From ancient Greek myths to Game of Thrones, the legend of the dragon is one of the most enduring and romanticized throughout history. It has been traced back as far as 4000 BC and exists in all parts of the world.
In and around Europe dragons are viewed mostly as monsters of evil intent. In ancient Rome, the army used dragons as symbols of strength.
During the Renaissance, fear of sea monsters kept sailors from venturing too far from known waters, and the edges of their maps would read “Here be dragons.”
The Oxford English Dictionary explains the etymology of the word dragon, which it says entered the English lexicon in around 1220 and was used in English versions of the Bible from the early 14th century.
Dragon derives from Old French, the language used by nobles and law courts following the Norman conquest of 1066. This in turn stems from the Latin draconem or draco meaning “big serpent,” which was derived from ancient Greek δράκων (drakon).
In Greek mythology, the Hesperian Dragon named Ladon was a hundred-headed serpent that guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides.
Historically, European dragons were viewed as being evil, jealous, and greedy hoarders of treasure.
In the stories, they were generally treated as violent monsters who must be slain by heroes and saints. European dragons could have four legs, two legs, or none, and often had wings.
In Asia, and especially China, the view of these creatures was very different. Dragons were thought to live under the ocean in the winter, arising in the spring with a clap of thunder to bring the rain needed for their crops, according to the American Museum of Natural History.
They breathed clouds and moved the seasons. The dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, and the Imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. Known as the Dragon, the emperor ruled in harmony, and brought peace and prosperity to all.
Chinese dragons are depicted as being more serpent-like, with long, snaking bodies and usually had four legs. They are generally seen as wingless.
How people view them and what they believe about them varies widely, but the idea is too widespread not to think there are some common roots.
What made people from cultures that may have never met all come up with the idea of dragons?
There are several theories about what creatures could have been the source of the dragon myths, any or all of them may be true.
Ancient Origins discusses a number of potential roots. The first one is crocodiles. Saltwater and Nile crocodiles are the two largest living reptiles on earth today.
Currently, saltwater crocodiles live in the eastern Indian Ocean region, and Nile crocs in the rivers, marshes, and lakes of Sub-Saharan Africa. But 1,000 years they had a much larger habitat range, and could have been encountered by people living in Greece, Spain, and Southern Italy.
Bizarre Blue Dragon-Like Creatures Wash Up on Beach, Experts Warn Not to Touch
Nile crocodiles can grow to 20 feet in length, and have the ability to lift much of their bodies off the ground. This may be a hint about why European dragons are often described as rearing up.
Many archaeologists believe that ancient people envisioned dragons when they found the fossils of certain sorts of dinosaurs, specifically, the types that had very long necks.
Having no explanation for the lengthy fossils, they would have imagined a beast that seemed to fit what they were seeing.
There is evidence to suggest that there were discoveries of dinosaur fossils being uncovered in China as early as the 4th century BC. Fossils belonging to flying dinosaurs, such as pterodactyl or pteranodons, could very well be part of why some cultures envision dragons as having wings.
Another, similar, theory is that people imagined dragons when the skeletons of whales washed on shore near early coastal dwellings.
Because early people didn’t have suitable sailing and navigation technology, they would most likely only have seen the immense whales from a distance when the creatures were living.
This could certainly be the root of sailor’s fear of “dragons” in the waters, as well as the ocean-dwelling Asian view. This could also be one of the reasons that some dragons are pictured as having wings.
Snakes are also thought to be a basis for the dragon myth. Although even very large snakes are much smaller than dragons are said to be, humankind has a deeply embedded instinct to fear them.
In ancient Egypt, for example, Apep was a deity known as the Serpent of the Nile. He was viewed as the lord of Chaos, and opposed to light and truth.
Each of these theories show some echo of what we think about when we think of dragons. All of them together show a more complete picture of the huge beasts that feature in so many stories and myths.
The Ottoman Empire is one of the largest empires in history. In existence for 600 years, at its peak it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history.
Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Here, Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about this exotic, yet still relevant empire.
The founder of the empire was a man called Osman
Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’). The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, while Osman had ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).
It was on the coronation day of Osman’s successor that the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the west and was a reminder to all of the 36 sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle. But as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.
Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today on display in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, though it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.
Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west: a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was regarded as unimportant enough that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign, as Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.
The Ottomans could be unlucky
Only once did a sultan die in battle and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that: “having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, [serb forces] heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.”
While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after 27 years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.
Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However, in 1402, he had to face a new threat: that of the legendary warlord Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur), a brutal 14th-century warlord born in what is now Uzbekistan, who amassed an empire that stretched from present day India to Turkey, and Russia to Saudi Arabia. The two met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.
Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century.
Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything – and some elephants. Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.
Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.
Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’
Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact, not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.
More than 30 of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; it’s unlikely any of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European women, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Turkish.
Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries [an elite fighting corps within the army], including the famous architect Mimar Sinan who started his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.
Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think
In the west, he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the east, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:
“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men’s necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.”
Let’s break things down: the first title is obvious and “Allah’s deputy” implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God). The “possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.
The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be ‘”Emperor of the East and West” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.
“King of Kings” may sound a little biblical, but that’s only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the east, the Safavid Persians.
The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to “Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world”, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.
Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; he swept through everything else before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fitted the bill perfectly.
The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon
On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, one Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by over 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.
The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.
Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for the sultan Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).
The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just
From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the east, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the tsars of Russia; and to the west, the Habsburgs.
The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736 and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.
Similarly, as the tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the tsars. The most famous of these in the west is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.
The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names sound half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.
In 1900, a boat carrying sponge divers encountered a storm and took refuge on the island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea. While they were diving off the island’s coast, they discovered a 2,000-year-old shipwreck, believed to be a Greek ship that had sunk in around 60 or 70 BC.
The divers brought up jewelry, pottery, coins, and statues made of bronze and marble. Another artifact brought up was a lump of eighty-two pieces of a corroded bronze device.
The artifacts were taken to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens for cleaning and analysis, but the bronze artifact was too delicate to be studied by hand. It wasn’t until 1951 that Derek J. de Solla Price, a physicist, and professor at Yale University, took notice of the artifact and began to study it. He employed the most advanced technology for the time, the X-ray machine, to discover its origin and purpose, but still had no answers.
Price and Greek nuclear physicist, Charalampos Karakalos, performed X-ray and gamma-ray tests and in 1974, they published a paper that listed the gear settings and inscriptions on the face of the mechanism. They believed it had been manufactured in around 87 BC, which correlates with the dates of the coins found, and that it may have come from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Researchers initially thought it was an astronomical clock, but others thought that would have been far too sophisticated for the time.
The pieces were made from a low-tin bronze alloy, and because the writing on the artifact is in Koine Greek, it may be safe to assume that the device was made in Greece. Why it was on a cargo ship is unknown, but because researchers believe the cargo was on its way to Rome, it may have been part of booty from the Greek islands.
The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, which began in 2005, is an international association of researchers, backed by the National Archaeological Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Athens, where the device now resides. Technology companies such as Hewlett-Packard from the United States and X-Tek Systems from the UK, assisted the project using advanced digital imaging, 3D technology, and a powerful microscopic X-ray device. Originally designed to search for minute cracks in turbine blades, this machine allowed researchers to decipher the minute details of the writing and gears.
The Antikythera Mechanism has earned the nickname “the first computer” because researchers found it was designed for the study of astronomical phenomena, using a mechanical, computer-like system that shows the cycles of the solar system. The construction exhibited the incorporation of standard theories of astronomy and mathematics at the time.
Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University led a 2006 study of the mechanism. He stated that the device was “just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind”. He said that its astronomy was “exactly right” and that it was “more valuable than the Mona Lisa”. Christian Carman and James Evans spent several years comparing the mechanism with the Babylonian records of eclipses. Using a process of elimination, they determined that the date at which the machine was set to begin, was 205 BC.
The dial has a fixed ring on the front representing the ecliptic, with the twelve zodiac signs marked in equal thirty-degree sectors. This followed the Babylonian custom of assigning one-twelfth of the ecliptic to each zodiac sign, rather than accounting for the variables of the constellation boundaries. On the outside of the first dial is a movable ring that indicates the months and days of the Sothic Egyptian calendar – 12 months of 30 days, plus five extra days distributed throughout the year.
