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Europe: The Continent Named After the Mythological Rape of a Princess

Trigger Warning – This post contains examples of rape and sexual assault.

Women throughout history have had a tough time to put it mildly. Living under the constraints of a patriarchal society in the ancient world has meant that the history we tend to read about is that of the men. Although some women are still prominent in the ancient world – I’m thinking about the likes of Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and Sappho – it is the stories of male dominance in all walks of life that reign champion in our world. There are still elements of our societies today where inequalities are forever apparent – take the gender pay gap as an example and the recent #metoo movement sweeping across all industries both on and offline. In ancient societies, as is shockingly still present today, sexual assault of women by men was prominent. Unlike our modern era, the rape of women featured in mythology was at the heart of origin stories for some gods, heroes and continents. This post will serve, as the title suggests, as an insight into how Europe came to be named but it will also discuss the more serious issues of rape and sexual assault in ancient literature, and the problems we have with translations turning a blind eye.

Have you ever wondered exactly how places were given the names we use today? It can be incredibly interesting to explore the etymology of place names unless, for example, you look to Alexander the Great who couldn’t think of anything other than Alexandria – inventive. But what about continents? When and by whom were they named? The naming of Europe can be explained by discussing the myth of Zeus and Europa through the story from ancient Greece and also from Roman authors, Ovid and Horace.

Statue of Zeus found at Smyrna in 1680.

The Rape of Europa

Zeus is known for thunderbolts, bursts of anger and is often glorified in his position as the leader of the divine realm on top of Mount Olympus. He is probably lesser-known for his inability to keep his toga on. Rape was common when Zeus was involved in a myth and it appears that he built a sort of divine rape culture that is discussed within the classical texts, translated – not always appropriately – for us to read today. This story reveals Zeus’ lust and his deceitful nature due to his tendency to shape shift and appear in the form of another being or animal when carrying out his abhorrent act. So without further delay, let’s discover the naming of Europe and the issues with some modern translations.

Europa, said to be the daughter of Io and a Phoenician princess, can be seen in Roman author Ovid’s Metamorphoses picking flowers by the Mediterranean Sea, largely minding her own business and enjoying her time in the fields. Zeus, after laying eyes on Europa, felt a burning lust for her and, because of this, he turns himself into a Bull – I mean, obviously, this is how you try to attract a girl. Despite this strange way of attempting to court the opposite sex, Europa is captivated by the Bull and approaches him tentatively. She places some flowers on his horn and is enticed to sit upon the back of the Bull. Europa finds him to be sweet and calm and therefore she hops on. At this moment, the Bull darts across the field and into the Ocean, leaving Europa stunned and frightened as she grasps tighter to try and hold on. Once the Bull emerges from the sea and settles on the island of Crete, he shape shifts back into Zeus, revealing at last his true identity to Europa. He then forces himself upon her in one of the most roundabout rapes in Greek mythology.

The moment Europa is abducted by Zeus (the Bull) and swept into the sea – Rembrandt (1632), photo by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

So that is the story of the abduction and rape of Europa but it is not always how it is translated. My gripe, which is something outlined incredibly well by Stephanie McCarter in her article on the rape of Leucothoe, is how the rape is very much described as a consensual encounter. Preference is given to the male in the story – Zeus.

The translation, of Ovid’s retelling, which appears as one of the top suggested search results from search engines, was published by poet David Hine (1936-2012) and can be read here. In Hine’s translation we see a particular biased towards Zeus which attempts to express his masculinity and his attractiveness as factors for the legitimisation of the rape:

“His muscular neck bulged,   
Dewlaps hung down from his chin; his curved horns you might think had been hand carved,   
Perfect, more purely translucent than pearl. His unthreatening brow and   
Far from formidable eyes made his face appear tranquil”

Translated by David Hine

“Perfect”, “unthreatening” and “tranquil” are not words I would associate with a rapist or with a scene describing rape. Some of you may be reading this and wondering how can I possibly be questioning a translation of a text – surely the translated words are what they are, right? Well, yes and no. Mythological stories are not set in stone, they never have been. The original story of Europa’s rape will have been different to the one we see today. Remember that myths were never written down at first, they were always told orally! Why then should we keep the myths the same? Can we not alter the story to reflect the thoughts and feelings of a modern audience? Or instead, shall we shift the gaze?


