Archive for March, 2007

Abortions in the Greek World (5th C BC)

By: The Scribe on March, 2007

Ancient Greek AbortionHippocrates, a doctor in ancient Greece who has often been referred to as “the father of medicine”, after his death left a great deal of writings concerning women’s health, including the procedures and complications arising from an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion in ancient Greece was not common, simply for the fact that it was highly unlikely that the mother would survive the abortive procedure – it is estimated that about one in ten women would live through an abortion. Indeed, speculation on the methods of abortion are numerous: pressure on the woman’s stomach, riding in a cart on bumpy roads, herbal supplements, or the most dangerous method – inserting a sharp knife or rod into the womb, killing the baby immediately.

Although infanticide was technically legal, a more acceptable recourse was to simply expose the baby at birth. Exposure was more common for female children; the child would generally be wrapped up and placed somewhere outside of the city, perhaps in a field or even in a back alley. Though this would typically result in the child’s death through exposure to the elements, anyone who found an exposed child was permitted to keep it and raise it as their own, though in many cases these children would be raised as slaves. Of course, there was always the option of making some money off the birth – even a noble-born child could be sold into slavery at any time.

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Tomorrow: All about Angkor Wat!

The Mayan Military (ca. 300-900 AD)

By: The Scribe on March, 2007

Mayan WarriorsThe Mayans were familiar with tactical warfare throughout their 2,000 year history, though unlike most ancient civilizations, the use of horses and chariots was not a part of Mayan military technique. Most Mayan weapons were items that could be used from a distance, that would allow soldiers to take advantage of the surrounding landscape’s natural forests for concealment.

Weapons used by the Mayans included: the bow and arrow, blowguns, spears, axes, knives with blades of volcanic glass , and spear-throwing slings called ‘atatls’.

Helmets were not common, and most armor was simply tight-woven cotton, with shields made of with animal skin, reed matting, or carved wood.

Barricades and trenches were popular devices in Mayan warfare, and armies had an elaborate signaling system using whistles and drums. Indeed, much of the Mayan system of warfare was based on the element of intimidation and surprise – the war chieftains are known from wall paintings to have dressed in elaborate animal-inspired robes and headdresses; painting one’s body with religious insignia was also common before battle.

Unfortunately for their enemies, the Mayans were keen on taking prisoners… for the express purpose of sacrificing them on a temple altar, in front of the entire tribe. The belief was that by eating the heart of an enemy warrior, you could gain a portion of that warrior’s strength.

Tomorrow: Abortion early in Greek history

Olympic Origins

By: The Scribe on March, 2007

Olympic Origins

The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece. Many events that are known from our modern Olympic games were first described in the famous Greek poem The Iliad. Held every four years in ancient Greece during July or August, a truce was called between anyone at war within the country for about a month before and after the games, to ensure the athletes and spectators could travel safely to the event.

Athletes were unpaid and trained year-round for the events in which they planned to compete. Notably, all athletes in the Greek world trained and competed in the nude! Although the Greek ideal was to gain honor through winning in the games, the victor would be crowned with an olive wreath immediately after his event, and his name recorded in stone – second and third place prizes did not exist. On the final day of the competition, victors from many events received a large amphora of olive oil, which could be valued up to five years’ worth of pay.

Much like modern Olympic victors who gain sponsorships and advertising stints after their events, ancient Greek athletes were often given financial compensation by their hometowns upon their victories; in some cases a statue of the athlete would be erected in the center of town, idolizing and making the athlete into a famous, hometown hero.

The ancient Olympics included many events which are still held in today’s modern games: discus, javelin, jumping events, footrace, wrestling, and boxing. Chariot races were also quite popular.

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Tomorrow: The Mayan Military

Child Sacrifice in ancient Carthage? (ca. 400 BC)

By: The Scribe on March, 2007

Tophet Stele from CarthageThey were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected 200 of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a number not less than 300. (Diodorus 20.14.1-7 ff).

There is a child cemetery at the site of ancient Carthage named ‘Tophet’, which means “place of burning” or “roaster”, where around 20,000 burial urns have been excavated by archaeologists. These were buried between ca. 400 and 200 BC. Though some people have speculated that these were simply infants who died young, recent archaeological study has become more accepting of this religious ritual, since the bones found do not show any wear or evidence for disease.

The urns contain the burnt bones of children anywhere from newborn to two years old, and in some cases even fetuses. Many ancient societies in the Near East believed that there was a direct relation between sacrifice and the gods providing the people with a good harvest, which may provide an explanation for why these children were killed.

As early as 800 BC, ancient sources report that children were being sacrificed to the gods Ba’al and Tanit, and though the Carthaginians did not particularly enjoy this practice, they began to purchase children from slave traders or take the children of their own slaves for the purpose of being sacrificed. However, when times were bad, only the best would do – up to 200 children of the higher classes could be slaughtered and thrown onto the burning funeral pyre to ask the gods for help.

Various methods of sacrifice may have included: slitting the child’s throat; asphyxiating a child in its burial clothes; or for babies, simply throwing them into the fire.

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Tomorrow: Origins of the Olympics

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