‘Gun Control’ and the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Very interesting post at the New Yorker‘s Culture Desk by Melissa Lane … here’s a bit in medias res:

The pioneers of citizen armies were also pioneers of withdrawing weapons from the places of civilized life. The ancient Greek armies were manned exclusively by citizens who brought their own weapons into battle. Getting to serve in an élite combat unit required being wealthy enough to afford to buy one’s own armor. It was this vision of citizen militias, further developed by the Romans, that went on to inspire the English revolutionaries of the seventeenth century and the American revolutionaries of the eighteenth—so shaping the values expressed in the Second Amendment.

Nevertheless, when one early-nineteenth-century American reflected on what the new American Republic could learn from the ancient Greeks, he drew attention to another feature that was widespread in their politics: refraining from carrying weapons in public spaces. In some cities, this was a matter of custom, in others it was a matter of law. Citizens carried their weapons abroad when serving in the military for public defense. But, even in these cities, it was believed that carrying weapons at home would be tantamount to letting weapons, not laws, rule.

This point is emphasized in a study of ancient-Greek laws attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though apparently composed by the founding editor of the Western Minerva, who published it in 1820. The laws, the author insisted, “apply with peculiar energy and propriety to the circumstances of the United States.” Number fifteen in this collection of a hundred “principles of political wisdom,” drawn from the school of Pythagoras, legislators for Greek settlements on the Italian mainland, was this: “Let the laws rule alone. When weapons rule, they kill the law.”

This is the opposite of the view attributed to the Founding Fathers by the N.R.A.’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, in 2009, when he said that “our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.” On the contrary, letting the guys with weapons make the rules of ordinary life was the opposite of the classical practices that inspired the American founders. Writing of the evolution of Greek societies in the first book of his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” the Greek historian Thucydides reported that the Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons. Whereas men in all Greek societies used to carry arms at home, this had been a sign of an uncivilized era of piracy in which the most powerful men could dominate all the rest. Laying aside the everyday wearing of weapons was part of what Thucydides believed had allowed Athens to become fully civilized, developing the commerce and culture that made her the envy of the Greek world. The Romans, too, banned the carrying of weapons within the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city.

The banning of carrying weapons in public was based on the idea that civilized coexistence could not tolerate public spaces that were dominated by those wearing weapons, on pain of intimidating those around them. Apart from the physical risks posed, such intimidation would inherently undermine civic equality. It is hard for the unarmed to argue with the armed. Key to civil society was that citizen-warriors put their weapons in storage when they returned to everyday social and political life.

… definitely worth reading the whole thing. I suspect this question comes up frequently in Classical Civ type classes …

On the ‘Non-Purity’ of Ancient Athletics

From a Stanford press release:

The Lance Armstrong doping story is just the latest athletic scandal to highlight the tension between ethical standards in athletic competitions and the drive to win. Although this tension may seem like a contemporary issue, it’s actually been around since ancient times.

One of the biggest myths around ancient athletics, says Stanford classics Professor Susan Stephens, is that profiting from sports is a product of modern times.

“The notion that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose but ‘how you play the game’ didn’t apply to ancient athletes – they wanted to win, and at all costs,” Stephens said. “In reviving the Olympic Games these ancient athletes were imagined as competing solely for glory, but in the ancient games, men with rods stood around the contestants and beat them publicly if they cheated.”

According to Stephens, we miss the point when we try to idealize or demonize athletes. Rather, she believes, our goal should be to try to understand the complex ways in which athletics reflects and enhances our lives and values.

Debates over amateurism vs. professionalism, the limits of proper training and the influence of social class are as old as Greece and Rome themselves. Because Greek and Roman athletics coexisted for hundreds of years, each with its own forms, contexts, ethics and adherents, Stephens says the classics are a good place to start when we want to examine our own culture’s debates over sports.

