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.

Thumps Up for Roman Gladiators

Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Leon Gerome 1824-1904

The image of a Roman gladiator’s fate being decided by a thumbs up or down is iconic–one that can be recalled in many Hollywood films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the famous painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome. Many may find themselves familiar with the painting but might not know that the image above became the basis for our pop culture idea of a crowd of plebeians jeering and viciously stabbing their thumbs downward– signaling that they wished for the defeated gladiator to pay for his loss in combat with his life. It is also where Ridley Scott drew his inspiration while directing his movie epic, blessing us with one of the best Joaquin Phoenix performances before Joker danced his way down a flight of stairs.

But, like most beliefs cribbed from famous works–this one turned up false.

Joaquin Phoenix Commodus GIF - JoaquinPhoenix Commodus Gladiator GIFs

Histastrophe’s barometer of historical accuracy as determined by an ego-maniacal Hercules impersonator.

If one were to find themselves judging the outcome of a gladiatorial match in a Roman arena (look, I don’t know your life), it might be helpful to know that if you were to signal with a thumbs up that everything is cool and kosher and you totally don’t wish any ill-will towards the defeated combatant–you might be that idiot screaming in surprise when the loser ends up spurting blood everywhere because your poor judgment resulted in his swift execution. You just sentenced that dude to death, man!

According to Anthony Corbeill, Classics Historian and author of works such as Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, whomever was in charge of administering the judgment of death over the defeated combatant would use ‘the hostile thumb’ or infesto pollice and that it would have been turned upward rather than down. [1] We learn this from 1st c. AD orator/teacher Quintillian who wrote that:

“Even in the fierce arena the conquered gladiator has hope, although the crowd threatens with its hostile thumb.” – Quintilian, Book 11 Institutio Oratoria [2]

We have a couple of reasons to suspect what this would look like–there are a few examples in Roman works that describe orators using certain gestures that were thought of as somewhat obscene. This hostile thumb was also described by Apuleius in his aptly named Golden Ass “like an orator, shutting in the two lowest fingers, extending the rest straight out, and beginning calmly with the infesto pollice.” [3] Naturally, this sort of position would suggest the thumb would be pointing upwards rather than down. Go ahead and try it the wrong way–I’ll wait. Quintilian often remarks on orators who speak with an uplifted hand being rather fond of using the hostile thumb as well–similar to those who enjoy ‘flipping the bird’ which is another gesture that was well in use in the Roman Empire. Both the thumbs up and the middle finger represent phallic imagery and aren’t thought of as particularly kind things to do with one’s hand, least of all one that would denote mercy.

“…numerous examples attest to gestural language outlasting spoken language.” – A. Corbeill, Thumbs in Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index. [1]

Interestingly, there’s a great deal of thought and attention in Roman writings put on the power of the thumb. In possibly the most Italian thing ever, the common belief in Rome was that gestures contained a stable essence. Many Roman writers waxed poetic on the thumb (pollex) and were quick to point out the similarity with another Latin word pollet which meant “has power”. Roman writer Macrobius believed the thumb had moral superiority over the other fingers like it was some sentient, Twitter hashtag activist simply because it didn’t take as kindly to ornamentation. Methinks Macrobius simply never found a decent thumb ring. Other writers thought the thumb held power and sway over the remaining fingers by this virtue alone. Some weirdos thought the thumb was somehow connected to sexual organs and thus had regenerative powers because that makes a whole lot of sense. But not as much sense as Pliny the Elder who prescribes the right thumb of a virgin in curing someone of epileptic shock. Basically, Romans were crazy about their thumbs and, oddly, the rest of the ancient world was pretty sure that the thumb was simply connected to the hand. You know, like a normal finger ought to be. [1]

“…the thumb, either as the primary agent or acting by itself, has complete control over grasping and controlling, as if it were the guide and moderator of all things.” – Lactantius [4]

With this kind of obsession, and it stands to reason that gestures survive in cultural context better than verbal language does, it should be no surprise that throughout the timeline of Italian history, there are mentions of an erect thumb pointing at objects or people as one of scorn–from Dante’s Renaissance all the way up to the 20th century–some form of the Hostile Thumb lived on. It’s not even uncommon in other neighboring countries to view the ‘thumbs up’ as a sexually offensive one and it wasn’t until World War II and the influx of American G.I.’s that the cross-contamination of the gesture changed in Italy. [1]

So if you wanted to save a gladiator, what gesture would you use?

