The Origin of Philosophy: The Attributes of Mythic/Mythopoeic Thought

The pioneering work on this subject was The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East by Henri Frankfort, H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, and William A. Irwin (University of Chicago Press, 1946, 1977 -- also once issued by Penguin as Before Philosophy). Related ideas can also be found in Henri Frankfort's great Ancient Egyptian Religion (Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, 1948, 1961)

How was Greek philosophy different from what came before? Or was it different? Even though "philosophy" is a Greek word, from phileîn, "to love," and sophía, "wisdom," perhaps it was just a continuation of how people had always thought about things anyway. After all, it is not uncommon now for items of Egyptian literature, like the Instruction of Ptah.h.otep, to be listed as Egyptian "philosophy." So if Greek philosophy is to be thought of as different, there must be ways of specifying that difference. Similarly, if Greek philosophy is to be compared with Indian and Chinese philosophy, there must be something that they have in common, and that can be mutually contrasted with pre-philosophical thought.

As it happens, Greek philosophy, and Indian and Chinese, were different from what came before; and we can specify what the differences were. Pre-philosophical thought can be characterized as "mythopoeic," "mythopoetic," or "mythic" thought. "Mythopoeic" means "making" (poieîn, from which the word "poet" is derived) "myth" (mûthos). There is a large and growing literature about mythology, but here all that is necessary are the points what will serve the purpose of distinguishing philosophical thought from the thought of people in earlier Middle Eastern civilizations (Egyptians, Babylonians, etc.) about the nature of things. With the identification of the characteristics of mythic forms of human thought, it becomes possible to identify the unique innovations of philosophy. Note that philosophic thought does not replace mythopoeic thought but supplements it.

  1. Myths are stories about persons, where persons may be gods, heroes, or ordinary people.

  2. Myth allows for a multiplicity of explanations, where the explanations are not logically exclusive (can contradict each other) and are often humorous.

  3. Mythic traditions are conservative. Innovation is slow, and radical departures from tradition rarely tolerated.

  4. Myths are self-justifying. The inspiration of the gods was enough to ensure their validity, and there was no other explanation for the creativity of poets, seers, and prophets than inspiration by the gods. Thus, myths are not argumentative. Indeed, they often seem most unserious, humorous, or flippant (e.g. Rê-Khepere above). It still seems to be a psychological truth that people who think of new things are often persuaded of their truth just because they thought of them. And now, oddly, we are without an explanation for creativity.

  5. Myths are morally ambivalent. The gods and heroes do not always do what is right or admirable, and mythic stories do not often have edifying moral lessons to teach.

Given these characteristics, we can say that the Instruction of Ptah.h.otep, and similar items of Egyptian literature, display no break with mythpoeic modes of thought. Indeed, if Ptah.h.otep were to count as philosophy, it is hard to see why parts of the Bible would not also count. But the Bible is never proposed as the first example of Jewish philosophy, probably because this would confuse the distinction people would want to make between religion and philosophy. On the other hand, works like the Mân.d.ûkya Upanis.ad and the Tao Te Ching are clearly impersonal, systematic, and innovative; and, although they are arguably religious, they are so in a way that is not recognizably analogous to Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm, since a personal God does not appear in them. Indeed, they are impersonal to a higher degree than much of Greek philosophy. On the other hand, they are not argumentative, so they have not reached quite the same point as Parmenides in breaking with the fourth characteristic of mythic thought.

The gods of Euripides

The Origin of Philosophy: Why the Greeks?

History of Philosophy, Greek Philosophy

The 33 Gods of the Vedas

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


The Origin of Philosophy:
The Attributes of Mythic/Mythopoeic Thought, Note 1


A related problem to the identity of the sun is where it goes at night. Ancient cosmology, of course, universally saw the earth as flat, extending down indefinitely, and the sky as a solid structure (a "firmament") overhead. This gives rise to a case within a case of a multiplicity of expalanations, since the Egyptians had two different answers (if not more) for where the sun goes at night. Since Atum sails in a boat, , one answer is that he goes down into the Underworld at sunset, sails through twelve caverns under the earth (one for each hour of the night), killing demons along the way, and then rises into the sky again at dawn.

A stranger explanation involves the goddess of the sky, Nut. As in the image at right, she stretches across the sky from West to East, held up by her son, the god of the air, Shu. At sunset, she eats the sungod, boat and all. He passes through her body during the night, and she gives birth to him at dawn.

Some images of Nut, as on the burial chamber of the tomb of Ramesses VI, show small red images of the sun within Nut's body, one for each hour of the night. This tomb also answers a question we might have. Did the Egyptians tend to believe one or the other of these explanations? No, for both are represented in the same tomb. The subterranean halls of the tomb itself represent the journey through the Underworld, which is described by texts on the walls. So the Egyptians had no difficulty, in this case as in others, believing different, logically exclusive explanations of the same thing.

The need for an explanation of where the sun goes at night disappears with Anaximander of Miletus (c.550 BC), who first conceived of the earth as a finite body floating in space. There is "sky" below the earth as well as above it -- a notion that would have struck most ancient people as very bizarre. With that leap of imagination, however, we then conceive of the sun as simply remaining in the sky. It doesn't need to do anything else.

In the solar barque we see at right, the sungod has the head of a ram, which is borrowed from the god Amon, the wind god of Thebes who became politically important with the Theban dynasties XII and XVIII. As such, he is often called "Amon-Rê," a form of the god increasingly seen from the XVIII Dynasty onward.

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The Origin of Philosophy:
The Attributes of Mythic/Mythopoeic Thought, Note 2


Another interesting version of the sun god is the "Two-lion-god," Rwty, . This is a solar god, who can be portrayed as a human body with a lion's head, but more characeristically as two lions that face away from a solar disk or from the hieroglyph for "horizon," which is a solar disk between two mountains (as seen in the image above). Indeed, 'khty, , "belonging to the horizon," which is abbreviated as the two horizontal ("of the horizon"!) lines in the name of Rê-Horakhtî (), shows this hieroglyph twice. This may represent the Eastern and Western horizons, as the two lions apparently do also, facing sunrise and sunset. It is a curious god, however, who is manifest in two beings. This is a multiplicity, not just of explanations, but of a single divine being.

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The Origin of Philosophy:
Why the Greeks?

In Greece it was of course chiefly the Spartans, the people who resisted the commercial revolution most strongly, who did not recognize individual property but allowed and even encouraged theft. To our time they have remained the prototype of savages who rejected civilization... Yet already in Plato and Aristotle, however, we find a nostalgic longing for return to Spartan practice, and this longing persists to the present. It is a craving for a micro-order determined by the overview of omniscient authority.

F.A. Hayek (1899-1992), The Fatal Conceit, The Errors of Socialism [University of Chicago Press, 1988, 1991, p.32]

Had the Athenians followed Aristotle's counsel -- counsel blind both to economics and to evolution -- their city would rapidly have shrunk into a village, for his view of human ordering led him to an ethics appropriate to, if anywhere at all, a stationary state. Nonetheless his doctrines came to dominate philosophical and religious thinking for the next two thousand years -- despite the fact that much of that same philosophical and religious thinking took place within a highly dynamic, rapidly expanding, order.

F.A. Hayek [ibid., p.46]

If Greek philosophy was different from what came before, as previously considered, the next question would be, "Why the Greeks?" What was different about the Greeks that led to the origin of philosophy with them? Years ago, the simple answer might have been that the Greeks were "different," they just had some kind of special "genius" that enabled them to think about things in new and different ways. That kind of answer is unsatisfactory, not only because it doesn't really explain anything, not only because it sounds disturbingly like some kind of racism (the Greeks just must have been genetically different), but because it cannot then in turn explain why philosophy only occurred among some Greeks (e.g. Milesians, Athenians, etc.) and not among others (e.g. Spartans) [note].

An explanation that is actually going to explain something about the origin of Greek philosophy must identify something that was different about what was happening to, or what was being done by, the particular Greeks who were responsible for that origin. Such an explanation may suggest, but cannot be, a kind of Marxist economic determinism argument, since it is unlikely that everything can be explained by social or economic circumstances. There is certainly a random factor in nature and in human affairs, and the possibility for a lone individual genius to make a difference cannot be dismissed. On the other hand, there are also certainly regularities, and the association of certain kinds of activities with each other. If something unique about Greeks cities like Miletus and Athens can be identified, that may reveal unique regularities associated with Greek philosophy.

As it happens, there was something conspicuously different about the culture, the society, and the livelihood of Greek cities like Miletus and Athens in comparison to the dominant forms in traditional Middle Eastern civilizations, like Egypt and Babylonia, and in other Greeks cities, like Sparta, that were never venues of Greek philosophy. For one thing, those Greeks cities were wealthy, like Egypt and Babylon (and unlike Sparta), but they could not have been wealthy in the same way that Egypt and Babylon were wealthy. The strength of the ancient states rested mainly on agriculture. The Bible does not speak of the "flesh pots" of Egypt, "when we did eat bread to the full" (Exodus 16:3), for nothing.

As in most traditional cultures, over 90% of Egyptians would have lived on the land and engaged in basic agricultural labor (85% of people in Tanzania, after decades of socialist government, still do). In Egypt, with the annual flood of the Nile and the uniform warmth, large and reliable harvests were the norm, as in other areas farmers might apprehensively await the rain, endure frosts, etc. Greek cities were not going to be wealthy in the same way, since Greece could not possibly be as agriculturally productive as Egypt or Mesopotamia. For one thing there was the climate. The average annual rainfall in Athens is only 15.9 inches, not much more than in Los Angeles. Indeed, like much of California, Greece has a "Mediterranean" climate: hot dry summers, and cool rainy winters [note]. Some areas get considerably more rain than Athens, but that is because of local mountains, which gets us to the next problem: the land itself. Greece is very mountainous. This does not make for good agriculture either. Some areas contain famous plains, e.g. Arcadia, Thessaly; but the agricultural value of the plains is then compromised by the weather. Some years, Thessaly gets less than 2 inches of rain. Large parts of California are agriculturally productive despite the climate because of water from nearby (the Sierra Nevada) or distant (the Rocky) mountains; but there are few rivers in Greece, and most of the country is broken up into islands and peninsulas that cannot receive the runoff of wetter mountains, however near or far.

Cities like Miletus and Athens were thus wealthy off of something else: Trade. To engage in trade, all anyone needed was enough to get started, and Greek agriculture could provide a couple of starter products. Olive trees are hardy and drought resistant and grow well enough in either Greece or California (they are conspicuous right in the center of Los Angeles Valley College). Olives themselves must be soaked in brine to be edible, but more importantly they can be pressed to obtain olive oil. The oil is not very perishable, and so could be stored and shipped (in the up to six foot tall jars that the Greeks made) quite easily, to be sold at distant locations for food, fuel oil, hair grooming, or other purposes. Similarly, the Greek climate (like California, again) is good for growing grapes. Grapes can be pressed and fermented to produce wine, another product that is not very perishable and can be similarly stored and shipped. Even apart from any other products, these would get a city like Miletus started in the exchange of products all over the Mediterranean.

We might think that trade as a way of life already could explain much. It would involve and foster considerable independence, being far away from all authority at home [note], and it would involve dealing with all sorts of novel peoples, cultures, practices, and ideas. If we look for a way of life to get people thinking, that might be it. How this contrasts with ordinary life back in Egypt is explained for us by the Egyptians themselves: A favorite text for scribal students to copy in Ancient Egypt recounted how much better the life of a scribe was to all other ways of life. This was the so-called "Satire of the Trades," and it actually begins,

I have seen many beatings --
Set your heart on books!
I watched those seized for labor --
There's nothing better than books! [note]

Here the "beatings," besides the ordinary encouragement of overseers, to which scribes might not always be witness, can easily refer to the business of collecting taxes in Egypt. Every year, when the Nile flooded, the height of the river was read off the wall of a stairway, later called the "Nilometer," cut down into the granite of Elephantine Island at Aswan, at the natural southern boundary of Ancient Egypt. The height of the river then could be converted into the area of the country covered by the flood that year, and the area could be converted into the estimated yield of virtually every bit of farmland. Thus, at the harvest, the tax collectors showed up to seize, since there was no money, the State's share of the harvest. Peasants who, for one reason or another, did not have the crop to deliver, would simply be knocked down and beaten, with the tax collectors' attendant scribes calmly observing and recording the transaction.

