“The Persians are coming and Athens is doomed to destruction if the bold and clever Themistocles, and his rival the honorable Aristides, can’t find a way to stop them”
Check out our latest episode!
Ryan: Welcome everyone to Part 2 of the Lives of Themistocles and Aristides.
Ryan: So Chris, If you remember at the end of the last episode, Athens had just won a surprising and momentous victory over a Persian army at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, less than twenty years after becoming the world’s first democracy.
Chris: Yes, I do. I imagine it must have been a pretty exciting time for the city.
Ryan: Yeah, it’s safe to say that following the victory at Marathon, the people of Athens were feeling pretty good about themselves. Everyone except Themistocles that is.
It seems that partly this was down to jealousy of the general Miltiades whose bold leadership at Marathon now made him Athens’ top star. Themistocles needn’t have been jealous – though for the very next year, Miltiades would, apparently due to a personal grudge, convince Athens to let him lead an expedition against the island of Paros which would end in failure. Upon his return to Athens, Miltiades was brought up on charges of treason and died in prison, probably from gangrenous wound. It’s worth taking note of the rapid rise and fall of Miltiades, because he will certainly not be the last person to discover this unfortunate feature of Athenian democracy: you can be a hero one minute and a zero the next.
Of course in the weeks following the Battle of Marathon nobody knew that a year later their hero Miltiades would die in disgrace – and when young Themistocles friends noticed he was not showing up at any of his usual hangouts Plutarch says they asked him what was troubling him and he responded that “the trophy of Miltiades would not let him sleep.” This comment is in reference to the Ancient Greek tradition of the victorious side in a battle erecting a trophy on the battlefield assembled from the defeated enemies arms and armour.
Chris: So Themistocles just couldn’t stand someone else getting all the glory? Sounds like a running feature in the lives of the greeks and romans.
Ryan: That’s right, but it seems that wasn’t the only reason Themistocles refused to feel satisfied with the victory. Plutarch writes that, “when others were of opinion that the Battle of Marathon would be an end to the war, Themistocles thought that it was but the beginning of far greater conflicts, and for these, to the benefit of all Greece, he kept himself in continual readiness, and his city in proper training.”
Now, as it happens, when word of his armies defeat at Marathon got back to the Great King Darius he was furious and determined to launch another expedition against Greece, but while preparations were underway revolt broke out in the crucial province of Egypt, which ended up buying Greece a little time. Before Darius would set out on campaign in Egypt, he needed to choose an heir, according to Persian tradition. Darius had a choice between his two eldest sons, born of different mothers. Artobazanes was the eldest, but Xerxes mother was the formidable Attosa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, and second only to Darius himself in power and influence at the Persian court. Darius wisely chose Attosa’s son Xerxes as his heir, despite him not being the oldest son. As it turned out, Darius died before the campaign in Egypt could commence and it fell to the new Great King Xerxes to quell the rebellion. Back in Athens, Themistocles saw an opportunity to build up the city’s
defenses against the Persian invasion which his foresight told him would be coming. A silver strike was made at the mines of Laurium outside Athens and the money from this windfall was to divided amongst the Athenian population but Themistocles proposed that instead of a handout of ten drachmas to every Athenian the revenue from the mines should be spent on constructing a fleet of warships (Plutarch says 100 warships, Herodotus says 200 – so maybe we’ll split the difference and go with 150). Themistocles hoped this fleet could defend Athens against the Persian threat but this is not how he pitched the idea. he knew that the Persian threat seemed far away to his fellow Athenians, so he proposed building the fleet to make war against Athens old rival the Aeginetans. Aegina was an island close to Athens and the Aeginetans had a fleet of their own. Themistocles knew the Athenian people were far more likely to support building a fleet to take the fight to Aegina, than to defend against Persians who, even after Marathon, seemed a distant and uncertain threat.
Chris: So appealing to jealousy and anger of the Athenians seemed like a better bet to Themistocles than appealing to their logic?
Aristides and Themistocles came of age as tyranny in Athens was coming to an end and the world’s first democracy in Athens had been recently established! It was a brave new world and would require brave new leaders.
Official Transcript of Episode 7:
Ryan: So, Chris I guess we should begin today with a quick programming note on the next two episodes. Thus far in our review of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans we have been alternating back and forth between Ancient Greece and Rome from one episode to the next, taking on one biography at a time. However, for the next two episodes I feel we need to do something a little different.
Chris: Right, so you have been telling me that with Themistocles and Artistides their lives are so entwined with each other, and with the bigger picture of Greek history, that their stories should really be told together.
Ryan: Exactly, so even though Plutarch separated the two into individual Lives, I am going to mesh them together and try to give a larger perspective of Greek history during their lifetimes.
Chris: Well, we said from the beginning that we were not going to stick with the exact same format as Plutarch. So, I am interested in hearing you tell the story of these two characters in your own way. Where do we start?
Ryan: Well, we’ll start with catching up on where things stand in Athens. Oh, and before we get into it, we’re covering a pretty wide geographic area in the next couple of episodes so if you are someone who likes to be able to visualize where the places, we are talking about are located in relation to one another
Anyway, so Athens – if you recall, at the end of the Life of Solon a tyrant by the name of Peisistratus was in control of Athens. Peisistratus had allowed Solon’s wise laws to remain in place, but he made sure to pack his supporters into the top offices, such as the annual office of Archon.
When he died Peisistratus was able to pass on power to his sons Hipparchus and Hippias, but the tyranny fell apart during their reign of power. The ancient Athenians liked to give credit for ending the tyranny to two heroic lovers named Harmodius and Aristogeiton who became known as the ‘tyrannicides’. There is a lot of propaganda at work there however: for one they only killed one of Peisistratus’ son’s – Hipparchus – and his brother Hippias responded to this murder by turning the tyranny, which as we have discussed was a relatively moderate tyranny, into a more repressive regime. It would take the eventual intervention of the Spartans to force Hippias out of Athens to put an end to the tyranny.
And besides the fact that it did not end the tyranny – it also seems that Harmodius and Aristogeiton’s murder of Hipparchus was not even politically motivated by a desire for freedom, but rather was sparked by a personal grudge. The tyrant Hipparchus had apparently made romantic advances toward Harmodius and had been rejected and so he arranged to have Harmodius’ family shamed.
As the story goes Hipparchus invited Harmodius’ younger sister to carry the ceremonial offering basket in the Panathaneia festival but then when she arrived to take up the basket she was publicly rejected as unfit for the duty (which was only to be performed by virgins). This had the effect of publicly shaming Harmodius family – and this is apparently what prompted Harmodius and his lover Aristogeiton to attack the two brother tyrants, killing Hipparchus.
Chris: So, it appears that these heroic lovers perhaps were not acting out of love for freedom or Athens, rather to avenge hurt egos, leaving it to the Spartans to truly end the tyranny.
Ryan: After the end of the tyranny, Athens fell into factionalism, or what the Greeks call statis, civil strife. On the one side you had a man named Isagoras who had gathered the support of the aristocrats, and who had the backing of the Spartans. Facing Isagoras on the other side was his increasingly isolated rival Cleisthenes. Whether it was out of a simple desire to win out and gain power for himself, or out of a genuine desire to empower regular Athenians, Cleisthenes turned for support to the common people – what his fellow aristocrats would consider the mob really.
His gambit succeeded and the Spartans were forced out by a popular uprising, with Cleisthenes quickly introducing a suite of democratic reforms, creating the world’s 1st democracy in 508 BC.
He divided the Athenians up into ten new tribes to replace the previous ones. Each of the ten tribes had to contribute one hoplite regiment to the army and elected one general. Each of the ten tribes also contributed 50 men to a new Council of 500. This council would set the agenda for debate in the Ecclesia, the Assembly of all Athenian citizens (citizens being adult males, not included women or slaves, or foreigners residing in Athens). The Council of 500 would send proposals to the Assembly to be debated and then either approved or rejected by a show of hands. And any Athenian citizen could propose a law by writing their proposal on a tablet which they would place in the Agora at the Monument of Eponymous Heroes. A commission from the Council of 500 would meet each month to review these proposals and select which of them to send to the Assembly for debate.
We will get into some real examples of how Athenian democracy operated in later episodes but for now I think it is important to note that Athens was a participatory democracy as opposed to our modern representative democracies. So, unlike today where we vote perhaps once every four years to elect a representative to participate in Parliament or Congress on our behalf – in Athens, any citizen had the ability to get directly involved in the decision-making process. Again, it is important to point out that women and slaves were excluded from citizenship but despite this restrictive definition of citizenship, participation was nonetheless extended to a much greater share of the population than in a modern democracy.
Chris: Its funny, it seems the Romans dated the founding of their Republic to 509BC, one year earlier than Athens, but many believe this date was later constructed to compete with the democratic accomplishments of the Athenians.
Chris: Its quite amazing, Athens included all its citizens in policy debate. Ryan, at any point in did women and released slaves acquire citizenship and inclusion in their democracy?
Ryan: Now, just like today, socioeconomic factors precluded most citizens from putting their name forward for top offices like general, or treasurer, or Archon – but there was not anything stopping an interested citizen from walking up the Pnyx Hill to participate in the Assembly. Which is remarkable when you consider that it is essentially equivalent to a citizen today strolling into Parliament or Congress and participating in a vote?
Ryan: Anyway, Sparta would make one abortive attempt to put an oligarchy back in control of Athens, but it really turned into a debacle – with arguments erupting within the Spartan camp and their army turning back before even reaching Athens. At this point democracy in Athens was already taking on a life of its own and there was no going back it seems.
So, this was the Athens that a young Aristides and Themistocles were coming to age in. Aristides was a little bit older than Themistocles and Plutarch says that he was a friend and supporter of Cleisthenes and his democratic reforms – though Aristides himself would eventually become a conservative voice in the Assembly, however as we will see that may have had more to do with his rivalry with Themistocles than anything else.
Now while all of these political developments had been occurring in Athens – to the East the Persian Empire had been expanding. In the episode on the Life of Solon we talked about how Cyrus the Great had conquered the Medes and then the Lydian Empire of King Croesus. Cyrus did not stop there however and next went on to conquer Babylon, an event which is recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. With this conquest, Cyrus the Great ended the captivity of the Jews in Babylon and allowed them to return to their ancestral homeland.
Cyrus the Great’s son, the possibly deranged Cambyses, would add Egypt to the Persian Empire. Now after some years of internal upheaval, the Great King of Persia was Darius. His empire stretched all the way to parts of modern-day Pakistan in the East, into Central Asia and the lands of the Scythian nomads in the north, Egypt in the south-west, and now with the acquisition of Thrace in Darius’ reign – the empire was bordering on Macedonia in the north-west, which layjust to the north of the various Greek city-states.
