Sunday 31 July 2016

Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into an upper-class Roman family of ancient lineage. He claimed to trace his ancestry back to kings of early Rome and the Roman goddess of love, Venus.  He grew up amid the intense political conflicts that wrecked the declining Roman Republic to become one of the greatest politician and general of Rome.

Julius Caesar

He was a blatant womanizer notorious for his affairs with married women - he may have been natural father of one of his eventual assassins, Marcus Brutus. In pursuit of public office he spent far beyond his resources and fell into debt. He was widely distrusted among the Roman elite as unprincipled in the pursuit of money and power.

In 60 BC, Caesar made a private agreement with the wealthy and powerful general and politician Marcus Licnius Crassus, and  Pompey, Rome's most successful general to work together to dominate Roman politics. He was elected to consulship and was appointed in command in the Roman provinces of Gaul(France). 

In Gaul he spent his years campaigning against the Celtic and Germanic tribes moving beyond beyond the borders of his provincial command, making forays across the Rhine in Germany and north as far as river Thames in Britain. Victories brought him wealth and renounce and his legions became more loyal to him than to the Republic.  

Julius Caesar
This imperious statue of Caesar was made in 17th century France and is now in the Louvre, France. Caesar is considered to be hero of western civilization, partly through his own accounts of his military conquest.

In late 50 BC, the Senate under the control of Pompey, called on Caesar to disband his army after 10 years command in Gaul. Instead, Caesar led his legions across River Rubicon, region dividing Gaul from Italy. Easily occupying Rome and after two years of fighting, Caesar defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Pompey escaped to Egypt where he was murdered and his sons Sextus and Gnaeus were defeated in 45 BC. 

Caesar's column
This column marks the place in Rimini,Italy, where Caesar crossed the river Rubicon in 49 BC.

The Republic appointed Caesar a temporary "Dictator"; a leader with exceptional power to cope with an emergency, but he permanently assumed the role , and advertised the fact on the coins. During his brief reign, Caesar introduced a zeal for reformation and reforms. He halved the number of Roman citizens depending on handouts of bread from the state by resettling the destitute in colonies in Italy.

Coin bearing Caesar's head

In March 44 BC Caesar planned to lead an army against the Parthians in the Middle East. A group of senators led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, inspired by idealistic attachment to the Republic, and the desire to defend their own privileges, conspired to kill him before he left Rome. They stabbed him in the assembly hall, where he had come to address the Senate. 

Caesar's death

The Forum, the heart of Rome, is where Caesar's supporter Mark Antony delivered a funeral oration over his body. Mark played a critical role in transformation of Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. A temple to Caesar was later erected on the spot where he was cremated. 

Based on the lunar calendar, the Roman year was only 355 days long, and was adjusted by the occasional extra month. Caesar introduced a 12 month year of 365 days, with a 366 leap year once every 4 years. To align Roman calendar with solar cycle, the year 46 BC was made into 445 day year. It was in general use in Europe until Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 CE, and is still used by Greek Orthodox Church. 

Julian Calendar

Caesar's death caused riots, and ironically, brought about the end of the Republic his assassins were trying to restore. Two years after his death, Senate made him a god. He is remembered today as a skilled orator, author and military leader.  


Tuesday 26 July 2016

The Rise Of Rome

Ancient Roman Civilization arose from multicultural beginnings, while Rome itself began life as a group of villages on the hills above the River Tiber. From these foundations the powerful Roman Republic was born, whose influence and territories, spread across the world, with the great city of Rome at it's heart.

Before the rise of Rome, Italy was inhabited by several cultural groups. One of these were Latin speaking people who settled in villages, including Rome in about 1000 BC. In the 8th century BC, the highly developed  Etruscan civilization flourished and spread across much of Italy and Sicily. These communities became more complex and Rome became an important city.

Etruscan chariot
The date 753 BC is traditionally given for the founding of the city of Rome. In legend Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were suckled by a she-wolf as babies founded Rome. Romulus was also the name of the first king of the city. By 600 BC, Rome had become a sophisticated city state, ruled by kings, It boasted specialized crafts, a rich aristocracy, monumental buildings, and organized social system.

