Herodotus (c. 484-c.425 B.C.E.) is generally recognized as the “Father of History.” Following the tradition of the Homeric epics, Herodotus sets out to chronicle the great and heroic deeds of men. Unlike Homer, however, Herodotus writes of the historic past in an attempt to understand the causes and origins of the war between the Greeks and Persians that culminated in the early years of his life. In this selection, Herodotus chronicles the desperate stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, as the Greeks struggled with an overwhelmingly large Persian invasion force.
G. Rawlinson, The History of Herodotus (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1910)
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Florentine poet who bridged the artistic cultures of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. Dante’s approach to his poetry foreshadowed the Renaissance with his use of vernacular Italian rather than Latin, and his frequent allusion to classical Greek and Roman literature and history. However, his subject matter was typically Medieval; the Divine Comedy trilogy concerns questions of salvation and of humanity’s relationship with God. It is designed as an imagined explorations of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Paradise, set in the year 1300. Echoing some of the issues of the Investiture Controversy, Dante was also troubled with the church’s continued interest in secular matters, and the continued influence of secular leaders over the church. The following Canto from the first part of the Divine Comedy is about priests (especially popes) who bribed their way into office. To buy one’s office is the sin of simony, named for Simon Magus who in the New Testament Book of Acts attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Inferno of Dante Alghieri (London: JM Dent and Co. 1900)
Constantine the Great (272–337 BCE) became Roman emperor in 306; by 312 he had defeated his most powerful rival for power. Secure in his political power, Constantine quickly turned to matters of religion. He was responsible for issuing the Edict of Milan, along with Lucinius (a co-emperor and another rival) in 313. This Edict officially made Christianity legal within the empire. This was only the first of many steps Constantine took to promote Christianity.
Constantine also took on a leadership role in relation to the church. In 325, Constantine summoned a church council at Nicaea, to combat heresy and define a statement of belief, or a creed. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, recorded the events of the council and the creed in his Ecclesiastical History, one of the most important sources for the history of early Christianity.
Eusebius, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine. (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1844),120-126
The Roman Empire in the West dissolved under the twin pressures of external invasion and internal decay, but the richer, more urban eastern half of the empire survived. Transformed by Christianity, truncated by the early Islamic conquests, and predominantly Greek rather than Latin in culture, what became known as the Byzantine Empire was nonetheless the direct heir of Rome and preserved Roman wisdom about dealing with peoples like the Huns—peoples Byzantine writers often referred to as Scyths, using the Classical Greek name for the steppe nomads of Herodotus’s time. In short, Byzantine dealings with steppe powers was informed by a combination of practical politics and learning based on literary tradition. And the need for successful relations with the steppe powers north of the Black Sea was pressing between 600 and 900, a period when Byzantium was largely on the defensive against the vastly superior power of the Islamic caliphate while also facing threats in the Balkans and in Italy. Alliance with the nomadic power of the moment in order to provide a counterthreat to Arab power was a necessity of survival. One of the best examples of Byzantine official culture, containing a clear statement of these diplomatic imperatives, is the treatise called De Administrando Imperio (“On the Administration of the Empire”) by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905–959). Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”—that is, the legitimate heir of a reigning emperor—and Constantine took his heritage seriously. He came to the throne early in life, but achieved full power, free from the domination of regents representing the military aristocracy, only in middle age. In the meantime, he had become a student of classical literature and a prolific writer and compiler, mostly of treatises such as this one. Composed between 948 and 952, the treatises were aimed at educating his own son Romanus in the duties and intricacies of running the empire. The selections here focus on the Pechenegs, the dominant steppe power north of the Black Sea in Constantine’s time, and form part of a survey of the lands and peoples surrounding the empire.
Selections from Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gy. Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, rev. ed., 49–55, 167–71. 1967 Dumbarton Oaks.
