The actual origin of religion is a hotly debated topic in anthropoligical circles. We don’t know exactly when or how it happened. We know that it pre-dated the invention of writing, but not by how much. And we don’t know what the first religious beliefs were – do cave paintings represent a recording of a successful hunt, or a devotion to the aurochs spirits?
It is generally – though not universally – accepted that the ritualisation of death and burial, and the invention of the funeral, mark the earliest evidence of a belief in an afterlife or a spirit world. We know nothing of what was believed, but the care and attention which our ancestors paid to the arrangement of the dead, the things they buried with them and the markers left at gravesites – all of these imply a developing spirituality. We cannot say exactly where it happened, but somewhere in this process, the idea of God was invented.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World (the original seven, now usually called the wonders of the Ancient World), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. Of all the Seven Wonders, they are one of the only two to be secular (along with the Lighthouse of Alexandria) and the only one to be famous as much for the living entities in it as its architecture.
One of the taller buildings in the world – at that time – the Hanging Gardens were like overgrown version of the classic Sumerian ziggurat. They were famous for their beauty, but as a royal preserve, they were more the kind of tourist attraction one gazes at longlingly than actually walks through.
Socrates is one of the most influential, and also most enigmatic, figures in Western Philosophy. An Athenian who lived at the dawn of both writing and philosophy, if he wrote anything himself it has not survived, and today he is known only for the works of others that mention him. Foremost among these are the works of his student, Plato, similarly influential in philosophy, but also prone to idealize his master.
Socrates was particularly noted for his contributions to the field of ethics, and for his creation of the Socratic Method, a philosophical tool no less useful today than it was 25 centuries ago. He was also, if the writings about him are to be believed, a great fan of irony. He was, of course, executed for heresy, although his trial and death appear to have been the result of political infighting, and thus the charge may not accurately reflect the true reasons for his downfall.
Oddly, not the Platonic Ideal of the philosopher (although in fairness, he would have been the first to point that out), Plato is one of the trio of great Greek philosophers who helped to define Western Philosophy and Science for millennia. The other two were his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle (who was himself the teacher of Alexander the Great).
Plato was born in Athens (although the exact date is unknown – the one I have used here is traditional, but not necessarily correct) to a wealthy family, and given the best education money could buy. Even as a child, he was known for his quick mind. As a younger man, he traveled widely in search of knowledge, and returned to Athens at the age of forty to found the Academy, an institution that would last for nine centuries and train many philosophers, scientists and others from all over the ancient world.
He also left behind a considerable body of writing that helped to define the parameters of philosophy and science until virtually the Renaissance. He also wrote on politics, art and religion. Often, his writings were in the form of Socratic Dialogues, in which Socrates would be the one who espoused the ideas that were actually Plato’s.
The third of the three great Ancient Greek philosophers was the student of Plato (who, in his turn, had been a student of Socrates). The works of Plato and Aristotle were the foundation of science and reason – and for that matter, of theology – for literally hundreds of years. It was not until the Renaissance that their works were surpassed in Western Europe.
Aristotle’s works included foundational texts on logic, politics, ethics, poetry, physics, metaphysics and biology. In addition to being one of the most prolific writers of his era – and this is based only on his surviving works (some of them are lost to us) – he was also a teacher. He taught in Athens and later in Macedon, where his students included Alexander the Great, as well as Ptolemy I (a general of Alexander’s) and Cassander (a later Macedonian king). In his 62 years of life, it appears that about the only thing he didn’t do was sleep…
As per usual with our man Plato, he doesn’t have the courage of his own convictions, and rather than just come out and describe one of the greatest metaphors in the history of Western philosophy, he embeds it in a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon (Plato’s brother).
The allegory is simple enough: picture a group of people chained in a cave. They face a blank wall, and there is a light source behind them – so that they only things they ever see are the shadows cast by whatever moves between them and the light. Inevitably, they come to ascribe meaning to the shadows they see, and to believe that they are all there is of reality…
…the philosopher, naturally, is a freed prisoner in this analogy: it is his role to describe the true reality to the other prisoners. If you’ve any familiarity with Plato’s work, you’ll recognise here his familiar concepts of Platonic forms (i.e. true and ideal forms) opposed to mundane forms (i.e. the ones in this world).
