In 58 BC, Roman politics was paralyzed by the coalition of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, known as the First Triumvirate. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, who had successfully climbed the political ranks to reach the level of consul, ...

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Cicero’s On Life and Death [extract]

In this extract from the introduction to Cicero’s On Life and DeathMiriam T. Griffin describes the experiences of Cicero during the reign of the First Triumvirate, his increasing disillusionment with politics, and what led him toward writing about philosophy instead.

In 58 BC, Roman politics was paralyzed by the coalition of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, known as the First Triumvirate. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, who had successfully climbed the political ranks to reach the level of consul, struggled to maintain his independence while on occasion lending reluctant oratorical support to their projects and associates. He also started to put his excess energy, stylistic brilliance, and superabundant vocabulary into philosophy, a new domain for Latin literature. Cicero turned first to rhetorical and political theory, congenial subjects which would keep him before the public as a leading statesman. To this period we owe the monumental dialogues On the Orator and On the Republic. Cicero was to list them, in On Divination II, among his philosophical works, most of which, including those in On Life and Death, were written a decade later. Both dialogues were designed to emulate Plato, the former inspired by his Gorgias, the latter by his Republic. On the Laws, meant to recall another Platonic dialogue, was left incomplete a few years later. Despite their titles, both political works are distant from abstract Platonic thought, and On the Orator and On the Republic, though set in the past, are firmly rooted in contemporary concerns at Rome.

As the end of the fifties BC approached, the coalition that had been dominating political life began to crumble. Cicero did what he could to avert civil war, but when war came, he felt he must follow Pompey to the east. After the defeat at Pharsalus in August of 48 BC, Cicero abandoned an active role in the war. Although indifferent to Caesar’s reforms, believing that the Roman Republic was the perfect system of government, he was sufficiently moved by Caesar’s clemency towards his virulent opponent Marcus Claudius Marcellus, to speak appreciatively of the Dictator in autumn 46 before the senate. Combining flattery with advice and admonition, the later published speech On Behalf of Marcellus is the father of all the imperial panegyrics, starting with Seneca’s admonitory praise of Nero in De Clementia.

When news of Pompey’s death arrived, Caesar had been made dictator and could make peace and war on his own initiative. In retrospect, Cicero was to say that “once a single man came to dominate everything, there was no longer any room for consultation or for personal authority, and finally I lost my allies in preserving the republic, excellent men as they were.” He returned to philosophy, writing copious works in many of which he celebrated those excellent men.

"Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Half of 1st century AD" by Glauco92. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
“Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Half of 1st century AD” by Glauco92. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

In his preface to the second book of On Divination, Cicero discusses his motives for writing about philosophy: the need for a substitute for political to the Republic, and the intellectual challenge of rendering Greek philosophy in elegant Latin. His response to these needs would lead him, he hoped, to increase the glory of Latin literature himself and to encourage contributions from others, as well as to develop a practical ethics for his peers, especially the young.

In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero is more emphatic about his aims than elsewhere. If in On Divination he looked forward to the Roman people being independent of Greek writers in the study of philosophy, here he insists on Roman ability to excel the Greeks as they have in other branches of literature, defends the Latin language as an instrument for writing philosophy, and casts himself in the role of teacher of the young. There is, however, another motive which Cicero mentions in other works as well, but which dominates this work, albeit in a less explicit way. That is Cicero’s recent bereavement. In January of 45 his beloved only daughter Tullia gave birth to a son in Cicero’s house in Rome. She was then moved to his villa at Tusculum where, in the middle of February, she died, apparently of complications in the birth. Her child lived only a few months. Cicero felt that he had fought bravely against fortune in the past but was now wholly defeated: the attacks of his enemies, his humiliating exile, had been easier to bear than this. As he wrote to Atticus, “For a long time it has been my part to mourn our liberties and I did so, but less intensely because I had a source of comfort.” He read every work on consolation he and Atticus possessed, but the grief was stronger than any solace they could offer. And so, in the solitude of his villa at Astura, Cicero began writing his own Consolation to himself. He collected examples and other material throughout March “and threw them into one attempt at consolation; for my soul was in a bruised and swollen state, and I tried every means of curing its condition,” as he wrote later in the Tusculan Disputations. He knew that he was going against the advice of the Stoic Chrysippus, among others, not to try to apply remedies to fresh bruises. He found writing a distraction but was interrupted by fits of weeping. He insists to Atticus, who agreed with others that he should return to Rome and his old activities, that he is a changed person: “the things you liked in me are gone for good.” The Consolation “reduced the outward show of grief; grief itself I could not reduce, and would not if I could.”

