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Guide to the Classics: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars explores vice and virtue in ancient Rome

The Conversation

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Giovanni Cavino, I primi dodici imperatori Romani (‘The first twelve Roman emperors’), plaquettes produced at Padua, c. 1550. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University

In a memorable scene from the classic BBC TV series I, Claudius (1976), three frightened senators are summoned to the palace in the dead of night by the emperor Caligula. Rather than being executed, they are treated to a command performance by Caligula himself, who dances before them dressed in a shimmering gold bikini.

Caligula’s midnight dance routine is the climax of a sequence of horrors and indiscretions committed by the emperor. He has his predecessor suffocated to death with a pillow, executes his cousin because of his irritating cough, and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister (they’re both gods, you see).

Caligula dances for Claudius and two other senators. Scene from the BBC TV series, I, Claudius (1976).

These outlandish scenes cannot be ascribed to the imagination of the scriptwriter Jack Pulman or to Robert Graves, the author of the original novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, on which the series is based. The incidents are adapted from Suetonius’s On the Lives of the Caesars, a collection of imperial biographies written in Latin in the second century A.D.

Latin edition of The Twelve Caesars published in 1541.
Wikimedia Commons

Suetonius’s work describes the lives of Rome’s first 12 leaders from Julius Caesar to Domitian – hence it is best known today as The Twelve Caesars. This is the title it bears in the paperback Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Graves himself in 1957, and still in print today.

Suetonius’s unforgettable tales of sex, scandal, and debauchery have ensured that his writing has played a significant role in shaping our perceptions of imperial Rome.

The man and the work

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a scholar and intellectual who held administrative positions at the imperial court under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He was a prolific author, writing biographies of poets and orators, as well as works on topics as diverse as the games, the Roman year, bodily defects, and lives of famous courtesans.

He probably began to write the Caesars when he was Hadrian’s secretary of correspondence. However, the biographies were only published after Suetonius was dismissed from Hadrian’s service for being too familiar with the emperor’s wife.

Bust of Hadrian in the Musei Capitolini.
Wikimedia Commons

Political expediency meant that Suetonius wisely avoided writing about Hadrian. Instead The Twelve Caesars includes the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first imperial dynasty (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero), three short-lived emperors during the civil wars of A.D. 69 (Galba, Vespasian, Otho), and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

The structure of the individual biographies has often puzzled modern readers, who expect Suetonius to tell his story in a linear fashion from birth to death. Although Suetonius usually begins with an emperor’s family and upbringing, the bulk of each Life consists of an assortment of memorable, and sometimes salacious, anecdotes about an emperor’s public conduct and private life.

But this is no mere haphazard catalogue of sex and corruption. Instead, Suetonius tells his readers that he has carefully organized the stories “by categories”. These categories include the emperor’s virtues (such as justice, self-control, and generosity) and his vices (like greed, cruelty, and sexual excess).

Virtues and vices

In the second century A.D., when Suetonius was writing, there was no chance of a return to the Republic, but aristocrats still expected the emperor to behave as if he were merely the most prestigious citizen rather than an autocrat. The stories of virtue and vice in the Caesars are carefully selected to illustrate whether emperors measured up to this standard.

When Suetonius describes an emperor’s ancestors, he highlights how their qualities influenced the ruler himself. Early in the Life of Nero, the reader encounters Nero’s grandfather who staged particularly cruel shows in the arena. This helps to explain the later tales of Nero’s own savagery, because the reader would see that this vice was part of his nature.

Suetonius is fair and evenhanded in his treatment of his subjects. All emperors appear as flawed men with both virtues and vices, but the balance between them depends on the individual ruler. He even gives due credit to the notorious Caligula, who began his reign by publishing the imperial budget and showing generosity to the people. Suetonius then signals a change:

Thus far, it is as if we have been writing about an emperor, but the rest must be about a monster.

