Posts by MichaelAnderson:

    Stoic Philosophy of the Greeks

    August 25th, 2016

    By Michael Anderson.

     Resultado de imagen de Stoic Philosophy of the Greeks


    Stoic philosophy, as introduced by Zeno in 300 B.C, was an important philosophical school through the time of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who died in 180 A.D. Quiet during the Middle Ages, it rose again as an intellectual force in the modern age. In spite its position as secular philosophy, Stoicism has a connection to Christian philosophy, particularly as it relates to the inner kinship man has with God and the inherent evil of mankind.

    The name Stoic comes from the Greek “Stoa” which is a covered colonnade. Zeno and his friends would hold their meetings at the Stoa adjacent to the market in the center of Athens, and the name of the group became associated with it. Zeno, himself, was born in Citium, a large Hellenized city in Cyprus. Drawn to the teachings of Socrates, he traveled to Athens at age twenty two and began to study with the prominent Greek philosophers of the day. He came under the influence of the cynic Crates, Polemo head of Plato’s Academy, and Stilpo.

    These men served as the wellspring for Zeno’s ethics.

    The centerpiece of his ethics is moral advancement based on conformity with nature. That is health and wealth are not goods but instead natural objects of pursuit. We should seek to obtain them not because they make our lives better, but because they help us live in agreement with nature. This leads to rationality, happiness, and a good life. This Stoic belief system is eerily similar to the Christian “be sinless and be happy”, creating a link between harmony with nature and loving God.

    In order to achieve harmony, man must exercise self-control by using reason to control the passions – treat good and bad as equal and react equally to both. Resist the passions because they pull the individual away from harmony

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    Plato’s Protagoras, the Abilities of Man, and Virtue

    August 24th, 2016

    By Michael Anderson.

     Resultado de imagen de Plato’s Protagoras, the Abilities of Man, and Virtue


    The Greeks of antiquity were remarkable not only for being the first great thinkers, but also for the depth of their thinking. In the cruel world of antiquity where living itself was a struggle, they contemplated the unity of man and his relationship with others of his species. This manner of deep thinking is vividly demonstrated in Plato’s dialogs, specifically in The Protagoras.

    Plato, in the Protagoras, uses the famous sophist of that name to explain how man was given the skills he needed to survive in the world. One of them, virtue, must be taught because it does not come easily to human beings.

    Socrates asserts that virtue cannot be taught and Protagoras, disagreeing, responds in the following way:

    “Once upon a time there were gods only, and no mortal creatures. But when the time came that these also should be created, the gods fashioned them out of earth and fire and various mixtures of both elements in the interior of the earth; and when they were about to bring them into the light of day, they ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them, and to distribute to them severally their proper qualities. Epimetheus said to Prometheus: “Let me distribute, and you inspect.” This was agreed, and Epimetheus made the distribution. There were some to whom he gave strength without swiftness, while he equipped the weaker with swiftness; some he armed, and others he left unarmed; and devised for the latter some other means of preservation, making some large, and having their size as a protection, and others small, whose nature was to fly in the air or burrow in the ground; this was to be their way of escape…

    Thus did Epimetheus, who, not being very wise, forgot that he had distributed among the brute animals all the qualities which he had to give-and when he came to man, who was still unprovided, he was terribly perplexed. Now while he was in this perplexity, Prometheus came to inspect the distribution, and he found that the other animals were suitably furnished, but that man alone was naked and shoeless, and had neither bed nor arms of defense.

    The appointed hour was approaching when man in his turn was to go forth into the light of day; and Prometheus, not knowing how he could devise his salvation, stole the mechanical arts of Hephaestus and Athena, and fire with them and gave them to man. Thus man had the wisdom necessary to the support of life, but political wisdom he had not…


    Resultado de imagen de Plato’s Protagoras, the Abilities of Man, and Virtue


    Now man, having a share of the divine attributes, was at first the only one of the animals who had any gods, because he alone was of their kindred; and he would raise altars and images of them. He was not long in inventing articulate speech and names; and he also constructed houses and clothes and shoes and beds, and drew sustenance from the earth. Thus provided, mankind at first lived dispersed, and there were no cities. But the consequence was that they were destroyed by the wild beasts, for they were utterly weak in comparison of them, and their art was only sufficient to provide them with the means of life, and did not enable them to carry on war against the animals: food they had, but not as yet the art of government, of which the art of war is a part. After a while the desire of self-preservation gathered them into cities; but when they were gathered together, having no art of government, they evil entreated one another, and were again in process of dispersion and destruction. Zeus feared that the entire race would be exterminated, and so he sent Hermes to them, bearing reverence and justice to be the ordering principles of cities and the bonds of friendship and conciliation. Hermes asked Zeus how he should impart justice and reverence among men: Should he distribute them as the arts are distributed; that is to say, to a favored few only, one skilled individual having enough of medicine or of any other art for many unskilled ones? “Shall this be the manner in which I am to distribute justice and reverence among men, or shall I give them to all?” “To all,” said Zeus; “I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts…

    And this is the reason, Socrates, why the Athenians and mankind in general, when the question relates to carpentering or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations; and when anyone else interferes, then, as you say, they object, if he be not of the favored few; which, as I reply, is very natural. But when they meet to deliberate about political virtue, which proceeds only by way of justice and wisdom, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise…

    And that you may not suppose yourself to be deceived in thinking that all men regard every man as having a share of justice or honesty and of every other political virtue, let me give you a further proof, which is this. In other cases, as you are aware, if a man says that he is a good flute-player, or skilful in any other art in which he has no skill, people either laugh at him or are angry with him, and his relations think that he is mad and go and admonish him; but when honesty is in question, or some other political virtue, even if they know that he is dishonest, yet, if the man comes publicly forward and tells the truth about his dishonesty, then, what in the other case was held by them to be good sense, they now deem to be madness. They say that all men ought to profess honesty whether they are honest or not, and that a man is out of his mind who says anything else. Their notion is, that a man must have some degree of honesty; and that if he has none at all he ought not to be in the world.”

