Head in the Clouds

Socrates Ephesus frescoWith its clever comments on current politics and societal trends, as well as its delight in putting caricatures of celebrities onstage, Athenian Old Comedy can be regarded as The Simpsons of its day. In one of the few extant plays, Aristophanes’s The Clouds (first performed in 423 BC), the philosopher Socrates is the main target of ridicule. When a stupid farmer visits his ‘Think Tank’ in order to learn how to lie persuasively, Socrates descends from above in a basket, where he had been examining the sun and the ether. As it turns out, the famous thinker lives with his head in the clouds, wasting most of his time on such trivialities as measuring how far a flee can jump in flee-feet and why a gnat produces a buzzing sound. More serious, however, is that he denies the existence of the gods and undermines traditional values with his faulty rhetoric.

In 399 BC, a court would condemn Socrates to death for impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth – two of the main accusations levelled against him in the Clouds. It is small wonder, then, that Plato held Aristophanes in part responsible for the philosopher’s downfall.


• Kenneth Dover, Aristophanes: Clouds (Oxford 1968)
• Kenneth McLeish, The Theatre of Aristophanes (London 1980)
• Thomas Brickhouse & Nicholas Smith, Socrates on Trial (Oxford 1989)
• Douglas MacDowell, ‘Clouds’, in: Idem, Aristophanes and Athens: An Introduction to the Plays (2nd edition; Oxford – New York 1996) 113-149

A Contested Crown

Demosthenes“Oh, men of Athens, what a vile monster is the calumniator, gathering malice from everywhere, always backbiting! But this fellow is by very nature a spiteful animal, absolutely incapable of honesty or generosity; this monkey of melodrama, this bumpkin tragedy-king, this pinchbeck orator!” Thus spoke the famous Greek orator Demosthenes, facing his rival Aeschines at court. The eloquent Athenian pulled all the stops, accusing his opponent of slander, scandalous living and, above all, betraying his country to the Macedonian conqueror Philip II.

At stake was not money or power, but honour: Aeschines sought to deny Demosthenes the golden crown with which the Athenians wanted to reward his services to the state. However, Demosthenes triumphed and Aeschines was fined, going into exile to lick his wounds.


• Edward M. Harris, Aeschines and Athenian Politics (Oxford 1995)
• John Buckler, ‘Demosthenes and Aeschines’, in: Ian Worthington (ed.), Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator (London 2000) 114-158
• Harvey Yunis (ed.), Demosthenes, On the Crown (Cambridge 2001)
• Douglas M. MacDowell, Demosthenes the Orator (Oxford – New York 2009)

Brother? What Brother?

In ancient Rome, prominent individuals could fall victim to the ultimate punishment of damnatio memoriae, a curse on their memory by senatorial decree. One famous victim was the short-lived emperor Geta (r. 211), whose statues were smashed and whose name was removed from inscriptions and documents after he had been murdered by his brother and co-ruler, Caracalla. Even a tondo from Egypt, showing the imperial family in happier days, sports a conspicuous gap where the face of the young ruler used to be.


• Friedrich Vittinghoff, Der Staatsfeind in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Untersuchungen zur „damnatio memoriae“ (Berlin 1936)
• Eric Varner, Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture (Leiden – Boston 2004)
• Harriet I. Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture (Chapel Hill, NC 2006)
• Florian Krüpe, Die Damnatio memoriae. Über die Vernichtung von Erinnerung. Eine Fallstudie zu Publius Septimius Geta (198–211 n. Chr.) (Gutenberg 2011)

Lashing the Waves

When King Xerxes (r. 486-465 BC) brought down the military might of the Persian Empire on the independent city states of ancient Greece, he expected a quick and decisive victory. Instead, he suffered a crushing defeat. In Greek eyes, he became a prime example of hubris, the arrogant pride which drives humans to strive for things beyond their grasp and leads to their destruction.

According to one famous story, told by the Greek historian Herodotus, a storm destroyed the bridge that the Persian king had built to cross the Hellespont. In a rage, Xerxes commanded his soldiers to punish the water with three hundred lashes. While doing so, they had to say: “Bitter water, (…) Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you want it or not; in accordance with justice no one offers you sacrifice, for you are a turbid and briny river.” From such foolish and offensive behaviour, it was clear that Xerxes’s campaign was doomed before he had even left Asia.


