Ramesses the Great – a summary

Ramesses II was about twenty years of age when he succeeded his father, Sety I, a leading general, to the throne of Upper and Lower Egypt. His royal wife, Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti), remained his primary wife and his great love until she died at an early age. Nefertari whose name means ‘the most beautiful’ was laid to rest in an exquisitely decorated rock-cut tomb in the Valley of the Queens.

Ramesses the Great, as he was known, ruled Egypt for sixty-seven years, coming to power, Egyptologists believe, on 31 May 1279 BCE. During his reign the Egyptian Empire was greatly expanded through both military conquests and treaties. The two great foes of the Egyptians during this period were the Hittites, who emerged from southern Turkey as a fearless and ruthless power bent on expansion, and the Nubians to the south in modern-day Sudan, whose desire always had been to campaign northwards to overthrow Egypt and acquire the fertile Nile valley for their own nation.

Ramesses and Nefertari

Ramesses the Great mounted military excursions and repelled Nubia on several occasions. He ordered a temple to be built on the banks of the Nile at Egypt’s southern border (at Abu Simbel) where four colossal statues of Pharaoh Ramesses glowered menacingly at anyone who might dare to challenge his might. On the same site he erected a beautiful temple for Nefertari, dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Nefertari is shown in statues at the front of the temple standing next to Ramesses the Great. Her statues are the same size as those of Ramesses, an almost unheard of tribute to his royal wife. The inscription reads, Nefertari, for whom the sun does shine.

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Archaeological Discoveries in US Pre-History

The world is familiar with the well documented cultures and structures that existed in Peru and Guatemala; the world is aware of the societies that existed there – the Maya, the Inca or the Aztec. But the outstanding cultures found in the present-day US are often neglected. The prehistoric Americans subsisted and constructed cultures from the freezing Alaskan tundra to the Pacific Northwest. The Natives established societies that braved the aridity of the South and made the best of the fertile valleys of the Southeast. Archaeological findings show how the Native Americans acclimatized to the diverse conditions of the US and settled to form cultures and societies resourcefully.


Of the most advanced setups, findings reveal a migrated group, The Hohokam, in the Arizona region that had built irrigation systems to man the aridity of the desert and convert it into farmable land. Archaeologists have found signs of well construction, ponds and dams as means of collecting rainwater. Traces of canals and ditches have also been discovered, highlighting how the group was well ahead of its time and made great leaps in setting up an effective irrigation setup. Some of the earliest societies and cultures probably developed around the Southwest, according to the widely held opinion amongst archaeologists.

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The Pyramids of Giza

Undoubtedly one of the most famous sights in the world, the three great pyramids of Giza are for many the defining icon of ancient Egyptian culture. Built in less than 100 years, between 2600 and 2500 BC, they represent the pinnacle of precision and organisation; perfection in pyramid building. As they stand today, stripped of their fine white limestone casing and having lost integral parts of their complex, the pyramids are slightly less brilliant than they once were, but no less astounding. Who were the kings who envisioned such immense structures as their eternal resting place? How did they build them?

The 4th Dynasty

4th Dynasty kings














Tomb location

Meidum Pyramid

Dahshur ‘Bent’ and ‘Red’ pyramids


‘Great’ Pyramid

Abu Roash (north of Giza.) Pyramid





 South Saqqara

Mastaba tomb

The pyramid form was developed in the 3rd Dynasty and was already in use as the superstructure for royals tombs, but it was Sneferu’s reign that saw the first attempts to create a ‘true’ pyramid. When Khufu (Cheops in Greek) came to the throne his father’s extensive pyramid building programme had allowed techniques to be honed and important lessons learned. (Pictured is Khufu’s ‘great’ pyramid). The ambition of Khufu would be realised because the designers, masons and labourers had the ability and the knowledge to undertake such an exorbitant project. Surely this would distinguish their king for the rest of history.

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The Plague of Athens

 ‘The disease began, it is said, beyond Egypt in Ethiopia… then it suddenly fell upon the city of Athens’
Thucydides 2.48

Between 430-426 BCE, the Greek city state of Athens suffered a mysterious and devastating plague. Highly contagious and often fatal, the disease is reputed to have reduced the population of Athens by up to a quarter. Although the cause of the epidemic is unknown, bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, anthrax and influenza have all been suggested as possible culprits. The symptoms exhibited in Athens however, do not exactly match those of any known disease and speculation as to the nature of the epidemic continues to the modern day.

