Lachlan passed away in January 2010.  As a memorial, this site remains as he left it.
Therefore the information on this site may not be current or accurate and should not be relied upon.
For more information follow this link

(This Webpage Page in No Frames Mode)

Welcome to Lachlan Cranswick's Personal Homepage in Melbourne, Australia

Extracts from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean" by Charles Freeman (Pub. 1999)

(First stop for a modern summary of the ancient Mediterranean - an Oxford University Press Publication)

(Includes a list of suggested books for further reading on the various topics)

Lachlan's Homepage is at

[Back to Lachlan's Homepage] | [What's New at Lachlan's Homepage] | [Historial things, Literature and Poetry] | [Literature]

Extracts from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3

Rediscovering the Ancient World

Can we understand the ancient world? - Modern Biases

Extrac from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 12)

"The only response is to become aware of unconscious prejudices which condition our interpretations of the past. In ideological terms this is extraordinarily difficult. Most of us are hardly aware of the ideological preconceptions which frame our perceptions of other societies. This task is made harder when present day concerns impose their own distortions. In 1818 the poet Shelley translated Plato's Symposium. After his death his widow wished to publish it, but was advised by the poet and essayist Leigh Hunt that this would only be possible if she changed 'unacceptable words' like 'lover' into 'friend', 'men' into 'human beings', and 'youths' into 'young people'. This use of political correctness was an attempt to conceal the fact that Plato was writing explicitely about homosexual (pederastic, in fact) experiences. Every period had its own taboos, the present one among them. Most are essentially ephemeral, and the historian with an eye to his or her future reputation has to be careful he or she does not become ridiculous by distorting his or her text to conform to them


No understanding of the ancient world is possible if societies of two thousand or more years ago have to be shaped to meet present-day political concerns. (See further Robert Hughes's trenchard analysis of political correctness, The Culture of Complaint.)

Rediscovering the Ancient World

Shedding Academic Blood

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 13)

"Virtually every page that follows conceals some controversy over which academic blood has been shed. However, it is worth the effort to produce a single-volume overview which, used with caution, may provide the springboard into further study of these fascinating societies."

Daily Life in New Kingdom Egypt

From: Conclusion: The Egyptian Achievement

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 57)

"It is also arguable that social stability was, in fact, maintained by occupying and feeding the many peasants who worked on the great building projects during the months of the floods. Within Egypt at least there does not seem to have been the callous brutality so often found in other societies."

The Ancient Near East, 3500-500BC

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 59)

"One of the great discoveries was the vast library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal in Nineveh with its collection of Mesopotamian literature. The cuneform script in which the tablets were written was deciphered eventually by an Englishman, Henry Rawlinson (1810-95), from a trilingual inscription carved by the Persian king Darius on a rock at Behistun. The literature and complex history of the region could now start to be unravelled. In the late 19th century the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie pioneered the use of stratigraphy in Palestine."

The Ancient Near East, 3500-500BC

Invention of the Alphabet

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 65)

"At some point (scholars have put forward dates as early as 1300 BC and as late as 1000 BC), the Phoenician cities developed their own alphabet, and probably transmitted it to the Greeks in the ninth or eigth century BC."

The Ancient Near East, 3500-500BC

Neo-Assyrian Empire

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 68)

"Like most imperialists of the period the Assyrians could be brutal. The plundering of cities and the crushing of peoples was followed by the deportation of the survivors. However the empire could not have survived as long as it did if this had been its only strategy."

Early Greeks, 2000-700 BC

The Minoans

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 79)

"Minoan society has had its enthusiastic admirers. The colourful frescos, the apparant joy and sophistication of the people, the sense of peaceful and ordered society which revelled in the beauties of nature, have been combined to create an image of an idyllic world. In her book The Dawn of the Gods (1968) the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes argued that Minoan Crete was essentially a femanine society, in contrast to thos more masculine culture to the north. There was something of a shock in 1981 when the Anemospelia sacrifice was found and a darker side of Minoan life emerged. There is some evidence too that war played a far larger part in Minoan life that was once thought. The 'carefree' Minoans may turn out to be no more than a fantasy created in the twentieth century."

Cultural Change in the Archaic Age

Birth of Western Philosophy

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 145 to 149)


"The varied arguments of the early Greek thinkers were invigorating but deeply unsettling. Faced with the seeming absurdities of Parmenides' deductions, philosophy could be dismissed as no more than an intellectual game. It could be argued that 'truth', if the concept could be said to exist at all, was something relative, dependent on the inadequate senses of individual observers or the ways in which they constructed their reasoned arguments. In the sixth century another Ionian, Xenophanes, had already made a similar point in a famous statement about the gods:

Immortal men imagine the gods are begotten and that they have human dress and speech and shape . . If oxen or horses or lions had hands to draw with and to make works of art as men do, the horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, oxen like oxen, and they would make their gods; bodies similar to the bodily shape they themselves each had. (Translation: E. Hussey)

If the gods, to take Xenophanes' example, are the construction of human minds, it is a short step to argue that other concepts - goodness or justice, for instance - might also be. The fundamental question is then reaised as to whether there could ever be any agreement over what the gods, or justice or goodness, might be. This was to be the central issue tackled by Socrates and Plato in the late fifth and early forth centuries. (see pp. 227.)"


"What cause this intellectual breakthrough in Greece? In a famous article of 1963 Goody and Watt related it to the coming of literacy:

A great many individuals found in the written record so many inconsistencies in the beliefs and categories of understanding handed down to them that they were impelled to a much more conscious, comparative and critical attitude to the accepted world picture and notably to the notions of Gods, the universe and the past.