    A man should be removed from society if he admits he is not virtuous, because virtue is a requirement for men to live together.

    Protagoras is saying that society contains some men who have no potentiality for virtue and, therefore, have no place in society. The great majority, however, have the ability to learn justice and respect for others if they are willing to be taught. We do not ridicule men who are deformed because they cannot help their condition, but men with vices are admonished when they operate contrary to civic virtue. Men are punished not because of the crime they committed but to prevent the next crime –punishment teaches virtue.

    The overarching political theme of the Sophists is the unity of man through the talents given him by the gods.

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    The Battle of Adrianople – Misunderstood Roman History

    August 21st, 2016


    By Michael Anderson.



    The Battle of Adrianople sits near the top of the list of misunderstood battles in history, being variously labelled one of the main causes of the fall of the Roman Empire and the battle that launched the medieval practice of knighthood by proving that cavalry was superior to infantry.

    Although these misrepresentations are nothing more than historians injecting fanciful thinking into a situation where detail is lacking, we don’t want to dismiss the battle as inconsequential. Adrianople was important because it showed, for the first time, the Visigoths ability to defeat the Roman army in a real battle, predicting events in the next century that would lead to the end of the empire in the west. But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

    Where is Adrianople (current name Edirne)? It sits in near the Bulgarian Turkish border today, but was located in Thrace during the time of the Roman Empire. Greek mythology has the city founded by Orestes, son of the Spartan king Agamemnon, but its name derives from the Emperor Hadrian who named it as a Roman city during his reign from 117-138 AD. See the map below for the city’s location.


    The story of the Battle of Adrianople is best told by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-391) in his book Res Gestae which chronicles the history of the empire from 96-380 AD. Ammianus’ account contains the usual biases in favor of the side he was representing.

    As his story unfolds in 376 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alavivus and Fritigern, asked Rome to allow them to settle in the Eastern Roman Empire, south of the Danube. Hoping that they would become farmers and soldiers, the Eastern Roman emperor, Valens, allowed them to cross the river and settle as allies. Unfortunately, the dishonesty of the provincial commanders Lupicinus and Maximus led the Goths to revolt after being mistreated. Valens then asked Gratian, the western emperor, for reinforcements to put down the revolt, so Gratian sent his general Frigeridus with reinforcements and, for the next two years, there were a series of minor battles with no clear victory for either side.

    In 378, Valens decided to take control of the situation himself. He planned to bring his own troops from Syria and requested that Gratian bring his army from Gaul.


    Valens left Antioch for Constantinople, and arrived on the 30th of May. He appointed Sebastianus, newly arrived from Italy, to reorganize the Roman armies already in Thrace. Sebastianus picked 2,000 of his legionaries and proceeded to Adrianople. Meanwhile Fritigern assembled the Gothic forces at Nicopolis and Beroe to deal with this new Roman threat.

    Gratian had sent part of his field army by boat; with the rest traveling overland. After learning of Sebastian’s success against the Goths and anticipating a victory of his own, Valens brought his army to Adrianople, where he met with Sebastian’s force. On 6 August, reconnaissance informed Valens that about 10,000 Goths were marching towards Adrianople from the north, about 15 miles away. This gave Valens time to build a Roman field camp with ditch and rampart.

    Gratian sent a letter asking Valens to wait for the arrival of reinforcements from before engaging the Goths. Valens’ officers also recommended that he wait, but Valens ignored these warnings, remaining focused on his impending victory. Meanwhile, the Goths were spying on the Romans, and on August 8th Fritigern sent an emissary to propose peace and an alliance in exchange for some Roman territory. Sure that he would be victorious due to his supposed numerical superiority, Valens rejected these proposals. Unfortunately, his count of the enemy did not take into consideration the Gothic cavalry which was separated from the rest of the Gothic army.


    On the morning of 9 August, Valens left Adrianople and headed north. Finally, after a seven hour march, the Roman army arrived, tired and dehydrated, within sight of a Gothic camp which had the advantage of elevation. The Goths, except for their cavalry, defended a wagon circle, containing their families and possessions. Fritigern’s objective was to delay the Romans, so the Gothic cavalry had time to return. The fields were set on fire by the Goths to delay and harass the Romans with smoke, and they asked for negotiations for an exchange of hostages. These negotiations were frustrating to the Roman soldiers who felt they were in a stronger position, but they gained precious time for Fritigern.

