Come And Take Them (Ven a tomarlas)

Quote of the Week: Come And Take Them

The ultimate laconic reply of defiance: that of Leonidas to Xerxes at Thermopylae, unbeatable in its simplicity. Especially in Greek where it’s only two words: molon labe.

When Xerxes wrote again: ‘Deliver up your arms,’ he wrote back: ‘Come and take them’.

(Plutarch: Morals, Vol. III, Sayings of Spartans, Leonidas)

The words “molon labe” as inscribed on the Leonidas monument at Thermopylae. Source: Wikipedia

La cita de la semana: Ven a tomarlas

Lo último en el desafío lacónico: lo de Leónidas a Jerjes en las Termópilas, con su sencillez imbatible. Especialmente en griego, como que solo consiste de dos palabras: molon labe.

Cuando de nuevo Jerjes escribió: «Entrega tus armas», contestó: «Ven a tomarlas.»

(Plutarco: Moralia, III, Máximas de espartanos, Leónidas)

Throwback Thursday: The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Last month when I reposted Return from the Stars for Throwback Thursday, it went weird and hardly any of you got to see it. I sought enlightenment from support and they told me I was doing it all wrong. I'm trying their way now.

The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Originally published on 9 October 2015

Why Homer Doesn’t Matter

Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.

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The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry II

While Byron chose to tell the story of the Battle of Salamis short and sweet in The Isles of Greece – which, by the way, is part of a much longer poem, Don Juan -, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus wrote an entire play based upon it.

ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε
ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ
παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη,
θήκας τε προγόνων: νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.

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.

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Salamis (According to Herodotus)

Salamis – an island in the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, opposite Mount Aigaleo, 16 kilometres west of Athens.

Salamis – a battle that defined history for centuries to come.

The Warriors of Salamis (Achilles Vasileiou), battle monument on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
The Warriors of Salamis by Achilles Vasileiou, on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
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Night at the Museum

Many of London’s museums and galleries stay open late into the evening once a week. You might think day or night makes no difference…

But it’s nice to break the daily routine once in a while. Instead of going home after work, I head for Bloomsbury.

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The British Museum after six pm is a different place

The lights are dimmed. The crowds are gone; it’s quiet. I relax in the members’ room with my book and a glass of wine before going for a wander.

I can get up close to the most popular exhibits without an elbow fight. I can contemplate. I can read the labels in peace.

I can take pictures.

Till next Friday.

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The Case for the Elgin Marbles

I was reading Keats last night:

My spirit is too weak – mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time – with a billowy main –
A sun – a shadow of a magnitude.

(On Seeing the Elgin Marbles by John Keats)

I have to say it threw me a bit. Not quite as easy as “Then I felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken” (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer also by John Keats). In fact, after much mulling over what some of the phrases actually meant, I had to seek enlightment from Mr Anglo-Saxonist who upon reading it pronounced that it was s**t poem and there was no need to rack my brains about what it meant. (He particularly objected to the sick eagle.) Well, I wouldn’t go quite as far but I have to agree: not one of Keats’s best. Nevertheless I do like the last few lines, in particular:

… mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time…

Which is why today we’re going to talk about some Greek grandeur and the rude wasting of old time.

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Sappho: Midnight Poem (Fragment 48)

The Temple of Poseidon at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Temple of Poseidon at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back in the winter of 570 BC or thereabouts, on the island of Lesbos, an elderly Greek woman wrote:

Δέδυκε μεν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδες, μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες πάρα δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

Which has been translated as (one of the many translations):

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Dark Earth’s Far-Seen Star: Delos Through the Eyes of Pindar

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).

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Hills (And What People Built On Them)

Hills are a natural choice as locations for some of the most beautiful structures mankind has ever erected: castles and temples, statues and palaces, lighthouses and crosses – I’m sure you all can think of many stunning examples. Today, in response to Ailsa’s weekly travel theme Hills on her blog Where’s My Backpack, I thought I’d share with you some of the hills I had the good fortune to climb in the Mediterranean. And I chose these particular hills for one reason: what people chose to build on them.

The Old Town of Toledo

Toledo
Toledo

The old town of Toledo was built on a hill which is almost fully encircled by the River Tajo. This view shows the Roman bridge across the river with the Alcázar of Toledo topping the crest of the hill. For this view alone, Toledo will always be one of my favourite cities.

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The Secret of the Greek Galley

The Antikythera Shipwreck

In 1900, sponge divers discovered the wreck of an ancient Greek galley off the Aegean island of Antikythera more than fifty metres deep under the surface. As usual, the find threw up a load of questions: Where did the galley come from? Where was it going to? Why did it sink? Who were the passengers? And what is that mysterious, complex mechanism found in the wreck?

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Delphi: Shaping the Future of the Past

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.

Gulf of Corinth view from Delphi P1010130
View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi

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The Mask of Agamemnon

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The Mask of Agamemnon. Photo by: Xuan Che [CC BY 2.0] via Wikipedia
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. 🙂

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Short Biography of a Boring Author

Today, let’s talk about an author that you all consider ever so boring. By the time you finish reading this, however, you’ll realise he’s an author worth reading.

(At least that’s the theory.)

The Author’s Picture

To begin with, let’s have the author’s picture:

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With a beard like that he’s obviously boring!

The Author’s Short Biography

For my part, what I consider boring… is biographical facts. So I’m going to keep this part short – mercifully we know next to nothing about him.

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Oranges Like Blazing Fire

The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.

