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! 🙂
1. What is The Histories the history of?
The Greco-Persian Wars
The Peloponnesian War
Wrong! The history of the Peloponnesian War was written by the Athenian general Thucydides.
Greece and Egypt
2. Why did Herodotus write The Histories?
So that the acts of Greeks and Barbarians should not be forgotten
Correct! He said so in the very first paragraph.
To justify the war
To describe the land and history of Egypt
Wrong! Book II does describe the land and history of Egypt but that’s not the main focus of The Histories.
To praise the democracy of Athens
3. To which ruler did Solon say that no man can be called happy until after his death?
Who on earth was Solon?!
Solon was an Athenian law-giver who after writing his laws absented himself from Athens for ten years, lest he should be forced to repel them.
4. According to Herodotus, who first circumnavigated Africa?
Correct! You can find it in IV.42.
5. Who betrayed the Spartans at Thermopylae?
Wrong! Dioneces was a Spartan who is famous because when he was told that the enemy is so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun, he replied, good, then we can fight in the shade.
Correct! Local man Ephialtes was the traitor who led the Persians round the Pass of Thermopylae on a secret path. May he never rest in peace!
Wrong! Hydarnes was the commander of the Persian elite force, the Immortals.
Wrong! Aristodemus was a Spartan who was left behind before the battle of Thermopylae owing to an illness. When he returned to Sparta, he was considered a coward for having survived. He died a heroic death in the battle of Plataea a year later.
6. Which nomadic nation did the Persians fail to subdue?
Wrong! The Hungarians didn’t turn up in the neighbourhood till more than a 1000 years after the Persian Empire had fallen.
Wrong! The Huns only arrived on the scene about a 1000 years later.
Correct! Herodotus writes about the Scythians and the Persians invading their land in Book IV.
Wrong! The Tatars were the latest comers of the four nomadic nations, not appearing till the 13th century A.D.
7. Who advised Xerxes NOT to fight the Battle of Salamis?
Artemisia, queen of Caria
Wrong! Themistocles was the leader of the Athenians.
The exiled Spartan king, Demaratus
Mardonius, the Persian general
8. How long did it take the Spartan army to march from Sparta to Athens (about 240 km) in 490 B.C.?
Not quite three days
Less than two days
9. Which of the following stories is NOT from Herodotus?
In India there are giant gold digging ants
Wrong! You can read this story in III.102.
In Egypt women urinate standing up
Wrong! You can find this in II.35.
In Persia neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor the darkness of night stops the couriers
Wrong! The US postal service adapted this motto from Herodotus VIII.98.
The Athenian runner Philippides ran all the way from Marathon to Athens with the news of victory and having delivered the news, he died on the spot
Correct! This story does not originate with Herodotus. It was first told by Lucian of Samosata, centuries later.
Would You Like to Know More?
If you want to know more about Herodotus but haven’t got time to read all 700 or so pages of The Histories just now, you can find most of the answers to the quiz on this very blog in the series The Best Stories of Herodotus. (And what’s not here yet, will be written about in due course!)
The following posts in particular will tell you the stories behind the quiz questions:
About Herodotus the man and his book The Histories, including some of his most outrageous stories:
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.
The Woman Who Outdid the Men in a Men’s World
We don’t really do feminism (or any other -isms for that matter) either here; nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Herodotus’s world was, by and large, a men’s world, so that was where Artemisia had to excel: in the war council and on the battlefield. Or rather, in her particular case, on the deck of a war galley, slippery with blood.
The fame of Artemisia is based on her actions in the Battle of Salamis, as told by Herodotus in The Histories.
The Battle of Salamis, 480 B.C.
A naval battle during the Second Persian War, fought in the Straight of Salamis (between the island of Salamis and the Athenian mainland), resulting in a decisive Greek victory. The main antagonists were Xerxes (Persia) and Themistocles (Athens). The famous Athenian playwright Aeschylus took part in the battle, which he later retold in his play The Persians.
For further details I refer you to my earlier posts :) :
⇒ Salamis (According to Herodotus)
⇒ Salamis (Retold in Poetry)
⇒ Salamis (Retold in Poetry II)
In the Battle of Salamis, Artemisia made such an impression that at some point during the battle the dismayed Xerxes commented:
My men have become women, and my women men!
(Herodotus: The Histories, VIII.88.)
But Artemisia didn’t just impress her own boss with her battle heroics.