Medaillon de Cavillargues –  The inscription reads STANTES MISSI which means ‘released standing’. Depicting an act of mercy for both combatants signaled with a closed fist type gesture. [1]

Remember that the thumb has otherworldly powers, especially over the other fingers. There’s a whole thing from Pliny the Elder which discusses a ‘well-wishing’ thumb exists in proverb where one means to show approval when pressing down the thumb on something, like a hand or upon an enclosed fist. Because these are the Romans we’re talking about, of course pressing the thumb on things held a power in and of itself. Pressing a thumb on things might even cure you of pains and other ailments, and certainly pressing your thumb on your fist would save the life of a gladiator in the arena who maybe lost the fight because he ate too much garum sauce and was a bit sickly. Let him fight another day!

“Raising the hands and closing the fists, therefore, were expressions of power capable to concede life.” Michel de Montaigne [4]

Now, since we’ve gotten this far, I’m sure most of you are well and myth-busted and smartly know that the thumbs up is an ancient signal for death in the gladiatorial arena. For those left feeling a little skeptical still (I get it, magical thumbs are weird) I’d ask you to think on another well-known gesture you are already familiar with that similarly employs the hostile thumb.

How about the “You’re dead” gesture, cutting the throat with a thumbs up like a sword?

Image result for thumbs up cutting throat gesture gif

Yeaaaaaah–maybe rethink your thumbs ladies and plebes.

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Corbeill, A. “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: ‘POLLEX’ AS INDEX.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4238745.

[2] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria. Book XI: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Quintilian/Institutio_Oratoria/11C*.html

[3] Apuleius, The Golden Ass: https://archive.org/stream/TheGoldenAss_201509/TheGoldenAsspenguinClassics-Apuleius_djvu.txt

[4] Corbeill, A. (2004). Nature embodied: gesture in ancient Rome. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

The Killing Joke


Stoic AF

There are many bizarre deaths in Classical antiquity and, with a people that guzzled wine like water [1], it shouldn’t be all that surprising. There was Emperor Caracalla who decided to take a pee break off the side of a road and was stabbed mid-stream [2].  Philosopher Empedocles who hurled himself into a volcano thinking he’d survive it and become a god because that sounds legit [3]. Or rich bastard Roman General Crassus who forced down molten gold because he lost a battle with the Parthians and irony [4]. There was even Saint Lawrence who earned his martyrdom by sass for quipping “Turn me over–I’m done on this side!” [5] while being cooked up on a giant grill to be served during a persecution of Christians BBQ. But speaking of jokes, my favorite has to be the tale of Chrysippus, whose death you probably just had to be there to get.

Backing up a little bit, let’s lay the foundation for this set-up. Chrysippus was a famous Greek philosopher who was tearing up the streets of Athens a few hundred years after Socrates daintily sipped an aromatic cup of freshly brewed hemlock tea. He was a stoic, the guys confused in modern days with sociopathy and Commander Spock, but taught his students about the aether of the Universe and living a life in congruence with the will of Fate and aligning oneself with Nature. So more like a Jedi rather than someone who refuses to smile at puppies. He also tinkered around with math, created prepositional logic, and started some early ancient therapy sessions hoping to assist folks with unruly passions. Chrysippus was kind of a big deal, logical in thinking and focused entirely on formulating an impressive philosophical rapt sheet. So let’s fast-forward to a now 73 year-old man with this impressive a career to behold.

Invited by his pupils to a sacrificial feast which, in those days, was probably akin to a professor attending a wild on-campus keg party, Chrysippus downed copious amounts of wine as one is want to do. It was noted by Diogenes Laertius, a Classical biographer of the Greek philosophers, that this particular wine was undiluted–no water, just pure sweet straight up wine which was sure to get even the most stoic philosopher congruently drunk in accordance with Nature. Stumbling around in the throes of intoxication, Chrysippus was giddy in delight when a donkey escorted by an old woman happened by him and immediately started to consume the remaining figs Chrysippus must have been carrying around from the party. [6]

Struck with the genius of his own cleverness, Chrysippus seized upon the moment to hurl the greatest joke to which would ever be uttered in the history of hilarity:

Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs! [6]

Howling with laughter, Chrysippus was beside himself with his own joke, the old woman we can only assume, struggling to find the humor at all in this line. Delirious and overtaken with his own comedic timing, Chrysippus fell into such a violent fit of hysterical giggles about the prospect of giving a donkey wine or something, I don’t know, I don’t get you Chrysippus, that he promptly died on the spot–in the wake of his own comedy. [6]

The dude literally died laughing at his own joke.