This “division” – a statement in which Suetonius clearly separates the anecdotes illustrating virtues from the vices – is a feature of several of his biographies. In Caligula’s case, it is from this point on that we read about his pretensions to divinity, his condemnation of aristocrats to hard labour in the mines, and his sexual immorality.

Emperor Tiberius, played by George Baker, in I Claudius.

The tales of the emperors’ sexual habits constitute some of the most famous passages in Suetonius. He chronicles Tiberius’s sordid behaviour on Capri, detailing how he forced men and women to engage in threesomes, had children perform oral sex on him, and raped young men who took his fancy.

When the Loeb Classical Library, which features the original Latin and the English translation of classical texts on facing pages, published their first edition of Suetonius in 1913, these chapters about Tiberius’s behaviour were left in Latin because they were considered too scandalous to translate. Although they are now translated into English, these graphic tales still have the power to shock and unsettle the reader.

An emperor’s private life and his sexual conduct were fair game because they reflected whether or not he was fit to rule. The same applied to members of his family. Augustus’s daughters were praised by Suetonius for spending their time weaving in his house. (Such gender stereotypes remain with us today, if one recalls the photo shoot of Julia Gillard knitting in Women’s Weekly). When his daughter Julia flagrantly flouted Augustus’s own adultery legislation, Suetonius reports that he had no choice but to exile her. The imperial family had to set standards for the entire empire.

Man or god?

Silver coin of the emperor Otho.
Wikimedia Commons

After the virtues and vices, Suetonius’s Lives usually conclude with a narrative of the emperor’s death and a detailed physical description of his body. Suetonius didn’t hold back in these passages, even pointing out that the emperor Otho sported a terrible wig to hide his bald patch (as his coinage also reveals).

The description of the emperor Nero is particularly memorable:

He was of a good height but his body was blotchy and ill-smelling. His hair was fairish, his face handsome rather than attractive, his eyes bluish-grey and dull, his neck thick, his stomach protruding, his legs very thin…

The different body parts were supposed to indicate character traits. Nero’s blotchy skin likened him to a panther (regarded as a deceitful creature); his hair colour suggested courage; the bulging beer belly had connotations of power, but also exposed his devotion to pleasure; his feeble legs indicated both femininity and fear. Nero was thus revealed to be a contradiction.

The emperor Claudius as Jupiter, Vatican Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

The descriptions of the bodies are also very funny. They undercut the divine pretensions of emperors, whose statues showed them in heroic nudity with six-packs that demonstrated their virility and likened them to gods. (Once again, not much has changed, as revealed by the images of Vladimir Putin’s shirtless hunting expeditions or Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers).

Suetonius’s stories about the emperors’ faults and foibles exposed them as human beings. He even collected their famous sayings to shed light on their character – the famous line “as quick as boiled asparagus”, intoned beautifully by Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius, is straight out of Suetonius.

His account of the witty sayings of Vespasian shows that the emperor frequently joked about his own economic policies:

When his son Titus criticized him for putting a tax even on urine, he held up a coin from the first payment to his son’s nose and asked him if he was offended by its smell. When Titus said no, he observed: ‘But it comes from urine.’

Vespasian emerges as a rather avuncular figure. He even pokes fun at the deification of emperors, proclaiming in the days before his death, “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god!”

Laughing at power

But the humour of Suetonius’s Caesars is often double-edged. He tells one story about the time Nero visited his aunt on her death bed, and she lovingly remarked that she would die happy once she had the hairs from the first shaving of his beard. Nero joked that he would shave it off immediately. He then gave his aunt an overdose of laxatives to kill her off and seized her estate for himself.

Head of Nero, with beard, from the Palatine Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

Roman aristocrats reading this tale would probably have laughed, given its absurdly comic elements. But it would have been nervous laughter. For such stories reminded them of the power of the emperor. While they might have chuckled at another’s misfortune, they would have been acutely aware that one day it could be them.

Suetonius’s Caesars is thus more than a haphazard collection of gossip and scandal, but a work that sheds light on the world of the Roman aristocracy and how they lived (and coped) with their emperors. The stories of the emperors’ virtues and vices illustrates what Roman elites considered to be acceptable behaviour by their leaders.

