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The Roots of “Christmas” in Ancient Greece

By Maria Papathanasiou on December 22, 2013 in Church, History, Mythology, News

Christmas is the most important, and perhaps the most treasured, celebration of Christianity filled with joy and love. Every country celebrates with different customs that have deep roots within history and tradition. We can find a variety of similarities in the commemoration of the birth of Christ and Dionysus between ancient and contemporary Greece. If we look at the ancient Greek history and the traditions within, we will see that some of our customs have their roots in ancient Greece.
In December, the Ancient Greeks celebrated the birth of Dionysus, calling him “Savior” and divine “infant.” According to Greek mythology, his mother was a mortal woman, Semele, and his father was Zeus, the king of the Gods. The priest of Dionysus held a pastoral staff as did the Good Shepherd. On December 30, ancient Greeks commemorated his rebirth.
The most well-known custom throughout the Christian world are the Christmas carols that have roots deriving from ancient Greece. Specifically, Homer — during his stay on the island of Samos, along with a group of children — composed the carols. In ancient Greece, carols symbolized joy, wealth and peace, and the children sang the carols only in the homes of the rich. Children would go from house to house, holding an olive or a laurel branch adorned with wool (a symbol of health and beauty) and different kinds of fruits. The children brought the olive branch to their homes and hung it on the doors where it remained for the rest of the year.
The Christmas tree appeared for the first time in Germany at the end of the 16th century. It became globally known in the 19th century. In our religion, the Christmas tree symbolizes the rejoicing of the birth of Jesus Christ. The tree was adorned first with fruits and later with clothes and other household objects. Ancient Greeks also used to decorate the ancient temples with trees, symbolizing the divine gift offering. The Christmas tree tradition made its way to Greece in 1833, when the Bavarians decorated the palace of King Otto.
Santa Claus, who travels around the world on Christmas Eve delivering gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, is another impressive similarity. A similar tradition also existed during the celebration of Dionysus in ancient Greece who resembled light. Then, the chariot transformed into a sleigh and horses transformed into reindeer.
The New Year’s cake is also the evolution of an ancient Greek custom. Our ancestors used to offer Gods the “festive bread” during the rural festivals, like the Thalysia or the Thesmophoria.

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5 Ancient Greek Civilization ‘Firsts’ That Were Not, From Atlanta Black Star


The Greek Alphabet
New research suggests the Greeks borrowed their system known as alphabetic numerals from the Egyptians, and did not develop it themselves as was long believed, the BBC reports.
Greek alphabetic numerals were favored by the mathematician and physicist Archimedes, the scientific philosopher Aristotle and the mathematician Euclid, among others.
A 2003 analysis by Stephen Chrisomalis, Ph.D., a linguistic anthropologist at McGill University in Montreal, showed striking similarities between Greek alphabetic numerals and the Egyptian demotic numerals, used in Egypt from the late eighth century B.C. until around A.D. 450.
Both systems use nine signs in each “base” so that individual units are counted 1-9, tens are counted 10-90 and so on. Both systems also lack a symbol for zero.
Chrisomalis proposes that an explosion in trade between Greece and Egypt after 600 B.C. led to the system being adopted by the Greeks.
Greek merchants may have seen the demotic system in use in Egypt and adapted it for their own purposes.

Pythagorean TheoremPythagorean Theorem
Since the fourth century A.D., Pythagoras has commonly been given credit for creating the theorem in geometry that states that in a right-angled triangle the area of the square on the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares of the other two sides—that is, a^2 + b^2 = c^2. This is commonly called the Pythagorean theorem.
But the theorem was known and previously used by the Babylonians, Indians and Egyptians.  The way in which the Babylonians handled Pythagorean numbers implies that they knew that the principle was generally applicable, and knew some kind of proof, which has not yet been found in the (still largely unpublished) cuneiform sources.
Because of the secretive nature of Pythagoras’ school and the custom of its students to attribute everything to their teacher, there is no evidence that Pythagoras himself worked on or proved this theorem. For that matter, there is no evidence that he worked on any mathematical or meta-mathematical problems, says Walter Burkert, a German scholar of Greek mythology and cult.

