Law & Politics Social Sciences

Must We Always Obey the Law?

This long-read article was written by Adam Zhang for the Northeastern University London essay competition, and received a finalist position.

Estimated read time of essay: 12 minutes

Before we can answer the question, it is important to first understand what the law is. Laws are defined by the Collins Dictionary as “a rule or set of rules, enforceable by the courts, regulating the government of a state, the relationship between the organs of government and the subjects of the state, and the relationship or conduct of subjects towards each other” [1]. Laws define the political, economic and social factors of the environment we live in. 

So what is the purpose of such pieces of legislation?

An important reason for why it exists is that it protects basic human rights through the legal system. When charged with an offence, before any proceedings, a citizen is guaranteed a public hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal, and is entitled to access legal representation, and will be granted the presumption of innocence, which is the maxim of “innocent until proven guilty”. They cannot be unlawfully detained or arrested and are guaranteed a trial to determine their innocence, or guilt. As a result, it is made certain that citizens are treated fairly, since power can be given to the accused to contest the state/prosecution’s decisions effectively in a trial, which means that they can only be prosecuted if they had solid reason and evidence to do so. Such rights are enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), which merged the European Convention of Human Rights with British law, with Article 6, the right to fair trial, and Article 5, the right to liberty and security [2]. Thus, a basis is provided for the individual to uphold and defend their position against unfair treatment, whether it may be infringements on other articles of the HRA, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery and the freedom of expression, as well as on other areas of law such as criminal, employment and family law, no matter the circumstances. 

The Human Rights Act is a fundamental example of the importance of law, but there is also another key function, namely maintaining the economy. According to John Maynard Keynes [3], the government has the responsibility to maintain economic growth and low unemployment. Therefore, it needs the law to do so. This can be achieved using taxation, made mandatory under the law by statute such as the Finance Acts[4]. The subsequent tax revenues contribute to the government budget maintaining the public sector, which employs around 1/6 of the UK workforce [5], including nurses and police officers, but also the maintenance of key infrastructure, like ports, airports and motorways. Additionally, it can be used to help businesses in less economically developed areas, in the form of subsidies. An example of such policy would be the government’s new “levelling up” scheme, which plans to allocate £3.1 billion pounds [6]to communities across the country to help them recover after the Covid-19 pandemic, under Section 50 of the UK Internal Markets Act [7]. Although it could be argued that sometimes these funds are allocated inefficiently, with the recent strike action over pay being a prime example [8], the law is nonetheless vital in maintaining the government’s ability to help the economy, since without taxes the government would have no funds for wages in the first place. 

However, the economy is only one facet of society in which the law must be implemented – the political aspect is also tremendously important. This is because laws protect the parliamentary democracy that gives power to the people to make important decisions, rather than a small collective of individuals. Arguably one of the most crucial pieces of legislation in this regard would be the Bill of Rights 1689 [9], which laid down the foundations of our modern parliamentary system. It removes the power of the monarch to levy tax and to issue excessive fines or punishments, as well as most importantly to stop them from suspending or making laws without Parliament’s approval. The Act also safeguards freedom of elections, the freedom of speech of MPs in debate and proceedings and the right to petition the government. This way, power is given to parliament, to run the country in the interest of the people, without the fear of interference from undemocratic elements such as the monarchy or the military. And so, the law is critical in providing a voice for ordinary citizens. Without it, we would not have a say in the most decisive political flashpoints, such as Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis [10] or the windfall tax on energy companies [11]. 

Finally, it cannot be ignored that the law stands up for the individual as well. There is plenty of public legislation protecting citizens’ civil rights, such as the Race Relations Act 1965 [12], which outlawed discrimination based on “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”, or the Representation of the People Act 1928 [13], which gave votes for women, as well as the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which “decriminalised” homosexual acts [14], though gay marriage was not to be legalised until the passing of the Marriage Act 2013 [15]. On top of this, the law also provides regulation of private, domestic affairs. Such was the case of R V R [16], where in 1991, the House of Lords ruled that it was illegal under English criminal law that a husband could rape his wife. The defendant had attempted to appeal his conviction on the grounds of an imaginary “marital rape exemption” under common law but was rejected by the Court of Appeal. One of the court judges, Lord Chief Justice Lane, stated that “a rapist remains a rapist subject to the criminal law, irrespective of his relationship with his victim”, and described the grounds of appeal as “common law fiction” [17]. Hence, it was removed as part of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 [18].

Therefore, these points lead to a theoretical answer – citizens must always obey the law. If it provides civil liberties, maintains the economy and protects our human rights as well as our democracy, then it seems in our best interest to do so, as not only do we help ourselves, but the whole of society as well.

However, the case of Gard and Others V United Kingdom highlights a key limitation of the law. It demonstrated that in some situations, obedience to legislation transcends political, economic, or human rights justifications, because sometimes there is simply no better outcome whether the law is obeyed or not. 

Charlie Gard, a young infant, was born on the 4th  August 2016, with a rare mitochondrial disease, MDDS. It meant that he could not respire properly or use his arms or legs – he relied on a ventilator at all times, meaning that he was required to stay at Great Ormond Street Hospital, where care could be provided. In January 2017 began suffering deadly seizures, and his doctors felt that it was time to end his life support and begin palliative care, to the opposition of his parents. For them, there was still hope of Charlie’s survival – they had consulted an American neurologist named Michio Hirano, who was working on a potential cure named nucleoside therapy. However, Dr Hirano felt the chances of success were only a “theoretical possibility” [19], owing to the treatment’s highly experimental nature. 

Charlie’s parents were not willing to give up on young Charlie’s life, and so the case was brought to the High Court by GOSH. They ruled in favour of GOSH, citing the Children’s Act 1989 [20], with Section 1 stating that the “child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”, or in other words, because it was in Charlie’s best self-interests to not receive the nucleoside therapy, as its experimental nature may cause more harm than good. The case was then subsequently brought to the Court of Appeal, then Supreme Court, until finally it reached the European Court of Human Rights, where the decision of the High Court was upheld each time [21]. On the 27th of June 2017, Charlie was moved to hospice, and on the following day his mother declared that he had passed away [22]. 

Though the law had been obeyed, the result was extremely polarizing for many [23]. Even though placing Charlie into palliative care may have been the best way forward for him, it could be argued that the decision should have been up to his parents. It makes perfect sense if they did not wish to follow the guidance of the courts, as it would be emotionally shattering to give up the life of their child, especially if there was even the smallest chance of recovery. 

But no system is perfect, and it goes without saying that with all the benefits that the law can bring, it is undeniable that as a country, we must still obey the law. If the government or the people did not uphold the law and went against the Human Rights Act or NHS Act 1946 [24], Charlie’s parents would not have been able to contest their decision in a court of law for such a long time, and GOSH wouldn’t have had the funding from tax revenues to keep Charlie alive on a ventilator. If you disagree with a law, you should not disobey it – from R V R, we can see that laws can be changed, but only using correct procedure like using the rights that the law gives you to argue your case in court or for example, by creating a petition to get an amendment passed through parliament. This way, the order of society is respected, and as aforementioned, not only the individual but the whole of society has something to gain. 

  17. ibid.
  20. ibid.
Law & Politics Social Sciences

What would have to change about ‘democracy’ in order to restore faith in democracy among young people?

This long-read article was written by Joshua Inglesfield for the Northeastern University London essay competition, and received a finalist position.

Estimated read time of essay: 12 minutes

What would have to change about ‘democracy’ in order to restore faith in democracy among young people?

Young people – who I shall class as anyone aged 16-24 (taking the 18-24 grouping used by Parliament and extending it to include those who may be enfranchised in the future) – are the future of democracy, and thus it is critical that they have faith in its operation; lest we fall into the enclave of authoritarianism. An increasing number of protests worldwide and a surge in populism signals that youth are tired of democracy’s inefficiency. Populist success can be seen worldwide – from the historic city of Rome where you can find the newly elected far-right Fratelli d’Italia, to Orban in Budapest, across the Mediterranean to Syriza in Greece – the list goes on. Correlations drawn with figures showing that 55% of Italian youth no longer believe that democracy ‘is the best form of government’ – 7% higher than the average for European youth [1] – demonstrates that the rise of ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ is alongside a growing lack of faith in democracy. This is no coincidence and is happening across the globe. Thus, it is clear a solution is needed.

