Arts & Humanities Classics History

Did racism exist in the ancient world?

This long-read article was written by upper sixth former Sebastian Norris.

Estimated read time of introduction: 1 minute

Estimated read time of essay: 11 minutes


Setting aside preconceptions and a modern, judgemental approach is difficult when discussing racism in the ancient world, due to the pertinence of the issue in our society. However, it is also easy to justify ancient attitudes by the argument that racism as we know it has only existed in more modern times. Therefore, to avoid getting involved in debate about how to define racism, I am regarding racism as the belief that one’s race is superior in some way to others, as such beliefs are at the very heart of racial discrimination.

In order to discuss the question in some depth, I am only considering the ancient Greeks, as their beliefs and prejudices have been so influential, especially since they were formative for the Romans’ views and therefore endured for a long time. However, it is also important to consider the difference between racism and xenophobia, as despite the common use of the word racism describing hate crimes or speech, it is fundamentally the ideology of superiority of a race, whereas xenophobia is the fear or hatred of foreigners.

Within these parameters, clearly some form of racism did exist in the ancient world, as the ancient Greeks had a strong sense of superiority over non-Greeks, seen both in their attitude towards foreigners, for whom they had a collective term (‘βαρβαροι’) to signify that they were not Greek, and in how they saw themselves, that is, as a pure race descended from the Earth itself, giving them a sense of superiority over other races.

To view Seb’s full article, follow this link below.

Arts & Humanities Classics

Do ancient historians tell us more about myth than real events?

This long-read article was written by lower-sixth former Mattie Sutton. The following provides a short abstract to his full essay, which can be found at the bottom.

Estimated read time of abstract: < 1 minute
Estimated read time of essay: 7 minutes

We’ve all heard of Greek and Roman myths – The Cyclops, Icarus, etc. – they’re one of the most appealing parts of Classics. Another area full of interest is Ancient History, home to defining battles, decisions and speeches that are still studied today. However, sometimes these areas collide, meaning Ancient History isn’t always like the “History” of today. This naturally leads to the question, how useful is Ancient History? Does it tell us more about myth or real events?

In this short essay we’ll examine four titans of historical world: Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Livy. We’ll examine what they wrote and why they wrote it, examining how much myth was used, and to what effect. Overall however, we’ll see that it’s not as easy as it first seems to separate myth from fact, and actually myth had its own role to play in Ancient History.

To view Mattie’s full article, follow this link below.

Arts & Humanities Classics English FTRP Poetry

To what extent can ‘The Tale of the Heike’ and ‘The Iliad’ be considered similar poems?

This essay was written by lower-sixth former Mattie Sutton, and shortlisted for the 2020 Fifth Form Transitional Research Project. The following provides a short abstract to the full essay, which can be found at the bottom.

Estimated read time of abstract: 1 minute
Estimated read time of essay: 13 minutes

‘The Tale of the Heike’, a Japanese tale of the fall of the Taira clan to the Minamoto, and ‘The Iliad’, the enchanting story of Achilles’ and the Greeks’ struggles against Troy, are two of the greatest epic poems to ever be written, yet from opposite sides of the globe. However, their geographical distance doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t share similarities and form a fascinating piece of literary discussion.

In this essay we look at both poems’ themes use of language and the tradition that surrounds them. We’ll delve to into the specifics of the Japanese and Greek, as well as taking a more holistic view of how the themes such as impermanence, glory, and the view of individuals work together to create the epics. Finally, sweeping from the Aeneid to Tolstoy, from the Hagakure to Bushido: The Soul of Japan we’ll consider the cultural impact of both epics and come to a conclusion over how similar these two pieces of awe-inspiring literature are.

To view Mattie’s full article, follow this link below.

Arts & Humanities Classics

Alliance to Empire: A Study of the Delian League

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Alexander Norris.

Estimated read time: 7 minutes

The Delian League was formed in 478 BC as an alliance of Greek city-states in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Wars, primarily for the purpose of mutual military support against their common enemy, the Persians.  By 454, however, when the League’s treasury with all its contents was moved from the eponymous island of Delos to Athens, after which all meetings of the League’s assembly were held there too, it had de facto ceased to be a confederation of free states, but rather had become a federation under Athenian control, which would later be known as the ‘Athenian Empire’.  What this essay will demonstrate is that the transition of the Delian League from alliance to empire was essentially through a centralisation on Athens, caused in part by growing Athenian imperial ambitions and in part by the misjudgement and inaction of the League’s other members. 