The Athenians, for example, offered ten thousand drachmas to the man who should take her alive…
…for orders to capture her had been given to the Athenian trierarchs, and a prize of 10,000 drachmas had been offered to whoever captured her alive, since they considered it a disgrace that a woman should wage war on Athens. (VIII.93)
…while the Spartans subsequently erected a statue to her in their market place in the so-called Persian Portico. This is how Pausanias describes the portico in Sparta in second century A.D.:
The most striking feature in the marketplace is the portico which they call Persian because it was made from spoils taken in the Persian wars. In course of time they have altered it until it is as large and as splendid as it is now. On the pillars are white-marble figures of Persians, including Mardonius, son of Gobryas. There is also a figure of Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis and queen of Halicarnassus. It is said that this lady voluntarily joined the expedition of Xerxes against Greece and distinguished herself at the naval engagement off Salamis.
But who was this woman who fought better than the men?
Who was this woman with ten thousand drachmas on her head?
Who was this woman who impressed the war-like Spartans so much that they erected a statue to commemorate her?!
Artemisia, Queen of Caria
Most of what we know about her is actually straight from Herodotus. Very little was added by later authors such as Plutarch. Maybe Herodotus knew so much about her because she was, after all, from Halicarnassus; the hometown of Herodotus himself. Which one of us hasn’t got a soft spot for the heroes of our homeland?
Herodotus first mentions Artemisia in VII.99, as he comes towards the end of the lengthy catalogue of the Persian army and navy units and commanders:
Although I am not mentioning the other subordinate commanders because I am not compelled to do so, I shall mention Artemisia. I find it absolutely amazing that she, a woman, should join the expedition against Hellas.
After her husband died, she held the tyranny, and then, though her son was a young man of military age and she was not forced to do so at all, she went to war, roused by her own determination and courage.
Now the name of this woman was Artemisia; she was the daughter of Lygdamos, by race part Halicarnassian on her father’s side, and part Cretan on her mother’s side. She led the men of Halicarnassus, Kos, Nisyros and Kalymna, and provided five ships for the expedition. Of the entire navy, the ships she furnished were the most highly esteemed after those of the Sidonians, and of all the counsel offered to the king by the allies, hers was the best. (VII.99)
And since we mentioned that her advice was the best…
Clearly there was more to Artemisia than being a fearless warrior on a battlefield. She was also a clever and capable woman and one, moreover, who was not afraid to speak her mind. When Xerxes sought the advice of his assembled naval commanders in Phaleron before the Battle of Salamis, none dared speak against an attack on the Greek fleet – except Artemisia. Like a shrewd strategist she pointed out to Xerxes that it was not in his interest to fight this battle:
…Xerxes himself came down to the ships, wishing to converse and to hear the opinions of the men on board. When he arrived, he sat before them, and those he had summoned, they tyrants of their nations and subordinate commanders of their ships, came to him and sat as the King granted honour to each: first, the king of Sidon and after him the king of Tyre, followed by the others. When they had seated themselves in order of precedence, Xerxes sent Mardonios to question them and to put the question to each one about whether or not he should wage a naval battle.
68. So Mardonios made his way round and questioned them, beginning with the Sidonian. They all expressed teh same opinion, urging him to initiate a battle at sea, except for Artemisia, who said:
“Speak to the King for me, Mardonios, and tell him what I say, since I have not proven to be the worst fighter in his naval battles off Euboea, nor have I performed the least significant of feats. Tell him, ‘My lord, it is right and just that I express my opinion, and what I think is best regarding your interests. Here is what I think you should do: spare your fleet; do not wage a battle at sea. For their men surpass yours in strength at sea to the same degree that men surpass women. And why is it necessary for you to risk another sea battle? Do you not already hold Athens, the very reason for which you set out on this campaign? And do you not have the rest of Hellas, too? No one is standing in your way; those who have stood against you have ended up as they deserved.
“Let me tell you what I think your foes will end up doing. If you do not rush into waging a sea battle, but instead wait and keep your ships near land, or even if you advance to the Peloponnese, then, my lord, you will easily achieve what you intended by coming here. The Hellenes are incapable of holding out against you for very long; you will scatter them, and each one will flee to his own city. For I hear that they have no food with them on this island, and if you lead your army to the Peloponnese, it is unlikely that those who came from there will remain where they are now and concern themselves with fighting at sea for the Athenians.
“But if you rush into a sea battle immediately, I fear that your fleet will be badly mauled, which would cause the ruin of your land army as well. And there is one more thing that you should think about, sire, and keep in mind: bad slaves tend to belong to good people, while good slaves belong to bad people. And you, the best of men, have the worst slaves, who are said to be included among your allies, namely, the Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians: they are absolutely worthless.”
