Justice in Hesiod’s poetry

In very ancient Greece, such as the one narrated by Homer in his poems justice was based on themistes i.e. sort of sacred decrees that somehow the Gods inspired to the βασιλευς through dreams or oracles. These both supernaturally originated and religiously enforced laws then actually ruled those communities and being harvested and transmitted from generation to generation became a rather complex and sacrosanct system of duties, rights and even jurisprudence. Consequently, in that age the word Θέμις (Themis) was considered the translation for Justice, being, besides, Θέμις the God of Justice. Nonetheless, Greeks also had used another term to convey the sense of justice i.e. Δκη. (Dike) These two terms (Themis and Dike) that seem to have been sort of synonyms during what is called by modern scholars the Greek Dark Age (until circa 700 B.C.) became as the political structure of πολις began to develop and then evolved, diverse and to a certain extent identified justice in two different stages of ancient Greek socio-political framework.

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In the first stage of this said evolution Θέμις was a Justice administered within a community by a narrow aristocratic circle where rules were conceived, interpreted and respected because they are considered being the direct will of the Gods. A rather brutal and mainly predatory aristocratic society – as the ones described by Homer is the principal actor within this social framework where agriculture is still undeveloped and sheep farming and neighbourhood ransacking constitute its main economy. Later on these communities started to convert their war-structures into more pacific and agricultural societies, and later on even mercantile and naval ones. Concomitantly the Greek world developed also the concept of law, which was still in the first stage difficult to distinguish from justice itself. Thus human laws replaced supernatural and divine laws. This process obviously was not immediate, but surely the need to legalise the economic and non-economic relations among people within the community and the necessity to give exact and reliable rules to increasingly complex transactions, most certainly accelerated the birth and growth of Δκη. Finally after a period of interregnum during which the two sets of laws somehow coexisted, Dike – together with nomos (written law) as its operational longa manus – took definitively the place of Θέμις in meaning justice, and at the same time certainty of rights and duties. The main achievement of Greek society - democracy – therefore has also fundaments in Dike combined with nomos whose resultant was equal rights.

Nevertheless, at the dawn of Greek re-birth and yet long before democracy was reached, Hesiod (circa 700 B.C.) was already living, feeling and describing this transition. In his poem The works and the days Hesiod basically deals with the pains originating from working as a farmer and yet he recommends a simple – though hard – life based on manual labour and reproaches inactivity and laziness. Hesiod’s verses are quite dry and samey, nonetheless he suddenly somehow bursts against unjust judges. Actually Hesiod is incited by a personal case he had lost against his own brother Perses:

But you, Perses, listen to right and do not foster
violence; for violence is bad for a poor man. Even the
prosperous cannot easily bear its burden, but is weighed down
under it when he has fallen into delusion

He describes the judges as δωροφγοι – referring to bribing and corruptibility which were likely to happen also in those days:

But only when he has suffered does the fool learn this. For Oath
keeps pace with wrong judgements. There is a noise when Justice
is being dragged in the way where those who devour bribes and
give sentence with crooked judgements, take her.

Thus Hesiodos hopes are placed in Dike as a superior justice:

The better path is to go by on the other side towards justice; for Justice beats
Outrage when she comes at length to the end of the race
(…omissis…)
And she,wrapped in mist, follows to the city and haunts of the people,
weeping, and bringing mischief to men, even to such as have
driven her forth in that they did not deal straightly with her

And this Justice should be applied to everyone: aristocratic and not, even including the βασιλευς:

You princes, mark well this punishment you also;
for the deathless gods are near among men and mark all those who
oppress their fellows with crooked judgements, and reck not the
anger of the gods.

According to Hesiod such a Dike is a necessity, because without it a community cannot prosper:

they who give straight judgements to strangers
and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just,
their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it: Peace, the
nurse of children, is abroad in their land, and all-seeing Zeus
never decrees cruel war against them. Neither famine nor
disaster ever haunt men who do true justice; but light-heartedly
they tend the fields which are all their care. The earth bears
them victual in plenty, and on the mountains the oak bears acorns
upon the top and bees in the midst. Their woolly sheep are laden
with fleeces; their women bear children like their parents. They
flourish continually with good things, and do not travel on
ships, for the grain-giving earth bears them fruit.

