A List of Women Authors from Ancient Greece and Rome for #InternationalWomensDay

In our now annual tradition, we are re-posting this list with more names and updated links. Most of the evidence for these authors has been collected only in Wikipedia. I have added new translations and new names over the past few years (especially among the philosophers). Always happy to have new names and links suggested.

I originally received a link to the core list in an email from my undergraduate poetry teacher, the amazing poet and translator Olga Broumas. The post is on tumblr on a page by DiasporaChic, bit the original author is Terpsikeraunos.

** denotes names I have added

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon
Women in ancient Greece and Rome with surviving works or fragments



Here is a list of Women philosophers with testimonia and fragments (with French translations and commentary).

Aesara of Lucania: “Only a fragment survives of Aesara of Lucania’s Book on Human Nature, but it provides a key to understanding the philosophies of Phintys, Perictione, and Theano II as well. Aesara presents a familiar and intuitive natural law theory. She says that through the activity of introspection into our own nature – specifically the nature of a human soul – we can discover not only the natural philosophic foundation for all of human law, but we can also discern the technical structure of morality, positive law, and, it may be inferred, the laws of moral psychology and of physical medicine. Aesara’s natural law theory concerns laws governing three applications of moral law: individual or private morality, laws governing the moral basis of the institution of the family, and, laws governing the moral foundations of social institutions. By analyzing the nature of the soul, Aesara says, we will understand the nature of law and of justice at the individual, familial, and social levels.” – A History of Women Philosophers: Volume I: Ancient Women Philosophers, 600 B.C.-500 A.D., by M.E. Waith

*Wikipedia on Aesara

A translation of her work

**Aspasia of Miletus: wikipedia entry

**Axiothea of Phlius: wikipedia entry


**Damo: daughter of Pythagoras and Theano. wikipedia entry

**Deino of Croton: A student of Pythagoras.

A translation of Diogenes Laertius’ account.

**Diotima: wikipedia entry

**Eurydice: cf. Plutarch Conj. praec. 145a and e

**Hipparchia of Maronea: wikipedia entry

A translation of Diogenes Laertius’ account

**Klea: Cf.  Plut. Mul. virt. 242 ef

**Lasthenia of Mantinea: wikipedia entry

**Leontion: an Epicurean philosopher

Melissa: “Melissa (3rd century BC)[1][2] was a Pythagorean philosopher…Nothing is known about her life. She is known only from a letter written to another woman named Cleareta (or Clearete). The letter is written in a Doric Greek dialect dated to around the 3rd century BC.[2] The letter discusses the need for a wife to be modest and virtuous, and stresses that she should obey her husband.[2] The content has led to the suggestion that it was written pseudonymously by a man.[2] On the other hand, the author of the letter does not suggest that a woman is naturally inferior or weak, or that she needs a man’s rule to be virtuous.[1]” –Wikipedia

**Myia of Samos: wikipedia article

Perictione (I and II): “Two works attributed to Perictione have survived in fragments: On the Harmony of Women and On Wisdom. Differences in language suggest that they were written by two different people. Allen and Waithe identify them as Perictione I and Perictione II. Plato’s mother was named Perictione, and Waithe argues that she should be identified as the earlier Perictione, suggesting that similarities between Plato’s Republic and On the Harmony of Women may not be the result of Perictione reading Plato, but the opposite–the son learning philosophy from his mother. On the Harmony of Women, however, is written in Ionic prose with occasional Doric forms. This mixed dialect dates the work to the late fourth or third centuries BC. The reference in On the Harmony of Women to women ruling suggests the Hellenistic monarchies of the third century BC or later. On Wisdom is written in Doric and is partly identical with a work by Archytas of the same name. This work should be dated later, to the third or second centuries BC. Both the dates of the works and their dialects mean Perictione as the mother of Plato could not have written them. We then have two Pythagorean texts, attributed to otherwise unknown women named Perictione who should be dated perhaps one hundred years apart.” –Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, by I.M. Plant

*N.B. This account leaves out the the basic narrative from Diogenes Laertius, that Plato’s father Ariston raped his mother Perictione.

A translation of a fragment attributed to Perictione here.

Phintys: “Phintys (or Phyntis, Greek: Φίντυς; 4th or 3rd century BC) was a Pythagorean philosopher. Nothing is known about her life, nor where she came from. She wrote a work on the correct behavior of women, two extracts of which are preserved by Stobaeus.” –Wikipedia

*Note, Stobaeus (4.32.61a) calls her the daughter of Kallikrates the Pythagorean (Φιντύος τᾶς Καλλικράτεος θυγατρὸς Πυθαγορείας). Here are some of her fragments on the prudence befitting women: part 1 and part 2.

Ptolemais of Cyrene: “Ptolemais is known to us through reference to her work by Porphyry in his Commentary on the Harmonics of Ptolemy. He tells us that she came from Cyrene and gives the title of her work, The Pythagorean Principles of Music, which he quotes. She is the only known female musical theorist from antiquity. Her dates cannot be known for sure. She clearly preceded Porphyry, who was born about AD 232; Didymus, who is also quoted by Porphyry, knew Ptolemais’ work and may even have been Porphyry’s source for it. This Didymus is probably the one who lived in the time of Nero, giving us a date for Ptolemais of the first century AD or earlier…One of the problems in dealing with this text is that it is in quotation. Porphyry does not clearly distinguish between the text he quotes from Ptolemais and his own discussion of the issues raised…A second issue is the problem of the accuracy of the quotation. Porphyry says in the introduction to fragment 4 that he has altered a few things in the quotation for the sake of brevity. We should not assume that this is the only quotation to have suffered from editing. On the other hand, where he quotes the same passage twice (fragment 3 is repeated almost verbatim in fragment 4) his consistency is encouraging. Ptolemais’ extant work is a catechism, written as a series of questions and answers. She discusses different schools of thought on harmonic theory, distinguishing between the degree to which they gave importance to theory and perception. Her text prefers the approach of Aristoxenus to that of the Pythagoreans, thus she should not be thought a Pythagorean, despite the title of her work.” –Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, by I.M. Plant

A new translation of her fragment

**Theano the Pythagorean (I have collected her words here)

“When Theano the Pythagorean philosopher was asked what eros is, she said ‘the passion of a soul with spare time.’ ”

Θεανὼ ἡ πυθαγορικὴ φιλόσοφος ἐρωτηθεῖσα τί ἐστιν ἔρως ἔφη· ” πάθος ψυχῆς σχολαζούσης.”

“While Theano was walking she showed her forearm and some youth when he saw it said “Nice skin”. She responded, “it’s not communal”.

Θεανὼ πορευομένη ἔξω εἶχε τὸν βραχίονα· νεανίσκος δέ τις ἰδὼν εἶπε· ” καλὸν τὸ δέμας·” ἡ δὲ ἀπεκρίνατο· ” ἀλλ’ οὐ κοινόν.”

**Timycha of Sparta: wikipedia entry

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What Exactly is Justice?

