Historians Admit To Inventing Ancient Greeks

March 21, 2016 by

The Onion: October 7, 2010


Greek myth

Scholars apologize for attributing Western democracy to a make-believe civilization.

WASHINGTON—A group of leading historians held a press conference Monday at the National Geographic Society to announce they had “entirely fabricated” ancient Greece, a culture long thought to be the intellectual basis of Western civilization.

The group acknowledged that the idea of a sophisticated, flourishing society existing in Greece more than two millennia ago was a complete fiction created by a team of some two dozen historians, anthropologists, and classicists who worked nonstop between 1971 and 1974 to forge “Greek” documents and artifacts.

“Honestly, we never meant for things to go this far,” said Professor Gene Haddlebury, who has offered to resign his position as chair of Hellenic Studies at Georgetown University. “We were young and trying to advance our careers, so we just started making things up: Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Hippocrates, the lever and fulcrum, rhetoric, ethics, all the different kinds of columns—everything.”


Just one of the “ancient” artifacts dreamed up in a basement in Somerville, MA.

“Way more stuff than any one civilization could have come up with, obviously,” he added.

According to Haddlebury, the idea of inventing a wholly fraudulent ancient culture came about when he and other scholars realized they had no idea what had actually happened in Europe during the 800-year period before the Christian era.

Frustrated by the gap in the record, and finding archaeologists to be “not much help at all,” they took the problem to colleagues who were then scrambling to find a way to explain where things such as astronomy, cartography, and democracy had come from.

Within hours the greatest and most influential civilization of all time was born.

“One night someone made a joke about just taking all these ideas, lumping them together, and saying the Greeks had done it all 2,000 years ago,” Haddlebury said. “One thing led to another, and before you know it, we’re coming up with everything from the golden ratio to the Iliad.”

“That was a bitch to write, by the way,” he continued, referring to the epic poem believed to have laid the foundation for the Western literary tradition. “But it seemed to catch on.”

Around the same time, a curator at the Smithsonian reportedly asked for Haddlebury’s help: The museum had received a sizeable donation to create an exhibit on the ancient world but “really didn’t have a whole lot to put in there.” The historians immediately set to work, hastily falsifying evidence of a civilization that— complete with its own poets and philosophers, gods and heroes—would eventually become the centerpiece of schoolbooks, college educations, and the entire field of the humanities.

Emily Nguyen-Whiteman, one of the young academics who “pulled a month’s worth of all-nighters” working on the project, explained that the whole of ancient Greek architecture was based on buildings in Washington, D.C., including a bank across the street from the coffee shop where they met to “bat around ideas about mythology or whatever.”

“We picked Greece because we figured nobody would ever go there to check it out,” Nguyen-Whiteman said. “Have you ever seen the place? It’s a dump. It’s like an abandoned gravel pit infested with cats.”

She added, “Inevitably, though, people started looking around for some of this ‘ancient’ stuff, and next thing I know I’m stuck in Athens all summer building a goddamn Parthenon just to cover our tracks.”

Nguyen-Whiteman acknowledged she was also tasked with altering documents ranging from early Bibles to the writings of Thomas Jefferson to reflect a “Classical Greek” influence—a task that also included the creation, from scratch, of a language based on modern Greek that could pass as its ancient precursor.

Historians told reporters that some of the so-called Greek ideas were in fact borrowed from the Romans, stripped to their fundamentals, and then attributed to fictional Greek predecessors. But others they claimed as their own.

“Geometry? That was all Kevin,” said Haddlebury, referring to former graduate student Kevin Davenport. “Man, that kid was on fire in those days. They teach Davenportian geometry in high schools now, though of course they call it Euclidean.”

Sources confirmed that long hours and lack of sleep took their toll on Davenport, and after the lukewarm reception of his work on homoeroticism in Spartan military, he left the group.

In a statement expressing their “profound apologies” for misleading the world on the subject of antiquity for almost 40 years, the historians expressed hope that their work would survive on its own merits.

“It would be a shame to see humanity abandon achievements such as heliocentrism and the plays of Aeschylus just because of their origin,” the statement read in part. “Moreover, we have some rather disappointing things to tell you about the pyramids, the works of Leonardo da Vinci, penicillin, the Internet, the scientific method, movies, and dogs.”

No boobs, no booty for Iran prez on Rome visit

March 21, 2016 by

[CJ Hinke comments: It would be hard to imagine the President of Iran has not somehow, somewhere seen the naked female form. Similarly, a bottle of wine. If Italy and France are expected to respected Muslim sensibilities in Iran, surely Iranians must employ a similar open-mindedness. Censorship is like this: Don’t like it, don’t look! Don’t drink wine, well, just say no! Never mind: Daesh will put all those naked ancient statues out of their long misery!]

Anger in Italy after authorities cover up nude Roman statues of goddesses so as not to offend Iranian president

Hassan Rouhani is on a tour of Italy and France to drum up trade and diplomatic links after his country signed historic deal to limit its nuclear ambitions

Nick Squires, Rome

The Telegraph: January 26, 2016



Covered statues at the Capitoline Museums, during a visit from Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani (inset) [AP/Rex]


And in all her Venusian glory

Italy covered up marble statues of nude Roman goddesses in order to spare the blushes of the visiting president of Iran, who is on a visit to Europe to rebuild relations with the West after the recent deal on restricting its nuclear ambitions lifted years of economic sanctions.

With Italian businesses signing deals worth around 17 billion euros with Iranian companies, much was at stake and Rome was anxious not to offend the sensibilities of Hassan Rouhani.

But the decision to encase the statues of Venus and other female figures from antiquity prompted outrage from some commentators and politicians.

The act of self-censorship took place at the Capitoline Museums, one of Rome’s richest repositories of classical art, which the president visited with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister.

The offending statues lined a corridor along which the Iranian delegation passed before holding a press conference.


President Rouhani with Pope Francis at the Vatican

The president’s aides were also reportedly anxious that he not be photographed too close to a giant bronze statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback.

The Iranians objected to what one Italian newspaper delicately described as “the attributes” or genitalia of the huge horse, which dates from the second century AD.

At the function, wine was not served – again in deference to Iranian sensibilities.

“Italy bowing down to the Iranians like this is embarrassing,” said Daniele Capezzone, a centre-Right MP and a former spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia.

Covering up the statues added “a touch of the ridiculous” to the state visit, he said.

“Is Italy reduced to this? And to not serve wine, again so as not to ‘offend’?” he asked.


Protests against the visit took place in Rome’s Pantheon Square

Giorgia Meloni, the head of the centre-Right political party Fratelli d’Italia, joked about what the centre-Left government of Matteo Renzi might be planning for the next visit of a prominent Muslim leader, the emir of Qatar, who will arrive in Rome on Wednesday/today.

“We have to ask ourselves what Renzi has in mind for the arrival this week of the Emir of Qatar – covering St Peter’s in an enormous box?” she wrote on her Facebook page.

“The level of cultural subjection by Renzi and the Left has surpassed the limits of decency.”

Fabio Rampelli, an MP in the same party, said: “The decision to hide the statues offends Western culture. It is shameful and needs to be explained by the minister for cultural heritage.”

Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic and well-known TV personality, said only “ignorant goats” would have decided to hide the statues away.

“I don’t think President Rouhani would have been surprised to find there were nude statues in Rome,” he said.

Luca Squeri, from Forza Italia, another centre-Right party, called the move “overly zealous”.

He added: “Respect for others cultures should not mean denying our own. This is not respect, it’s submission.”

Giuseppe Musmarra, a political analyst, said: “Was there really a need for this humiliation?”