• Nicolas R.E. Fisher, Hybris: A Study in the Values of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greece (Warminster 1992)
• George Cawkwell, The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia (Oxford 2005)
• Emily Baragwanath, Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus (Oxford 2008)

Messalina, Empress and Harlot

“Other animals become sated with venereal pleasures,” Pliny the Elder remarked in his Natural History; “man hardly knows any satiety”. As a case in point, he told a story about Messalina, the wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who challenged a prostitute to a contest in sexual stamina, “and outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace”.

The historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius tell similar tales about the empress’s rampant sexual behaviour, portraying a woman who was completely out of the control of her imperial husband. Messalina was eventually executed after Claudius found out that she had married another man and was plotting to overthrow him… At least, that is the story preserved in the ancient sources. Whatever the truth may have been, Messalina was certainly described in the blackest terms possible by male authors who abhorred independent-minded women with desires of their own.


• Cesare Questa, ‘Messalina, meretrix Augusta’, in: R. Raffaelli (ed.), Vicende e figure femminili in Grecia e a Roma. Atti del convegno Pesaro 28-30 aprile 1994 (Ancona 1995) 399-423
• Sandra R. Joshel, ‘Female desire and the discourse of empire: Tacitus’s Messalina’, in: J.P. Hallett & M.B. Skinner (eds.), Roman Sexualities (Princeton 1997) 221-254
• Garrett G. Fagan, ‘Messalina’s folly’, The Classical Quarterly 52 (2002) 566-579
• Friederike Haedecke, Göttinnen und Mörderinnen. Die First Ladies des Römischen Reiches (Mannheim 2010)

Athens Ditches Its Champion

Ambitious, talented and handsome, the general and politician Alcibiades was a striking figure in fifth-century-BC Athens. He played a key role in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between his home town and its long-standing rival, Sparta. Alcibiades’s anti-Spartan agenda led to fierce political disagreements with some of his fellow citizens. In 415 BC, when he was about to set out on a military expedition to Sicily, his opponents accused him of sacrilege, holding him responsible for the mutilation of statues of the messenger god Hermes.

The general wanted to stand trial immediately to clear his name, but was not allowed to do so. After he had set sail, his enemies accused him of other sacrilegious actions and even claimed that he wanted to overthrow the Athenian democracy. Without a chance to defend himself, Alcibiades was condemned to death and had to spend several years abroad before the verdict was revoked. After his return to Athens, he regained a leading position, but his enemies soon struck again, blaming him for the naval defeat of one of his subordinates. Once again, public opinion turned against Alcibiades. He was relieved of his command and had to leave the city – this time for good.


• Jacqueline de Romilly, Alcibiade, ou Les dangers de l’ambition (Paris 1993)
• David Gribble, Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation (Oxford 1999)
• P. J. Rhodes, Alcibiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor (Barnsely 2011)

Fiddler on the Roof

When fire destroyed great parts of Rome in AD 64, many citizens suspected Nero as the arsonist, since the emperor used much of the newly available space to build a lavish palace. Rumours floated that the notorious ruler had watched the flames with great delight from the roof of his palace, singing the “Capture of Troy” in his lyre-player’s costume to celebrate the occasion. The scene was immortalized by Peter Ustinov in the Hollywood blockbuster Quo Vadis (1951). Nowadays, the notion of “Nero fiddling while Rome burnt” is regularly referenced in political cartoons, even though the authenticity of the story is highly questionable and fiddles had not even been invented yet in Roman times.


• Christian Hülsen, ‘The burning of Rome under Nero’, American Journal of Archaeology 13 (1909) 45-48
• Maria Wyke, ‘Make like Nero! The appeal of a cinematic emperor’, in: Jaś Elsner & Jamie Masters (eds.), Reflections of Nero: Culture, History, & Representation (London 1994) 11-28
• Edward Champlin, Nero (Cambridge, MA 2003)
• Paul Murgatroyd, ‘Tacitus on the Great Fire of Rome’, Eranos 103 (2005) 48-54