Aeschylus in the modern World

Orestes was a character in Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. He was the son of King Agamemnon, who was murdered by his vengeful wife, Clytemnestra, and her power-hungry lover, Aegisthus. Orestes had been in exile previous to his father’s death, and when he came home he found his father murdered and a strange man in charge of the household. With the help of his sister, Electra, he murdered Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Had he been living in modern times, Orestes’ course of action and the outcome of the story would have been very different.

The ancient Greeks had different religious values than modern-day people. In the modern world, most people have religions that govern ethical and moral activity, especially the Christian religions, which focused heavily on mercy and forgiveness. Christianity viewed God as morally perfect and just, but also merciful. The ancient Greek religion had little to do with morals, and the gods of the Greeks were far from morally perfect. The system of justice that came from the gods relied on vengeance. One murder will lead to another in a never-ending circle of revenge without any mercy.

If someone in the modern world  was murdered, the system of justice would not require another murder for it to be satisfied. There would be a jury of citizens in a court which would come to a conclusion based on evidence. And if the jury found the murderer to be guilty, a punishment would be to be dealt out by a judge. The system of justice would not require there to be a second round of murder to satisfy for the punishment imposed by the judge.

In the conclusion of the last play, a jury of citizens was assembled by Athena to make a verdict on the justification of Orestes’ murder of his mother, not on his guilt or innocence. Instead of finding him guilty or innocent, they found his actions not deserving of punishment, so as to end the circle of vengeance. This system of justice is very different from the modern system of justice, and the same circumstances of murder today would have a very different outcome.

The Five Good Emperors

The period from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian was fraught with tyranny, cruelty, and despotism. There was the insane cruelty of Calingula, the extreme tyranny of Nero, and the despotism of the self-proclaimed god Domitian, not to mention the iron-fist rule of all the other Roman emperors of the first-century. It is not difficult to see the relief that the five good emperors provided for the Roman people.

The Neva-Antonine dynasty, from 96-180, is known as the period of the five good emperors. They developed a system of succession that did not have to end in bloodshed, as in the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. Nerva, the first of the five, lowered taxes and lifted the special tax on Jews. He also welcomed banished citizens home, and restored their property. The next two focused on building projects, like the aquaducts built by Trajan, and Hadrian’s wall built by…Hadrian.

Antoninus Pius was the most generous of the emperors, famously remitting taxation to cities which had suffered a disaster. Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher who was a little hard on the early Christians, and a few were martyred under his reign. This was mainly due to the fact that he had only heard the argument from the enemies of Christianity. Up until this point, previous Nerva-Antonine emperors had chosen a successor who was not a blood relation. Marcus Aurelius chose his son, Commodus who ended the period of the five good emperors in 180 with his viciousness and incompetence.

There is a huge contrast between the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, and the Nerva-Antonine dynasty; the despotism of Caligula, Nero, Vespagian, and Domitian, and the relative peace and generosity of the five good emperors. The Roman people must have been relieved to have a dynasty free from tyranny.

Essay 5: On the Importance of Keystone Species

There are certain animals whose presence or absence has a substantial effect on their surrounding environment. These animal species are called keystone species. Keystone  species are crucial to the balance of an ecosystem.

Keystone species usually take the form of predators which keep potentially harmful herbivores from decimating the population of crucial plant species. A good example would be the sea otter, which keeps the population of sea urchins in check so that they cannot destroy the kelp forests which provide a habitat for various species. Another example would be the jaguar, which prevents the population of small mammals from exploding, which would throw of the balance of the forest’s ecosystem.

There are also keystone species which do not operate by keeping herbivores in check. These species engineer the environment and change the habitat in which other species live. The beaver makes dams which change rivers and streams into ponds and lakes, and provide a habitat for amphibians and certain insects. The prairie dog creates networks of tunnels which impact the environment in various ways.

Whether changing their habitat or keeping balance within a food chain, the absence of certain keystone species could throw the entire surrounding ecosystem seriously off balance.

Essay 4: On Viruses

What constitutes a living organism? There are four criteria: it must be able to replenish the energy it uses, it must be able to respond to external stimuli, it must be able to reproduce, and it must perform these actions with some degree of organization. There are organisms which perform some of these actions but not all of them, so they cannot be classified as living. These organisms are called viruses.