Ostensibly, the Athenians’ reason for the League’s formation was, as Thucydides writes, ‘to take revenge for their losses by devastating the Persian King’s territory.’1  However, the word Thucydides uses for ‘reason’ – ‘πρόσχημα’ – can more accurately be translated as ‘pretext’ or ‘excuse’.  In fact, it literally means ‘a screen in front of [something]’ so Thucydides would seem to be implying that in his view this was not the real reason for establishing the League, as Hunter R. Rawlings makes clear.2  The implication is that the Athenians had imperialistic ambitions from the very formation of the League, being concerned less with fighting the Persians than with furthering their own interests.3  One explanation for this is that Thucydides – writing fifty years later – would have been able to see the Athenians’ later, much more blatant, imperialism, and consequently may have assumed it always to have been present.  He could nonetheless acknowledge the Athenians’ point of view as when he reports them as claiming, ‘Fear was our first motive; afterwards honour, and then interest stepped in’4, hinting that they only began trying to gain power for themselves once they realised they had the opportunity of doing it, having set up the League originally for quite a different purpose.  

Thucydides indicates, moreover, that the nature of the League (ostensibly a defensive anti-Persian alliance) was more aimed at conquering other Greek city-states than at taking revenge on the Persians; for example, in the expeditions against Skyros, Carystus and Naxos.5  This contrasts strongly with the ‘pretext’ of the League (as Rawlings has again pointed out)6 and makes it appear that the Athenians used all their new-found military might to add to their dominions within Greece. Nonetheless, it’s possible (as with the analysis of their primary intentions) that Thucydides merely chose to lay particular emphasis on these events to demonstrate how shocking their actions were as abuses of their authority, as A. French has argued.7  This would suggest that such campaigns were not only not the norm, but far from it. 

The role individual city-states played in the early League is ambiguous, insofar as that Thucydides’ accounts of how the voting systems were organised are unclear – thus, he describes the allies’ voting as ‘κοινῶν ξυνόδων’, ‘πολυψηφίαν’ and ‘ἰσοψήφους’ (‘in a common assembly’, ‘[with] an excess of votes’ and ‘equal in vote’)8 from which it appears that they had theoretically the same power as the Athenians, although this could mean that each city-state including Athens had one vote in a common assembly, or alternatively it could signify – as Meiggs has suggested9 – a bicameral assembly whereby an assembly of the allies had collectively the same power as the Athenian assembly.  On one hand, the bicameral arrangement had contemporary precedent, with Sparta using a similar system for its allies, whereas a ’one state, one vote’ policy could have been humiliating for the Athenian assembly, placing it on a par with each of the other states; on the other hand, though, such an arrangement would have been in turn resented by the stronger states which felt Athens was growing too powerful, and the Athenians would have known that they would be able to influence the voting of the smaller states, and so wield far more actual power in that environment than in one where there was a clear distinction between Athenians and non-Athenians – this seems the most convincing explanation. 

Athens was clearly the pre-eminent member state of the League from its formation, but actual hegemony of the League is less clear so early on – the reason Athens was chosen over Sparta, which was renowned for its military capabilities and so would seem to be the natural leader of anti-Persian military action (as indeed it was in the Persian Wars) was because of the arrogant behaviour of Pausanias.10   In theory, the Hellenic League from the war continued under Spartan leadership until 46111  and so it is notable that states felt so repelled by Pausanias’ behaviour that they started another alliance. Of course, after the great land power of Sparta, the naval power of Athens was the logical leader (as can be seen by the oaths sworn to them and their allies rather than to the League per se12).  By the time of the Athenian Empire, though, there were undertones of political sovereignty which were not evident at the beginning of the League, with Pericles in 449 proposing a ’Congress Decree’ that would have asserted Athenian superiority in no uncertain terms, and the use of imperialistic language such as the inscription: ‘The cities which the Athenians rule.’13  How this developed was in large part due to a development of the economic functioning of the League. 