Greek Architecture

Greek Architecture
In his book, “The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality” by Cheikh Anta Diop, even Greek architecture has its roots in Egypt.  Proto-Doric columns, the Egyptian cliff tombs of Beni Hasan, were found dating back as early as the 12th dynasty.
Greco-Roman monuments are mere miniatures compared to those built by the Egyptians. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with all its towers, could easily be placed in the hypostyle hall of the temple of Karnak; the Greek Parthenon could fit into those walls even more easily.

Fathers of Modern Medicine

Fathers of Modern Medicine
The Egyptians — not the ancient Greeks — were the true fathers of medicine, according to a study that pushes back the origins by at least a millennium, writes Roger Highfield, science editor for the U.K. -based The Telegraph.
Scientists examining documents dating back 3,500 years say they have found proof that the inception lies not with Hippocrates (460 B.C. -370 B.C.) and the Greeks, but in ancient Egypt and the likes of Imhotep (2667 B.C. – 2648 B.C.), who designed the pyramids at Saqqara and was elevated to the god of healing.
The research team from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester discovered the evidence in medical papyri written in 1,500 B.C. — some 1,000 years before Hippocrates was born.
Rosalie David, professor of biomedical Egyptology and director of the KNH Centre, said: “These results are very significant and show that the ancient Egyptians were practicing a credible form of pharmacy long before the Greeks.”

egyptian philosophy Originators of Philosophy
Philosophy is a classical Greek creation, at least that is what we are supposed to accept if we are to believe prominent European scholars like Martin Litchfield West. However, the ancient Greek philosophers themselves gave the Egyptians credit for creating the discipline.
Molefi Kete Asante, Ph.D., scholar, historian and philosopher, said: “There is a common belief among whites that philosophy originates with the Greeks. The idea is so common that almost all of the books on philosophy start with the Greeks as if the Greeks pre-dated all other people when it came to discussion of concepts of beauty, art, numbers, sculpture, medicine of social organization. In fact, this dogma occupies the principal position in the academies of the Western world, including the universities and academies of Africa.”
“Diodorus Siculus, the Greek writer, in his ‘On Egypt,’ written in the first century before Christ, says that many who are ‘celebrated among the Greeks for intelligence and learning, ventured to Egypt in olden times, that they might partake of the customs, and sample the teachings there. For the priests of Egypt cite from their records in the holy books that in the former times they were visited by Orpheus and Musaeus, Melampos, Daedalos, besides the poet Homer, Lycurgus the Spartan, Solon the Athenian, and Plato the philosopher, Pythagoras of Samos and the mathematician Eudoxos, as well as Democritus of Abdera and Oenopides of Chios, also came there.’”

Greece’s Ancient Messene to Be Nominated to Unesco’s World Heritage List

It was recently announced that Greece’s ancient Messene will be a candidate for UNESCO’s world heritage site. Ancient Messene has already been included on the nominations list of Greece that will be submitted to UNESCO in the next few days.
Ancient Messene is one of the most important archeological territories in Greece. The city was established by Epaminondas, a Theban general, along with his allies, the Argives on 369 B.C.  The city flourished during the Hellenistic and Roman period as the capital of the Messene’s State.
The most important monuments of the archaeological site will be: the Asklepieion, the Temple of Poseidon, the Sanctuary of Demeter and the Dioskouroi, the stadium and gymnasium of Heroon, where sons of noble families were trained, as well as the Theatre of Messene, which was an exceptional building anticipating the theatres and amphitheatres of the Roman period. According to some testimonies, the theatre was not only used for performances but also as a place for political meetings.

Mudslides protected ancient Vatican necropolis from ravages of time

Written by Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service

A necropolis under Vatican City State will open to visitors in early 2014. Mud and gravel slides entombed five centuries of pre- and early Christian burials, keeping the "city of the dead" sealed for two millennia. - CNS photo/Vatican Museums

