Some people call everything classics from Plato to William Golding, possibly via Jules Verne – for perfectly valid reasons. To avoid misunderstanding: here we merely treat the Ancient Greeks & the Romans.
3rd century B.C. Off the coast of Attica, on the approach to Athens.
The sun is beating down on a calm, brilliantly blue Aegean but a refreshing breeze is caressing our faces as we’re sitting on board a fat merchant ship sailing from Byzantium towards Athens with a cargo of grain. A fellow passenger, by the name of Zenothemis, is waxing lyrical about the beauty of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, now visible in the distance, to the Captain and Dikaiopolis, a busybody merchant who embarked in Euboea. Suddenly the Captain hears a noise. Zenothemis is either deaf or too fond of his own voice, for he claims to hear nothing, but the Captain and Dikaiopolis can both hear the noise coming from below and we all – captain, sailors, Dikaiopolis and our invisible selves – troop down into the hold to see what’s going on…
It’s been a while since we last talked of Herodotus which is a bad thing. So I was just about to write a new post to add to my Best Stories of Herodotus… and then I got seduced by the idea of doing a quiz instead.
How well do you know your Herodotus? Take the quiz to find out! 🙂
On this blog we don’t do a black and white view of the world, therefore even the Baddies can have heroes. And since we’re writing about Herodotus here, in this case the Baddies are Xerxes and his Greece-invading Persian lot, while their hero is, in point of fact, a heroine: Artemisia, the queen of Caria.
As mentioned last week, six years ago I forcefully dragged my family to Delphi; and despite themselves, they so liked the place that they gave me a Greek vase as a thank you present:
I gave you a chance in last week’s post to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on the vase, and today… well, you’re getting the answer. 🙂
Theseus kills Procrustes
We’ll hand over to Robert Graves here:
On reaching Attic Cordallus, Theseus slew Sinis’s father Polypemon, surnamed Procrustes, who lived beside the road and had two beds in his house, one small, the other large. Offering a night’s lodging to travellers, he would lay the short men on the large bed, and rack them out to fit it; but the tall men on the small bed, sawing off as much of their legs as projected beyond it. Some say, however, that he used only one bed, and lengthened or shortened his lodgers according to its measure. In either case, Theseus served him as he had served others.
(Robert Graves: Greek Myths)
The picture on my vase is, of course, only a replica. The original is this kylix (wine-drinking cup), c. 440 B.C.:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
(John Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn)
Six years ago I dragged my family to Delphi – three hours coach travel from Athens in thirty degrees heat. As it happens, my family is – mostly – interested in history but they had extreme doubts as to why they were asked to see some more Greek ruins; after all we already visited the Acropolis and the Agora of Athens, the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Knossos in Crete… But I couldn’t imagine a visit to Greece being complete without having visited Delphi, home to the Delphi Oracle, where Apollo himself dealt with the invading Persians… and well, Delphi, right?
As it happened, they were all really impressed by the ruins in Delphi (even Young Friend of the Elephants, aged 5, who had zero interest in traipsing around on hot mountain sides among ancient ruins but was more than happy to crawl into random holes in the ground) and they got me a Greek vase as a thank you present.
It took me quite a while to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on this side of the vase.
Today’s challenge is for you to work it out for yourselves. 🙂 I’m making it easier for you by turning it into a multiple choice question – please vote. I’ll give you the correct answer next week. Have fun!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Hefesto, el dios herrero, era tan enclenque cuando nació que su madre Hera, disgustada, lo arrojó desde la cima del Olimpo para librarse de la vergüenza…
Robert Graves: Los mitos griegos
Bueno, exactemente aquí ya puedes ver de dónde sacaron los espartanos su idea de arrojar los recién nacidos con defectos físicos o enfermos de los acantilados del Taigeto. Pero en cuanto a Hefesto, el dios del fuego y de la forja, el herrero de los dioses del Olimpo, él tenía suerte en esta primera caída: se cayó en el mar, donde la ninfa Tetis lo encontró y lo llevó a casa. Unos años más tarde, Hefesto estableció una pequeña forja submarina, y le pagó por la amabilidad con unas chucherías domesticas, por no mencionar unas joyas estupendas que llamaron la atención de Hera. Debido a lo cual no sólo se le permitió regresar al Olimpo sino que también se le dio Afrodita para su esposa… Pues eso acabó bien, o, al menos, hubiera acabado bien, si Hefesto entonces calló. Pero no, dedicó unas palabras poco prudentes a Zeus, quién, de nuevo, lo arrojó de la montaña… Esta vez tenía menos suerte, como que se cayo en tierra, y se quedó cojo para el resto de su vida inmortal.
