Bret Devereaux on Ancient Greece and Rome
Aug 30 2021

roman-warship-300x225.jpg Historian Bret Devereaux of the University of North Carolina talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about our understanding of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Devereaux highlights the gap between the reality of Greece and Rome and how they're portrayed in popular culture. The conversation focuses on the diversity of ancient Rome and the military prowess of Sparta.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Fazal Majid
Aug 30 2021 at 7:10am

Devereaux’s blog is outstanding, and well worth subscribing to.

Aug 31 2021 at 10:05am

This conversation with Bret Devereaux was outstanding from start to finish. Kudos to both Russ and Bret. It was at all times entertaining and enlightening. In particular I found the scrutiny about warriors and soldiers fascinating.

At 46:30 Bret Devereaux said, “A soldier fights as a job. It’s an occupation, not an identity.” (47:45) “And so militaes are defined, soldiers are defined, by their membership in a unit and their subordination to a community.” Whereas, (49:07) “Fundamentally for a warrior, a warrior cannot leave the war behind. It is core to his identity and he cannot let it go. That, in a free society, is a dangerous thing. By and large in societies that have warriors, those warriors tend to be not merely the military elite, they tend to be the political elite.”

I really really enjoy when Russ Roberts interviews non economists to discuss economic concepts. The different language non economists use makes me appreciate the world at large in different ways and further appreciate the power of economic models. The soldier fights and so do warriors, but soldiers are servants of the market. And as a servant of the market, the soldier must respect property rights. To do otherwise would be like biting the hand that feeds you. In fact, the reason soldiers fight is always to defend property boundaries or to establish new ones. The warrior, on the other hand, does not respect property boundaries. For warriors, strength rations property, not rules. And that difference is a recurring theme in economics in the form of rule based rationing versus violence based rationing of property and, interestingly, has other parallels in past Econtalk conversations.

In the June 28 2021 Econtalk episode with Sebastian Junger, at 34:36 Junger said, “…grains can be stored in massive quantities and effectively are the first accumulation of wealth; and they happened in a context where the community stays in one spot. I mean, once you picked all the rocks out of the field and dug irrigation ditches, and etc., etc., you can’t really leave there. And, that means that a powerful person can tyrannize you, because you don’t have the choice of leaving. You’re stuck in the ground, right? And you can be forced to pay taxes. The third son can be forced into military duty. All of these things–all of these ills of the modern state that dominates the decisions that individuals would rather make freely.”

In that same interview with Sebastian JungerRuss Roberts at 40:45 added, “I want to recommend–a past EconTalk guest, Yoram Hazony, has a remarkable book called The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, and one of the chapters in that book is the shepherd versus the farmer in the Bible, and how Cain and Able is just one example of where God seems to prefer the shepherd. Cain makes his offering, and God says, ‘Eh,’ and he takes Abel’s; and Cain’s rage really comes from the rejection of his sacrifice. And, of course, the Israelites are shepherds outside of Egypt. They’re in Goshen. The Egyptians are dependent on the Nile and its irrigating of their fields. They’re stable, physically stable, but ironically they feel vulnerable to the Israelites even though they’re smaller. And, they don’t like that they’re shepherds.”

So what I am suggesting is that the warrior vs. soldier dichotomy described by a historian is the same as shepherd (pastoralist) vs. farmer (agrarian) described by a journalist is the same as rationing resources with violence (totalitarianism) vs. rationing resources with rules (capitalism) described by an economists. And, to the extent these different correlations are causally related, the word, “freedom,” overlaps both! “Freedom” could mean absence of arbitrary property rights when taking or giving resources OR freedom could mean absence of coercion (violence or threat of violence) from others when deciding how to trade property. And that stark difference in meaning is a huge problem! Because when people say, “free country,” they might actually mean diametrically opposed things.

What I’m getting at, fundamentally, is that these important distinctions noted with different words in different fields of study may have the same roots in different ways of rationing scarce resources. Which, as it happens, was the major topic of discussion in the Aug 23 2021 Econtalk episode Mine! And, if I may generalize further, different ways of rationing scarce resources is the fundamental underlying theme of all of Economics and all of Politics.

Aug 31 2021 at 2:44pm

Devereaux is very wary about the lure of the strong leader, stereotyped as a warrior. It is possible for a leader to gain popularity for good reason, independent of such a lure. Somebody with sufficient intelligence not to make the same mistake twice and sufficient energy to be available to their subordinates and to perform promptly those functions which are visible to their subordinates and on which their subordinates depend will stand out as an exceptional leader in most of the organisations with which I have experience. The British General Montgomery was noted by some for publicity gimmicks. According to my Father, who lived through WWII, the foundation of his popularity among ordinary soldiers was not the gimmicks, but his reputation for not spending lives needlessly

Aug 31 2021 at 4:38pm

I think is important to point out that the Romans ,when they could, tried not to arm the local people to avoid uprisings, that’s why there were black romans in Britain , there were also iraquis, people from Gaul, Syria etc there too. They were there because they were outsiders though a lot of them had wives from the local community. Also interesting is that due to the Sabbath people from Israel were given an exception and they didn’t have to supply men to the Roman army.

Sean B.
Sep 1 2021 at 1:08am

The first and likely last time I’m ever going to hear a solid “Dragon Ball” reference on EconTalk. Long time listener btw; my favorite episodes tend to be those that pick the brains of experts on tactile topics and I’m definitely sending this one to some friends.

Sep 1 2021 at 7:29am

To add to the discussion about warriors and soldiers, in his writings, Julius Caesar recorded a conversation with a non-Roman tribe.[1]

The tribal chieftain told Caesar that any of his warriors could defeat any Roman soldier. Caesar replied to the effect: ‘that may be true, but a hundred Roman soldiers can defeat a thousand of your warriors‘.

A mob of guys all painted up and furiously waving around oversized swords is easy meat for a group of equipped soldiers, trained how to operate together, confident in their equipment and training so unafraid of the otherwise intimidating warrior.

Time and again, groups of Roman soldiers defeated highly intimidating groups of warriors that significantly outnumbered them.

[1] After thirty seconds with google, I’ve been unable to find the conversation, so this is suspect, but I’ve written it as I recall it.

Donald Fagen
Sep 1 2021 at 12:41pm

Professor Devereaux is a very talented writer and I’ve enjoyed his blog for quite a while.

He does however have a somewhat distractingly progressive agenda, which I was hoping Russ would push back on more. For example, Rome was certainly a ‘multi-ethnic’ society (though I would bet Romans would typically still group some ethnicities as foreign, such as Persians or East Asians), but it was not really a ‘multicultural’ one in the sense that progressives hope to build now.

Arm’s length toleration of the practices of conquered peoples is hardly the same thing as modern ‘melting pot’ theory (as an aside the American empire is probably less tolerant of conquered provincial cultures doing things differently than the Romans were – see Afghanistan, mask mandate ban bans in Southern states, etc.).

Bret himself talks about the penetration of elite Roman culture in the provinces. There was no sense in ‘all cultures were equal’ or any sentiment of that sort.

Luke J
Sep 2 2021 at 5:29pm

Pvt.Ryan is a wimp?  Devereaux needs to re-watch the movie.  Cpl. Upham is the coward. Ryan is a stubborn-yet-honorable soldier.

Sep 6 2021 at 4:10pm

Very interesting and thought-provoking podcast.  Prof. Devereaux is clearly highly intelligent and educated, but I feel he likes a fundamental wisdom about the necessity of a military-warrior culture, which will always be necessary because evil will always exist.

The reason we spent twenty years in Afghanistan only to watch the entire house of cards collapse in less than a month is that today’s military does not embody a “warrior” culture. The military doesn’t exist to win wars, but rather to manage wars. We confronted evil through surgical strikes and trimming around the edges, emboldening our enemies who have waited us out until we are physically, economically, and politically exhausted.

