Author Archives: tetraites

The Great Library of Alexandria

Alexander the Great meant for Alexandria to be the linking city between Greece and Egypt, both physically and culturally.  The city as a whole was designed to be a beacon to the rest of the world and was home to many cultural wonders.  While it was the Lighthouse of Alexandria that was named a wonder of the ancient world, the Library was just as important and magnificent.  Alexander himself called for the Library but it wasn’t started until the reign of Ptolemy I.  The Library of Alexandria was meant to house the greatest works of philosophy, history, and literature.  Legend holds that Aristotle’s personal collection of books and scrolls made their way to Egypt via Ptolemy and Theophrastus.  Aristotle’s collection was the basis of the early library and slowly more and more scrolls were added.  Ptolemy and his heirs boosted the library’s holdings by recruiting in the best scholars of the age.  Large salaries, tax exemptions, and free housing attracted scholars from across the known world.  Most worked in the library, writing new works and finding ancients ones to add to the collection.  The academic work done in the Library and the conjoining museum were only possible because of the patronage of Ptolemy.  Classic works of Homer and Euripides were among the scrolls that lined the Library walls.  Scholars were sent out to find rare and ancient texts to add to the impressive collection in Alexandria.  It is estimated that over half a million scrolls in total were held within the Library and other estimates put the number closer to a million individual works.  It is difficult to measure the cultural and intellectual significance of the many volumes contained at the Library of Alexandria.


The Library wasn’t the only significant building focused on knowledge in Alexandria.  Connected to the Library was the Mouseion of Alexandria, a large research facility that attracted the brightest minds of the era.  Within the confines of the Mouseion scientific knowledge was being tested on a daily basis by great thinkers like Euclid, Hipparchus, and Eratosthenes.  Many great scientific advancements were founded on research done at the Mouseion in conjunction with the Library of Alexandria.  It was at the Mouseion that Euclid drafted his writings on geometry.  At Alexandria, Eratosthenes calculated the Earth’s circumference and Aristarchus put forth the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  Under the Ptolemaic dynasty, Alexandria became the scientific center of the known world and the facilities at the Library and the Mouseion both grew larger and larger.  The original space at the center of city grew too small to house all of the scrolls and writings causing a larger warehouse facility to be built in the harbor.  This harbor building served as storage with the more prominent works being held directly within the main building of the Library.  The Library also had a temple to Serapis, the cult God of Alexandria.  As a whole, the entire complex had a prominent place within Alexandria and was a major attraction alongside the Lighthouse and the harbor.


            Political upheaval behind the scenes began to  undo the progress achieved at the Library of Alexandria.  Decline hit full stride during the reign of Caesar as interest and political ambitions impacted the Library.    There is a mythical quality to the burning of the Library of Alexandria but most historians agree that multiple fires devastated the complex.  The city was besieged in 48 BC.  Caesar set fire to his own ships and this fire spread to the mainland.  Part of the Library was destroyed and the future was set for the once great house of knowledge.  The Mouseion survived the fire in 48 BC and historians estimate that only 40,000 scrolls were burned.  History takes a few turns in describing other major destructions of the Library but not everyone agrees on which ones actual happened or which one was the final blow.  Some credit Emperor Aurelian with the final act of destruction but other accounts refute this idea.  Aurelian is said to have destroyed the Mouseion in 272 CE while fighting Queen Zenobia.  Others feel that Aurelian only damaged the building and the final destruction came during one of the many religious riots towards the end of the Roman Empire.  Christians rioted at the Temple of Serapis in 391 CE and attempted to destroy the pagan temple.  The Library and Mouseion are said to have been collateral damage from these riots.  Other historians credit the 415 CE violence between Jews and Christians with finally ending the massive collection at the Library.


            Regardless of when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed, the truth is that knowledge of the Ancient World was lost as nearly a million scrolls were lost.  The burning of Alexandria has become synonymous with the loss of a major piece of history or knowledge.  The Library achieved great advances in science and learning but the ultimate legacy is in the loss of much of the acquired knowledge from the Library and the Mouseion.  It is impossible to calculate the loss from the destruction of the Library but its legacy of seeking out the best and brightest minds lives on today in the form of modern research libraries around the world.