As Artemisia was speaking to Mardonios, all those who were well-disposed toward her thought her words most unfortunate, since they believed she would suffer some punishment fro m the King for telling him not to wage a battle at sea. On the other hand, those who were envious and jealous of her, because she was honoured as one of the most prominent of the allies, were delighted by her response to the question, thinking that she would perish for it.
When these opinions were reported to Xerxes, however, he was quite pleased with Artemisia’s answer. Even prior to this, he had considered her worthy of his serious attention, but now he held her in even higher regard. Nevertheless, his orders were to obey the majority; he strongly suspected that off Euboea they had behaved like cowards because he was not present, but now he was fully prepared to watch them fight at sea. (VIII.67-69)
Artemisia gave Xerxes a sensible piece of advice and one which was borne out by the subsequent events. It was lucky for Ancient Greece that Xerxes did not take it!
Artemisia in the Battle of Salamis
The Persians advanced into the Straight of Salamis and there engaged with the Greek ships. Artemisia was in the thick of the fighting, together with one of Xerxes’s brothers, Ariamenes…
We owe the following detail of what happened next to Plutarch:
…confronting him [Themistocles] was the admiral of Xerxes, Ariamenes, who being on a great ship, kept shooting arrows and javelins as though from a city wall,—brave man that he was, by far the strongest and most just of the King’s brothers. It was upon him that Ameinias the Deceleian and Socles the Paeanian bore down,—they being together on one ship,—and as the two ships struck each other bow on, crashed together, and hung fast by their bronze beaks, he tried to board their trireme; but they faced him, smote him with their spears, and hurled him into the sea. His body, as it drifted about with other wreckage, was recognized by Artemisia, who had it carried to Xerxes.
Saving his brother’s body from the sea would likely have earned Artemisia Xerxes’s gratitude and goodwill. Herodotus however does not mention the episode above; instead he tells another story of how Artemisia conducted herself in the fight. This would have presumably happened after Artemisia fished out the body of Ariamenes from the sea:
I cannot speak with certainty about the rest of them, how each specific group of barbarians and Hellenes performed in the fighting, but this is what happened to Artemisia, which resulted in her winning still higher esteem from the King.
The King’s fleet had reached a state of mass confusion, and it was during this crisis that Artemisia’s ship was pursued by one from Attica. She was unable to escape it because there were so many other friendly ships in front of her, and since her own ship was closest to those of the enemy, she made a decision which turned out to be very much to her advantage. While she was still being chased by the Attic ship, she rammed at full seepd a friendly ship manned by Kalyndians and the king of the Kalyndians himself, Damasithymos. Now I cannot say if there was some quarrel she had with him that had arisen while they were still near the Hellespont, or even whether, when she ran into the Kalyndian ship, the deed was premeditated or accidental. But when she rammed it, the good she accomplished for herself was twofold.
For when the trierarch of the Attic ship saw that she was ramming a ship of the barbarians, he assumed that Artemisia’s vessel was either a Greek ship or one that was deserting from the barbarians and now fighting for the Hellenes, so he turned away from her ship to attack others.
That was one result to her advantage: she escaped and was not destroyed. But another outcome was that, even though she was doing harm to her own side, she won the highest possible praise from Xerxes. For it is said that as the King was watching, he noticed the one ship ramming the other, and one of the men with him said, “My lord, do you see how well Artemisia is fighting, and how she has sunk an enemy ship?” Xerxes inquired if it was truly Artemisia who had accomplished this feat, and they confirmed that it was, clearly recognizing the ensign of her vessel, and believing that the one she had destroyed belonged to the enemy. So all that, as I have explained brought her good fortune. And in addition, no one from the Kalyndian ship survived to become her accuser. In response to what he had heard, Xerxes is reported to have said, “My men have become women, and my women, men!”
Of the Hellenes who fought in this naval battle at Salamis, praise for the greatest valour went to the Aeginetans, and after them to the Athenians; of individual men, to Polykritos of Aegina and the Athenians Eumenes of Anagyrous and Ameinias of Pallene. It was Ameinias who had pursued Artemisia; if he had realized that she was sailing on that ship, he would not have stopped before capturing her or being taken himself, for orders to capture her had been given to the Athenian trierarchs, and a prize of 10,000 drachmas had been offered to whoever captured her alive…
An interesting story, especially as Herodotus clearly has a soft spot for Artemisia, and this story isn’t all to Artemisia’s credit. A bit ruthless, wouldn’t you say, sinking a ship of her own side, in an effort to make good her escape from the battle? Bad luck for the ship of the Kalyndian king, although had he been as forward in the fight as Artemisia had been, perhaps he’d not have ended being rammed by her galley…!