Direct democracy would appear to be the perfect solution to loss of faith in democracy among youth – the turnout for the 2016 Brexit referendum being 10% higher than that for the 2017 election among 18-24 year olds [2] is evidence enough that youth prefer a form of direct democracy. Not only would this give young people the impression that they could make a tangible difference, but it would also reduce this notion of ‘democratic disconnect’ [3] – the alienation of young people from democratic processes. Youth also have a lack of trust in governments – with such a process young people will be confident that governments will no longer be able to ‘sell’ policy decisions to the highest bidder through party donations to as great an extent. Further to this, Colin Crouch argues that; ‘democracy requires the formal mechanisms of citizen participation but also proof of genuine political agency’- which in the eyes of young people is not being fulfilled, seeing little ‘political agency’ (actual actions) taking place with regards to their concerns. Consequently, we can conclude that young people would, by Crouch’s argument, be seeing a failure and consequently be having a lack of faith in democracy, due to this perceived absence of ‘political agency’– a situation Crouch labels a ‘post-democracy’ [4]. Such an implementation would deal with the perceived lack of action alongside strengthening ‘citizen participation’ and so increase faith in democracy. But there is a significant drawback to this suggestion. Imagine you wake up to a notification on your phone – notice of the 2nd referendum this month. Before you can even consider the proposition you must go to work, cook dinner, and go to the supermarket. 349 minutes [5] – the average amount of ‘leisure time’ per day for Britons – is all you have left. 349 minutes dwarfed by the amount of time Public Bill Committees spend inspecting a bill, and certainly too little time to properly understand the subject of the referendum. This is the constraint of time. The average person simply does not have enough of it to consider the wider implications of their vote, nor how the policy enacted by the referendum might fit in with existing policy. Consequently, their voting behaviour will become a lottery, an impulse on the day rather than a considered vote. So, while direct democracy may seem inviting, once realised the population would find themselves confused, overwhelmed, and not able to make a decision to benefit even themselves. Thus, if this were to take place the number of referendums would have to be strictly limited, and be on larger, more straightforward questions such as capital punishment.

The voting age is a hotly disputed topic in British politics. For years groups such as the Electoral Reform Society [6] have campaigned for the voting age to be lowered to 16 – mentioning arguments such as increasing political participation for generations to come [7] – but few cite increasing faith in democracy as the primary argument. The Electoral Reform Society’s argument is a valid one – they argue that if you “don’t vote, you are less likely to vote in future” [8] – and that by enfranchising these new groups we could encourage greater lifelong participation. This would have the additional benefit of increasing faith in democracy, increasing involvement and again reducing a democratic disconnect to youth– with Dr Foa and Dr Mounk writing that in the UK young people are less likely to vote for the often-anti-democratic populists when ‘mobilised to vote’ [9] – which here would be enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds. An additional argument for lowering the voting age being the solution to declining faith in democracy among young people is the idea that when youth are not directly involved in democracy, they lose faith in it [10]. This action would therefore seem to fulfil all criteria to increase faith in democracy among youth – but there is an obvious drawback – nothing has changed for the currently enfranchised youth. Such a change would therefore do nothing to deal with the current decline in faith in democracy among the ages 18-24, a dangerous risk given that these are the ages which are already propelling extreme populists to power in nations such as Greece. Far from ameliorating the situation, this would risk escalating it. The youth ignored by such a reform may feel further alienated and see another failure of democracy to criticise, one that risks pushing the democratic disconnect to an irretrievable state of separation between democracy and young people.

First Past The Post (FPTP) – a voting system which suppresses the votes of millions. That is, from a critic’s perspective – but the fact is that FPTP’s nature ensures that only two large parties can ever realistically hold government, a feature which while does produce strong majoritarian governments (usually – 2010 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition is a notable exception), results in smaller parties receiving almost no seats. But why is this a problem regarding faith in democracy? If we take the argument that the principal reason for loss of faith is not seeing action, would not FPTP be the obvious choice, empowering a strong government to take decisive action without being hindered by Parliamentary squabbles or half-baked coalitions? Those arguments certainly hold some water; however, the issue of representation must be raised. One of the issues young people are most concerned with is climate; so many may support the Green Party; but despite getting 2.7% of the vote share across the UK in the 2019 general election, they only received approximately 0.15% of seats available [11]. Thus, many young people who voted for a party that would pioneer their beliefs have been left unrepresented. This feeling of being unrepresented will likely lead to dissatisfaction and a lack of faith in democracy, as the problem lies in the very essence of democracy, the voting system. The clearest solution would be proportional representation – as used by 40 European nations [12]. Such a system would ensure that smaller parties pioneering the views of minorities or smaller groups such as young people are heard and would allow for greater political pressure to be applied for tangible action. Critics, however, would argue that it gives opportunity to potentially dangerous populist parties such as Syriza, or even extremist ones as seen with the rise of the Nazi party under proportional representation, portraying it as a vile breeding ground for hate. However, it is necessary to note that in modern democracy this is rarely the case to such an extent, with parties such as ‘Alternative for Germany’ [13] being kept out of government – in fact, it almost seems as if FPTP is the envy of populists at present, leading to Trumpism and pro-Brexit populist groups rising to power and succeeding [14]

To conclude, young people will need to see a change to the very structure of democracy to prevent further decline in faith in democracy – with it being imperative that these changes are not superficial PR stunts but tangible changes. What is needed is a two-fold implementation – With this in mind, I would suggest that what is necessary for the UK is the simpler change of increasing the number of referendums to involve youth to a greater extent in democracy, and the more structural change of shifting to proportional representation as a system to give the silenced minority parties a voice. These two implementations would allow for an increase in participation in democracy, which in turn would lead to an increase in faith in it as young people see their policy aspirations manifest into tangible change. Thus, as Aiden Correia writes; ‘democracy is about providing everyone with a voice. The youth are willing to talk; governments just need to start to listen’ [15] – through the measures outlined above we can fight the democratic apathy of young people before it spills over into antipathy.

[1] TUI Stiftung/YouGov. (2017). “Young Europe 2017: The Youth Study of the TUI Stiftung.” .

[2] Stephan Mashford/89 Scotland. (2020). “Youth turnout – How does the UK compare to other European nations?” .

[3] Foa, R.S., Klassen, A., Wenger, D., Rand, A. and M. Slade. (2020) “Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy: Reversing the Democratic Disconnect?” .

[4] C. Crouch. (2004). Post-Democracy. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press

[5] ONS. (2017). “Leisure time in the UK: 2015” .

[6] Electoral Reform Society. (2017). “Background on Votes at 16” .

[7] Electoral Reform Society. (date not disclosed). “Votes at 16” .

[8] Electoral Reform Society. (date not disclosed). “Votes at 16” .

[9] R.S. Foa/Y. Mounk. (2019). “Youth and the populist wave” .

[10] A. Correia. (2021). “The necessity of youth support in sustaining democracy” .

[11] BBC News. (2019). “Election 2019 Results” .

[12] M. Palese/Electoral Reform Society. (2018). “Which European countries use proportional representation?” .

[13] L. Drutman. (2022). “10 Ideas to Fix Democracy – Abolish Two-Party Systems” .

[14] L. Drutman. (2022). “10 Ideas to Fix Democracy – Abolish Two-Party Systems” .

[15] A. Correia. (2021). “The necessity of youth support in sustaining democracy” .


Zeise’s Salt -The Molecule that Transformed Chemistry

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Salvatore Nigrelli.

Estimated read time: 9 minutes

Few molecules can be said to have completely transformed our understanding of science. Zeise’s salt (potassium trichloro(ethylene)platinate(II)), however, is one of these few.

Yellow crystals of Zeise’s salt were first isolated in 1827 by William Christopher Zeise, a Danish pharmacologist working at the University of Copenhagen. Upon stoichiometric analysis, Zeise concluded that the salt consisted of platinum and ethene, making it the first organometallic compound ever to be discovered. But, unbeknownst to Zeise, these pretty little crystals were about to revolutionise chemistry.

As news spread through the scientific community about Zeise’s discovery of the first organometallic compound, scientists from across the world rushed to try and synthesise more. In the years that followed, a plethora of weird and wonderful organometallic molecules were discovered, from cisplatin in 1845 to diethyl zinc in 1848. A new field of chemistry had been born. Since then, organometallic compounds have revolutionised a whole variety of different fields from polymers and plastics to medicine. In fact, it is now believed that Zeise’s salt could be the next big breakthrough in the battle against cancer.

The more that it was analysed, the more the question of the bonding in Zeise’s salt baffled chemists. No one could come up with an explanation of its bonding that agreed with its molecular formula. The answer finally came in the 1950s, more than 120 years after Zeise’s salt was first discovered, and it required the invention of a completely new theory of bonding that shook the world of theoretical chemistry and transformed the way that we think about molecules. Not bad for a few yellow crystals produced in a pharmacologist’s lab in Copenhagen.


