The Romans and the Space Shuttle

WHAT HAVE THE ROMANS DONE FOR … the Space Shuttle?  Well, does the statement, “We’ve always done it that way” ring any bells?

Back in the Victorian days in England, engineers built train tracks a standard 4 feet, 8.5 inches (143.5 centimetres) apart – called the gauge.  They were simply following the pattern of the previous tramway tracks, which, in turn, were following the old wagon width spacing between wheels. Why? Because they were all using the same old tooling that had existed back in the days of wagon transportation.


Old British tram (on 4 ft 8.5 ins track)


English railway track – 4 feet, 8.5 inches (143.5 centimetres) apart

So why were these wagon measurement so odd? Well, wagons used that particular wheel spacing because it fitted already existing ruts in the roads and any other size could cause damage to the wagons and discomfort to any passengers .


Wagon chassis (4 ft 8.5 ins wheel track)

So where did those existing ruts come from,  I hear you ask?  Ancient Rome, I answer. The Romans built very good roads to assist the movement of their legions which used chariots and wagons. These roads were not limited to Rome but spread throughout the Empire, including Great Britain. Some of these road were still being used in Victorian England along with their Roman wheel ruts. And what was that wheel spacing of these ancient ruts?   4 feet, 8.5 inches, of course.


Roman chariot road tracks (4 ft 8.5 ins apart) 

Now in the United States of America it was the English who designed the railways and they use their own ‘tried and tested’ system involving the 4 feet, 8.5 inch gauge of track. So the United States standard railroad track is also based on the original specifications for an Ancient Roman chariot.


And bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the  Roman chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two horses – which happens to be 4 feet, 8.5 inches.


One half of the factor

What has this got to do with the Space Shuttle, you are wondering?

A Space Shuttle has two big solid rocket boosters (SRBs) attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.  These SRBs are made in Utah, USA, and had to be transported by rail to the launch site in Florida. The railroad line runs through several tunnels in the mountains over this route and, of course, the SRBs had to fit through those tunnels.  As the tunnels are only slightly wider than the railroad track, the SRBs have to be the size of the track, which is ….. as wide as two horses’ backsides.


SRBs ether side of the Space Shuttle main fuel tank

So, there you have it – part of one of the most advanced means of transport in the world today has a design factor based on Ancient Roman travel several hundred years ago and featuring a consideration of two horses’ backsides.


Next week: Kit Carson in the Wild West



FOLLOWING ON from Socrates last week, let’s have a brief look at one of his students, Plato.

Plato was born of an Athenian aristocratic family and his philosophy was a continuation of the theories of Socrates. In fact, Socrates was used by Plato as the main participant in his early dialogues and it is not always certain whether it is Plato’s or Socrates’ thoughts that are quoted (as they everything Socrates allegedly said was written down by Plato – but you knew that from last week). They were more likely developments of Socrates’ views.


Plato (427-347 BC)

Plato’s best known work is his Republic which is based on his idea of justice. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune and it involves the idea to act rightly in one’s own dealings with others – social virtue of ‘par excellence’ – or, perhaps, ‘morality’.  Plato considered a just man will not harm anyone, in any sense. Justice was a virtue that regulated our relationship with others and we will be judged on that relationship.


“We believe in Justice”

In The Republic, Plato attempted to find a solution to Socrates’ theory that nobody willingly does wrong. He divided the mind or soul into two parts which could be in conflict with each other, to create a balance. In other words, one part of the mind knew good but it may not be able to control the other part of the mind. He clarified this by saying that, in effect, self-controlled people are those whose sense of reason was in control of their desires. However, not all people had this self-control: they may know what was good, by their reason, but their baser desires seek something else under the misapprehension that it was good. That baser desire defeated the reason and a bad action or vice was the result rather than virtue.

self control

Another theory

Plato developed the ideal within the soul and then divided it into three parts:

(i)  Reason – which is wisdom, the rational part.

(ii) Spirit – which is courage, the emotional part.

(iii) Temperance – which is harmony and justice.

One must come to terms with all three factors within oneself to discover true virtue. He regarded it as a form of physical health without which life was meaningless as it was without psychological order.  These three factors were the underlying properties essential for the possession of virtues in Plato’s mind. They were natural to a healthy existence and he suggested that goodness was the health and harmony of the personality – being that justice in society was a harmonious relationship between the classes.


Still with me?

Here he compared the three factors with the Polis or city state – showing how one could live in harmony with oneself in a similar manner as within the city state:

  • the guardian class of the state was wisdom
  • the military class or auxiliaries were the trained soldiers and therefore courageous and with spirit
  • the economic working class helped balance the temperance.

The idea of splitting the soul into three parts was to prevent a single soul running away with the mere satisfaction of immediate desires, as opposed to the idea of complete happiness which could be achieved by considering all three factors. This would allow true harmony in life and this harmony was relative to one’s knowledge of oneself and one’s world.    Get it?


Plato was responsible for the establishment of his ‘Academy’ (Academeia), which concentrated on the teaching of mathematics (from the work of Pythagoras) and philosophy.  Science was rejected and logic took its place.  His historical interest was very limited, having little time for the likes of Miltiades, Themistocles or Pericles (Athenian statesmen). He was more concerned with law and order (see his Republic and Laws) than in the actual politics of Athens. Democracy was not something he accepted (nor did his pupil, Aristotle) as he considered it irresponsible, believing that the state should not be ruled by amateurs, but by a smaller and more intellectual group, who would be groomed from birth, and whose laws would be Forms or Ideas created through their contemplation of life or intuition – an intellectual oligarchy (hence his idea of a three-part city state or Polis mentioned above).


Plato’s ‘Academy’ rejected science for maths and logic

Okay, that’s enough classical culture for the moment


NOW A BIT of classical culture for you for a couple of weeks – Socrates and Plato. Come back … you may find it interesting.