Theognis 543-546

I must decide the matter at hand along the edge, as it were,
of a carpenter’s rule and square.
Kyrnos, I must give both sides justice and what is fair,
relying on seers, auguring birds and burnt offerings,
so I don’t face shameful reproach for a mistake.

χρή με παρὰ στάθμην καὶ γνώμονα τήνδε δικάσσαι,
Κύρνε, δίκην, ἶσόν τ᾽ ἀμφοτέροισι δόμεν,
μάντεσί τ᾽ οἰωνοῖς τε καὶ αἰθομένοις ἱεροῖσιν,
ὄφρα μὴ ἀμπλακίης αἰσχρὸν ὄνειδος ἔχω.

An Interpretation:

Does the speaker want A and not-A at the same time? Contrast the stated obligation of precision in decision-making with the imprecision of the decision-making procedures (seers, augurs, and sacrifices to the gods). Or, put it this way: contrast objective methods (e.g., drawing a line along the edge of a carpenter’s square) with subjective ones (e.g., reading bird omens). The two approaches are in conflict and yet the speaker presents the latter (subjective) as the means of achieving the former (objectivity). 

So, what’s justice? A strict obligation is laid on the speaker, but the instruments available for satisfying it are unreliable: the carpenter’s edge guarantees a straight line, the bird omen guarantees nothing. This of course the speaker knows. But what’s the alternative? The speaker is stating, however indirectly, a problem fundamental to law: justice is a strict obligation, but there are no infallible procedures for its production. What exists are procedures (maybe reading the birds, maybe empaneling a jury), and fidelity to them is what justice more or less is (i.e., more process than outcome).  Therefore interpret the poem’s final line not as “omens and the like save me from mistakes” but as “because I follow the established practice of omens and the like, even when I make mistakes I’m spared the worst criticisms.” 

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

The Danger of Delaying Justice

Plutarch, On Divine Vengeance (Moralia 549c-e)

“An immediate slap or kick following a mistake or offense corrects a horse and sends him where he needs to go but whippings and screaming and pulling the reins later, after time has passed, seems to have some other function than teaching, which in fact causes pain without instruction. In the same way, wickedness which is beaten down and reined in through criticism each time it stumbles and fails might be made humble, and fearful of a god who is not a procrastinating judge when setting right the actions and passions of human beings.

A justice that falls on the wicked with a slow foot and in its own time, as Euripides says, is more mechanical than thoughtful because it is random, late, and ill-fit to the deed. This is why I don’t see any use in what people call the slow grinding of the gods’ mills, a process that renders punishment obscure and blunts any fear of being bad.”

καθάπερ γὰρ ἵππον ἡ παραχρῆμα τὸ πταῖσμα καὶ τὴν ἁμαρτίαν διώκουσα πληγὴ καὶ νύξις ἐπανορθοῖ καὶ μετάγει πρὸς τὸ δέον, οἱ δὲ ὕστερον καὶ μετὰ χρόνον σπαραγμοὶ καὶ ἀνακρούσεις καὶ περιψοφήσεις ἑτέρου τινὸς ἕνεκα μᾶλλον γίνεσθαι δοκοῦσιν ἢ διδασκαλίας, δι᾿ ὃ τὸ λυποῦν ἄνευ τοῦ παιδεύειν ἔχουσιν, οὕτως ἡ καθ᾿ ἕκαστον ὧν πταίει καὶ προπίπτει ῥαπιζομένη καὶ ἀνακρουομένη τῷ κολάζεσθαι κακία μόλις ἂν γένοιτο σύννους καὶ ταπεινὴ καὶ κατάφοβος πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ὡς ἐφεστῶτα τοῖς ἀνθρωπίνοις πράγμασι καὶ πάθεσιν οὐχ ὑπερήμερον δικαιωτήν· ἡ δὲ ἀτρέμα καὶ βραδεῖ ποδὶ κατ᾿ Εὐριπίδην καὶ ὡς ἔτυχεν ἐπιπίπτουσα Δίκη τοῖς πονηροῖς τῷ αὐτομάτῳ μᾶλλον ἢ τῷ κατὰ πρόνοιαν ὅμοιον ἔχει τὸ πεπλανημένον καὶ ὑπερήμερον καὶ ἄτακτον. ὥστε οὐχ ὁρῶ τί χρήσιμον ἔνεστιν τοῖς ὀψὲ δὴ τούτοις ἀλεῖν λεγομένοις μύλοις τῶν θεῶν καὶ ποιοῦσι τὴν δίκην ἀμαυρὰν καὶ τὸν φόβον ἐξίτηλον τῆς κακίας.”

Tampa 86.24Side B: two riders Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Olympics/equestrian.html

Justice and Hurting People

Homer, Od. 6.181-185

“May the gods grant as much as you desire in your thoughts,
A husband and home, and may they give you fine likemindness,
For nothing is better and stronger than this
When two people who are likeminded in their thoughts share a home,
A man and a wife—this brings many pains for their enemies
And joys to their friends. And the gods listen to them especially”

σοὶ δὲ θεοὶ τόσα δοῖεν, ὅσα φρεσὶ σῇσι μενοινᾷς,
ἄνδρα τε καὶ οἶκον, καὶ ὁμοφροσύνην ὀπάσειαν
ἐσθλήν· οὐ μὲν γὰρ τοῦ γε κρεῖσσον καὶ ἄρειον,
ἢ ὅθ’ ὁμοφρονέοντε νοήμασιν οἶκον ἔχητον
ἀνὴρ ἠδὲ γυνή· πόλλ’ ἄλγεα δυσμενέεσσι,
χάρματα δ’ εὐμενέτῃσι· μάλιστα δέ τ’ ἔκλυον αὐτοί.

Plato, Republic, 1. 333d

“So, [Simonides] means that justice is helping your friends and hurting your enemies?”

Τὸ τοὺς φίλους ἄρα εὖ ποιεῖν καὶ τοὺς ἐχθροὺς κακῶς δικαιοσύνην λέγει;

Plato, Republic, 4. 433b

“And, really, justice is each person taking care of his own business and not meddling in too many things. We have heard this from many others and said it ourselves many times”

“Yes, we have said this.”

Then, I said, “so, then, justice runs the risk in some way of just being taking care of your own business?”

Καὶ μὴν ὅτι γε τὸ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν καὶ μὴ πολυπραγμονεῖν δικαιοσύνη ἐστί, καὶ τοῦτο ἄλλων τε πολλῶν ἀκηκόαμεν καὶ αὐτοὶ πολλάκις εἰρήκαμεν. Εἰρήκαμεν γάρ. Τοῦτο τοίνυν, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, ὦ φίλε, κινδυνεύει τρόπον τινὰ γιγνόμενον ἡ δικαιοσύνη εἶναι, τὸ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν.