Suetonius’s biographies also cut the emperors down to size, revealing them to be men with human flaws, rather than gods. They offered a necessary means of escapism in a world where imperial fickleness could end one’s career – or one’s life.

The ConversationRecommended translation: Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Oxford World’s Classics edition by Catharine Edwards (2008).

Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Roman History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, Macquarie University

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

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How did Augustus become the first Roman Emperor?

by Tim Harding

In 27BCE Gaius Octavius (‘Octavian’) in effect became the first Emperor of Rome, although this was not of one his official titles.  As part of this process, his name was changed by Senate decree to Augustus.  For all practical purposes, the Roman Emperor became a monarch, yet throughout Rome’s republican period, the Senate had resolutely opposed any return to the previous monarchy.  Indeed, this opposition has been given as one of the main reasons for the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BCE (Cicero, III 82-83).  The purpose of this essay is to explore the reasons for this apparent paradox, and to suggest an explanation as to how Augustus was able overcome the Senate’s opposition to monarchy and become a king-like Emperor.

In order to better understand the Roman Senate’s aversion to the return of a monarchy, it is useful to consider the prior relationship between the Senate and the early Roman kings, and in particular the conflict between the Senate and the last king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

According to the Roman historian Titus Livius (known as Livy), the Senate was originally created as an advisory council by the legendary first Roman King Romulus.  He appointed one hundred senators who were called the ‘patres’ in virtue of their rank, and their descendants were called ‘patricians’ (Livy, 1.8).  During the later republican period, the Senate became increasingly powerful – more like a legislature than an advisory body (Cornell 1995, 369-370).

In an important contrast to the Senate, many of the subsequent Roman kings were not of patrician blood, and were regarded as ‘outsiders’ (Cornell 1995, 142).  They adopted tyrannical Greek and near-eastern models of kingship in their search for legitimacy and charismatic authority.  They were essentially anti-aristocratic figures, who ruled in the interests of the plebeians, including by redistributing wealth to them from the patricians (Cornell 1995, 147-148).

The seventh and last Roman King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus began his reign in 535 BCE by executing the leading patricians whom he suspected of being partisans of his predecessor Servius Tullius, whom he had overthrown by violence (Livy, 1.49).  Because Tarquinius reigned without either being elected by the people or confirmed by the Senate, he surrounded himself with guards and maintained his dominion by fear.  He summarily conducted the trials in capital cases without any assessors, and put to death, banished, or fined not only those whom he suspected or disliked, but also those from whom his only object was to extort money (Livy, 1.49).

In his way, Tarquinius not only earned the reputation of an anti-aristocratic tyrant but also as an antagonist of the Senate, as recorded in the following passage by Livy.

‘It was chiefly the senators whose numbers were reduced by this procedure, and Tarquinius determined to make no new appointments to the order, that it might be the more despised for its very paucity, and might chafe less at being ignored in all business of state.  For this king was the first to break with the custom handed down by his predecessors, of consulting the senate on all occasions, and governed the nation without other advice than that of his own household. War, peace, treaties, and alliances were entered upon or broken off by the monarch himself, with whatever states he wished, and without the decree of people or Senate’ (Livy, 1.49).

Cornell (1995, 148) concludes that such tyrannical behaviour is the most likely reason for the almost pathological dislike of monarchy during the subsequent Republican period of Rome.  Indeed, the first acts of the initial praetors (consuls) of the Republic in 509BCE, Brutus and Tarquinius Collatinus, were to make the people swear never to allow anybody to be king, and to legislate against aspiring to monarchy in the future (Cornell 1995, 150, 215).  For the rest of Roman history, ‘king’ or ‘rex’ was a term of loathing in Roman politics (Beard 2015, 125).