This argument suggests that once evidence had been written down and a variety of different accounts of an event or a belief could be compared, then rational thinking developed as a way of dealing with the inconsistencies.

Goody and Watt's argument, like so many interpretations of the past, was rooted in contemporary debates, those of the 1960s. The guru of the period was the Canadian Marshall McLuhan with his stress on the medium (book, film, or television, for instance) as the conditioner of the message sent out. Television, argued McLuhan with some justification, imposted its own form on the information or programmes it transmitted. The use of writing in the world's first literate society, Greece, could, similarly, have had as significant an impact on ways of thinking. Goody and Watt's view is now out of favour. The written word is as likely to be a force for conservation as for liberation. What was written down - in ancient Egypt, for example - often achieved a sacred quality simply becuase it was in written form. The Egyptian doctor would allow his own observations and recommendations for treatment to be guided by the texts he had inherited. They certainly did not encourage him to think rationally about the diseases he was treating.

Goody and Watt's view also implies that the early Greek philosophers had access to a variety of different texts. This certainly seems to be well beyond the truth. The scholar who sits down and masters a number of different texts before coming to his own conclusions appears only in Hellenistic times. Aristotle (384-322 BC) is the first human being recorded as having a library. In the sixth and fith century BC the number of texts available was very limited. They could not be read easily. Public inscriptions, for instance, were often produced with no word-spacing or punctuation, and when a law was changed the new version was simply tacked on to the end of the old. Longer texts, of poetry or history, seem to have been composed as aids to memory, and were seem as inferior to the spoken word with all the emotional possiblities it offers in performance. Both Socrates and Plato vastly preferred the cut and thrust of oral debate as an appropraite way to conduct argument.

In her Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece Rosalind Thomas stresses the continuing primacy of the spoken word, in the sixth and fifth century at least. It may be more productive to look within Greek society itself for the development of rational thought and, in particular, at the way that the Greeks interacted with each other orally."


"Solon talks of justice as an abstract principle which can be discussed rationally and introduced into a political system through the actions of men. Abstract ideas are not only becoming accessible, but are being debated without fear of inciting the warth of the gods.

The end reslut, and one which is fundamental, was that there were few inhibitions on enquiry. The success of Greek philosophy lay in its critical and argumentative approach to an extraordinary range of questions. As Bernard Williams has pointed out:

In philosophy the Greeks iniated almost all it major fields - matephysics, logic, the philosophy of language, the theory of knowledge, ethics, political philosophy and the philosophy of art. [Williams here is only referring to the concerns of modern philosophers - he might have added mathematics and science, included as 'phiolosophy' by the Greeks.] Not only did they start these areas of enquiry but they progressively distinguished what would still be recognised as many of the most basic questions in those areas.

It is worth noting that Williams concentrates on the Greeks as question askers/ They did not always come up with very effective answers. There were good reasons for this. First, their speculations often ran ahead of what their senses could cope with. It is sobering to realize that no Greek astronomer had any means of exploring the heavens other than his eyes. (There wer instruments developed for measuring angles, but tey still depended on the naked eye for this use.) Aristotle's theory of spontaneous generation, the idea that life could come from nowhere, which lingered on as a misconception until the seventeenth century, arose largely because he had no way of seeing small objects. Not the least of the Greeks' philosophical achievements was, however, to recognise this inadequacy of the senses. The fifth-century philosopher Democritus got to the core of the problem when he constructed a dialogue between a mind and the senses. 'Wretched mind, taking your proofs from us (the senses), do you overthrow us? Our overthrow will be your fall.'

'Early Greek philosophy', writes Martin West:

was not a single vessel which a succession of pilots commanded and tried to steer towards an agreed destination, one tackling one way, the next altering course in the ligh of his own perceptions. It was more like a flotilla of small craft whose navigators did not all start from the same point or at the same time, nor all aim for the same goal; some went in groups, some were influenced by the movements of others, some travelled out of sight of each other.

In short, the Greek world of the sixth century fostered an intellectual curiosity and creativity which took many forms. The Archaic age deserves to be seen as one where a particular atitude of mind took root, perhaps, as has been suggested, because of the intensity of life in the polis. It involved the search for an understanding of the physical world free of the restraints imposed by those cultures which still lived in the shadow of threatening gods. It was still a fragmented world, hoever, one in which cities survived precariously on the limited resources available. Its vulnerability was now to be tested by attack from the east by the largest empire the world had yet seen, that of Persia."

Everyday life in Classical Greece

Spartan Society

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 175 to 176)


"The Athenian citizen was thus given identity through a range of shared activities which went well beyond his involvement in the Assembly

In contrast, life if Sparta seems uniform and regimented. It pays to be cautious in saying this because Sparta was often deliberately presented, by noth admirers and detractors, as a contrast to Athens and so what was different about the city might be unduly emphasized. The Spartans also made it difficult to estrablish the truth about themselves. They prided themselves on presenting an inscrutable face to the world and in hiding their true military strength. Anton Powell, in an overview of the life of Sparta, suggests a comparison with Mao Tsetung's China, 'where the movement of foreigners was restricted, communication with outsiders was guarded, while much that was reported derived from the uncheckable accounts of enthusiasts'.

