Empedocles (circa 492 – 432 BC) was an influential Greek pre-Socratic philosopher and poet from Akragas, in Sicily. He originated the theory of the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, which reduced all matter to simpler substances in a bid to explain the complexity of the universe. He also proposed that there were two forces, which he referred to as Love and Strife, that constantly mixed and separated the elements. He was influenced by Pythagoras and was against the slaughter of animals for food and against animal sacrifices.
Empedocles was also a stone-cold nut job. He seems to have genuinely believed that he was a god, and got himself killed in a bizarre attempt to prove his divinity. He was born into a prominent family, and his father was a pro-democracy local bigwig who played a prominent role in overthrowing his polis’ ruling tyrant in 470 BC. Empedocles followed in his father’s footsteps, and helped overthrow an oligarchic government that took over Akragas after the tyrant was removed. He was reportedly offered his city’s sovereignty, but declined.
12. Empedocles Tried to Prove His Divinity to Fellow Greeks, and Things Did Not Go Well
Empedocles was a genius and polymath, a gifted orator and poet, and was considered to be one of his era’s greatest intellectuals and most talented physicians. His ability to cure diseases and avert epidemics won him widespread acclaim, and before long, he had developed a reputation as one who possessed marvelous powers. The accolades seem to have gone to his head, and he eventually came to believe that he did, indeed, possess miraculous powers such as the ability to control old age, destroy evil, and control the winds and rains.
Empedocles’ delusions finally bubbled over after he cured a supposedly incurable woman, whose ailment had defied all prior physicians. So he claimed he was a god. To demonstrate his divinity to skeptical fellow Greeks, he gathered about 80 people, and led them to the top of an active volcano, Mount Etna. There, he declared that as proof of his immortality, he would jump into the volcano, and return as a god after his body was consumed by the fire. Empedocles jumped into the volcano, but twenty-five centuries later, he has still not returned.
Trolling has probably been around since proto-humans first gathered around a campfire, and trolling that quickly escalates into something worse is not a newfangled development unique to the internet era. The ancient Greeks were no slouches when it came to trolling that sparked off flame wars. A good example was the steadily escalating back and forth trolling between Bupalus of Chios and the poet Hipponax of Ephesus (both flourished in 6th century BC), which got so bad that Bupalus eventually committed suicide after an epic takedown.
Bupalus was a famous sculptor whose marble statues, typically of draped female figures such as Artemis, The Graces, or Fortune, were in exceptionally high demand. Centuries after Bupalus’ death, the Roman Emperor Augustus had his agents scour the Greek world for statues by the famous sculptor, which he used to decorate the Temple of Apollo in Rome. In addition to being a world-class sculptor, Bupalus was also a world-class troll, who had the misfortune to get into a tiff with an even bigger troll.
Bupalus’ adversary, Hipponax of Ephesus, was a poet. However, he was not a high-brow type like Homer or Hesiod, or a gentle soul who penned pretty verses about summer idylls in rolling meadows, as gentle lambs frolicked about. Instead, his bread and butter seem to have been acerbic lines such as “There are two days when a woman is a pleasure: the day one marries her and the day one carries out her dead body“, and diss poetry. In addition to an ugly personality, Hipponax had a gargoyle face to match. The beef started when Hipponax sought to marry Bupalus’ daughter, only for her father to reject him.
That probably spared the girl from a life with somebody who was, by all reports, as ugly on the inside as he was on the outside. Bupalus then rubbed salt in the wound, and caricatured the unsightly Hipponax in some of his sculptures. Hipponax responded with rhymes that accused Bupalus of being a literal motherfu*ker, and went into graphic details about the carnal acts that the sculptor supposedly engaged in with his mother. Bupalus was subjected to intense public mockery as a result, and unable to stand it, he hanged himself. His fate became a byword among the Greeks, as illustrated by a line from ancient Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes: “Someone ought to give them a Bupalus or two on the jaw—that might shut them up for a bit“.
