Is it Aristotle's tomb?

As I write, the internet is abuzz with news that Aristotle's tomb has been discovered.

Well, maybe it has.  Maybe not.  The archaeologist making the claim admits he has no proper evidence.  He does have enough circumstantial evidence to guess that it might be the right place. 

I admit I'm far from convinced that they've got Aristotle's tomb.  Here's the problem:

After Alexander left Macedonia to conquer the world, Aristotle returned to Athens and set up a school called the Lyceum, to rival the other school of philosophy called the Academy.  Which is the origin of both those words in English.

After Alexander died, Aristotle was in a spot of bother. Anyone associated with Alexander was in severe danger of being killed off in the subsequent fighting.  Then apparently someone accused Aristotle of impiety to the gods.  Since this was the same charge that had got Socrates killed eighty years before, Aristotle didn't hang around.  He ran to the ancient city of Chalcis on the island of Euboea.   There he contracted a stomach complaint of some sort and subsequently died. 

Now for the fun game of find the missing dead guy...

Aristotle's will specified that he was to be buried beside his first wife.  If that's what happened then the tomb is definitely not Aristotle's.  Aristotle appointed a very powerful man called Antipater to be the executor of his will.  Antipater was a former governor of Greece under Alexander, so we can expect a man of that ability to get something as simple as this right.  

BUT!  There are four separate sources, all of them Arabic, all writing much later and all using documents that are now lost, that say Aristotle was buried at Chalcis.  Since he died there, this is credible.  

Two of these four then say that later on, after the body had moldered, a committee arrived from Stagira asking for the remains.  Since Stagira was the birthplace of Aristotle, this is credible, but only two of the four Arab sources say this happened.

If they are to be believed then what was left of Aristotle was popped into an urn, (possibly cremated), carried to Stagira, and placed in an area then named the Aristoteleion.

The current claim then is that the Aristoteleion has been found.

To nail this they need to find an inscription that says, Welcome to the Aristoteleion.  Or words to that effect.  Since the site was locally famous there have to be inscriptions.  Without that, all they can say is that they have a lovely looking room that dates to the right period.


The strange end of Empedocles

You probably haven't heard of Empedocles, but I can guarantee you've heard of his most famous theory.

Empedocles was the guy who came up with the idea that everything is made from earth, air, fire and water.  The four classical elements.

It's sort of ironic that Empedocles lived at the same time as the guy who first realized everything was made of tiny little particles.  The two theories competed for centuries, and in fact the particle theory had the edge well into Roman times.  It was after the fall of the Roman Empire that Christian monks decided the particle idea was obviously rubbish and went with the much more sensible earth/air/fire/water system, thus dooming western civilisation to a few extra centuries of chemical ignorance.

The four elements remain popular to this day in astrology and alchemy and fantasy stories.  Not to mention modern music.  The band Earth, Wind and Fire is named for them.  

Empedocles was into distinctive clothing.  He walked about wearing a purple robe and wore sandals made of bronze.  That must have been incredibly uncomfortable, but these sacrifices must be made if one is to be the special anointed of the Gods, which Empedocles firmly believed himself to be.  I'm afraid it was the sandals that contributed to his greatest debacle.

You see, Empedocles considered his genius to be so great that he deserved to spend the rest of eternity in the company of the Gods on Mt Olympus.

The tricky point was to convince people that this had actually occurred, after he died.   Being Empedocles, he came up with a brilliant scheme.  One night, in his old age, he crept away from his friends -- so that they'd think he'd mysteriously disappeared -- and threw himself into the nearby volcano, Mt Etna.

This crafty plan went horribly wrong a few days later when the volcano had a minor eruption.  One of the bronze sandals was disgorged.  His friends found it on the slope and had no trouble guessing where Empedocles had gone.  I confess I'm somewhat reminded of the grand schemes of Wile E. Coyote.

Empedocles is about thirty years old when Nico and Diotima begin their career as investigators.  Yes, this means that at some point, Nico and Diotima (and Socrates) are going to meet him.

Who was the real Diotima?

Roughly half the characters in my books were real people. Socrates and Pericles were real, obviously, and so too was Diotima, though she's not nearly so well known.

The real Diotima only appears in one place in recorded history, but if you can only make your mark once, you couldn't pick a better place to do it than the most famous book of philosophy ever written: the Symposium, by Plato.

The Symposium is full of interesting stuff, but at core it's a vehicle to let Socrates talk about what is love. Socrates says right away that everything he knows, he learned from Diotima, and he proceeds to relate what Diotima taught him. The Symposium therefore is actually Plato's translation of Socrates' interpretation of Diotima's philosophy. It's interesting too that Socrates recounts the whole thing as a Socratic dialogue in which he's on the receiving end, just for a change.