Okay, so what was Socrates all about?  Well, he did not spend his whole life considering philosophy. He was originally a sculptor and did not avoid his duties as a soldier.  However, he was, from an early age, interested in philosophy and listened to many eminent personnel. Physics was his first learning but he could see no future in it and it soon made way for ethics and virtue.

socrates sculptr

Socrates was originally a sculptor

Socrates did not take to writing down his thoughts for posterity. What is believed to be his theories stem from the writings of Plato (talk about him next week) and we understand that he (Socrates) considered that wisdom was the main virtue of life.  Wisdom was a major factor in being able to live a good and happy life as, by its very nature, it was able to distinguish between good and bad. In this respect, wisdom included knowledge. Socrates suggested that wrong actions damaged the soul and so by knowing an action was wrong but still proceeding with it, the transgressor would knowingly damage his soul. As no-one wanted to damage his soul, no-one would willingly do wrong. Therefore, if someone did wrong he must be ignorant and lacked virtue.  Simple.

Socrates (470/469 – 399 BC)

The problem with this theory was that there were few teachers of knowledge.  So who had the knowledge to teach and of what? Socrates believed the he, himself, could not teach as he knew that he knew nothing – meaning in the sphere in which he was searching.  Knowledge, here, is episteme, which is science. In Plato’s works, Socrates never directly answered any question put to him; he would confront it with questions and criticisms of his own, allowing the enquirer to come to his own conclusion.  If nothing else, Socrates was clear in his ability to be vague and non-committal (I know a few people like that today). The manner in which he was able to demonstrate the lack of knowledge of his enquirer (according to Plato), particularly with regard to their ideal of life and the gods, was to gain him many enemies who believed him to be opposing the basics of religion and morality.


“I know no wrong …. but then I know nothing”

The next best thing to knowledge, according to Socrates, was opinion – which was susceptible to change. This was a virtue in itself, provided it was accompanied by the knowledge that it was only an opinion. An opinion without this awareness was ignorance. Socrates wanted his pupils to think for themselves. His ideal of morality was based on the individual’s own conscience rather than the will of the state. He influenced the noble and the distinguished, particularly those who sometimes confused their conscience with ideals of power and glory, ideals that conflicted with the traditional virtues of the polis (city state). Unfortunately, this was to cause his downfall. In 399 BC, he was charged, found guilty, and sentenced to death for injuring the city and corrupting the young. It is almost certain that this was partly due to his association with Alcibiades and Critias (he was their teacher), who were out of favour in Athens and he was to blame for their radical and anti-Athenian attitudes.


Remember ‘Alcibiades the Lad’ (see post May 10, 2015)

Socrates could well have saved himself. He was given an opportunity to reduce his death sentence to a large fine but such oratory was beneath him. He would have to have accepted that he was wrong which he refused to do. He was convinced that he was the people’s greatest benefactor and he deserved honour not death and, least of all, the need to beg for life.  Also, as the sentence was deferred for a month due to the festival of Delos, he had an opportunity to escape as he still had influential and wealthy friends. He chose to await his death as to plead for his life or run from his persecutors would be most dishonourable for a man such as himself.


Death of Socrates (by Jaques Louis David, 1787)

Next week: Plato

The Iliad in print

IF YOU HAVE READ some of my previous posts on Homer and/or Troy you will know the Iliad. If you haven’t, you may still know the Iliad. Anyway, it’s Homer’s epic poem on the Trojan War (well, a short time towards the end, terminating with the death of the Trojan Prince, Hektor, at the hands of the Greek hero, Achilles).


Homer was an oral poet composing his epic tale around the 8th century BC about a war possibly taking place around the 13th century BC (see my post, ‘Troy: Hollywood fact of fiction?’ July 21, 2014). He followed it up with the Odyssey which tells of the lengthy return home  from the war by Odysseus, another Greek hero.



As an oral poet, Homer did not write down his words of wisdom, but sang them as a form of entertainment. The Iliad was possibly first written down by order of the Athenian tyrant, Peisistratus, in the 6th century BC (but the ‘jury is still out’ on that).  In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great carried a copy of the Iliad with him wherever he travelled as he likened himself to the (almost) invincible warrior, Achilles (modest or what?).

Alexander the Modest (356-323 BC)

One of the earliest records of the work is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is on a 2nd century AD Egyptian papyrus found by William Flinders Petrie in 1888 in a tomb of a female mummy in the cemetery of Hawara in Fayum, Egypt. It is in fragments and is the ‘catalogue of ships’ from Book 2 of the poem. It would have been a continuous scroll of about 30 ft in length.

papThe fragments of papyrus of the Iliad in the Bodleian Library

pap ach  pap ek

earliest record of Hektor                                                      and Achilles

Over the years some 1,550 Homeric fragments on papyrus have been found.


The Iliad on the the Oxyrhynchus Papyri III (Egypt, 2nd century AD)

The Iliad was first printed in 1488 in Florence, and the first 10 books (of 24) were first translated into English in 1581 by Arthur Hall.  He translated it, not from the original Greek, but from a French version by Hugues Salel published in 1555. However, the first celebrated translator of the whole of Homer’s Iliad into English was George Chapman (1559/60–1634).

Now, you cannot buy a papyrus version (no surprises there) but the later printed copies are available occasionally – if you have enough money! As I write you can have a rebound 1611 edition of Chapman’s translation printed by Richard Field for Nathaniel Butter for £40,000 ($64,230); or a rebound 1497 second edition of Lorenzo Valla’s Latin prose translation at a bargain £18,500 ($29,700).

iliad eng 1611       iliad 1497

1611 edition                                                                       1497 edition

Alternatively, you can by a modern paperback version on Amazon for £6.99 ($10.78).


 Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I have discovered another volume of Artemus’ notebooks (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction). Here is another extract:

I was given the opportunity of travelling the country with my talk on the Bronze Age of Mycenae. It was a standard talk but informative. My driver, Clarence, always accompanied me. One morning he said, “Do you know I have listened to your talk so many times I reckon I could give it just as well.”