Erskine, Andrew. “Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria.” Greece & Rome 42 (1995): 38-48. Accessed April 30, 2015.

Heller-Roazen, Daniel. “Tradition’s Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria.” October 100 (2002): 133-53. Accessed April 30, 2015.

Philips, Heather. “The Great Library of Alexandria.” Library Philosophy and Practice 2010. Accessed April 30, 2015.

Serageldin, Ismail. “The Ancient Library.” Serageldin. Accessed April 30, 2015.

“The Destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria.” Ancient-Origins. May 12, 2014. Accessed April 30, 2015.

“The Great Library of Alexandria.” Accessed April 30, 2015.

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The Venationes of Rome

Entertainment in the Roman world revolved around the bloody spectacles that took place in stadiums like the Colosseum.  Festivals would last for days and many different events would take place one after another in an effort to please the crowds and the Emperor.  The most famous were the gladiator battles that would pit slaves, convicts, or prisoners against each other in combat to the death.  Thousands of gladiators were slain in the Colosseum as a means of entertainment.  These battles often took place at the end of a long day which featured other battles and performances in the arena.  One of these early events were the venationes or animal hunts.

Roman animal traders scoured the empire for the best and most ferocious animals that they could find.  Elephants were taken from North Africa, hippos from the Nile, and ostriches from the Sudan.  All of these animals were then shipped over to Rome where they were cared for in anticipation of their big day.  The venationes would feature these animals being hunted by prisoners or even professional hunters.  Other animals were used in the gladiator fights where the aim was to kill the men or at least put on a spectacle.  The venationes were focused on the thrill of the hunt, the death of the hunter would be seen as unfortunate or shameful.  The Roman crowds wanted to experience a hunt without having to go to Africa or Asia.  These events became so popular that most gladiator festivals started with a venatio.


Famous venatore defeating a leopard (

            Over the course of a few hundred years these hunting performances exhausted the wildlife across the Roman empire.  The North African elephants were so popular, because of their tie to the vile Carthaginians, that they were hunted to extinction.  The Nile River delta hippos suffered a similar fate.  Over time the venationes evolved and they began to pit the animals against one another.  Bears from Scotland were chained to lions from Persia in an attempt to prove which was stronger.  Some of the best hunters became famous across the empire and their names were listed with the great gladiators of the time.  The venationes enjoyed nearly 400 years of success in Rome before the animals became too scarce to hunt and then the empire collapsed.  The spirit of the venationes continued throughout the empire and modern performances, like the bull fights of Spain, can be tied to the Roman spectacles of old.

Works Cited

Lindstrøm, Torill Christine. “The animals of the arena: how and why could their destruction and death be endured and enjoyed?.” World Archaeology 42, no. 2 (June 2010): 310-323. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed April 12, 2015).

“Venationes.” The Colosseum. Accessed April 12, 2015.

“Venationes.” Venatio and Venationes. Accessed April 12, 2015.

Wikipedia contributors, “Venatio,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 12, 2015).

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The Holy Pirs of Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia and other empires in modern-day Iran.  The prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, lived between 1500-1200 BCE in ancient Iran and was the founder of the religion.  He disliked the class-based social structure of Bronze-Age Iranians because it broke apart the commoners and allowed them to be controlled by the priests.  Zoroastrianism revolves around a single god, Ahura Mazda, who gave his sacred rules and writings to his prophet Zoroaster.  One teaching that was handed down was the use of holy sites for pilgrimages to observe holy fire, fire being a dominant part of Zoroastrianism.  These sites are known as Pir and were located all around Persia and ancient Iran.

The main purpose of a Pir was to hold the sacred fires of worship.  Early believers used a simple hearth in their own homes for worship but as the religion grew sacred sites became more popular.  These so-called fire temples were spread across Iran but the main concentration was in Yazd province.  The six main Pirs are located in the mountains above the desert in Yadz.  Each one had a different schedule for pilgrimages so that travelers could enjoy festivals at each site without missing the next one.  Most pilgrimages took place during the summer months and were part of the fire festivals.


