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What’s a Grecian earn?

About 14 drachmas an hour! Har har har!

Okay, can I get a do-over? I’m not entirely happy with the drawing I did for that last post about Greek measurements. Didn’t look Greek enough, or just didn’t have pizazz or something. So I drew a new version of it, this time taking the drawings on those wonderful old Grecian urns as my inspiration. Tell me what you think.

Here’s an old Greek urn—these drawings are gorgeous. I love the light terra-cotta-colored figures on a rich black background.

Here’s the new sketch.

Greek measurements

The Greeks measured length roughly the way the Egyptians did: a daktylos is a finger-joint, or inch; a pous is a foot, or 12 inches; a pēchys is a cubit, half a yard, or 18 inches. Longer distances were a bēma, a pace, 5 feet; an orgyia, a fathom, 6 feet; a stadion, 600 feet (an eighth of a mile); a milion, a mile.

Marathon

One of the important battles in the wars between the Greeks and Persians took place on the Plains of Marathon. Herodotus tells about how in 490 bc, when the Greeks were seriously outnumbered, a messenger named Pheidippides (Fay DIP e deez) ran from Athens to Sparta to get their help. Then he ran to Marathon to join the fight, THEN ran back to Athens to tell everybody that the Greeks won.

Around the world we still celebrate Pheidippides’ heroic run in races called marathons. If you run a marathon, it’s 26 miles and 385 yards—the distance from the Plains of Marathon to Athens. The very fastest runners have done it in a little over 2 hours!

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus reading his Histories to the crowd

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.”

While the Greeks did think of time as a cycle, there was still a desire to reach back in time to remember stories from the past. We saw how Homer kept alive the story of the siege of Troy through his epic poem, the Iliad.

Herodotus (Hay ROD oh toos) was a Greek who lived in the fourth century bc and is thought to be the first historian. He wrote The Histories mostly about the wars between the Greeks and Persians and how they got started. Herodotus was a great storyteller, but what made him a historian is that he investigated, he did research—he got his information from several sources; he visited the places where the history took place; he went to the library; he interviewed people—then he arranged the information he’d gathered to explain how and why something happened.

I have a paperback copy of The Histories. It’s not an easy read, but I like to ‘dip into’ my copy and read whatever I open to. The battle of Thermopylae is in there—that story has since been made into a graphic novel and movie, The 300—and the battles of Marathon and Salamis. Herodotus included lots of oddball side-stories and observations, which are also fun. The Persian emperors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes are in there (Xerxes is thought to be the party-boy king Ahasuerus from the biblical Book of Esther).

History is often about the big military battles and wars. I want this history, the one you’re reading right now, to be about ideas. But I’m telling you, if the Greeks hadn’t broken the will of the mighty Persian Empire and eventually beat ‘em, there would have been no flowering of art, literature, philosophy and democracy that happened after the wars—and was the Greeks’ gift to us.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

It’s about cyclical time

I told you the story of Persephone so you’d remember one thing: for the ancient Greeks, time was a cycle. The seasons followed each other over and over again. The Greeks didn’t think of time as a progression of numbered years, as we do. They named the years after whomever was the archon (ruler or king) at the time. Later on the Greeks numbered years by a 4-year cycle, called an olympiad. The Olympic games were held every fourth year, then the cycle started over.

The Greeks weren’t the only ones who think of time as a cycle.

Disney’s African tale The Lion King opens with the song The Circle of Life and its theme is cyclical time.

People who follow Indian and Asian religions—Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists—think of time as a cycle. The problem of ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ is a puzzler to us because we think in linear time. How can you have an egg without a chicken first? Or a chicken without an egg first? It’s not puzzling to someone who thinks of time as a cycle. Imagine a chicken and an egg riding a merry-go-round. The chicken follows the egg, which follows the chicken, which follows the egg, and so on and so on. It’s a continuous loop.

Cyclical time

Hades taking Persephone to the Underworld

There are two ways to think about time: as a circle and as a line.