“Right,” I said, thinking cheeky fellow, “tonight we’ll swap roles, you give the talk and I’ll drive.”  He agreed.

I called my old friend, Rolo [Prof Rolande Circumspeque], who I knew would be in the audience that night and gave him a complex and unexplainable question to ask Clarence at the end.  I was determined to the catch the blighter out.

That evening I drove Clarence to the lecture theatre and sat myself at the back.

Indeed he gave the talk without missing a beat, almost word-for-word as I had done it on so many occasions before. Then the questions. Rolo put up his hand and put the ‘complex and unexplainable question’ to him.

Clarence hardly stopped for thought. He looked at Rolo, smiled and said, “Ah, that is such an easy question that even my driver would know the answer, and to prove it I’m going to ask him to come down from the back and respond.”


Alcibiades the Lad

MOVING ON from the 300 Spartans (a couple of posts back), I thought you might be interested in a resourceful, not to mention ambitious, chap called Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles (see 300 Spartan post). He was an ancient Athenian, who was a prolific general during the Peloponnesian War (between Athens and Sparta) which followed the Persian invasion of Greece and the 300 Spartan defence at Thermopylae. What we know of this three-phase war was written by the Athenian historian, Thucydides, whilst he was in exile in Sparta (for his failing in the first phase of the war).

Thucydides (460-395 BC)

Alcibiades came to one’s notice in the second phase of the war – the Sicilian expedition. He was keen to invade Sicily as he considered it easy prey. Syracuse (eastern Sicily) was exerting its power and was threatening Segesta (western Sicily), who was at war with Selinus (southeast Sicily), an ally of Syracuse. Segestia called to Athens for help, warning the Athenians that if Syracuse overran Segesta it would soon rule Sicily and ally with Sparta (fellow Dorians).  However unlikely, it gave Athens ‘food for thought’ that assisted Alcibiades in his cause for war (and glory). The cautious Athenian general, Nicias, was against the war. He considered it unnecessary to seek another conflict (after the first phase of the war) and asked how a government could work successfully so far away; how a revolution could be controlled; and how an army could be sent such a distant with an antagonistic Sparta already on the doorstep? He added that there was no danger from the Sicilians and so why provoke it. The money could be better utilised on home improvements.  Sensible chap.

Bust Alcibiades Musei Capitolini MC1160.jpg

Alcibiades (450-404 BC)

The assembly was swayed by Alcibiades and, with fellow generals, Nicias and Lamachus, preparations were made for the expedition.  However, each had a different plan of attack. Nicias simply wanted to make a show of strength and scare the enemy but there was little point in this idea as it would achieve nothing (basically boring).  Lamachus felt an outright attack on Syracuse to be more appropriate, particularly while Athenian morale was high. In principle, this was a good plan but it was discarded because there was no base from which to moor the ships and gather supplies. Alcibiades suggested that the most sensible way to defeat Syracuse was to incite riot with other cities and gain Messana (northeast coast of Sicily) as an ally.  Lamachus was persuaded to support this notion and so it won the vote.  Unfortunately, it gave Syracuse an opportunity to prepare itself, although, initially, it did not really believe Athens would embark upon such a venture (probably a pretty sensible belief even if to prove false).

Nicias (470-413 BC)

In 415 BC, a force of one hundred and thirty ships and thirty thousand men set sail for Rhegium, in southern Italy. However, immediately prior to the departure certain statues of Hermes were mutilated.  Alcibiades, with his reputation of indifference to the gods, was blamed and recalled to Athens for trial. This left a very shy and unimaginative Nicias in command, with only Segestians as allies.  Realising he had no support in Athens (all his democrats were with him on the expedition), Alcibiades eluded his escort and fled to Sparta (possibly by invitation from the already exiled Athenian historian, Thucydides).

Sicily during the Peloponnesian War

Syracuse sought Spartan assistance against Athens. The Spartans turned to Alcibiades for his opinion (well, why not!).  He commented that Athens was looking to conquer Sicily, Italy and then Carthage, followed by the rest of the Greek world. He suggested that a force should be sent to assist Syracuse, otherwise it would be lost when reinforcements arrived from Athens. King Agis of Sparta sent Gylippus to Syracuse in 414 BC.

Cutting a longish story short, Lamachus was killed and, basically, Nicia messed up and the Athenians suffered an embarrassing defeat in Sicily (Nicias was executed by the Sicilian mobsters despite protests from Gylippus). This led to the third and final phase of the Peloponnesian War, called the Ionian war – because it took place in Ionia (west coast of Asia Minor aka Turkey), which skirted the Persian Empire.

Possibly King Agis of Sparta (reigned 427-401 BC)

In 413 BC, following Alcibiades’ advice, Agis occupied Decelea, north of Athens. This caused the closure of the Athenian silver mines of Laurium and the corn route from Euboea. This loss of silver and the drop in tributes from the Aegean cities meant that Athens was in serious financial difficulties, particularly as it needed to rebuild its fleet and pay its crews. Sparta realised that the only way to finish off Athens was at sea as this had been the main Athenian lifeline in the past. Sparta attempted to build a fleet of its own but even with the help of its allies it was still short on resources and so it turned to Persia. Family squabbles had weakened Persia and its king, Darius II, had left Asia Minor in the hands of his satraps, Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, who were seeking repossession of the Ionian cities lost after the invasion. In Sparta, Alcibiades was not receiving the honour he believed due to him and decided to join Tissaphernes, in Sardis, on the pretence of an alliance with Sparta (although there was a rumour that he had been indiscreet with the wife of Agis and considered it prudent to make haste from Sparta – sounds like Alc). Tissaphernes did agree to contribute finances for ships and a Phoenician fleet in return for Spartan assistance in recapturing the Ionian states. However, he was very casual with the payments and the Phoenician fleet only sailed as far as Crete.  Although Tissaphernes was intent on an Athenian defeat, he did not wish for a completely victorious Sparta for fear that it became too ambitious and a threat to Persia. On Alcibiades’ advice, Tissaphernes chose to sit back and let the Greeks wear each other down. Cutting another longish story short, this is exactly what they did and Athens suffered the most.