In an editorial for the Italian edition of the Huffington Post, he wrote: “Covering up the statues in the Capitoline Museum is to symbolically renounce our art and our culture and to abdicate every principle of secularism. It is the capitulation of a country. One can dialogue, and one must, but it needs to be done with dignity.”

The French have been less accommodating, at least on the issue of serving wine.


President Rouhani walks with the pontiff

After the Italy leg of his tour, president Rouhani will fly to Paris.

During planning for the trip in November, the Iranians asked that wine not be served at the Elysee Palace.

The request was reportedly rejected by French officials, who viewed the whole stand-off as “ridiculous”, according to Le Monde.

President Rouhani is in Rome along with a 120-strong delegation of Iranian ministers and business leaders.

On Tuesday he had a 40-minute meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, in which he asked the Argentinean pontiff to pray for him.

Francis thanked him for visiting the Vatican and added: “I hope for peace.”

The pair spoke about the recent nuclear accord, Iran’s role in the Middle East and the prospects for a peace deal in Syria.

Before arriving at the Vatican, President Rouhani told a forum of Italian business leaders that “Iran is the safest and most stable country of the entire region.”

Alexandria: How Christianity Destroyed The Pagan Culture Of The Hellenistic World

March 21, 2016 by

Gaither Stewart

CounterCurrents: March 9, 2016




The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD, illustration from ‘Hutchinsons History of the Nations’, c.1910 (litho), Dudley, Ambrose (fl. 1920s) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library [Public domain]

“To Certain People There Comes A Day When They Must Say The Great Yes Or The Great No…”

And if you can’t shape your life the way you want, at least try as much as you can not to degrade it…

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea….
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land-do not hope-
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world,…

The above are quotes from the work of The Poet of Alexandria, C.P. Cavafy (Konstantinos Kavafis, Constantino Kavafis, etc etc). I chose the order of these separate quotes.

I have long dreamed of the ancient city of Alexandria on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, only 1200 miles east-south-east of my home in Rome, and only 400 miles west of the city of Damascus. The two cities, once the conscience of humanity and conservatory of its finest accomplishments, have both been maimed or destroyed by zealous religious fundamentalists and western meddling in this distant world the West does not even try to understand. The two cities epitomize both the zenith of the sublimity of human genius and the nadir of human fanaticism. I personally would hope to see both before the last vestiges, the last disconnected fragments of what they once represented, cease to be forever.

Since I am no longer a roving correspondent, I have come to love engagement in this genre of essay-report on exotic subjects or places and the application of my findings to our common present. A few books and the miraculous resources of the internet and I faced the embarrassment of too much material from which to choose. With that minor handicap I will now bury myself in the ancient dream city of Alexandria that I feel chiefly from one brief overnight there and from Lawrence Durrell’s mysterious and romantic Alexandria Quartet set in the Alexandria of the 1940s.

“What is this city of ours? What is resumed in the word Alexandria? In a flash my mind’s eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today—and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either.”

Lawrence Durrell, Justine, book one of the Alexandria Quartet

Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was first ruled by Ptolemy, the son of a general of Alexander the Macedonian. As such, Alexandria became one of the world’s largest cities. The Ptolemaic dynasty lasted until the death of Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest of Egypt in the year 30. Even though historians have largely neglected that era (a period longer than the existence of the United States of America), Alexandria in that time became the capital of Egypt, its major port, and then the major center of the widespread Hellenistic civilization lasting for one thousand years, until the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641. Hellenistic Alexandria was best known in those times for the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos) one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After Constantinople, Byzantine Alexandria was the world’s finest and strongest city. It was also the home of the largest urban Jewish population in the world.

I have discussed here two major and interlocking phenomena: the Library of Alexandria founded by the Ptolemaic kings and the pernicious role of religion then as now. The fate of many books of antiquity—Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine—was decided in Alexandria by the greatest library of the ancient world, housed in a wondrous and unique building known as the Museum erected in the center of the city.

At enormous cost, effort and tenacity the Museum came to contain the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures before it succumbed to the ravages of man’s wars, religious fanaticism and time. A second part of the library’s collection was housed in an adjacent architectural marvel of the age, the Serapeon or Serapeum, which was the Temple of Jupiter or Serapis, for the city’s pagan population. According to later historians, “the Serapeon was second in magnificence only to the Capitol in Rome.” (Stephen Greenblatt)

“Five races, five languages, and a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only the demotic Greek seems to distinguish between them …. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body—for it has outstripped the body…..”

Lawrence Durrell, Justine

Ancient sources describe the Alexandrian Library as comprising a collection of scrolls stored in a hall known as bibliothekai on shelves made to hold papyrus scrolls. Allegedly a sign hung over the shelves reading “the place of the cure of the soul”. The Museum also had a dining room, meeting rooms, lecture halls and gardens, something like the typical American university campus.

The top scholars, scientists and poets of the ancient world who were brought to the intellectual Eden of Alexandria made some of humanity’s major advances: Archimedes discovered the pi, laying the foundation for calculus; Galen revolutionized medicine; Eratosthenes established that the earth was round and calculated its circumference within 1%; geographers realized it was possible to reach India by sailing west from Spain; geometers calculated that the year consisted of 365 ¼ days and proposed the leap year every four years; anatomists understood that the brain and nervous system were a unit. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, was produced in Alexandria.

While these scientific discoveries were changing human life, the Alexandrian Library became the most significant in the ancient world.

“Conceived and executed by the Ptolemaic kings in the Third Century BC, it functioned as a major center of scholarship in general, with its some half-million papyrus scrolls systematically organized, labeled, and shelved according to a clever new system: alphabetical order.”

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve.

Such histories of humanity’s attainments return like a truth teller’s tales, tailored for our minds and bodies especially today. It seems evident that just as we at some point in our lives must say the great yes or the great no, we must also consider stopping progress for a moment to rest and to recall, study and respect the importance in our lives of the attainments of former times.

And we must read, truly read. in order to understand our own reality for ourselves and that our reality is not what we are told it is. For that we need our books and learning and a kind of writing that iPhones or iPads cannot accommodate.

Umberto Eco noted that a book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. so the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion. History in general underlines the book’s fragility. And so it was with the great Alexandrian Library which according to some malevolent chroniclers was destroyed by Arab conquerors when Alexandria fell to Islamic armies from Arabia in the year 641. However, according to Philip K. Hitti in his History of the Arabs (perhaps the most authoritative of traditional Western historiography on the Arab peoples), “the story that by the Caliph’s order Amr for six months fed the numerous bath furnaces of the city with the volumes of the Alexandrian Library is one of those tales that make good fiction but bad history.” Hitti reports that in reality the great Ptolemaic Library was burnt as early as 48 BC by the Roman imperialist, Julius Caesar. The Daughter Library in the Serapeon was destroyed about AD 389 by edict of a mad neo-Christian fanatic, Emperor Theodosius. Therefore, at the time of the Arab conquest no library of importance existed in Alexandria.

Pagans, Christians and Jews had coexisted in polytheistic peace in early Ptolemaic Alexandria, until … until, as often in history, religion raised its ugly head in the fourth century after Emperor Constantine in Rome decided to make Christianity the official one-and-only religion of the empire. After centuries of religious pluralism in Alexandria, “Christians” rose up against the pagan worshipers of Mithras and the Roman deity, Jupiter and the Egyptian deities of Osiris and Apis, killing, spreading mayhem and destroying their places of worship.

The pagans responded in kind until they were subdued. Then the Christians turned on the Jews, attacking private homes and shops in a kind of Kristallnacht and demanding their expulsion from the city.

