For Sale: Slightly Used Country; Needs Work

(Well, I certainly hope macho dentist Walter “Small Dick” Palmer is returned to Zimbabwe to enjoy a few years in one of their prisons or better, shot.)


The non-American readers out there may be a bit in the dark concerning the government of the United States, inasmuch as it is virtually unique among the great powers. (Well, in addition to electing some truly stupid people to office.)  Unlike the parliamentary systems in Europe, where the actual head of government, the Prime Minister (or Chancellor), is elected by the members of the assembly, the parliament, the US has a presidential system, in which the head of government (who is also head of state), the President, is elected by the people (well, more or less). The Prime Minister generally remains in power so long as he holds the support of the parliament, either through his party or coalition of parties, whereas the American President serves a fixed term of four years and can be reelected once. There are many variations on these two basic systems, but the result is that the US has a representative democracy very different from those organized along parliamentary lines.

A Chancellor

A Chancellor

The President

The President

A Prime Minister

A Prime Minister

One major difference is the essential separation of the executive from the legislative assemblies, the Congress, which means the President and his party may not control the legislative bodies (as is presently the case). Many feel this is something of a virtue, since the two branches can check one another, and given the composition of Congress these days, getting nothing done may not be such a bad thing.
On the other hand, the system lends itself well to an increasingly powerful executive, who does not depend upon the support of the assembly to stay in power, at least for the next four years. He can veto any legislation, and while his veto can be overridden, it takes a two/thirds vote in both houses of Congress, not an easy task. Congress can impeach and throw out the President, but this is extremely difficult: only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton) have had Articles of Impeachment passed against them. In both cases the motives were blatantly political, and both were acquitted.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson

Meanwhile, the power of the Presidency has grown steadily, both because of the changing nature of the country and world in the last couple of centuries and because no political institution, particularly an executive, is going to surrender any power if it can help it. And crises like World War II and 9/11 always result in new powers that are virtually never given up – the President can unilaterally send military forces into combat and more recently, execute without trial anyone deemed an enemy, including American citizens. Further, the President can game the system established by the Constitution: Executive Privilege, for example, is routinely abused, and the Executive Order, whose Constitutional basis is vague indeed, allows him to circumvent Congress.
The other big difference is the fixed term, which means loss of popular support has no immediate effect on the incumbent. After the experience of FDR the President was limited to two terms, a wise decision (despite my admiration for Roosevelt), but no such limitation exists for the Congress, and big money, citizen stupidity and the power of incumbency almost guarantee lifetime tenure, especially in the Senate with its six year terms. And regularly scheduled elections mean non-stop campaigning and money-raising.  No country in the history of the world has a campaigning period even remotely as long or expensive as America now does; it is at present more than a year to the general election and the candidates are already out in full force.  Members of the House of Representatives serve only two years, which means these guys are already sniffing out new money and prostituting themselves the moment they are elected. The single most important event in the life of a Congressman is not the vote but the fund raiser.
Along with being familiar with British parliamentary government, the Founding Fathers were also steeped in classical history and looked to Greece and Rome for models of democracy. They rejected the Athenian democracy, in which the assembly had the absolute last word on everything, as too inclined to instability and mob rule and favored the Roman Republic, which was successful over a half millennium. The Republican government was in practice an oligarchy of wealth centered in the Senate, but it was structurally democratic in that the citizens, through their assemblies, elected and legislated. This might actually be a description of the American government, except that the American oligarchy of wealth is not a group within the government but rather individual billionaires and corporations, who are essentially interested in their own concerns. The Roman Senator was of course motivated by enhancing his image and influence, but for four hundred years that came from actually serving the state.

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Too democratic

Too democratic

Besides, for all their democratic inclinations the economically successful men who wrote the Constitution did not completely trust the common folk. They knew what had happened to Athens. So, there would be a “people’s” assembly, the House of Representatives, where members would serve only two years, mimicking the amateur assemblies of Athens and Rome and insuring the body reflected the changing ideas of the common folk. The Senate would be more akin to the like-named body in Rome (and not so much the House of Lords), and serving for six years, the Senators would constitute a wiser and more capable group of legislators. (And also a somewhat less than representative body: every state has two Senators regardless of population.)
Further, the President (and Vice President) would not be directly elected by the often uneducated and easily misled people, but by electors selected in some manner by the states, presumably from the pillars of the community. There was apparently also some anticipation that the process would not always produce a clear winner, allowing Congress to make the final decision.
Finally, there was the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, which essentially states that there are areas where even the theoretically sovereign will of the people cannot go – at least without incredible difficulty. This of course limits the power of the people and makes the state less democratic, unlike fifth century Athens, where a majority in the assembly, which any citizen could attend, could pass any law it pleased. Period. Now, that is really putting your faith in the political wisdom of the people. I am, however, unwilling to trust my free speech to religious zealots, politically correct airheads, professional patriots and above all politicians.

The greatest political document ever

The greatest political document ever

Well, a marvelous and incomparable document, but it did not all work out as the Fathers had hoped. Parties rapidly emerged and the growing need for money followed, gradually producing more or less professional politicians (but not necessarily good rulers), even in the so-called people’s House. Gerrymandering, party power and economic clout conspired to make even a seat in the House a potential life-time job, for which one needed to continually campaign. Incidentally, in Republican Rome once the candidates were formally announced – only twenty-four days before the election! – a candidate seeking votes identified himself (as if the huge entourage were not a clue) by wearing an artificially whitened toga; it was candidus (lustrous white), and he was a candidatus.
For reasons not entirely clear to me – the winner takes all rule and the broad ideology of the parties are certainly important – the United States has essentially developed a two-party system. It is extremely difficult to achieve federal and even state office if you do not run as a Democrat or a Republican, and third party challenges seem only to guarantee one or the other of the two major parties wins the White House. This locks out differing ideas, since although there are factions within the major parties, they after all are parties, with a national party line. The parliamentary system provides a venue for new groups to appear and influence decision-making in the legislature, and the need to form coalitions schools the representatives in comprise, which is desperately lacking in the American system.
In the United States it is almost as if the Democratic and Republican parties were part of the governmental structure. They are the only parties to regularly hold state primaries, which are paid for by the taxpayers, even though many of those citizens will not be permitted to vote in them. Further, the two earliest primaries, which attract immense media attention, are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are primarily rural, white and well off, hardly representative of the country as a whole. And Iowa is apparently packed with Tea Party and Christian screwballs, compelling the Republican Party to make stupidity part of its platform.
In fact, in some ways the United States is a one-party state. True, the underlying ideology of the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans is different, especially when their less moderate members are considered, so their legislative agendas differ. Yet, the basic concern of the vast majority of the politicians of both parties is getting reelected, which means raising money. There are a few, like Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose money comes primarily from the small folk, but this is extremely rare, and most all candidates are going to head for the big teats, which means billionaires and corporations, especially the latter. Granted, George Soros is not going to give serious money to a conservative nor Rupert Murdoch to a liberal, but corporations are not so fussy and will dish it out to anyone who might aid their business environment, which appears to include people in both parties.

Sheldon Adelson - part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Sheldon Adelson – part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Koch brothers - majority owners of the Republican Party

Koch brothers – majority owners of the Republican Party

George Soros

George Soros

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

The American democracy is being bought and sold every election cycle, while candidates who have accepted millions from this or that individual or business are claiming such does not make them beholden to the donor. Sure, multi-nationals love to throw away money.
How did it come to this? The Fathers created a wonderful document in the Constitution, one that with some revisions has carried the nation through two centuries of dramatic change in the world. They were on the verge of the industrial age and knew serious developments were afoot, but one thing they apparently did not completely fathom was the potential impact of marketing. In the eighteenth century marketing was hanging a sign outside your pub or placing a simple ad in a newspaper; candidates marketed themselves with rallies, speeches and broadsheets. As mass marketing developed in the twentieth century, especially with the advent of radio and television, politicians had no choice but to take advantage of it – and the cost of trying to get elected skyrocketed.
Further, large corporations began emerging in the nineteenth century and businessmen certainly appreciated the advantage of political influence, especially when the government began attempting to regulate them in the late nineteenth century. The development of multinationals has made matters worse, inasmuch as they control huge amounts of wealth and are to a good degree stateless. They consequently have even less reason to be concerned with the interests of any host county, and buying politicians, however self-serving, ignorant or destructive to the country they might be, is now part of doing business. What’s good for General Motors (or Exxon or Goldman-Sachs or Bank of America) is clearly not what’s good for America, but since the Supreme Court decided corporations are “persons” they are entitled to contribute staggering sums of money to candidates who will help them makes America a better place – for shareholders.

Some of the good folks whoPfizer.svg[1] are bringing you America:200px-Boeing-Logo.svg[1]Apple_logo_black.svg[1]250px-Bank_of_America_logo.svg[1]300px-Lockheed_Martin.svg[1]Microsoft_logo_(2012).svg[1]250px-Time_Warner_wordmark.svg[1]Koch_logo.svg[1]Halliburton_logo.svg[1]New_Walmart_Logo.svg[1]ING_Group_N.V._logo.svg[1] Monsanto_logo.svg[1]194px-General_Motors.svg[1]222px-Exxon_Mobil_Logo.svg[1]150px-Goldman_Sachs.svg[1]150px-General_Electric_logo.svg[1]
My mother country is screwed.


Stuff from Way Back #25: Athens in Vietnam

(This is a fairly long piece about a war most people have never heard of, but there is a wonderful lesson of history here.  For more on the sophists see Stuff from Way Back #20.  The dates are BC.)


“Now we can see it clearly – like the light at the end of a tunnel.”

General Henri Navarre

commander of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu

History can often be hauntingly familiar, even across the 2500 year divide that separates classical Athens from America in the second half of the twentieth century.  A case in point is the catastrophic Peloponnesian War (431-404) between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan controlled Peloponnesian League, a conflict that to a great extent ruined the Greek world.