To work the mechanism, a person had to turn a small hand crank into the largest gear, which was linked to a crown gear that moved the date pointer on the front dial to set the correct Egyptian day. The year is unable to be set, so the current year must be known by looking up the cycles shown by various indicators from the Babylonian almanac tables for that day.
In a full rotation, the crank moves the date pointer about 78 days; an additional pointer tracks the spiral cuts in the metal. The dials had four and five full rotations of the pointers; when the pointer reached the final month at either end of the spiral, the second pointer had to be moved by hand to the other end. Turning the hand crank would also cause the interlocked gears inside the mechanism to rotate, causing simultaneous calculations of the position of the sun and moon, the moon phase, eclipse, and calendar cycles.
Articles, videos, and books continue to be produced by the Antikythera mechanism. As research progresses, and with the advent of 3-D printing, perhaps science can look forward to a working model of the device someday in the future.
Hello! Handshake, high five, fist bump. These ways of greeting a friend or new acquaintance seem so natural and unremarkable now, but how did these gestures originate in the first place?
The handshake dates back the farthest. Archaeological relics suggest that handshakes were practiced in ancient Greece in the 5th century B.C. It was a symbol of peace, showing that you were not carrying a weapon. In Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, the most-visited in Germany, a 5th-century funereal relic shows two soldiers shaking hands. At the Acropolis, in Athens, Greece, a 5th-century stone slab depicts Hera and Athena shaking hands.
The Greek poet Homer describes handshaking several times as displays of trust in his epics TheOdyssey and TheIliad. During the Roman era, the handshake evolved to more of an arm grab. Knights in Medieval Europe may have added the shaking of hands up and down as a clever way to dislodge any hidden weapons.
Some historians suggest that modern-day handshaking became popularized by 17th century Quakers, who believed the gesture to be more egalitarian than a hat tip or a bow, according to History.com. In some 17th century marriage portraits, the husband and wife are seen shaking hands as a symbol of their legally binding commitment. By the Victorian era, etiquette guides instructed that the handshake should be firm. While most English-first and Scandinavian countries prefer a firm handshake, in some countries too firm a grip is considered rude and aggressive. Some Asian countries prefer a more gentle touch.
In contrast with the ancient ritual of handshaking, the origins of the high five date back only to last century. And slapping five actually started not up high but down low. The low five has been a fixture of the African American culture since the Jazz Age, as a response to “slap me some skin.” In the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson slaps low fives to celebrate a Broadway audition.
There’s even a National High Five Day, #NH5D, launched by the University of Virigina to promote youth health and just generally spread good cheer. National High Five Day occurs on the third Thursday of April (coming on the 19th this year). The founders of that day concocted a back story of the high-five’s origin that briefly gained traction on the internet: That a basketball player named Lamont Sleets Jr. had seen his father, Lamont Senior, slapping palms with five veteran brothers from the Vietnam War. And that Junior had incorporated the high five into games as a homage to his father. It was pure fiction, as an ESPN magazine reporter found out when he tracked down Lamont Jr. in 2011. Oh.
In fact, it was Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who did an impromptu high-five in front of fans in a game against the Houston Astros in October 1977. Burke held up his hand to greet teammate Dusty Baker, who was rounding the bases off his 30th home run. The Dogders were the first team to have four players with 30 home runs.
“His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” Baker told ESPN. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.” Burke then stepped to the plate and hit his first home in the major league, and Baker high-fived him. The high five became a thing with the L.A. Dodgers and soon sports at large.
The fist bump is the most modern invention. Like the high five, it has its origins in sports. Some trace it to the boxing ring, where opponents touch gloves before a match. Others point to basketball. In the 1970s, star Fred Campbell of the Baltimore Bullets popularized the gesture by giving it his own exuberant flair.
In 2008, Barack Obama brought the fist bump to political headlines when he bumped his wife, Michelle, after his nomination, prompting detractors to denounce it as a “terrorist fist jab.” (Barack Obama was notably passionate about basketball.) The Washington Post called it “the fist bump heard ’round the world.”
The Canadians were quick to embrace the fist bump, or “pound,” as a healthy alternative to germ-spreading handshake, especially during flu season. “It’s a nice replacement of the handshake because you can’t just refuse to shake someone’s hand. It’s rude and seems almost un-Canadian,” Tom Feasby, the dean of medicine at the University of Calgary, told the CBC News in 2009.