I had never analysed an ancient text through feminist eyes before I undertook an MA in the subject, but now I can see the value. If we tell the story from the point of view of Europa, we read a totally different scenario. We would read her confusion of seeing the Bull in the field, her fear of being abducted and her pain and embarrassment at being sexually violated. Is it important that, despite the translations and the intended meaning in the original language, we do not have the mindset that any of these acts were consensual and they definitely should not be studied or taught as if they are. Sexual assault in Greece and Rome was very real for women as it still is in our age and should not be downplayed in any way. By all means teach the subjects described in the ancient texts, but do not lose sight of the true events.

Europa’s ‘Reward’

Perhaps my thoughts here are futile, especially when we consider the views of the authors. Horace, a Roman poet contemporary to Ovid, also wrote a short poem about Europa. In his version he discusses how Europa is ‘rewarded’ for being raped by having a continent named after her:

“Stop your sobbing, and learn to carry your good fortune well: a continent of Earth will be named for you.”

Horace 3.27 trans by A.S Kline

There is little empathy or compassion shown towards Europa by all male counterparts in the poem and the voice of the poem suggests that Europa’s rape was a stroke of good luck. You get the sense that Horace, the poet, cares little for the welfare of the victim and Zeus, the rapist, clearly does not care how he has made her feel. More tragically, Europa’s father is ashamed to have had his virgin daughter violated, and wishes she had killed herself:

“My absent father urges me on: “Why wait to die, worthless Europa? Happily you can hang by the neck from this ash tree: use the sash that’s with you.”

Horace 3.27 Trans by A.S. Kline

Like many victims of rape, Europa is left to deal with her ordeal alone. She was powerless to defend herself against Zeus due to the fact he is, of course, the omnipotent deity of the Greek world but still her story fades to the background. It is Zeus, Ovid and Horace who have the final say in the matter with Europa’s side of the story seemingly non-existent. I think we can learn a lot from this myth aside from the fanticised origin of Europe’s name. We get a sense of the dominance of men in antiquity and also in translation as the female emotions are lost in their censorship. We also recognise that women still go through sexual assault today and they are also oppressed in ways that does not allow them to speak out or confide in anyone, just like Europa.

Here are some support links for rape and sexual assault (UK) –, .

I am planning on writing more about some influential women from antiquity as a sort of mini series seeing as they are very underrepresented in articles so, if there are any particular requests, do let me know.

Classics Lew.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Pulling Penises Off Statues: How Defacing Statues Is Not a Modern Concept

The removal, defacing and drowning of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, UK, has been the subject of great interest over the opening weeks of June 2020. The act, a result of the #blacklivesmatter movement sweeping across the world, has caused eyes to be fixated upon other statues and monuments erected across the UK and further afield. This week (commencing 15th June 2020) there have been fresh calls for the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University to be taken down due to Rhodes’ connections with white supremacy. Clearly we are going through the motions of a massive culture cleanse starting with the removal of controversial figures from history. The removal and defacing of statues causes great debates and, in London, has led to unnecessary and shocking violence from racist groups.

I do not have an issue with removing figures like Colston and Rhodes from our immediate vision – we should not be celebrating the so-called glory days of the British Empire anymore. Monuments dedicated to racial atrocities serve no real purpose on our streets but it is important that the history remains to be taught. Removing statues is all well and good as long as we remember the role our nation played in the slave trade instead of allowing the government to slide these issues under No. 10’s carpet.

The real reason for this post is not to launch an attack on the government but to show that the removal or defacing of statues is not a new phenomena and, to give you a great example of how old this tradition is, I am going to take you on a trip to ancient Greece, 415 BC.

In my Get Rich Quick With Fermented Fish post from May, I briefly discussed a popular classical figure named Alcibiades. I mentioned his tendency to be a nuisance by switching sides in the Peloponnesian War to whoever appeared to have the upper hand but, today, I want to reveal to you his night on the town which saw him, and some of his followers, accused of ruining statues in Athens.

Alcibiades (left) being taught by Socrates (middle) – Painted by Francios-Andre Vincent, 1776.

So chances are, if you are not aware of the story already, the title has peaked your interest and I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know it isn’t click bait.

