LLR Books

Diagnosing Mental Illness in Ancient Greece and Rome

Gods-given hallucinations and suppressing anger for the greater good: How what's considered "abnormal" has changed.

We can put a man on the moon a rover on Mars but we’re still figuring out our own brains. Mental illness is stigmatized, potentially overdiagnosed, and often misunderstood. Scientists are still learning new things about where conditions come from, while sufferers figure out how to cope.
William V. Harris, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University, studies mental illness in the classical world—ancient Rome and Greece. Though the body of knowledge we have at our disposal is still not totally sufficient to understand mental illness today, there’s an added level of difficulty involved in trying to apply today’s knowledge to earlier civilizations. Or in understanding those civilizations’ concepts of mental illness in a time when the gods were thought to be involved in everyday life, and hallucinations weren’t something to worry about.
Harris is the author of several books, and most recently edited Mental Disorders in the Classical World, published last summer. I spoke with him over email about how the ancient Greeks and Romans approached mental illness and what we can learn from them today.

Could you start by explaining how attitudes toward mental illness were different in the classical world than they are today?

Many people in antiquity thought that mental disorders came from the gods. The Greek gods are a touchy lot, quick to take offense. For instance, they took a hard line with Orestes after his matricide. [Ed. Note: After killing his mother, Orestes was tormented by the Furies.] And in a world where many important phenomena such as mental illness were not readily explicable, the whims of the gods were the fallback explanation.
Physicians and others fought against this idea from an early date (the 5th century B.C.), giving physiological explanations instead. Many people sought magical/religious remedies—such as going to spend the night in a temple of the healing god Asclepius, in the hope that he would work a cure or tell you how to get cured—[while physicians sought] mainly medical ones. No one thought that it was the duty of the state to care for the insane. Either their families looked after them, or they ended up on the street—a nightmare situation.

In the introduction you wrote to Mental Disorders in the Classical World, you talk about "medicalizing mental illness." When and why did people start to be seen as sick instead of crazy?
Some time in the late 5th century B.C., some member of the school of Hippocrates wrote a treatise "On the Sacred Disease," in which he argued that the "sacred disease," i.e. epilepsy, was a physiological syndrome, and very soon all doctors and scientists (in so far as such a category existed) came to think that crazy people were sick (but not that they were not crazy).
Greek doctors did not distinguish sharply between physical and mental disorders, and they did not have concepts that correspond simply with "depression" or "schizophrenia." Roberto Lo Presti, in the book we are talking about, examines at length the development of Greek thinking about epilepsy. Greek doctors always tended to think that what we call psychoses were physiological in nature.

How did doctors diagnose the mentally ill back then? What were the criteria they used? And how did they go about treating them?
They were mostly (not entirely) concerned with psychoses (externalizing disorders such as antisocial personality disorder and drug and alcohol use disorders) rather than neuroses (internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety), and they took into account a full range of hard-to-define symptoms including inappropriate behavior in public, delusions, delirium, and hallucinations. Treatments also covered a whole range from physical restraint to counseling; they did not make much use of pharmaceuticals.

In the essay you contributed about hallucinations, you mention that in the classical world, people often saw gods and otherworldly things. Was there an evolution of hallucinations from being seen as a supernatural experience to as a symptom of something medically wrong?
There was no simple evolution: the Hippocratic doctors already recognized hallucinations as a purely human phenomenon, but many ordinary people went on supposing that the gods were involved.
The moral idea that anger was dangerous forms part of the widespread ancient idea that the essence of good behavior is self-control.

Does this mean that hallucinations were more commonplace and less stigmatized than today?
No more commonplace, I think. Less stigmatized, yes, somewhat. One would not have sought treatment.

Socrates had hallucinations, right? Did that affect how he was perceived?
Socrates seems to have had recurrent hallucinations of one particular type: A voice spoke to him, usually advising him not to do things. His disciples were in awe of this phenomenon, but some of his later admirers thought they needed to explain it away—they thought it suggested that he was slightly cracked.

One of your older books is about rage—why was anger seen as an illness, or something to be controlled?
It took me about 400 pages to answer this question! Partly because it was seen as dangerous in the state, partly because it was seen as a danger in the family (especially because of slavery), partly later because excessive anger came to be seen as a personal moral failure.
Anger was dangerous to the state above all because it led to political violence, including tyrannical behavior by absolute rulers; dangerous to the family because of its potential to cause feuding and violence (as for slavery, the angry slave-owner could generally treat the slaves as he wished—but they might and did react). The moral idea arises out of these concrete political and social imperatives I think, but it also forms part of the widespread ancient idea that the essence of good behavior is self-control.