Map of the Peloponnesian War (436-404 BC) (Sardis is just east of Ephesus)

In Sardis, Alcibiades suggested that Tissaphernes should support the now weaker Athenians, reminding him of the danger of an ambitious Sparta growing in strength. It is unlikely that Tissaphernes would have supported Athens as he knew it too was ambitious and he could have as much trouble with the Athenians as he could with the Spartans. It was his intention to continue to play the two sides off with each other. It would appear that Alcibiades was trying to regain favour in Athens. Then, in 410 BC, Sparta attempted to regain the Propontis (Sea of Marmara east of the Hellespont) but, on the arrival of Alcibiades, the Spartan fleet was overcome at the battle of Cyzicus. Within two years Alcibiades had recaptured Byzantium and re-established Athenian control over the Propontis.  Despite his successful war-mongering he did not actually return to Athens until 407 BC, at which time he was received with honour.

Propontis (Asia Minor)

Alcibiades had proven his worth on behalf of Athens but he had his enemies who were waiting for any mistake that he may make. This came in 406 BC. He was at Notium watching the Spartan fleet, under Lysander, moored at Smyrna. Leaving instructions to his commander, Antiochus, not to engage the Spartans in battle, he made a brief expedition to reinforce Thrasybulus at Phocea. In his absence, Antiochus sailed too close to the Spartans who came out from the harbour to meet him. Lysander was victorious and destroyed fifteen Athenian ships. The news reached Athens and Alcibiades was blamed by his enemies for the defeat and for not counter attacking and was duly exiled.

The Athenian empire had now collapsed. Alcibiades decided to go to Persia as there was no point in returning to Athens. On his way through Asia Minor he was murdered, possibly on the Persian king’s instructions, as he had no time for a man who was responsible for the Athenian recovery.

Death of Alcibiades (by Michele de Napoli, c 1839)

The treatment of Alcibiades had a great bearing on the outcome of the Athenian quest for power. To the Greek people he could be described as an enigma, but his enigmatic changes all had basic reasoning about them.  He was, without doubt, a supreme commander with every intention of gaining glory for himself and, in an unscrupulous manner, for whichever power was to support him. He played a part on the sides of all three major powers, but on each occasion he was only attempting to find a position of high esteem which was to result in the downfall of the Athenian empire and the end of an era of Athenian dominance in Greece.  So, there you are: I told you he was ambitious – playing for all three teams!


Greek Drama-rama

GREEK THEATRE in Athens began some 2,500 years ago – around 600 BC – but its form, technique and terminology have lasted into modern theatre. Greek festivals evolved from religious rites going back to about 1200 BC when the cult of Dionysus led to somewhat emotional displays of dancing (those of you who were part of the 60s/70s era will know what I mean). Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele and so was one of the 12 Olympian gods (he was god of wine, fertility, grapes, ecstasy, madness, pleasure, festivity, etc – you get the drift).



Initially the rites of Dionysus were led by the dithyramb (‘choric hymn’). This was sung/chanted by a Greek chorus of up to fifty men or boys (no women or girls in ancient Greek theatre). They may have been dressed as satyrs (men with horses’ ears and tail, servants of Dionysus) and some probably played the flute, lyre and drums. The gist of the hymn would relate to some incident in the life of Dionysus or just be celebrating wine and fertility in his name. Good a reason as any.


Dithyramb from ancient Greek vase

Circa 600 BC, Arion of Mehtymna (Corinth) wrote down formal lyrics for the dithyramb. Then, sometime during the next 75 years, Thespis of Attica added an actor who interacted with the audience. And that is where the word thespians (actors) today comes from. This actor was known at the protagonist, meaning the main character of a drama. In 534 BC, Pisistratus (the Athenian ‘tyrant’) changed the Dionysus festivals and introduced drama competitions. Thespis is said to have won the first competition. Around this time the Theatre of Dionysus was built in Athens (what remains today is mainly from the 4th century BC).


Theatre of Dionysus, Athens – seated 17,000 people

The Theatre at Epidaurus, in the east Peloponnese of Greece, is still used today for Greek plays (but not always in Greek – Sarah I went there a few years ago when four Greek plays were presented in German and to a modern setting – it just didn’t work for either of us). The theatre was designed by Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC and originally had 34 rows of seats which were extended at the top to another 21 rows by the Romans. The view of a lush landscape behind the skene was an integral part of the theatre itself and not to be obscured.

Theatre of Epidaurus ‘today’ – seats 14,000 people, viewing a lush landscape background

The government authority (the archon) chose the competitors and a wealthy patron (choregos) financed the production. In return, the patron paid no taxes that year. So funding the arts was a way of tax avoidance (not evasion – apparently that is something different). You can see from the diagram below how the theatre was set up and how the names were used:

greek theatron

               Theatron: ‘seeing space’;  Orchestra: ‘dancing place’;  Skene: ‘scene building’; Parados: ‘entrance’

Plays were performed in the daytime and were spread over several days in Athens. There was little or no scenery and most the action took place in the orchestra by the ‘chorus’. When there came an important shift from chorus to characters, the action moved to the skene (then became ‘the stage’). The chorus literally means ‘dance’ and most Greek choruses blended music, dance and song. The chorus entered the orchestra during the parados (‘entrance speech’) and remained there for the whole play. Its purpose was to create ‘doom and gloom’ to come (‘foreshadowing’) and some suspense to help the audience understand what was happening (although with the  later tragedies, the audiences already knew the plots).