Featured image credit: “Colosseum” by The_Double_A. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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Fighting for Athens: the Battle of Marathon [excerpt]

The Battle of Marathon (490 BC) was the height of Persia’s first attempt to subjugate Greece. Athenian soldiers met Spartan ships near the town of Marathon, and—despite being outnumbered—drove Persia’s army out of Greece for ten years.

In this excerpt from The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece, Jennifer Roberts describes what it was like to fight in the Battle of Marathon.

It was [the democratic state of Athens] that confronted the full wrath of Darius [the king of the Persian Empire] on the plain of Marathon. It was also an Athens filled with the same brand of trained soldiers to be found elsewhere in Greece: the hoplite. Starting with the rise of the polis, the Greeks— not just the Athenians— developed a fighting formation known as the hoplite phalanx. The fully evolved phalanx was custom­arily eight rows deep and ideally contained soldiers fitted out with the full hoplite panoply, each standing several feet from the next; of course, some less affluent soldiers could not afford a full panoply and were not as well armed offensively or defensively as their comrades. Customarily a hoplite soldier would carry a spear, usually about seven to nine feet long— maybe as much as ten— and a short slashing sword with a blade of some two feet, encased in a wooden scabbard covered in leather. He was well protected against the sharp points aimed at him by unfriendly soldiers on the opposing side.

His name came from his hoplon, a round concave shield about three feet in diameter made of wood faced with bronze and frequently emblazoned with vivid designs, sometimes from myth— though Spartans had their shields marked with the letter lambda, the first letter in Lacedaemon (the official name for the Spartan state). Because of its size, the hoplon was often quite heavy, sometimes nearly twenty pounds, and some soldiers even added a leather flap to the bot­tom to protect their legs, increasing the weight of the panoply still fur­ther. Additional weight was added by a cuirass, greaves, and helmet, all designed to be strong and to cover large areas of the body.

Reenactors at the Battle of Marathon reenactment, September 2011, Marathon, Greece. “Marathon’s Best” by Phokion. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Helmets varied widely in design and often had horsehair plumes, which made the soldier look not only more imposing but literally taller; both Greeks and Romans, neither of them a tall race, regularly wore headgear in battle to compensate for their shortness of stature (not that the plumes made them any taller than their enemies, who were generally short men in tall plumes as well). As the armor was not customarily gov­ernment issue, however, quality of defensive armor varied in proportion to the financial circumstances of the individual soldier; some cuirasses were made not of metal but of various layers of linen or canvas, and for many men a horsehair helmet was out of the question. The full panoply in all its glory probably cost as much as a mid- price automobile today.

Most important to this style of fighting was the hoplon, for since the soldier gripped it with his left arm only, each hoplite would have every incentive to stick close by the soldier to his right and not cut and run. It was the design of the hoplite shield that made the phalanx, and in many ways the phalanx shaped the evolving middle class in the many city- states of Greece: it required solidarity, and it was open only to those who could afford the weaponry. Though Sparta, with its unique social structure, did not have a middle class, it certainly had hoplites in abun­dance, and to these men the state probably provided arms and armor. With the Persians bearing down on them, the Athenians indeed sent to the Spartans for aid. But the Spartans, an exceptionally religious peo­ple, were celebrating the festival of the Carnea in honor of Apollo and responded that their army could not march until the full moon. So the Athenians faced the Persians at Marathon with only a small contingent from their nearby ally Plataea to back them up. While the Persian force was more versatile, with its cavalry and archers, the Greek hoplites fought in heavy armor and disciplined formation in defense of their own land. According to Herodotus, of their ten generals it was Miltiades who con­vinced the Athenians after several days of waiting in a strong position on a hill, looking down at the Persians who outnumbered them mightily, that they had best not wait any longer, since there was disaffection in the city and any further delay might induce many back in Athens to go over to the Persians. A relative of Thucydides, the persuasive Miltiades went down in history as the hero of this great battle.

Hoplite battle was terrifying under the best of circumstances— the difficulty of seeing through the helmet, the insufferable heat inside the armor (quite possibly complicated by the hot urine and excrement of the petrified soldier), the clanging of weapons, the slippery ground soaked with blood, the choking dust everywhere, the groans of the dead and the dying. And with such a slim chance of victory…. Yet in the end, those Greeks who were convinced that they were literally throwing themselves into the valley of death were mistaken. Knowing they were outnumbered, their commanders had intentionally left their center thin, concentrating all their strength on the wings. Their heavier armor and longer spears stood them in good stead, and though the Persians broke through their center as expected, the Greeks succeeded in routing them on their wings. Fleeing to their ships, many of the Persians drowned flailing about in the marshes. It would be hard to say who was more sur­prised by the Greek triumph, the Greeks or the Persians.