Romulus and Remus

The king ruled alongside a Senate and an Assembly. The Senate was a council of elders composed heads of various clans. It had the power to approve or veto appointment of the king. The Assembly  consisted of all male citizens of Rome; citizenship was granted only to those whose parents were native Romans. The Assembly's main function was to grant absolute power to monarch once the clan leader approve candidate for king.

The ancient Romans made considerable advances in building and civil engineering, mainly by clever development of principles obtained from other civilizations like Greek and Etruscan. From 3rd century BC, Roman builder became the first to use concrete extensively, constructing large scale engineering and building projects.

Pons Aemilius

The Romans did not invent the arc but they took it's structural possibilities to a whole new level. The became adept at working with the form and related structures such as the vault and domes to support monumental temples, walls, lighthouses and tunnels. The Pons Aemilius(above) is the oldest stone bridge across the River Tiber in Rome and dates from the 2nd century BC.

Rome was ruled by seven kings before the last one, Tarquinius was over thrown in 509 BC in a coup staged by Roman aristocrat. Rather than install a new monarch, the Roman dismantled the institution and Rome became a republic. The early republic had two consul(to counter over relianceon one individual), who were elected annually.  

Roman republican society was divided into free and non-free(slaves).The most  significant free people were citizens, who were able to elect consul and were further divided into Patricians(an elite land owning class) and Plebeians(all other citizens). The senate drew its members from the Patrician class, therefore Roman republic in it's early form was largely a transfer of power from the king to the wealthiest classes in Rome.

Hannibal Barca(247 - 182 BC)
Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian general who fought with great valor against the Roman republic in the Second Punic War(218 - 201 BC). He captured the city of Saguntum in Spain, allied to Rome, then marched on Italy. With Rome blocking the sea route, Hannibal Barca took 37 elephants and 35,000 men over Pyrenees and Alps, as shown in this fresco. He won many victories but was defeated at Zama in North Africa.

Hannibal on top of an elephant.

By 264 BC Rome emerged from clashes with surrounding communities to dominate Italy, and by 146 BC Rome had crushed the Carthaginians in the Punic wars which broke out several times during the 2nd and 3rd century BC, to dominate the entire western Mediterranean. But despite the land, Rome was in a state of perpetual war, flux and social discontent.

The 1st century BC saw a mix of new gains and intensifying civil strife. Some of Rome's former allies, having fought for the republic, became frustrated by Rome's domination over them and failure to grant them Roman citizenship. The year 82-80 BC brought the self proclaimed ruler of Sulla. His struggle with Marius had already weakened the republic and his rule increased upper class power.

The death of Spartacus

Between 72-70 BC, Spartacus, a former auxiliary in Roman army turned slave-gladiator, became leader of a group of disaffected slaves and rebels that swelled to around 1,20,000; they fought the Romans and dominated much of Southern Italy. The Romans were ultimately victorious and Spartacus was killed in around 70 BC.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Triumphs Of Greek Science

Science is an attempt to understand and explain the world around us. The scientific method - a combination of observation, hypotheses, experiment and theory - was established in 17th century. But its roots lie with the ancient Greeks who were among the first to think scientifically and for plausible answers to life's mysteries through logic and observation.

Some of the scientific ideas of Greeks had been considered by earlier civilizations. In ancient India and China philosophers thought about world rationally, explaining causes of the events by "laws" rather than myth. In Mesopotamia, the Babylonians and Egyptians had writing systems and calendars and managed impressive construction projects that required exact measurements.

Egyptian Constellation 

Thales of Miletus(c.624-c.526 BC) suggested that all solids, liquids and gases are ultimately made of water. Anaximenes(585-525 BC) suggested that air was fundamental substance while Heraclitus(535-475 BC) thought that fire might fit the role. The theory of Four elements was put forward by Empedocles(490-430 BC) and explained many common phenomena terms of  movement and interaction of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

Clay Tablet

This clay tablet was left at a temple, and was dedicated to god of healing, Asclepius, from someone who believed their foot to have been heal through traditional rather than scientific medicine. Leucippus(Born c.480 BC) and his student Democritus(Born c.460 BC) suggested that matter is made up of tiny, indivisible particles separated by empty space.

Pythagoras(c.580 BC - c.500 BC) is best known for the mathematical law relating the sides of right-angled triangle. In fact the theorem was known long before Pythagoras and there is no evidence that he even used it. His reputation for Mathematical excellence comes from later Greek writers such as Aristotle.


