Nu History Podcast – Episode 7: Classical Art and Architecture

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by special guest Analisa from Accessible Art History, as well as returning guest James, to talk about Greek and Roman art and architecture, focusing on a few particular themes and examples.

Find more from Analisa at Accessible Art History:

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Nu History Podcast – Episode 6: The Origins of Warfare

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined once again by James to talk about a favourite topic of his and Alex’s; Warfare. We specifically get into the possible origins of warfare in prehistory, how it may be distinct from other forms of early human conflict, and how it may link into the concept of civilization itself. We also take a look at Sparta as an example of a highly militaristic society.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

A Brief Intro to Greek Tragedy & Comedy

Today we come to talk to you about some more classical and ancient history. This time I will be giving you a quick introduction to the subject of Greek tragedies and comedies. The arts and the entertainment industry by proxy find themselves under a lot of tension these days, particularly since the Covid pandemic has threatened so many artistic venues to close forever. With this I hope to keep you all engaged with this sad reality of events, but also to remind you that the arts have been a crucial part of human history since the dawn of civilisation.

Greek Tragedies: Origin & Development

We have evidence that Greek tragedies have been performed since the 6th century BC though record for most of these pieces don’t appear to have survived until c.472BC. Of these early plays, we do not have a lot of information, but we have some records from Aristotle in his Poetics that seem to indicate it may have evolved from choral song. Tragedies back then were not necessarily what our expectation of the same word is. Most of the Greek tragedies have varied themes, often covering things like mythology, but these aren’t necessarily sad stories: they often work to present some form of dilemma or controversies to the audience of the time; things that people could in one level or another relate to. According to Laura Swift, it seems that these pieces would have been about major or serious events, but they did not have to be catastrophic. It seems that, so long as they were describing some form of human suffering, the tragedy box was checked. Also, I think it is important at this stage to clarify that actually when we say Greek tragedies, we really ought to say Athenian tragedies. According to Simon Goldhill most of these compositions took place in Athens. The importance of these performances is remarked by the annual celebration of a kind of competition during the festival of the Great Dionysia, taking place towards the end of February/beginning of March. These plays were often specially created for this event.

Continue reading “A Brief Intro to Greek Tragedy & Comedy”

An Ancient History of Rugby

Now with the Six Nations competition in full swing and with the Rugby World cup  around the corner in Japan, this post will trace the Ancient origins of the sport that is played and watched around the world today. 

Often, the modern game of Rugby is attributed to the English town of Rugby, specifically by William Webb Ellis, a pupil from Rugby school who was said to have ran and carried the ball during a football match. However, this has been heavily debated by Rugby hisorians and is largely viewed as a myth. That being said, there is more to the origin of modern day Rugby and in some shape and form similarities can be drawn from ball games played in the Ancient World.

Ball games in the Ancient World-

It is no surprise that when the ‘Ancient World’ is mentioned, the Greeks and Romans are arguably the most popular civilisations studied in Ancient times. Much in the way of Art, Culture and Philosophy is strongly attributed to Ancient Greece and Rome. Ball games played a role in both cultures.

The Greeks played many ball games, whereby participants could use their hands and feet, although not much evidence survives of these ball games, one game in particular is an interesting pre cursor. 
The Greeks played a ball game called ‘Episkyros‘ and appears to be depicted on ceramics. The game was played by 12-14 with one side pitted against the other. The rules allowed players to handle the ball.
The aim of the game was to frequently pass the ball and to push one of the opposing team behind the line at their end of the pitch. The game was regarded as being violent in nature, with many players landing up on the ground. This violent nature of the game was particularly noted in Sparta with the limited source material available.

Elsewhere, further west from Athens in Sparta, teams were divided into two and two white lines were drawn onto the pitch, with one line in front dividing the teams along with another line behind either team. It is interesting to note, although the lines are not the same as what is displayed on a rugby pitch today, the lines are not difficult to figure out. This is especially the case with the line behind the two teams indicating where to score. This is the case today in Rugby as one way to score is for either side to bring the ball past the opposing goal lines ahead of them for a try.

Additionally, women as well as men played, albeit being rare.
Later, the Romans adapted the game ‘Episkyros‘ as well as another Ancient Greek game called ‘Phaininda‘.  ‘Phaininda’ was another ball game that the Romans were known to have adapted. There are limited sources about the game in question. However, from the small amount of source material on offer, it is similiar to ‘Episkyros‘. The game involved two teams pitted against eachother, there was a central line dividing both teams and that the game was again considered to be violent when either side were attempting to win the ball. In this game the ball was small in size and looked as if more balls were used.

The Romans named their version of the game, ‘Harpastum‘. This ball game was played with a small ball, much smaller than a modern day Rugby ball and was similar in size to a modern day cricket ball or base ball. Unfortunately, much with the Greek ball games discussed previously very little is recorded about the rules and style of play. Nevertheless, this game was documented in contemporary Roman writings. The Greek Polymath, Claudius Galenus (129 AD- c. 200/216 AD) lived in the Roman Empire commented, 

‘This exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one involving much use of the hold by the neck and many wrestling holds’.   

