8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.




A New, Old, View of Civilizations

Generations of history textbooks have assumed two things about the history of civilizations:

  • Human civilization is a relatively new phenomena, originating in the Fertile Crescent sometime around 3500 B.C.
  • Human civilization developed largely because of an increase in technical skill which allowed for plowing, increase of production, storage, etc.

I have never liked the second assumption.  It seems so easy for us to make it, for it reflects our bias perfectly.  Toynbee wrote of the predilections of western civilization,

The Hellenic civilization displays a manifest tendency towards a predominantly aesthetic rubric for orienting and defining itself.   The Hellenic tendency to view life as a whole distinctively in such terms that the ancient Greek adjective “kalos,” which denotes what is aesthetically beautiful, is used in addition to describe what is morally good.  In other words, Greek concepts of beauty and morality . . . were indistinguishable.

When we come to our own western civilization we find no difficulty discovering our own bent or bias.  It is, of course, a penchant towards machinery: a concentration of interest and effort upon applying discoveries of Natural Science to material purposes through the creation of social-clockwork devices, i.e. steam engines, motor cars, but also social engines like representative governments and military mobilizations.

We sometimes talk as if this appetite for mechanics was a quite recent occurrence in western civilization  . . . But this is precisely how westerners were viewed by the courts in Japan and China [in the early 1800’s]–as “barbarians” redeemed partially by our manifest and outsized technical ability.   The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena had the same impression of the first crusaders in 1099 A.D.  She called  their  crossbow a “devilish construction” that, while ingenious in its mechanics, fitted perfectly the barbarians who wielded it . . .

Though I find James Burke’s Connections series entertaining, he too makes the same assumptions about the development of civilization.  What brings people together for Burke is tools, food, and political organization.  Our “appetite for mechanics” has us assume that others had the same appetite.

Recent finds at the enigmatic site of Gobekli Tepe look to possibly overthrow both of the common assumptions.

Essentially, the site contains precision stone work thousands of years before the Egyptians supposedly invented working with stone.  Not only that, we have no evidence of any habitations near the site-it appears to be the only structure at all in the vicinity.  Add to this, the site appears to have no “practical” purpose to it.  Most think it served as a place of worship.  A recent article reads,

 . . . these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

Any student of ancient history will almost immediately realize that the ancients did not share our passion for mechanics, and surmise that the origins of civilization lies elsewhere.  But common sense will suffice for anyone lacking such rudimentary knowledge.  Common love of something draws people together and creates relationships.  Common needs may bring people together temporarily.  Common loves will sustain and likely originate such relationships.  We all experience this. We are what we worship.*

Others suggest that the Gobeckli-Tepe site dates just after what appears to be a cataclysmic flood–perhaps caused by large meteors striking the polar ice-caps.  Those that built Gobeckli-Tepe may have been, in fact, transferring technology from a previous, post-flood civilization.  It is striking that the first thing they do, then, is to build a religious temple.

I should stress that these remain theories, but I find them an exciting indication of a reworking of our theories of the past.

Gobekli Tepe may rouse the historical/archaeological community to rethink their views of the past, and I welcome this.  But we should realize that such a shift would not lead to a discovery of something new about mankind, but something as old as the world itself.


*This helps explain why most moderns judge those like Charlemagne so harshly.  How can he insist on a common faith of those he governs?  Not only does it fly against our sense of individual rights, it seems so unnecessary.  Didn’t Charlemagne know that starting in the late 18th century we decided that a shared use of certain technological tools creates stable societies, and not religion?

We may scoff at those who fight over religious belief.  But western powers have fought over natural resources that will allow us to create more technological tools, or more powerful tools, and so on.  Maybe ‘technological advancement’ functions like a religion for much of the modern west.

Maybe all wars can be boiled down to religious belief.


8th Grade: Civilization is Dinner with Friends


This week we wrapped up our introductory unit on civilizations in general and moved into more specific civilizations, beginning with Sumeria.

