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The Myth Of Sisyphus And Lessons In Absurdity

by on July 20, 2018

By Van Bryan
The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Nonetheless he would fall out of favor with the gods of ancient Greece. He was taken to the kingdom of the underworld and was forced to endure one of the most pointless and excruciating punishments of ancient mythology. Everyday he would carry a massive boulder up a mountain, straining and sweating all the while. When Sisyphus reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would immediately roll back down the hill in a matter of moments. Sisyphus would then make his tired march down the hill where he would start this task over again. It is said that Sisyphus would be forced to endure this for all of time, performing a pointless, tired task until the end of existence.
Myth of Sisyphus

Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

What did Sisyphus do to anger the gods? There are several different accounts. The one that Albert Camus seems to favor in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, involves Sisyphus testing his wife’s devotion and love as he nears death. According to the story, Sisyphus asks his wife that, upon his death, she cast his unburied body into the town square. When Sisyphus dies he wakes up in the underworld only to find that his wife has indeed fulfilled his request. Sisyphus is angered that his wife would choose strict obedience to his word, rather than devoted love to his memory and dignity. Sisyphus is deeply troubled and (for reasons I don’t understand personally) asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he might scold his wife.
It would seem that Sisyphus’ wife is truly the tragic hero in this story, having followed her husbands request she is promptly confronted with a newly resurrected Sisyphus who scolds her for only doing as he asked. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but stick with me on this one. After Sisyphus returns to the mortal world he quickly decides that he does not wish to return to the underworld. He learns to love the trees, the cool oceans, and the feel of warm stone under his feet. He wishes to stay and so betrays Hades by refusing to return. It is only after Hermes swiftly captures the newly freed man, does Sisyphus return to the land of the dead. And there his boulder is waiting for him.
Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1913. Only one year later, his father would be killed in World War I. Camus was raised by his mother in extreme poverty. At the age of 25, Camus traveled to France where he would develop into a highly successful author and existential philosopher. He was involved with the French resistance during the Occupation of Paris during World War II. Editing and writing many underground newspapers during this time, Camus would attempt to undermine the Nazi control of Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, only to die tragically in a car crash three years later.
Photo of Albert Camus

Albert Camus

In The Myth Of Sisyphus, his first essay published in 1942, Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus as a corner stone on which to build his unique school of existential thought. Following some of the teachings of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Camus’ philosophy would later become known as Absurdism. Absurdism teaches that human beings struggle with an internal, never ending quest for purpose and fulfillment in life. This search for purpose is in direct conflict with the apparent purposelessness of the universe. Struggling to find meaning in a universe devoid of any is at the heart of the human condition, a condition that tortures us the more we fight against it.
“The Absurd” is the feeling that Camus describes when we are forced to confront the apparent meaninglessness of our existence. It is the uneasy realization that all purpose we may believe we have does not exist out there in the universe, but only in our own hearts and minds. And so life is an endless struggle to perform tasks that are essentially meaningless; we are born into this world, we fight vainly for understanding, and we are eventually sealed away by death.
It is not hard to see how Camus would find inspiration for this thinking from the myth of Sisyphus. The unfortunate mortal is unduly bound to his boulder. He will suffer for all eternity, straining all the while to perform a task that serves no purpose and inevitably must be repeated. It is this realization that would prompt a human being to tackle what Albert Camus considers the most important philosophical question. He poses this fundamental problem, rather bluntly, within the first few lines of his essay…
“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” -Albert Camus (The Myth Of Sisyphus)
Photo of the philosopher Camus

Albert Camus

It is important to remember that Camus is not necessarily advocating suicide, but he does admit to consider it, at least partially, to be justified when faced with the absurdity of life. Camus writes that any healthy man is capable of considering the possibility of suicide, even if he never acts on it. And much like Hamlet when he muses “to be or not to be…”, Albert Camus makes an eloquent consideration for the prospects of taking ones own life. Camus writes that he is not so interested in the observation of the absurd, but rather the consequences of realizing it. He explains that we can either ignore the absurd, continue to search for meaning in vain, or reject the absurd and rebel against the purposelessness of the universe. In his own words…
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” -Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)
Despite how it may appear, and this is the important part, The Myth of Sisyphus is not the musings of a mad man bent on self destruction. It is instead a manual for happiness. Camus tells us that as the boulder rolls back down the hill, Sisyphus must slowly descend to retrieve the rock to repeat his punishment. It is at this moment that he reflects on his punishment, much like the human being must become conscious of the absurd predicament of life. And yet it is in this moment of self reflection that we are happiest. By accepting the absurd we can likewise accept the fact that life is meaningless, and it is at this time that we are capable of living fully.
Our lives become a constant revolt against the meaninglessness of the universe and we can finally live freely. All at once the universe is quieted, the gods that might wish to control us cease to exist. Our lives become our lives alone, not dictated by any outside force. Our fate becomes a human matter that can only be settled among men.
Shakespeare quote