In addition, Sidonius Apollinaris ( c.130 – 489 AD) a poet, diplomat and bishop from Gaul in the Western Roman Empire commented,

‘Filimatus sturdily flung himself into squadrons of the players, like Virgil’s hero’.

These accounts are in actual fact reminiscent to modern Rugby in that the game requires much strength, resilience and agility to enable either side to intercept, run with the ball and score. 

Siege Warfare Through the Ages – Which Siege Tactics Are Right For You?

Since before 3500 BC people have been putting defensive walls around their settlements. As I’m sure you all know, these pesky walls and fortifications can be a real pain when you want to get inside somewhere for whatever reason. Maybe you’re at war with the occupants, maybe they have something of yours, like some loot that should clearly belong to you, or perhaps you just happen to have an army and feel like attacking something. Whatever your reasons for laying siege, that’s your business, and I’m not here to judge. No, my purpose today is to let you know which siege tactics and weapons you should be using to get you through those walls and to whatever goal lay within. So whichever period of time in which you happen to be conducting your siege, take a look below at the closest example and you should find the best methods available to you.

New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1077 BC)

Starting as early as we can with any real substance, with the New Kingdom of Egypt. As an Egyptian in this period you could expect to be fighting various different enemies, such as the Canaanites or the Hittites. Many of the enemy held towns that you come across may be fortified, so you should be prepared for a siege. As you will see throughout later periods, it is often the case that you are better off attempting to out-wait the enemy within, just as they try to wait for you to give up and go away. This basic but effective approach can be more seriously applied by preventing any movement into or out of the walls, and thus cutting the enemy off from any new supplies or means of escape. This was done at the siege of Megiddo in the 15th century BC when Pharaoh Thutmose III had a moat and wooden palisade constructed around the city, essentially giving the attackers their own wall to sit behind and wait for the enemy to surrender, except with the important difference being that they had the rest of the outside world behind their walls, rather than a small limited space with ever dwindling supplies. The defenders eventually surrendered after several months and were spared.

The siege of Dapur on a mural in Ramesses II’s temple in Thebes

If such a peaceful outcome doesn’t interest you so much, then there are other options that you have in this period. The Egyptians did use various constructions against fortifications, the most common and basic of which would have been large ladders to scale the walls in order to assault the defended positions atop. Usually an assault like this should be supported by archers, but keep an eye out for the large sails that your enemy may have flying above their walls, as these may render your arrows less effective against the occupants in the city. These tactics would have been used at the siege of Dapur in 1269 BC against the Hittite Empire during Ramesses II’s campaign to conquer Syria. As an attacker you should be able to defend your own troops from enemy arrow shot as well, as there are examples of mobile roofed structures and simple moving towers that you can use in an assault.

Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC)

Moving forward in time as we go, we come to some other good examples of early siege warfare with the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, after years of war and conquest, had become a most powerful and successful empire, and had also learned a thing or two about how to conduct a siege in the process. During the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883 to 859 B.C.) the battering ram was developed into something more sophisticated than a simple wooden log. These Assyrian rams were heavy, five meters long, and protected by a roof and turret in which archers were placed. The ram was suspended from the roof by ropes so it could swing freely. The ramming end was covered by a metal plate, shaped into a blade that was driven into the bricks of the wall effectively.

An Assyrian siege engine ascends the ramp on the Siege of Lachish reliefs

Once you have a few, or preferably many, of these rams in place on the enemy’s walls and gates, you should then look to combine them with methods of topping the walls during the assault, as the Assyrians had found that a multi-faceted approach is a good idea. As usual it is always the standard to assault the walls with ladders, but there are also other methods for getting higher, most notably the use of great earthen ramps. These would be a huge engineering effort to construct, but they could only have to be built part way up the wall, and from there you could bring a ram up the ramp to demolish the wall at this height where it is usually thinner. This method was proven successful at the siege of Lachish in 701 BC when Assyrian King Sennacherib fought to subjugate the rebelling Kingdom of Judah.

Classical and Hellenistic Greece (510-31 BC)

Moving onto Greece, the later part of the Classical, and then the Hellenistic period of Greece saw a height of military innovation, which in turn gives you plenty of options for how to assault a fortification. In earlier Ancient Greece, siege was never much of a consideration. War at this time was a part-time seasonal affair that would take place when the common farmers had time off between sowing and harvest. It only really becomes more common once professional armies are taken up by the Greek states, allowing for the time it takes to conduct a siege. It also helps that after around 450 BC the Greeks could take some ideas from their Persian enemies, leading to tactics such as surrounding cities, building ramps, and the use of battering rams, similar to what the Assyrians were using some centuries earlier. However, the Greeks did start to develop their own methods eventually.