Whatever you choose—handshake, high five, fist bump—works just as well for departures, too. Goodbye!
E.L. Hamiltonhas written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City
In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.
This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.
A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.
For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.
Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.
There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.
In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.
Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”
The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.
Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.
What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.
Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.
Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.
A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.
Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.
Plato (c. 428–c. 348 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) are generally regarded as the two greatest figures of Western philosophy. For some 20 years Aristotle was Plato’s student and colleague at the Academy in Athens, an institution for philosophical, scientific, and mathematical research and teaching founded by Plato in the 380s. Although Aristotle revered his teacher, his philosophy eventually departed from Plato’s in important respects. Aristotle also investigated areas of philosophy and fields of science that Plato did not seriously consider. According to a conventional view, Plato’s philosophy is abstract and utopian, whereas Aristotle’s is empirical, practical, and commonsensical. Such contrasts are famously suggested in the fresco School of Athens (1510–11) by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael, which depicts Plato and Aristotle together in conversation, surrounded by philosophers, scientists, and artists of earlier and later ages. Plato, holding a copy of his dialogue Timeo (Timaeus), points upward to the heavens; Aristotle, holding his Etica (Ethics), points outward to the world.
Although this view is generally accurate, it is not very illuminating, and it obscures what Plato and Aristotle have in common and the continuities between them, suggesting wrongly that their philosophies are polar opposites.
So how exactly does Plato’s philosophy differ from Aristotle’s? Here are three main differences.
Forms. The most fundamental difference between Plato and Aristotle concerns their theories of forms. (When used to refer to forms as Plato conceived them, the term “Form” is conventionally capitalized, as are the names of individual Platonic Forms. The term is lowercased when used to refer to forms as Aristotle conceived them.) For Plato, the Forms are perfect exemplars, or ideal types, of the properties and kinds that are found in the world. Corresponding to every such property or kind is a Form that is its perfect exemplar or ideal type. Thus the properties “beautiful” and “black” correspond to the Forms the Beautiful and the Black; the kinds “horse” and “triangle” correspond to the Forms the Horse and the Triangle; and so on.
A thing has the properties it has, or belongs to the kind it belongs to, because it “participates” in the Forms that correspond to those properties or kinds. A thing is a beautiful black horse because it participates in the Beautiful, the Black, and the Horse; a thing is a large red triangle because it participates in the Large, the Red, and the Triangle; a person is courageous and generous because he or she participates in the Forms of Courage and Generosity; and so on.
For Plato, Forms are abstract objects, existing completely outside space and time. Thus they are knowable only through the mind, not through sense experience. Moreover, because they are changeless, the Forms possess a higher degree of reality than do things in the world, which are changeable and always coming into or going out of existence. The task of philosophy, for Plato, is to discover through reason (“dialectic”) the nature of the Forms, the only true reality, and their interrelations, culminating in an understanding of the most fundamental Form, the Good or the One.
Aristotle rejected Plato’s theory of Forms but not the notion of form itself. For Aristotle, forms do not exist independently of things—every form is the form of some thing. A “substantial” form is a kind that is attributed to a thing, without which that thing would be of a different kind or would cease to exist altogether. “Black Beauty is a horse” attributes a substantial form, horse, to a certain thing, the animal Black Beauty, and without that form Black Beauty would not exist. Unlike substantial forms, “accidental” forms may be lost or gained by a thing without changing its essential nature. “Black Beauty is black” attributes an accidental form, blackness, to a certain animal, who could change color (someone might paint him) without ceasing to be himself.
Substantial and accidental forms are not created, but neither are they eternal. They are introduced into a thing when it is made, or they may be acquired later, as in the case of some accidental forms.
Ethics. For both Plato and Aristotle, as for most ancient ethicists, the central problem of ethics was the achievement of happiness. By “happiness” (the usual English translation of the Greek term eudaimonia), they did not mean a pleasant state of mind but rather a good human life, or a life of human flourishing. The means by which happiness was acquired was through virtue. Thus ancient ethicists typically addressed themselves to three related questions: (1) What does a good or flourishing human life consist of?, (2) What virtues are necessary to achieve it?, and (3) How does one acquire those virtues?