Plato, Gorgias 473a5

“Committing harm is worse than suffering it”

τὸ ἀδικεῖν τοῦ ἀδικεῖσθαι κάκιον εἶναι

Thucydides, 3.82.7-8

“To exact vengeance from someone was thought to be more important than not suffering at all. If oaths were ever taken in turn, were strong because each person was at a loss and had no power at all. But as soon as one of them had the advantage, he attached if he saw anyone unguarded: it was sweeter to take vengeance despite a pledge than to do so openly. It was thought generally to be safe and to have won a prize for intelligence, prevailing by deceit. Many wicked people become famous for being clever than good people do for being ingenuous. Men are ashamed by the latter but delight in the former.

To blame for all of these things the love of power and a love of honor. From both, they fell into a voluntary love of conflict. For those who were in charge of the state each claimed identities for themselves, some the equal rights of the masses, the others the wisdom of the aristocrats; while guarding the common goods in word, they were making them the contest’s prize, competing with one another to be pre-eminent, they dared the most terrible things—and they surpassed them with greater acts of vengeance too. They did not regard either justice or advantage for the city…”

ἀντιτιμωρήσασθαί τέ τινα περὶ πλείονος ἦν ἢ αὐτὸν μὴ προπαθεῖν. καὶ ὅρκοι εἴ που ἄρα γένοιντο ξυναλλαγῆς, ἐν τῷ αὐτίκα πρὸς τὸ ἄπορον ἑκατέρῳ διδόμενοι ἴσχυον οὐκ ἐχόντων ἄλλοθεν δύναμιν· ἐν δὲ τῷ παρατυχόντι ὁ φθάσας θαρσῆσαι, εἰ ἴδοι ἄφαρκτον, ἥδιον διὰ τὴν πίστιν ἐτιμωρεῖτο ἢ ἀπὸ τοῦ προφανοῦς, καὶ τό τε ἀσφαλὲς ἐλογίζετο καὶ ὅτι ἀπάτῃ περιγενόμενος ξυνέσεως ἀγώνισμα προσελάμβανεν. ῥᾷον δ’ οἱ πολλοὶ κακοῦργοι ὄντες δεξιοὶ κέκληνται ἢ ἀμαθεῖς ἀγαθοί, καὶ τῷ μὲν αἰσχύνονται, ἐπὶ δὲ τῷ ἀγάλλονται. πάντων δ’ αὐτῶν αἴτιον ἀρχὴ ἡ διὰ πλεονεξίαν καὶ φιλοτιμίαν· ἐκ δ’ αὐτῶν καὶ ἐς τὸ φιλονικεῖν καθισταμένων τὸ πρόθυμον. οἱ γὰρ ἐν ταῖς πόλεσι προστάντες μετὰ ὀνόματος ἑκάτεροι εὐπρεποῦς, πλήθους τε ἰσονομίας πολιτικῆς καὶ ἀριστοκρατίας σώφρονος προτιμήσει, τὰ μὲν κοινὰ λόγῳ θεραπεύοντες ἆθλα ἐποιοῦντο, παντὶ δὲ τρόπῳ ἀγωνιζόμενοι ἀλλήλων περιγίγνεσθαι ἐτόλμησάν τε τὰ δεινότατα ἐπεξῇσάν τε τὰς τιμωρίας ἔτι μείζους…


Will Eyewitnesses to Injustice Spare This Man?

Dinarchus, Against Philocles 110 14-15

“Citizens, you need to remember these things and not take lightly all the information made public by the council—act here as you have in cases judged before. It is shameful to tire of punishing people who have proved themselves traitors to the state and shameful that any insurrectionists and wicked people should be left out there when the gods have clearly shown their true nature and handed them over to you to be punished.

You have seen that the whole electorate accuses this man and now they have given him to you before all the others to get what he deserves.

Sweet Zeus, Savior! I am ashamed that you need us to force you, to push you on to bring punishment to this person who has already been judged. Aren’t you all eyewitnesses of the injustices he committed? Because all the people believe he is neither just nor safe to be trusted with children they rejected him as guardian of the youth. Will you very protectors of the democracy and the laws—those people chance and fortune have given the power of justice over our people—will you spare a man who has attempted these kinds of things?”

ὧν ἀναμιμνησκομένους ὑμᾶς, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, δεῖ μὴ παρέργως ἔχειν πρὸς τὰς ὑπὸ τῆς βουλῆς γεγενημένας ἀποφάσεις, ἀλλ᾿ ἀκολούθως ταῖς πρότερον κεκριμέναις· αἰσχρὸν γὰρ ἀπειπεῖν τιμωρουμένους ἐστὶ τοὺς προδότας τῆς πόλεως γεγενημένους, καὶ ὑπολείπεσθαί τινας τῶν ἀδίκων καὶ πονηρῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅτε οἱ θεοὶ φανεροὺς ὑμῖν ποιήσαντες παρέδοσαν τιμωρήσασθαι, ἑορακότες τὸν δῆμον ἅπαντα κατήγορον τούτου γεγενημένον καὶ προκεχειρικότα πρῶτον τῶν ἄλλων ἐπὶ τὸ τὴν τιμωρίαν ἐν ὑμῖν δοῦναι.

Ἀλλ᾿ ἔγωγε, νὴ τὸν Δία τὸν σωτῆρα, αἰσχύνομαι, εἰ προτραπέντας ὑμᾶς δεῖ4 καὶ παροξυνθέντας ὑφ᾿ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ τὴν τοῦ νῦν εἰσεληλυθότος τὴν κρίσιν τιμωρίαν ἐλθεῖν. [καὶ] οὐκ αὐτόπται ἐστὲ τῶν ὑπὸ τούτου γεγενημένων ἀδικημάτων; καὶ ὁ μὲν δῆμος ἅπας οὔτ᾿ ἀσφαλὲς οὔτε δίκαιον νομίζων εἶναι παρακαταθέσθαι τοὺς ἑαυτοῦ παῖδας ἀπεχειροτόνησεν αὐτὸν ἀπὸ τῆς τῶν ἐφήβων ἐπιμελείας,  ὑμεῖς δ᾿ οἱ τῆς δημοκρατίας καὶ τῶν νόμων φύλακες, οἷς ἡ τύχη καὶ ὁ κλῆρος . . . ὑπὲρ τοῦ δήμου δικάσοντας ἐπέτρεψεν;

Ancestral Law For Insurrection

Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 17

“These are the ancestral laws of the Athenians: if anyone commits insurrection to act as a tyrant or helps someone else conduct a tyranny, they and their family will be disenfranchised.”

θέσμια τάδε Ἀθηναίων καὶ πάτρια, ἐάν τινες τυραννεῖν ἐπανιστῶνται [ἐπὶ τυραννίδι] ἢ συγκαθιστῇ τὴν τυραννίδα ἄτιμον εἶναι αὐτὸν καὶ γένος

Strabo, Geography  15.12

‘When there is insurrection, as frequently happens even in our time, sometimes it turns out some ways, other times it turns out differently and not the same for everyone. A disturbance is advantageous for some people but it disappoints the expectations of others.”