Similarly, the reference of the text to "those seized for labor" is probably to the ancient system of the corvée, by which local peasants could be pressed into labor for public works projects, like the pyramids, especially during the season of the Flood, when work in the fields would have been impossible anyway. The building of new cities and palaces in the Delta initiated by Ramesses II (c. 1290-1224), depended on drafts of the local population, many of whom were not ethnic Egyptians, for labor. This is remembered in the Bible, of course, as "slavery," from which the Israelites fled back into Asia. The miseries of brickmaking do not seem to be remembered there with fondness. Indeed, the scribes give us the picture:

I'll describe to you also the mason:
His loins give him pain;
Though he is out in the wind,
He works without a cloak;
His loincloth is a twisted rope
And a string in the rear.
His arms are spent from exertion,
Having mixed all kinds of dirt;
When he eats bread [with] his fingers,
[He has washed at the same time]. [p. 187]

The idea in the last lines seems to be that the "mason" (now obviously not a stone mason), having been mixing dirt all day, cannot eat without the dirt worked into his fingers getting into his bread. The work is probably performed naked but for a rope thong because no one would want to expose good cloth to the mud in which the workers inevitably stand and stoop. Of another professional concerned with earth, the potter, the scribes say, "He grubs in the mud more than a pig" [p. 186]. While the peasant, well, "A peasant is not called a man" [p. 190]. The life of a merchant or trader, on the other hand, is not even mentioned.

If delivery from such labor in Ancient Egypt meant becoming a scribe, it is now hard to imagine the life of a bureaucrat fostering very much more in the way of independence of mind or creativity. Indeed, nothing was valued more highly in Egypt than conformity, which is no less than what we would expect.

However stark the contrast of this with a life of travel, business, discovery, and independence, trade alone will not explain the uniqueness of the Greek situation, for the Greeks were neither alone nor the first in their commercial profession. They had learned the basics, and much else (including their alphabet), from some of the most ancient traders: the Phoenicians [note].

Ancient Phoenicia was rather smaller than the modern Lebanon; it was just Mount Lebanon, whose steep slopes often come right down to the Mediterranean. This put the Phoenicians in much the same situation economically as the Greeks. Rainfall was certainly less of a problem, but the Mountain [note], very steep and rocky, was otherwise most unsuited for agriculture. But, like the Greeks, the Phoenicians also had available a couple of basic local products to get started in trade. Mount Lebanon, although difficult for agriculture, was nevertheless forested: the Cedars of Lebanon. This was a valuable resource when the surrounding semi-arid and desert areas were short of trees. Especially when the Egyptians began their great building projects, good lumber was essential. One cannot imagine 100 ton granite obelisks, quarried at Aswan, being floated down the Nile in boats made of bundled reeds. Evidence of how early the Phoenicians were supplying wood to Egypt can still be seen in the Bent Pyramid of Seneferu (c. 2610 BC) at Dahshur, where the dry climate has preserved cedar beams (shown at right) that were used to shore up the upper chamber against the cracking caused by errors in the construction and siting of the pyramid [note].

Another product the Phoenicians eventually traded in was a purple dye produced at Tyre from local marine snails, Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus (now gratuitously[?] renamed Haustellum brandaris and Hexaplex trunculus). Quite the opposite of lumber in terms of bulk, "Tyrian Purple," porphýra, , became the most famous product of Phoenicia; and it was so valuable that eventually a purple robe was taken as symbolic of the office of Roman Emperor. "Putting on the purple" came to mean becoming Roman Emperor. Depending on how it was processed -- it was only discovered in the 1980's that this could be accomplished merely with exposure to sunlight -- the dye could also be a blue color, which thus is likely the dye specified in the Bible for the blue on Jewish prayer shawls and other applications. If so, this use would antedate the familiarity of the Greeks with the purple dye. The Septuagint translates "blue" from Hebrew as hyákinthos, , i.e. "hyacinth" [cf. 2 Chronicles 3:14, for the veil of Solomon's Temple]. For the colors "purple" or "red" in Greek the word phoînix, , the word for "Phoenician," could be used.

The most famous statement about "the Purple" is certainly that of the Empress Theodora, who, rather than flee the Nika Revolt of 532, is supposed to have said, "the Purple makes the noblest shroud." The Emperor Justinian, thus encouraged, or shamed, put down the revolt. Unfortunately, like many other famous quotes in history, this is not quite right. According to Procopius, Theodora said, "Royalty [, basileía] is a beautiful shroud" [Procopius, History of the Wars, I, Book I, xxiv 37-38, translated by H.B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard U. Press, 1914, 2001, p.232-233]. In the same speech however, she did say, "I will not be separated from this Purple" -- halourgís, , specifically a purple robe [p.230-231]. The traditional misquotation thus deftly combines two actual quotations.

Both the Greeks and the Phoenicians, in the course of their trade, founded colonies all over the Mediterranean. The map below illustrates this activity and its implied competition. Greek colonies came to ring the Aegean and Black Seas, the southern coast of Italy, eastern Sicily, Cyrenaica in Libya, and in places on the coast of Gaul (modern France) and northeastern Spain. The largest modern cities derived from Greek colonies are probably Marseille in France (Massilia), Naples in Italy (Neapolis, the "New City" -- remembered in the name of "Neapolitan" icecream), and Istanbul (originally Byzantion, later Constantinopolis -- Constantinople). Phoenician colonies coexisted with Greek cities in Cyprus and Sicily, but excluded Greeks on Sardinia and Corsica, in the south of Spain, and especially along North Africa. Phoenician colonial power was particularly concentrated at Carthage -- Qart H.adasht, the "New City" ( in the Hebrew equivalent, writing the "t" in the adjective that is latent in what is ordinarily written and pronounced as an "h" in Hebrew and Arabic) -- eventually seen by Rome as her greatest rival. In the south of Spain Cadiz (Gades) was a Phoenician city. The, by then, Carthaginian domain in Spain was much expanded by Hamilcar Barca, the father of the great Hannibal (247-183 BC), in the time between the First (264-241) and Second (218-201) Punic Wars with Rome. In the course of that expansion, the city later known in Latin as Carthago Nova, "New Carthage" (Cartagena), was founded.

From Spain, the Phoenicians did something the Greeks did not -- venture out into the Atlantic. They probably went as far as Britain (from which tin was obtained), and certainly went well down the coast of Africa -- how far is unclear, since the Phoenicians kept their doings as secret as possible. One story repeated by the Greek historian Herodotus is that the Phoenicians sailed entirely around Africa on commission from King Neko II of Egypt. The best evidence that this was accomplished (there is no other) is the very idea that it was possible: later Greek and Roman geographers thought that Africa was connected to a Southern Continent and could not be circumnavigated. Phoenician trading posts in Greece itself, reflected even in Greek mythology with stories like the foundation of Thebes by the Phoenician Cadmus, initiated Greek trading in the years after about 800 BC.

But after all this, we may then ask, that if trade is to be associated with the origin of philosophy, why did not philosophy start with the Phoenicians? After a fashion, perhaps it did. The man credited with being the first Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus (c. 585), was said to have been of Phoenician ancestry. However, he was living in a Greek city; and even later philosophers who were certainly ethnic Phoenicians, like Zeno of Citium, moved to Greek cities to learn and practice philosophy.

The clue to what happened in the Greek cities may be found in something else that seems to be a unique characteristic of Greek history: By the time we know much about events, traditional kings in Greeks cities are mostly gone. This had never happened before. When ancient kings were overthrown, which happened often enough, they were simply replaced by other kings. The Phoenician cities all had traditional kings. But in Greece, the institution of kingship lost its traction. At Athens, the office of árchôn, , "ruler" or "regent," pushed aside the authority of the king (who eventually became another elected árchôn) [note]. It was filled at first by hereditary nobles, then by elected nobles with life tenure, then by elected nobles with ten year tenure (starting in 753), then with elected nobles by annual tenure (starting in 683), and then with the office opened (by Solon, c. 593) to qualification by wealth, rather than by noble birth. After some conflict and the rule of tyrants (especially Pisitratus), overthrown in 510, Cleisthenes led Athens into essentially pure democracy.

Unlike the Phoenician cities, which had been engaged in commerce for centuries, and where the kings were merchants themselves, the creation of wealth by trade in the Greeks cities seems to have undermined traditional authority. Whoever jumped into the game first would become, perhaps for the first time in history, a nouveau riches class that chaffed at hereditary privilege and had the means, by bribery and hire, to marshal forces against it. Since wealth by trade could be made away from home, it would be entirely outside the control of a hometown ruler. Returning home with a new sense of power and independence [note], a merchant could well have lost much of his awe and respect for authority by birth. Seeing Greece of the Dark Ages (c. 1200-800 BC) as the kind of feudal society pictured in the Iliad, it not hard to imagine the new world of merchants and commerce with the same kind of dynamic that the Italian trading cities of the Renaissance exhibited in starting the process that undermined European Mediaeval aristocracy.

Also, we can say that for the first time in history these transformations could have been accomplished by money:  Money, meaning coined precious metals, was invented soon after 640 in the Kingdom of Lydia. The Lydians were not Greeks, but the Lydian kings, after the Phoenician manner, were businessmen; and they worked closely with the adjacent Greek cities of Ionia. Money thus facilitated the rise of a city like Thales's Miletus; and since coinage enhances the manner in which wealth can be concentrated and transferred, we can also imagine that it enhanced the process of social mobility and political conflict.

What happened in Greek cities politically and socially was extraordinary enough, but it is also our clue about the origin of philosophy. Although we can only imagine the nature of the causal connection, the correlation between philosophy and the cities of commercial wealth and political transformation is obvious. Greek philosophy began in Ionia (today on the west coast of Turkey), in the wealthiest and most active cities of their time in Greece. For some years Greek philosophy then seemed to circulate around the Greek colonial periphery, from Ionia (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximines, Heralcitus, Xenophanes), to Italy (Pythagoras, Parmenides, Zeno), Sicily (Empedocles), and the northern Aegean (Democritus, Protagoras), to Ionia again (Melissos). Then philosophy migrated from every direction to Athens itself, at the center, the wealthiest commercial power and the most famous democracy of the time [note]. Socrates, although uninterested in wealth himself, nevertheless was a creature of the marketplace, where there were always people to meet and where he could, in effect, bargain over definitions rather than over prices. Similarly, although Socrates avoided participation in democratic politics, it is hard to imagine his idiosyncratic individualism, and the uncompromising self-assertion of his defense speech, without either wealth or birth to justify his privileges, occurring in any other political context.

If a commercial democracy like Athens provided the social and intellectual context that fostered the development of philosophy, we might expect that philosophy would not occur in the kind of Greek city that was neither commercial nor democratic. As it happens, the great rival of Athens, Sparta, was just such a city. Sparta had a peculiar, oligarchic constitution, with two kings and a small number of enfranchised citizens. Most of the subjects of the Spartan state had little or no political power, and many of them were helots, who were essentially held as slaves and could be killed by a Spartan citizen at any time for any reason -- annual war was formally declared on the helots for just that purpose. The whole business of the Spartan citizenry was war. Unlike Athens, Sparta had no nearby seaport. It was not engaged in or interested in commerce. It had no resident alien population like Athens -- there was no reason for foreigners of any sort to come to Sparta. Spartan citizens were allowed to possess little money, and Spartan men were expected, officially, to eat all their meals at a common mess, where the food was legendarily bad -- all to toughen them up. Spartans had so little to say that the term "Laconic," from Laconia, the environs of Sparta, is still used to mean "of few words" -- as "Spartan" itself is still used to mean simple and ascetic.

While this gave Sparta the best army in Greece, regarded by all as next to invincible, and helped Sparta defeat Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404), we do not find at Sparta any of the accoutrements otherwise normally associated with Classical Greek civilization: no historians, no playwrights, no great architecture, and, especially, no philosophers. Socrates would have found few takers for his conversation at Sparta -- and it is hard to imagine the city tolerating his questions for anything like the thirty or more years that Athens did. Next to nothing remains at the site of Sparta to attract tourists (the nearby Mediaeval complex at Mistra is of much greater interest), while Athens is one of the major tourist destinations of the world. Indeed, we basically wouldn't even know about Sparta were it not for the historians (e.g. Thucydides) and philosophers (e.g. Plato and Aristotle) at Athens who write about her. In the end, philosophy made the fortune of Athens, which essentially became the University Town of the Roman Empire (only Alexandria came close as a center of learning); but even Sparta's army eventually failed her, as Spartan hegemony was destroyed at the battle of Leuctra in 371 by the brilliant Theban general Epaminondas, who killed a Spartan king, Cleombrotus, for the first time since King Leonidas was killed by the Persians at Thermopylae in 480.

A story about Thales throws a curious light on the polarization between commercial culture and its opposition. It was said that Thales was not a practical person, sometimes didn't watch where he was walking, fell into a well (according to Plato), was laughed at, and in general was reproached for not taking money seriously like everyone else. Finally, he was sufficiently irked by the derision and criticisms that he decided to teach everyone a lesson. By studying the stars (according to Aristotle), he determined that there was to be an exceptionally large olive harvest that year. Borrowing some money, he secured all the olive presses (used to get the oil, of course) in Miletus, and when the harvest came in, he took advantage of his monopoly to charge everyone dearly. After making this big financial killing, Thales announced that he could do this anytime and so, if he otherwise didn't do so and seemed impractical, it was because he simply did not value the money in the first place.