The Athenian Empire was naval based, taking in virtually all the island and coastal city-states of the Aegean, and constituted a wealthy trading block.  Though progressive and inclined to support democratic governments, Athens nevertheless maintained tight control over her “allies,” taxing them to pay for her powerful fleet (and the beautiful buildings upon the Acropolis).  Encompassing most of the rest of the Greek states, the so-called Peloponnesian League was land based and included most of the Peloponnesus and central Greece.  It was dominated, but not absolutely controlled by Sparta, which supplied the semi-professional core of the huge army, some 35,000 heavy infantry, that the League could field.  Sparta was the most reactionary state in Greece, and her small citizen body of perhaps 8000 was supported by an immense number of unfree serfs (helots).  Semi-socialist and nominally democratic, Spartan society was essentially authoritarian, and she favored oligarchic governments.

A divided Greece

A divided Greece

Athens began the war with immense advantages.  Her control of the sea was virtually absolute, which meant that the enemy was going to have a hell of time just getting at her and her allies.  The completion of the long walls linking the city with the port of Piraeus had turned Athens into a kind of artificial island, rendering her immune to the traditional strategy of laying waste the enemy’s territory and forcing them to come out and fight.  Offensively, the navy provided the Athenians with a big edge in rapid troop deployment and threatened the Peloponnesians with surprise raids on their coastal areas.  Athens also had unprecedented economic resources from her imperial income and her trade and went into the conflict with something unheard of in Greece: a  financial  reserve.  And finally there was the open and democratic nature of Athenian society, which had already made her preeminent in human resources, out-producing other cities in leadership, talent and imagination.


The Peloponnesians had but a single advantage over the Athenians – they were overwhelmingly powerful on land.  In every other respect they were hurting.  Any fleet they might scrape together would be dramatically outnumbered and out-rowed (the main pool of skilled rowers was within the Athenian empire), and the alliance was financially unprepared to launch and maintain many more ships.  And under the leadership of the Spartans, who did not even use coined money, that financial picture was not likely to change in the near future.  A further big disadvantage for the Peloponnesians: Spartan leadership.  A system geared to the status quo and limited mental horizons only rarely produces leaders of more than plodding ability, and Sparta’s traditional insularity and policy-bending paranoia about the helots might also be expected to hamper the war effort.  But blinding many to these serious weaknesses was the centuries old Spartan reputation as the alpha male of Greece, and there was widespread belief that ships and money and newfangled ideas would not save Athens from the juggernaut of the Spartan led Peloponnesian levy.


Pericles, the Athenian leader, knew better, and he intended to fight a new kind of war, one for which only Athens was in any way prepared – a war of attrition.  He was concerned simply with the preservation of Athenian interests, not the utter defeat of Sparta, which meant that Athens could achieve her victory by remaining on the defensive.  This he proposed to do by evacuating the population to the Athens-Piraeus fortress and temporarily abandoning Attica, the territory controlled by the city, whenever the Peloponnesians invaded.  Supplied from the sea, Athens could theoretically hold out indefinitely, while the fleet conducted raids on the enemy coasts to remind them of the price of war.  Pericles figured that after a few years of spending their summers in Attica and accomplishing nothing most of the Peloponnesians would lose whatever little interest they had in the first place, and the war would fizzle to an end.

Pericles aka "Old Squill Head"

Pericles aka “Old Squill Head”

Would the plan have worked?  Probably.  In the first several years of the war the Peloponnesian levy ravaged Attica and absolutely nothing happened.  Meanwhile, the Athenian fleet conducted hit and run operations against the coastal towns of the Peloponnesus, and it is hard to see how Sparta could sustain interest, especially among her already unenthusiastic allies, in a war that was making no real headway and bringing Athenian raids down on their territory.  Athens had even survived the devastating “plague” of 430 (probably epidemic typhus or cholera), which had carried off as much as a quarter of the city’s population.


But we will never know, because in 429 Pericles died from the contagion, and without his restraining hand Athens’ strength, her democracy, gradually became her downfall.  The cautious defensive strategy steadily evolved into an offensive one, and the goal of the war became the defeat of Sparta and the expansion of the empire.  This would have been dangerous enough, but the democracy itself began to undermine the war effort.  The traditional political leadership had been provided by the annually elected board of ten “generals,” so called because they were the men who actually led Athenian forces if needed; Pericles had been reelected to the board for thirty years.  The war now produced a new kind of politician, the demagogues, men of mostly limited abilities who wielded power not by holding office but by manipulating the citizen assembly, which in the unlimited democracy of Athens was the ultimate seat of power and could not be challenged.  They rode to  power on their rhetorical abilities and by advocating a war of conquest.  This led to a growing number of bad decisions and ill-considered strategies and created threatening divisions in Athenian society, as the increasingly radical democracy struggled to manage a people becoming intoxicated with their own power.


The first phase of the conflict, from 431 to 421, saw a steady departure from Pericles’ defensive strategy after his death.  In 425 the Athenians almost accidentally captured a unit of Spartans, which lead to peace overtures from Sparta, but the Athenians went on a roll and launched a land campaign in central Greece, a complete reversal of Pericles’ policy.  It was a disastrous failure and was followed by the loss of Amphipolis, an utterly vital city on the north Aegean shore.  Athens was ready for peace.


The Peace of Nicias, signed in 421, had about as much chance of success as the Munich agreement of AD 1938, and in 418 an Athenian supported coalition in the Peloponnesus was defeated by Sparta.  Meanwhile, a war-weary Athens was becoming more and more divided.  The older generation in particular was getting fed up, while the younger was increasingly enthusiastic for more military adventures.  The hawks got the upper hand, and in 415 a huge force was sent to Sicily to attack Syracuse and seize the entire island, an act of incredible imperial hubris.  Primarily because of divided leadership, a result of the political situation at home, the expedition failed, and in 413 it and a large relief force were essentially annihilated.  The Spartans decided to reopen the war and invaded Attica that same year, beginning the second phase of the war, from 413 to 404.


All hell broke loose for Athens.  In 412 her allies began revolting in droves, and even worse, Sparta signed an alliance with the Persia Empire, which meant money for a Peloponnesian fleet, which meant in turn a spread of the revolt and a threat to the security of Athens itself.  Back home extremist conservatives launched a coup in 411, setting up a narrow oligarchy of 400 and driving the Athenians to the brink of a civil war.  Athens was now at war with virtually everyone in the Greek world, including herself, but the people were not about to give in.  The democracy was restored in 410, and by 407 the Athenian position in the Aegean had been almost fully restored.  But the Athenians seemed bent on self-destruction, and in the next several years they turned down several peace offers from Sparta.  In 405 they lost their last fleet and were forced to surrender in 404, losing all their possessions, their walls and even their democratic government.


The Athenian democracy had failed.  Despite an immense superiority in resources and talent Athens had found herself unable to put an end to the war and after twenty-seven years of struggle had lost everything.  How could this happen?  For Thucydides, the Athenian historian of the war, the answer is clear.  The way of life fostered by the democracy was a source of powerful forces, but it took a capable leader to control and direct these forces, to restrain the people and channel their energies towards realistic ends.  Pericles was of course this kind of leader, able and patriotic, and Athens’ misfortune was that after his death the democracy found no one who combined these two qualities.  The prosecution of the war, the foreign policy of the state became more and more a reflection of internal politics, as Athens became the prey of the demagogues.  Time and again the Athenians passed up opportunities to end the conflict as winners in order to try instead for a vastly greater victory.  And time and again these attempts to grasp more were ruined not by the strength of the enemy, but by the Athenians themselves, as the political feuding created dangerous cracks in the democracy.  This domestic disunity was bad enough, leading ultimately to oligarchic revolution, but the cracks also showed themselves in the conduct of the war, in divided leadership of campaigns, inadequate support of expeditions and sudden reversals of policy.



I am inclined to agree with Thucydides.  Athens in the second half of the fifth century was simply under too much stress and faced with too many temptations to survive without the restraining hand of a leader like Pericles.  And it was clearly a question only of guidance, for the democracy – the common people who voted every important policy decision – constantly showed itself to be perhaps the most aware and able body politic in history.  It was after all Athens that lost the war, not Sparta that won it.  Their own worst enemy, the Athenians bounced back again and again after each new disaster, revealing the nature of the human resources shaped by a democratic society.   The Athenians and their experiences in the Peloponnesian War are a powerful testament to both the weaknesses and strengths of democratic government.


While suffering the political difficulties, the Athenian democracy also underwent during the war a moral crisis, which was both cause and result of the political trials.  This was the period when the radical sophists, extremist political thinkers, were attacking the democracy and its egalitarian notions.  Instead of the people they would see as rulers those who were by nature suited to rule – the “superior men” – and in place of the democracy they would have a narrow oligarchy.  Well, after the disasters of the latter part of the war people began to listen to these characters.  Reasonable and moderate men were losing faith in the democracy and becoming more attentive to these characters at the other end of the political spectrum.  Germany in the twenties and thirties saw a similar development, as moderate middle class Germans reacted to the perceived failures of the Weimar government and the threat from the left by paying greater heed to the far right.


The ideas of these sophists on the nature of justice – that might made right – fit perfectly with the growing will to power and empire among the Athenians.  As the war continued the means slowly became the end for the Athenian people, as demagogic factionalism and the temptations of power combined to drive them to extremes.  Pericles’ simple defense of the empire was forgotten, and victory gradually became instead the grasping of more, the expansion of power and the total defeat of Sparta.  Rather than what they might bring, success and power themselves became the real goal of the Athenians.  At the same time the continuation of the war produced among the Athenians a growing sense of frustration because of their seeming inability to bring it to an end.  When they were losing, the quality and strength of their national character compelled them to fight their way back, and when they were winning, that same character seduced them into reaching for more.  Athens had the power and the resources to carry on the war, even after a disaster like Sicily, but she could not stop it.  And this frustration further aggravated the problem, driving the Athenian people to seek even more urgently that light at the end of the tunnel, that final victory that would solve all their problems.  It might be fair to label the response of Athens to this frustration, her continued and amplified operations of war, as acts of collective hysteria.  This is the tragedy of a people being destroyed by their own greatness.