To be or not to be…

To accentuate this point, Camus retells the horrors of Oedipus. A man who tried to outrun fate, he inadvertently falls prey to it. It is only near his final hours, when he is blind and broken, does he cry out “…all is well”. Oedipus has accepted his condition, accepted his actions as his own. And he is free. Camus points to this as the recipe for victory for the absurd hero. He writes… “Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism”.
The legend of Sisyphus would appear tragic. A man condemned to struggle eternally, he never accomplishes anything of value. The philosopher Albert Camus would tell us that, much like Sisyphus, our lives are devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Our struggle to find purpose that does not exist is the root of human despair. It is only when we accept the absurdity of life, only when we rebel against the meaninglessness of the universe, do we truly become free. Life is lived all the better if it has no purpose. We become captains of our own ships, authors of our own story. And it is only at our most fragile, most uncertain times that we may say ‘All is well’…

The Wholly Spirit of Aristotle

by on July 18, 2018

by Ben Potter
When considering the origins of Western philosophy there is a clear, almost indisputable holy trinity which gave birth to a dynasty of thought that is still with us to this day.
Whilst Socrates was certainly the father and Plato undeniably the son, it was Aristotle who exuded a ‘wholly’ spirit.
He was complete and comprehensive in the sense that, unlike his forerunners, he was no mere philosopher, but also wrote extensively on physics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, biology and zoology.
He was, more than any other individual, responsible for shaping the European mind; and by extension, the minds of those in the Americas and Antipodes.
Indeed, it is impossible to deny that Aristotle gave the world an academic cornucopia that was so varied and detailed that some of his assertions were only finally being corroborated, or in fact refuted, in the 19th century, over 2000 years after his death.
Of the trinity only Aristotle, unlike Socrates and Plato, was not an Athenian. His association with Athens only began in his 18th year when he enrolled as a student at Plato’s Academy.
However, it is difficult to accurately speculate about his education prior to this.
His father was a physician at the court of King Amyntas II of Macedonia, making it likely that Aristotle, between his birth in 384 BC and his migration to Athens in 367 BC, would have spent some part of his childhood in these auspicious circles.
Also, it’s hard to imagine he was quite so precocious that he would have been able to slot so neatly into life at Plato’s Academy without at least some degree of formal education.
Regardless of his level of ignorance or brilliance when he entered the Academy, over the next 20 years he managed to establish himself as Plato’s protégée; learning from, but by no means kowtowing to, the elder thinker.
Much has been made of Aristotle’s departure from Plato, with some saying that the younger man rebelled against or even betrayed his tutor with the evolution of his philosophy. However, there is too much consensus and similarity between them to be quite so dramatic; evolution is a far more appropriate term than rebellion.
Indeed, Aristotle only left the Academy when its founder died in 347 BC and the reins of power were transferred to Plato’s nephew, Speusippus.
But why did Aristotle leave?
Was he unhappy at the direction in which Speusippus was taking the Academy? Was he irked by being overlooked for the top job? Or was his concern the amount of anti-Macedonian sentiment rising up in the city which was lazily misdirected toward him, despite the fact that there was nothing to suggest that Aristotle was anything other than a loyal Athenian citizen?
Whatever the reason, Aristotle decided that, for now, a hiatus from Athens would serve his interests best.
And so he made his way to Assos, due south of the traditional site of Troy. There, under the protection of a former Academy classmate, the slave-turned-tyrant Hermias, he established his own school and married Hermias’ (presumably dentally challenged) daughter.
However if Assos was where Aristotle cut his teeth as an educator, it was on Lesbos, where he moved in 345 BC, that he had the opportunity to examine and chronicle the flora and fauna of the island and surrounding sea; pioneering classification by genus and specie, and attempting to explain the very nature of each organism.
Aristotle's life on a map

