The World in the 4th Century BC

The beginning is the most important part of the work – Plato, The Republic [1]

How do you sum up over 4,000 years of recorded human history in one short blog post? The answer is, you can’t.

If you think about it this way, you and I are a mere 2,375 years removed from the moment in time when Alexander drew his first breath. For people living in the 4th century BC, they were even more further removed from the past than that. Someone from that time period might be looking at the Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2500 c. BC, as old crumbling relics of history no different than a local Roman might view The Colosseum today. It’s just always been there for as long as anyone can remember. The history of the world by the time of the Iron Age was vast, complex, and in some cases, already lost. The game board in which history had played out over centuries had already seen its share of blood and decay–but perhaps what we can do is look at the score card of the pieces already positioned, the ones primed for Alexander’s taking. Most of these players should already be well known to you.

Let’s start first with the world of the Greeks, of which Alexander’s home, Macedonia, is a part of. But perhaps not without some contention, which we’ll get into.

Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse (1859)

Most of the famous history of Ancient Greece had already come to pass. The legends of famous warriors and the tales of the Trojan War are of a time long ago. A hundred years prior, the Greek city states found themselves facing invasion from the Persians led by Darius the Great and then followed by Xerxes I. Many well-known stories came from these events. Athenians and their allies defended Greece in the Battle of Marathon in the first invasion. Spartan King Leonidas I and his army died failing to defend Thermopylae in the second. The wars eventually culminated in a resounding strategic victory for the Greek city-states lead by Themistocles in the Battle of Salamis and then the decimation of the Persian army in Platae by the Greek allied forces. During these wars, Macedon was a vassal kingdom of Persia, having pledged allegiance early on in Darius’ invasions when a general commiserated with the then king of Macedon Amyntas I. Prior to the invasions, according to Herodotus, there was already some sense of xenophobia when it came to recognizing the Macedonians as Greek–one of their athletes was unable to participate in the Olympic Games for this very reason. It wasn’t until the lineage of the Macedonian Kings was traced back to Argos, and thus the demi-god Heracles, were they accepted as one of their own and the athlete could compete in the Olympics. [2] Following Persia’s defeat in the Greco-Persian wars, however, Macedon became an independent kingdom once more.

Prior to the Persians being expelled from Greece, the Delian League had been established by Athens which formed an alliance between city-states in opposition to Persia and their continued incursions on Greek territory. This ended up giving Athens a considerable amount of power when they started collecting tributes and using the funds for their own purposes which prompted outcry from their rival Sparta. Soon the Greek world fell back into war but this time they fought against each other in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta sought assistance from the Persians, bringing them back into the foray. Though some parts of Macedonia were tributaries to the Delian League, the kingdom of Macedon ultimately sided with Sparta and waged war against Athens. After 27 years–a plague in Athens that killed Pericles and a disastrously embarrassing defeat in Sicily by Alcibiades–the war was officially over in 404 BC with the Spartans emerging victorious. [3]

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Plague in Athens, Michiel Sweerts (c.1652-c.1654)

The Spartans, however, ruled with an iron and tyrannical fist. Their control was short lived when the Corinthian War broke out in 395 BC and those meddling Persians once again gave their assistance–this time to Athens and its allies. The Spartans were finally crushed by the end of 362 BC during the Theban-Spartan war. Again, the tides of power had shifted to another and the city-state of Thebes became top dog in Greece. [4] Constant years of war and destruction, shifts of hegemony, and broken alliances left the Greek world a smoldering landscape ripe for the taking. The slumbering lion of Macedon was about to emerge with Phillip II leading its charge…

You might be wondering about another spunky, imperial up-start lying in wait across the Ionian Sea. The Romans at this time were still playing as a Republic and were busy conquering their neighbors and expanding their military power. They had yet to even see the start of the famous Punic Wars, beginning in 264 BC, which pitted them against Hannibal and his Alps conquering elephants. That reminds me though, Carthage must be destroyed. [5]