However it must be underlined that Hesiodos portrays Gods and other supernatural agents that keep spying on humanity in order to verify the application of justice and punish injustice:

But for those who practise violence and cruel deeds
far-seeing Zeus, the son of Cronos, ordains a punishment. Often
even a whole city suffers for a bad man who sins and devises
presumptuous deeds, and the son of Cronos lays great trouble upon
the people, famine and plague together, so that the men perish
away, and their women do not bear children, and their houses
become few, through the contriving of Olympian Zeus. And again,
at another time, the son of Cronos either destroys their wide
army, or their walls, or else makes an end of their ships on the
sea.
(…omissis…)For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice
ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep
watch on judgements and deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in
mist, all over the earth. And there is virgin Justice, the
daughter of Zeus, who is honoured and reverenced among the gods
who dwell on Olympus, and whenever anyone hurts her with lying
slander, she sits beside her father, Zeus the son of Cronos, and
tells him of men’s wicked heart, until the people pay for the mad
folly of their princes who, evilly minded, pervert judgement and
give sentence crookedly. Keep watch against this, you princes,
and make straight your judgements, you who devour bribes; put
crooked judgements altogether from your thoughts.

Therefore Hesiod’s Dike, albeit containing many forthcoming features of democratic justice and nomos, is still intensely linked to a remarkable mythological interpretation which was typical of Hesiod’s age.

Nevertheless Hesiod is more distant from the Homeric Θέμις approach and much closer to the isonomic sense of justice, a logic which will be paramount for the actual birth of democracy – and even modern and applicable to our own days:

ο γατ κακ τεχει νρ λλ κακ τεχων,
δ κακ βουλ τ βουλεσαντι κακστη

[He does mischief to himself who does mischief to
another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.]

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The charm of the Gladiators

As usual Mary Beard’s blog is a great source of inspiration: in her latest post as she attended The Chester Conference – Roman Amphitheatres and Spectacula after which a “gladiatorial entertainment” had been promised, she commented:

All the high-minded academic diners on my table seemed to be looking forward to it as much as I was. After all, it was a wonderfully Roman idea. For gladiators didn’t just appear in the amphitheatre, they featured at funerals and – among the rich – as a private, dinner-time spectacle.

I’m glad I stayed. But it did turn out to be a little tamer than I had hoped (or feared). The bouts didn’t actually last very long and most of the fighters were so burdened with all the gear that they couldn’t muster much agility. That may have been true of the real version too. But I don’t imagine that ancient gladiators were quite as portly as most of this lot. Far be it from me to point the finger at others who should lose a bit of weight, but the impression I got was that it was overwhelmingly middle-aged men of the short and dumpy variety who liked dressing up as Romans.

Gladiators in the Roman world belonged to the worst category of beings – I omitted human purposely as they were not considered such. In fact, together with slaves and prostitutes they were all considered at the very bottom of Roman society, if they ever belonged to it. They were referred to and consequently treated as property, objects; plus – as we all know – they were destined to die in the arena sooner or later. Nonetheless these doomed slaves thrilled the perversions of all Romans and were highly popular as they are portrayed in incredibly numerous mosaics, pottery and frescos.

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Apparently their incredible charm was only partly due to their muscles and the courage they showed in the arena. As well only some owed their popularity to their outstanding features: the mirmillons from Gallia, the Samnites, some rare blonde Germans and black Ethiopians might probably have attracted women thanks to their exotic origins. Nevertheless their real appeal must have been more likely due to the inextricable and perverse links entangling social transgression, blood, depravation and death which spurred the Roman fantasies and nights. Juvenal magisterially shows an interesting example in his Satire VI:

nupta senatori comitata est Eppia ludum
ad Pharon et Nilum famosaque moenia Lagi
prodigia et mores urbis damnante Canopo.
inmemor illa domus et coniugis atque sororis
nil patriae indulsit, plorantisque improba natos
utque magis stupeas ludos Paridemque reliquit.
sed quamquam in magnis opibus plumaque paterna
et segmentatis dormisset paruula cunis,
contempsit pelagus; famam contempserat olim,
cuius apud molles minima est iactura cathedras.
Tyrrhenos igitur fluctus lateque sonantem
pertulit Ionium constanti pectore, quamuis
mutandum totiens esset mare. iusta pericli
si ratio est et honesta, timent pauidoque gelantur
pectore nec tremulis possunt insistere plantis:
fortem animum praestant rebus quas turpiter audent.
si iubeat coniunx, durum est conscendere nauem,
tunc sentina grauis, tunc summus uertitur aer:
quae moechum sequitur, stomacho ualet. illa maritum
conuomit, haec inter nautas et prandet et errat
per puppem et duros gaudet tractare rudentis.
qua tamen exarsit forma, qua capta iuuenta
Eppia? quid uidit propter quod ludia dici
sustinuit? nam Sergiolus iam radere guttur
coeperat et secto requiem sperare lacerto;
praeterea multa in facie deformia, sicut
attritus galea mediisque in naribus ingens
gibbus et acre malum semper stillantis ocelli.
sed gladiator erat. facit hoc illos Hyacinthos;
hoc pueris patriaeque, hoc praetulit illa sorori
atque uiro. ferrum est quod amant. hic Sergius idem
accepta rude coepisset Veiiento uideri