The Achaemenid Persian Empire (Achaemenid being the royal family name) was divided up into twenty provinces, called satrapies, each administered by a governor called a satrap.
Darius improved the administration of this vast empire and introduced a common currency – coins that were called ‘darics’ in Darius’ honour. He was the first living ruler to have his image placed on a coin – the coins depicted in him a running pose holding a bow and quiver. The bow was important to the Persians. Persian nobles were expected to do three things above all: shoot a bow well, ride a horse well, and speak the truth.
Chris: Are these the same Persians in the infamous Battle where 300 Spartan forces held back the Persian Army while reinforcements could group?
Communication between different parts of such a large empire was important – Herodotus reports that the provincial capital of Sardis was linked to the imperial capital of Susa by a royal road with 111 stations where a royal messenger could switch horses. This allowed a message to travel between the two cities (nearly 2,600 km) in little over a week. Despite this impressive organization and bureaucracy, the Great Kings of Persia ruled their subjects with a relatively light hand. So long as the tax and tribute flowed in, and the satrapies provided levies of troops when required, the various peoples of this incredibly ethnically diverse empire were allowed a considerable degree of freedom, religious and otherwise, to live in their traditional ways.
However, in an empire as vast as this one, no matter how well it is administered, trouble is certain to pop up somewhere. For the Great King Darius it arose in the Ionian Greek cities on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. These cities had been annexed by King Croesus of Lydia but the remained semi-autonomous and when Cyrus the Great had conquered the Lydian Empire these cities initially fought for similar treatment from Cyrus but were defeated. The Greek cities of Ionia were old – they were found in the Dark Ages following the Bronze Age collapse, well before the later wave of colonization that would see Greek colonies pop up all over the Mediterranean and Black Sea. The Ionian cities were centers of Pre-Socratic philosophy – that being philosophy before Socrates. A number of eminent thinkers would emerge in these cities advancing theories to explain reality that did not involve the intervention of Gods. Aristotle looking back would consider Thales of Miletus (another of the Seven Wise Men along with Solon) to have been the world’s first philosopher.
Anyway, these Ionian cities were old and sophisticated and it is easy to understand why some in these cities may have been chafing under Persian control, and in 499 BC a revolt began in Miletus and spread from there to the other Ionian cities. Aristagoras of Miletus appealed to the Greek cities on the other side of the Aegean for help with their revolt but ultimately it was only the Eretrians, sending 5 ships, and the newly democratic Athens, sending 20 ships, who came to their aid – albeit in a pretty minor way.
Chris: I can sympathise with their position. Cyrus had given other conquered states one way of ruling, and the Ionians just wanted the same and to keep their long-standing traditions intact.
Nonetheless with the arrival of these ships with their reinforcements the Ionians and their allies went on the offensive – marching inland to Sardis (King Croesus’ old capital you will remember) and capturing the city with no resistance. However, the Greeks were unable to plunder the city because they accidentally burned the place down. Herodotus’ says that the houses in the city had thatched roofs and when one house was torched, soon the whole city was up in flames.
The Greek forces withdrew to Mount Tmolus, however the Persian forces were able to organize themselves and followed the Greeks. At Ephesus the two sides did battle with the Persians defeating the Greeks and inflicting heavy casualties. This was the end of Athens’ support for the revolt, which was finally put down in 494 BC.
The city of Miletus was punished harshly by Darius for its role in inciting the Ionian revolt, when the city fell to the Persians all of the men were killed and the women and children sold into slavery.
The celebrated Athenian playwright Phrynicus wrote a play soon after titled The Capture of Miletus which depicted this tragic event – and it so affected audiences that Herodotus says Phrynichus was fined for ‘reminding the Athenians of their misfortunes’ and the play was banned from being performed in the future.
Chris: Well, these sorts of ancient retributions were common place and used sometimes to send signals to other would be resisters.
So, the Achaemenid Persian empire was a looming threat to Athens when Aristides and Themistocles were young men. Plutarch says that the two men were rivals stretching back to their boyhoods. The initial cause of their dislike apparently stemmed from competing for the affection of the beautiful Stesilaus of Ceos. Unfortunately, Plutarch does not tell us what became of this love triangle – only that Themistocles and Aristides carried their rivalry over into the arena of the new democratic political scene.
It is unclear if Aristides was an aristocrat by birth or from a more modest background – but he ended up as a leader of the aristocratic political faction, while his rival Themistocles would end up championing the poorer masses. Plutarch indicates that Aristides taking up the aristocratic side may have had as much to do with opposing Themistocles and preventing him from gaining too much power as it did his own political leanings. Aristides believed in justice above all, and his greatest hero was said to Lycurgus of Sparta.
Themistocles was of common birth but even as a young boy he had a precocious and impetuous nature. He was a quick learner and applied himself to improving his knowledge of practical matters, though Plutarch notes, not necessarily to improving his manners. Plutarch says that Themistocles was driven by his desire for glory and distinction and mentions that some say he was greedy for money as well, so that he could make lavish sacrifices and entertain guests.
Now Herodotus tells us that ever since the Ionian Revolt was finally put down in 494 BC the Great King Darius had been planning retaliation against the two Greek cities who had aided the rebellion – Athens and Eretria. Now it may seem like the desire for revenge against these two small Greek poleis was beneath the concern of the ruler of such a vast empire, and that invading Greece was just the next logical step in the expansion of the Persian empire. However, when the invasion happened there is no doubt that those two cities were the principal targets of the Persian forces so clearly making an example of Athens and Eretria was one of the objectives.
In 492 BC Darius launched an invasion force under the command of the general Mardonius. The Persian armada hugged the norther Aegean coastline but encountered a fierce storm off the coast of Mt. Athos which damaged the fleet. This gained the Athenians a two-year reprieve but in 490 BC a second invasion fleet was launched under new commanders – Datis and Artaphrenes. This time the fleet island hopped across the Aegean to avoid the dangerous waters off Mt. Athos and conquered the island of Naxos along the way. The next target was the city of Eretria on the island of Euboea (eh-vee-a). The Eretrians paid a high price for sending those 5 ships to aid the Ionian Revolt nine years earlier – after holding out against the Persians for six days the city was conquered, and the population enslaved.
Now it was Athens’ turn. Hippias, the exiled son of the former Athenian tyrant Peisistratus, had fled to the Persian court after being forced out of Athens and was now accompanying the Persian forces on campaign. He advised the Persians to land their forces at Marathon, which would afford them some suitable ground to use their cavalry.
With the Persians at their doorstep, the Athenians sent a runner to Sparta to request their aid against the Persians. This runner was the now famous Pheidippides.
Chris: I wonder how Pheidippides would perform against our modern Olympic athletes? I mean he made two famous runs correct.
Ryan: Yes, it turns out the original story of Pheidippides from Herodotus is quite different. Herodotus tells us that Pheidippides was a professional long-distance runner, what was known as a hemerodrome, a day-runner. Pheidippides was dispatched to run the 240 km to Sparta and request their help fighting against the Persians, which was a lot longer than the 40 km distance between Athens and Marathon. 40 kilometres would be just a warm-up to a runner like Pheidippides.
Chris: You know, Id, be lucky to survive 5km walk, hahah I’m lucky if get 10,000 steps in any given day.
Ryan: When Pheidippides was midway through his run to Sparta, around the Mount Parthenium region above Tegea, he had a vision of the god Pan who asked why the Athenians do not pay him more regard when he has done them favours in the past – and will do so again in the future. Now when you consider the distance Pheidippides had already run – visions or hallucinations do not come as a huge surprise. Herodotus writes that, “The second day after leaving Athens on his mission from the generals, he was already in Sparta. ‘Men of Lacedaemon’ he said, once had had come before their officials, ‘the Athenians beg you for assistance. Do not, by looking the other way, allow the most ancient city in Greece to fall into bondage and the clutches of barbarians. Already, Eretria has been reduced to slavery, and Greece thereby made the weaker by the loss of a famous city.’ This was the message he delivered, just as he had been instructed to do; but the Lacedaemonians, although keen to come to the help of the Athenians, were unable to do so right away, because of a law that they were most unwilling to break. ‘It is the ninth day of the month,’ they explained, ‘and because of that, we are unable to set out until the moon is full.’ “
Now the Spartans were notoriously scrupulous about observing their religious calendar – but one does have to wonder if this was also just a handy excuse for delay. Maybe I am being too skeptical though, this is the Spartans we are talking about after all.
In any event, Pheidippides had to turn around and start the run all the way back to Marathon to deliver the bad news that Athens was on its own – the Persians had landed the night before and the Athenian forces had marched out to oppose them. When I say the Athenians were on their own that is not entirely true. They did have some reinforcements from the Plataeans who the Athenians had defended against the Thebans in the past.
The Athenian army probably numbered in the 9 – 10,000 range and was considerably out-numbered by the Persians. Estimates range wildly for the size of the Persian army at Marathon but considering that it was transported by sea – it seems that 20,000 to 25,000 might be a reasonable guess. It seems like the logistics get tricky if the army gets much larger than that. The Persians certainly had a numerical advantage at Marathon, but the makeup of the two opposing armies was quite different. The Greeks, as we talked about in the Life of Lycurgus episode, had developed hoplite warfare – which featured tightly packed infantry formations, presenting a wall of spears and over-lapping, large, round, bronze-faced shields – with the warriors behind it wearing varying levels of bronze armour (greaves, cuirass, and the iconic bronze helmets many featuring the horsehair crest on top). So, the Athenian side consisted entirely of these heavy armoured infantries.
The Persians troops were more of a mix and could vary widely depending on which part of the Empire the levies were drawn from. The core of the Persian infantry though would carry a bow and a spear, shorter than the Greek spear, and probably a dagger or short sword as a secondary weapon. They had light shields of wicker covered in hides, and in terms of armour they might wear a shirt of iron scales beneath their tunic. Some had bronze helmets, but a great many had only felt hats or soft cloth headgear and tiaras covering their heads. In addition to their infantry the Persians made use of cavalry which the Greeks largely did not, and they had some cavalry with them at Marathon. The principal weapon for the Persians was the bow with which they were highly skilled and could rain down an overwhelming barrage of arrows on the enemy.
Without the aid of the Spartans the Athenians faced off with the larger Persian army at Marathon and considered their next move. As I mentioned earlier in the episode, each of Athens ten tribes elected a general, so there were 10 Athenian generals leading the Athenians and Aristides was one of them.
