Ancient greece

Why the Greeks invented virtue

I had a good talk with my NBF, Owen Matthews, at The Spectator’s writers’ party, and we agreed on the two subjects we talked about: Russia and women. I won’t exaggerate the enormity of our aggregate knowledge – and the way we have deployed it in our service, especially where the fairer sex is concerned. Suffice to say that it is far beyond the comprehension of most individuals who concern themselves only with money. Speaking of loot, I have a gent’s bet with a friend that Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX infamy – accused of having stolen billions while attempting to recover his financial blunders – will get away with a

On the trail of Roman Turkey with Don McCullin

The genesis for our book Journeys across Roman Asia Minor was hatched in the autumn of 1973, when Sir Donald McCullin was a young man. He had been assigned by the Sunday Times to work with the writer Bruce Chatwin on a story that would take them from a murder in Marseille to the Aurès highlands of north-east Algeria. It was an emotionally gruelling journey and they rewarded themselves on the way back by stopping off to look at a solitary Roman ruin. No photographs were taken, but the memory of this place from all those years ago remained embedded in Don’s imagination. Three decades later, that seed bore fruit,

King Charles and the implications of oaths

After much debate it was decided that the people would not be ordered to reciprocate the King’s oath of allegiance. This was wise. As ancient Greeks knew, oaths have serious implications. For them, to take an oath was in effect ‘to invoke powers greater than oneself to uphold the truth of a declaration, by putting a curse upon oneself if it was false’. The Trojan war – the subject of the West’s first work of literature – happened only because Tyndareos, stepfather of Helen, compelled all her Greek suitors, on oath, to go to war on anyone who seduced her from her husband – which the Trojan Paris proceeded to

How the ancients treated gout

Medical problems come and go in the media, and at the moment the flavour of the month appears to be gout (from Latin gutta, a ‘drop’, seeping into a joint). For the Greek doctor Hippocrates, gout (Greek podagra, ‘foot-trap’) was the ‘fiercest, longest and most tenacious of all joint diseases’. But since the ancients did not know that excess uric acid, a natural product of the body, was its cause, their remedies were futile. Pliny the Elder claimed that wet seaweed was the answer. Scribonius Largus was at least original, the first to suggest electrification for medical purposes: he backed torpedo fish (an electric ray) for curing gout (some types

The ancient problem of the man who threw away £150m in bitcoin

James Howells has spent years trying to persuade Newport council to allow him to spend millions digging up a rubbish tip to find a computer hard-drive, possibly containing yet more millions, which he threw away in 2013. The ancients, who found obdurate behaviour fascinating, often explored such human failings in their myths, many of which featured horribly appropriate outcomes. Erysichthon (‘one who pulls up the land’) provides a good example. Let the poet Ovid explain. Erysichthon, a man who never sacrificed to any gods, hacked away at and pulled down a much-venerated oak tree, hung with votive offerings and sacred to Ceres, goddess of the grain that feeds the world;

The unflattering truth about the battle for No. 10

The battle to be PM raises the question: in a functioning democracy, how should arguments be won? Surely, by persuasion. But for ancient Greeks, too often it seemed to be by flattery. The Greek for ‘flatterer’ was kolax, and a comedian described a kolax’s lifestyle as follows: he would dress up in his best cloak, hire a slave and head off into town looking for someone rich and stupid, whom he would load with grotesque flattery. With any luck this would result in a dinner invitation, where he would make witty comments, turn the host’s vices into virtues and express delight at being the butt of his jokes. Aristotle described

30,000 gallons of wine, 2,000 golden bulls and a three-month party: how the ancients celebrated

The ancients certainly knew how to put on a celebration. Let us hope the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee comes up to scratch. In 274 bc the Greek pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy II, staged a procession in honour of his father. It featured 400 cartloads of silver plate, 20 of gold and 800 of spices, 57,600 infantry, 23,200 horse, 2,000 bulls covered in gold, 2,400 dogs, 150 men carrying exotic trees with birds in them and 120 boys carrying saffron on gold platters. They were accompanied by elephants, goats, hartebeest, camels, ostriches, peacocks, a large white bear, three bear cubs, 14 leopards, 16 cheetahs, a giraffe and an Ethiopian rhinoceros. A vast

The ancient Greek ship that was too big for any harbour

The biggest cruise ship yet built has just been launched, but in like-for-like terms, it comes nowhere near the Syracusia, built c. 240 bc on the orders of the Sicilian tyrant Hiero II. A small ancient Greek freighter might be about 45ft long, a trireme 120ft, a large merchantman 130ft. The Syracusia was nearly three times longer, constructed out of enough material to build 60 triremes. It had three floors. The lowest contained the cargo. On the second were the 30 cabins, covered in multicoloured mosaics telling the story of Homer’s Iliad. The cooks’ galley came complete with a seawater fish-tank, with a 20,000-gallon freshwater cistern in the bow. The

The age-old story of strongmen

The only good news, after the massacres in Ukraine, is that so many ugly behemoth super-yachts have been seized and will not be polluting the seas this summer. There is no more horrible sight than an oligarch’s super-yacht on the horizon, and that is before it disgorges its passengers, which is a horror show in itself. Arab boats, with their hookers on board, are even worse. The other good news is that Elon Musk has become the largest shareholder in Twitter, and in a Trojan War replication has challenged Putin to a duel. Oh, what a wonderful world this would be if those who started wars would duke it out

Could today’s Hollywood stars have made it in ancient Greece?