Thus Eppia, a higher class matrona leaves her homeland, husband and children and her riches, to sail to Egypt on a scanty and dirty ship, on which she would have never set foot if in company of her husband; and this shameful transgression is all for the sake of her gladiator-lover Sergiolus, who does not seem to have inspired the casting of Russell Crowe…: he is middle-aged, almost completely bald, scar-faced, one of his eyes is continuously leaking, one arm is broken and he as a bump on his nose…

Definitely many other matrona loved gladiators, actors, singers and auriga; actually one fashionable behaviours for rich and noble class Romans during the Empire was to linger in bad and dangerous districts to feel the thrill of belonging for a while to the plebe and live the “lowest class” experience… Petronius Arbiter in his Satyricon gives a full account of these obscure sides of Roman decadence portraying – among many other depravations – a matrona who proves no shame at all to show interest for gladiators and actors, for instance when skipping the VIP tribune bystanders at theatre to go straight in pursue of her quarry backstage:

(omissis)… And as for your confession that you are only a common servant, by that you only fan the passion of the lady who burns for you, for some women will only kindle for canaille and cannot work up an appetite unless they see some slave or runner with his clothing girded up: a gladiator arouses one, or a mule-driver all covered with dust, or some actor posturing in some exhibition on the stage. My mistress belongs to this class, she jumps the fourteen rows from the stage to the gallery and looks for a lover among the gallery gods at the back.

Unavoidably some of these perverse relations produced embarrassing births… for instance of one of Emperor Caligula’s alleged sons Ninfidius Sabinus was actually said to be son of Martianus, a gladiator. As well as the successor of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus whose mother Faustina was said to be in love with another protagonist of the arena… Martial in Epigram VI with his unmistakable style mocks a nobleman giving him a lecture of petty genetics by pointing out that each of all his seven children cannot possibly be his as they resemble his cook, a gladiator, a baker, flutist a farmer etc.

Pater ex Marulla, Cinna, factus es septem

non liberorum: namque nec tuus quisquam

nec est amici filiusue uicini,

sed in grabatis tegetibusque concepti

materna produnt capitibus suis furta.

Hic qui retorto crine Maurus incedit

subolem fatetur esse se coci Santrae;

at ille sima nare, turgidis labris

ipsa est imago Pannychi palaestritae.

Pistores esse tertium quis ignorat,

quicumque lippum nouit et uidet Damam?

Quartus cinaeda fronte, candido uoltu

ex concubino natus est tibi Lygdo:

percide, si uis, filium: nefas non est.

Hunc uero acuto capite et auribus longis,

quae sic mouentur ut solent asellorum,

quis morionis filium negat Cyrtae?

Duae sorores, illa nigra et haec rufa,

Croti choraulae uilicique sunt Carpi.

Iam Niobidarum grex tibi foret plenus

si spado Coresus Dindymusque non esset.

Therefore I assume in those days too, beauty was in the eye of the beholder, no matter which class you belonged and how fit you were… things have not changed that much after all.

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Delos in Ancient Greek poetry

Delos, located in the very centre of the Aegean Sea, was – according to mythology – the birth-place of Apollo and Artemis and therefore was since around 900 B.C. the most significant Pan-Hellenic holy place. There are archaeological proofs that the island was inhabited before the Bronze Age and several ruins of Mycenaean civilisation have been found. A famous Sanctuary for over 1000 years and even a tax haven under the jurisdiction of Athens by will of the Roman Empire during the II century B.C., Delos has progressively decayed and is now practically uninhabited. It actually strikes the present days’ visitor surely wondering how could this little (less than 3,5 square miles) stony island be called Asteria (the Star) and be such a holy and rich place 2500 years ago. Nevertheless this flat round rock, midway between Athens and Crete, as well as equidistant from continental Greece and the past Ionian Colonies, in spite of its bare, rocky and poor landscape has inspired some of the most famous verses of the ancient Greek poetry. Moreover, many cities and lands are devoted and supposed to belong to Apollo, but he mainly delights in Delos, where the Ionians are gathered together with song and dance in his honour.

