Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

The Intricacies of Democracy in Ancient Greece

Daniel Zalec

Historian Paul Cartledge contextualises and assesses democracy in the ancient Greek world as a multifaceted phenomenon, expanding on the themes of his 2016 book, Democracy: A Life. Dr. Cartledge also explains the importance of this legacy to the modern western world. This Hellenic Society event was held at The Hellenic Centre in London; and audience questions follow.

Lecture date: October 19, 2016.
Alternative lecture: Gresham College (Sep. 27, 2016).

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Can we learn from Thucydides’ writings on the Trump of ancient Athens?

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Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

There is much consternation, and quite a bit of alarm, at the recent vote of the British people to leave the EU, and the equally astonishing emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for the US presidency. Early on in these campaigns there was a tendency to mock Trump as a bit of a laughing stock, and likewise the equally flamboyant Boris Johnson in Britain.

But with the Brexit vote done and dusted, and Trump crowned as candidate, no one is laughing now. Trump has virtually thrown out the rule book for pleasant political discourse, and seems to get away with just about anything. In many quarters the mockery of Trump is fast being replaced by abject fear that he might actually get elected.

It is worth pausing to reflect on a historical parallel for some of this, not the least because Trump is often described as a “demagogue” – a Greek term which we will probably see a lot of in the coming months. The word is innocuous enough in its etymology, simply meaning “a popular leader”, somebody who “leads the demos” (being the adult male citizenry of classical Athens).

Athenian democracy was “direct”, in so far as the decisions were ultimately made by the citizens themselves in the assembly. This is a process that many conservatives found quite alarming at the time – just as many people today are alarmed at the direct power given to the British electorate in the Brexit plebiscite.

Pericles. By Internet Archive Book Images, via Wikimedia Commons

The term “demagogue” could easily have been used to describe Pericles – the urbane and respectable voice of Athenian politics in the late 5th century BC. After all, Pericles was brilliantly successful in achieving office and carrying the day in the assembly.

But the historian Thucydides, a great admirer of Pericles, never describes him in this way, preferring to use it pejoratively of his opponent Cleon, a controversial figure with populist leanings.

Cleon was fiercely anti-Periclean, and seems to have been a kind of Donald Trump of ancient Athenian politics. Classical scholars have described him in the following way:

he was an effective, if vulgar, speaker, and seems to have been given to extravagant promises and extravagant accusations against opponents. He was one of the first of a new kind of politician, who were not from the old aristocracy, and whose predominance depended on persuasive speeches in the assembly and lawcourts rather than on regular office-holding.

Cleon came from a wealthy background, albeit not an aristocratic one (his father was a wealthy tanner). He wielded significant power in the assembly at various times, especially after the death of Pericles (in 429BC) – playing a crucial role in determining the fate of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos, which had revolted from Athenian control. Cleon convinced the Athenians to put the men of Mytilene to death – a decision that, upon reflection, was rescinded the next day.

It is in the context of a debate on the issue of how to punish the rebellious Mytilenians that Thucydides provides us with a long speech by Cleon to the Athenians, which ends in the following way:

Pay them back for it, and do not grow soft just at this present moment, forgetting meanwhile the danger that hung over your own heads then. Punish them as they deserve, and make an example of them to your other allies, plainly showing that revolt will be punished by death.

Thucydides. Chris JL/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The speech is actually written by Thucydides – a hostile source – but it gives us a sense of the rhetoric of Cleon, for all its brilliant clarity and violence. Indeed Thucydides’ assessment is that Cleon “was remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character”. Cleon ultimately died in battle in 422BC, seven years after his political enemy Pericles.

Thucydides’ History argues that bad public policy can do great damage to a city-state in crisis. Pericles had a clear vision of what strategy to adopt in their war against Sparta – to tend to their navy and not be drawn into risking the safety of the city and the empire. But Cleon went in the opposite direction, and is charged by Thucydides with abandoning the public good for private ambition.

Like much of Greek literature, Thucydides’ History focuses on the community response to the crisis of war. One reads of the increasing desperation of the city-state as the social and financial basis of the community starts to disintegrate.

The rise of the demagogues like Cleon in late 5th-century Athens might be seen as a culmination of various social, political and economic factors. Some of these elements also have resonances in our own times.

Political power could be achieved by speaking well in the assembly, regardless of one’s background. Indeed, being from a different, non-establishment, background could be a positive virtue.

And there were plenty of people who were prepared to offer instruction on how to handle oneself in the Athenian assembly (especially philosophers called “sophists”, or “wise men”).

One should not really press the Cleon/Trump parallel too much, given the 2,500 years between them and the very different cultural contexts. Nonetheless, at the beginning of his work, Thucydides does make some claims about human nature and the circularity of history that are worth bearing in mind :

It will be enough for me if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever (1.22).

There is a slightly ominous tone to these sentiments, given the experience of Athens in the Peloponnesian war. But we will need to wait and see how things play out in our own times before reaching a conclusion.

The ConversationChris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Guide to the classics: The Histories, by Herodotus

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Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

It is easy to see why Herodotus’ Histories may seem overwhelming. Too much is going on, right from the start. We have only just embarked on the Histories’ central theme – the origins of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians in the fifth century BCE – when the narrative suddenly changes tack and we find ourselves in a boudoir tale of nudity, intrigue and murder, only to veer off again when a dolphin saves the singer Arion from drowning. A wild ride!

Herodotus, a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (today’s Bodrum in Turkey), published his Histories sometime between 426 and 415 BCE. His principal aim was to explain the unlikely Greek victory against the much stronger Persian army in the so-called Persian Wars that ravaged the Greek world between 500 and 449 BCE.

Statue of Herodotus
Wikimedia Commons

For his pioneering critical enquiry into the past he was named “father of history” by Cicero. His love of stories and storytelling, however, was notorious already in antiquity: Plutarch called him the “father of lies”.

Most of the tales have no clear link to the main story. They seem peripheral, if not entirely unrelated, to the account of the Persian Wars and their pre-history. Many characters appear only once, never to be seen again. To the reader accustomed to a stable cast of characters and a straightforward plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, Herodotus’ Histories read like a digression from a digression from a digression.

Yet as soon as one pauses and appreciates the stories for what they are one cannot but marvel at the events Herodotus relates. There is the conversation between King Croesus of Lydia and the Athenian statesman, reformer and poet Solon, on the true nature of human happiness. The moral is, in a nutshell: call no man happy until he is dead.

That same king consults the Delphic oracle and learns to his delight that he will bring down a great empire. Certain of victory, he wages war against the Persians; as the oracle foretells, Croesus duly ends up destroying an empire – his own.

Herodotus’ ingenuity emerges most clearly when considered in relation to Homer, who had set the benchmark and provided all writers to follow with a model for talking about the past.

Consider for example his opening statement in the beginning of the book:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.

Unlike Homer, Herodotus no longer claims to be inspired by the Muses. Yet his opening lines still pay homage to the world of the Homeric hero and his perpetual striving for kleos (“glory”). After all, Homer, too, reported great deeds by Greeks and non-Greeks alike and preserved them for posterity.

Herodotus combined the two major themes of Homeric epic – travel and warfare – into a single whole. Travel and the insights they yield are as dominant a theme in the ethnographic sections of the Histories as expansion, warfare and conflict are in the historical sections. Herodotus uses the gradual expansion of the Persian Empire to delve deeply into the cultures of those who came under its influence in the century preceding the war. In his account the historical and the cultural influence each other.

While Herodotus does not dismiss the Iliad and the Odyssey, he openly takes a swipe at Homer at least once. Helen, he claims, never made it to Troy: she was diverted to Egypt due to bad weather. Homer – so runs Herodotus’ accusation – simply changed the course of the story to make it fit the genre of epic poetry. This shows an awareness of the particular demands of the kind of account Herodotus hoped to write as being different from Homeric epic.

The father of history

What specifically sets Herodotus and his enquiry apart, then, is the proto-scientific way he explores the inner workings of the world. The question “why” drives this inquiry in all its aspects. It brings together the different strands of Herodotean investigation: Why did the Greeks and the barbarians go to war with each other? Why does the Nile flood? Why do the women of Cyrene abstain from eating beef?

Herodotus frequently finds the answer to these questions by looking at origins and beginnings. He takes the military conflict between Greeks and barbarians back to its roots in mythical times. In a similar vein he enquires into the source of the river Nile and traces the names of the twelve Olympians – the major deities of the Greek pantheon – back to their origins in ancient Egypt.

