Classical mythology has been prominent in popular culture for thousands of years. For every God or Goddess there would be a mythological creature — or several in the case of Hercules — that they would have to overcome in order to display their prowess, power, and divinity. This was particularly the case in Ancient Greek mythology. Today, we’re looking at the less fashionable side of this partnership and focussing our attention on the creatures that mortals feared and heroes vanquished.
Does your gaze turn others to stone? Do you prefer ignorance or vengeance? Have any wings? Take this short quiz to find out which mythological creature or being you would have been in the ancient world.
Featured image credit: Mythical Creatures, by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
History and poetry hardly seem obvious bed-fellows – a historian is tasked with discovering the truth about the past, whereas, as Aristotle said, ‘a poet’s job is to describe not what has happened, but the kind of thing that might’. But for the Romans, the connections between them were deep: historia . . . proxima poetis (‘history is closest to the poets’), as Quintilian remarked in the first century AD. What did he mean by that?
From its beginnings, epic poetry in Latin was frequently based on actual historical events – so Naevius’ Bellum Punicum in the third century BC told the story of the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage, whereas the subject of Ennius’ Annales, from the second century BC, was the history of Rome from mythological times down to the poet’s own day. Evidently the Romans had no difficulty with taking a genre used by the Greeks mainly for the retelling of myth and employing it to celebrate their own national past, and indeed present. Even Cicero found the time to write an epic poem (complete with gods) about his own consulship (De Consulatu Suo) – after unsuccessfully attempting to interest some real poets in the job. Barely more than the first line has survived; and that verse, o fortunatam natam me consule Romam, ‘O happy Rome, born when I was consul’, is as inelegant (with its ugly repetition –natam natam) as it is immodest.
History was also written in prose, of course. Yet a glance at the opening words of some ancient historians may make us wonder whether the familiar division between poetry and prose is as meaningful as we might have thought. Take the opening to Tacitus’ Annals, from the early second century AD –
This statement opens a famous passage in which Tacitus describes how the government of Rome transitioned from monarchy, to aristocracy, back to a virtual monarchy again under the Emperor Augustus. What is not so apparent, at least until we read the words aloud, is that they form a perfect dactylic hexameter – the very verse that, since Ennius, had been used by the Romans for the writing of epic poetry. There is no chance that this is just a coincidence. Aristotle calls the iambic trimeter the closest metre to natural speech, remarking that we often utter trimeters in conversation by accident – whereas no-one, he says, would ever unintentionally come out with a dactylic hexameter. And an artist of Tacitus’ calibre just does not do things by accident.
Tacitus was in fact following a long tradition. At the start of his Jugurthine War (41-40 BC), Sallust writes
‘Whether or not my task will reward me for my labour . . .’
which again starts off in dactylic metre.
By evoking at the start of their works distinctively poetic rhythms, and especially the rhythms of ancient epic, these historians were elevating their subject matter and intensifying their readers’ emotional response to it. Just as writers of verse could tackle historical topics, so too could writers of history incorporate poetry within their prose. But the use of metre signals not just emulation, but also the debt that prose owed to poetry – poetry came first, after all, and Latin prose historians were indebted to those earlier writers of national epics, just as they were indebted to the epic poetry of Homer which in one way or another had a profound influence on all subsequent ancient literature. The historians thus use metre to express their awareness of literary history as they pay tribute to their poetic forebears.
The keen sensitivity to prose rhythm that we can observe in these writers is not confined to the ancient world, or to ancient writers of history. The same technique was used by Sir Ronald Syme, when he opened his book History in Ovid (Oxford University Press, 1978) with the words ‘More history than Ovid, some will say’, which form a perfect beginning to an iambic trimeter: a characteristically subtle opening gambit by that most Tacitean of modern historians.
Featured image credit: View of the Colosseum by Walters Art Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The OUP Philosophy team have selected Plato (c. 429 BC–c. 347 BC) as their February Philosopher of the Month. The best known and most widely studied of all the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato laid the groundwork for Western philosophy and Christian theology.
Shortly after his return, around 387 BC, Plato founded the Academy of Athens—an open-air educational centre considered one of the Western world’s first institutions of higher learning. Admission to the Academy was granted exclusively to a cultural elite. In Plato’s time, teaching at the Academy is thought to have consisted primarily of lectures and seminars, focusing on dialectics and mathematics. The Old Academy consisted of influential students and philosophers such as Aristotle, Speusippus, Eudoxus, and Theatetus of Athens.