VATICAN CITY - Slipping hillsides of clay, mud and gravel entombed an enormous necropolis below today's Vatican City State, keeping its underground "city of the dead" safely sealed for two millennia.
But unlike the Italian town of Pompeii, which was abandoned and frozen in time after the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D, the Vatican hillside was still used after each mudslide, and offers a multilayered record of pre- and early Christian burial practices and treasures spanning over five centuries.
"A necropolis this vast, with so many chronological phases, with so many preserved decorative objects, makes it one-of-a-kind in Rome," Vatican archaeologist Sabina Francini told Catholic News Service Dec. 10.
Finally, after years of excavations and restoration and the installation of interactive monitors for visitors -- a 650,000 euros ($900,000) project funded largely by the Canadian chapter of the Vatican Museums' Patrons of the Arts association -- the site will be opened to the public in early 2014.
Guided tours of the necropolis near "Via Triumphalis" (Triumphal Way, a major road leading out of ancient Rome) will be limited to groups of 25 people. Reservations will have to be made in advance via the museums' website: mv.vatican.va.
The necropolis -- separate from the catacombs and cemetery under St. Peter's Basilica believed to include the tomb of St. Peter -- will give visitors a remarkable look at the detail and evolution of early Roman burial practices from the first century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. There are hundreds of burial sites on view of people belonging to the poor, middle and upper classes of ancient Rome.
Grated metal catwalks circle around bricked tombs decorated with mosaic tile floors and frescoed walls; terracotta urns containing cremated human remains; and now-open graves revealing human skeletons that lie just as the archaeologists found them.
One small child has two small metal jugs at its feet and a real egg near its right hand. Francini said the "infinite, spherical" form of the egg could represent eternity, though other interpretations see it as a symbol of rebirth.
Another tomb was decorated with a marble replica of a small boy's head; the inscription said the boy was named Tiberius and lived to be four years, four months and 10 days old. The same grave held a terracotta figurine, perhaps the head of doll.
It's easy "to become a bit jaded" about death after working on so many tombs, Francini said, but seeing the loving mementos and memorials left for the departed, "you get choked up."
Among the numerous funerary objects, many exceptionally well-preserved, are small glass bottles that held oils and perfumes; coins placed in the deceased's mouth to pay the ferryman's fare across the rivers separating the worlds of the living and the dead; and a lot of broken mirrors made of burnished metal.
Because almost no mirror was found intact, Francini said she thinks they were intentionally shattered in a symbolic gesture, "perhaps because your image, too, disappears with death."
Bodies were cremated on a flat mound of dirt, visible where the extreme heat of the funeral pyres turned the clay bright red. Charred pinecones, perhaps used as kindling, were also found there.
To hold the ashes, poorer families would use recycled terracotta amphorae made to hold oil or wine; richer families used ceramic or marble urns.
The amphorae were buried with terracotta tubes sticking out of the ground so relatives could pour in ritual offerings of wine, milk or honey. Small libation holes can be seen in many slabs over the tombs.
According to Giandomenico Spinola, director of the museums' ancient Greek and Roman section, people eventually stopped burying their loved ones at the Via Triumphalis necropolis around the early fourth century -- the period when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity.
It then became much more popular to be buried near St. Peter the Apostle on the other side of the Vatican hill, he said, because even the rituals surrounding death were susceptible to "a bit of snobbery."