Map of Aristotle’s Life

He did this in an impressively academic manner; not content merely to observe, but also to understand the benefit of logging changes.
Aristotle was not quite ready for a return to Athens when he opted to terminate his studies in natural history with the Lesbians. Instead he took a more circuitous route and retrod the ground he walked as a child; following in his father’s footsteps as an employee at the Macedonian court.
Though not like his father as a medic, but a tutor and, as chaos theorists would have us believe, one that may have seriously altered the course of history… as the pupil he taught was none other than Alexander the Great.
However, some questioned Aristotle’s motives for taking up the post.
Aristotle Teaching Alexander
Was he tempted by the glamour of the position? By the riches it must surely have brought? Was it because Alexander’s father, King Philip II had the power to liberate and rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira?
Well… we could potentially answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions. However, if he was following the teachings of his mentor Plato, then Aristotle would have had no choice but to tutor the young prince. He would have seen it as his duty to make Alexander not merely Great, but a great philosopher king.
Aristotle did what he could with Alexander, but perhaps did not have sufficient classroom time as the young man was actively involved in his father’s government from the age of 16. Thus, when Alexander came to the throne in earnest (still at the tender age of 20), Aristotle had long since become superfluous.
With his globe-trotting days behind him, and his attempts to philosophise with the soon-to-be most famous man in the world not wholly successful, Aristotle decided that the centre of the cultural world, Athens, was in need of fresh intellectual guidance.
However, an absence of 13 years and open collusion with Athens’ subjugators, Macedonia, hadn’t given Aristotle, described in one source as a dandy with rings on his fingers and a fashionable hair cut, the authority to walk brazenly back into the Academy and expect to be welcomed with open arms (though his flash appearance did manage to bag him a second wife).
So instead he opted to establish his own school, the Lyceum.
The school and its followers were often referred to as Peripatetics, a term derived from the Greek word ‘to walk’ and apocryphally thought to reflect Aristotle’s penchant for teaching while wandering the grounds.
Aristotles' school

The Peripatetics

Incongruously, it is quite possible there was very little altruism in Aristotle’s desire to teach. He openly admitted that knowledge and teaching were intertwined to the extent that a man could never truly understand something unless he could then impart that knowledge to another. Thus to teach was for Aristotle, first and foremost, beneficial to himself.
It’s hard to know if the Lyceum was more important as a college of research or one of individual enlightenment, but it was certainly during this period that Aristotle and his acolytes seem to have done much of the work for which he is now famous.
In addition to those texts (Poetics, Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, etc), he (or his ‘interns’) also collected maps, codified the Athenian constitution, added a 5th element to those established by Empedocles, attempted to link good grammar practices to logic, and revealed the scientific principles behind the camera obscura.
Bust of Aristotle

Bust of Aristotle

Significantly, though often overlooked, the school also drudged through the archives at Delphi to log the athletes who had competed in the sporting events held there whilst additionally cross-referencing them with those who had participated in Athenian dramatic festivals.
This was done not merely for the love of bureaucracy, but in an attempt to establish an accepted chronology. After all, it’s easy for us to forget that the ancient world didn’t have the luxury of a quick and easy ‘Before Christ’ or ‘Anno Domini’ way of looking at things.
And so life continued in this vein for Aristotle right up until 323 BC when Alexander the Great, fresh from conquering most of the known world decided at the age of 32 to, rather selfishly, drop dead of a tropical disease (though many prominent figures were rumoured to have poisoned him – Aristotle among them!)
The end of the Great life was the end of a chance for a worthwhile life for Aristotle, as it now became very difficult to live in Athens if one had, or was perceived to have, Macedonian sympathies. While Alexander was alive the Athenians knew that there was no chance of fighting for independence, but with his death, there was instability and a chance of revolt.
Consequently, Aristotle fled to Chalcis in the following year as, in his own words, he “would not allow Athenians to sin twice against philosophy”; a reference to the public trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BC.
For whatever reason, life on Chalcis was not sympathetic to Aristotle. After only one year he died of natural causes, aged 62.
Aristotle’s legacy flourished with barely an interruption in the AD period, but from his own time until the first century BC, Peripatetics were severely marginalized in the Greek world. A story that Aristotle’s texts were lost, hidden in a basement for centuries, before being taken to Rome in 86 BC accounts well for this gap, but is more than slightly fanciful.
There is no satisfactory explanation for Aristotle’s temporary wane in popularity, but we can say with some authority that when it waxed again it did so with dramatic virulence.
Dante dubbed him ‘the master of those that know’, whilst Thomas Aquinas simply called him ‘the philosopher’.
Painting of Aristotle

Aristotle and the bust of Homer by Rembrant

His influence was not restricted to the Latin world, he was also respected by Jewish scholars of the middle-ages while their Islamic counterparts referred to him as ‘the first teacher’.
He is said to have had a mind which was “ordered, balanced and stunningly capacious”. Indeed, some suspect that he may have been the last man in existence who knew all the information that it was possible (in his own time) to learn.
There is almost limitless choice from which to choose some fine words of Aristotle’s to leave you to mull over. However, as he was a lecturer far more than he was a writer, his words should ideally be heard and not read. So read the following inspirational thoughts aloud (unless you’re on a crowded train or alone in a cafe – Aristotle didn’t directly advocate looking like a loony) and try to hear, through the echoes of time, the buzzing thought processes of a man who was limitless in his own ability to think:
“We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live by the finest element in us – for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth”.