Religion had again carried out its mandate: Christianity’s victory over all other religions of the great city marked the downfall and then the death of Alexandrian intellectual life and tradition and contributed to the destruction of the great school of learning that was the Alexandrian Library, the Museum. It was victory of ignorant religion and fanaticism over progressive mankind, already 1700 years ago.

“And then in autumn the dry, palpitant air, harsh with static electricity, inflaming the body through its light clothing. The flesh coming alive, trying the bars of the prison. A drunken whore walks in the dark street at night, shedding snatches of songs like petals. Was it in this that Anthony heard the heart-numbing strains of the great music which persuaded him to surrender forever to the city he loved?”

Lawrence Durrell, Justine


So what happened to the books? What happened to the written testimonies of the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Jewish civilizations until that time? As a general background, keep in mind that throughout world history men and religions and ideologies have burned books to prove themselves right and others wrong.

A number of Rome writers—Cicero, Livio, Seneca, Plutarch et al—confirmed that the Library and 700,000 books were burned during Julius Caesar’s conquest of Alexandria in year 48. Other historians however doubt that the books of Alexandria disappeared all at once; otherwise such a horrendous destruction would have been more widely condemned. In any case, various soldiers at various time burned some of the books, literal bookworms destroyed others.

Yet the hostility to “pagan wisdom” of official warlike Christianity spreading through the Roman world (and not only) was so intense that other historians believe the newly converted Emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of Alexandria’s book treasures in 391.

Other ancient libraries suffered the same fate in that era of empires rising and falling during the transition from Paganism to Christianity. By the end of fourth century, Rome’s reported twenty-eight public libraries and many private collections no longer played a cultural role and people simply stopped reading. As the Roman Empire crumbled, culture vanished. The people had to be entertained, recited and sung to, while libraries disappeared. Christianity’s purge of the “dangerous” legacy of pagan or pre-Christian culture resulted in the destruction of education and learning as well as of its symbol: books. (Books offering pagan culture, after all!) After the disintegration of the Empire, the barbarians arrived and the books or rather parchments-papyrus scrolls that had survived perished in the chaos of wars and flames.

However, a few pockets of culture resisted. The nearly hidden and only with difficulty accessible monasteries founded in that epoch from Europe to the Middle East treasured the scrolls of pagan works; monks developed the art of copying by hand and conserving those major intellectual works some of which would then re-emerge after the dark period lasting almost until the Renaissance.


The burning of Alexandria’s books recalls the scene of the night of May 19, 1933 when thousands of people chanting Nazi oaths gathered on Opernplatz in the center of Berlin to watch Brown Shirts, SS and Hitler Youth burn some 25,000 “un-German” books. Propaganda Minister Goebbels intended this literary bonfire as a purification of the true German spirit, supposedly weakened by un-German ideas and intellectualism. “The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. From this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.” Burned in this carnage were books by seventy-five German and foreign authors, among whom were: Walter Benjamin, Bertold Brecht, Albert Einstein, Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Ernst Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Lenin, Jack London, Heinrich Klaus, Thomas Mann, Ludwig Marcuse, Karl Marx, John Dos Passos, Arthur Schnitzler, Leon Trotsky, HG Wells, Emile Zola and Stefan Zweig. Among the burned books were those of the great poet Heinrich Heine—a visionary in this case—who had written a century earlier in a play: “There where books are burned, in the end also people are burned.”

The earliest recorded book-burning is attributed to Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s order in 213 BC that all books of philosophy and history from anywhere other than Qin province in China be burned (and a large number of intellectuals buried alive). Then, the Ancient Greeks and Romans burned Jewish and Christian scriptures, and thirteenth-seventeenth century popes ordered the burning of the Talmud. The same happened to John Wycliffe’s works in the fifteenth and William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament in the sixteenth centuries.

A passage in the New Testament’s Book of Acts (Acts 19: 19-20) suggests Christian converts in Ephesus burned books of “curious arts”: “Many of them also which used curious acts brought their books together and burned them before all men….” The Spanish Inquisition burned five thousand Arabic manuscripts in Granada in 1499, and Spanish conquistadors burned all the sacred texts of the Maya in 1562. Luther’s translation of the Bible was burned in Catholic parts of Germany in the 1640s, and in the 1730s the Archbishop of Salzburg ordered the burning of every Protestant book and Bible that could be found. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s several American libraries burned the works of supposedly pro-Communist authors. Two twentieth century novels feature book-burnings by future authoritarian societies: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which book-burning becomes institutionalized in an anti-intellectual US much like today’s America, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where unapproved books are burned in a “memory hole”. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem burned copies of the New Testament in 1984; Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was ceremonially burned in 1988; BBC reported on a bonfire of Henry Potter books in the state of New Mexico, USA, burnt by people accusing the fictional boy wizard of being the devil. In Italy in 2008, conservative Christian Democrat city councillors burned on the main square of the town of Ceccano near Rome a copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code which they labeled “blasphemous” because it depicts Jesus and Mary Magdalene having a daughter which the Church has spent two thousand years trying to cover up.

To authority and to religions in general there is something satisfyingly symbolic about book-burning. It is more than just the censorship of beliefs and ideas. For a book is much more than a scroll of parchment or printed words on paper. It is the power of fire. More than just destruction. Goebbels recognized the power of this symbolism, as have tyrants and organized religions and ideologies of all time.

Authorities around the world, both secular and religious, have known since the Chinese Qin dynasty that book-burning is an act of peculiar potency. Hopefully, Pastor Terry Jones, leader of the now well-known Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, who planned to burn two hundred copies of the Koran, has learned how potent the book-burning act can be. Jones received death threats and President Barack Obama warned him of the consequences the pastor’s act may have had for US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, there’s an important difference between Pastor Jones’s plans and official book-burning such as those of the Nazis, says Richard Evans, professor of history at Cambridge and a specialist in German social and cultural history. While the book-burnings of 1933 were still largely symbolic, presaging the “mass violence, real and symbolic”. Jones’s International Burn-a-Koran Day is, on the other hand, an act of defiance and “quite clearly a symbolic attack on Islam as a whole”. Evans adds:

“Anyone who had tried to burn Mein Kampf in 1933 would have been arrested and shot”.

The seventeenth century poet, philosopher and political theorist, John Milton, (Paradise Lost) whose books were publicly burned in England and France, gives an excellent explanation of why authorities down the centuries have seen danger in certain books. “Anyone who kills a man,” Milton said, kills “a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself”.

Throughout history, says Matt Fishburn, author of Burning Books, (Palgrave Macmillan, UK) a chronicle of the phenomenon through the ages, most official book-burnings have been about “control” and to announce “what a regime stands for”. The Nazi burnings were, essentially, about announcing what would be acceptable in the future. In such cases to burn a book is to be a fascist. The burnings were the symbol; the repressive legislation that came in their wake was what really enforced it.”

More innocently, people have long lit celebratory bonfires to mark the end of one phase in their lives and the start of another…. But it is as an official means of suppressing dissenting or heretical views that book-burning has acquired its infamy.

Why the fire? Why burning rather than some other kind of destruction? The symbolism of flames is plain to Andrew Motion. The novelist and former poet laureate says “to burn (a book) of any kind, and certainly one that is a representation of a culture and a set of beliefs, is to appear to consign it to the flames of eternal damnation.” Book-burning, he says, is first and foremost a monumental “manifestation of intolerance. It’s the conflation of what ought to be nuanced views into one, hate-filled act.”