Types of plays

Tragedy (Tragodia) comes from tragos and ode meaning ‘goat song’. The reason the word is used is obscure but it could either mean that the chorus was dressed in goat skins, or a goat was the prize for the best song/play (hmmmm …. ok). Tragedies, usually trilogies, were centred around the rise and downfall of the ‘hero’ (from Homeric epic or mythology) and the conclusion was usually a messenger coming out to tell the audience of the tragic consequences of the characters action (never good). The main tragedy poets of the 5th century BC were Aeschylus (who added a second actor, the antagonist, and reduced the chorus from 50 to 12); Sophocles (who added a third actor and put more emphasis on interaction between humans rather than humans and gods); and Euripides (whose plays were more about real people). Due to the limited number of main actors, masks were worn by all at all times (that way one or two actors could play different parts – also, masks may have amplified the voice).


Aeschylus (525-456 BC)                  Sophocles (496-406 BC)                  Euripides  (484-406 BC)

Satyr had to be submitted to a magistrate (archon eponymos) along with three tragedies for a competition. A satyr play, although implies comedy, was actually somewhere between tragedy and comedy – sort of tragicomedy – and, again, taken from epic or mythology. The only satyr play to survive in its entirety is Euripides’ Cyclops based on Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops, Polyphemus (not exactly an hysterical tale). They were performed at the end or between the 2nd and 3rd Tragedy play for a bit of ‘light’ relief. You needed a break!


Papposilenus playing the crotals, type of the satyr play

Comedy was slapstick and crude humour and appeared for the Festival of Lenaia in March. Such plays had happy endings and the characters usually found a solution to the original conflict of the play (rather like farce). Aristophanes (old satirical comedy) and Menander (new farcical comedy) were the best known comic playwrights of the 5th-4th centuries BC. The democracy of Athens allowed for free speech and these guys made good use of that. Aristophanes particularly disliked warmongers and made that clear in his plays (occasionally finding himself in court for defamatory remarks against a pro-war fanatic called Cleon).

                                Bust of Menander

                            Aristophanes (446-386 BC)                             Menander (342-290 BC)

Athenian drama waned somewhat around 404 BC with the defeat of the Athenians by the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Athens was never the same again. In fact, nor was drama …….. until a chap called Shakespeare came along some two thousand years later in the 17th century. So there you have it.  Don’t you feel better informed? ……… No. Okay.

300 [Spartans]: Hollywood fact or fiction?

Gerard Butler as King Leonidas of Sparta in 300

The 2014 film 300 relates to the tale of the 300 Spartans who fought and fell at the hands of the Persians. How much of the film was fiction? Well, the inclusion of the ‘monster rhino’ in the battle towards the end rather gave the answer to this question away! And the portrayal of Xerxes, the king of Persia, was a bit ‘punk rock’ to say the least. However, the film did have some truth in it – somewhere. What ‘truth’ of the conflict we may know comes from the 5th century BC Greek historian, Herodotus and his Histories.

Herodotus (485-425 BC)

The 300 Spartans (see also the rather less bloody-thirsty 1962 film version of that name) is about the Battle of Thermopylae (‘The Hot Gates’ in the film) which enjoyed a cameo role in the second Persian invasion of Greece in the 5th century BC. But that is not where it all began. The small island of Naxos in the Aegean is where it all began. During most of the 6th century BC (and before) Athens had been controlled by oligarchs – aristocratic families. Then around 510 BC, it became a democracy courtesy of a chap called Cleisthenes. The democratic rule spread among the colonies of Athens – except the island of Naxos. There the oligarchs hung onto power until they were finally thrown out by the democrats in 503 BC. And rightly so.

The less blood-thirsty 1962 film version of the events

That’s when the trouble started. The Naxos oligarchs headed in search of sympathy to fellow Ionians (Greeks) on Miletus (Myletus) on the east  coast of Persia (now Turkey). This place was governed by Aristagoras who sought assistance for his beleaguered oligarchs from Artaphernes, the Persian satrap of Sardis. Artaphernes saw ‘£ or $ signs’ (actually darics) and control of Naxos ahead so he sent a Persian fleet to give Naxos a seeing-to. The Naxians were expecting the intrusion and defeated the Persian invaders.


Map of Aegean showing Naxos (centre) 

Aristagoras panicked as he thought Artaphernes would be severely vexed and take it out on him, so he called for Athenian help. Cleisthenes sent a force and took Sardis but, hearing of a large Persian army heading their way, the Athenians hastened home. This was the Ionian revolt of 500 BC and the remaining Ionian fleet was defeated by the Persians at Lade off the coast of Miletus (see map) in 495 BC. So ended the revolt.

1st Persian invasion

Darius I, king of Persia was none too pleased with the Athenian interference and so began the 1st Persian invasion in 490 BC . Now, looking at the map below, who do you think is going to be victorious?

 The Persian Empire is shaded brown. Greece is up there top left (in white) opposite Lydia – William Hill were offering odds 300 to 1 against a Greek victory

Darius’ force, under Artaphernes and Datis, first overpowered Naxos (well, it started it) then landed at Marathon, on the Greek mainland (see 1st map above) with about 600 hundred ships and some 30,000 soldiers (estimates vary). There were only around 9,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans opposing this Persian force. This is where the marathon runner comes in. He, Phidippides (or Philippides), was sent to summon Spartan assistance [1]. Unfortunately Sparta was otherwise engaged in a religious festival and declined the summons until the festival was over (in about 10 days). The battle could not wait that long but it is not entirely clear why the engagement then took place. The odds were certainly against the Greeks. Herodotus makes no mention of Persian cavalry, so one suggestion is that they (the cavalry) were embarking onto ships to sail around to attack an undefended Athens. The Athenian generals, Callimachus and Miltiades, took advantage and attacked the Persians whilst they were preoccupied with this manoeuvre. Whatever the strategies, the Athenians were victorious with only 192 losses (plus 11 Plataeans) to some 6,400 Persians. The Spartans turned up the next day! [2].