The siege tower Helepolis

At around 400 BC the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily was in conflict with the Carthaginians. It was here that many Greek artisans and technicians were recruited to create new innovations of war. The first step was the gastrephetes meaning the ‘belly bow’ which was the first crossbow. From the basic mechanics of this weapon, it was possible to scale it up until it was too heavy to carry, and so was placed on a tripod and mounted on a swivel, with a winch to draw it. This was the first catapult (named katzapeltes, meaning ‘shield-piercer’) which was used at the siege of Motya in 197 BC to shoot as far as 300 yards at the Carthaginian fleet. Eventually this weapon was further developed into the oxybeles that used torsion by twisting sinew rather than the tension of a bow. In the following years the Greeks invented many variants of catapult, including lithobolos or ‘stone thrower’, and even a supposed repeating crossbow mechanism that shot bolts from a magazine called the polybolos. Various types and sizes of ballista were even used in the most famous example of a siege tower the Helepolis ‘the taker of cities’ which was used in the siege of Rhodes in 305-304 BC. This tower was supposedly over 40 meters tall and 20 meters wide and ran on 8 huge wheels. It had 3 walls to the front and sides which were all plated in iron to make it fireproof. It weighed 160 tons and had 2 or 3 ballistas on each of its several floors.

The Roman Empire (27 BC – 480 AD)

If you’re Greek or Roman, you’ll mostly be using the same sort of siege machines. Ever since the earlier Romans saw the power of Greek inventor Archimedes’ huge catapults, ship-lifting claws, and even sunlight death beams (apparently) in Syracuse (again) they clearly felt they should probably use some of these. They did make some improvements of their own to these weapons however, such as making them lighter and more manoeuvrable, or combining battering rams and boarding bridges into their siege towers. They also further developed on the torsion powered weapons of the Greeks, resulting in the Onager, which later became the standard use for the term ‘catapult’ which was a stone thrower with a vertical arm. These could be thrown in a great arc, and also use heavier projectiles, great for either going over, or smashing into a wall you wish wasn’t there.

A Roman carroballista (cart-mounted ballista) on Trajan’s Column

Aside from the weapons, the tactics used by the Romans were similar to what is seen before, but executed well. They would surround cities and blockade ports effectively, and then set up their own fortified camps out of range of the enemy and in elevated positions for observation. This helped the Romans defend themselves should they be attacked by enemy reinforcements coming from elsewhere, something easily missed when you’re so focussed on the enemy within. In an assault they would construct ramps and use ladders as usual, but they would also use moving barricades and shields made of wood or wicker to defend themselves, as well as using their own shields in the famous testudo formation as they advanced.

The Medieval Period (up to the 15th Century)

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 480 AD there was very little in the way of siege weapon development. The following Migration Period saw many smaller groups settle and have less need for sieges. Later in the Early Medieval period and Viking Age, there are some examples of sieges, but most of these just use what knowledge is left from contact with the Romans, for example with the Franks, as well as the Byzantines, who would have had the best ability and knowledge during this time. More northern peoples such as the Vikings or Saxons, would have avoided large sieges and aimed more for raiding actions. The Vikings did besiege some large cities however, such as Paris in 845 and again in 885, where they are said to have used ballistae and catapults, although it is unlikely. The Vikings mostly used their advanced ships to their advantage, where attacking Paris was ideal, as it is on a river island. They also attacked London at the end of their era, where they used their ships again to pull down towers, and pulled roofs off of buildings to put over the ships as cover from arrows.

15th Century depiction of a trebuchet

1066 is seen as the end of the Viking age, and shortly after this is when the Normans started to build many stone castles throughout England. During the 12th and 13th centuries, castles evolved into powerful fortresses capable of defying intensive assaults. At the same time, in order to combat strengthened castle defences, siegecraft developed. Sieges became far more common as the use of castles and fortified cities did too, and battles became rarer than in the past. The tried and true method of simply out-waiting the defenders still continues to be a solid choice in these cases, but then again, those defenders were probably expecting a siege and prepared for a long one too. So when it finally came to demolish those walls, something more powerful than a catapult of ballista was needed. The first weapon to be widely adopted was the mangonel. This weapon was essentially a larger swinging-arm catapult that was powered by the pulling force of a team of men. Shortly after this came the more famous trebuchet. This was a similar weapon that could be made very large, but was instead powered by a sophisticated counterweight mechanism. The trebuchet first appeared from the Byzantines, and was quickly adopted by the crusaders, which in turn spread its use throughout Europe. Although these weapons mostly launched stones of 50-100kg at a range around 300 meters, their main advantages over every other type of siege weapon before it was its accuracy and cycle rate, as there was no need for time consuming cranking or winding, but just resetting everything into place. Also, the key to bringing down a heavily fortified wall is to keep striking it in the same place, something a trebuchet could easily do after the first shot was correct. There were some huge trebuchets which supposedly launched stones of 800kg or even 1,500kg, but these would have been very difficult and incredibly slow to construct and use.