Are there difficulties applying today's conceptions of what is "abnormal" to historical figures? Or vice versa?
There sure are, both ways. The conceptual and moral differences are huge. People have argued that, for example, Herod the Great and Caligula were schizophrenics, but tracing the way they actually behaved is rendered difficult by the inadequate sources [available]. And in the Roman world, a great deal of violence was normal, as was much of what we consider pedophilia. But this makes the work of scholars such as me more interesting as well as more difficult.      

Are there any ideas the ancient Greeks or Romans held that would be helpful for us to think about in the discussion surrounding mental illness today?
Yes, as far as neuroses are concerned, see in particular Chris Gill's
contribution to the book I edited, with his emphasis on character. He looks at the idea that we should train our characters so that we are ready for life's disasters and can face them robustly.

The word “citara” is derived from the Greek word kithara

The word “citara” is derived from the Greek word kithara, an instrument from classical times used in Ancient Greece and later throughout the Roman Empire and in the Arab world; the word “guitar” derives from “qithara” as well. The terms “cithare” or “cithar” are also used more broadly, to describe the entire family of stringed instruments in which the strings do not extend beyond the sounding box, including the hammered dulcimer, psaltery, Appalachian dulcimer, guqin, guzheng, koto, gusli, kantele, gayageum, dàn tranh, kanun, autoharp, santoor, yangqin, piano, harpsichord, santur, swarmandal, and others.

London skulls reveal gruesome evidence of Roman head hunters

Improved forensic techniques have shed new light on 39 skulls excavated near Museum of London in 1988

Scores of skulls excavated in the heart of London have provided the first gruesome evidence of Roman head hunters operating in Britain, gathering up the heads of executed enemies or fallen gladiators from the nearby amphitheatre, and exposing them for years in open pits.
"It is not a pretty picture," Rebecca Redfern, from the centre for human bioarchaeology at the museum of London, said. "At least one of the skulls shows evidence of being chewed at by dogs, so it was still fleshed when it was lying in the open."
"They come from a peculiar area by the Walbrook stream, which was a site for burials and a centre of ritual activity – but also very much in use for more mundane pursuits. We have evidence of lots of shoe making, so you have to think of the cobbler working yards from these open pits, with the dog chewing away – really not nice."
"We believe that some of the heads may be people who were killed in the amphitheatre. Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator, it was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you'd give two of them swords and have them kill one another. Other heads may have been brought back by soldiers from skirmishes, probably on the Hadrian or Antonine walls – again, it would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process."
The 39 skulls were excavated at London Wall almost within sight of the Museum of London in 1988, and deposited at the museum, but the scientists have only recently applied improved forensic techniques to them. Redfern and her colleague Heather Bonney, from the Earth Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum, publish their results for the first time this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The tests revealed that almost all the skulls are of adult males – some could not be identified – and most bear scars and slash marks of many wounds inflicted around the time of death. Many also have multiple healed wounds, one with the shattered cheek bone typical of a violent punch in the face, showing their lives were not tranquil. On some there is clear evidence of decapitation with a sword: possibly all were killed in that way, but if the fatal blow was through the neck the proof has vanished with the rest of their bodies.
"Whether they died in the amphitheatre or in battle, decapitation with a sword is a very efficient way of ending a life – somebody very much wanted these people dead," Redfern said.
The evidence suggests that they were left for years decomposing in the open pits.
"There is none of the fracturing you'd expect if they'd been put on spikes, so it looks as if they were just set down and left – though of course you could have had a nice shelf to display them on."
There is evidence of head taking from across the Roman empire, including Trajan's column in Rome which shows clean shaven Roman soldiers presenting bearded barbarian heads as trophies to the emperor. Heads are also shown being held up in triumph on tomb stones of cavalry officers in Britain and elsewhere. Although pits of body parts have been found in Britain, the London skulls, deposited over several decades, are an unprecedented find from the Roman capital.
Hundreds of skulls have been found for centuries along the course of the long vanished Walbrook – most recently by the team working on the new Crossrail station just outside Liverpool Street station.
They have often been interpreted either as washed out of Roman cemeteries, or as victims of Boudicca's revolution, when the East Anglican leader of the Icenii tribe swept south to London in AD60, torching Roman settlements and towns.
However the work of Redfern and Bonney may force archaeologists to have another look at the skull finds.
The London Wall skulls are far too late for Boudicca: they have been dated to the 2nd century AD, a time of peace, prosperity and expansion for the Roman city.
"These were all young men, very untypical of what we usually find in Roman burials, where we tend to get the very young and the old," Redfern said.
"Most people in second century London lived peaceful quiet lives – but as we now know, not everyone. This is a glimpse into the very dark side of Roman life."

