From my fingers to God’s ear; I hope He has something better to do — this one is none too good, although here and there it makes up for it in downright weirdness: ps‑Plutarch • Is Water or Fire More Useful? (no Greek online anywhere that I know of, and I didn’t add any, either).
The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta consists of two parts: the Archidamian War (431-421) and the Decelean or Ionian War (413-404). When the first part had ended in an Athenian victory, the Athenians believed they could now try to expand their empire. A large expedition to Sicily was believed to be the best idea, and in 415 a large armada left Greece and went to the west. Over there, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The Sicilian Expedition ended in failure; of the many who had left, only a few a returned.
Benefitting from the absence of a great part of the Athenian forces, the Spartans decided to renew the Peloponnesian War (413). This time, they were more successful: in 404, Athens surrendered. Nearly always, the Spartan victory is explained from the demise of Athenian power after the expedition to Sicily, but this cannot be correct. In fact, Athens recovered quickly, and in 410, the Spartans regretted their declaration of war. They offered peace negotiations, but Athens declined: after all, Sparta had twice broken a treaty (in 431 and in 413), and Athens demanded some kind of guarantee that the Spartans would leave the Athenians in peace. When Sparta was unwilling to offer this, fighting was resumed.
In the meantime, however, the Persian king Darius II Nothus had decided to support the Spartans. Now, Sparta had the money to create a navy, and although it still suffered several defeats in naval battles, in the end, it was victorious at Aigospotamoi (405). Athens no longer controlled the sea, and was starved into surrender.
What caused the fall of Athens? Not the Sicilian disaster: Athens recovered sufficiently to make the Spartans decide to negotiate again. It was Sparta’s Persian alliance that shifted the balance of power, so the ultimate question must be why the great king decided to abandon his policy of non-interference.
The answer to this question, and the deepest cause of the fall of Athens, is that the Athenians had supported one Amorges, a rebel in Asia Minor, fighting against the Persians. This was unacceptable to king Darius, who now decided to support Sparta. The orator Andocides explains (On the Peace 31-32):
The king’s runaway slave, Amorges, induced us to discard the powerful support of his master as worthless. We chose instead what we imagined to be a more advantageous understanding with Amorges himself. The king in his anger replied by allying himself with Sparta, and furnished her with 5,000 talents with which to prosecute the war; nor was he satisfied until he had overthrown our empire.
Her support of Amorges, and nothing else, lost Athens the war.
- On Praising Oneself Inoffensively: a common theme for a rhetorician, which Plutarch treats as a moralist. The Greek text at Philip Remacle’s site is here.
- Precepts of Statecraft: advice for a man who dreams of a career as a local politician. The Greek text of this treatise can be found here.
So many Greek texts… Seeing the speedy expansion of their number, I think Bill will soon have to rebaptize his increasingly inaccurately named website “LacusCurtius. Into the Roman World”, and will name it “Trophonius’ Cave. Into the Greek World”. ;)
In 431 BCE, the Spartans declared war upon Athens, being afraid that this city was becoming too powerful and had too much influence in the Greek sanctuaries. The Archidamian War, as the first part of the Peloponnesian War is called, was to last ten years.
Every year, the Spartans pillaged the Athenian countryside, but they were unable to attack the city itself, which was surrounded by a large wall and was connected to a port by “long walls“. As long as the Athenians were the only ones with a large navy, their town could not be captured, while they were able to use their ships to attack the country of Sparta and its allies anywhere they wanted. In this way, a battle against the dangerous Spartan hoplites could be avoided. Moreover, Athens had a war fund of no less than 6,000 talents, to which every year 1,000 talents were added. Many historians have concluded that the Athenian leader Pericles, the architect of the strategy explained above, had prepared his city very well.
Ten years later, Sparta threw the towel in. Athens had won the Archidamian War. But this was not because of Pericles’ excellent preparations. On the contrary. You do not need to be a bookkeeper to recognize that his strategy to exhaust the enemy with naval operations, was disastrous. There were about two hundred people on a warship, who received one drachm per day. That makes 6,000 drachms per month, or one talent. In the first year of the war, the Athenians used
- one fleet of hundred ships, for an estimated eight months: 800 talents
- one fleet of thirty ships, for an estimated eight months: 240 talents
- one fleet of seventy ships, twelve months: 840 talents
- an army besieging Potideia: 420 talents
The grand total is 2,300 talents. Even if we optimistically assume that income remained the same, it is impossible that there were more than 4,700 talents left in the spring of 430. If Athens had continued the war according to Pericles’ strategy, it would have been forced to surrender in the fourth year of the war.
Pericles had prepared his city disastrously. He died in 429 and another leader, Cleon, convinced the Assembly that a different strategy was imperative. He was able to raise the tribute and, collaborating with capable generals like Nicias and Demosthenes, he designed a cheaper strategy. After 425, Sparta was no longer capable of attacking the Athenian countryside, and instead decided to attack the periphery of Athens’ empire: the far north. The Spartan commander Brasidas managed to outwit the Athenian Thucydides and captured Amphipolis, an exceptionally important city, from which Athens imported silver and wood. Now, the Spartans had something to negotiate about, and in 421, they obtained a peace treaty that was less humiliating than they had expected in 425.
Cleon was the architect of Athens’ success, not Pericles. Why do historians write that Pericles had prepared the war well? It has a lot to do with the fact that we have only one source for this war: the impressive History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, the man who had been responsible for the loss of Amphipolis. Cleon had sent him into exile, and Thucydides had not many kinds things to say about the man who had saved the city. On the contrary, several chapters of the History of the Peloponnesian War are a careful character assassination. At the same time, Pericles’ virtues are extolled.