Taking a journey now to the Anatolian peninsula (or modern day Turkey), we quickly see the far reach of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Greeks weren’t the only people these conquerors had been antagonizing–by this time in the mid-4th century BC, the Persian Empire had taken control over the entirety of Western Asia. This included Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Sinai Peninsula (though Egypt having recently rebelled, became temporarily free from Persia’s grasp), the Caucasus, and, of course, the Iranian Plateau. Many Kingdoms and Empires had fallen to the Persians–from the Medians (who toppled the Assyrians), to the Phrygians, and the Babylonians. The Achaemenid empire was the largest the world had ever yet seen and set the stage for other expansive empires like the eventual Roman one centuries later. In fact, what many credit as successes for the Roman Empire at the height of its power, were modeled after the Achaemenid Empire’s practices. With many different cultural backgrounds and religious faiths in its borders, the empire incorporated all of them with the freedom to continue practicing but unified under an official language with an intertwining system of road ways and an ancient postal service. It became the template for a successful massive empire and by this time, despite any losses in war or recent rebellions, was still incredibly strong and centralized. Prior to the birth of Alexander, the current king of the Achaemenid Empire was Artaxerxes II–who was involved with a number of the conflicts with the Greeks noted above, in particular, the Theban-Spartan war in which he ultimately sided with Thebes. [6]

Queen Tomyris and the Head of Cyrus the Great, Mattia Preti (1680’s) This legendary founder of the Achaemenid Empire is said to have met his end to the equally legendary Scythian queen Tomyris.

Moving past the borders of the Achaemenid Empire lay powers unfamiliar to some in the western world. The Indus valley had already seen thousands of years worth of human history, Siddhartha Buddha had already walked the earth, and, hell, they were so advanced at this time, they had already invented plastic surgery centuries earlier. [7] In this region, there were 16 kingdoms and republics that were known as the Mahājanapadas and the Vedic orthodoxy was falling out of fashion with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. But there wasn’t exactly a sense of unity between them, as the kingdoms frequently warred with each other for dominance. One of these kingdoms, the Magadha, were perhaps the most imperial out of the bunch, conquering swaths of territory and forming a dynastic rule. It was within this kingdom that Siddhartha Buddha was said to have lived and gained enlightenment. The Magadha were a fiercely devout people with a penchant for using early examples of tanks in the form of mace-wielding chariots to get their way and, as usual, marked the end of a dynasty with a bloody affair. For our purposes now, we see the Shaishunaga Dynasty at the seat of power having emerged victorious among the Magadha with King Mahanandin as their leader. [8] However, a certain bastard son named Mahapadma Nanda was ready to make his violent claim…

If we look a bit further, the Chinese were too busy partaking in the epic Warring States period to pay too much attention to the potential of a dashing Macedonian conquering around next door..

With the stage set and the match lit, what is about to befall all of this territory and history other than something spectacular and shocking? A Macedonian King will soon sweep across the land like a raging fire but, first, we start with his maker.

For a man is nothing without his father.

On to Part 2

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Plato, The Republic. Book I. 377-B [x]

[2] Herodotus, The Histories. Book 5. 22

[3] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

[4] Xenophan, Hellenica Book 7, ch. 5 [x]

[5] Beard, M. (2016). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

[6] Axworthy, M. (2016). A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind.

[7] Sushruta Samhita, Book 1, Ch. 9 [x]

[8] Singh, Upinder. (2008) A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century [x]

What’s so Great about Alexander?

 

Alexander the Great fighting Darius III mosaic found in the ruins of Pompeii, House of the Faun (100 BC)

 

Imagine that everyone knows your name.

It doesn’t feel that intimidating, right? If you’re sitting in a bar called Cheers or you are perhaps from a small town, everyone knowing your name isn’t that unusual or profound. But now try to think about what it might be like for the whole world to know your name. Suddenly, we can envision the weight a name like Queen Elizabeth II or Brad Pitt carries, but now try to consider an entire world collectively remembering one for more than a few decades. Not just the names of a handful of villains in the past century with weird facial hair, or a line of presidents or monarchs centuries before. This name has been permeating in the collective memory of the planet’s inhabitants for thousands of years. Think beyond religious figures, before emperors. Keep going back further, this is a name that has never been forgotten. The world has hoisted this name on its shoulders since it was first spoken, it is perhaps the most famous one ever given. All of us have heard it.

