descendant of Achilles fighting Trojan War 2.o against the descendants of Troy! He was thrilled. He packed his bags and swords, along with 20 war elephants and a huge, splendid army of Greek hoplites. And off he was to Italy.

Call me Achilles

Let’s pause briefly to grasp what kind of man Pyrrhus was. Here is Plutarch, describing a moment when Pyrrhus was wounded in the head once and his enemies were closing in for the kill:

one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armour, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.

Pyrrhus was more than brawny and brave; he was also a great tactician and general, perhaps the best of his time. So now, for the first time ever, Roman legionaries clashed with the famous phalanxes of Greek hoplites.


This picture actually does not do it justice. The hoplites in the phalanx stayed in tight formation, each holding his long spear so that the phalanx as a whole advanced as though it were a deadly porcupine with its quills pointing forward.

The Romans gave way. Then Pyrrhus’ elephants did the rest. And so Pyrrhus won victories, but they were “Pyrrhic”–which is to say that they did not help him win the war and cost him so much in lives that he himself said that he could not afford another.

Roman and Greek: Clash of Civilizations

But there was more going on here than battles. This was the first time that these two cultures actually met en masse. And the Greeks did not know what to make of these Romans.

In the Greek (Hellenistic) world, war was a higher form of sport and art. One or two victories on the battlefield, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to make a treaty, call it quits and go to the gymnasium to get oiled. So Pyrrhus was waiting for the Romans to cry Uncle.

But they didn’t. And the Greeks just did not understand. Why did the Romans just keep coming, and coming and coming, when they were dying in such large numbers? Who, or what, were these people?

There were more surprises. In the Greek world, you opened diplomacy with a gift or two, and perhaps the equivalent of a discreet brown envelope to the right persons. So Pyrrhus sent an envoy to talk to the Romans. But when he offered his gifts to the Roman senators, they were so shocked at the implication of venality that all diplomacy ended abruptly.

Bizarre! Even stranger, the Romans then saved Pyrrhus’ life. The king’s own doctor was a traitor and offered the Romans to poison Pyrrhus. The Romans, far from accepting the offer, promptly informed Pyrrhus, who had his doctor taken care of. There was nobility in these barbarians, he thought!

Long story short, Pyrrhus, after some distractions in Sicily, eventually left Italy and went home to Epirus, to keep looking for adventures and glory there.

Rome had survived its first encounter with the Greeks unbeaten and was now master of all Italy. All over the Mediterranean, people sat up and held their breath. Wow. A new power, living by exotic values and playing by incomprehensible rules, had arrived on the scene.

Even Rome’s old friends in Carthage suddenly realized that these Romans were now awfully close to Sicily, and rather more menacing than Carthage had ever thought. Whatever Rome was now, it was certainly no longer obscure.

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Great friends for 230 years: Carthage and Rome


Are you puzzled by Carthage and Rome? You should be, if you’re learning about them through my thread on the historical backdrop behind the main story and main characters in my forthcoming book. So far, I’ve told you just enough to raise lots of questions.

Recap: There we are, in the third century BCE in the Mediterranean: the place is essentially a Greek (“Hellenistic”) pond, with two other powers–one mighty, seafaring and rich (Carthage); the other obscure, land-bound and provincial (Rome)–waving at each other from opposite shores. But one century later, the obscure upstart somehow completely erases the mighty and rich superpower, thereby changing our world forever.

How and why did this come about?

We will get there, but first, let’s take another look at Carthage and Rome before war broke out between them. Not only were these two city-states remarkably alike; they were also … friends!

Not cuddly friends, perhaps, but certainly cordial enough to have four treaties of friendship between 509 BCE and 279 BCE. The terms changed, but the essence stayed the same:

  • You play nice over there, and don’t come armed over here, although if a storm were to blow your ships to our side, we’ll help you out so that you can be on your way.
  • In return, we will play nice over here, and not come over there, unless a storm were to blow our ships to your side, in which case we’ll be on our way as soon as you’ll help us along.
  • Oh, and we both realize that a lot of these places between us are actually Greek, so let’s give them some respect too.

You see this summarized in the map above. The Carthaginian sphere of influence is light green; the Roman light red; the Greek light brown. Notice the three main centers of Greek civilization in this (western) part of the Mediterranean, which were Tarentum (today’s Taranto, in Italy); Syracuse (also Italian today, of course) and Massilia (today’s Marseilles, in France).

This is still a largely happy and peaceful picture. But along came a swash-buckling young lad–no, not Hannibal yet–who caused trouble. He was Greek, his name was Pyrrhus, and you’ve heard and used his name in its adjectival form many times. To be continued.

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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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It’s all Greek to me

That’s what we say in English when we don’t understand something. (Probably thanks to Shakespeare, who had Casca saying to Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II, that “it was Greek to me.”)

But what do other people say–above all, ahem, the Greeks? Well, somebody has now mapped it.

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Carthage and Rome: murderous twins

Hey Dido, say we EACH had a city....

Hey Dido, say we EACH had a city....

I left off in this thread on the historical background of the main characters in my forthcoming book by asking you to savor a certain sense of mystery:

At the beginning of the so-called Hellenistic era (ie, the death of Alexander), Carthage was a superpower and Rome all but unknown. 177 years later, Rome was the superpower, and Carthage was completely razed. And our world would forever after be Roman. What happened in those 177 years?

Before I go on, please, remember that my book will not be a history lesson; it is a story of characters, from Hannibal and Scipio to modern people you know, who illustrate a theme that you, I hope, will recognize in your own life.

That said, in these posts I’m amusing myself with a bit of history. And so back to the mystery. It actually gets more mysterious for a while, because Carthage and Rome were … friends.

That might be overstating things, but they were a) extremely alike in some ways and b) entirely tolerant of each other for many centuries.

If you believe Roman legends, the two cities were founded almost at the same time–Carthage in 814 BCE by the beautiful and wily queen Dido, and Rome a few generations later by the descendants of Aeneas, a Trojan survivor and Dido’s erstwhile lover. Dido and Aeneas are pictured together above. (The lewd version is here.)

Rome and Carthage then evolved almost as twins: two polytheistic city-states that shook off tyrants and became proud republics, with popular assemblies, councils of elders, and two annually-elected presidents–the Romans called them consuls, the Carthaginians suffetes.

Carthaginian empire

Carthaginian empire

To the extent that they were also different, this actually helped them to get along. Rome was agrarian, provincial and essentially land-locked in central Italy. It had no navy at all! When it had to fight, it drafted all male citizens. Carthage, by contrast, was maritime, controlled a vast sea empire and made profits from trading. When it had to fight, it hired mercenaries to do the fighting on the citizens’ behalf.

So for centuries the Romans worried about their neighbors in Italy, and the Carthaginians about their profits and sea routes, and both sides were happy. They had treaties of friendship. There seemed to be no problem.

To be continued.

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Mapping the death of newspapers

Have a look at this interactive map of the layoffs at American newspapers. And 2009 is only one month old!

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