Darius I

2nd Persian invasion

After Darius’ death, his son Xerxes decided that it was time the Greeks were punished for their audacity at Marathon. In 481 BC he set out with another vast army of possibly 150,000 men (we don’t know the exact figure), under Mardonius. In fact, there were two Persian forces – one travelling by land and one by sea. The latter sailed towards Athens and the former came around the mainland and crossed the Hellespont by way of a ‘bridge’ of ships – the first was destroyed by storm but Xerxes persevered and built another. Then the land force marched into Greece and headed for Thermopylae.

Xerxes’ bridge of ships across the Hellespont

At Thermopylae, in 480 BC, Xerxes came up against Leonidas, king of Sparta, along with 300 Spartans, 4,500 Peloponnesians, 1,000 Phocians and 1,000 Lacedacmonians. For several days Leonidas held the pass at Thermopyae to allow the remaining Greeks to gather forces to defend Athens. Eventually, a treacherous Malian, Ephilialtes, led 10,000 of Xerxes ‘immortals’ (his top soldiers – sort of ninjas in the film) around a goats’ path in the mountains and came up behind the Spartans. Leonidas had been aware of this track and had position the Phocians to defend it but they were surprisingly surprised by the Persians and fled.  Great!  (Leonidas had sent the other Greeks away by now realising his task was doomed and was just a delaying tactic). Leonidas and his fellow Spartans were all killed at Thermopylae (all except one, Aristodemus who let the field with an eye infectious – bless – but you knew that if you had seen the film [3]) and Xerxes marched into Attica and to Athens.

Persian routes 480 BC

Xerxes entered Athens unobstructed and burned the city to the ground. Believing the Athenians to be in a state of despondency he then attacked their fleet in the Salamis. To his surprise the Athenians were ready and waiting for him. Themistocles was able to keep the Athenian fleet together, engaging the enemy within a confined space, cancelling out the Persian superior number advantage (3:1 advantage over the Greeks – even though a large portion of the Persian fleet had been destroyed by storm on route to Athens – just not their day!). The Greek ships, although smaller in size were less crowded and more skilfully managed. This resulted in the defeat of the Persian fleet, watched by the anxious Xerxes. Retreating Persian ships collided with each other and those soldiers/sailors that managed to escape sought refuge on Psyttaleia, the only Persian occupied island in the vicinity. The Athenian, Aristides, was able to land on the island and disposed of these survivors. As with the previous invasion, Greek loses were small compared to the enormous loses from the Persian camp. A touch of deja vu for the Persians. The Persian land force under Mardonius was finally defeated at the battle of Plataea in Boeotia by the Greeks under Pausanias (not the Greek traveller – he was much later, in 2nd century AD). Plataea, although the major victory by the Greeks over the Persians, does not get the same press as Thermopylae as it does not conjure up the same heroic imagination as Leonidas and the 300 Spartans. Such is life ….. or death.

Leonidas I of Sparta.jpg

Leonidas, king of Sparta

Statue of Leonidas at Thermopylae – the mountains in the background show the barrier the Persians were up against

The remainder of the Persian fleet was destroyed at Mycale, in the eastern Aegean, rumoured (by Herodotus) to have taken place on the same day as the battle at Plataea. It was, in fact, a battle on land not sea, as the Persians, worried about their naval defeat at Salamis, beached their ships at Mycale and awaited the Greeks. The ensuing fight resulted in the total destruction of the Persian force, ending the Persian threat against the Grecian states …….. all because of Naxos.

So all’s well that ends well …… if you were Greek. Under Pericles, Athens went on to build the Parthenon and associated buildings on the Acropolis as a result of Xerxes’ destruction of the city. This, of course, led on to another battle – that of the ‘Elgin’ Marbles (sorry Greek Marbles) which is yet undecided (see post in February).



[1] The actual marathon running race was introduced to the first modern Olympics Games in 1896. It gets its length of 26 miles (around 40 km) from the distance from Marathon to Athens – the other story is that the runner ran this route to announce the Athenian victory at Athens, then dropped dead. The distance from Marathon to Sparta is 150 miles (240 km) which is pushing it a bit even for an Olympic race, so the Marathon-Athens story is the link the Olympic ‘authorities’ stick to.

[2] Whilst visiting Athens in 1972, I dragged my parents and brother to the Marathon site. There is just a mound and a monument there. “We’ve all this way for this!” complained my brother.

[3] In fact, Herodotus tells us that two were sent away with eye infections but one, Eurytus, returned to the battle and his death.

The Parthenon – then and now

I WAS UP AT the British Museum last week and was, as usual, suitably fascinated by the Parthenon marbles. The Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens, has been under repair now since the Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments was set up in 1975 and serious restoration work began on the Parthenon around 1985. That was 30 years ago and still there is much to do. Back in the 5th century BC it took the ancient Greeks 9 years to build it (447-438 BC) – there’s advancement for you! To be fair, since 1985 there has been a lot of dismantling of previously flawed repairs carried out by the likes of messrs  Kyriakos Pittakis (from 1842 to 1844) and Nicholaos Balanos (from 1895 to 1933). These guys, although well-meaning, used a lot of concrete and iron which has not proven to be a lasting success! It is not planned to restore the Parthenon to its original state, but just to a more appropriately safe ruin and restoring loose blocks to where they belong.

parthenon now

The Parthenon today (NW sides)

The construction of it (in pentelic marble from nearby Mount Pentelicus) back in the 5th century BC was clever stuff – its columns look uniform and straight but they are not. The building is, in fact, an optical illusion. If it had been built uniform, with all the columns straight and exactly the same size it would have been seen to the eye as shrunken in the middle. The columns on the ends are slightly larger than the others and bend inwards.


Outside columns bend in

a illusion

Drawing a is how it should look to the eye

b illusion

Drawing b is how it would look to the eye if all the columns were uniform

c illusion

Drawing c is how it is actually built to look like (to the eye) drawing a

It’s had a somewhat ‘interesting’ history. Other than a fire in the 3rd century AD, which destroyed its roof and part of the inner sanctuary, it lasted quite well, complete with its massive golden statue of Athena. Then, in the 5th century AD, as part of the new Byzantine Empire, the statute was looted and taken to Constantinople, where it was later destroyed, probably around 1209 during the fourth Crusade.


