Sifting Through the Ash Heap of History

Willem van Nieulandt's 'View of the Forum Romanum.' (ca. 1601-1625)

Petrarch called Rome “a rubbish heap of history.”

That’s what Ferdinand Gregorovius says Petrarch wrote in a letter, at any rate.

“…Petrarch, who was then in Avignon, wrote on this occasion his patriotic epistle in Latin verses to Aeneas Tolomei of Siena. He bewails the ruin of his native country, on which a baibarian(!) prince was now again descending….
“…we may observe the pompous processions of senators … In poverty and obscurity she withered away, decayed and crushed, a rubbish heap of history, while the Pope, forgetful of her claims, accumulated gold and treasures in distant Avignon….
(“History of the City of Rome, in the Fourteenth Century, FROM 1305 until 1354;” Ferdinand Gregorovius; Translated from the fourth German edition by Annie Hamilton (1898) via Cornell University Library, Internet Archive)

The Gregorovius book’s translation is as far back as I’ve been able to track that Petrarch quote. I gather that Petrarch’s hopes for a glorious rebirth of the noble Roman Republic had suffered a head-on collision with 14th century European politics.

A bit over a half-millennium after Petrarch, a fair number of notables have used variations on “rubbish heap of history:”1

  • “Ash heap of history”
    (Ronald Reagan (1982))
  • “trash heap of history”
    (Somebody or other (probably 20th century))
  • “Dustbin of history”
    (Leon Trotsky (1917))
  • “That great dust heap called ‘history'”
    (Augustine Birrell (1887))

George Vertue's procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England, with her Knights of the Garter. (ca 1601)Referring to people, places or things who don’t matter any more, it’s an effective figure of speech.

But assuming that all history is an ash heap, a dream world or Erewhon, where folks dress funny, talk funny and aren’t worth remembering?

That doesn’t make sense. Not to me.

So I’ll be sifting through our ash heap: starting with a wrap-up of what I said about Pericles and good times (for some) in Athens three weeks back.

“The Glory that was Greece”

Leo von Klenze's 'The Acropolis at Athens.' (1846)
(From Leo von Klenze, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The Athenian Acropolis, remembered with rose-colored glasses.)

Three millennia after the Trojan War and a nearly-forgotten apocalypse, two and a half millennia after Pericles ran Athens, a poet reminisced about ancient times:

“…Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome….”
(“To Helen,” Edgar Allen Poe (1845) via Wikipedia)

I’ll enjoy nostalgia. In small doses.

But I think remembering that Pericles and Aristotle, Plato and Thucydides, are people as well as Famous Names in History is prudent.

They’re not ‘just like everyone else,’ of course, since their actions and/or publicists have made them famous. Take Pericles, for example.

“…Brilliant General, Orator, Patron of the Arts….”

I’ll occasionally see introductions to the Age of Pericles that make the Athenian leader seem too good to be true.

“…Athenian culture flourished under the leadership of Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a brilliant general, orator, patron of the arts and politician….”

In fairness, the page also explains that a helmet always tops Periclean statuary because he had a big head. Literally.

Or maybe an unusually long head.

Poets of his day nicknamed him “Schinocephalos,” “Squill-head” or “sea onion-head.” That’s what Plutarch said, at any rate.

“…His personal appearance was unimpeachable, except that his head was rather long and out of due proportion. For this reason the images of him, almost all of them, wear helmets, because the artists, as it would seem, were not willing to reproach him with deformity. The comic poets of Attica used to call him ‘Schinocephalus,’ or Squill-head (the squill is sometimes called ‘schinus’)….”
(“The Parallel Lives,” The Life of Pericles, Plutarch (ca. A.D. 100) Loeb Classical Library edition (1916) via The University of Chicago)

I’m guessing that Plutarch’s squill is Drimia maritima, AKA squill, sea squill, sea onion, and maritime squill. The plant’s bulb looks a bit like a pointy onion’s.2 If Pericles’ head looked like that, I can see why he’d encourage ‘with helmet’ portraiture.