This story curiously contains internal evidence of its own falsehood. One cannot determine the nature of the harvest by studying the stars; otherwise astrologers would make their fortunes on the commodities markets, not by selling their analyses to the public [note]. So if Thales did not monopolize the olive presses with the help of astrology, and is unlikely to have done what this story relates, we might ask if he was the kind of impractical person portrayed in the story in the first place. It would not seem so from all the other accounts we have about him. The tendency of this evidence goes in two directions:

The overall impression of Thales then is more of a man of affairs, sometimes very serious affairs (e.g. war), and not of an abstracted, impractical dreamer who disdains money and doesn't watch where he's walking. But if that was the case, why would the story about Thales and the olive presses have been told in the first place? Because, indeed, such disdain for money would be characteristic of later Greek philosophy. Where Socrates was simply unconcerned with the ordinary commercial life of Athens, while he flourished right in the middle of it, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had become actively hostile to it and removed their own activities to closed schools outside the walls of Athens. Only one great school of philosophy, Stoicism, remained in the marketplace, taking its name from the characteristic open-faced building, often called a "porch," a stoa, that was to be found there, and in one of which Zeno of Citium established himself. Plato distrusted commerce, detested democracy, and also came to believe that teaching philosophy to just anyone was dangerous. A tradition of ethical argument arose that questioned whether engaging in trade was even moral, since merchants did not produce their commodities and so did not contribute to their intrinsic value. Some philosophers, indeed, perceived that the value of products also depended on their location, so that trade was useful in moving things to where they were needed or wanted; but then someone like Plato was also distrustful of that service, since a lot of superfluous trade goods could engender "unnecessary desires" and distract people from their duties and more sober pursuits. But as late as the 5th century, St. Augustine was still advising that trade was not a profession that could be practiced without moral harm.

Comparing Athens and Sparta, a philosopher like Plato was unmistakably a Spartan sympathizer. Yet even he realized there was a problem: the Spartans not only were uninterested in thought and speech, but they were violent and brutal. Plato realized that philosophy had no place there, and he was concerned lest the rulers in his ideal Republic exhibit those characteristics. So Plato never tried to sell his thought at Sparta. He did entertain a hope, however, that if a tyrant could be "converted" to philosophy, then his ideas would be implemented. One of his efforts to do so involved the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse (367-357 & 346-344). During one trip there, however, in 361, Plato so infuriated Dionysius, evidently, that he was sold into slavery and had to be redeemed by his friends and family. Naturally, he gave up on tyrants after that experience. So, although Plato had no love for the democracy at Athens, he "voted with his feet," as they say, in its favor.

The attitudes in Greek philosophy towards Athens and Sparta, as well as sympathies and actions comparable to those of Plato, can also be seen in the Twentieth Century. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's foreign policy adviser and later Secretary of State, is supposed to have remarked once, privately, that the United States was liable to lose the Cold War to the Soviet Union in the same way and for the same reasons that Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta. While America, presumably, was enervated by the political squabbling characteristic of democracy and by the crass materialism of capitalistic consumerism, the Soviet Union was lean, disciplined (i.e. Spartan), morally upright (no pornography or gay rights demonstrations there), unified, and remorselessly purposful [note]. At the same time, it was not uncommon in the United States for leftist academics and intellectuals to harbor much admiration for the Soviet Union, or later for Communist China, Cuba, Vietnam, or Nicaragua, despite widespread knowledge of the police state apparatus of those regimes, of the mass murders, slave labor camps, torture, brainwashing, false confessions, etc. -- Josef Stalin can be credited with as many as 50 million civilian deaths, as opposed to "only" 20 million for Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, like Plato, most sympathizers voted with their feet to stay in the United States [note].

Despite the Fall of Communism, much disdain for commercial democracy remains. As Greek philosophy never came to appreciate the social, political, and economic context in which it originated, grew, and thrived, many modern intellectuals continue to despise the very kind of society in which they are uniquely to be found -- uniquely in great measure because the kind of society they evidently want would actually not allow them to express their own opinions, or to subsidize such expression so lavishly, either at state expense (e.g. at state universities) or by guilty philanthropists (e.g. Ted Turner). So, although the Soviet Union is gone, like Sparta, and its vast experiment in common ownership and economic planning failed utterly, as well as being drenched in the blood of its victims, one would hardly know this listening to contemporary leftists and Marxists. The planning of a command economy still sounds like the wave of the future to them.

Ironically, Marx himself may provide the best key to this phenomenon:  Intellectuals may like the idea of command and control for a society and for an economy because they see themselves in control. Not surprisingly, Plato thinks that the problem of politics is that the wrong people are in charge, and the rulers in his ideal Republic are people like him. Intellectuals have a "class interest" (which means a self-interest -- for people who otherwise say they detest "self-interest") in promoting this idea. They see their own lofty achievements as entitling them to the rule of others -- a self-interest now described by the theory of rent-seeking. In this way, the crypto-socialist economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) fulminated against advertising as producing, just as Plato would have said, "unnecessary desires." And, since people can be so easily manipulated by advertising into buying things that they don't need or that are bad for them, we clearly need people like him in charge to protect us. This kind of arrogance will soon probably produce the prohibition of tobacco, as it disastrously produced Prohibition of alcohol in the 20's.

But one of the clearest lessons of the Twentieth Century is that this self-serving fantasy of rule by Academia is the most bitter folly:  Absolute power, once unleashed, slips from the hands of timid professors and is seized by ruthless monsters like Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, etc.  The intellectuals get silenced, killed, or, almost worse, become fawning mouthpieces for tyranny. Too many intellectuals were already mouthpieces for tyranny, even when they didn't need to be, as when the New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Stalinist Russia, even while he was helping to suppress the truth about Stalin's terror famine in the Ukraine -- the starving to death of millions of peasants (perhaps 5 million) just because they had been too successful on their private farms. Success made them class enemies, "Kulaks."

Thus, the question of the origin of Greek philosophy, to which Athens itself, with its commercial democracy, is the answer, remains relevant to the politics of the Twentieth and, evidently, the Twenty-First Centuries. Indeed, it is a distressing and sobering new truth of history, little suspected before our time, that a vast educated class may, by its very nature, be hostile to freedom, democracy, and the creation of wealth for everyone -- though China was similarly ill served by the scholar Mandarins. The truth is not enough. As Thomas Jefferson said, "All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence." Indeed, what we find today is that many academics deny there is truth, revel in the irrationality and incoherence of their own assertions, and nakedly assert that power is the end of all discourse. It should be no surprise to then see the educated promoting ignorance and the free promoting tyranny, all in the hope that power will fall to them. They will, indeed, derive no benefit should their ambitions be realized, but by then it will be too late for benefit to anyone else.

An Open Letter to David W. Tandy on Warriors into Traders, The Power of the Market in Early Greece, University of California Press, 1997

Capitalism, the Free Market, and the Duties of Property and Contract

History of Philosophy, Greek Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 1998, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 1


The Greeks have been known by many names, depending on who was referring to them and when. In Homer, they are called, "Achaeans," , "Danaäns," (which sounds like the Israelite Tribe of Dan), and other things. In the Classical period, a Greek is a Hellên, , the Greeks are the Hellênes, , and the country is Hellas, .

The Romans, however, ended up with their own words. "Greek" is Graecus, the Greeks are Graeci, and Greece is Graecia. The names in English clearly derive from Latin, but it is not clear where the Latin words have come from. They don't seem to have anything to do with Greece and may come from a tribe in Southern Italy, who somehow got confused with the Greek colonies in the area.

East of Greece, we find a name that derives from Ionia, , where Greek philosophy began. In Sanskrit "Greek" was Yavana, . In Modern Arabic "Greek" or "a Greek" is Yûnânî, , and "the Greeks" is al-Yûnân, . Ionic is one of the basic dialects of Greek, and the name is also associated with one of the canonical styles of architecture, the Ionic Order, which is more delicate than the Doric but still less elaborate than the Corinthian. Ionia is also the source of what later became the standard Greek alphabet, with distinctive letters like "H" used for a long /e/, the êta, and a new ligature, the ômega, for a long /o/.

On the map we see the ten original cities of Ionia, plus Smyrna, an Aeolic city that later joined them. The names of early Greek philosophers can be associated with several of these cities. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are all from Miletus; Pythagoras and Melissos from Samos; Heraclitus from Ephesus; Xenophanes from Colophon; and Anaxagoras from Clazomenae. Smyrna, Izmir in Turkish, is now the principal city of the area, as Ephesus had been through most of Late Antiquity (the site of the Third Ecumenical Council) and the early Middle Ages.

By the Middle Ages, the Greeks were no longer calling themselves Hellênes. They were Rhômaioi, , i.e. Romans. This now may seem odd, but the Roman Empire had been divided between East and West in 395 AD. The Western Empire ended in 476 AD; but the remaining Empire in the East survived until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD. The Mediaeval Greeks were thus, to themselves and to others, Romans. Also, Hellên had come to mean "pagan," as the word is used in the New Testament, while "Roman," Rhômaios, , meant "Christian." The Empire was itself Romania, . Modern Greece has gone back to Hellênes and the other Classical names; but Rhômaioi, like ar-Rûm, , in Arabic, was still being used for Greeks in the 20th century. In the Ottoman Empire, the Christian community under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople was the Millet-ï-Rûm, , the "community of Rome."

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 2


Although widely distributed around the Mediterranean basin, Mediterranean climates are actually rather rare in the world. The most extensive area is the south coast of Australia. Otherwise, there is only California, a small part of Chile in South American, and the tip of South Africa right around Cape Town. None of these places ended up with the other geographical and cultural attributes that put Greece and the Mediterranean in such historically important roles.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 3


The circumstances of a life of trade curiously fit the four conditions for success recommended by the actor/comedian Sinbad to Dan Aykroyd in the Coneheads movie of 1993:

  1. Look good.
  2. Be your own boss.
  3. Don't get stuck behind a desk.
  4. Only take cash.

We don't know how good Greek traders would have looked, but everything else certainly fits, and success did follow.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 4


Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, University of California Press, 1973, p. 183.

Lichtheim argues rather awkwardly that the text is intended as a "satire" because the "scribal profession" never would have harbored "a contempt for manual labor so profound as to be unrelieved by humor." Instead, the Egyptians are supposed to have uniformly taken "joy and pride in the accomplishments of labor" and have taught "respect for all labor" (p. 184). However, one does not have to have either contempt or respect to recognize that manual labor in an ancient society, with nothing in the way of modern medicine and when the average life-span was only about 35 years, was hard, merciless, and ravaging. A text that begins "I have seen many beatings" must be expected to be offering a sober caution, if indeed there were "many beatings," which, as it happens, is undeniable. Why there is any particular dignity in getting beaten by tax collectors, or why a scribal writer would want to satirize it, is more than a little mysterious. No, the concern for the dignity of labor here is modern and editorial, if not Marxist, and the intention of the author of the text is clearly the very serious recommendation of scribal life, attended with reading, writing, and authority, over the hard labor and social subordination of other professions.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 5


The origin of the word "Phoenician" is a matter of interest. "Phoenicia" in Phoenician was Pût and both the Phoenician people and the Phoenician language were Pônnîm [A Phoenician-Punic Grammar, by Charles R. Krahmalkov, Brill, Leiden, 2001, p.1]. Latin Poeni for Cathaginians and the adjective Punicus look like they come directly from the Phoenician words.

The Greek word from which we actually get the words "Phoenicia" and "Phoenician," Phoiníke, , however, looks a little different. Phoinix, , in Greek is the noun, "Phoenician." The root here is Phoinik-, and this has an extra consonant in it in comparison to the Phoenician root. The word could be seen as having a Greek adjectival ending, -ik-, and we might think the way to analyze it is as coming from an adjective Phoin-ik-os. But this will not do. Phoinix is a Third Declension noun, and we must analyze it as Phoinik-s, in the nominative, as it is Phoinik-os in the genitive. A Greek adjective of Phoinix is actually Phoinikikos, , where the adjectival ending -ik-os goes onto the root Phoinik-. We thus must account for the extra consonant in the root.

Phoinix may actually be a borrowing from Egyptian. Fnkhw, , in Egyptian meant "Syrians" [Egyptian Grammar, Sir Alan Gardiner, Oxford University Press, 1927, 1964, p.566], and if the Greeks, who had extensive involvement with the Egyptians, borrowed this word, that would account for the extra consonant.

The Fn portion of the root, of course, looks like it would correspond to the word in Phoenician, which may leave us wondering:  If the Egyptian word was originally borrowed from Phoenician, where did the Egyptians get the third consonant? As it happens, Phoenician phonology originally had a consonant kh (), which was subsequently lost [Krahmalkov, p.19]. It is possible that an earlier stage of the Phoenician language had that consonant in its root -- three consonsant roots are the norm in Semitic Languages -- which is where the Egyptians got it. It is also possible, of course, that the Greeks got to the Phoenicians early enough that they also got their third consonant directly from the Phoenician word; but since the consonant is not attested in written Phoenician, and the Egyptians were dealing with the Phoenicians two thousand years before the Greeks were (when Phoenician was not written), they would have been in a better position to pick up long lost consonants.