What cannot be denied was that Sparta was a city which idealized the state over the individual and concentrated on breaking down any activities or relationships which threatened the cohesion of the community. The process of socialization began at the age of 7 with the removal of a boy from his family. Platon remarked that all education in Sparta was carried out through violence rather than through persuasion and the emphasis was on producing hardiness through endless tests of self-reliance and endurance. At the age of 20 the boys joined messes, the syssitia. These were, in effect, the only associations recognised by the state and they provided a totalitarian social world. The messes ate together nightly and there was no distinction between young and old, rich or poor. It seems, though the direct evidence is slight, that homosexual relationships were the norm. Certainly there was little scope for any other form of physical affection. Men could marry, but until they were 30 all visits to their wives had to be conducted stealthily by night. (There was an interesting ritual relating to the consummation of marriage. On the marriage night the bride was dressed in a man's cloak and sandals and laid in an unlit room to await the attentions of her bridegroom. The deflowering of a woman dressed as a man may, it has been suggested, marked a formal transition from the homosexual work of the mess to that of the heterosexual.)

The state inculcated its own values, related to its need for survival as a military machine. The greatest glory was to die in the service of the state. The families of those who had died appeared to rejoice even after a defeat. Survivors, on the other hand, were shunned. There were two from Thermophylae. When they returned to the close society of Sparta both were humiliated and one even committed suicide. Action was valued above words. The Athenian politician Pericles puts it well when he talks of the Athenians as superior to the Spartans because they did not think that words 'damaged' actions as the Spartans did. The Spartans were famous for their brevity of speech (the word 'laconic', from the Latin for Lacadaemon, the country of Sparta, derives from this source). It is also interesting to not that they had little use for literacy. Only on classical inscription has been discovered in Sparta itself, and writing seems to have been reserved for the recording of international treaties.

Propaganda became an essential part of maintaining the public facade of the Spartan state. With so little respect given to words, it was expressed visually, particularly in the display of her troops. Their hair was kept conspicously long and they were dressed in indentical red cloaks. (The historian Xenophon remarked that the Spartan army seemed so consist entirely of bronze and scarlet.) Their numbers were always kept a closely guarded secret. Other states grasped the importance of deflating this proud image. When the Spartans were finally defeated at Leuctra (371 BC), the Thebans exposed their dead separately so that all could see they were not invincible"

Everyday life in Classical Greece

Women in the Greek World

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 177)

"Many sources written by Athenian men suggest that the seclusion of Athenian women within the home was total, but this cannot be the whole truth. In comedy women are portrayed outside the house (and thus available for erotic adventures), but a distinction need to be made between those how had to go outside, to fetch water, for instance, and those of higher status who had slaves to do tihs form them but how nevertheless enjoyed other relationships, particularly with other women, outside the home. (The distinction was symbolized by a woman's complexion. Women who had to share the work on farms or who had to leave the home to work or fetch water for themselves betrayed their lower status by their sunburned skin.)

Watever the reality of women's lives, they themselves have left little record of it. They they speak, above all in tragic drama, they do so through men's voices. What women really felt as tey sat together in the women's quarters of the cramped and probably smelly houses which were typical of urban Athens is unknown. They may have taken some satisfaction in their status as citizens and mothers of citzens-to-be. On the other hand, they may have yearned to enjoy the freedom of the hetairai, the courtesans who attended the syposia and who sometimes established stable relationships with young aristocrats. (However successful in the short term, however, the hetaira's life depended on here looks and charm. She was vunerable to pregnancy (and the child could never be recognized as a citizen) and disease, and when her lover married she would be discarded)."


Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.8: (Regarding Greece, he refers to "the Delian League, so called because its treasury and meeting place were on the centrally placed island of Delos" (p. 125), failing to note that 'Delian League' is a modern name. While it is true that Athenian citizenship was jealously guarded, anyone who reads Freeman's statement that the child of a hetaira and Athenian "could never be recognized as a citizen" will instantly recall the exceptional case of Pericles' own son (p. 177).)

Everyday life in Classical Greece

Pederasty, homosexuality and death in Classical Ancient Greece - and corresponding poetry.

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 184 to 186)

"A distincton has to be made between pederasty, as described above, and homosexuality. For a greek male to accept the submissive role in a homosexual relationship, or to be paid for this role, was considered so degrading that, in Athens at least, it resulted in the loss of citizen rights. As a surviving vase painting showing the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the battle of Eurymedon (early 460s BC) suggest, one of the rights of a victor was to inflict sexual humiliation on those he had defeated.

For the older man pederasty always to have ceased with marriage, and older lovers were simply seen as ridiculous. 'What kind of life is there,' wailed the sixt-century poet Mimnermos, conscious above all of his failing sexual powers:

without golden Aphrodite, the goddess of love, May I die when I no longer take any interest in secret love affairs, in sweet exchanges and in bed. These are the flowers of youth, pleasant alike for men and women. But when painful old age overtakes a man and makes him ugly outside and foul-minded within, then wretched cares eat away at his heart and no longer does he rejoice upon the sun, being hateful to young men and despicable to women. (Translation: Robert Garland)

The death-rate in ancient Greece, through childhood illness, death in battle, shipwreck, or disease, must have been high, but many Greeks survived into old age. Solon claimed that a man was at the peak of his intellect and power of speech between the ages of 42 and 56. Plato lived until he was 80, while the playwright Sphocles was still writing a year before he died aged 91. The rhetorician Gorgias, reputed to have lived to over 100, attributed his longevity to a meagre diet. (Certainly the normal Greek diet of oil, cereals, and fruit was a healthy one and modern Greeks have the highest male life expectancy in the EC.) Some even found joy in being a grandparent. One fifth-century grave-marker commemorating a dead womand called Ampharete is inscribed, 'I am holding the dear child of my daughter, which I did when we both looked on the rays of the sun, and now that we have both passed away, I hold her still upon my knees.'