Prof. Devereaux is exactly wrong that a free society has no need for warriors; evil in endemic in the world and a prosperous society will always be a target of greedy, corrupt, and depraved leaders or states. In many of our lifetimes we are very likely to face an existential physical threat to the American way of life, and a belief that “soldiers” alone are going to prevail in such a conflict is extremely misguided.

Sep 9 2021 at 10:16am

I would argue that the reason the Afghan house of cards collapsed so quickly was not due a lack of warrior culture, but rather a lack of soldier culture.  You need to have a highly trained and disciplined group of soldiers to deal with terrorists.  They can’t be individualistic or taking the fight in their own hands.  They need to work as a group with a focus and mission.

Sep 12 2021 at 7:28pm

Coincidentally, I was reading Shakespeare’s Coriolanus when I listened to this podcast. Coriolanus is a fascinating take on a military leader — a true warrior — who is tempted (or cajoled) into becoming a political leader. It does not end well. Reading the play shed a lot of light on this podcast, and vice versa. I highly recommend the combination.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: August 4, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is August 4th, 2021. My guest is historian Bret Devereaux of the University of North Carolina. His blog is "A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry." They look at history and popular culture. It's a rather unusual collection of observations on history and popular culture. It's certainly pedantic. It's also esoteric, quite interesting, really enjoyed exploring it. And our conversation today will draw on some of his recent posts on Rome, Sparta, and history generally.

I want to start with perhaps a strange question. Why do you think so many people are interested in Rome and Greece, and why is Bret Devereaux interested? I mean, it's a long time ago. They're all gone. They're dead. Why do we care?

Bret Devereaux: Thank you. It's great to be here.

I think there are a number of answers to this question. But, I think the core of why people are interested in Rome and Greece is that there is still very much a popular sense, and I think there is quite a bit of justification for this, that Rome and Greece in particular serve as the foundation for the sort of society we have now. Whatever one wants to call that. I think this is true. There is a degree to which I think the contributions of other societies, particularly in the Near East and Egypt, are somewhat undervalued in that story of how we get to the society we have now.

But, the observation that Greece and Rome are pivotal points in the creation of the sort of society we have are not invalid. I mean, we, after all live in a republic--that's a Roman term. It's a democracy--that's a Greek term. There is some justification for this, even if perhaps the somewhat old fashioned kind of Western Civ [Civilization] narrative oversimplifies the role of Greece and Rome.

For me, just because you ask why I'm interested in Rome, I've always been interested in the complex dynamics of very large complicated states. Rome, in particular, is a very large, complicated state. It's an extremely successful state. The Romans built a very large empire in very difficult terrain. It lasts a long time and perhaps most bizarrely, the people who begin as its victims, end as its defenders. Which suggests to me that the Romans were doing something right, intentionally or not.

And so, I've always been interested in this question of what, and what the impact of that empire is. Although I will note that actually studying the Roman Empire up close, a bit of the rose-tinted glasses tend to come off. The Romans are not nice people.

Russ Roberts: So, who were the people that they were tough on--who became their defenders--and why do you say they're not nice people?

Bret Devereaux: I mean, most of the empire ends up serving in the Roman army. It's really striking that you have--the Roman Empire, particularly in the West, I think this is Guy Halsall's line--didn't go quietly. It went down 'kicking, screaming, and gouging.' Which is accurate. And most of that kicking and screaming and gouging was not done by people from Italy, although some of it was. It was done by soldiers recruited from, today, France--the Romans would have called Gaul--Spain, the Near East, North Africa, Greece. These were all imperial possessions, places the Romans had conquered, exploited for tax money.

The great-, great-, great-, great-, great-, great-descendants, of, say, the Gauls that are brutalized by Julius Caesar in his quite nasty conquest of Gaul, their descendants are the guys stocking the Roman armies in the fourth century, in the fifth century, defending the frontiers, defending the empire. By that point, they're all Roman citizens. Of course, the descendants of those people will spend most of the Middle Ages trying to breathe the Roman Empire back to life. Right? You have the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne's empire. These are all efforts to recreate the Roman Empire in the West.

And the same is true, of course, in the East. The Roman state will continue to exist in Greece, in Anatolia as the Byzantine Empire. It will hang on until 1453, defended entirely by people who would have been the conquered subjects of Rome when the Romans first showed up. And so, it's really quite striking that the Roman conquest it was brutal and traumatic, and we should never ignore that.

And the Romans themselves could be quite cynical and mercenary about the people they conquered. The Romans were in it for the money. They had no grand dreams of bringing together a humankind. The Romans weren't there to spread Roman civilization or citizenship. They were there to conquer you so that they could impose taxes and tribute on you and take your stuff.

Now, taking your stuff, of course, required administration; it required establishing law and order. Taking your stuff most efficiently, it was helpful if you lived in cities and were reasonably well-established and so on. And so, over time, in order to most efficiently take your stuff, the Romans tended to do all of these other things. Then, as a result, became over centuries quite well regarded by the people that they conquered. And those people came into Roman citizenship, which I'm sure we'll talk about a little more in a bit, and eventually identified with the Roman Empire and saw it as theirs. It was their country that the barbarians were at the gates of. And, that's really remarkable. That's really exceptional.

Russ Roberts: I would just point out that there is a Monty Python skit about this from the Life of Brian. I encourage--we'll put a link up to it if we can, copyright-wise. If we can't, just Google 'What have the Romans ever done for us?'; you'll find it. It's one of John Cleese's better moments. But, I think it's a really--

Bret Devereaux: I use it in [? inaudible 00:06:54] classes.

Russ Roberts: Who wouldn't? It's great. It's phenomenal.


Russ Roberts: But, it raised an interesting question, your observations. When we think about modern empires--you could think about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR, you think about modern China even, where the ability of a modern state to control enormous swaths of land is somewhat limited. They do the best they can. They use the power of the state. They use the power of weapons [?] to coerce people. But, the Roman Empire persists for hundreds of years over thousands of square miles without real communication. Right? No internet, no phone, no nightly news to see that there's trouble brewing in Jerusalem. I'm in Jerusalem right now: I'm thinking the Jews revolted against the Romans--

Bret Devereaux: A couple of times--

Russ Roberts: It didn't end well. It didn't end well, but it's surprising how few did that. One answer would be, life was fairly decent and maybe even better than it had been before. So, you just lived as a Roman under the Roman Empire.

But, there must have been other ways that the Romans kept revolts down and people yearning to be free for whatever. In the case of the Jews, it was religious reasons, but there were national reasons. Self-determination a little bit, maybe. Why were they so able to administer such an enormous amount of territory so successfully over so long a period of time?

Bret Devereaux: So, the Romans make a virtue of necessity in this. I mean, you talk about how modern states--modern states can be very invasive. Right now, the modern Chinese state is going into the Tibetan, Mongolian, and Uighur populations and attempting to really change their culture and obliterate elements of their religion and their way of life. The Romans--that's just not practical. They don't have the state infrastructure to try and do that.

There are a few exceptions. If your religion includes human sacrifice, the Romans will try and stamp it out. But, for the most part, when the Romans move into your area and conquer it, they're there for the tax money. So, they don't care about how you live, your local customs. You keep those. That's fine. Just pay taxes. Roman administration on the ground is actually very thin.

And so, instead, what the Romans tend to do, is they tend to say, 'Okay, well, what were you paying in taxes before?' 'All right, you now pay that, but to us.' Whatever your local government was, your town government, that continues running. You had local laws. 'What was your local law against theft, or what have you? Keep that.' The only exceptions the Romans put on that is, sentences of death or exile have to get checked off by the governor--something that occurs in the New Testament and is a big rigmarole as they try and figure out jurisdiction. But, for petty crimes, if King Herod or the Sanhedrin wants to make that decision, 'Fine,' they don't care.