Female Monsters of the Odyssey

by on July 10, 2018

By Julia Huse, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Limited
Of the monsters and mythological creatures Odysseus encounters during his long voyage from Troy to Ithaca, among the fiercest are female. Three of these are Circe, the Sirens and Calypso, who all prove to be difficult and terrifying obstacles to Odysseus’ journey home.
The Witch Circe

The witch Circe poisons Odysseus’ men, Alessandro Allori, 1580

After escaping the island of the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, Odysseus and his crew stumbleupon Aeaea and the home of Circe, who is referred to as both a witch and a nymph. She has a vast knowledge of potions and herbs, which Odysseus and his crew experience first hand. Odysseus and half his crew stay behind with the ships while the others go in search of Aeaea to see what people live there. The search party comes across the home of Circe, which is described as a large house in a clearing in the middle of a thick forest. All around the house are lions and wolves, which at first frighten the crew… until they notice how docile the beasts are. It is later found out that these are the previously drugged victims of Circe and her potions. In her house Circe welcomes Odysseus’ crew as guests, feeding them a meal of cheese and honey which she has drugged, turning the crew into pigs.
All but one crewmember is changed into a pig and he manages to escape to warn Odysseus and the other half of the crew what has happened. Odysseus ventures to Circe’s house to save his men, but is stopped along the way by the god Hermes, who was sent by Athena. Hermes tells Odysseus of an herb called moly that will protect him from the potions of Circe. Immune to her potions, Odysseus acts as if he is going to attack her. Afterwards, she tries to coax Odysseus into bed with her, which he avoids, due to Hermes’ advice. Having done all this, Odysseus convinces Circe to turn his crew back into humans and free them.
The Sirens
The Sirens in the Odyssey

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper

Odysseus also encounters the famous sirens during his wanderings. Typically in Greek depictions, the sirens they are half-woman half-bird creatures that perch on the rocks by the sea and sing beautiful songs that lure men who, refusing to leave, die of starvation.
In the Odyssey, Circe warns Odysseus about the sirens and tells him to plug his and his crew’s ears with beeswax in order to block their sweet songs from entering their ears. Being curious about the songs the Sirens sing, Odysseus only plugs his crew’s ears with beeswax and then has his men tie him to the mast of the ship, instructing them not to untie him… no matter how much he begs for it. Odysseus hears the song and begs and pleads that his crew release him, but his faithful crew only tighten the ropes more, binding him to the mast.
It is then revealed that the reason the songs allure and entice men is because they sing of past and future truths. They sing to Odysseus about his past endeavors, such as the glory and suffering he endured on the battlefields of Troy, and his future actions and what he will achieve… and they falsely promise that their hearers will live to tell these truths to others. Odysseus, of course, achieves this and this is how we are able to get this account from him.
The Nymph Calypso
The Greek monster Calypso

Calypso by Henri Lehmann (1869)

At the end of his wanderings Odysseus washes up alone on the island Ogygia, the omphalos, meaning navel or center, of the sea, and also the home of the nymph Calypso. Homer describes Calypso as the daughter of the Titan Atlas, who holds up the pillars of the sky and the sea. In Homer’s epic, Calypso keeps Odysseus on her island for seven years, accounting for a large part of his journey home. Calypso desires to make Odysseus her immortal husband and enchants him with her singing as she weaves on her loom. Odysseus performs all the duties of a husband for Calypso, including sleeping with her.
Even under Calypso’s spell Odysseus desires a different life. The promise of immortality does not sway him from missing his wife Penelope. Odysseus, a man, does not desire the life of a god; he much prefers the life of a mortal, even with all its hardships that are so clearly lacking on Calypso’s island. Noticing that Odysseus wants to leave the island, Athena asks Zeus to order Odysseus’ release. Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso to release Odysseus because it is not his fate that he should remain on the island forever anyways. Calypso eventually, and stubbornly, agrees to free Odysseus and sends him on his way with wine, bread and materials for a raft.
Beguiling Women of Ancient Greece
Beguiling women in Ancient Greek mythology

Telemachus and the Nymphs of Calypso MET DP169393

These women, although not necessarily terrifying in their looks, are certainly terrifying in their abilities to enchant mortal men. With much help Odysseus is able to resist or break free from these enchantments. Even the seemingly least threatening woman of the three, Calypso, manages to keep Odysseus detained for seven years, proving to be one of the greatest obstacles to his journey.
Clearly the women are seen as enchanters and deceivers of men, distracting them from their intended course or purpose… and this reflects a feeling found in Ancient Greece that women were deceitful creatures who could not control their sexual desires and sought to entrap men. This becomes especially clear when compared to male monsters, such as the Cyclops Polyphemus, who does not have the enchanting and deceiving nature of these woman. Odysseus immediately sees through his deceit and is able to win against Polyphemus with his own trickery. Whereas Odysseus can detect this deception on his own, when it comes to women monsters and goddesses, he needs the help of the gods and others to warn him and help him break free.