Zeise’s original 1830 paper was entitled:

‘De chloride platinae et alcohole vini sese invicem permutabilis nec non de novis substantiis inde oviundis’

(The reaction between platinous chloride and wine alcohol and on the new substances arising therefrom)

In this paper, he laid out a method for producing Zeise’s salt by reacting platinum (IV) chloride with ethanol. Although the precise reaction was unknown at the time, it is now known to be:

[PtCl6]2- + 2C2H5OH [PtCl3(C2H4)] + 3Cl + H2O + CH3COH + 2H+

When the potassium salt of [PtCl6]2- is used, upon evaporation of excess ethanol, yellow crystals of KPtCl3(C2H4) form. It is these crystals that are called Zeise’s salt.

This reaction is an example of a redox reaction; the platinum (IV) in [PtCl6]2- is reduced to platinum (II) in [PtCl3(C2H4)] and ethanol (the reducing agent) is oxidised to form an aldehyde – ethanal in this case.

However, surprisingly, almost immediately after the publication of his first paper, Zeise published a second paper outlining a much more effective synthesis of his newly discovered salt that gave a much higher yield.

The reaction involved reacting platinum (II) chloride with ethanol:

[PtCl4]2- + C2H5OH   [PtCl3(C2H4)] + Cl + H2O

Unlike the original reaction, this is not a redox reaction – the platinum atom is in the same oxidation state in [PtCl4]2- and [PtCl3(C2H4)] – which suggests that there is a much more complicated mechanism underpinning this reaction.

There is no literature on the mechanism for this reaction, so the following mechanism is one that I have devised which I think is the most appropriate way of representing the actual reaction that is occurring:

The first stage of this reaction is the dehydration of ethanol into ethene. Such a step is possible due to a combination of energy input (the reaction is carried out at 170°C) and the action of the filled dyz orbital in the platinum atom of [PtCl4]2-.

The filled dyz orbital of the platinum atom provides an area of high electron density and so exerts an attractive force on one of the hydrogen atoms in ethanol, thereby weakening the C-H bond. The high temperature means that the ethanol molecules have high kinetic energies, so when they collide, enough energy is transferred to break this weakened C-H bond heterolytically, forming a H+ ion and a carbanion [scheme 1].

Scheme 1 The mechanism for the breaking one of ethanol’s C-H bonds to produce a carbanion.

Then, a H+ ion produced in scheme 1 bonds with one of the lone pairs on the oxygen atom, forming a H2O group (which is a good leaving group). The lone pair on the carbanion then forms a bond between the two carbon atoms, creating a double bond; however, carbon atoms cannot have more than four bonds, so the C-O bond breaks and the H2O leaving group is released, forming ethene and water [scheme 2].

Scheme 2 The mechanism for the formation of ethene and water from the carbanion.

The second stage of this reaction is the substitution of one of the chloride ions in [PtCl4]2- for ethene. This is possible because the two Cl ions in [PtCl4]2- are ligands, i.e. bonded to Pt by a coordination complex, which makes them easy to remove in ligand substitution reactions.

[PtCl4]2- consists of two chlorine atoms and two Cl ligands bonded to a platinum atom. Due to the large difference in electronegativity between chlorine and platinum, the Pt-Cl bond is very polar, giving the platinum atom a δ+ charge. The double bond in ethene is an area of very high electron density and therefore acts as a nucleophile and is attracted to the δ+ charge on the platinum atom. The double bond in ethene then forms a coordination complex with the platinum atom forcing one of the Pt-Cl coordination complexes to break, yielding [PtCl3(C2H4)] and Cl [scheme 3].

Scheme 3 The mechanism for the formation of [PtCl3(C2H4)].

There is a large yield of metallic platinum from this method of synthesising Zeise’s salt. This is due to a redox reaction that also occurs in which ethanol reduces [PtCl4]2- to platinum metal and is itself oxidised to ethanal:

[PtCl4]2-+ C2H5OH  Pt + CH3COH + 4H+ + 4Cl

This secondary reaction provides evidence for the mechanism that I have suggested because it shows that [PtCl4]2- plays a minimal role in the dehydration of ethanol to ethene because otherwise it would react in a redox reaction with ethanol rather than dehydrating it.

Infrared Spectral Analysis

Before considering the bonding in Zeise’s salt, we must first show that the platinum-ethene interaction in the molecule is in fact a bond and not simply a strong intermolecular force. The way that I will prove this is using the infrared (IR) spectra of Zeise’s salt and the reactants used to synthesise it. My logic behind this method is as follows: IR spectra show the different bonds present within substances – intermolecular forces of attraction do not show up on IR spectra

– therefore, if there is a peak present in the IR spectrum of Zeise’s salt that is not present in any of the spectra of the reactants, such a peak must be due to a bond that is not present in any of the reactants but is present in Zeise’s salt. The only bond in Zeise’s salt not present in any of its reactants is the platinum-ethene interaction. Therefore if such an inexplicable peak shows up on the IR spectrum, it shows that the platinum-ethene interaction is in fact a bond and not any other type of interaction.

The IR spectrum for Zeise’s salt in its crystalline hydrate form, which also contains waters of crystallisation, is:

(AIST spectral database)

Through the process of peak labelling by comparing this spectrum with the IR spectra of ethene, K2PtCl4, and waters of crystallisation (obtained from the IR spectrum for gypsum), it is now possible to determine if there are any unexplained peaks:

  • Peak A is due to the O-H bonds in the waters of crystallisation stretching.
  • Peak B is due to the merging of the peaks due to the Pt-Cl bonds stretching and the C-H bonds stretching.
  • Peak C is a weak signal that is due to the C-H bonds bending.
  • Peak D is due to the O-H bonds in the waters of crystallisation bending.
  • Peak E is due to the C=C double bond stretching (this is shifted right by around 150 cm-1 from the corresponding peak in the IR spectrum of ethene because of the interaction between the platinum atom and the double bond).
  • Peak F is due to the Pt-Cl bond stretching.
  • Peak G is due to the C=C double bond bending.
  • Peak H is a weak signal due to the Pt-Cl bonds bending.
  • Peak I is a weak signal due to the Pt-Cl bond bending.
  • Peak J is an unexplained peak.

Since there is an unexplained peak on the spectrum, this shows that the platinum-ethene interaction is in fact a bond rather than an intermolecular force. In fact, 406 cm-1 (the wavenumber of the unexplained peak) corresponds exactly with the universally accepted wavenumber for the platinum-ethene bond (Grogan & Nakamoto, 1966).


The bonding in Zeise’s salt is a problem that puzzled chemists for over a hundred years after it was first discovered. In many representations, the platinum atom appears (incorrectly) to be bonded directly to the C=C double bond rather than to any particular atom.

To solve this problem, three chemists: Michael Dewar, Joseph Chatt, and L.A. Duncanson created a revolutionary new theory of bonding for transition metals, which is now known as the Dewar-Chatt-Duncanson (DCD) theory of bonding in their honour.

At the crux of the DCD theory of bonding is the action of both filled and empty d orbitals in the outer shells of transition metal atoms, which interact with bonding and antibonding orbitals of other atoms.

This is exactly what occurs in Zeise’s salt in a process called η2 bonding. The vacant dx2-y2 orbital receives electron density from the σ bonding orbital component of the C=C double bond in a process called σ donation. This creates a σ bonding orbital between the platinum atom and the two carbon atoms [scheme 4].

Scheme 4 σ donation between the σ component of the C=C double bond and the vacant dx2– y2 orbital of the platinum atom (black and white represent opposite phases of the orbitals).

The filled dyz orbital then donates electron density to the vacant π* antibonding orbital component of the C=C double bond in a process called π acceptance [scheme 5]. This creates a π backbond between the platinum atom and the two carbon atoms. Since an antibonding orbital is being filled, this weakens the C=C double bond, causing it to lengthen and its vibrational energy to lower – which is why the peak corresponding to the C=C double bond stretching is shifted to a lower wavenumber on the IR spectrum of Zeise’s salt compared with that of ethene.

Scheme 5 π acceptance between the filled dyz orbital of the platinum atom and the vacant π* orbital component of the C=C double bond.

This weakening of the C=C double bond due to the filling of the π* antibonding orbital also causes the molecular orbital to rehybridise from sp2 to sp3, which changes the molecular geometries around the carbon atoms from trigonal planar to tetrahedral. This causes the hydrogen atoms to move and face away from the incoming PtCl3 group (as shown in scheme 5).

The bonding in Zeise’s salt is further complicated by a phenomenon known as the trans effect, which is that for molecules with square planar geometries, like Zeise’s salt, certain groups will remove electron density from, and thereby weaken the bonding of, the group trans (opposite) to them. This occurs in Zeise’s salt because the very electronegative Cl group opposite the ethene group removes electron density from the platinum-ethene bond causing it to weaken and lengthen – the platinum-ethene bond length in Zeise’s salt is 2.340 Å, while the Pt-Cl bond length is 2.303 Å.