Earlier this week I wanted the students to consider exactly what purpose civilizations serve.

In 1 Corinthians Paul seeks to address the pride and competitiveness of the Corinthian congregation.  He uses the analogy of the “Body of Christ” to show that no one can be a one-man show.  Whether we be arms or eyes, we need each other to function.  “No man is an island,” as the saying goes.

This same analogy applies to civilizations in general.  We cannot do all that we need to do to survive, or at least, thrive.  Since we cannot do all ourselves, we need the gifts and talents of others to help make our lives consist of something beyond mere survival.  Civilizations therefore exist to make communal life, and communal creation, possible.  When we realize this, many other things come into proper focus.   As C.S. Lewis once remarked, civilization boils down to dinner with friends or a game of darts at a pub.  The power that civilizations can muster, the roads, the armies, the buildings, really serve this end. It’s easy for us to forget this, and it’s easy for civilizations themselves to do the same.

This means that civilizations, in my opinion, should ultimately be about the maintenance of small communities, and not the amorphous group.  But the awesome power generated by the social connectivity of civilizations opens them up to tremendous temptations. Civilizations can drift, and start to think that the social order itself as the “Ultimate.”  Civilizations can think that they exist to serve their own ends and perpetuate itself. With this attitude civilizations become our master and not our servant.  This leads into a subtle idolatry, man worship, not of the individual, but of the group.  When a civilization loses sight of things beyond themselves and the everyday, they lose vision, and hope for the future.  It is the first step toward decline.

This is not to say that civilizations are not good things.  The alternative is barbarism, a sub-human existence. But civilizations are tricky things.  One only has to think about our homes to realize this.  We make a great effort to sweep and clean, and the house looks great.  Then someone leaves a coat here, and shoes there.  The dishes pile up, and our wills and energy reserves slacken.  Given the human tendency towards decay, destruction, and death, the relative success of civilizations is a gift of God. It goes against our human tendencies.

As we moved into Sumeria, we looked at Sargon the Great, probably the first empire builder.  This brought up the issue of the benefits of size.  Empires/large countries often do have more power and resources and their disposal. Their size can also lead to diversity, which can cushion them from specific problems in certain areas.   For example, If Louisiana was a civilization unto itself, Hurricane Katrina would have destroyed it, or at least dramatically weakened it for decades. Because they are but a small part of whole, however, it can be rebuilt.

But smaller countries have less to manage, less to defend, and less to worry about in general.  I often wonder, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were Belgium?  What does Belgium have to worry about?”  Riches and power alone can never bring happiness.  Also, might there be a correlation between the size of the population and the liberty that population can enjoy?  Most classical theorists of government, like Aristotle for example, believed that democracy could only exist in small self contained communities.  When a babysitter watches just 1-2 children, those children have a large degree of freedom as to what they do.  When a sitter has to watch 15 children, all the children must stay together and do the same thing in the same place.  So too, a general truth of history is that large countries with large populations tend to offer less individual freedom than smaller ones (this rule has exceptions).  Which model is superior, and why have most civilizations chosen to pursue expansion and empire?  These are some of the questions I want the students to consider.

On Friday we had our first mini class discussion, where half the class tackled the topic of ancient cave paintings like these below . . .

These drawing predate what most historians and archaeologists would consider the dawn of “civilization” by thousands and thousands of years.  I wanted them to consider whether or not those that produced these works came from a society that could be called civilization.  Students presented good arguments on both sides of the issue.  I think that the drawings (especially, in my opinion, those from Chauvet cave, which includes the 2nd picture of the bears above) have remarkable communicative power.  This power can only come from great skill, and for them to develop this skill, civilization most likely existed.  Of course we can’t know for sure, but it’s fun to speculate.

If you have further interest in the cave paintings, Werner Herzog made an excellent film about them that is worth seeing called Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Have a great weekend,


8th Grade: An Introduction to Civilizations


I hope the school is going well for you and your family.  I already can tell that I will enjoy this class. They are enthusiastic participators and willing and able to track with me and think about the issues before us.