An so on towards death. For those who died young there was a desire to die nobly so that burial could take place publicly with all due hounours. There was a complete contrast with Egypt, where the preoccupation was with the survival of the body and possessions into another world. The Greeks cared more for their posthumous reputations, and the preservation fo the body had no importance. The rituals of death were simple and moving. the body was washed and anointed in olive oil, then wrapped in two layers of cloth. A vigil was held at which songs of mourning would be sung and the body taken in procession to the cemetary. Here its final resting place was marked by a tone stele or even a statue of the dead man for those who could afford one.

In the words of an unknown poet,

Then he will lie in the deep-rooted earth
and share no more in the banquet, the lyre,
or the sweet cry of flutes.

(Translation: Oswyn Murray)"

Athens: Democracy and Empire

As is the way with crowds

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 214, 225, 203)

"The outbreak of a war which was to end twenty-seven years later in Athen's defeat was a turning-point in the city's history. (It is covered in Chapter 15.) There was a new mood of pessimism, symbolized by a devastating plague which broke out in the city in 430. In the despair that followed, the Assembly turned against Pericles, fined him, and deposed hime from his generalship (although he was soon re-elected, 'as is the way with crowds', remarked Thucydides). He died in the summer of 429 of some lingering illness probably related to the plague."

"Aristophanes was writing at a time when Athens was at war and he yearns for peace, presenting the past as more civilized and noble than thte present. It is hard to summarize his political view because his targets are so varied, but he shows nostalga for the early days of democracy, a time when he considered that the 'people' were wiser than they had since become. Cleon, the dominant political figure in Athens after the death of Pericles, is portrayed in the Knights as a slave to an unsteady and stupid old man, Demos (The People), who is happy only when he is given handous. Euripides is derided for betraying the traditional conventions of tragedy, while philosophers receive short shrift for undermining conventional beliefs by #clever' intellectual questionings."

"Debates could become heated and volatile, particularly when the city was under stress during the Peloponnesian War. A famous example, recounted by Thucydide, was the debate on the treatment of the people of Mytileene after the city had revolted against Athens in 427. At first the Assembly, swayed by impassioned oratory, decreed that all the Mytilenean men should be executed and the women and children enslaved. A trireme was sent off with the order. The next day the Assembly, in more sober mood, reversed the decision. (A second trireme reached the city in the nick of time.) In 406 there was a debate over the fate of the generals who after a naval victory at Arginusae had left the scene without picking up survivors (their defence being that a violent storm had made this impossible). Various proposals were put forward as a means of assessing their guilt, some of which appeared unconstitutional. The mass of the Assembly shouted that the decision should be left to the people, even if this meant disregarding normal procedures, and went on to order the execution of those six generals who had arrived back in Athens. Later, however, but only when it was too late, the Assembly again repented of its harshness."

From Aeschlus to Aristotle

The Sophists

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 226 to 227)

"Aristophanes' play the Clouds was produced for the first time in 423. It is a satire on comtemporary philosophy. A dissolute old farmer, Strepsiades, has heard that philosophers can make even a bad case appear dood and he is determined to have his son learn how to do this so as to get his own back on his creditors. Part of the play takes places in a school where students engage in all kinds of meaningless intellectual exercises and where it is taught that Zeus does not exist and it is the clouds instead which produce thunder and rain.

The Clouds reflects the arrival of philosophy in Athens in the fifth century. BEfore this philosophers appear as isolated fitures each following his own path. (See Chapert 9.) There was no coherant intellectual discipline of philosophy, and many of the early thinkers were as much poets or historians as philosophers in the modern sense of the word. By the fifth century, however, there were men who wandered from city to city teaching young men how to use their minds and voices in public service. They were known as the sophists (from sophizesthai, 'making a profession of being inventive and clever') and democratic Athens was quick to use their services.

At first the word 'sophist' was a neutral one, referring to anyone who had exceptional talent, but the word was later used by Plato and Aristotle in a derogatory sense. For them the sophists were those who debased the true phiolosophy by presenting it as a series of intellectual tricks which might be taught for money. The Sicilian Gorgias, a brialliant orator who visited Athens in 427, was attacked by Platon for being able to present the arguments both for and against any motion, thus showing no reverence for objective truth. Aristophanes' attacks on the sophists were in the same vein.

Plato's attack seems rather unfair. The fifth century was a sceptical age and many believed that truth was somethign that could not be found. Gorgias would hardly be criticized for teaching what were in effect the skills needed for the nurturing of democracy. (See Josiha Ober's argument, referred to earlier, that it was just these rhetorical skills which ensured the stability of Athenian society.) Moreover, many of the sophists had real intellectual breadth. Hippias of Elis, who was in Athens in the late fifth century, was able to offer instruction in astronomy, mathematics and music. Prodicus of Ceos, another visitor, analysed the meaning of words and could be said to have laid the foundations for the study of linguistics. These men were not simply purveyors of second-hand ideas. The sophists can also be creidted with pioneering the study of religion as a social and anthropoligical phenomenon. The Milesians had suggested that there was some divine principle at work in the universe. Heraclitus had agreed. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, the first philosopher recorded as living in Thanes and a friend of Pericles, put the matter more explicitely when he wrote, 'All living things, both great and small are controlled by mind (Nous . . . and the kinds of things that were to be and that once were but now are not, and all that now is and the kinds of things that will be - all these are controlled by Mind.' (Translation: E. Hussey) This 'mind' was omnipresent and eternal.

