Arachidamia of Sparta

The Greeks did not have a good track record on women’s rights in the ancient world.  However, there was an anomaly in a strange place.  The city-state of Sparta was not generally a tolerant place.  Men were expected to give life long service to the military and boys were separated from their families to build esprit de corps.  A coming of age ritual was killing a slave and not getting caught.  It was a messed up place. (For more on the Spartans, please see these posts: and )  However,  women there were given extraordinary rights.  This was because the men were off fighting and the women were left to take care of everything else.  Spartan women were quite formidable.   Arachidamia was one such woman.

She was born in Sparta in the third century BCE and in due time became the wife of Eudamidas I and bore him a son, the future Archidamus IV. Not much is known about her until Sparta came under attack by the forces of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 273 BCE.  Pyrrhus was a legendary general, whose reputation gave even the Spartans pause.  Although he was at the end of his career, Pyrrhus had agreed to come out for one last hurrah by a rival contender for the Spartan throne.  The king and the bulk of the army were off fighting somewhere else.  This was a slam dunk.

The Spartan Gerousia, or council of elders, knew they were outmanned and outgunned and started to make plans.  They decided it would be best to send the women and children to the relative safety of Crete and then mount a defence of the city.  The Gerousia discussing this proposal when Arachidamia let them know she had other plans.  She marched in with a sword and asked the men how the expected Spartan women to survive the destruction of their city.   She declared every woman and child would step up to the defense.

And they did not falter.  Part of the defense plan was to dig a trench parallel to Pyrrhus’ army’s camp.  Arachidamia organized the women and children to dig, and the completed at least one third of it themselves.  It was in the nick of time as Pyrrhus attacked with 20,000 men and 5,000 elephants.  But Sparta was ready.  During the heat of the battle, some of the women pulled wounded to safety and nursed them while others fought alongside the men.  Together,  the pushed back the enemy and saved Sparta.  Pyrrhus fled to Argos and was beheaded by a falling statue.  I want to believe a Spartan woman pushed it, but that is completely my own fiction.

So, dear reader, don’t go after the home of formidable woman.  You’ll end up stomped.


Eclipses- Historical Harbingers

Total solar eclipse Photo Credit- By I, Luc Viatour

If you’ve been anywhere near the news, you would have seen that a solar eclipse happened in the continental United States yesterday.  I have to admit it was a pretty amazing experience as I was lucky enough to be in the path of totality.  As the sky went dark and the crickets started chirping, I thought about what it must have been like for those in the past.  They didn’t have the benefit of NASA and other scientists telling us that this was normal, the Sun would come back and to wear protective glasses.  How did people through the ages deal with eclipses?

One of the first references we have of an eclipse is from a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland.  This is near the passage tomb of New Grange, which is also from around the same time.  (For more on New Grange, please see this post )  These date back to around 3340 BCE, and scientists have calculated that a solar eclipse occurred on November 30, 3340 BCE.  According to Irish archaeoastronomer Paul Griffin, the monument was in the path of totality, meaning the entire solar disc was obscured.  Decoding the carvings on the rock, Griffin was able to deduce they were recording the eclipse, making it one of the first records of such an event.  Inside the monument, the charred remains of 48 humans were found.  It has been hypothesized this was a human sacrifice to “bring back” the Sun from the underworld.  

The Chinese and Babylonian cultures began to predict eclipses with high accuracy.  The Babylonians believed an eclipse was an evil omen for the ruler.  The Chinese believed the Sun was being eaten by a large dragon during an eclipse.  An ancient book of documents called the Shu Ching, described the eclipse in October 22, 2134 BCE.  The emperor charged two astronomers, Hsi and Ho, to predict the eclipse so archers could be stationed to defend the Sun from the dragon.  Unfortunately for Hsi and Ho, they got massively drunk and failed to alert the warriors and were beheaded for dereliction of duty.  Similar mythology describing the Sun as being stolen is found around the world, but it was not always a dragon to blame.  The Vietnamese people believed the Sun was being eaten by a giant frog, and the Norse people blamed a wolf.  In Korea, they believed dogs were stealing the Sun.  Because of this, many cultures gathered together to bang drums or even pots and pans to scare away whatever was trying to steal or eat the Sun.