As I told the students, before we move into the actual study of certain civilizations, I thought it appropriate to think of what we mean by the term ‘civilization,’ and what this might have to do with a Christian worldview.  I gave the students an example of a desert island divided into two halves.  Both halves have a government (a despotic king), religion (worship of a bloodthirsty god), laws and a way of life, (everyone pick up a stick and try and bash in the head of someone on the other side of the island).  They have a large enough group of people and a defined location, if one happens to believe that these are important criteria.

We discussed whether or not  this be could be termed ‘civilization.’  Even if it was a place where you would not want to live, was it ‘civilization?’  While I acknowledge that defining the concept is a bit slippery, in the end I think we can give a clear answer in the negative.

The definition I am using for civilization in this class is from historian Will Durant, who stated that civilization is, “Social order that promotes cultural creation.”  Life on our hypothetical island could not allow for ‘cultural creation.’ No buildings could be built, no books written, not even advances in weaponry could be made if everyone’s daily life consisted entirely of sleeping, eating, and fighting.

I believe the definition we are using is a good one because human society should help us live out what it means to be made in God’s image.  The first thing we see about God is that He creates.  A society that did not allow for human creation would deny a fundamental tenet of what it means to be human. Being made in God’s image means many things, but surely it must include something of what J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘sub-creation’ on our part.   If we look back on the island example, is the life lived there really human life?  Even beavers build dams, and otters make water slides for themselves.  Living just to eat, sleep, and fight would put us below many animals.

This week we also looked at the basic elements of all civilizations.  What purpose do civilizations serve, and how do they function?  Ultimately, civilizations exist to provide a means of human interaction, a structure that allows us to live out God’s image and call on our lives.  While none of the civilizations we will study will be ‘Christian’ civilizations (if such a thing is even possible), the closer one gets to this goal, the better off people are.  While we may not need civilizations per se, we do need each other.  God Himself is a kind of Community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and as we are created in His image, so too we need to live in community with one another to make us fully human.

We examined what I call the Five Elements of Civilization:


Suppose that you and your friends wish to do something together.  You would need to agree on a location to meet.  For there to be profitable human interaction, we need a defined physical space to do so.  Obviously, the geography must provide a minimum of food, water, etc. for civilization to exist.  But as we discussed, ideal geographies do not tend to foster civilizations.  When things are too easy, we never need to learn, invent, or progress.  Historically speaking, we need a challenge to thrive.  Over the course of the year we will see the subtle influence of geography on the way people live.


No one can be completely self-sufficient. “No man is an island.”  We neither know all or can do all things well.  We need others to help us, but also need to have a means of exchanging goods and services fairly so these beneficial trades can take place.

A strict barter economy makes perfect sense.  I have apples, you have wood.  If we trade we both get something we easily know to have a direct value.  With one I can build a house, with the other I can avoid hunger.  Strict barter economies have the great advantage of simplicity, but the great burden of a complete lack of flexibility.  Imagine doing your weekly shopping, having to load up the wagon with bushels of grain, a few pigs, etc.  Then, you can only get what you need in return only if someone needs what you have.

A money economy helps solve some of these problems, and money began with precious metals.  But who made the first exchange of a shiny metal for a bushel of wheat?  You cannot eat, wear, or live in shiny metal.  The same is true of paper money.  In itself, it’s only a piece of paper.  You could write on it, or perhaps burn it for a few seconds of heat.  The money has value not for anything in itself, but because of our agreed upon belief about what it represents. Hence, the link between the health of our economy and the trust we place in our government and those around us.

A good economy will foster helpful and just exchanges of goods and services, which in turn fosters honoring social interaction.


Or — what I call the outward structure of civilization.  We need an agreed upon way of making decisions, and we need to know what is expected of us.  For example, we must decide if we are to drive on the right hand side or the left, or no one would drive at all.  We must also have an agreed upon way of deciding what side of the road we drive on, or nothing can ever get accomplished.