Once all of these bonding complications are considered, the final molecular geometry of

Zeise’s salt is:

Figure 1 The molecular geometry of Zeise’s salt (University of Boston, Massachusetts).

Importance of Zeise’s Salt

In 2015, it was discovered by researchers at the universities of Berlin and Innsbruck that Zeise’s salt can bind strongly to DNA. Although no full mechanism has been published, shown below is the mechanism that I think best describes the interactions that are occurring based on the reactions of similar compounds (such as cisplatin) and analysis of the proposed interactions involved:

Upon entry into the cell, Zeise’s salt undergoes a ligand substitution reaction. Cl – as it is a good leaving group – is substituted for a water molecule to produce the dichloroaqua(ethylene)platinate(II) ([PtCl2(H2O)(C2H4)]).

Scheme 6 The mechanism for the ligand substitution stage of the reaction.

Now that there is a H2O ligand bonded to the platinum atom, [PtCl2(H2O)(C2H4)] can form hydrogen bonds with the four nucleobases [scheme 7] once the DNA double helix has been unravelled by DNA helicase at the start of the replication process.

Scheme 7 Hydrogen bonding between [PtCl2(H2O)(C2H4)] and (clockwise from top left) cytosine, adenine, guanine and thymine.

If the bases are hydrogen bonded to [PtCl2(H2O)(C2H4)], they cannot hydrogen bond to their complementary base. This means that the DNA double helix cannot reform and so no new DNA can be produced, which kills the cell. When Zeise’s salt is administered to cancerous tissue, by the above mechanism, the cancerous cells are unable to replicate their mutated DNA, which stops the cancer from spreading, and kills the cancerous cells. Although healthy cells suffer the same effects, since cancer cells replicate their DNA at a much higher rate than healthy body cells, the rate of death of cancerous cells is far higher than that of healthy cells.


William Christopher Zeise is one of chemistry’s forgotten heroes. It is amazing how some yellow crystals, made in a dingy laboratory in Copenhagen, have not only forged an entirely new branch of chemistry, but have also revolutionised the theory of chemical bonding. It seems like every time Zeise’s salt is looked at by scientists, it yields something new and important, and with the discovery of its possible use as an anti-cancer drug, it seems likely that Zeise’s salt has a bright future and will play an extremely important role in our society in years to come.


Balacco, G., & Natile, G. (1990). Formation of Platinum-Enamine Complexes by Reaction of Zeise’s salt with Secondary Amines. Journal of the Chemical Society, Dalton Transactions.

Bond, G. (1964). Platinum Metal Salts and Complexes as Homogenous Catalysts. Platinum Metals Review, 92-98.

Grogan, M., & Nakamoto, K. (1966). Infrared Spectra and Normal Coordinate Analysis of Metal-Olefin Complexes. I. Zeise’s Salt Potassium Trichloro(ethylene)platinate(II) Monohydrate. Journal of the American Chemical Society , 5454-5460.

Hunt, L. (1984). The First Organometallic Compounds. Platinum Metals Review, 76-83.

La Salle University. (n.d.). Introduction to Organometallic Chemistry 3. Philadelphia.

Meieranz, S., Stefanopoulou, M., Rubner, G., Bensdorf, K., Kubutat, D., Sheldrick, W. S., & Gust, R. (2015). The Biological Activity of Zeise’s Salt and its Derivatives. Angewandte Chemie, 1-5.

Merck KGaA. (2020). IR Spectrum Table and Chart. Retrieved from Sigma Aldrich Web Site:

Seidl, V., Knop, O., & Falk, M. (1969). Infrared Studies of Water in Crystalline Hydrates:

Gypsum. Canadian Journal of Chemistry , 1361-8.

University of Massachusetts, Boston. (n.d.). Pi bonded ligands . Boston.

Arts & Humanities History

Slavery: A Catalyst for the Civil War?

This long-read article was written by sixth-former Jack Farrant.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

The influence of slavery has long been considered to be the most important contributor to the start of the American Civil War. Historians since the days of the Civil War itself have often cited slavery as the primary, or even singular, point of tension. This view, although up to a point valid, is a gross simplification of what was in reality far more complex situation. The government of South Carolina, the first of eleven states to leave the Union, chose slavery as the main cause for the succession in their 1860 Declaration of Succession, saying that there was ‘increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery’. Although it is clear that the tensions of slavery were a factor in the outbreak of the Civil War, it is no doubt useful to also take a more Revisionist point of view. Indeed, while the divisive issue of slavery was a cause of tension among States, the problem of inherent disunity between those States encompasses much more than the dispute over slavery. It is more fitting to argue that it was the role of slavery within larger, more complex issues of economy, demography, and geography, that was more of a factor in the outbreak of the Civil War, as opposed to declaring slavery the sole source of tension. 

Historiographical debate over the last two centuries has provided the framework of modern opinion about the outbreak of the Civil War. For many years, it has been understood that the origins of the Civil War cannot be questioned without also looking at the wider context of international affairs and domestic tension within American society at the time. In addition to this, it is important to take into account the difference in opinion about the origins of the Civil War in Northern and Southern accounts. Especially in the years directly following the end of the Civil War, and into the Reconstruction Era at the end of the 19th Century, general Southern collective memory was that States’ Rights and Northern Aggression were the key factors in the outbreak of the war. On the other hand, Northern abolitionists, as well as the majority of today’s professional historians, point to the institution of slavery as the primary cause. 

On the 20th August 1619, an English trade ship, The White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort near Jamestown, Virginia. It carried with it approximately twenty Africans, who became the first slaves to arrive in the British Colonies in America. By 1860, the slave population was four million. Although Revisionism is appropriate when considering the causes of the Civil War, it is still pertinent to acknowledge the importance of slavery as a source of tension. The uncomfortable question of slavery had remained unanswered since the early days of the Revolutionary War; a shortcoming of the revered Founding Fathers. Slavery had been practised in America for as long as it had been a colony, and so became a contentious issue in the new Union. George Washington, despite being a slave-owner himself, claimed that ‘There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.’ This duplicitous idea is at the core of early-Union hypocrisy over the morality and legality of slavery. The nationalistic sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution affirmed ‘that all men are created equal’, but despite these claims, slavery would remain legal in the former colonies for the time being. In the years following the Revolutionary War, certain States began to prohibit slavery within their territory, creating a great divide within the Union. The politicians of the early Union were far more content to compromise than to take on the problem of slavery outright, a sentiment emphasised in the inclusion of the Three-Fifths Compromise, which decreed that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person, in order to increase House representation for slave-holding States. Further legislation, such as the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, allowed for escaped slaves in free States to be returned to their masters in slaveholding territories. The sentiment of compromise rather than action confirms slavery as a cause for tension in America, and so it is clear that the response to early-Union slavery was an important factor in the lead-up to the Civil War.  

Political mismanagement of slavery no doubt also contributed to the inter-State tensions preceding the Civil War. Throughout the early 19th Century, a careful balancing act of slaveholding and free States in the Union was undertaken to ensure no side of the argument had majority representation in Congress. Just as had been prevalent in the 18th Century, a number of compromises were made to try and preserve the Union. The 1820 Missouri Compromise created the Free State of Maine to counteract the admission of the Slave State of Missouri, and banned all slavery in Louisiana Purchase territory North of the 36° 30’ parallel, excluding the State of Missouri. This was contentious legislation; contemporary writers such as ex-President Thomas Jefferson claimed that the division of the country along sectional lines would lead to the breakdown of the Union. Although the Missouri Compromise undoubtedly delayed the outbreak of war, Jefferson was proven correct just forty years later.  

The concessional nature of the legislation did nothing but delay the inevitable confrontation between North and South, rather than avoid it entirely. The Compromise of 1850 not only enhanced the power of the Fugitive Slave Act, but also defused a confrontation over slavery in the recently acquired New Mexico Territory. While this bill lessened tensions in the short-term, it was yet another example of compromise rather than pragmatism, and so did nothing in the longer-term to quell the confrontation. Further events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing self-determination over slavery in the new States of Kansas and Nebraska, and the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford court ruling, which devalued of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by forcing Scott to remain a slave even though he had lived in free territory for four years, brought the country closer and closer to war, arguably dooming the Union to its impending division. It is clear that the lack of political pragmatism, and by extension the willingness to compromise, did nothing to stop the inter-State problems that had existed since the days of the Revolutionary War. In this way, political mismanagement of the institution of slavery caused just as much tension as the existence of that institution. 