While is puzzling for the extra consonant in the root, it is also used to mean "purple, purple-red, crimson," i.e. the color of the dye Tyrian Purple. In those terms we also have phoinós, , which means "blood-red, blood-stained, murderous." If these meanings are comparable, and looks like the Phoenician word for "Phoenician," then perhaps Greek has directly borrowed the Phoenician word after all, but is only using it for the color and not the people [cf. Carolina López-Ruiz, When the Gods Were Born, Greek Cosmologies and the Near East, Harvard, 2010, p.24 -- suggesting that phoînix derives from phoinós, without addressing the morphological question of the extra -k-]. On the other hand, the Liddell and Scott Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon [Oxford, Clarendon, 1889, 1964] derives phoinós from phónos, , "murder, slaughter" [p.869]. However, I don't understand the morphology of this alteration either. An infixed "i" may be part of some regular word formation, but I am unfamiliar with it. Semantically, phoinós does seem to go with phónos, which would leave it unrelated to the word for "Phoenician" in Phoenician. There are problems either way.

The geographic backbone of Phoenicia, Mount Lebanon, had the same name then as now:  Lebanon (Lbnn) -- rendered by the Egyptians as Rmnn, . It is Lubnân, , in Arabic.

The Shihâbî Amîrs of Lebanon, 1697-1842 AD

The Pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 6


From "mountain," the root GBL (jabal in Arabic), came the name of one of the principal Phoenician cities, Gubla, rendered by the Greeks as Byblos. This also became a Greek word for Egyptian papyrus, probably traded by Byblos, and so, more commonly as biblos, the Greek word for "book."

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 7


The initial slope of the pyramid was not really too steep, at 54o27'44", even though the pyramid was finished at 43o22'. The angle of the Great Pyramid of Khufu would soon be 51o50'40"; and the pyramid of Khafre would have an angle of 53o10'. Instead the Bent Pyramid suffered from problems with the developing technology:

It was this combination of a lack of good mortar, carelessly laid blocks, and, most importantly, the unstable desert surface, that caused the structural problems. [Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids,Thames and Hudson, 1997, p. 102]

If the pyramid had been continued as planned, the weight of stone above, due to the foundation and structural problems, would have crushed the chambers within or caused a collapse of the sides. This was solved by flattening off the slope, resulting in the famous "bent" shape of the pyramid. Seneferu seems to have been displeased enough to order a complete new pyramid built, which was subsequently finished as the first true pyramid, the "Northern" pyramid at Dahshur.

The photo of the upper chamber of the Bent Pyramid is from I.E.S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt, Penguin Books, 1961, plate 9a.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 8


Fans of Star Trek may recognize the word "archon" from the classic Star Trek episode "The Return of the Archons," #22 in the original series, which aired February 9, 1967. The "archons" referred to were the crew of the starship Archon, which had been captured and the crew "absorbed" by the mind-controlling, totalitarian regime of a planet ruled by a computer impersonating an ancient legislator named "Landru" (rather like Sparta's Lycurgus). The episode ends with Captain Kirk in one of his classic moments arguing the computer into a nervous breakdown, freeing the planet.

Although the individualistic message of this episode, as of much of the original Star Trek, is unmistakable, note later tendencies of the series, as discussed in "The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek: Militarism, Collectivism, & Atheism".

The Eponymous Archons of Athens

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 9


Although very many ships were lost at sea in the pre-modern period, taking crew, cargo, and profit with them, the returns on a successful voyage could be astounding. An good example of how astounding we can gather from the 4700% profit that Queen Elizabeth I made off of her shares in the round-the-world voyage -- from 1577 to 1580, including a famous stop in California in 1579 -- of Sir Francis Drake in the Golden Hind [cf. T.O. Lloyd, The British Empire, 1558-1995, The Short Oxford History of the Modern World, general editor J.M. Roberts, Oxford, 1996, p. 9]. The profit seems to have come largely from a single cargo of cloves.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 10


Some people like to think that the wealth of Athens derived from the Laurion silver mines. But this is to make a fundamental mistake about the nature of wealth. Money is worthless without something to buy. Even gold, without commerce, may as well be used, as the Egyptians did, to make or cover coffins. If goods are produced, then it doesn't matter who has the gold or silver, it will run, like water, to the producers. A prime example of that is the great flood of metal from the silver mines of Mexico and Peru, starting in the 16th century, which all went to Spain. Since Spain was not a commercial or manufacturing power, it simply spent the money. That helped make it a predominant power for over a century, but the money, when spent, then went to the commercial states, like the Netherlands and England. The Netherlands, small as it was, then demonstrated a new order of economic strength by successfully revolting against Spain. All that all of the silver had done to the Spanish economy was to produce a raging inflation -- always the result of too much money chasing too few goods. Athens suffered no such embarrassments. It could absorb its own silver, and much, much more, like the "tribute" from the League of Delos, because of the strength of its own economy.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 11


This is rather like when the "Psychic Friends Network," which dispensed paranormal advice by phone, filed for bankruptcy early in 1998, the news stories asked "Didn't they see it coming?"

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 12


The Greek historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertius, refers to a lost work, that of Hieronymus of Rhodes, crediting Thales with "measuring the pyramids by their shadow, having observed the time when our own shadow is equal to our height" (G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1964, p. 83). This would be a little awkward, since one's own height would have to be ascertained and the shadow measured by it. Since the gnomon -- a stick in the ground -- was in use at the time to observe the path of the sun, using one would be considerably easier and just as simple.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 13


The virtue of cuneiform writing, incised on clay tablets, which otherwise would seem messy and cumbersome, is that it will not decay or burn. When the Assyrian cities were burned and looted (c. 614-612), the library tablets were simply baked into bricks, leaving to posterity a vast body of Assyro-Babylonian literature and documents. Egyptian papyrus, although far more convenient as a writing material, decays and burns easily, leaving us with a pitiful fragment of Egyptian literature. Surviving papyri are largely from tombs in the desert, preserved by the dry conditions; but Egyptian libraries were not built in the desert. Much Egyptian literature, indeed, has not survived on papyrus at all but on the ostraca, the fragments of pots and chips of stone, that were used by boys (no girls, by the way) in scribal schools -- they were denied valuable papyrus for the humble task of copying their lessons.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 14


Kissinger should have known better than to have so underestimated the strength of America, since he certainly would have known how Napoleon had foolishly dismissed England as "a nation of shopkeepers" -- where the shopkeepers built a navy that sank Napoleon's, and then carried him to exile on St. Helena.

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The Origin of Philosophy:  Why the Greeks? Note 15


The case of the playwright Bertolt Brecht (18981956) is revealing. Brecht, a life-long Marxist and Communist, was called before the House Un-American Activies Committee (HUAAC) in 1947 when the Committee was investigating people in Hollywood with Communist connections -- including the "Hollyood Ten," now celebtrated as Martyrs by Marxists at all American universities and among the bien pensants of American letters and politics. Brecht, one of the Ten, nevertheless testified freely and impressed the Committee as a "friendly witness." Falsely denying all knowledge of Communists, Brecht avoided citation for Contempt of Congress, and probable jail time, by leaving the country the next day and never returning. He defected to East Germany, where he retained a residence the rest of his life.

This counter-example to the western intellectuals who "voted with their feet" by staying in Capitalist countries is countered in turn by the deal that Brecht made with the East Germans. He kept an Austrian passport, which enabled him to leave East Germany and travel, as few other East Germans could. He kept his money in Swiss bank accounts, where no Communist regime had access to it. And he kept a West German publisher, who paid the considerable royalties from his works into his Swiss bank accounts. It also now appears that some of his works had been plagiarized from younger, especially female, associates.

The hypocrisy and cynicism of Brecht's behavior and arrangements is almost charming, but it certainly explodes the notion that he defected to East Germany so that he could enjoy the benefits of living under actual Communism. He managed to avoid all the disabilities that would have applied to real East Germans, who would be safely imprisoned by the Berlin Wall in 1961. Brecht, we might say, added insult to injury by congratulating the East German government when it put down the 1953 uprising (by "the workers," as it happened). Brecht was thus the perfect leftist intellectual, enjoying the freedom himself that he was happy to see denied to others.

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Parmenides of Elea
and the Way of Truth

Parmenides (born c. 515) is one of the most important Presocratic philosophers and represents a major turning point in the development of Greek thought. We can credit Parmenides with two major innovations:

  1. Dialectic. To the Greeks, this simply meant logical argumentation. This represents a break with a characteristic of mythpoeic thought that had persisted through the first Greek philosophers, namely the fourth characteristic, that myth is self-justifying. As handed down to us, earlier philosophers, like Anaximander and Heracltius, simply assert what is true. They do not, to our knowledge, offer arguments. Where they begin to notice their own disagreements, there is not much they can say about each other except that they are right and the others are wrong. Heraclitus is supposed to have said:

    Much learning [polymathy] does not teach intelligence [or "mind," noûs], or it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, Xenophanes and Hecataeus. [Diogenes Laertius]

    Although Parmenides's poem, the Way of Truth, begins with the invocation of an unnamed goddess, in standard mythic form, the goddess provides arguments, rendering her own authority superfluous.

    The meaning of the word "dialectic" (from which is derived "dialogue") now has drifted far from its original sense, because of special technical meanings attributed to it by philosophers like Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Also, the etymology of the word is commonly misunderstood, as when people say that a "dialogue" involves two people because di- means "two." Well di- can mean two (from dis, "double"), but it does not in "dialectic" or "dialogue" since the element is dia- rather than di-. Dia is a Greek preposition that means "through." "Discourse," from Latin (discursus), would be the most appropriate translation of the Greek meaning.

  2. Metaphysics. The meaning of the word "metaphysics" is also commonly misconstrued. On television or in New Age literature (one thinks of Shirley MacLaine and her books like Out on a Limb -- made into a TV movie in 1987), one is liable to hear that the word "metaphysics" means "beyond" (meta) the "physical" (physics). Thus "metaphysics" would be about spiritual things, God, the soul, ghosts, etc. Unfortunately, the Greek preposition meta does not mean "beyond"; it means "after." This might be thought to amount to the same thing, but it doesn't, because of the actual origin of the word. Metaphysics was originally the title of a book, by Aristotle. It got that name by accident.

    When Aristotle died (in 322), none of his mature thought had been published. All that remained of his teachings at his school, the Lyceum, were his lecture notes, sometimes even his students' lecture notes. Before long, his family and students decided that something should be done about that, and the material was gradually organized, divided, and published. The appropriate names for many of the books were obvious (On the Heavens, On the Soul, The Parts of Animals, etc.). After the Physics (physika, "natural things," from physis, "nature") was published, however, it was not obvious what to call the next book, since it had material about God and a number of other things in it. Rather than picking one topic, the book simply began to be called the "After the Physics" (Meta ta Physika). The name stuck. So the word "metaphysics" really doesn't mean anything etymologically. It would basically mean whatever was in Aristotle's Metaphysics.

    What was basic in the Metaphysics was something for which a word did not exist in Greek philosophy. A modern word has been coined from Greek, however:  "Ontology", for the philosophical discipline that is the first and principle part of metaphysics. "Ontology" (ontologia) means "talking" (-logia) about "being" (ôn / onto-). This is literally what Parmenides did, as will be seen below -- to talk about Being. More generally, "ontology" is the theory about what is real. It is often said to be the study of "Being qua Being," or of what Aristotle called the ontôs ónta, the "beingly beings," or most real things. This is why the popular meaning of "metaphysics" is incorrect. Any theory that is an answer to the question, "What is real?" is an ontological, and so metaphysical, theory. That is true whether one answers "spirits" or even "matter." Materialism is just as much metaphysics as its denial. Indeed, in a Physics class, little attention is going to paid to the question, "What is real?"

    Talking about Being, Parmenides founds abstract metaphysics. There are other disciplines that later (as in Aristotle) fall into metaphysics:  especially cosmology, the theory of the structure and history of the universe, natural theology, theories about God based on reason rather than revelation, and rational psychology, the rational metaphysics of the soul. The modern equivalent of the latter would be philosophy of mind. Cosmology has now largely been absorbed by astronomy and physics, but some residual metaphysical issues remain, such as the nature of space and time.

These two innovations of Parmenides are presented in the form of an epic poem, the Way of Truth. Fragments of it survive in quotations by later writers, some of them much later: Proclus lived in the 5th century AD, Simplicius in the 6th. So, a thousand years after Parmenides, Simplicius supplies us with extensive quotations, because he himself had difficulty finding complete texts of Parmenides. Those are now lost, but Simplicius remains.

Fragments of the Way of Truth
by Parmenides of Elea

translation based on G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven (1957) and Scott Austin (1986)

[Fragment 1, from Sextus Empiricus and Simplicius]

The steeds that carried me took me as far as my heart could desire, when once they had brought me and set me on the renowned way of the goddess, who leads the man who knows through every town.

Parmenides may be the first Greek philosopher to offer a careful argument, derived from and based on reason, for his views. Nevertheless, he wrote a traditional poetic invocation of a Muse-like goddess for his philosophical poem. Thus we look back to the inspiration that the poets, and perhaps the first philosophers, claimed as the authority for their statements, even as we look forward to the appeal to logic made by all later philosophers. The goddess remains unnamed, as happens in Homer, quite commonly in ancient religion, and even in the case of Socrates in the Apology.