Ancient Bickering: The American Founding Fathers and the Classics

by on July 4, 2018

By Spencer Klavan
The American Founding Fathers knew a thing or two, and one of those things was how to read the Classics. By this I don’t mean that their Latin was good (it was), or that their knowledge of ancient history was infallible (it wasn’t).
JeffersonI mean that they didn’t use Classical writing the way modern thinkers often do, as an Ultimate Authority to be unerringly obeyed. Instead, the statesmen who founded America treated those who founded Athens and Rome as equal partners in an ongoing debate. They challenged their ancient forbears like college roommates haggling over a philosophy paper. That dialogue is the one that built America.
Take Thomas Jefferson: he hated Plato. Hated him passionately, almost with relish, the way beleaguered high school readers often hate him. The Republic, Jefferson wrote, was…


“the heaviest task-work I ever went through,” full of “whimsies . . . puerilities, and unintelligible jargon.”

He was shocked “that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense.” I remember a few kids in my 11th grade Civics class expressing similar opinions.
Jefferson preferred Epicurus, whose philosophy survives through the Roman poet Lucretius. Lucretius wrote that only knowledge and science could redeem humanity, which “lay crushed under religion” and irrational superstition. Those words appealed to Jefferson, an amateur scientist who mistrusted the Bible and would eventually re-write it to excise any mention of the supernatural: “I too am an Epicurean,” he enthused. He proved it by arguing forcefully and effectively for a controversial new doctrine — the separation of church and state.

Epicurus
Now, Jefferson’s enduring legacy is the epoch-making Declaration that “all men are created equal.” Of course the man who wrote those words abhorred Plato, who advocated brainwashing the lower classes to believe their souls were made of inferior material, destined to subservience.


This kind of open élitism repulsed the radically populist Jefferson. Epicurus, Jefferson thought, had it right: different souls are just different arrangements of identical atoms, uniform matter recombining in endless structures. No one is born to rule: we’re all made of the same stuff, quite literally “created equal.”

But we might never have heard of those words — might never have broken away from England — if it weren’t for John Adams and Marcus Cicero. From boyhood, Adams treasured a copy of Cicero’s Orations. Rome’s great statesman became Adams’ confidant, his lifelong friend, and most of all his role model. He worked hard to emulate Cicero’s iron-willed integrity and compelling rhetoric.

XXXThat came in handy: when Jefferson’s Declaration came down to a nail-biting vote, it was the powerful oratory Adams learned from Cicero that tipped the scales in favor of independence. In a two-hour speech, with Ciceronian flair, Adams convinced the Continental Congress to vote for revolution. Colleagues called Adams “the man to whom the country is most indebted for . . . independency.”



For the country that was born in Philadelphia that day, we have Adams — and Cicero — to thank.

Later, as Adams advised the writers of the new constitution, he turned to his tried and true mentor for advice. Cicero gave Adams the idea of “a mixed constitution of three branches,” each restrained by a delicate equilibrium of checks and balances. Adams adopted that concept in his Defence of the Constitutions, which guided the framers as they wrote their own founding document — the one America upholds today.
These days, modern thinkers tend to put the Ancients on an untouchable pedestal, hailing them from afar without really engaging. Politicians from Obama to Palin use quotes from Plato and Aristotle as indisputable maxims, truths they can cite to support their agenda.
That leaves listeners with an all-or-nothing choice: either you agree with this lapidary, monolithic authority called The Classics, or you don’t. That choice is an illusion. There’s never been any such authority. There’s only ever been a motley crew of gifted, contentious intellectuals, arguing tirelessly, contradicting one another — and sometimes themselves — with vehemence and urgency. The history of Greco-Roman thought is a history of incessant bickering. That’s what makes it great.
By doing some bickering of their own, the Founding Fathers picked up where the Greeks and Romans left off. Early American thinkers treated Classical writers as interlocutors, as adversaries — most of all, they treated them as old friends.