Plato’s philosophical investigations took the form of dialogues, spoken mainly by Socrates, in which characters continually ask questions of one another. This form allows for the expression of various, evolving philosophic points of view. His dialogues address a broad range of subjects, including the nature of knowledge, the soul, perception, society, beauty, art, governance, and more. Plato’s dialogues are divided into early, middle, and late periods; among them are included Apology and Laws.
All of Plato‘s 36 works survive. His most famous dialogues include Gorgias (on rhetoric as an art of flattery), Phaedo (on death and the immortality of the soul) and the Symposium (a discussion on the nature of love). Plato‘s greatest work was the Republic, an extended dialogue on justice, in which he outlined his view of the ideal state.
After his death in 347 BC, educators at the Academy continued teaching Plato’s works into the Roman era. Today he is perhaps the most widely studied philosopher of all time.
Plato’s influence on Western thought is inescapable, reaching across entire fields of study—from philosophy, to linguistics, to Christian theology.
Featured image credit: Plato’s Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Most people have a good idea what it is to have a Stoical attitude to life, but what it means to have an Epicurean attitude is not so obvious. When attempting to decipher the true nature of Epicureanism it is first necessary to dispel the impression that fine dining is its central theme. From its introduction in the third century BCE, Epicureanism has revolved around a set of interrelated and compelling ideas about nature, morality, and politics. It contributed to scientific enquiry, social progress, and human self-understanding. Epicureanism was treated as a serious, though wrong-headed philosophy by its Stoic rivals and has gone on to be caricatured and maligned down throughout the ages.
The letters and sayings of Greek philosopher Epicurus, along with his many manuscripts on nature and society (long lost but recently partially recovered), were reworked by his first century BCE Roman follower, Titus Carus Lucretius, into the six-part poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things).
In this beautiful text, you will find an exposition of ancient materialism based on the claim that nothing really exists except atoms, in motion and at rest, and the void. According to the system there are multiple worlds, or cosmoi. Each of these has emerged from chaos, producing its own stars and planets, people, animals, and plants, and each will eventually return to chaos.
The mind is material, and all living beings are mortal. The ancient Epicureans denied any involvement of a God or Gods in the creation of worlds or their maintenance, and Lucretius in particular saw religion as superstitious and cruel. Death, they maintained, is not to be feared but is a condition of nothingness from which all experience, hence all suffering is excluded. This claim was central to a philosophy whose aim was to banish fear and its often dreadful consequences, including the persecution of others, from human experience.
In moral philosophy, the Epicureans argued that the avoidance of pain, inflicting it and experiencing it, and the enjoyment of harmless pleasures ought to guide human ‘choice and avoidance.’ Unlike the Stoics, they did not suppose that the human mind has unlimited power over the body; insofar as we are fully material beings, we act and suffer as one psycho-physical unity. They cautioned against excess, pointing out that that while eating, drinking, and sex are pleasurable and so to be enjoyed, moderation is called for. Overindulgence or imprudent choice brings on all manner of vexation, pain, social punishment, and remorse.
Epicurean political philosophy is based on the idea that humans created their institutions by trial and error over many years, taught by no one, and that unstable forms of government and social practice will inevitably give way to other forms. All social distinctions that for are imaginary or conventional; there are no natural authorities or natural hierarchies. The school of Epicurus was exceptional in Athens in allowing women as members.
The Epicurean legacy is impressive. It has left an imprint in the writings of Hobbes, Cavendish, Locke, Newton, Hume, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, Darwin and Marx, as well as in more recent philosophical writing. There have been numerous detractors as well, from the Fathers of the Early Church, who regarded the Epicurean teachings with consternation, all the way to Kant who wanted to draw a sharp line between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of moral goodness. This led him to produce his own opposing theory of the noumenal substratum of reality to the Epicurean atoms.
Image credit: Marble bust of Epicurus. Roman copy of Greek original, 3rd century BC/2nd century BC. British Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Featured image credit: Greek Antiquity. Public domain via Pixabay.
Imagine how the world appeared to the ancient Greeks and Romans: there were no aerial photographs (or photographs of any sort), maps were limited and inaccurate, and travel was only by foot, beast of burden, or ship. Traveling more than a few miles from home meant entering an unfamiliar and perhaps dangerous world. Celestial bodies could provide orientation to the north and south, but there was no way to determine east and west except by dead reckoning. Yet despite this, Greeks, beginning in the sixth century BCE, were able to travel far and wide, and by the third century BCE had determined the size and shape of the earth, using nothing but mathematics and simple tools.