All of these things – the political turmoil, the frustrations, the national hysteria – were accompanied, perhaps inevitably, by a steady moral disintegration.  As the war dragged on there was a growing loss of respect for authority and the moral traditions of the community, indications of a loss of faith in the society as a whole.  The war certainly contributed to this moral breakdown, especially through the psychic conditions – the uncertainties, the alternating hopes and fears, the frustrations – it imposed on the Athenians, but the far more important cause was sophism.  Part of the impact of sophistic skepticism was the general erosion of accepted tradition and its authority.  If, as the sophists said, man-made law is all relative anyway, why necessarily accept that of your fathers?  Their values and standards of behavior may not be pertinent to your situation, and perhaps you should look instead to your own definitions.  This of course can be mighty dangerous for the social fabric.


Finally, there is an aspect of the Athenian moral crisis that should be familiar to late twentieth century America – the development of something like a generation gap.  Athenian society during the Peloponnesian War gave rise to what appears to be the first serious challenge of one generation by another in history.  As with America in the sixties it was precisely the young, primarily young aristocrats, who were the focal point of the moral crisis in Athens, although their reaction was hardly one of protesting the war and using controlled substances.  In fact it was generally the younger generation who were in favor of greater imperialist adventures.  But Athenian youth of the period of the Peloponnesian War were like many young Americans of the Vietnam era in that the morality of their fathers, the inherited ethos of the society, was not necessarily valid for them.  The extent of this challenge should not be exaggerated, being apparently essentially limited to aristocratic youth, but it did exist.


A generation gap had never occurred before this for the simple reason that only now had the ascendancy of the state and the individual so undermined the strength of the family that the ties binding one generation to the next had been loosened.  With the stage thus set by the general social development of the Greek state conditions particular to Athens then prompted the generational challenge.  First of all there was the democracy, which itself involved a certain rejection of tradition.  The egalitarianism that was fundamental to democratic society eroded the authority of parents, of the previous generation, by stressing the importance of the individual and the equality of all.  As an eighteen year old Athenian male, you are a full political person, with a vote in the assembly equal to that of your father, and in the assembly you might even become more influential than he.  So why should you then obey him when the two of you differ back at home?  Political freedom is not conducive to the passive acceptance of traditional authority.


Nor is an emphasis on reason, which only naturally tends to devalue authority based on tradition, and the growing respect for reason in fifth century Athens was causing many to question and sometimes reject traditional values.  The focus of this was of course the sophists, whose rationalism was especially zeroed in on an attack on tradition.  It was not just their hostility to tradition, but also the simple fact that they existed, breaking the monopoly parents had held in the education of the younger generation.  It is hardly surprising that the Baby Boom generation that was the first to seriously challenge traditional American values was also the first to go to college in massive numbers.  Reason and doubt are deadly to knowledge based only on faith and acceptance.


The final factor contributing to this generational phenomenon was the social and political failure of the democracy during the war and the loss of faith in the established order that it incurred.  We need only to look five decades into our own past to see the effect of such a failure on the young of society.


(An additional note: included in the ranks of the neocons, who played an instrumental role in leading the United States into its pointless and costly war with Iraq, are at least two classical historians, and it is said that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is a sort of bible for them.  Apparently they neglected to read the chapters on the Sicilian expedition.)

Stuff from Way Back #22: Power Corrupts

(This piece must serve for two weeks since I will be out of town. All dates are BC and translations of Thucydides are by Rex Warner. My thanks to Donald Kagan, who taught me this long, long ago.)



Defending the ludicrous attempts to establish democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of US politicians have stated that apart from being the right thing to do (regardless of what the locals think), this policy enhances the prospects for peace because “democracies do not attack their neighbors.” One need not look further than our own recent history to see what nonsense this is: Grenada, Panama, Iraq and drone strikes, which are in fact acts of war. Israel has begun numerous conflicts not entirely justified by a credible threat. And democratic states in classical Greece, including the granddaddy of all democracies, Athens, continually attacked their neighbors.

Indeed, Athens (along with the US) provides a shining example of democracy acting badly. That power is corrupting is a commonplace, and the presidency of Barack Obama appears to be a demonstration of this notion. Prior to being elected President Obama was a progressive, espousing more open government, dismantling the war and terror apparatus of the Bush administration and promising peace. Instead, he is pursuing a concentrated assault on journalists, defending the Constitutionally dubious powers of the Patriot act, aggressively spying on the American people and our allies and killing innocents by the hundreds with his drones. He underlines the idea that no government, whatever its nature, will voluntarily surrender any power. And if subordinating everything to the quest for reelection and trading favors for campaign funds is corruption, the Congress is a cesspool.

In antiquity the ruling elite of the Roman Republic provide a classic example of corruption. Having served the best interests of the state and the Roman people for almost four hundred years, the Senatorial class was corrupted by the powers accumulated in Rome’s wars and especially by the flood of wealth that came in the wake of the conquest of the Greek east. The result was an utterly self-interested Senate and the ultimate collapse of the Republic into military autocracy.

But it is Athens that provides a compelling study in the corrupting influence of power, especially in the pressure cooker of war. The moral collapse of the Athenian people, the real rulers in the radical democracy of the later fifth century, is beautifully detailed by Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), the showdown between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan controlled Peloponnesian League. Thucydides is the first modern historian, not only because of his attempt to provide an entirely factual narrative, but also because of his analysis of the broad currents flowing through that narrative. He was himself an Athenian and was present in Athens during the events examined below, giving credibility to the substance of the statements he records.

Athens emerged from the Persian Wars (490, 480-479) immensely powerful, particularly at sea, where her fleet was larger than all the other Greek navies combined. Liberating the Greek cities on the Anatolian coast and preventing a resurgence of Persian power required a permanent Aegean alliance, and in 478 Athens organized the Delian League, a voluntary association of most of the island and coastal cities. Recognizing Athens’ huge military contribution, the member states granted her a dominant role in the League, almost guaranteeing the emergence of Athenian supremacy. The evolution from league to empire began with Athens taking military action to prevent members from leaving the alliance, an understandable measure, and gradually the ship-contributing allies were transformed into tribute paying allies. Within a generation of the creation of the League there were besides Athens only three ship contributing allies left – the wealthy islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. The remaining allies all paid tribute and supplied troops, and of these a large number were subject and so more directly controlled. By the fifties Athens had suspended meetings of the League assembly, and in 454 the League treasury was moved from Delos to the Athenian acropolis, where Athena henceforth received a rake of one sixtieth.

The Athenian organization was a light touch compared to the average empire, at least until the pressures of the great war with Sparta. The tribute was reassessed every four years, and the allied state could appeal if it thought the amount was too high. In return for their money the allies got the Athenian fleet, which not only protected them from the Persians and from their own neighbors, but also suppressed the normally endemic piracy, probably the most appreciated benefit of the empire. The obligation to supply troops was a burden, but perhaps better the allied hoplites should be defending and expanding the empire than fighting one another, which is what they would otherwise be doing. Because of the strong feelings the Greeks had about the autonomy of the polis, however, the empire was probably generally resented and Athenian meddling in the internal affairs of the subject allies certainly was, but it could have been worse. After all, Athenian interference was primarily concerned with maintaining democratic governments, which by definition involved the majority of the locals ruling themselves. (At least by the Greek definition, which required direct participation; representative government readily allows the creation of sham democracies.) And in fact, it would be worse: when Sparta took over the empire after Athens’ defeat in 404, she ruled it through oppressive little ten man oligarchies.

Athens had her ups and downs with her allies, but it was the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 that really turned the empire sour. Initially there was little problem, since Pericles pursued a purely defensive strategy, which made very small demands upon the allies, especially in terms of troops. But old Squill Head died in 429, and Athenian policy became increasingly aggressive and expansionist, putting heavier and heavier demands on the allies. For example, in 425, the seventh year of the war, Athens more than doubled the tribute demanded of the allies. The empire became an increasing burden on the allies, wasting their resources and lives in dubious operations and providing no discernible benefits in return. In 412, prompted by Athenian losses in Sicily and Spartan promises of aid, almost all the allies revolted and went over to the enemy camp. In the next few years the energetic Athenians would reconquer most of their former dependents, but a few years after that they would lose the war and with it the empire. Then the allies would get a taste of empire Spartan style.

War brutalizes a society, and Athens’ decaying relationship with her allies in the course of the war fully demonstrates this moral decline, which is neatly reflected in her own changing view of the empire and foreign relations in general. In the famous Funeral Oration given at the end of the first year of the war Pericles alludes to the relatively benign imperialism practiced by Athens: “We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them…When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on free liberality.” (Thucydides 2.40.4-5) Well, the reality of the empire was of course far from this ideal, but Athenian imperialism was almost a gentle presence compared to the heavy-handed Spartan brand, which had virtually enslaved the southern part of the Peloponnesus. In any case, it is the ideal we are interested in, how Athens viewed herself and her relations with other states.

Only one year later the tone has already changed. In a speech given by Pericles at the end of the second year of the war the will to power is now clearly apparent:
“The whole world before our eyes can be divided into two parts, the land and the sea, each of which is valuable and useful to man. Of the whole of one of these parts you are in control – not only of the area at present in your power, but elsewhere too, if you want to go further. With your navy as it is today there is no power on earth –not the King of Persia nor any people under the sun – which can stop you from sailing where you wish…And do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery; there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred we have incurred while administering it…In fact you now hold your empire down by force: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.” (Thucydides 2.62.2, 63.1-2)
After only two years of war the friendly, mutual aid concept of empire expressed in the Funeral Oration has given way to a more realistic appraisal of the empire as a kind of tyranny. But the empire cannot be given up now, and justification of it can be found in the mere fact that it exists. Further, in his description of Athenian naval strength Pericles defines a power that has no limit and suggests that Athenian ambitions might not be contained within the confines of the present empire.

In 428 Mytilene, the chief city on the island of Lesbos, revolted from Athens and was crushed the following year. In a fit of emotion the Athenian assembly voted to put to death the entire male population and enslave the women and children, a rare and extreme form of punishment that was unfortunately becoming less rare as the war progressed. The harshness of the reaction is a vivid sign of the brutalizing effects of the war, but what happened next is also revealing of the changing Athenian attitude towards the empire. The day after the decision was made cooler heads prevailed, and an extraordinary second meeting of the assembly was called to debate the issue again. The demagogue and radical imperialist Cleon (d. 422) argued that the heavy punishment was necessary to set an example and that policy could not take a back seat to irrelevant humanitarian concerns. The opposition, led by the moderate Diodotus, countered with the argument that the slaughter would not serve as a deterrent, but rather would cause those who did revolt to fight to the death, since that would be all they could expect anyway. Moreover, Mytilene was an oligarchy and the people had been compelled to go along with the revolt, so punishing them would only disaffect the democratic factions in other states.