The dislike of monarchy was instrumental in shaping the constitution of the Roman Republic.  Two consults were elected by the comitia curiata[1] and held office for only one year.  They took it in turns to hold the fasces, the symbol of power and authority (imperium) in ancient Rome (Livy, 2.1.8).  They also had the power to veto the decisions of each other (Cornell 1995, 226).  As consul, Brutus selected leading men of equestrian rank to fill the vacancies in the Senate caused by Tarquin; by this means Brutus brought it up to the old number of three hundred.  Livy claims that ‘this measure had a wonderful effect in promoting harmony in the State and bringing the patricians and plebeians together’ (Livy, 2.1.8); although later conflicts between these classes contradicted this claim.

An exception to these republican rules was the dictatorship, which has important implications for the status of both Julius Caesar and Augustus that I shall discuss later.  In cases of national emergency, a dictator was appointed by one of the consuls to act as supreme commander and head of state for six months, or the duration of the emergency, whichever was the shorter.  The consuls remained in office during this period, but were subject to the dictator’s authority, against which there was no appeal (Cornell 1995, 226-227).

On the Ides of March in 44BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate by a consortium of over 60 senators, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus.  According to Cicero (III 82-83), Caesar was killed because he was in the process of restoring a monarchy to Rome, and thus destroying the Republic.

‘Our tyrant deserved his death for having made an exception of the one thing that was the blackest crime of all.  Why do we gather instances of petty crime—legacies criminally obtained and fraudulent buying and selling? Behold, here you have a man who was ambitious to be king of the Roman People and master of the whole world; and he achieved it!’ (Cicero, III 82-83).

Evidence in support of Cicero’s claim includes an increasingly powerful list of honours that Caesar was steadily accumulating, culminating in his appointment as dictator for life (Plutarch 9; Dio, 12).  Caesar had amassed wealth and power from his Gallic conquests which offended the sensibilities of the senators (Le Glay et al 2009, 150).  He also accepted certain symbols of divine rulership, such as insignia, purples robes and the gilded chair of a triumphator (Carson, 1957, 51; Ehrenberg 1964, 159).  The solemn procession in which Caesar’s statue had been carried into the temple of the deified Romulus gave him the appearance of a divine person (Ehrenberg 1964, 152; Kershaw 2013, 29).  Cassius Dio claims that a similar statue and its inscription was the trigger for Caesar’s assassination.

‘Another likeness they set up in the temple of Quirinus with the inscription, “To the Invincible God,” and another on the Capitol beside the former kings of Rome.  Now it occurs to me to marvel at the coincidence: there were eight such statues, — seven to the kings, and an eighth to the Brutus who overthrew the Tarquins, — and they set up the statue of Caesar beside the last of these; and it was from this cause chiefly that the other Brutus, Marcus, was roused to plot against him.’ (Dio, Book 43, 45, 3)

The patrician senators also loathed the erection of a temple to Clementia Caesaris (‘Caesar’s Clemency’) because clementia was a kingly virtue (Kershaw 2013, 29).  Further evidence of Caesar’s intention to become king was the appearance of his head on a series of coins during his lifetime, instead of the usual gods and ancient heroes (Carson 1957, 52).

A less reliable piece evidence for Caesar’s monarchical aspirations was that according to Dio (Book 44, 15, 3), there was an unconfirmed report that the priests known as the Quindecemviri were spreading a story that the oracle Sibyl had said the Parthians (with whom a war was looming) would never be defeated in any other way than by a king; and so the priests were consequently going to propose that the title of king be granted to Caesar everywhere in the Roman world with the exception of Italy.

‘The conspirators believed this to be true, and because a vote would be demanded of the magistrates, among whom were Brutus and Cassius, owing to the importance of the measure, and they neither dared to oppose it nor would submit to remain silent, they hastened forward their plot before any business connected with the measure should come up’ (Dio, Book 44, 15, 3).