On the other side of the world, the Inuits believed the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with her brother Anningan, the Moon god.  An eclipse happened when Annigan caught up with his sister.  The Pomo, another Native American tribe, believed a bear got into a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. The bear was apparently hungry and went on to take a bite out of the moon two weeks later, explaining why there is a lunar eclipse usually two weeks after a solar one.  In the Africa, the Batammaliba tribe in Benin and Togo, believed the Sun and the moon were at war and the only way to keep them from permanently damaging each other was to end human conflicts.

Eclipse Icon at Loughcrew 3340 BCE Photo Credit-

The ancient Greeks also believed that an eclipse was an omen of evil tidings.  Historian Herodotus tells of an eclipse on May 28, 585 BCE that prompted a cease fire between the Lydians and the Medes.   In the middle of the Battle of Halys, the sky turned dark and the battling armies took this as a sign the gods wanted them to stop.  A truce was negotiated and the battle was renamed the Battle of the Eclipse.  Another eclipse changed the course of Greek history.  At the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and eclipse occurred on August 27, 413 BCE.  At that time, the Athenians were attempting to dislodge the Syracusans from Sicily.  Their commander, Nicias, was extremely superstitious and postponed the fleet’s departure because of the eclipse.  This gave the Syracusans enough time to stage another attack in which the Athenians were defeated.  This marks the beginning of the decline of Athenian dominance in the region.

The Christian gospels tell of the sky darkening during the day at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some archaeoastronomers believe that Jesus’ death coincided with a solar eclipse and have tried to use this to pinpoint the exact date.  There are historical records of solar eclipses in the year 29 and 32, but no one has proof of which date is correct.  Following along with the bad omen belief, another solar eclipse affected the life of Louis the Pious.  He was the third son of Charlemagne and inherited the Holy Roman Empire.  It is reported he witnessed the eclipse on May 5, 840 and was convinced it was a warning of impending punishment from God and died of fright soon after.  This plunged the kingdom into civil war for three years.  There was also said to be an eclipse right before the death of Henry I of England on August 2, 1133, which reinforced the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.  The solar eclipses on January 8, 1777 and again on June 24, 1778 was bad news for George III.  The one in 1777 proceeded the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and the one in 1778 proceeded the victory of the Americans at the Battle of Monmouth.

Despite the beliefs and myths, the ancients were able to use information about eclipses to further scientific knowledge.  Aristotle observed the shadow of the Earth on the moon was curved and hypothesized the Earth was round.  Another Greek astronomer named Aristarchus used a lunar eclipse to estimate the distance of the Moon and Sun from the Earth.  Yet other astronomers observed the existence of the Sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse.  Astronomers Liu Hsiang, Plutarch and Leo Diaconus were pioneers in eclipse data.  However, it was not until 1605 that Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.  The first In modern times, Sir Arthur Eddington tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  During the May 29, 19191 solar eclipse he confirmed that starlight bent around the Sun by measuring the position of certain stars.  This was predicted by Einstein’s theory that massive objects caused distortions in space and time.

We no longer have the same superstitions about eclipses, but it is thought to be a time of change.  A nice way to put it is ending patterns that do not serve and beginning new healthy ones.  Enjoy the skies in good health and good spirits!


Ancient Who Dunnit-  The Death of Philip II of Macedon

Ivory bust of Philip II found in a Macedonian Tomb
Vergina Museum

Philip had been the ruler of Macedon for twenty-three years and was currently on wife number seven.  He had turned Macedonia into a force to reckoned with by revolutionizing the army into a efficient fighting force.  He subdued Greece and conquered the surrounding territories.  Now he had a raft of children from his various wives.  His son, Alexander, was from wife number four, Olympias, whom he divorced and was Greek to boot.  Even though Alexander was older, the oldest son did not always get the throne and Philip and wife seven had a young son named Caranus.  In fact, there had been an incident where members of the court expressed opinions that the heir should be a pure Macedonian.  Alexander took exception and words exchanged and Alexander and his mother were exiled temporarily.