“If you study anything to do with these ancient cultures, athletics was part of the social fabric,” said Stephens, whose research interests include Hellenistic and Late Greek athletics. “Not only because sport was so important in Greek and Roman life, but also because so many later cultures derived their attitudes toward sports by turning to supposed Greek or Roman models.”
A fantasy of ‘pure’ Olympics

“We have a fantasy of ‘pure’ Olympics” derived from the games as they were supposedly conducted relatively early, in the sixth century BCE,” Stephens said. But, she added, Greek games went on for more than 1,000 years, and during that time athletics was often a path to wealth and glory. There were lots of games besides the Olympics in which athletes competed for money or other valuable prizes. It added up: On the base of a commemorative statue of a Greek athlete from the second century was noted that he had won 1,400 contests.

And although people today have a romantic view of noble Greek competitors, Stephens says that “sport was just one example of an agon, a contest. The idea was to defeat people.” Competition was part of the fabric of Greek life. Musicians and singers also competed in games. The first prize for a musician at Athens’ Panathenaian Games was a cash prize worth roughly the amount a skilled craftsman would earn in three-and-a-half years.

Even Greek physicians would vie against each other in public diagnoses, and Greek-speaking doctors in the Roman Empire could compete in public contests – in surgery or the use of instruments. The Greek physician Galen got his start as a doctor for a gladiator school.

“Galen was very anti-athletics,” Stephens said. “In his writing, he criticizes the overtraining, the fad diets, the muscle-bound look, the immoderation that gladiators pursued in search of victory.” Blood doping, we can assume, would not have been in Galen’s armament of therapies. Galen evaluated his gladiatorial patients in light of a Greek ideal.

“The idea was to project a balanced, golden-mean of manliness – and still win,” Stephens said. Galen’s attitudes toward athletes have had a strong impact on modern ideals of amateurism.

Competitors in Greek games had to be Greek citizens, and many were of high status. It is the opposite of the Roman gladiators who competed in a huge coliseum with paying audiences imbibing a brutal and bloody spectacle. The gladiators on display, unlike the Greek athletes, were low-status, though they could become rich – if they lived.

“Why are Roman gladiators so much more interesting than Greek Olympic athletes? The answer to that question might tell us more about ourselves than we want to know,” Stephens said.
Finding a body of evidence beneath the ground

“There is an immense amount of evidence for ancient sport and it is not at all obscure, though not all of it has been translated into English,” Stephens said. “From Cicero and Tertullian we know the sound of the crowds, what people in the audience were saying. We have Philostratus’ treatise on gymnastic training. We have the work of Pindar, whose job it was to write poems about the victors.”

Hundreds of depictions of actual events like running, boxing or wrestling are found on vases or in mosaics. Archaeology from the sites of ancient games like Olympia or Nemea in Greece yields athletic facilities, starting gates and weight-training equipment. Gladiator cemeteries in York, England, and Turkey reveal the brevity and brutality of gladiator lives through gnarled bones and evidence of blunt-force wounds.

Unmarried women ran and perhaps wrestled in games held under the auspices of goddesses such as Hera in the Greek city of Argos. It’s unlikely that men, who produced most of the age’s writing, were allowed to watch them, and so the women’s games are not very well attested.

As Christianity gained traction in the Mediterranean, Stephens said, its reaction was to condemn athletics but to appropriate the language. Some early Christians despised sports but adored sports metaphors. Paul, for instance, likens himself to a boxer (1 Corinthians 9:24-7).
Examining the role of sport in life

Stephens’ winter quarter course Ancient Athletics delves into the ethical issues raised by Greek and Roman sports and how their influence plays out in Western life.

Stephens is a football fan who seriously follows the Ravens-Steelers rivalry. She enjoys having Stanford student-athletes in her classes and hopes they will come away with a greater understanding of the history of athletics and of their own roles in society. Stephens finds in the student-athlete’s line of inquiry a very good way to approach ancient sport.

“If you do a sport, you have an inherent understanding of the dynamics and high stakes of winning and losing,” Stephens said, “and the choices that have to be made to compete.”

CJ Online Review: Holleran and Pudsey, Demography in the Graeco-Roman World

posted with permission:

Demography and the Graeco-Roman World: New Insights and Approaches. Edited by Claire Holleran and April Pudsey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. ix + 215. Hardcover, £58.00/$99.00. ISBN 978-1-107-01082-6.