Book people will recognize and be grateful to those exceptional people of ancient Alexandria for mankind’s first attempt at the unification of various cultures and the preservation of the heritage that eventually passed down to us via the Renaissance beginning in Italy on the ruins of the Roman Empire.

One of the principle events of the second millennium was the printing press, introduced to the West by the German, Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. The books-scrolls, which survived the devastation of the Alexandrian Library, eventually made their way to join others preserved in the monasteries and private collections. They were then found by specialists-book hunters-copyists whose hand-written copies of surviving works by the Hellenistic-Roman greats thus reached the Gutenberg printing presses, igniting that great swerve in knowledge that was the Rinascimento or Renaissance.

“In the great quietness of the winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. In the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of sea-water, licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouth of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches—empty, forever empty under the circular flight of the seagulls.”

Lawrence Durrell, Justine

Gaither Stewart, based in Rome is a veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.

Lessons in participatory democracy – Roslyn Fuller

January 12, 2016 by

Delivering “people power”: lessons from ancient Athens

Roslyn Fuller

ROAR Magazine: January 10, 2016


If we really want to effect change, we need to empower people from below. Athenian democracy might give some ideas on how this could be achieved.

Take a straw poll of nearly any Western country and you’ll soon notice that a lot of people are unhappy. Neoliberal economics has brought skyrocketing inequality, a callous disregard for the claims of human dignity, a disintegrating social contract and a generation of millennials, the vast majority of whom will be more educated and work harder than their parents, but who will somehow still be worse off.

Yet for all of the injustices this generation has had to stomach, it hasn’t yet been able to sustain a viable counter-movement. Instead, we’ve seen loosely related threads rise, peak and fall away again: Occupy, Syriza — even the long-standing climate change movement tends to lose a little steam every time an international conference fails to deliver convincing results, as demonstrated most recently by the COP21 meeting in Paris this fall.

Part of the difficulty in sustaining the momentum for real change is doubtless down to demographics with the young, who have been hit hardest by austerity, outnumbered by more sheltered baby boomers.

However, I believe that the biggest reason popular movements seem to never-endingly coalesce and evaporate with little to show for it is due to our very conception of democracy.

It is a fundamental characteristic of the current political system that change — even immensely popular change — can only be achieved at great cost and with an enormous time lag. That trait is embedded in the very core of what we call democracy and it is why the odds appear to be stacked against radical movements for equality, regardless of the popularity they enjoy.


It’s no secret that over the past thirty years, Western society has fragmented, with traditional forms of collective activity replaced by atomized lifestyles that can only be sustained through hyper-vigilant self-reliance.

Instead of working unionized jobs, many millennials have been banished to the ranks of the precariat, working freelance or on contract without steady colleagues. Even those with good jobs are frequently pressured to jump from workplace to workplace or even from country to country on the quest to keep a foothold on the increasingly shaky corporate ladder.

Millennials are expected to change jobs nearly 20 times over their ‘careers’. In this social merry-go-round of ever rotating acquaintances and work colleagues, many people lack both community and financial stability. In other words, the social fabric that is key to facilitating sustained political action on the part of ordinary people is threadbare.

Keeping up momentum is more difficult when you are worried about where your next meal will come from and aren’t in any one place long enough to build trust with your peers. It’s no surprise that we are living this way; after all, social security was purposely eradicated via the aggressive deregulation and neo-liberalization of the past forty years.

The insecurities that deregulation has brought are so glaringly obvious that many choose to focus on bringing regulation back, especially those who remember how (comparatively) good things were when labor, business and trade were subject to a bit more red tape. The flaw in the ointment here is that under the current political system, one is only allowed to regulate after one wins an election.

To make matters worse, because some aspects of deregulation — like international trade liberalization — are subject to international agreements, meaningful change would really only be feasible under a high level of cooperation across many governments, which means winning several elections in close proximity to each other.

That is a difficult task, perhaps even impossible.


Much as we celebrate them, elections are a statistically flawed, deeply biased exercise that delivers but the crudest approximation of the popular will, and sometimes not even that.

Take the latest British elections as just one example. In what was heralded as a change in British politics, in which voters allegedly had more choice than ever before, the Conservative Party won 36.9 percent of the vote, 51 percent of seats in Parliament and 100 percent of all political power in the country.

Since voter turnout was only 66 percent, the Conservatives came to power on the back of a 24 percent popular vote. Yet the party has the right to make all rules for the entire country of Great Britain and every person in it for the next five years.

At the same election the British Labour Party increased its vote share by 1.5 percent yet lost 26 seats. This kind of whimsical result is fairly normal, and while first-past-the-post is definitely the worst electoral system, they all have their flaws – flaws that can be exploited by those in power.

Winning an election depends more on gaming the system to maximize seat gains with minimal votes than it does on winning genuine support. Tactical expertise, deep pockets, and the ability to gerrymander trump popular support more often than all but the most cynical would care to reflect on.

Even where popular movements manage to leap these hurdles and succeed at the polls, the chances of it being translated into the law of the land are still minimal. It is a critical weakness of elections that they confer power on only a few people, and it is easy to bribe, remove or otherwise reduce the efficacy of those people, provided one has the willpower and resources to conduct the kind of concerted campaign this requires.

The former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and US President Barack Obama are but two politicians who have been effectively sidelined from government despite having procured strong mandates from the electorate.

Agreeing to only effect change through the electoral system essentially dooms any poorly-resourced sector of society to failure, even if they represent the majority. At the very least, it sets the bar so high that the time lag between popular endorsement of reform and it actually being carried out can be measured in years, even decades.

It is difficult for the poorly-resourced to win elections, hard to carry out their platform if they do win, and nearly impossible, given today’s realities of workplace fragmentation and social instability, to build up pressure to force change between elections. However, for those with many resources at their disposal, it is easy to win elections (even without popular support), simple to ramrod legislation through, and child’s play to influence decision-making in between elections, primarily through direct, private meetings with government officials.

This all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: continuing to accept the legitimacy of the electoral system is tantamount to accepting the legitimacy of elite-only rule and the neoliberal economics it espouses, markedly increased social stratification and an end to any sort of pretense of equal opportunity.

If we really want to effect change, rather than playing the electoral game where we have been set up for failure, we need to empower people to affect politics under the prevailing, highly decentralized conditions. And oddly enough, going back in time – far back in time – gives some ideas on how this could be achieved.


When I first began researching democracy, it did not even occur to me to investigate how politics worked in ancient Athens. I simply assumed that democracy then was like “democracy” today. However, when I finally did begin examining this ancient society, I realized that the truth was much different.

The word demokratia meant “people power” in ancient Greece, and while Athens was far from a utopia — we all know their record on women’s liberties and slavery — the Athenians managed to organize their political landscape in a way that delivered a high degree of political equality and freedom among citizens — things we claim to want.

The Athenians achieved this by setting up institutions that made it easy for people to have an immediate and meaningful impact on public affairs. There was no glorious struggle for a peoples’ say in Athens — such things were institutionalized into the very fabric of government.

The two primary organs for this were the Assembly, where citizens met four times a month to pass laws and decrees, and the courts, which were staffed by randomly selected citizen jurors. The majority of civil posts were also held by randomly selected citizens working in panels, and elections were downsized to the absolutely necessary, for example, the selection of military strategists.

Participation was not seen as a privilege that needed to be earned, but as a duty to be compensated in cold, hard cash. As the prominent Athenian orator Pericles once put it: “we… consider the man who takes no part in public life not as one minding his own business, but rather a good for nothing.”