In any case, it was clearly a case of Fortuna audeces iuvat (fortune favours the brave): not only did Artemisia escape capture or death but she even gained further appreciation from Xerxes.
And so of course Xerxes turned to her for advice again!
Artemisia’s Second Advice
After the lost battle, Xerxes was frightened that the Greeks might sail to Hellespont and cut him off from Persia. He was anxious to be gone but his general Mardonios was of a different opinion:
Xerxes… told Mardonios that he would first consult with others about the two courses before giving him an answer. And while he was deliberating with his specially chosen counsellors, he decided to summon Artemisia to join the consultation, because she had obviously been the only one before who had correctly perceived what should be done.
When Artemisia arrived, Xerxes sent away all the others, his counsellors as well as his bodyguards, and said to her, “Mardonios bids me to stay and make an attempt on the Peloponnese, claiming that the Persians – the land army, that is – are not to blame for the disaster, and that they want to display proof of that. In any case, he bids me to do that, or if not, he wants to pick out 300,000 troops from the army and completely enslave Hellas, and bids me to lead the rest of the army back to my homeland. Well, then, since you counselled me well by trying to prevent me from waging the naval battle that has taken place, please tell me now how I can prosper through your good advice.”
Thus he requested her advice, and this is what she told him:
“Sire, … in view of the present situation, it seems to me that you should go back home, and if Mardonios wants and promises to do what he has suggested, leave him behind here with the men of choice. For if he does subjugate the land as he claims he would like to do and thus succeeds in this plan, the success will be yours, my lord, since the conquest will be performed by your slaves On the other hand, if the outcome is the opposite of what Mardonios things will happen, it will be no great misfortune, since you will survive and so will your power in Asia as far as your own house is concerned. And if you and your house survive, the Hellenes will have to run many races for their lives. Besides, if something happens to Mardonios, it is of no great consequence. And even if the Hellenes win, they will not win anything substantial by destroying your slave, while you will march home after you have burned Athens, and thus will have achieved the goal of your expedition.”
Positively machiavellian, wouldn’t you say?
Xerxes was delighted with this advice, for she had succeeded in telling him exactly what he was thinking himself. But I suppose that even if al the men and women in the world had advised him to stay, he would not have done so, such was his state of utter terror. After praising Artemisia, he sent her off to take his sons to Ephesus, for some of his illegitimate sons had accompanied him. (VIII.103)
And that is the end of Herodotus’s story of Artemisia, the warrior queen and shrewd politician/strategist of Halicarnassus. In fact, it’s pretty much the end of all we know about her.
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.”
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…
Homer, for example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse than they are.
As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same relation to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy.
So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavour to dramatise it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry.
In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made theOdyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to centre round an action that in our sense of the word is one.
When someone brought forward a plan for the freedom of the Greeks, which, while not lacking idealism, was difficult to put into practice, he [Agis son of Archidamus] said, “Your words, my friend, need the backing of power and money.”
(Plutarch: Morals, Vol. III, Sayings of Spartans)
Cuando alguien proponía para la libertad de los griegos acciones no faltas de nobleza, pero difíciles de realizar, [Agis, hijo de Arquidamo] le decía: «Tus palabras, amigo, necesitan un aval de poder y dinero».
(Plutarco: Obras morales y de costumbres, III.
Máximas de espartanos)
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!
When an Argive said once upon a time, “There are many tombs of Spartans in our country,” a Spartan said, “But there is not a single tomb of an Argive in our country,” indicating by this that the Spartans had often set foot in Argos, but the Argives had never set foot in Sparta.
(Plutarch: Morals, Vol. III., Sayings of Spartans)
Cuando un argivo dijo en una occasión: «En nuestra tierra hay muchas tumbas de espartanos», un espartano le respondió: «Pues en la nuestra no hay ni una sola de argivos», porque ellos habían invadido muchas veces Argos, pero los argivos jamás Esparta.
(Plutarco, Obras morales y de costumbres, III., Máximas de espartanos)
It was evening when we made our way back to the cove. The sun was setting fire to the headlands west of us, and the sea had become absolutely still. Not even a cat’s-paw trailed across the purple water. The sea was truly like wine to look at. The professors who had decried Homer’s adjective and invented other meanings for it, had never been sailors.
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.
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.
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.