The Age of Gunpowder

If you really, truly want to knock down walls, then ignore everything I just said, and get a cannon. Cannons only became viable in the later medieval and renaissance periods, after years of experimentation since the 13th century. Once they stopped trying to use gunpowder to shoot ballista bolts, bundles of arrows, and stones and finally settled on the idea of the cannonball, the previously impregnable castles of Europe were rendered obsolete. The greatest advantage of cannons over other siege weapons is the ability to fire a heavier projectile, further and faster than previous weapons. They could also fire in a straight line, so that they could destroy the bases of high walls. Thus, old fashioned walls that are high and relatively thin were excellent targets, and over time easily demolished. In 1453, the great walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, were broken through in just six weeks by the 62 cannons of Mehmed II’s army. However, new fortifications, designed to withstand gunpowder weapons, were soon constructed throughout Europe. In the early 15th century, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti theorized methods of building fortifications capable of withstanding the new guns. He proposed that walls be “built in uneven lines, like the teeth of a saw”. He proposed star shaped fortresses with low, thick walls. Fortresses built in this style throughout the 16th century did not become fully obsolete until the 19th century, and were still in use throughout World War I.

 The Siege of Orléans in 1429 featuring cannons

With everything thrown into an entirely new state of being by the ever increasing power and efficiency of cannons, and the fortifications to match them, the attackers would now need to prepare for the siege thoroughly. There has always been a need to encircle the enemy and defend your own lines from those within as well as reinforcements from without, but now that so much of your army would consist of vulnerable artillery positions, you would need to think harder about your own defences. So lines of trenches would now be built by the attackers, first starting out of range of the defending artillery, parallel to the walls, and then another line is dug towards the walls in a zig-zag to prevent those using it from being exposed, until finally the forward line would be dug from there in artillery range parallel to the wall again. You can then place your artillery in that forward position, and build other defences around it, and prepare for the long siege ahead. As has been the case forever, it is still in the 17th century mostly about waiting the enemy out, whether you are the attacker or defender. And now that sieges had become so prevalent, and so long, they had become very expensive, and a single siege could take up an entire campaign. Battles arose through clashes between besiegers and relieving armies, but the principle of war was now a slow, grinding victory by the greater economic power. The relatively rare attempts at forcing pitched battles were almost always expensive failures.

Plan of Geneva fortifications in 1841

Eventually, in the 19th century, after hundreds of years of siege warfare settling into a rut, things started to change in a few ways. Advances in artillery made previously impregnable defences useless. For example, the walls of Vienna that had held off the Turks in the mid-17th century were no obstacle to Napoleon in the early 19th. This was starting to lead to a decline in sieges taking place, but when railways were introduced, they made it possible to move and supply of larger armies. It also reintroduced siege warfare, as armies seeking to use railway lines in enemy territory were forced to capture fortresses which blocked these lines. Furthermore, the apparent effectiveness of additional field defences along with improvements to firearms technology made it easier for the defenders again. This then led to the adoption of tactics that would make the defenders surrender by bombarding the civilian population within a fortress, rather than the defences.

By the 20th century, city walls had become ineffective to modern artillery, which could destroy them, or bypass them from miles away. This brings us to WW1, which introduced trench warfare on a mass scale, and essentially a form of siege as it progressed. During the war, many methods and tactics for assaulting enemy lines with special troops developed, but overall the war was dominated by artillery. By WW2 and subsequently, the form of siege was mostly in the form of large forces encircling and bombarding cities into submission before assault. However, the continuing development of armoured vehicles and aircraft meant that mobility was far more important than ever before, and the introduction of long range bombing, and eventually inter-continental missiles make it virtually impossible to defend a position indefinitely without the surrender of either side.

Ancient Greek Architecture: Columns, Capitals, and “Orders”

For reasons beyond my understanding, it seems the subject of architecture has been slightly neglected. Now that I have picked on this, I have taken it as my duty to rectify this issue. Therefore, please ready yourselves for a series of posts where you will learn some basic stuff regarding historical architectural features highlighted by buildings which represent such characteristics. As with everything, perhaps we should start at the beginning…So how about digging into some Greek architecture with me, huh?

The Greeks excelled at the arts, and of course, they were the masters of architecture. Their constructions were made with quality and durable materials. I am sure many of you would be familiar with their use of marble for this purpose, but they also used limestone abundantly. Their style followed architrave and column positioning pattern which is best seeing in the Greek temples, and this is often complemented by walls made of out solid blocks of rectangular stone, without the use of any kind of mortar. But of course, the ancient and classical Greek culture expanded and developed through several centuries and different parts of the world, which had an impact into their stylistic composition. And this is perhaps best seen in the evolution of different type of columns and their capitals throughout the prehellenistic and Hellenistic periods. Interestingly the different types of pillars and their “order” could also be influenced by the use and function of the building they were incorporated into. The Greeks truly believe that building should be done in a harmonious way, with set rules and parameters based on proportion and symmetry. Due to this, the dimensions of certain structures such as temples, would have an impact in the diameter used for the columns. And this is how they rolled. So I will just give you a cheat-sheet on how to identify the different Greek “orders”:

Doric: This is the oldest of the styles and the most important as it sets the base for the ones that followed.