For many years, the President of the United States has been one of the world’s most influential and powerful political figures, and is supposed to act as the defender of the Constitution and of liberty across the world. The position of President has, over American history, been held by some of the greatest leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, among many others. Despite this, the Presidency in the years leading up to the Civil War was not nearly as reassured or steadfast as it had been. The Election of 1856 saw Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan carry every Southern state. In his inaugural address, he left the question of slavery up to individual states, perpetuating the passive approach taken to slavery that was common at the time. Buchanan was a highly divisive figure, and as an advocate of the continuation of slavery, he alienated many Northern abolitionists. Some of the clearest evidence for the divisions within America was the election results in 1856. The divide between Northern and Southern States was obvious, with Buchanan winning every Southern State, and Republican candidate John Fremont, who arguably would have taken a more pragmatic stance to slavery, winning almost every Northern State. This was symbolic of the regionalised nature of American society in the years preceding the Civil War. The anti-abolitionist ideology of President Buchanan was generally popular among Southern voters, and highly unpopular among Northern voters. His politics, just like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, divided the Union among sectional lines. The Election of 1856 was a microcosm of a wider split in the Union; a situation getting closer and closer to Civil War. Overall, the influence of the Presidency during this time did nothing to quell tension within the rapidly failing Union. General historical opinion tends to disregard this factor of the Civil War, but it can be argued that the divisions of American politics were just as important to the start of the Civil War as the existence of slavery is usually considered to be. 

Ever since the early days of post-Revolution America, the issue of States’ Rights had been highly contentious, and the source of much debate among Northern and Southern politicians for decades. For decades, the split between North and South was obvious, encompassing economics, politics, and society. Many in the Southern States argued that Congress favoured the North, and despite being proven correct on multiple occasions, the feeling of dejection felt by many in the South fuelled inter-State rivalry in the Antebellum Union. The Articles of Confederation in the days of the Revolutionary War had allowed the central government little authority in the running of individual States, instead allowing the Union’s constituents to govern themselves on a self-determinist basis. The Constitution a few years later strengthened the government, decreeing that the Federal Law was ‘the supreme Law of the Land’. Despite these efforts to strengthen central government, the federalism present in the early Union meant that post-Revolutionary America was not much more than a loose confederation of individual entities. This lack of complete unity would continue to perpetuate through Antebellum America; it can be said that the Constitution itself split the country along sectional and regional lines, with each constituent member of the Union governing largely separately from the central government. The problem with federalism was most obvious in the early 19th Century, in particular regarding the Nullification Crisis of 1832. This event highlighted more than anything else the innate differences between the Northern and Southern States. The North viewed overseas trade as problematic, due to its industrialised and domestic economy. On the other hand, the much more rural and backwater South relied heavily on international trade, due to the larger emphasis on agriculture and exportation. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, Congress passed a series of tariffs that clearly favoured the Northern economy over that of the South, and the divisive Nullification Crisis began in 1832 when South Carolina declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 void within the State, prompting President Andrew Jackson to threaten military force. This brief showing of anti-Union sentiment turned out to be a precursor to the events directly preceding the Civil War, with South Carolina the first State to succeed from the Union in 1860. Overall, the existence of anti-Union sentiment in Southern States, and the popular Southern idea that the government favoured the North helped to fuel tensions between the constituent States of the Union, at the time a broad confederation of entities rather than a singular united body. The inherent split between North and South highlighted the single largest problem with creating such a Union; the political, economic, and social situations between the two sides of the country were so different. 

In conclusion, the influence of slavery in the outbreak of the Civil War cannot be understated. Its continued legality in some parts of the Union fuelled debate and division for decades after the Revolution, and in time tore the Union apart along sectional lines. However, from a Revisionist frame of reference, it is vital to understand that slavery as a part of American society was not wholly to blame for the start of the war. Indeed, the split legality of slavery based upon which State you lived in was symbolic of the innate problems within the early Union, as was the lack of pragmatism from politicians who were much more willing to compromise than to confront issues. The multifaceted split between the North and South was as much a problem of economy and society as it was slavery, with the Antebellum Union arguably trying to hold together what should really have been separate nations in first place. Regardless, the most important factor in the lead-up to war in 1861 was not slavery itself, but rather the divisions in the Union caused in part by slavery, and the half-hearted attempts to reconcile the problems of slavery. The fundamental differences between North and South, and the inability of politicians to effectively reconcile the problems caused by the division, is more influential to the outbreak of the Civil War American slavery itself. In the opinion of President Lincoln, the goal of the Civil War was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery, and so it is clear that the Union fell apart due to its own incompetence in dealing with slavery and other issues dividing North and South, not due to the outright existence of slavery in post-Revolutionary America.  

Features Law & Politics Social Sciences

Should legal disputes be decided by artificial, rather than human means?

Winner of the Trinity College Robert Walker Essay Prize, written by sixth-former George Hargreaves.

Estimated read time: 7 minutes

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to resolve some legal disputes more accurately, and with greater consistency, than humans are able to. Practical advantages, such as speed and cost of resolution, have already led to its limited adoption in some countries. This is likely to increase as AI continues to evolve rapidly, both through development of the algorithms with which it is programmed and through machine learning. But it is unlikely at any point that AI will be able to update fast enough to reflect ever-changing and infinitely complex real world circumstances, or to master the (also ever-changing) linguistic subtlety upon which much legal argument is based. Many disputes involve unique circumstances which cannot be fully encapsulated by pre-set algorithms: human oversight will be necessary. Furthermore, AI’s inherent lack of transparency means that it will fail to meet the principle of open justice, except in limited circumstances: both users and subjects of AI may not understand the decisions it makes. This would risk society losing confidence in its legal system. While some disputes should be determined by AI, even these must be subject to human checks. In many cases, however, AI’s best use will be as an expert advisor (or “co-bot”, perhaps) for human arbitrators. Society is likely to consider it morally unacceptable for life-changing decisions (where the death penalty could be imposed, for example) to be made by a “robot judge”. Ultimately, law evolves to reflect changes in society and life itself; an inanimate entity such as AI will be incapable of comprehending the infinite complexity of life in the conceivable future. It would thus be mistaken to devolve all power to AI for deciding legal disputes.

Practicing lawyers have made increasing use of AI over the last decade. A survey of the websites of the UK’s 12 largest solicitors[1] indicates that this will continue, albeit with AI typically being used for back office functions and organising and categorising “Big Data” sources. It is often used for the retrieval of precedents for use in upcoming cases, for example, or for reviewing contracts. AI can perform many such tasks far more quickly, accurately and comprehensively than human solicitors would find possible. While programming and other costs are not insignificant, these solicitors all note that AI is allowing them to deploy more staff in areas where greater specialist skills are required, while automating more routine tasks. While AI has been contributing to dispute resolution for some years, it is now starting to come into use in the decision making process itself, having performed well in a series of robot v human contests. In 2018, for example, a LawGeex AI system achieving 94% accuracy in reviewing a set of non-disclosure agreements, compared with 85% by a group of legal experts in that field. Even more strikingly, AI took 26 seconds to review each agreement, while the humans required 51 minutes on average[2]. Cambridge-based Case Cruncher Alpha also had notable success in such competitions. In China, there are now over 100 robots in use in courts[3] while they have also been introduced in countries as diverse as Colombia[4] and Estonia[5]. However, their use remains limited to that of an advisor in high-volume, low-value cases, with a human judge in attendance making any final decision. Nevertheless, AI’s use here has clear practical benefits and may help improve the consistency of penalties or sentences being given. The UK too has recognised these advantages, with the Civil Justice Council recommending as long ago as 2015 the introduction of Her Majesty’s Online Court to resolve some disputes where the value is under £25,000[6]. However, the implementation of this has been delayed until at least 2023[7], partly due to the technology available remaining inadequate. This highlights the difficulties that the sheer complexity and holistic nature of many legal disputes poses AI.

The current usage of AI is limited to relatively simple and clearly defined situations, where organising known facts, which may not in themselves be disputed (in some divorces, for example) is what is required. There are many examples of “bots” being used outside the court system too – the site being one of the most well-known. Originally designed to help the public to obtain refunds for parking tickets wrongfully issued, has now extended its scope to help receive compensation where it is due from airlines, or to force companies to cancel subscription services when they seem reluctant to do so.

AI has some clear practical benefits which are leading to its increased adoption. While its capabilities are insufficient to deal with most decision-making tasks at present, the pace of technological change (estimated in Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s “Moore’s Law” as a doubling of processing power every 2 years) should not be underestimated. It is clear that these capabilities will advance to a position where it could be used far more widely in future – at least theoretically.

However, there are overwhelming arguments against allowing AI alone to decide many legal disputes. These arguments may be classified broadly as practical, legal and moral.