That degree of local autonomy means that not a lot changes for your average farmer when the Romans show up. Where the Romans tend to get the buy-in is they tend to work through elite culture. And, here, I think the big advantage is that the Greek and Latin literary culture comes to unite elites--the very wealthy, the educated--across society over the whole Mediterranean. So, all those folks are reading Homer, they're all reading Virgil, the same as their Roman overlords are.

Now, that's a thin strata on the top of society, but it's an influential strata on the top of society.

The regular people are probably taking their cues from their elites; and the elites have some things in common with Roman elites. They can talk with them about the finer interpretation of Ovid. And so, Roman culture, Roman values, they tend to percolate from the Roman elite, who are running these provinces, through the provincial elite--this thin educated stratum on top--and then down, because of course the people below are taking their cues from their local elites--from the big man who owns the big farm.

And, it's a slow process, but it's an effective one. And there certainly are areas that are restive, that don't take as well to Roman control. The province of Judea--right?--modern Israel, Palestine is a big problem for the Romans. England, Britain is restive and also has issues. But, for the most part, revolts against Roman rule are rare because Roman rule doesn't change very much for people on the ground.

Russ Roberts: That's fascinating.

Bret Devereaux: The Romans don't try and change much.


Russ Roberts: So, I'll raise a general question, which you write eloquently about in a post we'll link to, which is: our knowledge of ancient society is very limited. You write the following:

As folks are generally aware, the amount of historical evidence available to historians decreases the further back you go in history. This has a real impact on how historians are trained; my go-to metaphor in explaining this to students is that a historian of the modern world has to learn how to sip from a firehose of evidence, while the historian of the ancient world must learn how to find water in the desert.

It's really a fantastic image. And, one of the things we're going to talk about in our time today is the gap between the reality of Rome or Greece and how they're portrayed in popular culture.

And, the question arises: Well, how do we know what they really were like? So, you're going to point out that it's fascinating that the way the Romans or Greeks are portrayed in miniseries and movies are often grossly misleading. But that means you have some understanding what it was actually like. Which is--we don't have their movies. They haven't survived.

So, how do we know anything about day-to-day life in Rome or in the Roman Empire or in Sparta or Athens? What are our sources? Where do they come from?

Bret Devereaux: Right. No, and it's a good question. So, compared to other ancient societies, Greece and Rome are relatively well-documented; but that means far less than any modern society. The sort of base--the foundation of our knowledge--are the literary sources. These are written works written during the period by the Greeks or the Romans which survive to the present. Now, they survive to the present because they were painstakingly copied by hand through the Middle Ages until the age of print. Often--

Russ Roberts: How many are there, Bret? There aren't very many, which--you write about it.

Bret Devereaux: Not very many. I like to note that the Loeb Library in Greek and Latin is just over 500 volumes. It's not 500 works, but the 500 little volumes. They're little red and green volumes. You see these, they're very distinctive. There are about 500 of them, and that's it.

Russ Roberts: That's it.

Bret Devereaux: That's basically it. There are a handful of works that don't yet have a Loeb, but only a handful. It is mostly complete. You can fit the entire corpus of Greek and Roman writing on one sort of five-foot wide, five-foot tall series of bookshelves. That's it that survives.

The popular notion that you will get, is this idea that this is because Greek and Roman literature was somehow suppressed in the Middle Ages, that, 'Oh, the Church wanted to get rid of it.' This is not the case. The Church was actually part of what was preserving it, although many works also survived outside of the Christian world. Muslim scholars were also preserving classical texts.

The issue is, when you have to copy these things by hand, that's a lot of time and a lot of labor, and you only have so much. Particularly in the environment immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the West society is much poorer for a while. So, only the most important things get copied. And that's the most important things as judged by the people at the time.

And so, you have this limited body of texts. If one of those authors answers your question, great. If none of them do, you may be out of luck.

We then work to sort of supplement that body of texts in other ways. I think the most notable is archeology. People will be familiar with this. We dig in the ground and unearth ancient settlements, graves, and so on for evidence. Archeology is really good because it gives us a firm base of evidence. Literary sources can be deceptive. They can lie to you. They can have their own agendas. But, archeology can give you pretty firm data in terms of, like: This object was here at this given date, for sure. And so, you can nail things down very securely that way.

The downside is that archeology is limited by preservation. Only a tiny fraction of the objects that existed are preserved. They're not preserved evenly.

So, by way of example, let's say you want to know about trade in the ancient world. Well, if you're using archeology, good news: we know a lot about trade in olive oil and wine in the Roman world. Why? Well, because olive oil and wine both moved in amphora--the clay vessels, big pots. These amphora were disposable, so when your giant pot of wine reached its end-point, you poured it into bottles and then you just chucked the big transport pot. And, based on--because pottery survives--right? it's indestructible; like, you can shatter into itty-bitty pieces, but those itty-bitty pieces are still there--we can reconstruct the pot.

We can look at the forms of these amphora and also sometimes stamps and inscriptions on these amphora, and we can tell where they're from and how they moved to get to where they went. And of course, we know where they ended up because that's where we find them. And so you can chart, for olive oil and wine, all of these wonderful trade networks.

Let's say, instead, you're interested in grain. Well, I have bad news for you. Grain moves in sacks, and sacks do not survive like pots.

And, the grain itself probably doesn't either. And so, you're left with what the literary sources tell you. Which is not nothing when it comes to grain; but you don't have the ability to sort of archeologically draw these complex networks.

And then there are some questions that archeology just cannot answer. Imagine things about your life and how they're archeologically visible. Did you go see a movie? Well, the fact that you went and saw the movie is not going to be archeologically visible. What movie you saw is not going to be archeologically visible. What we will be able to tell 2,000 years from now, is that there was a movie theater there. We'll be able to create a really precise floor plan of the movie theater. We will be able to tell people what movie theaters were shaped like. We will not be able to tell them what the movie was shown that day.

So, it's very uneven.


Russ Roberts: But there's also--the other thing I liked is you talk about--and this happens in Israel all the time--somebody finds a coin or a lintel--a piece of a support thing--and there'll be four letters carved on it. And people then use Google to finish up the rest of the word and make some bold claim about when the Second Temple was built or destroyed or whatever. So, there is some creativity in this. But, in general, finding inscriptions carved into stone is a pretty reliable thing that does stick around, right?

Bret Devereaux: Yeah. It takes a lot of work that getting from a piece of stone that has something written on it to something that we can talk about is the job of epigraphers. [crosstalk 00:19:41]--

Russ Roberts: Epigraphers? Is that what they're called?

Bret Devereaux: Yeah, epigraphers.

Russ Roberts: Good name.

Bret Devereaux: No, it really is. Classics--a study of the ancient world has lots of really good names.

Often, you're dealing with texts that are fragmentary. They put up a big stone stele--it's a big stone slab--and they wrote a law down on it. And, over the years, half of the slab has worn away. So, you're missing the back half of every line. And, really experienced, well-trained epigraphers can do some magic in, 'You know, well, I know'--they'll know the normal formulations for these laws and how many letters of space they have in that missing stone. And they'll start filling in words. That is not what I do, so that seems to me like magic; but it is really valuable.

And, fortunately for us, the Greeks and the Romans were both really fond of inscribing important things into stone. These aren't generally literary texts. They're usually legal texts, laws, pronouncements, edicts. But, those can be really valuable. Though they often arrive to us without a lot of context. You just have: 'Here's the law of,' 'Here are the port regulations for the port you're standing in.' And then remember that it's like half of them because it's broken up.