  • The columns lie flat on the floor without a base.
  • The actual column has a large diameter and this distinctive fluting: the vertical grooves.
  • The midlenght of the column has a higher diameter than the base or the top.
  • Their capitals are basic, with a rectangular shape on top of a convex shape. There are called abacus and ovolo.
  • The epitome of Doric architecture is, of course, the Parthenon, and you do not have to go all the way to Athens to get a look at it: just pop down to the British Museum to see some bits! The Parthenon dated from the 5th century BC, so what is traditionally considered as the classical greek period, and it would have originally stood in the acropolis. The architects that worked on Athena’s temple were Ictinus and Callicrates, with Phidias doing the design for the sculptures of the goddess that would have sat in the interior and exterior of the complex: Athena Parthenos and Promachos, the colossal effigy of the deity which is now lost to the ages. It is no coincidence that the greatest temple of Hellenistic Greece came at a time of victory success. This is an aspect of architectural design that has not been modified throughout time: commemoration and political propaganda. Because, of course, the erection of the Parthenon begins following the Battle of Marathon. Therefore, this structure was as much a commemoration of Athenian victory under the patronage of the goddess of war, but at the same time a way of reflecting Athenian society and identity: their political ideologies, the concept of ‘demos’ from which we get Demokratia was ingrained in these type of constructions.

Ionic: this style originates in the region of Ionia (modern-day Turkey) during the Archaic period, and spreads quickly to the Aegean islands as well as Attica where it was extensively used in the 5th century BC.

  •  These are perhaps the columns many of you would remember because of the volutes, which are seemingly of Persian origin.
  • These columns do have a base in 3 levels: krepis, stylobate and the normal base. these are usually escalated. And on top of the base, the shaft of the pillar stands on a small platform made of 3 rounded shapes – concave – convex – concave.
  • The shaft is considerably slimmer than Doric and the fluting pattern is more stylised.
  • One of the best examples of Ionic design can be found in the Erechtheion (Athen Akropolis), on its north side, the famously known porch of the Caryatids, where some of the Ionic columns were replaced by the karyatides: the standing maiden column-sculptures. One of them is also at the British Museum. It seems that the origin of these female standing figures as support mechanisms within buildings may trace back to Phoenician traditions and the archaic Greek sculptures of drapped figures. The fact that these columns were replaces is perhaps not so surprising, as Vitruvius considered the Ionic style to be female, as opposed to the Doric which due to its less graceful characteristics he thought to be male.

Corinthian: This style became predominant of the Late Classical period ( 430-323 BC), the earliest dated from 427 BC in Bassae. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the most renown of the three greek orders as it was heavily used and adapted by the Romans, following which became rather popular during the Renaissance and Neoclassical revivals centuries later. Its name suggests that the style originated in Corinth as a variation of the ornamentation of Ionic pillars.

  • This style is the most ornamented, luxurious and complex of them all.
  • The motif is characterised by the naturalistic and phytomorphic elements, such as the commonly known as acanthus leave and cauliculus.
  • One of the clearest examples of what Corinthian example was about is the Olympeion (Athens), the temple dedicated to the Olympian Zeus. The state of preservation of the actual structure is impressive, but so is its size. This was the monumental, colossal style that so attracted the Romans years later. In fact, the complex was so big, its construction continued well into the Roman period. This is also a good example of the use of limestone in Greek buildings.

And this is all for now. But I shall be back with more details on the history of architecture and its development.






Hetaira: Admired Women in Fifth-Century Athens

For my blog post this month, I’ve decided to try something a little different and go back to Fifth-Century Athens, with this time looking at the women known as Hetaira. These women were sexual companions to men, but were not simply prostitutes, as they were educated and influential companions to the men for whom they companioned and were admired in their own right.

Aspasia of Miletus was not a native citizen of Athens and could not therefore marry an Athenian citizen, which could be a large reason to why she became one of the Hetaira. She became the mistress to Pericles, a general who was arguably the most prominent and influential man in Greek politics. Not much is known about why she migrated to Athens, or her life after the death of Pericles. Although unable to marry an Athenian citizen, her life was possibly better for it, in terms of independence and prosperity. Unlike other women in Athenian society, Hetaira’s independent status meant they could be accepted in having educated discussions, could pay taxes and were admired for their artistic skills and intelligence.