Plato’s early dialogues encompass explorations of the nature of various conventional virtues, such as courage, piety, and temperance, as well as more general questions, such as whether virtue can be taught. Socrates (Plato’s teacher) is portrayed in conversation with presumed experts and the occasional celebrity; invariably, Socrates exposes their definitions as inadequate. Although Socrates does not offer his own definitions, claiming to be ignorant, he suggests that virtue is a kind of knowledge, and that virtuous action (or the desire to act virtuously) follows necessarily from having such knowledge—a view held by the historical Socrates, according to Aristotle.
In Plato’s later dialogue Republic, which is understood to convey his own views, the character Socrates develops a theory of “justice” as a condition of the soul. As described in that work, the just or completely virtuous person is the one whose soul is in harmony, because each of its three parts—Reason, Spirit, and Appetite—desires what is good and proper for it and acts within proper limits. In particular, Reason understands and desires the good of the individual (the human good) and the Good in general. Such understanding of the Form of the Good, however, can be acquired only through years of training in dialectic and other disciplines, an educational program that the Republic also describes. Ultimately, only philosophers can be completely virtuous.
Characteristically, for Aristotle, happiness is not merely a condition of the soul but a kind of right activity. The good human life, he held, must consist primarily of whatever activity is characteristically human, and that is reasoning. The good life is therefore the rational activity of the soul, as guided by the virtues. Aristotle recognized both intellectual virtues, chiefly wisdom and understanding, and practical or moral virtues, including courage and temperance. The latter kinds of virtue typically can be conceived as a mean between two extremes (a temperate person avoids eating or drinking too much but also eating or drinking too little). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle held that happiness is the practice of philosophical contemplation in a person who has cultivated all of the intellectual and moral virtues over much of a lifetime. In the Eudemian Ethics, happiness is the exercise of the moral virtues specifically in the political realm, though again the other intellectual and moral virtues are presupposed.
Politics. The account of justice presented in Plato’s Republic is not only a theory of virtue but also a theory of politics. Indeed, the character Socrates there develops a theory of political justice as a means of advancing the ethical discussion, drawing an analogy between the three parts of the soul—Reason, Spirit, and Appetite—and the three classes of an ideal state (i.e., city-state)—Rulers, Soldiers, and Producers (e.g., artisans and farmers). In the just state as in the just individual, the three parts perform the functions proper to them and in harmony with the other parts. In particular, the Rulers understand not only the good of the state but, necessarily, the Good itself, the result of years of rigorous training to prepare them for their leadership role. Plato envisioned that the Rulers would live simply and communally, having no private property and even sharing sexual partners (notably, the rulers would include women). All children born from the Rulers and the other classes would be tested, those showing the most ability and virtue being admitted to training for rulership.
The political theory of Plato’s Republic is notorious for its assertion that only philosophers should rule and for its hostility toward democracy, or rule by the many. In the latter respect it broadly reflects the views of the historical Socrates, whose criticisms of the democracy of Athens may have played a role in his trial and execution for impiety and other crimes in 399. In one of his last works, the Laws, Plato outlined in great detail a mixed constitution incorporating elements of both monarchy and democracy. Scholars are divided over the question of whether the Laws indicates that Plato changed his mind about the value of democracy or was simply making practical concessions in light of the limitations of human nature. According to the latter view, the state of the Republic remained Plato’s ideal, or utopia, while that of the Laws represented the best that could be achieved in realistic circumstances, according to him.
In political theory, Aristotle is famous for observing that “man is a political animal,” meaning that human beings naturally form political communities. Indeed, it is impossible for human beings to thrive outside a community, and the basic purpose of communities is to promote human flourishing. Aristotle is also known for having devised a classification of forms of government and for introducing an unusual definition of democracy that was never widely accepted.
According to Aristotle, states may be classified according to the number of their rulers and the interests in which they govern. Rule by one person in the interest of all is monarchy; rule by one person in his own interest is tyranny. Rule by a minority in the interest of all is aristocracy; rule by a minority in the interest of itself is oligarchy. Rule by a majority in the interest of all is “polity”; rule by a majority in its own interest—i.e., mob rule—is “democracy.” In theory, the best form of government is monarchy, and the next best is aristocracy. However, because monarchy and aristocracy frequently devolve into tyranny and oligarchy, respectively, in practice the best form is polity.