I have an Ancient Rome problem
Fiction ain't got nothin' on the truth.
I’ve got a new obsession. A new old obsession. A renewed obsession in a very old topic. And that topic is the history of the ancient world—in particular, of Rome and Greece. I am well and truly convinced that the Histories of the ancient world are the best fantasy novels that have ever existed.
Imagine if your favorite fantasy novel were real. Like, Jon Snow was a real King in the North, and Cersei was a real-life evil Queen, and all of the crazy politicking and assassinating and battling they did in Game of Thrones actually happened way back when. That would be cool, right? It would be awesome to visit the ruins of Westeros and to inspect dragonglass daggers in museums. But of course, all of that shit was completely made up, and even though it’s based on historical events, it’s just fiction.
History is high-quality fantasy
But the history of the ancient world happened. And not only did it happen, but it’s batshit fucking insane and ancient scholars wrote it all down for us to enjoy today. Ancient Romans and Greeks were madmen by modern standards, but still had their own rigid codes of ethics and morality and behavior that completely made sense for the day. And the stories of how these people viewed the world and how they competed for power and wealth and glory can really stretch the modern reader‘s credulity. It’s literally hard to believe some of this shit happened.
Consider this story, taken from Plutarch’s Agesilaus. Plutarch was a Greek historian who became a Roman citizen and a consul (an elected leader of Rome) during the reign of Trajan (about 100 AD). Plutarch was a prolific and persuasive writer whose most cherished body of work is called the Parallel Lives. In the Lives, Plutarch paired a notable Roman figure with a notable Greek figure, first writing the biography of each and then writing a comparative analysis of their lives.
Agesilaus was a Spartan king who rose to power through a mix of merit and corruption. It is notable that Agesilaus was lame--that is, he had a bum leg or perhaps cerebral palsy. It's unclear today what his affliction was, but it was a visible deformity. And Sparta of the time of 450 BC or so was pretty much exactly like the movie 300. These dudes were hard. Deformed babies would generally be cast into chasms. But Agesilaus was the son of the previous Spartan king, and so instead of being cast into a chasm or raised into a noble station, he was allowed to complete his Spartan training with the common men.
And the common men generally loved Agesilaus. Despite his deformities, he was strong of will and knew how to fight. He lived liked a soldier in all respects, affording himself no pretentions or luxuries despite his wealth. I digress somewhat from my initial point, so suffice it to say that Agesilaus came to power through dangerous politicking involving oracles and prophecies, treacheries, murders, wars, and all kinds of other crazy shit.
Plutarch paired Agesilaus with Pompey--that is, the life of Gnaeus Pompey Magnus--Pompey the Great. Pompey might be the single most famous almost-was of the ancient world. He was Julius Caesar's dearest friend and most bitter rival. Rome literally never had a more celebrated general and conqueror than it had in Pompey Magnus. Caesar is often credited as a great general and conqueror--which he was--but where Caesar ultimately took his power, Pompey earned his through his service to Rome. And there are many great parallels to be seen in the lives of duty and service led by Pompey and Agesilaus, and also some notable differences in the two characters that led to their different outcomes. I won't spoil anything.
On naked Spartan warriors covered in oil.
But I digress very far indeed from my original point, which is that the stories told by Plutarch and other historians of the ancient era are full of little anecdotes that you couldn't even make up. And I love the vernacular and the prose. So let me set the stage for this passage, and you can get a sense for the type of anecdote. In this scene, Agesilaus finds himself out on campaign in the east, somewhere in modern-day Turkey or thereabouts, when he receives a summons from the Spartan senate to make haste home to defend from an unexpected attack.
Being ever the dutiful Spartan, he immediately abandoned his conquest effort and headed back toward Greece. This passage may give you a sense for who Agesilaus was, as it describes his march home.