But, you can still learn some things from that information. Especially when you get a very large corpus of inscriptions. And we have many tens of thousands of inscriptions from the Greeks' and Roman world, and you can start putting those together and get some real information. Though, again, it's imperfect.

For ancient Athens, all we have to work on for their laws, by and large, are a collection of legal speeches that are preserved in the literary sources and a lot of inscriptions that record laws.

For the Romans, we have a complete law code, because early on in the Byzantine period, they wrote one down.

And, consequently, we can't reconstruct the whole body of Greek law in Athens. Every Greek state would have had its own legal codes.

But, for the Romans, we can be really confident. We can talk at length about obscure points of Roman law and how they functioned in a way that we cannot do for Greece. And so, epigraphy is really valuable, but it can also leave pretty substantial blind spots.

And the other thing I just want to point out really quick: you mentioned someone finds that coin and makes arguments about it. I cringe a little, because of course they find that coin and they lift it up out of the ground. The act of lifting it up out of the ground has destroyed that coin in some important ways. Because, for archeologists, for epigraphers, for the numismatists--who are the coins specialists; we have every kind of specialist, I swear--knowing exactly where that coin is from--its exact position in the ground, how deep underground it was, was it next to anything else?--is extremely important. If you remove an ancient artifact without documenting--right? an archeologist will carefully document so that none of that is lost. But, if you remove it without documenting any of that information, that information is lost. And there are a tremendous number--because there is a robust, unfortunately, antiquities black market--there's a tremendous number of objects from antiquity that had been ripped out of their, we call it, provenance. Ripped out of their provenance.

The result are far less valuable to us in terms of understanding the past because we can't put them in a place and a time.


Russ Roberts: Well, let's turn--that was fantastic and I learned something useful, which I learned many useful things from that. But, one of the things I learned is, I always thought it was pronounced 'steel', but it's stele [pronounced ste'-lay, two syllables--Econlib Ed.]. You should describe what those are actually. Tell us what and viewers what those are. What is a stele?

Bret Devereaux: Right. Yeah. A stele is a stone monument, typically a flat slab, the purpose of which is to hold an inscription. And so, it's just going to be a nice vertical block of stone. They're often quite large.

Russ Roberts: The Rosetta Stone, I assume, is a stele.

Bret Devereaux: Yes. This is a good, yes--

Russ Roberts: Cool. I saw it at the British Museum. I also saw, one of my favorite things is the Cylinder of Cyrus, which is a football-shaped clay item object, which there were--I don't know how many there were, but they sent them out--it was like a notice--saying--it was actually about the Jews who were able to go back to Judea and to Israel--that we have, actually, the actual thing. Not like a fragment, one little piece where we had to interpolate.

It's an amazing thing. I don't know how many there were, but it's cool.

Bret Devereaux: No. I mean, there are some truly amazing documents that we have in inscriptions. Whether it's two copies of the Treaty of Kadesh, the world's oldest known peace treaty. Which is fascinating. We have--

Russ Roberts: When was that signed and where?

Bret Devereaux: The Battle of Kadesh is 1200s BC. We're out in the late Bronze Age. Late Bronze Age. I should know the exact date, I teach the Battle of Kadesh, but I don't know it off the top of my head.

Russ Roberts: That's okay. I don't think any less of you, Bret.

Bret Devereaux: Yeah. But, fascinatingly, so this is a treaty between the Hittite Empire and the New Kingdom of Egypt, in the Bronze Age. So, for people thinking, 'This is pre-Biblical times': The Kingdom of Israel does not exist yet at this point, historically. And, the fascinating thing is that we have two versions of the Treaty. We have from the archives at Hattusas, we actually have the Hittite copy of the Treaty written in Akkadian cuneiform, which is the standard diplomatic language at the time. And then in Egypt, we have a hieroglyphics translation of the Treaty on a temple wall. And they match.--

Russ Roberts: That's incredibly useful, of course, the translation and interpretation.

Bret Devereaux: It's also fascinating because we also have an account of the battle that leads to the Treaty. The Treaty comes some 10 years later, but the major battles of the war, the Battle of Kadesh, again, inscribed on a temple wall in Egypt.

The amusing thing is that the Egyptians represent this battle as a tremendous overwhelming victory, which just reading the Treaty makes it obvious it's not. It was kind of a debacle and a bloody draw.

And then, so we have this work of propaganda about the battle. It's a good reminder that our ancient sources occasionally fib to us.

Russ Roberts: Yes, it does. Yeah. Skepticism is always in order.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about Rome. You have a series of essays which I very much enjoyed. And you start with the observation that in most representations in movies, in miniseries of the Roman Empire, the actors speak the Queen's Latin. Explain what you mean by that. And why you bring that up.

Bret Devereaux: Yeah. So, I started with this observation, and this is something I've been noticing for a while--I didn't invent the phrase, the Queen's Latin. I'm not the first person to coin that. The tendency, at least, in English-speaking film and TV and video games is to represent the Romans--and this goes back, even if you look at the old sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s: they do this--the Romans are represented with British actors speaking with very proper British accents. And they do so like it's very intentional, and they're very homogenous. They all have the same Roman accent: and this is my joke: They don't speak the Queen's English, they speak the Queen's Latin. And I think that this has come to influence the way that the public imagines Rome and what we think about when we think of the Romans, to the point that the occasionally-accurate depiction of the Romans strikes people as wrong. And you will get all sorts of people on the internet complaining that they did it wrong.

There was a recent story--I can't even remember which show it was--where apparently briefly was glimpsed a Black Roman soldier in Roman Britain. And, parts of the internet had a fit. And I was sitting here banging my head on a desk because we know there were Black Roman soldiers in Roman Britain. It's not always the most reliable source, but the Historia Augusta, a history of some of the later Roman emperors, flat out tells us that Septimius Severus runs into one in Britain. So, this is not a matter of debate. I mean, we know. And, to people, it struck them as so bizarre and unreal because I think that the Romans looked more or less like the House of Lords in Britain. And of course, the Romans didn't look like that.

Russ Roberts: In a toga. In togas, of course.

Bret Devereaux: In togas. Of course, they didn't. In that post, I kept using the screenshot of HBO's [Home Box Office's] Rome in the Senate because, you'll pardon me, they're all very White. And we know that some Romans had very fair complexions. But, of course if you've been to Italy, most Italians do not look like Northern Europeans. Right? They have that classic olive skin tone. Of course, the Roman Empire was a Mediterranean empire. Which means it included parts of Africa, it included parts of Asia, Western Asia. And those people were often Romans, too. By the first and second century, they're showing up in the Senate.

The mental image of Romans, I mean, absolutely it should include Romanized Gauls and Britons, who would have been presumably quite White. But, lots of Italians, North Africans, Egyptians, some number of Sub-Saharan Africans. And up, inside the Roman Empire, that is very clear. Again, fairly well-established.

And not marginal people either. I talk about Apuleius, who is a Roman author, writes in Latin. Roman citizen, upper-class, writes the world's oldest, complete surviving novel, The Golden Ass. You can go read it. It's hilarious. It's a comedy. Dark comedy, but a comedy. Not G-rated, but it's funny. And, he describes himself as half Numidian and half Gaetulian, two different North African peoples. And he is from North Africa. It makes sense. Fronto has a great line in a letter--I believe it's to Marcus Aurelius, the emperor--where he describes himself as, 'I am a Libyan of the Libyan nomads.' Which is just a pretty flat declaration of: yeah, no, he's an African Roman. Fronto, to be clear, sat in the Roman Senate and was a tutor to emperors. This is a man at the very pinnacle of Roman society in the high Roman Empire.