Chris: Ya not be skeptical of the Spartans, but it seems a bit of an appeasement answer from the Spartans, where those in Sparta who opposed would realise any Spartan involvement would likely come too late and would be okay with the offer to help, while those who wanted to help Athens were likely pleased, and since they were Spartans likely thought their excuse was reasonable.
Command of the army was to pass from one general to the next each day, but unsurprisingly some of the generals were disinclined to do battle with the larger Persian army. However, one general, Miltiades, was much in favour of taking the fight to the Persians – and Aristides, seeing the wisdom in this boldness, lent his support to Miltiades and gave over his day of command to him. Plutarch writes that, ” Among the ten commanders appointed by the Athenians for the war, Miltiades was of the greatest name; but the second place, both for reputation and power, was possessed by Aristides; and when his opinion to join battle was added to that of Miltiades, it did much to incline the balance. Every leader by his day having the command in chief when it came to Aristides’ turn, he delivered it into the hands of Miltiades, showing his fellow officers, that it is not dishonorable to obey and follow wise and able men, but, on the contrary, noble and prudent.”
With Miltiades in the lead the Athenians drew themselves up facing the Persians across the Plain of Marathon. To stretch their line long enough to match the Persians the Athenian line was thin in the centre but deeper on the wings. As the Athenians advanced toward the Persians, they picked up speed and began to run. It is not clear if this was intended to minimize the volleys of arrows they would endure or if the plan was to intimidate the Persians. As Herodotus describes it, “With everyone now at battle stations, the throats of the sacrificial victims were slit – and then, once these offerings had proved favourable, the signal was given to the Athenians, who advanced towards the Barbarians at a run. The distance between the two armies was 8 stades at the very least. When the Persians observed the Athenians bearing down on them at full tilt, they set about bracing themselves for the impact; but the truth was because they could see how few the Athenians were, and because the charge was unsupported by either cavalry or archers, they believed their attackers must be possessed by a death-wish”
Now some find it incredible that the Athenians would be able to run across this large plain in full armour but I for one, tend to believe it. By all accounts, the Ancient Greeks were quite athletic and had impressive stamina.
Chris: He just ran all the way to Sparta and back.
Ryan: Haha right – and while he was a professional runner, there is no reason to believe the men fighting at Marathon were not in good shape themselves. The Greeks even had an event in the Olympics called the hoplitodromos where men raced wearing the greaves, helmet, and carrying the shield of a hoplite.
And secondly, Herodotus completed his Histories only about 60 years after the battle of Marathon and would read the work to audiences of Athenians who presumably would know whether this claim was nonsense or not.
In any event, once the Athenians came to grips with the Persians the fighting was reportedly fierce. Plutarch tells us that Aristides and Themistocles were situated near each other in the line of battle and that both rivals fought bravely.
In the center the Persians were getting the better of the Athenians and were pushing them back, but on the right and left wings the Athenians were victorious and rather than pursue the fleeing enemy they turned to reinforce the center. The Persians found themselves pressed on three sides and collapsed. The Athenians pursued the Persians back to their ships, capturing seven of them while the rest escaped. Herodotus writes that, “As the Persians turned tail, the Athenians set off after them, hacking away, until they reached the sea – at which point they called for fire, and began to grab at the ships.”
It is said that an Athenian named Cynegeirus, a brother of the famous playwright Aeschylus, grabbed on to the stern of a ship and had his hand chopped off by an axe. It seems the story was later embellished so that after having the right hand chopped off, Cynegeirus reached up and held on with the left hand. Then after his left hand was chopped off, he seized on to the ship with his teeth!
Chris: Early form of dentistry? Did he also get his teeth cut off? Joking of course, just showed how determined he was to win for Athens at all epense.
There were other famous tales attached to the battle. One Athenian was said to have brought his dog to camp with him and when the battle began the faithful dog charged into battle alongside his master. This famous dog was duly included in the large mural of the Battle of Marathon that would later be painted in the Agora.
It is at this point that the story goes the runner Pheidippides was sent back to Athens with word of the victory and where he arrived and exclaimed “Hail, we are winners!” and promptly collapsed and died of exhaustion. The modern marathon run would base its distance of 26.2 miles on the distance between the plain of Marathon and Athens. The only problem is Herodotus does not mention this happening at all, it seems the first mention of it comes from a later Roman writer. It is a good story though.
Chris: Running to Sparta and back is more impressive and defiantly produced way cooler hallucinations.
Speaking of the Spartans, they arrived soon afterwards but were of course too late to lend a hand in the battle though Herodotus says they were keen to get a look at the Persians and inspect the battlefield before congratulating the Athenians and heading home. The victory was a resounding one – Herodotus reports 6,400 Persian dead compared to only 192 Athenians. This seems extremely lop-sided however ancient battles often seemed to turn out this way – with the side that breaks first and runs suffering most casualties.
The victory was a sensation in Athens. Anyone who took part in the battle became a minor celebrity – none more so than the general Miltiades who had taken the lead. To get an idea what Marathon meant to Athenians – the acclaimed writer Aeschylus, said to have authored some 70 to 90 plays, among them the Oresteia trilogy and The Persians, possibly also Prometheus Bound (though that one is debated) – after he died the epitaph on his grave read, “The tomb conceals the dust of Aeschylus, son of Euphoria, amid the grain-bearing Gelan fields. Marathon was witness to his courage, as were the long-haired Medes who knew him well.”
Chris: Sounds like a V-Day style commemoration to me! Tyranny knocked on Athens door and they answered with a swift boot to the butt of the Persians, even fighting them while their hands got chopped off trying to take their vessels. I do find it Strange the Spartans drive for battle did not trump their desire to fulfill the full moon cycle. This battle seems right up the Spartans’ ally.
That is right, despite all his literary achievements and being the most celebrated poet of his time – it seems what he really wanted to be remembered for was having fought at Marathon.
But while all the Athenians were elated with themselves and with their victorious general Miltiades, there was one Athenian that was unsatisfied.
(Plutarch quote p.107 Plutarch’s Lives)
It seems that Themistocles was convinced that the Persians would be back and with an army no Greek city could match. He was right, but the bigger question was what could he, or anyone else, hope to do about it? To find out, make sure to join us next time for Part 2 of The Life of Themistocles and Aristides.
If it’s said, Romulus gifted the Romans with a grand military tradition and supporting institutions which would last for a millennia, then Numa as a counter to military traditions, gifted the Romans grand religious traditions and supporting religious institutions, which would last for a millennia or more also.
Numa goes down as one of the best Roman leaders spanning the entirety of the Roman experiment right up to its end in Constantinople.
Podcast Episode: Check out this week’s episode below or click the link to our official podcast page featuring Numa Pompilius and all our previous episodes.
Chris: Welcome to episode six: The Life of Numa Pompilius, a man who never wanted to be King, a man with a deep faith in the Gods topped off with a philosophy abhorrently against an aggression and anger driven society forever at war depriving Rome’s citizens of more Godly and more peaceful societal improvements.
Chris: If it’s said, Romulus gifted the Romans with a grand military tradition and supporting institutions which would last for a millennium, then Numa as a counter to military traditions, gifted the Romans grand religious traditions and supporting religious institutions, which would last for a millennium or more also. Both of which would have profound influence unto Roman life.
Chris: Rome, with her first two, well I guess for accuracy’s sake we should say three Kings, as you may remember Tatius did co-rule with Romulus for five years before his collision course with death, set up Rome’s two most important ingredients for success which would stand the test of time through various iterations of the Roman political structure, were formed, and institutionalized by the time Numa exits stage left.
Ryan: I am amazed that many of these institutions we typically learn from tales of the Republic or Imperial eras were formed in the early days of Rome herself.
Chris: It is quite amazing indeed, and what is also interesting is the lengths future Romans would go to, to show their stock go all the way back to Numa and most certainly Romulus etc.,
Chris: Plutarch, then reveals there was no better evidence of this than by the many pedigrees of noble Roman families in Plutarch’s time who proudly traced their lineages back to Numa and Romulus forming the foundational criteria for the senatorial class known as the “Patricians”.
Chris: However, the constructs of the Patrician class shall be saved for future episodes as we move into the Roman Republican age.
Chris: For now, Romulus is a God and Numa would be busy introducing Romans to a philosophy of a peaceful relationship with Rome’s neighbors and striving to perfect what they already were given with religious piety being portrayed as a priority above all else, even one’s duty to Rome in the most severe situations!
Chris: So, who was Numa? Well before we push into his mundane pre-Kingship life, Plutarch describes that the exact time of Numa’s reign was still debated among the historian class, with some historians such as Clodius making a valid point that the ancient registers of Rome were lost during the very first sacking of Rome carried out by wandering Gaul’s so records from that time have been lost to the ages.
Chris: Others, say the legend that Numa was a world scholar and acquaintance, or student of Pythagoras of Somas is wrong and that Numa merely possessed a natural intelligence which needed no help from the likes of great minds like Pythagoras.
Chris: Also, ancient sources including the likes of Plutarch and Livy, have backed this conclusion that Numa was not a contemporary of Pythagoras for one obvious reason, the consensus being that Pythagoras was not even born until at least 100 years after Numa’s death in 670 BC, so could not be him.
Ryan: Obviously, this legend of Numa being a Pythagoras contemporary was a construct of later centuries, but I wonder why it was felt Numa needed a Pythagoras connection at all? I wonder if perhaps being a student of sorts of Pythagoras help explain or justify Numa’s seemingly off brand peaceful philosophies which would dominate Roman life for, decades, cementing and presenting religious pursuits and husbandry as another way of life Romans could choose from as opposed to making warfare a Romans forever task and only goal post.
Chris: That is a good question and perhaps was a combination of justification for Numa’s policies and perhaps helps build Numa as a leader worth aligning one’s family pedigree with.
Ryan: Exactly, like today’s political climate where garnering endorsements from wider societal groups, helps lend integrity to those candidates and perhaps Pythagoras connection helps Numa similarly in.
Chris: It is interesting and should be noted that there were other ancients named Pythagoras, and perhaps, as Plutarch seems to indicate a champion by the name Pythagoras of Sparta of the 16th Olympiad held in Numa’s third year in power, may have had the ear of the King and helped him develop some of his policies.
Chris: This also jives better with history where the Sabines, whom Numa was one, considered themselves descendants and even colonies of the Lacedemonians, or as we know them, Spartans. So, Pythagoras of Sparta, seems a more logical acquaintance of Numa, then Pythagoras of Samos, the famous one, born many decades later.
