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.


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.


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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