Maybe now we can imagine a little bit of what it might be like to leave behind a legacy like Alexander the Great.

“…after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. ‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?‘” – Plutarch describing Julius Caesar learning about Alexander the Great. [1]

There is perhaps no figure in history that has left a mark quite like Alexander did. The scar of his exploits some 2,000+ years ago can still be found today. Visible in Greece and Egypt, stretching through the Middle East, and reaching its tendril as far as India. As if a god had stabbed a dagger into the Earth and tore it across the world.

Alexander was not the first great warrior in history. The likes of Narmer, Leonidas, and Sun Tzu all having fought their way on the planet before him. He was also not the first to forge an empire, many like the Zhou Dynasty or the Achaemenid Empire were already dying of old age by the time Alexander was born. He was also not the first conqueror or the first man to be named ‘the Great’, even Cyrus who lived hundreds of years before could not claim this honor for himself either. Alexander cannot even be called the first to be immortalized into legend, kings like Gilgamesh or Achilles living on in fable long before.

So, then, what exactly makes Alexander so Great?

That’s the question I’ll be exploring in this series. Who was Alexander and why is he perhaps the most famous figure in world history? Are his achievements worthy of our admiration, does he deserve the pedestal centuries worth of other successors have bestowed on him? Is his legacy mourned as a tragic figure having died so young like the ancient world’s James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, or Kurt Cobain? Is there truth at all to the much derided theory that Great Men shape human history?

To find these answers, we should start from the beginning…

Stay tuned for Part 1, where we’ll look at the state of the world in the 4th century BC, the Kingdom of Macedon in context, and life before Alexander became king.

Henry II of Champagne and the Humorous Unbalance

 

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“Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099” Emile Signol (1847)

The 12th century AD was a murderously good time for anyone who was bored and looking for something to go kill in a far away land. Noble youths with unsatiated blood lust who had run out of best friends to kidnap and ransom finally found their calling. When Pope Urban II called for aid to the Byzantine Empire in the form of military ass-whuppery, many of these belligerent teenagers set off to reclaim the territory in Anatolia lost to those rando Seljuq Turks that had seemingly popped up out of nowhere on the world stage. While doing so, they thought–hey man, since we’re already down here and winning, why not shift our fratboy douchebaggery party hoppin’ on over to Jerusalem and just, like, wrestle it out of the hands of those rival Islamic bros and totally blow up their spot? Thus kicking off centuries of The Crusades lobbing that territory back and forth between blood baths and redrawn political landscapes that cause even the most healthy, history of the Middle Ages student a migraine as they attempt to make sense of the disjointed kingdoms and legacies that cropped up as a result.

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Eleanor of Aquitaine with dat sass, yo

This was the era of key historical players who are famed for their role in these events. There was the showdown between Richard I the Lionheart and Saladin during the Third Crusade, Frederick Barbarossa was busy harassing the Italian states and making himself Holy Roman Emperor, Eleanor of Aquitaine was retaliating with a decent show of her own “game of thrones”. Genghis Khan was occupied uniting the Mongol tribes and gearing up for a casual, no big deal ride through Asia just to, you know, take in the scenery. The 12th century was rife with so many popes and kings and wars, it’s no wonder people’s imaginations light up when they think of the high middle ages–things were going down.

And so was Henry II of Champagne, incidentally, but he doesn’t know that quite yet.

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Midas Touch – When Archaeology and Myth Craft a Delicious Beer

Image result for midas touch beer dogfish

Liquid gold

History being a life long passion of mine, I often inform people of this fact when dancing through the usual small-talk ‘get to know you’ questions. This is something that usually doesn’t inspire much interest and most of the responses I receive are something along the lines of, “Ah, that’s cool–always found it boring in school though.” History is more than just memorizing dates, I’d exclaim! It’s insanely dramatic and fun, filled with stories so crazy half the thrill of it is knowing it happened for real–and sometimes, it even uncovers ancient recipes for booze that can be reproduced for us modern day plebeians to try! How are you not entertained?!