Mathematics was also crucial to the scientific ideas of Plato(c.427 - c.347 BC), better known for his writings on ethics and politics. He suggested that each elements is made up of atoms with a particular idealized geometric shape. He supposed that real world was an imperfect reflection of an ideal, "theoretical" and mathematically perfect world.


Legend has it that the Greek god, Atlas was made by Zeus to hold up the universe as a punishment. This was the sort of idea that the Greek thinkers began to question, with their rational,scientific investigations and theories. Philosophers in ancient civilizations of India and China also employed reason and observation in their attempts to understand the world. 


Aristotle(384 - 322 BC) a pupil of Plato reversed his teacher's idea about the role of mathematics. He maintained that truth was to be found only in reality - an idea known as empiricism. He wrote on subjects like botany, zoology, astronomy, anatomy and physics. Using logic and observation both Plato and Aristotle deduced many previously unknown scientific facts. For example they proved Earth is round and not flat.

Archimedes(c.287 - c.212 BC) was a brilliant theoretical mathematician, but also a great engineer and inventor. Further developments were made in institutions such as the museum and library at Alexandria. Competition between centers of learning led to further innovations and the development of science.

Hippocrates(c.460 - 370 BC), a physician promoted a rational scientific approach to medicine, rejecting traditional temple medicine theories about illness. Even today, the ethical "contract" between a doctor and a patient is known as Hippocratic Oath. It is preserved on papyri like this from 3rd century Egypt.

Hippocratic Oath   

The ideas of Greek natural philosophers passed to Arab scholars. In particular Arabs translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic. Great Arabic scholars such as Avicenna and Averroes who extended classical Greek thinking and added their own ideas and observations. 

Mappa Mundi

Geographical knowledge was revived with maps of the world(Mappa Mundi) This 11th century example is from Winchester. Aristotle's flawed theories were accepted as facts by the Catholic Church in Europe, which dramatically became set back for scientific progress.  

Sunday 10 July 2016

From Myth To History

As Greece emerged from a "Dark Age" and writing was recovered, new ways of passing on knowledge and stories developed. For the first time in the Western world, history was recorded in prose, rather than verse - the poet became historian and artistic licence gave way to the goal of accuracy and explanation.

The epic(long narrative poem) of Gilgamesh is the story of a semi-divine king of Uruk that was told by story tellers in 3rd millennium BC. Some part of the story are fantastical and others may be based on real events. Scribes in Babylon recorded events relating to the history of their city from 2nd millennium BC.

A Scene From the Epic of Gilgamesh
The first example of early Greek writing was found at the palace of Knossos in form of written clay tablets that had survived a fire that had destroyed the palace in around 1400 BC. The script on these tablets was known as Linear B. The art of writing then seems to have been lost to the Greeks during the so-called "Dark Age"(c.1100-c.750 BC).

Linear B Script

Ancient Greeks' most famous poet Homer, is believed to have lived in the 8th or 7th century BC. His two great works, the Iliad(two intense weeks of Trojan War) and the Odyssey(Odyssey's 10 year journey home from Trojan War) , began life as epic poetry recited aloud to audiences and only later they were written down. 

A vast city complex was found at Hissalik in northwest Turkey whose one layer had been destroyed by fire c.1180 BC. This city is believed to be Troy, where the mythical Achilles had killed the Trojan hero Hector.  Later experts were appalled and questioned the authenticity of the many gold artifacts found at that place.

Achilles kills Hector

Writers like Hecataeus of Miletus(c.550-490 BC) and Simonides(c.556-469 BC) were considered to be one the first history writers. Herodotus(484-425 BC) wrote The Histories, which focused on the origins of the war between Greece and Persia that took place at the beginning of 5th century BC. He is today known as "Father of History". He was also interested in studying human nature and recorded what he saw as he traveled.


The later Greek historian and biographer Plutarch(c.46-119 CE) had a very low opinion of accuracy of The Histories and called Herodotus "a father of lies". The Athenian writer Thucydides(c.460-400 BC) also took a new approach to history, his work History of the Peloponnesian War, written in 41 books, tells story of wars between Athens and Sparta.