....And the axle [of the chariot], blazing in the socket, was making the holes in the naves sing -- for it was urged round by well-turned wheels at each end -- while the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back the veils from off their faces and left the abode of night. There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone. They themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and avenging Justice controls the double bolts. Her did the maidens entreat with gentle words and cunningly persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bar from the gates. Then, when the doors were thrown back, they disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen posts, fitted with rivets and nails, swung in turn on their hinges. Straight through them, on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car. And the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and spoke to me these words:

"Welcome, O youth, who comes to my abode in the car that bears you, tended by immortal charioteers. It is no ill chance, but right and justice, that has sent you forth to travel on this way. Far indeed does it lie from the beaten track of men. Now it is that you should learn all things, both the unshaken heart of well rounded truth and the opinion of mortals in which is no true belief at all. Yet none the less shall you learn these things also -- how the things that seem, as they all pass through everything, must gain the semblance of being.

[Fragments 2 & 3, from Proclus]

"Come now and I will tell you -- and do hearken and carry my word away -- the only ways of enquiry that can be thought of [that exist for thinking]: the one way, that it is and cannot not be, is the path of Persuasion, for it attends upon Truth;

This is the way in which we only talk about Being. Notice that the entire rest of the poem is a quotation from the goddess.

"the other, that it is not and cannot be, that I tell you is a path altogether unthinkable.

The way in which we only talk about Not Being. This turns out not to be a real way of inquiry, because to think about something implies that it is, in some way, while Not Being is not, by definition, in any way. Hence such a way is "unthinkable." This is the essence of Parmenides' argument.

"For you could not know that which is not (that is impossible) nor utter it; for the same thing can be thought as can be [the same thing exists for thinking as for being].

[Fragment 6, from Simplicius]

"That which can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it, but not for nothing, to be; that is what I bid you ponder. This [i.e. Not Being] is the first way of enquiry from which I hold you back, and then from that way also on which mortals wander knowing nothing, two-headed;

The way in which we talk about both Being and Not Being, i.e. the way in which we talk about the visible world, where one and the same thing may exist at one time and not exist at another. This need of ours to talk that way about this world invalidates it for Parmenides.

"for helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts; they are carried along, deaf and blind at once, altogether dazed -- hordes devoid of judgment, who are persuaded that to be and to be not are the same, yet not the same, and for whom the path of all things is backward turning.

The traditional critique of Parmenides, starting with Plato, is that he was confusing the "existential" use of "is," as in "This thing is" (meaning "This thing exists"), with the "predicative" use of "is," as in "This thing is blue." Thus, it is said, Parmenides' rejection of "it is not" discourse is based on a confusion, applying principles that may be appropriate to the existential use of "is" to "is" that has a different meaning -- many languages have "nominal sentences" where a verb is not even used for predication. However, Parmenides never uses any predications with "it is not." When Parmenides accuses the "hordes devoid of judgment" of believing that "to be and to be not are the same, yet not the same," there is no indication or necessity that he is talking about predication. Instead, he is reasonably and consistently to be interpreted as accusing people of believing that "to exist and not to exist are the same, yet not the same," for this is actually how we do speak of the objects of experience, which are said to exist at one time and not to exist at another. We also talk about "fictional objects," like Sherlock Holmes or Obi-wan Kenobi, which exist in some way but not really in "reality." And there are mathematical objects, which seem rather basic to "reality" but are not things we find lying around in ordinary experience, or cannot exist in ordinary experience, e.g. geometrical points. This is now called the problem of "non-existent objects," famously explored by the Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong (1853-1921). There are various ways to solve it, but it is not based on the kind of confusion of which Parmenides is commonly accused.

[Fragment 7, from Plato]

"For never shall this be proved, that things that are not are; but do hold back your thought from this way of enquiry, nor let custom, born of much experience, force you to let wander along this road your aimless eye, your echoing ear or your tongue; but do judge by reason (lógos) the strife encompassed proof that I have spoken.

[Fragment 8, from Simplicius]

"One way only is left to be spoken of, that it is; and on this way are full many signs that what is is uncreated and imperishable; for it is entire, immovable and without end. It was not in the past, nor shall it be, since it is now, all at once, One,

The "One" became the common name for Being as it was described by Parmenides.

"continuous; for what creation will you seek for it? How and whence did it grow? Nor shall I allow you to say or to think, "from that which is not"; for it is not be said or thought that it is not. And what need would have driven it on to grow, starting from nothing, at a later time rather than an earlier?

This is called an argument from "sufficient reason," because in an empty eternity there would be no reason why Being would come into being at one time rather than another. This argument is now especially associated with the German philosopher Leibniz.

"Thus it must either completely be or be not. Nor will the force of true belief allow that, beside what is, there could also arise anything from what is not. Because of this Justice

What is the force of logic? Parmenides, who is here appealing to logic for perhaps the first time in history, nevertheless thinks of its sanction as one of divine justice enforced by a goddess.

"does not loosen her fetters to allow it to come into being or perish, but holds it fast; and the decision on these matters rests here: it is or it is not (éstin ê ouk éstin).

A key phrase in Parmenides. What the principle would rule out is the idea of degrees of existence such as is found in the Neoplatonists or Descartes. It also sounds a bit like the phrase in Hamlet, "To be, or not to be," which begins Hamlet's consideration whether to commit suicide. Hamlet rejects suicide, since he cannot be sure it will really deliver him from his existence and his troubles. Parmenides, of course, would say that non-existence is impossible. This echoes the similar argument of the Bhagavad Gita [2:16]. While the principle is otherwise rarely used in the history of philosophy to establish personal immortality, it nevertheless survives even in physics as the principle of the conservation of mass, that mass cannot be created or destroyed -- now combined by Einstein with the principle of the conservation of energy, so that mass and energy can turn into each other, but cannot be absolutely created or destroyed.

"But it has surely been decided, as it must be, to leave alone the one way as unthinkable and nameless (for it is no true way), and that the other is real and true. How could what is thereafter perish? and how could it come into being? For if it comes to be, it is not, and likewise if it is going to be. So coming into being is extinguished and perishing unimaginable.

It is often thought, reasonably enough (e.g. by Hegel) that "becoming" splits the difference between Being and Not Being, since something that is becoming already participates in what it is to be. Parmenides, however, rejects this utterly, since whatever something is supposed to be becoming, it isn't that thing yet, an especially harsh difficulty when we are talking about non-existence becoming existence.

"Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike; nor is there more here and less there, which would prevent it from cleaving together, but it is all full (émpleon)

Being is a plenum (the Latin translation of the Greek word), i.e. it is full of Being, since any emptiness or any lack of density could only be due to the disallowed Not Being.

"of what is. So it is all continuous; for what is clings close to what is. But, motionless within the limits of mighty bonds, it is without beginning or end, since coming into being and perishing have been driven far away, cast out by true belief. Abiding the same in the same place it rests by itself, and so abides firm where it is;

It cannot go anywhere, since only Not Being could be there before Being arrived, and only Not Being could be left after Being had gone elsewhere.

"for strong Necessity holds it firm within the bonds of the limit that keeps it back on every side, because it is not lawful that what is should be unlimited; for it is not lacking -- what is not would lack everything. But since there is a furthest limit, it is bounded on every side, like the bulk of a well rounded sphere, from the center equally balanced in every direction;

Being is not infinite, and this seems to be the only point that does not really follow from Parmenides's argument -- he can only say it is not "lawful." He is just more comfortable with a limited One, like a big beach ball. A follower of Parmenides, Melissos of Samos, more consistently argued that Being was infinite.

"for it cannot be somewhat more here or somewhat less there. For neither is there that which is not, which might stop it from meeting its like, nor can what is be more here and less there than what is, since it is all inviolable; for being equal to itself on every side, it rests uniformly within its limits."

The Way of Truth poem is then followed by the Way of Seeming, in which Parmenides describes the world as though there really was dualism. This concession, however, posed no radical challenge to the received tradition of Greek philosophy.

The argument about Not Being was the challenge that Parmenides left to subsequent philosophy. What is to be made of it? It seems to rule out the reality of the "real" world. In the subsequent history of philosophy, roughly three things were done to make sense of the theory:  (1) the One was interpreted to be matter. This was the approach of the "Atomists," like Democritus, and of Empedocles, who proposed that there were four elements. This interpretation came first and the most easily "saved" the world of perception. (2) the One was generally later interpreted to be God -- a theistic interpretation. Because of this Parmenides tended to be associated with the earlier philosopher Xenophanes, who seems to have been a monotheist. The Neoplatonists simply called God "the One," and in mediaeval theology, when the question arose why God was uncreated and indestructible, arguments much like those of Parmenides could be used. As an interpretation of Parmenides, however, this doesn't look very good, since the One is without life or personality -- it is inert. And finally, (3) Plato replaced the One with his theory of Forms, which are like the One in being eternal and unchanging, but unlike the One in being many. Although Parmenides would have had a real problem with this, Plato of all subsequent Western philosophers took the most seriously Parmenides' rejection of the existence of the world of appearances. Although unpopular in the West, however, this world-denying view is quite common in Indian philosophy.

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Note on Parmenides, on Patronymics


It is noteworthy that the name "Parmenides" has two parts, "Parmen" and "-ides." "-Ides" is a suffix which makes a patronymic, that is, it marks the name of a son's father. "Parmenides" thus means "son of Parmen." This is common in many languages, but is especially famous in Russian. "Son of Parmen" in Russian would be "Parmenevich." Other languages, however, do the same thing. "Son of Parmen" in Persian would be "Parmenzâdeh." There are now many Persian surnames with the "-zâdeh" suffix, which literally means "born." Shâhzâda, "Son of the King," was a Persian term used in India as the title of the son and heir apparent of the Moghul Emperors. It was thus used like "Prince of Wales" in Britain or "Dauphin" in France. We also see the name Shahrazâd -- Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, whose name means "city born." With h.arâm, , "forbidden," in Arabic, we get harâmzâdâ, , in Hindi, "son of the forbidden, bastard."

Even English and Spanish have patronymics, though now, as in Persian, they have simply become surnames. Thus, "son of John" was "Johnson," now a very common surname (including two Presidents of the United States). In Spanish, patronymics are marked by "-ez" (Portuguese, or sometimes in Spanish, "-es"). "Iñiguez" is "son of Iñigo." "Velasquez" (or "Vasquez") is "son of Velasco," a name of Basque origin -- like the names Sancho and Sánchez, Garcia and Garcés, all of which figure as names of the Basque Kings of Navarra and Dukes of Gascony. So English and Spanish patryonymic equivalents of "Parmenides" would be "Parmenson" and "Parmeñez," respectively. "Son of John" in Spanish is actually Ibañez, using a form of "John" that looks like that name, Ivan, in Russian (which gets us the patronymic "Ivanovich").

Patronymics (or "filiations") in Latin use the word filius, "son," following the name of the father. Julius Caesar was thus also Gaii filius, "son of Gaius." In daughter languages of Latin the derivative of filius may come first. Thus we see the name of the mathematician Fibonacci, short for Filius Bonacci, "son of Bonaccus." From Norman French we get names in English like Fitzroy, i.e. filius regis, the "son of the king," of used for illegitimate sons of a king, as with a natural son of King Charles II, Henry Fitzroy.

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Historical Background to Greek Philosophy

Philosophy of History

Middle Eastern Political Events During the Course of Greek Philosophy

The political event that still cast its shadow in the early days of Greek philosophy was the fall of the Assyrian Empire. Reduced to a small heartland by the Aramaean migrations in the 11th century, Assyria suddenly had reasserted itself under Adadnirâri II and Ashurnasirpal II. With most of the Levant and Mesopotamia taken up with small states, there was little to stand in the way of an organized, energized, and aggressive Assyria; and in short order it became the dominant power in the Middle East.
KINGS OF ASSYRIA,

Neo-Assyrian Empire
Adad-nirâri II911-891
Tukulti-Ninurta II891-883
Ashurnasirpal II883-859
Shalmaneser III858-824
Shamshiadad V823-811
Adadnirâri III810-783
Shalmaneser IV783-772
Ashurdân III772-755
Ashurnirâri V754-745
Tiglathpilesser III744-727
Shalmaneser V726-722
Sargonids
Sargon (Sharru-kîn) II722-705
Sennacherib
(Sin-ahhê-eriba)
705-681
retires from before Jerusalem, 701; sack of Babylon, 689
Esarhaddon
(Ashur-aha-iddin)
681-669
Invasion of Egypt, 671
Ashurbanipal
(Ashur-ban-aplu)
669-631
conquest of Egypt, 669, 663; destroys Elam, 639
Ashur-etil-ilâni631-629
Sin-shar-ishkun629-612
Asshur falls, 614; Nineveh falls, 612; retreat to Harran
Ashur-uballit. II612-609
Harran falls to Medes, 609

This dominance lasted slightly less than 300 years, going into overdrive under the Sargonids in the last century. The kings used the title Shâr-shârrim -- , "king," shâr in Akkadian, lugal in Sumerian -- "King of Kings," which we have seen since the days of Akkad; but their aspirations to universal rule, well served by the unprecedented extent of their conquests, foundered on the scale of the brutality and terror of their methods. Assyrian policy was to deal with rebellion by exemplary executions and forced relocations. By some estimates, over four million people were deported. The removal of the Cherokee Nation to Oklahoma in American history, called the "Trail of Tears," not to mention the deportation of Armenians from Turkey, may give some sense of what this would have been like.