The quest for origins and beginnings runs deep in the Histories. It introduces a form of explanation which links the disparate strands of Herodotean enquiry by presenting them as part of an ordered cosmos. The world Herodotus outlines in the Histories ultimately and profoundly makes sense.

His efforts to establish himself as a credible researcher and narrator are tangible throughout. He is careful to tell his reader from where he derived his information on foreign lands, whether he witnessed personally or learnt from a reliable source:

As far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness, but further south from hearsay.

My own observation bears out the statement made to me by the priests…

Of the Pelasgian language I cannot speak with certainty…

Frequently, he gives us all the different explanations sourced from others. In the case of the flooding of the Nile he adds why he favours one (incidentally, the wrong one) over all others. By presenting views other than his own, Herodotus gives his readers the chance to form their own opinion.

The same striving for precision, exactness and authority also explains his diligence when it comes to numbers, distances and measurements.

From Heliopolis to Thebes is a nine days’ voyage up the Nile, a distance of eighty-one schoeni or 4860 states. Putting together the various measurements I have given, one finds that the Egyptian coastline is, as I have said, about 420 miles in length, and the distance from the sea inland to Thebes about 714 miles. It is another 210 miles from Thebes to Elephantine.

Why does this level of detail matter, and do we really need to know it? We do! This kind of accuracy and precision bolsters Herodotus’ authority as a credible source of information (even though some of his data verge on the fanciful).

To Herodotus, at least, measuring the world, mapping new territory, noting the features of distant lands and territories are all part of the process of “sense-making”, in which the new and unknown is related to the well-known and familiar:

The difference in size between the young and the full-grown crocodile is greater than in any other known creature; for a crocodile’s egg is hardly bigger than a goose’s, and the young when hatched is small in proportion yet it grows to a size of some twenty-three feet long or even more.

At the same time, Herodotus shows a profound interest in names and naming and the translation of words and concepts from one language into another. He tells us that the name Egypt applied first to Thebes, and that the name of the Asmach people of Egypt means those who stand on the left hand of the king.

Being able to name things in the world is part of being able to explain them. Herodotus was not just pioneering critical enquiry; along with the world he discovered, he had to invent a method and a language.

Figuring out the fantastic

Occasionally the strive for authority and exactness falters and the reader is left wondering whether the narrator has been unreliable all along, such as when Herodotus’ observations truly defy credulity.

Take the gold-digging ants of India, “bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog”; the winged snakes of Arabia that interfere with the frankincense harvest; the Arabian sheep with tails so long they need little wooden carts attached to their hindquarters, preventing the tails from dragging on the ground.

A fragment from The Histories on Papyrus dated to the early second century AD. Wikimedia Commons

All these are instances in which Herodotean inquiry – despite his own claims to the contrary – slip beyond the realm of the authentic, credible and real.

But it would be a mistake to make too much of these examples. They are memorable only because they stand in such marked contrast to the accurate pictures Herodotus sketches elsewhere of the world.

And who can say for sure that the gold-digging ants, the long-tailed sheep and the flying snakes did not, in fact, exist? Some have argued that the gold-digging ants of India were actually marmots and Herodotus applied a Greek word for ant to a creature unknown to him but reminiscent (albeit faintly) of an ant.

Other creatures, however, take the reader fully into the realm of the fantastic. In his description of Libya, Herodotus says emphatically:

There are enormous snakes there, and also lions, elephants, bears, asps, donkeys with horns, dog-headed creatures, headless creatures with eyes in their chests (at least, this is what the Libyans say) wild men and wild women and a large number of other creatures whose existence is not merely the stuff of fables.

Some of these beings belong to a different, more archaic world, where the boundary between man and beast was fluid and uncertain. We can see a whole spectrum of more or less fantastic creatures, whose ranks included the Cyclops and Sirens of the Odyssey.

Herodotus accommodates such creatures in the absence of better information, but at the very least he feels the need to explicitly confirm their place in the new world of critical inquiry.

A special category is reserved for the most startling aspects of the world. In the Histories, the concept of the wondrous (thaumastos/thaumasios) is applied to those aspects of the world which at first defy explanation and seem to fall outside the laws of nature.

A floating island is a wonder; lions who attack camels but no other creature in Xerxes’ entourage – another wonder; the complete absence of mules in Elis – again a wonder. Ultimately, many of the phenomena Herodotus considers wondrous ultimately have a rational explanation of cause and effect. Others turn out to be divinely inspired.

Eternal themes of power, greed and fate

Beyond the question of whether any (let alone all) of the Histories’ events occurred as Herodotus relates, his stories share a common humanity. The examples of all-too-human foibles and traits like overconfidence, greed and envy but also of fate, luck and fortune reverberate down the ages. Through these stories the Histories still speak to us, 2500 years later.

Traditionally, the Histories were dismissed as anecdotal. Herodotus was seen as lacking gravitas and not on par with Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, Cicero and their like. Consequently, the Histories were not considered central to the humanist canon. Over the last three decades, however, this has changed; Herodotus’ Histories are now widely regarded as a foundational text in the Western historiographic tradition.

Classical scholars have discovered that the work has a coherence after all. Unity between the digressions and the main narrative emerges on a level other than plot: by theme. Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power.

It is not Everyman who makes history in the Histories: the focus is squarely on those at the top of the game. Yet in most instances the rise to power is followed by a sudden and catastrophic fall.

The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Candaules, Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hybris – is depressingly modern and familiar.

Jacques Louis David’s painting of the Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae – an event described by Herodotus. 
Wikimedia Commons

The Histories are a compilation of stories packed into each other like nesting Russian dolls. Successive stories share with each other – and the larger historical narrative of which they are part – the same insights, themes and patterns.

Once you can read one, you can read them all. New insights emerge from the way individual stories play with the formula, highlighting different aspects of the theme.

As tales of the nature of human power, the “digressions” speak directly to Herodotus’ core theme: the rise and fall of all empires, in particular the Persian Empire and its spectacular defeat by the much smaller Greek contingents in the Persian Wars.

Yet the Histories are not merely a historical source for the Persian Wars. Herodotus dwells extensively on the pre-history of the conflict and touches on the cultural and ideological issues at stake.

All this is set on the broader stage of the ancient world and includes geographical references, climatic observations, flora and fauna as well as notes on differences in the customs and lifestyle of Greeks, Persians and other peoples.

Thanks to this broad focus, it is not hyperbole to say that, in a profound sense, the Histories are about the entire world as it came to be understood and mapped out towards the end of the fifth century BCE.

Wonder and discovery

The Histories stand at the transition from an older, mythical worldview – that of the heroic or archaic age as represented in Homeric epic – to a new, classical outlook that manifested in the exacting mode of enquiry into the workings of the world.

The name for this form of investigation – historia – did not yet mean “history” as we know it; it simply meant, in a general sense, “critical enquiry”. Herodotus occasionally mentions consulting written sources, but he does so mainly to distance himself, his method, and information from other authors, notably Homer and the poets.

The most subtle feature of the Histories, perhaps, is the profound sense of balance that pervades all aspects of the cosmos. In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.

The divine is central to Herodotus’ view of the world: the gods guarantee a perpetual historical cycle. This dynamic ensures that imbalances of power or greed – the too-much and the too-little – ultimately level each other out.

The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.

We may no longer share Herodotus’ view of the past, yet we delight in the richness of the world he sketched. Its stories, landscapes, characters, and insights into human nature linger long after the reading. What makes the work stand out above all is the Histories’ sense of wonder and discovery. Herodotus’ Histories remain a classic testament to the pleasures of researching and learning.

All translations are from: Marincola, J. (1996) Herodotus: The Histories. Revised edition. London. Penguin Books.

The ConversationJulia Kindt, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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The Dark Ages

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
March 2016, Vol 35, No. 1, under the title ‘In the Dark’).

Like other skeptics, I often despair at the apparent decline in the public understanding of science.  Anti-science, pseudoscience, quackery, conspiracy theories and the general distrust of experts seem to be on the rise.  I sometimes even wonder whether we in danger of regressing into a new dark age.

So what do we mean by a ‘dark age’? Was there really a dark age in post-Roman Europe? If so, what were its most likely causes? These questions are difficult to answer, and not just because of disagreements among historians. The difficulty is in some ways circular – we call the post-Roman period a ‘dark age’ because we don’t know enough about it (relative to the periods before and after); and we don’t know enough about it because not much was written down at the time.