The sophists were more sceptical. Protagoras, who wsa born at Abdera in Thrace about 490 BC and probably spent most of his life as a travelling teacher, paying several visits to Athens, summed up his doubts as follows: 'Convering the gods I am unable to discover whether they exist or now, or what they are like in form; for there are many hinderances to knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.' (Translation: W. Guthrie) Protagoras; response to this uncertainty was to proclaim, in a famous outburst of optimistic humanism, 'Man is the measure of all things.' It could be taken as the slogan of democratic Athens.

Other sophists when further. Prodicus suggested that the gods originated in man's experience of nature. They had been created as personifications of natural phenomena such as the sun and the moon, rivers, water and fire. The Athenian poet Critias, in a fragment preserved from a play Sisyphus, developed the theme. 'I believe', he argued, 'that a man of shrwed and subtle mind invented for men the fear of the gods, so that there might be something to frighten the wicked even if they acted, spoke or thought in secret.' (Translation: R. Muir) In other words, the gods were purely a human creation, designed to keep men in order.

By the end of the century, however, free thinking on religious matters was less tolerable. Optimism was not possible in an age of plague and military defeat, one which saw the destruction of the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 413 and the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404. It was natural for conservatives to see these disasters as the revenge of the gods on those who had slighted them. Already, in the 430s, a decree of the Assembly had allowed public prosecution of both those who did not admit the practice of religion and those who taught rational theories about the heavens. Protagoras was forced to flee Athens and was drowned on his way to Sicily."

From Aeschlus to Aristotle


Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 227 to 230)

"The central character in the Clouds was none other than Athen's most celebrated contemporary philosopher, Socrates. (Since he did not charge for his teaching he cannot strictly be called a sophist, although Aristophanes was happy to brand him as one.) Socrates was born in Athens in 470 BC and had spent almost all his life in the city, although he seems to have served as a hoplite on occasions in the Peloponnesian War. He played virtually on part in politics, claiming that to have done so would have compromised his principles. (In the Apology, his defense against his accusers in 399, he claims to have risked his life by refusing to oey the government of the thirty Tyrants.) He was clearly a rather isolated, self-centred figure, capable of withdrawing from all human contact and for this reason vunerable in a city where public participation was so highly valued.

Socrates himself wrote nothing and there are three main sources for his ideas. The first, Aristophanes' portrayal in the Clouds, is probably distorted by the demands of comedy. The historian Xenophon provided some Memorabilia which arose from direct personal contact with Socrates, but by far the most important source, and virtually the only one for Socrates' philosophy, is Plato. Although the range of material is rich and wide-ranging, it too has its limiations. Plato was forty-five years younger than Socrates and only knew him in the closing years of a long life. Socrates is always allowed to speak directly, but it is often difficult to distinguish what are Socrates' own thoughts and what are Plato's. (Plato's works are termed 'Dialogues' becuase Plato records conversations in which Socrates is usually the dominating speaker. They are conventionally divided into three groups, the Early, Middle, and Late Dialogues. Socrates appears in almost every one of the Dialogues but it is assumed that Plato's views predominate in the Middle to Late Dialogues and that Plato has moved away from any historical portrayal of Socrates.

For Plato Socrates was a hero. He is presented as someone who lives for philosophy itself, searching for truth without regard for material gain, in the end dying for his beliefs. These beliefs centre on the human soul and its search for 'the good'. The soul is not just a disembodied spirit, argues Socrates, it is hte character of a person, an integral part of his personality. It can be corrupted by the glamour of the world and has to discover for itself that there is something called 'the good' which can be grasped through the use of reason. Once 'the good' has been found the soul will recognize and be naturally attached to it. In effect Socrates was shifting the attentions of philosophy away from attempts to understand only the physical world towards something very different, individual self-discovery. This was a new start in the history of philosophy, and in recognition of this all earlier thinkers are conventionally described as 'Pre-Socratic'.

The first step to finding 'the good' is to recognize the limitations of one's present life, and this means examining the conventions by which it is lived. ('An unexamined life is not worth living' is perhaps the most famous of Socrates's statements.) In the typical Socratic dialogue, Socrates allows the person he is talking to to express a view, about bravery or friendship, for instance. Socrates then breaks down the statement, showing how one example of friendship is inadequate as a means of understanding the essence of what friendship means. In one dialogue Socrates talks with the general Lackes in an attempt to define bravery:

SOCRATES (to LACHES). I wanted to get your opinion not only of bravery in the hoplite line, but also in cavalry engagements and in all forms of fighting; and indeed of bravery not only in fighting but also at sea, and in the face of illness and poverty and public affairs. And there is bravery not only in face of pain and fear, but also of desire and pleasure, both fearsoem to fight against by attack or retreat - for some men are brave in all these encounters, arne't they Laches?

LACHES. Yes, certainly.

SOCRATES. Then all these are examples of bravery, only some men show it in pleasure, some in pain, some in desire, some in danger. And there are others who show cowardice in the same circumstances.


SOCRATES. Now what I want to know was just what each of these two qualities is. So try again and tell me first, what is this common characteristic fo courage which they all share? Do you understand now what I mean?

LACHES. I am afraid I don't.

(Translation: Desmond Lee)

Socrates assumes that there is a concept, 'bravery', which is somehow there waiting to be discovered by reason. Discovery would lead to there being real knowledge of what bravery is, at a level beyond that held in the opinions of ordinary men in the sense that the knowledge could be defended rationally. However, in the Dialogues Socrates seldom reaches this point. Socrates even suggests that it is not his job to provide this kindof knowledge. It has to be discovered by the individual for himself. (It could not, therefore, be taught.) In the Theaetetus he is recorded as follows: 'I cannot myself give birth to wisdom, and the criticism which has so often been made of me, that though I ask questions of others I have no contribution to make myself because I have no wisdom in me, is quite true.' On another occasion Socrates said that his wisdom lay in the fact that he was the only man who fully realized his ignorance.