A Latin scholar, poet, and biographer, Boccaccio (1313–1375) is most famous today as the author of the Decameron. This compilation of 100 tales, by turns serious, bawdy, and irreverent, purports to be a rendition of the stories told over the course of 10 days by 10 young men and women who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death. Many of the tales are based on older legends, and they frequently reflect the humor of the common people of the era, often at the expense of their spiritual and social betters. Religious authorities were frequent targets of this sort of satire, reflecting their ubiquitous presence in the lives of medieval Europeans, as well as, perhaps, a deep undercurrent of resentment regarding their privileges.
Giovanni Boccaccio, “Putting the Devil Back in Hell” (3.10), from The Decameron: Selected Tales / Decameron: Novelle scelte, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000), 87–93.
René Descartes (1596–1650) has been called the Father of Modern Philosophy because of his work in philosophy, metaphysics, theology, and mathematics. Perhaps best known for the groundbreaking maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes lays out a method for creating solid foundations upon which he can build theoretical arguments—an epistemology known as Cartesianism. The Discourse moves from autobiography to philosophical tract and recounts how Descartes came to the thoughts and processes that redefined philosophy.
From René Descartes, A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Trans. Ian Maclean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 5–11, 28–30, 374.
The humanist and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) is best known for his Italian treatise, The Prince, on Renaissance city-state rulers—but his Discourses on Livy better clarify his republican ideals. In the response to Roman historian Livy, Machiavelli traces the origins of “good” republics. He comments on the maintenance of liberties, the role of religion, and the danger of societal fragmentation through conspiracy.
From Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy. Trans. Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 31–2, 53–6, 256–8, 275.
Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) was a wealthy lawyer with good political connections. Like many such figures in the Renaissance, he also had cultural and intellectual ambitions. In his later years he wrote a brilliant History of Italy that was one of the first works of history to combine the use of extensive archival records and a critical attitude toward political motivations and intentions. His History of Florence, however, is the work of a young man trying to feel his way in an unfamiliar discipline. Its most incisive passage is translated below and provides a closely observed portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492), who ruled Florence from 1469 until his death. (Guicciardini, of course, did not know Lorenzo personally, being only nine years old when the ruler died.)
Translation by Clifford R. Backman
World Economic Forum
The Global Gender Gap Report was introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006 to analyze disparities between genders in a worldwide context. It assesses national gender gaps in political, economic, health, and education-related areas and ranks countries according to data, allowing comparisons across regions, time, and income groups. According to the report’s introduction, these rankings “are designed to create greater awareness among a global audience of the challenges posed by gender gaps and the opportunities created by reducing them.” This excerpt looks at women’s impact on economic growth through increased education, participation in the labor force, and women’s role as consumers, or the “power of the purse.”
From “The Global Gender Gap,” World Economic Forum, 2010. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2010.pdf (downloaded November 20, 2012).
Agatharcides of Cnidus
The societies and trade networks that flourished along the Red Sea (or “Erythraean Sea” as the Greeks called it) in antiquity were well documented by writers of many different cultures. Gold was one of the most sought after trade items. In the second century BCE, a Greek historian named Agatharchides of Cnidus vividly described the dangerous circumstances under which gold was mined in Nubia.
Agatharchides of Cnidus, “The Gold Mines of Lower Nubia,” from Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum, Stanley Burstein, ed. (New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997); pp. 49-52.
This is a small sample of the array of painted, scratched, and scribbled graffiti archaeologists have discovered on the walls of the city of Pompeii, which was sealed in ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, eds., Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 276–278.
Having failed to defeat the Athenians in their first attempt in 490 BCE, the Persians launched a massive invasion of the entire Greek peninsula in 480, under the leadership of Darius’s successor, Xerxes. Thirty-one Greek cities agreed to band together to resist this force of (according to Herodotus) 1,700,000 Persian soldiers, in addition to a sizeable naval contingent. Herodotus envisions a conversation between Xerxes and the Spartan defector Demaratus shortly before the first major confrontation between Persia and the Greeks at Thermopylae. In answer to the king’s question, Demaratus claims that the Greeks will prove more difficult to defeat than Xerxes expects.
Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1954), 403–405.
Titus Livy was born in the last century BCE (either 59 or 64 BCE) in northern Italy. Livy was a Roman patriot, and his history reflected his pride in Rome’s accomplishments. Unfortunately, only about a quarter of his original History survives. Nonetheless, it is still the best single source for Roman history, and for the parts of his History that survive, Livy is an irreplaceable primary source.
The incident related in the passage presented here involves an extremely rare instance of public political protest on the part of the women of Rome. The issue was the proposed repeal of the Lex Oppia, or Oppian Law. In 215 BCE during the Second Punic Wars, one of Rome’s three great conflicts with Carthage over dominance in the western Mediterranean, the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal inflicted a devastating defeat on the Romans at the battle of Cannae. In the wake of that defeat, the Oppian Law was passed, prohibiting women from having more than half an ounce of gold, wearing clothes in public adorned with expensive purple dye, or riding in a carriage except on religious holidays. These restrictions were implemented to suppress public displays of wealth at a time when Romans were forced by Hannibal’s successes to undergo enormous sacrifices in order to raise and equip new armies. In 195 BCE a movement arose, supported by public demonstrations by women, to repeal the restrictions. The women appealed to the consuls. One of them, Marcus Porcius Cato, adamantly opposed repeal, and the other consul, Lucius Valerius, supported repeal.
Women were denied political rights in Rome. In fact, Roman law invested the father of the family with extraordinarily broad powers (patria potestas), including even the right to kill unwanted children at birth. During the Republic, women were ordinarily under the control (manus) of their husbands, and other women had guardians who made all major decisions. The protest was a real-life effort by women to make themselves heard.
From Livy in History of Rome, Book XXXIV 1-H, Roland Mellor, ed., The Historians of Ancient Rome, 1998, 332–33, 335–36, 338. Routledge, a division of Taylor & Francis Books, LTD.
Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) took office at a time of reform in the Catholic Church. In the wake of Vatican II (1962–1965), he extended the reforming spirit of John XXIII. Nonetheless, in the 1960s attendance at Catholic Mass continued to decline. Conservatives argued that the reforms were to blame. Liberals argued that the church’s ban on contraception and its refusal to allow women priests were the real culprits. The availability of the the Pill in 1961 put contraception front and center in the church. Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), Paul VI’s historic encyclical, was the result of several years of research on his part. Sex, he argued, produces offspring but also expresses human love. As such all forms of artificial contraception were to be rejected, leaving every sexual union open to the possibility of new life. This line of reasoning did not bring new converts to the church.
From Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. American Eccesiastical Review 159: 290–300 (1968).
Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE) was the most important Greek writer of his age. He is best known for his Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. In the Lives, he attempted to present moral lessons by describing the lives of famous Greeks and Romans who exemplified specific virtues.
The subject of this selection from Plutarch's Lives is Gaius Julius Caesar (102 BCE-44 BCE). In this particular piece by Plutarch, it is believed that the opening paragraphs of this story, likely describing Caesar's birth and youth, are lost. Caesar is a key figure in Rome's transformation from republic to empire. Through a series of political alliances and military actions, he would rise into power and prominence – ultimately gaining full power through civil war in 49 BC and naming himself dictator for life. Under his rule, Rome underwent extensive changes through social and political reforms. His actions, however, clashed with many in the empire, including friend Marcus Junius Brutus, and would ultimately lead to his assassination on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 BCE.
