Friday, February 26, 2016

Socialism versus Capitalism in Ancient Rome: finding an old Allende and Pinochet

Some days ago I watched the news about the Chilean government demanding a monetary restitution from the widow of the deceased dictator Augusto Pinochet. In 1973 Chile was divided in a brutal conflict between a popular left party seeking wealth redistribution and an elitist conservative group that made a coup and gained power. The left wing leader Salvador Allende had actually been responsible for a big career boost of Augusto Pinochet, the right wing general who led the coup, since Allende had no idea of the true political views of his appointed general. The picture on the right shows Allende and Pinochet together in the presidential palace in Chile. Now and in old times no friendship survives a political conflict. Historian Plutarch and the novels of Aussie writer Colleen McCullough portray a real historical conflict that mirrors the class struggles in the 20th century and how old friendships are broken for the sake of power.

Santayana said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. In my view there are at least two aspect in which the Chilean 70’s conflict parallels the Roman Republic of 100 BC. One, ancient Rome had a sharp conflict between the Optimates (the party of those who defended the old traditions and privileges of the rich) and the Populares (those who defended the redistribution of agrarian lands and the extension of political votes to the masses). There were several strands in each group, with moderate Populares and also more radical branches that defended a real dictatorship based on popular acclaim. The political rivalry between Optimates (right wing) and Populares (left wing) explains much of roman history between 133 BC and 44 BC, when Julius Caesar, a general who capitalized the anger of the Populares to gain absolute military and political power, was assassinated by members of the Optimates.
Two, just like in Chile where President Allende believed – until it was too late – that general Pinochet would be a possible ally, the Roman left wing between 110 BC and 88 BC had a charismatic leader, Gaius Marius (left pic above), who unwittingly promoted the career of his friend, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (right pic above), who would become the Optimates leader and his most fierce enemy! These two former allies fired up all the class struggles in Rome and neither gave up until the former friend and all of his supporters were brutally killed.

Gaius Marius was a Roman general and politician who won two wars between 108 and 101 BC. The first war was in North Africa around 108 BC in the area of modern Argelia. The second war between 103 and 101 BC was against teutonic peoples who migrated from Germany to invade north Italy. This Teutonic invasion was one of the worst crisis in Roman history and there was a generalized fear in the Italian population that their civilization would be beaten and destroyed. To win this war Marius decided to recruit poo men for the Roman army, something unthinkable until then! This decision broke the political power that the wealthy had over the army and in the future decades armies were more loyal to their generals than to the political institutions. Over the short term the decision saved Rome. Over the long term this measure created endless revolutions in which generals used their armies to become new dictators!

Marius also introduces many innovations in terms of the organization and equipment of the legions and turns the legionnaire into professionally trained soldiers. The classic image of a professional and extremely organized Roman army that we see in Hollywood movies was only made real by Gaius Marius! Above I show a painting of Marius leading his newly trained armies to fight a much larger Teutonic army in the forests of northern Italy.

Marius became the most powerful politician of his time and certainly one the most relevant in the entire history of Rome. The most important political office of the Republic was consul and Marius was elected consul seven times, while before him none had been consul more than three times.

Sulla was possibly an in-law of Marius and started his career as Marius' trusted second in command. However, during a brief mission in Asia, Sulla consulted a fortune seer who foretold his death would come at the peak of his fame and glory. Sulla returns to Rome and becomes one of the generals fighting the Social War, a large conflict in which Rome fought rebellions in many Italian regions. In this war Sulla won the Grass Crown, the most important prize of valor given in Ancient Rome. In all of Roman history only eight men won the grass crown, since this trophy was only given to a man that by his courage had saved an entire army!

Sulla was then elected consul and nominated general for the war against Mithridates of Pontus, a western nation in northern Turkey which was threatening the roman territories of Greece and west Asia. Sulla's success triggered a conflict with his former friend Gaius Marius. Marius, then an old man, remained popular with the crowds and dreamed of being the commander in the new war. Marius used his prestige and wealth to finance popular mutinies and rebellions against his former friend. Sulla is persecuted by fanatics through the streets of Rome and saves his life by seeking refuge in Marius’ home. Marius agrees to save Sulla’s life from the raging crowd, but only if he promises to support Marius’ party and his nomination for the war. Sulla pretends to agree, escapes from Rome and then returns with his loyal army. Sulla does the unthinkable by marching upon Rome, something that was forbidden by the sacred laws of Rome. In Rome’s previous six centuries of history no one had broken this rule. Sulla enters Rome and his army kills several of the Populares and Marius’ supporters. Afterwards, he leaves for Asia and wins surprising battles against the greek-asian enemies of Rome. Sulla becomes famous among his followers as a mad genius, one who makes elaborate plans that always work. Sulla destroys the forests around Athens to build catapults and siege engines to destroy the city. Then he wins two battles against much bigger armies. In the first battle he orders the building of trenches and palisades which rumble his enemy's organization. In the second battle, Sulla orders the building of water dams and then floods the plain in front of the opposing army. His opponents are stranded with horses and men in the mud and unable to move are slaughtered. Sulla gains a reputation of invincibility against all odds and becomes one of the most famous generals in world history.