WDF_809731My own observation is that western civilisation has already suffered two dark ages about 1300 years apart.  (There was an earlier dark age in Ancient Greece from around 1100 to 800 BCE).  If this ‘trend’ is repeated we should be due for another one in a couple of hundred years’ time.

The term ‘Dark Ages’ commonly refers to the Early Middle Ages, which was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000 CE. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the Central Middle Ages (c. 1001–1300 CE) and the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500CE). The period saw a continuation of downward trends begun during late classical antiquity, including population decline, especially in urban centres, a decline of trade, and increased translocation of peoples. There is a relative paucity of scientific, literary, artistic and cultural output from this time, especially in Western Europe.

Historians suggest that there were several causes of this decline, including the rise of Christianity. The other causes are often overlooked, especially by antitheists trying to score points such as ‘look what happened when your mob was in charge!’.  So like good skeptics, let’s examine the historical evidence.

The Greek Dark Age 

The first European dark age occurred in ancient Greece from around 1100 to 800 BCE.  The archaeological evidence shows a collapse of the Mycenaean Greek civilization at the outset of this period, as their great palaces and cities were destroyed or abandoned and vital trade links were lost.  Unfortunately, their Linear B script also disappeared, leaving us with no written accounts of what really happened or why.

Linear B script

Linear B script. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Legend has it that Greece was invaded by the mysterious Dorians from the north and/or the Sea Peoples of uncertain origin but possibly from the Black Sea area.  The archeological evidence is of little help to us other than showing a simpler geometrical style of pottery art than that of the Mycenaeans, hinting at occupation by a different culture.


Geometric (9th-7th century BCE) pottery from Melos in Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is archeological evidence of a revival of Greek trade at the beginning of the 8th century BCE, coupled with the appearance of a new Greek alphabet system adapted from the Phoenicians which is still in use today.  This led to creation of western civilisation’s oldest extant literary works, such as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad.  From succeeding centuries we have been bequeathed major texts of ancient Greek drama, history, philosophy and science.

The decline of the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent during the 2nd century CE, reaching from Babylonia in the East to Spain in the West, Britain and the Netherlands in the North, to Egypt and North Africa in the South.  The following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories.  The Emperor Diocletian split the empire into separately administered eastern and western halves in 286CE.  In 330CE, after a period of civil war, Constantine the Great refounded the city of Byzantium as the newly renamed eastern capital, Constantinople.

During the period from 150 to 400CE, the population of the Roman Empire is estimated to have fallen from 65 million to 50 million, a decline of more than 20 percent. Some have connected this to the Dark Ages Cold Period (300–700CE), when there was a decrease in global temperatures which impaired agricultural yields.

In 400CE, the Visigoths invaded the Western Roman Empire and, although briefly forced back from Italy, in 410CE they sacked the city of Rome.  The Vandals again sacked Rome in 455CE.  The deposition of the last emperor of the west, Romulus Augustus, in 476CE has traditionally marked the end of the Western Roman Empire.  The Eastern Roman Empire, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire after the fall of its western counterpart, had little ability to assert control over the lost western territories.  Although the movements of peoples during this period are usually described as ‘invasions’, they were not just military expeditions but migrations of entire peoples into the empire.  These were mainly rural Germanic peoples who knew little of cities, writing or money.  Administrative, educational and military infrastructure quickly vanished, leading to the collapse of the schools and to a rise of illiteracy even among the leadership.


For the formerly Roman area, there was another 20 percent decline in population between 400 and 600CE, or a one-third decline between 150-600CE which had significant economic consequences.  To make matters worse, the Plague of Justinian (541–542CE), which has since been found to have been bubonic plague, recurred periodically for 150 years – killing as many as 50 million people in Europe.  The population of the city of Rome itself declined from about 450,000 in 100CE to only 20,000 during the Early Middle Ages.  The city of London was largely abandoned.

In the 8th century, the volume of trade reached its lowest level, indicated by very small number of shipwrecks found in the western Mediterranean sea.

One of the main consequences of the fall of Rome was breakdown of the strict Roman law and order, resulting amongst other things in the running away of slaves who had performed most of the labour.  Less food and fibre was produced on farms, resulting in people leaving the cities to less efficiently grow their own.  Lower agricultural activity resulted in reforestation, or in other words the forests naturally grew back.  Travel and trade by land became less safe, exacerbating the economic decline.

The role of the Christians 

The Catholic Church was the only centralized institution to survive the fall of the Western Roman Empire intact.  It was the sole unifying cultural influence in Western Europe, preserving Latin learning, maintaining the art of writing, and preserving a centralized administration through its network of bishops ordained in succession. The Early Middle Ages are characterized by the control of urban areas by bishops and wider territorial control exercised by dukes and counts.  The later rise of urban communes marked the beginning of the Central Middle Ages.

During the Early Middle Ages, the divide between eastern and western Christianity widened, paving the way for the East-West Schism in the 11th century. In the West, the power of the Bishop of Rome expanded.  In 607CE, Boniface III became the first Bishop of Rome to use the title Pope.  Pope Gregory the Great used his office as a temporal power, expanded Rome’s missionary efforts to the British Isles, and laid the foundations for the expansion of monastic orders.

The institutional structure of Christianity in the west during this period is different from what it would become later in the Central Middle Ages. As opposed to the later church, the church of the Early Middle Ages consisted primarily of the monasteries.  In addition, the papacy was relatively weak, and its power was mostly confined to central Italy. Religious orders wouldn’t proliferate until the Central Middle Ages. For the typical Christian at this time, religious participation was largely confined to occasionally receiving mass from wandering monks. Few would be lucky enough to receive this as often as once a month.  By the end of the Dark Ages, individual practice of religion was becoming more common, as monasteries started to transform into something approximating modern churches, where some monks might even give occasional sermons.  Thus the evidence for powerful centralised Christian control during the Dark Ages is lacking.

The Western European Dark Age

The concept of a Western European Dark Age originated with the Italian scholar Petrarch in the 1330s CE.  Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as ‘dark’ compared to the light of classical antiquity.  The Protestant reformers of the 16th century had an interest in disparaging the ‘Dark Ages’ as an era of Catholic control, when they (the Protestants) thought that Christianity had ‘gone off the rails’.  Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the Central Middle Ages (c. 11th–13th century), although in the 20th century the Dark Ages were contracted back to the Early Middle Ages (500-1000CE) again.  I shall refer to this period in western Europe as ‘the Dark Ages’ from here on.

Evidence for the Dark Ages include the lack of output of manuscripts (both originals and copies), a lack of contemporary written history, general population decline, a paucity of inventions, a lack of sea trade, restricted building activity and limited material cultural achievements in general.

The lack of manuscripts in the Dark Ages compared to later Middle Ages is illustrated  by the following graph.


The Romans were remarkable innovators.  Their inventions of materials included kiln-fired bricks, cement, concrete, wood veneer, cast iron, glassware and surgical instruments.  In construction, they invented paved roads, bridges, tunnels, aqueducts, arches, domes, dams, water supply, drainage, sewerage and even underfloor heating.  Their production technology included the wheeled plow, the two-field crop system, harvesting machines, paddlewheel mills, the screw press, the force pump, steam power, gearing, pulleys and cranes.  The Romans were also admired for their mining technology.

In contrast, hardly any new technology was invented during the Dark Ages.  Nor were there any scientific discoveries of note; although science and mathematics continued to flourish in the Islamic world, as discussed below.  Yet later in the Central Middle Ages, technological inventions included windmills, mechanical clocks, transparent glass, distillation, the heavy plow, horseshoes, harnesses, stirrups and more powerful crossbows.  Architectural innovations enabled the building of larger cathedrals and faster ships.

The invention of the three-field system towards the end of the Dark Ages, coupled with higher temperatures and the heavy plow enabled higher agricultural yields, which kick-started economic recovery and the resumption of trade.  Amongst other things, the three-field system created a surplus of oats that could be used to feed more horses.  It also required a re-organisation of land tenure that led to manoralism and feudalism.

In the ancient world, Greek was the primary language of science. Advanced scientific research and teaching was mainly carried on in the Hellenistic side of the Roman empire, and in Greek. Late Roman attempts to translate Greek writings into Latin had limited success.  As the knowledge of Greek declined, the Latin West found itself cut off from some of its Greek philosophical and scientific roots.

