Four Modern Breakthroughs that Ancient Science Just Missed

Ancient Greek and Roman scholars achieved some amazing things. They foreshadowed many of the inventions and discoveries that shape our world.

  • Anaximander of Miletus / Evolution & Life’s Aquatic Origins: Anaximander was one of the first philosophers and the author of the earliest known philosophical text. He lived in the Greek city of Miletus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) during the early 500’s B.C.E.: the age of Buddha, Confucius, and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. Based on observations, he concluded that life sprang from the seas or from warm water covering the Earth. He also thought that the first animals were fish and that humans and other land animals descend from those fish. In other words, he reached some of the same conclusions as Darwin and his successors. Anaximander, however, did not develop a theory of evolution. Fish fossils seem to have influenced him, but his main inspiration came from the fact that young fish aren’t dependent on their parents: they swim free the moment they hatch. So the very first fish could survive without parents. Young humans and land animals, on the other hand, do depend on parents, so the very first land creatures couldn’t have survived without parents. The parents of those first land animals, then, must have been … fish. Anaximander got it wrong, but his method was sound, and he started down the right path. Continue reading “Four Modern Breakthroughs that Ancient Science Just Missed”

Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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This week in history: Caligula

This week in 41 CE, a faction Roman leaders assassinated their emperor, Caligula. The emperor had oppressed the nobles and the Senate (though not necessarily the common people), so this was not the first plot against his rule. The trigger for this final and successful conspiracy isn’t entirely clear, but Caligula had recently announced plans to move his seat of power from Rome to Alexandria, in Egypt. That would have robbed the Roman elite of much of their power. Another theory suggests Caligula was just too dangerous, since he was mentally imbalanced and possibly insane. His enemies claimed Caligula considered himself a god – and not just holy and exalted, like the two Roman emperors before him, but actually a living deity, on par with Jupiter and Minerva. They also say he slept with his sisters, as gods do, made his horse a senator, declared war on Neptune, and worst of all, executed high-ranking Romans on a whim. Whatever the cause, a faction of the imperial Praetorian Guard and some senators attacked Caligula as he addressed a troupe of actors near his palace. Caligula’s more loyal German guard – foreigners from the wild lands of the north – arrived quickly to rescue the emperor, but too late: the conspirators had stabbed him 30 times. The conspirators also killed Caligula’s wife and young daughter, no doubt to avoid repercussions, but they did not catch the emperor’s old uncle, the lame, stammering scholar Claudius. Loyal member of the Praetorian Guard escorted Claudius to safety and soon proclaimed him emperor. So it fell to Claudius to execute the conspirators and restore order, and possibly sanity, to the Roman Empire. Continue reading “This week in history: Caligula”

This week in history: The Sistine Chapel

Photo by Antoine Taveneaux, reproduced with permission under the Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license

This week in 1512, the Vatican revealed the newly-painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for the first time. Renaissance master Michelangelo had begun the work in 1508, under commission from Pope Julius II (often called the warrior pope). The master had actually resisted the project at first. The scale of the job intimidated him (with good reason). And – amazingly from the viewpoint of history – Michelangelo considered himself more a sculptor than a painter. He also thought that his enemies had arranged the commission, assuming he would fail. But Pope Julius was relentless. Continue reading “This week in history: The Sistine Chapel”

This Week in 30 BC: Augustus in Egypt

Caesar Augustus, f.k.a. Octavian
Caesar Augustus, f.k.a. Octavian

During this week in 30 BC, Roman strongman Octavian completed his invasion of Egypt. He ordered the execution of Marcus Antyllus, eldest son of his defeated rival, Marc Anthony, who’d committed suicide. He also executed Caesarion, teenage son of his great uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar. Caesarion’s mother was Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and lover of both Caesar and Antony, who’d also committed suicide a few weeks before. The boy held the Egyptian throne for only a few weeks after the death of his mother, and he wielded no power. But he was the last ruler of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty and the ancient country’s last Pharaoh. His death ended 3,000 years of Egyptian monarchy.

Octavian went on to establish a new form of government for the Roman world, which he ruled as Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.


© 2019 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

The Roman Empire Survived Unbalanced Executives — Maybe America Can Too

The early Roman Empire survived two mentally unbalanced emperors: Caligula and Nero. In fact, neither seems to have harmed the economy or disrupted the lives of the common people, despite bizarre behavior. That’s encouraging in the age of Donald Trump.

Nero entertains the crowds
Nero entertains the crowds

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