During the Peloponnesian War, Athens planned an expedition to Sicily the prospect of which split opinion with Athenian officials. Our man, Alcibiades, was a keen supporter of the expedition and promised it would bring riches and glory to Athens not seen since the previous wars against the Persian Empire. The decision to set sail to Sicily would go down as one of the worst defeats the Athenian navy would suffer over the course of the war, but was it doomed from the outset?

Auspicious signs, prophecies and oracles played a big role in the ancient Greek world especially when war loomed over the communities. Greek states sought signs that would point towards an outcome, being positive or negative, so they could plan their next steps and make an informed decision to either go to war or stay home. The Sicilian expedition was no different and there were two instances which set the course for disaster – Alcibiades and an eclipse.


The Mutilation of the Herms

Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, describes the events of the night prior to the launch of the expedition:

“While these preparation were going on it was found that in one night nearly all the stone Hermae in the city of Athens had had their faces disfigured by being cut about.”

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 6.27

The Herms were statues of Greek figures, mainly deities and often depicted Hermes, and were incredibly popular throughout the city of Athens. They could be found on temples, public buildings and even in the porches of private residences and held great political significance. It wasn’t just the head on the shoulders of these statues that were defaced, oh no, the penises of each statue were also targeted.

Example of the type of statue found across Athens. This image is of Demosthenes.

With the faces disfigured and the penises scattered across the streets of Athens, state officials were said to be outraged and shocked by this act. They were so enraged that Thucydides tells us substantial rewards were offered for accurate information leading to identification of the responsible person(s) and evidence was indeed submitted. A claim was put forward that Alcibiades was the culprit due to previous episodes of what our society would consider examples of anti-social behaviour. Athenians were keen on discussing evidence which suggested groups of young men, drunk on wine, would often become rowdy after having more than they could handle – look, we’ve all been there. Alcibiades, well-known for his drunken antics, was a prime suspect according to those who opposed him politically.

If any of you have played Assassins’ Creed: Odyssey (a game which I cannot recommend enough) for Xbox, PS4 or PC, you will know how Alcibiades is generally depicted. A flamboyant, lust-filled character who enjoys the company of men, women and wine. It therefore comes as no surprise that due to this image of him, he has been attributed to a drunken act of impiety within the city.

The mutilation was also considered to be a bad omen which would have a direct impact on the outcome of the expedition the following day. People in Athens believed that from this point on the expedition was doomed to fail but, I argue, no one could have predicted the fashion in which it would. The naval attack on the city of Syracuse was delayed due to an eclipse – another auspicious sign for the Athenians – meaning the Athenian navy waited until the celestial phenomena had ended to advance on the enemy. The Sicilian Navy had no such thoughts, planning an ambush which would work so perfectly, the Athenians would be humiliated.

Despite the omen theory, the real reason behind the accusation that the mastermind was indeed Alcibiades came down, as briefly mentioned, to politics. His enemies framed him for the crime. It was deemed an attack not only on Greek religion, but also on democracy itself. In fact, politicians in Athens thought this act represented a conspiracy to overthrow Athenian democracy which just goes to show how contentious the removal or defacing of statues can be to a society.

Alcibiades was put to trial for this act although he was part of the expedition away in Sicily when it was scheduled. This was a deliberate occurrence planned by his political enemies and Alcibiades was ordered to return to Athens early from the expedition. Alcibiades set sail on a course toward Athens but, when clear from view of anyone who may have been watching, he darted away to Thurii and then to the Peloponnese (home to Sparta) and into hiding. Athens put a price on his head and sentenced him to death in absentia regardless, although Alcibiades would snake his way through the remainder of the war until the very end where he would be killed by a shower of arrows on a mountainside.

So, Where do We Go From Here?

We can of course say, with particular confidence, that the removal of certain statues and monuments across the UK will not result in an eclipse and then a catastrophic naval defeat in Sicily. What this does do is divide opinion. There will be an inevitable debate when statues come down but it is vital that we are all fully educated on the history of our country and the figures that have been celebrated in metallic form. Holding on to the past and celebrating it are two very different things and it is important that we do not blur these lines and create tensions in society. On the plus side, it gives our communities a chance to celebrate and recognise greater people who have had had a positive impact in these modern times.

