Friday, August 24, 2007

We Live in a World of "Soft Men"

In reading Herodotus’ Histories, I came across an intriguing quote. In his advice to the Persians, Cyrus the Great claims “soft lands tend to breed soft men” (IX: 122). Cyrus was, of course, speaking in a literal sense, as he continued on, “it is impossible for one and the same country to produce remarkable crops and good fighting men.” However, I am interested in the statement on a more figurative level.

How strong can one really be without having endured difficulties at some point? This idea has been expressed, or at least experienced, in nearly every facet of life. Simply put by Friedrich Nietzsche, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Being hardened in the past, in the Persian War and now, makes one stronger and better prepared for the present. Imagine a star NFL prospect, breezing through high school and college; always facing weak, outmatched opponents; never truly being called to face superior or even equal opponents. Will he be prepared to be a star professional? Absolutely not. Without having faced true competition, he has not fully prepared himself for the trials that will certainly lie ahead. It is experiencing and eventually overcoming defeat that reveals true character - athletically, personally, professionally. Lack of adversity leads to complacency. In a state of complacency, there can be no improvement. One becomes “soft.”

In the Classical world, this was not an option. Sparta was able to defeat Athens by being the more hardened soldiers. In a land of little agriculture and, compared to Athens, far inferior economic and academic realms, Spartans did not have the option of milling about the agora, discussing the eternal Form of beauty. Rather, they had to be in a constant state of complete military preparedness in order to keep in check the ever-restless helots and protect their expanding land. It is impossible to pinpoint, but one could certainly argue that it was the very nature of Athens soft, academically inclined society that led to its defeat at the hands of the smaller, harder Spartans.

It is in today’s world, however, that Cyrus’ advice may be most crucial on an individual level. The majority of Westerners are able, if they choose, to live a life of leisure (compared to what was available in all but the very recent past). We may play in clean, neatly organized games and play groups, slide through large, unchallenging schools, slip into an unexciting, run-of-the-mill job, ease into quiet retirement in a pampered home and eventually death in soft bed surrounded by family members. Never before have we as a society been so completely unchallenged. If you don’t want to work in school, in most places you will find no one to challenge you to do so. If you have no interest in moving beyond a dead-end job, no one will ask for your resume to promote you. No, it is now our own individual responsibilities to seek out these challenges. Study the hard subjects. Take the difficult jobs. Play the national powerhouse teams. Yes, you will have to work harder than everyone else around you. Yes, you will fail. And, if you continue to work, yes, you will overcome. And then you will have the satisfaction of looking at those around you, knowing that you are quicker, stronger, smarter, harder.


I would like to extend huge apologies to anyone who has emailed me at my account. Unbeknownst to me, there was a major glitch which, while allowing some administrative emails though, was blocking most other ones. So for these past months, while I thought no one was bothering to email me, it really turned out that, in fact, I just wasn't receiving those emails. I am so sorry to those who have emailed me in the past. I will return all messges, no matter how long overdue. Now that the problem is fixed, I hope all will feel free to email any comments, suggestions, ideas, etc. etc. to me at I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Archimedes' Death Ray

When I heard of Archimedes’ Death Ray, the name alone was enough to get me interested. Who could resist some thing called a Death Ray?? After some investigation, I learned that this story dates back to the Second Punic War. According to Greek and Roman historians, when, in 212 BC, Syracuse faced an attack from the Romans, they turned to Archimedes, the great (and local) physicist, mathematician, and engineer, for defense. According to the story, he developed his Death Ray as a means of halting the approaching Roman naval fleet. Archimedes instructed the soldiers of Syracuse to polish their shields until they shone like mirrors. They were then positioned along the coast of the island, facing the incoming Roman navy. The sun was reflected off of the many shields onto Roman ships, causing them to burst into flames and thus ending the Roman advance.