And it wasn’t even that funny.

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Wine and Rome. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2017, from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/wine.html

[2] Goldsworthy, A. K. (2009). How Rome fell: death of a superpower. New Haven: Yale University Press. P. 74.

[3 & 6] Laertius, D. (1980). Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[4] Nuwer, R. (2014, June 10). Here’s What Actually Happens During an Execution by Molten Gold. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heres-what-happened-people-who-were-executed-having-molten-gold-poured-down-their-throat-180951695/?no-ist

[5] Miller, O. F. (2017, March 06). Saint Lawrence. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-lawrence/

300: Rise of Artemisia

This is happening.

No one really expects a film based on a graphic novel based on a historical event to remain loyal to the latter. Source material taken from any form whose primary audience pounds out their vicious objections to any embellishments on a keyboard caked with Doritos residue and the sticky remains of a novelty energy drink, is going to be taken more seriously than a few scattered nerds nose deep in Herodotus’ The Histories. Mostly because the first group has the unique and senseless ability of lambasting anything they love to hate with enough down-votes across social media, even Mussolini would feel popular. So with the now swiftly approaching release date of Warner Bros’ 300: Rise of an Empire, I doubt anyone is supremely concerned with historical accuracy. I’m guessing the main discussion sparks with a critique of slow-mo, how realistic and plentiful painted abdomens will be, and a nostalgic exchange of celebratory memes.

Yield at ‘Madness’

But if there is one thing I really do hope, nay, EXPECT, the movie to get right, is the characterization of Artemisia.

For a film promising to portray itself in an epic scope and deliver on all that delicious violence and bloodshed, there really isn’t an absence of it in the source material. And when it comes to Artemisia, no one, not even thousands-of-years-dead historians, can deny that she was a sassy man-trouncing Mutha’Amourous Congresswoman‘.

Artemisia was queen of the Persian providence of Caria, which she gained because her son was still a noob-fledgling after her husband died. Clearly, nobody gave a shit about him though because I never came across a name for the father, or even the son for that matter, in my readings. And who the hell would when Artemisia was bringin’ the feminism as the only female naval commander in a time period when women were expected to cover themselves to protect their chastity. (Apparently, Cyrus the Great’s influence…clearly not in relation to Miley Cyrus as she believes in neither of those things)

Her story predominately begins with the various re-tellings of the Greco-Persian wars, which for the folks who are here because of 300, are the collection of battles between Persia and the city-states of the Greek world. Not much is really known about Artemisia’s life beyond what battles she contributed her skill in and Herodotus offers little insight beyond an awe of confusion over her presence at all given this text:

There is no need for me to mention all the other subordinate officers, but there is one name which I cannot omit—that of Artemisia. It seems to me a marvel that she—a woman—should have taken part in the campaign against Greece.

But since he was Greek, there’s really no surprise there. Actually, I would infer that because Herodotus himself was born in Halicarnassus of Caria, then under the rule of Artemisia’s grandson continuing a somewhat familial regional legacy, he would find her loyalty surprising given his own rather than in full part because of any misplaced view on women. Clearly, he did have some respect for her, referring to her reasons for joining under Xerxe’s command as

there was consequently no necessity for her to do so. Her own spirit of adventure and manly courage were her only incentives.

But that probably has to do with the common association of comparing her accomplishments to that of a man and not a woman, which I will show more of in a bit. Either way, despite her gender, she was well known for her wisdom and intelligence, being one of Xerxes’ most promising advisers. Right before the (SPOILER ALERT: “ill-fated”) Battle of Salamis, Xerxes sent his lead military commander Mardonius [Remember this quote, guys?] to each one of his fellow commanders to retrieve their advice for the king on their opinion about raging a sea battle against the Greeks. Every single one of them, save for Artemisia, was in favor of engaging in the tactlessly arrogant attack. Without missing a beat or sparing offense, she is said to have replied with these ‘kind’ words;