All of the information for the events of the Sicilian expedition and the mutilation can be found in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War Book 6. As I was writing this, an article was published via The Guardian discussing other examples from Rome of the toppling of statues – it can be found here.

Classics Lew.


Suffering from Lockdown Hair? Try the Very Best Roman Haircare Today!

When the world is functioning normally I usually have my hair cut every 2-3 weeks. This routine has taken a hit during lockdown and my hair now has been left untouched and unkempt for near on 14 weeks. It has got to the point where I do not really recognise myself in the mirror as, rather than Lewis, I appear to be greeted by a human wearing a lego man’s hairpiece. I haven’t tried anything with my new style and I am leaving it to grow until the barber shops reopen which by then, could see me in a top knot. This period of longer hair got me thinking (with a nudge from a friend, shout out to you KN) about what people of the ancient world did with their hair.

The concept of ancient hair routines and rituals is not something I have considered before so looking into this was really quite something. Just like my post on ancient cooking, this may just inspire you to try an ancient Roman lockdown look. So, without any further delays, here is what the women and men of ancient Rome did when styling their barnets.


Women’s Styles

Single? Looking for a partner after lockdown? Look no further than a “looser” hair style. That, of course, is pretty vague but this, according to Roman poet Ovid, is what women should be doing with their hair if they want to attract a man. Ovid dedicated an entire stanza in his Ars Amatoria (On the Art of Love) to instructing women on how they should wear their hair. Now, I’m fairly sure that any women who may be reading this now wouldn’t appreciate a man telling them what’s best for them in terms of hair style, but regardless of this fact, here’s a quote from Ovid:

“Women with round faces should wear their hair lightly twisted into a knot on the top of the head, leaving the ears exposed…Some women like to adorn their hair with the shell of the Cyllenian tortoise, others to wear it in towering waves. But there are not more acorns on an oak tree, more bees on Hybla, or wild beasts on the mountains, than there are modes of doing a woman’s hair, and new ones are invented every day.”

Ovid – Ars Amatoria, translated by Julian May 1930.

Even Ovid, and I do understand how he feels here, knows that there are endless styles women can achieve and even if they ask your advice, your answer is most likely futile. But if you have a round face or enjoy using the shells of tortoise then now you have an indication as to what a Roman man may find attractive.

If you were lucky enough to catch Bettany Hughes’ Secret’s of Pompeii’s Greatest Treasures on Channel 5 then you will have had an insight into some of the most common, and most desirable, hair styles and treatment for Roman women. A fresco, found in Pompeii, depicts a woman with one popular hairstyle which you can see below!

Fresco found in Pompeii which is speculated to depict the female poet, Sappho.

As you can see, curls were definitely a popular choice with Roman women and, with this fresco, hair nets were seemingly somewhat fashionable. Headwear of any kind was used by women to convey an important message – don’t touch me. A veil, net or hood would tell men seeking sexual activity to back off but, according to Roman author Seneca, this would also encourage men as they saw it as a challenge – something still relatable in our modern age.

But what about haircare? Which methods were popular? This is where things become distinctively Roman and a little bit more questionable. Spotting greys in your hair is worrying for some but you’re not alone. Romans were also aware of grey hairs and did their best to cover them up just like people still do today. If we want to rid ourselves of grey hairs we can just nip down to the shops and grab some hair-dye closely matching the colour of our hair. For Romans, as expected, it just wasn’t that easy and therefore they came up with their own methods for hiding their age. Earthworms. Yes, you read that right, earthworms. Romans would combine a paste which was made from these slippery little creatures and a mixture of herbs. This paste would act as an overnight hair-dye concealing any stray greys they had spotted the day before. So, if lockdown has you missing your hairdressers, you can colour your own hair with earthworms and herbs until they open again!

For more on women’s styles, including their make up routines, see Madeline Warner’s post here.

Men’s Styles

Like women’s styles, men chopped and changed depending on what was fashionable but the general consensus was one that saw shorter hair as the preferred option. One thing which became clear during the late republic, and early imperial age in Rome, was that baldness was not welcomed and, in fact, was seen as a deformity. So for all of you that decided lockdown was the perfect opportunity to shave it all off, you, according to the Romans, are now ugly. You may be slightly relieved to hear that arguably one of the greatest Roman generals in history, Julius Caesar, was balding. Reconstructions have taken place in an attempt to reveal what Caesar may have looked like in the flesh rather than in marble, and it is safe to say they are somewhat grotesque.