The penalty was repealed and the Mytilenians were saved at the last minute, but look at the arguments delivered in their defense. Nowhere does Diodotus say anything about justice or what is right or what Mytilene deserves. His arguments are based entirely on expediency, on what course of action would be best for imperial Athens, and he comes right out and says so: “But this is not a law court, where we have to consider what is fit and just; it is a political assembly, and the question is how Mytilene can be most useful to Athens.” (Thucydides 3.44.4) Whatever Diodotus may have felt about the inhumanity of the punishment and the plight of the Mytilenians, he understood that the Athenian people would only be moved by a cold appeal to their imperial self-interest. As the war dragged on, Athens’ concept of empire was clearly growing harsher. And Athens was not alone in the growing brutality. In 427 Plataea surrendered to the Spartans after a two year siege, and despite the city’s role in the Hellenic victory of 479, it was razed to the ground. Prompted by the Thebans, the Spartans acted in a particularly nasty fashion. Each defender was asked if had done anything of service to the Spartans and their allies in the war, and when each answered no (what else?), he was executed.

The moral rock bottom came in 416, when the Athenians attacked the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean. The Melians had not joined the original Delian League and had managed to escape the attention of the Athenians in the following years. At the outbreak of the war the island was neutral, although her sympathies were with Sparta, since she had been colonized from there. She resisted an Athenian invitation to join the empire and because of this uncooperative stance was in 426 the object of an unsuccessful Athenian attack. Now, ten years later the Athenians extended their invitation again, and once again the Melians refused. This time, however, the Athenians captured the city and killed all the males and enslaved the women and children. Actually, this was the second occasion that such drastic measures were taken; Athens had already inflicted this same terrible fate upon her ally Scione after an unsuccessful revolt in 421. But in the case of Scione the Athenians could at least claim, rightly or wrongly, just desserts for an ingrate ally, whereas Melos quite obviously involved nothing more than naked and brutal aggression.

And indeed the Athenians made no claim that there was anything more. In their dialogue with the Melians before investing the city they boldly state their reasons for pressuring the island: “If we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power…So that by conquering you we shall increase not only the size but the security of our empire. We rule the sea and you are islanders, and weaker islanders too than the others; it is therefore particularly important that you should not escape.” (Thucydides 5.95, 97) When the Melians protest that what is happening to them is hardly just, the Athenians reply with one of the most cynical statements of foreign policy principles in history:
“You know as well as we do that, when matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept…Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it a general and necessary law of nature (physis) to rule wherever one can. This is not a law we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made. We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. We are merely acting in accordance with it, and we know that you or anybody else with the same power as ours would be acting in precisely the same way.” (Thucydides 5.89, 105.2)
Such honesty in foreign affairs is certainly refreshing, but it cannot obscure the total moral bankruptcy of Athenian policy. It has come to this for the Athenians – might makes right. They have abandoned the normal standards of civilized behavior and justified their violation of accepted standards of international law (nomos or man made law) by appealing to a brutally defined “natural law” (or god’s law, law of the gods, conscience, higher law), as many a great power would do in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, precisely as Thucydides predicted.

America of course officially justifies her increasingly abominable behavior on the world stage with an appeal to national security rather than some law of nature, but so pervasive has the security argument become that it takes on the character of a natural law. And there are many conservative Christians who in fact do believe our actions are supported by natural law, in this case the Christian god, who had earlier justified our conquest of the North America. The “war” on terror touches ordinary Americans in only the most peripheral way, yet we are still being brutalized, accepting lower standards of international conduct as acceptable and even normal. Besides, as our leaders say regarding America’s pervasive snooping, everyone does it. No, only the powerful do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must – at least until they become the powerful.

Stuff from Way Back #20: We hold these truths to be self-evident…

(Writing about Washington at the moment leads only to bewilderment, disgust, anger and obscenities, so time off for some very relevant history stuff.)

The Greek enlightenment of the sixth century (all dates are BC), which had discovered rationalism, continued into the fifth century and produced a new group of rationalists who were less interested in the nature of the universe than in the nature of man and society.  These men, who might be considered the first sociologists or political scientists, are called the sophists (from sophia, “wisdom”).

The term sophist as used by the Greeks referred to the teachers who began appearing in the first half of the fifth century.  These were men who for a fee would teach you whatever there was to know, but most especially rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking.  The appearance and multiplication of these teachers is hardly surprising; they served a vital function in a society that had no public education or institutions of learning whatsoever.  If you wanted to know something beyond what your parents taught you, you went to a sophist.  The subject of rhetoric was particularly in demand, since in an age blessed with the absence of the professional attorney the ability to speak persuasively was utterly important to your ability to defend or prosecute a case in the courts.  And if you lived in a democracy like Athens, rhetorical skills were an important tool for exerting influence in the assembly.

So for the Greeks the sophist was a kind of traveling tutor.  For the modern historian, however, the sophists are of considerable interest chiefly because of their examination of man and society.  These thinkers inherited the skepticism of the Ionian rationalists and applied it to human affairs, ultimately producing disastrous social consequences.  The whole structure of law and morality in the polis would be undermined and traditional sources of authority called into question.  By the last quarter of the fifth century sophists were openly attacking the polis (city-state), and sophistic ideas were providing justification for the Athenian Empire and contributing to the breakdown of Athenian society.  This was serious business.

Central to sophistic thought is the distinction made between nomos and physis, literally the Greek words for “law” and “nature.”  For the sophist nomos is man-made law, that is, all the rules made by society, whatever form they take: unwritten customs, decrees of a king, legislated statutes, whatever.  It is obviously mutable, changing from place to place and from one time to another.  Physis, on the other hand, is understood to be completely unchanging and to consist of universal absolutes imposed by the nature of things, including the nature of human beings, and it is thus contrasted with man-made nomos.  Most commonly physis referred to a body of natural law that served as a basis for behavior and morality, a basis rooted in nature rather than a particular human society and thus universally valid and compelling.  It is a manifestation, it seems, of the instinctive feeling on the part of all normal humans that there are some things that are always right, like protecting a child, and some that are always wrong, like sleeping with your sister or taking a life without good reason.  Today natural law is generally understood to be a body of moral absolutes and is frequently connected to a deity (e.g., “Thou shall not kill.”), but a god is not necessary.  Whether you call it natural law or god’s law or the law of the gods or higher law or conscience, it is all the same – physis.

An immediate question arises: What if nomos and physis are in conflict?  What do you do if your vision of natural law is contradicted by some man-made law of your society?  Antigone faces this problem in Sophocles’ (c. 496-406) play Antigone.  King Creon of Thebes has decreed that Antigone’s brother Polyneices may not be given the burial rites the Greeks considered the absolute right of every Greek corpse.  Antigone violates this order, which is nomos, and defends her action by appealing to physis, which she defines as “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.”  She justifies her violation of man-made law with an appeal to natural law, just as twenty-five hundred years later those who because of the war in Vietnam burned draft files, obstructed the government or in some way broke the law justified their actions with the same appeal.  Antigone calls it “the laws of the gods” and Jerry Rubin and Daniel Elsberg called it “conscience” or “higher law,” but they all refer to the same thing – physis.

Antigone and Polyneices

Antigone and Polyneices

Grouping the sophists according to their views on the nature of the polis and the relationship between law and morality is particularly convenient for examining the evolution of sophistic thought.  The Greeks traditionally believed that the polis had a positive moral purpose, that is, the state, through the mechanism of its laws, should produce virtuous citizens.  We have some limited experience of this with our laws against prostitution, gambling and other “immoral” activities, but essentially this idea is alien to our concept of the state, which views the law as being morally neutral.  We hope our laws coincide with our notions of morality, but they are not the source of those notions; religion is.  For the Greeks, however, the state and its laws had a positive moral role, and they consequently accepted a close relationship in society between law and morality.

The first category of sophists accepted this traditional view, despite their general skepticism.  Men like Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420) recognized the existence of natural law, but felt that it was compatible with the changeable, man-made laws of society.  Skeptics that they were, they no longer accepted that the polis had a divine origin, but because they believed nomos and physis to be complementary, they did view the state as natural, a product of physis.  They thus accepted the traditional notion that the state had a moral function and that its laws should create virtue.

Others were not so sure, and the second group of sophists asserted that the polis and its laws had no positive moral purpose.  Law was simply a body of morally neutral, expedient measures that allowed society to function.  It might by chance happen to reflect true morality, which was embodied in natural law, but essentially it was irrelevant to morality.  The state was therefore not natural, but rather an artificial creation, a product of nomos.  This is in essence the modern western view: the law is a neutral agent, which the society hopes reflects its moral values, which are derived from religion.  A representative of this category of sophists is Antiphon (c. 480-411), who felt that the laws of the polis were artificial, established by human convention and thus not as critically important to the individual as natural law was.  Laws might be necessary to society and the state, but not to life, which in fact might be hindered by them.  True morality was independent of nomos and could be found instead in physis.  In a word, man-made law was irrelevant.  Antiphon and his friends thus rejected two essential facets of the traditional concept of the polis: that it had a divine or natural basis and that its laws were positive moral agents.  For these sophists the polis was an artificial construction, the result of a kind of social compact, and its laws were morally neutral.

The sophists of category two challenged the very nature of the classical polis, but they tolerated its existence.  It was left to the final group, the radical sophists, to carry the thinking to the logical extreme and openly and directly attack the polis.  These characters felt that the state, as it existed, interfered with and impeded true morality, that the state was in fact immoral.  A spokesman for this position is Critias (c. 460-403), leader of the oligarchic Thirty Tyrants, who ruled Athens for a brief period after her defeat by Sparta in 404.  According to him, the state was not based upon divine or natural sanction (Group 1 and the traditional view), nor upon a compact (Group 2 and our view), but upon fraud, and law was thus an agent causing men to act immorally.  This of course was a very convenient point of view for Critias, whose terror-filled regime openly flouted the laws and traditions of the Athenian polis.  Another member of this group, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (fl. c. 430-400), spells it out exactly: “That is what I mean when I say that right (or justice) is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established ruling class; and this ruling class is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that right (or justice) is always the same, the interest of the stronger party.” (Plato, Republic 339A, trans. by H.P.D. Lee)  In other words, might makes right.  This is the ultimate destination of sophistic skepticism: ethical nihilism.