Replica of the statute of Athena in Nashville, USA – big, huh!

Towards the end of the 6th century AD the Parthenon was converted to a Christian church and the main entrance changed from the east to the west, with an altar set up at the east-end with the addition of an apse. A bell tower with spiral staircase was built into the southwest corner.

In 1458 the Ottoman Turks took control of Athens and some years later converted the Parthenon into a mosque. However, the basic external structure remained intact.

 parthenon mosque 1

Parthenon as a mosque complete with minaret

Then in 1687 came the Venetians and one Francesco Morosini. He lay siege to the Acropolis and began shelling it with mortar (shells not cement ….. yeah, ok). For some inexplicable reason the Turks were using the Parthenon as an ammunition store. A mortar shell landed directly on it and the whole lot exploded, killing around 350 Turks.


Exploding Parthenon – it’s never been the same since!

It’s not clear whether Morosini aimed at the Parthenon on purpose or it was (un)lucky shot. Presumably the Turks (naively) thought he would not fire on such an important building, but if he knew it was an ammunition store ……..well, what would you do in his shoes? Anyway, having taken the Parthenon, he tried to loot some of the sculptures and caused even more damage. The following year the Venetians left Athens and the Turks reoccupied the city. They built a small mosque within the ruins of the Parthenon and remained in power in Athens until Greek independence in 1832. The mosque was removed sometime after 1834, together with many other non-classical architecture on the Acropolis (an enthusiasm of classical Greece had taken hold by then).

 Parthenon 1715

Painting of mosque no 2 in the ruins of the Parthenon (c. 1715)

Prior to the Greek independence, in 1801 along came Lord Elgin with his dodgy firman (permission to draw the ruins and take casts). He decided to interpret the firman to allow him to remove sculptures (including those on the Parthenon from the east and west pediments, the high relief metopes around the outside, and the low relief frieze around the inside – see pic below). The Ottomans didn’t seem too bothered (not being very interested in ancient pagan worship) and no doubt money changed hands. The arguments will continue as to whether Elgin was right to do so. There is evidence that some remaining marbles did deteriorate being left unprotected, but it is doubtful whether that was Elgin’s real reason for removing what he did.

 parthn metopes etc

The different sculptures on the Parthenon 

pathenon 2

Example of female (goddesses) sculptures taken by Elgin from the east pediment


Reconstruction of above sculptures – they would have been painted in colour

So, should the marbles be returned to Athens? Let’s not go there! Although I would say that my original thoughts were in the affirmative now Athens has its fabulous new museum. The problem is, where do you draw the line? Do we return everything to everyone? That wouldn’t leave much in our museums …….

parthenon at night

 Parthenon at night – pretty


Next week: Juries – a good thing or a bad thing?

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My good friend Archibald Lumbago was fairly depressed about the state of his farming business.  The Department of Employment (DoE) had heard that he was not paying proper wages to his helpers and sent one of its staff out to investigate him. He recounted the conversation to me:

“When the DoE chappie arrived he asked for a list of my employees and how much I pay them. I replied, ‘Well, there’s my farm hand who has been with me for 3 years. I pay him £200 a week plus free room and board.’ I continued, ‘Then there’s the mentally challenged worker. He works about 18 hours every day and does about 90% of all the work around here. He makes about £20 per week, pays his own room and board, and gets a bottle of whisky every Saturday night so he can cope with life.’

The DoE chappie said, ‘That’s the guy I want to talk to … the mentally challenged one.’

I replied, ‘That would be me.'”


Gladiator: Hollywood fact or fiction?


THIS WAS, indeed, a good yarn.  Well, actually, it’s practically just a remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire with Stephen Boyd (in Crowe’s role) as the hero Roman General-come-gladiator called Livius (who?), Christopher Plummer as Commodus (yes, Sound of Music’s Capt von Trapp as the baddie!), and Alec Guinness as the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.


‘NEVER BEFORE …’ maybe – but certainly again

So, back to Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic and reality: both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were father and son and real Emperors of Rome but that is really where facts stop – oh, other than Commodus was certainly a nasty oik, but that’s about it. As for Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius, well,  there was a Maximus (of the Quintilian family) who, along with his brother, Condianus, were two of Marcus Aurelius’ favourite and most virtuous generals in the war against Germania. They were both consuls and Aurelius entrusted them with the civil administration of Greece.  Unfortunately, Commodus murdered both Maximus and Condianus, but that doesn’t make for such a good Hollywood yarn (and the film wouldn’t have lasted as long).

Marcus_Aurelius_Metropolitan_Museum       Marcus Aurelius AD 121-180

Alternatively, Crowe’s character could have been based on Marcus Nonius Macrinus who was also a general and favourite of Marcus Aurelius but he died in later years and a wealthy man. No other comparisons there then. Meridius tomb was found in 2008 on the banks of the Tiber near the via Flaminia, north of Rome.

tomb Tomb of   Marcus Nonius Macrinus

However, Marcus Aurelius never offered Maximus (or anybody) the protectorate of Rome, nor did he consider returning it to a republic (in fact, he gave Commodus joint imperial power at the age of 14/15!).  Aurelius died of an illness in Vindobona (Vienna) and there was never any suggestion that he was killed by Commodus.


Commodus AD 161-192 

Commodus often fought in the gladiatorial arena but was not despatched there by an heroic avenger (his opponents were never allowed to actually kill him!).  He was poisoned by his favourite concubine, Marcia (a woman scorned!), and thereafter strangled by a ‘robust youth’ (believed to be a chap called Narcissus, another of his favourites – he was obviously a serious bad judge of character).  His sister, Lucilla, as she did in the film, did not live to witness his death, she had already attempted to do away with him but failed and so he had her exiled, then killed.  That’s show business …. or not.