It is uncertain whether Caesar actually wanted to be king or not (Le Glay et al 2009, 158).  Dio claims that although Julius Caesar pretended to shun the title of monarch, in reality he desired it (Dio, Book 44, 11).  On the other hand, Carson (1957, 52) asks that because Julius Caesar had already achieved all the substance of power that he needed, why should he seek the outward forms of it which might arouse political antagonisms?  An alternative theory is that the Roman patricians were more concerned about the indefinite continuance of Julius Caesar’s substantive threat to their own power than the symbolic restoration of the monarchy; and that the latter explanation was a moral and political justification for the assassination after it was done (Carson 1957, 53).  In support of this theory is the fact that Caesar doubled the number of quaestors, appointed an additional praetor and increased the number of senators to 900.  These changes were regarded by the old nobility as an unpardonable offence because they would result in diluting the Senate and patrician ranks with ‘upstarts’ from the Italian peninsula and the provinces (Marsh and Scullard 1971, 19; Kershaw 2013, 29; Le Glay et al 2009, 157).

Whether Caesar was assassinated to prevent a restoration of the monarchy, or to protect the power of the patrician senators (or both), there is a paradox between the assassination of Caesar for either of these reasons and the subsequent rise of Augustus as the first Roman Emperor.  This is because the Emperor in effect became a monarch and diminished the power of the Senate, as I shall now explain.

After Caesar’s death, Mark Antony took advantage of the ensuing power vacuum and turned Caesar’s funeral into a political opportunity for himself (Le Glay et al 2009, 159).  On the other hand, Octavian had been named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir (Suetonius, Augustus, 8).  The Roman aristocracy was then thrown into chaos and civil wars until the Battle of Actium in 31BCE, when Octavian (the later Augustus) emerged victorious over Mark Antony and Cleopatra (Goodman 1997, 9).  From that date, Octavian was the undisputed military ruler of the Roman world (Goodman 1997, 38).  He then skilfully used that military power and respect as his springboard to secure ultimate political power.  He established for himself the image of the military saviour of the Roman Republic.

Returning  to Italy in 30BCE, Octavian disbanded about half of the huge legionary forces under his control, paying for their resettlement with wealth taken from Egypt (Goodman 1997, 39).  By downsizing the military forces and relinquishing command, Octavian was playing on national feeling and war weariness (Le Glay et al 2009, 184).

To boost his civic credentials, Octavian as a Consul embarked on a series of public works in Rome, including linking the Forum with the Campus Martius, and building or repairing various temples (Le Glay et al, 195).  As he was immensely wealthy, he donated some of his money for public benefaction on a grand scale (Le Glay et al 2009, 214).  According to Suetonius (Augustus 28), Octavian proudly boasted of Rome that ‘he had found it of brick, but left it of marble’.

In 28BCE, Octavian performed the role of censor (but without the official title) by reducing the Senate to the ancient 300 in number (Suetonius, Augustus 35).  He did this by expelling new senators he deemed unworthy, which earned the gratitude of the old senators.  The Senate then passed a decree naming him Augustus (Goodman 1997, 39-40), which means ‘Revered One’ (Beard 2015, 354).  Augustus rectified the confusion and disorder by which spectators took their seats at public games.  He arranged that in all public spectacles, the first tier of seats should be left empty for use by senators (Suetonius, Augustus 44). These measures were obviously designed to flatter and curry favour with the senators.

The senator and historian Tacitus later wrote how Augustus’ pervasive control over all levels of Roman society gradually metamorphosed into monarchical power.

‘Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past’ (Tacitus, 1.2).

After what had happened to Julius Caesar, Augustus was wise enough not to accept the title of dictator, instead choosing to be known by the informal title of princeps, a term meaning the foremost statesman (Barrow 1949, 81; Goodman 1997, 40).  In addition, the Senate voted to give Augustus military command for ten years over the provinces of Spain, Gaul, Syria and Egypt where the vast majority of legions still under arms were stationed (Goodman 1997, 40).  He assumed the religious title of Pontifex Maximus as soon as his colleague Lepidus was dead (Seutonius, Augustus 31).  His title of ‘Father of the Country’ was voted to him by ‘the whole body of the people…in a full theatre’ (Seutonius, Augustus 58).

