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Thales of Miletus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Thales of Miletus (Peter Paul Rubens)

Traditionally regarded as the first Western philosopher and mathematician, Thales of Miletus (a Greek colony on the west coast of present day Turkey ) lived c. 585 BCE. He accurately predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BCE and was known as a skilled astronomer, geometer, statesman and sage. Thales, it is said, was the first to ask the question, “What is the basic 'stuff' of the universe” and, according to Aristotle, claimed the First Cause was water because, among other attributes, water could change shape and move while still remaining unchanging in substance. There are no known writings by Thales and all that is known of his life and work is through what we have written about him by others.
Aristotle tells the story of how Thales proved to his contemporaries the practical use of philosophy :
When they reproached him because of his poverty, as though philosophy were no use, it is said that, having observed through his study of the heavenly bodies that there would be a large olive crop, he raised a little capital while it was still winter, and paid deposits on all the olive presses in Miletus and Chios, hiring them cheaply because no one bid against him. When the appropriate time came there was a sudden rush of requests for the presses; he then hired them out on his own terms and so made a large profit, thus demonstrating that it is easy for philosophers to be rich, if they wish, but that it is not in this that they are interested.
There seems to be no subject which was not of interest to Thales but, according to Aristotle (in his Metaphysics) he was chiefly concerned with the First Cause - that from which all else came - and declared it to be water. Some scholars have claimed that Thales derived this concept from the ancient Greek paradigm of the universe in which, in the beginning, all was undifferentiated chaos in the form of water, while others have claimed that Thales learned the concept while studying in Babylon. According to Aristotle and other writers of antiquity, Thales was regarded as an original thinker and his `water theory' does not bear a close relationship with the Greek mythological assertion nor with any Babylonian texts which have come down to us. While Thales does assert, as the Greek myth does, that the earth rests on water, Thales' theory dismisses any supernatural causes for this state of being. For Thales, there were practical, provable, logical reasons for why things happened and the gods had nothing to do with observable phenomena.

FOR THALES, THERE WERE PRACTICAL, PROVABLE, LOGICAL REASONS FOR WHY THINGS HAPPENED AND THE GODS HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH OBSERVABLE PHENOMENA.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that another of Thales' famous claims was that "All things are full of gods". In his De Anima, Aristotle writes, "Thales, too, to judge from what is recorded of his views, seems to suppose that the soul is in a sense the cause of movement, since he says that a stone [magnet, or lodestone] has a soul because it causes movement to iron' (405 a20-22). What, exactly, Thales meant by this statement is unclear but it has been suggested, and is probable, that by `gods' he simply meant energy and that Plato later re-interpreted Thales' statement according to his own idealism and popularized it.
Thales founded the Milesian School which, today, would equate with a private college at which young men could pursue a course of study in debate, investigation, and exploration of the world around them. While there is no evidence that Thales was an atheist or that he taught atheism, there is ample evidence that the traditional understanding of the gods had no place in his teachings. His most famous pupil, Anaximander, carried on this same point of view as did Anaximenes, also of the Milesian School, after him.
Among his many achievements, Thales `discovered' Ursa Minor, studied electricity, developed geometry, contributed to the practical application of mathematics later developed by Euclid, studied in Egypt and, perhaps, Babylon, developed a crude telescope, `discovered' the seasons and set the solstice, created what would later be known as `natural philosophy', and was recognized, along with illustrious men like Solon, as one of The Seven Sages of Ancient Greece (first mentioned in Plato's dialogue of the Protagoras ). According to Diogenes Laertius, "This wise Thales died while present as a spectator at a gymnastic contest, being worn out with heat and thirst and weakness, for he was very old, and the following inscription was placed on his tomb : You see this tomb is small—but recollect, The fame of Thales reaches to the skies." While later philosophers disagreed with Thales' claim that water was the First Cause and basic substance of the universe, his work inspired those who would come to be known as the Pre-Socratic Philosophers to pursue their own paths and develop their own philosophical systems which would finally culminate in the vision of Socrates and have resonance far beyond the ancient world.