At first, I agreed with many scholars that the whole thing sounded a bit far-fetched. The idea of being able to burn up the Roman fleet like ants under a magnifying glass simply with polished shields seemed unbelievable. However, some experiments have been done that bring my initial doubt into question. An engineering class at MIT tested the ability of reflective metal shields to light wooden ships on fire. After a few tests, the engineers declared that it is, in fact, possible! Granted, the results were not perfect. The MIT students, for example, found that direct sunlight was necessary as the shields were highly responsive to even minimal cloud coverage. Nevertheless, they showed that it was indeed possible to ignite wood with nothing more than the sun and some highly reflective metal shields. The same group collaborated with the team from Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters to perform another test. They were unable to produce the flash ignition that the initial MIT team created, although there was some burning, eventually causing a 10 in. hole in the boat.

Surely, these test results cannot be taken to mean that the story of Archimedes is true. However, they have convinced me that the Death Ray is not out of the realm of possibility.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Rome: A Civilization of Student-Athletes

As a student-athlete myself, I often hear the benefits of a fully rounded education, i.e. one involving athletics, touted. Members of the Athletic Department, coaches, sometimes even professors tell us of the great advantage we have, of the far superior education we are receiving by training not just our minds while at college but also our bodies.

I have always agreed with these sentiments. I certainly can see the life-long benefits of being an athlete; it is one of the reasons I made the decision to be a collegiate athlete. Commitment, discipline, loyalty, dedication, selflessness, leadership, the ability to put in an unbelievable amount of work for an often-distant goal. However, I always thought that the speeches I had heard in favor of athletics as a crucial part of becoming the best, most fully developed person one could be as somewhat weak. The sentiments were most often simply stated as fact and never fully explained. That’s why I was excited to read of a group that had finally gotten it right. The Romans.

In a particularly interesting section of The Conspiracy of Catiline, Sallust goes into detail about how Athens’ reputation benefited unduly from the presence of many great writers and how the Romans were, regardless, the superior civilization:

“But, assuredly, Fortune rules in all things. She makes everything famous or obscure rather from caprice than in conformity with truth. The exploits of the Athenians, as far as I can judge, were very great and glorious, yet something inferior to what fame has represented them. But because writers of great talent flourished there, the actions of the Athenians are celebrated over the world as the most splendid of achievements. Thus, the merit of those who have acted is estimated at the highest point to which illustrious intellects could exalt it in their writings.

But among the Romans there was never any such abundance of writers; for, with them, the most able men were the most actively employed. No one exercised the mind independently of the body; every man of ability chose to act rather than narrate, and was more desirous that his own merits should be celebrated by others, than that he himself should record theirs.” (emphasis my own) (The Conspiracy of Catiline:8)

What Sallust seems to me to be saying is spot-on. Only so much about life can be understood or appreciated through just observation and recording. At some point, you have to get out there and do something. This is where, if Sallust’s representation is to be believed, the Romans were very successful. Rather just sitting around in comfort and philosophizing about the state of the human soul like the Athenians, the Romans were constantly training their bodies, in addition to their minds, for war. They were traveling and conquering. They were not content to stay at home. They were insatiable.

Of course, I see the arrogance and ignorance inherent in this argument. The Athenians, lest the Romans forget, had an empire of their own; one that was not won by sitting around the Agora and talking. Also, this may very well be an idealized view of Roman culture, not taking into account the more practical and less idealized side of their position. And there is an obvious need for writers and historians in every culture. Otherwise why would I bother writing this blog at all?

However, these concerns must be set aside so the big picture can be seen. What the Romans are saying is that, without the body, the mind is not as strong as is could be. It is debatable to what extent this is true, but I would be willing to argue with anyone who says that one cannot learn invaluable life lessons on the racecourse or playing field. These are lessons that could never be taught in a classroom or read in a book. They are lessons that must be attained individually, through struggle, pain, triumph, and sometimes failure. Whether they come from the battlefield, as they did for the Romans, or from the racecourse, as they do for today’s athletic warriors, lessons learned from physical challenges are among, if not the, most important in life.