Funnily enough, we still shell out for the only form of participation for which we randomly select citizens today — jury duty. It’s a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that people from all walks of life are only able to participate when they must be compensated for their time. Aside from this one telling trait, however, Athenian democracy, even the knowledge of Athenian democracy, has nearly vanished.

That’s a shame, since the Athenian system dealt with corruption and bribery — two of the biggest problems with electoral democracy today — very effectively. In a society where no individual held power, political corruption was simply a conceptual non-starter. Athens also incorporated a link between citizen participation and decision-making that was highly accountable and — by today’s standards — virtually effortless.

An Athenian could have a proposal debated and decided on within a very short space of time simply by tabling it in the Assembly. He did not need to spend a substantial portion of his life protesting, petitioning, hiring a PR agency or otherwise trying to call attention to an issue. An Athenian might not always get the outcome he desired, of course, but getting the issue onto the public agenda wasn’t much of a challenge.

Even a group of people who were fragmented and lacked the resources to maintain a high level of organization over a long period — farmers scattered over a wide area, for example, or people with disparate backgrounds but similar political views — could come to Assembly and have their concerns heard and dealt with in a matter of hours.

Democracy in Athens was responsive because people held power, and it was harder to wear down popular opinion by throwing money against it. We can’t recreate Athens, of course, but we can learn from it.


While Athenian democracy can seem alien at first glance, it did allow the average person a level of political participation in a world that otherwise held little certainty, and we are already beginning to see some of Athens’ basic principles surfacing again. It is when these strands coalesce that we will get real change.

One element here are the randomly selected people’s assemblies that have been convened from Iceland to Australia over recent years.

In Ireland, the Constitutional Convention, composed of 33 political party members and 66 randomly selected citizens, passed recommendations for no less than 18 Constitutional amendments, including a recommendation for a referendum on same-sex marriage. After decades of political dilly-dallying, same-sex marriage was guaranteed constitutional protection with a vote of 62 percent in favor last May.

The Convention’s other recommendations, which included implementing social, cultural and economic rights, showed just how far ahead the average person was of the political establishment and what a high level of consensus could be achieved through direct debate.

Another strand in the movement towards an Athenian system is the re-introduction of pay for participation, for example through a basic income linked to a citizen’s participation. The costs of such a move are lower than one might think — most developed countries could easily cover pay for participation at rates comparable to Athens just with the funds recovered from tax evasion, and there is reason to believe that such a system could even be used to replace welfare entitlements at a lower total cost.

Yet a third strand of the resurfacing Athenianism is participatory budgeting, allowing people to choose specific projects to be funded by public revenues. Originating in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the 1990s, participatory budgeting is now in use from New York to Paris. The unwashed masses’ favorite projects? Education, road safety and providing access for the disabled.

Finally, there are the movements focused on enabling direct online participation. IServeU allows citizens to have a direct say in Councillor Rommel Silverio’s vote on Yellowknife City Council in Canada, while Loomio has been used to allow direct citizen participation on Wellington City Council in New Zealand. These online platforms allow people to debate directly with one another and to vote, lowering the costs of peer-to-peer debate by cutting out the expensive travel.

What all of these strands have in common, is that they create a hub for direct citizen engagement. People are no longer fragmented or isolated. They do not have to win the right to participate in decision-making. Instead, this is freely provided on an equal basis, and, in some cases, even enabled by providing the money that allows citizens to escape from time-poverty.

This turns the tables on traditional neoliberal politics and economics. Popular movements need no longer struggle to be heard against a tide of experienced, well-resourced elites, a circumstance which has eroded so much hope and enthusiasm for politics.

Instead participation becomes simple and easy, even under the current difficult conditions. People are empowered — and where people hold power, you have democracy.

[CJ Hinke:] And in case you’ve forgotten who fits the shoes:

Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

Tacitus, Agricola  [30]

They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west is able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. They ravage, butcher, steal, these they name empire. And where they make a desert, they call that peace.

Roslyn Fuller

Dr Roslyn Fuller, who has declared her candidacy in the forthcoming General Election

Dr Roslyn Fuller, who has declared her candidacy in the forthcoming General Election

Roslyn Fuller is a Research Fellow at the INSYTE Group at Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland and the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose (Zed Books, 2015). She will be running on a platform of digital direct democracy in the 2016 Irish general election.

Historians Claim Ancient Romans Visited Canada – David DeMar

January 12, 2016 by

David DeMar

New Historian: December 26, 2015



A team of historians have claimed that an island off the coast of Canada has artifacts dating back to a time when the Roman Empire still ruled Europe and the Mediterranean.

According to Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, lead historian on the research project, a treasure trove of Roman-era artifacts, including a head sculpture, a fragment of a shield, a handful of golden coins from ancient Carthage, a legionnaire’s whistle, and a Roman sword, was found in the wreck of a ship off the coastline of Oak Island, which itself sits off the southern shores of Nova Scotia, a 57-hectare privately-owned island in Lunenberg County.

The historian spoke to The Express newspaper, claiming that his new find constitutes “the single most important discovery” when it comes to the Western Hemisphere’s archaeological record, adding that it could result in history books being re-written completely.

North America was indeed visited much earlier than most people consider it to have been, as it has been established with relative certainty that Norse settlers led by Eric the Red inhabited a colony in what is known as Greenland today for several hundred years prior to Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage on behalf of the Spanish crown. However, the idea that the Romans – whose mariners were not known for vessels that strayed far from the sight of shore – would have been able to make a transatlantic voyage has left many archaeologists questioning the validity of this new find.

Despite this, Pulitzer has remained steadfast in his support of his ancient Roman mariner hypothesis. He insists the origin of the sword found in the wreck is “100 per cent confirmed” to be Roman. His determination was reached after using an XRF analyzer during his forensic investigation of the weapon. The device uses X-ray fluorescence to identify the thickness and the composition of the metal being studied. Pulitzer said that the composition of the sword is consistent with it being made from ore that matches the chemical makeup of similar weapons created in the Roman era.

In addition to the artifacts that Pulitzer insists are legitimate Roman-era items, he and his research team also report the discovery of burial mounds just offshore the island – mounds that the team says have been dated to the second century CE. According to the University of Wisconsin’s Professor James Scherz, the mounds discovered by Pulitzer are not consistent with Native American burial mounds but are instead similar to those found in both Ancient Europe and the Levant. Adding that he agreed with Pulitzer’s surmise that the mounds were not indigenous to Nova Scotia or other regions of North America, he opined that they could have been dug anytime between 1500 BCE to 180 CE based on known ocean level data for the time period.

Detractors from Pulitzer’s claims say that the ancient Roman artifacts may indeed be legitimate, but they could have easily been lost by a more modern collector.

Flea-bitten empire – Maev Kennedy

January 12, 2016 by

Flea-bitten empire: How the Romans left parasites, feces and disease in their wake

Maev Kennedy

The Guardian: January 7, 2016


GladStudy finds that despite hot baths and public lavatories, the Romans spread disease and parasites across the empire

What did the Romans ever do for us? Despite all the hot baths and smart multi-seat public lavatories, the surprising answer turns out to be lice, fleas, bed bugs, bacterial infections from contamination with human feces, and 25ft-long tapeworms, a misery spread across the empire by the Roman passion for fermented fish sauce.

“It seems likely that while Roman sanitation may not have made people any healthier, they would probably have smelled better,” said Piers Mitchell, an expert on ancient diseases at Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Mitchell found evidence for the tapeworms, previously associated with the taste for raw or pickled fish in Scandinavia, in countries where they had not been recorded before the Roman period. He believes the culprit was garum, the Romans’ ubiquitous fish sauce seasoning, which was made from fermented but uncooked fish.