It is clear from this that the experience of meeting Scorates must have been both inspiring and frustrating. Here is the portrait given in Plato's Symposium by a drunked Alcibiades:

When I listen to him, my heart pounds. . . it's a sort of frenzy. . . possessed . . . and the tears stream out of me at what he says. And I can see a lot of other people that he's had just the same effect on. I've heard Pericles, I've heard plenty of good speakers, and I thought they did pretty well, but they never had an effect like this on me. My sould wasn't turned upside down by them and it didn't suffer from the feeling that I'm dirt. But that's the feeling I get from him and I know very well, at this moment, if I were prepared to lend him my ears, I couldn't hold out, he makes me admit that when there's so much I need, I don't look after myself.

(Translation: Kenneth Dover)

It was probably inevitable that Socrates would get into troble in the deeply unsettled times of the late fifth century. In 403 the democrats had just regained the initiative in the city (after the rule of the Thirty Tyrants) and their suspicions of Socrates rested partly on his association with discredited aristocrats such as Alcibiades. Socrates made it quite clear that he regarded popular opinion as something inferior to the reasoned finding of intellectuals. However much he professed that he himself was ignorant, the charge of intellectual elitism was bound to stick. The actual charges of 'corrupting the young' and 'neglect of the gods whom the city worships' brought by a number of his enemies in 399 may have been trumped-up ones but they reflected the ineasiness of a city where communal values continued to be strongly valued and religious sensitivities remained acute.

There is no evidence that Socrates' accusers were out to put him to death. The normal penalty would have been exile. However, Socrates was in no mood to compromise and he even argued before the jury that the city should be supporting him at public expense for his contributions to its affairs. In the version recorded by Plato he put his case clearly and consistently but seems only to have aroused greater anger among the listeners. They eventually voted for the death penalty. (There is another tradition that Socrates said little at his trial.) According to Plato, Socrates met his end calmly, sharing his thoughts while the hemlock steadily spread through his body. Plato's accounts of his last days have left one of the most enduring images of Western cultural and political history. As the American journalist I. F. Stone suggests in his Trial of Socrates, the issures involved, community versus the individual, 'truth' and knowledge versus popular opinion, continue to 'torment' (Stone's word) the liberal conscience, although Stone himself argues that Socrates was elitist and an enemy to democracy. "

From Aeschlus to Aristotle

The legacy of Plato and reference to Karl Popper's "Open Society and its Enemies"

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 232 to 233)

"Platon said relatively little in The Republic about the nature of the state which would finally emerge. It would appear to be joyless and authoritarian. Good government must not be swayed by emotion, so poetry and music are forbidden. Children are to be held in common. Sex life is to be limited, with an emphasis on eugenic breeding. The rulers must expect no gain from their position other than the satisfaction they obtain from establishing and enforcing truth. Politics, in the sense of debates between different power groups over the direction of the state, simply have no relevance (since once the Forms of justics and goodness, for instance, have been grasped there can be no further argument about their nature)."


"Western philosophy, wrote the mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead, 'consists of a series of footnotes to Platon'. Certainly Plato's legacy is a profound one. All those who believe that there is a reality beyond the physical world which embodies value, a view which entered Christianity via the Neoplatonists and St Augustine (see Chapter 28), fall within the Platonic tradition. Those who do not see any evidence of such a reality fall outside it. It is a crucial divide and it mirrors the divide between those who accept the possibility of moral absolutes and those who do not.

The legacy of Plato so far as political thought is concerned is, inevitably, controversial, 'What is out ultimate aim? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equiality, the reign of eternal justice, who laws are engraved, not in marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men, even in that of the slave woh forgets them and of the tyrant who rejects them.' This statement appears to be set well in the Platonic tradition. It is, in fact, a speech of Maximilien Robespierre made at the height of the French Revolution, a speech which foes on to justify terror against all those who oppose the establishment of a Republic of Virtue. As Karl Popper has argued in his The Open Society and its Enemies, Plato represents a direct threat to the democratic tradition, and any ruling elite which claims that it has the right to impose its own ideals on society is his heir."

The Hellenistic World

Arts of the Hellenistic Age

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 285)

"The poets of the period seemed to enjoy a private world of intimacy based on friendship, nostalgia, and scholarship. Their poetry is self-conscious literary. The comparison has been made with the twentieth-century poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Some of the mood has been captured in William Cory's famous, if not strictly accurate, translation of Callimachus' lament for his dead friend Heracleitus:

They told me, Heracleitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are they pleasant voices, they nightingales awake;
For Death he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

Callimachus (c.310-c.240 BC) was the most influential of the poets of the period, a particular favourite of the Romans, including Catullus and Ovid. He was a man of learning, responsible for a massive 120-volume catalogue of the library of Alexandria and a supposed 800 volumes of other works. He set a tone for the age, one striving after good taste and refined scholarship in an unashmedly elitist way. His Hymns, of which six survive, were elaborate compositions designed to be read among discerning friends, while his epigrams, such as the most famous to Heracleitus quoted above, deal with his more personal feelings, including his love for boys. It was his range, versatility, and lively intelligence which made him the archetypal poet of the age, and he is more quoted in this period than any other but Homer."