Actually, Callicles (historicity disputed), who appears in Plato’s Gorgias, takes the line of thinking a bit further.  Thrasymachus says that the acts of certain extraordinary men who have power are beyond accepted standards of justice and are not subject to normal moral judgment; their might makes right.  Callicles pulls out all the stops and proclaims that the actions of the superior man in fact constitute a superior form of justice; his might is right.  And who are these superior men?  Simply put, they are those who are clever and strong enough to seize power and hold on to it.  For Callicles it is a fact of physis, a dictate of natural law that these individuals should rule and should enjoy complete satisfaction of all their desires, completely free of the restraints customarily imposed by nomos.  This kind of thinking is a moral justification for even the most brutal sort of rule and can lead to disastrous social results, as for example in Germany in the 1930s.

Thus, when the newly discovered skepticism of the sixth  century scientists was applied by the sophists to the subject of man and society it led rapidly to the definition and examination of perhaps the most basic social question – the relationship between law and morality.  Is morality rooted in man-made law, nomos, as the Greeks traditionally believed?  Or are our moral standards to be found in natural law, physis?  And if this is so, who is to define physis?  Suppose there is conflict between nomos and physis?  How should society deal with those individuals whose vision of physis and resulting morality is radically at odds with that of the majority?

The Athenians had to deal with these questions, and so must we.  Since the collapse of the classical world the west has derived its morality from a particular understanding of physis, hanging its basic system of moral values from the metaphysical peg of the Judeo-Christian god and attempting to varying degrees to bring nomos into line with these values.  This has not always been very successful, especially under the No Fun God of Christianity, since human desires and expediency are in constant conflict with our notions of morality.  Further, the moral standards required of individuals seem always to be incompatible with those applied to nations, and human beings are easily led to do as a group things they absolutely shun as individuals.  The problem associated with attaching an ethical system to a particular view of natural law of course is getting everyone in the society to accept that view.  If an individual does not accept the existence of the Christian god, the moral precepts of that deity can hardly be of any great weight.  And even if by some totalitarian miracle the entire community accepts the metaphysical standard, the inherently relative nature of all value judgments will quickly reveal itself.  Take what is probably the most basic moral absolute: thou shall not kill.  Inasmuch as most human beings will grant that there are circumstances, such as self-defense, that may require one to kill, the prohibition is more accurately stated as thou shall not kill without good reason.  But what exactly constitutes a good reason?  Killing someone whom you believe is about to attack you?  Assassinating a tyrant?  The moral absolutes are never so absolute.

And those “self-evident truths” (physis) are never really self-evident to everyone, which leads to the most fundamental problem arising from a consideration of nomos and physis – what if they conflict?  What if the morality of the community, as expressed in its laws, and the morality of the individual, which springs from his own mind, do not match?  Of course the society must protect its members from physical harm, so that the man whose definition of physis involves god telling him to shoot certain people must be forced to follow the nomos of the community.  But what about the most obvious manifestation of the potential nomosphysis conflict, civil disobedience?  This is a tough one.  Civil disobedience has clearly resulted in great social progress in American society, especially in the area of civil rights, but it must be remembered that a very dangerous principle is being entertained here.

Civil disobedience is the open and nonviolent violation of nomos justified by an appeal to physis and the intention of bettering society.  It is at heart a political-social expression of the notion that the end justifies the means, and this is always a dangerous proposition, especially in the absence of any precise definition of valid ends and acceptable means.  Since the justifying goal here depends upon the individual’s vision of physis there can be no definition of valid ends, and the door to chaos is open.  An illegal demonstration by Blacks in favor of integration and one by the Klan in favor of segregation are in essence the same, since each group will justify its breaking of human law with its particular definition of natural law.  (And ironically both groups would see physis embodied in the same Christian god.)  Therein lies the problem: physis is defined by the individual, whether he dreams it up himself or takes it ready-made through an inherited religion.  Critias and Thrasymachus felt that justice or right was what was in the interest of the strong, whereas singer Joan Baez violated the tax laws because her view of physis indicated that for the strong to dominate the weak was wrong and unjust.  Neither vision of natural law is more or less valid than the other.  Both are quite correct or quite incorrect, depending upon your point of view.  For society to allow any group, no matter how apparently noble its cause, to selectively violate the laws is thus to court disaster.

police response to civil disobedience

police response to civil disobedience

What then do you do if according to your values a law or policy is immoral and legal means to change it fail?  Only you can decide that, but when you consider that decision remember that you are standing in a line that stretches back to fifth century Athens and men like Critias.

Stuff from Way Back #19: All Hail the (Greek) Phallos

Virtually overnight the western world, including even parts of Latin America, has come to accept homosexuality, and the major issue is no longer tolerance but the public and legal status of a homosexual marriage.  On the other hand, there is central Africa, where practicing homosexuality can mean death, and the hypocritical Islamic (mostly Arab) world, where homosexuality is typically a crime but often engaged in because of the extreme sexual segregation, especially in the Gulf states.  And of course Russia has now enthusiastically embraced homophobia, hardly surprising in a county where the majority of the population is still coming to terms with the nineteenth century.


This sort of serious hostility towards homosexuality is yet another gift of the No-Fun God, who declares such behavior unnatural and an abomination, and prior to the arrival of the Christians (and outside Judea) attitudes were very different.  While there are exceptions, most non-Abrahamic societies have tolerated or in some cases even accommodated homosexuality in their social and religious values.  The Greeks are an excellent example, and ironic, since Greek values and ideas are at the heart of the western tradition, while their sexual practices were vehemently rejected by the religion that affixed itself to that tradition.


Because of deep-seated hostility in the Christian west to such practices, Greek homosexuality traditionally received little or no attention in the standard histories, and when it did, the account was typically distorted by the moral prejudices of the author.  Otherwise competent scholars turned a blind eye to the evidence of widespread homosexuality, including the so obvious and explicit scenes found on pottery.  (The Greeks depicted every sort of activity on their pots.)  Only recently has classical studies turned to serious investigation of Greek sexuality, much of which investigation is unfortunately marred by new prejudices.


It should be noted right off that if modern terminology is to be used, Greek society was not homosexual, but rather bisexual.  Homosexuality may be defined as the more or less exclusive sexual preference for members of the same sex and must be considered some sort of biological aberration (no offspring can be produced) affecting a minority in every society.  Bisexuality is the willingness to entertain sexual partners of either gender and would appear to be in large measure a socially determined trait, unless we assume that the Greeks were somehow physiologically different from other people.  Thus, while there was surely the usual homosexual minority, many urban Greeks, especially those of high social status, were apparently bisexual, seeking different things from the different sexes.  In fact, to judge from the large numbers of female prostitutes and evidence such as the successful sex strike launched by the Athenian women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, heterosexual relations were very important to Greek men.


Using modern terminology is in any case a dangerous practice, since there is the risk of also projecting into the past modern concepts that have a different or no meaning in ancient society.  The terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual,” which are little more than a century old, are valid classifications for Greece only in the most superficial sense, that is, labeling a single different-sex or same-sex act.  As more general characterizations they are useless because they group behaviors that the Greeks considered very different, the sex of the partner, for example, being almost a trivial concern compared to the all-important issue of social status.  Dominance and issues of penetration and receptivity were frequently of far greater importance than gender, and certain areas of Greek society might be more appropriately described as phallocratic rather than heterosexual or homosexual, though this term as well is too restrictive and potentially misleading.


Why ancient Greece – or at least the upper levels of its urban population  – should have been one of the very few openly bisexual societies in history, certainly in the West, is not perfectly clear.  The origins of male homosexuality were seen by the Greeks in the sexual segregation of the military societies of the Dorians (the second wave of Greek-speaking invaders from the north, c. late 13th to early 11th centuries), and Plato in fact blames the Spartans and Cretans, who were Dorians, for spreading the practice.  But while Plato may be reflecting an opinion generally held in Greece during the classical period, that opinion is not necessarily true, and there is no hard evidence for the diffusion of Dorian practices through the rest of Greek society.  It is true, however, that the overwhelming male orientation of polis (city-state) society, which resulted in a sort of sexual segregation, can probably be traced back to the warrior communities of the early Dark Age, which resulted from the Dorian invasions.  The warrior hosts disappeared, but because of the endless intercity warfare, the polis was in many ways also a warrior society, and the absolute dominance of males continued.


The pertinent fact here is that outside of childbearing everything that mattered in the polis was in the hands of males, which meant in turn that outside of heterosexual relations everything that was of any concern to a Greek male involved other males.  With very few exceptions women were completely uneducated and uninvolved in anything beyond the household and the odd cultic practice, and consequently, for meaningful companionship and a relationship with any intellectual content whatsoever a male normally had to turn to another male.  Male relationships thus filled a basic social need.  This situation of course does not necessarily lead to open homosexuality and did not in most other similar societies.  Further, while it is perfectly clear that extreme sexual segregation inevitably leads to some degree of homosexual behavior (look at any prison population), it generally does not lead to open, socially acceptable homosexuality.


Why then the Greeks?  An entirely satisfactory explanation is elusive, and I can only suggest a few reasons.  First, the relatively high level of social and intellectual freedom in Greek society, due in part to the open nature of the constitutional polis and in part to the fragmentation of Greece into hundreds of separate political units, which encouraged some small measure of diversity.  This resulted in a social atmosphere more conducive to change and acceptance of different practices.  This is not to suggest that Greek society was wildly progressive – it certainly was not, even in the heady days of change in the sixth century – but rather that the polis was at least marginally more inclined to accept nontraditional behaviors than the average pre-modern society.  Much more important, the Greeks had no inherited prohibition of homosexuality, no command from god that erotic experiences between persons of the same sex were wrong, which would allow the homosexuality inevitably practiced in secret in sexually segregated societies to come out into the open.  Finally, because sex was viewed as an important expression of status and citizenship, social position became much more important than the actual gender of the partner, producing an environment more open to sex between males.  In short, the male dominance and sexual segregation fosters the bisexuality, and the relative social freedom and lack of any serious religious prohibition brings it out of the closet.