It is probable that the enclosed nature of the Mediterranean assisted in early exploration, since its coasts could be explored relatively easily, something that was done by the sixth century BCE. Sailors were also the first to determine an essential nature of the earth: that its surface was not flat but curved, obvious from the sinking of coasts below the horizon as one left port. Eventually Greek seamen left the Mediterranean and explored down the West African coast, north into the Arctic, and determined the route from the Red Sea to India. Overland travel was more difficult, but central Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of southern Asia were known by the Roman period. All things considered, it was amazing that Greeks and Romans traveled as far as they did. Although there was no sense of “exploration” (in the modern sense) in antiquity, those who needed to travel—traders, merchants, and military and political personnel—were able to collect a vast amount of data about the surface of the earth and its peoples.
Greeks, beginning in the sixth century BCE, were able to travel far and wide, and by the third century BCE had determined the size and shape of the earth, using nothing but mathematics and simple tools.
Yet scholars wondered about other things: what was the actual size and shape of the earth? How much of it had actually been covered? These were issues more scientific than a matter of exploration. Since sailors had determined that the earth was curved, it eventually fell to Pythagorean theorists to theorize it must be a sphere: how else could its curvature, visible in all directions when at sea, be explained? This was one of the most remarkable leaps of imagination from classical antiquity, almost totally counter-intuitive, but nonetheless correct. By the fourth century BCE Aristole pointed out that if one sailed west from the entrance to the Mediterranean (at the ancient Pillars of Herakles, the modern Straits of Gibraltar), one would eventually reach India, a concept of great interest to Renaissance explorers such as Columbus.
But how big was the earth? Just how far was it west from the Pillars to India? In another amazing feat of ancient scholarship, Eratosthenes of Kyrene in the second half of the third century BCE was actually able to determine this, aided by two simple circumstances. Simple observation had determined that at Syene (the first cataract of the Nile) the sun was directly overhead at the summer solstice, and no shadows were cast. From Syene the Nile flowed due north to its mouth at the great city of Alexandria, where, on the summer solstice, the sun was still somewhat in the south, creating shadows whose angle could be determined. Using a measuring stick, called a gnomon, it was possible to create a great triangle from Alexandria to the sun (based on the angle of the shadow), and back to Syene, where (since there were no shadows) a right angle existed. Since the distance from Syene to Alexandria had been carefully measured, and two angles of the triangle were known, it was possible to determine what portion of the earth’s circumference was represented by the angle at Alexandria. This is a simplified summary of Eratosthenes’ technique, which enabled him to calculate that the circumference of the earth was 252,000 stadia, remarkably close to the accurate figure.
Eratosthenes also invented the word “geography,” and using his techniques, it was now possible to create a grid system and plot the location of almost any point on the surface of the earth. Krates of Mallos, in the second century BCE, created the first globe of the earth. But it was soon realized that the earth was immense in its size and that despite the extensive travels of Greeks (and eventually Romans) to what seemed to be the ends of the earth, the known world was only a small part of the earth: Syene was far to the south, but still well north of the equator, and the farthest north Greek settlements, on the north shore of the Black Sea, were only halfway to the North Pole. Yet further exploration of the southern hemisphere and whatever existed west of the Pillars of Herakles was left to Renaissance explorers. But one cannot diminish the importance of Eratosthenes’ feat, using nothing but his eyes, some realities of geography, and a measuring stick.
An essential part of classical scholarship is the evidence that survives today and which enables modern readers to learn about the world of antiquity. Eratosthenes’ actual treatises, his Geography and Measurement of the Earth, are long lost. But we are lucky to have surviving an amazing work, another Geography, written by Strabo of Amaseia and completed during the first two decades of the first century CE. It is one of the most lengthy works surviving from Greek antiquity, and has within it almost everything that has been described previously in this summary, and much more. It is through Strabo that we learn about Pythagorean theories on geography, Eratosthenes, Krates’ globe, Syene, and Greek explorers to the ends of the earth. The Geography of Strabo can be a difficult read, but it itself is a truly amazing work that reveals the astonishing feats of ancient geographers.
Featured image credit: By MagentaGreen, translated by Deu (File:Eratosthenes world map). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.