The Hellenistic World

Philosophy in the Hellenistic World

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 290 to 292)

"The same uncertainty prevaded moral philosophy. The question which haunted the philosophers was how to live 'a good life'. The question was given a new focus by the disappearance of so many of the traditional roles which life in the small city had provded. One response was that of the Cynics, to withdraw from the world altogether, renouncing material possessions and turning social convensions upside-down. The founded of Cynicism, Diogenes, reputedly asked by Alexander the Great what he wanted out of life, requested no more than that Alexander get out of the way of the sun.

The two major figures of Hellenstic philosophy, Epicurus and Zeno, came from Samos and Cyprus respectively but it was to Athens that they were drawn to teach. Both tried to find meaning for the individual in an age of angst. For Epicurus, who lived in Athens from 307 until his death in 271, the world was one in which the gods had little of no influence. He followed the materialist philosopher Democritus (see p. 144) in believing that the world was composed of atoms and that those making up each individual dissolved when that individual died and then regrouped to make up other objects. All that could be known much be based on observation and experience of this world. The only purpose of this life is to ensure survival in this world through pleasure. By this Epicurus did not mean a frenzied search for sensual enjoyment but rather peace of mind and freedom from pain. In order to achieve this it was important to escape from any fear of death to concentrate on the pleasures of everyday living, chief amongst which Epicurus numbered friendship and rational thinking. 'The pleasant life is produced not by a string of drinking bouts and revelries, nor by the enjoyment of boys and women, not by fish and the other items on an expensive menu, but by sober reasoning'. A retreat from the hectic, competitive life of the Greek world marked a major reversal of traditional Greek values where a man was judged by the success of his public life, and Epicureanism was never completely respectable. However, it proved popular in the last years of Republican Rome and has not lost its impact today. A recent Italian edition of Epicurus sold a million copies.


It used to be the custom to end courses on the Greek world with the battle of Chaeronea in 338 or with the death of Alexander. The assuption was that after this date the 'pure' Greek world of the fifth and fourth century was polluted with foreign influences and thus, somehow, not worthy of the same respect. it is hoped this chapter has shown that the Hellenistic period is not only fascinating in its own right but also of real historical significance. It can no longer be ignored in any comprehensive study of the Greek world."

Voices from the Republic

Poetry: Titus Lecretius Carus and Catallus

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 359 to 361)

"One of the themes of De Republica is Cicero's preoccupation with the duty of citizens, in particular those of the richer classes, to uphold high standards of personal morality and to take an active part in government. Others in these troubled times too a different path and were attracted by the philosophy of Epicurus with its emphasis on withdrawl from private life and a concentration on personal qualities of friendship (see p. 291). They took their inspiration from one of the great poems of the period, De Rerum Natura, 'On the Nature of Things', by Titus Lcuretius Carus (98-c.66 BC).

Virtually nothing is known about Lucretius. He was clearly a passionate admier of Epicurus and much of De Rerum Natura is devoted to praising the man who freed the human race from superstition and religion and the fear of death. In what Alexander Dalzell had called 'one of the rarest of literary accomplishments, a successful didactic poem on a scientific subject', he also managed to expound the atomic theory of Epicurus. (In fact this is the fullest account of the atomic theory to have survived.) Yet the whole poem is also infused with a richness of the natural world and contains a non-theological explanation for the development of life, with grass and shrubs appearing first and then the first animals from the wombs in the earth. Even in the early brutish period of humanity's development there is room for human affection and friendship, one of the sherished beliefs of Epicureanism. Lucrestius never allows his rational approach to the physical world to erase an emotional response to its riches. Seldom has a system of beliefs been expressed so powerfully and with such imagination in what is one of the few original works of Romain philosophy.

Lucretious' sensuous approach to life is echoed in the poems of another of the 'voices' of the period, Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-c.54 BC). Catullus came from a wealthy family in Veronal but moved south to join in the literary circles of fashionable Rome. Like any 'modern' poet of the day he was steeped in Greek literature and among his surviving works are translations of Sappho and Callimachus. While drawing heavily on the metres and legends of Greece he was versatile enough to develop a voice that was entirely his own. In his own time he was best known for his erudite and finely crafted poems, such as the short epic 'The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis', which require an understanding of Greek myth to achieve their fullest impact. (The marriage is described in sensuous detail as the height of happiness but the educated reader knows that the child of the marriage, Achilles, is doomed to die young.)

The modern reader has, however, been attracted by Catullus' record of his experiences in the 'bohemian' circles of late republican Rome. His poem detail the characters which surround him with all their eccentricities, pretensions, and betrayals. The most celebrated is Lesbia, the woman he loved and lost. 'Lesbia' is probably Clodia, the sister of the dissolute Publius Clodius. The affair is detailed from its first rapture to the despair of rejection.

You ask Lesbia, how many kissings of you are enough and to spare for me. As great the number of the sands of Libya to be found in silphium-bearing Cyrene between Jove's torrid oracle and the sacred tomb of legendary Battus; or as many the stars which in the silence of the night behold the stealthy loves of mankind: so many kisses to kiss you would be enough and to spare for love-crazed Catullus, too many for the inquisitive to be able to count or bewitch with their evil tongues.

As he is betrayed he bitterly asks his friends to

take back to my sweetheart a brief and not kind message. Let her [Lesbia] live and be happy with her lovers, three hundred of whom at once she holds in her embraces, loving none truly but again and again ruptering the loings of them all; and let her not count on my love as in the past, for through her fault it has fallen like a flower at the meadow's edge, after being lopped by the passing plough. (Translations by T.P. Wiseman)

This is the world of the sophisticated, erudite, and the malicious. Catullus is adept at sending off obscenities to those he dislikes. (Even Caesar who was rumoured to have had a homosexual relationship when young in the east, was the target of a lampoon.) There is also the genuine anguish of an age where personal relationships have become shallow and transient. These are the private voices of an age of uncertainty."