Augustus himself described his accession to the Emperorship in the following terms.

‘In my sixth and seventh consulates (28-27 B.C.E.), after putting out the civil war, having obtained all things by universal consent, I handed over the state from my power to the dominion of the senate and Roman people. And for this merit of mine, by a senate decree, I was called Augustus and the doors of my temple were publicly clothed with laurel and a civic crown was fixed over my door and a gold shield placed in the Julian senate-house, and the inscription of that shield testified to the virtue, mercy, justice, and piety, for which the senate and Roman people gave it to me. After that time, I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy’ (Augustus, 34).

In 23BCE, Augustus was awarded imperium proconsulare maius, which was the legal right to intervene on behalf of the state even in those parts of the Empire not formally under his authority (Barrow 1949, 81).  He was also appointed tribunica potestas for life, which permitted him to exercise a tribune’s veto over all legislation and to propose new legislation (Barrow 1949, 81; Goodman 1997, 41).  In this way, Augustus gradually accumulated personal prestige and power equivalent to that of a monarch, with the Senate as a largely compliant legislature.  He was very careful to do this in such a skilful way that he was not perceived as a tyrannical monarch like Tarquinius.

Augustus’ political genius lay in his grasp of the fact that in order to establish his personal power, he had to outwardly preserve the institutions of the Republic while inwardly emptying them of their content (Le Glay et al. 2009, 214-215).  He made no significant changes to the Roman Constitution – the old offices of state, such as the consulships and magistracies were retained, although their power was in practice diminished by his Emperorship.  The formal privileges of the Senate were enhanced, yet once again were overshadowed by Augustus’ power and influence (Beard 2015, 355).  The Emperor had become the single unifying factor for the 50 or 60 million inhabitants of the entire Empire (Goodman, 1997, 9).  Augustus did not actually need formal constitutional titles – his power derived from his personal authority and influence, somewhat akin to a ‘supreme leader’ above the official positions of state.  So the answer to our original question is that Augustus’ consummate political skills were sufficient to overwhelm the resistance of the Senate to the restoration of the Roman monarchy in the form of the new office of Emperor.


Ancient Sources

Augustus         The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, trans. T. Bushnell, The Internet Classics Archive <http://classics.mit.edu//Augustus/deeds.html>, accessed 9 May 2017.

Cicero              ‘On Duties’ III 82-83, in N. Lewis and M. Reinhold eds., Roman Civilization Sourcebook I: The Republic, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 295-297; reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 15.

Dio                  Roman History trans. Earnest Cary, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1914 thru 1927, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/cassius_dio/43*.html, accessed 9 May 2017.

Livy                 Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome),  Perseus Digital Library,

http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0914.phi0011.perseus-eng1:49, accessed 9 May 2017.

Plutarch           Life of Caesar, 57-67 (abridged) reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 9-10.

Suetonius        The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, rev. J.B. Rives, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1957.

Tacitus             The Annals of Imperial Rome, Complete Works of Tacitus. Church, A., Brodribb, W., Bryant. S., eds, Perseus, New York.  <http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi1351.phi005.perseus-eng1:1.2&gt;, accessed 11 May 2017.

Modern Sources

Barrow, R. H.,

1949                The Romans, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Beard, M.

2015                SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome, Profile Books, London.

Carson, R.A. G.

1957                ‘Caesar and the Monarchy’ Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 4, No. 1. pp46-53.

Cornell, T. J.

1995                The Beginnings of Rome, Routledge, New York.

Ehrenberg, V.,

1964                ‘Caesar’s Final Aims’ Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 68 pp.149-161.

Goodman, M.,

1997                The Roman World, Routledge, New York.

Kershaw, S.,

2013                A Brief History of the Roman Empire, Robinson, London.

Le Glay, M., Voisin, J., and Bohec, Y.,

2009                A History of Rome, 4th ed. John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chicester.

Marsh, F.B., and Scullard, H.H.,

1971                ‘The Ides of March,’ in A History of the Roman World from 146 to 30 BC. reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 19-21.

