Posts Tagged ‘Spartans’

The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?

March 14, 2015

Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even further back and to the east, in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. In his book Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Fleming examined 3,000 letters from the archives of the ancient city of Mari, finding in them evidence for collective leadership and early democratic ideas and vocabulary in the city’s myths and literary traditions.

I haven’t read the book, but I think I can see where Fleming is coming from. The cities of the Babylonian Empire were ruled by three different layers of government. There was the governor, appointed by the emperor; the city’s local ruler, the mayor; and the karim, or chamber of commerce. This last could be the popular assembly of a limited kind that provided the proto-democratic element in the Babylonian political system.

The Babylonians were also rather like us, in that they also expected their rulers to act in their interests, and had a cynical contempt for them when they didn’t. There’s one Babylonian story about a citizen, who gives the mayor a golden cup, expecting a suitable favour in return. When he doesn’t get it, the citizen arranges a series of four incidents, in which the mayor has the living daylights beaten out of him in consequence. Okay, so it isn’t democracy so much as a bribe, but it does show that there were limits placed on the actions of their rulers, and the citizenry considered it their right to mete out appropriate justice when their rulers didn’t govern on their behalf.

Aside from this, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a move by some historians to challenge the simplistic notion of a free, democratic West versus a despotic East. Said traced this idea back to Herodotus’ The Histories, and the Father of History’s account of the Persian War as a battle between Greek democracy and Persian absolute monarchy. Sasan Samiei, for example, in his book Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire , wrote a measured attack on this view, in particular examining and contrasting the works of Goethe and Gibbon.

Said’s Orientalism was an attempt to challenge what he viewed as Western imperialist attitudes towards Arabs and their cultures, attitudes, which justified American and European imperialism and domination. The same attitudes have been seen as influencing Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan victory over the Persians at Marathon. Clearly histories like Samiei’s are important as they challenge the assumptions about the Near East and the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see them as a terrible ‘Other’ implacably hostile to the West and democracy, and which partly justify Huntingdon’s theory of renewed ‘culture wars’ between the democratic, free West, and a despotic, Muslim East.

And I wondered if Fleming’s book also didn’t provide another key to explaining the destruction of the priceless Assyrian artefacts by Isis a few weeks. They weren’t just trying to destroy the remains of a civilisation they considered to be pre-Islamic and therefore idolatrous. They were trying to destroy the reminders that Iraq had a history and culture going back thousands of years, in which democracy, rather than the rule of force, may have played a part. This last might provide a point a rapprochement between the West and Iraqi Islam. ISIS despise the West, and would like to provoke us into further attacking Iraq and its people further, in order to create more chaos. This would, they hope, further cut the rug from under the moderates and radicalise more of the people against us. Smashing those artefacts was part of that process, in the hope it would incense the West, as well as destroy the ancient, and possibly democratic legacy, of that ancient civilisation.


Mechanical Limbs Before the Machine Age

October 19, 2013

A few days ago, I post up here a review of a collection of texts on Cyber culture and information technology published by Phaidon almost a decade ago. I’ve also got an interest in cybernetics, which was originally the attempt to reproduce in machines the functions of human organs, such as arms and legs. Since Norbert Wiener in the 1940s and ’50s much of the research into such devices has been based around electronic ‘command and control’ systems. The attempts to replace missing limbs with artificial devices long predates the terrible carnage and injuries inflicted during the Second World War. The classic example of the artificial limb in history, is Long John Silver’s wooden leg and Captain Hook’s eponymous replacement for his hand from Treasure Island and Peter Pan, respectively. In fact, such replacement limbs were made long before this, back into ancient Persia.

According to the Greek historian and anthropologist, Herodotus, the first artificial limb was a foot made by Hegistratus of Elis in the middle of the sixth century BC. Hegistratus was a Persian soldier and seer, who had been captured by the Spartans. Sentenced to death, he escaped from the stocks by cutting off part of his own foot. He then made a part to replace the section of foot he had cut off to help him walk 30 miles to Tregea. He was unsuccessful in this, and was captured by Zaccynthius and beheaded.