The Mask Of Agamemnon
This astonishing burial mask was found at Mycenae, Greece in 1876 CE. It is part of a collection of royal treasure dating from c.1600 BC. The artifact is a funeral mask made in gold, and was found over the face of a body in a burial shaft. The mask is currently displayed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

This map from a woodcut made in 1867, shows Herodotus's view of the world, based on the descriptions found in his writings, with Asia minor and Middle East in the center. He included extraordinary details of the places he visited like Egypt, Africa, Italy, Sicily and also included length of rivers and size of continents.

View of the World

Old stories told in the traditional ways connect powerfully with the listeners, as they are rooted in local landscape., history and folklore. Beowulf  is an English epic poem of the 10th century CE consisting of 3182 lines. The story concerns the struggle between good and evil. In Cyprus, shepherds still tell stories of one-eyed giants and horned gods.

Beowulf Manuscript

Kathakali stories of Hindu myth, using dance and masks, costumes and music, to accompany oral texts, are still performed today. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana tales about various Hindu divinities , are told to people who may be unable to read, in the same way stories of Homer were told in ancient Greece.

Kathakali Dancer

Over the centuries written histories, like the folk tales that preceded them, have been shaped by the values of the time in which they have been recorded.

Sunday 3 July 2016

The Birth Of Democracy

The oldest and most stable democracy in ancient Greece developed in Athens, evolving constitutionally through monarchy, aristocracy and tyranny before arriving at the principle of equality of all the citizens. However as in the other Greek polis , women, slaves and foreigners were excluded from participating.

After the destruction of Mycenaean civilization(whose stories, including the Odyssey, were recorded by Homer), ancient Greece entered a dark age, about which we know little. Increased trade in the 7th century BC in between the Greek city states began a political and military revolution.  The need to act collectively in warfare led to a new form of government shared on common interest.

Scene From "The Odyssey"

To encourage good governance(eunomia) in AthensSolon created a council(boule) to prepare the weekly business of the citizen's assembly(ecclesia) and a popular court of appeal(heliaia) for legal redress against abuses of power. Citizens were divided into four classes: aristocrat, "horseman", hoplite, and the poor(thetes), each of which elected 100 members to the council. 

Cleisthenes, an aristocrat of Athens, to neutralize faction feuding , redivided Athens into 139 voting districts(demes) arranged into 10 tribes(phylae) made up of citizens from each of the three regions- coast, interior and city- in an elaborate system if checks and balances. 


The kleroterion was used to select jurors in Athens. Slots in the device held volunteers names and black and white balls were dropped down a tube to select them. Klepshydra or water clocks were used to time the speeches in assembly. Citizens inscribed the names of overly ambitious politicians that they wished to ostracize(exclude) from the city on an ostrakon(voting table).

The 6000 strong citizens convened weekly on the Pnyx, a site near the Acropolis, to vote on the matters presented by the council leaders and elect 10 generals. These powerful officials who controlled the army and the navy could be re-elected.

Klepshydra(Water Clock)

Democracy, from the Ancient Greek words "demos", meaning "people", and "kratos", meanning "power".

Ostrakon(voting table)

After their victory over the Persians at Marathon in 480 BC and Salamis in 490 BC, Athens started investing in a powerful navy and gave more importance to their oarsmen. Setting up of the Delian League in 477 BC - an alliance with other city states to protect themselves from future Persian invasion made Athens dominant power in Greece.

A brilliant orator called Pericles in the golden age of Athens(451-429 BC) consolidated the democratic "constitution" by compensating the poorer citizens for their time on jury service and limiting citizenship to those with two Athenian parents. 


The Acropolis("high city") of Athens was it's spiritual center. The Parthenon(finished in 431 BC), the temple at the top of the Acropolis dedicated to the goddess Athena, was built by the Athenian general Pericles following the defeat of the Persians, with the money from the Delian league, as a symbol of city's glory.  

Acropolis("High City")

Democracy in Athens was suspended and quickly restored twice during the 5th century BC. It was finally extinguished during 2nd century BC by expanding Roman Empire. It took a long for the idea of democracy to become widely adopted, taking until the mid 20th century to become the most common form of government.

Roman voting
Republican government in ancient Rome was based on elected representatives rather than Athenian style direct democracy. Power was shared between two consuls , the Senate(aristocracy) and the Plebs(commoners). Overtime, the Plebeian Assembly became the dominant legislature.  
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