Skip to content

New Episode Released

The Death of Socrates and the Rise of Rome

Show Notes


Socrates is forced to drink hemlock. This is one of those things that deserves a lot of attention. The mere mention of the death of Socrates brings a dozen potential podcast segments to mind. His last words, “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius: will you remember to pay the debt?” It evidences Socrates transcendental awareness, seeking to rid himself of anything impure–like failing to repay a just debt. Or was it merely Plato's concoction? Did Socrates really say it? This is the Socrates/Plato problem. Socrates wrote nothing, whereas Plato wrote a ton. Whose metaxy-like vision were we seeing? Plato's or Socrates' or both? And you know who else didn't write anything? Christ, who was put to death 400 years later. The greatest among the philosophers wrote nothing and was killed for nothing; the greatest man of all wrote nothing and was killed for nothing. Coincidence? Was it coincidence that Plato's and Christ's lines of thought–the attitudes, the dispositions–converged so powerfully in the earliest years of Christianity, culminating in the thought of Augustine? But maybe they shouldn't have. The early Church father Tertullian famously asked, with a bit of venom, what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? And so on and on. The death of Socrates is a spur to much else.

It may be a spur to ALL else. Alfred North Whitehead once said the entire European philosophical tradition is a “series of footnotes to Plato.” But that's not why we mention it here. We mention it here only because “399” is a good year for getting an historical framework. It puts us at the end of the Greek Golden Age. Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle . . . Who would teach Alexander the Great from Macedon, who would take Greek thought and culture to the entire world, all the way to boundaries of India, then die of a hangover at age 32.

Once you start to get an inkling for the Western tradition, you ought to ask yourself: What's so great about the Greeks? Why did the entire world effectively become Greek? Well, the answer is, “The Greek cultural accomplishments–in architecture, sculpture, literature, math, science, history, philosophy–were unparalleled. They were shockingly advanced. They were, in fact, the best.” And then this “Best” was put on the back of Alexander's armies and taken to the rest of the world, where foreign peoples recognized the greatness and adopted it as their own. Even those barbarian nomads from Saudi Arabia would do so 1,000 years later when they, once exposed to the thought of Aristotle, would incorporate it into their higher forms of thought through the great minds of Averroes and Avicenna.

Book of Interest: The Storm Before the Storm

So, Socrates' death in 399 puts us at the doorstep of Alexander the Great and his humongous ecumenical empire. His goal was to conquer the world and create one culture through massive forced immigration/resettlement, dominated by a master class of Macedonians and Persians, whom Alexander deemed superior. There were mass marriages of Macedonian men to Persian women, which was convenient: Persian women have been known for thousands of years to be beautiful. Alexander himself got a piece of that tail.

But it fell apart when he died: 323. His generals fought among themselves briefly for control, then divided up the kingdom into four parts, the Diadochi Kingdoms, two of which would continue for centuries: the Seleucids, which would be the rulers against whom the Maccabees would revolt in Israel in 165 BC, and the Ptolemy, who would rule Egypt until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC.

But the real story in this era is the rise of Rome. Alexander and the Greeks had no interest in anything to the West. To their mind, it was all barbarian all the time. They didn't appreciate what Rome was doing. You see, after 399, Rome started hitting on all cylinders. For a hundred years, they had slowly grown through military victories and alliances with their neighbors, but it was a very slow, patient process. Rome was then sacked in 390 BC by Gauls. I can't say that's an important date for getting an historical sense, but that date, 390 BC, forever stayed in the Roman consciousness. They always hated and feared the Gauls forever thereafter.

After 390, the Romans came back, rebuilt the walls, and re-started their engine of expansion. It grew steadily. In 280, a Greek king named Pyrrhus decided he would take over Italy and establish a western kingdom, kind of like Alexander had done in the east, but this would be easier: He'd rent some mercenaries and beat up on the backward Italian tribes. It didn't exactly work out. It wasn't easy; although he won some battles, he suffered huge losses (”Pyrrhic victory”) and eventually left in 272 BC. That's another date to tuck away. Remember I said that I would provide you with ten years to remember, then tack on more years. In this segment, we started with 399, we added 390 (sack of Rome by Gauls), 323 (death of Alexander the Great and subsequent division of his empire into four kingdoms), and now, 272:

You can cement that year in your head for this reason: As of that date, the rest of the world knew Rome was a force to be respected. No longer would everything to the west of the Adriatic Sea be seen as barbaric and backwards. Especially since, along with Rome, another force was growing in the West: Carthage.

Carthage was rich.

Carthage was strong.

Carthage sucked.

It had no civilization of its own. It worshipped the God Moloch and sacrificed babies on his altars by burning them. They were petty souled, caring for little besides money. The Romans were no saints, but they had enough of their noble tradition infused by Greek culture to know these bastards had to die. Eventually, these two expanding empires collided. At first, they tried to work around each other, neither really wanting to engage the other, but it couldn't be avoided. The first of three Punic Wars started in 264 BC. Rome won. The Second Punic War started in 218. Rome won, but nearly lost due to the genius of Hannibal, who took the battle and war elephants to Italy itself and ravaged it. Rome eventually emerged victorious in 201, which is another date to remember. In 201, Rome was no longer “a force to be reckoned with.” It was THE force to be reckoned with, as it would show in a few years by smashing the Diacochi Kingdoms and making them client states. So, 201: Rome becomes that big gorilla. At that point, Rome continued to role, until all of the Mediterranean became a Roman Sea. Huge wealth flowed into the Roman Republic, making Rome rich and the Romans decadent. The two–mass wealth and decadence–led to intrigue and politicking and posturing, huge fights between the classes, eventually to the Civil Wars in the “aughts BC.” This is the age of those famous Roman names you probably recognize: Julius Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Mark Antony, Cleopatra. The Civil Wars would eventually be won by Octavius: Augustus. That happened in the year 27 BC. Which is our stopping point this week.

Lightning Segments: Storm Before the Storm, Cato, and two Great Apps: Scrivener and Hallow.