Otho › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 24 August 2012
Roman Emperor Otho (Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Musèe du Louvre))

Otho was Roman emperor from January to April 69 CE. Immediately after the assassination of Galba, Otho, the governor of Lusitania, was proclaimed emperor by the army. However, the unrest that existed in the short reign of Galba would spell doom for the newly named leader of the Roman Empire, the second in the “year of the four emperors.”
The youngest of three children, Marcus Salvius Otho was born in the town of Ferentinum in Etrusia (forty miles north of Rome) on April 28, 32 AD to the non-aristocratic family of Lucius Otho and Albia Terentia. There was some speculation, according to historian Suetonius, that Otho was actually the illegitimate son of Emperor Tiberius. One of the few references to his youth was when Suetonius mentioned that Otho's “early wildness earned him a many beating from his father.” Otho was “of medium height, bow-legged, and with splay feet but almost as fastidious about appearance as a woman …. and a well-made toupee covered his practically bald head.”
Much of Otho's political success was due to his friendship with Emperor Nero, not only did he serve as a confidant and companion but apparently also knew all of the ruler's schemes and darkest secrets. However, a fallout occurred over the mutual love of a woman, Poppaea Sabina. In order to keep her from marrying another, Nero asked Otho to marry her, giving the emperor time to rid himself of his wife, Octavia. With Octavia out of the way (first by exile then by “apparent suicide”), Nero was free to marry Poppaea, but Otho refused to divorce her--- he had fallen in love. So, the question arose: What to do with Otho? The solution: Nero sent him to be the new governor of Lusitania (modern day Portugal) in 59 AD --- in every sense an exile. Suetonius wrote, “Fear alone kept Nero from doing more than annul the marriage and banish Otho to Lusitania as its governor-general.” Otho was to serve as governor for ten years.

WITH THE SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE OF THE PRAETORIAN GUARD, OTHO MASTERMINDED GALBA'S ASSASSINATION.

As the empire began to crumble under the excesses of Nero's rule, Otho, together with Vindex of Gaul, persuaded Galba, governor-general of Spain, to lead a revolt and overthrow Nero. In June of 68 AD Nero, fearing his execution, committed suicide (with help) and Galba was named the new emperor.
Galba's reign, however, did not prove to be the success everyone had hoped. The army, which had once supported Galba, turned against him when he withheld the money he had promised them. Otho became further disillusioned when Galba failed to name him as successor to the throne. Suetonius wrote, “Disappointment, resentment and a massive accumulation of debt now prompted him to revolt. With the support and assistance of the Praetorian Guard, Otho masterminded Galba's assassination. On January 15, 69 AD, Otho was proclaimed emperor.
One of his first acts as emperor was to appear before the Senate where he proclaimed he would “respect the people's sovereign will.” He reinstituted the gladiatorial games, rewarded the officials and soldiers who had helped him overthrow Galba, completed Nero's Golden Palace, and lastly, restored the fallen statures of Nero and Poppaea. He even took the name of Nero Otho.
Map: Year of the Four Emperors

Map: Year of the Four Emperors

His short reign, however, was to come falling down around him. Vitellius, governor-general of Germany, had been the choice of many to be the new emperor --- even before Galba. Otho felt he had little to fear from Vitellius because his quarrel had been with Galba. Besides, he felt he could reason with the governor, even sending him a letter, hoping to reach a peaceful agreement. If not, he believed he had plenty of time to raise an army, but this was not to be.
As Vitellius advanced towards Rome, Otho, with only a force of nine thousand, went to meet him at Bedriacum, three hundred and fifty miles from Rome. The battle did not go well for Otho and to prevent a civil war, Otho committed suicide --- April 16, 69 AD. He was only thirty-six years old. Vitellius was proclaimed the new emperor. Cassius Dio in his Roman History quoted Otho as saying, “I shall free myself that all mean (sic) may learn from the event that you chose for your emperor one who would not give you up to save himself, but rather himself to save you.” Concerning the emperor's death, Suetonius said, “Otho decided on suicide. It is more probable that his conscience prevented him from continuing to hazard lives and treasure in a bid for sovereignty than that his men had become demoralized and unreliable…” His men, however, remained loyal to him, even in death. “Several soldiers visited the death-bed where they kissed his hands and feet, praising him as the bravest man they had ever known, and the best Emperor imaginable…”

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