Our sole contemporary source for information on the plague is the historian Thucydides, who claimed to have suffered from the condition himself, and catalogued its symptoms and effects in minute detail. Although the objectivity of Thucydides’ account has been called into question, his description of the sufferings endured by plague victims and the effects of the epidemic upon Athenian society as a whole have proven of great interest to both physicians and historians.

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What is history?

What is History?

An easy answer would be: everything that has gone before each moment in time. But this simply is not true. History is not the past itself, but the study of a past that, especially going back to our earliest histories, remains dynamic and changing. The old adage: ‘History is written by the victors’ has always seemed an exclusive view of our written sources and the further back we go, the less weight this idea holds.

Who wrote History?

The two canonical histories of the Classical Greek World were written in two very different styles. Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), was a politically active member of his community and only after being exiled to Thurii in south Italy did he begin travelling, collecting information and writing his great work. He explored the culture and geography of the Middle East, Egypt and the Aegean in an attempt to uncover the cause of the Graeco-Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.). Themes of justice, luxury, pride and the influence of Gods and oracles abound.

Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.), an aristocratic Athenian, was likewise prominent in politics; he served as a general in Thrace and was subsequently exiled for his failure there. Thucydides sought the causation of The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) through human action and politicking exclusively. His staid prose describes events as they happen and is coloured with no Herodotean digressions into subsidiary matters.

The victors?

By no means would we describe either historian as a victor. Herodotus’ Halicarnassus fought on the losing Persian side and Thucydides’ Athens was defeated by the Spartans. All we may infer is that the writing of History was of secondary interest. Contemporary politics was their bread and butter; it is only removal from this environment that allowed them the time and energy to compile their vast works.

History and Pre-History

Unlike many other disciplines we are almost certain of the start date of the concept of history. Herodotus is our first exponent of the style; specifically referring to his monumental study as a historia; this word meaning inquiry. This idea is the basis for all historical investigation and writing.

Pre-history describes human events from the dawn of mankind up to Herodotus. Though this terminology is technically correct the use of Herodotus’ History only functions as an intellectual year one. Through modern investigation we can discover far more about the development of civilisation; rendering a before and after Herodotus dateline inadequate. The written text, which was thought to be the canonical method by which to decipher the past, is now being moved to its correct position as one of many types of evidence, along with artistic, material (buildings, inscriptions etc.) and scientifically analysable data such as carbon dating or surveying. It is from these techniques that we seek to build up a picture of life and events from the remote past.

The Classical World and History

The technique applied by Herodotus in his inquiry was similar; though not as scientifically wide ranged. He travelled the Greek and Barbarian worlds seeking the stories of the locals. He weighed such stories up himself and decided upon their relative factual merits. The analysis and comparison of evidence and arguments forms the backbone of all historical investigations proceeding Herodotus. It is the attempt to answer the ‘why?’ that informs Herodotus’ work.

It is this search for causation that separates classical intellectual history from the archaic. A move away from the older idea of the gods as the ultimate perpetrators was occurring and Herodotus managed to define it in his introduction stating that he is seeking to uncover thereasons. In the same way philosophers used such questioning and weighing of evidence to explain the origin and forms of such ideas as justice and good. Likewise medical writers used close observation to try to better understand and treat disease. Thucydides description of the plague (book 2.7) at Athens during the Peloponnesian War is a masterly example of such clinical thinking. Thucydides, more so than Herodotus, expounds this classical idea in his removal of the gods from human affairs.

What is History II?

If the past and history are two different things then we return to our original question. Though the study of history has moved on, as its originator, Herodotus is very useful in deciphering a definition of the concept. I would suggest the closest we can get to specifying would be to view history as each successive epoch’s attempt to uncover and define the events of the past through interpretation of the surviving evidence, be it oral, literary or material. This evidence alone only informs us at face value. Like Herodotus we must analyse and compare it to come to any conclusion of interpretation.

John B. Knight
See also Biography – a very short history

The Fall of Rome

Patrick Neylan provides a quick overview on the disintegration and fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire.

Rome spent the fourth century AD trying to organise itself to counter the growing threat from the Germans in the north and the Persians in the east. Recognising that one man could not run the empire alone, the Romans tried various forms of division until Constantine, the emperor who made Christianity the state religion, founded a ‘New Rome’ in AD 330 that bore his name: Constantinople. The empire gradually became accustomed to having two emperors and two capitals, until the split became permanent after the death of Theodosius in 395.