    At one point, Roman units began the battle without orders to do so, believing they would have an easy victory, and perhaps over-eager to finally defeat the Goths after two years of attempting to achieve a decisive victory. After a strong advance, the Roman left-wing reached the circle of wagons, but it was too late. The Gothic cavalry appeared in support of its infantry and turned the tide of the battle. As Ammianus tells it:


    “The foot-soldiers thus stood unprotected, and their companies were so crowded together that hardly anyone could pull out his sword or draw back his arm. Because of clouds of dust the heavens could no longer be seen, and echoed with frightful cries. Hence the arrows whirling death from every side always found their mark with fatal effect, since they could not be seen beforehand nor guarded against. But when the barbarians, poring forth in huge hordes, trampled down horse and man, and in the press of ranks no room for retreat could be gained anywhere, and the increased crowding left no opportunity for escape, our soldiers also, showing extreme contempt of falling in the fight, received their death-blows, yet struck down their assailants; and on both sides the strokes of axes split helmet and breastplate. Here one might see a barbarian filled with lofty courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side, on the very verge of death threateningly casting about his fierce glance; and by the fall of the combatants on both sides the plains were covered with the bodies of the slain strewn over the ground, while the groans of the dying and of those who had suffered deep wounds caused immense fear when they were heard. In this great tumult and confusion the infantry, exhausted by their efforts and the danger, when in turn strength and mind for planning anything were lacking, their lances for the most part broken by constant clashing, content to fight with drawn swords, plunged into the dense masses of the foe, regardless of their lives, seeing all around that every loophole of escape was lost. The ground covered with streams of blood whirled their slippery foothold from under them, so they could only strain every nerve to sell their lives dearly; and they opposed the onrushing foe with such great resolution that some fell by the weapons of their own comrades. Finally, when the whole scene was discolored with the hue of dark blood, and wherever men turned their eyes heaps of slain met them, they trod upon the bodies of the dead without mercy. Now the sun had risen higher, and when it had finished its course through Leo, and was passing into the house of the heavenly Virgo, scorched the Romans, who were more and more exhausted by hunger and worn out by thirst, as well as distressed by the heavy burden of their armor. Finally our line was broken by the onrushing weight of the barbarians, and since that was the only resort in their last extremity, they took to their heels in disorder as best they could.”


    The Gothic cavalry continued their attack and killing did not end until nightfall. Valens was abandoned by his guards, and when some soldiers tried to retrieve him, they were unsuccessful. His final fate is unknown and his body was never found.

    Ammianus states that a third of the Roman army was able to retreat from the battle, but the losses were substantial. Many officers, among them the general Sebastian, were killed in the worst Roman defeat since the Battle of Edessa, fought 120 years before. Adrianople was a significant blow for the late Empire, resulting in the destruction of the core army of the eastern Empire, the deaths of valuable administrators, and the destruction of all of the arms factories on the Danube following the battle. Despite these losses, the battle did not mark the end of the Roman army because the imperial military power was restored soon after.


    Ultimately, the Romans lost this battle due to their own mistakes: overconfidence, impatience, and poor planning. If Valens had waited for reinforcements, the outcome would probably have been different. His poor planned march left his army exhausted before battle (he didn’t learn the lesson of Trebbia), and weakened their endurance. He paid the ultimate price for his own stupidity.

    The defeat at Adrianople showed that the barbarians, fighting against the Romans, had become powerful adversaries. The Goths, though partly tamed by Valens’ successor Theodosius I, were never again expelled, exterminated, or assimilated. They remained as a distinct entity within the Roman frontier, for a time allies, and then later as victors over the empire.

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    Gambling in Ancient Rome

    December 2nd, 2015

    By Michael Anderson.

    We know man has been fond of gambling since the beginning of civilization, based on the archaeology, but, most likely, he has been gambling since his intellect developed the capacity. What is it that drives the human desire for gratification achieved when you combine game playing with the award of a prize based on chance? Is it the thrill of earnings without labor? Whatever the motivation, gambling remains a popular human pastime across the ages and into the present day.

    In the ancient world, the Romans were inveterate gamblers. All classes participated, from slave to emperor, artisan to Senator. During the time of the Republic, gambling was prohibited except during the festival of the Saturnalia which was held in December of each year. The Saturnalia was a celebration in honor of the Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and, according to Roman myth, there existed a time when Saturn reigned over the earth and provided a bounty for mankind, who lived in a state of innocence. The festival was an attempt to relive that time by turning convention on its head.

    Featured was a day of public revelry followed by two days of private celebration within the Roman household. The private celebrations included a “reverse meal” where slaves dined as their masters, possibly even served by them. Dice playing was permitted as another kind of reversal because that which was normally unlawful was now permitted.

    What were these dice games? Generally there were two types: games with dice only and games with dice and a board containing pieces that were moved by throws of dice. The boards typically had 36 squares with various symbols such as squares, leaves, letters, and crosses marked on them. Three die, identical to the six sided type we use today, were thrown. The luckiest throw was three sixes or eighteen “spots”. Fines were paid or pieces moved backward if the dice thrown showed one or more single dot.

    Outside of the Saturnalia, and despite the official government position, gambling was a daily activity for the Roman people. The ruins of a tavern near the praetorian camp held a sign that said, “Good food and gambling within.” Tables have also been found with wording inscribed on them – “make room for better players.”

    One imagines “loaded” dice being employed by professionals who made a living taking other people’s money and frequent fights must have resulted from attempts at cheating. There is graffiti on a wall in Pompeii where the writer states with pride, “I am skilled enough to win without cheating.” The ruins of a tavern in the same city have a cartoon painted on the floor. In the first picture, two men sitting on chairs with a game board sitting on their knees. The first man says “EXSI” (I am out). He’s thrown the dice. The second man points and says “NON TRIA DV AS EST” (not three points but two). In the second picture, the men are standing up as if to fight over the score, but the tavern keeper steps in. “ITIS FORIS RIXSATIS” (Leave my place if you want to fight).

    Augustus was a joyful gambler and made a practice of playing during all Roman festivals. A letter written to his son-in-law, Tiberius, states “We have passed, my dear Tiberius, the feast of Minerva, in great merriment, gambling every day and warming up to the occasion. Your brother distinguished himself by the great noise he made, and, after all, he did not lose very much, for fortune turned in his favor just as he faced ruination. I have lost thirty thousand sesterces, because, as usual, I was liberal to my guests and partners. Had I taken all that was due to me I would have cleared fifty thousand.”