And I can certainly see why comic poets would dub him ‘onion-head.’

So, aside from giving poets something to joke about, what did Pericles do for Athens and Athenians?

Periclean Legacy

Singinglemon's map of ancient Athens, ca. 430 B.C..First, what Pericles didn’t do.

He didn’t free Athenian slaves, extend voting rights to women or establish child labor laws.

But he did make a difference. Maybe for the better. And arguably continuing a process started by Cleisthenes.

For example, Pericles sponsored a law that limited citizenship to children whose mother and father were both Athenians.

Up to that point, having an Athenian father was all that mattered.

Men from aristocratic families often married non-Athenian women, so the Periclean proposal threatened the sons of Athenian aristocrats who had married outsiders.3

I’m not sure whether I like that Periclean reform or not.

On the one hand, giving non-aristocrats a break looks like a good idea.

On the other, denying citizenship to folks whose mothers didn’t come from Athens strikes me as unreasonable. At least partly because I’m an American whose ancestors didn’t come on the Mayflower. And weren’t even English.

Either way, my opinion doesn’t matter. Not to Periclean Athens. I live on a continent Pericles never heard of, and he’s been dead for two and a half millennia.

Times have changed. A lot. Human nature, not so much. I’ll get back to that.

And slavery? That’s a bad idea. Period. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2414)

Empire and Nomenclature

'The Athenian Empire at its Height (about 450 B.C.). 'Historical Atlas,' William R. Shepherd (1926)
(From William R. Shepherd’s 1926 ‘Historical Atlas;’ via the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection; U. of Texas, Austin; used w/o permission.)
(The Athenian “Empire,” around 450 BC: where the Delian League used to be.)

What’s big and what isn’t depends on your frame of reference.

For example, the town I call home, Sauk Centre, is huge compared to Funkley, Minnesota.

Funkley is up in northern Minnesota, between Blackduck and Northome: two other places you’ve probably never heard of.

As of the 2010 census, five folks lived in Funkley. About 800 times as many live in Sauk Centre. Like I say, my town is huge. Comparatively speaking.

But Periclean Athens was even bigger.

Between a quarter and a third of a million folks called Athens home, back when Pericles was running the place.4

That’s about the population of Anoka, Minnesota. Anoka County, that is.

A Suburb, Cities and Names

Unless you live in Minnesota, you probably haven’t heard of Anoka: the self-described Halloween Capital of the World.

Anoka County is a suburban county at the edge of what we call the Twin Cities. Or, occasionally, the Metro. About a third of a million folks live there. That’s a lot of people, not quite a hundred times as many as live here in Sauk Centre, my town.

Then there’s Minnesota’s Metro, the Twin Cities: Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs.

Three and two thirds or four million people call the Twin Cities home. The Metro’s population depends on whether I define the Cities as the Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI CSA or Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI MSA.

That’s a big metropolis, for the Upper Midwest, although not in Chicago’s class.

But Minnesota’s Minneapolis-St. Paul isn’t a big city. Not in a world with cities like Tokyo (population 37,400,000), Dehli (pop. 28,514,000) and Shanghai (pop. 25,582,000).

Back when Pericles was running Athens, having a third of a million people in one place was a very big deal. In its heyday, the city was huge.

One place? Make that one area.

Some historians write about Athens and Attica as if they were the same thing.

It’s confusing, but I can’t say that I blame them. Attica is Athens, and vice versa, sort of. Attica is, or was, territory south of the Cithaeron range. Athens was the area’s big city.5

If Attica was a sociopolitical region in America, we might call it GAMA — the Greater Athens Metropolitan Area. I suspect we caught our penchant for acronyms from ancient Rome, and that’s another topic.main004

Towns, Cities and Places

Sauk Centre's Ash Street South, Our Lady of the Angels church in the distance. (May 22, 2021)I called Sauk Centre, where I live, a town. But it’s officially a city.

A bit over 4,000 folks live here, so in Louisiana this would be a town. Officially.

Here in Minnesota, since we’ve got a “city council,” we’re a city. Again, officially.

Seems that Minnesota has four tiers of “cities,” ranked by population. And since fewer than 10,001 folks live in Sauk Centre, we’re one of 835 fourth-class cities.

On the whole, I’d prefer living in a plain old “town” instead of a “fourth-class city.”

But I can’t change whatever events, attitudes and decisions led to Minnesota’s current system. And I sure don’t think our official definitions matter enough to warrant protest. Not as far as I’m concerned, anyway.

I also learned that the U.S. Census —

“…defines a place as a concentration of population; a place may or may not have legally prescribed limits, powers, or functions. This concentration of population must have a name, be locally recognized, and not be part of any other place….”
(“Geographic Areas Reference Manual” (GARM), Chapter 9 — Places, United States Census Bureau (Last Revised: October 8, 2021))

So I live in a “place” that would be a “town” in it was in Louisiana, but is a “city” since it’s in Minnesota. And I think of the place I live in as a “town” because I think of cities as, well, as cities.

Making this matter of names more complicated, Minnesota’s parishes are called counties. Or Louisiana’s counties are called parishes. I live in the Our Lady of the Angels parish, but that’s not the same kind of parish.

Well, actually, it is: etymologically.6 And that’s another topic.

End of an Era

'The Piraeus and the Long Walls of Athens,'  	'The story of the greatest nations, from the dawn of history to the twentieth century,' John Steeple Davis. (1900))
(From John Steeple Davis, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The Long Walls, connecting Athens to Piraeus, the city’s port.)

Recapping, we figure Attica’s population in the fifth century B.C. was somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000.

That’s a little smaller than Anoka County, here in Minnesota.

But back then, Athens was huge. And it was the thriving center of an archê. That’s what Thucydides called the Athenian realm.

Scholars have been translating archê as “empire,” which may or may not be accurate.

At any rate, many Athenians were enjoying good times around 450 B.C.. Thanks to, or in spite of, Periclean leadership.

Then a war started between the Delian League — or Athenian Empire, I’ve seen both names used — and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League.

Pericles moved much of Attica’s population into Athens.

It seemed like a good idea, since it kept them comparatively safe from Sparta’s armies.

Athens was the big Aegean naval power, and its Long Walls secured access to the city’s port, so running short of supplies wasn’t a problem.

Reconstruction of Myrtis, 11 years old when she died during the plague of Athens. Her skeleton was found in the Kerameikos mass grave. Tilemahos Efthimiadis's photo, forensic reconstruction by professor Manolis Papagrigorakis and others, National Archaeological Museum of Athens. (September 25, 2010)But the city’s infrastructure couldn’t handle both residents and suburbanites.

Patient zero for the Plague of Athens was probably in Piraeus, the city’s port.

About one of every four folks in Athens died, including Pericles. And an 11-year-old girl researchers dubbed Metis.

Athens never recovered.

Not politically or economically. The city-state stopped being the Aegean pond’s biggest metaphorical frog.

On the other hand, it weathered the Alexandrian, Parthian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires; and the 20th century’s global war(s).

And the city of Athens is alive and well and prospering in the 21st century. But it hasn’t been Western civilization’s shining city on a hill for millennia.7

Small wonder that some folks say 429 B.C. was the end of the Athenian Golden Age.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: Brilliance in the Afterglow

Schematic diagram of Peter Apian's (Petrus Apianus) cosmology, largely reflecting Aristotelian physics and cosmology. From Peter Apian's 'Cosmographia,' annotated by Gemma Frisius. (1524) Reproduced in Edward Grant's 'Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages.' (1987)On the other hand, Socrates survived the Peloponnesian War and the Plague of Athens; but not postwar politics.

He was tried and convicted in 399 B.C. of lacking faith in the gods of the state and corrupting Athenian youth.

Then he obligingly drank hemlock and died.

Plato’s achievements include starting the Platonic Academy, arguably my civilization’s first academic institution. Aristotle studied there before opening his Lyceum.8

Maybe their era wasn’t the Athenian Golden Age by some standards.

But that trio — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle — kept adding to my civilization’s store of methods, ideas and the occasional bit of wisdom for a century after Pericles died. That’s an achievement worth remembering.

Ancient Empires and an Apocalypse We Nearly Forgot

'States of the Diadochi, c. 300 B.C.', 'Historical Atlas,' William R. Shepherd (1911)
(From William R. Shepherd, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Kingdoms in 301 B.C. — and, in the upper left, the Roman Republic.)

Aristotle is also remembered for tutoring Alexander III of Macedon, Philip II’s son.

Philip II had formed an Aegean alliance against the Persian empire. Some historians call it the Corinthian League these days. Or the League of Corinth. Tomayto, Tomahto, and that’s another topic.

Philip II’s alliance seems to be the first time (almost) all Greek city-states were part of a single political entity.

I don’t know why that achievement doesn’t qualify Philip II’s era as the start of a Grecian golden age. Particularly since we call his son Alexander the Great.

Maybe it’s because Alexander’s empire died with him.

And maybe because we realize that another empire had been brewing in southern Etruria.

I gather that at least since Pliny the Elder’s day, there’s been debate over whether the post-Alexander Hellenistic period was good news or bad news.9

Alleged Hellenistic decadence, degeneration, enlightenment and academic attitudes are cans of worms I’ll leave for another day.

Etruscan Civilization’s Uncertain Origins

Aerial view, The Coriglia/Orvieto Excavation Project, Archaeological Institute of America. (Season: May 17, 2020 to June 26, 2020)
(From Archaeological Institute of America, used w/o permission.)

Archaeologists and historians generally agree that Etruscan civilization started just shy of three millennia back: mostly where Tuscany is now.

Etruscans had always been where they were when Phoenicians founded Carthage — According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived around Julius Caesar’s time.

In 1942, Italian historian Massimo Pallottino said maybe they were the alleged Sea Peoples. Or a Sea Peoples colony.10

“Sea Peoples?”

The Sea Peoples came from somewhere. Maybe Asia Minor, southern Europe, or someplace in between.

Wherever they came from and whoever they were, they weren’t called “Sea Peoples” until 1855.

That’s when a French Egyptologist inferred their existence from a mural and snippets from Egyptian records. He called them peuples de la mer: “peoples of the sea.”

If he and scholars of the last century and a half are on the right track, the “Sea Peoples” were one or more of up to maybe nine groups. Maybe.

They’ve been identified as folks from the Hittite Empire, a tribe of Israel, pre-Sardinian Sardinians, and an assortment of other groups you probably haven’t heard of.

They may have been a formal confederation. Or maybe their joint effort to invade Egypt was an impromptu affair.11

There’s a great deal we don’t know about them.

Late Bronze Age Collapse: Unburied Corpses, Lost Records

Finn Bjørklid's (?) map showing the Bronze Age collapse.
(From Finn Bjørklid(?), via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Late Bronze Age Collapse: yes, what’s on the evening news could be worse.)

If the ‘Sea Peoples’ or their pre-invasion neighbors had written records, those documents did not survive the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Or haven’t been found yet.

Events leading to that catastrophe might help explain why they thought invading Egypt was a good idea.

But like I said, whatever documents they had have been lost or destroyed. That’s hardly surprising, under the circumstances.

As far as I’ve been able to learn, we didn’t know that the Late Bronze Age Collapse had happened until after I earned my degree in history.

A half-century later, we’ve got lively discussions going over how fast it happened. As well as when it happened, exactly what happened and what caused it.

What’s more certain is that well upwards of a dozen places made an abrupt transition from thriving cities to fire-gutted ruins inhabited by unburied corpses.

We haven’t experienced anything quite like it since, happily. I think our 20th century near miss inspired films like “Mad Max/Road Warrior” and “On the Beach.”

I also think academia’s getting back to recognizing that the Trojan War really happened. Although I gather that they’re still not convinced that Homer was really real.”12

And now; Etruscans, scholars, and villages on the Etruscan borderland.

Origin Stories, Attitudes and Assumptions

Livy and Pliny the Elder said Etruscans came from a confederation of Alpine tribes.

Herodotus said that a Lydian story involved a famine and a king who ordered half of the population to leave. The evicted Lydians went west, literally but not figuratively, and became the first Etruscans.

Each version has eloquent supporters.

I gather that supporting Herodotus is out of vogue at the moment. Partly because there isn’t recognized archaeological evidence making it the only viable explanation. Etruscan stuff doesn’t look like Lydian stuff.

But archaeologists in the 46th century might conclude that Puritans in New England couldn’t possibly have come from England. Because New England Puritan churches didn’t look like King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.

It doesn’t help that Herodotus and Lydia are both what we think of as “Greek.” Maybe “Hellenistic” would be more accurate.

Rejecting the Lydian account as repeated by Herodotus because it reminds contemporary academics of American jingoism almost makes sense.

I wouldn’t insist that Herodotus has to be right, but I’m willing to remember that he was four centuries closer to Etruscan origins than either Livy or Pliny the Elder.

Whoever the Etruscans were, they grew and prospered.

So did folks living in a few villages on hills near a river at the south edge of Etruscan territory. The villages became Rome, and kept growing.13

History and Human Nature

Detail of 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' United States Capitol rotunda; Constantino Brumidi. (1865)As I see it, learning from history is an option, and a good one. Part of the trick is remembering the right lessons.

And remembering both that we’re living in what will be history, and that we’re often too close to people and events to see the ‘big picture.’

Dr. Benjamin Franklin: “Don’t worry, John, the history books will clean it up.”
John Adams: “Hmm… Well, I’ll never appear in the history books anyway. Only you. Franklin did this, and Franklin did that…. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington — fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them, Franklin, Washington and the horse, conducted the entire revolution all by themselves.”
(“1776” (1972) quotes via

I also think remembering that laws, customs and hairstyles change: but human nature hasn’t.

Still “Very Good,” but Wounded

'Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,' Thomas Cole (1828) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.That’s good news, actually.

“God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis1:27, 31)

So, if we’re “in the image of God” and “very good,” how come we’re not perfect people living perfectly in perfect societies?

It’s because the first of us decided that ‘what I want’ outvotes what God says. Then the man tried blaming his wife: and God. The interview did not end well, and we’re living with a wounded nature. But we are still “very good.” Basically. (Genesis 3:120; Catechism, 385412)

And we’re learning, slowly, that acting as if ‘love God, love your neighbor and everyone’s your neighbor’ makes sense — is a good idea.

I’ve talked about that sort of thing, and history, before. Rather often:

1 Metaphors, famous names and a little history:

2 Plutarch, Pericles and plants — a distinctly non-comprehensive look:

3 Democracy, Athenian style:

4 Funkley and other places:

5 More places:

6 Places and names in America:

7 Athens after Pericles:

8 Famous names, mostly:

9 Alexander and after:

10 Not-entirely-forgotten names:

11 (Almost) remembering an ancient apocalypse:

12 A poet, a war and two movies:

13 Perspectives:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Sifting Through the Ash Heap of History

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing period: “I’ll enjoy nostalgia. In small doses”

    Extra word: “The plant’s bulb looks like a bit like a pointy onion’s.”

    Missing article: “having third of a million people in one place was a very big deal.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

  2. Welcome back! Found and fixed: thanks! 🎉

Thanks for taking time to comment!