Category Archives: Good and bad polytheists

Good and bad polytheists (part 8): Vercingetorix and Brennos

VERCINGETORIX

Coin_VercingetorixThe Celts were a large ethnic group of peoples that inhabited what is today France, Britain, Western Spain, Austria, Bohemia, South Germany, North Italy, Belgium, Slovenia and parts of Croatia and Serbia. They were a warlike and fertile people who increased their numbers, expanded and migrated from time to time in search of land to accommodate them. Their culture, already beautiful, also benefited from trade and exchange with the south, and therefore by the 1st century BCE, we hear of large and prosperous cities in Gaul (the ancient word for France). By that time, they had already clashed several times with Rome in the north of Italy, because of pressure from expanding Germanic tribes to the north, and the Germans were also interested in expanding beyond the Rhine river. Unfortunately for them, not only the Germans were interested in expansion, but also the Romans, who had defeated the Carthaginian empire 100 years before and taken all their lands. The Celts thus fell between two powers and pressures. To make matters even worse, Rome in 59 BCE was under the power of two ambitious men of different parties: Pompey, who had lately returned from conquests in the east, stood with the senatorial faction, and Caesar, jealous of his victories, opposed him on the plebian side. Pompey was rich from conquests and new provinces, but Caesar was in debt from his consulship, because (among other reasons) he spent vast sums of money to feed the poor to increase his popularity. At first, Caesar, who was governor in North Italy, considered conquering Dacia (today Romania) in order to get out of debt and get into fame, but he found a better opportunity with the Celts to the North. In 58 BCE, the Helvetii, a confederation of five Celtic tribes inhabiting modern Switzerland, prepared for a migration to the west in order to avoid pressure from the Germans. There was news that their leader Orgetorix intended to rule all Gaul, but this may have been a rumor from Caesar to justify war. When the Helvetii requested peaceful passage through Roman territory in south Gaul, Caesar (the governor of the province) deliberately refused, knowing this would provoke war.

 The politics of Gaul by this time had become very complicated, and Caesar thrusted himself to intervene on behalf of some of Rome’s Gallic allies, but this was done dishonestly for ambitious purposes. After defeating the Helvetii who had attacked some Gallic allies of Rome, he turned to punish the Suebi, the  Germanic tribe that had crossed the Rhine into Gaul and caused disorder in the land. Pompey and the Senate tried to stop the war (knowing Caesar’s ambition) by declaring the Sequani friends of Rome, but Caesar engaged with them and defeated them in defiance of the senate. After this the German tribes left Gaul. Caesar should have returned to Italy by this time, but chose to remain and act as the leader of Gaul, by attacking the Belgae, a Celtic tribe that gave its name to Belgium, which had attacked Roman allies earlier. After this was over, in 56 BCE (after two years in Gaul) he marched to the west of Gaul to attack a confederacy of Celtic tribes that had formed against Rome. Being victorious again and hearing of his popularity in Italy, he crossed into Britain and fought there too. By 54 BCE, the Celts throughout Gaul were extremely resentful at his imperialism. Later in that year, a huge uprising in north eastern Gaul broke out under Ambiorix, which destroyed the Roman garrison. This was part of a larger uprising designed by Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe in central Gaul, to drive out the Romans. At first Vercingetorix was opposed by his uncle and other nobles who feared Rome, and they drove him out of the city. However, in 52 BCE he gathered an army of the poor and returned to his tribe by force as king. Although his father was executed for ambitions to rule over Gaul, Vercingetorix had enough reason to unite the Gallic tribes against Rome, and most began to side with him. He tried to starve the Romans by scorching the earth around his territory, an unfortunate but necessary policy of war. In that year, he scored a great victory in his native town against the Romans, and then he withdrew to Alesia with 100,000 people and built a large fortified settlement. The Romans later in the year besieged the settlement; after many thousands of starvations, but stout resistance, the Gauls surrendered. Vercingetorix at this time behaved in the noblest manner possible, as a king of his people. He rode to Caesar’s camp, threw down his sword, dismounted and lay down humbly at Caesar’s side, requesting that his people be spared in exchange for his life. This was granted, but Gaul now became a conquered province of Rome, and Caesar was soon to march against Rome itself. Vercingetorix was imprisoned and died five years later, strangled after a triumphal march, according to Roman custom. His name should be remembered among all Celtic peoples, as a brave king who resisted Rome in order to preserve the honor and customs of his people.

 

BRENNOS

Dying GaulAs mentioned in part 6, the 4th century BCE was a time of war in south east Europe. Phillip II of Macedon was at war from time to time with the Illyrians and Thracians to the north, as well as with the Greeks to the south. Just to the north of the Illyrians, the very warlike Celtic confederations of the Boii and Volcae were spreading, and interested in more land. It is said they sent a delegation in 335 BCE to Alexander (soon before he left for Persia), seemingly to pay respects, but actually to survey his forces. After the death of Alexander, the region continued to suffer from wars, as Illyrians fought with Macedonians for revenge and domination; the fever of conquest that Alexander had raised now infected the world, and certainly the Celts. In 310 BCE, a Celtic warlord attacked the Illyrians so fiercely that Macedonia became concerned enough to join with the Illyrians against them. After about 20 years, these Celtic conquerors (seemingly ambitious to control all south east Europe) attacked more deeply and reached the Macedonian borders, but were defeated by King Cassander of Macedon. After another 20 years, a new Celtic expedition was attempted, bolder than ever. It may have resulted from necessity, since two historians record that it was a migration forced by overpopulation or famine, whereas another disagrees by saying it was for plunder. But regardless of these details, it is well known that 85,000 Celtic warriors, divided into three divisions, marched south to Macedonia and Greece. One of the divisions was led by a warlord named Brennos.