The premise on which the League was founded was that member states would pay a certain sum (‘φόρος’) into a common treasury which was located on the island of Delos, collected either in ships or in money, depending on the state.14  This φόρος would be accumulated by Athenian officials called ‘ἑλληνοταμίαι’ and given to the Assembly to deploy against the Persians.  The actual amount states would have paid originally is disputed, since while Thucydides claims the first collection was in total worth 460 talents15  this seems unrealistically high, although Meiggs has pointed out that it could have been lowered in later years for that very reason.16  Furthermore, given the large amount of money that had accumulated in Delos by 454 – 8,000 talents according to Diodorus Siculus17 – it doesn’t seem improbable for the Athenians to have requested such a large amount.  As it turned out, much of that went to rebuilding Athens after it had been ravaged by the Persians in 480, but the other members of the League had little control over this.  The extraction of tribute from League members was certainly important in ensuring the Athenians had a solid financial foundation for their empire, but it should be remembered that the tribute was agreed by the League’s members, as opposed to other forms of authority which Athens wielded arbitrarily; these are far more significant in turning the League into an empire. 

The interference of the Athenians in the member states of the League developed gradually, since at the beginning Meiggs has shown that ‘the autonomy of members was taken for granted and there was no question of their leader interfering in political cases.’18  However, by the time the Old Oligarch was writing he made the point that the Athenians ‘force the allies to sail to Athens for judicial proceedings’19  even going so far as to refer to them as ‘οἱ σύμμαχοι δοῦλοι τοῦ δήμου τῶν Ἀθηναίων’ (’the ally slaves of the people of Athens’).20  Therefore, it is fundamental to understand how the Athenians were able to interfere, judicially and politically, in the affairs of other states. 

The judicial interference of which the Old Oligarch speaks is well documented in the later Chalcis Decree of 446, where autonomy was granted to states ‘except in cases involving exile, death, and loss of rights’ and also required the inhabitants to take an oath ‘to be obedient to the Athenian demos.’  Another instance of this was the Phaselis Decree of c.469, where in much the same way judicial cases were transferred to Athens – a apparent violation of their judicial autonomy.  Alternatively, though, it could be viewed as merely a form of judicial standardisation, and de Ste. Croix has argued that this arrangement actually favoured Phaselis because the Athenian polemarch’s court was known for giving preference to foreigners.21  The Athenians prided themselves on their legal impartiality (as Thucydides himself claimed: ‘In Athens the laws [are] impartial’22) and the legal standardisation of the League could have benefited all its members.  Nonetheless, regardless of the potential benefits of such an imposition, it remains clear that by doing so the Athenians aided their influence and ultimately the formation of the Athenian Empire.  More significant than this, though, was the Athenians’ interference into the political functioning of other states. 

In terms of political interference, while member states of the League comprised a large variety of seemingly autonomous political systems, there are also examples of the Athenians imposing democracy on them – for example, the Decree of Erythrae in 453.  Further instances of political interference include states being forced to join the League (such as happened to Naxos, Melos and Calystus) and the establishment of cleruchies (for example, in Scylos or Melos) – the most significant interference, though, was in states’ forced change of financial status in the League from naval (ship-paying) to tributary (money-paying) such as Thasos in 465.  This is significant because Athens had much more control over the use of money than of ships, and hence much greater influence over the tributary states.  According to de Ste. Croix, moreover, this was stressed by Thucydides, who consistently ‘conceived the condition of the tributary allies, whom he describes as “ὑποτελεῖς φόρου, φόρῳ ὑπήκοοι”23 as one of “δουλεία” but except on one occasion he is willing to call the naval allies “αὐτόνομοι” and “ἐλεύθεροι”.’24  De Ste. Croix admits that there was no official distinction between the levels of autonomy a state enjoyed since each case was dealt with on its own basis25, but nonetheless the way Athens was able to force states to agree to terms that they had never originally accepted through the influence that supremacy in the League gave them was fundamental in the League’s transition from alliance to empire. 

In conclusion, therefore, it was this centralisation of the League’s resources that enabled the Athenians to turn it into an empire, as a result of both Athenian ambitions and fear.  As Thucydides has the Athenians say to the Spartans, ‘You turned against us and begun to arouse our suspicion: at this point it was clearly no longer safe for us to risk letting our Empire go, especially as any allies that left us would go over to you’26, and later adds about the Empire that, from Pericles’ point of view, ‘it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.’27  A third factor crucially comes into play here, and that is the League’s members’ inaction in providing checks and balances to Athenian – this too is highlighted by Thucydides, when he states of the Empire that ‘for this position it was the allies themselves who were to blame’28 implying that had they acted they may have been able to thwart Athenian aspirations.  Their inaction allowed the Athenians to centralise their power, which ultimately resulted in the transferral of the League’s treasury to Athens in 454, after which it was managed by the Athenian assembly alone.  Thus, the transition of the Delian League from alliance to empire occurred through the concentration of the League’s authority in Athens, which in turn was facilitated by the inertia of the League’s members and their failure to curb Athenian power. 