στασιαζόντων δέ, ὅπερ συμβαίνει πολλάκις, καὶ δὴ καὶ ἐφ᾿ ἡμῶν, ἄλλοτ᾿ ἄλλως συμβαίνει καὶ οὐ τὰ αὐτὰ πᾶσι· τοῖς μὲν γὰρ συνήνεγκεν ἡ ταραχή, τοῖς δὲ παρὰ γνώμην ἀπήντησεν.

Madness on Capitol Hill | The Nation

On Ghosts & Apparitions

For Cihan Erdal #freecihanerdal

John Flaxman; The Ghost of Patroclus Appearing to Achilles; 1792-3 (c) Royal Academy of Arts

Homer, Iliad 23.65-76

And there appeared to him the ghost of poor Patroclus
all in his likeness for stature, and the lovely eyes, and voice,
and wore such clothing as Patroclus had worn on his body.
The ghost came and stood over his head and spoke a word to him:
You sleep, Achilles; you have forgotten me; but you were not
careless of me when I lived, but only in death. Bury me
as quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades.
The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at a distance,
and will not let me cross the river and mingle among them,
but I wander as I am by Hades’ house of the wide gates.
And I call upon you in sorrow, give me your hand;
no longer shall I come back from death, once you give me my rite of burning.

ἦλθε δ᾽ ἐπὶ ψυχὴ Πατροκλῆος δειλοῖο
πάντ᾽ αὐτῷ μέγεθός τε καὶ ὄμματα κάλ᾽ ἐϊκυῖα
καὶ φωνήν, καὶ τοῖα περὶ χροῒ εἵματα ἕστο:
στῆ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς καί μιν πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν:
‘εὕδεις, αὐτὰρ ἐμεῖο λελασμένος ἔπλευ Ἀχιλλεῦ.
οὐ μέν μευ ζώοντος ἀκήδεις, ἀλλὰ θανόντος:
θάπτέ με ὅττι τάχιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περήσω.
τῆλέ με εἴργουσι ψυχαὶ εἴδωλα καμόντων,
οὐδέ μέ πω μίσγεσθαι ὑπὲρ ποταμοῖο ἐῶσιν,
ἀλλ᾽ αὔτως ἀλάλημαι ἀν᾽ εὐρυπυλὲς Ἄϊδος δῶ.
καί μοι δὸς τὴν χεῖρ᾽: ὀλοφύρομαι, οὐ γὰρ ἔτ᾽ αὖτις
νίσομαι ἐξ Ἀΐδαο, ἐπήν με πυρὸς λελάχητε.

Ghosts, apparitions, miracles, supernatural events, to what extent do we believe in them? And if they were to be real, how much would they differ from each other? At first we need to begin by establishing what we understand by supernatural. If we refer to occurrences that fall outside the laws of nature, then the scope of these events has immediately enlarged, considering that we do not live in nature, but in a world – a human product. Nowadays many things have gone missing from that world; people, places, events. And these disappearances, through quarantine, incarceration or simply prolonged absence, are a kind of supernatural event in reverse – a sudden dis-apparition. But the missing haven’t been abandoned, instead, they lie in a state of abeyance, without being immediately present. With the irresistible and ceaseless flow of time — paraphrasing here Anna Komnene — we begin to question their reality.

Have these things and persons in abeyance then become ghostly presences or apparitions? I like Derrida’s idea that ghosts today are but the return or persistence of elements from the past, because it instantly complicates matters around ghostliness: Since elements from the past are always around us, can we really talk about absence or ghosts? Would it be correct to identify all absences as ghostly? Not sure here what it is exactly that returns or reappears.

We need to turn to dictionaries now, but they aren’t of much help. The only antonyms of ghostly (what is the opposite of a ghost?) that I could find, were the terms ‘natural’ and ‘angelic’, both of which do little in reference to the world, so that there’s not an exact territory of coincidence between ghosts and death. A dictionary of classical literature, on the other hand, tells us that ghosts are difficult to distinguish from supernatural entities or delusions, and yet the really striking part of the definition is that while ghosts seem generally ‘powerless and ineffectual’, they are persistent. I am fascinated by this combination of both persistence and powerlessness in the ghost, because of what it has to say to us about contemporary political narratives.

An example of this persistence comes down to us from the Iliad: Without a proper burial, the ghost of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion, is condemned to wander around the house of Hades for eternity. It would be hard to overstate how important burials were for antiquity (and continue to be so for us, for no clear reason, accounting for the shock at the mass graves of Bergamo and Hart Island during the pandemic) but I don’t want this commonplace trope to distract us from the mysterious apparition. It is one of the strangest dreams in classical literature and the only ghost to appear in the Iliad: Breaking away from the pattern of Homeric dreams, which generally involve divinities that bring knowledge of the future (following a structure of apparition at night when the person has retired, speech, departure, reaction and then dawn), dead Patroclus’ apparition in book XXIII makes no real sense, and it doesn’t bring any new information or steer the narrative in any direction.

The strangeness begins earlier, when Achilles himself performs two unusual tasks one after another (18.316-317): First, he attempts to summon Patroclus back to life by the uncommon gesture of placing his hand on the chest of the dead body as if it were alive and then he greets Patroclus with the formal χαῖρέ (hail!), establishing a distance between himself and Patroclus, implying a separation between them that is hard for Achilles to grasp — is he alive or dead? This attention to detail might seem pesky but given that the repertory of epic is so limited, any deviation in patterns of speech and behavior is telling us something; an innovation is taking place. After the funeral feast, Achilles slumbers into sleep by the seashore, and Patroclus appears to him ‘all in his likeness’ (23.66) with a puzzling request to be buried as soon as possible, given that Achilles had already decided to bury him the next day.

Gregory Buchakjian, photograph of Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı neighborhood that was due to be demolished. May 2013, a few weeks before the Gezi Park demonstrations started. Courtesy of the artist.

Patroclus is dead (at the hand of Hector, who was in turn subsequently slain by Achilles — the heart of the epic) but he hasn’t entered Hades yet. He finds himself in an in-between space, a uniquely hybrid dream/underworld scene where, far from heroic convention, this meeting about memory and the past, is still possible. And yet Patroclus asks Achilles to give him his hand for the last time for he’s nevermore to return from Hades after his burial (23.75). In spite of the immense affection between them, when Achilles tries to embrace him, the shadow suddenly turns into nothingness and dissolves into air (23.99-101), ‘with a shrill cry’. This extraordinary moment of tenderness, apparently innocuous, happens at a pivotal moment in the epic, when the death of Achilles is near – this was no news. Achilles himself is too baffled, and speaks with sadness about Patroclus’ weeping and wailing (23.106), before lighting the funeral pyre, followed by the long funeral games, a series of competitions held in honor of Patroclus and that take up most of the book.