Laws serve a good purpose if they help grow helpful interaction between people.  They oppress if they stifle such social interaction.


Or – what I call the inward structure of civilization.  Since no one can write a law code that covers every situation, if we are to interact with others successfully we need a strong set of unwritten rules that everyone follows.  If someone cuts in line at the grocery store, we do not have the option of calling the police, for example.  This unwritten code comes ultimately from our religious beliefs.  We don’t cut in line in the final analysis because we believe in Justice.

I encouraged the class to think about religion more broadly than just what happens on ‘Sunday,’ in a given civilization.  As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” or to put it another way, “You are what you worship.”

Religion is in a broad sense what we give ourselves to truly, not merely our lip service.  A society might outwardly worship God, gods, or possibly even ideals and values like freedom, and so on.  Everyone worships something, and we cannot help but be conformed to the object of our worship.  This ultimate devotion becomes the main spring of our values.

Many modern historians often make materialistic arguments for the origin of civilization.  They will say things such as, “When river valley ‘x’ began to dry up the people came together to maximize their food input and begin to specialize.  From this early social organization governments arose, and then these governments codified religious belief to enforce their power.”

And so on, and so on.

I entirely disagree with these kinds of explanations.  Such theories completely misunderstand human nature.  Why do relationships happen?  We do not enter into a relationship with people based on the need to survive.  We are made for relationship (“It is not good for man to be alone”).  We are drawn together by our common loves, by our common worship.  We were made for worship, and this is why religion forms the heart of any civilization.


In the narrow sense, culture is what we do with our free time.  A person’s hobbies are often a better insight into who they are than their jobs.   In a broader sense, culture is about how we interact with God’s creation, and how we outwardly express our inner values and strengths.  Broadly then, culture speaks to our values, and a bit more narrowly, culture is that which makes life enjoyable (reading books, playing games, etc.), and sets us apart from the rest of creation.

Of course every culture can and should have room for purely “fun” activities, but ideally our recreation truly engages in “re-creation,” whereby we image the God who creates.

My goal through all this was to try and show how each element is not an island, but impacts other areas.  These elements are interconnected and depend on one another.  Scripture’s image of the Body of Christ fits very well for civilizations.

My subsequent emails will likely not be as information oriented, but these categories will inform the rest of our year together.

Next week we will begin looking at actual civilizations, and begin applying this theoretical interpretative model to reality.  We will begin to look for the patterns and truths that history reveals to us.  Below I include the famous set of paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire.  I do not necessarily agree with everything regarding Cole’s interpretation of history, but it is a wonderful visual image of a thought provoking theory, from a civilization’s beginning to its end.  We’ll reference these images from time to time in class this year.

Thank you again for all your support.


Dave Mathwin


8th Grade: “Bueller. . . Bueller. . .”

Greetings to all,

Are we sure that History matters?

This was the question I posed to the students the first day of school.

A few students pointed out that we should study History to learn from the mistakes and copy the successes of the past.  This is the answer most frequently given to the question, “Why History?”

But why should we accept it?  What on earth could anyone who has been dead for thousands of years, living in a completely different part of the world, have to teach us today?   “Perhaps,” I suggested to the students, “I am wasting your time, serving as part of a vast conspiracy of the old to occupy and distract the young.”  Is this what school really means?  Is the study of history merely an exercise in the “vain repetitions of the heathen?”

It’s fun to play devil’s advocate, but in the end we provided two key reasons why History does matter.

“Begin at the beginning,” said the King in Alice in Wonderland.  The study of history rests on a few key Christian assumptions:

  • We assume that what happens to people depends in part on choices they make, and these choices must in some sense be “free” choices.  If we have no ability to choose then whatever success of failure we experience has nothing to do with anything we can call “ourselves” at all, but merely instinct, environment, and so on.
  • We must believe that genuine communication across time and space can occur.  Believing this, in turn, rests on the belief that much more unites us as humans than divides us.  Otherwise, either communication would be impossible (because we would not understand one another), or meaningless (if our differences were so extreme the experience of others would have no relevance for us).