Arts & Humanities Classics Features

Greece vs. Rome: A Civilisation Debate

This long-read article was written by OG Matthew Sargent, as a response to a debate between Mary Beard and Boris Johnson.

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité had nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Greece … Liberty, for the Romans, was not just some simple Periclean slogan … the real point for me is that the Romans were the first people systematically to debate the limits of political liberty. They faced head on the unanswerable questions that matter now to us most: how far should the rights and the freedom of the individual citizen be suspended in the interests of homeland security … Classical Athens was a very small place; there were perhaps 40,000 people, not all citizens, living in the city itself … the city of Rome itself was home to a million people. It was the biggest city in the west until nineteenth century London. The Romans were committed to making urban living, modern style, work … Rome devoted itself to organising big city life … Top of the Roman agenda were the practical issues of living together and how to make a human community work … Finally, Roman society incorporated those who were mostly excluded in the ancient world, most obviously women … What does survive from Rome are all kinds of attempts, admittedly by men, to construct a variety of female voices in Greek and Latin – not just suffering heroines, ridiculous parodies, or lovelorn females … that is Roman culture all over. It’s fun, it’s warm, and it’s raising more important points than you might think, without all the fuss and pretension … Ultimately it was not the incorporation of women into the state, into a role in the state, but it was the incorporation of new citizens into the state. Rome had a mechanism for becoming Roman. Classical Athens had such an exclusive, a narrowly ethnic – you might even call it racist – policy on who could become a citizen … at he same time, slaves in their millions were freed at Rome, and in the process – completely unlike in the Greek world – they became full Roman citizens … Rome’s real, it’s rough, it’s in-your-face, it’s open, it’s welcoming, and it’s us.”

– Mary Beard

This piece was conceived as a response to a debate held in November 2015 between Professor Mary Beard and then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, on which was better ‘Greece or Rome?’ Since it aired, I’ve often returned to the arguments brought up by both sides, but this piece aims at re-evaluating some of Mary’s claims as to why Rome was the better civilization. Despite identifying as a Hellenist myself, and admittedly having a pro-Greek bias (which cannot be avoided, rather acknowledged and factored into one’s reasoning), neither will counter-examples be suppressed, nor has Mary’s speech been trimmed in such a way as to lead to confusion and misrepresentation. 

Essentially, her argument rested on three pillars, namely the relevance of the Roman notion of libertas to modern parliamentary democracy, Rome’s commitment to city planning, looking after its citizens (importantly through the corn dole), and addressing the exigencies imposed by living in a city of more than a million inhabitants, and thirdly their openness to migrants, inclusiveness of women, incorporation of slaves and ethnic non-Romans into the citizen base, and their down-to-earth and unpretentious and realistic approach to everyday problems and societal concerns.

Before laying out my criticisms of her line of argument, it’s worth registering how – with the exception of the Emperor Caracalla’s citizenship grant in 212 AD – Mary nowhere noted in her talk how life in the Republic changed under the emperors. Suetonius may be right in claiming that Augustus found Rome as a city of bricks but left it a city of marble, but with the appearance of principial rule came a diminution in the de facto power of the senate (the one emperor who tried to hand over the reins of government entirely to the senate, Tiberius, saw his plans scuppered by senatorial apathy, and his reign ended in a decade long ‘Personal Rule’), a suspension of voting rights for ordinary citizens, and – depending on the emperor – the exercise of invariably unmitigated violence against the urban plebs or the aristocracy or both. Boris may have omitted to mention Sparta in his answer at all, but Mary’s guilty of passing over mention of the Principate.