3D Simulation Brings Ancient Roman Imperial Villa to Life

Bernie Frischer, a digital archaeologist and one of the first to use 3D computer modeling to reconstruct cultural heritage sites, leads the Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project. Frischer launched the project in November at the Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC, US. The simulation explores a 3D virtual world that models the Roman emperor Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, Italy. The project’s website documents the state of the site today and provides scholarly background to enhance modern understanding.
Frischer directs the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing in Bloomington, US. He partnered with the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State University in Indiana to develop the ability for visitors to take on the roles of historically accurate avatars – from imperial court members and Roman senators to soldiers and slaves. Using a live 3D multi-user online learning environment, visitors can interactively explore the entire villa complex.
The villa, located about 20 miles east of Rome, served as a retreat for Hadrian and his court. It included what is considered to be the greatest Roman example of the integration of architectural, landscape, sculpture, and water features. The villa also included palaces, temples, libraries, banquet halls, staterooms, and guest and slave quarters, and was home to innovative buildings such as the Maritime Theater. Surrounded by a private moat, the latter is thought to have been the emperor’s private getaway.
 “A user can select from a variety of avatars – representing class, gender, and ethnicity – including courtiers, senators, scholars, freemen, soldiers, and slaves,” explains Frischer. “The avatar system is based on scholarly studies of the circulation and flow throughout the villa. The goal was to make everything evidence-based, from the avatars’ costumes to their gestures.” Non-playing characters also populate the virtual villa, carrying out daily activities that would have taken place during the final years of Hadrian’s reign from 117 to 138 A.D.
“First and foremost this project offers a test bed for experiments in Roman cultural geography, but just as important is the opportunity for virtual world projects like this to become the new textbooks for evidence-based learning,” says Frischer. “What you are experiencing is an immersive learning environment created through the integration and deployment of commercial products, custom software, and the knowledge offered by some the world’s leading experts on Roman history and culture.”
The project website includes a comprehensive and meticulously documented collection of aerial photographs, historical renderings, video interviews with architects and scholars, and real-time, 360-degree panoramas of 32 different sites on the villa grounds. Frischer’s team captured the original images on film. The project is the fruit of an international collaboration of dozens of academic institutions, museums, and the Archaeological Superintendency of Lazio, a unit of the Italian Ministry of Culture.
The Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts, directed by John Fillwalk, played a key role in creating the expansive, multi-user 3D simulation. The lab also implemented Frischer’s concept of a solar tracker, which enables visitors to place the sun in the sky at historically correct locations.
. -- by Amber Harmon, © i SGTW

Ancient Roman statue that inspired Mark Twain and Lord Byron leaves Europe for the first time in historic loan to Washington DC

 Dying Gaul to go in display in National Gallery of Art
Loan is first time marble sculpture has left Rome in nearly 200 years
An ancient Roman statue that inspired Mark Twain and Lord Byron to comment on its beauty is to go on display in Washington DC.
The Dying Gaul, a marble statue that was unearthed in Rome in the 1620s, is being loaned to the National Gallery of Art until March next year.
Believed by early historians and writers to be a gladiator, the statue had been a popular tourist attraction for centuries.
When Twain visited it in 1867 he wrote: 'We saw the Dying Gladiator at the Capitol, and I think that even we appreciated that wonder of art.'
And Romantic poet Lord Byron included the statue in his 1818 work From Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
'I see before me the Gladiator lie: / He leans upon his hand -- his manly brow / Consents to death, but conquers agony'. The statue, which was renamed the Dying Gaul by 18th Century scholars, is said to have been based on a 3rd Century BC bronze sculpted to mark a victory over the Gauls, McClatchy DC reported.
It is lauded for the expressions on the statue's face, as the Gaul is seen contorted with pain as he dies from a chest wound.
'A universally acknowledged masterpiece, the Dying Gaul is a deeply moving tribute to the human spirit,' Earl A. Powell III, director of the gallery, said.
'An image of a conquered enemy, the sculpture represents courage in defeat, composure in the face of death and dignity,' he added.
Its appearance at the Washington gallery - the first time it has left Italy in more than 200 years - is part of the Dream of Rome program, in which 'the Eternal Masterpieces' are exhibited in the U.S.
'We are very pleased to bring to Washington a stunning masterpiece that has not left Italian soil since its return to Rome from Paris in 1816,' Claudio Parisi Presicce, director of Capitoline Museums, where the statue is usually displayed, said.
'In 1797, Napoleonic forces had taken the sculpture to France with the intention of keeping it there.
'Its journey across the Atlantic today is further proof of the strong and fruitful collaboration between our countries.'
The statue, believed to have been created in the first or second century AD, was found in the gardens of Villa Ludovisi.
The earliest record of it comes from a 1623 description calling it a dying gladiator, but its fame spread thanks to an engraving by French artist François Perrier in 1638.
Soon royalty in Spain and France were commissioning bronze replicas, and Thomas Jefferson also listed the statue as a list of antiquities he hoped to acquire for a planned museum.
The statue will be on display until March 16. The first artifact to make its way across the Atlantic under the art exchange was Michelangelo's David Apollo, followed by Leonardo da Vinci's Codex on the Flight of Birds.

Lord Byron was inspired by the statue, writing:
'I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand - his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his droop'd head sinks gradually low -
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him - he is gone,

Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail'd the wretch who won.'  