The three divisions succeeded, in cooperation with one another, to attack Macedonian settlements and towns for plunder. Although they returned after the expedition, it was Brennos who persuaded them to gather more men and set out again to plunder the riches of Greece. It is recorded that as many as 175,000 Celts took part, although this may be larger than the true number. Nevertheless, Brennos did march with a force huge enough to make the Greeks (now united by a confederation of defense) resort to the strait of Thermopylae as the 300 Spartans had done during the Persian invasion 200 years before. Brennos’ army suffered great losses, especially because the Greeks used skirmishers instead of close combat with the fearsome Celts. But like the Persians, in time Brennos found another way through the mountains, but the Greeks escaped by sea before they met with them. At this moment, Brennos designed a heinous and greedy expedition on Delphi, the most sacred land of the Greeks, to rob it of its reputed riches. However, historians relate that the attempt was thwarted by the Greeks and their Gods. Thunderstorms raged when the Celts encamped, disabling them from preparations, the night was frosty and uncomfortable, and then the Greeks attacked them on two sides in the morning. At nightfall, the Celts suffered so miserably that they killed their wounded men in order to retreat faster, and they began to quarrel and break into factions. Those who remained retreated and were later taken off by Greek forces who waited for them, and in the meantime the wounded Brennos, who had offended his Gods as well as those of the Greeks by his criminal ambition, took his own life.   

Good and bad polytheists (part 7): Chanakya and Ashoka

CHANAKYA

arthshastra-350-x-225_041515115802[1]This Indian sage was a Brahmin (priestly teacher) who flourished in the latter part of the 4th century BCE. Several traditions attribute different events to his life, but it is universally agreed that he was, first, the counsellor of Chandragupta Maurya, the man who became the first emperor of India, and secondly, the author of the Arthashastra, a book on government, law, and kingship that the emperor followed. It is said that Chandragupta was born only a peasant, or according to another source, in the middle class of warriors, but Chanakya inspired him to raise an army and conquer his neighbors. Considering the bad effects of imperialism, condemned here in previous writings, this action might seem unjust and impious, hardly qualifying Chanakya as an example of a good polytheist. In reality, however, imperialism was (unfortunately, we must say) the best direction to take during that time, and Chanakya, as a priest, would have understood the case. Alexander III (commonly called Alexander the Great) had died a few years before in 323 BCE, and his failed attempt to conquer India was now repeated by his generals and governors. Seleucus Nicator was already emperor over a vast territory in the west by 312 BCE, and was threatening to add India, already partly controlled by governors left by Alexander, to his dominions. There is no positive evidence that Chanakya hated the invading Macedonians, but he must have been concerned about the fate of the Indian peoples if they were to become subjects to foreign powers and cultures, and therefore advocated an Indian empire as a response. And indeed, it was not too long before Chandragupta, after he had conquered some eastern territories and assassinated two governors of Alexander in India, clashed with Seleucus in 305 BCE. The subsequent war lasted for a short time, and because Chandragupta had a powerful and well-trained army, it ended on good terms, where Seleucus agreed to marry his daughter to him, in return for several hundred elephants, useful for Seleucus’ ambitions in the west.

Chanakya’s piety and wisdom can be observed further in his book Arthashastra. It is interesting here to note how Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander, compares with Chanakya, the tutor of Chandragupta. Aristotle, much like Chanakya, was a man of great learning who wrote excellently on many subjects. However, Aristotle was (like all Greek philosophers) not concerned with traditional religion and customs; he even describes, like Plato, a higher intellectual God above the usual Pantheon, a position akin to monotheism. Chanakya on the other hand, acknowledges the Vedas (holy texts) as one of the four branches of knowledge, and that it is the Vedas that establish the Dharma and Adharma (ethics and laws). Futhermore, the Arthashastra states that one of the four ways that a just and powerful king ought to rule is by Sanstha, or customary law, which accompanies the Dharma, or established law. A third proof of the regard shown to religion is that a king, besides a council, ought to have a spiritual guide well versed in the Vedas. There are many other points and references in the Arthashastra that show the author to have been well-meaning and wise, i.e. the importance of protecting natural resources, the necessity of justice and integrity in government, the education of a king, the concern for the welfare of the common people, the conduct that ought to be pursued in war, etc. Being guided by a wholesome respect for religion, the Arthashastra promotes what is reasonable and good at a difficult and troublesome period in India.