Train your mind. Train your body. Be insatiable. That is the lesson of the Romans.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dead Languages Not So Dead Here

True, it seems an unlikely pairing - a couple of dead languages with one of the newest, hippest forms of broadcasting, podcasts. However, the marriage is a welcome one, especially as I begin studying Latin for the first time this semester. At Haverford College's site Classics Podcasts you will find links to numerous audio files of spoken Greek and Latin, many of which can easily be downloaded right into your iTunes. There is something novel yet thrilling about hearing Cicero and Virgil spoken in their original tongue, and here you will find a plenty to listen to.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Persian War: A Battle of Wits

It is tempting to view the Greek victory in the Persian War as an achievement of superior power and fighting. However, this really wasn’t the case. The Greeks were victorious because they out-planned and out-thought the Persians, taking advantage of their own knowledge of the terrain and benefiting from Persians’ errors on the battlefield.

It is not up for debate who had the most obvious advantages going into the war; the Persian Empire was the largest and most powerful the world had known. There was a seemingly endless supply of human capital to fill the ranks of the Persian army. Furthermore, she enjoyed superior firepower compared to the Greeks, in terms of technology, their ships, for example, were faster, lighter, and more maneuverable than the Greeks’, as well as the sheer amount of firepower.

The Greeks, however, had some more important intangible advantages. First of all, they were fighting on and for their own homeland. They fought every battle knowing that a loss would bring the enemy that much closer to their own families and homes. The Greeks were fighting to save their own way of life. Additionally, the Greeks were fighting of their own accord. Because of the democratic structure of the city-states, the soldiers were fighting because they voted that this was the best course of action. This type of motivation can be a huge factor in the face of an enemy fighting simply because their despotic ruler sitting atop his throne on a nearby hilltop tells them to.

However, the real reason the Greeks won was their ability to engage the enemy at locations best suited for a Greek victory. The Greeks knew the terrain and they also knew their own militaristic limitations. This allowed them to choose battle sites that would minimize the advantages of the enemy. This was certainly the case at the battle of Salamis. The Greeks were aware of the superiority of the Persian fleet. Their ships were smaller and faster. The Greeks, on the other hand, were dealing with older, slower, less agile triremes. In order to make this as little of a factor as possible, they managed, through a little trickery on the part of Themistocles, to engage the Persians in the shallow bay of Salamis. By battling in such a shallow, closed-in area the speed and maneuverability of the Persian fleet was neutralized as best could be hoped for. They did not have to room to either get up to full speed or to take advantage of their full mobility. On top of that, the Persians, or at least the vast majority of them, were unable to swim. Essentially, once they were thrown overboard, they were as good as dead. So the Greeks didn’t necessarily have to destroy every enemy sailor, just get them off their ships. The Greeks, on the other hand, practiced quick turning and ramming maneuvers in preparations for just such a battle. In a smaller area, their slower speed never arose as a problem as no one had the room to get to full speed. Therefore, they were more prepared for a battle in such conditions because they chose them.

It is also interesting to look at the Battle of Thermopylae in such a light. Although the Greeks obviously lost the battle, it was only through a fortunate chance event for the Persians. Had Ephialtes not showed the Persians another way around the pass at Thermopylae they most likely would not have won. Up until that point, the Greeks were dominating the Persians, slaughtering the huge force as they funneled through the narrow pass. Once again, the Greeks, aware of the fact that they were vastly outnumbered, chose a location highly favorable to their smaller, more elite forces. The Persians’ size became a near non-factor as they had t0 squeeze through the Hot Gates. The Greeks were far more capable of picking off the Persian force one chariot at a time. This, again, is evidence of the Greeks’ cunning in making the most of a battle situation.

The Greeks were careful to draw the Persians into battle at locations where the Greeks were able to take advantage of their familiarity with the land and military forces involved. For this reason, it is valuable to look at the Persian War, not just as a battle of two great powers, but also as a battle of wits.

Friday, January 12, 2007

I always knew I liked Wikipedia....

A little something of interest: today's Featured Article on Wikipedia is on Alcibiades. An Ancient Greek who I find incredibly intriguing and a website I can't get enough of - doesn't get much better.

On another note: I am coming into reading week and exam time. So, as you might imagine, it's time to focus a little more on school work and a little less on my new pet blog. Posts may be a little less frequent for a bit, but don't worry, I'm not going anywhere.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Antigone: Family vs. Country

A fascinating debate from classical literature that rages on today is the question of who was in the right in Sophocles’ Antigone. Both Antigone and her uncle, the king of Thebes, Creon, believed that they were doing what was best – Antigone’s burial of her brother Polyneices and Creon’s refusal to and subsequent condemnation of his niece. Who was right?

It seems likely that even Sophocles’ audience would have been in conflict over which character made the correct decision. Both were acting according to the law they believed to be superior. Creon believed that since Polyneices was a traitor to Thebes (he had, after all, lead an army against his brother, King Eteocles) he deserved the punishment fitting of such a traitor. Antigone, quite to the contrary, believed that family loyalty takes precedence over everything, even the law of the land. She therefore had no choice but to bury her brother. When it comes down to it, this is a story of family versus country. Which demands our greater loyalty?

Sophocles makes the answer unclear. Both Antigone and Creon suffer horrible fates. Antigone loses her own life. Creon loses his niece and, consequently, his son and wife. It is debatable who suffers more in such a situation. However, I think the text seems to hint that Creon was in the wrong and that he was the one who suffered more when all was said and done. In the end, Creon decides that he must free Antigone; that she was not wholly in the wrong. He declares, “We must not wage a vain war with destiny;” deciding, “’tis best to keep the established laws, even to death’s end.” However, it is too late. By the time Antigone’s cave is opened, she has already hung herself. The tragedy of her death is magnified by the fact that Creon acknowledged the error of his judgment with almost enough time to save her, but it was just barely too late. To make things worse, Heamon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancĂ©, kills himself after finding his love hanging in the cave. These two incidents alone would be enough of a horror for Creon. But it is not yet over. Eurydice, the queen, upon hearing of the deaths of both her son and niece, quietly climbs to her room and she, too, commits suicide. Creon, thus, is left wholly alone at the end of the play, believing he is being severely punished for his wrongful condemnation of Antigone. She, on the other hand, accepts death. She has the ability to avoid it, if she were to but leave her brother’s body lying outside the city. However, she takes action, knowing full well the consequences. She never doubts herself, as seen in her address to her fallen brother, “And yet I have honored thee, as the wise will deem, rightly.” Antigone, at least, has the satisfaction of believing herself to have a death in sacrifice for her family. Creon, on the other hand, is left with nothing.

I know no answer can be provided with complete certainty, but I am curious to see what others have to say on the topic. Who was in the right? Who does the text itself point to as being correct, or at least more correct than the other?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wiki Classical Dictionary

Here's a good resource I recently came across: the Wiki Classical Dictionary. There looks to be a wide range of info here, 742 articles, although I haven't looked extensively myself. One problem seems to be that the wiki has not been updated since March 6, 2006. I think this kind of a site could be a great source of information if it were being continuously updated and expanded. Give it a look and see if you don't have some information to add yourself.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Un-Democratic? Or TOO Democratic?

First of all, I would like to thank all who have commented on this blog and encourage more to do so. This is exactly why I wanted to start Classics Reloaded. It is easy enough to sit around by yourself, coming up with ideas, tossing them around your own head, with no one to challenge or support you, then moving on. I was hoping that this would be a place for me to do more than that. This will be for me a testing ground of sorts for different ideas, theories, etc. that I may come across. Ideally, I want this to be a conversation. I am just starting off in the field of classics. I know I have a lot to learn. It is my hope that this blog will be a place for me to share my thoughts and receive criticisms and encouragement from you, the readers.