Ryan: So perhaps a historical mix up led future generations to assume Numa’s Pythagoras of Sparta was Pythagoras of Samos, the one who created the infamous Pythagoras theorem and the Baine of my existence in my University introductory math courses!
Chris: HAHAH, yes, I seem to recall that being the Baine of my existence also! But at least we know how to draw a proper triangle! So, thank you Pythagoras of Samos!
Chris: So, while the exact time and whom Numa’s contemporaries were up for a bit of debate, but we can be sure, he succeeded Romulus, and ruled until his death in 670 BC which is not disputed.
Ryan: And just to point out, as we continue to proceed through the decades closer to Plutarch’s time, fact become more reliable and are mixed with less and less myth.
Chris: Ryan, that is a great point because while when Numa’s reign started may be not fully known, the ending is much more certain.
Chris: So where does the story of Numa begin? And how did a man so unadorned when approached by the senate to become King, became a leading candidate for the Kingship?
Ryan: Great questions and just to add to that, it appears the transition from Romulus to Numa was violence free, rarely seen in transitions to come throughout the kingship and Imperial ages. So, the other question might also be how did a man who did not want to be King, do so without a violent episode?
Chris: These are honestly some of main questions Plutarch addresses. I do personally believe that Numa may have been one of the greatest leading men during Rome’s long history.
Chris: And to double down on this assertion, I challenge everyone listening to make a comparison between Numa and other Roman leaders they feel were the best of the best and let us know what you think! Our comments on the blog page are always open @ https://plutarchsgreeksromans.com/blog. I will circle back to this at the end of the episode.
Chris: So, the story of Numa really begins after Romulus passes from the living world to the heavens, and is enshrined as a God, leaving Rome rudderless with a populace very much still in support of Romulus and a senate with whom some of the populous were suspicious of their possible role in the disappearance of Romulus herself. It is safe to say the senate’s approval rankings were probably in toilet around this time.
Chris: This would be the first time that Rome would have to grapple with the question of succession and miraculously what emerged was a thoughtful, equitable and peaceful process, which unfortunately would rarely be seen again in future power struggles.
Chris: For these early Romans, the question was how do we “elect” a new King with such promise as to propel Rome above and beyond where Romulus left off. While there were some disputes between senators and other wealthy landowners as to process, they all agreed a King was required.
Chris: The fact the leading class was all in agreement that a King was needed, the task was made a little easier.
Chris: So fast forwarding the process of choosing a new Emperor in the first centuries after Christ, the differences between Numa’s electoral process and future processes is quite clear.
Chris: The process of finding a new Emperor began immediately after a new Emperor was named, where plotters, schemers and usurpers were always surface deep waiting to pounce to take up the regalia. This atmosphere of dog eat dog led to horrific acts of violence perpetrated by sitting Emperors and those looking to dawn the purple cloak themselves and find their way into the pages of history.
Chris: So, what was so different between the ascension of Numa to the throne and other future blood baths that usually followed a chose for Emperor? Well simply put, the Romans created a political and peaceful process to choose their new King.
Chris: In the building of Rome, both the Sabines and Romans worked together to build a city of equals and it was decided, that the choosing of a new King would also be done together.
Chris: So, the senate which was now a mixture of Romans and Sabines and numbering 150, set out to create a new form of government which the Romans called interregnum and would manage Rome during the transition period between Kings. This interregnum government would fulfill two main purposes. The first to ensure the state continued to function ensuring no interruptions to daily Roman life. The second was to decide on candidates for the Kingship and then vote on the candidates.
Ryan: Sort of a representative Dictatorship??
Chris: Yes, it could be viewed that way and to take that a step forward it is possible that the formation of the interregnum was the model for the Republic where consuls took the place of the King and the election process became numerous, being applied annually for consuls, while Kings once elected, remained in power until they left the Throne.
Chris: So, this new interregnum government would see the 150 senators interchangeably would assume the role of the Office of the Supreme Magistrate and each in succession with the authority of royalty would conduct the ritual sacrifices and administer the business of the people for six hours by day and a successor taking over for six hours at night ensuring no one senator grew drunk with power and eliminating senatorial rivalry or jealousy from the populous in general.
Ryan: I wonder if this rapid and rotating succession of administration formed the foundation for the consulship as you were just speaking of and its policy of only being elected for one year at a time. It’s fairly understood that the consulship term was meant to ensure power does not stay in the hands of any one person for too long, so maybe there is a connection there.
Chris: Very possible, and perhaps the idea of the Romans Office of Dictator grew out of the knowledge that sometimes a more lengthily rule was needed in times of crisis.
Chris: However, it was not lost on the populous that this new interregnum government quite possibly was a rouse to continue to rule Rome through this method, never choosing a new King and in fact turning Rome into a sort of Oligarchy.
Chris: As it turns out the senate did not have ambitions for an Oligarchy, as a King would be chosen in quick order and instead came to a bi-partisan agreement, that the Roman senators would vote for whom they thought was the best Sabine to become candidate, and the Sabine senators would choose whom they feel is the best Roman candidate for the general election. Plutarch writes of this astonishing compromise and bi-partisan agreement by saying.
Quote “both parties came at length to the conclusion that the one should choose a King out of the body of the other; the Romans make choice of a Sabine, or the Sabines name a Roman; this was esteemed the best expedient to put an end to all party spirit and the Prince who should be chosen would have an equal affection to the one party as his electors and the other as his kinsman.”
Chris: After much debate, the Romans named Numa Pompilius of the Sabines, who the Sabines embraced themselves and voted alongside their Roman Senatorial colleagues confirming Numa as Rome’s 2nd King. Next on the docket, the Senate needed to tell Numa the news and hope he received this eternal gift with open arms and would end the interregnum and form a new Kingship to bring prosperity to Rome.
Ryan: So, did the Sabines choose a Roman as a possible candidate?
Chris: Plutarch does not mention at this point much about their pick, other than the Sabine chose someone who was known to be from a lineage of the original Romans. We do come across possible choices made a little later in the episode, so stay tuned.
Chris: So, with the election over, the senate dispatched senators to bring Numa to Rome and crown him King of the Romans.
Chris: The Roman Kingship was now fully cemented, and I dare say Numa would be the last good King until the formation and adoption of the Republic some 150 years or so later.
Chris: So, before we venture to much further, I want to slow things down and jump into some basics, like who the heck was Numa? And what was he all about?
Ryan: I was wondering when we would delve a bit into his background. He seems so far to have been a solidary man and not connected with the Roman political elite. So, its interesting he was the chosen one.
Chris: Absolutely, most leaders typically emerge victorious only after years of political maneuvering and one ups man ship. This I can tell you, was not Numa’s style. However, the reasons Numa was chosen will become clearer shortly.
Chris: Numa hailed from the famous Sabine City of Cures, which the original Romans and the Sabines after they came together under one state named the new civic populous Quirites named after the city of Cures.
Ryan: Ahh, so perhaps Cures was an important city at the time and hence important men of this city would have naturally be possible candidates for the Throne.
Chris: A possibility indeed.
Chris: Numa’s father was as Plutarch writes, was an Illustrious man, who bore at least four male children, Numa being the baby of the bunch.
Chris: Plutarch next describes that Numa’s birth was divinely ordered as he was said to have been born on April 21, the day Rome was founded. Yet again I share the birthday of another great Roman!
Ryan: Well Chris, sounds like Numa and Rome herself are in some fine company!
Chris: Dang straight! And I have a feeling I will be using this joke every time April 21 gets brought up regarding famous Romans! So be fore warned.
Chris: So, was Numa really born on April 21? Probably not, but maybe was an April baby and once ascended, perhaps April 21 was massaged in to further bring credibility to his policies of faith and philosophy and why he was so dedicated to such pursuits.
Chris: Plutarch sums up Numa’s pre-royalty life nicely as follows.
Quote: Numa was endued with a soul rarely tempered by nature and disposed to virtue which he had yet more subdued by discipline a severe life and the study of philosophy; means which had not only succeeded in expelling the baser passions but also the violent and rapacious temper which Barbarians are apt to think highly of; true bravery, in his judgment was regarded as consisting in the subjugation of our passions by reason. Further Plutarch writes:
He banished all luxury and softness from his own home and while citizens alike and strangers found in him an incorruptible judge and counselor, in private he devoted himself not to amusement of lucre, but to the worship of the immortal gods and the rational contemplation of their divine power and nature. so famous was he that Tatius, the colleague of Romulus, chose him for his son-in-law and gave him his only daughter which however did not stimulate his vanity to desire to dwell with his father-in-law at Rome; he rather chose to inhabit with his Sabines and cherish his own father in his old age and Tatia also preferred the private condition of her husband before the honors and splendor she might have enjoyed with her father.
Chris: So now it is becoming much clearer as to why Numa was a candidate for the Kingship in the first place and why the Sabines overwhelmingly supported their Roman senatorial colleagues chose in Numa.
Chris: Additionally, Numa was about 40 when was crowned, allowing for a possible long and stabilizing period, not truly seen again until Augustus reign.
Chris: Before we continue, I just want to jump back to the infamous interregnum the senate set up to manage the Kingdom while they search for a new king for a moment. Imagine in today’s political climate, one party had to choose a leader from the other then an entire vote on the two was taken? I would say the entire chamber would never come to a vote let alone even choosing candidates. So, I would like to think the ancient Romans of this time were not more politically civil or reasonable then we are today, but rather was Numa’s heritage and pursuits of peace, faith and philosophy which got him the support from the entire Senate. I would like to think that.
Ryan: Ya seems like some things never change, power has always been concentrated and dispersed among a friendly few and obviously Numa was not a nobody and rather was probably a figure well known to the Quirites or the roman populous. And I agree, this interregnum set up to find a new King probably would be a dud on the floors of political capitals anywhere today.
Chris: I agree. So, Numa really intrigued me the more I read and during my research I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and learn Numa was already styled a Patrician with respectful lineage. So, when the shoe did drop, I did not lose much admiration for Numa as he was a solid chose to succeed Romulus regardless of his societal standing.
Chris: One would think that in ancient Rome, no one would need any convincing at all to take the reigns of power in Rome. This very notion is quite evident during the final days of the Republic and during the reigns of the emperors, where power was an end on to itself, where violence was the political currency used to obtain and hold on to it.
Chris: So, the fact Numa had to be convinced, makes me like him even more. I mean if we look to the year of the four emperors in 69 AD or five emperors in 192 A.D., and so fourth, no one had to be convinced to want power, that was just Roman society at its ugliest. So, its quite admirable Numa approached this decision as he did so many, with care and attention.
Chris: So, as already mentioned, the Roman senate dispatched two popular senators, Proculous and Veleus, both of whom many presumed would have been chosen as King themselves.