If we had had more than one source, we would sooner have recognized Thucydides’ bias. It is for historians better to have contradicting sources than to have one source, even if it looks reliable. Even today, after a generation of research in which modern scholars have tried to look beyond the History of the Peloponnesian War, the description of the Peloponnesian War is in many books on ancient Greece still a summary of Thucydides’ book.
Just north of Rome were the cities of the Etruscans, twelve in number, according to the tradition. This nation has a reputation of being very mysterious. And it is true that they lacked the necessary credentials to give other ancient nations the idea that they understood the Etruscans: their origins were contested. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus claims that they came from Lydia in western Turkey (Histories, 1.94). However, the Greek writer Dionysius – also a native of Halicarnassus – objected that the Etruscans did not speak Lydian and did not sacrifice to eastern gods (Roman Antiquities, 1.30.2). He concluded that they had to be native Italians.
The mystery was not diminished when nineteenth-century scholars discovered that the Etruscan language did not belong to the Indo-European language family. Its speakers were therefore unrelated to the other Italian and Anatolian people. Because it was believed, back then, that language told something about a nation’s nature, the Etruscans were more enigmatic than ever.
It would be exaggerated to say that all riddles have been solved in the twentieth century, but much progress has been made. DNA research appears to have shown that at least part of the people that were later known as Etruscans are related to people in Asia Minor: there seems to have been a migration from the eastern part of the Mediterranean to Italy. This conclusion has been corroborated by the results of DNA research on goats, which also appear to have arrived from the east. These results have not been without criticism, though. Still, the language is now better understood than ever. Although we can not establish to which languages Etruscan is related, we can read most inscriptions, recognize cases and conjugations, and make a dictionary. There’s little left of the Etruscan mystery.
Babylon was the cultural capital of the ancient Near East. Many monuments have become famous, like the Ištar Gate, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, and the temple tower named Etemenanki, the “Tower of Babel”. Equally famous are the Hanging Gardens that king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562) created for his queen, a young lady from Iran who longed back to the mountains of her fatherland.
The Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, are mentioned by several Greek authors: the geographer Strabo of Amasia, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the orator Philo of Byzantium, and Cleitarchus, who wrote a biography of Alexander the Great that is now lost. This book, however, is quoted by the Sicilian historian Diodorus and his Roman colleague Curtius Rufus. So, we have a great many sources, and we get the impression that the complex was about two hectares large, as high as the city walls, and resting on heavy foundations of natural stone.
So far, so good. The problem is that all these sources were written in Greek or Latin. The Hanging Gardens are not mentioned in the thousands of cuneiform tablet from Babylon, not even in the list of monuments that is known as TINTIR is Babylon. Archaeology has not been helpful either: when the city was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century, Robert Koldewey (1855-1925) was unable to establish the site of the Hanging Gardens, and in the end pointed at the only natural stones he could find. He admitted that he was not convinced himself.
It has been suggested that there must be a misunderstanding: the gardens may have been in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Although this assumes an error that is as big as placing the Eiffel Tower in Berlin, it is not impossible: Greek authors often confused Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus of Halicarnassus was even capable of making Babylon the capital of Assyria. An alternative explanation is that the Hanging Gardens are simply a description of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar: we know that it had gardens – so roof garden may have been there too. If this is true, the original mistake may have been made by Cleitarchus, who was not above exaggerating and delighted in stories about wonderful things.
Is Cleitarchus the inventor of the Hanging Gardens? All sources directly or indirectly quote him, except one: Josephus refers to a list of monument by Berossus, a Babylonian author from the third century BCE, who was known to Josephus through Alexander Polyhistor. However, there is something weird with Berossus’ list: it enumerates a series of monuments in exactly the same sequence as the East India House Inscription that is now in the British Museum. The only monument mentioned by Josephus that is not mentioned by Berossus, is the final one: the Hanging Gardens.
The similarity between the Berossus fragment quoted by Josephus through Polyhistor and the East India House Inscription is so striking that it is impossible that Berossus does not quote (a copy of) it. This leaves us with only three possibilities:
- Josephus added information from Cleitarchus to information he found in Polyhistor (unlikely: he had no motive for this fraud);
- Polyhistor added information from Cleitarchus to Berossus (likely: we know that Polyhistor had a rather loose way of dealing with texts);
- Berossus added information from Cleitarchus to the East India House Inscription (which raises the question why the inscription ignores a major monument).
We can not be completely certain, but it seems very likely that the Hanging Gardens are in fact Cleitarchus’ fantastic description of the royal palace in Babylon. All our sources can, directly or indirectly, be connected to his biography of Alexander.
R.J. van der Spek, “Berossus as a Babylonian Chronicler and Greek Historian,” in: R.J. van der Spek (ed.), Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society, Presented to Marten Stol on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (2008) 277-318.
After their death, good Roman emperors were venerated as gods. The judgment whether the ruler had been sufficiently good to receive divine honors, was dependent on one factor: did he have a son who would succeed him and force the Senate to recognize the apotheosis? The emperor Vespasian (69-79) had two sons, Titus and Domitian, and could reasonably expect that people would make sacrifices to him after his death. Many modern books tell us that he died with the last words Vae, puto deus fio – “Dammit, I fear I’m turning into a god.”
The Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that Vespasian indeed made this joke shortly before he died (Life of Vespasian, 23.4), but he does not say that these were the emperor’s last words. Those were in fact far more impressive: “An emperor ought to die standing” (24.1).