    After Augustus, the rise of imperial Rome produced a drop in moral standards. Horace states that “the young Roman is no longer devoted to the manly habits of riding and hunting; his skill seems to develop more in the games of chance forbidden by law.” We know of at least three laws forbidding gambling, the most notable being the Lex Talaria, but we don’t know when these laws were passed. We do know, however, that the Roman term for gambling was “Alea” and early, when the pretense of morality mattered, “Aleator” was used to describe a despicable person.

    Laws or no laws, the Roman people played on because nothing could dent the attraction its people had for games of chance.

    From a gender standpoint, women would have been excluded from any gambling activities with men but one can assume the richer ones played in groups like the men did.

    If you’re interested in reading more about women and gambling, check out the following link:

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    The Destruction of Pompeii

    July 8th, 2014


    By Michael Anderson.


    Most of us know the story of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D, when Mount Vesuvius produced the most dangerous of its many eruptions. The result of this particular explosion was the burying of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the point of the two cities being lost for centuries. Some 16,000 died in the catastrophe. The volcano has erupted forty two times since 79 A.D, the last one occurring during World War II on March 18-23, 1944. On that occasion, 70-80 American aircraft were destroyed at a nearby Air Force base.

    On the day of the eruption August 24th, 79 A.D, all was normal in the morning. There had been a series of small earthquakes in the days preceding the event, but they were ignored as normal behavior for the volcano. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the volcano violently exploded throwing a column of ash into the air. It is estimated that this column reached 98,000 feet and ejected ash at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second! The release of ash was followed some twelve hours later by a surge of fast moving lava down the west, south, and east sides of the mountain. These flows may have reached speeds of 450 miles per hour at an average temperature of 1000 degrees, so all living creatures that remained would have been overtaken and killed before they could escape.

    Remarkably, by luck, we have accounts of the incident from reliable historical sources. Both Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were twenty-two miles away across the Bay of Naples when the eruption began. Once he realized what was happening based on a message requesting a rescue, the Elder organized a rescue party and set out for the town of Stabiae, where he and his group stayed overnight. In the morning they were forced to try an escape, but Pliny died during the attempt possibly due to a heart attack. Pliny the Younger declined to join the rescue party, but observed the eruption and wrote about it in a letter to Tacitus.

    Thank you for asking me to send you a description of my uncle’s death so that you can leave an accurate account of it for posterity; I know that immortal fame awaits him if his death is recorded by you.  It is true that he perished in a catastrophe which destroyed the loveliest regions of the earth, a fate shared by whole cities and their people, and one so memorable that is likely to make his name live forever: and he himself wrote a number of books of lasting value: but you write for all time and can still do much to perpetuate his memory.  The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both.  Such a man was my uncle, as his own books and yours will prove.  So you set me a task I would choose for myself, and I am more than willing to start on it.

     My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance.  He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books.  He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. 

    It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can be best expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed.  Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.  My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.

     As he was leaving the house, he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat.  She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero.  He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.  He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. 

    He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them.  Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain.  For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for Pomponianus at Stabiae. He was cut off there by the breadth of the bay (for the shore gradually curves round a basin filled by the sea) so that he was not as yet in danger, though it was clear that this would come nearer as it spread. 

     Pomponianus had therefore already put his belongings on board ship, intending to escape if the contrary wind fell.  This wind was of course full in my uncle’s favor, and he was able to bring his ship in. He embraced his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom.  After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous.

     Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.  My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.  Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door.  By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out. 

    He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.  They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro, as if they were torn from their foundations.  Outside on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter.  In my uncle’s case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears.  As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

     Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp.  My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous.  A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.  Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up.  He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed.  When daylight returned on the 26th—two days after the last day he had seen—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.

     Meanwhile my mother and I were at Misenum, but this is not of any historic interest, and you only wanted to hear about my uncle’s death.  I will say no more, except to add that I have described in detail every incident which I either witnessed myself or heard about immediately after the event, when reports were most likely to be accurate.  It is for you to select what best suits your purpose, for there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.”

    By the evening of the second day the eruption had ended and only a haze remained over the mountain and surrounding territory. The following drawing shows the extent of the debris field caused by the eruption.

    I have a friend who visited Pompeii a month ago. He sent me some photos which I have included here as a slideshow.

    Pompeii Slideshow

    The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was only one of the catastrophes that occurred during the ill-fated two year reign of the Emperor Titus. A year after the Vesuvius eruption there was a large fire in Rome and then the plague visited the region and killed thousands. After the conclusion of the first games at the newly completed Coliseum in Rome, Titus travelled to the Sabine territories to visit a military camp, fell ill with fever and died at age forty-two

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    The Roman Class System and Social Structure

    April 8th, 2014


    By Michael  Anderson.


    At its beginning, Rome was a group of egalitarian tribes living in proximity to each other on the hills surrounding a swamp that would become the Forum. Over time, the population grew steadily as new groups became affiliated, but the three original tribes, Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, stood out as leaders and assumed a position of power over the other groups. They called themselves patricians and gave the name plebian to the other tribes made up of “common” people.