And so, the real Rome doesn't look very much like a BBC [British Broadcasting Corproation] production of Rome. Again, it's not that there aren't fair-skinned Romans. There are. But there were Romans from all over the Mediterranean world, in all sorts of complexions.

Even within Rome and Italy, as a side note. And again, as anyone who has been to Italy will tell you, there's a wide range of complexions and physical appearances in Italy. Even just walking down the street in Rome today, you will see every sort of color of people.

And one of the things I demonstrate--I can't do this on a podcast because I can't have pictures--but I go through a whole lot of Roman fresco to show that it wasn't any different. Rome was a pretty diverse place.

Russ Roberts: Your description of the author of The Golden Ass--would you pronounce his name again?

Bret Devereaux: Apuleius [a-pu-lay'-us].

Russ Roberts: Apuleius. Okay. Because it got distorted. It got distorted.


Russ Roberts: So, why does this matter? I mean, it's lovely; it's nice that they were diverse. It's interesting that HBO or the BBC or--man, I loved I, Claudius, but when I was younger. I don't know if I could watch it now. It's slow by modern standards. I love the book too, by the way. Robert Graves, loved it. I don't know if I could read it now, but it's an amazingly--I enjoyed it very much then. Those people all look like--who played Claudius? What's his name? Derek Jacobi. A very pale person, extremely pale. And his fellow actors and actresses were also quite pale. That's interesting. It's nice. Why is it important?

Bret Devereaux: So, I think it's important for a few reasons. The one that really prompted me to write the series is that, often this misconception of the Romans as having been at some point in their past a homogenous--and usually this is left unstated, but often very crucial--the argument a homogenous and White people, gets used to perch all sorts of political arguments on--most recently perhaps noted Niall Ferguson, a noted historian, but notably not a historian of the ancient world--

Russ Roberts: My colleague at the Hoover Institution. It's [pronounced Neal--Econlib Ed.] Niall, by the way.

Bret Devereaux: Niall [pronounced Neal]. It's Niall. Okay.

Russ Roberts: But, carry on.

Bret Devereaux: He made an argument that was really about contemporary migration into the European Union. But, that mobilized this sort of understanding of the Romans is sort of the essentials of Roman-ness being lost as the barbarians migrated into Rome. And you see forms of that argument in less carefully constructed ways: This idea that Rome begins as a homogenous community, expands on the strength of that homogenous community, becomes diverse, therefore becomes weak, therefore collapses--as an argument against what are essentially multicultural, multiethnic polities. Right? This is an argument in favor of the nation state and against multi-ethnic states.

But, that's simply not, historically speaking, what happened. Rome was a multi-ethnic state at its outset. We know from archeology that even in sort of our earliest evidence for Rome--we're talking here now 900, 800 B.C.--the Roman Republic won't be founded until 509. So, we're hundreds of years before even the Roman Republic, much less the Roman Empire, that we see that Rome is a frontier town.

Rome exists at the cultural meeting points of three different major cultural groups: the Latins to their south who speak one language. It's the language the Romans will speak, Latin. Then, the Sabines to their east and north. These are hill people. They speak a different Osco-Umbrian language. They're culturally distinct. And then to their north, the Etruscans, who were perhaps the most different of the bunch. They speak Etruscan, which is unrelated to any living language. It is a non-Indo-European language, a hold-over in Europe. So, the Etruscans have been in Etruria, we suppose, for a very long time indeed. Longer than the Latins have been in Latium, for instance. The Etruscans have a completely different religious system than most of the rest of Italy. They're a really different people.

And, Rome comes together at the meeting point of those cultural zones, and it isn't quite any of them. The Romans don't regard themselves as Latins, though they know that there are Latins among them.

They don't regard themselves as Sabines, though they know that there are Sabines settled in Rome. They certainly don't regard themselves as Etruscans, though, again, they adopt a lot of Etruscan culture. There are clearly Etruscans in the early Roman community. It seems that a number of Rome's early kings were Etruscan.

Rome begins as this, frankly melting-pot society perched in between these cultural zones.

That only increases as Rome expands. We tend to think of Italy--particularly, I think, Americans tend to think of Italy--as odd. The Italians are a single group of people. I mean, one, you won't hear that if you ask any Italians. Ask some Northern Italians what they think of Sicilians and whether they think that they have the same culture. You'll get different stories. But, this was even more true in the Roman world. In many ways, the modern Italian identity that holds the country together is a creation of the Roman Empire. It doesn't exist before it.

And so, when the Romans are expanding through Italy, they're dealing with Gauls, Etruscans, Greeks, Latins, Sabines, Samnites, and dozens of smaller peoples. There are more than a dozen different languages spoken in pre-Roman Italy. Three different religious systems. The Romans aren't pushing these other people out. That would defeat the purpose. The Romans are--and I do want to us to mention--they were always cynical opportunists. And so, what the Romans are interested in is developing military power.

And so, obviously, if you conquer a group of people--their manpower, their resources--you want to harness that for your military. So, what the Romans do, is they expand through Italy, as they follow--I jokingly called the Goku model of imperialism--I beat you, therefore we are friends. I'm probably dating myself a little with that reference.

But, the Romans tend to, they defeat a community and it's, 'Congratulations, we beat you. We're going to take some of your land. We're going to take a lot of your stuff. The process of conquest is going to be very unpleasant. You're now an ally of Rome. When we go to war, you go to war with us. We have all the same friends, all the same enemies. Rome sets your foreign policy. Your soldiers now serve in our army, but that means you get loot when we win. And this is how we're going to do it.'

And, this is how Rome is able to build the deep well of military resources that enable them to, for instance, compete with Carthage in the Punic Wars, which are these knock-down, drag-out fights. The first Punic War goes from 264 to 241. It a 23-year long war. And to be clear, that's not one of these on-again, off-again, you declare peace for a few years. And that is 23 years of continuous high-intensity military operation.

The second Punic War isn't a whole lot shorter--from 218 to 202.

And for 14 years of that, Hannibal has a Carthaginian army in Italy, stomping around, smashing up Roman armies, because he's an almost unbeatable general. And the Romans are able to continue competing in that space because their alliance system gives them access to the manpower and resources of all of these non-Romans.

And so it's the Roman management, a successful Roman management of a diverse Italy that enables them to get their empire in the first place.

They don't stop doing this. The Romans don't make allies when they go outside of Italy, they make provinces. But, they then promptly begin recruiting those provincials into the Roman army. By the reign of Tiberius, the second emperor, we're told that half of the Roman army were the legions, which consisted of Italians. Now, by this point, all the Italians are Roman citizens, so these are the citizen legions.

The other half of the Roman army were the Auxilia--troops recruited from the provinces. These are non-Roman citizens. Indeed, the reward for 20 years' of service was getting citizenship. That was one of the rewards for serving in the Auxilia. And, these guys are drawn from all over the Empire.

And so the Romans are very aggressive in trying to--again, it's entirely cynical and opportunistic. They just want to win battles. But, to win battles, they need to harness these diverse populations. And, I don't think it's an accident that the political entity that ended up being the best at mobilizing resources from diverse populations in the ancient Mediterranean was itself a diverse city. Those patterns of thought that made you politically successful in a diverse, tumultuous city like Rome and Roman Italy are likely to be the patterns of thought that are going to make you successful at harnessing diverse populations abroad.

And again, this doesn't mean the Romans were tolerant. They often weren't. It certainly doesn't mean they were committed to tolerance. They weren't. The Romans--if intolerance and brutality served Roman aims, they would do that, too. The Romans could be very savage conquerers. The process of becoming part of the Roman Empire was incredibly traumatic and brutal. Even in the ancient world, which was a pretty dog-eat-dog place, the Romans had a reputation for being nasty.

Russ Roberts: That's [?]. Because it tells you a lot.