Practically, an important difficulty is that the world is constantly evolving in unexpected ways and AI will itself need time to absorb and process new laws which may themselves be passed rapidly. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, a new UK Coronavirus Act was swiftly drawn up in early March and given royal assent on 25th March 2020. This will potentially lead to many legal disputes for which there are no precedents, and to as yet unforeseen consequences. Both programmers updating AI logarithms and machine learning will struggle to incorporate this new information in the short term. Similarly, programmers will more generally find it difficult to ensure that changes made to an AI system are not having unintended consequences on the algorithms which are already in place – particularly as the majority of programmers will not be lawyers. Neither will they be perfect individuals, so there is significant potential for their conscious or unconscious biases to be incorporated in an AI system (just as there are in any human system). Large and complex AI systems could also well be open to cyberattacks which have already led to major financial losses for many organisations; any such malicious attack on the legal infrastructure (possibly not identified for many years afterwards) could have extremely damaging consequences on the legal system.

The philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument[8] drew a distinction between the syntax and the semantics of language and argued that AI could never fully replicate human understanding. While AI may recognise words in themselves, it will always struggle to understand, or even recognise, the multiple linguistic subtleties upon which many legal disputes turn. In essence, many disputes are too complex to be simplified in digital format. If AI cannot understand arguments in their human form (instead merely simulating this), it is unlikely to be able to administer justice fairly to the satisfaction of the humans who need it. An analogy with the recent introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in football is interesting as, even when rules were relatively simple and well understood, the attempt to implement them, using artificial means, has been widely deemed unsatisfactory and inconsistent by players and fans alike. VAR, applied strictly, lacks any capacity for discretion.

This complexity, and AI’s inherent lack of transparency, are at the heart of major counterarguments to its use in the legal system. Centrally, the principle of open justice – whereby the law should be clearly comprehensible to all, with decisions clearly communicated – is unlikely to be satisfied by AI, except in limited circumstances. Re and Solow-Niederman have identified “a range of concerns relating to [AI’s] tendency to make the legal system more incomprehensible, data-based, alienating, and disillusioning”[9]. Were this to be the case, using AI alone would in many cases very likely lead to society losing confidence in legal systems which it has used for centuries to provide an agreed framework for it to operate within. Another academic, Sourdin[10], notes “questions such as who makes the decision, and who possesses the legal authority to make such a decision. Is it the computer programmer, the policymaker, the human decision-maker or the computer or automated system itself” – these cannot easily be answered and raise further crucial problems, such as how and to whom appeals might be made.

Re and Solow-Niederman ask “can a prearranged decision procedure really incorporate an idea like mercy or develop fact-sensitive balancing of mitigation factors in a criminal case?” The principle of equitable justice might mean a recently unemployed husband stealing medicine for his sick wife could be treated more leniently than a drug dealer stealing drugs to sell on the street, when it came to a human judge passing sentence. Whereas AI, certainly for the foreseeable future, would not be capable of taking every extenuating circumstance into account. Particularly as every case will have unique surrounding circumstances; and the more complex the case the more complex those circumstances are likely to be.

But, even if developments in AI made it possible in the distant future to overcome all of the practical and legal issues outlined, there are critical moral problems which will remain impossible to solve.

The UK’s legal system (and that of most other countries’) has had human interaction woven into it ever since it was created, or naturally evolved from primitive, informal justice methods. This not only enables a judge to exercise discretion, or mercy, but it is also considered to be a fundamental right for litigants to be able to make their case personally – and to fell that they are being heard and understood. Similarly, a jury decision making process places much emphasis on human interaction and argument. If AI displaced all such human interaction, litigants would be likely over time to become disaffected, eventually losing faith in the system of justice itself.

Where very serious cases were involved, with very serious potential consequences (in some countries, the death penalty for example) it will be considered morally unacceptable for life-changing decisions to be made by a “robot judge”. It is inconceivable that the degree of technological development that would be necessary to overcome these reservations is within human reach.

Finally, privacy issues, both for individuals and for countries when national security matters might be involved, further complicate the landscape for AI. The extent to which these are concerning depends partly on political ideology: in China today, for example, all citizens are subject to “social scoring” based on their internet presence – with low scores affecting individuals’ rights to have a passport or to get a loan. This would be considered too intrusive in many other countries. In any event, AI may find itself denied information which it had in previous instances needed to make a fair decision. The withholding of information for reasons of privacy will continue to be seen as a necessary human “judgement call” – albeit clearly capable itself of abuse. This is an area where politics and law meet. The extent to which AI will improve in the future should not be underestimated. This will increase its use, which is currently limited to relatively routine, standardised tasks. Its ability to assimilate and organise data is already vastly superior to any human’s. However, it will always struggle to understand the linguistic complexity which is central to much legal argument, or the complexity of life itself, which is also often central to such argument. Without humans being part of legal dispute resolution, it is fundamentally impossible for the principles of open justice or of discretion to be met. Lower cost and greater speed will tempt rule makers, but AI’s most appropriate use is as an expert advisor to human judges.








[8] In “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (1980)

[9] “Developing Artificially Intelligent Justice”, Stanford Technology Law Review 242 (2019)

[10] “Judge v Robot?” AI and Judicial Decision-Making”, UNSW Law Journal vol 41

Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

The Historicity of the Resurrection

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

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

As we celebrate Easter, some may, in the abundance of tacky eggs and bunnies, forget the Christian roots of this festival – either by accident or design! This widely celebrated feast is in fact based on a very controversial question: the issue of the Resurrection.

The reason this is such a controversy is because of its practical implications, both for the 2.2 billion adherents of Christianity, the world’s largest religion, and for those who reject the message of the Gospel. This has been admitted from very early on, with St Paul writing to the Corinthians in the first century AD that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and… we [Christians] are of all men most to be pitied.’

This demonstrates the crucial importance of the Resurrection as the touchstone of the Christian faith, since the choice is a clearly binary one – if it happened, Christians are right; if it didn’t, they’re wrong. In other words, the claimed Resurrection was either the greatest miracle the world has ever seen, or the greatest hoax in the history of mankind. There is no middle way.

Indeed, what makes this an even more contentious matter is the fact that it is theoretically possible, using historical research, either to prove it beyond reasonable doubt or to utterly debunk it, hence the paramount importance of such an investigation.

The Facts

Completely apart from the Gospels sympathetic to Christ and his followers, we have a large number of Jewish and Roman sources who mention this man’s claims from a sceptical point of view, giving their testimony particular value for historians. There are Roman sources (such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, Celsus, Thallus, and Phlegon) and Jewish sources too, which include Josephus, Toledot Yeshu, the Talmud, and Mara Bar-Serapion. The number of sources makes it impractical to fully analyse them in a brief essay such as this, but what we can ascertain from their agreement are the following historical facts:

  • Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Messiah foretold by the Jewish scriptures
  • He was arrested by the Jewish authorities and handed over to the Romans to be tried
  • He was tried by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and crucified as a political criminal
  • Three days after his death, several women disciples of his alleged that his body had disappeared from the tomb
  • His disciples claimed that God had raised him from the dead, and that he appeared several times to them before ascending into heaven

Security Precautions

We know more than this, though, from the context of his death, especially given the fact that he had apparently predicted his death and Resurrection beforehand – in any case, the Jewish authorities were taking no chances of making him a martyr.

According to the Gospels, he underwent six trials to ensure his condemnation: one before Annas (the previous High Priest), one before Caiaphas (the present one), and one before the Sanhedrin of Jewish elders, before being handed over to the Romans, who tried him before Pilate (who could not find any grounds for condemning him) then passed to the nominal authority of King Herod Antipas, before finally being sentenced by Pilate again under pressure from the Jews. The final sentence was as follows: he was found guilty of claiming the title of ‘King of the Jews’ and so setting himself up in political opposition to the authority of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time – this was the crime of treason, and as such merited death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion itself was so gruesome and degrading a torture that Roman citizens could not legally be crucified, hence why most crucifixions were reserved for slaves in uprisings. Here is a brief description of the typical process:

  • Before crucifixion the victim would be whipped with a flagella – a whip with multiple ends, into which were sewn pieces of rock, bone and metal – which would uncover the muscles and some bones of his back. The flagellation usually ceased when the victim was deemed to be near to death.[15]
  • After this, the victim would have had to carry a crossbar of c.50 kg to the place of his execution (which in this case was just under a kilometre away) – this crossbar was so heavy and he was so weak that he had to be helped by a passer-by, as the Romans did not want him to die before they could torture him. He would then be stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross.
  • Even then, death would only come after a lengthy period of torture: the prisoner would suffer incredibly painful cramps, which would make him unable to push himself up with his legs, his muscles would become paralysed, so that he could inhale but not exhale air, carbon dioxide would build up in the lungs and the body would make spasmodic movements up, so he could exhale; this process was repeated for many hours, sometimes taking days.
  • Death would be from suffocation; and the legs were usually broken to terminate torture when the guards had had enough.