While Sulla stayed in Asia, Marius returned to Rome and then orders the murder of many of Sulla’s supporters. The Populares take control of Rome and send several armies against Sulla. But all of the armies sent by the Populares are useless, because Sulla had gained the fame of an invincible commander. No army wants to fight Sulla and his adversaries end up surrendering and joining him. Marius dies sick in Rome just 17 days after he became consul for a 7th and last time. Plutarch relates that Marius was by then a deluded old man, bragging to people about his accomplishments and then behaving crazy as if he was in charge of battles in Asia.

Sulla returns to Rome in 83 BC and publishes a long list of his enemies, whom he convicts to death without a trial. Sulla promises to pardon the people who cooperate with his executions. Some men are executed by their own wives and children who are then allowed to keep the family estate. Sulla rewards his friends and punishes his enemies. The young Julius Caesar is included in the death lists of Sulla, since Caesar was related by marriage to Marius. Sulla lets the young Caesar live, but warns that he sees in the young man “the ambition of many Marius”.

Sulla was Dictator (then a real office which gave its holder the power to decree martial law and act as he pleased for a limited period) of Rome for two years of political terror. At the end of his dictatorship, Sulla leaves Rome for his countryside villa to write his memoirs. Sulla lives a dissipated life with a young wife and a male actor called Metrobius who had become his lover a long time ago. He still intervenes with politics, but remains open to discuss his policies with any man who approaches him. Sulla dies of old age, a mysterious man for all who knew him. It was said he could drink and party with the poorest and simplest persons, celebrating with great joy, but then would change to be a tyrant ordering deaths with no cause at all. It is estimated that around 1000 persons died from Sulla’s political persecutions. I wonder what the ancient Romans would have thought of the 20th century dictators who murdered far more people.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Ancient Greek diaspora spread over half of Eurasia: Greek India in the time of Buddha and Jesus

A nation of merchants left the Aegean and reached the edges of the ancient world, from the mouth of the Tagus in Portugal to the cliffs of the Himalayas in northern India and the borders of western China. These remote communities were almost forgotten by Greek historians. Who would guess that the Indo-Greek kingdom remained an influent and independent state for almost two centuries after Greece became a mere Roman province? How many of us know that the first images of the Buddha were Greek? Immigrant nations – often seen as weak, impure and degraded versions of their metropolis – outlive their parents!

The Mediterranean and Black Sea were the first playing grounds of the Greeks, who settled colonies in Asia Minor, Crimea, Cyprus, Sicily, southern Italy, eastern Spain, south France and even Libya. The ancient Greeks would trade with their original cities and keep strong ties with their international community, including the worship of the same gods and traditions. They even reached the mouth of the river Tagus, the most western point in Europe, where a strong Greek community existed in the city of Olisipo which would become modern Lisbon. Historians debate who founded Lisbon, perhaps either Phoenician or Greek traders. Greeks and Romans believed the city was founded by Ulysses during his travels, but some think Olisipo was a Phoenician-influenced name and that later Greek colonists who arrived at this city misinterpreted the name as part of their mythical traditions. The name of Olisipo was later abbreviated to Lisbon after the Islamic occupation, but its original Greek-Phoenician name is still in use in cultural circles: when buying books you often read on the first page the editorial details as “published in Olisipo”. Lisbon is a city prone to earthquakes and floods from the river and ocean who bath it. It is a city on top of many older cities. The left pic below shows Roman ruins underground in Lisbon.

Even more splendid than the Mediterranean expansion were the Hellenistic kingdoms in Egypt, Persia and India, which followed the expedition of Alexander the Great. However, there were already many Greeks living in Persia before Alexander. Persians brought Greek slaves from their territories in Asia Minor, many of whom worked as artisans and goldsmiths. Often these slaves were forced to live with mutilated bodies, since their masters would cut a body-part such as a nose, hand or limb in order to make their escape more difficult and so that they would be recognized as runaway slaves.

The picture on the right shows a Greek influenced Persian gold cup from 400 BC. This object is a rare item, since gold can be melted and few such antiques survive. This cup inspires me with the feeling that such beautiful artworks were the only joy their unhappy creator knew.