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In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (probably one of the two earliest hymns, possibly composed around the eighth century B.C.) the birth of Apollo takes place in Delos as Lato (pregnant of Zeus) has been rejected by every other place: for no land wants to guests this tremendous event. Thus She begs the island of Delos to allow he to deliver the baby Apollo on its land.

Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.

And the island responds:

Leto, daughter most renowned of mighty Coeus, right gladly would I welcome the birth of the Archer Prince, for verily of me there goes an evil report among men, and thus would I wax mightiest of renown. But at this Word, Leto, I tremble, nor will I hide it from thee, for the saying is that Apollo will be mighty of mood, and mightily will lord it over mortals and immortals far and wide over the earth, the grain-giver.

Therefore, I deeply dread in heart and soul lest, when first he looks upon the sunlight, he disdain my island, for rocky of soil am I, and spurn me with his feet and drive me down in the gulfs of the salt sea. Then should a great sea-wave wash mightily above my head for ever, but he will fare to another land, which so pleases him, to fashion him a temple and groves of trees. But in me would many-footed sea-beasts and black seals make their chambers securely, no men dwelling by me. Nay, still, if thou hast the heart, Goddess, to swear a great oath that here first he will build a beautiful temple, to be the shrine oracular of men–thereafter among all men let him raise him shrines, since his renown shall be the widest.

Leto’s delivery was somehow delayed by the jealousy of Hera; however eventually Eilithyia came and the goddess was able to bring forth her son. He immediately breaks open his swaddling-bands and alleges his characteristics: the bow, the lyre and naturally the endowment of divination.

The island’s fascination is magisterially chanted by Pindar, in a superb homage to Delos in his Hymn to Zeus – of which we unfortunately have only fragments – this was its overture:

Shall we sing of Ismenus or of Melia of the golden distaff,
Or of Cadmus, or the strong spirit of the Spartoi,
Or Thebe with the dark blue headband,
Or of the daring strength of Heracles,
Or the joyful majesty of Dionysus
Or the wedding of white armed Harmonia?

Pindar names the island Asteria, star, as the island shines surrounded by the blue ocean. Somehow the poet tries to invert the perspective: as we humans behold the stars from the earth, the Gods from heavens perceive the islands in the blue ocean as shining stars – and Delos is the shiniest of them all. Pindar – as almost every V century B.C. Greek poet – seldom lingers on scenarios and natural descriptions, and yet this unusual parallelism is widely recognised as one of the finest pages of ancient literature. Pindar uses this poem also as a philosophical interpretation of complementarities between human and heavenly environments and lives. In a sort of Heraclites approach focused on vital tensions, interrelations that unite, divide and eventually compose every living being and thing. Additionally Pindar underlines these concepts as Zeus decides to change chaos into kosmos i.e. progressively, uncertainty and irregularity are transformed into harmony and beauty, thus the earth and the world achieve their perfection. Well almost: men are all insensitive, ungrateful and easily forget the greatness of Gods, therefore the Muses (daughters of Mnemosyne) were given by the gods to men as reminder companions.

In the Alexandrine period Delos is also protagonist of Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos, a long and Homeric style hymn composed together with the Hymn to Artemis. The Island is praised as birthplace of the two Gods (Apollo and Artemis). Callimachus encomiastically compares Delos to Kos, which is Philadelpho’s birthplace. Again Leto’s wanderings are the commencement for the accomplishment of Apollo’s birth prophecy focuses on the great interest of the audience in sacred rites, sexual purity and locations and celebrates the island’s holiness:

Golden then, Delos, were all your foundations, with gold the circular lake flowed all day, golden the leaves of your birthday olive, and with gold flowed the twisting Inopos in full flood.

The Hymn to Delos strictly parallels the first part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, and can be considered a sort of revival of this classic poem, although enriched by ironical tone and erudite allusions and refined annotations, perfectly typical of the Hellenistic poetry. As for instance when Apollo explains to his mother why Kos is not suitable to become his birthplace, as someone else (who is supposed to patronise Callimachus…) is meant to be born there:

But for her the fates have due another god,
Most high lineage of the Saviours, beneath the crown
Shall come, quite willing to be subject to Macedonian,
Both continents and lands in the sea
So far as the end of the West and whence swift horses
Carry the sun. And shall know his father ways
.