Adelanto rápido a los tiempos romanos. Como sabemos, los romanos fueron muy ingeniosos en la ingeniería (mi favorito es el corvus, una puente para el abordaje de las galeras cartaginenses, la solución clásica para el problema de cómo-cambiar-una-batalla-del-mar-en-que-somos-inútiles-en-una-batalla-de-tierra-en-que-somos-mucho-mejores), por no mencionar sus varios otros éxitos que llamaron la atención. A pesar de esto, parece que los romanos no tenían ninguna imaginación cuando se trataba de su religión: tanto que no se molestaron en inventar la suya propia, sino que sencillamente importaron la antigua griega. Y así Hefesto, el griego, se convirtió en Vulcano, ciudadano de Roma. Larga vida a los dioses, bajo un nombre u otro.
Pues pasó que cuando Hefesto volvió al favor de Hera, abandonó su herrero submarino y establició una forja nueva en el Olimpo. O al menos eso dice la leyenda pero las leyendas son sujetos a cambios… y dicen que Hefesto tenía forjas en lugares distintos.
Los colonos griegos en Sicilia ya tomaron nota del lugar, pero probablemente debemos la ubicación de la forja de Vulcano a los romanos, quienes elegiron el lugar perfecto: una isla pequeña cerca de las orillas de Sicilia, convinientemente llamada…
Hephaestus, the ugly and ill-tempered Smith-god, was so weakly at birth that his disgusted mother, Hera, dropped him from the height of Olympus, to rid herself of the embarrassment…
Greek Myths by Robert Graves
Well, right there you can see where the Spartans might have got their notions of throwing sickly newborns off the cliffs of Taygetus. But as regards Hephaestus, god of fire and the blacksmith of the gods of Mt Olympus, in this first fall he was lucky: he fell into the sea, where he was found by the nymph Thetys, who duly took him home. A few years later, Hephaestus repaid the kindness by setting up a little undersea smithy and making for her some useful household odds and ends, not to mention some fancy jewellery which caught the eye of Hera. Owing to which not only he was allowed to return to Olympus but was given Aphrodite for his wife. All’s well that ends well, or would have, except that he then said some unwise words to Zeus, who once again hurled him off the mountain… This time he was less lucky, because he fell on hard ground and remained lame for the rest of his immortal life.
Fast forward to Roman times. As we know, the Romans were quite ingenious when it came to engineering (my personal favourite is the corvus, a bridge for boarding Carthaginian galleys, the classic solution to the conundrum of how-to-turn-a-naval-battle-at-which-we’re-****-into-a-land-battle-at-which-we’re-so-much-better), not to mention their various other achievements that clamour for attention. Despite of this, the Romans seemed sadly lacking in imagination when it came to their religion: so much so that they didn’t bother to come up with their own – they merely imported in the Ancient Greek one. And so Hephaestus the Greek became Vulcan, the citizen of Rome. Long live the gods, under one name or another.
Now it so happened that when Hephaestus returned to Hera’s favour, owing to his ability to make fancy jewellery, he abandoned his undersea workshop and set up a new smithy on Mt Olympus. Or at least so says the original myth but myths are subject to change… and Hephaestus is reputed to have forges in more than one place.
The Greeks settlers on Sicily have already noted the place, but ultimately we probably owe the location of Vulcan’s forge to the incoming Romans who have hit on just the spot: a little volcanic island off the shores of Sicily, conveniently named…
The Best Stories of Herodotus returns today – after a shamefully long gap – with a story that has nothing to do with our favourite topic, the Greek-Persian Wars. Because The Histories of Herodotus is so much more than the long-winded retelling of a few gory battles: in his effort to unearth the causes of the war, Herodotus went as far back in time as the origins of the War of Troy and ranged across the Eastern Mediterranean and across subjects in a way that modern historians would never dare. Today’s story is a great example.