Chris: The two made little preparations for their conversation with Numa, as they assumed anyone offered a Kingdom, would need little coaxing to accept.
Chris: Obviously, Proculous and Veleus, did not know Numa very well and that it would take more than a mere offering of the Kingdom to awaken a sense of duty to abandon his quiet and peaceful life, for a life full of uncertainty in a Capital which was founded and grew through warfare, Numa’s opposite approach to all earthly pursuits.
Chris: Numa brought his father and kinsmen Marcius with him when he responded to the Senates offer. I mean who would not want their dad and best friend there for support when making such an important decision, I know I would? Plutarch quotes Numa as follows while the two bewildered senators watched and listened to a man turn down a Kingdom.
Quote: “Every alteration of a man’s life is dangerous to him, but madness only could induce one who needs nothing is satisfied with everything to quit a life he is accustomed to which whatever else it is deficient in, at any rate has the advantage of certainty over one holy doubtful an unknown.
Though indeed the difficulties of this government cannot even be called unknown. Romulus who first held it, did not escape the suspicion of having plotted against the life of his colleague Tatius, nor the Senate the like accusation of having treasonably murdered Romulus, yet Romulus had the advantage to be thought divinely born and miraculously preserved and nurtured. My birth was mortal: I was reared and instructed by men that are known to you: the very points of my character that are most commended mark me as unfit to reign— love of retirement and studies inconsistent with business, a passion that has become inveterate in me for peace, for unwarlike occupations and for the Society of men whose meetings are but those of worship and of kindly intercourse whose lives in general are spent upon their farms and their pastures. I should but be, me thinks a laughingstock while I should go about to inculcate the worship of the gods and give lessons in the love of justice and the abhorrence of violence in war to a city whose needs are rather for a captain than for a king.”
Ryan: Wow, Numa really understood what he did not want to get involved with and gave the senators every reason to pack it in and leave and head back to Rome empty handed.
Chris: He did yes and provided a glimpse of what his rule may look like, which apparently did not scare away the senators, for they probably were thinking if we return empty handed, the interregnum government could collapse as Numa was the only chose, both the Romans and Sabines could agree on.
Chris: So, with the senators failed attempt to convince Numa, Numa’s father and Marcius took the 40-year-old would be King aside and were able to convince Numa that this offering was more than the plea from the senate and was a reward from God for his lifetime of piety and unwavering pursuit of peace, religion, and philosophy, where perhaps Numa could introduce to the Romans his version of life and success making the Romans a more well rounded and moral society. Numa being moved by these words accepted the Kingdom not from the senate but from the wise council of his father and friend Marcius.
Chris: So, with dad’s touch, Numa was on board and broke the news to the senators, whom rejoiced and hailed Numa as King of the Romans!
Ryan: I am sure the senators were incredibly happy at the prospects of a long rule to stabilise the Kingdom and avoid the nasty business of electing a new King.
Chris: I would have to say yes, as who knows how much longer the interregnum would have lasted before a power struggle broke out if the senators had returned with no King on their side.
Chris: So, with Numa reluctantly accepting the throne, all eyes turned to the crowning of the New King and the highly anticipated normalization of the government with Numa as King and the senate advising the King and executing his and the peoples will for the betterment of Roman society. Must have been exciting times.
Ryan: So, it appears now, the Romans actually preferred a King and with Numa’s long reign, perhaps cemented this new political structure for the next 150+ years as you mentioned earlier!
Chris: Bang on. And I think after Romulus, there was a lot of uncertainty especially since Romulus was such a prominent figure, and questions whether anyone could fill his sandalia, (Roman word for sandals), and continue to grow Rome and bring prosperity to her people was a legitimate question. But once Numa ascended, the people now had their new political structure for the time being and seems as if they had confidence in it.
Chris: Before Numa would leave his home city of Cures, he bid a last farewell through performing divine sacrifices, said goodbye to his father and Marcius and proceeded with the Senators back to Rome, where messengers sent ahead of their journey ensured an extremely warm welcome from the Quirites, and the senate.
Chris: Rome being so rejoiced by the news, opened all their temples and made large sacrifices to the Gods in preparation for what many were hoping was a new Kingdom, elevating the Romans to new heights not seen before.
Ryan: I wonder how the individual senators felt about this absolute Joy felt by the Quirites that their time in power was coming to an end. Was this sort of a first public opinion poll of the senate?
Chris: HAHA, I never thought about that, but ya, while they were also rejoicing, they must have felt a bit like wow, did we really do that bad a job? Also probably was a reality check for some of these senators who were becoming accustomed to their power during the interregnum that real power lied with the throne simply because the people say so.
Ryan: Interesting, so maybe mob rule was beginning to poke its head through Roman politics. Regardless seems the people truly were approving of their new King.
Chris: Yup it seems that way, but the question remains can Numa keep it that way?
Chris: So with Numa’s entrance to the city rivaling the pomp and fair of Romulus’s first triumphs set the backdrop for Numa’s crowning, which began with his entering the forum to cheers and acclamations, where Spurius Vettius who was the senator in charge that particular day, put Numa’s candidacy for the throne to a vote, which was unanimous in their decision officially crowning Numa Pompilius the second King of Rome.
Chris: The senate next brought to Numa the regalities and robes of authority to complete the passing of power, but Numa refused until he could first consult and be confirmed by the Gods prior to acceptance from the mortal world.
Chris: Numa, followed by a procession of priests and augurs, leaving the senators and the people waiting patiently at the bottom of the capital, ascended the capital, which at the time was called the Tarpeian Hill, where the chief augurs covered Numa’s head, turned his face south and standing behind him, prayed, while glancing quickly about the room looking for signs from the gods. As time passed a silence fell over the capital as the growing crowd outside kept the silence going as anticipation of Numa’s holy confirmation mounted. Eventually a auspicious flock of birds appeared and flew by on the right confirming Numa was approved by the Gods. Remember when Romulus and Remus settled the question where Rome would be built by the siting of vultures? Birds were a holy symbol of divinity and an important symbol to the ancient Romans.
Chris: So, with Numa being convinced himself he had been confirmed by both the gods and the mortals they oversee, he dressed in his royal robes, and disembarked himself from the capital and descended to the people where he was rejoiced and hailed the Holy King!
Chris: Numa was off to the races.
Ryan: Its remarkably interesting to see that it was Numa himself who insisted on these multiple layers of confirmation to really ensure he was suited to rule or suppose. I mean what if no birds had flown by the ritual? At what point would the chief augur and Numa break from prayer and say well, no signs the gods want me as king, back to the interregnum to decide on a new King we go!
Chris: Well, I am sure there were some empty bird cages laying around the capital after the procession descended, but yes good point, sounds like Numa was cementing his power by seeking divine support for his rule where he could say, hey the gods chose me, you were there! And this would be no different from the European Kings claims they were God’s messenger on earth to legitimatize their ascension to their thrones.
Chris: So to recap, Numa’s journey to head of state was unusual in that Numa was a man who bucked traditional Roman norms, had a dis-taste for warfare, refused to bathe in the sunshine Tatius’s adoption surely would have brought him, remained committed to peace and the pursuit of farming, religious piety and philosophy, who turned down the senate’s offer to be named King, only being swayed by his family and close acquaintances, whom delayed his crowning until the gods gave the green light, in my opinion truly was bringing a new kingdom to Rome.
Ryan: I must agree, he really seems to have been a 180-degree pivot away from Romulan politics. I always wanted to through in a star trek reference.
Chris: HAHA, I love it! However, I fear the Romulans as seen in star trek were more modelled after Romulus and traditional aggressive Roman culture.
Chris: Okay, so Numa has a lot to live up to and we begin with his very first act as King, which to my amazement was a symbol of trust between King and his people, where he disbanded Romulus Lifeguard or as was called by him Celeres in Latin consisting of 300 well trained soldiers, and Plutarch quotes Numa as follows:
Quote: that Numa would not distrust those who put confidence in him, nor rule over people who distrusted him.
Chris: In the same stroke while he dismantled one symbol of Romulus, he created two new priests, one for Jupiter and one for Mars, and a third for Romulus himself, which he called the Flamen Quirinalis. The ancient Romans called their priests Flamines, so this was a nod to Romulus and the original Romans who through acts Numa disagrees with, were the direct cause of his ascension to Rome in the first place.
Ryan: So, in one swoop, the peoples trust in Numa rose, while their favorite King so far, Romulus now had his own priest to communicate with the populous from the heavens. Numa’s popularity must have been off the charts at this point!
Chris: Absolutely, he had the trust and admiration of the people and his next task was to bring down the aggression found in Rome and soften her people up a bit. Plutarch quotes Plato’s expression of a city in high fever, to describe Rome currently.
Chris: So Numa set out to soften the Romans through incorporating more religious activities and duties into their lives. Numa made religious sacrifice and processions common activities and even officiated most of these rituals himself to lead by example to try and quell Rome’s fiery and warlike tempers.
Chris: Likewise, in his attempt to passive the Romans a bit, he indoctrinated a sense of fear of the god’s wrath through stories of seeing apparitions and strange voices instilling a sense of fear of the super natural, where Romans would slowly incorporate more and more religious activities into their daily lives, leaving less time for warlike thoughts!
Chris: Numa also forbade any Roman to represent God in the form of man or animal, nor were paintings or graven images or any other representation allowed, leaving temples bare of religious images which would last approximately for the next 170 years.
Chris: Just as a side note, when Numa sacrificed, he did so with the least important commodities, saving livestock and instead used flour, red wine, and other inexpensive offerings. I guess the gods under Numa were vegetarians maybe and were sick of the constant barbecue of animal sacrifice!
Chris: So, these religious policies enacted by Numa, did provide some proof that perhaps Numa was a Pythagoras contemporary, but Plutarch has already dismissed this possibility because Pythagoras was believed to have been born many decades later. Further proof some historians pointed to was Numa named one of his sons Mamercus, which happened to be the name of one of Pythagoras sons’ names also and would go on to found one of the oldest Patrician families in Roman history the Aemilli, so named after the King gave Mamercus the surname Aemilius for his engaging and graceful manner of speaking, Plutarch tells.
Chris: To move beyond this obsession that seems to swirl around Numa that he was somehow connected with Pythagoras, we will leave this aspect of Numa’s life in the rear-view and who knows maybe we will add Pythagoras to the list of episodes, as I am very curious now!
Ryan: I agree, it’s very interesting the facts and contradictions of the connection between the two. And, maybe, perhaps Pythagoras got his start from the history of Numa!