But let us not misunderstand Greek sexuality and think simply of cheap thrills and bathhouse promiscuity.  Obviously, there were those who engaged in casual sex, especially with slaves and male prostitutes, but a serious relationship involving free males was bounded by a strict set of rules, and behavior that publicly violated those rules was socially unacceptable and sometimes criminal.  An acceptable pairing involved an older male, the erastēs, who was the active partner, and a younger male, the erōmenos, who played a passive role.  The erōmenos could not be too young, less than about twelve, and there would be talk if he were still playing the passive role much beyond the age of fifteen or sixteen (“when the beard was grown”).  The pair could not openly engage in oral or anal sex, because that would compel the erōmenos to play a subordinate, female role and not only bring shame upon him, but also injure his future status as a citizen.  Personal physical inviolability was one of the hallmarks of citizenship, and penetration of a male would place him in the category of slave and woman.  The kinaidos, the man who allowed himself to be so used, was the negation of everything represented by the hoplite, the heavy infantryman who defended the polis: manliness, citizenship and dominant status.  Indeed, the worst insult you could deliver to a man was to call him euryprōktos, “wide-assed.”  The acceptable practice was intercrural copulation, in which the erastēs, facing his partner, thrust his penis between his thighs, thus avoiding penetration.


Such at least was the social ideal, and some men maintained lofty attitudes regarding their liaisons, emphasizing the educational aspect of the relationship and their responsibility for the development of their erōmenoi as men and citizens.  There is some truth to this, inasmuch as Greek society (excepting Sparta) had no formal educational apparatus and the continued absence of the urban father from the household may have strained the relationship between father and son, but this must not be exaggerated.  The evidence suggests that sexual attraction to and pleasure with adolescent males was the common motivation and that penetration was frequently practiced, for all that one never spoke of it in public.  The Romans, incidentally, shared these attitudes, though unlike the Greeks they considered citizen youths out of bounds, and the distinction between penetrating men (permitted for virile males) and being penetrated by men (definitely not permitted) is still made among males in some Mediterranean and Latin American societies.

Greek honesty concerning homosexual behavior was only a single facet of their incredibly open attitude about human sexuality in general.  Sex, and in fact body functions in general, rather than being a taboo subject were a source of great amusement, as is readily obvious from Aristophanes and from Greek pottery (the stuff hidden away by Christian museum curators).  Aristophanes’ comedies were at heart social and political satire, the highest form of comic expression, but that satire was wrapped in humor that a modern audience would find obscene and puerile – jokes about farting, penis size and suchlike.  But the Athenian audience loved it, and these were people who had just sat through and enjoyed several tragedies; the modern equivalent might be several Ingmar Bergman movies followed by some mixture of Redd Foxx and the Three Stooges.


Free of any divine commandments to the contrary, the Greeks were able to develop a more open attitude about human sexuality, and I suspect their society was all the more psychologically healthy for it.  The Greeks were far more willing than most civilized peoples to recognize the inner nature of the human animal and squarely face what this meant in terms of human needs and behavior.


Finally, a popular Greek “pottery joke.”  There were traditional shapes for wine cups, and one was similar, though smaller, to the common chamber pot.  A picture of a woman peeing was painted on the inside bottom of this type of cup, and when the imbiber (inevitably male) finished his drink, he suddenly discovered the squatting woman and got the joke.  Yes, these are the same people who discovered democracy and philosophy, and yes, they would have found dribble glasses and whoopee cushions completely hilarious.


When men were men

When men were men

Hey, it's Greek art

Hey, it’s Greek art

And women were women

And women were women


Stuff from Way Back #18: Socrates, O.J., Casey and George

(If you enjoy the stuff on Socrates, try the whole picture: Dare to Struggle. The history and Society of the Greeks by Richard M. Berthold.)

George Zimmerman has just been acquitted of murder or manslaughter in his killing of Trayvon Martin, and an outraged public is demanding the federal government try him again on a civil rights charge. (This mechanism was certainly valuable in circumventing blatantly racist courts in the South, but it still smacks of double jeopardy.) The outrage results from the widespread feeling that despite the not guilty verdict Zimmerman committed some crime, inasmuch as a young man doing nothing wrong and minding his own business was shot, regardless of whether he started the fight. The assertion is that this outcome is wrong and unjust, a failure of our system of justice. The same was said regarding the acquittal of Casey Anthony, who many believe did in fact kill her child, and the grandest example is of course O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted despite being obviously guilty.

Dead guy

Dead guy



These outcomes may be considered wrong or unfair, but they are not at all unjust. In these instances the prosecution may be said to have failed, but the system did not. The reason is that justice has nothing to do with fairness, as most people believe. The simple fact is that justice is rooted in the law, not in any vague notions of what is right or fair. The law must be universal, applying to everyone in the society, and it must be relatively precise and well defined. It is produced and established by political mechanisms acceptable by all, at least in a free society, and being a citizen is an implicit acceptance of any law so produced, even if one disagrees with it.

Ideas of right and wrong, that is, one’s understanding of morality, are manifestly not universal, either in interpretation or circumstance. Most humans derive or at least associate their ethics with a deity, and the few that do not accept a god figure it out for themselves, influenced by the circumstances of their lives. Consequently, beyond the basic moral tenets seemingly hard-wired in the human brain (do not murder, do not sleep with your sister, etc.) ideas of right and wrong are going to vary greatly, even among adherents of the same religious tradition. The mechanisms here – god or individual conscience – are not accepted by everyone in the society, and moral conclusions are thus not valid for all and no basis for regulating society.

And so public behavior is regulated by an entirely – at least theoretically – secular and morally neutral apparatus, the justice system. You may feel free to believe that our civil rights come from god (they actually derive from the people; that is what constitutionalism is), but the protection and regulation of those rights has no more to do with deity than it does with magic. The law does not determine what is right or fair; it determines what is legal and acceptable behavior. We hope that our laws reflect our ideas about morality and fairness, but the bottom line is that what is just is not necessarily also what is fair.

The grandest expression of this fundamental aspect of constitutional society, an idea foreign to most people, is the trial and death of Socrates (469-399 BC). He was not executed, as many think, by an Athenian society suddenly become intolerant of free speech, but because of his commitment, even unto death, to justice as he (correctly) understood it. The charges brought against him in 399 were impiety and corruption of the youth, both valid under Athenian law, but the real reasons behind his indictment were political.



Athens’ defeat by Sparta in 404 led to a year and a half of despotic oligarchic rule, the Thirty Tyrants, and in the nervous climate of the restored democracy Socrates suffered from his negative public image – no one likes a wiseass gadfly – and earlier association with such notorious anti-democrats as Critias and Alcibiades. A general amnesty prevented Socrates’ enemies from leveling overt political charges, and instead they sought to drive him into exile by raising these other accusations, taking advantage of a growing popular irritation with criticism of traditional religious ideas. Already in the sixth century the new rationalists had begun assaulting the traditional religion, which because of its extreme anthropomorphism was an easy target; the all too human gods plainly did silly things, and many of the rituals of the civic religion were absurd when viewed objectively. In the fifth century the sophists, the first political/social scientists, continued the attack, and by the second half of the century they had discovered atheism, though it is nowhere directly expressed.

It was difficult, if not impossible, to refute these criticisms, especially with regard to the anthropomorphism, and the frustration of the traditionalists led to growing aggravation and public trials for asebeia, impiety. Traditionally, asebeia had involved overt acts of sacrilege, such as violating sanctuaries or profaning the mysteries, but in fifth century Athens the definition expanded to include less demonstrable offences, such as introducing new gods and not believing in the gods of the city, the charges leveled against Socrates. These accusations do not appear to be true, but Socrates was in many ways a very annoying person, and many were more than ready to accept these distortions of his real beliefs.

To the apparent surprise of his enemies, Socrates did not flee, but stood trial and was convicted by a only a narrow margin of votes (out of 501), demonstrating that in this instance at least the Athenians were not given to a lynch mob mentality. The Athenian court did not have judges, and in a broad category of cases the prosecution, which consisted of the citizens who brought the charges, was entitled to propose a penalty, to which the defense would reply with a counter-penalty, leaving it to the jury to choose in a sort of post-conviction plea bargaining. The prosecution asked for death, expecting the defense to propose a stiff fine (the Greeks did not normally imprison people), which the jury would select as the punishment. But ever the wiseass, Socrates proposed that he pay a ridiculously small fine and receive free board from the state for the rest of his life in order that he could continue enlightening and annoying his fellow Athenians. The jury was not amused with the suggestion of making a mockery of the system and chose death (still by a close margin), but every opportunity was given Socrates to escape into exile, since death was clearly an inappropriately drastic punishment for the crimes for which he was convicted. He insisted, however, that the execution be carried out and drank the poison.

Why? Because unfair though the condemnation might be, Socrates had been tried and convicted justly, that is, according to the laws of Athens, and such was his commitment to the law that he refused to violate it even under such extreme circumstances. Socrates was making, about as dramatically as one can, this essential point about the nature of justice: it is rooted in the law, not the public’s notions of right and wrong. Socrates might be generally accused of a certain intellectual dishonesty in that he used his considerable powers of argument to demonstrate only conclusions compatible with his view of things, but his death is surely one of the noblest examples in history of dying for ones principles.

The acquittals of loathsome characters like Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson are of course unfair and disgusting, but they are just. They were accused, tried and judged according to the law, and their trials involved no illegalities or misbehavior. It is sad that no one legally bears the responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin, and it is disturbing that George Zimmerman’s vigilantism has been validated in the eyes of many. But his acquittal was manifestly not a travesty of justice. It in fact demonstrated that the justice system works, determining guilt or innocence of the basis of the law, not public opinion or someone’s definition of right and wrong.