Thus, surprisingly, for several centuries the rather hostile and unattractive island of Delos has inspired sublime poetry and religious commitment and hopes. In my opinion the truth is that the ancient Greeks – very resourceful brilliant minds – were able to build point of reference out of anything, they were capable to envisage a “vanishing point” that would allow them to regain their firmness and then rule their own life and spirituality – even in spite of the whimsical Gods’ overwhelming power; and to set one of these vanishing points in Delos was not probably casual: where men can feel more at loss than on a little rock in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the wine dark sea?

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The tears of Homeric heroes

We all – in a more or less emphatic mode – have been raised in accordance with the common acceptation that is not considered manly to weep, especially in public, and only sometimes – under a very restricted range of circumstances – men are allowed to cry, albeit they are expected to conceal their tears. Furthermore according to our culture, if this occurrence is not deemed appropriate for ordinary men, it becomes rather unacceptable for heroes: it would be in fact unconceivable this behaviour for a middle age knight or 18th century patriot, and perhaps also for a modern soldier. Nevertheless all the Homeric heroes do cry and do weep often, and their tears are not masked but showed publicly with emphasis: they tear out their own hair, they sob, they weep aloud with convulsive gasping.

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Even Achilles, a tremendous hero – solitary and ready to die anytime for its own glory – weeps the loss of Patroclus:

Now from the finish’d games the Grecian band
Seek their black ships, and clear the crowded strand
All stretch’d at ease the genial banquet share,
And pleasing slumbers quiet all their care.
Not so Achilles: he, to grief resign’d,
His friend’s dear image present to his mind,
Takes his sad couch, more unobserved to weep;
Nor tastes the gifts of all-composing sleep.
Restless he roll’d around his weary bed,
And all his soul on his Patroclus fed:
The form so pleasing, and the heart so kind,
That youthful vigour, and that manly mind,
What toils they shared, what martial works they wrought,
What seas they measured, and what fields they fought;

And Agamemnon, the supreme general of the Achaean expedition, after the last day’s defeat, proposes to the Greeks to quit the siege, and return to their country.

Such various passions urged the troubled host,
Great Agamemnon grieved above the rest;
Superior sorrows swell’d his royal breast;
Himself his orders to the heralds bears,
To bid to council all the Grecian peers,
But bid in whispers: these surround their chief,
In solemn sadness and majestic grief.
The king amidst the mournful circle rose:
Down his wan cheek a briny torrent flows.
So silent fountains, from a rock’s tall head,
In sable streams soft-trickling waters shed.
With more than vulgar grief he stood oppress’d;
Words, mix’d with sighs, thus bursting from his breast.

Odysseus, the shrewd and at the same time courageous hero, while guest of Alcinous weeps when he listens to Demodocus narrating of Troy:

So from the sluices of Ulysses’ eyes
Fast fell the tears, and sighs succeeded sighs.

And again Odysseus, during his detention in the Island of Ogygia cries when thinking to his homeland:

But sad Ulysses, by himself apart,
Pour’d the big sorrows of his swelling heard;
All on the lonely shore he sate to weep,
And roll’d his eyes around the restless deep:
Toward his loved coast he roll’d his eyes in vain,
Till, dimm’d with rising grief, they stream’d again.

Sometimes the tears are of sorrow and grief, but often they are also tears of rage:

Full of the god that urged their burning breast,
The heroes thus their mutual warmth express’d.
Neptune meanwhile the routed Greeks inspired;
Who, breathless, pale, with length of labours tired,
Pant in the ships; while Troy to conquest calls,
And swarms victorious o’er their yielding walls:
Trembling before the impending storm they lie,
While tears of rage stand burning in their eye.
Greece sunk they thought, and this their fatal hour;
But breathe new courage as they feel the power.
Teucer and Leitus first his words excite;
Then stern Peneleus rises to the fight;
Thoas, Deipyrus, in arms renown’d,
And Merion next, the impulsive fury found;
Last Nestor’s son the same bold ardour takes,
While thus the god the martial fire awakes.

It has been for a long while that rage was – especially for renaissance and pre-romanticism commentators and scholars – the only justification of this unmanly behaviour. Tears were acceptable and in fact accepted, if inspired by uncontrollable rage being thus a sign of power and courage and not as a womanly demonstration of weakness and subjection. However this interpretation has been more recently enriched and revised especially under an anthropological perspective.