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about warfare. I think you were critical in a recent set of posts about the idea that there's a universal warrior experience. And, I was surprised to read that. I do tend to think of war as having some incredible parallels across time and place--being a soldier in war or being a warrior. And, one of the things I thought was so interesting about your piece was your dislike of conflating soldiers and warriors. Because: a warrior, it's like a hipster word in modern usage. It means, like, a really good soldier. A warrior is like, somehow it pulls up the image of a bulked-up person with all kinds of weaponry and the ability to--you know, kind of like an Avenger is a warrior, and The Avengers. And you, I thought, very thoughtfully critiqued, first of all that confusing the two or conflating the two as similar and made some important distinctions between soldiers and warriors. So, let's talk about that first, why soldiers and warriors shouldn't be as described--as synonyms. And then we'll talk about why you talked about the non-universal nature of war.

Bret Devereaux: Yeah. This is something that--you certainly do encounter them, the effort to use them as synonyms, sometimes really frustratingly. The U.S. Army has, for the last decade and a half, had all sorts of Warrior Ethos stuff, which drives me up the wall.

Right. So, you know, these words are different. You only need to think about--we can use fictional examples trying to describe Conan the Barbarian as a soldier, and that sounds wrong. You know that's wrong. He's not. He's a warrior. Or, trying to describe Private Ryan from Saving Private Ryan as a warrior, right? He's not. He's kind of a wimp, for one. But, two, it doesn't make sense. These are different.

It actually goes back to the etymology. 'Warrior' comes almost exactly where you think it does. A warrior is one who wars. And we generally use this word to mean individuals who make war, we might say, their profession or their vocation. It is core to their identity. And we see that in societies; we see that structure. I use the example of a medieval knight as a good example of a warrior, particularly a late medieval knight. This is an individual--war is central to his identity. It is what he does. It is his role in society. It is not just his job: it is who he is. There is no retirement from being a knight. If you are an old knight, you are still a knight and you still go out and you fight as a knight. Because there's no exiting that personal identity.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think about the movie of Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa, a movie I love. Yojimbo is a warrior, not a soldier.

Bret Devereaux: Right, exactly.

Russ Roberts: He's a warrior.

Bret Devereaux: Exactly. And,one of the things I stress, because that warrior identity is inherent in the individual, a warrior is still a warrior when the war ends. A warrior is still a warrior fighting alone, away from a unit. Warriors can fight in units, but they can also fight alone.

'Soldier' has a much more complicated etymology, where we get that word. It literally means one serving for pay. Its root is solidus, a Latin word for a kind of coin. A soldier fights as a job. It's an occupation, not an identity.

And that distinction between warriors and soldiers, you see in many languages, and it goes back. Greek and Latin, both have different words for soldier and warrior. In Latin--Latin has this distinction between milites--soldiers--and bellatores--warriors. Bellatores is having the same sort of etymology--bellum in Latin is war. So, it's warrior. I mean, very literally: guys that do war. Roman soldiers are never bellatores. They're milites.

Milites has an interesting atomology, too. It comes from the same root as our word 'mile,' which comes from the Roman word mile. The same M-I-L in the front of million, which is a thousand thousands, and it has that root that means 1,000--in Latin, that root signifies things put together. A mile is a whole bunch of feet put together. So, milites are a whole bunch of men put together. They're--

Russ Roberts: Is 'military' the same root?

Bret Devereaux: Yes, correct. Yes. Military is a thing that is connected to milites, to soldiers.

And so, milites are defined--soldiers are defined--by their membership in a unit and their subordination to a community. And, this is true in English, too. We talk about a soldier. When the war ends, a soldier--because it's a job--may go back to being a civilian. We have professional standing armies in many countries now, but even then, most soldiers in the U.S. Army serve their tour and then go home and they do something else. A soldier without his unit, isn't a soldier anymore. Right? He's AWOL [Absent Without Leave] in a way that a warrior cannot be. And a soldier without a country, without a community he's subordinate to, isn't a soldier anymore either. He's a mercenary.

And so, whereas a warrior can remain a warrior when fighting alone or when fighting only for himself, a soldier cannot. A soldier is only a soldier fighting in that job, during that conflict, for that community, of which he is a member.

Russ Roberts: Okay, so that's cool. But why is that important?

Bret Devereaux: These are very different roles in society that these individuals perform. Fundamentally, for a warrior, a warrior can't leave society or cannot leave the war behind. It is core to his identity and he can't let it go. That, in a free society is a dangerous thing. By and large, in societies that have warriors, those warriors tend to be not merely the military elite: they tend to be the political elite. It is a short leap to say, 'I am the sort of special individual, the only one who can fight.' It is a short leap to say, 'My sort of special individual is the only one who should lead. Other individuals are unworthy of leadership.'

And, I think actually in the United States, I think you see an uncomfortable drift in that direction. We have now broken the taboo against having former or active military officers as Secretary of Defense twice in four years. There seems to be a real sense that only soldiers should sit as Secretary of Defense, when it used to be only civilians should.

I'm always reminded of Georges Clemenceau's quip, 'War is too serious a thing to be left to military men.' But, to a degree that that's true--and that's true for the necessary functioning of a society--soldiers are subordinated to the needs of the community in a way that warriors subordinate the community to their needs. Soldiers are servants; warriors, masters.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. You write about it. You say--a beautiful description--you say:

A modern, free society has no need for warriors; the warrior is almost wholly inimical to a free society if that society has a significant degree of labor specialization (and thus full-time civilian specialists). It needs citizens, some of whom must be, at any time, soldiers but who must never stop being citizens both when in uniform and afterwards.

I think that's a very powerful thing and I like that a lot, but I do think it's interesting to how much we glamorize the warrior. We don't glamorize soldiers so much in the West, but the warrior has a certain heroic ethos. It's a nice transition, we can talk a little bit about it if you want, thinking about the great warriors of antiquity and our cultural affinity for them--Achilles, Odysseus. I'm writing a book where--I think I'm going to include the scene where Odysseus comes back to his waiting wife, Penelope, to find about 108 people hanging out in his living room, wooing her. Not a pleasant situation.

Bret Devereaux: And he immediately kills them.

Russ Roberts: He kills them all. Yes, he does. He gets some help. His son and a servant do. There's three against 108, but as is often the case in cinema and other literary treatments, that's no problem. He's really good. He--the test that Penelope gives is just to string his bow. He's the only one who can do it. A soldier doesn't have to string a bow. A soldier is given a gun and has to keep it clean maybe. But, a warrior has to be able to string a bow. And a warrior has got to be able to pillage the way Achilles does.

Bret Devereaux: I'm struck. If we can stick on Odysseus for just a second, because I think it's a great example--

Russ Roberts: Sure, go ahead--

Bret Devereaux: I'm struck, of course: Odysseus is the man who cannot leave the war behind. He brings it home with himself. He cannot help it. I'm always struck that, generally speaking, modern adaptations--film, TV--adaptations of The Odyssey--end with the defeat of the suitors and the reconciliation of Odysseus and Penelope. That's not where the poem ends.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

Bret Devereaux: The poem keeps going because Odysseus has just killed 100 men of the most prominent families of his kingdom, and he set up an almost immediate disastrous civil war. Odysseus's actions on going home, in the poem, are catastrophic. The gods--Athena, has to intervene to keep Ithaca from ripping itself apart as a result of what Odysseus has done. And, Odysseus, in the end, must leave. He has to go away again because of this violation that he has done. And we rewrite that story. We want that happy ending. There is no happy ending for Odysseus.