The separation happened at an inopportune time for the Western Empire and a good time for the East. The Emperor, Julian, had led an expedition to Persia in 363 that ended in disaster. Yet the humiliation on the Persian frontier did lead to a lasting peace, which, while unfavourable to the Romans, at least gave them a breathing space to tackle their problems in Europe. While the Romans tried to deal with the arrival of the Huns, the Persians were distracted by the threat from the White Huns on their eastern frontier.

The Huns and the Ostrogoths

The Huns had spent nearly four centuries vying with the Han dynasty in China before finally being defeated and moving westwards in the 3rd century, where they lived quietly in the area of modern Kazakhstan. Meanwhile the German tribes, frustrated in their efforts to break into the Roman Empire, had begun to expand eastwards. The most ambitious of them, the Ostrogoths, slowly spread across the Ukrainian steppe until they encountered the Huns in the area of modern Volgograd (which was, ironically, the limit of German eastward expansion in the 20th century, when the city was known as Stalingrad).

The reaction of the Huns was brutal and swift. The armies of the Ostrogoths were annihilated and a century of German expansion was obliterated in the space of three years. The Huns drove westward until they reached the Roman frontier on the Danube, enslaving or displacing the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Gepids and Lombards. Some fled north into Germany proper while others sought refuge across the Danube in the Eastern Empire.

The Romans, never the most respecting of barbarian cultures, mistreated the refugee Visigoths so badly that they rebelled. In 378, the Goths destroyed an East Roman army at the battle of Adrianople after which the Visigoths roamed the Roman Empire’s European provinces at will, marching into Italy shortly after other German tribes had crossed the Rhine into Gaul in 407.

The Sacking of Rome

Over the next 50 years, these new arrivals put their military prowess to good use, either serving the empire as mercenaries or carving out their own territories. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 before staking out their own kingdom in South-Eastern France and later Spain. The Suevi took a corner of Spain and the Vandals crossed into Northern Africa and made Carthage the capital of their new kingdom.

The Vandals sacked Rome in 455, a far more brutal affair than the Visigoths’ effort forty-five years earlier, and their name remains a byword for mindless destruction.

Meanwhile the Franks and Burgundians set themselves up in Gaul while isolated tribes of Angles and Saxons began their slow, piecemeal conquest of Britain, which the Romans had abandoned in 410. The only respite for the crumbling Roman Empire came with the collapse of the Hunnish empire following the death of Attila in 453.

The King of Italy

As the empire’s European territories fell away, the barbarian general in charge of Italy, Odoacer, deposed the last puppet emperor in 476 and set himself up as King of Italy. Odoacer is considered the first non-Roman to have ruled all of Italy. The imperial regalia were sent to Constantinople, and the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist.

Yet the Eastern Empire survived. Constantinople guarded the waterway of the Bosphorus and kept the invaders out of its richest lands in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Barbarian generals gained power in the city but were never strong enough to threaten the position of the emperor. While the cities of the West declined, urban life continued in the East and a form of Roman civilization survived there for another thousand years.

Patrick Neylan

See also Cincinnatus – the hero who saved Rome and
Marcus Tullius Cicero: A Life in Letters

Hippocrates and the Hippocratic Oath – a summary

 ‘Concerning disease, practice two things – to help, or at least to do no harm.’
Hippocrates, Epidemics 1.11


Considered by Seneca to be the ‘father of medicine’, Hippocrates was regarded by many ancient thinkers as the greatest physician of his time. Born on the Greek island of Kos sometime in the middle of the fifth century BCE , he gained near legendary reputation as the author of the Hippocratic Corpus, containing the Hippocratic Oath, a highly influential collection of medical writings which shaped the course of western medicine for over two thousand years.

The Hippocratic Corpus

The collection of texts known today as the Hippocratic Corpus takes the form of around sixty separate ‘books’, the styles of which differ widely throughout the anthology. While some texts seem almost to be lecture notes, detailing a single author’s teachings on a particular topic, others appear more like casebooks in which a doctor records a patient’s changing condition or the recognised symptoms of a known disease.  Some are slim documents, only a paragraph in length, whilst others run to several volumes.

Collected together in Alexandria during the third century BCE, the Corpus quickly became the standard reference for medical students throughout the western world with many of its teachings used well into the 19th century.

Although it is impossible to know whether the Corpus really represents the work of a single author, scholars in the Ancient and Early Modern worlds certainly believed it did and the  influence Hippocratic medicine has had upon the practice and development of medical science is unparalleled.