    During the first hundred years of Rome, a status structure evolved into a class structure and then a political system. Those patricians with money or influence rose to the top — one of them became king, while the others acted as advisors through their membership in the Senate. The latter numbered three hundred, one third from each of the three original tribes. The city was divided into voting districts called curia and citizens from these districts were allowed to participate in an assembly, which could pass legislation and elect magistrates. This structure was controlled by the monarchy for about two centuries until 509 B.C, when the king was overthrown and Rome became a Republic. The powers of the king were now divided among three men: two consuls and the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls served as chief magistrates of the Republic and served in office for one year. Each had veto rights over the other to prevent a dangerous accumulation of power. The Pontifex was the religious leader, tasked with predicting the future and making sure the gods were appeased at all times.

    Beneath the political system, an informal system of patrons and clients operated as a shadow class. Patrons protected the interests of their clients, while the clients did favors for their patrons. Favors varied: run a business, organize a group for a specific purpose, or assault a person who had offended the patron were typical examples. Clients were compensated with money or helped with their careers and those plebs who were highly motivated could become wealthy with the help of their patron. Patrons benefitted from the relationship by expanding their authority through the recruitment of new clients who would be loyal to them. This system worked because it benefited both sides and helped appease the interests of those who sought upward mobility. As time went on, a middle class was built by the work of plebeians who became successful at business – merchants, manufacturers, shippers, money lenders, etc.

    From the very beginning of the Republic, there was a conflict of classes – patrician against plebeian. As early as the 490s B.C, the plebs called a general strike to demand additional rights. The granting of these rights was stretched out over two hundred years by a reluctant Senate, although the slow pace helped keep the Republic stable over that period.

    Early protests led to the creation of the tribunate in 494 B.C. (Lex Sacrata) — the first magistracy representing the common people. Ten tribunes were elected for the term of one year with the right to physically and legally protect the plebs from harm caused by the upper class. The next important concession dealt with the publishing of laws, which had been previously kept secret by the upper class. In 449 B.C, the Twelve Tablets were displayed in the Forum as the first published list of rights that applied to all the Roman people.

    Over the next hundred and sixty years, the class struggle was focused on the people’s right to office and their right to make laws. The magistracies in the Republic included tribunes, aediles (managers of public property), questors (treasurers), praetors (judges), censors, and consuls (senior magistrates), and, one by one, these were opened up to the common people. In 367 B.C, one consul was designated for a candidate from the lower class, with censor in 339 B.C and the praetor in 337 following. The watershed event on the legislative side was the passage of Lex Hortensia in 287 B.C. which granted the Concilium Plebis (people’s assembly) the right to pass laws binding on both patricians and plebeians. At last the plebs had reached something close to political parity with the upper class.

    The great sociologist Max Weber used three social categories to describe man’s place in society — status, class, and the power which flows for from them. Furthermore he described three types of class division: propertied, commercial, and social. A propertied class, as you can imagine, is defined solely by ownership of property. A commercial class is defined by one’s success in business as driven by markets. A social class is one with one with mobility that allows the individual free movement upward.

    At the foundation of Rome, the patricians had status based on their control of government, they sat at the top of the propertied class, and they were able to exert power based on their monopoly of government administration and secretive control of the legal system. They did not pursue success in a commercial class (except by proxy) because of their hatred of business. The knights (Equites, or middle class) were originally given status by the monarchy as cavalry in the Roman Army because they had the financial assets to purchase equipment, including horses. Later they rose to the top of the commercial class because they were successful in business and as government bureaucrats. Commercial success allowed them to acquire land and achieve property status. The growing influence of the knights, coupled with the erosion of patrician control over government office and the making of laws, eventually took away patrician power and distributed it among the other classes.

    Oddly, it was the patricians (Sulla and Caesar) who paved the way for the destruction of the Republic. Using their patrician titles as a basis for moral authority, they put power above tradition by introducing the new element of military authority. Control of the army would trump status and class to drive the Republic toward an empire.

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    The Axial Age – Man Becomes a Philosopher

    February 14th, 2014


    By Michael Anderson.


    The Axial Age or Axial Period, as its sometimes called, was the period of antiquity circa 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. characterized by human thought directed toward understanding man’s place in the world. That inquiry sought a moral structure which would explain how man should live his life to achieve happiness and be in balance with the wishes of the gods. The Axial Age was not confined only to the West, but spanned the globe from the Middle East, though India, and included China. It featured individuals such as Plato, Confucius, Buddha, and Jeremiah, whose ideas had a profound influence on the future of religion and philosophy. The fact that these thinkers lived across the globe and emerged at nearly the same period in history suggests that human moral evolution had reached the same point simultaneously, perhaps under the influence of common factors.

    Take a look at the graphic below which shows the timeline of the advent of philosophy/religion across the great cultures.


    We’ve discussed the stages of Greek history many times. Greek philosophy began when its founders sought to explain the universe. Once the universe was placed in a philosophical framework, the Greeks began to think about his place in it. He wondered about the purpose of life, how the universe came into being, and how he could live in harmony with the wishes of the gods. Greek philosophy was built upon the foundation of Plato and Aristotle who represented the idealistic and practical approaches to an understanding of the world.

    Nearly simultaneous with Greek philosophical development was the advent of philosophical systems under Buddha, Confucius, and the Hindu priests who had adapted the ancient Vedic religion to their time. In the middle east, the Jewish religion developed out of the monotheism of Zoroastrianism. In each case, religion was fused with philosophy. The gods were assumed to exist and what remained was for man to decipher their wishes.

    The label Axial Age was first described by the philosopher Karl Jaspers who wrote about the evolution of human thought during the first millennium B.C. Jaspers introduced the concept in a book called The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1968. He considered the Axial Age as unique and one which ushered in the age of human thought. The term Axial is a translation of the German word for pivot, referring to a change in human direction.

    Like any new idea the Axial Age has its proponents and detractors. Let’s delve into that a little further.