The ancient Greeks—like other cultures that relied on farming for food—saw time as a circle, as cyclical. They planted in the Spring;, they weeded and pruned in the Summer; they harvested in the Autumn; they waited through the Winter for the cycle to start over again.

Let me tell you the Greek myth of Persephone. Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and harvest. Demeter made the seeds take root, the flowers blossom & the fruit ripen. Demeter loved Persephone and everything was literally sunshine and daffodils all year long. At least it was until Hades, the dark god of the Underworld, saw the beautiful Persephone and decided to steal her away to be his wife. Demeter was heartbroken—and while Persephone was gone, Demeter neglected her goddess-duties until the world became cold and barren. Frosty wind killed all the crops; fruit withered on the vine. No grain to harvest meant no pita bread for gyros. No cucumbers for tzatziki sauce. No falafel. The situation became desperate! Finally Zeus stepped in and made them strike a deal: Hades would keep Persephone only half of each year and let Persephone spend the other half with her mom. So while Persephone lives in the Underworld, it’s winter. When Persephone is reunited above-ground with Demeter, there is planting and growth and harvest.

This is an example of thinking of time as a cycle.

The Iliad

The Iliad is an epic poem written by the blind poet Homer in the 4th century bc, about events that happen during the siege of Troy—known back then as Ilium—in the 12th century bc.

In those days poems like the Iliad were recited in front of an audience. They were written with a specific rhythm and often-repeated phrases in order to help the poet memorize the whole thing. The Iliad is mostly about war, the destruction it causes, and a code of honor that was part of Greek culture.

Because I’m a swell guy, I condensed the whole Iliad in to one sentence. You can take a really deep breath and recite it without stopping:

Nine years into the Trojan War the Greeks attack a town on Troy’s side and make off with a couple of Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis Agamemnon takes Chryseis and Achilles who is the Greeks’ best warrior takes Briseis to be their girlfriends Chryseis’s dad offers to pay to get her back but Agamemnon says no dice Dad prays to Apollo Apollo inflicts a plague on the Greeks and a lot of them die Agamemnon figures out making Chryseis his girlfriend is the cause of this plague so he gives her back but he still wants a girlfriend so he makes Achilles give him Briseis this ticks Achilles off so he says he’s not going to fight for the Greeks anymore and even asks his mom Thetis who is a sea-goddess remember she married the mortal Peleus and wouldn’t invite Eris to their wedding to ask Zeus to help the Trojans who are the Greeks’ enemies so Zeus is on Troy’s side now and Achilles won’t fight so the Greeks get their hats handed to them there’s lots of fighting with some featured fights between Paris the shepherd with the good judgement who stole the beautiful Helen and Menelaus who is Helen’s husband and Hector and Ajax the Greeks don’t do so good the Trojans beat the Greeks back as far as their ships Diomedes and Odysseus get some inside info about the Trojans’ battle plans but the Trojans set one of the Greek ships on fire so things are looking pretty bad for the Greeks because without the ships how do they get back home Achilles still won’t help his pals but Nestor says let Patroclus wear Achilles’ armor so the Greeks will think yay Achilles is back in the game Patroclus is good but Apollo sees what’s going on and knocks Patroclus’ armor off of him and Hector kills him the Greeks and Trojans fight over the body and armor Hector gets the armor the Greeks get Patroclus’ body Achilles feels like a heel and tells Agamemnon okay I’ll fight those Trojans now Achilles’ mom Thetis the sea-goddess gets the god Hephaestus to make Achilles some new armor and Achilles goes out to fight the Trojan army who for some reason are sleeping outside the city walls and when they see Achilles coming they say feet do your stuff and try to beat it back inside Troy but they’re not fast enough and Achilles kills every Trojan he sees he even fights the god of the river Xanthus who complains about all the dead bodies Achilles sees Hector and chases him around the city three times until Hector stops running and fights Achilles but Achilles kills Hector and ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it back to the Greek camp Patroclus gets a big funeral Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles around Patroclus’ coffin every day for the next nine days Hector’s dad the king of Troy tells Achilles come on man that’s not right Achilles says yeah you’re right I’m sorry and returns Hector’s corpse to the Trojans Hector gets a big funeral and everybody stops fighting for a while.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I’m interested in how people thought about time. Homer’s poem is about things that happened 800 years before he was born. Maybe the Iliad was a comment on wars happening in Homer’s own time. It was definitely a way of remembering events long gone.