Old friends don’t tiptoe around each other or pretend to agree unconditionally: they mix it up. They debate. Old friends speak their minds and hash it out. The early Americans kept the ancient conversation alive — they used it to found a nation. The beauty of the Classical canon is that it makes us part of that conversation, puts modern readers face-to-face with discussion partners across thousands of intervening miles and years. It’s not our job to revere them. It’s our privilege to argue with them.


Pick your Poison

by on June 29, 2018

The AK-47 of the Ancient Near East
By Cam Rea
The Scythian bow was the AK-47 of the Ancient Near East and the weapon of choice to dominate the battlefield. Even though the bow was uniquely designed to deliver the utmost damage, the arrow itself was even nastier! Scythians created their arrowheads for maximum penetration of the opponent’s armor. Beyond that, Scythian arrowheads were extremely poisonous.
But before we pick our poison, we must pick our point.
a selection of arrowheads

The Scythian arrowhead

The Scythian arrowhead, also known as a “Scythian point,” was a trilobate shape, designed like a rocket or bullet with three blades extending from the body. Some of the arrowheads had protruding barbs, while others lacked this painful extra. The trilobate was usually made of bronze, while the shaft used to deliver the arrowhead was made of reed or wood and was roughly 30 inches long. The design and craftsmanship employed was brilliant, for its aerodynamic body made it extremely practical to use against the finest and toughest of armor.
The Scythian point originated around the 7th century BCE, suggesting that Scythians developed the weapon in order to pierce Assyrian armor, as Scythians and Cimmerians were indeed at war with Assyria on and off during that time period. Now, this was not the only arrowhead style or material used by the Scythians, for some arrowheads were made of bone, stone, iron, or bronze. As for shape, some looked like small spearheads, while others were leaf-shaped, which may have been used for hunting. The discussed trilobite shape, however, was most likely used for combat purposes.
Besides the lethal design of the Scythian trilobite point, another nasty feature was the poison. Not only were these ancient fighters experts at archery, but also in biological warfare. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you see it, the Scythians had a wide variety of deadly poisons to choose from. The not so friendly reptiles inhabiting the area included the steppe viper, Caucasus viper, European adder, and the long-nose/sand viper.
Map of Scythia

Map of Scythia and the Persian Empire

Truly, the Scythians had a vast arsenal of snake venoms of all degrees at their disposal. The book titled, “On Marvelous Things Heard,” by Pseudo-Aristotle, which was a work written by his followers, if not written in part by Aristotle himself, mentions the Scythian handling of snakes and how to extract their poison:
“They say that the Scythian poison, in which that people dips its arrows, is procured from the viper. The Scythians, it would appear, watch those that are just bringing forth young, and take them, and allow them to putrefy for some days.”
After several days passed, the Scythian shaman would then take the venom and mix it with other ingredients. One of these concoctions required human blood:
“But when the whole mass appears to them to have become sufficiently rotten, they pour human blood into a little pot, and, after covering it with a lid, bury it in a dung-hill. And when this likewise has putrefied, they mix that which settles on the top, which is of a watery nature, with the corrupted blood of the viper, and thus make it a deadly poison.”
The Roman author Aelian also mentions this process, saying, “The Scythians are even said to mix serum from the human body with the poison that they smear upon their arrows.” Both accounts show that the Scythians were able to excite the blood in order to separate it from the yellow watery plasma. Once the mixture of blood and dung had putrefied, the shaman would take the serum and excrement and mix it in with the next ingredient, venom, along with the decomposed viper. Once the process was complete, the Scythians would place their arrowheads into this deadly mixture ready for use.
The historian Strabo mentions a second use of this deadly poison:
“The Soanes use poison of an extraordinary kind for the points of their weapons; even the odour of this poison is a cause of suffering to those who are wounded by arrows thus prepared.”
So the arrowhead was poisonous, but why stop there? Sometimes they ensured that the barbs on the arrowhead were also coated with the deadly concoction. The Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the Black Sea, got a good look at these poisonous plus arrows and reported them as “native arrow-points have their steel barbs smeared with poison, carry a double hazard of death.” He also described the poisonous ingredient as “yellow with vipers gall.”
To get a better understanding of this “double death,” Renate Rolle elaborates further on the barbed arrowheads: “These arrowheads, fitted with hooks and soaked in poison, were particularly feared, since they were very difficult to remove from the wound and caused the victim great pain during the process.” A very grim picture, without question. To be struck by an arrowhead with barbs or hooks, poisoned with putrefied remains, would indeed be horrific.
Sythian Warriors

