Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Roman or Athenian?

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-07-22

In response to the stimulating post and discussion over at Skepticlawyer ("Roman or Celt" 2009-07-20 by LE), I’ll ask the question "Roman or Athenian?".

It’s hard to say "Greek" when so much of that civilization happened outside the bounds of what we call Greece – and even outside Europe.  It’s doubly hard if you imagine yourself in Alexandria under Roman occupation.  It’s triply hard if you want to decide whether "Greek" means Spartan or Athenian (although I’m sure some readers might prefer to have lived Sybaris at the height of it’s wealth!)

So… 5th/4th century BCE Athens (except for the rule of 500) or Rome (last century of the Republic)?

Me, I’d probably go for Athens.  So many people I’d like to meet there, so many plays I’d like to see, whereas in the nominated period of Rome, I’d only really want to talk with Cicero.  Besides, I’d just love the chance to participate in an ostracism election (see here and here).  Those folk were into participatory democracy – something we desperately need these days.

The only huge downsides are the lack of water and sewerage, and that I’d probably be forced to be a rower rather than in the infantry… and I don’t think my bum would like the blisters.

8 Responses to “Roman or Athenian?”

  1. Athenian for me too! All those philosophers!!!

    • Dave Bath said

      LE: It’s probably easier for a woman – even a metic like Aspasia. Brain? Well-read? Musical? then you get hired primarily for stimulating conversation at symposia – WITH the philosophers.

      Meanwhile, we males would have sore bums: if old, from rowing benches, if young, from the "mentoring".

      Still, as you say, all those philosophers… and perhaps the most civilized method of execution yet devised if you fell foul of the law. Hemlock while chatting with your friends, or crucifixion/lions? Easy!

  2. PollyCyclic said

    Roman. Women had property rights that survived divorce.

  3. Yes, if you’re female, you have to go Roman. I noticed that when I was about 15. And women’s property rights didn’t just survive divorce, either — they survived marriage. The Romans did not need the Married Women’s Property Act (1868); they already had it. That kind of dispenses with the really important part of the 2nd Reform Bill as well…

    Then there’s unilateral no fault divorce (documented to greatly reduce domestic violence and marital murder — see the big study by Stephenson & Wolfers 2004).

    Not to mention commixtio (constructive trust) and a genuinely ‘liberal’ approach to relationships (the absence of the fetishization of virginity present in Athens and many other cultures, for example).

    No culture before the latter 20th Century had the notion of love matches (which may not be such a smart thing, considering our divorce rates), but the Romans respected choice, which is crucial in the development of a modern market economy.

    And philosophy is completely bloody overrated, especially the arid a priori reasoning characteristic of the continent. Give me a bloke who comes up with a beneficial ‘rule of thumb’ over arid theorizing about beauty and truth any day.

    /SL gets off positivist and empiricist high horse now…

    • Dave Bath said

      SL@3 said “No culture before the latter 20th Century had the notion of love matches”
      Maybe not in law, but surely Jane Austen and co put the notion in fiction.

      And didn’t the Romans have a really nasty punishment for naughty Vestals, and another on the books but never used for adulterers? Something about sacks and the Tiber? Or was that early, around Tarquinius Uphimselfius times?

  4. […] I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the Romans had unilateral no-fault divorce (we got that in 1975, friends and neighbours) and […]

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  6. John Greenfield said

    Be careful what you wish for SL. A man was permitted to kill his wife if he caught her in the act of adultery! ;)

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