In Genesis we read that God made mankind in His own image.  I am not capable of exhausting the richness of what this means for humanity, but we established a couple key concepts in class:

  • In Genesis 1 we see God bringing order out of the void.  He could have created everything in an instant, but He chose six days/periods of time (whichever you prefer), each with a clear progression and pattern.  In Genesis 1 we see God separating night from day, dry land from sea, and so on.  He then separates mankind from the rest of His creation.  So too, we can find order and patterns in our surroundings.  History need not be “one thing after another” with no distinctions or meaning.
  • God acts with will and intentionality, and so too we act from more than mere instinct.  If we had no ability to choose and act with purpose, History would have no meaning because we could not learn from it or apply what we learned without it.

God gives all people who have ever the lived the gift of His image, and this is the good side of the coin regarding humanity.  But in Genesis 3 sin enters the picture, with terrible consequences.

  • Adam and Eve attempt to alienate themselves from the very Source of Life itself and hide from God.  While mankind retains the stamp of God’s image, I think it no coincidence that Genesis 5:3 mentions that Seth was born in Adam’s image.
  • Adam and Eve turn away from each other, refusing responsibility for their sin
  • Humanity experiences alienation from creation as a whole.

History rightly examines many facets of various civilizations, and the collapse of various people groups  have political, economic, cultural, and geographic explanations.  But sin lies at the root of all misery, and since we are all sinners, all of us share responsibility for whatever is wrong in the world.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Both the image of God and the fall of man mean that there is far more that unites, rather than divides, every person who has ever lived.   Even an Egyptian god-king from thousands of years ago and our next door neighbor still share these same characteristics.  Our differences remain skin deep.

We see the confluence of the image of God and the Fall in every life and in every civilization.  We all seek order and coherence.  We all seek to create distinctions (just as in Genesis 1) in our lives, giving precedence to some things over others, and so on.  In this way we image the God who made us.  Yet we also see that we often choose to embrace death to create our personal/civilizational kingdoms.  We will hate others to make the kind of order we wish for our own lives.  Nations may literally kill and destroy others to achieve the peace they desire.

1 Corinthians 15:56 states that, “the sting of death is sin.”  This order might surprise us–we might expect it to be reversed.  Adam sinned and brought death to himself and his descendants.  In many ways, it is our fear of death, of the diminution of the self, that leads us into sin, as 1 Corinthians states.  We cut each other off in traffic, grab the last cookie, and declare war to obtain resources in order to preserve and extend our earthly lives.  We obtain life only through surrender to death, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it” (Luke 9:24).

Other areas of Scripture show the importance of History.  Much of the Old Testament simply records events without editorial comment.  We can read of various kings of Israel, for example, and the Biblical authors do not always insert, “And God thought ‘x’ about the king.”  No doubt God means for us to figure it out on our own from the context, and from what we already know from reason, observation, experience, and other parts of Scripture.  If History is important to God in Scripture, we can conclude that History itself serves as a kind of revelation, a revelation that will teach us much about ourselves, and God Himself indirectly.

Apart from a Christian context, History, however interesting, would have no real meaning for us beyond mere entertainment.  We will keep returning to these foundational truths, for History makes no sense without them. I told the students that this class may have started in an unexpected way for them, but we cannot understand History without understanding mankind, and we cannot understand mankind without understanding who God is. Next week, we will attempt to understand what makes a “civilization,” and how civilizations function.