Scythian–ancient nomadic Iranian–warriors on the steppe

With all these different poisons used by the Scythians, they had to know how to tell what was what in their gorytus, or case for holding the bow and quiver of arrows. The length of the gorytas was relatively shorter than the bow itself, leaving the weapon partially exposed. It also had a metal covering for the arrows, most likely to protect the archer from scraping his skin across the poisonous arrowheads.
The Scythians would paint their arrow shafts in the color of red or black, while others had zigzag and diamond patterns decorating them. Not so coincidentally, these various patterns painted upon the arrow shafts were the same patterns found upon the various vipers used by the Scythians as their agents of death. Vipers with a zigzag or diamond pattern upon their backs were the most poisonous of all.
Clearly, the painted design was a way for the archer to tell which poison he was using. Additionally, the decorated arrow shafts, when fired at the enemy, likely had a psychological effect, for they must have looked like snakes flying through the air, while the barbs protruding from the point appeared like fangs to the enemy.
So now that the Scythians had their gorytus, stacked with a fierce weapon and deadly arrows, it was just a matter of choosing which chemical killer to use on the enemy.

The tainted glory of the gladiator

by on June 27, 2018

By Ben Potter
The sun rises high over Rome’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, the mightiest arena in the world. Only the colossal statue of Nero, which one-day will lend the stadium its eternal pseudonym, dwarfs it.
The 50,000 strong crowd of men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are tightly coiled; one giant organism ready to strike, to unleash their wrath or their joy.
Though they are not the only ones with the glint of attack in their eyes.
A flash of light leads to a clash of steel, a spray of sweat, a cloud of dust, and finally, brutally, a cascade of blood which unleashes a frenzied pandemonium in the stands…
Gladiator
Those cognisant of TV shows like Spartacus, films like Gladiator, or indeed, any example from the swords and sandals genre, will be familiar with images of perfectly formed behemoths attempting to heroically empty their comrades of their entrails.
Though, as we shall investigate, Hollywood has not quite given us the full picture. I know, I know… shocking isn’t it!?
To begin with, gladiators were not perfectly formed. Indeed, they would be considered overweight next to modern sportsmen. Additionally, bloodlust was a secondary consideration to poise and finesse, and in fact, most gladiatorial bouts saw the loser escape with his life. Finally, and, crucially, large parts of Roman society considered gladiators to be anything but heroic.
As for the famous quote in the title (“Those who are about to die salute you”), it did genuinely occur in the pages of Suetonius.
However, it was supposedly uttered by a group of condemned men in an attempt to curry favour with the emperor, and not, as Tinseltown would have us believe, by every gladiator who entered the arena.

Indeed, it is highly unlikely that any professional fighter ever said it.

But before we conduct our gladiatorial post-mortem in earnest, perhaps a look at the origins of the sport is in order. (Unpleasant as it seems, it’s hard to deny that it was a sport – complete with match day programmes and scalpers selling tickets!)
Fighting
As for the beginnings of gladiatorial combat, there is some dispute, though most agree it came out of the Italian peninsula… either from the Etruscans or Campanians.
What seems clear is that the games (ludi) were not intended to be the great public spectacle they later became. Instead, they were munera, a type of honorific spectacular dedicated to the spirit of a deceased ancestor.
What is really astonishing is how fast the event caught on. The first recorded munus was held in 264 BC, and within 200 years, their popularity and importance had become such that the Senate had to limit the size of the proposed munus of none other than Gaius Julius Caesar.
[N.B. Though if we compare how cinema has changed in only 150 years it is perhaps not so astounding.]
Even though the transition from munera to ludi was a gradual one, we can say with some confidence that by the time of Caesar, gladiatorial combat had mostly lost its connotations of filial duty. Instead, it had become a means of self-promotion and popular entertainment… and not just in Rome, but also throughout the rapidly swelling empire.
Gladiators
So what about the fundamentals of the games and, more importantly, the gladiators themselves?
A gladiator (from gladius, short sword) was the king of the sand, a mighty warrior, fiercely trained for one purpose only. He was a man of pride, dignity and above all else, discipline. He knew his life was forfeit and his only desire was to live and die with the stoicism and honour befitting his station.
Despite the fact that gladiators were the celebrities and sex symbols of their day, they were also so deeply despised that the very word ‘gladiator’ was used as an everyday insult. They had no citizenship rights, were buried only with their own kind, and could have their lives expunged at the whim of their lanista (owner/overseer).

Essentially, they were a de facto category of slaves.