    In the previous post, I discussed the book Why the West Rules, by Ian Morris. Morris is supporter of the Axial Period as a change in the direction of human history, although with reservations. I quote from his book: “Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher struggling to make sense of the moral crisis of his day, called the centuries around 500 B.C. the Axial Age…Jaspers portentously declared, ‘Man as we know him today, came into being’”

    Morris has some interesting thoughts on the Greeks and Romans.

    He states:

    “Greece’s real contribution to Axial thought came not from Democrats, but from the critics of Democracy, led by Socrates. Greece, he argued, didn’t need democracies, which merely pooled the ignorance of men who judged everything by appearances; what it needed was men like himself, who knew when it came to the one thing that mattered – the nature of the good – they knew nothing. Only such men could hope to understand the good… through reason, honed in philosophical debate.”

    Of course the beliefs of Socrates were carried forward by his pupil Plato in The Republic and Laws, and Plato’s successor Aristotle in Ethics and Politics.

    Morris doubts whether the philosophical geniuses of the first millennium B.C. guided societies through some type of intellectual barrier. He gives three reasons for this opinion: 1) the Axial Period covered many centuries and is not a sudden event, 2) the most important Axial thinkers came from small communities and were not well known, and 3) since Axial thinking was a reaction against kings and their bureaucrats, its real contribution was in the area of social development, not societal behavior.

    Morris believes that the real engine for the advancement of man was the character of man himself: lazy, greedy, and frightened. Morris believes these are the true characteristics that propel the human race forward and uses the Romans to prove his point.

    “It was a spectacular example of the advantages of backwardness, combining organizational methods pioneered in an older core with military methods honed on a violent frontier. It slaughtered, enslaved, and dispossessed millions; and drove social development forward at an accelerated pace.”

    Another, more adamant, critic of the Axial Period was Antony Black, writing in theReview of Politics, 2008.

    Black disputes any notion of an Axial “Period” because the change was not rapid enough and did not involve a greater number of cultures. He agrees that this period saw an advancement in complex human but wonders if it were merely due to the state of societies of that time – that turmoil was causing a rejection of the status quo and the desire to “invent” a new path forward. A rational view would dictate that power be based on merit instead of birth and that the rich should care for the poor and this intellectualizing of human behavior eventually led to a deepening relationship among members of a society who shared a common belief.

    I find Jaspers’ theory quite interesting. The fact that the tendency to complex human thought sprang up at approximately the same time in human history indicated a common human desire to create philosophical systems which would light the way for man to achieve wisdom. Whether it was a driving force or an incidental attribute of forces already at work, is a matter for future debate.

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    Geography, Personality, and the Fluorescence of Rome

    January 23rd, 2014



    By Mike Anderson.

    If you analyze the great cultures of antiquity, you’d find their success was due to geography and personality — the geography of their physical space and personality of the people in that space. There are countless examples in history where cultures failed to develop when one of these factors was missing. Geography is the obvious contributor because you can measure its influence — living by the sea can foster shipping; flat open land will support farming; and the presence of natural resources can build a business trading that asset. Personality is harder to pin down because it’s intangible. What is it that makes one people motivated enough to drive cultural development and another less so? There are many cases in history where two groups occupied the same space and only one flourished, but we really don’t understand the reasons for this.
    Fluorescence is a term anthropologists use to describe a period of rapid development, when the growth of culture accelerates. Often this growth is economically driven when markets open up for skills or goods. Other times, there is no obvious economic driver and it’s just human effort that pushes things forward. In the case of Mesopotamia, for example, it was technology that triggered the advance. Its fluorescent period began when the technical problems of irrigation farming were resolved and crops could be produced in large quantities.
    In most instances, geography has been the mainspring of cultural development, serving as primary influence over food production, trade, raw materials, migration, and protection from enemies. In this post, however, we’ll present a different story — one that saw personality as the prime mover in building the Roman Republic.

    Rome is located on the eastern side of the Tiber River amongst its famous seven hills.