Dave Mathwin

The Ties that Bind

In his Jurguthine War the Roman historian Sallust detours from his main narrative to discuss the rivalry between Carthage and Cyrene (an ancient Greek colony near modern day Libya).  In one instance the two powers thought of a novel way to settle the problem between their civilizations without the continuance of war.*  Sallust relates,

Since the affairs of the people of Lepcis have brought us to this region, it seems fitting to relate the noble and memorable act of two Carthaginians; the place calls the event to mind. At the time when the Carthaginians ruled in the greater part of Africa, the people of Cyrene were also strong and prosperous. Between that city and Carthage lay a sandy plain of monotonous aspect. There was neither river nor hill to mark the frontiers, a circumstance which involved the two peoples in bitter and lasting strife.

After many armies and fleets had been beaten and put to flight on both sides, and the long struggle had somewhat wearied them both, they began to fear that presently a third party might attack victors and vanquished in their weak state. They therefore called a truce and agreed that on a given day envoys should set out from each city and that the place where they met should be regarded as the common frontier of the two peoples. Accordingly, two brothers were sent from Carthage, called Philaeni, and these made haste to complete their journey. Those from Cyrene went more deliberately. Whether this was due to sloth or chance I cannot say, but in those lands a storm often causes no less delay than on the sea; for when the wind rises on those level and barren plains, it sweeps up the sand from the ground and drives it with such violence as to fill the mouth and eyes. Thus one is halted because one cannot see.  Now when the men of Cyrene realized that they were somewhat belated and feared punishment for their failure when they returned, they accused the Carthaginians of having left home ahead of time and refused to abide by the agreement; in fact they were willing to do anything rather than go home defeated. But when the Carthaginians demanded other terms, provided they were fair, the Greeks gave them the choice, either of being buried alive in the place which they claimed as the boundary of their country, or of allowing the Greeks on the same condition to advance as far as they wished. The Philaeni accepted the terms and gave up their lives for their country; so they were buried alive. The Carthaginians consecrated altars on that spot to the Philaeni brothers, and other honours were established for them at home. I now return to my subject . . . 

The matter-of-fact method in which Sallust relates this story should give us pause.  He obviously accepted this line of thinking — these were “fair” terms.  This was justice, this was life in the ancient pagan world.  The Philaeni brothers had no other choice.  The above passage brings to mind a more famous section of Sallust from his introduction:

I have often heard that Quintus Maximus, Publius Scipio, and other eminent men of our country, were in the habit of declaring that their hearts were set mightily aflame for the pursuit of virtue whenever they gazed upon the masks of their ancestors. Of course they did not mean to imply that the wax or the effigy had any such power over them, but rather that it is the memory of great deeds that kindles in the breasts of noble men this flame that cannot be quelled until they by their own prowess have equalled the fame and glory of their forefathers.

One can’t help but chuckle a bit at the comment that “of course” the masks did not have “any such power over them.”  They simply dedicated their lives to all the masks represented, that’s all.

The western world will likely to continue to experience something of a pagan revival, and elsewhere I commented that bringing out into the open what lies subtly buried in our unconscious has something to recommend it.  But we should have no illusions.  Evidence abounds that if we revive paganism we will build for ourselves cattle-shoots from which we have no escape.  We will exchange the freedom we claim to hold dear for chains.

Indeed, Chesterton spoke rightly when he declared that whereas Christianity has elements of anguish and pain at the periphery, joy occupies the core.  Pagan religions, however, have joyous elements in them only at the periphery, but at their center stands defeat and despair.  Any surface familiarity with the ancient world bears this out.  Hector must fight Achilles and lose, just as Troy must face destruction. Not even Zeus himself can stop it.  Oedipus cannot avoid his fate, though he take every counter-measure possible. Even the “realist” historian Thucydides sees events in cyclical form — what happened before will happen again. For the Norse as well, in the end the good guys lose.  It is this magnificent sense of the tragic that gives such tales their grandeur and power, but who wants to get inside such stories?