The antipathy felt towards these subhuman supermen is partly because of the social make up of the gladiatorial class.
They were slaves of various origins: prisoners of war, citizens who had lost their rights or who couldn’t pay their debts, and various criminals from around the empire. Only if they were lucky, would they find their way into a ludus (gladiator school).
slaves
N.B. if they were unlucky they would merely be damnati (condemned to fight in the arena) or noxii (condemned to die a humiliating death in the arena). The difference being that the noxii would probably not be given weapons and their remains would be treated in a manner that would dishonour them for eternity.
All arenarii (people of the arena) were infames i.e. without rights or social status – a standing shared by prostitutes, pimps, actors and dancers. Gladiators, however, were both simultaneously far more lauded and reviled than any of these other controversial professions!
This was all very well for the impoverished, the enslaved and the criminal – indeed, many were happy to enter a ludus. It would mean good food (gladiators followed a high-calorie vegetarian diet), a roof over their head, and a potential to win money, freedom and that most intangible and strangely elusive of all things, fame!
Also, it got them out in the fresh air… which is nice.

The peculiarity, therefore, is not that many of the most desperate ended up in the arena, it’s that some of the more privileged actually volunteered for this ignoble and bloody fate.

Gladiators
Some scholars estimate that as many as half of all gladiators were volunteers (auctorati) by the time the games were at their height (1st century BC – 1st century AD).
But what really boggles the mind is that the lure of the games was so great that they even managed to entice aristocrats!
Indeed, it seems there was a significant minority of the noblesse who disgraced their family name, gave up promising political careers and disinherited themselves from great wealth. In fact, it was beholden upon Augustus, the moral champion of the 1st century AD, to make it illegal for the senatorial and equestrian classes to fight.
Despite the emperor’s absolute power, the prohibition seems to have had only limited success.
In addition, several emperors themselves are known to have stepped onto the sand. This created a bizarre paradox of a man at the top of the social ladder publically engaging in the most degraded and base activity possible within his own society.

Caligula

Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Caracalla, Geta and Didius Julianus were all said to have crossed that stark line of dignity during their respective reigns. This was particularly amazing for Didius Julianus, as he was only emperor for nine weeks!
It is almost certain that none of the above competed with any seriousness and were merely making a populist parade of themselves or indulging a boyhood fantasy. (Though it’s hard to blame them; if I had unlimited power I would certainly insist on playing ten minutes of professional football).
However, the most enthusiastic, and therefore most shameful, participant in ludi was Commodus, the emperor who you may remember from that film with Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe… the name of which escapes me.
Commodus
Commodus was capricious, cruel and conceited (even by the standards of emperors). He was said to have killed 100 lions in a day and must, therefore, have had some physical and technical proficiency to avoid looking wholly ridiculous in front of the crowd; especially as he styled himself as the reincarnation of Hercules!
Indeed, the masses would have let him know if he had been entirely ludicrous. The games were one of the few conduits for egalitarian outpouring.
It was commonplace for the public to heckle, not just the participants of the ludi, but the on-watching ruling classes. In fact, it seems the games presented the ideal (perhaps unique) opportunity to present a petition to a politician in front of witnesses.
Though the games were unquestionably popular, (relatively) cheap to stage and helped school both combatants and spectators alike in the arts of war, they eventually fell foul in the later empire as a result of Christianity.
As early as the third century AD, the Christian scholar Tertullian denounced the games as murder, as pagan and as human sacrifice.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the first emperor to prohibit the spectacle was Constantine in the 320’s AD.

Though this was with little success; it was necessary to again curtail or prohibit the games in 384, 393, 399, 404, and 438 AD. By this latter date the Western Empire was dissolving into various warring factions and tastes in the Eastern Empire seemed more focused on theatre and chariot racing.
One of the hardest things for a classical historian to understand is the mentality of both the spectators and participants of a gladiatorial combat.
Though it obviously plays up to our baser instincts and, like so much sport, creates a tribal mentality, it goes so far beyond the most violent spectacles available to us today.
Thumbs down
Regardless, there could have been nothing quite so dramatic, nothing that sent the heart aflutter and the limbs aquiver as the moment when a stricken gladiator raised a finger in submission, presented his neck to an opponent and all eyes turned to the editor (producer/sponsor) in whose hands the brilliant wretch’s life lay.
More than anything else, contemplating the bravery, daring and discipline of these ancient athletes only serves to highlight the egos, eccentricities and anti-social behaviour of their modern counterparts.
Despite doping, deflated pigskins, greasy palms and feigned injury, the worship, adulation and monetary rewards we bestow upon our physical elite shows no signs of abating.
Perhaps the Roman way is better, perhaps it’s a healthier approach: to marvel, to cheer, to applaud and goggle, but still, when the dust has settled and the blood has dried to remember that they are only mortal.
And much, much worse than that, that they are…yuck…entertainers!

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