First question: did the Greeks debate these questions of political liberty and tackle moot points such as the extent to which the rights of the individual should be sacrificed in the interests of the state? Beard references the Catilinarian Conspiracy as one such instance where the tension between state and individual surfaced. Did Classical Athens hold equivalent debates? We should note that Athens, which was never a Republic, and for most of its history was either governed by kings, tyrants, or democrats, was likely to discuss similar, but not the same questions; the form of government does not just determine how the political agenda gets implemented, but to an extent governs the agenda. Athens may not have had a Catilinarian Conspiracy, but they did have the trial of the Athenian generals after the naval disaster at Arginusae, as a result of which the six generals on trial were convicted by an impassioned mob and executed; Plato would cite this as but one case-study of the disordered crowd getting carried away by emotion. When in 404 the Thirty, a pro-Spartan oligarchic regime, commenced their Reign of Terror, they targeted in particular metics and wealthy Athenian families, confiscating property and murdering the well-off. In the years after their fall, they were systematically eliminated, either in private prosecutions or assassinated by the regime’s victims. So, Athens did have to navigate issues such as the rights of the individual in relation to the state, the accountability of the state for its perceived wrongdoings, and political theorists like Plato were constantly interrogating the merits of different forms of government, not least radical democracy.

And before we start making highfalutin claims about Roman openness, let’s remember that all ancient power was ferociously jingoistic and nationalistic, even borderline racist. Just as Athenian citizenship laws excluded aliens from participating in the city’s political business, so Rome would go to war with her allies over the matter of enfranchisement – the so-called ‘Social War’ – and she held debates in the senate over the admission of Gallic nobles into Rome’s governing bodies (preserved on the Lyon Tablet, from Claudius’ reign). Roman woman, like at Athens, technically had no political rights, even though they were likely freer and subject to less strict social expectations, but let’s remember the Roman empire was powered by an enormous slave economy, which was cruelly run (albeit, this finds a strong parallel in the treatment of Messenian helots at Sparta), whereas the Athenians were notoriously relaxed in terms of the control they exerted over their slaves – read a chapter from the Old Oligarch to see how unfussed they were, indeed he even claims that, at Athens, citizens and slaves were indistinguishable from one another in the streets!

So, this notion of Rome as an open, inclusive, cosmopolitan society has to be qualified. Mary arraigned against the pretension of Boris’ praise of Periclean politics and the institution of democracy, but if we’re looking for pretension how much further need we look than the Roman triumph, or the Res Gestae inscription put up by Augustus to commemorate his deeds, or the hypocrisy of the Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca, who defamed the dead emperor Claudius by writing a play called ‘Pumpkinification’, tried and failed to advise the emperor Nero, and despite (in typical Stoic manner) recommending sufferance and endurance of ills, was one of the wealthiest men at Rome and one of the largest private slave-owners from antiquity. Fifth-century Athenian democracy may only have lasted some hundred and ten years, in its pristine form, roughly, but during that period Athenian citizens were freer and enjoyed more rights than at any time in Rome, Athens became the ‘school’ of the ancient world with schools for Platonic, Aristotelian, and Epicurean thought in a way never achieved by Rome (and, indeed, by no other ancient city with the exception of Alexandria), its artistic and literary output was prodigious in a way never rivalled even under Augustan Rome, and while libertas may have been Republican Rome’s main political legacy to us, from Athens we inherited concepts of isonomia (equality of rights), isegoria (equality of speech), parrhesia (freedom of expression), and most importantly eleutheria (freedom); these canonized human rights occupied a place in the Greek consciousness in a way never seen at Rome.

Cicero said of Socrates that he had brought philosophy down from the heavens and set it among mortal men, so even by the standards of Rome’s most euphuistic forensic orator Greek philosophical study was hardly pretentious. And besides questions of individual rights and the accountability of magistrates and tyrants, we should also appreciate the vast repository of other questions and important debates first aired by the Greeks, questions such as do we have free will or are we just subject to a predetermined fate; how do we, and how does the world, exist; what are the benefits of different forms of government; what makes us civilized in relation to barbarians; how does race impact citizen identity; what does living a good life mean; how do we attain happiness; do laws matter; what makes a democratic assembly truly sovereign; how does freedom differ from slavery; how should we lead our lives; and the question that underpinned all ancient expansion and was especially crucial to the Roman moralists, can empire ever be a good thing? Greek thought provides us with a conceptual framework for our modern debates, be it about philosophy or politics or identity or interaction of the sexes or civilization versus barbarism. Greece has bequeathed unto us more than some Periclean slogans about the greatness of democracy. Rather, they were the first to systematically interrogate the fundamental questions which still occupy us today, about the human condition, about how we define us and situate ourselves in the world, about how we are to live life.