At its most basic, a virus is a small capsule of protein containing either DNA or RNA. There are two main classifications of virus; animal viruses and viruses which attack bacteria, or bacteriophages.  Bacteriophages inject their genome into a bacteria cell, which incorporates with the bacteria’s genome. This new sequence codes for the production of viral proteins which self-assemble into new viruses. Lysosomes destroy the cell membrane which kills the cell. This whole process is called the lytic cycle. There is a similar process called the lysogenic cycle, in which the virus proteins are not created or assembled until some external signal.

Animal viruses operate differently than bacteriophages. An animal virus it admitted into the cell inside of a vesicle. The virus injects its genome into the cytosol, and leaves the nucleus intact. The cell creates the proteins and the new viruses assemble and leave the cell without damaging it. An assembled virus is the lowest free energy state, so it does not require any extra energy to come together.

Viruses do not constitute living things. They do have a high degree of organization, and are able to respond, but they are missing some crucial criteria. They aren’t able to reproduce, because they require the assistance of the cell’s transcription and translation mechanisms to create the proteins they need. They can’t refuel, because they aren’t able to make their own DNA/RNA. Viruses are in sort of a limbo between living and non-living organisms. But who knows? Maybe the very definition of life will change someday in the light of new discoveries.

How Octavian Ascended to ”Augustus”

After Octavian had defeated Egypt, he had a choice to make. If he resigned, civil war would return; if he became absolutely powerful, as he thought was best, he would be despised and would probably come to a similar end as Caesar did. So what did he do?

Octavian realized that he needed to win over the public and the senate, so he distributed the  plunder gotten from Egypt to the citizens of Rome. He also pardoned landowners their tax debts. He came to the senate and relinquished the powers given to him to protect Rome. The senate, much impressed by this act of ”selflessness,” promptly bestowed them back upon him.

He continued as consul, and accepted administrations in Gaul, Spain, and Syria (where most of his legions were), along with miscellaneous other honors. When given the title ”Augustus,” meaning ”revered one” and reserved for very special places or things, he modestly preferred the title ”Princeps,” meaning ”first citizen” (although everyone knows him today as Augustus). After resigning his consulship, he received an imperium that could override any provincial governor. This he used tactfully so that people would not think he had too much power. He also received a tribunicia protestas-power of a tribune- which gave him civil authority in addition to his military authority and the foreign authority from his imperium.

Octavian had successfully acquired civil, military, and provincial power right under the noses of the senate and the Roman public. By keeping the exterior similar to the old republic, he was able to completely change the inner workings of the government from a republic to an empire without anybody noticing.


Tiberius Graccus and the Senate

Why was the ancient Roman senate so worried about the ambitious tribune, Tiberius Graccus? To find out we must start from the begining. In the wake of the second Punic war, Roman soldiers came home to find the countryside devastated. Their land useless for farming, the veterans sold it to the newly rich and moved into the city. There were not many job opportunities in the city for the veterans, because slaves did everything, and rejoining the army was not an option, because in order to do that you had to be a landholder.

Tiberius Graccus pursued a land reform that would distribute land to the veterans and thereby make them eligible for the military. He did not have enough support in the senate, so he bypassed it altogether and went straight to the concilium plebis (counsel of the plebs) . This was a major impropriety, because it was an unwritten law that you first had to get the consent of the senate before a bill was taken to the any of the assemblies. Now the senate had its eye on Tiberius.

The unwritten law of always getting the senate’s approval was one of three principles which the Roman government relied heavily on: always respecting the ruling of your co-magistrate, not having consecutive terms in any elected office, and of course, always getting the senate’s approval. The senate also traditionally managed all things pertaining to finances and foreign affairs.

The bill passed, but the senate intervened and refused to fund it. This probably would have been the end of it if the King of Pergamum had not bequeathed his entire Kingdom to Rome. Tiberius seized this opportunity and announced that tax revenues would fund his land commission. This supplanted the senate’s traditional custodianship of finances and foreign matters.

The senate influenced Tiberius’ co-tribune, Marcus Octavius, to veto the land reform bill. Tiberius then organized a special vote to remove Octavius from the office of Tribune. Tiberius won, and Octavius was removed. This violated the principle of collegiality, which stated that there had to be two magistrates  in each of the offices, and that they had to agree unanimously. Tiberius then proceeded to violate the third principle by running for a second consecutive term. The senate now viewed Tiberius as a great threat to Roman tradition.