Reconstructed Caesar put forward by the Dutch Museum of Antiquities.

An esteemed leader who could not grow a full head of hair did not go unnoticed in Rome and Suetonius, a Roman biographer, pointed out the balding head of Caesar in his work The Twelve Caesars.

“His baldness gave him much uneasiness, having often found himself on that account being exposed to the jibes of his enemies.”

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars Julius 45.

Most depiction of Julius Caesar have him wearing a laurel wreath crown upon his head, most likely to mask the baldness in a sort of ancient version of a baseball cap we see men wearing today so, strangely, little has changed in terms of men’s attitudes towards balding – it’s just as embarrassing today as it was in ancient Rome.


Unisex Styles

This isn’t a style per se but more of a preference. Roman bath houses were a hotspot, quite literally, for spa treatments including the removal of body hair. There were certain areas of the body the Romans wanted to keep naked and before you all put your minds in the gutter, I’m talking about armpits. Armpit hair was considered to be unattractive and therefore Roman men and women would have it removed when visiting the public bath houses. After visiting both the frigidarium and caldarium (cold room and hot room), Romans would then seek some beauty treatments in the tepidarium (warm room). Bettany Hughes, when discussing this in her documentary, talks of how screams could be heard from outside the baths when armpit hair was being removed – ouch!

So if you want to be truly Roman during lockdown, eat fermented fish guts with everything, pluck those armpits, and rub herbs and earthworms into your hair – delightful!


Get Rich Quick With Fermented Fish and What Your Maccies Order Says About You!

After a week of Dominic Cummings and Dominic Goings ( I really am sorry for that), I wanted to take a look at a different scaly life-form and bring to you something a little out of the ordinary from the ancient Roman world, but equally something that is not only weirdly interesting, but available today if you dare to make it. As a bonus, keep reading on for a special feature of “What Your Maccies Order Says About You: Ancient History Edition”, where I’ll match your McDonald’s order to a figure from the ancient world.

Fish and Chips are a staple in the British take-away scene and are enjoyed by thousands upon thousands up and down our coasts every month, especially in peak British summer time. For many coastal families their reliance on fish is their livelihood and their lives can be dramatically affected by several variables ranging from climate change and polluted waters to a pandemic. In many ways, these British families who are dependent on good fish stock are similar to those ancient Roman families who were involved in the same business. In this post I will tell you about a little town on the Tunisian coast which revealed the scale of fishy business in the Roman Empire (I’m not so sorry about that one).

Neapolis, meaning “New City”, was the name given to a seaside town in Tunisia which was occupied by wealthy Romans during the many years of the Roman Empire. There are several towns named in this way so it can get a little confusing!  A port town, it was reliant on the trading of fish-based products, and was rich in one Roman delicacy in particular – garum.  Recent discoveries within the city suggested business on an industrial scale (no pun intended, honestly) with several large containers built in the town – see the image below.

To you these, as they initially did to me, may look like poorly constructed pits and you also may be wondering how these stones have any relationship with fish. Well, here’s how the stone constructions housed the most sought after product ever made in the Roman world.

Garum, as I have already referred to, was the holy grail of this seaside community and was heavily traded across the empire. I can hear you still wondering as to what garum might be so, if you don’t already know, here it goes – fermented fish juices. Yes, that is right, the coastal towns of the Roman Empire were propped up by fish guts. Fishermen would place the guts of anchovies, mackerel and tuna inside the giant containers you have seen above and leave them to absorb the heat of the Mediterranean sun for a few months. On doing so, the “juices” flowed out of the dead fish and into a small reservoir below the two main tanks, and that ladies and gentleman, became the final product. This was happening in places all over the empire, including the popular tourist site Pompeii. Coastal regions of the empire would be able to thrive off of the production of garum and many of the Romans selling and consuming this item became incredibly wealthy. 

If you wish to learn more about Neapolis and garum in more detail then click play on the video below from Smithsonian Channel on YouTube.