Plutarch, The Parallel Lives. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin (London: Loeb Classical Library, 1919)
An Italian astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) made many significant contributions to science—such as improvements to the telescope and work with sunspots—but is remembered for his support of a heliocentric model of the solar system. His conviction led him into conflict with the Catholic Church; he was accused of heresy and finished his days under house arrest. Aside from his astronomical texts, Galileo also corresponded with leading figures of his day. This letter, to the Benedictine mathematician Benedetto Castelli, addresses one of the main articles of the problem with Galileo’s heliocentrism: how to reconcile observable scientific fact with the words of the Bible, held to be literal and inviolable in 17th-century Italy.
From Galileo Galilei, Selected Writings. Trans William R. Shea and Mark Davie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 55–61.
This letter, which Petrarca (1304–1374) never finished, represents something of an autobiographical obituary. In it he offers a summary of his life and achievements, which, interestingly, does not include the vernacular love poetry. He wanted above all to be remembered as a scholar, a lover of classical antiquity, and a Latin poet—above all, as the author of the (paralyzingly dull) epic poem Africa, about the Roman general Scipio Africanus. Petrarca carries his life story as far forward as 1341; he left no notes about what he intended to include in the presumed second half of the letter.
Translation by Clifford R. Backman
This famous letter is often cited as an early sign of Galileo’s inevitable conflict with church authorities over the Copernican system of planetary motion—and the theory’s theological, as well as its scientific, ramifications. Galileo (1564–1642) would be condemned to house arrest in 1632 and forced to make a public repudiation of the heliocentric theory first advanced by Copernicus in the sixteenth century. However, Galileo’s connection to the renowned Medici family of Florence was also cause for comment—and caution—from 1610, when he received an appointment and an implicit endorsement from them.
Constructing a telescope in 1609 (which he proudly claimed could “magnify objects more than 60 times”), Galileo trained it on the moons of Jupiter, which he tracked over several days in 1610. Having named these objects for the Medici family, he rushed these and many other astronomical observations into print in the Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger). Inviting other scientists to “apply themselves to examine and determine” these planetary motions, Galileo demonstrated a preference for the Copernican theory and elicited sharp responses, particularly from church officials. In 1615, the dowager Grand Duchess Christina, mother of his patron, Cosimo II, expressed her own reservations about the implications of the Copernican theory for a passage in the Old Testament. Galileo’s response attempts, or seems to attempt, to reconcile experimental science and received religion.
Galileo Galilei, The Essential Galileo, ed. and trans. Maurice A. Finocchiaro (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008), §4.2.5—4.2.6, 140–144.
An architect and fresco-painter in his own right—and even an apprentice to Michelangelo in his youth—Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) is most fondly remembered for his personal accounts of roughly two hundred celebrated artists of Renaissance Italy. Using art historical analysis, Vasari talks capably about the production and technical elements of paintings, ambitious architectural projects, metalworking, and sculpture. Charming anecdotes about the greats—Giotto, Michelangelo, Botticelli, etc.—bring to life the world inhabited by these incredibly talented individuals. The Life of Donatello (1386–1466) provides glimpses into the artistic temperament exemplified by Cellini (Document 11.6), while the Preface to Part III provides an overview of artistic development throughout the Renaissance.
From Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists. Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 147–9, 153–4, 159–60, 277–9, 281–3.
Just before his death in Babylon in June 323 BCE, Alexander the Great was the unrivalled conqueror of an enormous portion of the known world, counting modern Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan among his possessions. However, when he died, leaving his kingdom “to the strongest,” conflicts immediately broke out among his Macedonian successors to determine who that strongest man was. A part of the military and political struggle that followed was an attempt to Hellenize, with varying levels of success, the older and more entrenched cultures Alexander had defeated as he raced through Africa and Asia. This process continued for the next three centuries, and, in the mid-second century BCE, one of these successor kings, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attempted a brutal imposition of Greek cultural values on the Jews in Jerusalem. This effort, and the revolt it triggered, is described in the apocryphal (i.e., not part of the standard canon) Jewish book of 1 Maccabees. Notice that the Hellenistic era did not appear to everyone to have been a fortuitous blending of disparate cultures.
The Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1957), 190–192.