 

ASHOKA   

800px-Ashoka's_visit_to_the_Ramagrama_stupa_Sanchi_Stupa_1_Southern_gateway[1]This is the third emperor of Mauryan India, the grandson of Chandragupta. His father Bindusara reigned in a time of peace with the Seleucid empire to the west, and he sought to maintain his empire, rather than expand it. He seems to have had disagreement with some of his ministers, which is why, when he was on his deathbed, they did not support his choice for succession, i.e. his eldest son Suisma. Suisma’s mother was noble, unlike Ashoka’s, even though both sons were appointed governors of provinces by their father. Upon his death in 273 BCE, the ministers of the realm sided with Ashoka, and a civil war broke out. Ashoka won the war; Suisma was murdered by being tricked into entering a pit full of hot coals, and all his brothers (sources say 99 of them) were killed except one, his uterine brother (from the same mother). Thus, envy, ambition, and cruelty combined to crown the new emperor. As Ashoka followed a new corrupt minister by the name of Rudhagupta, the old text of the Arthashastra, with all its good and wise principles, was forgotten. Buddhists state in ancient texts that he was so wicked he constructed a chamber for torture called Ashoka’s Hell; although this may be an exaggeration to praise his later change after converting to Buddhism, the truth remains that he was commonly known as Ashoka the fierce or cruel. In 262 BCE, about ten years into his reign, he waged a bloody war against Kalinga, an independent kingdom on the east coast of India. The Kalingans unexpectedly resisted fiercely, and Ashoka, as could be imagined, was merciless in response: It is reported that more than 100,000 people died and 150,000 were deported.

A story follows that Ashoka, while celebrating his victory by inspecting the conquered territory, was so overwhelmed by grief at the sight of so many corpses and destruction that he converted to Buddhism. It is debated whether he was already a Buddhist by that time, but this is a secondary detail if we compare it with his policies after the war as a Buddhist; although commonly represented as an emperor transformed from evil to good, his selfish ambition only shifted its colors. In the first place, there is a kind of contradiction in his conversion to Buddhism: His edicts call him a “servant of the Gods”, but as a Buddhist, he was properly a follower of Buddha, a man who had left the Hindu religion and established his own practices that did not give any due regard to the Gods. The title “servant of the Gods” is therefore merely for a political purpose at best and is hypocritical at worst. Secondly, even though Ashoka advocated toleration of all religions, he commanded missionaries to preach his own religion, Buddhism, throughout India and even beyond (as far as Greece). A third point that could be questioned is, why did Ashoka prefer the teachings of Buddha to those of Chanakya, a Brahmin who had aided his grandfather and had written a book that strengthened India? He had an opportunity to honor his grandfather’s memory, and still practice Ahimsa (non-violence, preached by Buddhists) since it was advocated by Chanakya too, but his ambition to establish his own accomplishments rather than attach himself to his father or grandfather; it is also clear that the Buddhists did not like Chandragupta, as appears from their negative account of his life. Furthermore, as proof of Ashoka’s arrogance and cruelty, even after conversion, an ancient historical text records that Ashoka arrested a man from the sect of Ajivikas who drew a picture of Buddha bowing down to a Jain saint, Nirgrantha. All the 18,000 Ajivikas in the province were subsequently executed, and after another drawing was found, Ashoka placed a bounty on the head of every follower of Nirgrantha. Even if these stories are exaggerated, there must be some truth to them. Every Mauryan emperor after Ashoka followed and favored Buddhism above traditional polytheism, and so when Pushyamitra Shunga seized power in 185 BCE, fifty years after Ashoka’s death, establishing the Shunga empire, he rose to persecute the Buddhists, seemingly in return for their former insolence and undeserved supremacy.

Good and bad polytheists (part 6): Phillip II and Alexander III

PHILLIP II

Philip1[1]The 4th century BCE was an age of such decline and decay for the Greeks, that it became difficult for any notable person, whose name is recorded in history, to be considered truly as a good polytheist, except in comparison with bad ones. The huge Peloponnesian War of the preceding century, which had raged for 20 years between Athens and Sparta, resulted from ambitious greed and moral corruption, causing great destruction throughout Greece. This horrible war and dangerous decay was anticipated by the Second Sacred War, a conflict that broke out between Athens and Sparta in 449 BCE, each striving to control the pre-eminent religious sanctuary in Delphi for its own interests. During the middle of the 5th century also, we also see the rise of philosophy in Greece and its defiance to traditional polytheism, most especially in Athens with such characters as Protogoras, Antiphon the Sophist, Hippias, Diagoras of Melos, and to some degree, Socrates and Euripides, among others. The old conflict between the Greeks and the Persians was now forgotten as the Greek city-states fought amongst one another for domination, especially Athens and Sparta. In 371 BCE, the situation grew more complicated when Thebes entered as a third great player in the game for the domination of Greece, after defeating their Spartan rival in battle and capturing large territories. About this time, when Thebes invaded the northern region of Thessaly, bordering on Macedonia, a young Phillip II of Macedon, the future father of the famous Alexander, was taken as a hostage to be raised up in Thebes, where he received a fine military education.