[1] The comitia curiata was the principal legislative and judicial assembly during the early years of the Roman Republic (Cornell 1995, 115).

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Contentious politics: Hobbes, Machiavelli and corporate power

The Conversation

Sandra Field, Yale-NUS College

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Political protesters often don’t play by the rules. Think of the Occupy Movement, which brought lower Manhattan to a standstill in 2011 under the slogan, “We are the 99%”. Closer to home, think of the refugee activists who assisted a breakout from South Australia’s Woomera detention centre in 2002. Both are examples of contentious politics, or forms of political engagement outside the institutional channels of political decision-making.

The democratic credentials of contentious politics are highly ambivalent. On the one hand, contentious politics appears to have insufficient respect for democratic decision. Protesters are often forceful, uncivil and rowdy, aiming to disproportionately influence policy. But shouldn’t proposals be put forward with civility through the proper channels? And shouldn’t their proponents accept with good grace if they are democratically rebuffed?

In my current home, Singapore, contention is viewed as dangerous, at any moment threatening to destabilise the hard-won authority of the government. Consequently it is not tolerated.

The 1965 SAFA Freedom Riders and their bus.
From Ann Curthoys, Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers,
Allen & Unwin, 2002

At the same time, history offers countless examples of social change that is now consolidated and popularly supported, but which was only achieved through protests that were judged at the time to be extreme and immoderate. Notably, the Australian Freedom Ride of 1965, which challenged the subordinate status of Indigenous Australians, was highly controversial. Today its 50th anniversary is celebrated and recognised in the mainstream media and the halls of power.

A closer look at the history of political thought can provide us with the framework to assess the case for and against the democratic reasonableness of contentious politics.

Hobbes’ citizens accept authority

Best known for his claim that the natural human condition is one of war and all against all, 17th-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes is often misrepresented as the ultimate theorist of contentious politics. He actually views conflict as antithetical to good democratic politics (or indeed to any politics at all).

Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes’ ultimate authority.
Abraham Bosse

For Hobbes, the purpose of politics is to escape war. As such, he insists that in order to establish a democratic political order, all individuals need to hand over their will to a single point of ultimate authority – in this case, the democratic assembly. Hobbes thought that citizens should accept the determination of the democratic assembly, even when it ruled against their own preferred outcomes.

In Hobbes’ ideal democracy, democratic citizens do have some recourse when they disagree with the assembly. He distinguishes between counsel and exhortation. He sees it as permissible to offer counsel to the ruling assembly. But it is unacceptable for the citizen to become vehement or to let their own interests drive their demand, as this amounts to exhortation.

If citizens were free to protest and seek to overturn the democratic decision whenever they chose, the system would not be one of pure rule by the people, but rather a rule by the people distorted to appease the protesters.

Machiavelli sees room for conflict

The Hobbesian view, while influential, is not the only way to think about political contestation and democratic rule. Written more than a century before Hobbes’s Leviathan, the ideas expressed in Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince are still very popular, making him the archetypal cynical and ruthless adviser to rulers who want nothing more than to hold firmly onto power.

However, Machiavelli’s other major work, The Discourses on Livy, has some important lessons for the future of democracy. By looking at the recent histories of Florence and Venice, along with the ancient history of Rome, he makes clear that while some conflicts of authority are destructive, others are constructive.

Although not concerned about democracy in the modern sense, Machiavelli firmly defends the political power and worth of the common people. He argues that some constructive conflict is necessary for them to enjoy status and liberty in the political order.

Renaissance Florence had been racked by conflict. Different sects hated each other, and the polity was tossed violently from one ruling power to another. Weakened by the transitions, it was easy prey for external domination. Through this conflict, the lot of the Florentine people was very wretched.

Ancient Rome was also marked by conflict. The plebs (the common people) periodically disrupted ordinary politics. They closed their shops, refused military service, ran noisily down the streets or even left the city en masse when they desired something. Unsurprisingly, the Romans were not afraid to bring accusations against arrogant rulers.