Weeping for Homeric heroes was a simple way to express them; no shame was associated to their sorrows. The only tears we are not supposed to find in Epic are those connected to what was judged a weakness itself – such as compassion, pity and sympathy. Homeric heroes were different, they were even diverse compared to the classic period heroes (Themistocles, Leonidas, Epaminondas, Pelopidas, Alcibiades, Agesilaus…). Their foremost aspiration was to gain eternal fame through a celebrated life and glorious death. There was still no extent and therefore no trace of the future spirit of πολις, the aggregative power of citizenship and the comradeship consequent to the hoplite phalanx – they fought principally for their own glory, not purely for their country. The Homeric heroes were natural born protagonists and each of their feelings, every attitude and expression was naturally meant to be magnified, provided this was not going to diminish but augment their stature.

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When Rhodes outshone Athens

The Hellenistic age is characterised by the shifting of the barycentre of the Greek world toward East. In continental Greece, distressed by poverty and social struggles, only a few πολεις – Athens and perhaps Corinth – maintain a rather formal independence by preserving some of their political and social institutions and even Sparta is waning as for the first time builds its defensive walls around the πολις. Pericles’ golden age political spirit, Athens’ “imperial” attitude and “attire” are just a fading memory: no more hoplites but mercenaries defend the πολις and Piraeus is to some extent away from the new mercantile routes. Only thanks to its intellectual prestige Athens is slowly drifting to the status of prime academic-city (although not exclusive as Alexandria, Kos and other learning centres are developing), where scholars, philosophers and students continue gathering and generating thought. Meanwhile the Aegean islands benefit of this new Mediterranean political and commercial layout as maritime commercial routes, including the entire middle East (from Ponto to Cilicia and Syria), Nile’s delta, Sicily, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus need several stepping stones, ports and storage warehouses.

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Rhodes has a prime role as a πολις in this age. Founded in 408 B.C. by συνοικισμóς (union) of three πολεις who positioned their main centre in Rhodes (northwest of the island), subjugated until the death of Alexander the Great it has expelled his successors’ army and has resisted to the assault of Demetrius I Poliorcetes (305 B.C.). Rhodes incarnates a very rare example of the survived spirit of πολις during the Hellenistic age – an epoch of large kingdoms and revered monarchs. Its remarkable, though not long-lasting, fortune is principally based on the practical-commercial attitude of its population, proud and clever, integrated with rich resident foreign merchants, as well as unsurprisingly on its geographic location: a stone’s throw from the Turkish coasts and not far away from Alexandria and the Niles’ delta.

Rhodes has three main ports: commercial, military and transit and two minor landings – guarded by the famous 110 feet Κολοσσος a bronze statue to the God Helios, one of the World’s Seven Wonders and legendary emblem of the πολις. Ιts warehouses are full of amphora where wheat, cereals, wine, olive oil and other commodities are stored to depart for markets/destinations all over the known world – numerous amphora with Rhodes seal have been unearthed all over the Middle-East, Italy, Maghreb, Spain, France and even in Central Europe. The unsurpassed banking system, born and developed in Athens/Piraeus is now concentrated in Rhodes, where are established various branches of ancient financial institutions and where loans, currency exchange and clearing operations take place. Even from the legal standpoint the celebrated Lex Rhodia are widely applied to transactions and several principles of are even taken by Marcus Aurelius as a basis for his maritime code, whose roots can be found also in Byzantine and Republic of Venice Codes.

Rhodes fleet is one the best equipped of the whole Mediterranean and its 50 ships considerably reduce the risks and dangers of pirates – always a problem to maritime trade in those days – struggling to maintain safety and guarantee mercantile traffics. Thanks to the war to pirates and its mercantile alliance with Ptolemaic Egypt, major producer of wheat, Rhodes fosters its importance in the Mediterranean and subsequently its revenues.

Rhodes is ruled by a mixed democratic-aristocratic government solution and enacts several particular social policies – like mandatory food contributions to assist the lower classes – which altogether acquired Rhodes the fame of best administered πολις of whole Greek world. Rhodes public education system is well developed and broadly accessible, moreover all the citizens must serve in the πολις navy: these and other public policies grant a robust spirit of comradeship that surpasses any social class and characterises the social texture of this πολις. Its splendour survives also a major earthquake in 227 B.C. when it is almost completely destroyed: Rhodes is rebuilt even more superb with the financial aid of the whole Greek world – fine arts develop thanks, among the others, to Apollonius who left Alexandria and choose Rhodes as his abode.