Citrus_myrtifolia_2
Chinotto oranges. Photo by Nadiatalent via Wikipedia.

Two widely quoted lines from an obscure poet. If you can name the island this quote refers to, I’m impressed. If you can also name the poet, you know far too much about literature and history – would you be interested in writing a guest post for me?

As for the rest of you, the hoi polloi, the mere mortals 🙂 reading this:

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The Forgotten Battle (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.

So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?  

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The Destruction of Athens (Best Stories of Herodotus)

It appears that I went like a month without blogging about Herodotus. I don’t know what I’m coming to. All this reading of 20th century literature! It’s time I got my act together, so here we go:

The last episode of the Greek-Persian Wars à la Waterblogged saw the Persians chased away from Delphi by no less personage than the handsome Apollo himself. (No, I don’t mean the one in Battlestar Galactica. I mean the god of the silver bow.)

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The Arms of Apollo (Best Stories of Herodotus)

The Delphic Oracle had foretold the death of a Spartan king and advised the Athenians “to flee to the ends of the earth” but believed Apollo would take care of Delphi. And now, with a Persian army intent on loot having reached the temple of Athena and the locals having all run away, nothing short of divine intervention could save the Oracle and the treasures of Delphi. But would Apollo save his most famous temple or let it be looted and burned?

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Ulysses Found

Travelling leads to strange encounters. Especially if you’re committed to speak the language of your destination.

In World War II a young Royal Navy sailor by the name of Ernle Bradford sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out brainwashed because he had been imprudent enough to say “Kalimera” to the man behind the counter. A few years ago I went to Delphi and was imprudent enough not only to say “Kalimera” but to follow it up with saying that I hoped to read Herodotus in the original someday.

All avalanches begin with a snowflake.

Chance encounters. And Ulysses found…

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The Battle of Thermopylae: The Heroes & The Villain (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Previous:
The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I) 
The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Part II) 

First the heroes, of course… the villain can wait!

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The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Previous: The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I)

Considering how long The Histories is, Herodotus didn’t spend too long on the description on the actual battle at Thermopylae – a mere two dozen paragraphs or so. Nevertheless, it’s still too long to be quoted in its entirety – especially, if I want to keep my few readers!

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The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Best Stories of Herodotus)

United We Fall…

Xerxes’s army was already on European soil but their Greek opponents were still to determine where and how they should fight them. Or even to ascertain who was willing to fight them. The Delphi oracle – which in hindsight has been accused by some historians of being in Persian pay – advised all and sundry to sit on the fence if they could, told the Athenians to “flee to the ends of the earth” and warned the Spartans that either their city of “wide spaces” would be sacked or “the whole of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king”.

View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi
View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi

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The Wild Words of Demaratus (Best Stories of Herodotus)

As he began the march into Greece, Xerxes inspected his army and his navy; and much pleased with what he had seen, he wondered how the Greeks would react to his overwhelming power. Therefore he sent for Demaratus, the exiled Spartan king, who was accompanying him on the march in the role of a counsellor:
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Xerxes Weeps at the Sight of His Army (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Ten years passed since Darius’ humiliating defeat in the Battle of Marathon. His son, Xerxes was now king of Persia and he wished to take revenge on the Greeks, especially on the Athenians and the Spartans. But he did not merely wish to take revenge: his  goal was to extend his empire over the Greek mainland and beyond, “as far as God’s heaven reaches”. He aimed at creating the first empire on which the sun never set. (If you ever wondered where the phrase, first used about the Spanish empire, then the British, originated, Xerxes’s comment in VII.8, ie. “the sun will shine on no land beyond our borders” is a good contender.) Xerxes’ speech is also the reason why some historians see the Greek-Persian Wars as a crucial defining moment of Western civilisation; that moment in history in which the Greek idea of freedom (accompanied by the inevitable in-fighting) collided with the Eastern idea of the god-king…
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A Trial of Freedom (Best Stories of Herodotus)

“…you know well how to be a slave but have not yet experienced freedom, nor have you felt whether it is sweet or not. But if you could try freedom, you would advise us to fight for it, and not only with spears, but with axes!” (Herodotus, VII.135)

The Tribute of Earth & Water

Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BC
Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BC. Source: Wikipedia

Having subdued the Ionian Greeks who had rebelled against his rule, Darius I, king of Persia had decided it was time to extend his empire into the Greek mainland. In order to test whether the Greeks were likely to offer resistance or would submit easily, he sent his envoys out to demand a tribute of earth and water – a mark of submission to his rule – from the city-states. (VI.48) Some gave and some did not; but two went so far in their defiance as to throw the Persian envoys into a pit (Athens) and into a well (Sparta) and bid them to take their earth and water from there. (VII.133)
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Herodotus and the Persian Wars

Xerxes, Would-Be Conqueror of the World

Nearly 2500 years ago, Xerxes the Great, King of Kings, the king of Persia who considered himself a god, decided to go to war:

“My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father.” (The Histories, Book VII, Chapter 8)

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Part of the Folk Process

Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?

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On the River Rance, Dinan, France

A few years ago we went on a week’s holiday in Dinan in Brittany where one day we took a short boat trip on the River Rance. The trip itself was quite unremarkable, but at some point our jolly skipper decided to lead us all in a song. Within seconds, to the utter delight of my children and myself, two dozen French tourists were heartily bellowing out Santy Anno, a song from the 2008 Jefferson Starship album Tree of Liberty. To our skipper and fellow tourists, however, this was  not a song from an American record but a traditional French song, liked by and known to all.

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