Mardonius, tell the king for me that this is the answer I give—I, whose courage and achievements in the battles at Euboea were surpassed by none: say to him, “Master, my past services give me the right to advise you now upon the course which I believe to be most to your advantage. It is this: spare your ships and do not fight at sea, for the Greeks are as far superior to your men in naval matters as men are to women. In any case, what pressing need have you to risk further actions at sea? Have you not taken Athens, the main objective of the war? Is not the rest of Greece in your power? There is no one now to resist you—those who did resist have fared as they deserved. Let me tell you how I think things will now go with the enemy; if only you are not in too great a hurry to fight at sea—if you keep the fleet on the coast where it now is—then, whether you stay here or advance into the Peloponnese, you will easily accomplish your purpose. The Greeks will not be able to hold out against you for long; you will soon cause their forces to disperse—they will soon break up and go home. I hear they have no supplies in the island where they now are; and the Peloponnesian contingents, at least, are not likely to be very easy in their minds if you march with the army towards their country—they will hardly care to fight in defense of Athens.
If, on the other had, you rush into a naval action, my fear is that the defeat of your fleet may involve the army too. And put away in your heart on other point, my lord, to be considered: good masters, remember, usually have bad servants, and bad masters good ones. You, then, being the best master in the world, are ill served: these people who are supposed to be your allies—these Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, Pamphylians—are a useless lot!

The rest of the commanders held their breath, sucked in their retorts if they were included in the closing insult, or waited eagerly for Xerxes to put her silly inferior brain in place. Too bad for them though, that Xerxes, who usually has such sound judgments more in line with their intellectual capacity, greeted Artemisia’s opinion with the most highest of esteem, in fact notably encouraging her with more favor for giving such an admirable and sound advising. However, though pleased with Artemisia’s skepticism, Xerxes’ astronomically amorphous ego was certain that his presence alone would foster victory where it had since lacked. And so the Battle of Salamis was soon underway.



So, presumably not all that begrudging given her affection for baddassery, Artemisia sailed into battle regardless. According to Polyaenus (A Macedonian author who dedicated one of his works to Marcus Aurelius *bravo*), in battle, Artemisia’s long ship carried different flags, Greek, Barbarian, etc. which she would fly intermittently given her chosen enemy, the ability to sneak attack unawares. She used this technique in full when, after her comrades and allies fell apart in abstract chaos in the wake of their combined utter defeat, she found herself being chased by an Athenian Trireme with no chance of escape as she was completely surrounded by enemy and friendly ships alike. Throwing up the colors and ramming a friendly ship captained by the king of Calynda, Damasithymus, she made herself appear an ally, which led the Athenian Trireme to give up the chase and let her free. It is said too that, technically, Artemisia killed two pigs with one stone in that single maneuver, as apparently, she and Damasithymus quarreled earlier during the campaign and he was now…well, sunk and dead. Herodotus couldn’t fully comment whether there was malice in her intent. But you know what they say about a woman scorned…

Artemisia’s act of ingenious revenge was witnessed by Xerxes and his camp of overlookers forcing him (and Herodotus) to fall more deeply in love respect for her than ever before. Because that was freaking awesome. Xerxes famously saying:

My men have turned into women and my women into men.

And since Artemisia was the only woman in that battle, we all know what he really meant. You go, girl.

After the crushing defeat, Xerxes wondered out loud, again, what he should do next. And despite Mardonius’ insistence to continue an invasion of Greece and the Peloponnese, Xerxes’ was eager to follow Artemisia’s advice. Which, after calling Mardonius a slave a few times for good measure, convinced the King to return home to safety which he was more than happy to oblige. He sent Mardonius off to battle (and further failure) and Artemisia with compliments and his sons to Ephesus.

And so concludes the exploits of Artemisia. Living on in name for an Iranian destroyer and as one of the titular characters in a Hollywood blockbuster movie.

Primary Sources:

The Histories, Herodotus. Book VII-VIII. 68-9; 87-8; 101-3.

Stratagems of War, Polyaenus. Book VIII, 53.3.

Secondary Source:

Mackey, Sandra & Harrop, Scott (1996). The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation.