Pir-e Sabz or Chak Chak, Yadz (Zoroastrian Sacred Sites)

            Each Pir was constructed differently but they had many similarities.  Each one had an altar for worship and then an inner grotto for greater religious purposes.  The inner grottos were enclosed by large bronze doors with engraved images of Ahura Mazda or Zoroaster.  These inner areas were for specific Zoroastrian members but the outer parts of the fire temple could be enjoyed by all.  Each Pir also had a legend or story that accompanied its founding or location.  For example, the famous Pir-E Sabz is located on the mountain where a Sassanid’s daughter fled from Arab invaders and Ahura Mazda opened the mountain to give her a place to hide.  The fire temple was built in this grotto as a marker of Ahura Mazda’s blessing upon the young girl.  Other Pirs have similar origin stories and small festivals are often held to commemorate these events.  These holy sites are still popular tourist locations and each summer Zoroastrians from all over Asia travel the pilgrimage routes to give devotion to Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster.

Works Cited

“Chak Chak, Yazd.” Wikipedia. April 26, 2014. Accessed March 29, 2015.,_Yazd&oldid=605877689.

Eduljee, K.E. “Pir-e Sabz / Chak-Chak, Pilgrimage in Zoroastrianism.” Zoroastrian Heritage. Accessed March 29, 2015.

Green, Nile. “The Survival of Zoroastrianism in Yazd.” Iran 38:115-22. Accessed March 29, 2015.

Grey, Martin. “Zoroastrian Sacred Sites.” Places of Peace and Power. Accessed March 29, 2015.

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Mesopotamian Counting Tokens

 Mesopotamian Counting Tokens


(Basic counting tokens, c. 4000 BCE)

     Archeological digs in the Middle East have uncovered small clay objects with markings on the various faces and edges.  Many archeologists and historians have tried to determine the possible use of these tokens in the past century or so.  Some thought they were children’s toys or pieces of amateur art.  Recent studies have determined these tokens to have been a vital part of the economy as they represented numerical values of a specific commodity.  Art historian Denise Schmandt-Besserat is credited with finding the true purpose of the Mesopotamian clay tokens.  She discovered six distinct token shapes that represented different measurements of items like grain.  Early tokens were spheres, cones, disks, and other basic shapes.  These tokens were used by the peoples of Mesopotamia as far back as 7500 BCE.   Over time the complexity and uses of the tokens evolved.  There began to be writing on the tokens, possibly markings to denote an association to an accurate counting system.  By 3500 BCE the tokens began to be used alongside sphere like objects with small pockets meant for the tokens.  Many historians believe these spheres were sent alongside goods as an early attempt at a trading invoice.


(Tokens and Envelope, c. 3300 BCE)

     The tokens were present in civilizations that didn’t have an established writing system.  These tokens predated writing and numerical systems that developed in the same region.  Schmandt-Besserat and other historians believe the tokens helped to emphasize the importance of numbering systems and caused the Sumerians to develop the more complex sexagesimal number system present in third millennium Sumer.  Tokens and clay envelopes changed in Sumer to represent more than just one of a specific object.  Certain tokens would represent ten or sixty portions as opposed to the early system that used one token for one item.  There is also a direct link between the tokens and the early development of agriculture.  Hunter gatherer groups didn’t have a need for the tokens because they used a simple system of economics, like for like trading.  Agriculture brought new economic opportunities and with it the need for a system to manage a more complex economic system.  These basic tokens were the beginnings of counting in Mesopotamia and heavily influenced the later development of more modern counting systems.


Frank Swetz. “Mathematical Treasure: Mesopotamian Counting Tokens.” Convergence 10 (2013). Accessed March 8, 2015.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat . “Tokens: Their Significance For the Origin of Counting and Writing.” Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Accessed March 8, 2015.

Wikipedia contributors, “Sexagesimal,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 8, 2015).

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My name is taken from that of a famous gladiator, Tetraites, who battled valiantly and was even well known in England.  He used a sword and shield in his battles and there are paintings of his victory over Prudes, another famous gladiator.

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