And when he had crossed the Hellespont and was marching through Thrace, he made no requests of any of the Barbarians, but sent envoys to each people asking whether he should traverse their country as a friend or as a foe. All the rest, accordingly, received him as a friend and assisted him on his way, as they were severally able; but the people called Trallians, to whom even Xerxes gave gifts, as we are told, demanded of Agesilaus as a price for his passage a hundred talents of silver and as many women. But he answered them with scorn, asking why, then, they did not come at once to get their price; and marched forward, and finding them drawn up for battle, engaged them, routed them, and slew many of them.
So you get a sense of this man's character here. He told everyone in between his present location and Greece "I'm going home, don't bother me and I won't bother you" and then anybody who got in his way he royally fucked up, because he had to go save Sparta.
But again, I digress. The war that followed went on for years, and toward the war's end, Sparta's enemies--the Thebans--lead a direct assault on the city of Sparta. Agesilaus, now getting on in years, defends the city along with his son and their host of warriors.
Soon after his [Agesilaus'] arrival the Thebans were crossing the Eurotas and attacking the city, while Agesilaus defended it right vigorously and in a manner not to be expected of his years. For he did not think, as on a former occasion, that the crises demanded safe and cautious measures, but rather deeds of desparate daring. In these he had never put confidence before, nor had he employed them, but then it was only by their aid that he repelled the danger, snatching the city out of the grasp of Epaminondas [Theban general], erecting a trophy of victory...
Plutarch then describes various heroic deeds of Agesilaus' son, before he launches into the anecdote which is basically the entire point of this blog post.
But I think that Isidas, the son of Phoebidas, must have been a strange and marvellous sight, not only to his fellow-citizens, but also to his enemies. He was of conspicuous beauty and stature, and at an age when the human flower has the greatest charm, as the boy merges into the man. Naked as he was, without either defensive armour or clothing,--for he had just annointed his body with oil,--he took a spear in one hand, and a sword in the other, leaped forth from his house , and after pushing his way through the midst of the combatants, ranged up and down among the enemy, smiting and laying low all who encountered him. And no man gave him a wound, whether it was that a god shielded him on account of his valour, or that the enemy thought him taller and mightier than a mere man could be. For this exploit it is said that the ephors put a garland on his head, and then fined him a thousand drachmas, because he had dared to hazard his life in battle without armour.
So this beautiful naked Greek man covered in oil rips out of his house with a sword and a spear, kills dozens of bad guys, doesn't get a scratch, is hailed as a hero and then fined a thousand bucks. That is what I'm fuckin' talking about with Plutarch. Like, you can't make this shit up. And it's just one of the endless little stories contained in these histories.
It's not even close to the craziest story. Check out some stories about the invincible war party of 300 gay Thebans called the Sacred Band. It was basically 150 tops and 150 bottoms who swore an oath to defend each other to the death and they fuckin' meant it.
Don't take my word for it, take Caesar's
Probably the single coolest thing I have read, Plutarch aside, was written by the man himself. I was actually shocked to learn that this book even exists: Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War. I remember when I was first going down this rabbit hole, looking for things to read about Rome, and I was like..."wait a minute, why does this book say it was written by Julius Caesar? Some sort of error, surely."
But no! I can still hardly believe our forture as human beings to have in our possession a 2100 year old account of the deeds of one of the most influential figures in history, written by the fucking man himself. What better way to understand the mind of the man who shaped the western world than to read his very own words about his very own deeds. Sure, you have to take some of it with a grain of salt, as history is written by the victors. But this work really puts the truth to that old chestnut.
Caesar is a compelling author. He was regarded in his own time as a master of the Latin language and there can be no doubt that he had a considerable genius as well as an uncommon ability to motivate men. But he also displays a sort of humility in his writing. This work isn't a glow-up vanity piece, but a very detailed and rivetting account of his eight years of warfare in ancient Gaul (mostly modern day France, with parts of Italy, Switzerland, and the lowlands). Germany, back then, was basically already known as Germany.
And Caesar's writing also has some incredible details about the lives of ancient Gauls and Germans. Truly brutal stuff. You think Vikings were bad ass? Ancient Germans were some hard. core. dudes. Again, some of these stories are so bizarre as to almost be unbelievable.
So you can see that I have an Ancient History problem right now. You'll know when it's passed once I start writing about something else.