After Alexander’s death Hellenistic kingdoms were founded in Pergamum, Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Persia. There were large Greek populations in big cities such as Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. However, these three brilliant kingdoms were exhausted in wars against each other and with Rome. By 129 BC Rome had reduced Greece and Pergamum to mere provinces and the Seleucid Empire had lost almost all its territory to the Parthians, being reduced to a few cities in modern Syria. Ptolemaic Egypt ended when Cleopatra and Mark Antony committed suicide in 30 BC after losing the Roman civil war.

All the political and family intrigues of the Seleucids, Ptolemais, Attalids of Pergamum, ancient Macedon and the Greek cities are detailed by the Roman historians. Roman and Greek historians wrote little about the Greco-Bactrian (in Afghanistan) and the Indo-Greek (in Pakistan-North India) kingdoms. These two remote kingdoms were described by Roman historian Justin as “the extremely prosperous Bactrian empire of the thousand cities”, and expanded as far as Uzbekistan and western China. The pics on the sides show a Greek influenced Chinese vase and a wool tapestry representing Greek soldiers from around 220-200 BC found in the Chinese city of Urumqi.

The Greco-Bactrian kingdom initially included the Greek colonies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It lasted from 250 BC to 120 BC, when a central Asian nomad people, the Yuezhi, occupied Afghanistan as they escaped from wars in China. After some internal disputes between Greek generals there was also an independent Indo-Greek kingdom in northern India, which lasted from 190 BC to 20 AD. The Indo-Greeks thrived in cities such as Alexandria on the Caucasus, Alexandria in Arachosia (modern Kandahar), Taxila and Gandhara. Below I show the ruins of Alexandria in Arachosia and a Greek sculpture from Alexandria on the Caucasus.
The most famous Greco-Bactrian kings were Demetrius I and Menander I, who were undefeated in war and were often compared to Alexander the Great. Eucratides I was another famous Greco-Bactrian king, who ruled for several decades and issued very good currency, including the largest gold coin ever found from antiquity, as seen in the pic below.

The capital of Eucratides was Alexandria on the Oxus (the current site of Ai-Khanoum) and its ruins located between the rivers Oxus and Kokcha are very well preserved. This capital founded by some soldiers of Alexander which were perhaps too tired to pursue his Indian campaign had every trace of a great Greek city within its great walls and fortress towers, including classical temples, a palace, a theater, and even a gymnasium, as seen in the pics below.

Menander I (ruled from 155 to 130 BC) became a patron of Buddhism and an important Buddhist work, the Milinda Panha (“Questions of Milinda”) portrays him as a wise man, who knew philosophy and many sciences besides war. Roman historian Plutarch reports that Menander I was so popular that its ashes were divided among several Indian cities, placed under sacred shrines in the same way as the Buddha. In fact the Greeks were extremely important for Buddhism. The first human representations of the Buddha appeared in the Greek cities of India around 130 BC, right after Menander’s death. Before then the Buddha was represented by symbols such as the Dharma wheel or a Palm Tree as in this coin issued by the Indo-Greek king Menander. The other pic shows a 2nd century BC Buddha from the city of Gandhara, where a strong Greek community embraced Buddhism and expressed this religion with Hellenized art forms.
The Indo-Greek kings started losing power as new peoples such as the Sakas and the Yuezhi (which would found the Kushan Empire in northern India) pressed from the north after 70 BC. There are few written stories from such period, but fortunately for us there are plenty of Greek coins until 20 AD. These coins often show that Greek kings such as Hermaios and Saka or Kushan kings in the same coin. Some think this shows that Greek kings and the new nomad settlers shared power for several decades and ruled India jointly. Other historians think that this simply shows that the new Kushan kings admired the Greek civilization and wanted to be seen as worthy successors of those wise rulers. In fact the Kushan kings used Greek language for their administration and currency until 127 AD, one century after the last Greek king existed in India. Below I show a coin of Greek king Hermaios and the first Kushan king, Kujula Kaphises.

Gandhara was a center of Greek influenced Buddhism until the end of the Roman Empire. Below there are sculptures of Buddhist gods on the left from the 3rd century AD and a Bodhisattva on the right from the 4th century AD, which show a clear influence from Greek-Roman art of the time. Therefore a vibrant Hellenic community lasted in India at least four centuries after Christ.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The most expensive funeral in history: Alexander of Macedon mourns his dearest friend Hephaestion

Novels and movies perhaps fall too easily into the temptation of over-romanticizing Alexander the Great. In my view Alexander was both a tyrant and a hero of the ancient world. He was clearly a tyrant, since in India and Tyre the Macedonian army committed massacres that would be considered genocidal by modern standards. Paradoxically Alexander was also a hero of the ancient world, since he brought great wealth and authority to his followers. But of course that is only because ancient heroes were judged by their victories over others, not by saving children or by achievement in sports as in our modern times. Perhaps an attenuating factor when evaluating these atrocities is that Macedonians replicated the brutal war actions already present in the ancient world. In Persia there were Greek slaves working as artisans and these often had a body-part – such as a nose, hand or limb – cut from them in order to prevent their rebellion. The picture below shows a Greek influenced Persian gold cup from around 400 BC. This object is a very precious item. Since gold can be melted to form new objects (unlike marble sculptures), then few such artworks survive from antiquity. This beautiful cup inspires the feeling that perhaps the slave Greek artisan who made it lived an unhappy life and these artworks were the only joy he knew.