The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraved by B. Barloccini (1849), depicting the commoners leaving the city as a political protest.
Wikimedia Commons

Curiously, during all the centuries of conflict in the Roman republic, it was never deeply disordered. Very few citizens were exiled or killed. Instead, there were countless examples of great virtue among citizens, and the laws supported the common good and public freedom.

Constructive vs destructive conflict

Machiavelli identifies a crucial difference between the two cases. In Rome, the citizens were by and large committed to living together in a society on fair terms. Their ultimate goal was not the eradication of the opposed party; their conflicts were aimed at improving the laws, not using the laws to eliminate their opponent.

In Florence, the parties were corrupt in the sense of not seeking a fair common good. Instead, they sought to overcome and crush their opponents.

This type of self-serving conflict destroys liberty. It seizes everything from the losers and denies their existence in the polity. It also produces instability because there is so much at stake in who is ruling. Ultimately, it weakens the polity because there is no public good to be committed to and inspired by.

Hence, the protagonist of constructive conflict is committed to the good of the political order and acknowledges the reasonable interests of opponents. Destructive conflict involves self-interested competition without any higher commitment to living together on reasonable terms.

How does this distinction between kinds of conflict apply to present-day politics?

The 1965 Australian Freedom Ride campaign exemplifies the effectiveness of constructive conflict. The zero-sum racialised conflict suffered by the Solomon Islands over recent decades illustrate the impacts of destructive conflict.

On Machiavelli’s view, the vast majority of political contestation that we see within democracies today would count as constructive conflict. Undeniably, constructive conflict is preferable to destructive conflict, but this raises the question: why do we need conflict at all? Would Rome have been an even greater polity if it had managed to avoid all conflict?

A standard trope of civic republican writing in Machiavelli’s time was to lament the tumultuous character of the Roman republic, often in unflattering contrast to the serene harmony of the republican city-state of Venice.

Lorenzetti Ambrogio’s ‘Allegory of Good Government’ (1338) represents the ideal of civic harmony, with the people shown as small
and orderly below the rulers. 
Wikimedia Commons

Machiavelli rejects this evaluation. The cost of Venice’s harmony was a political order heavily weighted towards the interests of the nobles and away from the common people.

Contemporary nobles and commoners

In any polity, past or present, there are always powerful nobles (or, as we know them today, corporations and the corporate tycoons heading them, the Murdochs, the Berlusconis, the Koch brothers), who do not of their own accord treat the masses well.

In Machiavelli’s view, the people only secure their own freedom when they actively contest the power and influence of the nobles. The Roman plebs only flourished because of their shrill demands for inclusion and respect against the conservative reluctance of the nobles.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum
meeting in Davos. 
Wikimedia Commons/Monika Flueckiger, WEF, CC BY-SA

This is because the rich and powerful can bend politics through the normal channels for their own ends. Both sides of parliamentary politics struggle not to be swayed by these powerful entities: whether by their donations (see the Koch brothers’ influence on the Republican presidential nomination campaign in the US) or by their capacity to make and unmake governments, as with the mining industry’s attack on Kevin Rudd.

While there may be a legitimate need for citizens to defer to democratic decisions most of the time, unconditional deference might allow oligarchical tendencies to consolidate themselves.

Forgoing the Hobbesian view, where the persistence of protest and contentious politics attests to a deficient and weak political order, Machiavelli’s analysis encourages us to value contestatory politics as an important bulwark against the undemocratic meddling of the rich and powerful.

Our worry today should not be that there is too much contentious politics, but that there is too little. The stealthy capture of democracy by corporate interests needs constantly to be called out.

Rather than hope for a deferential population that does not contest government decisions, we should recognise the role of even the most unruly protest in defending inclusiveness and fairness in society, so long as it is grounded in a constructive sense of shared democratic future.

The ConversationSandra Field, Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy), Yale-NUS College

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

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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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Filed under Essays and talks

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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