Medicine in Ancient Greece

‘Now all our diseases arise either from things inside the body, bile and phlegm, or from things outside it: from exertions and wounds, and from heat that makes it too hot, and cold that makes it too cold.’
Hippocrates, Diseases 1.2

Throughout human history, people have fallen ill and have tried to find both reasons for and ways of alleviating their symptoms. In many early societies, sickness and disease were blamed on the meddling of evil spirits or the wrath of the gods to whom sufferers then made desperate supplications in the hope of eliciting a divine cure.

In contrast to this, the Hippocratic Corpus is unique amongst ancient works for presenting a comprehensive philosophy of medicine centred on a belief that health and disease have physical, rather than divine or supernatural causes.

In Greek society, doctors were considered craftsmen, trained in thetechnê, the art or skill of healing the body. Hippocrates believed it was the duty of the doctor to use this skill to ‘speak the past, diagnose the present [and] predict the future’ (Epidemics 1), a feat achieved by paying careful attention to the smallest changes in those within their care. Observable differences were ascribed to imbalances between the four basic fluids, or humours within the body: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. Health could be described as the state in which the humours were in equilibrium and the Hippocratic doctor would often let blood or prescribe emetics in order to balance the humours and achieve this effect.

Hippocrates considered good health the natural state of Man. Moreover that health was a state entirely physical in origin and therefore wholly within a knowledgeable physician’s power to effect. He believed diseases had set life-cycles that could be predicted using a doctrine of critical days (see Aphorisms) and that climate, activity and diet could all affect a person’s humoural makeup and therefore health. In one of the most famous and contentious books in the Hippocratic CorpusOn the Sacred Disease, he also argues strongly against putting one’s faith in religious incantations and the quasi-magical rituals of charlatans and quacks.

The Hippocratic Oath

Possibly the most famous part of the Corpus, and certainly one of the most historically influential is the Oath, a pledge designed to be sworn by new doctors in order to govern their conduct. In it, the doctor swears to the healing gods Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia and Panacea that he will preserve the life of his patients, proscribe medicines and treatments to the best of his knowledge but never poison those within his care nor intentionally set out to harm.

Since the ancient world had no regulation governing the use of the title ‘doctor’; any individual could claim the knowledge required to heal a sickness or wound. The Hippocratic Oath may therefore represent an attempt to form a guild-like association of medical professionals who could be recognised both by their patients and each other in what must have been a crowded and highly competitive medical marketplace.

We do not know whether the Hippocratic Oath was ever widely sworn in antiquity but the spirit contained within its lines is one familiar to us all today as the guiding ethos underlying the responsible use of medicine: a pledge to protect and extend life commonly referred to ‘Hippocratic’.

Ancient MedicineLiam A Faulkner

Liam is the author of Ancient Medicine: Sickness and Health in Greece and Rome.

See also article on the Plague of Athens.

Marcus Tullius Cicero: A Life in Letters

There is only one figure in Rome during the crucial years at the end of the Republic and the rise of the Empire (c. 146 B.C.E – c. 46 AD) whom we can attempt to know in any significant detail. This only due to a combination of his voracious propensity for correspondence and the care with which one of his great friends took to conserve and later publish his letters.

Novus Homo

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E) was a novus homo (new man i.e someone with no notable ancestors) born at Arpinium, south of Rome, to a reasonably well off family. He studied as a lawyer and, as was the done thing for a Roman barrister, began a political career. Cicero’s time in office would span the crucial years of the end of Roman Republican rule and his own part in these affairs was significant, though in the end not decisive.

Throughout his life he kept in correspondence with his good friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, a wealthy individual who lived variously in Greece and Rome and was well connected with the political elite at the time despite his own refusal to participate in such a career. Through these, and numerous other letters to leading figures of the day, we gain not only an insight into the machinations of the Republican political colossus of the epoch, but also a more personal understanding of the workings of one man’s mind within the system.

The Catiline Letter

In July 65 B.C.E, Cicero wrote Atticus with news that his wife had given birth to a son. However, though obviously important, this was not the reason for the letter. In fact it concerns the trial of Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), a political rival of Cicero’s. The trial itself is clearly a sham with Cicero admitting the collusion of defence, jury and prosecutor but justifying his own participation in the hope that it would place Catiline in debt to him with elections approaching.