Chris: Now that would be a fun fact to unearth! So where does Numa go from here? Well, his next step is to set religion up as its own institution through the creation of the original constitution of the priests called the Pontifices, for which Numa was the first. The word Pontifices comes from potens or powerful because they help service the gods who have ultimate power over all living beings.
Chris: So, what was role of the office of Pontifex Maximus or the chief priest? Simply put, these priests were to declare and interpret the divine law and preside over sacred rites. Additionally, they were responsible for developing rules for public ceremonies and regulated the sacrifices and religious rituals of private persons as well so that everyone in the Kingdom was using uniform rules and guidelines for such activities.
Chris: Further the Pontifex Maximus, was responsible for the vestal virgins who kept the eternal fire, which was thought to be so pure, that only a virgin who was considered pristine, could manage this holy eternal fire, and not offend the gods in doing so. Others say their only role was to keep the flames lit, but others that they held and concealed divine secrets known only to them. Regardless of their purpose, we know they existed, and we know Numa appointed the first two vestals Gegania and Verenia, followed by Canulea and Tarpeia.
Chris: King Servius the sixth King of Rome added two more vestals, and the number would stand at four through Plutarch’s time and beyond!
Ryan: Wow, Numa had quite an influence on shaping Roman power which lasted for centuries.
Chris: Yes, it is quite amazing, that this structure he created would become a dominating force in Roman politics, commerce, and life in general!
Chris: So, continuing with the vestals, Numa further prescribed extremely specific statutes for the vestals. Vestals had to swear an oath of virginity for at least 30 years, the first ten they were considered in training, learning their duties, the second ten performing their duties, and the third ten, teaching new vestals their duties. Once their 30 years of service ended, they were free to pursue any lifestyle they pleased.
Ryan: I wonder how these vestals after a strict 30 years of strict living conditions and virginity fared when they left the vestal.
Chris: Great point, Plutarch mentions that many stayed close by and lived out their days how they lived during their time as a vestal as many who did not, came to regret their subsequent actions of sex and bearing children and other things they were forbade from participating in for so many years. I guess one could say they became very institutionalised making change difficult.
Ryan: Ahh, good point!
Chris: However, it seems Numa realised and respected the vestals faith and commitment to their careers as a virgin, and fire keeper as he granted them many privileges not typically accustomed to women of the time.
Chris: These privileges start out tame but get stranger and stranger as the list goes on. So, Vestals were able to make a will during the lifetime of their father and could not be willed away to another man.
Chris: Vestals were granted free reign to manage their affairs that did not require a tutor or administrator, which was usually only granted to women who had three or more children.
Chris: Further, when these vestals chose to travel, they always had to carry the fasces, which was a Roman symbol thought originally from the Etruscans, and if by chance during their travels they come across a prisoner on his was to be executed, the execution would be relinquished, and the prisoner set free after oath was made by the vestal, that the chance meeting was not a setup. Told you it starts to get strange.
Chris: To add to the strangeness, if anyone happened to press against the chair the vestals were travelling in, that offender would be put to death on the spot. In ancient times, the wealthy and apparently the vestals would have slaves or other members of the serving class carry them by chair from place to place. So, I guess if someone pressed into the chair, this could cause a serious accident if the chair toppled. Not sure death is warranted, but perhaps Numa was merely elevating the ex-vestals and providing them a sense of importance and respect typically given to senators and other high-born Romans.
Chris: So, while the vestals were treated well while they were a practicing vestal and even more so afterwards, Numa did prescribe a very harsh punishment in the event a vestal broke any vow regardless how minor, but typically was carried out when a vestal specifically breaks her vow of celibacy.
Chris: If a vestal were proved to have broken a vow such as having sex, the high priest would be the only person allowed to exact punishment for this crime. This was not a matter of state, but a matter of the Gods.
Chris: Just to warn everyone, the punishment is a bit draconian, where the high priest would remove the clothing of the vestal, scorn her in the dark with a curtain drawn between them and then she would be buried alive at the Gate called the Collina after a ceremony performed by the high priest in the forum.
Ryan: Ahh, so we finally get to see some of the not so nice side of Numa eh?
Chris: Definitely, but one can imagine that Numa took appeasing the gods and commitments he makes to them seriously, and with this sort of draconian punishment, sends a strong signal to the Gods, that the Romans are serious about the vestals and their commitments to them, and will ensure this sort of crime is infrequent to keep favour with the Gods. While it all sounds silly to us today, it was particularly important in those times.
Chris: Plutarch also credits Numa with the building of the Temple Vesta, which was meant as a repository of the holy fire the vestals were responsible for. The temple was built in a circular form representing not the earth but the universe. Other historians do mention the building shape was representative of the time where homes were built in circular fashion and since the Vesta was originally celebrated in these private homes, perhaps the construction drew its inspiration those early Roman structures.
Ryan: It is becoming quite obvious that Numa was entirely focused on bringing religion into the mainstream, and it seems it was working.
Chris: I agree, Numa’s was literally setting the religious order in Rome from basically scratch, unifying religious rites and ceremonies so all Romans were doing things the same way.
Chris: Numa also gave all the power of religious practice in Rome to the Priests who began to control every aspect of Romans religious life and an example of this was the days of mourning for a loved one had strict guidelines to be followed. So, for those who perished between birth and three years old, no mourning was allowed, while ages four-10, one could mourn for as many months as their child was old, with the longest mourning period allowed was 10 months, which was allotted to women who had lost their husband. Not sure the logic behind all of this, but again while this may seem silly today, in those times, following religious order was paramount in society.
Ryan: I wonder how this was enforced? And I wonder how parents of toddlers who perished were supposed to not mourn!
Chris: Well Ryan, it called smile nod, and cry on the inside I suppose! But particularly good point!
Chris: To add to Numa’s mounting accomplishments, Plutarch credits Numa with the creation of several other orders of the priests, two of which became prominent, which were the Salii and the Feciales.
Chris: Plutarch starts with the Fedials, calling them the guardians of peace, as their primary role was to settle disputes through words not sword as it was not allowable for those involved in disputes to take up arms until all paths of accommodation had been thoroughly investigated. Numa’s philosophy, similar to the Greeks, Plutarch describes that “we call it peace when disputes are settled by words, and not by force.
Ryan: Remarkably interesting that last part, because in modern society peace is brought through words and war, but the ancients may have had a more logical viewpoint on the meaning of peace.
Chris: Very true and later Romans blamed the Gaul’s sacking of Rome in 387 BC for Roman society not following the order of the Fedials. So, I guess it was the Roman populous who brought on the Gaul’s and not the failures of the military and leaders of the time! I think we all know the truth, but perhaps that was spin room Rome in that time! The first sacking of Rome for those wanting more information, can be found in the full history of Caminus.
Chris: Plutarch next moves on to detail the order of the Salii who were born likely out of myth during a great pestilence which plagued Rome and Italy during the eighth year of Numa’s reign.
Chris: Plutarch tells a tale of a brazen target which Egeria a nymph, not what your thinking, who was a divine consort and counselor to Numa, and the inspirational goddesses of literature, sciences and the arts claimed this brazen target, which we assume was some sort of object was sent to Rome by the gods as a cure for the pestilence and to ensure was not stolen by thieves, Numa had eleven more made as exact replica’s.
Chris: Numa was apparently obsessed with finding a true replica to keep the true target safe, and sent word for all artificers, or skilled labour in Rome to come try their hand at replication. None made the cut until a man named Mamurius Veturius made the eleven replicas so like the original, that Numa himself could not pick out the original. So, with the target or the cure to the pestilence now properly disguised, they needed a place where they could be kept safe.
Chris: Numa first decided to consecrate the marshy waters surrounding the place where the target fell and would be used for the vestals to wash their penetralia as the Romans used this word to describe at least in this case the vestals vaginas, so they could wash themselves with holy water.
Chris: So, with the area surrounding the target landing zone being consecrated appeasing the Muses, Numa made the order of the Sali, a group of priests who would be charged with keeping the 12 targets safe in a temple at the center of the consecrated land and could only be approached by the vestals and the Salii Priests.
Ryan: I mean obviously this is a tall tale, but I wonder what the basic premise was? Did they find a way to stop the disease and this whole story of a brazen target was part of Numa’s plan to further align religious piety with obedience and consequences of not properly following the rules of the Gods?
Chris: Good point Ryan, its possible it was a construct to0 help explain why the pestilence began, and why it eventually receded and the Romans making sure not to repeat the same offence against the gods in the future. What is that old saying? Fool me once? Point is we wont anger the gods again and we will be good Roman!
Chris: Regardless, Numa had further entrenched religious ideals into the Roman psyche and his relentless push for a religious state was coming closer and closer everyday to fruition.
Chris: It really seems Plutarch is focusing solely on Numa’s religious accomplishments, so his turn to Numa’s dwellings was a bit of a welcome relief, even if was short lived.
Chris: Numa shortly after the pestilence had abated, built the Regia, or King’s House situated a short distance from the vestal Temple, and this is where Numa lived and spent most of his days.
Chris: He also was said to have had a home on Mount Quirinalis, one of Rome’s famous seven hills, previously occupied by a small Sabine tribe, which Plutarch describes was a sort of attraction in his time.
Chris: Numa in his fight to make religious ceremony the most important endeavor to the Romans, outlawed noise in the streets and forbid Romans from worshipping outside unless for a particular ceremony or ritual. He did this to ensure Romans had no distractions from the duties to the Gods and wanted the Gods to know, they Have Rome’s full attention!
Ryan: Not so dissimilar to today’s day of worship which for Christianity, typically is Sunday, Jews Saturday, and Muslims Friday. This Numa guy remarkably interesting, no war, no aggression, just dedicated to the Gods.
Chris: Particularly good parallel, Numa was creating a peaceful and dedicated time for Romans to worship undisturbed by the pressures of their normal lives, which likely were very tough going.
Chris: Finally, Plutarch for the remainder of the episode speaks on some of Numa’s other non-religious accomplishments, however some of the details have religious undertones, but speak to his wider policies of peace, forgiveness, philosophy, skilled labour and a sense of a Roman Oneness.
Chris: Numa’s worldview or peace as discussed already, was a driving factor in everything the Numa did for the Romans. Numa’s stated goal was to bring organized religion into Roman lives and to reduce the aggressiveness of the Romans through peaceful alternatives to occupy their minds and time.
Chris: Numa also built the temples Faith and Terminus, the latter being inspired by the God Terminus or Boundary, both of which would have powerful impacts on Roman culture existing in Plutarch’s day and beyond, for Numa taught the Romans that the name faith, was the most solemn oath one could take. The expression have faith had a more literal meaning in ancient Rome compared to our “Have faith” expression today.