The deportation of the Ten Tribes of Israel (by Shalmaneser V or Sargon II after the fall of Samaria in 722) is recounted with striking specificity in the Bible:

[2 Kings 18:11] The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria, and put them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

The "Habor" is certainly the Habur River, which arises between the Tigris and Eurphrates and flows south into the Euphrates. This was an area otherwise demographically overwhelmed by the Aramaeans. Despite this information about where the Tribes had gone, they nevertheless disappear from history. The Bible has Sennacherib saying, "Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly" [2 Kings 19:11], and King Hezekiah of Judah says to God, "the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands" [19:17]. Jerusalem was only saved by an "angel of the Lord," perhaps the plague, slaying "a hundred and eighy-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians" [19:35]. This did not stop Sennacherib from later showing the Jews he had executed by impalement in the art of his palace.

Such policies culminated in Ashurbanipal's assault on and massacre of the Elamites. This sounds like a genocide, since the Elamites shortly thereafter disappeared from history altogether. However, although Ashurbanipal himself boasted that no Elamites were left, we know from Babylonian records that there actually were. And while Susa and its environs may have been depopulated, Elam stretched out to the East beyond the reach of Assyria. There the Elamites seem to have been assimilated with the Persians, who styled themselves rulers of an Elamite kingdom, Anshan, who used the Elamite language in inscriptions and some records, and who then make Susa one of their capitals.

Thus, while these sorts of actions sustained a vast empire for more than a century, subject peoples were never reconciled to Assyrian rule, and the constant campaigns of defense and punishment ultimately exhausted the Assyrians, even though they had tried to assimilate conquered and imported Aramaeans (and Israelites?) into their own population and army. The fall of the Assyrian empire came with surprising suddenness. The Medes and the Babylonians, who cooperated in defeating Assyria, divided the Asiatic domain of the Assyrians between them. Egypt had meanwhile liberated itself. Nineveh disappeared in ruins, the remaining Assyrian populace was lost among the Aramaean population, and the works and literature of Assyrian civilization ceased.

Note on the modern Assyrians

Mesopotamian Index

KINGS OF
THE MEDES (MEDIA)
Deiocesc.728-675
Phraortes675-653
Cyaxares653-585
overthrows Assyria, 614-609; conquers Urart.u, 585; Battle of the Eclipse, 585
Astyages585-550
Overthrown by the
Persians, 550
With the Medes, we have the first appearance of an
Iranian state in the full light of history. Previously, the evidence of Iranian presence on the plateau behind the Zagros Mountains has been indirect and ambiguous. The expectation is that Iranians may have been there shortly after 2000 BC, but we don't have anything definite until we find the horse culture and Vedic gods of the Kingdom of the Mitanni (c.1530-c.1330). The appearance of the Mitanni is roughly simultaneous with the intrusion of Indo-Aryan invaders in the Indus Valley. In both cases, we see the introduction of the horse, which had been missing from the earlier civilizations of Mesopotamia, India, and Egypt. Thus, to the Sumerians, the horse was the , anshe-kur-ra, the "ass of [foreign] countries." However, the demographic basis of the Mitanni was not Iranians, but Hurrians, one of the non-Semitic and non-Indo-European peoples of the ancient Middle East. The theory for long was that Iranians represented a small warrior aristocracy among the Hurrians, as they also did among the Kassites. It is now questioned whether there were such warrior aristocracies at all, but the Iranian influence, whatever its form, is still obvious. What is curious is that we must then wait another 600 some years before an organized Iranian state appears.

KINGS OF BABYLON,

Dynasty X (or XI)
of Babylon; the Chaldean
Aramaean Dynasty;
Neo-Babylonian Period
Nabopolassar,
Nabûaplaus.ur
625-605
overthrows Assyria, 614-609
Nebuchadnezzar,
Nabûkudurrius.ur
605-562
Battle of Carchemish, Egyptians expelled from Syria, 605; Judah
subjugated, 587
Amêl Marduk562-560
Nergalsharus.ur560-556
Labâshi Marduk556
Nabonidus,
Nabûna'id
556-539
Overthrown by
the Persians, 539
The days of the last Dynasty of Babylon leave a melancholy impression. This is the last flourishing of the great Mesopotamian civilization founded by Sumer and Akkad. And it is an impressive effort, as we can see from the still substantial ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon -- ruins that unfortunately already existed as such to make a similarly melanchology impression on the Roman Emperor
Trajan, who examined them on the march in 117 AD. The rulers of this Neo-Babylonian Kingdom, however, don't seem to be from the original Babylonian population. They are said to be "Chaldeans," and this has traditionally been interpreted to mean one of the Aramaean groups that had been present in Mesopotamia for some time and whose language was already replacing the ancient Akkadian languages of Assyria and Babylon. The evidence for this Aramaean identification is thin, and some scholars now doubt it; but it is not at all clear who the Chaldeans would otherwise have been. There is not some other large demographic presence that we are aware of after the Aramaeans.

The daughter of the Median king Cyaxares was married to Nebuchadnezzar, the son of King Nabopolassar. We hear that the famous result of this were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built to assuage the homesickness of the bride for the mountains of Iran. Later this was identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. However, nothing that looks like the Gardens, or their necessary foundations, has been found by archaeologists at Babylon. And questions have been raised how plants could have been placed on terraces that were necessarily built of mud-brick, when water and roots would have destroyed them -- even with the waterproofing that we know the Babylonians did using bitumen. So some scholars have wondered whether the Gardens even existed. Nevertheless, Greek travelers report seeing them, unfortunately without any information on their precise location, construction, or layout. So we are left with a bit of a mystery.

Nebuchadnezzar perpetuated one Assyrian practice by deporting subjects to populate the city of Babylon. The Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, after he took Jerusalem in 587, is the most famous example of that. However, the Babylonian attitude was a bit different from the Assyrian, and the Jews in Exile did not lose their identity and disappear from history, as had the Ten Tribes deported by the Assyrians. Far from it. Babylon became a center of Jewish life, and it continued to be one ever after Cyrus allowed the Jews who wished to return to Palestine and rebuild the Temple. Indeed, the Babylonian Jewish community, although subsequently shifting to later capitals like Ctesiphon and Baghdad, continued to flourish well into the Middle Ages. It looks like original Hebrew text of the Bible was first set to paper in Babylon, and the classic form of the Jewish Calendar was formulated (much later) by the Babylonian community in Baghdad.

The Medes expanded their domain at the expense of Anatolian kingdoms, culminating in the Battle of the Eclipse on 28 May 585 BC with the Lydians. The eclipse (first contact, 18h 10m local time; maximum eclipse, 90% total, 19h 02m, just before sunset; last contact 19h 52m, after sunset), supposedly predicted by the philosopher Thales, ended the battle and the war. The balance of power between Media, Babylonian, Lydia, and Egypt was generally maintained until a new king came to the throne of Persia, a vassal of Media, in 559.

Iranian Index

Notice the Kingdom of Napata on the map. This continues the Kings of the XV Dynasty and, although not indicated on subsequent maps here, will endure until 355 AD. This is what the Greeks would be calling "Ethiopia," , the land of the , Aithíops, or "burnt face." This is, of course, very different from the Abyssinian Kingdom now called Ethiopia.

KINGS OF LYDIA
Sandonids/Tilonids
Ardys Ic.800?
Alyattes I 
Myrsus (Meles) 
Candaules 
Mermnadae
Gyges685-644
Ardys II644-615
Sadyattes615-610
Alyattes II610-560
Battle of the Eclipse, 585
Croesus560-547
Overthrown by
the Persians, 547
Lydia entering the scene of Great Power conflict brings Western Anatolia back on the stage of history, for the first time since the fall of the
Hittites. Lydia itself has a long legendary history, supposedly dating back to Heracles, but it is not dateable until the time of Gyges. Lydia holds a place of importance in world history second to none simply for having invented the coinage of money. This will be good or bad depending on one's estimation of the benefits of such a medium of exchange. There is no true reason for doubt of its essential contribution to the growth of wealth and material human progress, but it is not difficult to find both ancient and modern idealogy that is hostile to commercial culture, economic freedom, and the general abundance that attend them. The proximity of Lydia probably made the distinctive culture of Greek Ionia possible, and with it the origin of Greek philosophy.

One other Anatolian kingdom, although its history is poorly known and hardly dateable and it is overrun early by the Cimmerians (who would perform the same service for Urart.u), is Phrygia, which is noteworthy, not only because its identity survives into the Roman period (having originated back in the 11th century, at least), but because two noteworthy legends were associated with it.
KINGS OF PHRYGIA
Gordios I10th cent.
Midas I 
Gordios II 
Midas II 
Gordios III 
Midas III738-695
Gordios IV695
Overrun by Cimmerians, annexed by Lydia, 695-626
All of its reported kings are named Midas and Gordios. Which is which in the legends is a good question. With one Midas, however, we get the story of the "Midas Touch," that the king wished for, and received, the power to turn anything to gold by touching it. Unfortunately, this was an unconditional power, and there was no way he could touch anything, even food or family, without turning them to gold. So it was a power that would grieve and then starve him. With some Gordios we have a more historical account. The king is supposed to have woven an gigantic knot, attended with the prophecy that the man who could undo it would conquer the world. When Alexander the Great arrived, beheld the knot, and was told of the prophecy, he simply drew his sword and cut the knot. Alexander did, more or less, conquer the world, and we are left with an expression, "cutting the knot," which is probably used most often without awareness of its origin. The knot, however, may not be named after an eponymous king, but after the capital of Phrygia, Gordion (Gordium). This was not far west of Angora, the capital of Galatia. Galatia was founded by Celts who invaded Greece in 279 and entered Anatolia by 278. Most of Phrygia was overrun in this invasion/migration and so came to be overlain by Galatia.

Mesopotamian Index

KINGS OF EGYPT
The Late Period
XXVI DYNASTY,
of Sais
Neko (Nechaô) I672-664
Psamtik (Psammêtichos) I664-610
expels Assyrians, 655
Neko II610-595
Battle of Carchemish, expelled from Syria by Babylonians, 605
Psamtik II595-589
Wah.ibre (Apriês/Uaphris)589-570
Ah.mose (Amôsis) II570-526
Psamtik III526-525
Persian Conquest, 525
The system of Thirty Dynasties for the history of Ancient Egypt was formulated by the Egyptian priest
Manethô, writing in Greek under the Ptolemies. The Persians, who overthrew the XXVI Dynasty in 525, were reckoned by Manethô as the XXVII Dynasty. Sometimes the last Persian rulers of Egypt (Artaxerxes III, etc.) are called the "XXXI Dynasty." This proposal is an ancient one, handed down by the Christian Chronographer Julius Africanus. Sometimes the Ptolemies are called the "XXXII Dynasty," but this is a modern suggestion.

The XXVI Dynasty represents the greatest flowering of the Egyptian state and civilization since the New Kingdom. Sadly, it was also the last hurrah of Ancient Egypt. The Saite Kings almost seem aware of that themselves. They carried out probably the first official exploration of the pyramids, copying the Old Kingdom art they discovered and introducing their own burials into tombs that were already two thousand years old. This antiquarian project is then found together with the first hints of the Hellenistic Age, since the reliance of the Saite Kings on Greek mercenary soldiers and the significant presence of Greek traders in Egypt launches a Greek presence that soon enough becomes dominant. This may have been a factor in the overthrow of Apriês by Ah.mose II. Apriês became unpopular by being too closely associated with the Greeks, since the Egyptians didn't like foreigners very much. Then Ah.mose dealt with this by directing the foundation of Naucratis as the emporium and colony for all the Greeks in Egypt. That succeeds admirably, and Egypt continues to draw on Greek help all through the history of the Persian empire.

Egyptian Kings continued:  Persian Kings, XXVII Dynasty, XXVIII, XXIX, & XXX Dynasties

Index of Egyptian History

Cyrus the Great overthrew, in turn, the Medes, Lydians, and Babylonians, suddenly creating an empire far larger than even the Assyrian. Cyrus was better able, through more benign policies, to reconcile his subjects to Persian rule; and the longevity of his empire was one result. The Persian king, like the Assyrian, was also "king of kings," xayathiya xayathiyânâm (shâhanshâh in modern Persian) -- "great king," megas basileus, as known by the Greeks. Alexander the Great, after he ultimately overthrew the Persians, deliberately assumed the universal pretensions of the Achaemenid kings, but the division of his empire after his early death eliminates any real universality until the Roman Empire.