The ancient Egyptians were also replacing lost parts of their feet. One of the mummies from ancient Egypt possessed an artificial big toe, presumably to help the wearer to walk after he lost the real digit. The Roman naturalist and historian, Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century BC, also records how the Roman general Marcus Sergius had his hand replaced with an artificial one during the Second Punic War against Carthage, from 218 to 210 BC. During the battle, Sergius received 23 different wounds and his right arm had to be amputated. This was replaced with an iron hand so that he could his shield. He returned to the battle, and fought a further four more against the Carthaginians, during which he had two horses killed from under him.

The oldest known artificial limb was found in a Capuan tomb In 1858, and dated to about 300 BC. This was the period of the Samnite Wars, and the leg was presumably made for a Roman soldier, who had lost his own in battle. It was made from a mixture of copper and wood. It ended up in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, where it was unfortunately destroyed in an air raid in 1941. It has since, however, been replaced by a copy.

Roman Leg

Copy of Roman Leg dating to 300 BC

During the Sixteenth century physicians and engineers across Europe attempted to construct artificial limbs to replace those of the soldiers, who had lost theirs in the numerous wars of the time. An iron hand was made in 1509 for the German knight, Goetz von Berlichingen, who was the later the hero of a play of the same name by the great German dramatist, Goethe. It was not entirely successful. Goetz remarked of it that ‘My right hand, though not useless in combat, is unresponsive to the grasp of affection. It is one with its mailed gauntlet – You see, it is iron. Later in the sixteenth century the great French military surgeon, Ambroise Pare, also designed and built a number of artificial limbs, including a leg, hand and arm. Some of the artificial hands were operated by an ingenious system of ratchets and levers so that they could extend and flex their fingers. These artificial limbs promoted the development of springs, ratchets and gear. In the opinion of Geoff Simons, a contemporary writer on robots and cybernetics, they also contain important clues for designing modern, robotic artificial hands. This is particularly impressive as it has proved very difficult to design artificial hands with the range of movement and dexterity of the original. R. Pawson in his 1985 book on robots even suggested it would be easier to build an artificial brain than a robotic hand.

Pare Hand Leg

An artificial hand and leg built by Ambroise Pare (1510-90)

Pare Arm

Another of Pare’s creations: an artificial arm

The design of artificial limbs has made truly incredible advances over the past few decades. Scientists and doctors have produced a number of artificial limbs that respond to impulses from the wearers nerves, and can even feel certain types of sensation. These awesome developments in medical engineering are built on the solid foundations of the ancients and their search for artificial replacement limbs.

The Australian performance artist has also explored the new dimensions and possibilities for augmenting and even redesigning the human body offered by modern cybernetics. AS I mentioned in previous posts, he has given himself an artificial third hand, and connected himself to the internet, so that his body could be operated remotely and automatically by a cybernet search engine through galvanic stimulators. I found this sequence of videos in which he talks about his work and disability in a conversation with the stand up comedian and disabled rights activist, Liz Carr, at a disabled arts conference at Warwick University. I object to Stelarc’s statement that the human body is now somehow obsolete, but his work is a fascinating exploration of the transhuman condition. In the interview with Carr he talks movingly of the hope some of the technology used in his performances have given the disabled. The wife of one of the scientists, with whom he has worked, tragically suffers from ‘locked-in syndrom’, and can only communicate with her right eye. Stelarc recalled how delighted she was when they fixed galvanic stimulators to her arm, and for a moment she briefly had the power to move her arm slightly again. Here’s the interview below.

Stelarc on Experimenting on His own Body

Stelarc: Would having a Prosthetic Arm be enough for You?

Stelarc: Is the Human Body Obsolete

Stelarc on How Do We Cope with Change to the Body We Can’t Control?

Liz Carr’s Conclusion and Surprise for Stelarc

For all that his work is frequently disturbing in its implications for the future of humanity, Stelarc himself comes across as surprisingly normal, with an engaging attitude and ready laugh. It’s fascinating seeing him and Carr find that they have a common ground in their exploration of what philosophers call ‘the human condition’.


Jack Challoner, (ed.), 1001 Inventions that Changed the World (London: Cassell 2009)

Michael Pollard, Felicity Trotman, Merilyn Holme, The Illustrated Dictionary of Inventors and Inventions (London: Claremont Books 1995)

Geoff Simons, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992).