This was actually why the Hetaira were so popular and revered. Athenian women were not supposed to be educated, sheltered for the means of assuring their status as good wives. Demosthenes, a Greek statesmen, once said that wives were ‘for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes’ while the Hetaira were ‘for pleasure’. Hetaira were often companions to meetings, parties and gatherings, as they could join in with particular debate and were arguably the only women in Athenian society men welcomed an opinion from. Wives therefore were unsuitable for such roles, as they were supposed to be uneducated in order to be good citizens and wives. Demosthenes’s statement is also interesting as he underlines the difference between the Hetaira and prostitutes of the time. Although, Hetaira were sexual companions as well as providers of intellectual stimulation, in his speech he underlines that prostitutes were for the ‘day to day needs of the body’. Therefore, although Hetaira were ‘for pleasure’, this must have been for more reasons than ‘the needs of the body’ because this was the reason he used to emphasise the difference between prostitutes and Hetaira.

However, not all aspects of the Hetaira were so well accepted and revered. Aspasia of Miletus was claimed to be Pericles’s great love, and the two lived together as though married and had a child together, Pericles the Younger. It was her outspoken nature that drew him to her, but this did make her unpopular in Athenian society. Her and Pericles were often subjected to rumours and attacks, especially accusations that she was – as an immigrant to Athens – influencing Pericles’s administration in ways that were threatening to Athens itself. This did not affect the influence of Aspasia completely, however, who was still admired in a large faction of Athenian society – Socrates, an influential Greek philosopher, held her in high esteem.

The existence of the Hetaira can say a lot about the role and position of other women in Athenian society, who were expected to not have opinions or have an education, in order to be good wives to keep a good household and raise children. Hetaira were arguably the freest women in Ancient Greece, able to take part in public life far more than other women in society and their influence can also say a lot about what Athenian men thought about ‘ordinary’ women in Athens. If anything can give an impression of what women’s place in Ancient Athenian society meant, the famous Greek playwright Menander once commented that “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp.”

Democritus and Atomic Theory

So this week we will be looking at what we believe are some of the most vital inventions and discoveries in science throughout history, and when looking at important discoveries or inventions throughout history it is impossible to ignore the significance that the proof of atomic theory has, with it being so fundamental and part of the most ambitious and advanced scientific discoveries to this day, all while still not being exactly figured out yet.

Atomic theory as we know it today is the product of hundreds, or possibly thousands of different insights, with each scientist building upon previous work, mostly in the 19th and early 20th century, until we get to the understanding of atoms and what they do that we have now. But the idea surely had to start somewhere didn’t it? While it is impossible to say with certainty that no one before had ever had the idea that things had some sort of limit to how small they can be, the first evidence we have of anyone having this thought comes from ancient Greece, primarily from the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, and perhaps with some credit owed to his mentor Leucippus.

According to ancient reports, Democritus was born in about 460 BC.  His work has survived only in secondhand reports which are sometimes unreliable or conflicting. Most of the best evidence comes from Aristotle, who regarded Democritus as an important rival in natural philosophy. Of what Aristotle wrote about Democritus only a few passages survive, and those are also quoted in other sources themselves. But from these sources it appears Democritus took over and developed the views of his elder mentor Leucippus, of which very little is known about. Although it is possible to distinguish some of the work as that of Leucippus, the overwhelming majority of reports refer to either both Democritus and Leucippus, or to Democritus alone. The developed atomist system is often essentially considered to be Democritus’ own work.

Ancient sources describe Democritus’ atomism as one of a number of attempts by early Greek natural philosophers to respond to the challenge made by Parmenides, another of the philosophers. Today it is accepted that this is the reason for Democritus to start considering the theory of atoms. Parmenides argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible at the time, Parmenides then stated that change is merely an illusion. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other philosophers developed systems that made change possible by showing that something should not need to come from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version by Democritus, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms. The atomists are said to have fundamentally taken the idea that there is a limit to the number of times something can be divided, which tackles the paradox of the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes.

The atomists held the view that there were two fundamental parts of reality that make up the natural world, atoms and void. Atoms, from the Greek adjective atomos or atomon, which means ‘indivisible,’ are infinite in number and vary in size and shape, and are perfectly solid. They move about in an infinite void, repelling one another when they collide or combining into clusters by means of tiny hooks and barbs on their surfaces, which become entangled. Other than changing place, they are unchangeable, ungenerated and indestructible. All changes in visible objects of the world are brought about by relocations of these atoms. As Aristotle then described, the atomists reduce all change to the change of place. Macroscopic objects in the world that we experience are really clusters of these atoms and therefore changes in the objects we see such as growth are caused by rearrangements or additions to the atoms composing them. These atoms were considered to be eternal, but the objects made of them were not. They said that our world and the species within it have arisen from the collision of atoms moving about in such whirl, and will all disintegrate in time.