'Io Saturnalia!' heralds Ancient Roman fest

By Mary Brown

During the week preceding Christmas, in many secondary schools throughout the Main Line, students will be heard exclaiming the celebratory “Io Saturnalia,” a herald of the centuries-old festival of the Saturnalia. The commemoration originated in ancient Rome in honor of an early king-god named Saturnus who was renowned for the goodwill and prosperity of his reign.
According to tradition, the ancient Romans honored Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, after the autumn planting was completed. In Cicero’s time, the Saturnalia lasted seven days. Augustus, however, limited the celebrations to three days so the civil courts would not have to be closed for an extended time.
As part of the tradition, Roman men replaced the toga with a loose-fitting garment called a synthesis and slaves were treated as equals by their masters as a tribute to the supposed general merriment of the celebration.
Through the ages, the fabled festival in honor of Saturnus had acquired various customs and traditions, many of which were adopted by the early Christians and persist to the current day.
Our customary use in December of red and green, representing perennial foliage and berries, dates back to the Roman Saturnalia. During the festival, the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen wreaths, called serta, bearing red berries. The exchange of gifts, the singing of songs, and the dedication of specific foods at meals, all characterized the holidays.
According to Macrobius, the celebration of the Saturnalia was extended with the Sigallaria, so named for the small earthenware figurines which were sold in Roman shops and given as gifts to children.
The Temple of Saturnus, thought by many to be the oldest Roman temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia. After sacrifice in the Temple of Saturnus, the celebrants would enjoy a public banquet, then go out to the streets shouting the holiday greeting “IO Saturnalia!” for all to hear.
The Saturnalia was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly cerei, wax candles, and sigillaria, clay dolls.
The ancient Romans also celebrated the solstitium, or winter solstice, at the approximate mid-way point between the Ides of December (Dec. 13) and the Kalends of January (Jan. 1), corresponding to our Winter Solstice on Dec. 21.
In fact, it is thought that the exchange, permutatio, of wax candles symbolized Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, as part of the winter solstice tradition. It appears, however, that by the second century A.D., Brumalia, the winter solstice celebration, replaced the Saturnalia.
Hence, by the middle of the 4th century A.D., many customs of the old Saturnalia were adapted to the celebration of Christmas. Nevertheless, the Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year for centuries. In fact, the poet Catullus described the festival as “the best of days.”
The ancient Saturnalia and many of its customs survive to the present day both in Rome and in modern-day Latin classes. Students will often exchange candles as symbols of the season, and commemorate the ancient festival with special cakes and foods.
So if you chance to hear an occasional “Io Saturnalia!” exclaimed by your favorite Latin student during the week before Christmas, know that you are welcomed to commemorate the ancient Roman festival of peace, goodwill, and harmony.
Mary Brown, a resident of Wynnewood who teaches Latin at Valley Forge Military Academy, is the President of the Philadelphia Classical Society and the Executive Director of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States.