The real criminals

The real criminals

The real criminals

The real criminals

Stuff About Way Back: An Example of Scholarly Crapola

(If anyone is still visiting this site, be aware the lack of new posts is due to a compulsion to work on something scholarly.  So, I provide you with an example of this crap, an appendix that I just completed.  This is the life blood of classical scholarship.  Why some of the Greek came through and the rest turned into gibberish and why the footnote arabic numerals become Roman numerals, I have no idea.)


            The plain of Marathon stretches about six miles along a slightly curving SW-NE axis, averaging about two miles in width between the heights and the sea.[i]  The tectonically active plain is bounded and well defined on the west, north and east by rocky, scrub-covered hills of schist and marble – Aphorismos (1555 ft), Kotroni (771 ft), Stavrokoraki (1043 ft) and Drakonera (794 ft) – that rise fairly abruptly and steeply.  To the southwest Mt. Agrieliki climbs to 1827 feet on extremely steep slopes, which are presently covered with small trees at the lower levels, and its eastern foot falls about a kilometer from the coast, forming the southern entrance to the plain.  A side valley containing the town of Marathona extends northwest between Kotroni and Stavrokoraki, and a smaller valley, the Avalona, runs parallel to it on the west side of Kotroni.  At the western extremity of the plain Agrieliki, Aphorismos and Kotroni form a sort of recess in which the village of Vrana is located.  Typical of coastal Greece, the plain itself consists of alluvial fans and has in the last twenty-five hundred years risen about ten feet due to sediments brought down from the interior.[ii]  Construction and the planting of trees have dramatically changed the appearance of the central and southwestern parts of the plain in just the last forty years, but inasmuch as the Greeks were able to form up their phalanx and none of the sources mentions any impediments, it may be assumed that in antiquity the plain was primarily planted in grain and there was only a scattering of trees.[iii]

Kynosoura (164 ft), a steep-sided spur of Drakonera, juts south into the sea for about a mile and a half, forming a protective weather barrier for the northern part of the bay and especially sheltering the Schoenia, a sandy beach running southwest from the promontory for two miles.  The beach rises gently to a belt of pine woods, behind which is the Great Marsh, which once covered perhaps two-thirds of the northeastern half of the plain and extended to the coast south of the Schoenia.  At the eastern fringe of the marsh, hard up against the spur that becomes the Kynosoura promontory, is a small salt lake, which drains into the sea.[iv]  There was until 1934, when it was drained, a smaller marsh, the Brexiza, in the southern entrance to the plain, but unlike the Great Marsh it is not described by Pausanias and classical remains all but prove that it did not exist in antiquity.[v]  The coast of the plain is for the most part formed of a shelving beach with shallow waters, but the southern reaches tend to be more rocky and uneven, especially when contrasted with the Schoenia.[vi]

Prominent in the middle of the plain is the Charadra, a winter torrent or arroyo that issues from the hills above Oinoe, a village northwest of Kotroni, and flows through the valley between Kotroni and Stavrokoraki, cutting two deep channels through Plasi to the sea.  Though dry most of the year, the gullies present a formidable obstacle, the banks being as high as twenty feet in places.  A smaller torrent, the Rapendosa, descends from the hills between Agrieliki and Aphorismos and disappears about a third of the way across the plain.  A torrent such as the Charadra will certainly not follow the same course for two and a half millennia, and in any case the central part of the plain appears to have risen about ten feet since antiquity, for the most part because of material brought down from the hills by these torrents.[vii]  It is thus impossible to determine exactly where the gullies ran at the time of the battle or whether they existed at all, but since neither Herodotus nor Pausanias makes any mention of this terrain feature, it is safe to say that if it did exist, it had no impact on the battle.  The plain is well watered, two fault lines producing a number of springs, the principal ones being at Oinoe, Vrana, the eastern foot of Agrieliki (“Mati”) and at Kato Souli, between the eastern base of Stavrokoraki and the Great Marsh (“Megalo Mati” or “Makaria”).  Wells are found all over the plain, providing most of the water for the region today, and Pausanias says there was fresh water flowing out of the Great Marsh.[viii]

Of the villages/demes of the Marathonian tetropolis three have been more or less securely located: Oinoe at the site of the modern village of that name, Trikorynthos at Kato Souli and Probalinthos at the eastern base of Agrieliki north of the Brexiza marsh (less securely).  The site of Marathonitself is still disputed, but the scant archaeological evidence now points to a spot near the coast amidst the channels of the Charadra.[ix]  There were in the fifth century three routes leading from Athens into the Marathon plain.  The main road, apparently suitable for carts, ran for some twenty-six miles from Athens via Pallene to the area of the Soros and then continued northeast across the plain and on to Rhamnous.  A second road led northeast from Athens to Kephisia, where it split into two paths, one passing through modern Stamata and Oinoe and on into the plain through the Avalona valley, the other heading through modern Dionysos and descending to Vrana through the gorge of the Rapendosa.  Each of these routes is a bit more than twenty-three miles long, and both become fairly rough and steep tracks through wooded areas once they enter the hills around Marathon.[x]

Rising above the southern plain, approximately a mile northeast of the foot of Agrieliki and a half mile northwest from the coast, is the Soros, a thirty foot high artificial mound that is generally accepted as the burial place of the Athenians who fell in the battle.[xi]  About four miles west of the Soros, at the site of the Marathon museum in Vrana, is a cluster of seven middle and late Helladic tumuli, and about 300 feet northeast of these lies a seventh mound, dated to the early fifth century.  Within this tomb were found the remains of one juvenile and ten adult males, leading a few scholars to conclude that this is the tomb of the Plataeans mentioned by Pausanias.[xii]  This identification is almost certainly incorrect, however.  Pausanias’ catalogue of sights at Marathon proceeds in a more or less direct line northeasterly from the Soros to the stone “stables” of the Persian horse, and placing the Plataean tomb, which is mentioned immediately after that of the Athenians, at Vrana represents a three mile detour from this route.  Further, the battle centered on the Soros, and it is difficult to see why the Plataean dead would be carried all the way to Vrana rather than being interred in the vicinity of the Athenians, where all could be conveniently visited and honored.[xiii]  The tomb contents also argue against the identification: a mix of burial styles, the presence of a boy, very poor grave gifts and a single crude inscription in Attic lettering on an unworked stone.[xiv]  It is far more likely that a low mound observed near the Soros in the nineteenth century marks the spot of the Plataean burial.[xv]

Following his notice of graves of the Athenians and Plataeans Pausanius mentions a monument to Miltiades and a trophy of white marble.[xvi]  About 650 yards north of the Soros are the foundations of a tower (“Pyrgos”), possibly medieval, which according to nineteenth century travelers incorporated large blocks of white marble, now all gone.  About a mile and a half to the northeast of these ruins, near the present church of Panagia Mesosporitissa, are the remains of another tower, also sporting ancient marble, including column drums and an Ionic capital.  The two towers are likely to mark the approximate sites of the ancient monuments from which the marble was pilfered, since in the first case Leake observed actual marble foundations and in the second the number and size of the blocks argues against being moved any great distance. That these are the remains of the Miltiades monument and the battle trophy is a tempting conclusion since the fragments indicate monuments rather than buildings or enclosures and one would expect the Miltiades memorial to be in the vicinity of the burials.[xvii]

The last battle-related item Pausanias mentions before describing the Makaria spring and the Marsh are the Persian dead, whose burial place he could not find.  He was, however, informed by the Athenians that they had been thrown into a trench, and in the nineteenth century von Eschenburg found in the area off the western edge of the Marsh huge quantities of bones (“viele Hunderte von Todten”), seemingly buried in a haphazard manner.[xviii]

The Persian fleet certainly anchored along the Schoenia.  This section of the coast was the most amenable to the mooring of ships, and the Kynosoura promontory protected the anchorage from the dangerous northeast winds.  Inasmuch as vessels were apparently beached only for protection or maintenance, the ships would have been anchored right at the water’s edge, sterns facing inland.  Assuming no more than 300 vessels and no more than thirty feet of beach space per vessel (approximately the width of a trireme with oars extended), the fleet could be moored in a single line along the Schoenia, providing for the most convenient unloading and loading and for the quickest departure.[xix]  This anchorage provided immediate access to the region of the Great Marsh and the most likely site of the Persian camp, the deme of Trikorynthos.  Herodotus does not mention a Persian camp, as he does in the case of Plataea and Mykale, but inasmuch as the area around the Schoenia could not comfortably accommodate 50,000 or more men for several days there must have been a separate encampment, at least for the army.[xx]  A camp on the plain immediately west of the marsh is possible, but the area to the north, bounded by the hills of Stavrokoraki and Drakonera and the marsh itself, offered excellent protection against attack and controlled the road to Rhamnous.  Water was more plentiful in this locale, especially from the Makaria spring, and here the marsh was apparently deeper, remaining green longer into the autumn and thus providing more fodder for the horses.[xxi]  And though it is barely evidence, Pausanias in fact identifies some excavations and marks in the hills beyond the marsh as the “stables” of Artaphernes’ horse and the marks from his tent.[xxii]

More problematic has been the location of the Greek camp.  Herodotus says that upon arriving at Marathonthe Athenians established their camp “in the precinct of Herakles,”[xxiii]  without however providing any indication where that might have been.  In his eighth Pythian ode Pindar says the games of Herakles were held “in a/the nook/corner of Marathon,” but he may simply mean that Marathon was a corner or nook of Attica.[xxiv]  In the 1930s an inscription containing regulations for games at the Herakleion was found just north of the Brexiza marsh, but even the finder of the stone, Soteriades, believed it had wandered, especially since it had been refaced.[xxv]  Further, there was some evidence that the area near the marsh had been sacred to Athena Hellotis.[xxvi]  He pointed instead to the Vrana valley, near the chapel of St. Demetrios, where he discovered what he believed to be the early 5th century remains of a sacred enclosure, which he identified as the Herakleion, noting that St. Demetrios would be an understandable successor to the pagan hero.[xxvii]  Possessing springs, providing a secure position and covering both the main road along the coast and the back roads through Kephisia, the Vrana location, which is in fact in a sort of “nook,” was subsequently accepted by many, if not most writers, as the site of the Athenian camp.[xxviii]

This all changed with the discovery in 1972 of a dedication to Herakles, this stone found incorporated in a Roman building in the area of the Brexiza marsh.  Certainly, two inscriptions regarding Herakles are very compelling, and this relatively narrow area between Agrieliki and the sea might well be described as a “nook or “corner” of Marathon.  A camp here makes military sense, and the location fits perfectly the epithet the dedicatory inscription assigns to Herakles – “at the gate” – and the statement in one of the Marathon epigrams that the Athenians were “before the gates.”[xxix]  While certainty is a commodity in very short supply at Marathon, the Athenian camp may now be fairly securely located at the southern entrance to the plain, and Herodotus’ account must be reconciled with this location.[xxx]

[i] A brief survey of the archaeology of the Marathon area and a list of the attendant literature up to 1988 can be found in Travlos 1988, 216-21.