The fishy sauce was a hit with Romans for almost everything, and was eventually used for purposes other than eating. Roman author, Pliny the Elder, wrote this in his work Natural History:

“Allex (garum sediment) however itself is of some use in healing. For allex both cures itch in sheep, being poured into an incision in the skin, and is a good antidote for the bites of dog or sea draco; it is applied on pieces of lint. By garum too are fresh burns healed, if it is poured over them without mentioning garum. It is also good for dog-bites…”

Pliny the Elder, Natural History Book XXXI.

So if you find yourself victim to a bite from a dog or “sea dragon” or have an “itchy sheep”, then ferment some fish in a container, and rub the juicy sediment over the bite – or sheep – for the perfect remedy to the ailment – it really is so simple!

It must be said that this delightful product was mainly used within a Roman kitchen and was better suited for consumption rather than its function as a medicinal miracle. Maybe, just maybe, this product sounds appealing to you and you fancy trying it. Well don’t fret, I have a sourced an ancient cook book – yes they exist – from classical chef Apicius. Although Apicius’ name is given to the collection, it most likely was not the product of his writings as there has been no way to link him. In this, the author lists some appetising recipes from ancient Rome that you may just want to try at your next socially distanced BBQ!

Here’s the recipe for some lovely Pheasant Dumplings:



On the Art of Cooking – Apicius, translated by Joseph Vehling.

This extract has been taken from a translation by Joseph Vehling which can be found here – . This link includes a host of Roman dishes some with and some without garum.

If anyone who does read this attempts to make dumplings of any sort with a fermented fish paste please do send me a picture of the final product – contact details are available under the “Contact” tab on my homepage!

Okay so with food on the brain, now is the time to see which figure from the ancient world you associate with the most, based entirely on your order from McDonald’s. I have only included a few so if you have your own ideas I’d love to hear them – @ClassicsLew on Twitter.

Big Mac – Ah, the King of the Maccies Menu. You aren’t knocking this one off of top spot and rightly so. No one can challenge you and even if they try, you wipe the floor with them. You resemble Achilles. You may throw a tantrum every now and then, but you will ultimately defeat the competition.

Big Tasty with Bacon – A contender for top spot with the Big Mac for sure, but not quite as good, somehow. You are Hector, rival to Achilles. If you do not know the story of Achilles vs. Hector then not to worry. Just know that although Hector is pretty much as strong as Achilles, he cannot overcome plot armour in The Iliad and therefore is killed by the Greek hero. In this story, Big Mac vs Big Tasty, the outcome is tragically the same.

Wrap of the Day – You’re a minimalist, easy going and do not care what other people tend to think about your food choices or your appearance for that matter. Due to this, you are Diogenes. Diogenes was a man who saw that, as humans, we did not need to lead materialistic lives and, for that reason, he lived in a barrel. I will probably write more about this lad in a future post, but if you want to learn more in the meantime, click here

Any Customised Item – Really, you’re that person? Urgh. You are the man or woman who frequently holds up the group. Whilst they are waiting patiently to tuck in, some poor sod is frantically customising your unnecessary creation because you can’t decide what you want in your burger. For this, you are Alcibiades. For context, he couldn’t make up his mind as to which side he was on during the Peloponnesian War. Instead of picking just the Spartans, Athenians or the Persians, he picked ALL three when it suited him best. Clever? Cunning? No, just damn right annoying.

Chicken Nugs – A party goer. The type of person who loves a night out, and enjoys the binging of these golden delights afterwards. There’s a high chance that your hard partying could get you injured or even killed. You, then, are Alexander the Great. Excessive drinking is fun and for the most part, has been injury free, but eventually you will fall foul to the drink and die as you have lived – drunk!

Fillet O’ Fish – If you pick this then I probably do not know you. This is mainly because I try to not associate myself with those that pick this monstrosity. You are not one person from the ancient world, but many. You are the rich, senatorial class of Imperial Rome and you enjoy sampling the Roman delicacy – garum.   

Classics Lew.

From Lucretius to Wetherspoon’s: The Decline of Humankind

Humankind has walked the Earth largely unchallenged for millenia, but our current situation is a reminder that we are not the all-powerful, invincible species we think we are and, in fact, even the ancient Romans were aware of the pitfalls of “man” long before the likes of Greta Thunberg and other activists. 