Phillip returned to Macedonia in 364 BCE, and succeeded his brothers on the throne five years later. He soon refined his skills at war while fighting with the Thracians and then with the Athenians, who were attempting to restore their old domination over Greece. In 356 BCE, however, the decay of Greece grew deeper than ever when the Third Sacred War broke out for political reasons, i.e. the hatred of Thebes (a leader of the religious council of Delphi, called the Amphictyonic League) towards Phocia. The Phocians were punished with a huge fine after they began to plant sacred land, but instead of protesting this decision reasonably, they most shamefully captured the Temple of Delphi and used its riches to fund an army for their protection. Athens and Sparta, jealous of Thebes’ growing power, rather than disappointed with the Phocian sacrilege, joined themselves with the Phocians. Phillip, who came from a more conservative region of Greece (even accused of being barbarous by the Athenians), saw the greed for domination and disregard for religion, but because he was a King rather than a philosopher, he was forced to join in actively and prevent a total destruction to Greece that would allow the Persians (who had taken the side of Sparta before) to conquer them all, Macedonia geographically being the first in danger. Phillip took the side of Thebes in 353 BCE, after hostilities with Athens, and the war lasted until 346 BCE, ending with the victories of Phillip against Athens. However, the Athenians, jealous of his power and growing territory, called for continued resistance. The hostility lasted, with a peace of six years, until the armies of Athens (as well as other city-states, including Thebes, which now hated Phillip too) were utterly defeated at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Phillip now established domination over all Greece, an unfortunate but necessary situation. Only a year after his victory, however, he did appear wise and pious in establishing the League of Corinth, a confederation of all Greek cities, which took sacred oaths of peace, and his motive in doing so was to direct his attention to the Persian threat. His assassination soon after prevented him from going forward in the project, but his intention and accomplishments prepared everything for his son Alexander.

 

ALEXANDER III

alexanderthegreat-bustThis king of Macedonia, successor to Phillip II, is commonly given the epithet of “the Great”, but I will refrain from using it and justify doing so. As was said, when Alexander became king in 336 BCE, his father had prepared the foundation for everything towards an invasion of Persia. The young king also, thanks to his father’s efforts, had received an excellent education in the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza at the hand of Aristotle, the most learned of the Greek philosophers (though a monotheist). Alexander’s favorite books were Homer’s Illiads and Odysseys, and he admired Achilles above all heroes. This was indeed a noble beginning for a young king, but the conquests of his father had made him vain and pampered. The Roman historian Justin even speculates that his mother Olympias had a hand in the murder of his father, perhaps to raise her son to power. Although this is not certain, some ancient historians hold that she filled the ears of Alexander with vanity, telling him he was the son of Zeus, rather than Phillip. But if all this is to be doubted, Plutarch (who actually admired Alexander) records that the young King, in the same year his father died, went to the Delphi and requested a prophesy that he would conquer the world. When the oracle declined to comment and directed him to return later, Alexander, known for his moments of fury, dragged her out by her hair until she screamed with fear “You are invincible, my son!”. This disregard for the sanctity of Delphi and the prophecy of Apollo, as great a crime as it was, did not stop Alexander from offending the Gods.

Alexander was certainly a fine general who distinguished himself at battle against the Persians, but he inherited this skill as well as his skilled army from the work of his father. Flattered by his victory at Granicus against the Persians in 334 BCE, even though his army was larger than theirs,  Alexander proceeded to travel to Egypt, after destroying the Phoenician city of Tyre. In Egypt, Alexander was proclaimed a liberator and savior by the Egyptians who resented Persian power, and even though he had already gotten a forced prophesy from Delphi, he travelled to eastern Libya to the oracle of Zeus-Ammon. There, a strange mistake happened: As Plutarch records, the oracle of the temple greeted Alexander in bad Greek, saying Ο παι διος! (Oh, son of God!) instead of Ο παιδιον! (Οh, my son!). Alexander was utterly amazed and when one of Alexander’s sycophants asked the Oracle whether the King should be given divine honors, he was answered “This would please Ammon”. Ever after, Alexander called himself the son of Zeus-Ammon and demanded to be addressed and respected accordingly, which displeased his men. Although Alexander utterly defeated the Persians in 331 BCE, and then subsequently conquered their empire, his arrogance and vanity kept him from returning home, and in order to keep his men, he married them to Persian wives as he did for himself. However, when the men complained that they needed to see their families and that they did not like how he thought himself a half-God nor how he imitated the Persian kings, he began to grow very suspicious of them, especially after two plots against his life were discovered, perhaps false ones invented by himself. He had his father’s most trusted general, Parmenion, executed on charges of treason, because he feared he would plot to assasinate him as his son did. Also, in a fit of drunken rage, he murdered Kleitos, a loyal officer who had saved his life at Granicus. Alexander’s madness drove his campaigns to continue; for his personal ambition alone, he carried his men as far as India, but he was forced to return, since he concluded, after a costly victory, that he could not be “invincible” against elephants. He died after drinking wine in Babylon, either from a fever contracted from intoxication, or from poison, the latter being more likely. Alexander’s evils did not end with his death; he refused to name a successor on his deathbed, which afterwards caused a civil war among his generals. Furthermore, he had already established a new empire with new principles that had not been practised by the Persians; he encouraged his men and indeed all Greeks to intermarry with native populations and mix their cultures and Gods together. This led to the great corruptions in religion and culture prevalent during the Hellenistic age that would later pave the way for Christianity.

