Some of us wondered in geometry class how Pythagoras came up with his famous theorem regarding the relationship between the hypotenuse and the remaining two sides of a right triangle. Madison author David Hillman has a theory about the ancient Greeks that may grate on a few nerves in the classical studies world. It comes down to this: Maybe Pythagoras was smoking something.
"Everyone," attests Hillman, "was using drugs, from farmers up to [Roman emperor] Marcus Aurelius."
Hillman's new book, The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization, takes a closer look at the use of drugs by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
"The early Greek philosophers who inspired the mental revolution that influenced the birth of democracy were the biggest drug-using lunatics of them all," attests Hillman. "Seriously, they were much more like medicine men than philosophers. So not only did democracy spring up in a drug-using culture, but its roots lie in a drug-using, shamanistic, intellectual movement. I think it's perfectly safe to say: 'No drugs, no democracy.'"
But Hillman says this tradition of drug use has largely been written out of history by scholars and historians, who have brought their own moral perspectives to the texts. He says it parallels what happened with language. Only in the last couple decades have scholars started to discuss that Aristophanes used some of the vulgar vernacular, a fact obscured by traditional translations.
"It has taken us 2,400 years to figure out the difference between a 'cock' and a 'penis,'" says Hillman. "You know how those words were translated 20 years ago? All into French and Italian. A Christian perspective prevented us from really talking about that kind of thing."
Thus too, with the use of mind-altering drugs. An example from Hillman's own research is a text by Thucydides where brave slaves are sneaking supplies to besieged Spartan soldiers. They carry with them skins of "poppy mixed with honey and pounded linseed." The original text uses the Greek word for poppy (mekon), which is another word for opium, but in this passage the English version is translated as "poppy seed."
"You don't send poppy seeds to wounded soldiers," chides Hillman. "You send them opium." Honey was the preferred mixer for the foul-tasting opium; linseed was used to make salves.
Hillman also mentions the 2,800-year-old mummy unearthed in China along with a large amount of marijuana. This, too, was explained away, by making assumptions regarding occupation. "Whenever archeologists find someone with drugs with him," says Hillman, "they immediately assume he was a shaman."
Even Hillman has had a run-in with modern sensibilities. He feels his references to "recreational drug use" by ancient peoples in his UW-Madison doctoral thesis came up against a taboo in the world of academia (see sidebar). "I was told, 'They just wouldn't do that sort of thing.'"
David Hillman pursued his Ph.D. in classics at UW-Madison. His topic was "pharmacy in Roman literature," and he had the tedious task of poring over volumes of medical texts in Latin and Greek. He discovered that not only did the Greeks and Romans know a lot about herbal concoctions including opium, there was evidence that the use of some of these substances went beyond medical necessity.
Now 37, Hillman has had difficulty finding work despite his strong references and academic record. He lives with his wife and two children in Madison and is already working on a second book; he declines to give details, but says it will similarly expose some airbrushed history.
At a recent book reading in the basement of University Book Store, Hillman's enthusiasm for his subject is evident. The podium seems more of an obstacle than a tool; he skirts around it and back, confronting his audience, delivering staccato statements with raised eyebrows: "Do you see?" "Can you believe it?" "Isn't it obvious?"
An audience of about 30 has gathered, some of whom clearly know the author. Others are simply curious, perhaps avid book-reading attendees, while a few more seem to think Hillman is making a plug for legalizing drugs. He isn't. Several times during his presentation, Hillman asserts: "I'm only interested in the truth."
Asked later to comment on current efforts against illegal drug use, he couches his comments in historic context: "The modern anti-drug campaign is not a democratic movement at all. The ancient world didn't have a Nancy Reagan. It didn't wage a billion-dollar drug war. It didn't imprison people who used drugs. And it didn't embrace sobriety as a virtue."
Hillman is hardly a rebel looking for ways to justify illegal drug use. He didn't go through his own phase of tie-dyes and chemical experimentation: "You cannot find one person in my past - not one! - who can tell you I was a drug user."
His critique goes beyond probing the use of drugs by ancient civilizations to asking questions about democracy itself.
"The Greeks - the guys who sat down and figured out democracy - didn't care about drugs and homosexuality and abortion and all the social issues that we are so caught up in. But they did care about keeping the wealthy from controlling democracy, keeping tyrants from creating wars that had no reason. They cared about driving out the sycophants and professional politicians."
Born in Tucson, Hillman grew up amid the passion of religion; his father was a devout Baptist and his grandfather a Baptist minister. When David was 17, he was teaching Sunday school and preaching at a mission.
"I was studying Greek and Latin at that point," he says. "I was already interested. I was able to pick up enough Koine [biblical] Greek to do it."