In the late 8th century, there was renewed interest in Classical Antiquity as part of the short-lived Carolingian Renaissance of the early 9th century CE.  Charlemagne carried out a reform in education. From 787CE on, decrees began to circulate recommending the restoration of old schools and the founding of new ones across the empire.  Institutionally, these new schools were either under the responsibility of a monastery (monastic schools), a cathedral, or a noble court. The teaching of dialectic (a discipline that corresponds to today’s informal logic) was responsible for the increase in the interest in speculative inquiry; from this interest would follow the rise of the Scholastic tradition of Christian philosophy.  In the 12th and 13th centuries, many of those schools that were founded under the auspices of Charlemagne, especially cathedral schools, would become universities.

The expansion of Islam

After the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632CE, Islamic forces conquered much of the former Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, starting with the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century, North Africa in the later 7th century, and much of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711CE.  This Islamic Empire was known as the Umayyad Caliphate.  Its capital was the Spanish city of Cordoba, which by the 10th century CE had become the world’s largest city, with an estimated population of around 500,000.

The Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE

The Islamic conquests reached their peak in the mid-8th century.  The defeat of Muslim forces at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 led to the re-conquest of southern France by the Franks, but the main reason for the halt of Islamic growth in Europe was the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty based in Babylon.

The works of Euclid and Archimedes, lost in the West, were translated from Arabic to Latin in Spain. The modern Hindu-Arabic numerals, including a notation for zero, were developed by Hindu mathematicians in the 5th and 6th centuries. Muslim mathematicians learned of it in the 7th century and added a notation for decimal fractions in the 9th and 10th centuries.  In the course of the 11th century, Islam’s scientific knowledge began to reach Western Europe, via Islamic Spain.


The former Roman Empire was replaced by three civilisations – Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate.  The Dark Ages really only refer to one of these civilisations, Western Europe, where there is significant historical evidence of a marked decline in scientific, technological, agricultural, economic, educational and literary activities during this period.  There was also a considerable decline in the population of Western Europe, notwithstanding migrations of Germanic peoples from northern Europe.  Christianity is likely to have been only one of several causes of the Dark Ages.


Backman, Clifford R. (2015) The Worlds of Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bennett, Judith M. (2011) Medieval Europe – A Short History. McGraw- Hill, New York.

Gibbon, Edward (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 6, Ch. XXXVII.

Tim Harding B.Sc. works as a regulatory consultant to various governments.  He is also studying medieval history at Monash University.


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The Astronomical Renaissance

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, March 2015, Vol 35 No 1, under the title ‘Rebirth of the Universe’.  The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics, Tuesday 11 November 2014).

This article follows on from my previous one on ancient astronomy and astrology (‘An Eye to the Sky’, The Skeptic, Vol. 33, No. 4, December 2013).  That story began about 4000 years ago in Babylon, then moved to the first scientific revolution in ancient Greece, ending with Ptolemy’s complicated geocentric (Earth-centred) model of the cosmos in the 2nd century CE.

We now make a great leap forward to the second scientific revolution beginning with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric (Sun-centred) model of the cosmos in 1543 CE.  Why the huge gap?  Because astonishingly, nothing much happened in cosmology for about 1400 years between Ptolemy and Copernicus.  (The reasons for this are complex and best left to a possible future article).

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, there was a rediscovery of ancient Greek texts written by philosophers and scientists such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristarchus, Archimedes and Ptolemy.  That is why this subsequent period is described as an astronomical renaissance (alongside the cultural renaissance), from the French word meaning ‘re-birth’.  The midwives of this re-birth were the development of scientific methods and the invention of printing, which would improve access to learning, allowing a faster propagation of new ideas.

Copernicus’s astronomical observations were complemented and improved in accuracy by those of Tycho Brahe.  His heliocentric model was later adopted by Galileo Galilei and then refined by Johannes Kepler.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473- 1573 CE)

Copernicus was born 1473 in the Polish city of Torun.  His father was copper merchant – the name ‘Copernicus’ is thought to be derived from this occupation.  He studied mathematics, philosophy and astronomy at the University of Krakow; then medicine at Padua in Italy.  He was also a lawyer, physician, classics scholar, translator and economist.

copernicusatwork2 crop

Nicolaus Copernicus

As well as being a polymath, Copernicus was also a polyglot, which gave him access to the ancient Greek texts.  From these writings he would most likely have known that Aristarchus of Samos had some 1800 years earlier proposed a heliocentric model of the cosmos in the third century BCE.  Aristarchus had also calculated the diameters of the Sun and Moon, as well as their distances from the Earth in Earth radii.  This regression from the correct heliocentric to the incorrect geocentric model presents a serious challenge to our notions of inevitable human progress.

In around 1510, Copernicus moved to one of the defensive towers of the cathedral town of Frombork on the Baltic Sea coast, where he did most of his astronomical observations and writing.  His attempts at retrofitting cosmological theory to seemingly endless observational anomalies eventually became just too complex.  Simplification became a major motivation for Copernicus to construct his revolutionary heliocentric model.  His colleague Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian, wrote an anonymous preface to Copernicus’ published major work De Revolutionibus.  This preface stated that Copernicus’ system was merely mathematics intended to aid computation and not an attempt to declare literal truth.  Both Copernicus and Osiander probably feared the reaction not only of other astronomers but also the Roman Church – a fear that was later justified by the trial of Galileo, of which more will be said later.  The delay in publication until the eve of Copernicus’ death is thought to be due to these fears.

Thirty years earlier in about 1514, Copernicus had written the Commentariolus – an unpublished outline of his later De Revolutionibus. In this outline, he proposed seven axioms, all of which are true:

  1. Heavenly bodies do not all move around same centre.
  2. The Earth is not centre of the cosmos – only the Moon’s orbit.
  3. The Sun is the centre of the planetary system.
  4. The Stars are much further away than the Sun.
  5. The apparent daily revolution of the stars and planets is due to the Earth’s rotation on its own axis.
  6. The apparent annual motion of the Sun is due to the revolution of Earth around the Sun.
  7. The apparent retrograde motion of the planets has same cause.

Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the cosmos

However, Copernicus clung to the erroneous theological belief that all the orbits of celestial bodies must be perfect circles.  This forced Copernicus to retain Ptolemy’s complex system of planetary epicycles, thus leading him astray.  At first, Copernicus initially proposed that only 34 epicycles were needed in his model, but he was later forced to modify the model by increasing this number to 48 – eight more cycles than the 40 in Ptolemy’s model.  These anomalies led Kepler to subsequently propose elliptical rather than circular planetary orbits, as will be discussed later.

Copernicus also modified his model to account for the apparent absence of stellar parallax during the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.  He did this by postulating that the distance of the fixed stars was so immense compared to the diameter of the earth’s orbit that stellar parallax was unnoticeable by the accuracy of astronomical observations at that time.  This modification subsequently turned out to be correct in reality, but at the time it was an ad hoc modification made for the purpose of correcting an imagined observational anomaly.

Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601 CE)

Tycho Brahe was a colourful character, born 1546 into an aristocratic family in Scania which was then part of Denmark but is now in Sweden. He studied law and astronomy at University of Copenhagen.  He is notorious for losing part of his nose in sword fight, so he had to wear a brass prosthetic nose.  Another piece of irrelevant trivia is that Tycho had a pet Elk that once drank too much beer at one of his friends’ dinner parties.  Sadly, the inebriated Elk fell down some stairs and died.

Tycho’s observatory on the island of Hven in Sweden

Tycho’s observatory on the island of Hven in Sweden

In 1597, Tycho fell out with Danish King Christian IV and became court astronomer to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, who funded the building of a state-of-the-art new observatory for Tycho.  Johannes Kepler was employed as Tycho’s assistant, who later used Tycho’s more accurate observational data for his own astronomical calculations.  These more precise measurements clearly showed that the stars lacked parallax, thus confirming that either the Earth was stationary or the stars were a vast distance from the Earth.

Tycho proposed a hybrid ‘geo-heliocentric’ system in which the Sun and Moon orbited the Earth, while the other planets orbited the Sun (known as the Tychonic system). This system provided a safe position for astronomers who were dissatisfied with the Ptolemaic model but were reluctant to endorse the Copernican model.  The Tychonic system became more popular after 1615 when Rome decided officially that the heliocentric model was contrary to both philosophy and scripture, and could be discussed only as a computational convenience that had no connection to the truth.