The Ancient Greeks’ 6 Types of Love

Meanings of Love in Ancient GreeceWhat is love? Probably there is not a single answer to this question and this is why the Ancient Greeks had 6 different words to describe love. Knowing them can change your life.

*By Roman Krznaric

 Looking for an antidote to modern culture’s emphasis on romantic love? Perhaps we can learn from the diverse forms of emotional attachment prized by the ancient Greeks.
Today’s coffee culture has an incredibly sophisticated vocabulary. Do you want a cappuccino, an espresso, a skinny latte, or maybe an iced caramel macchiato?
The ancient Greeks were just as sophisticated in the way they talked about love, recognizing six different varieties. They would have been shocked by our crudeness in using a single word both to whisper “l love you” over a candlelit meal and to casually sign an email “lots of love.”
So what were the six loves known to the Greeks? And how can they inspire us to move beyond our current addiction to romantic love, which has 94 percent of young people hoping—but often failing—to find a unique soul mate who can satisfy all their emotional needs?

1. Eros, or sexual passion
 The first kind of love was eros, named after the Greek god of fertility, and it represented the idea of sexual passion and desire. But the Greeks didn’t always think of it as something positive, as we tend to do today. In fact, eros was viewed as a dangerous, fiery, and irrational form of love that could take hold of you and possess you—an attitude shared by many later spiritual thinkers, such as the Christian writer C.S. Lewis.
Eros involved a loss of control that frightened the Greeks. Which is odd, because losing control is precisely what many people now seek in a relationship. Don’t we all hope to fall “madly” in love?

2. Philia, or deep friendship
 The second variety of love was philia or friendship, which the Greeks valued far more than the base sexuality of eros. Philia concerned the deep comradely friendship that developed between brothers in arms who had fought side by side on the battlefield. It was about showing loyalty to your friends, sacrificing for them, as well as sharing your emotions with them. (Another kind of philia, sometimes called storge, embodied the love between parents and their children.)
We can all ask ourselves how much of this comradely philia we have in our lives. It’s an important question in an age when we attempt to amass “friends” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter—achievements that would have hardly impressed the Greeks.

3. Ludus, or playful love
 This was the Greeks’ idea of playful love, which referred to the affection between children or young lovers. We’ve all had a taste of it in the flirting and teasing in the early stages of a relationship. But we also live out our ludus when we sit around in a bar bantering and laughing with friends, or when we go out dancing.
Dancing with strangers may be the ultimate ludic activity, almost a playful substitute for sex itself. Social norms may frown on this kind of adult frivolity, but a little more ludus might be just what we need to spice up our love lives.

4. Agape, or love for everyone
 The fourth love, and perhaps the most radical, was agape or selfless love. This was a love that you extended to all people, whether family members or distant strangers. Agape was later translated into Latin as caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity.”
C.S. Lewis referred to it as “gift love,” the highest form of Christian love. But it also appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of mettā or “universal loving kindness” in Theravāda Buddhism.
There is growing evidence that agape is in a dangerous decline in many countries. Empathy levels in the U.S. have declined sharply over the past 40 years, with the steepest fall occurring in the past decade. We urgently need to revive our capacity to care about strangers.

5. Pragma, or longstanding love
 Another Greek love was the mature love known as pragma. This was the deep understanding that developed between long-married couples.
Pragma was about making compromises to help the relationship work over time, and showing patience and tolerance.
The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that we spend too much energy on “falling in love” and need to learn more how to “stand in love.” Pragma is precisely about standing in love—making an effort to give love rather than just receive it. With about a third of first marriages in the U.S. ending through divorce or separation in the first 10 years, the Greeks would surely think we should bring a serious dose of pragma into our relationships.