History Hunks: Antinous



Ladies and gentlemen, but mostly gentlemen, nah just gentlemen; This curly haired cherub is Antinous. He was known as one of the most beautiful men of the Classical world by contemporary scholars and our sources. Whether or not this was the widespread case or the desperate attempt of a certain Emperor to justify the deification of Antinous in his grief, I suppose we’ll leave to the Classical Antiquity Beauty Pageant. But, honestly, not really anything is known about this guy. Except that Cassius Dio managed to find out that he was from Bithynium. And, uh. Yep.

I've seen more rippling torsos on a statue. I mean, just sayin'.

I’ve seen more rippling pectorals on a statue. I mean, just sayin’.

Anyway, the reason this guy is famous and why you can pretty much find his bust/image in quite a few museums across Europe is because he was the “boy favorite” of Emperor Hadrian of wall-building-in-Britain fame. If you don’t know what is meant by ‘boy favorite’, then I’ll tell you that after Antinous’ death in 130AD, a notorious tabloid-like and frequently debunked historical source The Historia Augusta was talking some smack:

While sailing on the Nile he [Hadrian] lost his Antinous, for whom he wept like a woman.

And while you SHOULD generally take whatever this source says with a grain of salt, it is believed by most scholars that their relationship was fairly sexual. I mean, unless you’re that one lone denier who thinks it is completely platonic for a guy to venerate and order the people under his will to erect statues in honor of Antinous’ beauty and worship him in a cult fashion. Mhm. Yeah. “Just friends”.

What I find most curious about the story between Hadrian and Antinous is what information we have concerning his death, drowning in the river Nile.

Some sources say that he was sacrificed, either by himself or others, because of his beauty.

In the case with Cassius Dio’s writing he seems to suggest:

…and he died in Egypt, either by falling into the Nile, as Hadrian writes [lost], or, as the truth is, having been offered in sacrifice (hierourgethesis). For Hadrian was in any case, as I have said, very keen on the curious arts, and made use of divinations and incantations of all kinds. Thus Hadrian honoured Antinous – either on account of his love for him, or because the youth had voluntarily undertaken to die for him

Sounds like something a Shakespearean character in love would do.

So, what do you all think? Hot or NOT?

Xerxes Versus the Hellespont.


Modern day Dardanelles, a sea strait which connects the Balkans and Asia Minor as well as the Black sea with the Mediterranean, has a long history of being the go-to strategic hold for military and trade relations. It’s also been known to be a raging sassy sea mass that obliterates ships and crushes the dreams of empires. It also made Athamas cry.

In one of its most renowned acts of defiance, than called the Hellespont, succeeded in pissing off the purple-y Persian king Xerxes I during the opening acts of a precarious invasion of the Greek mainland.

Xerxes, proud of his Phoenician and Egyptian engineered cable bridges, which were marched about 1.5 kilometers across land for the express interest of laying them painstakingly across the Hellespont so that his army could skip merrily over to Thrace with a smile and a spear in the face, oversaw the completion of his dastardly plan and eagerly awaited his coming success.

Until the Hellespont decided that, “Well, I never voted for you!”, revolted and destroyed the bridges in a violent sea storm, giggling into the tides as it swept away Xerxes’ marvelous pride.

Enraged, Xerxes ordered the unsophisticated and foul dihydrogen monoxide rebel be punished severely for its insolence. Maybe three hundred lashes would get its attention. Also, in the interest of showing it who was boss, he ordered it branded with hot irons. Surely, the spiteful Hellespont snuffed those out quick, so instead a pair of leg shackles were tossed in instead.

And just in case the Hellespont wasn’t getting the message, the whippers were instructed to further berate the sea with verbal abuse that goes as follows:

You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you. But Xerxes the King will cross you, with or without your permission. No man sacrifices to you, and you deserve neglect by your acid and muddy waters.

Xerxes eventually crossed, but never forget the courage of the Hellespont on that day and the striking story of the strait that became a bridge slave, the bridge slave who became a storm, the storm who defied a King. Oh, and if you ever happen to come across the Dardanelles in your travels, why not toss in a little love to show your support? Because 4 for you, Hellespont, you go Hellespont.

The Histories
by Hero “The Father of History” dotus.

A Touch of Classical Wisdom

Nevertheless, let us take this business seriously and spare no pains; success is never automatic in this world–nothing is achieved without trying.

-Said by Mardonius, a Persian military commander, at a conference to Xerxes, urging the King of Persia to war with Greece. c. 5th century BC.


The Histories
by Hero “The Father of History” dotus.