Hillman went on to complete an undergraduate degree in classics at the University of Arizona and then spent three months at Dallas Theological Seminary. "Unfortunately, the exposure to Greek was also exposing me to Aristotle and other classical authors, [who] started punching holes in the Bible..., big ones I couldn't avoid with any intellectual honesty. I became an apostate."
After losing his religion, Hillman went on to become "bored with having just one expertise" and began working on a master's in animal science. But the ancient world would not let him go.
"A classics professor pointed out that there were all these medical texts that no one had ever studied, at least not in detail or with the unique combination of academic backgrounds." Hillman came to the UW-Madison to study with a professor who specialized in medical history; he worked simultaneously on master's degrees in bacteriology and classics.
When he decided to pursue his Ph.D. in classics, he brought both backgrounds to bear on his subject matter. "There are volumes of medical texts that have never even been translated, and a lot of it is about drugs."
At his home on Madison's southwest side, Hillman displays a 22-volume collection of Galen, a second-century physician who represents the pinnacle of the Greek medical tradition begun by Hippocrates. Only a fraction of it has ever been put into English, enough to fill about three trade paperbacks. Passages show Galen prescribed opium to Marcus Aurelius for his headaches - and that, over time, the strength of his "prescription" gradually increased.
Hillman also uncovered examples of virgins being given a mild narcotic on their wedding nights. He argues that the typical classicist - on whom the rest of us rely for English translations - don't read or can't understand these texts.
"There is an entire work regarding drugs used for gynecology," he says. "Do you think a classicist knows the difference between a drug that's meant to close the cervix and why that's important and a drug that's meant to open it and why that is important for, say, a prostitute? No."
Academic resistance to claims about ancient drug use outside of medical practice are not new. Carl Ruck, a tenured classical studies professor at Boston University, endures what he calls "official silence" over similar claims.
In 1978, when Ruck collaborated with the late Albert Hofmann - the discoverer of LSD - and R. Gordon Wasson, a mycologist, to write The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secrets of the Mysteries, the idea that an important Greek ritual and secret initiation involved ingestion of a psychoactive chemical potion was extremely controversial.
"Classical antiquity is a construct of modern scholarship," says Ruck. "We've made them into something they weren't really. Scholarship has chipped away at it. Suddenly, after the feminist movement, people became aware that women had a strange role in [ancient] society. There are frescos showing people having opium parties. [Classicists] don't want to admit Greeks had this kind of experience."
The idea of mind-altering substances outside of alcohol has a social stigma, says Ruck. "Bush abused drugs. But we don't want to talk about [it]."
Ruck began with an interest in Dionysus (Bacchus for the Romans), the god of wine and intoxication, as well as ritual madness and ecstasy.
"According to Plato, when Socrates went trying to find someone wiser than himself, he went to the writers of the tragedies, and they knew less than anyone else what their plays meant." Ruck looked for deeper meanings in metaphor patterns and wondered if wine was one way of freeing the psyche. He began to suspect that the Eleusinian Mysteries were about more than just wine.
"It is well known they drank something," says Ruck. "We have the formula of what they drank. That wasn't prohibited. The exact formula was intricate and not well known to regular people. They drank and they saw something."
Such ideas haven't sparked outrage; rather, they've occasioned silence.
"There's no great dialogue going on," says Ruck. "People don't come up to me and try to refute what I'm saying. They just don't mention it."
Ruck says he published a book that was available for free online for a month. Ruck sent a link to his colleagues on the East Coast. No one contacted him. He published an article in New England Classical Journal regarding a drug-initiation ceremony in pre-Christian Rome. It was peer reviewed, yet no one ever talked to him about it.
Hillman is also looking for someone to challenge him. "Who am I? I'm nobody. I'm not important. I just happened along and stepped in this."
The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization is published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, one of the nation's largest publishers. Hillman's decision to go with a trade press means his book will likely reach a larger audience but was not subject to peer review, a vetting process that adds respectability.
"The intention here was to make this argument to a larger population," says Peter Joseph, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books. "It's not totally certain you would ever have heard of it if it had been published by an academic press."
Besides, Joseph doubts the book could have been published by an academic press. "One of Hillman's points is this book would never see the light of day if it was peer-reviewed," he says. "It challenges the established system."
Joseph says Hillman has already gotten some feedback from the academic community. "David has heard from a few other people asking him to review their Latin translations or to ask him for more information on a particular aspect of the book."
Hillman sees his work as having the potential to erode hurtful stereotypes. "Today the drug user is the last homosexual," he says, referring to the degree of social stigma. "You can write anything you want about homosexuality - the Greeks didn't write about it or have a word for it - but you write about a drug user and that changes everything. Yet there is no word in Greek for 'junkie.'"