6. Philautia, or love of the self
 The Greek’s sixth variety of love was philautia or self-love. And the clever Greeks realized there were two types. One was an unhealthy variety associated with narcissism, where you became self-obsessed and focused on personal fame and fortune. A healthier version enhanced your wider capacity to love.
The idea was that if you like yourself and feel secure in yourself, you will have plenty of love to give others (as is reflected in the Buddhist-inspired concept of “self-compassion”). Or, as Aristotle put it, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”
The ancient Greeks found diverse kinds of love in relationships with a wide range of people—friends, family, spouses, strangers, and even themselves. This contrasts with our typical focus on a single romantic relationship, where we hope to find all the different loves wrapped into a single person or soul mate. The message from the Greeks is to nurture the varieties of love and tap into its many sources. Don’t just seek eros, but cultivate philia by spending more time with old friends, or develop ludus by dancing the night away.
Moreover, we should abandon our obsession with perfection. Don’t expect your partner to offer you all the varieties of love, all of the time (with the danger that you may toss aside a partner who fails to live up to your desires). Recognize that a relationship may begin with plenty of eros and ludus, then evolve toward embodying more pragma or agape.
The diverse Greek system of loves can also provide consolation. By mapping out the extent to which all six loves are present in your life, you might discover you’ve got a lot more love than you had ever imagined—even if you feel an absence of a physical lover.
It’s time we introduced the six varieties of Greek love into our everyday way of speaking and thinking. If the art of coffee deserves its own sophisticated vocabulary, then why not the art of love?

*Roman Krznaric is an Australian cultural thinker and cofounder of The School of Life in London. This article is based on his new book, How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (BlueBridge). His website is www.romankrznaric.com and he tweets @romankrznaric.

Greek calendar mirrors ours

There's nothing quite like a late Christmas present to keep the festive season going, especially when dodgy weather puts a dampener on things.
What's more, the gift that arrived for me this week, by that wonderfully old-fashioned service called snail mail, is an absolute joy for a gardener. It's useful, informative and, in keeping with holiday mode, blissfully transports me half a world away. It's a calendar of wildflowers of Greece, sent by my Greek family.
Apart from the delicate beauty of the illustrations, the thing I find so fascinating is how familiar the plants are. So many of the plants we grow or those that have become garden escapes here, come from Greece, mirroring our own cultural origins.
We may be a South Pacific nation but, mostly without knowing it, so much of our day to day life, our language, how we think and behave and our political system (democracy) are shaped by ancient Greek culture.
And the plants we have in our gardens are transplanted from the Greek landscape and that country's culture.
Most noticeable at this time of year is the wild silene, growing along our shingle river beds and roadsides, invariably carried along on its adventive journey in hay bales and mud on tyres, hence its common occurrence along our rural roads. Silene is just one of the dozen on the calendar that are so familiar. Others include cyclamen, primula, thistle (Centaurea), peony, viola, symphyandra (bellflower), crocus, Rosa canina (the dog rose), and Vicia (common vetch), often found growing around pine trees here.
The challenge of the calendar is, of course, that it's published for the Northern Hemisphere and the flowers featured are in seasons opposite to ours. So, when consulting it, I will have to either make the seasonal mind shift or allow myself a vicarious other life, six months out of date which, when winter rolls around, I have to say rather appeals.
And now, as the last of the silene flowers here on our roadsides, over there in Crete and Karpathos (the island east of Crete), the wild Cyclamen creticum ("from Crete") is unfurling its tiny, delicate white flowers from under rocky crevices in the wet, early spring weather.
Soon the early primulas will open and later, in the Greek summer, the native thistles will flower as ours let go setting seed.
And the plant names, used universally, also have their origins in ancient Greek language. Cyclamen comes from the Greek "kyklaminos", from "kyklos" or circle, a reference to the round shape of the underground bulb (in fact a swollen stem) of the plant.
Similarly, Paeonia (peony) has its origins in "Paion", physician of the gods, and so called for its healing qualities, where the ancient Greeks used the roots, flowers and seeds in medicine.
And, on the cover of the calendar is the gloriously blue Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa), or Cretan iris - from Crete. Commonly grown here, its fragile blooms make a welcome appearance in our late winter gardens, the name Iris is for the ancient Greek mythological messenger of the gods of the rainbow, while unguicularis means "with a small claw", referring to parts of the flower.
However, while it would be impossible to include all the wildflowers of Greece on a single calendar, a significant two that are missing also make a common sight here in summer. Whilst both are flowering now along our roadsides and rivers and similar in appearance, one, wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), is edible while the other, hemlock (Conium maculatum), is deadly poisonous.
Both feature widely in ancient and modern Greek culture. Still venerated today by the Greeks, fennel is known to them as "marathos", after the fields of fennel growing wild around the site of the Battle of Marathon where, in 490 BC, the ancient Greeks famously and decisively defeated their Persian invaders.
And it was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates - whose system of critical thinking and approach to ethics we still follow - who, in 399BC, chose poison hemlock as his death sentence after being tried and convicted of not believing in the state appointed gods and for corrupting the minds of young Athenians.
While there have been centuries of scholarly conjecture on whether or not it was actually poison hemlock we know as Conium maculatum he drank, modern scientific knowledge backs up the original account by Plato, who described Socrates death in detail, as consistent with the toxins (alkaloids) in Conium maculatum and their effects on the human peripheral nervous system.
The debate about hemlock has never been if it is poisonous, but whether it was actually Conium maculatum Socrates took. The potentially scary thing, especially for parents anywhere, is how common such a deadly plant is and how easily it could be confused with flat parsley when young, before it flowers.
Although a biennial, it can grow rapidly to flowering in just a year, but all parts, including the stem, are highly poisonous, even when touched (see notes below).
With the current fashion for foraging, it pays to know the difference between hemlock, parsley and fennel, a personal favourite of mine for picking wild.
When you see them growing together, the differences are obvious. But, for the naive forager, it might be easy to mistake hemlock leaves for those of flat parsley, as happened in the landmark, much documented and scrutinised case of the humble Scot Duncan Gow.
He was the tailor who, in 1845 after eating a sandwich lovingly made by his children of what they assumed was parsley, but turned out to be Conium maculatum, died with symptoms that mirrored those of Socrates, thus confirming Plato's original account 2244 years after the philosopher's death.