Reviewed by Marco Maiuro, Columbia University

The eight essays contained in this volume are explicitly intended to explore the frontier of current historical research on matters of demography such as fertility, nuptiality, migration, and the use of model life tables in classical antiquity. With the exception of the opening and closing chapters, by Neville Morley and Tim Parkin respectively, the remaining six essays are the products of young scholars, in some cases in anticipation of or as a side product from their dissertations or post-doctoral research. Despite the fact that the volume originates from a conference held in Manchester in 2005, its scope goes far beyond what one would expect from the publication of conference proceedings. In fact, the architecture of the volume is well balanced: it is centered on key concepts, which serve as heuristic foci (mortality, nuptiality, fertility and mobility), and which are illustrated by case studies evenly distributed across Greek and Roman antiquity, in both the east and west of the Mediterranean.

No succinct summary can be offered here: the value of the volume rests on the many interesting points of detail made by the authors. I should emphasize that every chapter contributes to current debates with interesting insights and each one ought to be read separately with its unique salient attributes taken into consideration. If we are to evaluate the volume as such, we cannot but agree with Parkin’s remark that this collection of essays shows the extent to which the field is open to new research, rather than simply to providing varied responses to old questions. The reader is left with the impression that the real challenge in the study of ancient demography is to ask questions that can be framed within the limits of what the ancient evidence allows, rather than to give answers to traditional questions. As a consequence, a warning is repeated throughout the volume against easy solutions, broad generalizations, and the mechanical applicability of models (this is especially evident in the work of Akrigg on the demography of Athens, in the work of Pudsey on the demographic life cycle in Roman Egypt, and in that of Hin on fertility). The chapters devoted to mobility—an area of research that is understudied but is crucially important and one which this book addresses especially in the chapters of Taylor on Attica and Holleran on Rome—seek to problematize the concept of migration and elegantly refuse to play the numbers game. Temporary or permanent migration, social expectations and pull factors are, to my knowledge, for the first time clearly evinced as the crucial terms of any discussion about migration in antiquity. Fischer-Bovet’s chapter on the migration rate of Greeks and Macedonians in Ptolemaic Egypt stands out from the rest of the volume, inasmuch as she presents an ingenious new method to quantify the number of Greeks living in Hellenistic Egypt. This innovative study, beyond the reliability of its findings, will certainly make its way into the broader field of the general history of Ptolemaic Egypt. However, it is worth stressing that the methodological premises of this study are somewhat at odds with the extreme prudence and caution of the other chapters. In this respect, it is useful for the reader to note the wide spectrum of possible approaches that ancient demography may foster.

The tension between theory and evidence is nevertheless apparent in all of the chapters. The gap between what we wish to know and what is knowable to us is elegantly and effectively filled in by Pudsey’s chapter, which clearly makes extensive use of ancient evidence, in this case the census returns of Roman Egypt. It is, however, the exceptional nature of the evidence at hand that makes it possible to firmly embed the argument into that evidence. More often, the divide between models and historical reality is filled with imaginative—or rhetorical—recourse to “comparative evidence.” Here is a major methodological point that this book only partially addresses: to what extent is it legitimate and appropriate for a scholar to draw demographic scenarios and infer conclusions from more familiar societies and epochs? Or, to ask the same question from another point of view, what is peculiarly ancient about ancient demography? Akrigg and Parkin rekindle the dispute about the legitimacy of using the model life tables: Parkin concludes with a good dose of wisdom that they may serve our purposes if we look for orders of magnitude, not statistical precision. The resort to “comparative evidence” is, however, more systematic and not only confined to the biological aspects of the life-cycle in pre-modern societies. There is obviously nothing inherently wrong in invoking comparative scenarios in order to elucidate obscure points of ancient history; only this should be made with the awareness that it blurs our vision of culturally determined and specific phenomena, the same phenomena invoked to explain unexpected or anomalous patterns of migration and nuptiality, for example. Biology and culture, the socially and temporally determined interplay between nature and nurture, are the constituent factors of any analysis of demographic history.

In sum, the book here under review introduces the reader to the more systematic research that the contributors have under way in publication. The outcome is a complex web of possible paths of research. It is clear that a similar book could simply not have been written fifteen or twenty years ago and this testifies to the centrality that problems of ancient demography have acquired since.

Classical Words of the Day