    It’s latitude is forty one degrees north, slightly south of the position of Chicago in the United States, but unlike Chicago, Rome is blessed with a Mediterranean climate. Rome’s location in ancient times put it eighteen miles from the mouth of the Tiber where the river empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea. More importantly, there was a ford over the Tiber, near the ancient settlements and situated on the crossroads of a trading route, that allowed commerce to the other side of the river. Surrounding the site of Rome was flat farmland featuring rich volcanic soil put down around 10,000 B.C.
    That’s the geographic set up. What about the people?
    From the original settler’s point of view, the site of Rome offered protection from the west via the Tiber and protection at the site from the hills. Two of them, the Capitoline and the Palatine, were quite steep and difficult to climb. Between these hills sat a marshy swamp. There is evidence of settlements in this area dating to 8000 B.C. and by 800 B.C, there were at least two villages: Rumi on the Palatine Hill and Titientes on the Quirinal. The local inhabitants were mostly Latin and Sabine tribes, the latter a spinoff of the Sabine hill people living on the western slopes of the Apennines. Other tribes in the area included Umbrian’s, Samnites, and Oscan’s.
    A “Latin League” was formed in the eighth century, with Rome as a member, to protect the Latin villages from the Etruscans, but over time, as Rome came under control of Etruscan monarchs, it separated itself from its former allies. Etruscan kings ruled Rome from the seventh century through 509 B.C. when they were forcibly expelled, because the Romans wanted to end the monarchy and live under a Republic. The Romans rejected not only the Etruscan king, but the Etruscan philosophy and way of life, co-opting some of its useful cultural elements as they moved on. By this time, the Roman ethnicity was separate from the rest of the Latins.
    There was something about those Roman Latins that made them different; perhaps the time under the yoke of the Etruscans changed their personality, or maybe it evolved on its own. From the very beginning of the Republic, the Romans had a drive that set them apart from their neighbors — a drive to build a Republican political system that would give the people more control than they had under an outsider, and use it to advance their agrarian culture. The idea of a Republic was not unique to Rome because the trend around the Mediterranean was in that direction. Many cultures, including the Greeks, were rejecting the monarchical model, but none of Rome’s neighbors had this inclination and none had the drive to grow and diversify their culture. As Rome grew, the Etruscan time would eclipse. As Rome grew, it would take over the Greek cities. Eventually, that small village of Latins would control Europe!
    The Romans had another trait that set them apart — their engineering mindset. I don’t imagine there has ever been a people on earth with a more structured view of their world and a greater desire to build things. Roads, aqueducts, buildings, army camps, and military discipline are only some examples of the Roman structural view. Oddly, this obsession didn’t leave room for a lot of original thinking. The Romans stole whatever they found interesting in other cultures, including gods, and improved on them. Thinking-wise they were never in a league with the Greeks, but employed them as physicians, educators, and philosophers.
    Let’s revisit geography for a minute. The Romans were agrarians because they had high quality soil and they lived inland away from the sea. It never occurred to them to use the sea for their own purposes until they were forced to deal with Carthage at the beginning of the First Punic War. Still, there was nothing unique in their geography that could ignite a new culture on its own.
    Rome became fluorescent when it first thought of getting rid of the monarch. The Senate and Assembly were already in operation so all that remained was the creation of an administrative magistrate’s role. The healthy agrarian economy would fund the young Republic and take it places its founders could never have imagined, but it was the people and their will that served as the engine.

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    Octavian builds an empire

    December 29th, 2013


    By Michael Anderson.

    In the last post we discussed the careful effort employed by Octavian to rid himself of rivals and take control of the Roman Republic. Now we move on to the building of the Principate, which was significantly more difficult. Many revolutionaries, throughout history, have attested to the difficulty of ruling once the battle is over. Indeed, the skillset is much different between tearing down and ruling. In Octavian’s case, he had to maintain the veneer of the Republic while building an authoritarian state. The fact that he was successful puts him near the top of the list of great politicians of all time.
    Octavian had the savvy to build a political system that could operate successfully, the temperament to rule fairly, and strength of will to fight off threats which could have weakened or destroyed Rome. Sadly, as so often happens in human society, the attributes of a great ruler don’t often get carried forward to his successors. But that’s another story for later.
    Remembering the intolerance of the ruling class for the flaunting of naked power, Octavian sought to disguise his rule under accepted Republican traditions. For the first eight years after Actium (31-23 B.C.), he served as consul using that office as a constitutional basis for power, but half way through that period, he returned control of the state to the Senate and people of Rome —  a brilliant political move which gave the appearance of restoring the ancestral system. At the same time, he was given authority to rule certain provinces, through governors, and the rest of the Roman territory was put under the authority of proconsuls nominated by the Senate. In both cases, the provincial authorities were professional administrators under tight control of Rome rather than greedy political climbers looking to line their pockets.
    Still, Octavian made sure to influence the appointment of those governors and see that “new men” were mixed in with the patricians so that the ancient families would not be able to gain too much influence. He reduced the size of the Senate to 600 and enlarged its powers to include some judicial responsibility. Moreover he transformed the Senate from a political body to an administrative body to assist with the management of the new government.
    Once these changes were put in place, Octavian renamed himself “Augustus” to strengthen his myth and avoid any name or title that would imply a quest for authoritarian power. The association of his new name with the word augurium went to the heart of Roman tradition.
    During these years the Roman Empire continued to expand both in the east and west. Galatia was developed in Asia Minor and western north Africa became a client kingdom. In 23 B.C, Augustus visited Gaul and was helping to direct a campaign in Spain when his weak constitution failed him, he fell ill, and nearly died. Now believing he had to reorganize the governmental structure further, Augustus resigned from his consular posts. But he retained authority over his provinces and had himself granted imperium maius, which placed him above all provincial governors. Augustus was also designated as tribune of the people that same year.
    Both of these titles carried authority without office – novel in the history of Roman governance. During the teens B.C, we see Augustus establishing a civil service for the first time in Roman history. The beneficiaries of this expansion of government were the knights who occupied the position of a middle class – professionals who were willing to do work patricians saw as beneath them but more educated and capable than the plebs. As Max Weber has told us, bureaucracy is a dangerous thing; too structured to be efficient and fundamentally wasteful. Still, bureaucracies are stabilizing forces in society that operate separately from the politics around them. Augustus’ bureaucracy would manage the business of Rome for hundreds of years.
    Augustus’ careful building of the principate had taken about fifteen years to accomplish and the end result was stability in Rome. Still, the difficult problem of succession remained. Augustus had created such a unique title and span of authority that there was no other single person who could fill his position. No one had the qualifications. And on a practical level, he had extreme difficulty lining up an heir. The first candidate, Marcellus, husband of Augustus’ daughter Julia, died in 23 B.C. Nero Drusus, son of Livia, who was probably preferred over his brother Tiberius, died in Germania in 9 B.C. Then after Julia married Agrippa and they had two sons Gaius and Lucius, those boys were seen as successors. But by extraordinary chance, Gaius died in 4 B.C. and Lucius two years later. Now there was no question that Tiberius remained the sole successor so Augustus threw up his hands, adopted him, and made him heir.
    Tiberius would succeed Augustus upon the latter’s death in 14 A.D. and fail to carry out his legacy. He was a sullen personality who would not get on with the Senate and so his years were marked by regression of the Roman political system and a steady march to tyranny. Tiberius indifference to governing coupled with the ruthless methods of his associate Sejanus undid much of what Augustus had accomplished. Should we be surprised?