The ghost appears thrice in the book, however on the last appearance (23.221-225), there’s a heartbreaking scene: a distraught Achilles is said to call upon Patroclus’ ghost for a last time, ‘as a father mourns the bones of a son, who was married only now, and died to grieve his unhappy parents’ and ‘[Achilles] dragged himself by the fire in close lamentation’. It seems as if the span of the apparition has come to an end, yet something is about to occur that makes the brief encounter with Patroclus gain immense depth. In book XXIV, Achilles is still agonizingly mourning Patroclus and abusing Hector’s body, dragging it around his friend’s tomb – Hector’s mother Hecuba remarks that even that did not bring Patroclus back to life (24.755-57). The apparition of Patroclus in fact restored Achilles’ humanity which had been buried in his anger and pain. A moment of reckoning arrives here: now he begins to see all the desolation that his anger has caused and there’s a final encounter with mortality in which Achilles accepts Patroclus’ death and also his own.

Commentary on the Iliad is long and intricate – it is a song about war and its disastrous consequences, but also one about political foundations and origins. But I want to dwell on the neglected figure of the ghost. Homeric terminology for the ghost is complex and “Psyché” encompasses meanings as diverse as both life and departed life, and is also used indistinguishably with other terms for soul and mind. As we had earlier seen, the status of the ghost is undefinable, and therefore it stands outside of and sometimes in opposition to the order of memory that establishes a polis upon return to the homeland from the battlefield. In the world of epic, commemoration of great deeds from the past is caught between two temporal modes: Remembering the life of a hero who has already died (remembrance of Achilles from a future standpoint) and preserving that memory as something not forgotten (the lasting permanence of the past), therefore the appearance of the ghost of Patroclus breaks down here the collective recollections of victory and turns inwards, towards remembrance of the past together with Achilles but not collectively with others (23.78).

Though we speak a lot about memory-narratives in the present, collective memory is a function of the regime of history, where things and events have already consolidated into a foundation (or against foundations). Whether the permanence of the memory that founded the body politic in the first place undergoes change, the substance of the space of the polis goes back to a single source. What I want to propose here is an idea of ghosts as communities of memory, distinct from but parallel to political foundations. What if it were possible for memory to become fragmented into different filaments of remembrance of things past and future articulated around the present and stemming from different sources?

A notion of ghosts as communities of memory came from recent work by Turkish sociologists Cihan Erdal (a young scholar now imprisoned in Turkey alongside thousands of other students on bogus charges of political activities) and Derya Fırat, on ‘presentism’ and the temporality of Gezi, the popular uprising that took place in Turkey in 2013 and after which the political landscape of the country has significantly deteriorated into authoritarian rule. Erdal and Fırat question the defeatism of the Western and Turkish Left in regard to utopian moments and whether something remains from them? Has the defeat of Gezi in anyway affected our sense of temporality?

Gezi Park protests graffiti, “The solution is Gandalf, what’s up Derrida?”, Istanbul, June 2013, photograph by the author

On a close reading of Enzo Traverso’s work on the melancholy of the Left, and his assertion that utopias have become a historical form of the past, they speak about the presentism after 1989 that absorbs the past and the future through the opening up of a self-dissolving, sparse present tense, so that this present-timeism builds a thick wall between the present and the past, putting an end to the transference of experience […] particularly in the absence of an alternative model of society. Following from that, their central argument is that the Gezi Park protests attempted to establish a new radical imagination of time (moving simultaneously between past and present, memory and expectation) that disrupted the current neoliberal presentism, and that they did so by imagining utopias both past and future – as a dialogue between different moments of mourning and memory, and between different ghosts that return and persist.

A few words on presentism would help to clarify the extent to which the Iliad as a foundational narrative is able to time-travel in order to tell us something about the present: Admittedly there’s no concept of linear time in Homer, in the same way that our fractured temporality — the temporariness of life under presentist authoritarian regimes, we’ve been ejected from time — attempts to grasp the past in order to imagine other possibilities: The subject of the Iliad is time itself and the durability of memory that withstands the withering flow of this ever-present time. Achilles’ most famously referred description as κλέος ἄφθιτον (of unwithering glory) expresses this desire as an action yet to be completed (9.410-416) simultaneously in the past and future. Time might be abstract but it is also a force that produces change, and this is what presentism (in Homer as the returning cycles of nature and in our times as the capitalist eternity of markets and the internet) is attempting to erase by collapsing the future-orientation of utopia or memory into an obsolete historical form, predicated on the ends of history: This is the best of all possible worlds.

While it’s been constantly argued that memory and mourning is the way out of the amnesia of presentism (why are we so shocked about Bergamo and Hart Island but not so much about the mass graves of wars elsewhere within the same time period?), the politics of ghosts proposed by Erdal and Fırat reframes this work of memory beyond both static remembrance of the past and restoration of past utopias. Remembrance becomes here a different orientation, which created means of communication between different historical moments and social movements, preventing the present or the past from exercising authority over each other. Ghosts from the past are speaking to each other in the here-and-now, expressing not only the”no longer” that has passed, but a sense of continuity anchored in “not yet” and “would be” referred towards the future — a typology of Iliadic time.

The ghosts that we are dealing with in here are moments of upheaval, uprising and utopia that have been deeply buried in the collective imagination but that have the power to return any time – the function of latency – without destroying the fabric of time by attempting futile restorations. These ghosts are not only moments of political action, but also catalysts thereof, such as commemorations of events and memories of violence.  In the context of Gezi, for example, Erdal and Fırat mention that when Taksim Square was banned for workers in 1979, the symbols of the left factions were hung on Konak Square in the city of Izmir, a gesture that was repeated in 2013 on the facade of the Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul. As a checkpoint in political memory, the building was subsequently demolished, and yet this doesn’t guarantee that these ghosts will not return again and again: Apparently, the trade-free shopping between ghosts continues. Within the world of the Iliad, physical objects, decaying structures — of ships and tombs, and moments lost in time provide a record of the past that continues to exert force upon the present.

The fundamental problem that Erdal and Fırat see with with the work of mourning (over utopian pasts) is that it requires a dead body and a burial, but how can something be buried if it is absent or has never been completed? For Derrida, the ghost cannot even be called a being, because it doesn’t exist – it is both present and non-existent, and therefore one cannot enter into mourning with ghosts, because ghosts never die, they always keep coming back. The recognition of the presence of the ghost in its unburied state, is also a call for practical justice and therefore, a reinscription of experience within time, rather than against it: This proposal is also a formulation of justice so that time out of joint can be rectified. It is one that will provide an exit from the present in crisis and will bring us to justice by building this new relationship with both past and future. It is a politics of ghosts that, on the one hand, aims to put an end to the violence of the present against the past, and on the other hand, it will overcome the possibility of the past and future to dominate / erode the present.

Atatürk Cultural Center, Gezi Park protests, Istanbul, June 2013, photograph by the author

In a time of global upheaval, although we are still trapped in the presentism of catastrophe and disaster which is one of the most common narratives of capitalism — the emergency, the possibility of closing the distance between the present and a horizon of expectation about the future has not been completely closed. The future is still a latent possibility that might awake again at some undefined point. Is this future coming from the past? There’s no assurance, sometimes the future arises out of itself, but the cancellation of movement inside historical planes is not a viable solution when the present alone is too fragile to hold institutions and moral reflexions. In a world replete with ghosts – paraphrasing Derrida – the supernatural is no longer an extraordinary occurrence, but the nature of all political action. Insofar as all human action remains unpredictable, in both motive and intended goal, it is always miraculous and supernatural in the sense that it is highly improbable and yet actual.