Top Chefs Greece: Ancient Greeks used portable grills at picnics

HANOVER, N.H., Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Ancient Greeks gave the world many things -- architecture, military tactics, poetry, art -- and a portable grill, a Dartmouth College researcher says.
Modern-day cooking experiments indicate the Mycenaeans used portable grill pits to make souvlaki and had non-stick pans to bake bread, LiveScience reported Thursday. How they were used, though, was a puzzle.
To solve the culinary mysteries, Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College said she and ceramicist Connie Podleski of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, mixed American clays to imitate Mycenaean clay, creating two bread pans and two souvlaki trays then got cooking.
"We don't have any recipes," Hruby told LiveScience. "What we do have are tablets that talk about provisions for feasts, so we have some idea of what the ingredients might have been, but in terms of understanding how people cooked, the cooking pots are really our best bet."
They found bread was more likely to stick when cooked on the smooth side, but did better on a side filled with tiny holes, LiveScience said. The holes, Hruby said, seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology that ensured oil spread evenly.
Hruby and Podleski said the souvlaki trays were too thick to transfer heat when over a fire pit, but placing the coals inside the tray was more effective.
"We should probably envision these as portable cooking devices," Hruby said, "perhaps used during Mycenaean picnics."
Hruby says the pans' likely users were chefs cooking for the Mycenaean ruling class.
"They're coming from elite structures, but I doubt very much that the elites were doing their own cooking," Hruby told LiveScience.

No Bob Costas? Why the Ancient Olympics Were No Fun to Watch

Spectators braved all manner of discomfort—from oppressive heat to incessant badgering by vendors—to witness ancient Greece's ultimate pagan festival