[ii] Higgins & Higgins 1996, 33; Pritchett 1960, 156-57; see further note 7.  The sea level of the Aegean also appears to have risen about 10 feet; see Pritchett 1959, 255-56.

[iii] Nep. Milt. 5.3: arbores multis locis errant rarae; Caspari 1926, 103 (followed by How & Wells 1912, II, 112) believes the Greek center was weakened in order to accommodate trees and vines, but fear of being outflanked was a far more compelling reason; see .  The plain was relatively free of trees when observed by Frazer at the end of the nineteenth century; Frazer 1898, 433.

[iv] Woods: Aesch. Eleg. 3: Maraqw&nion a!lsoj; Paus. 1.14.5: to_ Maraqw~ni a!lsoj; marsh: Paus. 1.32.7: li&mnh ta_ polla_ e(lw&dhj.  Recent geophysical examination suggests that the marsh was once a lake and before that a lagoon, and in an unpublished study Richard Dunn concludes that in 490 it was in fact a lake.  Pausanias describes it as a “mostly marshy lake,” but that is over 600 years after the battle.  On the other hand, he describes the Persian fugitives blundering into the marsh and suffering great casualties, which seems very unlikely were it simply a lake with marshy fringes.  It is also unlikely that the channel connecting the marsh/lake to the sea was used by the Persian ships, assuming it was even navigable.  Marsh would make the mooring and unloading of the vessels more difficult, and the ease with which almost all the ships escaped makes more sense were they on the beach; see also note 16.  There is also evidence that the northern part of the shoreline was further inland and the souther further out in 490.  On the marsh and coast see Kretnz 117, 214-15 and the map 155.

[v] Soteriades 1935, 120-21; Pritchett 1960, 152-54, 1965, 83-84; Themelis 1974, 239-41; Petrakos 1995, 68-86; Hammond 1973, 186-87 believes there was a marsh in antiquity because of the powerful springs in the area and because of scholia on Pindar claiming that Athena Hellotis was so named because of the marsh at Marathon, but the rise in the sea level better explains the emergence of a marsh and the scholia are extremely vague (e0n, peri&, pro_j) on the spatial location of the marsh to Marathon, which itself could be the deme, the town or the whole tetropolis.  The stone attesting to a temenos of Athena was in fact found near the chapel of St. Demetrios, a mile and half north of the Brexisa (Vanderpool 1966b, 319-20), and the scholiast may simply be wrong, Hellotis with its double lambda deriving instead from Hellotia, a daughter of Timander.

[vi] See the admiralty chart in Hammond 1973, 218.

[vii] Burn 1966, 161-62 believes there was no Charadra in antiquity because deforestation of the surrounding hills had not yet occurred, but flashfloods in the area were already proverbial: Demon FGH 327 F 8 (= Strabo 8.6.16, Zen. 5.29, Suda s.v.): Oi0nai=oi th_n xara&dran.  In 1828 Leake (see his map in Hammond 1973, 183) observed the two torrents following roughly the same courses they do today, and Soteriades 1935, 132-33 concluded the Charadra followed the same course in antiquity.  But in the 1960s Pritchett confirmed the earlier reports of Staes that the level of the plain at the Soros had risen some ten feet, and this together with the sherd deposits around the torrent convinced him and two separate geologists that the present course of the torrent is not that of 490; a map made in 1792 in fact shows the Charadra following a different course; Pritchett 1960, 141-42, 156-57, 1969, 6.

[viii] Paus. 1.32.6; Pritchett 1965, 84-85; Petrakos 1995, 52-55.  The depth of the water table, presently as little as 23 feet near the Brexiza marsh, increases as one moves inland towards Stavrokoraki, where it is now some 65 feet; though certainty is impossible because of the tectonic activity in the area, the water table was probably higher in antiquity, before another twenty-five hundred years of alluviation.

[ix] Placing Marathon near Plasi fits the order Probalinthos – Marathon – Trykorinthos given by Strabo 9.1.22, which traces demes north along the coast.  The archaeological literature on the demes is extensive; see Travlos 1988, 220-21; the most recent and/or pertinent: Pritchett 1960, 149-52, 1965, 83-88, 1969, 1-11; Vanderpool 1966b, 319-22; Marinatos 1970a, 5-9, 1972, 6-7; Themelis 1974, 229-35, 239-42; Traill 1986, 146-48.  Petrakos 1995, 1-2 suggests that there was no village of Marathon but rather houses scattered about the plain, but such would constitute a big exception in Pausanias’ itinerary.

[x] In 1996 I could not find the head of the Oinoe trail, but did climb the Rapendosa track for about a half mile; it was extremely steep and rough.  A description of the tracks can be found in Frazer 1898, 441-42.  The excellent road observed between Stamata and Marathona by Clarke in 1801 cannot be earlier than the late fifth century; Ober 1982, 457-58.

[xi] Paus. 1.29.4, 32.3 is clearly referring to this tomb.  Schliemann 1884, 85-88 believed it to be prehistoric, but the excavations of Staes confirmed the date of 490; see esp. Staes 1893, 46-63; Hammond 1973, 172-78.  Pausanias describes only a grave (τάφς) with stone slabs (στh=λαι) inscribed with the names of the dead, which slabs G. Spyropoulos has claimed to have recently found in the villa of Herodes Atticus in the Peloponnesus.  He consequentlty suggests that it was Herodes who erected the mound when he purloined the inscriptions of the Marathon dead, which is barely possible since Pausanias would have passed through Marathon before AD 174 and Herodes died in 177; report in Αρχαιολογία Archaeology Newsroom 8 May 2009; the book mentioned in the report, Die Architektur der Villa des Herodes Atticus zu Eva/Loukou, can not be located and is perhaps classified.

[xii] Paus. 1.32.3; Marinatos 1970a, 9-28, 1970b, 155-66, 1970c, 351-66; Hammond 1973, 197-98; Burn 91-92.

[xiii] Pritchett 1985, 129.

[xiv] See esp. Welwei 1979, 101-6, who suggests these might be the remains of scouts who were surprised and killed by the Persians; Themelis 1974, 244 believes they are normal local burials despite the absence of any females.

[xv] Clarke 1818, 27-28; Leake 1841, 101; Pritchett 1985, 128.

[xvi] Paus. 1.32.4-5.


[xvii] Miltiades monument: Leake 1841, 101; trophy: Vanderpool 1966a.


[xviii] Paus. 1.32.5: o1rugma.  Von Eschenburg 1886, 10.


[xix] That the Stoa Poikile paintings (Paus. 1.15.3) show Persians fleeing into the marsh between illustrations of the battle and the fighting at the ships places the fleet at the Schoenia.  On mooring the ships see Harrison 1999, 168-71; Whitehead 1993, 95-98; Herod. 6.107.2 says the ships were “moored” or “anchored”: ta_j ne&aj o#rmize.  Herod. 6.114.1 shows a Persian ship stern-first, and the fact that the fleet got away so quickly suggests stern-first mooring.  The Brescia sarcophagus, thought to reproduce the scenes in the Stoa Poilile, shows ships moored stern-first; see Vanderpool 1966a, pl. 35.

[xx] Following a suggestion of Macan 1895, II, 244, n. 8, van der Veer 1982, 398-99 believes there was no Persian camp.

[xxi] Most modern authors place the camp around Trykorynthos, but some have it west of the marsh: Macan 1895, II, 244-45; Munro 1926, 242; Schachermeyr 1951, 18-19; Vanderpool 1966b, 323; et. al.; Shrimpton 1980, 30-31 curiously places it near the Soros.  Shrimpton 1980, 31, n. 23 argues that the pasturage available at the marsh would be dangerous to horses fed on hay and grain, but surely the Persian horse-handlers would approach this change in feeding very carefully, and in any case Trykorinthos provided easy access to water and better security after dark.  See Frazer 1898, 432 for a description of the marsh before it was drained.

[xxii] Paus. 1.32.7; Frazer 1898, 432 observed “niche-like excavations” on Stavrokoraki; Leake 1841, 96 found a “small cavern” on Drakonera.  Since the Persians are unlikely to have engaged in excavating rock, it is likely the story of the stables and tent later attached themselves to one or the other of these formations.

[xxiii] Herod. 6.108.1: e0n teme/nei+  9Hrakleo/v.

[xxv] IG i.3 3 (=SEG x.2): hερακλείο[ισι]; see Vanderpool 1942, 329-37, 1966b, 322-23, 1984.

[xxvi] See note 5.

[xxvii] Soteriades 1935.

[xxviii]  Including me: Berthold 1976-1977, 88-91; some of the others: How & Wells II, 109; Delbrück 1920, 54; Munro 1926,  241-42; Maurice 1932, 21; Pritchett 138-40; Burn 243; Hammond 189-90; Billows 208, who apparently did not get the memo on the second inscription.

[xxix]IG i.3 1015bis: ερακλεῖ…τὸμ Πυλίοις ἀνέθεκε ερακ[λ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘]; see Marinatos 1972, 6; Kamanoudes 1978, 237-42; esp Matthaiou 2003, 190-94.  IG i.3 503/4: αἰχμὲν / στε̑σαμ πρόσθε πυλο̑ν; see Matthaiou 2003, 194-97.

[xxx] Virtually everyone now accepts the location at the entrance: e.g., Burn 1977, 90-91; van der Veer 1982, 96-97; Evans 292; Lazenby 54-56; Krentz 118-21.