But if all worldly existence and political life is invaded by ghosts, how to distinguish then between the ghost and reality? We think that memory should be reconstructed today and considered as a radical invitation to democratize the relationship between generations in political space. Political space is always a term that brings us back to the Iliad again: This isn’t only a concept of memory, since physical spaces as the containers of memory, are replete with debris that functions as “clocks” measuring time through both deterioration and durability. The constant apparitions of the past in these spaces remind us that although encounters with ghosts are ephemeral, they can serve as markers of the short distance between no longer and not yet, as expressed in the “now” emphasis in the words of Menelaus in the Iliad, while remembering Patroclus in such a way that this now, although stemming from the present, becomes a memory for a would-be future:

Homer, Iliad 17.670-672

Now let each one of you remember poor Patroclus
who was gentle, and understood how to be kindly toward all men
while he lived. Now death and fate have closed in upon him.

νῦν τις ἐνηείης Πατροκλῆος δειλοῖο
μνησάσθω: πᾶσιν γὰρ ἐπίστατο μείλιχος εἶναι
ζωὸς ἐών: νῦν αὖ θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κιχάνει.

Here the conversation about ghosts and the supernatural is also a conversation about very long spans of memory across time: While all politics is grounded in human action and all human action is supernatural, our standard liberal model of society attempts to dovetail action and do away with politics by reducing it to bureaucratic administration and the satisfaction of human needs in nature, therefore its alleged emphasis on the social and economic question. But it was at the very beginning of our tradition of politics, in the Iliad, when the ability to change the flow of time in any direction, was considered the benchmark of rising above the cycles of nature, and therefore making action and speech identical with freedom. Anthropologists David Graeber and David Weingrow speak about freedoms that were common to many early human societies in the past and that we have abandoned: The freedom to refuse orders, to move away and to create entirely new social orders or move between different ones. This ability for new beginnings is at the heart of the Iliad‘s struggle against the destructive influence of time.

Little did they know (they couldn’t), Cihan Erdal and Derya Fırat, at the time their work was published in the end of 2019, that the politics of ghosts would become a mainstay of political life only a few months later when we would temporarily lose the world, and become entirely surrounded by ghosts. But interestingly enough, they do mention at the end of their essay the songs of Victor Jara rising from the squares and balconies in the capital Santiago in Chile or the yellow vests in the streets of Paris as a part of the conversation between ghosts. Only a few days ago, a referendum in Chile overthrew the constitution from the Pinochet dictatorship, even as many other uprisings are taking place and failing elsewhere. The ghost dialogue about new beginnings continues…

‘Being here, today, is accepting to live with our ghosts, to long for them, to feed them’ said Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige years ago (I know the quote is real, but I cannot locate its source, therefore it remains itself a ghost), speaking about incomplete mourning: these ghosts are present among us, and the spaces they occupy are irredeemable – a gap that cannot be closed, but they can suddenly break out of the present by throwing us back into the future, a future that can be remembered and over which it is also possible to act. In a fragment from the Myrmidons, a lost play of Aeschylus, recounting aspects of the story of Achilles and Patroclus, unknown or too obvious to the Iliad, Achilles scolds his comrade Antilochus, reversing the nature of mourning over his companion Patroclus – we are not in mourning over the missing, but over ourselves:

Scholia to Aristophanes

Antilochus, bewail me, the living, rather than him, the dead; for I have lost my all.

᾿Αντίλοχ’, ἀποίμωξόν με τοῦ τεθνηκότος
τὸν ζῶντα μᾶλλον.

[Fragments in italics, from Cihan Erdal and Derya Fırat, “Toplumsal Hareketler ve Bellek İlişkisi: Yas ve Anmadan Hayaletler Siyasetine” (The Relationship Between Social Movements and Memory: From Mourning and Remembrance to the Politics of Ghosts) Birikim, December 2019, translated and paraphrased by the author]

Cihan Erdal, courtesy of Omer Ongun

On September 25, 2020, Cihan Erdal, a 32-years-old PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Canada, was arrested in Istanbul. The charges stem from events back in 2014, which are being used to continue persecuting members of the leftist HDP political party. Erdal and 81 others have been targeted because they are all signatories to a letter calling for the government to protect a Kurdish town under ISIS attacks. He was placed in solitary confinement in Ankara until October 23, 2020. No indictment and no hearing date has been announced yet. If convicted, he might be facing a potential life sentence. Some 2500 academics worldwide have signed a petition for his release. As an LGBT person, he is at risk of additional persecution over his sexuality. Cihan has been based in Canada since 2017 and his research is largely focused on youth-led social movements in Europe, including Turkey. Learn more about the case at https://freecihanerdal.wordpress.com/

Send letters to Cihan Erdal:

Cihan Erdal adına
Sincan 2 Nolu F Tipi Yüksek Güvenlikli
Kapalı Ceza İnfaz Kurumu
06930 Yenikent/Sincan-ANKARA

Acknowledgements: Gregory Buchakjian & Joana Hadjithomas in Beirut for (almost) a decade of conversations, both present and absent, about ghosts, our own and others’. Dedicated to Cihan Erdal, for your prompt liberation.

Demolition of Atatürk Cultural Center, Istanbul, May 2018, photograph by the author

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.


Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Revolution or Redemption? The Middle East” in Revolutions: Finished and Unfinished, from Primal to Final, ed. P. Caringella, W. Cristaudo & G. Hughes, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp 329-249

Hannah Arendt, “Introduction to Politics” in The Promise of Politics, Schocken Books, 2005, pp 93-200

Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future, Penguin Classics, 2006, pp 142-169

Hannah Čulík-Baird, “The Fragment as Form”, UT Austin Lecture, 25th September 2020, online.

Cihan Erdal & Derya Fırat, “Toplumsal Hareketler ve Bellek İlişkisi: Yas ve Anmadan Hayaletler Siyasetine” (The Relationship Between Social Movements and Memory: From Mourning and Remembrance to the Politics of Ghosts) in Birikim, 368, December 2019, 35-43

R.K. Fischer, “The Concept of Miracle in Homer”, Antichthon, 29 (1995), pp 1-14

Lorenzo F. Garcia, Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad, Hellenic Studies Series 58, Center for Hellenic Studies, 2013, online.

George Alexander Gazis, Homer and the Poetics of Hades, Oxford University Press, 2018

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012

Agnes Heller, A Philosophy of History in Fragments, Wiley-Blackwell, 1993

Nat Muller, “What Was Lost: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige in conversation with Nat Muller” Ibraaz, 2012, online.

W.B. Stanford, “Ghosts and Apparitions in Homer, Aeschylus and Shakespeare” in Hermathena, No. 56 (November, 1940), pp 84-92

David Wengrow, What Makes Civilization: The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West, Oxford University Press, 2018

Four Years of Presidential Memories: Truth, Lies and Corrupt Judges

Latin Inscriptions, Sortes 3-19.iv

“Don’t allow lies to arise from the truth thanks to a false judge.”