The Gospel accounts are in this respect completely accurate as to the process of crucifixion, and even included the detail that Christ’s legs were not broken because he was already dead. They also mention that blood and water flowed from his heart when the centurion pierced it – not only would this spear thrust have killed him had he not already have been dead, but in deaths by torture, clear pericardial fluid (what would have looked like water) builds up around the heart only after death. Furthermore, the Roman governor could only hand over the body to be buried once death had been certified by four professional executioners. This all serves to demonstrate the certainty of his death.

Christ would then have been taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb, whose entrance  would be c.4-5 feet high; this again is verified by the Bible which says that St John had to stoop to enter. He was buried with 100 lb of spices in myrrh (not an unusual quantity for the time) smeared under the burial cloths as a kind of glue so that they could not be taken off very easily. Moreover, investigations of the weight of the stone shows it would have weighed between 1½ and 2 tons – it would have been rolled in place by gravity on a slope, and thus could not be removed without intense physical exertion.

As it happens, the Jews requested a Roman guard for the tomb to stop the body being stolen – this would typically have consisted of sixteen men, four on each side, which theoretically could hold 36 square feet against an entire battalion by utilising the space to their advantage. When they slept in turns, they slept in such positions so that nobody could get past without stepping on them and waking them up. Desertion and falling asleep on duty both required the death penalty by Roman law, so the possibility of this is minimal. Finally, the tomb would also have been sealed with the Roman governor’s seal, which represented the authority of Rome, and thus breaking it would be considered treasonous too.

What Happened?

Therefore, there are certain things that must have happened for the Resurrection even to be a possibility:

  • Someone/something broke the governor’s seal, invoking the penalty of death if they were caught (to avoid this punishment all Jesus’ disciples had fled, and even their chief, St Peter, had denied any association with him three times).
  • Someone/something rolled away the stone (requiring a great deal of manpower).
  • Someone/something removed the body (if they hadn’t, then the Jewish authorities could have produced it as evidence of the disciples’ mendacity, especially given the fact that they began to preach in Jerusalem itself where the grave was).
  • Someone/something caused the Roman guard to flee (desertion was punishable by death, hence they must have had a pretty good motive for doing so!)
  • Someone/something left the graveclothes neatly folded (an unusual twist).
  • Someone/something convinced a huge number of people that they had seen the risen Christ (this included Mary Magdalen, two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the apostles in the locked room, and even 500 people at once, all of which were recorded by St Paul 30 years later who added that they were still alive – in effect, saying ‘Ask them yourselves if you don’t believe me!’) with a large variety of backgrounds (mourning, scepticism, open hostility) and various emotional responses (passion, fright, incredulity).
  • Women claimed to have seen him first (also seemingly unreliable since they were unable to testify in a court of law, which is why the other disciples refused to believed them at first).

Theories about the Resurrection

There are many theories about what happened, so here I’ll outline them as succinctly as possible, and show why so many of them contain major inconsistencies:

  • Nobody knew where Jesus was buried – although crucified men were usually buried in a common grave, there is archaeological evidence that this did not always happen, especially when the man had a large group of family and friends; in this case Jesus was laid in the private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, which was clearly well known to both his disciples (who had laid him there) and the Romans (who stationed a guard there).
  • The women went to the wrong tomb – similarly, although most tombs would be fairly indistinguishable, this was a private burial ground; indeed, this relies on everyone (including St Peter, St John, the Roman guard and the Jewish authorities) all independently going to the wrong tomb. Also, if his body was present anywhere the whole story could have been nipped in the bud immediately by showing it.
  • The resurrection was a legend invented long after Jesus’ death – this is untenable given the accounts we have from the mid-first century AD by which point the story had already become well-established, especially St Paul’s mention in 56 of over 500 witnesses still alive who could verify it.
  • Jesus’ disciples hallucinated – firstly, hallucinations tend to occur to either paranoids or schizophrenics, and the disciples were neither of these (they had a wide range of personalities and came from a large variety of backgrounds); secondly, hallucinations are very private and not only did Christ appear to a large number of people, but ate with them, and invited them to examine his wounds; thirdly, most of the appearances were in broad daylight (there were fifteen of these, at one point to over 500 people); fourthly, hallucinations require an anticipating spirit which was not present, since the disciples thought that Christ was permanently dead and at first refused to believe that it was he (St Mary Magdalen went to anoint his dead body); fifthly, not only did the hallucinations happen irregularly and ceased at a fixed point (Christ’s Ascension), they also do not square with the reaction of the Roman Guard and chief priests, or with the empty tomb and broken seal.
  • The disciples stole the body – this was the most common accusation at the time, despite the issues already described which stopped them getting to the tomb in the first place (especially the Roman guard, every trained soldier of which could have easily finished off the whole band of simple fishermen); also, it fails to explain why ten of the original twelve apostles died horrible deaths as martyrs, without there being records of a single one of them admitting that it was all a lie.
  • The Roman or Jewish authorities stole the body – they could have done this to stop it being used as a relic, but given the damage it did them they could easily have presented the body at any point together with witnesses to its removal to disprove the disciples’ story; there is no evidence that anything of the sort was ever even suggested.
  • Jesus fainted on the cross and recovered in the tomb – this theory assumes that: (1) Jesus managed to survive the immense torture of scourging, lifting his cross-bar (which he could not even do on his own), nailing to the cross, and crucifixion; (2) when a spear was thrust into his side on the cross, eyewitnesses were wrong that blood and water came out, a sign of death; (3) his death was confirmed by four experienced Roman executioners, who must all have been mistaken; (4) over 100 lb of spices and linen encased his body, he must have breathed through it all; (5) in this state he managed to burst out of his garments, (6) roll the stone away from the inside (impossible for a strong man to do on his own, let alone one so weak) and (7) fight off the guards, then (8) appear in this almost-dead state to his disciples and convince them that he was the triumphant Lord of Life. This would in fact be more miraculous than a resurrection, and requires more faith to believe, especially since such an appearance of Jesus as a man badly in need of food, water and medical aid would hardly have cheered them up, and certainly would not have filled them with enthusiasm to dedicate their lives to preaching about his Resurrection.

As has been shown, all of these theories contain major problems, to the extent that to believe them requires a greater leap of faith than has often been ascribed to Christians.


So what was it that transformed the lives of the disciples, turned them from despair to hope, from fear to courage, and gave them the ability to die fearlessly for their beliefs when beforehand they had been cowering behind locked doors, afraid of their lives?

What was it that changed this small group of penniless fishermen, tax collectors and peasants into the oldest institution in human history, and the one with the most numerous followers?

What changed the most ardent persecutor of this tiny sect into the greatest missionary of the global Universal Church of Christ?

In the words of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. Only one adequate theory therefore remains: that as the Gospels narrate, Christ rose from the dead.

Arts & Humanities Features Philosophy & Theology

A New Translation of John 1

This long-read article was written by Sixth Former Sam Cherry. It provides a new translation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It concludes with a translator’s commentary.

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

The Gospel According to St. John, Chapter 1:

1 In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. 2The same was with God in the beginning. 3All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing which has been made was made. 4In Him was a way of life, and that way of life was the light of humankind. 5And the light shines in the darkness, though the darkness did not understand it.

6There came a man sent from God, named John. 7This man went as a witness in order to testify about the light, such that all might believe through him. 8He was not that light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9There was a true light, who illuminates all people coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, though the world knew Him not. 11He came into His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12But as many as did receive Him, He gave to those who believe in His name the power to be made children of God; 13they were not born from blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us, and we admired His glory: His glory as the only child begotten from the Father, filled with grace and truth. 15John testifies about Him, and cried out, saying: ‘He was the same one of whom I spoke; the one who is coming after me came before me in precedence, because He was before me’. 16And from His fullness we all received that grace in place of grace; 17because the Law was given through Moses, yet grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but the only-begotten son, being in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known.

19And this is the testimony of John: when the Jewish Temple authorities sent priests and Levites in order to ask him ‘who are you?’ 20he confessed and agreed that ‘I myself am not the Christ,’ and did not deny it. 21So they asked him: ‘who are you then? Are you Elijah?’. And he says: ‘I am not’. ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered: ‘no’. 22They therefore said to him: ‘who are you? In order to give an answer to those who sent us, what do you say about yourself?’. 23He said: ‘I am a voice in desolation, crying out: make straight the way of the Lord, just as the prophet Elijah said’. 24But the men who had been sent were from the Pharisees, 25and they asked him and said to him: ‘if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah nor a prophet, why then do you baptise?’. 26John responded, saying: ‘I baptise in water, but in your midst stood one whom you did not know. 27He is the one who is coming after me, who came before me in precedence; I myself am not worthy to loose the strap of His sandal’.28These things came to pass in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him and He says: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. 30This is the same Man of whom I said: “before me is coming a Man who came before me in precedence, because He was before me”. 31And I myself did not know Him, but, in order that He might be revealed to Israel, for this reason I went into the water baptising’. 32And John testified saying that: ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a Dove from heaven above, and it remained upon Him. 33And I did not see Him, but, having sent me to baptise in water, He told me that: “whomever you might see the Spirit descending and remaining upon is the same person who is baptising in the Holy Spirit”. 34And I recognised and testified that He is the Son of God’.