Galileo Galilei (1564- 1642 CE)

Galileo Galilei was a physicist, mathematician, engineer, astronomer, and philosopher who arguably contributed more than anybody to both the second scientific revolution and the astronomical renaissance.  He was born 1564 in Pisa, Italy, and educated in the Camaldolese Monastery at Vallombrosa, 35 km southeast of Florence.  He enrolled at the University of Pisa for a medical degree, but switched to mathematics and natural philosophy.

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei

Galileo’s contributions to observational astronomy include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour), the roughness of the Moon’s surface, and the observation and analysis of sunspots. He also made contributions to physics, including the science of dynamics, leading to Newton’s laws of motion later on.

He championed Copernicus’ heliocentrism when it was still controversial – most astronomers at this time subscribed to either geocentrism or the Tychonic system.  They doubted heliocentrism due to the absence of an observed stellar parallax, without appreciating the enormous distances involved.

When confronted with this absence of stellar parallax, Galileo attempted an ad hoc modification to the Copernican model by incorrectly claiming that the tides are caused by the earth’s rotation combined with its orbit around the Sun.  This is despite the ancient Greek philosopher Seleucus some 1600 years earlier having correctly theorized that tides were caused by the gravitational effect of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth.  .

Galileo showing his telescope to the Doge of Venice

Galileo showing his telescope to the Doge of Venice

After the Roman Inquisition of 1615, works advocating the Copernican system were placed on the index of banned books and Galileo was forbidden from advocating heliocentrism.  This resulted in heated correspondence between Galileo and the Vatican.  Unfortunately, Galileo’s aggressive manner alienated not only the Pope but also the Jesuits, both of whom had tolerated him up until this point. He was tried by the Holy Office and found ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’, then forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

At least Galileo did not suffer the cruel fate of the philosopher and cosmologist Giordano Bruno, who in 1600 was burned at the stake for heresy in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori (a market square where there is now a statue of him).  Bruno had gone even further than the Copernican model, correctly proposing that the stars were just distant suns surrounded by their own exoplanets.  He suggested the possibility that these planets could even foster life of their own (a philosophical position known as cosmic pluralism).  Bruno also believed that the Universe is in fact infinite, thus having no celestial body at its ‘center’.

Johannes Kepler (1571- 1630 CE)

Johannes Kepler was a German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer (before these areas of study separated). A key figure in the second scientific revolution, he is best known for his three laws of planetary motion, which endure today. These laws also provided one of the foundations for Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

Kepler was born in 1571 in Stuttgart area of Germany. At age six, he observed the Great Comet of 1577, and at age nine, the lunar eclipse of 1580.  These events inspired him to study philosophy, theology mathematics and astronomy at the University of Tübingen.  Here he learned both the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system of planetary motion.  He later observed a bright supernova (exploding star) of 1604, which became known as Kepler’s Supernova.

After graduation, Kepler became a mathematics teacher at a seminary school in Graz, Austria. Later he became an assistant to astronomer Tycho Brahe, and eventually the imperial mathematician to Emperor Rudolf II and his two successors Matthias and Ferdinand II. He was also a mathematics teacher in Linz, Austria, and an adviser to General Wallenstein. Additionally, he did fundamental work in the field of optics, invented an improved version of the refracting telescope (the Keplerian Telescope).

Frontispiece to the Rudolphine Tables (Latin: Tabulae Rudolphinae) consisting of a star catalogue and planetary tables published by Johannes Kepler in 1627, using some observational data collected by Tycho Brahe

Frontispiece to the Rudolphine Tables consisting of a star catalogue and planetary tables published by Johannes Kepler in 1627, using observational data collected by Tycho Brahe

Kepler then set about calculating the entire orbit of Mars, using the geometrical rate law and assuming an egg-shaped ovoid orbit. After many failed attempts, in early 1605 he at last hit upon the idea of an ellipse, which he had previously assumed to be too simple a solution for earlier astronomers to have overlooked. Finding that an elliptical orbit fitted the Mars data, he immediately concluded that all planets move in ellipses, with the sun at one focus — which became Kepler’s first law of planetary motion.

He then formulated two more laws of planetary motion.  These are firstly, that a line segment joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time; and secondly, that the square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.

Because of his religious beliefs, Kepler became convinced that God had created the universe according to perfectly harmonious geometrical shapes and patterns. He began by exploring regular polygons and regular solids, including the figures that would come to be known as Kepler’s solids.  Unfortunately, Kepler wasted a lot of his time fruitlessly searching for this underlying ‘harmony of the spheres’, drawing all sorts of weird and wonderful diagrams.  He even (unsuccessfully) tried to relate these geometric shapes to musical harmonies.

Keplers solids

Kepler’s solids

Concluding remarks

The great physicist Isaac Newton was later able to build upon the pioneering work of Galileo and Kepler, leading him to make his famous quotation ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants’.

In contrast, it is perplexing to observe two great human failures. Firstly, how science was repeatedly led astray by fruitless searches for perfection in ‘God’s design of the cosmos’.  Secondly, that astronomical knowledge not only progressed very little during the 1400 years between Ptolemy and Copernicus, but in some areas it actually regressed.  The ancient Greeks had not only proposed a heliocentric model of the cosmos, but they had also calculated the diameters of the Sun and Moon, as well as their distances from the Earth.  They also knew that the tides were caused the gravitational effect of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth.  This valuable knowledge was either forgotten or rejected until the astronomical renaissance some 1800 years later. So much for the notion of inevitable human progress.


Koestler, A (1959) The Sleepwalkers. London: Hutchinson.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Toulmin, S. and Goodfield, J. (1961) The Fabric of the Heavens.  London: Hutchinson.

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A brief conceptual history of Philosophy

Does philosophy make progress? Of course, but it does so differently from, say, science. Here is a brief conceptual history of how philosophy evolved over time, from the all-purpose approach of the ancient Greeks to the highly specialized academic discipline it is today. Written and narrated by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. 

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Radical Democracy in Ancient Athens

by Tim Harding


Within the context of ancient Athenian democracy, the term ‘radical democracy’ refers to a set of constitutional reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Perikles, beginning in 462 BCE.  The main elements of these radical reforms were that (1) all major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Ekklesia (Assembly); at which all adult citizens[1] of good standing were entitled to vote (Roberts 1998, 41); and (2) public officials were randomly chosen by lot, known as sortition (Scarre and Fagan 2008, 291).  In this essay, I propose to argue that these radical democratic reforms went too far – that is, that their advantages were outweighed by their disadvantages.


Radical democracy was the culmination of a series of constitutional reforms introduced over a period of about 130 years, which were begun by the archon[2] Solon in 594 BCE (Aristotle, 6-13; Roebuck 1965, 206-210; Martin 2000, 84-86).  The general thrust of these reforms was to transfer power from the aristocracy to the citizenry of Athens (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 84-85).  This process separated the business of the State from the activities of its wealthier citizens; and limited the financial dependence of the State on their generosity (Humphreys 1978, 97).

The reforms were interrupted by the tyranny of Peisistratus, Megacles and Peisistratus’ sons between 560 and 510 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 210).  However, from about 508 BCE the reform process was recommenced and greatly extended by Kleisthenes,[3] who is regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 87).  Kleisthenes’ democratic reforms comprise the bulk of the constitutional situation that existed before the introduction of radical democracy by Ephialtes and Perikles in 462BCE.

Radical democratic reforms

According to Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, the composition of the major governmental bodies and the legal system before and after the introduction of radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

After the Persian wars, the Council of Areopagus (comprised of aristocrats) resumed guardianship of the constitution.  Ephialtes, who had become a leader of the people, diminished the authority of the Areopagus by (1) denouncing and bringing legal actions against members of the Council regarding their alleged maladministration; and (2) re-assigning some of the powers of the Areopagus to the Council of Five Hundred, the Assembly and the law courts (Aristotle, 25; Bury 1963, 347; Hammond 1967, 288; Roberts 1998, 41, 47).  The role of the Council of Five Hundred or boule, was to draft legislation for consideration by the Assembly, which had a quorum of six thousand citizens (Waterfield 2004, 117; Roberts 1998, 41). All major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Assembly, which were a form of direct democracy.