 

Good and bad polytheists (part 5): Potitus & Barbatus, and Appius Claudius Crassus

POTITUS & BARBATUS

roman_eagle_design_by_erebus74-d4t2bly[1]Lucius Valerius Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus were two senators who distinguished themselves during the troublesome time of the Decemviri as well as the secession of the Plebeians in 449 BCE. Conflicts between the aristocratic senate and the common citizens of Rome had increased since the overthrow of the monarchy in 509 BCE, and in time the bad blood in the state made the Plebeians (or common citizens) secede, or break away, in 494 BCE. Although the troubles ended when the senate conceded some power by the formation of the office of Tribune of the Plebeians, with inviolable privileges, new disturbances began to brew about forty years later. Because Rome was not in a condition for civil broils during a time of war with its neighbors, it was determined by the senate to appoint a special committee of 10 men to establish a code of laws that would prevent future disagreement at home. These men, who were all senators, were called the decemviri, and were given extraordinary powers for each term in office, which lasted one year. However, upon the end of their second term in 450 BCE, they remained in office by force and suspended indefinitely the office of Plebian Tribune as well as the Plebian right to appeal.

When petitions failed, the Plebeians repeated their action 50 years before by withdrawing to the sacred mountain of Rome and declaring secession. The senate sided with the people and accused the decemviri of restoring the tyranny of the old kingdom. It is here that Potitus and Barbatus first served their homeland by negotiating with the people on the sacred mountain, having been entrusted by the senate with that task. They had also stood up to protect an innocent man from unjust persecution by the decemviri earlier, one of the causes of the revolt (see below). By this means, with an alliance of the senate and the people, the decemviri was abolished and persecuted. For their honest service on the side of justice, Potitus and Barbatus, whose namesakes had also participated in the overthrow of the monarchy, were elected consuls. During their year in office, they further contributed to the cause of good order and justice by passing a series of laws that solemnly secured the old rights and magistracy of the Plebeians. To punish dissent, they enacted that the heads of those who violated these laws would be sacrificed to Jupiter, and their property sold for the benefit of the temple of the Gods Ceres, Liber and Libera. Furthermore, those who deliberately prevented the people from electing tribunes and magistrates were to be scourged and beheaded. These accomplishments of Potitus and Barbatus not only led to justice and harmony in the state for many generations, but also to a greater respect and reverence for the laws, which were indeed an essential component of religion.

 

APPIUS CLAUDIUS CRASSUS

95620-004-4AE21086[1]This is the senator who was the most notorious member of the decemviri, and afterwards their ringleader. During his term as consul in 451 BCE, it was determined by the senate to establish a committee of ten men to examine how Roman laws could be modelled to the laws of Greece, which had been brought back from a legal inquiry three years before. During their first year and term, the decemviri gained the approval of the senate and people by their establishment of the Twelve Tables, the code of Rome. However, it was expected of these men to resign at the end of their terms and give way to others in the next election. Because there were fears of his already apparent ambition, Crassus was given the friendly privilege, by his colleagues, of choosing the members of the next committee. But instead of resigning, he elected himself and nine others whose views matched with his own, and proceeded to make the lictors, originally guards of the state and laws, tools to maintain his power. His lictors entered the city of Rome with axes attached to their fasces, a privilege only given to dictators; by this means, he suppressed anyone who dared offend the dignity of his committee with persecution or execution. Furthermore, upon the end of their second term, the decemviri, by Crassus’ direction, remained in office by force. The senate, which had hoped that its reputation in the eyes of the common people would improve by the decemviri, now became ashamed and indignant, and even more so when they saw signs of the old tyranny returning upon their own heads too.

As if these violations were not enough, Crassus aggravated his injustice with two despicable crimes. First, a soldier by the name of Lucius Siccius was secretly murdered on his orders, after the man had called for all soldiers to avoid military service until the decemviri were replaced. His death was blamed on an ambush by an enemy, but this was soon exposed as a lie. Secondly, after Crassus took a fancy to Verginia, the beautiful young daughter of an accomplished centurion (Lucius Verginius) who had left on a campaign with the army, he ordered one of his assistants, Marcus Claudius, to declare her a slave of his. Although Verginia was already betrothed to Lucius Icilius, a former Tribune of Plebeians, Marcus Claudius boldly abducted her while she was going to school. A crowd gathered in the forum, or marketplace of the city, declaring that Verginia was not a slave, and then they pleaded the decemviri for justice, not knowing the outrage had originally come from that same committee. It was agreed that Verginius would be recalled from his campaign, but Crassus tried to delay it by intercepting the messengers. When this trick did not succeed, and when Icilius threatened the decemviri with sedition, Verginia was allowed to return to her house, but here the pride of the decemviri was too wounded to give way to justice. Thus, when a crowd had gathered in the forum around Lucius Verginius to support him against Marcus Claudius, Crassus sent lictors who accused the crowd of sedition. The crowd dispersed and declared secession on the sacred mountain, and Verginius, fearing for his daughter to be violated, begged of Crassus to question her himself. As soon as he met with her, near the shrine of Venus Cloacina, knowing that he would have no power to save her from dishonor, he stabbed her. Crassus had anticipated this action, and he quickly sent lictors to arrest Verginius and Icilius, but they were prevented by the senators Potitus and Barbatus, and later joined with a crowd that returned to attack the lictors. After some time, following the war with the Aequi and the Sabines, the decemviri were brought to trial. Eight of them were exiled, another was excecuted, and Crassus committed suicide, adding to his dishonor rather than lessening it, since it would have been the best possible death for him to let his blood be shed in a sacrifice to the laws and Gods he had violated many times.