Cicero was later to withdraw from the defence team. The consequences of Catiline’s acquittal and Cicero’s refusal to participate would return to haunt him. After Cicero’s victorious election to the post of Consul (the state’s highest), Catiline formed an armed conspiracy in 63 B.C.E with the intent of grabbing power from the Consuls and Senate. Eventually this was crushed; politically by Cicero and militarily by another.


Despite this victory and his being hailed “Father of His Country”, another rival, Publius Clodius Pulcher (incidentally the prosecutor in Catiline’s earlier trial), looked to take Cicero down. He eventually did so using the treatment of the Catilinarian conspirators, specifically their murder by order of the senate, as the sword with which to bring Cicero down, and had him packed off into exile in 58 B.C.E for the crime of killing Roman citizens without trial.

The Mind of a Man

That the beginning of these tumultuous events in both the life of the individual and state can be seen in a single correspondence between friends remains one of the remarkable qualities of this collection of letters.  In the original communiqué Cicero is merely telling of an interesting, if not uncommon, legal proceeding with which he was involved. When he wrote those words he had no idea of the events about to unfold. Thus, through his ignorance, we can gain a picture of his thoughts and feelings truly without hindsight.

John B. Knight
See also: Cincinnatus – the Hero Who Saved Rome
Biography – a very short history and The Fall of Rome

Biography: A Very Short History

Biography: A Very Short History from the Classical World to the Early Medieval period .

The Lives of Great Men

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Roger Lewis’ 1995 investigation into the great actor and comedian, is, at over 1,100 pages, a mammoth volume. Lewis studies not only the events of Sellers’ life, but each of his films in phenomenal detail, attempting to uncover what made his subject tick and why he should achieve the emotional appeal and impact Lewis’ credits him with retaining to this day. While the book itself is an excellent and worthwhile investigation into the life of one of Britain’s great actors, it is worth asking oneself the extent to which such a thorough examination of, say; the film The Waltz of the Toreadors (1962) can enlighten us on Sellers the man, rather than the actor.


As a form of narrative storytelling, biography’s earliest extant exponent was the Greek scholar Plutarch (46 – 129 BCE) who wrote a series of parallel lives, in which he compared great figures from Greek history and mythology with those Romans whose achievements he felt mirrored them. As with some modern biographers Plutarch sought to gain an insight into each character and uncover the reasons for their later greatness through examining the tales told of their childhoods and early lives, onto their later successful (or otherwise) careers. It was character rather than narrative history that interested Plutarch and it was these traits with which he attempted to illuminate the actions of his subjects.

The Vitae

Another little known example of classical biography comes in the form of the Vitae (Latin for Life). We have a number of these anonymous works centering on the great Athenian dramatists; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. To create a work elucidating the life and character of these individuals, of whom very little personal detail otherwise exists, the author extrapolated recurring ideas and comments from their own works and, in the case of Euripides, those of the Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes; in whose work Euripides is often a central, and much satirised, character. The effect of this is much the same as if one attempted to write a life of James Joyce with only his poetry and prose as source material.


With the age of the Emperors in full swing a type of biography emerged, around the imperial court, with the Roman historian Suetonius (69? – 130 BCE) its principle exponent. These tales of court life and drama centred around an Emperor whose life and deeds are told using certain stories and occurrences to illustrate facets of character. Suetonius’ voice can be heard in his assessments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Emperors. Nero, for example is shown to be kind and generous as a youth, but when corrupted by power and his own insanity because a typical example of a despot. Augustus on the other hand is treated more reverentially.

Hagiography and Charlemagne

After the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, lives of saints and other martyrs, named Hagiographies (the study of saints) became the popular form of the style. Through these, miraculous deeds and heavenly intervention could be recorded and embellished, and their name has since been associated with partisan or biased factual writings. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire Charlemagne’s (742 – 814 BCE) Franks were the classical world’s intellectual successors and it was around the figure of the great Emperor that Einhard, a trusted courtier, wrote a life aping the style of Suetonius and thus attempting to place Charlemagne as a new Roman Emperor.

Still the Lives of Great Men

From its genesis, biography has typically been used to mark out the lives of great men, whether good or evil, and attempts to gain an insight into the individual characteristics possessed by such men that lead them to committing the deeds that they did, and achieving the glory or infamy that resulted from these actions. Pick up any modern biography, and though the content and analysis has changed; the search for what makes a man rise above his contemporaries and achieve great things remains.

John B Knight

See also John’s article on What Is History?