After Ephialtes was assassinated, Perikles took his place as popular leader of the Assembly.  Perikles was also a general who redirected military resources towards sea power, which had implications for democracy because of the large numbers of citizens required as rowers of the triremes, of which more will be said later.

The major changes of radical democracy were that all magistrates (administrative officials) were selected by lot (sortition), except for military officers and certain other key officials who were elected by vote (Aristotle, 43).  No magistrate selected by lot could hold the same office twice (Roberts 1998, 41). The Council of Five Hundred also became elected by lot – fifty from each of ten tribes.  Each tribe held the office of Prytaneis in turn, the order being determined by lot.  The Prytaneis was responsible for convening meetings and setting the agendas of the Council and the Assembly (Aristotle, part 43).  However, in the interests of national security, the generals could instruct the Prytaneis to either call or not call a meeting of the Assembly (Roberts 1998, 47).

One counterbalance to this seemingly random process was a strict legal requirement that any new law must be consistent with the constitution and existing laws, which limited the whim of persuasive orators (Waterfield 2004, 102; Roberts 1998, 42).

The Council of Five Hundred passed judgement on nearly all magistrates, subject to appeal to the law courts.  Individual citizens could also lay an information against magistrates for not obeying the laws, subject again to appeal to the law courts if the Council found the charge proven (Aristotle, part 45).

Most of the law courts consisted of 500 citizens over the age of thirty; and more important cases were heard by 1000 or 1500 citizens selected by lot (Aristotle, part 45) from a pool of 6000 jurors (Waterfield 2004, 118).  Perikles introduced pay for jury service in the law courts, which counterbalanced the wealthy influence of the aristocrats (Aristotle, Part 27).  Pay was later introduced for the Council of Five Hundred and the Assembly (Aristotle, 62), presumably to encourage attendance (Thorley 1996, 73).  Councillors were exempt from military service, which would also have encouraged participation (Roberts 1998, 46).

The eligibility for citizenship by birth was altered to require both parents to be citizens (Aristotle, 41) which reduced the ability of aristocrats to marry other aristocrats from outside Athens, thus forcing further social mobility between the classes (Waterfield 2004, 102).  This change also inhibited the making of foreign alliances (Humphreys 1978, 99).

In his Funeral Oration, Perikles announced that the community would look after war orphans until they reached adulthood (Thucydides, 2.46.1); which, apart from providing direct benefits to the orphans, enhanced the sense of community in Athens.

Although ostracism (banishment to exile for ten years by vote of the Assembly) was an earlier institution, it became an important part of radical democracy because it symbolised the principle that the interests of the city state must prevail over those of the individual when these are in conflict (Martin 2000, 112).  Ostracism also helped to rid the city of potential tyrants (Humphreys 1978, 101).


Advantages of radical democracy

The main advantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

(1) The various military threats to Athens made it important that all citizens felt integrally part of the city and its defence, particularly as they provided the essential manpower for the navy (Thorley 1996, 76).  As the anonymous writer of the ancient text known as “The Old Oligarch” wrote:

“First of all, then, I shall say that at Athens the poor and the commons seem justly to have the advantage over the well-born and the wealthy; for it is the poor which mans the fleet and has brought the state her power, and the steersmen and the boatswains and the shipmasters and the lookout-men and the shipwrights—these have brought the state her power much rather than the hoplites and the best-born and the elite.”  (‘The Old Oligarch’, i.1)

(2) Athens’ shift to democracy assisted her in forming alliances with other democratic city states such as Argos and Megara (Hammond 1967, 298).

(3) Radical democracy fostered political stability and civic pride by holding in check the inherent tensions between rich and poor; and between professional politicians and the masses (Waterfield 2004, 116, 119).

(4) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy promoted public expenditure on monumental buildings (such as the Long Walls), the arts and other cultural activities (Waterfield 2004, 119).  There was also an increased accountability of this public expenditure, as all the major decisions were debated and settled by the Assembly (Bury 1963, 348).

(5) The introduction of pay for jurors and later Assembly attendees encouraged wider participation and strengthened the position of democratic leaders against their aristocratic opponents (Hammond 1967, 301).

(6) Natural consequences of the radical democratic reforms were freedom of speech in the Assembly and equality before the law (Goldhill 2004, 5).


Disadvantages of radical democracy

The main disadvantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows:

(1) There was a major problem of efficiency.  Because all public policy issues had to be debated and settled by the Assembly, which could not sit during the many festivals that were held, decision-making could be excessively slow and unresponsive to immediate needs (Thorley 1996, 71).  Big issues might take days to resolve (Roberts 1998, 41).

(2) There were risks to the quality and coherence of policy decisions; and their implementation.  Selection by lot meant that there were no professional government officials, or civil servants, apart from military generals (Waterfield 2004, 116).  For example, instead of having a Treasurer advised by financial experts, finance was managed by a multiplicity of boards (Roberts 1998, 43).  The lack of a civil service resulted in an over-reliance on professional politicians and orators like Perikles to develop and oversee the implementation of public policy, without expert advice (Waterfield 2004, 116).

(3) There were practical difficulties which prevented all citizens from participating equally in the Assembly meetings.  Many Athenian citizens lived too far away from the city; the meeting place at the Pnyx could accommodate only about 6,000 of the 50,000 citizens who now had the right to vote; and only around 2,000 normally attended because many citizens could not afford to attend, at least until pay for Assembly attendance was later introduced (Waterfield 2004, 116-117; Bury 1963, 349).

(4) Few citizens exercised their right to speak in the Assembly, resulting in the public debate being increasingly led by professional orators (Roberts 1998, 41); with most citizen participation being limited to cheering and heckling (Waterfield 2004, 117).

(5) The assumption that every citizen is equally capable of exercising sound judgement is dubious.  In contrast, modern representative democracy assumes that some people are better than others at political reasoning (Goldhill 2004, 2).

(6) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy worked against Panhellenism, despite the efforts of Perikles to make the two concepts work together.  The brake on Panhellenism arguably increased the threats to Athens from other Greek city states; and to the Greek states as a whole from external threats (Waterfield 2004, 119).

(7) The restriction of citizenship to children of both parents who are citizens would have excluded notable citizens such as Themistocles and Kleisthenes (Bury 1963, 350).  It must have also excluded other potentially notable citizens.  According to Hammond (1967, 301) modern historians have argued that this restriction also prevented Athens from developing into a larger state.

(8) Finally, it is highly doubtful that mass meetings could successfully manage an empire or wage a lengthy war.  It is telling that radical democracy was eventually abandoned after Athens provoked and lost the Peloponnesian War (Roberts 1998, 45).

I have not included the disenfranchisement of women and other non-citizens as a disadvantage here, because this was a common feature of all political systems in ancient Athens; and therefore cannot be attributed to radical democracy.


Naturally, different readers will have different values and priorities; and are therefore likely to weigh the various advantages and disadvantages differently.  Also, that there may be numerically more disadvantages than advantages of radical democracy is of little consequence.

My own view is that many of the advantages of radical democracy, for example, defence, political stability, civic pride, free speech, equality before the law, transparency and accountability can also be achieved through other forms of democracy such as the modern system of representative democracy.  When combined with the major disadvantages of radical democracy, especially for efficiency and the quality of public policy, I believe that this factor tips the balance against radical democracy.

The historical fact that the ancient Athenian experiment with radical democracy was abandoned after the Peloponnesian War and has rarely, if ever, been repeated, indicates that radical democracy may not in practice have been the best form of democracy.


Ancient Sources

Anon. c.424 BCE  ‘The Polity of the Athenians’ The Old Oligarch in The Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University, New York.  Available-: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/424pol-athens.asp

Aristotle,  ‘Constitution of Athens’, trans. F.G. Kenyon. R.W.J. Clayton (ed.) Athenian Politics, 1973 London Association of Classical Teachers: The Classical Association, London. Available-: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/athenian_const.html

Thucydides Chapter 4: Pericles’ Funeral Speech in History of the Peloponnesian War trans. R. Warmer, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1972 (revised).

Modern Sources

Bury, J.B., 1963  A History of Greece, Macmillan, London and New York.

de Blois, L. and van der Spek, R.J.,2008  An Introduction to the Ancient World (2nd edition) Routledge, London and New York.

Goldhill, S., 2004  ‘The Good Citizen’, in Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters. John Murray, London, 179-94.