In October 336, Philip was celebrating the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra, to King Alexander of Epirus.  They were also celebrating Philip’s upcoming invasion of Asia.  Philip arranged lavish musical competitions and feasts in the bridal pair’s honor.  Everyone who was anyone in Greece showed up to be apart of the party.  At the beginning of one of the competitions after a night of hard drinking, Philip went to the theater of Aegae in procession with twelve statues of the gods.  His bodyguards were dismissed according to some sources and following at a distance according to others.  This was to prove Philip was all powerful and didn’t need such things.

According to the account from Diodorus of Sicily, Philip was having an affair with one of his bodyguards, a man named Pausanias.  This was not unusual in Greek society.  The first Pausanias was upset that the King’s eye had been caught by a second Pausanias.  The first Pausanias had earlier insulted the second Pausanias, who complained to his friend Attalus.  All kinds of unsavory things happened, which resulted in the second Pausanias being killed and the first Pausanias being raped.  Pausanias complained to Philip about Attalus, but he did nothing.  Pausanias was angry and decided to get his revenge on both Attalus and Philip.  When he saw Philip was without his bodyguards, Pausanias rushed forward and stabbed him in the chest with a Celtic dagger.  Then he bolted to escape while half the bodyguards went after him in hot pursuit.  He was killed by one of them, and that was that.  Alexander became king.

Gold Medallion of Olympias
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

But was this really what happened?  Many historians believe Olympias had something to do with the plot.  She and Philip had a contentious relationship, which Olympias urging her brother to declare war on her ex husband.  Incidentally, Cleopatra was marrying this brother, so it is possible since outright war was not possible to move more subtly.  She certainly had a motive.  Even though the Macedonians wanted a “pure heir”, they were less likely to choose a child over a grown man proven in battle.  That would put her son on the throne, and her back in a position of power.  Indeed, once back in the saddle she forced Philip’s seventh wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, commit suicide after she killed her children with Philip.  This was not a woman who played at trifles.

Historians are divided as to whether Alexander was involved in the assassination or not.  He also had motive, and had recently quarreled with his father.  Also, the bodyguards who went after Pausanias and killed him were close friends with Alexander.  It is possible they were silencing him before he could spill the beans about their patron’s involvement.  There are theories that the bodyguards may have executed this plan on their own without Alexander’s knowledge.

What is known is Philip was buried in a lavish tomb and Alexander went out to conquer the known world.  A treasure filled tomb was found in 1977, and historians are undecided whether it was Philip’s tomb or the tomb of Alexander’s successor and half brother, Philip III Arrhidaios.  The skeleton does have a notch in the eye socket which was consistent with a battle wound that left Philip’s face disfigured.  Historians are still divided on this point.



Max Klinger 1857-1920: Kassandra. Photo Credit- Maicar Förlag – GML

Cassandra is a popular figure and made many appearances in Greek  plays and poems.  Her predicament even inspired a name for a present day problem-  the Cassandra Syndrome.  So who was this lady whose name inspires even today?

Cassandra was born a princess of Troy, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba and the fraternal twin sister of Helenus.  She was the most beautiful of their daughters and as such attracted divine attention.  Homer tells a tale that she and her brother Helenus spent the night in Apollo’s temple where the temple snakes licked their ears clean so they were able to hear the future.  Cassandra was a priestess of Apollo and vowed to be chaste for life.

However, Apollo had different ideas.  He saw her and fell in love on the spot.  From here stories differ, some say Cassandra spurned him outright.  Other stories say she offered herself to him in return for the gift of prophecy then refused him.  However, she got her gift of prophecy it was quickly turned into a curse.  Insulted at being spurned by a mortal woman, Apollo cursed Cassandra so that no one believed any of her prophecies.  He even made it so she fell into a kind of trance before she gave a prophecy with made everyone think she was insane.  Strangely, her brother Helenus was also always right but people believed him giving credence to Homer’s snake story.  She was seen as a liar and crazy person, and in some version of the story locked in pyramid within Troy on her father’s order.  She had one attendant, who was instructed to report any visions and prophecies she had.