By Tony Perrottet
Smithsonian Magazine 

n the hills above Olympia, I awoke before dawn, feeling bleary-eyed from the Greek wine I’d drunk with some rowdy archaeologists the night before. It was going to be a perfect summer day: from my hotel window I could see clear sky over the mountains of Arcadia, whose peaks covered the horizon like the waves of a wild blue sea. I needed some exercise—a jog to clear my head. But where should I run in this corner of the rural Peloponnese? Where else, it occurred to me, but in the ancient Olympic Stadium? I arrived at the ruins—about 500 yards from the center of Olympia, a town of about 3,000—just before the rising sun, wearing an old pair of Nikes (named for the winged goddess of Victory). I followed a trail past fallen columns of great temples, splayed out in the grass like skeletal fingers; purple wildflowers pushed up between memorials to forgotten sports champions. In the past 2,500 years, Olympia’s idyllic pastoral setting has changed little: the river Alpheus still gurgles in its shady bed alongside the Gymnasium; to the north rises a conical hill, bristling with pine forest, where, according to legend, Zeus wrestled his father, the Titan Kronos, for control of the world.
Ruins of a stone archway still frame the entrance to the Stadium, which on this morning was bathed in yellow light. Rising on each side of me were earth embankments, now swathed in succulent green lawn. And there, at the very center of the Stadium, was the famous clay running track, bordered by stone gutters. Ancient Greeks believed the track’s 210-yard length had been marked out by Hercules himself. For nearly 12 centuries, it was the focus of the greatest recurring festival in Western history.
I approached the ancient starting line—a white marble sill that is miraculously intact— kicked off the Nikes and curled my toes into its grooves. Nothing broke the silence except the buzzing of bees in the distance. And then I was off, racing in the footsteps of ancient champions.
At a comparable hour during festival days about 150 b.c., there would have been at least 40,000 spectators crowded onto those same green embankments. These were sports fans from every level of society. The majority were male; married women were forbidden to attend, although unmarried women and girls were allowed in the stands.
Ten bearded judges in indigo robes and wearing garlands of flowers would have taken their places in a booth halfway down the track. Before them, on a table of ivory and gold, were the first Olympic prizes—olive-wreath crowns cut from Olympia’s sacred tree. An excited murmur would fill the Stadium when, with the blast of a trumpet, the athletes began to emerge from a tunnel built into the western hillside.
They appeared one by one—parading like peacocks, entirely unclothed and unadorned, yet dripping from head to toe in perfumed oils that flowed in rivulets from their curled black hair. Competing nude was a time-honored tradition as central to Hellenic culture as drinking wine, discussing Homer or worshiping Apollo; only barbarians were ashamed to display their bodies. Nakedness also stripped away social rank, a nod to classlessness in the status-obsessed ancient world (although contestants still had to be freeborn males of Greek descent). Asacred herald declared the name of each athlete, his father’s name and his home city before asking if anyone in the crowd had any charge to lay against him. Then, to the cheers of admirers, the contestants warmed up under the eyes of their trainers.
The cries and jeers of the crowd subsided when the sacred heralds raised their trumpets, giving the call for the 20 athletes to “take their positions, foot to foot, at the balbis”— the marble starting line. Rather than crouch, sprinters stood upright, leaning slightly forward, feet together, arms outstretched, every muscle poised. A rope was stretched before them at chest height, creating a rudimentary starting gate. Contestants tended to eye the barrier respectfully: the punishment for false starts was a thrashing from official whip bearers.
The chief judge nodded, and the herald cried apete—go! And as the athletes sprinted down the track, the roar of the spectators would echo through the countryside.
For those in the crowd, it was a thrilling moment— if only they could forget their discomfort. Surviving a day in the Stadium, where admission was free, was worthy of an olive wreath in itself. The summer heat was oppressive even in the early morning, and many in the crowd would, like me, have been feeling the effects of the previous night’s revelries. For up to 16 hours, spectators would be on their feet (the root meaning of the ancient Greek word stadion is actually “a place to stand”), exposed to sun and the occasional thunderstorm, while itinerant vendors extorted them for sausages, often-stale bread, and cheese of dubious origins, to be washed down with resinated wine. Because summer had reduced local rivers to a trickle, dehydrated spectators would be collapsing from heatstroke. Nobody bathed for days. The sharp odor of sweat from unbathed bodies did battle with Olympia’s fragrant pine forests and wildflowers— and with intermittent wafts from dry riverbeds used as latrines. Then there were Olympia’s plagues of flies. Before every Games, priests at Olympia sacrificed animals at an altar to “Zeus the Averter of Flies” in the forlorn hope of reducing the infestations.
Even before they arrived, fans would have suffered manifold indignities. The lovely sanctuary of Olympia was remote, nestled in Greece’s southwest corner 210 miles from Athens, so to get there most spectators had traipsed rough mountain highways, at least a ten-day journey; international spectators had risked storms and shipwreck to sail from as far away as Spain and the Black Sea. When the weary travelers arrived, they found a venue sadly unprepared to accommodate them. “An endless mass of people,” complained second- century writer Lucian, utterly swamped Olympia’s modest facilities, creating conditions similar to a badly planned rock concert of today.
