Category: Golden Age of Athens

A Day at the Spartan Races

The Wall Street Journal relays the remarkable story of a 34-year-old air conditioner technician who is angling to win an unprecedented 14 “Spartan Races” in a single year. Not impressed? What are Spartan Races you say?

Details of each Spartan Race course are kept secret so competitors can’t specifically train for them.

Organizers force racers to do just about anything, including crawl through muddy troughs covered in barbed wire, jump through flames, solve puzzles, chop wood, carry water and learn Greek. It also helps to be very fast. The Death Race, the longest of the Spartan races, usually covers 45 miles. It lasts at least 24 hours, but has gone on for as long as 72. (Participants won’t know exactly how long until it’s over; they are given instructions during the race.)

The Spartan Race website has videos and more information. And look there’s a Spartan Sprint coming to Pennsylvania on September 10th. It’s only 3 miles! What would Leonidas do?

Spartan Sprint

Socrates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

In 1963 Martin Luther King brought his campaign of non-violent resistance to segregation to Birmingham, Alabama. At the time Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the South and had earned the macabre epithet “Bombingham” after years of unsolved attacks on African-American homes and churches. When King was arrested on Good Friday for violating an ordinance that prohibited demonstrations, he took the opportunity to respond to Birmingham’s white clergy, who while claiming to support desegregation had advised against the protests, sit-ins, and boycotts advocated by King. The result is a classic document of the struggle for civil rights, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail“.

Given his message and audience, King frequently seeks inspiration from Biblical sources, as well as from philosophers and theologians Christian (Aquinas, Augustine, Niehbur) and Jewish (Buber). At three points in the “Letter”, however, he invokes Socrates, both for his activist brand of philosophy and his practice of a just form of civil disobedience.

King deploys his first reference to Socrates in response to the imagined question, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

This image of Socrates is familiar from Plato’s Apology: the gadfly of the polis, who is constantly “arousing and persuading and reproaching” citizens to perceive truth and justice. Athenians, of course, responded to the stings of the gadfly by executing Socrates. But King rejects the illogical notion that an unjust response to an act taints the precipitating act,

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?

In King’s final reference to Socrates, the philosopher takes his place in a list of historical figures who engaged in civil disobedience,

[Civil disobedience] was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

Attica Fires

Cross-posted from CSTS119

Wildfires, a frequent threat throughout Greece in the summer, are burning within sight of the Acropolis (Reuters).

Acropolis Fire

Firefighters have been battling fires throughout Attica, including near Marathon and Rhamnous. May the gain the upper hand soon.

UPDATE: According to the latest reports, the fires are being contained and so far have not caused any loss of life. Thankfully, this does not look to be a repeat of the devastating fires of 2007.

A Statue of Victory stands amid the embers of the blaze at Olympia, 2007 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

A Statue of Victory stands amid the embers of the blaze at Olympia, 2007 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

In this image released by NASA on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007, fires in Greece are seen from space. Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests, swallowed villages and scorched the edges of Athens on Saturday with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. The death toll rose to at least 49 as the government declared a nationwide state of emergency. (AP Photo/NASA)

In this image released by NASA on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007, fires in Greece are seen from space. Fires pushed by gale-force winds tore through more parched forests, swallowed villages and scorched the edges of Athens on Saturday with ashes raining onto the Acropolis. The death toll rose to at least 49 as the government declared a nationwide state of emergency. (AP Photo/NASA)

The BBC has a nifty slide show documenting the very cool hi-tech cleaning of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens, which has removed decades of pollution.

parthenon marbles

Since the damage to the Athenian reliefs turned out to be less severe than previously thought, the cleaning has fueled the debate over whether the rest of the marbles, (in)famously known as the “Elgin Marbles” and on display in the British Museum, should be repatriated to Athens and installed in the New Acropolis Museum.

“Father of History” on the PR circuit

Herodotus and Robert Strassler’s new Landmark Herodotus took center stage yesterday on NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” (program available in archive). No word on whether that inveterate Herodotus-hater Plutarch, author of “On the Malice of Herodotus”, was available for comment.

Syllabus of Activities

Week 1 (1.4): Introductions—Local Origins: Saturnine & Epitaphic Epigrams

Week 2 (9.11): Catullus, Neoteric (?), and Hellenistic Epigram

  • Latin: Catullus 69–91, Calvus 18 (Courtney p. 210)
    • If you don’t remember Calvus from the Catullus’ polymetrica, please take a look at Catull. 13, 50, and 53.
  • English: Greek Epigrams: Posidippus, Callimachus, and Posidonius (in Fain).
  • Scholarship: Livingstone-Nisbet, “Introduction: Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “The Inscriptional Beginnings of Literary Epigram” (2010), 1-47.
  • In-Classthe epigrams (?) of Cicero and Caesar.

The Plague! The (Athenian) Plague!

Modern science weighs in on the old debate about which disease afflicted the Athenians at the start of the Peloponnesian War. DNA tests on material extracted from skeletons found in a mass grave dating to 430 BCE point to… Typhoid Fever.

From the Journal of Infectious Diseases:

BACKGROUND: Until now, in the absence of direct microbiological evidence, the cause of the Plague of Athens has remained a matter of debate among scientists who have relied exclusively on Thucydides’ narrations to introduce several possible diagnoses. A mass burial pit, unearthed in the Kerameikos ancient cemetery of Athens and dated back to the time of the plague outbreak (around 430 BC), has provided the required skeletal material for the investigation of ancient microbial DNA.

OBJECTIVE: To determine the probable cause of the Plague of Athens.

METHOD: Dental pulp was our material of choice, since it has been proved to be an ideal DNA source of ancient septicemic microorganisms through its good vascularization, durability and natural sterility. RESULTS: Six DNA amplifications targeted at genomic parts of the agents of plague (Yersinia pestis), typhus (Rickettsia prowazekii), anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), cowpox (cowpox virus) and cat-scratch disease (Bartonella henselae) failed to yield any product in ‘suicide’ reactions of DNA samples isolated from three ancient teeth. On the seventh such attempt, DNA sequences of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi were identified providing clear evidence for the presence of that microorganism in the dental pulp of teeth recovered from the Kerameikos mass grave.

CONCLUSION: The results of this study clearly implicate typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens.

The symptoms of Typhoid Fever (from MedicineNet):

The incubation period is usually 1-2 weeks and the duration of the illness is about 4-6 weeks. The patient experiences:

  • poor appetite,
  • headaches,
  • generalized aches and pains,
  • fever,
  • lethargy,
  • [the CDC adds: “in some cases, patients have a rash of flat, rose-colored spots”]

Persons with typhoid fever usually have a sustained fever as high as 103 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (39 to 40 degrees Centigrade).

Chest congestion develops in many patients and abdominal pain and discomfort are common. The fever becomes constant. Improvement occurs in the third and fourth week in those without complications. About 10% of patients have recurrent symptoms (relapse) after feeling better for one to two weeks.

How does this compare with Thucydides’ description of the plague?

As a rule, however, there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends (Thuc. 2. 48ff.).

Of course, just because these poor individuals died of Typhoid Fever during the Plague (thus the mass grave), the does not mean that the Plague was (only) the result of Typhoid. Note that Thucydides attributes all disease during the Plague Years to the Plague. I wonder if one cause was assigned to what, in fact, was a witch’s brew of diseases that assailed the population of Athens?

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