Sex and freedom in ancient Rome

By Gene Veith

Classical scholar Peter Brown has published in the New York Review of Books an excited review of Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press) .  The book, which is said to break new ground in the scholarship of ancient Rome, shows that the vaunted sexual permissiveness of ancient Rome was inextricably linked to the practice of slavery, with slave boys and girls being the primary sex objects who could not object to how they were used.  He also shows how the early Church, which decisively challenged and successfully changed this  brutal and hypersexualized culture, connected sexual morality with freedom.
After the jump, an excerpt from the review with a link to the book.  Question:  Could Christianity transform sexual morality once again?
From Rome: Sex & Freedom by Peter Brown | The New York Review of Books:
The jolly free-for-all, which we like to imagine as forming a timeless human bond between us and the ancients, was based upon the existence of a vast and cruel “zone of free access” provided by the enslaved bodies of boys and girls. Slavery, “an inherently degrading institution,” was “absolutely fundamental to the social and moral order of Roman life.”
On this topic, Harper speaks with rare authority and, given the nature of the subject, with impressive restraint. In his first book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425, Harper showed that the late Roman world had remained a slave society deep into Christian times.4 In From Shame to Sin, Harper takes us back into this world. It is one that we rather wish it had not been: “a society whose moral lineaments were sculpted by the omnipresence of slaves” and where “the flesh trade was a dominant institution.”
Harper’s book makes plain that the modern spate of works on sexuality and on the construction of gender in Roman and early Christian times, ingenious though they may be, are lightweight confections compared with this gross, ever-present fact of Roman life. We must look up from our literary games and see what is almost too big to be seen—the fact of slavery, towering above us like the trees of an immense forest of unfreedom that covered the Roman world. What mattered, in Roman law and in Roman sexual morality, had little to do with sex. It had everything to do with whose bodies could be enjoyed with impunity and whose could not be touched without elaborate formulas of consent.
The joys of sex were there for all. Harper shows how the puritanism of the Romans in relation to their own spouses has been greatly exaggerated. But the primary school of sexual endeavor remained, to an unusual degree, the bodies of slaves—along with the bodies of the poor and of prostitutes, who were all too easily sucked into the gravitational field of dishonor associated with outright slavery. Then Harper sums up his feelings: “The laws deflected lust away from the freeborn body, and slaves provided a ready outlet.”
This view could lead to a banal conclusion. Sex was shocking to the early Christians. Sex in the Roman world was intimately linked to slavery. Ergo: Christians, once they came to power after the year 312, predictably hammered the sexual codes of a society glutted on the ready availability of servile bodies and even cut away (if somewhat more tentatively than we might wish) at those parts of the slave system—such as prostitution—that fostered sexual indulgence.
But Harper realizes that this is too facile a conclusion. The excitement of his second chapter, “The Will and the World in Early Christian Sexuality,” lies in the manner in which he traces the sheer fierceness of Christian attitudes toward sexuality back to how sexual morality merged with the charged issue of freedom. Christians rethought these ideas in profound alienation from a society that took unfreedom for granted. They also dissociated themselves from a view of the cosmos that seemed to support a chill “indifference toward the brutalities accepted in the name of destiny.”
This is the second grand theme in Harper’s book. From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.
But then, what was true freedom? Freedom also was a mighty metonym, of which the freedom to decide one’s sexual fate was only one, highly “enriched” part. Above all, it meant “freedom” from “the world.” And by “the world” Christians meant, bluntly, the Roman society of their own times, where unfreedom was shown in its darkest light by the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies. It no longer mattered, to Christians, with whose bodies, from which social categories, and in what manner sex might happen. From Paul onward, for Christians, there was right sex—sex between spouses for the production of children; wrong sex—sex outside marriage; and abhorrent sex—sex between same-sex partners. Wrong sex of any kind was a sin. And a sin was a sin. It was not a social faux pas, deemed an outrage in one situation and accepted in another.
Seldom has so great a simplification been imposed on a complex society. The unexpected victory of Christian norms in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was so thorough that any alternative ordering of moral frontiers within a society became unthinkable. The intricacies of a status-based morality still require patient reconstruction by modern historians of Rome, like the bones of some flamboyant creature of the Jurassic age. The Christian victory was one that caused a chasm to open up between ourselves and the ancient world.