Hammond, N.G.L., 1967  A History of Greece (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Humphreys, S. C., 1978 ‘Public and Private Interests in Classical Athens’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Dec., 1977 – Jan., 1978), 97-104.

Martin, T. R., 2000  Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Osborne, R., 2009  Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC, Routledge, Hoboken.

Roberts, J.W., 1998   ‘Radical Democracy’ in City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens, Routledge, London.

Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. 2008  Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River.

Thorley, J., 1996   Athenian Democracy, Routledge, Hoboken.

Waterfield, R., 2004  Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

[1] Athenian citizens were males born in Attica with at least one Athenian parent, excluding metics (foreign residents) and slaves.

[2] The archon was the position title one of several aristocratic leaders who replaced the hereditary kings of Athens in about 750 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 205).

[3] Also spelled as Cleisthenes.


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Some Origins of Western Quackery

 By Tim Harding

             (An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2013, Vol 33 No 3 p.16. The essay is based on a talk presented to the Mordi Skeptics in April 2013 ).

‘By definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work or has been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? Medicine.’ – Tim Minchin

A corollary of Tim Minchin’s rhetorical question might be ‘What should we call alternative medicine that has been proved not to work?’  I recently asked this question at my local Skeptics in the Pub meeting, eliciting an immediate and resounding chorus of ‘Quackery!(When you think about it, if the part of ‘alternative medicine’ that works is medicine, and the part that doesn’t work is quackery, there is nothing left in the category of ‘alternative medicine’).

On his Quackwatch web site, Dr. Stephen Barrett defines quackery as ‘the promotion of unsubstantiated methods that lack a scientifically plausible rationale’.  This definition includes questionable ideas as well as questionable products and services, regardless of the sincerity of their promoters.  In line with this definition, Barrett reserves the word ‘fraud’ only for situations in which deliberate deception is involved.

So where did quackery come from?  The word ‘quack’ derives from the archaic word ‘quacksalver’, of Dutch origin, literally meaning ‘hawker of salve’.  The quacksalvers sold their wares on the market by shouting in a loud voice.  In the Middle Ages, the word ‘quack’ meant ‘shouting’.  These days, we tend to associate quackery with dodgy products and practices from the nineteenth century such as snake oil, miracle hair tonics, magnetic bracelets and homeopathic remedies.  But the origins of western quackery actually go back much further – to the cradle of western civilisation in ancient Greece and Rome.

In those ancient times, scientific experimental methods had not yet been developed – let alone clinical trials.  Medical observations were largely confined to patients as individuals rather as a cohort or group.  Ancient physicians were not much better than naturopaths when it came to empirical evidence.  Without scientific data from treatment groups versus control groups, it was difficult to know which treatments worked and which didn’t.  As a result, there was no clear dividing line between medicine and quackery.  Ancient ‘medicine’ consisted of a mish-mash of well-meaning but misguided treatment by physicians and surgeons, faith healers, herbal remedies, aromotherapy, other superstitions – and even sorcery or magic. Sounds familiar? That’s right – many of these weird ancient beliefs have carried through to the quackery of today as a legacy of the vast Roman Empire.

Ancient Greek medicine

The first notable Greek physician may have been the poet Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BCE.  In his Iliad, Homer describes various medical techniques such as the extraction of arrows, the treatment of wounds, the application of dressings and the dispensing of soothing drugs.  The Homeric poems provide a glimpse of ancient medical ideas and practices long before the formal documentation of medical literature.  It is significant that practical medical treatment appears to have been provided in this early period, probably as a matter of military necessity, so that wounded soldiers could be saved to fight another day.


Reliance on the gods or faith healing seems to have come later, to some extent in parallel with advances in medical treatment.  The god of healing, Asklepios, had a shrine at Epidaurus in southern Greece, where miraculous recoveries were said to have been made by the sick and lame by sleeping in the temple overnight.  A Greek lyric poet from Thebes named Pindar (c.522– c.443 BCE) wrote:

‘[Asklepios] delivered all of them from their different pains, tending some of them with gentle incantations, others with soothing potions, or by wrapping remedies all around their limbs, and others he set right with surgery.’

The following picture is of a cast showing a physician examining a patient while Asklepios stands nearby holding the symbol of medicine, a snake coiled round a staff.


There were also apothecaries who harvested herbs and prepared drugs, accompanying their ministrations with important rituals and incantations.  Theophrastus (c.371 – c.287 BCE), who was a student of Aristotle, described some of these weird rituals in his History of Plants:

‘They say that the peony, which some call glykyside, should be dug up at night, for, if a man does it in the day-time and is observed by a woodpecker while he is gathering the fruit, he risks the loss of his eyesight; and if he is cutting the root at the time, he gets a prolapsed anus’.

‘One should draw three circles around mandrake with a sword, and cut it with one’s face to the west; and at the cutting of the second piece one should dance around the plant and say as many things as possible about the mysteries of love’.

On the other hand, the medical literature subsequently found in Greece differs markedly from that found elsewhere.  It includes reasoned arguments and debates, reflecting an intellectual openness consistent with Greek philosophy, rather than medicine as some sort of secret mystical art.  The links between medicine and philosophy can be traced back to Parmenides, Empedocles and even Pythagoras, whose ideas on appropriate living included a ban on eating beans!

Athens was one of the first city states to employ a publicly funded physician as a more rational alternative to traditional folk medicine.  Other Greek cities also maintained a public physician as well as several private practitioners.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells the tale of the early Greek physician Democedes of Croton, who started his career in the civil service of Athens and Aegina.  In 522 BCE, Democedes was captured by the Persians and sent to Susa.  The Persian King Darius once sprained his ankle while he was hunting, and his Egyptian doctors seemed to make it worse.  Darius then summoned Democedes, who was able to heal the ankle using Greek remedies.  Democedes was richly rewarded and hired as a physician of the Persian court.  Darius’s wife, Atossa, later had a breast ulcer.  When Democedes cured her ulcer, he was allowed to visit Greece as a reward.

Schools of medicine had existed for some time in various regions of Greece, most notably on the island of Kos, associated with the famous name of Hippokrates, a younger contemporary of Herodotus.  Hippokrates’ contribution to medicine is best remembered today by the ethical oath bearing his name.  Very little is known of Hippokrates himself, or how much of the Hippokrates medical treatises he personally wrote.  Hippokrates is cited in later works by Aristotle and Plato; but the Greek habit of composing imaginary speeches or letters by famous people from the past gradually blurred the distinction between the genuine and the false.  The following references to Hippokrates are actually references to the large body of medical literature bearing his name, the Hippokratic Corpus.

Hippokrates attempted to put medical diagnosis and treatment on a rational basis.  He viewed the human body as an organism whose parts must be understand as a whole.  Hippokrates thought that human physiology was comprised of four fluids or ‘humors’: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, corresponding to the four inanimate elements of earth, air, fire and water, as shown in the diagram below.

Four humours

Disease was thought to result from an imbalance of these humors, resulting in a disturbance of the natural harmony and order of the world so important to Classical Greek thought.  Hippokrates also placed emphasis on prognosis as well as diagnosis, so that the course of an illness could be predicted.  The more familiarity a physician showed with a disease, the more confidence his patients would have in him.  Prognosis also had practical benefits in planning the medical interventions that would be needed at different times.

In the absence of the modern germ theory of infectious disease, the danger to health from overcrowding within the Long Walls of Athens was not foreseen, resulting in a devastating plague in 430BCE.  Thucydides did not attempt to explain the reasons for the plague, but in the prognostic tradition of Hippokrates, he tried to describe its symptoms and effects so that if it struck again it could be recognised.

Active medical interventions included cauterisation and blood-letting, as well as surgery, the rectification of dislocations and the setting of bone fractures.  Other therapies included cupping, special diets, herbal remedies, potions, purgatives and exercises, consistent with the idea of ‘bringing the body back into balance’.  One rather spectacular treatment often performed in public was succussion, where the patient would be tied upside down to a ladder and then repeatedly dropped from a height of several feet as illustrated below.


It is unclear what succussion was supposed to achieve, but it is worth noting that succussion is a word still used by homeopaths to describe a shaking step in the preparation of their water doses.  The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann falsely believed that succussion activated the ‘vital energy’ of the diluted substance and made it stronger.