Good and bad polytheists (part 4): Herodotus and Empedocles

HERODOTUS

220px-Herodotos_Met_91.8This is the great father of history, who flourished in the middle of the 5th century BCE. He was born a subject of Persia in the Ionian city of Halicarnassus, and from there he may witnessed, as a young boy, some preparations for the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, which the treacherous queen of the city took part in on the side of Xerxes. What is certain, however, is that he grew up among veterans of both the Ionian revolt of 499 BCE against Persia and (after he left his city) veterans of the Persian invasion. He also seems to have belonged to a patriotic family, because his cousin Panyassis (a poet of some renown) was executed after an uprising in Halicarnassus, against a treacherous Greek tyrant. However, whether he left the city by force or by curiosity is not known; as a subject of Persia, he probably thought little of his citizenship within such a vast empire, or at least wondered what had happened to change his world so much. His curiosity surely burned to gather and consume many stories, but he was also concerned about various inquiries, especially how and why could Persia, as far as it was, come at the door of Greece and attempt to break through it? For this reason, he composed a work called ‘Ιστοριαι, meaning Inquiries, but more commonly translated as Histories.

It is upon his immortal contribution to understanding and preserving so many valuable stories about ethnic culture and polytheism that the fame of Herodotus rests. Although his work was mainly concerned with the conflicts between the Persians and the Greeks, Herodotus was curious and wise enough to search for indirect and external information that related to both, that is to say, stories and inquiries about neighboring civilizations and peoples, most of whom now belonged to the Persian Empire. He visited many places, such as the rest of Greece, as well as Egypt and Mesopotamia to collect and confirm as much as he could that he believed pertinent to his vast subject. But even though he spent much time and effort concerning foreign matters and people, he never forgot of himself as a Greek; his praise of the treacherous Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemisia, for her courage during the invasion of Greece, also shows he had not forgotten of his native city. Furthermore, he is reasonable in his inquiries without offence to the Gods of his own people, or any others; in spite of what later critics say, he was unbiased, even when he sometimes failed to be accurate. And what is more, he was a fine writer: It is said that he recited parts of his work at a festival and was applauded greatly for it. He is a true story-teller who engages and moves his reader; it is no wonder he drew much inspiration in the writing of his work from the great Homer himself.

 

EMPEDOCLES

220px-Empedokles_fragment_Physika_I_262–300This man, a contemporary of Herodotus, is known as a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, even though, he strayed very far from it as a polytheist. Throughout the Greek lands, all the so-called philosophers at this time (the 5th century BCE) were indeed, with very few exceptions, either bad polytheists or secret monotheists, and in the next century, they would become even worse, with the addition also of atheists among them. Empedocles was born in a Greek colony of Sicily, Acragas, to a family of some wealth. Although his father contributed to overthrowing a tyrant of the city, Empedocles turned against oligarchy in general, and supported the poor with his skilled oratory. He knew that philosophy was a stronger and more enduring weapon than power, which is why he declined to rule his city, when the mob offered it to him. The fanciful stories and magical actions attributed to him confirm his connection to the Pythagoreans, followers of Pythagoras, another so-called philosopher who was originally inspired by Orpheus (discussed in part 3) to found his own mystical religion. The Pythagoreans operated their secret religion in the Greek colonies of Italy, where they had more freedom, and it is from their activity aimed at the common people that Empedocles first strayed from polytheism and contributed to its corruption.

Like other philosophers before him, Empedocles wrote a poem containing his view of cosmogony, nature and the universe. He believed in the orphic mysteries and followed its invented principles, in imitation of the Pythagoreans. His main contributions to philosophy were, first, the essence of strife and love in cosmogony, and second, his theory of the four elements. In the former, he held that the universe was created out of the opposite forces of strife and love, which gradually turned into the two sexes. Like Orpheus and Pherecydes of Syros, he seems to have altered the order of the cosmogony from the accepted one in the holy text Theogony. Instead of beginning with the orthodox chasm (χαος), he places Ερος (Eros-Love) and Θανατος (Thanatos-Strife) as the first Gods of the universe. This is further confirmed by another corruption through his theory of the four elements: He held that air, water, earth, and fire were four components of the universe, which he equated with Hera, Nestis, Aidoneus and Zeus, respectively. In doing so, he strays greatly from the established tradition of Greek polytheism and almost makes a new religion of his own, i.e. one of intellectual pantheism. Although he acknowledges all these as Gods, he also hints also that they were allegorical forces of nature, an interpretation that afterwards contributed further to either monotheism or atheism among most philosophers. Nor did this Empedocles fall short of the ambition of Orpheus or the arrogance of philosophers: After publishing his works, he sought to trick the populace one last time by jumping into Mount Etna to make them think that he was an immortal god. But the Gods confounded his false magic, and caused the mountain to vomit one of his bronze sandals, exposing his impious deception.