The only inn at Olympia, the Leonidaion, was reserved for ambassadors and other officials. The Sacred Precinct of Zeus—a walled-off enclave of temples and shrines—was besieged on all sides by a vast campground, and rowdy throngs competed for space in it, in keeping with their station. Most simply flung bedding wherever they could. Others rented space in temporary shelters or put up tents. Plato himself once slept in a makeshift barracks, head to toe with snoring, drunken strangers.
Thousands of cooking fires created a fog of smoke. Crowd control was enforced by local officials with whips. And yet, as attendance figures suggest, none of these miseries could keep the dedicated sports fan away. The Games were sensationally popular, held without fail every four years from 776 b.c. until the Christian emperors banned pagan festivals in a.d. 394—a run of nearly 1,200 years. For the Greeks, it was considered a great misfortune to die without having been to Olympia. One Athenian baker boasted on his gravestone that he had attended the Games 12 times. “By heaven!” raved the holy man Apollonius of Tyana. “Nothing in the world of men is so agreeable or dear to the Gods.”
What kept fans coming back, generation after generation? It was a question that the Athenian philosopher and sports buff Epictetus pondered in the first century. He concluded that the Olympics were a metaphor for human existence itself. Every day was filled with difficulties and tribulations: unbearable heat, pushy crowds, grime, noise and endless petty annoyances. “But of course you put up with it all,” he said, “because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.”
And sports were only part of it. The Games were the ultimate pagan entertainment package, where every human diversion could be found, on and off the field. Each Olympiad was an expression of Hellenic unity, an all-consuming pageant for pagans as spiritually profound as a pilgrimage to Varanasi for Hindus or Mecca for Muslims. The site had grand procession routes, dozens of altars, public banquet halls, booths for sideshow artists.
For five hectic days and nights, Olympia was the undisputed capital of the world, where splendid religious rituals— including the butchering of 100 oxen for a public feast—competed with athletic events. There were sacred sights to see: the sanctuary of Olympia was an open-air museum, and visitors went from temple to temple viewing such masterpieces as the 40-foot-high statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
And then there were earthly pursuits: the squalid tent-city was the scene of a round-the-clock bacchanal where students could squander their inheritances in lavish symposia (drinking parties) and some prostitutes made a year’s wages in five days. There were beauty contests, Homer-reading competitions, eating races. Masseurs offered rubdowns to the weary. Young boys in makeup performed erotic dances. There were palm readers and astrologers, soapbox orators and fire-eaters. A starry-eyed pilgrim might be excused for forgetting about the athletic contests—were they not themselves so theatrical.
Of the 18 core events in the Olympics program, some are familiar today—running, wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus. Others are less so. The Games began with a chariot race—a deliriously violent affair, where up to 40 vehicles crowded the track and crashes were guaranteed. Often, only a handful of chariots would complete the course. The hoplitodromia was a 400-yard sprint in full armor. The long jump was performed with weights, to the accompaniment of flute music. One of the favorite audience events was the pankration, a savage all-out brawl, where eye gouging was the only banned tactic. The more brutish participants would snap opponents’ fingers, or tear out their intestines; the judges (one coach noted) “approve of strangling.” There were no team sports, no ball sports, no swimming events, no marathon and nothing resembling an Olympic torch. (The marathon was introduced in 1896 and the torch was added at Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.)
All the vices of our modern Games were present at their birth. Despite the Sacred Olympic Truce, which supposedly banned all wars that might mar the success of the event, the ancient Games were often caught up in Greek internal politics. (The Spartans were banned from attending in 424 b.c. during the Peloponnesian War.) A military force from Elis once even attacked Olympia itself, in the middle of a wrestling match, forcing defenders into positions on tops of temples.
Corruption charges would regularly disgrace contenders. As early as 388 b.c., a certain Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three boxers to throw their fights against him. Not even judges were above suspicion. In a.d. 67, they accepted hefty bribes from the Roman emperor Nero, awarding him first prize in the chariot race—notwithstanding that he fell out of his vehicle and failed to complete the course.
In fact, money permeated every aspect of ancient athletics. The contestants, professionals all, lived on stipends from civic bodies and private patrons and traveled in troupes from one sporting event to the next, picking up cash prizes as they went. (Tellingly, the ancient Greeks did not even have a word for amateur; the closest was idiotes, meaning an unskilled person, as well as an ignoramus.) If an olive wreath was the official Olympic prize, champions knew that the real rewards were more consequential: they would be treated like demigods and guaranteed “sweet smooth sailing,” as the poet Pindar put it, for the rest of their natural lives.