Featured image credit: Image extracted from page 060 of volume 2 of Herodotus. The text of Canon Rawlinson’s translation, with the notes abridged by A. J. Grant, Historian. Original held and digitized by the British Library.  Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Philosopher of the Month: Socrates

This March, the OUP Philosophy team honors Socrates (470-399 BC) as their Philosopher of the Month. As elusive as he is a groundbreaking figure in the history of philosophy, this Athenian thinker is perhaps best known as the mentor of Plato and the developer of the Socratic method. Although Socrates wrote nothing himself and thus remains to some degree mysterious, sources including Plato, Xenophon, and a comedy by Aristophanes in which Socrates is a central character, inform our modern understanding of his life and work.

Socrates was born in Athens, where he spent most of his life. His parents were Sophroniscus, a stonemason, and Phaenarete, a midwife. With his wife, Xanthippe, Socrates had three sons. While little is known of the first half of his life, Socrates grew to become a recognizable public figure, appearing in several popular plays and poems as an eccentric character with a loquacious persona who is often seen walking barefoot. Socrates was known to have served with distinction as a heavy infantryman in the Peloponnesian War, and Plato reports that he was present at the siege of Potidaea on the Aegean coast. Noted for his endurance, Socrates reportedly stood for 24 hours in motionless contemplation. In 400 or 399 BC, Socrates was arrested in Athens and charged with corrupting the youth, not recognizing the gods of the city, and introducing new divinities. With no record of the trial, it is impossible to infer on what grounds the accusations were made, and to what conduct on the part of Socrates they refer. After a trial produced a guilty verdict, Socrates was sentenced to death by suicide.

Because Socrates left no written record of his philosophy behind, it is challenging to ascertain which doctrines, if any, he actually held—a question which has been the source of scholarly deliberation for centuries. What is known of his actual beliefs comes to us through representations (the historical accuracy of which is a matter of debate) of the character of Socrates in the works of Plato and Xenophon. Both represent Socrates as having an interest in inductive reasoning and general definitions, and both attribute to him the idea that virtue is knowledge or wisdom. According to Plato, Socrates denies possession of either, but does in some dialogues offer moral insight.

Scholar Peter Adamson, in his podcast series, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, devotes an entire episode on separating Socratic fact from fiction with his colleague, Rapahel Woolf.


Absent the influence of Socrates, it is possible that Plato would have become a statesman rather than a philosopher—inconceivably altering the landscape of western philosophy. Successive generations of thinkers have shaped their own unique portrayals of him, from the asceticism of the Cynics, to the Enlightenment’s image of Socrates the rationalistic martyr. And so, in the spirit of the Socratic method, we invite you to answer: who was Socrates? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter using the hashtag #philsopherotm.

Featured image: David – The Death of Socrates. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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Ancient legal papyri bring lost world to life

Everyone has heard of the ancient Jewish religious scrolls discovered at Qumran by the Dead Sea in the middle of the 20th century. But who is aware that nearly 100 legal papyri have been found in the same region, or that they allow unparalleled access to the ancient social world of Judea and Nabatea in the period 100 BCE to 200 CE?

Then, as now, you went to a lawyer (‘scribe’ to use their term) when you had a big problem or a big opportunity in your life. Legal papyri concern issues that mattered. And then, as now, it was in the parties’ interest to make sure that they stated they facts accurately; with these documents there are no issues of literary genre or religious belief to obscure our interpretation of the data. Yet the scholarship these papyri has attracted so far focuses almost entirely on their legal dimensions.

In the early 1950s members of the Ta’amireh bedouin tribe began turning up at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem to sell legal papyri, some of them in Nabatean Aramaic. This prompted expeditions to find the source or sources of these documents.

There was early success by a team at Wadi Murabba‘at in 1952. But in March 1961 a member of a team led by Yigael Yadin exploring a cave high in a cliff face in Wadi Hever hit the jackpot. A stone rocking under his foot disclosed the cunningly concealed hiding place in which a Jewish woman Babatha, daughter of Shim‘on, had hidden some of her personal possessions and a leather sachel containing her archive of 35 legal papyri. She had been hiding in the cave with other Jewish fugitives from the Romans at the end of the Bar Kokha revolt from 132-135 CE.