Good and bad polytheists (part 3): Homer and Orpheus

HOMER

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Although there is little that we can be certain of regarding the life of this man, his immense influence on the Hellenic people by means of his epic poems is the essence of what ought to be considered. It is generally thought that he was a blind poet who flourished in the 9th or 8th century BCE. Like others of his profession, he composed poems orally and travelled to recite them for pay, especially at festivals or in the houses of nobles. Sometime after his death, his epic poems, the famous Illiad and Odyssey, were written and preserved for posterity. They concerned a remarkable time in Greek history, when, 400 years before, during the Bronze Age, a great war broke out between several Greek states and the city of Troy, which afterwards spread further; the first poem relates the events of the war, and the second the return of the king Odysseus home, after the siege of Troy. After they were written, the poems rose to such fame and admiration for many centuries, that they actually inspired and educated the Greek peoples more than any author before, and hence were almost considered as a sacred authority to learn from.

The value of Homer is derived not only from the glorious style and imagination of his poetry, but also the genuine Greek spirit, character and life that he embellishes and preserves in it, from which many lessons can be taken. He tells a great story of a war in which both Gods and men took part, some acting cunningly and others heroically to gain more power and achieve some sort of influence. We see causes and consequences to actions, we see the descriptions of actions, we see the performers of the actions, and then we become aware of many important truths in life that were pertinent to ancient Greeks, such as honor, fame, comfort, glory, revenge, power, wealth, influence, home, security, purpose, etc. Homer paints life and mythology together in suitable and significant colors, in such a way that would move his Greek listeners and readers to enjoyment, reflection, and learning about themselves, their lives and their time. His songs are interwoven with his own ethnic culture; he celebrates his ethnic people by his epic poems, as he does his ethnic Gods by his hymns. Because he performed in both so well, he is justifiably remembered and his works are gladly preserved.

 

ORPHEUS

300px-DSC00355_-_Orfeo_(epoca_romana)_-_Foto_G._Dall'OrtoThe fame that Homer’s poems achieved inspired many imitations, some of which were honest and sincere, but others were deceitful and selfish. The practices of Orpheus are of the latter kind. Some believe him to have never existed (for example, Aristotle), as a few do also of Homer, but it is possible to gather pieces from history to construct the story of his life, as well as understand his motives, from what is known of the inventions he left behind. Since he is not mentioned in Homer or Hesiod, we know that he lived after their time, and here a suspicion arises as to how he appears in several places in Greek mythology. One story puts him as the first man who was taught the lyre by Apollo or even as the son of Apollo, another as a companion of the Argonauts, and a third as someone who descends into the underworld to recover his wife (a nymph) after death by playing music to Hades and Persephone that softened their hearts. This all looks suspicious when an important point is considered: Orpheus is known as the founder of mystery religions modelled to the very ancient Eleusinian mysteries, one is known as the Orphic mysteries and the other as the Dionysian mysteries. Since these mystery religions can be dated, because they appear at a certain point in history (6-5th century BCE), the character of Orpheus is certainly real and historical, but it was his followers who inserted him into mythology at a position so unjustly near the Gods themselves.

The truth is, Orpheus belonged to a profession, just like Homer; he was a sort of prophet or magician who travelled to purify, teach or bless places or people for pay. Of this number, several are known to have existed in the 6th century or before, such as Musaeus and Epimenides. He differs from them, however, because he established his own religion, which corrupted and challenged the cosmogony and principles that the Greeks had accepted till that time. In the Orphic mysteries, the universe begins with Eros rather than Chaos, and Zeus fathers all the Gods after him, sometimes by raping, and thus Zeus is both a single God and many Gods at the same time. The Derveni Papyrus, a text of Orphic theology, presents these as allegories, but this must be an excuse to avoid impiety, because these corruptions are extremely bold and contradictory of the Hellenic religion. Another falsehood in this invented religion is that Zeus granted Dionysus (his son in the story) the succession to his throne as king of the universe, and then Dionysus is murdered by Hera out of jealousy that he was the son of Persephone and not hers, and from his torn flesh, sinful mankind is born and forced to suffer in cycles of rebirth. These tales are blasphemies of the grossest kind. In the mystery religion of Dionysus, the invention is carried on further: Dionysus is reborn by the ritual of eating bread and drinking wine (representing his flesh and blood) and he returns to govern the world after Zeus in a new cycle of history. Perhaps it can be seen already how much these corruptions resemble Christianity, which, few know, was actually influenced more by these two mystery religions than by Judaism. Eros was reinterpreted as Love, Dionysus as Jesus, Zeus as the Father, and what is stranger than all, the bread and the wine, as well as original sin, are exactly the same. To some degree, one could say that Orpheus himself was reinterpreted as Paul of Tarsus: Just as Paul travelled preaching and was executed in Rome for causing disturbances with his new religion, so was Orpheus, after his own travels, torn to pieces by the priestesses of Dionysus in one account, or according to another, struck by a thunderbolt of Zeus, as a punishment for his impiety.