35The next day again, John was standing with two of his disciples, 36and, having seen Jesus walking, says: ‘behold the Lamb of God’. 37The two disciples heard him speaking and followed Jesus. 38But Jesus, having turned around and seeing them following Him, says to them: 49‘what do you seek?’. And they said to Him: ‘Rabbi,’ (which is to say, being translated, ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’. 40He says to them: ‘come, and you will see’. Thus they came and saw where He stays, and stayed with Him that evening; it was about the tenth hour. 41Andrew, one of the two men having heard from John, and having followed him, was the brother of Simon Peter. 42That same man finds his brother and says to him: ‘we have seen the Messiah,’ (which is to be translated ‘the Christ’). 43And he led him to Jesus. Jesus, standing, said to him: ‘you are Simon, the son of Jonah. You will be called Kephas,’ (which is to be translated ‘Peter’).

44The next day Jesus wanted to go out into Galilee. And He found Philip and says to him: ‘follow Me’. 45And Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 46Philip found Nathanael and says to him: ‘we have found Him, whom Moses and the Prophets wrote about in the law – Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph’. 47And Nathanael said to him: ‘what from Nazareth can be good?’. Philip says to him: ‘come and you will see’. 48Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards Him and says about him: ‘behold a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit’. 49Nathanael says to Him: ‘whence do you know me?’. Jesus answered and said to him: ‘before Philip had called you, I saw you under a fig tree’. 50Nathanael responded and says to Him: ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel’. 51Jesus replied and says to him: ‘do you have faith because I said to you that I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than these’. 52And He says to him: ‘truly, truly I say to you, henceforth you will see heaven above opening, and the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Son of humankind’.

Translator’s Commentary:

My source was the Koine New Testament as published in 1904 and 1942 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with later corrections by the Church of Greece. It departs ever so slightly from other versions by dividing the text into 52 verses instead of 51; what is v.48 in other editions is split into v.48 and v.49 in this text. For reference I used Strong’s Greek Concordance and Liddell & Scott’s English-Greek lexicon, both accessed online.

I have taken a largely literalist approach to the translation. This includes the preservation of the historic present, and the keeping of participles as participles, even when in English it might be more natural to use normal verbs, insofar as was possible. In order to preserve clarity, I have omitted or introduced conjunctives or pronouns in some places into the translation (e.g. v.45 & 46)[1]. All speech punctuation is editorial, as it does not exist in the original.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in my translation of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, versus most other versions, lies in the very first sentence, in my decision to leave Logos (Λογος) untranslated [v.1]. What inspired me in the first place to undertake translating this passage was my dissatisfaction with the popular rendering of Λογος as ‘Word’. The Greek term has a multitude of meanings: reason, story, purpose, decree, maxim, doctrine, account etc. – the list goes on and on. Picking any single word then as a direct translation, I think, necessarily removes the nuance that comes from the multiplicity of meanings captured in ‘Λογος’. Whether that was St. John’s original intent or not, I think this obscurity, these possibilities, should be reflected in the translation as they exist in the original. The only way to do that, then, is to leave the term as it is, untranslated.

I found it difficult to find a suitable way of capturing the word ‘ζωη’ in English [v.4]. While most translators render in literally as ‘life’ (take for example the NIV, KJV or ESV) I think this translation is an oversimplification. ‘ζωη’ means more than ‘life’ in the simple biological sense (the corresponding Greek for that would be ‘βιος’), but rather the totality of the spiritual, physical and active aspects which constitute human life. My best attempt therefore was ‘a way of life’, though this still feels insufficient in my opinion.

Also in v.4, I have decided to interpret ‘των ἀνθρωπων’ in a gender-neutral sense. No doubt the word itself is masculine, and is thus often rendered as ‘mankind’ or ‘man’, but as ‘ἀνθροπος’ in is understood to refer to all humans and not just males I think ‘humankind’ is a more fitting translation. Later, in v.52 I have opted to translate ‘του ἀνθρωπου’ as ‘of humankind’ again given the context, even though it is in this case singular, as ‘the Son of human’ sounds very unnatural in English.

The word translated as ‘flesh’ (‘ἡ σαρξ’) [v.13 & 14], often has associations with human nature, and especially the human inclination to sin, alongside the terms more biological meaning. The nuance of St. John’s use of this term then in v.13 (‘the will of the flesh’) is more or less obvious, but less so in v.14. Strong suggests that ‘ὁ Λογος σαρξ ἐγενετο’ (‘the Word became flesh’) refers not only to Christ taking human form in the incarnation, but also to indicate that Christ took on human nature, with its moral weakness. While the term ‘flesh’ in English does, to an extent, have an association with carnality, I cannot find a way of communicating in English a suggestion of both physicality and weak human nature, so ‘flesh’ remains the best translation of ‘σάρξ’, if an imperfect one.

I think my choice to translate ‘ἐσκηνωσεν’ [v.14], usually translated as ‘dwelled’, instead as ‘tabernacled’ reflects the meaning of the word more accurately. Though it literally means to pitch a tent, Greek Jews reading this passage at the time would have noticed the nuance in this particular verb, as ‘σκηνη’ (meaning dwelling, tent or hut) was the term used to translate the Hebrew word for the Tabernacle (‘מִּשְׁכָּן’, ‘mishkan’) in the Septuagint. I wanted the English to reflect this, as otherwise the theological significance which resides in this unusual word (it occurs only once in the Gospels) would be lost.

St. John linguistically distinguishes between the Jewish people who supported Jesus, and those who opposed Him. Typically, he refers to those who opposed Jesus as ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ [v.19], though elsewhere in his Gospel this term is used more neutrally, including when Jesus is described as ‘βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων’ (‘King of the Jews’). Elsewhere, he uses ‘οἱ Ἰσραηλίται’ to describe Jews who are favourable to Jesus (e.g. in v.43). While it may seem obvious to translate ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘the Jews’ this is not by far an adequate translation, as it would suggest that the persecution was propagated by all Jews, as opposed to a select number of the Temple authorities. Moreover, elsewhere in the Gospel St. John uses the term interchangeably with the Pharisees or chief priests, showing the St. John was accustomed to using the term for subgroups of the Jewish people, and did not intend it to mean all Jews. In the context of the passage, with this in mind, I have thus translated ‘οἱ Ἰουδαιοι’ as ‘Jewish Temple authorities’ and not as ‘the Jews’.

I decided to translate ‘ἐν ἐρημῳ’ [v.23] as ‘in desolation’. Most literally, as a noun, it refers to a place of sparse vegetation, but adjectivally is used to describe an empty place of solace, so I think ‘desolation’ is the most accurate reflection of the meaning in context.

The word rendered as ‘heaven above’ (‘οὐρανος’) [v.32 & 52] is used to refer both to heaven in the spiritual sense, and to the sky or atmosphere. While the word ‘heaven’ in English also has this duality, it is more associated, especially in a theological context, with the spiritual meaning, and thus to translate ‘οὐρανος’ simply as ‘heaven’ neglects the nuance of the Greek. To capture both the spiritual and physical meanings, I think ‘heaven above’ is the best translation, as ‘heaven’ capture the spiritual side, but ‘above’ tempers this with a spatial and hence physical aspect.

Also in v.32 ‘upon Him’ may instead be translated as ‘in His presence’. Similarly, in v.33 ‘remaining upon’ could as be translated as ‘remaining in their presence’. This is due to the ambiguity in the precise meaning of the preposition ‘ἐπι’ in the context of the phrase ‘ἐπ’αὐτον’.

In v.43, Jesus names St. Peter, who is originally called Simon, ‘Kephas’, a transliterated Aramaic term (‘כֵּיפָא’, ‘kepha’); the corresponding Greek word is ‘Petros’ (Πετρος). Though normatively translated as ‘rock’ or ‘stone’, there is some dispute as to whether the Aramaic, and correspondingly the Greek term, should be thought to mean jewel instead. This possible translation could suggest that Peter was special or valuable, conferring a different meaning than if it were translated as ‘rock’, which is usually understood to refer to St. Peter’s reliable and strong character, and his position as the foundation of the Church (c.f. Matthew 16:18).

[1] Additionally, in v.49 the participle ‘ὀντα’ (being) was omitted for clarity.

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.