As the excerpts from Sallust indicates, shame seems to bind the ancients more than anything else.  The Philaeni brothers accepted a brutal death rather than accept what must have been a worse fate awaiting them back home — the shame of failure.  Republican Romans took their obsession with reputation and drove their civilization straight over a cliff in the 2nd century B.C.  The ancients had no escape from shame because ultimately paganism puts all the focus on the self.  Judas, for example, could only see his sin, but Peter runs to the empty tomb — he had bigger and better things on his mind than his Friday morning betrayal.  Peter had an “out” from his past.  As Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “When [Jesus] ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (emphasis mine). Neither ones society nor ones past should be denied or destroyed.  Both are part of God’s creation and God’s plan. But both can be transcended and transformed, and with this hope we approach something akin to true freedom.


*The story reminds me of the “Oath of the Horatii” narrated by Livy.  Whether or not that lends credence to the historicity of Sallust’s tale I suppose depends on what one thinks of Livy’s narrative.




8th Grade: Rome Wins the Lottery


This week we looked at how the Roman Republic declined after their victory in the 2nd Punic War, starting around 200 B.C. and ending around 80 B.C.  How did this happen?  Rome by this time had conquered most of the Mediterranean and had undisputed dominance.  This would seem to be the time to celebrate and enjoy the fruits of your labor, not internal dissension.  Why did it happen?  We can advance a variety of theories. . .

1. Rome Wins the Lottery

Who would refuse a winning lottery ticket?  In conquering so much territory and vastly increasing their wealth, Rome in a sense, won the lottery when they won the 2nd Punic War.  And yet, most who win the lottery report being less happy overall.  Perhaps because. . .

  • Lottery winners have increased responsibilities which they are not used to having
  • More possibility of tension exists between family and friends.  Suppose I threw a dime in the middle of class and said that whoever got it could keep it.  How hard would the students work to get it, and how disappointed would they be if they lost?  Now imagine I throw $1 million into the room.  How many friendships would fray and break over who got that much money?

2. The Fighting Ethic

Rome defined themselves largely through their victories in war, their fighting prowess.  Now that no external enemy threatens them, they might turn that ethic on each other.

3. Wealth and Laziness

Wealth can curse us in other ways.  With great wealth one can avoid responsibility and buy yourself out of difficulties rather than face them head on.  Great wealth could hypothetically exempt you from accountability.

We see this “escape from accountability in Rome’s new tax laws. No one likes to pay taxes.  With all of their conquests, Rome transferred the tax burden to the provinces and exempted themselves.

But in theory at least, paying taxes helps keep our government officials accountable to us. Ultimately we answer to who pays us.   By eliminating taxes they greatly reduced government’s need to answer to the people, and so naturally Rome’s republic declined.

4. Roman Tradition

As we discussed earlier, Rome guided itself heavily with tradition.  But acquiring vast amounts of territory (indicated by the map below) over such a short time brought big changes to how Rome functioned.  Being a Mediterranean empire meant

  • A sharp, quick rise of a new merchant class in financial and political power
  • The need for a professional paid army that deployed for long periods
  • The need to decide what to do with the thousands of landless refugees in part created through Roman conquests.

Unfortunately, the structure of the Republic made it very difficult to change things, and almost ensured that the status quo remained in effect (a byproduct of Rome’s love for tradition).  As the political process stagnated, Rome fell back on what they did best — violence.

The conflict between the Patrician Class (Rome’s oldest aristocratic families) and the Plebians (those who at least in theory supported “the people”) flared up during this time.  As we touched on, outside enemies could unite these two groups, but without that, the chances that the old divisions between them would flare up increased.  They did, and certain plebian leaders began to attempt to break down Rome’s venerable political system to make it more equitable, at least in their eyes.  The patrician class reacted by murdering plebian leaders like the Graachi brothers.

Violence by itself rarely solves any problem.  Usually it only raises the stakes by provoking an equal counter-reaction (this is not to say that force can never be part of the solution, but it can’t be the only solution).  The plebians pushed harder against Tradition, and the Senate responded in kind.  Soon both sides violated tradition willy-nilly and power seemed to be the only cause.  This will not bode well for Rome’s future, and we look look at the disintegration of Rome’s Republic next week.


Dave M