The Iliad is an epic story, but too fanciful to be considered a history. We’ll have to look to another Greek to see who invented the idea of history.

Thanks to Spark Notes

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

My big beautiful Greek goddess wedding

Mr. Good Judgement Skills

Whoops!

Literally hundreds of alert readers have pointed out that I really made a boo-boo with that last post, The Judgement of Parrots. Turns out, it should have been The Judgement of Paris! Is my face red!

Maybe I should start over.

The Greek gods were different from regular humans—they were immortal and ruled over parts of the physical or mental/emotional world. Kind of like having a super power. The more you read about Greek gods, the more they sound like characters the Marvel guys Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would’ve invented.

For instance, Zeus ruled over the sky (and the other gods); Poseidon ruled over the seas. Ares was the god of war. Athena was the goddess of wisdom; Aphrodite the goddess of love & beauty.

On the other hand, the gods had the same character flaws that mortal humans do. They weren’t necessarily virtuous. They could be petty and vain and selfish and sometimes interfered in mortals’ affairs to further their own interests.

Homer was a blind poet who wrote epic poems, like the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are stories that are set against the Greeks’ wars with the Trojans around 1200 bc. Troy was a city in Turkey. Homer’s poems tell about historical events and include the Greek gods as characters.

According to the myth, the Trojan War started when the mortal Peleus and his sea-goddess sweetheart Thetis got married and invited all the gods to their wedding. Well, all the gods except Eris, goddess of discord. When Eris showed up at the reception the bouncers kept her out. Eris was ticked off, but she knew how to get back at the other goddesses. She tossed a golden apple marked, “To the Most Beautiful” into the crowd. Three goddesses—Aphrodite, Hera and Athena—each said she deserved the apple and started throwing wedding cake and chairs at each other. Zeus stopped the argument by setting up a beauty contest. Paris (a Trojan shepherd known for his good judgment) would pick the most beautiful. The three goddesses agreed. They weren’t above a little bribery, just to be on the safe side. Hera offered Paris power to rule the world and Athena offered him wisdom. But Paris chose Aphrodite, who offered him the love of Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman in the whole world. The only catch was that Helen was already married to Menelaus, king of the Greek city of Sparta. With Aphrodite’s help, Paris stole Helen away from Sparta. This cheesed off Menelaus and he (with the kings of other Greek cities) declared war on Troy—leading to years of slaughter, destruction and the eventual fall of Troy.

Homer’s poems pick up the story from there.

By the way, does any of this remind you of The Sleeping Beauty—and the evil fairy Maleficent who wasn’t invited to a christening?

The Judgement of Parrots

In Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, the Trojan War got started because of a beauty contest, known as The Judgement of Parrots. The contest was between the three most beautiful goddesses of Mount Olympus—Aphrodite, Hera and Athena—and the winner got a golden apple. As best as I can tell, the goddesses must have asked some parrots to declare who was the most beautiful of them. I found many paintings of this scene, but all the great masters forgot to include the parrots, so I drew it myself. If you want something done right, do it yourself, as they say.

Greek gods

Zeus hurling lightning bolts at the mortals.

Everybody wonders, “Where did we come from? Why are we here?” At least I’m pretty sure everybody does.

The Greeks tried to answer those questions with myths—religious stories about how the world and people came to be. They believed in many gods and goddesses who mostly lived on the top of Mount Olympus. These gods sometimes came down to interact with the mortals—regular people like you and me. The god Poseidon (po-SIGH-den) ruled the sea and lived in it. Hades (HAY-deez) was the god who ruled the Underworld—where the ancient Greeks believed we go when we die. Zeus (ZAY-oos—I know, I know, everybody says ZOOS) ruled the other gods and the sky from Mount Olympus.