Wrapped around the Romans’ intestines, he said, the parasites could remove nutrients from food before it could be digested, which could cause severe or even fatal anemia. Evidence from some Roman sites in Italy revealed that up to 80% of the child skeletons had evidence of severe anemia.

His research, published this week in the Journal of Parasitology, has gathered archaeological evidence — and fecal samples — from sites across the Roman world. His conclusion is that the civilized Romans may not have been any freer from disease than the barbarians they despised. The evidence is in their bones, in objects found at Roman sites, and in their cesspits. They were prey to bedbugs, pubic lice, fleas that may have spread the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, bacterial infections and intestinal parasites including whipworms, roundworms, and fish tapeworms, which their culinary fashions spread to countries where the infestations were previously unknown.

“The Romans are famous for their interest in and dramatic improvements in sanitation, with an emphasis on regular bathing, clean drinking water, public toilets and systematic removal of human waste from towns and cities,” Mitchell said. “Since we believe all these things improve human health, you would expect to find the evidence for this – but the evidence is at best equivocal, and in some cases worse than in the pre-Roman period.”

One of the problems may have been their most famous innovation: the often luxurious suites of public hot baths which were a feature of every major Roman settlement. Mitchell said that while the grandest were built with systems for renewing the water daily, in others the water was changed only intermittently, dependent on slaves with buckets to empty them, leaving the bathers swimming in a warm soup of bacteria and the eggs of parasites such as roundworm and whipworm. Comparison with some Viking sites suggests that the Romans were as lousy and flea-bitten as the Vikings, who did not have bath houses.

Although they introduced systems of cleaning and removing human waste, this was then spread on the fields surrounding the towns and cities, where it was an excellent soil fertilizer but could contaminate crops with bacteria and the eggs of parasites. “If the excrement had been composted for a year, that would have been sufficient to kill the parasite eggs – but they could not have known that,” he said.

The remains of fleas and lice have been found in fine combs at Roman sites, along with the eggs of parasites. Some would have made the sufferers miserably itchy; others could have killed them. Body lice could spread typhus. The plague of Justinian, which began in Constantinople in the 6th century and contributed to the decline of the eastern empire, is believed to have been a bubonic plague spread by fleas.

Roman physicians were aware of the problem of parasites, but some of the suggested remedies, including blood letting, would only have made the victims weaker.

Mitchell said his research had made him feel sympathetic towards the Romans, whose passion for hot water could not save them from infestation and illness. “I think my work in a hospital as well, where I still see many of the same conditions, has given me more empathy for these poor people than someone whose work is confined to a laboratory.”

Here Are All the Roads That Lead to Rome – Wired

December 22, 2015 by

Liz Stinson

Wired: December 14, 2015



ALL ROADS MIGHT not technically lead to Rome—but, if you happen to be in Europe, the majority of them do.

In a new infographic, designers Philipp Schmitt, Benedikt Groß, and Raphael Reimann set out to answer the centuries-old question of: Do all roads actually lead to the Italian capital?

To find the answer, the designers began by crunching some numbers. First they overlaid a 10,231,707 square-mile grid atop the whole of Europe, and divided it into 486,713 cells. Each cell represented a starting point for a journey beginning within that cell and ending in Rome.

Next, they used a routing engine called GraphHopper and highway data from Open Street Map to create an algorithm that calculated the fastest route between each of the 486,713 starting points and Rome, Italy—which route, Schmitt adds, was not always the most direct. In Norway and Sweden, for example, “you’ll notice that most routes join the biggest freeway at the Swedish east coast instead of driving directly south towards Rome.”

Once they’d mapped all the routes, Schmitt and his team combined their data to see which segments of highway were most heavily trafficked. The more often a given stretch of highway was used, the darker and more prominently it was drawn on the map.

The outcome is beautiful. Roads less traveled feed into high-density thoroughfares that snake through the continent like spider veins, growing thicker and thicker as the roads leading toward the Italian hub become less numerous and more direct. The resulting maps are a little like Nelson Miner’s All Rivers and Ben Fry’s All Roads projects, which use vector-like visualizations to make sense of a dense set of data.

The team decided to do the same for the United States, which is home to no fewer than 10 cities named “Rome.”

The US map is marked by smaller highways feeding into busy interstates like tributaries flowing into larger rivers. “As you may notice from that image, Romes in the US tend to be located more in the east,” says Schmitt. “Seeing this together with the route network led us to speculate about European settlement in the US.”

Given the fact that there’s a city named Rome (or Roma) on almost every continent, you could safely say: “All roads may not lead to Rome, Italy—but if you get creative with your route, many roads do eventually lead to some version of the city’s namesake.” It doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as “all roads lead to Rome,” but what it lacks in poetry it makes up for in pedantry.

The fall of Rome: First Goths, then Vandals, more Goths, and Gauling

November 26, 2015 by

Exploring the Origins of the Vandals, The Great Destroyers

Ancient Origins: October 24, 2015


‘Sack of Rome’ by Karl Briullov. (1833-1836) in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Public Domain)


The word vandal today may be defined as a person who deliberately destroys or damages property.  Historically speaking, a Vandal was “a member of a Germanic people who lived in the area south of the Baltic Sea between the Vistula and the Oder rivers, overran Gaul, Spain, and northern Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, and in 455 sacked Rome.” It is said that due to this infamous ‘sacking of Rome’ in 455 AD, the word ‘vandal’ was later used to describe people who destroyed or damaged property.

The Uncertain Origins of the Vandals

Little is known about the early history of the Vandals. It has been speculated that the Vandals originated in Scandinavia (in central Sweden, there is a parish called Vendel which may be related), migrated southwards into the region of Silesia, and eventually came into contact with the Romans.

The first literary reference to this group of people by the Romans can be found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. According to this writer, the Vandals, or Vandili, were one of the five groups of Germanic peoples, and consisted of several smaller tribes:

“There are five German races; the Vandili, parts of whom are the Burgundiones, the Varini, the Carini, and the Gutones.”

Other writers, such as Tacitus and Ptolemy also mentioned the Vandals, though they used the term Lugii instead. Like Pliny, however, such comments of the Vandals were made in passing only. Therefore, even from the available literary sources, there is not much that can be said about the Vandals’ early history.

The Romans and Vandals Make a Tentative Peace

The next important reference to the Vandals may be found in Cassius Dio’s Roman History. In his work, Dio mentions that during the Marcomannic Wars (166 – 180 AD), a tribe known as the Astingi (identified by some as the Vandals) entered Dacia, and offered their allegiance to the Roman Empire:

The Astingi, led by their chieftains Raüs and Raptus, came into Dacia with their entire households, hoping to secure both money and land in return for their alliance.

Yet their offer was rejected, and after conquering the Costoboci, they began to ravage the Roman province of Dacia. Their success did not last, and after being decisively beaten by the Lacringi, the Astingi ceased their hostility against the Romans, and sent supplications to the emperor:

“As a result, the Astingi committed no further acts of hostility against the Romans, but in response to urgent supplications addressed to Marcus they received from him both money and the privilege of asking for land in case they should inflict some injury upon those who were then fighting against him.”

The Vandals VS the Goths

After this episode, the Vandals disappeared into obscurity again, and only reappeared in Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. In this 6th century AD work, the Vandals are said to have come into conflict with the Goths during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. After being defeated in battle by the Goths, the Vandals migrated into Pannonia:

“Then the remnant of the Vandals who had escaped, collecting a band of their unwarlike folk, left their ill-fated country and asked the Emperor Constantine for Pannonia. Here they made their home for about sixty years and obeyed the commands of the emperors like subjects. A long time afterward they were summoned thence by Stilicho, Master of the Soldiery, Ex-Consul and Patrician, and took possession of Gaul. Here they plundered their neighbors and had no settled place of abode.” 


Modern bronze statue of the Emperor Constantine in York, England. The Vandals asked Constantine to stay in Pannonia when they escaped the Goths. (CC BY SA 2.0)

Jordanes goes on to write about the Vandals’ journey into Gaul and Spain during the reign of Emperor Honorius (393 – 423 AD),

“Now the Vandals and the Alani, as we have said before, had been dwelling in both Pannonias by permission of the Roman Emperors. Yet fearing they would not be safe even here if the Goths should return, they crossed over into Gaul. But no long time after they had taken possession of Gaul they fled thence and shut themselves up in Spain,”

The Vandals Move on to North Africa

The next stop for the Vandals was Africa. According to Jordanes, the Vandal king Gaiseric was invited to North Africa by Boniface, the Roman general and governor of the Diocese of Africa. The motive for this, according to the writer, was that the governor “had fallen into a dispute with the Emperor Valentinian and was able to obtain revenge only by injuring the empire.”


Invasions of the Roman Empire with the Vandals movements shown in blue. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is rumored that the Vandals treated their Catholic subjects more harshly than the other German peoples, perhaps due to their adoption of Arian Christianity. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that this was not always the case, as Catholics were treated well, for instance, during GaIseric’s reign when he was on good terms with Rome and Constantinople, during the early part of his successor’s (Huneric) reign, and during the reign of Gunthamund, Huneric’s successor.

Vandal control of North Africa only came to an end during the reign of the Byzantine emperor, Justinian the Great, about a century later.

When the Vandals Went to Rome…

The infamous sack of Rome in 455 AD took place during the reign of Gaiseric. Jordanes wrote about this episode briefly:

“…the Emperor Valentinian was slain by the treachery of Maximus, and Maximus himself, like a tyrant, usurped the rule. Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, heard of this and came from Africa to Italy with ships of war, entered Rome and laid it waste. Maximus fled and was slain by a certain Ursus, a Roman soldier.”  


Siliqua of the Vandal King Gaiseric, circa 400 AD. (Public Domain)

Another author, Procopius, reported that the Vandals came to Rome due to the request of Valentinian’s widow, Eudoxia:

“Later on Maximus slew the emperor with no trouble and secured the tyranny, and he married Eudoxia by force… she sent to Carthage entreating Gizeric (Gaiseric) to avenge Valentinian, who had been destroyed by an unholy man, in a manner unworthy both of himself and of his imperial station, and to deliver her, since she was suffering unholy treatment at the hand of the tyrant.”

Gaiseric, however, was said to only be interested in the plunder that was to be had: “And Gizeric, for no other reason than that he suspected that much money would come to him, set sail for Italy with a great fleet.” With regards to the plunder, Procopius wrote:

“… placing an exceedingly great amount of gold and other imperial treasure in his ships sailed to Carthage, having spared neither bronze nor anything else whatsoever in the palace. He plundered also the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and tore off half of the roof. Now this roof was of bronze of the finest quality, and since gold was laid over it exceedingly thick, it shone as a magnificent and wonderful spectacle.”

Pope Leo Interceded and Gaiseric Appeased Him

It has been claimed that the Vandal sacking of Rome could have been much worse if it were not for the intercession of Pope Leo. According to a popular account, when Gaiseric arrived before the walls of Rome, the Pope was sent to meet him and to plead for mercy. Leo, it is said, told the king that he was free to plunder the city, but neither to damage the buildings, nor to harm the inhabitants, to which Gaiseric agreed.


Pope Leo pleads with Gaiseric for mercy. From Augustine, La Cité de Dieu (Vol. I) (1475) (Public Domain)

One possible reason for Gaiseric’s assent to the Pope’s request was that he did not want to undertake a prolonged siege of the city as there was a famine in Italy, and the city’s walls were still formidable.

It is unclear as to how far this story is true, and if Gaiseric kept his promise. Thus, whether the Vandals deserve all of their negative reputation today may still be a matter of debate…


By Ḏḥwty


Adam, B., 2015. History of the Vandals. [Online]

Available at: http://www.roman-empire.net/articles/article-016.html

Cassius Dio, Roman History [Online]

[Cary, E. (trans.), 1914-27. Cassius Dio’s Roman History.]

Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/home.html

Jarus, O., 2014. Who Were the Vandals?. [Online]

Available at: http://www.livescience.com/46150-vandals.html

Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths [Online]

[Mierow, C.C. (trans.), 1908. Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths.]

Available at: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~vandersp/Courses/texts/jordgeti.html

Löffler, K., 1912. Vandals. [Online]

Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15268b.htm

Mark, J. J., 2014. Vandals. [Online]

Available at: http://www.ancient.eu/Vandals/

Merriam-Webster, 2015. Vandal. [Online]

Available at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vandal

Pliny the Elder, Natural History [Online]

[Bostock, J., Riley, H. T. (trans.), 1917-32. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.]

Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137

Procopius, History of the Wars, Books III and IV (of 8): The Vandalic War [Online]

[Dewing, H. B. (trans.), 1916. Procopius’ History of the Wars, Books III and IV (of 8): The Vandalic War.]

Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16765/16765-h/16765-h.htm

King Alaric’s Famous Sacking of Rome

November 26, 2015 by




Alaric entering Athens. (Public Domain)

King Alaric: His Famous Sacking of Rome and Secretive Burial

Ancient Origins November 21, 2015


The Sack of Rome in 410 AD by the Visigoths is often regarded as an event that marked the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire. The man responsible for the second sacking of Rome (the first had occurred 800 years ago in 390 BC, and was carried out by the Gauls under their leader Brennus) was Alaric, the first king of the Visigoths.

It has been said, however, that Alaric had no intention of conquering Rome, and actually sought to negotiate peacefully. This was done in spite of, or as a means of, avoiding the prophecy which stated that Alaric would control Rome. In Claudian’s poem, The Gothic War, these words are placed in Alaric’s mouth:

“The gods, too, urge me on. Not for me are dreams or birds but the clear cry uttered openly from the sacred grove: ‘Away with delay, Alaric; boldly cross the Italian Alps this year and thou shalt reach the city.’ Thus far the path is mine. Who so cowardly as to dally after this encouragement or to hesitate to obey the call of Heaven?”

Alaric’s Rise to Kingship

Little is known about Alaric’s early life, although this Visigoth king is thought to have been born around 360 AD. Alaric is also said to have belonged to the family of the Balthi, whose nobility, according to the historian Jordanes was “second only to that of the Amali.” Jordanes also mentions that Alaric was appointed as the king of the Visigoths after the death of the Roman emperor Theodosius I, i.e. 395 AD, due to the increasing contempt of the Romans for the Goths and “for fear their (the Goths) valor would be destroyed by long peace.”


Steel engraving of a young Alaric I. (Public Domain)

The death of Theodosius also marked the end of the peace brokered between the Romans and the Goths. Nevertheless, according to the historian Orosius, Alaric had also sought to make peace with the Romans, as well as to obtain some place for his people to settle in. Alaric allegedly intended to bring his people into an alliance with the Western Roman Empire against the Eastern Roman Empire as well. None of these wishes were granted.

Alaric and the Roman General Stilicho

As a result, Alaric decided to invade Italy, although he was repelled thanks to an able general Stilicho. This general was appointed by the previous emperor, Theodosius, as regent for Honorius, his underage son.