Chris: While the temple of Faith mainly had religious implications, the Temple of Terminus was an accolade for the God Terminus or Boundary, which would serve a more basic function in Roman culture, where both public and private land was marked with boundary rocks ensuring disputes from aggressive landowners from over running Rome’s judiciary and increasing aggression between Romans and her neighbors.
Chris: Plutarch goes on to very clearly state that it was Numa who would bring the idea of legal boundaries within Rome and her territories and to the borders of Rome herself and writes:
“for boundaries are indeed a defence to those who choose to observe them, but are only a testimony against the dishonesty of those who break through them. the truth is the portion of lands which the Romans possessed at the beginning was very narrow until romulus enlarged them by war: all who’s acquisitions numa now divided amongst the indigent commonality wishing to do away with that extreme want which is a compulsion to dishonesty and by turning the people to husbandry to bring them as well as their lands into better order. for there is no employment that gives so Keen and quick a relish for peace as husbandry and Country Life which leaves in men all that kind of courage that makes them ready to fight in defence of their own while it destroys a license that breaks out into acts of injustice rapacity. numa therefore hoping agriculture would be a sort of charm to captivate the affections of his people to peace and viewing it rather as it means to moral than to economical profit divide all the lands into several parcels to which he gave the name of Pegasus or perish another over every one of them he ordained chief overseers.
Ryan: So Numa’s hope for a more passive and peaceful future for Rome relied on a sense of a new concept of boundaries, and if Romans respected their fellow citizens boundaries and worked hard to cultivate their own lands to the best of their ability, may instill similar notions of how they view other city states outside of their boundaries at least making the case for war a lesson in morality as opposed to a lesson in strength and growth which we saw under Romulus.
Chris: Nailed it! Absolutely, and in this case the temple of Terminus effect was less religious and more to the building of Roman morality.
Chris: With the accomplishments stacking, Plutarch describes Numa’s next measure as one of his most commended, which was his distribution of the people by their trades into companies or guilds.
Chris: The two current divisions of the Roman populous I believe Plutarch was referring was of Roman or Sabine, or being labelled a Romulian or Tatian, Numa felt stood in the way of true unity as both “sides” viewed the other with a measure of distain and distrust. Numa’s hope that this old division would be replaced by more respectful divisions through his creation of companies of musicians, goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, shoemakers, skinners, braziers, and potters would bring together Roman’s similarities and not letting their dissimilarities hold progress back in Rome.
Ryan: So, sounds like Numa was unifying two peoples together to carry on truly as one people.
Chris: I’d say that’s about right. Of course, divisions between the rich and poor would persist.
Chris: Numa further made the Roman family unit more sacred through repealing the old laws which allowed Roman Fathers to sell their children as slaves, where women felt their marriage in a way was to birth and raise slaves as opposed to raising children under the Gods and instilling a stronger sense of family amongst them all. No longer were Roman families a supply of slaves for the state, though I assume a black market quickly emerged.
Chris: At this time in the ancient world, time and the concept of time itself was not uniformly understood and there was no unity in times, dates and the calendar of the ancients varied greatly across the Mediterranean. For the Romans, prior to Numa’s calendar reforms had 10 months ending with December, meaning the tenth month. Romulus was not particularly concerned with the calendar, but Numa’s affinity for order and religion pushed him to tackle it adding two new months, January, and February, re-arranging the months, such as placing March as the third month, when was originally the first and was a dedication from Romulus to the God Mars. Numa even understood the basic concept of a leap year, though his reforms saw an additional month squeezed in after February every two years not four. Regardless he had modernized the calendar which wouldn’t be altered again until the Cesarian reforms many centuries later, though there would be tweaks and amendments over time.
Ryan: Very interesting, and for us today, the names of the months mean very little but were carefully named in Numa’s time such as April, from the Latin word Aperio meaning open, because in Italy at the time, April was high spring and the earth opened and farmers could once again grow and harvest their crops in greater quantities than during the colder months.
Chris: Ya very good point, and the fact the world today still uses these months to breakdown time is a testament to the reach Roman culture has had over time.
Chris: Plutarch after exhausting Numas accomplishments begins to wrap up his biography through Numa’s peacetime record exampled by Numas own creation at his temple called the gates of war, open during warfare and closed during peace. Plutarch tells us that during Numas reign, the gates remained closed for the entire 43 years Numa led Rome, which one would think was a sign of a long and glorious peace to come, but as Plutarch notes, in the next 700 years to his time, the gates had only been shut two since, briefly by a pair of consuls in the mid Republic, and again after the3 Republic fell and Augustus long reign cemented the princepts.
Ryan: So Numas policy of boundaries at least with regards to competitor states did not stick and Rome would forever grow through the point of a Gladius or sword.
Chris: I would agree, however at least it did force Romans to further ensure war was justified whether imaginary or not, as the people had to first be convinced and this took more precedence moving forward. And this practice of legitimatizing a war to gain popular support is not uncommon even today.
Chris: Numas policies even rubbed off on neighboring states, which began to emulate Rome reducing their flare for warfare. Numa had helped to lower the aggressive nature of middle Italy, which would help integration of these peoples by future Roman conquests. I would also argue that these policies helped build the foundation for Italy being the center and original province of Rome when she began to expand outside of Italy.
Chris: Numa in my opinion was one of the greatest leaders of Rome, and one of the few thought leaders to grace the regalia, consulship or princeps, followed Romulus who set up Rome’s military and political structures, while setting up Rome’s moral culture through introductions of organized religion, setting internal and external boundaries, promoting a simple life of agriculture, removing old divisions between Romans and Sabines, improving the family unit and abstaining from ware for 43 years until his natural death in his 80’s. It was quite a rule and his legacy still reverberate today.
Chris: Numa’s reign would be so revered by future Romans, that Plutarch suspects that Numa’s family legacy likely did not continue, however some say his four sons went on to start four noble Roman Senatorial families still in power in Plutarch’s time and were the families of Pomponi, Pinarri, Calpurnii, and Marmerci, which some say were those families aligning Numa as the first of the genealogy, a common practice as we have described this in past biographies.
Chris: So, to end the episode, I ask everyone listening, what do you think about Numa? Does he compare with Augustus? Is he worthy of being in the top 10 best Roman leader spanning both the Kingship, the republic, the empire and eventually the eastern empire? My answer is yes! Let us know your thoughts in on our blog.
Episode 5, The Life of Solon has been uploaded to our podcast web page here. As we begin to move away from the founding’s of Rome and some of the older biographies where fact/fiction is a grey area, we are starting to move out of the grey area and into more truths than nots regarding the coming biographies.
For the life of Solon we return to Athens, where we started the podcast and learned about Theseus, the hero who the Athenians celebrate as their founder because he ended the tribute to King Minos of Crete, brought the people of Attica together, and established some of Athens traditions and festivals.
Chris: Not to mention slaying a minotaur, and attempting to kidnap a wife on more than one occasion
Ryan: Right – Theseus led a very eventful life to say the least
And Chris, I am excited to be moving forward and taking on the life of Solon today because it means we are now moving into more solid Greek history. Unlike Theseus who can be placed into the category of myth, and Lycurgus who sits maybe halfway between man and myth, we can be pretty certain that Solon really existed and when he existed. The year that Solon was appointed to arbitrate the differences of the Athenian people is most likely 594-593 BC. I know you have been eager to get to some actual dates Chris
Chris: Ha ha, yes it feels good to hear an actual date
Ryan: Agreed. Now Solon is considered one of the Seven Sages, or Seven Wise Men, according to the Classical Greek tradition. The earliest surviving list of Seven Wise Men comes from Plato’s Protagoras. Solon expressed his wisdom through poetry – writing in prose was uncommon. It is said that Solon travelled widely in his younger days – some say that Solon travelled purely to gain wisdom and knowledge, others that he was a merchant, having come from a noble family whose wealth had ebbed and so it fell to Solon to restore their fortune. For his part, Plutarch sees no shame in Solon possibly engaging in trade to restore his families wealth – pointing out that trade brings home the good things from other countries, increases friendship with their kings, and is a source of valuable experience.
Chris: Very good points
Ryan: Yeah, and it does seem that like Lycurgus before him, Solon did learn much from his travels – which may have provided him with the objectivity and clarity to see what needed to be done in his own polis of Athens when it was later gripped by a crisis.
Solon established a reputation for wisdom amongst the Athenians by offering sage advice in moments of crisis. At one point the Athenians were determined to give up on a long war with the neighbouring polis of Megara over control of the island of Salamis, which was situated in the Saronic Gulf directly between the two cities. Solon wrote a poem urging the Athenians to renew the war, and succeeded in changing public opinion. The Athenians decided to continue the fight under Solon’s leadership and defeated the Megarians in battle. Solon also advised the Athenians to defend the neutrality of the Oracle at Delphi against the Cirrhaeans. On another occasion, when factionalism gripped Athens, Solon convinced members of one faction (the Cylonians) to submit to a trial by a jury of 300 citizens, and the Cylonians were banished – putting a halt to the strife. These actions combined to gain Solon widespread recognition as the wisest of the Athenians.
Now at this time political power in Athens was dominated by an aristocracy of Eupatrids – sons of ‘good’ fathers
Chris: The listeners can’t see that you are making air quotes with your fingers Ryan
Ryan: Haha right, good fathers in quotation marks. The Eupatrids exercised power through controlling the annual office of Archon, and through the council of the Areopagus which was a group composed of ex-Archons. However, serious tensions had arisen between these powerful aristocrats and both the masses of poor citizens, as well as the class of new-rich who did not come from noble stock. Making the situation particularly untenable was the amount of debt which many individual Athenians had accrued. Many were being forced into slavery because they were unable to pay their debts. So it seems that, as it had in Sparta before Lycurgus’ reforms were instituted, inequality in Athens had reached extreme levels.
Chris: Something had to give
Ryan: Yes, and as I mentioned it was not just the poor that were dissatisfied, there were also those wealthy individuals who did not belong to the Eupatrid class – and so lacked power and prestige to go along with their wealth.
Plutarch relates that the inequality and debt had many Athenians on the brink of open rebellion, writing that,
“Some [for no law forbade it] were forced to sell their children, or fly their country to avoid the cruelty of their creditors; but the most part and bravest of them began to combine together and encourage one another to stand to it, to choose a leader, to liberate the condemned debtors, divide the land, and change the government.