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    Dissecting Rome’s Second Triumvirate

    December 22nd, 2013

    By Michael Anderson.


    Rome’s first triumvirate was a power grab by Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey who sought to take the power of the Senate and share it among themselves. Crassus, the weakest of the three in political instincts, played an important role by siphoning off enough power to prevent a calamity between Caesar and Pompey. But, after his sudden death in 53 B.C, the six year old agreement became unstable as only Caesar and Pompey were left to fight each other for control of the Republic.

    The second triumvirate, on the other hand, was sanctioned by the Senate as a legitimate source of consular power, because the elders had become too weak to resist anyone who would use military power to threaten them. The end point this time was the triumph of Octavian and the foundation of the imperial state.


    tri 3


    In a certain sense, one would consider Octavian an unlikely candidate for title first emperor of imperial Rome. He grew up in modest circumstances and lost his father at a young age. Moreover, his constitution was weak and he did not have soldiering ability in him. What Octavian lacked in physical ability, he more than made up for in political skill — and his instincts were uncanny.

    Raised by his mother Atia, a niece of Caesar, Octavian drew the attention of his great uncle for unknown reasons and was made his heir without the boy’s knowledge. When Caesar was assassinated, Octavian returned from Illyricum and learned that Caesar’s bequest had made him immensely rich at age nineteen. He courted Anthony but was rebuffed out of jealousy over the boy gaining Caesar’s estate, so Octavian spent the remainder of 44 B.C. paying off Caesar’s legacies out of his inheritance and winning over Caesar’s former troops by leveraging the family connection.

    The Senate eventually outlawed Anthony in favor of the republicans Cassius and Brutus, and when the consular army, accompanied by Octavian, was sent against Anthony in Gaul the latter was defeated. Rebuffed in his request for a consulship, Octavian marched on Rome and the Senate capitulated. Now Cassius and Brutus became the outlaws when their amnesty for killing Caesar was revoked and Antony and Lepidus returned to favor when their sins were forgiven.

    Mark Antony, born in 83 B.C, was a patrician by birth who lived a dissipate lifestyle until a military career presented itself during his 26th year and he found himself proficient at it. His rise was rapid and by 54, Antony had become Caesar’s right hand man and close friend as they served together in Gaul. Following Caesar’s occupation of Rome, Antony served as administrator in Caesar’s absence and was lucky to escape death when Caesar returned and was assassinated. Antony gave the funeral oration for his friend and used the occasion to turn public opinion against the assassins.

    Marcus Aemilianus Lepidus was born to a well-known patrician family in 89 B.C. Praetor in 49 B.C. and consul in 46, Lepidus was named “Master of the Horse” by Caesar in February of 44 B.C. After the assassination of Caesar, Lepidus sided with Antony and was declared to be an enemy of Rome by the Senate.

    So now we have the set up for the second triumvirate: Antony and Lepidus, military men of great skill allied with each other and commanding a large army; Octavian, standing as a formidable opponent with an army, a famous name, and political skills beyond those of his rivals.




    Octavian met Antony and Lepidus on an island in the Remo River near Bononia (Bologna) during October of 43 B.C. Each had legions with him. They agreed to form a triumvirate for five years giving them the authority to make laws and nominate magistrates and governors.

    The agreement became official when the Tribune P. Titius pushed it through the tribal assembly on November 27th. The territories were divided up: Antony taking Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul, Lepidus taking the rest of Gaul and Spain, and Octavian taking Africa, Sicily and Sardinia. The triumvirs agreed that Lepidus would serve as consul in 42 while the others pursued Brutus and Cassius in the east. To provide security and money, they carried out a ruthless proscription which claimed the lives of 300 Senators and 2000 knights, including Cicero. The wealth obtained was partially used to pay off the legionnaires and settle them on confiscated lands.

    As we know from the history, Brutus and Cassius were defeated at Philippi, avenging the murder of Caesar and ending the Republic once and for all. The triumvirs now signed a contract specifying the division of provinces: Antony took all Gaul except Cisalpine; Octavian received Spain, Sardinia, and Africa; and Lepidus received nothing because he was suspected of conspiring with Sextus Pompeius. For the short term, Antony would head east to raise money and Octavian would deal with Sextus Pompeius.

    Between 40 and 37 B.C, there were at least three occasions when the agreement between Octavian and Antony looked like it would fall part, but at the last minute these disputes were resolved and, in 37 B.C, the triumvirate was renewed for another five years. The next year, Octavian was finally able to corner Pompeius in Sicily and defeat him, but, oddly, Lepidus took command of some Pompeian troops and ordered Octavian off the island. As a result, Lepidus was stripped of his powers as a triumvir and retired from public life. Now, as in the case of the first triumvirate, the balancing power was removed. When the triumvirs contract expired at the end of 33, the agreement was not renewed. Antony continued to use the title, but Octavian moved on as consul and son of a god (Caesar had been deified).

    Octavian used Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as more loyal to Egypt than Rome and a traitor to the Republic. This public relations campaign served as a prelude to the sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C, which spelled defeat for Antony and his death along with Cleopatra.

    Octavian had triumphed by guile and calculation. He would utilize those same tools to build an Imperial system that pretended to be Republican.


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