Socrates introduces Diotima in a way that in the Greek implies there's something salacious in her background, in a nudge nudge wink wink sort of way, which has led some people to think she must have been a courtesan. It's not impossible, but Diotima is definitely not a hetaera name. Courtesans (hetaerae) always adopted a stage name that went with the job description. Diotima is not even close, in fact it's a divine name that means honoured by God. That in turn has led most people to think she was a priestess. Quite a few translations describe her as a priestess, a prophetess or a seer. I covered every base in my books by making her a priestess with something salacious in her background, but not in the way you might expect.

This makes her part of history's most powerful student-teacher chain. Diotima taught Socrates. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great.

The Symposium puts Diotima of Mantinea amongst the top three women intellects of her century, the other two being Gorgo of Sparta and Aspasia of Miletus. (You'll probably get wildly different views from others, but that's the way I see it.) All three women are typically referred to by their place name, as men would be, whereas most women in that age were referenced with respect to the name of their husband or father. Sappho gets the same level of respect.

When Socrates says he was taught by this woman, no one in the room stops Socrates to ask who is this Diotima? It seems everyone knows of her. I get this mental image of the combined intellectual elite of Athens nodding their heads in unison and saying to themselves, "Yep, that Diotima is one smart chick."

Plato only used real people in his books, with only a few minor exceptions, and when there was any doubt to whom he was referring, he'd pop in two lines of explanation. So in another book for example, when Socrates says Aspasia had taught him rhetoric, Plato stops to explain she's the wife of Pericles and the author of his famous Oration for the Fallen. Likewise, with Diotima, he stops to say Diotima was skilled in more than just the philosophy of love, because by instructing the Athenians ten years before the plague, she managed to delay its coming for a decade.

Whoa! The Great Plague of Athens was the single most destructive event in the lives of every man in that room. Every one of them lost close family to the plague, probably every one of them had survived it themselves, possibly a few men present were missing fingers or toes because of it. Yet when Socrates says Diotima held back the plague for ten years, not a single person in the room is surprised, or asks what is this amazing thing she did. They accept Socrates' statement without question. Apparently, it was common knowledge.

Right away, this makes the Diotima-as-courtesan theory look very bad, and the Diotima-as-priestess theory look very good. We don't know what Diotima did, but whatever it was, it must have been spectacular. Probably she performed some sort of ritual, and the Athenians believed she'd been responsible for what was a natural phenomenon. But the mere fact that they thought she was capable of such a thing tells us a lot about her reputation. Another possibility is she instructed the Athenians to perform a regular ritual such as, for example, washing their hands. (This is very much my own speculation, and if true, would require her to have a knowledge of disease vectors far ahead of her time.)

Since she's described as coming from Mantinea, which is a minor city down the road from Athens, that means she must have been a metic. Metics were permanent residents but not citizens. One wonders what goddess she was a priestess of. Aphrodite would be the obvious choice given her subject in the Symposium, but Aphrodite didn't get much airplay in Athens. Athena would be another obvious choice, but Athens of all places didn't need to import a priestess of Athena. We'll never know, so I decided she was a priestess of Artemis. Artemis was surprisingly well served at Athens with three temples, and it seemed so appropriate that a detectrix should be devoted to the Goddess of the Hunt.


Stoicism was a philosophy of life created by a guy called Zeno. It's called stoicism because Zeno liked to hang out at the stoas in the agora of Athens. The stoas were long, covered buildings to provide shade from the sun. When you look at any picture of the Athenian Agora, pretty much every building you see is a stoa. Stoas were, in fact, what we would call porches.

Hence stoicism in English literally means porch-ism. Or maybe verandah-ism. Which is an odd term for a philosophy which emphasized emotional & mental control, and self-discipline. Our modern word stoic comes direct from stoicism.

Zeno really hit the big time with stoicism. If he were alive today, he'd be on the lecture circuit flogging his bestseller self-help manual. Or perhaps not, because stoicism didn't encourage that sort of thing. As it was, before long, anyone with pretensions of grandeur had to claim to be a stoic, even if they patently were not.

It just so happens that Zeno's favourite hang out was the Stoa Poikile - the Painted Stoa - which by sheer coincidence happens to be the background of my book cover.

Stoicism did not appear until 160 years after The Pericles Commission. Which is just as well because Nicolaos would have made a terrible stoic.

Since I am not insane, I'm not about to teach anyone philosophy. Like Nicolaos, I would make a terrible stoic. As my wife will tell you, I have turned hypochondria into an art form, which means instant disqualification from the stoic ranks. In any case, this video will do a much better job than I could:

Probably the most famous, and certainly the most powerful, stoic ever was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius is best known today for his rather unfortunate death in the movie Gladiator, at the hands of his whacko son Commodus (which may or may not be true). But his real claim to fame, other than being an amazingly good emperor, is having written The Meditations, which was a compendium of stoic philosophy.

Irene Hahn's Roman History Book Chat will be talking about The Meditations at its next online meeting this week. It meets using Google's chat system from 9:30 to 11:00 p.m. US EDT (UTC/GMT -04). If you'd like to talk about stoicism, join us! Just email Irene at the time.