Good and bad polytheists (part 2): Ahmose I and Amenhotep IV

AHMOSE I

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Ahmose was born a local king of the Upper Egyptian city of Thebes, towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period, a period of disorder which lasted from 1650 to 1550 BCE. During this time, Lower Egypt was ruled by Semitic invaders from the Levant, called the Hyksos. They were a warlike and cruel people who took advantage of a weak government, seizing and plundering towns, destroying temples, and capturing slaves. Having found an abundance of opportunity and wealth there, they founded a dynasty and ruled by force, setting up fortresses to protect their possession of the land. Their kings styled themselves as pharaohs, but they were, like many or most Semitic rulers, henotheists, that is, worshippers of one God while acknowledging others, a practice that later contributed to monotheism. The Hyksos kings only worshipped Set, the God of the desert, which was looked upon suspiciously by Egyptians, who had known no such custom before.

But after a reign of 100 years, the invaders grew comfortable enough to relax its absolute power, nor did it have the ability to maintain their rule completely over Egypt. Hence, in Thebes, where a dynasty of local kings had grown in power gradually, Ahmose sought to restore the independence of Egypt and carry on the military exploits of his grandfather Seqenenre Tao and his father Kamose, who had both died in battle. Ahmose proved himself worthy of his noble and brave paternity by conquering and expelling the Hyksos, after a long campaign of several years. In order to maintain independence, he afterwards invaded and pillaged the Levant, and then withdrew to his borders to restore his country. Prosperity returned to Egypt by means of trade and construction, and antique examples were followed in art that preceded the invasion of the Hyksos. Besides this earnest revival, he also attempted to build the last pyramid of Egypt, but the project was unfinished and dropped upon his death after a few years of his short reign as Pharaoh. Nevertheless, even though Egypt was not to be as glorious as it was before, Ahmose was great enough to be remembered as the restorer of Egypt’s independence and the founder of a new age in Egyptian history, namely, the New Kingdom. As great as the acknowledge is due, it is perhaps a testimony to his modesty and diligence as Pharaoh, that only 3 mediocre statues of his have been found.

 

AMENHOTEP IV

Akhenaten-temple-atonThis Pharaoh is infamous by another name which he assumed later in his reign of 17 years during the 14th century BCE, namely, Akhenaten. He ruled for some time with his father Amenhotep III, a long-reigning Pharaoh who had brought great prosperity and power to Egypt. At this time in Egypt, as it was since Ahmose, Pharaohs were crowned in the city of Thebes, which had now become the capital of the realm and its God Amun the Head of the Pantheon, having joined with the former Head Ra (God of the former captital city of Memphis) as Amun-Ra, as a symbol of northern and southern unity. Akhenaten’s innovation within this scope was unprecedented and outrageous: In his fifth year, he elevated, by his own whim, a local God by the name of Aten to the pre-eminent position of Amun-Ra. Furthermore, as if to affirm the fault, he changed his name from Amenhotep (Amun is satisfied) to Akhenaten (servant of Aten).

Egyptian Pharaohs, by virtue of their position as divine kings, perhaps had the authority to worship whatever God they pleased, without disturbing the ancient tradition and condition of the Pantheon. But instead of being content with the first infamy of replacing Amun-Ra with Aten as supreme God, and changing his name accordingly, he set up Aten as the true God of the Sun, instead of Ra, and proceeded to promote its worship as such. His motives are yet unknown, as are his exact means of effecting this transformation in religion. However, the situation was horrible: the priests of Amun and Ra took the innovation as a grievance, and Egypt was threatened by pollution. And what was worse, the madness of Akhenaten seemed to increase with his reign; at first he was tolerant of other Gods, even though he lessened the funds of the Temples that held their cults, but afterwards he debased himself by attempting to erase the holy names of the Pantheon, particularly Amun, as if to leave only Aten for posterity, an unmatched crime. Yet his sinister project failed, for the Egyptians, always traditional, maintained their old ways for the most part and did not accept the changes too well. The memory of the Hyksos was also not too distant to them, and Akhenaten’s religious infamy was far beyond their strange henotheism with Set. Upon his death, the priesthood of Thebes returned to power and restored Amun-Ra at the head of the Pantheon, and about 20 years later, Akhenaten received justice: The Pharaoh Horemheb commanded his monuments to be destroyed and his image to be defaced. What survives of Akhenaten’s figure presents us with a character very different from that of Ahmose: His appearance is vain, assured and degenerate. The idea of his innovation, however, could unfortunately not be destroyed, for the history of the Hebrews under Moses follows after 150 years, a further contribution to the destructive monotheism that plagues the world to this day. It remains to be known whether Moses was inspired by Akhenaten or Akhenaten was inspired by earlier Semitic practices in the Levant.