Russ Roberts: And, I think, Athena, if I remember correctly--by the time he's killed everybody, they mopped up the hall a bit and he's gone upstairs to see Penelope. she's actually not sure it's him. It's been a long time and he's got a scar that helps, but the way he proves his identity is, to me, one of those beautiful moments in literature, which is basically he affirms the origin of their bed that he constructed. Of course, it's a beautiful metaphor. But, it's late. They haven't seen each other in a long time. And finally, I think she's convinced. And, if I remember correctly, Athena extends the morning. Not the morning, the night--so they can be together for the entire evening. Which is about to end. But, she delays the sunrise so that they can have a night together, which has been interrupted by--oh, a little mayhem and some skepticism about who he is and some controversy over the scar. And that's a beautiful, happy ending.

And I've never read past that. Bret, I confess I'm not a great scholar of The Odyssey. There are parts I love. I read it to my kids, many parts of it--

Bret Devereaux: Right, but, it keeps going--

Russ Roberts: It's tremendous. Yeah. Okay. Well, I'll get to that, I know, for better, for worse. But, your--

Bret Devereaux: No. I mean, I like the happy ending, too--

Russ Roberts: But, my point--who doesn't? Well, anyway, Homer didn't.


Russ Roberts: But, the point I was making, and I want you to comment on, is that: We have this tremendous romance, I think, about warriors because in most of human history, and of course still true today, death is lurking. Invasion is lurking. Destruction is lurking. It's common. It's part of the human experience. And the warrior has a heroic role to play. I've quoted it before on the program, Kipling's poem about 'Tommy this, and Tommy that, and Tommy wait outside, but it's thank you Mr. Atkins, when the troops are on the tide'. We need the warrior when our existence is at stake. I think there's cultural demand of that romance, perhaps. That I understand you don't like. I don't like it either. I don't think we should ever glorify killing. But it's natural to glorify people who are adept and in the face of danger step forward. And I think that's part of what that warrior cultural icon-ness is about.

Bret Devereaux: But, I think there's a disconnect there. Because if you're looking for someone to, you know, stand on the wall, that's not going to be a warrior. That's terribly boring. It's going to be a soldier. You're going to have to pay somebody to do that.

Russ Roberts: More than one, often, because they're going to get shot and replaced by somebody else.

Bret Devereaux: Right. Well, and you've got a lot of wall.

And so, in the end, I think: why the glorification of warriors? I mean, I think the answer, you brought up the Avengers earlier and the Avengers are certainly warriors. The warrior gets to be special in a way that the soldier doesn't. The soldier serves the community, but the warrior stands over it. And who doesn't want that somewhere in their heart to be the special one, to be the fellow in the fancy armor and equipment who is different from everyone else? Whereas, soldiers have to be uniform in order to function. To be the one that's different, that stands out, that stands above?

What I pointed out in the series is that, we all have that desire to be special, but that a lot of this warrior-glorification channels that desire to be special in some pretty unhealthy directions. That, this ties into, really, the cult of machismo. There's a lot of, when you dig down into this warrior glorification, particularly the glorification of--we'll talk about the Spartans and that kind of warrior glorification--

Russ Roberts: And the National Football League is very similar, by the way. Less death, but a similar idea of the lone--even though they work as a team, we focus on the more distinctive players who play injured, who in the face of age and damage to their body still persist and play on and succeed. It's a tremendously common myth in much of human history, I think.

Bret Devereaux: Right. Everyone wants to be special.

What I find troubling about a lot of the sort of cult of the warrior is that it channels that desire to be special towards this model of military masculinity.

Which one, I know is dangerous for a free society.

Two, frankly, if you so much as scratch the paint on it, it's also Fascist. I don't mean that as like the political slur of things that are bad. I mean, it draws upon the specific tropes, imagery, and world understanding that underlied the philosophy of Benito Mussolini.

Russ Roberts: I think it's worse than you're saying actually, because you say everyone wants to be special. I think there's also a part of us that wants to be subservient to a very strong person. Adam Smith writes about this--get a little Adam Smith reference into an otherwise not so economics-oriented episode. But, Adam Smith writes about our desire for--to look up to great people.

In a war, we'd certainly be in that category. And not just look up to them, but to be willing to suffer from their actions. I think if I remember correctly, he talks about, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he talks about the death of a really bad person, but a really successful person and how people are conflicted by that. And we see that in modern Russia today with the return of Stalinism--not Stalinism, but the worship of Stalin or the respect for Stalin; it's like, 'Really?' But, he was a warrior, by the way. It's the same ethos, I think in many ways.

And, he wasn't just a warrior in battle. In theory, he was a warrior for the people. And that I think is the most dangerous--

Bret Devereaux: In theory--

Russ Roberts: most dangerous--yeah. That's the most dangerous form, the willingness to believe in that myth that this, quote, "great man,"--and it's almost always a man--is going to be your savior. Is going to protect you; and then that he's going to take a slice of your livestock. 'Well, it's worth it.'


Russ Roberts: We're almost out of time. I want to give you a chance to say something about Sparta. Now, I'm not a big Sparta guy. I've never seen 300. The only thing--I'm embarrassed to say, but I'll share it--the only thing I know about Sparta is allegedly, and you'll tell me if it's right or wrong, they used to put infants on hillsides to see if they could survive. Or maybe it's where they put them when they knew they wouldn't survive. They were a brutal, efficient war machine. They went undefeated and took seven Super Bowls in a row back in the day.

And you suggest that this is not 100% true. Again, I'm curious--I think we have a need. It's the same reason, I think, we root for the underdog, but occasionally we root for the overdog. We want that winning streak to persist. We like the idea of excellence and triumph and victory. But, in the case of Sparta, it turns out maybe not true. Why not?

Bret Devereaux: Right. The Spartans have the advantage. They're supposed to be always outnumbered and yet winning unstoppable.

The Spartan infanticide, I should note--complex. Our sources tell us this, that the Spartans exposed infants at a specific spot. The archeologists can't come up with any evidence for it, so the general thinking is that our sources may be making it up.

Russ Roberts: But, hard to find evidence, like you said. Some of these things may not be easily--

Bret Devereaux: Hard to, but we should find lots of human remains.

Russ Roberts: Oh. Oh, that's true. Yeah, maybe.

Bret Devereaux: Interestingly, we do find some human remains at the relevant spots, but they're not infants. They're adults. Because that seemed to have been, like, the execution hill that you throw people off of.

But, if they're doing it in any quantity, we should find a whole lot of infant remains, which we don't. Which has raised questions, to say the least, about this tradition.

But, yeah; no, there is this reputation of the Spartans as the, sort of, ultimate warriors. And really, that's just not what Sparta is.

The core thing that you really want to know about Sparta, the most important thing to understand about Sparta: Sparta was an unusual society for Greece. All Greek societies had slavery. Slavery was a common institution in the Greek world. Sparta was unusual in that the slaves in Sparta, called the helots, were an absolute majority of the population. And not merely a majority of the population, which is probably not true in any other Greek state. Even in Athens, probably most of the population was free. Though perhaps not citizen. But, in Sparta, not only were the slaves the majority of the population, they were probably 70, 80% of the population.

What had happened in Sparta was that the very wealthiest upper class in Sparta, the 1% almost literally, had successfully reduced literally everyone else in the society to slavery, or there was a small group of a non-citizen underclass, the Perioikoi, such that the Spartiates--the tiny elite--now owned all the land and that the Spartan state owned most of the people on that land. The Spartans then conquer the next valley over, Messenia, and they reduce them to the status of slavery, too.

As a result, Sparta is, by land area, by far the largest Greek state in ancient Greece. It's about a third of the Peloponnese. There are more than a dozen Greek states smashed into the other two-thirds of the Peloponnese, to give an idea of just how bonkers-huge Sparta is. In terms of raw population, Sparta is probably the second-most populous Greek state in Greece proper. So, we'd expect Sparta to be a prominent state, no matter what. It's huge by the standards of Greece. I mean, it's tiny if you compare it to Persia, but it's huge by the standards of Greece.