Cambyses rounds out the Empire by conquering Egypt, overthrowing the XXVI Dynasty. Since Cambyses became ill and died before, or while, leaving Egypt, stories developed, as related by Hertodus, that he was struck down for impiety against the Egyptian gods.
GREAT KINGS OF PERSIA
ACHAEMENIDS
Achaemenes 
Teispes675-640
Cyrus I640-600
Cambyses I600-559
Cyrus (Kuru) II, the Great559-530
overthrows Medes, 550;
conquers Lydia, 547;
conquers Babylon, 539
Cambyses (Kambujiya) II530-522
conquers Egypt, 525;
XXVII DYNASTY
of Egypt
Bardiya, Smerdis, or Gaumata522
Darius (Darayavahu) I522-486
invades Greece, defeated at the
battle of Marathon, 490
Xerxes (Xayara) I486-465
invades Greece, defeated at the battles
of Salamis and Platea, 480, 479
Artaxerxes (Artaxassa) I
Longimanus
465-424
Xerxes II424
Sogdianus424-423
Darius II423-404
Egypt breaks away, 404
Artaxerxes II Mnemon404-359
Artaxerxes III Ochus359-338
reconquers Egypt, 343;
"XXXI" DYNASTY
Arses (Ara)338-336
Darius III Codomannus336-330
Macedonian Conquest
Be that as it may, it led to a bit of a succession crisis. The winner, Darius, based his claim on membership in a collateral line of the Achaemenid Dynasty.

There is not really any evidence for the validity of this claim, but one alternative is even more intriguing. Darius gives the name of his father as "Vishtâspa." Now, the patron and protector of the Prophet Zoroaster (c.628-551 BC) was named "Vishtâspa," leaving us to wonder if these are in fact the same individual. It may be impossible to ever say for certain, but a good indication may be that it was Darius who introduces Zoroaster's religion, or some version of it, into the Persian State. Darius invokes the One God of Zoroaster, Ahura Mazdâh, the "Wise Lord," in his trilingual inscription at Behistun, which describes how he came to the Throne [note]. His very name, although of obscure etymology, may be a Zoroastrian one, "Sustainer of Good [Thought]," invoking one of the "Archangels" or "Bounteous Immorals" (Ama Spntas) of Zoroastrianism.

The teaching of Zoroaster contained some unique features. It was a monotheism but also posited a dualism of Good and Evil, with an entity representing evil, Angra Mainyu, or "Evil Mind," who was the cosmic Enemy of God, or at least of Spnta Mainyu, "Holy Spirit." This introduced a supernatural and apocalyptic conflict of Good and Evil into religion, with Angra Mainyu marking the perhaps the first appearance of a Satan-like figure who eternally opposes God and the Good. Human beings must choose between Good and Evil. Zoroastrianism itself is the "Good Religion." This is why Nietzsche uses Zoroaster in his Also Sprach Zarathustra, giving him the chance to go "beyond" good and evil and renounce the conflict that he initiated.

It is possible that the Zoroastrian moralization of religion, which may for the first time overcome the moral ambivalence of myth, is what produced a similar revolution in Judaism and in Greek philosophy. Greek philosophers, beginning with Xenophanes, who express a moral critique of Greek religion, are certainly subsequent to the nearby presence of Persian religion, while with Judaism, the Babylonian Captivity and then the liberation of the exiles by Cyrus, opens the possibility of major Persian influence, certainly in the Jewish community that remained in Babylon after the Persian conquest -- the very place, apparently, where the Bible was compiled and committed to writing. This has long been a matter of speculation, but at this point there probably will never be a way of definitively settling the question of such Zoroastrian influence. In later Zoroastrianism, monotheism seems to be compromised by making Ahura Mazdâh (Ohrmazd in Middle Persian) and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) co-eternal, but this was only true a parte ante, i.e. into the past, and never a parte post, i.e. into the future. In the Zoroastrian Apocalypse -- which may be the first such conception in religion -- only Good survives. Hell and Angra Mainyu are destroyed, and all damned souls purified.

Another area where Zoroastrian influence is possible or likely on Judaism concerns the system of the Ama Spntas,
The Ama Spntas
Vohu ManahGood MindCattle
AaTruth,
Righteousness
Fire
XaraDominionMetal
ÂrmaitiDevotionEarth
HaurvatatWholenessWater
AmrtâtImmortalityPlants
the "Bounteous Immortals." There is considerable debate about exactly what these are, or what their relationship is to Ahura Mazdâh, but they have long been recognized as perhaps the archetypes of the angels we then see in Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam. They certainly represent various salient attributes of God, but they are created and function as independent beings apart from God. They almost approach being independent deities, and compromising Zoroastrian monotheism; but then the other monotheisms have no difficulty conceiving of angelic entities functioning apart from God.

In Achaemenid Zoroastrianism, however, the monotheism is certainly compromised by the surival or revival of traditional deities, such as the god Mira and the goddess Anahita. The history of some of these is striking, particularly in the case of Mira, who certainly corresponds to the Mitra of the Vedas. His future career in the West, however, will be the most remarkable. Thus, we find his name as an element in the names of native kings in Anatolia during the Hellenistic Age, most notably with multiple Kings of Pontus named Mithridates, "given by Mira" (Mehrdâd in Modern Persian). Mithridates VI fought three wars with Rome. But then the cult of Mithras enters Rome itself, to join the group of Mystery Religions that transform the Roman religious landscape. Eventually, soon before the triumph of Christianity, Mithras was identified with Sol Invictus, the "Unconquered Sun" which had become the center of the Roman State Cult. The birthday of Mithras, December 25th, was taken over by the new religion.

A noteworthy feature of the system of the Zoroastrian Immortals is their association with particular natural elements. Thus, we see Fire, Earth, and Water, which look like the original Indian elements of the Chândogya Upanis.ad. However, unlike subsequent development in India, we do not get Air or Aether (). Instead, first of all we get Metal and Plants. This looks parallel to the Metal and Wood which are traditional Chinese elements in addition to Fire, Earth, and Water. Since influence from distance China seems unlikely in this period, Zoroastrian Metal and Plants would seem to be an original and autochthonous, albeit parallel, version of a theory of elements. The sixth element, however, associated with Good Thought, is different in kind. "Cattle" are not "elements" in the sense we get otherwise of the common constituents of matter. It is an "element" of things in a different sense. As such, it curiously parallels something we get in the movie The Fifth Element [1997, Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich], where the "fifth element" to the familiar Greek Earth, Air, Fire, and Water is actually an entity, a being (played by Jovovich), who focuses the other four. This is not unlike the role of Cattle in Zoroastrianism (albeit passive rather than active), which form the focus of innocent life that must be protected by Righteousness.

The name of the Immortal Xara, "Dominion," is a cognate to the word for the warrior class in the Hindu Caste System, the Kshatriyas, . It also looks like an element in the Persian names of the Achaemenid Kings named "Xerxes" and "Artaxerxes," making them names, like "Darius," probably inspired by Zoroastrianism.

"Zoroaster," of course, is the Prophet's name from Greek, . The language used in the Avesta or Zend Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, is now called "Avestan." The Avesta first appeared in a European language in a French translation by Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Du Perron (1731-1805), who, with some difficulty (war and personal conflicts complicating things) obtained a copy in India and, with the help of local Parsis, mediated a translation by way of their Persian, published in 1771. Avestan is a dialect, cognate, or older version of Old Persian, and it is the Iranian language the closest to Sanskrit. William Jones, at first disbelieving the text that Du Perron had published, later realized, after learning Sanskrit, that it was for real. Du Perron's 1801/02 Latin translation (with Greek articles!) of selected Upanishads was the book that alerted Schopenhauer to the value of Indian philosophy. The oldest part of the Avesta, in the oldest version of Avestan, are the âs, the texts which seem to be Zoroaster's own revelations.

Zoroaster's name in the Avesta, transcribed phonetically, was Zarautra, with the /z/ as in English, the in as English "thin," and as English "sh." Nietzsche's German form Zarathustra would actually get the /sh/ right (in the "st" combination = /sht/), but it would have German /ts/ for "z" and /t/ for the "th." After the Achaeminids, Zoroastrianism would be eclipsed during the Hellenistic Age, as Greek kingdoms and then the Hellenophile Parthians ruled Irân. The religion reemerged, in a deliberate and militant form, under the Sassanids.

Genealogy of the Achaemenids

The Parthian Arsacids, 248 BC-227 AD

Sassanid Shâhs (Great Kings), 224-651 AD

Iranian Index

Mesopotamian Index

KINGS OF MACEDONIA
Peridiccas I7th Cent.
Aeropus I 
Alcetas Id.500
Amyntas I500-498
Alexander I
Philhellene
498-454
Philip Id.c.430
Alcetas IId.c.411
Perdiccas II454-413
Archelaus
Philhellene
413-399
Orest399-c.397
Aeropus IIc.397-c.392
Amyntas IIc.392-c.390
Amyntas IIIc.390-370
Alexander II370-368
Perdiccas III368-360
Amyntas IV360-359
Philip II359-336
Conquest of Greece
at Chaeronea, 338
Alexander III
the Great
336-323
Macedonia quietly grew into a power that, under Philip II, would dominate Greece and, in short order, turn against Persia. It is a little odd to think of all these monarchs, so important in Greek history, as not actually being Greek; but, like neighboring
Epirus, they are not. A revealing point in this respect is the epithet "Philhellene" of Alexander I. No Greek needs to be called "loving the Greeks." Exactly what the linguistic affinities of the Macedonians were is unclear. That it could be to the later Illyrians, or Thracians, or even modern Albanians, is always possible, but the matter is largely speculative. Whatever it was, the Philhellenism of the Kings soon created a layer of Greek culture that made them seem proper Greeks to everyone except, of course, the actual Greeks. The Macedonian monarchy itself also struck the Greeks as rather un-Greek. When Philip added his own statue to a procession of the Twelve Olympians, his assassination shortly thereafter suggested that the gods had been offended. If so, his son, Alexander III, was untroubled, initiating Hellenistic practice by assuming divine attributes -- something else to scandalize the Greeks, if by then anyone actually cared. The modern Macedonians are actually Slavs, but nearly everything about both the ancient and modern peoples is disputed by them and by Modern Greeks.

Macedonian Kings continued

Egypt, which was added to the Persian empire by Cyrus's son Cambyses, frequently revolted against the Persians. The Persian invasion of Greece in 490 was in part to be punishment of the Greeks for helping the Egyptians in these revolts. Since the invasion of 480 was then in revenge for the failure of the invasion of 490, we could say that the consequences of Greek interference in Egypt were persistent. But the Egyptians and the Greeks kept at it, and eventually...

KINGS OF EGYPT
XXVIII DYNASTY,
of Sais
Amyrteos404-399
XXIX DYNASTY,
of Mendes
Nepheritês I399-393
Psammûthis393
Achôris393-380
Nepheritês II380
XXX DYNASTY,
of Sebennytus
Nekhtnebef,
Nectanebês,
Nectanebos I
380-363
Takhôs362-361
Nekhth.areh.be,
Nectanebos II
360-343
Persian Reconquest, 343
A revolt succeeded, and Egypt was independent for sixty years late in the empire. This was the last time Egypt was actually ruled by Egyptians until King Farûk (who was descended from the Albanian Muhammad Ali) was overthrown in 1952.

Little is known about this entire period apart from the names given by Manethô and references by Greek historians. The name of the only ruler of the XXVIII Dynasty is not even known from any Egyptian inscriptions. Only the XXX Dynasty, with two substantial reigns, did any kind of building in the old royal manner. After the brief restoration of Persian rule, the next established dynastic government in Egypt was the Ptolemies.

The Kings of the XXX did a great deal of building. Nekhtnebef began the temple of Philae, at Aswan, that later was enlarged by Ptolemies and the Romans, and which many centuries later was the last place where hieroglyphics were still being inscribed. We see below how Nekhth.areh.be came to the Throne with the help of Agesilaus II of Sparta. Later he fled before the Persians into Kush. We do not know how long he then lived, but King Nastasen of Kush may have made an attempt to restore him. The Kushite must have had no hard feelings over the way that the XXVI Dynasty Kings (perhaps because of racism) had attempted to erase from Egypt the names of all the XXV Dynasty Kings.

Persian XXXI Dynasty

Ptolemies, "XXXII" Dynasty

Index of Egyptian History

Sparta, along with all the other strange and horrible characteristics of its constitution, had a peculiar dual monarchy. Key moments in Greek history are marked by the death of Spartan kings. Either King could wage war, but the most dramatic events seem to be associated with the dynasty of the Agiads. The fall of Leonidas to the Persians at Thermopylae (480), with 300 Spartans, is one of the classic moments of world history. The death of Cleombrotus at Leuctra (371), surprised by the tactics of the great Theban general Epaminondas, is nearly as significant, signaling both the end of Spartan hegemony over Greece and a military revolution. At Leuctra, Epaminondas used an oblique line, with a reinforced left, opposite the Spartans. There he placed his best Theban troups in a formation fifty men deep, against which the Spartans only had twelve. We could call this formation the phalanx. This was the word for any Greek line of battle, but it tends to be used more for the line of Philip of Macedon, sixteen men deep. Nevertheless, it was Epaminondas who is going to use this reinforced phalanx to win the battle. The Theban right and the Spartan left, with unenthuastic allies, hung back and never even engaged. Epaminondas drove directly at the Spartans and crushed them.