He finds this notion appealing. "Imagine living in a world without terms like 'homosexuals' and 'junkies,' a world where people worship reason, justice and ecstasy. The people of Athens didn't care if you got high. They focused on keeping aristocrats from hijacking the democracy they invented. The prohibitionists lived in Sparta, where tyranny was the rule."
Just say no to academic freedom?
In its introduction, The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization discusses the alleged censorship of author David Hillman's contention that ancient Roman engaged in "recreational drug use."
After studying at the UW-Madison for five and a half years under a professor of the history of pharmacy, Hillman switched to professor Patricia Rosenmeyer, a specialist in lyric poetry. His dissertation was nearly finished before he detected a problem.
"I had written about 90%, and one chapter was on recreational drugs," he says. "My adviser was very disappointed with the chapter. She wanted me to remove the chapter before it went to the committee, and I couldn't understand why."
Hillman says Rosenmeyer failed to persuade him. "She told me her reasons, and I told her I thought that because the evidence was so obvious I had to go ahead and submit it. So against her wishes, I submitted that chapter, and that's the one that got me in trouble."
Rosenmeyer, who calls Hillman "a serious scholar and a good T.A.," tells the story differently. She says she "never objected" to the chapter, but merely tried to "finesse the situation" after objections were raised by another committee member. According to Rosenmeyer, Hillman "knew he was challenging the Ovid expert" by claiming the Roman poet had used drugs as part of his inspiration.
Traditionally, Ph.D. candidates defend their dissertations in front of a committee of professors, one of whom is an "outside" professor, to assure accountability and provide a neutral perspective.
After the defense, the committee confers and reaches a decision. An approval means that all the committee members sign a warrant, the candidate returns to the room, and the committee congratulates the new "doctor" with a handshake. The successful candidate attaches the warrant to the thesis and walks it to the graduate school, no doubt with a lighter step.
In 2004, when Hillman defended his dissertation, he says that for two hours he answered questions almost exclusively about the chapter on recreational drug use. "They didn't say anything about the rest of the dissertation."
The committee adjourned for 30 minutes, after which Hillman says he was called back in for more questions - all about the recreational drug chapter. After approximately 45 minutes, "they just stood up and walked out without saying a word. I couldn't believe it."
Afterward, Hillman says he was told he had to remove the chapter on recreational drugs, and any reference to it in order for the committee to sign the degree warrant. He was asked if he had a problem with that.
The problem, says Rosenmeyer, is that Hillman's evidence in the chapter was based on literature, not scientific treatises. "I know that we did ask him to define or further bolster some of the things he was arguing. So we wanted clear evidence or more evidence."
But Rosenmeyer doesn't recall "any request to remove something completely because of its content. It was controversial but it wasn't 'Remove this or we won't give you your Ph.D.'" She remembers it as an "agree to disagree" situation.
Thomas Broman, a history of science professor who served as the committee's independent member, remembers the sticking point of recreational drug use, the objection by the committee (one member in particular), and the request to remove material. "That was certainly the instruction delivered to him. Whether in fact that's what happened, I don't know because I never saw the final deposited version of the dissertation."
Rosenmeyer initially told Isthmus the dissertation was approved as Hillman had submitted it - including the chapter on recreational drugs. As proof she offered a spiral-bound copy: "This is the final approved version. This is what was deposited at the library, and it's copyrighted."
Not true. The final approved copy of Hillman's dissertation, kept in the basement of Memorial Library, does in fact have the chapter removed. Confronted with this discrepancy, Rosenmeyer says she doesn't remember what she signed four years ago and had thus mistakenly produced the wrong copy.
Professor Broman says he shared the concern about Hillman's use of the term "recreational": "What you are importing into that claim is a sensibility of what we think of as recreational drug use, and you're pasting it onto the mentality of people who are living in a very different society."
Committee member professor Carole Newlands, who holds a joint Ph.D. in comparative literature and medieval studies from University of California-Berkley, shares these concerns. When Hillman submitted the dissertation with the chapter on Ovid," she says, "it just didn't seem to have the requisite evidence for the case he was making for drug use in [Ovid's] poetic inspiration."
But Hillman insists the committee objections were based on moral, not scholarly grounds.
"If it was all about insufficient evidence, then there must have been some evidence for recreational drug use with which they agreed," he says. "They threw everything out, and that's why I had to remove all references to recreational drugs, even from the rest of the dissertation."
David Hillman will give a reading/presentation on his book, The Chemical Muse, at A Room of One's Own bookstore on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2 pm.