Let’s introduce the three protagonists first: Solon, Croesus and Cyrus.
In 1981, the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote an essay titled Why Read the Classics?. It’s less than ten entertaining pages, so I recommend you read it if you can lay your hands on it. (It’s been published in a book form, in a collection of his essays, bearing the same title.)
What follows here is the 14 definitions of what classics are as put forward in the essay – 14 definitions worth thinking about:
In 491 B.C. King Darius I of Persia sent out his envoys to the various Greek city states, demanding of them earth and water – in those times, a sign of submission, the acceptance of, in this case, Persian rule. Some city states were cowed into complying while others refused; but the demand went down particularly badly in Athens and in Sparta:
…the Athenians cast these heralds, when they made their request, down into a pit, and the Spartans had thrown theirs into a well; and the heralds were told to take their earth and water to the King from there!
O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.
Aeschylus: The Persians
The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus
Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.
I first heard this evocative phrase in a history class at university many years ago but in certain countries (the English and the Spanish can raise their hands here) it’s pretty well-known. And I don’t know about you but it makes me think of ships ploughing the oceans, armies marching and merchants haggling over exotic goods. I think of kings whose word was law over diverse lands, of gold and glory and of a confusion of languages to equal that of Babel. In fact, in my mind I can see the big globe in the library of the Escorial, turning slowly….
He oído esta frase evocador en una clase de historia en la universidad hace muchos años pero en ciertas países (los españoles y los ingleses pueden levantar las manos aquí) es bastante bien conocida. No sé nada de ti, pero me hace pensar en barcos cruzando el mar, ejercitos en marcha y comerciantes regateando mercancías exóticos. Pienso en reyes cuyos palabras eran la ley en tierras distintas, en oro y gloria, y además en una confusión de idiomas igual que la de Babel. De hecho, mentalmente veo el gran globo en la biblioteca de El Escorial, girando despacio…
There is a line by Pindar, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet, in which he describes the island of Delos, one of the most barren and inhospitable of all Greek islands, as ‘the dark earth’s far-seen star’:
Hail, god-reared daughter of the sea,
earth-shoot most dear to bright-haired Leto’s children,
wide earth’s immoveable marvel,
who of mortals art called Delos,
but of the blessed gods in Olympus the dark earth’s far-seen star…
Dark earth’s far-seen star – the island as seen from above by the gods, glowing with light in the dark sea – is one of those memorable phrases that turned the famous Roman poet Horace into one of Pindar’s life-long fans. Sadly, not much else of this Procession Song survives today (you’ve just read half of what there’s left).
Delphi is just a small town built into the hillside under Mount Parnassus – home to the Muses – and overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. It’s three hours drive from Athens and even at the height of the tourist season you can escape the crowds here.
Halicarnassus, the birth place of Herodotus (nowadays Bodrum, Turkey) was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Mausoleum, a colossal tomb of Mausolus, a Persian satrap and a ruler of Caria (377-353 B.C.). The word mausoleum as used today originates precisely in the name of Mausolus and his tomb.
“Halicarnassus, the royal residence of the dynasts of Caria,” wrote the Greek geographer Strabo two thousand years ago. “Here is the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders, a monument erected by Artemisia in honour of her husband.” (Strabo: Geography, XIV.2)
Mausolus made Halicarnassus his capital and spent a huge amount of money on improving the harbour, fortifying the town and embellishing it with temples, palaces and statues.
About halfway up the curving slope… a broad wide street was laid out, in the middle of which was built the Mausoleum, a work so remarkable that it is classed among the Seven Wonders of the World. (Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture, II.8)
In the Archeological Museum in Athens there’s a golden funeral mask that was found by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 when he was excavating Mycenae. It goes by the name of the mask of Agamemnon. Needless to say, it’s probably not the mask of Agamemnon but I, like Schliemann, find the idea that it depicts Agamemnon, rather than somebody we never heard of, much more interesting… and easier to remember. 🙂