The Fall of the Roman Republic, 55-31 BC

Cicero and his philosophical and scientific writings

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 369-370)

(Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.8: (Cicero was born in 106 BC, not 104 (p. 350)))

"The changing mood towards Caesar can be seen through the eyes of Cicero. He had agaonized over which side to take in the civil war and had then chosen Pempey's. Once Pompey had been defeated he threw himself on the mercy of Caesar, who treated him iwth clemency and consideration which remained one of his most attractive qualities. Cicero had hoped against hope that Caesar's rule might lead at last to the stable and united republic of which he had dreamed. In a speech in the senate in late 46 he praised Caesar for his generosity and ability to bring a reconciliation to the state. Yet, although he never lost an admiration for Caesar as a man, he inevitably became disillusioned with the stifling of political life as Caesar's behaviour became more overtly monarchical. After his daughter Tullia died he wrote a moving letter to a friend Servius Sulpicius which set out his despair:

Now I cannot escape from the sorrow of my home into public affairs, and find anything in them to console me, whereas I always had a place at home to cheer me up when I came home depressed from public life. So I'm not at home, and I'm not in public life; my home cannot console me for the sorrow I feel fro the free Republic, nor can public life compensate for the grief I feel at home. (Translation: Elizabeth Rawson)

Fortunately Cicero's intellectual powers remained intact. In his misery he set himeslef the task of presenting the fruits of Greek philosophy in Latin for an audience which could not read Greek itself. There was also a personal motive, seen in one lost work, Consolatio, of trying to come to terms with his grief through exploring his emotions through the similar experiences of others. These final works of his life tackled epistemology (Academica), the ultimate aim of life (De Finibus), the nature of the gods (De Natura Deorum), and moral philosophy (De Officiis), with shorter works on friendship and old age. Many concepts proved untranslatable into Latin and Cicero had to coin words to express them. Words such as 'quality', 'essence', and 'moral' (qualitas, essentia, and moralis) all appear for the first time. In these works Cicero's prose achieved a range and precision which made it a model for those who came after him.

In his exposition of philosophy Cicero adopted a tone of intellectual detachment. (it was exactly this which made these final works so influential. In the long centuries when original Greek texts were uknown in Europe theyf ormed the only substantial record of Greek philosophy.) He believed in countering superstition by reason yet at the same time doubted whether there was such a thing as certainty. In so far as he warmed to any school of philosophy it was to Stoicism with its emphasis on endurance and commitment to public life for the good of all. While he was prepared to believe in some form of divine being, Cicero felt that the traditional gods of Rome and the variety of new gods which were entering Rome from Egypt and the east were no more than human creations, of real use only to the credulous."

Consolidating the Empire (AD 14-138)

Seneca and Roman Stoicism

Extract from "Egypt, Greece and Rome Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean", Charles Freeman, 1999, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-872194-3 (pg 408 to 409)

"Seneca is remembered as the most articulate proponent of Roman Stoicism. As has been seen (p. 291), the Stoics saw the world as one community, a single brotherhood, evolving under the benevolent care of a presiding force. The individual was both part of this force and yet also subject to it. Within a framework which he could not control he nethertheless had a role in helping to bring the whole to fruition. Unlike the Epicureans, for instance, the Stoic had a duty to take part in public life, to uphold the moral order when he could, and to endure the unfolding of events when he could not. This philosophy fitted well with traditional Roman ideals: service to the state, whatever the cost, frugality, and respect for the divine order. Virgil's Aeneas is a model of the Stoic virtues of courage, loyalty, resolution and piety.

Stoicism was essentially a conservative and paternalistic phiolosophy. Stoics were expected to treat their slaves well but there was never any suggestion slavery itself should be abolished in the name of the brotherhood of man. Yet Stoicism could also inspire resistance. The model of the Republic was Cato of Utica (95-46 BC), who was unflinching in his defence of the senate and republican ideals, committing suicide when he heard of Caesar's triumph over the old order. Later Stoics offered resistance to those emporers who seemed determined to upset the natural evolution of the world by their tyrannical behaviour. Both Nero and Domitian were to face opposition of Stoics (though it has long been debated as to whether Stoics resisted becuase they were Stoics or became Stoics to steel their resistance.)

The Stoic could appear stern and unbending. The importance of Seneca is that he humanized Stoicism. (Some, looking at his great wealth and his enjoyment of power under Nero, argue that he was all too human.) He wrote voluminously and not only on philosophy. His works include poetry and tragedies as well as scientific tretises (his main work on science, Naturales Questiones, was an undisputed authority until the works of Aristotle were rediscovered), and even a satire on the reign of Claudius. His philosophical works deal with such topics as anger, clemency, and what is meant by happiness. It is in his letters to his friend Lucilius, 124 of which survive, that he is most approachable. They present the ideals of Stoicism in an easy conversational style and relate them to actual events, the destruction of the city of Lyons in a fire, the everyday treatment of slaves, and how to deal with the unsettling effects of large crowds."

[Back to Lachlan's Homepage] | [What's New at Lachlan's Homepage] | [Historial things, Literature and Poetry] | [Literature]

(This Webpage Page in No Frames Mode)

If you are feeling sociable, my new E-mail address is [address now invalid] (replace the *at* with an @ ) . Old E-mail addresses might be giving forwarding or reliability problems. Please use clear titles in any Email - otherwise messages might accidentally get put in the SPAM list due to large amount of junk Email being received. So, if you don't get an expected reply to any messages, please try again.