De vero falsa ne fiant | iudice falso.

Hesiod, Works and Days 217-229

“Oath runs right alongside crooked judgments.
But a roar comes from Justice as she is dragged where
bribe-devouring men lead when they apply laws with crooked judgments.
She attends the city and the haunts of the hosts
weeping and cloaked in mist, bringing evil to men
who drive her out and do not practice righteous law.
For those who give fair judgments to foreigners and citizens
and who do not transgress the law in any way,
cities grow strong, and the people flourish within them;
A child-nourishing peace settles on the land, and never
Does wide-browed Zeus sound the sign of harsh war.”

αὐτίκα γὰρ τρέχει ῞Ορκος ἅμα σκολιῇσι δίκῃσιν·
τῆς δὲ Δίκης ῥόθος ἑλκομένης ᾗ κ’ ἄνδρες ἄγωσι
δωροφάγοι, σκολιῇς δὲ δίκῃς κρίνωσι θέμιστας·
ἣ δ’ ἕπεται κλαίουσα πόλιν καὶ ἤθεα λαῶν,
ἠέρα ἑσσαμένη, κακὸν ἀνθρώποισι φέρουσα,
οἵ τέ μιν ἐξελάσωσι καὶ οὐκ ἰθεῖαν ἔνειμαν.
οἳ δὲ δίκας ξείνοισι καὶ ἐνδήμοισι διδοῦσιν
ἰθείας καὶ μή τι παρεκβαίνουσι δικαίου,
τοῖσι τέθηλε πόλις, λαοὶ δ’ ἀνθεῦσιν ἐν αὐτῇ·
εἰρήνη δ’ ἀνὰ γῆν κουροτρόφος, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτοῖς
ἀργαλέον πόλεμον τεκμαίρεται εὐρύοπα Ζεύς·

Publilius Syrus, Sententiae 697

“A Judge judges himself as much as the defendant”

Tam de se iudex iudicat quam de reo

Hesiod, Works and Days 256-273

Justice is a maiden who was born from Zeus.
The gods who live on Olympus honor her
and whenever someone wrongs her by bearing false witness
she sits straightaway at the feet of Zeus, Kronos’ son
and tells him the plans of unjust men so that the people
will pay the price of the wickedness of kings who make murderous plans
and twist her truth by proclaiming false judgments.
Keep these things in mind, bribe-swallowing kings:
whoever wrongs another also wrongs himself;
an evil plan is most evil for the one who makes it.
The eye of Zeus sees everything and knows everything
and even now, if he wishes, will look on us and not miss
what kind of justice the walls of our city protects.
Today, I wouldn’t wish myself to be a just man among men
nor my son, since it bad to be a just man
If anyone who is more unjust has greater rights.
But I hope that Zeus, the counselor, will not let this happen.”

ἡ δέ τε παρθένος ἐστὶ Δίκη, Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα,
κυδρή τ’ αἰδοίη τε θεοῖς οἳ ῎Ολυμπον ἔχουσιν,
καί ῥ’ ὁπότ’ ἄν τίς μιν βλάπτῃ σκολιῶς ὀνοτάζων,
αὐτίκα πὰρ Διὶ πατρὶ καθεζομένη Κρονίωνι
γηρύετ’ ἀνθρώπων ἀδίκων νόον, ὄφρ’ ἀποτείσῃ
δῆμος ἀτασθαλίας βασιλέων οἳ λυγρὰ νοεῦντες
ἄλλῃ παρκλίνωσι δίκας σκολιῶς ἐνέποντες.
ταῦτα φυλασσόμενοι, βασιλῆς, ἰθύνετε μύθους,
δωροφάγοι, σκολιέων δὲ δικέων ἐπὶ πάγχυ λάθεσθε.
οἷ αὐτῷ κακὰ τεύχει ἀνὴρ ἄλλῳ κακὰ τεύχων,
ἡ δὲ κακὴ βουλὴ τῷ βουλεύσαντι κακίστη.
πάντα ἰδὼν Διὸς ὀφθαλμὸς καὶ πάντα νοήσας
καί νυ τάδ’, αἴ κ’ ἐθέλῃσ’, ἐπιδέρκεται, οὐδέ ἑ λήθει
οἵην δὴ καὶ τήνδε δίκην πόλις ἐντὸς ἐέργει.
νῦν δὴ ἐγὼ μήτ’ αὐτὸς ἐν ἀνθρώποισι δίκαιος
εἴην μήτ’ ἐμὸς υἱός, ἐπεὶ κακὸν ἄνδρα δίκαιον
ἔμμεναι, εἰ μείζω γε δίκην ἀδικώτερος ἕξει.
ἀλλὰ τά γ’ οὔπω ἔολπα τελεῖν Δία μητιόεντα.

Quintilian, Declamation 388

“If there was a bad judgment, then there was something the judge was afraid of”

Si male iudicatum est, fuit aliquid quod iudex timeret.

Justices in Eyre -- Luminarium Encyclopedia

In Honor of Labor Day: Collective Action and the Maturation of Rome

Livy 2.32 Secessio Plebis, 449 BCE

“A fear overcame the senators that if the army were dismissed, then secret assemblies and conspiracies would arise. And thus, even though the draft was made by a dictator—because they had sworn a consular oath they were still believed to beheld by this sacrament—they ordered the legions to depart the city on the grounds that the war had been renewed by the Aequi. This deed accelerated the rebellion.

At first, there was some interest in the murder of the consuls (to absolve them of their obligation); but when they then learned that no crime would release them from their oath, they seceded on to the Sacred Mount across the Anio river, which is three miles from the city, on the advice of a man named Sicinus.  This story is more common than the one which Piso offers—that the secession was made upon the Aventine hill.

There, the camp was fortified without any leader with a trench and wall quietly, as they took nothing unless it was necessary for their food for several days and neither offended anyone nor took offense. But there was a major panic in the city and because of mutual fear all activities were suspended. Those left behind feared violence from the senators because they were abandoned by their own class; and the senators were fearing the plebians who remained in the city because they were uncertain whether they stayed there or preferred to leave. How long could a mass of people who had seceded remain peaceful? What would happen after this if there were an external threat first? There was certainly no home left unless they could bring the people into harmony; and it was decided they must reconcile the state by just means or unjust.”