Thumbs up forJoaquin Phoenix as the beastly Commodus in the film

At the beginning of the battle scene , Quintus comments to Maximus of the Germanic ‘barbarians’: “People should know when they’re conquered.” Then in true Hollywood style they are conquered. In fact, the Germanic tribes were never conquered by the Romans. If you look at a map of the Roman Empire (below), Germania is conspicious by its absence from within its Empire boundaries – the boundary is the Rhine.


Map of the Roman Empire at its height circa 2nd century AD

Talking of the battle scene, it was a real forest fire and filmed in the UK at Bourne Wood near Farnham in Surrey. The Director, Ridley Scott, heard that the men from the Forestry Commission were planning to remove the forest and so he persuaded them to let him do it for them!


And there was the forest …. gone

P.S. If you want to understand the ending of the film better – the Elysium Fields – have a read of Virgil’s Aeneid (book 6).


 Maximus in Elysium Fields


Next week: Homer and the Bagpus theory

 Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My good friend Sir Humphrey Bottleneck arrived at my rooms yesterday in a state of shock having nearly been killed in an automobile accident. He had caught a taxi cab from the station and leaned over to ask the driver a question and gently tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.

The driver screamed, lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, drove up over the kerb and stopped just inches from a large plate window.

For a few moments everything was silent in the cab. Then the shaking driver said to Sir Humphrey, “Are you OK? I’m so sorry, but you scared the daylights out of me.”

Sir Humphrey apologised to the driver and said, “I didn’t realise that a mere tap on the shoulder would startle someone so badly.”

The driver replied, “No, no, I’m the one who is sorry, it’s entirely my fault. Today is my very first day driving a taxi cab. I’ve been driving a hearse for 10 years.”

Art Smth

Tutankhamun – road traffic incident or what?

DID YOU KNOW that Forensisis is Latin for forum and in ancient Rome the forum was where many matters, including law and justice, were discussed.  Pathos and logia are ancient Greek for suffering and study of respectively.  The definition of forensic pathology is, therefore, the study of bodies for both medical and legal purposes.


Naturally, one of the tasks of a forensic pathologist is to discover the cause of death of a deceased and to decide whether foul play was involved.  With Tutankhamun such a study proved somewhat confusing over the years.

In a Channel Four television programme, Tutankhamun Exhumed, x-rays in 1968 of Tut’s skull suggested that he had been killed by a blow to the back of the head – evidenced by a hole in his occipital (back of lower head).  Murder most foul?  Of course.  End of story …… or was it?


                                                              Back of Tut’s head

Well, maybe not.  Fortunately the whole of the skeleton, although damaged (by Howard Carter when he removed it in 1922) was mostly intact, and a CT scan by Dr Zahi Hawass, in March 2005, showed that the hole in the skull was not the cause of death. It has since been established that inside the hole there are traces of embalming fluid and so it was most likely part of the original mummification process, ca 1323 BC.

Picture2           Picture4

Howard Carter examining Tut in 1922               Dr Zahi Hawass (left) and CT scan in 2005

Hawass found evidence of a fracture in the lower femur (thigh bone) just above the knee. The bone had been completely broken and unhealed, with a fragment of torn skin evident. This may have been the result of a blow to the leg in battle, perhaps (or careless cooking incident). This, in turn, may have caused an infection (possibly gangrene) and death. More recent DNA analysis (2010) has identified malaria in Tut’s system. End of story …… or was it?


                                                               Tut’s leg bones

Now we know Tut was a warrior because we have ancient paintings of him in action (below). So, was the above leg break anything to do with a sword wound in a battle that he may have been involved in?  Maybe.

tut 2

The warrior Tut

But a further investigation of his skeletal remains in 2012 indicate a more calamitous possibility.  Firstly, a re-review of his 1968 X-rays show that he had several left and right ribs missing, no sternum (front bone of rib-cage), missing left side of pelvis, and no heart (see virtual autopsy pic below).  The heart was usually removed but buried with the body in a separate cask.  The fact that there was no heart in a cask may imply that it was so badly damaged that it was discarded, along with the ribs and left pelvis.  Such damage must have been the result of a very serious incident, although there were no injuries to the skull.  This information was revealed in another Channel Four documentary,  Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy, presented by Dr Chris Naunton in 2013.  It concluded that Tut may have fallen from his chariot and was ‘run-over’ by another chariot  –  in battle?

tut 3             tut4

Virtual autopsy pic           Chariot causing damage consistent with tut’s injuries                                                   (pics from TV prog)

A pressure test was carried out to show that if a chariot wheel hit the rib bones at the speed of 26 mph, the break and bone fragments would be serious enough to cause critical damage to organs behind ribs.  It could also account for the break to the femur (just above the knee).  The wheel would have missed the head, hence no injuries to the skull.

Perhaps it wasn’t a battle but just a road traffic accident – I’m sure they had bad chariot drivers in those days ……


Stop that chariot right there!



A more recent TV programme on the BBC of Tut suggested that he was in no fit state to drive a chariot due to a deformity in his foot which may have been a genetic disorder which he ‘inherited’ due to incest in the family (his mum and dad may have been brother and sister – keep the power in the family). A computer ‘virtual autopsy’ of the mummy revealed a possible club foot and also that he may have suffered from a severe form of epilepsy which could have caused the fall that resulted in his death – perhaps. The clubfoot would certainly account for all the walking sticks found in his tomb. The programme, however, did not address the issue of his missing pelvic and rib bones or the images of him firing a bow ans arrow form his chariot (poetic licence maybe)..

Tut with clubfoot


Next week: Back to submarines – but this time U-boats ….. U-671 and U-413 and the sinking of HMS Warwick



Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My colleague, Professor Waldorf Winklebatt, was stopped by the police around 2 a.m. the other night and was asked where he was going at that time of night. Waldorf replied, “I am on my way to a lecture about alcohol abuse, smoking and the effects of staying out late on the human body.” 

The officer then asked, “Really? And who is giving that lecture at this time of night?” 

Waldorf replied, “That would be my wife.”

Art Smth