However, for all their brutality ancient men valued friendship and art in ways as strong as we do. In my view a defining moment in Alexander’s life was when Hephaestion passed away. Until then the conqueror had lived the life of an unbreakable hero, admired by the whole world. Who knows if perhaps at that moment Alexander felt vulnerable and mortal just like all men? Upon hearing of the deceasing of his best friend (or perhaps his lover, obviously we will never know), Alexander interrupts the celebrations organized for the return of his soldiers from India, orders the execution of the physician in charge (Alexander, the tyrant again…) and then mourns for two days next to Hephaestion’s corpse. When Alexander’s companions pull him away from the decaying body, the Macedonian king will begin the plans for what may have been the most expensive funeral rites in history. Alexander wishes to offer his friend a departure more dramatic and pompous than of any of the great kings. The pictures below show the busts of Alexander and Hephaestion.

Soon Hephaestion’s body is mummified and transported in a gilded coffin to Babylon. There Alexander requests a grand funeral pyre from architect Stasicrates, an endeavor which lasts six months. In an early spring dawn several thousands of Macedonian and other Hellenic soldiers who followed the expeditions of Alexander gather for the last goodbye. Decorated horses in golden clothes and painted war elephants face the silent men. In front rises a wooden palace some 60 meters tall and 200 square meters in area. The great building has seven floors, with each tier supported by gigantic wood columns carved with beautiful figures. Each detail sculpted as if to last forever and yet meant to burn in a single morning. The first story had 240 ships painted gold with red flags flowing in between. In the second one the columns resembled flaming torches surround by golden wreaths, serpents and eagles. Above mounted a hunting scene, towered by a battle of centaurs and mythological creatures. The fifth story was a golden jungle of lions, bulls and elephants, shining like planets in the dawning light. The next tier presented the arms of Macedon and Persian, while the seventh level bore sculptures of sirens with a hollow interior where women would chant in lament. On top of it all rose the sarcophagus of Hephaestion. Below I show artistic drawings of what Hephaestion’s funeral pyre might have looked like in a splendid morning plus the drawing of a decorated army elephant.

As the singers descended the stairs, still singing the funeral chants, the early sun was rising in the sky, when Alexander threw down his torch, followed by several of his men. It is easy to imagine the bonfire spreading through each step of the gigantic pyre, ascending upwards as a cataract of flames and smoke. The tower started to creak and as the heavy sculptures and columns would fall from high, eagles, lions, serpents, plunging in flames with a thudding noise. The heat, glow and sound reverberated in the distance until all became ash.

After the ceremony Alexander requests for the sacred flame of the temple of Babylon to be extinguished, an act reserved for the death of the great king himself. The funeral ceremony was followed by 15 days of celebration with a theater and music festival, besides a large arena where over 3000 athletes competed in sports and games. One must imagine the impact of such an event, since Hellene athletes of the time practiced sports almost naked. The audience must have seen ball games, wrestler and runners everywhere fighting for victory with their naked muscles. Below I show artistic images of athletic games and Dionysian music festivals.

Some estimate Hephaestion’s funeral to have costed the equivalent of 2.3 billion USD, similar as a Forbes billionaire burning its entire fortune to mourn a companion. Such was the emotion lived by Alexander and his companions in life. Of course, one may think that the pyramids of Egypt were more expensive tombs, however those were monuments meant to last forever and not merely a funeral rite. This funeral was extensively described by ancient historian Diodorus Siculus, but it goes unmentioned in several other ancient sources. Some modern historians, such as Robin Lane Fox, express some doubts about whether this funeral really happened or whether Diodorus was confused a crazy plan conceived by Alexander and that never really materialized. In my personal opinion I believe it is more likely that Diodorus was describing real events, although perhaps a bit exaggerated. After all Alexander was the wealthiest man of his age and often had no qualms about spending the money he pillaged during his invasions. One can even think that his expeditions to Afghanistan and Pakistan were merely the result of his wish to spend funds to gain more glory, since those were backward regions that his men really did not want to invade. Therefore why not believe that the Macedonian king would not have spent on a lavish funeral for a friend? More recently a gigantic tomb was discovered in Greece, which some people think could be the final resting place built for Hephaestion: