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Classical Studies

April 21, 2016

What’s so funny, Democritus?

Johannes Moreelse, Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher, c. 163

Johannes Moreelse, Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher, c. 1630. Image and original data provided by the Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Democritus is primarily remembered for theorizing that all matter consists of particles called atoms, and this stunning quote: “Nothing exists except atoms and space, everything else is opinion.”

The Short History of the Atom wiki summarizes Democritus’ theory nicely:

  1. All matter consists of invisible particles called atoms.
  2. Atoms are indestructible.
  3. Atoms are solid but invisible.
  4. Atoms are homogenous.
  5. Atoms differ in size, shape, mass, position, and arrangement.

Prescient, yes, but it didn’t give much material for artists to work with. Luckily, Democritus was also known as “the laughing philosopher.” As classicist Mary Beard explains in Confronting the Classics,

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March 21, 2016

Three classical myths to keep you awake

If you’re still trying to adjust to the start of Daylight Saving Time, we’d like to give you a little bit of advice: don’t let the mythological gods of Greece and Rome catch you napping. Seeing mortals sleeping seems to bring out the worst in them.

Here are three of the most notorious examples:

Endymion and Selene

Depending on whom you ask, Zeus either offered the beautiful shepherd Endymion a wish and Endymion chose to sleep and remain youthful forever, or the eternal sleep wasn’t a gift at all, but rather a punishment because Endymion had attempted to seduce Zeus’ wife, Hera.

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September 11, 2014

The many faces of Helen of Troy

Gavin Hamilton, Venus Presenting Helen to Paris, Museo di Roma. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.;www.artres.com; scalarchives.com, Rights (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

Gavin Hamilton, Venus Presenting Helen to Paris, Museo di Roma. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; www.artres.com; scalarchives.com, Rights (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?”

So asks the title character in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus upon seeing the radiant ghost of Helen of Troy. Marlowe was not the only artist to be captivated by Helen and her fabled beauty. Indeed, for millennia, painters, sculptors, poets and playwrights have been inspired by her story.

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