9. The Ancient Greeks Had Grammar Nazis Long Before There Were Nazis
Just as the preceding example of Bupalus demonstrates that trolls have been around since forever, so have know it all types and grammar Nazis, even before there were Nazis. Take Philitas of Cos (circa 340 – circa 285 BC), whom ancient sources describe as an annoying and overly pedantic busybody know it all, who could not resist the urge to constantly correct others. A poet and scholar who tutored Egypt’s King Ptolemy II, Philitas played a key role in popularizing the Hellenistic school of poetry, which flourished in Alexandria.
Later poets, such as the Roman Ovid, refer to Philitas as their model. A native of the island of Cos in the Aegean Sea, he was already an established poet and a respected man of letters when his homeland was conquered by Ptolemy I of Egypt in 309 BC. The king appointed Philitas to tutor his son and heir, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and the poet relocated to Alexandria to perform his duties. He returned to Cos after his royal charge grew up, and led an intellectual society of poets and scholars.
8. The Pedant Who Died of Hunger as He Tried to Correct Others
All in all, Philitas of Cos was a genius, but he had a rather annoying downside. While a brilliant man by all accounts, the poet and intellectual seems to have rubbed many the wrong way with an overbearing perfectionism and a need to point out every mistake that he came across. All it took was for him to hear somebody utter a logical fallacy or use a wrong word, and Philitas would be off to the races, and go into a pedantic frenzy.
He would proceed to write page after page in which he detailed the error, why it was erroneous and copious examples of what the correct usage should have been. According to ancient sources, he got so caught up in correcting others’ mistakes, investigating false arguments and poor word choices, that he starved to death while researching and writing an essay about somebody’s erroneous word usage. An inscription in front of his tomb read: “Stranger, Philitas is my name, I lie – Slain by fallacious arguments, and cares – Protracted from evening through the night“.
7. The Ancient Greek Who Gave Us the Word Draconian
Ancient Athenian legislator Draco (flourished 7th century BC), nicknamed The Lawgiver, reformed the city’s legal system with law codes and courts to enforce them, which replaced traditional tribal oral laws and blood feuds. The Athenians, who had asked him to come up with a new set of laws, were shocked when he came up with an extremely harsh legal code that punished both serious offenses and trivial ones with death. The severity of his legal system gave birth to the term “draconian”, to refer to exceptionally harsh penalties.
Little is known of Draco’s background, but he was most likely a nobleman. In the 620s BC, he was asked by fellow Athenians to come up with a legal system to replace the private justice one in use at the time, in which rights were enforced by citizens and their relatives. That lent itself to bloody vendettas and chaos, and a law of the jungle in which only the strong and those with connections were protected, while the weak were preyed upon by the powerful. Draco put Athens’ laws in writing and had them published. That reduced the pitfalls of traditional oral laws only known to a select few, and arbitrarily interpreted and applied.
6. The Ancient Greeks Sometimes Got Carried Away With the Applause
Draco’s legal reforms were a huge step towards equality under the law. The downside is that his laws were insanely severe and highly favorable to creditors and the propertied classes. Debtors who defaulted could be sold into slavery, and those who committed petty offenses, as trivial as the theft of cabbage, were liable to the death penalty. When asked why he legislated death for most offenses, Draco replied that he considered the petty crimes worthy of death, and he could not think of a higher penalty for the greater offenses. Whatever the poor and indebted might have thought, wealthy contemporaries liked Draco’s laws.
So much, in fact, that they reportedly killed him with applause. Literally. Ancient Greeks showed their approval by throwing hats and items of clothing at an object of adoration, and during a visit to Aegina, its citizens showered him with so many hats and shirts and cloaks that he suffocated to death under the barrage. Whatever praise he might have earned in his lifetime, Draco’s laws were eventually viewed as intolerably harsh by the Athenians. In 594 BC, they turned to another lawgiver, Solon, who repealed Draco’s laws and replaced them with new and somewhat more humane ones.