Almost 50 years ago, Penn University excavated a tomb found at the ancient site of Gordion, Turkey. Gordion was famous for being where the impossibly legendary Gordian Knot was tied and prophesied to be undone only by someone destined to rule all of Asia. That someone turned out to be Alexander the Great because if there was ever a prophecy, it certainly applied to him most conveniently. Geez, Alexander, leave some table scraps for the rest of us! Gordion was also famous for being the seat of the kingdom of Phrygia which was home to a famous ruler you may have also heard tales of. That being King Midas of poorly chosen wishes. Though the tomb hasn’t been definitively proven to be that of Midas [1] (the other assumption is that it may instead belong to his father Gordius), Archaeologists are sure that the tomb certainly belonged to a beloved Phyrgian king from the Iron Age because they discovered the body of a 60-65 year old male adjourned in purple and surrounded by over 150+ bronze drinking vessels left over from a celebratory farewell feast held outside of his tomb.  The collection was whisked away and sent off to the Penn Museum for safe keeping and forgotten about until Dr. Patrick McGovern, basically the Indiana Jones of ancient alcohols & beverages became bored one day and decided to take a closer look at the contents. [2]

Phrygian jug

Sexy drinking vessel

Using an array of micro-chemical analysis including, but not limited to, infrared spectrometry, gas and liquid chromatography, and mass spectrometry (I don’t know what any of this means but I wanted to include it so I could make any of the science nerds in the audience warm and fuzzy), he was able to isolate the marker compounds of specific natural products that were contained in these vessels by studying the sticky residue found in the remains. And what he found was shocking–besides the completely normal consumption of spicy, barbecued lamb and lentil stew, he found evidence to suggest that the drink of choice among these funeral revelries was a booze concoction hinting of grape wine, honey mead, and barley beer together. A mixture that made him blanch at the thought!

That doesn’t even sound good, right? Ever curious, however, Dr. Patrick McGovern issued a challenge to micro-brewers while speaking at a convention, and invited any one of them to join him in the labs the next morning to see if they could reverse engineer the drink found in Midas’ tomb. At least 20 micro-brewers took him up on the offer, but only one came out the victor–Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. Together, they created Midas Touch–a craft brew you can actually purchase and drink today! It’s completely based off of the components found in the drinking vessels making it the oldest ancient ale recipe. It’s made with white muscat grapes, honey, and barley–actually a pretty delicious combination having tried it. It falls more on the line of mead in my opinion. It also contains the addition of saffron–it’s a bit of conjecture, but since the bittering agent hops wasn’t introduced to Europe until around 700 AD, they went with this extremely valuable spice which was found prominently in Turkey during antiquity and which is possible to have been the component responsible for the yellowish color found in the residue in the drinking vessel remains. The beer isn’t the cheapest in the world, thanks to the saffron, but it’s an insanely yummy drink and I personally love it not being much of a beer drinker myself. Makes for a fun immersive history experience too, now you have a taste for what ancient peoples drank! [3]

Now, if you’re a bit hazy on the details of Midas and why you remember his name, I got you–there are a few mythological traditions that his story comes from thanks in part to Aristotle and the diligent re-tellings of Ovid in his Metamorphoses XI. 

Image result for king midas painting

What Gordian Knot?

There are a few variations, but one of the more well known ones has Dionysus, the god of wine and other wild pleasures making him the favorite of Dude-Bros everywhere, hanging out with his gang of satyrs and the like. One of the satyrs, Silenos, gets super drunk and finds himself kidnapped by a bunch of filthy peasants and brought to King Midas. One variation has Midas actually lacing a drinking fountain with wine because apparently Silenos, when drunk, spouts all kinds of useful wisdom and quips and lashed out a positively delightful one upon being abducted to court:

The best thing for man is not to be born at all, and the second best thing is to die as soon as possible. [4]

Yikes. Either way, King Midas recognizes Silenos and pays extra attention to his comforts, lavishing him with entertainments for 10 days before returning him to Dionysus who is surprised and exceedingly grateful. Dionysus tells Midas that he’ll grant him one wish in thanks for not raping or murdering the hell out of Silenos which most ancient men are want to do in these days and Midas takes next to no time in deliberating on what his true desires are. Clearly lacking in the gift of hindsight, which he should have wished for instead if you ask me, he requested that everything he touched be turned instantly to gold.