Then the wisest of the Athenians, perceiving Solon was of all men the only not implicated in their troubles, that he had not joined in the exactions of the rich, and was not involved in the necessities of the poor, pressed him to succour the commonwealth and compose their differences”
And thus Solon was chosen as Archon and given a mandate to arbitrate the differences between the classes and make new laws. Plutarch says that the rich consented to the choice of Solon because he was wealthy, and the poor consented because he was honest.
Solon approached the task ahead of him with a great deal of pragmatism. He seems to have had an eye towards making changes that stood a good chance of withstanding the test of time and so perhaps didn’t go as far as he could have in correcting the imbalances in Athenian society.
Plutarch writes that Solon was asked afterwards if had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given he replied, “the best they could receive”
Chris: Ah. Well said. So what were these laws that Solon instituted?
Ryan: Well, perhaps most important to the immediate situation was that he declared that all remaining debts should be forgiven – and the practice of enslaving a person who could not pay their debts was outlawed. This measure was called the Seisechtheia (the Shaking off of Burdens). This would allow those who had fled their debts to return home and reignite the moribund Athenian economy.
Not surprisingly to anyone who follows modern politics, despite the obvious good sense of this measure, neither the rich nor the poor were happy with it. Plutarch writes that, “the rich were angry for their money, and the poor that the land was not divided, and, as Lycurgus ordered in his commonwealth, all men reduced to equality.”
So to the rich Solon had gone too far with this move, but to the poor he hadn’t gone far enough.
Chris: Isn’t that the sign of a good compromise though? That neither party is fully satisfied?
Ryan: Absolutely. And soon enough the Athenians realized the good that the Seisechtheia had accomplished and urged Solon to continue with his reforms. And so next Solon completely repealed the existing set of Athenian laws that had earlier been laid down by Draco with the exception of law regarding homicide. These laws were seen as being far too severe, and this is where we derive the modern English word “Draconian” which refers to rules that are excessively harsh. Plutarch says that Solon quote, “ repealed all draco’s laws except those concerning homicide because they were too severe and the punishments too great; for death was appointed for almost all offenses insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die and those that stole a cabbage or an Apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder so that Demades in after time was thought to have said very happily that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood and he himself being once asked why he made death the punishment of most offenses replied small ones deserve that and I have no higher for the greater crimes
Chris: So with a large labor force and two companies of rough men as their protection, Romulus and Remus embarked on their last adventure together which would seal the fate of one of them, while the other would go on to build Roman society which would endure for millennia.
Chris: Upon arriving at the banks of the Tiber and presumably close to where their birthing trough was enshrined, Romulus and Remus both presented competing locations for where their new city would be built.
Chris: Romulus chose a spot called Roma Quadrata, or the square Rome, while Remus laid out a more defensible spot on the Aventine Mount, which Remus named Remonium and Rignarium in Plutarch’s time.
Chris: So being extraordinarily Stubborn apparently was the name of the game, with both brothers not budging from their choice for the new city. So, as was custom in these times, it weas decided that the contest would be determined by a divination from a flight of birds, divination being “to be inspired by a god,” is the attempt to gain insight into a question or situation by way of an occultic, standardized process or ritual.” Thank you Wikipedia.
Chris: So divination as I understand Plutarch to mean is whomever peered the most vultures during the divination ritual, would of course win the day and their plot of land for Rome would be chosen. Pretty cool eh Ryan? Next time we must edit the podcast, lets give this a whirl to see whose turn it is! Ha hahahah
Chris: It was reported that Remus saw six vultures and that his accounting was unembellished, while Romulus claimed to see twice the amount of Remus and declared himself winner and immediately began digging foundations.
Chris: However, Remus had suspicioned that Romulus had feigned his account of vultures and in fact he had won the day. This of course put Remus on a collision course with history, for which his history would forever be truncated. Before we move on to the anticipated confrontation between the two, I wanted to back up a bit and provide some context to this whole divination from a flight of birds for a moment.
Chris: These sort of animal rituals were not uncommon in Ancient Rome and Greece, however the fascination the Romans had with birds is quite interesting and the reasons this ritual used vultures is equally as interesting for to the Romans, the vulture as accounted by Herodotus Ponticus, mentioned that Hercules was always happy when a vulture appeared to him upon any action. The reasoning behind the vultures popularity with Romans stems from their characteristics of being different from other birds in the sense, they are the least hurtful of any bird, as they only feed on carcasses and nothing living, nor do they engage in cannibalistic behavior of any kind, whether it be a dead vulture or an alive vulture. Romans admired this survival strategy of sustainability and discipline, so seeing the most vultures could have been a sort of moral sign that the Gods approve of the person, almost a purity of the being.
Chris: So to lie about the site of vultures while seems silly to us today, for the ancient Romans, it was a sign of divinity and to be taken very seriously.
Chris: Likely Remus was less upset about the lie for this particular reason and likely was incensed he had been so easily tricked out of his city placement…
Check out the full episode February 3, 2021! Hope you enjoy!
Lycurgus was the man who gave Sparta it’s laws and transformed it into a polis like no other – a warrior-society which would produce the most fearsome soldiers of the Ancient World. Welcome to Episode 3!
Checkout the full episode below.
Excerpt from today’s Episode
Ryan: So today we are going to take on the life of Lycurgus, the legendary law-giver of Sparta. And when we are talking about Lycurgus we are still pretty firmly in the realm of legend, rather than history. We are getting closer to history in my opinion but not quite there yet. Plutarch starts his Life of Lycurgus by saying quote:
“There is so much uncertainty in the accounts which historians have left us of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, that scarcely anything is asserted by one of them which is not called into question or contradicted by the rest”
So that’s a bit of a depressing note to start with
Chris: Haha yeah
Ryan: The historian Paul Cartledge isn’t sure if Lycurgus was a flesh-and-blood person at all and suggests the possibility that Lycurgus was in essence a, “reified projection of Apollo, under whose divine guarantee ‘his’ laws were placed” Cartledge points out that the name Lykourgos translates as ‘wolf-worker’ and that one of the many epithets applied to the god Apollo was ‘wolfish’.
Herodotus, the 5th century BC Greek father or history, doesn’t really help us clear up the exact status of Lycurgus either. He mentions Lycurgus somewhat briefly in a bit of a sidebar from his main narrative saying:
“the Lacedaemonians had been the worst governed people in the whole of Greece: domestically speaking, their affairs had been a disgrace, while as for external affairs – well – they had simply refused to have any dealings with foreigners at all…It happened that Lycurgus, a man who was much esteemed among the Spartans, went to consult the oracle in Delphi, and no sooner had he entered the shrine than the Pythia began to address him: ‘Here you are, Lycurgus, come to my rich temple, Dear to Zeus and to all who dwell on Olympus. Are you man or god? That is more than I can tell, But on balance I think you must be a god, Lycurgus.’ “
So Herodotus’ story about Lycurgus doesn’t make clear if Lycurgus is a man or a god – but he does go on to say that he introduced major reform to the Spartan constitution, took measures to ensure the changes would take hold, and left the entire constitution greatly improved. So much improved that after his death the Spartans revered him and raised a temple in his honour.
Chris: Hmmm interesting – constitutional reform sounds like the action of a man, but having a temple raised in your honour is something usually reserved for a god.
Ryan: Yes, exactly. And a quick note before continuing, you may have noticed that Herodotus referred to the people of Sparta as both Lacedaemonians and Spartans – the two different words were used interchangeably by the ancients. The same goes for the region of Sparta itself – sometimes called Sparta, other times referred to as Laconia. This is actually where we get the modern word laconic, which we use to refer to expressing onself in very few words, because the Spartans were famous for not wasting words and giving short, pithy remarks.
Chris: Very cool
Ryan: But anyway – back to Lycurgus – whether he was a man or a god, it is important to look at the story of his life because of how important he was to the Spartan identity. Because the very unique Spartan constitution – which we find so interesting today, and even other Greeks at the time found so interesting – this constitution was attributed entirely to Lycurgus, and the Spartans revered his memory so much that they rigidly stuck with this really radical way of life for centuries.
So given the importance of Lycurgus to the history of the Spartans (who themselves really have had an outsized influence on Western civilization) we should be grateful to Plutarch for attempting to penetrate the fog surrounding this legendary figure and giving us a workable biography of Lycurgus. Plutarch starts his Life of Lycurgus with this mission statement:
“Notwithstanding this confusion and obscurity, we shall endeavour to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors are most worth of credit”
You can’t ask for more than that and Chris I for one, certainly appreciate Plutarch’s effort
In our very first episode, we covered Theseus, a legend himself, but today we get to meet the man whom most believe founded Rome, Romulus!
Man or legend, you be the judge. Romulus was a towering figure to the ancient Romans who endeared to bring glory to an Empire he set upon the world on April 21, 753 BC.
Excerpt from the episode
“Plutarch next moves to my favorite origin story, which I like to call the “Revenge of the Trojans”, which is set at the time Agamemnon was pillaging and burning the Great city of Troy to avenge his dead brothers pride, while a few distraught Trojans fled the city, loaded up on some surviving Trireme’s and set out to find a new home, a new Troy and rebuild their society.”
The Persians are coming and Athens is doomed to destruction if the bold and clever Themistocles, and his rival the honorable Aristides, can't find a way to stop themChris & RyanPlutarch's Greeks and Romans PodcastSupport the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/plutarch)
After our first episode, dedicated to Theseus, the Hero of Athens, we move on to Part A of the Life of Romulus, dedicated to the myths of his birth and the founding of Rome.
Excerpt from the The Life of Romulus.
“Plutarch next moves to my all-time favorite origin story, which I like to call the “Revenge of the Trojans”, which is set at the time Agamenón was burning and looting the Great city of Troy to avenge his dead brothers pride, while a few distraught Trojans fled the city, loaded up on some ships and set out to find a new home. After weeks and months at sea, lost, desperate, starving, they wound up on the banks of Tuscany at the mouth of the River Tiber. Upon making landfall, a high born women by the name Roma, sick and tired of living on the sea and frankly who could blame her really, plotted with the other women to end the journey by sea and set-up a permanent home in this new lush land, situated on a few hills with a life giving river flowing through. To ensure their permanency and settle their men’s restless legs, Roma, lead the women to the ships in secret, burning them to the oceans bottom, forcing the caravan of defeated Trojans to abandon the impossible task of finding the perfect place to re-build a new Troy. The men, after a short while found peace with their new land, and honored Roma with the naming of their new settlement, Rome, with Romulus coming later.”
The Persians are coming and Athens is doomed to destruction if the bold and clever Themistocles, and his rival the honorable Aristides, can't find a way to stop themChris & RyanPlutarch's Greeks and Romans PodcastSupport the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/plutarch)