Much of this is obviously a sort of philosophical stab in the dark, with them at the time being completely unable to observe or test the theory without something like an electron microscope. Although we can see that at a base level Democritus had a surprisingly similar idea to the Atomic theory that was developed thousands of years later. Even though we know, or maybe think we know far more today, we also know that we aren’t quite done figuring it out yet. And anyway, when you start considering these things with quantum theory, who even knows what we know? For now all I can say is that Democritus had a good idea and it took about 2300 years before anyone properly looked into it.

Demokratia: the Athenian Dream

Athenian politicians may have not been aware of the impact the new system they tried in Athens would have in the future world. Athenian democracy was different from our modern concept of democracy as an ideological, political and economic idea, but it set the basis for the system over which most European powers built their influence centuries later. I think something that is crucial to the development of democracy, is the fact that it keeps on revising, and revisiting itself, and improving so attempt to achieve a better system. Democracy was by no means fully achieved in ancient times, but it was a rather long process, which I believe is still ongoing as current political models based on democratic values are still challenged by political unrest, economic issues and unhappy civilians. But perhaps none of us will see this ideal fulfilled, just like the Greeks only saw its beginning.

So, why was democracy created? Well, for the same reasons than any other system is created. Greece was undergoing some deep cultural changes, both from the inside and the outside, resulting from social pressures which called for a change all throughout the 6th century BC. Admittedly, Athens was not the only polis to be ruled through democracy, but it is the best documented and perhaps the most stable of them all. In addition, the Athenians had real trouble with their governance, which was established by the archons who were elite aristocrat which ruled the city for their own benefit, stripping most Athenians of any power and keeping the citizens in a status that many considered close to slavery. The first man to start working on this issue was Solon (594 BC), who belonged with the archons but accepted that things needed to change. He reshaped certain concepts that allowed the Athenians to get back their rights and capacity to partake in the assembly meetings. Solon also created two new institutions: the ekklesia and the boule. The ekklesia made decisions upon warfare and foreign affairs, and was in charge of writing and passing law bills. Any adult male citizen was entitled to attend and vote in the group decisions elected by majority. The ekklesia also had the power to send people into ostracism. The second body of government, the boule of Solon was formed by 400 which worked more as counselors than anything else. Later on, with Cleisthenes reforms is was also known as the Council of the Five Hundred and was in charge of daily tasks and affairs. It was formed by 500 men, 50 of each of the 10 Athenian tribes who served the council for only a year. These men were also chosen not by vote but by a lot, so then it was pure chance that put them in charge rather than favoritism or popularity. The boule established the things that will be presented to the ekklesia for revision or discussion.

This ground work was further reformed by Cleisthenes between 508 and 507 BC. One of his main reforms, apart from the proper institutionalisation of the boule, was the introduction of equal rights, undermining the power the aristocracy had and bringing them to an equal level than the rest of the population. He also introduced the third institutional body, the dikasteria: popular courts run on a daily basis and presided by 500 jurors chosen at a lot amongst men aged 30 or more. This was also a paid job so this, once again, to power away from the wealthy and proved that everyone had equal rights, at least to a degree.


However, was by no means a perfect scheme and it still excluded many members of society. Woman and foreigners were not represented within this system, nor did they have the right to vote. In addition, the poor were excluded from much of the partaking and rather treated in a patronising or protective way, for their own good. The Athenian democracy kept on evolving and changing, up to the point of becoming a democracy only in name. When Pericles took charge as leader of Athens (c.461 BC), he certainly kept in essence the spirit of the demokratia but he effectively governed the city as its first citizen.


I guess what one can conclude from the genesis of democracy and any political system is that government and governance are not static, and humans will always try to find a way that suits them best to exercise power. Democracy evolves, and so do we…Perhaps to the point it will not be democracy anymore…

The Plague of Athens

This month is a time for us all to jump out of our comfort zones and write about a time in history we know little or nothing about. As someone who is very happy to stay in modern-day times and stick to political and social matters, going back as far as Fifth Century BC Athens is very out of my comfort zone. Although I enjoy medieval and classical history, the last time I learnt about the Greeks, I was ten and part of the class included watching Disney’s Hercules (not, I think, the pinnacle of historical material when looking at Ancient Greece). It seemed to me that discussing the plague of fifth century Athens would be the perfect opportunity to jump as far back as I can, especially since during a quiz, I guessed that the year it occurred was 100BC  (I didn’t hear the ‘Fifth Century’ bit, I swear). Hopefully, by the end of this post both you and I will know far more about the plague of Athens more than we do now.

What was the Plague?

Concerning what the plague actually was – and what illness it manifested as – is still disputed to this day. Some claim it could perhaps have been a flu strain epidemic, the bubonic plague, Ebola or measles. The dispute comes from the fact that the symptoms described during the plague don’t match the symptoms of the previously mentioned diseases. Disease, of course, changes over time, and a case of the measles, flu or Ebola could be very different 2,500 years ago than today. It could be possible in fact, that the disease that caused this plague no longer exists in a recognisable form.