In any case, people should have been listening because Cassandra predicted some of the great downfalls of the ancient world.  It was she who predicted the outbreak of the Trojan War by her brother, Paris’, abduction of Helen of Troy.  (For more on the Trojan War, please see this post  ) It is said when Helen came to Troy, Cassandra tore Helen’s golden veil and hair.  Again, reinforcing her reputation as a mad woman since the entirety of Troy welcomed Helen to the city.  She also warned against allowing the Trojan Horse inside the gates.  Again, no one listened and the Horse was dragged inside the gates.  In The Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus, Cassandra grabbed an ax and tried to destroy the Horse herself, but was stopped.  The famous phrase “Beware of Danaos (Greeks) bearing gifts” has been attributed to her.

As the slaughter of the fall of Troy raged, Cassandra attempted to take shelter in the Temple of Athena.  However, even though all supplicants were to be untouchable in the sanctuary of a god, she was not safe.  Ajax the Lesser grabbed her and raped her at the foot of Athena’s statue.  The rape was so brutal, that in some versions of the story, the statue turned its face away and gave a scream that made the temple floor shake.  Cassandra was taken to Agamemnon as a concubine.  However, Odysseus and other Greek leaders demanded Ajax be punished for his crime as it angered Athena.  Ajax then grabbed the same statute and demanded supplicant status so they left him alone.  Um…not so much.  However, the Greek leaders to were too chicken to punish him and let him go.  Athena caused Poseidon to delay the Greek’s journey home by sending ill winds, and Athena punished Ajax herself.  One legend says, she had Ajax’ ship hit with a thunderbolt, which killed many of his men.  Ajax apparently didn’t know when to quit, and as he hung onto a rock in the raging sea bragged the gods couldn’t kill him.  Hearing that Poseidon hit the rock with his trident, splitting it making him drown.  Another legend says, he was lifted up by a whirlwind and impaled with a firebot from Athena.  Then she left his body on the sharp rocks to rot.  Pro tip:  Don’t cross the gods.

Cassandra was taken by King Agamemnon to Mycenae and became his concubine.  Her gift of prophecy didn’t leave her as she predicted Agamemnon’s and her own death at the hands of Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus.  Cassandra was supposed to have born Agamemnon twin boys, Teledamus and Pelops, who were also killed.  In some versions, Cassandra by this time was truly mad after all of her warnings were disregarded time after time.  In other versions, she is simply frustrated and misunderstood.  In all versions, it’s a sad end to the story.

However, Cassandra was sent to the Elysian Fields after her death for her dedication to the gods.  In the 19th century, Heinrich Schleimann claimed he discovered her tomb in Mycenae.  In it were the remains of a woman with two infants.


Arrhichion – Olympic victor even in death

He was a champion pankratiast (martial art blending boxing and wrestling) in the ancient Olympic Games. He was the winner of the pankration at the 52nd and 53rd Olympiads. Little did he know that the 54th would be his last. His fatal fight was described by the geographer Pausanias and by Philostratus the Younger.

Pausanias states:

“For when he was contending for the wild olive with the last remaining competitor, whoever he was, the latter got a grip first, and held Arrhachion, hugging him with his legs, and at the same time he squeezed his neck with his hands. Arrhachion dislocated his opponent’s toe, but expired owing to suffocation; but he who suffocated Arrhachion was forced to give in at the same time because of the pain in his toe. The Eleans crowned and proclaimed victor the corpse of Arrhachion.”

The account by Philostratus’ is longer:

“Accordingly the antagonist of Arrichion, having already clinched him around the middle, thought to kill him; already he had wound his forearm about the other’s throat to shut off the breathing, while, pressing his legs on the groins and winding his feet one inside each knee of his adversary, he forestalled Arrichion’s resistance by choking him till the sleep of death thus induced began to creep over his senses. But in relaxing the tension of his legs he failed to forestall the scheme of Arrichion; for the latter kicked back with the sole of his right foot (as the result of which his right side was imperiled since now his knee was hanging unsupported), then with his groin he holds his adversary tight till he can no longer resist, and, throwing his weight down toward the left while he locks the latter’s foot tightly inside his own knee, by this violent outward thrust he wrenches the ankle from its socket.”

Philostratus also wrote that Arrichion’s failure to submit to his opponent was the result of his trainer, Eryxias, shouting to him, “What a noble epitaph, ‘He was never defeated at Olympia.'”

A victor statue of Arrhichion was set up at Phigalia; what is believed to be the same statue is now displayed in the museum at Olympia. It is one of the oldest dated Olympic victor statues.