Barkokhba-silver-tetradrachm. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Romans, who had built a camp on the plateau directly above the cave, must have captured Babatha and her companions and either killed or enslaved them. Other objects were found in the cave, including a cache of beautiful bronze vessels (see Image 2) and letters from Bar Kokhba himself, for which reason it is called ‘the Cave of the Letters.

Bronze Bowls found in Wadi Hever. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

These 35 papyri tell us so much about Babatha and her family by birth and marriage that we now know more about her than any other Jewish woman from antiquity. The Greek papyri from the archive were published in 1989 and those written in Jewish or Nabatean Aramaic in 2002.

The oldest four of the papyri (P. Yadin 1 from 94 CE and P. Yadin 2, 3, and 4 from 99 CE) are written in Nabatean Aramaic, the first by one scribe and the other three by his brother. It has long been recognised that P. Yadin 2 and 3 relate to the sale of a date-palm orchard in the Nabatean town of Maoza, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea in 99 CE by its owner, the Nabatean woman ’Abi-‘adan. She first sold the orchard to one Archelaus, a Nabatean strategos, virtually a provincial governor, and then, just one month later she sold an enlarged version to Babatha’s father, Shim‘on. Bringing P. Yadin 1 and 4 into the picture allows the intriguing story of the purchase to be told.

Shim‘on must have given the orchard to Babatha later (perhaps on the occasion of her marriage) because she registered it among her property in the Roman census in 127 CE of what had then become (since 106 CE) the province of Arabia. Her registration document (P. Yadin 16) is very well preserved.

Babatha’s registration of property document for the Roman census of Arabia in 127 CC-PD-Mark via wikicommons

These documents proffer pervasive evidence for the importance of date cultivation in the local economy. Extensive irrigation systems, well within the capacities of Nabatean hydraulic engineering, were required to be installed and maintained to keep the thirsty date-palms watered. Dates kept well, had a high food value (then as now being used by nomads moving across the desert) and attracted a good price. There was also date cultivation at En-Gedi, on the western side of the Dead Sea, again, in irrigated fields. Many other papyri from the region are agricultural in nature, especially in recording sales or leases of farm-land.

Yet date cultivation was clearly a precarious business. Large fortunes could be won by engaging in it, but so too could they be lost. Nabatean men seem regularly to have borrowed from their wives to finance their involvement in this form of agriculture. Such loans were secured against the husbands’ property and the deeds gave wives ample power to foreclose if necessary. After her second husband died owing her a large sum of money, Babatha seized dates from orchards of his and was then sued by the children of his first marriage to stop her. Her wedding contract with her second husband, which he himself drafted, is P. Yadin 10.

Another aspect of the social and economic unit that was Maoza in 99 CE illuminated by these four papyri is the good relationship existing between Shim‘on and his Nabatean neighbours. He is indeed the only Jew mentioned among a large crowd of Nabateans who were parties to the deeds, relatives of those parties, witnesses and scribes. Yet we see him not only entering into a transaction with a Nabatean woman, without requiring any Jewish witnesses, but also securing help in his acquisition from a Nabatean strategos no less. Archaeological evidence suggests that people living in this region at the end of first century CE wore the same clothes and were buried in the same way. There was a shared culture even if Jewish and Nabatean Aramaic were somewhat different, with the latter having a heavy infusion of Arabic words.

When relations between various ethnic and religious groups in this region are so fraught today, it is salutary to consider another historical setting, such as Maoza in 99 CE, when relationships across the two main ethnic groups were demonstrably positive.

Featured image credit: ‘Dead Sea Landscape’. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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Cicero’s Defence Speeches: an audio guide

In this audio guide to Cicero’s Defence Speeches, Dominic Berry, senior lecturer in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh University and the translator of this volume, introduces Cicero and his world. Berry discusses oratory in Ancient Rome, Cicero’s background and career, the Roman legal system – and how he selected the speeches for this book.

Cicero (106-43 BC) was the greatest orator of the ancient world: he dominated the Roman courts, usually appearing for the defence. His speeches are masterpieces of persuasion: compellingly written, emotionally powerful, and sometimes hilariously funny.

Cicero’s clients were rarely whiter-than-white, but so seductive is his rhetoric that the reader cannot help taking his side. In this audio guide, we are plunged into some of the most exciting courtroom dramas of all time. Listen to this audio guide to learn more.

Featured image credit: “Italy” by DomyD. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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