Wish granted, Midas was pleased to see that he could turn all matter into glittering gold, most likely singing the line from Smash Mouth’s All Star as he did so. He was delighted when twigs and leaves shifted to aurum with the slightest touch and skipped on back to his court excited for a future filled with endless wealth. He began to regret his wish pretty quick, however, when he realized his new golden touch also applied to anything he tried to drink or eat–apparently not being a dickish enough king to demand being hand-fed to by his servants. He soon became so inconsolably hungry and thirsty, that he went crying back to Dionysus asking for the wish to be taken back. Dionysus told him to stop being such a whiny baby and go wash off the wish in the river Paktolos which could be found near Sardis. Doing as he was told, Midas washed away his golden touch in the river which is said to be why the sands of the river are forever golden. [4]

That’s the most famous story of King Midas but there were others. Another one has Midas’s bad judgment continuing when he foolishly insists Pan to be a better musician than Apollo, which results in the god furiously cursing him with donkey ears for being such an ass. Then there is the supposed bastard son of Midas, Lityerses, who is some kind of proto-Dexter serial killer who tricks travelers into competing against him in an unwinnable contest and then ceremoniously whipping, beheading them, and then stuffing up his victims into a corn stack while singing a playful tune (probably also All Star by Smash Mouth). Herakles came across him and was like nah brah and gave him a piece of his own medicine. [4]

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In a much later version, Midas’ daughter becomes the victim of his golden touch.

 

But whether or not you believe in Greek Mythology being in any way factual (no judgments from me), there really was a King Midas of Phrygia which is why Archaeologists assume he could be the occupant of the tomb they found and the owner of the vast amount of residue-y drinking vessels. The Midas most likely featuring in these tales reigned around the 8th century BC during the time of Sargon II. He showed up a few times in correspondences and was known as an aggressive and powerful ruler who allied himself with Hittite kings (basically Troy, ya’ll) against the Assyrians. He also cooperated in coordinated military campaigns with the Greeks, which might explain why they adored him enough to feature him in stories (whether or not they were much for flattery). Sources also suggest that he had dedicated his throne to Apollo in Delphi (perhaps as an apology in hopes of getting his old human ears back, no?) and that he had married a Greek princess and daughter of King Agememnon of Kyme (Not that Agememnon). Her name was Hermodike II and she’s credited with inventing Greek coinage which might explain the whole gold thing, who knows. [5]

Oh and also, this was secretly a Kingslayers post all along (Hah! Got you!) According to sources, which include Herodotus, this King Midas committed suicide by drinking bull’s blood. [5]

Because why in the gods names would you do such a thing.

 

Cause of Death: Drinking the blood of bovines when he should have been drinking Dogfish Craft Beer, clearly.

 

Fact Check it, yo!

 

[1] Krill, Richard M. “Midas: Fact and Fiction.” International Social Science Review, vol. 59, no. 1, 1984, pp. 31–34. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41881501.

[2] McGovern, Patrick. Midas Touch, www.penn.museum/sites/biomoleculararchaeology/?page_id=143.

[3] Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. Harper, 2014. Ch. Extreme Beverages

[4] March, Jennifer R. The Penguin Book of Classical Myths. Penguin, 2010. Pgs. 532-534

[5] Berndt-Ersöz, Susanne. “The Chronology and Historical Context of Midas.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 57, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1–37. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25598415.

 

 

A Touch of Classical Wisdom XI

Bamboo books, so much cooler than paper

So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War [1]

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Levitating Caesar, a Wild Honeymoon, and a Whole Lotta Death

This week on History Around the Web, find out how Elizabeth Bennet afforded all those books, how King’s used a bit of magic to wow their subjects, and how ancient people built things (without the help of extra terrestrials, okay):

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Vintage Pictures From a Dramatic, Five-Year Honeymoon Around the World

One imagines Eleanor and Harris Phelps must have traveled with a great deal of luggage. Things tend to pile up during half a decade of world travel: clothes, toiletries, visas, curios … and, in their case, more than a thousand souvenir photographs.

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