Nonetheless, its fortune will not last for too long. Being a loyal ally of Rome during the wars against Philip V of Macedonia and Antioch III the Great, in consequence of the peace of Apamea Rhodes obtains several additional territories on the main land, namely in Lycia and Caria. Later on Rhodes probably overestimates its political power and diplomatic shrewdness by playing a too much ambiguous role with Rome in occasion of the war against Perseus of Macedonia. Thus the Empire, by reaction creates in 166 B.C. a new Tax Haven in Delos (former subsidiary location of Rhodes) under the jurisdiction of Athens which consequently polarises almost the entire Aegean mercantile traffic: in only a couple of years Rhodes’ Customs revenues (2% on fair value) collapse from 1 million drachma to only 150 thousand. Moreover Rhodes resists the siege of Mithridates VI the Great, Eupator Dionysius of Ponto (Rome worst enemy), but in 43 B.C. is taken by Crassus and completely devastated.

Since then Rhodes, although obtains the status of independence during the Roman Empire, will never regain its pivotal role in the Eastern Mediterranean, nonetheless it will become an academic centre, attracting many young rich aristocratic Romans to learn rhetoric (Apollonius Molon of Alabanda, teacher of Cicero later in Rome) and philosophy – its major school was founded by the Stoic Posidionius, a former student of another distinguished Rhodes citizen Panaetius.

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Are classic studies worthless nowadays?

After reading Mary Beard’s post where she quoted a capital question a speaker asked rhetorically to a symposium audience:

… whether the whole project we were engaged on was now worthless and time-expired. Hadn’t Classics really had its day? Shouldn’t we be going off and learning Chinese and Arabic?…(omissis).… Shouldn’t we get real?

I have been meditating on the subject and I wish to report some of my conclusions. Naturally I am aware that this issue has involved in the past numerous and endowed academics, consequently I am humbly positive I will not be able to add any particular advancement to this debate – which, besides, is far from being in my blog’s aims; nevertheless I will employ this commentary as my personal justification for my own studies.

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It is not false rhetoric to underline the strategic pivotal role of education in a culture: the celebrated Greek Παιδεiα, as well as the Institutio oratoria for the Romans, the ratio studiorum for Jesuits are just a few significant examples.

I will leave to your personal meditation Cicero’s celebrated apophthegm “Historia Magistra vitae” and point out instead Niccolo’ Machiavelli (1469-1527) who emphasize the importance of learning lessons from the past experiences:

…(omissis) quanto onore si attribuisca all’antiquità, …(omissis) e veggiendo, da l’altro canto, le virtuosissime operazioni che le storie ci mostrono, che sono state operate da regni e republiche antique, dai re, capitani, cittadini, latori di leggi, ed altri che si sono per la loro patria affaticati, essere più presto ammirate che imitate; anzi, in tanto da ciascuno in ogni minima cosa fuggite, che di quella antiqua virtù non ci è rimasto alcun segno; non posso fare che insieme non me ne maravigli e dolga. E tanto più, quanto io veggo nelle diferenzie che intra cittadini civilmente nascano, o nelle malattie nelle quali li uomini incorrono, essersi sempre ricorso a quelli iudizii o a quelli remedii che dagli antichi sono stati iudicati o ordinati: perché le leggi civili non sono altro che sentenze date dagli antiqui iureconsulti, le quali, ridutte in ordine, a’ presenti nostri iureconsulti iudicare insegnano. …(omissis)

Nondimanco, nello ordinare le republiche, nel mantenere li stati, nel governare e’ regni, nello ordinare la milizia ed amministrare la guerra, nel iudicare e’ sudditi, nello accrescere l’imperio, non si truova principe né republica che agli esempli delli antiqui ricorra. Il che credo che nasca non tanto da la debolezza nella quale la presente religione ha condotto el mondo, o da quel male che ha fatto a molte provincie e città cristiane uno ambizioso ozio, quanto dal non avere vera cognizione delle storie, per non trarne, leggendole, quel senso né gustare di loro quel sapore che le hanno in sé. Donde nasce che infiniti che le leggono, pigliono piacere di udire quella varietà degli accidenti che in esse si contengono, sanza pensare altrimenti di imitarle, iudicando la imitazione non solo difficile ma impossibile; come se il cielo, il sole, li elementi, li uomini, fussino variati di moto, di ordine e di potenza, da quello che gli erono antiquamente.