The rise of quackery in Rome

Traditional Roman medicine was initially an amateur activity using simple home remedies based on easily available agricultural ingredients such as wool, eggs and the humble but miraculous cabbage.  Cato the Elder wrote in his treatise On Agriculture:

‘For those who are troubled by colic, cabbage should be steeped in water…. ‘

‘Now as to patients for whom urination is painful or dribbling. Take cabbage, put in boiling water, boil briefly till half cooked…. ‘

‘If any sore or cancer develops in the breasts, apply ground cabbage …’

‘In case of dislocation, foment with hot water twice a day and apply ground cabbage: it will soon cure it…’

The Romans were a highly superstitious people.  For instance, the Roman Senate only sat on ‘auspicious days’.  In around 78 CE Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History:

‘I find that a bad cold in the head clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose.’

‘Some people keep a weasel’s heart in a small silver container, for swollen glands.’

The number three was regarded as a ‘lucky number’.  An anonymous Roman inscription reads:

‘To Julian who was spitting up blood and had been despaired of by all men the god revealed that he should go and from the threefold altar take the seeds of a pine cone and eat them with honey for three days. And he was saved and went and publicly offered thanks before the people’

Later Roman culture was greatly influenced by the ancient Greeks in many things, including philosophy, literature, art, science and medicine.

Galen of Pergamon (c. 129-200 CE) was a leading surgeon, physician, and philosopher of Greek origin.  In 162 CE, he established a large and successful practice in Rome, where he attended the Emperor Marcus Aurelias.  Amongst his voluminous works was a short essay entitled That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher, where he urged physicians to emulate Hippokrates and to embrace logic and rationality:

‘What reason, then, remains why the doctor, who practises the Art in a manner worthy of Hippocrates, should not be a philosopher? For since, in order to  discover the nature of the body, and the distinctions between diseases, and the indications for remedies, he must exercise his mind in rational thought, and since, so that he may persevere laboriously in the practice of these things, he must despise riches and exercise temperance,  he must already possess all the parts of philosophy: the logical, the scientific, and the ethical’.

Consistent with this approach, Galen saw the bodies of living things and their various parts as designed and operated by a craftsman-like nature with a purpose in mind; thus an important key to anatomical and physiological knowledge is an understanding of nature’s purposes.  This form of ‘intelligent design’ has been described as a teleological view of biology by modern reviewers of Galen’s writings.  Galen held that nature rules the body from three anatomical centres – the liver, the heart and the brain (in contrast to the Aristotelian view that all faculties are centred in the heart).  He claimed that human physiology can be explained by the principal activities of nature, which are genesis, growth and nutrition.

Like Hippokrates , Galen believed in the need for the ‘four humors’ to be in balance: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.  He thought that the human body had three physiological spheres: the nutritive, the vital and the logical.  According to Galen, stomach cooks food to what was called ‘chyle’ and sends it to the liver.  The liver adds ‘natural spirit’ and sends it to other organs and the heart.  The heart adds ‘vital spirit’ and sends it to the brain.  The brain adds what was called ‘pneuma’ and sends to the body through nerves.  Such views were the likely origin of the modern naturopathic belief in ‘vitalism’ that persists today.  Naturopathy posits that a special energy called ‘vital energy’ or ‘vital force’ guides bodily processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and adaptation.  Such energies and forces are unknown to modern science.

For religious reasons, there was little or no dissection of human corpses in ancient Rome.  Nevertheless, Galen believed in the supreme importance of anatomy, so he regularly performed dissections on animals.  Although he was conscious of the limitations of extrapolating from animals to humans, he did express some erroneous views about human anatomy, such as the following description by Galen in his work On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body:

‘All the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, which must be kept in mind throughout the discussion, namely, that in women the parts are within [the body],   whereas in men they are outside, in the region called the perineum. Consider first whichever ones you please, turn outward the woman’s, turn inward, so to speak and fold double the man’s, and you will find them the   same in both in every respect’.

Women were treated by male physicians and the gynaecological treatises of the Hippokratic Corpus were almost certainly written by and for men.  Part of the deficiency of observational evidence stems from the failure of male medical writers to speak to women about their illnesses.  Women were traditionally presented as being incapable of knowing what was wrong with them or telling a doctor if they did know.  Galen’s teleological view of biology also appears to have influenced his attitudes towards women:

‘So too the woman is less perfect than the man in respect to the generative parts. For the parts were formed within her when she was still a foetus, but could not because of the defect in the heart emerge and project on  the outside, and this, though making the animal itself that was being formed less perfect than one that is complete in all respects, provided no small advantage for the race; for there needs must be a female. Indeed,  you ought not to think that our creator would purposely make half the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation’.

These biased attitudes impacted wider Greek and Roman society.  For example, it was believed, on false medical grounds, that a man’s seed was most potent when he was about 30 years of age; and a woman’s body best suited for childbirth when she was still a teenager.

The medical theories of ancient Greece and Rome formed the foundation of Western medicine for centuries, even if they were eventually rejected.  The main reasons for this rejection were the development of empirical scientific methods after the Renaissance; coupled with advances such as the invention of the microscope and the germ theory of infectious disease.  Whilst there were observations of individual patients, there is no evidence of any organised medical experiments being conducted in ancient Greece and Rome, let alone clinical trials.  In some ways, the Greek philosophical traditions of logic and reasoning held back a more empirical scientific approach to medicine.  Instead of conducting practical experiments on illnesses, ancient Greek and Roman physicians became diverted into a search for the underlying purposes of diseases – a relatively fruitless ‘search for meaning’ rather than for empirical evidence.  This mystical and unscientific approach is one of the hallmarks of quackery today.


 Ancient Sources

Aristotle On the Generation of Animals excerpt translated by A.L. Peck.  Published online http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-medicine339.shtml

(Accessed 20 September 2012)

Galen That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher translated by Brain, P., 1977, “Galen on the ideal of the physician”, South Africa Medical Journal, 52: 936–938.

Galen On the Usefulness of Parts of the Body excerpt translated by M.T. May.  Published online http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-medicine351.shtml

(Accessed 20 September 2012)

Herodotus The Histories R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Herodotus, Quercus, London, 2008.

Thucydides A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, R.B. Strassler (ed), The Landmark Thucydides, Free Press, New York, 1996.

Modern Sources

Brain, P., 1986    Galen on Bloodletting: A Study of the Origins, Development and Validity of his Opinions, with a Translation of the Three Works Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Flaceliere, R., 2002    Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles. Phoenix Press, London.

King, H., 1995    ‘Medical texts as a source for women’s history ‘  in The Greek World Anton Powell (ed.) Routledge, London and New York.

Martin, T. R., 2000    Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Nutton, V., 2004    Ancient Medicine Routledge, London and New York.

Pagel, W., 1970    Book Review of Galen and the Usefulness of Parts of the Body in Medical History/ Volume14 / Issue04 / October 1970, 406-408.  Published online: 16 August 2012

Roberts, J.W., 1998    City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens (2nd edition), Routledge, London.

Roebuck, C., 1966    The World of Ancient Times Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Waterfield, R., 2004    Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

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Theseus’s paradox

Theseus is remembered in Greek mythology as the slayer of the Minotaur. For years, the Athenians had been sending sacrifices to be given to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull beast who inhabited the labyrinth of Knossos. One year, Theseus braved the labyrinth, and killed the Minotaur.  The ship in which he returned was long preserved. As parts of the ship needed repair, it was rebuilt plank by plank.

The Ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a paradox that raises a question of identity – whether an object which has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late 1st century. Plutarch asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing all and every of its wooden parts, remained the same ship.

The paradox had been discussed by more ancient philosophers such as HeraclitusSocrates, and Plato prior to Plutarch’s writings; and more recently by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. There are several variants, notably “my grandfather’s axe”, and in the UK “Trigger’s Broom”. This thought experiment is “a model for the philosophers”; some say, “it remained the same,” some saying, “it did not remain the same”.[1]

George Washington’s axe (sometimes “my grandfather’s axe”) is the subject of an apocryphal story of unknown origin in which the famous artifact is “still George Washington’s axe” despite having had both its head and handle replaced.

“…as in the case of the owner of George Washington’s axe which has three times had its handle replaced and twice had its head replaced!” [2]


[1] Rea, M., (1995) The Problem of Material Constitution, The Philosophical Review, 104: 525-552.

[2] Ray Broadus Browne, Objects of Special Devotion: Fetishism in Popular Culture, p. 134

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