In this, my first post, I want to relay to you the thoughts of one ancient writer who considered how humankind had weakened over time, wishing for the return of a “Golden Age” where our species was strong. This author is Lucretius and inspiration for this blog post comes from his De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Before I address the specifics of his writings, and his gripe with humankind, here is a very brief biography of Lucretius so you can familiarise yourself with him.

Born – c. 99 BC Died – c. 55 BC

Profession – Poet, Writer, Philosopher

Residence – Ancient Rome

So, with the pleasantries done and dusted, let’s talk about how deplorable we are as a species, shall we? 

Lucretius’ concepts and ideas displayed in his works are fascinating and seem to hold more relevance during this pandemic than at any period since his works were published. His Book V reveals some thought provoking ideas that would have been groundbreaking during the Roman era; ideas of atoms and scientific answers to questions that were only previously solved with notions of divine powers. However, there is one point from Lucretius that I want to discuss in this article. The idea of a “Golden Age” preceding the era in which one lives now and his views on how humankind is diminishing instead of evolving. 

The notion of a bygone era that appeared to be infinitely greater, grander and more prosperous is not new, and has been displayed by a plethora of ancient authors. It is of course still apparent today with that insufferable phrase “back in my day”. Do you hate when your parents talk about how life was “tougher” when they were younger, and that “you don’t know how good you’ve got it, kid”? Yeah, me too. Think of Lucretius as *that* parent. Lucretius’ thoughts on a time before his are focused on mankind itself and his disgust with how it finds itself in his day. Although, it is worth pointing out that, in my view at least, Lucretius is talking about a glory day where the divine ‘walked’ the Earth and not mortal men and women. 

Here is a quick quote from Book V of his De Rerum Natura:

“For fire now rendered the their shivering bodies less able to endure the cold under the canopy of heaven; and love diminished their strength; and children with their blandishments easily subdued the ferocious tempers of their parents”

So for Lucretius, humans looking to adapt by making life easier in some way or another is actually hindering their potential, and our obsession with the way we feel has removed a layer of our armour. Fire has made us weak to the cold, love makes us weak in spirit and children force us to be passive and forgiving. Is there any truth to this? What have we done as modern humans that follows this trend, and can we relate?

Yes we can. For thousands of years we, as a species, have been deteriorating faster than a single Mum (or Dad, let’s be inclusive here) in Wetherspoon’s on a Friday night. We are divisive and judgemental in terms of race, sex, and body type. We start wars with other humans over land that is only owned by Mother Nature herself. We desecrate, destroy and decapitate nature’s most wonderful things and for what? A new road or railway, a palm oil dependent product or a taxidermy of a native African animal that serves no place on the mantelpiece of a poacher. I would therefore argue that we are, today, at our lowest and, like Lucretius, need to glance back at a Golden Age where we were not such bastards.

But such a time is difficult to come by. No matter which civilisation you are looking at, and no matter which time period you find yourself studying, I can almost guarantee you that there was a form of conflict or exploitation.

I think, deep down, us humans know that we are weak as a species. Our destructive mindset stems from our desperate struggle to try and prove to ourselves that we are in fact holders of some great power over nature and one another when, actually, we are incredibly expendable. Without modern humans Earth would thrive. I am writing this two months into the UK’s shambolic lockdown due to the emergence of the new coronavirus, and it is clear from multiple articles finding their way online that nature is thriving. 

Check out these tweets/articles about nature reclaiming her place in our world and the reduction in carbon emissions:

Carbon Emissions in the UK –

Recent Statistic for Northeastern USA –

Isn’t it interesting that when we are forced to leave nature alone, even just for a short period of time, life begins to flourish again? Maybe this is all the proof we need to show we are a species in over our head. A species that resembles the very thing that forces us into our homes today – a virus. We are a virus that Earth is yet to shake but, clearly, she is trying her hardest. One day we shall succumb to nature’s power. Earthquakes, tsunamis, storms with driving rain and hurricanes all can, and will, render us dibilated. This has been evident since the times of the ancients, with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions wiping out large populations across the ancient world. In many ways then, Lucretius is correct, we are in fact weak as a species and cannot handle life on Earth without having to destroy our beautiful host.

And on that cheerful note, Happy Lockdown!