In contrast to what we see, Sparta is certainly a leading state, but the Spartans actually struggle mightily to exert their influence.

One of the problems is that there are never very many Spartiates. When you have this incredibly unequal society, your elite at the top tends to be very small. Probably only about 5-6% of the population of Sparta were the Spartiates--about 10,000 adult citizen males, at its height, out of maybe 200,000 people. And that number declines over time, quite precipitously, for complex reasons we can leave aside for now.

Russ Roberts: But, were they good fighters?

Bret Devereaux: Yeah; and the answer seems to be: Kind of, but not nearly as much as you think.

There is this popular idea that the Spartans had this rigorous training program. That's definitely not true. The Spartans did not drill for battle. They did not train with their weapons any more than the rest of Greece. The Spartan rearing system, the agoge, our sources are very clear, was a system for enforcing obedience and conformity. It was a--

Russ Roberts: The what system?

Bret Devereaux: The agoge.

Russ Roberts: No. What was the English version?

Bret Devereaux: It's the Spartan rearing system. This is their education for boys. You're inducted at seven, and then you graduate as an adult. This is the way you become a Spartiate. It's only open to those with Spartiate parents, we should note. There's no external entrance into the Spartiate class. It does not matter how talented you are. If you were not born a Spartan, there is no way to become a Spartan. It's a really unequal society, I suppose, is what I should stress here. But, this rearing system, the agoge, it does not train them to fight. It enforces uniformity and conformity. It is more akin to a reeducation camp than it is to a school, or a training program.

Now, what the Spartans did have was a fearsome reputation, and that reputation was powerful. If your enemy comes to the battle scared of you, you've already halfway to winning.

And it is clear that the Spartans were a little bit better at holding together in combat. Their morale was a bit higher. All of that shared suffering in this really quite brutal education system they had, tended to pull them together.

But, it wasn't a huge advantage. If you inventory all of Sparta's battles, you'd find that they win about half them. A little less than half. Sparta bats about a 500. They're about average.

If you move on from the battles to ask--battles aren't enough. You can win a battle and lose a war. You ask, 'Does Sparta win its wars?' And here, the answer is really mixed. The Greeks collectively successfully resist Persian invasion. Sparta is a part of that. That's good. The Spartans and the Athenians fight a war. It's really long. It's a lot longer than it should have been. The Spartans fight[?] kind of stupidly for most of it. The Spartans do eventually win because Athens is fighting pretty much all of Greece, and Athens is only one city. But, after the defeat of Athens, the Spartan military record is really checkered. Actually, even before the defeat of Athens, it's fairly checkered. Even in--


Russ Roberts: So, what's the story here? Why do we have this incredibly unrealistic vision of Sparta as a military powerhouse when in fact they're just run-of-the-mill? Any thoughts on that?

Bret Devereaux: The Spartans get really good press in our ancient services. And part of the reason is who is writing our ancient sources and why. Our first set of sources about the Spartans--we'll put Herodotus to the side for a second--our first big set of them are written by Athenians. Of course, Athens is the enemy of Sparta, and so you'd say, 'These guys will be hostile.' But, who writes history in Athens? It's the elite. It is the wealthy class. People who, in a Greek city that was as unequal as Sparta, would be in charge. But Athens is a democracy. And so, these men must serve the people; and they're terribly sore about it. And so, Sparta becomes the go-to comparison point for Athenian oligarchs to complain about the democracy. Much the same way, by the by, modern autocracies are the sort of go-to point for American technocrats to complain about the democracy. Whether that is left-wing or right-wing modern autocracies, one sees that tendency.

Sparta naturally gets good press from these fellows. Xenophon stands out sort-of in front of them. Xenophon is quite hostile to the Athenian democracy, and he's very friendly with Sparta because he sees it--Sparta, after all, is a place where an aristocratic warrior sort-of fellow like Xenophon would be in charge. And the Spartans were in charge in their society in a way that no other Greek was. It makes them really incompetent diplomats because they do things like backhand other national leaders--because that's how they behave at home. Cleomenes actually does this. He precipitates the war that breaks the back of Spartan power by punching the representative of Thebes over an insult. Spartans were uniformly arrogant and violent. It was a product of the training that they underwent, this rearing system. It made them awful diplomats and relatively uncreative strategists.


Russ Roberts: Well, let's close with the why you care. So, I care about things like this--I think I'm a little bit unusual maybe--but the truth seems good. I like the truth. I think some people went into history because they care about that. They care about it. But, now some people listening might say, 'What's the big deal, we romanticize Sparta or Athens or Greece or Rome? It's a long time ago. It doesn't really matter.' I'm sure you have--

Bret Devereaux: It's all ancient history--

Russ Roberts: It's all ancient history. I'm sure you have students who don't take your classes for that reason. There may be even a few who do and resent having to learn about the real answer. You can say that about all of history, actually. It's not just about ancient history. You could say: It's a storytelling. Some stories are useful. The truth is not so important. So, how does an historian answer that question?

Bret Devereaux: I think there are two main--

Russ Roberts: I'm on your side, by the way. It's a rhetorical question--

Bret Devereaux: Yeah, I know. I think there are two main reasons that I would point to, to say why we want not merely an account of the past, but a true account, as accurate as we can get it, of the past. There will always be layers of interpretation on top of that, of course, unavoidable when you're dealing with humans.

The first of course, is that we use the past as a model for future action. We use our thinking about the past as a way to think about what to do in the now. This is how we, as humans, make decisions. It's how we learn. As a child, you touch the stove, it's hot, you burn yourself; and you remember never to do that again. History is the sort of social memory in the same way. The great Greek historian, Thucydides, lays out the purpose of his history in exactly these terms. I'm probably going to mangle the quote, but he says that he's setting it out so that people will have an exact record to inform future actions. And that this, he says, will be not an essay for the moment, but a treasure for all time. And so, this is one reason--

Russ Roberts: He was on to something there.

Bret Devereaux: Yeah, I know. I think he has an idea. I tend to cite Thucydides and not Herodotus as the first historian. But, you can get into arguments about that. Note that that doesn't mean that Thucydides doesn't occasionally fib. He does. He's just very careful about it.

But so, we use the past to frame modern thinking. And you can see this in the ways that we take what we imagine past warriors to be, and use it to frame modern assumptions about manhood. We take assumptions about how immigration worked in the ancient past and try and apply it to the modern period.

And so, in that sense, getting the past right matters for how helpful and useful those comparisons will be to the present. And so, that exact knowledge is important because this is the Faulkner quote, right?--'The past is never gone. It's never even past.' ["The past is never dead. It's not even past."--Econlib Ed.] I probably mangled that quote, too.

Russ Roberts: No, I think that's right. I think that--I'm not sure. I didn't know it was Faulkner, but yeah: it's certainly true in his work.

Bret Devereaux: Yeah. And then, the other reason I think, particularly to get the past right, is that, of course we also live in, live on top of--for you, from currently in Israel--literally on top of the world they built. Our world is shaped by their decisions in important ways. And, our world is structured after theirs.

You know, in the United States, I mean, we have a Senate. We have a government that was built as an effort to create a sort of perfected second Roman Republic. The Founders were thinking about Athens and Sparta and Rome. And, indeed, they argued which one was better. And that shaped some of their assumptions about the government that they were going to form--presumably, and then of course, we are not only rooted in that. We're rooted in many traditions. And so, we live both physically, but also metaphorically atop the ruins of the past. And if we want to understand those foundations, we need to understand the past as it was rather than the past as it makes for a good Hollywood movie.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Bret Devereaux. His blog is A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. Bret, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Bret Devereaux: Thanks for having me.

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