Ancient Roman Sundial Secrets Revealed with Help from NASA Data

Anew study apparently settles a long-standing mystery of the Ara Pacis ("Altar of Peace"), which dates back to the year 9 B.C. and was built to honor an era of peace ushered in by Rome's first emperor Augustus, according to LiveScience. That era was known as the Pax Romana. The Ara Pacis building on the Tiber River doubled as a huge sundial —or gnomon —with the help if a nearby Egyptian obelisk taken from Heliopolis. Historians have long thought that the sun would line up with the obelisk and Ara Pacis to cast a shadow in the building's plaza on Sept. 23, the birthday of Augustus. But using computer simulations and NASA's star-plotting Horizons System, the scientists discovered the alignment actually occurs on Oct. 9, which is the annual festival of the Temple of Palatine Apollo.


Not very far away from the quiet realm of Somnus and Mors, but on the
surface of the earth, were the Æolian Islands, now known as the Lipari
Islands, where Æolus, god of the storm and winds, governed a very
unruly and turbulent population.

He is said to have received his royal dignity from the fair hands of
Juno, and he was therefore specially eager to obey all her behests. He
is commonly reputed to have married Aurora, or Eos, who gave him six
sons i.e., Boreas, the north wind; Corus, the northwest wind; Aquilo,
the west wind; Notus, the southwest wind; Eurus, the east wind; and
lastly, Zephyrus, the gentle and lovable south wind, whose mission it
was to announce to mortals the return of ever-welcome spring.

[Sidenote: Æolus' children.]

Æolus' five elder sons were of a noisy, roving, mischievous, turbulent
disposition, and peace and quiet were utterly impossible to them. To
prevent their causing serious disasters, he therefore ruled them with
a very strict hand, kept them very closely confined in a great cave,
and let them loose only one at a time, to stretch their limbs and take
a little exercise.

        "Æolus in a cavern vast
    With bolt and barrier fetters fast
    Rebellious storm and howling blast.
    They with the rock's reverberant roar
    Chafe blustering round their prison door
    He, throned on high, the scepter sways,
    Controls their moods, their wrath allays."

                   Virgil (Conington's tr.).

Although very unruly indeed, the winds always obeyed their father's
voice, and at his command, however reluctant, returned to their gloomy
prison, where they expended their impotent rage in trying to shake its
strong walls.

According to his own mood, or in conformity with the gods' request,
Æolus either sent the gentler winds to play among the flowers, or,
recalling them, let the fiercest of all his children free, with orders
to pile up the waves mountain-high, lash them to foam, tear the sails
of all the vessels at sea, break their masts, uproot the trees, tear
the roofs off the houses, etc.,--in short, to do all the harm they
possibly could.

    "Now rising all at once, and unconfin'd,
    From every quarter roars the rushing wind:
    First, from the wide Atlantic Ocean's bed,
    Tempestuous Corus rears his dreadful head,
    Th' obedient deep his potent breath controls,
    And, mountain-high, the foamy flood he rolls;
    Him the Northeast encountering fierce, defied,
    And back rebuffeted the yielding tide.
    The curling surges loud conflicting meet,
    Dash their proud heads, and bellow as they beat;
    While piercing Boreas, from the Scythian strand,
    Plows up the waves and scoops the lowest sand.
    Nor Eurus then, I ween, was left to dwell,
    Nor showery Notus in th' Æolian cell,
    But each from every side, his power to boast,
    Ranged his proud forces to defend the coast."


Æolus, king of the winds, shared with Dædalus the honor of inventing
the sails which propel the ships so swiftly over the tide. It was he,
too, who, according to Homer, bound all his children but one in a
leather bag, which he gave to Ulysses when the latter visited Æolia.
Thanks to this gift, Ulysses reached the shores of Ithaca, and would
have landed in safety, had not his men, in view of port, untied the
sack to investigate its contents, and thus set free the angry winds,
who stirred up the most frightful tempest in mythic annals.

[Sidenote: Temple of Æolus.]

The ancients, and especially the Athenians, paid particular attention
to the winds, to whom they dedicated a temple, which is still extant,
and generally known as the Tower of the Winds, or the Temple of Æolus.
This temple is hexagonal, and on each side a flying figure of one of
the winds is represented.

Eurus, the east wind, was generally depicted "as a young man flying
with great impetuosity, and often appearing in a playful and wanton
humor." Notus, or Auster, the southwest wind, "appeared generally as
an old man, with gray hair, a gloomy countenance, a head covered with
clouds, a sable vesture, and dusky wings," for he was considered the
dispenser of rain and of all sudden and heavy showers. Zephyrus, mild
and gentle, had a lapful of flowers, and, according to the Athenian
belief, was wedded to Flora, with whom he was perfectly happy, and
visited every land in turn. Corus, the northwest wind, drove clouds of
snow before him; while Aquilo, dreadful in appearance, caused cold
shivers to run down one's back at his mere sight. Boreas, rough and
shivering too, was the father of rain, snow, hail, and tempests, and
was therefore generally represented as veiled in impenetrable clouds.
His favorite place of abode was in the Hyperborean Mountains, from
whence he sallied forth on wild raids. During one of these excursions
he carried off Orithyia, who always fled at his approach. But all her
fleetness could not save her: she was overtaken, and borne away to the
inaccessible regions of snow and ice, where he detained her, and made
her his wife. She became the mother of Zetes and Calais,--who took
part in the Argonautic expedition, and drove away the Harpies (p.
267),--and of two daughters, Cleopatra and Chione.

On another occasion, Boreas, having changed himself into a horse and
united himself to the mares of Dardanus, King of Troy, became the
father of twelve steeds so swift that none could overtake them.