That being said, the most recent comments on my last two posts, both on democracy in Athens, have really got me thinking. As I read them over, I realized that I do indeed need to take a closer, more critical look at my own thoughts on this topic. I believe that I may have been too hasty in my judgments of Athenian democracy. I think that I may have come out too strongly in my posts against the Athenians, sounding as though I was certain of the undemocratic nature of Athens rather than accurately conveying the state that I was in – one of questioning and doubt. I believe that the events that I discussed were intriguing occurrences in a democracy and warrant a closer look. I do not, however, claim to have the answers.

Looking more closely at my issues with the cases of Alcibiades and Nicias, I realize now that it is not the democracticness, as you might say, of Athens that I should be questioning, but rather, perhaps, the fairness, or justness of the system. (I am still searching for the correct word here, for neither of these are quite accurate.) The problem may not be that Athens was not democratic enough, but rather quite the opposite, that it was too democratic. With the citizens having the right and expectation to vote on quite literally everything, there were no checks on the swings of public opinion. If there was a particularly persuasive orator speaking against Alcibiades, he would be put to death. Is this wrong? Not technically. If that is what the people want, then, in a pure democracy, that must be what happens. Morally, however, it is easy, hopefully obvious, to take issue with this possibility. This very well may be a flaw in the system. One that was remedied with modern democracies, beginning with America. This is precisely why today we have a republic, not a true democracy. The legislature and judiciary, in essence, are in place to protect us from ourselves. I believe the necessity for this protection can, at times, be seen in ancient Athens.

Again, this is a topic that requires far, far more discussion than what has already taken place. I hope that anyone who has anything to contribute will post a comment. As you can see, I may at times, be a little too hasty to post my thoughts on here. That’s when I hope you will call me out on it. The comments here have forced me to reconsider my opinions, to take a closer look at stories I already thought I understood and find a more convincing argument. Hopefully with more time and research, I will yet again fine-tune my opinion on this and other topics. We shall see...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

How Democratic Was Athens? (con’t)

This, of course, is a topic that could, and has been, expanded upon to a much greater extent than I can here. However, in this post, I will explore another incident in the Peloponnesian War which brings into question the fairness of Athenian democracy. I acknowledge there is a great deal more to say on this topic, and I intend to return to it in the future.

In war, it was not abnormal for Athenian generals to be tried and punished for crimes and shortcomings in war - they were always to provide a proper burial for the dead; they were never permitted to hit a soldier. These all seem like reasonable expectations for military leaders. However, you’d expect there to be a limit. You, being the Athenian people, can’t punish someone for doing something in you best interests but that you don’t like… right?

Apparently not. As the inevitable failure of the Sicilian Expedition became increasingly apparent, Nicias, one of the greatest generals Athens ever produced and the man responsible for the earlier Peace of Nicias, refused to retreat from Sicily out of fear of the Athenian people. His fellow general, Demosthenes, openly declared that it would be best for the Athenians to retreat. Even the soldiers were “crying out so loudly about their desperate position” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VII:48). It seems as though this would be an acceptable move. But Nicias disagreed.

The troublesome part of this story is that Nicias did not demand that the Athenians stay in Sicily because he believed it to be the best move militarily. Nor because he thought they had a better chance to win the battle. Indeed, according to Thucydides, Nicias agreed that “ their affairs were in a bad way.” He was, nevertheless, unwilling to leave. Nicias knew the Athenian people well – they would not approve of the withdrawal. He also knew what fate awaited him upon his return. “Hostile critics” would deliver speeches and reports to the Athenians “whose judgments would be swayed by any clever speech designed to create prejudice.” Even his own soldiers could not be counted on; regardless of how dire they agreed the situation was while in Sicily, they “would, as soon as they got to Athens, entirely change their tune and would say the generals had been bribed to betray them and return” (VII:48). Plutarch agrees, explaining that Nicias refused to retreat, “not because he underrated the Syracuseasn, but because he was still more afraid of the Athenian people and of the accusations and trials which would follow at home” (The Rise and Fall of Athens VII:22).