The Oscar frenzy spent, it is worth reflecting on how easy writers and actors have it these days. The ancient Greeks invented our idea of acted drama, and the conventions were tough. Here are the main ones. In myth-based tragedies, for example, all the speaking parts – young and old, male and female – were played, and occasionally sung too, by only three fully masked male actors (one play had 11 speaking parts – work that out!). There was also a ‘chorus’ – 12 or 15 actors, all masked, singing and dancing in unison between episodes, though the leader could converse with the main characters. Of low social status, they

The Greek myths are always with us

Once upon a time there was a collection of stories that everybody loved. They involved brave heroes such as Perseus and Theseus defeating fearful monsters like Medusa and the Minotaur. Sometimes they used ingenious gadgets to achieve their goals, a bit like James Bond with his exploding pen. Sometimes they were helped by women who took a fancy to them. Some, like Icarus, failed. Others succeeded but still came to a sticky end – like Oedipus, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx but also killed his dad and married his mum. The point is that these stories were so old they came from a time before writing. There was

Will Colston’s statue wreak its revenge?

The statue of the Bristol merchant Edward Colston is apparently guilty of a hate crime. Let us hope that the four charged with pulling him down are indeed, for their sake, ‘on the right side of history’, as they claim, since statues have a habit of getting their own back on those who dishonour them. The statue of Theagenes (5th C bc) provides an instructive example. A Greek from the island of Thasos, Theagenes was one of the greats of the games’ circuit (so one should hope: his father was a priest of Heracles). As a boxer and all-in fighter (pankratiast), he won twice at the Olympics (boxing 480 bc,

In ancient Rome, the truth could be stranger than fiction

Saturnalia was a period of Roman fun and games held just before our Christmas. Macrobius (c. ad 430) composed a series of conversations enjoyed by cultured Romans over this festive period, covering a vast range of topics, one of which featured amusing true stories. What better way to start the year? The emperor Augustus, tired of being offered epigrams almost daily by a poor Greek, dashed off one in Greek himself and gave it to him. Expressing his admiration, the Greek gave Augustus a few coins, swearing he would have given more if he had them. Everyone burst out laughing, and Augustus gave him 100,000 sesterces. A man appeared in

Would the ancient Greeks have agreed that children are born evil?

The ‘social mobility tsar’ Katharine Birbalsingh has suggested that children, born evil, ‘need to be taught right from wrong and then habituated into choosing good over evil’. The Twitter mob is equally certain that all children are born ‘good’, and it is their environment that spoils them. Ancient Greeks, ignorant of St Augustine, did not think that this was a simple either/or question but that moral capacity was determined in many different ways, depending on e.g. age, sex, status, intelligence, chance, fate (etc.) — and nature. Greeks thought the gods had little to say about the question, since myth did not suggest they were our moral superiors, though that did

Twitter has taken the place of the ancient curse-tablet

Twitter and other easily accessible means of online communication have encouraged the public to believe that Their Voice Will Be Heard. When it isn’t, they express their frustration through abuse and threats or by blocking roads. In this way, the mentality of the ancient curse-tablet lives on. In the ancient world, the purpose of the curse was to ‘bind’ the person you disliked — i.e. frustrate them from achieving the end they wanted and you did not. It was written on a thin lead plate, rolled up tight, sometimes twisted (to ‘hobble’ the victim) and pinned (to constrain him), then placed into the tomb of someone who had died before

How the ancients handled refugees

Hardly a day goes by without headlines about immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. In the ancient world, movements of people were also very common (state boundaries did not exist), often because war, famine or exile left them with no option. So how did refugees try to win acceptance? In Homer’s world of heroes (c. 700 bc), a man indicated he was harmless by kneeling before his (proposed) helper, perhaps touching the knee, and appealing for aid in the name of Zeus, god of suppliants. He expected a welcome into the household as a guest, and becoming part of that household, or being helped on his way. When Athens was a democratic

The ancients knew politicians were powerless

Why are cabinet ministers Liz Truss and Dominic Raab squabbling like children over access to grace-and-favour Chevening? Because they know they are, ultimately, powerless. The Greek statesman Solon (c. 590 bc) made the point long ago: ‘Those who have influence with monarchs are like pebbles used in calculations: for [depending on their place on the board] they can one moment represent a very large number, the next a very small one. So a monarch treats each of his advisers now as important and famous, now as valueless.’ Result: they seek to inflate their self-importance — while they can. No one understood that better than the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (d. ad

How the ancients kept people behaving responsibly

The Prime Minister is urging citizens not to throw caution to the winds when lockdown ends on 19 July but to behave ‘responsibly’. But there seems little incentive when legions of psychiatrists, lawyers, counsellors, social workers etc appear to insist you must never blame people (only ‘society’ or ‘the Tory cuts’) for anything. Can the ancients help? For ancient Greeks, it was the prospect of public shaming that kept people behaving responsibly. In Homer’s Iliad, the first work of European literature (c. 700 bc), the heroes who always feared what other people would say about them if their behaviour did not come up to what was expected of them exemplified

What the EU could learn from the Athenian Empire

The EU has regularly been likened to the Roman Empire. But its current direction suggests that the Athenian Empire (478-404 bc) is a better parallel. The EU began as an attempt to unify countries economically after the second world war. By slow accretion of powers via the single market, Maastricht, the euro and finally Lisbon, the EU became, drip by drip, a full political union run by an unelected central authority, which now threatens to end vetoes and intervene domestically, suing member states with whose policies on immigration, civil rights, freedom of speech etc it disagrees. After the Persian wars, Athens in 478 bc assembled on Delos an alliance of

The best podcasts to be enjoyed at 4 a.m.

Now that all of the billionaires are going into space, the night sky holds a special new kind of allure. We see a little twinkle in the distance and we can think to ourselves, there they are, out there, far away, away from us. It’s not clear whether Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk spent their childhoods looking up at the stars, fantasising fervently about joining them at some future date, or if they are now just bored. But perhaps their sense of identification and belonging in the vast night sky can be understood in another way. Humans have always told stories about the stars, and many of these myths could