One of the most influential works in Chinese history, the Analects of Confucius were written over a period of several decades durring the Warring States period.
Ever since copies of the Analects first begin to be distributed, over 2000 years ago, it has shaped Chinese society, teaching the Confucian virtues to generation after generation. Its influence has also been felt in other parts of Asia, as it slowly diffused into other nations and cultures.
Even today, the Analects remains one of the canonical texts that any serious Chinese scholar (or scholar of China) must read and understand in order to be considered properly educated.
The ancient feast of the god Lupercus, Lupercalia was an annual three day festival that ran from February 13 – 15 each year. It was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. It is the ancient predecessor of the Christian festival of St Valentine, which is now better known as the more secular Valentine’s Day.
According to Shakespeare, when Julius Caesar attended this particular one, he was offered the crown of a monarch three times and refused it on each of those times. Nonetheless, the reason why he was stabbed to death a month later was apparently his limitless ambition.
It’s an iconic image, symbolising madness, decadence and a corrupt lust for power. But did it actually happen?
In all probability, it didn’t. For a start, the fiddle would not be invented for another thousand years – Nero played the lyre. And according to Tacitus, Nero not only wasn’t in Rome when the fire occurred, but raced back to organise the relief efforts and funded a large portion of the reconstruction of the city from his own purse. Hardly a picture of a depraved monster, is it?
The fire is believed to have started near the Circus Maximus. It burned for seven days and five nights – on the fifth day, it was nearly quelled before flaring up with renewed strength. Of the city’s 14 districts, seven were damaged and three destroyed outright.
The Flavian Ampitheatre – better known today as the Colosseum in Rome – was constructed between 72 and 80 CE. It is called Flavian because that was the name of the Imperial House that built it, Emperor Vespasian and his sons and successors Titus and Domitan being the three Emperors most associated with the building.
In addition to the gladiatorial contests, chariot races and executions that it is remembered for, the Colosseum was also the site of animal hunts, mock naval and land engagements (often re-enactments of famous battles) and theatrical presentations. It could seat 50,000 people at peak capacity, and continued to be used as a site for entertainments after the fall of Rome.
It was later used variously as a quarry, a fortress, housing, workshops and religious shrines. Today, it is an archaeological and tourist site, one of Rome’s premier attractions from the Imperial Roman era.
While there actually was a real Lady Godiva – although, as a Saxon, her name was more likely Godgifu or Godgyfu (Godiva is a latinised version) – it’s unlikely that she actually did ride naked through the streets of Coventry.
Legend has it that she rode naked to protest the taxes that her husband, Lord Leofric, had laid upon the common people, and that, in respect for her sacrifice, all of them looked away as she rode through a busy market day street (except for a tailor named Thomas – the original Peeping Tom – who was apparently struck blind for daring to look upon her).
In these enlightened days, of course, no one believes a word of it – but Coventry’s tourist industry still owes a great deal to women who are willing to get their kit off and go for a ride. (Indeed, the date I’ve used here is the date of the annual commemoration of the ride in Coventry.)
One of the most well-known Middle Eastern poets in the West, largely due to an apparently neverending series of translations of his Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyám was also a mathematician, an astronomer, and as his poetry tends to indicate, a philosopher. He’s one of the few people in history that could have dealt with Leonardo da Vinci as an equal, a true polymath whose work remains influential even today. Notably, he was one of the reformers who modified the Persian Calendar in 1079 – the new calendar, known as the Jalali calendar, is still in use (with some minor corrections) in Iran and Afghanistan.
Of course, he was also damned cool – legend has it that he was a boyhood friend of Hassan i Sabbah (and if you don’t know who he was, you’re in for a surprise), while modern historical research has uncovered evidence suggesting that he devised a heliocentric model of our Solar System centuries before Copernicus. Frankly, he’s a candidate for interesting historical fictions just waiting to happen.
One of the most famous paintings of all time, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or “La Gioconda” is an oil portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo – at least, that’s the most popular suspect. The identity of La Gioconda is a mystery to this day – and her enigmatic yet knowing smile only feeds the intrigue.
The portrait itself hangs in the Louvre in Paris, where it has hung since the French Revolution (with a few minor interruptions either for its own protection or on tours of other galleries), where it has been a popular target for vandals and writers of shitty novels.