Professor probes mental disorders in the ancient world

Dec 18, 2013 by Gary Shapiro

The examination of mental disorders would seem to be the almost exclusive domain of psychiatrists and psychologists, not humanities scholars. Yet William V. Harris, the William R. Shepherd Professor of History, has spent his time in recent years studying his chosen field—the history of ancient Greece and Rome—through the lens of mental illness.
Harris, director of the Columbia Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, has explored subjects in ancient times ranging from war and imperialism to literacy and economic history. More recently, he began to focus on emotional states, in books such as Restraining Rage: the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity in 2002, and Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity in 2009. "I've always been interested in psychiatry and psychology, which I see as a quite natural interest for historian," he said.
The examination of mental disorders would seem to be the almost exclusive domain of psychiatrists and psychologists, not humanities scholars. Yet William V. Harris, the William R. Shepherd Professor of History, has spent his time in recent years studying his chosen field—the history of ancient Greece and Rome—through the lens of mental illness.
Harris, director of the Columbia Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, has explored subjects in ancient times ranging from war and imperialism to literacy and economic history. More recently, he began to focus on emotional states, in books such as Restraining Rage: the Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity in 2002, and Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity in 2009. "I've always been interested in psychiatry and psychology, which I see as a quite natural interest for historian," he said.
Chapter titles contributed by many of the conference participants include, "The Early Greek Medical Vocabulary of Insanity" and "Plato on Madness and the Good Life." Harris' own essay focuses on hallucinations, which he chose in part because "describing a hallucination is not an impossible task, it tends to be relatively brief," he said. "Try describing 20 years of depression. That is a very challenging task."
He offers examples of ancient hallucinators, such as Pheidippides, the Athenian courier who saw the god Pan on his famous run to Sparta, which is the inspiration for today's long-distance running event.
Another outcome of his conferences was sorting out ancient terminology and classifications, as he and his collaborators created a sort of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of ancient times. "The names of mental disorders that the very best ancient thinkers have used don't often correspond to anything that exists in the modern world in a neat and tidy way," Harris said. For example, the word "phrenitis" appears in ancient texts to describe illness characterized by delirium, fever and death. Today, some scholars think it refers to encephalitis.
But using modern-day medicine to understand ancient illnesses doesn't always work, Harris said. "There's always a temptation among historians of ancient medicine to do retrospective diagnoses and to say, for example, that so-and-so was a paranoid schizophrenic," he said. "People have found this almost irresistible." But ancient descriptions of cases are seldom complete enough to allow for a retroactive diagnosis, he added.
Nor did the ancients have anything approaching a scientific community of peers. The 2nd century Roman physician and philosopher Galen had colleagues and friends, Harris explained, but nothing comparable to the peer review or statistical support that present-day doctors get.
Despite the addition of the new volume on ancient mental maladies, there are many topics still to be plumbed, such as senility, demonic possession in Christianity and Judaism, and the ancient custom of seeking cures for mental (and other) illnesses by invoking the help of the gods. "I regard this book as a useful publication, but it's a very long way from being the last word on the subject," he said, perusing its cover, which depicts a 16th century woodcut of Galen. "We are left more with an agenda than a whole set of answers."

The high-minded man

The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think. -Aristotle

What Does Your Greek Name Mean?

By Nikoleta Kalmouki on December 16, 2013 in News, Society

Alexandros, Alexandra: Etymologically, it means fighting the enemies. Alexander the Great was the commander that spread Hellenism throughout the ancient world. Alexandra was an ancient goddess. Alexandros is a practical and realistic person. Alexandra is a person independent and strong who likes sport.

Anna: It comes from the Jewish name, Hannah. Anna is a serious and dynamic person, who likes material goods and has an artistic temperament.

Antonios: Antonios is very social and needs variety in his life. He likes having fun. He is moody and gets angry easily.

Antonia: A reasonable and hardworking person with an intense maternal instinct.

Georgios, Georgia: Georgios was a martyr from Cappadocia. An idealist who is always looking for adventures. Despite being considered as strong and confident, he is a coward. Georgia, has an optimistic character. She is inventive, courageous and ambitious.

Dimitris, Dimitra: Dimitris is a stubborn and demanding person, who likes football. He is affected by the opinion of the people he loves. Dimitra is a smart person who always gets what she wants. She loves children.

Eleni: It derives from ancient Greek and it means to conquer. Eleni has a strong personality, she is charming and dominating.

Ioannis, Ioanna: John the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah and baptised him in the Jordan river. Ioannis is a responsible and dynamic person who loves and support his family. Ioanna, is cheerful and optimistic with a great sense of humour.

Konstantinos, Konstantina: Konstantinos means stable, certain, in Latin. Konstantinos is a quiet and introverted person. He is persistent and hardworking. Konstantina is spontaneous and enthusiastic. She loves children.

Maria, Marios: The name of Virgin Mary. Maria has an increased sense of duty and organizational skills. The opinion of other people is very important to her. Marios likes women and money. He is productive and efficient.

Nikolaos, Nikoleta: Saint Nicholas is the protector of sailors. The name Nikolaos is composed by the Greek word “niki” (victory) and “laos” (people). Nikolaos is a sweet and caring person. 

Nikoleta is courageous and confident. She likes men who are weak and in search for a mother figure.

Sofia: It means intelligence. Sofia is very demanding and imaginative. She loves to be the centre of attention.

Panagiotis, Panagiota: They are both energetic and active. They are devoted to their family but they also want to enjoy life.