I find this to be not only disturbing but ineffective. This seems problematic to the idea of the great Athenian democracy. How fair is a government when one of its best generals is too afraid of the prejudiced condemnation of his fellow citizens to make the militaristic decisions which he believes to be best? How well run is an army when decisions are being made for any reason other than what will give the group the best chance of victory and/or survival? Nicias made a conscious decision that death at the hands of his enemy in a failed battle would be preferable to being “put to death on a disgraceful charge and by an unjust verdict of the Athenians” (VII:48). Nicias is described as “knowing the Athenian character.” If even he did not fully trust the constructs of the judicial system, I think it is safe to say that system was corrupt.

So, how fair is a system in which innocent leaders are liable to be put to death for making a unpopular but responsible decision? Not very, I would have to say.

Monday, December 18, 2006

How democratic was Athens?

Since I've known what Ancient Greece was, I've known that Athenian democracy is touted as the great predecessor of our own American democracy and of all democracies, to some extent, throughout the world. This is a fact often taken for granted in studying the ancient world. It is very easy to make comparisons between the U.S. and Athens.

However, as I am learning more about the form of democracy developed and employed at the height of Athenian power, I am become more and more suspicious that this system may not be all it is cracked up to be. There are the obvious undemocratic aspects of Athens, such as slavery and the political and social repression of women. I am willing to leave these out of the equation, given that America, too, was guilty of these same crimes for the better part of her existence.

Apart from this, however, I am finding things that make me wonder how democratic this place really was. Several instances in the Peloponnesian War are particularly questionable. Take the case of Alcibiades, for example. The night before the great (but doomed) Athenian expedition to Sicily was to launch all but one of the Hermea in the city were mutilated. The Hermea, podiums with the head of Hermes and a phallus, were located all throughout the city calling on the god for protection from evil. Such a sacrilege, particularly the night before such a crucial expedition, was seen as a very bad omen for the mission and a grave crime that had to be punished. Although it still remains uncertain who was responsible for the acts, Alcibiades was accused. (His actual guilt or innocence is irrelevant to the point I am making with this story.) According to Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades denied the charges but requested to stand trial before leaving for Sicily. He begged the citizens not to listen to his enemies in his absence but rather try and, if necessary, put him to death right there while he could still defend himself. He even acknowledged “how unwise it would be to send him out in command of such a large army with such serious accusations still hanging over his head” (VI: 29). This seems like a very level-headed and fair thing for a man in such a position to say. However, the Athenians, so worked up about their attack on Sicily, were willing to overlook this offense for the sack of the mission. The Athenians decided, then, it would be best not to hold up the army. Alcibiades would sail with them and return in a set number of days to stand trial.

Does this sound very democratic to you? Because of his position of military and social prominence, Alcibiades was allowed to avoid trial. Eventually, after fighting for some time with Sicily, Alcibiades, rather than returning to Athens for his trial at the appointed time, deserted. He ended up becoming a key advisor and strategist for none other than the Spartans. Even if he wasn’t the one who mutilated the Hermea, he’s still probably not the kind of guy you want leading your army into an expedition of such a size and importance of that of the one headed for Sicily. (He then deserted Sparta and returned to, yes, you guessed it, Athens. And (get this!) he was reinstated as a general! How’s that for democracy?) The fact that the popularity of Alcibiades, as well as the influence of his enemies who wanted more time to gather incriminating evidence, was capable of overruling law, a fairly serious, religious law at that, says to me that this “democracy” still had a long way to go.

In my next post, I will look into another incident from the expedition to Sicily that brings into question the democratic nature of Athens: Nicias’ fear of the Athenian public, therefore courts, and his subsequent unwillingness to surrender.