However, in 408 AD Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, as there were rumors that the general was plotting to put his own son on the throne of the Western Roman Empire – with the help of Alaric and his Visigoths.


Carving of General Stilicho with his wife Serena and his son Eucherius.

The death of Stilicho weakened the military might of the Western Roman Empire considerably.

Furthermore, Alaric’s army, according to the historian Zosimus, was strengthened when 30,000 Gothic soldiers who were serving in the Roman army defected to the Visigoths. It has been claimed that this mass defection happened as the result of an order given by Olympius, a Roman minister, for the massacre of these soldiers’ wives and children. This same minister has also been blamed for the downfall of Stilicho.

The Germanic people eventually turned the tables and began attacking the Romans on Roman soil, even the city of Rome itself. In 410 AD the Visigoths sacked Rome; in 455 the Vandals did; and then in 546 the Ostrogoths sacked the Roman capital. The Gauls, another people the Romans had conquered, had gotten in on the sack action earlier in Rome, in 390 AD.

When historians use the term “sack” they mean the invaders raped and killed, took slaves and hostages and pillaged anything they could get their hands on. That said, the invading barbarians did not commit a wholesale slaughter of the city’s residents.

A Siege on Rome

Alaric invaded Italy for the second time, sacked a number of cities, and stood before the walls of Rome towards the end of 408 AD. He decided to blockade the city, and relied on hunger and disease to force its citizens to surrender. In the meantime, the emperor and his court were in Ravenna (the capital of the Western Roman Empire since 402 AD), and were not directly affected by Alaric’s siege, thus they did little to help the inhabitants of Rome.

In 409 AD, the siege eased when Rome’s inhabitants agreed to pay a ransom to Alaric and his men. According to Zosimus’ account:

“After long discussions on both sides, it was at length agreed, that the city should give five thousand pounds of gold, and thirty thousand of silver, four thousand silk robes, three thousand scarlet fleeces, and three thousand pounds of pepper.”

For three days, the Goths plundered the city, ransacking buildings, including homes of the wealthy, the treasury, and the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian. Alaric was said to have left the city with wagons containing two tons of gold and thirteen tons of silver.

Additionally, Alaric was able to raise a puppet emperor, a senator named Priscus Attalus, in Rome, so as to put more pressure on Honorius.


Coin from 409-410 AD depicting Priscus Attalus, King Alaric’s “puppet emperor.”

The ancient sources, apart from Zosimus, do not provide us with much information regarding the events that happened between the first and second sieges of Rome by Alaric.

Jordanes’ account for instance, places the sacking of Rome immediately after the destruction of Stilicho’s army, which was sent to ambush Alaric and his men in Pollentia.

Zosimus, on the other hand, provides a detailed report of the events happening during this period. For example, on one occasion, 6000 soldiers, who were quartered in Dalmatia, were ordered by Honorius to come and guard the city of Rome. Their general Valens felt that it was cowardly to “march by a way that was not guarded by the enemy” and was attacked by Alaric, which reduced the former’s army to about a hundred men. Unsettled negotiations between Honorius and Alaric continued for some time, but eventually they reached a dead-end.


Undressed for a sack: The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 by J-N Sylvestre, 1890 (Public domain) [Note to self: Always pull down the statues first!]

The Second Attack by Alaric on Rome

In 410 AD, Alaric attacked Rome for the second time.

Unfortunately, Zosimus’ work has not survived in its entirety, and Alaric’s sack of Rome, which is said to be the last part of Zosimus’ work, is now lost.

An extract taken from a Renaissance writer suggests that Alaric besieged Rome for two years, and finally used a ‘Trojan Horse’ tactic to take the city. Instead of a giant wooden horse, however, the gift of the Visigoths was “three hundred young men of great strength and courage, whom they bestowed on the Roman nobility as a present,” before pretending to return home.

Much focus has been placed on the Visigoths’ conduct during the sacking of Rome. Jordanes, for example, wrote that, “by Alaric’s express command they merely sacked it and did not set the city on fire, as wild peoples usually do, nor did they permit serious damage to be done to the holy places.”


“The Sack of Rome” in 410. By Évariste-Vital Luminais. (Public Domain)

 This is also echoed in Orosius’ writing, in which Alaric is presented as a pious Christian king. One fantastic tale in Orosius’ account is the encounter of a Visigoths with an elderly virgin, who turned out to be the keeper of the sacred vessels of the Apostle Peter. When Alaric heard of this, he had these vessels brought back to the basilica of St. Peter, and even allowed the virgin and other Christians to join the procession if they wished to do so.

The Secret of King Alaric’s Burial and Treasure

Alaric died in 411 AD, several months after sacking Rome. The following story of Alaric’s burial comes from Jordanes’ account:

“His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus [Busento] near the city of Consentia – for this stream flows with its wholesome waters from the foot of a mountain near that city – they led a band of captives into the midst of its bed to dig out a place for his grave. In the depths of this pit they buried Alaric, together with many treasures, and then turned the waters back into their channel. And that none might ever know the place, they put to death all the diggers.”


Illustration of the burial of Alaric in the bed of the Busento river. (1895)

By Heinrich Leutemann. (Public Domain)

The immense wealth that many scholars believe was placed alongside King Alaric has provoked various treasure hunts over the years. Some of the famous treasure seekers of the past include the writer and adventurer Alexandre Dumas and the Nazis Adolph Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Despite their best efforts, none to date are said to have found the location of King Alaric’s burial, although the recent commissioning of a team of archaeologists by the town of Cosenza may finally bring King Alaric’s loot to light.

By: Ḏḥwty


Cavendish, R., 2010. The Visigoths sack Rome. [Online]

Available at: http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/visigoths-sack-rome

Claudian, The Gothic War [Online]

[Platnauer, M. (trans.), 1922. Claudian’s The Gothic War.]

Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian/De_Bello_Gothico*.html

Gill, N. S., 2015. Alaric King of the Visigoths and the Sack of Rome in A.D. 410. [Online]

Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/alaricthevisigoth/a/AlaricSackRome.htm

Heather, P., 2011. Rome’s Greatest Enemies Gallery: Alaric. [Online]

Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/enemiesrome_gallery_01.shtml

Jarus, O., 2014. Who Were the Ancient Goths?. [Online]

Available at: http://www.livescience.com/45948-ancient-goths.html

Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths [Online]

[Mierow, C. C. (trans.), 1908. Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths.]

Available at: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~vandersp/Courses/texts/jordgeti.html

Paulus Orosius, A History, Against the Pagan: Book 7 [Online]

[Anon. (trans.), ?. Paulus Orosius’ A History, Against the Pagans: Book 7.]

Available at: https://sites.google.com/site/demontortoise2000/orosius_book7

Wasson, D. L., 2014. Alaric. [Online]

Available at: http://www.ancient.eu/Alaric/

Zosimus, New History: Book 5 [Online]

[Anon. (trans.), 1814. Zosimus’ New History: Book 5.]

Available at: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/zosimus05_book5.htm

Zosimus, New History: Book 6 [Online]

[Anon. (trans.), 1814. Zosimus’ New History: Book 6.]

Available at: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/zosimus06_book6.htm







Like so NOT Goth!

Socrates? Aristophanes? Kenneth John Freeman!

November 23, 2015 by

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Socrates as Written by Aristophanes

Although a quote any of us with teenaged children or students can relate to, no less fascinating is its misattribution!

It was actually written by Cambridge doctoral candidate, Kenneth John Freeman, in 1907 to broadly summarise complaints toward young people in the ancient world.


What’s that quote? “The more things change, the more they stay the same”!