Thucydides, an Athenian historian and also a surviving victim of the plague, wrote the disease had an “abrupt onset, persons in good health were seized first with strong fevers, redness and burning of the eyes, and the inside of the mouth, both the throat and tongue, immediately was bloody-looking and expelled an unusually foul breath. Following these came sneezing, hoarseness . . . a powerful cough . . . and every kind of bilious vomiting . . . and in most cases an empty heaving ensued that produced a strong spasm that ended quickly or lasted quite a while.”

Bust of Thucydides
Bust of Thucydides

He described skin as being “reddish, livid, and budding out in small blisters and ulcers.” Victims often were subjected to incredible thirst and fever, becoming so hot they didn’t even want to be covered by a thin blanket. Sleep was near impossible. He noted that after just over a week the victims would either begin to get better or, in the case of most, die. Survivors became immune, but it seemed to be contagious as it was noted that those who visited the sick and cared for them often became ill themselves.

Dr. David Durack and Dr. Robert Littman of the University of Maryland claim that the best possible explanation for the plague is typhus fever. Evidence also suggests that typhus fever was spread by lice and through air during the plague.

Dr. Durack claimed: “Epidemic typhus fever is the best explanation. It hits hardest in times of war and privation, it has about 20 percent mortality, it kills the victim after about seven days, and it sometimes causes a striking complication: gangrene of the tips of the fingers and toes. The Plague of Athens had all these features.”

How and When did it Occur?

The Plague of Athens did indeed occur during war – The Peloponnesian War. Athens were fighting against the Peloponnesian League of Sparta in order to achieve their vision of an Athenian Empire. Instead of acting in the more traditional ways Athens had acted in war in the past, Athens elected to rely on a strategy whereby Athenians would withdraw behind the walls of the city and rely on fleets for supplies, rather than going out into battle.

Pericles gives the funeral oration at the end of the first year of war – Artwork by Von Fulz

This was a decision was made by Pericles, a man who dominated Athens politically for over thirty years. His idea was to avoid superior Peloponnesian forces on the battlefield, to frustrate them and to tire them out, and to make Athens an impregnable island fortress. The result, however, would lead to a destructive plague, caused by containing Athens’s entire population alongside refugees within its walls, allowing disease to spread faster and more devastatingly.

In 430 BC, in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, Athens succumbed to its first bout of the plague, probably entering through Piraeus, the only port open in Athens to provide food, supplies and water, due to the city being almost completely closed off. The plague hit twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/6 BC.

What were its Effects?

Over the years the plague hit Athens, almost 100,000 people died – one-third of the total population. In 427, the Athenians had lost 4400 hoplites (heavily armed soldiers) and 300 cavalry men, nearly 25% of their frontline troops. Despite this Athens carried on its war effort for another twenty years. Athens was at a disadvantaged place in the war, due to how hard the plague had hit it, and with the Peloponnesians having largely escaped its effects.

plague of athens
Depiction of Plague of Athens – taken from

Its effect on the political stance of Athens was greatly changed by the plague – Pericles died of it only two and a half years after its initial onset, and he had played a great role within Athens for a long time beforehand. The War and its outcome may have been very different for Athens if Pericles had never died, and therefore the plague had a lasting effect on Athens’s war efforts and Athens itself.

How is it Remembered?

The Plague of Athens was not the most devastating plague in the Ancient World, but has been chronicled in-depth by Thucydides. This has allowed the plague to have been researched in-depth concerning the symptoms it caused, its effects on Athenian society, and how Athenians dealt with the spread. Contrary to other writings of the time, Thucydides did not mention the Gods when writing about disease and was able to give an in-depth discussion of its symptoms and its spread without this influence, perhaps as he had been a survivor and suffered through it himself.

Mass graves have since been found in excavations, reportedly having no character and hastily put together, with no, or only cheap, offerings. These hastily thrown together graves are a result of the panic the plague caused, with Thucydides himself writing that bodies were often abandoned in the streets and in temples, and they were collected and buried hastily due to the panic surrounding the city.

Site of mass graves from 4th and 5th century BC, taken by Nikos Axarlis
Site of mass graves from 4th and 5th century BC, taken by Nikos Axarlis

The importance of remembering the Plague of Athens has been described by Dr. Durack who explains, ‘Even if we can never be absolutely sure what caused the plague, the story is still relevant today because we continue to experience the outbreak of new emerging infectious diseases.’ Dr. Littman also agrees with this statement, saying that because plagues are a recurring event in human history, they remain a constant fear and therefore relevant.

The plague was hugely important, not only for scholars today to research infectious diseases and epidemics of today, but in its impact on Athens. Arguably, it helped cause the downfall of the Golden Age of Athens, killed a large number of its population, and heavily weakened the city at the beginning of its war against Sparta.

Further Reading

The Plague in Athens During the Peloponnesian War

Plague Victims Found: Mass Burial in Athens

The Plague of Athens – 430-427/425 BC