Volendo, pertanto, trarre li uomini di questo errore, ho giudicato necessario scrivere, sopra tutti quelli libri di Tito Livio che dalla malignità de’ tempi non ci sono stati intercetti, quello che io, secondo le cognizione delle antique e moderne cose, iudicherò essere necessario per maggiore intelligenzia di essi, a ciò che coloro che leggeranno queste mia declarazioni, possino più facilmente trarne quella utilità per la quale si debbe cercare la cognizione delle istorie. [Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio, I, Proemio]

Relatively more recently Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was firmly positive on the higher importance of classic studies, – although on a elitist and almost discriminatory basis – confirmed by his statement of a concomitant necessity for the restrictedness of their teaching:

Une étude peut être utile à la littérature d’un peuple et ne point être appropriée à ses besoins sociaux et politiques.

Si l’on s’obstinait à n’enseigner que les belles-lettres, dans une société où chacun serait habituellement conduit à faire de violents efforts pour accroître sa fortune ou pour la maintenir, on aurait des citoyens très polis et très dangereux; car l’état social et politique leur donnant, tous les jours, des besoins que l’éducation ne leur apprendrait jamais à satisfaire, ils troubleraient l’État, au nom des Grecs et des Romains, au lieu de le féconder par leur industrie.

Il est évident que, dans les sociétés démocratiques, l’intérêt des individus, aussi bien que la sûreté de l’État, exige que l’éducation du plus grand nombre soit scientifi­que, commerciale et industrielle plutôt que littéraire.

Le grec et le latin ne doivent pas être enseignés dans toutes les écoles; mais il im­por­te que ceux que leur naturel ou leur fortune destine à cultiver les lettres ou prédis­pose à les goûter trouvent des écoles où l’on puisse se rendre parfaitement maître de la littérature antique et se pénétrer entièrement de son esprit. Quelques universités excel­lentes vaudraient mieux, pour atteindre ce résultat, qu’une multitude de mauvais collèges où des études superflues qui se font mal empêchent de bien faire des études nécessaires.

Tous ceux qui ont l’ambition d’exceller dans les lettres, chez les nations démocra­tiques, doivent souvent se nourrir des oeuvres de l’Antiquité. C’est une hygiène salutaire.

Ce n’est pas que je considère les productions littéraires des Anciens comme irré­pro­chables. Je pense seulement qu’elles ont des qualités spéciales qui peuvent mer­veil­leu­sement servir à contrebalancer nos défauts particuliers. Elles nous soutiennent par le bord où nous penchons [De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. II, I, Ch.XV].

Undoubtedly the importance of classic studies relies on both similarities and diversities between past and present. In the first place the study of similarities has often guided those early historians who tried to teach, by means of their writings, lessons to future generations and thus hoped to prevent them from committing the same mistakes. This approach, as we have witnessed in these last 2000 years, has proven to be somewhat naïve and unfortunately ineffective – this does not imply that we must stop trying, though… Nonetheless this course of studies, we should admit it, has probably over-exploited the classic sources and texts.

On the other hand, the interpretation of the diffrences to the past through the present “multidisciplinary and magnifying lens” opens a never ending course of studies. Following this approach events, terms, concepts, sources and characters of the past can be re-studied and re-interpreted by using findings from other disciplines and modern technologies, and enhanced by easier and more frequent contacts and relations among scholars – and this sounds very promising for classic disciplines that have been declared almost dead…

However, in my opinion, the real barycentre of the question needs to be shifted to what we ought to expect from education. The problems lies into the interpretation of what we consider adaptation of our schools and institutes to current and modern needs. It seems to me that without teaching the classics, schools and universities will progressively lose their main function: to educate – where for Education I mean the crucial transmission of principles, moral, values and knowledge.

The proliferation of enriched school programs with more management, foreign languages and IT oriented subjects in spite of classic and human studies, solely for the sake of seeking a hopefully immediate impact on the labour market does not mean to me true Education. Thus ultimately, the main issue is: true Education or mere technical training? Which in the medium-long range ought to be read as: are we trying to “generateman and women and conscious citizens, or just aspirant employees and managers?

Classic studies educate, silently and minutely, to logic, aesthetic and psychology; they produce the habit to reflection and analysis and develop a natural reluctance to passive acceptation of new concepts and impositions – something nobody should ever give away.

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