At a political rally, things began heating up. Tiberius sensed his life was in danger and put his hand to his head to indicate this. The people at the rally misinterpreted this gesture and thought that Tiberius was calling for a crown. Someone told the senate and they rushed over to the rally, brandishing broken-off bench legs. When they found Tiberius, they beat him to death.

The senate was very worried about Tiberius Graccus. They weren’t so concerned about his land bill, because it passed soon after his death, and had a large influence. Tiberius was just too ambitious. His big mistake was threatening the only source of the senate’s power: tradition.



Aeschylus’s View of the Trojan War

Many works of Greek literature featured the Trojan war, and warfare in general, as a central theme. In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Trojan war was glorified and fought by heroic warriors for a noble cause. The mid 6th to 5th century BC playwright Aeschylus painted the Trojan war in a very different light in his play, Agamemnon.

In the play, the war with the Trojans had just ended and King Agamemnon was coming home. He had utterly devastated Troy and his soldiers looted and killed the defeated Trojans. There was no real victor in the war, because after the conquest of Troy all but one of Greece’s fleet sank in a storm.

Many results of the war were hatred and murder. In order to stop unfavorable winds, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis with a profane attitude, arousing the hatred of his wife, Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra then got revenge for the death of Iphigenia by killing Agamemnon. When he had come home, Agamemnon accused all of the warriors who had fought by his side of envy (except for Odysseus). In Homer’s Iliad, the warriors who fought in the Trojan war were enthusiastic about fighting for what they thought was a worthy cause. In Agamemnon, there was a speech made by a herald that showed what was thought of the war:

“If I told what we went through-the hardships,
 wretched quarters, narrow berths,
the harsh conditions-was there anything we did not complain about?
We had our share of trouble every day.
And then on shore things were even worse.
We had to camp right by the enemy wall.
It was wet-dew from the sky and marshes soaked us.
Our clothes rotted. Our hair grew full of lice.
And it was freezing. The winters there,
beyond endurance, when snows from Ida
froze birds to death. And then the heat,
so hot at noon, the sea, without a ripple,
sank to sleep. . .”


The Trojan war started because of an extreme breach of etiquette by Paris, who stole Menelaus’s wife, Helen, while visiting his house. And what did the subsequent war have to show for it?  Only a few survivors from the thousand-ship fleet, a city in ashes, the death of Agamemnon’s daughter and the hatred of his wife, the death of the King at the hands of his wife, not to mention the decimation of the male population of Greece. Aeschylus obviously had a very different view of the Trojan war than most of the other writers of his time.

Mankind in the Eyes of Hesiod

Hesiod’s Works and Days was centered around mankind, and living a just and successful life. It was written to Hesiod’s brother Perses, with whom he had had a legal dispute over inheritance. Perses won the case, and received a much larger inheritance than Hesiod. Part of Works and Days was devoted to convincing Perses that he had received his inheritance unjustly. Another part was simply very practical brotherly advice on how to live a successful, productive life. But the beginning of the book gave an important account of the origins of mankind and its troubles.

Works and Days said that mankind began with a ‘golden’ race of men, created directly by the gods. These men were free from sorrow, grief, and unhappiness. When they died, they became ‘pure spirits’, who wandered about the world, guarding mortal men and keeping watch on judgements. After the golden race, another race was created by the gods, one of silver. This silver race was far less noble than the golden race. Hated by Zeus, this race was destroyed because it refused to pay homage to the gods. Then the gods created a race of men which sprung from ash trees and had bronze houses, tools, and armor. This bronze race was very powerful and very warlike, and ended up destroying itself. After that Zeus created a fourth race, one of demi-gods. These demi-gods were heroes and fought in many wars, including the Trojan war. They were loved by Zeus put away to peaceful, sorrowless corners of the earth. Then, finally, Zeus created a fifth race, our own, of iron. This race was hated by Zeus, and suffered to toil upon the earth in sorrow and strife until destroyed.

Prometheus gave men fire, which angered Zeus greatly because it gave undue honor to man. But instead of punishing Prometheus, he punished mankind by ordering the creation of an irresistible snare with an evil and deceitful nature: the first woman. This first woman, Pandora, opened the box containing all of man’s troubles and scattered them about the world. Everything in the box flew out, except for hope, which remained.

Mankind, according to Hesiod, has been in a downward spiral since its creation. First gold, then silver, then bronze, then demi-gods, then iron, which will eventually be destroyed by Zeus. Remember, mankind still has hope. All that can be done is to accept fate, be successful, and work diligently until the end.