KINGS OF SPARTA
AgiadsEuryponids
Anaxandridasc.560-520Aristonc.550-515
Cleomenes Ic.520-490Demaratusc.515-491
Leonidas I490-480Leotychidas II491-469
killed at Thermopylae, 480
Pleistarchus480-459Archidamus II469-427
Pleistoanax459-409Agis II427-400
Pausanias409-395Agesilaus II399-360
Agesipolis I395-380
Cleombrotus I380-371
earthquake at Helike,
distrupts gasses at Delphi,
373; killed at Leuctra, 371
Agesipolis II371-370Archidamus III360-338
Cleomones II370-309Agis III338-331
killed at Megalopolis, 331
Eudamidas I331-c.305
Areus I309-265Archidamus IVc.305-275
silver coinage;
killed in Chremonidean
War, 265
Acrotatus265-262Eudamidas IIc.275-244
Areus II262-254
Leonidas II254-235Agis IVc.244-241
Eudamidas III241-c.228
Cleomenes III235-222Archidamus V228-227
tries reforms, defeated
by Arcadians, 222;
flees to Egypt
Eucleidas227-221
Agesipolis III219-215Lycurgus219-c.212
Pelops
c.212-c.200
Nabis
c.206-192
assassinated; Sparta annexed to Achaean League, 192
Epaminondas went on to liberate Messinia, which Sparta had long enslaved, and Sparta was reduced to Laconia, in the southeast corner of the Peloponnesus. The death of Agis at Megalopolis (331), in an attack on the allies of Macedonia, and an attempt to raise a rebellion against Macedonian hegemony, showed that the Greek states would henceforth be unable to resist the power of the Hellenistic monarchies. In this case, it was a move against Alexander the Great himself, put down by Antipater, the Regent of Macedon. Sparta had not acknowledged Macedonian supremacy previously, but as the result of the battle surrendered hostages to Alexander.

I have discussed elsewhere the favorable attitude towards Sparta of Athenian philosophers like Plato. We see a complacent regard for Sparta continuing in a contemporary treatment such as the 2007 movie 300. As in other fictionalized treatments of the battle at Thermopylae, this movie overlooks the fact the 300 Spartans did not go alone to the battle. Spartan citizens fought as heavily armed and armored -- not nearly naked, as in the movie -- hoplites, like Mediaeval knights; and as with such knights, they were accompanied by more lightly armed troops whose presence is often overlooked. These would have been from among the perioikoi ("dwellers around") and the serf-like Helots, i.e. the non-Spartan residents of Lacedaemonia. The presence of the terrorized and oppressed non-citizen subjects of Sparta might have made glowing statements about freedom and justice ring a little hollow. Also, when Leonidas sends most of his force away, the 300 Spartans were not without other company. The allied Thespian and Theban contingents remained with him -- the latter because he didn't trust them not to go over to the Persians, which is what they did once the Spartans and Thespians were evidently defeated. The Spartans were not, as it happens, killed with flights of arrows -- which is something that I believe comes from an earlier movie -- but simply fought to the death. The movie then leaves unmentioned the naval Battle of Salamis, where the Persian fleet was defeated and their army left in Greece less able to supply itself -- thereby overlooking the role of the Athenians in the defeat of the Persians. This postponed further action until the next year, when the Spartans with hosts of Greek allies defeated the Persians on land at the Battle of Plataea. Indeed, the Spartans never could have made a stand at Thermopylae in the first place without the Athenian fleet. The movie showed Persian ships sunk in a storm, but not all of them were; and the Persians could easily have sailed troops around Thermopylae if Themistocles had not kept their navy out of the Gulf of Euboea with attacks north of Euboea at Artemisium. The Athenians were fighting at sea even while the Spartans were fighting on land. This is a bit like what happened at Guadalcanal, where the fighting on land draws attention from popular books and movies, while the naval battles, upon which the fate of the campaign turned, are largely ignored.

Such distortions coninued in 2012 on cable television historical documentaries. One show curiously ignored Thermopylae and jumped directly to the Battle of Plataea, which nevertheless was never actually named. In this treatment, the Spartans were the ones all eager for battle, and it was the Athenians whose participation was uncertain, until a vote was taken. This was used to illustrated the existence of the democracy at Athens, but at the same time it served to gloss over and obscure the continuing difficulties of getting the Spartans to fight with their allies against the Persians. But then the documentary also ignored one of the supreme moments of Spartan piety and fortitude. As Persian arrows fell among them, the Spartans did not even raise their shields, because the auspicies were not favorable. The priests sacrificed one animal after another, to examine the entrails, until finally the signs were auspicious. This illustrates a number of things worth noting. If the priests had been cynical frauds, as we all know from Protestant and Enlightenment anti-clericalism, it is unlikely that they would have allowed their fellows to be killed and perhaps endangered the whole army and the contest of the day by continually judging the signs to be inauspicious. The slightest suspicion that the priests were insincere would have drawn considerable wrath. Instead, we also see how seriously the Greeks took their religion, that the Spartans were willing to endanger their fortunes and lives in the battle rather than fight, or even defend themselves, before the gods indicated the right time. Since the battle was then a great and decisive victory, no one was going to be disillusioned of their benighted pagan superstitions.

The fallen Spartans were buried at Thermopylae, and their epitaph, attributed (doubtfully) to Simonides of Ceos,
has remained famous but is now typically mistranslated:  "O Stranger, go tell the Lacedaemonians that here we lie, obedient to their words." Not only in the fictionalized movie, but with the academic talking heads in a documentary I saw on the
History Channel, the last word (second to the last in Greek) has been translated "laws" rather than "words." This is really a grotesquely false rendering.

The word in Greek, rhêmasi, is the dative plural of rhêma, which means, according to the authoritative Liddel and Scott Greek-English Lexicon [Oxford, 1889, 1964], "word" or "phrase." My Greek grammar book, A New Introduction to Greek by Chase and Phillips [Harvard, 1965], gives the meaning as "word" or "command"; but "command," like "laws," seems to be more an interpretation than a translation. Indeed, although the verb behind rhêma -- erô -- can mean "to order" as well as "to say" or "tell," a less ambiguous word for "command" would be more like kéleuma. But "laws" is really off the semantic map there. From the same root as rhêma we get rhêtor, "speaker," and the modern word "rhetoric." The associations of that even now are not good, as in "empty rhetoric."

The "laws" translation may be particularly inappropriate in that rhêmasi can have a bit of a bitter edge that is missed in the understanding of many scholars -- i.e. obedience to your words (i.e. empty rhetoric), when your actions have fallen short. The Spartans were always reluctant to campaign outside the Peloponnesus. They tended to fear revolts by the Helots as much as any external enemies. Thus, while Leonidas took some troops far from Sparta, excuses were made that kept most of the army closer to home. A year later, with the Persians pouring into Central Greece, it was nearly impossible to get the Spartans to send their army as far as Plataea in Boeotia. The Spartans were content to sit behind the wall they had built at the Isthmus of Corinth. It wasn't until the Athenians threatened to go over to the Persians and use their fleet to land the Persian army behind the wall that the Spartans decided to honor their obligations to the allies.

I now think I may have found the origin of this "laws" translation.
The Loeb Classical Library edition of The Greek Anthology looks like one of the original texts with the Simonides quote [Volume II, Books 7-8, Harvard University Press, 1917, pp.138-139] -- I doubt that most historians were reading the inscription off the stone at Thermopylae, if it is still even legible, or still there (I don't know). The 1917 translation by W.R. Paton runs, "Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws." I expect that some scholars may look at this and proceed without any doubts.

As it happens, the Loeb edition of Herodotus [The Persians Wars, Volume III, Books V-VII, Harvard, 1928, 2006, pp.544-545] translates the inscription as, "Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,/ That here obedient to their words we lie." Oh. The translator, A.D. Godley, has rendered rhêmasi as "words." Good work there.

There is a curious difference in the Greek text between the Greek Anthology quote and the text the way I originally saw it in Chase and Phillips. They quote the inscription from Herodotus (as shown above), which has , while the Anthology text is . Angéllein is the infinitive of the verb "to announce, proclaim, report" [Liddel and Scott, p.4], while ángeilon is a noun, "messenger, envoy," apparently in the accusative case. I don't quite understand the grammar of either of these constructions. The word should be a verb, but I would expect the imperative, or a more polite hortative, rather than the infinitive. If it is the noun, there is no verb in the main sentence, outside the dependent clause, and the case really should agree with "stranger," which is in the vocative. So I find both versions a little perplexing. Perhaps someone whose Greek is better can enlighten me.

Less epochal than Thermopylae but of particular interest is an event of 361. King Agesilaus II was given a banquet by the King of Egypt -- this was Takhôs of the XXX Dynasty. As customary at Egyptian celebrations, the Egyptians wore cones of fat and perfume on their heads. Agesilaus was so offended by the perfume -- prohibited at Sparta -- that he walked out. As it happens, Agesilaus was in Egypt with 1000 Spartans as mercenaries for Takhôs. Sparta needed the money, and so they did what Greeks had been doing for three hundred years, working for the King of Egypt. While Agesilaus and Takhôs were off fighting the Persians in Phoenicia, a cousin of Takhôs revolted back in Egypt. Since Agesilaus hadn't been getting along with Takhôs, he supported the cousin, who consequently became King Nectanebos II (360), the last Egyptian King of Egypt. Nectanebos showed his gratitude with a payment of 230 talents to Agesilaus. The aging Spartan King died before returning to Sparta, after a long reign that saw his city go from the hegemon of Greece, triumphant over Athens, to a second rate power that couldn't even stop Thebes from freeing Messinia.

Sparta maintained its independence into the Hellenistic Period, but it began to lose its distinctive cultural and political character. Areus I introduced silver coinage, and wealth eroded the old communal and military traditions of the city. Indeed, wealth and poverty grew together, and the number of Spartan citizens was gravely reduced as many fell below the property qualification. King Agis IV tried to reverse all this with a program to forgive debts, redistribute land, and recruit new citizens from the perioikoi, the non-citizens who had always lived around Sparta. Agis forced his royal colleague, Leonidas II, into exile; but then Leonidas returned and killed Agis. Nevertheless, the son of Leonidas, Cleomenes III, put all of Agis's reforms into effect. Cleomenes even allowed many Helots, the virtual slaves at the bottom of Spartan society, to buy their freedom. All this attracted the attention and support of the many of the poor elsewhere in Greece, and Spartan affairs took on larger overtones. Cleomenes himself was tempted to expand against the Achaean League, but he was defeated and driven into exile by the Achaeans and Macedonians (222). The last Spartan King, Nabis, tried his own version of Cleomenes' social revolution; but Sparta was annexed by Achaea when Nabis was assassinated.

This list is from E.J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World [Cornell Univesity Press, 1968-1982], p. 126. Bickerman mentions that "the earliest datable kings are Polydoris and Theopompus (first half of the seventh century). A reliable list of kings begins with" those shown.

Eponymous Archons of Athens

Dialects of Greek

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History Continued, Hellenistic Monarchs

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


Historical Background to Greek Philosophy, Note


The ahura in "Ahura Mazdâh" is cognate to asura in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit term was originally for a class of deities, such as Varuna, that were somewhat more remote and fearsome than the devas, who were the gods, like Indra, that were closer to human affairs. In time, the asuras came to be regarded as enemies of gods and men, i.e. demons, and a great deal of Hindu mythology comes to be concerned with devas or greater deities, such as the devotionalistic Gods, fighting demons.

In Zoroastrianism, the fate of the terms is very different. The ahuras, originally a class of deities also, shake down to just one:  Ahura Mazdâh. On the other hand, the Iranian equivalent of the devas, the daêvas, they are the ones that Zoroaster now regards as demonic. They are the ones that demand blood sacrifice and other practices that Zoroaster condemns as unclean and evil.

It is noteworthy that the word "demon" itself was similarly innocent in origin. The daimones in Greek were just "spirits." In the Apology, Socrates takes it as unproblematic that "spirits" are "gods or the children of gods." It was Christians who decided that the old pagan spirits were evil.

There is a curious sequel to the "demonization" of the asuras in India. The late, Tantric forms of Hinduism and Buddhism develop "Wrathful" forms of devotionalistic deities, such as the goddess Kâlî. These beings are terrifying and violent, bloody and dressed with skulls, but they represent positive divinities and are still fighting asuras. Also, sometimes kinds of demons play positive roles, as when the hero Bhîma of the Mahâbhârata fathers a son, Ghatotkacha, by a Râkshasî, a kind of female demon -- albeit after killing her brother, who wanted to eat Bhîma and his brothers.

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