  1. timor inde patres incessit ne, si dimissus exercitus foret, rursus coetus occulti coniurationesque fierent. itaque quamquam per dictatorem dilectus habitus esset, tamen quoniam in consulum uerba iurassent sacramento teneri militem rati, per causam renouati ab Aequis belli educi ex urbe legiones iussere. [2] quo facto maturata est seditio. et primo agitatum dicitur de consulum caede, ut soluerentur sacramento; doctos deinde nullam scelere religionem exsolui, Sicinio quodam auctore iniussu consulum in Sacrum montem secessisse. trans Anienem amnem est, tria ab urbe milia passuum. [3] ea frequentior fama est quam cuius Piso auctor est, in Auentinum secessionem factam esse. [4] ibi sine ullo duce uallo fossaque communitis castris quieti, rem nullam nisi necessariam ad uictum sumendo, per aliquot dies neque lacessiti neque lacessentes sese tenuere. [5] pauor ingens in urbe, metuque mutuo suspensa erant omnia. timere relicta ab suis plebis uiolentiam patrum; timere patres residem in urbe plebem, incerti manere eam an abire mallent: [6] quamdiu autem tranquillam quae secesserit multitudinem fore? quid futurum deinde si quod externum interim bellum exsistat? [7] nullam profecto nisi in concordia ciuium spem reliquam ducere; eam per aequa, per iniqua reconciliandam ciuitati esse.

The secessio plebis was repeated at key times in Roman history and became a fundamental instrument to force the ruling (and moneyed/landed) class to make political compromises with the larger number of citizen soldiers upon whom the city (and the Republic) depended for its safety (and, really, existence). Modern labor strikes are not directly related to this Roman action–they developed with the rise of the Industrial state. In a short analogy, labor is to capital as the army was to the Roman state.

Labor unions are, in my ever so humble opinion, probably the last possible bulwark against not just the corporatization of higher education but also against the completion of our anglo-american metamorphoses in to technology-driven plutocracies. (And it may be too late.) But I take the limited coverage in our presses as a sign that such subjects are threatening to the very media corporations that deny collective bargaining to their ‘workers’ in the gig economy. 

Caesar, Civil War 1.7.5-7

“Whenever in the past the senate has made a decree asking officers to make sure that the republic meet no harm—and in this wording the senatus consultum is also a call to arms for the Roman people—it has been made under the condition of evil laws, a violent tribune, or during a secession of the plebs when they had occupied the temples and mounts. [Caesar] explained that these examples from an earlier age were paid for with the fates of Saturninus and the Gracchi. (At that time none of these things were done or even considered. No law was suggested; no assembly was called; no secession was made.)

quotienscumque sit decretum darent operam magistratus ne quid res publica detrimenti caperet, qua voce et quo senatus consulto populus Romanus ad arma sit vocatus, factum in perniciosis legibus, in vi tribunicia, in secessione populi, templis locisque editioribus occupatis. 6Atque haec superioris aetatis exempla expiata Saturnini atque Gracchorum casibus docet. (Quarum rerum illo tempore nihil factum, ne cogitatum quidem. Nulla lex promulgata, non cum populo agi coeptum, nulla secessio facta.)

Cicero, Republic II.58

“For that very principle which I introduced at the beginning is this: unless there is equal access in a state to laws, offices, and duties so that the magistrates have sufficient power, the plans of the highest citizens have enough authority, and the people have enough freedom, the state cannot be guarded against revolution. For when our state was troubled by debt, the plebeians first occupied the Sacred Mount and then the Aventine.”

Id enim tenetote, quod initio dixi, nisi aequabilis haec in civitate conpensatio sit et iuris et officii et muneris, ut et potestatis satis in magistratibus et auctoritatis in principum consilio et libertatis in populo sit, non posse hunc incommutabilem rei publicae conservari statum. nam cum esset ex aere alieno commota civitas, plebs montem sacrum prius, deinde Aventinum occupavit.


Cicero, Republic II.63

“Therefore, because of the injustice of these men [the decemviri], there was the largest rebellion and the whole state was transformed. For those rulers had created two tables of laws which included most inhumanely, a law against plebeians wedding patricians, even though marriage between different nationalities is permitted! This law was later voided by the plebeian Canuleian Decree. The [decemviri also pursued their own pleasure harshly and greedily in every exercise of power over the people.”

ergo horum ex iniustitia subito exorta est maxima perturbatio et totius commutatio rei publicae; qui duabus tabulis iniquarum legum additis, quibus, etiam quae diiunctis populis tribui solent conubia, haec illi ut ne plebei cum patribus1 essent, inhumanissima lege sanxerunt, quae postea plebei scito Canuleio abrogata est, libidinoseque omni imperio et acerbe et avare populo praefuerunt.

Here is the opening summary from Brill’s New Pauly on the secessio plebis (2006: von Ungern-Sternberg, Jürgen)

“Roman tradition terms as secessio (from Latin secedere, ‘to go away, to withdraw’) the remonstrative exodus of the Roman plebeians from the urban area delimited by the pomerium on to a neighbouring hill. This action was on a number of occasions the culmination of confrontation between the patricians ( patricii ) and the plebs . The first secessio in particular may have been instrumental in the formation of a self-conscious plebeian community under the leadership of at first two, later apparently five people’s tribunes ( tribunus plebis ), to whose protection all plebeians committed themselves by a lex sacrata (‘law subject to the sanction of execration’)”

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“The Leaders have Changed”: Theognis, Just Like Us

Theognis, Elegies 39–52

“Kyrnos, this city is pregnant and I am afraid she will bear a man
Meant to correct our evil arrogance.
The citizens are still sane, but the leaders have changed
And have fallen into great evil.

Good people, Kyrnos, have never yet destroyed a city,
But whenever it pleases wicked men to commit outrage,
They corrupt the people and issue legal judgment in favor of the unjust,
For the sake of their own private profit and power.

Don’t expect this city to stay peaceful for very long
Even if it is not at a moment of great peace now,
When these deeds are dear to evil men,
As their profit accrues with public harm.

Civil conflicts and murder of kin comes from this,
And tyrants do too: may this never bring our city pleasure.”

Κύρνε, κύει πόλις ἥδε, δέδοικα δὲ μὴ τέκηι ἄνδρα
εὐθυντῆρα κακῆς ὕβριος ἡμετέρης.
ἀστοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἔθ’ οἵδε σαόφρονες, ἡγεμόνες δέ
τετράφαται πολλὴν εἰς κακότητα πεσεῖν.
οὐδεμίαν πω, Κύρν’, ἀγαθοὶ πόλιν ὤλεσαν ἄνδρες,
ἀλλ’ ὅταν ὑβρίζειν τοῖσι κακοῖσιν ἅδηι
δῆμόν τε φθείρουσι δίκας τ’ ἀδίκοισι διδοῦσιν
οἰκείων κερδέων εἵνεκα καὶ κράτεος·
ἔλπεο μὴ δηρὸν κείνην πόλιν ἀτρεμέ’ ἧσθαι,
μηδ’ εἰ νῦν κεῖται πολλῆι ἐν ἡσυχίηι,
εὖτ’ ἂν τοῖσι κακοῖσι φίλ’ ἀνδράσι ταῦτα γένηται,
κέρδεα δημοσίωι σὺν κακῶι ἐρχόμενα.
ἐκ τῶν γὰρ στάσιές τε καὶ ἔμφυλοι φόνοι ἀνδρῶν·
μούναρχοι δὲ πόλει μήποτε τῆιδε ἅδοι.

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