Of the many ways to shuffle off the mortal coil, death from laughter is probably among the better ways to go. If it was ever offered as an option, odds are that many would prefer to spend their last moments on earth laughing. One such fortunate who died from laughter was ancient Greek intellectual Chrysippus (circa 279 – circa 206 BC), one of the most influential men of letters of the Hellenistic era. Although he might disagree with the adage “Laughter is the best medicine“, seeing as how laughter killed him.
Chrysippus was born in Soli, near today’s Mersin, Turkey, and was an athlete in his youth, dedicated to long-distance running before he turned to philosophy. As a philosopher, he greatly influenced Stoicism, and later Stoic philosophers credited him with laying much of the groundwork upon which they built. He also did much to shape intellectual landscape of his era’s Greeks by offering alternatives to the theories of Plato and Aristotle. Despite all that, he is probably best known as the philosopher who laughed himself to death.
4. Laughter Was Certainly Not the Best Medicine For This Ancient Greek Philosopher
Chrysippus moved to Athens, where he studied Stoicism under Cleanthes, head of the Stoic School, and became the school’s most gifted student. When Cleanthes died, Chrysippus succeeded him as head of the establishment. He was a prolific writer who wrote over 700 books, and although no full treatise remains, fragments of about 475 of his works have survived. They include summaries and critical evaluations of the Hellenistic schools, and it is mostly from those sources that scholars have assembled the materials for a coherent picture of Stoic philosophy and philosophers.
However, Chrysippus was not just about egghead pursuits. He liked to party, and partied hard, well into old age. When he was around 73-years-old, he got drunk at a party on undiluted wine (Greeks of the era usually mixed wine with water), then saw a donkey eating a fig. In his inebriated state, the sight struck him as hilarious, and he went into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, and repeatedly cried out “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs“, until he fell over dead.
Ephialtes son of Eurydemos, better known to history as Ephialtes of Trachis, was a member of ancient Greece’s Malian tribe, after whom the Malian Gulf in the northwestern Aegean Sea is named. He became one of the most – or perhaps the most – reviled Greek of his era. When King Xerxes of Persia invaded Greece in the fifth century BC, Ephialtes showed the Persians a path that allowed them to bypass and surround a Spartan force that had halted the invaders at Thermopylae.
Xerxes’ invasion of Greece was launched after decades of steadily mounting tensions, spurred by Athens’ support during the reign of Persia’s King Darius I of a failed rebellion by his Ionian Greek subjects in Asia Minor. That led to a Persian punitive expedition against Athens, which was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In 480 BC, Darius’ son and successor, King Xerxes, gathered forces for a massive campaign to conquer and subdue the Greeks once and for all.
When they were faced with the approach of a vast Persian army, the Malians, at the northeastern juncture of the Greek Peninsula with the rest of the Balkans, were among the many Greeks who chose discretion over valor. They “Medised” – that is, submitted to and collaborated with King Xerxes of Persia against other Greek polities. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or the “Hot Gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north.
King Leonidas of Sparta commanded a small Spartan-led Greek force, that occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, who greatly outnumbered Leonidas’ men, were forced to attack directly up the pass and on a narrow front. That negated and neutralized their numerical superiority. The Persians were bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartans. For three days, the Persians launched futile attacks, but could not make the Greeks budge.
King Leonidas and the Greeks under his command kept the vastly superior Persian army bottled up in front of the pass at Thermopylae until Ephialtes struck. He informed King Xerxes that he knew of a track through the mountains that bypassed Thermopylae, and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position. In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. When he discovered that he was about to be outflanked, Leonidas sent his Greek allies away.
He stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong contingent of Spartans, who fought to the death until they were wiped out. Ephialtes was reviled from the ancient era to the present, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward: the Persian invasion collapsed when their fleet was defeated at Salamis later that year, and their army was crushed at Platea the following year. Ephialtes fled, with a bounty on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartans rewarded his killer anyhow.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading